Authors: Philippa Lodge
Praise for THE INDISPENSABLE WIFE:
A word about the author…
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“Stay away from him and all his friends.It will only lead to pain. Not just physical pain, not just heartbreak, but the end of your reputation, the end of all your prospects.”
Her eyebrows went up; she was going to say something sarcastic. “You’re protecting me? Are you my brother? My father? My cousin?”
Manu opened his mouth to say that yes, he would act as her brother. But he snapped it shut and shook his head. “I’m not wise in the ways of the court.”
She sniffed in derision.
He scowled. “But I’ve spent the last twelve years with men of every class. I wouldn’t sell d’Oronte one of my horses. I wouldn’t sell your future to him, either.”
“It’s not your future, Emmanuel; it’s mine.” Her voice was as low and lethal as a short knife in a dark alley. “Maybe I don’t care anymore about my reputation. Maybe I’d like to flirt. Maybe I’d like a dalliance before I move to my property in Normandy and live the rest of my life alone.”
Manu stared. Alone in Normandy? He thought she liked the court.
She turned her back and marched to the next door, which she yanked open. She shut it softly behind her, showing remarkable restraint.
Praise forTHE INDISPENSABLE WIFE:
“Ms. Lodge reminded me how much I loved reading Dumas [author ofThe Man in the Iron Mask,The Count of Monte Cristo,Twenty Years After, andThe Three Musketeers]. The setting, the court intrigue, but more importantly, the characters. This is a character driven book that left me bereft when I finished. I wanted more of Aurore and Dominique. …Overall, I loved how Ms. Lodge plots the story and her characters come to life for me. I really felt like I was [in] King Louis’ court and the French countryside. The twists and turns that these two have to overcome make for an awesome read… I can’t wait to read more from Ms. Lodge in the future.”
~Harlie’s Books (4.5 Stars)
And forTHE HONORABLE OFFICER:
“A story where every detail comes alive—a perfect marriage of strong characters, an engaging plot, and a time and place rich with detail. Sheer pleasure to read. I highly recommend this book!”
~P.D. Hurst, author of paranormal romance and
young adult contemporary fantasy
Châteaux and Shadows, Book Three
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT © 2016 by Phyllis Laatsch
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art byDebbie Taylor
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First Tea Rose Edition, 2016
Print ISBN 978-1-5092-0810-4
Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-0811-1
Châteaux and Shadows,Book Three
Published in the United States of America
To my elementary teachers
at McGuffey Laboratory School of Oxford, Ohio,
who encouraged epic horse stories
in my creative writing journal.
To my parents,
who, in spite of my ineptitude,
paid for horseback riding lessons
when I was most horse-mad.
And to my daughter and her Little Ponies.
1678, Western France
Emmanuel, Chevalier de Cantière, thought he recognized the horse cantering up the drive of his house. Not his house but his father’s Poitou property, promised to his second-oldest brother at their father’s death.
A fine, deep bay with white feet and a black mane. Its form was wrong to be truly beautiful, but an all-around excellent riding horse for distance. Long, even stride, though he—if it was the horse Manu thought, from the inn twenty miles north—was nearly exhausted but putting up a good front.
Only when the horse was closer did he bother to look at the rider. One of his older brother’s men. Emmanuel wondered if it was news of another baby. Though why Cédric would send a servant all this way to announce a sixth child, he didn’t know. He hadn’t even heard they were expecting a new one, but the youngest was already…seven? She had been born before he moved to the farm, and he had met her on his trips north. Perhaps his other brother’s wife, Hélène, had her baby. Wouldn’t it be early?
Without changing horses, it was nearly a week to his family. With frequent changes, excellent weather, and little sleep, Manu could cover the distance to his father’s country house in three days. The message must be more urgent than a new baby. Which usually meant bad news, a thought which left Manu gritting his teeth.
And why one servant? There should be at least two, to protect each other.
Ah. A second horse limped around the curve of the lane almost half a mile away, backlit by the setting sun and almost lost in the long, dappled shadows, a jogging servant beside it.
Manu wiped his work gloves on his stained breeches and tied his filly to a fence post as the servant on the bay approached.
The servant swung down from his horse, removed his hat, and bowed low. “Monsieur Emmanuel.”
Manu nodded. What was the servant’s name?
“I have a letter for you from Monsieur le Baron. Madame la Baronesse is gravely ill.”
They left at dawn the next morning: Emmanuel, his friend Jacques who was groom, guard, and right hand, plus a coachman, a groom, and his brother’s two messengers. The messengers had been nearly as exhausted as their horses; Manu had almost left them behind. Some strain of cruelty had made him order them to come along. They wished to return to their homes anyway, and Manu allowed them to ride in his small coach. He wasn’t so cruel as to put them on horseback for another week, of course. He rode his favorite horse, a big bay he had named Vainqueur. Jacques was up on a showy gray mare Manu had been thinking of selling.
At the halfway point, he could no longer stand the slow pace. He and Jacques left Vainqueur, the mare, and his carriage to be brought along in stages. His young stallion neighed for him until he was out of hearing, but Manu had to move faster. From there, they changed horses when possible, and rode slowly when they couldn’t.
Throughout the journey, his heartbeat said,Maman, Maman.
Manu’s stomach clenched hard as he recognized the landscape near his childhood home. How many times had he ridden out this way to get away from his older brothers and sister—and nieces and nephews? And from his father? And—he hated to admit it, even to himself—his mother?
He needed most to escape when his mother got tired of him. Until he was thirteen, they had lived in the family townhouse in Paris or at whichever palace the king dragged the courtiers to. They only came down to the country house when his father insisted on his right to see his son, which he did at least once a year. Emmanuel hated court, his mother dressing him up and leading him around like a puppy as she gossiped viciously with other bitter ladies and gentlemen who masked their judgment in piety.
He set his horse to canter—it was too tired to gallop—up the long driveway to his father’s château. Jacques, seeing the road clear of danger and being exhausted himself, waved him on.
Manu swung down at the front door and hesitated for just a moment, looking up at the gray stone portico. He handed the horse’s reins to a groom and leapt up the stairs. The majordomo opened the door and bowed to him.
“My mother?” he barked, sounding angrier than he intended.
“She is gone, Monsieur Emmanuel.”
“Gone?” His mother had died? He had come as quickly as he could. His knees wobbled.
The majordomo steadied him, then apologized for grabbing him. “She left this morning for Paris.”
Manu’s spine snapped straight. “Paris?”
“Oui,Monsieur. She woke up two days after your father sent for you.”
Manu brushed past the servant, the heels of his traveling boots ringing on the marble floor of the entryway.
She couldn’t wait for me to come home? She didn’t know I would come?He opened his mouth to say as much but decided against complaining to a servant. “Is my father in residence?”
“He’s in the west field, Monsieur. I’ve just sent a boy to tell him you arrived.”
“And my room?” Manu gritted his teeth, practically snarling.
The majordomo bowed and assured him all was ready, but not before Manu saw the warning look in the man’s eye. The majordomo took it personally when anyone criticized the baron, as Manu was wont to do.
Manu strode up the family staircase to his small bedroom, a few doors down from his mother’s. On her rare visits, she stayed in the east wing, the rest of the family in the west.
He had barely washed some of the travel dirt from his face and torso when there was a knock at the door. He yanked on a shirt and shouted for whoever it was to come in.
His sister threw the door open and exclaimed in delight. Her pretty face was developing lines around her mouth and eyes. The corner of her left eye tugged down slightly, due to the scar on her temple, but she had a cap low on her forehead, hiding the round scar there.
As always when seeing her after a long absence, he felt a tug of anxiety and guilt. He had failed her once when he was a boy. She had almost died. She had never blamed him, though everyone else had.
“Manu!” She came forward to pull his head down and kiss his cheeks. “My favorite brother! Have you grown again? I keep forgetting you are this tall. I declare you are taller even than Dom and Jean-Louis, and they are taller than Cédric and Henri. Oh, you are more muscular, too!” She squeezed his bicep. “Look at you! So handsome!”
“Bonjour, Aurore.” Manu barely managed to make himself heard.
“I am glad to see you! My favorite brother!” Her smile slipped away. “I am sorry about Maman. Papa sent you another message when she awoke, but you must have passed the courier on the road. Or taken a different route. And now she…well, she is better, and you must stay for a few days at least before going back to Poitou.” She embraced him again and danced to the door. “If you can wait twenty days, Dom is thinking of going to Dumouton then. We can all travel together. We’ll go up to court for a week or so first, of course. We cannot travel as fast as you, even though Dario thinks he could keep up with you on horseback, of course, but you can be the outrider. Or ride in the carriage and keep me company. Dario will love to see his young uncle, as the older uncles are all as old as me and therefore ancient. I am afraid Dom and I are just too elderly to understand him.” She shook her head, jokingly mocking her ten-year-old son. “Dom should be here tonight. He went over to thechâteau-forta few days ago but promised to be back today to stay through Sunday.”
Manu shook his head at his sister’s usual rambling. “I should see Maman before I go back to Poitou.”
“Ah,oui. I suppose so.” Aurore shrugged. “As I said, we’ll go up to court for a week or so.”
None of his siblings appreciated their mother. But then, once he supported their side in the constant battles, he had felt Maman’s sharp tongue more than once. More than once? Constantly. She’d refused to see him for over a year when his father moved him to his brother-in-law’s château to be tutored and to train in weaponry. Even over the last few years, when he wrote to tell her he would be visiting the rest of the family, she’d told him not to come see her.
“She was nearly recovered but still pale and shaky. She wouldn’t listen when we told her to stay and rest. She…”
The hurt flashed across Aurore’s face so quickly that if Emmanuel hadn’t known to look for it, he wouldn’t have seen. His mother had said something horrid to sweet Aurore.
He sighed. “She has to have known I would come.”
Aurore hugged him around the waist, her puffy, lacy cap barely brushing his chin. He squeezed her close for a few seconds. Her silence seemed ominous to Manu, since Aurore could talk through anything.
They heard footsteps in the hall and turned to the door as their father entered, talking even before he came in.
The Baron de la Brosse’s face was grayer and more lined than just a year before, when Manu had last seen him, though he smiled and laughed and embraced Manu as heartily as ever. He said he had sent a message to their oldest brother and his family to come over from their smaller house for dinner.
Manu backed away, irritated again. “Mon père, why did you send me a message if Maman was not truly ill?”
His father sighed. “She had a terrible bout of the grippe. She was more ill than I have ever seen her. We couldn’t rouse her, so I sent for all you children. She awoke two days later, confused, so I sent the next message, but the messengers must have missed you.”
“Jacques and I took a faster route on horseback and let the carriage go over the roads.”
“Voilà!I hope my men met up with yours and didn’t get all the way to Poitou before turning around. They’ll be at least two days behind you. Maybe more, since they can’t travel tomorrow.” His father glanced at him from the corner of his eye. Manu didn’t know if he was assessing to see if Manu approved or disapproved of traveling on Sunday.
“But Maman? How could you let her leave?”
“Ah. Your mother hasn’tletme tell her what to do for thirty or more years,mon fils. She packed up her maid and her men and was gone.”
His father sounded so cheerful Manu had to turn away, clenching his fists. The anger he had learned from his mother rushed into him.
His father strode out, calling for his valet.
He felt Aurore’s warm hand on his back through his shirt. “Go to Paris, Manu. She’s lonely, even if she made herself that way. Oh, and she left her companion here because she fell ill. The companion, I mean. She’s better now. You can take her back to Maman.”
He shoved down his angry reaction and nodded. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
Catherine de Fouet slipped silently into the drawing room, hoping no one would notice her. And no one did; there was no one there. She exhaled in relief. The Comtesse de Bures, her host’s daughter, had flitted into her bedchamber, felt Catherine’s forehead, pinched her cheeks to make them rosier, and declared her healthy. Catherine hadn’t had a fever even when she was ill, but she’d been so lethargic she couldn’t raise her head from her pillow. Yet who could argue with Madame de Bures? Catherine was nearly healthy and would have been ashamed to hide in her room.
Her gown fell somewhere in the vast, imprecise borderline between the elegant court gowns the baronesse bought for her and her shabby at-home gowns. Somewhere between the frilly gowns appropriate for young demoiselles and the severe, dark gowns of the confirmed old maid. The ensemble was mostly pale brown, with some blue panels in the skirt and pretty, blue, wave-like embroidery at the neck and waist of the stomacher, which made her think of the sea near her home in Normandy. She had pinned her mother’s opal-and-silver brooch to the strip of creamy linen chemise that showed above the neckline of her stomacher. The brooch was the only jewelry left her after her uncle barred her from her parents’ rooms after their deaths. Her uncle had probably sold the other jewelry.
Her clothing was perfect for blending into the background without quite looking like a servant. Perfect for being overlooked. Perfect for the baronesse’s companion, when the companion was the daughter of a dead friend and paid in food, lodging, and clothing. A lady-in-waiting would have more style. A handmaiden, maybe? The baronesse wasn’t there to see her, to pass her critical eye over Catherine andhmph.
Catherine looked around the drawing room, empty even of servants. She held herself up very straight as she glided with a little extra hip sway to a small armless chair.
The fine, beautiful, rich demoiselle sweeps into the room. Every eye is on her as she curtsies to the handsome beau, who bows deeply, smiling in approval, then to the nobles, who raise their quizzing glasses to look her over. She sweeps up and smiles to her right, where her beaming family tries—and fails—to look nonchalant. Her handsome father gestures to a chair next to her mother’s, and she goes to it, sweeps around, and sinks slowly to the edge of her—
A young man in an ill-fittingjustaucorps, long blond hair tied back with a dark ribbon, stood in the doorway, his face scrunched in bad-tempered confusion. “Are you the companion?”
He strode into the room, glancing toward the landscape painting Catherine had just curtsied to. He looked familiar. His face was much like the baron’s, but with a sour expression.
Catherine sat and looked down at her hands, folding herself back into her invisible shell in the matter of a second before glancing up at him. “Yes, I am the companion.”
“You’re better, then. I’ll take you to my mother on Monday. Leave Monday, anyway. I don’t suppose you can ride to Paris? We could make the trip in a day.” He fidgeted with the justaucorps, tugging at the coat’s buttons and sleeves. It was two inches too short to be in fashion.
She sat up straighter, curling her lips into her governess sneer—just respectful enough to keep from being sacked, but disdainful enough so her interlocutor would know he had overstepped. “I can ride, but am not sufficientlyfolleto wish to make such a long journey on horseback or in a single day. It is much too hot. Especially as I am still recovering from the grippe I caught from your mother.”
“Ah.” The man raised an eyebrow, much like the baronesse at her most condescending. “That’s too bad. Long journeys are all the more tedious when they take twice as long as they should. I decided I would ask, though I assumed your answer. We’ll borrow my father’s traveling carriage, unless mine arrives this evening. It’s more likely to arrive Monday after we’ve already gone. Or Tuesday.” The young man looked around again. “Where’s my family?”
Not down yet, idiot,she wanted to snap. “I’m sure I don’t know, Monsieur…” She was sure this must be Emmanuel, the youngest son, the baronesse’s pampered, rebellious darling.
He stared at her with a pained expression before he bowed deeply, waving his hand in intricate swirls. Mocking her. “Emmanuel de Cantière. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mademoiselle de Fouet. I have read much about you in my mother’s letters. All the highest compliments, of course.”
Catherine nearly laughed. Compliments from the baronesse? Two could play at this game. She rose from her seat and curtsied deeply enough for the king himself, like she had curtsied to her imaginary beau. “Enchantée, Monsieur de Cantière.” She rose slowly and elegantly but kept her head slightly down. “I have heard much about you from your mother,”whom you have neglected to visit in three years,“who dotes on you,”except when she’s lumping you in with the rest of the family, all of whom she despises.
When she raised her head, de Cantière was staring directly at her. A hard scowl marred his face even though she hadn’t said the bad parts out loud. He shrugged. She realized the shoulders of the coat fit him too tightly, while the waistline swung loose. The long coat wasn’t even his own. It must have been his father’s justaucorps, because underneath it looked like Monsieur Emmanuel was all muscle. The baron was not fat, but he was a great deal more comfortable. She felt a momentary attraction and a momentary burst of shame for thinking cruel things, but she nodded, and her opinions were gone. She returned to her chair.
No point in being attracted to him, even if he were the baronesse’s favorite. Besides, his face was nothing special, with the scowl of a brooding, spoiled child. Once one was a penniless companion, one might be a companion forever. She was resigned to it for the time being. She would escape to her property in Normandy one day and live alone. Then she would be free.
There was a clatter in the hall, and the sounds of the front door opening and closing, then the comtesse’s voice coming closer as she descended the front stairs in haste and a man’s voice answering.
“Dom’s back,” Monsieur Emmanuel said, glancing at the door as the voices in the hall spoke at the same time. Silence fell rather suddenly. He glanced over with a half-smile which made him the handsomest man Catherine had seen in a long time. “They’re kissing. After all, they haven’t seen each other in three long days.”
She looked down at her hands, blushing slightly. How long had it been since she had been kissed? Eight years?
The Comte and Comtesse de Bures were known to embrace in any slightly private alcove or quiet corner of a garden. The baronesse’s circle sometimes made comments, mostly to goad the baronesse into condemning her only daughter’s behavior. Catherine had barely seen the comte and comtesse on this trip, since she had stayed by her patroness’ bedside while the baronesse was ill, then took to her own bed when she fell ill herself. Then the baronesse left her behind, breaking the news of her departure through her maid, Anne. The maid had smirked at Catherine, who could hardly open her eyes.
“Come say hello to Papa.” The comtesse was coming to the drawing room.
Catherine rose. The Comte de Bures, tall, regal, and handsome, came in with his diminutive wife hanging from his arm—his arm clad in dirty leather. “I should go get cleaned up and changed for dinner.”
“Oh! Papa isn’t down yet. But here’s Manu.” The comtesse beamed at her brother. “Is that Papa’s blue coat? You look like a little boy playing dress up, except for those shoulders, Manu.” She gave her brother a quick hug and squeezed his arms—drawing Catherine’s eyes again to the powerful breadth of the man—before stepping away so her husband could embrace Monsieur Emmanuel. “And here’s Mademoiselle de Fouet, Maman’s companion.”
The comtesse was less excited to see Catherine, no matter her earlier encouragement. The smile didn’t dim, really, but her eyes were wary. One of the regrets Catherine had about becoming the companion to one lady after another in her father’s circle of friends—the baronesse’s circle—was the wariness with which others treated her. She had little influence over the circle of sharp-tongued harpies, but people avoided her. She had not been able to help the worthy people who approached her hoping to gain influence within the circle. Catherine had learned to nod in false agreement and stay silent and invisible.
Most of the time, Catherine was grateful she didn’t have to live on her small stipend far away from court. She sorely missed her land and especially the sea, which was so near to her home in Normandy she could smell it when the wind was right, but that place was rented out. The income went directly into savings for the time in the dim future when Catherine would stop being a companion to some grande dame and wouldbea grande dame. Or a grande demoiselle, since the property wasn’t much of a dowry. And besides, the gentlemen who did notice her were of the sharp-tongued, devious sort themselves. The kind, friendly gentlemen—the sort she preferred—stayed far, far away.
Emmanuel needed to stay far, far away from Mademoiselle de Fouet.
She was in his mother’s company most of the time, and before that had been companion to one after another of Maman’s cruel friends. “De Fouet”—“of the whip”—was perfectly apt as her family name. He remembered the girl’s father as a loud, angry man who preached uprightness, spread vicious gossip, and was rumored to have affairs.
Manu had a moment of pleasant surprise when he walked into the drawing room to see the tall, thin woman, her hips swaying invitingly. He imagined for a moment slipping his hands around her narrow waist and kissing the back of her long neck. He was even more surprised to see her curtsey to the painting of the hill above Jean-Louis’ house in Poitou and then swish her narrow, plain skirts around as if she wore a fine gown with a train. When he saw her pale face staring at him in shock, he decided she must have given in to whimsy.
Whimsy? From someone associated with his mother? From this sharp-tongued girl?
The arrival of his sister and Dom had broken the tension. Aurore still spoke to him as if he were a boy and not a twenty-five-year-old man, but she loved him with all the fierce affection she had been forcing on him for more than a decade. Aurore babbled pleasantly to Mademoiselle de Fouet about some entertainment at court a few weeks before, when King Louis XIV had returned from the Dutch front. Manu called to a passing servant for a glass of wine.
As he turned back, Aurore was weighing him with a sparkle in her eye. Mademoiselle de Fouet looked at her hands again, her cheeks slightly pink. He spread his hands in silent question.
Aurore asked sweetly, “Won’t you see to getting us some wine, too, Manu?”
He blushed—he was glad his face was browned from the sun because the blush probably didn’t show as much, though he felt its warmth—and turned to call after the servant. He turned back to the two ladies. “I…”
“You’ve spent too much time without the company of ladies, Manu.” His sister’s voice was laughing but chiding. “You should see to our needs before your own.”
