Prologue 2

“The 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.”

“Merci. 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 decor 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.”

“My 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… intimate 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.

“Leave him.”

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.”

“What danger?”

“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.

“Mon coeur.”

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 me, 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.”

“You?”

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. Bur 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?”

“Yes.”

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 jacket. 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 heart.”

His movements stilled. She heard him exhale. “I could contract you, Marguerite. I could reduce our… arrangement… 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.

Her lower lip quivered with her distress and he licked across the curve, then deepened the contact into a melding kiss. He stole her breath with his expertise, leaving her panting and clinging to his hard body.

“As I love you. I will not lose you,” he vowed, pulling her tight against him.

This time, it was Marguerite who led the way. With his hand in hers, she tugged him toward the bedchamber, where they could forget their troubles for at least a few hours.

The Comte Desjardins entered his cellar and stopped in the same spot he was ordered to occupy every time LEspritcalled upon him.

“I do not believe de Grenier was successful in luring Mademoiselle Piccard away.” LEsprit’sgrating voice scraped down Desjardins’s spine and made him shiver.

“It is too soon to tell.”

“No. I watched him leave. He appeared dejected, not hopeful. She has forsaken everything for her affair. She has only one thing left to lose.”

“Saint-Martin.”

“Exactly.” There was a smile in LEsprit’srasp. “She will not leave him for her benefit, but I believe she will leave him for his.”

Desjardins shook his head. He had no notion of what Saint-Martin had done to anger LEsprit, but he pitied the man. Desjardins suspected LEspritwould not rest until everything Saint-Martin held dear was stripped from him. “What would you have me do?”

“I will see to this task myself,” L’Espritsaid. “I do not want him dead. That would be too kind.”

“As you wish.”

“You will hear from me if I have further need of you.”

Turning away, Desjardins opened the cellar door and climbed back up to the kitchen. He jumped as he heard the slamming of the portal L’Espritused as a shield.

It was fitting that the man came from the bowels of hell.

There was fury in L’Espritand madness. The comte deeply regretted ever being lured into associating with him.

A pretty bauble for his wife, no matter how costly, was not worth his soul.

With his thoughts firmly directed toward Marguerite, Philippe was too distracted to admire the beauty of the Parisian afternoon. He was lost in his private musings, unaware of anything but the sense that he was missing the obvious. His horse cantered toward Marguerite’s home without direction, the steady clopping of hooves lulling its rider into a thoughtful trance.

Around him pedestrians milled, creating a feeling of safety in numbers.

But he was not safe. Had he considered, for even a moment, that he would be used against Marguerite rather than the reverse, he would have been more circumspect. As it was, he turned the corner and took the devastating blow to the chest without any attempt at self-defense.

Thrust backward while his mount moved forward, Philippe was unseated and tumbled to the ground on his back. The air was knocked from his chest, leaving him dazed and unable to move.

The sky above him darkened as men swarmed around him. A booted foot connected to his side. As Philippe’s rib broke under the assault, a grotesque cracking sound rent the air. More kicks. Shouting. Laughing. Pain.

Agony.

Philippe prayed for the strength to roll to his side and curl, but his body would not heed his command. The violence escalated. His vision dimmed.

Then mercifully went black.

“The afternoon’s post, mademoiselle.” Marguerite looked up from the dining table, where she was perusing the week’s meal plan, and found the butler standing in the doorway. She gestured him in and pushed the menus to the side.

“Thank you,” she murmured, reaching for the topmost envelope on the silver salver as it was placed before her.

She went through the marginal task with only partial attention, her mind on Philippe and how withdrawn he had appeared over the last few days. She was a veritable prisoner in her own home, barred from even the swiftest of trips into town. Additional servants had been retained to protect her. The sparse amount of correspondence she received was the only contact she had with anyone beyond the walls of her house.

Her focus sharpened when she came to the missive sealed with thick black wax.

Very few people corresponded with her. Her mother and father had disowned her. Her sisters wrote only sporadically and briefly. Yet it was her name on the exterior of the envelope, not Philippe’s.

Prying it open carefully, she read the bold scrawl with mounting confusion.

Saint-Martin has two choices. Choose you or choose his life. I know how he will decide. The question is, how will you?

L’Esprit

Marguerite frowned, then called out for the butler. When the servant appeared, she asked, “Who delivered this?”

“A groomsman brought it in. I will ask.”

She nodded and waited, rereading the cryptic words and examining the odd seal.

Several moments later, he returned. “He does not recall.”

