Jeanne du Marchand knew the precise moment her life shattered. She was able to pinpoint the exact words, recall her shocked intake of breath, and feel again the swift and frantic fluttering of her heart.
However, there was no hint of the events soon to come on that glorious September morning. The cloudless blue sky framed a lovely early autumn day. The breeze, carrying the scents of lavender and roses, filtered into the house from the garden. Even the birds in the aviary were innocent and naïve, singing a paean to a dawn already come and gone.
Skirts swinging, she made her way down the corridor to her father’s library. One of the footmen pushed open the floor to ceiling high door, and she walked inside, waiting silently for her father to notice her. As a child, she’d often come to the library, at first summoned by her father for some infraction or another. In the last few years he’d sent for her for another reason entirely. She’d begun to think of his questions about her lessons and her retention of them as a game and his smile a prize.
However, she’d rarely been required to report to her father lately. Nicholas, Comte du Marchand was a very busy man and Paris itself seemed feverish with activity this autumn. Everywhere she went Jeanne heard stories of the American war. England was losing, and France, as an ally of the young country, was ecstatic.
Their Paris home was lovely and the library one of the most beautiful rooms with its gilt edged ceiling frescoes, and panels depicting scenes from their ancestral chateau of Vallans. The walls were painted a deep coral, a striking backdrop for the portraits of the du Marchand ancestors in their heavy gold frames. Marble columns of pale coral ringed the room, as tall as the ceiling and topped with gold acanthus leaves. A magnificent carpet lay beneath her feet; the pattern of green and gold leaves framing an oval of beige. At the end of the room a swag of coral and navy fabric attached to the ceiling framed an upholstered settee with bolsters at each end. A visitor rarely sat there, however, choosing instead one of the intricately carved chairs near her father’s desk.
The books her father personally vetted were located on the second floor of this chamber, a space accessible by a staircase located at each end of the room. Normally, he sent Robert, his secretary, to fetch a volume while he remained seated behind the most dominant feature in the room, a massive desk crafted of mahogany and carved with a relief of grapes and flowers, each symbol a reminder of Vallans.
Paris might provide both cultural and political interests, but Vallans was the birthplace of the du Marchands, a fact her father never allowed anyone to forget.
Jeanne remained where she was, patiently waiting, arms behind her, bearing erect, shoulders straight, a posture he’d corrected often when she was a child.
“Stand up straight, Jeanne. You are a du Marchand. Do not look down upon the ground as if you are ashamed of your place in the world.”
Her father finally glanced up and put his quill down slowly. His look wasn’t the fond one he normally gave her. Nor was there anything of pride in this glance. He crooked one finger in her direction and she knew, suddenly, why she was here. Moving to stand in front of the desk, she fingered the locket her mother had given her and willed herself to calm.
Justine must have told him.
She’d long suspected that their housekeeper was her father’s mistress. Even if they did not currently share a bed, Justine went to him with every concern, and it was obvious that she possessed a great deal of power. There wasn’t much that occurred in either their Paris home or at Vallans that escaped Justine.
Justine must have discovered from her maid that Jeanne was becoming ill in the morning, and that her dresses were beginning to fit too snugly.
“Is this true, daughter?” He stared fixedly at her midsection. “Are you with child?”
“Yes, father,” she said, feeling a tremor in her stomach that thankfully, wasn’t conveyed in her voice. She’d thought to hide her condition until Douglas could address him and plans could be made for their wedding.
“You are certain?” He lifted his gaze to hers.
“I am.” She smiled. Even her father at his most furious could not dampen her joy.
“Then you have shamed the name of du Marchand.”
His voice sounded so disinterested that he might have been commenting to a stranger about the weather. If she had been wiser, she would have been wary of the look in his eyes. Gone was the fond affection and in its place a distance she’d never before seen, as if he’d simply stopped feeling anything for her at all.
He looked down at the papers in front of his desk as if dismissing her. She knew better than to leave, however, until he gave her permission.
“Douglas and I will marry, Father.”
Her quiet comment drew a sharp look from her father’s secretary, a man who’d been present during most of her meetings with her only living parent. Robert shook his head almost imperceptibly, but she only smiled at him, used to getting her own way.
Her father’s eyes, the exact shade of gray as hers, looked up disinterestedly.
“We’ll marry,” she said, taking another step toward the desk. “I love him, Father. Douglas comes from a good family, at least the equal of the du Marchands.” She was buoyant with joy and no doubt foolish with it. But he must be made to see.