His blush heated, and he thought about the peasant widow he was having an affair with at home. In five years of only leaving his horse farm when absolutely necessary, he had lost his polite manners.
Maman would be appalled.
Supper was a trial. Catherine had a headache and her stomach churned, but she had to be ready to travel in two days so as to not be an inconvenience. The baron seated her at his right hand and was faultlessly polite: much too polite for an informal family meal. He probably saw Catherine as an extension of his wife, who draped only the lightest of veils over her hostility toward him, so he danced around her accordingly.
At the end of the meat course, he leaned back in his chair. “Leaving Monday, Manu?”
Monsieur Emmanuel stiffened, probably reading criticism into his father’s words. His mother had said he was quick to take offense. “If Mademoiselle de Fouet is ready, and we can borrow a traveling carriage, monsieur. Mine is still somewhere along the road. The grooms are bringing my horses along in slow stages.”
The baron blinked at the “monsieur” but didn’t insist on being called Papa. “Of course, mon fils. I would advise you wait until Tuesday or whenever your own carriage has arrived.”
“My carriage is significantly less comfortable than yours, mon père.” Calling him “Father” didn’t really count as affection when said with that tone of voice. Was he complaining about being impoverished? He owned a carriage, and not many people did. Or did the carriage belong to his father or one of his brothers? There were undertones Catherine didn’t understand. Not understanding led to embarrassment, and she couldn’t have that.
“I’d like to see Maman for myself and return to Poitou as soon as possible. Maybe before Dom and Aurore go down in a few weeks.” Monsieur Emmanuel slouched back in his seat, his eyes intent on his father.
He’d rather be anywhere but with his family, wouldn’t he? The baronesse had complained several times about how her youngest son had abandoned her for his father, but he seemed to have abandoned everyone else, too.
The comtesse changed the subject, asking Monsieur Emmanuel about traveling conditions from Poitou. The comte and the baron discussed the hay harvest. Catherine wondered idly if her tenant had planted hay on her land. She wondered what profits he was making and if she could raise the rent to accelerate the moment she could retire from court.
When Mademoiselle de Fouet slipped from the dining room with a murmured “Bonne nuit,” Emmanuel saw his chance to escape, too. His stomach still burned with fear from the moment when the majordomo had announced Maman had gone and he had gone weak. He had to get to Paris to see his mother for himself.
At the top of the stairs, before turning down the hall to his usual room, he stopped and stretched, feeling the borrowed justaucorps strain over his arms. He untied the cravat—also borrowed—and rolled his shoulders. Before leaving for Paris, he probably should wait for his carriage to arrive with his better clothes.
Mademoiselle de Fouet barged out of a door to his right and came to an abrupt halt when she saw him. In the orange light of the sunset in the window at the end of the hall, her face looked softer and sweeter.
“Do you need assistance, Mademoiselle?” He was too tired to think, much less to think of something biting to say.
“A maid to help me prepare for bed, Monsieur.” He saw dark circles under her eyes despite the thin veneer of face powder. He imagined wrapping his arms around her, seeking and offering comfort. Her mouth primmed up until she looked just like his mother. He imagined her punching him in the nose.
“Would you mind sending for a maid?”
Emmanuel realized he was staring. “My apologies, Mademoiselle. I am exhausted, too.”
He turned away, hoping to see a manservant or someone—anyone—at the bottom of the stairs.
“Monsieur de Cantière,” she said behind him.
“Oui, Mademoiselle?” His temper was tugging at the reins.
“Your family would like to speak to you.”
Emmanuel scratched his chin. “Right now?” He had just left his family.
She looked sad instead of cross. “I’m saying it wrong. Your family loves you and wants to take care of you. They would like to speak with you without you trying to score hits. Or whatever it was you were doing.”
“My sister and brother-in-law are wonderful people, Mademoiselle de Fouet.” Dom had taken him in and taught him discipline and fierce protectiveness. Aurore had loved him as his mother never had—with open arms, approval, pats, and humor.
“Your father, too,” she whispered.
He flinched. “Mon cher papahas nothing to do with me or the way I was raised. As a child, I saw him once or twice a year. Even when I was thirteen and he tore me away from my mother, he sent me to my sister. He never brought me home, never taught me…anything.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet’s eyes were large and dark in the half-light of the hall. She looked sympathetic and…sweet? “He…he argued with your mother.”
Emmanuel felt the bitterness rise inside him—an untamed horse with the bit in its teeth. “My father is very good at arguing with my mother, Mademoiselle. He seems kind and jovial until you get to know him. I was another bone for them to fight over, wasn’t I? Once he had turned everyone else against her, he had to have me too. And now Maman has you instead of one of her own children. Don’t get too attached, Mademoiselle de Fouet. When she dies, she will still have nothing to leave to any of us. It all rolls back into the estate and goes to my oldest brother. Even the land he said he would leave to Jean-Louis he is talking about giving to Cédric’s second son. Nothing for me, nothing for you.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet looked like she had been slapped, but only for a moment. “Is that the problem? She has no property to give you? Is that why you are distant? And why you haven’t seen her in three years, Monsieur Emmanuel? Do you love your family only for what they can give you when they die?”
Emmanuel felt that punch right in the belly. He stepped toward Mademoiselle de Fouet and growled, “My sister is a better mother than the one who bore me. It took her years to have her own son, but she never stopped treating me like I was hers even after he came, even when I was unkind. My brother Jean-Louis is my landlord in Poitou and charges me less than the going rate. My brother-in-law gave me the seed money and a prize mare—a beautiful chestnut Ardennais, daughter of a stallion Jean-Louis rode on campaigns. My mother ordered me whipped when I did not perform up to her standard. My father has promised me a dowry when I marry. A dowry. As if I were a little girl with stars in her eyes, dreaming of a handsome husband.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet looked like she might cry.
“What happened to you, Mademoiselle? Did your father promise you a dowry that never materialized? And a handsome husband?” Emmanuel felt his conscience twinge. It was unkind to rub an old maid’s face in her status.
“My fiancé died a week before my parents,” she hissed. “There were debts.”
His stomach fell. He had known Mademoiselle de Fouet was impoverished, but nothing else about her.
She turned away, her shoulders high and tight. She grabbed the door handle before her and glared at him. “Find a maid for me. I am waiting.”
She went into her room and shut the door gently behind her.
Manu’s ears buzzed from his anger. He decided it would be petty to not help, so he stumped down the stairs and shouted for a servant.
Emmanuel sat as far as he could from Mademoiselle de Fouet in the old stone church in his father’s village. He stood and knelt and stood and sat by rote, muttering in Latin in the right places, the words coming back to him from the thousands of masses he’d attended before he went to live on his own. He stayed in his seat when the others got up to take the host from the priest.
Afterward, he held back until most of the other people were gone, as he didn’t like being jostled, but he found himself trapped next to her in the crowd of peasants filing out of the church. He had never felt he deserved the polite bows of his father’s farm workers and servants, having never spent much time in la Brosse, but he nodded politely in return. He clenched his jaw and looked everywhere but at Mademoiselle de Fouet.
“I saw you didn’t take the Eucharist, Monsieur de Cantière.” Her expression was bland, but her eyes didn’t quite meet his.
“I have been traveling all week and prefer to confess to my own priest.” Back in Poitou, he rarely went to mass and was rather lax about the confessional. It weighed heavily on his soul from time to time, though not heavily enough for him to spend the time saying the rosary and praying in penance. He received the sacrament no more than three or four times a year on important feast days. But the subject of his soul was a private conversation between him and the priests.
He cleared his throat. “I saw you came early with those who still needed to confess. I can’t imagine a lady such as you having many sins.”
“The state of my soul is between me, the priest, the saints, andDieu.” Her eyes narrowed dangerously, but she finally looked at him, which he liked more than he should.
“Wrath, Mademoiselle?” He smiled, deliberately baiting her, though she had echoed his own thoughts.
She blinked and looked away. “Wrath, envy, greed. The priest told me I should not count my recent illness and recovery as sloth. I’ve never had trouble with gluttony, except on rare occasions.”
“But pride?” Manu was sure she had more than her fair share.
She glanced at him with a tiny smile on her lips. Her pink, plump lips. “Sometimes it is all I have.”
Moi aussi, he almost said. He stared at her profile for a long while before offering his arm. They stepped out into the hot midday sun. Mademoiselle de Fouet adjusted her hat to keep the sun off her face, and he donned his brother Cédric’s hat, which was much nicer than his ragged riding hat but too big. He wasn’t sure he was thankful for his brother’s loan of clothing, as he would almost have preferred to wear his dusty leather riding clothes, which had the advantage of being comfortable.
They walked toward the carriage that stood waiting to take the ladies back to the manor. Manu’s thoughts turned back to confessionals.
“And what about lust, Mademoiselle de Fouet?”
She jerked in surprise, and he saw her cheeks flush red before she turned her head away and the brim of her hat obscured her face.
He stopped short in surprise, staring at her hat. Except for the moment when she hadn’t known he was watching and curtseyed to imaginary people, she had seemed like a hard-shelled, bitter image of his mother. That she lusted surprised him.
He wanted to ask after whom. He dreaded it was him. No, he dreaded it was someone else.
Manu took a long stride to catch up with her and helped her into the carriage with the other ladies. He stepped back with his father, brother, brother-in-law, and various nephews to return on foot with the servants. His father had always made a good case for walking, except in the worst weather, to give the horses and the servants more rest on Sunday. Manu wasn’t sure how walking half a league was rest for the servants who had been up since before the dawn to lay fires and cook breakfast, but he didn’t argue.
He thought the voice from behind his right shoulder was his father, but when he turned to look, it was his brother Cédric, twelve years older than he and heir to the barony. He looked and sounded more like their father all the time. He was even getting a bit of a belly.
“How is the horse farm?”
Manu narrowed his eyes to be sure his brother wasn’t teasing. He had been the most set against Manu starting a breeding operation, saying Jean-Louis would get better rents from grain harvests. Besides, a truly good horse breeder should set up operation close to a royal palace and hope to come to the attention of the court, not lose himself in the provinces. Manu could only afford the nominal fee that Jean-Louis charged him and liked being far from the court and from his family’s interference.
“Excellent, thank you.” Manu tried to sound more polite than he felt. “I’ve just sold a young stallion to a duke’s household. He hopes to train the stallion to race.”
Cédric appeared genuinely pleased. “Dom told me. It’s an excellent coup for you.”
Manu bristled at the implication he had success only through luck and not skill, but felt a hand on his other shoulder before he could retort. Dom smiled at him and raised his eyebrows in warning at Cédric, his oldest friend. “I’ll have to have a look at your horses when I’m in Poitou in a few weeks, Manu. If I delay, I won’t be able to afford your prices.”
“You wouldn’t have anything in carriage horses, would you?” asked Cédric. “My leaders are getting old, and I could use a new pair. Matched, if you have them, but anything strong, with good looks.”
They talked about horses all the way home, Manu describing his newest foals and Dom describing the broodmare he had tried to buy from Manu the year before, but which Manu had refused to part with. Cédric’s oldest son, Charles, tall, gangly, and almost a man, walked with them, listening and asking questions. The younger boys, including Dom’s only son, Dario, darted back and forth, chasing each other and the servant boys.
Dario darted in front of him and jumped up to knock Manu’s hat off. Laughing, Manu clamped one hand down on his hat and shook his fist in mock anger. The boy cackled and raced away. Manu couldn’t remember a time when he was as happy and free as his nephews, especially on a Sunday.
Manu’s mind, though, kept drifting to the becoming flush on Mademoiselle de Fouet’s cheeks. And to lust.
Catherine excused herself after the cold midday dinner. She still got dizzy after too much effort, even though she was much stronger than a few days before. She hoped she was well enough to leave for Paris the next day, as she didn’t think she could ask Monsieur Emmanuel to wait. She did not know how else she was to return to the baronesse without inconvenience to others, unless she waited a week or more to go up with the de Bures family. She worried about the baronesse, too. Catherine hadn’t been able to rise from her bed to wish her patroness a good journey.
The baronesse was up to something. Their voyage to the country had been a surprise to Catherine. The baronesse hadn’t seemed to have a real purpose, other than to argue with her estranged husband. She had always been honest with Catherine, but this trip appeared to have been a whim. Maybe she had felt her illness coming on?
Or was it something in Paris they had been fleeing, which the baronesse now faced alone? Catherine frowned in worry. She owed a debt of loyalty to the lady.
Manu paced in his own room. He was avoiding his father, who had invited him for an evening stroll in the gardens. After spending a few happy hours in the stables and then kicking and throwing a ball with his nephews, he had pled tiredness and a need to get ready to leave, but was doing nothing at all. He flung himself down in a chair and penned a note to his head groom in Poitou, saying he was going to be delayed by two or three more weeks and to let Pierrot do the haggling if anyone wanted to buy a horse. And not to sell the carriage horses because his brother might want them.
A knock sounded at his door. His father had cornered him.
Manu unfroze and took a deep breath. No need for his father to see he’d been dreading a private conversation. “Ah. Would you make sure this letter gets sent to Poitou, please, Monsieur?” He was too bossy and dismissive. “I mean, please have your servants take care of it. I’ll leave them a few coins, of course.” Too groveling. His father could afford to send a message better than he could.
His father took the letter and tucked it into a pocket. “I have something serious to talk to you about, mon fils.”
Emmanuel searched his father’s face, wondering what could be wrong.
“It’s past time you married, Emmanuel.”
Manu almost groaned. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the announcement, since he was twenty-five and all his older brothers except Henri had married when they were barely twenty. His sister had been fifteen.
“I haven’t pressed the issue, since I made such a mistake in choosing for Jean-Louis.”
Jean-Louis’ first wife had been a charmer with a sharp tongue and a penchant for unfaithfulness. Jean-Louis had married her cousin Hélène a few years after his wife died. The quiet, powerful devotion between them had made Manu uneasy when he was younger, but now it appealed to him in much the same way Dom and Aurore’s constant kissing made him wish for kissing of his own.
“Henri didn’t want to marry. He was supposed to be a priest, if you remember?”
Manu nodded. Of course he remembered; he wasn’t stupid. His mother had cackled about how the plan had fallen through because Henri hated the monastery and begged to be brought home. Now Henri was living with his male lover, the two of them helping run Jean-Louis’ furniture factory.
“And now you wish to raise horses, and you need both land and gold.”
Manu nodded again. He wanted to say his father could give him the small estate in Poitou, as Jean-Louis already had a manufactory and a rich wife. Manu had asked once before, and his father had been adamant that either his second son would get the property or his heir’s second son.
“So I’ve been looking around at court, keeping my ears and eyes open for a young lady with a good dowry—enough to buy a farm, something good for horses.” Papa looked quite pleased with himself.
Here it comes.
“Alors, I’ve whittled the list down a bit, made some inquiries with the girls’ fathers, and so on. Not everyone’s willing to marry off their girls to a fourth son of a mere baron with nothing but his family name, good looks, and a few horses. Most are looking to marry up, find someone with an independence their daughter’s dowry can add to instead of their daughter’s dowry being the only thing keeping her in fancy gowns. Some on my list are older girls, ones who haven’t found a husband after a few years. Others are third or fourth daughters. They’ve got a good dowry, but their fathers married off the older sisters and are short on candidates.”
At Manu’s grimace, his father said, “I found girls who aren’t so ugly they hurt your eyes, of course. Can’t have a handsome boy like you married without attraction. And, what’s been harder, I’ve had to eliminate the bitter ones, the ones who would cause a fuss if you didn’t spend your life doting on them. The ones who would hold their dowry over your head.”
The ones like his mother, then, who, by all reports, had already been unpleasant even before her father had a bastard with his wife’s companion: a young woman much like Mademoiselle de Fouet, without family, money, or connections. The bastard Michel was Aurore’s favorite brother, no matter what she said to all of her legitimate brothers. Michel had saved Aurore’s life twelve years before, even before their father acknowledged him. Manu always tried to not be jealous, especially because he himself had failed to follow orders in the battle to retake the château. Michel was Dom’s right-hand man in the training school. Manu liked Michel well enough. Michel’s wife and children, while not quite feeling like family, always welcomed him politely.
Papa kept talking. “And so, well, the dowries themselves aren’t spectacular. But when you go up to court to see your mother, I’d like you to look the ladies over, introduce yourself to their fathers.”
“Which ladies?” Manu asked, suspicious of the reply.
“Oh, I’ve written them down, along with the names of their family members. You know, the uncles and aunts who can be relied on to put a good word in for you, if you impress them.”
Manu unfolded the paper his father handed him. He scanned only a few lines, but the page was crowded with his father’s large, bold writing. Front and back. And there was a second page. His father had put a tremendous amount of effort into this. Manu was unworthy of this much attention. “I don’t know any of these people.” He thrust out the papers.
His father didn’t take them. “You haven’t been at court since you were thirteen, mon fils. Not for any length of time, anyway. If there’s one thing I didn’t agree with Aurore and Dominique about, it was not getting you in with the right people. These… None of them are in your mother’s circle.”
Memories of supreme loneliness welled up in Emmanuel. Having only a nanny with him for days on end, with an occasional appearance by his mother. Being allowed to play only with certain children. Sneaking out to borrow a horse, and the spanking being worth it.
“Why did you not take me to court with you when I was older, then?”
His father sighed. “Besides that you hated me? You said you didn’t want to go. Even Dominique and Aurore tried to talk you into going more.”
Manu nodded, staring blindly at the list. It was true. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
His father’s arm went around his shoulders for a moment. “I’m sorry, too, Manu.”
The sun wasn’t even up the next morning when the maid woke Catherine. She jumped as though burned, and the maid staggered back in surprise.
“Monsieur le Baron said you would leave at first light, Mademoiselle.”
Once outside, she didn’t catch more than a glimpse of Monsieur Emmanuel speaking with the men who would ride alongside the carriage as guards. His family was up early to see them off, and there were several boys—the de Bures heir and Monsieur Cédric’s sons and another boy whom she couldn’t identify—speaking earnestly to one of the grooms and pointing at horses. Madame de Bures dragged Catherine off to the side.
“Do be kind to Emmanuel, please.” The comtesse was uncharacteristically serious.
Catherine raised her eyebrows. She had never mastered the trick of raising just one.
The comtesse tilted her head fetchingly. “He’s very upset about Maman, you know. He always gets unpleasant when he’s hurt. He is very much a man in that way.”
Catherine glanced at Monsieur Emmanuel and noticed he was very much a man in other ways, too. Her face felt warm.
The comtesse smiled slyly at her, her light brown eyes sparkling with mischief. “They’re all like that, in my experience. They can’t admit when something is wrong. They’ll be funny or angry, but never admit they’re sad or lonely—they bear up stoically and hope the trouble goes away. When we were children, Cédric would make us laugh until it hurt, and only later would I find out it was after Maman had used a switch on him and left bruises. Jean-Louis would become even quieter—never say a word. Henri is very like Manu—they lash out.”
Catherine looked away. She had learned manipulation and well-placed verbal jabs, but mostly she withdrew from a challenge and let the person lashing out feel guilty. “Why are you telling me this?”
The comtesse laughed. “I don’t know. Maybe I want you to know that if Manu is nasty, it’s not because of you. It’s what he learned from our mother. Since you know how to deal with Maman better than any of us, you can help him. Don’t let him be cruel.”
“You are protecting me, Madame?” What an odd feeling: someone willing to guard Catherine in spite of her hard shell.
“Oh, please, I told you to call me Aurore. Well, in front of anyone except my mother, I suppose. She wouldn’t like you being friendly with me. I’ve always dealt with her by avoiding her and instead seeking out friendly faces and singing and smiling. And by talking. Always talking. Like right now.” The comtesse laughed at herself, just as Monsieur Emmanuel called for everyone to saddle up.
Five minutes of confusion later, Catherine was in the baron’s traveling carriage, a very young maid across from her. The girl grinned excitedly and bounced in her seat when the coachman shouted, “Hue!” and the carriage lurched into motion.
Catherine looked at the girl. “I told them I didn’t need a maid.”
The girl’s face fell, and her eyes darted to the carriage door as if Catherine would throw her out. “They said it was for propriety, Mademoiselle.”
“Oh, I know, but I am hardly more than a servant myself. I can make do with a maid from the inn tonight and will be back with the baronesse tomorrow.”
The poor girl sank down in her seat, looking like she wanted to cry. Catherine felt like a bully. She went on more gently, “I am glad to have some company, of course. If I had realized what the baron had in mind, I would have argued against taking you away from your family.”
The girl wilted further. “I’ve never been to Paris,” she muttered.
Catherine sighed. She’d be kind to the girl until she could send her back. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen, Mademoiselle.” The girl sat up straighter.
“I was sixteen the first time I came to court.”
The girl smiled slightly, but when Catherine didn’t go on, she looked out the window. They rode in silence.
When she’d first arrived at court, Catherine had been shocked. She, the best-liked girl in her district of Normandy, was completely overlooked because she wasn’t beautiful or vivacious enough and her dowry was tiny. Besides, she was already promised to the third son of a useless drunkard. Her fiancé, Laurent, was kind, at least. Her father was actively disliked by many other courtiers. In fact, her popularity in Normandy might have been due to people trying to get on her father’s good side or out of pity for her sweet-natured mother.