“Hmm…”

“A courier is at the door, mademoiselle, requesting to see you.”

An apprehensive shiver coursed down Marguerite’s spine.

She carefully refolded the note before leaving it atop the polished wooden tabletop. As a footman pulled her chair back, she stood and ran her hands carefully down her muslin skirts. Hesitating. She had been on edge for days. The odd happenings of this day only worsened her unease.

Rounding the table, she exited out to the hallway and moved toward the visitors’ foyer.

Every step weighed heavier and heavier. The hairs on her nape stood at attention. She was being threatened directly now. As disquieting as that was for her, she knew it would be more so for Philippe. If only they could ascertain what the root of the problem was…

“Mademoiselle Piccard.”

She tilted her head in acknowledgment of the courier’s greeting and drew to a halt by the main staircase, which was several feet away from him. “Good afternoon.”

“Comte Desjardins sent me.”

Her stomach knotted. “Yes?”

The man’s shoulders went back. That telltale sign of nervousness stiffened her spine. There were other concerning indicators, as well-the damaged and dirty state of his clothing, spatters of some dark liquid on his tan breeches, his disheveled hair.

“The Marquis de Saint-Martin was attacked just hours ago,” he said grimly.

“No…” She stumbled as her knees weakened under the weight of her greatest fear. Reaching out, she caught herself by gripping the baluster.

“He was gravely injured. He has since been moved to his home, where he is being attended, but his situation appears dire. Comte Desjardins wanted you to be made aware.”

The room spun and Marguerite gasped for air, fighting a tightening in her chest that threatened to rob her of consciousness.

“Made aware,” she repeated, her thoughts on the letter sitting on her dining table.

Every instinct screamed at her to go to Philippe, to be with him, hold him, nurse him back to health.

Which was not possible. His wife would care for him, as was her right.

Dear God…

Marguerite sank to the marble floor in a puddle of yellow skirts, her vision distorted by hot flowing tears. The butler hurried toward her, but she halted him with an upraised hand. “Is your cousin still employed at the Saint-Martin residence?”

“Yes, mademoiselle.” Understanding lit the servant’s pale blue eyes. “I will send someone to learn what they can from him.”

“Urge them to haste.”

As the courier backed away as if to leave, her attention returned to him. Fury gave her the strength to rise to her feet.

“As for you,” she said coldly, stepping toward him with fists clenched. “Return to Comte Desjardins and give him a message for me.”

“Mademoiselle?” He shifted uncomfortably.

“Tell him that if the marquis does not survive, neither will he.”

He bowed and departed, leaving Marguerite with a life in shambles. For the space of several heartbeats she stood in place, hardly breathing.

How would she survive without Philippe?

A hand touched her arm tentatively. Marguerite turned to find Celie standing beside her.

“What can I do?” the maid asked.

“What can anyone do?” Marguerite replied in a hoarse voice. “Everything is in the hands of God now.”

“Perhaps the Vicomte de Grenier can be of assistance?”

Marguerite frowned, startled by the suggestion. She had no one to whom she could turn for help. Her sisters, perhaps, but they had nothing to offer and would most likely believe that such was the fate of fallen women.

“Why would he help me?” she asked.

Celie shrugged and winced.

“Send someone,” Marguerite ordered, thinking he would already know about the day’s events, regardless.

The maid curtsied and scurried off.

It was a few hours later before de Grenier arrived. He entered the parlor behind the butler looking windblown and handsome, despite the tightness of his mouth and the grimness in his eyes.

Marguerite rose from her seat, expending great effort to ignore how the knot in her stomach tightened upon seeing him. “My lord.”

“I came as swiftly as possible,” he said, striding up to her and collecting her hands in his.

“I am grateful.”

“I went to Desjardins first, to see what he knew.”

She gestured for him to sit and he did, choosing to share the small settee with her.

“Was he forthcoming?” she asked.

“He was startled by my involvement, then wary. I believe it was only desperation that led him to speak openly.”

Her fingers tangled together in her lap and her breath caught. “Desperation?”

De Grenier exhaled and the sound conveyed such finality, she felt ill. “I have always thought of Desjardins as immovable as a mountain, despite his youth. There are very few people who I would believe above any form of coercion and he is one of them.”

“Coercion?” she repeated, the word sticking to the roof of her dry mouth.

“Yes.” He paused. “Marguerite…”

“Just tell me, damn you!”

“There is some speculation that a cache of missing and important documents is being held by Saint-Martin in this house.”

“Where?”

