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

Chapter 5

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"It is satisfactory, Enrique," said Madelaine with decision, handing him a small tip as she prepared to get out. "I will walk the rest of the way; if you will watch me, to be sure I am not—"

"I will watch, Madame," he said, drawing the coach up to the boardwalk. "Do you need me to let the steps down?"

"No," she replied. "I can manage well enough. The street is well lit, and I doubt anyone will importune me with so much activity about." With that, she opened the door panel, set her lap rug aside, and stepped down from the carriage, swinging the door behind her to close it. She was about to turn when she felt her cloak snag on the door latch; as she struggled to free it, she stumbled back against the coach.

"Allow me, Madame," said a voice from behind her; William Sherman reached out and freed her cloak, then held out his hand to assist her to the wide, wooden sidewalk. "Good evening, and permit me to say that I am surprised to see you here."

"At the French Theatre? Where else should I be?" Madeleine recovered her poise at once. "Thank you for your concern, Mr. Sherman. Why should you be surprised?"

He answered indirectly as he glanced at his pocket watch. "The curtain will rise in five minutes. You will have to join your company at once."

"Then I will have to hurry," said Madelaine, starting along the boardwalk in the direction of the French Theatre. "But there is no one I am joining, Mr. Sherman. And no one is joining me. I am a Frenchwoman here for the pleasure of hearing her own language spoken, not to indulge in the entertainment of society"

"Surely you do not go to the theatre unescorted?" He gazed at her in dismay. "No, no; Madame, you must not."

"But why?" she asked reasonably. "I have attended the theatre alone in London." As soon as she said it, she realized she had slipped; it was rare for her to make such an error.

"Never tell me you went alone to the theatre as a child," he countered. "Not even French parents are so indulgent."

"Not as a child, no," she allowed, irritated that her tongue should have got her into such a pass with Sherman, of all people. He was too acute for her to forget herself around him.

He stopped walking, and looked down at her, cocking his head; the lamplight made his red hair glow like hot coals. "As a gentleman, I should never ask a lady this question, but I fear I must"

She returned his look. "What question is that? I have told you the truth, Mr. Sherman."

"Of that I have no doubt." He answered so directly that she was startled. "I can perceive the truth of you as if it grew on stalks. No, the question I ought not ask is: How old are you?" Before she could answer, he added, "Because I have received an accounting of your money in the Saint Louis office of Lucas and Turner, and with a portrait and a description to verify your identity. It would seem that you have not altered in any particular in the last decade. You appeared to be about twenty when you first went there, and you appear to be about twenty now."

Very carefully she said, "If I told you when I was born, you would not believe me."

He studied her eyes and was satisfied, "That, too, was the truth." He again looked at his pocket watch. "We are going to miss the curtain."

"Does this mean you are escorting me?" asked Madelaine, unable to resist smiling at him.

"Perforce," answered Sherman, his eyes creasing at the corners.

"But what of the gossip you have warned me about? And your wife is still with her parents." Madelaine noticed that the theatregoers had all but disappeared from the street. She glanced at Sherman. "Are you really set on seeing Racine?"

His face did not change, but his voice softened. "No."

"Nor am I," said Madelaine, who had seen Phaedre more than twenty times in the last sixty years. "Surely there is somewhere we can go that will not cause tongues to wag?"

Most of those going to the theatre were in their place. The few who remained on the street hurried to reach their seats before the curtain went up; they paid no attention to Madelaine and Sherman.

He coughed once. "There are rooms at the casinos, private rooms. Men dine there, in private. Sometimes these rooms are used for assignations."

"Would that bother you?" asked Madelaine. "Going to such a place?"

"It should bother you," said Sherman sternly. Then he made up his mind. He took her by the elbow and started to lead her in the direction away from the French Theatre. "My carriage is in a livery around the corner on Pine Street," he said.

"I wish you would not hold on to my arm in that manner," she said to him. "It's uncomfortable."

He released her at once, chagrined. "I meant nothing unsuitable, Madame." He put more than two feet between them. "You must understand that I only sought to guard—"

"Oh! for all the saints in the calendar!" Madelaine burst out, then lowered her voice. "I meant nothing but what I said: I dislike having my arm clutched. But I am glad of your company, Mr. Sherman, and your protection. I know these streets can be dangerous."

He paused at the corner of Pine Street. "I will take you home."

"My coachman will do that, thank you," said Madelaine amiably, "after we have our private discussion."

This time there was an eagerness in his eyes as he looked down at her. "What did you mean by discussion, since you are clarifying your meaning, Madame?"

"That, in large part, is up to you," said Madelaine, regarding him steadily. "I will not seduce you, or demand what you are unwilling to give; I want no man who is not enthusiastic to have me."

He laughed abruptly. "What man would that be? One who is dead, or prefers the bodies of men?"

Maddaine answered him seriously. "I do not mean only my body, Mr. Sherman. If that is all I sought, it is there for the taking, all around us, at acceptable prices. I mean a man who is willing to see into my soul. And to let me see into his."

Taken aback, Sherman straightened up and stared down the dark street. "Well, your candor is admirable." He paused thoughtfully. "Let me make myself plain to you, Madame, and if what I say is repugnant to you, then I will not impose upon you any longer, and I will forget that any of this was said. No matter what you may stir in me, I cannot, and I will not, compromise my obligations to my family. I am married, and that will not be changed by any desire I may feel for you."

"I don't recall asking you to change, or to hurt your family," said Madelaine as she put her hand through his arm. "I only remember suggesting that we spend the evening together."

"And that I may have you if that is what I wish," he said, as if to give her one more chance to change her mind.

Madelaine's smile was quick. "I am not challenging you, Mr. Sherman. I am seeking to spend time with you."

"Whatever that means," said Sherman.

"Whatever that means," Madelaine concurred.

San Francisco, 16 June, 1855… Tonight will be better.

The sheets were fine linen, as soft as antique satin, and there were six pillows and a damask comforter flung in glorious disarray about the bed. In the wan spill of moonlight from the window, Sherman was standing, wearing only a loosely belted dressing robe, and smoking a thin cigar as he gazed out into the darkness. "The other evening and now this. What must you think of me?"

"Nothing to your discredit," said Madelaine quietly, hardly moving as she spoke. "I think you do not trust what you want." She pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts.

"That's kind," he said tightly. "Many another woman would be offended."

Madelaine turned on her side to look at him, regarding him with a serious expression. "If that's not it, what is bothering you?"

He met her eyes. "You are."

"Why do I bother you? Would you rather not be here?" she asked, more puzzled than apprehensive.

"No. There is no place I would rather be," he answered evenly.

"Then why—?" she began, only to be cut off.

"Because it is what I want," he said bluntly, and stubbed out his cigar in the saucer she had set out for that purpose. "A man in my position, with a wife and a good marriage, has other women for convenience and amusement. It isn't that way with you. You are not a convenience or an entertainment. You arc not convenient at all. You are what I want. All of you. And I should not. I must not." He started toward the bed, tugging at his sash and flinging it aside as he reached her. He stared down at her as his robe fell open. "Do you know what it means to want you so much, to go beyond reason with wanting you? I want to possess you, and I fear you will possess me. I am afraid that once I touch you, I will be lost."

"Is that so terrifying a prospect?" she asked, moving to make a place beside her in the bed.

"Yes." In a shrug he dropped his dressing robe to the floor, letting it lie in a velvet puddle.

"Then come and stretch out beside me. We can talk as friends, all through the night." She piled up the pillows. "I don't require you to take me."

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