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The Forbidden Castle by Dinah McLeod – Sample

Chapter OneThe Forbidden Castle by Dinah McLeod

France, 1761

They called her La Rose because her beauty surpassed even that of the delicate, soft-petaled flower. I didn’t know one who could remember her real name and all had long since stopped trying. Even her old, widowed father called her Rose along with the rest of us. I hated her name, along with the rest of her. I had nothing but contempt for her, starting with her idiotically trite nickname and ending with her petite, feminine feet. How could one girl be so blessed that even her feet were lovely? As though she didn’t demand enough attention with her thick mane of long, chestnut hair, her swelling bosom, her perfectly trim figure, and a voice that rivaled birdsong.

My cheeks burned with envy and my mouth drew into a thin line at the mere thought of her. She had everything a woman could want—including the man I’d long since claimed for my own.

“It sounds like you’re jealous,” my older sister, Charline, had observed upon hearing my litany of complaints against the beautiful Rose.

“What do I have to be jealous about?” I’d snapped, my irritability made worse by the smirk curving her lips.

“Hmm, let me think.” She tapped her chin, pretending to be in thought. “Oh, yes, there is her tiny waist—” She cast disapproving eyes on my flaring hips and my ire raised a notch. “Her ladylike comportment, and of course—”

I covered my ears and glowered at her. “Charline, don’t.”

“Geoffrey!”

Despite how tightly my hands were pressed against my ears, I couldn’t drown out the mocking sing-song of her voice. “Stop!”

“What’s this?” My other sister, Charline’s twin, came out of the shanty and leaned against the door to peer at the pair of us.

“Just a little lesson on the facts of life,” she answered, trying to hide her smug smile and failing. She walked past me, stopping only to rumple my hair, knowing it would serve to infuriate me further.

“Are you certain that you are the one to educate her?” Camille retorted, her voice cool as morning dew, her blonde eyebrow arched in a look of challenge that made even Charline flush.

“She’s got to learn not to reach so high. Why—”

“Never you mind.”

We both knew it was a dismissal, and for a moment I thought Charline would insist on a retort, but in the end, she thought better of it and walked past my sister into the shanty. I had a withering glare pasted to her back all the while.

“Come here, Aimée.”

I could see the lecture that was brewing in the form of her pursed lips and sad eyes, and regardless of how well-intentioned, I wanted to run past her and find refuge from the judgment of others. But one look at my sister, who at twenty-eight was already beginning to look tired and worn, and I knew I could refuse her nothing. I took slow, resolute steps toward her and stopped just out of reach.

“Aimée…” She drew my name out into a long, troubled sigh. “Though Charline is wrong, I can’t help but think—”

“He loves me.” I drew myself to my full height, still three inches less than my sister. My voice was full of defiance, but I forced myself to stay, though my feet itched to run from the confrontation.

“Aimée…” This time, on her lips my name was a sound full of regret.

“Please, Camille, don’t try to turn me away from him. I love him and maybe others don’t see… but I don’t doubt he loves me in return.” My voice quavered slightly, belying the confidence I professed.

“Are you… careful?”

There was no need to ask what she meant, for I only had to look into her eyes to know. “Yes, sister-dear, do not trouble yourself on my behalf.”

She gave me a searching look full of pity and I forced myself to bear it. Then she patted my head, much like Charline had, except that her hand was a caress rather than a mockery. For the briefest of moments, I longed to throw myself into her arms, the way I used to when I was a child. But I resisted—I was eighteen now and in no hurry to prove the child she still thought me to be.

The moment Camille swept into the house, I turned my back on the shanty and took deep, gulping lungfuls of air, trying to calm myself. Charline had always been able to get any reaction from me that she pleased. She could provoke a reaction from anyone, but she had an upper-hand where I was concerned. She could wither me with a look, and well she knew it.

My sisters and I were orphans; my mother had died of the pox when I was barely two and my father had disappeared without a word to anyone scarcely a year later. I knew all these things only because Camille told me—I wouldn’t have remembered my father if he’d passed me by on the side of the road. Nor could my imagination conjure up a single image of my mother, though while I was growing up I’d often tried to imagine what she might be like. Now, the only mother I could find when I searched was Camille, and she did her best to emulate the woman I’d never truly known.

