Authors: Victoria Janssen
THE DUCHESS, HER MAID, THE GROOM & THEIR LOVER
AN EROTIC NOVEL
For Charlotte, for more reasons than I can put into words.
THERE WERE NO TRAINS TO STRASBOURG.
The hand-lettered sign on the station wall might be wrong, or something might have changed. She would ask again. Lucilla Daglish clutched her single carpetbag more closely, to protect her scientific glassware from the anxious crowd, but also for reassurance. People jostled past her in every direction, all of them speaking in high-pitched, anxious tones that blurred into a babble conveying nothing but fear. Two different babies wailed, and a larger child screeched between gulping sobs. A fat man, reeking of stale pipe smoke, elbowed her sharply in the kidney as he pushed his way behind her.
Lucilla cursed herself mentally as she tried to explain her problem to the ticket agent. Had the man in the booth needed to know about titration or some other element of practicing chemistry, she could have explained it to him in great detail. However, her more basic conversational German was lacking. Perhaps she had misunderstood his meaning, or he had misunderstood hers. Perhaps her fear had led her to misspeak.
Summoning different German vocabulary, she phrased her question again. She was an Englishwoman. She wished to travel to Paris via Strasbourg. She had a ticket. Here was her ticket. Here were her papers, proving her nationality.
No, it was the
who did not understand. There were no trains to Strasbourg. There were no trains at all. Germany had declared war on Russia. There would be no trains until further orders were received.
“I am not at war!” Lucilla exclaimed in English, knowing the agent would not understand her frustrated outpourings. “Why can I not travel out of this country? Surely you have no use for me here?”
There were no trains today, the agent repeated in German. Perhaps tomorrow. Or the following week. The
would do well to find a room in the town, before they were all taken.
She could not smash her bag into the ticket agent’s smug, condescending face because he would surely call the police. She turned sharply away. She would have to temporarily abandon her trunk here at the train station. She would return to the Institute. Perhaps she could sleep there. She had been a fool to give up her room. An utter fool. But she had not had the money to pay for an entire additional month, as her landlady had insisted, and she was leaving anyway. Or so she had thought.
She had no friends here whom she could approach for help. The other women in the boardinghouse had grouped together at meals, discussing their prospects of marriage or employment. Unlike them, Lucilla was well past the age of marriage, and she was already employed. She had never stayed longer than needed to quickly eat while perusing a journal article;
she did not have time for the pleasantries, when the laboratory called to her so passionately. One could not be a friend to one’s colleagues, either, when one was a woman, and they were all men who viewed her more like a trained monkey than a chemist. Some of the men would not speak to her at all, even to exchange pleasantries. After six months in Germany, she knew no one whom she might call, even to meet her for a cup of tea.
The sun had set while she fought the crowds inside the station. Even in the dark, the hot, dusty streets were mobbed, three times as crowded as on a normal night. Compared to that morning, the whole town felt alien to her. Boys hawked newspapers on every corner. Men stood and read the papers under streetlights and in the street itself, arguing vociferously, blocking wagons, whose drivers cursed. Singing and pipe smoke, drunken cheers and angry shouts billowed from the open door of a beer garden. Some men walked purposefully, carrying small bundles—soldiers, already? All the women she saw were in a hurry, whether they hefted market baskets or towed children. Their anxiety wormed its way into Lucilla’s stomach, and she found herself almost running as she drew closer to the Institute.
The tall iron gates were closed and chained, and the gas lanterns to either side flickered merrily, mocking her.
Lucilla ran forward and grabbed the bars with her free hand. Someone would be within. She shouted. No one answered; not a blade of grass stirred. The windows were all dark. She was sweating in her sober wool suit, but her belly contracted with cold terror. She shook the gate and shouted again. “Let me in!”
Lucilla whirled. A young man loomed behind her. She recalled seeing him at the Institute, marked by his height, his pronounced Gallic nose and a truly spectacular air of untidiness, currently exacerbated by his dusty clothing. Smears of dark grime marked his sleeve and his cheek, just to the left of his unostentatious brown mustache.
