Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
By: Karen Lee
Disclaimer: Hi. My name is Karen and I am a Frogaholic. For many months, I thought I did not have a problem. If someone else thought I was throwing my life away, writing turgid fan fic about bare-chested Froggy gents, then I figured that was their problem, and that they should just loosen up. Because, after all, I could quit any time. I just didn't want to quit, you see, but if I wanted to quit, I'd just quit. No problemo.
Now, however, over a hundred pages later, I must admit that it is I who have the problem. I cannot seem to face a future devoid of the opportunity to mangle French phrases, to write more and more scenes in which amorous Frenchmen are undressed by disreputable middle-aged actresses, and to wallow in Gallic cultural snobbery. Dark days lie ahead and I will need the help of you, my support group, to resist the temptation to continue the saga of the good bad Frog.
Thank you. And now, I hope you enjoy the end of my sordid little tale of what REALLY happened between Kitty Cobham, Don Massaredo, and Col. Etienne De Vergesse, characters originally brought to life in Meridian's 'Duchess & the Devil' episode of Horatio Hornblower.
April 1802-Peace of Amiens-London-Drury Lane
(Five Years Later)
Kitty Cobham sat at her dressing table, wiping the dark rings of makeup she had put around her eyes for the last act of Macbeth. She frowned; pressing harder with her sponge to get the stubborn bits of greasepaint that lurked uncooperatively in the lines fanning out from around her eyes and on her softly wrinkled lids. Though still younger in appearance than the middle-aged London matrons grown stolid and worn from many years of childbearing, who streamed into the theatre district each night with their prosperous looking husbands or widowed friends, she felt every one of her forty-five years.
She was exhausted; this evening's performance of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy had been more draining than usual. After many years on the stage, she had learned to detect the "presence" of someone of importance in her audience, even if the darkness which shrouded the "Royal Box" behind her footlights and stage lanterns revealed nothing to her eye.
Tonight had been that sort of evening, and she wondered why. She had had the uncomfortable sensation of being in the last moments of a gathering storm before the first lighting crashed from the sky, as black clouds boiled overhead and the wind suddenly ceased to blow. But she had not expected a "personage" to be present in her audience this late in the run. The company had performed Macbeth for nearly a month, and everyone of rank and title and consequence had already seen it, if they were ever going to.
She vigorously brushed out the white powder she had used to age her still-abundant hair, admitting wryly to herself that the need for such artifice was growing less with every passing month. Threads of genuine gray aggressively invaded every thick lock she held bunched in one hand as she applied the hairbrush vigorously with the other.
Two more performancesand then? Perhaps her unsettled sense came from her realization that the starring roles she could play were becoming fewer and farther between. Kitty had not yet made peace with the idea of being an elderly character actress. There were few of those, many such roles still being filled by older actors who were more than willing to put on a gray wig, false breasts, and a high-pitched voice for the chance to earn the price of their gin and squalid lodgings. Kitty did not intend to accept such a fate. She had always been the star. By God, she had always been the one they came to see.
She began to work the fastenings of her dress, annoyed that her dresser had not yet arrived. There was a knock on her door.
"Come in! What the devil has taken you so long," she called out with irritation. "I cannot be expected to get out of this dress without your help!"
Her answer was a sort of pregnant silence.
"Mary, is that you?" she asked, cocking her head as she listened.
"No," came the answer, a man's voice. "But I would be delighted to offer my assistance."
Kitty sat very still. No, it could not be. It simply could not.
She said, her voice sliding easily-back into a long-abandoned Northcountry accent, "'Oo is it?"
"DeVergesse. May I come in?"
"WHAT do you want?"
The door was not locked. He could open it at any moment. She hastily dabbed powder and cream around eyes and mouth still reddened from the removal of her stage makeup, and made a frantic attempt to put her hair up into something like the current Grecian style, but quickly realized that was impossible.
Why, she wondered, should she care how she looked? It had been five years. Perhaps he, too, had changed. Perhaps he was merely a ghost conjured up by her still guilty conscience, a figment of the imagination brought on fatigue and a certain sense that when this play ended, that a part of her life would end with it.
"We have unfinished business, Madame," came back to her, in all the old silken menace. No, not a ghost.
"Then you'd best come in," she said, and grandly drew the door open. "What are you doing here? Oh, I AM sorry, I am forgetting my manners. Did you find Macbeth pleasing, Sir? And why," she continued, all fatigue suddenly banished by the sight of her old nemesis standing in her doorway in that remembered, faintly-insolent, elegant slouch, "are you not DEAD! Mr. Hornblower assured me you were very dead indeed! I thought I had gotten you KILLED."
"Disappointed?" He smiled faintly at her over roses so red that they made mockery of the blood she had been unable to wash from her hands before the audience that night.
The first time she had ever seen him, he had stood framed in her opened door-young, colt-legged, and awkward, with startling blue eyes and a fistful of wilted roses. The second time she had seen him, he had been mature, assured, insufferably confident and splendid in his French Colonel's uniform. He had offered her half of a pomegranate and two days of fear, apprehension, longing, triumph, and finally a crushing sense of guilt and loss that made her physically ill. This time, he stood in her doorway, dressed in a high-collared dark coat of severe elegance, over a silk waistcoat of the most delicately striped sea green. And this time, he had not brought her a fistful of roses, but an entire living bush.
"No," she said, overwhelmed, shaking her head in soft wonder. "Never that. Appalled, certainly. Revolted, upon occasion. Never disappointed. Is that for me?"
He glided easily to her dressing table on still muscularly-lean legs encased in tight-fitting cream pantaloons and gleaming Hessians, and placed the pot beside her mirror. The room filled with their fragrance. DeVergesse regarded the rosebush with no small satisfaction, fussily plucking a few dead leaves from the foliage and crumbling them between his fingers.
"But of course. It was not easy to keep it alive and blooming all the way from the South of France, but I felt that Le grande gesture was appropriate under the circumstances."
Kitty's mouth felt completely dry, but she had not missed the tell-tale tremor of the petals as he placed the rosebush on her table, nor could she mistake the fevered gleam of excitement in the cold blue eyes. He was nervous as she was, jumpy as a cat.
"I-, I am," she stuttered, a deep shuddering breath escaping from her chest, "re-, relieved. Yes, I am relieved to see you alive. Sir." She held out her hand.
DeVergesse looked pleased by this revelation, and bent low over her hand to kiss it, making a most elegant leg. He had changed, she observed, but unlike herself, the five years that had passed had only deepened his formidable attractions. His hair, now shorn of its queue, had silvered attractively at the temples to soften the new lines in his tanned face, but the curls that had made her fingers itch to explore still carpeted his head in thick, tight coils and fell artistically over his brow. A few more lines around his eyes only served to emphasize their unusual blue color, and the form so poorly concealed beneath the exquisitely tailored clothing was still the same robust male physique she recalled-with the lean hips and muscular thighs of a cavalry-man.
