Read French Passion Online

Authors: Jacqueline; Briskin

French Passion (6 page)

They left.

I raised my stockinged feet to the fire and sipped the wine. Warmth came over me.

“Now,” said Monsieur Sancerre, “tell all.”

“I've decided not to marry the Comte de Créqui.”

“But we're finishing the wedding gown!”

“I—I'm sure the Comte will pay you for it,” I said. Then, not so sure, I added, “Otherwise I'll manage to.”

“Why this change? What's happened?”

There was the same wide-eyed curiosity the apprentices had shown.

“It's hardly your business,” I said.

“The Comte de Créqui is my client, a friend to my other clients.”

“Oh, Monsieur Sancerre, I didn't mean to say that. I'm distraught. Upset. I need help. You have friends, powerful friends at Court.”

Monsieur Sancerre rose, putting one hand on the stone mantel. “Those stories I told you about my intimacy with Queen Marie Antoinette and royal ladies aren't strictly true. I'm hardly well entrenched in Court. I make gowns for the wife of the head gardener at Le Petit Trianon. The Comte is my first noble client.” The firelight reddened his cheeks.

My hopes dashed, near tears, embarrassed, I didn't know what to say. After a long minute I murmured, “I'm sorry, Monsieur Sancerre.”

He refilled my goblet. “Don't look so dejected, it doesn't suit you, you're too lovely to be downcast. Now. Let me guess your problem. The Comte desires you not as a wife but as a mistress.”

My hand jerked. Drops of red wine sizzled on the hearthstones. “How do you know? Did he tell you?”

“Of course not. The Comte de Créqui is a great noble. He wouldn't confide in a tradesperson, a bourgeois like me.” He poured himself more wine. “We'll finish the wedding gown. The most beautiful girl in Paris won't have any difficulty finding another titled gentleman to marry.”

“I can't do anything until I have back my brother's note. The Comte has threatened to put Jean-Pierre in the Bastille.”

“Note? The Bastille?” Monsieur Sancerre was examining me, his handsome soft-cheeked face grave.

Wine and anxiety loosened my tongue. Everything spilled out, everything from the highway robbery and André and me, to the Comte's encouraging Jean-Pierre to gamble.

As I finished, I remembered the jewels under my petticoats.

“Monsieur Sancerre, what a fool I am! I can pay off the note!” I smiled happily at him. “I completely forgot. There's my opals and a very valuable diamond. We're safe!”

Monsieur Sancerre's expression was yet more grave. Lines cut deep into his forehead.

“No, Mademoiselle d'Epinay, you're not safe. You and your brother wouldn't be safe, not even if you possessed the Queen's necklace.”

I looked over the pewter goblet, questioning.

“If the Comte wishes you this much, no IOUs are necessary. He could still imprison your brother.”

“But how?”

“A
lettre de cachet
.”

“A what?”

“Surely even buried in the country you've heard of a
lettre de cachet?
Any powerful noble can obtain such a letter from King Louis' secretary. A
lettre de cachet
puts one in prison. A
lettre de cachet
keeps one in prison.”

“If I repay—”

“No crime is necessary with a
lettre de cachet
.”

“He—the Comte—wouldn't do that,” I said, wrapping the blanket closer around me.

Monsieur Sancerre's face remained somber. “Mademoiselle d'Epinay, listen to me. The Comte is well known as a dangerous adversary. A jeweler who cheated the first Comtesse was bankrupted. A bailiff who mismanaged his estate in Provence has been in a dungeon for years. And as for me, I would be burned at the stake. One nod from the Comte and—” He pointed to the fire.

“For what?”

“Anything that offends him. You see, I'm already guilty. Preferring men to women is a crime for which one pays at the stake.” He spoke with simple dignity.

I had no doubt the Comte would destroy anyone who helped me. The pain in his dark eyes as I'd run from the brilliantly lit mansion was my proof.

I stood, saying humbly, “Monsieur Sancerre, I never should have come to you. Compromising is a poor way to repay friendship.”

“Sit down,” he said, and with both hands pressed gently on my shoulders until I was once more seated on the fire stool. “As you say, I'm a friend. And you, Mademoiselle d'Epinay, need a friend badly.”

