Excerpt: Sleeping Beau

 

 

                                    Chapter One

France, 1685

“Will you do it, Adrien? Say yes. You simply must. I’m your sister.” Charlotte’s whine taxed Adrien’s already thin patience.

Adrien Christophe d’Aspe de Bourbon, Marquis de Beaulain, stared out the window at the gardens below. Lords and ladies milled about, clustering near the fountains and along the pathways bordered by flowerbeds. His mood was foul. His audience with his father the root cause. It hadn’t gone well. It never went well. Days after the fact, he was still irritable. He’d only just arrived at the Comtesse de Lamotte’s chateau and already Charlotte had him wanting to leave. Her unexpected presence and the absurd scheme she’d devised had effectively soured his plans: a few days at Suzanne’s abode, indulging in drink and debauchery to lift him out of his ill humor.

“You’re my half-sister, Charlotte. We have different fathers,” he replied bitterly. Raised in Paris at the Hotel d’Aspe by his three uncles, Adrien had had all the male influence he’d needed. Or wanted. Except for the occasional horrid visit, his father had been absent from his life–that is, until a year ago when Adrien’s mother had died. Since then Louis had injected himself into Adrien’s world. Though Adrien wanted nothing to do with the man, his father was not someone he or anyone could simply ignore.

Charlotte rose from the settee and stopped beside him. “You needn’t remind me of that. Your father is the King. At least he has legitimized you, given you title and lands–“

“He legitimized all his illegitimate children. Not just me. And it is a wonder there’s any land left in the realm, given the multitude he sired. I doubt even he knows how many mistresses he’s had.” Their mother among the masses.

“Well, the Baron de Chambly still won’t recognize me as his. He’s never given me a moment’s thought, much less wealth.”

“Charlotte, nothing comes without a price.” His tone dripped with disdain.

“Come now, Adrien. Enough of this. We are family. I need you.” Her bottom lip was out in a full pout. “What I ask of you is not so strenuous. You and I both know you’ll bed some of the women here before the week is up. All I ask is that you bed Catherine de Villecourt as well. Charm her. Convince her that marriage is not what she wants. Lure her away from my Philbert. You’re my only hope, Adrien. He’s set to wed her in two weeks.” Tears glistened in her hazel eyes. “I don’t want to lose him. He’s been so distant lately. I fear if he weds, I’ll never get him back. She’s younger than I. Fifteen years his junior.” Two tears spilled down her cheeks. “He’ll focus on his new bride and forget all about me.”

Exasperated, Adrien let out a sharp breath. Charlotte and their mother were so alike. She, too, had harbored the illusion that she could accomplish the impossible: maintain her lover’s interest indefinitely and remain his favorite for good.

“Charlotte, find yourself a new lover. You don’t need Philbert de Baillet.”

“Yes I do,” she protested. “I love him! I don’t want to live without him.”

How many times had he heard those very words from his mother’s mouth about his father? Love. It was highly overrated. He’d no idea why anyone would pursue it. Love caused suffering. Lust was much easier to deal with. And far more pleasurable.

Adrien was about to rebut when she added, “Look down there. There she is now. With our hostess.”

Mildly curious about Charlotte’s rival, he glanced down at the manicured grounds and spotted their hostess Suzanne de Lamotte. She was with a woman whose rich auburn hair looked a tad too familiar. He stared harder. From this distance, he couldn’t make out enough details to be certain . . . but . . . The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Dieu, it looked like her.

Could it possibly be…?

Visions of the redhead naked in his bed materialized in his mind. He still remembered her face. Her scent–jasmine. And the sultry sounds she made each time she came. Their carnal encounter was like none he’d ever known. Perfect spine-melting passion. Her delectable mouth, her lush form, and her hot creamy sex clasped snugly around his thrusting cock had him on fire the entire night.

In the morning, he was shocked to discover that she’d spiked his burgundy with an aphrodisiac. And she was gone. He’d been confused, a bit disoriented, and uncertain if the whole thing hadn’t been a dream. But the scent of jasmine lingered on his skin.

And on the sheets, glaring back at him, was the stunning proof that he’d taken a virgin.

Furious that he’d been played, tricked, he’d questioned his friend Daniel, Marquis de Gallay, the host of the masquerade. Made discreet inquiries everywhere. No one knew who the auburn-haired seductress was. For the longest time he’d been unsure whether he’d be hauled to the altar or called out. But the lady’s family never stepped forward.

