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The Countdown is On!

All For One smallWe are at T minus 7 days and counting!

All for One goes live on Monday, June 18. You can still pre-order an ebook copy for $2.99 on amazon, or get a signed book through my etsy. Everything sold through the etsy shop comes with swag and a free ebook edition of The Spider’s Web, so you’ll get a two-for-one deal! Plus it will be signed and personalized. 🙂

Unfortunately, there has been a slight delay in getting the hard copies from CreateSpace, so if you ordered through the etsy already please know that your book IS coming, but it will probably arrive on the 20th or 21st rather than the 18th. 😦 I’m sorry, but I don’t control CS or the USPS.

To make it up to everyone, I’ll also include an ebook copy of All for One with your Etsy order, that way you can still start reading on the 18th with everyone else. I’m really sorry about the hassle.

In the mean time, check out this preview!


 

CHAPTER ONE—M’LORD

The bluish shadow of the city rose up before me, like Aphrodite emerging from the sea. My heart quickened at the sight of it. I could already feel the rumble of the elevated trains, see the floating specks of hot air balloons as they lowered into the airfields to the east and south.

“We’re almost there, girl,” I told Bijou, patting the back of the horse’s neck.

The road curved, the trees parted, and a town appeared between us and the bridge leading to the island of Montréal.

With a sigh as reluctant as my mount, I pushed down the impulsiveness driving me forward and directed Bijou to a roadside inn, staring longingly at the high, arched bridge looming ahead. I paused to look. It was a feat of architecture unlike anything in the small village I’d left behind. The sight of something so foreign made me ache for home.

Though I was itching to get into the city—the city! —I didn’t want my first impression to be one covered in road dust and sweat. At any rate, it was late. The sun was already hidden behind the trees, and lights were coming on in the village. Even if I pushed ahead, it would be after ten o’clock when I arrived and no one would see me then.

A boy ran out from the stable to hold the reins as I dismounted. I gave him a coin and directions for Bijou’s care then made my way to the inn. The smell of beef stew made my stomach growl.

I stretched a little as I strolled toward the front door. Through the window, I could see the hostess, just lighting the lamps for the evening. They gave a warm golden glow that made her heart-shaped face positively angelic. By their light, I spied a cluster of men seated around a corner table, tankards and bowls of stew spread out in front of them.

The ringleader raised an eyebrow as I entered. I ignored him, removing my hat and brushing dust from the wide brim.

I caught the eye of the hostess, and she came over, bobbing a curtsy. “What can I do for you, mademoiselle?”

“It’s Louise. Louise Drapeau. And I’d like some dinner, please. And a room for the night.”

She nodded, smiling, and scurried off to the kitchen. But not before I caught a playful wink and noticed the violets embroidered on her apron—the symbol of the sapphists.

I spotted a newspaper on the gentlemen’s table and nodded toward it. “Do you mind?”

One of them curled a lip. “Can you even read, peasant?”

I glanced down at my riding costume—flared trousers tucked into tall boots and a cropped jacket—and my face flushed. My mother had stayed up all night before I left, adjusting the cut of the jacket so I would have something smart to wear on my first day in the new city. It was flattering, I thought.

His friends joined in now, making fun of what was apparently a provincial outfit.

“I’m sorry. I know we’re a little old fashioned in Saint-Jérôme.” I schooled my expression into a smile. “For example, we still learn common courtesy and manners.”

The grin dropped off the man’s face, and he jumped to his feet. “What did you say to me?”

“Only that, of the two of us, you appear to be the one whose education was neglected.”

The hostess returned to the dining room, arms loaded with my dinner and another pitcher of beer for the men, but she let out a little cry when she saw the two of us facing off. She let out a little squeak and ran back to the kitchen.

His friends rose around him, but I hardly glanced in their direction. His hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword.

I rolled my eyes, dropping my bag on the closest table. My weapons were bundled up with it, since I hadn’t needed them on the road. I wondered if I would be fast enough to pull one out. “And here you’re calling me old fashioned. Do you carry a sword because you want everyone to know you’re rich enough to get away with dueling, or is it because you’re so short sighted you can’t aim a pistol?”

I’m not an expert in human anatomy, but I was pretty sure the giant purple vein in his forehead wasn’t supposed to be there. He made an inarticulate noise somewhere between a growl and a scream and lunged at me.

Sidestepping easily, I drew the long knife sticking out from my bag in one swift movement. My opponent drew his sword. It gleamed, even in the shadows of the inn, gas light catching the thin, silver blade and the gold basket covering his hand.

