“The men are returning to the field,” the marquise says the following day at breakfast. “There was some trouble in Foneteley Comte.”
I stifle a yawn as I pour myself another cup of tea. I’ve already cleared my plate of food and wonder how conspicuous it would be if I started piling more onto it. Last night’s exertions have left me ravenous.
“Emanuel and Jacques too?” Livy asks from beside me.
Her mother’s expression turns stony. “Yes.”
God bless it. Why do men need to throw themselves into danger over and over again? They’ve barely had a few days’ rest, and now they’re charging back out?
“The baron is going as well,” the marquise says. “To lead his men from the field. This time, it’s Henri remaining behind.”
“I wonder why?” Livy asks, her eyes sliding to me.
I keep my expression impassive. This news isn’t surprising. He has to stay if he’s to train me. A small, unwelcome twinge of guilt tugs at my conscience. The night of my surgery, he said he’d been a soldier his whole life, and I can’t help but feel that I’m keeping him from it. I’m sure he’d much rather be leading raids than playing host to us and suitor to me.
The marquise takes a sip of her hot chocolate, watching me over the rim. “The two of you looked quite handsome together last night. Both so tall, so striking. More than one woman remarked on it after you retired.”
“And the duchess, my la –?” I cut myself off. Exhaustion has me falling into old habits.
“Vivienne, did you mean?” the marquise says.
“Vivienne,” I correct, though it still feels odd to speak her given name.
She grins. “Was that a hint of jealousy I detected in your question?”
“Curiosity,” I say, though the burn in my chest belies that statement. Who wouldn’t be at least a little jealous of such a beautiful woman? “Lord Giroux has just started to show interest in me. I’m wondering if he’s keeping his options open.”
Vivienne shakes her head. “He’s not, from all appearances. Oh, he was perfectly polite to the duchess when she cornered him after you retired, but the conversation was over almost as soon as it started, and she was clearly disappointed when he left the party early.”
“He sent stew and bread up to us,” Livy says.
Her mother frowns. “Why would he do that?”
Livy’s expression darkens. “Because while you were busy laughing with the princess, Jacques and the general fixated on the war and its atrocities. Belle and I couldn’t even touch our food. Really mother, you need to speak to your eldest son about his dinner etiquette.”
“I didn’t notice. I’m sorry, girls,” she says, looking genuinely apologetic.
I set my tea down. “You weren’t close enough to hear.”
She inclines her head. “True, but I’m sorry nonetheless. You shouldn’t have to listen to that. What we read in the papers is awful enough.” Her gaze shifts to Livy. “I’ll speak to Jacques.”
Livy nods, but her brows are still pinched in annoyance.
Vivienne turns back to me. “That was very kind of Henri to notice your distress and send you both a decent meal.”
Livy responds before I can. “It was kind. I’m sure if he had been sitting closer, he would have stopped Jacques’ discussion.”
Vivienne’s smile turns into a stern frown as she regards her daughter. “I said I’ll speak to Jacques, and I will.”
Livy has the good sense to school her features into an expression of innocence as she becomes fully engrossed in selecting more fruit. She knows just how far she can push her mother’s leniency.
I realize with some surprise that it’s only taken her a day to go from being suspicious of Lord Giroux to seeing him almost as a protector. The baron’s words come back to me about how people convince themselves of certain things because it’s easier, safer even, than the alternatives, and I ponder that statement as I drink my tea. Maybe this won’t be as difficult as I feared. With war waging all around us, it makes sense that Livy and her mother crave some sort of distraction from it, and what better distraction than a potential love affair?
Livy spears her fork into a grape and asks her mother what else we missed after retiring. The marquise indulges her as she never has before, sharing even the juiciest bits of gossip. Livy listens with a rapt look on her face, and I’m happy that the dark thoughts are dissipating and she’s able to indulge in frivolous pleasures like harmless gossip.
I’m happy for her, even though I’m envious of her.
We’ve left the door to the drawing room open this morning, hoping to tempt a cross breeze through the windows. A late-season heatwave crept in during the night, and it’s much warmer this morning than it has been of late. No wonder I was so sweaty during my training session.