He was a visitor like herself, but she had never learned his specialty, or his name. He would know her name because she was the only woman ever to study at the Institute. She took a steadying breath. “Where have they all gone?” she asked in English.
“The entire faculty was summoned to a meeting at the gymnasium. My country being likely soon at war with their country, I fear I am not welcome there, nor are you,” the young man said. He spoke English fluently, though with a French accent. From beneath the brim of his hat, he looked her up and down. She had an impression of grim displeasure, though nothing in his voice had revealed it. “You cannot stand here in the street, shouting.”
“And I suppose you have a better idea?”
“I have retained an hotel room. I suppose you have not done the same?”
“Such deductive prowess,” Lucilla muttered. Her hair was coming unpinned. She shoved the curling strands away from her face, one-handed, and glanced down the deserted street. She had to calm herself and think. “There must be another way out of the country.”
“I do not wish to be shot in the dark as a spy because I am in the act of escaping,” the Frenchman said. “You must accompany me. You will stay in my room tonight.”
“I will do nothing of the sort. Mr….?”
“I am Fournier. Tomorrow we may consider our dilemma
further. Come, we should go.” He turned and began walking, not offering to carry her bag. She didn’t want to release her bag anyway; it held her precious laboratory notebook as well as her glassware.
She should not go with him. It was quite improper. True, Fournier was younger than she by at least a decade, so she did not fear he had designs upon her. Or not more than a basic level of caution would dictate. But it galled her to be ordered about like a lab assistant.
Lucilla scurried to catch up with him. “I will find my own room,” she said. He could ruin her reputation, merely by being seen with her in a hotel.
Fournier snorted. “A woman alone, and a foreigner? Don’t be foolish. No one will give you a room.”
“A woman might,” she pointed out.
“If she had a room to spare. Even early this morning, I had difficulty in procuring lodging for an additional period. You are not the only person who has just discovered there are no trains. Come, we should hurry.”
He was correct. And after her long dusty walk to the train station, then her futile longer and dustier walk back to the Institute, Lucilla was in no mood to procure a newspaper, peruse its listings and then perhaps circumnavigate the entire town in the dark, alone and subject to male harassment, in search of a bed. “I wish you weren’t right,” she grumbled.
Fournier glanced over at her and smiled, a quick flash of white teeth beneath his mustache. For that moment, he looked no older than her baby brother, and twice as dangerous. Then he began walking even faster, and all her energy was consumed in keeping up. If she lost him, she would truly be in the soup.
Fournier ducked into a shop and she followed. He purchased cheese and biscuits, the only available choices. Lucilla realized she had forgotten all about food, but the need would soon become urgent. On the way out of the shop, she halted abruptly; a
was demanding Fournier’s papers.
She wasn’t sure if approaching was the wisest idea, but Fournier was helping her, and she would not abandon him. She came up beside him just as the
snarled an uncomplimentary phrase and tried to seize her arm. Fournier swiftly intervened, but the
wouldn’t release her. She struggled in his gloved grip, dropped her bag and heard the unmistakable shattering of glass.
Fournier shoved the
, hard. “Run!” he said, so she grabbed her bag and ran, her heart pounding, hearing the scuffling behind her. She ran for perhaps a block, enough to soak her in sweat, then flung herself around a corner and peered back. Fournier was fleeing down the street toward her, still clutching the wrapped package of cheese and tin of biscuits. His tie was jerked askew, his hat nearly falling off the back of his head. The
lay curled on the sidewalk. She could hear him cursing.
“This way!” she said, grabbing Fournier’s arm. He shook her off but followed her down several alleys. She had no idea where she was leading him, but quick action was paramount. When she could run no more, she flung her back against a wall and gasped for breath. Fournier bent over his knees, panting.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. She felt light-headed and exhilarated at the same time.
He didn’t answer her. Eventually, he straightened and said, “This way.”
By the time they reached Fournier’s lodging, the night
seemed even darker. He grabbed her hand and pulled her around the corner of the building, to the servants’ entrance. His long fingers engulfed hers. He might be abrupt and overbearing, but he’d rescued her, and defended her against the
. She appreciated his warm and reassuring human touch in the midst of chaos. She was sorry when he let go, glanced around and pushed the door open. “The stairs,” he murmured once she was inside. “Second floor.”
