A Sneak Peek at A Lady's SecretA new romance in the Malloren World,
No, this isn't the cover, but this picture is from the right period,
and if there were a knife strapped to that thigh...
Of course the cat should be a papillon dog.
You can see how the cover artist interpreted this here.
Joan Hammond, Romantic Times
The Tête de Boeuf Inn,
It isn't often a man hears a cursing nun.
Robin Fitzvitry, Earl of Huntersdown was finishing his meal at a table by the window and thus had an excellent view of the woman out in the coach yard. There could be no doubt. She was muttering curses and she was a nun.
She was standing beneath the outside gallery that gave access to the bedrooms upstairs, so her gray clothing blended with the shadows, but her clothing was a nun’s habit or he was a mother superior. Her plain gown was belted with rope, and a dark headcloth hung down her back. There was even a long wooden rosary hanging from the belt and perhaps sandals on her feet. She had her back turned, but he thought she might be young.
“Maledizione!” she exploded. Italian?
The frivolity of fur known as Coquette finally proved useful. The Papillon dog wriggled to put her front paws on the windowsill, to see what had made that noise. Her plumy tail swept Robin's chin, giving him an excuse to lean to the right.
Yes, certainly a nun. What, Robin wondered with growing delight, was an Italian nun doing in Northern France, beseeching the devil, no less?
"So, sir, do we go on?"
Robin turned back to Powick, his middle-aged English manservant, who was sitting across their dining table beside Fontaine, his young French valet. Powick was square and weathered; Fontaine was slender and pale. They were as dissimilar in nature as in appearance, but each suited Robin in his own way.
Go on? Ah yes, they'd been discussing whether to take rooms here for the night, or push on toward Boulogne and England.
"I'm not sure," Robin said.
"'Tis not much past three, sir," Powick argued. "Plenty of traveling light this time of year."
"But a storm, she would turn the roads to pottage!" Fontaine exclaimed. "We could be stuck in the middle of nowhere."
He was probably correct, but he also wanted to linger in France as long as possible. Robin had tempted the valet to leave the service of a prince with high pay and many privileges, but even after three years, Fontaine shuddered at each return to England. Powick, who’d served Robin for twenty years, grumbled all the time they were in France.
"Think on that lot 'as just arrived," Powick said, playing a very strong card.
An overloaded Berlin carriage had recently swayed into the inn yard and disgorged howling children harried by a screeching mother. The party had pounded up the outside stairs and now some possessions were being unloaded. They were staying for the night, and above, the children still howled and the mother still screeched.
In English. An English party might want to strike up an acquaintance with him. Robin was a gregarious fellow, but he chose his company. A crash and shriek of rage should have settled it, but he glanced outside again. His mother often predicted that curiosity would be the death of him, but what would you? It was his nature.
"You agree, don't you?" Robin said to Coquette, who twitched her enormous ears and wagged her plumy tail.
"Agree we should leave?" asked Powick.
"Agree we should stay?" asked Fontaine.
"Agree we should investigate outside," Robin said, picking up the dog and rising. "I'll get a better look at the weather, and ask advice of the local people."
With that, he strolled outside, tucking Coquette into his large coat pocket, which she seemed to enjoy. It was as well he liked to dress casually for travel for the current fashion was for close-fitting coats with no useful pockets at all.
He approached the now silent figure considering what language to use. His Italian was only passable, but his French was perfect, and they were in France.
"May I aid you, Sister?" he asked in that language.
She turned sharply, and his breath caught.
He was looking at a stunning face. It was oval, but the tight, white cap she wore beneath the gray veil was made with a widow's peak that came down almost to her brow. The narrow frill continued all the way to the tie beneath her chin, forming a heart shape that seemed designed to emphasize large, dark eyes and full, soft lips that needed no emphasis at all. What demented bishop had thought up that cap? For a certainty, no mother superior would have done so.
