December 19th, 1776
Convent des Jardinieres de Marie, Paris
Midnight had come and gone. Helena heard the small bell of the church chime as she paused in the doorway of the infirmary. Three o'clock. Ariele, her younger sister, was at last sleeping deeply; her fever had broken-she would be safe enough in Sister Artemis's care. Reassured, relieved, Helena could again seek her own bed in the dormitory beyond the cloisters.
Drawing her woolen shawl about her shoulders, she stepped out from the shadows of the infirmary wing. Her wooden pattens clacked softly on the stone flags as she crossed through the gardens filling the convent's grounds. The night was icy, clear. She was wearing only her nightgown and robe-she'd been asleep when the night sister had summoned her to help with Ariele. Commonsense urged her to hurry-her shawl was not that warm-yet she walked slowly, comfortable in the moon-drenched gardens, confident in this place where she'd spent most of the last nine years.
Soon, as soon as Ariele was well enough to travel, she would leave forever. She'd celebrated her sixteenth birthday three months ago; her future lay before her-an introduction into society followed by marriage, an arranged union with some wealthy aristocrat. That was the way of her class. As the Comtesse d'Lisle with extensive estates in the Camargue and connected to the powerful de Mordaunts among others, her hand would be a sought-after prize.
The branches of a huge linden threw deep shadows across the path. Passing through them, stepping once again into the silvery light, she stopped, lifted her face to the infinite sky. Drank in the peace. So close to the Lord's fete day, the convent was empty, the daughters of the wealthy already at home for the season's celebrations. She and Ariele were still here only because of Ariele's weak chest. She'd refused to leave until her sister could travel with her. Ariele and most of the others would return again in February and their lessons would recommence. Until then...
Peace lay heavy on the silver-tipped bushes, shimmered in the moonlight pouring from the cloudless sky. Stars twinkled overhead, diamonds strewn across night's velvet shroud. The stone cloisters stood before her, a familiar, comforting sight.
She wasn't sure what awaited her outside the convent's walls. Helena breathed deeply, ignoring the chill, savoring the sweetness of the last days of her girlhood. The last days of freedom.
Dry leaves rustled in the night. She looked to where she knew an old creeper, gnarled and ancient, hugged the high wall of the dormitory, just ahead to her left. The wall was in shadow, dark and impenetrable. She narrowed her eyes, trying to pierce the gloom, unafraid, even at this hour; the Convent had a zealously guarded reputation for security, which was why so many noble families sent their daughters there.
She heard a muted thud, then another, then, in a flurry of thumps, a body slid and tumbled from high on the wall, missing the edge of the cloister roof to land, sprawled, at her feet.
Helena stared. It didn't occur to her to shriek. Why shriek? The man-a very large, tall, broad-shouldered man-was unquestionably a gentleman. Even in the uncertain moonlight she could make out the sheen of his silk coat, the gleam of a jewel in the lace at his throat. Another bigger gleam adorned one finger of the hand he slowly raised to push back the locks that had pulled free of his queue to fall across his chiselled features.
He lay as he'd landed, half-propped on his elbows. The position displayed his chest to advantage. His hips were narrow, his legs long, well-muscled thighs clearly delineated under satin knee-breeches. He was lean and large-his feet were, too, encased in black pumps with gold buckles. The heels were not high, confirming her guess he had no need to add to his height.
Although he'd landed on the stone path, he'd managed to slow his fall-other than a few brusies, she doubted he'd hurt himself. He didn't look hurt-he looked aggravated, disenchanted. But wary, too.
He was watching her intently. Doubtless waiting for her to scream.
He could wait. She hadn't finished looking.
Sebastian felt like he'd fallen into a fairytale. Fallen at the feet of an enchanted princess. It was her fault he'd fallen-he'd looked down, searching for his next foothold, and seen her step from the shadows. She'd lifted her face to the moonlight-he'd stared, forgotten what he was doing, and slipped.
His coat had fallen open; beneath the thrown back flap, he shifted his hand, fingers searching the folds. He located the earring he'd come there to get, still safe in his pocket.
Fabien de Mordaunt's family dagger was now his.
Another wild wager, another crazy exploit to add to his tally-another victory.
An unexpected encounter.
Some deeply buried instinct, long dormant, raised its head-recognized the moment, paid it due heed. The girl-she was surely no more than that-stood watching him calmly, studying him with an assurance that shrieked her station more surely than the fine lace at the neck of her demure nightrail. She had to be one of the convent's high-born charges, still here for some reason.
Slowly, as smoothly as he could, he got to his feet. "Mille pardons, mademoiselle."
He saw one dark, finely arched brow quirk; her lips, full but unfashionably wide, relaxed fractionally. Her hair, unrestrained, cascaded about her shoulders, large wavy locks dead black in the moonlight.
"I didn't mean to frighten you."
She didn't look frightened; she looked like the princess he'd thought her, supremely assured, faintly amused. He straightened to his full height but slowly. She was a small woman; he towered over her-her head didn't reach his chin.
She looked up at him. The moon lit her face. There was no trace of concern in her pale eyes, large under their hooded lids. Her long lashes laid a faint tracery of shadows over her cheeks. Her nose was straight, patrician; her features confirmed her birth, her likely station.
Her attitude was one of calm expectation. He should, he supposed, introduce himself.
"Diable! Le fou-"
He whirled. A clamor of voices spilled into the night, shattering the stillness. Flares sprang to life at the end of the cloister.
