an excerpt from charlsie russell's the devil's bastard

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The north wind's gusts rose, and rain pelted the closed shutters of the cookhouse. Mathias sighed and stood. "The horses are in?" he asked Indigo.

The man nodded. "They're good. You sit down."

Charlotte took Indigo's bowl. Rachel had already removed Angelique's and Mathias', and now she told Angelique to stay seated when she would have risen and helped clean up. A woman hadn't ought to be doing housework on her wedding day, Rachel told her.

Mathias stretched. "I need to check the fire in the house."

He was going to leave, and Angelique wondered what he wanted her to do. What she wanted was to lie down and close her eyes. When he reached for his jacket, she stood and looked for her cloak.

Suddenly, and with alarming force, the cookhouse door flew open. Angelique thought the wind had caught it, but a bent and shriveled black woman, ancient, if appearance were any indicator, stepped through it. Mathias had looked toward the distraction, but the woman didn't acknowledge him. She'd fixed her gaze on Angelique at his side.

The withered body took several steps toward her, but stopped next to Mathias. Water rolled off her heavy coat and formed a muddy spot around her feet. Still staring, she said to Mathias, "Vous avez epouse la fille?"

"Oui," he responded.

Yes, he had married the girl.

The ancient woman drew up before her, and Angelique glanced nervously at Mathias, to find him watching them. This must be the infamous Yo, who'd frightened her young papa with scary stories and the one person who routinely defied the indomitable Elilzabeth Boswell without any visible retribution.

Angelique remained still. The old woman came toe to toe with her, then placed cold, withered hands on either side of her face.

Tes-vous retourne des morts, Veronique? Elizabeth saw it."

Have you come back from the dead, Veronique? Angelique would have shook her head had the old woman not held her so firmly.

Outside a dog barked, and the wind picked up, sending a violent spray of rain against the walls of the rugged building. Ben shut the door. The old woman turned at an angle and glanced to the ceiling, then to Mathias, and again to her.

"Et quels demons vous ont suivi maison?"

Angelique shuddered.

"I'm the only demon she's brought home," Mathias answered the old woman.

Another dog barked, then another. The wind slammed something against the side of the cookhouse. Rachel jumped, and the sporadic barks of hounds became a chorus of sharp yelps and vicious growls.

"What's wrong with those dogs, Ben?" Mathias said, his voice loud above the roar of the wind sweeping through the trees around the house site. He turned on his heel.

Yo frowned, not looking at the retreating men. "More than one ghost returns to De Leau this night, Mathias," she said loudly.

He stopped, as if he'd heard, then disappeared out the door.

Yo's rough fingers drifted over Angelique's face before she dropped her hands. "Elizabeth sent you here?"

Angelique swallowed. "I married Mathias."

Lightning struck close, shaking the ground beneath their feet, and Angelique felt her hair stand on end. Yo snorted, apparently oblivious of the the storm outside.

"She arranged the union?"

Yes, she arranged the marriage. Aunt Elizabeth arranged everything.

"She soothes her guilt." Yo tilted her head and listened. "But it rides the storm."

"Her guilt?"

"Incarne. De Leau's demon."

With a violent shudder, Angelique stepped around the woman. Outside, the frigid rain slapped her face, and the wind stung her wet skin. She sucked in a breath, then moved beyond the light cast by the open door. Above a violent gust of wind, she called Mathias' name. The cookhouse door slammed shut, and she jerked her head around.

A lantern waved far to her right. Somewhere in the darkness, Indigo shouted, but not at her. She pulled the cape around her and drew the hood over her head. To her left were the inviting lights of the cabin, and she turned that direction, eager to get out of the weather. Dipping her head to protect her face from the rain, she started to run, only to plow into a hard body. Someone's fingers circled her bicep, steadying her. On her right, Indigo, his body illuminated by the light he carried, held up his lantern to reveal Mathias, his golden hair, out of its queue, streaming violently in the wind.

"Why didn't you wait in the cookhouse?" he cried above the wind.

"I'm tired, Mathias," she hollered in return. "I want to go to the house."

Mathias' arm circled her waist. "Come."

The heavy cloak, leaden with water, hindered her climb up the stairs, and before she reached the porch, she'd wearied of raising one foot before the other. She might have faltered if Mathias had not been there to coax her onward.

