The Devil Man had come.
Madame Leblanc had threatened to send for him, and it appeared she had done so.
Diane watched the carriage slow to a stop in front of the school's entrance. Green and gold, with abundant carving, it was drawn by four white steeds. A prince might use such a carriage.
He had not always come in such grand style. There were times he rode a horse, and once he had walked. One year he had not visited at all. Madame Leblanc had come close to sending her to the Dominican orphanage for the poor before a woman had arrived instead and paid for her keep for a while longer.
A bilious sensation churned in Diane's stomach. A guardian who only visited annually out of duty would not appreciate being summoned because of a disaster.
The brave plan she had hatched suddenly struck her as hopeless. Facing the inevitable, she had concluded that fate decreed a future that she had been too cowardly to embrace on her own.
Watching the carriage, her fragile courage abandoned her. The sanctuary of this school might be lonely and small but it was safe. The quest that beckoned her could wait.
Maybe with time it could even be ignored.
The Devil Man stepped out of the carriage, resplendent in a midnight blue cloak and high boots. The wind blew through his dark hair. He was not wearing a hat. He never did.
He had not always look so rich. She vaguely remembered years when he had appeared almost rustic. There had been the time, ages ago, when she had thought him ill. Rich or poor, their meetings always followed the same pattern. He would glance at her, barely, and ask his questions.
Are you being treated well? Do you have any complaints? Are you learning your school lessons? How old are you now?
He did not care about the answers. She told him what he wanted to hear. Except once. She had been whipped for a transgression she had not committed and the humiliation was very raw when he visited. She impulsively complained to him. Amazingly, she had never been whipped again. Before he left he forbade it, much to Madame Leblanc's frustration. From then on she could not be physically punished without his permission.
Which was why he had been summoned today.
He strode to the entrance. She barely caught a glimpse of his face but she saw enough of that severe countenance to know for sure who it was.
"Denounce me and I will kill you."
The sharp whisper pulled Diane out of her thoughts. She spun around.
Madame Oiseau, the music teacher, glared at her from the door, which she blocked with her body. Short and slight in stature, she still made an effective barrier. Her eyes glowed like two tiny coals in her fine-boned face. Her dark hair appeared mussed, as if she had rushed through her morning toilet.
"Do not doubt that I will do it, Diane. Take the punishment, keep your silence, and I will be your friend. Otherwise . . ." She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
A chill slid through Diane, as if evil breathed on her nape.
"No one will believe you," Madame said. "And when it is over we will both still be here. You are smart enough to make the right choice." She opened the door. "Come down when you are called. I will bring you in."
Stunned, Diane watched her leave.
She glanced around her spartan chamber, seeking reassurance from the familiar objects. She had an odd fondness for the hard bed and old coverlet, for the wood chair and simple desk. The wardrobe needed painting and the pink washbowl had gotten very chipped over the years. The physical comforts were few, but time had made the narrow room the center of her life. It was the only home she could remember.
She pictured herself living in this chamber for a few years more. Not happy, but content. Not such a bad future, even with what she faced today, even with Madame Oiseau nearby. The alternative stretched in front of her like an endless void, dark and unfathomable.
The old questions began intruding, robbing the chamber of its meager comfort. Questions from her childhood, eternally unasked and unanswered. Who am I? Why did I come here? Where is my family? For a few years she had stopped wondering but recently they had returned, louder and more insistently, until they ran in a silent chant echoing in a hollow part of her heart.
The answers were not here. Learning the truth meant abandoning this little world.
She only needed to grab the opportunity that fate had created.
Should she do it? Should she throw herself at the mercy of the Devil Man?
* * *
". . . if she goes unpunished, I must insist that she leave. I cannot have the virtue of my girls corrupted . . ."
Madame Leblanc rambled on in severe tones. Distracted by thoughts of the unfinished business he had left in Paris, Daniel St. John only half-listened.
Something about a book. Of course the girl would have books. It was a school.
He forced his attention to the gray-haired, buxom schoolmistress and broke her incessant flow. "Your summons said that this was serious, madame. I assumed she had taken ill and lay on death's door."
