FROM CHAPTER SIX
The heat of their bodies mingled as one. With each breath, Aleksender drank in the sweet essence of his beloved ward. His mind swam with unorthodox visions and desires. He inclined his head, lost to the power of her nearness, entranced by everything that was Sofia.
“Alek, my Alek …”
Each word infused Aleksender with a delicious and undeniable warmth. Intoxicated by roses and wintertime, he found it difficult to speak, difficult to think. Breathless, he swallowed and met the haunting depths of her eyes.
“Please,” she dreamily murmured, “I want you to kiss me again …”
FROM CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Sofia saw the memories buried within his eyes. Gunshots. Screams. Rolling cannons and the faded cries of despair. They lodged inside Aleksender, battling for his soul.
Sofia rose from the ground and tentatively crouched behind him. Remaining silent, her hands sunk below the material of his dress shirt and encouraged him with gentle caresses.
“Disease and death were everywhere. Men with boils and rashes the size of saucers. Anyway, we almost managed to escape. It was a good mile away that we were spotted. They were corrupt soldiers, nothing but hungry dogs with a taste for blood-lust. We were tied at the wrists and ankles, crammed inside a tent. Whether it was days or weeks, I cannot say.” Scoffing under his breath, he spat, “The fools demanded answers. They demanded our plans. Strategies. We refused each time. Even so none of us knew anything.”
“Oh, Alek. Why didn’t you tell them? To think you could have avoided so much pain.”
His shoulders lifted into a dry shrug. “I suppose we took a morbid delight in their frustration.” His voice was icy, harsh and void of all emotion. “And besides—it was the prospect of whipping information from our skin that kept us alive. But we were eventually returned to the camp. Bloodied, battered and burned—but alive.” Aleksender passed fingertips through his hairline. “Till this day, I have no idea what changed their minds …” Aleksender sighed and gave an afterthought, “Word had spread of their rather unorthodox methods, so to speak. According to rumor, they’d paid dearly.”
“I pray they burn in hell,” Sofia gasped. “Every last one of them!”
Aleksender laughed, amused by her goodhearted blasphemy. “Ah, Sofia, ma chérie. You do wonders for me.” And then a sudden thought came to his mind. “Christophe was there with me.”
“In the tents?” Sofia murmured, her heart reaching out to both heroes.
Aleksender merely nodded.
Although she’d never had the pleasure of meeting Monsieur Cleef, his name inspired a strange twinge of nostalgia inside her gut. Aleksender had often spoken of his dear friend—a rather admirable man of big ideas and too little restraint. From what she knew of the roguish skirt-chaser, she’d always admired him very much.
“Such wonderfully brave men,” she crooned, caressing one of many scars. “You have a soldier’s heart.”
Cloaked beneath the darkness, Sofia’s fingertips moved over his back in hypnotic motions, not leaving an inch of him unloved. “Do they pain you much?”
“No,” he hoarsely answered, “they are no bother.” His body trembled within her arms. “Not any longer.”
Between tentative kisses and muffled sniffles, she whispered, “To think of the pain you endured. The cruelty—your suffering.”
Aligning their two bodies, Aleksender cradled Sofia’s face between his palms and sweetly stroked her skin. Sofia’s toes curled against the barrier of her slippers. It was intoxicating. By far the sweetest moment in her nineteen years of life. With a last kiss, he whispered into her mouth, “Pain is in the mind. And, in my mind, ma chérie … I was with you.”
FROM THE PROLOGUE
Bête Noire’s walls shook as a gust of wind moaned in the distance. Soft and shameful sobs accompanied the ambiance with haunting precision. The child sank to the crutch of her knees—defeated, starved for food and warmth—as if she might escape the world in that way.
Moved by her humiliation far more than he dared admit, the dark stranger removed his bowler hat and crouched to her level. He replaced the hat after running an unsteady hand through his hairline. His chest lurched as the child adjusted the torn tatters of her clothing. Swishing off his frock coat, he draped the material over her body like it was a security blanket.
She grasped the wool with her good hand, plummeted onto her bottom, and pulled both legs against her chest. Her face sank from eye-line as she hid below a fortress of upright knees. Tiny and perfectly helpless, the abundance of thick folds seemed to devour her whole.
