Excerpt: Little Red Writing
Little Red Writing
Moral of the Story of Little Red Riding Hood:
“One sees here that young children,
Especially pretty girls,
Who’re bred as pure as pearls,
Should question words addressed by men.
Or they may serve one day as feast
For a wolf or other beast.
I say a wolf since not all are wild
Or are indeed the same in kind.
For some are winning and have sharp minds,
Some are loud, smooth or mild.
Others appear plain kind or unriled.
They follow young ladies wherever they go,
Right into the halls of their very own homes.
Alas, for those girls who’ve refused the truth:
The sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.”
Charles Perrault (1628–1703)
“Who is he?” Just as the question tumbled from Anne’s mouth, the man in the light gray justacorps disappeared into the crowd. Again.
Her sister Henriette glanced over her shoulder. As usual, the Comtesse de Cottineau’s Saturday Salon was filled to overflowing. Though their patroness had been called away due to a family emergency, she’d insisted that Anne and her sisters carry on with the popular weekly event in her absence. Aristos and literati who frequented her home had been admitted and were presently milling about.
Henriette turned back. “Who?”
Anne was the last person to be taken in by a handsome face, but she couldn’t stop herself from trying to locate the man with the disarming gray eyes. Smoky eyes that had locked with hers for several seconds and quickened her pulse. A stunning reaction on her part. Unprecedented, actually. Twice he’d drawn her attention out of the masses straight to him by doing nothing more than directing his smoldering gaze her way. Once, even when she was engaged in a fascinating discussion about Spanish literature with the Marquis de Musis. Both times the beautiful dark-haired stranger had been at a distance in a different part of the Great Room, but she felt the heat of his regard long before she spotted him.
Maddeningly, he kept vanishing into the sea of faces.
Dragging her gaze back to Henriette, Anne noticed her sister’s curious expression.
“A gentleman,” Anne responded. “I’ve never seen him before. We should welcome him, but I seem to have lost him in the crowd.” She felt foolish. Stepping into the Comtesse’s shoes and acting as hostess to her elite guests was daunting. Unnerving. Her jangled nerves were likely the reason for her peculiar reaction. Statesmen, lords and ladies were in attendance along with some of the most respected scholars, writers and dramatists.
Social biases set aside while under the Comtesse’s roof, they gathered together each week to debate and discuss language and literature, history and philosophy.
It was thrilling. A place of enlightenment. A great honor to be in among such distinguished company. Such brilliant minds. To be part of Madame de Cottineau’s Salon—one of the city’s most prestigious. Born into minor nobility, with little by way of social influence and finances, Anne and her two sisters would not have been welcome had the Comtesse not taken an interest in their humble writings and agreed to sponsor their works.
But today’s Saturday Salon was different. And it wasn’t simply because the Comtesse was missing. Or that Anne and her sisters, Henriette and Camille, were hostesses.
It was because of a single man. A most unsettling, mysterious gentleman.
Anne and her sisters owed much to Madame de Cottineau. Making her guests feel welcome while she was away was the least they could do for her. Yet the gentleman with the disquieting gray eyes was making the task even more challenging for Anne. She should have greeted him the moment she saw him, but the impact he’d had on her unbalanced her. She lost her nerve to approach him, when courage was never something she lacked.
Henriette’s gaze swept the room. “What does he look like?”
His face appeared in her mind’s eye. Anne felt her cheeks warm. Dear God, she was blushing. And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, she was at a complete loss for words. She was a writer, and yet she couldn’t conjure a phrase to adequately describe the sheer male perfection she’d seen. Not without sounding as awestruck as she felt. Like some smitten ingénue.
“Madame de Pierpont?” Upon hearing someone call Henriette’s name, Anne was yanked from her thoughts. The Comtesse d’Azan approached and looped arms with Henriette. “Excuse me for interrupting, but the Baron de Lenoncourt has brought up the subject of the Latin classics. Come join in the discussion. You have such an interesting take on the topic.”
Henriette glanced at Anne.
“Oh, you must come, too, Mademoiselle de Vignon,” Comtesse d’Azan said to Anne. “You are the only one who can keep the Baron focused on one topic at a time.” Softly, she laughed.
Anne smiled at the gracious comment and was about to respond when something, or rather someone, caught her eye. Over the Comtesse’s shoulder, there at the back of the room, was the mysterious man.
His eyes captured hers and held her riveted, the corner of his mouth lifting into a sensual smile. Her stomach fluttered wildly. The crowd shifted and he disappeared from her seeking sight, instantly snapping the spell he’d cast. Anne tamped down her ire.
Enough was enough.
It galled her that she was behaving so foolishly. She knew better. She knew the damage an attractive man could cause a woman’s mind, heart and spirit.
“Madame, I would love to join you,” Anne said, grasping her skirts. “But first, there is a matter I must attend to. Please excuse me.” Anne turned into the throng and made her way toward the back corner where she’d last seen the enigmatic stranger.
A smile firmly in place, she moved through the crowd, exchanging brief pleasantries along the way, behaving as any cordial hostess should. Just as soon as she located the man with the silvery eyes, she intended to extend him every courtesy. She’d welcome him to the Comtesse de Cottineau’s home. And respond to him no differently than to any other guest present.
So why were her insides still quivering?
“She approaches. What do you think, Nicolas, is she the one?” Thomas, Comte de Gamory, asked near Nicolas’s ear.
Nicolas de Savignac studied the woman in the blue gown as she made her way through the mass.