It had been a bizarre stroke of luck that the letter had found him in Paris at all. He certainly had not planned to interrupt his visit there to make this journey. He was annoyed that he had been bothered for such a minor matter. "If she has broken the rules, deal with it as you normally do. As I pay you to do. There was no need to send for me."
Madame lowered her chin and glared at him. "This transgression requires more than bread and water for a few days, m'sieur, and you gave strict orders she was not to be punished with the rod without your permission. "
"Did I? When was that?"
"Years ago. I told you that such leniency would lead to grief, and now it has."
Yes, he vaguely remembered the earnest expression on a gamin-faced child asking him for justice. He could not recall giving instructions about it. If he had known it would prove this damned inconvenient he would not have been so generous.
He straightened in the chair, prepared to rescind the order. His gaze fell on the willow rod lying across the desk. Tearful eyes and a choking voice accusing Madame Leblanc of unwarranted brutality came back to him again.
"You said something about a book. Let me see it."
"M'sieur, that is not necessary. I assure you that it is of a nature to be forbidden, to say the least."
"That could mean it is only a volume of poems by Ovid, or a religious tract by a dissenter. I would like to see it and judge for myself."
"I do not think--"
"The book, madame."
She strode to a cabinet. Using one of several keys on a cord around her neck, she unlocked it and retrieved a small, red volume. She thrust it at him and retreated to a window. She took up a position with her back to him, physically announcing her condemnation of the literature in his hands.
He flipped it open, and immediately saw why.
Not literature. In fact, no words at all. The thin volume contained only engravings that displayed carnal intercourse in all its inventiveness.
He paged through. Things started out simply enough but got increasingly athletic. Toward the end there were a few representations that struck him as totally unworkable.
"I see," he said, snapping the book closed.
"Indeed." Her tone said he had seen more than necessary.
"Call for the child, madame."
Satisfaction lit her face. "I would like you to be here when it is done. She should know that you approve."
"Send for her."
* * *
Madame Oiseau escorted Diane in.
As expected, a visitor waited in the headmistress's study. The Devil Man lounged in Madame Leblanc's chair behind the fruitwood desk. Madame stood beside him rigidly, a bulwark of censure. Two items lay upon the spotless desk. A willow rod, and the book.
Typically, Daniel St. John barely glanced at her. He appeared a little annoyed and very bored. She half-expected him to yawn and pull out his snuff box.
He did not really look like a devil. She had given him that name as a young girl because of his eyes. Dark and intense, they were framed by eyebrows that peaked in vague points toward the ends. Those eyes could burn right into you if he paid attention. Since he never did, she did not find them so frightening anymore.
His mouth was set in a straight, hard, full line, but then it always was. Even when he smiled it only curved enough to suggest that whatever amused him was a private joke. Along with the eyes and chiseled face, it made him look cruel. Maybe he was. She wouldn't know. Still, she suspected that women thought him very handsome, and maybe even found his harshness attractive. She had seen Madame Oiseau flush and fluster in his presence.
He was not as old as she had once thought. He had grown more youthful as she had matured. She realized now that he could not be more than thirty. That struck her as peculiar. He had been an adult her whole life, and should be older.
It was easy to forget how hard he could appear. Every year the months hazed over her memory. Seeing him now, she knew that her plan had been stupid. He would never take on more inconvenience, and she would be left here to await Madame Oiseau's vengeance.
"M'sieur has learned of your disgraceful behavior," Madame Leblanc intoned. "He is shocked, as one would expect."
He quirked one of his sardonic smiles at the description of his reaction. He tapped the book. "Is there an explanation?"
Madame Oiseau moved closer, a physical reminder of her threat. Madame Leblanc glared, daring her to make excuses. The Devil Man looked indifferent, as always. He wanted this to be done so he could be gone.
Diane made her choice. The safe, cowardly choice. "No explanation, m'sieur."
He glanced up at her, suddenly attentive. It only lasted an instant. He sank back in the chair and gestured impatiently to Madame.
