Betrayed Countess (Books We Love Historical Romance)

BOOK: Betrayed Countess (Books We Love Historical Romance)
ads

 

 

Betrayed Countess

 

 

by

 

 

Diane Scott Lewis

 

ISBN: 978-1-77145-040-9

 

PUBLISHED BY:

 

Books We Love Ltd.

Chestermere, Alberta

Canada

 

http://bookswelove.net

 

Copyright 2012 by Diane Scott Lewis

 

Cover art by: Michelle Lee Copyright 2012

 

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Lisbette de Jonquiere clutched the small bundle to her chest and hurried across the main square of Boulogne’s Haute Ville. She glanced back at the townhouse—a place where she’d resented being sequestered this last week, yet it was preferable to the night’s shadows. Blinking drizzle from her eyelashes, she glared at the elderly man walking beside her. His lantern pushed a small pool of light before them. “If I must sail, why can’t I travel as a passenger on a packet boat?”

“There is … no time to obtain a passport.” Armand rasped this out, ending in a cough. He moved closer and hooked his arm with hers as if they led a nocturnal dance. “When you arrive in Dover, catch the first coach to Bath.”

They passed the cathedral and the pink-bricked
town hall. Lisbette started when a figure emerged from an alley around the corner and blocked their path. Armand halted, his shoulders stiffening before the huge man who trudged into their lantern’s glow. Lisbette cringed at his filthy clothes. His face looked as if someone had tried to carve their initials into his cheeks. A stench rolled off him, like the slime washed up from beneath the sea.

“So, this is the one?” The giant tugged a frayed hat low on his forehead. Water dripped off the roof behind him, smacking the cobbles and stirring the mist around his bulky frame.


Certainement
. This is she, and please be gentle.” Armand glanced at her, his eyes droopy above gaunt cheeks, sadder than she’d ever seen them. “Is it quiet down there, at the harbor?”

“Quiet enough for what we need. Only one from customs. I’ll be there.” The man turned around, and the gloom swallowed him up once more.

Lisbette shivered and bunched together the edges of her cloak, already damp from the increasing rain. “Who is that dirty man, Armand? I still don’t understand why you insist on sending me off at this hour and with no decent companion.”

“I’ve explained that it’s too late to engage anyone. But I promised your mother I’d keep you from harm.” He averted his eyes when he mentioned her mother. Armand coughed into his hand. “Let’s keep walking, my dear.”

“Maman will not approve of this. We should go back to the house. You’re ill, I feel the heat from your arm.” Lisbette wondered if his fever had confused him. The shock of being dragged out of bed and having her sleep interrupted scrambled her own thoughts. But the cold air sharpened her fears like a needle. “
Ma foi
, why is my leaving so urgent?”

“Please, do this for me.” Armand paused and raised the lantern, his features skeletal in the glimmer of light. “It is almost sunrise, we have to rush. As I said, I need that package delivered, too. The information is very important.”

Lisbette brushed her chilled fingers over the rustle of papers in her bundle and lamented that she’d misplaced her gloves—or someone had stolen them in that crumbling abode where they’d concealed her. “Why can’t I hide someplace else in the city? To wait for Maman?”

“You may thank me someday, but not now.” Armand tugged her through a gate cut into the massive rampart wall. They took the sloping road to the left following the Liane River. Halfway down, she saw the harbor lamps flickering in the mist, and slowed to let the old man catch his breath.

“I’m all right,
mignonne
.” He wheezed and swung the lantern forward, bouncing a circle of light over the buildings squatted below. “We need to keep moving.” Armand hurried her on, and yet he wobbled to keep pace beside her, his hand at her elbow.

“This is insane.” Lisbette huddled inside her cloak, a gust of wind flapping the hood about her face. She slipped in the mud and splashed through a puddle, her skirt hem and petticoat now stuck to her ankles. Armand made a feeble attempt to steady her.

When they entered the Basse Ville, the drab lower town shimmered in an outline of purple. To the east, the dawn light crept over the ancient battlements perched on the hillside behind them. Lisbette slowed again. “What if someone stops us? This seems more dangerous than remaining at the townhouse. Tell me who that scarred man is?”

Armand clasped her wrist, almost caressing it. “That man is an acquaintance of Madame—my niece. Against her wishes, I
… I’ve paid him to see the way is clear for you.”

“I thought I heard you arguing with that woman. Was it over me? Maman promised she would join me here, soon. I need to stay.” Lisbette scrutinized her elderly guardian—or so he’d become over the last several days. Always thin, now he resembled wrinkled skin draped over bones. She trembled, his hand on her cuff a pale claw. “What if I’m caught and sent back, what will happen then? I should never have left Château Jonquiere to come to Boulogne.”

“You will be fine. Trust me. Circumstances have changed of which you know nothing.” He reached toward her face, hesitating, as if she were the one hot to the touch. Then he nudged her forward and she tripped over debris. He caught her elbow, but she pulled away. They hurried through more shadows towards the waterfront. When she smelled the fishy harbor, bile gurgled in her empty stomach.

“But I want to know about it. Is Madame Hilaire really your niece? I don’t remember you ever mentioning having relatives in Boulogne.” Lisbette hated for her trust in him to vacillate. Armand had been her family’s devoted mâitre d’hotel for much longer than her seventeen years. But since leaving her mother in Poissy and traveling out here, she’d been uncomfortable in that stern woman’s home, with the sneers and snide whispers. “I told you that I saw one of her friends wearing the tricolore cockade.”

