The Divas Pen: Author of Sensual and Dark Romance writing as Sienna Mynx and T.A. Ford

Zoé

Beautiful Zoé Bouchard, born into a life of privilege during the Napoleonic Era in France, is blossoming into a woman. The product of une petite liaison between her French father and his African mistress, Zoé lives a life of comfort and love. However, Zoé’s stepmother, jealous of the affections showered upon her by her father, has long resented having to raise a mulatto as her own in French society.

At sixteen and the younger by two years, Zoé ‘s sister Marianne has reached the age to marry. Thus the girls are presented to the mysterious, philandering Comte Julien La Roque de Toulouse. Soon Zoé herself falls prey to the Count’s charms. Seduced by a glimpse of the man behind the title, Zoé finds herself deep in a passionate liaison beyond her youthful understanding.

Desperate to cover her foolish lapse in judgment, Zoé races against time to keep her secret affair from being uncovered. When caught by her cruel stepmother, her hopes of rescue by her father cannot be realized, and she is forced into a bitter bargain. But even as she tries to return the attentions of the Count to her sister Marianne and her impending betrothal, she must fight the truths underneath her own feelings. Her only salvation is to trust the one person who has created the labyrinth of betrayal and tragedy she cannot escape.

A Cinderella fairytale for all time, Zoé takes the reader beyond color and shares the true nature of humanity and passion in a page-turning erotic tale that will keep you reading—and believing that true loves knows no bounds.

Read an Excerpt

Toulouse, France – April 1828

“Is it true what they say? The château has over 130 rooms, all made of gold?” Zoé’s eyes lifted from her book of poetry. It had served as a welcome distraction from the sourness in her stomach. A look of tired sadness passed over her features, but she concealed it with a patient smile.
“Where did you hear such gossip?” she whispered, preferring not to stir Madame, and once again become the focus of her never-ending criticism. If this trip proved successful, she’d lose the shield of love her stepsister provided, and be forced to endure under Madame’s bitterness.

“I heard the servants whispering of it this morning. Do you think it’s true?”

“Rooms paneled in gold?” Zoé dropped her eyes and shrugged. Though Marianne’s life was the charmed one, Zoé, too, had heard the whispers. It was possible the Count lived in a palace filled with treasures. Her long lashes lifted again to her sister’s smiling face as she accepted the deeper truth. It was Marianne’s life to be presented to such a suitor; it was hers to remain in the background, alone.

Château La Roque. There it is!” Marianne gasped when she spied it out of the window. Madame choked, coughing on her guttural snore, and awakened with a start. Zoé, now intrigued, moved forward to peer out of the carriage window. The château, perched high on a snow-speckled incline, dominated the horizon. It loomed in the distance like a mythical castle of labyrinthine secrets. Vines of ivy, tough enough to have survived winter’s frost, twisted along its stonewalls, while thick tendrils of milk-white mist swirled around its octagonal towers.
The prolonged anticipation was almost unbearable. What awaited them all behind the aged, exclusive walls had been whispered about between she and Marianne for weeks. The same as always, a warning voice spoke in her mind. Pretension, respectability, and exclusion, packaged with tolerant pleasantries and veiled acceptance awaited her, certain to remind her of her place.

Zoé sank back into the shadows with a sigh. It was so. If their father’s wishes were fulfilled, she’d lose Marianne, the only other person besides her father who loved her. And she would lose her to the master of that estate — Le Comte Julien de La Roque.

And who was he really? Would he love her sheltered, dear sweet sister as much as she did? Or would he be the man the maidens whispered about? A Casanova who collected women’s virtue for sport and gave no thought to heartache? He was said to be more handsome than any man in Narbonne. Tales of his amorous exploits traveled as fast as the wind along the Aude River.

As the carriage turned up the road to the château, Zoé sat perfectly still. Her thin fingers were locked tensely in her lap. She wondered if her worries were purely the result of selfishness.

Their father had told many stories of La Roque’s military successes and dismissed rumors about the Count’s ways with women, but Zoé could not, for she believed that every rumor concealed a hidden truth. She could only pray that in his quest to see Marianne married, their father would not destroy his youngest daughter.

The carriage stopped. Madame Bouchard gave Zoé and Marianne a stern look, which they returned with obedient nods. The opening of the door invited the pale late-afternoon sunshine to pour in, and a handsome young footman appeared to assist.

Zoé held her place. For once, she was grateful to be the last attended to. Finally, it was her turn.

Mademoiselle,” said the footman.
She extended a slender hand, and emerged, head bowed. Her bonnet shielded her face from view and her cape gave little hint to the exotic beauty that stopped many a Frenchman in his tracks. The footman bowed his head in greeting, as was proper when welcoming a family of such prominence. Zoé sensed him lift his head to peer under her bonnet.

Her eyes, a tawny shade of brown, captured his and held him to the spot. Recovering, he looked away with a deep blush. Zoé dropped her eyes. Of course, he expected a fair maiden with skin of cream, and eyes the color of rain. Feeling his gaze return, she looked up and caught his self-imposed superiority, and uninvited hint of lust. When she first became aware of how her charms affected men, she’d taken such reactions as compliments. Now, they made her uneasy. She’d learned long ago that certain men felt free to take liberties simply because she was une femme de couleur.

Merci,” she replied, removing her hand from his. The black mares at the front of the carriage kicked their hooves with a snort, adding a little distraction to the scene.
“Baggages, garçon!” the horseman yelled to the footman.

The icy breeze stroked her face and the silver ribbons of her bonnet fluttered, carrying them from beneath her chin. She tried not to read any unwelcoming portent in the chilly greeting and held her head high as she faced the unknown.

Well, it was not necessarily the unknown. Her fate was already set, thanks to the African blood coursing through her veins, blood she cherished because it was the only tie to her long lost maman and a culture foreign to her.

Zoé rarely felt this kind of envy, but as Marianne’s giggles drifted to her, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness and compare their fates. Marianne would go on to live in a grand manner, but Zoé had little chance of marrying a man of Comte La Roque’s stature. Such men would always view her just as that footman did.

She made her way across the pebbled path to the château. The soft folds of her cape rippled with each step. She had to take care. The last of the morning frost had left the path slick and treacherous.

Another sign, she thought, and then scolded herself for being so superstitious.

Suddenly a feeling of being watched struck her. She looked up, just in time to catch the fluid movement of a curtain falling back into place. Squinting against the sun, she wondered whether her eyes weren’t tricked by unseen shadows.

“Pardon, mademoiselle.”

Two footmen heaving trunks between them angled up the path. She stepped aside to allow them passage. The young man who’d helped her down from the carriage brushed past her, and then tossed her a backward glance. She averted her gaze.

“Zoé! Come, chérie!”

