Authors: Delilah Marvelle
Tags: #Romance, #History, #Erotica, #French Revolution, #Historical Romance
Due to all the attention she received from countless men who kept fawning over her to the point of leaving coins and flowers on the windowsill of their cottage, her parents panicked and decided a quick marriage was the only option.
Of course, the moment her availability had been announced during a barn gathering, chaos of the worst sort ensued. Men, both young and old, from in and around Giverny, started competing for her to the point of smothering common sense.
Despite being the daughter of a butcher, she had always been popular due to men thinking she was attractive. And she was. She had dealt with it her whole life.
Ever since she came into her sizable breasts at the age of fourteen, men would stop her on the side of the road and eagerly offer her a cage full of chickens in return for a kiss. As if a chicken were worth that much. Others would insist she help herself to a barrel of oats in return for a peek at her calves and stockings. One bastard became so obsessed, he followed her almost every day to the market, insisting she take his goat well-known for producing the best milk in France. In return for her mouth on his cock. Not the rooster in his coop, but the one in his trousers.
One by one these fools pushed whatever they owned at her in an effort to flip up her skirts. And one by one she denied them. Because she wanted far more than mere chickens and goats.
She wanted a dashing man capable of seducing her soul.
Mind you, it
mildly entertaining getting so much attention from men. After all, with ten siblings, she barely got any at home. But she quickly realized the attention was lusty and self-serving. These men thought she would somehow fulfill their salacious fantasies that would make their cocks and their lives perfect. And whilst, yes, she was prettier than most, she was anything but perfect. She had horrible habits that included using her acting skills to get what she wanted, biting her nails and falling asleep in her corset. Not that they cared. All they wanted was a prized cow with big udders.
Genuinely concerned about the direction of her life, she secretly wrote to her favorite cousin Rémy, who lived in Paris, asking if there was a place for her in the theatre he managed. It was a controversial theatre well-known for comedy and showcasing actresses in knee-high skirts and colorful stockings.
She was desperate.
While she would have preferred a more prestigious theatre to perform in, she knew an aspiring actress could only command so much. Fortunately, Rémy was thrilled and insisted she come to Paris at once, promising her a leading role and a room of her own. He believed in her talent and understood her woes. He himself had escaped the village of Giverny at sixteen, almost fifteen years to the day, refusing to become the blacksmith his father wanted him to be. She was determined to follow in the glory of her cousin’s steps and become famous.
Only…her parents engaged her to the pastor’s eldest son, Didier Dubois. They claimed she needed a respectable man to tame her ungovernable nature and forced her to sit with him during supper. He was thirty years older and treated her as if she was his daughter, constantly commenting that her ankle length skirts were not long enough.
her parents to end the engagement. It resulted in her getting slapped and being told she was ungrateful. Imagine that.
. She, who was practically raising her ten younger brothers for her parents who kept having children because of their unbridled lust for each other. She, who was doing all of the sewing and the cooking and the cleaning and helping in the butcher shop to the point of only sleeping four hours most nights. It made her realize she only had one choice.
She was going to wear knee-high skirts and colorful stockings.
So she kissed the foreheads of her brothers, one by one, and promised to send them all money if they told her parents she was off to the market and would be at a friend’s house for the day. They eagerly pushed her out the door and pinched her arm for luck so she might become rich
Under the fading sunlight that then led to countless stars, she disappeared, determined to be more than a wife or a headstone everyone in the village would come to forget when the letters in the stone faded.
Those stars had turned to a greying sky going on its second day.
Adjusting the basket against her hip, Thérèse marched onward.
The sooner she got to Paris, the sooner life could begin. She didn’t mind showing off her legs to a whistling crowd. It was better than cleaning up after eleven males, breaking up fights, or using a cleaver to chop the heads off innocent chickens who had been merrily clucking a few minutes earlier.
It was all about perspective. And she had plenty of it.
Halfway down the forest path, a pebble wedged itself into the stocking between her toes. Thérèse puffed out an exasperated breath, but kept walking, determined not to stop. Another pebble nudged its way into her
stocking and pinched her heel.
How could something so small be so annoying?
She jerked to a halt, setting the basket down. Removing each stocking with gritted teeth, she shook out the pebbles, flinging them toward the forest around her.
At this pace, she would never get to Paris.
She kept following road signs claiming the city was somewhere ahead only to find it never was. She sensed she was officially lost. Bundling her stockings together, she tucked them into the far corner of her basket and plucked up by the basket by the wicker handle.
Crows cawed from the trees above as the sun briefly disappeared behind a looming dark cloud. Those blue skies weren’t so blue anymore. Lifting her gaze to the swaying high branches of green trees, she hastened her step, avoiding cart grooves.
Thunder sounded in the far distance.
She groaned, knowing she was about to get soaked.
A growing gust of wind whipped at her ballooning skirts and flapped the wide rim of her bonnet. Leaves from the ground rose up in a flurry and scattered. It was as if the weather had decided to throw a tantrum merely because she wanted a new life. How rude.
Determined not to be intimidated by the darkening morning and forest, Thérèse marched onward and occupied herself by singing. When she eventually got bored of that, she started to openly practice the lines her cousin scribed for her to memorize. “
Is it possible for a mere commoner, like myself, to attain a measure of good cheer in a world dominated by—”
The wind picked up in ferocity, fluttering her bonnet upward. She squeaked and grabbed at her bonnet to keep it in place.
The ground beneath her bare feet trembled.
She paused, glancing down. It was as if the devil were approaching.
The rhythmic thudding of horse hooves penetrated the ground.