He seemed to read her thoughts and drew himself up even taller, regarding her lazily, but not in any threatening way.
It was not fair, she thought. God, I hate this Frog.
"You asked me what I was doing here. In case you have not been keeping up with the London papers, our countries are at peace," he smiled, half-sitting on her table and inviting her to return to her chair with wave and a graceful inclination of his head.
She did, perching primly on the edge of it, still wearing the rough gray robes of mad Lady Macbeth. It was not the ideal dress for entertaining an elegant Frenchman in one's dressing room, she admitted inwardly, positively squirming in her seat from the discomfort of being caught at such a disadvantage-a discomfort she would feel with any well-looking man, but most particularly this one.
"Naturally, I receive all the London papers just as your Intelligence officers take great care to read all the Paris Gazettes. At least, we hope they do," he smiled mysteriously, "but I digress. I have followed your career with no small interest, Madame, and so naturally, when this treaty was signed and the French and the English can once more travel for pleasure to each other's countries, I was delighted to find that you would be appearing onstage. I resolved to have the pleasure of seeing you act once more. It may be my last such chance, who can say in these crazy times?" He smiled. "This truce is only temporary, everyone knows that. A brief lull between battles. A pause to reload."
"And that is all? You came all this way just to see me in Macbeth? I find that difficult to believe."
"Which I did find, since you asked, very pleasing. I can see that you lost none of your formidable talent for acting through lack of opportunity to practice your art during captivity in Spain." He smiled mischievously.
"I had you to thank for some of that, Sir."
And, of course," he continued smoothly, reaching out draw his finger slowly across her powdered throat, "the main reason I have come here is to exact my revenge."
"Oh, really?" Kitty's confidence flooded back at his unexpected gentle touch. "It is revenge, then, is it? Well, do your worst! But be careful, Sir, and recall what happened the last time you tangled with Katherine Cobham!"
DeVergesse's eyebrows shot up in amused surprise.
"How could I ever forget the mortal peril of engaging Madame Cobham in a battle of intrigue and wits?" he said. "And for that mortal peril alone, I demand satisfaction. But apart from that small, insignificant matter of nearly getting a Spanish bullet in my brain courtesy of Don Massaredo's riflemen, I believe that you still must have something that does not belong to you?"
A question, not a statement.
And you, Sir, have perhaps taken something from me that should never belong to the likes of you, Kitty thought with irony.
A statement, not a question.
Another hesitant knock sounded on her door.
"Yes? Who is it?"
The door was opened with a great deal of harrumping and scraping of evening slippers on the uneven boards outside her dressing room.
"My dear Miss Cobham!"
"Sir George!" Kitty exclaimed, leaping to her feet. A portly older man stood in her doorway, blinking myopically at the unexpected Frenchman. She had completely forgotten that the old fellow had said something about stopping by after her performance with an offer of a late supper. "As you can see, I am not even changed from the performance, Sir George, you must be terribly early."
DeVergesse stood and gave the newcomer a little nod, shooting a questioning look at Kitty from beneath his dark, slanting brows.
"Sir George, I would like to present a f-, f-," she stumbled over the words, "an old acquaintance from my travels on the continent, Colonel Etienne DeVergesse. Colonel, Sir George Selway."
DeVergesse bowed again. "Sir George," he acknowledged, his expression bland as dry toast. "I was just telling Madame Cobham how very much I enjoyed the performance tonight."
"French?" Sir George said dubiously, regarding the Frenchman with ill-disguised suspicion. His gaze fell upon the rose bush. "Roses in winter? Harrumph! Not at all the thing. Bush will be dead in a fortnight. Climate is all wrong." He turned his attention to Kitty. "When can you be ready, m'dear?"
Kitty looked at the old Englishman, and then at DeVergesse, and a giggle bubbled up inside of her that she found impossible to quell.
"I am terribly sorry, Sir George," she said, taking the older man's elbow smoothly, and leading him out to the hall, "but I find that I am not, after all, free this evening. I am otherwise engaged."
"Now see here" the old man's querulous warble filtered in from the darkened hall as she firmly shut the door.
The Frenchman's shoulders sagged with something that looked rather like relief. To be sure, he had held himself extremely tall and rigid in the presence of the old Englishman. "You do me too much honor," he said with faint sarcasm, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Taking his meaning, and the insult implied to the attractions of the elderly Sir George, Kitty tossed her hair, and said lightly, "If they get any older, they will have to be wheeled to my door in a box. Such is the life of an actress, even an aging one. One is forever inconvenienced by stage door swains; they just get progressively less diverting."
DeVergesse laughed. "I can see in your performance the ease of many years' practice showing the unfortunate fellows the way out. And now," his expression became more serious, "I have many questions for you and I am sure you have some for me." He grasped her shoulders, turning her to face him, tilting her face up to his so that she could not evade his hypnotic azure gaze. She was amazed that he still wanted to touch her in such a fashion, for the disparity in their looks had grown all the more evident since El Ferrol.
"I-, I-," again, she stammered, feeling her face flush from the intensity of his expression as he raked her countenance with those appalling blue eyes. "I did not mean to kill you."
"I know. I have had five years to contemplate my errors at El Ferrol."
"And I, too, have questions," Kitty bit her lip. "I propose a treaty. A peace."
"Madame, state your terms."
"I shall answer all of your questions with complete candor, if you will answer all of mine. We shall take turns, each to each."
DeVergesse nodded, eyes narrowing. His hands slid lightly down her arms. "Faugh, this dress must go," he grimaced at the feel of the coarse wool. "This was all very well for Lady Macbeth, but hardly appropriate for the revenge I have planned for you. And your hair" He looked with distaste at the remnants of the white powder
"I shall be pleased to change my dress and arrange my hair, if you will kindly take your Froggy self off somewhere for a good half-hour or so," Kitty said archly. "And by the by, shall I need to wear my hair up or down? I understand that when one is about to meet FRENCH justice that it is considered most comme il faut to wear the hair up."
"You wound me, Madame. The Guillotine is no longer the fashion in France. But by all means, wear your hair up if only to display your pretty white neck."
I shall arrange ringlets around my pretty white neck so as to hide my pretty white wrinkles, Kitty thought gamely. Thank goodness my dressing room is rather dimly lit. "This revenge had better be good," she said slyly, her heart pounding in her breast, "if I must be so put out as to dress for it."
"I thought," DeVergesse said with an elegant bow, "that I would begin exacting my revenge upon you by taking you to dinner in an English restaurant, for I can assure you there are few crueler forms of torture that I am aware of. And if you can bear up under the hardships of the gray boiled meats and the greasy potatoes, not to mention the smell of the overcooked cabbage, then" his expression left little doubt as to the possibilities.
