I’m a heartbeat away from dashing from the room when Lord Giroux’s gaze lands on me. I freeze in my chair like a rabbit sighting a hawk.
Look away, I tell myself, but I can’t. His thick hair is ruffled from his early morning ride. In the gloom of the study, his eyes are almost pitch black, but unlike his father’s, there’s warmth in them, a hint of light to drive the darkness away. He must not have shaved yet because a shadow of a beard covers his square jaw. Seeing my inspection, his full lips tip up at the corners, and he smiles toothily at me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile up close before, and – oh, God, he has dimples.
Dangerous. This man is dangerous, I have to tell myself because some lesser part of my mind is stuck on how breathtakingly handsome he is, and it’s beginning to shift my fear into…something else.
“Good morning, Lady Descoteaux,” he rumbles, his voice darker, less refined than his father’s.
His greeting breaks the spell, and I wrench my eyes from his. “Good morning, my lord.”
“The sun is quite warm today,” he says. “It seems the weather has shifted. Would you care to accompany me on a walk through the gardens?” The polite words sound oddly out of place on his tongue. Like he’s not meant to talk about casual strolls in that growling baritone.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, because what choice do I have? Also, I’d really like to get away from his father. Now, please.
He comes to offer me a hand up, the picture of polite gentility. I take it and stand.
“I’ll speak with you later?” he says to his father as he leads me from the room.
The baron’s gaze is locked onto me when he answers. “I look forward to it.”
I watch him as we pass, half expecting him to lunge at me again, but all he does is lean in and whisper, “Remember all I’ve said.”
I jerk my head in a semblance of a nod and let his son lead me from the room. It’s unlikely I’ll ever forget anything the baron just said to me. That was the strangest, most terrifying conversation I’ve ever had with another person. And what was with him constantly dragging in breaths like he was scenting me? Do I smell?
I surreptitiously lift my arm not looped through Lord Giroux’s and rub at my nose, using the opportunity to sniff. No, I don’t smell. So, what in God’s name was that? Are his senses heightened? Can he somehow smell emotions? I think of all the other oddities I’ve noticed: the heat of their bodies, the glowing eyes, and the keen hearing. All of these things align with the baron’s declaration about them being unnatural. Meaning not of the natural world.
My thoughts cast back to a particularly demoralizing mass I attended in Paris. The revolution was gaining momentum, and the priest was full of fire and brimstone that day. He raved about angels and demons walking among us, manipulating earthly events. I left the service concerned about his mental well-being, but now I wonder if he was on to something. The baron is too mean to be an angel, which means he might have demonic origins. Only, I didn’t smell sulfur when he lunged at me, and though he seems to prefer the dark, he can walk in the day. Aren’t the devil’s minions confined to night?
Or are these people something else entirely? My mother, God rest her soul, used to tell us stories when we were little, stories filled with imps and dwarves and the fair folk. She spoke of stags turning into men, of how you could only find nymphs in old-growth forests, and if you were lucky enough to catch one, she had to grant you a favor. Most of these tales had a moral, and I always thought they were meant to curve some of our wilder behavior. But what if it was more than that? What if her stories were a warning of what was out there?
My mother was someone who knew things. She could smell rain on the wind, and always had an extra placemat set at dinner before an unexpected guest arrived. Our neighbors came to her for cures. Witch, some might whisper, but my mother was so warm and kind that no one had ever uttered that word within our hearing.
I shake my head to clear the fairytales from it. I have no answers to my questions right now, but if I pay attention to the baron and his son and all their unnatural allies, I might learn enough to piece together the puzzle of what they are.
Lord Giroux is quiet on our walk through the halls. I’m not sure what’s keeping his words back, but mine are restrained by the presence of Mallory, who fell into step behind us when we left the study. I know I need a chaperone to keep up the façade of propriety, but why does it have to be her?
Lord Giroux throws a look over his shoulder as if her nearness annoys him as well. She must be working to make noise because I hear her fall farther behind us as he turns back around, giving us some semblance of privacy.
“I’m sorry I frightened you last night,” Lord Giroux says as he leads me toward the stairs.
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. My arm is woven through his, and though I’m barely touching his forearm, I can feel the corded strength beneath my fingers. Unbidden, the memory of Rufus, the blacksmith, swims to the surface of my mind, and I can’t help but wonder if what’s beneath Lord Giroux’s clothes could rival it.
Stop that! I scold myself.
“Thank you,” I finally manage. It would be more polite to placate him, to deny being frightened, but my fear was so obvious, what with my gasp and my mad dash for the door, that he would see right through it. I take a deep breath and whisper. “You frighten me all the time.” It’s the second bravest thing I’ve done today after screaming in his father’s face.
“That isn’t my intention,” he says softly. Well, softly for him. With that painfully deep voice, it’s more like the purring of some great jungle cat, like the one I saw at the Menagerie in Paris two years ago.
