. . .There are times I have dreamed of it. I am naked in his embrace. His hand moves down my body, warm fingers grazing lightly across my skin. The sensation is so sublime, I cannot contain my sound of bliss. I arch to him, hungry for more.
He alone ignites this fire inside me, one I cannot extinguish any more than I can stop these vivid dreams—so shamelessly unbridled. Nor can I quash the feelings he stirs within my heart.
Oh, how I long for his heart, his smile. His arms around me. I want to know the feel of his skin, the taste of his kiss.
I want to indulge in all the carnal delights he favors.
I want to surrender to his every wicked desire.
Down to my very marrow, I feel there is a connection between us. One destined in the stars. If he would simply notice me, touch me, he would feel it too…
Marc d’Emery, Marquis de Vigneau, slammed the journal shut. “Merde. I can’t read anymore, Luc. I’m at a full cock-stand, and we’re just minutes from my sister’s hôtel.” He tossed the journal across the moving carriage to the empty spot next to Luc de Moutier, Marquis de Fontenay. “I’ll admit it. That’s stirring stuff—and I can understand the appeal of her writing—but the last woman you should be thinking about is a dead one.”
Luc tightened his jaw as he stared out the window. A blur of gray town houses and indistinguishable people threaded past as dusk descended. He agreed. He should have ceased his fascination with the journal and, more importantly, with the author of the evocative writing long ago.
In the three years since Sabine, his brother’s new wife, had given Luc two journals, he’d read them so many times, he had the blasted things memorized. He couldn’t seem to put them away and forget about them. Forget about her.
Sabine’s deceased twin.
He was the subject of Isabelle’s writings. The object of her desire and affection. It completely staggered him that these passionate posts had been written by a female completely untried and unschooled in the carnal arts. And just as astonishing was the affinity she’d harbored for him.
One he’d known absolutely nothing about.
He hadn’t even known Isabelle existed until Sabine entered his brother Jules’s life and Luc learned all about his sister-in-law’s only sibling. The late famous playwright Paul Laurent had been Sabine and Isabelle’s father. Jésus-Christ, Luc had attended Paul Laurent’s theater more times than he could count and wasn’t aware the man had daughters at all—despite having spoken to him countless times.
And not once—not one bloody time—while Isabelle had watched him from the side of the stage with such adoration and tender desire, recording every little tidbit she observed about him, had he noticed her.
Not a single sighting. Not even a glimpse.
All the while, she’d duly noted what he wore. Which of her father’s plays he appeared to like. Which parts made him laugh.
Deriving such astute deductions about his personal tastes.
Deriving such astute deductions about far more—things the rest of the world didn’t see about him. Things he thought he’d hidden from everyone’s eyes.
The more he’d learned about her from her journals, the more he wanted to know her and was amazed how similar her own personal tastes were to his.
On many subjects.
For a woman he’d never met, he knew her better than any female he’d ever had in his life. For a woman who’d never once spoken to him, she knew him better than anyone else ever had.
How absurd is that?
She came to life on the pages of her journals. Lived and breathed so vividly in his mind. And he couldn’t help but wonder, more times than he should have, about the sound of her voice or her laugh. The feel of her skin.
Isabelle Laurent and her enthralling journals, documenting the last years of Isabelle’s life, had him completely beguiled.
And utterly burning.
Just having the thing near him tightened his groin and warmed his blood. He didn't have to look down at the brown leather-bound volume on the seat next to him to know it was there. He was all too aware of it. And her. She was in his thoughts constantly. It was completely illogical, but he actually mourned the loss of her. The loss of ever getting to know her.
Worst of all, his fascination with Isabelle Laurent hadn’t diminished over time. It only strengthened.
It was beyond insanity that he wanted—no, was obsessed with—a dead woman.
And he had no bloody idea how to alter this lamentable state.
How the hell did he get her out of his system?
He had a vague description of her: dark hair and eyes—a sharp contrast to her twin sister’s fair coloring. In his mind’s eye he’d formed a mental image of Isabelle Laurent—and that very same dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty was making appearances in every one of his erotic dreams.
Passages from her journals playing out in the most mind-melting detail.
Each time he’d awaken, his cock stiff as a spike, the pressure in his sac immense. Ravenous for her.
For a woman who’d been dead for eight years and who was haunting him in the most maddening ways.
If only he’d known she’d left home, after her family had lost their theater and wealth, to work at one of his family’s châteaus as a servant—in the hope to be near him. If only she hadn’t perished in the servants’ outbuildings on his lands at the hands of a madman who was now thankfully dead and gone.
