"Allons! Nicki, let's go! We should not have come so far
into the swamp."
Michele was right, of course, and Nicole St. Claire didn't
miss the uncertainty in her friend's softly spoken French
Still, it was a lovely day and the first chance she'd had
to get away from the endless procession of friends who had
heard of the St. Claires' visit and come to the Christophe
plantation to pay their respects.
"You worry too much," Nicki chided. "It isn't good for
you." Stretching a bit, she worked the kinks from her
back, and filled her lungs with the still-cool Louisiana
"Mon Dieu, but you are stubborn." Michele glanced over her
shoulder. Though she craned her neck and stood on her
toes, she couldn't spot the big white plantation house
they'd left behind. "I do not like this. There are snakes
out here. Besides, I want to get out of these old clothes."
Across the thicket, Nicki just smiled, brightening her
pretty oval face and tilting a pair of vivid aqua eyes.
"Cook says we need two buckets of berries if we want pies
for supper," Nicki reminded her. Several inches shorter
than Michele, Nicole was petite but not frail, her bosom
full and high, her hips shapely, and her waist
narrow. "You go ahead. I won't be far behind."
"Your maman's not going to like it." Michele looked again
at their surroundings: the meandering inlet that drained
the Mississippi River not far away, the heavy carpet of
grass at their feet, the towering cypress that seemed to
guard this small stretch of uncultivated swampland. She
swiped at agnat that buzzed beside her ear, then jumped as
a vine snagged her skirt. "I don't think I should leave
you out here alone."
Nicki's copper-haired head popped up from the
thicket. "Who would dare to bother us" Who indeed? Nicki
thought. The Christophes were one of the wealthiest
families in these parts, even if times had gotten tougher.
And the St. Claires were widely respected.
Michele still seemed uncertain. "Papa says Alain Lefevre
is coming to supper."
If an image of the handsome French boy was meant to lure
Nicole away, it failed miserably. "You can have him. I'm
"He's far too . . . proper . . . for my tastes, always
fawning about and spouting his meaningless poetry. I want
someone reckless and dashing. A man who will sweep me off
"Mon Dieu, you are crazy." But Michele knew better than to
argue. Nicole St. Claire was as stubborn a young woman as
Michele had ever met. Far different from her own quiet
nature, Nicki was determined and bold and fearless. It was
amazing they could be such good friends.
"You are sure you will be all right?" Michele asked.
"I'll be fine."
Rolling her eyes in vexation, Michele took a last glance
in Nicki's direction, but saw only the wriggle of her
bottom in the faded blue gingham dress she had borrowed so
her own fine yellow muslin would not get soiled.
Michele frowned, wondering again if she should wait, then
decided against it. Nicki wouldn't leave until she was
well and ready to go, and the lure of a bath and an
afternoon nap were far too strong.
Lifting her worn brown slightly too-short skirts up out of
the way, Michele headed back toward home, eager to be rid
of her dowdy clothing and once again dressed in expensive
silks and satins.
Nicki watched her friend cross the rise and disappear out
of sight. She wished she could see Michele more often, but
with Cote Verde, the Christophe plantation, here in La
Ronde on the Mississippi, and Meadowood, the St. Claire
plantation, near Napoleonville on Bayou Lafourche, they
visited just a few times a year.
Michele Christophe was a good and loyal friend. Still, as
Nicki bent to her task, filling the wooden bucket to
overflowing with the plump and juicy blackberries, she was
glad for these few minutes alone in the warm spring
With a contented sigh, she lifted her tattered, borrowed
skirts up out of the way and started a little farther into
the thicket. She hadn't gone more than several paces when
she heard a twig snap in the underbrush, then the sound of
men's laughter, harsh and grating, echoed somewhere behind
Nicki froze. In a spot behind some bushes just a few feet
away, two men in shabby clothing stood grinning at her
clumsy movements in the too-large dress, their eyes
fastened on the portion of calf she exposed above the top
of her sturdy brown shoe.
Letting the dress fall back into place, Nicki fixed them
with one of her usually disconcerting aqua-eyed
stares. "What is it you men want?" She asked them in
French. When they answered with only a scowl, she repeated
the question in English.
The taller man arched a bushy brow, apparently surprised
she spoke his language without an accent. "We's just bein'
When he stepped closer, Nicki caught the odor of whiskey
and stale tobacco. His shirt and trousers, shabby and
unwashed, hung on his too-thin frame. Running a rough hand
along her cheek, he smiled, exposing crooked yellow teeth,
and Nicki felt the first faint tremors of alarm.