At court, Catherine had been invisible. Later, invisibility became an advantage.
She’d lain with Laurent several times because they were engaged and the wedding was fast approaching. He made her feel visible. They hadn’t had much to talk about—the only thing he was interested in was his future in the army—his father had promised him a commission.
When he died, she thought she would die, too. Her father promised he’d find her another husband, then went off to a hunting party, dragging her mother along in an attempt at reconciliation. They weren’t the only ones to get ill at the party but had been two of the three who died. They had never agreed on anything; that they both ate large quantities of the same fish seemed suspect to Catherine. She had been powerless to launch any sort of investigation, prostrate in grief, and friendless. Few people missed her father and hardly anyone had known her mother. Even fewer knew her.
And yes, there were debts. Her father’s Paris house was sold to pay them. Her uncle inherited the debt-ridden estate and proceeded to drink it away. Catherine was left on the mercy of her father’s friends. She had been back to Normandy only twice in the intervening eight years, once to rent out the farm and a second time when a flood wiped out the crops. Not only was the renter unable to pay the rent, but the people who worked the land were in danger of starving. She had spent far more than she earned that year. She had also seen that the small, unoccupied house on her land was beginning to fall into ruin, while the barns and other outbuildings were seen to by her renter.
She wondered what the maid hoped to see in the two days she would have in the capital before she went home. A glance across at the child showed her the girl was pale and swallowing convulsively. Catherine leapt to her feet to bang on the panel at the front of the coach. “Stop! Stop! She’s ill!”
The coach slid and lurched to a halt. Catherine swung the door open and slipped to the ground, holding up her hands to the girl, whose feet barely touched the ground before she bent over, throwing up everything she had eaten for breakfast and what appeared to be everything from the day before, too. Catherine’s stomach roiled at the sight, smell, and horrible noises. She crouched down, holding back the wispy tendrils of the girl’s dark hair that had escaped her linen cap and patting her back as she heaved.
A groom approached, but the girl gripped Catherine’s sleeve.
“You should have said you get ill riding backwards,” Catherine whispered.
The maid looked up at her, face splotchy, eyes red. “I didn’t know. I’ve never been this far from home. The housekeeper thought it would be a treat for me.” She sobbed once. “You’ll send me home.”
“Do you think you’ll be all right riding forward?”
“I don’t know. I’m—” But what she was, she never said. She heaved again.
“Is she all right?” said a voice above Catherine’s head. Monsieur Emmanuel.
“Just fine, as you can see,” Catherine replied acerbically.
He crouched down, looking over the girl, who shivered. “Are you ill? Or is it the carriage?”
“It’s the carriage, Monsieur Emmanuel.” The girl’s voice was high and piteous.
“You could ride next to the coachman for a time.”
“Could I?OncleCharlot would let me?” Her pale face brightened. “He lets me ride with him when he drives around the estate.”
Monsieur Emmanuel’s lips twitched, whether to sneer or smile, Catherine wasn’t certain. But he said, “He used to let me ride up there, too, probably before you were born.”
Soon they were en route again, Catherine alone in the carriage. Through the open sides of the carriage, she could hear the maid chatting with her uncle and the low murmur of his answers.
Catherine looked around and, not seeing the maid’s hat—surely she had one somewhere—knocked on the little trapdoor and curled her own wide-brimmed sun hat up to shove it through for the girl.
Manu agreed when Charlot the coachman said he needed to change the team of horses due to the heat. Some of the guards’ mounts were flagging, too. The gelding Manu was riding was the best of the bunch, and even it needed rest and water. Manu reined in his impatience.
He’d spent the three hours since they left his father’s home turning his mother’s illness over in his mind. Did influenza strike her harder than the others because she was getting old? He wished he lived closer to her, wondered why she would leave without waiting for him to arrive, wondered if Mademoiselle de Fouet was truly devoted to her. Wondered if Mademoiselle de Fouet was devoted to anything but her own self-interest. If she was like the baronesse’s circle of acquaintances, each of whom was more self-serving than the next, then Manu wasn’t sure he wanted to know her.
Except to bed her, the insidious voice in his head said.
He hopped down from his horse in time to open the carriage door at the inn and hand Mademoiselle de Fouet down. She rushed past him into theaubergewith nothing more than a nod.
He was disappointed. Next time, he would let a footman hand her down.
They had all the horses sorted out, and still she and the young maid hadn’t emerged from the inn. Manu stomped inside, ready to shout.
He found Mademoiselle de Fouet leaning over the maid, holding out a crust of bread and talking softly as the girl dabbed at tears. Manu couldn’t think of a time when his mother had showed so much care toward a servant. She hadn’t even waited for Mademoiselle de Fouet to recover from her illness before leaving. His sister would be this concerned. Aurore had treated Michel like a brother even before she knew he was one. She had sat by Manu’s bed every time he had a fever when he lived at the château-fort. His mother had never once done so.
“Come,” Manu called out. “We need to be three leagues further by midday.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet stood up, her face sour. “In case you have never traveled with ladies, Monsieur de Cantière, you should realize we need to stop more often to refresh ourselves. The burden of skirts and petticoats means we take longer to do so.”
Manu scratched his head. “Refresh?”
Mademoiselle de Fouet raised her eyebrows.
Oh, she was talking about relieving herself. Manu looked away and cleared his throat.
“Marie is still feeling ill, in spite of being horribly hungry. I have bought her a piece of bread to nibble. Now you must wait until her stomach is settled before we move on.”
“But the horses are fresh, and we have several leagues before…” He trailed off, knowing the argument lost, given the lady’s expression.
Mademoiselle de Fouet sighed and looked down at Marie, who said, “I can still nibble this on the coach box. I really am much better, Mademoiselle.”
She looked up at the lady with trepidation and yet admiration. Manu wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “All right, then, if you’re ready, Mademoiselle?”
She didn’t even glance at him as she passed, her head held high. Though they were ready to start again, Manu felt he had lost the argument, especially when he saw Mademoiselle de Fouet smiling and accepting a hand up from a footman, who bowed before closing the carriage door. The same footman boosted the maid up to the coachman, and the girl laughed.
Manu knew what it was like to be left out. He had grown used to it. It didn’t make it easier.
He rode next to Jacques, his groom and friend, chatting idly for the next two hours, at which point Mademoiselle de Fouet called a halt at a ratty inn instead of at the nice one he had hoped to reach by midday. He announced they were going to change the horses an hour further on, but anyone who needed a rest or something to eat or drink should do so quickly. Very quickly. In fact, anyone who could eat while traveling would do so.
Mademoiselle de Fouet raised her eyebrows again and called for a table for herself and her maid.
Manu sighed and told everyone to get dinner while the horses rested.
Catherine was bored silly. The carriage’s motion made her queasy, though not ill enough to stop. If she tried to read or write or hem her new chemise while in motion, she would be begging to get out, probably to vomit on the side of the road. The open sides of the coach let dust billow in, but if she closed the heavy curtains she would get even sicker from not looking out and from the oppressive heat. The maid was sweet, but Catherine didn’t long for her company so much as for anyone to talk about absolutely anything. Or someone to sit with in silence.
She imagined what it would be like to travel with a husband, someone witty and tender. What did happily married couples talk about in a closed coach? She smiled at the empty space beside her, imagining her former fiancé there. She still had a miniature of him somewhere, but his face had faded from her memory.
If anyone glanced in and saw her smiling at the air, they would stop the coach to check her for fever.
It didn’t mean she appreciated it when Monsieur Emmanuel climbed into the carriage in the middle of the afternoon and sat across from her with a thump, sighing heavily. “Jacques’ horse is too tired to go on to the next change, so I’ve put him on mine.”
She blinked at him. She licked her lips and cleared her throat of dust. “And you want to ride in a coach with me without a maid or chaperone?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Surely you’re not going to lecture me on propriety, especially with all the curtains open. Once we arrive in Paris, you can plead ravishment to my mother and she will make sure we marry.”
Catherine narrowed her eyes back at him. In spite of the spark in her chest at the idea of marrying Monsieur Emmanuel, she was never going to marry. If she did, her husband would either be a country gentleman with no notion of court life or a titled rich man who would dote on her. Not a fourth son who stank of horses and owned nothing.
He was handsome enough when he bathed and wore proper clothing. But even rough and dusty he caused a lump in her throat. His plain suede breeches pulled across the powerful muscles in his thighs, and his shoulders seemed to fill up the space above the entire rear-facing bench. She loved horses, even if she never rode one anymore. Perhaps anaffaire, though it would be risky. Without family and powerful friends, it was too easy for a dalliance to become the start of a young lady’s slide into life as a mistress. Or exile and poverty.
So no dalliance, at least not until she had enough saved to live comfortably on her own land. Monsieur Emmanuel tempted her more than any man had since her fiancé’s death. She wondered about the state of her soul if she was so easily tempted.
She looked out the window, watching the dust rising and wishing she were alone again so she could let cool water dribble into her cleavage as she had been doing all afternoon. She dabbed perfume on her neck and let it run under the edge of her bodice, savoring the intense coldness as the alcohol evaporated.
Monsieur Emmanuel stared at her neck where a droplet tickled. He caught her eye and turned sharply away.
She dabbed more along her collarbones and let it drip a bit, too.
His eyes darted to her neckline, and he squirmed in his seat.
She had not felt this power over a man in years. Even the few who had tried to seduce her hadn’t seemed susceptible to her charms but were interested in her out of boredom or for her connections to the baronesse and her cabal.
Perhaps a dalliance, after all.
Emmanuel kept his gaze on the outriders. Not that he had any reason for concern: they were his father’s men. He had trained with some of them at Dom’s château. After the events of twelve years before, when evil men had taken over the château-fort and held Aurore prisoner, the family scrutinized and trained their guards and servants more carefully than ever. He glanced at the sleeping Mademoiselle de Fouet, wedged into the corner, her head flopping, and wondered if his mother had told her anything about that particularly dark episode in the family’s history. Much of it was common knowledge, but even Manu didn’t know exactly what the bastards had done other than scar Aurore’s face. And still no one knew who had tried to kill Dominique with a crossbow bolt.
Mademoiselle de Fouet snorted inelegantly and turned her head to place it cheek-first against the padding of the carriage, which looked extremely uncomfortable.
Manu swung himself around to sit next to her, leaning against the other side. He eased her over until her head rested on his shoulder, his arm around her waist. It was too hot to be pressed against each other, but there was nothing he could do about the heat.
He woke with a start when the coach slowed and the heavy, hot lump on his shoulder pulled away. “Jeannine?” he grunted. The soft fabric wrenched out of his sweaty hand.
“What are you doing?” demanded a lady’s voice.
Mademoiselle de Fouet. Not pretty Jeannine from Poitou.
He blinked and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then grunted as he rotated his wrist and bent his elbow until the pins and needles started.
“Well what?” he asked.
“What were you doing?” Half her face was wrinkled and red, which almost made him smile. Almost. The rest of her face scowled at him.
“You looked uncomfortable, so I was your pillow.”
Her face flushed deeper red. “I am sure I was just fine.”
He shrugged. “Riding backwards doesn’t do my stomach any favors.”
“So it really had nothing to do with me.” Her eyebrows shot up, her dark brown eyes opened wide.
He grunted in frustration. “I could have sat over here without trying to help you. The seat isn’t extremely wide, but it’s certainly enough for us each to huddle in a corner.”
She let out ahmphand smoothed the wrinkles from her clothing, then wet her handkerchief from her wineskin and pressed it against her hot, wrinkled cheek. She took a few swallows of watered wine and stared fixedly out the window as they pulled into the inn. Manu climbed out first to hand her down, and she marched off to relieve herself. Or just to escape him.
He sighed as he watched her brown skirts swish from side to side.
Another day of this torture.
Catherine sent Marie the maid scurrying to find out where they could refresh themselves while the horses were changed. She paused in the inn doorway and looked around at the clean, tidy dining area. Whatever was cooking smelled wonderful in spite of her faint nausea at being bounced around.
She heard a step behind her and turned to see Monsieur Emmanuel.
“We could stop here for the night,” she blurted out.
He rolled his eyes and sighed. “We have five hours of daylight yet and can cover ten leagues more. There’s a perfectly nice inn where we will dine and sleep.”
“We’ve been traveling for ten hours already. Surely we’ve gone farther than that.” She was rather desperate to stop jolting around. “When I rode out to la Brosse with your mother, we took it in three days.”
Monsieur Emmanuel shrugged. “If I weren’t traveling with you, Jacques and I would make the entire trip in a single day. Do you think I’m not tired of traveling, too? I would be in Paris tonight, see my mother, spend a day with her, and then travel back.”
“One day with your mother is enough after you haven’t seen her for three years?”Ungrateful child.
Monsieur Emmanuel shrugged again. “She chose it, not I. I’ve been to my father’s home and visited Dom and Aurore several times since I moved to Poitou. I was even in Paris, but she wrote to not come see her at Versailles. She apparently doesn’t wish to see me even now.”
His blasé manner made her stare in surprise. Perhaps the baronesse was an ungrateful mother. Catherine shrugged, trying to pretend her patroness’s neglect of her family didn’t bother her. No matter what the baronesse said about any of them, they had been kind and considerate to Catherine while she was in the baron’s country home.
And maybe Monsieur Emmanuel wasn’t the neglectful one. He might be confused and bitter, but he had rushed to his mother when she was ill and was even now anxious to reach her.
Catherine felt a wave of guilt for slowing him down, but also a strange sort of tenderness for the devoted son. It was just as well she didn’t know what to say, because Monsieur Emmanuel walked away to speak to the inn’s proprietor.
When the sun was low in the sky, they pulled into yet another inn yard. Catherine was exhausted, starving, in desperate need of a chamber pot, and, as if that weren’t enough, had a headache and felt sorry for herself. A footman handed her down, and she and the maid rushed into the inn. Marie giggled as they rushed out the back door to the privies.Outdoor privies for a lady! And Monsieur Emmanuel calls this place perfectly nice?
Her outrage was outweighed by her fatigue and hunger. “Eat well tonight, Marie, and then only bread and tea in the morning.”
The girl nodded solemnly as the innkeeper led Catherine to a small table in a secluded alcove. “There’s no private dining room?” She addressed the innkeeper, but glared at Monsieur Emmanuel.
“I am sorry, Madame. The only private sitting room was already taken when Monsieur de Cantière’s rider arrived a few hours ago.”
“Mademoiselle,” she corrected absently. She could imagine a request from lowly Emmanuel de Cantiere might be superseded by someone of higher rank. Her knees and hips wobbled, and she wondered if her grippe was coming back. A footman rushed to pull her chair out for her. She leaned back, effectively hiding in an alcove, relaxing her rigid posture as much as her loosely laced corset and stomacher would allow, and breathing deeply. She savored the sounds of people talking rather than the constant rumble of the coach.
“Marie, if you’d like to sit with your uncle and the men, you’re excused,” came Monsieur Emmanuel’s voice.
Catherine yanked herself upright and forced her eyes open. “You dismiss my maid?” She hungered for another person’s presence.
Monsieur Emmanuel looked her straight in the eyes, then took in the rest of her face. She was probably pale, but his stare made her face burn with embarrassment. He glanced over his shoulder at the table of guards and grooms. “Should I sit with you?”
Of course you should, as the only other person of rank, you idiot.
He seemed to understand her sour expression and turned away to talk to his servant, Jacques. He pulled out a chair—the one in full view of the main room—and sat. As he glanced over at his men, she realized his long hair was wet and combed rigidly back into a queue. Instead of washing, many of the nobles at court put on more perfume when they smelled, so the smell of a human was a relief, even if he did still smell of dust and horses.
The innkeeper brought a humble meal of chicken stew and bread. It was better than she had expected, based on the facilities. They dined in silence, Monsieur Emmanuel glancing longingly at the servants.
It was up to ladies to carry a conversation. She cleared her throat. “If the bedchambers are comfortable, Monsieur Emmanuel, then I will have to admit you were right about this inn.”
He turned his head sharply to look at her. After a moment, he smirked. “My father always stops here. And Dom and Cédric, when they’re traveling with their wives. You will not believe it, but I didn’t choose it to inconvenience you.”
She looked down at her plate. “I didn’t think you had. I’m just not used to traveling so far in a single day.”
He didn’t say anything until she looked up into his stony face. “I’m not used to going so slowly.”
“I thought you traveled sometimes with the comte and comtesse. Surely the comtesse isn’t made to travel on horseback at breakneck speeds.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s been a long time since I traveled with them. I’m usually in a hurry. Though sometimes I’ve been leading horses for sale and go even slower.”
And you like your sister and your horses but don’t like me.She shook away the thought and went back to peeling her peach.
“I’m very worried about my mother. She was not completely recovered when she left. And for her to leave behind a companion seems very odd. She will need you, I am sure.”
“She has her maid, Anne. She doesn’t rely on me for anything,” said Catherine, focusing on the peach juice leaking all over her hands and plate.
“You listen to her, don’t you?” Monsieur Emmanuel said after a short pause.
“I agree with her about everything.”At least pretend to.“It’s how I stay in her good graces.”
She finally glanced up at his face. He was staring at her, his mouth pursed in thought. Or disgust.
“As long as the baronesse is happy, I have a place to live. I could find another benefactress, of course, but the only others who would take me are within her circle.”
She looked back at her peach, which was squashed and ragged but finally peeled. She wiped her hands on a napkin and picked up a spoon to poke at the orange flesh.
Monsieur Emmanuel cut his peach into sections, only struggling for a moment with the pit. He pushed the plate across the table to her. “You really cannot peel them when they’re ripe.”
He went to talk to the innkeeper and signaled to his men. She leaned forward and saw them getting up one or two at a time, talking and smiling.
Marie came over and stood silently by the table. Catherine took the last bite of the peach and dabbed carefully at her chin. “Has my trunk been taken up to our room, Marie?”
“Oui, Mademoiselle.” The girl lifted her eyes to Catherine’s and smiled suddenly. She leaned forward and whispered, “I’ve never slept in an inn before.”
Catherine smiled back. She hoped the cot or pallet or whatever had been provided for the maid would be comfortable, so as not to dash the girl’s expectations. “It’s never as nice as being home in one’s own bed,” she warned gently.
Not that Catherine had a home. The baronesse moved from place to place—wherever the king was, to the baron’s Paris townhouse, to friends’ châteaux. She brought along feather mattresses for herself and Catherine unless she was quite sure they would have comfortable beds.
Catherine sighed.What I would give for my feather mattress right now. What I would give for my grandmother’s house in Normandy and the ocean breeze.
The knock came at Emmanuel’s door before the sun was up, just as he had requested. The innkeeper’s wife crept in and left a pitcher on the wash stand as Manu stretched and yawned. As soon as she was gone, he flung the blankets back and rolled out of bed. He always slept in drawers when away from home. At home, his servants knew to knock and wait for an answer before coming in.
Home. He rarely thought of it that way, but it was where he had spent most of his time for the last five years, wasn’t it? He sighed. It was the closest he had to a home. He was eager to get back to it, not least because some of his mares needed to be covered again, as their pregnancies hadn’t taken in the spring. His assistants knew what to do, but he preferred to be there to be sure it was done with a minimum of risk to the horses. He would trust Jacques, of course, but he had brought him away from Poitou.
The mares covered the year before had all foaled except one, and she wasn’t due until autumn. Manu wanted to keep an especially close eye on her, since she was Dom’s aging prize mare and this might be her last foal.
Downstairs, he found his grooms and coachman heading for the stables and the guards and footmen finishing breakfast. They leapt to their feet.
His stomach sank and irritation boiled up in its place. “No sign of Mademoiselle de Fouet?”
Jacques shook his head. “Non, Monsieur. The innkeeper’s wife went up again a short while ago. They were still dressing.”
She’s dressing for court, then? How about her powders and patches?“Get everyone ready and saddled. The sun’s about up.”
Manu took the stairs two at a time. He rapped hard and, after just a moment, Marie the maid peeked out. “Nearly ready, Monsieur.”
“I trust you both slept well?” He was trying hard to sound polite.
“I slept like a baby, but Mademoiselle—”
“I slept well, Monsieur de Cantière. Don’t worry, I’m ready now.”
And she was. She wore the same brown dress as the day before, smoothing gloves over her hands. The sight of her made Manu’s heart leap irrationally. Her face was white, so Manu supposed her delay was from powdering it, but when she stepped into the hall, he realized she was horribly pale.
“Are you well, Mademoiselle de Fouet?”
“Perfectly all right, Monsieur. Shall we go?”
He gestured for her to precede him down the narrow stairs. Reluctantly, doubting his need for speed if she really were ill, he said, “If the two of you wish to break your fast, I’m going to have to ask you to eat on the road.”
The innkeeper’s wife scurried out of the kitchen with two small sacks and Mademoiselle’s drinking gourd.
