Authors: Delilah Marvelle
Table of ContentsCopyright PageThe Duke of AndelotPart OneLesson OneLesson TwoLesson ThreeLesson FourLesson FiveLesson SixLesson SevenLesson EightLesson NineLesson TenLesson ElevenLesson TwelveLesson ThirteenLesson FourteenLesson FifteenPart TwoLesson SixteenLesson SeventeenLesson EighteenLesson NineteenEpilogueNew Release AlertAuthor Note
THE DUKE OF ANDELOT
by Delilah Marvelle
Copyright © 2015 by Delilah Marvelle
Delilah Marvelle Productions, LLC All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s crazy imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and nothing to worry about.
Book design © Delilah Marvelle.
Cover design © Delilah Marvelle.
Cover Photo © Jenn LeBlanc.
Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted
in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
THE ANDELOT ESTATE - PARIS, FRANCE
AUGUST 13, 1792 – EARLY EVENING
Gérard Antoine Tolbert, the last remaining heir to the great duché of Andelot, quietly unhinged the iron latch and folded out the oversized windows that faced the manicured gardens below. A warm summer breeze feathered his face and drifted into his bedchamber, fluttering the brocaded curtains that had once decorated his grandfather’s deathbed.
While most aristocratic young men might consider the reuse of deathbed curtains morbid, he prided himself on being vigilantly practical and rummaged through trunks in the attic on a regular basis to see if there was anything he could use. Aside from the fact that his father had always preferred to spoil his older brothers and leave him to be more creative with his finances, too many people in France were starving and it was Gérard’s way of kneeling to their struggles.
Heused togive well over a thousand livres to charity every month. Heused todeliver crates of food to almshouses every Friday and would even dress in plain bourgeoisie clothing to ensure the people he helped did not feel so self-conscious about how little they had. But what had his compassion and generosity earned him?
Two dead brothers and a revolution.
His bewigged, over-powdered, lace-flouncing older siblings had been travelling in an unmarked coach in an idiotic attempt to leave the country (without himortheir father), when they were ambushed by fifteen men. Certain factions from the Legislative Assembly anticipated their escape.
And so, on the side of a road near the border of Austria, his brothers had their genitals removed by blade, were repeatedly shot, roped and hanged by a group of revolutionaries determined to annihilate every last lineage connected to the throne. Marceau and Julien were only twenty-three and twenty-four and hadn’t even been given the chance to become the men they should have been.
Unlike his brothers, who had a reputation for spitting on too many people, Gérard had countless friends amongst the lower classes due to all the charity work he had always been involved in. They warned him of any rumblings, but he knew after tonight, he was going to need a hell of a lot more than friends.
Setting the leather satchel against the window, which he had packed with food and frayed clothing that would allow him to blend into the countryside, he attached a primed pistol to his leather belt, along with a flask of brandy. He surveyed the dim lanterns illuminating the winding gravel path that led to a massive stone fountain.
A servant lingered with his horse by the iron gate.
Tying back his shoulder length hair with a blood-red ribbon he wore in honor of his brothers and countless aristocrats before them, Gérard buttoned his burgundy velvet coat and sat on the ledge of the window, propping one knee-high leather boot on the floor and the other on the sill. Pressing his back against the wood frame to balance himself, he peered down toward the shadow-covered hedge beneath the third story window.
He tossed the satchel out the window, letting it land with a rustling thud into the large hedge below. Leaning farther out, he gauged the distance, ready to—
The door rattled. “Mon héritier?” the duc called out in a concern, gruff tone. “I heard the window open. Is everything all right?”
Gérard froze. Gripping the window sill, he glanced back at the locked door that was outlined by candlelight. If he feigned sleep, the man would most likely get a footman to unhinge and take off the door. “Everything is fine. The night is warm and I needed some air, is all. Good night.”
The door rattled again. “Gérard, why is this latched?”
Rot it. “Might we discuss this in the morning,Monseigneur?” he called out from the open window he was still propped on. “I need to sleep.” Gérard feigned an exhausted yawn that was loud enough to echo throughout the room and even stretched for good measure, his muscled arm sweeping toward the open window. “I over-practiced my fencing today.”
That tone hardened. “I know you better than you think,mon héritier. Both of your boots are hanging out of the window.”
Gérard flopped his arm back to his side. Onlyoneboot was hanging out the window. “I left you a missive in the library explaining when I would be back.”
“So you were hoping I would find it in the morning after you were gone? Is that it?”
“I would have told you in person, but you have a tendency to get riled about everything I do and I prefer not to—”
“If you are so intent on destroying your life, why not go back to romancing your Madame Poulin? That certainly went well for you. Hell, you graced her entire family with more money than thoseporcswere worth. Even your brothers, God rest their souls, exhibited far more control around women than you ever did. At this point, I prefer you take up dice, for at leastthere, you have a chance at getting some of your money back. Unlike with yourMadame Poulin!”
There was no such thing as forgiveness, was there? “I never see her anymore!” Gérard tossed in agitation. “Not even when she comes to the door!”
His long done relationship with Madame Poulin was as complicated as it was vile. At eighteen, almost three years earlier, he had attended his first bourgeoisiesoirée with a group ofbourgeoisiefriends who had dragged him to partake in the revelry of their own trades-people while introducing him to the sweetest part about life: bourgeoisie women.
Unlike pinch-faced, aristocratic young women his age who obediently waited in their mothers’ parlors for a respectable match to save them from boredom, bourgeoisie girls jumped out of parlor windows and showed everyone in town how life was supposed to be lived.
He ended up hopelessly enamored by such a girl. A pretty brunette by the name of Mademoiselle Bellamy, the daughter of a tailor. Tired of being a gentleman, for it had kept him a virgin long enough in his aristocratic circle, he rolled on an expensive sheath he had bought to baptize their love, and serenaded her body at the most expensive hotel in Paris.
Given it was his first time (though clearly not hers), it was the most glorious moment of his life (that quickly turned into a goddamn nightmare). Mademoiselle Bellamy was actually Madame Poulin who was marriedtoa tailor and had three children. Her husband demanded satisfaction and Gérard…accidentally shot the man’s hand off.
The man lived, but…now had a stub.
Gérard’s guilt had led him into making a substantial payment to the man that his father still roared about. Although Madame Poulin sometimes lingered outside his door, which he no longer opened, he did coolly incline his head to her on occasion when they passed each other on the street.
He was, after all, a gentleman. Sometimes. Well…no. Not anymore. He had learned to use women in the same way they used him.
Yanking out the flask from his leather belt, Gérard uncorked it and took a swig. “I find it exceedingly tasteless that you dare mock me after the tragedy that has befallen this family. Marceau and Julien are dead because of you.”
“Me?” his father echoed.
“Yes. You. You bloody hanged them by their own silk stockings. You spoiled them and made them believe they were untouchable during the greatest political crisis this country has ever seen. You—”
“Open this door!” the duc roared, vibrating the door with violent thuds that rattled the hinges. “How dare you speak to me as if I were one of thesebourgeoisieporcs?! All that time you and your mother spent associating with the poor, encouraging them to demand rights, only made them rise up and choke us all! Your brother’s deaths are on your hands, not mine!”
Struggling to remain calm, Gérard took another swig of brandy. He was done being a good son to a father who only ever thought the worst of him. He was also done mourning for his brothers. It wasn’t as if they had ever been close anyway. Those two roosters had only ever reveled in having too much fun at his expense. Growing up, they regularly tied him to a tree on the farthest corner of their thousand acre estate and would leave him there for days, while feigning ignorance to everyone as to his whereabouts, even in a thunderstorm.
His brothers and his father had prepared him for what life was really like: disappointing.
Corking his flask, Gérard tucked it away into his coat. “I have to go. Unlike you, I cannot pretend the world is not burning.”
There was a thud against the door, as if the duc was using his own head to try to understand him. “Cease pretending we have any control over what is happening anymore. They have sealed all borders and are confiscating anything I try to send to your mother’s family in England.”
“I am well aware of that.” Scanning the shadows beyond his open window, Gérard shifted his jaw. “Our situation is dire,Monseigneur.Fortunately, the power of our money still commands whatever we want. Though who knows for how much longer. I suggest you start burying whatever gold you can.”
His father’s gruff voice cracked. “I have faith Austria will take back the country given their daughter is being held hostage along withSa Majesté. This revolt has no teeth. None. It is all but pitchforks and hay.”
Pitchforks and hay did not kill his brothers. These radicals in power were serious. The height of that seriousness further peaked barely a few weeks earlier, when he received a scrawled cryptic message, bearing the words, ‘Remember the tears you once spilled on my desk? Gather everything from it and part with it not. If I succeed, I will attempt to send further word.’
Gérard hadnoidea what the letter was referring to or who it was from. So he burned it in case someone was trying to get him or his father into trouble.
It wasn’t until the recent capture and arrest of his godfather, Sa Majesté, who had tried to escape the country with the queen and their two children, that Gérard realized who had written it.
The King of France himself.
Though it was a memory long forgotten, Gérard had, indeed, spilled tears on a desk. Long ago, whilst visiting Versailles with his father, he had been inconsolable over the death of his dog, Alfonse. So he laid on the floor with his tear-streaked cheek mashed against the marble of the corridor, openly sobbing. His father only roared at him without pity for laying on the palace floor like a peasant.
His godfather proved more compassionate. The king ushered everyone away and knelt beside Gérard, promising a special day if he could set aside his tears. Sa Majesté then tapped his lips, led him down a maze of countless corridors to a hidden narrow set of stairs and into what looked like an ordinary sitting room.
After draping shut windows and turning the key in the door, his godfather winked and revealed a secret only bestowed from a dying king to his own son since sixteen hundred and eighty-two. Reaching beneath the hearth of the fireplace, he removed a narrow panel with a quick tug and turned a series of knobs that sounded like bolts being unlocked. His godfather then removed another panel beside the hearth revealed a hidden half-door cleverly between simple molding. Pushing it open, they entered a quiet, windowless room where they spent half the day writing poetry on a desk and talking about how special dogs really were.
Not even his father had taken the time to dry his tears like that.
And now, Gérard was being asked to dry the tears of his king.
Which he damn well would.
Dropping his booted foot from the ledge to the floor with a thud, Gérard pushed himself away from the open window. “Was there any word about the burial arrangements for Marceau and Julien? We should have heard something by now.”
The duc was quiet for a moment. “Yes. I received a letter about it less than an hour ago. I would have knocked on your door sooner but I thought you were sleeping. Thegendarmerie nationalerejected our plea to bury them. Their remains will be held indefinitely as evidence.”
Tears burned Gérard’s eyes. Christ. This revolution was a genocide. A genocide that was not giving the living a chance to pray or the dead their right to be buried.
But he’d be damned if Sa Majesté was next. Damned!
Gérard sniffed hard.
Stripping off his coat, he whipped it onto the four poster bed and trudged over to the paneled door. Turning the key, he unlatched the bolt and yanked open the door. He stepped out into the candlelit corridor toward his father. “If I do not return in fourteen days, it means I am dead.”
The old duc ceased pacing and swung toward him, curling grey hair falling into blue eyes. Lines etched into that aged, regal face, deepened. “What do you mean? Where are you going?”
“I was asked to do something forSa Majesté, whom as you well know, was taken into custody for fleeing. I genuinely fear what will be done to him. If members of the Assembly had no reservations about executing my brothers on the side of a road, I can only imagine what awaits our king. It is my hope what he is asking me to do will help him.”
The duc swung away and set trembling hands onto his head. “Merde a la puissance treize.” His father swung back to him. Those fierce blue eyes hardened to lethal, revealing the unbridled man Gérard knew all too well. “You have lost your mind thinking you can take on an army of men.”
“I am not taking them on alone. I started working with several other aristocrats to try to get people out of this country. It will take time, but I have faith with all our resources, we can help each other.”
His father choked. “Are you— What they did to your brothers is nothing compared to what they will do to you! You cannot—”
“I am trying to do something outside of smashing furniture against walls like you do on the hour.”
The duc gritted his teeth and backhanded Gérard’s head. “Enough of that tongue! Not even your brothers would have dared use words against me.”
Gérard adjusted the ribbon in his tied dark hair which had loosened from the stinging blow. As many as a few months ago, he would have permitted it. But now? He was done playing by everyone else’s rules. He was only playing by his own.
He shoved his father’s away, making the man stumble. “There. I am no longer the perfect son. Now what?”
Those eyes widened. “How dare you—”
“No.” Gérard leveled the man with a hard stare, angling in close. “You, along with the rest of this godforsaken world, seem to think because I used to frequent almshouses every Friday that I am some sort of sop. I am no longer the spare you can slap around. I am now heir. Remember that. Touch me again and I will show you what this charitable son of yours can do.”
The duc paused. “I smell brandy. Are you drunk?”
Gérard puffed out an exasperated breath. “No. I reserve all drunkenness when I am about to retire for the night. And as you can see, I am not retiring. I have a three hour ride ahead of me.”
Those features stilled. “You told me you were done drinking.”
“In the face of what is happening to the world, brandy is hardly a problem.”
The duc pointed. “You are still waist-high with these people. Waist high! Thesebourgeoisiesimpletons you have been carousing with since youth have taught you to not only drink but defy your own father!”
“You know nothing about my life or why I do anything.” Gérard held out a gloved hand, trying to be civil. “Give me your blessing should I not return.”
The old man glared. “No. You are all that remains of this name and I will be damned if I let you walk out that door.” The duc stripped off his coat and tossed it. He wagged both hands, sending the lace cuffs on his sleeves swaying. “’Tis obvious you need me to knock that head back into place. Come at me. We will settle this the way your friends on the streets do.”
Hell. When old marble fell, it shattered into a million pieces. While shouts had always defined their relationship since his mother’s death, Gérard knew if he ever tried to swing at the man, he would do more than hurt the son of a bitch. He would kill him.
“Cease being ridiculous. Given your age, I would only hurt you.” Gérard rolled his eyes. “How you ever won my mother’s hand and heart whilst she lived is beyond my comprehension.”
The duc’s hardened features wavered.
The memory of his mother was the only softness his father clung to. And sadly, even that was fading. It was all fading. “Little remains of our family,Monseigneur. My godfather needs me and if I have to put up fists to leave this house, I will. Because if I cannot be a hero to the one man who inspired me to be more, what good am I? What purpose have I? I would become like you. Bloody useless.”
There was a moment of silence.
Gérard swallowed, sensing he had stabbed the man a bit too deep. “Forgive me.”
Averting his gaze, the duc shrugged. “No. You are quite right. I am useless. I cannot even protect my one remaining son from himself. I gave you all too much freedom.” Grabbing up his evening coat, he tugged it on. “Go serve our king. If you are not back in fourteen days, I will assume you are dead. And although we never get along, I wish to assure you, I will still mourn for you.” Stalking down the corridor, the duc disappeared into his room and slammed the door.
Gérard sagged against the nearest wall.
Him die? Nay. Unlike his brothers, he always planned everything right down to the splinter and never went into anything blind. Or drunk. Yanking out the flask from his pocket, he uncorked it and numbly took one last swallow of brandy to keep his hands from shaking. No more brandy until he was at Château de Versailles.
For he and the Republic were at war.
NINE DAYS LATER – LATE MORNING
ON THE FARTHEST OUTSKIRTS OF PARIS, FRANCE
Chirping birds scattered into the nearby forest, breaking the silence as several large crows scavenged the dew softened fields.
It was eerily quiet. A bittooquiet. Even for the countryside.
Thérèse Angelique Clavette peered through the low hanging branches of the orchard she had taken refuge in the night before and strained to listen for anyone coming down the dirt path.
The pulsing silence was interrupted only on occasion by gathering crows and the buzzing of flies and bees. Strangely, no one had been on the road or in the fields since her journey commenced days earlier.
The revolution had certainly changed the world.
With so much equality being heralded across the land, no one wanted to work anymore.
The vast orchard surrounding her hinted that farmers had decided to move on to other things. Rusting scythes lay abandoned amongst piles of gathered hay and poorly nailed ladders had been left propped against various apple trees next to wooden buckets gathering debris and insects.
She hoped to have been in Paris by now, but without a single cart on the road to get her there, she had been forced to walk the entire way.
Sheknewshe should have bought those ugly leather ankle boots, but had naïvely wanted to go to Paris in style. She had therefore opted to trade her best bonnet for a pair of satin slippers from the only fashionable woman in her village: the inn-keeper’s wife.
The pretty, indigo slippers had been difficult to resist. They were stitched with beautiful, delicate patterns of yellow flowers and had wooden heels that were absolutely fabulous. Only…they were too tight given they were meant to be worn with silk stockings, not thick, knitted ones. As such, Thérèse had been forced to walk without said slippers for almost two days, proving to her that being vain was no different than being stupid.
Grudgingly folding the blanket she had slept on, Thérèse set it into her travelling basket and leaned over the grass to spit out remnants of the chalk she had used to brush her teeth. She held up a small cracked mirror and used the wool sleeve of her gown to rub away the gritty residue. Each white tooth squeaked in glorious cleanliness.
She tucked away the mirror, convinced her teeth alone were going to make her famous.
Ready for the long day ahead, Thérèse adjusted her straw bonnet back into place and dragged in a regal breath, hefting up the wicker basket full of neatly folded clothing and apples she had picked from the abandoned orchard. Pushing her blonde braid over her slim shoulder, she trudged through the high grass in thick wool stockings. Her patched skirts and faded blue petticoats dragged behind her as her shoeless feet crunched their way out onto the dirt path of the small forest.
She hoped she was going the right way. She honestly didn’t know anymore.
Shaking out her skirts to rid the fabric of any hay, she marched onward, thankful the ground wasn’t muddy and that the sky still held onto sunshine. Despite being lost, she was rather proud of herself. She was about to become something no woman in her village had ever dared to be: independent.
Due to all the attention she received from countless men who kept fawning over her to the point of leaving coins and flowers on the windowsill of their cottage, her parents panicked and decided a quick marriage was the only option.
Of course, the moment her availability had been announced during a barn gathering, chaos of the worst sort ensued. Men, both young and old, from in and around Giverny, started competing for her to the point of smothering common sense.
Despite being the daughter of a butcher, she had always been popular due to men thinking she was attractive. And she was. She had dealt with it her whole life.
Ever since she came into her sizable breasts at the age of fourteen, men would stop her on the side of the road and eagerly offer her a cage full of chickens in return for a kiss. As if a chicken were worth that much. Others would insist she help herself to a barrel of oats in return for a peek at her calves and stockings. One bastard became so obsessed, he followed her almost every day to the market, insisting she take his goat well-known for producing the best milk in France. In return for her mouth on his cock. Not the rooster in his coop, but the one in his trousers.
One by one these fools pushed whatever they owned at her in an effort to flip up her skirts. And one by one she denied them. Because she wanted far more than mere chickens and goats.
She wanted a dashing man capable of seducing her soul.
Mind you, itwasmildly entertaining getting so much attention from men. After all, with ten siblings, she barely got any at home. But she quickly realized the attention was lusty and self-serving. These men thought she would somehow fulfill their salacious fantasies that would make their cocks and their lives perfect. And whilst, yes, she was prettier than most, she was anything but perfect. She had horrible habits that included using her acting skills to get what she wanted, biting her nails and falling asleep in her corset. Not that they cared. All they wanted was a prized cow with big udders.
Genuinely concerned about the direction of her life, she secretly wrote to her favorite cousin Rémy, who lived in Paris, asking if there was a place for her in the theatre he managed. It was a controversial theatre well-known for comedy and showcasing actresses in knee-high skirts and colorful stockings.
She was desperate.
While she would have preferred a more prestigious theatre to perform in, she knew an aspiring actress could only command so much. Fortunately, Rémy was thrilled and insisted she come to Paris at once, promising her a leading role and a room of her own. He believed in her talent and understood her woes. He himself had escaped the village of Giverny at sixteen, almost fifteen years to the day, refusing to become the blacksmith his father wanted him to be. She was determined to follow in the glory of her cousin’s steps and become famous.
Only…her parents engaged her to the pastor’s eldest son, Didier Dubois. They claimed she needed a respectable man to tame her ungovernable nature and forced her to sit with him during supper. He was thirty years older and treated her as if she was his daughter, constantly commenting that her ankle length skirts were not long enough.
Shebeggedher parents to end the engagement. It resulted in her getting slapped and being told she was ungrateful. Imagine that.Her.Ungrateful. She, who was practically raising her ten younger brothers for her parents who kept having children because of their unbridled lust for each other. She, who was doing all of the sewing and the cooking and the cleaning and helping in the butcher shop to the point of only sleeping four hours most nights. It made her realize she only had one choice.
She was going to wear knee-high skirts and colorful stockings.
So she kissed the foreheads of her brothers, one by one, and promised to send them all money if they told her parents she was off to the market and would be at a friend’s house for the day. They eagerly pushed her out the door and pinched her arm for luck so she might become richandfamous.
Under the fading sunlight that then led to countless stars, she disappeared, determined to be more than a wife or a headstone everyone in the village would come to forget when the letters in the stone faded.
Those stars had turned to a greying sky going on its second day.
Adjusting the basket against her hip, Thérèse marched onward.
The sooner she got to Paris, the sooner life could begin. She didn’t mind showing off her legs to a whistling crowd. It was better than cleaning up after eleven males, breaking up fights, or using a cleaver to chop the heads off innocent chickens who had been merrily clucking a few minutes earlier.
It was all about perspective. And she had plenty of it.
Halfway down the forest path, a pebble wedged itself into the stocking between her toes. Thérèse puffed out an exasperated breath, but kept walking, determined not to stop. Another pebble nudged its way into herotherstocking and pinched her heel.
How could something so small be so annoying?
She jerked to a halt, setting the basket down. Removing each stocking with gritted teeth, she shook out the pebbles, flinging them toward the forest around her.
At this pace, she would never get to Paris.
She kept following road signs claiming the city was somewhere ahead only to find it never was. She sensed she was officially lost. Bundling her stockings together, she tucked them into the far corner of her basket and plucked up by the basket by the wicker handle.
Crows cawed from the trees above as the sun briefly disappeared behind a looming dark cloud. Those blue skies weren’t so blue anymore. Lifting her gaze to the swaying high branches of green trees, she hastened her step, avoiding cart grooves.
Thunder sounded in the far distance.
She groaned, knowing she was about to get soaked.
A growing gust of wind whipped at her ballooning skirts and flapped the wide rim of her bonnet. Leaves from the ground rose up in a flurry and scattered. It was as if the weather had decided to throw a tantrum merely because she wanted a new life. How rude.
Determined not to be intimidated by the darkening morning and forest, Thérèse marched onward and occupied herself by singing. When she eventually got bored of that, she started to openly practice the lines her cousin scribed for her to memorize. “Is it possible for a mere commoner, like myself, to attain a measure of good cheer in a world dominated by—”The wind picked up in ferocity, fluttering her bonnet upward. She squeaked and grabbed at her bonnet to keep it in place.
The ground beneath her bare feet trembled.
She paused, glancing down. It was as if the devil were approaching.
The rhythmic thudding of horse hooves penetrated the ground.
Thérèse frantically veered to the side of the forest path to ensure she wasn’t trampled by whoever was approaching. Glancing back, she came to an astounded halt.
Heavens. The devilwasapproaching.
A broad-shouldered gentleman in a dark green riding coat rode toward her on a black stallion at a furious gallop, kicking up dead leaves and dirt through the forest path. The curved rim of his black felt hat had been pulled forward over a black velvet mask that barely revealed the end of a nose and the lower half of a square jaw that had clearly not been shaven in days.
It was a highwayman.
Not that she was in the least bit concerned. She had a paring knife and nothing of worth for him to take (aside from…her virginity). Annoyingly, she was lost and hadn’t seen a person in two days. Better a highwayman than being stranded out in the country long enough for her parents to find her. Which they would. They had a horse and a cart and she did not.
Thérèse faced him and waved a bare hand in the hopes of slowing his pace. “Monsieur!Monsieur!” she yelled. “Is this the right way to Paris? Do you know?”
Upon seeing her, his eyes widened from behind his mask. Gloved hands jerked back the reins hard. Pressing leather boots into the sides of his black stallion, he brought the galloping horse to a skidding trot before coming to a full halt beside her on the narrow path.
It was obvious by the sleek, brushed sides of the horse that its owner had the financial means to coddle it. The masked gentleman on its saddle, however, wore a very frayed, outdated, double-breasted waistcoat with tarnished brass buttons that appeared to have been given far less attention than the horse.
His long black hair was tied back with a blood-red ribbon that glared against the color of his worn velvet coat. The cravat knotted around his throat had a fading sheen that hinted it was made out of linen fabricated twenty years ago. Huh.
She offered him a smile. “’Tis certainly a fine day to be robbing people,Monsieur Highwayman.” She hoped he had a sense of humor. Most highwaymen did. Or at least the ones who had passed through her village. “I regret to announce I have no money, for which I apologize, but feel free to check my basket.”
He rolled his eyes, then untied and removed the mask. “I am no highwayman,mademoiselle.” Adjusting the felt hat back into place on his dark head, he tucked the mask into his pocket with gloved fingers, revealing the face of a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few dashes over twenty.
She gaped. Unfashionable, frayed clothing aside, he was beautiful. Square jaw. Defined cheekbones. Full lips. Even a dent in his chin. He wasalsowell-muscled and very rugged. He was everything a woman could ever want from a man in the hopes of producing the perfect child.
He was indeed no highwayman. He would not have removed his mask if he were.
Unless he planned to kill her.
Noting there werefiverosewood pistols, a sizable sheathed dagger and a sword attached to the leather saddle of his horse, she paused. The weapons were too expensive to belong to a mere highwayman with outdated clothing.
This one was cleverly hiding his wealth.
Well, now. Maybe she could get some money out of this divine creature.
Lifting her gaze to his, she counterfeited a quick smile, intent on showcasing that she was fully capable of charming men out of whatever she wanted. Only a real actress could convince a man of anything. “I wish you a very grand morning,monsieur.” She regally curtsied and ensured her voice remained breathy and sultry. “I thank you for stopping and wish to extend my vast appreciation knowing you appear to be a very busy man. I am on my way to Paris and require assistance regarding the direction I should take. Do you know the way?”
His rugged face tightened as he searched her face. Penetrating bright blue eyes met her gaze for a pulsing moment. “Mayhap,” he offered in a deep, ragged tone.
She blinked. Mayhap? “Do you or do you not? Because I need to get to Paris.”
He continued to stare.
She stared back. Apparently the sultry voice was working a bit too well. His brain was not functioning. “Should I be concerned,monsieur? Did you hit your head on a branch whilst coming into the forest? Because you appear quite dazed.”
He set his shoulders, his rapier gaze now passing over her gown. “Not at all. I simply was not expecting to see anyone. Few know of these paths.”
She eyed him. “You know of it.”
His eyes became flat and unreadable. “Might I ask why you are walking alone in this forest?” His French was upper crust, well-educated and immaculate. “The closest village outside of Paris is a few hours away. Either you are stupid or you seem to think I am.”
Her brows went up. She knew these well-to-dofils de bastswere known for being overly righteous, but she didn’t expect them to live up to their reputation. “Be careful with those insults,monsieur. Back in my village, I can skin a pig in less than thirty minutes. My father is a butcher, and I will warn you, he taught me everything I know. So refrain from annoying me. I have a paring knife.”
A tremor touched his lips as if he were fighting an amusement he didn’t wish to feel. “I have been duly warned.” He skimmed her appearance, including her bare feet and hesitated, lingering on the exposed skin above her breasts her knitted scarf didn’t cover. His jaw tightened. “The tops of your breasts are on full display. Is that intentional?”
Her eyes widened, realizing he had a direct view down her sizable cleavage given he was up on a horse. “Of course not. How dare you look.” She rearranged her fichu over her décolletage and patted it into place, tucking it into her bodice. “It slipped,” she tossed back. “The wind is a bit strong. Or did you not notice given how fast you were going?”
He puffed out a breath. Leaning back in the leather saddle enough to showcase his broad chest, he adjusted the reins in his large gloved hands. “Seeing you have no shoes,mademoiselle, and that the weather is about to turn dire, I suggest you make haste and go home.”
She snorted. “Home is the last place I wish to be.” Rather pleased with herself for seizing her own independence, she cradled the basket against her corseted waist, knowing a little advertisement was in order. “My cousin is graciously giving me an opportunity to be part of an upcoming performance he thinks will change all of Paris. I am to be his leading actress in a controversial script he wrote called…The Delights of Life. I will be performing on stage this Friday atSpetacle des Variétés Amusantes. Would you like to hear a few lines and maybe consider coming to a performance? Tickets will be selling for threesolsa piece. Quite the bargain.”
His gaze snapped to hers.
Without giving him a chance to decline, she breathlessly announced to her audience of one, “Is it possible for a mere commoner, like myself, to attain a measure of good cheer in a world dominated by men, politics, wealth, murder, intrigue and greed? Most certainly! Under the new Republic, one must simply know how to make these aristocrats in power crawl.” She slapped her derriere and gripped it. “And crawl you shall, o lords of this ravaged land. For I am your new harlot better known as the queen!”
She grinned. “You ought to see my rendition of Calderón. I make death look real.” She curtsied and regally held out an open palm with the roll of her bare hand. “Might you offer an aspiring actress a fewsolsfor her journey into stardom? It would be greatly appreciated.”
He lowered his chin. “I only give money to those in need.”
The cheeky bastard. “Iamin need. I left the house without a singlesol.”
“And how is that my problem?”
She dropped her hand to her side in exasperation. “I was hoping for a sliver of generosity. What else will you have me do? I sing. I dance. I also do a variety of impersonations. The only thing I willnotdo is bare my breasts or offer up sexual favors. However, if you insist, you may kiss my hand. But not with an open mouth or your tongue. I had a man once lick my hand and I swear I can still feel it.”
