Authors: Connie Brockway
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Historical Romance
For Susie Kay Law, who sat down next to me
seven years ago and thus began this whole adventure.
Thank you, my dearest friend.
A fine drizzle seeped from the low, gunmetal-colored sky above the prison yard. The head jailer, Armand, bounced his cudgel in his palm, his already bad mood exacerbated by having to stand outside in this weather. Well, he promised himself, he wouldn’t stand in it any longer than necessary.
“Hold his cursed head down in the water till he passes out if you must,” he barked at the two beefy warders straining to force the half-naked man to his knees before a water trough.
They were having little success. The man fought like the devil. He’d always fought like the devil. Ever since he’d been sent here from the prison at Le Havre, after his short-lived escape.
Armand pulled his timepiece from his pocket and angled the face into the rush light. Five o’clock and it was already dark. Cold too, he thought, noting the vapor lifting from the prisoner’s bare skin.
“Curse your misbegotten birth, hurry!” he shouted.
Madame would be arriving soon, heralded by a note received less than an hour before telling him to have ready an assortment of “exotic specimens.” Spontaneous visits were unlike Madame Noir. Usually she gave Armand ample warning of her intentions—and her needs—so that he could make certain that her arrival did not coincide with that of his superiors. They would not look kindly on Armand and Madame’s little arrangement.
But the perverse itch that tormented Madame this day apparently needed immediate scratching. Aristocrats, Armand thought and spat at the slick black cobbles. Who could account for their whims? If she didn’t pay so well for her sport, he would have refused to see her. But she did pay.
A sudden burst of activity at the trough drew his attention. The prisoner had heeled back and rammed his elbow into the older guard’s gut. The younger guard retaliated with a vicious blow across the prisoner’s temple. A gash appeared above his brow, oozing blood. He dropped to his knees.
Pierre, you imbecile!” Armand sprinted forth, swinging his cudgel. “No marks! Drown him if you must but no marks, do you hear?”
no marks,” Pierre grumbled.
“And you, English
Armand said, grasping a handful of the prisoner’s hair and dragging his head up. “You had best behave.”
The Englishman turned his head. Long, dark hair streamed over his forehead and a rough beard covered the lower half of his face making his features barely discernible. Only his eyes gleamed from the shadowed countenance.
“Or else what?” the prisoner sneered. “You’ll kill me?” An evil smile flickered and disappeared in the dark face. “I am afraid, friend Armand, that your threats have quite lost their power to intimidate.”
Startled, Armand straightened. The prisoner’s gaze followed him, defiant, if edged with bleakness.
“And why is that?” Armand asked.
“You can’t threaten a dead man with death,” he rasped back in French gutter
—the dialect of the prison. “I saw the clean clothes. Did my father send them for my execution? How sentimental of him.
“No matter. You’ll not have them clean off my body, Armand,” the Englishman vowed. “You’ll not make one penny more off my corpse than I can—”
Pierre’s fist plowed into his belly, cutting off his words.
Armand grinned. So that is why the Englishman fought so hard. He thought he was on his way to being hanged. He thought they were bathing him so that after he’d been executed they could strip clean clothes from his body rather than ones stinking of jail. They’d fetch a better price that way. Not a bad notion.
It was amusing and Armand, who rarely had the pleasure of denting this particular prisoner’s self-containment, relished the experience. He motioned Pierre to revive the Englishman.
With a grunt, Pierre heaved him over the rim of the trough and dunked his head in the cold water. The Englishman lurched upright, sputtering and coughing—and fighting. Water streamed down his heaving chest, leaving muddy trails on its filthy surface. Muscles and tendons corded and swelled in his lean body. Even in the cold air the sweat beaded on the faces of the two guards straining to subdue him.
Armand watched with concern. The prisoner had come here as a youth, but the years had turned him into a man, a man who, in spite of the deprivations of prison life, still had somehow developed a formidable physique.
This is what came of mollycoddling “political prisoners” and allowing them meat and blankets and a room on the upper levels of the prison rather than in the fetid subterranean chambers where most were held. But Armand’s master insisted that political prisoners be kept alive in anticipation of possible ransoms.