Armand’s gaze flicked over to her before he flashed his indulgent smile, as if he’d just snatched it from his frock coat pocket. “I had to warn my niece … I’m sure you were mistaken.”

They approached the quay, and as they passed the Capuchins
’, the rising water slapped the convent walls. The stone jetties of the harbor stretched into the haze and Armand directed her down the first one. Several crates were stacked like square sentinels near the end, and he told her to ease in behind them. He blew out the lantern and set it aside to follow after her.

Crouched down, Lisbette stared from between the crates at the trio of men loading cargo onto one anchored ship. The harbor lamps quivered in the wind, illuminating a face or movement, and then sweeping it back into the darkness. The men hoisted barrels up in netting on a wooden crane and swung them over the deck of the ship where they lowered them. One bored customs official stood nearby clapping his hands against his body for warmth, grimacing at the unseasonable cold that had thrashed in during the night.

The gusts off the Channel gnawed at Lisbette’s skin as well, prickling down her arms all the way to her soaked feet. Her delicate shoes felt paper-thin, gossamer on rubble. She longed to be back in bed, her own bed at her country château, snug in familiar quilts. Or deeper into the past, in that serener time before her father’s—

“That ship sails to Dover with the tide, if this storm doesn’t stall them. It’s a small vessel, so crossing won’t be easy.” Armand leaned over her shoulder as they peered through the gap. “A pity they would have to load in this squall.”

“You feel pity for them?” Lisbette pulled at the old man’s coat sleeve. “Are you certain the rebels search this town? Maman’s last letter said everything is calmer. Wouldn’t she know, being closer to Paris?” Her voice was shrill, and she strained to keep it low, though the vessel’s rigging creaking in the wind diluted the sound.

“I can’t be responsible for what might happen
… if you stay.” Armand smelled of wet wool, his features now bereft of any warmth. He tugged his tricorn hat lower over his head before squeezing her shoulder. “I wish I could go with you, but I’d never survive the journey. This is for your benefit. Guard the package.”

“What was your disagreement with your niece? It sounded as if she didn’t want me to sail.” That confused her, too. Madame Hilaire had treated her with contempt from the moment they’d met. Perhaps if Lisbette screamed, alerting the customs man, she’d be prevented from sailing away from her embattled country. The cry rose in her throat like the previous bile. “If you would only explain—”

“Hush! The tide is early, but perfect for our purpose—there are fewer people around.” Armand turned away. “As soon as the men are on this side, I’ll walk out and distract them. That large sailor will come down and take you to the ship. Please move fast and don’t say a word, just follow. I’ll … I’ll tell your mother where you’ve gone.”

He waved his hand in a gesture for her to creep around the end crate until she faced the ship. Still loath to do his bidding, Lisbette scrutinized this man she’d known her entire life. He now seemed a stranger. Before today, he’d given her the courtesy of calling her
‘Countess’ whenever they were alone. Shaky with the instinct to run away from him, she pushed dripping hair away from her forehead and gathered her cloak around her.

Armand stumbled out from between the crates. He began to cough and doubled over as if in extreme pain. One of the men came forward to offer assistance, as the others stared. The customs official grimaced and checked his pocket watch.

Lisbette sucked in her breath, inched her way around as instructed, and half-hoped no one would be there. But the giant came out of the gloom and without a word caught her hand and dragged her up the gangplank. Her head ducked low against the wind, eyes squinted against the splatter of rain, she lurched behind him onto the deck of the ship.

“Sit and climb down the ladder, all the way,” he muttered as he surveyed the area. “
Rapidement
.”

She glared at him, then at the square hole that gaped in the deck. He snatched her bundle and dropped it into the blackness. “Please, monsieur, isn’t there an easier way?” The man seized her arms in his enormous hands. His fingers dug into her flesh as he forced her to sit on the hatchway’s edge, her feet dangling. Suddenly, he lifted her over the side where she twisted like a hooked fish. Lisbette sputtered in terror until she felt a ladder rung with her toe. The hulk glowered over her and motioned her down with a jerk of his head. When he released her arms, she clung to the ladder, afraid to budge.

“To the bottom, now. Move into the hold somewhere. Stay quiet.”

“Will you be at the other end?” she asked in a squeak, but he had gone. She swallowed hard and descended into the shadows, wondering which ring of hell she’d fallen into.

 

* * * *

 

You
’re aware, ma fille, people have condemned the lavish, self-indulgent lifestyle of the King and Queen. Of all of us, I suppose. While the majority were said to suffer.
Her mother’s voice filled her head, distant yet clear.
The government is corrupt, in such debt. People abhor the increased taxes. But the revolutionary changes demanded are frightening. Your father warned those riots last year showed a collapse of royal authority. I’m so confused, with him gone. I believe we’ll be safer out of the city.

Lisbette awoke with a start and reached out her arms. Only the black dank of the ship’s hold creaked around her. Amazed she’d fallen asleep, she rubbed her face to wipe off the dream. The rocking of the ship after it set sail had lulled her. Rats scratched nearby and she hugged her knees to her chest. The sailors’ activity continued to thump above. She shifted in the coil of rope where she’d huddled, trying to keep warm. Pulling at the damp clothes that chafed her skin, she wrinkled her nose at the stench of fish and mildew.

ADS
15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
READ BOOK DOWNLOAD BOOK

Other books

History of the Rain by Niall Williams
The Amish Bride by Emma Miller
Sweet Talking Lawman by M.B. Buckner
Poison Bay by Belinda Pollard
dibs by Kristi Pelton
Horrid Henry's Christmas by Francesca Simon