Shortly after my father had abandoned us, I’d been sent to an orphanage to live with other dirty, forgotten children. I couldn’t remember much of that, either, though I’d long suspected I’d blocked it out of sheer necessity. The first true memory I have is the day that Camille came to the orphanage. Though I hadn’t known how I could know, when I’d seen her walk in with her head held high and her eyes determined, I was sure she was there for me. The nuns had tried to dissuade her from taking me, saying that I was a manner-less, willful child, but I think they took one look at her and saw her youth and beauty and knew better than she how quickly they would fade once she took me as her charge. She’d stood firm and in the end, they had conceded, sending me home with quick, chaste kisses that I’d never received from even one of them before.

“I’m going to take you home and take care of you,” she’d told me over and over again as we walked the long journey home. She’d held my hand tightly clasped in hers, squeezing for emphasis. “No one will ever take you away again.”

I’d looked up at her with the innocent, blind eyes of a child and seen only my rescuer, my angel. Then and there I vowed to be as little trouble as possible for Camille—though I’d broken that promise before we were even two hours into the journey, begging her to let me rest. Camille had insisted I rest every few hours after that, and I’d done my best to walk on tired, sore feet without complaining. She’d been all of fifteen at the time, suddenly saddled with the responsibility of caring for a child that had just turned five.

Despite her youth, she’d been as good as her word—she took care of all of us. And if she had to use means that others might look down upon in order to do so, well, I loved her just the same. Charline was her twin and so while they were mirror images—they shared the same golden hair, bright and shiny as spun silk and deep, emerald eyes that shone like jewels and curvy, svelte figures that made men’s heads turn when they walked by—they couldn’t have been more different. Camille had tried to be a mother to me—she was unendingly kind and patient no matter the circumstance. She deserved better than an ungrateful, lazy twin and the burden of caring for me. It was not something I ever forgot.

If it had been up to Charline, I would have stayed in the orphanage, being cared for by strangers. Where Camille was thoughtful and sincere, Charline was sarcastic and vengeful. She hated with a strength I’d never seen before—she hated our mother for dying and leaving us. She hated my father for taking his leave without a word and she hated me merely for the crime of existing.

Nonetheless, I’d learned from both of them. I could imitate Charline’s air of indifference, deadening my eyes while staring straight ahead into nothing. I could do it to everyone, on any matter, with the exception of Geoffrey, a fact that my darling sister knew too well. Yet, she delighted in tormenting me about him and would keep doing so no matter how many times Camille ordered her to stop. Why was it so far-fetched to think a man like him could love a girl like me?

Because you’re unlovable. The thought came from out of nowhere, but I felt it to the very depths of my soul.

Don’t think about it, I scolded myself. He loves you, even if he doesn’t know that he does.

For all appearances, he didn’t seem to recognize the depth of his feelings for me, but as Camille liked to say, appearances could be deceiving.

He didn’t bother to knock—not that I would ever bar the door to him—before bursting into the room. I had been enjoying a rare moment all to myself and was so startled by his entrance that I stabbed myself with the needle I’d been holding.

I muttered a small cry of distress, not that Geoffrey seemed to notice. He stormed in, slamming the door behind him with such force that the walls shook. Yet, my heart lightened at the sight of him and I couldn’t deny the joy in my voice as I rose to greet him. “Bonjour, Geoffrey. What—”

“She refused me!” he shouted, angrily kicking over a chair that was in his path.

I furrowed my brow at his apparent rage, taking in his flaring nostrils and the anger glinting in his dark eyes. “Who refused you?”

“Rose!” he roared, as though I was an imbecile for not knowing already. “I told her that I wanted to make her my wife, and when she should be thankful for such an honor, did she show me gratitude? No! Why, she practically slammed the door in my face!”

My heart began to pound hard under my breastbone. A rushing filled my ears until I thought I would faint. Did he say… his wife?

