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

Chapter 13

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"Mr…" She could not bring his name to mind; it was something simple, uncomplicated, but not as obvious as Smith. She maintained her outward equanimity. "There is no reason to do this."

"There's plenty of reason," said the intruder, enjoying his position of advantage. "And a Frenchwoman should not need to be told what it is."

Madelaine frowned. She could always scream, but that would defeat the whole purpose of her withdrawal from the garden—to remove herself from observation and the occasion for gossip. "I don't think you want to do this," she began reasonably. "Please stand aside." She thought she sounded like a schoolmistress with a recalcitrant pupil.

"Not on your Me," the young man said, swaying toward her. "Not while I have this chance." He drank the last of the champagne in his glass, tossed it away without paying any notice to its shattering, then reached out for her.

Madelaine sought to get around him and was about to reach for something she could use as a weapon when Sherman abruptly forced his way into the withdrawing room, grabbing the young man by the front of his shirt to back him up against the wall, leaning hard on him, pinning him to the wain-scoting. "You didn't hear die lady, sir. She asked you to step aside."

The young man blanched and sweat broke out on his forehead. "I… I…"

"And you will do it, won't you?" Sherman demanded through clenched teeth.

"I…" Though bulkier than Sherman, the young man was terrified, and he squirmed in an attempt to escape; Sherman leaned harder. "Oh, God."

The relief and gratitude that had filled Madelaine a moment before ..vanished in a wash of exasperation. "Mr. Sherman," she said crisply, "I think he has taken your meaning."

Sherman kept his relentless grip on the young man. "You will apologize to the lady, sir," he ordered.

"I… Sorry. I… didn't mean…" He stopped as Sherman released his hold and moved back. "I… just a mistake. Never meant anything… untoward. Upon my word, Madame." He was shaking and kept glancing quickly at Sherman, then at the windows, anything to avoid looking directly at Madelaine for fear of the red-haired banker's wrath.

"And because it was a mistake, you will say nothing to anyone, will you?" Sherman pursued, giving the fellow no chance to capitalize on his gaffe through boasting or smugness.

"No. No. I won't. Ever." With that, he bolted from the room. His hasty, uneven footsteps were loud.

The withdrawing room was still, neither Madelaine nor Sherman being willing to speak first. She relented before he did. "Mr. Sherman. I didn't know you were here."

"I arrived not long after you did," he said, keeping his distance.

She had nothing to say to that. "How did you happen to follow that young man in here?"

"Winters? I heard him boast that he would get a better taste of France than mere champagne. When I saw him come into the house, I followed; I had an idea he might attempt something of this sort." He locked eyes with her. "I'm sorry I was right. I would not have you subjected to… such things for… anything."

"Thanks to your intervention, I wasn't," she said bluntly, and could read shock in his face. "His intentions were—"

"If he had touched you, I would have killed him," said Sherman with quiet certainty.

She achieved a rallying tone. "Now that would have been a grand gesture. And neither of our reputations would survive it, so it is just as well you arrived when you did." She managed to keep her hands from shaking as she slipped out the door. "Speaking of reputations, it might be wise if we did not leave this room at the same time. I will go back to the garden now; follow when you think best."

He nodded, and before she could turn away, he blew her a kiss.

San Francisco, 7 October,

How still it is this evening. After a week of wind and fog, it has turned bright and hot. I was surprised at this sudden change, coming when it does in the year, though I now understand it is not unusual to this region. I was told that this is one of the reasons vintners have been flocking to the inland valleys north of here, where they can plant vines with a reasonable prospect of a long, warm growing season…

It is arranged that we will depart no later than 10 October, no matter what the weather. It is tempting to delay, but I must not, for my own sake as well as Tecum-seh's…

"I know it is what must be done, and I hate it," Sherman whispered, his hand tangled in her hair, his leg between hers, his body replete, tired, and yet unwilling to sleep; it was after midnight, and the city beyond the house on Franklin Street was quiet.

Madelaine shifted her position so that she could lift herself up enough to look into his face. "I will miss you. Tecumseh."

"I will miss you, too, and be damned for it," he said softly, the usual tension gone out of his features, making him look younger than he was. The hand in her hair moved down to brush her face lightly, and he stared into her eyes, wanting to pierce more than the night. "I should never have let myself become…" He drew her down to kiss her search-ingly.

She gave herself over to his mouth, opening herself to his growing renewed need, lying back as he made his way down her body as if by passion alone he could take the whole of her into himself. As he moved between her thighs, he gave a harsh sigh, then lowered his head. Madelaine caught her fingers in his fine red hair. "What's the matter?" she asked, sensing the return of his ambivalence.

He raised his eyes enough to meet hers. "It has nothing to do with you," he told her, touching the soft, hidden folds of flesh and relishing the shiver that went through her.

"If it impairs our loving, it has something to do with me," she said as gently as she could.

"Later," he muttered.

"Now," she insisted, concern more than determination coloring her inflection.

"Very well," he said, and brought his elbows under his chest so that he could more easily look at her without moving from his place. "Since I cannot truly grasp the enormity of your leaving, I was thinking that this is one—one of many— delights I will lose with you. If I could contain myself, I would do this for hours, to have the pleasure of your transports." He laughed once, chagrined. "But I am not patient enough for that, and so I have to make the most of our desires and be content with memories."

Madelaine reached down and stroked his shoulder. "You are a generous lover, Tecumseh, more than you know, and you have learned…"

'To be less precipitous?" he ventured. 'To increase our gratification by postponing its fulfillment?"

She touched his neck, feeling the strong pulse there. "It grieves me that you cannot be as generous in your marriage as we are together."

To his acute discomfort, he blushed. "Not all women have the capacity to enjoy these things." He rested one hand on her thigh, caressing her with delicious languor. "And many who claim to are suspect, since it is their profession to please men." He moved to adjust himself more comfortably between her legs, saying, "If I had been less infatuated, less off guard, I would have kept away from you, arranged things with one of the whorehouses for discreet…"

"Servicing," Madelaine supplied for him. "If that was your only alternative to me, then I am gratified your infatuation was—"

He stopped her. "It isn't infatuation," he said in a flat tone. "And you know it."

She looked at him, deep into his steel-colored eyes. "I know."

This time when he sighed, he slipped away from her, ending up at the foot of the bed, naked and cross-legged, with a mess of sheets in his lap. "I should not have permitted this to happen. My life ought to be better ordered than that. But what proof am I against you—you, with a face filled with light, and all the sweet delirium of the world in your body. No wonder I could not reason myself out of my fascination. It is mad of me to love you."

They were both silent for a short while, then Madelaine shivered and sat up, facing him down the length of the bed. "I cannot help but love you, madness or not."

"Because it is your nature," he said, repeating what she had told him so often. "Because you have tasted my blood."

"Yes," she said, trying not to fear his response.

"Yes," he echoed, wanting it to be an accusation and hearing himself make the single word a vow.

"And you accept it." She felt a surge of rapture go through her as no physical act would bring. That he finally recognized the bond between them! She would have laughed with utter joy had she not understood that would offend him.

"How can I not?" he asked in mock capitulation.

Certain his resistance was crumbling, she went to him in a single, sinuous motion, sweeping the sheets and comforter aside; she would not let him turn away from her. "Then tonight must stand for all the nights to come that we will not share, Tecumseh; why waste it in anticipating our separation when we may yet be together for a few hours more?"

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