Henri wasn’t lying about being hard on me. I spend the next two weeks rising from bed so sore that I swear my limbs will fall off if it gets any worse.
My life at the chateau quickly falls into one of routine. In the mornings, I eat breakfast with Livy and Vivienne, and afterward, Henri gathers me for our morning walks. Our conversations are much the same as the first two days. We discuss everything from the weather to our childhoods, thoughts about the rebellion, and the future of France. The more I get to know him, the more similarities appear between us. Soon we’re laughing over youthful mishaps and debating world events as if we truly are two people in the first stages of courtship. He has a dry, taunting sense of humor that keeps me on my toes, keeps me smiling even when our conversations drift to difficult topics.
After our walks, I go to the marquise’s room to sew with her and Livy. We visit the wounded several times, escorted by Henri, bringing books to read to them, and cookies and candies to distract them from their pain. In the time I spend with the marquise, I begin to remember what it’s like to have a mother, to have someone believe in you, and want the best for you.
My courtship is a popular topic at the sewing table, and I become much better at playing my part, or maybe it just gets easier to pretend I’m falling in love with Henri. I tell the women what we discuss on our walks, how attentive he is, how engaging. At dinner, they see his regard for me firsthand, and our talk during the day inevitably turns toward wedding plans. I don’t stop it. Instead, I play along, going so far as to choose the type of flowers I’d like and the color of my gown.
With every lie I tell, I feel some part of me wither and die, but the troubling thing is that a lot of what I say isn’t lies. Not anymore. I do enjoy my walks with Henri. The chance to get out of the chateau and stretch my legs in the crisp, late summer air, learning his perspective on politics and world events, teasing him back to try and coax a smile out of him, I’m starting to look forward to these things more and more.
Toward the end of the second week, we have something to be truly happy for. One afternoon, while Livy and I laugh over a story from the marquise’s youth, the door to her room crashes open, and a man enters. He’s wigless and covered in road dust, and his hair has more silver in it than I remember. He’s also thinner, but there could be no mistaking the face of the marquis, the intelligent grey eyes, or the love in them as his wife and daughter rush toward him, tears of joy streaming from their eyes.
That night we celebrate, as much as our small company can. The marquis and his wife clasp hands at the dinner table and retire early. They don’t emerge from their rooms for several days. Livy is a little uncomfortable with it as she knows exactly what they’re doing since she and I had our ‘talk.’ I understand her discomfort, but I think it’s sweet and more than a little reassuring that at their age and after all the years they’ve been married, they still love each other just as passionately as ever.
Livy and I spend those days in my room, stitching, reading, and wondering what our lives would look like in England. We sneak off to our training room every afternoon, where I occupy the role of the instructor, and she, my pupil. She’s a fast learner, her stubborn, determined nature finally bearing fruit. I’m proud of her for how hard she pushes herself, and it helps me push myself during my later training sessions.
Henri and I have stuck to the attic room or the grounds just outside the chateau. I’ve been a diligent pupil, doing almost everything he asks of me, but I put my foot down about not drugging Livy again, and he conceded. It helps that I’m a good enough shot that there’s no pressing need for us to return to that forest clearing for more practice.
I was worried about being alone with him at night after what almost happened on his horse, but as the days pass, my worry fades. He might be a little more alive at night, a little more ominous and electric, but he does his best to tame his power, and I do my best to ignore what little I can still feel. Maybe it was the full moon. There are all sorts of people whose moods are corrupted by its phases. Who’s to say supernatural creatures aren’t equally affected? Or maybe he’s on his best behavior because of how awkward things were between us in the days after our night shooting. My face still burns when I think about the near silence of our walk the following day, our stunted apologies and reassurances that neither of us planned to repeat our poor conduct.
After our sessions, I arrive back in my bedroom physically exhausted, and fall straight into bed. Some nights, sleep claims me quickly; others, I lay awake for long hours, contemplating my future, straining my ears toward the walls. Sometimes I swear I can feel eyes on me. Twice I hear the scrape of what sounds like claws against the secret passage door, followed by the low whuff of something sniffing about. Those nights I slip my pistols out from their hiding places, even as I try to tell myself it was only the house settling.
The nights I fall asleep quickly, I don’t stay that way for long. Nightmares come all too soon, filling my head with visions of wolves bursting into my room or stalking me as I walk through the chateau. They fade quickly when I wake, and I know they’re not prophetic in nature, only the symptoms of a troubled mind. I start taking cat naps throughout the day to compensate for my sleep deprivation, claiming an hour for myself here and there. My dreams aren’t as troubled while the sun holds sway, and I sleep deeply, ordering Henrietta to wake me only at the last minute before I need to return to the marquise’s rooms or dress for dinner.
Eventually, Livy’s parents emerge from their love nest, and dinner that night is enlivened by the marquis’ presence. He and Henri get along well, and the marquis takes great delight in teasing his cousin and me about our intentions with each other. Over dessert, we learn he’s accepted a position as a general in the rebellion, and the tart I was chewing turns to ash in my mouth. With the men of the family so entrenched in the war efforts, and my own burgeoning role, it may only be Livy and Vivienne stepping foot on that longed-for ship to English shores.
Mid-September finds Livy and me sprawled in my chairs by the fire. The chill of fall is creeping over the land, and this morning we woke to see the lawn painted white with early frost.
I sit with my legs tucked beneath me as I read Les Liason Dangreuses with wide eyes, shocked by the escapades and assignations inside it. Beside me, Livy is sunk low in the soft cushion of her seat, feet propped on a footstool as her eyes fly over the pages of her latest book. The Bisclavret women have excellent taste in literature, and we’ve been steadily working through their collection of adventures and romances.
A short burst of masculine laughter sounds from the hallway, and she and I exchange a hopeful glance before turning toward the door. It’s flung open a heartbeat later, and I nearly sob in relief when I clap eyes on the two men filling it up.
“The prodigal sons have returned!” Emanuel declares, throwing his arms wide. He looks younger, happier, like his old self.
“Emanuel! Jacques!” Livy shrieks, launching herself from her chair.
She hits Emanuel at a dead run, and he easily catches her petite frame and whirls her around in a circle before setting her down. I follow at a more sedate pace, smiling at Livy’s antics, at the sheer joy I feel at seeing her brothers home and safe.
Livy throws herself at Jacques next, and Emanuel comes forward to plant a kiss on each of my cheeks. “Belle.”
I pull away, grinning, and clasp his hands. “I’m so happy that you’re back and uninjured. We prayed for you every day you were gone.” How is it that in two weeks, he seems to have changed so much? Has he always been my height? Funny, I remember him being shorter. Like Livy, he’s growing up, and only his absence has forced me to notice.
“Back, yes. Uninjured, not all of us.” He turns, revealing his brother.
The left side of Jacques’ face is bruised from chin to temple, the worst of it centering on his cheekbone, where a jagged, healing cut is held together with rough stitches. It will leave a scar, and the marquise will lament it when she sees it, no doubt thinking it will mar his beauty and lessen his chances of finding a wife. I think it’ll give him an air of mystery, maybe even danger, and while it might repel some women, others will be even more attracted by it.
Emanuel throws me a wink. “Some of us felt the need to prove as heroic as our sister.”
I glance back at Jacques. “I can only hope that the other man looks worse.”
Jacques leans forward and presses a kiss to my cheek. “He does.”
“Were you told that your father arrived safely?” I ask, wondering if the news reached them in the field.
Jacques shakes his head. “We came straight from the stables.”
Ah, that would explain the smell. I remember it well from our travels.
“He made it?” Emanuel breathes as if he can’t believe it.
“He did,” Livy says, triumphant.
Jacques executes a short bow. “Sisters, it was so nice to clap eyes on you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see you at dinner.” He turns on his heel and strides from the room, moving quickly.
“Sisters,” Emanuel apes, bowing and then racing after his older brother.
I hear them jostling each other in the hallway as they break into a run, and I grin as I turn to Livy. She looks as though she could weep with joy.
“Thank God!” she says, coming to give me a fierce hug. “Maybe now we can all leave.”
I catch myself before letting my dark thoughts show. “All we need is a ship.”
I can’t be the one to ruin her joyous mood, to tell her that even if we find a ship, only she and her mother are sure to leave on it. With her father taking a role in the army, he and her brothers will choose to remain behind, to fight. I’m sure of it. I have no idea what fate holds in store for me. If given a choice, I’d go with Livy and Vivienne, obviously, but the baron has plans for me, and who knows what his intentions are? I suppose the arrival of her brothers means the baron has come home as well, and a tight ball of worry forms in my chest when I think about facing him again. Soon I’ll know if the last weeks have been enough, as Henri’s said. I can only pray that between his words and my actions, it will be.
“Oh, I could die, I’m so happy,” Livy says, picking up my hands and moving us into a country dance.
I laugh as she whirls around me. I’ll save my dark thoughts for later; I’d be a fool not to cling to this happiness while it lasts.
