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Authors: Jennifer Blake

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“I need many things.”

“This happens to be something I can supply.”

He lifted a brow while irony rose to gleam in his eyes. “First you want me undressed, and now you are offering personal services. You really should think before you make such comments,
madame.

She felt as if her face could be used to melt candle wax. “You know I never meant—I fear I’ve had little occasion to watch my tongue before now.”

“It will be my pleasure to teach you greater care.”

She didn’t trust the rich anticipation in his voice or the way his gaze lingered on her mouth. No, nor her own curiosity about exactly how he might carry out his threat. “I am forewarned. Now, if you will allow me?”

“There is really no need to go to such trouble.”

“My choice, I believe, as with you and the
corbeille de noce.

He seemed to have no answer for that, for which she was grateful. Or she was until he tossed the towel aside, then came toward her with arms outstretched. His expression was all acquiescence but devilment was in his black eyes. Her heart beat high in her throat as she wondered when he would stop, if he would stop, of if he meant to take her into his arms.

He halted a mere pace away.

She drew a ragged breath while reprieve and disappointment warred inside her. Really, the sooner she was done and out of this bedchamber, the better it would be.

Abruptly, his face changed and he took a pace back, lowering his arms. “Forgive me. I should not tease, but
you blush so easily that it’s irresistible.” He glanced around as if in search of something. “I should slip on my shirt, at least.”

“It will be better without, though I have it here.” She gestured toward her basket. “Alonzo brought it to me earlier that I might sew up a ripped seam.”

“I thought he meant to do that himself,” he said with a frown.

“He lacks the skill.”

Christien’s lips firmed and a hint of dark color crept under the copper-bronze of his skin. “There’s no call for you to see to my linen.”

“It will soon be my duty. What difference can a few days make?” She had not thought he could be embarrassed. It was a revelation.

“Duty,” he repeated.

“Should I have said my pleasure? But I’m not that fond of sewing.”

“Still, you will stitch all the seams it takes to make a new shirt for me.”

“That’s different. It seems the tear I repaired may be from a less-than-ideal fit across the shoulders, which is why a more accurate measurement is required.” She lifted her chin, her gaze steady as she waited for him to make something of her explanation.

“You are very practical.”

“So I am,” she replied with finality before turning to take the tape of cotton twill from her basket and facing him again. “As I said, the replacement shirt will be a gift. Now, if you’ll lift your arms, please?”

He stared down at her, his black gaze moving over
her face. She was flushed again, she knew; she could feel the heat as she stood waiting. She refused to acknowledge it, however, just as she refused to back down.

After a moment, he inclined his head. Raising his arms, he spread them wide in a gesture of ironic surrender.

It felt like a victory. Reine drew a silent breath, then stepped close. She leaned to pass the tape around him. Adjusting it under his arms, she brought the ends to the front, carefully making one of them meet a hash mark. She reached behind her for the lead pencil from her basket that she would use to note the measurement.

He bent his head, his gaze on her left hand that held the tape. Abruptly, he reached to catch her wrist. “Your wedding ring,” he said, his voice low, almost rough, “you took it off.”

“It seemed appropriate given the circumstances.” She held perfectly still in his grasp, her gaze on the satisfaction that suddenly flared in his eyes. It was, perhaps, a natural male reaction; men did not care to see the mark of another man on a woman they proposed to claim. It was disturbing all the same.

“Yes, of course.” He allowed his eyelids to fall, shielding his expression as he shifted his grasp, skimming his thumb back and forth over the bare spot on her finger. Then he loosened his hold, released her.

It was a moment before she could recall what she should be doing. Taking a quick breath, she jotted down the measurement. She lowered the tape to his waistline next.

As she bent her head to see the mark, the shorter hair at her forehead brushed his chest. His male nipples tightened into brown buds centered in the flat coins of their areolae. She blinked at the phenomenon; she had not realized men’s bodies reacted in the same way as women’s. An instant of quiet fell in which she noticed he was barely breathing. She flung a quick glance upward to discover the cause.