“Cold night,” he whispered.
“Thank you, m-monsieur.”
The man softened at the tragic sight that lay before him; icicles, which had too long clung to his chest, deftly thawed and melted away. He felt an incredible pain, a sincere compassion and aching sympathy, which he’d believed he no longer possessed. Despite his better judgment and a lifetime of indifference, his heart broke.
Damnation. He longed to turn his cheek in apathy and disgust. He yearned to feel numb to the girl’s pain and loneliness. He wanted to hate the child—to despise the child—for having invaded his sole sliver of peace: darkness.
Tucked within a foreign part of his heart, only emptiness had ever existed. A terrible and twisted emptiness. And for seventeen of his twenty-seven years, he’d filled that internal void with darkness.
Spring of 1871
Coast of Normandy
Luminous shafts of orange and red illuminated the limitless morning sky. The horizon was halfway hidden behind a blanket of swirling clouds and still tucked in for the night. It was a breathtaking sight to behold. The world was no more than an artistic canvas, and God had painted a masterpiece. A few stars shined overhead, their glows absorbed by the imminent sunrise. The North Star was front and center. And she curtsied in the sky.
A ship’s massive silhouette clashed against the horizon. Cradled by the ocean’s tide, the vessel approached its port, skimming across Rouen’s leaden waters in slow and steady movements. Heroes of the Franco-Prussian war lounged among the clutter of crates, barrels, and weaponry, oblivious to their defeat … oblivious to the hell in which they were returning. They simply rested in harmonious silence, lost halfway between dreams and reality.
Aleksender de Lefèvre and Christophe Cleef tapped their beer bottles and drank in the sunrise. A mild breeze stirred the ship’s billowing sails, carrying them ever closer to home.
Any semblance of peace quickly vanished.
Rouen’s central railway station was packed tight that morning and an engine of pure chaos. Aleksender and Christophe shoved through the commotion, tense expressions on their faces and satchels slung over each shoulder. Mon Dieu. There was barely enough space to breathe, let alone walk.
Thick clouds of smoke ascended into the rafters and flooded Aleksender’s lungs. Streams of light poured through the above woodwork, illuminating dust motes that danced about midair. Mourning doves roosted among those polluted ceiling beams, oblivious to the hustle and bustle, devotedly preening and nurturing their young squabs. Aleksender squared the wide expanse of his shoulders and continued his pursuit.
The steam locomotive was hard at work and breathing heavily as it recovered from a recent round-trip. Aleksender empathized with the thing, feeling a strange sort of kindred spirit.
Indeed—within seconds, the agony of the past year had struck him in one fell swoop. Mounting exhaustion claimed every last muscle. A film of sweat gathered above his brow and blurred his vision. Each step burned more than the one before it. And the ground below his feet was painful to the touch. It seemed to be paved with hot coals rather than stones—
“Ah, come now. Look alive, mon ami.” His comrade’s voice sounded surreal, impossibly distant.
Moments from departure, the locomotive puffed out ribbons of smoke and blared its horn in warning. Aleksender and Christophe muttered a unified curse and picked up their strides.
Anywhere was better than this limbo.
Alas, Aleksender had half-expected to be greeted by Charon, Hades’ personal ferryman—the infamous seaman who escorted the souls of the dead into the Underworld. And instead of paying passage with coins of gold, they’d offer two clammy pieces of parchment.
Aleksender blinked away the beads of sweat. Upside-down words, Chermin de Fer de Rouen—Voiture, were slightly smudged and damp with perspiration marks. He and Christophe beelined through the maze of swishing skirts and worn helmets, hearts madly pounding, those one-way tickets balanced between their fingertips.
Overhead the silhouette of an eagle emerged from a black haze of smoke. Mindless of his friend’s glower, Aleksender stopped dead in his tracks, brushed away his forelock, and marveled at the vision. Colossal wings were curved into two elegant arches as if preparing to take flight. But the creature remained unnaturally still. It was a shadow kissed by coils of smoke, a sinister force that had come with the tenth plague of Egypt, hovering high above the station like the Angel of Death …