“I believe we have everything now, Monsieur Emmanuel.” Mademoiselle de Fouet swept out of the inn with the maid right behind.
At the first change of horses, Manu knocked on the coach door and peered in to check on her. She was sleeping in the corner, her face pale except for bright red spots on her cheeks. The air weighed heavy and humid already, and the coach was stuffy, but he didn’t want to disturb her by opening the curtains. Besides, the draft might make her more ill.
At the second change, she was asleep again, which didn’t seem like her. He supposed she was sleeping away the boredom.
At midday, when they stopped to dine, she was asleep.
“Oui, Monsieur?” She answered just behind him, and he jumped.
“Your mistress appears to be ill. Rouse her.” He was too gruff. He softened his voice. “Please, Marie.”
She patted Mademoiselle de Fouet’s hands gently and murmured, glancing at Manu in concern. Mademoiselle de Fouet was confused and lethargic but roused herself enough to go inside.
“You’re not ill again, are you?” Manu’s mind was already on the second half of the day and the road to cover before Paris.
“Of course not,” she answered, her voice tight and disapproving as usual.
Manu yanked his glove off and touched her forehead to check for fever, but she pulled away.
“Are you sure?”
“I won’t delay your schedule, Monsieur de Cantière.” She strode regally toward the inn.
That’s not what I asked.Manu stomped in after her.
She waved him away from her table when he approached. She and Marie spoke quietly, the maid wringing her hands under the table. Neither Mademoiselle de Fouet nor the maid ate much, for fear of motion sickness, most likely.
Manu made sure he was the one to help Mademoiselle de Fouet up into the coach. “Mademoiselle, if you are truly ill, we will stop here. It’s not the nicest inn on the road, but it is fairly comfortable. My sister has it on her list of acceptable stops.”
She assured him she was well.
She assured him again at the next change.
The one after, she was asleep again, but he set a small loaf of bread next to her and had the maid refill her water gourd. A line of storm clouds rumbled behind them, and the oppressive humidity of the day thickened with the tension of oncoming thunder. Manu focused on reaching Paris.
He had hoped they would arrive at his father’s townhouse before the rain, but the storm broke at the city gates. He stopped their cavalcade only long enough to hustle the maid into the coach with the admonition to secure the curtains and not vomit. Mademoiselle de Fouet stared at him in glassy-eyed surprise for a moment.
“Just twenty minutes, if we don’t get bogged down in mud,” he assured them.
The men pulled cloaks from their saddlebags, and the party forged ahead, rattling over cobblestones, picking their way through torrents of mud and filth in narrow alleys, the wind whipping the deluge directly into their faces.
They arrived at Manu’s father’s house with a flash of blue-white light and a great clap of thunder. The horses whinnied but were too tired to misbehave. The coachman pulled up to the back door of the house to bundle the two women out.
A manservant ran out of the house, waving his arms at the footman who opened the carriage door.
Manu urged his horse over and swung down. “What’s wrong? We need to get the lady inside and the men and horses out of the rain.”
“The baronesse is not here. Mademoiselle de Fouet cannot stay without a chaperone. She is a real lady.”
“A real lady,” he repeated stupidly.
The housekeeper stepped out, and Manu turned his anger on her. “Why is my mother not in residence? She was meant to be here. I have ridden from Poitou to see her.”
“She stayed only one night—arrived Monday after spending Sunday in an inn and left this morning. Her maid said she would have traveled on Sunday if she could.”
His mother’s friends at court were rigidly religious, as long as they could have their priest absolve all their sins of bearing false witness or gluttony or adultery. Still, it wasn’t the housekeeper’s place to comment. Or the maid’s. In fact, it seemed odd the maid had said anything.
“So she has gone to court?” he asked, still not fully understanding what had happened.
“She had a letter when she arrived. The king is expected in Versailles this week.”
Manu looked down at his clenched fists and grunted in frustration. She couldn’t wait for him in Paris? And now they would have to double back toward the west. They could have reached Versailles hours ago and been done. “Mademoiselle de Fouet is ill again. We have to get her to bed.”
The housekeeper sniffed haughtily. “We always thought she was a good girl.”
“We brought a maid, and we expected to find my mother here. I would have been here yesterday on horseback if my mother hadn’t left the girl behind.”
Manu was whining. And justifying himself to a servant. One of many who helped raise him when his mother had been out every evening, ignoring him. The housekeeper was strict but fair and given to pinching a boy’s cheeks and giving him treats. He scratched his head, dislodging his hat.
“Your brother the colonel is at his home with his wife. It’s only a short ride.”
Luckily, very few of the men had unsaddled their horses, so they pulled out into the dark Paris streets, lanterns lit on the coach and men carrying lanterns at the front and rear of the cavalcade.
They couldn’t get much wetter than they were. He only hoped no one else would catch a fever.
Someone spoke, and she nodded.
Her blanket scratched her neck. Someone rubbed her hands.
She rocked and swayed again.
There was shouting, and then a man swore and lifted her. He smelled like rain and horse. The light brightened and warmth touched her face. She tried to open her eyes. Her hands touched wet leather, and she gripped it, sure she was falling. She jounced around, then heard more voices. The man carrying her called for water. A woman asked what happened.
Catherine sank into a soft mattress, women murmuring around her as they undressed her.
She tried to lift her head. “Manu?”
A voice spoke in her ear. Marie. “Monsieur Emmanuel went out. Don’t worry, Mademoiselle.”
“Stop. We must stop for the night.” That was what she tried to say, anyway. Her voice sounded like groans even to herself.
“Oui. Sleep, Mademoiselle.” A different woman’s voice.
No matter what he said about traveling fast, Manu always took a day to recover. The heat followed by cold rain was likely to kill them all.
He awoke early, used to being up at dawn to exercise his horses. He rolled over expecting his window at home before the foul taste in his mouth reminded him of drinking brandy with his brother the night before. Jean-Louis’ house. Jean-Louis’ wife’s house, since Jean-Louis was very clear that even though he officially owned everything Hélène brought to the marriage, he considered himself its—and her—caretaker, with all benefits accruing to her and to their children. Rain spattered against the windows, and Manu drifted off again.
He awoke sometime later to the murmur of voices in the next room. He couldn’t hear rain, but when he opened a shutter, it was so gray it was hard to tell the time. He shivered in his thin shirt and drawers.
He found unfamiliar clothes hung neatly over the back of a chair. They must be Jean-Louis’, as the coat was blue. Henri, his other brother, always wore black or brown, though with occasional touches of color since he had taken up with Fourbier. Besides, he was thinner than any of the rest of them. Manu flexed his biceps, sure he was bigger than Henri.
In the hall, he raised his hand to knock on Mademoiselle de Fouet’s door but was distracted by movement down the hall. A blond head disappeared into an alcove. Then he heard a high-pitched “Non!” A boy stumbled into the hall, pushed by unseen hands.
Marcel? Marcel, Jean-Louis’s oldest boy, ten years old. Or almost ten? Manu couldn’t remember. He was born a scant nine months after his parents wed in haste. Just a few months after his cousin, Dario. He wondered if they were friends. Manu had hardly seen him since the boy was five, but he was the right age and looked like a miniature of his father—and of Manu.
The boy bowed elegantly, his face as solemn and serious as his father’s. Manu bowed back, suppressing a smile. He remembered being young and treated his nieces and nephews with gravity.
“Welcome, Uncle Emmanuel.” The boy looked him over. “Is that Papa’s new justaucorps?”
Manu brushed imaginary lint from his sleeves as he admired the royal blue, conservatively decorated wool. “It does appear new, and I assumed it was your father’s, yes.”
“It looks quite well on you. Uncle Fourbier will approve.”
Manu couldn’t help but smile. But then he frowned. “You have been spending a lot of time with Monsieur Fourbier, then?” Fourbier was Henri’s lover. While the family treated Fourbier like a brother, Manu had his doubts about the suitability of letting the children spend time with the man.
The boy nodded. “He came with us when we picked out fabrics for our new coats. He supervised the tailors until they threatened to quit. He won’t let Papa and Maman wear just anything, you know.”
That did sound like Fourbier, who was a former tailor, Jean-Louis’ former valet, and the fabric buyer for the furniture manufactory.
“And how are you today, Uncle Emmanuel?” the boy asked earnestly.
“Quite well, Marcel, thank you. And you?”
The boy stood up straighter. “Father says I’m soon to go to the country to train with Uncle Dominique. I hope to be an officer in the army. Papa was a colonel!”
“I know, Marcel. And a very good one, too.” Manu had to remember he had been only a few years older than this boy when he went to train with Dominique. So young.
The boy beamed. A high-pitched voice bubbled from the alcove, and Marcel leaned his head in that direction, never breaking eye contact with Manu. “And may I present my brother and sister to you, Uncle Emmanuel?”
“I believe I have met them before, Monsieur Marcel, though it has been a long time.”
Marcel waved his hand like a magician, and a girl dragged a tiny boy out of the shadows. They both had their blond heads down, and their cheeks—what Manu could see of them—were rosy pink with blushes. As shy as their mother. He liked Hélène, but she wasn’t the type of lady who attracted him. The little boy’s thumb went into his mouth. The girl pulled it away.
“Uncle Emmanuel, may I present Diane? She is only seven.”
The girl curtseyed neatly, head down. Manu had to reach far, far down to take her hand to bow over it. If they were going to play at formality, then he was going to use his very best manners.
“And Cédric.” The second boy had been named for his oldest uncle. “He is three, and he’s a little stupid.”
The smaller boy’s head shot up, a look of shock on his round face. He punched his big brother in the chest before fleeing with a wail. Just in one glimpse of Cédric’s face, Manu could have sworn he was looking at a younger version of himself. How many times had Manu felt little and stupid compared to his bigger, brighter, more dashing siblings?
Manu shook his head. Now he was being stupid. “He seems to have understood you, Marcel. He cannot be very stupid.”
“Oh, he understands, but his letters sound wrong when he tries to speak.”
“He is only three, you said?” Manu raised an eyebrow at the older boy, who looked down. “I seem to remember when you were three you had an adorable lisp and a precious stutter.”
Adorable? Precious? Manu sounded like a nursemaid.
Marcel scowled, too old to be remotely adorable. Manu wanted to grin. “I am going to see how Mademoiselle de Fouet is. I do not yet know if she is contagious, so I will come see you later.”
He bowed to them, and they scurried off. The girl looked back over her shoulder and smiled tentatively. He nodded his head. He wondered briefly where the oldest sister, Ondine, was. She was probably too grown up at twelve or thirteen to hide in alcoves and scamper around the house.
He tapped on Mademoiselle de Fouet’s bedchamber door, and it was immediately opened by Marie. Her eyes were sleepy, but she smiled as she curtsied to Manu.
“Is Mademoiselle de Fouet better?”
“She’s awake, Monsieur, but not up yet.”
“I am not up yet because they are holding me down, Monsieur Emmanuel.”
He wasn’t sure if it was weakness or a plea he heard in her voice. Or humor.
“May I step in just far enough to see you, Mademoiselle?”
Mademoiselle de Fouet was propped on a mountain of pillows, her face as white as the pillowcases. He bowed. If he could be formal with his nephews and niece, he could showpolitesseto a lady.
“Are you well, Mademoiselle?”
She blinked sunken, glassy eyes. “Much better, Monsieur. When do we leave for Versailles?”
“Ah. You heard my mother left?”
“I was confused this morning when Marie told me where we are. Especially as Madame le Colonel is pregnant and won’t visit me in case my illness is dangerous. Not a very effective chaperone.”
“She sleeps in the next room over, so she can listen for trouble.” Manu smiled at Mademoiselle de Fouet’s frustrated expression. He wanted to hold her hand and reassure her, but crossing the room to her would lack propriety. “And the answer is: if the weather clears today, I will leave for Versailles tomorrow morning. You will stay here and recuperate. We will reunite you with my mother when we are sure you are well.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet sat up straight, her expression stubborn and angry. “I am eager to rejoin your mother as soon as possible.”
“If I do ride out tomorrow, the roads will still be muddy. In better conditions, it would be a quarter day’s drive in the carriage. It’s not even six leagues.”
“Quand même, I should come with you. The baronesse will need me.”
Manu bit back a retort—hadn’t Mademoiselle de Fouet said during the journey that the baronesse didn’t need her for anything? Her rosy cheeks were feverish, not blushing.
He shook his head. “Quand même, my mother would be quite angry with me if I put you in danger of another relapse by bringing you to Versailles now.”
“I am well enough, Monsieur Emmanuel. I will be sitting in a coach, not pulling one.”
They smiled together at her wit, the moment of harmony stretching between them. “Anyway, it looks as if it will rain all day. If it does, I won’t leave either.”
Her eyes widened in mocking surprise. “Are you no longer in a hurry, then, Monsieur Emmanuel?”
He looked around the room, not sure how to answer. “My mother didn’t wait for me either at my father’s country home or here in Paris. Even if she didn’t know for sure I was coming, she could have waited for an answer of some sort. I have traveled for more than a week. The roads into Versailles are terrible when they’re wet. In fact, if the king is not already there, he might get distracted and decide to stay at the Louvre for a while longer. It might be my mother who will be hurrying back here when the roads clear.”
Most of all, he was tired of chasing his mother, who would not welcome him. He thought briefly of his father’s list of eligible ladies who might be desperate enough to marry a fourth son with nothing but a few horses. If he was to have any success with any of them, he would keep it a secret from his mother and all her entourage.
His mother would welcome Mademoiselle de Fouet. He wondered if his mother had some idea of pushing him together with the lady. And he wondered… “Why did Maman leave you behind, Mademoiselle?”
Catherine’s heart sank. She leaned back again on the pillows, deciding on an answer. She gave the most honest one: “I don’t know.”
“Had you argued with her? Contradicted her?” Monsieur Emmanuel smirked slightly. They both knew the baronesse did not stand for contradiction.
If the baronesse dismissed her outright, her circle of friends would refuse to help Catherine, not only because they followed the baronesse’s lead but because it would be awkward to take her in. She had moved from one patroness to another smoothly because one fell ill and another was going to be away from the court for a long time. “Would it make you happy if she got rid of me because I was contrary?”
Something—Gloating? Or was it anger?—flashed across Monsieur Emmanuel’s face, but he sighed and rubbed his mouth. “It would have nothing to do with me, Mademoiselle de Fouet.”
“Not even to make you glad you weren’t the only one your mother rejected?”
He was angry. Why was she goading him? She opened her mouth to apologize, but Monsieur Emmanuel turned his back.
“Don’t forget: my mother rejects everyone eventually, Mademoiselle.”
She had been with the baronesse for years and nevereverforgot. The lady had far too much power over her.
He stepped out into the hall, and turned around, his face neutral and polite again. “I wish you a speedy recovery, Mademoiselle de Fouet. I will keep you apprised of my movements. Today, I think I will visit my brother’s manufactory and play with his children. I’ll dine with my family this evening.”
Catherine stiffened. Was he mocking her? Or rubbing it in that he had a family? Even without his mother he had brothers and a father, all of whom seemed to love him.
“If the roads are dry, I will travel tomorrow. Without you. It might be the next day or the day after, but unless this is the deluge itself, I hope to be in Versailles by Saturday. I will assess your health every day, to know if you can travel with me.” He paused, and then his voice was polite again. “If I go alone, I will come back within a few days to escort you to my mother.”
She nodded, not knowing if he was looking at her. She was responsible for the return of her symptoms. She should have eaten and drunk more, opened the curtains wider. She was grateful that he would come back to accompany her.
The door didn’t close, so she looked up.
“However it works out,” he said in a low voice, his expression sad, “you will be free of me within a week or two, maybe sooner. I must return to my horses in Poitou.”
He bowed to her and pulled the door closed.
She wanted to call out to him to come back, that she had no desire to be rid of him, that she rather liked him. But he was gone, and Marie was pouring watered wine and urging her to nibble on bread.
“Are you wearing Jean-Louis’ coat?” Henri’s eyes swept down Manu and lingered on his feet. His lip curled. “Not his boots, I’m sure.”
Manu felt like an angry fifteen-year-old. He always did when he spent more than a few minutes with his next-oldest brother’s sharp tongue. “It is. I keep chasing after Maman and getting farther away from my carriage and trunk—and my good boots. They will catch up eventually.”
Henri leaned back behind his paper-strewn desk in his tiny office at the factory. He grimaced. “Far be it from me to disparage your boots,mon frère, but you should talk to Marcel about the breeches.”
He chose to take a deep breath and not make a comment about Marcel, though as with most of the family, he still called him Fourbier, the name he had chosen when he started a new life. But Manu glanced down.What is wrong with my breeches?They were the nice ones he had carried in his saddlebags. Jean-Louis’ manservant had cleaned and pressed them.
“And you’re still raising horses?” The tone was carefully neutral, but Manu was sure there was a sting hidden inside it.
Many nobles raised horses, but most just dabbled, throwing money at dubious bloodlines and never seeing their fine horseflesh except when gambling on a race. Or riding in a race themselves. Usually drunk. Manu hated the men who rode races drunk; if they didn’t kill themselves, they often killed their horses.
“It’s nearly as bourgeois as running a factory, mon frère.” Manu felt a stab of satisfaction as Henri winced. Then he felt a stab of guilt. He was prouder than any noble should be of his newly bourgeois big brothers, who ran the furniture manufactory with military and economic precision. And with style, thanks to Fourbier. They might never rival Le Brun, who dictated furnishing style to the king and court, but their furniture was similar enough to catch the eye of wealthy courtiers and the upper bourgeoisie. They were still expanding, still gaining fame and hiring men to do intricate carving and women to embroider. And still getting rich.
“Ah, there you are, Emmanuel!”
Manu turned to see Fourbier at Henri’s open office door. He breathed a soft sigh of relief and heard Henri do the same. Their brewing battle would not be fought in front of someone determined to make peace.
“Have you seen the cabinet for Madame de Solanges?” At Manu’s negative reply, Fourbier grinned. “Come!”
When Manu stepped out of the office, Fourbier begged him to wait a moment and closed the door for a minute’s private conversation with Henri. When he came back out, he glued a grin on and clapped his hands. “Alors, mon petit!”
Emmanuel chuckled as the much shorter Fourbier had meant for him to do. He had been taller at fifteen—the year they had met—than Fourbier ever would be, but the man had an outsized personality, which made him seem larger: always shining, always on stage.
“Allons voirthe cabinet. We shall see it. But here is a set of four chairs in embroidered velvet we made on speculation. We expect to sell them to the next noble who walks in; they are perfect!”
Fourbier pointed out the details in the carving and the embroidery, the strength of the joints, the lightness of the design. They moved on to the cabinet, which glinted with bold carved swirls, bronze inlays, and tiny painted flowers that glowed in the dim light from the display room windows. Manu’s breath caught.
When they moved to the fabric storeroom and Fourbier waxed poetic, Manu’s mind began to wander.
“Ah, but do you like blue? That is, I know, the colonel’s coat, but with a little work, it could fit you instead.” Fourbier pulled down a roll of blue fabric which rippled and shone. “Perhaps in satin, though. With little gold buttons and just a glint of gold at the cuffs. Then gold satin for the breeches and waistcoat.”
Manu stammered something about horses and provincial life.
Fourbier sighed. “I have yet to convert any of you de Cantière men. Such a shame. All of you with your striking beauty—you blonds as well as the darker ones like Henri and your father. At least your sister takes my advice—the divine Comtesse de Bures! The life in her smile! And your niece—Ondine argues with me about shades, and she is sometimes right. Such an apt pupil. What an eye! And elegant bone structure! But the gentlemen prefer to be a little dull. Though I suppose your modesty makes you hidden jewels.”
A dramatic chord sounded on a harpsichord as he wandered past the music room. Inside, a lovely, blonde lady curtsied to a gentleman. When she rose from her curtsey, the man said, “Ah, non, Mademoiselle. The right foot must slide further across. Your shoulders are not square, which means you haven’t gone far enough. Try again.”
His bright clothing proclaimed him a dancing master. “Now. Your Highness, may I present Mademoiselle Ondine de Cantière, daughter of Monsieur le Colonel de Cantière, late of YourMajesté’sArmy, granddaughter of Monsieur de Cantière, Baron de la Brosse. And then you go.”
Manu stared at his niece—his nearly grown niece whom he hadn’t thought of as anything other than a baby. She executed what looked like a perfect curtsey.
“Ah, non.” The dancing master sighed, even as the girl was half-kneeling on the floor. “Slowly and gracefully. The little stops and starts do you no favors. Have you even practiced since last week?”
The girl rose up with a jump rather than a graceful swirl. “Of course I practiced! I thought my limbs were going to collapse. I ached and shook every single night.” The girl’s voice was full of fury and tears. “It’s not fair!”
She turned to stomp out of the music room. Manu was too surprised to step out of the way. She stopped short and scowled, narrowing her eyes. She was so very young. Still a little girl. He slid his foot back and bowed, his hand over his heart in his best courtly bow. “MademoiselleMa Nièce,” he murmured as he rose.