He released a short, winded-sounding laugh while amusement danced in the black centers of his eyes. He said nothing, however, only held his place like some ancient statue of a half-naked Olympian.

He really was magnificent, his arms wrapped with corded muscle upon which stood the tracery of veins, his hair that lay against his skull in blue-black waves, the molding of his nose and the chiseled contours of his mouth. She could see the place where his heart throbbed under his breastbone, a firm and steady beat. If she placed her hand in the center of his chest, she would be able to feel it. If she leaned forward a fraction, she could touch her tongue to one tight nipple, tasting it, tasting him.

An odd dizziness assailed her. As she inhaled sharply in the effort to banish it, she absorbed his scent. It seemed compounded of bay leaves and island spices from his shaving soap, the herbal smell of the vetiver used to keep insects out of the armoire where his pantaloons must have reposed overnight, clean male skin and a hint of the fresh outdoors. She stepped back to the high bed, steadying her calves against its lower edge.

“What is it?” he asked, putting out a hand in support, his fingers closing on her elbow.

“Nothing.” She removed her arm from his grasp.

“You aren’t used to this. Maybe you should sit down.”

“I’ve seen a man’s chest before,” she said with a snap in her voice. It wasn’t just his bare skin that bothered her. It was the concern in his eyes, the warmth of his body that wafted around her, his masculine presence that seemed to take up all the space in the room, and all the air.

“Your husband’s, I would imagine. It would have been a different matter.”

That much was certainly true. Compared to Christien Lenoir, Theodore had been a mere stripling and almost flabby in his lack of muscular development. But she wouldn’t think of that, not now. At least she would recall no more than was necessary to calculate the extra yardage required to make this damnable shirt.

“Theodore was younger,” she said, infusing briskness into her tone, “not that it signifies. Turn, please, so I may complete my task.”

He hesitated, his dark gaze searching hers. Finally, he pivoted on one foot, squared his shoulders and waited.

What shoulders they were, almost as wide as the French door beyond him. Smooth, shaded copper-gold, they gave mute testimony to endless hours of labor, though whether at sword play or something more manual was impossible to say. Her hands shook a little as she lifted her tape and spread it from the edge of one firm, muscle-clad expanse to the other.

The contrast between her own pale flesh tones and
the rich color of his skin fascinated her. He was like a figure in bronze. Did that hue extend under the waist of his pantaloons? How would he appear if unclothed in the manner of the classical male nudes displayed as objets d’art in French Quarter salons?

Depraved, she must be depraved to consider such a thing. It would not do. Her mind should be strictly on her task. She would keep it there if it required every ounce of discipline she possessed. She would indeed.

With the shoulder measurement recorded, she brushed aside the black-satin hair that grew low on his neck, too aware of its weight and warmth as she took his measure from the nape down to his waistline. By all rights, she ought to smooth the tape down over his backside to the point where the tail of his shirt would be hemmed. That was hardly likely to aid her resolve. More than that, she was not so brave. She would just allow her gaze to linger on the taut curves under the drape of his pantaloon to gauge the extra length required. That would have to do as an estimate.

“Now the arm length,” she said with an unaccountably husky note in her voice.

Obligingly, he lifted an arm and bent it at the elbow according to her guidance. She reached high with her tape, held one end on the top of his shoulder while she trailed the rest around the turn and then to the wrist.

It was impossible not to compare her height to his as she held the length of twill in place long enough to mark it. The top of her head would graze the bottom of his chin if she stood close against him. His arm would no doubt lie perfectly across her shoulders
should he lower it. Reaching around her would be nothing at all for him. His hands would span her waist, she was almost sure of it.

How very warm the morning had grown already. The shutters should really be closed to preserve what was left of the night coolness. She must see to it, just as soon as she was done. All that was left was the wristbands. Well, and the neck.

“If you will turn and bend your head,” she began when that last measurement was reached.

