I sleep so late the following day that I’m woken by the sun slanting high through the window beside my bed, its golden light falling right onto my face. With a groan, I roll over, taking my covers with me and hiding beneath them.
What I wouldn’t give for one more hour of rest. No, make that ten. Maybe with ten, I might start to feel like my usual self and not this husk of a woman I’ve become.
But it’s not to be. Now that I’m awake, my mind is starting to turn over, memories of last night crowding together one after another. I can’t believe everything that happened. None of it seems real, like I am sick and spent the entire evening clutched in the thralls of a fever dream.
I should probably be fixating on the moment I came face-to-face with a creature straight out of my mother’s worst stories, a monster sustained by human blood, but I’m not. I’ve skipped right over that disturbing bit of trauma and landed on what took place between Henri and me on the road.
My cheeks heat as I remember what he did, what he said. His words were rough and coarse, brutal promises of all the things to come. I know I should be scandalized by them – what lordling speaks that way? – but I’m not. If anything, I want to hear more, learn all his deepest, darkest desires. Part of me was worried I’d wake up this morning filled with regret. Ha. Silly me. I should have known better. Instead of regret, all I feel is anticipation. That unsatiated feeling from last night persists, and now that I’ve had a sip of forbidden pleasure, I want to gorge myself to the point of gluttony.
Maybe I wouldn’t be wound so tight if Henri had let me touch him in return. If he’d let me explore him as I wanted, learn how to stroke and tease him. My curiosity would be somewhat satisfied now, and I wouldn’t be so consumed with thoughts of how big his manhood is, how wide, how it might feel in the palm of my hand. He insisted that could wait until we had more time, more space, which put all sorts of scandalous thoughts into my head. I tried to convince him otherwise, all but begged to touch him, but he remained intractable, tucking me in close and urging me to shut my eyes and get some rest while I could.
My blush deepens when I think of the childish way I resisted, like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I must have truly been out of it by then. Resistance proved futile, and within minutes, I was fast asleep. I have no recollection of how I got back to my room – I glance beneath the covers and see I’m wearing a white cotton nightgown – or who changed me and put me into bed. Was it Henri? Did those large hands strip me naked last night? I’ll be furious if it was him. Not because he saw me unclothed or touched my unconscious body but because I missed it. I wasn’t lying when I said I trusted him. I’m sure if it was him, he was a perfect gentleman; if I’d been awake, I would have ensured he wasn’t.
I push myself upright and tug the bell pull to summon Henrietta. As tempting as it is, I can’t just lay here all day thinking about what Henri looks like undressed. It’s a wonder I was allowed to sleep so late in the first place.
I rub a hand over my face as I wait for my handmade. Maybe I’m so focused on my dalliance with Henri because it’s the easiest thing to think about right now. Remembering the way his finger stroked so deliciously inside me, the skilled way he palmed my clit and teased my breasts makes me feel good. All my other memories from last night make me feel conflicted at best and horrified at worst. Anyone would forgive me for wanting to avoid those thoughts for as long as possible, wouldn’t they?
Henrietta arrives faster than I anticipate, a scullery maid opening the door for her as she carries in a breakfast tray.
“No, no. Stay there,” she says as I start to rise.
The tray has legs on it, and she places it over my lap so I can eat in bed. There’s enough food piled onto it to feed three of me, an outrageous extravagance in these lean times, but I’m so hungry that I plan on doing my best to make a respectable dent in it.
Henrietta sets about pouring me tea while I lift the nearest piece of jam-covered toast. “Why was I allowed to sleep so late?” I ask.
She shoots me a pointed look. “Because you were up all night with bad dreams.”
I take a large bite and frown as I chew. What is she talking about?
With a wink, she leans in. “Or at least that’s what I told everyone.”
The bread becomes a lump in my mouth, and I nearly choke, swallowing it. “And what do you think really happened?”
She lets out a laugh and hands me my tea. “I think you stayed up too late drinking with the young master of this house. It was he who carried you in here last night.”
I blink. She saw us? She moves to pull away, but I grab her arm and haul her closer. “Tell me everything.”