Leon de Vittry had left so much devastation in his wake. A sickening number of innocent women he’d murdered had been discovered at the bottom of his privy, the natural smells having masked the stench of death. He might have spared Isabelle that particular indignity when he murdered her, but her fiery death at the hands of that monster had been no less horrific.
It had taken five long years to learn that Vittry had murdered Isabelle. And to prove Vittry had had a hand in the conspiracy against Luc’s family that ultimately led not only to the false treason charges laid against his father, Charles de Moutier, but to his execution as a traitor to the Crown, as well.
How ironic was it that treason was about the only sin his piece of merde father hadn’t committed?
The one accusation he hadn’t deserved.
After stripping him of his title, he’d been hanged—a further humiliation bestowed on him as members of the aristocracy were not executed by public hangings on a gibbet. While Luc was awaiting his own fate in prison, the guards had tried to taunt him with details of how Charles had writhed on the end of a rope. What those guards didn’t know at the time was that they’d given him the single greatest moment of his life. He hadn’t felt grief, as Jules had. Luc hadn’t shed a single tear over Charles’s death.
Instead, he’d been flooded with…relief. Satisfaction.
And a morbid sense of jubilation.
Just knowing that the devil—as he’d often called him in the quiet of his mind since boyhood—had suffered just once quieted some of the rage that had festered inside him for so long. Charles de Moutier had caused more than his fair share of human suffering to many.
He deserved the punishment he got.
There wasn’t a doubt in Luc’s mind that Charles, at this very moment, was standing right next to Vittry—burning in hell.
After all he’d been through with Charles, and his family’s disgrace, his life had finally been set right. He and Jules had regained favor with the King. Reclaimed their family’s vast fortune that had been confiscated. And cleared their sullied name as enemies of the Crown. During their exile from Paris, when polite society had turned its back on them, when he and Jules had been stripped of everything, including their dignity, nobility, and, for a time, their freedom—while under arrest for suspicion of treason—Luc had not only longed to reform the Moutiers’ ruined reputation, but to take it to new heights of power and prestige.
To that end, he needed a wife with exalted bloodlines and vast wealth. A union that would enhance his family’s esteem and already laden coffers.
The problem was, he just couldn’t stop comparing each suitable choice to Isabelle—when it shouldn’t matter that the women didn’t have the same wit, intellect, and natural sensuality as the deceased dark-haired beauty dominating his mind day and night.
“Are you utterly certain you never saw Isabelle at Laurent’s theater?” The question had fallen out of Luc’s mouth uncensored. Damn it. Just let this go. His words sounded pathetic even to his own ears. They were laced with desperation. A desperation to learn more—anything more—about the elusive and far too captivating Isabelle Laurent.
He liked women. The women who’d graced his life had been his greatest source of joy. He loved discovering all the interesting little quirks and habits that made each one unique. And then there were those delicious sweet spots on their bodies, the ones that made them moan and scream for him.
He adored discovering those even more.
He didn’t deceive women. Nor make promises he wouldn’t keep. He always made it clear that his interest was solely in a carnal connection—unbridled mutual pleasure.
Without emotional entanglement.
He’d spent his entire life maintaining a certain level of detachment—from everyone. He was most at ease when he was in complete control of his world. Soft feelings made him turn away. He’d learned a long time ago to keep a tight rein on his emotions at all times.
Yet, the tender feelings Isabelle’s writings had inspired were beyond unsettling. And he was too damned seasoned to be unraveled by the mere words of an ingénue.
Smiling good-naturedly, Marc shook his head, the shade of his dark, curly hair likely to have been very similar to Isabelle’s own locks. “Luc, I’m beginning to worry about you. This obsession you have with this dead woman isn’t at all healthy. Why don’t you focus on, say…a live one? They’re much easier to bed.”
Luc sighed, frustrated. “I know it’s been years since the theater closed and the playwright passed away, but surely someone caught a glimpse of her. A dark-haired young woman who perhaps resembled Laurent a little?” He had no idea if she’d resembled her father at all. Paul Laurent’s prestigious theater had been highly popular among the upper class before the civil unrest, the Fronde, when all of Paris went mad. And Luc’s world collapsed around him.
Marc shrugged. “And what if they did? What difference does it make?”
He wished he knew the answer to that. He had no idea why learning more about this deceased young woman should matter at all.
Marc leaned in and rested his elbows on his thighs, his smile returning. “You know what you need?
To stop thinking about Isabelle Laurent… “What?”
“To commence negotiations with the Duc d’Allain for a marriage contract between you and his daughter Sophie—”
Luc groaned. “Good Lord. No, not her. Unless she has changed since my exile, the woman speaks incessantly. There’s only so much inane conversation about her shoes a man can tolerate.”
