I’m wrenched awake as a hand clamps down on my mouth. Mallory leans over me in the dying firelight, a finger pressed to her lips to indicate silence. I try to struggle up and get nowhere. She easily holds me down, the strength in her limbs shocking.
“You’re to come with me,” she says in a whisper. “Don’t scream.” She pulls her hand away as if she can sense I’m a heartbeat away from biting her.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” I seethe, voice low as I scramble upright.
“He’s waiting for you,” she tells me, and I go still, knowing immediately who he is.
“Have you lost your mind?” I demand. “I’m not meeting him at this hour.”
She clucks at me and shakes her head. “You thought your training would take place during the day?”
I open my mouth. Then close it. Well, yes, I suppose I had thought that.
She must see the confirmation in my eyes because her own crinkle with dark humor. “Spies live at night.”
“I’m not a spy,” I say. “This is completely improper. What if I get caught out of bed?”
The look she gives me makes it clear she thinks I’m an idiot. “I’ve locked both of your doors, and someone will be here to watch. If anyone should try to enter, you’ll be back quick enough to open your own door with none the wiser. Now get up. You have work to do.”
Maid, my foot. She’s no more a maid than the marquise. Muttering, I get out of bed, and she hands me my dressing gown. I pull it on without argument. What choice do I have? “I’m to go to him in this?”
“No one will see you,” she says.
“I don’t want him to see me.” If his gaze felt like a brand when I wore layer after layer of clothing, I can only imagine what it would do to me now.
Mallory shakes her head. “He won’t see you like that. You’ll change before we get there.” Her expression turns serious for once. “And you should know, propriety has nothing to do with our line of work, so you might as well get over it.”
I glare at her back as she turns from me. She walks to the wall and pushes something. To my shock, a panel at the bottom of it slides open.
“You have got to be joking,” I say, grabbing a second candle and marching over to her.
After my first suspicions that I was being watched, I checked every nook and cranny of this room. I found nothing. Not only that, but there is a room next to mine, opposite Livy’s, which I snuck into one day. I didn’t see anything suspicious in there either, certainly no hint of hidden depths that might excuse the sudden appearance of this door. The dimensions of the house must be different in places, allowing for passages to fit between rooms in a way that’s difficult to detect. It certainly fooled me.
“After you,” Mallory says, a challenge in her voice.
Not willing to let her under my skin any further than she already is, I light my candle on hers and duck down to crawl through the panel. As soon as I clear it, I’m able to stand. The soft light of my candle fills the narrow corridor. It’s unfinished, with the studs and wood framing exposed, reminding me of a ribcage. I turn and notice a spiral staircase to my right that leads up and away. My head spins. Even in my most paranoid state, I never could have imagined what hid behind my bedroom wall.
Mallory joins me and turns to tap a rather obvious-looking knob. I suppose there’s no need to hide the closing mechanism on this side. The panel swings back into place, and I follow her when she passes me and begins to take the stairs. We ascend for nearly two floors, reaching a small platform halfway between to turn 180 degrees and take the next flight up. It deposits us in front of another door, and we pass through it into a finished hallway that’s so narrow it feels like we’re walking through the dark arteries surrounding the very heart of the chateau. She leads me to a door on the left, and I step inside a surprisingly large room. The walls are lined with bureaus, barely an inch of the whitewash visible between them.
Mallory moves toward one and opens the tall doors to pull out black garments, throwing them on a threadbare couch in the center of the strange room. My gaze wanders to the rest of the bureaus, and I wonder what I’d find if I opened them. More nondescript black, or every kind of costume a spy could ever want, the clothes of pirates and whores, peasants and kings?
“Come here. I’ll help you,” Mallory says in her usual brash way.
I walk over to her and set my candle down on a table. She helps me from my robe and nightgown, and I shudder in the chill air of the room, standing in nothing but my undergarments, my hands cupped over my breasts.
She tosses the edge of a long white strip of linen at me. “Hold this. We’ll need to bind you up.”
