he Vicomte de Grenier has come to call.”
Marguerite lowered the book she was enjoying and stared at her butler. It was the middle of the day, not a time when Philippe was known to be visiting with her. Regardless, only those privy to the
secret du roi
felt such urgency that they would seek him out at his mistress’s home.
“The marquis is not here,” she said, more to herself than to the servant who knew that already.
“He asks for you, mademoiselle.”
She frowned. “Why?”
The butler said nothing, as was to be expected.
Frowning, she snapped her book closed and rose. “Please send for Marie,” she said, desiring her maid’s company so that she would not be alone with the vicomte.
When the maid arrived, Marguerite descended to the lower floor and entered the parlor. De Grenier rose upon her arrival and bowed elegantly.
“Mademoiselle Piccard,” he greeted with a gentle smile. “You steal my breath.”
. You also look well.”
They sat opposite one another and she waited for him to reveal why he would seek her out. She should have, perhaps, refused him. She was another man’s mistress. In addition, she would be de Grenier’s wife now, if she had followed her mother’s wishes. From the slight flush along de Grenier’s cheekbones, that uncomfortable realization did not elude him either.
The vicomte was a young man, only a few years older than she was. Tall and slender, he bore handsome features and kind eyes. He was dressed for riding and the deep brown color of his garments created an attractive contrast against the pale blue décor of her parlor. The smile she offered him was genuine, if slightly bemused.
“Mademoiselle,” he began, before clearing his throat. He shifted nervously. “Please forgive the importunateness of my visit and the information I am about to share with you. I could conceive of no other way.”
Marguerite hesitated a moment, uncertain of how to proceed. She glanced at Marie, who sat in the corner with head bent over a bit of darning. “I have recently gained a new appreciation for bluntness,” she said finally.
His mouth curved and she was reminded that she’d always liked him. The vicomte was charming, making it easy to feel comfortable around him.
Then his smile faded.
“There are matters of some delicacy that Saint-Martin oversees,” he murmured. “I am aware of them.”
Her breath caught as she realized what he was attempting to tell her. How extensive was the
secret du roi
“Is something amiss?” she asked, her fingers linking tightly in her lap.
“I fear for your safety.”
De Grenier bent forward and set his forearms atop his knees. “Saint-Martin has proven to be very valuable to the king. In addition, he is well respected, and when it comes to traversing certain . . .
channels, he is unsurpassed. And missed.”
Marguerite’s stomach knotted with jealousy. Of course the women who had known Philippe intimately would want him back. But would that be enough to jeopardize either of them? “What are you saying?”
“He has withdrawn from service and assists with matters only when they do not take him from your side. This has led to some unrest.”
The vicomte steepled his fingers together and lowered his voice to barely a whisper, forcing her to bend forward to hear his words. “The king has begun to pressure Desjardins to bring Saint-Martin back into the fold. So far, his efforts have met with failure, leading Desjardins to a state of frustration and aggravation that concerns me. I overheard him mention your name in a discussion with one of his associates. I suspect he has some plan to remove you. He sees you as an obstruction, yet the more he urges Saint-Martin to set you aside, the more contrary the marquis becomes.”
Her gaze moved to Marie, then rose to the portrait of herself above the empty grate. Saint-Martin had commissioned it soon after their affair had begun. In the swirls of colorful paints she was forever arrested in her youth and innocence, her blue eyes dreamy with love and desire.
“What can I do?” she asked.
Snorting softly, she said, “You might ask me to rip out my heart with my bare hands, it would be easier.”
“You love him.”
“Of course.” Her gaze returned to his. “I have been ostracized. I could not have survived it if not bolstered by love.”
“I would still have you.”
Stunned, Marguerite froze. She stared at him, confused. “Beg your pardon?”
The vicomte’s mouth lifted into a rueful curve. “I want you. I would take you in.”
She pushed to her feet. “You must go.”
De Grenier rose and rounded the small table that acted as a barrier between them. She retreated and he halted. “I mean you no harm.”
“Saint-Martin will not be pleased that you were here.” Her voice shook slightly, forcing her to lift her chin with bravado.
“Very true.” The vicomte’s eyes narrowed. “There has always been some rivalry between us. He knows the danger, yet he does not act because he suspects how I feel about you.”
“The king’s agenda is of tremendous importance and secrecy. If Desjardins feels it is necessary to remove you, he will do so. If Saint-Martin cared as much for you as you do for him, he would end your affair to protect you.”
“I do not care.” Her hand lifted to cover her roiling stomach. Her protests would mean nothing when pitted against the will of the king. “I would be miserable without him. Better to stay and enjoy what I can, while I can, than to leave and have nothing.”
“I can give you all that you have lost.” He stepped closer.
“I have gained more.”
“Have you?” His jaw tightened. “You have lost your family, friends, and social standing. You have no life beyond these walls, waiting to serve the pleasure of a man to whom you are a peripheral indulgence. I have seen what happens to the women he discards; I could not bear to witness a similar end for you.”
“You offer the same,” she snapped.
“No, I offer my name.”
Marguerite felt the room spin and reached out to grip the carved wooden edge of the settee. “Go. Now.”
“I would wed you,” he said, his voice low and earnest. “I am being sent to Poland for a time. You would come with me. There is safety there and the opportunity to begin your life anew.”
She shook her head, wincing as it throbbed with painful pressure. “Please leave.”
De Grenier’s fists clenched at his sides, then he bowed in a fluidly graceful motion. “I leave in a sennight. Should your feelings on the matter change between now and then, come to me.” His shoulders went back, drawing her attention to the breadth of them. “In the interim, ask Saint-Martin to reveal the gravity of the situation you both face. If you know him as well as you believe, you should see the truth of what I have told you.”