“You have shamed the du Marchand name,” he said again.
It was true that she’d disobeyed countless rules in order to meet with Douglas almost every day for the last three months. She’d gone behind her companion’s back, pretended appointments that had not existed, friends who’d not been in Paris. She’d twisted the truth until it looked like a braid. But she’d told herself that a lie for a good reason was acceptable. After they married, however, there would be no more falsehoods, no shame.
“We cannot be the first couple to have anticipated our wedding, Father,” she said, smiling. “No one will know, especially if we marry soon.”
She couldn’t help but feel that God Himself had forgiven her even if her family priest had not. Father Haton had promised dire consequences in retaliation for her behavior, but Hell seemed so far away, especially when Douglas was near.
Now all she must do is convince her father.
He threw the quill he was using down on his desk, uncaring that it splattered droplets of ink across his documents.
“Your lover has left France, Jeanne. He’s had his fill of you.”
The shock she experienced was only momentary, banished by disbelief.
“It’s not true,” she said, and this time her father’s secretary, sitting beside the desk, blanched. She should have taken her cue from him. As the minutes ticked by, her father remained silent, leaving her to feel the full brunt of his words.
“It’s not true,” she said again, shaking her head. “Douglas couldn’t have left. He would have let me know.” They were planning on meeting just this afternoon. Today she was going to tell him she was with child.
“Oh he’s gone, Jeanne,” he said, his thin lips pursed in a smile. Opening a drawer, he extracted a letter and handed it to her. It was the note she’d given her maid to take to Douglas.
She felt sick. Her hands were frozen but she reached out to take the letter, gripping it tightly so that she wouldn’t drop it. Resolutely, she took a deep breath and looked at her father.
“There’s a good reason he isn’t here,” she said. “But I know he’ll return.”
Her father stood and rounded the desk, coming to stand in front of her. A tall man with broad shoulders, he was a very imposing figure in oratory and an even more daunting personage this morning. But she could not afford to be cowed, not when her future was at stake.
“When he comes back, we’ll marry, Father. There’ll be no shame to the du Marchand name.”
He swung his hand back and struck her, the large crested ring on his finger biting into her skin. She made a sound, a yelp, a startled half scream that was both surprise and pain. Taking a step back, one hand went to her cheek, the other to her waist as if to protect the tiny child inside her.
“You whore,” he said softly. “Do you think I’d allow you to marry an Englishman?”
“He’s Scot,” she said, a comment that earned her another blow.
Her father’s secretary stood and gathered up some papers, leaving the room. The door made no sound as he closed it hurriedly behind him.
The joy she felt when entering the room had turned to fear, so quickly that she felt ill. She’d known of her father’s xenophobia, of course and his dislike for all things that weren’t French despite the fact that he, himself, had married an English Duke’s daughter. But she’d thought to dissuade him in Douglas’s case. After all, she was his only child, his spoiled darling, and half-English herself. If anyone could convince the Comte of anything, she could.
“Would you be more forgiving of my sin,” she asked rashly, “if my lover had been French?”
He didn’t strike her again. He only smiled a very curious smile and returned to his chair. The wide expanse of desk acted as an island between them.
“I had great hopes for you, Jeanne, but you have chosen your own future, it seems.” He began writing again, dismissing her by his actions and his tone.
“What do you mean?”
He glanced up. “I am sending you home to Vallans, daughter. In the time allowed you, feel free to contemplate what you’ve lost by your actions. Or spend the time until you give birth dreaming of your absent lover, if you must.” He smiled and dipped his quill into the inkwell again.
“And after that?” she asked. A drop of blood from the cut on her cheek rolled down her face. She angrily wiped it away, determined he would not see her flinch. “I will not marry a man of your choosing, Father.” He had never made a secret of his desire for a political alliance with her as the prize.
“You will not have to, Jeanne,” he said coldly. “No man of my acquaintance would have you. He’d want his bride to come unsullied to his bed, not as used as a Paris whore. You’ll be taken to the Convent of Sacre Coeur,” he announced, standing once again. “To live out the remainder of your days in obedience. If you’re fortunate, perhaps, you’ll become a woman of power and influence, but only after you manage to convince the church that you regret your sins.”
“And my child?” she asked, feeling chilled to the bone. “What will happen to my child?”
As she watched him smile, she realized that he’d already made plans. The grandson or granddaughter of the Comte du Marchand would simply disappear, an annoyance that would no longer annoy.