I take it with shivering fingers, wondering what she means. I find my answer a moment later when she winds around me, pulling the linen tight across my chest, and binding my breasts. Afterward, she has me don my costume. It’s a suit of men’s clothing, with tight leggings and a black shirt and vest over it. The vest has ties on the sides, and she tightens them firmly, further keeping me in place. I pull on thick socks and have to try on three pairs of boots before we find ones that fit properly. Finally, she has me sit so she can re-braid my sleep-tousled hair.
She gives me a once-over when she’s done. “Jump.”
I frown. “Excuse me?”
“Just do it,” she says, a low warning note in her tone.
I heave out a sigh and do as she asks, feeling completely ridiculous.
“Are you bound tight enough?” she asks.
Damn it. I didn’t notice, thanks to my irritation, and I have to jump again before I can answer. “It’s tight enough.”
She smirks at me and saunters from the room, picking up her candle as she goes. “Coming?”
I really don’t like her, I muse as I follow, taking deep, calming breaths. We don’t go far, just to the first door on the right.
She opens it for me and stands aside. “After you.”
I walk past her, ignoring her smirk. When the door shuts behind me, I realize she’s played the same trick on me she did this morning, closing me inside while she remains without. She is the worst chaperone ever.
“I apologize for the lateness of the hour,” a voice crawls out of the darkness.
I jump, my heart pounding as I turn. I’m in a long room from what little I can make out. The ceiling is somewhere high above me, and I think I must be in part of the attic.
“Lord Giroux?” I ask.
I lift my candle and see a dark outline at the edge of my periphery, as if the shadows have coalesced there. It reminds me of the first time I saw him, standing like a wraith on the stairs of the chateau.
Amber eyes flash in the candlelight, and I take an instinctive step back, wary. I’m going to kill Mallory for leaving me. What in the name of heaven was I thinking following her so blindly? Damn my pride. I should have questioned her more, demanded that she stay in this room. My pulse hammers against my temples as I take a second step back, hitting the wall. I nearly drop my candle in surprise, but somehow, I keep it aloft. All the while, those eyes have been on me, tracking me as I retreat. I try and focus on my father’s lesson about fear, but some primeval part of my mind is panicking as if it suddenly recognizes why I should be terrified of the dark.
Lord Giroux pads out of the shadows on silent feet. The candlelight dances over his black clothing, so similar to mine, and highlights the contours of his face. Watching him move toward me makes me think of the barn cats I had growing up. They stalked mice in the same slow, patient prowl.
“Give me the candle,” he says.
“No,” I refuse, my panic increasing with each step he takes.
He stops out of reach. “I’m only going to light the wall sconces.”
I press my shoulders into the wall behind me, wishing I didn’t feel so trapped. “I don’t believe you.”
Irritation creeps into his expression. “Why not?”
I shudder and struggle not to close my eyes. “Because you’re frightening me.”
His lips twitch up into something too dark to be a smile. It does nothing to calm my heartbeat. “There is one to your right,” he says, his tone almost taunting. “By all means, you may light it yourself.”
I don’t want to look away from him. I really don’t. He reminds me too much of his father right now, and I’ve been lunged at enough for one day, thank you very much. But the only way to see if he’s telling the truth is to look, so I shoot the quickest glance possible to the side. Sure enough, there’s a sconce there. I keep my eyes on him as I lift my candle and get it lit with shaking fingers. The warm glow flares around me, somehow making me feel safer. I’m sure it’s a false sense of security, but I cling to it even as I cling to my candle holder, thinking I can use it to bludgeon him if push comes to shove.
“Now may I take the candle?” he asks.
I grip it tighter. “I think I’ll hold onto it.”
“I mean you no harm, Isabelle,” he says, and God help me, he speaks my name just like he did on the balcony.
I shudder as he steps forward. He stops within striking distance, maintaining eye contact as he reaches out, and wraps his fingers around mine oh-so-gently. A small zap shoots up my arm from the connection, reminding me of the time lighting struck close to my bedroom window, and all the hair on my body stood on end.
What is this? I wonder, staring down at where we touch.