"If you have chosen the weapon, then it is my honor, sir, to choose the time and place." Kitty, sorting through the hanging dresses behind her dressing screen, threw a gauzy lilac creation over the top. "I think I might know of one restaurant that would not fill you with disgust and dismay, and I MIGHT be able to get a table for two, even though you are a Frog and I am an actress, and therefore we are both quite completely unfit for polite London society."
"Decent food in London?" His tone was sarcastic. "Well, if you say so, cherie. My hired carriage will be waiting behind the theatre. Take all the time you need."
"Etienne," Kitty said, peering impishly around the screen, "it may take me rather a long time to get ready. Shall I loan you a book to pass the time?"
A well-thumbed copy of Don Quixote, this one in English, was suddenly flung through the air at the Frenchman with a deft flick of Kitty's bare wrist.
He caught it expertly and opening it to see what it was, laughed aloud, shaking his dark, curly head.
"I am afraid I know this story by heart. It is the story of a man who jousts with windmills. The rest is gravy."
He sat it down upon her table and in seconds, the door closed behind him, leaving Kitty to struggle from her dress alone, hopping up and down like a nervous girl before her first coming out, desperately trying to quell the feverish shivers of excitement that caused her fingers to fumble stupidly with the tiny buttons of her dress.
DeVergesse-alive! And come to London to vex and plague her with his probing questions and penetrating cool gaze. She wondered if her answers would make him angry, for she felt certain she knew what questions he longed to ask. She wondered if his answers would satisfy and please her, or if they would fill her with disgust and dismay that he was, in fact, no better than she had first made him out to be.
Kitty did not know whether to hiss or purr.
DeVergesse waited at the door of his carriage, idly watching the late-evening scattering of cloaked couples, in various degrees of intoxication and amorous embrace, weave their way down the narrow street behind Kitty's playhouse. Some of the unescorted and more forwardly-dressed women who passed alone hazarded a speculative smile at his outwardly affluent trappings, but there was something about the Colonel's attitude of alert anticipation that stifled any expectations of getting into his purse that evening. He was clearly an important man, and clearly waiting for someone very important to him.
It was a typical April night in London; cold and raining in the sort of fine misty drizzle that only caused DeVergesse's hair to curl more tightly. The cold and damp did not bother him in the slightest, for the many capes of his greatcoat kept his clothing quite dry. He felt that it would do well for him to be found waiting outside in the rain for her, his breath visible, rising in lazy coils from the corners of his faintly parted lips in concert with the rhythmic steaming from the patient nostrils of the four perfectly-matched dappled-gray horses.
DeVergesse knew how to make an entrance and set a scene. It had been the exits in his life that had always given him the most difficulty. But he was determined to tie up the loose ends of the mystery of Madame Cobham, and in so doing, put paid to the curiosity that had tormented him ever since his improbable liberation from the firing squad at El Ferrol.
She was late, as he knew she would be. He had seen the hasty efforts she had made to hide the marks of her advancing years in the streaks of powder in the smile lines of her eyes, and it tore his heart. She would take much care to appear to advantage before her old enemy. Such, he meditated, were the exigencies of war.
When she finally emerged through the backstage, a velvet cloak parting to display a pale lilac dress outlining every movement of her limbs beneath cream gauze in a most daring fashion, he smiled at her and held open the door of his carriage.
"I doubt that very much, Sir."
Her hair was arranged in a mode that would even cause admiration among the fashionable throngs of Paris, coiled into a thick knot atop her proudly carried head, with shorter ringlets streaming down to frame her face and outline her neck. It was a most flattering style for her, and he could not help but admire her elegance and taste, so much in contrast to most of the dowdy or over-trimmed women he had seen in London that day.
DeVergesse assisted her into the carriage and allowed her to arrange herself to her satisfaction, smoothing out the folds of her dress, which appeared to have been slightly dampened to cling to the curves of her body as was the fashion. Or perhaps it was simply the dank London drizzle? No matter, he could tell that the woman before him had gained a little flesh since he had seen her as a prisoner, and the change suited her very well, in his opinion. Her bosom swelled above the low-cut neckline, and the dampened muslin clung to her shapely thighs.
"And who do I take to dinner tonight, I wonder," he murmured, looking at her with renewed appreciation. "The actress, the Duchess, or perhaps eventhe spy?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does not."
With Kitty having given an address to the hired coachman, they rounded several streetcorners and ended up across the street from a gaily-lamplit establishment. The noise of animated conversations and the smell of garlic and onions sautéing in butter wafted out the doorway on a cloud of warm air.
"From the quantity of coaches drawn up before the door," he commented, offering Kitty his arm, "it looks as though that table for two might be difficult to obtain."
"Not for me," she smiled. "They always have a table for me."
DeVergesse frowned down at her but her expression was as inscrutable as a cat's. "You must know the proprietor rather well," he commented.
"Extremely well," she agreed. "Ever since infancy, as a matter of fact. And by the by, it is the proprietress, not the proprietor!"
She had not exaggerated the extent of her influence in this place, for they had no sooner entered the dining room than a youngish man in a shocking waistcoat came forward, rubbing his hands together. "My dear Kitty!" he cried. "I had very nearly despaired of seeing you tonight. There is much that needs discussing, a problem in the kit-." He stopped abruptly, staring at DeVergesse. "Butthis is not Sir George"
"No," said Kitty in a clipped tone, which invited no further questions. "He is most assuredly not. Not by a very long shot. This is a very special guest, a noted authority on all matters gastronomique come all the way from France, and I expect that every man in the kitchen will do his part!"
"But of course," said the younger man, suddenly subservient, "If it would please the Monsieur and Madame to come this way.."
Kitty winked at DeVergesse and allowed him to escort her to the table with her head held high. He was exquisitely conscious that every person in the dining room was staring curiously at both of them, their eyes darting back on forth to rest first on her, and then for a longer time on himself. As was usual for DeVergesse in such circumstances, he merely adopted an attitude of icy indifference and utter nonchalance. An attitude he abandoned completely, once they were seated at the table with a bottle of French wine and a basket of bread.
"This, all this," he said in wonder, waving his hand in a circle to encompass the entire dining room, "is yours? You own a restaurant?"
"I do," Kitty admitted proudly. "I have been owner of this place for two years. As you can see, it is a great success."
DeVergesse looked about him. Every table was full. He was suddenly ill at ease. Kitty Cobham had taken him from her dressing room to her very own restaurant and now, surrounded as she was by employees loyal to her, she had the advantage of him. He resolved not to allow the fact of her unexpected affluence to subdue his spirits, but something of his apprehensions must have shown in his face, for she leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm.