An inexplicable look of withdrawal came over his face. “You and I are clearly at an impasse.”
She pointed. “You really ought to work on that comedy routine. You are far too serious in nature.”
He leaned back against his saddle, still staring her down. “What the hell is this? A forest and a show? Are you lost?”
She puffed out a breath. “I dare not say it, but I could be. I have been walking for over two days now following signs that appear to be misplaced. I amtryingto get to Paris.” She held up her basket and brightly offered, “I have apples. Might I barter a few in exchange for directions? Or maybe even a ride?” Still smiling, she enthusiastically patted the sleek, soft neck of his horse with one hand, while still holding the basket up. “He is so magnificent. I can barely breathe in his presence.”
He edged his hand away from where she had been patting the horse. “Are you referring to me or the horse?”
She rolled her eyes. “And I thought I was conceited. Not to insult you or your glorious steed, but I intend to own something far more exotic once I rise into the glory of fame I deserve.”
He said nothing.
“I intend to own a zebra,” she added conversationally. “’Tis an African white horse with black stripes. I was fortunate enough to glimpse a sketch of one in an old gazette I was wrapping meat in. No one ever sees those pulling a carriage on the street. Which got me thinking about publicity. Every actress ought to have a definable persona that will separate her from the masses. And a zebra will do that and more. I can imagine it already. A black lacquered carriage whose interior is lined with red velvet being drawn by not one, not two, not three…butfourzebras! Everyone would elbow each other and line the street just to watch me wave. And if I put my full name on the side of that carriage, they would even follow me straight to the theatre. Brilliant,non?”
His aloofness showed on his face. “I have a conscience,ma biche, so permit me to give you some advice.” Ignoring the basket she still held up, he rigidly leaned down toward her from within the saddle and rumbled out, “Go home. Paris does not need another penniless country girl trying to get famous. You will only end up whoring yourself out of desperation once you realize the stage pays nothing. Is that what you want? Because that is what awaits you. Acting, whoring, the pox, blaming everyone for your demise, followed by a quick death.Ifyou are fortunate enough to die quick, that is.”
He was clearly not an optimist.
She gave him a withering look, lowering her basket. “I have much bigger plans and I can assure you, they do not include whoring myself to a man. If I wanted to do that, I could have easily stayed in Giverny. And whilst, yes, I often barter with men for whatever I need, my stage career comes first. I intend to be the next Mademoiselle Raucourt.”
“I certainly hope not. That woman is a whore. And not a very nice one at that.”
She glared. “How dare you insult the greatest actress in all of France?”
He lifted a brow. “How the hell do you think she became great?”
She gasped. “I am not about to listen to your vile gossip. I happen to like her. Ambition amongst females should be trumpeted not slapped.” Swinging away, she adjusted the heavy basket, wishing she hadn’t picked so many apples and trudged onward. “I will find my own way to Paris,merci.Whore myself, indeed. I have yet to find a man worthy of it. All you apes ever think about is food, wine andpoom-poom.”
He paused from adjusting his felt hat. “What the devil are you talking about?”
Why did no one ever get it? “Sex. It sounds exactly what it looks like.Poom-poom.”
A cough escaped him. “Are you saying you have done such things?”
She rolled her eyes. “No. I have ten brothers under the age of eighteen. The eldest of them, at seventeen, is already engaged to one of the girls in the village due to his inability to control the stick between his now hairy legs. I caught Benoit with his bare arse in the air, grunting like the pig that he is. Not a pretty sight. Whilst my parents? Those two lusty rabbits have made their bed squeak so much over the years, there are visible grooves in the wood floor that will soon take them and the entire bed to China.”
A laugh, low and deep and well-amused, escaped him. “I uh…thank you. I needed that. I have not laughed in…a long time.” He slowly trotted his horse after her and eyed her, amusement lighting his eyes. “I wish to be of assistance, my dear. Whatever you need, it is yours. How can I help?”
Oh, now he cared. She eyed him in exasperation. “Service I can do without. What I need is money. I hear Paris is expensive.”
“Unfortunately, yes. It is. You would never survive it.”
She sighed. “How much would you be willing to give to a girl for free?”
Half-smiling, his voice turned to velvet. “If you answer a few questions about yourself, I promise to be incredibly generous.”
“How generous is generous?”
“Enough to make you faint.”
She quirked a brow. “You are quite the lawyer. So be it. Ask whatever questions you have. Do, however, keep them civil. No gown or corset sizes.”
His mouth lifted. “What is it with the bare feet? Where are your shoes? Do you not own any?”
She was getting paid for this? Life was sometimes too easy to warrant breathing. “Of course I have shoes. You see?” She gestured toward the satin slippers peering out of the basket. “Shoes.”
“How kind of you to let your basket wear them.”
He was beginning to annoy her. “My basket is wearing them because I happen to prefer dirty feet over blisters. So leave off.”
“I was teasing.”
“Were you also teasing about Mademoiselle Raucourt when you insulted her? I met her once outside a theatre she performed in when I visited my cousin in Paris years ago. She was very gracious and even tossed coins to those less fortunate.”
He paused. “Appearances can be deceiving. Two summers ago, Mademoiselle Raucourt seduced and broke a good man I once knew. He was a struggling carpenter who committed suicide over her by drinking an entire bottle of some concoction he bought at the apothecary. And the worst of it? She did not even bother to attend his funeral. In my opinion, you women are heartless.”
She winced. Apparently, her idol was quite the cold tart. Eck. “How awful.”
“It was. For him, anyway.”
This one was quite the philosopher.
He continued trotting his horse alongside her. “How old are you?”
What she did for money. She gave him a pointed look despite him being up on his horse. “My mother tells me I have been forty since the age of five, which puts me at about…oh…fifty-eight- years-old.”
He thrust out his unshaven jaw and lifted his gaze to the heavens as if asking for patience.
She smirked, weighing those rugged features in between her own steps. My, my. She never thought a man was capable of being so well-muscled and physically perfect. And yet this one was.
Whilst he very much looked like a man, he also looked a touch young. Definitely not in his thirties. “I am eighteen,” she offered, sensing she had teased him long enough. “How old are you?”
He snapped his gaze back to her. “I am one and twenty.” He trotted the horse even closer. “Which makes me your elder.”
Was he bragging?
There was a heightened strain to his tone. “Where are you from?”
“And you walked?”
“Giverny is over twentypied du roiin distance.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. My feet keep reminding me of the distance.”
His brows came together. “What are you doing out here alone? Who are your parents? What are their names?”
She sighed and kept walking. “At this rate, forget paying me. Because I have to get to Paris or my cousin might very well give my lead to another. And then where will I be? The theatrical debuts in three days. Three. Which means…I have to be in Paris by tomorrow nightfallat the latest. I have knee-high skirts to be fitted into.”
“Knee-high skirts?” He shifted in his saddle and let out a whistle between straight teeth. “You certainly are ambitious. I foresee great things for you in the back of some man’s carriage.”
She put up a hand. “I have officially ceased listening to anything you are saying. If I choose to show off my legs, at whatever price I set, that is my business, not yours.”
Dismounting with the swing of his long leg, he landed with a heavy thud onto the ground behind her. “You and those legs became my business the moment you stopped me.” He stalked after her and snapped out a gloved hand. “Give me your basket. You and I are going to talk.”
She turned and lifted an astounded brow. “Have we not been talking?”
“Only superficially.” Still holding out his hand, he wagged the tips of his fingers. “Give me your basket. I want see what you have in it.”
She scrambled back, swinging her basket away. “’Tis none of your business what I have in it. Off with you!”
He lowered his gloved hand, the tails of his coat whipping around his muscled frame.
Drops of rain spattered her face. “I believe you owe me money.” She presented a hand. “I expect to faint the moment those coins touch my hand.”
His features and tone hardened. “You are wandering a forest alone without any shoes, are asking me for money and look like you have been sleeping in hay for days. What sort of trouble are you in? Are you on your own? Or did someone hire you to intercept me?”
She pulled in her chin. “Intercept you? What are you— If you must know, my parents engaged me to a horrid man twice my age and I had no choice but to leave. Unfortunately, I got lost and here I am.”
His gaze slid to her breasts for a moment, causing him to scratch at his chin. He met her eyes. “Are you wanting to travel with me?”
The perusal of her breasts aside, she was beginning to wonder if she should trust him. She gripped the basket. “That depends on who you really are. I assume given your casual approach to visually molesting my breasts, coupled with your impeccable use of language and expensive firearms, you must be a merchant of some sort.”
“No. I am notbourgeoisie. I am well above it.”
Well above it? There was nothing above bourgeoisie. Nothing except for…
Her eyes widened. “Are you saying you are of the elite?”
“As in a real aristocrat?”
He widened his stance. “Yes. As in a real aristocrat.”
Not good. His kind didn’t like her kind anymore than her kind liked his kind. “That would certainly explain the sour demeanor, the weapons, the mask and an attempt to wear outdated clothing. Are you in hiding?”
“No. I am merely travelling back from an….engagement.”
“That required a mask?”
He swiped at his mouth in agitation. “You are clearly on to me. So what happens next? What should we do about each other?”
Thérèse hesitated. Either he was not used to making friends or he was not used to people at all. “You appear to be under duress, and while I completely understand, there is no need to take that duress and fling it at me. I share your distrust. This revolution went to muck the moment they started killing people. The things I have been hearing are enough to turn the stomach of even the devil. Did you know the Legislative Assembly oversaw the execution of two aristocratic young men barely a breath over twenty? And they were brothers, no less. It was all maliciously done on the side of a road as opposed to a courtroom, which is how things ought to be done. Even worse, these poor aristos had more than their toes sliced off. They were shot and hanged like animals merely because they tried to quietly leave the country. Did you hear of it?”
He blinked rapidly, as if unable to comprehend what she was saying, and glanced away. “Yes.” Dropping his hand to his side, his tone darkened. “For a country girl, you appear to be incredibly well-informed on what is happening. Why is that?”
She sighed. “My cousin Rémy is a bit of gossip. He lives in Paris and has been writing about the chaos since it started back in ‘89. He even joined in a few of the riots.”
His expression grew tight with strain. “And knowing this, you still wish to go into Paris and perform for him? Knowing he is contributing to the mounting chaos?”
Thérèse shrugged. “Better my cousin than what my parents have planned for me. Rémy is a good man and anything but violent. He only joined in on a few of the riots to show support and petition change. The theatre he manages was getting so heavily taxed by the Lord Mayor, he almost had to shut it down. The aristocracy owns countless theatrical venues of a similar nature and were never taxed. These wealthy bastards think they can—” Remembering who she was talking to, she cringed. “Forgive me. I was raised in a very opinionated and vocal household. There were thirteen of us and we never held anything back.”
Hooking his thumbs against the pockets of his trousers, he bit out, “I can see that. Unfortunately, you are part of the growing problem in this country. All tongue but no mind.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He narrowed his gaze. “You swallow propaganda merely because you hear it or because it was written. Be it about a zebra or anything else, those gazettes and pamphlets are paid for and printed by people with a specific agenda. Remember that.” His tone hardened. “And while you insult my way of life by calling me a bastard, your gazettes and pamphlets are pushing the masses to violence in the name of overtaking what little remains of this country. Aristocrats are not the problem anymore. You people are.”
No wonder the country was going to hell. If a man of privilege refused to acknowledge the struggles happening outside his golden gates, it would seem this revolution was just getting started.
In truth, she wasn’t astaunchbeliever in the revolution. The idea of eliminating Sa Majesté was pointless. What would it change? Nothing. Because men in power equated to men in power. And said power would simply go on to yet another self-righteous prick who would only use the government like the devil paging through the bible looking for new words to tear out.
But she understood why people were demanding change.
They were out of hope. Much like she was.
Knowing it was best to leave, for she was getting a bittooriled about their conversation, she edged back. “I suggest you aristos stop blaming the pamphlets and do something about the taxes and the food prices. Maybethen, your kind would be more respected. For without the respect of the people, what keeps us in place? Nothing. Propaganda is only ever allowed to fester when there is nothing left for the people to believe in.Thatmay be why I am prancing off to Paris to be an actress. Because I havenothingleft to believe in.”
He said nothing.
Thérèse offered him a theatrical bow. “Thank you for wasting my time. I bid you a very good day and ask that you stop following me.” She swung away and started walking again. Only faster.
She almost hit her head against her own basket, unable to believe she had just delivered a political lashing to an aristocratic man who had five rosewood pistols, a dagger and a sword.
Not only did the blighter not pay her the money he promised, he continued to follow her.
As if it were his right!
“Maybe I ought to take you back to Giverny and marry you off,” he called. “That would certainly keep you out of trouble.”
Her heart skidded. Oh, God. She had told him where she was from. Which meant—
Thérèse broke out into a run, cradling her wicker basket against herself to keep everything within it from bouncing out.
Determined booted feet thudded after her. “Why the hell are you running?!” he yelled.
“Because I am not going back to Giverny! So you might as well start shooting with every pistol you have!” Her parents, who were as stubborn as she, would lock her in a room until she married Didier. And then she would find herself covered in his facial powder every single night for life. For life!
Her heart pounded as she ran even faster. An apple bounced out. She frantically tried to catch it, but it rolled off to the side.
“Mademoiselle, cease—” Rounding her with astounding speed, he blocked her path with his broad frame by skidding in before her. He grabbed her closest arm, yanking her to a halt that made them both stumble. “For mercy’s sake,arrêtez!”
Thérèse jerked to a halt in exasperation and winced, knowing he wasn’t going to let her pass. She swallowed, her chest still heaving from the sprint she had attempted. She tore herself away from his grasp.
There was only one thing left to do. Take to the stage. Like she always did.
Forcing tears to streak her eyes in a well-practiced attempt to save herself, she choked out, “Please,Monseigneur.I…I beg of you not to insist.” She focused on ensuring her voice quivered just enough to sound real. “I am well aware of your superiority and apologize for my overly passionate words, but I cannot go back to Giverny and marry a man I do not love. It would ruin more than my heart. Is that what you seek to do? To take what remains of my insignificant life and fling me into perpetual misery? Would you be that cruel?” She would have let her lip tremble, but decided it would have been a bit much.
His commanding blue eyes grew all the more amused. As did his husky voice. “You are an incredibly good actress. Do you toy with men like this all the time?”
She cringed. It was the first time she failed to produce the effect she wanted. “No. Not all the time.”
He assessed her, his amusement fading. “Do you really have a cousin in Paris?”
She daintily swiped at what remained of the tears she had theatrically produced. “Yes, of course, I have a cousin. Just because I am an actress does not mean whatever comes out of my mouth is a lie.”
His brows came together. “I am astounded he would let you walk to Paris alone. Women of all classes are being assaulted on the streets given there are nomaréchausséesto oversee the chaos. Some of these revolutionaries are merrily raping women on the street in the name of ‘freedom’. Do you know that?”
She swallowed. No. She didn’t. But she wasn’t surprised. Men were like that. Self-serving.
He searched her face. “Your level of intelligence is astoundingly unusual for the daughter of a mere butcher. I cannot help but be skeptical as to who you really are.”
Thérèse blinked through the last of her fake tears. It was so strange, but this close, those steel blue eyes of his had become more than a color. They were fiercely passionate, soulful and heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
Those eyes didn’t seem to trust her anymore than she trusted him.
She heaved out a sigh, ready to call it a truce. “Unusual though it is, I was actually sent to a seminary in Paris for three years. It was paid for by a very generous and wealthy patron my mother used to be a governess to. I thought my parents had lost the last of theirbourgeoisieminds trying to overeducate me, only to discover I was an investment. They dragged me back to Giverny and forced me to teach everything I learned at the seminary to every single one of my ten unruly brothers. I taught the same bloody lesson plan for so many years, I am fully convinced I have been to Russia eighteen times.”
Sensing he still wasn’t believing it, she added, “Yes. Russia. ‘Tis an aspiration of mine to visit Saint Petersburg one of these days. They call it the city of giants given how massive the boulevards and buildings are. Apparently, these Russians are so hardened by the snow and life they chew glass for dinner.”
He smirked. “I doubt they chew glass for dinner. But then what do I know? I have never been.” Rubbing a hand against his jaw, he turned and strode back toward the horse. Unsheathing the single dagger attached to the saddle of the horse, he gripped it.
Her heart popped as she scrambled back. “What are you doing?”
He glanced at her. “You are not the only actor in our midst.”
With that, he detached the brass buttons on his coat with the tip of his dagger, letting the buttons fall onto the dirt path one by one. He kicked them away and detached the remaining buttons on his waistcoat, as well, before sweeping the dagger back into its leather sheath on the saddle.
Thunder cracked again, startling her. The cooling wind, that whispered summer was almost at an end, gusted through the trees and flapped her skirts, causing them to balloon upward. She gasped, scrambling to keep her gown from exposing her lack of undergarments.
He eyed her and smirked. Removing his coat with a shrug, he revealed a yellowing linen shirt and well-fitted waistcoat. Pausing before her and the basket that separated them, he held out his coat. “Here. Put it on. It will keep your gown from lifting.”
She was officially impressed. “You,monsieur, would be the first to try to keep my skirt from lifting.”
“I did not say I was doing it willingly, dearest.”
She gave him a withering look. “I take it you offer your coat to every woman you meet?”
He lifted a brow. “I used to let beautiful women take far, far more than my coat.” He leveled her with a stare. “But I have learned not to trust them to take off with my heart.”
She blinked. “Are you flirting with me?”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” He tossed the coat at her, startling her. “Take it.” He stepped back. “The wind appears to be strong enough to push this weather through. So hopefully, it will not rain.”
She scrambled into his coat before her gown decided to put on another show. The thick fabric was heavy and smooth, weighing her shoulders with an impressive expanse that draped down well past her knees.
Adjusting it over herself to keep it from falling, she paused, realizing the fabric had a melting scent of expensive cologne. It smelled like freshly hewn amberwood and spice and was so achingly divine, she wanted to do nothing but sniff, nuzzle and cuddle it.
She refrained. “Thank you for the coat.”
He said nothing. He simply removed his felt hat, causing strands of longer black hair to fall into his eyes. Brushing it back into his queue, he whipped the hat into the forest, well beyond the trees. Lifting his unshaven chin, he casually undid his cravat and flicked it aside. Stripping off his waistcoat that fully exposed his linen shirt, he hurled it.
She tightened her hold on his coat. “What are you doing?”
“I try never to be seen in the same clothing for long. I changed out of my last ensemble over an hour ago by a lake. After I went for a swim.”
She gaped. “Is there a warrant for your arrest?”
“I have no doubt there will be.” Holding her gaze, he set a gloved hand to his chest. “The name is Gérard. We will keep it to that until I have established what our relationship will be. I am still deciding.”
Still deciding? “Do tell the jury my name is Thérèse.”
He lingered. “Thérèse.” He intently searched her face, dragging in a slow breath. “You certainly were blessed. Everything about you is…your face is—” He still lingered, searching her features.
She edged back. “Leave my face out of this.”
He lifted a dark brow. “What? Did I say anything?”
“You did not have to. I get it all the time. If you ever wonder why I wish to take to the stage, it is because my lifeisa stage. There is no difference. You men lose your minds around me. And whilst I appreciate the never ending parade of adoration, it does get to be annoying.”
He hesitated as if intrigued. “Are you saying men crawl for you?”
He had no idea. Men were the bane of her existence.
She had always wanted to be known for her intelligence and quick wit that had been rightfully earned whilst raising ten very rambunctious brothers, but how was a woman to become more than a face in a world obsessed with beauty?
She considered herself rather pathetic.
For she had no friends outside of her family. She never had.
All the girls in the village always snubbed her, snickering that she thought too much of herself. Which wasn’t true. They simply didn’t like the attention she always received. They blamed her for the fact that the boy of their dreams ignored them. Little did they know the boy of their dreams wasn’t even worth an oyster pie.
She set her chin. “They do more than crawl. Giverny and its men about exhausted me.”
“Is that so?” He rolled his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “If you are so tired of the attention, my dear, then why take to the stage? It will only make it worse. Actresses are the epitome of every man’s dream.”
She kept her chin set. “True. But at least I will get paid for it.”
“Money only ever shrouds other problems, you know.” He glanced judiciously around the forest, as if preoccupied by too many thoughts. The wind flapped the billowing sleeves of his linen shirt, outlining his broad physique and hinting at the impressive definition of taut muscle beneath.
Thérèse tried not to stare, but every time the wind shifted his linen shirt against his muscled arms and chest, it gave her more to admire. She pinched her lips in an effort not to dash up to him and tap each pectoral to see if it was real.
He eyed her and veered his gaze upward, searching the sky through the branches of the trees. “Fortunately, the weather does not appear to be getting worse. In fact, I am quite certain of it.” He pointed at the sky with a gloved finger and stared up at it with contempt. “I command you not to rain. I need to get to Paris without my gunpowder getting wet. Do you hear me?”
This aristocrat was talking to the rain.To the rain. As if he had power over it.
No wonder these people were getting stoned.
She peered up at the sky through the leaves and branches above and paused. Large patches of blue sky pushed out from between the dark clouds. Her lips parted. “Did you just command the weather into cooperation?”
He smugly adjusted his linen shirt. “I do it all the time. Whatever I want, I get. No matter what it is. The universe is quite used to it. You should get used to it, too.” His wry tone indicated he was attempting humor.
She tossed his coat back at him, grabbing up the basket. “It must be nice being able to control the universe.”
Gérard effortlessly snatched hold of his coat in midair and stared. “I am not in control of it yet. But I damn well hope to be.”
She rolled her eyes. “Let me know when you are.”
He still stared. “Are you really a virgin? Or are you pretending to be?”
The prickling of heat overtook her cheeks. Sheneverblushed around men. After all, she was the one in control of how they behaved around her. It was an art she had perfected since she had grown into her breasts. “You are being downright crude. I refuse to answer that.”
He pointed. “So youarea virgin.”
She glared. “What are you? The virgin magistrate?”
“Pardon me for saying it, but I am a touch confused as to how worldly you appear to be for a virgin.” He eyed her basket, as if attempting to assess its contents. “You certainly travel lightly.” He lingered on the apples crowding it. “But well.”
Averting his gaze, he shrugged on his coat.
That was certainly him asking for an apple. She paused. There were two leather satchels attached to his saddle. One appeared to be stuffed with stacks of parchment that peered out beneath a tightly fastened flap. The other was well-packed with clothing and several frayed wool blankets that had traces of hay as if he had been sleeping in the fields.
He wasn’t hiding his wealth. He hadnowealth.
Which would explain why he still hadn’t paid her.
She sighed. Plucking up an apple out of her basket, she held it out. “Here. Go on.”
His gaze veered to the apple. “Pardon?”
She closed the distance between them and held it out. “You practically invited yourself into eating it. Take it. They are a bit tart, but still surprisingly good.”
He widened his stance. “I thank you, dearest, but no. Those are yours.”
“Oh, cease with your high and mighty business already. I can see the hay clinging to your blanket. You were sleeping in a field just like me. Which means you are not as well-heeled as you tout yourself to be and are probably hungry. Here. The apples were free and came out of the orchard I was passing through earlier. You would hardly be imposing. Go on.”
He hesitated but still did not take it.
She sighed. Wedging herself closer, she was about to shove it into his hand, but noted his gloves were crusted with dry mud.
So she did the one thing she could. The one thing she always did for her brothers. She brought out her paring knife and balancing the basket on the crook of her elbow, sliced off a piece of the fruit. Tucking the small knife away, she leaned in and daintily reaching up, set it against his lips, wiggling it. “Eat,Gérard. Consider it payment for my ride into Paris.”
He met her gaze for a long moment, his broad chest visibly rising and falling. “Thank you.” Bending his dark head, he opened his full lips and ever so slowly dragged the sliced apple into his mouth. He leaned in more to take the whole thing into his mouth.
His teeth and hot tongue grazed the tips of her fingers.
Her pulse roared as her skin tingled from the unexpected contact. She jerked her hand away. Taking several steps back, she swiped her wet fingers against her skirt, trying to rid herself of the tingling shestillfelt. “You almost ate my finger.”
The muscles in his jaw showcased each methodical chew as he continued to heatedly hold her gaze. “It was in the way.” His blue eyes now held a spark of some indefinable emotion. One full of so many secrets he wasn’t telling.
Swallowing, he said in a low, husky tone, “Bring the apple back over. I would like more.”
He wasn’t looking to eat apples anymore. She tried to remain calm and held out the apple, keeping her distance. “Here. Take the whole thing.”
“I would but my gloves are a bit dirty.” He held them up.
It appeared the bite of an apple had turned this one into a full-fledged rake. “Then I suggest you remove your gloves.”
He lowered his hands and flexed them, flaking mud off the leather. “Do you think it wise to ask me to remove more clothing?”
She eyed him. Something in his demeanor had changed. And she didn’t understand why. “No more slices for you. You are making a game of this.”
Brushing off the remaining dirt from his gloves, he slowly closed the distance between them. “Maybe I am.” He edged in until they were almost nose to nose. The scent of amberwood, spice and leather tinged the air. “Are you too scared to play along? I thought you were a butcher’s daughter capable of cleaving your way through anything.”
He was too close and was beginning to play the sort of games she was used to. The ones where men tried to sidle up close and touch her.
Scrambling back, her bare ankle rolled against a large branch lying on the path behind her. She winced, stumbled and gasped as the basket tipped and fell to the ground, thudding apples and the items within everywhere.
He jumped and grabbed her waist hard to keep her from following the basket to the ground. Jerking her upward and toward himself to steady her, his rigid body and expression stilled.
Pausing, he eyed her lips.
She could feel the pulse of his large hands on her waist as he edged his mouth down and closer to hers. The heat of his apple-sweetened breath fanned her lips.
He hovered, but did nothing.
She stiffly clung to him, her heart pounding as the intensity of his blue eyes dug into her, hinting that he wanted far, far more than mere lips. It made her stomach flip.
She had only ever kissed a man once. A year earlier a young royal soldier who was off to fight against the riots had jogged out of line from the regiment and begged her for a kiss on the side of the road. She only did it because she doubted he would ever get another.
She swallowed and waited for those lips to take hers.
He released her and stepped back, his expression unreadable.
She staggered between breaths. Was she losing her ability to charm? Any other man would have kissed more than her mouth by now.
He widened his stance, surveying her with annoyed superiority. “Why did you not kiss me? I gave you plenty of time.”
She gasped, regaining what little common sense she had left. The blighter! He had been waiting for her to—
The horse perked and quickly hoofed its way between them to the nearest apple, swiping it up with its large, yellow teeth. With the shake of its head, it chewed obnoxiously, spraying juice as it headed for another apple and another and another, fully intending on eating them all.
She gasped again and waved a hand toward the horse. “Tell him to stop eating my apples!”
“Oh, come now,” he drawled. “Has he not earned it? This here chap is taking you to Paris.”
She set her hands on her hips. “He could be gracious enough to leave meone. Now call him off. I have not eaten anything all morning.”
The horse stepped onto her cracked mirror, shattering it.
She gasped again as it dragged her gown along the path to find another apple.
A throaty laugh escaped Gérard. “Pardon his manners. He takes after me.”
She swung toward him, a shaky breath escaping her. “Your horse is destroying what little I own, and you find that amusing?”
His amusement faded. He stared at her, his eyes penetrating the distance between them. “Forgive him and forgive me.”
Something about him unnerved her, yet lured her. It was as if he were a higher being struggling to be human. Averting her gaze, she straightened her basket and gathered what few items she could. The ones that hadn’t been mangled, that was.
She scrambled for her leather-bound book.
He knelt beside her on the dirt path. “Leave it be. I will do it.”
“No, I—” She paused noting the expensive wool of his beige breeches had stretched and tightened against the taut, bulking muscle pushing beneath them. It was as if his entire body were made of steel. The flap of his trouser appeared to be well-filled, too.
She cringed at noticing.
Picking up the book, he turned it over to glance at the golden lettering and paused. His gaze veered to hers in astonishment. “Do you speak English?”
“No. Of course not. I am as French as champagne.”
He lowered his chin. “Then why do you have a book written in English?”
Puckering her lips in annoyance, she took it from his hand and tucked it into her basket where it belonged. The last thing she wanted or needed was for him or any man knowing that, at heart, she was a weakling of a stupid romantic. Because she knew full well men took advantage of women with stars in their eyes. “Because one day,” she tossed out, “I plan to read it.”
A travelling British couple who had spent an entire day cooing at each other in English over a meal at the inn had left it. While she had tried to run it after them, their coach had already departed, and they never came back to claim it. The way the two had gloried in one another made her hold onto the book and believe she might one day have such a thing. She imagined it held the secret to their entire marriage. “Its mystery holds a certain power over me,” she confessed. “When I have enough money, I intend to hire a British tutor so I can read every last sentence.”
“Is that so?” He tilted his dark head, his eyes brightening. “I speak English, you know. Fluently. My mother was British. I still have family in London, actually.”
Her heart popped. Dearest God. They were meant to meet!
She shoved the book back at him, still on her knees, and frantically opened it to the first page, her hands almost trembling in excitement. “You have no idea how long I have waited to meet someone who can speak English.” She pointed at the book. “Might you translate a few words? Can you tell me if it is a romantic novel? One with a happy ending?”
He searched her face.
She tapped at the page. “Cease being a man and read it.”
He took the book from her hands, still kneeling on the ground beside her, and glanced at the golden letters on the front leather binding of the book. “Candide: or The Optimistby Voltaire.” He edged it open. “’Tis actually a translation. I read this in French some time ago. It was quite good. I enjoyed it.”
“Did you? What was it about?”