His other hand comes up, and then he pulls the candle from my numb fingers and turns away. I suck in a ragged breath, watching him light one sconce after another. They’re set at even intervals around the room, and as the light brightens, my eyes move from him to take in my surroundings. The space is enormous. It must run half the length of the house. Around the outside edge of it, there appears to be a path marked out in white paint. It reminds me of a horse track. In the center, various objects are scattered about. There’s a beam, maybe five inches across, propped up two feet off the floor that runs half the length of the track’s interior. There are weights, weapon racks, ropes that ascend towards the ceiling some thirty feet overhead, target boards, sparring dummies – the list goes on and on.
“You can come further into the room. I don’t bite,” Lord Giroux says as he lights the last sconce, just ten feet from me on the other side of the closed door.
Said the spider to the fly, I nearly blurt. Instead, I force myself to take a step forward, then another, and another until I’ve reached the edge of the track.
“What is this place?” I ask, turning to look at him. In the light, he’s more subdued than a moment ago, less terrifying than he was in the darkness. Still, that edge of violence lingers, and I remain wary.
He blows out the candle and sets it down on a low stool. “It’s a training room.”
Training? I muse, looking back over the equipment. I have no idea what half of these objects even do. He comes to stand near me as I survey it all, moving in that unsettling way at the edge of my vision. Funny, he seemed to move like a normal man in the light of day. Maybe that was because anyone could have seen him. Here, alone with me, he doesn’t have to pretend.
That thought strikes me hard. Pretend to be what? part of me wonders.
“Am I to be summoned here every night?” I ask, speaking to stop my mind from continuing down that dark path.
He nods. “It works best this way. I doubt a prolonged absence each day would go unnoticed by Olivia and her mother.”
Damn it all, he’s right. I could never get away with that. I indicate the room with a wave. “So, what would you have me do?” I want to get this over with. I’m frightened and missing sleep. If I begin to wake up with bags under my eyes every morning, not only Henrietta but also Livy and the marquise will notice, and there are only so many lies I can tell.
“For starters, I will teach you to run,” he says.
I frown. “I know how to run.”
“Do you?” he muses, and irritation creeps in to join my fear. “Run five laps around the track, and then we’ll talk more.”
I bristle at his tone. It’d be one thing if I expected him to be curt and domineering, but this is the first time I’m seeing this facet of his personality, and I don’t know how to reconcile it. I open my mouth to comment on his sudden insolence, but he narrows his eyes and scowls at me, cutting off my words before I can get them out.
“Here,” he begins, his tone ominous. “You will do what I tell you, when I tell you. Here, I am not a lord, your host, or your beau. Here, I am your teacher. You’re not out of the woods with my father, and we’re working on a limited schedule, you and I. If I’m to teach you enough that he will find you useful, we need to move quickly. We can’t do that if you argue with me at every turn.”
I take a deep breath, shoving aside my annoyance and letting his words can sink in. I don’t even answer him – I’m too confused to think straight at this point – I simply turn and begin to jog the perimeter of the room, following the track, deciding I’ll have plenty of time to try and sort through my emotions while I run.
I’m not out of the woods yet. Therefore, I must still be in danger. If I’m in danger, so is Livy. I wasn’t lying to her when I said the baron is practical. I hope never to find out just how practical he can be, how cutthroat, and as I take my first lap, getting used to the feel of the boots on my feet and the freedom in my limbs, I resolve to follow every instruction his confusing, frustrating, terrifying son gives me.
I round the curve, and he comes back into sight. I almost falter for a step. He stands stock still with his arms crossed over his chest. Belatedly, I realize he’s not wearing a jacket. His shirt clings to the heavy muscles of his upper body, his shoulders straining at the seams. Those dark eyes watch me impassively, with none of their earlier fire. I wrench my own away to stare at the floor in front of my feet.