The two women readied the chamber for punishment. A prie-dieu was dragged into the center of the room. A chair was pushed in front of it. Madame lifted the willow rod and motioned for the sinner to take the position.
The Devil Man just sat there, lost in his thoughts, gazing at the desk, ignoring the activity.
He was going to stay. Madame Leblanc had insisted that he witness it.
Diane had known remaining here would mean punishment. Madame firmly believed that sins deserved whipping, and she did not reserve the rod for her students. Several months ago a serving woman of mature years was caught sneaking out to meet a man and the same justice had been meted out to her.
Burning with humiliation and praying that he remained in his daze, Diane approached the prie-dieu. Stepping up on the kneeler, she bent her hips over the raised, cushioned arm rest and balanced herself by grasping the seat of the chair.
Madame Oiseau ceremoniously lifted the skirt of her sack dress. Madame Leblanc gave the usual exhortation for her to pray for forgiveness.
The rod fell on her exposed bottom. It fell again. She ground her teeth against the pain, knowing it was futile. They would whip her mercilessly until she begged heaven's pardon.
"Stop." His voice cut through the tension in the room.
Madame got one last strike in.
"I said to stop."
"M'sieur, it must--"
"Stop. And leave."
Diane began to push herself up.
Madame Oiseau pressed her back down. "It appears her guardian is so outraged that he feels obliged to mete out the punishment himself, Madame Leblanc," she said in oily tones. "It is appropriate for such a sin, no?"
Madame Leblanc debated in a string of mumbles. Madame Oiseau walked around the prie-dieu. The two women left.
She heard him rise and walk toward her. She hoped that he would be quick about it. She would gladly accept any pain just to be done with the mortification that she felt positioned there, half-naked.
The skirt fluttered down. A firm grasp took her arm. "Get up."
She righted herself and smoothed the sack gown. Biting back her humiliation, she faced him.
He sat behind the desk again. No longer bored. Definitely paying attention. She squirmed under his dark gaze.
He gestured to the book. "Where did you get it?"
"Does it matter?"
"I should say it does. I put you in a school that is almost cloistered. I find it curious that you came by such a thing."
The threat in her chamber rang in her ears. She could do it. Madame Oiseau could kill someone. And when it happened the Devil Man would not care at all. He would be grateful to be spared the trip each year.
"I stole it."
"From a bookseller?"
"I stole it and Madame Leblanc found it among my belongings. That is all that matters. Madame says that excuses and explanations only make the sin worse."
"Does she? What nonsense. Do you understand why Madame was so shocked that you had this book?"
"The women are undressed, so I assume that it is about sins of the flesh."
That seemed to amuse him, as if he thought of a clever response but kept it to himself. "I believe that you stole this book, but I think it was from someone here. Madame Leblanc?"
She shook her head.
"I did not think so. It was the other one, wasn't it? The one more than happy to leave you alone with me." He speared her with those eyes. "Tell me now."
She hesitated. He really didn't care about her. This was the first time in years that he had even really looked at her.
He was definitely doing that. Sharply. Deeply. It made her uncomfortable.
He had helped her that time when she complained. Maybe if she told him he would agree to keep silent and things could continue as before. Or perhaps if he complained Madame Leblanc would believe him, and Madame Oiseau would be dismissed.
There was something in his expression that indicated he would have the truth, one way or another. Something determined, even ruthless, burned in those devil eyes.
She much preferred him bored and indifferent.
"It belongs to Madame Oiseau, as you guessed," she said. "There is a young girl, no more than fourteen, to whom she has been showing it. The girl told me how Madame Oiseau described the riches to be had for a woman who did such things. I went to Madame's chamber and took it. I was looking for a way to bring it down to the fire but Madame Oiseau claimed a brooch had gone missing and all the girls' chambers were searched. The book was found in mine."
"And the brooch never was found, was it?"
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully while his gaze moved all over her, lingering on her face. He was trying to decide if she spoke the truth.
"How old are you now?"
The annual question, coming now, startled her. "Sixteen."
"You spoke of your friend who is fourteen as a young girl."
"She acts younger than that."
