Excerpt: The Marquis’s New Clothes

 

Chapter ONE

Versailles, 1683

     “My life is over!” Louise d’Arcy exclaimed the moment after she’d yanked Aimee inside her elegant private apartments and slammed the door shut.

     Aimee de Miran sighed. She’d just arrived at Versailles. Her sojourn at the palace was only ten minutes long and already she was rethinking her plan to attend court and visit with her cousin.

     Dear Louise was always in the midst of chaos. It seemed now was no different.

     Parched from the long carriage ride, Aimee walked over to the pitcher of water and orange slices on the ebony side table and promptly filled two crystal goblets. “Louise, darling, I’m certain your life isn’t over.” She held a goblet out to her cousin. “Now why don’t you tell me what’s wrong.”

     “What’s wrong? Renault is what’s wrong. He’s cast me aside!” Wringing her hands, Louise began to pace, completely oblivious to Aimee’s extended arm and the goblet of fresh water being offered.

     Aimee availed herself of the refreshment instead and set the goblet down.

     A lovers’ spat. Nothing new.

     “I see.” That would be all she’d need to say for the next hour while Louise ranted. When she was done, her cousin would collapse in a chair, quite theatrically, and weep for at least twenty more minutes.

     Aimee had been through this before. Many times. Louise was always having spats with her longtime lover, Renault de Sard.

     Louise stopped dead in her tracks. “No, you don’t see. You’ve no idea what has occurred. Everything is a mess. And it’s over this time! Truly over!” Her hazel eyes filled with tears. “He’ll not have anything more to do with me. He’s said so!” She dropped her face into her palms and sobbed.

     Aimee approached and put a consoling arm around her cousin. Of similar age, they’d always been close. She did adore Louise, despite her histrionics. “Louise, it will work out. You’ll see. He always comes back.”

     “Not this time,” she said without lifting her head, the words muffled by her hands.

     “You say that every time.”

     Her cousin’s head shot up. “This time it’s true!”

     “You say that every time, too.”

     Louise let out a sharp breath. “Aimee, he favors another! I have been replaced. He’s with Diane de Millon. I’m no longer his mistress at all! I tell you, he is a horrible, horrible cad! He purposely misled me.”

     “Oh? Misled you how?”

     “I was positively thrilled when he asked me to accompany him to the palace for his regular official visit with the King. He’d been so cold and distant lately that I didn’t think he’d permit me to attend this time. In truth, his plan was to bring me here to end our affair. He thought I wouldn’t pitch a fit at the palace. And do you know what I did?’

     “You pitched a fit at the palace.”

     “No. Well . . . yes.” Louise waved her hand dismissively. “But that was in private. And that’s not what I’m talking about.” Her cousin began to pace and wring her hands again. “I did something. Something terrible. Something I regret.”

     Trepidation was beginning to mount in Aimee. Louise always had a flare for the dramatic, but . . . Aimee couldn’t shake the disquieting feeling tightening in her stomach. There was a certain look in Louise’s eyes that made her a little anxious.

     “What did you do?”

     Her cousin smoothed her hands down her gown. A habit. Something Louise always did when she was nervous. Or uneasy. Or terribly guilty.

     “Well, you see . . .” Louise began and smoothed her hands down her gown again. “You must understand, I was quite angry with Renault at the time, and very hurt by his cutting coldness toward me. So I . . .”

     Aimee braced herself. Having no idea what she was about to hear, her instincts told her it was going to be bad. Quite bad. “You what?

     “I took something of his.”

     “Took?”

     “All right, I stole. There, I said it. Is that better? I stole something he holds dear.”

     Good Lord. This was a new low, even for Louise. “What on earth did you steal?”

     Louis threw up her hands. “The man has never given me anything, Aimee. In all these years, no lover’s trinket. No jewelry at all! I felt he owed me at least that much.”

     Aimee struggled with her patience. “Louise . . . What. Did. You. Take?”

     “His jeweled ring. One of the ones given to him by the King.”

     “Oh, Louise, you didn’t.”

     “I did!” Louise flopped down onto the nearby chair, dropped her face into her palms again, and wept audibly.

