Excerpt Mystic Rider

Paris, June 1791

Chantal Orateur Deveau sat on the piano bench and forced her fingers into a tune that the children would enjoy. Little Marie was only three—Chantal ran a light trill of notes that she heard when Marie laughed. Anton was five and much like his big barrel-chested father, who had died last year from an infection after being maimed in a duel. Foolish man. Deep bass notes crashed from her fingers.

Dead, all dead played from the keys.

Shoving the bench back, she stood and paced again. She could not expect her sister-in-law’s immediate return. Girard would have to find the right prison, locate a malleable guard, grease many palms, negotiate, and maneuver. Perhaps they would let him visit with Pauline, reassure her. Nothing was ever done swiftly these days. Maybe tomorrow…

She couldn’t bear to think of Pauline rotting in prison for even so long. Her sister-in-law was gently raised and frail, and the children were too young. This was such foolishness.

Chantal returned to the piano and crashed a few chords of thunder and lightning. Her fingers tumbled across the keys like rain. She was a whirlwind of anxiety and doubt. These past months since she’d owned it, the bell had soothed her, but now that it was gone, her fears raced out of control.

She let her emotions flow in her voice and released them in song.

She didn’t hear the maid announce a visitor. She turned because a large block of silence mysteriously absorbed her chaotic chords.

She gaped in shock.

A monk in long brown robes stood just inside the doorway. A cowl hid his features, but the soft linen of his robe did nothing to disguise his wide shoulders, lithe grace, and air of authority as he strode into the music chamber. A rope belted his narrow waist, and his long brown fingers clenched a gnarled oak staff.

“I have come to retrieve my chalice,” the monk intoned in notes that shivered up and down Chantal’s spine like a sensual caress.

She had no idea what chalice he meant, but there was something about the confidence with which he spoke that almost convinced her that he had every right to take it.

***

Ian Olympus controlled the effect of the exotic female on his gyrating wits by gripping his staff. Exhausted by his extraordinary journey inland to a gated city teeming with the best and worst of humanity, he had wanted only to claim the chalice and head home.

Her musical voice had reeled him into this cold chamber as effortlessly as if he were a fish on a hook. He, the powerful Council Leader of Aelynn, had been caught by a shimmering minnow.

Accustomed to Aelynn’s fresh sea breezes and the silent peace of his countrymen’s shielded thoughts, Ian had chosen to travel as much as he could by water. On rivers, he needn’t deal with the maddening blasts of excessive passion from Others. Upon arrival in the city, he’d shut his mind to the thoughts bombarding him, leaving open only his Finding ability. But the stench of sewage and unclean bodies, the crowded, shouting masses of humanity, the hundreds of beasts and vehicles in one small land-bound area, had assaulted his physical senses as much as his psychic ones. There was more than one good reason why sensitive Oracles did not leave Aelynn.

If fate decreed it, he would gladly sacrifice his life in noble battle with his enemies. But he seriously objected to losing his mind to an unwashed mob.

Except that the final jolt threatening to knock him over was not the city, but the shock of finding his intended mate.

She was an oasis of peace. In her presence, all else fell away.

And she was exquisite—a frail gardenia blooming in the midst of hell, a lady of the finest sort in a city of Philistines. The stars had not given him any sense of her delicate perfume, or showed the poise with which she moved, or the golden melody of her voice. As he’d entered the chamber, her song had pierced his chest.

She was so… fragile. He could snap her delicate wrist with a twist, encompass her waist with his hands. All Aelynn men were warriors by training, gifted to protect the island and its sacred objects, but he felt as if he’d just been dealt a blow that laid him flat.

Her complexion was as pale as the silvery moon, with hearts of heightened color on her high cheekbones—probably due to his rude stare. But he couldn’t help himself. She had hair like sunlight, and eyes… intelligent eyes, the rarest magical blue of topaz—to his disappointment, not multihued Aelynn eyes.

But right now, that did not matter so much as the song thrumming through his blood and the sense of coming home to a woman who soothed his senses.

“I beg forgiveness for my rudeness,” he said, still seeking balance. “The journey was long, and I came here directly without resting. The chalice is extremely important to my people.”

Rising from the piano bench, she pressed slender fingers to her expressive lips, and her silver-blue eyes narrowed. Her golden ringlets dangled temptingly, and he almost reached to stroke one. Instead of answering him, she tilted her head as if listening to distant bells.

Ian clenched his staff harder and wondered if the beautiful mate the gods had chosen for him was a lack wit. Perhaps only feeblemindedness could complement his highly trained abilities.

“The church no longer owns property,” she finally replied, in a voice that sang sweetly, even though her words made little sense to him.

Frowning, Ian tried again. Without the usual emotional or mental cues he received from those with whom he conversed, he could not tell if he was speaking her French language correctly. His gift for understanding foreign words was not so well developed as those of his kind who traveled more frequently. “The chalice does not belong to your church. It belongs to—”

He could not explain Aelynn. The ring of silence would not allow it. He wished he had more experience in the Outside World so he could circumnavigate these limitations. But this was his first time, and he must think twice about everything he said.

