The fête was truly lovely, a great mix of elegance and charm, and Clothilde might have been enjoying herself if her hip, leg and back hadn’t ached so damn much. She knew she shouldn’t have stayed so long—and she particularly should have found a way to avoid dancing—but she’d wanted to ensure that Rémy’s friend, Annelise, had a good time. She used the term ‘friend’ liberally, since her brother’s relationship with the young American event planner was obviously much more romantic and complex than mere friendship. To help Rémy, she’d needed to draw Charles Pinkston, Annelise’s boss, away.
Without conceit, she knew that she was a woman who men considered to be very beautiful, and it seemed that even the pain she’d suffered since the accident hadn’t lessened her appeal too much. And so, to give Rémy and Annelise more time together without the older man’s kindly interference, she had danced with Charles twice, as well as completing several circuits of the ballroom with him. Later, she’d made an additional full tour of the party with Annelise alone, introducing the American to some of Montreal’s young elite. Luckily, a number of her close friends had been in attendance, including Pauline Cartouchel and Élodie Carillon. Both women would be excellent for Annelise to claim as acquaintances in Montreal society.
Now Clothilde’s feet weren’t thanking her but were aching in their stylish, strappy heels, shoes which she would have worn without a second thought only a year ago. Worse, though, putting her body under the strain of wearing heels and staying active for so long had made her newly healed muscles and bones positively throb with pain, like a hot flame was crawling up from the balls of her feet into her left leg, hip and now along her spine.
She tried to hide a grimace under a flirtatious smile, and she must have succeeded, because Charles Pinkston finally, blessedly, said a charming good evening to her, kissing her hand. He was such a sweet man, who obviously missed his late wife terribly. She held herself still for a moment as she watched him walk toward the door before allowing her shoulders to droop just a little bit to ease some of the stiffness that she knew she was going to pay hell for over the next several days. She froze as she swore she could almost feel the heat of disapproval from behind her. Marc Constantin.
She felt his approach more than heard him, like a big predator, stalking on silent feet.
“You’d better sit down before you fall down, Duchess.” His tone was hard and angry, but there was an underlying tenderness. Or maybe I just wish there was—which she knew was ridiculous, since as her bodyguard, it was his job to watch out for her. Literally, taking care of her physical well-being was in the job description. Yet she felt goosebumps rise on the wealth of bare skin on her chest, arms and back, exposed by the daring cut of the dress. When she turned her head to look at him, his dark blue eyes blazed with some strong emotion.
“I’m fine,” she answered, her tone clipped.
He raised one pale eyebrow, his skepticism obvious.
“Right. Is that why, when you think no one’s watching, you look like one strong puff of air would make you topple over?”
She turned fully toward him, drawing her annoyance around her like a cape.
“I’m having a wonderful time,” she insisted, even as her joints burned with protest. “Didn’t anyone tell you? I’m a total social butterfly, the darling of Montreal society. That’s what all the gossip sites say.” She didn’t know what about Marc Constantin made her so desperate to goad him, but she couldn’t help herself. Regardless of her bright tone, though, her left leg and hip, the side that had taken the brunt of her car accident six months earlier, began to tremble, in spite of her best efforts. She hoped that the tremors were so subtle that Marc wouldn’t notice, but she should have known better.
“Screw this. I’m calling for the car and we’re sitting down now,” he pronounced and took her elbow with a growl, leading her toward one of the quiet alcoves in the tastefully decorated hallway just outside the ballroom. Anyone looking at them would have seen a well-dressed security guard very properly escorting a beautiful young woman in an evening gown, albeit perhaps a little closely. But while Marc’s grip wasn’t painful, it was firm and unrelenting, with no give at all. Much like the man himself, she mused. She was too damn tired to fight his hold, anyway, considering she’d been dreaming of sitting down on one of the cushioned benches herself for at least the past hour.
The relief from the pressure on her joints was instant and profound as he settled her on the thickly padded bench, and she had to stifle a groan of pleasure. Surprising her, he slid in next to her, so close she could feel the heat that he continually seemed to give off. Surreptitiously, she inhaled his rich, fresh masculine scent. He always smelled like he had just come in from outdoors, even when she knew he’d been inside for hours. He turned the focus of his angry gaze on her again.
“Why do you let them tell you how to act?” he asked, but it sounded more like a demand.
Clothilde narrowed her eyes.
“That question is totally inappropriate,” she huffed.
He looked unrepentant. “I notice you didn’t deny it.”
She stared straight ahead, unwilling to acknowledge his comment. She was done answering to anyone, especially any man not related to her. Since her relationship had ended with her childhood sweetheart and ex-fiancé, Claude—Claude, who had wanted to tell her what to wear, who to meet, how to act—she had vowed never to diminish herself for another man again.