He flipped to another page, where an array of words started the first line of the book. He silently read, his brows coming together.
Thérèse leaned in, peering down at the page and then up at him. She waited.
He continued reading intently in concentrated silence. Time passed. He rapidly blinked, then turned the page and read on.
She elbowed him. “If you keep at it, you will read the whole book twice. What does it say?”
He slapped the book shut and shoved it into her basket. “Allow me to sum up the story. It is all too much like real life. Candide’s love for Cunégonde propels him to abandon paradise, he commits murders in her name, avoids execution and when they can at long last be together, he no longer wants her.” He gave her a pointed look.
Thérèse swallowed. After waitingyearsto learn about its contents, it appeared the happy couple had been carrying a foray of mockery.
She veered her gaze away, grabbing up a dirt streaked gown and her cousin’s letter that held the address she was supposed to travel to. “So much for marital secrets,” she grouched. “And yet again, another male writer rips apart the glory of love and happy endings in a book. What do you men have against love and happy endings anyway?”
He lifted his gaze to hers, an arrested expression settling onto his rugged features. His square jaw tensed visibly. “Nothing. We simply recognize that they can be dangerous to a man. It gives him too much hope, and some men need more than hope. They need a full guarantee.”
She swallowed. That was certainly a confession she did not expect.
His brow creased. “So this is, in fact, real. You really are heading to Paris to be an actress.”
She blinked. “Yes, of course. What— Was there any doubt?”
“A part of me was worried you had been hired by thegendarmerie nationale.”
The…oh.Oh! “No. I…no, no, no. I…no. I would never work for men like that. Not given all the murders and the butchering they do. I am nothing more than an aspiring actress trying to get to Paris.” She poked at each cheek to emphasize how real she was. “See? Nothing nefarious here.”
He intently searched her face, his masculine mouth softening. “Your appearance into my life is unprecedented.” His steel blue eyes smoldered as if he werefinallyintroducing her to who he really was. “Do you know how many times I kept thinking I was going to die? And how every person that crossed my path only brought me closer to death? Do you know what that does to your mind?”
Her throat ached.
He hesitated and leaned in, searching her face. “Kiss me.”
And she thoughtshewas overly forward in nature.
She leaned far back and awkwardly patted his unshaven cheek none too lightly, more than forgiving him given his mind did not appear to be in the right place. “If I were madly in love with you, I would most certainly let kisses and far more happen. But given we just met...you know...a girl has to have standards.”
The wind scattered some of his hair against his forehead. He placed an apple and a folded, muddy gown into her basket. He said nothing.
His self-effacing silence pinched her given his earlier words of others wanting him dead. “Are you all right?”
He lifted his gaze to hers.
The pulsing disquiet in those striking eyes punched her. It was as if he were recovering from seeing something no man should have seen. She leaned toward him. “What is it?”
He only held her gaze.
Good Lord. What had this man been through?
Leaving the basket on the ground, she stood and brushed off her skirts. She hesitated and held out her hand. “Come. Get up off the ground.” She scanned the split apples whose inner pieces were mashed into the ground and rolled her eyes. “Leave the rest of the apples. Sadly, they are too damaged.”
He jumped onto his booted feet, startling her. Grabbing her outstretched hand, he kissed it with warm lips and then yanked her rigidly close, squeezing her hard.
She froze, her cheek mashed against that hard, muscled chest and linen. The scent of his cologne pierced her astounded breath. Her pulse roared. “The hand was meant to help you up, you know. Not…this.”
He only tightened his hold and rubbed her shoulders. “Let a man be happy knowing he is aliveandin the presence of a beautiful woman who is going to change his life. Or rather,mylife. I have plans for us,ma biche. Plans.”
She didn’t know whether to be flattered or worried.
Glancing at his horse, he let out a quick whistle through his upper teeth and gestured toward the smashed apples. “Have at it,” he prodded. “You have earned it more than I, my friend.”
The horse eagerly moved forward, dipped his head toward the pieces and slopped each piece off the dirt road with oversized lips.
Thérèse tried not to get comfortable in those muscled arms that continued to boldly hold and rub her as if she were his to rub and hold. Especially after his talk of plans. She wanted to be an actress first, mistress last. Or at least second. But definitely not first.
She edged herself out of Gérard’s firm grip after a few leaning tugs. “Might you…?”
His large fingers finally, though barely, released her hand.
Stepping back, she puffed out an exasperated breath. His intensity still pulsed against her skin, and his cologne had practically rubbed itself into more than her pores. Watching the horse noisily chew, she tried to lighten the mood. “Look at that. Country dining at its finest.”
“Thérèse.” That low voice broke with huskiness. “Come here.”
Unadulterated and uncensored need reverberated from that deep voice beside her.
Veering her astounded gaze to his, she sensed he wanted her back in his arms.
Slipping his hand into the leather purse attached to the belt of his waist, he dug out everything in it. He held out a sizable stash of two-Louis gold coins, displaying well over twenty in the palm of his glove. “I believe I owe you money.”
Her eyes widened. Holy— Those coins had to be worth about a thousand livres. A thousand! Heavens, those coins could have easily sustained her entire family of thirteen and a few neighbors in Giverny for a whole year.
So much for him being poor.
She eyed him. “I get to keep all of it?”
He edged it further out. “This is just the beginning.” His expression stilled. “I need you to be completely and utterly devoted to me and only me. In return, whatever you desire, I will ensure you get.”
Every inch of her skin turned to fire. He was asking her to be his mistress.
Whilst a part of her wanted to be offended enough to smack him so hard all of his dead ancestors would feel it whether they were in heaven or hell, she sensed whatever this man had been through warranted this idiocyandher leniency.
She stepped back, ensuring her tone was firm. “I understand my forward nature might have led you to believe you could make an offer of my person, but I am not that sort of woman.”
His steel blue eyes held hers. “Us being lovers is only a breath of what I want. I need you for something more.”
Her breath hitched, and she found herself extremely conscious that unlike other men, this one wanted to control far more than her body. He wanted control over her mind. As if he didn’t trust her mind.
He tossed the coins he was still holding into her basket, announcing they were in agreement.
She eyed him in riled exasperation. “No. No, no, no. What are you— Take it back! I am not— Even for a full thousand, I am not kissing you.”
He stared. “Then we will do everything else.”
Thunder cracked again, startling her as much as his words.
A downpour of cold rain rustled its way through the trees, soaking her. Feeling water trickling down her hair, forehead, nose and cheeks, she glowered up at him. “I thought you had a talk with the rain.”
He dragged back wet strands of dark hair from his eyes. “Maybe the rain and I made arrangements to ensure you stayed.” Slowly removing his coat again, he draped it over her head and leaned in, adjusting it onto her with a firm tug. His gaze dropped to her lips. “Do you trust me?”
She peered up at him, trying to throttle the fluttering in her stomach knowing he was looking at her lips and using the rain and his coat as an excuse to kiss her. “No. Not really.”
He searched her face. “I do not trust easily myself. But if we could make this work, if we do this right, I foresee us doing great things for the world.”
She swallowed. “What sort of things?”
Dragging in a ragged breath, he edged in closer, his body pressing into her.
Her pulse pounded.
He brushed his masculine lips across her forehead, grazing the warmth of his own lips against the moisture of the rain that had cooled her skin.
She swayed, unable to even resist.
His chest rose and fell unevenly. Slowly removing his gloves, he tucked them into her basket, revealing calloused hands that clearly did not belong to an aristocrat but a man who dug himself into real work. Holding her gaze with rising intensity, he cupped her face, pressing his large fingers into her skin with silent urgency.
She almost dropped the basket, but her trembling hand managed to hold on to the wicker handle. Her breaths mingled against his while the rain continued to gently fall around them.
It was like a dream. Unreal.
He dragged his hands down her throat to her bodice. Lowering his gaze, he tugged the bodice down just above her nipples, exposing the upper full rounds of her breasts.
She stilled in disbelief of what she was letting him do.
He bent his dark head and kissed each top, lingering with the heat of his lips. He dragged his lips from one to the other.
Her skin felt so hot, she wanted it to rain harder. Her head lulled back in complete submission as the cool, misting rain overwhelmed her heated senses.
The tip of his rigid hot tongue traced the dip between both breasts. His hands dragged her skirts and petticoats up just enough to let the heat of his bare hand touch the skin of her thigh.
Her chest heaved as she leveled her head, waiting for that hand to drift toward her inner thigh.
He hesitated, making no attempt to hide that he was now watching her. Holding her gaze, he released her skirt and slid her bodice back up, his large fingers grazing her breasts beneath the fabric of her gown. “As you can see,” he breathed out, “lust is as equally powerful as any love. Did you give in to me,ma biche, because you loved me? No. But it certainly felt like it, did it not?”
Their eyes locked as their breathing came in unison.
Her throat tightened. For the first time in her life, she had no words. None. He had erased them with but a touch and pointed out something she was too stunned to admit. That he was right. She had indeed allowed lust to choke out everything she thought she had wanted out of a man. She had let him touch her and tongue her breasts even though she did not…love him.
Stepping back, he smoothed the flap of his breeches that displayed a thick erection beneath. “Pardon the uh…display.” He turned and guided his horse off the road.
Removing the blanket from his saddle, he tucked it beneath his arm and wove into the canopy of low hanging branches. He bent far forward, to fit beneath the thick, green foliage, and laid out the blanket.
Falling onto it with a breath, he leaned back on both elbows, crossing his boots at the ankles and held her gaze. “Are you coming?”
An explosive current zipped through her, making her knees wobble. This one was a smooth lover of women. So smooth silk poured right out of his nostrils. “Uh…no. I…no. We should try to head to Paris. It may rain all day.”
“I cannot afford to get my satchel drenched.” He patted the space beside him, his gaze never once leaving hers. “Come. I want you here.”
“No. I prefer getting wet.”
“You already are.” Setting both hands behind his head, he stretched fully onto his back, broadening his frame and stared up at the canopy of leaves above him. “Come,ma biche. I want to talk to you. I have a proposition.”
Oh, yes. Likethatwas reassuring given they were alone in the forest.
Thérèse glanced down the narrow path of trees, both before her and behind. There wasn’t even a field or an opening in sight. She would be running blindly into a thicket. In bare feet.
Thunder rolled. The rain now came down harder through the branches above the path, soaking her and the coat she held over her head. She winced against the onslaught of heavy drops that angled in past the coat. Her cold feet now miserably stood in a large puddle of what would soon be a large river of mud. She groaned.
It was as if this aristocrat had indeed conspired with the weather.
God had to be a man. There was no other explanation for the amount of torture the Lord put a good woman through. She paused and eyedMonsieur Aristocrate. “Tell the rain to stop.”
Smoothing a large hand over the curve of his unshaven jaw, he flicked his gaze to her gown. “Why would I do that? In a few moments, I will be blessed to see everything beneath the fabric.” He hesitated. “Cease being stubborn and come here.”
She sighed. There was no sense in being stupid.
Better to be seduced by a gorgeous half-god than end up dead from pneumonia.
Cradling her basket, while keeping his heavy coat in place over her head, she frantically hurried toward him, dodging branches. Rounding his booted feet, she settled herself next to him beneath the thick canopy that was surprisingly cozy. She set her basket aside, just off the blanket, shook out her wool stockings and hitched up her skirts to her knees and yanked on a stocking.
He leaned toward her on a propped elbow, his gaze skimming her legs.
She paused. “Did I invite you to look?”
He shifted his jaw, still perusing her legs. He reached out and dragged a finger down her exposed calf.
She almost fainted against the unexpected caress, her thighs and knees instinctively pressing together. Heart pounding, she smacked his hand. “What are you doing?” she rasped.
He lifted his gaze to hers, tilting his dark head. “I know you felt it. You closed your thighs.”
Her breath hitched. Dearest God. She was going to end up pregnant by the end of this night. “I felt nothing. Absolutelynothing.”
She finished yanking up her other stocking and folded her skirts back over her legs in an effort to save herself. She bundled her skirts around herself tighter. “Despite what I allowed you to do earlier, I suggest you not get any ideas.”
He searched her face.
Thérèse pinched her lips together and stared out into the forest, listening to the rain rustling through. She had encouraged this overly amorous libertine by letting him yank her bodice down in the middle of a forest and lick her almost to the nipples. Not even days out of Giverny and she was already a strumpet.
He shifted closer and peered up at her.
She ignored him and shifted away, fully aware she was already on the edge of the blanket.
Leaning in, he scraped his lower teeth against the sleeve of her slightly damp gown.
Her body trembled from heightened awareness. She pressed her knees together to ensure they didn’t fall open.
He nudged her with his chin. Twice.
Lord save her, he was acting like an animal seeking attention. “I am not doing this.”
“Why not?” He reached over her and gripping her waist, hoisted her up and toward him. “We are beyond attracted to each other, and you know it.” Setting her onto his lap, he intently held her gaze and wrapped each of her legs around his waist, forcing the heat of his large body against her own. “You and I met in this forest for a reason. Ask me what that reason is. Go on. Ask me.”
His nearness and the intensity of those steel blue eyes and that rugged face made her so weak she almost just wanted to flop. “I…fate?”
He shook his head from side to side. “No. Not even fate could have devised something as perfect as this.” Still holding her gaze, he dragged her skirts up higher. “If you help me, o darling actress of mine, I will help you. Say yes to me in what I want, and I will give you everything you ever wanted out of life.Everything.”
Thérèse grabbed hold of his muscled shoulders hard, torn between wanting to stop him and wanting him to continue so she could thoroughly explore this fabulous whole idea of ‘everything’. She was no fool. There was no such thing as getting everything in life, but this was fairly darn close to it.
He was gorgeous. And…gorgeous.
Deny it though she may,thiswas her definition of the ultimate fantasy. He was rich, muscled, beautiful, and he desperately wanted her. Not in thatoh-look-at-what-I-can-dosort of way. But rather in ayou-will-never-forget-me-for-lifesort of way.
Maybe, just maybe, she was about to become a strumpet.
Tilting her head, she walked the tips of her fingers across his solid chest, trying to appear in control of what appeared to be a most promising situation. “Define everything.”
He sensually rubbed her thighs as his full mouth drew near. “You can have zebras and velvet-lined carriages along with whatever you want or need. And if you want your own theatre with your name on it, with a script written for you and only you, I can make it happen by quietly tossing a few thousand at the right people.Théâtre Françaiseis the most prestigious venue in all of France. I know half the people there, and they owe me more favors than I know what to do with. Give me a month, and you will be famous in three.”
She searched his face in between half-breaths. He was damned serious.Théâtre Françaisewas every actor’s dream. It was the same stage that made Mademoiselle Raucourt famous. It was where the best of bourgeoisie, and now the new Republic, congregated, and would make her arealactor. Not a variety show. Her legs wouldneverbe on display. Only her talents.
She would have a chance to prove to the world she was more than a face and a pair of legs. “You could make that happen?” she rasped in disbelief. “You could actually get me onto the stage ofThéâtre Française?”
He nodded. “Oh, yes.”
Holy God. “What if I wanted my cousin to manageThéâtre Française? Is that at all possible? Because I cannot abandon him. He and I are very close and—”
“Consider it done. He will be the new manager. He will, however, have to prove to the owner of the theatre that he can maintain the position.”
She dragged in an uneven breath. This was almost too good to be true. Even for just sex. “So, in return, what do you want?”
His large fingers skimmed her thighs. “A bit of sex and…a bit of gossip.”
Why was it she was more worried about the gossip part? “Define…gossip.”
His hands rounded her breasts. “We will discuss it later,” he murmured. “Simply know that if the gossip part does not appeal to you, you are under no obligation and I will gladly pay you an additional five thousand to go our separate ways. Because serenading you, even once, would be more than enough for this man.”
Six thousand alone was going to change her life, and that did not include the zebras or getting on stage. Shifting against his lap, she smoothed her hands against his broad shoulders in an effort to remain calm. “How do I know you will keep any of your promises? I barely know you.”
He dragged in a breath, staring at her mouth. “If you are not famous in three months, I give you permission to take any one of my pistols and shoot me dead.”
She stared him down, wishing to assure him she was damn serious. “Iwillshoot you dead if you take advantage of me.”
His mouth quirked. “I would like that.”
“So are we doing this?” He nestled her hips closer against his. “Am I allowed to make love to you, and give you the rest of my proposition later?”
Her lips parted in one last effort to deny him, but the intensity of those gorgeous eyes kept her from having any power. She was about to sell her soul to this blue-eyed devil for a chance at grabbing everything she wanted. “I…suppose.”
Gérard searched her face. “You suppose?” He dragged her skirts down and covered her thighs. “Woman, it is either yes or no.Supposeindicates a probability but not a guarantee.”
She blinked. He had covered her thighs as if the sex didn’t matter. Which meant whatever he really wanted, was of far greater importance to him. It intrigued her. Because what on earth was more important to a man than sex? Something whispered to her that this man deserved a chance. He deserved a yes.
At least once.
At worst, shewouldshoot him. “Before I say yes to any of this,” she warned, “here are my rules. A mere, simple two. You willneverlie to me about anything and I cannot and will not get pregnant.” Not after raising all ten of her brothers. She was done with that. Done. She needed a bit of freedom. At least five years’ worth. At least. “I do not want any children. Not a single one. And I most certainly do not plan on getting married any time soon. The stage comes first. Which means you will withdraw every time. Every. Single. Time. Do you understand me?”
His eyes mockingly brightened. “Are you certain? Can you not imagine how beautiful our children would be given how gorgeous we both are?”
She poked his nose. “I am quite serious.”
He lifted his chin and nipped at her pointed finger with his warm lips. “I will never lie to you.Ever. That is not who I am. And I promise to withdraw every time. I am not ready to have children anymore than you are. Now is there anything else you require? Are there any other rules?”
She paused in an attempt to think of more. A career, money, a good-looking man and no children. What more was there to want out of life? “No.”
“Are you certain?”
“Do we have an alliance?” He dragged his tongue across her still pointed finger.
She hazily watched his tongue, her finger unable to stay still. “Yes.”
She lowered her hand and swallowed. “Regrets only come after promises are broken.”
“Well said and I agree.” He searched her face. Gently tugging down her bodice, he exposed her breasts and slid his hands all over them. Dipping his head toward her, his hot mouth licked and circled and sucked on each nipple.
She swayed. Dearest Lord.Thiswas the best yes of her life. No wonder women became strumpets. It was amazing. Money and fame for…this? Money and fame to feel…amazing?
Why was this considered a sin?
Gently grabbing her hands, he pushed them beneath the wide opening of his linen shirt. “Touch me. Show me you want this.”
The smooth warmth of his skin ridged over bunched, hard muscle made her want to gape, groan and fall into him. Lowering her gaze to his chiseled chest, she slid her hands up and down, reveling in every inch of it.
Birds chirped. Rain rustled leaves. Everything in that moment felt like a dream.
It was too perfect to be real.
“You are so beautiful,” he murmured against her breasts. “I can barely breathe.”
For the first time in her life she was grateful the good Lord had blessed her enough for a man like this to notice. “I cannot believe you and this is real,” she murmured back, running her fingers up his throat, face and hair. He was so divine, she would have gladly done all of this for free.
He slipped his hand between her exposed open thighs, sliding a large finger slowly, slowly against her slit. He rubbed her wetness and nub while sucking on her breast.
She choked, gripping his broad shoulders hard. Pulsing sensations gripped her body and breath, rippling through her relentlessly with a rising need that made her feel animalistic and savage.
Watching her face, he alternated between rubbing and flicking her nub.
She swayed in an effort to stay up and on his lap. It felt so good. Too good.
He slid the tip of his large finger into her wet opening, teasing his way in and out, in and out. “In this moment, we are madly in love with each other. Believe it.”
In that moment, she did. She really, really did. Lust, love. It blurred and became the same.
“Do you love me?” he whispered, searching her face.
“I…” He wanted her to lie? “We just met.”
Oh. “I do.”
He rubbed her nub harder. “You are an actress, Thérèse. Make me believe it.”
Even an actress would have trouble focusing in between all the rubbing that made her pulse roar and her core tighten. “I…”
He flicked her nub. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” she gushed, pushing against his hand. Even she wanted to believe it in that moment given how he was making her feel.
“Now tell me how incredible I am.” His finger stilled, no longer moving. “Tell me that even if I had nothing and could not get you on that stage, you would still let me do this to you.”
Her breaths came in uneven takes. “I would do this even if you…had nothing,” she choked out, no longer thinking.
His nostrils flared. He pushed his finger in deep to his upper knuckle.
A sharp pinch made her stiffen against him and gasp, but he quickly rubbed and flicked her nub harder, distracting her from the reality that he tore her hymen with his finger.
He increased the pace, slipping in one finger, two fingers, then three fingers deep into her opening as his thumb circled her nub.
Her mind, her breath, her body was no longer hers. It was his. All his. And he knew it. She instinctively rolled against his hand, giving into what her body wanted.
Reaching up, he possessively gripped her head and pressed her forehead against his own, forcing her to look down at what he was doing to her.
Thérèse watched in disbelief as his fingers pumped her over and over. She gasped, quivering against the building sensations seizing her. Her thighs quivered as her core grew tighter and tighter and…tighter. Her breaths grew so uneven, her throat started closing.
She cried out in disbelief, letting herself drown in the glory of pleasure.
Removing his finger, he quickly unfastened the buttons on his breeches. Releasing the thick length of his cock, he positioned it and edged his way half in.
They both gasped.
Holding her gaze, he slowly, slowly pushed up further into her stretching wetness, his ragged breaths mingling with her own in the silence of the forest that still rustled with rain. “I will refrain from moving until you tell me to,” he said in a low, terse tone.
That overly thick fullness made her inner thighs ache beyond bearing in an effort to hold him so deep. His hard length seemed to pulse within her, making her all too aware he was in complete control of whether she survived or not.
His fingers dug harder into the back of her head and gripped her braid, tilting and edging her head down toward him. He captured her mouth and rolled his hot tongue against hers.
She melted and found herself so oblivious and mesmerized, she almost forgot to kiss him. Because it was the closest thing to perfection she had ever experienced.
Releasing her mouth, Gérard smeared his lips down the length of her throat.
Uneven breaths escaped her. “You can try to move.”
Securing her legs better around his waist, he rigidly stroked his cock into her. He increased the pace of his hips, pushing his cock progressively deeper and deeper. Curving his entire mouth to her shoulder, he buried his head into is curve.
The progressive, urgent pace of his large cock within her tightness made her realize the discomfort was becoming too great to take anymore pleasure. He was stroking into her too deep and too hard.
Razor sharp, raw pain made her flinch. “Gérard. No more. I—”
He rolled them and set her onto her back. Holding her gaze in between breaths that made his broad chest visibly rise and fall, he set both hands against her head. Smoothing her hair and sides of her face with large trembling hands, he whispered, “Do you want me to stop?”
The urgency and need in that voice and in those eyes, along with those hands that attempted to soothe away her discomfort, made her relent. “No,” she choked out.
“Are you certain?”
He captured her lips and rolled his hips into her, dipping the full length of his cock in and out. He rolled faster. Gripping her body tight as he kissed her, he pounded into her full force, feverishly thudding her into the ground and blanket.
She gasped against the searing pain and shoved at his bunched shoulders that were making it impossible for her to breathe.
He stilled, his uneven harsh breaths filling the space between them. “Forgive me.” He pulled out, his chest heaving and raised himself over her exposed breasts. Straddling her, he gathered the well-glistened root of his rigid cock and holding it with one hand, dragged his other hand from root to tip and back again. “Hold your breasts together.”
She did exactly what he wanted.
Towering above her, he jerked his erection, his gaze riveted to her breasts. He breathed out, “Thérèse,” and ejaculated the warmth of his seed onto her breasts, startling her.
At least the man had saidhername. Not someone else’s.
Groaning, he spilled out more, making her gape in disbelief that he had no shame.
He swayed above her, and then stilled. In between heavy breaths, he lowered himself and used the edge of the wool blanket to wipe the seed off her breasts. He captured her gaze.
She swallowed, knowing this officially made them lovers. She covered herself.
He rolled off and buttoned his breeches. Propping himself on an elbow beside her, he leaned in close. He traced a finger across her arm. “Are you all right?”
If that voice had not softened with genuine concern, she would have smacked him. For it had hurt a touch more than she wanted it to. A remaining tear from her earlier pain spilled over the rim of her eye and trailed down her cheek.
His brows flickered. “Thérèse.” He cupped her chin and nudged it toward himself. A breath escaped him as his thumb slid her tear away.
He dragged in a breath and slowly let it out. He was quiet for a long moment. “Thank you for making love to me.” He leaned in and softly kissed her head. Once. Twice. Thrice.
She melted against those words and with each and every kiss. Did all men thank women for making love to their bodies? It was nice. She nestled her head against his chest and pressed herself tighter against him, reveling in his warmth.
He smoothed her hair. “Are you comfortable?” he murmured.
She nodded against him. “Yes. Are you?”
“Yes. Very. You make me forget we just met.”
She shifted, loosening her hold.
His hands dragged hers back up and over his shoulders. “Keep your arms around me for a bit longer. I like it.” He kissed her head.
She bit back a smile. The promise of great fortune and fame aside, she had to admit she liked this one.
Although the rain had finally stopped, the roads were too dark to travel on, because there was no moon light peering through the thick, cloud-ridden sky. So they stayed in the forest and talked about everything but nothing in particular.
It was going to be a long night.
Gérard quietly watched the fire he managed to start by flint despite the wet branches. He had strategically burned whatever blank parchments of paper he could find from within the large stacks of documents he swiped out of his godfather’s desk that had remained untouched within the secret room of the palace back at Versailles.
The vandalism and missing furniture, shattered chandeliers and slashed portraits that had once graced Versailles’ pristine façade had been shocking. Gérard had grown up running through those corridors whenever he and his family had been invited to stay. He’d been fortunate. Except for some vagabonds looking for a place to sleep, no one was there. Walking through that echoing silence of a marble palace that might never see another king made him realize he was running out of time. And hope.
But he had found his hope. And it was brilliant.
Glancing toward Thérèse who had grown quiet, he dug into his leather satchel, which he had earlier set on the blanket they sat on. That lone tear of hers that had trickled down her face shortly after they made love, made him achingly realize he never wanted to see another tear roll from that eye again.
He carefully nudged past the stack of documents and, pushing aside several empty silver flasks, he removed his very last flask that was still full of brandy. He closed the satchel to ensure the documents remained hidden.
Uncorking the flask, he hesitated and held it out toward her. “Here.” He softened his tone in the hopes of winning back her attention. “Have some.”
She shook her braided blonde head, setting her chin primly on the bent knees of her arranged skirts. She stared at the fire, her flawless pale skin glowing against the flickering light. Her sultry, heavy-lidded azure eyes gave the illusion she was trying to seduce the flame.
She was so beautiful. It almost hurt looking at her.
Gérard took a swig of brandy, savoring the stinging warmth of its spicy oak flavor.
When they first met, he had weighed the possibility she had been hired to lure him and take the papers. But an array of wavering, niggling, unabating doubts led him into realizing thegendarmerie nationalewould not have hired a woman to seduce him who was clearlyagainstdoing the job.
So what did he do? He lost what little was left of his rational mind.
He had been too damn aroused by her presence to pretend he wanted anything else but sex. For he knew if death was going to take him for the papers he held, he was going out in style. With her. Now. Here. For hell only knew what awaited him in Paris.
“Did you always want to be an actress?” he asked.
Her eyes flicked over to him. “Yes.”
Prior to his bold advance of proving to her sex didn’t require love, she had been incredibly chatty.Overlychatty. And now? She barely offered complete sentences.
He blamed himself. He had a tendency to dig his teeth in deep and quick when it came to a particular woman he wanted. And she had sparked far, far more than his body. She had sparked his mind and soul into believing in the power of women again. Within the first hour of meeting her, he had quickly fit this Thérèse into the ‘soul on fire’ category.
And together, they were going to take over Paris and slit the throat of the Republic.
He leaned toward her and corked the brandy, knowing he had to focus on her and not drinking. He set the flask beside him. “So what made you want to be an actress?”
She returned her gaze to the fire, her slim finger absently tracing the hem covering her feet. “Why did you want me to tell you that I loved you? Knowing it was a lie?”
He scrubbed his face in exasperation. Him and his misguided fantasies. “I just like feeling I belong to someone. Women have a tendency to flock to me for all the wrong reasons, and I wanted to pretend I found the right one.”
Her lips parted. “I see.” Averting her gaze, she chewed on a nail. She kept chewing.
“Are you hungry?” he softly chided.
She gave him a withering look, dropping her hand. “No, I— You baffle me.”
His chest tightened. “How so?”
“With your talk of wanting to be with someone, why settle for a mistress? Why not marry?”
He shifted, sensing she was probably probing for what chances she had. Like women always did. “Marriage is not for me, dearest. It would complicate my life.”
She snorted. “How does marriage complicate a man’s life? It really only complicates a woman’s life. She becomeshisproperty, bearshischildren and ishislife-long servant to allhisneeds.”
“Not true.” Tapping at his chest, he humbly confessed, “If I were to marry, I would become the servant. Which is why I will never do it.”
She squinted. “What do you mean?”
He lifted a brow. “What is this? Are you hoping to be my wife? What happened to all that talk of men being disgusting, wanting nothing but food, wine andpoom-poom?”
She eyed him, her pale cheeks flushing. “I hardly find you disgusting.”
Uh-oh. This one had just elevated him above the male population. Which meant she would expect him to leap higher than his boots would allow. He swiped at his mouth. “I ask that you not place such lofty expectations on me. I disappoint enough people in my life.” Or what was left of them.
She searched his face.