He stepped off the path, sliding into the shadow of a large bush. The princess could still see him but he was hidden from the noisy crowd hurrying up the path. She could point him out in an instant, direct the guards his way...
Helena watched a bevy of nuns approach at a run, habits flapping wildly. Two gardeners were with them, both brandishing pitchforks.
They saw her.
"M'amzelle-have you seen him?" Sister Agatha skidded to a halt at the end of the cloisters.
"Seen a man." Mother Superior, already out of breath, struggled to preserve her dignity. "The Comte de Vichesse sent a warning about a madman intent on meeting with Mademoiselle Marchand...and that silly, stupid girl-" Even in the dark, the Mother Superior's eyes flashed. "The man's been here-I'm sure of it! He must have climbed down the wall. Did he pass you? Did you glimpse him?"
Eyes wide, Helena turned her head to the right, away from the figure concealed by the bush. She looked toward the main gates, raised a hand...
"The gates! Quick-if we hurry we'll have him!"
The group charged off through the cloisters and plunged into the gardens beyond, fanning out, calling, beating the borders lining the drive, searching frantically...more like the mythical madman they sought than the man who had fallen at her feet.
Silence returned; the shouts and yells faded into the night. Rewrapping her shawl, refolding her arms, she turned to see the gentleman step from the shadows.
"My thanks, mademoiselle. I am not, needless to say, a madman."
His deep voice, his cultured diction reassured her more than his words. Helena glanced at the wall from which he'd fallen. Collette Marchand had left the convent the year before, but had been returned to its safety two days ago by her incensed relatives, there to await her brother who would come to fetch her away to the country. Collette's behavior in the Paris salons had, it was rumored, caused quite a stir. Helena looked at the stranger, prowling nearer. "What manner of man are you, then?"
His lips, long, somewhat thin, fascinatingly mobile, quirked as he halted before her. "An Englishman."
She would never have guessed from his speech-he spoke with no discernible accent. The revelation did, however, explain much. She'd heard that the English were often large, and quite mad, wild beyond even Parisians' lax standards.
She'd never met one before.
The fact was clearly written in her expression, in those hauntingly lovely pale eyes. In the silvery light, Sebastian couldn't tell if they were blue, grey or green. And regretted that he couldn't dally to find out. Raising a hand, with the back of one finger he traced the upward line of her cheek. "Again, mademoiselle, my thanks."
He tensed to step away, told himself he should, that he must. Yet still he hesitated.
Something shimmered in the gloom-he glanced up. Just behind her, a clump of mistletoe hung from one of the linden's branches.
It was almost Christmas.
She looked up, following his gaze. Considered the trailing mistletoe. Then her gaze slowly lowered, to his eyes, to his lips.
Her face was that of a French madonna-not Parisian but more dramatic, more vital. Sebastian felt a tug more primal than any he'd felt before. He lowered his head.
Slowly. He gave her plenty of time to step back if she would.
She didn't. She tipped up her face.
His lips touched hers, then settled in the most chaste kiss of his life. He felt her lips quiver under his, sensed her innocence in his bones.
Thank you. That was all the kiss said, all he allowed it to say.
He lifted his head yet still didn't draw back. Couldn't bring himself to do it. Their gazes met, their breaths mingled...
He bent his head again.
Her lips met his this time, soft, generous, hesitant. The urge to devour was strong but he reined it in, took only what she innocently offered, and returned no more than that. An exchange-a promise-even though he recognized the impossibility, and was sure she did, too.
Ending the kiss took effort, and left him slightly dazed. He could feel her warmth along his body even though he hadn't touched her. He forced himself to step back, to look up, draw breath.
His gaze touched the mistletoe. On impulse, he reached up and snapped one trailing tendril-the feel of the twig between his fingers gave him something real, something of this world, to cling to.
He took another step back before letting his gaze meet hers. Then he saluted her with the twig, inclined his head. "Joyeux Nöel."
He kept moving back, forcing his gaze past her to the main gates over which he'd entered.
"Go that way."
Her blood pounding in her ears, her head oddly dizzy, Helena waved him further back, in the opposite direction to the main gates. "When you reach the wall, follow it away from the convent. You'll find a wooden gate. I don't know if it's unlocked or..." She shrugged. "It's the way girls go when they sneak outside. It gives onto a lane."
The Englishman looked at her, studied her, then again inclined his head; his hand had shifted to his pocket, slipping the twig into its depths. His gaze remained on her as he stated, "Au revoir, mademoiselle."
Then he turned and melted into the darkness.
In less than a minute she could no longer see or hear him. Hugging her shawl more tightly about her, Helena drew in a breath, held it-tried to hold in the magic that had embraced them-then, reluctantly, walked on.
As if she'd stepped from a dream, the cold she hadn't noticed cut through her gown; she shivered and walked faster. Raising a hand, she touched her fingers to her lips, gently, wonderingly. She could still feel the lingering warmth, the knowing pressure.
Who was he? She wished she'd been bold enough to ask. Then again, perhaps it was better she didn't know. Nothing, after all, could come of such a meeting-from the intangible promise in a kiss.
Why had he been here? No doubt she would learn from Collette in the morning. But a madman?
She smiled cynically. She would never trust anything the Comte de Vichesse might say. And if the Englishman was in some way engaged in tweaking her guardian's nose, she was only too happy to have helped.