“The news is spreading around town already! Why, I’m surprised you didn’t already hear! I’ve never been so humiliated!” He paced until I worried he might wear a hole in the rug Camille had traded for at market.

Though he was in the room with me, his eyes were staring right through me; I might as well have been invisible. Despite the fact that I feared I might be ill any moment—especially with the thought of him with her—I helped the illusion by staying carefully silent. I’d seen Geoffrey in a rage before, though never quite like this. I swallowed back the tears that threatened my eyes and remained silent, even though my heart felt like it might burst free of the skin and bone that entrapped it.

I just couldn’t understand how he could want to marry her. She was beautiful, yes; she had flowing chestnut hair and deep, chocolate eyes, but everyone could see that she’d never make a proper wife for Geoffrey. With the exception of Geoffrey himself, of course.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be any better, though I’d try. I would clean his kills and mend his socks, keep his house clean and bear him as many children as he could give me. Was he blind to what was right in front of him?

I shook my head to clear the disloyal thought. I truly wasn’t worthy of him if I questioned his judgment. I so longed to be worthy.

“Now that little idiot has gone riding off to God knows where!” He sneered.

“Gone?” I asked, hardly daring to hope that it could be true. With Rose gone, surely his eyes would turn to me…

“Yes.” His voice was hard as flint. “Does she think to escape me?” He threw his arms in the air, waving them angrily as he paced. “Doesn’t she understand that I need her?”

Need me, I begged silently. Need me.

“What I have to do is bring her back here, make her see… but how?” The pacing stopped as he pondered the question.

I watched as he tapped his forefinger on his chin, his face scrunched in concentration. There was a sick churning in my stomach that made me certain that I’d be ill any moment. I fought for control of my composure—I would be horribly embarrassed to lose my breakfast in front of the man I adored—even as wave after wave of crushing despair tried to knock me over.

“Perhaps I could go after her…no, that would never do. If I drag her back, she’ll only run at the first chance. But if I sent someone in my stead… to talk some sense into her…”

When his eyes fell on me, as though he was only just now seeing me for the first time, I felt the bile rise in my throat. No. It was a silent, desperate plea that, if he heard, he didn’t heed. I knew by the stubborn set of his jaw and the determined look in his eyes that his mind was made up.

“Aimée, you will do this for me, oui? You will be my emissary, my eyes.”

I was shaking my head even before he began to stalk toward me in long, powerful strides. He moved with the easy grace of one of the great animals he tracked—as he moved to my side, I couldn’t help but compare him to an angry cat with his dark eyes and muscles that rippled, displaying his strength. “How could you ask this of me?” I implored. Did his heart not wither as though it would stop beating at the thought of being apart from me? It was how mine felt at the prospect.

“I am not asking you,” he corrected, something hard glittering in his eyes.

“Geoff—”

Before I knew what was happening, he had my back pinned to the wall, and his hand clenched around my throat. It didn’t hurt, but it was uncomfortable and I squirmed beneath his stern gaze.

“I am not asking. I am telling you what you will do. You will follow Rose, you will go where she goes and you will report back to me. Oui?”

Oui,” I parroted, good girl that I was. He knew that I’d never give another answer; he knew that he could command my obedience and I would, for all my protests, obey. How could I do otherwise? My heart was his—I’d known it from the very first time he’d looked at me with those eyes of his, dark as night. They perfectly matched the silky black hair that fell to his shoulders. He always kept it tied back, but I often wondered what it would feel like to run my fingers through his thick mane.

Geoffrey was a force to be reckoned with. Every man knew it and steered clear of his wrath so long as he was able; every woman swooned when he drew near. Whatever my sisters had to say on the matter, I thanked the stars every night that I had him for even these brief moments.

He had no trouble keeping me right where he wanted—he was tall, with broad shoulders and muscles accustomed to struggles with much larger creatures than myself. Rose was just a rare breed of prey, an animal that he longed to trap, just to prove that he could. Once he had, she would mean nothing more to him than any of the captured relics decorating his walls. I was sure of it—even if he didn’t realize it just yet. I was determined to help him see the truth—even if that meant riding after a woman I loathed. I would do what I must to capture his heart.

