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Ways to be Wicked
By Julie Anne Long
WARNER FOREVERCopyright © 2006 Julie Anne Long
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIRONIC, SYLVIE THOUGHT, that the pitching and rolling of that wretched wooden ship should set up a corresponding pitching and rolling in her stomach, given that motion was more native to her than stillness. She in fact leaped, stretched, and pirouetted every day, achieving semiflight with no ill effects apart from sore muscles and the perversely gratifying jealousy of all of the other dancers in Monsieur Favre's corps de ballet. Sylvie Lamoreux was, in fact, the darling of the Paris Opera, object of desire and envy, the personification of beauty and grace-not accustomed, in other words, to losing the contents of her stomach over the side of a ship.
She supposed it had a little something to do with control. When she danced, she commanded her body. Well, and Monsieur Favre had a bit of a say in it, too: "I said, like a butterfly, Sylvie, not a cow. Look at you! I want to moo!" Or "Your arms, Sylvie, they are like timber. Lift them like so-ah yes, that is it, mon ange, you are like a dream. I suspected you could dance." Monsieur Favre was a trifle prone to exaggeration, but if she was his best dancer, he had helped make her so, and confidence was marvelous armor against sarcasm.
She'd rather be at Monsieur Favre's mercy any day than that of a bloody woodenship, heaving this way and that over the choppy waters of the Channel.
He would not be pleased to find her gone.
The letter in her reticule said very little. But what it did say had launched her like a cannonball across the Channel to England for the first time in her life. For two weeks, Sylvie had furtively planned her journey, hurt and fury, poignant hope and a great inner flame of curiosity propelling her. She hadn't told a single soul of her plans. This seemed only fitting, given the magnitude of the things that had been kept from her.
Odd to think that a few mere sentences of English could do this. The letter had begun with an apology for bothering Claude yet again. Yet again-a little flame of anger licked up every time Sylvie thought of these words. It was not the first such letter sent, in other words. Or even the second, it would appear. And then, in the next sentence, it begged information about a young woman named Sylvie. For I believe she might be my sister.
The signature at the bottom said, "Susannah Whitelaw, Lady Grantham."
My sister. Sylvie had never before thought or said those two words together in her life.
To Sylvie the letter meant a past she'd never known, a future she'd never dreamed, and a store of secrets she'd only half suspected. Her parents were dead, Claude had told her, God rest their souls; Claude had raised Sylvie as her own. And if not for the fact that Claude had decided to holiday in the South as she did every year at this time, with a kiss on both cheeks for Sylvie and instructions to mind her parrot, Guillaume, Sylvie might never have seen the letter at all.
Sylvie had left Guillaume the parrot in the care of Claude's housekeeper. He would be in danger of nothing but boredom, as he spoke two more languages than the housekeeper, which was two fewer than Etienne.
Etienne. Sylvie's thoughts immediately flew from him as though scorched. And then flew back again, guiltily.
He was generous, Etienne, with ardor and gifts. He flirted as only one descended from centuries of courtiers could flirt; he moved through the world with the confident magnanimity of someone who had never been denied anything. He made heady promises she hardly dared believe, promises that would give her the life she had worked to acquire, that she had dreamed of.
But his temper ... Sylvie would never understand it. Her own was a starburst-quick, spectacular, gone. His was cold and patient, implacable. It waited; he planned. And his retaliations always came with chilling finality and a sense of righteousness.
She'd last seen Etienne a week ago in the mauve predawn light, an arm flung over his head, his bare back turned to her as he slept. She'd placed the letter on her pillow, telling him only that she was sorry, but that she would see him again soon.
He loved her. But he used the word so easily.
But just as she knew Etienne would have tried to dissuade her from leaving Paris, she knew he would try to find her. And his temper would have been waiting all the while, too.
She did not want to be found until she'd learned what she'd come to learn.
The ship had released the passengers, and at last Sylvie's feet pressed against England. She allowed herself a giddy surge of triumph. She'd made it this far, entirely on her own. But she could still feel the sea inside her stomach, and color and movement and noise came at her in waves: men swarming to unload the ship, the early morning sun ricocheting hard between smooth sea and blue sky, gulls wheeling in arcs of silver and white. No clouds floated above to cut the glare or soften the heat. Sylvie took her first deep breath of truly English air. It was hot and clotted with dock odors, and made matters inside her stomach worse instead of better.
So be it. She would will her stomach into obedience. To date, there had been nothing Sylvie could not make her body do if she willed it.