“I must go back,” I said in a beaten voice.

“It's not the end of the world,” he said. He was back to his effusive tone. “The Comte is witty, cultured, with great breeding. And wealth. Look at it this way, Mademoiselle d'Epinay. As the Comtesse, you would have been a lovely bird trapped in that huge, oppressive palace. As his mistress, you'll have a charming home—ah, I promise to help you make it charming. Better, you'll be a free agent. A beautiful young girl with an elderly protector! What a merry chase you'll lead the Comte! Everything the heart below those exquisite little breasts desires will be yours.”

“The only thing I want is love.”

A few minutes earlier I'd told him love was what I felt for the highwayman I knew only as André.

Monsieur Sancerre looked down at me. “Forget that episode,” he said in a different voice. Strong. Serious. And for once, yes, manly. “If you can't forget it, bury it someplace deep. Believe me, believe me, Paris is an icy prison for the poor. A glittering wonderland for the rich.”

I sighed. “In any case there's no choice. Jean-Pierre can't go to prison, not even for a day. His chest is so weak, it'll kill him.” I paused. “Do you have a comb?”

He clapped his hands together. “I have better. We'll make you like new again!”

And in a minute there I was, in my petticoats. One apprentice sat cross-legged on a table whipping the lace trim of my sleeves while another sponged at the skirt. The third scraped mud from my shoes. Monsieur Sancerre heated the curling iron on the fire. In a corner I untied the stocking with my jewelry. They must have glimpsed my legs, one bare, one in white silk.

I heard a whisper. “Such legs! It's enough to turn one to women!”

A new belt was found, my hair curled, my gown adjusted and fastened—the skirt was clean but damp, as were my shoes. The lackey was dispatched to hire a cabriolet. Monsieur Sancerre insisted on escorting me. He directed the driver to the real trade entrance, by the coach house.

As the cabriolet stopped, I said, “Monsieur Sancerre, there's no way to thank you. You've been a true friend.”

“You'll order many, many gowns. It's business, pure and simple.”

“No, it isn't,” I said. “You've endangered yourself, coming here. You're a kind, good man.”

“And you, Mademoiselle d'Epinay, are the rarest of creatures, a beautiful, brave, and generous woman.”

I kissed his perfumed cheek.

He clasped my hand. “Be careful,” he warned.

Chapter Six

The front doors were ajar, as if in a fairy tale when some magical visitor is expected. I'm hardly magic, I thought, my ankle twinging as I limped up the wide stone steps. I was remembering my flight, my too obvious revulsion. Maybe the Comte had changed his mind. It was entirely possible he'd changed his mind, and from what Monsieur Sancerre had said, I knew I wouldn't simply be let go. Not only might the Comte use the debt—or
lettre de cachet
—on Jean-Pierre, he might also accuse me of stealing the diamond. For robbery I would hang.

The gallows frightened me less than his touch.

I closed tall doors quietly behind me. The hundreds of candles in the great chandelier had been snuffed. Two sconces threw the vast hall into shadow.

For a moment I stood in the gloom, listening. Silence. I could have sneaked up to my rooms. As children, Jean-Pierre and I'd had opposite reactions to the punishments that followed our mischief. My brother would hide, staving off the inevitable cane. I, on the other hand, would run to confess, wanting to get my punishment over with.

I opened the study door.

The Comte sat by the fireplace, in the same chair as before dinner, a book in his hands. The normalcy of reading by the fire was more terrifying than if he'd faced me holding a torture instrument. Gooseflesh broke out on my arms.

He set the book, open-spined, on the table.

“I expected you in worse condition,” he said.

“But you expected me?” How could I sound so cool?

“You
might
,” he replied in that faintly mocking tone, “have let Jean-Pierre rot in the Bastille and your good aunt starve.”

“Would you really have hurt them because of me?”

“You believe I'm capable of it, and that's what's important. You're no coward, my dear, yet you always fear for those you love.”

He took a paper from the table next to him, holding it toward me.

He must have noticed my limp and the damp sponge marks on my skirt, but he said nothing. Without opening the paper, I tore it in half, watching the two pieces flame and curl into black cinders. Ashes rose like sooty stars in the marble fireplace.