Armand thought it a waste—and possibly dangerous. Should the Englishman ever put bulk on that tall, broad frame …
even three warders would have a hard time holding him. As it was, soon one of the guards would lose his temper and start using his fists on the prisoner’s face. Madame disliked marked faces. Armand waded into the fray, his amusement vanishing.
he shouted. “You guard your virtue like a nun!”
“My virtue?” the Englishman panted, his struggles abating.
She probably won’t even choose you now,” Armand said contemptuously.
The man stopped fighting, yet none of the tension left him. He narrowed his eyes on Armand. “She picked
She says foreigners. And you,
are one of the only foreigners left. Do not think to make her pass you by again. If you spit at her this time, I swear I will render you useless to any woman ever again.”
“He is not useful to women
Pierre added his voice. “Best take whatever Madame offers,
It might be your only chance to ever have a woman. Though rumor claims Madame is the one who does the ‘having.’ ” He broke into coarse laughter.
The Englishman ignored the provocation. Armand considered him.
Madame pick you, do not think to escape,” he warned. “No man has ever escaped after one of her nights of pleasure.”
A glimpse of teeth flashed in the prisoner’s dark face. “Me?” He shook his head.
I simply wish to take advantage of the situation, as Pierre suggests.”
Armand snorted in disbelief. “You didn’t feel that way some months ago when she would have taken you.”
The smile disappeared. “ ‘Some months ago’ I still held out the hope that my father would ransom me as he did my brother. I still believed—” He broke off abruptly. After a second’s silence he shrugged, a smile flashed once more in his dark face.
“I still believed in something,” said Raine Merrick.
“She is unnatural!” hissed the English youth chained beside Raine. “I heard what she is. Depraved! She’ll not have me!”
The boy flung himself against the manacles holding his arms spread wide against the rough stone wall next to where Raine was likewise chained. He was seventeen, or so he said. The same age Raine had been when he had been brought to France.
“She’ll not use me that way!” The lad’s defiance broke in a sob.
Raine ignored him, watching the cell door with cold anticipation as he rubbed his jaw against his shoulder. The pleasure of having his face clean-shaven once again was as heady a sensation as any he’d known in the past five years. Of course they hadn’t let him shave himself. They would never have trusted him with a razor. Instead, they’d tied him to a chair for the procedure.
Pierre had taken particular delight in waving the dulled blade above Raine’s loins but as Raine refused to react the porcine guard soon grew tired of the sport and contented himself with describing to Raine in graphic detail what “Madame’s boys” endured at the hands of the veiled lady.
Raine didn’t bother to tell Pierre he already knew all about Madame. She was a legend among the prisoners.
It is why, months ago, he’d spat at her feet when she’d arrived to look over her “prospects.” He still bore the scars from the beating that little act of rebellion had incurred.
But at that time he’d still been certain that the years he’d already spent in this prison were somehow a mistake and that the two short weeks of freedom he’d had after his escape would soon be returned to him for the rest of his life. Almost a year passed before he’d realized his father would not be sending a ransom and that the prison he’d been sent to was a far harder place to escape than the one from which he’d come.
A desire for revenge had taken hold of Raine. He’d survived in this hellish place driven by a seething need to make his father pay. But this prison had a way of stripping a man of all but his most basic drives. Eventually his pride had withered and died as he focused all his dwindling reserves on the increasingly herculean task of staying alive.
Even the rumor that his father had ransomed Ash could not rouse his sense of injustice. By then he’d seen far worse injustices. No, Raine no longer wanted vengeance; he simply wanted to survive. And that meant escaping or dying in the attempt.
He’d die soon anyway. Few lived as long as he already had, killed by disease or illness, another inmate, or simply the slow inner corrosion that eventually found its physical expression in death.
He had one chance to escape and it depended on Madame Noir’s choosing him over the other “candidates” Armand had dredged up. He looked around at the other men. Two were long-time residents: a hatchet-faced middle-aged colonist from the Americas and a slender Prussian dying of consumption. The English youth chained to the wall next to him was new, delicate, and sullen-looking.
