Saint-Martin groaned, his thrusts increasing in speed and power.
Inside her, his thick cock swelled further, inundating her with delight. She whimpered and his embrace tightened, pushing her forward so that he could pump deeper. His lean, powerfully built body mantled hers, and his mouth touched her ear.
“Come for me,
,” he whispered.
His hand slid between her legs, his knowledgeable fingers rubbing her distended, swollen clitoris with precision. His carnal expertise and the long, rhythmic strokes of his cock made the impetus to climax irresistible. Crying out, she orgasmed, her hands reaching behind her to cup his flexing buttocks. She tightened around him in rippling waves and he groaned, jerking with his own release, filling her with the rich creamy wash of his ejaculate.
As he always did in the aftermath of their passion, Philippe clung to her, his parted lips pressing open-mouthed kisses along her throat and cheek.
“Je t’aime, ”
she gasped, nuzzling her damp cheek against his.
He withdrew from her and bent to lift her into his arms. The thick, golden strands of his hair clung to his damp neck and temples, accentuating the flush of his skin and the satiated gleam in his dark eyes. He carried her to the bed with the ease of a man accustomed to physical labor, a proclivity which led to his magnificent form. Marguerite could never have imagined that he was so beautiful beneath his garments, but then he kept a great deal hidden under his dissolute façade.
A knock came to the outer bedchamber door just as Philippe began to crawl over her reclining body.
He cursed and called out, “What is it?”
“You have a visitor, my lord,” came the muffled reply of the butler.
Marguerite looked at the clock on the mantel and noted the hour. It was nearly two in the morning.
He cupped her cheek and kissed the tip of her nose. “A moment, no more.”
She smiled, knowing it was a lie but indulging him regardless. When he had first confided his activities as an agent in something he called the
secret du roi
—a group of agents whose purpose was to further the king’s hidden diplomacy—she had been stunned and unable to reconcile this new image of him with the one he cultivated in Society. How could a man known as a voluptuary who lived only for his own pleasure be in truth someone who risked life and limb in service to his king?
But as love grew from their lust and their daily interactions progressed to a true joining of the minds, Marguerite realized how layered her lover was and how brilliant was his disguise. The proliferation of mistresses had not been entirely an affectation, of course, but he was not heartless. To this day he felt remorse for luring her to her “downfall.”
When she had professed a similar regret for leading him away from his wife, he’d held her and revealed a surprising truth: Marchioness Saint-Martin—so pitied in private discourse for her husband’s excesses—maintained her own lovers. Theirs was a marriage of duty. It was not unpleasant and they were both content to proceed with separate agendas.
Marguerite watched him shrug into his robe of black silk, then walk to the door. “I will miss you,” she said. “If you are gone too long, I might cry out in the streets for you.”
He paused on the threshold and arched a brow. “
, do not believe that nonsense. It was one woman and her brain was afflicted.”
“Poor thing. However, I doubt it was her brain you were attracted to.”
Philippe growled. “Wait up for me.”
“Perhaps . . .”
He blew her a kiss and made his egress.
As he shut the bedchamber door behind him, Philippe’s smile faded. He belted his robe more securely and descended the stairs to the lower floor. Good news was rarely delivered at this hour, so he approached the coming discussion with grimness. With the scent of sex and Marguerite still clinging to his skin, he was more aware than usual of how vital her presence was in his life. She kept him connected with his humanity, something he feared had been lost by years of pretending to be someone he was not.
The door to the parlor was open and he entered without slowing his stride, his bare feet crossing onto the rug from the cool marble of the foyer.
“Thierry,” he greeted, startled by the identity of his visitor. “You were to report to Desjardins this evening.”
“I did,” the young man replied, his cheeks still flushed from his ride. “That is why I am here.”
Philippe gestured for the courier to take a seat on the settee while he sank into a nearby chair.
Travel-stained and disheveled, Thierry sat gingerly upon the edge. Philippe smiled at the care displayed to protect the new burgundy velvet. When the home had served as a bastion for
secret du roi
agents, the furnishings had been abused without thought. But the house had been abandoned after a time, an oft-used tactic to avoid suspicion, and he had removed all traces of the house’s former use and refilled it with luxuries suitable for the love of his life.
“I apologize for disturbing you,” Thierry said wearily, “but I have been ordered to depart again in the morning and I could not chance missing you.”
“What news is so urgent?”
“It regards Mademoiselle Piccard.”
Straightening from his semireclined state, Philippe studied the courier alertly. “Yes?”
“When I arrived at Desjardins’, he had a visitor and I was asked to wait outside his study. I do not think he realized how clearly his words travel.”
Philippe nodded grimly, having always found it noteworthy that such a slightly built man would have such a booming voice. He did not, however, find it interesting that the man would be discussing Marguerite. It was alarming because, quite simply, his very sanity rested with her well-being and proximity. Comte Desjardins was young, ambitious, and hungry for the king’s regard. Those qualities made him dangerous to those who stood in his way.
“I heard the name
” Thierry said softly, as if he might be overheard, “and though I attempted to turn my thoughts elsewhere, I could not help but listen more closely.”
“Understandable. You cannot be faulted for hearing conversations spoken within earshot.”
“Yes. Exactly.” The courier offered a grateful smile.
“About Mademoiselle Piccard . . . ?”
“Desjardins was discussing how preoccupied you seem of late and how best to manage it. It was suggested that Mademoiselle Piccard was to blame for your decreasing participation.”
Philippe tapped his fingertips atop his knee. “Do you know who this visitor was?”
“No, I am sorry. He departed through a different door than the one I waited outside of.”
As he blew out his breath, Philippe’s gaze moved to the banked fire in the grate. This parlor was considerably smaller and less appointed than the one he shared with his wife, yet this residence was home to him. Because of Marguerite.