His posture relaxed infinitesimally, and some of the anger on his face seemed to fade, replaced by resignation.
“Keep your secrets, then. But answer this… Do your brothers even understand what it costs you to pretend to be normal so they don’t feel so bad?”
Clothilde couldn’t help turning to look at him in surprise at his softly spoken question and the understanding behind it. Normally, she would continue to refuse to answer or tell him he was way off base. This time, something in his eyes, so warm and understanding, was too compelling to ignore.
“I don’t want them to know,” she admitted. “It was so hard for them when I was miserable, then when I almost died, it was breaking their hearts. I want them to think that I’m normal. They deserve a normal, happy sister.” It felt good to say the words out loud—and even better to say them to Marc.
He was silent for a long moment, then laid one large, scarred hand on top of her pale, smooth one where it lay on the table. “You don’t have to keep up the act with me, Duchess.”
It was funny, but the sarcastic nickname he’d given her the first day they’d met sounded more and more like an endearment now.
“I…ah…I speak from experience when I say that if you keep playin’ a role for everyone, you’re gonna to lose something you might not be able to get back.”
A dull flush rose in Marc’s tan cheeks, and he looked uncomfortable, as if he regretted saying so much. The urge to ask him to tell her more about himself practically tugged at her lips, but she tried to fight it. Up until that moment, she’d gotten the sense that asking Marc anything at all about himself was completely off-limits. From the background check her family had run before hiring him, she knew he was American and ex-military. He’d recently left the service with high honors, and he’d been married and divorced years earlier. Even without the background check, she would have recognized he was from Boston, from the accent that was usually faint but which became stronger when he was angry. But he’d never volunteered anything else.
“Is that what happened to you?” she asked, almost in spite of herself.
He rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably, and his jaw hardened. “Shouldn’t have said anything. Forget it. Go ahead and push yourself until you drop.” As he spoke, his tone became terser until he was almost spitting the words. He hadn’t removed his other hand from hers, and his grip grew harsh.
He started to get up, and she knew she should let him, but she just couldn’t allow him to walk away with that cold, angry expression on his face. After months of watching each other, and exchanging pointed remarks, she didn’t want him to leave their first real conversation like this.
“Fine…forget I asked. It’s none of my business. Just don’t go away angry,” she said softly, and he halted his movements. “Please,” she added, when he still seemed frozen in indecision.
He sat back down heavily, and deep satisfaction flared in her chest. No, it was more than that. She felt the warmth of a tentative truce, and maybe something more…like the beginnings of friendship.
“I know you don’t like me, Marc—”
His harsh laugh interrupted her.
“Don’t like you?” His smile was humorless, but no less devastating. “Is that what you think?”
Confusion rose inside her, and she didn’t even try to hide it.
“Of course. It’s obvious. I mean, I know you’re committed to your job, but everything you say… I can tell that I irritate you.” She paused, thinking back over all the pointed barbs over the past few months, the way his eyes followed her, stormy blue-gray and angry. “The way you talk, the way you look at me, as if you loathe me sometimes—”
He was shaking his head, and there was something else in his expression that she’d never seen before. “No, sweetheart.”
She was as shocked by his gentle tone as by his calling her ‘sweetheart’, which sounded more like sweet-haht with his accent.
“I should let you keep thinking that, but…I want you to know the truth. Well, some of the truth anyway.” His laugh was dry. When he looked at her again, his eyes glowed in the dim light. “I don’t loathe you. I look at you because you’re so fuckin’ beautiful, like a goddamn star from the sky.”
Her mind reeled, unable to process what he was saying. “But you hate touching me… You pull your hand away,” she whispered.
He leaned closer and trailed one hand, work-roughened and scratchy, down her bare shoulder. She shivered.
“I pull back because I like touching you too damn much.” His voice was a low growl now, and she should have been wary, but instead she felt comforted—warm and safe in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time. He was a large man, tall and broad, with blunt features that individually might have been too harsh, but which combined were undeniably compelling. He had a magnetism, at least for her, so that she couldn’t turn away from his rough, masculine beauty.
She was so close to him that she could feel the vibrations of his phone in his pocket as it went off. He coughed uncomfortably as he took it out, breaking the spell.
“Car’s out of the side door,” he said. He was so ridiculously careful of her, doing things like arranging for the car to come to an unexpected door instead of the front. She’d always thought he was just thorough at his job—and he certainly was that—but now she wondered if there was more to it.