“I do not know. Desjardins is not even certain the tale is true. He only knows that he has been receiving threats the last three months, all promising harm to Saint-Martin and you, if what the fiend desires is not returned.”

Confused, her gaze moved around the room as if she could find the needed papers. “We have been so wrong.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Saint-Martin believed that I was distracting him from his duties to the secret du roi and that is what the grievance was. Neither of us understood how a mistress could signify, but we were unable to conceive of what else it could be.”

“You were unable to conceive of it,” the vicomte said gently. “Saint-Martin was aware that he had possession of something valuable; he simply did not share the information with you.”

Marguerite heard the note of smugness in de Grenier’s words and knew he hoped to incite a rift. Such machinations were wasted on her, however. She was a practical woman. She did not find it odd or secretive for Philippe to withhold information about his covert activities from her. There was nothing she could do with such knowledge besides worry unduly about things she had no power over.

“So what can I do?” she asked. “Who is this person who needs these documents and what hold does he have over Desjardins?”

“I do not know.” The vicomte leaned forward. “I only know that you cannot remain here, Marguerite.”

“Of course not. If they want something in this house, they must have it. We cannot risk Saint-Martin’s life.”

“They also want you.”

She blinked. “Why?”

“Whoever this individual is, they carry great enmity toward Saint-Martin. They want him to lose everything he holds dear, including you. Desjardins is deeply disturbed by the brutality of the attack today. He fears that the next step will be the loss of Saint-Martin’s life, despite having been told that death would be too merciful an end.”

Pushing to her feet, Marguerite wept openly. “Did he share any of this information with Philippe? Or did Desjardins allow him to remain ignorant of these threats?”

De Grenier rose. “I do nor know, nor do I care. My concern is only for you. You are innocent in this, yet your life has been compromised by association.”

“My life is with Philippe.”

“And when he is dead?” the vicomte spat out, his large frame tense with frustration. “What then?”

“Are you suggesting that my removal from Philippe’s life will spare him?”

“It might. Desjardins believes that he can use your departure to soothe this man he called L’Esprit. It will give him an opportunity to locate the papers and perhaps end this.”

“L’Esprit…” Turning, Marguerite rushed from the parlor and crossed to the dining room, where the note from earlier waited. She reread the cryptic words and felt ill. Her hand fell to her side, the paper crinkling within her tense grip.

Large hands settled atop her shoulders and squeezed gently. “Allow me to help you.”

“You already have and I thank you.” She faced him. “I cannot afford to be any further in your debt.”

His handsome features softened and he cupped her cheek. “You do not have the means to extricate yourself on your own.”

“I have some jewelry…”

“Mon Dieu!” he scoffed. “You cannot survive indefinitely on so little.”

“No,” she agreed, “but there is enough to sustain me until Saint-Martin is well and the documents are dealt with.”

“If he survives the night, it will be only because of the grace of God.”

She felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her dizzy and weary. She clung to the back of the chair, but de Grenier caught her arm and forced her to sit.

“You are not well,” he said.

“I must rest. Certainly you can imagine how taxing this afternoon has been.”

The vicomte appeared prepared to argue, then he bowed. “My previous offer still stands.”

He moved to take a seat beside her. He caught up her hand, which lay motionless on the table surface. She looked into his eyes and saw compassion.

“I cannot discuss this now.” It made her sick to think of it. Life without Philippe? Life spent with another man? The thought was inconceivable to her.

And then her day, already unbearably agonizing, worsened.

An urgent knocking came to the open door. Marguerite turned in her chair to see Celie ringing her hands in her apron. “Mademoiselle, a word, please.”

Marguerite stepped out to the hallway and found the servants scrambling. Fear froze the blood in her veins, making her shiver. “What is it? What has happened?”

Celie’s pale eyes were reddened, as was her upturned nose. “Cook made stew for the servants from the scraps. I was late-“

With her nerves stretched to the limit, Marguerite had no patience for nonsense. She grabbed Celie by the arms and shook her. “What happened? Has he passed?”

“They all passed!” the maid screamed. “Cook… the footmen… They’re all dead! All of them…”

De Grenier burst from the dining room in a full run, skidding momentarily across the marble floor before finding purchase and heading toward the rear of the house. Marguerite followed despite Celie’s pleas, her heart racing so violently she feared it might burst. The vicomte entered the kitchen a few strides ahead of her. He cursed, then spun around quickly, catching her in his arms and dragging her back.

“Poison,” he said grimly with his lips to her ear.

The ground fell away beneath her feet and she was swallowed by the inky darkness of unconsciousness.

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