Henrietta sweeps into my room a few moments later, holding a beautiful sapphire and gold damask-patterned garment in her hands. We stop dancing just in time to hear Livy’s maid, Theresa, calling from her room.
“Excuse me,” Livy says, sweeping out in a rustle of skirts as I turn to face my handmaid.
“There’ll be a big dinner tonight,” Henrietta says. “The baron invited everyone who returned with him.”
I nod, stepping forward to rub the silk of the gown between my fingers. “I don’t remember this one.”
She beams at me. “That’s because it’s new. Well, new to you. I found it stuffed in the back of one of the baroness’s closets weeks ago. It was an older dress and dreadfully unfashionable, but I just had to save it. Isn’t the fabric magnificent?”
She lays the dress over my bed, and I have to admit she’s right. “It’s beautiful, and I love what you’ve done with it.” Hemming and altering I knew she was good at, but this is far beyond that. I couldn’t achieve this with a team of seamstresses helping me. I would never guess the gown wasn’t out of one of the finest dress shops in Paris. She’s grinning when I look up. “You’re very talented.”
She drops into a quick curtsy. “Thank you, my lady.”
I eye her as she rises. “How low is the neckline?”
The way she cackles in response isn’t at all reassuring, but even the thought of another plunging bodice isn’t enough to dim my excitement. I can’t wait to show the gown off to Livy and Vivienne. They’ll try to steal Henrietta away from me after seeing it or beg her to perform their own alterations. The thought makes me smile. Out of everyone I’ve met here, Henrietta is the only person who seems trustworthy. I’d like to see her do well, and if she impresses the marquise, she might be allowed to stay with our household, to flee this strange land to England, where she’d set new fashions with her designs.
“How many will be at dinner?” I ask, still running my fingers over her magnificent work.
“Fifty,” she says. “I’ve already ordered a bath run for you. We’ll wash your hair, so it gleams like the gold in the dress.”
Two hours later, I realize I’ve put on some much-needed weight. The dress fits like a glove, having been altered for my old measurements, the ones taken just after I was out of my sickbed. I’ll have to be re-measured now.
The downside to filling out means the neckline is so tight that the tops of my breasts seem much more apparent tonight than they did two weeks ago, straining against the edge of the fabric as if looking for a way out. With all the training I’ve been getting, my shoulders are firm, and my collar bones are displayed nicely. My arms look long and lean if just a tad too defined for society’s standards. Between the exercise and my healthy appetite, my skin also looks better, more evenly toned, and just a little brighter. After Henrietta’s scrubbing, the blonder highlights in my hair truly are gleaming the same color as the gold in my dress.
Livy has lent me her sapphire earrings and necklace to go with the gown, and their sparkle only adds to the effect of my appearance. I look happier than I feel, more radiant, like a young woman in love should look. I don’t doubt that people will believe I am tonight.
I stand from my stool carefully, my gold lacquered heels higher than what I’ve been wearing recently. With my feet still recovering from blisters, I’ll have to be careful when I walk in them, and I’m sure by the end of the evening, I’ll be past ready to kick them off. Henrietta gives me a final once-over, declares herself a genius, and leaves to gloat to her fellow maids. I shake my head after her, thinking she and I would have become the best of friends if I was still in her position, and turn back to my vanity mirror. She truly is a genius. I look like a different person. No one unacquainted with my background would ever guess I come from humble origins.
I steel myself for the night to come as I rise from my stool. It’s been weeks since I’ve been around so many people, and while part of me is looking forward to it, another part dreads it. Will I be seated across from Jacques again at dinner? Did his mother’s scolding make an impact? Or will I have to converse with people I’ve never met? The last thing I want is to be interrogated about my background or what I did on the road north.
Livy appears in our shared doorway before I can reach it. She looks my gown over and shakes her head. “Henrietta is more talented than she realizes.”
“I know. She should be working as a dressmaker, not a handmaid.”
Livy frowns. “Maybe we can start her on that path. Mama has been muttering about stealing her sewing services from you. Perhaps we can pay her extra to alter gowns for us instead.”
Pride swells through my heart. “That’s very considerate of you. I’m sure Henrietta would love the opportunity.”
“It might mean she has less time for you,” Livy warns.
I nod. “Yes, but then, I’m used to doing most things for myself, so it’ll be an easy transition.”
“Or you could have Mallory pick up the extra slack. You spend enough time with her during your morning walks, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to be a scullery maid her whole life.”
“No!” I bark before I can stop myself.
Livy’s brows climb up her forehead, and I scramble for some explanation.
“I truly don’t mind seeing to my toilette and scrubbing my own hair clean,” I say. “In fact, I think I prefer it.”
