Authors: Jennifer Blake
STEEL MAGNOLIA PRESS
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
published by Harper Paperbacks, a Division of
Copyright © 1995 by Patricia Maxwell
Second edition by Steel Magnolia Press, 2011
To have the Dark Angel appear at the ball was a stupendous honor. It was no more than a country cotillion, after all, this being the summer season when everyone retreated from pest-ridden New Orleans to the more healthful air of their upland plantations. More important, Lucien
, the premier duelist whose deadly skill had given him his title, was known to avoid such mild entertainments.
watched the arrival of this exalted guest from her corner seat half hidden behind a gilded and silent harp. She had never met the Dark Angel personally but knew him on sight. Invited everywhere due to his social standing and devastatingly handsome appearance, he cut a wide swath through the city during the festive winter season. Fluttering feminine hearts and shattered male egos littered his path like rose petals before a conquering hero. It would have been difficult not to know him.
There had been a time when Anne-Marie had thought Lucien
the epitome of masculine charm. She had spun wondrous daydreams around him in which she played the part of his loyal and valiant lady, the only person who could see through the mask he assumed to conceal the torment in his soul. In her fantasies, he fought for her on the field of honor, climbed to her balcony to rescue her, swept her away with him to exotic climes and exciting experiences.
How silly she had been. The Dark Angel was no man of dreams, but rather a cold-blooded assassin. Any torment in his soul was of his own making. Anne-Marie had come to despise the code duello by which he lived, and also the man who was its most notorious example.
Oh, but the hostess for the evening, Madame Picard, was so very gratified by the saturnine gentleman’s appearance at her summer ball. Her smile was a beatific beam, while her breath of satisfaction threatened the overstrained seams of her coral silk ball gown. Rustling forward in haste, she was embarrassingly effusive as she made him welcome.
bent his dark head over the lady’s hand, all grace, polished manners, and condescension. It was infamous.
But as the gentleman turned to glance around the gathering with a weary air, the smiles of his hostess gave way to doubt. The lady had realized, perhaps, that it was one thing to arouse the interest of the Dark Angel but quite another to satisfy it. How humiliating for her if he should turn on his heel and leave the house within seconds of arriving. Wild-eyed, Madame Picard searched for something or someone to offer her guest by way of entertainment.
There was not a great deal from which to choose. One of the most popular waltzes of the past winter was floating on the air and nearly every person present, with the exception of the chaperones and elderly aunts, was on the shining parquet of the dance floor. The district boasted no true intellectual light who might engage her guest, and the few elder statesmen in attendance were sequestered in a back room, deep in games of faro and draw-poker. The midnight supper hour was still several dances away, and must fail to impress in any case, being only the usual collection of meats, pastries, jellies, and ices.
It was then that Anne-Marie realized Madame Picard was staring in her direction. Her hostess grasped the arm of Lucien
and started forward.
The blood drained from Anne-Marie’s face. She glanced around for an avenue of escape, but there was none other than undignified flight. Panic invaded her chest in a choking wave.
She should have been dancing; her stepmother, the wife taken recently by her widowed father, would scold later for the way she had hidden herself away from prospective partners. Yet following the antics of her friends and neighbors from a distance had far more appeal than venturing onto the floor in the company of awkward partners with sweaty hands and no conversation beyond horses and hunting dogs. Unfortunately, that preference now left her available.
“My dear Anne-Marie,” Madame Picard said as she came to a breathless halt before her, “here is someone who needs no introduction since the entire neighborhood has known for days that he was visiting cousins at
. Will you be so kind as to make him welcome,
?” The older woman gave the gentleman at her side a nervous smile. “And you, Monsieur
, must prepare yourself for a treat. I assure you our Anne-Marie is something unusual in young ladies.”
The Dark Angel had little choice except to invite her to dance; Anne-Marie saw that. She was under no obligation to accept, of course, and might easily have declined if she could have forced her brain to produce a reasonable excuse. Nothing came to her. Meanwhile, Madame Picard was standing there looking so ridiculously hopeful that it was impossible to disappoint her. Anne-Marie murmured something that might be taken for agreement. Lucien
proffered his arm. As she accepted his support and rose to her feet, she felt the heat of his body and the rigid muscles covered by his coat sleeve.
A peculiar tremor ran along her nerves to lodge in the center of being. She looked up to meet her partner’s intent, assessing gaze. She stopped, standing quite still in the way she might at facing some unexpected danger.
Of above average height, Lucien
possessed the classical features and perfect form of a Greek statue allied to the polished grace of a courtier. At the same time there was an elemental air about him, as if beneath the outward gloss of his appearance he was not quite civilized, something less than tame. The impression came in part from his eyes. Satirical and penetrating, they were a rich brown that caught the light with shifting gold reflections. Intelligence gleamed in their depths, along with the calm that comes from supreme self-confidence. Above them were thick dark brows that arched at their centers so that the least play of amusement across his features caused his expression to turn diabolical.
“I see you have noticed the eyebrows,” he said. “Are you going to comment on the likeness to Lucifer, or be truly unusual and refrain?”
The wry inquiry released her from her odd, transfixed state. With a brief glance upward, she said, “I don’t believe discussion is required.”
“Just so,” he said, as he swung her effortlessly out onto the floor.
It was incredible to Anne-Marie that she was moving to the music in the arms of Lucien
. Her hand was held in his strong grasp and his gloved fingertips rested at the narrow turn of her waist. Once she would have been in transports; now she was appalled. Of course she was. The odd, unwanted sensations that chased themselves down her spine were mere animal instincts which must be ignored. She fastened her gaze at the level of his cravat while she sought composure.
It was a distinctive cravat, she saw, one made of silk in a soft and unusual shade of amber. She wished abruptly that she wore a ball gown of that color. She longed for anything, in fact, except the virginal white chosen by her stepmother that gave her the look of a sacrificial maiden. It was embarrassing to be costumed so fittingly for her part.
She was looking far from her best; she knew that with depressing certainty. Her father’s new wife had offered the services of her personal maid for the evening—an honor that could not be avoided without giving offense. Under the new Madame
forceful instructions, the thick and curling abundance of Anne-Marie’s hair had been controlled with
of pomade, an oily concoction which dimmed the rich golden highlights to a dull brown. It had then been braided and twisted into a ridiculously complicated arrangement. In addition, rice powder had been used to coat the creamy skin of her face, giving her a sickly pallor. Though she had been less than pleased by these deficiencies before, they had not seemed especially important until this moment.
Her partner, she realized abruptly, was gazing down at her with a quizzical smile on his chiseled lips. It was a moment before she could attend to what he was saying.