As he left the room, Rene winced, holding his jaw. He’d forgotten how hard Louis’ punches could be. Growing up, he and his brothers had gotten into many a brawl, and it seemed that very little had changed. Just as it had been then, he was the loser, left to retreat and lick his wounds.
In the hall, he started towards his old bedchamber. Everything was out in the open now. What would be the harm in seeking out a comfortable bed, and maybe a bath?
As he came around the corner, he passed the open door of a chamber. Glancing in, he saw Marie and the housekeeper, who were changing the linens on a bed. He sighed, watching Marie as she worked. All of a sudden, he felt the need for a female companion...someone who would listen, and maybe offer him comfort, though not necessarily in a sexual way. At the moment, he was in too low of a mood for that. But what kind of man would just walk up to a woman and start droning on about his troubles? He was not a child, and she was certainly not his mother. Still, there had to be a way to seek her attention. And when the throbbing in his jaw seemed to intensify, the answer came to him.
Stepping into the room, he sent the housekeeper away. Marie gave him a smile, but continued with her work as she spoke to him.
“Is there something you want, my lord?”
He cringed at the use of his title. Coming from her, it just seemed strange. “I would prefer the use of my name, if you would oblige me.”
Without looking up, she re-worded her question. “Is there something you want...Rene?”
Why did he so delight in the sound of her saying his name? As wayward thoughts crept into his mind, he shook his head, trying not to let his baser instincts distract him. He asked her...
“Do you, perchance, know how to make a poultice?”
She rose upright from her chore, looking at him with interest. “I think I can manage to make one. Why?”
He started to answer. But the pain in his jaw kept him from it, and he groaned as he pressed his palm to his face. While part of his mind was focused on the hurt, another part of him wondered if Marie would come over and try to console him. In his experience, it was what most women would do, and it was one of the things that so attracted him to the female species. She did come close to him, pulling his hand away so she could look at his jaw. Her reaction was tender...and yet, very true to her character.
“That looks very painful. What act of stupidity did you commit to deserve it?”
He raised a curious eyebrow. “Why do you assume I did something stupid?”
She gave him a knowing smile as she replied. “Because all men are fools. And I would be a fool to think otherwise.”
He could not help but smile at her honesty. And it compelled him to do what he had wanted to do from the first. With a sigh, he confided in her.
“My brother felt the need to test the strength of his right fist. My face proved a good target.”
It did not surprise him when she softly laughed. He looked at her, seeing how there was a hint of mischief in her hazel eyes. It was very becoming, and he realized that it was the first time he had looked at her this closely. She had a sweet, pleasing expression. He had known many women, and most of them had been stunning beauties. But Marie had a face that could only be described as adorable. Her appeal did not lie in her great beauty, but in her elfin-like features...her button nose, her high cheek-bones, and most of all, her teasing smile. He had to wonder if she possessed some sort of mystical ability, as all elves did. At that moment, she was charming him completely, seemingly without any effort.
“Come,” she said. “You will need to tell me where to find certain ingredients.”
He led her from the room. They walked side by side through the corridor, towards the stairs that led down to the kitchen and store rooms.
“So, Rene. Do tell me. What caused your brother to use his fist on you? I am curious to know.”
“I accused him of deception and he answered with a well-placed strike.”
“What deception do you suspect him of?”
“It is a long and complicated tale. One that would require time to tell.”
“So tell it, then. We will be in one another’s company from now until I have made the poultice. I would like to hear what transpired between the two of you.”
As they made their way to the kitchen, he instructed a serving girl to bring Marie the materials she needed. As she crushed comfrey leaves in a bowl, Rene watched her work, and he told her of The Duke’s offer to train him. She listened quietly as she mixed the crushed leaves with boiling water, using a pestle and mortar to make a paste.
“It seems you have no option,” she said. “Tell me. Have you any skill with a sword?”
“Of course,” he replied. “I am a nobleman. We are practically born with a sword in hand.”
“Then why not become a soldier?”
The question was much too direct, and he was unsure of how to answer it. His youth had been misspent in many ways, but he had been trained in the basics of horsemanship and weaponry, the same as any other young gentleman. But after so many years of non-practice in such skills, he wasn’t entirely sure how much he would remember, should the occasion call for it.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
That grabbed his attention, and he answered with a rather indignant reply. “I am not a coward, if that is what you are implying.”
Her response was a sly little smile. “If that is so, then why do you not accept The Duke’s offer? To refuse will only mean your end, sooner or later.”
She was right, of course. What else could he do but accept the offer? He could take the chance of running, but as Louis had said, he would eventually be hunted down. Luck was incapable of lasting forever...even for a skilled criminal like himself.
As Marie tested the temperature of the mix, waiting for it to cool, she shrugged.
“Do what you will,” she said. “Your life is yours to live, however you see fit.”
She took up a cloth and her mixture, bring it to him. As she gave him the cloth to hold, she gently applied the paste to his jaw. He found pleasure in her tender touch, and the way she looked at him with a playful expression. He knew that look. She was attracted to him. He could see it in her eyes. He wondered if, perhaps, it was a strong enough attraction to develop beyond friendship. As she finished with the paste, he asked…
“Marie, are you happy here?”
Her reply was a shrug. “Mostly,” she said. “Although I must confess, I rather miss Etienne. He was not perfect, by any means. But he was often a comfort to me.” Taking the cloth from his hand, she carefully placed it over the smeared paste, and applied a slight pressure.
“Would you consider a new companion?” he asked.
