Lethal Beauty

Excerpt: Chapter One

April 2, 1787

The Comtesse Virginie de Serre rose from her bed in a sweat. A feeling of dread pressed on her chest. She had dreamed of being chained to a post in a dimly lit dungeon. Her husband, the count, had stood stiff and tall, glowering at her, flexing a whip in her face. He raised his arm to strike. Suddenly, a dark-robed figure appeared, thrust a sword through the count's throat. Blood spattered the floor, the walls, her face. She had screamed again and again until the echoes nearly deafened her.

Enough of that! She threw back her head, raked her hands through her hair. The dream lost its power. She thought instead of an invigorating morning ride. It always picked up her spirits. She gazed out the window to the distant wooded hills. The eastern sky had a rosy tint. The weather appeared promising, the air cool and dry. A rising westerly breeze was clearing away the early-morning mist that hovered over the ground.

In the dressing room she deliberated, arms akimbo, before a rack of clothes. On this ride she intended to jump her horse over several hurdles. Therefore, she would ride astride instead of sidesaddle. She would be alone, no need to obey fashion's tyranny. She shed her nightdress and put on buff riding breeches and a white shirt.

As she entered her stable, she was greeted by Vincenzo, the groom, in melodic Italian. "Buon giorno, Contessa. Your horse is saddled and awaits you in the paddock." At the far end of the room the stableboy was sweeping the floor. He stopped and stared. Annoyed, she frowned at him until he looked away. She went into the tackle room, put on her boots, black riding coat, and jockey cap.

When she emerged from the room, she heard a familiar voice behind her.

Virginie, would you mind terribly if I rode with you?"

"Domenico!" she whispered. "We agreed to separate. The count would kill us, if he were to find out."

"I had to say goodbye this way. It will be our last ride together. I'll return to Paris this afternoon.

The wild, reckless part of her spirit ached to throw herself into his arms. But the stableboy had turned in their direction again and was watching. He would tell Pierre Fauve, the count's valet. She took a step back. "Come, if you must. Then Vincenzo shall ride with us."

Out in the paddock she called to her black hunter, "Good morning, Blackie." She petted him, fed him a handful of oats. "This morning, we shall jump the forest gate. Are you ready?"

The horse whinnied at the prospect of a vigorous run.

The countess climbed into the saddle, urged her mount from the paddock and onto a dirt road to the forest. Domenico followed at a short distance and Vincenzo brought up the rear. They soon left the estate's barns and sheds behind and rode through newly tilled open fields. The smell of fresh earth rose to her nostrils.

She tried vainly to drive Domenico from her mind. The clippety-clip of their horses' hooves worked hypnotically on her and seemed to bring him closer and closer. Soon she could hardly breath. At first, their days together had been merely an intriguing, frolicsome adventure. Gradually, they had grown fond of each other. Then came secret trysts. These conjured up in her mind rare pleasures she now regretted but would sorely miss. She shivered, though her coat kept out the cool damp morning air. The forest gate appeared in the distance and helped her focus her mind. To the left and right of the gate extended the rough stone wall. On the far side loomed the forest, spectral in the thin early morning light. The westerly wind gusted through the trees, stirring their dark rugged mass. To Virginie, still overwrought, the forest seemed alive, and vaguely menacing.

With a powerful conscious effort, she fixed her mind on the gate, urged Blackie to a gallop. The hunter rallied to the challenge, put on an incredible burst of speed. Virginie readied herself.

Suddenly, just as the horse was about to jump, a flock of birds rose from behind the gate in a loud, furious flutter of wings.

Blackie stumbled, struggled to regain his balance, and crashed into the gate with a sickening thud. Virginie felt herself lifted out of the saddle, thrown forward, flying over the gate. In an instant, her head struck a hard, unyielding surface.

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