“What?” I whisper, my head spinning. Where he stands with me? What can he mean, saying something like this right now?
The eyes staring down at me change, growing lighter in color until they’re a bright amber. He tips forward as if to close what little distance remains between us, but I wrench away from him, and his arms slide loose, letting me go.
“Do I frighten you so much still?” he asks, his voice low and rough.
I pause several paces away. “Not nearly as much as you used to.”
“Then where do we stand? You’ve played your part brilliantly the last few weeks, but when it’s just you and I alone…”
His eyes are still amber, and I’m having difficulty focusing on his words because of them. Finally, they sink in. “But I thought…wasn’t it all supposed to be an act?”
“Was it?” Those animalistic eyes pin me where I stand as he stalks forward on silent feet. He reaches me, circling around out of sight, and I hear him drag in a deep breath. “You can’t deny there’s something between us.”
“Can’t I?” I say, mimicking him, but the words fall flat.
Without warning, he grabs my neck and pulls me backward. I should probably yank myself free again, put as much distance between us as possible in this small room, but something about the strength of his grip stops me, makes me go still and boneless instead.
Fear. That’s what I should feel. Only I don’t. Desire fills its place, with just a hint of danger that only seems to heighten my senses, making me even more aware of him. He leans over me, chest crowding my upper back, nose pressing into my hair, fingers digging into my skin as he holds me in place. The heat rolling off him smothers me in warmth, and his power follows in its wake, curling around me, setting my nerve endings on fire.
His thumb lifts from my neck, pushing at my jaw, tilting my head sideways to give him greater access. Lips, warm and firm, press against my skin and then part, and I shiver as sharp teeth slide over my neck in idle threat. God, what is he doing to me? And why can’t I bring myself to stop it? This is madness. I could be ruined. If anyone walks in on us right now, I’ll have no choice but to marry him, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let myself get swept up like this ag –
His other hand curls around my hip and yanks me backward, straight into his erection. Lust rolls me under and drags me into its depths, the last of my willpower floating away like bubbles fleeing to the surface. A thready moan slips from my lips.
“Do you know how hard it’s been for me, keeping my hands off you?” he growls into my skin. From the feel of him branding my low back, I think I might have some idea. “Last night, when you jumped off the balance beam, I nearly pinned you to the wall and licked the sweat from your skin. You were so proud of yourself, and then you caught me staring at you, and I smelled your reaction.”
Apparently, I haven’t done as good a job fighting back my desire for him as I thought. Then again, it’s hard to hide what you’re feeling from someone who can probably taste your arousal in the air.
His grip on my throat loosens enough for me to pull free. I don’t. Instead, I turn and face him. His fingers slide over the back of my neck, thumb rising to stroke over my lips. I tilt my head away before he can smear the tint Henrietta painted on them. His eyes are like topaz ringed in black. In the flickering firelight, they look ancient, so much older than the face they stare out of. What have they seen? How much has he kept hidden from me about his life? I don’t even know what he is; I shouldn’t feel such a magnetic pull toward him like he and I are inevitable. But I’m quickly learning that should and shouldn’t have little to do with what is and isn’t.
I want this man. With him behind me, all I could picture was the maid I’d seen bent over the kitchen island. Henri is even larger than the footman who’d been at her back. What would it feel like to have him driving into me from that angle, still gripping my neck?
A low, warning growl rumbles up from him. “You can’t look at me like that.”
My eyes flutter shut, and I desperately try to get my racing heart under control. Laughter echoes from the hallway, reminding me how close I am to ruination. With his power lapping over me and the scent of him filling my nose, it’s hard to care. All I have to do is reach out my hands, and he’ll be right there. I could explore every inch of him, let my fingers dip between the valleys of his muscles, trace the long lines of his body. He’d let me. I know he would. And he’d probably see it as permission to touch me in return. But we have time for none of it. Our absence will soon be noted, and my outfit and hair are so elaborate that any disturbance to either would be impossible to fix without the aid of Henrietta.
I open my eyes and step back. His fingers tighten around my neck infinitesimally, but then he seems to think better of it and lets me go.
“I don’t know where I stand,” I tell him, taking another step back. Amber eyes regard me across the widening gap. “I won’t deny my attraction, but I’m not sure if it’s enough.”
