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Excerpt: A Cantata of Love

Excerpt: A Cantata of Love

Book 4: Code Breaker Series

Prologue

1803
In the seaside town of Berck, France

Gabrielle De Valmont brushed back Lord Kendal’s blond curls and applied the wet cloth to his burning brow. His long, golden waves and eyelashes accentuated his fiery red cheekbones. In their days of hard travel from Paris, the earl’s gunshot wound had festered into a nasty infection.

At this moment, he rested. For days, when the fever spiked, he thrashed about, calling out about sending a code book to a woman named Henrietta.

Desperate to soothe him, Gabrielle discovered that he would calm with the French songs of her childhood.

They couldn’t hide much longer without being discovered by Napoleon’s or Fouché’s henchmen. When the earl’s condition had worsened to the point where he could no longer travel, Gabrielle had brought them, under cover of darkness, to her former mémé’s tiny village of Berck, south of Calais.

For eight long days and nights, she had cared for the feverish earl. Their presence in the tiny town couldn’t be kept secret much longer. They must leave Berck, and France, soon. But how could they flee with the French soldiers on high alert, inspecting every boat crossing the English Channel?

Monsieur Denby, Lord Kendal’s valet, had assured her that he had a plan to divert their attention.

Exhausted and despondent, she beseeched the Blessed Virgin for their safe escape and the earl’s recovery.

She also prayed that the earl would forgive her and Mother Therese for their deception. She had to believe that Lord Kendal would never abandon her to her terrible fate.

Chapter One

Michael Harcourt, the Earl of Kendal, woke to a soft voice and the delectable smell of a woman. She smelled like wildflowers. And her voice was soothing and sweet. Last night must have been one hell of a night of dissipation since he remembered nothing. But he had dreamed of his French mother crooning to him.

What was wrong with him? He had been in bed with a French woman, and he’d thought of his mother. His head ached as if horses had trampled over him. He tried to remember her name—Yvette? Or was it Mimi? He cracked open one lid. Big blue eyes the color of cornflowers stared down at him, and a lush, pink lower lip pouted. How could he have forgotten this angel’s name? Yvette. Definitely Yvette. “Yvette? Or maybe Mimi?”

He needed her again to refresh his memory. He raised his arms to pull her against him. He grabbed for her, but his arms felt weak. Thank God the rest of his body wasn’t that tired. She yelped when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her on top of him. “Yvette, darling. Don’t fight me. I need you.”

Yvette gasped and tightened against him. He rubbed himself against her slender body. Not his usual type, he noted. Clearly not an opera dancer by the slender frame. What had he drunk last night that he couldn’t remember this delectable handful?

“Let go of me,” she hissed.

He whispered against her soft, tender neck, kissing her ear. “Were you this feisty last night?”

“Let me go, you brute.” She shouted in his ear, causing his head to feel as if it were cracking wide open. She jumped back, tripping on the bedclothes and knocking the water canister from the side table. The loud crash reverberated in his head.

Women didn’t fight him. He was a generous lover. Was he overlooking something from last night?

Michael looked at the disheveled, bewitching woman glaring at him. Hair the color of honey sparkled in the morning sunlight, but her bright eyes were now dark and stormy.

Damn, damn. She looked far too innocent and way too marriageable. What had he gotten himself into?

He rearranged the bedding to hide the obvious, then lifted himself to the head of the bed.

The mademoiselle didn’t look so much offended as just plain pissing mad. Her eyes had narrowed, and she glowered at him—the look of a woman who might impale him with the fireplace poker. He had gotten into a lot of scrapes, but this wasn’t how he imagined finding a wife.

The door to his bedroom swung open, knocking against the wall. The pain behind his eyes pounding like a son of a…

Denby, his valet, stormed into the room, swearing under his breath. “What the hell? Are you alright, Mademoiselle Gabrielle?”

She gestured with her hands and spoke in rapid French to Denby. Had she just called him, the Earl of Kendal, a “stupid horse’s ass”?

Denby took the irate woman’s arm. “I’ll clean up the mess. Now that he’s awake, you should prepare yourself to leave. We’ve a long journey ahead of us.”

With no word of farewell, the Mademoiselle Gabrielle huffed and left the room.

Denby chuckled. “Barely awake and already causing problems.” He bent to pick up the water container. “It is good to see you back, my lord. You scared the hell out of me. If it weren’t for Mademoiselle Gabby’s nursing, I’m not sure…”

“I’ve been sick?” He did feel a bit weak after his tussle with the delectable young woman.

“You developed a fever right after we escaped from Paris.”

The memory of fleeing Paris and Fouché’s men brought him totally awake. “My last memory is leaving Paris dressed as a nun.”

Denby handed him a glass that had survived the mademoiselle’s spirited response. “You developed a fever from your gunshot wound, and we had to hide out here. This is where Mademoiselle Gabby’s nanny is from and the people helped us.”

Gabby. He didn’t have any recollection of Gabby when they left Paris. “How long have I been out? And who is Gabby?”

“I’m glad you’re ready to travel. I’ve got a bad feeling if we don’t get out of here soon, all of Fouché’s and Napoleon’s men are going to descend.”

He only remembered Denby, and the boy, Pierre, fleeing for their lives dressed as nuns. He had stolen the code book from Le Chiffre, and everyone in Paris seemed to be after him. He wondered if Henrietta had received the book.

“Any news from England? Do we know if Henrietta received the package?”

“I haven’t been able to make any contact. We’ve been in hiding. I’ve arranged for a boat from Calais. They’ve been waiting for a signal that you’re able to travel. We go tonight with the tide. I want to get us out of France. I can’t breathe here.”

“Did you shake the villain who was posted at my house in Paris too?”

“Yes, but we can’t stay here any longer. I’ll change the bandages and get you some breakfast. You’ll rest up before we make the trip. We have to go by horseback, and I hope it won’t open your wound.”

He suddenly was assailed with the ignominy of the location of his wound. He had been shot in the arse by an unknown assailant while fleeing after he had stolen the code book. The code book, literally, was a pain in his arse.

He sure hoped to hell it gave England a tactical advantage against the power-hungry Napoleon.