“I doubt it will suffice,” he said, his voice grave as he faced her. With the pantherlike grace that was peculiarly his own, he went to one knee before her. “Better?”

It was stunning, to suddenly be looking down at him instead of upward. He was closer, too, with his bent knee intruding into the fullness of her skirts. His eyes seemed larger and more liquid from this angle, their velvety black-brown irises shimmering with hints of gold, faceted about the pupils with topaz. His lashes were a forest of black that tangled at the corners where they came together, and his brows gave such dark definition to the facial bones they covered that he seemed like some ancient warrior prince, ageless and invincible. And yet he knelt before her as if in homage.

He took her breath. She could not move, couldn’t remember what it was she should be doing. Slow heat mounted to her forehead as she fought the urge to take his hands and raise him up. He should not be on his knees, not to her, not ever.

Somewhere on the lower floor an outside door
opened. The draft it caused stirred the curtains at the bedchamber’s open French doors, swept through the room to slam shut the door into the hallway. She jerked as if she had been shot.

“Madame Pingre? Reine?”

A shudder moved over her from head to heels. She subdued it with ruthless determination. Clearing her throat, she ran her tongue over lips suddenly gone dry. “Yes,” she said, a ragged sound as she looked away from the minute narrowing of his eyes on her mouth. “Your neck, I must know how tight to make the collar band.”

“By all means.” He waited with an expectant air.

When had control of this situation shifted to the swordsman? Reine could not recall, but it seemed imperative that she take it back. She leaned with decision to circle the strong column of his neck, looping the tape loosely before drawing it snug.

“Wait,” he said as she reached for her pencil. “I could use a bit more breathing room.” He tucked two fingers behind the tape, easing it away from his skin a fraction of an inch.

The tape had not been that tight, but he did seem to be having difficulty with his breathing. For an instant, she wondered if she had the same effect on him that he was having on her.

The idea sent a small rush of pleasure over her before she quelled it. He must be used to far more exciting women.

Reine loosed her hold on the cotton strip and inserted her own fingers behind it to assess the fit.
Against their backs, she could feel the steady pulse that beat in his neck. Clearing her throat again, she asked, “Better?”

A smile tilted his mouth, apparently for her repeat of his question moments ago. It had been inadvertent, she thought, or perhaps not. She hardly knew what she was saying.

“Much better,” he replied. “Reine?”

“Yes?” With the tape marked, she put aside her pencil and removed the length of cotton in a slow slide. She had nothing else to measure, no excuse to linger. It seemed a shame.

“I believe a small acknowledgement of our engagement is in order. With your permission?”

“What? Oh…” Comprehension came as he rose to his full height, took her hand and placed it on his shoulder, then encircled her waist with a strong arm. He cupped her face, his eyes darkly serious as he met her startled gaze. He looked at her mouth and the gold in his eyes took on a molten gleam. Then he lowered his head and matched his lips to hers.

Warm, he was so incredibly warm, and sweet as heated honey. The surfaces of her mouth tingled and her bones dissolved so she swayed against him. His chest was a solid wall of warmth, as gratifying as she had imagined in its hardness. His arms were so firm in their support that she felt enclosed in safety.

She should protest, should step away. Instead, she spread her palms over his shoulders, absorbing the sensation of velvet over steel. In a short time he would have a husband’s right to more than this, much more.
At the thought, a surge of such wild longing rose inside her that she felt it press against the back of her throat. Tears caught her unprepared, and with them came a low moan that she could not hold inside.

He drew back, tipped his head in an attempt to see her face. “I’m sorry. My best intentions seem to be unreliable around you.”

“No, no, Reine, no!”

That moan, so like an echo of the one in Reine’s head, came from the doorway. She sprang away from Christien, whirling toward the sound.


Maman,
I didn’t see you!”

“Alonzo said you were alone with this barbarian. I could not believe…But so it is, and he half-naked. Yes, and with the door closed, too! Have you no shame? You are not yet wed, are barely betrothed. What will the servants think, or the neighbors? What will everyone think!”