She sank into a royal curtsey that even Manu’s inexperienced eye could see was better than the one she had done a moment before. “Monsieur Mon Oncle.”
When she rose again, the dancing master also bowed to him and was about to praise her when she launched herself forward and kissed Manu on both cheeks. He was pleased she was learning her exuberance from Aurore rather than patterning herself after her own mother.
“Is that Papa’s coat? Did Fourbier tell you it looked all right? He picked out the fabric for this gown, and none of us ever would have chosen it, but the subtle pink and blue stripes, he said, would bring out my blue eyes and my pink cheeks. Maman said he was absolutely right.” She grabbed Manu’s hand and pulled him toward the dancing master. “Will you dance with me today? I’m to have a lesson, and you’ve danced at court. Haven’t you?”
“Once or twice.” He had hardly been to court since he was thirteen and thought he might have danced a few years ago when he was about eighteen, but he was sure he’d made a hash of it.
“Monsieur Brun, my uncle will dance with me today.”
Manu backed away. “I…ah… It’s likely to be more of a lesson for me than for you, Ondine. You might learn how to pretend nothing is wrong when your partner turns the wrong way.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed dangerously again. “Then you’ll have to do it all correctly, won’t you?” Ah, there was the temper of her birth mother.
They danced for over an hour, until Manu felt he had mastered the steps if not the grace of the gavotte and the minuet. The dancing master criticized his walk and his bow, his hand movements and the tilt of his head. By the end, he was as angry as Ondine had been at the beginning of the lesson. She, on the other hand, relaxed into the music and earned nothing but accolades from Monsieur Brun and smiles from Hélène, her stepmother.
The dancing master heaved a sigh and shook his head. “Send a note if you wish to schedule another lesson before you go to court, Monsieur. If you wish to dance at the palace without more practice…may Dieu have mercy on your soul.”
Manu stifled a snort of laughter and looked at Ondine, whose eyes widened, believing the dancing master’s dire prediction for just a moment before she caught Manu’s eye and giggled.
“Practice your curtsey, Mademoiselle,” the dancing master ordered before he and the accompanist swept from the room, bowing and murmuring goodbyes.
Hélène sighed. “He will be back on Saturday to work with Marcel and Diane, if you’re still here, Manu, and wish to join them.”
Manu looked at his sister-in-law in disbelief. She giggled, and he shook his head, grinning.
“Well, thank you for the dance, Mademoiselle Ma Nièce. I think now I am going to go talk about horses with your brothers.”
Manu bowed elegantly to Ondine, who gave her best curtsey yet, and left her and her maman sitting side by side, the girl chattering cheerfully.
On the way up to the nursery to collect the boys, he wondered if being a doting uncle made him soft and ladylike. His brothers and Dominique were doting fathers, and none of them could be called ladylike, even in the finest court clothes with rows of lace. And they all knew how to dance and walk with a glide in high heels. He practiced the pointed-toe sweep of a walk followed by a dramatic pose. He grimaced. He didn’t mind dancing, since it meant touching hands with a pretty lady, but walking like he was in a ballet made his legs hurt.
Mademoiselle de Fouet probably knew how to dance. What was her first name? Constance? Calypso? Ca-something. He stopped the first maid he came across and asked her for news of Mademoiselle de Fouet.
“I really think it was the heat.”
Ah. Mademoiselle de Fouet was finally out of her room. It had been two days, and the rain had finally eased to a dark drizzle. Manu paused in the hall just out of sight of the ladies in the drawing room.
“I didn’t cool my face with water.”
Hélène’s voice was a low murmur in reply, but Manu heard his name.
“It’s certainly not Monsieur Emmanuel’s fault. I’m not used to be being pushed to travel so far, but I’ve traveled many times in the summer and know better than to let myself get so hot. I take care of myself. It’s my own fault.”
Manu felt a rush of guilt anyway. She’d had all the symptoms of being overheated, but he hadn’t wanted to look too closely, preferring to travel as fast as possible as long as she wasn’t defying him at every turn. He didn’t like being responsible for other people, especially when they disagreed with him. Life was simpler on his farm, where he was in charge. Even in disagreements with Jacques and the other grooms, they all had the same goals in mind: to breed, raise, train, and sell horses.
Horses, he loved. He could select the horses he liked best and turn them to his will. Within reason. The horses with strong personalities weren’t always interested in pleasing a mere human. Men were too powerful. Women too difficult.
Manu walked softly back to the end of the hall and deliberately bumped into a little table, rattling the lantern on it, then strode up the hall, making a little extra noise. There was no point in letting Mademoiselle de Fouet know he had overheard her. He wasn’t sure if it was because it absolved him of guilt or because it made him feel guiltier for not paying attention. He had been trying to prove he was right about traveling fast, he supposed. He instead proved traveling fast was bad for her health.
He stepped into the drawing room and bowed to the two ladies. Hélène’s face lit up with pleasure, and he felt a swelling of love for his sister-in-law. Since he had saved Ondine from kidnapping some ten years before, Hélène had been his champion within the family, second only to Aurore. Aurore should have doubted him after he had left her unprotected in the fight for the château-fort, but she never blamed him.
Hélène lifted a hand to her thick eyeglasses and rebalanced them on her nose. “Oh! Have your trunks caught up to you, Manu? I don’t recognize your coat as one of Jean-Louis’.”
Manu kissed her hand, then did the same to Mademoiselle de Fouet. “As a matter of fact, my carriage arrived at Papa’s townhouse this morning. The men brought my things over.” Alas, his horse, Vainqueur, was still in la Brosse, resting from his long journey. His father would bring him up to Versailles in a few days. He ached to see his favorite stallion, his baby.
Hélène smiled sweetly at him. “It’s very handsome. Did you have it made in Poitiers?”
He looked down at the wooden buttons on the front of his rather plain navy blue coat and honestly couldn’t remember. “I believe so. It’s more an everyday justaucorps.” He didn’t even look at Mademoiselle de Fouet, but he thought she was judging him. “I have some nicer ones for court, you know. Not silks and gold and all, but fancier than this one.” He had never really cared, but his mother had driven into his head from the youngest age that one must look one’s best at court. Oddly enough, his father and brothers agreed, though in a more subtle fashion.Hidden jewels, as Fourbier said.
“Well, have Monsieur Fourbier look them over. We don’t go anywhere without Fourbier’s approval.” Hélène’s smile was teasing, though her statement was close to the truth.
Mademoiselle de Fouet said, her voice sharp, “Are you ready to go to Versailles?”
He scowled at her, and she looked away. He hadn’t seen her since he’d invaded her bedchamber, worried about her, two mornings before. He had made a point of inquiring about her health with the servants and Hélène.
“The rain has stopped, Mademoiselle, and there is some sun. By tomorrow, the roads should be passable, if not exactly good.”
“I am ready to go. I need to return to the baronesse.” She sighed. Was she reluctant, too?
Manu sat next to Hélène. “To be honest, I am not eager to go. Versailles is perfect in spring and autumn, but stuffy and smelly in summer. I don’t know why the court is there at this time of year, unless there’s a new fountain?”
“A new hedge, I believe. And the Swiss Guards are digging a pond to act as a reservoir and improve drainage.” Mademoiselle de Fouet raised her eyebrows.
“The Guards are? Shouldn’t they be guarding something?” He smirked.
Mademoiselle de Fouet chuckled. It was an intriguing, low sound which made him think of whispered endearments.
His gut clenched with desire, but he kept his smirk steady. “I’m trying to imagine theMousquetaireswith shovels instead of swords.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet smiled—genuinely smiled—and looked very pretty. “They’d get their plumes and their dignity all muddy.”
Now he laughed. He had thought about becoming a Mousquetaire, as he was like so many of them: a younger son of noble family. If his brother hadn’t offered his property in Poitou to raise horses, he would have gone into the cavalry with an eye to joining the Musketeers. Maybe he could have fought alongside his nephew, Marcel, once the boy was old enough. The thought made him shudder. Marcel was so young and fragile.
He winced as he thought of other younger sons who had been left no choice but to go to war and sent a silent thanks to the saints and his own father for not requiring him to go into the army or the church. Die or achieve glory. He was going to achieve glory by becoming horse breeder to the king.
“You look very serious all of a sudden, Manu.” Hélène’s voice recalled him to the drawing room.
Mademoiselle de Fouet stared, her face a polite mask. It was hard to believe they had just laughed together. He couldn’t think of something witty to say to break the silence. He wished he were as glib as his father and his eldest brother. Hélène spoke quietly of when she and Jean-Louis had seen the royal troupe performPhèdrethe year before, at the Hotel de Bourgogne, and how it had made her cry. “And yet it was not well received. It was quite shocking how the courtiers turned up their noses.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She cleared her throat. “I am afraid the baronesse was part of Madame de Bouillon’s efforts to discredit Monsieur Racine. I carried many notes to and from her salon.”
Manu curled his lip in distaste. “Is it a matter of pride, Mademoiselle? To have been part of an effort to ruin a play? And maybe Racine’s career?”
Mademoiselle de Fouet narrowed her eyes at him. “I carried notes. I did not write them. The baronesse has put distance between her and Madame de Bouillon ever since. She says now she fears de Bouillon’s dislike of the play was more for personal reasons.”
“Personal reasons?” Hélène could not see the bad in others, which, considering the treachery she had endured at the hands of the aunt and uncle who raised her, was remarkable. And naïve.
Mademoiselle de Fouet leaned forward to deliver a bit of gossip. Manu was alarmed; the set of her shoulders was the same as his mother’s.
“Don’t,” he said.
She barely spared him a glance. “Madame de Bouillon is said to have atendrefor her nephew, much as Phèdre in the play was in love with her stepson.”
Hélène’s eyes were wide behind her thick glasses. “Oh. That’s sad.”
Manu jerked to his feet, disgusted. “Don’t believe everything you hear, Hélène. Gossip also had it that Dominique was plotting against the king several years ago. And that Jean-Louis abandoned the battlefield in Franche-Comté because he was a coward and a traitor.”
“But he left after the fighting, and only because someone was trying to kill Ondine.” Hélène looked scandalized.
He looked directly into Mademoiselle de Fouet’s eyes. “I have very little tolerance for the vicious sort of gossip my mother spreads.”
He stared at Mademoiselle de Fouet for several seconds. She narrowed her eyes at him.
He had started to like her, imagining her to be different from his mother’s friends, but she was as petty and hypocritical as they were. His mind flashed to his mother’s cruelties and sly words as she destroyed reputations. As she made him feel small and stupid. As she said terrible things about all her children.
He would deliver Mademoiselle de Fouet to Versailles, make his bow to his mother, and go home to his horses.
He nodded to the ladies and strode out.
They got halfway to Versailles before the carriage got stuck in the mud.
Catherine heard a shout, and the coach jolted to an abrupt halt and swayed. She listened as the coachman’s grumble, Monsieur Emmanuel’s precise accents, and a nasal, unrefined man’s voice discussed how to pass on the narrow stretch of road. She peered out the right-side window and saw an enormous ox, placidly ruminating. Sitting back in her seat, she sighed at the delay. Finally, the peasant agreed to back up to a slightly wider section, and the carriage inched forward again.
Then, just as the ox’s head appeared in her window, there was a huge lurch as one wheel went off the edge of the road, skewing the rear of the coach sideways. The carriage tilted, slamming Catherine against the left door. She saw two footmen fall past the window into the ditch, then scramble away, slipping and sliding in muck. The coachman cried out, “Hang on,petite!” as Marie shrieked.
Luckily, the coach came to a rest with no further tilting, still at an angle and definitely stuck but at least upright. Catherine climbed as best she could to the right side of the seat and clutched a strap and the window frame, not knowing if her weight would help or harm the balance.
Men shouted, and the coach rocked and slipped. Catherine couldn’t cross herself, but she closed her eyes and prayed. When she opened them, Monsieur Emmanuel was looking in the window right next to her. He called over his shoulder, “Come hold the door. I’ll lift her out.”
He barked, “You’re not injured?”
“Non.” She could do no more than breathe the word. Her hands sweated and her arms shook.
The coach rocked again, and a guard appeared. The two men hauled the door open, fighting to pull it up. Monsieur Emmanuel leaned in and held her arm tightly. “Just…here…hook your foot over the jamb and climb out as normally as you can.”
She slipped down the seat when she released the strap with one hand, but Monsieur Emmanuel held her and guided her until he could wrap one powerful arm around her waist. He hauled her onto the small step next to him. She scrabbled for a handhold. Two footmen reached up and helped her stumble to the ground.
“Is everyone off?” Monsieur Emmanuel called out, as he and his groom clung to the side.
“If it slips, we’ll jump, Jacques.” He called to the peasant farmer who was stopped on the road, scratching his head. “You! Could you help haul us back onto the road?”
“Oui, I suppose. I don’t know.” The man looked intelligent enough, but was probably hanging back, waiting to be whipped for overturning a sieur’s carriage.
“Quickly. Charlot, bring the horses over here and lash them on, but not so tightly that if it goes over they’ll be pulled, too.”
A few minutes elapsed while the men hitched the horses and the peasant’s ox to the front corner and began to pull. The right wheels were on the muddy road, but the left were wedged deep in the muck to one side. After every heave that rocked it up, the coach slipped a little further away. Monsieur Emmanuel called for more men to climb on the right side with him and balance it. Finally, the coach eased up from its precarious perch, and Monsieur Emmanuel laughed in triumph.
With a loud crack, the coach tilted and jerked and the back half collapsed onto the roadway, sending the men sliding and leaping to safety in the mud.
Monsieur Emmanuel cursed foully, causing Catherine and Marie to cross themselves. Catherine called out, “Really, Monsieur! Such language!”
He glared, but muttered an apology and crossed himself, too. “It will be in my next confession, don’t worry, Mademoiselle. But my father’s carriage! I should have brought my own instead of leaving it in Paris.”
As the coachman and the peasant untied their beasts from the coach, the others gathered around it. Catherine picked her way through the ruts and puddles to take a look.
“It’s the axle, Mademoiselle.” Marie whispered.
The coach’s back end was wedged deep in the mud, the rear wheels at impossible angles. Catherine looked up and down the road. No buildings in sight.
She went to the peasant, who was hitching his ox to his cart. “Merci, kind sir, for your help.”
He lifted his hat and nodded. “Only sorry I couldn’t save it.” His voice was tight and whiny, still expecting punishment.
“Is there an inn nearby where we can rent horses? And someone to fix the axle?”
“Oui, Madame,” the peasant said. “But it’s nearly a league back the way you came.”
“Is there something in the other direction?” They were so close to Versailles. She had no desire to backtrack.
“It’s more than a league, Madame, and with the king passing yesterday, I don’t know about horses. All the nobility’s been through since the rain stopped. That’s why the road’s so churned up.”
“We’ll take half the guard, Mademoiselle. You ride with me. We only have two leagues to go.” Monsieur Emmanuel spoke brusquely.
“Ride with you?” Catherine echoed.
He frowned at her before saying, “If it’s a problem, Mademoiselle, you can ride in the cart with the baggage when it catches up. Or wait for the coach to be repaired. I’ll ride on as soon as I make the arrangements.”
He turned his back on her to direct the peasant to take their trunks and the footmen to an inn. She had to bite her tongue to keep from taking over the discussion; they didn’t need her. She was baggage instead of the companion who saw to details. They wouldn’t even have the carriage along if it weren’t for her. She wasn’t sure if it was a relief or a disappointment to not be needed for anything. Mostly a relief, because Monsieur Emmanuel was doing a good job of taking care of things.
The closer they got to Versailles, the more she was tired of the pretense and the gossip. Monsieur Emmanuel’s stiff, angry reaction to her gossip the day before had shocked her. She had only meant to explain the claque againstPhèdreto Madame de Cantière, not to spread malice.
For just a moment, Catherine wanted to tell Emmanuel she had no desire to rejoin the court. She could stay the night in the inn and organize passage to her property in Normandy. Perhaps he would accompany her there, help with the decisions and details, keep her safe. Her trunks with the baronesse could be brought on later. She wasn’t quite sure what she would do once in Normandy, though. The land was rented out, the crops wouldn’t be in for a few more months, and the house was in disrepair. Her mother and grandmother used to have friends in the district; someone would take her in while she had the house fixed.
Monsieur Emmanuel’s voice broke into her thoughts. “We can see if the next inn has a suitable horse and a sidesaddle.”
“I don’t have a riding habit.” Catherine was loath to arrive at court in any way that would excite notice. “Or a riding mask to keep the sun off.” And she hadn’t ridden in years.
“Then the safest way is for you to ride behind me with your hat pulled down firmly. Marie will ride with one of the other men.” He turned to the maid. “You do not get ill on horseback, I hope, Marie?”
The girl insisted she never had when she rode pillion with her uncle or father.
Monsieur Emmanuel turned back to Catherine. “You can trust me. The gelding I’m riding today is calm and reliable, if a bit old. Jean-Louis says he did not flinch under cannon fire.” When Catherine didn’t answer immediately, he frowned more deeply. “I’m a good horseman, Mademoiselle.”
“Of course you are,” she answered, her eyebrows arching. “I was hoping we wouldn’t face any cannon fire today.”
He grinned in surprise, making her heart beat faster, but he turned away to go over some details just as she smiled back. Then they were mounting up—him on the horse holding out a hand, and a guard giving her a leg up.
“Of course,” he said over his shoulder when she had mostly avoided brushing her already dirty skirt on his muddy boot and found a fairly comfortable spot on the horse blanket behind his saddle, “I will only have a change of shirt and cravat with me and won’t be able to be seen by anyone but my mother until my trunks arrive this evening.”
“The baronesse should have all my court things with her. I’ll get tidied up and slip right back in. No one will even notice I was gone.”
She shivered slightly at how little anyone would miss her if she never came back. She felt the urge again to run to Normandy. Maybe she would tell Monsieur Emmanuel to keep riding and take her home. Someone else could have her frocks.
She sighed and leaned her head against Monsieur Emmanuel’s back, which flipped the other side of her hat up so the sun shone in her eyes. He smelled like sweat and horse again. She remembered how it had felt to have him pull her out of the coach. His arm around her had made her feel safe, and not just because she wouldn’t fall. The sweat and horse smell was not so offensive, after all. She slid her arm around him, her pulse accelerating with the hard muscle she could feel and the way his body flexed as he kept them both steady.
Emmanuel stank, and he knew it. Under the midday sun, a drop of sweat trickled down his side, tickling his ribs. Humidity and stink rose from the road and fields and trees. He wanted to remove some layers. Maybe his coat, which while rough, rustic, and not very clean, was all that differentiated him from the peasant who had caused their accident. The heat and humidity made his chest tight.
Part of his trouble breathing was the strength with which Mademoiselle de Fouet held his waist. She wasn’t holding on too tightly, but he was overly conscious of her arms around his waist and her body pressed against his back, her breasts, specifically, with only a light corset and wispy linen separating her from him. And every now and then she would lean her head against him and sigh.
He was glad he had his coat on, no matter how hot he got, since his breeches fit uncomfortably. If he didn’t focus on the road and the surroundings and the other men, he would think of lying in a bed with her arms wrapped around him, sighing in contentment.
He was still angry with her gossip the night before. He could enjoy her touch and still be wary. Though having slept on his anger, he was starting to think he had overreacted. Perhaps away from the court and from his mother and her cabal, Mademoiselle de Fouet would be perfect. He smiled again at her comment about cannon fire. Of course, his mother could be witty, as well. He sighed.
He called for a halt at the inn a league on from where they had crashed. He told the innkeeper their troubles and gave the name of the peasant who had helped them and who would be coming with their trunks. They’d been lucky in their chance-met acquaintance, the innkeeper said, since he had the strongest ox in the country. Manu didn’t tell him that if they hadn’t met the peasant on the narrow, muddy stretch of road, they wouldn’t have slipped off the edge of it. He should have insisted the peasant back up even further instead of telling the coachman to take the risk. Manu’s gut twisted. He had failed, and his father would be angry.
Manu paid for stabling, rooms for the guards and coachman who were coming along behind them in the ox cart, and a deposit to the turner and blacksmith for the axle. Mademoiselle de Fouet set her clothing to rights and paid for dinner for everyone while he was busy.
“Non, Mademoiselle.” He knew he was protesting to the air. “I’ll take care of everything.”
She sat up straight, regal in her muddied traveling clothes. “You would not have had the coach if you had not had me along. The least I can do is provide dinner.”
He wasn’t angry that she was along, after all. He wished he had insisted on bringing his own smaller, lighter coach, even though Papa had sent a note asking him to deliver the coach to Versailles. Manu could have had the coachman bring the big coach along later. Manu hoped to be gone before his father arrived at court anyway, though they might cross on the road, as Versailles was closer to la Brosse than Paris. No, he would have to wait for Vainqueur to arrive with his father and rest before heading back. Since the gray mare had come this far, he hoped to sell her, which might take a few days.