     Aimee shook her head, dismayed. Of all the predicaments Louise had landed herself in, this one was by far the most shocking. “Didn’t it occur to you that Renault is the King’s Lieutenant General of Police? A man who is overzealous when it comes to the duties of his post and would arrest his own mother for the most minor infraction?”

     Louise looked up. “Well, not at the time, but it certainly has over the last few hours . . .” She choked on a sob. “What am I going to do? My life is over! He’ll throw me in one of those horrible cells without batting an eye. If he’s angry enough, he could have orders drawn up against me, and I’ll be held without trial—for who knows how long.”

    Aimee took in a fortifying breath and let it out slowly. She walked over to her distressed kin and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Everything is going to be fine. We can remedy this problem. This really isn’t as great a dilemma as you think it is.”

     Her cousin swiped away the tears on her cheek. “Oh, but it is.”

     “No it isn’t. You will return the ring with a sincere apology—”

     “I can’t.”

     “You’re right. The man is so rigid and uncompromising, he won’t understand,” Aimee said as an idea occurred to her. “I have it. You’ll sneak into his rooms and put the ring back, without him being the wiser.”

     “I can’t do that either.”

     Aimee frowned. “What do you mean, you can’t?”

     “I lost the ring.”

     “You what?

     Louise rose from the chair. “Well, it’s not entirely lost. I know where it is. Sort of.”

     “Where in the name of God is it—sort of?

     “I had it with me when I was in the Hall of Mirrors yesterday. It was very crowded, as usual. I was bumped from behind, and it fell out of my hand and into the pocket of one of the courtiers.”

     “Do you know who?”

     “I do. The Marquis de Nattes.”

     Aimee’s heart missed a beat. “Adam de Vey, Marquis de Nattes?” she questioned, hoping she’d heard wrong.

     “Yes. Exactly.” Her cousin grasped Aimee’s hands and squeezed them. “Aimee, I can’t let Renault learn what I did. If the ring is found on the Marquis de Nattes’s person, Renault would never believe he stole the ring. He has one of his own from the King. You must help me get the ring back before Renault discovers it missing. He’ll not stop until he uncovers the thief. Me!”

     This was only getting worse. She didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking. “What exactly are you suggesting I do?”

     For the first time since Aimee entered the room, her cousin smiled. “You know as well as I do the Marquis de Nattes would be receptive to any attention you would give him. Since Marc died, he looks at you ‘that’ way. You could easily get close enough to him to search his clothes.”

     Aimee’s brows shot up. “Have you gone mad? You want me to encourage that libertine just so I can dip my hands in his pockets in search of your ring?”

     “Precisely. And perhaps you can search his armoire in his private apartments, too. The man does have a rather extensive wardrobe . . .”

     “No. Absolutely not.” Adam de Vey was the worst sort of man. The very type she detested. He was no different than her late husband. Beautiful as sin. A master at seduction.

     And completely faithless.

     A man who believed women were interchangeable. Who cared nothing of what he did to a woman’s heart. Only what he did with her body.

     It was no wonder that the Marquis de Nattes and her late husband, Marc, Comte de Gremont, had been friends. They were of like mind and poor character. Since Marc’s death on the dueling field three years ago—a duel over his favorite paramour at the time—Aimee thankfully had had nothing more to do with her late husband’s licentious friends.

     Louise’s bottom lip began to tremble, her eyes welling with fresh tears. “Renault will show me no mercy. He cares nothing for me at all now. If—If you don’t help me . . . then I will surely be arrested, Aimee. You won’t let that happen, will you? You’ll help me, won’t you?”

     The pitiful look on her cousin’s face tugged at Aimee’s heart fiercely. She wanted to help her, but . . . she’d noticed the lingering looks Adam had given her since Marc’s death, too. The last thing she wanted to do was to make him believe she’d be receptive to him.

     “Louise . . . There’s got to be another way . . .”

     “There isn’t! Oh, please, Aimee. I haven’t anyone else who can help . . . I know you don’t care for Adam de Vey, but think of it this way: You can do something most women cannot. You can easily flirt with Adam, yet resist him, and in the end do what no female has done—rebuff him.”

     Now, that did have a certain appeal. Men like the Marquis de Nattes toyed with so many women, luring them with their polished manner, potent sensuality, their false affections. She would definitely love to play him. Lure him. She could flirt a little. Draw close enough to locate the ring and save Louise.

