A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Twenty-One

She leaned back against the pillar. Her arms were around his neck, his around her waist, their bodies fused together from hip to mouth. The night air was crisp, and fragrant with the aroma of the last of the blooming flowers in the garden. The soft breeze whispered gently in the treetops, fusing with the songs of the crickets. It was a perfect moment. A moment to savour, a moment to remember. A soft, pliant woman in his arms, her lips moving sensually under his, her whimpers sweet music in his ears. He kept the kiss slow and tender, never wanting this moment to end.

But everything in life ended.

With one last gentle bite on her lower lip, he released her mouth, and leaned his forehead against hers, their gazes holding.

Her eyes saddened. “Nothing’s changed, has it?”

He didn’t pretend not to understand. “No.”

She pushed at his chest until he released her, stepped away. “You know the truth now. There’s not a drop of noble blood inside me, I’m a bastard, I’m of lower birth than you. My mother was a whore, and the only reason I actually have a family is because they bought me.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “I don’t care where you came from, your parentage doesn’t matter.”

“I understand.”

No, she didn’t. She would never understand. She thought he didn’t love her, and she couldn’t be more wrong. He could tell her the truth. That he loved her. Loved her more than he’d ever though it possible to love someone. But he couldn’t. He shouldn’t. Because she’d never understand why he insisted on pushing her away, while the answer was so simple. He was a coward. It was easier to push her away now, to not tell her, to let her go, than to make her unhappy and miserable later on. It was easier to feel sorry for himself, he could admit it, than to grasp what happiness he was offered. She wasn’t for him. And he wasn’t for her.

“You deserve better.”

She rolled her eyes. “What do you know what the daughter of a Romani prostitute deserves?”

“Stop it,” he snapped. “Your mother was a courageous woman willing to do anything for her child. You’ve inherited more than her beauty, you’ve inherited her spirit. You’re your mother’s daughter.”

“And a Duke’s sister,” she said bitterly. “Even if not by blood.”

“Exactly,” he continued calmly. “And a Duke’s sister deserves someone who can offer her everything and more. Someone who can provide for her, someone who can shield her from the gossip, someone who can provide her with a respectable name and lineage.”

“Who do you think will want me?” she asked. “Everybody’s heard rumours, and those who have not, the likes of the Cumberlands are quick to rectify that.”

He released a frustrated breath, shook his head. “Your brother will—”

“Robert will never force me to do anything I don’t want. Unlike what you believe, only I can dictate my life. Nobody else. Me. I know what I want. I know what I deserve.”

She was magnificent, her body vibrating with anger, her eyes sparking with fury. She drew him in, made him wish and hope for things he could never have. But at least he could touch her, hold her for a little while longer before she left his life forever. He lifted his hand toward her cheek, but she sprung away before he could touch her.

“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. “You said it yourself, I deserve better. I deserve more than scraps from any man. I deserve more, I deserve it all.” She nodded toward the ballroom. “You can go back to your carefree life, back to your friends, to the mother of your child. Who knows, maybe she needs a spare,” she spat. “Go back into the arms of all the willing women who ask nothing in return. After all, it’s there that you belong.”

And she melted into the shadows of the garden, leaving him cold and bereft, wanting nothing more than to follow her, promise her everything. Promise her eternity. But it would be an empty promise and soon she would come to resent him, regret. It was better to end it now. It was better this way. His heart plunged into his stomach as he turned the corner and almost slammed into his three friends, met the Queen’s teary eyes.

“Why?” she whispered. “Why didn’t you tell her?”

“Eavesdropping is something unbecoming a Queen,” he said, glowered at the other three, and strode back toward the ballroom.

“You’re a coward!” Anne called after him.

Alexandra was still seething as she marched deeper into the garden. She supposed it was easier being angry. Anger directed at someone else prevented her from feeling sorry for herself. Because what could a woman who has fallen in love with a man who didn’t return the sentiment do but feel sorry for herself. And although she didn’t have much practice with the feeling, she was a quick learner. Too quick. Hence, a bout of anger was in order.

Aramis was an idiot! Yet he wasn’t. He was smart, witty, and eloquent. Honourable, handsome, valorous, chivalrous, a protector...This wasn’t helping. She needed to be angry with him, not admire him. Her mother, both of her mothers, would’ve approved of him. So would her father. He was everything a woman wished for in a husband. Minus a fortune. But to her, money wasn’t everything. Respect and honour were much more important—

A sound behind her made her scowl as her anger rose anew. Why did he follow her? She whirled to give him another piece of her mind, but it wasn’t Aramis behind her. It was a brute of a man easily over six feet with mangy hair, scarred face, and an eye-patch over his left eye. His good eye ran up and down her body as he leered and she felt her heart in her throat. Without a weapon she had no hope of fending him off, and it was obvious what he wanted. Her only option was to scream for help and make a run for it.

She opened her mouth, but before any sound could emerge, a hand clamped over her lips as an arm shackled around her torso, forcing all the air out of her lungs. She hadn’t heard anyone approaching from behind, and she wanted to kick herself. She’d forgotten the most important thing her father had taught her. Always know what’s behind you. But the story she’d told Aramis had dredged up memories. She’d seen the man leering at her, taller, stronger, known she had no weapon to defend herself, and the old fear of ending up like her mother had resurfaced. Making her sloppy.

“Is this her?” the man holding her asked.

Eye-patch nodded. “Plain dress, dark skin.” He leaned closer to her face. “Pale eyes. It’s her.”

She narrowed her eyes. This wasn’t a crime of opportunity, it was premeditated. If it wasn’t rape, what was it? Then realisation struck. Abduction. They had no idea about the havoc the gossiping Cumberlands have already wreaked, they were making sure the treaty didn’t see the light of day. Why else would someone come to the Louvre to kidnap the dark-skinned, pale-eyed woman in a plain dress? For the same reason they’d abducted Robert in the first place. What was it about this damned treaty that someone didn’t want it to be signed? Or was it England this someone didn’t want a treaty to be signed with? Whatever the case, she’d be the leverage this time. Well, tough! Because she refused to be leverage.

She leaned back against her captor, lifted her legs, and kicked at the Eye-patch with all her might. It was like kicking a stone wall barefoot. She’d forgotten about her stupid slippers. She wished she’d worn her boots. The ones with the hard wood sole and the steel heel. Her captor increased the pressure on her lungs, and black spots appeared in her peripheral vision. But she refused to go down like that. She writhed, she kicked, she screamed behind his palm until her air ran out.

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