Chapter Ten

H
er mother was wringing her hands and shaking her head while tears poured down her cheeks, dripped from her chin. She would work herself up to a bout of hysteria ending in a migraine; Reine knew the signs too well.

With a fleeting glance of apology for Christien, she moved to her side, taking her arm and turning her back toward the hall. “Don’t upset yourself,
chère Maman.
No one will think anything. There’s no reason they need ever hear. It’s not as you believe, not at all. I was but measuring Christien for a shirt.”

“Christien?”

“Monsieur Lenoir, my betrothed. You remember…”

“Yes, yes, of course I remember. I’m not an idiot.”

“Alonzo must surely have told you what I was about. As for the door, it was the wind that blew it shut, that’s all.”

“But I saw you. I did see you…”

“Yes, of course. I…I stumbled, so clumsy of me.” She flung a look of harried appeal at Christien. At the
same time, she hoped her mother would not notice the swollen fullness of her lips.

“We will be wed soon in any case, Madame Cassard,” he said, stepping forward. “Then it won’t matter if we are shut up together.”

“Not here,” she said with a fretful shake of her head. “The master bedchamber, the best in the house, Maurice said. It should be yours.”

“I thank you for the thought, but would not put you to the trouble of moving.” He inclined his head so a bright sheen slid over the black waves of his hair. “I’m perfectly fine here.”

“I believe the room I use as my bedchamber has a better aspect,” Reine said prosaically. “It faces east so will not be so hot at night.” She gave him a quick glance, afraid she had given away the fact that she had considered more than the mere comfort of her room.

“It will be as you prefer in all things,” he said. Though the phrase was delivered with all the politesse expected of a bridegroom, the look in his eyes was not at all polite. Reine felt a small shiver run down her spine in spite of the growing warmth of the day. She skimmed her tongue over her lower lip and tasted his sweetness there, could almost feel the pressure of his mouth again, the seductive, mind-numbing flick of his tongue.

Her mother wagged her head from side to side. “Oh, but Reine, my Reine. It isn’t right, this talk of rooms and weddings. You mustn’t…it can’t be right. Why does it have to be this way?”

“Papa told you, I know he did. Don’t upset yourself. All will be well.”

Her mother groaned again, putting a hand to her head. “I need my tisane. My head feels as if it will burst. Come away, Reine, come with me now. I have to lie down, and you must make my tisane.”

It was the only thing to be done when her mother was taken in this way. Reine, murmuring her agreement and a great many other words of comfort, turned her back down the hall toward her own room.

As they moved off, she looked back over her shoulder. Christien stood where they had left him, with the morning light gilding his bare shoulders and a thoughtful look shading the black-coffee-and-aged-brandy darkness of his eyes.

Her chest tightened around her heart. He was so large and outrageously masculine, with latent power in every sinew as he held the center of the bedchamber with his bare toes sunk among the fat cabbage roses of the carpet. She felt a distinct heated sensation in her lower body merely from looking at him. Yet he was not all brawn by any means. He missed little, this master at arms, she thought. He would require answers later concerning her mother’s distress.

The trouble was that she could not be sure how she would answer him.

In the master bedchamber, Reine rang the bell and ordered a kettle put on to boil while she undressed her mother and helped her into bed. That done, she went down to the outdoor kitchen and returned with the herbal tea, or tisane, her mother preferred, along with a selection of small cakes as additional distraction. She had hoped her mother might have fallen into a doze in
her absence so her sewing box and measurements could be retrieved from Christien’s room and she might, perhaps, have a few words with him. Instead, her mother sat propped against her pillows, her eyes closed as she clutched her head and rocked slowly from side to side.

“Here you are,” Reine said, placing the small tray she carried on the table beside the bed and lifting the cup from it. “Drink it quickly. It’s hot, but not scalding.”

Her mother reached blindly for the drink, a concoction of Demeter’s made from willow bark shavings, mint leaves, lemon balm and a few other things the old nursemaid refused to name. She sipped from it and sank back on the pillows as if the mere taste was enough to bring relief.

