Monday, March 22, 2010

Excerpt - THE RAVEN SAINT by M.L. Tyndall

Captain's Log, Stardate 03.22.2010

The Raven Saint (Charles Towne Belles)
by
M.L. Tyndall

When Grace Westcott is kidnapped by a French mercenary, tossed aboard his ship, and told she will be sold to a Spanish Don in Columbia, she cannot imagine what she has done to deserve such a horrid fate. She has spent her entire life serving God and helping the poor, not to mention trying to save the souls of her two wayward sisters. Thinking perhaps God has sent her to preach to the vile captain and his crew, Grace's every attempt to correct their sinful ways is rewarded with only mockery. When Grace's situation grows far worse than she could imagine, she is forced to face her own human weaknesses. But she isn't prepared to face her biggest weakness of all—falling in love with the nefarious captain, Rafe Dubois.

Captain Rafe Dubois hates nothing more than a religious pretense of piety. Fleeing a home of abuse and betrayal under the thumb of his self-righteous father, he became a mercenary upon the Caribbean. There isn't any job, no matter how vile, he won't undertake in order to amass the fortune he needs to build a hospital for the poor in his home town of Port-de-Paix. The praises of the people fill a craving in his soul for the self-worth and value he never received from his father, while giving him a sense of purpose for his otherwise reckless life. That is, until he meets the saintly Miss Grace Westcott who continually berates his every move.

What happens when a bitter Frenchman who's sworn off God falls in love with a pious woman determined to change him?

Will Grace discover God's purpose for her on this harrowing journey? And what will she do when she realizes that purpose is not to redeem the wicked Captain Rafe Dubois, but herself?

Excerpt of chapter one:

Outside Charles Towne, Carolina, October, 1718



Chapter 1





Black, menacing clouds snarled a warning from the Carolina skies.



Clutching her skirts, Grace Westcott trudged down the muddy path. A shard of white light forked across the dark vault, and she glanced up as thunder rumbled in the distance.



“I hope the rain doesn’t catch us, miss.” Alice’s shaky voice tumbled over Grace from behind.



“Never fear, Alice, we are almost there.” Grace pushed aside a leafy branch that encroached upon the trail. As the wind picked up and raindrops began to rap on the leaves above them, the wall of greenery arching overhead provided a shelter that brought an odd comfort to Grace.



“Look, miss. This plant. Isn’t it bloodroot?” Alice squeaked. “To heal afflictions of the skin?”



Grace huffed. Her legs ached from the mile-long journey from Charles Towne. She could hear the rush of the Ashley River in the distance. They were close to the Roberts’ cabin, to poor little Thomas, sick with a fever and in desperate need of the medicines they brought.



Whirling around, Grace examined the leaf in her maid’s hands. “Nay. ’Tis not bloodroot, as you well know.” She searched Alice’s eyes but the maid kept her gaze lowered. “Whatever is the matter with you today?”



The maid cast a quick glance over her shoulder and shrugged. “I am only trying to help, miss.”



“You can help by hurrying along. Thomas may be failing as we speak.” Grabbing her skirts, Grace turned and forged ahead. A drop of rain splattered on her forehead, and she swiped it away.



“But the rain, miss. Shouldn’t we return home and don some proper attire?”



“Mercy me, Alice. We are nearly there. A bit of rain will not harm us. We’ve been in far more dangerous situations.” Grace hoisted the sack stuffed with herbs, fresh fruit, and rice farther up her aching shoulder. “Besides we are going about God’s work. He will take care of us.”



Grace heard Alice’s shoes squish in the mud “Indeed, miss.”.



Her maid’s voice quivered—a quiver that set Grace’s nerves on edge, along with the dark tempest brewing above them. Something was bothering the woman, Grace couldn’t guess what.



Another flash lit up the sky. Releasing her skirts to the sticky mud, Grace pushed aside a tangled vine that seemed to be joining forces with Alice in attempting to keep her from continuing. Musky air, heavy with moisture and laden with scents of earth and life, filled her nostrils. Thunder bellowed, closer this time, and raindrops tapped upon the canopy of leaves overhead. Plowing ahead, Grace ignored the twinge of guilt at her most recent expedition. One of many expeditions she’d been strictly forbidden to embark upon—both by her father, before he set sail for Spain, and more recently, her sister Faith and Faith’s new husband, Dajon. But Grace could not allow anyone or anything to stop her from doing what God had commissioned her to do: feed the poor, tend to the sick, and spread the good news of His Gospel.



She glanced up at the dark clouds swirling like some vile witch’s brew. Perhaps she should have left a note informing Faith of her whereabouts. No matter. She would drop off the food and herbs, attend to Thomas, and be home before sunset.