“Enough for what?” he growls.
“To risk my entire life. My happiness, my welfare.”
He shakes his head. “You wouldn’t have to. I wouldn’t force you into anything you didn’t want.”
The laugh that slips out of me is humorless. “Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be up to us, would it? One false step and our fates would be forced on us.”
His smile is a wicked thing as he tilts his head. “We haven’t been caught yet, have we?”
“No, but there’s been nothing to catch. Those who surround us at night know what we’re about. Do you honestly think our watchers won’t immediately turn around and tell your father if they catch us doing something other than training?”
The muscle in his jaw flexes, and I take his silence to mean that he knows I’m right.
I heave out a heavy breath, taking another step backward, away from the thrumming intensity of his presence. “I don’t even know what your father intends for me. I can’t make any decisions until he reveals his plans, but I can tell you that if he’d allow it, I’d sail for England with Livy and Vivienne tomorrow and never look back.”
His eyes darken, the amber hue clearing from them as brown bleeds back in. It’s unnerving to watch, and a shiver of trepidation slips up my spine. “You can honestly tell me you’d rather live the life of an idle noblewoman than seize your fate for yourself? I’ve seen you at night. You come alive in the training room. You’re more yourself with a knife in your hand than you are a sewing needle.”
I won’t deny how thrilling it’s been learning more ways to defend myself, but life is about more than what pleases us, and as tempting as his offer is, I can’t risk it. “Be that as it may, my loyalties lie with the Beauchenes, not the Bisclavrets.”
He makes a low sound that reflects the disappointment settling over his face. “The marquise raised you up to give you more opportunities, a chance for a better life than one spent in servitude. By placing her and Livy’s needs above your own, you do nothing but continue to sacrifice for others instead of living for yourself.”
“I –” Damn it, I don’t know what to say to that. His words hit hard, but I feel so indebted to the family that the thought of immediately abandoning them for a man I just met feels callous and disrespectful. Especially when I have no idea if I want to abandon them for him. I don’t know him well enough to make that decision, here, in this stuffy office, ten minutes before we’re about to be called to dinner, and it has more to do with just him and I. Choosing him, staying here, puts me in grave danger. The republic soldiers are marching ever closer to our location, and the baron seems like someone who would throw every weapon and defense available at them, including me.
I lift my gaze slowly, taking in every towering inch of the man in front of me. My heart beats against my ribs at the sight of him bathed in firelight. Half shadowed like this, he looks like a prince of darkness come to drag me into hell. I must already be halfway to damnation because the thought only makes my pulse pound harder.
He sees the indecision on my face, and it seems to spur him on. “Think about it,” he croons, stalking forward, lithe and graceful and oh, so dangerous. I try to take another step back, but my shoulders butt up against the door, and I’m trapped. “Think about how it could be, racing through the forest together at night, stealing into enemy strongholds.” He reaches me, and I watch with bated breath as he leans down and draws my leg up, hooking it around his hip as he crowds into me, my skirts bunched between us. “And every hour in between, this.” He thrusts forward on the last word, stroking his straining manhood right where I want him.
A life of nothing but sex and adventure? God help me, it’s tempting. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tempted by anything in my life, and watching his eyes turn amber again as he looms over me in the darkness certainly isn’t making it any easier to drum up the strength to push him away.
“Definitely an incubus,” I mutter.
He throws his head back and laughs, looking young again, a devilishly handsome rake who knows the power he has over me. “No,” he chuckles, leaning forward again to press his forehead against mine. “Just a man willing to use all his wiles to tempt the beautiful maiden out of her tower.”
“You know, in most stories, the beautiful maiden ends up ruined.” I drop my gaze to his toothy smile. “Or eaten.”
He squeezes my thigh. “I promise you’d like it if I ate you.”
I frown, opening my mouth to ask him what he can possibly mean by that, when his entire demeanor changes. He goes completely still, staring beyond me with an intensity that’s unnerving, fingers digging into my leg. Is he hearing something I can’t? Is someone in the hall getting ready to turn the door handle digging into my back? His gaze slides toward an innocuous-looking painting, and then he’s just…gone.