It was Marianne, standing before the massive arched doorway that marked the château’s main entrance. Zoé quickened her pace. She didn’t want to draw the ire of Madame Bouchard. As Zoé neared her white half-sister, she once more felt a surge of love for the sixteen-year-old. Marianne was so young, and so lovely. How could she not?

The girls looked like mirror images of each other with matching creamy-white cashmere capes. Marianne’s bonnet shielded her golden locks from view but it couldn’t hide the merriment in her emerald-green eyes. The sisters were equal in beauty as well. If not for skin tone, they could have passed for twins. For Zoé, it was proof that she, like Marianne, was a proud daughter of Bertrand Bouchard. Some might consider her to be just his bastard child from his African mistress, but no one in Narbonne dared say it to her face.

“Why do you dawdle so?” scolded Madame.

Zoé was disappointed to realize that her stepmother was already irritated with her. The carriage ride had been pleasant enough, especially while Madame slept. But now that the time was approaching when Madame would have to introduce her stepdaughter to strangers, her stepmother’s hostility was quite evident.

Zoé had heard that Madame was once quite beautiful. Perhaps this was true, but it was hard to imagine. Madame was short and portly, with flaming red hair. She covered her thick, flaccid features with heavy white powder, and darkened her cheeks and lips with rouge the color of blood. She had a distinct mole above the right curve of her lips and venomous green eyes that in their own chilling way, were indeed quite beautiful. But for Zoé, Madame’s outer beauty, or lack of it, didn’t matter. What mattered was the inner ugliness of which she was capable.

A stately gentleman appeared and the staff, who had gathered to the front of the château to greet the guests, parted to allow his approach. Zoé felt his gaze pass over them and stop on her. The flash of surprise in his eyes told her that he had not been informed that a mulatto woman would be within their company. But from the way his eyes shifted between the mulâtresse and Marianne, he surmised that she was indeed a Bouchard.

He addressed Madame, who batted her lashes at him.

Bonjour, Madame Bouchard,” he said. “Welcome to Château La Roque.”

Bonjour,” she replied.

“I am Gérard. Mon seigneur has instructed me to see to your needs,” he said with a respectful nod.

“Indeed.” Madame replied, with an upward toss of her chin.

“This way.”

With an elegant bow, he stepped back and ushered them further into the main hall. Zoé was aware of the maidservants staring at her and the amused glances they exchanged. She felt Marianne slip her hand into hers and gave her a warm smile.

The château was as grand on the inside as it was on the outside. In Zoé’s opinion, one could tell a lot about a person by the way they decorated their home. Her family’s home held a touch of femininity; it was to be expected under Madame’s governance. Comte La Roque, and those who had preceded him, had taken great measure to ensure his home was equal to the prominence of the La Roque name. Zoé gazed about in open admiration. Her eyes followed the length of the walls, which were adorned with paintings of La Roque’s ancestry. She leaned back to gaze at the hand-painted, golden domed ceiling that depicted artistry beyond her dreams. A mahogany stairwell curved along one wall, leading to the upper areas of the château.

Zoé absorbed every detail and was reassured. Yes, Marianne would have a grand life as the lady of this house.

Upstairs in his chambers, Julien La Roque stepped back from the window. He took one last look at himself in the tall mirror in his bedroom. His dark hair, glistening like polished wood, tapered neatly to his collar. Instead of the platinum wigs he donned when conducting business, he preferred a single gentleman’s bow to restrain his mane. He stroked his trimmed mustache and goatee, which connected to long sideburns outlining his jaw.

At six-feet-two, broad-shouldered and brimming with vitality, La Roque enjoyed the kind of physical presence that allowed him to dominate a room the moment he entered it. Some said it wasn’t his height, but his hypnotic, crystalline blue eyes that were the most compelling of his features. His eyes were indeed so clear and blue that his last bedmate remarked that they reminded her of moonlight. And his handsomeness did not end there. With a squared chin, a slightly up-turned celestial nose, and thick silky brows, his strong features held an unmistakable sensuality.

LaRoque’s quick wit and unassuming manner had given him a clear advantage both in politics and the bedroom. However, his philandering had also drawn criticism from those he respected. Finally, to silence the wagging tongues, he decided to entertain young women of appropriate social status and give the appearance of seeking a bride. Once the tongues were silenced, he would abandon the quest and enjoy women in ways to which he was most accustomed.

Speaking of…

His thoughts turned to the young demoiselles whose arrival he’d watched through his window. There was no need to keep them waiting. He shot his cuff, adjusting the ruffles that extended from under his sleeve. His eyes caught his manservant’s reflection in the mirror and he turned.

“They’ve arrived?”

“They await you in the salon,” Gérard bowed.

La Roque allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. How quickly matters advanced. He’d met Bertrand Bouchard only week’s prior and listened to him pitch the virtues of his daughter, Marianne. La Roque had only extended the invitation after hearing of the land in Marianne’s dowry. Acquiring it would further his business interests along the coast.

Trés bien, Gérard. I will join them now.”

He strode from the chamber and descended the steps to the foyer. Crossing the long hall he found himself more than curious. He thought he’d seen a mulâtresse with them. This would prove interesting.

The sound of girlish laughter floated out into the hall. Stopping just outside of the entranceway and stealing a peek, he spied two of the loveliest young creatures he had ever seen, sharing his chaise longue and giggling.

There was the attractive woman-child with hair as golden as sunshine, pinned up on either side of her head by jeweled barrettes. The rest of her hair hung in ringlets that cascaded past her shoulders. Soft ivory shoulders beckoned him. Her throat appeared warm and shapely above her low-cut bodice. She was ripe, and he felt compelled to know her.

A slow, secretive smile formed on his lips. He envisioned the ways he would possess her. Then Gérard announced him, bringing him out of his wicked thoughts. He watched a moment longer as she readied herself for their introduction, and then stepped under the arch of the entranceway.

But then he took note of her companion, her face previously concealed from his view. All thoughts of the first young woman fled. This mulâtresse – quelle belle femme! Her hair, dark as ebony, pinned up from her face, fell in long, graceful waves to the center of her back. Her smooth skin glowed with pale golden overtones; and the high, exotic cheekbones that set off her delicate features captivated him. He couldn’t take his eyes off her full mouth. A soft pink shine glossed her lips, making them appear to be dew-kissed. Not since his travels to more foreign regions, as an attaché serving a General in Napoléon’s army, had he seen such a beauty. She dropped her eyes under his steady gaze.

Her ladylike manner radiated youth and innocence. He had to know more.

Madame Bouchard stepped forward, drawing his attention. Until that moment, he hadn’t noticed her. His mind made an instant and admittedly unfair comparison. She wasn’t a bad-looking woman. She might even have been attractive once, but being in the same room as her lovely daughters put her in a ghastly light. He took in the heavy white face powder, the large streaks of rouge from cheekbone to ear, and the severe black and gray dress. More than anything else, however, he noted the look in her eyes: determination and a hint of desperation. Good. The balance of power was most definitely in his favor.

