“Mademoiselle Beauchamp! Please get that young woman out of the way,” said Mother Hildegarde.
“Of course.” I grabbed the girl by the arm. “Annalise darling, they can’t stitch up your poor Charles if you're laying on his wound.”
Annalise was in the middle of letting off a keening lament at the loss of a few drops of her beloved’s blood. Her eyes were puffy and full of tears, fear etched in every line of her face.
“He’s going to be alright, you know,” I said, handing her a cloth to wipe the downpour from her face. “It’s little more than a scratch.”
“Oh thank goodness. When he was struck by that Scottish sauvage, I feared I’d lost my darling Charles forever.”
“Oui. Seigneur Fraser. James Fraser.”
“And why did Seigneur Fraser strike Charles?”
“Oh,” she giggled. I tried not to roll my eyes at the young lady’s emotional lability. “Seigneur Fraser witnessed Charles bestowing affection on me and challenged him to a duel.”
“And where is Seigneur Fraser now?” I worried he was lying dead in a field somewhere, seeing as how Charles clearly won her hand.
Annalise shrugged as if it was inconsequential. “He injured my sweet Charles. The moment I saw blood, I rushed to my beloved’s side to offer him aid.”
I tried to picture what her “aid” was comprised of—tears and moans of agony, most likely. The foolish girl was probably enjoying every minute of this. I imagined the young, dashing Charles fighting a wild, tartan-wearing Scottish Highlander for the hand of the lovely, self-enamored Annalise.
What bloody idiots. It had the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy.
“I'm surprised you brought him to the charity hospital,” I said. “I would have thought you’d prefer to see a physician at your own house.”
“Oui. Our physician was not at his residence, and I was fearful that he would not be attended to in time.”
I looked once again at the injured abdomen. The wound hardly broke through his skin. “Hmm. It’s a wonder you got here in time. Who knows what would have happened if you had delayed.” Perhaps it would have healed on its own.
I kept her occupied until Charles was bandaged up and ready for a visitor. As Annalise rained kisses over his face, Mother Hildegarde came to my side.
“What a waste of time,” I grumbled, knowing the physicians had more urgent cases to attend to.
“Not a waste, my child,” said Mother Hildegarde.
The corner of her mouth turned up in amusement. “I’m sure the lovely young woman will be ever grateful for our life-saving intervention. God willing, she might offer a considerable donation to show her gratitude for our efforts.”
I chuckled as I unpinned my apron from my dress. “And hopefully encourage all her friends to do the same.”
“Well, I’d better be off. I was meant to meet my steward at the house an hour ago.”
“Will we be seeing you tomorrow? We could use your assistance with the expecting mothers.”
“I’ll certainly do my best. I have a meeting with a distributor in the morning, and you know how that can be.” I’d be lucky to remain sober before noon. “Bonsoir, Mother Hildegarde.”
“Bonsoir, my dear.”
“Miss Beauchamp, there you are,” said my young and excitable steward, Alex Randall. He rushed toward me with a quill and stacks of parchment in hand.
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry I’m late.” I removed my gloves and hat, dropping them into the waiting hands of my housekeeper. “Tell me. How is everything today?”
Alex was flushed and sweaty—more so than usual—which told me he was exceptionally nervous about something. “It’s the Comte de Maurepas, Miss Beauchamp.” He audibly swallowed and wiped his brow. “He...has decided…to...”
“Out with it, Alex.”
“He’s decided...to no longer continue his business arrangement with you. He’ll be purchasing his spirits elsewhere.”
“What? Why? Is it because I’m a woman?” It wouldn’t be the first customer I’d lost since Uncle Lamb died last winter because I didn't posses a cock.
“No, well, we can’t be certain of such things, but…”
“I was informed the Comte was charmed by Jared Fraser’s nephew who has been visiting from Scotland.”
“Fraser? Why does that...No!” The brute responsible for Charles winding up at the hospital! “His name wouldn’t happen to be James Fraser, would it?”
“I believe so.”
“Just so, Miss Beauchamp.”
“Alex, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you, please call me Claire.”
He gave an uncomfortable, formal bow. “Of course, Miss Claire.”
The problem was that Jared Fraser and his bloody nephew were men. They were able to woo customers away from expiring contracts, because I wasn’t allowed into half the places they had access to. Private audiences with the king, gentlemen’s clubs, and brothels. And Alex wasn’t really capable of socializing in the French courts because he couldn’t procure an invitation as a steward. I worried that what was left of the decades-long business relationships that my uncle and father developed would be dissolved by the end of the year.
I had to figure out a way to keep their business, and that meant finding a seat at their table—one I wasn’t invited to sit at, much less do business.