In any case, it was a fool’s errand to chase his mother. She was probably testing his loyalty. Or trying to make him angry. If she had been at his father’s house for just another day, he would already be halfway back to Poitou. If he weren’t accompanying Mademoiselle de Fouet, he would have turned back in Paris rather than passing through Versailles. If he had known she meant to go to Versailles, he would have gone directly there instead of to Paris.
He sighed. Mademoiselle de Fouet patted his hand. “We’ll see your mother soon, Monsieur Emmanuel.”
He looked at her hand resting on his, wanting to grasp it. “I sighed because I miss my horses, Mademoiselle.”
To his surprise, she smiled and patted his hand again before pulling back to her side of the small table they shared. There were two large parties of nobles in the private rooms, apparently. Their servants filled most of the inn’s dining room. Some of the maids and footmen wore satin and wigs and yet were side by side with dusty grooms and armed guards, laughing and talking.
“Are those pale pink coats the Comte de Tonnerre’s livery?” Mademoiselle de Fouet narrowed her eyes at a group of servants at a nearby table.
Manu glanced at the men in shiny pink with great fountains of lace at their wrists and throats and felt shabby. “I’m not likely to recognize liveries. I think my father has his men in yellow.”
“Light blue. Your mother’s footman—she only had the one—wore navy blue. But she turned him off for bad behavior.”
Manu shifted on his hard chair. He hated court. He hated the clothes. He didn’t care whose servants looked fanciest. He took a bite of his bread but could hardly swallow it; his throat had gone dry.
They reached Versailles a scant hour after leaving the inn, Mademoiselle de Fouet once again up behind Manu on Jean-Louis’ charger. At the first glimpse of the front gates, Manu pulled up. The palace seemed to have grown since he was last there, though he was fairly sure no more wings had been constructed in the last three years. His chest clenched. He took a deep breath, trying to drag in enough air. First his father’s coach had been destroyed and now he was headed into the lion’s den. Correction: Lions, plural. It was all lions and he a weak little colt. A colt’s primary defense was its ability to run.I’ll be going home soon.
His instinct was to ask her if they could leave. Instead, he asked, “Where do I leave you, Mademoiselle, so you may find my mother’s quarters?”
She directed him to a side door where a beautifully liveried footman looked them over with a sneer. Manu swung down and held up his arms for Mademoiselle de Fouet. She slid off as a groom approached too late with a wooden mounting block. Manu pressed her close for just a moment to hold her steady. “I’ll see to the stabling and join you in my mother’s quarters, Mademoiselle.”
He bowed deeply to her, and she curtseyed back. Another footman led her and Marie away to speak to a majordomo, who made some notes about their trunks and gave a note about housing the grooms in the stables to Manu.
Manu and his men trotted to the enormous stone stables they had passed on the way in. Finely dressed grooms streamed in and out, taking their beasts to and from their masters and mistresses for an afternoon ride. Some lucky few would be invited into the forest to ride with the king himself. The rest would ride in the parks and gardens, seeing and being seen in their lavish riding habits on their fine horses.
Manu felt particularly disgusting in his rough clothing as he spoke to a groom, who signaled to an older man. After a few minutes, the man in charge came and looked Manu over before dismissing him as no one, though he smiled at Jean-Louis’ horse. It stung a little, even though Manu knew he was no one and his brother’s horse was worth a smile.
“I’ll need stabling. I’d prefer to be near my mother’s horses. The Baronesse de la Brosse. Or if my father has written ahead to request space for his arrival next week, with his.”
The head groom was only mildly more impressed with Manu’s connections than he had been with Manu. Since most gentlemen sent servants to the stables, he was out of place. He stood up straighter and led his men and their horses to his father’s section. He brushed down his brother’s charger himself until a boy brought food and water and the gelding shoved him out of the way to get to it.
Manu continued down the aisle, curious about his mother’s horses. Maybe she would buy two of his Ardennais crosses. He had a handsome young pair of chestnut carriage horses ready to be sold. He eyed his mother’s pair, which didn’t match each other and looked rather tired. Probably bored to death. He wondered if she had them exercised as often as they needed. He turned to go, but his eye caught on the tag on the next stall—also his mother’s. He looked over the door to see a lovely light chestnut Landais pony, small enough for a lady to ride. Had she taken up riding? The mare looked him over warily when he clicked his tongue at her. She was certainly haughty enough to be his mother’s.
He stopped the groom who was carrying buckets of water to the line of stalls. “Is the baronesse stabling this mare for someone else?”
The groom shrugged and walked on.
Manu found the head groom.
Manu had not calmed down thirty minutes later when he arrived at his mother’s quarters in the palace, down a rather dark wing with doors rather closer together than for the nicest rooms. Her husband was only a baron, and she was not a favorite.
The footman who led him knocked softly, but when the door did not open for several seconds, Manu stepped around him and rapped loudly. At the end of another pause Manu was ready to pound, but the door opened, and a maid peered out.
“Monsieur Emmanuel de Cantière to see his mother,” the footman stated.
“We’re expecting him.” The maid stepped back, and Manu stepped in.
His mother reclined on a chaise longue. She waved her hand dismissively. “Mademoiselle de Fouet has been here this hour at least, Manu.”
He bowed to her. “I had to see to the horses and the men. I rode Jean-Louis’ favorite charger and wished to care for him myself.”
His mother sniffed. “If you devoted half as much time to people as you do to horses, you could make something of yourself.”
Manu shriveled up inside. Just enough for the edges of her disdain to touch the anger building inside him.
“I saw the mare you bought for Mademoiselle de Fouet.” Never once in all the years Emmanuel had lived with his mother at court had she bought him the horse he begged for. He had learned to ride on her friends’ horses until he went to live with Dominique.
“Oh, a friend had to sell it to cover some debts. He assured me it was a good mount, but really, I barely looked at it.” She yawned languidly and sipped from a glass of wine.
“And you are just giving it to Mademoiselle de Fouet?” Not even when he had everything in place for his breeding farm did his mother offer to help him in any way. She certainly didn’t buy a horse for him—or from him.
“Well, yes. She said she used to ride. I don’t know if she can afford the stabling, so she might have to sell it.”
Emmanuel removed his hat, and the maid took it from him, frowning at the dirt and sweat. He tried to shrug away the sense of injustice. “If you have gold to spare, Maman, your own children have uses for it.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You mean you have uses for it. Surely your father and brothers could afford a better justaucorps for you.”
He shrank back slightly. “Our coach went off the road and the axle broke. I’ll have my clothing by nightfall. Or by tomorrow.”
“You will have to hide until then. No, in Mademoiselle de Fouet’s room, so you don’t leave my room looking like a groom and smelling of horses. You certainly cannot be seen wandering the halls of Versailles.” She sniffed dramatically and looked away, already bored.
Manu stared at her for a moment. “I am glad you’ve recovered, Maman. I believe I will leave for Poitou in the morning.”
He was gratified to see sadness pass over her face, but when she looked at him again, it was gone. “Tomorrow’s Sunday.”
He grimaced. “Monday, then. May I sleep here in your apartments?”
“There’s no room.”
“Here in the drawing room?”
“Is where my maid sleeps. And I suppose the frumpy little maid Mademoiselle de Fouet brought with her will have to sleep here, too.”
“Marie? She could sleep on Mademoiselle de Fouet’s floor.”
“Mademoiselle de Fouet’s room is barely a closet.”
“Perhaps my father has sent up servants to prepare his apartments already.” His mother flinched, and he felt a little pang of guilt. “I shall sleep in the stable with my men.”
“You will not. Do you think you’re not yet enough of a disgrace? “
His patience snapped. “I’m not a disgrace.” For the first time, maybe the first in his life, Emmanuel knew it was true. “I came all the way from Poitou because you were deathly ill, and yet you have done nothing but run from me. And now I have finally caught up, you are very badly behaved.”
Again, the trace of sadness before she scowled.
Anger constricted his throat, strangling him. “And if you alienate the only one of your children who has even a tiny bit of respect left for you, who will you have left?”
Her face clenched in rage, red spots rising against the unnatural pallor of her cheeks. “I will have my friends. I will have Mademoiselle de Fouet. She is the sort of daughter I always wanted.”
The anger washed away. They’d had this argument frequently before he moved to Poitou. She was never going to relent. He decided to remain reasonable. “Aurore is your daughter. She is possibly the kindest person any of us knows.”
Manu’s mother waved her hand dismissively. “She was always talking and questioning and showing up where she wasn’t wanted. Her father encouraged her to chatter and sing. A proper young lady knows when to be quiet and do as she is told.”
“A proper lady? Like you?”
Again the dismissive wave. “I am no longer a young lady. I am expected to be a leader.”
He shook his head. “Alors, a proper lady is like Mademoiselle de Fouet, whom you pay to do everything for you. A servant is the only proper lady?”
“I do not pay Catherine.”
“You buy her wardrobe, you feed and house her, you bought her a pony. In exchange she does everything you tell her to. It sounds like she is a servant, only without pay. Would you call her a slave, instead?”
Emmanuel only dimly heard someone clear her throat. When his mother broke eye contact to glance toward the noise, he looked, too.
He caught his breath. Mademoiselle de Fouet was completely transformed in an elegant day dress with a tightly fitting bodice, a modest neckline, and swirling skirts. Her form was even better than he had realized. Her face was lightly powdered and her cheeks rosy. He hoped it was because of her good health, not the effect of too much sun from riding without a mask.
He yearned for her. Only physically, of course. She was his mother’s puppet. If she wasn’t already, she would soon be as spiteful and sharp-tongued as the baronesse.
Her haughty expression soured his stomach. “I am no slave, Monsieur Emmanuel. And I do not have a pony.”
There was silence. Then Manu’s mother said, “Oh, DesCroart was selling some of his fripperies, and his wife wasn’t riding her horse anymore. It’s in the stables.”
“Flamme? Madame DesCroart’s little red mare?” Mademoiselle de Fouet gasped.
“Well, she’s brownish, I suppose. I just had them move it next to my carriage horses yesterday. I didn’t know what else to do with it.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet’s eyes widened, and her cheeks got pinker. Manu thought she was going to cry. “I wish I had a riding habit.”
The baronesse scoffed and glared at Manu, as if he had some hand in this. “Well? Have someone bring the horse up for her to see it. There’s no time for a ride, though, Catherine. You only have a short time before you will have to dress for the evening. And do something with your hair, because pulling it back and hiding it under a cap will not do. Tell Anne to curl it if that little girl you brought with you cannot.”
Manu passed the request on to a nearby footman. Mademoiselle de Fouet disappeared again.
“You’ll escort her down, of course, Manu.”
“I thought I was meant to hide until I could get my court clothing.”
His mother shrugged. “Pretend to be a groom. If anyone asks, give them someone else’s name. Though why someone else’s groom would be following my companion, I do not know. Try to look less angry.”
He shook his head. Mademoiselle de Fouet—what had his mother called her? Catherine?—bustled from her room with a large hat hiding her hair and a parasol in one hand. “Come along.”
Instead of offering his arm as he had been about to do, he bowed slightly and followed her as she rushed from the rooms.
“Where are they bringing Flamme?” Her voice was tense, even waspish.
He told her what the footman had said, and she led the way because he didn’t know where they were going.
Catherine stood just outside the side entrance, her stomach in knots. Monsieur Emmanuel had walked two paces behind her all the way down, and when she glimpsed his face as they went around a corner, he still looked cross. She didn’t like to hear him fighting with his mother, not least because the baronesse was not fully recovered. And she’d hoped her glimpses of a kind young man during the journey meant he would be patient with the baronesse. But what a reunion—they had jumped immediately to arguing. She had kept her door closed for as long as she could and had only come out at the end when their voices had grown softer but no less venomous.
And yet the baronesse had bought Flamme for her. Her own pony. A beautiful mare she had seen and wished she could have. She hadn’t had a horse since she was sixteen, since her parents had died and everything but her mother’s land had been sold to support the estate.
A groom on a pony rounded the corner, jogging along next to Flamme, who pulled at the reins, not used to being led. Catherine’s breath caught, and tears sprang to her eyes. She stepped forward and felt someone tug on her arm. A carrot was pushed into her gloved hand, and she said, “Merci,” to Monsieur Emmanuel.
As if in a dream, she approached the horse. Her horse. She held the carrot out. The mare nipped it from her hand, and Catherine shivered in excitement. The groom pulled on Flamme’s halter, but Catherine stepped forward and rubbed the horse’s face. Her horse.
The groom and Monsieur Emmanuel talked while Flamme sniffed at Catherine’s hands, trying to find more carrots. Suddenly, another one was shoved into her hands, only to be plucked away immediately by the mare, who tossed her head in triumph. Catherine circled the mare, scratching her mane and stroking her sleek, chestnut side. The afternoon sun brought out the fiery red as Catherine returned to Flamme’s head and removed her glove to stroke the soft nose.
All too soon, Monsieur Emmanuel was asking the groom to have someone exercise the mare and giving him a coin. It suddenly came to Catherine she should be issuing the instructions and paying the vails, but by then the groom was jogging back toward the stables.
Monsieur Emmanuel handed her the parasol she must have given him in her distraction. She watched the mare disappear around the corner, tears springing to her eyes.
Gradually, she became more aware of him at her elbow. “I haven’t had my own horse since I was sixteen.”
He sniffed slightly. “I got my first horse when I was thirteen. My father gave him to me when he took me from my mother.”
She nodded. “You felt it was a bribe.”
He inhaled sharply. “I did. But it was what I wanted more than anything. My mother wouldn’t let me have my own. Said I had to practice dancing instead. She hoped I would dance in the king’s ballets.”
Catherine grinned and turned to see Monsieur Emmanuel still scowling in the direction the mare had disappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said, though she wasn’t sure what she was apologizing for.
He looked at her, and his scowl eased somewhat. “I have a lot of horses now.” He smiled suddenly, but it was more like bared fangs. His eyes were still angry.
“I don’t know how I’m going to afford this one,” she said before she realized it was true.
He shrugged. “I don’t think my mother thought that far ahead.”
Catherine winced. “I have some income from renting out my property, but I’m saving it for the future.”
He glanced at her with a question in his eyes, but she didn’t want to answer any questions about the future, since it was uncertain.
“I’m not entirely at your mother’s mercy, Monsieur de Cantière.”
He looked her in the eye, finally. “I’m glad, Mademoiselle.”
“I can sell Flamme. I know others who might want a gentle mare with spirit.” It would tear out her heart. Maybe she could ride the little horse for the summer.
With his whole heart, Emmanuel wished his trunk had arrived either an hour earlier or much, much later.
As it was, his clothing arrived just before his mother and Mademoiselle de Fouet left for the evening entertainment. The baronesse said it was some variation on Molière’sLe Misanthrope. Manu found it perfectly fitting, as he was feeling rather misanthropic. His mother insisted he join them as quickly as possible.
He had already sponged himself down as best he could and put on his one clean shirt, even though his mother told him he still stank of horse. When the trunk came, all he had to do was put on his very best coat, breeches, stockings, and the high-heeled shoes—the ones he hadn’t worn since buying them in Poitiers a year before, at the urging of his sister—and make his graceful, mincing way to the assembly rooms. It was more like his stumbling, clunking way. His best boots had a slight heel, but nothing like this. The footmen hid their amusement poorly until he grimaced comically at them, at which point they smiled in something closer to sympathy. Luckily, he didn’t encounter many nobles until he more or less had the hang of it. Still, a half mile or so down reeking staircases and through corridors—he got lost twice—and his legs and feet were cramping.
He arrived at the door to the assembly rooms and a hot breeze laden with every perfume and every sort of body odor imaginable swept across him. His stomach contracted. His stables—which he insisted be kept quite clean but were still stables—smelled better. He wrinkled his nose, then paused and scanned the backs of the heads of the nobility. He didn’t immediately see his mother’s wig or Mademoiselle de Fouet’s dark hair, but then, there were two or three hundred people crammed into the room, watching actors dance around on a low platform.
Was this aMisanthropeballet? Manu barely kept himself from snorting derisively.
A footman glared at him and told him to wait for the end of the scene before going in. Since many of the nobles were carrying on conversations—some not even in whispers—Manu didn’t see it as fair, but the footman had more experience than he in court etiquette, so he obeyed.
During the smattering of applause after a particularly awkward scene, the footman nodded and Manu slipped into the room, walking as silently as he could. He remembered to pose when he stopped to glance around, then eased sideways behind some seated ladies. He nodded to the gentlemen who stood at the back, waving handkerchiefs and holding their hats under their arms as they posed gracefully with their walking sticks. Manu had forgotten his hat entirely, he suddenly realized. And his court sword, which was rather plain when compared to the ones he saw at other gentlemen’s hips. It was too late to go back, so he bowed to one gentleman who looked vaguely familiar and tiptoed so very, very slowly that surely the actors would not notice he was moving.
He was nearly halfway around the room and sweating profusely when he spotted his mother’s pinched profile when she turned her head to the lady next to her. He saw Mademoiselle de Fouet seated behind his mother’s high hat, leaning from side to side to see the actors. A ripple of laughter went through the front rows of the crowd, the ones who might conceivably be paying attention and able to hear the dialogue. Manu drew in a sharp breath when Mademoiselle de Fouet looked at the gentleman to her right and smiled demurely. He took a moment to study her graceful neck with just a few curls bouncing against it. She said something to the gentleman, and Manu had an irrational rush of jealousy. The man turned and revealed himself as an ancient, longtime friend of the baronesse’s, who frowned at Mademoiselle de Fouet and turned sharply back to the actors. The Comte of…something. D’Yquelon, maybe. One of his mother’s particularly pious friends. His son was the worst hypocrite of Manu’s acquaintance, giving lip service to piety but leading a debauched life. Manu glanced around and wondered how many more hypocrites were around him.
“Psssst!” Someone hissed behind him and he looked over his shoulder. Some gentlemen about his age standing against the wall waved him out of the way. Ah. There was d’Yquelon’s son across the room. Manu nodded, but the man didn’t appear to see him, which was fine, since Manu remembered he didn’t like the man. Manu looked around for d’Yquelon’s godson, Lucas de Granville, whom he did like, as he slipped toward the wall to find an empty spot between glittering coats and puffed, beribboned sleeves which nearly steamed from the heat. He regretted not paying for gold braid on his dark red coat. He blended all too well into the burgundy curtains.
Still, he watched the back of Mademoiselle de Fouet’s head as he shifted from one foot to the other to alleviate the discomfort, wishing his handkerchief were at the very least embroidered instead of plain, brownish linen. He fanned himself with it anyway, trying to copy the other gentlemen’s elegant wrist movements. Every now and then someone in the cluster of young men would stare at him before turning back to his friends.
Finally, the play was over, and Emmanuel hadn’t heard more than the shouted parts. His shirt was stuck to him, his face red, his nicest coat smelled like his armpits, and his feet were swollen. He wondered why anyone would do this evening after evening when they could be riding. Or strolling in the gardens. Or making love.
His gaze went to Mademoiselle de Fouet, and he pushed away from the wall and tromped toward her as directly as he could through the buffeting crowd. At last he arrived next to her just as some older gentleman was helping the baronesse to her feet. She swayed slightly, and Manu was distracted from Mademoiselle de Fouet long enough to hold out a hand to steady his mother, who didn’t thank him. But it was also just long enough for the decrepit man next to Mademoiselle de Fouet to hold his elbow out to her and Manu to miss his chance.
“What took you so long?” His mother’s voice carried rather too well as the people around them turned to see who was receiving the latest tongue-lashing.
“I was in the back and didn’t want to interrupt the performance.” Not that he had seen or heard much at all. Or cared.
His mother introduced him around. Or rather, she supposed he already knew everyone, though it had been years since he had seen them. It was Mademoiselle de Fouet who came to his side and reminded him of names and steered him toward one person after another. He felt great relief at finding himself face to face with Lucas de Granville. He had been raised by his godfather, the Comte d’Yquelon, and was pious but not hypocritical as far as Manu knew. He didn’t behave badly in private, unlike d’Yquelon’s son. Of course, de Granville could have changed since they had last seen each other some three years before. Manu felt awkward, but de Granville seemed sincere in hoping to speak with him again soon.
Mademoiselle de Fouet stuck to his side as most of the crowd cleared away.
He sighed loudly. “I’m exhausted.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet chuckled slightly. Manu’s heart leapt.
His mother, though, raised one eyebrow and glared. One of the old men chortled. “You young men don’t know the meaning.”
“I think the travel and excitement would have been enough,” said Mademoiselle de Fouet in a syrupy voice, “but the carriage accident was certainlyde trop.”
“Carriage accident?” one sharp-eyed lady asked. “Were you driving, young sir?”
“Ah, no. It was my father’s carriage and his coachman. The road was wide enough to get around the farmer’s cart, but a wheel slipped in the mud.”
His mother wore a gleeful look. “Was it Charlot? The baron really will have to sack him this time.”
Manu bristled. “I feel responsible. It was too muddy and too narrow. I should have told the farmer to back up farther instead of trusting the space was wide enough.”
A few of the cronies sneered, and his mother laughed.