Bienvenue à Château La Roque, Madame,” he said.

Mon seigneur Comte La Roque, it’s a great honor to finally meet you,” she said, batting her lashes and extending a gloved hand.

La Roque approached. He kissed her hand, but shifted his eyes once again to the dark beauty. “The pleasure is mine. And whom do we have here?”

“May I present my daughter, Mademoiselle Marianne Frances Bouchard,” she said, directing him to the pretty blonde. Marianne dropped a low curtsey.

La Roque kissed her gloved hand, too. Her bashful smile as she looked into his face was endearing. Such purity was hard to find, he thought, with the appreciation of a connoisseur. Flustered from the brief contact, Marianne dropped her hand.

Enchanté,” said La Roque in his deep, smoky voice.

Mon seigneur,” she replied, with another bob of her head.
Madame Bouchard cleared her throat. “Her companion, Zoé Camille Bouchard.” Zoé, standing behind Marianne with her eyes cast downward, stepped forward and offered a slight curtsey. La Roque kissed her hand as well.

“Enchanté, mademoiselle.”

Not as easily captivated as Marianne, Zoé looked him in the eye, but corrected herself before Madame saw her brashness. “Mon seigneur.”

La Roque noticed the way she gracefully made her presence known and unknown. There was wisdom in her poise that her sister didn’t possess. She mocked him and his position with a stolen look. How refreshing and different from most of the women he met.

Madame Bouchard cleared her throat again, and by that small sound alone, La Roque understood the situation. Zoé must be the husband’s child, the product of une petite liaison. Madame had evidently agreed to raise Zoé as her own, but the girl was to be Marianne’s companion, nothing more. This meeting was to pair Marianne with a proper husband, not Zoé.

“Comte La Roque, Marianne has been anxiously anticipating this meeting. Haven’t you, ma chère?”

Oui, Maman. Mon seigneur, I’ve been told of your many exploits and I hear that you are quite the sportsman.”

La Roque nodded. “You like sports, Mademoiselle?”
“Oh, I love croquet and riding,” she said. “Nothing as adventurous as you, of course.”

“Excellent,” he replied with little interest.

Madame Bouchard smiled. “With your leave, mon seigneur, we will stay for a week to give you the opportunity to become acquainted with my Marianne. With the proper escort, of course. My husband shall join us near the end of our visit.”

La Roque cast his eyes at Zoé. “Of course, you are more than welcome to stay for as long as you wish. Gérard will prepare your accommodations.” He gave the valet a nod and Gérard hastened off to inform the housemaid.

La Roque steered the discussion toward their journey, and was solicitous enough to include Marianne as well. In this way, they passed a couple of minutes in light and pleasant conversation. He gave attention when Madame and Marianne spoke, but his gaze always returned to Zoé, who watched, but said nothing.

A tall, thin handmaiden entered the room. La Roque welcomed her.

“Ah, Geneviève, will you please show my guests to their quarters?”

She curtsied. “Bien sûr, mon seigneur.” She turned to Madame. “This way, s’il vous plaît.

La Roque explained that he would see them shortly at supper and escorted them out of the room. He stood in the doorway, his gaze following them. He saw Marianne grab Zoé’s hand, saw her whisper something and Zoé reply. He thought he heard the words “handsome” and “bore.” His eyes grew openly amused.

My, my, my. These two cherries would be fun to pluck.

When they were only a few steps out the door, Marianne grabbed Zoé’s hand and said in a loud whisper, “He’s handsome.”

Zoé rolled her eyes. “He’s a bore, if you ask me.”

“Well, no one asked you!” Madame Bouchard snapped.

Zoé cast her eyes downward. “Is it so inconceivable that I would have an opinion?” She then lifted her eyes and leveled them on Madame. “That I’d be entitled to it?”

She heard Marianne sigh. She knew her sister hated it when they quarreled, a common occurrence as the days progressed.

Madame raised a finger. “I warn you. I tire of your insolence.”

Before Zoé could respond, Marianne took her hand and pulled her away. At the foot of the stairs, the sisters let go of each other and grabbed their skirts to ascend the winding staircase. Midway up, that familiar sense of being observed stilled her. She glanced over her shoulder. La Roque stood still at the entrance to his salon, watching them.

Watching her.

Though he smiled at her, his eyes impaled her. There was something lazily seductive in his look, and though she didn’t understand it, she felt it.

Marianne now stood at the top of the stairs and looked back down at her sister with irritation. “Zoé? Viens!

Zoé’s eyes cut upward to her impatient sister. When she looked back once more LaRoque was gone. She went quickly up the steps to join the others, forcing all thoughts of him from her mind.

The chambermaid led them down an enormous hallway to their individual rooms as coachmen brought up their luggage. Her room, not paneled in gold, was grand and fit for a queen. Hand carved out of cherry, the bed sat one metre off the ground with doubly thick goosefeather-stuffed mattresses. Walking over to the left side of the room, she admired the large fireplace and the crackling fire that burned within it. Touching the intricately carved mantle, she imagined her sister living there and nodded approvingly.

Except perhaps for the wandering eye of Comte La Roque himself, this place made for a perfect life for her sister.

A short while later, Zoé and Marianne descended the stairs and headed for the drawing room. Their late arrival didn’t afford them the proper introduction she was sure Madame had wanted. Of course that would be her fault too. She was not surprised to see additional dinner guests who’d been invited for the evening. Zoé shied away from the conversation. Welcoming the solitude, her eyes swept the collection of authors lining the bookshelves. Oh how heavenly it would be to sample just one of the many delicious tomes.

From behind her, supper was announced.

The guests were shown to the dining room. La Roque strolled out, speaking with acquaintances old and new. Madame and another stately woman both tried to gain his attention but were politely escorted to their seats. Smiling, indulging the polite chatter, he lifted his gaze to the girls as they approached the table. Marianne reached for Zoé’s hand, squeezing it and whispering through clenched teeth.

“He watches.”

Zoé returned the squeeze. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t give him that power, chère, especially if he is to be your husband.”

Zoé was seated. Her dining companion, a darkly tanned man with jet-black curly locks, spoke to her in Italian and she shook her head, indicating she didn’t understand.

“I say – what is your name?” he asked with slow measure.

Pardonnez-moi,” La Roque’s voice boomed, silencing the table. “I thought all my guests had been properly introduced. Mademoiselle Zoé Bouchard, may I present Monsieur Dominic Giodarni.”

Zoé looked over, surprised he’d even heard the question from his position at the head of the table. She didn’t feel malice or sense any mockery. His gentlemanly nod to her actually gave her something more: his intended interest. She felt Madame’s eyes on her, and didn’t know how to proceed.

