Excerpt: The Lovely Duckling
An “ugly duckling” is someone who blossoms beautifully after an unpromising beginning. —Eric Donald Hirsch et al., The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 2002
“Details, Vincent. You cannot simply state you had two women last night without offering details,” Gilbert complained, sporting his usual lazy smile.
Joseph d’Alumbert, Marquis de Valle, rose from his plush chair and strode across the floral carpet over to the window in the antechamber—away from his twin brother Vincent and younger brother Gilbert. He knew full well Vincent wasn’t about to withhold a single salacious detail of his evening of excess.
He simply wanted their younger brother to beg a little.
“Ah, the details . . .” Without turning around, Joseph knew his twin was grinning. He heard it in his tone. Though he and his brothers ordinarily shared the particulars of their carnal encounters, at the moment, Joseph didn’t care a whit how Vincent’s evening had unfolded.
He was on edge. Worse, since his arrival yesterday at the Comtesse de Saint-Arnaud’s country estate, he found himself looking out the window at the courtyard one too many times.
And here he was. Doing it again.
Joseph braced his hands on the window frame as he gazed down at the empty cobblestone courtyard. It was late afternoon. The Comtesse’s week-long masqueraded affair was into its second day. Well under way. She’s not coming, he mentally willed.
“Well?” Gilbert prompted Vincent, impatience in his tone.
“He had the d’Esseur sisters, Gilbert,” Joseph responded for his twin. “There’s nothing new there. Everyone has fucked them.”
“I haven’t!” Gilbert said. “How were they, Vincent? How can you be certain it was them? Everyone’s identity is disguised.”
Vincent chuckled. “Dear brother, you have been away in the campaign too long. Marie and Jeanne d’Esseur are known for two things. Their talented mouths. And their unfortunate, distinctive laugh . . .”
The Comtesse’s parties were never short on decadent diversions—to suit just about any taste. Yet last eve, instead of indulging in some debauchery of his own, Joseph had spent it in the company of the Comtesse’s fine brandy. Unable to focus on the amusements at hand, he’d actually turned down women who were eager to engage in just the sort of impersonal sex he preferred.
His thoughts were being pulled toward a female who wasn’t even in attendance.
“Fine. Wonderful. They had a distinctive laugh,” Gilbert said. “What else, Vincent? Out with it. Tell me before I stop asking altogether.”
At that, Vincent laughed. “We both know you won’t,” he needled Gilbert. “But since you insist, I shall tell you . . . I had them in the gardens, behind the statue of Zeus . . .”
A black carriage pulled into the courtyard, capturing Joseph’s attention. His brothers’ voices immediately faded into the distance as he watched it halt before the main doors of the Comtesse’s château. Sunshine glinted off its top.
Moments later, a figure alighted with the aid of the footman. She wore a mask. And a wig. But it didn’t matter. It was her. He’d know her anywhere. The way she was dressed—the multiple layers of fabrics—made him certain.
He’d hoped he’d convinced her to stay away. He knew exactly what she was after. Her letter had stated it plainly. She was here for the same reason everyone attended the Comtesse’s gatherings.
For the carnal entertainment.
For anonymous sex.
Joseph tightened his jaw and held back the expletives thundering in his head. He wasn’t about to let his brothers know how discomposed this woman had him. He’d never live it down. Women didn’t normally stir him beyond the physical. Yet lately Emilie de Sarron had been affecting him on a number of disquieting levels.
Jésus-Christ, she didn’t belong here. Not with this group. At hand were the very people who had driven her into seclusion ten years ago.
He was among the guilty.
He’d been a party to her humiliation the night Emilie had been introduced into society. As son of the Duc de Vernant, Joseph hadn’t made it a habit to take stock of his behavior. He’d always done as he pleased. Behaved as he willed, without thought or concern. Without excuses or apologies. But the hurt he’d seen in her soft green eyes before she turned and left was still vivid in his mind. Still ate at his conscience. Even after a decade.
She’d withdrawn from society after that night.