He scrutinized her. He had never looked at her so long or so thoroughly. No one ever had.
"I brought you here, what, ten years ago? Twelve? It was right after . . . You were a girl then, but not a little child." His gaze met hers squarely. "How old are you?"
Her foolish plan was unfolding in spite of her cowardice.
Only she did not want it now.
"I do not care for young women trying to make a fool of me. I think if we let down your hair from those childish braids, and see you in something besides that sack, that we will know the truth."
"The truth is that I am sixteen."
"Indeed? Indulge my curiosity, then." He gestured at her head. "The hair. Take it down."
Cursing herself for having attracted his attention, she pulled the ribbons off the ends of her braids. Unplaiting and combing with her fingers, she loosed her hair. It fell in waves around her face and down her body.
His sharp eyes warmed. That should have reassured her, but it had the opposite effect. Caution prickled her back.
"How old are you?" His voice was quieter this time, with no hard edge.
He had her very worried now. "Sixteen."
"I am sure not. I suspect that you concluded it was in your interest to lie. But let us be certain. The gown, mam'selle."
"The gown. Remove it."
She faced him, with her chestnut hair pouring down her lithe body. Her lips parted in confusion and her soulful eyes widened with shock. With that expression she looked almost as young as she claimed to be.
"Remove it," he repeated.
"You can not tell my age from . . . At sixteen I already . . ."
"A female does not stop maturing so early. There is a difference between the voice of a girl and that of a woman, and yours has a mature resonance. There is also a difference in their bodies, especially in the hips. The ones that I just saw struck me as too rounded for sixteen. Remove your garments so that I can check if my fleeting impression was correct."
Her face flushed a deep red. Sparks of indignation flickered in her dark eyes. He half-expected her to start disrobing and call his bluff.
Then the fires disappeared and her gaze turned cool.
She suddenly reminded him of her father. There was no reason why the hell that should bother him, but it always had, and he abruptly lost interest in the game he had initiated with her.
"I am twenty years old."
She did not sound like someone who had just been outflanked. Her tone suggested that she had made some decision.
A tiny spike of caution stabbed him.
"Does Madame Leblanc know your true age?"
"She never asked my age when I came. I was small and unschooled and put with the youngest girls. However, she can count the years."
"But she never raised the question of your future with me."
"It was not in her interest to do so. You continued paying the fees. I progressed through the curriculum quicker than most. Three years ago I moved to the front of the school room and began teaching what I had been taught."
"Very convenient for Madame Leblanc. However, you also never raised the question. In fact you have lied to me about it before, and just did again."
"I have seen girls leave at eighteen. I did not think you would let me stay here if you knew I had come of age. So when you asked, I gave you the same age for several years before getting older again."
She had been very clever, Daniel realized. More clever than one expected of a young girl.
He made the annual trips to this school with dark, soul-churning resentment. They served as sharp announcements of duties delayed and hungers unfed, of time passing and of quests unfulfilled. His responsibility here only reminded him that there would be no peace until he finished what he had started years ago. Even as he talked with her each year in this study, he blocked most of his mind to her.
She had seen his self-absorption as indifference and taken advantage of it.
She blushed prettily at her admission of guilt. "I apologize for the deception, but this is the only home I have known. I have friends here, and a family of sorts."
Home. Family. A small, wistful smile accompanied those words.
She had been willing to take a whipping to keep what little she had of both those things.
He instantly wished that he had not let curiosity follow its course. Looking at her pretty face, he had forgotten whom he dealt with. For a few moments there he had been a man toying with an attractive woman and enjoying her dismay far too much.
"We will forget this conversation, mam'selle. You can indeed stay. We will say nothing about your true age, and I will continue sending the fees. In time, Madame LeBlanc will probably begin compensating you for your duties and you will officially move to the front of the school room."
She strolled around the chamber, absently touching the glassed bookcase and the velvet prie-dieu. "It is tempting, I will not deny it. But the book . . . Madame Oiseau . . . it cannot be the same now. Sometimes events conspire to force one to do what should be done. " Her ambling brought her back to the desk. "No, it is long past time for me to leave here. I must ask for your help, however. Very little, I promise you. I am a good teacher in the subjects expected of a governess. If you could aid me in securing a position, I would be grateful."