Fournier’s room was last in a poorly lit, narrow corridor. He unlocked the door briskly and pushed her inside before slipping in after her and throwing the bolt. She sighed in relief, then nearly laughed; never before had she considered that being locked in a room with a strange man could be a good thing.
Street noise, the rumble of wagons and voices mingling like a river, pushed in through an open window. Lucilla sought out the light switch with her hand, then was glad she hadn’t tried to move farther. She saw scarcely two feet of bare floor, with perhaps another foot covered by an open rucksack and a scatter of notebooks. The room held one narrow bed with an overstuffed mattress, a small table supporting a jug and basin, and an upended steamer trunk. A hook above the trunk supported a single towel. She stood with the rucksack at her feet, near the wall. She could easily sag backward against that cool, comforting plaster and let it support her aching head. Her carpetbag felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds. Her elbows hurt from carrying it.
Fournier, the end of the bed at his back, was so close she could smell sweat and wool and the remnants of lime shaving lotion. He said nothing, instead dropping their dinner on the coverlet and futilely brushing at the dust on his charcoal
jacket. He further loosened his navy tie and tossed his hat onto the steamer trunk.
Lucilla wanted to touch him again; an impulse, she was sure, caused by the close quarters and the sudden safety and intimacy implied by a closed and locked door. She was afraid. It had nothing to do with him personally. She worked closely with men every day, but she had never wanted to edge her body closer to any of them. A thought sprang from the depths of her mind. “Where will you sleep?” she asked.
Fournier snorted and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Better to ask, where will
sleep. I believe women are equal to men, and if that is so, then I should not have to yield my comfort to yours. It is hardly my fault you did not have the foresight to retain lodging. Besides, I cannot fold myself into this small patch of floor, and I cannot sleep in the corridor.”
His tone was harsh, but he made sense, and there was no use arguing when she agreed with him. Beggars could not be choosers. Lucilla squeezed past him and set her bag atop his steamer trunk. “No, you can’t sleep in the corridor,” she said after a moment’s thought. “Any foreigner is at risk at the moment, and if that
finds us…” She could not deny the hostility and suspicion she’d felt in the air, steadily intensifying over the past few days.
“Many Germans still hate the French. I imagine they will find an excuse to declare war on us soon, and they know all Frenchmen have served their time in the army,” he said. “Any one of us might be a soldier.”
“Or a spy. This would be a wonderful opportunity to spy, if only I knew what to look for.”
Fournier grinned, just as briefly and startlingly as before. He blew breath out his nose, and she decided he was nervous,
too. She began to feel more kindly toward him. He said, “Perhaps we will spy on the kitchen later, if we grow weary of cheese and biscuits. There is a bath down the corridor. I will guard the door, if you will do the same for me.”
“I have nothing clean to wear,” Lucilla said. Thinking she would be leaving today, she’d sent her trunk ahead, and her carpetbag held only toiletries and a change of linen for emergencies. And, of course, broken glass. She supposed it didn’t matter so much, not really, but she felt as if more had been broken than her glassware.
Fournier ducked his head. “A shirt,” he suggested. As if in afterthought, he added, “I am quite tall enough for it to be decent. Pah! Though why we should be concerned with niceties eludes me. It is obvious we no longer live in a world that rewards us for cherishing such concerns.”
Lucilla had no answer for him, not when her shoes chafed, her bust bodice chafed and the collar of her suit jacket chafed worst of all. “Thank you,” she said. “Though perhaps you should bathe first. I don’t want to guard you wearing only your shirt.”
“You are very sensible,” Fournier said, sounding surprised. Belatedly, he added, “And gracious.” Lucilla very carefully did not respond with her true thoughts at his belated compliment, which were uncharitable. As he stripped off his jacket, she held up her skirts and hurdled the rucksack, to sit on the end of the bed. She didn’t want to leave this room barefoot, so she would have to wait longer for the pleasure of removing her half boots, but simply being off her feet was lovely, and she sighed in relief. She unpinned her hat and set it aside.