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He knocked once on the parlor door before opening it and stepping into a blaze of candlelight. He didn't realize he had so many candles. And on second glance he saw he didn't; the scented tapers were all set in heavy silver Russian candelabra.
A servant watched him from the fireside with wary, timorous eyes, her features Asiatic, her costume Russian. There was no sign of the countess.
"Where's your mistress?"
"In here, General," a clear, direct voice replied in French. "Have you eaten? Do you play chess?"
And when he crossed the carpeted floor and stood in the open doorway to the small dining room, he saw the countess for the first time, seated before a small chess table, apparently playing both sides in the game.
Her dark brows arched delicately against her pale skin as she gazed at him. "Your engravings don't do you justice, General Duras. You're much younger."
"Good evening, Countess Korsakova. And you don't appear to be frightened. Bonnay led me to believe my presence was required here to allay your fears." If she thought him young, she was younger still, he reflected, and exotic-looking. With Korsakov's family well connected at the Russian court, Andre didn't doubt that Korsakov had his pick of women.
"The young colonel mistook my reticence for fear," the countess replied, a luscious small smile lighting up her brilliant green eyes.
"You're not afraid, then."
She made a small moue of negation. "Certainly,General, we both understand the rules. You'll exchange me for one of your officers now languishing in Austrian hands when the opportunity arises. He'll be glad to come home and I"her dark lashes lowered marginally"will return to my husband's household. Do you play chess?"
Her mouth curved upward in amusement. "Will you play chess?"
"I'm sorry. Perhaps some other time."
"Have you eaten?"
He hesitated, debating the lie.
"You haven't, have you? You must eat sometime tonight, General. Why not now?"
He was a gentleman despite his disclaimer to Bonnay and it would have been rude to refuse when they both knew he'd have to have dinner at some point that evening. "Something quick perhaps," he agreed.
Clapping her hands, she called for her maid, giving her directions for serving the general. "I'll join you at the table," she graciously said, rising from her chair in a shimmer of absinthe velvet.
She waved away his offer to help seat her across from him and sat instead to his left. "I recommend the ragout and the wines of course are wonderful here. My husband is quite sure of his victory, you know. So sure, he ordered me here to keep him company," she went on, leaning casually on the tabletop, meeting his swift, searching glance with a smile. "I'm just making conversation. He doesn't confide in me but my maids know everything."
Lifting a spoonful of ragout to his mouth, he said, "How old are you?" She spoke with a girlish candor that he couldn't decide was coquettish or artless.
"You look younger." He dipped his spoon back into the savory dish. Her porcelain skin and black hair, her wide, ingenuous gaze and lithe slenderness evoked a youthful delicacy.
"He likes that."
Was her tone jeunesse dorée or just cynical? "Do you miss your husband?" he bluntly asked, tipping a tender piece of meat from his spoon into his mouth.
"Do you miss your wife?"
He gazed at her for a telling minute while he chewed and then swallowed. "Will your husband want you back?" he softly inquired, ignoring her question.
"Yes, definitely." She sat back, a new coolness in her tone. "I'm too valuable to misplace. My husband has his own selfish reasons for"
"Let's just leave it at that," Duras interjected. "I'm not interested in family controversy."
"Forgive me, General. I lack reserve, I've been told."
He ate for a few moments without replying, not inclined to discuss a relative stranger's reserve or its lack and when he spoke, his voice was impersonal. "I can't exchange you now with the state of the war, but we'll endeavor to make you comfortable."
"How long will I be here?"
"Two weeks to a month, perhaps. We'll keep you safe."
He put his spoon aside, the campaign once again intruding into his thoughts. He'd moved his troops up to Sargans only two days ago and there was immense work to be done before the offensive began.
"Thank you. You didn't eat much."
He shrugged and pushed his chair away from the table. "I'll eat later. If you require anything, ask for Bonnay," he added, rising to his feet. "Good night, Countess. It was a pleasure meeting you." And with a nod of his head he turned and left. That should satisfy Bonnay, he thought, striding back to his office.
It was well after midnight. Only Duras and Bonnay were left at headquarters when a guard rushed into the maproom, apologizing and stammering, obviously agitated, his broken phrases finally merging into a decipherable account.
The Countess Gonchanka, it seemed, was in Duras's bedroom accosting General Korsakov's wife.
