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

Chapter 6

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"How do you mean?" he asked sharply.

"If you do not want to touch me at all, you need not." She regarded him kindly. "If you would like to, then you may."

He scowled. "How can you say that you want me, that you have me here in your house, in your bed, and not care if I—"

She sighed. "I've told you before, William."

"Don't call me William," he interrupted, seeking a distraction from the confusion that warred within him.

"I won't call you Mr. Sherman, not here," she said, slapping one of the pillows with the back of her hand; though it was dark, she could see his face clearly and knew he was deeply troubled. She strove to lighten the burdens of desire that so plagued him, and decided to stay on safe ground. "What does the T in your name stand for?"

"My friends and… and family call me Cump," he said, swallowing hard.

"Cump?" She was baffled.

"My given name is Tecumseh," he said at last. "The Ewings added William when they took me in after my father's death. So that I could be baptized into Maria Ewing's Catholic religion." He sat on the edge of the bed and absently reached out to stroke her hair.

Madelaine knew he had just given her a very special gift. "You're named for the chief of the Shawnee."

"Yes," he said with urgency as he reached out and wrapped his long-fingered hands around her upper arms. "How do you know about Tecumseh?"

"I know he had a twin brother, Tenskwatawa, and they were both called The Prophet." It was not a direct answer, but it was all she was prepared to give now. "Come to me, Tecumseh. You don't have to do anything if you don't want to."

He glowered at her, then looked down at himself, sighed, and swung his legs up and under the covers. He stared up at the ceiling in the darkness. "What should we talk about?" he asked, his manner forbidding.

"Anything you wish or nothing at all. Either will please me if that is what you want." As much as she desired to lie next to him, to feel his flesh against hers for the length of her body, she, too, lay on her back and stared at the ceiling, noticing a faint crack in the ornamental plasterwork. She wanted to • bridge the rift between them, and sought for something she could give him, as he had offered his name to her. "Let us share secrets, as friends do," she suggested impulsively. "If you like, I will tell you how old I am."

"That is a wonderful secret for a lady to share with a friend, and quite an admission for any woman to make." He laughed once, then looked grave. "Very well. On my honor I promise I will never repeat it," he told her somberly.

"You had best not," said Madelaine, and plunged ahead, telling herself that surprise was an advantage with this man. "For I was born on the twenty-second day of November, 1724, at Montalia, my family estate, hi the south of France."

For several seconds Sherman was silent. Then he chuckled. "Seventeen-twenty-four, not 1824. That would make you more than a century old, Madame."

"I am," she said, beginning to worry.

He turned toward her, trying hard to keep the incredulity out of his voice. "All right. I deserved that. For the sake of argument, we will say you are ancient, a veritable crone. You arc one hundred thirty-one years old, or will be in November." His chuckling continued, rich and easy, the hard lines in his face relaxing so that he, himself, now appeared younger than he was. "And how did you attain this great age without looking older than a girl just out?"

"Because I died on the fourth of August, 1744.1 was just out," she replied, trying to keep her voice from trembling, though she could not disguise the chill that seized her, making her quiver.

"The fourth of August, 1744," he repeated, as if hearing the words again would change them. His chuckle turned to coughing, and he took a minute to bring his breathing under control. He lay back on the pillows, willing himself not to cough. "You don't expect me to believe this, do you?"

"Why not?" she answered, fighting the desolation that swept over her. She was afraid her teeth would chatter. 'Tecumseh, you know when I am lying. I am not lying now, am I? This is the truth."

"The truth?" he scoffed. "Well, Madame, you sure look mighty pretty for a corpse." He rolled onto his side, propped himself on his elbow, and stared at her. "How can you claim to exchange confidences and then tell such bald-faced…" The words straggled; when he spoke again, he was awed. "You are telling the truth, aren't you?"

"Yes," she said as if from a great distance.

"But how… ?" He touched her face with one long finger, he did his best to comprehend the enormity of what she said. "Dear God, Madelaine, how?"

She gave him Saint-Germain's answer. "I drink the Elixir of Life. And I do not die. I cannot die."

This was not nearly sufficient to convince Sherman. "Then tell me something of your youth." His steel-colored eyes grew sharp. "Who was ruling France then?"

"When I came to Paris, Louis XV was king," she answered calmly, though she continued to shiver as much from the strength of her memories as from apprehension about Sherman. "That was in the fall of 1743.1 went to my aunt so that she could introduce me into society."

"What sort of fellow was he, Louis XV?" demanded Sherman, making her answer a test. "I warn you, I know something about the man, and will not be fobbed off with vague answers."

"Venal, luxury-loving, indolent, handsome, overindulged, manipulative. In a word, spoiled." She stared at him, surprised when he took her hands in his. "I escaped the Terror, which is just as well."

Sherman managed a kind of laugh. "A lovely corpse without a head—that would be difficult," agreed Sherman in ill-concealed excitement. "Limiting, I should think."

"A corpse is all I would have been. Those who taste the Elixir of Life are not proof against all death. Madame la Guillotine is as deadly to me as to you. So is fire." She looked directly into his eyes. "In the time I have lived, can you imagine the number of times I have said good-bye?" And how many more times I will, she added silently to herself. She thought of Trowbridge then, of his devotion which had cost him his .life to save hers; and Falke, going willingly into the furnace of the Egyptian desert in order to be free of her and the life she gave.

"No, Madelaine. Don't despair," he said, with the urgency of one who knew despair well. His arms went around her, and he drew her close to him as if to protect her from the weight of grief. "It is unbearable," he murmured, pressing his lips to her hair.

She rested her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat, hearing the pulse quicken. "I am told one learns, in time." Her breath was deep and uneven.

He reached out to turn her face up to his, searching out secrets. "What are you, then? I'd better warn you, I don't hold any truck with the supernatural. And don't preach religion at me, whatever you do. I get enough of that from Maria Ewing." He made an impatient gesture at the mention of his mother-in-law.

"No religion," she promised. "Other than that most religion is against those of us who come to this life." She stretched out to kiss him, feeling yearning and resistance in his mouth. "We die, but slip the hold death has on us, and we live—"

"On the Elixir of Life," he said, one hand sliding down her flank. "And how is this mysterious Elixir obtained?'

"It is taken from those who are willing to give it," she answered quietly. "Where there is understanding, and passion, there is also great… joy."

"Joy," he echoed, as if the word were terrible even as he pulled her inexorably nearer, kissing her with what he had intended as roughness but what became a tenderness of such intensity that he felt all his senses fill with her. He tried to push her away, but his body would not answer the stern command of his will; and as she guided his hands over the treasure of her flesh, he surrendered to her with all the strength of his desire.

"Slowly," she whispered as she flicked her tongue over his nipples, seeing his shock and delight. "It is better if you savor it."

"God and the devils! I am ready to explode!" He kicked back the sheet to show her, proud and embarrassed at once. "Hurry, Madelaine. I am at the brink."

"Not yet," said Madelaine, bending to kiss him again as she straddled him. "Do not deny yourself the full measure of your passion, for you also deny me. This is not a race where glory goes to the swiftest." Then, with exquisite languor, she guided him deep within her.

His breath hissed through his clenched teeth. "I can't—"

"You can," she promised, remaining very still until he opened his eyes. Then she began to move with him, feeling his guard fall away as his ardor became adoration; at this instant her lips brushed his throat.

They lay together until the first predawn call of birds warned them of coming day.

"I don't want to leave," Sherman said, kissing the corner of her mouth. "You have enthralled me, Madelaine."

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