Later that night, I’m sitting in front of my vanity mirror, eyeing the low cut of my dark green silk dress. Do I even try to argue with Henrietta about its indecency? I sigh and decide against it. I’ll probably lose anyway, and I just don’t have the energy right now.
She’s done my hair in another new style, parting it on one side and then pulling it back. It looks chic and modern, just like the dress. Around my neck, she’s tied a black ribbon to match the band around my arm, which also matches the black sash she added around my waist. My elbow-length gloves are the same midnight hue. Maybe she’s right to dress me in solid colors; all these black adornments would look out of place against a pastel patterned gown.
I stand from the vanity, my limbs heavy. It’s been a long day, and I still have the entire night ahead of me. “I look lovely, Henrietta. Thank you.”
She shoots me a wink. “You’re welcome. Let’s hope Lord Giroux agrees.”
I force myself to smile. “I’ll let you know when I return from dinner.” I drop the smile the moment I turn toward the open door between Livy’s room and mine. Maybe I can find an actress amongst the guests to teach me how to be a better liar. It’s only been a day, and I’m already sick of all this duplicity.
Livy is standing in front of her mirror when I enter her room, fretting as she turns this way and that. The dress she wears is sapphire blue, and matching gems sparkle around her neck and in her ears. She looks beautiful, and like this, it would be impossible for anyone to think her still a girl instead of a young woman in her own right. I watch as she adjusts the gown, trying to hide her cleavage by pulling at the lace along the scooped neck. There will be a crowd again tonight. Not as many as yesterday but enough for her to want to look her best. The men are using the gathering to their advantage, meeting today and later tonight to plan their next assaults. The women are just happy for a chance to socialize and experience some normalcy amongst the chaos of war and rebellion.
“You look lovely,” I say. “Stop fussing, or you’ll tear the lace.”
She lifts her head, frowning. “You don’t think it’s too low?”
I join her in front of the mirror and wrap my arm around her waist. “No. And if you stand next to me all night, you’ll look positively modest in comparison.”
She laughs, but her gaze dips to my decolletage, and she shakes her head. “It’s a good thing you don’t have a fuller bust, or you’d be well and truly falling out of it.” Her gaze goes back to the mirror. “Mama said it’s time I wear a proper dress.”
I’m glad to see the marquise is making such an obvious effort to treat Livy like the young adult she is. “The color suits you. I don’t doubt that you’ll cut a swath through the party tonight.”
“Thank you,” she says. “And if that dress doesn’t make Henri want to kiss you, nothing will.”
I make a noncommittal sound. Dear God, let’s hope it doesn’t. The idea of being kissed by him is more than a little unnerving. Kisses should be sweet, a gentle invitation, an exchange of sentiment. I don’t think of those things when I think of Lord Giroux. He could easily crush me by accident, I’m sure of it. He’s too large, too strong.
Unbidden, an image explodes through my mind of him doing just that: crushing me against a wall while his mouth attacks mine. I sway where I stand, and something low in my abdomen clenches in response. Maybe I should have prayed for myself a bit harder earlier.
“Are you ready?” I ask, forcing the words out.
“I suppose,” Livy replies, and we leave the room in a rustle of silks.
We meet the marquise in the hallway. “You girls look lovely,” she says.
Livy and I return the sentiment. With news of her husband on the way, some color has returned to her cheeks. The gown she wears isn’t actually black but a blue so deep that in the dim light of the hall, it almost appears that it is. It compliments her fair hair and features, reminds me of raven feathers in the shifting candlelight.
We move down the corridor together. Much like last night, Jacques and Emanuel are waiting for us at the top of the stairs when we round the corner. Lord Giroux is with them. They turn as we approach, breaking off their muted conversation. I flick my eyes over my adoptive brothers before my gaze is dragged to the towering lordling. I nearly stop dead in my tracks. Something has shifted again in him. I can see it. It’s like some thin, shimmery veneer of danger has resettled over him that was missing during the day.
He wears black again, but at night, it fits. I can’t imagine him in the pale blue and white lace Emanuel wears or even the more masculine green of Jacques’ clothes. The finery just wouldn’t look right on Lord Giroux.
His dark eyes don’t flash in the candlelight, but they seem to dance as they look me over before meeting my gaze. I take a deep breath and steel myself against them, against him. The expansion of my lungs presses my breasts tighter against the low collar of my gown, and Lord Giroux’s eyes slide down hungrily.
