Three Months Earlier July 14th1857
"Why is she being so silly?" Maria frowned as she viewed Sapphira across the great antechamber. "I don't like this, Charles."
"Neither does Nico," Charles said cheerfully as he took a sip of his wine. "I'm actually taking pleasure seeing our unflappable Uncle Nico so unsettled."
"Will it be so pleasurable if Nico decides to massacre that poor man at whom she's grinning?" Maria asked tartly. "Or our Duke of Enghien, whom she partnered with in the last dance?"
"Yes." He smiled teasingly at her. "Well I’ve been off dealing with Sardinian Troops and having to concede Nice to France. I think you have all had it easy around here. It's been far too diplomatic and everyone could probably use a little disruption."
"You’re very amusing Charles. Well. I think we have enough problems for the moment." Her frown deepened. "Besides I thought you liked your Uncle Nico. Do you not think he would make a good choice for our little Sapphira?"
He lifted her hand and kissed the palm. "I don’t think our little princess thinks he would make a good choice her and truthfully I find him more than a little too old for her. Not to mention a little too conniving and ambitious.” He mumbled the last part under his breath.
"Yes, but she’s too young to know what’s good for her. And he is only driven to see the kingdom prosper. You’re blinded by your love for your sister. You’re not going to be soft with her like your father was? You do her no favours by giving into her every whim, you know?"
You have a point. I’m sorry Mother. I did not mean to insult your half brother. I’m sure he will make a fine husband for Sapphira"
She frowned. "Have you heard any further news from the town of Menton?”
He shook his head. “No, only that Roquebrune has joined them in their revolt and will soon declare themselves independent." She had handed the power over to her son too late and now all his efforts were doomed, Maria thought sadly. If only her husband had been more of a leader.
"You’re an intelligent and powerful man. And the leaders of those towns are foolish beyond belief if they think you will allow them to betray us. It makes me incensed every time I think of it. Now drink your wine and enjoy this evening. You’ll think of something and everything will be fine."
He lifted his cup. "Then why are you letting the fact that your daughter is smiling prettily at the duke upset you?"
"You know why. I’ll not have that solicitous man marry my daughter. His reputation is scandalous. Nor will I have that wimpy little Comte near her. Not to mention, Nico hasn't taken his eyes off her all evening." Her gaze returned to her son. Saphira's pale-pink silk gown made her glossy blonde locks glow, and her blue eyes sparkled with vivacity –and unruliness. The little mischievous sprite knew exactly what she was doing, Maria thought furiously. Sapphira was impetuous at times and her every action tonight was going to provoke Nico. "I didn't invite all of Monaco into our home so that I could embarrass our family by exposing them to pandemonium."
"Sapphira doesn’t want pandemonium, mother; she is simply a young girl looking for love. Why don’t you just go and speak to her about toning it down"
"I will." She rose to her feet and paced down the corridor toward the great hearth, before which Sapphira was holding court. Sapphira might be obstinate, but she had a compassionate heart. She would never purposely hurt anyone she loved. All Maria had to do was confront her daughter, express her distress, and the problem would be solved. Perhaps.
"No need to stop her, my dear sister."
She glimpsed over her shoulder to see Nico behind her. He had been resting against the far pillar only seconds ago, but she was familiar with the swift silence of his cat like movements.
"Stop her?" She smiled. "Whatever do you mean?”
"And don't lie to me either." Nico's lips tightened. "I'm a little too disagreeable tonight to deal with your facade." He took her arm and led her toward the nearest corner of the foyer. "Besides Maria, you've never done it well. You're burdened with a trustworthy and chaste soul."
"And I suppose you're beelzebub himself."
He smiled with a charming yet devious grin. "Of course not. Merely a student"
"Well, perhaps only partial demon then. I've never been able to convince you of my errant disposition. You never wanted to perceive that side of me."
"You're kind and munificent and my only dear brother."
"And arrogant, headstrong, and with no sense of humility."
He inclined his head. "But I've the asset of patience, sister dearest, which should prevail over all my other vices."
"Stop poking fun at me." She turned to face him. "You're cross with Sapphira."
"You know you are. You've been scrutinizing her all evening."
"I see and you've been watching me." His lips curled into a half smile. "I was wondering whether you'd decide to strike me or that young imbecile she’s been toying with."
"I have no intention of striking anyone." She stared directly into his eyes. "Do you?"
"Not at the moment. I've just told you how tolerant I am."
Relief coursed through her. "She doesn't mean anything. She's just entertaining herself."
"Oh contraire. She means something." His eyes perused the hearth. "She means to torment and hurt me and drive me to the edge." His tone was without expression. "She does it very well, doesn't she?"
"It's your fault. Why don't you offer for her? You know I’ve wanted the two of you to wed for this past year. Sapphira is seventeen. It's past time she had a husband."
"I'm grateful but I don’t think your son, the king would find me worthy of her."
"You know your own merit."
"Of course, but he is King isn’t he, and it is his decision."
"Do you think I would ever let her choose another man?"
"Well then, speak to the King already. This travesty has gone on long enough. She's a spoiled willful child who needs a strong husband who can guide her and I am that man."
"I will speak to him but know that but it may take a little longer my dear brother. Please be patient if she's still not ready for you."
"Ready? He snorted. Most women her age have children already."
"Most women haven't been coddled as she has. It’s made her difficult but she’ll come around. Oh, God, Sapphira was no longer there.
"Will she?" He stole another look toward the hearth.