Anne de Vignon. The middle sister.
He’d overheard one of the guests point her out. Thanks to the sheer numbers in the room, he could easily hide in plain sight and observe her and her two siblings. Allowing them to see him only when he wished it.
Anne’s bright red curls lightly swept her bare shoulders each time she turned her head to acknowledge one of the guests. The color of her hair was extraordinary. He was gripped by a powerful urge to run his fingers through the fiery-colored locks.
She wasn’t at all what he’d expected a spinster poetess to look like. He was expecting someone rather plain. This woman was ravishing. The extent of her allure, a surprise. As was the bolt of heat that shot through his veins and tightened his groin the moment their gazes met.
He didn’t like surprises.
He was still reeling over the fact that their investigation had led him to this hôtel, of all places. To the home of one of his very own relatives.
Discreetly, Anne glanced here and there. It was obvious to him, if no one else, that she was hunting for him. What she didn’t know was that he was the one doing the hunting. That he was relentless in his pursuits, cunning enough to earn the nickname le Loup—the Wolf.
And he was here to catch his prey.
He pulled his gaze from the redheaded beauty back to Thomas. His friend was frowning. It took some getting used to, seeing him out of his Musketeer uniform and in formal attire. Or in being out of uniform himself. But to walk in wearing the distinct blue tabard would have alerted everyone, especially the sisters in question, that he and Thomas were part of the King’s elite private Guard. Newly promoted, Nicolas intended to prove to his King, his Captain, and the rest of the men that he deserved the honored position. That he could be as good a Musketeer, if not better, than his late legendary brother, David—Musketeer extraordinaire. Nicolas had, after all, easily beaten out other highly qualified noblemen for one of the coveted few spots. On his own. By his skill. His abilities. Just as he expected to. Once he set his mind on attaining a goal, he was unstoppable. And nothing was going to keep him from successfully completing this mission—a mission His Majesty wanted kept most quiet and accomplished posthaste.
“Well?” Thomas asked. “What do you think? Is it her or one of her other two sisters?”
Nicolas gazed once again at his object of interest. Anne had stopped and was speaking to a group of ladies.
“I don’t know.” Merde. How he wished he did. From the information he’d gathered, Anne de Vignon was the author of two volumes of poetry. He’d read them both. He’d read all the books the three sisters had written. Each woman had a distinct writing style—dark, romantic, humorous—and yet, he still wasn’t certain who wielded the poisonous pen.
Now that Anne was closer, he could better appreciate the womanly details of her form. No doubt about it, both far and near, she was comely in the extreme. Her gown, though not as costly as the others in the room, accentuated her curves in the most delectable way. With the discerning eye of a libertine, he took note of her creamy skin, the slight blush to her cheeks, and the rise and fall of her breasts, her breathing a bit too quick, belying her mask of composure.
Under the unruffled façade she was discomposed. And it was because of him.
There had definitely been a mutual attraction. He’d seen it in her eyes. If used correctly, it could be a delicious advantage. He wasn’t above using whatever means necessary to uncover the identity of the anonymous author who wrote under the nom de plume, Gilbert Leduc.
“She is beautiful,” Thomas murmured. “I don’t know about you, Nicolas, but I’d rather fuck a woman who looks like that, than arrest her.”
“You’ll not touch her.” Dieu, that sounded absurdly possessive.
Thomas chuckled. “So you’ve set your sights on Anne, le Loup? Poor woman. She doesn’t stand a chance. Curious, why her? Why not one of the other two sisters?” He gave a nod in their general direction. Both were on the opposite side of the room, engrossed in conversation. “They’re comely, too.”
Indeed. All three sisters had the same beautiful fiery-colored hair. Henriette de Pierpont was the eldest and the only one to marry. Widowed four years, she was attractive in her own right. As was the youngest, Mademoiselle Camille de Vignon.
But there was something about Anne . . .
“We’re here to discover which sister is the author of the pen portraits and bring her before His Majesty. As ordered. Whichever will confess to the truth is the one I’m interested in,” Nicolas said. Those who were patrons of the arts and had enough coin couldn’t collect unsanctioned books fast enough.
Nicolas had uncovered the underground press that was printing the illegal volumes of short stories. He and Thomas had spent weeks surreptitiously watching the Parisian publisher, observing the comings and goings at his print shop, and following messenger boys until Nicolas was finally led to the home of the Comtesse de Cottineau—and the three authors who resided there.
Everyone was talking about the anonymously written stories. Everyone had a strong opinion on what should be done about the author. The women praised the writer. The men, especially those who were the subject of ridicule in the published tales, clamored for justice.
Pen portraits were nothing new. Many writers used real people—mostly members of the upper class—as characters in their books. Names were changed, but the author always made it easy to identify the person being portrayed by the fictitious character. Characters that were always written with a flattering slant. However, the author of these pen portraits did just the opposite. This author maligned and mocked men. Important men. Powerful men. Mercilessly. It was out of control.
Anne stepped away from the women and continued on, getting nearer, her lovely dark eyes still searching for him. Unable to spot him.
His lips twitched as he held back his smile. That’s it. Come closer, pretty rabbit.
It had taken some doing, but he’d managed to get the Comtesse de Cottineau out of her home, sending the old crone far away under false pretenses. He despised the woman. Had held nothing but contempt for her his entire life, and with her out of the hôtel, nothing stood between him and the three redheaded females.
He was focused. Ready.
The trap was set.