Violet v-5, страница 1часть #5 серии V
( V - 5 )
Colonel, Lord Julian St. Simon prides himself in his ability to exercise fierce control, whether it be on the battlefield or in the drawing room, contributed by his impeccable aristocratic breeding. But his powerful response to the beautiful bandit, La Violette, shakes his self-exacting propriety to the very core. Born of an English lady and a notorious Spanish brigand, Tamasyn embodies the strength and fiery passion of a woman sure of what she wants, and confident in her ability to get it. In exchange for vital information to the English military, Tamasyn names her brazen price; Julian St. Simon. If she is to be successful in her quest to find her mother's prominent Cornish family she will need his endorsement, as well as his instruction. Julian is outraged by the mandate but loyalty to his country prevents him from refusing. In spite of his determination to resist, he finds himself deeply affected by the stunning temptress. Unknown to him, however, Tamasyn is in pursuit of revenge upon the hated relatives that abandoned her mother and she will allow no one, including the unsuspecting colonel, to jeopardize her mission. Ultimately, love steps in to catch them both unaware and change their hearts forever. Readers will be taken in immediately by this exciting and sensual romance. Jane Feather showcases her talent to quicken your pulse with another powerful love story. Violet is a provocative portrait of seduction, treachery, powerful family intrigues and a delightful battle of wills sure to capture your imagination to the very end. Ms. Feather's deft storytelling satisfies her readers with extraordinary characters, a spellbinding story line spiced with just the right amount of fiery passion to leave them craving more.Lori Wright -- Copyright © 1994-97 Literary Times, Inc. All rights reserved -- From Literary Times
“Oh, my dear Lord, will this journey never end?” the elder lady murmured.
It was hardly an uplifting image, and she closed her eyes. It was too much effort to keep them open.
THE SMALL PROCESSION WOUND UP THE STEEP MOUNTAIN path, leaving the French border behind as they headed toward the Spanish mountain town of Roncesvalles, the outriders sheltering beneath wide hat brims from the broiling afternoon heat. Inside the heavy, lumbering coach the atmosphere was stifling, the air so thick and hot it was like a suffocating blanket, making every breath an effort. The two women leaned back against the leather squabs, the elder, veiled and gloved despite the heat, fanned herself and moaned softly, occasionally dabbing at her lips with a lavender-scented handkerchief. Her companion slumped in a corner, her back drenched with sweat, the dark taffeta of her gown sticking to the squabs. Her hat lay on the seat beside her, and she'd thrown off her veil long since. Her face was pink and hot, beads of perspiration gathered on her forehead, trickling down the side of her nose. Her hair, the color of summer wheat, clung damply to her small head, and her violet eyes were languorous under drooping lids.
The young lady didn't reply, knowing the question to be rhetorical. It had been asked every few minutes since they'd boarded the coach that morning. She regarded her companion with a degree of contempt. It was certainly hot and uncomfortable, but since Miss Henderson had been adamant in her refusal to draw back the leather curtains blocking the windows of the coach, enclosing them in this airless oven for reasons of propriety, as if there were anyone but a goatherd to look in on this mountain pass, Cecile Penhallan could find no sympathy for her sufferings.
If her duenna carried a little less flesh, she'd find it more bearable, the girl reflected, idly diverting herself with the image of Marianne Henderson's rolls of white flesh melting in the heat like butter in a pan.
The crack of a rifle shot, the plunging halt of the horses, brought her upright, flinging aside the leather curtain as her duenna screamed.
“Oh, it's brigands. I know it is. We'll be robbed. Attacked. They'll take our virtue… oh, my dear Miss Penhallan, what will your brother say…?”
“La, ma'am, I doubt Cedric believes I'm still in possession of my virtue,” Cecile observed, peering through the window aperture. “And who's to say he's incorrect,” she added mischievously, her eyes alive and glowing, her previous languor banished. Above the babble of the outriders, the curses of the coachman, came a clipped, commanding voice that cut through the cacophony like scissors through silk.