Here, I am not your beau. I nearly laugh at that. I have never once felt like he was. I can barely keep up with his ever-shifting moods. He keeps me so unbalanced that it’s hard to determine my feelings one way or another. Well, aside from the fact that I’m more than a little afraid of him. That much is obvious. But do I even like him? I don’t think so. Do I dislike him? That question is tricky as well. Unlike his father, he hasn’t threatened my life, and after his little speech, before I started running, it seems as though he’s pretty keen on making me into someone useful to the baron. I suppose that means he wants to keep me alive. But why? What does he truly feel for me?
I don’t look up as I pass him. Instead, I think back over all our strange interactions. That first night when he held me down on the operating table, he helped me through my pain. And yet the way his fingers lingered over my neck and chest was far from saintly. The next time I saw him, he caught me at the blacksmith’s and seemed angry, barely speaking to me. Then there was that fleeting moment on the balcony when I thought he would attack me. But this morning, he was perfectly polite, as if it never happened. Before dinner, I thought he might attack me in an altogether different way, and then at dinner, he noticed Livy and I didn’t eat and sent us food, which would hint at kindness again. But now he’s being downright rude.
This isn’t a courtship; this is insanity. No wonder I’m so confused.
I pick up my pace as I round the curve opposite him, having finally gotten used to the boots and the fact that I can actually move my legs. My pulse hammers through my body, and my breathing deepens.
Two, I think, counting the lap.
If I continue to analyze Lord Giroux and his behavior, I’m going to drive myself mad. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to it, so I’m going to have to adjust my perspective if I want to keep a level head around him. Since I can’t anticipate his moods, I’ll have to become reactive and deal with each one as they come.
I take another deep breath as my resolve hardens, some of the tension draining away.
Three, I think, taking another lap.
My breaths come faster, and I regulate them as much as I can if only to keep some control over my already elevated heartbeat. As I run, my muscles slowly start to relax, releasing the tension, anxiety, and adrenaline that have built up in them over the past month. It takes a weight off my body, and I settle into my stride as I approach Lord Giroux for the fourth time.
“Thank you for dinner,” I pant as I pass him again. Even though his moods are erratic, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be polite when I can. It was thoughtful of him to send the stew; it would be rude of me not to thank him.
“You’re welcome,” he says, following me with his eyes.
I tear my gaze away and take my last lap, focusing on my breathing as my lungs work and my chest expands, straining against the bindings with each breath. When I’m done, I keep going past him, walking a little to calm myself. I get halfway around the track and turn back around, my hands on my hips. I haven’t run like that in years. It felt…good.
Lord Giroux looks me over when I reach him, but instead of heat in his gaze, he’s inspecting me like a farmer would a lame horse. “You have the right proportions for prolonged running, and your stride is better than I thought it would be. Take another five laps.”
What? Another five? I open my mouth but shut it almost immediately when he gives me a threatening look. Stupid, frustrating, impossible man!
I turn and start to run again.
“Straighten your spine,” he calls as I jog away from him. A few moments later, he yells out another command. “Open up your shoulders and run with the good form you were taught to walk with. It will help your breathing.”
I do as he says as I take my sixth lap. It’s uncomfortable at first, and my body keeps wanting to curve forward. I have to fight to stay upright for a while, but by the time I pass him again, the rest of me is adjusting to the better form. My hips and arms don’t move as much like this, and I already feel like I’m expending less energy.
“Your legs are long for a woman, use them,” he says. I make an adjustment and see him shake his head out of the corner of my eye. “No, not like that. Your stride is shorter than it could be. Expand it.”
I follow the order, sweat beginning to bead on my brow as I pass him on my seventh lap. Wonderful. Now I’m openly sweating in front of him. No, this is certainly not a courtship.
“Lengthen it more,” he calls when I’m halfway through the lap.
I stretch out even more, and my body protests at first, tired and annoyed and over this lesson already. And then I settle into the stride as I realize I can handle it.
Eight, I count when I reach him. A drop of sweat slips down my face, and I dash it away. If I had trouble looking at him before, I have no idea how I’ll ever do so again. My shirt is damp beneath the vest. Stray hairs are starting to stick to my neck. I’m sure that my face is crimson from the fatal combination of embarrassment and exertion.