He reveled in those sultry eyes that didn’t look real. As fiery and stubborn as she was, he was surprised he had been able to seduce her. Either he was that damn good or she was that damn naughty. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever met. Ever.”
She pinched her lips in an attempt to hide a smile. “Do you always flatter women after you seduce them?”
“Only if they are worthy of it.” He tilted his head. “You never answered my question. Why did you want to be an actress? Hm? When did that start?”
She set her chin on her hand. “When I visited my cousin in Paris at the age of twelve. He let me sing for a crowd opening night. My parents about boxed his ears bloody when they heard of it, but it was the most glorious moment of my life. When my boots touched the apron of that stage, I knew it was what I was destined for. I, with but a song, was in command of more than their eyes. I was in command of their minds and their hearts. I was able to make them believe I was more than the mere daughter of a butcher. That I was, in fact, born a queen.”
He knew she was perfect for what he planned.
She was the stronghold he had been looking for who defined everything bourgeoisie.
With her on the stage ofThéâtre Française, the epicenter of all life and gossip in Paris, she would have access to all sorts of people. Bourgeoisie and Legislative Assembly members alike. And ifhewas having trouble breathing around her, he could only imagine what this siren could do if they formed an alliance. Menalwaysput their cocks first.
He was proof of it.
Grabbing up his flask, he uncorked it. He took another swig of brandy and draped an arm over his bent knee. “Allow me to get to the point of what I really want from you.”
“You mean sex was merely you getting started?” She smirked. “Do go on.Make me an offer.”
He held her gaze, taking another swig of his brandy. “I will give you everything you want, from dirt to sky, and in return, you will do what I tell you.”
“Which is what?”
“I need someone who will not betray me. And I am asking you to be that person. I am about to entrust my very breath to you and am asking that you entrust your breath to me.”
She eyed him. “Mighty words given we are not married.”
“Mighty, indeed. Everyone in my circle still seems to think that what is happening across France is temporary. That once the king has been completely removed from power, the country will settle back into a state of peace and calm. I, on the other hand, have proof that something far bigger is happening. Something that will change France as we know it. Given who I am, the people who usually confide in me, tell me nothing. Whilst certain people of thebourgeoisieand lower classes revere me, they fear the new Republic too much. I therefore need someone they can relate to. Someone who will be able to inform me of what is happening on and off the stage, so to speak. Someone like you.”
She stared. “Are you asking me to spy for you?”
He met her gaze. “Yes. Judging by your wit alone, I am utterly convinced you are more than a pretty face. Prove it. I am asking you to help me put an end to some of the bloodshed. My brothers were actually the two aristocrats you spoke of who were butchered on the side of a road. Marceau and Julien are not even being given a burial because the Legislative Assembly commanded thegendarmerie nationaleto hold their remains as evidence. Which means their bones will remain locked in a back room until they decide to throw those bones into an underground pell-mell bone repository better known asTombelssoire.”
Her eyes widened. Clasping a pale hand to her mouth, she held it in place before choking out through her fingers, “Gérard, how can they do that?”
He shrugged. “The people of France gave this new government permission to do whatever it needs to. By eliminating our existence, there will be no opposition.”
She chewed on her lip.
“And things are about to get worse. The Legislative Assembly is about to become a single-chamber assembly of power held by a select group of men. Whilst titles have already been done away with, I have heard rumblings that these particular deputies plan to altogether abolish royalty from France. Which means I and every aristocrat in the land will cease to exist by the mere stroke of a quill.”
Gérard rubbed at his chin in a riled effort to remain calm. “There are over a thousand royalists being held in Parisian prisons that have yet to stand trial. And based on the closing of the borders, I firmly believe a mass genocide of the aristocracy is planned. Which means they will find a way to kill us all, including the king whom I mean to save.Sa Majestéis like a father to me and has been for many, many years.”
Her features stilled. “And you think a mere actress is going to stop all of this from happening?”
He rolled his eyes. “No. All I need is information. I have a group of young aristocrats I am working with. We started assisting each other in trying to unearth information about what is happening to this country and to us.”
“I see.” She leaned toward him. “So if I help you, our earlier agreement stands? You will put me on stage and pay for everything, yes?”
So much for thinking she cared about anything else but the offer. He thoughtmaybethere was more to this woman after she had enchantingly insisted on feeding him the apple he had been too proud to ask for. It was obvious, however, she fed all of the men apples in return for what she wanted: money. He was astounded she had actually been a virgin. But then again, she was bourgeoisie. Her priorities were typical of her kind. Money and fame.
Gérard tried to keep his tone polite. “Yes. If you help me, our earlier agreement stands.”
She fiddled with her fingers, glancing up at the branches above them, then held out a hand. “I will spy for you.”
A breath escaped him. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it hard, willing her to accept that there was no going back. “Are you certain?”
“How difficult can it be to prod men for information I want?”
He released her hand, leveling her with a stare. “Whilst I admire your never-ending confidence, try not to be overly presumptuous. This can and will get dangerous.”
“Women know a bit more about danger than men ever will. Have you ever thought you were going to get raped merely because you walked past a man at the wrong hour?”
Very good point. Swiveling toward the edge of the blanket they sat on, he withdrew the rosewood pistol he had set beside his leather satchel. Holding it by the barrel, he held out the handle toward her. “I want you to keep this with you at all times. Take it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Absolutely not. Pistols make my skin crawl.”
He wagged it at her. “If you plan on living in Paris, I suggest you get comfortable with the idea of holding a weapon. Take it. I will show you to load it and prime it tomorrow morning. Practicing with it every day is important.”
She leaned back. “If you insist on giving me a weapon, give me a cleaver. Cleavers can be as equally effective and require no other skill other than swinging. The less I have to think about, the better off I will be.” She paused. “I can also use it to make dinner.”
There was no doubt she was the epitome of the sort of woman he needed to get this job done. “I will ensure you get that cleaver.” He casually flipped the pistol and set it aside. “A weapon is only a precaution. In truth, our association will not require much. All I want is information pertaining to any plans that involve the aristocracy, and in particular, anything related to the king. Which means once we get you intoThéâtre Françaiseall you have to do is flutter those pretty eyes and get the men to talk politics.”
“Will I have to do it in private?” she echoed. “As in myboudoir?”
Sensing her discomfort, he skimmed his hand across her thigh. “No. There will be no compromising of yourself. They are not allowed to touch you or be alone with you. Always ensure you are with others in the name of your safety. Because I am not one to tolerate anyone coming in on what is mine. Which you now are given this association.”
She eyed his hand and her thigh and adjusted her braid, smoothing it against her shoulder. “Staking your claim, are you?”
He captured her gaze. “I only make love to a woman I am interested in keeping.”
She continued to smooth her braid against her shoulder. “Are you suggesting you are capable of offering more than sex to a woman?”
“Of course I am.” He tapped her thigh. “I am not like other men, Thérèse. I never play games. What you see is exactly what you get. While the sex was incredible, there is more to me than that and I wish to assure you, I will be devoted to you for however long we can make this last.”
She squinted. “Does this mean I now own your soul?”
“Prove yourself, and I will ensure you get it right along with anything else you want.”
She sat up. “I was teasing.”
“I was not.”
She was quiet for a moment. “So what happens next?”
Gérard spaced his words out so she damn well understood what needed to happen. “The moment we get to Paris, what we share here in the forest ends. Private meetings will be rare. There are far too many eyes watching. Which means, whenever we are in public, I become nothing more than a besotted admirer you will have no choice but to scorn. And I am quite serious about that.”
He stared her down. “If you hint, even for a breath, to anyone that we mean anything to each other, not only will no one trust you, but it will be used against youandme. Try to remember your task throughout all of this is only to prod for political gossip. Which actresses are well-known for doing anyway, so it will hardly raise any brows. Anything you think might be of worth to me, you will pass along using hair ribbons as a method of communication. My mother, who was heavily involved in assisting others, used the same method to keep battered women away from their husbands.”
She sat up, her brows going up. “Hair ribbons?”
“Yes. You will purchase and only ever wear three colors in your hair: blue, white and red. Like the cockade. It will make you incredibly popular. Little will anyone know that those same ribbons are going to be used to communicate with me. Every Friday at noon, you will step outside the theatre for three minutes, wearing whatever ribbon is required to pass on information. A red ribbon will indicate you have a lead. I will send a man I trust so you and he can go over all the details. A white ribbon will indicate you merely wish to see me.” He lifted a brow. “It could be for sex or anything else you may need. I expect to see a lot of those in your hair.”
“And then there is the blue ribbon.” He grew serious again. “Never use it unless your life depends on it.”
She lowered her chin. “This sounds ominous.”
“It is. You will only ever use it in response to any danger you may be in. It is the only ribbon you will actually send, not wear. The moment I receive that blue ribbon, no matter the hour, I will be at your door looking to slit throats. So do noteversend me a blue ribbon. For it will only expose our association.”
Observing him for a long moment, she asked softly, “Where would I send it?”
“Five Luxembourg. It will go directly to a very close friend of mine. That way, there will be no visible connections between you and me.”
She glanced upward toward the overhang of the dark forest barely outlined and illuminated by the fire. “Red for leads, white for everything else, and blue only if I need a few throats slit in my honor. Number five at Luxembourg.” She tapped her temple. “This is my ink and parchment.” She leveled her eyes back to him and hesitated.
He lifted a brow. “What is it? I can see you thinking.”
“What is your association withSa Majesté? You mentioned he was like a father to you.”
This was where the creek that separated them became the size of a cavern.
It was inevitable. She was going to find out the moment they got into Paris anyway.
Rolling his tongue on the inside of his mouth, he eventually offered, “Sa Majestéis my godfather. If he were to die without heirs, and theduc d’Orléanswere to die, as well, my father would be the next in line as king. And I, by right, directly after him.”
Her eyes widened. She searched his face, her pale face flushing to bright red. “You arethatclosely related to the king?” she echoed.
And there it was. She was no longer impressed by him or his looks but the title. Much like women had always been, even when his brothers had been alive and he was a damn spare. Hehatedsharing who he was. Hehatedtainting people’s perception of him.
After all, he was no God. Nor had he ever tried to be, much to his father’s dismay. He rather liked being human. It allowed him to be what he was: anything but perfect. His love for sex and brandy was too great to pretend otherwise.
He gallantly inclined his head. “The name is Gérard Antoine Tolbert, and I am the last remaining heir to the greatduchéof Andelot.” Knowing she deserved the honor, he gestured toward her resting hand. “Might I have the pleasure of a full introduction,mademoiselle? You only ever gave me your first name.”
She hesitated and slowly held out her hand, her slim wrist almost floppy. “I am…” She gaped. “I am Thérèse Angelique Clavette.”
At least she was capable of saying her name.
Taking her hand, which seemed so charmingly small against his own, he leaned over it and kissed it. He lingered, brushing his lips against her soft skin and held her gaze. “Despite who I am, from this moment on, you and I are equals. I am not above you, and you are not above me. I am devoted to you and you are devoted to me.”
She dragged back her hand and smoothed her skirts, eyeing him. “I take it you are incredibly wealthy? Yes?”
He shifted his jaw, trying not to get annoyed knowing he had offered her equality and devotion and the first thing out of her mouth was money. This isexactlywhy he kept himself from ever loving any of these women, especially after Madame Poulin. Because it kept his standards low enough for him to walk right over them when he was done. “Oh, yes. Incredibly. My father is worth ten millionlivres, and we own fourteen estates across France.”
She choked. “Fourteen estates? And youstillhave ten millionlivresleft over? That should be illegal.”
Women. “Each estate produces almost half a million a year. It is pure mathematics. No laws broken, and we pay our tenants eight times more than most. Our generosity to our tenants has proven effective as they work twice as hard and have remained devoted to us and our name even during the turmoil that has overtaken France.”
Her eyes skimmed him. Twice. “Forgive me, but I find it very difficult to believe you are worth ten million. Your appearance is— I do not mean to insult you, Gérard dear, for you are beyond gorgeous, but…why under heaven’s name are you wearing such horrid, outdated clothing? Is this because you are incognito? Or is this what you usually wear?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does. You are the son of aduc.” She tugged at the sleeve of her frayed blue gown. “Do you think I want to wear this? I have better fashion sense than this. The trouble is my taste is beyond what I can afford. You should be so lucky.”
Who knew taking one bite from this siren’s apple would make him regret every minute of it?
“When we get to Paris,” she added, “might I go shopping for clothes? You know…the expensive sort?”
Of course she would ask for clothes. Women always asked for clothes. “I will ensure whatever you want, you get.”
Her heavy-lidded azure eyes brightened as her stunning and overly perfect pale features softened. “I like you. I like you well beyond what I should.”
“I am glad to hear it.” He lowered his gaze to that exposed, pale throat and imagined her softness all over him again. “Would you like diamonds for that throat?” He might as well show off. “I can arrange for that, too.”
Her mouth opened. “A diamond necklace? As in arealone? Made out of diamonds?”
He smirked. “Yes. Last I knew diamond necklaces were made out diamonds.”
Pertly scooting closer, she tapped his knee. “Can I have pearls, too? A long set that will drape itself to my waist? I rather like the idea of having over a thousand pearls on one string.”
If he wasn’t careful, she was going to run off with his father’s ten million.
Taking another long swig from his flask, Gérard swallowed hard and tried not to look at those sizable breasts he had thoroughly enjoyed masturbating into earlier. “Why settle for one that falls to the waist? We can have your pearls trail the floor.”
An excited giggle escaped her in between claps. “Who knew giving up my virginity would turn intothis!”
Unbelievable. She was like a fairy-demon.
It was actually nice having a lover again.
Though it never did last.
They always disappointed him.
Eyeing Thérèse, he took another long swig, letting it sit in his mouth long enough for his tongue to bathe in it before swallowing. He could feel the haze of the brandy already overtaking him like an old friend. The one friend he knew would always be there.
He drank more. And more.
She lowered her chin. “You certainly are enjoying that flask.”
It was one of the few things he could enjoy given everything he had been through. He tilted the drink toward her. “Do you want some?”
She leaned forward, primly taking the flask. “Merci.” She peered into it and sniffed its rim. “What is it?”
“Brandy. ’Tis fermented fruit mashed into liquid perfection I cannot do without. Of all the spirits in the cupboard of cupboards, thatthereis my definition of true refinement. It hits me faster and harder than the wine, rum, whiskey, gin or anything else. Those do nothing for me. A complete waste of time.”
Both of her brows went up. “So are you a connoisseur or a drunk?”
How utterly charming. This one thought she was now his wife. “I am a drunk first and a connoisseur last. I drink about a decanter every night. Get used to it.”
She sat up. “Are you being serious?”
“Yes. I started drinking shortly after my mother died. Even prior to her death, I was always partial to the taste of brandy. The sting wakes your soul.”
She hesitated. “I am ever so sorry to hear about your mother.”
His throat tightened. He shrugged, trying to pretend it didn’t matter. “Her carriage was robbed. The driver was ignorant enough to try to fight the men, instead of letting them take the goddamn money. One of the men fired a pistol, and she got hit. The three men were hanged, but my father ended up beating that driver to near death for instigating the violence.”
Gérard swallowed, refusing to linger on how his mother’s limp, bleeding body had been carried into the house by his wailing father. “’Tis painfully wrong and morbid to see this world full of so many vile people living and breathing, doing nothing but wrong, whilst someone so good, who had done so much for the world, is no longer part of it.” He swiped the flask from her hand and indulged in several swallows of liquor.
A small hand touched his and slipped between his fingers.
The unexpected affection made him swallow. He dug his fingers into that hand, wanting to believe her concern was genuine and not paid for.
He swallowed a mouthful of brandy, hissing out against the sting from swallowing too much. “By the age of fourteen, I was passing out in my room every night. It was not until the butler informed my father why all of the brandy kept going missing that he figured it out. He had it removed from the house, but I still find a way to get it.”
She scooted closer, tightening her hold on his hand. “I doubt your mother would have approved of you hurting yourself like this.”
Her overly honest observation pinched. “I know.”
He wondered if her concern had been paid for by the lifestyle he was now offering her. He couldn’t tell. “I am addressing it.” He took another swig.
Releasing his hand, she grabbed hold of the flask. “Addressing it means not drinking it.” She pointed at him. “In my opinion, you ought to refrain from even carrying it if it holds this much power over you. What are you doing? You are more than this.”
Was he? How did she know?
The haze was already crawling into his head and into his mind. It was nice not to think about anything anymore and to know he had finally found a way to choke out secrets from the Republic. He was exhausted. He was done feeling like every day was his last day and was tired of caring too much for a world that didn’t give a damn at all. “I like getting drunk before I retire. It allows me to stop thinking about my life.”
She drew the rim of the flask closer to her mouth, brows coming together, and dabbed her tongue against the rim several times. “’Tis overly strong. How can you even drink this on a regular basis?” She paused and dabbed her wet pink tongue on it again.
He stared at her, his body and mouth tingling. Why was his damn flask getting more tongue than he was? He felt bloody underappreciated.
He leaned in, swaying, and tried to kiss her.
A hand popped up between him and his tongue. “You,Gérard,are soused. You may kiss me in the morning when you return to reality.”
“But I want to kiss you now,” he slurred. “I paid for it.”
She gave him a withering look. “How about I give you a slap in the face for free? Now leave off and lie down. You are no longer yourself.”
Women were so damn predictable. They used every excuse not to have sex. He pushed at her hand and leaned back in exasperation. Diamonds and pearls sure as hell didn’t seem to get a man far these days. “How about I get you that zebra then? So I can kiss you?’
She tsked. “If I accept a zebra from you, it means we are heavily involved.” She held up the flask in a mock salute. “You may not remember this in the morning, aristo dear, but this is me agreeing to our alliance for however long you need me. May France arise to the level it genuinely deserves: money for everyone.”
He blinked against the haze. “Money is for the devil. It makes you think you have everything when in fact you have nothing.”
She lifted a blonde brow. “’Tis fairly obvious you need someone to keep you out of trouble. And I know how to keep men out of trouble. I have ten brothers. Now. The sooner we get rid of this brandy, the sooner you have nothing to drink.Santé!” Leaning toward the rim of the flask, she lowered her full lips to the edge of it and tilted it back. She kept tilting further back and back, clearly waiting for its contents to find a way out.
He pointed. “Do be…careful. It has a tendency to—”
It filled and spilled well outside of her mouth. She choked, sputtered and gagged, her features twisting as if she were incapable of untwisting it. She dropped the now empty flask and frantically waved at her now tear-streaked face with both hands, trying to be as dainty about it as possible. “Gggggggg….” She shook her head, over-inflating her cheeks that were still stubbornly filled with the brandy she refused to swallow.
Gérard rumbled out a laugh. She was going to do more than entertain him. She was going to set his damn world on fire if he wasn’t careful. He staggered toward her. “Come here.” He leaned over and grabbed her face.
She stilled, gaping at him with still puffed cheeks.
He grinned sloppily, taking far too much pleasure in the moment she set up for him. Because he wanted to do more than kiss her. He wanted to make love to her all over again.
“Hold still.” His chest tightened as he captured those pinched, soft lips with his mouth.
Gérard leaned all the way back onto the blanket, forcefully dragging her curvaceous body to lie on top of him. His hands dragged down to those large breasts he had gloried in earlier. He inwardly dissolved knowing he wasnevergoing to forget touching her. Something about her made him want to believe she wanted far more than his money.
He cupped those breasts, rubbing them. He squeezed them. Hard.
She gasped, the brandy in her lips spilling out into his mouth.
He leisurely swallowed what he knew would be the last of whatever brandy he would have until Paris and still holding her face hard, forced her mouth open against his. Tilting her head to one side to better suit him, he tongued her, taking full command of that velvet mouth that tasted of the very thing he loved: brandy.
She grabbed his face and feverishly kissed him back, her tongue moving faster and faster against his. She tugged at his shirt, stuffing her hands beneath to touch his chest.
Christ.Thiswas more like it.Thisis what money bought a man.This.
Lost in her and what he wanted, he tongued her faster and harder, ready to show her that sex was only the beginning of what he would offer her if she remained true.
He rigidly rolled his hips into and against her thigh to soothe and rub his hard cock that desperately wanted her body again. The urge was too overwhelming.
He flipped her on her back and shoved her skirts up and past her waist. Frantically freeing his thick erection, he found her wet opening and rammed himself deep into that tightness.
She gasped. “Gérard, for heaven’s sake, I…slow down!”
He glared. “Damn you, woman, I am not one for slow. Maybe you should keep up.”
She glared back. “I will end this in two breaths if you do not do it my way.”
Point well taken. “Allow me to give the queen her crown.” He captured her mouth and slowly tongued her back into submissive silence.
Fighting the more aggressive side of his nature, he skimmed the curves of her body with his hands and in her honor, delivered very slow, very precise smooth pumps into her, letting that sweet tightness squeeze him. While the climax he desperately needed and wanted required pounding into her, he refrained. Barely.
She moaned and arched her hips up and up against him.
He stroked, keeping a rolling, easy pace to ensure she kept moaning.
Her hands jumped to his hair and gripped it hard. She cried out against his mouth, shuddering.
Gritting his teeth, he mindlessly thumped into her and then rammed himself deep into that tight womb in an effort to altogether keep himself from spilling. It was too late. He gasped and spilled his seed, allowing that glorious, glorious sensation of rapture to overtake him.
A hand smacked the side of his head hard, making him wince and roll off to the side.
“Christ, Thérèse, what are you—” Gérard didn’t even bother to button his trousers. He heavily flopped his arms to his sides and stared up at the now starry night sky he could see swaying through the branches. “That was hardly necessary.”
She sat up and thudded a fist against his chest.
“Stop—” He sat up and sloppily grabbed at her hands. “What are you doing?”
She stilled, no longer meeting his gaze.
Dragging in a long breath, he tilted his head toward her. “What is it?”
With the flip of her braid, she glared.
“What?” he slurred. “Why are you glaring and hitting me? What did I do?”
“Do you need a list?First, youpoundyourself into a virgin. A virgin. Twice now! As if getting pounded is every woman’s fantasy. Second, you—”
His brows went up. “Are you telling me I am a bad lover?”
She pointed. “That isexactlywhat I am telling you.”
He snorted. “You would be the first woman to complain.”
“Maybe because you were paying them not to,” she icily countered.
His breath burned. He sat further up, feeling more than his dignity being slapped and leveled her with a hard stare. “I have no trouble doing it the wayyouwant. Go on. Educate me.”
She glared. “Oh, I will educate you. I will open a school in your honor. Did no one tell you being rough with a woman during her first few times is likely to rip something?”
Christ. “Did something rip?” he echoed.
“Then why the hell scare me like that? I thought I did!” There was no such thing as a perfect woman, was there? “Slow and gentle is for people who know nothing about passion. Without a few bruises, my dear, there are no mementos of what has been. And in my opinion, Iwasgentle. Incredibly so. I simply prefer things a bit rough. Always have. So I suggest you get used to it. Because that body of yours is going to get pounded.”
She gasped. “The only thing about to get pounded is your head!” Gritting her teeth, she used her foot to shove him away. “Make room on the blanket knowing you willnevertouch this body again because you obviously knownothingabout control. And do notdarethink you can change my mind or your pistols will be put to use well before the Legislative Assembly can get to you.”
He hissed out an exasperated breath at the very mention of the Legislative Assembly and grudgingly scooted over, still lying on his back.Fils de salope. He just lost fornication rights to the most beautiful woman he ever met.
She corked the flask, using her skirts to dry the silver, and tossed it onto the blanket beside him.
It was obvious she did not enjoy the sex. He puffed out a breath. “Did you not climax?”
She swung her torso toward him. “My climax is not the problem.”
“Then whatisthe problem?” he demanded. “Because I cannot address whatever is plaguing you if you intend on—”
“You spilled seed into me!” A faint thread of hysteria overtook her voice. “So much of it, in fact, I think it will continue to run down my legsfor another hour!”
He swallowed past the haze, gaping at her. Oh, shite. He did not even remember pulling out. Which meant he— Christ.
She glared. “You are ablaireau. Ablaireau!”
A nauseating, sinking feeling seized him knowing he had broken her trust. Usually it was the women who broke their promises. “Thérèse, forgive me,” he pressed, trying to better see her face. He wished he hadn’t gotten so drunk. “That was…I did not spill intentionally. I…the brandy…I…”
She muttered something and chewed on a fingernail.
He tried to focus through the blur. “I give you permission to deliver as many blows as you need to. Go on. Make yourself…feel better.”
Chewing on her nail, she said nothing.
He swallowed. “Thérèse. I have never gotten a woman pregnant.” Of course, he hadn’t spilled into a woman before. Ever. He never engaged them while drunkorwithout a sheath. What the hell was he doing?
He leaned in close, swaying. He squinted at her. Was she still chewing on her nails? “What are you— Cease doing that. ‘Tis hardly becoming.”
She held up her finger and then put it back into her mouth, chewing more enthusiastically.
He reached out and tapped her hand. “Enough. Are you a lady or a goat?”
She eyed her finger and pinched her lips.
Women. They always tried to control him when they could barely control themselves. If being a drunk was the worst he could be, he would take it over what most men were.
With his outstretched hand, Gérard grabbed up the flask she tossed, uncorked it and grudgingly tilted it upside down. She had spilled all of it. Christ. He tried corking it several times, but kept missing the rim. He kept trying.
She rolled her eyes, leaned in, swiped the flask and cork from his hands and popped the cork into the rim with the quick hit of her palm. “There.” She thrust it back toward him.
Meeting her gaze, he took the flask back and smiled. “You see? You still like me.”
She narrowed her gaze.
Maybe not. He sighed. Lifting his head from the blanket just enough to see what he was doing, he carefully tucked it into his leather satchel, closing it. He tucked the entire satchel beneath his heavy head, ensuring its safety through the sway of the world.
Eyeing the thick satchel he rested on, she said, “I saw all those papers earlier. What are you carrying?”
This one just got curious.
To ease some of the coiled tension not even sex and brandy could free him from, he shifted his neck enough to let it crack. He knew it was best she know nothing about the documents. Trust aside, it was for her own safety.
The documents, after all, chronicled disturbing secrets that were going to blow a few massive cannons through the heart of everything the new Republic stood for. That the revolution so many lower classes and bourgeoisie were so damn proud of, was being privately led and funded by the very root of its corruption: a fellow aristocrat, theDuc d’Orleans.
Gérard had met the man on a few occasions, given they were distant cousins. The sword-swinging, long wigged man had millions in coin to distribute, much like Gérard’s family, and was so vile in his personal endeavor for power, he had repeatedly tried to seduce the queen of France. A queen who resisted each and every one of his overambitious advances.
Was it any wonder pamphlets started showing up all across France calling her a whore?
Some of the documents Gérard had in his satchel also detailed how the Bastille had been seized by a disgruntled, angry mob of a thousand who had strangely not all come out of the regular eight hundred thousand inhabitants of Paris. Most had been gathered and hired. The morning of the massacre, more than a dozen witnesses claimed groups of well-dressed men extravagantly tossed countless coins into the gathered crowd, shouting directions and instructions as to what was supposed to happen next.
And that didn’t include the greatest lie of all.
The famine had been devised.
While, yes, weather had affected a good number of crops throughout the land, the main allocation of stocked grain had been more than sufficient to feed most of France. The staple of grain, which was usually held by the state itself, had gone missing. Variousassignatsin ledgers found by royal spies were able to determine that the monopoly of grain had been almost entirely bought up by theDuc d’Orleanswho allocated most of it out of the country.
Conveniently…the man was next in line to be king.
It was a viciously brilliant way of assuming power. Creating a famine manipulated the greatest basic need humanity was willing to fight and die for: food.
After Gérard figured out how to talk to his godfather, he planned on getting the documents into Austria’s hands before they were destroyed. For he had a feeling this new grab for power was going to try to erase the truth from the world. An entire generation was going to believe the next set of men in power were going to represent them.
He called horse shite on that.
In the meantime, the less his darling actress knew, the better off she would be. “If I were to tell you what was in this satchel, too many people would want you dead. Which is why you will never ask me about it again. It does not exist. Do you understand?”
Lowering her chin, she stared. “Which means you are in possession of something the Republic will destroy you for.”
He smirked drunkenly, wagging a knowing finger. “Exactly. But I intend to destroy them all first. They will not write history. I will.”
Her brows flickered and her features now softened with concern. “Do not put yourself in anymore danger than you already are. Wealthy though you may be, you are only one man.”
That concern, so soft and genuine, made his chest unexpectedly tighten. He had almost forgotten what it was like to have someone care. He searched her face. “Do you really care? Or are you pretending to care because I am paying for it?”
She said nothing.
He tapped his chest, almost missing it. “Lie here.”
“Thérèse, cease being angry about something that cannot very well be changed. Now come here.” Grabbing her waist hard, he yanked her down onto him and with a hand, set her head on his chest.
He smoothed her hair in assurance, reveling in its silken and rain-softened strands that had yet to dry. “What will be, will be. I will care for you and the babe. I swear it.”
Those shoulders and body relaxed. A soft breath escaped her. She tucked herself better against him, her hand circling his waist. “In the morning, when you are yourself again, we will talk,” she whispered.
Swallowing hard, he stared up at the blur of stars that peered through the branches of the darkness and wondered if it was at all possible to hold onto her despite his vices.
If anything, he knew his money would make her stay. Either way, she had to. He had entrusted her with too much. Enough to destroy him.
She was bound to him whether she liked it or not.
The sound of a determined boot thudding hard into the ground made her snap open her eyes. Thérèse paused, realizing the dark wool of Gérard’s blanket had been folded, tucked and wrapped around her. Her throat tightened, knowing he had done it.
She had agreed to be his own personal actress. And now? This son of a duke was intent on taking far, far more than her body. If she let him, he was going to reach past her breasts and into her chest and rip out her beating heart with one hand and merrily drink his brandy with the other.