She shrugs. “There’s not much else to tell. I was summoned to the room before Lord Giroux arrived, and he set you on the bed and left me alone to put you to sleep.” A slight crease forms between her brows as she regards me. “You were all but dead to the world. Are you sure you’re all right?” She places the back of her hand against my forehead, checking my temperature. “You don’t look nearly as hungover as I thought you would.”
“I’m better than I probably should be,” I say, not bothering to correct her assumption. If she believes I was passed out from drink, let her. Better she thinks me a drunk than learn what actually happened. And the words aren’t entirely false. I am better than I thought I’d be. Once whatever the baron did wore off last night, exhaustion hit me like a runaway carriage. No wonder I wasn’t any help to Henrietta. I’m honestly shocked that I’m not in some sort of comatose state still. That kind of exhaustion felt dangerous.
I let go of her and eye her as she straightens. “You must have questions.”
She grins, a familiar sparkle in her eyes. “Aye, but it’s not my business, is it?”
I lift my tea, blowing on it to cool it down. “Since when has that stopped you before?”
She laughs and whirls toward my dresser, and I watch as she pulls out a pale blue morning gown and all the accessories that will go with it. If I were in her shoes, I would be dying from curiosity. Your young mistress is carried into her room by a lordling in the dead of night, both dressed head-to-toe in black and covered in road dust?
“Why aren’t you pestering me with questions or teasing me?” I ask.
She glances up from her work, still smiling, but there’s something darker in her eyes that catches mine. “Because you’ll tell me in your own time what happened or you won’t. It’s not my place to pry.”
I frown. This isn’t like her at all. “Did the baron or someone else on staff warn you away from befriending me?”
A slight grimace tugs at her lips, but she quickly smooths it away. “I was merely reminded of the difference in our positions.”
“It wasn’t long ago we were in the exact same position, Henrietta.”
She nods. “Be that as it may, things are different now.” There’s a wariness in her gaze as she lifts a handful of ribbons from a drawer and begins sorting through them. Her voice drops so low I barely catch the following words. “And I need this job.”
Ah, so she was threatened. I have trouble believing the baron was the one to tell her not to pry. If anything, he’d be more likely to encourage her to insert herself into my affairs and spread the tales throughout the staff. It would work in his favor for rumors to circulate about inappropriate interactions between his son and me. Was it someone else? Mallory, maybe?
I grab Henrietta’s arm the next time she passes my bed, tugging her to a stop. “I’m sorry.”
She meets my gaze with a small, sad smile. “Thank you, but you have nothing to be sorry about. It’s not your fault I forgot my place.”
I return her smile. “That’s kind of you to say, but it most certainly is, at least in part. I encouraged this familiarity between us, needed a friend in this chateau full of strangers.”
She pats my hand and pulls away without another word, and I let her go, feeling her drift further from me with every step. Space is opening between us that has nothing to do with the width of my room. Whatever was said to her must have been harsh for her to put up these walls, but now that I think of it, it’s probably for the best. If she doesn’t know the truth about the men she serves, I’m only endangering her with our closeness. And if she does know the truth and has acted some part in it all this time, then…no. I can’t believe that of her. I won’t. I’ve been so paranoid for so long that I’m weary of always assuming the worst. For once, I want to think the best of someone, of her.
Silence settles over the room as I eat my breakfast. Even with the sun shining merrily through the windows, my mood darkens. Have I ever been so alone in my life? I’m keeping so many secrets, alienating myself from Livy and the rest of my new family, and now the only friend I’ve made since arriving here has been warned away from me. Maybe the baron was the one to scold Henrietta after all. He’s done his best to take all my choices from me, so why not any remaining lifelines I may have? Life has taught me that an isolated woman is a vulnerable woman, and what makes us more susceptible to corruption or danger than being alone in the world?
You’re not entirely alone, I remind myself.
That’s right; I have Henri, the other victim of his father’s machinations and the one person capable of standing a chance against the baron. If I’m only to have one ally here, better it be Henri than anyone else. It might make me mercenary, but I’m more resolved than ever to bind myself to him. Instead of dreading our impending engagement announcement, I’m ready to hop out of bed and run screaming it through the halls. The faster we get this over with, the safer Livy and Vivienne and maybe even Henrietta will be.