“Oh, Miss Penhallan, how-” But whatever the lady sinking slowly in a crackle of starched taffeta to the floor of the coach.
The door of the coach was pulled open. “Senorita, I am desolated to discommode you, but I must ask you to descend,” the same voice said courteously in heavily accented English. A hand reached in-an ungloved hand with a massive square-cut ruby on the little finger.
Cecile placed her own small white hand, similarly ungloved, in the one that had appeared. She felt the rough swordsman's calluses on the palm, and the strong brown fingers closed over hers, drawing her forward out of the coach into' the blinding white sunshine.
She looked up into a bronzed face, dark eyes like a hawk's fixed on her countenance, a strong mouth set in a firm, intimidating line, long black hair caught in a ribbon at the nape of his neck.
“Who are you?”
“They call me El Baron.” He offered a mock bow. “Oh,” Cecile breathed. This was the robber baron-the brigand whose name mothers used to frighten their children into obedience. The undisputed ruler of the mountain passes between Spain and France. And he was the most beautiful creature Cecile Penhallan had laid eyes on in all her seventeen years.
Gazing up at him, losing herself in the black eyes, she understood that she had been waiting for this meeting since she'd first felt the strange stirrings of her body, the unsettling energies that had driven her to defy her brother, a mocking defiance that had led to her present exile.
The baron was returning her scrutiny, and a light flickered in his eyes, then sprang into flaming life. And Cecile knew that her own eyes reflected the flame and gave it back to him. She moved closer to him as if drawn bran invisible string, unaware now of the scene around them, the pawing horses, the terrified outriders surrounded by the band of brigands, who sat their horses easily, bandoliers over their shoulders, rifles.casually resting on their pommels. They made no threatening moves, but there was no need to. Their very presence was intimidation enough.
“Come,” El Baron said. It was a command, but it was also a simple statement.
Catching her around the waist, he lifted her onto the back of a powerful chestnut with a white blaze on his forehead and swung up behind her.
“Sit back,” he said. “You have nothing to fear, querida.”
“I know,” Cecile replied simply, leaning back against the broad chest as his arms went around her and he gathered up the reins. “Where are you taking me?”
“Home,” he said.
Cecile glanced back as the horse moved forward, surefooted on the narrow climbing track. Marianne had recovered from her swoon and was leaning out of the window, one mittened hand fluttering frantically at her departing charge, a strange gibbering chatter of protest coming from beneath the veil.
Cecile chuckled. “Poor Marianne.” She raised her hand in a jaunty salute. It was the last glimpse Marianne Henderson ever had of her-indeed, the last glimpse anyone who'd known Cecile Penhallan before she encountered El Baron ever had of her.
The band of brigands drew back from the coach as their leader's mount broke into a trot. They offered a mock salute to the trembling outriders and the still gibbering Miss Henderson and turned to follow their leader and his captive, leaving Miss Henderson's virtue as intact as the leather satchel of money stashed beneath the seat of the coach.
This had been no ordinary highway robbery, but they left with what they'd come for.
THE AIDE-DE-CAMP'S BOOTS CLATTERED ON THE WOODEN stairs as he hastened toward the commander in chiefs private office at headquarters in the town of Elvas. Outside the door, however, he slowed, adjusted his stock, pulled down his tunic, smoothed his hair. The Peer didn't look kindly on untidiness, and he had a savage tongue when he chose.
“Enter!” The command rasped at his knock, and he pushed open the door. There were three men in the large drafty room-a colonel, a major, and the commander in chief, standing by the fire blazing in the hearth to combat the damp chill. It had been raining for five days, a relentless, drenching downpour that made life hell for the infantry digging trenches around the besieged town of Badajos just across the Spanish border.
The aide-de-camp saluted. “Dispatches from intelligence, sir.” He placed a sheaf of papers on the desk.