Whilst she hadn’t given into his original game of ‘come-hither-and-play-spy-with-me-while- we-make-love’ thinking she would end up finding a husband or love, she was not settling for getting pregnant by a drunk, either. The inn-keeper’s wife had dealt with a husband just like it. Sweet, darling, devoted, overly generous, but one who staggered around and drank inventory, completely useless. Reliable onlyhalfthe time.
Scrambling up, she averted her gaze from Gérard, who was still intently scattering last night’s charred remains and burying it. She cringed against the soreness between her thighs and tried not to panic knowing he had spilled seed into her.
A child would bind her to this man for life.
Grudgingly removing her stockings, she bundled them and tossed them into her basket. She chalked her teeth in an effort to remove the taste of stale brandy from her mouth and spit out the grit into a pile of leaves.
There. Fresh breath. Now she could take him on without making either of them faint.
Shaking out and folding the blanket that had been wrapped around her, she marched over to him and held it out. “We are lovers no more. You are never touching me again. Ever.”
He paused from his endeavor of using leaves and debris to cover the char, his steel blue eyes capturing hers.
Their startling clarity assured her he was the man she first met. The brandy was gone.
He didn’t take the blanket. He simply turned his tall, broad frame toward her and stepped in close. “Good morrow to you, too,” he rumbled out.
Thérèse dragged in a breath, determined not to let those gorgeous eyes or that good-looking rugged face sway her. She wagged the blanket, pushing it into his chest. “Your drinking is a problem, Gérard. And I think you know that. The man I met yesterday morning was capable of being everything I could have ever wanted in a man. As for the man I met last night? It was like being at sea with a pirate who drank a barrel of rum and decided he wanted to have a baby.”
Gérard leaned toward her. His voice softened. “Try to keep your voice civil,mon ange. My head hurts. I promise to make it up to you. When we get to Paris, whatever you want, I will ensure you get it.”
She gasped. “Is that how you usually deal with women? You buy off their anger?”
God keep her from strangling him. “What you did last night was irresponsible. You are not allowed to touch me again.” She held his gaze. “Because I need someone I can depend on all the time. Not half the time. Are we understood in this?”
His features darkened. “Are you saying we are done?”
“As lovers, yes. Our alliance, however, will stand. Because unlike you, I keep the end of every bargain I make. I also need money and a career if I am ever to survive in a world you men continue to stupidly dominate. My only hope is that when I do have to send you that blue ribbon, you actually show up sober.” She rattled the blanket at him, trying to keep her voice calm. “Now take your blanket. Because I am walking to Paris. The last thing I want or need is to ride on your lap for over an hour.”
His expression stilled. “You belong to me now, Thérèse. Me. Because you said yes to me. Do you remember? You said yes. Notsuppose. You saidyes. And in saying yes to me, you are no longer allowed to say no.”
Oh, this was going well. She had said yes to fornicating and now had no life.
She narrowed her gaze and hardened her tone. “I cannot and will not belong to a man who does not respect my body.”
His brows went up. “Whatever are you— I respect your body.”
She gave him a withering look. “Not when you are drunk.”
He swiped his face with a hand. “If you are with child, I will take full responsibility.”
She angled toward him. “Damn right you will. If I am with child, you had better believe, I am no longer playing mistress. You will marry me. You will take me straight to church and make the whole world stand up to see it. Why? So they can clap and call me duchess. Because my child,Gérard,willnotbe growing up scorned by society. Not when all of France is already going to hell.”
His voice quieted. “Thérèse. I cannot marry you given who I am. Even if I set aside my own distaste for the sort of marriage society approves of, my father would never allow for it. And he…the man is not right in the head since my mother died. But I can and will provide for you. You and our babe will never want for anything. I promise.”
Thérèse stared. “So you will only throw money at me and the child? And nothing else? Is that what you are saying? Despite the fact that you spilled yourself entirely into me knowing I had not wanted children at all?”
He said nothing.
Gritting her teeth, she jumped toward him and punched his arm. “Thatis what I think of you and your brandy.That!”
He lingered for a moment, then grabbed the blanket and tossed it into the forest. Muttering something, he stalked away, the long tails of his coat shifting against the movement of his body. Tightening the straps on the last of his belongings to the horse, he grabbed the saddle and swung himself up onto it.
Gathering the reins, he said in a low hard tone, “If you wish to walk to Paris, so be it. Simply know that I will follow you by horse while you walk. Regardless of whether we ever share a bed again matters not to me. What does matter is that I confided in you, and as such, you and I are bound for however long this revolution lasts. So get used to it. Get used to seeing my face. Because I am now yours. Brandy and all.”
She had no one to blame but herself. She wanted to be wealthy and famous, and now she would have it all, including a baby but no husband.
May she never lust for another man again.
“We will address this again if the need arises.” Whipping out the velvet mask from his pocket, he unfolded it, still holding her gaze. “Sa Majesténeeds me. I am therefore depending on you to help me save him and his family. And because the people I love have a tendency to die, I have to ensure he lives even if it meansIdie. And that is the sort of devotion I offer you despite my being a drunk. How many men do you know would take on all of France to save the life of a man everyone despises?How many?”
Her chest tightened. Not a single one.
Tying on his mask, he adjusted it over his eyes and nose. “No one can know who is behind this mask. And I mean no one. I am entrusting you to protect my name when we ride into Paris and expect you to be the ever brilliant actress I hired and convince everyone I am nothing more than a highwayman who came to your rescue. Can you do that?”
He glared. “What did I tell you about ‘suppose’? Never and none of that. It is either yes or no. Which is it?”
This man was going to end more than her career. “Yes. You are now a highwayman.”
“Thank you.” He snapped out a rigid hand. “Now get up here, Thérèse. And do not test me. Because I am not leaving you to walk to Paris. Especially if you are pregnant with my child. I would sooner take you by force. And I will. Is that what you want?”
A breath escaped her. She could continue to parade her pride and walk to Paris for who knows how many hours or…she could be there in an hour with a masked drunk who was gruff, stubborn, animalistic, yet…darling.
Life was so unfair.
She grabbed up her basket. “There is no need for threats. I hardly wanted to walk.”
“I am glad to hear it.” He set his shoulders. “What street in Paris are we riding to? So I know what road to take.”
“Rue St. Antoine. Number Twenty-two.”
His brows shot up as he veered his gaze toward her. “Hell on earth. Are you— That is a spit-fall from the Bastille.”
Well, well. He knew the city. And not just the wealthy sections. “Yes, I know. Apparently, it started bringing quite a bit of traffic past the theatre and is making my cousin incredibly popular. He calls it free advertising.”
“Christ. I…” Gérard dismounted the horse, still muttering. “I will ensure I get you intoThéâtre Françaiseas soon as possible. Before you end up dead. Free advertising, indeed.” Without asking for permission, he grabbed her corseted waist and effortlessly lifted her onto the saddle so she sat as a lady should. Hoisting himself up behind her, his large hands yanked her possessively against himself as he grabbed the reins and positioned them both into the saddle.
His unshaven chin brushed against her braided hair, causing her bonnet to tilt forward.
The heat and flex of hard muscles at her back made her pulse roar. It was like sitting against a rock at the bottom of a valley. She tightened her hold on the basket, feeling squeezed.
“Are you comfortable?” he rumbled out.
She tried to push back her bonnet with a hand, but his head kept pushing it forward. She leaned forward in exasperation. “Not really. We are sharing one saddle.”
He tsked. “If only this mere steed were a zebra, you might appreciate its breadth.” He cued the horse into moving.
“I find your humor sorely lacking this morning.”
“I was not placed on this earth to entertain you, my dear.”
“Oh, well, thank goodness forthator I would have died of boredom by now.”
“Are you done nagging me?”
They trotted through the remaining forest and out into the open fields, the cool wind rushing at their faces. The sun brightened the expanse of the blue sky, pushing away the few remaining dark clouds that had disappeared toward the horizon.
He tightened his muscled hold around her, one arm resting dominantly beneath her breasts.
She swallowed, her breaths growing more and more uneven. He was holding his arm beneath her breasts. Was he doing it on purpose? Or was she being overly suspicious?
They kept riding, the pace of the horse remaining steady.
Pushing down on his arm so it wasn’t quite so close her breasts, she eventually offered, “I appreciate the ride.” It was the right thing to say.
“Are you still angry with me?”
“Be nice to me while you can. I may not be here tomorrow. Have you thought of that?”
She stared out at the dirt road before them, her body swaying against the quicker movements of the horse. Her throat tightened. How was it she already cared what happened to him? How was it— “What if I am with child?”
“Then you are. We cannot very well change that. Either way, I will not abandon my responsibilities.”
Was he too blind not to see the horizon? “If we take on the Republic and anything goes wrong, the babe will have no father.”
He seethed out a breath and trailed his hand farther beneath her breasts, better positioning her. “I do not plan on dying,ma biche. I have survived too much in life to die.” His large fingers cupped one side of her breast.
She stilled. “Must you grope me?”
His head leaned in and down from behind her. “I am keeping you from falling off the horse. Would you rather I let go?” His lips brushed against her ear and cheek twice.
She almost fainted against the warmth of those full lips nudging in with the heat of his breath. Because it reminded her of what those lips were capable of. “Can you not lean in so close?”
He shifted sideways. “Would you prefer to straddle me from behind?”
“Straddling will not be necessary.”
“Are you certain? You could…oh…hitch up your skirts and wrap your legs around me. And seeing you do not plan on giving me anymorepoom-poom, I would like that.”
She tried glaring back at him, but annoyingly, her bonnet kept bumping into his face and head. And shestillcouldn’t see past the large straw rim to be able to glare at him.
Releasing the rein he was holding, he reached around her and yanked on the ribbon beneath her chin hard, tugging it loose.
She tried slapping his quick-moving hand away. “What are you—”
He grabbed her bonnet and whipped it aside, sending it fluttering behind them onto the road. “There. Now you can glare at me all you want.”
“Did you just—” She turned her shoulder and head toward him. “I rather liked that bonnet. I—” She captured his gaze, realizing their faces were almost cheek to cheek. Her heart skid.
Why was it even her pulse betrayed her? What was it about this man that made her want to give him everything every time she looked at him?
His jaw tightened. His blue eyes through the slits of the velvet mask flicked past her features back to the road ahead of them. “What was it you were going to say? It seemed important.”
She stiffly turned back. “It was not.”
They rode in silence for a long time. So long, the dirt path turned into a cobbled one and sloped them down a small hill leading toward a massive sprawl of overcrowded buildings with smoking chimneys that stretched beyond sight in and around a river.
Paris. Her eyes widened. It looked nothing like the city she used to visit.
Random, billowing black plumes of burning buildings smeared and hazed the vast blue-grey sky, blocking any view of the valley beyond it.
“Are those fires from the riots?” she rasped in disbelief.
“Yes.” He sighed. “New ones break out every few weeks depending on the mood these idiots are in. I keep writing to the Legislative Assembly about it, but they do nothing. They encourage it. Which tells you they care nothing about the people. Because they are putting everyone in danger.Everyone.”
A shaky breath escaped her. “France has lost the last of its mind thinking it can burn down Paris. After all, who under heaven is going to be able tolivein that city once everything is burned? Maybe I ought to visit a few places before it all goes.”
“I would,” he muttered. “I plan to leave France once I oversee this mess. Because there will be nothing but ash left by the time they are done.” He was quiet for a moment. “Maybe you and I could go to Russia together? You know…see those Russians chew glass? I could wrap you up in furs and take you through the snow of Saint Petersburg. We could even live there for a while. Would you like that?” The tips of his gloved fingers nudged away her braid from her shoulder, grazing her throat. He skimmed her shoulder.
A shiver rippled through her body straight down to her inner thighs.
This man was dangerous. He knew how to make her body and her soul tingle in too many places. He knew how to control her very breath.
She couldn’t allow herself to love him. She couldn’t. For she knew full well what happened to women who knelt torealpassion. Her poor mother ended up with eleven children because of it. Something she swore she would never do. Even the idea of one child scared her.
She hadalwaysbeen ungovernable in nature. Having sex with a complete stranger was proof of that. But she certainly didn’t need to push herself into the realm of insanity by falling in love with a man intent on putting out the fires of Paris with his bare hands.
She gently tapped his gloved hand. “I would rather you not do that.”
His hand stilled against her arm. “I would be forever grateful,ma biche, if you could forgive me. I will refrain from ever drinking around you again.”
Damn him for wanting to amble intoherlife with promises he wouldn’t be able to keep. “It will take more than a promise. I have met men like you back in Giverny. There is not an hour you do not think about drinking your beloved brandy.”
“True, but—” He nudged her. “I thought you wanted those diamonds and those pearls.”
Of all the—
He shifted against her. “I was thinking.”
“Should I be worried knowing that?”
He flicked a finger at her shoulder. “Cease being rude. I was thinking you and I ought to…well…get to know each other more. Outside of being lovers. If we become parents, after all, we should be on good terms for the sake of our child. Do you not think?”
Why did he have to be a drunk? He was too beautiful for that. “Perhaps I am not ready to get to know a man who has no desire of ever marrying me even if I do end up pregnant.”
He sighed. “Thérèse. My father would never allow for it. His disdain for the lower classes aside, he and I barely get along. He forgives me nothing and holds everything against me. Everything.”
A breath escaped her knowing he was not on good terms with his father. Whilst, yes, she had left her own family behind in less than good circumstance, they had all loved each other very much. She knew her parents would eventually forgive her. In a year or two or three. That was what people did when they sought to love each other.
They…forgave each other.
She paused. Hewantedher to love him and forgive him anything. And hewantedto do it in a most unconventional way: without any guarantees of her ever seeing matrimony.
He hesitated. “Honor me by giving me another chance, Thérèse. Please. The very thought of not ever being able to kiss you again is…”
She closed her eyes, determined not to be swayed. “I am not interested in ending up with a child after raising ten of them for my parents.” She opened her eyes. “This is my time to finally embrace everything I want out of life and I will not expose my body to your drunken advances that are clearly unreliable.”
He gripped her waist hard. “I will never engage you whilst drunk again. I swear it.”
“Even if you could uphold such a promise, we are both overly passionate and such things are not bound to end well.” Her throat tightened. “What if we become too attached to each other? What happens then? There is danger in us wanting each other too much. Especially given who you are. You are third cousin to the king!”
His voice darkened. “I hardly need to be reminded who I am.”
A shaky breath escaped her. This was getting too complicated for them to even try to make it work. “I am giving you permission to engage other women.”
He said nothing.
His silence poked her into asking the one thing that had bothered her all of last night. “How many others were there before me?”
He shifted in the saddle, adjusting her against himself. “Four.”
“Were you in love with any of these women?”
“One.” He was quiet for a long moment. “She was married. Her name was…Madame Poulin.”
She blinked. “Did you know she was married?”
He dug his chin into her head. “No. I have a stupid tendency to let passion blur common sense.”
A vivid flash of seeing his nude body and bunched muscles savagely pounding his hips into another woman made her want to smack him off the horse for making her jealous. She hated being made to feel as if she was fourteen.
Tightening her hold on her basket, she coolly offered, “Was she pretty?”
“Not as pretty as you,” he breathed out against her ear.
She unwittingly tilted her ear into those lips that clearly sought to lure her. “I assume it ended badly.”
“More than you will ever know.” He heaved out a breath. “The whole thing was staged by her husband. She was coerced into making me believe our relationship was real. The whole moon and the stars sort of nonsense. After she and I fell into bed a few times, her husband made himself known and demanded half a millionlivresfrom my father.”
Thérèse felt her throat tighten in disbelief.
His tone became ragged. “This mudsill of a tailor had the audacity to tell me if I did not pay it in full, he would publicly demand satisfaction. My father was anything but understanding. When I told Poulin to piss off, the man demanded satisfaction, and in an effort not to kill thefils de salope, I aimed at his leg. Only I shot off his hand. A hand he can no longer use to support his family. So he and the wife I thought I knew and loved, along with their three children, ended up in an almshouse because of me. So what did I do? I gave them ten thousand to ensure they lived well. And they do. Believe me, they still do. They have carriages and a house and go shopping for things they do not need and merrily live off my guilt going on a few years now. Just like they planned. And the best part? This tailor now stands on the street with a sign that says, ‘The Duc de Andelot’s son raped my wife and took my trade and my hand.’”
Her heart skidded. She jerked her head toward him, her lips parting in disbelief.
He didn’t meet her gaze. “He parades my shame, after he and his wife orchestrated it, openly spits on my name thinking I deserve nothing less. Andthatis the direction this country is going in.Thatis why this city is burning. Because some people would rather see everything burn than admit we are all equal in our sins. Long live your kind and the revolution.”
Tears stung her eyes. “He is not my kind.”
He shifted his jaw, still refusing to look at her.
She swallowed. Holding up a trembling hand, she gently touched the side of his masked face, wishing he was not wearing it. “I am sorry that was done to you.”
He shrugged. “I earned it.”
“How can you say that?”
He said nothing.
Maybe this was why she came into his life. Brandy aside, he clearly lacked the faith in trying to save himself because he was too busy saving the world. “I appreciate you sharing that with me. I cannot imagine it was easy to say aloud.”
He tugged her closer against himself, tightening his hold on her to the point of digging his fingers into her gown and the skin beneath. “Paris is ahead. Listen well as I will not have a chance to repeat myself lest we risk someone overhearing it.”
He gripped her braid and wagged its end. “I will take you straight to your cousin’s theatre, after which we will no longer see very much of each other. My mask will come off and I will resume my regular way of life. In the next few days, a dark-eyed gentleman by the name of Serge Naudet will call on you. Only he will know of our association. So trust no one but him. Aside from delivering you money, Naudet will supply a weekly list of people you ought to talk to and will funnel whatever messages you and I have for each other. Do you remember the address where the blue ribbon is supposed to go to if you need me?”
This all became too real. “Yes. Five Luxembourg.”
“Good.” He released her braid. “As for us, the next time we see each other, we will no longer be allowed to be anything to each other but strangers in public, so I suppose you and I are lovers no more, much like you want. In truth, I hardly earned it and ask that you not forgive me. I have to learn to be more responsible.”
Her throat tightened. Now she felt bad.
Dragging in a breath, Thérèse nestled herself against his broad, muscled frame trying not to revel in his warmthtoomuch. It was so odd to think that she, a mere daughter of a third generation butcher, was riding into Paris on a steed in the arms of an aristocrat worth ten million.
This revolution was creating a form of equality even she had not been prepared to embrace.
The dense, angled cobbled streets were so overcrowded with people, the horse had to be guided off the actual road and through narrow pathways in between torched buildings and small courtyards strewn with shattered glass, bricks and charred pieces of furniture.
Men and women in bundled rags gathered before the small window of a dilapidated print shop where an unshaven man in a red cap bearing a tricolor cockade, stood on a wooden crate with a newly printed pamphlet. He shook it at those around him.
“Despite countless pleas from our own voices at the esteemed Assembly, our basic needs arestillnot being addressed!” he yelled. “It says here due to the continued shortage of food, all bread prices will remain the same. At fifteensousa loaf. Fifteen! What,I ask you, are these loaves made of?Sa Majesté’s breeches?! Or the queen’s two tits?”
Laughter and disgruntled shouts echoed within the narrow space of the street.
Gérard shifted his jaw, chanting to himself that beating the blood out of a man for insulting his godparents was pointless. Because then these strutting turkeys would only cluck to each other about howviolentaristocrats were toward them.
Which was why he trained his pride to ride by the jargon and never engage. He was not his father who always got into the faces of these people on the street.
He also wasn’t alone.
In truth, he barely noticed the rumbling chaos the way he usually did. How could he? His hands were sweating beneath his gloves and his body felt as if it was being assaulted by fire. Even after everything that had been said between them, the woman still nestled against him as if they were back to being on good terms.
She was exhausting the hell out of him.
With her blonde head tucked against his chest and the warm softness of her voluptuous body folded into his arms, all he could think of was how the hell he was going to survive not making love to her body again.
Thérèse sat up against him, bumping his chin and pointed at the young man yelling about the bread prices. “Whatever is that idiot wearing?” she echoed. “He has no sense of fashion. Absolutely none. That red hat makes him look like a troll.”
Gérard choked, grabbed her hand and lowered it against her thigh in reprimand. “Try not to get us into trouble.”
She paused. “Am I not allowed to comment on what people wear? Pardon me for being a woman. I notice these things.”
He kept pushing the horse through the crowds. Everything coming out of her mouth was an adventure. “That cap signifies he is in support of the new Republic. Do not comment or try to engage them, because they are all like roaches. Where there is one, there is a hundred. And whilst I wish I could boast that my fighting skills are that of God, I cannot very well fight a hundred men on my own and in your honor. Do you understand?”
Concern edged into her voice. “They would try to fight us? Merely because I commented on his sense of fashion?”
Gérard tightened his jaw in an attempt to remind himself she was new to what was happening in Paris. “Any comment can be construed as you supportingSa Majesté. So never comment on those caps. Ever. These bastards are bold. They forget they still have a king. Be he in prison or not, he still lives.”
A boisterous group of young men sharing what appeared to be several large bottles of stolen champagne out of a crate, paused in unison. Some shifted against the brick wall they were propped against. The entire group stared at them.
Or rather…they stared at Thérèse.
All fourteen of them.
Gérard instinctively tightened his arms around her and veered his horse to the other side of the street. He cued his horse into a quicker pace lest he start shooting their eyes out.
A few whistled as others nudged each other to keep looking.
One of the young men holding a bottle of champagne, stumbled forward, gaping up at them as he tried to keep up with their horse. “My heart will never be the same.” He set a dirt-crusted hand on his narrow chest and scrambled forward, his scuff-whitened boots trying to keep up as he held up the bottle he held. “Mademoiselle, my heart tells me we have met before. In a dream, I dare say! And in that dream, I knelt before you and kissed your hand well over a dozen times after you promised to be mine. Marry me, so we may have a dozen children as beautiful as you!”
Gérard’s lips parted. He didn’t know what astounded him more. Seeing men act like buffoons after a mere glance at Thérèse or the fact itbotheredhim knowing other men were interested inbeingbuffoons in her honor. Whilst, yes, she was insanely attractive, and he himself had trouble resisting, he thought she had been exaggerating about the men.
She wasn’t even on stage yet.
Shite. “Step away,” he rumbled out in warning.
The young blond only kept running beside them at a sprint, glancing up at Thérèse. “What is your name,mon amour?” he called. “Assure me this outdated fop is not your husband or I will take a pistol to my head for it! He does not even appear to be capable of providing you shoes!”
Jésus. Gérard glared down at the man, trying to keep the horse at a respectable pace so they wouldn’t fall off. “Being capable of providing her shoes is not my problem,” he delivered through teeth. “So I suggest you keep sucking on that champagne and leave off. Leave off, or I will damn well jump off this horse and—”
Thérèse elbowed him hard. “There is no need, Gérard. Allow me.” She leaned slightly toward the blond still running beside them and primly offered in a honeyed voice, “Come see me at the opening night of ‘The Delights of Life’ this Friday evening atSpetacle des Variétés AmusantesonRue St. Antoine.It will be short-lived given I will be going on to a bigger stage, so bring all of your friends, and I promise to sing a song for you and only you.” She scrunched her nose in an excessive form of flirtation and then blew him an ardent kiss with the pucker of lips.
Gérard sucked in an astounded breath at her tasteless attempt to advertise her cousin’s theatre.
The youth stumbled and grabbed at the air as if she had actually thrown something. “I will be there with all of Paris,mon amour!” He turned back to his friends and jerking to a halt, guzzled more champagne that dribbled down his unshaven chin before throwing up an arm in mocking triumph. “Long live the Republic and its beautiful women whom I adore!”
Gérard shifted his jaw in a riled attempt not to get off the horse and use all five of his pistols to show what he thought of this new Republic. Barely a few weeks earlier, he had saved a young woman from being raped by a massive man who held her face to the ground shouting, ‘Prove yourself to the Republic!’ He almost killed the son of a bitch. Given there were too many others watching, however, Gérard could only grudgingly rope the bastard to a lamp post after a few good kicks to the head and demanded no one untie him for a week. It won him an applause and even a few pats on the back, despite him being an aristo.
Of course,thischampagne-guzzling dunce had been encouraged. By Thérèse, no less.
He half-shook her. “What the devil are you doing? If you think I am incapable of control, you just introduced yourself to rape with that one. Christ, you— That was tasteless and uncalled for. Are you telling me you always tweak your nose at every man in the name of making money?”
She glared. “Of course not. But what was I to do? Let you fight some halfling in my honor whilst thirteen others watched and would have joined in? I was protecting you, is all. How is that wrong?”
His pulse hitched. Why did he like knowing she had protected him? It had to mean she had a bit of regard for him. Maybe even more than a bit. “You do realize that idiot will expect to see you now.”
She patted his forearm. “And he most certainly will.Afterhe pays for it. I can afford to give him two minutes after the show and toss a song at him. It is what an actress does. After he gets his song, he gets escorted straight out of the building by burly men with knives Rémy hires to protect his talent. My cousin told me all about how they deal with unwanted admirers. So you need not worry.”
She pushed her braid over her shoulder, smacking his face and glanced back at him, her large blue eyes brightening in earnest. “Advertising to the right people is the only way to ensure Rémy’s success. And his success is my success. And my success isyoursuccess. I cannot very well gather the information you want by treating these men with disdain, can I?”
Everything about this woman made him want to grab her face and kiss her until neither of them knew the difference between heaven or hell. He wanted to rip her gown in half, leave bite marks on that skin and—
She still peered up at him from over her shoulder. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
His nostrils flared in an attempt not to do all the things he was thinking. “I am not looking at you at all.”
She smirked, her eyes brightening. “Oh, yes you are.” She set her chin. “Admit it. Without me, you arenothing.”
It was obvious she was well aware of how much control she had over him and was glorying in it. Gérard jerked her against his body as tight as he could so they were both aware of what his body was capable of.
“Without me,” he returned in a growling tone, “you arealsonothing. I suggest you remember that when I drape diamonds and pearls on your neck.”
Her chest rose and fell against his hand. “You are pinching my skin.”
He swallowed and eased his grip. “Forgive me.”
She puffed out a breath. “You almost popped both of my breasts out of my corset.”
“I beg to differ. They do that on their own. I suggest buying yourself a larger corset with the money I give you.”
She elbowed him hard.
He rolled his eyes and glanced out toward passing buildings.
A large wooden plaque with the wordsSpetacle des Variétés Amusantesmade his brows go up and his lips part. He slowed his horse to a halt. The sign, boasting crudely painted but shapely female legs in red wool stockings, was affixed to the façade of the building with more nails than was needed. A long line of men – andonlymen – waited to purchase tickets.
A dark-haired gent selling the tickets, busily went from person to person, collecting coins in exchange for the papers he ripped. “Hold onto that there ticket,citoyen.” He pointed to the single door painted red. “No entries today but nay do fear. Friday at seven will be the first of this showing, and not a single one of you will want to miss it! New talent this time. New talent. Come see the new face of the future Republic. With but a glance, she will steal what little you have of your heart!”
The man enthusiastically kept nodding and going down the line as others left with their tickets. He tapped his bright blue felt hat forward, displaying the tri-colored cockade pinned to it and flicked it with a bare finger. “If any of you gents need yourselves a cockade, I most certainly sell those, too. They are in a crate inside. Buy three, and this here ticket is free, free, free.”
It was obvious the man was a peddler of all trades.
That bright blue hat was seriously mismatched against the man’s foppish striped green and pink clothing. Clothing that was much too tight for his stocky frame. Everything bulged in all the wrong places in an attempt to free the rolls of fat beneath. Even the stretching flap on his trousers appeared to want to rip the buttons off.
“Rémy!” Thérèse called out, cupping the side of her mouth with a hand. “Look at this bit ofbourgeoisiecoming into town! I arrived on my own steed!” She set her shoulder and chin toward him to better display herself on the horse she sat on. “And I have this lusty highwayman to thank! He made love to me twice!”
Gérard choked as every burly man, including the ticket seller, known as her cousin, turned in unison to gape. “What are you—”
“Right.” Leaning back, he grudgingly slid off the horse and landed onto the cobbled street with a thud. He ensured his mask stayed in place by tugging at the binding and knot behind his head twice. Removing the satchel which held the documents, he bound it tightly around his shoulder and chest to ensure it was protected.
He wasn’t in the forest anymore.
Without meeting her gaze, he tied the horse to the lamppost with the leather reins. Taking her basket, he set it onto the uneven pavement leading to the entrance of the small theatre and reached up for her waist. “Lean toward me, if you please.”
She pertly leaned toward him to make the descent possible. “Likeso?”
The tops of her round, large breasts pushed against the fabric of her décolletage, giving him an overly generous display that made him all too aware that if he willed it, they could be his. Every night. For the rest of his life.
His chest tightened. “You did that on purpose.”
Her mouth quirked. “Enjoy the view while you can.”
It was like she was putting on a far bigger show than he wanted.
Grabbing her, he lowered her and settled her bare feet onto the pavement, releasing her. He leaned in. “Try not to overexert yourself, dearest.”
“You paid for it.”
He shifted his jaw, wishing she would let him see past the tawdry actress she always seemed to play. “Is this who you really are? Is money all you care about?”
Her ocean blue eyes softened and took on the persona of someone he had yet to meet. She leaned in close. “If money was all I cared about, I would have never kissed you.”
He swiped at his mouth in an effort to keep calm. He could tell she meant it. Leaning in close, he whispered, “Be careful. Never allow yourself to be alone with any of these men. They will only want one thing from you.”
“The same thing you did?”