She was never betrothed. Never married. He’d never seen her again until last year when he spotted her at the theater. And she looked beautiful; her pale-colored hair and light-colored eyes had always been a stunning combination. Yet the many layers of clothing she wore were a sobering reminder of what made Emilie different from everyone else.
Driven by a need to know how she’d fared all these years, Joseph had sent her a letter the day after the theater. He never imagined she’d be so delightfully witty. Refreshingly frank. Surprisingly bold.
A year later he was still corresponding with her.
The more he got to know the real Emilie, the more he liked her. And the worse he felt for the impact he’d had on her life. A life that might have turned out very different had the incident ten years ago not occurred.
But he couldn’t change the past no matter how much he wished it.
Emilie was the only one to affect his conscience, when his conscience had never bothered him before. She was the only one to inspire a troubling sense of possessiveness. Or a level of interest he didn’t normally offer women.
Limiting the women in his life to bed sport, the rapport he had with this particular female was novel. He’d never touched her, never tasted her, yet he knew her more intimately than any woman he’d ever bedded. Emilie was restless, looking for a reprieve from her staid existence. She longed for a bit of gaiety. She was starved for a taste of passion.
And she was intent on using the anonymity the masquerade offered to disguise her identity, in order to sample some.
Just imagine the stir it would cause if the Comtesse’s guests were to learn Emilie de Sarron was back. After ten years of self-imposed exile.
“Are you listening to anything I’m saying?” Vincent’s voice cut through his thoughts. Joseph reluctantly pulled his attention away from the window.
His twin approached, stopped beside him, and looked down at the courtyard. “Well, well. A new lady has arrived. Do you know who she is?”
“No,” Joseph lied.
Gilbert moved to the window and studied Emilie as she spoke to the footman. “What difference does it make who she is?” He grinned. “Someone new to play with.”
An objection shot up Joseph’s throat. He swallowed it back down. He’d no right to object. Emilie was free to have sex with whomever she chose. This was something she wanted, and he wasn’t going to interfere in any way. He’d offered his concerns about her intentions. Clearly, she’d chosen to proceed nonetheless. He had no idea how badly she’d been burned as an infant, but that fire had changed her life forever, scarring her body permanently. Scars she kept hidden beneath her clothing.
Just how easily a man would detect them during sex, he’d no clue. Her injuries were one of the few topics they had never touched upon in their letters.
The one thing he knew for certain was that he wasn’t going to be the one deflowering her. No matter how stirring her latest letters—filled with sexual curiosity and sensual yearnings—had been.
He’d done enough to her already.
If she felt confident she could indulge in an amorous encounter without anyone identifying her or discovering her scars, then that should put an end to his disquiet.
But it didn’t.
The idea of her giving herself to one or more of the men in attendance was actually plaguing him, and he had no idea why it should.
If that weren’t bad enough, he had another problem. A sizable one.
Emilie had given him her trust, something he knew she didn’t offer just anyone.
And he was lying to her.
Knowing she wouldn’t correspond with him if he’d used his name, he’d misled her in his first letter when he’d inquired about her wellbeing. And in every letter since. Emilie de Sarron believed that the man she’d opened herself to, confided her most intimate thoughts and longings to—was his brother Vincent.
Joseph was too far into this now. To reveal his deception would only hurt her terribly and that was something he couldn’t bring himself to do to her. Not again.
Somehow, some way he had to get through the rest of the masquerade without Emilie—or Vincent—discovering his lie.
Just how the bloody hell was he going to maintain the ruse here?
Emilie stepped around the footman and walked into the château. Joseph turned on his heel and snatched up his mask. “There is a party under way. I’m off.” He marched out of the room without a look back.
Gilbert turned to Vincent. “Well? Shouldn’t we join in?”
Vincent glanced down at the courtyard, noting the woman was gone. He smiled good-naturedly. “Absolutely. I believe the first thing I’m going to do is acquaint myself with the newly arrived lady.”
“You’re here!” Beaming, Pauline de Naylon, Comtesse de Saint-Arnaud, stepped around the desk in her library toward Emilie, her arms wide open.