Wellington grunted acknowledgment and moved from the fire to glance through them. His long, bony nose twitched in disgust. He glanced up toward the two officers beside the fire. “The French have taken La Violette.”
“When, sir?” Colonel, Lord Julian St. Simon held out his hand for the document Wellington was proffering.
“Yesterday, apparently. Cornichet's men surrounded her band of ruffians outside Olivenza. According to this, they're holding La Violette in a military outpost outside the town.”
“How reliable is this?” The colonel's eyes flickered over the dispatch.
Wellington shrugged and shot an interrogatory glance at the aide-de-camp.
“The agent's one of our best men, sir,” the aide said.
“And the information is so fresh, I'd lay any odds it's correct.”
“Damn,” muttered Wellington. “If the French have her, they'll wring every scrap of knowledge out of her. She knows how to navigate every goddamned mountain pass from here to Bayonne, and what she doesn't know about the partisans in the area isn't worth knowing.”
“We'd better get her out, then,” the colonel drawled as if it were a foregone conclusion, replacing the dispatch on the table. “We can't allow Johnny Crapaud to have information we don't have.”
“No,” agreed Wellington, stroking his chin. “If La Violette's already shared her knowledge with the French, then we'll be at a significant disadvantage if she can't be induced to give it to us too.”
“Why do the French call her that?” inquired the major. “The Spanish call her Violeta, too.”
“It's the way she works, as I understand it,” Colonel St. Simon said, a sardonic note in his voice. “Or rather, plays… the proverbial shrinking violet. She's always to be found hiding behind the activities of the large partisan bands. While the French army is concentrating on guerrilla activities, the little violet and her band are flourishing in the background, causing merry mayhem where least expected.”
“And feathering her own nest while she's about it,” Wellington remarked. “She's said to have no time for the armies of either side, and while she'll assist the Spanish partisans, she expects to be paid for her help… or at least to be put in the way of a little profitable pillage.”
“A mercenary, in other words,” the major said, with a grimace of distaste.
“Precisely. But I gather the French find even less favor with her than our good selves. At least she's never offered to help the French, for any price.” The commander in chief kicked at a falling log in the hearth.
“Until now,” observed the colonel. “They may be offering her the right price at this moment.” He was a big man, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, with a pair of startling blue eyes beneath bushy red-gold eyebrows. His hair was a thick mane of the same color, an unruly lock flopping over a wide forehead. He carried himself with all the natural authority of a man born to wealth and privilege, a man unaccustomed to questioning the established order of things. A cavalry officer's pelisse was cast carelessly over his scarlet tunic, a massive curved sword sheathed in a broad studded sword belt at his hip. He surged with a restless energy, seeming too big for the confined space.
“I've heard it said, my lord, that the name also comes from La Violette's appearance,” the aide-de-camp ventured. “I understand she resembles the flower.”
“Good God, man!” The colonel's scornful laughter pealed through the dingy room. “She's a ruthless, murdering bandit who, when it suits her whim, chooses for a price to put her dubious services at the partisans' disposal.”
Discomfited, the aide-de-camp shuffled his feet, but the major said briskly, “No, St. Simon, the man's right. I've heard it said, also. I gather she's a diminutive creature who looks as if you could blow her away in one puff.”
“Then she'll not hold out long once Major Cornichet starts his gentle persuasion,” Wellington declared. “He's a vicious, arrogant brute with a taste for interrogation. There's no time to lose. Julian, will you take it on?”
“With pleasure. It'll be a joy to balk Cornichet of his prey.” The colonel was unable to hide his enthusiasm for the task as he clicked his booted feet and his spurs jingled. “And it'll be most satisfying to put an end to the games of this shrinking violet. She's played too long, enriching herself at our expense.” A look of distaste crossed the aristocratic features. Julian St. Simon had no time for mercenaries. “I'll take twenty men.”