"You're not from around here," she said, backing away from
The shorter man, a stocky fellow with graying hair, canvas
breeches, and a red-checked shirt moved closer. "Saw you
and yer Frenchy friend pickin' berries. Thought we oughta
stop by and say hello."
"This land belongs to the Christophe family. You men are
"The tall man chuckled softly. "What business is that of
yers? You ain't no Christophe, that's fer damn sure." His
eyes moved over her tattered blue gingham dress, which
hung on her like a well-used potato sack.
"She's sure a perty 'un, Chester.
"Don't go off half-cocked, she told herself, beginning to
think in English, the language she usually spoke. It was
one of her mother's favorite expressions. "If you
gentlemen will excuse me, I've got to be getting back."
She tried to brush past, but the man named Chester caught
"You ain't going no place--leastwise, not yet." In a
single, quick motion, he grabbed the ruffled neckline of
her dress, twisted his fingers in the frayed blue fabric,
and ripped the material away.
"Damn you!" Slamming her foot into the man's bony shin,
Nicki tried to jerk free, but Chester only tightened his
hold. With a muttered oath and a grin of anticipation, he
forced her up against his chest while his hard arm wrapped
around her waist.
"You got spirit, that's fer sure. I like a little spirit
in a woman."
She shuddered as the cool air touched her bare skin and
the man's clammy hand slid up her arm. "Let me go!" Nicki
struggled harder, but the tall man just laughed.
Tightening his hold on her waist, he dragged her toward a
grassy depression protected by a growth of vines and weeds.
"You can squirm all ya like," he said, shoving her down on
the ground. "Ain't gonna make a fiddler's damn. Me and
Billy gonna take ya just the same. You can make it easy on
yourself or hard. Either way, we're bound to take our
When she tried to scream again, he clamped a hand over her
mouth, ripped away the balance of her faded blue dress,
and dispensed with her single drooping petticoat.
This can't be happening! But it was. Fear clutched at her
insides, a feeling she had rarely known. With a long, thin
leg, Chester pinned her thighs while Billy stretched her
arms above her head. They were watching her breasts now,
the rise and fall of the soft white flesh above the line
of her corset.
Nicki's heart thundered in a cadence of panic and despair.
Why hadn't she listened to Michele? What in God's name was
she going to do?
It took her a moment to realize the men were looking at
her oddly, their eyes carefully assessing her lacy
pantalets, snowy white corset, and expensive embroidered
chemise--quite a contrast to her ragged borrowed clothing.
"Ain't no sharecropper's daughter wearin' dainties the
likes of these," Billy said.
Chester swore beneath his breath. For a moment he seemed
uncertain, and Nicki's hopes soared. She tried to threaten
him with her father's wealth and power, but her words were
muffled behind his hand.
"Don't make a damn now," he finally decided. "We've gone
too far to stop. 'Sides,"--he grinned, flashing his yellow
teeth--"my privates is hurtin' so bad I gotta do somethin'
to relieve 'em."
With that they jerked her to her feet and began to tug at
the laces at the back of her corset. "Gimme your
The stocky man chuckled and pulled his big Arkansas
toothpick from the leather sheath he wore at his side.
Nicki had seen men at the docks in New Orleans carrying
knives like that. A glint of sunlight on the heavy silver
blade brought a moment of panic, a second shot of fear,
then the courage to act.
Catching them off guard, she jerked free, twisted, and
slammed her knee into the tall man's groin. A loud oof!
and moan as he doubled over and slumped to the ground was
her reward. Nicki didn't wait for the stocky man's
reaction. She bolted, racing toward the men's horses she'd
spotted tied in a clearing not far away.
Please, God, she prayed, knowing it would take a miracle
for her to reach the animals, untie one, and climb into
the saddle before the stocky man caught up with her.
In the Louisiana swamplands, her miracle appeared in the
form of a hidden vine. She heard her pursuer's heavy
footsteps, heard his uneven breathing, then a string of
oaths as he stumbled and crashed to the ground. She'd say
a dozen Hail Marys later, she vowed, and kept on running.
She was shaking by the time she reached the horses. If
only she could untie the second one and scare it away, but
the stocky man had regained his feet and wasn't far
behind. Instead she freed the smaller of the two, a little
sorrel mare who looked like she could run, and climbed
into the saddle. It was the first time Nicki had ridden
astride and the sensation felt awkward and uncomfortable.