Dear God, help me. Is this the same man who, just hours ago, walked me slowly through the garden and spoke to me so properly?
Jacques steps forward and bows to the marquise. “Good evening, Mother. You look resplendent.”
The rest of us greet each other, but I barely manage to utter a word as my heart beats against my ribcage. I’m back to not being able to look at Lord Giroux. What has changed? Was it my words with Livy earlier? Did they manage to find their way back to him? Is he angry that I said so much about what happened this morning? I can’t tell, but something is different. My pulse races as his bare fingers slide over my glove and carry my hand up to his arm without a word. I’m sure he can feel my fingers trembling.
We follow at the rear of the party, descending the stairs as the conversation floats back to us. I don’t hear a word of it. I’m too focused on controlling my breathing, placing each foot carefully on one step after another. Beside me, Lord Giroux makes almost no noise. The only sound coming from him is that of expensive fabric sliding over itself as he moves with predatory grace. He’s taking up too much space again, somehow. I can almost sense his very presence caressing me, surrounding me in a low, frenetic energy that makes my skin feel too tight.
We reach the bottom of the stairs and proceed to the same drawing room as last night, and I’m shocked to see nearly as many people as before crowded inside. I thought there would be fewer. The marquise said some guests would stay another night, but this looks like all of them did.
Lord Giroux leans down to be heard over the crush, his breath heating my skin. “I’ll be back with champagne.”
I stifle a shiver in response to his low rumble, nodding in answer because my tongue seems to be stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Livy replaces him at my side, leaning just as close as he did. Her fingers are a vice on my elbow. “Proper? You call that proper? He looked like he was going to devour you.”
Thank God her brothers are already circulating, and only her mother is close enough to overhear. “Olivia, no one likes a shrew,” she says, plucking her daughter’s fingers from my arm. “Se fossi vent’anni di meno,” she whispers in Italian, Livy’s worst language, as she stares after Lord Giroux. It’s easy to track him through the crowd, his dark form towering over the rainbow sea of silks spread out around us.
I translate the words in my head. If I were twenty years younger.
“Neanche tu sapresti cosa fare,” I counter. You wouldn’t know what to do either.
“Touché,” she says with a laugh.
“Vivienne,” a woman in her late thirties says as she joins our group.
“Ah, Marguerite, I’m so happy you could make it tonight,” the marquise returns.
Livy uses her mother’s distraction to plant herself back at my side, but the marquise is just as quick, and she turns and pulls Livy forward, away from me as she introduces her to the other woman. Her timing is impeccable because Lord Giroux has just returned, holding a thin glass full of champagne in one hand and a shorter one filled with an amber liquid in his other.
“Thank you,” I say, taking my drink from him.
He dips his head in response.
The shoes I’m wearing tonight have more of a heel than I’m used to. It adds to my already tall form, putting me at a height with many of the men in the room. But not all. Lord Giroux still tops me by about half a foot, and I have to crane my neck to glance up at him. His eyes slide over my form again, branding me with their heat. Maybe he did learn of my conversation with Livy and means to correct her assumption about him being a bore. No one would think it of him now. I should have been grateful for his good manners while they lasted; I don’t know what to do with this version of him.
“You look…” he says, his voice rolling like a storm on the horizon. “Dark colors suit you.”
I take a long sip of champagne before responding, trying to mask the blush that steals over me. “As they do you.”
“Did you do as I asked?”
I wonder what he’s talking about for a moment before I realize he’s speaking about my balance assignment. Funny how it seems to have done me no good; I feel more unbalanced at this moment than I can ever remember.
“I did,” I tell him, my voice low. “Though I took a break after the third time I almost toppled. The marquise was beginning to think I was coming down with a head cold.”
I’m met with his rumbling laughter, and giving in to the urge, I risk another glance up. The sight of him punches through me like a physical blow. White teeth against tan skin, dimples creasing his cheeks, a roguish gleam in his midnight eyes. I tear my gaze away and see more than a few women turning at the masculine sound of his amusement. There’s a gnawing hunger in their gazes that makes them look like a pack of wolves after a long, hard winter.
A pair of men skirt by us. Lord Giroux uses their passage as an excuse to step even closer, his gaze dropping straight into my cleavage. “And did you practice with Olivia?”