He stared her down, his heart pounding. “I will ensure nothing happens to you. I will be watching over you even when you think I am not.”
She searched his masked face, her features softening. “I appreciate that.” She hesitated. “Despite what I said earlier—” A breath escaped her. “Maybe we can still make time for each other outside of all this smoke and fire business. We probably should get to know each other.”
He angled toward her and almost grabbed her face and kissed her, sensing she was giving him another chance. She was…forgiving him. “I would like that.”
A few whistles from the man standing in line drifted toward them. “Show us that there talent,citoyenesse! Come now and lift that skirt and shake an ankle at us!”
Gérard rigidly swung toward the men who were rattling their tickets and legs toward her. His gloved hands fisted.
“Refrain and say nothing.” She squeezed his arm hard. “Welcome to the elaborate farce known as my life. Men act like this around me even when there is no stage. And that,mon grand, is a sad truth I have long accepted.” She patted his arm one last time. “Until we meet again…” She sashayed past and over to her cousin, abandoning the basket she left at his booted feet.
A breath escaped Gérard as he watched her shapely figure make its way toward the crowd of men. Her derriere swayed beneath the wool fabric of her skirts tauntingly matching the jiggle of her corseted breasts. He almost bit his hand in an attempt not to keep looking at it.
She spread her slim arms wide, greeting the long line of men as a beautiful melody, almost too lush and perfect to be real, suddenly breezed from her lips. “I have at last foundloooove…and now that I have seen what it candooooo…all I will ever ask…is that youneveeeerbreakmy heart…in…twooooo.”
Gérard couldn’t breathe.
Everything about her was surreal. It made him want to believe in the beauty of everything again. A beauty he didn’t think existed amongst the chaos of Paris and his life. And twisted though it was, he…well…he actuallywantedher to be pregnant. Just so he could see her singing to their child at night, its small head peacefully cradled in the crook of her ivory arm.
He had never thought he would ever want that. Ever.
There was a moment of stunned silence, which Gérard shared in, followed by a roar of men hollering and clapping feverishly as they scrambled toward her.
He swallowed. This woman was going to make him kneel to far more than he was ready for. He could feel it. He could see it. He could taste it. She was full of so much mettle and warmth and wit, it was spilling onto the very pavement she walked on.
It made him want to worship and adore even her shadow.
Rémy jumped toward her with a playful half-squat and pointed. “Ah, now,there she is! The Republic’s greatest talent and theonlycousin I have who can shake more than a fist!” He grabbed her and folded his thick arms around her tightly, swaying her. He kissed the top of her head twice then grabbed her hand and quickly ushered her past the whistles, toward the door. “I say we give these animals time to regain themselves afterthatperformance. I have cheese and wine on the table right off stage. Go greet the girls you will be working with inside.”
Edging forward, Gérard mentally willed her to look at him before she went inside. To give him a whisper of hope that beyond their alliance there could be…more. More than the sex. More than what he had ever shared with any woman.
She excitedly chatted with Rémy, giggling about something and tapping his shoulder.
Not once did she look his way. Not even once. Resentment bit into him. It was as if they had never fallen asleep in each other’s arms under the stars.
Opening the door wide, Rémy revealed a candlelit parlor unevenly draped with shoddy, smalt- colored fabric. Women garbed in floor-length robes peered out from where they lounged on chairs. Thérèse was ushered inside as men scrambled to look at her, bending far forward and whistling.
Gérard wanted to beat the pulp out of every last one of them.
Thérèse turned against the hands of her cousin and enthusiastically blew the men kisses as if she knew each and every one of them. “Friday night, I shall see you all!” She pertly kept at it, blowing more and more kisses to ensure no one felt left out.
Why did he feel like all of this was a very bad idea?
Something told him if he allowed her to enter the theatrical world, and play the dangerous game he was instructing her to play, this bright-eyed girl who literally gave him a slice of heaven in the silence of the forest would be taken from him. She would be swallowed by lies and lust-ridden admirers. He would never be able to compete with them, because it was obvious money was only a sliver of what this creature wanted.
She wanted to be esteemed and loved in the grandest manner possible. And she was using her beauty and talent to get it.
So what now?
Did he have her coo at men so he could save his godfather and help other aristocrats? Or should he yank her from the stage and find another way? But what other way? Even if he set aside his belief that marriage was nothing but a legal document, he was not the spare anymore. He was not able to marry into whatever social circle pleased him. Because equality did not break the foundation of what his father and his ancestors and lineage expected of him and the name. He was heir. And with his father’s deeply rooted loathing of the lower classes andbourgeoisie, the man would never—
Merde. As always, Gérard would have to keep living one life for his father and the other for himself. He stalked over to her basket she had abandoned on the pavement and removed the additional leather satchel attached at his waist, opening the strings on it. He emptied all of his coins into it and covered it with her gown. Now she had well over two thousand. Not just the one. He quickly tied his satchel back on and carried it to the door she had entered.
Rémy swung toward him and put up a hand, his features becoming all too playful. “Whether you delivered her on a steed or not,citoyen, you and that mask still have to wait until Friday for the performance.”
Well over a dozen faces now stared him down, collectively announcing they would see to it.
There was nothing in the world like Paris to make a rich man feel poor.
Gérard inclined his head. “I would never dare impose. I am merely delivering the basket she left behind. Am I allowed to see her one last time and return it to her?”
Rémy eyed the basket and puffed out a breath. “That girl will one day be the death of me. And the worst of it? She knows it.” Tapping his blue felt hat back with a thumb, he yelled over his shoulder. “Thérèse! Your highwayman seems to think he can continue making love to you right in front of a crowd. Is there something I ought to know?”
Thérèse hurried out and settling herself beside her cousin, sighed and took the wicker basket. “Oh, dear.” Those azure eyes mockingly met his. She tsked. “Will you look at this besotted fool? He thinks he stands a chance because he was kind enough to keep me from walking all the way to Paris.”
Ouch. Why did this feel real?
She gave Gérard a look of pity before turning to her cousin. “As much as I would like you to toss him on his nose, Rémy, given he robs people for a living, that would be rude. And you and I both know being rude will never resolve anything. So give this unshaven, outdated gallant a free ticket in honor of us being related. ’Tis the polite thing to do.”
Rémy’s brow furrowed. “A free ticket?” He glanced at Gérard and then at her. “Thérèse. Setting aside that he robs people for a living, and can probably afford said ticket, this here is a business. Every time I give away a free ticket, I lose more than respect.”
She leaned in and nuzzled her cousin’s shaven oversized cheek with the tip of her nose. “If you give him a free ticket, I promise I will make you whatever you want for supper tonight. I know how much you love freshly made beefbourguignon.”
Rémy paused, setting a large hand on his protruding belly. “Beefbourguignon?”
“Oh, yes,” she cooed. “With carrots and potatoes. Like your mother always used to make. Remember how we used to eat straight out of the cauldron?”
Rémy hissed out a breath and grudgingly smoothed a hand over her braid. “You always did know me best in our family. And I always give into you because of it. One of these days, you will be the—”
“Death of you, I know, I know.” She grinned. “What is a ticket to you or him anyway? If all the men in the theatre beat up on him or kill him due to his profession in life that will no longer be our problem but his. Right?”
Gérard’s pulse roared in disbelief. Her acting was a littletoogood.
Rémy grudgingly held out a ticket toward him. “Here. In honor of what you did. Though I suggest you bring more than a pistol if you plan on making it through the entire show. We here do not approve of robbing anyone. Not even those that deserve it. The world is insane enough.”
Everyone around him widened their stance as several men whispered to each other behind bare hands that had been visibly battered.
It was like receiving an admission to one’s funeral. “Merci, citoyen.” Taking the ticket, Gérard crushed it in his gloved hand, knowing the more distance he kept from Thérèse, the better off they would both be.
She averted her gaze and disappeared back inside.
A breath escaped him. He would miss the woman he met in the forest.
For he knew the moment Thérèse took the stage she would no longer be his.
She would belong to the people.
Fourteen days later – well past midnight
At a masked ball celebrating the instatement of the National Convention
Between the slits of her gold-painted mask, Thérèse did her best to navigate through the crowds of people gathered in the great hall. She angled her body to better squeeze through drunken men and women who staggered and laughed with crooked masks.
Someone swatted her derriere twice. “Is that padding or your bum?” a man slurred from behind. He gathered her skirts, trying to shove them up.
She gasped and swung toward the man who was fumbling to adjust his elephant mask in between grabbing her skirts. Stepping toward him, she whipped off his mask, to ensure she had better access to his bearded face and using her reticule, which she had purposefully weighted with a book of poetry, thwacked him upside the head.
He stumbled off to the side, falling into a bunch of men who shoved him to the floor and started laughing.
She set her chin and kept walking.
Being a spy was hard work.
Fortunately, she was done for the night.
Violins tried to play, but were drowned out by too many voices.
Despite hundreds of candles illuminating the uneven stone walls, there were still more shadows than light. And she had just lost her damn escort for the night. Where on earth had her cousin gone? He’d been right behind her barely a few minutes earlier.
Searching for his massive horse mask, she wandered about the great hall, moving past peacocks and giraffes and other countless misshapen animals. Her cousin was nowhere in sight.
Gathering her skirts, she whisked her way toward the alcoves and veered into the nearest corridor. She scanned the tables laden with fruit, cakes and bottles of wine and champagne, where crowds pushed to grab whatever they could. Several apples rolled toward her feet from the shoving chaos.
A tall gentleman wearing a patched grey velvet ensemble veered in and swiped up one of the apples at her feet. He bowed, turning his gloved hand in her direction to present the apple. His zebra mask leaned in closer. “An apple for a kiss,mademoiselle?” he rumbled.
She eyed him and was about to thwack that apple out of his hand with her reticule, when all too familiar masculine blue eyes met hers through the slits of the mask.
Her lips parted, realizing it was Gérard.
Her breath hitched in astonishment. He was breaking his own rules. “Are you— Whatever are you doing here?”
His full lips smirked beneath his zebra mask as he tossed the apple from one gloved hand to the other. “Ensuring my investment is paying off.”
She grabbed his arm and hurried him toward the farthest curtained alcove, away from the crowds. Draping aside the frayed curtain to ensure no one was occupying the small space, she bustled them both inside and yanked the curtain shut behind them.
Gérard leaned against the wall opposite her, adjusting his velvet coat. “Naudet was busy tonight. So I came in his stead. I have an hour before I have to get back.”
She pushed up her mask to better see him and smirked, realizing he was wearing a zebra mask. “My. I inspire you every day.”
He pushed up his own mask, his blue eyes brightening and set his broad shoulders against the wall. “I thought maybe it would inspire you to ride me.”
She snorted. “Unlikely. I am still waiting for my pearls.”
“They are much closer than you think.” He skimmed her coral gown, lingering on her breasts. “Any new gossip?”
Thérèse tapped at her face. “Up here.”
His eyes captured hers. “You make it difficult for a man to focus. That gown is…” He let out a low whistle. “My money is being well spent.”
Biting back a smile, she closed the distance between them and draped herself against him, causing him to drag in a breath. She smoothed her hands up his waistcoat, noting the buttons were made of tin. So clever, as always. No one would ever suspect him of having a singlesol.
She flicked each tin button. “According toMonsieur Moquin, there will be another shift in power. Robespierre and a few others are trying to persuade theConvention Nationaleto permit the creation of a committee that would basically be in full of command of guillotining anyone they deem a threat to the Republic.”
He stilled, intently searching her face. “When are they going to establish it?”
Thérèse lifted her gaze to his. “There is no word on that yet. It is a relatively new idea. But from what the man was saying, the moment it is implemented, the guillotine in the square would be falling every two minutes.”
He stared. “I have to ensure the right people in my circle know about it.” He leaned in closer. “Did you learn anything else?”
“No,” she grouched. “I spent the rest of the time listening toMonsieur Moquintalk about his cats. He has eight of them and renamed them all in honor of the revolution. They are now called Justice, Liberty, Equality, Rebellion, Fraternity, Vengeance, Morality and by far my favoriteQuietus. Which means death. The poor things. They are being forced to bear the very name of chaos.”
Gérard smirked, gently set her aside and yanked his mask back on. “Cover your face. We have been in here too long.”
She yanked down her mask, adjusting it into place. So much for romance. It was back to being a spy. Not that she was wanting to engage him after he had so drunkenly—
He grabbed the sides of her masked face and captured her exposed mouth, forcing her lips apart with his tongue.
She staggered and returned his kiss by working her tongue against his, their masks catching on each other.
He shoved her into the wall, causing her to gasp. Kissing her harder, he finally broke away and stepped back. “I had to see if you would kiss me,” he rasped.
Her eyes flew open, her pulse roaring. “I suppose you got your answer.”
Adjusting his crooked mask, he smoothed his lace cravat. “I did.” He cleared his throat, angling toward her. “Are you up for dancing with me? I have about a half hour. Honor me.”
She bit her lip, which was still moist from the contact of his mouth, and traced her gloved fingers longingly against the wall behind her. It was so unexpected to know outside of the money she was getting and what they had left behind in the forest that he was trying to embrace more for them.
It seemed inevitable that they would never be able to stay away from each other. Fortunately, everyone here wore masks tonight. “I would like that.”
He grinned and swept aside the curtain, gesturing toward the great hall beyond.
Gathering her skirts, she sashayed past. “I will meet you by the violins.”
He mockingly inclined his head. “Get there before I do,ma biche,or there will be no pearls for you tonight.” His muscled frame dodged past and disappeared into the crowd.
Someone was feeling playful tonight.
Gathering her skirts, she darted forward and through the crowd, yelling, “Actress in need of pearls coming through! Do make way!” Thankful she wasn’t wearing a wig, for she knew it would have flopped off by now, she dogged left and right in her heels, determined to make it to the violins before he did.
The sound of the violins drew closer as she frantically pushed her way through more and more people. She stumbled to a halt.
He was already waiting with his hands in his pockets. “What took you so long?”
He tsked and held out a hand. “Not being able to admit defeat can be a serious problem.” He wagged his gloved fingers. “Come to me.”
She held out her hand. “How about you come to me?”
He captured her outstretched hand and yanked her close, his hand skimming across her back as he folded her within his arms. He pressed her tighter against himself, gripping her uplifted hand with one hand and setting his other hand on her corseted waist. “Thank you for being here tonight. I appreciate it.”
“I wish I had been able to unearth more.”
“We will. Be patient. We are doing everything right.”
She glanced over the side of his broad shoulder.
Couples around them trotted at a full arm’s length away, holding hands and abiding by the dance dictated by the violins.
Gérard continued to merely sway them from side to side, searching her eyes, as if he didn’t care they were breaking dancing convention.
She grinned up at him, trying to see past the slits of her mask. “You seem different. More at ease. I like it.”
He shrugged and turned her once, swaying them from side to side again. “I find it rather nice to have someone I can rely on. It is not something I am used to.”
Why did she want to melt against him for admitting he needed her? “I wish we could see each other more.”
He searched her face. “We are always together. You are always in my thoughts.”
She tightened her hold on his hand and shoulder. “Am I?”
“Cease preening about it.”
“When do I get my pearls?”
He shifted his jaw. “Forget the pearls. We are dancing right now.” He rigidly pushed her backward with his upper and lower body as if to emphasize he was in control of what happened next. “I am beginning to believe I like you more than you like me. Am I wrong in that?”
“Are you insinuating we get married?”
“I doubt either of us is ready for that sort of commitment.”
Her hand, which had been resting on the muscled bulk of his arm, skimmed toward his solid chest and his coat. “Then why talk about who likes who more?”
He shrugged and averted his gaze, still swaying them.
This man was so much more vulnerable than he wanted to let on. It squeezed her heart knowing it. She raised herself on her heeled toes and kissed the curve of his shaven jaw.
He lowered his chin to better see her past his mask. “What was that for?”
“I find vulnerability very attractive in a man.”
He tightened his hold for a long moment, then released her. He leaned in. “How vulnerable do you need me to be? I can make it happen.”
She bit back a laugh and shoved him.
He grinned, grabbed her hand back and tugged her across the floor to join in on the faster dancing, releasing her to allow for each of them to dance with the people around them.
Every now and then, in between the dancing, those incredible blue eyes would capture hers through the blur of music and her heart would flip at a speed even her feet couldn’t keep up with. Something tauntingly whispered that she had found her dance partner for life.
He grabbed her hand again, his grin widening, and called out over the music, “Follow me out! Unfortunately, I have to go!” Releasing her hand, he effortlessly wove his way through the dancers and disappeared through the crowd.
She was going to lose sight of him and who knew when she would see him again. Frantically gathering her skirts, she hurried after him only to bump into one of the dancing masked gentlemen. “Pardon me. I have to—”
The gentleman jumped toward her and merrily grabbed her hand, dragging her back into the circle of dancing. He lifted his other hand in the air, leading them in time to the music. She stumbled and gaped, realizing that other arm appeared to be missing a hand at its laced cuff.
She choked. How many men in Paris had stubs? A few, she supposed, but how many of them would be here tonight enjoying the revelry of the revolution as much as this one appeared to be?
Why was it this revolution had to assault what she and Gérard shared? It more than irked her.
This society wanted to seize everything. Including what wasn’t theirs.
Jumping toward him, she grabbed the gentleman hard by the lapels of his black, embroidered coat and jerked him to a halt. “Pray give your name,monsieur.” She attempted to be polite. In case it turned out to be another man. “I wish to know.”
He froze, his crow mask and its black feathers fluttering. “Begging your pardon, but I came with my wife.”
She tightened her hold on that coat. “Only your name will result in the release of your coat.”
He gritted his teeth and stiffly removed her hands from his coat. “I amMonsieurPoulin, abourgeoisietailor by trade. Does that answer your question?”
She knew it.
Stripping his mask, she tossed it to the other dancers surrounding them and stared the gentleman straight in those dark eyes that clearly had no soul. Angling toward him, she said loud enough for everyone on the dance floor to hear, “How it is you dare to celebrate our revolution as if you were one of us? You,Monsieur Poulin, are a disgrace to thebourgeoisieand all we represent. From my understanding, you whored your own wife to an aristocrat for ten thousandlivresafter asking for a half a million. No paltry sum.”
People stopped dancing. Some turned toward them and stared. Others whispered and removed their masks to better see the man.
Oh, yes. Gossip was a dagger and this one had earned it.
Poulin’s dark eyes widened. He glanced toward the floor to find his mask, edging back. Unable to find it, he glared. “The aristocrat you speak of, Madame, was nothing but a vile scoundrel who forcefully seduced and raped my wife. And when I bloody sought to defend her honor,thiswas done to me.This!” He shook the stub at her.
She narrowed her gaze, knowing full well her Gérard would never force himself on a woman. “You are a liar and not at all one of us. You sought to better your circumstance at the cost of another whilst letting your fellowbourgeoisiesuffer. Why did you not offer a singlesolof the ten thousand you swindled to help the revolution? Are you not in support of our cause?”
Various men now angled in, removing their masks, one by one.
A young man in a queue squinted and stepped past her toward Poulin. “I represent the new Convention we are openly celebrating tonight, monsieur. I was voted in three days ago and find this conversation might require closer attention.” He wagged his gloved fingers, signaling a few other gentlemen to join in. “By law, if funds were taken from an aristocrat, it belongs to the Republic. As such, we wish to see all ledgers pertaining to your finances and will make an appointment to do so this week.”
Poulin scrambled back.
A masked brunette scurried toward them and frantically grabbed at the arm of Monsieur Poulin. “Say nothing more,” the woman begged. “Do not engage it!”
This went even better than planned. She was done here.
Inclining her head to all of them, Thérèse regally pushed back her skirts away from her feet and swept her way off the dance floor. A few months in prison for a man who had vilely swindled Gérard and whored his wife seemed exceedingly fair.
She paused, realizing Gérard was lingering on the edge of the dance floor a few feet away. A muscle quivered in his clenched jaw right beneath his half-mask.
She cringed knowing she had probably made a much bigger scene than his private affair warranted. It was the actress in her. She quickly walked past him but said nothing knowing it would be no different than announcing to everyone that the man behind the zebra mask was who she had sought to defend.
Hopefully he wasn’t too upset. She had been overseeing his honor. Surely, he would—
Gérard weaved in from behind and grabbed her arm hard, now directing their pace faster toward the back entrance of the hall. His fingers dug into her arm tighter and tighter. “Remind me to never leave you alone for five minutes.”
She winced and out of the side of her mouth offered, “Did I overdo it?”
He leaned in. “Everything you ever do is overdone. Now move. We have to go. Lest they damn well want your name on record.Move.”
She almost broke into a run.
He jerked her back hard, tightening his hold. “Fast but not that fast, dearest,” he drawled. “Or you will draw attention.”
Leading them out of the great hall and down the corridor faster, her slippered heels clicked rhythmically with his boots across the marble floor.
Fast but not too fast, she chanted to herself.
They soon headed out through a side entrance and into the night that was still warm from the heat of the day. A breath escaped her.
She glanced up at his towering frame, trying to keep up as they left the light and noise of the festivities behind and headed down a cobble stone path toward a long line of hackneys whose seats were lopsided from overuse. “Are you angry?”
“Let us not discuss this on the street.” Lifting a gloved hand, Gérard let out a whistle through his teeth, causing one of the hired hackneys to stop a few feet past them. He hurried them forward, leaned forward and yanked open the side door leading to the hackney. “After you.”
She scrambled up the iron step and in. Flopping herself onto the frayed seat, she pushed aside the debris of pamphlets left by the last person.
“Forty Rue Saint Martin!”Gérard called out before getting in and slamming the door behind his large frame.
She eyed him, realizing they were going back to her new flat. “My cousin is still back at—”
“He knows the city and will be more than fine.” As the hackney pulled away, Gérard yanked all the patched curtains shut over each side of the window, only allowing a sliver of light to come in from the lantern hanging on the side of the window. “Move over.”
“What are you—”
He wedged himself between her and the hackney wall of the window. His arm jumped around her. Leaning in, he stripped her mask and his, tossing them both onto the seat. Gripping her outer shoulder hard with one hand, he used his other hand to smooth her hair, his shadowed face hovering close. “Why did you do that?”
She swallowed and searched his face, those eyes barely visible in the shadows. The heat of his hands, his body and his mouth made it difficult for her to breathe. “He earned it.”
His gloved fingers dragged its way across her cheek and then her throat. “I am not arguing with you in that. I know he earned it.” He skimmed the tips of his fingers across the tops of her breasts. “What I am asking iswhyyou did it?”
Half-breaths escaped her. “I have a very strong sense of justice.”
He flicked her ear with a finger. “If you think I believe that,ma biche, you are delusional. Your sense of justice includes getting paid. And I did not pay you to do that.” He leaned in closer and used the tip of his tongue to trace her lips. “Tell me why you did it. Say it.”
She felt faint as she reveled in the feel of that hot tongue. She wasn’t ready to admit to him or herself that she wanted him outside of their alliance. She angled her mouth toward that tongue, drawing it into her mouth.
He broke away. “Why did you do it?” he pressed.
She slipped her arms around his broad shoulders and draped her legs over his. She sighed. “Because I feel like everyone around us is against us. Their ideals are not ours.”
He raked his fingers through her hair, tightening his hold on it. “Ours? Are you admitting we share in something more than attraction?”
This conversation was getting serious. “I suppose I am.”
He lingered. “Reach into the left side of my inner coat pocket.”
She paused and slipped her hand past the warmth of that solid chest she could barely see and slid her hand into the pocket.
His chest rose and fell unevenly against her, but he didn’t move.
Her fingers grazed what felt like bundled velvet. She grasped it and pulled out the heavy bundle. The sound of sifting pearls made her eyes widen.
“Anything you want, you get,” he said in a husky tone. “As promised.”
She clutched it to her chest in disbelief, knowing she was actually holding a set of pearls. Real pearls. Something her own mother could have never afforded. She searched his face. “Thank you. This is—” She pressed her lips to his mouth and lingered before saying against him, “I am a butcher girl no more. And I thank you for that.”
He edged away. Taking up her mask, he set it against her face, tying the lace ribbon back into place. “There is no shame in being a butcher girl, you know.”
She rolled her eyes. “There is if you are one. Chickens fear me. I always felt very conscious about that.”
He tsked and tied his own mask on and lingered. He nudged her. “Open it.”
She excitedly unraveled the strings holding the velvet fabric closed and pulled it apart. Pulling out the string of pearls by the tips of her fingers, she raised the entire length of her arm and hand toward the ceiling of the hackney. The string of glistening white pearls continued to unravel out of the small satchel well beyond what she could hold up. Her lips parted in disbelief as she wound the pearls around her hand several times in an attempt to get it all out. It kept rustling and rustling out like a never-ending parade.
The end finally swung out and swayed.
In awe, she draped the heavy pearls over her head, looping it several times around her throat, before letting the rest fall well past her waist. Holy God. She pressed a quaking hand against it, not even wanting to know how much it cost him. “Was it terribly expensive?”
He leaned over and yanked open each curtain to let in more light. “Yes. Terribly.”
She frantically grabbed his face and kissed him. Once. Twice. Thrice. “You are the most amazing man I have ever met! Thank you!”
A gruff laugh escaped him. “Wait until you see the diamonds. They are being cut for you as we speak.” He leaned in closer, until their noses and masks were touching. “I never had a woman defend my honor before.”
The hackney came to a halt, causing their heads to bump.
The driver called out, “Forty Rue Saint Martin!”
Gérard glanced toward the limestone building beyond the window. “How do you like your new living quarters? Is it acceptable?”
“I about fainted,” she gushed. “I have a bed the size of a field all to myself. I keep rolling and rolling and never seem to be able to fall off. ’Tis marvelous. And there is so much beautiful furniture all over the place, I keep trying to sit on everything just so I can say I used it.”
He smirked. “Good. If you need anything else, let Naudet know. In about another two weeks or so, you should be starting over atThéâtre Française.I am finalizing a few sizable payments to the owner.” He kissed her gloved hand. “I am afraid I must bid youadieu.”
Life was so unfair. She searched his masked face. “When will I see you again?”
“Not for some time.”
Her heart dropped. “Why not?”
“The less we associate, the less likely people will suspect anything.”
She softened her voice. “Is that the only reason?”
He touched her cheek, skimming his fingers toward her throat. “If we go any faster, we might ruin this.”
Leaning into that hand, she half-nodded. “Maybe you are right.”
“Forty Rue Saint Martin!”the driver called in agitation, his boot hitting his seat. “Ey! Out and out already! Is someone going to pay me double for waiting?”
Gérard rolled his eyes. “I swear this revolution is making people rude.” He rose and opened the door, jumping out. He extended a hand.
She stood and grabbed his hand, stepping out of the hackney. Her pearls rustled against her movements, reminding her that she was no longer a butcher girl from Giverny. She was an actress, spy extraordinaireandher lover was third cousin to the king.
Clutching the velvet satchel and her reticule, she reluctantly released that large, gloved hand. “Thank you for a lovely night. I really enjoyed dancing with you.”
He inclined his head. “I will wait until you find your way inside.”
She hesitated, knowing she had a whole flat to herself and no one in it. Maybe…? “Are you wanting to come upstairs?” she blurted, trying to be casual about it. “For tea or anything?”
Gérard set his shoulders, no longer meeting her gaze. “No. I have to go.”
She sensed that whatever was happening between them was overwhelming him. It was so darling. One would think they hadn’t even kissed. “I understand.” Digging out the key from her reticule, she turned and hurried to her door. She paused, biting back a smile knowing it washerdoor. Not her father’s or her mother’s or her ten brothers’. Hers.
Unlatching the door, she pushed its weight open, stuffing the key back into her reticule and stepped inside, glancing back at him one last time. “Good night.”
He inclined his head again. “You certainly made it such.”
She smiled and put up a gloved hand.
Turning, he paid the hackney with a few coins, then adjusted his evening coat around himself and strode off into the darkness of the night, his mask still in place.
She leaned out, watching that tall, muscled figure stride down the pavement.
He paused and glanced back. “What?”
She blew him an ardent kiss and used her sultriest voice. “I wish you could stay. I need someone to help me out of my corset, you know.”
He groaned and threw back his head. “None of that. I have to go. I have people waiting and things to do.” He hissed out a breath, swung around and stalked away, disappearing around a corner.
She dreamily set her head against the frame of the doorway, her pearls rustling. She eased out a breath, sensing this was only the beginning of far more than an alliance.
Three months later
Théâtre Française – evening
Thundering applause pulsed around her and mingled with the humming of voices drifting up to the rafters. It made Thérèse breathe in deep in an effort not to…vomit. She fought the rolling nausea that had gripped her all week. The scent of smoking candles that illuminated the expanse of the apron’s stage, along with so many countless perfumed bodies that clung to the stagnant air, made her want to wretch.
Despite that, she did her best to enjoy the moment knowing there was nothing quite like being adored for more than what God slapped on one’s face. Being able to prove her talent to all of Paris was more than she could have ever dreamed.
Her life had become amazing. Surreal. A dream.
Everything had bloomed into being perfect. Too perfect.
Thérèse scanned the clapping crowd who had risen to their feet in the large auditorium and continued to over-smile, regally sweeping her slim arms wide open to acknowledge that she was deeply touched by the unending applause that had lasted much longer than last night’s performance.
Only one thing was missing in the glory of that moment: Gérard.
Her chest tightened at the thought of him.
She hadn’t seen him since they parted three months earlier. It was wretched of him, regardless of whether the Republic or the world was watching. He could have attended a performance. While Naudet, damn him, had turned out to be a burly man with a squint who offered very few words that never went beyond, ‘He is doing rather well’ or ‘There is no other message’ or ‘I know not’ or ‘May God piss on that.’
It was anything but helpful.