Removing her demi-mask, Emilie smiled at her aunt, hoping she didn’t look as nervous as she felt. Her heart had pounded the entire trip from her townhouse in the city to the Comtesse’s country estate. The closer she got to the Comtesse’s château, the more she wrestled with her courage. What she was doing was daring. Risky. A tad foolhardy. She’d purposely distanced herself from many of the guests in attendance and their vicious tongue-wagging years ago.
It took everything she had not to turn and run back into hiding.
Pauline embraced her warmly and pressed her cheek to hers. “I’m delighted you came.”
“Hrrmph.” Twenty years Emilie’s senior, her cousin Marthe d’Arbac, Marquise de Sere, scowled from the doorway. She’d all but dragged her feet from the Comtesse’s main doors to the library. “Your invitation has drawn her into the Den of Iniquity. What is there to be delighted about?”
“Ah, Marthe.” Pauline’s smile faded. Her tone was flat. “You made the trip, too. It was lovely of you to accompany Emilie. Feel free to take your leave at any time.” Pauline looped arms with Emilie. “She’s in good hands now.”
Marthe lifted her chin a notch and clasped her hands before her. Emilie sensed it was likely to keep herself from strangling Pauline. The two women had maintained an unwavering animosity, stemming from their court battle where Marthe and her husband, the late Marquis de Sere, had won guardianship of Emilie as a child and control over her vast fortune until she came of age—years ago. Pauline from her mother’s side and Marthe from her father’s side of the family, the only things they had in common were their age, their widowhood, and their affection for Emilie.
Marthe’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll not abandon Emilie in this . . . place. It’s utterly shocking what you allow in your home. Public fornication.”
Emilie sighed. “Marthe, that will be quite en—”
“I allow private fornication as well,” Pauline said. “Perhaps if you had a man more often, Marthe, you wouldn’t be quite so shocked.”
Emilie mentally cringed. A battle was afoot.
Just as expected, Marthe fired back. “Oh, you . . . ! You are utterly brazen! You see what I mean, Emilie? She is shameless. She always has been. We should get back in the carriage and return home immediately.”
“She has been cloistered long enough!” Pauline countered, releasing Emilie’s arm. She pointed an accusatory finger at Marthe. “You are to blame. You and that horrible late husband of yours—”
Emilie took a deep breath, striving for patience. The last thing she needed was bickering between her kin. Her nerves were far too frayed. She’d come looking for a break from the monotony in her life. But this wasn’t the sort of entertainment she had in mind.
Both women meant the world to her.
If she hadn’t wanted Marthe and Pauline to repair their rift, she’d have left Marthe behind, given Emilie’s carnal intent. Perhaps it was too ambitious to plan on enjoying a lover and bringing Marthe and Pauline together after all this time, hoping they’d finally make peace.
Emilie held up a hand to silence them and implored, “Enough. Both of you. Please. Darling Aunt Pauline, you simply must attempt to be nice to Marthe.”
Pauline crossed her arms. “She doesn’t make it easy. She’s entirely too single-minded and obstinate.”
Marthe sucked in a sharp breath, indignant. Emilie walked over and placed an arm around her. Giving her an affectionate squeeze, she quickly stemmed Marthe’s flow of hot words. “Qualities you both share at times, no?” she asked, looking pointedly at both women.
Marthe clamped her mouth shut and looked away. Pauline simply studied the state of the nails on her left hand. Both refused to admit the truth.
Taking advantage of the silence, Emilie continued. “Now then, we’ve discussed this,” she said to Marthe. “I’ll not be dissuaded. I’m seeing this through. If you don’t wish to stay, you may leave. I shall see you at home in a week.”
“But Emilie . . .” Marthe said. “What you’re planning to do . . . You’re actually contemplating your own ruin. You don’t belong here. You are not like these women.”
Those words had bite, though Emilie knew they were innocently dealt.
She smoothed a hand down her cloak. It was summer. A cloak wasn’t needed, but she wore one anyway. She owned several, various colors, various fabrics. Heavy to light. Ornate to plain. For every season. The more she covered her body, the more confidence she had. It was something she’d done since she was a child. It hadn’t stopped the ridicule. Nothing ever had.
It gave her a certain comfort to envelope herself within the coverings of fabric. A barrier between her and the outside world.