     She was likely one of the few women in the realm who’d resist his allure.

     After giving herself over to her husband—heart, body, and soul—leaving herself open to the humiliation and heartbreak she’d ultimately endured, Aimee knew she’d never fall into the arms of another rake like Marc again.

     “All right,” tumbled from her mouth.

     Louise squeaked with joy and threw her arms around Aimee. “Thank you! I knew I could count on your help.”

     Aimee sighed. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what he was wearing when you dropped the ring?”

      “I do!” Louise was finally smiling again. “He was wearing a blue justacorps.”

     “Blue? That’s it?”

     “I know how much the man adores fine clothing, and I did hear he had a new wardrobe delivered two days ago, but really, how many blue justacorps could he have in all?”

     True. But given the number of knee-length coats he owned, what were the chances he’d wear the same blue justacorps again anytime soon?

     Just how mindful was he of such things?

     “Between the two of us, we’ll be able to locate the ring quickly and easily,” Louise said confidently.

     Aimee couldn’t believe she’d become embroiled in this mad plan. Outfoxing a seasoned roué; locating and lifting a ring out from under the nose of a man who, by his very womanizing nature, was highly attuned to the opposite sex. Reading women was his forte. He knew how to detect signs of amorous interest and sexual desire. Her performance would have to be believable and flawless, despite her limited skills at being a coquette.

     Success hinged on her ability to stay focused. The problem was, she hadn’t been touched by a man in over three long, empty years. Though she’d never admit it to anyone, she yearned to have a man’s arms around her. The press of his hard body against hers. His body inside her. Her marriage bed had been most satisfying. Too satisfying. There had been many nights she wished her late husband had never introduced her to the pleasures of sex. That his conjugal visits had been more typical of his peers—brief. Obligatory. For the purposes of procreation only.

     Awakening her to physical delights had caused her nothing but suffering.

     For many reasons.

     But no matter how much she desired a lover, she wouldn’t take a man like the Marquis de Nattes to satisfy her carnal cravings.

     For Louise’s sake, Aimee had to succeed. She couldn’t fail. She would best Adam in this cat and mouse game they were about to play.

     And she was going to use his libertine nature to her advantage.

*****

     Adam de Vey, Marquis de Nattes, surveyed the various justacorps—fitted knee-length coats of various fabrics and colors. He’d had a second armoire placed in his private rooms to hold his recently arrived new clothes.

     Doors to both armoires were open wide as he decided on his attire for the afternoon. The news of Aimee’s arrival made his selection a little more important. Made his heart beat faster, and his blood course hotter just knowing she was close by.

     Adam couldn’t believe his luck. Just when he’d reached his breaking point. Just when he’d been racking his mind, trying to orchestrate an opportunity to spend time under the same roof with the dark-haired beauty, she fortuitously showed up at the palace. He’d no idea when he’d been summoned by the King for an official meeting that she’d be in attendance at Versailles as well.

     It was a good sign. A great sign. Somehow the stars had aligned and he was getting what he’d been wishing for for years. Access to Aimee. She wouldn’t be able to leave anytime soon either. The King took personal offense to brief visits at the palace.

     Her stay would have to be no less than half a month. Plenty of time for him to do something he’d dreamed about far too often.

     Bed her.

     It was going to be a challenge—his very first when it came to seducing a woman.

     Dressed in black breeches and a white linen shirt, he watched as his loyal servant pulled out yet another justacorps, this one gold-colored, and brought it to him.

     Adam touched the silk sleeve. “Not this one, Laurent,” he said. Too bold.

     The man, ten years his senior, returned the gold overcoat to the armoire.

     “Really, Adam, I don’t understand your interest in all these clothes.” Reclining in a plush chair, his fingers laced behind his head, his friend Robert, Comte de Senville, smiled.

     “I like the finer things in life. Fine clothes. A fine château. Fine women.” Aimee de Miran was by far the finest he’d ever laid eyes on.

     “How is this, my lord?” Laurent held before him a red justacorps.

     Also bold. “I don’t think so.”

     He was looking for something more understated. A quiet elegance. Just like Aimee.

     “All this trouble for a tumble. Don’t think I don’t know you’re planning on seducing Aimee de Miran. And it’s about time, I say.” Chuckling, Robert crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Six years . . . Dieu!”