Curtseying regally to the crowd one last time, she turned and gathering her lace gown and silk petticoats, she swept off stage. The smile she’d held for her audience faded. She set a trembling hand to her stomacher. Something was not right, but she wasn’t quite certain of it yet. Her menses was never regular and usually skipped two to four months at a time.
Which meant…she wouldn’t know for certain for another month.
It was unnerving. She wasn’t ready to have a baby. Not during a revolution.
“There she be, there she be!” Rémy strutted over to her like a rooster, his elbows out and dressed in his latest burgundy satin and velvet ensemble worth three hundredlivre.The manalwaystold everyone what his wardrobe cost given he was so proud of it. “By God, I do believe we made more today on the ticket sales than we have all week. It means I get to keep this here managing positionandthe clothing that goes with it.”
Despite the rolling nausea, she smiled. It was easy enough to do. Rémy always made her smile. He was always so cheerful and happy. And now more than ever. “I still cannot believe this is happening to us. Giverny is no doubt pissing itself right along with Mama and Papa.”
Rémy grinned, displaying crooked teeth that personified him and halted before her. “Iknewhaving you in Paris would change the city.” He nudged her. “How about you and I tell that incredible, overpaid chef of yours to make us some of that fancy food again? You know…with all those-those…meats and gravy? Are you up for a late supper?” He patted his large belly. “Collecting money gives a man a big appetite.”
She smirked and patted that oversized belly. “Then I say we feed that appetite so you can keep up with all the collecting. The moment you finish counting the rest of the money and organizing the bills, make your way over to my dressing room. I will ensure I stay late.”
He grabbed her face and rattled it. “A personal blessing is what you are. I knew it ever since you could toddle.” He jumped back and pointed at her in his usual half-squat position that showcased his excitement. “Try not to let your admirers keep you from our supper. I should be done no later than midnight.”
“Midnight it is.” She did a half-squat herself and pointed back. “I will see you and that big belly later.”
Rémy smacked his belly and bustled off with the shake of his coat tails, nodding enthusiastically in greeting to everyone he passed. “Best night yet, I say,” he yelled out. “I went ahead and left champagne in everyone’s basket!”
She tsked. Rémy had a tendency to spoil them and always used his own money to do it.
Jacques and Léon now hurried toward her, their eyes brightening in rehearsed unison. One held out a crystal glass of gingered tea and the other held up a silver tray, which usually sat in her dressing room.
“You were glorious,” Jacques announced with the pert wiggle of his powdered periwig. “That was the most incredible rendition ofNinaI have seen from you yet.”
“Quite so,” Léon chimed in. “The audience kept you on stage twice as long. By the end of this week, we may have to set out a chair for you andNinato sit on. I never laughed so hard.”
She bit back an exasperated smile, knowing full well these two ambitious blighters were being paid to make her feel glorious. Much like everyone else. “I thank you both foralwaysmaking me believe in my talent.”
Removing her satin gloves, she deposited them onto the tray Léon held, along with the lightweight paste jewelry that was part of her costume. She slid a powdered handkerchief from the tray and dabbed at her throat, face and neck, nudging up the heavy black periwig that weighed on her head.
Barely a month on stage atThéâtre Française,and she felt like it had been a year. So much joy, yes, but…so much work. Her makeup and wardrobe alone took three hours.
A breath escaped her as she set the handkerchief back onto the tray. “Thank you, Léon.”
Léon inclined his head and with the puff of his narrow chest, hurried away.
Turning to Jacques, Thérèse primly took her glass of gingered tea. Her chef had it made that very afternoon and had it delivered to the theatre just for her. She paused, realizing that she, Thérèse Angelique Clavette from Giverny, had a chef. And not just a chef, but also servants for each day of the week. Only they all stayed for the entire week, every single week.
Nausea aside, she was so in love with her new life she occasionally did a little wiggle.
When she wasn’t rehearsing or on stage, she went shopping almost every day, and half the time, usually ended up dragging random people off the street who appeared to be in need of good cheer. She very much enjoyed seeing the faces of young and old women with frayed bonnets getting boxes and boxes of new ones. She also enjoyed merrily pushing mothers into toy shops with their children who had all been lingering outside and announcing to them that whatever they wanted was theirs. She loved playing the part of a wealthy godmother to everyone.
She took a dainty swig, reveling in the spicy taste of her tea. She took another dainty swig. And another. She paused and slowly felt the nausea washing itself away. Thank God. “Jacques, you have outdone yourself. Thank you for fetching this. It seems to be the only thing helping given how bilious my stomach feels.”
Jacques paused. Clearing his throat, he leaned in and whispered from behind a gloved hand, “You did not hear it from me, but…all this drinking of gingered tea is creating quite a stir amongst the other actors given you usually drink red wine. They seem to think you are expecting the babe of one of your admirers. Are you?”
She cringed. So much for the actress knowing how to act whilst pregnant. Fortunately, Jacques and his brother Léon were two of the few people she did trust amongst the gossip-hungry trenches of the theatre.
Taking a dainty swig of her tea, she leaned in. “Unfortunately, I cannot refute it quite yet.”
Those dark eyes searched her face and grew serious. “I will take a damn carriage wheel to his head for— The man should have taken precautions.”
“Yes, well, I should have, too.” She shouldn’t have taken on Gérard knowing he was drunk.
Jacques squinted. “Who is this bastard? I will ensure he never walks straight again. Do I know him? Is he from the theatre? Or an admirer?”
Nowthatshe sure as heaven was not saying. Not even to Jacques. Disapproval from the world aside, half-aristo babies were anything but welcome in this new society. “I have no idea who the father is,” she tossed, playing her flippant, usual self. Better to be seen as a whore in complete control of the world than to be seen as virgin who had no control at all. “There have been so many. So, so many. I am downright exhausting myself merely thinking about it.”
Jacques drew his lips in, taking on the very visible age of what he was: seventeen. “Why do you never give me a chance? I adore you. What will it take for us to—”
“You and I have had this discussion before. I like you too much for that.”
He gave her a withering look. “Then I suggest you start hating me.”
She let out a pert laugh, tapping his arm. “Cease. The last thing you need in your life is an actress who has no time for you. I would neglect you.”
A look of anguish overtook his boyish features. “Am I really that unattractive?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why do women avoid me? Not even the ones here at the theatre scrubbing floors want to look my way. For some reason you women only ever prefer the broody, moody, muscular types. Why?”
A laugh escaped her. “The moody, broody, muscular types attract most women, yes, but they cause far too many problems. Believe me. Never change anything about yourself. Gallantry, my dear friend, is always rewarded, and the moody, broody types only appeal to certain girls. Not all of them. That leaves you a sizable selection of women to choose from. You simply have to wait for the right girl.”
He puffed out a breath, grudgingly looking off to the side. “What is the point? No girl is even willing to kiss me.”
Men were so grouchy when it came to women. She sighed, leaned in and gently kissed his smoothly shaven cheek. “There. Now you can you say you are no longer a virgin. Go tell the boys.”
His lips parted. He gaped. “You kissed me.”
She patted his shoulder, still smirking. “I told you gallantry is rewarded. But that is where this ends. You and I are friends, and I will not repeat that. Now cease gaping and go. Go, go, go. I will see to it my cousin issues you and Léon an additional fivelivresa week. Given every seat has been accounted for every night sinceNinatook to the stage, you both earned it with all the hours you put in.”
Jacques’s brows went up. “Five morelivresa week? Are youcertainyou are not madly in love with me? Maybe we could attend a musical together? Or…visit your flat?”
She rolled her eyes. “Cease being a flirt and remember to be outside my dressing room in twenty-five minutes to help me with the crowds. I have countless letters to write and plan to have supper with Rémy later tonight. The only person you may allow entrance isCitoyende Sade. Everyone else, give them my apologies and turn them away.”
Jacques hesitated. “Did you not seeCitoyende Sade yesterday?”
“Yes. But he forgot his gloves.”
“No doubt strategic.”
“Everything you men do around women is strategic.”
“Then why entertain the bastard? Why—”
“Because he is part of theconvention nationaleand given the way some of these theatres are being shut down for content by the Republic, I cannot afford to agitate the wrong men and put us all out of business.” She sighed and rubbed his shoulder. “I thank you for the tea. Now, go. I will speak to Rémy later tonight about you and your brother getting an additional fivelivresstarting next week. Agreed?”
He hesitated, then grabbed her face with both hands and startled her with a sound kiss to her lips. “You, madame, are the reason why I breathe. Never forget it.” He released her and lowered his voice. “Friends can turn into lovers, you know. It will happen.” He slowly grinned and waggled his brows. “We already kissed twice.” Still smugly grinning, he trotted backward, then turned and with the click of boots into the air, scurried off.
She tsked and called after him, “Do not make me hire a new apprentice!”
He turned and amorously set a hand to his heart. “One day,ma poupée, you and I will make passionate love under the stage lights for the world to see. One day!” He thudded his chest with an assured fist and darted off.
Gah, gah, gah. Even the ones she trusted turned against her and only ever wanted sex.
Taking another sip of tea, she sighed and sashayed toward her dressing room, which she knew she had better get to before the crowds descended in the next twenty minutes. Making her way through the bustle of actors in costumes, angling left and right, she turned into a private, narrow corridor leading to her dressing room.
The long private corridor, which was usually well lit with more than sixteen candles, was barely lit with a single one by the door, blackening everything except for a sliver of the door itself. She couldn’t see anything before or after it.
Something was not right. Jacques always ensured the candles were lit.
Not trusting it, she quickly set her glass down outside the corridor and hitched up her skirt, tugging out the small blade she always carried with her. Her admirers had a tendency to be a bit more amorous than she liked.
Angling the blade out, she cautiously made her way into the darkness toward the door.
Someone was hiding in the darkness. She could feel their presence.
Coming to a halt before the closed door that bore the gilded letters ofMADAME DE MAITENON, she touched a hand to her stage name and called out in firm tone, “I have a blade. Leave, or by God, I will use it.”
The shadow of a tall, male figure pushed away from the nearest wall, startling her.
Tightening her hold on the blade, she scrambled back, her heart pounding. “Do notdarecome any closer or everything below your waist will get sliced into too many pieces for you to pick up!”
A gruff laugh reverberated in the narrow corridor. “Still the butcher’s daughter, I see,” a deep male voice rumbled out, stepping toward her from the shadows. “Despite all the finery, you are still the same girl I met in the forest.”
She gasped and almost dropped the blade. She dragged in a disbelieving breath, her gaze veering up past an expensive ensemble of smoke grey and dark blue even the shadows could not hide.
Steel blue eyes and a rugged good-looking face with a square jaw she knew all too well made her almost drop the blade again. “Gérard,” she breathed.
He eyed her. “I am pleased to know you still remember my name. Now put the blade away. God forbid you try to hug me.”
A startled laugh escaped her. She frantically hitched up her skirt and scrambled to slide it back into the leather belt and sheath attached to her thigh. She peered up at him in between attaching it. “My. You look divine.” She skimmed his outfit that showcased those broad, muscled shoulders and wide chest. “Bravo for finally wearing something worthy of you.”
He shifted his jaw and held her gaze for a long moment in the sliver of light from the lone candle. “Is that all you have to say after three months?”
She puffed out an exasperated breath, letting her skirts drop and glanced down the empty, shadow-infested corridor. She knew it wouldn’t remain empty long. They barely had twenty minutes.
Opening the door, she peered into the well-lit room of pale blue velvet, to ensure it was empty, then grabbed that muscled arm and shoved him into the room, slamming the door behind them. She latched the door, then turned and fell against it in an effort to keep her heart from popping out of her chest.
Calm. She had to remain calm. He didn’t need to know she wanted to grab him and kiss him and molest him beyond measure for turning her life into a fairy-tale.
Potential pregnancy aside.
He adjusted the red ribbon in his dark hair, indicating she had overly mussed his appearance, and turned toward her, widening his stance with each boot. “Next time, ask me to come in. Because my queue barely survived that, and I have places to be and countless women to see.”
Well, well. Someone wanted to look good and brag about his life.
Annoyingly, she felt a large pinch of jealousy. Was he really entertaining other women? And why did it bother her? It wasn’t as if they were married, but the last time they had seen each other had given her hope for…more.
She stared him down, scraping her nails down the wooden surface of the door she leaned against. “It certainly took you long enough to make time for me. I wore several white ribbons in my hair over these past few weeks and yet you never once bothered to see me. You keep sending over Naudet who rarely speaks enough to make up for the disappointment.”
Gérard searched her face and offered in a cool tone, “I am a very busy man and have little time for socializing with overambitious actresses.”
She blinked, sensing he was anything but pleased. “Overambitious? What is this? Have I not been producing enough leads?”
“Quite the contrary. You have been keeping me busy and are performing well beyond my expectations. We have already used most of your leads to prevent thirteen arrests.”
She lowered her chin. “Then what is it? Why are you upset?”
“Do you really expect me to say it?” Gérard scanned the dressing room surrounding them, momentarily pausing on an array of her satin corsets piled on a red velvet chaise lounge. A large pair of male leather gloves were still draped over one of the corsets. A muscle flicked in his square jaw. “I did not realize your hands had grown so large.”
Heat flooded her cheeks, knowing full well what he was thinking. “They were left there last night. They belong toCitoyende Sade.” She lowered her voice. “He visited me yesterday after the performance and will be coming back to fetch them shortly. I am still getting to know him, but he is about to become a member of the Piques section that is part of the committee of the Convention. Unlike the rest of these men coming to my door, his elbow is about to rest on the very same bench with that ofCitoyenRobespierre. This man will have the ability to give us the sort of information you seek pertaining toSa Majesté.”
Setting both gloved hands behind his back and locking it in place, Gérard stared her down. “I already know about Sade.”
“Yes. Naudet told me this morning.”
“Impossible. I only met Sade last night and never told Naudet. In fact, I have not seen Naudet in almost a week.”
“Do not seem overly surprised. I pay him several hundred a week to watch over you given you do not appear to watch over yourself. And just because you do not see him,or me, does not mean either of us are not watching. We are. Believe me, we are.”
This man was certainly miffed about something. She lifted a brow. “I appreciate your concern but ask that you deliver it with less…bite. I hardly deserve it. I am working my wig off here.”
“Yes, I know. I can assure you, I appreciate that.”
Sensing he was still agitated, she pressed, “Then what is it?”
He was quiet for a moment. “I came to…” He shoved his hands into his coat pockets. “I am waiting for you to say it.”
She blinked. “Waiting for me to say what?”
Gérard crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes roaming over her gown and towering wig. “For one, you look nothing like yourself.”
Was this about her appearance? “Are you daft? I am in costume and have more powder on my face than there ever was in the jar. I amrequiredto look like this. Have you not been to any of the performances?”
“All of them. And you, madame, are an inspiration to watch.” His nostrils flared. “But that is not what I meant or why I came to talk.”
“Well then say it. Before your nose falls off from all that heavy breathing.”
He drew in a ragged breath. “You appear to have gained some weight.”
She gasped, knowing full well shehadgained half a stone. Her new chef was making incredible food neither she or Rémy could resist. There was also the possibility she was pregnant. Neither of which she appreciated.
She glared. “So you came here to insult me?”
“No. You misunderstand.” He continued to stare her down. “I am merely disappointed that you would not have tried to confide in me given all of the concoctions you have been drinking on the hour. ’Tis obvious you know something you have not deigned to pass on to Naudet. Because nothing you do ever goes on without my knowing it.Nothing. Let me be clear in that. When you breathe, I hear it from a mile. Now out with it. Are you pregnant or not?”
Ohhhh. Now she knew why he was here being all grouchy-grouchy. He was obviously stressed about it. Which made two of them.
She puffed out a breath in exasperation. “Whilst I have been battling a bit of nausea, it could be nerves. I am rather hoping it is. I am, after all, still getting used to stage life and its harried nature and therefore cannot be certain. I most likely will not know for another month or so.”
His brows came together as he edged closer. “How the hell can you not be certain? It has been three months.Three. Did your mother not educate you about your menses?”
Barely five minutes in his presence and she wanted to smack him. “My menses is irregular. Sometimes it arrives in two months and sometimes it arrives in four. Which means, in another month, I most certainlywillknow. But not sooner. So do calm yourself and be thankful you are a man. Because my menses appears to be about as irrational as you.”
He swiped his face. “Christ, this is— I have to wait another month? And then I have to waitanotherfive months after that for the babe to come?”
She paused. One would think he wanted to be a father. It was…unexpected. But then again, he had three months to think about it. She had rather come to accept it herself.
Still leaning against the door, she apprehensively dragged her velvet covered slipper across the floor, toward herself. “Are you actually hoping I am pregnant? Is that what you are announcing?”
He dropped his hand to his side but didn’t meet her gaze. “I have certainly prepared myself for the possibility.”
Her smile broadened. “Are you saying you missed me,Monsieur Aristocrate?”
He snapped his gaze to hers and glared, his chest now rising and falling more heavily. “Hardly. You,Madame de Maitenon, are having quite the adventure at my expense. And the best part? I am paying for it through the nostrils and the mouth.Especiallygiven what people are saying about you. Whilst I normally do not listen to rumor, it is a touch difficult to ignore thevastamount of men across all of Paris who continue to boast that you have entertained each and every one of them in a carriage, in a bed, against a wall and in every park there is. Look at me and assure me they are all lying.”
A bubble of a laugh escaped her given how serious he was. “You and these men are delusional. I ask of you, if I werethatmuch of a whore, how would I ever find the time to go on stage?”
He still glared. “I can easily ignore what these men are saying given I wish to respect you, but what Icannotandwill notignore is what I saw with my own eyes barely a few moments earlier. Watching you serenade your rosy-cheeked Jacques whom you were whispering to so adoringly and kissing on the cheek and lips, mind you, certainly tells me these men are conveying half-truths. You are letting these men touch you. Admit it.”
She glared. “What is this? We are not married or engaged. So I suggest you stop heaving about it.”
He narrowed his gaze. “I made you. I made you into the success you are now vastly enjoying at my expense. Which meansyouand that body aremine. Regardless of a piece of paper.”
Och. Male jealousy was such a vile, vile little creature. It scratched and bit and made even the most gallant of men turn into the animals they really were. A part of her wanted to return the favor by becoming an animal herself and scratching his eyes out. But given she no longer chewed on her nails because she only ever heard his deep voice of ‘Are you a lady or a goat?’ she decided to be a lady. Not a goat.
She stayed pasted to the door lest she stray from being said goat. “Sometimes, Gérard, we see what we want to see as opposed to what actually is. Jacques is my friend. Nothing more.”
“I see. So you let your male friends grab your face and kiss you on the mouth like that? Hm?”
“The boy was overly excited. He—”
“Oh, I bet he was. He was practically scratching his trousers off. I heard him.” He wiggled his head and pitched his voice higher to mock Jacques. “‘One day, ma poupée, you and I will make passionate love under the stage lights for the world to see.’”
A giggle escaped Thérèse. “That was actually quite good. You ought to take to the stage with me.”
“Why are you not taking me seriously?”
She sighed. “Oh, come now. Are you actually jealous of someone who barely started shaving? The boy is seventeen. Hardly an age I would ever be interested in.”
“You seem to forget you are eighteen.”
“Not true. I am nineteen as of four days ago. I simply did not care to openly celebrate it. There was no time.”
He paused. “You are now nineteen?”
“Yes. I am.”
Averting his gaze, he sighed. “I will send you something. Do you want more jewelry?”
She rolled her eyes. “How about none of this vile jealousy?”
He angled toward her. “Maybe I am a bit confused. Naudet tells me you two giggle and hook arms with each other all the time.”
“I giggle and hook arms with all the actors and people here at the theatre. Does that also make me a lover of women, too? Because I love hooking my arms and giggling with women, as well.”
He pulled in his chin. “Are you saying you wish to engage other women?”
This man was exhausting her. “No! No, I— Will you cease? Let us not add women to the list or we will be here all night. The only reason I kissed Jacques on the cheek is because none of the other girls like him. Not that you would understand,Monsieur Aristocrate, given your good looks and all your money.”
He said nothing.
She sighed, trying to understand what was going on in his head. No doubt thoughts of his Madame Poulin who betrayed him. “If you must know, Gérard, I think about you all the time. How can I not? You have changed my entire life in the most glorious of ways. Look at me.” She pushed away from the door, regally twirling her satin and lace gown. She gestured toward the dressing room around them. “Everything I could have ever wanted, I now have. And none of this would have been possible if you had not made it possible.”
He adjusted his coat over his large frame, but his features remained stubbornly aloof. “You have everything but me, Madame. And if you do not care to prove your affection for me in the manner I deserve, you will never have me.”
It was obvious he still wanted her. And annoyingly, she wanted him, too. “Gérard, if you are interested in getting involved with me, I already laid out the rules. Rules you were not willing to follow. Setting aside the fact that I do like you very much, this level of jealousy is unacceptable. For even if we were involved again, I am only doing what is expected of me. I am associating with a long list of men you asked me to. I am also an actress. I am expected to socialize and most of my admirers are men.”
He didn’t meet her gaze. “Are you interested in anyone outside of me? Be honest.”
It was obvious he needed assurance. She softened her voice. “No. There is no one. I am not Madame Poulin. I have a bit more in my head and in my heart. As I said before, you have no right to be angry. Especially given what you did to me. You broke my trust barely a day into making it.”
He winced. “I know and I have been living with it for three months.Three. Try to understand, Thérèse, that I—” His gaze held hers. Striding toward her, he used his large frame to edge her back against the door. “Maybe I am trying not to hope for more. Maybe, just maybe, I want you so damn much, I am trying so damn hard not to let on that I want you at all. Because as you well know, my affection has been played with before. And given the game we are playing, I am having trouble deciphering between what is real and what is not.”
Her heart skidded. He really did want her in the same way she wanted him. Even after three months of being left to think about it. “I would never play with your affection. That is not who I am. What we shared in the forest was…”
He quickly veered in close. “Was what?”
Her backside hit the door, her heart pounding. The scent of his expensive cologne, though spiced and alluring as it had once been, made her throat tighten. Her stomach churned with renewed nausea.
Oh, no. She swallowed against the excessive watering in her mouth. “Gérard, I…feel ill. I…”
He set his hands on each side of her, above her head and held her gaze, his chest rising and falling. His tone and his features softened. “What is it? More nausea?”
A shaky breath escaped her as she glanced up. She half-nodded. “Your cologne. I…”
He searched her face, his brows flickering. “My cologne? What about it?”
She gagged and projected all of the contents of her stomach, including the pea soup she had earlier eaten, all over the front of his clothing. Trying to keep the rest from rolling out, she choked. Her heavy periwig tipped toward him, all the pins holding it up falling one by one.
His eyes widened, his expensive ensemble covered in vomit as he grabbed at her black wig. Lifting it up and off her head, he frantically tossed it aside and far from them.
She gasped, trying not to move or use the sleeve of her gown to touch her wet mouth. “Oh my…dieu. I…I am ever so sorry.” Her face burned knowing she had retched all over the one and only man she ever wanted to impress. She had never been more humiliated in her entire life. Chewing on one’s nails was one thing, butthis?
“Never mind me,” he rasped. Jumping toward the side, he grabbed a vase of flowers from the nearest table and flung its contents onto the floor, sending water spraying everywhere. He jumped back and held it out toward her. “Here. Aim.”
She gargled out an exasperated laugh, setting her mouth close to the opening of the vase. “Such…gallantry. I adore you for that alone. I—” She felt her chest tighten and her mouth water again. She heaved and sputtered out whatever tea and food was left over, filling the vase with a splatter.
Gérard winced and leaned slightly back, while still holding the vase in place.
She closed her eyes, letting the nausea fade and lifted her head from the opening of the vase. No longer caring, she used the entire white sleeve of her costume to wipe her mouth clean. She staggered over to the chaise lounge and flopped herself onto it. “It appears I am pregnant.”
He glanced down at the vase and cringed.
A knock came to the door making her pop her head back up.
Countless male voices and yelling now filled the corridor outside.
“Madame?” Jacques called out. “Citoyende Sade wishes to see you.”
She groaned, wanting to hit her head against something hard. The night was almost over. That was all that mattered. “Merci, Jacques! I need a few minutes. I am not quite ready!” She sat up and pointed Gérard toward her dressing screen, mouthing, “Hide yourself behind it!”
Gérard bared his teeth in exasperation and skidded to a side table, setting the vase on it. He scrambled to the other side of the room, frantically removing his coat, gloves and waistcoat that were splattered with vomit and slid behind her dressing screen.
Staggering back up to her slippered heels, she undid the row of hooks on the front of her costume which was spattered. She yanked down the sleeves and pushed everything down and past her corset and waist. Stepping out of it, she gathered the gown and hurried it over to the basket the maid always collected at the end of the night.
Within moments, she unraveled her blonde hair from its bundled state, letting it cascade down her shoulders and waist and scrubbed her face clean of all the powder and rouge that covered her face, using the basin of water and soap. She kept scrubbing and scrubbing until her face felt raw. Finally dabbing her face clean, she glanced at herself in the mirror and was surprised to find she looked relatively decent for the amount she had spewed.
There was another knock to the door through all the noise. “Madame?” Jacques called out. “The crowd is pushing atCitoyende Sade a bit more than this man needs!”
“Yes, yes! Do allow me another moment!” Grabbing the chalk, she brushed her teeth with it and spit several times into a tin cup. Yanking on her dressing robe, she tied it into place and then paused, realizing the room smelled like vomit. And there was no window to even open. Ack! She swiped up her perfume bottle and bustled around the room spraying everything, including the vase itself and behind the dressing screen where Gérard was.
He gagged and coughed.
She winced and obnoxiously coughed in an effort to cover his male sounding one. Leaning over the side of the dressing screen, she tapped her lips and whispered, “Stay quiet.” She held out the perfume bottle for him to take.
He gave her a withering look but grudgingly took it.
She tweaked her nose at him in vast appreciation and then bustled over to the door. Regally setting her chin, she swept the door open, ready to entertain.
The corridor was now well-lit and over-crowded with men who pushed forward to see her.
“Madame de Maitenon!” a young man hollered, wagging his calling card. “I beg of you to honor me! I have attended every single one of your performances. Every one!”
Several others attempted to shove past with their calling cards and flowers.
Jacques and Léon scrambled to keep everyone back using stage swords “Step away! Step away lest we use force, gentlemen! There will be no more callers tonight! Only this one!”
An older gentleman, a touch over fifty with sharp, regal features and piercing dark eyes that were all the more pronounced against the snowy white of his powdered periwig set with side curls, swept off his black, tall crowned hat.
He grinned and set the hat against his chest. “CitoyenDonatien Alphonse François de Sade…yet again,” he said in a deep silken tone above the shouts. “I left my gloves in your dressing room last night. Might I fetch them?”
She stepped aside. “Mais oui. Do come in.”
“Merci.” He strode past with long legs encased in faded gold knee breeches and dulling white stockings. Halfway into the room, he called, “Might you close the door, Madame? All the noise is agitating me.”
Amen. She closed the door and turned back toward him, arranging her robe about her feet. “I have only a few moments, for which I apologize. I have countless letters to write and over thirty-two invitations to respond to.”
“I will do my best to keep this business brief.”Citoyende Sade leaned toward his gloves set on her corset and swiped them up. He tucked them into his coat pocket and casually seated himself on the red velvet chaise lounge. He crossed a leg over his other knee, the brass buckle on his scuffed black slipper gleaming in the candlelight from the quick movement.
So much for keeping his business brief. She sighed.
His dark eyes critically scanned the entire room twice before finally settling on her. He tilted his head. “I do not particularly care for blonde women, but your spirit reminds me of a character I have in mind for a book I am writing.” He twirled his hat, eyeing her. “I hear incredibly scandalous things about you, madame. Are they true?”
“When one is as popular as I,citoyen,” she countered, “men begin to make up stories that allow them to feel important when I turn them away. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes. It does.” The older gentleman set his felt hat beside him. Opening his coat, he removed a calling card from its inner pocket and held it out between gloved fingers. He continued to hold the card out.
Knowing full well he expected her to cross the room for it, she sighed and did exactly that. Pausing before him, she reached out to take it.
He jerked it back.
She straightened and gave him a pointed look.
He tapped the edge of the card against his lips. “Sit beside me, Madame. You and I have a few things to discuss.”
Why were men so predictable? She turned and seated herself beside him, ensuring there was an arm’s length between them. She set her hands on her thighs, just above where her blade was hidden beneath her robe and undergarments.
Sade kept tapping the card against his bottom lip, inspecting her. “The stench of vomit you so cleverly hoped to erase with your perfume still clings to the air. Are you not well?”
She inwardly cringed. Someone was overly observant. “I am much better, thank you. The meal I ate earlier tonight before going on stage did not sit well with me. Too much…pea soup.”
“You poor creature. Pea soup ought to be banned.” He turned his wrist toward her, presenting his card. “I am here to inform theduc’s dashing blue-eyed heir who is ‘hiding’ behind the screen that I am on to you both and have been for about a week. I simply was not expecting your ‘benefactor’ to appear on the same night I planned to talk to you about it.”
Her eyes widened. He knew!
Sade glanced toward the screen and lifted a grey brow. “I suggest you come out.”
Gérard swept aside the screen, sending it clattering to the floor. He stared the man down from where he stood, perfume bottle still in hand. He widened his stance. “To what do I owe this honor,Citoyen?”
“The honor, I assure you, is all mine. The perfume bottle says it all.” Sade smirked and wagged the card at Thérèse, signaling impatiently she had best take the card.
She groaned and tugged it from his fingers.