“I'm curious about your mental processes,” he said. “Why didn't you see whether it was your brother's IOU?”

“It was,” I said.

He was smiling, an unpleasant smile. “What makes you so sure?”

“You know people from experience, Comte, but I have—I believe it's known as feminine intuition.”

“So then you do trust me a little?”

“I trust you for as long as you want to have me.”

“Yes, of course. Being a mistress is far less certain than being a wife. And now for some advice. Listen to me, my dear, for it's important advice. You need to learn a few seductive wiles. For example, if I were you, I would refrain from telling a protector that he's old and ugly. And you would do well to remain in the house when a lover begins to caress you. As for the shuddering, you must learn to control it.”

He spoke with cynicism, yet there was pain in the irony. Could he care for me? Beyond his desire to possess my body? I decided the answer was no. First, he was too old to care. Second, had he cared, he wouldn't force me to become his doxy.

“On the other hand, your shuddering easily could be the reflex of an unpleasant experience. That stormy night, a band of filthy, desperate serfs, followed by that excellently kept secret, your rape.”

“Comte, are you enjoying this?”

“I just explained, my dear. Your mental processes are of interest to me.” Overcourtesy made him inscrutable.

André, I thought, oh, André. I stared down at my hands. The fingers clasped so tightly that the knuckles shone. Whatever happened to me, I was glad there'd been André, the almost unbearable ecstasy, the unison of hearts and minds. I'd had love, briefly, yet it
was
love, and love was all that I'd ever wanted.

“Did that scum hurt you so much?”

I shook my head. “He wasn't a serf. I don't know who he was. Maybe a student.”

“A young gallant, then, embarking on a promising career of robbery.” The Comte sat forward in his chair. “Did he hurt you badly?”

“No.”

“Frighten you?”

“I was afraid of what might happen to Jean-Pierre and Aunt Thérèse, but not … of … the man.…”

“So finally we come to the basic truth,” the Comte said softly, coming to where I stood near the fire. “Let me see if I have this correctly. I'm fool enough to betroth myself to a dowryless girl who wears cut-down old clothing. She writes a stiff letter of acceptance and then, before we're married, betrays me quite happily with some gallows bait?”

“I thought I had to, to save the others. I couldn't let them be killed, and he promised if I gave myself, they'd be safe. But then … well, I discovered I … liked him.”

“Honesty, my dear, is an overpraised virtue.”

“But you insisted on knowing!” I cried. “Comte, I've hurt your pride, and I'm sorry. But you've gotten me as your whore, and that's far worse. Do you have to hurt me like this?”

“I do.”

“Why? Why? You've given me Jean-Pierre's note. I've agreed to be your mistress.”

“Ah, yes, even down to setting the price. My dear, I didn't have to make you a whore. You are an excellent one already.”

As he said this, his face contorted; that intelligent and darkly cynical face shattered into an expression that was part rage, part something I couldn't understand, at least not then. Under the powdered wig his brows drew together, his mouth contorted as if he were in a killing agony. I barely recognized him.

And then his arms were around me, his body pressing mine back, back. His lips clamped my lips, and his teeth cut into me as he forced his tongue into my mouth. I struggled against him, hitting his back, trying to kick his legs. My mouth, under his, made incoherent noises of despair, broken pride, anguish, revulsion. I bent and twisted against him, but his arms were like iron, and he was forcing me still further back until I knew my spine must snap. I couldn't breathe. My heart was ready to burst, and I could feel his heart hammering against me.

He released me so suddenly that I almost fell.

“Have you ever been punished?” he asked hoarsely.

“I … am now.”

“No. Not yet. You're about to be,” he said. His face, no longer contorted, had a frightening pallor.

He gripped the top of my bodice with both hands. His wrists, under delicate, dripping lace, were strong and dark-haired. He jerked savagely. A crying sound as green silk tore. My shuddering gasps pressed out of my breasts, and the pointed pink nipples were clearly visible through the thin white lawn of my chemise. Slowly, deliberately, he ripped the chemise.

He stared down at me. “My God, you're exquisite,” he said.

And raised his hand, slapping me with all his force.

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