Mademoiselle de Fouet squeezed his arm. “The coach only needs an axle, and we weren’t much delayed. There were no extra horses, so Monsieur Emmanuel took me up behind him on his horse.”
Manu glanced at her, surprised she hadn’t yet told the baronesse. He wasn’t some sort of hero. “We were only two leagues from here.”
The men began to debate the spot where they had crashed, asking the name of the nearby villages and declaring that stretch hazardous. Mademoiselle de Fouet tugged at Manu’s arm and whispered, “The baronesse holds a grudge against Charlot the coach driver.”
She shrugged delicately, drawing his eyes to the pearly brooch tucked right against her cleavage, and he wished her neckline were lower. “He refused to do her bidding back when he was a groom, apparently. The baron forbade her to leave, so Charlot wouldn’t hitch up the horses.”
Manu looked at her in confusion. “When was this?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked truly sorry not to be able to tell him the circumstances.
“Remember, De Forges?” The Comte d’Yquelon, who had sat next to Mademoiselle de Fouet during the performance, chuckled. “De la Brosse said the baby was too puny still. Wanted him coddled a bit more, eh?”
The baronesse pointedly ignored them. Emmanuel looked at her with confusion as her friends laughed at her. Unkind friends. Were they talking about him?
De Forges sneered. “She came up to court without him, spitting fire.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet squeezed his arm again, then leaned against him and began to speak of how cool it would be in the gardens. Soon, the group was weighing the benefits of a bit of cool air against the dangers of night breezes.
Emmanuel looked down at his companion. “I think your cheeks look pale in this heat, Mademoiselle. Maybe we should risk a moment of night air before we return to my mother’s apartments?”
She stood up straighter and narrowed her eyes at him.
He narrowed his eyes, too. “Just tell me if it’s simply not done. I want some air and thought you might want some, too. But if you don’t, tell me.”
He realized he had spoken too loudly when one of his mother’s friends chuckled.
“She’s not likely to contradict you, Monsieur Emmanuel,” said a lady whom Manu remembered from when he was little, who had been kinder to him than most. “She was my companion before she was your mother’s and never once corrected me, even when I could have used it.”
He glanced at Mademoiselle de Fouet, the young lady who had contradicted him over and over. She looked away. “Would you accompany us, Madame Philinte? Just outside the doors for a moment to get a breath of cool air. Not so far as to risk getting your shoes dirty.” And certainly not caked in mud as he and Mademoiselle de Fouet had been earlier.
He led them, one on each arm, so supremely self-conscious of stepping in the right way he was hardly watching where they were going. The terrace doors were open, so he stuck his head out and looked around before leading them. Which was probably the wrong thing to do, as it made him look nervous, but he wasn’t about to lead ladies into an ambush. He wished he had his sword. Though what sort of ambush might be there, he didn’t know, since there were Swiss Guards in the shadows and Mousquetaires riding by on their black horses. He thought briefly of establishing a line of black horses just to curry favor with the Mousquetaires.
Perhaps he had retained the family wariness, since his brother-in-law Dominique had been shot with the bolt from a crossbow when shooting at targets in the grounds of Versailles. The training at Dom’s château-fort was old-fashioned, not only because they taught students to fight with broadswords and fencing foils, like gentlemen, but because they trained guards—probably even some of these Mousquetaires—to be ever-vigilant in protecting others from every possible threat.
Manu couldn’t see past the torches ringing the fountain in the center of the terrace, but the area was clear to the top of the stairs on either side. There were a few nobles idling around, seeing and being seen, but mostly chatting and flitting their handkerchiefs and fans.
He wanted nothing more than to take off his heavy coat and waistcoat, maybe even his shirt. He yanked at his cravat and loosened it slightly, then turned his face toward an erratic breeze and was glad he wore neither wig nor hat. He sighed and closed his eyes.
After a minute, he realized the two ladies were silent. He turned to where they were looking at him expectantly. He felt stupid again. “What do you want me to do? Suggest a topic? Take you for a walk in the dark?”
Mademoiselle de Fouet glanced at the older lady, who smiled at him. “Maybe just a little turn around the terrace, dear. And you can tell me more about your carriage accident.”
“I can hardly believe Mademoiselle de Fouet didn’t tell you everything already. She was inside when it slid. We lifted her out before hauling the carriage back onto the road, which is when the axle broke. My father’s going to shout.” He cringed at the thought.
Mme Philinte looked worried. “From what I’ve heard of him, he shouts at everything. Your poor mother.”
Manu stared at Mme Philinte. His father was a cheerful, jovial man, who rarely shouted at anyone. Except, it was true, his estranged wife, but even with her, he tended to speak in a deadly precise murmur, not a shout. Manu had been exaggerating; he was likely to get the deadly murmur as well, and was still worried about his father’s anger. As the truth burned inside him, Manu bit his tongue rather than defend his father to people who were set against him.
The silence weighed heavily, but because of it Manu heard the group of men coming up the stairs from the lower garden. He swung around and saw them just as they reached the top. It was the group of young men he had stood near during the play. The one in front looked Manu over, found him lacking, and swaggered to them, the others trailing behind.
He swept his hat from his head and bowed gracefully to Madame Philinte. “How are you this beautiful evening, Grand-mère?”
She greeted the young man indulgently and held out her hand. A few of the other young men greeted her, jostling each other for the honor of bending over her hand, flirting. She went pink with pleasure.
“And who are your companions, Grand-mère? I would have introduced myself to the gentleman after the ballet, if I had known you knew him.”
“Oh, you know my dear friend, the Baronesse de la Brosse. This is her youngest son, Emmanuel. He hasn’t been up to court since he was little. His father took him from his Maman.”
It took a moment for Manu to figure out Madame Philinte’s disjointed speech. He scowled at the half-truth. “My father took me to be tutored and trained by my brother-in-law.”
He’d had a governess when he was with his mother, but she was only responsible for getting him to read his prayer book and keeping him presentable in case his mother called for him. When he arrived at the château-fort at the age of thirteen, there were boys of ten who knew more mathematics than he did. He could ride a horse fast but poorly and had no idea of swordplay.
“This is my grandson, the Vicomte d’Oronte. My daughter’s boy, you know. Heir to the Comte de Mans.” Mme Philinte beamed radiantly at the young man. “And this is the baronesse’s companion, Mademoiselle de Fouet. Do you remember when she was my companion? You were rarely up at court that year—two years ago? Maybe three—and always busy with your friends.”
The young noble barely glanced at Mademoiselle de Fouet, not least because Manu had stepped in front of her. He didn’t wish to block her from the conversation, but to protect her from the young gentlemen who stared at her chest and cast significant glances at each other. He stepped out of her path and took her limp hand just for a moment to lead her forward to greet the young men. She barely glanced up at the men as they were introduced to her and Manu one by one. Manu had to force himself to not wrinkle his nose at the overwhelming stench of perfume and armpits.
He recognized a few of them from when he was a child, but he was never going to remember all the names, especially since they all had the same style of curly, blond wig. He thought a few of them might have their own hair styled in big, curly puffs and couldn’t imagine sitting still for someone to curl his hair. He focused on d’Oronte, who lingered when his friends wandered away talking about a card game.
D’Oronte focused on Mademoiselle de Fouet, even though his grandmother was talking at top speed to him and he was answering and smiling and nodding. “Should we stroll, Grand-mère?” the vile seducer said, giving Manu his back as he held his arm out for Mademoiselle de Fouet and his grandmother, leaving Manu to walk behind them alone.
For an hour.
D’Oronte kept directing the conversation back to Mademoiselle de Fouet and leaning his head down to hear her murmured answers. Sometimes Manu listened in. Other times, he practiced his courtly, sweeping walk, mimicking d’Oronte, who seemed to be born to swish and sway. After a long while, Mademoiselle de Fouet looked over her shoulder at him and smiled slightly, so he went to her, but before he could offer his own arm, d’Oronte said, “Oh, I am sorry, de…Cantière, was it? I didn’t realize you were still here.”
“I’ll take Mademoiselle de Fouet back to my mother’s apartments before I retire.”
“To bed early? I’m sure I can see her there if you need to sleep.” D’Oronte smiled—insincerely, in Manu’s opinion—at Mademoiselle de Fouet and his grandmother.
Manu felt like a little boy being shoved off to bed. He answered carefully, “I’m sure it’s up to Mademoiselle de Fouet.”
“I’m used to seeing myself up with just a footman.” Her voice sounded sweet and timid, but when she glanced at Manu, she arched her eyebrows and shook her head slightly.
He didn’t know what she meant, so he didn’t persist in talking, just in walking next to her.
Finally, Madame Philinte declared she was sleepy and asked her grandson to walk her upstairs.
“Bonne nuit, Mademoiselle.” D’Oronte swept her a low bow and kissed her hand. He bowed more shallowly to Emmanuel. “Mademoiselle, if you are not busy tomorrow after dinner—”
“We’re going for a ride together,” Manu interrupted. “She has a new mare: a gift from my mother.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet looked at the ground, seemingly demure, but turned her head just enough to glare at him out of view of the others. He smiled at d’Oronte smugly when she murmured she did not want to break her word. D’Oronte pressed her in hopes of walking together in the morning, but she said she was promised to the baronesse.
“Do you like to fence, d’Oronte?” Manu asked.
D’Oronte curled his lip slightly. “My friends and I often practice in the morning, yes.”
“Would you mind if I joined you? I have been raising horses in Poitou without an able opponent for some years now and could use the practice.” Since he still practiced sometimes alone, Manu was fairly certain he wouldn’t embarrass himself. Maybe.
D’Oronte narrowed his eyes, then finally agreed and told him where and when to meet them the next morning. He made a second, more effusive goodbye to Mademoiselle de Fouet, then left.
Emmanuel directed her indoors, walking fast. She had to trot to keep up, but it wasn’t until they were in a long corridor, empty of everyone but a few sleepy footmen that she yanked on his arm and whispered, “Slow down.”
“Sorry. Just wanted to get far away from d’Oronte before he started crawling up your skirts.”
“Up my skirts?” Her voice rose in outrage. She glanced around and continued more quietly. “I thought he was a kind gentleman.”
“Kind? He’s the sort of gentleman who keeps a tally of the girls he has flirted with and another of those he has bedded. He likely compares notes with his friends.” Manu might not have had much experience at court, but the same sort of man existed at every level of society.
“He was with his grandmother! He flirted, but not in any sort of odious way.” She lifted her skirts and strode up the hall.
She was magnificent. And irritating. “Well, don’t encourage him. Or let yourself be trapped in a dark corner with him.” Manu shuddered at the thought of that bastard touching Mademoiselle de Fouet.
“Maybe he’s looking for a wife.” She spat out the word.
“His father’s choosing a wife for him. She’ll be sixteen at the most. Her father will be titled and she’ll have a generous dowry. In fact, he’s probably been betrothed from birth. He’s not looking for a wife.” Manu was angry and doing his best to not shout and disturb any of the nobles getting ready for bed in the rooms they passed.
Mademoiselle de Fouet slid to a halt. “Are you jealous, Monsieur?”
“Jealous? Of course not! Completely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. D’Oronte may flirt politely when his grandmother is watching, but he’s not a gentle, nice boy. He and his friends are the types who seduce maids, gamble away fortunes, drink too heavily, and whip their horses.”
“Whip their horses? You’ve decided from an hour in his presence—when he wasn’t even talking to you—that d’Oronte whips his horses?”
“Of course. There aren’t a lot of gentlemen I trust, and he is exactly the sort of man who doesn’t care whom he hurts. That means his horses. That means the maids in his home. And that means you.”
“Me? How could he hurt me? He spoke kindly to me and flirted a little. I did not return the favor, really. He was a friendly diversion in an otherwise dull evening. Tomorrow, he will flirt with some other girl, and it won’t matter to me. In a few months, his father will announce his engagement to a rich girl. Or maybe he’ll marry a slightly older lady with a fortune. But no matter what happens, I will know he is a gentleman who is kind to his grandmother and to some unknown young lady.”
She spun on her heel and marched away. It took Manu a few seconds to catch up, but he grabbed her elbow to stop her. “Stay away from him and all his friends. It will only lead to pain. Not just physical pain, not just heartbreak, but the end of your reputation, the end of all your prospects.”
Her eyebrows went up; she was going to say something sarcastic. “You’re protecting me? Are you my brother? My father? My cousin?”
Manu opened his mouth to say that yes, he would act as her brother. But he snapped it shut and shook his head. “I’m not wise in the ways of the court.”
She sniffed in derision.
He scowled. “But I’ve spent the last twelve years with men of every class. I wouldn’t sell d’Oronte one of my horses. I wouldn’t sell your future to him, either.”
“It’s not your future, Emmanuel; it’s mine.” Her voice was as low and lethal as a short knife in a dark alley. “Maybe I don’t care anymore about my reputation. Maybe I’d like to flirt. Maybe I’d like a dalliance before I move to my property in Normandy and live the rest of my life alone.”
Manu stared. Alone in Normandy? He thought she liked the court.
She turned her back and marched to the next door, which she yanked open. She shut it softly behind her, showing remarkable restraint.
He remembered he was going to sleep on his mother’s drawing room floor and went in after her. He locked the door and squinted into the dark room. Her bedroom door flashed slightly as it opened, and he said, “Mademoiselle de Fouet.” Her dark form paused in the doorway, but didn’t reply. “Catherine.” After all, she had just called him Emmanuel, hadn’t she?
She was just a shadow. He hoped it was her and not a maid. He opened his mouth for a long moment before deciding what to say.
“I would sell you a horse.”
A soft sniff, then the shadow went in, and the door clicked shut.
“Bonne nuit, Mademoiselle,” he whispered, defeated.
Someone was shaking him. Manu rolled over and thumped into something hard. He grunted.
“Monsieur Emmanuel, wake up.”
It was a woman. Maid or lady? He opened one eye. Mademoiselle de Fouet. Part maid, part lady, right? He smiled at his own little joke.
“Your mother’s going to the early mass. You have to go confess before or you won’t be able to take the sacrament.”
The words seemed like French, but Manu couldn’t figure out why they were directed at him. He stifled a yawn and closed his eyes again.
A hard shove this time. “Up!”
He groaned and opened his eyes. “Really. I’ll go later. She’ll never know if I took the sacrament.”
“You will come with us because she will know.”
Mademoiselle de Fouet marched away, dodging between the over-abundant furnishings. He watched her body sway under her nightgown.
Manu wondered what it would be like to wake up next to Catherine. He looked around and wondered idly if his mother bought her chairs and tables from Jean-Louis’s factory. Mademoiselle de Fouet turned back toward him and waved her hands urgently.
He sat up and arranged his blanket over his lap just as his mother’s bedroom door opened. The maid, Anne, came out and frowned at him. She usually slept in the drawing room but had been relegated to the baronesse’s floor. He wondered if his mother snored. He wanted to say he was leaving Monday and she would have her bit of rug back, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to leave. Not with the Vicomte d’Oronte sniffing around Mademoiselle de Fouet. And he was waiting for Vainqueur and the gray mare he hoped to sell.
Manu shooed the maid away. He pulled on his second-best breeches: dull and dark enough for a serious, sober Sunday morning service, yet fine enough for court. He hoped. He would have to come back and change after mass to wear something a little further down on the splendorous scale to go practice swordplay. If, indeed, the young gentlemen practiced swordplay on a Sunday? Then probably wear the same ones, if they weren’t too dirty, to go for a ride. Then back to the serious, sober ones for another mass. And into his best ones for the evening. If he stayed a few more days, he was going to need more splendorous clothing than he had packed before leaving Poitou.
Thinking about clothing gave him a headache.
Two hours later, he had confessed and done frantic, full-gallop prayers to atone, then sat through a thankfully short mass with a young priest who had been, if anything, less awake than Manu. Lucas de Granville stood in the row in front of them, earnestly soaking in every word, but with bags under his eyes.
Manu laid his sober, serious clothing gently in his trunk and hoped it wouldn’t get wrinkled, then took out the narrow case with his weaponry. He bypassed the saber he had worn on the road, the heavy practice broadsword, and even the court sword with its sharp point, in favor of his dulled practice sword with the tip firmly covered with a lump of metal. He pulled it from its scabbard and grimaced at the patina, but there wasn’t time to polish it.
The baronesse and Mademoiselle de Fouet nodded to him as he followed them out. They split up at the door to the gardens—a different door from any others he had used in the last day—and he went to join the young gentlemen who gathered in an open area behind the Salle d’Armes.
When he joined them, four gentlemen were facing off in two bouts, with ten or so men standing around yawning and talking about the wine they had drunk the night before. A small group of them was off to one side, occasionally guffawing. Manu was willing to bet none of them had been to mass at sunrise.
D’Oronte spotted him and said something to his companions before waving him over with a smirk. He introduced Manu around again. No one was wearing a wig, so it was like meeting all new people. At least he was dressed more or less like everyone else, in older clothing. Manu took his coat off and slung it over a banister along with the others. D’Oronte’s friends had padded practice waistcoats on, so he shrugged his on, too, even though it was frayed at the edges and there was a streak of rust on the back. And moths must have been chewing on it in the year or so since he’d last worn it. At least its cut displayed his broad shoulders. If he couldn’t be fashionable, he could at least look strong. A few of the gentlemen looked like they might take his sword fighting prowess seriously until he pulled his old, dull practice sword from its sheath. Then they looked amused.
“Did you sit on it?” d’Oronte asked with a sneer.
Manu looked at it more closely and it did seem to have developed a curve since the last time he had taken it out. He bent the end gently back into place and sighted down it, then swished it a few times, satisfied.
Most of the men had turned back to the bouts in progress. They were placing bets and redeeming bets and chattering idly.
Emmanuel turned to the young man next to him. “How do we choose whom to face?”
The man—he couldn’t have been more than twenty—looked Manu over speculatively. “We all more or less know our level. What training have you had?”
“Seven years with my brother-in-law.” Manu smirked, waiting for the inevitable question.
The boy shrugged. “Depends on who your brother-in-law is.”
“The Comte de Bures.” Though there were certainly other sword masters and other students who could outfight Manu, Dominique himself was the power behind the school, as his father had been before him. He hired the best sword masters he could find, but the day-to-day training was done by men he had trained and sometimes himself.
Several gentlemen turned at the sound of that magical name. Manu hid his smile. He was surprised he didn’t recognize any of them as also having trained with Dominique. Maybe these were all the older sons whose younger brothers had trained at the château-fort and were now on the front lines somewhere.
The boy shrugged. “Usually, those who have trained for the military are in the military, not hanging around court. They don’t generally fence for pleasure.”
Manu felt it like a slap, but bit back a rude response in favor of a nod. “My older brother was a colonel.”
A slightly older gentleman, probably not over thirty, shoved the boy. “De Cantière, you ninny. The Colonel de Cantière. Hero of Toulouse and Franche-Comté.”
Manu nodded as if it should be common knowledge. His brother’s military strategy was taught at Dom’s château, but Manu had figured it was because Jean-Louis was Dom’s brother-in-law. Manu had practiced his light answer carefully for years. “My father agreed I wasn’t suited for either army or church, so he bought me some horses and put me out to pasture.”
A few snorts and chuckles from the men around him. D’Oronte was looking him over, eyes narrowed and a faint curl to his lip. Manu met his eyes and decided to pretend incompetence. Perhaps d’Oronte would try to teach him a lesson and Manu could surprise him. “I am out of practice.”With a fencing foil.
“I’ll go easy on you.” D’Oronte smirked at him.
Manu rolled his shoulders and swished his blade to loosen his arm. A twinge told him he might have pulled something in his bicep the day before when hauling Mademoiselle de Fouet from the tipping carriage.
Which made him think of Mademoiselle de Fouet’s interest in the bastard warming up across from him. Suddenly his arm didn’t matter. He took a deep breath and blanked his mind as one of the other gentlemen waved them over, gave a standard patter about rules, and told them to back up and wait for the handkerchief to drop.
When it did, Manu took a few steps forward, but watched d’Oronte instead of attacking. D’Oronte moved to the center of the area marked out for them and smirked. Stupid smirk. He waved his sword, beckoning him closer, and Manu snarled in irritation—he wasn’t holding back as a coward, just assessing. He took another step forward and threw the first strike, which d’Oronte blocked easily, with a little flip of his wrist.
Manu shifted back a little and gestured d’Oronte forward, taunting him in turn. The man’s eyes narrowed, and then his gaze flicked to Manu’s left ear, followed immediately by a strike toward Manu’s left shoulder. He blocked almost without thinking, stepping to the right. He immediately threw his own attack, toward d’Oronte’s exposed right side, but the man brought his sword back and up as he swung around.
“Bien,” grunted Manu. “Italian?”
D’Oronte shrugged and backed up, standing straight and swishing his sword. “My latest sword master fights in the Italian style.”
Manu dodged forward, swinging from low to high and back again, and d’Oronte stumbled back two steps, fending him off with a look of surprise.
Manu grinned like a feral dog. “I favor the Germanic.”