She watches me a moment before shrugging. “As you will. Are you ready for another dinner filled with talk of war?”
With the men gone, we’ve lived in relative peace these last few weeks, having been almost completely cut off from the state of the rebellion. Not even the papers are getting through anymore. The only news we’ve had came from the marquis and our visits to the soldiers, and everyone’s thoughts were focused on the city of Chollet. The first men have begun to respond to the republic’s levee en masse. More and more enemy troops are pouring into the surrounding regions, drawing ever closer. The battle of Chollet may very well determine the future of our rebellion.
“No,” I finally answer her, feeling the smile slip from my face.
“Me neither,” Livy says. “Maybe if I sneak an extra glass of champagne before dinner, I might not care as much.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” I say, thinking back to the previous large assemblies. “But we can’t let your mother catch us.”
The smile returns to Livy’s face. It feels like it’s been ages since we’ve conspired together. I think the last time was our morning foray to the blacksmith.
She reaches out a hand. “Come then. The earlier we get there, the earlier we can start. And I want to see Henri’s face when he catches sight of you in that dress.”
I clasp her hand and let her drag me into the hall, trying to catch my balance in shoes I’m already regretting. We slow when we near the first turn, and I sigh in relief as we take a more sedate pace to the staircase. We’re halfway down it when a shadow emerges from the hall below. At first I think it’s Henri, and my heart starts pounding against my ribs. Then it stutters and nearly stops. It’s not Henri; it’s his father.
Don’t see us, I pray, but of course, he does.
His large, black-clad form comes to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, and he turns to watch our descent. The smile that splits his face doesn’t reach his eyes. Again, I’m struck by how much he and his son look alike, but where I’ve grown used to the warmth and humor in Henri’s expressions, the baron is lifeless and cold. For a moment, I don’t feel like a woman dressed to impress, moving through a large, sumptuous manner. I feel more like a deer stepping around a tree only to come face to face with a predator.
What are you? I wonder for what feels like the hundredth time.
“My son is just behind me,” the baron says, his voice cultured and smooth but still deeper than that of most men. It slithers over my skin like a snake. “If you beautiful ladies wouldn’t mind waiting a moment, we can escort you in.”
Livy is silent at my side, suddenly shy or as wary of him as I am.
I force myself to speak. “Of course. We were glad to learn that everyone arrived back in good health.”
We reach the bottom of the stairs, and the baron’s smile gets wider, toothier, some life infusing his expression. Unfortunately, that life appears bloodthirsty. “Thank you. We had a lovely little fortnight routing the republicans.”
I barely repress a shudder. Like his son, he exudes power, but where Henri’s licks over my skin like a man learning the taste of his lover, the baron’s batters into me as if ready to beat me into submission.
I hear quiet footsteps on the marble behind us and turn to see Henri slowing, still shadowed by the hallway as he looks me over. Relief rushes through my limbs, making my fingers tremble. Thank God. Another few moments alone with the baron, and I might have lost the fight against my mounting fear. The last thing I needed was for him to start dragging in deep, creepy breaths in front of Livy as he scented my terror.
Henri’s dressed in a fine suit of black, tailored perfectly to his large frame. The vest beneath his jacket is a dark blue, stitched through with gold, a perfect match to my dress, like it was made from the excess fabric Henrietta took off. It probably was, and I amend my opinion of her to evil genius. We’ll be a matched pair tonight. He might as well stand and announce his intentions in the middle of dinner – it would be just as bold a statement to everyone attending that I’m his, and he mine.
I lift my gaze from the vest to his starched white shirt and then start my inspection of him all over again. I haven’t seen him in anything so fine in weeks, and the sight throws me. Until tonight, I think I’ve done a decent job ignoring how handsome he is. I had to in order to hold myself back from him, keep myself from doing something imprudent like actually having genuine romantic feelings toward him while I faked like I did. Now, in the candlelight, with his black hair waving back from his face, it’s impossible to ignore his beauty. His broad shoulders, that strong jawline, those full, kissable lips lifting into a smile so wide that his dimples are starting to show.
My heart rate picks up again, and to make matters worse, something starts fluttering in my stomach. I raise my gaze to his and nearly take a step back. His eyes burn over me, setting my skin on fire in their wake. The sheer intensity in them is staggering. There could be no mistaking this look, and my body seems to recognize it before my mind does, lungs heaving, pressing my breasts up for his regard, thighs shaking, warmth spiraling out from my core to race through my veins.