Swearing, Duras decided Natalie must be his penance for his multitudinous sins and then, breaking into the guard's disordered recital, briskly said, "Thank you, Corporal. Bonnay and I will take care of it."
"Why me?" Bonnay instantly protested.
"Because I'm ordering you to," Duras said with mock severity, "and I can't handle two women at once."
"Rumor suggests otherwise," his subordinate ironically murmured.
"Not, however, tonight," Duras crisply retorted. "Now move."
The noise emanating from the burgomaster's second-floor rooms facing the street had drawn a crowd and ribald comments greeted Duras and Bonnay as they approached at a run.
"The show's over," Duras said, sprinting through the parting throng.
"Or just beginning, General," a cheerful voice retorted.
"Everyone back to quarters," Bonnay shouted.
"He wants them all to himself," another voice called out and the crowd roared with laughter.
"That's an order, men." Andre Duras spoke in a normal tone from the porch rail. "Back to quarters."
The laughter instantly died away and the troopers began dispersing.
"I hope the ladies obey as easily," Bonnay drolly said, motioning Duras before him into the house.
"Wishful thinking with Natalie," Duras replied.
Moments later at the sound of the men entering the bedroom, Countess Gonchanka turned from her prey. "Damn you, Andre!" she screamed, hurling the bronze statuette intended for Korsakov's wife at him. "Damn your blackguard soul!"
Swiftly ducking, Duras avoided being impaled by the upraised arms of a Grecian Victory and lunged for Natalie's hands before she could gather fresh ammunition. He caught her wrists in a steely grip. "Behave yourself, Natalie," he brusquely ordered.
"So you can't have dinner with me tonight," she shrieked, fighting his grasp. "And now I know why, you bastard, you deceiving, libertine knave! You've someone new in your bed!"
"Christ, Natalie, calm down. She's a guest," he asserted, trying to retain his hold as she struggled in his hands.
"I know all about your guests," she hissed, twisting and turning, attempting to knee him in the groin. "There're always new ones in your bed, aren't there?"
"That's enough, Natalie," he snapped, forcing her toward the door. "Bonnay will see you home." The Countess Gonchanka had overstepped even his lax sense of propriety tonight. He abhorred scenes.
"So you can sleep with Korsakov's wife undisturbed!" she screeched.
"No, so everyone can get a night's rest," he answered with great restraint, his temper barely in check. And transferring his charge to Bonnay's hands, he watched the Russian countess who'd entertained him so pleasantly the last few months escorted out of his life. He'd see that she was on the road back to Paris in the morning.
"Did she hurt you?" he inquired, turning back to Korsakov's wife, who'd found shelter behind a semainier.
"Does this happen often to you?" she pleasantly said, emerging from her burled-walnut barricade.
"No, never," he acerbically retorted. "You're fine, I see." Immediately after he uttered the words, he realized he shouldn't have verbalized his thoughts. But her slender form couldn't be ignored; it was blatantly visible through the sheer batiste of her gown.
"Yes, I am." Her voice was amiable, not seductive, and the odd disparity between her sensuous appeal and her frank response suddenly intrigued him.
"What's your name?" he said when he shouldn't.
Her voice was genial and melodious although the contrast to Natalie's termagant shrieks may have enhanced its sweetness. "What's your real name?"
"No, never." She smiled as she repeated the words he'd so recently spoken.
"Would you like a robe?" he abruptly said, because he unexpectedly found her smile fascinating.
"Do I need one?" And then she laughed refreshing light sound. "Do you scowl like that often?"
"Natalie's too fresh a memory."
"I understand. Have you ever been just friends with a woman?"
It took him so long to answer, she teasingly said, "You must be ignoring me, General, although your reputation precedes you. But I'm not like Natalie," she lightly went on. "I'm actually faithful to my husband so I'm not going to seduce you. Do you mind?"
"No, not at all."
"How ungracious," she mocked.
"I meant, no, not with Natalie's screams still echoing in my ears. Why are you faithful to your husband?" It was a novel attitude in the current flux and upheavals of society.
"Will you play a game of chess with me?"
Evasive but not a no, she decided, and she found she didn't want to be alone in the middle of the night with her husband's image freshly brought to mind, so she cajoled. "I could tell you about faithfulness while we play and Natalie has rather disrupted my sleep," she reminded him.