Thérèse frantically veered to the side of the forest path to ensure she wasn’t trampled by whoever was approaching. Glancing back, she came to an astounded halt.
Heavens. The devil
A broad-shouldered gentleman in a dark green riding coat rode toward her on a black stallion at a furious gallop, kicking up dead leaves and dirt through the forest path. The curved rim of his black felt hat had been pulled forward over a black velvet mask that barely revealed the end of a nose and the lower half of a square jaw that had clearly not been shaven in days.
It was a highwayman.
Not that she was in the least bit concerned. She had a paring knife and nothing of worth for him to take (aside from…her virginity). Annoyingly, she was lost and hadn’t seen a person in two days. Better a highwayman than being stranded out in the country long enough for her parents to find her. Which they would. They had a horse and a cart and she did not.
Thérèse faced him and waved a bare hand in the hopes of slowing his pace. “
!” she yelled. “Is this the right way to Paris? Do you know?”
Upon seeing her, his eyes widened from behind his mask. Gloved hands jerked back the reins hard. Pressing leather boots into the sides of his black stallion, he brought the galloping horse to a skidding trot before coming to a full halt beside her on the narrow path.
It was obvious by the sleek, brushed sides of the horse that its owner had the financial means to coddle it. The masked gentleman on its saddle, however, wore a very frayed, outdated, double-breasted waistcoat with tarnished brass buttons that appeared to have been given far less attention than the horse.
His long black hair was tied back with a blood-red ribbon that glared against the color of his worn velvet coat. The cravat knotted around his throat had a fading sheen that hinted it was made out of linen fabricated twenty years ago. Huh.
She offered him a smile. “’Tis certainly a fine day to be robbing people,
.” She hoped he had a sense of humor. Most highwaymen did. Or at least the ones who had passed through her village. “I regret to announce I have no money, for which I apologize, but feel free to check my basket.”
He rolled his eyes, then untied and removed the mask. “I am no highwayman,
” Adjusting the felt hat back into place on his dark head, he tucked the mask into his pocket with gloved fingers, revealing the face of a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few dashes over twenty.
She gaped. Unfashionable, frayed clothing aside, he was beautiful. Square jaw. Defined cheekbones. Full lips. Even a dent in his chin. He was
well-muscled and very rugged. He was everything a woman could ever want from a man in the hopes of producing the perfect child.
He was indeed no highwayman. He would not have removed his mask if he were.
Unless he planned to kill her.
Noting there were
rosewood pistols, a sizable sheathed dagger and a sword attached to the leather saddle of his horse, she paused. The weapons were too expensive to belong to a mere highwayman with outdated clothing.
This one was cleverly hiding his wealth.
Well, now. Maybe she could get some money out of this divine creature.
Lifting her gaze to his, she counterfeited a quick smile, intent on showcasing that she was fully capable of charming men out of whatever she wanted. Only a real actress could convince a man of anything. “I wish you a very grand morning,
.” She regally curtsied and ensured her voice remained breathy and sultry. “I thank you for stopping and wish to extend my vast appreciation knowing you appear to be a very busy man. I am on my way to Paris and require assistance regarding the direction I should take. Do you know the way?”
His rugged face tightened as he searched her face. Penetrating bright blue eyes met her gaze for a pulsing moment. “Mayhap,” he offered in a deep, ragged tone.
She blinked. Mayhap? “Do you or do you not? Because I need to get to Paris.”
He continued to stare.
She stared back. Apparently the sultry voice was working a bit too well. His brain was not functioning. “Should I be concerned,
? Did you hit your head on a branch whilst coming into the forest? Because you appear quite dazed.”
He set his shoulders, his rapier gaze now passing over her gown. “Not at all. I simply was not expecting to see anyone. Few know of these paths.”
She eyed him. “You know of it.”
His eyes became flat and unreadable. “Might I ask why you are walking alone in this forest?” His French was upper crust, well-educated and immaculate. “The closest village outside of Paris is a few hours away. Either you are stupid or you seem to think I am.”
Her brows went up. She knew these well-to-do
fils de basts
were known for being overly righteous, but she didn’t expect them to live up to their reputation. “Be careful with those insults,
. Back in my village, I can skin a pig in less than thirty minutes. My father is a butcher, and I will warn you, he taught me everything I know. So refrain from annoying me. I have a paring knife.”
A tremor touched his lips as if he were fighting an amusement he didn’t wish to feel. “I have been duly warned.” He skimmed her appearance, including her bare feet and hesitated, lingering on the exposed skin above her breasts her knitted scarf didn’t cover. His jaw tightened. “The tops of your breasts are on full display. Is that intentional?”
Her eyes widened, realizing he had a direct view down her sizable cleavage given he was up on a horse. “Of course not. How dare you look.” She rearranged her fichu over her décolletage and patted it into place, tucking it into her bodice. “It slipped,” she tossed back. “The wind is a bit strong. Or did you not notice given how fast you were going?”
He puffed out a breath. Leaning back in the leather saddle enough to showcase his broad chest, he adjusted the reins in his large gloved hands. “Seeing you have no shoes,
, and that the weather is about to turn dire, I suggest you make haste and go home.”
She snorted. “Home is the last place I wish to be.” Rather pleased with herself for seizing her own independence, she cradled the basket against her corseted waist, knowing a little advertisement was in order. “My cousin is graciously giving me an opportunity to be part of an upcoming performance he thinks will change all of Paris. I am to be his leading actress in a controversial script he wrote called…
The Delights of Life
. I will be performing on stage this Friday at
Spetacle des Variétés Amusantes
. Would you like to hear a few lines and maybe consider coming to a performance? Tickets will be selling for three
a piece. Quite the bargain.”