I hear a noise in the hall and turn to see Lord Giroux’s massive frame fill the doorway. His gaze latches onto me, looking me over before his eyes settle on mine. He must have been out riding again. His hair is a riot of black waves, brushed back from the wind, leaving his suntanned face on full display. The smile he shoots us as Livy and Vivienne turn toward him is wide enough to show off his dimples, and I swear I hear the marquise sigh beside me.
I fight back the urge to frown. In my mind, I see him as he was last night, cold and emotionless, and even though I think I understand his shifting moods now, it doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile how well he’s transitioned from stern instructor to dashing beau. It makes me feel oddly antagonistic, maybe a little competitive. I always did have to win the childhood games I played with my sisters. Perhaps a good way to deal with my current predicament would be to treat it like a competition and try to out-perform him.
Instead of frowning, I return his beatific smile, and a savage little thrill shoots through me when he blinks as if caught off guard.
He recovers quickly. “Good morning, ladies.”
“Good morning, cousin,” Vivienne says. “Back from your ride so soon?”
“Yes. You all look wonderful today.” His dark eyes sweep over our small party before landing on me. “I was hoping that I might steal away the older Mademoiselle Descoteaux from you. I’ve even provided a chaperone.” He steps aside to reveal Mallory loitering in the hall behind him.
The marquise grins. “Of course, you can. It’s such a beautiful morning for a stroll.”
“Excellent,” Lord Giroux says, reaching me in two long strides of his powerful legs. He proffers his arm and smiles down. “My lady?”
I smile back at him as I stand, ignoring the feel of corded muscle beneath my fingers as I twine my arm through his. Instead of an actress, I should simply ask him to instruct me. He looks truly happy, excited at the prospect of spending the morning with me. The veneer of danger that clung to him last night like a second skin is nowhere to be seen, washed away by the sunlight. Even his voice sounds different: smoother, more cultured. The change is spectacular. It’ll be a struggle to match it, but I’ve never backed down from a challenge, and I plan to rise to this one with enthusiasm.
“I trust you slept well?” he says when we’re in the hallway.
“I did. Thank you, my lord.” It was the first dreamless sleep I’ve had since arriving here. I don’t even think I moved once my eyes were closed.
“I would like very much for you to use my given name,” he says, softer.
I jerk my gaze up to his, feeling like I’ve just been slapped. His smile looks genuine. Why say that now? I want to ask him. There’s no one out here to witness it, just us and Mallory, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t count as an audience. Unless, for some reason…she does. Was I right in that she belongs to the baron? Do we need to perform for her as much as anyone else?
I look away as confusion sweeps through me. “All right.”
He ducks into my sightline, and I look over to see him arching a brow at me as if waiting.
“Henri,” I add, belatedly.
He grins and straightens. “May I use yours?”
I nearly snort. “You may.” No need to mention that he already has on several occasions, without my permission.
“Thank you, Isabelle,” he says, and there’s no heat in my name, no power. It’s just another word on his lips this morning. A little frisson of disappointment worms through me, and I stomp on it.
We reach the stairs, and I eye them warily. I’ve put a brave face on this morning, forcing myself to move as if every part of my body isn’t sore, so Livy and her mother don’t notice, but this staircase will probably out me. I’m not sure my legs can bend at the knee so many times without collapsing.
Henri slows our pace as he senses my trepidation. “Here,” he says, switching sides so that the railing is on my right and my left hand now rests on his arm. “You can brace yourself on both sides if you must.”
I sneak a glance up and see a teasing gleam in his eyes. “Is my stiffness that obvious?”
He shakes his head. “You hide it well.”
We descend the staircase slowly, Henri making idle conversation to excuse our sluggish pace. He pauses a few times to let me rest, pointing out one painting or another on the wall beside us and explaining who the portraits depict or which famous artists painted them. Even with one hand on the banister, I still have to brace most of my weight on his arm. He takes it effortlessly.
“How was breakfast?” he asks as we reach the bottom.
“Filling,” I answer, thinking of his order to eat more.