Marc chuckled. “Aside from her somewhat wanting conversational skills, she is a beauty. Claiming your conjugal rights won’t be much of a hardship.” He grinned.
“Unless she’s still talking about her footwear while I’m fucking her.”
That garnered a bark of laughter from his friend. “All right. Forget the Duc d’Allain’s daughter,” Marc said, still softly chuckling. “What you need, my friend, is to enjoy yourself tonight. This masque is a perfect place for you to reenter society. You can mingle about with anonymity, reacquaint yourself with old friends, and perhaps make some new ones.”
He didn’t have any old friends.
The few Luc had once trusted had turned their backs, distancing themselves from him as soon as Charles had been arrested for treason. Though the King’s pardon had come three years ago, Luc had stayed away from Paris, spending every moment seeing to the extensive restorations his properties desperately needed after years of abandonment and neglect while in the Crown’s possession.
He’d refused to reenter society until everything was perfect.
He had to prove to himself that despite his banishment from Paris and his imprisonment before that, he had not broken. He’d not only restored his châteaus, he’d brought them beyond their former glory.
Better still, he’d destroyed and removed anything that reminded him of Charles de Moutier from his childhood homes.
“What new friends are there to make?” he asked. No doubt there would be some who’d still be leery of socializing with a man whose family had been labeled traitors to King and country.
His former short temper with the male aristocracy, and quick-to-duel tendencies, had never made him popular among the men in his class.
His popularity had come from the finer sex, with whom he’d always felt the most at ease.
“Well, Juliette Carre comes to mind. She is one woman you need to meet.”
Luc crossed his arms casually. “Oh? Why do I need to meet Juliette Carre?”
“Because she doesn’t talk incessantly about footwear. In fact, she has everyone in Paris completely charmed. And she’s a courtesan,” Marc added.
Luc lifted a brow. Marc was well aware he’d sworn off his old ways. His days as an unrepentant libertine, bedding beauties around the realm, were over. He wanted nothing to distract him from his plans. Or the new image he wanted to forge.
Merde. He was already distracted enough by Isabelle Laurent and her bewitching journals.
“Now wait.” Marc held up his hand. “I know your ‘plan’ and what you’re thinking. Allow me to explain the benefit here. Though there are plenty of courtesans around, this one is different. In truth, rather exceptional—a vision, with a polished wit to match. Luc, you’ve got to see her. When she enters the room, she is utterly enthralling. Every man of consequence is vying for her. And she is very selective. Any man who beds her has the immediate respect and regard of every male in the realm. A definite boon for you should she favor you. I heard that the Duc de Savard gave her a significant sum—without ever bedding her—just to be considered as her next choice. And two weeks ago, the Marquis de Renier and the Comte de Northy practically came to a duel over the comte’s refusal to relinquish his seat beside her to the marquis, despite being outranked socially. After everything that’s happened, if you really want to make a grand impression, bed Juliette Carre.” Marc’s usual smile returned. “She’s one woman who won’t bore you. She’ll be here tonight. If there’s anyone who can make you forget all about Isabelle Laurent, the beautiful and captivating Juliette most certainly can.”
Dieu. He’d be willing to pay a king’s ransom to snap the spell Isabelle’s journals had cast on him. How he wished simply bedding a courtesan would do that. Luc glanced down at the brown leather-bound volume resting beside him on the velvet seat. Looking so deceptively innocuous.
It had the most powerful pull on him.
It was so potent, no one, not even the newest, most coveted courtesan in Paris, no matter how charming or beautiful, would be able to obliterate it.
Isabelle crossed the grand entrance of the Comtesse de Grandville’s hôtel with the elegant, unhurried strides she’d perfected. Her dear friend Nicole was by her side as the stout majordomo led the way.
Anyone observing Isabelle—or rather Juliette Carre—would never know that the confident smile she wore belied the disquiet churning in her belly. The din from the masque—its chatter and music—emanated from behind the tall white-and-gold double doors at the far end of the vast vestibule.
Resonating around her.
Growing louder and louder the closer they got to the comtesse’s grand salon.
Isabelle was grateful to have Nicole with her. Her mere presence gave her the boost of confidence she needed to get through yet another event as Juliette. This persona she’d adopted was still so new to her. Only a few months old.
And there was no room for error.
This was her only means to survive. And after all she’d been through, she was most assuredly a survivor.
Discreetly, Isabelle smoothed the skirts of her costly gown, then checked her dark blue demi-mask with white plumes, making certain it was securely in place. Your appearance is fine. She stilled her fidgety fingers immediately.