He left the room with a hard, determined stride and Marguerite sank weakly into the seat. A moment later a glass filled with red liquid was held out to her and she accepted it from her maid with a grateful smile.
All the servants in her household had been carefully selected for their discretion. How Philippe knew whom he could trust or not was beyond her comprehension. But then everything he did with regards to the
secret du roi
was a mystery to her.
Dazed, she glanced up and saw Philippe enter the room in a rush. He still wore hat and gloves, and the air around him was redolent of horses and tobacco.
“What transpired?” he asked, sinking to his haunches before her.
Her gaze drifted over his shoulder to the window and she saw how the shadows cast by the sun had moved across the floor.
Time had lapsed and she’d been unaware, lost as she was in her confusion and disquiet.
“Marguerite? Why was de Grenier here? What did he say to you?”
She looked at her lover, the fingers of her right hand releasing their hold on her glass so that she could touch his cheek. He nuzzled into the contact, his blue eyes darkened by concern.
“He says Desjardins is determined to separate us,” she related grimly, “and that I am not safe from harm. He did not say whether it was physical harm or emotional, and I did not think to ask until a moment ago.”
Philippe’s jaw tautened. “This is madness.”
“What?” Marguerite reached around him and set her glass on the gilded side table. “What is happening? He intimated that you were hiding something from me. If you are, I want you to tell me what it is.”
“I do not know.” Growling, he stood and began tearing off his outer garments. Hat, gloves, coat. All tossed on to the settee with obvious frustration. “I cannot make sense of it. You have nothing to do with anything.”
She knew it was foolish to be hurt by the careless statement, but for the first time since she met him, she felt as if she were unimportant. A diversion. A peccadillo.
“Of course not,” she whispered, rising to her feet. Her cream-colored skirts with their bloodred flowers hung heavily around her shaky legs. Her toes tingled with the rush of returning blood.
How long had she been sitting there, picturing life without Philippe in it? For the last year, she had lived under the illusion that they would always be together. This afternoon was the first time she had ever contemplated otherwise.
“You misunderstand,” he murmured, catching her close. “You are everything to
, but nothing to them. There is no cause for them to focus on you. That would suggest there is something else they want. Something they believe you have.”
Philippe shook his head. “I offered myself to Desjardins. Told him I would go wherever he required for up to three months at a time, just as I did before, although in truth I do not know how I would survive even three days without you when three hours’ length is torture.”
He pressed his cheek to her temple, the roughness of his afternoon stubble a familiar, welcome sensation. “My only request was that you be kept safe and comfortable here. But he refused. He claims my attention is diminished and he prefers me unencumbered.”
“I do not understand why he cannot replace you,” she complained, searching his face for clues to his thoughts. “Despite how accomplished you are, surely there are other men who can perform the services you provide.”
Lips whitening from the force with which he pursed them, Philippe took a moment to reply. “Would you believe de Grenier over me?”
“I am to choose between his words and your silence?”
For a moment, she was angered by his arrogance, then she laughed softly. “How do you do it?” she asked, shaking her head.
He caught a swaying powdered curl between thumb and forefinger, and rubbed it tenderly. His voice, when it came, was low and intimate. “Do what?”
“Make yourself indispensable. All afternoon I chastised myself for placing myself in this precarious position. I have nothing in this world but your favor and no certainty that I can hold on to that. Now others are exerting their weighty influence to part us and there is nothing I can do to prevent or deter them.” She set her hands on his chest, her fingertips touching the edges of his skewed jabot. He was dashing clothed, semiclothed, unclothed. “Yet here you stand, mulishly determined to hoard your secrets and I want you regardless.”
“I have no secrets. I tell you everything.” Philippe caught her hand and linked their fingers. He turned toward the door and pulled her along after him.
“You did not tell me that they continue to urge you to set me aside.”
“Because they do not signify.”
As they entered their private sitting room, he released her. He moved to the window and pushed aside the sheer panel to look outside. It was dusk, soon to be night. A year ago, the setting sun would have been a cue to begin initial preparations for an evening of social engagements. Now they had only supper and a quiet evening alone to occupy them. For her, it was enough. Was it for him?
“I can hear your doubts from here,” he said, pivoting to face her. “What did he offer you?”
Marguerite had learned many things about taming a man in the year she had been Philippe’s mistress. One powerful bit of knowledge was the understanding that he could deny her nothing when she was naked.
She presented her back to him, then glanced over her shoulder to watch him approach with heated eyes. “The better question would be: What did he not offer?”
Philippe set his fingers to work on the cloth-covered buttons that trailed her spine. “As you wish. What did he not offer you?”
His movements stilled. She heard him exhale. “I could contract you, Marguerite. I could reduce our . . .
. . . to terms of goods exchanged. You might feel safer then.”
“Or I might feel like a whore.”
“Which is exactly why I have not suggested such a thing until now.” His hands settled atop her shoulders, then exerted pressure to turn her around. He stared down into her upturned face. His was agonized, his dark eyes roiling with emotions she could not name.
“What can I do?” she asked in a whisper. “How can I fight, when I do not know what I am fighting against?”
“Can you not leave this to me?” He pressed his lips to her forehead. “I do not believe, even partly, that this matter has anything to do with our relationship. Not so long ago, de Grenier was suggesting that I step aside completely and Desjardins was very close to agreeing with that sentiment. Their sudden change of heart does not sit well. There is an ulterior motive at work here and I will learn what it is.”
“Je t’ aime,”
she breathed, hating the fear that dampened her palms.