"You must wonder," she whispered, her fingers kneading the muscles of his forearm in an unconscious attempt to settle him, "how I ever got the money. Do you recall Sir John Morris?"
"The man who lured me to Italy with false promises!" she exclaimed in a stage whisper. "The man who seduced me, abandoned me, and left me to find my way back home the best way I could."
"By impersonating a Duchess? Ah! That Sir John," he said remembering the story she had told him that very first night in prison. She had no doubt hoped to play upon his sympathies. Too bad for her that he did not have an-
Well" she leaned back a little, looking both pleased and proud, "Do you know that I found several letters from him franked for private delivery, which were of a most compromising nature, among our little packet of dispatches."
DeVergesse groaned. "OUR little packet? Then you DID have them, after all."
"Yes!" she said triumphantly. "That packet. The one you did NOT steal from me, after all."
"So it really did exist?"
"Of course it did. I had it all along."
"In me underwear!"
A diner at a neighboring table dropped his fork with a clang.
"Kitty," DeVergesse murmured. "Have a care. We are attracting interest."
"No, Sir, it is YOU that are attracting interest," she retorted. "They are quite used to me, I assure you, but a bronzed Frenchman in April is as unusual a sight in London as, well, a bloomin' rose bush!"
DeVergesse acknowledged the probable truth of this by unselfconsciously smoothing the lines of his jacket. "So Sir John gave you the money to buy a restaurant in trade for the return of his private letters? I am shocked. A blackmailer? You?"
"Oh no, Sir, I did not blackmail him. The letters were delivered," she began to fan herself. "It may be, though, that after I read them they did not make it back into the proper envelopes. I was rather rushed in my departure from El Ferrol, what with Froggy gents and Spanish Dons forever knocking at my door and trying to get into my skirts to rummage about for dispatches and keys and who knows what else, and it is possible that in all of the uproar I made a small mistake. Which I regret, of course." She assumed a tragedienne's expression.
DeVergesse chuckled. "Then why did he pay you such a substantial sum?"
"You must understand," she replied. "When I finally made it home to England and presented myself upon the doorstep of the Admiralty with the coded dispatch, I became something of a celebrity in Sir John's circles."
"And deservedly so," DeVergesse murmured.
"Sir John, realizing that I must have had something to do with his being raked over the coals by my newest admirer, Admiral Lord Hood," she winced, "decided that to offer a substantial settlement would be the most gentlemanly and prudent course of action. My solicitor was particularly gratified that we were able to obtain Sir John's assurances, and therefore avoid the embarrassment of a public suit for breach of promise."
"Hell indeed, hath no fury," DeVergesse supplied. "So you had the real dispatches all alongeven on the night we, ahthe night that I 'accidentally' happened upon your forged packet of letters?"
"If they were a snake, they would have bit you, Colonel. I had the true dispatches in the roll of linen I tied around my waist to improve my silhouette, and in so doing, I hoped to entice you further to attempt to find the false ones."
"Mon dieu!" he cried, attracting a few more stares from curious diners. "Not since Helen of Troy has the destiny of warring nations ridden so fatally upon a woman's hips."
Kitty looked pleased at his riposte.
"And how, I ask, is a French intelligence officer supposed to find dispatches when you ladies wear so many different items in which they can be concealed? I cannot think it at all fair. Perhaps now that the fashions are simpler, " he cast an approving glance over the soft folds of fabric which outlined her seated form, "the male spy will not be at such a disadvantage relative to the female."
Kitty laughed, saying, "You know, I amused myself at times during those two days at El Ferrol with the notion that YOU certainly had no need of such epistolary augmentation!"
A faint blush heated the Frenchman's tanned cheeks and he could not suppress a smile. She was getting the better of him again, but this time there was no reason he should not enjoy it.
A quietly efficient waiter came to their table bearing two bowls of steaming, fragrant soup. The aroma of fresh clams, mussels, and oysters caressed his nostrils and he could see their shells, steamed open and gleaming at the edges of his bowl. He took a speculative spoonful.
"This is delicious!" he exclaimed. "It is almost, non, it is really quite French!"
Kitty looked pleased. "If you do not mind eating what I had requested for Sir George, I think you will pleased with what the kitchen can do. Would you like to be surprised, or would you rather see the bill of fare and choose for yourself?"
"Generally," DeVergesse responded, gazing intently over his wineglass rim at her animated countenance, "I prefer to be surprised. Since I have taken Sir George's dinner companion away from him, it follows that I should compound my impudence by also eating his dinner. Now, who shall go first? It is time for questions to be asked, and answers given."
Kitty blinked, wide-eyed with innocence. "You just had an answer to the question about the real dispatches," she said with conviction. "So the first question is mine. I insist on absolute candor. That was the agreement."
DeVergesse gravely bowed his head to her. "As long as candor does not reveal any state secrets I am honor-sworn to protect, you shall have it."
"Then," she began, "I suppose it would be quite useless for me to begin by asking you how you knew the key to the coded dispatch was that particular edition of Don Quixote."
"Quite." DeVergesse thought of the mole they had successfully planted at the Admiralty in Gibraltar. His information had specified that the Admiralty was using an edition that had been printed by the thousands in Spain for many of their important ciphers. The man had been invaluable at times, but he had failed to report on Nelson's movements and after the Valley of the Nile, he had been removed from his position. Still, it would not do to tell Kitty Cobham that the French had successfully placed their agents in the household of Sir Hew Dalrymple for many years.
"Very well, then let me begin with the obvious. How did you escape the firing line?"
DeVergesse dabbed the corners of his mouth with the serviette and thoughtfully sipped at the wine. Also good.
"Can't you guess?"
"Is that a question?"
"Now stop that!" Kitty scolded, rapping his shoulder with her fan. "Candid answers!"
"You saved my life," DeVergesse said, "by trying to kill me. It would have been most comical if I were not frightened nearly out of my wits. It was absurdly ironic, even so."
"I saved your life by trying to kill you," Kitty repeated slowly, eyes wide and glittering, "So, it WAS my note to Don Massaredo that saved you after all." She exhaled in a rush, now fanning herself energetically. "I am so glad it was me."
"Imagine my surprise, Madame, when Don Massaredo showed me the forged dispatch naming ME as a double-agent for the British!"
"I just have! How deliciously exciting!" Kitty shivered.
"Madame, if I had sent that dispatch in all innocence back to Paris and it had been decoded there, they would have hunted me down like a dog and shot me in the streets."
"When I wrote it, I was very angry with you. You had insulted and abused me, and I had just seen your aide wearing my stocking around his head."
"Then my execution would have indeed been well-deserved," DeVergesse replied sardonically. "You should know, though, that Don Massaredo had both Guilliame and I put up against the wall with our blindfolds on. He wanted to test our courage before the firing line."