Then another swinging attack, with a swirl that d’Oronte blocked easily. Manu pretended nonchalance. “The French always seems so obvious.”
D’Oronte narrowed his eyes, and the contest was truly underway.
Neither scored a touch, but a few minutes in, Manu caught his covered sword tip on the other man’s ballooning sleeve just long enough for d’Oronte to come far too close to stabbing Manu’s shoulder.
D’Oronte advanced, a murderous look in his eye, bolstered by how close he had come to a touch. He seemed to be favoring the Germanic style too, trying to overwhelm Manu with strength and speed instead of finesse. Emmanuel recognized frustration when he saw it: a desire to never be bested in any way. The same desire made a young man prey on maids and whip horses and flirt with penniless companions who could lose everything all too easily. Manu’s step backwards as he blocked and parried sent d’Oronte off-balance. He finally shoved the man away and jabbed at his chest to clear the space between them, forcing him to stagger backwards out of reach. D’Oronte immediately pushed forward again, but Manu advanced again, swinging fast and hard.
As soon as they paused to breathe, their referee called a halt to the bout. They saluted each other.
Manu might have lost if it had been a real fight. Though he was breathing hard, he was more like a horse after a canter and not after a long, hard gallop. He wanted to go again, to bring d’Oronte to his knees. He wiped his face with his plain, pale brown linen handkerchief. The day was already hot, the sun creeping into the courtyard where they were practicing. He was hungry, but not starved. He had been taught since he was thirteen to survey the surroundings as well as his own body to be sure each was prepared for the other. He smirked as he remembered the older boys’ sniggers about willing women and surveying bodies.
Manu shrugged away thoughts of willing women; for the last week, those thoughts had led to Mademoiselle de Fouet. He turned to d’Oronte. “Shall we go again tomorrow? We seem to be evenly matched.”
D’Oronte had lost his smirk and was fuming. “We should. I promise to touch tomorrow, Monsieur de Cantière.”
“Touch or be touched, Monsieur le Vicomte.”
The other man smiled thinly and turned to his friends.
“Do you have time for another bout, Monsieur?” It was the young man who had never heard the de Cantière name.
“I believe I do,” Manu said, pulling out his watch and considering how long he had until dinner. “Are you evenly matched with d’Oronte?”
“Oh, no.” The boy blushed as men right around them chuckled. “I was hoping you would show me the Germanic style?”
Manu smiled. “My brother-in-law likes to call it that. It’s based on the sort of hacking moves you use with a broadsword. The last Comte de Bures, the current one’s father, apparently considered the Prussians and the broadsword medieval.”
Manu smiled at the laughs around him. The boy looked confused. D’Oronte still had his back turned, talking to his friends, but the others seemed to like Emmanuel. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did.
Catherine sat quietly at the baronesse’s side, hands idle. She had repaired a torn hem for her patroness and darned some stockings for herself and was bored. Several of the baronesse’s friends exchanged gossip, mostly about Louis XIV’s on-again, off-again official mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan, who was back at Versailles for the first time since her brief period of disgrace.
There was fierce speculation about Montespan’s companion, Mademoiselle des Oeillets, now retired to the country with the daughter she claimed was the king’s. In the baronesse’s salon, they discussed the rumors of her carrying poisons and potions to and from witches in Paris. The part about Black Masses was definitely speculation, in Catherine’s opinion.
No one asked her opinion.
Mostly, Catherine was waiting for Monsieur Emmanuel to come back from fencing. The baronesse’s maid, Anne, slipped into the room with her usual glare and a plate of cakes, so Catherine gestured to the empty plate on a low table between two of the other ladies. Anne rolled her eyes and huffed. She often complained to the baronesse that Catherine was bossing her around. The baronesse told them to work it out, which, to Catherine’s eyes, was as good as saying she was a servant, too.
Catherine hadn’t slept well the night before. She’d woken up many times with Monsieur Emmanuel’s words in her ear:I would sell you a horse. It was hardly a declaration of passion or love or even friendship, but it showed her…what? He trusted her? At least he didn’t seem to think she was a servant on a level with Anne.
She wondered if he were really leaving Monday. She hoped he would, because she needed to reclaim the calm and invisibility she was known for. Monsieur Emmanuel somehow ignited her temper and her blushes without even trying. She used to think he was a bad son to the baronesse, but the baronesse’s coldness toward her entire family in her husband’s home had given Catherine her first qualms as to the guilty party. Maybe Catherine was harsh with Emmanuel because she felt guilty about her complicity with the baronesse, who treated her better than she did her own children.
But did she really feel loyalty? The baronesse had fed and clothed her for two years, but in return Catherine had sunk even further into her role as the invisible, efficient companion. So invisible that she never expressed an opinion that was not also the baronesse’s, no matter how ugly and bitter.
Catherine looked at her future and saw it as more of the same, up until she would finally feel she had enough money to retire to Normandy. How much money was enough? How many years was it going to take? How much worse would the house get in the time it took to save enough to repair it and enough to live on? She had spoken in anger the night before, throwing her desire for a dalliance in Emmanuel’s face.
Emmanuel? Monsieur Emmanuel, she silently corrected.
She had left him thinking she was eager to bed d’Oronte, though her intention was to tell Emmanuel she wantedhim. Monsieur Emmanuel had acted like a nosy, interfering brother, not a lover. Catherine had never had a brother.
She sighed. No one noticed.
Lucas de Granville, the baronesse’s friend’s godson, smiled at her from across the group. Now there was a man who was like a friendly, though distant, brother. She had thought a few times that he was on the verge of asking her to marry him, but he had even less wealth than she. She had also thought a few times that he was on the verge of joining the priesthood. He was a bit preachy at times but had always been kind. She had been kind to him, too, maneuvering the cabal to leave him alone more than once when his godfather, the Comte d’Yquelon, had compared him unfavorably with his own son. Catherine wasn’t positive, but d’Yquelon’s son was rumored to live a double life, only giving lip-service to the sort of piety his father espoused. Of course, most of de Granville’s family was debauched, too. Nobility didn’t always mean wealth, uprightness, or even good sense.
The apartment door opened on Monsieur Emmanuel, driving all thoughts of de Granville from her head. His dusty brown coat hung on his shoulders, a long, narrow box tucked under his arm. He bowed to the ladies and gentlemen and mopped his brow with his cuff. His arrival did what hers never did: stopped conversation.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Emmanuel! Get cleaned up. It is nearly time for dinner.” His mother’s anger masked her impatience, Catherine knew, but felt a twinge of mortification for her patroness anyway.
He looked down at his dusty, suede breeches and rough boots. “I’m going to wear this to ride this afternoon.”
His mother grew even colder. “Dinner, Emmanuel.”
He lowered his head like a child, which was exactly how his mother had spoken to him. But she glimpsed his face as he lifted his head again. He was clenching his jaw, containing harsh words, not responding to his mother’s rudeness. She caught his eye and nodded slightly, approving of the way he didn’t argue.
“Were you fencing with my grandson this morning, Monsieur Emmanuel?” Madame Philinte looked thrilled to see him, which was better than the snide, amused expressions on the other faces.
He pulled his eyes away from Catherine’s. “Yes, I was, Madame. He is an excellent fighter, though he favors the Italian style, which I find too hesitant.”
“Oh, he is! He’s rather the best fencer among the young men, I believe. At least it’s what he told me. What do you think?”
Anger and amusement merged in Monsieur Emmanuel’s face, and he struggled to hide both. Catherine was sure she was the only one who could read his expression. She smiled encouragingly when his eyes darted to her.
“He is quite good, Madame. I can learn much from him about the Italian style, I am sure.”
Catherine almost giggled. Would it kill him to compliment d’Oronte?
Monsieur Emmanuel’s gaze cut to her again. She blinked her eyes slowly and looked up at him through her lashes. He tilted his head and frowned a question.
He bowed to the group again and looked around. “Where’s my trunk?”
“I had the maids drag it into the closet.” The baronesse waved vaguely toward the end of the room.
Catherine watched as he swung his coat from his shoulders and edged along the wall, easing past the baronesse’s friends, to the closet. Such broad shoulders. Such strong legs.
He glanced back from the door and caught her eye. He shook his head in exasperation.
He had totally forgotten to walk the right way, hadn’t he? And he was covered in dirt, disreputably dressed, and unsure of what the Vicomte d’Oronte was up to. It didn’t look good. In fact, it looked like he was going to make things harder on Manu through his influence with the young noblemen. But when Mademoiselle de Fouet had looked up at him flirtatiously, he had for a moment thought she might desire him. She was probably mocking him. He had floundered around for something nice to say about d’Oronte to his grandmother because Madame Philinte had always been kind. Then he’d stumped across the room like a peasant.
The thought that he was more worried about Mademoiselle de Fouet’s opinion than the others’ brought him up short, dripping water from his face and neck down his bare chest and into the waistband of his drawers. He wondered if he could convince her to dally with him before she left the court—if she really meant to leave for Normandy. He would be discreet and not let her reputation be ruined. Perhaps that was why she had talked about dalliance the night before—to invite him to dally. Or maybe not, since he mostly blundered around, shouting. No matter what he did, someone in his mother’s or d’Oronte’s circle might still ruin Catherine. Mademoiselle de Fouet.
Manu sighed and turned his thoughts to dinner.
The baronesse went off for hersiesteafter a Sabbath dinner of cold meats. Every day, she claimed to read her prayer book but fell asleep for an hour or two. Catherine rushed to her room and had Marie help her into the riding skirt Madame DesCroart had sold to the baronesse along with the mare. They had to pull hard on the cords to cinch in the waist, and discovered it wasn’t quite long enough, but Catherine didn’t care. By the time she came out of her room, yanking her sun hat on and doubling back for her riding mask, Monsieur Emmanuel was pacing in the tiny drawing room in his smelly old clothes.
He took her arm and dragged her toward the door. “Let’s go.”
Her beautiful Flamme was waiting for her as soon as they stepped outside, as was Monsieur Emmanuel’s horse, his brother’s huge gray gelding. He sighed loudly while she petted her mare for a minute or two—she had remembered to bring her own carrot—then allowed Monsieur Emmanuel to give her a leg up into her sidesaddle. She nudged her horse forward, and her heart beat faster in exhilaration.
A few minutes later, they were trotting in a wide lane between tall hedges, nodding to acquaintances. Or rather, she was nodding to acquaintances and Emmanuel was nodding as she told him their names. They caught a glimpse of the Apollo Fountain; finally, they arrived at the Sailor’s Gate that opened into the larger park.
Catherine glanced over her shoulder to see Emmanuel slow for a moment. She looked forward and urged Flamme to a slow gallop. She heard a rumbling of hooves behind her, then a laugh. She urged Flamme on until she was running full tilt, just a nose ahead of Emmanuel’s big gray.
Catherine laughed, and the sound was whipped from her mouth. All too quickly the Grand Canal appeared in front of them, and they reined up together. Catherine turned, laughing, and Monsieur Emmanuel grinned back. They cantered slowly along the rim of the southern arm of the Grand Canal, neither asking if the other wished to go farther.
“If we take the first wide path, we’ll soon be at the far end of the Grand Canal,” she said.
He nodded. “They had only started digging it when my father sent me to my sister. Maman and I only came here once before. It was a small hunting lodge, really, in 1666.”
“Small?” She raised her eyebrows mockingly.
He chuckled. “Nothing like it is now.”
She nodded and looked forward to where several riders trotted their horses along the path. They couldn’t gallop again right away or they would risk crashing into the others.
They trotted for just a minute before he said, “Maman and I were here when Dom was shot with a crossbow.”
Catherine stared at him. “Shot?” She knew the story—everyone did—but it was only spoken of in whispers.
He continued to stare straight forward, glowering. “Someone spread rumors Dom was involved in a treasonous plot. But I guess they couldn’t wait for the rumors to do their damage, because they—two bastards of the Baron de Lucenay…” He shook his head.
“I don’t think I know the baron…”
“He’s gone. In exile since then. Before you came to court. The bastards are dead—one killed in the assault to retake the château and the other hanged. The legitimate heir’s in exile with his father, stripped of lands and titles. Maybe they died in the Netherlands, or they might someday come back and stir up trouble.”
Catherine remained silent for a few minutes, before offering a diplomatic: “Your mother never told me what happened.”
“My mother!” Emmanuel snorted softly. “When Dom was lying in a bed and everyone thought he would die or lose his arm, she said Dieu would take him if he was a traitor. When the news came the next day that mercenaries had taken the château-fort by force and my sister’s safety was unknown, my mother shrugged. She said if something happened to Aurore, Dom could find a fertile wife.”
Catherine’s gut clenched. She would give anything to have a family, but her patroness failed her children over and over. “The baronesse has always been loyal to her friends.”
Emmanuel glared at her.
Catherine sighed and looked down at her leg, looped as it was over the saddle horn with her pretty green riding habit stretched across it. The riding habit, saddle, and horse the baronesse had given her. She felt guilty for her disloyal thoughts. Finally, she blurted out, “She feels abandoned by her family. By you.”
Emmanuel pulled up his horse just at the corner where she had suggested they turn to ride to the far end of the Grand Canal. He looked down the deserted path before turning to her. “I am weary and have more novenas to say as my penance from my confession this morning.”
He turned his horse back the way they had come. “I cannot leave you out here by yourself, Mademoiselle. I believe we can return more quickly by the Saint Cyr road?”
She nodded numbly.
“Were you riding with a groom yesterday, Mademoiselle de Fouet?”
Such a seemingly innocent question, posed by the handsome young gentleman in a shiny, blue coat who offered his arm to Catherine after dinner on Tuesday. That this was a close friend of the Vicomte d’Oronte surely made the question much less innocent.
“I spent the whole day yesterday with the baronesse, paying calls. I didn’t go riding.”
“It must have been Sunday, then, we saw you ride by?”
“Quite possibly, yes.” And it was Monsieur Emmanuel with her, as this smirking Monsieur, heir to a title, must know. She wondered who had reported to d’Oronte. And why.
“Ah. Mademoiselle de Fouet.”
Here was d’Oronte himself, bowing over her hand. She blushed nervously and tried to become invisible as she pretended to listen to the conversation. She glanced around and caught Monsieur Emmanuel’s eye as he approached his mother. He hesitated for only a moment, frowning at the gentlemen with her before nodding and turning away.
She hadn’t spoken to him since a muttered “Au revoir” at the end of their ride. Both nights, he had come into the apartments after she was asleep and was gone or just leaving when she came out of her bedchamber in the morning. He slipped in silently when she was sitting with the baronesse. He bowed politely and asked after his mother’s health but didn’t even look at her. The baronesse answered she was well, even though her skin was damp and gray. Hadn’t he said he was leaving on Monday? Yet it was Tuesday and here he was. She had gleaned from Madame Philinte that he had fenced every morning with the young gentlemen. Lucas de Granville confirmed it, saying Monsieur Emmanuel had been giving him lessons.
D’Oronte claimed Catherine’s attention again and asked if she would like to go for a ride with him. The love of riding her beautiful Flamme warred against spending time alone with d’Oronte. “We’ll have to stay within the gardens, Monsieur. I am tired today from the heat, and the baronesse is ailing. I do not like to be far from her.”
“I’ll be sure my grandmother visits her.” D’Oronte shrugged. “It’s not as hot today as it was on Sunday.”
She bowed her head further. Someone had definitely reported she had gone riding with Emmanuel.
“Shall I call for you in an hour, Mademoiselle? I’ll order your horse for you?”
She glanced up at him. “I’ll be ready.”
He smirked horribly. “Good. Until then, Mademoiselle.” He bowed sharply before he and his friend strolled away.
Emmanuel really had meant to leave on Monday. And on Tuesday. He could intercept his family on the road, and take Vainqueur back. Ask Papa to sell the mare.
D’Oronte was still not polite, but they had fenced each morning, evenly matched. Emmanuel’s long-ago lessons were coming back to him, but he was no closer to besting the smirking git. Was d’Oronte going easy on him? Or was his increasing skill inspiring d’Oronte to improve, too?
Manu was bored with fencing, just as he always was after a few days. He’d rather be training horses, brushing down the new foals to get them used to humans, breaking them to the longue line and the saddle. Riding across his own fields—his father’s fields, controlled by his brother, never to be his—on a horse he was training to saddle. Or driving a young team along a deserted stretch of road. Or firing musket blanks over the heads of the young ones to get them used to the sounds of war.
Or, best of all, riding his own horse, his beloved bay stallion, Vainqueur. Jean-Louis’ big gray was a really good horse—serious and steady and quick to action. He was slowing with age, just like Jean-Louis himself—Manu smirked, tempted to tell Jean-Louis that when he returned the horse. But Manu’s own horse obeyed the rider’s slightest whim and was good-tempered with humans, though bossy with other horses. He could have sold Vainqueur five times to nobles in Poitou but wouldn’t even entertain offers. Other than Jacques, his guard and groom, Vainqueur was his closest friend. Maybe even including Jacques. He wondered how Jacques really was, so far from his home in Poitou. They’d only spoken briefly in the stables since their arrival three days before, and Manu missed him.
After midday dinner on Tuesday, where he had watched Mademoiselle de Fouet flirt with d’Oronte, Manu went down to the stables. He talked to Jacques as he brushed the big gray down. He was just mounting when a groom took Mademoiselle de Fouet’s horse from her stall and began to saddle her.
“Is Mademoiselle de Fouet going riding alone?”
The groom didn’t know. He just knew he was to make sure the mare was saddled and another groom would lead her to the palace. Manu paid the groom’s tip—probably more than Mademoiselle de Fouet would have given him—and took Flamme’s lead. The head groom rushed over to keep him from stealing Mademoiselle de Fouet’s horse. Manu scowled and told him since the lady and the horse were under his mother’s patronage, he wouldn’t mind at all delivering the horse.
He felt like an idiot when Mademoiselle de Fouet glared at him. Manu swung down from the gray and let down Flamme’s stirrup without more than a bow to her and the smirking d’Oronte.
“Did Mademoiselle de Fouet invite you along on our ride?” It was rather obvious from his tone that the vicomte would never do so. “Or are we meant to give you a tip?”
“I was already on my horse when the groom came to prepare Flamme. I saved the groom a trip and felt it would oblige the demoiselle to see a friendly face.” Not in the least because he wanted to remind d’Oronte that the lady had friends.
If he did come along as a chaperone, he would be sure nothing untoward happened. He trusted Mademoiselle de Fouet to stay in sight of others, but agreeing to go on a ride with d’Oronte…
Maybe she thought the vicomte was courting her. Manu wanted to ask pointed questions of the vicomte’s family, but he didn’t know them, except for Madame Philinte, who was even more scatterbrained than she had been when she sneaked him sweets when he was little.
Besides, it wasn’t up to Manu to check over Mademoiselle de Fouet’s suitors like a father or brother. Was he jealous? He didn’t want to be, but he was.
He waited silently with the couple, listening to the vicomte chatter pleasantly about the weather as another groom trotted up the long path from the stables, leading d’Oronte’s horse—a rather pretty Arabian, slim and flashy but not powerful. Manu wondered if the beast was for short distances, because it would be useless for travel. Then he felt inadequate because his own favorite, Vainqueur, was built with a utilitarian, military look about him, much like the gray he was riding. From what he had seen in the stables, a gentleman’s riding horse should be only barely taller than a lady’s pony.
Besides, he didn’t even have any of his own horses with him to show Mademoiselle de Fouet what he was capable of as a breeder.
To show the whole court. Of course. Not just Mademoiselle de Fouet. He shook his head.
D’Oronte turned his back on Mademoiselle de Fouet to mount his own horse from the block, so Manu bent down for her to step into his hands. She had on boots, and Manu was disappointed he did not get to see or feel her ankles. He helped her settle her skirts and nodded to her as he backed away.
“Ah, bien. De Cantière makes a good groom, then? I could hire you to brush my horse.” D’Oronte chuckled at his own joke.
Mademoiselle de Fouet looked at her hands where they rested on the reins. She whispered, “Merci, Monsieur Emmanuel.”
Manu watched as she and d’Oronte rode away. Mademoiselle de Fouet glanced back at him once before turning back to her pretty mare that was prancing in eagerness.
He led his horse to the mounting block and heaved himself up into the saddle. He had thought of riding alone up to the end of the Grand Canal, where he hadn’t gone with Mademoiselle de Fouet two days before. He very nearly rode right back to the stable and left Jean-Louis’ gelding there, but the big gray was tossing his head and stamping, eager to run, too.
Manu turned back past the stables, out the big gates of the palace, and over the cobblestones of the town. Once out the other side, he spurred the gray to a canter and rode two leagues back to where they had left his father’s carriage.
The innkeeper rushed out. “Oh, Monsieur de Cantière! We sent a messenger not an hour ago! The turner fitted the last spoke this morning.”
Manu paid the blacksmith and the turner and the innkeeper, and arranged for his father’s servants to bring the carriage to Versailles the next day. He rode back to Versailles, deep in thought about the letter he still needed to write to his father about the carriage; he hadn’t wanted to announce the coach was broken without also saying it was fixed.