“If I may,” said Alex nervously, “it might be a good time to reconsider—”
“No!” I snapped. I cringed at my snappish response. “You know where I stand on the idea of marriage for the sake of the business. Nothing has changed in that regard since our last conversation.”
“Pardon me for overstepping, but—”
“The subject is closed, Alex.”
“But, Miss Beauchamp—”
“Miss Claire, apologies, but I cannot keep this business afloat for long if we don’t have someone to partake in social events with our clientele. I have word that Fraser’s nephew arranged a meeting with several innkeepers even at Mason Elise tomorrow night. If you were married, your husband could—”
“Could what? Take over my family’s business? Philander around with whores at a brothel? You’re out of your bloody mind.”
“Claire,” said Alex, shaking his head, “it’s the only way to—”
“I’ll tell you this, Alex Randall. The only way a man will take possession of what's mine will be over my cold, stiff, dead body. Do I make myself clear?”
“Of course, Miss Claire.”
“I don’t want to hear your suggestion of marriage again.”
Alex nodded and kept his mouth closed, but his objections were still painted clear on his face. And the worst part was, he was bloody right. If I refused to marry, my livelihood was as good as gone.
“You’re drunk!” said Louise, giggling brightly.
“I most certainly am not.” I spoke with as much dignity as I could muster while nearly tripping over my own feet as I walked into her room. I held on tightly to her arms, overwhelmed with the fresh scent of roses on her barely covered skin. It took me a moment to realize she wore nothing but a robe.
“Yes, you are. I’ll join you in your intoxication presently.” She sent a servant away to bring champagne.
“Have I interrupted anything?” I asked. It wasn't a planned visit.
She made a throaty French sound and waved off my concern. She pulled me inside, waltzing us over to a rococo chaise lounge where she sat back and relaxed into the seat. At a small table beside her, a woman was mixing a large jar of wax and preparing cloth strips for hair removal.
“Oui,” she pouted, putting out a martyr’s leg to the groomer.
When the servant returned with our drinks, Louise snapped out another order. “Mademoiselle will need a robe and a chair.”
“I wasn’t planning on being violently tortured this morning, but I suppose plans change.” I tipped back my champagne flute and let the bubbles fondle my tongue.
“Mmmm,” I hummed. It was a bottle I’d given her last month as a birthday gift. A very delicious and very expensive champagne.
“Ouch!” she shrieked as the groomer ripped off a large strip of wax. She tipped back her entire glass and held it out to be filled again. “The things we do for our lovers.”
I had no lover at the moment—nor had I ever had one—but that didn’t stop my friend from keeping my body prepared for taking one on should the inspiration arise.
A servant clumsily helped me out of my dress as I tried to keep myself upright. Louise laughed at my inebriated struggle to get fully nude while the groomer applied wax to another large portion of her leg. The servant helped me into a robe and brought me over to Louise, pulling forth another chaise seemingly out of thin air. I sat back and returned to my drink, enjoying the sparkling prickle of bubbles on my lips.
The first time I witnessed Louise’s grooming, I did my best not to stare at her naked body that always seemed to be attempting to escape from the confines of her robe, but now I no longer averted my gaze. She was never bothered by a little attention.
I flinched sympathetically when the wax was ripped off and Louise gave off a high-pitched squeal. The groomer applied pressure to the tender skin in an attempt to ward off pain.
“Tell me, mon amie,” said Louise, “why are you so drunk before noon?”
“Oh, I had a meeting. You know how it goes. Everybody wants to taste the product, and no one wants to drink alone.”
“Are things getting any better?”
“No. Worse, in fact. Jared bloody Fraser and his stupid nephew are stealing clients from me every time I turn around.”
“You really should get married. Let a man take care of things for you.”
“Don’t you start with that too.”
Another strip of wax was ripped off. Another squeak of pain. “Your problem is that you’re a romantic, Claire, wanting to marry for love. But love in marriage never lasts.”
“I don’t want to marry for any reason at the moment.”
“Make a reasonable match, mon amie . Then you can run off and help at your hospital all you want, and you will only have to be drunk in the mornings when you choose to be.”
“If I marry, I’ll probably be drunk every morning for other reasons.”
“I can help find you a good husband, if you like.”
“No, thank you. I don’t want one at all.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, with a lazy flick of her hand.
I watched the groomer finish off the bottom half of her legs, yanking off the hair, then applying pressure to the skin. When she finished there, she moved up to Louise’s thighs.
“You know, I wouldn’t have to consider marriage if those bloody Frasers weren’t stealing my clientele at brothels and gentlemen’s clubs every night. If I could find a way to compete—”
“You could waltz into the brothel, buy a whore, and sell your spirits,” she laughed out the words.
