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Authors: Rachel L. Demeter

Finding Gabriel

BOOK: Finding Gabriel
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About
Finding Gabriel

Colonel Gabriel de Laurent departed for the war intending to die.

 

After a decade of bloodstained battlegrounds while fighting in Napoleon’s army, Gabriel returns to the streets of Paris a shattered and haunted soul. Plagued by inner demons, he swallows the barrel of his flintlock pistol and pulls the trigger.

 

But fate has a different plan.

 

Ariah Larochelle is a survivor. Orphaned at twelve and victim to a devastating crime, she has learned to keep her back to walls and to trust no one. But when she finds a gravely injured soldier washed up on the River Seine, she’s moved by compassion. In spite of her reservations, she rescues him from the icy water and brings him into her home.

 

Now scarred inside and out, Gabriel discovers a kindred spirit in Ariah – and feelings he imagined lost forever reawaken as he observes her strength in the face of adversity. But when Ariah’s own lethal secrets unfold, their new love is threatened by ancient ghosts. Can Gabriel and Ariah find hope in the wreckage of their pasts – or will the cycle of history repeat again?

 

Perfect for fans of Gaelen Foley’s
Lord of Ice
and Judith James’s
Broken Wing, Finding Gabriel
features all the dark romance, searing passion, and historical intrigue of
The Phantom of the Opera
and
Les Misérables
.

For my mother, whose strength, courage, and compassion inspires me every day.
I love you, Mommy. All I am I owe to you.
You are my heroine.

From Chapter Twelve of 
Finding Gabriel

“Look at me. Look at what you have saved.”

Gabriel released Ariah’s chin and tore away the bandage in a harsh movement. As his eyes bore into her own, pale moonlight fell upon the deformity, illuminating the twisted flesh and grotesque welts. The sight reminded Ariah of a beautiful chateau … a stunning fortress situated along the coastline … one that had fallen into ruin and neglect. The skin was concave, destroyed, cavernous – a remnant of former glory. And the surrounding features – his burning eyes, the right side of his face, his powerful body – dwarfed the disfigurement with a striking beauty.

“Look at the monster you have created. Look upon my face, Ariah.”

She shivered at the sound of her name; slightly muffled from the injury to his mouth, it slid from his tongue with equal parts venom and hunger.

“I was supposed to die that night …” The last of his words ended in a choked whisper. His face fell forward in despair until his forehead was pressed against her own. He was impossibly close. And he appeared every gram a flesh-and-blood warrior – coarse and ruthlessly untamed. Sweltering heat radiated from his body and engulfed all five of her senses. She was suffocating. Visions of that long-ago night echoed her mind until she could perceive nothing else. Ariah gave a shallow cry as she struggled to free herself once more.

“Don’t. Don’t leave me. Please.”

Her movements ceased. The words struck a chord deep inside her chest. She connected her gaze with his and was rendered speechless by the naked anguish in his stare. Regret and desire were etched in every line of his face – but what stole her breath was something entirely different. For the second time, it was neither anger nor resentment that radiated from his eyes, but a longing so intense that it nearly overwhelmed her:
hope.

Chapter One
Paris, February 1815


There is no paradise on earth, but there are pieces of it. What there is on earth is a broken paradise.”  – Jules Renard

The flintlock pistol felt slicker than ink against Gabriel’s weathered palms. Lost to severe thought, he tentatively rotated the firearm between thumb and forefinger. Overhead, light from an oil lamp reflected off the slender barrel and penetrated the darkness of his soul. The illumination spilled across the sleet-covered cobblestones, emitting a faint golden ring through the dense haze of the River Seine. Seduced by the movements, water lapped against the embankment in a mockery of waves.

Broken and entirely alone, Gabriel had returned from the battlefield months earlier. And he’d departed for the war fully intending to die.

But things hadn’t gone according to plan.

A decade of his life had flashed by in a blood-spattered mirage. And now that he was back on Paris’s soil, his home felt more foreign than anywhere on earth. It was a blinding, soul-deep agony that rose from the shadows and came for him in the night. The memories would coil around his throat in a deathly embrace and echo in the haunted cavern of his mind.

