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Authors: Susan Johnson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: A Touch of Sin
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Hastily dressing once she was packed, she then began her search for funds, hoping to find any money Langelier might have secreted. Although she wasn't unduly optimistic, for Langelier had been losing heavily at cards. Softly swearing under her breath, she rummaged through drawer after drawer, becoming increasingly frantic with her lack of success, desperate for passage money home.

She silently cursed Langelier's treachery and her own naïveté that had allowed him to take advantage of her. Lesson learned, she hotly reflected, moving to another bureau, jerking open another drawer. She'd never be so gullible again. Several minutes later, her face sweat-sheened, her heart pumping as though she'd run ten miles, she'd discovered Langelier's entire cache, hidden beneath his soiled cravats. Five hundred francs. She almost burst into tears. It was nowhere near enough to see her home to England.

Could she ask these strangers for a loan? she briefly wondered, but as quickly decided against exposing her vulnerability. After her experience with Langelier, who had virtually kept her prisoner, she viewed all Parisian males with suspicion. Drawing in a steadying breath, she straightened the folds of her skirt. As if it mattered how one looked when one was alone and destitute, she reflected, smiling faintly at her automatic responses. Although actually, she thought with the same unflinchingly pragmatic resolve that had allowed her to survive Langelier's incarceration, under her current circumstances, perhaps it
matter how she looked.

A quick glance in the mirror assured her she was presentable. She bit her lips to brighten their color, practiced an artful, ingratiating smile, and debated briefly the options available her—the merits of truth or fiction. And then setting her smile in place, she picked up her portmanteau and pushed open the dressing room door. She would do what she had to do to get back home.

"Let me help you with that." Pasha reached for her valise, wondering for a moment if Langelier had taken up with an out-of-work governess. Her gray silk gown was so
démodé no self-respecting courtesan would be seen in it.

"We'll use the back staircase." Duras indicated the direction with a nod of his head. "No need to call attention to ourselves."

"Langelier had any number of enemies," Beatrix offered. "He slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. So the list of suspects will be long." She spoke matter-of-factly, her voice in her ears curiously strange, as though she were observing an actress on a distant stage.

"He owed several people money," Pasha added. "Some of them unsavory."

"The man who killed him tonight had the look of a thug."

"You're fortunate he didn't harm you."

"He was very professional. His orders didn't include a woman, he said after he'd split Langelier's skull with his ax. I was extremely grateful."

And I as well, Pasha selfishly thought.

"I'm surprised Langelier lived as long as he did."

Duras declared, holding the door to the stairway open, his statement plainspoken. After years of fighting France's wars, he was familiar with the sight of death. "Give the lady your hand on these stairs," he said to his son. "I'll see that nothing incriminating was left in the apartment and be right down."

Their carriage was luxurious, Beatrix noted when they reached the curb, the driver immaculate in bottle green livery. They were obviously men of means. Now if she could manage to acquire only a very minute portion of that wealth, she could buy passage to Calais and then home.

After handing her into the carriage, Pasha tossed her valise to the driver and then leaned in through the open door. "I'm sending the carriage around the corner, so it's less conspicuous. Will you be all right alone for a few minutes?"

"Yes, of course," Beatrix replied, her thoughts totally concentrated on escape, her mind already racing before he'd closed the door. Might there be money somewhere in the carriage? Could she be so fortunate after months of misfortune? The moment the carriage began moving, she started searching the interior.

Pasha found her thus when he returned, on her knees, opening one of the compartments under the seat. "Could I help?" he pleasantly inquired, not surprised by the lady's behavior. Any mistress of Langelier would be duplicitous.

"I was looking for a wrap against the evening chill," Beatrix dissembled.

"Allow me." Pasha shrugged out of his coat and handed it to her.

Reseating herself as gracefully as possible under the awkward circumstances, Beatrix settled the silk-lined coat over her shoulders and, a moment later, felt the added warmth of his body as he seated himself beside her. She had no room to move within the narrow confines of the carriage, not with his muscular thigh against hers, his silk-shirted arm pressed into hers, his masculinity overwhelming. He was a very large man. And when his father—the resemblance was clear—took his seat opposite them, the dimensions of the interior seemed to shrink further, the sense of male power intense.