An hour later, I’m dressed and in the sewing room with Livy and Vivienne. The marquis has joined us today, sprawled in a chair in the corner while he reads the latest newspaper to land on our doorstep. Crumbs dot his waistcoat, falling from the scone he nibbles on. He’s had food in his hands almost every time I’ve seen him lately. Being a fugitive is hungry work, and I’m glad to see the hollows in his cheeks are starting to fill out. His clothes still hang loose about him, but at the rate he’s going, that will likely soon change.
I sneak another glance at him in between stitching shut a tear in the trousers I’m working on. He finishes his scone and lifts another from the plate on the small table beside him.
Livy leans in close, her arm brushing mine. “He looks better already, doesn’t he?”
I glance over to see her studying her father. “Yes, I was just thinking that.”
Instead of looking relieved, she appears troubled. “He said something yesterday about regaining his strength and joining Jacques and Emanuel on their next mission.”
I nearly drop my needle and thread. The marquis can’t be serious. He’s only just returned to us, to his wife, who was ravaged by fear for him even while she grieved their lost son. I sneak a peek at Vivienne and see her lips pinched as she examines her sewing. Doesn’t the marquis care for her welfare? At least enough to stay by her side? Or does honor demand he fights for his cause at any cost, even to the detriment of his wife’s health and wellbeing?
A heavy sigh slips through my lips, echoed by Livy, and I swear I hear her mutter a highly frustrated “Men” under her breath as we return to our sewing.
Several moments later, a sound echoes through the open door, and I crane my head to hear footsteps in the hall. They’re heavy and sure, the stride now familiar after all these mornings. Livy must catch it, too, because she shoots me a grin. I set my sewing down and smooth my hands over the skirt of my dress, nervous anticipation making my stomach flutter. How is this going to happen, our engagement? Is Henri going to stride straight over to me and go down on bended knee right here in the drawing room to ensure we have witnesses? Or maybe out in the garden during our walk? There will be more people at dinner, so perhaps he’ll do it then instead.
I don’t have long to contemplate this before he reaches us, his large frame filling up the doorway. It’s later in the day than when we usually take our walks, and he’s not in his riding clothes, but a more relaxed outfit of fitted breeches tucked into gleaming Hessian boots and a buttoned blue jacket so dark it appears black at first glance. His white shirt is starched and neat, fastened tight around his neck. My eyes meet his, and I nearly shiver. There’s a new warmth in his gaze, paired with a hunger that tells me I’m not the only one left wanting more after last night.
“Henri, my boy,” the marquis says, rising from his seat.
I nearly snort. I know the marquis meant the words as an endearment, but calling Henri a “boy” seems laughable. Vivienne must agree with me because she shoots me a wry glance as she sets her knitting down and stands to join the men. The three exchange pleasantries for a moment as I try to gather myself for what’s to come – all right, fine, and struggle to get ahold of my emotions. My cheeks keep trying to heat with a blush, and my stomach has gone from fluttering to a full-blown nervous tumble.
I risk a glance at Henri and immediately look away again as warmth gathers in my core and starts to spread through the rest of my body. His fingers were inside me last night.
“Isabelle?” he rumbles, too low and intimate for this sunny, cheery room.
I shoot to my feet and turn to him, hoping no one else noticed his tone. The smile I plaster on my face feels slightly deranged, but I keep it firmly in place as I close the short distance between us and drop into a quick curtsy of greeting. “Good morning, my lord.”
Amusement tugs at the corners of his mouth as he reaches for me, taking my hand. Oh, God. This is it. It’s happening. I’m about to be engaged.
Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.
Henri drops a quick kiss on my knuckles, laughter in his eyes. “Fancy a stroll through the gardens?”
Relief punches through me, and I nearly sway. My answer comes out weak and breathy. “Yes, thank you.” I should have known he wouldn’t propose in some grand scene.
He smooths his expression into politeness and turns toward the marquis. “With your permission?”