My maneuvering put the door at my back. Keeping one eye on the angry noble and the other on his friends, I lured him outside like leading a particularly vicious dog with a piece of meat.

I hate it when I have to be the meat.

Streaks of blood red and purple painted the sky as I backed into the dusty yard in front of the building, my heart already thumping eagerly. After the long journey, it felt good to stretch my legs.

He jabbed angrily, and I danced out of the way. Another wild swing, in which he used the rapier more like a club and once again didn’t come close to hitting me. Then he stepped back, gathered himself, and settled into a practiced stance.

His next swing wasn’t wild. I still managed to dodge, but he was ready, and I had to put up my knife to block the next attack.

My mind cleared, relaxing into the flow of the fight. All of my senses felt heightened, even as my focus narrowed to the task ahead of me. I saw the next move he would make before he did. I calculated my chances of making a hit. They weren’t good. He was well trained, at least a head taller than me, and he had the superior weapon and reach. I would have to get under his guard somehow or maybe distract him—

Before I could formulate a plan, he swung the rapier in a sweeping arc, which I blocked with the knife.

It was a long hunting knife, about the length of my forearm and hand, with a thick, steel blade. Part of one edge was serrated, for cutting through tough hide and rope.

His thin blade caught on those teeth. Without thinking, I twisted my wrist, deflecting the blow with a circular motion, the way I would if I’d had my sword.

The rapier snapped like a twig. For a moment, he stood there, staring in disbelief.

By then, all his friends had come out to watch. They lined up in front of the door just in time to see their companion lose the duel, the broken end of his sword flying across the yard and landing with a splash in the water trough by the hitching post.

I blinked twice, almost as stunned as he was.

“Cheat!” he shouted.

He and three of his friends surged forward, setting on me. I turned to run, but the way was blocked by a carriage, apparently pulled up as we’d been fighting. I’d been too engrossed to notice.

Before I could find a way around it, one of them grabbed the back of my jacket, throwing me to the ground. I landed hard on my back, all the air whooshing from my lungs. I had just enough time to roll onto my side and cover my head, tucking my knees up to my chest before they attacked, blows raining down on me.

Something hit my face, and I tasted blood. A sharp toe struck my back. It was all I could do not to scream.

“There, now! That’s enough,” drawled a masculine voice.

The blows petered to a stop, slowly. I kept up my defensive poise, just in case.

Cracking one eye open, I peered through my fingers. In the dying light, a shadow strode toward us.

“M’lord, I didn’t mean—she started it!”

The shadow waved a hand. As he got closer, his face swam into focus. I recognized him from their table at the inn. Tall, handsome. Dark hair sweeping to one side and bright blue eyes. He was dressed in the latest fashion, at least as far as I could tell. Usually the only reason to mix that many kinds of plaid was because someone did it at court.

“M’lord” held out a hand to me as they parted around us. I hesitated but took it. He pulled me to my feet.

“My dear, I do apologize for my friends. We’ve been traveling for several days, and I’m afraid they have some pent-up energy still. Two weeks at sea will do that.” He gave me a smile that he clearly thought was full of charm.

I pulled my hand back quickly. “Um, thank you, monsieur.”

“You aren’t injured, I hope?”

“I’m fine.” I could feel a small army of bruises underneath my clothes and really didn’t want to look in a mirror, but I smiled anyway.

“Good, good. I would hate to see a lovely young girl like you hurt.”

“Well, I’m fine.” Why did his manner grate me so? He made lovely young girl sound like an insult.

He leaned forward, the stench of his cologne wafting into my face as the breeze changed directions. I tried not to cough. Before he could say anything, however, one of his men interrupted.

“Ah, M’lord? We should be going. The last train into the city leaves in ten minutes. We should be seeing his majesty off.”

“Yes, yes. Of Course.” He snatched up my hand, planting a kiss on the bruised knuckles, then climbed into the carriage with a wink. There was already another figure inside, concealed by shadow. “Until we meet again, my lovely firecracker.”

It was a good thing darkness descended while he was talking because that line really did make me gag.

Mademoiselle! Are you hurt?” The hostess rushed out, now that the danger was past.

“I’m fine. I’m sorry about the trouble.”

She made a derisive snort. “Every time those good-for-nothings come through here, they cause trouble. This is the third time they’ve stayed at my inn on their way into the city, and every time, they get into a fight or get drunk or don’t mind their manners with the staff. Or all three.” She spat into the dirt. “And every time, they think they can get away with it because they are rich.” She sighed, and a curling lock of brown hair fell into her face. She brushed it away, lips pressing into an annoyed pout. “And every time they do, because what can I do to stop them? It’s not like I can throw them out. Not by myself.”

