Collette had refused to divulge his name, her mad Englishman, yet there he stood, long, lean, and as handsome as ever, albeit seven years older. Surrounded by fashionable conversation, on her way from one group to the next, Helena halted, transfixed.
About her, Lady Morpleth's soirée was in full spate. It was mid-November, and the ton had turned their collective mind to the festive season. Holly abounded; the scent from evergreen boughs filled the air. In France, the approach to la nuit de Noël had long been another excuse for extravagance. Although the ties between London and Paris were slackening, in this, London still concurred; for glitter, for glamour, for richness and splendor, the ton's entertainments rivaled those of the French court. In terms of honest cheer, they excelled, for here there was no threat of social unrest, no canaille gathering in the shadows beyond the walls.
Here, those wellborn and wealthy enough to belong to the elite could laugh, smile, and freely enjoy the whirl of activities filling the weeks leading to the celebration of the Nativity.
The smaller room into which Helena had ventured was crowded; as she stood staring into the main salon, the incessant chatter faded from her mind.
Framed by a connecting archway, he—the wild Englishman who had been the first ever to kiss her—paused to chat to some lady. A subtle smile curved his lips, still thin, still indolently mobile. Helena remembered how they'd felt on hers.
Her gaze raced over him. She hadn't seen him well enough in the gardens of the convent to catalog any changes, yet he still moved with the prowling grace she remembered, surprising in one so large. Devoid of powder and patches, the planes of his pale face seemed harder, more austere. His hair, now she could see its color, was a honey-toned brown, wavy locks drawn back in a queue secured with a black ribbon.
He was dressed with understated richness. Every garment bore the subtle stamp of a master, from the froth of expensive Mechlin lace at his throat, the abundant fall of the same lace over his long hands, to the exquisite cut of his silver-gray coat and darker gray breeches. Others would have had the coat trimmed with lace or braid. He had left it unadorned but for its big silver buttons. His waistcoat, darker gray heavily embroidered with silver, glimpsed as he moved, combined with the coat to create the impression of sleekly luxurious packaging concealing a prize even more sinfully rich.
In the salon crammed with lace, feathers, braids, and jewels, he dominated, and not just because of his height.
If the last seven years had left any mark at all, it was in his presence—that indefinable aura that clung to powerful men. He'd grown more powerful, more arrogant, more ruthless. The same seven years had made her an expert; power was, to her, as blatant as the color of skin.
Fabien de Mordaunt, comte de Vichesse, the aristocrat who'd exploited various family connections to have himself declared her guardian, exuded the same aura. The last seven years had left her both weary and wary of powerful men.
"Eh, bien. How goes it, ma cousine?"
Helena turned; she nodded coldly. "Bon soir, Louis." He wasn't her cousin, not even distantly related; she refrained from haughtily reminding him of the fact. Louis was less than nothing; he was her keeper, no more than an extension of his uncle and master, Fabien de Mordaunt.
She could ignore Louis. Fabien she'd learned never to forget.
Louis's dark eyes were roving the room. "There are some likely prospects here." He leaned his powdered head closer to murmur, "I've heard there's an English duke present. Unmarried. St. Ives. You would do well to garner an introduction."
Helena raised her brows faintly and glanced about the salon. A duke? Louis did have his uses. He was devoted to his uncle's schemes, and in this instance she and Fabien were pursuing the same agenda, albeit for different reasons.
For the past seven years—almost from the time the Englishman had kissed her—Fabien had used her as a pawn in his games. Her hand was a prize much sought after by the powerful and wealthy families of France; she'd been almost betrothed more times than she could recall. But the volatility of the French state and the vicissitudes in the fortunes of the aristocratic families, so dependent on the king's whims, had meant cementing an alliance through her marriage had never been an option sufficiently attractive to Fabien. More attractive had been the game of dangling her fortune and person as a lure to draw those with influence into his net. Once he'd gained from them all he wanted, he would cast them out and again send her into the Paris salons to catch the attention of his next conquest.
How long the game would have gone on she dreaded to think—until she was too gray to be a lure? Luckily, at least for her, the increasing disaffection in France, the groundswell of discontent, had given Fabien pause. A natural predator, his instincts were sound—he didn't like the scent on the wind. She'd been certain he was considering a shift in his tactics even before the attempt to kidnap her.
That had been frightening. Even now, standing beside Louis in the middle of a fashionable salon in a different country she had to fight to quell a shiver. She'd been walking in the orchards of Le Roc, Fabien's fortress in the Loire, when three men had ridden up and tried to take her.
They must have been watching, biding their time. She'd fought, struggled—to no avail. They would have kidnapped her if it hadn't been for Fabien. He'd been riding past, had heard her screams and come galloping to her aid.
Excerpted from The Promise in a Kiss by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Laurens. Excerpted by permission.
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