Her face flamed, but she pretended not to notice her sisters’ surprise.
She bent to kiss Charles’ cheek. “Good morning, Papa.”
He beamed at her. “It’s wonderful to see you in such high spirits in the morning.”
She straightened, protesting, “Papa!”
“How surprising,” the marquis commented. “I would have thought Lady Soleil a morning person.”
Fleur wrinkled her nose. “Because she’s our fearsome leader? Yes, well, it’s the opposite.”
Aurora nodded. “She’s a bear to wake up in the mornings.”
Ilie pulled out the seat beside him, leaving her no choice but to take it. As she sat down, Ilie murmured wickedly, “Well, I will do my best to change that once we’re married.”
She looked at him in horror as he took his seat beside her. “What are you saying?” But no one seemed to hear her, with the sudden pandemonium in the dining hall. Charles was heartily shaking the marquis’ hand and clapping his hand on his back while Aurora and Fleur squealed like they were debutantes rather than the trained soldiers they were.
“I’m so thrilled for you,” Aurora told her.
She was about to protest that it was all a sham, a prank even, but then Aurora actually started sniffing back tears, and she slowly closed her mouth.
She glanced at her father, who had a serious look on his face as he insisted on giving the marquis a dowry. “I know your wealth is infinite compared to mine,” Charles was saying, “but it’s a matter of honor, you understand?” His voice became gruff. “I want the whole world to know how much my daughter means to me.”
Charles noticed her gaze on him. “I can’t wait to walk you down the aisle, dear.”
She could only smile weakly, thinking Fleur was wrong about the marquis not taking a no for an answer.
Today was proof that the marquis wasn’t even going to give her a chance to go against his wishes.
“YOU HAVE BEEN UNUSUALLY quiet.” The marquis broke the silence between them as he claimed his seat next to her on the phaeton and took the reins. In moments, they were off, the marquis having volunteered to take her to ANEX, where she had an appointment with her former adviser.
And of course he had left her with no choice about that, too, she thought. He had made the offer in her father’s presence, and naturally Charles gave his consent. If she had refused, she would have ended up embarrassing her father, and Ilie Marcovici knew very well that she wouldn’t ever do that.
“Is something wrong, ma lisse?”
Ha! She pursed her lips determinedly. Did he think sweet-talking her would make her biddable? Did he think she was as simple and easy as the other women?
Flicking the reins, the marquis said, “I had no chance to tell you this earlier, but you look exquisite today.”
She felt his gaze resting on her hair, which she had arranged in a loose, casual chignon. Unlike most ladies, she insisted on dressing her hair on her own, secretly finding the challenge a way to relieve her stress.
“I hope you always put your hair up.”
The comment was so unexpected that she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Why?”
“So I’d have the pleasure of taking it down.”
Oh! Her cheeks burned with color at the intimacy of his tone. She should have seen that coming, curse it.
“Are you wearing a new dress?”
She shrugged, unwilling to admit that yes, the lavender satin gown she had on was indeed a new purchase.
“Thank you for wearing it for me.”
She gasped. “Stop reading my mind!”
He grinned. “I didn’t.”
Realizing she had fallen for his trap, Soleil gasped again and socked his arm as hard as she could. It only made him laugh, and the sound so incensed her, she raised her hand to slap him.
But he only caught her wrist the moment she swung her hand down, and still laughing, he let go of the reins—-
Her eyes widened in shock even as her wrist burned at his touch. “Milord!” They were going to crash!
“Relax,” he murmured. “The horses are trained to slow down and stay on trails where they – and we – won’t be seen.”
And so they were, the horses actually slowing down the moment they sensed that no one was controlling them.
The marquis suddenly hauled her to his lap. She immediately struggled, but it was like going against a wall of unbending steel. “The more you wriggle, the more you arouse me, milady.”
She froze, realizing what the hardness under her meant.
His hands dug into her curls—-
But it was too late. The marquis was pulling out the pins and letting them scatter to the floor. Her curls tumbled down and he groaned in satisfaction. “Lovely,” he said hoarsely.
The way he was staring at her made Soleil swallow. Dear Lord, his hunger for her—-
He threaded his fingers through her hair, and she lost the will to struggle, the pleasure of his touch making her feel like she was melting by the second. His mouth touched her hair, and she shivered. His mouth trailed down the side of her neck, nuzzling, and she couldn’t help arching in his arms.