He chuckles as he leads us toward the garden again. I’m surprised to see Henrietta waiting for me by the rear door.
“The sun is strong this morning, my lady,” she says.
I pull away from Lord Giroux – no, Henri – noting the parasol in her hands. She hands it to me with an encouraging smile and a wink I’m sure he catches. The man doesn’t seem to miss anything.
“Thank you,” I tell her, putting warmth into my words.
She bobs a curtsy and then retreats. I’m sad to see her go. I’d much rather she was my escort.
When she’s gone, I slowly turn back to my companion, knowing that I’ve been stalling. He’s standing by the door, looking completely at ease, as if the energy that usually seeps from him has been coiled up within that large frame. His eyes are steady on mine, but this morning, with the sun falling around him through the large windows, I can almost imagine that they’re just eyes, that they’ve never flashed amber, and he is simply a man who wants to court me. And a handsome one at that. He isn’t a wraith or a rake, and he isn’t the stern instructor I faced just a few hours ago. I have to give it to him; he’s an incredible actor. Though now that I think about it, it makes sense. You’d probably have to be as a spy.
He raises his arm as I rejoin him, and I dutifully wind mine through his. We step outside. The heat of the morning wraps around me like a blanket as I open my parasol. Crickets chirp on the lawn, bees buzz nearby, and birdsong tumbles down from the treetops. Some of the tension leaves my shoulders as I drag in a deep breath. We descend the patio stairs, and once again, Mallory makes an excuse to leave us. We walk in silence for some time, turning into the large flowerbeds. They smell even stronger this morning, as if the heat has intensified their fragrance. My stride evens out as we walk, my tight, stiff muscles stretching out the longer I’m in motion.
“That color suits you,” Henri says, reaching down to pluck a flower and hand it to me. It’s blue, like my dress. The gesture is easy, unaffected, and I would be charmed by it if it were anyone other than him.
“Thank you,” I say, bringing the bloom to my nose to breathe in its luscious scent. No one has ever given me a flower.
“You’re welcome. With your coloring, you look beautiful in all shades.” He leans down, dropping his voice. “Even black.”
My pulse skips a beat as a blush steals up my cheeks. Even black, my foot, I want to tell him. I was a sweaty mess last night. How dare he say this after the way he treated me, dismissed me? I can’t respond for a moment, not trusting my tone or my words not to betray my irritation. Being argumentative will not help Livy or me.
I force my tone to remain neutral as I respond. “Black seems to suit you very well.” Black like your soul.
“God didn’t make me to wear pastels,” he remarks, referring to the current fashion popular among other men of his standing.
“No, he did not,” I say before I can stop myself. In my mind, I see him moving through that crowd of painted butterflies last night, a shadow stalking through the light. I’m starting to doubt that God had anything to do with his creation. Too late, I realize that my tone might have conveyed too much of my true feelings. “I didn’t mean that as an insult,” I add.
“I didn’t take it as one,” he assures me, his voice sliding lower, losing some of its refinement.
I look up. Even in the sunlight, something other has slithered back into his eyes. They look darker than a moment ago. What brought about this change? Is he lying, and he is insulted? Or is this something else?
I look away and say the first thing that comes to mind, desperate for a subject change. “Do you go riding every morning?”
“Yes,” he says. “It’s peaceful before everyone wakes. It gives me time to clear my head.”
I glance toward the tree line, remembering the still, quiet morning Livy and I took our ride to the village through the forest. “It’s very beautiful here. I’ve never been this far north before, never smelled so much pine,” I tell him, feeling, for some strange reason, like I’ve just let slip a little piece of my soul along with the words.
His arm shifts beneath mine, drawing me closer, and I have to tip my parasol sideways to keep from hitting him with it. “In winter, we get blizzards. It’s even quieter then, with sound muffled by a blanket of snow. The smell of frost and pine permeates the very walls of the chateau.”
I turn my gaze to the surrounding woods as he speaks, imagining this place painted in white. “It sounds magical.”
“It is. I was in Algeria three winters past,” he says, leading me to a bench. “And I missed it.”
