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A Second Peek at A Lady's Secret


Chapter 2

   Petra d'Averio knew she'd leapt out of a pan into another boiling pot.
   Lady Sodworth and her impossible brats had been almost unbearable, but she was accustomed to penance. The real problem was that Lady Sodworth traveled like a snail. Now that Petra had glimpsed Varzi -- thought she'd glimpsed Varzi -- the pace was unendurable.
   Once she'd won free of Milan, and then of Italy, she'd prayed that even Ludovico wouldn't pursue her across Europe. But Varzi was Ludo’s hunting dog, and surely that had been Varzi in the streets of Abbeville.
   Since that glimpse, she’d been trying to persuade herself that she’d imagined it. The man she’d thought was Varzi had been in the street as Lady Sodworth’s carriage had approached the inn, and how could the hunter be ahead? She knew he could, however. If he knew she was with Lady Sodworth then he knew her route and destination. It would be in keeping for him to ride ahead and station himself in her sight to warn her of defeat. Such a rotund, swarthy, ordinary-looking man to shoot such terror through her, but everyone knew that Varzi never gave up a pursuit and would do anything to make the capture.
   She wished she could see his face when he realized she was no longer in Lady Sodworth’s party. But at what price. Petra? Why this man? He’s danger on long, elegant legs. He'd been her only chance, however, and she’d seen only a wastrel rake with a ridiculous dog.
   Now she wasn’t so sure.
   His dog rose and demanded attention again, so he picked her up. Stroking the fluffy white thing, he should look weak, but though he was relaxed as a cat she sensed danger and almost felt the carriage was too small, too short of air.
   Don't be idiotic. Just because the man assumed that a smile and soothing words would get her into his bed didn’t constitute danger. She above all could resist seduction.
   He was simply her means to an end, to safe arrival in England, so she assessed him with that in mind.
   He'd claimed to be wealthy, but he didn't look it. His brown frock coat was loosely cut, as were his buckskin breeches. He wore well-used riding boots, a beige waistcoat that hung unfastened over an unruffled shirt which lay open at the neck. No form of neckcloth. Even his light brown hair hung loose around his shoulders like a countryman's.
   Yet his poor excuse for a dog wore a collar of gold and pearls – or so he said. She'd inspect it later, for she knew gold and pearls. She'd once possessed some and would still except for her brother Cesare, God send him what he deserved.
   This Bonchurch was handsome, she'd grant him that. No wonder he expected her to fall into his arms. Women probably did that all the time. He had almost magical eyes – blue, but not a common blue. A sapphire blue that only an unfair God would give to a man, especially with long lashes as trimming.
   His fine profile could almost be beautiful, but no one would call him feminine. His cheeks were lean, his jaw square. Even though he couldn't be much older than she, he had the self-assured arrogance of his sex and an almost palpable aura of the erotic. He was sinfulness incarnate, and spoiled -- the type used to getting what he wanted.
   And he wanted her.
   He hadn't even tried to hide it.
   To her annoyance, that game had stirred a coil of pleasure. What young woman doesn't want to be desired by a devastating man? And it had been so long....
   She pulled her mind back from that pit. He didn't admire her. He didn't even know her, and he could hardly be overwhelmed by her charms in her nun’s garb. He wanted a nun as a hunter might want a trophy to hang on the wall, and in this hunting game the advantage would go to whoever broke this silence. Which language? She was more comfortable in English than French.
   "Wise of you to travel simply, Mr. Bonchurch. Lady Sodworth flaunted her wealth and title."
   He turned to her. "And was doubtless fleeced left, right, and center. She travels without some man to arrange details for her?"
   "She has outriders, but no one with authority since somewhere in La Vanoise. She dismissed the man her husband appointed for calling her, more or less, a twit."
   "A man of discernment. Where is the husband?"
   "He found some pressing reason to travel home by a different route."
   "Sister Immaculata, you're a cynic."
   "Mr. Bonchurch, three weeks with Lady Sodworth would turn St. Francis of Assisi into a cynic."
   He laughed. "I'm surprised you lasted so long."
   "So am I, but to begin with Lady Sodworth had a lady's maid and the children had a nursemaid."
   "The latter, I remember, fell ill in Amiens."
   "And the former abandoned us. We encountered another party interested in her services, and off she went, wise woman. Anna had no means of escape until she developed a fever. I wonder if it's possible to fall ill on purpose."
   "Quite probably. What happened to her?"
   "She was left in a convent."
   "That sounds like a tranquil alternative."
   "But Lady Sodworth gave only the most miserly donation for her care, and how is she to get home? She's only sixteen, and has never been out of Italy before. I don't know what will become of her."
   Petra had added a few of her own coins, but she knew it wasn't enough. She would send more if she was ever in a position to.
   "Give me the name of the convent and I'll provide for her."
   "Why?" she said, sharp with suspicion.
   "So you'll pay the debt with your body." When she shrank away, he waved a hand, smile tugging at his lips. "Forgive me. I have an impish sense of humor. Why should I not provide for her? The price is likely less than I'd pay for buttons."
   She eyed his horn buttons.
   "I mean my better ones."
   "I don’t think you're rich at all.”
   "I don’t think you’re a nun."
   At that challenge, Petra took her well-worn prayer book out of the leather pouch she wore on her rope belt and turned her eyes to the Latin. Take that, you wicked rake, and chew on it.
   She tried to concentrate on prayer, but was aware of him to an infuriating degree. On the edge of her vision, he still stroked his dog and she began to imagine those long fingers stroking her.
   "If I removed your headdress, would I find long hair?"
   Petra didn’t look up. "No."
   "Is that the truth?"
   "What difference if I answer yes or no?"
   "A point. Let's make this more interesting. Promise to always to speak the truth."
   She frowned at him. "Why?"
   "For amusement."
   "I don't need amusement."
   "I do, and we have two, perhaps three days travel ahead. I'm providing free transportation and protection, Sister. You might give a little in return."
   He had a point, and Petra knew she needed to learn more about him. "If I promise truth, you must do the same."
   "I have nothing to hide."
   "You think I do?"
   "Sister Immaculata, you are a box of secrets, and I intend to discover every one. Let's establish the rules."
   "Let's not."
   He ignored her. "We may ask anything of each other. We need not answer, but if we do, we will tell the truth."
   "Why on earth should I indulge you in this?"
   "As I said, in payment."
   "If you wanted payment you should have said so before I joined you." She returned firmly to her prayer book.
   "Seek guidance from heaven, Sister," the taunting voice said. "I'm sure God will see that I have right on my side."
   Petra had to fight not to return to the fray. She won, but only just. She knew her own weaknesses. Force would not break her, but gentle seduction, especially seasoned with humor and whimsical delights might melt her before she recognized her danger.

The pub date for A LADY'S SECRET is April 2nd, 2008, but it will probably appear on some shelves a week or so before, which isn't too long now!

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