I stagger from the door and nearly fall. He’s on the opposite side of the room, his back to me, hands fisted at his sides. Papers flutter to the floor between us, picked up in the breeze created by his passing. I watch them drop to the ground with wide eyes. No one can move that fast. There’s no amount of training in the world to explain this speed. And he just had me pinned to the door. God help me.
He clears his throat and turns toward me, eyes so dark they’re almost black. “As I was saying, we’ll need to focus on the strength in your left arm. Mobility too.”
We’re definitely being spied on. Did he notice soon enough? Break away before we were seen? He must have; I doubt he’d put on such a show if we’d been caught. “What about my immobile pinky?” I ask, playing my part.
“We’ll find a way to work around it. Plenty of other soldiers have lost fingers and toes and gone on to have lauded careers.” He runs a hand through his hair, smoothing back those raven tresses. “Now, I think you should leave the room first. I’ll follow in a few moments. We’ve been gone long enough. Anything else we need to discuss can wait until later.”
I nod. “Yes, sir.”
He stiffens, light bleeding back into his eyes. Ooh, he liked that for some reason. “Until later,” he says, voice gruff, and turns his back on me.
I slip out into the hall, looking both ways before heading toward the large drawing room where everyone assembled before the last formal dinner. There’s no one in sight, and I slow my pace as I try to gather myself. Henri just proved capable of keeping us from getting caught. I don’t think he was acting to try and sway my decision. Unlike his father, I don’t believe he’d lie or deceive me to get what he wants. We’ve spent weeks together now, and since the night we cleared the air between us, he’s been nothing but forthcoming. At least with the information he’s been willing to share. It doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know what he is or what I’d be condemning myself to if I married him.
But…do I need to marry him to get what I want? The bible tells me yes, absolutely, I do, but I’ve long since started questioning God’s written word. All around me, atrocities are committed on a daily basis: good men sent to the guillotine for nothing more than the circumstances they were born into; women raped and children killed as warring armies ravage the countryside; across the globe, entire nations gutted as their people are stolen in the night and sold into slavery. Where is God in all of it? How can a just and omnipresent being allow such things to happen?
The priests I’ve listened to have found all manner of ways to explain it away – the people being sold are heathens, deserving of their fates, the women raped must have been sinners, the slaughtered children unbaptized – but all their excuses only served to drive me further from my faith. How can they say such things when the same book they’re using to justify their words also claims that every man, woman, and child on this earth are deserving of forgiveness and mercy? I cannot reconcile it, and I no longer want to.
Society would also agree I must marry Henri before letting him put those big hands on me again. I find I care less about the opinions of others than I used to. We’re at war. My future isn’t guaranteed. The republic army could overwhelm our smaller forces and sweep through this forest stronghold like a giant crushing an anthill beneath its heel. I could be captured, killed. Do I really want to face either of those fates filled with regrets?
No, I don’t. I want to grab what happiness and pleasure I can, now, while it’s available to me. Henri’s earlier condemnation hit the mark. Most of my life choices have been made in service to others or, lately, because I’ve been forced into them. I took my position as a handmaid to send money to Father for my sisters. I stayed with Livy throughout the rebellion even as I worried for my family. I then left my family far behind to follow the Beauchenes north.
When was the last time I was selfish? When was the last time I took a step back and thought about what I wanted? For that matter, when was the last time I followed through on actually pursuing my wants? It can’t be good that I don’t remember. It can’t bode well that the only reason I’ve been so adamant about being careful with Henri is out of fear of what others would think of me if I behaved like some wanton, fallen woman.
I need to stop judging myself, stop censoring myself. I’ve never wanted anyone or anything the way I want Henri, and that must mean something. All day long, I think about what each night will bring. I wake wondering what we’ll discuss on our walks. And it’s not just physical attraction drawing me to him. I actually like the man. The way he’s gone into such detail describing the places he’s been made it feel like I was seeing them through his eyes. His self-deprecation and brutal honesty when admitting to his shortcomings is refreshing. And the way he seems to really listen when I’m telling a story or reliving a memory from my youth makes me feel like I become his whole world when I speak. Who wouldn’t crave more of that?