She smirked. “Do you mean to ask if I would be your mistress?” She instructed him to hold the cloth in place. As she turned away to wash her hands, he responded to her question.
“To be honest...yes, that is my intent. Although, I have never cared for the word Mistress. It seems to imply something indecent.”
To that, she laughed. “In the eyes of most, a mistress and a companion are one in the same. Neither can be called decent, by any means. And besides...what of your great lady love? The one who you were, as you deemed yourself, ‘A great fool’ for?”
He sighed, thinking of Evelyn. She had meant so much to him. But what good was there in pursuing her now? Obviously, it was futile. She had probably forgotten him by now. And even if she did have any feelings left for him, her husband was clearly determined to sever any and all ties between them. The pursuit of Evelyn’s heart was, in the end, not worth all of the trouble it had brought him.
“That cause is lost to me,” he said. “It is best to forget her.”
“Not an easy task, if you had feelings for her. Did you?”
“I did,” he admitted. “But no longer.”
Her reply was both skeptical and amused. “Really…”
He could hear it in her voice that she doubted him. But he was tired of dwelling on the past. He wanted to start anew, and he hoped that Marie would a part of that.
“So, what say you?” he asked. “Will you be my companion?”
It was not surprising that the answer she gave was a challenging one, accented with one of her little smiles.
“I shall have to consider it. Now, if you will pardon me, I must return to my duties.”
As she started to leave, he reached out to gently hold her arm. “That is not necessary. Why not stay and pass the time with me? After the day I have endured, I could do with a bit of pleasant company.” He hoped she would say yes. But to his disappointment, she shook her head.
“Apologies, but it is your brother who is my employer. I serve him, and I have much to do. Now, be sure to hold the compress to your jaw for at least a good while longer. It will lessen the swelling.”
He wished to detain her, but she slipped from his hold, and he just couldn’t find the right words to make her stay.
The choice had been made. He could hardly believe he had come to such a decision, but it was done.
Rene reclined on his bed, hardly able to sleep although it was just after midnight. He had not yet told Louis or The Duke that he would accept. Such a decision was monumental, and having come to it, he wanted at least another day to mull it over.
It was amazing to think of all the turns his life had taken. But this latest predicament was turning out to be the strangest of all. How strange it was that his enemies, who he had spent so much time running from, would now be his masters...and he had made the choice to serve them.
He briefly wondered if he had lost his mind, accepting such a fate. But thinking on it, he realized that Marie was right. Taking the job was a wise choice. It was stupid to think that he could go on running, trusting in his luck to get by. It had served him for many years, but how long would it be before his misdeeds caught up with him? Perhaps this was fate’s way of granting him the chance for a new start.
There was a knock at the door. He looked up, expecting perhaps that Louis was paying him a night-time visit. Instead, it turned out to be Marie. The moment he saw her, he knew why she had come. He felt a slight constriction in his throat when he saw her latch the door, and as she took a slow walk towards him, he felt his senses reel. Coming to the side of the bed, she stood with her arms folded, looking down at him. There was no shyness in her manner. He became aware of the way she was looking him over, as if to size him up. After many years of giving women that very same examination, he now found himself the receiving end of it...and it was strangely arousing. Her eyes traveled over him, and she spoke in a cool tone of voice.
“I have thought it over, and I will accept your offer. But I have a few small conditions.”
Pushing himself up, he gave her an interested little smile. “Conditions?”
“Firstly, this is not an arrangement of the heart. Love has no place in this relationship. Affection is pleasing and quite welcome, but there will be nothing more substantial.”
He chuckled at that. “You will find no argument from me on that point.” With growing interest, he watched her as she took a seat on the edge of the bed. Her gaze was direct.
“Secondly,” she said, “I will not be at your beckon call. I have work that is to be done, and I will not shirk my duties just because you find yourself in need.”
That condition did not strike him as pleasurably as the first one.
“So, you will only be my companion at night?”
Her reply was, at first, a pointed look. But then, her expression softened slightly. “In matters of pleasure, I will come to you only after nightfall. But if you wish to have my company during the day, I will allow it so long as it remains platonic.”
He pursed his lips, balking at the thought of such a limited relationship. But Marie, not seeming to notice his displeasure, went on with her demands.
“Thirdly, I am not your servant, and you are not my master. If I choose to break our agreement, you will accept the fact and move on.”
Now it was he who folded his arms. He turned his head away, thinking on the matter. He was not so much interested in controlling her, for he had never been one to make demands of a woman. There had never been the need, for they had always succumbed to his allure...except for Evelyn, of course, but that was a different matter altogether. What troubled him with this woman was the idea that she was setting the course of events. With her, it seemed that his powers of persuasion were useless. And he was not so comfortable with it. He looked at her with a sour expression.
“I am not certain if I want such an arrangement.”
He wondered if maybe, just maybe, she would see his discontent and consider altering some of her demands. But he was not at all surprised when she stood up, clearly intent on leaving.
“Very well then, let us forget the matter.”
Without pause, he reached out to take her by the wrist, delaying her.
“I can adjust to the idea.”
He looked up, meeting her eyes. When he sensed that she was relaxed, he let go of her wrist. She returned to her seat on the bed, and she looked at him with a cool expression.
“Good. We are agreed, then.”
For a moment, he wondered if he should make the first attempt at seduction. He certainly wasn’t afraid to do so. But before he could try, he was rendered still by the way she tossed her hair. Such a subtle gesture...but good God, it was powerful. The day had brought him much trouble, but it seemed that the night was destined to treat him much more favorably.