"It's all right. Relax Maria. She and Comte de Chalais just left the hall and went out into the atrium."
How had he known that? Sometimes it seemed Nico had eyes in the back of his head.
He bowed. "If you'll forgive me, I'll go and bring her back."
"Nico, I won't have violence this night."
"Don't fret; I won't shed blood on the fine new floor." He moved toward the atrium. "But the stones of the courtyard wash up quite nicely."
"Don't follow me, Sister." His voice was soft but firm. "Stay out of it. This is what she wants, what she's tried to provoke me to all evening. Surely you can see that?"
Where was the Duke of Enghien? Sapphira wondered intolerantly. She had been out here a good three minutes trying to make him jealous and he still hadn't appeared. She didn't know how long she could keep Comte de Chalais from taking her back to the hall. He was a boring, lackluster young man and had been stunned when she'd suggested going out to the atrium. "It's a fine night. I do feel much improved now that I've had a leisurely walk."
Comte de Chalais looked fretful. "Then perhaps we should go back inside. Your brother would not like us being out here alone. It's not suitable."
"In a moment." Where was he? She had felt his gaze on her all evening. He would have seen–
"His advisor was watching us," Comte de Chalais said. "I'm sure he will tell the King."
"Advisor?" Her gaze flew to his face. "What Advisor?"
" Nico-Thomas Gibert de Lametz . Is it true you’re betrothed to him? That’s what they say."
"Of course not. Who are they?"
He shrugged. "Everyone."
She was not amused. She fiercely resented that Nico was spreading those lies"?"
"And he’s not the King’s Advisor. He was my mother’s advisor and her half brother but he is nothing to me or the King."
Nico was a panther in a sheep’s clothing she thought crossly. "Nico does not belong here. My mother may hold delusions of him as my future husband but I do not nor does the King."
"Of course not." He looked faintly shocked. "I didn't mean to make you–"
She was bemused by what he was saying.
Nico was coming.
She should have known he would follow her; she smothered a leap of panic as she caught sight of him in the doorway. He was moving purposely, deliberately, almost menacingly down the stairs. This was not good. She was hoping to corner the Duke of Enghien to persuade him into courting her but it seems he had lost interest. She took a step closer to Comte de Chalais and swayed. "I believe I still feel a little faint."
He instinctively put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. "Perhaps I should call someone."
"No, just stay–"
"Good evening, Comte de Chalais." Nico was coming toward them. "I believe it's a little cool out here for the two of you. Why don't you go inside and we’ll be right behind you?"
"We were just going in," I said quickly.
"Yes, in a minute. Nico added. “Go ahead Comte. We’ll be right in. I need a word with the lady Sapphira. I'm sure you'll understand."
Comte de Chalais was nervously glancing from one to the other.
"Perhaps we should all return–" I mumbled. She was silently hoping the Comte would have some sort of spine. She was getting the feeling that he might scurry away at any time. Couldn't he see the danger Nico represented? She shivered. "I do feel chilled. Would you at least send Chloe back out with my cloak, Comte?" This would at least cut Nico’s tirade off short if he knew someone would be coming for her.
Immense relief crossed his face and he bowed. "As you wish."
She watched him scurry across the courtyard.
"You're usually better at choosing your prey. Losing your touch?" Nico's gaze was also on Comte de Chalais. "Were you actually interested in him?"
"No." She didn't bother with deception. It never worked with Nico. He knew her too well. "I only hoped to use him to make another jealous. And I don’t mean you." She turned to face him, the anger building. "What would you have done if I hadn't sent him away?"
"What do you think?"
"I'm asking you."
"Killed him," he said casually. "I was very irritated with our young comte. I was considering a little poison at dinner."
"You have no right to be irritated. You have no claim on me."
He smiled. "Is that so?"
"Do you really believe that? Your mother doesn’t think so."
“She’s delusional as well then.”
“Do you really want another to touch you the way I do. How do you think that would feel?”
"Exciting." She said defiantly.
He chuckled. "You lie."
“Why don’t you just give up, Uncle? I will never be your wife. Marry one of those whores you’re so fond of.”
“Such a mouth for a child. What whores?”
Do you think I don't hear of the women you bed? You've not left a willing wench in all of Sardinia untouched, and heaven knows what you do on your journeys."
"Well, you won’t have me. What do you recommend I do, niece?”
“What would I have you do? Since when do you care? My feelings haven’t mattered in the past.”
"That was years ago. Don’t harbor a grudge Sapphira.”
“I was a child, Uncle."
"It was once and I promised you I wouldn’t do it again without your consent besides you're still a child. A beautiful woman-child” Nico leered fondling one of Sapphira’s curls. “Besides it’s your fault you know. You may not realize it but you beg me to take you with that luscious body and those pleading lips. Who am I to say no?"
“Silence. I grow weary of your teasing and your games. You have stirred me to action with the sword of jealousy. Very clever." He tilted his head. "But dangerous." He drew a deep breath and attacked. "I demand you wed me. I do not wish to force myself on you again. But I will if I have to. Once you are pregnant, you will be forced to marry me"
Her smile faded. "I know that and I hate you for it."
"I . . . care about you."
"No you don’t. You care about the power."
"Oh, yes. That’s true I also care about the power. We could rule these lands together. Wed me. He tried to smile. "You could hardly do better. I'm a fine match. We could be a great team"
"Never. I'm no longer a child. You robbed me of that and because of that I will never agree to marry you and my brother will never force me.
"Well then I guess if your brother is part of our problem. I will deal with him myself."