I’m beginning to think that what matters most is who Henri is, not what he is. And anyway, if I don’t press to learn what lies beneath his handsome façade, I’m less of a threat. It might be easier for the baron to let me go, knowing his secrets won’t go with me. What Henri is only matters if he poses some danger to me. What if he’s an incubus after all, and he bites me in the throes of passion and drains me dry? Or what if he’s something else? Something that craves human flesh instead of blood?
I pause in the hallway, bracing a hand against the wall as my head swims. No. I don’t believe I’m at risk of being devoured by him, regardless of that disturbing comment about me enjoying it if he ate me. I think that was more a flirtation than anything else, one that went over my head. In all the time I’ve spent alone with him, I’ve never once felt like I was in real, physical danger. The hunger I’ve glimpsed in his eyes has been born from desire – I’m sure of it – not some macabre craving for blood and guts.
And, as much as I hate to admit it, not knowing what he is adds an undeniable thrill to our encounters. The way he sped away from me a moment ago, faster than my eyes could track, means I’d never be able to outrun him. Judging by the glimpses of his strength I’ve seen, fighting him off would be impossible as well. Yet he’s never once used that strength or speed to hurt or even intimidate me, and I doubt that would change if we became lovers. Instead, I imagine all the ways his superhuman abilities might bring me pleasure instead. Those long arms could easily hold me up as he pistoned into me with dizzying speed.
I push away from the wall and start walking again, my feet dragging over the marble as I delay my arrival to the drawing room for as long as possible. I want to experience the images of Henri and me cluttering up my mind. I want them more than I want the future laid out before me. The thought of fleeing to England with Livy and the marquise, meeting some nice country gentleman, and settling down to a life filled with knitting and child-rearing repulses me. I don’t think I ever wanted it; it’s why it was so easy for me to serve Livy with no regrets about giving up the possibility of marriage and a family. And now, after everything I’ve seen and done and learned since coming here, the thought of settling down to a quiet life is anathema. I still want to go with them. I want to see England, be there to keep them safe if they face danger again, but everything else I could happily do without.
Yes, my allegiance is to the Beauchenes, and yes, if given a choice, I would flee from this place with them as soon as a ship arrives, but in the interim, I want to spend my time making memories with Henri that will still make me blush when I’m old and gray. If it’s only temporary, I won’t feel like I’m betraying Livy or the marquise. And if Henri can guarantee we won’t be caught, then I don’t see any other reason to resist his advances. I’ll just have to find some way to keep my heart safe while surrendering my body. Surely that won’t be too difficult?
“Isabelle,” Henri’s voice ghosts through the hall.
At first, I think I imagined it, as I have so many times before, but when I turn, he’s there, long legs bringing him closer with every step. Damn it, I took too long turning over my future in my mind, and now he’s caught up with me. I glance to the end of the hall and realize there are guests clustered in the corner. This is good. They can vouch for the fact that Henri merely met me here, that we didn’t arrive together, alone.
I pause and turn fully toward him. His steps slow as he takes me in, eyes heavy-lidded and posture languid, like he can see my decision on my face and plans to take his sweet time seducing me.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” I say, and when he shoots me a devilish grin, I know I guessed right. “I need assurances, precautions.”
He reaches me, plucking my hand from my side and slipping it through his arm with a familiarity I know the nobles watching us are making note of. “You’ll have them,” he says, voice low enough that it won’t carry. “I’ll give you anything you bloody want.”
Now it’s my turn to smile, but it fades a moment later as I remember something he said in the study. “It wasn’t an act?”
He shakes his head and starts leading me toward the small crowd at the end of the hall. We’ve lingered long enough. “No. None of it was on my part. I’ve enjoyed our walks. I like making you laugh. And you blush so prettily when you’re embarrassed or,” he leans down and drops his voice, “in the middle of exertive exercise. It makes me wonder about the other ways I could get your color up.”
Right on cue, I blush, and he chuckles and straightens to his full height. Several ladies and gentlemen watch us with unabashed curiosity, and I’m sure by the end of the night, everyone in attendance will know he was seen openly flirting with me. Did he do it for that purpose alone? Or was he simply taking advantage of our audience at the moment while still meaning what he said? I don’t think he’s as devious as his father, but I wouldn’t put it past him to manipulate events to his benefit. Maybe it should bother me, but if that manipulation makes me safe from the baron, I more than welcome it.