I release his too-warm arm and take a seat, tucking my skirts to the side so he can join me. He folds his enormous body down and looks out over the gardens. I surreptitiously watch his profile, taking in the hard edge of his jaw, his tousled hair. I’m tempted to prompt him to keep speaking, wanting to learn something about him, anything that might help me make sense of this strange man.
“What’s it like there?” I ask.
He turns to me with a question in his eyes. “In Algeria?”
His gaze loses focus as if seeing a different vista in his mind. “The buildings are made out of stone and red mud bricks. If you think it was hot in Morcenx, then you have no idea what true heat feels like. The markets are open-air, and the smell of the spices baking in the sun is something I’ll never forget. It’s always been my habit to rise early, and I walked through those markets in the morning, surrounded by dark-skinned men and women draped in white cotton and linen. In summer, the sun was blistering by midday, and I would find myself thinking of this place, of the quiet of the forest and the trees blanketed in snow.”
“You missed home,” I say softly.
His eyes refocus on me. “I did.” He studies me a moment, his gaze roaming over my face while his expression remains frustratingly blank, giving me nothing. “What is it like where you grew up?”
I look past him to the pine trees, so unlike the towering oaks surrounding my father’s home. “My family’s property is on the edge of the marquis’. The trees there are primarily broadleaf. In the summer, the world is green; in the winter, it’s skeletal. My sisters and I played outside no matter the season. In the warmer months, we ran riot until dusk, but in the cold, only until our noses turned red or our nurse forced us indoors.”
“How many sisters do you have?” he asks.
“Three. All younger than myself.”
I shake my head, a small pang of old grief pulling at my heart. “I had a brother. His name was Louis. He died of a fever as a baby. The same one took my mother from us.”
“I’m sorry,” Henri says softly, and I almost believe the words.
I blink, coming out of my memories. “Thank you.”
He lifts a hand and cups my cheek, his long fingers spanning nearly the entire side of my head. My heart rate spikes, but I force myself to remain still. His thumb comes up and gently wipes under my eye.
“What are you doing?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper. If anyone saw us right now…
He leans in. “Brushing away a tear.”
I jerk back, wiping at my eyes with my gloved hand. In my experience, gentlemen can’t stand a woman’s tears. They’re either repelled by them or see them as weakness, and God knows I can’t afford to seem weak in front of him if I want to be ‘of use.’
Anger burns in my chest. “You don’t need to do that. No one is around to see us.”
He cants his head sideways and tips his forehead up, indicating the chateau and its large windows. “Ah, but they are.”
I frown, wondering what his sharp eyes detect that mine don’t. From our angle, all I see in the glass is the reflection of the forest and the sky. I pull my gaze from the windows back to Henri, who just confirmed something: he only touched me because we’re being observed.
“Why all this duplicity?” I ask. “You said yourself that I’m level-headed. If you told me of your intentions, I could have played into th –”
His hand is on me before I can finish the sentence, splayed across my cheek again, with his thumb over my lips to shut me up. “Shhh,” he says, voice so low I barely catch it. “Remember what I said last night.”
I search his face, thinking back. That I’m not out of the woods yet? Is that what he means? Are we being spied on even now?
As if he can read my thoughts, Henri shoots a sharp glance over my right shoulder, landing on something hidden in the forest, and then a second to our left, into the flower garden. The baron is so paranoid that he’s watching his own son?
My eyes flash wide, and Henri’s focus drops from them to my mouth. His thumb strokes over my lips, warm, rough, before he releases me. My instinct is to jerk back, out of his reach, but I lean forward instead. How much of a threat is his father that even his son is wary of him? I don’t want to find out, and if I have to throw myself at Henri to keep safe from the baron, so be it.
I tuck myself close to him and look up, keeping my voice low. “I’m sorry.”
He settles his arm along the back of the bench, bicep bracing up my back. “For?”
“Being naïve,” I say.
Something soft, almost like affection, enters his expression, though I don’t know if I can trust any look he sends me to be real. “You don’t need to apologize.”
“Do you expect your father to be gone long?” I ask. Please let him say yes. Maybe with him gone, Henri and I can drop this act and speak plainly for once. “I understand Jacques and Emanuel are to travel with him.”