With his shoulder, he pushed the back door open and maneuvered her around him and inside. He entered behind her and slammed the door, shutting out the violence of the wind and rain, but not the eerie howling of the dogs. Angelique pushed the cape off her head and moved down the hall.

"Do your dogs always act like this in a storm?"

She heard him push away from the door and follow her into the front room. "No."

"They sound like hounds from hell."

"And how many hell hounds have you heard?"

She heard the sarcasm in his voice, and she turned on him. "Just yours."

He watched her keenly, and for a moment, she dared to search his eyes, looking for the anger she knew was there. If it was, he masked it well, and when she untied her cape, he reached for it and pulled it off her shoulders. Motioning her into the Windsor chair in front of the fire, he draped the soaked cape over a ladder-back chair and pulled it close to the hearth also.

"What is out there?" she asked.

"A predator, I imagine."

"You imagine?"

He touched her forehead. "My imagination is obviously not as good as yours." He sighed. "You're feverish."

"My head aches and I have chills from time to time, but going in and out of the cold--"

"Chills are different from a shiver, Angelique."

He took an earthen bottle from the mantel and poured liquid into a pewter cup, which he held out to her. She didn't take it.

"It's only the brew, the same as what Bess gave you before we left. I'm worried about you. You'll catch your death."

"And you with De Leau now."

Ah, there was the anger.

"Drink it, Angelique. I"m not trying to poison you, if that's what you think."

Still, she refused the potion. After a moment, he set the cup back on the mantel, then picked up another log and tossed it into the flames. Sparks splattered across the hearth. The fire crackled and burned more brightly than before, and he stared at it. He was so handsome in the flickering light. Her golden god. Tears filled her eyes, and her vision of him blurred.

"What am I to you?" she asked.

"You are my wife."

"An unwanted wife."

"That's not true."

"Why did she do this to you?"

"She didn't force me to marry you."

"She withheld De Leau from you until you married me."

"No, she offered me De Leau to take you. This farm was never promised to me."

Angelique briefly closed her eyes. "She forced you to take someone you didn't want to get something you did."

"Even if that were true, such bargains are not unusual."

"Both should have something to gain."

"Is having me so bad?"

Not so long ago, he was the one thing she did want. His rejection of not only her love, freely offered, but even her friendship imperiled that.

"My wants were never considered, Mathias. The other party in the agreement was Aunt Elizabeth. She wanted me at De Leau, and she gave you De Leau to bring me here."

"You agreed."

She rose on wobbly legs. "I agreed so you could have this farm, not to force myself on a man who does not want me."

Devil take her soul, her voice had broken, and she reached for the pewter cup on the mantel, threw back her head, and downed the noxious dose. Beside her, Mathias moved and drew her attention.

He glowed in the firelight. Light against shadow, orange and gold. His dark eyes roamed over her forehead, her eyes, nose, and lingered on her lips. "You've not been forced on a man who does not want you," he said softly and turned to the fire.

Above them, the clouds burst open, and the volume of rain pounding the roof increased ten-fold. She tilted her face to the deafening roar. Mathias did the same.

"Why am I here?" she asked and stepped toward him. "What secrets are you and Aunt Elizabeth holding from me?"

His eyes found hers, and she thought for an instant she detected surprise, quickly masked--or simply dismissed?

"My secrets are as mysterious to me as they are to you."

"Does she have the answers?"

He pursed his lips and from the hearth, picked up the poker. She tensed, but all he did was stir the flames. "Perhaps."

"And what of her secrets?"

He stopped poking at the fire. "The demon, you mean?"

"Any of her secrets."

"She harbors many, and they are based on guilt."

"For something she did?"

He shrugged. "Or didn't do. She's never told me what drives her, and I doubt she ever will."

"Does she drive you?"

"She manipulates me when I let her."

"Like she manipulated you into marrying me?"

"And you me." Mathias looked down at his body, then at her. He removed his wet jacket and hung it on a peg beside the fireplace. "But we allowed ourselves to be."

Angelique retook her seat.

"You should rest. You're tired and sick." He nodded to the back room. "The linens on the bed in there are clean."

She caught her breath, and her eyes burned. He didn't intend to consummate their marriage. Could fate be more cruel than to wed her to the man she loved and him not want her, not for anything? Drawing her trembling lips tight, she stood.

"Where do you intend to sleep, husband?"

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