Someone up there likes me.
Rain was pouring down, soaking him to the skin. But he reveled in it, rather than seeing it as a real hindrance. As he ran his hands through his hair he smiled, giving thanks to the heavens for sending the sudden storm…one that would wash away any hint of his trail.
On two points, however, he did have concerns. He couldn’t sleep out in such weather. And he was hungry. After half a day fleeing from his pursuers, he’d worked up quite an appetite, and the fruit he’d sampled from the orchard had been burned off hours ago. What he desired was a hot meal, a warm bed…perhaps even a bit of female company. And he was quite sure he knew just where to find all three.
Moving forward through the dark, his keen sense of direction led him to the top of a familiar hill. The entirety of the Chateau LaCroix was impossible to make out in the rain and blackness, but there were faint shimmers of candlelight that shined like tiny beacons, drawing him forward as a moth to a flame.
One window in particular…and the terrace before it… he knew better than any other. The notion that it was two stories up was no concern. A trellis of ivy was easily scaled, even with the wet of the rain, and with ease he slung himself over the balcony rail, squatting cautiously on the stones just before the half-drawn curtains. Peering in, he saw the occupant of the room sitting upon a stool. A maid stood behind her, stroking the lady’s long blond hair with a brush, and it seemed they were the only occupants of the room. But he could not be certain. So he lay in wait, hoping for the proper moment. And it came sooner than expected. The maid was dismissed with an impatient hand. When he saw the chamber door close, he inched closer to the entry. Pursing his lips, he emitted a soft bird call. The lady turned her head sharply towards the sound, rising from her seat, to move carefully towards the sound. She drew the curtains back, and seeing the person crouched in wait before her, she folded her arms and looked down at him. He grinned up at her, water dripping from his nose and chin.
“Lovely weather tonight, is it not?”
She was silent, glaring at him with fiery green eyes. He folded his hands, giving her his most earnest and needy expression.
“Oh lovely Baroness. Might you spare a meager place on the floor for a drenched, tired, hungry soul such as I?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I would sooner have a foul-smelling, flea-infested stray dog admitted to my presence.”
There was a moment of silence between them. Then he leaned back on his haunches, and positioning his hands and arms just so in front of him, he whined as if he were, indeed, a pitiful hound. She snorted in contempt.
“Ugh! You are certainly the most pathetic of creatures. The lowest of the low.”
He only grinned…and was rewarded when she took a step back, allowing him in. But he did not come far, knowing she would not be pleased if he soiled her Aubusson rug. He remained on the stone floor until she brought him a towel with which to dry himself. Then she stood back with her hands on her slender hips, scowling at him.
“René-Jean Bastien, why do you creep about my terrace?”
Looking her over with a heated gaze, he took in the sight of her supple figure. Her sleeveless nightdress, made of the finest white silk, hardly disguised her feminine attributes, and she didn’t seem concerned about her modesty. As he rubbed the towel over his face, he gave her a tender and appreciative smile.
“I missed you, love. And I knew you could not cast me out on a night such as this.”
Folding her arms defensively, her scowl grew deeper. “If you missed me so, why have you not come to see me in nearly two months?”
His leather shoes were soaked through. As he shifted from one foot to another, removing his footwear, he explained himself. “Forgive me for denying you my company. I was employed and quite short on time.”
Her eyebrow raised in suspicion.
“Was? Hearing your words uttered with a past tense, I take it to mean you are no longer earning an honest living? Pray, what mischief caused your termination this time?”
He shook his head. “I assure you, it was but a simple misunderstanding. A navigational error in the home of my employer. Entirely not my fault.”
“Oh no?” she replied, eyes full of skepticism at his words. “Somehow I doubt you were guiltless.”
For a moment he thought to declare his total innocence. But his mouth opened just slightly in such defense before he closed it back. The Baroness had little faith in what men said…and in this case, she was correct. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Perhaps I pocketed a few baubles.”
Her reply was a little huff of satisfaction. “So I thought.”
At her rather pleased tone, his own took on a slight edge of defensiveness. “Had my master’s daughter not encountered me, I might have escaped undetected.”
Curiosity was in her question. “She revealed your crime to her father?”
He shook his head. “Not quite so.”
There was a slight pause as she waited for him to reply, and she asked, “What then?”
A smirk formed at the corner of his mouth. “She did not see what I had stolen. Her interests were of a more…carnal nature.”
The Baroness returned her hands to her hips. She took a small step forward, her expression growing dark. He knew an accusation was coming, and she did not hide her displeasure.
“Have you have come to me straight from the bed of another woman?”
He sighed. “Sheathe your claws, ma belle. She was but fifteen. I delight in all women, but I am not an absolute letch. I declined her invitation. But she did not take kindly to my rejection. She told her father a tale of impropriety, and he promptly set a band of mercenaries upon me.”
As he gave his head a last rub with the towel, he glanced at her, wishing to judge her expression and body language. Physically, she seemed to relax, as her shoulders sank a little and her arms didn’t seem as tightly crossed. He’d been quite certain from the start that he could count on her feminine instinct…the need to nurture and care. She only confirmed it when she stepped forward, taking the towel from his hand. Her facial features had softened, the suspicion easing away…though her voice remained haughty.
“Remove yourself from those wet things before you catch your death.”
He smirked, relishing the opportunity to tease her. She was so very appealing when she was worked up. With graceful movement, he pulled his wet shirt over his head, reaching out to drop it to the floor. He fixed his gaze on her, noting the way her eyes were scanning him up and down. Clearly, she took pleasure in what she was seeing.
“You wish to admire me, do you?”
Her eyes flashed with an indignant light. She wasn’t quite ready to let down her guard, and as if to emphasize it, she threw a coverlet at him, purposely aiming at his head.