“The chalice belongs to me,” he decided to say. The gods would forgive him since the sacred object belonged to all of Aelynn.

Her eyes widened in shock. He stole a moment to admire the long golden brown lashes that made her eyes appear to fill half her face. He tried to concentrate on her expression, but he was weary and as easily tempted as any man, perhaps more so, given his extended abstinence. His gaze fell to the high curves of her creamy bosom framed in a filmy froth of lace. He desperately wished to touch her to see whether she was real or just a vision.

“Someone stole your chalice?” she asked with a perplexity that indicated he still wasn’t communicating clearly.

“Exactly,” he agreed, to keep the confusing conversation to a minimum. “I am willing to pay for its return.”

* * *

Chantal drifted back to her seat at the piano, away from her disturbingly intense awareness of her robed visitor. She assumed the maid had allowed him in because he was a man of the cloth. The erotic timbre of the monk’s voice thrilled her to the marrow, which must border on religious perversion.

Pauline would say she had been too long without a man, but Chantal had never had much interest in that part of her marriage. Jean used to say she lived inside her head, not her body. She wasn’t entirely certain that was true either. She knew desire. She often woke in the night overheated by inappropriate dreams. She recognized the devil’s need rising in her now. She’d simply never known a particular man who inspired it, and certainly not a monk!

She swallowed hard and tried to quell her reaction.

“Why do you think I have your chalice?” she asked, simply because her thoughts were too rattled to allow her to know what else to say. She needed to render his stimulating voice into music that she understood. Perhaps then she would be able to think clearly.

“I saw you with the cup,” the monk replied, not raising his rich voice.

She wanted to explore his intonation, understand the highly unusual harmonies she heard when he spoke. She relied on her ear for character when she listened to people speak, but with this man, her physical excitement hampered her understanding.

She turned her back on him and hit a note on the keyboard, attempting to locate the key that resonated with his pitch. He was a baritone. A deep reed instrument would more accurately represent it. “How could you have seen me, if you just arrived?”

This was probably the most senseless conversation she’d ever engaged in, but they seemed to be talking on different planes. They hadn’t even been introduced.

She didn’t hear him move, yet he was suddenly standing so close that she could feel his heat. Did she imagine it, or did she sense him resisting a desire to force her to face him?

“All things are possible if looked upon from the right angle,” he said.

His voice vibrated chords of desire that she’d thought long lost. Rather than respond to his declaration or oddly compelling attraction, she found the right key, then played a few notes to reproduce the rise and fall of his voice. She often did this when someone puzzled her.

But what she felt wasn’t precisely puzzlement. Like a tuning fork, the depths and honesty of his desire resonated with her own, and excited her beyond measure. She simply didn’t understand why or how this was happening.

On some primitive level, they were connecting physically. The notes of his voice whispered sweet secrets in her inner ear. He longed to touch her!

She didn’t know whether to be flattered or appalled. Mostly, she was basely thrilled. It seemed she hadn’t entirely dried up from disuse as Pauline had predicted.

“Do you have the chalice or not?” he asked patiently.

Do you want me or not? is what she heard. He may as well have spoken inside her head, so certain was she that he was a hairsbreadth from circling her waist like a lover. She could almost feel his kiss upon her nape, and the fine hairs there rose in anticipation.

Rather than act on her imagination, she responded with the piano keys that said I want you very much. It was a game she played, one no one else could participate in. Only musicians could hear music speak, and few musicians listened.

Behind her, the monk stiffened. In the polished surface of the piano she saw him lift his hand…. She held her breath, but he fisted his fingers and dragged them back to his side. Surely he could not understand her music! She closed her eyes and drank in his enthralling presence.

He did not smell like an unbathed monk. Despite his insistence that he had just arrived, he radiated the fresh, clean scent of an ocean breeze. She’d grown up near Le Havre. She missed the quiet lap of waves, the cries of gulls. This man reminded her of happier times.

In response to her unusual joy, her fingers played an arpeggio of notes of their own accord, flying up and down the scale, communicating the passion she hid inside her, the raw emotion she never displayed. One of her curls flew loose and slipped along her jaw.

Shockingly, the stranger reached out and caught it, sliding the curl between exploratory fingers before tucking it behind her ear. “I have never met anyone as soft as you,” he murmured with a puzzled awe that whispered through her ear to her fingers, producing provocative chords. “I could never have imagined…”

She gasped as his fingertips grazed her nape. His touch was flame, and she was tinder. She was suddenly aware of the stimulating fragrance of her musky perfume blending with his masculine scent, and her breasts swelled with a need long denied.

“I have many chalices,” she countered, playing faster to hide her shiver of desire. “Most came from my mother, or as wedding gifts. They are mine.”

He generated intense heat, though the salon was chilly. He was wider and broader than she was, and she was alone with him. She had no fear for her safety, however. Instead, she was imagining improbable scenes of rising from the bench and turning into his arms…. No one would come unless she called—

“You are married?” he asked.

Was it her own disappointment she heard in his inflection? Or his? She used both hands to find the keys but couldn’t tell. Something was happening to the notes. They were blending, harmonizing— His notes were entwining with hers.

 

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