But tonight would be different. Tonight, he would free himself.

He exhaled a shaky breath and two of his fingers fell from the pistol and settled upon the navy material of his uniform. The rhythm of his heartbeat felt strong and willfully defiant beneath his touch; the gold epaulettes decorating his shoulders trembled in time with his pulse.

Instead of dying alongside his men – dying as a war hero – new scars had been added to the old. External now reflected the internal.

Instead of meeting his maker, as the Catholics so eloquently phrased such things, he was decorated with an abundance of medals and applauded by Napoleon Bonaparte for his bravery.

Indeed
, Gabriel mused,
bravery is a rather easy feat when a man has so little to live for.

A solider with nothing to lose has everything to sacrifice.

He should have died countless times across countless battlefields. Day and night, his men were slaughtered before him, behind him, beside him … and yet no bullet had been spared for their commander. Death had a cruel sense of humor in that way. France’s emperor had been exiled to Elba, and Gabriel was isolated within the seventh ring of hell.

And now, standing along the River Seine on this harsh winter’s night, Colonel Gabriel de Laurent felt more cowardly than brave. Far more dead than alive. Whatever remained of his spirit had faded away since his return. His body had been degraded to a cold, numb shell. And he was empty.

Distant, rolling thunder wrenched Gabriel from his thoughts. A storm was moving in. A low blanket of clouds shadowed the horizon and obstructed heaven from earth. The scarce trees that lined the Seine quivered, their skeletal limbs shaking with the damp chill.

By this time tomorrow, Paris would be weeping for her fate.

Gabriel’s breaths grew labored, short, strained. Each one misted the night air and swirled tight coils against the engulfing black. Another volley of thunder shook the silence and roared like a caged beast. His eyes shut as he remembered the bellowing cannons that had dominated so many bloodstained grounds. Twisted nostalgia reared inside his gut. Indeed, the chaotic heat of the battlefield was preferable to the cold stillness in his heart. The war had offered a distraction, a purpose … a chance to conclude his legacy with a semblance of grace and integrity.

Gabriel lifted his face to the bruised sky as hard raindrops clubbed his cheeks. They streaked down his skin in lieu of the tears he refused to shed. The nearby oil lamp shuddered and flickered, threatening to wink out. A strange fog blew across the iridescent cobblestones, cloaking everything beneath an aura of hopelessness …

The night was expanding. And he was content with that.

Silent calm filled Gabriel’s heart as he inched dangerously close to the river’s edge. The front half of each boot hung off the cobblestone slab, waiting in eternal limbo. Even the air thrummed with breathless anticipation.

Down below, budding ice caps peeked out from the water’s glassy surface and glistened beneath the moonlight. They quivered within the unforgiving darkness, bobbing about like buoys at sea. Strangely mesmerized by the vision, Gabriel twirled the pistol, spinning it with the ease of a baton – stopping only to gaze down its throat. That slender chamber was a mouth into hell. Black, crude, infinitely bottomless.

It was an escape.

And he knew the release it offered would be bittersweet. The silver barrel gleamed with malicious intent, illuminating the engraved words
de Laurent
. Gabriel traced each letter with an aching heart. His gold signet ring, which he’d worn on his pinky finger since boyhood, shimmered like a beacon.

The wind moaned and shifted directions, plastering a damp forelock across his brow. A chill seeped inside his bones, numbing them to the marrow. It was a chill that had nothing to do with the piercing cold … a chill that was nearly eleven years in the making. The chill rooted itself much deeper than his skin; it lurked inside his chest, far beneath flesh and bone, within his very soul.

And he was drowning beneath the cold.

His pulse reached breakneck speed. Painful memories flooded his mind and body in one fell swoop –

A ring of blood encircling her neck like a macabre necklace. The sound of approaching footsteps. A storm of tears cascading down pale cheeks. The thrust of a blade. The caress of flames as they melt flesh from bone …

Gabriel tracked callused fingertips over his satchel’s worn leather, stroking the precious keepsakes within. The bag hung at his side, its strap draped across his shoulder in a viselike grip. A shiver traversed through his body as both eyes squeezed shut, remembering … reliving.