Her complexion was pale, which he supposed common enough in the cloister, but it glowed with health, as perfect as the creamy rose petal tumbling over a nearby wall. Her nose was straight, with tiny dimples just above the nostrils, and those lips...
Robin inhaled. Such lips were made for kisses not confessionals. And she was young. She could not be much over twenty.
She disciplined those lips into a firm line. "Thank you, monsieur, but I need no help," she said and turned away.
Good French, but not that of a native speaker and people generally swore in their native tongue. Italian, for sure. What the devil was an Italian nun doing in Northern France, alone?
He moved into her line of sight, plying his most disarming smile. "Sister, I have no ill-intentions, but I can hardly ignore a lady in distress, especially a Bride of Christ."
She made as if to turn away again, but then stilled and studied him in a remarkably direct way. Robin hid a smile. Put that with the cursing and what he had here was not a true nun, but an adventuress in disguise.
And to think he'd been bored.
"Permit me to introduce myself, Sister," he said, bowing. "Mr. Bonchurch, English gentleman, very much at your service." He felt a little uncomfortable at such a direct lie, but he always used a false name when traveling in France. His true name and title caused fuss and sometimes people would even alert the local dignitaries and he’d be plagued with visits and invitations. And this, after all, was a mere amusement en route.
The nun continued to study him, as if making calculations. Before she decided whether to give her name, hard footsteps rattled the wooden gallery above and that strident voice yelled, "Sister Immaculata! Sister Immaculata! Where the deuce are you?"
"Sister Immaculata, I assume," Robin said with a smile.
She looked up balefully. "How many stray nuns can there be here?"
"And you arrived in the Berlin-"
She muttered something, but said, "I must go."
He moved to block her. "You are the children's nurse? My condolences."
"I am not." She punctuated it with a sharp hand gesture that was emphatically Italian. "But the nurse, she contracted an ague in Amiens and milady's maid abandoned her in Dijon. Now there is only me."
"Sister! Sister! Come here immediately!"
"No wonder you were swearing at fate." Robin gestured toward a nearby arch. "If we were to go through there, we would be out of sight and could discuss your liberation from durance vile."
"There is nothing to discuss."
Again she moved to leave.
Again he blocked the way. "It will not hurt to talk."
She frowned at him, but thoughtfully rather than angrily. At another yell, she threw up her eloquent hands and hurried through the arch. Robin followed, admiring her brisk, light movements. She was so deliciously vigorous, perhaps more strikingly so for being veiled in shapeless gray.
Her gray veil brushed a fading rose, scattering petals but collecting one. When he plucked it off she whirled to challenge him, hand raised to point or hit. He exhibited the evidence. She simmered down, but he began to heat. There'd been a frisson of awareness at his lightest touch, and now pink touched her cheeks. This was no nun.
He crushed the petal and invited her to enjoy the perfume, but Coquette, the jealous minx, yipped.
Sister Immaculata flinched, then stared. "What is that?
"A Coquette," he said, for in French it meant `a little nothing.' "Ignore it."
Instead she put out a hand to stroke the tiny head. Robin was familiar with the effect. After all, he'd acquired Coquette to seduce a lady in Versailles, where the breed was all the rage. He took the dog out, willing to use any tool.
"Allow me to give her to you as a gift."
She drew back, frowning. "How heartless you are."
"It is my mission in life to fulfill all ladies' desires." He smiled into her eyes. "Come into the inn, Sister Immaculata, and tell me yours."
She hissed in a breath. Had he gone too far, too fast? But another screech from her employer made her turn and hurry through the arch. It took them to a small garden from which another door opened into the inn's entrance hall.
"Too public," he said, touching her arm to steer her into what looked like an empty parlor. She moved sharply ahead to outpace his touch. He followed, but didn't close the door. Yet. There was an old story about a princess and a pea. He generally found that such sensitivity to his touch indicated a woman was primed for pleasure.
"Now, Sister," he said gently, "your desires?"
"Stop saying such things. You show no respect for my habit."
