A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Seven

In order to, if Richelieu did indeed only suspect where they were going and why, throw him off his scent, the five musketeers decided to take the longer route to Roquetaillade. Instead of following the route to Limoges, they turned back, to Orléans, and around toward Dijon, intending to circle through Lyon and Toulouse. Although the time was of the essence, and Robert’s was running out, Alec knew Athos had been right in proposing his plan of action. They needed to make everyone believe they didn’t have a specific goal in mind, just roaming the country doing inspections in smaller garrisons. It was taking longer than it should have under different circumstances as they rode slower, and stopped more often.

And Alec was slowly losing her mind. With worry for her brother, and with spending so much time in the company of the four musketeers. So far, back in Paris, under Tréville’s watch, they’d spend only their days together, guarding the King and Queen, involving in skirmishes with criminals and Red Guard alike. The nights had been her own, spent in the privacy of her tiny, yet blessedly lonesome quarters at the garrison.

She’s been longing for that cramped room for the past four days. There was no privacy on the road, not in taverns, and especially not while camping in the countryside, like they did tonight. She couldn’t take off her clothes, she couldn’t unbind her breasts despite the fact the bindings had bitten into her skin, judging by the constant chafing pain in her sides, she couldn’t wash off the grime of the road, except by splashing a few handfuls of water into her face. She was damn envious of the other four for their ability to disrobe down to their braies—thank God, they never got any further—and jump into the nearest stream.

Then there were the stares. Curious stares because she never disrobed, never joined them for a swim, almost always averted her eyes or disappeared when they bathed. Almost, because she wasn’t blind, and they were very excellent specimen of male beauty. One in particular. The same one that’s also been giving her stares. Not too much curious, as to...God only knew. Whenever she looked at Aramis, there was a strange expression on his face, half-pain, half-anger. As if he was constipated or something. Well, if he was, it certainly wasn’t her fault.

She was poking at the fire, wishing he’d look at her differently, but knew he never would—he thought she was a man, after all, when the four joined her in their little camp. All clean and fresh. Bastards.

“I don’t know about you,” Aramis said, dropping his doublet onto his saddle, and started tying the strings of his shirt, leaving Alec staring at his chest with longing, wishing he’d leave the shirt undone. He had a very nice chest. “But I’m hungry. And I’m not in the mood for anything you’d cook.”

“A farmer recommended we visit the tavern in Gaillac. Their cassoulet is supposedly the best in France.”

Aramis frowned down at her. “What farmer?”

“The one who passed me on the road with his cart.”

His frown deepened. “I didn’t see any farmer. Or his cart.”

“That’s because you four were all frolicking in the lake.”

They all looked offended.

“Musketeers don’t frolic,” Porthos groused.

“And it’s more of a pond,” Athos corrected.

Alec rolled her eyes. “Fine. The farmer passed me on the road while the four of you were relaxing your achy muscles in the pond.”

Aramis shrugged. “Don’t get all prissy, boy. You could’ve been relaxing your muscles right alongside us.”

She shot to her feet. “I don’t get prissy. And my muscles are just fine, compared to yours, grandpa.”

Athos stepped between them before Aramis could succumb to the urge to grab the kid and throw him into the pond. He could read it in his eyes, so Athos thought it best to diffuse the situation.

“Why don’t you two go ahead and see if they’re still serving the cassoulet. We,” he motioned to him, Porthos, and d’Artagnan, will be right behind you.”

As the two mounted their horses and rode toward the village in sullen silence, Porthos nudged him with his elbow. “We could’ve easily gone along with them. Why the head start?”

Athos sighed and shook his head. “Something’s not right between them. Hasn’t been from the start. And it’s getting worse. We better give them an hour, hope they work it out.”

Because if they didn’t, whatever was bothering Aramis and Alec might prove to be a liability. And they couldn’t afford one now. The two better settle whatever was wrong, or he’d punch both of them until they wished he’d kicked them instead.

They’ve been sitting in silence at the table for almost an hour and there was still no sign of the other three. Alec resisted the urge to curse. And fidget. The not-fidgeting part was proving to be much more difficult than the not-cursing one. Because she itched everywhere. She was dusty, sweaty, itching...And getting crankier by the minute, glaring at Aramis’ head as he stared down at his barely-touched tankard.

She’s had enough. “What is your problem?”

He slowly lifted his head, looked somewhere over her shoulder. “Excuse me?”

“I asked what your problem was.”

A nonchalant shrug. “I don’t have a problem.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right. And I’m the Virgin Mary.”

He glared at her. “Don’t go invoking the Mother of God’s name in vain, boy.”

“I’ll do whatever I please, grandpa.”

“Don’t call me grandpa,” he hissed between clenched teeth.

She had an epiphany. “So that is your problem. Me calling you grandpa.” It was her turn to shrug. “Then stop calling me a boy.”

There was a flash of...something in his eyes. “You are a boy.”

She squeezed her fingers into a fist. “I’m four and twenty, grandpa.”