     Adam placed his hands on his hips, cursing the night he’d gotten drunk last month and let it slip to Robert about his longtime fascination with their dead friend’s wife.

     Ignoring Robert’s irksome remarks was easier than ignoring his own hardened cock—his body’s natural reaction at the mere thought of the lovely Comtesse de Gremont.

     From the moment he’d met her, during her betrothal to Marc, he’d been fiercely attracted to her. He’d spent a ridiculous amount of time famished for this woman.

     Merde. He could make no sense of this incessant, unbreakable pull to her. His desire for her plagued him. Haunted him. The longer it went on, the more it tormented him.

     The stronger it got.

     So she was beautiful, elegant, graceful, and intelligent. There were others who shared those qualities. So Marc had boasted that his wife was passionate and sensual and highly receptive to his husbandly rights—a woman who saw her marriage bed as enjoyable rather than as a duty.

     So what?

     There were other women who enjoyed sex. He’d fucked scores of them.

     Nothing he did got golden-eyed Aimee de Miran out of his head. Out of his system. Not time. Or women. He was tired of wanting her—and worse, comparing other women to her. It drove him to distraction.

     Jésus-Christ. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d bedded a woman when Aimee hadn’t intruded into his mind, where he didn’t fantasize it was her he was buried inside.

     For the last six years, Adam had kept his distance from Marc’s beautiful wife for two reasons. First and foremost, Aimee was in love with her husband, and he never poached where real feelings were involved. Second, Marc was a friend—one who was completely undeserving of his wife’s affections. Marc knew full well he’d stirred her heart. He’d laughed about it and found it “adorable,” and without discretion of any kind, bedded every woman who crossed his path.

     “What about the blue, my lord?”

     Adam scrutinized the blue-gray justacorps held out before him.

     It was of the finest cloth, yet not boastful. And a fine cut, too. “Perfect.”

     “I think the lady will be most impressed, my lord.” Laurent smiled as he handed him the matching vest—Laurent’s usual statement whenever he sensed Adam had a new conquest in mind.

     Adam slipped on his vest. “Do you now, Laurent.”

     “I think you overestimate your charm.” Adam could hear the humor in Robert’s tone.

     He glanced at Robert. “I think you should leave the lady to me and concern yourself with the King, and whether or not he’ll approve of our drawings and ideas.” Adam slipped on the justacorps with Laurent’s assistance.

     A member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Adam was recognized for his engineering expertise. Over the years, he’d worked on a number of projects for the Crown—particularly, the fortification of strongholds in case of attack. Now with the country at peace, at least for the time being, Louis had turned his attention to his prized palace.

     Versailles.

     Unhappy with the water pressure of his fountains, His Majesty had asked Adam to offer a solution to rectify the deficiency the original engineers had produced.

     Robert stood and walked over to him, grinning. “It’s far more fun watching Adam de Vey fail for the first time with a woman.” He placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “In all seriousness, the lady doesn’t much care for either of us. Marc broke her heart. She sees us as being no different than her late husband.”

     That much he knew.

     But Adam wasn’t looking for her love. Or to replace Marc in her heart, if he was still there. He was looking for a few hours of shared carnal pleasure. He simply wanted to, no—had to—put an end to this inexplicable mental and physical torment. And there was only one way to kill the longing—and that was to have Aimee every which way he could to sate his lust for her.

     Success hinged on his ability to stay focused. Patient. Unfortunately, just as Robert stated, she disliked him.

     “I’ll succeed,” Adam said.

     Robert lifted a dark brow. “You’re that confident?”

     “I am.”

     A slight smile lifted the corner of Robert’s mouth. “Oh, I can’t wait to see this. I predict she’ll run the other way each time you draw near.”

     A realistic prediction.

     For his sanity’s sake, he had to succeed. He couldn’t fail. He would best her in this cat and mouse game they were about to play. Beautiful, passionate Aimee hadn’t had a lover since Marc’s death. He’d left his wife at their country château while he’d carried on with his favorite mistress in the city, and hadn’t been anywhere near her for months prior to his fatal duel. In short, she hadn’t been touched in a very long time.

     And she was ripe for the taking.

     Adam was going to use her passionate nature to his advantage.


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