Oui,” I repeated softly, lifting my eyes to his face in invitation. I tried to mimic the sultry tone Charline seemed to be able to call forth at will. For all the good it did me; once he was assured of my intention to obey, he turned away and I was forgotten once more.

He’d stopped his rant, but he resumed his pace with a speed that I found dizzying.

“What’s so special about her?” I mumbled after a few moments of watching him. I thought I’d spoken low enough to escape his notice, but when he spun on me, I saw that I had his full attention at last. It was a realization that was both exhilarating and terrifying all at once. It was how I’d become accustomed to feeling in his presence—awed and frightened, the emotions mingled together until I couldn’t tell one from the other. It was how I imagined love was supposed to feel.

“Surely you’re not jealous, Aimée.”

I nearly fainted on the spot. Hearing him say my name left me weak in the knees and helpless to refuse him anything. “I’m not jealous,” I lied in a near-whisper, hoping that hearing the words spoken aloud would make them true. “Sometimes, I just wish you’d look at me…”

“I am looking at you.” His mouth curved into a devilish smile that made my heart jump and his eyes shone with laughter.

“Like you look at her!” I’d meant to swallow the words but once they came out, my cheeks flamed with embarrassment.

“And how is that, my pet?” The amusement was still evident in his voice, but it was slowly being replaced by something else.

It was my warning to apologize, one that I foolishly ignored. “Like you love her!” I spat out, the admission leaving a bad taste in my mouth. He didn’t love her—he couldn’t. Yet, he thought he did and it was enough to make me seethe with agonizing possessiveness. He had to know that—surely all he had to do was look at me to know.

“You want me to love you?” he asked, his voice deadly soft.

Another warning, yet I could not make myself deny it when it was what I’d longed for over and over again. “Oui, beaucoup.”

“Ah, Aimée.” He said my name like a caress and I felt my legs begin to tremble. He leaned in and brushed his lips ever so softly over mine; so softly that only moments later I wondered if they’d been there at all.

A whimper lodged in my throat, but I forced it back. I didn’t want to give in just yet. Let him fight for me for once, let him work for my love.

“Playing hard to get?” His voice was rich with laughter and I blushed hotter at being caught. “Foolish girl.” He yanked me away from the wall and shoved me toward the bed. “I know how to take what I want.”

He wants me. The thought made me limp with my own undeniable longing. Yet, when he straddled me, I mewled in protest. “Geoffrey… my sisters…”

“You’re alone?”

“Yes, but—”

He pressed his lips so tightly to mine that he stole my words. His tongue parted my lips forcefully before invading my mouth.

I closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the feel of his warmth. His hard, taut form was pressing against me and my pulse was beating rapidly in the hollow of my throat. “Please,” I murmured throatily, glancing once more toward the door.

His dark eyes snapped at me and he growled low in his throat. “Fine,” he said at last. “Have it your way.” He marched toward the door, upended the chair he’d toppled earlier and lodged it under the door handle. “Now they’ll have to knock. Is that what you were worried about?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, not that I was capable of giving one once his mouth was back on mine. He kissed me hungrily, with so much lust and longing that I was giddy with the taste of it. His hands fumbled on the hook of my dress and before I could protest that I would do it, he ripped the cloth away like it was nothing, shoving my skirts down angrily.

“Geoffrey,” I gasped, throwing my head back and savoring the feel of his hands covering my body. His name became a prayer on my lips, a plea for him to always love me as he did in this moment. I wanted him to love me with his strong, capable hands, to devour me with his eyes, to feast upon my skin with his tongue. I wanted every part of me to merge with him until I ceased to remember my own name.

Geoffrey pulled his belt free of his pants and slid it around my throat. I whimpered at the feel of the cool leather against my neck and at the mean glitter in his eyes. He entered me with one hard thrust that made me writhe and moan beneath him. He made short work of it, as he always did; taking his pleasure without bothering to ask for it.

His confidence was one of the many things I admired—and perhaps I envied it, too, because I felt so insecure so often. Becoming his wife would cure me of that, I was certain—all that was left was to convince him.