Lacking other alternatives, she leaned over the mare, dug
her heels into the horse's flanks, and they bolted from
A glance behind confirmed that the man named Chester
blocked her way to the house. She'd make for the road into
town instead--surely the other one wouldn't follow! But
the hoofbeats bearing down on her said he intended to do
Nicki tightened her knees, gripping the flat leather
saddle the best she knew how. Her feet didn't reach the
metal stirrups, and her position astride felt so
unfamiliar she wasn't sure she could stay aboard. But as
the animal's speed settled into a steady, ground-eating
gallop, her confidence grew. She cleared the swamp and
increased her speed. If she could make the stone wall at
the end of the open field and still stay mounted, she'd be
At least that was what she thought until she sailed over
the wall and her pursuer did the same.
Dear God, what now? Clutching the horse's reins tighter,
leaning over its neck, she urged the mare faster. There
was help in La Ronde, someone who could stop these madmen
from their assault.
The little mare was lathered and breathing hard by the
time Nicki galloped full tilt down the main street of La
Ronde, just a tiny parish town where nearby planters
picked up supplies. In her heaven-or-hell ride to safety,
she was glancing over her shoulder, trying to see if her
pursuer still followed, when a wagon laden with hogshead
barrels pulled into her path. The mare saw the impending
disaster before Nicki did, rearing on its hind legs in a
desperate attempt to wheel away from the heavy dray before
it was too late.
Nicki felt the animal's back tilt crazily, felt herself
falling, saw the world spinning by, and closed her eyes to
the painful landing she was about to make.
Instead she felt her body jolted against something hard,
yet yielding, felt the brush of fabric against her skin,
and opened her eyes to find herself cradled in a man's
embrace. With memories of the one who followed still fresh
in her mind, she began to struggle. It was the man's deep
voice, his words spoken softly in French, that stilled her
"You are all right, cherie. I won't let you fall."
Nicki swallowed hard, fighting for control, finding it
difficult to speak. She glanced behind her."
There's a man following me," she told him in the same soft
language. "There were two of them. They tried to . . .
they wanted to . . ." She glanced down at her lacy
chemise, torn in several places and covered with dirt and
twigs. Her hair had come loose from its pins and tumbled
in a copper mass around her shoulders. Above the line of
her corset, her breasts rose and fell with every ragged
breath.The Frenchman's smile faded and his voice turned
"You have nothing to fear, cherie."
Nicki felt the soft material of his dark blue tailcoat
pressing against her skin as his hold tightened
protectively. The determined set of his jaw confirmed his
pledge, and Nicki believed him."
My clothes . . ." she whispered, willing him to
understand. But she needn't have spoken.
Dodging the now-halted wagon, the driver who walked toward
them wearing a look of concern, and the crowd beginning to
build, he carried her out of the narrow dirt street and
onto the wooden boardwalk.
Breathing in the scent of his spicy cologne, Nicki wrapped
her arms around his thick neck to steady herself. He was a
big man, she realized, feeling his powerful chest and
arms. Handsome, too, with smooth skin tanned by the sun,
and wavy dark-brown hair that glinted with amber
highlights. She could easily remember the deep grooves
etched beside his mouth when he'd smiled at her, though
they'd been replaced by a worried scowl. His eyes were a
warm shade of brown.
She glanced up at him as he strode the wooden walk,
carrying her effortlessly. There was nothing warm about
those eyes now, she discovered as he ducked into Gaudin's
General Mercantile. They were dark and forbidding. His
mouth, once full and sensuous, had thinned to a narrow
line, and a muscle bunched in his jaw.
"Madame Gaudin," he said to the plump little
shopkeeper, "it appears la petite mademoiselle is in need
of something to wear." The command in his voice was
unmistakable. Carrying her through a curtain that closed
off the back of the store, he set Nicki on her feet and
flashed her a reassuring smile. "You'll be safe here until
He watched her a moment, assessing her, it seemed. His
finger traveled lightly across her cheek, sending a ripple
down her spine, then he turned away. His smile no longer
in place, he whispered a few brief words to the
shopkeeper, glanced once more in Nicki's direction, and
strode back toward the street. She noticed the width of
his shoulders, outlined by the fit of the navy-blue
tailcoat that tapered dramatically over his narrow hips.
Encased in the tailored gray pants he wore, taut muscle
defined his powerful thighs as he moved.
The curtain fell behind him, and the rotund little
shopkeeper approached, pulling Nicki's thoughts in a
"I have been instructed to take very good care of you,
mademoiselle." Madame Gaudin tucked a strand of graying
hair back in place and smiled.
Glancing toward the curtain, which still fluttered from
the tall man's departure, then down at her torn and dirty
clothes, Nicki swallowed hard. Her face still felt
bloodless, her mouth dry, her fingers cold and numb.
"Do not worry, mademoiselle," the woman said, sensing her
distress. "I will find you something to wear and none will
be the wiser."