I let him lead us to the drawing room as my thoughts spiral, thinking of all the precautions we’ll need to take to keep from getting caught. Is anywhere in the chateau safe? Henri must know all of its hidden passageways. Surely he can find some way for us to avoid notice. Or is this house so riddled with spy holes that we’ll have to conduct our affair out of doors? The thought makes me shiver, and he tugs me closer as he drags in a deep breath. A small noise rumbles up from his chest, just in hearing range, and I can tell he likes what he smells. The thought of exploring his body beneath a canopy of towering pines, with nothing but moonlight to guide my way, is more enticing than it probably should be. I might be a virgin, but I’m not all that virginal. I’ve read and seen enough to know that most assignations occur within a bedroom, but a kitchen will obviously do in a pinch. Or probably a hallway, or a shadowed alcove, or –
Another low noise, almost like a growl, crawls up Henri’s throat. There’s a hint of warning in it this time. Right. We’re a dozen paces away from rounding the bend in the hall, and the noise of the crowd beyond it is nearly deafening. I need to get my mind out of the bedroom – or off the forest floor – and focus on the coming night.
I try to will my blush away as we take the corner. Several people converge on us outside the doorway, and Henri pauses to greet them. Their eyes roam over us, taking in our joined arms, the fact that our outfits match. Some do a good job schooling their features, but others lift their brows, tilt their heads, or make other subtle gestures to convey they’ve noticed our attire and are intrigued by it. I glance over my shoulder as we enter the drawing room to see some of them turned toward each other, heads bowed close as they talk, their eyes darting to us and back again.
“Champagne?” Henri asks, having to raise his voice over the din.
“Yes, please. I’m going to see if I can spot Livy or her mother.”
“I’ll find you,” he says, the words seeming to mean more than they should. He kisses my hand before he goes, lingering too long over the blue satin of my glove. The look he gives me makes me blush again, and, feeling eyes on us, I do nothing to fight it as I weave into the crowd. I’m not above manipulating events to my advantage, either.
The marquise stands near the far corner, the Princess de Conde again at her side. Livy is with them, and she seems to be looking for me, head craned high, her eyes searching the crowd. Our gazes catch, and she raises a hand at me before turning and making an excuse to break away from her mother and the princess. The older women pause their conversation and watch her approach me.
She slips her arm through mine as soon as she’s close enough, leaning in to whisper, “Where have you been?”
“Would you believe me if I said I was just on the other side of the room?”
The sound she makes is close to a snort. “No. But you better hope Mama does.”
“I lingered in the hallway with Henri,” I say. It’s not entirely a lie.
“Did he kiss you?” she demands.
I scoff. “Where anyone could see us? Absolutely not.”
She narrows her eyes. “Something happened.”
“Nothing like that happened,” I say, conscious of the crowd around us. “Now, will you stop this?”
“What was it like?” she whispers, a gleam in her eye. “The kiss?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Livy. I swear nothing untoward took place in that hallway. You can ask any of the people who saw us together.”
If anything, her focus on me only intensifies. Damn. She must have noticed how I said in that hallway and found it suspicious. I should know better than to underestimate her, but tonight has thrown me, and I’m not entirely myself.
She opens her mouth, no doubt planning to continue her interrogation, but shuts it again as her eyes slide past me. Something laps against my exposed skin, warm and familiar and deliciously enticing. Henri must be behind me.
“Champagne?” he offers when I turn and face him. His eyes are sparkling, not with anything unnatural, but with amusement. He must have heard Livy badgering me. Of course, he finds it funny. I’m beginning to think his sense of humor is slightly twisted.
“Thank you,” I say with as much composure as I can manage, taking the glass from him.
He tries and fails to stifle his mirth as he looks from me to Livy and back again. “I need to speak to my father and the general. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you to continue the conversation I interrupted.”
I stare up at him, trying to project my thoughts. Don’t you dare leave me.
He shoots me a wink. You’re on your own.
And then he abandons me.
“Belle,” Livy says.
I barely hear her. I’m too busy watching the almost careful way Henri picks his way through the crowd as if he’s afraid he might accidentally hurt someone. I suppose it’s a real possibility with his strength.