He longed to fade away, to simply dissolve into the darkness of his past forever. But there was no hiding – not even within the deepest shadows.

Sighing, he forced away the ghosts of his past and jolted himself into the present. Over eleven years had passed since that wretched time, and relief was finally in hand’s reach.

Now there would be no more pain. No more nightmares. No more agony.

There would be no more turning back.

Without sparing another thought, he slipped the pistol’s barrel between his lips, prayed to the God he’d never believed in, and deftly pulled the trigger.


The vision might have been stolen from a fairy tale’s pages. Clusters of freckles dusted the bridge of an upturned nose. An abundance of curls were slathered across the floorboards in a regal mess. Shimmering with flashes of gold, the strands brilliantly came to life as they reflected the hearth’s wavering flames. And a pale, slender face poked out from the blanket’s thick folds.

Oliver, the achingly gentle and clumsy mutt, lay beside the child, his enormous gray body occupying half the coverlet. Absorbing the heat, he contentedly napped before the fire on a threadbare rug. Large paws occasionally twitched in dreams. Below his snout, a stream of drool leaked onto the floorboards, where it formed an ever-growing puddle.

Ariah Larochelle relaxed in a Windsor-style rocking chair, a volume of fairy tales cradled in the cushion of her lap. A whale oil lamp glowed on the end table and shed a faint golden circle. Fine hairline cracks spidered overhead, adding insult to injury on the plastered ceiling. From the corner window, shafts of moonlight slanted inside the cramped drawing room and illuminated each imperfection.

In spite of the home’s less-than-ideal state, a frail sense of security filled Ariah’s spirit. Indeed, she held few complaints. She and her child had bread on the table and hope within their hearts. They were well provided for. Dear Jacques had made certain of this before his departure. And although their home was situated in one of Paris’s poorer districts, it consisted of a generous four rooms – three bedchambers and one spacious drawing room.

A unique blend of scents sweetened the air and tugged at her imagination: the cauldron of stew cooking over the hearth, the musk of damp dog fur, the chill of winter as a mild breeze penetrated the beams …

Beyond the walls, the cast iron wind chime tinkled as it was manipulated by the stormy weather. The sound resonated deep inside Ariah’s heart, flooding her with warm nostalgia. Gifted by her late father, the wind chime was a token of her childhood and one of her most prized keepsakes. Its peaceful clatter was akin to a lullaby – and sometimes, if she concentrated hard enough, she imagined her father was speaking to her through those tender refrains.

Nearby the hearth crooned and crackled as it tossed shadows along the peeling walls. The effect was comforting and wonderfully musical; the sounds accompanied Ariah’s voice with haunting precision while she read from Florence Holbrook’s storybook. Each page was stained a dark yellow and crinkled in all the right places. Through her eyes, these flaws created a sense of familiarity and infused the words with character.

“One day, a long, long time ago, it was very cold. Winter was fast approaching, and all the birds flew south to wait for the spring. But one little bird had a broken wing and could not fly. Hopping on his thin legs, he looked about to see if there was any place where he might keep warm. ‘Perhaps the trees shall keep me secure through the winter.’” Ariah shifted her tone to better fit a little bird.

The child giggled, amused by her mother’s artistry.

“So he went to the edge of the great forest, limping and fluttering madly about with his broken wing. The first tree he came to was a slender silver birch. ‘Beautiful birch tree, won’t you let me live in your warm branches until the springtime comes?’”

The child’s eyes grew heavy and she surrendered to an adorable bear yawn. Ariah paused her reading with a laugh. She took note of the page number before flipping the book shut. Setting it atop the cracked end table, she folded both hands together and thoughtfully regarded little Emmaline. Ariah swept her daughter’s errant curls aside in a habitual gesture and draped a hand over her tiny shoulder blade. She cringed at the feel of the long, reed-thin bone – a prominent wing jutting out from a frail back.