"I expect that is possible. I know some families in Paris who---."
"I would prefer London."
She said it quickly and firmly enough that his instincts tightened.
How much did she remember?
"I think that I can get better terms in London," she said. "They will think that I am French. That should count for something."
They will think that I am French. Clearly she had remembered the basics.
"Paris would be easier."
"It must be London. If you will not help me, I will manage on my own."
He pictured her arriving in London unprotected and unsupervised. She would get into trouble immediately.
And get him into trouble eventually.
"I cannot permit that."
"What you will permit is not of consequence, m'sieur. I am in this school by your charity, I know that. But I am of an age when I daresay that you have no further obligation to me, nor I to you. If events have forced courage on me, then I shall be courageous. I must find my life, and I intend go to London."
I must find my life. His caution sharpened to a sword's edge.
As often happened, that produced a mental alertness that instantly clarified certain things. His mind neatly transformed an unexpected complication into an opportunity. One that might salve the hunger and finish the quest.
It stood facing him, waiting for his response. Proud. Determined. But not nearly so confident as she posed. Not nearly so brave.
Sometimes events conspire to force one to do what should be done.
How much did she remember? It would not matter. And if, as he suspected, she hoped to learn all of it, it would be over before she even came close. In the meantime he could keep an eye on her.
He studied her lithe frame and the body vaguely apparent beneath the sack. He pictured her in a pale gown of the latest fashion. Something both alluring and demure. Her hair up and a single, fine jewel at her neck, with those soulful eyes gazing out of her porcelain, unpainted face. Lovely, but young. Fresh and vulnerable, but not a silly schoolgirl.
Yes, she would do. Splendidly, in fact.
"I will speak with Madame Leblanc and explain that you will leave with me today. We will discuss the details of finding you a position when we get to Paris."
* * *
Diane folded her few garments and stacked them in the valise that Monsieur St. John had sent up from his carriage. They were all too childish for a governess to wear. She would have to find some way to rectify that.
From the small drawer of her tiny writing table, she removed an English Bible. It was one of two remnants of her life before this school.
She thrust her hand far to the back of the drawer and grasped a wadded handkerchief. She let it unwrap and its contents fall onto the desk. A gold ring rolled and rolled before stopping, poised upright. A scrap of paper fluttered down beside it.
For several years she had worn the ring on her thumb every night when she went to sleep. Then the day had come when her tenuous hold on childhood memories failed, when they became fractured snippets of images and sensations. The ritual of putting on the ring no longer made sense and she had ceased doing so.
She did not have to read the words on the paper. They were from the Devil Man, the only note he had ever sent her. It had come with this ring one year on the feast of the Nativity, explaining that the ring had been her father's and that he thought that she might like to have it. She doubted that he even remembered making the gesture.
It had been years ago. The second or third Nativity that she was here perhaps. She couldn't remember exactly.
She tucked the ring and note into the valise. She would have to ask Daniel St. John how he came to have it.
The door to her chamber opened and Madame Leblanc entered. She marched to the window and peered out with critical eyes. "Take your time. Let him wait."
"If he waits too long he might leave without me."
"He will not leave without you. Trust this old woman when she says that. I am not ignorant of the world, or of men." She turned abruptly and pointed to the bed. "Sit."
Diane sat obediently. Madame paced in front of her, shaking her head.
"Sometimes this happens. One of my orphans leaves to be a governess or to live with a relative, but I know that there is more. I can sense it. Holy Mother forgive me, I do not welcome giving the advice that I am about to impart but I would fail in my duty to you if I did not."
"There is no need, madame. Your training has been most thorough."
"Not in this." She crossed her arms over her substantial chest. "Property and jewels, secured to you. That is what you must demand. Legally secured, so there can be no misunderstanding."
"He has no reason to be so generous."