“You’re staring,” Livy says, and I nearly jump.
“Sorry.” I drain half my champagne, hoping it will give me courage.
“You truly like him, don’t you?” she asks, her voice soft.
I finally turn toward her. She looks almost…sad. “I do.”
“You’re not coming with us when we leave, are you?”
I squeeze her arm. “I’m going to do everything I must to ensure I’m on that ship with you. Do you truly think I’d desert you now?”
She frowns, casting her gaze back to Henri’s retreating form. “For him? I’m not sure if I could blame you if you did.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I prod Livy’s side and lift my glass. “Want another?”
“I’m not done with this one,” she says, indicating her nearly full glass.
“Down it,” I tell her boldly, tipping my head back and gulping mine in two deep pulls that leave my eyes burning from the bubbles.
She laughs, glancing around to see if anyone is watching. I step closer, blocking her small form from the crowd in front of her. A large man stands at her back, shielding her from that side. Merriment dances in her eyes as she tilts her head back and drinks the whole glass, making a face and covering her mouth afterward. Her throat rumbles as she holds back a burp. Thank God the crowd is loud enough that no one heard her. Or did they?
I turn my head, my gaze landing immediately on Henri like my subconscious has been keeping track of him in my periphery. His father and General Rouerie stand facing each other at his side, expressions stern as they speak. Henri, however, is biting his lip as if trying to hold back a laugh, and when his eyes cut to me through the crowd, I know he caught every word and sound Livy and I just made. I shake my head and bring my focus back to his cousin.
“I got bubbles in my nose,” she says, cringing.
I laugh again and swipe two more glasses from a passing server. “Come. I’m sure your mother is wondering what’s keeping us.”
Halfway to the marquise, the Duchess de Vergeronne steps into our path with a blonde woman on her arm who’s nearly as beautiful as she is. My stomach plummets at the sight of them.
“Good evening,” Livy and I say in tandem as we sweep the women curtsies. I peek at Livy as I rise and see her face set in stony lines; she trusts the duchess even less than I do.
“Hello again,” de Vergeronne says. “Maria, may I introduce the ladies Descoteaux? Ladies, this is Maria Theresa, the Duchess de Boine.”
We greet her as well. Another duchess, fantastic. I can see in their eyes that they’re up to no good. This cannot bode well. Their rank cushions them in a way that leaves Livy and me more than susceptible to their scheming.
“How charming,” the blonde duchess says as her eyes flick over us, her tone indicating she finds us anything but.
Livy, bless her, tries to put on a brave face as she settles her gaze on de Vergeronne. “Your gown is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she says, though her answering smile is more ingratiating than sincere. Her eyes turn to me and sharpen. “You and Henri have matched your colors tonight. How… quaint.”
I don’t miss the barbed insult in her tone, and I mold my face into as neutral an expression as I can manage. Unfortunately, her voice was loud enough to carry, and people around us fall quiet, all the better to eavesdrop on our now obvious tête-à-tête. “Thank you. I didn’t know that we were going to. Henri surprised me with it as we walked in,” I tell her, making it clear it was his decision, his claim on me.
“How charming,” de Boine says again, using the same tone she did earlier.
“Yes, well.” De Vergeronne sniffs. “Henri has always been charming when the pleasure suits him.” I’m sure no one around us missed how she purred his name or infused her voice with innuendo when mentioning his charm.
Livy stiffens beside me. “Then he must be happily suited now because he’s always charming towards Belle.”
The Duchess de Vergeronne regards her for a moment as if trying to judge her sincerity, and I have to work to keep my lips from twitching as Livy smiles serenely back at her. If I didn’t know her better, even I would buy her charade of innocence.
“I’m sure he’s just trying to be welcoming,” de Vergeronne says. “Rising so suddenly in rank must be difficult to adjust to, and as you’re staying in his home, he must feel some responsibility for you.”
It’s not her obvious disdain for my humble beginnings that tips me from annoyance into anger, but the insinuation that I’m nothing but an obligation to him. The smile I send her is far less innocent than Livy’s. “I somehow doubt his feeling of responsibility was what led him to ask the marquise’s permission to court me.”