But she was tired of the way she lived.
Tired of living vicariously through the characters in the books she read, the theater she frequented on occasion, and the precious few friends she corresponded with.
Tired of not really living at all.
Her discontent had become so deep, it had dragged her out of her safe solitary existence straight into one of the Comtesse’s notorious masquerades. “You are correct. I am not like these women. Or any woman. Thanks to the scars,” she said. “And no amorous encounter could bring about my ruin. My ruin happened long ago in a fire that took the lives of my parents and left me in this rather sorry—unmarriageable—state.”
Marthe lowered her head, clearly remorseful of her words.
“Love and marriage are beyond my reach. I’ve made my peace with that,” Emilie said. “But I refuse to live out my life without ever knowing a taste of passion.”
As long as it was real and as scintillating as the passion she’d read about.
“If passion is what you want, then that is exactly what you shall have, ma chère,” Pauline said. “Besides, marriage is highly overrated. Trust me, I should know. I was married to the Comte de Saint-Arnaud. A lover is much more preferable than a husband. You can easily change a lover.”
Marthe’s head shot up. “Have you no decency?”
“Oh, hush, Marthe.” Pauline walked up to Emilie and pulled her away from her older cousin. “You are going to enjoy yourself this week.”
“But—But—what if they recognize her?” Marthe asked. “You know what they did years ago—”
“No one will recognize me,” Emilie cut her off abruptly, not wanting to remember that night. Or talk about it. She knew Marthe meant well. Unlike her husband, the Marquis de Sere, who had been more interested in Emilie’s inheritance than in her, Marthe was genuinely concerned for her welfare. “After such a lengthy absence, no one will think for a moment that I’d be in attendance. Besides, everyone wears masks at all times and even costumes. Isn’t that so?” she asked Pauline. Her layered mode of dress wouldn’t look odd here.
“Yes. The ladies especially. They make every effort to maintain their anonymity—with both elaborate masks and outfits. I find men don’t make as much of an effort to conceal their identities, but they, too, wear the required mask. And no one, absolutely no one, is permitted to unmask anyone here. However, if during a carnal encounter, in a private setting, one chooses to reveal oneself, then that is between the lovers at play.”
Marthe slapped her hands over her ears. “I can’t listen to this.”
Pauline’s smile broadened at Marthe’s discomfort. “There are plenty of men here to choose from, Emilie. Many of them were not there that horrible night.”
Pauline’s response made Emilie’s heart flutter. There was a very special man somewhere in the Comtesse’s home, one who wasn’t part of that incident a decade ago.
He’d mentioned in his letter that he, too, would be in attendance at the masquerade. She’d only ever seen him once, a long, long time ago. She was so eager to see him again and in person. More than she could ever admit. Probably more than she should.
But she couldn’t help having tender feelings for him. He and his letters were a source of joy. She felt so very close to him, having forged a connection with him she’d never had with anyone else. There was nothing she couldn’t ask him. Or tell him. And she’d divulged plenty.
Given what she was attempting to do—indulge in debauchery—it settled her nerves just knowing he’d be present. On hand to offer advice if she needed it.
Pauline donned her silver-colored demi-mask with white plumes, then approached and placed her hands on Emilie’s shoulders. Looking her firmly in the eye, she asked, “Are you absolutely certain you want to do this?”
Emilie tamped down her fears and self-doubt and steeled her courage. “Yes.” Just once she wanted to be desired. For the next few days, she was going to step into the world of make-believe. With the aid of her masks, be transformed into some-one else. For the first time ever, she wasn’t going to be looked at as a misfit. Or damaged. She wouldn’t be Emilie Embers. Or Singed de Sarron. Or equally as detestable, The Ugly Little Duckling—cruel names she’d endured all her life.
She deserved to be wanted. Kissed. Touched. Held. Every woman did, no matter her plight.
“Very well. Then let us begin.” Pauline took Emilie’s demi-mask of gold and red from her hand and tied it in place. “There’s no time like the present.” Looping her arm with Emilie’s once again, she led her to the door. “You don’t have to worry about approaching the men. They’ll no doubt approach you.”