The marquis’ eyes crease as he smiles, more lines framing them than I remember. “Of course. Take your time. It’s a perfect day to be young and in love.”
Vivienne elbows him, but he only grins wider, looking unrepentant. Behind him, Livy frowns, her eyes moving from Henri to me and back again. I hate the questioning look on her face, like she feels she’s missing out on some shared jest. I’ve been neglecting her lately. Sure, we’ve spent time together, but it hasn’t been the same – I’ve been so terribly distracted – and I need to change that.
I send her what I hope is a reassuring smile before we leave. The grin is wiped from my face when we enter the hall, and I see Mallory leaning against the wall, waiting for us. Instead of her usual smirk, she’s watching me with unnerving intensity, like she’s seeing me for the first time. Did someone tell her what I did last night?
She pushes off the wall and approaches us, offering me a dark green cloak. “There’s a chill in the air this morning.”
She moves to help me into the garment, but Henri intercepts her. “Here, allow me.”
Mallory hands it to him without argument and steps back, head bowed a little in submission, looking more like an actual maid than I’ve ever seen. What’s brought about her sudden shift in personality?
“Turn,” Henri says, and I pull my gaze from Mallory and put my back to him.
He settles the cloak over my shoulders, fingers brushing my neck, lingering for longer than necessary. I nearly sigh, feeling his warmth wash over me. His energy is muted this morning, but I can still sense it like a low hum, just on the edge of hearing. With a gentle touch, he turns me, and I keep my gaze pinned to his chest as he ties my cloak shut. I want to look up at him, God knows I do, but I’m worried that too much of what I’m feeling will show on my face. My emotions are a riot of confliction, longing and desire mixed with determination and a healthy dose of fear. Not of him, but of the situation we find ourselves in and, of course, of his father’s plans for me.
Henri finishes tying my cloak but lingers in front of me as if he can feel my trepidation. I see his hand rise out of the corner of my eye, and he tucks a stray hair behind my ear, fingers stroking the shell of it, a soft touch of reassurance that goes unseen by our chaperone.
“Come. We have much to discuss,” he rumbles, slipping his arm through mine.
Together, we make our way outside. I’m glad for the cloak when I take my first breath and exhale a cloud of steam. The sun is just pulling itself free from the treetops, casting half the garden in light and half in shade. Frost sparkles on the nearby rose bushes, still caught in shadow, kissing their leaves with rime and crystalizing the last of their blooms in ice-encrusted beauty.
“Leave us,” Henri tells Mallory, and she slinks away as we descend the stairs.
I try to keep calm as the gravel crunches beneath my shoes, but between the possibility of a proposal and finally getting the answers to all my questions, it’s a losing battle. Henri must feel my nervous energy because suddenly, his own rises to wash over me in a warm wave. I shudder and give myself over to it, happy to let it drive away the cold even as it drives away the worst of my nerves.
“How do you control it?” I ask him.
“With a thought,” he answers. “Much like you do your power.”
I let out a dry laugh. “It’s less of a thought and more panic-driven.”
He makes a low, contemplative noise. “With practice, it will become easier to master.”
“What else can you do with yours?” I ask, the last of my nerves falling away. He’s finally answering me!
He doesn’t respond immediately, tilting his head from one side to another, eyes scanning our surroundings as if he’s checking that it’s truly safe to speak so openly. “I can use it to calm others of my kind, speak to them with my emotions.”
“But you can’t hear each other’s thoughts?” I press.
“No,” he says, and I see him glance down at me from the corner of my eye. “That ability falls only to you.”
“But why?” I say, sounding slightly petulant. I don’t like being different. Different means unknown. Unknown means I may never get the answers I need most: about what I am if I’m not truly human and what sort of other strange magic I’m capable of wielding.
“My father has a theory,” he says.
I snap my gaze up at him. It’s a mistake. We’re still in shadow, and his eyes are amber, glowing like embers as he regards me. Slowly, they trace their way down my face, lingering on my neck, narrowing slightly at the cloak that hides so much of me from his sight. He can’t be thinking of that right now, can he? But as his eyes return to mine and he slows our pace, I have my answer. I’ve never seen such open want before. Not even when he was putting on a show for the Duchess de Vergeronne. That flirtation was tame compared to this look, as if he’s been starving and I’m a feast laid out before him.
