In the grand parlor of the home of Henri Thevenet--which was not so grand, truth be told--Julien Auvrey checked his pocket watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. He'd been quite shocked to receive Henri's letter. Come at once. This is a matter of great urgency. If it was so urgent, why on earth did the man keep him waiting? It wasn't like Henri to be late. Or perhaps it was. Julien had not seen his friend in seven years.
They had not fallen out, but drifted away, as so many of Julien's friends had over the years. While other men felt the siren song of marriage and family luring them to the death of their bachelorhood, Julien had never had any interest in that kind of life. It hadn't worked out terribly well for anyone he knew. Henri, for example, had married for love and lost his fortune, and it had all been for nothing when his beautiful young wife had died days after giving birth to their only child. Julien cast his gaze around the drab room with its peeling paint and threadbare carpet on dull wooden floor. Apparently, Henri's second marriage, a sensible match to a wealthy widow, had not worked out as he'd planned, either.
The doors opened and Julien quickly pocketed his watch, rising smoothly from the creaky chair he'd slumped in. Henri entered, and it struck Julien how very much his friend had aged. Gone was the slender, dark-haired man in the prime of his youth, replaced by a doughy middle-aged man with powder white hair. Though his clothes were out of fashion, they were clean and he wore them well. Henri always did have a knack for style.
"Old friend!" Henri held out his arms, then stopped in his tracks. "My, how you've changed."
Self-consciously, Julien smoothed a hand over his hair, which was pulled back in an elegant queue. Time had given him a few silver threads in the sandy brown color, and a few lines on his face, but his friend could hardly share the same depth of astonishment at his appearance as Julien had when he first laid eyes upon Henri.
"Still vain as ever, I see." A twinkle of amusement revealed the same Henri that Julien had known in his youth. "Sit, my friend, sit. We have...something to discuss."
Julien seated himself and waited for Henri to take the chair across from him before asking, "So, how are the children?"
Henri chuckled and smoothed his cravat. "Hardly children now, I am afraid. Charlotte and Delphine grow like weeds. It is hard to believe that soon they will be seventeen years old!"
"Marrying age," Julien said without thinking.
To his horror, his old friend nodded. "Exactly what I asked you here about."
It would have been rude to jump to his feet and run for the door, so Julien forced himself to stay where he was. "Oh?" he managed to say with just the barest hint of panic.
"Calm yourself, Julien. I have not forgotten that you are already married to your selfishness." Henri chuckled. "No, it is not Charlotte and Delphine I worry about. Both of them have ample dowries, inherited from their father--God rest his soul--but it is my daughter Josephine. She is not yet married, and in good conscience I cannot marry her sisters before she is settled."
It still sounded suspiciously as though a betrothal would be suggested at any moment. Julien stayed silent.
Henri needed no inducement to continue talking. "The problem is, Josephine has no dowry, and I cannot provide her with one. It shames me that I cannot provide for my daughter, but there it is. Which is why I have contacted you."
"Surely your wife has her fortune still, from her previous marriage?" Claire Bertrand had been married to one of the richest merchants in the Kingdom, and had married Henri out of desperation, or so the gossips told. By the laws of the Kingdom of Chevudon, no woman stood to inherit her husband's fortune without a son to whom she could bequeath it. When Pierre Bertrand's fortune went to his nearest male relative, Claire had followed it, right into marriage with Henri.
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Henri would not meet Julien's eyes. "Of course, we are still quite wealthy, but my wife is very...protective of her finances. There was a small stipend set aside for Josephine's potential marriage, but when I failed to arrange a suitable match Claire found it more sensible to retire that money."
"Retire it," Julien repeated.
"Josephine will be twenty in three months time, and Claire believes it would benefit the entire household if we sent her North, to stay with my late wife's relations there." Henri leaned closer, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial tone. "I tell you though, Julien, I despair at that thought. The winters are rough there, and the accommodations on the farm are not as comfortable as they are here."
Picking at the unraveling upholstery on the arm of the chair, Julien relaxed. So, it was not marriage the man was after for his daughter, but money. Julien had that in spades. "You wish me to provide Josephine with a dowry?"
"As you are her godfather, I thought you the most suitable candidate." Henri smiled nervously. "Of course, it would not have to be a large one."
"Nonsense, I will see that she has fortune enough to buy any husband she wants." It would be no hardship, and since he had not done much in the way of godfatherly duties in the past twenty years, it seemed only appropriate that he champion this cause for the girl.
"There is another, small, matter." Henri fixed his friend with a pleading gaze. "She has not been educated in the way that a lady must be to attract a husband. Oh, she knows table manners and she is kind, but the rules of society are foreign to her."
"I will hire her a tutor. Done." Being a godfather was terribly easy, if all one had to do was throw money about. "If that is all--"
"No, no. You see, I am sadly without connections. A dowry and a tutor are fine, but I know of no one to whom I can marry her. Claire, bless her, is a very social creature, but she does not believe it would be seemly for her to introduce Josephine around as though she were her natural daughter. You understand, of course?"
