Sometimes betrayal is closer than you think.
“Come with me to settle the child,” Lucienne ordered as she lifted her daughter to her hip. With misgivings, Melisende followed her sister up the narrow stairs. Arielle’s large dark eyes stared at her over her mother’s shoulder, and Melisende wrinkled her nose at her in a friendly way. Arielle ducked her head.
Lucienne set Arielle down and ushered her inside the room with a small push of her hand. The little girl stepped inside the room, fingers fisted tight in her mother’s skirt. Lucienne brushed her hand away. “You are wrinkling my gown, ma petite. Haven’t I told you not to rumple my clothes?”
Arielle dropped her gaze then lifted it slightly to stare at Melisende. Her heart breaking to see the results of her sister’s callous behavior, Melisende gave the child a tender smile. An answering one tugged at Arielle’s lips.
“She is not muette, she is shy,” Lucienne declared, irritation coloring her voice. “Say bonjour to Tante Melisende, Arielle.”
“Bonjour,” the little girl whispered with a quick glance to her mother.
“Bonjour, Arielle,” Melisende replied. “Comment vas-tu?”
“She speaks Italian more fluently than French,” Lucienne informed her. She rifled through the pile of clothes, snatching a tiny gown from the jumble.
“Oh, I see,” Melisende said, thoughtfully. She gave Arielle a kind smile. “I suppose if I’d been born in Italy, I would, too.”
Arielle’s gaze slid away and Melisende stepped closer to the bed and picked up a small gown to fold. “How bad is it, Lucienne?” she murmured.
“I brought her back for you to raise.”
Melisende cast her a startled look. “You cannot be serious.”
Lucienne bent to unlace Arielle’s gown. “You mean, why would I trust you with my child after you failed so miserably with me?”
“Lucienne! That is not what I mean at all. How can you think of giving up your child?”
Tugging the travel gown over the little girl’s head, Lucienne quickly replaced it with a thin undergown with a plain drawstring at the neck. “There. Hop into bed. It is time you were asleep.”
Obediently, Arielle climbed onto the thin mattress as her mother pulled back the blanket. Lucienne tucked her in and placed a quick kiss to her forehead. “Someone will come for you in the morning.”
Melisende could scarcely believe her ears. There had always been stories or nursery songs for Lucienne as a child. Did Lucienne not remember? She acts as though she can scarcely be bothered by her daughter.
Lucienne motioned her to the far side of the room near an open window. “I am not a good mother. I want to go to parties and wear pretty dresses. Not read bedtime stories and worry about stains on my gowns.”
“But Lucienne, if you are in such difficulty, you will not have these things to worry over as you cannot afford them. You can stay here and—”
“With Oncle Ramon?” Lucienne gave a harsh laugh. “He barely tolerated me the last time I was here.”
“He is family. He will not turn you away,” Melisende declared, though she rather doubted the extent of his goodwill.
“You think not?” Lucienne waved a hand dismissively. “No matter. I have grown accustomed to court life, and I intend to return.”
“But how? If you have no money . . .”
“There is a system. I do not linger long after a party, but the houses are large and an extra guest or two is rarely noticed for a few days. There is always the next weekend retreat.”
“How will you receive invitations as a divorced woman?”
“That is hardly a problem,” Lucienne drawled, her world-weary voice sending chills along Melisende’s spine. Her sister’s eyebrows lifted and a deprecating half-smile pulled at one side of her mouth.
“As poor a mother as I may be, I do not wish to raise my daughter in such a world as I live in. She is old enough to interest some men who are fascinated by young girls. In my position, I would not be able to deny them.”
Melisende’s eyes widened in horror. “She is scarcely three years old! Please tell me . . .” She could not say the words, and her hand flew to her throat, attempting to relieve a choking sensation.
Lucienne shook her head. “Non. But it would be only a matter of time. I have seen the looks.”
“Lucienne, you do not have to go back.”
“Eh bien? And where would I live? With you and your new husband?” She scowled. “You are such a saint, Melisende. Everyone likes you, everyone has a kind word for you. Do you know what it is like to depend on the next person’s grace for an invitation to their home for a few days, for you do not have one of your own? To laugh and pretend `tis a new stain on your gown so your hostess will offer something of hers? To know if no invitations arrive, you will sleep on the street?”
