Read Velvet Online

Authors: Jane Feather

Velvet

The Dawning of Desire

Nathaniel flung himself from his horse and ran to the inert figure.

“Gabrielle! Dear God!” He dropped to his knees beside her, tearing at the snowy cravat to bare her throat, his fingers feeling for her pulse. It was strong but fast. He sighed with relief and then frowned. The black lashes formed half-moons on the pale skin, her lips were slightly parted, her chest rising and falling with each regular breath.

Her pulse was far too vibrant for an unconscious person.

“Gabrielle,” he said in a near whisper. “If this is a trick, so help me, I’ll make you sorrier than you’ve ever been in your life.”

“Try it,” she said. Her eyelids swept up, revealing utterly mischievous charcoal eyes, and in the same moment she sat up. Her arms went around his neck before he realized what was happening and her mouth found his.

A wildness swept through him. His arms went around her. For a minute their tongues fenced, and then he moved his hands to grasp her head, holding it strongly as he drove deep within her mouth on a voyage of assertion that in some faint part of his brain seemed long overdue.

Gabrielle had believed she could fake sufficient response to satisfy him. She had not expected to find herself responding from some deep passionate well within herself.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it was happening. And Nathaniel Praed was matching her every step of the way. And it was going to play merry hell with her schemes of revenge ….

Bantam Books by Jane Feather

Valentine

Velvet

Vixen

Virtue

Violet

Vanity

Vice

Venus

The Diamond Slipper

The Silver Rose

The Emerald Swan

The Hostage Bride

A Valentine Wedding

The Accidental Bride

The Least likely Bride

The Widow’s Kiss

Almost Innocent

and soon in hardcover

To Kiss a Spy

Richard: This one’s for you
.

Prologue

France, June 1806

The gibbous moon hung low in the sky over the forest of St. Cloud. A fox moved sleekly through the bracken, a rabbit sat on its hind legs, eyes fixed and staring, nose twitching as it caught the scent of the predator. Then it was gone, a flash of white scut vanishing into the undergrowth. An owl’s hollow hoot hung over a glade where a deer drank at a trickling stream falling over flat stones.

The rustic pavilion in the small clearing was in darkness, or so it appeared to the figure cleaving to the trunk of a copper beech at the edge of the glade. Black-clad, he merged with his surroundings, a darker shadow in the shadows of the forest. His eyes stretched into the darkness toward the single-story building humped in the center of the clearing. Long glass doors opened onto a colonnaded porch encircling the pavilion, and a wisp of white fluttered from the open door facing the watcher as the night breezes caught the muslin curtains.

He wore soft-soled leather moccasins and made no
sound as he slipped from concealment and approached the portico. Black britches, black shirt, hair concealed under a black cap, pale complexion darkened with burnt cork, the only touch of color came from the gleam of the long double-bladed knife he held at his side. He was an assassin who knew his work well.

In a book-lined room on the far side of the circular pavilion, a single candle burned low in its socket, its light so negligible as to be invisible to anyone outside.

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord dozed beside the empty hearth, a book lying open, facedown on his lap. A soft snore bubbled from the slightly open lips of a thin aristocratic mouth. His head jerked on his chest as if some sound had pierced his sleep, then the breathing deepened again.

The assassin moved on his leather soles to the open window on the other side of the pavilion. His night’s work was no concern of Monsieur de Talleyrand, Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Emperor Napoleon—or so he believed.

The bed in the room was a sumptuous affair, high and hung with filmy white curtains that rose and fell in the breeze as if the bed were a ship on the high seas. Amid rumpled white silk sheets and damask coverlets, two naked figures slept entwined, their bodies heavy with the deep relaxation of fulfillment. The woman lay sprawled on her back, one arm falling loosely around the neck of her partner, whose dark head was pillowed on her breast, one leg flung over her thighs, pressing her into the deep feather mattress with his weight. His back curved toward the French window, his neck open and vulnerable, the ribs sharply delineated beneath the taut skin.

The knife slid between the third and fourth ribs. Guillaume de Granville stirred as sharp pain invaded his sleep, his dreams of love. A small sound came from him, a sound of protest, of confusion, that faded into a tiny sigh and his body lost the tautness of living flesh,
sinking into his mistress’s body with a flaccid heaviness that bore no relation to the relaxation of a moment before.

Gabrielle should not have woken, the killing had been so silent, but her body was still in tune with Guillaume’s after long hours of love, and as life left him she woke and sat up in the same instant. Her lover’s body slid sideways and her sleep-filled eyes stared disbelieving at the crimson stain on the smooth pale flesh of his back. It was a small blemish and yet not for one minute, even in the dumb trance of new awakening, did she think it was insignificant. The deadly stain began to spread in a slow, inexorable flush.

It had been a matter of seconds since the assassin had entered, and as Gabrielle’s stunned gaze lifted she met the cold, blank stare of pale eyes in a blackened countenance. Eyes without life, without emotion. She opened her mouth on a scream and the man lunged, the knife aimed to puncture her throat. She flung herself sideways, heaving the dead body of Guillaume de Granville aside with the superhuman strength of terror. Her scream ripped through the chamber, shattered the silence of the elegant pavilion.