The unwanted attention made her nervous, and she wished it to stop. Smiling through the greeting, she averted her eyes. She knew that his subtle flirtation would have to end. Father protected her from the unfairness of her birth and the prejudices placed upon her because of her skin, but he couldn’t shield her from something like this.

A heaviness centered in her chest. A wealthy man like Comte La Roque would never take her as his bride. That would be too scandalous. He merely wanted what most men of his stature wanted from her: a taste of forbidden fruit.

Supper progressed, as did the table conversation. Zoé listened. Most of the men at the table deferred to La Roque, calling for his opinion on local partisan developments that threatened their wealth and stature under King Charles. He gave witty answers that prompted laughter over topics she didn’t understand. She was relieved that his lustful glances had ceased and hopeful that Marianne could find a union with a man this well regarded.

Once supper was over, all were invited into the drawing room to share brandy and discuss more politics. Madame Bouchard bragged about her “other daughter,” telling the guests what a songbird her Zoé was.

“Zoé, finally you can be of some use. Play for us,” she said.

She stiffened, momentarily abashed, but thankful for the color of her skin. It concealed the flush of embarrassment in her cheeks. Madame had a knack for turning something rewarding into something uncomfortable. Yes, she loved to play, but when called upon to perform at these gatherings, put on display like a caged bird, it was a hurtful reminder that Madame acknowledged her only when it served her purpose.

Marianne squeezed Zoé’s right hand, giving her a smile of reassurance, and Zoé felt ice spreading through her stomach. He was watching. His blue eyes pierced the distance between them. But when she looked into Marianne’s eyes, her sister’s affection soothed her anxiety. They never spoke openly about the way Madame treated Zoé, but Marianne, in her own sweet way, was always there to comfort Zoé and give quiet support.

“Why don’t you sing and I shall play?” Zoé whispered to her sister, who she knew preferred the privilege.

Marianne nodded and Zoé took a seat at the harp. Looking up, she saw La Roque smoking his pipe by the fire with a smile of appreciation as he observed her. She drew her fingers across thin taut strings and a ripple of harmonious notes filled the air. Marianne began to sing.

“My Marianne has been singing from the cradle. You are in for a greater treat,” Madame stage-whispered haughtily to her nearest neighbor.

Zoé heard the veiled insult. Where her sister’s voice was whimsical and light, her father had told her that her own voice carried her mother’s soul. Relaxing, she played and escaped in music as she did with poetry. Smiling proudly and watching her sister, she caught his watchful stare from the corner of her eye. She was careful to ignore it. She could feel his magnetism that made him so self-confident, and feared it. He was growing bolder by the minute.

Thankfully, the song ended.

Everyone applauded and Marianne curtsied. Zoé would no longer be held under his watchful gaze. For that, she let go a soft sigh of relief.

La Roque removed his pipe. “Now the question remains, is her sister’s voice as lovely?”

She froze.

“Oh, Zoé sings beautifully!” Marianne replied.

“I should very much like to hear for myself.” he said, and the beginning of a smile tipped the corners of his mouth.

Madame shot Zoé a look that demanded she oblige.

“Very well,” Zoé said. She went to the pianoforte and took a seat, spreading her skirt across the tufted bench. She lifted the lid to the ivories and began to play. She sang a song her mother taught her, closing her eyes and immersing herself in the music. In her mother’s song she found a bottomless peace.

It was her heartsong that she offered, and part of her reveled in his open admiration. She nearly stumbled through the words when he gave her an oblique nod and a small, conspiratorial smile. Her gaze turned toward Marianne. Her sister looked unhappy. One of the guests, a woman who’d been introduced as a duchess, leaned over and whispered something in Marianne’s ear. Marianne simply nodded, and took a sip from her wine glass.

When the song ended, everyone gave generous applause. Zoé gave a modest curtsey and took her place next to her sister. Up close, she could see that Marianne wasn’t merely unhappy, but furious.

“Did I offend you?” Zoé asked.

“You’re doing it again,” Marianne said.

“Doing what?”

Marianne tipped her head toward La Roque. Zoé followed Marianne’s gaze and understood. She was somewhat angry at herself for having possibly encouraged him.

“I’m sorry. Really.”

Marianne shrugged, looking into her goblet. “Like you said, he’s a bore, anyway. I don’t want a man who has eyes for my sister.” She was silent a moment, and then looked up. “We must never let anyone come between us. Promise me that neither of us shall entertain his advances.”

Zoé noted the sadness in Marianne’s eyes. “But you know that he will never want anything of substance with me.”

“Why not, Zoé? Don’t you know how many suitors Father has turned away for you?”

“They weren’t suitors,” Zoé said bitterly. Marianne was so naïve. Those men wanted her as a mistress, not a wife. Father would never allow that and for that at least, Zoé was grateful. She regarded Marianne. “I promise you that nothing shall come of Comte La Roque and any intentions he may have toward me.”

“Good.”

Zoé knew that if she agreed to Marianne’s promise, her sister would not keep the same. Marianne liked the monsieur, and if he chose her, she would readily become his bride. It was just as well, for Zoé. His advances would never lead to anything more than what she saw in his eyes.
Shortly after midnight, Zoé stirred. The persistent need to relieve herself caused her eyes to flutter before she fully awoke. It was strange waking in another bed. Her head fell over to the right, and she waited for her eyes to adjust. Once aware, she decided to venture to the private closet that she knew was down the hall. She rose, stretching out of her sleep. Loose tendrils of her hair fell to her face as she climbed from the bed. The thin floor-length gown she wore provided little warmth. So she donned her dressing robe and slippers, then retrieved the candelabrum from the nightstand and lit three pointed candles.

Zoé slipped into the hall and stepped cautiously through the darkness. Earlier, she and her sister had discovered that the toilette was on the adjoining wing. It was next to a library that had called to her in her sleep. Books were the one single place where she truly felt free.

Cupping the flames with her left hand, she ventured forward. The flickering candles cast a warm yellow glow over her face as she walked, her heavy velveteen robe flowing behind her. Her eyes swept the paintings along the corridor. Landscapes hung on both walls, interspersed with portraits. Though her home was lavish in Narbonne, its modesty was glaring compared to the château’s unyielding charm.

Concerned about dawdling, and possibly stumbling upon Madame who slept more during the day than night, she quickly made her way. Within minutes she was again in the hall headed for her room. Then she stopped. The light pouring out of the library door, which was ajar, caught her eye. In her haste, she’d passed the door just minutes before, not noticing. Zoé stood in the drafty hall weighing her options. She could return to her room as expected, or steal a moment to find a jewel to pass the night away.