Melisende raised her hands to embrace her sister. “Lucienne, stop! You can live with us.”
Lucienne waved her away. “Non.”
Melisende’s arms fell to her sides. “Why would you go back to such a life?”
“To the parties,” Lucienne answered, “and the gowns of fabrics so fantastic they make you cry from the sheer pleasure of them. Laces so delicate they can scarcely withstand the needle. Embroidery so fine it takes four seamstresses a week just to produce one sleeve.” Her eyes closed and rapture lit her face. “The men so courteous, so eager to woo me. Dancing, stealing kisses behind the fountain. They tell me how beautiful I am, how much they desire me.”
She opened her eyes, settling her gaze on Melisende’s shocked face.
“Once Raul began annulment proceedings, their interest increased a hundredfold. I will have no lack of sponsors once I return.”
“That is a shameful way to live, and you know it, Lucienne.” Tears burned in Melisende’s eyes. “How can you do this to yourself?” She swept a hand toward the bed. “To her?”
The scorn returned to Lucienne’s face, casting ugly shadows beneath her high cheeks. “You think you know what is right for me. That I should be exactly like you, drowning behind a polite façade. You believe everything is perfect in your little world with your adorable new husband who loves you?” Her eyes narrowed as she slid her gaze to Arielle. “Have you not wondered why she looks like him?”
Melisende immediately looked at the child asleep on the bed. Her dark hair spilled across the pillow like a shadow in the dimly lit room. She glanced back at her sister. “Why do you say that? I think she looks just like you.”
“She has my nose and eyes, oui. But her dark hair comes from her father.”
“Raul,” Melisende asserted.
Lucienne slanted her sister a look. “Non. From your oh-so-sweet husband.”
Melisende’s gaze bounced from Lucienne back to the child. Lucienne’s parting words so many years ago loosed themselves from the depths of her mind. What do you think went on whilst he slept in our house—only me and him? He would be unable to look you in the eye if you knew everything that happened.
She shook her head. Non! It is impossible to think of it! He has already assured me there was nothing between himself and Lucienne. But her heart grew cold in her breast.
Lucienne strolled to the bed and stroked her daughter’s hair. “She looks so much like me. But she has Kinnon’s hair.” Her smile set an arrow in Melisende’s heart.
Brushing aside her doubts, Melisende stepped forward. “Do not be absurd, Lucienne. Her hair is much like mine, and Raul’s is dark as well.”
Lucienne tossed her head. “You do not seem to recall Arielle was born early—or so I told Raul.”
“Lucienne, did you have relations with someone whilst we lived in Randon?” Melisende demanded. “Did you marry Raul knowing you were already enceinte?”
Lucienne sent her a mocking look. “You would love to believe that, wouldn’t you? To keep your lover innocent of the deed.”
“I do not believe you,” Melisende replied firmly, against the reservations that gnawed at her.
Lucienne’s eyebrows raised, a lofty smile taunting Melisende. “Yet you see the resemblance, non? No matter what you tell yourself, you will always know there is the possibility. We spent an entire week together, unchaperoned. You know how insatiable he is, n’ai-je pas raison?” Her eyes glittered. “No matter what you try to believe, you will always wonder if he shared his body with me first.”
Heir to a lairdship, Kinnon Macrory is driven to prove his worth by fighting the English on the battlefields of France. His dreams of heroic valor are destroyed by the realities of war—the atrocities visited by fellow soldiers on the very people he is sworn to protect. Three years in a French prison for a crime he did not commit leave Kinnon longing for the one thing of beauty in his war-torn life—a young woman of great kindness and wisdom named Melisende.
Melisende de la Roche struggles to stay one step ahead of soldiers who would imprison her for helping an injured Scotsman wrongly accused of treason. She finds refuge in her uncle’s shop—until a chance encounter sends her fleeing into the unknown once again, haunted by the beguiling friendship with the troubled young Scotsman she is certain she will never see again.
Determined to find the woman of his dreams, Kinnon returns to France, only to discover nothing more than a trail of clues to Melisende’s whereabouts. Their reunion will open the doors to passion, but half-truths and lies from the past could destroy the one thing they both are willing to fight for—each other.
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