She gave a curt nod and wiggled her way out of the alcove, feeling a flare of heat at the slight pressure of his hand on her bare arm. He must have signaled the attendant to bring their coats, and he slid hers on with aching tenderness that made her heartbeat speed. Walking again, after too short a break, made her body scream, her nerve endings sizzling with pain. She took carefully measured steps, one after another, breathing through the worst of it, but Marc must have sensed it anyway as he held her arm more firmly, lending her some of his strength. She shot him a grateful smile, but his face was like a thundercloud as they stepped outside into the icy night air. The side alley was relatively quiet, but someone in a dark overcoat, so bundled up that she couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, hurried by just as the driver was opening the door of the sleek black sedan, jostling her into it.
At the contact of her bad side with the hard metal, she felt a jolt of pain so intense that it stole her breath so she could only make a muffled whimper of sound, and her eyes filled with tears.
“Goddamn it,” Marc growled, his tone one of icy fury, but the harshness of his voice was offset by the tenderness of his movements as he lifted her to settle her into the car. He crouched down, looking torn between going after the stranger who had carelessly pushed her and staying by her side.
“Shit, sweetheart, that looked like it hurt. Are you okay?”
The genuine concern in his voice was her undoing. She tried to nod, to reassure him, but suddenly, all of it was too much. As the pain swept through her, turning her cold then prickly with heat, it overwhelmed all the careful defenses she’d so painstakingly erected during her long recovery. She felt something hot on her face, and reached up to touch the tears in surprise.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” she murmured, honestly confused. “I never cry anymore, at least not where anyone can see me. It just seems to make everyone feel worse.”
“Aw, sweetheart, you’re killing me.” He got into the car, shifting her over with one smooth movement, even as he closed the door and pulled her coat off, and he dragged her to him so that she was sheltered under one massive shoulder, her side pressed all along the warmth of his body. He turned his face into her hair, inhaling deeply. When he spoke again, his voice was low, hoarse with conviction. “You cry as much as you want to.”
The rough velvet of his voice, the faint smell of leather from his coat, his warmth and his complete solidity—as if he were an immovable megalith—all blended together to shatter her usual resolve completely. She only had an instant to wonder at the suddenness of the feelings—almost like a drug—before sadness engulfed her entirely. She pressed her face into his chest and sobbed for the pain of her body, which no longer cooperated with her wishes, but also for the dreams she’d lost and the fear she lived with, for the terror that still haunted her every night, every time she got into a car or went next to the river in Montreal that she’d once loved so much. Instead of holding himself stiff, or pulling away, Marc stroked her hair and murmured soothing sounds, his breath warm on her temple.
A mild jolt told her the car had started moving, and she heard Marc raise the partition, saying something about her being hurt at the party. Their driver, Serge, who had known her since she was a little girl, would be worried, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
She should have felt mortified—she knew she would feel awful about this soon—but instead, a strange calm stole over her, followed by a surprising warmth, centered between her legs.
“Better, sweetheart?” Marc’s voice was rough but tender, close to her ear.
“Much,” she murmured. “Feels good.”
Marc tightened his arms around her. “I shouldn’t be holding you like this.”
Clothilde pressed closer, nearly climbing onto his lap. Something—maybe his closeness—was intoxicating, and the warm arousal was morphing into something hotter. She pressed her thighs together uncomfortably.
“What about kissing me? Should you do that?” She didn’t know where the throaty temptress’s voice came from. Sure, she’d indulged in a few secret fantasies about Marc, but she hadn’t intended to act on them this way. Now that she’d said it, she couldn’t be sorry, though.
“No.” Marc’s tone was clipped on the one word, and his body tensed.
She stretched so that she could whisper into his ear. “What if I need you to?”
The lines of his body were so taut that she could almost feel him fighting against himself.
“Want you, need you, so badly…” She nearly whimpered as she rubbed herself against him, suddenly desperate to feel his mouth on hers, his hands all over her. She only had a millisecond to wonder at the sudden urgency before an inferno of need swept through her body.
“Never thought our first kiss would be like this, sweetheart, but God, I’ve dreamed of it for so long,” he ground out. His words seemed to break through the wall of reserve that he always kept up, and he pulled her to him until her softness was crushed to his hardness, surrounded by the strength of his arms, before he slanted his mouth over hers in a kiss that devoured her…claimed her. The kiss was bold and sure but simultaneously protective and caring, just like Marc. His flavor was sweet, with a touch of cinnamon, like the apple-spiced cake he’d eaten earlier. His lips were firm but tender as he sucked and teased, before stroking into her mouth with his tongue on her gasp of pleasure.
Her core had gone molten at the first touch of his mouth, and as he continued, she began to buck her hips against him, craving more contact. A little voice in the back of her mind whispered that she’d never felt like this before—had never been anything like this at all, and she was acting utterly out-of-character—but she ignored it, too consumed by how amazing Marc felt.