“Henri,” I say, yanking my gaze back down to glance at the garden around us. Please let him be right, and we’re alone. The way he’s looking at me gives too much away to be witnessed.
“Mmm,” he rumbles, low and throaty. “I like it when you say my name.”
My heart thunders against my ribs, and any lingering chill is driven from my body by the heat of his words. “We’re in public.”
He answers with a dark laugh. “That can be easily remedied.”
A tug on my arm, and suddenly we’re beelining for a small, circular garden Follie made of pale stone and topped with an arching dome roof. I peeked inside it a week ago on one of our walks while Henri told me its history, how one of his ancestors was obsessed with the Greek mythos and wanted his very own Temple of Diana, if on a much more diminutive scale. With only one door, it’s dark and damp and smells somewhat musty inside, a less-than-ideal place for whatever Henri has in mind.
I dig my heels into the gravel and pull back on my arm. My voice comes out in a hiss. “Henri.”
He stops so fast that I nearly topple backward, but he reaches out and steadies me with an amused smile. “I was only teasing.”
The urge to swat his arm is too strong to resist, though my strike probably hurts my hand more than it does him. “You cad.”
He has the nerve to wink. “At your pleasure, my lady.” With a laugh, he leans closer. “Or so I hope, very, very soon.”
Damn it, now I’m grinning too. It would be much easier to keep my head on straight if he wasn’t so handsome, so effortlessly seductive. “I’m trying to focus on getting my questions answered.”
“I know,” he says, sobering, “but you both looked and felt like an anxious ball of tension, and I wanted to distract you from that, if only for a moment.”
I sigh. It’s impossible to feign irritation when faced with such honesty and kindness. “Well, it worked.”
“Good,” he says, turning us back to the main thoroughfare. “I might start to question my charms if it hadn’t.”
I roll my eyes and shift my arm in his enough to elbow him in the ribs. “You can sense emotions?”
“To some degree, yes.” He cocks a brow and looks down at me. “Mostly, I smell them.”
I nearly trip. He can smell emotions? What kind? All of them, or just fear and anger and…oh, no. Can he smell arousal? My cheeks heat as I reflect on how often I’ve lusted after his large body while in his company.
“Embarrassment is tangy,” he says. “Sort of like fruit left out in the sun. I like the smell of yours best, though. It has a hint of spice to it when you’re embarrassed for sinful reasons.” He waggles his brows at me. “What are you thinking of, Isabelle?”
My eyes widen, and I’m so caught off guard that my words come out sharper than I intend. “It’s none of your business what I’m thinking of, and I’d like to point out that this is not fair.” All those times I fought back my desire for him, he smelled it.
He grins and straightens, unperturbed. “Maybe not, but if you ever master your ability and learn to pick thoughts from my head, the shoe will be on the other foot. Let me revel in this imbalance while it lasts.”
One day, when I’m not so self-conscious, I’m going to ask – probably demand – more information about what every emotion smells like. It’s a fascinating ability and must have served him well in his spy work, not to mention day-to-day life. But right now, there are more important matters at hand, and I’m desperate to move past such a potentially awkward topic – God, I don’t want to even think about how often I’ve been a sweaty disaster in his company.
“What is your father’s theory?” I ask.
Henri casts his gaze out over the garden and tilts his head again, ever watchful for hidden listeners. “That your ancestors come from the same place we do, and your blood has simply been diluted with human…pairings.”
I frown. “Where do you come from, if not here?”
He takes a deep breath before answering. “Faierie.”
Ice sluices through my veins. “So you’re…fae?”
He’s from Faierie, the fabled land of the fair folk my mother told me so much about. All her omens, all her warnings of his kind come rushing back, and I wonder, for the hundredth time, what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.
Then something else he said snags my attention. The baron thinks my ancestors came from the same place.
Does that make me fae too?
Next chapter coming soon
Copyright © 2023 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.