“Will that be enough to storm an entire outpost, St. Simon?” the major inquired.
“Oh, I don't intend to storm it, my friend,” Colonel, Lord St. Simon said, grinning. “Stealth and trickery – a little guerrilla warfare of our own, if you take my meaning.”
“Then go to it, Julian.” Wellington offered his hand.
“And bring back this flower so we can pluck her petals ourselves.”
“I'll have her here in five days, sir.” The colonel left the room, currents of energy seeming to swirl in his wake.
Five days was no idle boast, as the commander in chief was aware. Julian St. Simon, at twenty-eight, had been a career soldier for ten years, and he was known as much for his unorthodox methods as for his invariable success. It was held as a fact of life in the mess that St. Simon never failed at a task he set himself, and his men would follow him into an inferno if he asked it of them.
The French outpost was a huddle of wooden huts and tents in a small wood outside the walls of Olivenza. The rain poured down from the leaden skies and dripped from the branches of the trees, soaking the canvas tents and streaming through the spaces between the wooden slats of the huts in a relentless torrent.
La Violette, known to her own people as Tamsyn, daughter of Cecile Penhallan and El Baron, sat huddled on the wet earthen floor in the corner of one of the huts. A rope attached to a plaited leather collar around her neck secured her to the wall. She inched sideways to avoid a persistent trickle of water funnelling down a grooved slat and down the back of her shirt.
She was cold and hungry, cramped and wet, but her eyes were sharp with speculation, her ears straining to catch the low-voiced conversation through the drumming of the rain. Major Cornichet and two fellow officers were eating at a table in the center of the hut. The smell of garlic sausage and ripe cheese set her saliva running. A cork was pulled, and she could taste on her tongue the rough red wine of the region. A wave of hunger-induced nausea washed over her.
She'd been held like this for two days. They'd thrown her half a loaf of bread early this morning. It had landed in the mud beside her, but she'd brushed it off and devoured it, tipping her head to catch the rainwater funnelling in the groove above her. At least there was no shortage of water if she was prepared to forage for herself, and so far she had suffered nothing but discomfort and the humiliation of her position.
A little humiliation and a degree of discomfort were nothing. Tamsyn could hear the baron's voice. “Hija, you must learn what can be endured and what must not; which battles are worth fighting and which are not.”
But when would the softening up cease? When would they start seriously? She could simply give them what they wanted, of course, probably even demand a price for it.
As if in answer to her silent question, Major Cornichet stood up and strolled over to her. He looked down at her, one hand stroking the curled waxed mustache above a cruel mouth. She met his gaze as fearlessly as she could.
“Eh, bien,” he said. “You will talk to me now, I believe.”
“About what?” she returned. Her mouth was dry, and despite the cold and the wet, she felt hot and feverish. The daughter of El Baron was no coward, but you didn't have to be a coward to fear what she must now face.
“Don't try my patience,” he said almost affably. “We can do this without pain, or we can do it with. It matters not to me.”
Tamsyn folded her arms, rested her head nonchalantly against the wall at her back, ignoring the trickle of water, and closed her eyes.
The rope attached to the collar was suddenly jerked hard, and she was hauled to her feet, the collar pulling tight against her throat as the colonel jerked upward again and she came up on her toes, fighting for breath.
“Don't be a fool, Violette,” Cornichet said softly.
“You will tell us in the end. Everything we wish to know and much that we don't if it will stop the pain. You know that. We know that. So let's spare ourselves the time and the trouble.”
She wouldn't be able to hold out. Not forever. But she could endure for some time.
“Where is Longa?” The soft question hissed against the monotonous backdrop of the drumming rain.
Longa led the partisan bands in the north. His guerrillas were wreaking havoc on Napoleon's forces with their darting forays, their sneak attacks coming out of the blue, harassing struggling columns, picking off stragglers, laying waste to the land so there was no foraging to be done for an army that survived off the land as they marched.