"It’s such a dismal garment. But," he added, raising his free hand to signal peace, "I merely meant your wishes about your situation. The lady's maid left. The nursemaid left. You are the screeching lady's only servant..."
As he'd predicted, hard-heeled footsteps beat a tattoo down the steps to the inn yard and the demands started up again there.
"Her name?" he asked.
"Lady Sodworth." The English words spoken with a fluid Italian accent sounded like another curse.
Robin didn't recognize the title Sodworth, and the haut vollée of Britain was his world. Another imposter? Could this be some strange plot?
"What exactly is your position with the lady?" he asked, studying her.
"Companion. But now, she expects me to do everything."
"And you've endured the lady all the way from...?"
The simple question seemed to challenge her.
"I had reason to travel to England and needed female companionship."
Through the open window, he could hear the lady haranguing an ostler in atrocious French.
"The price seems high."
"She's is under great strain."
"Which I suspect is entirely of her own creation. The voice alone would drive off angels."
Another flip of fine-fingered hands. "I have no choice. I must go and pacify her." She headed for the door.
"Your destination is England?"
"Then may I take you there?"
She turned to face him. "Of course not."
"You're a man."
"A very safe one."
She gave a snort of disbelief. But she didn’t continue on her way.
"Truly, Sister Immaculata, a man like me can't afford to add cuckolding God to his sins. But perhaps rescuing one of his brides would wipe away some years in Purgatory?"
"You think me an idiot, sir? You are not a man any woman should trust."
"On the contrary, it's the hungry beast that is dangerous. You behold me, Sister, exhausted by the ladies of Versailles."
The pink that flooded her cheeks made him dizzy, but her eyes remained steady. "Are you staying here tonight?"
He knew the necessary answer. "No."
Lady Sodworth was inside the inn now, her demanding voice cutting the air like a saw. Upstairs, something shattered, perhaps even a window.
The errant nun moved to hide behind the door. "Do you travel swiftly?" she whispered.
"As swiftly as roads and horses permit."
"Do you give me your word, sir, at peril of your immortal soul, that you will deliver me safe to London?"
Safe was a slippery term. Robin defined it to suit himself and said, "I do." Then he grinned. "How very matrimonial, to be sure."
Her expression turned wry. "You are beautiful and wicked, Mr. Bonchurch, and used to women falling into your hands like ripe fruit, but I assure you it won't happen with me. I want no complaints when we arrive in London with your lust unsatisfied."
"Not a one," he promised, drowning in delight. "But you do realize that constitutes a challenge?"
"One I'm bound to win. As you said, you can't afford to cuckold God. You have a carriage?"
"A chaise. I need only order horses put to."
"Excellent. But even better if I get into your chaise now, don't you think?"
"You're a conspirator after my own heart, Sister, and you're right. Your Lady Sodworth's next step will be to have the whole inn searched."
As if to confirm his thought, the harassed innkeeper popped his head into the room. Robin pulled out a gold coin; the man saw it, nodded, and hurried on. Robin opened the casement window and looked out at a lane alongside the inn. "All's clear." He moved a chair beneath it.
She hesitated, but then hurried over and climbed nimbly out, showing him sandals and bare ankles. He replaced the chair and followed, grinning. "This way," he said, gesturing toward the back of the inn.
They entered the yard close to Robin's post-chaise, which sat axle-down, awaiting a new team of horses. He hurried his adventuress to it and handed her inside. Another touch, another frisson. Her position was awkward in the slanted coach, but she managed.
"I'll order the horses."
But she suddenly clasped her hands and raised them her lips. "No, I can't. I need my possessions, my traveling trunk."
"I will buy you anything you need."
"I will not be so indebted to you.”
He shrugged. "Where is your trunk?"
"It was in the boot of the coach, but it might have been carried inside."