Kitty had the grace to at least look subdued in the face of such a horror. "And Horatio, that is, Lieutenant Hornblower, told me that he heard two shots. And they all thought you quite dead."
"I am sure they were pleased to think so."
Kitty did not contradict him. "But you must have passed the test."
DeVergesse shrugged, "What is a mere firing line compared to facing down Madame Cobham in her nightshift?" He held up his hand as if to stop her, "Rhetorical questions do not count. A Frenchman cannot possibly be expected to carry on a conversation of any length without a great many rhetorical questions."
"Agreed," Kitty laughed. "Consider our treaty amended. Pray continue, Colonel."
"Very well, whatever Don Massaredo saw in us must have satisfied him. After signaling his men not to shoot, he fired two shots straight up into the air. Then, having assured us that we owed our lives to your last-minute machinations, he had Guilliame sent packing to an inn in El Ferrol, and took me straightaway to his chamber, where we spent many hours going over his plans and cursing the deceitfulness and treachery of beautiful women." DeVergesse took a shuddering breath and went on, not entirely comfortable with revealing such sensitive information in such a public place.
"We found that there, at least, we had much common ground. But how did you know he would do as you bid him in that very mysterious letter?"
"I did not know," Kitty took a pensive sip of her wine. "But I hazarded that the riddle I posed to him would capture his interest. I do not know a man who would not be flattered to think a woman believed him capable of working out such an interesting problem. I felt it might, at least, buy you time. And then, if he believed the dispatch was real"
"He would happily take me into his confidence, believing me to be working for the same goals as himself--to rid the Spanish of the French presence."
"Thus giving you a legitimate objective for entering his chamber and confirming the truth before approaching him on that basis"
"..and thereby you must have somehow figured out that Don Massaredo was a key personage in the plots to drive the French from Spanish soil. How? Did he tell you?"
"When I was actually inside, I did not realize the significance of the armaments in the inner chamber because I was so very much concerned with the art in the outer chamber. But once I decoded the Don Quixote dispatch, I realized immediately what your true purpose, and his, must have been."
"You actually broke the cipher?"
"Yes, on the road to La Corunna. That was your second question. Now I get two."
"Bien." Their main course arrived with a flourish of many silver salvers and lidded trays. DeVergesse inspected his critically; it was venison in a sauce of berries and port wine, and looked and smelled delicious. "Incroyable. I did not know they had such food in London."
"If you lot had not been so quick to put aristocrats to the chop, we here in London would not have been able to hire their most skilled chefs as emigrés." Kitty calmly picked up an object from her plate and began to nibble delicately at it.
"Is that what I think it is?" DeVergesse said in mock dismay. "Madame, you have no shame. To embarrass a French gentleman at dinner by eating les jambes des grenouilles it is very bad of you."
A gleam of pure mischief lit her clear blue eyes, and DeVergesse felt himself quite in danger of losing his self-control.
"It is true what they say," she said, stripping a buttered morsel off the bone with obvious pleasure, "they really do taste like chicken. Which reminds me, was the gun loaded or not?"
"The gun I pointed at you in your bedroom. Was it loaded? If so, Sir, then you are very cool under fire."
"It was loaded," DeVergesse said. "It is always loaded, for otherwise, why have one around at all? Next question."
"Why did Don Massaredo allow Horatio and the others to believe you had been killed."
"You should know the answer to that. Don Massaredo assumed that if any of the English prisoners were in your confidence, then you would simply have told him to go down to the prison and ask them for information. There would have been no need to go through the trouble of decoding an entire dispatch. The most important thing for a double-agent to do is to protect his identity from all those on BOTH sides who are not privy to his intrigues. Hence, he never told them. Unfortunately for Don Massaredo, the idiot Hunter used his quick dispatch of us to frighten the English prisoners into an escape attempt. He was able to convince the more foolish among them that since Don Massaredo had no compunctions about executing his dinner guests, that he would not hesitate to shoot his prisoners. The Don lost one of his men; he was extremely put out by it."
"I heard about that," Kitty said thoughfully. "He was a sour bastard, that Hunter."
"Such language!" DeVergesse said sternly. "Now I have a question for you. Did you really spend all your time walking the beach with Hornblower teaching him how to get on in society?"
"Yes!" Kitty said, insulted. "What else?"
DeVergesse arched a skeptical eyebrow, then returned his attentions to his plate.
"You doubt me?"
"Yes. My suspicions were aroused almost as soon as we sat down to dinner that night. You want to know why? I shall save you the trouble of wasting another question by answering my own rhetorical one. Because the first thing your 'pupil' did was start mopping up his soup with a his bread! SURELY, if you were really concerned about launching the lad in society you would have told him that soup is more properly eaten with a spoon."
Kitty rolled her eyes. "And why should you care WHAT Lt. Hornblower and I 'discussed' on the beaches of El Ferrol?"
"I shall consider that question also to be rhetorical, but alors, it is still my turn. Do you have any idea the MESS you left behind you at El Ferrol? Why did you put the frame in my saddlebag with Don Masseredo's key?"
"Because," Kitty said, blushing, "You were so insufferably smug and you thought you could manipulate me at every turn. I wanted you to know I had bested you. I never dreamed that your bags would be searched." She leaned forward, displaying a pleasing expanse of bosom. DeVergesse shifted in his chair, smoothing his serviette neatly across his fine pantaloons. She touched his arm lightly. "Do you believe me?"
Now it was DeVergesse's turn to look pleased. She had not really meant him to suffer such dire consequences. "I do. That is the conclusion I reached. Your turn."
"Very well. Why did you want to steal The Lady from Don Massaredo if your real purpose was to find out if he were a rebel leader?"
"I cannot answer that."
"Because I never wanted to steal the portrait in the first place."
"I do not believe you."
"Madame Cobham, you have had your answer. It is no concern of mine if your question was poorly framed. Now it is my turn."
He felt his pulse quicken and a fine sheen of sweat swathe his forehead as he leaned over to almost, almost, whisper the question in her ear. "I thought it rather hard, when I was standing in a prison cell waiting to die, that I was about to be shot, in part, for stealing a portrait I had sought for many years but that I would never actually see the damn thing before I died! So I ask you, Madame Cobham, WHERE is the Lady now?"
Kitty shook her head sadly and began to fumble about in her reticule. "I know that you will be terribly angry about this" she trailed, "but my intentions were the best."
"It is true what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions," DeVergesse said.
"Is that why yours are always so bad, then?" Kitty snapped. She held up her hand. "Rhetorical."
"I assume you heard about the wreck of the Almeria. Irony of ironies, the ship was hounded onto the Devil's Teeth by the Indefatigable herself!"