Sade continued to intently observe Gérard. “You may find this difficult to believe, but I admire what you are attempting to do. As such, if you help me,mon grande, I will help you. Why? Because I do not particularly care for the direction this new government is taking. Mass death is but the beginning of what these mouth-breathers have planned. Not a single church or even the wordGodwill be allowed to stand by the time they are done. For God no longer exists in their eyes. God, after all, is the reason they all suffer. And whilst I myself am well known for being incredibly partial to allowing for freedoms most deem too demented to be allowed, the moment we allocate death to even God, it meansnothingremains. Not even the glory of pain. Which…pardon the expression…painsme.”
Rising from the chaise, he angled his hat onto his frayed wigged head and announced in a low, low tone that dripped with malevolence, “I am and will always be at heart an aristocrat despite my having denounced my name and title of Marquis. The only reason any of these men trust me is because I have spent half my life in prison underletters de cachet, which as you know, is the royal decree of imprisoning a man without trial. Hardly fair. To them, I am a glorified martyr of theancien régimeand have set a good example of rising against its overall conventions. And whilst, yes, I am endlessly touched by their new endearing trust in me—” his tone turned lethal, “—I fucking despise every last one of them so much I would gladly rape and whip their women to death and do it all over again.”
Thérèse swallowed and edged back against the chaise, sensing he meant it.
Sade eyed them both, his dark, playful eyes penetrating the space. “Allow me to get to the point of this visit. I will give you both whatever information you want, when you want it and how you want it. In return you will both help me write a book. Because I am struggling with trying to give it meaning. It lacks a certain…substance.”
Thérèse lowered her chin. Was he serious? “Are you referring to an actual book?”
Sade’s full lips curved. “But, of course,my puce. I am first and foremost a writer. The more I observe, the more I am able to write. How do you think I survived prison?”
Gérard narrowed his gaze. “You are about to be elected into the same committee and section as Robespierre. How am I to trust you?”
Sade rolled his eyes. “Do toss aside being coy, my dear boy. Trust has nothing to do with this. Ask yourselfwhyI did not already report you and your actress given you and she are busy shuffling people out of the country like coyotes herding sheep.”
Gérard stared. “How the hell do you know? I have been impeccably—”
“Careful. Yes, I am well aware of that. But you and I share a mutual friend: Naudet.” He tapped his lips with a forefinger. “Did you know that gruff, burly, quiet and dependable man of yourslovesbeing sodomized and whipped so damn much, and so damn hard, he tells me everything? And I do mean…everything.”
Thérèse cringed and lifted a hand to the side of her face so she wouldn’t have to look at Gérard. It wasalwaysthe quiet ones.
Gérard hissed out a long breath. “So you and Naudet are—”
“Involved. Yes. Naudet is my whipping whore. Marvelous man. His oversized back can take a four-inch whip with nails embedded into it without even flinching. And he comes to me each and every week because I know how to make him flinch. I ask you not blame the oaf for what I know. Pleasure and pain have a tendency to tap into the brain a bit too much. I was asking him questions about his life during a session and it simply rolled out.”
Gérard threw back his head and groaned.
With the self-satisfied smack of lips, Sade rounded them. “Given there is a clear issue of distrust between us, which I completely understand, allow me to toss a branch of my genuine offer of reliance by sharing a sliver of what I know and what I can share.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “This has yet to be announced to the public, but the upcoming trial ofSa Majestéhas been set and will take place this December third. A full thirty-three charges will be set against him.”
Startled, Thérèse met Gérard’s gaze.
Gérard quickly stalked toward the man. “Thirty-three charges? How can there even be that many?! Christ, he— Are they mad?”
Sade inclined his head. “Oh, yes. They are, in fact, loons. Every last one of them. Why do you think they are about to put me on the committee?” He let out a self-pleasured, over-enthused laugh, rolling both hands as if listening to applause. “Of course,CitoyenRobespierre, bless his missing heart, is what I call the ultimate loon of a lawyer in the guise of death itself. Given all of the charges set againstSa Majestéit most certainly will result in deportation or death, and I know deportation is not an option. That would be too risky for the stability of our new government and allow uprisings this country does not need. Which means…most votes will go toward overseeingSa Majesté’shead in a basket; so, whilst it is endearing for you to think you can save him, more than a few royalists have already tried, and they are alldead, dead, dead.
“You would need an army of about two hundred. Because forty guards are outside the king’s doors and a hundred more are inside overseeing several iron doors. They have orders to butcher anyone who even walks down the corridor leading toward any of those doors. Which means…Sa Majestéwill stand trial and die.”
Gérard closed his eyes and staggered.
Disbelief punched Thérèse. Oh, God. He was barely standing.
Scrambling to her feet, she hurried over to him and grabbed him, wrapping her arms around his waist in an attempt to keep him from falling. Tears stung her eyes knowing his godfather was the one person he wanted to save out of all of this. It was the sole reason why they had created their alliance.
Citoyende Sade heaved out a soft breath. “You have my condolences.” Setting his shoulders, he rounded the room, glancing at everything as he walked. He strode over to the vase, paused, peered into it and wrinkled his sharp nose. “Life is anything but pretty. It reeks.”
She smoothed her trembling hands across Gérard’s linen shirt. “I am so sorry,” she choked out. “I know what he means to you.”
Gérard set her head against his chest and mashed her cheek against his broad chest. “The Assembly will not even let me see him. I tried.” His voice was half-smothered. “I failed him. I…”
She tightened her hold, knowing this strong man was breaking. “There must be a way for you to see him,” she gently offered. “If only once.”
Rounding them, Sade peered in. “Unfortunately no, madame. Too many attempts to rescue him have banned his right to visitors. However, hewouldbe permitted a one-sentence missive. It would be reviewed by five men before being delivered into the king’s hands. As long as the missive passes the approval of public safety and is free of any mischief, it would be delivered directly to the king. But that would only be allowed prior to the trial. Not during or after. So I suggest you do it soon. It would have to be written in the next week.”
Gérard released Thérèse and scrubbed his face in a clear effort to rid himself of any emotion. He dropped his hands, revealing an anguished, tear-streaked face. He sniffed hard, turned away and half-nodded. “Better a one-sentence farewell than nothing at all.”
“I will ensure it gets the extra nudge it needs.” Sade inclined his wigged head. “Whilst I cannot assist in saving your godfather or his family, I can continue to share whatever information you require. Though I honestly cannot say for how much longer. There are several ongoing debates in the chamber right now about Robespierre, Danton and seven others forming a committee for public safety.”
Sade turned toward them. “Which meansno onein this country will be safe. Not even me. So I suggest we make use of each other whilst we still can. For whilst you, Madame de Maitenon, are not in any danger given your newfound popularity with the Republic and on stage, I am afraid your uh…son ofducwill eventually find his way to the guillotine given his father is so closely related toSa Majesté. All but three days ago, Robespierre announced plans to take theduc’smoney, his lands, and apply all funds into the new government. And in order to do that, he will have to make an example of theducby creating a long list of charges. They have yet to decide what those charges will be, but rest assured, these greedy littlechévresalways come up with something. Your father’s neck and your neck will be theirs. Count on it.”
Overwhelmed and half-panicked, Thérèse grabbed Gérard’s arm.
He dragged in uneven breaths. “I knew things were getting worse. I have seen the changes on the streets. My father and I recently dismissed our servants in an effort to keep them from harm.” He hesitated. “How much time do I have before the charges are set? Do you know?”
Sade tsked, wagging a large forefinger. “I do believe I have already supplied you far more than you have supplied me. Are you ready to negotiate?”
Dread seized Thérèse sensing whatever this Sade wanted would not be good.
Gérard squeezed her hand and released her, fully turning to Sade. “What do you want?”
Those dark eyes brightened.Citoyende Sade smoothed his lace cravat twice. “Not very much. A mere bit of inspiration. A one-time affair. Hardly anything.”
Gérard narrowed his gaze. “What do you want? Say it.”
Sade grinned, his gaze skimming Gérard from queue to boot. “I was hoping to get a private showing of you and your actress…oh…how shall I say this politely?Fucking.I need a few sketches for my upcoming book, and I rather envision the both of you in it. Publication is set for this June.”
Gérard stared at the man. “Allow me to respond to your offer,citoyen.” Leaning toward her, Gérard drawled, “Pardon me,ma biche. You may want to close your eyes.”
Gérard swept out a dagger attached to the inner leather belt of his waist hidden beneath his coat. Stalking over to Sade, he angled the large blade out. Jumping forward, he grabbed the man by the throat hard and whipped him toward the nearest wall, causing the entire room to shake as Sade’s hat and periwig tumbled off to the side.
Citoyende Sade burst into maniacal laughter despite the blade now resting dangerously against his throat. He gleefully tapped at the edge of the blade with a gloved hand. “Oh, yes, yes, yes. Do go and slit my throat in a theatre, no less. Howwhimsical! I can see all of the pamphleteers yelling it already, ‘Marquis de Sade murdered for nothing!’”
Sade’s aged, sharp features almost twitched from continued amusement. Leaning far forward against the blade, he drawled, “Are you reallythatopposed to giving an artist something to write about? You mean to say you prefer death itself over supporting the arts? How demented are you?”
Gérard’s hand visibly trembled as the dagger almost scraped that face.
Swallowing hard, Thérèse knew full well Gérard was thinking about doing it. And although a part of her wanted him to, she knew if it happened here in her dressing room, the entire committee would ensure theybothdie.
Pulse roaring, she scrambled toward Gérard and grabbed at his trembling wrist hard. “Gérard,” she choked out. “You cannot do it.You cannot!”
Sade further extended his throat.
Gérard released Sade with a shove. “’Tis obvious your mother sucked animal cock for money, you—” Gritting his teeth, Gérard whipped the blade aside, sending it clattering against the farthest corner of the room. He slammed a full fist into the man’s gut, causing Sade to gasp and fall into the wall.
Thérèse winced and genuinely hoped it hurt.
An exasperated grin overtook Sade’s flickering features as he casually staggered up. He pointed at Gérard. “You, my fellow aristo friend, define a true hero. So angry and obscene toward the wicked. But will it save you from the guillotine that now sits in the square? I dare say no. You need me in order to survive. And all you have to do is help me write a book.”
She edged back, unable to decide if this man was deranged or wanted to be deranged.
“I need these sketches,” Sade grouched. “You two are the epitome of what I see in my head. I promise it will be genuinely worthy of your approval.”
Gérard swung away, raking his hand several times through his hair, while adjusting his queue. He stalked across the room. “This is— No. Absolutely not.Especiallyif she is with child. Are you— no.”
Citoyen de Sade let out a breathy, half-disappointed sigh. Swiping up his periwig and hat, he set each on his head and wiggled it back into place. “I wish to assure you our session would have been done tastefully. I usually sit behind a viewing screen. It allows for more natural interactions. Whenever I sketch, you see, I cannot play. I think I am being perfectly reasonable and would only requireonesession. If you give me what I want, I will give you the secrets of the committee. Or...I can take your scheming to the committee. You decide.”
Maybe she was used to men being mad or maybe the idea of death just didn’t appeal to her. Either way, knowing that Sade was not going to be joining in on any of it and would be hidden behind a screen, sketching, made it more—
How difficult could it be? Sex was sex. She cleared her throat. “Gérard, dear?”
Gérard turned toward her, his gaze capturing hers.
She gave him a prim and pointed look. “All that matters is that we would have an ally on the committee. I can easily survive one session. And if I can, I know you can.”
His shaven face flushed. “Setting aside that I do not want this maggot seeing us together in that way, I amnottaking a whip to you. Do you think so little of me, Thérèse, that you would allow for any of this?”
She edged back. Apparently, she was far more sexually liberated than he was.
Citoyende Sade cleared his throat. “I have no trouble counter-offering. All you had to do was ask. Given her pregnancy, which a vase full of pea soup has more than verified, I will grant leniency. I rather like the idea of giving this book a new perspective. Usually the women sustain most of the injuries. So she can whip and cane you instead. It matters not to me. There will be plenty of food and wine on hand, including whatever salve you need to ease your pain. Are we in agreement?”
Food and wine and salve and pain. How utterly fitting. It was the epitome of the revolution at its finest. And the fact that the committee was about to instate this man into the chambers of the new Republic said it all.
Sade drew in a well-satisfied breath. “So. Shall we plan for early next week? Say…Monday, early evening? I should be done sketching shortly after midnight, depending on how well things go.” He smiled and leaned toward her. “Madame, you still have my card, yes?”
One would think they were makingsoiréearrangements. She tried not to let on that she was mildly amused, lest Gérard thinkshewas deranged. “I am afraid this rests with Gérard. I am not the prude here. He is.”
Gérard stared, betraying no emotion. “I am more than fine with it. Monday at seven.”
She dropped her hands to her sides. Holy God. They were doing it?
Citoyende Sade swept up her hand and bowed over it, kissing it once. “I foresee this publication being a success and promise to alter your features enough to hide your identities from the public.” He thumbed toward the vase set on the side table. “You may want to put a few flowers into that. The stench is overtaking the room.”
She gave him a withering look.
Striding up to Gérard, Sade snapped out a hand. “Until Monday, my beloved prude.”
Gérard narrowed his gaze. “You are not touching me. Get out.”
Sade smirked and adjusted his coat. “Long live the Republic, and adieu to you both.” With that, he strutted to the door, whistling. Yanking open the door, he winked at Thérèse and slammed the door after himself.
Gérard swung toward her and glared. “You,Thérèse, are outrageous. Do you know that?Outrageous. You encouraged him!”
She gaped. “I did not! How did I encourage him? Are you saying I gave him the idea of turning us into the committee if we did not entertain his sexual delusions?”
He still glared. “You know full well what I mean. You clearlywantthat man watching us copulate like animals in a cage rattling shackles. And whilst I have no trouble with us using shackles and whips and whatever the hell you want, I am not doing it in front of an audience!”
He really was a prude. “Unlike you, I have no trouble letting an artist watch us do what we do best if it means we are not going todie. ’Tis a matter of priorities, Gérard.Priorities. What else would you have us do? He said he would go to the committee. And as deranged as he appears to be, I believe him! And so should you.”
“I need brandy.” He swiped at his mouth with a trembling hand. “I have not even had a finger of brandy in three goddamn weeks.Three! And now with my godfather going to trial and this…I am losing the last of my rational mind!”
Her brows rose. Heavens above. The darling! That certainly explained his agitation throughout this entire evening. He’d done away with the brandy.
Her heart squeezed, knowing full well he did it for her.
How could she not adore this man?
She quickly strode toward him, her robe rustling around her feet. Leaning in, she smoothed her hand across his shaven jaw.
He stiffened, capturing her gaze.
She softened her voice. “Did you set aside the brandy for me?”
A breath escaped him. “Yes. I was tired of being weak.”
She kissed his jaw. “No man has ever fought to prove himself like this to me. I am in awe and so proud of you. Three weeks is something to celebrate.”
His dark brows flickered. “Thérèse. We cannot reduce ourselves to the sort of corruption this man wants us to. We are better than this.”
Bless his noble heart. She knew even if they never ended up together, she would spend the rest of her life dreaming about him and wanting him. Because he was the definition of the same thing that beat within her: passion. She dragged in a breath knowing it. “I agree that you and I are better than this. But being better does not make us invincible. We are all mortal. Even you, O dear son of aduc. You bleed like the rest of us.”
He hesitated. “My mother used to say that right will always win out over wrong. And yet nothing but wrong seems to win.” After a long moment, he lowered his hand, gently setting it to her stomach. “I vow to protect you both. No harm will come to either of you.”
This man was trying to steal her heartandsoul.
She ardently pressed his hand against her belly.
Drawing his hand back, he averted his gaze. He quickly rounded her and gathered his clothes from the floor behind the fallen dressing screen. He bundled them tight. “I have to go.”
She swung toward him, her breath hitching. “Where are you going?”
“We are not reducing ourselves to the vile games of the Republic. I am done with this shite. I am going straight to my father.”
“And then what?”
He stared her down. “We get the hell out of France, is what. Well before Monday ever has a chance to rise.” He averted his gaze and choked out, “Though it breaks me, if I try to stay and save my godfather, we will all die. Which means you, my father and I have two days to plan an escape and less than three to carry it out.”
Her throat tightened. Dearest God. He wanted her to leave France.
Setting aside how close she was to her cousin, her brothers and parents were still in Giverny. And though they had yet to respond to any of her letters or the money she had repeatedly sent, she owed them to stay. Sheneededto stay. After all, what if theydiedbecause of her? “Gérard. I-I cannot leave. My life is here.”
Coming closer, he leaned in and whispered, “Given our alliance, they will kill you if you stay. Do you not understand that?”
She dragged in an uneven breath, knowing it. “They will also kill me if I try to flee. At least if I stay, I would not be putting my cousin or my family in harm’s way. Because you and I both know if I flee, the Convention will go after them. And I wouldnevertoss them toward the direction of the guillotine given I was the one to make this decision. I was the one who agreed to help you and will therefore live by it or die by it. Whatever I deserve.”
He leaned in and gripped her shoulders hard. “Cease talking nonsense. You and the babe are coming with me. I amnotleaving either of you to die.”
She swallowed back whatever panic threatened to overtake her. She slowly removed his hands from her shoulders, first the left, then the right. “You speak as if you can protect us from harm. You cannot guarantee my safety anymore than you can guarantee your own.”
He angled toward her. “Upon all that I am, I hold something that will ensure no one touches us. Something that will turn everyone in this country against the committee. And with the recent execution of theduc d’Orléans, who was on their side, I have no doubt they are looking to bury what I damn well hold. A gentleman my mother used to know is holding a set of papers for me with instructions to print every last page and distribute it to the masses should I or any name I wish to save be executed. And you are on that list. Thesemoutonshold no power over me or us. None. Believe it.”
She gaped. “If they hold no power over us, then why do you insist on leaving?”
“Because you and I both know things can and will go wrong. It is best we leave. Do you understand?”
She was not saving herself and leaving her family to die. “What about my cousin or my family?”
“We can send for them later.”
“No.” Trying not to get emotional, knowing she was saying good-bye, she choked out, “I am asking you to leave without me, Gérard. It is best.”
He grabbed her. “No! What are you— What about the babe? Or the future of us? What about us?!”
Squeezing her eyes shut long enough to regain her ability to remain calm, she re-opened her eyes. “There could never be a future at the expense of my family. As for me, I am told they do not execute pregnant women.”
He stared. “Until after they give birth, damn you.” After a pulsing moment, he pointed rigidly. “I am not done with you. You are coming with me whether you damn well want to or not. I will be back in two days. And if you see Naudet, if hedaresshow his face to you, tell thatbourgeoisieson of a sodomite, he is dead for doing this to me.Dead!”
“Please do not speak of killing people. Or you are no different from these revolutionaries.”
“It is either them or us. And it is not going to be us. Do you understand? What is being allowed in this country is–”
Grabbing his face, she captured his lips, desperately wanting and needing to erase everything happening to them.
Dropping the clothing he held, he also grabbed her face and kissed her, molding his lips harder against hers. The searing heat of his tongue feverishly worked against hers as his fingers dug into the skin of her face. He kissed her, harder and harder.
She could feel his genuine passion and affection for her.
It pulsed from his hand and his lips. It was—
He broke away and dragged in several ragged breaths. “Wait to hear from me.” He gathered his clothes, bundling them again then stalked to the door. “Pack whatever you need and make sure it fits into one sack and one sack only. No trunks. The less we carry, the more effective our movements will be. More importantly, do not stray from your regular routine until you hear from me.”
Her heart pounded, realizing he wasn’t accepting that she wasn’t going.
Though she didn’t want to believe in the dread scraping itself into her, a dread that whispered of horrible, horrible things to come, things that would happen to him if he tried to leave, she swung toward him and knew she had to say it. “Meeting you has changed my entire perspective on life and men. I have no regrets. None. I adore you.”
He paused and jerked toward her, staring.
Blinking back tears she did not want to cry, she set her hands on her belly. “If it is a boy, what shall I name him? I will let you decide.”
His features twisted. “Do notdaresay good-bye to me. I will come back for you in two days.Two.”
No. He would not. She was not going. “What shall I name him?” she softly insisted. “Please. It will make me happy. And I need happy thoughts.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Henri. After my mother’s father. In English it isHenry.”
Henry. English. Someday she would learn to speak it. Someday. “And if it is a girl?”
“We will name her after my mother. Marguerite. In English it is Margaret.”
Margaret. English. She did her best to smile for him. “Thank you. I genuinely needed that. Now where will I be able to find you? Should I need to speak to you one last time before you—”
“No.” He kept rigidly pointing. “You are not staying in this hell alone.Especiallyif you are pregnant withmychild! You, I and the babe will be leaving Paris in two days. Two. I need time to gather money, weapons and call in more than a few favors from the people I do trust, which obviously isnotNaudet. That damnsodomite, I—” He jerked open the door and was about to step out, when he paused.
Capturing her gaze, he rumbled out, “Watching over you these past three months was the greatest honor of my life. Everything about you makes it difficult for me to let you go. Honor me by loving me, and I swear I will spend my life being everything you need me to be and more. Once we get to England, we will marry.”
She swallowed, realizing he had proposed.
No longer meeting her gaze, he stepped out and slammed the door behind him.
A shaky breath escaped her. Why did a part of her want to take the risk and go with him and leave France for a chance to be with him? Was it possible she was already in love?
Mon Dieu. She was.
The Andelot estate – three minutes to ten that evening
Running down the massive, candlelit corridor which had long been empty of servants given he convinced his father to dismiss every last one in order to save them from the mounting chaos overtaking Paris, Gérard whipped aside the soiled clothing he still held and bounded up the vast spiraling stairs leading toward the upper floor.
“Monseigneur!” he shouted, jumping up onto the landing. “Monseigneur!” He darted toward his father’s private quarters knowing the man had most likely retired.
The door at the end of the massive corridor swung open.
The duc veered out in a robe, a pistol in hand, and stared.
Gérard slid to a halt, and between seething breaths, choked out, “We have to leave France. We have two days to plan and only three days to do it.”
Those blue eyes widened as the lines etched into that aged, regal face deepened. “What the devil is going on?”
There was too much to say. Too much to plan. Too much to do. His hands quaked. “Sa Majestéis going to trial.” He tried not to heave knowing it. “There will be thirty-three charges set against him.Thirty-bloody-three! There is no saving him or his family. They will all die and we are next. I was informed not even an hour ago, that your name and mine, is next given we are so closely related toSa Majesté.They are amassing charges as we speak.”
The duc dragged in a long breath and let it out through his nostrils. After a long moment, he took Gérard’s hand and placed the pistol into it, molding his fingers against the rosewood handle. “This is my country, and no one will ever run me out of it.” That voice hardened. “Take whatever you can and leave. Go to London to the address you have been writing to since you were seven. Your mother’s family will welcome you and get you through this, and whatever money you need, they most certainly have that and more.”
Gérard’s vision blurred. It was as if everyone around him had given up on wanting to live. “No. I am not leaving you.”
“There is nothing more to be said. Now go and ready yourself.”
“Are you mad? You cannot stay. They will cleave your very head from your shoulders if you do!”
Setting a heavy hand on Gérard’s shoulder, the duc grudgingly met his gaze. “You and I both know I am well beyond saving. The one and only person I ever believed in was your mother, and as you well know, these savages took her from me. They— Honor her and our name by marrying into what we deserve. The Andelot title carries six generations of prestige no one willevertake from us. The moment you get to London, embrace a new life and only associate with people of worth. People of pedigree. The daughter of a viscount or higher in standing is who you must marry. Do this for me and our name. Swear to it. Swear to it so I may die in peace.”
Gérard edged back, his heart pounding. “I…” Shite. There was no way around this. He had to say it. “I regret to inform you that it is too late for me to embrace what you want. Our name is going to who I deem best, and her name is Thérèse Angelique Clavette. She is the daughter of a butcher and now a renowned actress atThéâtre Française. I have taken her virginity and must therefore honor her by marrying her the moment she and I get to England. For it is the right thing to do. The only thing to do. Do you understand?”
Those features stilled. The duc said nothing. He stiffly turned and walked back to his room. He closed the door.
Gérard felt the weight of the pistol tremble in his hand. He half-squatted and set it down onto the floor of the corridor with a clack. Quickly rising, he dragged in several breaths and shifting his jaw. He stalked toward the closed door, more than ready to take on his father in the name of what he wanted and what he saw in Thérèse’s eyes when she told him he had changed her perspective on men. It held a promise of far more than love. It held a promise of forever. Something he thought he would never find.
Opening the door to the half-lit bedchamber, Gérard stepped in. Rolling up his linen sleeves, he announced, “Fist wager. If I win, you come with me and Thérèse to England. If you win, you can stay and die. I will give you that right.”
The duc, who had seated himself on the edge of his bed, stared out vacantly at nothing in particular. He didn’t even blink. After a long pulsing moment, he slowly rose and removed his robe, revealing his night shirt. He went over to the hearth and picked up an iron poker. Turning, he pointed its sharp tip straight at him. “You are no son of mine to take sides with the very people who murdered your mother. You are dead to me. All of my sons are dead.Dead!”
Gérard dropped his hands, feeling numb and…betrayed. For in his greatest hour of need, during a time when the woman he had endangered, a woman who might very well be carrying his babe, needed protection, his father had decided to lose the last of his mind.
“I harbor a great affection for her,” Gérard confessed, “and have ever since I met her. She defies convention but retains a beautiful mind and a beautiful heart. I need you to help me,Monseigneur. If there is ever a time I need you to be a father to me it is now. Help me to protect her, because I cannot do it on my own against an entire nation that wants me dead. Do you understand? Help me. Please.”
Those nostrils flared. “No. I am done swallowing the way these people take everything from us. They will not seize our name.” Walking up to him, the duc stared him down, fingering the poker with thick fingers. “She is not yours to save. Nor does her kind deserve to be saved. Denounce her and I will go with you to London this very night.”
Gérard’s eyes widened, knowing his father was asking him to murder Thérèse and leave her to die. Merely because she was not pedigree.
“Denounce her,” his father bit out. “Denounce her and we will leave this very night. We will become the father and son we deserve to be. The sort your mother wanted us to be.”
Gérard’s throat tightened. This man was not his father.Thiswas the mere skeleton of a hateful name that deserved to be buried right along with the revolution. He had known for some time that his father’s mind was no longer his own, but it had taken this moment to finally accept it.
They were father and son no more. “I would sooner denounce you,Monseigneur, than let her die. To abandon her when she needs me most would be nothing short of murder. If you wish to stay here and die, so be it. Cling to your filthy, rotting name and see if it saves you. As for me? I am taking her to England and giving her the life she deserves. For despite what you think, my title is not what will make her a duchess. She is already that and more.”
The duc’s lips parted. “You are choosing a nameless peasant over your own father?”
“Yes. I am. Live with it.Adieu,Monseigneur.May I never see you again.” Glaring at his father, Gérard swung away and was about to leave, when acrackrattled inside his skull. Choking pain slashed its way straight to his teeth and every bone.
He swayed, one last breath leaving him before everything spilled into nothing but black.
Forty-two minutes later
Gathering jars of cosmetics and perfume bottles from her lacquered, oak dressing table, Thérèse paused and then rolled her eyes, setting them all back down, one by one by one. She kept forgetting she had servants to do things for her.
It was a life she was still getting used to.
Tightening the large red bow around the waist of her blue and white gown with hands that still quaked knowing she was more or less waiting forCitoyende Sade to report her, she swiped up her reticule and was about to blow out the remaining candles in the room when she heard a thundering boom and an echo from beyond the closed door of her dressing room.
Thérèse paused, brows coming together. It sounded like a pistol being fired. In the theatre?
Female screams and random male shouts of actors suddenly penetrated the silence.
Her pulse roared. What—
Swinging toward its direction, she gathered her skirts to keep them from tangling around her slippered feet and ran to the door, her breaths uneven. Jerking open the door, she peered out into the candle-lit corridor.
A few people, who had been gathering props, darted by. “Grab a sword! Move!Move, move, move!”
“There are none on hand! All swords taken off the set an hour ago! Someone needs to find a way out and fetch the bloodygendarmerie nationale!”
Her eyes widened. Oh, God. What was happening? She scrambled down and out of the corridor, to better see what was going on.
Another echoing crack of a pistol being fired pierced the air, causing her to almost fall against the nearest wall. She dragged in heavy breaths, scanning the red curtained area and walkways leading out to vast auditorium, stage and lobby beyond.
Screams and male shouts from the auditorium made her realize she needed to run toward the back of the theatre, not the front. But not before she had something to swing with.
Grabbing up a metal pole bearing the blue, white and red flag of the new Republic, she flipped it and wrapped the flag around the pole to get a better grip on it.
Another echoing crack of a pistol being fired pierced the air.
She froze, gripping the pole hard and swung toward Jacques’s voice. “Jacques!”
From across the stage, he sprinted toward her, whipping off his periwig. He skidded in, his dark eyes wide and his chest heaving. He grabbed her and swung them behind a prop against the wall. Leaning, he whispered, “Stay quiet. Stay. Quiet.”
She tightened her hold on the metal pole in an effort to keep herself and her panicked mind steady. “What—”
“A man is looking for you,” he rasped, shaking her. “He shot Rémy in the head.He shot him for refusing to let him pass and just shot two others.”
The metal pole clattered from her trembling hands in a blurring effort to make sense of what was happening. “Rémyyyyyy!” Blinded by the terror of knowing her cousin had been shot, she tried shoving past Jacques, only to be yanked back. “Release me!” she screamed, shoving at him again. “We cannot leave him to die! We cannot—”
Jacques grabbed her shoulders hard and violently shoved her into the wall back behind the prop, clamping a hand against her mouth. “Thérèse,” he hissed, hovering so close they were nose to nose. “Cease yelling or he will bloody find us. There is nothing you can do for Rémy.Now stay quiet. Do you hear me?”