Thinking no more of it, she entered, stopping to put the candelabrum on the end table near the door. All in all, it was not an unpleasant room. However, it was not as immaculate as the others. She surmised this was not a library, but the office of La Roque. It was a bit cluttered: books were piled on chairs and on the floor, and his desk was covered with papers.

She knew it was wrong of her to enter his personal chamber, but when her eyes fell upon the hundreds of books lining the floor-to-ceiling shelves, she abandoned all thoughts of leaving. Drawn to the collection, she tilted her head curiously. How odd to find authors such as Théophile Gautier, Alphonse de Lamartine, and translations by Gérard de Nerval in his private collection.

Why would the Comte own such a diverse assembly of work? Maybe, like father, he didn’t know of the lurid, exotic tales that lay between the pages. But when she thought of the blue heat within the Comte’s gaze, she imagined that he must know. Fully.

She stepped in closer to select a book, but her hip connected with the desk, knocking one to the floor. When she looked down she saw none other than Victor Hugo’s Nouvelles Odes et Poésies Diverses, published just a few years ago and a rare find. Hugo himself had received a royal pension from King Louis after writing the anthology.

Zoé’s spirits soared. It was like a dream realized to have the pages at her feet. She lowered slowly and picked up the treasure, dusting it off with her delicate hands. Her fingers stroked the olive-green leather. The binding was finished with raised floral gold embroidery. The book was as beautiful as she imagined Victor Hugo’s words would be inside.

Zoé’s heart fluttered wildly beneath her breasts. Her mouth curved into an unconscious smile, and she rose.

La Roque appeared in the doorway, looking at her curiously. She stood before the fireplace reading something he could not see. Zoé had no idea he watched her. She turned the page and began to recite in French the first passage, savoring each word.

“Well, look what the night brings,” he said.

Zoé whirled around with a jolt; the book fell from her hands. “Pardon,mon seigneur, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to —”

La Roque stepped forward. His eyes dropped to the book splayed on the floor, then lifted to Zoé’s.

She bowed her head. Her heart pounded, and her face grew hot with humiliation. La Roque knelt and picked up the book, turning it over to read the imprint on the spine. “Ah, Victor Hugo?”

How shameful of her to be caught in one of his private rooms. Madame would be furious and certain to tell Father. Avoiding his eyes, she tried to think of an appropriate explanation. “I passed the room… and the books… mon seigneur, I was wrong to enter.”

La Roque touched her chin with the tip of his index finger, lifting her face to look into her eyes. “I’m an admirer of Hugo as well.”

She blinked at him curiously, locked in his gaze. He handed her the book. “Would you like to read it?”

“I couldn’t.”

“I’d be offended, Mademoiselle Bouchard, if you didn’t.”

“It is a rare piece.”

La Roque chuckled softly. “I have others. In fact, I have one personally signed by Hugo. In my chamber.”

“Signed?”

“He’s a friend.” La Roque held the book out for her to accept. Zoé sucked in a breath and reached for it, the tips of their fingers meeting in the exchange.

Merci,” she said, trying to avoid the tanned plane of his chest, exposed by his open blouse.
La Roque looked back at the shelves. Zoé followed his gaze, admiring the collection once more.
“My mother loved to read. As do I, thanks to her.”

She studied his profile from the corner of her eye. Underneath his classically handsome features she found a hint of sadness. His voice carried the same tone her father’s did when he spoke in private of her long-dead mother.

La Roque continued to stare at his mother’s books. “The times I can remember her at her happiest was in this room with these books. I suppose it’s why I chose this room for my personal use.” He stepped forward and Zoé watched him. “It was she who taught me to read. To appreciate things of beauty.”

With the slight turn of his head, he leveled his eyes on her again, making a deep blush cover her cheeks. “What’s more beautiful than a poet’s words? I say it is the reader who understands those words.”

She pressed the book to her chest. “My mother taught me to read as well, before she died. I have her favorite book of poems.”

“Then you must let me show you my private pièce. Victor himself left a sonnet that only you can appreciate, Mademoiselle.”

“I could not.”

“It is just in the chamber beyond this one.”

“No, no, thank you. It’s very late and I am tired,” she said, trying to step around him. La Roque blocked her passage. She held on to the book but bravely raised her head to look into his face.

His gaze dipped to her breasts and below, and she was reminded that the flickering light of the fireplace revealed more than she intended due to her open robe. Pulling it shut she stepped back.

“I daresay I have never met an actual angel.” His soft voice urged her to believe him. “What if I said please?” he asked with a theatrical pout.

She smiled, but shook her head again. “Pardon, but I must return to my room.”

“Mademoiselle…”

“Oui, mon seigneur?”

She dropped her eyes again. Her fear now getting the best of her, she was afraid to look at him, afraid of what she might see in his eyes – afraid, too, of what he might see in hers.
“I think that you are the most captivating woman I’ve ever seen.”

Her heartbeat quickened. He put two fingers under her chin and forced her to look at him once more. Her eyes met his. An openly sensual light passed between them. She knew she was in danger, but she didn’t know how to respond. On several occasions during their travels, she had encountered gentlemen who made unwanted advances. Not once had those men or their offers affected her. But La Roque was different. He understood her love of poems because he shared it, too. She sensed he shared in her feelings of loss as well.

“What is it that you want,mon seigneur?”

“We scarcely know one another, but I feel somehow we do. I want to know if that’s true.”
He touched her long curly hair and twirled a lock in between his fingers. She drew back and the silken curl slipped from his hand. His words confused and captivated her.

“If your wish is to know me, then you should speak with Madame.”

She took a step to pass him, and he took a step to block her.

“You are a lady, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Please. Let me go, mon seigneur.” After a moment, she added, “Je vous mendie.” I’m begging you.

“Victor Hugo’s words from his pen, just in the other room—” he looked back at the door then to her “— it shall only take a moment. No one shall be the wiser.”

Her eyes searched his. Dare she trust him? She swallowed. When would she ever be able to see the fresh writings of a poet so grand? If Father found out, he would kill her, and Madame… She had no idea what Madame would do, but the thought of flouting her stepmother’s precious rules and regulations emboldened her. She felt more confident under his desires, and decided she could handle herself very well.

She swallowed hard, lifted her chin, and boldly met his gaze. “Bien. Just for a moment.”

La Roque ushered her into his chamber through an adjoining suite, where an ebbing yellow glow from the flames of wall-mounted candles tossed shadows around the furnishings. She paused just past the threshold to his boudoir, taken aback by the opulence of it all. It was a lush mixture of gold and silver, brocade and velvet, with trompe l’oeil overhead and priceless carpeting beneath. It was also chilly, however, the fire in the fireplace having gone out. She gave a little shiver.

“Come,” he said, and started toward two closed doors on the far side of the room.

“Where?”

He gave her a little smile, and then took her by the elbow.