"And knowing that you might be on her, I thought you, too, might be dead for the longest while." DeVergesse smiled warmly. "Imagine my relief when I saw your name a year later listed in the cast of a London play!"
"I shall try to imagine it, but make no guarantees of success. Anyhow, the ship went down and Lt. Hornblower rescued us."
DeVergesse was unable to stifle a moue of distaste. Hornblower again!
Kitty ignored his sour look. "I was forced to jump from the bow of the ship into the sea in order to reach Horatio's jolly boat." A faraway look came into her eyes. "The Almeria did reach Lisbon, but I did not disembark. I booked passage back to El Ferrol to bring The Lady back to her owner. I did the best I could. My intentions were the best" Surprisingly, her lower lip began to tremble and her eyes flooded with tears. She brought her hand from her reticule, fingers curled into a small fist, and laid it upon the tabletop.
DeVergesse laid a warm, enfolding hand upon hers, sensing the reawakened interest of the patrons around them as he did, but not caring. "Go on," he said quietly.
"Well, the dispatches were, by that time, sealed in a covering of rather waxy, thick paper, and they got only slightly damp from my brief time in the sea, but Don Massaredo's Lady" she whispered, "I folded it up as best I could and tucked it right next to my heart but it was ruined. All ruined. All except for this" she withdrew her fisted hand and turned it over, opening it to reveal a thin strip of stained parchment. "I was only able to save her smile."
And what a smile it wasthe closed lips revealed nothing, while the deep shadow at the right corner of her mouth revealed everything. It floated in Kitty's hand, mysterious and ethereal. DeVergesse stared at it in rapt fascination and a kind of horror, feeling his chest muscles tighten unbearably. He feared he would join Kitty in tears if he did not take some sort of action. He grasped her hand, curling the fingers back around the scrap of old parchment as he brought her hand swiftly to his mouth, kissing the back of it passionately, then turning it over to kiss the soft underside of her wrist beneath the fingers he clenched so tightly.
She gasped and let out a soft cry of surprise.
"My turn!" she said breathily. "Who was she?"
"Now that," DeVergesse's voice was husky with regret, "Is a question I will never be able to answer. But I can tell you a little bit about her, all the same."
Throughout their meal, Kitty had been conscious of the curious glances of the other diners and noted with some inner amusement that for once, her dining companion was garnering far more attention than she was. It certainly was not his attire; DeVergesse was dressed in a style would not excite comment in any large metropolis among fashionable men of mature years. She found it rather difficult to get used to a DeVergesse who was not wearing the colors of a French Colonel, but she found she liked him very well like this. He was not nearly so forbidding and besides, her past infatuations with men in uniform had always ended quite badly.
But from the soft sibilance of his accented English to the lightly bronzed skin and fall of black and silver curls, he was as exotic in these surroundings as a hothouse orchid. Kitty found the contrast made him dizzily attractive, and she was aware that some of the ladies in the room were scrutinizing her with ill-concealed curiosity and perhaps, envy. Clearly, the younger beauties about the room could not imagine what a man like that was doing with a middle-aged actress like her. If only they knew, she thought. If only I knew, she wondered, why I ever thought those assertively masculine features coarse.
Always surprising, he had grasped her hand and kissed it passionately when she confessed to losing the Lady, and her breath had caught in a painful gasp. The table at which they sat was small, and she imagined she could almost feel the heat given off from his inner thighs, which he had spread in order to avoid brushing against the seafoam fluorescence of her gauze-draped limbs. It was all she could do to keep from touching him, from trailing a curious finger across the elegant architecture of the masculine knee so well-defined by the tight-fitting, cream-colored pantaloons just to see if it was as she remembered.
But DeVergesse leaned back in his chair and began to speak. All traces of flirtatiousness gone from his manner, his tone was instructive, pedantic. It was a side of the man Kitty had never seen before.
"What you had in your possession was the answer to the greatest mystery in the world of art," he said. "At the dawn of the 16th century, the fame of the artist had spread all the way to the court of King Francis I, who sent his emissary to Florence to see if this artist could be enticed into painting something especially for the Royal collections. King Francis was a great lover of art, you see, and he commissioned many works from the most celebrated painters of his day."
He gently uncurled her fingers, with a touch light as a feather.
Kitty opened her hand to him and he took the scrap of old paper carefully from her, his fingers trembling only slightly as he placed upon the white tablecloth between them. With a fork and a scholarly index finger, he pressed the paper flat to the table and regarded the little sphinx-like smile with one equally mysterious.
Kitty rested her chin on her hand, fascinated. "Go on."
"But this artist was not just a painter, he was a man of many, many parts. And he worked slowly, carefully, and his paintings took many years to complete. But first of all, he did a series of sketches in charcoal, pastel, and ink to work out exactly what the finished painting would look like. In some cases, the preliminary sketches have very near the quality of the finished works. I believe this was one of those instances."
"And so that was what Don Massaredo had?"
"Exactly. The artist, furthermore, had a habit of making notations in the margins and on the backs of his sketches. He had completed a series of sketches for a portrait of a lady, but had not yet begun to paint her. His patron in Italy, Lorenzo the Magnificent, wished him to devote his attentions to religious works and portraits of women within the Medici family. So this portrait, "La Giaconda", remained unfinished. The artist sent it back to King Francis with word that if he would like to purchase a painting of that design, he, Leonardo Da Vinci, would complete the portrait and bring it to the court of France himself."
"How do you know all this?"
"A very good second question." DeVergesse said, pushing his curls back from his forehead in an unconsciously pleased gesture. "Everything contained within the Palace at Versailles became the property of the people when King Louis was taken prisoner. As the only high-ranking officer in France who had any sort of education in artistic matters, the task of transferring the royal collections to the Musee de Republique fell to me."
His eyes shone with a faraway light.
"I was immediately struck by the possibilities of finally allowing all the people to see these great masterpieces in a grand public building. The idea, to me, embodied all of the ideals of the Revolution, that a chance to experience the best things in life should not be a mere accident of birth."
Kitty bit her tongue, for her own impressions of the ideals of the Revolution were hardly so benign.
"But there really was a painting done from this sketch?"
"Yes, I have seen it many times." He smiled in remembrance. "I even spent the night with her, once, during the time when the collections were under guard. I slept not at all. It is the most magnificent portrait ever completed. Even the small sketch, which you have seen and I have not, must have had great power to inflame the imagination of the viewer."
Kitty nodded thoughtfully, now this, she could agree with.
"The portrait should be the centerpiece of the collection, but those who took charge once the transfer was complete seemed content to just display these marvels in a jumble of mismatched periods and styles. It was my great fortune to encounter Bonaparte in Paris in the year '96 and we fell to talking of art, and I was surprised to find that although he had no background, he had a lively appreciation. I shared with him my view that the Musee should be the crowning glory of the Republique, and that furthermore, the collections should be arranged and displayed to educate, not just astound."