"The whole town will be the wiser," Nicki told her,
finding her voice at last. "Mon Dieu, what a spectacle I
made." She sighed in despair. Why did she always manage to
get herself into trouble? Her father would be furious and
her mother, usually a little more sympathetic to her
exploits, would certainly not be pleased.
"Quite a lovely spectacle," the woman replied, eyeing
Nicki's full bosom and nipped-in waist. Madame Gaudin
smiled and touched her cheek in the same spot the
Frenchman had, though her fingers felt not nearly so
warm. "M'sieur du Villier seems more than a little bit
taken with you."
"Who?" Nicki asked, praying her ears had deceived her.
"Alexandre du Villier. Surely you know of him? His family
is the richest in these parts. They own the great sugar
plantation, Belle Chone."
"That was . . . that was Alexandre du Villier?" Nicki's
face paled. "But I thought the du Villiers were visiting
their estates in France."
"Le duc has gone. I have heard he is ill. Alexandre is
leaving today to join him. His brother, Francois, will
remain to manage Belle Chone."
"Oh, no," Nicki said, feeling even more despondent. "My
father will be furious."
"Your father and the du Villiers are friends?"
"Yes. Since the war."
"I have not seen you before. You are not from here?"
"No." She extended one small hand. "I'm Nicole St. Claire.
From Meadowood on Bayou Lafourche. We're here visiting the
"You are the daughter of Etienne St. Claire?"
The plump little woman's voice took on an aura of
reverance. "Many know of your father. He was a great hero
in the war against the British. It is an honor to meet his
"Thank you. I'm happy to meet you too."
Madame Gaudin smiled, but her eyes whisked over Nicki's
torn and dirty clothing. For the first time, it dawned on
her that Madame Gaudin might think Alexandre du Villier
had something to do with her missing clothes.
Oh, Lord, what next? "About my dress, madame . . ." As
Nicki hurriedly explained about the men who had attacked
her, her half-naked ride through the streets, and Monsieur
du Villier's timely rescue, a relieved Madame Gaudin
pulled her behind a second curtain that closed off the
fitting rooms from the rest of the shop.
She was a seamstress as well as the wife of the
storekeeper, she explained when she returned with a pale
pink muslin day dress embroidered with tiny darker pink
flowers, the sleeves set low on each shoulder.
"It may be a bit too long, but it will be easy to shorten."
"It'll be fine just as it is," Nicki told her. "I've got
to get back before dark."
"I am certain M'sieur du Villier would be happy to escort
you, even if his journey must be postponed."
"Ah, non!" Nicki rolled her eyes. "That is the last thing
Madame Gaudin clucked at her. "You are right, of course.
You are much too young for that wild stallion. But who
knows . . . ?" She shrugged her plump shoulders. "Maybe in
a few years, when he returns from the Continent . . . ?"
Nicki grinned with the sudden realization that the idea
wasn't at all unappealing. Hadn't she said she wanted a
man who would sweep her off her feet?
"Most likely he will have forgotten me," she said,
wondering if indeed he would. "He'll probably be married
to some dowdy aristocrat."
Madame Gaudin's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Maybe . . .
maybe not. I think he will not soon forget la petite
mademoiselle with eyes the color of a Caribbean sea who
rode the streets of La Ronde in her corset and chemise."
Nicki groaned at the reminder and finished getting
dressed. "I don't suppose I could impose upon your
kindness a little more and ask you not to tell him who I
am?" Maybe her father wouldn't find out after all.
The plump woman grinned mischievously. "He will ask--but I
suppose for Etienne St. Claire's daughter, I could forget
who you are--at least for the next few years."
"Thank you, madame. I'll be forever in your debt. Oh, and
if you'll send the amount due for the dress to
Meadowood . . ." She hated to spend the money. Times had
been hard of late. She and her mother had been careful
with every penny.
"M'sieur du Villier has already taken care of it."
"He has?" Nicki said in English, falling back into the
language she spoke at home, though her father was French,
and at the Salem Academy, the school she attended.
"Excusez-moi. Tell M'sieur du Villier I am grateful for
his kind assistance." Her father wouldn't like the idea,
but maybe he wouldn't have to know. And the du Villiers
could certainly afford it more than her family could right
now. Just this once, she decided, she would ignore her
damnable pride and be practical.
As long as she didn't have to face him.
Determined to be gone before her handsome rescuer
returned, Nicki finished brushing the dirt and leaves from
her underthings, and pulled the pretty pink muslin dress
on over her head.
Copyright Â© 1992 by Martin Kat