“You’ll find it warmer in here,” he said and threw open the doors to his inner chamber.
She hoped his comment referred to the temperature of the room and not to any intentions toward her.

This room was warmer. A fire crackled in the fireplace, radiating a seductive welcome. The dancing flames cast the room with a soft orange glow.

She couldn’t help but notice the canopied bed. It was large and high, fit for a king. Carvings of braided swirls curling upward decorated its four thick posts. Heavy drapes hung from the canopy of the bed and were tied around each post. Atop the thick mattress was a matching crimson quilted counterpane; large pillows were tossed about.

Zoé moved through the masculine room with an outer show of confidence. She turned with a start when the door closed behind her. “The Victor Hugo, mon seigneur?”

La Roque’s gaze roved and appraised her lazily. He was disturbing to her in every way, for one moment she understood him, then the next she feared him. When his jeweled eyes lifted back to her face he gave her a nod and looked beyond her. Zoé turned to find a book turned downward with reading glasses on top. Lowering the one she held on to, she approached.
It was a first edition with simple binding. She picked it up and laid the Nouvelles Odes on the table in its place. From behind her she heard his soft yet determined approach. She ignored the heat she felt when he towered over her. He reached around her and took the book from her hands, brushing her fingers, and turning the page. She was now in the center of his arms with him peering over her shoulder.

“Here—” he said, stopping on the handwritten passage. “Here he speaks.”

Zoé dropped her eyes to the pages, enthralled. La Roque smiled slyly at the fresh amazement he saw on her face, from the corner of his eye.

Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings,” La Roque read aloud.

“Beautiful,” she whispered, wanting to touch the pages.

“Indeed.” His voice was deep and sensual, sending a ripple of awareness through her. She was in his lair, on his turf, and she’d come willingly. The book closed, and she cleared her throat. She tightened her robe and folded her arms in front of her to push his arms open. He stepped back politely. Now forced to turn, she did so while taking a step back. Zoé eyed the door. He stood between her and the only possible avenue of escape. La Roque walked away with the book in his hand. She watched as he went to his bar, which lay concealed behind a wooden cabinet.
“I liked the song you sang tonight. What’s it called?”

L’Hymne à l’Amour,” she said picking up the book he’d given her, and preparing to take her leave.

La Roque filled two snifters with brandy. “Do you have any other hidden talents? She shook her head no. He walked over to her and handed her a drink, which she blushed and accepted, despite her inner warning voice. “None that I care to share with you tonight.”

He laughed and raised his glass.

She also raised hers and sipped the smooth liquid. It was strong, much stronger than anything she’d ever had before, but she took a good swallow and tried not to grimace at how it burned going down. Seconds later, she was astounded to feel a spreading sensation of internal warmth.

“Would this be your first time, mademoiselle?”

Shocked at his boldness, she could only utter one word: “Quoi?” What?

“Your first time… drinking brandy, I mean.”

Relieved, she wondered if he were playing with her.

Oui,” she said. “It’s my… my first time.”

“Then I am honored.” He gave a little bow and continued. “It is very important, of course, that your first time be a memorable occasion.”

Now, she was certain that he was mocking her.

He gestured for her to sit on the banquette next to the fireplace. She glanced at it. Ah, she knew this game. He would sit next to her, try to pressure her. She eased down on the seat, perched on its edge, prepared to spring up should he make advances.

With an amused smile, he took a seat in the brocaded armchair across from her. He observed her tranquilly.

“You are very beautiful, you know, especially here, in the light of the fire. It makes your skin glow.”

He spoke in a friendly, neutral tone, as though his words were simply those of someone making an observation. She offered no reply.

He continued. “You are not afraid, I hope, that I would try to take advantage of you, in any way?”

She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. All evening she met his gaze, openly challenging him, but now it was only when she focused her eyes on the flames that she found the courage to speak.

“Why did you invite me here?” she whispered.

“En vérité?” In truth?

“Yes, please. En vérité.” She forced herself to look at him.

“Because ever since you arrived, I have been dying to know how your lips would taste, what the touch of your skin would feel like.”
She was appalled to feel an inner surge of answering desire. She lifted her chin. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not in the habit of responding in such a manner to strangers.”

“But we are far from strangers, mademoiselle. You are a guest in my home, in my chamber, by the fire, sharing a brandy with me.”

She didn’t know how to respond. He was right, and yet so very wrong. This was not how it looked. But propriety was about appearance. Measured so, this was indeed a very improper situation. She had accepted a forbidden invitation. What had she been thinking? It wasn’t only the prospect of seeing the Victor Hugo that convinced her to enter. It was the glimpse at his soul. He shared something with her, something she understood. That kinship drew her like a moth to his flame.

She drank the rest of her brandy too quickly, and felt it rush to her head. She just wanted to escape before things got too far out of hand.

Seeing her gulp down the dark liquid, he chuckled. “I hope I don’t make you nervous.”

“I am sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but I shall not be swayed from my principles.”

She got to her feet and he did, too.

“You know, I admire you,” he said, “for your courage in resisting me. But we both know your lot in life.”

Despite the warmth of the fire, she felt a chill. “Do you intend to force me? Is that your kind of courage?”

“I could. No one would question me on the matter.”

She started to retort.

“But,” he added, “I rather enjoy the chase.”

He set his snifter on the little table next to his chair and went to her. She fell back a step, unsure of what to expect. She braced herself for a rough touch, but all he did was remove her brandy glass and place it on the fireplace mantle.

“Since you’ve been bold enough to enter my room, you could at least grant a man his parting wish.” He took her hand. “One taste, one small taste, and I promise to bid you goodnight.”

Zoé looked down at his hand touching hers. How did she get here? Her heart pounded and she breathed in deeply, exhaling slowly. She had never kissed or been kissed by a man on the mouth. She only exchanged polite pecks on the cheek with her father in greeting.

“I’m very curious about what’s under this robe,” he said.

Before she could object, he untied the sash and her robe fell open. With a gasp, she pulled the robe shut, but too late. From the blazing blue heat of his gaze, she knew that he saw her dark nipples peeking through the delicate fabric of her virginal white gown, and perceived the contours of her body underneath.

“I must go,” she said.

“No, don’t.”

She tried to step around him. As before, he blocked her.

“Haven’t you ever desired something so badly that you would do anything just to have it?” he asked, moving her hair from her shoulder to her back.

“No.”

“Let me kiss you, and you shall.”

“I don’t—”

“Let me show you the pleasures you hide from.”

Looking into his eyes, then his face, taking him in and urged on by the perfects of the brandy, she touched the silky hair that fell around his shoulders. The brandy, the flames, his presence and his desire: it was all so very intoxicating. Her heart raced as she felt his hand slide down her hip.