She’d left him with a sizzling memory and unanswered questions. Worse and even more maddening, after all these years she still made appearances in every one of his erotic dreams.

Was it possible that after five years he’d found the mysterious beauty who had sneaked into his chambers and awakened him with a searing kiss?

He stalked to the door and snatched it open.

“Well? Will you do it?” Charlotte called out. “Adrien? Where are you going?”

Adrien crossed the threshold with purposeful strides.

********

Moving through the gardens, Catherine walked arm in arm with Suzanne–her friend and former sister-in-law and the only good thing to come out of her brief scandal-ridden marriage. If Suzanne’s guests were privy to gossip about Catherine’s late husband, the Comte de Villecourt, they gave no indication of it.

Strains of music from the violins sweetened the summer air and blended with the trickling sounds of the fountains.

Her tension easing, Catherine was starting to enjoy herself. She’d remained in mourning two years–longer than her marriage had lasted–and had thereafter kept to herself at Chateau Villecourt, away from the gossipmongers who’d gleefully spread the sensational details leading to her late husband’s fatal duel.

It was Suzanne who had convinced her to visit last year. It was Suzanne who’d introduced her to her present betrothed, Philbert, Comte de Baillet. And it was Suzanne who’d persuaded her to take this sojourn before her impending nuptials.

“You aren’t really going to marry Baillet, that old bore, are you?” Suzanne asked, her hostess’s smile affixed to her face as they moved past the guests.

Catherine’s smile was genuine. “I am. I shall proudly be the Comtesse de Old Bore.” Her laugh moved Suzanne to one as well.

Sobering, her friend remarked, “I know my brother made you suffer, Catherine. I only want your happiness.”

Catherine arrested her steps. “I am happy. Philbert and I will get along fine.” Philbert was not the most exciting of men, but she’d endured enough excitement to last a lifetime while married to Villecourt. Philbert was the right choice. She’d have a quiet existence, financial security, and that was enough to satisfy her. Shoving aside the twinge of regret, she silenced the small voice inside her heart that opposed the notion. It made no difference that he didn’t love her. Or that she didn’t love him. Such marriages were virtually unheard of. At least Philbert had enough regard for her to be discreet about any paramours he’d maintain.

Suzanne sighed. “I suppose…but…beneath that very proper exterior lies a vivacious woman. One desperate to get out. I fear the sheer dullness of the man will kill her.”

“Suzanne–” Catherine’s retort was interrupted.

“Madame de Lamotte!” a woman called out behind her. Turning, Catherine saw two women about her age briskly approaching.

“Ah, Dieu . . .” Suzanne murmured softly.

The two dark-haired females stopped before them, cheeks pink and slightly breathless.

“Is he here, madame? Has le Beau arrived?” blurted out Madame de Noisette the moment Suzanne had finished with the introductions.

“Yes, do tell,” her friend Madame de Bussy, prompted.

“He is here.” Suzanne’s statement was weighty with a certain amount of smug pleasure.

Excitement bubbled out of the two women, the sound much like that of a gaggle of geese.

Catherine hid her amusement over their reactions. “Who is le Beau?” she inquired, her curiosity piqued.

Madame de Noisette’s brown eyes widened. “You don’t know le Beau?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of him.”

“Why, he’s only the most handsome man in the realm,” she explained. “He’s one of the King’s own bastard sons–Adrien, Marquis de Beaulain.”

“And I hear he’s between conquests,” Madame de Bussy added. “His reputation as a master swordsman and”—she blushed—“in the boudoir is renowned. In fact, he’s quite the celebrated libertine. All the women want him.”

“Oh?” Catherine remarked, unimpressed.

Madame de Noisette tittered. “He’s living up to the curse.”

That grabbed Catherine’s interest. “Curse?”

“Why, yes.” Madame de Bussy looked around then stepped a little closer and continued sotto voce. “His mother was, for a time, the King’s favorite. It is said that at le Beau’s christening, one of the King’s former favorites was overcome with jealousy, burst into the chapel, and cursed the child the moment the holy oil was placed upon his forehead.”

Madame de Noisette shook her head. “Can you imagine such a thing?” Knowing how superstitious the King and his court were, Catherine understood the horror in the woman’s tone. Uttering ill-intended words toward the babe was bad enough, but to hurl them at the anointing of the child was far worse. “Tell her what she said. Go on,” Madame de Noisette urged her friend.