Who could have foreseen how a reluctantly accepted invitation from the Fontinescus would become the turning point of his life?
Thoughts of Marguerite filled his mind, and he smiled inwardly. He had been unaware of how the many diverse and competing aspects of his life had been affecting him negatively until she’d brought his attention to it.
“You are so tense,” she noted one night, her slender fingers kneading into the sore muscles of his neck and shoulders. “How can I help?”
For a brief moment, he had considered forgetting his troubles with a few hours of passionate sex, but instead he found himself telling her things he told no one else. She had listened, then engaged in a discourse with him that brought to light alternate solutions.
“How clever you are,” he’d said, laughing.
“Smart enough to choose you,” she replied with a mischievous smile.
There was no doubt that even had he known how meeting her would affect him, he would change nothing. Her beauty was astonishing and a source of endless delight, but it was her pure heart and innocence that won his deeper regard. His love for her filled him with contentment, an emotion he had come to think was not meant for a man such as himself. His joy was nearly complete; his only regret was his inability to offer her the security of his name and title.
Philippe inhaled deeply and looked again at Thierry. “Is there more?”
“No. That is all.”
“You have my gratitude.” Philippe rose and moved to the escritoire in the corner. He opened it and withdrew a small purse. Thierry accepted the proffered coin with a grateful smile, then departed immediately. Philippe exited the parlor after him and sent the butler back to bed.
A few moments later he rejoined Marguerite. She lay curled on her side, her lustrous blond curls scattered atop a pillow, her sapphire blue eyes blinking sleepily. In the light of a single bedside taper, her pale skin glowed with the luminescence of ivory. She extended her hand to him and his chest ached at the sight of her, so soft and warm and filled with welcome. Other women had told him they loved him, but never with the fervency that Marguerite expressed. The depth of her affection was priceless. Nothing and no one would ever take her from him.
He shrugged out of his robe and rounded the bed to slip between the sheets behind her. He draped an arm over her waist and her fingers linked with his.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing for you to be concerned with.”
“Yet you are concerned, I can feel it.” Marguerite turned in his arms. “I have ways to make you tell me,” she purred.
“Minx.” Philippe kissed her nose and groaned at the feel of her warm, silken limbs tangling with his. He related the conversation with Thierry and stroked the length of her spine when she tensed. “Do not be alarmed. This is a minor irritant, nothing more.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“Desjardins has high aspirations. He needs to feel as if every man working with him is as committed. I am not, which was proven when I began rejecting any mission that would send me to Poland.”
“Because of me.”
“You are far more charming than the Polish,
.” He kissed her forehead. “There are others who will give him the level of dedication he requires.”
Marguerite pushed up on one elbow and gazed down at him. “And he will allow you to simply walk away?”
“What can he do? Besides, if he feels that my effectiveness is so diminished that he must concern himself with my private life, then my withdrawal should be a relief to him.”
Her hand slid over his chest. “Be careful. Promise me that much.”
Philippe caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. “I promise.”
Then he tugged her down and took her mouth, soothing her fears with the heat of his passion.
The gathering of close friends and political acquaintances in Comte Desjardins’s dining room was loud and boisterous. The comte himself was laughing and enjoying himself immensely when a movement in the doorway leading to the foyer caught his eye.
He excused himself and stood, moving to the discreetly gesturing servant with calculated insouciance.
Stepping out to the marble-lined hallway, he shut out the noise of his guests with a click of the latch and arched a brow at the courier who waited in the shadows.
“I did as you directed,” Thierry said.
“Excellent.” The comte smiled.
Thierry extended his hand and in it was an unaddressed missive bearing a black wax seal. Embedded within that seal was a ruby, perfectly round and glimmering in the light of the foyer chandelier. “I was also intercepted a short distance up the street and given this.”
Desjardins stilled. “Did you see him?”
“No. The carriage was unmarked and the curtains drawn. He was gloved. I saw nothing more.”
The same as always. The first letter had arrived a few months past, always delivered through a passing courier, which led Desjardins to the conclusion that the man had to be a member of the
secret du roi
. If only he could determine who, and what grievance the man had with Saint-Martin.
Nodding, the comte accepted the note and dismissed Thierry. He moved away from the dining room, heading toward the kitchen, then through it, taking the stairs down to the cellar where he kept his wine. The missive went into his pocket. There would be nothing written within it. After a dozen such communiqués he knew that for a certainty.
There would be only a stamp, carved to prevent recognition of handwriting, imprinting one word:
. The ruby was a gift for his cooperation, as were the occasional delivered purses of more loose gems. A clever payment, because Desjardins’s wife loved jewelry and unset stones were untraceable.
The volume from the bustling kitchen faded to a dull roar as Desjardins closed the cellar door behind him. He rounded the corner of one floor-to-ceiling rack and saw the smaller, rougher wooden planked door that led to the catacombs. It was slightly ajar.
“Stop there.” The low, raspy voice was reminiscent of crushed glass rubbed together, grating and ominous.
“Is it done?”
“The seeds have been planted,” the comte said.
“Good. Saint-Martin will cling to her more tenaciously now that he feels threatened.”
“I thought he would weary of the same bedsport months ago,” Desjardins muttered.
“I warned you Marguerite Piccard was different. Fortunately for you, as it has led to our profitable association.” There was a weighted pause, then, “De Grenier covets her. He is young and handsome. It would be a thorn to Saint-Martin to lose her to him.”
“Then I shall see that de Grenier has her.”
“Yes.” The finality in
’s tone made Desjardins grateful to be this man’s associate and not his enemy. “Saint-Martin cannot be allowed even a modicum of happiness.”