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

Chapter 8

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The Baron lifted his hands to show he was helpless against these blatant flirtations. He leaned down and made one last attempt. "My good friend William, I think you are taking advantage of our hostess."

"I would certainly like to," said Sherman incorrigibly. Now that he was feeling markedly better, he was seized with high spirits. "A covert campaign is required."

"God and the archangels!" Baron deStoeckl burst out. "What of your reputation? What of hers?"

Sherman regarded his Mend with a canny look. "What danger are we in? You will not repeat what we say here, will you? I know Madame de Montalia will not, and neither will I, so where is the problem? You will keep our secret." He got up and strode to Madelaine's side, purpose in every line of his body. "Don't preach to me about good sense and prudence. Not now. Not here." With that, he caught her up in his arms and bent to kiss her.

Few things flustered Madelaine; this unexpected demonstration unnerved her thoroughly. She felt her face redden, and when she could speak, she said, "What a burden you are imposing on your friend. Think, Tecumseh." She glanced at the Baron, about to apologize for the impropriety of it all when Sherman took her by the shoulders and nearly shook her.

"Damn it, woman, I want someone to know." Sherman looked down into her eyes, and his sternness vanished. He went on quietly. "I want at least one man I can trust to see what I feel for you, so that I will be able to talk with him about what you mean to me when… this is over."

"When your wife returns," said Madelaine.

"When you leave," said Sherman.

Baron deStoeckl bowed to them. "You may rely on my discretion," he promised them in French.

San Francisco, 21 July

After an absence of sixteen days, Tecumseh has returned to my bed. This time he had no hesitation, no awkward beginnings. His embraces were long and deep and he undertook to follow my lead, to find out how long he could build his passion before spending. He was merry as a boy with a prize, and he romped with me for more than an hour before fatigue finally overcame him. When I woke him an hour before dawn, he was as refreshed as if he had passed a full night in slumber, and was in good spirits when he left. He promised to come again in three nights, and said he would find good reasons for us to be in one another's company without attracting undue attention or gossip, which pleased me very much, for it is enervating to live with such close scrutiny as attends on single women in this city. I pointed out to him that this would require careful planning, to which he replied that he is very good at strategy and swore he would relish the opportunity, thinking it worthy of his talents…

The warmth of the day was quickly fading before the chilling fingers of fog came, caressing the hills from the west. As they turned down the steep hill, the wind nipping at their backs, Sherman signaled Madelaine to swing, her horse off the main road to the wooded copse, indicating through gestures that they could then dismount and put on their coats.

"The Spanish call those two hills the Maiden's Breasts," he said to her as he lifted her out of the sidesaddle under the trees. He indicated the slope they had just descended. "I like yours better." He took the reins from her hand and secured them to one of the low-growing oak branches, next to where his grey was tied.

"Less hectic to ride, I imagine," said Madelaine in spite of herself.

"I wouldn't say that," Sherman whispered as he bent down to wrap her in his arms, his lips seeking hers. He took his time about it, feeling her warm to him; it promised well for the night ahead. When he moved back, he said impishly, "Isn't there any other land you would like to inspect, with the prospect of making an offer to purchase? I would have to escort you to advise you and negotiate for you, wouldn't I? I could not allow you to venture abroad without suitable protection. I would be remiss in my duties if I did—everyone would agree to that." He bent again, and moving the thick knot of hair at the nape of her neck aside, kissed her just under her ear. "Where you kiss me, Madelaine. When you pledge me your bond." His lips were light, almost playful.

It took her a while to gather her thoughts, and when she did, she strtiggled to voice them. "That is a good notion, on its own; never mind the chance for privacy it offers us. If you know of any property I might like, tell me of it, and I will arrange to see it for myself," she said quite seriously. "I am in earnest, Tecumseh. I want to purchase some land here."

"So far speculation has been very profitable, at least in this area." He nodded, doing his best to fall into his role as banker. "All the West is going to be valuable, someday. When Congress finally comes to its senses and builds a railroad Unking the East Coast with the West, then land here will appreciate dramatically, but that will not happen until there is a railroad. Not even a good wagon road would help as the railroad would. But a wagon road would be better than nothing," he said, letting his rancor show. "Politicians! They cannot think beyond the next election. There is no sense in their reluctance to authorize the railroad other than their usual damned lack of foresight. The telegraph link with the Mississippi only be.j,s the question, but it is typical of Congress to settle for half measures when full ones are wanted. As long as they keep California isolated, it will have little to attract investors beyond the gold fields, and that is not investment but exploitation, and it will continue as long as there is no land connection but trails across the continent. Only when goods and people may cross quickly and comfortably will the Pacific come into its own, and assume its place in the scheme of things, bringing the Occident and Orient together as no gang of Chinese laborers and cooks can do now. Until that time, it will be the last point of escape for the dreamers and scoundrels who seek their own private paradise, and attempt to create it for themselves here. It is shortsighted political chicanery to refuse to unite East and

West by rail, I am convinced of it. The trouble is that California is an enigma; not even those who live here understand it." He folded his arms, his shirtsleeves suddenly too little protection for the encroaching fog. "I will get my coat."

"Bring mine, will you?" She strolled deeper into the small grove of trees, listening to the sounds around her, the rustlings and flutters that reminded her that there were other occupants of the copse, many of which began their day when the sun went down—just as she would do if she did not line the soles of her shoes with her native earth. It was cool enough to be unpleasant, and she was relieved when Sherman came and held up her nip-waisted coat for her as she slid her arms into the leg-o'-mutton sleeves. He rested his hands on her shoulders as he stood behind her, then slid them down to cover her breasts.

"How can I give this up?" he murmured, drawing her back against him, holding her tightly as his hands moved down the front of her body; he did this with ease, being more than a head taller then Madelaine. He stopped his rapt exploration abruptly. "I must be mad."

"For planning to give me up or for wanting me in the first place?" She avoided any hint of accusation in her mild rebuke, but she could not shake off the sadness that swept through her at the realization that she would have to leave San Francisco and Sherman before long.

"Both," said Sherman with utmost conviction, turning her to face him, staring down into her violet eyes as if he wanted to meet her in combat. "I am not a man who loves easily, and I am… possessed by you. What is it about you? You are more of a mystery than this place." His countenance was stern, his brows drawn downward. "Had I thought I would be so… so wholly in your thrall, I would never have begun with you."

"Bien perdu, bien connu," said Madelaine, hoping to conceal the sting she felt from his harsh words.

"But you are not well lost; that is the trouble. I do not need to lose you to know you, Madelaine." He surrounded her with his arms, his mouth rough on hers. He strained to press them more tightly together, then broke away from her. "But I will not compromise my marriage."

"So you have said from the first," Madelaine reminded him, as much to assure him that she still understood his requirements of her as to lessen his defensiveness. "And I have never protested your devotion to your family. I will not do so now."

"I meant it. I mean it still." He reached out and took her face in his long-fingered hands. "I treasure you as I have never treasured another woman, and may I be thrice-damned for it."

"Tecumseh," she said gently. "I have no wish to bring you pain."

He released her and moved away, leaves crackling underfoot. His voice was low and his words came quickly. "But you will, and that is the problem. There's nothing that can be done about it now: you are too deeply fixed in my soul for that. Oh, it is no fault of yours; you have been honorable from the first, if that is a word I may use for our adultery. Never have you asked, or hinted, that you want me to leave my wife: it is just as well, no matter what sorcery you work on me. Yet when you go, as go you must, you will leave a wound in me that no enemy could put there. When you are gone…" He stared down at the ground as if to read something there in the dying light. "I have never known anyone who has so completely won me as you have."

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