“Ready for sleep, are we now?”

“Mmhmm,” Emmaline answered with another yawn. “I don’t feel so good.”

“No? Again, darling?”

Ariah inhaled a stiff breath, leaned forward, and sprawled a hand across Emmaline’s forehead. Her chest knotted in concern as something contracted inside her heart.
Mon Dieu.
The heat was startling to behold. The previous evening, Emmaline’s temperature hadn’t been nearly so severe. Whatever semblance of peace Ariah had clung to moments before rapidly faded away.

Thunder growled menacingly beyond the walls of the house. Out-of-doors, trees blustered in the breeze as their skeletal branches clawed at the window. Unusually brave for her six years, the child paid no heed to the sounds. Ariah, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that they were an ill omen. Indeed, on this night, they resembled the nails of demons … demons who were fighting to come inside … demons who were burning to drag her little girl away. Fear grasped Ariah’s throat with the force of an iron manacle.

Non,
her mind persisted,
I must hold onto my hope – however fleeting it may be.

Fingertips grazing her temple, several curls slipped free of Ariah’s coiffure as she hung her head. She massaged the tender skin, nursing what promised to be a splitting migraine.

“What is it, Maman?” Little Emmaline piped through her shallow voice. The coverlet fell away as she sat up. Hooking both arms around upright knees, she said, “What’s the matter? Do you not feel good, too?”

Ariah lifted her face and feigned a smile that failed to reach her eyes. “Why, nothing at all,
ma petite
. And I feel perfectly fine!” She leaned forward and pinched her daughter’s cherub cheek between two fingertips.

Emmaline released a hollow sigh, wrinkled her nose, and settled into the blanket again. The worn material molded around her tiny reclined form, swallowing the child whole. She visibly battled exhaustion while her eyes fought to stay open.

Ariah gently tugged on Emmaline’s sleeve. “I dare say it’s well past your bedtime. Come along, sleepy face – I’ll help you to your room.”

“Just a bit longer. Please?” Emmaline’s bottom lip curled into an adorable pout.

Ariah couldn’t suppress her smile. “Well. I suppose a
bit
longer shan’t hurt.”

A brief silence passed between them. Jostled by the approaching thunder, the windowpane shook, moaned, and shuddered.

“Maman … when am I gonna get better? When can I play again?”

Ariah’s heart contracted once more. It was a cruel life for a six-year-old girl. It’d been months since Emmaline had played with children remotely her age. When Ariah had inquired if Emmaline’s playmates would care to visit, the mothers had nearly swooned off their heels. She’d explained as eloquently as she could that the infection had long passed – and the whooping cough was no danger to their wee ones.

Horrified, the neighborhood mothers had clutched their ratty shawls and turned up their noses in vain ignorance. Hypocritical monsters, they were – many of them had volunteered their “precious darlings” into factory labor. Indeed, the poor things would often work over twelve hours a day, six days a week, while earning mere francs in return. According to rumor, barbed wire encircled one of the glass factories as a way to imprison the young workers. Locked within those damp, dark, and dirty factories, Ariah knew their children were at terrible risk of illness. Even death. And when she’d proceeded to say as much, the mothers had rebelled, cutting her off completely.

But it was Emmaline who suffered from their disdain.

“You shall play soon enough,” Ariah whispered. “Just rest for now. Rest and grow big, healthy, and strong. Can you do that for me,
ma petite
?”

“Yes.” Emmaline nodded noncommittally. Then she sighed and stretched her cramped limbs. “I shall try my very best.”

Light footfall resounded as Miriam, Ariah’s younger half sister, bustled inside the drawing room. At her sudden appearance, Oliver clambered onto his feet with a groan, his old bones aching. His left back foot dragged unceremoniously across the floorboards. Arthritis had weakened his hind leg, causing it to gradually fall limp and immobile. Regardless, he waddled over to Miriam with a talkative bark and whipping tail.

BOOK: Finding Gabriel
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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