"I hope Dilly isn't too upset." Pasha spoke to his father in a cryptic undertone as the carriage began to move.

"I'll talk to Berri about having some of her work published. A diversion, as it were."

"She likes Berri."

"And he's more suitable than…" Duras's mouth turned down in a transient grimace. "Although that's no longer our concern. Are you going—"

"To my house. Mansel knows."

The driver had already been given orders and as the men spoke to each other in undertones Beatrix surveyed the streets they traversed, careful to take note of her surroundings. If she were successful in securing her passage money she might have to leave precipitously and she needed to know her whereabouts.

After crossing the Seine near Notre-Dame, they traveled west along the left bank for only a short distance before coming to a gated terrace overlooking the river.

Pasha had his hand on the door latch before the carriage had completely come to rest. "You should be safe from inquiries here," he cordially said to Beatrix, opening the door. Jumping down, he turned to offer her his hand and, after a polite au revoir to his father, he helped her descend.

The driver carried Beatrix's valise up the flagstone path to the front entrance and placed it near the door. The scent of lilac perfumed the air as Pasha escorted her through the informal garden fronting the river. How wonderful the lilac smelled, she wanted to say, but more serious matters—like having escaped death at an assassin's hands—distracted her thoughts from such trivial pronouncements. Alert to every possibility in her desperate need for funds, she was waiting to see what opportunities might arise.

Pasha, on the other hand, was considering only what pleasant diversions this lush beauty would offer him tonight. Since she was obviously making her own way in the world, he was more than willing to reward her for entertaining him instead of Langelier for a day or two.

Her reserve intrigued him; she'd barely spoken since they left Langelier's apartment. He was equally intrigued by her modest appearance, her voluptuous form disguised by the plainness of her gown. But he knew what lay hidden beneath the tailored gray silk and he was looking forward to seeing that glorious body again.

As they approached the entrance, a servant opened the door and candlelight spilled out into the spring night.

A gracious host, Pasha turned to her. "Would you like something to eat?"

Yes, ten courses and champagne, Beatrix thought. The derelict state of Langelier's fortune and pantry had offered scant sustenance the month past, but she didn't intend to stay long enough to eat so she said instead, "No, thank you. I recently dined."

"We won't be requiring anything, Hippolyte," Pasha said to the servant. "Take the lady's valise to my apartments."

The servant complied without expression. Apparently this young man had brought women to his home before, Beatrix decided, surveying the splendid entrance hall with the dispassion that seemed to have descended upon her at the murder scene.

"Do you like Richelieu's taste?"

She turned to find Pasha watching her, a half-smile on his lips. "It's very grand."

"It should be. He spent a fortune."

"And with good results. Do I detect Vianne's hand in the stuccoes?" The actress voice echoed in her ears—her new mysterious alter ego. And if she'd not been so distracted by her need to return home with all speed, she might have come undone at the stranger within.

"Very astute." Pasha surveyed her with curiosity. How many courtesans knew of Vianne's work? "Where did Langelier find you?" he mildly asked.

"At a barrister's office."

His brows rose. "Doing what?"

"Conducting business," she said with dramatic simplicity. Molière would have been proud.

His smile appeared. "Ah."

She didn't bother to disabuse him of his interpretation; the less he knew of her the better. More importantly, more pertinently, the dispassionate persona directing her actions considered that anyone living in this magnificent home surely had money lying about. Now to find it—and quickly. "Could I refresh myself somewhere," she politely inquired, "and change into something more comfortable?"

"Certainly, Hippolyte took your valise to my suite. Make yourself at home and I'll see to a bottle or two of champagne."

"How kind of you," she replied as though they were discussing the possibility of meeting for tea.

The conversation turned on details of interest in the interior decor as they ascended a long flight of marble stairs and traversed a lengthy hall carpeted in Aubusson and draped in Gobelin. All the while her mind was involved in a different interior musing: How far was the nearest coaching station? Would they accept an objet d'art in payment for her fare? Would this wealthy young man attempt to stop her from leaving? That was a worrisome thought. At the end of the corridor, she was escorted into a suite of rooms opulent enough for a prince of the blood. "My dressing room is right through that door," Pasha noted, gesturing toward an inlaid door across the huge room. "Take your time."

"Thank you so much…" She hesitated, his name unknown to her.

"Pasha Duras," he offered with a bow.

Even in her short sojourn in Paris, she'd heard the name; Langelier had spoken of him. He was a very wealthy young man from a prominent family. Although these surroundings certainly gave one a clue as well.

"Does Mademoiselle have a name?" he gently prompted.

Her gaze didn't meet his for a moment and then she said, "Simone Croy."

She spoke French with a faint English accent; she was no more Simone Croy than he was king of the gypsies, but he smiled and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you, my dear Simone."

He watched her with a kind of distracted attention as she moved toward his dressing room, his gaze taking in her graceful form, his mind questioning the oddities in her behavior. She had a refined air about her that set her apart from the ladies of the demimonde, although he couldn't quite decide what it was that gave him pause. Her slight accent of course, but it was more than that. Her natural restraint, perhaps—not generally a quality in the ladies of her class. Or maybe it was her brief pause before lying to him about her name. Most courtesans were more sophisticated in the art of deception.

Was she new at her trade?

And genuinely shy?

He asked himself that same question a short time later when she'd not yet emerged from the dressing room. Although he wouldn't have expected shyness in Langelier's mistress. Nor was she shy, he discovered brief moments later when he opened his dressing room door to find the chamber empty. A swift survey of the room revealed the lady's true occupation.

The small money box he kept for petty cash in his bureau was empty on a chair. And the pretty, self-styled Simone had disappeared along with her portmanteau.

She wouldn't know the second-floor corridors as well as he, he calmly thought, striding back through his sitting room, nor would she find the latch on the front gate a simple device to operate. A remnant of Richelieu's penchant for mechanical contrivances, he'd kept it as a conversation piece. The back entrance was relatively inaccessible so he needn't worry about her finding that. But he ran down the corridor, took the stairs in leaping bounds, and exited the house through the library doors, well shielded by shrubbery. His view of the front gate brought a faint smile to his lips.

Moments later, he softly said, "That's a tricky latch."

She twirled around at the sound of his voice and stood rigid against the twined metal, her hands clenched at her sides. "It's not what you think." Her mind had suddenly gone blank, as though too much had occurred in too short a time, as though no further disaster could be assimilated.

"You're a clever little baggage," Pasha drawled. "Did Langelier teach you that ploy?"

"You don't understand. I despised him—everything about him."

Pasha's brows rose slightly. "Now I'm wondering if you killed him… but you were too pristine in all that blood. Perhaps you
him killed."

"I most certainly did not." It was her own voice once again; his accusation was so jarring the actress had fled.

Her vehemence was well done, he thought. She was an accomplished little performer. "And I'm supposed to believe you?" he lazily inquired.

"It's the truth." Each word was clipped; her eyes seemed to blaze in the darkness.

"As is the ten thousand francs you stole from me." His temper showed for a moment as well.

She had the grace—or, more likely, the intelligence—to look remorseful. "I can explain."

"Why don't you explain to me inside," he said, a quiet restraint in his voice.

"No. I can't… I have to go. I can't possibly stay…"

His dark eyes widened briefly. "What makes you think you have a choice?"

"If you try to stop me, I'll scream for help." She wouldn't allow herself to walk blindly into another trap.

"And should someone actually appear in the middle of the night," Pasha softly said, "I'll tell them that you just stole ten thousand francs from me."

"I didn't know I'd taken so much," she quickly retorted, not in atonement but in vindication. "All I need is two thousand. You can have the rest back."

BOOK: A Touch of Sin
9.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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