“Pick your eyes up,” he commands. “Don’t look at the ground in front of you; look at the wall you’re approaching. You’ll keep breaking form if you don’t.”
I do what he says because he’s been right about everything else so far, lifting my gaze to the exposed studs of the back wall. I start to unfold, wondering when I’d curved in on myself again. Okay, fine. Perhaps I do need to be taught how to run after all.
Nine, I think. I’m beginning to have trouble keeping my pace steady. My breaths are loud and ragged, and my legs, hips, and even my stomach are starting to cramp. The last lap is hard, and I have to fight to stay upright, to keep my stride long, and look up instead of at my feet. When I’m done, I have to walk an entire lap, my hands on my hips as the stew threatens to reappear.
Lord Giroux is quiet when I stop near him, making sure to keep plenty of space between us. All I can hear is my pounding heart and my unladylike panting.
“Tonight, I need to see what you can do,” he says. “I need to learn your strengths and weaknesses so that I know what we should focus on. That was your first test. Now we’ll move on to knives.”
He turns and walks away from me, lifting a hand and twitching a finger as if I’m a hound he’s calling to heel. I try to set him on fire with my mind as I follow on shaking legs. It doesn’t work. He stops near a tall chest of thin drawers and opens the top one to reveal row after row of gleaming knives. They range in size from just a few inches to the length of my forearm. His back is to me, and I use my sleeve to dab some sweat from my face, shocked at how wet the fabric is when it comes away. Well, that settles that then. One problem solved. I’ve never felt less attractive in my life. Surely Lord Giroux is equally repulsed by me right now, and we can be done with our courtship before it ever really got started.
He plucks five matching blades from the drawer with deft fingers and turns to me. I look at the knives as he hands them over. They’re finely wrought, and I wonder if Rufus made them. I can only hope that those he’s making for Livy and me will be so fine.
Lord Giroux lifts a hand and points to a wooden circle two feet in diameter that stands around head height some ten feet from me. “There is your target.”
I take a deep breath, trying to calm my still racing heart. I’m glad he’s chosen knives first. It’s something I excel at.
To my horror, another drop of sweat falls from my chin and lands on the floor with an audible splat. I quickly wipe my face with the back of my sleeve and tell myself to get over my embarrassment. The damage is already done. He’s seen me as a sweat-slicked, red-faced nightmare, and there’s no use worrying about it for another second. It’s not like I wanted him to find me attractive in the first place.
Concentrate, I tell myself, looking at the target.
It’s no use. Lord Giroux stands close enough that I can see him out of the corner of my eye. In my peripheral vision, he looks larger than he is, a feat that shouldn’t be possible. His shape even seems slightly distorted, and I wonder if it’s because of my exertion. It would seem singularly unfair if I fainted now while holding a handful of knives.
“Can you move back a little? Please?” I ask him.
He doesn’t answer, but he does step back, and I let out a small sigh of relief. It’s easier to focus on the target without him distracting me. I shift one of the knives to my right hand and test its weight on the tips of my fingers. The balance is perfect, as I should have known it would be, much better than the kitchen knife I killed that sans culottes with. Taking a deep breath, I let my eyes unfocus and then refocus again on the target, trying to push everything else away. I raise my hand and pull it back with the knife’s hilt between my fingers, then breathe out and throw. It strikes the outer edge of the target.
Damn. My aim is off. I shift another knife to my right hand and throw it in the same manner. It misses completely, and I grind my teeth together. I’m still not focused the way I should be. I can sense Lord Giroux at my back like a beacon, can feel his…energy, for lack of a better word, swirling around my ankles, twining up my calves. I’ve been steadily ignoring it, trying to convince myself that it’s not there, that it isn’t a visceral thing, but that’s hard to do when I can feel it wafting over me like a gentle breeze.