"So you DID want to steal the portrait, to add to the collection! Why did you lie to me?"
"Non. Non. The records hinted that the identity of the model could be found in the notes that Da Vinci had scribbled on the back. That is all I wished to know. We had the original already in Paris. I had no need for Don Massaredo's treasured DaVinci sketch. But you must admit, the story of the mysterious Lady and the mystique that she generated made a very good cover for a secret armory."
Kitty agreed. "In truth, if I had not marked your unusual interest in having the copy of Don Quixote returned, I confess should never have thought of the Don's chamber as anything other than the private art collection of an eccentric old man."
DeVergesse shrugged. "Then I confess my foolishness in having trusted that an actress would be unable to break ciphers and understand political intrigues unless she was a spy. Now, it is my turn and I get two. First, why did you send Don Massaredo that note?"
"To save your life."
DeVergesse scowled meaningfully at her. "That is hardly a complete answer."
"It is not my fault if your question was too broadly framed. When I wrote that note, I thought I was also returning to him his portrait."
"But the portrait was not returned."
Kitty told him the story of how Conchita had removed it from the book thinking it one of Kitty's own sketches, and he laughed, taking her hand again and rubbing warmth into fingertips grown cold.
"And what ever happened to the little minx? Was she drowned when the Almeria went down?"
"I left her in Lisbon. A girl like Conchita will always latch onto some dim-witted man or another. I am sure she is fine."
"A pity she never met your Mr. Oldroyd. I have a feeling they would suit. Still," he said, "You knew I HAD been in the chamber and could therefore report Don Massaredo to his government if I so chose. Why, Kitty? Why did you do it?"
"You knew that I had the portrait and you did not tell Don Massaredo and have me searched at the docks and arrested. Why, Etienne? Why didn't you turn me in? For that is why I decided to give you the means to save your life."
"And by forcing me to become a double-agent in order to save my life, you made me in deeds and words what I already was in thought." His expression was gravely serious.
"And by forcing me to think, Sir, you made me in deeds and words what I should have been all along." She looked about her at her beautiful restaurant. "For truly, I would never have had the confidence that I could choose my own path off the stage if you had not put me in such an impossible position. But in thwarting you with my wits, and not my beauty, I began to see that I did not need to flatter men such as Sir John in order to secure my future."
They both regarded each other in silence.
DeVergesse sighed, breaking the silence first. "I do not suppose you made a careful study of the portrait during the short time that you had it? Do you recall any of the writing? A name, perhaps the name of a house or palace?"
Kitty shook her head. "Italian is the one language I understand not at all, and I do remember some writing but it was so very faded and difficult to read. I am sorry. So you DID simply want to look at the portrait, but would not have stolen it?"
She was giddy with relief.
"I would certainly have tried at some point to acquire it, probably upon the death of Don Massaredo. But armed with the name and the information, I could certainly have uncovered supporting evidence in Italy to stake my claim to having uncovered the true name of the Mona Lisa."
"I really did make a horrible mess of things. But you should have taken me into your confidence. Why didn't you?"
"Because I thought that if I did, Kitten, you would be unable to resist the temptation to enter the chamber and see her for yourself. If what I suspected about Don Massaredo was true, I could not take the chance that you would return to England and tell your government that the Spanish rebellion that they no doubt hoped to assist had already been uncovered by the French."
"Oh. But you DID save yourself by pretending to be a traitor to your government after all." She frowned. "A more honorable man would have accepted his fate and not pretended to be what he was not."
"I have no ambition to be a dead hero," DeVergesse replied sardonically, "especially not to a government that changes its policies and objectives with the winds. In such unsettled times, a man must chart his own course. I came to Spain with the primary objective of interrogating the English prisoners and looking for a set of dispatches that would name an actual traitor to France. Those were my orders from my superior officers and I carried them out to the letter, though without success when it came to finding the true dispatches."
He gave her a telling look and took another sip of wine.
"However, it was clear to me that Bonaparte's star was rising and he charged me with a secret mission, to look for evidence of a strong Spanish resistance so that he could put the matter before the Directory and convince them that sending more and more troops to Spain was only going to threaten the alliance. He wanted those troops for himself and his own armies, to fight on the Eastern fronts and continue the conquest of Italy and Austria."
"So again, you just wanted to gather information."
"That is what an intelligence officer does and it is very helpful to the task if he manages to remain alive. Did you expect me to invade El Ferrol and capture Don Massaredo's stockpiled armaments all by myself? But you, Kitty, if you had only forced your hand, you could have had El Ferrol without firing a single shot."
"Don Massaredo," she said regretfully. "He really did care for me."
"He cared very deeply for his idea of you. The reality of you would no doubt have been the ruin of him."
"Sir, your candor on that subject does you no credit. It is not flattering to a lady be so well understood. But I could never havefollowed through. I esteemed him, but I-, well, if I were that sort I would hardly be here with you now," Kitty said. "For I would surely have married some dim-witted toff with a good living long ago to secure my future."
She raised her chin defiantly. "Since we are being candid. I have always followed my heart where men were concerned, much good has it done me. I did not like you, overmuch, for making me deceive a good man with false sentiments."
DeVergesse gave another of his eloquent shrugs. "Do not feel too sorry for Don Massaredo."
"Oh, but I do. You were horrid to make me play up to him like that fashion."
"No, I was not. Ironically, it was the kindest thing you, or I, could possibly have done for him. The idea that a woman such as yourself wanted him enough to attempt seduction was far more gratifying to him than the day to day reality of coping with a much younger wife, and an Englishwoman at that. Think how much less fun it would have been for him if I had simply gotten him drunk on laudanum-spiked Madeira over cards and cheroots, and taken the key from about his neck." He smiled. "That was my original plan, but I was displeased by its simplicity. You left him with a pleasant sense of what might have been, if only he had not been such a proper gentleman."
"A sensation you, Sir, shall never know."
"Than having never enjoyed the satisfaction of propriety, I can hardly be expected to want for the lack of it."
Kitty nodded, amused by his cheerful logic on the subject. "But what of you and Guilliame, Etienne? What happened next?"
"Ah. Napoleon was so pleased with my information when Guilliame and I finally did reach Italy that he honored my request for a curatorship at the Louvre. We have ceased to send troops to Spain for the time being, and now that we are at peace with England, I am devoting most of my time to the organization of the collections at the Musée Napoleon. He has sent back fabulous things from Italy. So, you see, I got what I wanted, after all, and so did Don Masseredo, though I suspect that things will change again once Napoleon has solidified his recent gains."
He shook his head in wonder, eyes widening a little.