"A short game, then, while you define a faithful wife. A rarity in my world," he softly declared.
"And in mine as well. Men of course aren't required to be faithful."
"So I understand."
"A realistic appraisal. Should I put on a robe?"
"I think it might be wise."
He played chess the way he approached warfare, moving quickly, decisively, always on the attack. But she held her own, although her style was less aggressive, and when he took her first knight after long contention for its position, he said, "If your husband's half as good as you, he'll be a formidable opponent."
"I'm not sure you fight the same way."
"You've seen him in battle?"
"On a small scale. Against my grandfather in Siberia."
"And yet you married him?"
"Not by choice. The Russians traditionally take hostages from their conquered tribes. I'm the Siberian version. My clan sends my husband tribute in gold each year. So you see why I'm valuable to him."
"Not for gold alone, I'm sure," he said, beginning to move his rook.
"How gallant, Andre," she playfully declared.
His gaze came up at the sound of his name, his rook poised over the board, and their glances held for a moment. The fire crackled noisily in the hearth, the ticking of the clock sounded loud in the stillness, the air suddenly took on a charged hush, and then the general smileda smooth charming smile. "You're going to lose your bishop, Teo."
She couldn't answer as suavely because her breath was caught in her throat and it took her a second to overcome the strange, heated feeling inundating her senses.
His gaze slid down her blushing cheeks and throat to rest briefly on her taut nipples visible through her white cashmere robe and he wondered what was happening to him that so demure a sight had such a staggering effect on his libido. He dropped his rook precipitously into place, inhaled, and leaned back in his chair as if putting distance between himself and such tremulous innocence would suffice to restore his reason.
"Your move," he gruffly said.
"Maybe we shouldn't play anymore."
"Your move." It was his soft voice of command.
"I don't take orders."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd move."
"I'm not sure I know what I'm doing anymore." He lounged across from her, tall, lean, powerful, with predatory eyes, the softest of voices, and the capacity to make her tremble.
"It's only a game."
"This, you mean."
"Of course. What else would I mean?"
"I was married when I was fifteen, after two years of refinement at the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls," she pertinently said, wanting him to know.
"And you're very refined," he urbanely replied, wondering how much she knew of love after thirteen faithful years in a forced marriage. His eyes drifted downward again, his thoughts no longer of chess.
"My husband's not refined at all."
"Many Russians aren't." He could feel his erection begin to rise, the thought of showing her another side of passionate desire ruinous to his self-restraint.
"It's getting late," she murmured, her voice quavering slightly.
"I'll see you upstairs," he softly said.
When he stood, his desire was obvious; the form-fitting regimentals molded his body like a second skin.
Gripping the chair arms, she said, "No," her voice no more than a whisper.
He moved around the small table and touched her then because he couldn't help himself, because she was quivering with desire like some virginal young girl and the intoxicating image of such tremulous need was more carnal than anything he'd ever experienced. His hand fell lightly on her shoulder, its heat tantalizing, tempting.
She looked up at him and, lifting her mouth to his, heard herself say, "Kiss me."
"Take my hand," he murmured. And when she did, he pulled her to her feet and drew her close so the scent of her was in his nostrils and the warmth of her body touched his.
"Give me a child." Some inner voice prompted the words she'd only dreamed for years.
"No," he calmly said, as if she hadn't asked the unthinkable from a stranger, and then his mouth covered hers and she sighed against his lips. And as their kiss deepened and heated their blood and drove away reason, they both felt an indefinable blisstorrid and languorous, heartfelt and, most strangelyhopeful in two people who had long ago become disenchanted with hope.
And then her maid's voice drifted down the stairway the intonation of her native tongue without inflection. "He'll kill you," she declared.
Duras's mouth lifted and his head turned to the sound. "What did she say?"
"She reminded me of the consequences."
"My husband's wrath."
He was a hairsbreadth from selfishly saying, Don't worry, but her body had gone rigid in his arms at her maid's pointed admonition and at base he knew better. He knew he wouldn't be there to protect her from her husband's anger and he knew too that she was much too innocent for a casual night of love.
"Tamyr is my voice of reason."
He released her and took a step away, as if he couldn't trust himself to so benignly relinquish such powerful feeling. "We all need a voice of reason," he neutrally said. "Thank you for the game o