Welcome to the third of ten excerpts from BOND OF FIRE.
Hélène nodded politely, glad nobody expected her to have enough wits to think about anything more important than a glass of wine. Otherwise, she might have had to pay attention to the conversation around her, instead of longing for the musicians to finish their break and start playing again. She fanned herself, wishing that the wood and silk concoction was actually a steel-tipped pole long enough to give her a respite from importunate fools. She’d been prepared for fortune hunters, even for throngs of them clamoring for attention from all sides. Cher Bernard and she had discussed how to handle them many times, since she was almost certain to outlive him.
But she hadn’t anticipated their female relatives and allies, buzzing around her like hornets. Those were by far the worst since no place was safe from them. No form of shopping, of course. But church? And surely a retiring room should be a sanctuary, if nowhere else. But it hadn’t proven to be.
Returning home couldn’t happen too soon, if she was to see Grandpère again while he was still alive. Frivolously, she also had mountains of new clothes for Celeste, her younger sister, to enchant her beloved Raoul with. Plus, there were books for Maman and two stallions for Papa, to help rebuild the family horse farm. It had been famous throughout France before Grandpère decided that success as a breeder of horses granted him equal brilliance at cards. Only Grandpère’s stroke and her own marriage to cher Bernard had salvaged their estates, land that had been held by her ancestors for almost four hundred years.
She’d married cher Bernard straight from the convent and counted herself lucky. He’d been courteous and considerate, interested in what she thought and felt despite the years between them. Certain that she’d never betray him, he’d even been able to laugh over her occasional flushes of admiration for young men. She had never been unfaithful. She’d never truly been seriously tempted to.
A fortune hunter’s female ally was talking now, the nasal rasp of her voice destroying any possible pleasure in her effusive praise for her nephew.
Hélène allowed her gaze to drift toward the door where the musicians had disappeared. Not a crack in a panel, no liveried musicians bearing gilded instruments, nothing.
She considered the men around her, never letting her eyes rest on anyone for very long. A wide variety, certainly, but mostly fops – and every one of them turning alert and eager when her glance passed over them. Dependent on her for a good time. What she wouldn’t do for someone who didn’t care about her money. . .
Two men approached, tall enough to be glimpsed over the others’ heads, even between the ladies’ high-piled marvels of the hairdresser’s art. Somehow a path opened before them, revealing cher Bernard’s Irish business associate, Donal O’Malley.
The other man was young, looking little more than her own age, yet he bore himself with the assurance of a much older man. He was very handsome, too, and almost pretty with his light brown hair and brilliant blue eyes, like a free-running river on a hot summer day. He didn’t just walk – he prowled, as unselfconsciously graceful and deadly as a lion she’d once seen in a private zoo.
Hélène’s fan stilled, matching her startled heartbeat. What woman wouldn’t kill to have him worshipping her?
The nasal voice fatuously compared her relative to Zeus – and the five-foot-tall dolt preened.
A wonderfully genuine smile danced through the stranger’s eyes. His sensual mouth curved, drawing attention to its potential for sin.
Her eyes caught his, and they shared the joke.
A matching grin surged forward but she bit it back, desperate not to be publicly rude. She whipped her fan into action, pretending to be slightly overcome by heat. Would she have longed to flirt with the stranger so much if Bernard were still alive?
“Ma chère madame.” O’Malley bowed and kissed her hand, casually displaying their long acquaintance by addressing her only as a dear lady, not the marquise.
She twinkled at him, enjoying their old joke. He’d begun it when he found her enveloped in coif and apron like a maid, while helping her husband experiment with black powder. “What a pleasure to see you again, Monsieur O’Malley.”
“May I present to you a very old and trusted friend, Jean-Marie St. Just, recently arrived from New York?” He indicated his friend. “You asked earlier about their unusual political structure, and he can answer you.”
“Enchanté, madame la marquise,” St. Just bowed over her hand with all the grace of a dance master or a master swordsman, his tongue easily uttering the formal greeting.
She sank into a curtsy, deeper than protocol demanded, her brain spinning. He was an American – and so graceful? She’d met Ambassador Jefferson, of course. But somehow she’d thought of him as the exception, with the others as barbarians, incapable of managing court attire’s full-skirted coats and dress swords.
The would-be suitors and their allies muttered their disapproval. Skirts rustled, heels tapped – and violin strings sawed.
The musicians had returned for the contredanses, the openly seductive half of the evening. Anyone present could simply find themselves a partner, form into a line with other couples, and begin to dance. Each dance’s steps were usually very simple and designed to allow a great deal of flirting.
Recognizing their opportunity, the horde of men around her surged forward.
Hélène instinctively flinched, and St. Just’s fingers, which had started to release hers, tightened. Perhaps she was crazy, but she thought she heard him growl.
“May I have the honor of a dance, madame?”
“Certainement, Monsieur St. Just.” She granted him a regal smile. “I would be delighted to help celebrate your visit from such a distant shore.”
St. Just inclined his head and tucked her hand protectively into the crook of his elbow.
She tilted her chin up, trying to look as if her pulse wasn’t racing a little too fast, and glanced around. “Please excuse us, ladies, gentlemen.”
Edged glares were shot at him, but everyone moved back, giving them room. St. Just calmly guided her into the set, treating everyone other than the musicians as moving – but unimportant – obstacles. O’Malley blew her a kiss from the palm of his hand and quickly gained a lady.
Others found partners and moved into the dance with them, jostling to be close-by. Skirts slapped against each other in the hurly-burly, sending ruffles shaking like leaves in a storm. Men clamped down on their swords’ hilts, yet the masculine trinkets still slapped their legs and bounced against other people.
She frowned slightly, considering the tumult, and St. Just drew closer. “Is it always like this?”
“The king and queen probably retired some time ago.” He glanced down at her, visibly considering how much to say. “That makes this ballroom one of the better opportunities to find company for the rest of the night, if you haven’t done so already.”
She opened and closed her mouth, shocked by both his frank words and her body’s enthusiastic response.
“Please relax, I know you’re a virtuous widow.” He patted her hand. “I only wish to dance.”
The musicians swept into the first chord before she could recover from being openly called a virtuous widow. Did she want that appellation? Or would she rather be wicked? She curtsied to him automatically, her mind spinning through possible explanations for his behavior and her own.
The music moved to the next measure, a familiar dance, and a step she mercifully knew exactly how to perform. She took both of his hands and stepped forward. An instant later, she realized her mistake.
Their arms crossed, and her face was only a few inches from his body – his hard, very masculine body.
They stepped away, spinning and uncrossing their arms. Somewhere down the line, a dancer was laughing with the rich, unmistakable certainty of imminent carnal satisfaction.
Hélène’s gaze shot up to St. Just.
His mouth wore a bitter curve.
The next time the dance brought her toward him, he made sure she finished at an all-too-respectable distance from him.
But why? Why was he the only man here who didn’t hunt her?
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved