I wish you would go back to your plantation," Marguerite snapped at him.
Trenier regarded her admirable naked form where it was reclining on the bed in front of him and wished that it triggered even the slightest bit of interest in him. But the truth was he had lost all interest in Marguerite. Marguerite had seen it happening. Marguerite had tried her best to stem it. But Marguerite had ultimately lost this battle.
"Then I wouldn't have to see you again," she continued, fuming.
Trenier said nothing for a moment. "I will, of course, continue to pay you handsomely."
"Pay me handsomely not to be at your service?" demanded Marguerite, scathingly. "Pay me handsomely to no longer bother you?"
Trenier paused again. "Would you rather I not continue to pay you?"
This gave Marguerite pause. "I didn't say that."
Trenier had to laugh. "Oh, Marguerite. I must say that I do enjoy your entrepreneurial spirit, if nothing else."
"I think continuing to pay me is the least you can do," Marguerite sulked.
Trenier sobered immediately. "Don't act wounded. You've nothing to complain about. We've had a pleasant arrangement, there's no reason we cannot part as friends."
"Who is she?" Marguerite demanded. "My replacement. A man of your...appetites must have a replacement ready."
Trenier frowned. And at that moment, Leonie, one of Marguerite's youngest recruits, came bursting into the room.
"How dare you just enter without knocking?" Marguerite demanded. "How did you know we weren't busy?"
"I heard you arguing," Leonie answered, simply, then looked at Trenier. "There's a woman here to see you."
"A woman?" Trenier repeated, quizzically.
"I knew it," proclaimed Marguerite, triumphantly, scrambling into a dressing gown.
"Who?" said Trenier.
"I've never seen her before." Leonie looked vastly proud of this news. "She looks like a lady." She said it in a shocked, scandalized tone.
"A lady?" Trenier repeated, and a sudden thought materialized in the back of his mind. But no...It couldn't possibly be...
Marguerite swept past him, and Trenier regained movement and pushed past her, flying down the stairs. Marguerite actually stopped for a second to stare at him before chasing after him.
Trenier tore down the staircase, into the front drawing room, breathless with a heady anticipation, and he was not the slightest bit surprised when Clara Tucker was standing there, looking perfect in a dusty white dress with a pattern of large blue flowers, and a prettily trimmed white bonnet. It was the first time he had gotten a good look at her, and her beauty stunned him. She had dark blonde hair that was curling untidily all around her face. A lovely face. Wide, purely blue eyes. And her mouth curved into a smile of delight at the sight of him. And, feeling delighted that his presence had delighted her, Trenier smiled back at her.
Clara knew in an instant that Jean-Marc Trenier was the man who had gazed at her at Eleanor's garden party. As soon as he entered the room, she felt the same pleasant, amazing sensations, a buzzing of bumblebees all through her body, a comfortable warmth that spread throughout her and made her feel both relaxed and restless. He was almost unbearably handsome. His hair was dark and glossy, pure black and thick and a little unkempt. He was tall and broad-shouldered, well-dressed but barely so, lacking a jacket, in a touch that would have made her blush if she hadn't felt that she had known him her entire life and that it would have been not the least bit shocking-nay, appropriate-for them to encounter each other with even less clothing. And that thought was astonishing to her. But all she could think to do was take a few steps closer to him, to be nearer to him. His eyes were dark, she realized. And lit from within. And he smiled at her, a radiant smile that made her very nearly throw herself upon his chest with the feeling that she had at last come home. His lips, she saw, were not red and lush like Mr. Perkins's, but firm and determined. She was a seized with a sudden, nearly uncontrollable desire to brush her lips over his, to see what they felt and tasted like. She had never felt anything like this ever before in her life.
"Miss Tucker," he said. He had a rich, slow voice, tinged with a hint of French, and there was no mistaking the warm pleasure in it as he said her name. He knew who she was. That did not surprise her. Indeed, it was yet another thing that seemed obvious to her.
He did not reach for her hand, and that, too, seemed to be from a tacit agreement between them. To greet each other with something so innocuous, so commonplace, seemed completely inappropriate.
"Mr. Trenier," she replied, a little breathlessly, and then, remembering she was mad at him for forcing her to traipse to Storyville, "You did not come to call on me."
"Call on you?" he echoed.
"Yes. I asked Mr. Robichaux-"
"He told me that you had met me at the party. You had not met me at the party. I thought you must be mistaken. I thought you must be-" Trenier paused to take a breath. He was not acting at all like himself, and he was aware suddenly of the audience. Young Hector de Ville, and Leonie, and Marguerite, who was silent at his side, staring at Clara Tucker in something like disbelief. Trenier bowed suddenly. "I do apologize, Miss Tucker." He offered her his arm, and she took it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And then he led her out of the room and out of the house. No one said a word to him, which proved to him that he had stunned everybody with his behavior.
Miss Tucker was very silent next to him. She was radiating a contagious contentment, and Trenier wondered what in the world was happening to him. Her hand nestled in the crook of his arm, and she walked beside him, apparently satisfied that they needed to exchange no further words.
Trenier stole a glance at her. "How did you get here?"
"You walked?" he echoed.
"Yes. Jean-Marc, I have very important business to discuss with you. May I call you Jean-Marc?" She looked up at him beseechingly.
The sound of his name in her voice had startled him. He blinked down at her, thinking that the girl was astonishing. He felt some excuse for his behavior was called for. He felt he had wronged her in some inexplicable way. "I am sorry I did not call on you, Miss Tucker. I misunderstood...You see, we thought, when you said you had met me at the party, that you were mistaken as to my identity and not-"
"I lied about that, because I thought I would be more likely to see you. I am sorry that I caused you confusion, Jean-Marc."
It was curious to him that she was calling him Jean-Marc, and yet not at all curious at the same time. He led her toward the stables where he had left his horse, listening to her.
"But, you see, it is vitally important that I speak to you."
"About what?" he asked, intrigued against his will.
"I need for you to compromise me."
Trenier stopped walking abruptly, turned to look down at her. "What did you just say?"
"I'm sorry." She smiled up at him winningly. "I know it's quite shocking. But I need for you to compromise me."
It struck him then that she was really quite unbearably young. And someone had told her of his reputation. And she needed a man to compromise her. And she had chosen him. And he was a bit disappointed. He had wanted her to want him for the same unexplainable reason that he wanted her. "Come," he said, and walked into the stable with her.
Clara experienced a thrill of expectation. They were here, together, in the darkened stable, and he was going to compromise her. She tipped her head and closed her eyes, prepared for him to ravish her.
"Wait here," he said.
She smiled, keeping her eyes closed in breathless anticipation. What would it be like when Jean-Marc kissed her? Would he also put his hands on her breasts as Mr. Perkins had done? And would it be lovely?
His hands settled warmly around her waist. Her smiled widened even more.
Trenier regarded her for a moment, clearly waiting to be kissed. Then he sighed and swung her onto his horse.
Clara opened her eyes as she abruptly came in contact with the saddle. "What are you doing?"
"Taking you home," he answered, swinging onto the saddle behind her.
"Taking me home?" She twisted onto the saddle to face him. "But-"
"Silly girl. I am not going to compromise you. Please sit straight on the saddle, or you'll tumble off." Trenier placed a hand on her waist, resisted the urge to stroke at her, and pushed her properly into position in front of him on the saddle, at the same moment that he kicked his heels at his horse, who started at a brisk trot, jostling Clara abruptly against him.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and Trenier pulled back a bit on his energetic stallion, forcing him to a walk. The horse snorted with displeasure.
"Sorry," Trenier apologized.
Clara, feeling not at all confident that she wasn't going to fall off the horse, said, "Would you be terribly scandalized if-"
"What more do you think you could possibly do tonight to scandalize me?" Trenier drawled, and then hoped fervently that she had no plan to turn around and kiss him. That would not be a good thing.
But instead, she scrambled and squirmed until she was sitting astride the horse in front of him.
Trenier was momentarily speechless.
"There," she said, gaily. "Much better." She leaned comfortably against him, as if they traveled like this all the time.
Trenier held his breath. He had been, he thought, incredibly stupid to do this. He was going to be in a supremely unrespectable state in a very short period of time, and she would surely notice.
"Why won't you compromise me?" she asked, conversationally.
"I don't compromise young ladies," he answered, wishing he felt as if this were true, because at the moment he was particularly longing to compromise this young lady.
"But I'm not just any young lady," she reminded him, frankly. "I'm me."
She behaved as if that ought to mean something to him. And, amazingly, he thought it possibly did. "Why do you want to be compromised?" he asked.
She was silent for a second. "I am betrothed," she said.
"I am aware."
"Oh? Do you know him?"
Trenier couldn't decide what to say to that. "Yes," he answered, finally.
"Then you know why I need to be compromised," said Clara.
Trenier laughed before he could stop himself.
"It isn't funny," she said, severely.
"No," he agreed. "I suppose from your position it isn't funny."
Clara was silent for a while. Trenier was surprisingly relaxed. She felt lovely nestled in his arms. He leaned his head down a bit to inhale the scent of her. When they got to St. Charles, he would drop her at her house, and she would come back to her senses. But for now, she was completely his.
"You don't understand," said Clara, at length.
"I cannot marry him, Jean-Marc. I cannot do it."
She sounded on the verge of tears, and this alarmed Trenier. "Clara, I'm sure you-" He heard himself say her name, and stopped talking abruptly.
He felt her shudder in his arms, and he realized that she was barely holding herself together. He pulled his horse up, even though he wasn't completely certain he should be doing it. Before he could think twice about it, though, he was swinging out of the saddle, pulling her off the horse and onto solid ground in front of him.
She was weeping, silently, the tears coursing down her cheeks. And the sight was more than he could stand. He gathered her up in his arms and pulled her against him, a lovely perfect bundle that curled into him and clung to him and fit him so closely that he ached with a practically physical pain. Wanting to get closer to her, he pulled off her bonnet and dropped it on the ground beside them. "Shh," he breathed over her hair, burying his face in it.
Clara, her hands bunched into his shirt, cuddled into him. She had never been held like this, pressed against another person, completely surrounded by that person. There was nothing proper about it, and yet she had never felt anything so right. She was a bit ashamed that she had been unable to keep the tears inside her, but if it had inspired him to comfort her in this delightful way, then it was all worth it. She caught her breath and relaxed against him. "I can't marry him, Jean-Marc," she mumbled.
"Don't cry, cherie," he murmured, brushing his lips over her hair. "This will all be alright, I promise." What had possessed him to make such a promise? It was ridiculous. Except that he would have promised to bring her the moon in a sack if she'd wished it.
Clara tried to sniffle as delicately as possible, lifted her head from his chest and wiped hastily at the remains of her tears, hoping she didn't look too disastrous from the crying. "You'll compromise me, then?"
Trenier looked down at her. She looked too beautiful for words. And he could not compromise her. He was going to have to offer for her, he realized, ruefully. And if he was going to offer for her, if he was going to stand even the slightest chance of convincing her parents, he was going to have to pull off the coup of his life.
And he was not compromising his little, adorable fiancee in moonlight on a hot New Orleans night.
Much as he wanted to.
He ran his thumb over her lower lip. Her breath caught in reaction. "Consider yourself compromised," he said.
"Come, cherie." He stepped away from her with an effort. "I will take you home."
She resisted, hanging back. "But you need to compromise me now."
"You are quite well and truly compromised, Clara, believe me," he said, a bit impatiently, tugging her relentlessly forward. "You have traipsed through Storyville, you've been in a brothel, you went off into the dark with a wicked man who is not your husband and who is not fully dressed. So, you see-"
"That is not enough." Clara shook her head, digging her heels in. "Jean-Marc, you must make it so I will never be anyone but yours."
It was Trenier's turn to shake his head. "You are mad to suggest it. You're only a girl. You haven't any idea what you're asking for. And I would never so dishonor you-"
"But I need you to!" she cried. "You don't understand. We must deter him. Now. Once and for all. And the only thing that will stop him, that will humiliate him enough-Don't!" she exclaimed, as Trenier placed his hands on her waist, prepared to lift her onto the saddle. She put her hands over his.
Trenier stopped where he was, looked at her small, pale hands over his large, darker ones. Her hands were cool and soft. Everything about her was cool, despite the heat of the night. He wanted to lap her up. And everything about her was soft, despite the fact that she had been fighting him the entire night. He had never met a woman who made him feel so incapable of deciding whether to throttle her for her stubbornness or kiss her for her loveliness.
"Jean-Marc?" she whispered.
"What?" he whispered back.
"Would you kiss me?"
Gladly. Trenier shook himself out of it. "What did you say about humiliating Perkins? We are to make this public, then? Flaunt it in his face? The man will call me out."
"Surely not. It is 1872."
"It is New Orleans. Is that why you sought me out? Because I am the best shot in the parish?"
"Of course not. There will not be any dueling."
"Then why me?"
"Why you?" she echoed, blankly.
It was vitally important for him to know that she had not seized upon him because of his reputation. It was vitally important for him to feel, strange as it might be, that she had seized upon him precisely because he was him. "Why me? You have been alone with Robichaux and du Reine. Robichaux and du Reine are really quite famous lovers. They would have compromised you quite effectively. It is not my reputation, innocent girls-"
"Oh, don't be silly," she said, in exasperation. "You know very well it had to be you."
"I know very well?"
"Of course you do. You must have felt it at the garden party. Else why would you have looked at me the way you did at the garden party? I have been chasing you down since that day, because I knew that you would save me."
Trenier looked down at her for a moment. Then he smiled at her and lifted her onto the saddle. Of course, he thought. That moment at the garden party. She had felt it, too. That inexorable tug. "But-"
"There is no rush in this matter." Trenier swung himself onto the saddle behind her. She scrambled to sit astride. "I will take care of you. There is no need to worry yourself over it."
"But you don't understand how pressing it is!" she protested, as he nudged his horse into a walk. "Tomorrow he is going to-" She cut herself off, feeling, in amazement, Trenier's body behind her fill with tension.
"Tomorrow he is going to what?" he demanded, sharply.
Clara felt herself blush, was grateful for the dim gleam of moonlight protecting her. "He..."
Trenier frowned, filling in the blanks that Clara left him. "This will be fine," he said, finally, shortly, because there was no way in hell Randolph Perkins was going to get any of his grimy hands on the future Mrs. Trenier. "I promise you." He was silent for a second. "Do you believe me?"
"Of course I believe you, Jean-Marc." There was a moment of companionable silence between them. "I do not know how you propose to do it without implementing my plan, however. I thought the plan very clever and foolproof."
"It would be," Trenier agreed, "if you were not so very innocent."
"Innocent?" she demanded, sounding affronted.
Trenier smiled. "It is all very well and good that you chose to throw yourself at my head. But you could have easily chosen a man less honorable and then-"
"But I told you," she interrupted, hotly. "I would never have chosen anyone but you. I couldn't."
Trenier leaned his lips briefly into her hair. "I left your bonnet behind," he realized, ruefully.
"It is no matter. What is your plan?"
"It is a secret."
"I don't like secrets."
"Nevertheless," said Trenier.
Clara waited for him to continued speaking. He remained silent. "You're really not going to tell me?" she realized, in shock.
"No," he answered, simply.
"You are infuriating!" she informed him, scathingly.
"Am I, now?" he asked, mildly.
Clara, sulking, sat up, away from him and the curve of his body, absolutely determined not to cuddle closer to him, not to let the warmth of him, the safety of him, coax her into a doze.
Trenier studied the straight line of her back in amusement, and considered leaning forward to brush a kiss behind her ear. He was convinced it would dispel all of her anger. She would probably sigh and say his name. She might possibly turn toward him, lips parted in surprise-
Trenier cleared his throat and wished he could give his horse his head. He needed to get Clara away from him as quickly as possible. He had not wanted to have her in the sticky New Orleans bayou, it would be far worse to attempt to have his way with her on the back of a horse.
"Where is your house?" he asked, at length, when they reached St. Charles.
"This is far enough, thank you," she replied, stiffly.
Trenier chuckled. He was never going to have a peaceful moment for the rest of his life, he thought. "I think not. It is late. You might be compromised by strange men."
"At least then I would know that I don't have to marry Mr. Perkins," she retorted.
"I have promised you that I would not let you marry Mr. Perkins. I would kill him myself if it came to that."
"And where will you be tomorrow?" she asked, glumly.
Trenier hesitated for a moment. "Nearby. Naturally. Do not worry about tomorrow, cherie."
"You will stay near?"
"I said I would take care of you."
"You won't go back to your plantation?"
"My plantation? Who told you about my plantation? Are we going the right way?"
"Yes," she answered, briefly. "Mr. Robichaux told me. That you would much rather be on your plantation."
"Not at present. I was more out of sorts than usual earlier this week. It does not surprise me that Robichaux told you that."
"Why were you out of sorts?"
It seemed to him more of a confession than he was comfortable making, than to say that it seemed ridiculously plausible to him now that he had been pining away for this girl in his arms, one he hadn't formally met until tonight. "The heat," he said, shortly.
"It is abominable, isn't it? It is not so in New York. Not at this time of year. The leaves change. Have you ever been to New York?"
"No? You must go. I will take you. When we are married."
Trenier blinked at her. When had he asked her to marry him? "When we are married?" he asked, amused.
"And when shall I offer for you? Before or after I compromise you?"
"Why, after, of course. It would only be proper."
"Of course," he agreed.
"This is my house."
Trenier drew up in front of it. It was a handsome house, well-proportioned, with a couple of healthy oaks protecting it. "It is quite lovely," he said, automatically, as he swung out of the saddle.
"I should like to see your plantation."
Trenier's hands fastened on her waist, pulling her somewhat inelegantly off the horse. "That is much easier to do when a woman is riding properly sidesaddle, you know."
"Are you angry I rode astride?"
"Angry you rode astride?" he repeated, perplexed. "Why would that anger me?"
It seemed to Clara that every other person in her life would have been horrified and ashamed at the lack of ladylike nature she had displayed tonight. Jean-Marc Trenier, standing beside his horse, his hands still lightly spanning her waist, was wonderfully bland about it.
"Won't you tell me your plan?" Clara asked, wistfully, looking up at him.
She narrowed her eyes. "You are really very stubborn."
Trenier grinned at her. "Quoth pot to kettle." She continued to look at him sourly. "Come now, cherie. We cannot part on ill terms, hmm?" He cupped his fingers around her chin and leaned down to brush his lips over hers.
She sighed. "You are lovely at that."
"Lovely at that?" he asked her, huskily. She had her eyes closed, was swaying toward him rather dreamily, her hands resting on his wrists at her waist. "At what?"
"Kissing? Clara, that is not kissing."
Her eyes opened, heavy, drowsy. Her hair was falling out of its pins, in shambles all around her face. She looked thoroughly wanton. Trenier uttered a silent oath. It was quite damnable, but he was going to have to kiss her.
Jean-Marc Trenier's mouth swooped down upon hers again, and it was no mere brush of contact. It was an onslaught of sensation. Clara gasped with the force of him. His tongue swept into her mouth, rubbed at hers, invited her to come out and play. And Clara had never felt anything to deliciously wonderful. She wanted to be kissed by Jean-Marc Trenier for the rest of her life.
His hands tangled through her hair, shifting the fit of them. She melted against him, feeling the heat of him pulsing through her with her heartbeats. Cautiously, curiously, Clara ventured to kiss him back.
He made a sound rather like a growl, a thrilling sound that made her heart pound and thoroughly emboldened her. She mirrored his actions, pulling her own hands through his hair. It was thick and crisp under her hands. She moved closer to him. Shockingly, it felt wonderful to be pressed against him. She had not realized exactly how pleasant it could be to be flush up against a man. Although "pleasant" wasn't really the word for it. He made her feel wild and reckless, mad with energy.
She thought they were tilting. Or she was dizzy. Then she tipped abruptly up against the horse, who snorted in disgust.
Trenier, feeling his balance give way, took one hand away from her and braced it against the horse's flank, lifting his head as he did so. "Sorry," he gasped.
"Don't stop," she murmured. Her hands were stroking through his hair. She stood on tiptoe to kiss the corner of his mouth.
"Must stop," he panted. He felt incapable of managing full sentences. "Must stop. Clara." She was pressing kisses over every inch of him she could find, down the column of his throat.
"Please," she said. "I wasn't done."
Oh, they were nowhere close to being done, he thought, thickly. "I haven't the time-" He gulped in air, trying to catch his breath. He had never been rendered so breathless by a simple kiss. It was a bit humiliating. "-or the space-" He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as she shifted restlessly against him. "-to do this properly."
"We are doing it quite properly," she insisted. Abruptly, she lifted her head from his chest, where she had been fervently pressing kisses through his shirt. "Unless we weren't?"
"What?" he asked, blearily, grateful she had stopped kissing him.
"I thought I was doing it properly. Was I not doing it properly?"
"Oh, you were doing it quite commendably. I really must..." Trenier took a step away from her. A very long stride backwards. She stood regarding him the moonlight, looking for all the world as if he had completely ravished her. She was, possibly, the most well-compromised woman in all of New Orleans. He ought to drape her over the front of his horse and ride her to the Quarter and carry her to bed and bury himself inside of her for the next few days.
He ought to do this correctly, he reminded himself.
Collecting himself, he leaned forward to adjust the scrap of lace at her neck. "I must take leave of you, Miss Tucker."
"Miss Tucker?" she repeated, sounding amused. "Jean-Marc-"
His finger brushed at the mark Mr. Perkins had left on her neck in his ardor. His eyes narrowed at it.
"Jean-Marc," she began.
"That is the last time any man touches you who isn't me." He drew his finger across it, looked at her firmly. "We are agreed?"
"More than agreed," she assured him, breathlessly.
"I shall call on you," he promised, pressing a quick kiss into her forehead.
He swung onto his horse. "Go to bed," he told her. "Sleep well."
"I shan't sleep at all. I am so wide awake. I have never felt so awake."
"Ah." He tipped a smile at her. "Then we shall both lie awake, waiting for the dawn. Go inside. Quickly. I will watch you."
Clara hesitated, but didn't know what else there was to say. It was all very mysterious, but she was quite certain she was now betrothed to this man. She walked to the front door, paused beside it and lifted her hand in a wave.
He inclined his head, because he had no hat to lift. Then he watched her slip behind the front door, and let out the breath he was holding. There was much to be done, he thought. And no fool-proof guarantee that Clara Tucker, in the light of day, would ever wish to see him again.
Trenier kicked the horse into a gallop toward the Quarter.