She’d had the same knots in her stomach the last time she’d selected a new lover.
Thanks to Nicole’s tutelage, there were several prospects to choose from. Isabelle had been lavished with expensive gifts and extravagant sums from a number of powerful men. After much thought and discussion with Nicole, Isabelle had made her choice—the Duc de Vannod. He’d petitioned her with a generous sum of money and a magnificent silver-and-diamond pin. He was attractive. Widowed.
And tonight, she was going to inform him that he was the one she’d selected.
She took in a quiet breath and firmly tamped down her nervousness.
Pleasing Vannod both in and out of the boudoir—and ultimately leaving him wanting more, weeks from now when she’d end the affair—was imperative if male interest in her was to continue to grow. And grow it must. Though, there was just one problem.
She was a complete fraud.
Behind the façade of Juliette Carre was merely a woman who’d been raised around her father’s acting troupe and knew how to put on a convincing performance. A woman who’d utilized the education her father had provided his daughters—an education far superior to what most highborn women received. At each salon Juliette Carre attended, she’d charmed and heightened her appeal, as she was able to discuss novels and the arts and debate topics of interest with deftness. Able to read, write, and speak Italian, thanks to the Italian actors she’d been raised around. Juliette Carre was always poised, witty, graceful—attributes men with prominence found attractive.
It didn’t hurt that Juliette Carre was from a long line of courtesans, her mother having once been a popular Venetian courtesan. That was the story she weaved, the tall tale she’d told everyone who asked about Juliette’s past.
As to Juliette’s sexual experience, it wasn’t nearly as vast as everyone thought.
Not even close.
The number of men she’d ever had sexually was the grand sum of…two.
One was the sweet and gentle Marquis de Cambry, whom she’d selected—thanks to Nicole’s help once again—upon Juliette’s debut in Paris. And the other wasn’t much of a man at all. Roch had been nothing but a scoundrel of the highest order, preying on her vulnerability, taking full advantage of her dire circumstances and her naïveté.
But she was no longer naïve.
She was practical, realistic. And determined.
“Everything is going to be perfect tonight, my darling. You’ll see,” Nicole reassured, affectionately looping her arm with hers.
Clearly, her dear friend sensed her agitation.
As she glanced at the beautiful fifty-six-year-old woman beside her, Isabelle’s smile turned genuine and warm. Full of affection. Years ago, when her father’s theater had been the center of society, she’d been completely awestruck each time the stunning woman with the sumptuous gowns, lush blonde curls, and glittery jewelry attended her father’s comedies. Nicole captivated everyone, both men and women, then and now. Though her hair color had changed slightly, Nicole was just as striking, fascinating, and engaging as ever. And just as sought after by men, who still vied for her attention and craved the company of the renowned former courtesan and respected writer. Nicole’s intellect and extraordinary talent for penning poetry had garnered the admiration of the intellectual and social elite. As such, she was invited to all the finest salons in Paris, where lords and ladies, and the literati came together, regardless of social rank, to discuss and debate literature and language, art, politics, and philosophy.
Nicole was an inspiration to her.
In fact, to all woman with few choices.
Thirty-seven years ago, Nicole de Grammont had arrived in Paris with little money, her parents, low-ranking nobles, recently deceased. Yet, despite her diminished circumstances and the limited future she faced, Nicole quickly rose in popularity, gained the acceptance of the aristocracy, becoming the most adored courtesan the city had ever seen. She was so revered that a number of men came forward following the birth of each of her two children to claim the babes as theirs and amply providing for them. Genuinely kind and savvy, Nicole had amassed a fortune over time. And with the aid of her besotted benefactors, she even managed to secure respectable marriages for both her son and daughter.
If Nicole could elevate her children in society and give them a life free from poverty, Isabelle could do the same for her son Gabriel.
And she would.
Nothing would stop her.
“I know it will. Thanks to you.” How could she ever repay Nicole’s generosity and kindness? How could she ever thank her enough for all she’d done, beginning the night Isabelle had arrived on her doorstep, not knowing where else to turn, with no funds. And a hungry young child. It was Nicole who’d placed a roof over Isabelle’s head and that of her eight-year-old little boy. It was Nicole who’d, albeit reluctantly, schooled Isabelle in her role as a courtesan and gained her admittance to the most prestigious salons in the city. It was Nicole who’d sponsored her writing, allowing Isabelle the creative outlet—a place to escape into the novels she wrote and published anonymously—a series that had become astoundingly popular about the lives and loves of two princess sisters who met and eventually married two princes.
Only in her books and with her son did she let down her guard.