“I’m only thirteen years older than you,” Aramis snapped.

“And that’s why I don’t call you daddy.” She snapped her mouth shut the moment the words were out of it. Damn it, someone could call him that. Should call him that. Damn her, her big mouth, and her bruised heart.

There was pain in his eyes when he glared at her, and he opened his mouth, but stiffened, as a buxom blonde sat ran her fingers down his arm. “Hello, handsome. Do you mind if I join you?”

The blonde plopped down on the bench beside him, looked at him through her eyelashes, and smiled at him. Since she still had all her teeth, at least those visible, Alec deduced she was younger than she looked, with her face all painted up. Then she looked at Aramis and the pained expression on his face almost made her chuckle. He looked like he was being quartered, and she didn’t know why. The girl looked quite lovely.

She barely managed to swallow her jealousy, when another buxom girl, this one black-haired, and a little older than the first, slid into her lap. “Aren’t you a gorgeous fellow,” she cooed, running her finger down her throat. “Looking good enough to eat.”

Alec gently clasped her wrist as the inquisitive fingers threatened to dip under the collar of her shirt. “I’m not looking for company, tonight,” she said quietly, gently. “You’d better try your luck elsewhere. But thank you for honouring me with the offer.”

She pouted, but when she saw Alec was serious, smiled. “You are a true gentleman, aren’t you? Whoever you’re pining after, I hope she’s worth it.” She snuck a quick kiss on the lips, and went in search of other prey.

“Remove your hands off my person,” Aramis snapped at the blonde, “and go look elsewhere. There’s nothing for you here.”

When the blonde stomped away in a snit, Alec cleared her throat. “You could’ve gone with her, you know. I can wait for the others, I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Why didn’t you take the offer?”

Alec silently stared at her companion across the table. She knew why he didn’t go with the blonde. Or the black-haired one. Or all the others before them in all the taverns before this one. She knew, and her heart hurt at the truth.

“For the same reason you didn’t.”

Aramis steepled his fingers. “And what reason is that?”

“Because we’re both in love with a person who doesn’t return our feelings.”

Aramis frowned. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, really.” Alec chuckled mirthlessly. “Trust me, I know how unrequited love looks like.” She waved her finger in front of his face. “Just like that.”

He shot to his feet. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he repeated.

Alec also stood. “I know exactly what I’m talking about, it’s you that’s in denial.” The pitch of her voice has changed, but she didn’t care. “You think she loves you, you think that because you’re the father—”

He was around the table in a blink of an eye, grabbed her upper arm. “Shut up,” he snarled, leaning over her.

She wouldn’t be intimidated. “I won’t shut up, you bloody idiot. If you refuse to see the truth, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You’re deluding yourself that she loves you, but she doesn’t.”

“Don’t push me,” he growled, their noses almost touching.

She did push him. Away from her as she continued glaring up at him, but he didn’t budge. “She doesn’t love you, you fool. She just used you. It didn’t even have to be you, just the closest available cock would’ve sufficed.”

One moment she was standing upright, his hand clasped bruisingly around her upper arm, and the other she was sprawled on the dirt floor, her lip split, and hurting. But not as much as her heart. He’d hit her. Aramis had hit her, Aramis had hit a friend. He’d chosen a lie, an illusion over a friend. He’d chosen a lie, an illusion over her. In her head, she’d known he could never possibly love her, she’d deceived him, lied to him, but in her foolish, love-struck heart she had hoped. Hoped that the love he held for Queen Anne was more a love for an ideal, for a what-if, that it was an infatuation, easily replaced.

No more. She’d finally gotten the push she needed to forgo her foolish hopes. There was no more space in his heart. No matter how much it hurt, she finally accepted it.

She closed her eyes for a second, centring herself, steeling her heart, then gazed back at him. She knew what he’d see. He’d see the haughty, nothing-can-touch-me mask she’d perfected for those occasions she had to appear before King James and his court. She wiped the blood off her lip with the back of her hand, and stood. Aramis looked as if he was waiting for her to hit him back, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. However he made her feel didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was her brother.

She calmly looked at him. “The first one is free,” she said icily. “Next time you hit me, you better hope you knock me unconscious.” Then she turned, and calmly strolled out of the tavern.

“So much for them working it out,” Porthos muttered in the shadows by the door.

Athos sighed deeply, as he stared at Aramis, who stood ramrod stiff in the middle of the tavern, looking right past them, through the door into the night in which Alec Reynaud had disappeared. His friend’s eyes were troubled, sad, and filled with a deep, soul-rendering pain. The eyes of a man in love with a woman he could never have.

“What do we do now?” d’Artagnan whispered.

He should be worried about Alec riding off by himself, but the kid wasn’t stupid, he needed their help. They just had to let him cool his heels for tonight. Tomorrow they’ll...Think of something. He was fresh out of ideas how to deal with the mess Aramis and Alec have created tonight. As far as Aramis was concerned, Athos figured the best course of action was getting his friend blind drunk. It had worked before.

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