For a second of uncharacteristic hesitation the assassin stood poised on the balls of his feet, his knife hand raised. Gabrielle’s scream continued as if she would never run out of breath. Suddenly her cry was met and matched by the clanging of a bell, the violent barking of hounds. The assassin spun on his toes toward the French door and leaped with the agility of a woodland creature through the opening.

Talleyrand had woken from his doze at the first skirling scream, his hand going immediately to the bellrope beside his chair. At the loud summons, men trained to respond with the speed of thought were moving at a run through the pavilion toward the source of the screaming. In the kennels outside, the keeper, following standing orders, released the hounds.

The door to the bedchamber burst open. The men barely glanced at the bed, where the woman cradled the body of her lover, her eyes wild, her mouth still open on a continuing shriek. They ran for the open door onto the portico, pistols in their hands.

Gabrielle’s scream died as her breath finally foiled. She gazed down at Guillaume’s body, where the blood now pumped thickly from between his ribs. Her hand stroked his hair, feeling the curious deadness of him almost as if it were a purely intellectual sensation.

Talleyrand came into the room. With his halting limp, he crossed to the bed. Taking up the coverlet, he draped it around the woman’s shoulders, covering her nakedness before he examined the body of Guillaume de Granville, feeling for a pulse at the throat.

“Who?” Gabrielle spoke the one word on a whisper. The wildness had gone from her eyes and her body was taut with a fierce energy that Talleyrand, who had known her from babyhood, recognized and understood.

“Will you avenge his death, Gabrielle?” he asked quietly.

“You know I will.” The response was as direct as he had expected.

He walked over to the open French door. The baying of the hounds was fainter as they pursued their quarry deeper into the forest. But they had been on his heels within minutes and would catch him in the end, unless, like some spirit, the assassin had no scent and left no footprint.

Monsieur de Talleyrand had no truck with spirits. He dealt in the corporeal world, where cunning and intrigue were the only efficient defenses and the only sure means of advancement and influence, both personal and political. And Napoleon’s Minister for Foreign Affairs was undoubtedly the preeminent exponent of those arts in Europe.

He turned back to the bed, his cool gaze holding a spark of compassion as it rested on the young woman’s
set white face. But compassion was not a useful emotion, and Gabrielle had been in the business long enough to know that. She wanted the tool of revenge in her hands. A revenge that would, not coincidentally, benefit both France and Monsieur de Talleyrand-Perigord.

He began to speak, his well-modulated voice quiet yet crisp in the now-silent chamber of death.

1

England, January 1807

“Who’s the titian, Miles?” Nathaniel Praed put up his eye glass for a closer scrutiny.

Miles Bennet followed his friend’s gaze, although the description could apply to only one woman in Lady Georgiana Vanbrugh’s drawing room.

“Comtesse de Beaucaire,” he replied. “A distant cousin of Georgie’s on her mother’s side. They’ve known each other almost since the cradle.”

Nathaniel let his glass fall, commenting dryly, “Presumably there’s a Comte de Beaucaire.”

“Not anymore,” Miles said, somewhat surprised at this show of interest. In general, Nathaniel was indifferent to the charms of Society women. “He died tragically soon after their marriage, I believe. Taken off by some fever very suddenly—all over in a couple of days, as I understand it.” He shrugged. “Gabrielle’s officially out of mourning now, but she still wears black much of the time.”

“She knows what suits her,” observed Lord Praed, putting up his glass again.

Miles had no fault to find with the observation. Gabrielle stood out in a room full of women in diaphanous pastels. Her dress of severely cut black velvet accentuated her unusual height and threw into startling relief the mass of dark red hair tumbling in an unruly cloud of ringlets around a pale face.

“Magnificent emeralds,” Nathaniel now mused, assessing with a connoisseur’s eye the jewels at throat, ears, wrist, and hair.

“Part of the treasure chest of the Hawksworths, I imagine,” Miles said. “Her mother was Imogen Hawksworth … married the Due de Gervais … they were both victims of Madame Guillotine in the Terror. Gabrielle was the only child. There wasn’t much to inherit after the Revolution, but her mother’s jewels were saved somehow.”

He glanced curiously at his friend. “Why the interest?”

“You have to admit, she’s a striking woman. She must have been a child in the Terror. How did she survive?”

Miles withdrew a Sevres snuffbox from his pocket and took a delicate pinch. “Her parents were killed at the height of the Terror, the end of ‘ninety, I believe. Family friends managed to smuggle Gabrielle out of France. She must have been about eight. That’s when she and Georgie became inseparable; they’re much of an age, and Gabrielle became part of the family until it was safe for her to return to France. She has powerful connections—Madame de Staél and Talleyrand, to name but two. She’s been living in France for the last six or seven years, with occasional visits to Georgie and Simon.”

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