Authors: Sandrine O'Shea
To Sharon Schulze and Joyce C. Ware, critique partners and friends.
The minute RÃ©gine and Luc were admitted to the late Odile de la Montaigne's crowded, noisy apartment, heads turned and conversation stopped. She ignored the stares and the whispers, focusing her rapt, adoring attention on the man whose armâand limitless bank accountâsupported her.
“Look! It's RÃ©gine Laflamme, the Queen of Fire herself.”
“Mother of God, she's even more beautiful than her photographs.”
“Monsieur Valendry is one lucky bastard.”
Luc leaned forward and looked deeply into her eyes. “A very lucky bastard, indeed.”
Who would be even luckier tonight.
The death of RÃ©gine's friend filled her heart with the bitter, aching sadness of loss. But she had expectations to fulfill, so she put on a lighthearted, insouciant air and smiled provocatively at Luc.
Half of Paris appeared to be here, standing shoulder to shoulder, eagerly waiting for the upcoming auction of the courtesan's worldly possessions. They gawked at the floor-to-ceiling Byzantine opulence and annoyed RÃ©gine with their salacious comments about the notorious grand horizontal
who had died so tragically and unexpectedly, accidentally shot to death last week by her drunken lover, a profligate Russian count named Serge Dragomilov.
“I'm surprised Dragomilov isn't here,” she said. “One would think he'd want a remembrance of his late mistress.”
Luc snorted in disdain. “If I'd killed my mistress, I'd be ashamed to show my face anywhere in Paris.”
“Ah, but you are not a Russian.”
“And for that I'm eternally grateful.”
As they sauntered around the drawing room filled with warm Impressionist light from the tall windows, people shifted aside to let them pass as if they were royalty. Seeing all of her old friend's treasured sentimental knickknacks, art objects
and paintings for the last time weighed heavily on RÃ©gine's heart. By the end of the day, all items that Odile had treasured would be sold to the highest bidder and scattered to the four corners of France. Someone else would rent this apartment and fill it with their own treasures and memories. Odile de la Montaigne would disappear.
Would this be RÃ©gine's fate as well someday? She had long ago resigned herself to the primrose path strewn with sin she had chosen in order to survive, and accepted the fact that she would never find the love of a good, decent man willing to overlook her profligate past.
Luc patted her hand. “You may have whatever consoles you.”
“As always, you are too generous.”
“As are you.”
They came to a long table flanked by two sharp-eyed custodians on the lookout for thieves and pickpockets. RÃ©gine scanned the many items arranged there, from an elaborate silver inkwell to several beautiful GallÃ© vases. The showpiece was Odile's collection of exquisite Venetian blown-glass dildos. The artificial penises ranged in various widths from as narrow as RÃ©gine's little finger to as thick as Luc's cock to fit and pleasure every bodily orifice. One pretty, cheaply dressed, fair-haired young woman lingered at the table, studying the collection with too avid an interest for such a fresh-faced innocent. RÃ©gine studied her thoughtfully. Perhaps the young woman was not such an innocent after all.
“I would like the silver absinthe spoon,” RÃ©gine whispered in Luc's ear. “And the ivory rosary beads.”
His thick gray brows shot up. “I didn't know you were a religious woman, my dear.”
“I'm not, but Odile was, and I'd like to remember that part of her.” She looked up at the wall. “And I'd like her Toulouse-Lautrec portrait, please.” The artist had captured Odile's voluptuous wantonness so perfectly, the courtesan appeared to watch over the avaricious throng with dry, cynical amusement.
At the other end of the table lay Odile's leather riding crop with the thick green malachite handle carved into a twist. RÃ©gine would buy the crop to use on Luc tonight. Its slap and sting against his bare flesh would excite him and bring him such satisfaction he would show his appreciation lavishly.
“Is that all?” he asked.
“Just one other thing.” Ill-advised for her to appear greedy. Even a generous man had his limits, though her string of adoring protectors had thought her worth every gold Louis. “It's in the boudoir.”
The boudoir attracted the most attention. Both men and womenâmany discreetly veiled, and others their faces brazenly bareâwere lined up in the doorway for their turn to see the room where “La Montaigne” had wielded her legendary sexuality over a succession of wealthy, powerful protectors.
Soon, RÃ©gine and Luc were able to edge their way inside behind a fat man smelling of fried fish and garlic. She ignored the frothy, enticing lingerie attracting the most attention and the dressing table strewn with silver-backed brushes and silver-topped jars of expensive beauty creams and lotions the courtesan used to maintain her alluring looks. The bed, not cosmetics, drew her like a sex-starved sailor to a siren.
The bed was an Art Nouveau masterpiece carved in golden walnut wood, with sensuous, undulating whiplash curves that were a physical manifestation of the rise and fall and ultimate rise of sexual arousal and release. But what caught her attention were the brass rings bolted to all four bedposts slightly above the mattress. To the uninitiated, they were simply decorative. To those who sought the ultimate surrender, they restrained a lover for her master'sâor his mistress'sâpleasure.
“I must have Odile's bed,” she said to Luc.
He stared at the rings, comprehension warming his blue eyes. “It's as good as yours.”
She had nothing to fear from the penniless clerks and artists here solely to gawk at fabulous jewels and touch exquisite silk lingerie. The wealthy posed the greatest threat. Many of the fine gentlemen here had once been Odile de la Montaigne's protectors and had showered her with these very jewels and furnished her apartment as payment for the privilege of fucking her. They could easily buy them back.
But Luc was wealthier than most.
She looked across the bed and caught a man staring at her. Her eyes widened, and she felt lightheaded with shock. There stood Penbry Granger, the Marquess of Blackwall himself.
