Paris, October 1858
“Ariane, if you do not take that bored look off your face, you are never going to get a husband.”
Ariane de Valmont barely managed to suppress the temptation to roll her eyes in exasperation. Instead of curving her mouth into a semblance of a smile, she flicked open her fan and held it so that only her eyes were visible.
She refused to be amused, even though the catchy tunes of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld tempted her to tap her foot in time with the music, and the antics of the very human Greek gods frolicking around on the stage were hilarious. Instead, she let her gaze wander around the audience.
The theater, charming despite its overabundance of gilt decorations and red velvet, was full, and the lights had been only partly dimmed in deference to the fact that the audience itself was as much a part of the entertainment as what took place on the stage.
The ladies, either alone or in the company of parents, chaperones, or, since this was Paris, after all, lovers, occupied the boxes, and the men, who were either unattached or pretending to be so, were in the stalls. She might be the only one whose mood was not in tune with the gaiety that seemed to pervade the theater like the opulent scent of a sensual perfume, Ariane noted sullenly, but she was certainly not the only one whose attention was elsewhere than on the stage.
Smiles, waves, flutters of fans, flirtatious looks, discreet hand signals flew back and forth with dizzying speed. It was just like a horse fair back home, she sniffed. Men came from all around the area with horses, their manes and tails braided with bright-colored ribbons, hoping to attract a rich buyer. The only difference here was that the price for a wife who was blue-blooded, rich, or both or a beautiful, accomplished mistress was infinitely higher—for the buyer and the seller both.
The thought that she was no different from them all did not improve her mood one bit. Her father had dragged her to Paris to make a broodmare out of her, she thought grimly. All he cared about were male heirs for the Valmont fortune. A fortune that would not exist if she had not been running the estate so successfully in recent years, she grumbled to herself.
So, here she was on display, wearing a highly fashionable and extravagantly expensive gown made of yards and yards of pale lavender silk, her blond hair carefully coifed and adorned with a row of matching silk roses, which some poor seamstress had labored over for hours. The thought alone of just how much the haughty Parisian dressmaker, who had descended on their château with her army of seamstresses for an entire month, had cost, soured Ariane’s mood still further.
She had tried to point out to papa that they would be far better off if they used the money for repairs on the stables. But he had merely given a disparaging wave and reminded her they had plenty of money. She had not bothered to mention that the only reason they did was that she spent much of her time diplomatically circumventing every decision he made about how the estate should be run—if he even bothered to make a decision.
Shifting a little, she looked down at the stalls. The men, she decided, were as given to smiles and flirtatious glances as the women. They all seemed to be wearing either elegant black and white evening dress or uniforms, so colorful and decorated with such quantities of gold braid that she was sure they would not have been out of place on a stage. Their sideburns were lavishly curled, their mustaches raffishly twirled, and they all looked as if they had never done an honest day’s work in their lives. How could her father possibly expect her to choose a husband from such a sorry collection of fops, she asked herself—even if she had been disposed to want a husband at all?
Suddenly, her gaze stumbled and came to an abrupt stop. It was his hair that caught her attention first. The tawny mane with just a touch of curl brushed his shoulders in contradiction of every fashionable dictate, making him look like a lion in the middle of so many motley tomcats. And the color! It was streaked in a dozen different shades of blond—from the color of pale, sun-bleached wheat to a deep honey color. Her fingers curled with the unconscious desire to touch.
Her gaze followed the straight, clear lines of his profile that reminded her of faces she had seen on Roman coins. She had always wondered what a profile like that looked like from the front.
As if he had divined her thought, he turned slightly and looked up directly at her. Ariane lowered her fan and shifted forward, wishing she could see the color of his eyes.
Ariane did not know it, but her face lost that studiously bored look, the corners of her mouth tipped up in the barest hint of a smile, and her stiffly held shoulders softened enough for her mother to slant her a look.
Marguerite de Valmont saw the expression on her daughter’s face change and smiled. Leaning back in her gilt and red velvet chair, she allowed herself a small sigh of relief. It would be all right, after all, she thought and turned her attention toward her husband.
The Greek gods capering on the stage coaxed an absent half-smile onto Christopher Blanchard’s mouth, but most of his attention was on the people in the audience. He had lived in too many places where your chances for survival rose proportionately to your ability to judge the people you were dealing with precisely and instantaneously. And from his own childhood experiences in Paris twenty years ago, he knew all too well that Parisian society could be quite as deadly as any gold town in California, if perhaps more subtly so. And yet, he thought, it was this very Parisian society that his father had pined for all his life.
Chris had been in Paris a week, long enough to acquire an exquisitely tailored wardrobe and to comprehend that the main motor of Parisian society was the pursuit of pleasure, money, and power.
He had also ascertained that Comtesse Léontine de Caillaux, his father’s sister, still lived in the same severe mansion that he remembered all too well. And he had discovered that the money from the sale of the gold mine, which he and his father had jointly owned, had gone to buy shares floated by an investment bank owned by his half-brother—his legitimate half-brother.
His roving gaze paused as it brushed a woman attractive in the way of a full-blown rose. She was leaning against the balustrade of her box, her crossed arms beneath her breasts unapologetically emphasizing her creamy bosom. Meeting his gaze, she plucked a flower from the bouquet that lay in front of her and slid it over her mouth in flagrant invitation.
“Suzette Lavalier is one of the most expensive courtesans in Paris,” his neighbor murmured. “But rumor has it that her skill is worth every franc and more.”