My heart thudded in sympathy for the poor girl. She was only twenty at the most, not more than a year or two older than me, nearly a head shorter than me, and clearly not the sort used to defending herself.

“Don’t worry, mademoiselle. I’ll track them down. I’ll make sure they don’t bother you again.”

She blinked several times. “Oh, no. I couldn’t. Please, I don’t want you going to any trouble over me. Customers like them, they’re part of owning an inn. We see all sorts here. Really. Most of the time, everyone is very kind—”

I took both her hands in mine. “Just because people are usually kind, it doesn’t excuse the ones who are boors.”

She blushed, pulling her hands away. “Well, at least let me see to your room. There’s food waiting for you.”

“Thank you. May I ask your name?”

“It’s Rose LeClaire. Louise, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” I leaned in a little, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“Are you traveling through to Montréal?”

“I am. I hope to join the Queen’s Guard.” The Queen’s Guard was made up of the most elite warriors in Québec, and every single one of them was a woman. My mother had served in the Guard, under Her Majesty Queen Marie Thérèse, before I was born. My heart swelled at the mere thought of the blue-and-silver uniform.

Rose’s eyes widened. “Oh, good luck to you! I’ve heard it’s quite a challenge to be accepted. You must be a remarkable swordswoman.”

“Well…” I flushed a little, this time in anger. My sword had been my mother’s and was a little too long for me. It was strapped to my saddle bags to make it easier to ride. It was a stupid mistake. The knife had been more accessible in the heat of the moment.

Mother. She’d be ashamed to see me now. I hadn’t even made it to the city yet, and already I’d been bested by a bunch of arrogant two-bit bullies.

I retrieved her sword from the dusty yard, following Rose back inside. Sure enough, a bowl of stew and a plate with bread and cheese were waiting next to my bag in the otherwise empty dining room.

“Oh, let me get a steak for you,” Rose said, scurrying back to the kitchen.

“No, really. You don’t have to. The stew is fine—”

“Not to eat. For that eye. You’re going to have quite a bruise in the morning.”

I reached up to touch the swollen area on the side of my face and winced then winced again because it hurt. No wonder Rose hadn’t been charmed by our friendly banter. I probably looked like one giant bruise.

Rose came back with a bloody steak, gently placing it over my eye. “There now. Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a newspaper, would you?”

***

The next morning, I woke up stiff and sore and determined not to show it. The glass over the washstand showed in glaring detail just how bad the fight the night before had been.

Merde. This going to make a great first impression.

My left eye was a black-and-blue mess, and there was a cut on my eyebrow. I could barely open the bruised eye, and when I did, I quickly let it shut again. The eye itself was red.

I’d slept in my shirt the night before, having packed light and neglected to bring a nightgown. I washed my face and tried to decide if I should wear a skirt or trousers for my introduction to the head of the Queen’s Guard. I had a tailored suit in black, with a plaid waistcoat and cravat. Very striking, very masculine. I also had a grey serge skirt and jacket, complete with the full belled sleeves so fashionable and three petticoats to go underneath. They wouldn’t provide the fullness of an actual crinoline—a giant cage made of wire and muslin I swear was made solely to embarrass women as they knocked over everything within arm’s reach. They were also prone to flipping upward and showing off one’s drawers at odd moments, like when the wind blew too hard or when trying to sit down.

The Queen’s Guard wore something in between, a sort of long tunic and coat that reached the knees. That coat had featured prominently in my dreams for years: bright blue with silver fleur-de-lis embroidery. Mother said it was based on the tunics the King’s Musketeers used to wear in France, before Marie I—Marie Antoinette—fled to Québec with her children during the Revolution, effectively beginning a monarchy in the New World.

I sighed, dreaming of the day I could wear one of my own. In the end, I decided to wear the suit. It was more practical for a morning of travel.

Rose set down my breakfast and the morning paper with a wink. I returned the gesture with my good eye, though I wasn’t sure if she could tell. It probably just looked like I was blinking.

“You poor thing. Does it hurt?” She laid a cool hand along the side of my face.

“Terribly. But I’ll survive,” I said with mock indifference.

The innkeeper smiled, her cute little button nose crinkling. “I’ll see if I can’t find you something for the road. Unless you’d care to stay to recover. I’m not sure you should be traveling with those injuries.”

“I really can’t stay.” I patted the pocket containing my letter of introduction, as much to signify a sense of urgency as to reassure myself I hadn’t lost it in the past half hour.

“You’re sure I can’t convince you to stay…as repayment for last night?” She bit her lower lip, teasing it between her teeth.


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