“Do you love me?” I rasped out. I could hardly believe my boldness—my breath hitched and my pulse picked up speed as I waited for his answer.

“I love what you do to me,” he ground out between clenched teeth, quickening his thrusts.

I wanted to surrender to his power and simply give myself over to the terrifying exhilaration, but I couldn’t. Not until I had my answer. “Do you love me, Geoffrey?”

He scowled at me, his brow furrowed in concentration. I could tell he was annoyed at having his impending release delayed by my silly questions. He proved it by yanking the belt, pulling me up along with it and making it tight against my throat.

I could breathe, but my gasps were short and frantic.

“Who do you belong to?” he growled.

“You,” I gasped.

“Whose are you?”

“Yours.”

The belt went tighter still. “Who do you belong to?”

“You! Geoffrey…please.”

He didn’t relent. He grabbed my chin roughly and forced me to look into his fierce eyes. “Whose are you?”

“Yours,” I choked out.

He stared at me for several seconds, his eyes boring into my own. Only when he was satisfied of my sincerity did he drop the leather, shoving me back. I was so grateful to be able to suck in the cool air that it scarcely mattered that it burned my throat.

“Who do you belong to?” he demanded with several fast, hard thrusts.

“You.” My voice was a reedy whisper as fearful tears prickled my eyes. This was all my fault; I deserved his punishment. I knew better than to push him when he was like this, but I’d played the fool and now I was paying the price.

He pulled out of me suddenly, leaving my cunt aching and empty as he loomed over me, as fearsome and incredible as a god. His hand went to his engorged cock and he worked it furiously between his clasped fingers until he came, spurting hot, white liquid all over my chest. “And don’t you ever forget it.”

As his seed ran down my front, I turned away from him, curling into a ball on my side. I swallowed and my throat ached—I was ashamed of the tears that leapt to my eyes, but I couldn’t stop them. I could hear the sound of him getting back into his clothes, but I couldn’t turn to face him. I felt so cold, all of a sudden. “How could you want her?” I mumbled as the hot, shameful tears ran down my cheeks.

Geoffrey was no longer paying attention to me and did not trouble to answer. Nor did he say goodbye before he took his leave. There was only the sound of the door thudding behind him to announce his departure.

I pulled my knees to my chest, hugging myself as I stared without seeing at the wall. Tears pricked my eyes and before I could blink them back, they were pouring down my cheeks in long, bitter streaks. All I’d ever wanted was to make him happy, all I’d ever dreamed of was becoming his wife. But there were moments, like this one, when I wondered if the reality of it would make me as happy as I’d always dreamed. Surely, if I were his bride, he’d be gentle. Surely, he’d come to love me… the thought of anything else made my tears come faster until I found myself sobbing into my cupped hands. Why was it that I felt so lonely and dejected after he’d just made love to me? I should feel happy, but at that moment I was anything but.

There was no way to know how long I lay there until my sisters came in. They were giggling about something, the sound of their laughter sharp and piercing to my ears. I tried to shut my ears to their excited whispers, but there was no need. The moment I felt their eyes fall on my prone form, the room went silent once more.

After a long moment, someone cleared their throat. “Aimée?”

The concern in Camille’s soft voice was evident, but I couldn’t face the pity I knew I’d find, nor the derision that was sure to be on Charline’s face.

“I see you’ve had a visitor.” Charline’s voice was gleeful and triumphant and I knew she must be staring at the ball Geoffrey has made of my clothing before he’d tossed it aside.

“Hush, Charline.”

“Did your lover come to you, Aimée, or did you have to drag him here?”

“Charline, don’t tease the girl. Can’t you see—”

“How could you think he’d want to be with a girl like you for anything more than taking his pleasure?” she taunted.

It was no more than I’d asked myself, yet I drew my breath in sharply and held it until my sides hurt, wishing she’d go away.

“When you know that our family is the talk of the town—”

“Charline, that’s quite enough.” Camille’s voice was beginning to heat up, but my sister didn’t heed her—Charline never knew when to stop.