“Cheeky bastard. Cover yourself. And then go into my dressing room. I will have a meal brought up, but I will not have the servants knowing of your presence.”
He shrugged. “It is not as though they are unfamiliar with me.”
“Which is precisely why they will not know you are here,” she replied. “The last time you visited, I caught two of my maids whispering about you. I had to convince my husband that the pair were plotting against me, telling malicious lies. Fortunately the dolt believed it and had the pair sacked.”
Glancing around the room, he felt a brief moment of concern. “By and by, where is the Baron? At tables, or with his mistress?”
She snorted in disgust. “I know not. Perhaps he ventures between the two. I am only aware that he is not home, and I hardly anticipate his return in the near future.”
René’s expression warmed, knowing the element of danger was removed. “So we are quite alone then?”
A moment of silence passed, one in which he hoped she might smile or soften further. But still she was still quite serious in her demeanor. She gestured with her head.
“Into the dressing room, René.”
As she turned and walked away, his amusement only deepened. Her manner seemed cold, but he knew her well enough. If she was truly spiteful, she would not have let him in. The line he had to walk would have to be a fine one, but if he treaded it carefully, Marie-Isabella Lacroix would soon be eating from the palm of his hand.
A little more than a half-hour had passed. While his clothes hung from a peg, slowly drying, he sat before a blazing fire, partaking of bread and wine. Wrapped in a black silk robe, courtesy of the absent Baron, he chuckled at the voluminous amount of material.
“You might possibly fit three of me in here. Your husband’s girth is astounding.”
She made a dismissive sound. “I would rather not speak of him. It is enough that I endure his presence in the brief periods of time that he is here. When he is not about, I have no wish to be reminded of him.”
René shrugged. “Whatever your prefer, love. I am content to speak of other things. Or not to speak at all.”
Leaning in, intent on kissing her, he was not so surprised when she turned her head away. She had always been highly self-respecting and stubborn. Obviously, her pride was still sore. It would take a bit more persuading to win back her favor…and it was her pride that he aimed directly for.
“You are a beautiful and intelligent woman, Izzie. You deserve far better than him.”
At the uttering of her pet name, she finally looked at him, though it was only for a moment. He knew she was trying to avoid his gaze. She was doing her utmost not to soften, but he knew her better than she knew herself. Like any woman, she would eventually succumb to the need to open herself, be it emotionally or otherwise. She would speak, and he would listen. It was something he had long-ago learned about the female species. They had a deep desire to be heard. And unlike most men, he was aware that patience…just letting them say what was on their mind…was the key to winning their affections. Her head lowered, as her tone became sad.
“Why has love forsaken me, René? Why can I not have what certain others are granted?”
From the inflection in her voice, he sensed that there might be a specific others in her meaning. “Do you speak of someone in particular?” he asked.
She sighed. “A neighboring family. One I have known for many years.” Picking up her wine goblet, she took a deep drink before continuing. “Are you aware of the Gisbornes?”
He was silent for a moment, recalling the pretty young Gisborne he’d seen earlier that day. But he kept the brief recollection to himself, giving the Countess his full attention, except to make a small remark.
“I have heard the Gisborne name, but I’ve not been formally introduced. What of them?”
She sighed. “They’ve been given quite a bounty of happiness and good fortune. There are many who envy them and their little paradise. It is whispered that Sir Guy and his Lady are quite mad for one another, even after being wed for nearly twenty years. And their offspring are all of robust health. They live well and happy, which is more than some of us can say.”
He shrugged. “I would say that such a life is something to hope for, indeed. But I do not think they are deserving of scorn simply because they are more fortunate.”
For a moment, her tone became sharp. “I did not say I scorned them.” Then her voice softened again. “I have known them for some time, and I must confess it is difficult not to like them. The Countess is most generous and kind. Sir Guy is aloof at times, and a bit of a puzzlement, but judging from his total devotion to his wife and family, it is clear he is a good man. Their children are intelligent, upstanding citizens, except perhaps for their eldest daughter. She is quite the firebrand.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“So, one cannot help but wonder what magic they are in possession of. They live such a charmed life.”
He gave a slight smile. “I lead a charmed life as well. Do you think ill of me?”
She did not reply, and he could see that his attempt at humor did not have the desired effect. He had intended to ease her feelings with lightheartedness, but he knew there was a deeper trouble in her heart. Marie-Isabella was a haughty creature, but she was not vindictive and cruel, and her bitterness was a thin disguise for her true feelings. As with all women, her marriage had not been her choosing, and sadly, her husband did not seek her bed for pleasure. He’d occupied it long enough to produce his heir, and then his attention had waned. It seemed such a shame for a beautiful woman…and a young one, at only four and twenty…to be so neglected.
“Your son is what age now?” René asked, careful to use a gentle tone. It was not his intention to inflict pain, but to open her heart. Her voice replied low and soft, laced with sorrow.
“Sebastian is nine years of age.”
With a light touch of his fingertip he brushed her arm, tracing the skin up to her shoulder. He could feel her trembling slightly as the last of her defenses melted away. He spoke softly.
“Your son is away from you, being schooled in his noble duties. Your husband is a fool who shuns your company. It is wrong, Izzie. So very wrong.”
She gave no reply, but he could hear and feel the escalation of her breath. She turned to him, letting him see the soft look in her eyes. Her words beseeched him.
“Stay with me tonight. I do not want to be alone.”
He had no plans for the immediate future…at least, not for tonight. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? He wasn’t one to live beyond the moment, at any rate. And at the moment, a beautiful woman was melting against him. She was saying, without words, that she wanted him desperately. And what kind of fool would he be to turn down such blatant admiration?