I push it aside again, thinking back to the road and that eerie sense of calm that descended upon me amid all the chaos. It seemed to emanate from an entirely different part of my mind, a part that doesn’t mind sweating and thinks the knife’s weight in my hand is just an extension of myself. I search for that part now, that savage being that sits nearer to the surface than I care to admit. Closing my eyes, I coax her to the forefront, and when I open them again, all I see, all I feel is the target.
I throw my next knife on an exhale, and it strikes the center of the bullseye. The next two land so close that the blades are almost touching. I step forward and retrieve the knives, and when I turn, it’s to see him studying me with his head canted sideways.
“What just happened?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
His eyes narrow. “Something changed with those last three knives. You changed.”
Oh, the irony of him saying that to me. I shrug. “I simply focused.”
He shakes his head and gestures to the target. “Do it again.”
I return to my spot and do as I’m told, and all five knives hit almost dead center of the target, crowding the bullseye.
Lord Giroux studies me for a long, silent moment before speaking. “How is your other hand?”
“It was good before I was shot, but I haven’t thrown with it since.”
“Try it out,” he says.
I move much slower and handle the knives awkwardly because of the lack of movement in my ring and pinky finger. Even the savage part of me can’t overcome it, and I only manage to stick one knife into the wood. Three miss, and my last hits the wood but bounces off, not having been thrown with enough force. It’s disappointing to see that I’ve lost so much to the injury.
“You’ll need to regain the strength in that arm,” he says, this time fetching the knives himself. My eyes roam over his black hair and broad back before I manage to stop them from drifting lower. “Does it still hurt?”
“Some,” I confess. “Mostly when I’m not paying attention and overburden it.”
He nods. “How is your swordplay?”
“Passable.” I haven’t sparred with a decent partner since Charles, and I know I’m more than a little rusty.
“Show me,” he says after putting the knives back in their places. He moves to a rack of swords, selecting a capped rapier.
I join him, looking over the gleaming weapons before selecting the mate to his. It’s light in my hand. Did he choose these blades because he knows I’m tired and didn’t want to overburden me? Is thoughtful another emotion I need to add to the growing list in my mind? Tightening my fingers around the leather-wrapped pommel, I test its weight, much as I did the knives. I have to admit it feels good in my grip.
Lord Giroux moves to a large circle within the track, and I follow him, trying not to drag my feet. I’m already tired from running, and I’m sure my swordplay will suffer for it.
“En guard,” he says. I take up a defensive stance in response. “Slowly,” he instructs, moving his large, black-clad body toward me, the capped tip of his sword pointing at my chest.
He steps to the side, and I mirror him as we begin to circle each other. I keep my left hand out for balance as I sidestep, my focus never leaving his sword. I should be watching his face, his eyes. The eyes are what gives away a person’s intent, but I can’t bring myself to look at his. I simply can’t.
Thankfully, I don’t have to. His lunge is slow enough that I have plenty of time to turn the tip of his blade. He steps back. We circle again.
“Good,” he says, switching direction, moving with a slow grace that speaks of power and control. My father would have loved to have a student like him.
Stop fixating on his body. You don’t even like him, I scold myself, needing to focus. Just in time, too, for he lunges again, faster this time, and I turn his blade once more. He quickly brings it back around to my other side, and I pull mine in and down to deflect the blow. He steps back. We repeat the exercise for a good ten minutes as he comes at me from angle after angle, testing my ability and watching my form with exacting eyes.
“Your footwork is good,” he says, pulling up his blade in a show of pausing.
I drop the cap of mine to the floor, my arms shaking. “Thank you.”
“And you know all the stances and seem to move through the forms with some proficiency,” he adds. “We’ll need to focus on your speed. You’ll likely be facing men if you ever engage in swordplay, and that quickness is your best shot at having an advantage.”
I nod. My father said nearly the same thing while training my sisters and me.
“Switch hands,” he says.
This will be ugly, I think.
It is. We start the process again, and within the first minute, I feel a pull on my shoulder. I can’t hide my wince the fourth time I turn his blade away, and he sees it and pauses.
“We’ll stop here,” he says. “I don’t want you to overexert your injury.”