The question is innocuous, so at odds with the way he’s staring at me and the husky edge to his voice that it takes me a long moment to answer. My pulse is thready, and I can feel heat creeping up my chest. Hidden beneath the voluminous skirt of my dress, my knees tremble. I should look away from him, but I can’t. I’ve never had a man brand me like this with his gaze, nor show their regard so publicly, and I could never have anticipated the heady thrill flooding my veins in response. I feel beautiful. Powerful.
“We practiced,” I say, and his gaze lifts to my lips. I lick them before continuing, watching his pupils widen as his focus intensifies. “Livy’s always been a quick study when it comes to dancing, and she’s catching on to the stances quickly.”
He makes a low sound of approval that feels like it moves through my skin. I really need to look away. This is becoming indecent. I lift my drink and take a sip, bringing my gaze back to the crowd just in time to see one of the women with hungry eyes detach herself from a small group and make her way toward us.
Lord Giroux says something low and soft, likely continuing our conversation, but I don’t catch the words, too distracted by the woman. One glance, and I know she plans to beeline straight to the man beside me. She’s nearly as petite as Livy, and because of her slight stature, she disappears once or twice behind other people as she weaves her way toward us. More than a few male heads turn to watch. I can’t blame them. With her dark hair, porcelain skin, large dark eyes, and full pink lips, she’s a sight to see. The gown she wears has a gorgeous blue and white damask pattern, and it’s cut as low as mine. Unlike me, she has the bosom to fill it and then some. Her small body is luscious and curvy, and she moves with a swaying grace that shows it off to its best advantage. She shoots a wry grin at a nearby man who likely lobbed some flirtation at her, looking worldly and sensual in a way I could never achieve. I have half a mind to step away and cede Lord Giroux to her before she even reaches us.
He must notice my distraction because he stiffens beside me as she nears.
“Henri,” she says, curtsying low, chest forward. She doesn’t even look at me. This should be interesting.
I mirror her curtsy, torn between amusement and something a bit darker. Henri? She knows him well enough to use his first name? That she’s doing so in front of me speaks volumes, a subtle claim on him meant to cut, to goad.
“Lady Vegerone,” he says with a crisp bow, and I stiffen at her title. “May I introduce you to Lady Descoteaux?”
“Charmed,” she says when she rises, extending a limp hand in my direction.
I take it with equal delicacy, ignoring my sudden desire to crush her fingers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, your grace.”
Though I’ve never met her before, I heard all about her in Paris. She’s married to the Duke de Vegerone, but if the rumors are true, it’s never stopped her from having her name attached to other men, the late king among them. I keep my eyes on her, even though I want to glance up at Lord Giroux. Was he one of her lovers?
So what if he was? I chide, fighting back the strange burn in my chest.
“Henri,” she says, using his name again, this time rather intimately. I get it, I get it. You know him, I want to say. “I was just arguing with Franny about whether or not Toulouse will become entangled in this affair. Would you be a darling and come help me settle the matter?” The words are perfectly proper, but the throaty way in which she spoke them makes the request sound damn-near scandalous, and I have to work at keeping my features passive. This is more like the flirtation I’ve come to expect from the aristocracy.
“Of course,” he tells her. He can’t refuse her request. She outranks him, and to do so would be rude, which she knew when she came over here. His face is expressionless as he regards her, giving away no hint of emotion. Then he turns to me, and his expression darkens into something very un-passive. “Would you join me, Isabelle?” he asks, saying my name in a way that makes it clear I’m more than some mere acquaintance. There’s no way she could mistake the intimacy of it, just as no one would have mistaken her tone a moment ago.
Oh, no. No, thank you. I want no part of whatever this is playing out between them.
“I think not, Lord Giroux,” I say, putting the formality back between us. “I believe I’ll return to your cousins.”
“Until later,” he drawls, his warm fingers raising my gloved hand to plant a lingering kiss on my knuckles.
I blush. The innuendo in those two words was thick enough to choke on. I glance from him to Lady Vegerone just in time to watch the irritation playing about her lips lift into an ingratiating smile. I force myself to smile back, but it feels more like a baring of teeth. I need to get out of here.
I nod at Lord Giroux, not knowing how to respond to his words. It takes a tug to get him to release my hand. He held it far too long to be proper, another subtle way to mark his interest in me in front of not only the duchess but all the gossip-hungry men and women who turned to watch this interaction. I curtsy and turn to leave, weaving my way the short distance to Livy and her mother. People are watching me, whispering behind their hands as they glance from me to Lord Giroux to the duchess and back again. My dress suddenly feels too tight, my face hot. I’m not used to this kind of attention, and I don’t like it. If Lord Giroux thought to make me feel better by putting the duchess in her place, he badly misstepped.