Only in the pages of her novels did she experience the love she’d once dreamed about with the only man she’d ever dreamed of.
The most beautiful man she’d ever beheld. Then and since.
Only on the pages of her novels was she reunited with her beloved Sabine.
The stunning news she’d learned months ago from Nicole still had her reeling. How incredible was it that her beautiful twin sister had actually married the man she’d always dreamed of? Jules de Moutier. God, how she missed her every single day. The news of Sabine’s marriage to Jules had elated her. And left her with a sense of longing, on so many levels. She and Sabine had been inseparable. They’d shared secrets. And dreams. Despite their differences in personality, no two sisters had ever been closer. Isabelle had been far more impetuous and adventurous than her levelheaded twin, coaxing her twin into mischief multiple times, sneaking about their father’s theater without his knowledge, spying on the patrons.
Spying on the gorgeous Moutier brothers.
Yet Sabine would hardly recognize her now.
There was very little left of the Isabelle her sister once knew.
And she had no one to blame but herself.
Isabelle swallowed hard against the knot that had formed in her throat. This was no time to allow emotions to overtake her. She’d made it her practice to limit her thoughts of her sister. It was far too heart wrenching to think of her. For nine pain-soaked years, she’d been without her other half. Hadn’t hugged her. Laughed with her. Isabelle hadn’t even been there to see her wed. To see her joy. Did Sabine have a child of her own now? For years, Isabelle had been isolated, unable to let anyone know she was still alive. Not after Leon de Vittry had attempted to kill her. He was mad and vicious. He would have surely finished what he’d started, not to mention murder everyone she loved, if he’d learned she’d survived the fire.
But Vittry was dead now. So was Roch. And Sabine was impossible to reach while she lived on an unknown island in the West Indies with her husband.
Nicole affectionately squeezed her arm. “Vannod is an excellent choice. You’ve done so well since you’ve arrived in Paris.” Her smile was always infectious.
“Thank you, Nicole. I’m so very pleased you think so.”
Isabelle might have done everything wrong.
But Juliette was doing everything right.
The sheer number of men she had vying for her was the indisputable proof. So was the small wealth she’d already accumulated. From now on, she, and she alone, would manage her finances, have dominion over her funds and control of her future. She was well on her way to rebuilding some semblance of a life for her and her son. She’d managed to keep everyone safe. Her family. Her child. Herself. Even when mere months ago, she and Gabriel had been suddenly tossed out onto the streets from their home—Roch’s home. Her options were bleak and narrow. Suitable employment at a château was scarce, and even more so with a child in tow. Lord knows she’d tried. No one had wanted her.
They’d all turned her away.
Moreover, the pittance they would pay would never safeguard Gabriel from the poverty she’d known after her family had lost everything during the Fronde. It was her life’s mission for her son to be spared what she’d been through.
Nicole dipped her head and said in her ear, “I think you’ll find your arrangement with Vannod to be mutually pleasing.” Another touching attempt to ease her nerves.
Though she doubted her words, nonetheless, she responded politely. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Nicole made it no secret that she enjoyed sex and believed every woman should. Isabelle didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm for it. The virginal curiosity she’d once had about the intimate act between men and women was long gone. Her sexual experiences in no way resembled the passionate encounters she’d witnessed between couples in the dark corners of her father’s theater and the alley outside. Yet, she’d learned how to put on a passionate performance nonetheless when needed.
And she did it by closing her eyes and conjuring up thoughts of the most beautiful man she’d ever seen—Luc de Moutier.
Though her romantic girlhood notions of him were dead, Luc still served a purpose in her life. Each time she surrendered to an encounter, she imagined that it was Luc’s hands and mouth on her body.
It made it easier.
And she would allow Luc into every intimate act she’d have with Vannod as well. Whatever it took, however long it took to give Gabriel the life he deserved.
They reached the doors to the grand salon.
Isabelle squared her shoulders and brightened her smile. She was ready.
“Now remember, my darling, do not announce your choice until the end of the masque,” Nicole said. “Let them continue to dance and prance about you until the end of the evening. The harder they have to work, the more they will want you.”
The doors swung open. A crush of people was suddenly before her. The salon was full to capacity, the men and women in the center dancing the final steps to the menuet.
A fresh wave of nervousness crested over her. Those nine words that would sometimes assail her rose up in her chest, straight from the heart. “This wasn’t what my life was supposed to be…” She swallowed them down before they could escape her lips and quashed the urge to flee back home.
Enough. You can do this. You shall do this, she assured herself. The duc will be well pleased and brag to all his friends. She’d be fine. Gabriel would be fine.
And tonight, everything was going to go as planned.