She jerks like I slapped her. Gasps rise from the crowd around us, followed by furious whispers and several giggles as they watch the duchess like a murder of crows scenting blood on the air. Point to me.
She throws her head back like a filly shaking off her reins. There’s no humor in her soft chuckle. “He’s had much better opportunities over the years. He’d be foolish to settle for someone with so little to offer.”
I can’t help but wonder if she was one of those opportunities, and if she was, what Henri saw in her.
Livy’s arm tightens around mine so hard it hurts. “He doesn’t need an heiress. He’s going to be the next Baron de Bisclavret.”
De Vergeronne shrugs and sends me a frosty look. “Still, I wouldn’t get your hopes up, dear.” I haven’t had nearly enough champagne to deal with the condescension in her tone. “But who knows, the revolution has brought out all sorts of wild behavior. Henri temporary losing his head over a baseborn slut isn’t even the most outrageous gossip I’ve heard tonight.”
Beside her, de Boine chokes on her champagne and claps a hand over her mouth as she laughs.
Livy drops my arm and takes a step forward. “You –”
I cut her off with a hand on her arm. She’s young, and there’s a crowd around us. She was also born into her role and bred to behave better than the example the duchesses set for her. But I wasn’t. No one would be surprised if a ‘baseborn slut’ lashed out, and the temptation to tell her everything she’s never wanted to hear about herself is almost too strong to resist.
Don’t do it, I beg myself. She’s not worth it. The woman is clearly more upset than she should be over something that doesn’t concern her. Who knows, maybe she fancied herself in love with Henri, and this is the only way she knows how to deal with her heartbreak; by placing me so far below her, she has to think he’s lost his mind to choose me over her.
I’m just about to make some excuse and drag Livy away when someone presses up against my other side. I turn, my eyes going wide at the sight of the Princess de Conde’s livid expression.
“Madame,” I say with a curtsy. Both duchesses are forced to curtsy and face our royal addition, mumbling their greetings.
“Tell me, duchess,” the princess begins as we all stand, sweeping past the normal polite exchanges that should begin a conversation. “Do you know how the Bisclavret’s earned their title?”
“No, Madame,” de Vergeronne responds. I notice that neither she nor the other duchess seems as pleased with themselves as they did a moment ago. In fact, they both look a little green.
The princess regards them for a long moment, letting the silence become uncomfortable before continuing. “They earned it the same way most nobles did so many centuries ago; through heroism and bravery. They earned it with their swords while fighting against the enemies of France. Do you know that if my cousin, the king,” she pauses for emphasis as if anyone needs a reminder of her standing, “were still alive, I think he would have heard this young woman’s tale of bravery and elevated her to the peerage himself. So, you see, she and Lord Giroux are better suited than any of the other opportunities he’s had.”
The crowd around us is silent as they wait with bated breath to see how the duchess will respond.
“I was merely suggesting –” she begins.
The princess cuts her off. “We all heard your insinuations and insults. Though how a woman whose mother started as an actress and earned her title by spreading her legs can condescend to another is beyond me.”
De Vergeronne turns absolutely scarlet, but I can’t find it in me to feel pity for her. Not for a woman who so gleefully attempted to shame me publicly.
The princess turns to me. “Now, Isabelle, why don’t you and Olivia join me with the marquise and your brothers.” Her tone and expression are so dismissive that it’s like de Vergeronne and de Boine stopped existing to her.
“Thank you, Madame,” I say, hoping she can tell from my tone how much I mean the words.
She turns to lead us away, and I have to grab Livy’s arm to get her moving. Her face is still pale with rage, and it’s better we depart now, in victory, than risk giving the ground back to de Vergeronne.
“Bravo,” the marquise tells the princess when we reach her.
“I’ve always hated that cow,” the princess says, and now it’s my turn to nearly choke on champagne. “Her mother was even worse. I could forgive her for being an actress and coming to her title the way she did. We women have to seize what power we can. But not for the way she ran rampant through the men at court, careless of their wives’ feelings, and certainly not for teaching her daughter to do the same.”
I cast my gaze back through the crowd, and I can tell from the way de Vergeronne is glaring at me that this isn’t over, that instead of being angry at the princess, all her ire is reserved for me.
As if I don’t have enough to worry about already.
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.