Bel Astre que j'adore

December 1794

It was late when the guests left, after midnight. Celeste stood on the step, waving merrily, a smile on her face, until the last gentleman had driven away in his carriage. Only then did she close the door against the light but steady fall of snow. "It is cold out," she declared, going back into the sitting room.

"Come by the fire." Rowland pulled a chair up to the fender and waited, expectant.

Still shivering, Celeste gave in and went to take the seat. "You are too good to me," she said, gratefully holding out her hands.

"You don't have to see them off from the doorway. Englishwomen wouldn't do so, not on the coldest night of the year." Rowland crossed the room to a dark corner. He had already put out most of the lamps, and now there was only the glow of the fire and the lamps on either side of the door.

It was time to go to bed, but Celeste lingered, savoring the heat on her skin. It would be almost as cold upstairs as it was outside, even though Rowland had sent the girl to light the fires upstairs. "It is my way, even if your England is too cold for it. I cannot change everything about myself."

He was quiet for a moment, then came forward. Without asking permission he draped a shawl over her shoulders—not the delicate lacy one she had worn earlier, when her parlor was full of gentlemen, but a thick, warm shawl made of wool. She made a face even as she burrowed into the comforting bulk of it. All her French notions of fashion were being abused and undermined here in the cold climate of London. Still, there was no one who could see her looking so dowdy, and she leaned back and let her eyes close.

"I haven't asked you to change anything about yourself." Rowland spoke in a low voice. Celeste opened her eyes in surprise. He wasn't looking at her, but was winding the mantel clock. He was so absorbed in everything he did, she thought; he didn't merely turn the key, he listened for the click of the mechanism. He adjusted the hands minutely. He wiped a smudge off the glass face before closing it, and then he stored the key behind the clock, where it would always be conveniently at hand. He left nothing to chance, but completed each step methodically and meticulously—not just in clock winding, but in everything.

And it had saved her life.

"You have," she replied gently to his denial. "You ask me to stay by the fire when I would stand on the step. You ask me to wear this duvet of a shawl"—she flapped one corner of it without exposing her bare shoulders to the chill of the room—"when I prefer a scrap of silk and lace. You would have me become sensible and English."

"I would have you live a long, healthy life." He didn't face her but continued polishing the brass fittings on the clock. The fire cast a glow upon his profile, his prominent nose, the hard line of his jaw, the surprisingly sensual shape of his mouth. That mouth, incongruously set in such a grim and forbidding face, had been the first thing she really noticed about him, and tonight she found herself looking at his lips almost wistfully.

"Thanks to you, I shall," she murmured. "You saved me, Monsieur Rowland, from the butchers in Paris. I am forever grateful."

A muscle in his jaw flexed, and released. "It was my duty."

"To be in Paris was your duty," she agreed. He had been an army officer attached to the British Embassy, ordered to help as many Englishmen escape as possible when the republic became a charnel house. Behind fans and handkerchiefs, as France slid into hysteria, Rowland's name had been whispered as the man to look to for help. Celeste never would have done so, even though she admired the stern, taciturn Englishman who seemed to have the trick of making himself invisible to the sans-culottes. She was merely a rich man's plaything, below the attentions of the English. He had spirited her neighbors—the sister of an English nobleman and her French husband—to safety, and then, unexpectedly, he had come for her. She had already begun packing for prison when he appeared at her window one night, one finger to his lips and his hand outstretched. Celeste still didn't even know why she had taken his hand and followed him into the night without a backward glance.

"To save me… Ah, that, I think, was the act of a soft heart. Or perhaps a soft head?" She tilted her head and smiled. She spoke fluent English—one of her first lovers had been an English duke, years ago—but she was still learning the English expressions. They amused her to no end.

And Rowland was so amusing to tease. As always, he frowned and gave her a severe look. "How could I leave you? They would have sent you to the guillotine."

"Perhaps."

"And you would have gone willingly if they had come for you? Would you have mounted the scaffold with a smile on your lips and a kind word for the executioner?"

"If one must die, can it not be with grace and dignity, rather than sniveling and groveling for mercy that would never come?" She gave a slight shrug, unruffled by his harsh tone. "I would not have given the crowd such a spectacle. It would hurt to smile, yes, but then the hurt would end."

His shoulders fell. "I could not have borne that," he said very quietly.

"You need not have seen it."

"I would have felt it, whether I saw it or not."

The fervor in his voice touched her. "You are so good to me, Rowland. What would I do without you?"

He shot her an odd glance. She raised an eyebrow. Rowland had been very odd this evening. He had glowered at her callers and now he was lingering longer than usual.