“Or maybe,” she spoke more seriously, “I could invite friends of my husband to our house and ply them with your wine and whisky while you sell them everything you can.”
“You would do that for me?”
“Of course. It will be so fun to thwart the Scots at their own game.” She shrieked again as the wax was yanked from the fleshy part of her upper thigh. “We can also invite my friends to parties and pressure them to purchase your spirits when they host us in return.”
“Thank you, Louise—” My voice trailed off as she spread her legs wide so her groomer could tend to the space between. She was glistening with moisture and had to be wiped down and dried before the wax could be applied. Her natural musk danced subtly in my nose and made my insides clench a little, as it always did when she waxed, making my intoxication all the more potent. “Thank you,” I went on. “You don’t have to put yourself out for me.”
“It will truly be my pleasure. Now, come. Hold my hand while this wretched beast tortures me and all my lady parts.”
I took her hand and watched as the groomer applied the wax and ripped it off bit by bit. Louise drank heavily, doing her best to catch up to me.
When the groomer was done, she moved between Louise’s legs to tweeze the little hairs the wax left behind.
“Have you spoken with Mary?” I asked. “She hasn’t come by the house since my last dinner party weeks ago.”
“Oh, oui,” she snickered. “Foolish girl. She met your steward at your party and fancies herself in love.”
I had noticed Mary’s cheeks flush a little more than usual when Alex talked to her. “Oh dear. I expect she’ll wish to stay away from my house then. Perhaps I’ll call on her at her uncle’s tomorrow.”
“Why would she wish to stay away if she is in love?” Louise seemed genuinely curious.
“Because she’s betrothed to another man.”
“An old warty toad. That does not mean she can’t have a lover.”
“Isn’t that exactly what marriage means?”
“No. Quite the opposite.”
The groomer finished her tweezing and pulled out a bottle of hyacinth oil to remove the excess wax residue on Louise's skin. I put out a cupped hand to help as I’d done many times before. She poured the fragrant substance into my palm, careless of it dripping on Louise’s skin. Her whole body would be covered in the stuff in moments anyway.
I drizzled the oil over Louise’s chest and arms as the groomer did the same to her legs. The groomer began massaging it into her feet, and I started with her hands.
“I don’t think Mary has the same values as you when it comes to marriage,” I said.
Louise shrugged. “As I said, she’s a foolish child.”
“Is it really so foolish for her to want affection for the man she’ll be tied to for the rest of her life?”
“It’s not foolish to want or even wish for such a thing, but it is foolish to believe that kind of life is actually possible for most women in this world. You, more than anyone, Claire, understand the unfairness imposed upon our sex. We must find ways of fulfilling ourselves despite such injustice.” Her blue eyes held mine with a surprising fire. “Think of it as a minor rebellion for being forced by her family to bed a two-legged amphibian.”
I couldn’t explain the lurch in my stomach or the jolt in my heart. Perhaps it was the alcohol. Maybe it was my hands on her skin or the flowers in the air. I’d like to think it had more to do with the passion of her words.
As flippant as she generally pretended to be about the unfairness between sexes, it affected her, Marie Louise de La Tour d'Auvergne, wife of Jules de Rohan, Prince of Guéméné, as much as anyone. Except she found a way of living with it that didn’t leave in her tears every night.
But it still was a burden she carried, just as I did, just like Mary. Louise’s quiet awareness and disapproval of our plight, and the cold fire burning beneath the surface of her blue eyes, left me more than a little breathless.
I rather liked the idea of little joyful rebellions.
Louise held my gaze as my hands rubbed the oil under her arms and over her shoulders, and her eyes never left mine when my fingers glided over her throat, catching the wild thrumming of her pulse.
“You think she should take Alex as a lover to spite the unwanted union?” I asked.
“I think she should find whatever pleasure she can in a life that would be miserable otherwise.”
I was shocked to feel one of Louise’s fingers slick with oil touch the tip of my nipple. I looked down to find my robe was wide open and my chest was flushed bright red by her touch.
Her eyes met mine while her finger circled my nipple ever so lightly. My lungs inhaled heavily, pushing my breast toward her finger, as though my insides were taking it upon themselves to demand more.
Her lip curved with teasing amusement that made me wonder if she was toying with me, but her French eyes told the truth of her pleasure. From there, I seemed to have no inhibitions as my hands moved down her chest and to her breasts, rubbing the oil into her skin.
Dear God, she was soft. Fleshier than me in the breasts, though much less in the arse. I rubbed my thumbs around her nipples and sank my fingers into her plump breasts, squeezing more than I had any right to for the sake application of a little hyacinth oil.