The arm around me bends, and his fingers land on my waist. It’s just on the edge of propriety. My reputation won’t be ruined if we’re caught like this, but it will definitely spur the rumors on. “A few weeks, I think,” he says. “We’ve learned of a new republican outpost meant to supply their forces near Fontenley-Comte, and my father wants to welcome them to the Vendee.” The grin that pulls at his full lips has a hint of last night’s violence in it.
I fight back a shiver. “If you hear anything from them while they’re gone, will you tell me? We worry about Jacques and Emanuel.”
“Of course,” he responds easily, dipping his head toward mine. We stare at each other from inches away, and I do my best to ignore the way my pulse picks up in response. “With half the household gone, dinner will be subdued these next weeks. Perhaps you’ll finally be able to follow my order and eat a decent meal.” One eyebrow rises. Is he taunting me? Subtly scolding me for my disobedience? It’s not like I wanted to disobey him.
“I look forward to it,” I say. “Between the gossip and talk of the rebellion, I think that quiet dinners sound lovely. Thank you again for sending us food last night.”
He dips his chin and straightens, putting some much-needed distance between us. “You’re welcome. I was surprised to see you so affected by the discussion. Weren’t you in Paris long enough to witness some of the beheadings?”
I nod. “That’s why I was so affected. It made it all too easy to picture the violence and bloodshed.”
“Ah,” Henri says, unwrapping his arm from around me. He unfolds to his considerable height and offers me a hand up.
I take it and let him pull me to my feet. I guess our rendezvous is over. Why now? Did the baron see us out the windows, and now there’s no more need to put on a display? Or does Henri simply have some other engagement? Maybe he’s an even better actor than I thought, and the Duchess de Vegerone is waiting for him back in his bedroom.
We walk in silence until we reach Mallory, who steps out from behind a hedge to fall into place behind us. Was she who Henri looked at when he was warning me?
He leads me up the stairs, into the house, and all the way back to the marquise’s room, where she and Livy are likely already ensconced in their sewing. We pause at the closed door, and he turns to me.
“Thank you for walking with me. I would very much like to make a habit of it,” he says, his voice low as he moves closer. Too close.
My eyes travel from his broad chest up to his face, and in the dim light of the hall, some of his strange energy has returned, uncoiling from where it was bound up inside him. His features seem stronger, and shadows linger over them, making the prominence of his jaw and cheekbones stand out, turning his dark eyes into bottomless pools of black.
“You’re welcome,” I say, my voice thready. “I don’t see a reason not to make this habit; the marquise doesn’t seem to mind.”
Without a word, his hand finds mine in the folds of my skirts, and he raises it slowly. “Until tonight,” he says, the words sounding like some sort of seductive promise before he plants a lingering kiss on my glove. His eyes lock onto mine, and my breath catches as they flash in the dim light.
He releases me and strides away, taking his warmth and dark energy with him. I stare at his broad back until he disappears around the bend in the hall. It’s not real, I tell myself. None of that was real, and you would be a fool for responding to it. My mind recognizes and understands this; my body, however…
Mallory clears her throat, making me jump. “If that will be all, my lady?” She’s grinning like she just caught me doing something scandalous.
I flush furiously and ignore her, whirling into the marquise’s room. I almost run her and Livy over.
“Oh, um, we were just –” the marquise says, flushing as deeply as I am.
“Spying on you through the keyhole,” Livy finishes unabashedly, a huge smile on her face.
“Olivia!” her mother scolds, turning absolutely scarlet.
For once, I’m grateful for Henri’s hearing. I thought that performance in the hall was for Mallory alone, but he must have known Livy and Vivienne were on the other side of the door, and he put it on for them as well.
“We saw you in the garden too,” Livy says. “I thought for sure he was going to kiss you when he touched your face.”
“He didn’t kiss me.” I turn toward Vivienne. “He didn’t.”
She nods. “I know, but you must take more care. The two of you were very close; anyone could have seen it if he had. The choice to marry him would have been out of your hands after that.”