“Thank you,
chère,
” she said after a moment. “You are a good daughter. Yes, perhaps too good.”

“If you speak of this marriage…”

“Your papa should not have asked it of you.”

“He didn’t. That was Monsieur Lenoir’s solution to our predicament.”

“But you agreed. Why did you agree? Why could you not have refused and kept on refusing until—”

“Until what? Until we were riding down the drive while perched on top of our belongings? No, no, this will be better.”

“I fear—Oh,
chère.
You can’t know…” She trailed off, sighed and began again. “Your papa and I have been happy. I wanted you to be happy in your next husband. But not now, not like this, no, no. It’s too soon. I can’t think—”

Happy? What did that mean? Could happiness be in a kiss that tasted of shaving soap and honey-sweet man, of mind-drugging ardor and potential surrender? Was it in physical completion? If so, Reine thought she might have some small chance of it. She still felt drugged by Christien’s kiss, bemused by the certainty that she had never had another like it, not in all the time of her courtship and marriage to Theodore.

“Don’t think, then. Let it go,
Maman.

“I must, someone must. Oh,
chère,
what if he comes back?”

Her mother’s question wrenched Reine’s thoughts away from the man she had just left. Goose bumps ran across her shoulders and down her arms. “Who? You can’t mean Theodore. He’s dead,
Maman.
You remember. He’s been dead these two years.”

“He wasn’t there. The bed, all that blood. But he wasn’t there.”

This was an aspect her mother returned to again and again. Reine could hardly blame her; it was the point that had never been adequately explained. If she had been there, in the bedchamber she and Theodore had sometimes shared at River’s Edge, all might have been made plain, might have been different. But she had not.

For an instant she was back in that terrible time. Marguerite had been so ill, with high fever, vomiting and flux. Her crying could be heard all over the house at Bonne Espèrance. Everyone had been kept awake by it: Theodore’s mother, the elderly uncle dying in an upper bedchamber of the French Creole–style house,
the pair of cousins who looked after the old man. The noise and upset in the household had so exasperated Theodore that he finally rode into town and remained there for several days. Or perhaps he had only wanted to avoid contamination as he could never bear being ill.

Reine, doubtful about the remedies pressed upon her by old Demeter and reluctant to burden a household already dealing with one invalid, had longed to be at River’s Edge. When the old uncle died in the midst of the turmoil, she picked up Marguerite and went home. Not that it had done much good; the sickness had simply run its course. Reine had not slept for days and nights together, had spent every moment rocking Marguerite, bathing her in cool water, spooning minute sips of sweetened lemon water into her mouth, trying to find something she could keep in her stomach. All track of time was lost in the endless round of days and nights.

When the fever finally broke and Marguerite slept, Reine eased away from where she had been holding her, lying in the great tester in her bedchamber. She’d realized then that she had eaten nothing all that day. After a small meal in the outdoor kitchen at the end of the walk, she put her head down on the table for just a moment, savoring the relief that the crisis was past. In a moment, she would return to the house, she thought, would climb the stairs back to her bed.

She woke at dawn to a keening scream. Jumping up, she ran back inside with her heart in her throat. She had found her mother holding Marguerite while
blood smeared them both. She shuddered even now to think of it.

It was some time before a coherent story could be made of what had happened. Theodore had returned from New Orleans, stopping at Bonne Espèrance, where he learned Reine and Marguerite had left. He arrived at River’s Edge, they knew, because a sleepy stable boy had taken his horse. He entered the house and made his way to the bedchamber Reine had occupied without doubt, for his discarded clothing lay on the floor where he’d dropped it. The mattress was imprinted with the shape of his narrow form, an indication that he had lain there. Theodore was never seen again, however. At least he was never seen alive.