Celeste got to her feet. She didn't feel tired, but restless and out of sorts. Outside a carriage drove past, its wheels clacking over the cobbles. She went to the window and pulled back the drape to glance out. The clear white light of the moon sparkled on the hoarfrost that coated everything in sight. It was beautiful in its own way, she supposed, this quiet little street on the outskirts of London.

Behind her he cleared his throat. "I didn't like the company tonight."

"You never like them."

"No," he agreed bluntly. "They're all toads. You should not encourage them."

Her fingers tightened on the plush velvet of the drape. It was his, paid for by him; she knew it, though he wouldn't admit it. He had never told her who owned this house he had brought her to when she had nowhere else to go, but she was sure it was his. He moved about it with the air of a man in possession, even though he left every night. She couldn't live forever on his charity. "It is all I know," she said softly. "I am too old to learn a trade. I am a useless ornament, nothing more." She adjusted the thick shawl more securely around her shoulders, no longer even pretending she didn't want it. She had never been this cold when she was younger. "And not even that for much longer."

"Don't say that," he said at once.

"No?" She touched the sprig of holly and ivy that decorated the window. He had insisted on them, for the Christmas season, and in return she had insisted on candles. She missed Christmas in Paris, even if the Paris she knew was gone. "Have I lost my bloom already?"

"Not at all."

"I will, you know," she went on. "I must make an effort to attract a new lover before I am wrinkled and stooped, for then I would be a burden on you forever."

"You are not a burden," he said quietly.

"Am I not?" She turned and swirled her hand about, like a ballet dancer about to make her obeisance to the audience. "No one sent you to save me. I have no friends in England, no patron who will support me. I know only one way to live. All this… You pay for it, do you not?" He said nothing. "You brought me to London not because the English wanted it, but because you wished it." Still he made no reply. Celeste let the curtain fall and crossed the room. "You risked your life to return for me, didn't you? Why?"

Gently he reached out and took her hand. "Never say you are a useless ornament," he murmured. His fingers stroked hers. "You helped three women escape the tribunals by seducing the officer sent to arrest them and drugging his men."

"They were girls, mere children."

"One of them was rumored to be the mistress of the duc de Rochfort, with a fortune in jewels sewn in her corset."

"She earned them," said Celeste simply.

He traced the pale web of veins in her wrist with one finger. "You refused the overtures of Joseph Fouchet."

She tried to tug her hand loose. "He is a criminal."

Rowland looked up at her. She had never thought to see that look in a man's eyes when he looked at her. "He is a dangerous man. Because of him you were on the list to be arrested."

Her heart seemed to be choking her. "Was I? That must tell you what sort of man he is, if he would condemn a woman for her refusal."

"I already knew what sort of man he was." He lowered his gaze to her hand. His sensual mouth pulled taut. "I could not leave you to the likes of him."

Yes, he probably had known. Just as she knew what sort of man Rowland was. Just as she realized only now what sort of woman she might become, thanks to him.

"Monsieur Rowland." Hardly aware of what she did, Celeste raised her free hand and touched his face, her thumb barely brushing the corner of his lips.

He inhaled like a drowning man surfacing for air. "Madame…"

"Do you not know my name? All these months you have been my constant solace and friend, and I have never heard you say it." He said nothing, but his grip on her hand tightened. "I did not like the gentlemen tonight, either," she confessed. "I have not liked one of them. I tried to tell myself it was because they are English, and very strange to me, but I fear they are simply not you."

His eyes were dark with tormented hope. "You owe me nothing."

She touched his mouth again. "It is not mere gratitude I feel."

"I don't want to be one of your protectors," he said. "I would rather have none of you than only part of you."

Something inside her chest quivered. "But you already have part of me." Her heart. He tensed, looking uncertain. She tried to smile, and a sprig of mistletoe caught her eye, hanging from the chandelier above their heads. She had put it up, and then spent the entire evening avoiding it—until now. "Will you give me a kiss?" she asked with forced lightness. "For Christmas?"

He glanced up, and got to his feet. He towered over her, as harsh and imposing as ever, except for the softness in his expression. "I want to marry you. Will you have me?"

"If you will kiss me," she whispered, swaying on her toes.

"Once I kiss you, I shan't stop until morning," he told her. Her lips parted. "Perhaps not even then."

"Oh, my," she breathed. The quivering inside her grew harder. "Yes."

"Yes?" He frowned, grasping her shoulders and scrutinizing her face. "Yes?"

"Yes. I am in love with you!" She smacked his chest with her fist. "I cannot keep looking for another gentleman when all I think of is you!"

Slowly his beautiful mouth eased into a smile, and her heart gave an answering leap. "Happy Christmas, my Celeste," he murmured, and finally he kissed her.