Disgust flashed through her, until the red mist of anger vanished from her eyes and she took a second, harder look. This man was handsomer, younger and taller, with a lean, athletic physique. Those rain-gray eyes weren't as cold as she remembered, the jaw stronger, the sculpted mouth finer, with a fuller lower lip that promised forbidden delights rather than lust and cruelty. Even though his gaze remained locked on hers and never traveled down to her full breasts, narrow waist and gently curved hips in insolent masculine assessment, RÃ©gine's traitorous body responded as if he'd stripped off her dress and caressed her bare skin from head to toe with his eager mouth. The familiar knot of heat bloomed between her legs, and her nipples hardened beneath her chemise. She willed the unwelcome heat away. If he could arouse her with one deep, searing stare, what could he do to her if they were ever alone in her boudoir?
When she took yet an even closer look, she realized with blinding clarity that the man standing across from her was closer to her own age of twenty-five than Pen's late forties.
Who else could he be but Pen's son?
What was Darius, Earl of Clarridge, doing here in Paris, in Odile de la Montaigne's apartment?
Bitterness and resentment settled deep in her chest. Like father, like son. She wished she were Medusa, with a fierce, poisonous glance that could turn him into stone.
He held her gaze boldly, daring her to look away. When she didn't, he slowly inclined his head in mute acknowledgment.
They'd only met twice when he was home from Oxford, and she'd changed so much in the last seven years. But he still recognized her.
She looked away, cutting him with all the regal disdain of the Queen of Fire, and turned her most bewitching smile on Luc.
“Shall we return to the drawing room?” she said. “Nothing else here interests me.”
A custodian announced that the auction was about to begin.
Now she and Luc would go to bid. Clarridge would leave with the other gawkers, and she would never see him again. But as they headed for the salon, Clarridge followed, as persistent as the plague. When she and Luc found their seats, the young earl sat in the row behind them just two chairs from Luc's left.
She debated telling Luc she'd changed her mind and didn't want Odile's things after all. But why should she let yet another Granger vanquish her? This was her world, and she ruled.
The auction began. All conversation ceased. Clarridge's gaze rested on the back of RÃ©gine's neck like a light, possessive caress, and she shivered in unwitting response. She forced herself to focus on the auctioneer.
Luc was the highest bidder for the absinthe spoon and the rosary. He raised one startled brow when RÃ©gine bid on the riding crop.
“For your pleasure.” She gave him a quick kiss on the back of his hand.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Clarridge's patrician features harden in disapproval at the intimate gesture. Indignation welled up within her. How dare he disapprove! Distracted, she lost track of the bidding and almost lost the crop to another woman, but a squeeze of Luc's hand drew her attention back just in time to make the highest winning bid.
She also bought a small brooch for her maid, and Luc was the ultimate victor in a fierce bidding war for the Toulouse-Lautrec portrait.
The young woman who'd been interested in the dildos placed the winning bid, acquiring them for a modest price and causing several well-bred masculine snickers to ripple through the assembly. Her ivory complexion may have turned a deep red, but she held her head high and stared straight ahead, pointedly ignoring those who mocked her. RÃ©gine smiled, admiring the young woman's aplomb.
A half hour passed as bidding continued on items of no interest to RÃ©gine. Though she always stared straight ahead, she remained ever aware of Clarridge, waiting for him to bid on something, curious as to what would catch his fancy.
The next item was Odile's bed.
Luc responded with a curt nod to the auctioneer's opening price. Several more bids. Higher. Luc topped every one. RÃ©gine knotted her fingers together and said a little prayer. As the price climbed, bidders dropped out one by one. Soon, only Luc and one other were vying for Odile's bed.
Someone else wanted it as badly as RÃ©gine.
After Luc matched another bid, RÃ©gine glanced to her left in time to see the earl nod his head to top Luc's last offer. He of all people was their final competitor. She sat there rigidly, seething inside. What could he possibly want with a French courtesan's bed? Had he seen how desperately she coveted it and was bidding just to spite her? He was truly his father's son.
Within seconds, the price had escalated to an outrageous, ludicrous amount. RÃ©gine could see Luc's face crease with concern. The cost was becoming too dear, even for a wealthy banker with deep pockets and a generous nature.
She placed her hand on his arm. “Stop. That's far more than it's worth.”
He looked relieved. “You're sure? Because if you really must have itâ”
“I no longer want it.”
When the auctioneer looked pointedly at Luc for the next bid, he regretfully shook his head.
The crack of the gavel filled the hushed room. “Sold, to the gentleman in the third row.”
Their bidding over, RÃ©gine and Luc rose. Clarridge rose as well, but RÃ©gine ignored him as she and Luc left to claim and pay for their purchases. In the hallway, they passed the blonde who had made the winning bid for the dildos.
RÃ©gine smiled broadly. “Congratulations on your purchase, mademoiselle. Enjoy them.”
The young woman blushed and smiled shyly as she scurried away.
As they got in line to pay for their purchases, several other people slipped in between them and Clarridge. Would he try to speak to her? And how would she respond? Once again, his heavy, heated gaze caressed her shoulders as palpable as a touch. But she refused to let him disconcert her. She forced her thoughts to a convivial late supper at Durand's tonight, followed by champagne and caviar at Maxim's, and later returning to her quiet boudoir to repay Luc for his generosity.
Finally, after they claimed their items, RÃ©gine's apprehension rose. When they left, they would walk past Clarridge. What would she do if he attempted to speak to her? She mentally shook herself. She was acting like a love-struck virgin trembling at the thought of a desirable man's heated glance, when in reality she was a sophisticated woman of the world who no longer trembled at the regard of any man.
RÃ©gine pretended not to see Clarridge watching her with that intense, speculative gaze as they passed. A maddening smile curled his lips, as though he saw through her ruse and was amused. But luckily, he made no attempt to speak to her.