And now she was truly afraid – not just of his desire, but her own. He ignited an inner ember she was barely aware of. He turned a spark into a flame. She was deeply aware of her own longing. For one intense moment, she wished they weren’t bound by principles and etiquette. Then she caught herself and knew she was in grave danger.

She drew her hand back, feeling betrayed and trapped by her own weakness, a weakness unleashed by the brandy, and seduced by the idea that this man of privilege, of noble birth and lineage, this man who could have any woman he wanted, actually wanted her.

He smiled at her confusion and pulled her into his arms. “You bewitch me,” he whispered and gently bit down on her lower lip.

Mon seigneur, we can’t.” She willed herself to be strong, to see him for who he was, to not give in to his advances. There was still time to escape.

He slid his hand around her delicate throat, lifting her chin with his thumb, causing her hair to fall down her back. Closing her eyelids, she felt the warmth of his breath as he brought his face close to hers. Never had a man touched her so intimately. His hold was firm yet tender, direct yet deceptive, inviting yet frightening.

Her body responded with a mind of its own. She moved forward into his embrace, becoming entangled in his web of deceit. She felt his hand at the back of her waist and was surprised at his strength as he pressed her still closer, crushing her breasts against his chest. Beneath the brandy on his breath, she could smell his desire, and feel the stirrings of something strong and demanding against her thighs. Her fingers slipped from the front of her robe. He parted the folds and eased his hand inside.

This was all so unreal. It must be happening to someone else. She lost all sense of reason and fearful restraint. She sighed, her eyelids heavy with passion, deaf to the warnings screaming in her mind. A price was to be paid for the kind of crime she was about to commit, and it was high, very high, but at that moment, she didn’t care.

His mouth brushed against hers, and then increased its pressure. His tongue licked her lips before demanding entrance. Instinctively she obeyed, allowing him inside. Her eyes widened at his taste, but then slid closed again as his tongue probed and took control.

This man threatened it all: her virtue, her sensibility, everything, as he dominated their kiss, forcing her to follow his lead. Tasting the brandy on his lips and smelling the spicy aroma from his pipe, Zoé lost all sense of etiquette and breeding. She put her arms around his neck and began to kiss him back.

His kiss became something she didn’t understand, going deeper and further than she intended. She held on tightly for fear of slipping away. He placed a hand on her hip and pressed her against him. The powerful pressure against her thigh alarmed her without her fully understanding why.

She pushed herself away, but he pulled her back. Before she fully realized what was happening, he’d slipped the robe from her shoulders. It lay in a heap at her feet and the only material between her and him was a thin layer of silk. Stunned, she fought harder and broke free.

“We must stop this! I can’t!” she cried. Part of her wanted to experience every inch of what he promised to bring, the other remained terrified by her circumstances.

“You can and you shall,” he said, snatching her back to him. He lightly cupped one breast and gave it a light, exploratory squeeze.

Non!” She wrenched herself away and grabbed up her robe. He caught her by the arm. “I’m sorry, but something has taken hold of me. It’s so strong, I can’t… I can’t let you leave. You must feel it, too.”

Je vous en prie. Please, let me go.”

“Relax. What do you feel? Tell me.”

“I don’t know. This isn’t proper and you—”

“No one’s here. It’s just you and me. What happens to us now will shape our lives. Can’t you feel it? Don’t you want it?”

She turned him no answer. She would lose this battle and she knew it. No matter what she did, she would lose. If she managed to escape, she would lose. And if she didn’t…

He fingered the ribbons holding together the neckline of her gown, and then gave them a little tug. The flaps of her gown slid open, revealing her breasts to him. For a moment, he simply gazed at them, and then, to her surprise, he took hold of her right breast, lowered his mouth to it and gently suckled. The touch of his lips sent a jolt of heat through her, one that penetrated her loins. Without realizing it, she gave a little groan, and the hands that had pounded at his chest in resistance now gripped him. He released her breast and regarded it with affection.

“There, you see how she peeks out at me? She wants me.”

Zoé looked down to see how erect her nipple had become.

“Whereas in my past dalliances I needn’t ask, tonight I will. May I have you?” he asked in a husky whisper.

Quoi?” she said, surprised and confused. After all this, was he really asking her permission? Did he think her foolish enough to believe that it mattered?

“You heard me, mademoiselle. I want to hear you say it. You have a voice when you are with me. Forget what’s expected and tell me your wishes. May I have you?”

She struggled with an answer. For looking into his eyes, he didn’t appear insincere. on the contrary, his wild sapphire eyes mirrored a secret longing that she too felt inside. To be heard and seen for who they were, not what they were. Was it crazy to believe that a man of his position had such desires? Maybe. But he was so compelling, his magnetism so potent, she’d believe anything.

“Come now,” he said. “It’s not that hard to speak for yourself, is it?”

Looking away into the fire, she thought about her lot in life. She wasn’t Marianne. He wouldn’t have dared be this brazen with Marianne. But he wanted her, and that made her feel special. She had little control over her life and saw that someday Madame would pass her off to some foreign suitor. Several unappealing men had already made sizeable offers for her. Her father had turned them all down, but one day Madame would win out. No matter how much he resisted, it would happen.

At least, this monsieur was appealing. And he was giving her a choice.

She recalled her promise to Marianne, recalled too that Marianne had forced it just so she could have him all to herself. No, she was not compelled to honor such a promise. For once, she could make a decision based on her own needs and not what was expected of her.

Her gaze, clouded by the perfects of the brandy, returned to La Roque.

“Comte La Roque—”

He kissed her again, this time gently. “Gianelli,” he whispered. “You shall call me Gianelli.”

Zoé’s nose wrinkled at the request, uncertain of the origin of the pet-name. But he only shared that same secretive smile, the one that spoke to her heart and not her mind. “And after tonight, I shall call you Zoé.”

It was in this simple statement that Zoé found hope that her life was really about to change, and in his kiss that she put her faith. Returning his passion this time, she felt more in control of the kiss.

She felt his hands travel to the sides of her nightgown and gather up the thin fabric with his fingers. She held her breath as he raised the gown above her hips and drew it over her head. He stepped back to look at her body and she felt tempted to cover herself with her hands. Instead, she stood there bravely, her breathing shallow and wondering what to do next, as he took in every swell and curve.

He lifted the hem of his shirt and pulled it over his head, revealing a muscular chest and tanned, sculpted shoulders. A long, dark spiral of hair wound down the center of his chest to fan out just above the line of his low-slung pajama bottoms.

She was intrigued. She’d seen shirtless men before but never as beautiful as him. She and Marianne were extremely sheltered. In private, they would giggle over what they thought certain men would look like unclothed.

La Roque dropped his pants and Zoé’s eyes lowered with interest. Registering what she was seeing, her body’s most intimate spots warmed with desire. She felt her stomach tighten as she lifted her gaze back to his face.