We return our swords in silence and move on to archery. I can only pull the arrow back once, my left arm shaking violently, having reached its limit. I’m forced to release the tension without firing.
“I’m sorry,” I say as Lord Giroux takes the bow from me.
“Don’t be. You tried,” he says simply, stoically.
I lift my gaze as he turns and unstrings the bow, the muscles in his back bunching in a way that’s more than a little distracting. He hangs the wood over the rack he pulled it from and then turns back to me. I look quickly down again.
“Can you throw a punch?” he asks.
“I haven’t in a long time,” I answer with trepidation. I want to go to sleep. I don’t even know if I can raise my fists.
“Hit my palm,” he says, pulling up his arms to splay his long fingers out in front of me.
I shove down my exhaustion, embarrassment, and confusion and focus instead on his hands. They’re calloused, hardly the hands you’d expect from a young lord. I ball my own into fists, pull back my elbow, and let fly, hitting the middle of his warm palm with a smack.
“Turn your fist horizontal this time,” he tells me.
I do as he instructs and hit his hand again, ignoring the warmth along my knuckles and the energy that spikes through my arm.
“We’ll need to work on your form,” he says, finishing the exercise after only a handful of punches.
I’m not surprised by his quick assessment; my father taught us little of boxing, wanting to teach us more about how to keep people from ever reaching us than what to do if they did.
“This way,” Lord Giroux says as he moves toward the large beam suspended over the floor. At least he’s graduated to verbal instruction instead of finger twitches. “Here’s where your earlier practice will come in handy. Walk the length of the beam.”
I eye it for a moment before acquiescing, taking inventory of my aching muscles. I’m going to topple – I just know it – and I’m not sure how much more embarrassment I can take tonight. Surely there’s a limit to how much humiliation a lady should have to endure from her ‘beau’?
Taking a deep breath, I place one foot on the beam and then push off with the other, keeping my arms out wide for balance. Lord Giroux comes to my side and lifts his hands, not touching me but ready to grab if I start to fall. I might appreciate the gesture if his nearness didn’t threaten the sanctity of my balance.
“Go slowly,” he rumbles as I lift my back foot.
My right leg wobbles, but miraculously, it holds my weight as I take my first unsure step forward. I take another, feeling more confident, and tip sideways. His hands are on me immediately, one around my waist, the other grabbing my right arm, his fingers completely circling my bicep. He rights me easily, without comment, and lets me go when I stabilize. I take a deep breath, ignoring the lingering heat from his touch, all the areas that feel like they’ve been seared by lightning. Does he have any idea how much he unbalances me? Both mentally and physically? Doesn’t he realize how intimidating his large, silent presence is beside me? This would be so much easier if he went back to being the polite man who showed me around the garden.
I take the next step with excruciating slowness and remain upright if only to keep his hands from me. I take another with the same focus. Then another. Somehow, I’m guessing by sheer willpower alone, I make it to the end of the beam without him having to assist me again, though my legs are now aching with the effort of keeping me balanced while already tired.
“We’re done for the evening,” he says as I jump to the floor. “Mallory is waiting for you in the hallway.” With that, he turns and walks toward the heavy-looking leather balls that sit not too far from us.
I frown at his retreating form, chafing at the obvious dismissal. Did I do well? Does he think he can make me useful to his father? I want to ask him these questions, but at the same time, I don’t, too afraid of the answers. Instead, I turn and leave, padding to the door and trying to stem the frustrated tears that threaten.
Mallory is waiting just like he said, leaning against the wall outside with her arms folded over her maid uniform. She straightens when she sees me, and I quickly wipe at the tear that falls from my eye, angry that she’s seen it. I expect some sort of antagonism from her, but she turns and walks down the hall without a word. Thank God for small miracles. I’m not sure how much more I could take tonight before breaking down.
She opens a door to the left and stands aside. It’s a different room than the changing one, and I peek in to see a bathtub filled with steaming water in the center of it. There’s a tray on a stand beside it, dotted with soaps and jars. Draped over the small chair nearby are my clothes from earlier.