I don’t respond to him; I have no idea what to say or where to begin. Does he really have intentions toward me? Want to marry me? And how could I not be frightened of him and his father, two giant men with gleaming eyes, one of which just gave me the ultimatum of ‘Join us or die’? I don’t have a choice in becoming a rebel soldier, but do I have a choice in marrying Lord Giroux? I’m not sure. If I’m going to work for his father, I need some logical tie to the family. Or does Lord Giroux even know what his father just did? I’ve been operating under the assumption that everything is connected, but what if he only meant to court me and his father recruit me?
I glance over my shoulder. Mallory is close again. Ugh, I can’t ask him any of this right now. Not with her breathing down our necks. I might not know what Lord Giroux’s intentions are, but Mallory is his father’s creature. Of that, I’m certain. She’ll probably tell the baron every word she overhears.
I frown as we start down the stairs. And me? What do I tell Livy? I suppose I’ll have to think of and rehearse my lies, make them plausible enough to convince her that Lord Giroux really does have a tender for me and that he and his father don’t pose us any harm.
We reach the ground floor, and I almost stop dead in my tracks when I realize that neither of those statements is a lie, not if the baron keeps his word now that I’ve caved to his threats, and not if he was telling the truth about his son’s interest.
I peek up at the towering lordling as we near one of the side doors, remembering what the marquise said over breakfast about people meeting and marrying quickly. Livy has always known me to be a cautious, level-headed woman. If I suddenly throw that behavior out the kitchen window and claim to be madly in love with this man, she’ll never believe me.
One thing at a time, I tell myself. This is the first day. I don’t need to say anything to Livy yet. I might not ever need to. Lord Giroux might decide I’m boring, and shrug me off. The baron might have a sudden change of heart and determine the rebellion is fine without me. Inwardly, I cringe. The former might be a possibility, but the latter is just wishful thinking. If anything, the baron seemed more interested in me after that horrid interview than he did before it began.
A footman appears from a hallway to open the door for us. We exit the chateau onto a wide stone patio. The sun is warm on my skin, and I let out a deep breath of momentary contentment as Lord Giroux slows us to pause by the railing. I miss the heat of home. It feels like the chill of the past two weeks has pervaded my very bones.
“Would you like me to fetch your parasol, my lady?” Mallory asks from behind us.
Oh, we’re back to ‘my lady,’ are we?
“Yes, please,” I say, grateful for an excuse to get rid of her.
The door closes behind her with a snick, leaving Lord Giroux and me alone for the moment. I turn my face toward the sun and close my eyes as I wait for him to speak. Birds chirp in the tree line. The buzz of insects sounds from the garden below. There’s a soft breeze wafting against my skin, and when I inhale, my nose is filled with the smell of pine and late summer blooms.
“Would you like to go down?” Lord Giroux asks.
I open my eyes and cast my gaze past the patio. “I would.”
We descend the stairs to a rocky pathway that winds away through the herbaceous borders. Unlike the typical formal French Partere garden design of beds containing ornamental shrubs or rocks shaped into some much larger design, the gardens of the chateau are planted in an English cottage style. We’re surrounded by a riot of color almost the second we pass the first rose bush. Bee’s flit here and there over the flowers, and it seems as though every single plant is in bloom, one last hurrah before the cold weather takes hold. I suck in a breath perfumed by their mingling scents.
Lord Giroux slows us to an amble, glancing over his shoulder again. I look back too. Mallory is still nowhere to be seen.
He clears his throat. “I arranged to have the weapons you ordered delivered to you.”
“Thank you,” I say, caught off guard.
“I think, for now, you and Olivia might consider avoiding the village. There are a lot of soldiers arriving, and not all of them are trustworthy. If you feel that you must go, please tell me, and either I’ll accompany you myself, or I’ll arrange for you to have a proper guard.”
“All right,” I say, even though his protectiveness is a little assumptive. It should fall to our brothers to protect us, not this strange man. But I guess it doesn’t matter since I have no desire to go back there, escorted or otherwise. And that’s more to do with my fear of the villagers than untrustworthy troops.
“How is your arm?” he asks. “Are you still having difficulty with your fingers?”
I don’t even ask how he knew I was having difficulty – I’ve already accepted the fact that everything I do is known here – instead, I wiggle them where they lay on his forearm. He looks down to watch as some motion occurs within my ring finger. My pinky remains still.
“Hmm,” he says.
I glance up to see him frowning down at my hand. With the sun on his face, his eyes aren’t actually black but a rich brown. They slide up from my hand and meet my own. In the light of day, they look less intimidating than in the darkness. I note tones of amber and gold mixed in them before he looks away. I do the same, unbalanced.
“Do you speak any languages besides French and English?” he asks after a minute of silence, clearly remembering my display of the latter from the night of my surgery.
“Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Greek,” I confess, trying to keep up with the conversation. That he’s assessing me in some way is obvious. Are we courting, or is this another interview dressed up in disguise?
“Quite a few for a woman who was once a handmaid,” he says.
“I didn’t say I speak them well. I’m only proficient in English and Italian. Languages aren’t Olivia’s strong suit, and I helped her to practice, learning as she did.” Languages come surprisingly easy to me, but I’m terrible with sums, while Livy excels at mathematics. I guess everyone has their own strengths.
“Have you ever been outside of France?” he asks.
He turns us down a side path, and we duck beneath the nodding bows of an apple tree. “Do you have any desire to travel?”
I think about that for a minute, forcing my mind to focus on this conversation when all it wants to do is re-examine my exchange with the baron. Do I want to travel? Yes. Yes, I do. I want to see the Parthenon and the ruins that crisscross Rome. I want to see the jungles of Africa and the great plains of America.
“I do,” I say.
“You might have the opportunity to do so now, with your change in station.”
I let that thought settle in for a moment before I ask my next question, remembering that the marquise said he was rarely at court. “Have you traveled much?”
“Do you enjoy it?” I ask.
He hesitates before answering, and I almost look up at him again before catching myself. “Yes, and no. There are places I’ve enjoyed very much. I’ve seen beauty in foreign lands, in the landscape, and in the people and their customs. But there are times when I’ve missed my family, missed France.” He steers me sideways to avoid the thorns on a reaching rosebush. “I’ve also traveled alone, mostly. My father says it can be an entirely different experience with a companion.”
I finally give in and glance up at him, only to see him studying me. Something in his eyes makes me trip over my own feet. I wince as I catch myself on him with my still-healing arm. Thankfully, he doesn’t comment on my awkwardness, and I’m left to wonder if the man really does have manners, and I’ve merely had the misfortune of encountering him at the wrong times.
“One moment,” Lord Giroux says, his voice softer than a moment ago.
He leads us into a sheltered alcove formed by boxwoods. I look up at him in confusion, but he puts a finger to his lips, indicating silence, and pulls me further into the shelter of the shadows. I realize why a moment later when another couple strolls by. Some of the guests have risen after all. Over breakfast, the marquise said that many would be staying for yet another night. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing inherently wrong with me being unaccompanied with Lord Giroux right now. We’re out in public, where anyone could see us, and since I’m a ward and not a noblewoman by birth, the rules are slightly different for me. This morning, the marquise’s warning comments were more about family optics than anything else.
We wait in silence until the pair passes before Lord Giroux leads us down another side path, moving away from the gardens.
“There is a room,” he tells me once we’ve passed the last blooms. “At the end of the hallway where your room is. It’s the last door on the right. In it, you will find a place for you and Olivia to practice. You’ll find the key to that room in the top drawer of your nightstand when you return. I suggest that you find time each day to practice.”
Anger washes over me. Here is more proof that every word I’ve spoken since arriving at the chateau has been overheard or repeated to our hosts. I might have accepted these things, but they still grate, and my voice comes out harsher than I intended because of it. “I thought you were supposed to be training me.”
“I am. This exercise with her will be in addition to what I teach you,” he explains as we pass beneath the drooping boughs of a willow. “You should also start eating more. You’ll need the sustenance to keep up your strength in the coming weeks. The fitness level required for your new profession is in stark contrast to that of most ladies.”
I nearly snort. I’ve spent the last five years running up and down stairs, carrying heavy trays, and using my arms for extended periods as I sewed Livy’s dresses or set her hair. And then there were my weapon lessons with Charles. I think I already have a higher fitness level than most ladies.
We reach the trunk of the tree, and he releases me. I pause to turn back and survey the grounds in an effort to keep my questions and fears at bay. My eyes flick over the sun-drenched flowerbeds and up over the stone façade of the chateau. It really is a beautiful building, likely constructed somewhat recently as it lacks the obvious defensive aspects older castles have. There is no moat, no corner towers, no thinly slit windows. This house is just a leisurely country home, albeit a large and breathtaking one. Staring at the peaceful scene in front of me, I can almost forget the rebellion and the fact that I was just recruited into it. Almost.
I turn from the bucolic scene and glance at the man behind me. He’s leaning against the tree trunk, one knee bent as his bootheel rests on the bark. He looks relaxed, at ease, and something else. He seems different than the few times I’ve seen him before, calmer maybe. It’s as if everything about him that so unnerved me at night has been subdued by the light of day. Or perhaps it’s just hard to think of him as some shadow-shrouded wraith when he’s bathed in dappled sunlight.