Grace emerged from the green fortress into a clearing. Thunder bellowed, and she shivered as a chill struck her. In the distance, the wide Ashley River tumbled along its course. A cabin perched by the water’s edge, smoke curling from its chimney. Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath and quickened her pace. “Here at last. And, as you can see, Alice, all is well.”



A nervous giggle sounded from behind her.



Hoisting the sack higher up on her shoulders, Grace clutched her skirts and climbed the steps of the cabin, but before she could knock on the door, it swung open. Mr. Roberts, a burly red-faced man with unruly dark hair, stared curiously at her for a moment then cocked his head and smiled. “Miss Grace. A grand pleasure to see you.” His glance took in Alice standing on the steps behind Grace. His forehead wrinkled. “What brings you this far from home on such a rainy day? Helen, Miss Grace has come for a visit,” he yelled over his shoulder. The scent of smoke and some sort of meaty stew wafted over Grace.



“Why, we’ve come to help Thomas of course.” Lightning flashed, casting a momentary grayish shroud over Mr. Roberts’s normally ruddy face.



“Thomas needs help?” He scratched his thick, dark mane.



Alice’s boots thudded on the steps, and Grace turned to see her maid inching away from the cabin, her chin lowered.



Shaking her head, Grace faced Mr. Roberts. “Yes, you sent Alfred yesterday to inform us of Thomas’s fever and ask for my help, did you not?” The man looked puzzled. Grace slid the sack from her shoulder and set it down on the planks of the porch. “I’ve brought elder root and dogwood bark for his fever and some fresh fruit and rice for you and your family.”



Mrs. Roberts appeared in the doorway, her infant daughter cradled in her arms. “Grace, what a wonderful surprise. Henry, don’t just stand there. Invite her in out of the rain.”



“Thomas isn’t sick.” Mr. Roberts’ nose wrinkled. “And Alfred was here with us all day yesterday.”



Grace swerved about to question Alice, but the girl was nowhere in sight. Descending the stairs, she dashed into the clearing, her heart in her throat as she scanned the foliage for any sign of her maid.



A swoosh of leaves and stomp of boots reached her ears, then a band of five men materialized from the foliage. Armed with cutlasses and pistols, they stormed toward Grace. She tried to move her feet, but the thick mud clung to them like shackles. Mr. Roberts cursed and ushered his wife inside. The baby began to howl.



A tall, sinewy man halted before her. A burst of wind struck him, fluttering the green feather atop his cocked hat and the tips of the black hair grazing his shoulders. He shifted his jaw, peppered with black stubble, and gazed at her with eyes the color of the dark clouds churning above them. A slow smile crept across his lips, lifting his thin, rakish mustache. “Mademoiselle Grace Westcott, I presume.” His thick French accent turned her blood to ice.



Grace met his gaze squarely. “I am, sir.”



With a snap of his fingers, two of his men flanked her. “You will come with us.”



“I will not.” The men wrenched her arms behind her back. Pain shot across her shoulders.



The snap of a rifle sounded, drawing the man’s attention to Mr. Roberts pointing his musket in their direction. “Leave her be.”



A flicker of relief eased over Grace, quickly fading when she examined the man before her. Instead of fear, amusement sparked in his eyes. The men on either side of Grace chuckled as if Mr. Roberts had told a joke.



“Quel homme galant, but I fear I cannot do that, monsieur.” The leader crossed his arms over his gray waistcoat and scraped a finger along his lean chin. “With a bit of fortune and a good aim, you may shoot one of us. Mais that would leave you and your family completely at our mercy. Comprenez-vous?”



Mr. Roberts stared at him for a long moment, obviously measuring the man.



“Toss your weapon to the ground, monsieur and go into your house. If you come out, we will shoot you. If you fire another weapon at us, we will kill your family.



A short, barrel-chested man beside the leader drew his pistol and leveled it at Mr. Roberts. The sneer on his face suggested he would love nothing more than to shoot the man where he stood.



The musket quivered in Mr. Roberts’s hands as he perused the band of ruffians, but still he did not relent. Grace shook her head, sending her friend a silent appeal. She would not allow him to put his family in jeopardy for her.



Mr. Roberts swallowed, threw his weapon into the mud, and gave her an apologetic look before slipping inside the cabin and closing the door with an ominous thud that echoed Grace’s fate.



She faced the leader. Thunder roared across the clearing. “What have you done with Alice?”



“Alice? Hmm.” His eyes lit up. “Votre servante? I merely paid her well for leading you to us.” He grinned.



The skies opened and released a torrent of rain upon Grace as if God Himself shed the tears that now burned behind her eyes. How could Alice have done such a thing? She had been Grace’s personal maid for the past five years—had traveled with her in the crossing from Portsmouth to Charles Towne.