Robin turned to study the Berlin. Baggage was piled on top of the big, four-wheeled coach, but that was not being disturbed. The boot was open and already half-empty. As he watched, a man came out of the inn, grabbed two bundles, and carried them inside. Bedding? Robin could have told Lady Sodworth that the sheets at the Tête de Boeuf were clean and aired, but from the sounds of her, she wouldn't listen.
"What does your trunk look like?" he asked.
"Plain wood with black straps. A brass plate with a cross and SMI."
"I'll see to it. Stay out of sight."
He lowered the blind on the inside of the chaise window and began to close the door, but realized he still had Coquette. He put her on his nun's knee. "Discuss desire," he said and shut the door. He scanned the area, but saw no danger so he strolled over to the Berlin. There inside was the Sister's small trunk.
Two men came out and unloaded a fancier, leather-covered trunk, carrying it between them. Robin decided he needed his men anyway and went into the inn to beckon them. When they came over, he explained the situation and gave them their orders.
Fontaine -- sighing because they were leaving -- lurked to distract any porters, while Powick, sighing at Robin’s new game, pulled out the small chest, hoisted it on his shoulder, and carried it over to the chaise.
A nun or not a nun, that was the question. That was a very plain, nun-like box, but even if Sister Immaculata was genuine, she was still up to something odd. In two days travel he should be able to uncover all her secrets.
Powick was making room in the boot for the box. Robin turned to tell Fontaine all was clear.
He turned to face a furious woman. It had to be Lady Sodworth, but she didn't match her harsh voice, being petite, beribboned, and even pretty in a bad-tempered way.
"Have you seen a nun here?" she demanded in her bad French, not seeming to recognize that he was a gentleman, never mind an Englishman.
Robin looked around in puzzlement. "Here, madame?"
"Anywhere here, you fool!"
He gave a mischievously Gallic shrug. "If you need a nun, madame, you should perhaps go to a convent?"
"Dolt!" she spat in English and rushed off in her chaotic search. Another Coquette, and with a worse temperament. Robin wondered at any man marrying her, despite her looks. He searched his memory again for a Lord Sodworth, but felt certain there was none. So, a knight or baronet, and probably of recent creation. Excellent. That made it unlikely he'd meet Lady Sodworth again.
He collected Fontaine and headed for his chaise, where ostlers were putting horses to under Powick's scrutiny. He'd been a groom in his youth, and knew the trade.
Powick had put Robin on his first pony, and then become his tutor in riding, hunting, fishing, and other country lore. Eventually he'd become a kind of manservant-companion of endless usefulness. Having steered Robin into adulthood, however, he still thought he held the reins. Even Robin becoming earl a year ago hadn't convinced the man that he was able to manage his own affairs.
"The nun's coming with us, sir?" he asked in a forbidding tone.
"A damsel in distress. What would you?"
"I, sir, would return her to her mistress."
"As would I," said Fontaine. "The chaise, it will not fit three."
"Therefore," Robin said, “you will ride."
The valet normally traveled in the coach. "Impossible. It might rain."
"Think of it as a favor you are doing me in thanks for all the times I've ridden and you've had the chaise to yourself."
"Not in the rain, sir," Fontaine protested.
"Sir-" Powick protested for other reasons.
"I'm all innocence," Robin insisted. "The holy lady needs to reach England, and do you really want me to abandon her to that harpy?"
"We could be days on the road if the weather turns. Days and nights."
"And she will have a room to herself, I promise."
"The weather...." Fontaine tried again.
Robin held onto his patience. "We need only go as far as the next stage. What is it -- Montreuil?"
"Nouvion," Powick said.
"Whatever. As long as we're away from all things Sodworthy. Let's be off."
In the end his word was law, so soon Fontaine and Powick were mounted. A postilion took his seat on the leader of the chaise horses and Robin took delivery of the basket of food and wine he'd ordered earlier. He opened the door, winked at the shadowy nun, and placed the basket on the carriage floor. Coquette leaped out to relieve herself.