She nodded to the man who shouldered her trunk for her and briskly turned to find the mail coach that would take her to London. She had never before traveled alone, but she had contrived the perfect disguise, her English was passably good, and she was not a child needing coddling or protection from a man. Besides, after Paris, a city as intricate, beautiful, and difficult as the ballet itself, no city could intimidate her. Great cities, at their hearts, were all the same.
She glanced up then and saw just the back of him, through the crowd, the broad shoulders, the way he stood. The sight of Etienne slammed hard, sending a cold wave of shock through her confidence. It couldn't be. Not yet. Not so soon.
But it was not a risk she was prepared to take. She swiveled her head, saw the mail coach, and made her decision.
Tom Shaughnessy was alone in the stage coach mulling another failed trip to Kent, when a woman flung herself into his lap, wrapped her arms around his neck, and burrowed in, crushing her face against his.
"What in the name of-" he hissed. He lifted his arms to try to pry hers from about his neck.
"Hush," she whispered urgently. "Please."
A man's head peered into the coach.
"I beg your pardon." He jerked his head hurriedly back, and vanished from view.
The woman in his lap had gone completely rigid, apart from her rapid breathing. And for a moment neither of them moved. Tom had an impression of rustling dark fabric, a lithe form, and the scent of spice and vanilla and roses and ... well, female. This last made his head swim a little.
Startling, granted. But not precisely unpleasant.
Apparently deciding a safe interval had elapsed, she took her arms from about his neck and slid from his lap into the seat a distance away from him.
"And just when I was growing accustomed to you, Madame," he said wryly. He touched her arm gently. "Allow me to intro-ow!"
He jerked his hand back. What the devil-?
His eyes followed a glint to her lap.
Poking up from her neatly folded gloved hands was a ... was that a knitting needle?
It was! She'd jabbed him with a damned knitting needle. Not hard enough to wound anything other than his pride. But certainly hard enough to make her ... er ... point.
"I regret inserting you, sir, but I cannot permit you to touch me again." Her voice was soft and grave, refined; it trembled just a bit. And, absurdly, she did sound genuinely regretful.
Tom glared at her, baffled. "You regret inser-Oh! You mean 'stabbing.' You regret ... stabbing me?"
"Yes!" She said almost gratefully, as though he'd given her a verb she considered useful and fully intended to employ again in the future. "I regret stabbing you. I regret sitting upon you, also. But I cannot permit you to touch me again. I am not ..." She made a futile gesture with her hand, as if she could snatch the elusive word from the air with it.
She was not ... what? Sane?
But he could hear it now-she was French. Which accounted for the way her syllables subtly leaped and dipped in the wrong places, not to mention her unusual vocabulary choices, and perhaps even the knitting needle, because God only knew what a Frenchwomen was capable of. And apart from that tremble in her voice he would have assumed she was preternaturally self-possessed. But she was clearly afraid of something, or someone, and he suspected it was the man who had just peered into the coach.
He looked at her hard, but she kept her head angled slightly away from him. She was wearing mourning; he could see this now that she wasn't precisely on top of him. Her hat and veil revealed only a hint of delicate jaw and gleaming hair, which seemed to be a red shade, though this might perhaps be wishful thinking on his part. Her neck was long; her spine as elegantly erect as a Doric column. She was slim, but the gown she wore gave away very little of the shape of the woman inside it. The gown itself was beautifully made, but it fit her ill. Borrowed, he decided. He was accustomed to judging the fit of female clothing, after all, and this dress was not only too large; it had been made for someone else entirely.
Since he had done nothing but gape for nearly a minute, she seemed satisfied he didn't intend to reach for her again and slid the needle back up into her sleeve. For all the world like a woman tucking a basket of mending under a chair.
"Who is pursuing you, Madame?" he asked softly.
Her shoulders stiffened almost imperceptibly. Interesting. A further ripple in that self-possession.
"Je ne comprende pas, monsieur." Delivered with a pretty little French lift of one shoulder.
Balderdash. She understood him perfectly well.
"Au contraire, I believe you do comprende my question," he contradicted politely. His own French was actually quite good. All the very best courtesans were French, after all. Many of the dancers who passed through the White Lily were as well, which is why he knew all about the caprices of Frenchwomen.
The veil fluttered; she was breathing a little more quickly now.
"If you tell me, I might be able to help you," he pressed gently. Why he should offer to help someone who'd leaped into his lap, then poked him with a knitting needle eluded him at the moment. Curiosity, he supposed. And that delicate jaw.
The veil fluttered once, twice, as she mulled her next words. "Oh, but you already have helped me, monsieur."