“I see Vegerone hasn’t changed,” the marquise says when I get close.
I shrug, not wanting to damn myself by speaking. There are still too many people looking at me.
Beside the marquise is a woman I don’t know. They’re of the same age, and from the way they stand with their arms wrapped together, it’s clear they’re friends.
The woman tips her head toward the marquise, dark hair bumping against blonde. Her blue eyes sparkle when they meet mine. “For once, I think she may be denied what she wants. Lord Giroux certainly gave her the cut.”
“Where are my manners?” the marquise says. “Isabelle, this is the Princess de Conde. Princess, this is my ward, Isabelle de la Descoteaux.”
I was in the middle of taking a sip of champagne when she started speaking and have to gulp it down to keep from spitting it out in surprise. A princess! Lord, what has my life become?
“Madame de Conde, it is an honor,” I say, spreading my skirts with one hand and sinking low.
“The honor is mine, my lady,” she says, patting the marquise’s arm. “I’ve heard that you saved the life of my oldest friend. I can never thank you enough for that service.” Her eyes are kind as I rise and meet them. “My husband has heard the tale as well. He said that if the men he leads have half your courage, we’ll have the monarchy restored in a month.”
I can feel myself turning absolutely scarlet. “You are far too kind.”
Livy comes to my side to bolster me, wrapping her arm through mine and grinning up at me with encouragement and pride writ across her face.
“Now, why on earth did you let that minx lead your beau away from you?” the princess asks.
My gaze skirts past her to the towering figure standing halfway across the room. His expression is impassive as he listens to the stuffy-looking man on his right. “I wouldn’t say that he’s my beau.”
The princess lets out a low, cultured chuckle. “I’d hardly think you’d need to. The way his eyes eat you up says more than enough.”
The blush that had been dying back comes roaring up my face again. I take another sip of champagne to hide it. No wonder the princess and the marquise get on so well; they have the same teasing sense of humor.
“Ah,” she says, her smile softening. “I see I’ve embarrassed you. Forgive me. I forget how heady it is to be young and in love.”
For the second time in so few minutes, I almost choke on my drink. In love? Is that what everyone thinks?
The princess turns to the marquise. “Tell me more about this house your solicitor found in London. I have half a mind to join you there.”
Livy uses their distraction to drag me away. “What did Henri say to put that sour look on the duchess’s face?”
“It’s not so much what he said as how he behaved,” I answer, latching onto this chance to deepen her belief that our courtship is real. “She was very forward with him, and he all but ignored her as he deferred to me.”
She grins. “Oh, I bet she was angry. No one tells her no.”
“I hope she wasn’t too upset. Or if she was, that she blames him and not me.”
Livy scoffs. “Women like her always blame other women for their humiliations. You should probably avoid her the rest of the night.”
“I will,” I say, planning to take the advice. I might have heard tales of the court from Livy, but she was in it. She knows the cattiness, the competitiveness firsthand. She’s also much kinder than most of her peers, willing to see the good in people, willing to grant them some grace, which means that if she’s warning me away from the duchess, I should run the next time I see the woman.
Her smile falls as she stares past me toward where the duchess holds court with Lord Giroux at her side. “How could you say he was proper earlier?” She looks hurt, and I realize she must think I was lying to her after Lord Giroux’s display when we entered the drawing room.
“Because he was proper earlier,” I say, struggling for some plausible excuse for his change of behavior. “I was wearing a demure morning dress then, but look at me now.” I gesture over myself. “I knew this gown would be trouble.”
Her eyes slide down to my neckline and back up again, her lips quirking. “Even Jacques noticed your dress tonight.”
I stiffen. Oh, so I didn’t imagine that sideways look he sent me when we joined them at the top of the staircase. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, so distracted by Lord Giroux, but maybe I should have.
A few moments later, dinner is announced, and I spend a second night trapped between Jacques and Emanuel, with General Rouerie across from me as they discuss the war. The general is coughing more this evening than he was last night, and I wonder if he’s truly over his ague or if I should have Henrietta bring me some echinacea tea tonight to ward against catching whatever he has. Unlike last night, Livy seems to have given up on ignoring their conversation. For some reason, I’m comforted by the fact that she looks as miserable as I am. It makes me feel less alone as I bear witness to the discussion, and I know we’ll have plenty to talk about later besides my bizarre courtship. At least the marquise is spared our discomfort, having been seated near the princess instead of with us. Every now and then, I catch the sound of their laughter, and a pang of envy twists my gut. I barely touch my food, again, too anxious to eat.