“Yes, of course…She said the babe would grow up to be exceptionally beautiful, charming, break women’s hearts, as his father did, yet be nothing but grief to Louis. The King became instantly incensed at the woman. One of le Beau’s godfathers, for his mother had three brothers and couldn’t choose between them for such an honor, tried to mollify the King. As the story goes, he placed a hand upon the infant’s crown and said that the child’s looks and charm would indeed be great and that all would marvel at him. That he would fill His Majesty with pride, for a son so fine could only belong to the ruler himself.”

Catherine glanced at Suzanne and caught her rolling her eyes.

“Really, madame, that tale has been retold too many times with too many variations to be believed,” Suzanne said.

“It is true!” Madame de Bussy insisted, then turned to Catherine. “It’s all come to pass. He most definitely has looks and charm, and at the age of majority, barely fifteen, he pricked his first woman.”

Her friend laughed. “My dear, I believe you mean he used his prick for the first time to tumble a woman.”

Madame de Bussy’s face turned crimson. “Ah, yes, yes, that is exactly what I mean. And he has been using that particular part of his anatomy to delight many fortunate females ever since.” By the sparkle in her eyes, Catherine could tell she was anxious to be his next conquest. Since most men preferred to live at their hotels in Paris while their wives were banished to their country chateaus, the ladies before her could easily take a lover without anyone being the wiser.

“And, my dear, let us not forget how often His Majesty has had to look the other way each time le Beau has broken his own father’s law by duel—” Madame de Noisette’s words froze on her tongue and her mouth fell agape as she stared beyond Catherine.

“It’s him!” Madame de Bussy exclaimed.

Catherine was just about to turn around when Madame de Noisette grabbed her arm. “Don’t! Don’t turn around. He is looking this way and it will seem as though we are speaking about him.”

“We are speaking about him, madame,” Suzanne said blandly.

“Oh, my.” Madame de Noisette removed her hand from Catherine’s arm and pressed it to her bosom. “He is coming this way.”

Suzanne was now facing her approaching guest with a welcoming smile.

Unable to resist a peek at the roue, Catherine peered over her shoulder. Her stomach dropped the moment her gaze locked on to a set of arresting green eyes. Sinfully seductive, intimately familiar light green eyes. Her limbs went cold and her knees felt suddenly weak.

Dear God, it’s him…

“Hmmm? What did you say?” Suzanne asked, still focused on the ever-nearing le Beau.

“No, nothing.” Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. He’s the bastard son of the King! She’d tainted his wine with an aphrodisiac. He could have her arrested for that. For her rash–idiotic–act. Every fiber in her body screamed, “Flee!”

“Suzanne,” she croaked out, her heart hammering.

Her friend dragged her gaze back to her, her smile instantly dissolving. “Catherine, are you all right? You’re flushed.”

“I’ve suddenly developed a terrible headache. I’m going to lie down. Excuse me.” She fisted her skirts and made her way across the gardens, forcing herself to keep to a swift walk and not a full-out run. She maneuvered around the guests, never making eye contact, never turning around, using the bushes to shield her from le Beau’s view whenever possible. Around the side of the chateau she’d find the servants’ entrance.

Ten more feet and she’d be out of sight.

Her breaths were ragged.

Eight feet. Hurry!

How could Odette have been so mistaken? Her maid had told her that the beautiful stranger she’d spotted at the masquerade five years ago was a foreigner. From Vienna.

She rounded the side of the chateau. At last…

Tossing a quick glance over her shoulder, Catherine bolted for the wooden door, all but falling against it when she reached it. Briefly fumbling with the latch, she opened it, ducked inside, and raced through the kitchens, negotiating around each busy servant who got in her way, ignoring their curious looks. Smoke and the heavy scent of roasting meats assailed her nostrils and scorched her throat. Move! Move! Get to your rooms!

She rushed up the servants’ darkened stairs and stopped at the door that led to the upstairs hallway. Cautiously, she opened it and peered out. Empty!

Only twenty feet remained between her and her chamber door. Wasting no time, she stepped into the long corridor and made her way to safety, her legs wobbly with each rapid step she took.

“Madame?” A male voice arrested her steps.

And her breathing.

She heard footsteps approaching.

Don’t panic. It could be anyone. Let it be anyone other than–she turned. Her knees almost buckled.

Le Beau.


         

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