And the faint but unmistakable self-deprecating humor and-dare he think it?-flirtation-in her words perversely charmed him to his marrow.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but she turned decisively toward the window, and an instant later seemed to have shed her awareness of him as neatly as a shawl or hat.
Damned if he wasn't fascinated.
He wanted desperately to gain her attention again, but if he spoke she would ignore him, he sensed; he suspected that if he so much as brushed the sleeve of her gown his hand would be swiftly "inserted" as neatly as a naturalist's butterfly to the mail coach seat.
He was watching her so intently he was startled when the coach bucked on its springs, taking on the weight of more passengers: a duenna ushering two young ladies, both pretty and diffident; a young couple glowing with contentment, as though the institution of marriage was their own marvelous, private discovery; a young man who looked very much like a curate; a plump prosperous merchant of some sort. Tom made his judgments of them by their clothing and the way they held themselves. At one time, each and every one of them, or someone of their ilk, had passed through his life, or he through theirs.
The little Frenchwoman widow might as well have been a shadow of one of the other passengers; with her slight build and dark clothing, she all but vanished against the seat. No one would trouble her or engage her in conversation if she appeared not to welcome it; she was a widow, and ostensibly still inside a bubble of grief.
Tom doubted it. He knew a costume when he saw one.
People wedged aboard the coach until it fair burst with heat and a veritable cornucopia of human smells, and the widow finally disappeared completely from Tom's view. When they were full, the coach lurched forward to London.
And as Tom was a busy man, his thoughts inevitably lurched toward London along with the coach: his meeting with investors regarding The Gentleman's Emporium was one line of thought. How he was going to tell Daisy Jones that she would not be playing Venus in the White Lily's latest production was another.
Ah, Venus. The concept was so inspired, so brilliant, such a delicious challenge for his partner's formidable talents that The General had very nearly entirely forgiven Tom for promising a particular earl a production involving damsels and castles ... inside a week. A frenzy of choreography, carpentry and epithets had resulted in a production comprised of a brilliantly constructed little castle, scantily clothed damsels, and an inspired, prurient song regarding lances. It had been a roaring success, and The General had all but refused to speak to Tom for weeks afterward.
Tom had known the damsels would be a success. The inspirations that dropped into his mind suddenly and whole, like a bright coin flipped into a deep well, invariably were. The production had since become one of the staples of the White Lily's nightly offerings. But the reason audiences returned to the theater again and again was because they could count on Tom Shaughnessy to surprise them, to feed their ceaseless appetite for novelty, and Tom knew he would soon need another small surprise to keep his audiences from becoming restless.
But Venus ... Venus hadn't been a coin-dropped-in-the-well sort of inspiration. The theater itself had given it to him, just the other night: Tom had swept his eyes across the gods and goddesses who gamboled across the murals covering the theater walls ... and the image of Botticelli's Venus, rising from her shell, had risen up in his mind. Venus would be a tour de force, a masterpiece, and the enormous profits he anticipated, along with the backing of a few key investors, would make his dream of The Gentleman's Emporium a reality.
Now all that remained was the delicate task of informing Daisy Jones that she would not be the one rising from the shell.
Tom smiled at the thought and glanced up; the curate sitting across from him gave him a tentative little smile in return. Very much like a small dog rolling over to show its belly to a larger, more dazzling dog.
"Exceedingly warm for this time of year," the curate ventured.
"Indeed. And if it's this warm near the sea, imagine how warm it will be in London," Tom answered politely.
Ah, weather. A topic that bridged social classes the world over. Whatever would they do without it?
And so the passengers passed a tolerable few hours sweating and smelling each other and exchanging pleasant banalities as the coach wheels ate up the road, and there was seldom a lull in conversation. And for two hours, Tom heard not a single word of French-accented English in the jumble of words around him.
When the curate stopped chatting for a moment, Tom slipped a hand into his pocket and snapped open his watch; in an hour or so, he knew, they would reach a coaching inn on the road to Westerly in time for a bad luncheon; he hoped to be back to London in time for supper, to meet with investors, to supervise the latest show at the White Lily. And then, perhaps, enjoy late-night entertainments at the Velvet Glove in the company of the most-accommodating Bettina.
And then in the lull a pistol shot cracked and echoed, and the coach bucked to a stop, sending passengers tumbling over each other.
Highwaymen. Bloody hell.
Excerpted from Ways to be Wicked by Julie Anne Long Copyright © 2006 by Julie Anne Long. Excerpted by permission.
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