“I trust you can bathe yourself?” Mallory quips.
“Yes,” I say, striding past her.
I turn around just in time to catch her humorless smile before she closes the door on me. This time I’m not even bothered by it. I quickly unlace the stays at the sides of the vest and wrench it off. My boots are next, and I fall to the chair as I untie them. My shirt follows them to the floor, and I freeze. Is that smell…me? Oh, God. I stare at the sweat-soaked material of my discarded shirt, thinking of Lord Giroux’s heightened senses and wondering if smell is among them. Is that why he was so quick to dismiss me?
If I had been embarrassed before, I am well and truly mortified now. And angry.
I stand and strip the tight breeches from my legs with furious movements, then remove the rest of my garments with shaking fingers, unwinding my bound breasts last. Finally free of clothing, I ease myself down into the steaming water. I have to go slowly because compared to the chill of the room, it’s near scalding. I have no idea how the water got up here into the tub or what servants were involved in hauling it. I also don’t especially care right now. I’m too thankful for it, for the way the heat is already going to work on my stiff body.
My backside hits the bottom of the copper tub, and I pull my arms in and lean back, sinking until the water reaches my chin. A deep breath sighs out of me. I wait until the worst of my anger drains away before I start to wash, able to recognize that my anger was caused by my humiliation. Pride has always been my greatest sin. Even if I don’t particularly like Lord Giroux, especially right now, it doesn’t keep me from wanting him to see me as a young woman of worth and substance. I think I’ve grown especially sensitive to appearances since my change in rank, and that comes down to feeling like a bit of an imposter. I want to feel like I’ve truly earned my status, and it’s made me allergic to the idea of letting the marquise down in any way or letting anyone see me as anything but the young noblewoman she turned me into.
Lord Giroux just saw me at my worst, and that rankles.
Propriety has nothing to do with our line of work, so you might as well get over it, Mallory said. It might be easy for her to do so, but I can’t, not when a single misstep could spell my demise and bring dishonor to my new family. All it would take is the wrong person seeing me sneaking about with Lord Giroux to seal my fate.
I lift a rosemary-scented bar of soap from the bath accessories and scrub my tired flesh, looking back over tonight. I resolved to keep an open mind, not to analyze Lord Giroux’s mood swings, but that might be difficult in the long run. I don’t think of myself as someone easily led astray or fooled. It might be my pride speaking, but I’ve always felt like I’m a good judge of character, and I excel at reading the moods of others. I had to be in my line of work; it made it easier to anticipate Livy’s needs. All that training is failing me in the face of Lord Giroux.
God, the way he looked at me before dinner…
I don’t think I imagined the heat in his eyes, the open desire in his expression. He sure went out of his way to mark me in front of the duchess and half the dinner guests. Does he genuinely desire me, or was that something else? I’m leaning toward something else. If he wanted me, wouldn’t he have done something about it in the past hour? We were entirely alone. Anything could have happened, and no one would have known but he and I. It’s a large part of why I’d been so afraid the whole time. But there wasn’t even a hint of that earlier heat in his eyes. Not once.
It makes me think that I’m not as good a read of people as I believed, and that whole scene with the duchess was an act. But why? The most plausible explanation is that Lord Giroux simply doesn’t want me to die. He said I’m not out of the woods with his father, and one way to keep the baron from killing me would be to convince him that his son has feelings for me. Surely the baron wouldn’t murder the woman he’s openly courting?
That must be it, I tell myself, dunking my head beneath the water. It explains everything, all of Lord Giroux’s behavior toward me. The lingering tension drains from my body as I break the surface. This is good. I can work with this, play into his act, and do everything in my power to keep myself and especially Livy safe from the baron’s wrath.
I rinse off and dry quickly, feeling better than I have all day. Mentally, at least. My exhaustion can’t be denied much longer, and I pull my nightgown and robe on and step into the hall to find Mallory waiting for me. She leads me back to my bedroom without a word, leaving me to duck through the sliding panel alone. I immediately crawl into bed, utterly spent, and fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.
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.