He grabbed her face and kissed her hard, their naked bodies bathed in the orange-yellow glow from the fireplace. He swept her up and carried her to his bed. She held on to him, her arms looped around his neck, kissing his face and eyelids, pained by a strange surge of affection that terrified her.

He laid her lovingly on the dark spread and gazed down at her, at how her hair fanned out across the pillows. Looking up at him, she saw awe at her beauty reflected in his eyes.
Zoé closed her eyes as he kissed her. She moaned as his tongue left her mouth to glide down her neck to her left breast. He circled her dark nipple for just a moment before the warmth of his mouth engulfed it, suckling. She gasped as a bolt of desire jolted her, causing her to moan in a voice she’d never heard before.

He massaged her other breast, then worked his way toward her stomach before going even lower. Drunk with passion, she looked down at the top of his head as he slid his finger into her. She gripped the sheets, never having been touched this way by a man before.

“Zoé,” his voice dropped in volume, but not passion.

He began to work his finger, giving her more pleasure than she’d ever known before. What few doubts she might have still entertained disappeared in the waves of pleasure radiating from her loins. He was in deep now.

Really deep.

He put his face between her legs. She felt the tiny bristling hairs of his beard brush against her inner thighs and inhaled sharply. When his tongue started its exploration, she arched her back, crying out in ecstasy as he took her left leg and threw it over his shoulder to give him further access to her treasures.

She tugged at the sheets, her breath coming quickly, while unfamiliar currents of pleasure rippled through her. She inched upward, crazy for relief from the way he made love to her with his tongue, but he held her hips in place as he kept going. His tongue penetrated her, and she shivered. His tongue traveled back upward, flicking at her. She froze, gripping the sheets tightly, unsure of his touch and his tongue and the continual currents that made her hips shake. His eyes lifted as hers opened and met his. She relaxed under his gaze, working her hips to the rhythm of his tongue out of sheer instinct.

Blood rushed to her face, making her blush. As he sucked her, swallowing her juices, her body vibrated and the waves of pleasure mounted. Finally, she could hold it in no longer and gave vent to an explosive release with a cry. He quickly lifted up and brought his mouth to hers to silence her. She could taste herself on his tongue. It was exhilarating. She felt lightheaded.
His face wet with her passion, he pulled her further under him and slid her legs apart with his knees. She wasn’t expecting what came next. He parted her lower lips, positioned himself against her and gave a strong thrust. Zoé squeezed her eyes shut. She winced at the sharp pain that cut through her pelvis. As he thrust again, she felt as though she was being ripped apart. All sense of pleasure was gone. She desperately wanted him to stop. In a panic, she struggled beneath him. She pushed and clawed at his shoulders, shaking her head. The pain was too much, and she wanted it to end.

Instead of releasing her, he grabbed both of her wrists and held them above her head, pinning her down. Rotating his hips, he watched her toss her head from side to side.

“Look at me,” he said.

At first, she didn’t realize that he was speaking. Between the brandy and the pain, she was frightened and confused.

“Please, no more,” she whimpered, tears welling in her eyes.
He kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Open your eyes,” he whispered, slowing the rotation of his hips, but still pressing deeper and deeper.

She finally opened her eyes and gazed at him through her tears. He ran his tongue across her lips, and nibbled on them. As his long, silky hair brushed against her cheek, he smiled down at her.

“It’s all right,” he said in his deep, husky voice. “You are safe with me. Relax. Feel it, Zoé. Give in to it.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath and swallowed.

“You trust me, now?” he asked.

She gave a nod. He let go of her wrists and placed her arms around his neck. Then he began again.

As he rammed his need in and out of her, she bit her lip so hard that she thought it would bleed, but she held on tight. At one point, she dug her nails into his soft skin, and he didn’t flinch. Turning his hips, he gave a mighty thrust. She felt something give way inside her, felt him slide in deep. The aching lessened, and as he rested his face in the curve of her neck, she felt what it meant to be truly desired.

His desires.

Now smiling and holding him to her, she opened herself to him. As he moaned with pleasure, she felt desired in ways she hadn’t known existed. Finally, she joined him in the lovers’ duet. Churning her hips, she matched his rhythmic dance, feeling the urgency of his love thrusts lessen. She began to enjoy how their bodies melded into one. No longer pained by his intrusion, she felt herself adjust and envelop his width. She was now a partner in their loving and gave as much as she took.

She sucked in her breath as he lifted her hips and pounded his hardness into her. As his pace quickened, the throbbing pain returned in waves. When he exploded inside of her, she knew that something monumental had transpired between them.

Feeling him collapse on top of her, she sighed under his weight. He raised his head and looked into her eyes.

“It is the beginning of our passion,” he said.

She smiled. “I felt it deeply, too, mon seigneur— Gianelli.”

He smiled back at her. “Would you like to stay with me?”

“What did you say?”

“Stay with me. If I speak to Madame Bouchard and ask for you, would you like to stay?”

Zoé felt her eyes well up with tears. “As your mistress?” she asked, hoping that this was indeed not the case.

He kissed her and released her from his intimate embrace. She winced at the pain. He then rolled over on his side, not bothering to look at her.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

She gave him an angry look and pushed herself up onto her elbows, her once tamed locks now wild around her head.

“Would you ask Marianne to be your mistress?” she snapped.

He chuckled with dark amusement. “I wouldn’t ask Marianne anything. I don’t want her. I want you.”

Zoé sat up now, glaring at him. The smirk on his face, as he lay there next to her, naked, said it all. The seduction now over, the harsh reality of her circumstances hammered her with an unforgiving force, each blow relaying the painful truth that La Roque would never see her as anything more than a conquest.

Without another word, she got up and retrieved her clothes.

“Zoé,” he said, watching her. “I’m not looking for a wife. My offer is not about your class or conception. It’s the only offer I would make to any woman.”

Zoé dressed in silence. Primary among the emotions rushing through her was a deep sense of shame. She flushed miserably, trying to salvage some of her dignity. She spoke as much to comfort herself as to impress him.

“Gianelli, I thank you for…” She looked at him on the bed, naked, still observing her. “For whatever this was, because as you said, the choice was mine. But I will never be anyone’s mistress.”

She retrieved her candelabrum, gave him one last cold nod and walked toward the door.

“Zoé!” he called after her.

She paused in the doorway, but refused to turn around, forcing him to speak to her back.

“Reconsider,” he said. “You’re different now and I want you. My proposal may not be the one you hoped for but it is sincere.”

She spun around and exploded in anger. “Want me, mon seigneur? You want me? Well, you’ve had your taste. Savor it. Remember it, for it shall be your last!”

With that, she strode from his chambers, her back stiff and her eyes blinking hard to hold back the tears.