Wicked Nights With a Lover Page 1

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Chapter 1

Marguerite Laurent was not given to emotional histrionics as so many females she had come across in the course of her five and twenty years. It was this, her lack of excitability, her utter constancy, that perfectly suited her for her particular vocation. Only now, on this particular occasion, did she find herself tested beyond custom.

“But I simply don’t understand,” Mrs. Danbury whined in shrill, petulant tones. “Why must you leave now? I am going to live! I should think you would be happy about that.” The widow affected a great sniffle as she set about her morning regimen of toast and honey—at least her morning regimen when she had not been prostrate at death’s door. She brandished a drippy spoon in the air, waving it like a weapon to be plied. “One would almost think you wished I had died.”

“Don’t be silly,” Marguerite gently chided. “You are well. A fact, I promise you, that fills me with only the greatest relief.”

Mrs. Danbury sniffed yet again, and repositioned her considerable girth in her chair as she took a crunchy bite.

Against all odds and the dire predictions of physicians, the widow Danbury had taken a turn for the better. Such the case, Marguerite counted herself unneeded and had already begun preparations to move on to her next assignment. Moistening her lips, she yet again went about the difficult task of explaining to her patroness that she only attended to the infirm and dying.

“You’re going to live, Mrs. Danbury. While I couldn’t be more pleased, I am a sick nurse.” I’m better with the dying. Biting back that morbid thought, Marguerite stepped forward and cupped a linen beneath the dripping spoon before a dollop of honey landed on Mrs. Danbury’s dressing robe.

The widow pursed her lips. “Well, you could be my well nurse.”

Marguerite smiled, but could not help her niggle of discomfort. This was a wholly unique situation for her. By the time the agency referred her, her patients were quite beyond recovery. No one had ever recuperated before. She’d never had to beg an exit. Usually, the family was happy to be rid of the sight of her for all that she reminded them of their loved one’s final days.

“I have another assignment waiting.” Marguerite had received the note this very morning from Mrs. Driscoll at the agency that a position was available.

“You cannot go yet,” Mrs. Danbury insisted with an unappealing pout of her honey-moist lips. “Not until we’re sure I’m well and mended.”

Marguerite blinked. “Why, you’re a vision of health, Mrs. Danbury. You’ve been free of your bed well over a fortnight. Your physician vows you are cured. Yesterday you rode in the park and ate so many scones that I lost count.”

“Posh! Meaningless all. I can’t be certain until I’ve seen her. Only then can I know for certain. She’ll be here any moment. Now excuse me while I dress.” With a flick of her hand, the two maids lurking in the corner rushed forward, hurrying after the widow as she fairly skipped into the dressing room.

Her? Marguerite remained where she was, contemplating the bags she’d already packed and asked the butler to see collected from her room. She was so close to escaping. The need rose hot and thick inside her, climbing up her throat. Mrs. Danbury was a capricious creature, given to fits of laughing and weeping interchangeably. She drained the energy out of Marguerite. As mad as it sounded, Marguerite craved the predictability and calm of the dying.

Mrs. Danbury’s voice drifted from the dressing room as she berated one of the maids, serving to confirm all of Marguerite’s dread.

“I’ve just risen from my deathbed! I no longer need look a corpse, you daft girl. Put that horrid thing down and fetch me my blue silk tea gown.”

Marguerite squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, hoping to block out the sound of her shrill, excitable voice.

A knock sounded at the suite’s doors. The housekeeper stuck her head inside the room. Marguerite nodded toward the dressing room. The portly woman walked with a briskness that defied her girth for the dressing room door. With a knock, she announced, “Mrs. Danbury, Madame Foster has arrived.”

“Excellent! Tell her that Miss Laurent and I shall be right down.” Madame Foster?

Moments later, Mrs. Danbury swept into the room in a flurry of blue silk. “Come, Marguerite, dear. We shall find out if I am truly on the mend and whether you can take your leave or not.”

A knot in her throat, Marguerite followed. Uncharitable or not, she somehow suspected she would not care for this Madame Foster.

“Tell me, Madame Foster,” Mrs. Danbury encouraged between bites of frosted biscuits. Marguerite watched as crumbs fell from her lips to her silk skirts. The widow didn’t flicker an eye over the mess tumbling from her mouth, her attention trained on the garishly attired woman across from her. “What do you see?”

Madame Foster clucked her tongue and rotated the teacup in her heavily beringed fingers, even as she glanced furtively at the room’s appointments, assessing with the rapacity of a predator.

Marguerite frowned from where she sat near the window, fairly certain the female was looking for anything she might pocket before leaving.

“Ahhh,” the woman murmured, refocusing her attention on the cup.

“Yes? Yes?” Mrs. Danbury leaned forward eagerly.

Madame frowned slightly and turned the cup around, her movements suddenly quick. She glanced from the cup to Mrs. Danbury’s animated face and released a heavy sigh. When she returned her attention to the dregs at the bottom of the teacup, her frown deepened into a scowl.

“What?” Mrs. Danbury asked shrilly. “Dear woman, tell me what you see!”

The woman set the cup down with a decided click on its saucer and motioned impatiently for Mrs. Danbury’s hand. The widow quickly stretched her arm across the table, losing her lily-white fingers in the diviner’s grasping ones.

Madame Foster bowed her turban-swathed head and closed her eyes as though in prayer. For moments, she said nothing. Only the ticking clock on the mantel could be heard in the hush.