Suddenly the door to the cell grated open. Raine peered through the gloom at the dark figure hovering in the outer corridor. His attention sharpened.
Madame Noir had arrived to make a selection for her evening’s entertainment.
Raine watched the black-clad figure step through the cell door. Hidden beneath a nearly opaque, ebony veil and layers of midnight-hued silk, she moved with an odd hesitant grace. A black velvet cape covered her shoulders and long black gloves encased the slender hands holding her skirts above the stagnant puddles on the floor.
Armand followed her, his face flushed and his ridged brows lowered in displeasure. Beside him shuffled a huge monolith of a man bundled against the cold, a thick cape draped over his massive shoulders and a woolen scarf wrapped about his thick neck. The eyes beneath the brim of his hat were sharp and piercing.
Silently Raine cursed the fates. Why couldn’t she be accompanied by someone like Pierre? Big, but dull-witted and slow.
She turned and spoke to her man, stopping in front of the torches. The backlighting revealed her profile through the heavy veil; a slender throat, a sharp-angled jaw, a patrician nose. The men who returned from a night in her “care” swore she never removed that veil. No one had ever seen her face—even Armand—and no one knew her real name. She always registered under the pseudonym “Madame Noir” at the hotel she used for her entertainments.
She finished her whispered conversation and turned toward the prisoners. With what looked like a conscious gathering of purpose, she came toward them, her attendant shadowing her. She paused before the colonist.
“Too old,” she murmured in exquisite, aristocratic French and continued circling the room. She stopped in front of the Prussian. He lifted his wet head and gazed at her with dull, hopeless eyes. “This man will die if he is not made warm,” she said.
“Yes,” Armand agreed uninterestedly. “A Prussian.”
She remained studying the shivering man.
“But I might have a desire for a Prussian someday,” she said quite calmly, and moved on.
Immediately Armand barked out an order that the Prussian be taken down, dried off, and fed. In another, one might possibly mistake Madame Noir’s comments for compassion, Raine thought cynically. She moved toward the English youth.
Armand scuttled to her side. “He’s new, Madame. English. Young. Feel.” He chattered like an auctioneer. “Go ahead. I have never known you to be shy.”
She lifted the boy’s chin. His lower lip trembled.
“Very young.” She sounded uncertain. “But English, you say—”
“Please! I come from a noble family. I cannot be used so!” The youth sobbed. “I am not the one you want! I am not the one—”
Madame spun around at the sound of Raine’s calm voice, her veil swirling about her shoulders and settling like the dark wings of a nighthawk. She cocked her head sideways, increasing her resemblance to a small, sleek bird of prey.
“Monsieur is English?” she asked, interest sharpening her inflection.
“Aye.” He watched her carefully. “English. You have a taste for Englishmen, Madame?”
Behind the heavy veil he thought he saw the glimmer of her eyes. He forced himself to stand still and turned his palms up, inviting her inspection. “I’m your man.”
Armand hurried over. He grabbed a handful of Raine’s hair and jerked his head back.
“Here, Madame. Come. Examine. Look. I know Madame is most careful in making her selection.”
She came within a few feet. Her heated scent filled his nostrils, unexpectedly stirring his senses. A woman’s perfume. Without warning, sensual images from his all-but-forgotten past ambushed him, flooding his mind, filling his thoughts.
Musk and flowers, cleanliness, and dark promise. Womanly and virginal all at once. Straining bodies, sweet aftermath. The sudden sensual memory stunned him with its force.
He closed his eyes, breathing in deeply through his mouth, tasting as well as scenting her. He hadn’t been in the same room with a woman in five years, having hidden in barns and cave during his short freedom. Yet could that alone account for the thickening in his loins?
This woman was a bawd, a profligate jade, a byword for pollution, and while he’d once been a randy youth eager for most any sexual sport he’d never added perversion to his extensive fist of vices.
Yet the mere scent of her stirred him.
“Touch him,” Armand urged.