Livy clears her throat beside me, and my cheeks pink in embarrassment. I dart a glance sideways and see her and the baron watching me with amused, knowing looks. I should be happy right now. Losing my head over him in a public setting can only reaffirm the belief that our courtship is real, but something about the smug satisfaction playing about the baron’s mouth seems more ominous than fortuitous.
“You match,” Livy says.
My gaze slides back to Henri. He’s still watching me, still standing there, dead silent in the shadows.
“It’s well done,” the baron says. “Now everyone will know of your intentions. And just in time, I think. It seemed all the young bucks I took south with me thought themselves half in love with our young heroine.”
My blush spreads to my neck at his words, and I’m finally able to break the strange spell Henri’s eyes cast on me and look away.
“Thank you, Father,” Henri says, his voice less cultured as he steps out of the shadows toward us. He pauses in front of Livy, bowing. “You look radiant.”
She grins, smoothing her skirts. “Thank you. And you look quite handsome.” Her smile gains a wicked edge as she turns my way. “Don’t you agree, Belle?”
“Yes,” I manage, still not looking at him for fear of getting trapped again and giving away too much to his father, who sees everything.
Henri steps in to fill the silence that threatens when I don’t say more. “I’ll be surprised if you make it to England without at least half a dozen offers for your hand,” he teases his cousin.
“Lawkes, who can think of marriage at a time like this,” she declares and then covers her mouth, looking from him to me with wide eyes as she realizes her blunder. “Oh! Belle, I didn’t mean –”
The baron wraps his arm through hers and turns her toward the dining room. “Why don’t we just…”
Livy sends me an apologetic look as she’s led away, and I mouth, “It’s all right,” after her. She nods, relieved, and turns back around.
I watch them go, only looking at Henri when they disappear, and I have no choice but to face him if I don’t want to seem like I’m avoiding him. His heated eyes aren’t on me, though; they’re on our surroundings as he glances one way and then the other. I follow suit. We’re alone, which probably isn’t a good thing. We need to follow Livy and the baron if we don’t want to –
Henri grabs my hand and yanks me after him as he starts walking. I nearly have to run to keep up as he drags me down the hallway he just came from, his fingers a burning vice around mine. My heels clack loudly over the marble as I struggle to keep my balance, but I risk a glance over my shoulder, terrified that someone might see us.
“Henri!” I hiss. If anyone catches us right now, there will be a scandal. I can’t do that to the marquise and her husband, not after all they’ve done for me, how fully they’ve both welcomed me into their family.
I tug on my arm, trying to get him to slow down or, better yet, release me, but he ignores my futile attempts and pulls me through a door, slamming it behind us. We’re in a study, much smaller and more plainly furnished than the green one upstairs. There’s a fire burning in the hearth, and he turns and releases me so quickly that I bounce off his chest. His hands land on my shoulders, steadying me, and I look up to see a beatific smile splitting his face.
“We did it,” he says.
He shakes his head, grinning. “I told my father how well your training is going, and he was more than impressed.” His expression turns a little sheepish, no sign of the open desire from a moment ago. “And I may have exaggerated how well our courtship is going, but the way we just looked at each other was a better display than I could have hoped for. Well done, playing along.”
The blood drains from my face. Oh, God. He was acting. And I certainly wasn’t, but I can’t let him know that. “Thank you,” I manage, but my voice is far from steady, and he gives me a funny look.
“You sound like you’re still worried. Don’t be.” He squeezes my shoulders. “You’re safe. He promised me.”
My embarrassment evaporates. I’m so relieved that I throw myself at Henri, wrapping my arms around his neck. “Oh, thank God!”
He freezes for a moment, but then those big arms curl around my waist and tighten, and I’m airborne.
“Thank you, thank you!” I say, holding on for dear life.
His laughter rumbles through me. “You’re welcome, but you did most of the work yourself, and even if you were rubbish at every exercise, I would have lied to save you.”
Something rushes up to join the gratefulness I feel for him, something warm and soft that might be real affection. “I don’t know how to repay you such kindness.”
My feet hit the floor as he sets me back down, but his arms don’t loosen. I pull my own from around his neck, dropping them to his chest, thinking of pushing away from him and breaking this contact, but then I look up and catch sight of his face, and rational thought abandons me. The heat is back in his eyes, not hot enough to scorch, but undeniable all the same. And there’s no one here to see it but me, no one to act for.
“Henri,” I say, cautioning.
His focus falls to my mouth, and he leans forward, stopping an inch away. His breath ghosts over my lips when he speaks. “Now that you’re safe, I need to know where I stand with you, Belle.”
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.