Marguerite leaned forward in her chair, duly impressed with the intense expression on the woman’s face. It was like she wasn’t even in the room anymore but transported elsewhere. A truly affecting performance. To her credit, she was quite the convincing charlatan.

With a sharp breath, Madame Foster dropped Mrs. Danbury’s hand. Shaking, she rose quickly to her feet, her many bracelets clanging together on her arms in her haste. “That is all for today,” she said in clearly affected accents.

“What? No! No!” Mrs. Danbury lurched to her feet. “What did you see? You cannot leave. I’ll pay you anything … you must tell me!”

With an unladylike mutter, Marguerite stood, unable to witness another moment of this farce, certain the female was only working at some ploy to extort more money from the pathetic and far too gullible widow.

Then something happened.

The diviner turned—looked away from the widow. Only Marguerite still saw her face. And she could not help wondering why she should feign such distress at that moment, free from the widow’s view. Madame Foster’s eyes, glassy and panicked, darted to the door, eager for escape. She skirted the table, avoided Mrs. Danbury’s stretching hands. “I cannot—” she mumbled.

“Please, whatever you saw … whatever it was … wouldn’t you want to be told? To know?”

Halfway to the door, Madame Foster froze.

Feeling invisible, and not unhappy for that fact, Marguerite looked back and forth between the two women, wondering how she had ever come to be trapped in such a mad scene.

Slowly, Madame Foster turned, her gaze narrow and thoughtful. “That depends.” She advanced slowly, moistening her lips. “Do you wish to know the hour of your death? Should anyone wish for such knowledge?”

Marguerite sucked in a breath, a shiver chasing down her spine. Oh, no. She wouldn’t be so wicked, so irresponsible as to pretend …

Mrs. Danbury nodded doggedly. “I’ve lived half a century.” She drew a deep, ragged breath. Marguerite read the fear in the lines of her face, heard it in the quaver of her voice, however much she presented an image of bravado. “However much time I’ve left, I would want to know.”

Madame Foster nodded, pursing her lips. “Very well.”

Marguerite strode forward, intent on putting an end to this madness and stop the swindler from placing an expiration on Mrs. Danbury’s life. Except she didn’t move swiftly enough.

“The truth, as I saw with my own eyes, is that you’ll not live out the week.”

Mrs. Danbury screamed, clutching a hand to her great bosom as she fell, plummeting like a sinking ship to the Persian rug.

With an inelegant snort, Marguerite wondered if the lady’s death had not arrived upon that very moment. Prostrate on the rug, she greatly resembled a corpse.

Helping Mrs. Danbury to the settee, Marguerite glanced around to find the cause for all the trouble gone. Vanished like a wisp of smoke.

Determined to stop the culprit and bring her back, force her to confess that she was a liar and a charlatan, Marguerite patted her patient on the arm and raced from the room after her.

“Wait! Stop!”

Madame Foster shot a frightened look over her shoulder and pushed her considerable girth harder toward the front doors.

Younger and significantly lighter of foot, Marguerite caught up with her and snatched her by the end of her bright blue shawl. “Oh, no you don’t! You’re not going anywhere until you march back up there and tell Mrs. Danbury she’s not going to die this week!”

Madame Foster tugged on her colorful shawl, twisting it around her arm. “I won’t do any such thing.”

“You miserable wretch. This is not a game. Have you any idea what you’ve done to that woman?” Marguerite stabbed a finger toward the stairs.

“You think I enjoy this? You think I like letting people know their less than promising destinies? Usually, I lie. But not about something like this.” She jerked her turbaned head toward the stairs. “Mark my words, that woman will be dead before the week is out, and she deserves to know she has so little time left. I’d wish to know.”

“You mean to explain to me that you believe this rot?” Shaking her head, Marguerite hissed, “Never mind. I don’t care. March up those stairs and take back everything you said before I call the Guard. Tell Mrs. Danbury it was a mistake.” Marguerite waved a hand wildly. “Tell her you had another look into your crystal ball and you were wrong … you saw her eighty years old in a rocking chair—”

“Try to consider if it were you. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

Marguerite shook her head, furious. “Spare me the ethical obligations of a seer,” she scoffed. Snatching hold of the woman’s arm, she tugged her toward the stairs, not about to give up. “You’re going to tell that woman—”

Marguerite stopped, turning cold at the sudden look on Madame Foster’s face. She’d seen the rapt, frightened expression before. Only moments before when she’d clutched Mrs. Danbury’s hands.

A sick, wilting sensation twisted in her belly. Marguerite loosened her grip, eager to sever the contact, but then Madame Foster tightened her hold, keeping her hostage, her eyes eerie-bright, glassy and faraway.

“Let me go,” she hissed, tugging at her hand and marveling at the older woman’s strength.

Desperate, Marguerite stomped down on her foot, finally freeing herself. Rubbing her hand, she wondered if she shouldn’t simply wash her hands of this madhouse and move on to her next assignment.

“You,” Madame Foster whispered, her gaze focused again, eyes darting avidly over Marguerite’s face in a way that reminded her of a wild animal. “I’ve seen your death.”

Marguerite resisted the small chill the words elicited, reminding herself that this woman was a charlatan. Propping her hands on her hips, she asked, “Indeed? Mine, as well? This is an inauspicious day, is it not? Do I have but a week to live, too?”

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