She closed her eyes, and a quiet moan escaped her lips. Her head fell back against the chaise and her legs spread open once again.
I noticed the groomer had conveniently stopped at Louise's thighs and moved away to attend to her supplies. I wondered if Louise had wordlessly sent her away.
I dropped one of my hands down her belly to the raw, bare skin of her quim. The oil slid over the sticky wax, soothing the battered skin and making it shine beautifully. I rubbed it into the creases that led to her thighs and over her soft, full lips.
She moaned when my finger dipped between, oil mixing with natural lubricant to combat the uncomfortable pull of the wax. I touched her all over, eagerness mixing with substantial fear, making my hands move far slower than they really wanted. I followed the trail of wax down the line of her buttocks and around the rim of her puckered hole, my thumb still massaging the oil through her folds above.
When the wax was rendered useless by the oil, my fingers pulled away and waited for her to respond. Her eyes opened with a lazy heat, and her mouth smiled with mischief. “Your turn, mon amie.”
And that quickly, I laid back and peeled off my robe, exposing my body to both her and the groomer.
Louise held my hand and my gaze as all of my body hair was epilated from the neck down. I didn’t remember feeling even one little bit of pain.
When it came time for the oil, Louise took the bottle from the groomer and sent her and the other servants away.
“Shall we find our own little joyful rebellion, Claire, as we ready our bodies to take on other lovers?”
I felt a bit of maniacal giddiness, an almost grandiose invincibility in my befuddled state, though whether it was due to the alcohol or the woman shedding her robe next to me, I didn’t know.
She stood over me and lifted the oil, pouring it out from up high. It was warm on my skin, and began dripping down to the chaise below. I tried to stop it with my hands, slick fingers sliding over slick skin, but Louise laughed and kept pouring. She poured it over my breasts, aiming for my nipples, then down over my legs and quim.
I rubbed the oil over my limbs, removing the uncomfortable residue of the wax. I ran my fingers through my quim and between my buttocks to eliminate the irritation of skin sticking together in my most sensitive parts.
I’d finally given up on attempting to keep her furniture clean and laid back on the chaise, watching her naked body lord over me, glistening with the shine of oil.
She sat down next to me with that devilish smile and ran her hand over my skin—belly, breast, neck, and lips. She bent forward, her breath tantalizing my moist skin, then pressed her mouth gently against mine.
I didn’t move. I lay there and let her place her kiss against my lips with a warm feminine softness. When she pulled away, her hand dropped down to tease my breasts, massaging with a confident hand that had most certainly done such things to other women before.
She pinched my nipples and twisted them left and right, making me suck in a breath and squeeze all my muscles below. I was achy now, and growing ever more desperate.
Her knowing smile was beautiful and infuriating. I lifted up and kissed her, biting down on her bottom lip.
“Mmmm,” she gave a throaty French groan, licking past my teeth and into my mouth. I kissed her again, sealing our lips and licking her tongue. One of her hands moved through my hair, gripping it hard, holding me in place as our friendship grew all the more intimate.
When she pulled her floral tasting lips away, she pressed her forehead to mine and held my gaze with hungry eyes. She watched my face as her hand moved down to my quim. She inhaled my gasp when her fingers slid between and dipped inside. She giggled when I moaned and rocked against her hand, her palm massaging the outside while her fingers pressed in.
Never one to take things lying down, my hand moved to give her the same pleasure, touching and rubbing just like she did for me. Our lips collided as we rocked against each other’s hands. Our kiss grew rough and messy, and her fingers sped their rhythm.
I pulled my hand away and gripped her breast as climax tore through me. She rubbed and fingered me throughout, kissing me softly and watching me fall apart.
I tried to touch her again when my body settled, but she pushed my hand away. Instead, she climbed over me, fitting her quim over my spread legs and kissing me once again.
Her hips rolled over and over, rubbing against my pelvic bone, a shock of pleasure jolting through me with every thrust of her hips. Our slick bodies found no grip against each other as she grinded down on me—soft, wet, pink skin rubbing more soft, wet, pink skin. She moved faster and faster, moaning against my mouth, grinding harder and harder.
She found her climax on me, and I rocked up against her, gripping her buttocks, and found another of my own. On and on we went, and I vaguely wondered how long this could possibly last, certain we’d never find a way to stop.
I slept off the pleasure- and alcohol-induced haze throughout the afternoon in Louise’s bed. I woke up before supper with her fingers in me and her mouth on my lips again.
After I finally dressed to go home and kissed her soundly at her bedroom door, my thoughts turned to her words from when I first arrived that morning. “You could waltz into the brothel, buy a whore, and sell your spirits.”
After the events of the day, her ludicrous suggestion almost didn’t seem so foolish anymore.