In the Face of Death (Madelaine de Montalia #2)

Chapter 11

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Madelaine could not stop herself from smiling, knowing now that he would remain with her for several hours, if not all night. The weight of his absence lifted from her and she said playfully, "In fact, given the circumstances, shaving would be a prudent thing to do."

"Prudent," he repeated ironically. "What a word to use for anything pertaining to you and me, Madelaine."

"All the more reason it is necessary," she said, satisfying herself that the tub would be ready when the water was hot. She set out two large sponges and a rough washing cloth on the rack next to the tub, and then pulled out a brass towel rack. "I'll get a robe for you from the linen closet."

He extended his arms to block her progress and pulled her to him, bending to kiss her as his embrace enfolded her.

She shifted against his arm, then gave herself over to his caresses as if she had never before experienced them. Finally when she could speak at all, she said softly to him, 'Tecumseh, I have no wish to compel you to do anything that displeases you."

"I know that," he said indulgently as he stroked her breasts through her clothes.

"You're distracting me," she objected without any determination to stop him.

"Good," he approved. "I intend to." His kiss was light and long, full of suggestions that left both of them breathless. "Why don't you let me help you out of that rig you've got on?"

'Tecumseh," she said again, making a last-ditch effort to keep from giving in to him completely. "You will not be angry, will you? For my turning you from your purpose?"

"Why should I be angry?" He kissed the corner of her mouth. "And what purpose do you mean? I only wanted to apologize for failing you."

"You mean you had not resolved to break off with me?" she asked.

He stared at her, a hint of defiance in his answer. "After what I have done, I am shocked that you are not angry with me." He reached up and pulled the long pins from the neat bun at the back of her neck. "That's better," he said as he loosened her hair with his fingers.

"I could not be angry with you, not when I have tasted your blood," she said.

'That again," he muttered; he became patiently courteous, all but bowing to her. "And why is that, Madame Vampire?"

"Because I know you, and I know what you are." She looked up at him, and read vexation in his eyes. "I know that you despise weakness, especially in yourself, and you often regard your feelings for me as weakness."

He looked at her in amazement. "How the devil—?"

"It is your nature," Madelaine said swiftly. "It is intrinsic to your soul. You have decided that if you love me, you are weakened. I don't know how to make you see that loving is strength, not weakness—that it takes courage to love because love's risk is so great."

Sherman shook his head, scowling down at her. "If I were not married, what you tell me might be true, for there truly are risks in loving. But as I have a wife, and you, my dear, are not she, I must look upon this as an indulgence."

"But you don't," she said softly, "look upon this as an indulgence."

The light in his eyes warmed and gentled, and he drew her tightly against him. "No, I don't."

This time their kiss was deep, passionate, and long; it was the strangest thing. Madelaine thought in a remote part of her mind, but it was as if Sherman wanted to absorb her into himself, to pull her into him with all the intensity of appetence. Then she let all thought go and gave herself over to the desire he ignited in her.

When they broke apart, Sherman had to steady himself against the table, laughing a little with shy embarrassment. "Sorry. That was clumsy of me. I was… You made me dizzy."

"You weren't paying attention," said Madelaine as she ran her hands under the lapels of his jacket and peeled it off him.

He did not protest this, but set to unfastening his waistcoat and the shirt beneath it, working so precipitously that he got the shirt tangled in his suspenders and had to let Madelaine disengage them for him, which she did merrily. "It isn't funny," he grumbled.

"If you say not," she told him with a smile that pierced his heart.

He caressed her hair as she continued to unfasten his clothing, and said dreamily. "If I were truly a brave man, I would take you and my children, and we would sail away to the Sandwich Islands together, and live there, the world well lost. But I'm not that brave."

She interrupted her task and said somberly, "You would come to hate me within a year or two, for making you forsake your honor."

"But you don't ask that," he said, holding her face in his hands and scrutinizing her features.

"In time you would persuade yourself I had," she said with grim certainty. "And I am not brave enough to sustain your loathing."

"How could I do that?" He asked her, marveling at the forthrightness she displayed in the face of his examination.

"You would," she said, and moved back to let him step out of his trousers. "I will fill the tub for you; the water is nearly warm enough." She could see the first wisps of steam rising from the large pots. "Then you will bathe and we will have time together." She reached for the pot holders and lifted the first of the vessels from the stove. As she emptied it into the bathtub, a warm cloud rose, made tangy by bath salts.

Sherman was down to his underwear and shoes; he started to protest her labors, but stopped and offered, "Shall I help you out of your clothes, as well?"

Madelaine emptied the second pot, "No. I will do that once you are in the bath," she assured him.

"Where I can watch," he ventured.

"Of course." By the time she had poured the contents of the third pot into the tub, Sherman was naked and shivering. "Hurry. Get in," she said, gathering up his clothes and setting them out on the butcher's block to dry.

"It feels so good it hurts," Sherman sighed as he sank into the water, taking the sponge and soap from the stand beside the tub.

"Then enjoy it," said Madelaine, reaching to release the fastenings of her bodice as she went toward the bathtub.

San Francisco, 8 September,

I am almost finished with my chapter on the Utes, which pleases me tremendously. I tell myself I have captured the spirit of their legends and other teachings clearly enough so that the most opinionated of university-bound scholars cannot misinterpret what I have said. But

I know such lucidity is impossible, so I must be content to accept my satisfaction as sufficient to the task.

Tecumseh has been with me for five nights out of the last ten, and he alternates between anguish at his lax-ness and joy for our passion. When he is not berating himself, he tells me he has never been so moved before, that I have revealed pleasures and gratification that he thought did not exist except between the covers of novels. But this rapture is always accompanied by the warning that he will not shame his wife any more than he has done already, and that he will never leave his children. He refuses to be convinced that I do not wish him to run off with me, and nothing I have said to the contrary has made any lasting impression on him.

Tomorrow I go to an afternoon party given by Mr. Folsom to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the marriage of Captain and Mrs. Kent—or so reads the invitation that was delivered to me last week. Baron deStoeckl has offered to be my escort, and I suppose I will accept…

Fanny Kent was radiant in a flounced gown of peach-colored tarlatan over petticoats a la Duchesse; her eardrops were baroque pearls surmounted by rubies, and she wore an extravagant and hideous necklace of diamonds and rubies, the gift her husband had given her for this occasion. She took advantage of every opportunity to show off these splendid presents, coquetting prettily for all those who were willing to compliment her.

Beside her, Captain Kent was in a claw-tail coat of dark-blue superfine over a waistcoat of embroidered white satdn. He was beaming with pride as he lifted his champagne glass to his wife and thanked her for "the ten happiest years of my life." He was delighted by the applause that followed.

"I won't bother to bring you wine," the Russian Baron whispered to Madelaine after they had greeted their host. "But excuse me if I get some for myself."

"Please do," said Madelaine, returning the wave Fanny Kent gave her. "You do not have to wait upon me, Baron."

"You are gracious, as always," said deStoeckl, and went off to have some of the champagne.

Madelaine had no desire to go sit with the widows and dowagers in the kiosk, nor did she want to join the younger wives, all of whom seemed to spend their time talking about the unreliability of servants, the precocity of their children, and the ambitions they had for their husbands. She would have nothing to contribute to their conversation, so instead, she went to where a new bed of flowers had been planted; she occupied her time identifying the plants, her thoughts faintly distracted by the realization that she would have to make more of the compounds Saint-Germain had taught her to concoct nearly a century ago; she did not hear Fanny Kent's light, tripping step behind her.

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