Once the dog was ready, Robin glanced around, saw no problems, and put the dog in the chaise. Coquette leaped right onto Sister Immaculata's lap.
“If you think to make me jealous,” Robin said to the dog as he sat beside the nun on the one seat, “prettier ladies than you have failed.”
The nun stroked and the damned dog seemed to smirk. The chaise rolled out onto the Boulogne Road, leaving screeching and howling behind.
"Welcome to tranquility," Robin said.
"Can you promise that?"
"If it's what you truly desire." Her reaction to the word desire seemed to be a weary sigh. Very well, she wasn't ready for the game.
"I must confess," he said, "that I've suffered tranquility for days. I was hoping you would remedy that. But not in any naughty way, Sister. See, I've even provided female companionship."
She glanced down. "She's a bitch?"
"With a name like Coquette, she'd better be."
"Why don't you like her?"
He shrugged. "I can tolerate tiny, frivolous women, but not tiny frivolous dogs."
"Then why own her, poor thing?"
"With a collar of gold and pearls, there's nothing poor about her."
She looked down at the collar. "It's real? Why?"
"You tell me your stories and I'll tell you mine."
She gave him a scathing look and turned away, as if fascinated by the outskirts of Abbeville. So, she did have secrets, and some must relate to why she’d accepted his invitation. There was time. To increase her comfort, he angled into his own corner and stretched his legs, widening the space between them on the seat.
"You can still change your mind, Sister. We can return you to Lady Sodworth."
She clearly thought about it before saying, "No, thank you."
"Then perhaps you would like to return to your convent."
She turned, frowning. "You would take me to Milan?"
"I'm a wealthy man. It would not discomfort me."
"You're a mad man!"
"What a shame you've cast your lot with me, then."
Her reaction seemed to be irritation rather than fear. "You don’t appear rich."
"I'm modest, and don't flaunt it."
"If you truly are rich, you could arrange for me to travel to London in a more respectable way."
"But how would that benefit me?"
"How does this benefit you?"
"It amuses me."
Perhaps she tightened her hand, for Coquette jumped down with an affronted twitch. The dog considered Robin, but then circled and settled onto her pink velvet pad.
"I'm your amusement?" Sister Immaculata demanded.
"Of course. Would you really wish me to pay strangers to escort you to England?"
"You are a stranger."
It startled a laugh out of Robin. "So I am. But I've taken charge of you, you see, so now my honor requires that I personally see you safe."
That created an intriguing, wary silence.
"So where, Sister Immaculata does your safety dwell?"
"Any specific place?"
"None that need concern you, sir."
"I am to deliver you to Dover and abandon you? I think not. Do you even speak English?"
She smiled and answered in that language. "Perfectly."
As best he could tell from one word, that was the truth. Yet more dazzling twists to his puzzle.
He asked his next question in English. "Where do you plan to go in England?"
"London. At least to begin with."
Ah, now he heard the accent, but perhaps only one of extra precision which gave it an almost liquid charm.
"Again, sir, that need not concern you."
He didn't argue at this point, but she'd not shake him off so easily. He'd acquired a mysterious adventuress, who had not, he suspected, joined him merely out of temper. He perceived urgency and some fear. Of what? He really should be more worried about that, but he was entranced.
He had mysteries to solve, wits to challenge, and a companion so beautiful that simply looking at her enriched his day. Her every action and reaction thus far promised more. She had courage, spirit, and a spicy temper. Given a few days on the road, he'd explore all her secrets, including those only discovered in a passionate bed.
Want more? Read Chapter Two here.
You may want to follow my Author Page on Facebook. Click on the box below to go there, and then click the "like" button at the top of the page next to my name. That will help my posts to appear in your feed.
However, Facebook doesn't send every message to everyone who's liked an author page, so it's best to also sign up for my newsletter to be sure you hear the latest about releases, deals and such. The addresses are never shared and you can leave at any time.
Also, there will be occasional giveaways to people randomly picked from newsletter subscribers.
Back to the site menu