The rain bounced off the cocked hat and the broad shoulders of the man before her. Drops streamed down Grace’s face, her neck, soaked into her gown, and befogged the scene before her. If only the fresh water from heaven could wash away these devilish creatures like holy water sprinkled upon evil.



The black-haired man turned and marched away as though her desperate wish had reached God’s ears. But then his two minions wrenched her arms again and dragged her behind him. Panic seized her. This couldn’t be happening! She dug her heels into the mud but her captors merely lifted her from the ground. Pain scorched across her arms and neck.



“Please, sir. Please. What do you want with me?”



But the only reply came from the rain pounding on the leaves and the thunder rumbling across the sky.



They plunged back into the thick forest. Grace struggled against the men’s meaty grips. Even if she did manage to break free from them, tree trunks rose like prison bars on either side of her holding her captive within the dense thicket. They trudged down the path for what seemed an eternity. Each step dug the knife of fear deeper into Grace’s heart. Silently, she appealed to God for her salvation, begging to hear His comforting voice, but her petitions were met with the same silence her captors afforded her. Finally, they emerged onto a secluded shore, and the men shoved her onto the thwart of a small boat then launched the craft into the rushing river. In the distance Grace saw a two-masted brig swaying with the rolling tide.



Lord, where are You? She clasped her hands together and tried to catch her breath.



The black-haired man locked a smoldering gaze upon her. He did not look away as propriety demanded but perused her with alarming audacity. Rain streamed off his hat onto his black breeches, and a smirk creased one corner of his mouth. Averting her gaze to the agitated water, she considered leaping overboard. She couldn’t swim. At least not well enough to fight the strong Ashley current. Besides, surely God would rescue her from these brigands. He was simply testing her faith by waiting until the last minute when things were at their worst. Lifting her chin, she cast a defiant look upon her captor, but it only caused his smirk to widen.



Within minutes, they reached the ship and thudded against its hull. Shouts pitched upon them from above as faces popped over the bulwarks to peer down at her. Grace glanced about for the rescuer God should have sent by now. The leader pulled her to her feet, and before she could make a move, he hoisted her over his shoulder like a sack of grain and climbed the rope ladder without effort.



Grace could no longer feel the fear or even the damp chill. Numbness gripped her, born of shock at her predicament. Blood rushed to her head, and she closed her eyes, breathing in the musky scent of the man’s damp wool waistcoat and praying for the nightmare to end.



Once aboard, he carried her across deck as he issued a string of orders in French, sending his crew scrambling in every direction.



“Welcome back, Captain,” a deep voice shouted, then a shock of brown hair appeared in Grace’s vision. “I see you found her.”



“Oui, bien sûr.” His tone carried the haughtiness that excluded any other possibility as he tapped her on the rump.



“How dare you!” Grace shouted and tried to kick her legs, but the captain’s arm kept them pinned to his chest. The two men shared a chuckle.



“Weigh anchor, away aloft, and raise the main, Mr. Thorn. We set sail immediately.”



Raindrops bounced over the wooden planks, pelting her from all directions. Her head bumped against his damp coat. His hard shoulder pressed into her aching stomach as he carried her down a ladder. She stretched her hand to grab the hilt of his rapier, but it taunted her from its sheath at his other side, out of her reach. She pounded her fists against his back. Muscle as unyielding as steel sent pain through her hands.



With a chuckle, he sauntered down a hallway and kicked open a door. Grace tensed, fearing the man would toss her to the floor. Instead, grasping her waist, he gently set her down inside the tiny cabin.



Gaining her balance, Grace wiped the matted strands of wet hair from her face and faced him. “Who are you and what do you want with me?” she said in a stalwart tone that surprised her.



He doffed his feathered hat and banged it against his knee, sending droplets over the floor. Tucking an errant strand of wet hair behind his ear, he bowed. “Captain Rafe Dubois at your service, mademoiselle. I welcome you aboard Le Champion. And regarding what I want with you”—he raised one brow and allowed his gaze to scour over her—“I am to deliver you to Don Miguel De Salazar in Columbia.”



“Columbia?” Grace took a step back and gripped her throat.



“Oui, he has promised to pay quite handsomely for you.”



“For me? But why? I don’t even know the man.” A shudder ran through her.



“Ah, but your father does apparently. The two men are not…how do you say? Agreeable? Don Miguel holds him responsible for the death of his son in a skirmish with a galleon. He thought you would be adequate payment for the transgression.”



“Payment!” Grace’s fear gave way to anger. “I am no one’s payment. How can you take part in such a wicked scheme?”



The captain shrugged as if her words rolled off of him. “Like I said, he’s willing to pay handsomely.” He offered her a devious grin then donned his hat and closed the door with a resounding thud.




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