"He will have a reason. He has realized that you are of age. . . and that book. Now he thinks that you are amenable . . . I should have considered that, but in my disappointment at your sin I did not."
"You distress yourself for nothing. He has agreed to help me find a position and I will be safe."
"He intends to find you a position, Diane, but not the one that you think. He wants you for a mistress." She looked down severely, but her expression instantly softened. "You look at me so blankly. You do not even know what that means, do you?"
She could believe that she looked blank, for she wasn't very clear on what that meant except that it was sinful.
"The book, Diane. The terrible images in the book. Those are the duties of a mistress, and with no benefit of marriage."
The odd engravings flashed through her mind. She felt her face turn hot. "Surely you misunderstand."
"I have over fifty years on this earth. I know a man's sinful interest when I see it. Oh, his cool demeanor hides it better than most, but hear what I say to you now. You must protect your future. Property and jewels. Make him pay dearly for every liberty that you grant him."
Diane wiped the pictures from her thoughts. Madame might have fifty years but they had not been very worldly ones, and she always spoke badly of men. "I am sure that you are wrong."
"He is rich. He will seduce you with luxuries and kindness, and then . . ."
Diane rose. "I thank you for your concern, but my association with Monsieur St. John will be brief."
Madame helped buckle the valise. "Do not forget to say your prayers. Every night. Perhaps then, when the offer comes. . . Maybe."
Diane lifted the valise. It wasn't very heavy. All the same, carrying it out of this chamber would not be easy. Nor would leaving Madame, for all of her strictness.
"I thank you for your care, madame."
Impulsively, the formidable woman enclosed her in an embrace.
She had never done that before. No one had, for as long as Diane could remember. It evoked ghostly sensations, however, of the security and comfort of other, long-ago embraces.
It took her breath away. The warmth and intimacy astonished her and moved her so much that her eyes teared. The human contact both salved the odd hollow that she carried in her heart and also made it ache.
The little cruelties over the years did not seem very important suddenly. Madame had been the closest thing to a mother.
The moment of tenderness made Diane brave. She turned her head and spoke in the older woman's ear. "The book. I stole it from Madame Oiseau. She shows it to the girls."
She broke away and turned to the door quickly, catching only a glimpse of Madame Leblanc's shocked face.
* * *
Madame Oiseau waited for her down below. She slipped an arm around Diane's waist and guided her to the door.
"I underestimated you." She smiled slyly, as if they had suddenly become great friends. "Who could have guessed that such a shrewd mind worked beneath that demure manner. Well done, Diane."
"I think that you overestimate me now."
"Hardly. But you are too young to appreciate the victory waiting for you. Too ignorant to reap all that you can. You must write to me for advice. We can help each other and grow rich from your cleverness."
"I do not want your help."
"Still proud. Too proud for an orphan with no past. Much too proud for the bourgeois merchants and lawyers to whom most of the others have gone."
They passed out to the portico. A crisp wind fluttered the edges of their muslin caps.
Daniel St. John lounged against the side of the carriage with his eyes fixed on the ground.
Madame cocked her head. "An exciting man. Maybe a dangerous one. Not born to wealth. Beneath his elegant and cool manner there is too much brooding vitality for that. He has managed to be accepted into the best circles, however. The women would permit it, to keep him nearby, and even the men would be intrigued." Her eyes narrowed. "Make him wait."
First Madame Leblanc and now Madame Oiseau. "Since I am already out the door, it is too late to try and do that now."
Madame laughed. It brought those devil eyes up, and on them.
"Perhaps you do not need much advice," Madame mused. "Your ignorance will deal with him just as well."
A gesture from Daniel sent a footman over to take the valise. Madame retreated to the door. "Remember what I have said. Write to me."
The footman opened the coach door. Daniel held out his arm to usher her in. He did not appear too dangerous. Actually, right now, with the breeze tousling his short, dark locks, he looked rather young, and almost friendly.
Who am I? How did I come to be here? Where is my family?
Down the three stone steps she trod, her heart pounding with trepidation. She walked across the only solid earth she knew, toward a sea of uncertainty.
The Devil Man waited for her to join him there.