I pale. We’re walking a dangerous line indeed. I have to remember to be careful. It might all be an act, but it’s an act that has real consequences. Either I go too far with Henri and seal my own fate, or I don’t do enough, and the baron has less reason to keep me around.
Livy places a hand on my arm. “Belle? Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m just suddenly too warm after my walk. I think I’ll return to my room for a moment to refresh myself. Excuse me,” I say, sweeping out the door.
“I think we embarrassed her,” I hear the marquise say.
The hallway is blessedly empty, and I dab at my face as I return to my room. I wasn’t lying; I’m too warm. My heart is pounding in my chest, and my corset feels too tight. Henrietta is nowhere to be seen when I throw my door open, and I send a silent thank you to God as I shut it behind me and slide down it to land on the floor in a heap.
What am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do? I’m beginning to think that Henri is even more dangerous than his father. Will I be damned no matter how I behave? Are marriage or death my only options? There must be some way to thread the needle between them and escape this place with my soul intact. Maybe I can find some balance. Toe the line between flirtation and damnation with Henri. Be the perfect little soldier right up until we’re able to flee this place. I just have to stay vigilant. I need to ingratiate myself with the baron, make myself indispensable to him, and find some way to protect myself from his son.
I might know it’s all an act to Henri, but that doesn’t change my physiological response to him. I’d love to blame my feverish skin on our walk, but we hardly exerted ourselves. No, this is a different kind of heat, one that started low in my abdomen before spreading out to infect my entire body.
Lust. This is lust. God help me.
I’ve been fighting it since my first night here when Henri’s fingers pressed me to the operating table, and my pain was briefly drowned by wave after wave of desire. Had he noticed my nipples pebbling beneath the blanket that covered me? Did his heightened senses mean that he heard my fluttering heartbeat, smelled my arousal?
I close my eyes and rest my head against the door, picturing him as he was in the garden. Even sitting, he towered over me on that bench. His arm was warm and strong behind my back, and he smelled like leather, pine, and something headier that might have been musk. The way he’d leaned down, curling over me as he closed the distance between us, felt like a subtle invitation, a question I didn’t know how to answer. I touch my lips, remembering the rough feel of his thumb dragging over them. There was nothing subtle about that caress. No, it was more like a demand.
I want to laugh at myself. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was so certain that kisses should be soft, sweet, and full of feeling? Now I’m not so sure. The strength in Henri’s massive form has me craving something else. Something that has nothing to do with gentleness or affection.
Stop this, I beg myself, pressing the heels of my palms to my closed eyes. I’m most likely being watched, even now. I can’t sit here and unravel. I can’t shove my hand beneath my skirt and take the edge off my arousal. I shouldn’t even know how to do that, but I figured it out for myself a few years back after a late-night excursion to the kitchen in search of a midnight snack for Livy.
Instead of food, I found one of my fellow maids bent over the kitchen island, her fingers gripping its edge while a huge footman drove into her from behind. I’d clasped my hand over my mouth to keep in my gasp, but I doubt they would have heard me over their moans. Her skirts were thrown over her waist, giving me a clear view of what the footman did to her. I hadn’t been the same since, couldn’t get the memory out of my head no matter how much I tried to pray it away.
Later, I tell myself. After everyone has gone to sleep, before I’m summoned to Henri, I can close the curtains of my bed and deal with this inappropriate and unbidden desire. For now, I’ll just have to resolve myself to being uncomfortable the rest of the day.
I take several deep breaths before standing and striding over to the vanity mirror. It’s impossible to ignore the dampness between my thighs, and I swear I can still feel the callous of Henri’s thumb across my lips, the heat of him burning into me.
You can do this, I tell my reflection.
I try to believe that while I smooth my hair back into place and straighten my dress, but the face staring back at me shows just how unbalanced I truly am. My eyes are too wide, brows high. The lingering flush of desire tints my cheeks pink, and my lips look fuller and redder than normal as if they’d just been kissed. Even my breasts feel heavier inside my corset, like my entire body swelled and softened, trying to tempt Henri into it.
God help me. I am in so much danger.
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.