His gaze rises to meet mine, and his eyes hold no danger, no heat. They’re just eyes. I look him over quickly and turn back around. He really is handsome, and without the usual fear I feel around him, his looks affect me more. Maybe it’s the knowledge that he might be interested in me romantically that’s swaying my opinion, but then again, he hasn’t said anything this morning that would make me think he’s courting me or trying to win my favor. Well, except for that offhand comment about having a traveling companion, but I can’t even be sure if that was innuendo or merely an observation on his part. I have no flirtatious history with aristocratic men to draw on here, so maybe this is how they conduct their affairs. Aloof, reserved.
My thoughts float back to Paris, to the giggling women, the strutting men, and the silk-clad figures I saw slipping off into secluded corners when they thought they weren’t observed, and I have to quash my previous musing. Perhaps this whole thing really is a farce, and his father was jesting with me earlier. He seems like the kind of demented man who would find humor in such a situation.
Well, there’s only one way to find out.
I turn and face Lord Giroux. “Are you really courting me?”
He pushes off from the tree. “Courting?”
My face flames red. Oh no. His father was teasing me. I have never been so embarrassed in my life. I’m going to find some way to thrash that man if it’s the last thing I –
Lord Giroux smiles, putting his dimples on display again. “I suppose it could be called that. To be honest, you’re somewhat of an enigma to me, Isabelle.” On his tongue this morning, my name is just a name, just as his words are just words, but in some dark corner of my mind, I hear him speak it as he did last night.
I nearly shudder.
“An enigma?” I say, arching a brow at him. “I wouldn’t know what that’s like.”
He chuckles, the same rolling sound his father makes when amused. “Then let us get to know each other so that we can put an end to our enigmatic ways. Although,” he says, closing the distance between us, “I think I am coming to know you more and more every time we meet, and I’m already impressed by your level-headedness.”
I frown up at him. I might believe the words if I could detect even a hint of emotion behind them. Shouldn’t courting someone be emotional? Shouldn’t the things he says to me make my heart beat erratically and my blood run hot? I don’t know what to think anymore. Perhaps my mind has had one too many shocks, and it’s stopped functioning correctly. Or maybe I’ve read too many romance novels and my expectations are too high.
“Take this morning, for example,” he continues, and it’s a struggle to focus on his words. Yes, my mind is definitely overwrought. “My father likely threatened your life, and here you are, calmly walking through gardens with me. You’ve even been polite.”
“And last night,” he continues, “when Emanuel’s friends were quizzing you on the events of that fateful day, you seemed singularly disturbed by the details, yet you were the one who committed those acts.”
“I had to commit them,” I counter.
“I agree that you had to. Just as you had to agree to my father’s plan in order to save yourself and your young companion.” So he did know what his father was up to. “I just find it interesting that a woman with such a seemingly sweet nature can be capable of such violence, and that this same woman can have a bullet dug from her arm without so much as a flinch or a scream.”
When he put it that way, I could see why he thought me an enigma, but there was a logical explanation for my behavior. “I just try to do what’s best in each situation,” I say. “Why should I be angry with you right now? You aren’t the one who threatened me, and my being angry won’t change the fact that I must now be…whatever it is your father has planned for me. I did what I had to on the road because there was no one else to save us. The men were all held at gunpoint. It doesn’t mean I like it, that I want to be reminded of the things I did. And the night of the surgery, the doctor told me I had to stay still because it would go quicker if I did. At the time, I desperately wanted the bullet out and couldn’t stomach the thought of remaining in the amount of pain I’d been stuck in for days.”
He makes a low sound of understanding, chin dropping in a nod.
“By the way, thank you for your help that night,” I say. “That trick you taught me to escape the pain; I doubt I could have remained so still without it.”
“You’re welcome,” he rumbles. His hand rises as if he means to smooth back a lock of my hair tugged free by the breeze but then thinks better of it. The hand drops. “I believe that you are a survivor, Isabelle. That you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. And maybe even more than that.”
I frown at his words, about to ask him to clarify when his gaze goes past me. “If you’ll excuse me, I must depart now. But I’ll leave you with an assignment.”
My heart races at his words. An assignment? But I’ve only just agreed to this madness! Surely, it’s too soon to send me sneaking around enemy camps or stealing correspondence.
“I’d like for you to practice your balance today,” he says, and I nearly sag in relief. “It may seem a small, unimportant thing, balance. But it can contribute greatly to many of the skills you’ll be learning in the coming weeks. Throughout the day, try standing on just one leg at a time, switching every so often. It’s an easy assignment for your first and one you can do without anyone noticing.”
“All right,” I say hesitantly. This whole morning has been so bizarre.
He scoops up my good hand and bows over it with easy grace. His lips touch my glove briefly before he releases me and turns to leave. I watch him walk away without saying a word, keeping my hand firmly at my side even though I have the urge to yank my glove off and examine the skin beneath the satin to see if those lips left the searing burn I can feel.
Mallory’s form replaces Lord Giroux’s in my sight, a wry grin splitting her face.
She’s really starting to irritate 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.