Did she hesitate before reaching out? Did she note the uncontrollable forward cant of his body in anticipation of her hand? Her gloved fingers brushed his naked skin. He forgot everything else.
His breath caught. He backed away. Not because he abhorred her touch. Just the opposite. Because he wanted it. Her fingertips fluttered down his chest to his belly to where his breeches hung low on his hips. He shivered, willing her hand to slip lower still, waiting for that intimate touch, aching with arousal, heedless of the spectators.
Her gaze dropped to the evidence of his arousal. Abruptly, she snatched her hand back, like a maiden.
“Madame wished a challenge?” Armand was asking. “Here is such a one. Arrogant. Young. Healthy.”
“I don’t think—”
“Forgive me, Madame.” Her servant lumbered forward.
“I believe this one would suit very well.”
Raine studied the mountainous Jacques. Since when did a servant advise his mistress on her sexual requisites? She did not reprimand him, however, but only hesitated before gesturing toward the English boy.
“Perhaps him,” she said, and it sounded to Raine as though she was asking. “He is—”
“Very young,” Jacques finished, his tone cautioning.
Raine ground his teeth in frustration. She had to pick him. She
“I will be whatever Madame wishes me to be.” He forced the words out between his lips, surprised at how easily they came, how facilely he abdicated the last shreds of his pride. “I will do whatever Madame wishes me to do.”
He held his breath.
“All right,” she finally said. “I’ll take him.”
Jacques nodded approvingly.
“Very good,” Armand said. “I’ll send two guards with you.”
“Not necessary,” Jacques said, handing Armand a heavy-looking velvet pouch. Raine blessed the man’s self-assurance.
“But it is, Monsieur,” Armand argued. “I know this man.”
Madame made a dismissive movement with her hands. “Has there ever been a problem before?” she asked coldly. “I do not wish spectators at my sport. I desire … privacy with him.”
“I understand, but Madame, you must see that if this man should escape—”
“Do you dare to press me?”
Madame!” Armand assured her, hauling a thick set of keys from his belt and opening the lock that held Raine manacled to the wall. “Still, I fear this one.” He fastened a length of chain between Raine’s manacles. “I have the solution: The guards will ride post, on the back of the carriage. You will have privacy. I will have peace of mind. This is sensible, yes?”
Armand jerked Raine forward and handed the end of the chain to Jacques.
“If you insist,” Madame said, irritation vibrating from her slender form.
She stalked from the cell, her skirts rustling. Armand hurried after her, barking for the guards. Raine, who’d kept his head bowed throughout the proceedings, glanced up and found Jacques watching him.
The huge man shrugged off his cape, throwing it over Raine’s naked shoulders, robbing the act of charity by saying, “I will chain you in the coach across the seat from her. If you hurt her … If you so much as blow your filthy breath in her face, I will rip off your head and piss down your neck.
Raine’s lips curled back. “I assure you, your mistress is safe with me.”
“Good. Be civil, be wise, and all shall go well for you. Better than you imagine.”
Raine could not keep the derisive sneer from his face. “Your largesse undoes me. I wonder if hers will.”
In answer, Jacques shoved Raine between the shoulder blades. He propelled him through the door and down the low corridor toward a flight of stairs leading up to the prison’s receiving yard. There, just outside of the gates, waited a closed carriage. The prison guards were already perched on the footmen’s steps at the back. Armand stood beside the open door.
Any attempt to flee now would be futile. Choking down his frustration, Raine shuffled across the yard through the open gates. Outside, he stopped, unable to help himself, and lifted his face to the weeping sky. He drew breath outside the prison walls and closed his eyes.
“Go on, son.” Jacques’s voice was surprisingly mild. “Get in.”
Raine hefted his chains and flung them in onto the floor of the carriage. Jacques reached past him, snapping a padlock through the links and locking them to a bolt on the floor. Damn the man’s caution!
Unceremoniously Raine climbed into the carriage. Across the carriage, bootheels scrabbled against the floorboards.
already entered. He peered through the dim interior.
She was almost indiscernible in her black gown and heavy veils, being tucked as she was as far back into the corner as possible.
As though, he realized, she was scared to death of him.