“Do you think a man like him would want to be linked to this family? Why, the matriarch of the family is nothing more than a cheap—”

Tais-toi, Charline!” Camille rarely raised her voice, but when she did, we listened. “That is quite enough! Go make yourself useful and cook something for us to eat!”

I heard the sounds of Charline’s feet shuffling toward the kitchen, but she paused in front of my bed and despite having my eyes closed tightly, I imagined I could see the mocking pity on her face.

“Besides which, we all know that he has a thing for brunettes,” she whispered, scurrying away before Camille scolded her further.

The next morning, I awoke to hushed, agitated tones. I stirred, stretching sleepily as my ears strained to hear. I could just make out Camille’s dulcet tones.

“She’s asleep, as I told you. No, I don’t think it’s proper for—”

“Stand aside, Camille.”

My eyes snapped open and I bolted up in bed. I’d know that voice anywhere.

Despite the sweetness in his voice, my sister stood firm—but no one could stand up to Geoffrey. He always got what he wanted; who knew that better than I did?

I turned my head just in time to see him bodily move my sister out of the doorway before he ambled in, as at ease as if he’d been invited.

Bonjour, sweet Aimée.”

Despite my defenses going up at the sight of him, warmth flooded my cheeks at the seductiveness of the endearment. I hadn’t forgotten how he’d left yesterday, making me feel abandoned, and yet my foolish, soft heart yearned to forgive. I met his gaze, but dropped my eyes soon after. I could hardly bear to look at him—did any man have a right to be as handsome as he? It made me ache, just being in the same room with him. He looked especially resplendent today in black pants and a deep blue shirt that made his eyes look more intriguing than ever.

He shocked me speechless by kneeling beside the bed and taking my hand in his.

My breath hitched excitedly, despite seeing that Camille was watching us with wide, wary eyes as she wrung her hands. Was this it? Had the moment I’d been waiting for finally come?

“I’m sorry if I hurt you yesterday, darling.” His voice was a comforting murmur that made me beam at him. Darling!

At the gentle concern in his voice, all my earlier anger vanished. “I’m quite well, merci.”

“It gladdens my heart to hear it. I hope you can understand that sometimes my passions grow too wild.”

I flushed deeper, hoping my sister hadn’t overheard. Though she surely knew we’d been together before, I didn’t relish the thought of her overhearing mention of it.

At that moment, he laid a bundle of wildflowers in my lap. They’d been tied with a bit of red string and I thought they were the most beautiful bouquet I’d ever seen.

I picked it up and inhaled the sweet scent, smiling shyly at him. He did care for me—he did! I knew it!

“I need you, Aimée. The matter we spoke of yesterday… I can trust that to no one but you.”

My glow diminished as Rose entered my mind—but only for a moment. He needed me. He could only trust me. He’d have his fun with the willowy brunette, find her unending dull and be back in my bed before a week had passed. Then the matter would be settled once and for all and I wouldn’t have to worry about her coming between us again. “When does she leave?”

“Today. I have hired out a horse for you.”

I smiled at the thoughtfulness of the gesture, squeezing my fingers around his own. “How do I keep her from seeing me, Geoffrey?”

“You’ll find a way. You’re very clever, Aimée.”

My heart felt full to bursting as I stared into his eyes. I’d nearly forgotten all about Camille standing in the doorway until she cleared her throat.

“Will you be staying for breakfast, monsieur?” Her voice brooked no invitation, yet I clutched his hand eagerly.

With a small shake of his head, he released me and stood. “I’m afraid not. I have important matters to tend to today.”

“I’m certain that you do,” my sister replied with frost in her voice.

Just before Geoffrey turned to leave, he turned to me and mouthed mine.

An excited shiver ran through me; like I could forget!

Camille wasted no time in shutting the door behind him. She faced the door for several long moments while I occupied myself with sniffing my wildflowers and hugging myself in girlish delight.

“Aimée… I think we need to talk about this.”

“About what?” I asked, barely noticing as she sat on the bed at my feet.

“About Geoffrey.”

I looked up, a wide smile on my face. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

“Ah, Aimée… I’m not certain how to tell you this…”

“Tell me what?” Nothing could diminish the joy I felt. Geoffrey needed me! That was better than love.