“Actually, my taste runs to women who have not been sampled by half the male population.” Chris grinned at Roger de Monnier. He felt comfortable in the younger man’s company although their acquaintance was only a few days old. “I’m not nearly old enough to need a woman’s skill.” His grin grew just a shade wicked. “And besides, I like to think that I have skill enough for both of us.”
“I am certain you won’t have a problem finding what you want.” Roger smiled back at Chris, wondering if there was some way he could duplicate the American’s not-quite-civilized aura that seemed to attract so many inviting female stares. “Paris has something for every taste.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
As they both turned back to face the stage, Chris felt a tingle at the back of his neck. Because his instincts had saved his hide more than once, he tipped his head up and to the side and unerringly homed in on the eyes watching him over the top of a lilac-colored fan.
Still keeping her eyes on his, she absently lowered her fan to the balustrade of the box, and Chris felt the jolt right down to the pit of his belly. A jolt that spread a heat not unlike the fire of whisky on an empty stomach.
At first glance, her luscious beauty might look delicate, but there was an audacity there, accented by the bold tilt of her eyebrows. She might look like a soft Aphrodite who would come easily to a man’s bed, but he suspected that she was a proud Athena instead. She would fight surrender, he mused, but if won … his blood stirred at the shockingly explicit image.
His gaze drifted down to her mouth. The corners tilted upward in the merest hint of a smile as she continued to look at him with a directness that another man might have found unnerving or improper. But there was little that unnerved Chris, and he had scant patience for social niceties, so he answered in kind. Instead of the discreet bow that convention would have required, he tilted his head back in a gesture that was a challenge rather than a decorous greeting.
The young woman’s mouth turned serious again. Her eyebrows drew together, but she still did not look away. No, she kept watching him, and under her gaze, he felt the heat in his belly spread. Well, well, he thought as his mouth curved, perhaps his stay in Paris would bring him new, pleasant memories to replace the old, ugly ones.
Ariane watched the stranger tip back his head. She was not well-versed in the games men and women engaged in, but she understood a challenge better than most. Although she frowned, wondering just what it was that he was challenging her to and why, she was distracted by the sheer, untamed beauty of the man. The movement of his head had his incredible mane of hair rippling back so that it caught the light, and she found herself wondering what it would feel like to run her fingers through it.
When she saw his mouth tilt upward in a smile that managed to be both boyishly charming and insolent, the appalling thought that he had read her mind had her stiffening. Still, pride would not allow her to look away.
“Roger, who is that?” Chris did not shift his gaze away from her face as he spoke. “The golden-haired one in the lavender gown.”
Roger de Monnier leaned forward, and recognizing the young woman, lowered his head in a well-mannered bow.
“That is Comtesse Ariane de Valmont. She and her parents have come to Paris for the season,” he said. “She’s older than most of the debutantes, apparently. God knows why her parents kept her buried in the country for so long. No hint of scandal though,” he hastened to add.
“Would you like me to present you?” Roger felt a flicker of regret. He had been rather taken with the young comtesse himself, but now, seeing the way she and his new friend were staring at each other, he had no illusions about his chances with her.
“I would like that.” Chris sent his friend a quick smile before his gaze returned to the young woman.
“She is a young lady of good family.” Roger gnawed at his lower lip, not quite sure how to phrase what he wanted to say without insulting his friend. “And this is not—” he coughed discreetly, “—the American West.”
Slowly, Chris turned to face him fully, and Roger almost recoiled at the way the other man’s light green eyes had cooled. “I-I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t worry, mon ami. I may be an uncivilized American in your eyes, but my parents were easily the equals of anyone here tonight. I know what conduct your society demands—” he paused and raised a tawny eyebrow “—on the surface.”
“I meant no insult.”
Chris relaxed and smiled. “Then I shall not take it as one.”
In unison, both men turned back to the stage, where the singers had arranged themselves for the finale of the act.
Damn, Chris swore at himself. Why had he let Roger’s words get to him like that? He had been so certain that he no longer cared what they thought of him. Was that not why he had come here? To put all those old ghosts to rest? To exorcise all the old memories?
All these years, he had told himself that none of them mattered any longer. Now, he realized he had been lying to himself. He was not as indifferent as he wanted to be. The memories still stung.
Applause surged up in a wave as the curtain came down, but most of the audience was already engaged in orchestrating the intermission.
Ariane had carefully kept her gaze on the stage for the past minutes. Now, as the audience began to chat and move around, she allowed her gaze to drift back over the stalls. The blond man’s seat was empty, and she suppressed the flash of pique, assuring herself that she cared nothing about his whereabouts.
“I think I’ll go visit Justine de Monnier in her box,” she said, turning toward her mother. But she saw that her mother was not listening to her. Instead, she was looking up at her husband with undisguised adoration, hanging on to every word of whatever it was he was saying to her.
Shrugging, she rose, but before she could move away from her chair, her father shot her a displeased look.
“Sit down, Ariane,” Pierre de Valmont said. “I’ve told you that one stays in one’s box at intermission to receive visitors.”
“If everyone stays in their box, then who are the visitors?” she asked with a feigned artlessness.
“Don’t be impudent. Now s—”
A knock at the door to their box interrupted him.
“You see,” Valmont said, pleased, his irritation with his daughter forgotten.
Ariane returned to her chair with a huff. “If it’s that pudgy little duke with the pig’s eyes,” she retorted, “I—”
“Will be polite,” her father finished firmly and invited the visitors to enter the box.