I understand your wife is a shrew, Julien thought, and nodded.
"If you could see fit to take Josephine under your wing, perhaps take her to court to meet Prince Philipe?" Henri's question hung hopefully in the air, and it became suddenly clear to Julien what his friend had really contacted him for.
Julien sighed. "This sudden need for your daughter to have a large dowry and fine manners would have nothing to do with the news that King Achilles has ordered his son to marry, I assume?"
"Oh, has he?" Henri said with feigned surprise. "I hadn't heard."
"And of course you've conveniently forgotten that His Royal Highness Prince Philipe of Chevudon is a close friend of mine." A smile quirked the corner of Julien's mouth. "Henri, you have always been a pathetic liar."
"Honesty is my curse." Henri spread his chubby hands in a gesture of helplessness, but his lament did not last long. "So, will you help me? Josephine is my pearl, my treasure."
"Pearl she may be, but I doubt Philipe will change his mind on matters of marriage. This thing that you ask, it is too much. I can find Josephine a husband. There are men at court more than willing to take on a wife, or even two. But I cannot promise you a royal wedding."
"Meet her," Henri said suddenly. Before Julien could protest, Henri went to the door and reappeared with a girl who looked far different than the squalling infant Julien had held at the Christening twenty years before. She had hair now, though Julien had been so inebriated the morning of the baptism that he could not recall if she'd had it then. In any case, it hadn't been so beautiful as it was now, a soft mass of honey-colored curls that practically invited a man to bury his face in it. Julien imagined it would smell like lavender. Her face was certainly no longer as squinted up as it had been then, for now instead of eyes swollen closed and features smashed from the birth canal, she looked at him with crystal-clear blue eyes above an upturned nose and delicate mouth. Her skin, the pleasing expanse of which he could see above the bodice of her dress, was thankfully no longer jaundiced. Indeed, it was creamy and pale across the tops of her breasts, the swells of which promised wonderful things beneath her dress. His gaze drifted over her waist and stopped where the ridiculous design of her gown obscured his view of what would undoubtedly be ripe, soft hips and thighs.
Henri cleared his throat, and Julien's eyes snapped back up to the young lady's face, which blushed fiercely.
"This is my daughter, Josephine." Henri's nostrils flared in indignation as he spoke.
He would have to get over it, Julien decided. After all, one does not invite a notorious seducer into one's house and dangle a plump daughter in front of him. Henri had no one to blame but himself. Julien gave her a polite bow. "A pleasure, lady. Might I say how very lucky you are to resemble your mother so closely."
Henri laughed at that and patted his round belly. "You forget, Julien, that there was a time I was thought to be more handsome than you."
"Oh father, I hardly believe that," Josephine said, then blushed at her impetuous remark.
"And very much like your mother in other ways, as well," Julien complimented her. Indeed, if Henri had not been so smitten with his late wife, Julien might have had a go at her himself. The longer he stood in this room with Josephine, the more he began to doubt he would be able to behave as a godfather ought. She did look very much like her mother, who had been a beauty in her time, but she was not as slender, and Julien did love his women shaped more like violins than the bows one played them with. The thought of all that soft flesh under his hands, under his body, her thighs spread wide for him--
"So, what say you, Julien?" Henri interrupted his friend's imaginings smoothly, no doubt aware of what they contained. Truly, he must be a desperate man to trust his daughter with a friend whose exploits he knew well. "Can you turn my Josephine into a princess?"
She looked the part, already. Philipe shared Julien's taste in women, but Julien doubted this innocent-looking creature would be familiar with the other, more lascivious qualities Philipe looked for in a woman. "I cannot promise you anything, but that I will take her to court and return her married."
"I am going to court?" Josephine's eyes sparkled with excitement.
Julien clucked his tongue. "Not yet. First, a few weeks at my country estate. You must learn how to navigate the treacherous seas of the royal court before you're thrown in head first."
She smiled at that, and hid a soft giggle behind her hand. The gesture, wholly unconscious and therefore ten times as alluring, sent blood beating straight to Julien's cock. He owed his coat a debt of gratitude for hiding his indelicate condition.
"At your estate?" Henri paled at that, then turned to his daughter. "Josephine, go at once to pack your things. I must speak to Julien alone again."
With an obedient, "Yes, papa," Josephine left them. When she was gone, it was as if some warmth left the room with her.
"Julien," Henri began, utter hopelessness in his voice, "she is my only daughter. She is my--"
"Your treasure. Your pearl, I know." All girls were some father's treasure. It was an uncomfortable truth that Julien did not like to dwell on when seeking out a lady's company, and also the reason he was happy he would never have any daughters of his own. "But you must trust me. I would never do anything to harm your girl."
"I know," Henri admitted reluctantly, for it was not harm that he worried about, and Julien knew it. Better to leave it at that, then, than to dwell on it further. For Julien knew that he would not be able to resist the girl for long.