"No doubt, he has a plan," he said. "He always does."
"You French are impossible," Kitty said wryly. "Trying to understand you Frogs is like trying to nail jelly to a plank."
"Then do not try so hard," he said.
"Who said anything about trying?" Kitty asked, then held up a finger. "Rhetorical!"
"No sane man would dare accuse you of such folly." He gave her a speaking look and took another sip of wine. "Answered anyway."
Kitty blinked back tears, "I cannot help but feel very bad about taking that portrait and losing her identity in the sea. It all seems so terribly sad. I suppose it would have been a great triumph for you to announce her identity to the world."
"I have had nearly five years to think about that," DeVergesse said firmly, and he picked up the scrap of paper. "I had thought that if I could find out the identity of the sitter, then I might be able to finally understand the mystery behind her smile."
He turned the smile over and over in his hands, eyes hooded and unrevealing.
"But after much thought, I have decided that it is better that her identity remain a mystery. If there is anything my encounter with you, Kitty Cobham, has taught me, it is that simply knowing a woman's true name does not mean that one knows the mystery of the woman who bears it."
He raised his eyes to hers. "I thought that when I became sure of your identity-your name-that I knew who you were and could bend you to my will. I was wrong, and very nearly paid the ultimate price."
He stared at the candle at the center of the table, eyes unfocused and mouth slightly parted.
"The Duchess. The Actress. The Spy. How many more I wonder before I truly can say I know The Woman?"
As he intoned the words, he lifted the smile to the flame of the candle. It flared briefly, and then it was gone.
"Etienne, I want to leave now."
Kitty rose from the table without regard for propriety and without waiting for a proffered male arm to aid her to her feet. DeVergesse rose with her, his countenance alight with a strange fire.
"I cannot believe I just torched a DaVinci," he whispered. "Well, part of a DaVinci. That was so wrong."
"Imagine then, if you can, the sensation of having a soggy, wet, cold DaVinci dissolving slowly in your underwear over a night spent in an open jolly boat," she looked up at him slyly, "with Lt. Hornblower."
He extended his arm and she took it, warm and solid beneath the fine wool, holding on tight for fear her shaking knees would betray her with a stumble.
"You might be surprised at the extent of my imagination, Madame."
They stood a little awkwardly in the cool, misty night air outside the restaurant, neither of them ready to re-enter the hired carriage, which still waited across the street.
Kitty stared down at the damp pavement, not able to meet his eyes.
"If you are ever in Paris, Kitty, I would like to show you the Mona Lisa."
"If I am ever in Paris, I will look you up."
"Are you ever in Paris?"
"I could be."
They stared deeply into each other's eyes. Kitty shivered and DeVergesse threw his greatcoat about her shoulders. It engulfed her as he stroked the capes around her neck and bodice to keep out the damp, cool air.
"It is an impossible situation," she finally said. "If you were English, then maybe"
"So true. What a pity you are not French."
"I am quite glad I am not. But we have a treaty," she said. "A break between battles."
"A pause to reload."
Kitty felt that if she did not touch this man right then she would cry out in frustration. Something of what she felt must have shown upon her face and touched her silvery blue eyes with longing, for he slipped his arms about her waist and wrapped her up tightly into an embrace.
He moaned softly into her hair from the unremembered pleasure of feeling the soft contours of an uncorseted woman through the filmy fabrics. He dropped his hands to her hips and drew her closer, luxuriating in the feel of her fine bones and rounded hips under their thin padding of soft womanly flesh.
Kitty, unbridled by his evident pleasure in her, slid her hands eagerly under his jacket, pressing one to the lean hollow at the base of his spine. The other she wrapped around his shoulder to keep his face and cheek pressed firmly into her own. She breathed him in, then out, then in again and felt that if he wanted her like that, it changed everything from night to dusk to day.
"Etienne," she said huskily, "I am not getting any younger. If you are going to exact your revenge, I suggest you start now. You are leaving on the 'morrow?"
"Yes, I must. But I will send you a dispatch in the morning."
He quietly led her to the door of the carriage and helped her inside.
"Drive on," he told the coachman.
"Just drive," he said, "Until the lady asks you to stop."
The coach swayed gently down the cobblestone streets and it was the most natural thing in the world for Kitty to reach out to DeVergesse and run her hand over his knee, smiling at the feel of it through the soft fabric. He gathered her back into his arms and brushed his lips across her cheek, his cultured baritone voice hoarse with desire.
"We were under the same roof for only forty-eight hours, and yet not a day goes by that I do not think of you. Do you still think you could never love a Frog?"
"Oh, I could never love a Frog," she replied truthfully.
"Then I suppose," he replied sadly, "I can have no revenge. But you did cause me nearly six hours of mortal terror, Madame, and for that I demand satisfaction."
"I, too, have many grievances against the odious Colonel DeVergesse, for all that he used me and insulted me and put me in fear for the safety of my friends and dangled my freedom before me like a carrot before a mule to make me do his bidding."
"Was I really that bad?"
"You were, indeed, that bad and worse, and for that and especially for all the nights I have tossed and turned not knowing if I should ever again be kissed," she shuddered deeply, "in such an insolent fashion and with such abhorrent skill, I demand satisfaction. For my pride, and my self-respect, I demand it."
"Then there is only one way satisfaction can be given."
He took her into his arms and she tasted the sweet after-dinner wine on his lips and tongue and finally, she knew what it felt like to be kissed as if he really meant it.
"And you will return to Paris I suppose," she breathed sadly into his ear, as she unbuttoned his vest. Already, she knew her dress to be in total disarray but she did not care, for she had a burning need to feel the bare skin of his chest against hers as soon as it could possibly be arranged. "And begin to do all sorts of dreadful French things for which I will be obliged, as a patriotic Englishwoman, to hate you very much. You think to make me miss you, but never be able to mourn your absence to even my dearest friends, and that shall be your revenge."
"How well you know me. It is not flattering, to be so well understood."
He kissed her again, deeply, thoroughly. He smelled faintly of sun-drenched lavender and he had brought all the warmth of the Mediterranean sun into her cool, misty London spring.
"Revenge," he sighed, "is sweet."
Kitty giggled and DeVergesse chuckled richly into her hair. She loved the feeling of his strong, solid chest shaking with laughter beneath hers.
"Tell your coachman to drive on to 311 Duke Street. That is where my apartments are."
"Kitty, are you sure? I thought you were the kind of woman who followed her heart, but you said you could never love a Frog."
"I am sure. Etienne, you are NOT a Frog, you are just French, and who knows?" she laughed again, what must the coachman think? "In the unlikely event I come to my senses, we can always play another round of 'Find the Dispatches'!"
DeVergesse swept her back into his arms, laughing, carried away uncaring.
"Now how did you know that was my favorite game?"