“You know he’s dead,
Maman.
He was found in the river, remember?” Reine spoke over her shoulder as she moved to close the shutters over the windows, shutting out the light as well as the steadily increasing heat. Pausing an instant before latching them, she gazed though the crack at the silver flood of the Mississippi, a bright swath in the morning light, just visible over the levee from this second-floor window. The dock for River’s Edge was directly opposite the house, and Theodore had been found no great distance below it. Reine closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again before she went on. “Paul saw him when they pulled him out.”

“Yes, yes, my poor Paul. It troubles him still, I know it does.”

Reine could only agree. It troubled all of them in one way or another.

“Theodore may not have been the best of husbands, not patient and kind like Maurice. But he was not…not a terrible one, was he?”

“What do you mean, terrible?”

“He never struck you?”

Reine shook her head. Theodore had been thoughtless, high tempered and quick to find fault. He had been so catered to all his life that he expected all things to revolve around his wishes, and was outraged when it was otherwise. That didn’t make him a bad husband.

And yet her mother’s comment made it sound as if she knew Reine’s marriage had been lacking. She wasn’t sure how, for it was nothing they ever talked about. Such things were too upsetting for her mother. More than that, they were no one’s business but her own.

It was good to think that her parents’ marriage was more blessed, that her mother had been happy, or as happy as someone of her unstable temperament could be. It had always been a gentle union due to her mother’s fragile condition, but her father obviously adored her, would do anything to keep her calm and content. If passion was not a large part of their union, it was their affair. At least a mild version must have enlivened it when they were younger, Reine felt, or she and Paul would not have made their appearance in the world.

It wasn’t what she wanted for herself, a selfless and tepid union, she realized as she moved back toward the bed. No, not at all, in spite of what she might have thought a day or two ago.

She was not fragile or overly genteel, didn’t shrink from emotions that were wild and hot and free. Perhaps it was her French blood from her father’s side of the family, but she felt such things were regulated by nature. She should be more ladylike about them, perhaps, should keep them inside where they would not embarrass her or her future husband. Still, that didn’t mean she shouldn’t feel them.

Did it?

She wondered how Christien viewed the matter.

“People say the most revolting things,” her mother went on, turning her head back and forth against the tall headboard. “They should not talk about what happened here, about you. I can’t bear it.”

“I suppose it’s natural to speculate when something so odd takes place. I’m sure they mean nothing by it.” Reine seated herself on the edge of the bed, lifting the cup to encourage her mother to drink more of the cooling tisane.

“Are you? I am not. They should understand you could have nothing to do with it, that you aren’t capable of…of what they whisper behind their hands. Poor Theodore must have been injured by a prowler. The blood on his pillow—he must have been beaten about the head and face. He wandered out to seek aid, or perhaps he didn’t know what he was doing, where he was going, and so fell into the river.”

It was what they had all said in one form or another since that night. Repeating it seemed to give her mother a measure of peace, as well. Nothing else made sense.
Because she had found Marguerite lying in Theodore’s blood, it had naturally preyed on her mind. The peace when it finally faded away, seldom to be mentioned, had been tremendous. Now the impending marriage, and perhaps the sight of Reine with another man in the room where Theodore had been fatally injured, had brought it all back again.

The wedding would be a reminder for everyone—friends, neighbors, acquaintances, even perfect strangers. They would begin the round of questions again. How had Theodore been killed without waking the child in the bed beside him? Had he actually left the house under his own power? If not, who had removed the body? How was it that no one in the house had seen or heard anything? How could his own wife have slept while he was being murdered in their bed?

It was that last question that haunted Reine. She hadn’t known how to answer then, couldn’t tell anyone now. She could say she had been so very tired, had been away from the main house in the outdoor kitchen, that she never dreamed anything so dreadful might take place. She could maintain that she had not known Theodore would return or come on to River’s Edge after learning she had taken the baby there.

It made no difference. No one seemed to understand. She could hardly blame them, for she had never quite understood it herself.

Reine sat holding her mother’s hand, making soothing noises while trying to say nothing that would incite fearful remembrances. After a time, the tisane did its work. When she was certain her mother slept, Reine
took the cup from her lax fingers and went quietly from the room.

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