Don’t look at him, I tell myself over and over again throughout dinner. But my eyes have developed a will of their own, and more than once, they rise to take in Lord Giroux.
He’s already looking at me when I lose the battle once more. One brow arches in a silent question as he glances down at my plate. That’s right; he told me I needed to eat more.
I maintain eye contact with him as I tilt my head toward Jacques, who is in the middle of describing a particularly gruesome quelling of another uprising in the south. I lift my brows a little, trying to convey the fact that I can’t eat while listening to this. If Lord Giroux’s ears are as good as I think they are, he must be able to understand.
He dips his chin and then turns to his father attentively, and I’m left staring at him, wondering about our voiceless communication and how it came about so easily.
After dinner, we’re led to the rose salon, and I take a seat with Livy on one of the pink settees that dot the room.
“I couldn’t eat a thing,” Livy says, looking mutinous. “Did you hear them? I can’t believe someone didn’t put a stop to that conversation. It was worse than last night.”
“It was,” I say as my stomach rumbles. I really should have forced myself to eat more.
Livy scoots forward. “I think I’m going to retire early again. I’m exhausted.”
“I’ll take you up,” I say, happy for the excuse to depart early. The duchess is all the way across the room, but I can feel her eyes on me.
I find the marquise quickly – she’s playing piquet with a group of women at a nearby table – and she dismisses Livy and me without much fuss, telling me that I should return once I deliver her daughter to her room. I think she fears that the duchess will steal Lord Giroux from me when the men return from their drinking break. It’s not an order, more a suggestion, and I’m grateful for that. I don’t want to come back down; I don’t think I could face this room without Livy.
An hour later, she and I are seated by my fire, our maids dismissed as we read. I found more than a few good books in the library on the third floor last week. But I haven’t been reading, not really. I’ve been too preoccupied with the strange direction my life seems to be heading.
There’s a knock on my door, and we both look up, surprised. I hope it’s not the marquise come to order me back down. I’m already in my nightgown and robe, and the thought of getting dressed again is anathema. I call out for the person to enter, and as the door swings open, I almost wish it was the marquise.
“Hello, Mallory,” I say.
“My lady.” She curtsies toward us and holds the door wide, allowing two scullery maids inside, each bearing a heavy tray. “Lord Giroux thought you might be hungry.”
The blood drains from my face as I glance from her to Livy, but Livy grins and stands from her chair, missing the fact that somehow Mallory knew we were both in here.
“Oh, thank God,” Livy says. “I’m starving.”
I join her in standing. “Thank you, Mallory. That was very thoughtful of him. Please give him our regards.”
The maids create a makeshift dining room out of my round sitting table, throwing a white linen cloth over it and setting out places for us. They even drag over one of the large candelabra so we have better light.
“Just tug the bell pull when you’re finished, my lady,” Mallory says, bowing her way out.
Livy and I take our chairs as soon as she’s gone, both of us ravenous. The room is full of the most delectable smells, and my mouth started watering as soon as I detected them. I pull the silver cap off my tray and find a large bowl of beef bourguignon beneath it. I nearly moan when the fragrance hits me. This is much simpler fare than what we were served at dinner, but it’s also heartier, and I’m grateful for that.
Across from me, Livy snaps out her napkin and places it on her lap before lifting her spoon. “This smells like heaven.”
Those are the last words spoken for some time. A warm loaf of crusty bread sits between us, and we drop all pretense of manners as we break off chunks and dip them in our stew. I eat every last drop, my eyes closing on the last spoonful. The beef is so tender that it falls apart in my mouth, the carrots and onions and red wine sauce spiced with thyme and parsley turning into something divine.
“That was incredible,” Livy says when she’s done. “I think I may actually sleep well tonight.”
We sit and digest for a few moments before I pull the bell for the scullery maids to collect our dishes. Even though I told Mallory to give him our regards, I have to remember to thank Lord Giroux myself the next time I see him. It was kind of him to think to send the food, especially since he noticed Livy in the same predicament as myself. How odd that he can set my blood on fire one moment and make me smile with genuine warmth and gratefulness the next. The man is a true enigma, and it makes me wonder what the coming days will bring.
I fall asleep full and sated just before the clock strikes eleven, blissfully unaware of what the rest of the night has in store for me.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.