Her nipples hardened under the thin fabric of her dress, and she pushed them toward him as she twined her arms around his neck, pulling herself so she sat partially on his lap, and he lifted her the rest of the way with one muscular arm. Oddly, her arms felt a bit heavy, so that the movement wasn’t as easy as it should have been, but she didn’t really care as long as she could get closer. The change in position put her directly on top of the proof of Marc’s desire, hard and thick below her, and the feel of him rubbing against her core ratcheted up her arousal to new heights. She couldn’t help but give a little shiver against him, making him break off their kiss with a groan.
“Damn, that feels amazing.” His voice was strangled, and his eyes were dark with passion as she looked down at his face, before he lowered his head to kiss her neck. It set off a riot of sensation, and she threw her head back, thrusting her breasts toward him in a blatant invitation. They had always been such a challenge—sensitive and so full for her slender frame, her nipples prone to tightening—so that some designers hadn’t liked to work with her during her modeling days because of her bosom. Marc’s expression as he stared at their bounty, however, was almost feral.
Still, he seemed to rein himself in. “Are you sure you want me to touch you that way, baby?” His words were more of a growl than actual language, and it sent a quiver of need throughout her body.
She didn’t have to think. She was starved for his touch, everywhere, and so empty that she was aching. “Need your mouth and hands everywhere,” she breathed, nearly whimpering with lust.
“Your wish is my command, Duchess,” he answered, his voice harsh with desire, and pulled down the top of her dress, along with the cups of the silky strapless bra she wore, releasing her soft mounds.
“God, been dreamin’ of doin’ that all night…every fucking night,” he confessed, his voice so low that she wasn’t sure she was meant to hear it. He dipped his head to lave one nipple and her back bowed as she gave a cry of need.
“Sensitive, hm-m?” he asked.
She nodded shakily in reply. “Oui,” she whispered.
“Let me try something a little different, then.” His voice was gravelly, so sexy that the vibrations alone were giving her goosebumps, but then he gently sucked one nipple into the warm haven of his mouth, and she lost all power of thought. Dimly, she felt him ruck up her long skirt so he could work one large hand to where she needed it the most as she rocked against him, breathless and giving little huffs of air on strangled moans.
“God…you’re so wet, you’re dripping.” Marc’s voice was wondering, reverent. She knew that she would have normally been embarrassed by the extent of her blatant lust, but she was beyond the point of caring as Marc circled her bud with exquisite gentleness. Even as light as his touch was, his fingers felt white-hot and set off a wave of sensation so overwhelming that she soared headlong past the point of ecstasy into sheer, mindless bliss, clutching at him helplessly as she exploded, then went nearly limp in the aftermath, her vision seeming to tunnel before it righted itself.
“You’re glorious, sweetheart….my God, even if I shouldn’t have done that.” Marc didn’t sound very repentant, and his small smile was self-satisfied.
Clothilde felt amazing, but her mind was starting to feel a little sluggish…confused. “Why not? Did I have too much champagne? Have…” Now it was harder to get the words out. She really must have had too many glasses. Had she? “Have to be…careful,” she finished, but she slurred.
Marc’s body went rigid underneath hers, but with tension rather than desire. “You only had one glass.”
Somewhere, dimly, part of her mind was screaming at her to recognize something, but everything felt fuzzy. “Marc?” she managed, or a word that sounded sort of like his name.
“What is it? What’s wrong, Clo?” She couldn’t even be happy that he’d finally called her by her nickname since he also sounded distinctly alarmed.
“’s ih bad…’f I can’t feel m’legs?”
“Shit…shit, shit, shit!” Marc lifted her off him and ran his hands up and down her sides and along her stomach. “He didn’t run into you… He attacked you, and I was too much of a motherfucking horny asshole to recognize the signs! Does anything hurt?”
He knocked on the divider and barked at the driver what sounded like an order to take her to the nearest hospital, and the car lurched forward. As he grabbed her to keep her heavy body—why couldn’t she lift her limbs?—one of his hands connected with her side and made her whimper.
“Hurts,” she moaned. “Don’ tell my brothers…’m’hurt…again.”
In the flickering of one of the streetlamps that now seemed to be flying by, she saw an agonized expression on his face that would have made her gasp if she could have gotten enough air.
He pulled the fabric of her dress aside, and his expression hardened. In that instant, he looked every inch a warrior, the hero who had gone into battle countless times and kept going back until the job was done.
“He jabbed you with something, but we’ll figure it out.” He shook his head. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. So fucking sorry I touched you and didn’t realize…”
She should have been afraid, but the fuzziness was turning into full-on lamb’s wool, filling her brain with silence. “S’okay,” she slurred, trying to reassure him. It seemed really important, so she forced her lips to form the words. “Forgive you.”
His eyes were shiny and anguished in the low light as her vision faded.