“There’s been some talk in town… I don’t know that he’s suitable for you, Aimée. It’s certainly not proper for you to have him in our home, not until he’s put a ring on your finger.”

I gaped at her. I’d never questioned Camille or given her any trouble. I appreciated all that she had sacrificed to raise me and I’d never forgotten how indebted I was to her. But for the first time in my life, I felt myself becoming angry with her. How could she talk to me about not having men in the house?

“It’s not that he’s—”

“You don’t think I’m good enough for him?” I demanded, the accusation an indignant squeak.

“Of course not, Aimée! You’re my sister! I love you; I just want what’s best for you.” She reached for my hand, but I snatched it away.

“He is the best. He’s the strongest, most handsome man in town and the best hunter, too. I’d be lucky to have a husband like him. He’d give me strong sons and a home. I know I’d make a good wife to him.”

“You’re so young, Aimée,” she sighed, shaking her head.

“Not too young not to know what I want!”

“There are other young men who I’m sure—”

“Not like him!” I declared hotly. “You know there isn’t. If you wanted me to be happy, you’d stop talking this way!”

She regarded me with sadness in her emerald eyes as she pressed her lips together in a thin line. When she spoke, her voice was softer. “What is it he wants you to do, Aimée?”

Any other time, I would have told her. She was my sister and I loved her dearly. We didn’t keep secrets, but after the conversation we’d just had, I couldn’t bring myself to admit the truth. She’d only try to stop me. I knew it was childish, but I folded my arms across my chest and refused to look at her.

After a few moments, she let out a long, heavy sigh and I felt the bed shift as she stood. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, chere. That wasn’t my intent.”

A part of me weakened at the kindness in her voice, but I steeled myself against it. What did I care about her intent? The only thing that mattered was that, if given the chance, she would separate me from my love. I couldn’t allow that to happen—not when I was so close at last.

I didn’t know what made me do it—perhaps, in my own way I was seeking a reason to stay—but I sought out Charline. I debated on whether to tell her what I was planning. I knew she’d give me that derisive smile and say something hurtful, but I truly needed advice. I was of two minds: part of me wanted nothing more than to please Geoffrey, while the other part fretted about being so far from home. I’d never been outside Province before, had never been away from my sisters since the day Camille brought me home.

“She told me he bought you flowers,” was what Charline said to me, eyeing the bouquet I hadn’t released. “Where do you think he got them? On the roadside, perhaps?”

How was it that she knew each button to push with me, yet I knew none of hers? Charline had always seemed hopelessly aloof to me, until I wondered if she felt anything for anyone at all.

“Surely, even you merit more than that. It’s the sort of a gift a man brings his whore.” Her eyes glinted maliciously as I blanched. “Is that what you are, sister-dear?”

I swallowed hard, noting that my throat was still sore. “I am no man’s whore, Charline, whatever you may think. I love him.”

For once, all the mockery vanished from her face. She stepped toward me with a look as close to concern as she’d ever been able to manage. “I know.” She laid her hand briefly on my arm. “I wish you wouldn’t, Aimée. That man is no good.”

“How can you say that?” I gasped. “Why, just yesterday—”

“Yes, he’s handsome as the devil and I hear that he might bear a stronger resemblance than that.”

“I’m not going to stand here and—”

“Aimée, please believe me, I’m only trying to help you.”

“I don’t believe you!” I snapped. “You’re only trying to hurt me, like you always do.”

“Aimée—”

“No!” I whirled away from her touch, nearly spitting I was so angry. “Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me!” With that, I ran as fast as my feet would carry me. I went to the stable and saw that Geoffrey had indeed left a horse for me. I mounted the dappled gray mare, steeling myself against the tears that threatened to come.

Without a backward glance, I urged the horse on. I’d only gone a little distance when I felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps I should have told Charline where I was headed, after all. But no—neither of them would miss me. Their lives would probably be immensely improved and after I completed this task for Geoffrey, everyone would get what they wanted.

I had to believe that, because otherwise I would turn back and head for home.

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