Mademoiselle Désirée le Duc lay her head on her elder brother’s shoulder.
For years, returning home had been couched in one day and when the war ends. But ever since the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April, one day had suddenly become today. Napoleon Bonaparte had been captured. The war was over. The day they’d been dreaming of was finally here.
France was where they had lost everything, and where Lucien believed they would find it again. They could return home whenever they liked.
Or at least, as soon as they repaid an exorbitant loan and saved up enough extra coin for both the journey, and a new life. You know. Just that, nothing more.
A shadow appeared in the doorway. It was their footman, Pinfield.
“Excusez-moi, monsieur, madame.” He cleared his throat. Although he tried, Pinfield was not French. They did not hold it against him. “Mr. Skeffington has arrived.”
“He’s early!” Lucien leapt up from the sofa with comical alacrity, leaving his English books where they lay. “Has the baize been ironed?”
At the rapid-fire French, Pinfield paled and sent a beseeching look toward Désirée.
“The billiard table,” she said in English. “Has the baize been ironed?”
The footman’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Yes, mademoiselle. Everything is in order.”
“Thank you, Pinfield.” She turned to scowl at her brother. “Don’t tease him so. Your billiards vocabulary in English is as good as mine.”
His hazel eyes widened innocently. “Moi? Mais, je suis français.”
Yes, Lucien was a Frenchman, and the le Ducs possessed the only pocketless French-style billiards table in Cressmouth. Carambole had been the last treat Uncle Jasper bought them before his health kept him out of the smithy.
“Ladies take the first shot.” Désirée raced her brother out of the parlor, knocking against him when they both tried to cram through the doorway at the same time.
When they reached the billiards room, the others were there waiting. Uncle Jasper was seated in the far corner, his heavy feet propped up high atop a stool. Her middle brother was handing him a glass of brandy, no doubt courtesy of their guest.
Rakish Sébastien was the fashionable le Duc sibling. Men called him Bastien, but the ladies called him Beau because they considered him the equal to Beau Brummell. Without the profligacy, of course.
Désirée tweaked Bastien’s cravat—not because it was imperfect, but because touching its immaculate folds would vex her brother—and retrieved a cue from the closet. She busied herself with chalking the tip before turning to face Jack. She needed something in her shaking hands to belie how much he affected her.
Not because she cared what Jack Skeffington thought. Lucien would throttle her if he believed she fancied an Englishman.
Jack was, naturally, just as dashing tonight as he was on every other occasion in which she’d glimpsed him. Soulful dark eyes the color of fine chocolate. Too-long black-brown hair, a carelessly shaven jaw, a scar that drew her attention right back to those gorgeous, thick-lashed eyes…
“Good afternoon,” he said in English.
Jack was Lucien’s antithesis. Regardless of the language spoken to him, Lucien replied in French. And regardless of the language spoken to him, Jack replied in English. Somehow they managed to become the best of friends; thick as thieves.
Perhaps because they didn’t speak the same language.
Or perhaps because they were, in fact, thieves.
In town, Jack was renowned for his impressive wine cellar. What the villagers did not know was that les messieurs le Duc aided Jack in his dealings with their countrymen in exchange for a percentage of the profits. In fact, if it weren’t for Jack Skeffington, Désirée’s family would not have held a prayer of paying off the loan in time to keep their property. He kept them informed during their monthly billiard matches, and each time their portion was even greater than the month before.
“There’s brandy,” he said.
“There’s always brandy,” she replied in French.
She suspected Jack understood French every bit as well as Lucien understood English, but refused to speak a word of it just to annoy her brothers. Désirée approved.
“There’s also champagne, if you prefer.” He gestured to a side table. “1811 Veuve Clicquot, if you’re choosy about your vintage.”
Désirée was not choosy. She also could not have asked for better champagne, as he well knew.
“You are hoping that if I drink enough of this, you will finally win a game.” But she poured herself a glass anyway. She loved champagne. This was what France would taste like when she returned home. Crisp and dry and bubbly.
“Teams,” Bastien commanded in French.
Carom billiards was not properly played in teams, but because all four of them were formidable players, they had developed a way to stretch out the fun and make the scoring fairer. Four games, each played with two players, until each player from the first team had played both players from the second team.
Since all four of them were occasionally known to accumulate the required ten points to win the game on their first turn at the table, even this method did not last as long as some of the English games with pocket tables Désirée had witnessed at the castle.
But their way was more fun.
She bit her lip. It was time to choose a partner. “I choose…”
“Me,” Lucien said. “Bastien, you’re with Jack. Désirée, you take the first shot.”
She downed her champagne before setting the empty glass aside and settling into position. Going first was her favorite. If she was playing her brother, she would have finished in one turn. If she was playing Jack, she would take her time.
“Qui m’oppose? Jack? Bastien?”
“Me.” Jack’s dark eyes grinned at her above his glass of brandy. “Should I bother selecting a cue, or are you going to finish the game before I take a single shot?”
“Have a seat.” She lined up her cue, then narrowed her eyes. “Where are your children?”
“Out in the garden with Chef.”
“Poor Chef,” Lucien murmured. “He wishes we’d cut him into côtes de porc after all.”
“Don’t worry,” Jack assured him. “That’s probably what the twins are doing.”
See? Both obstinate têtus understood each other far better than they liked to let on.
Désirée rolled her eyes. “Pay attention to the table, please. Prepare to be amazed and astounded.”
Jack leaned closer and lowered his voice. “What do you think about children?”
She missed her shot.
“I am amazed,” said Lucien, deadpan.
Bastien nodded. “I am astounded.”
Uncle Jasper, however, was fast asleep.
Désirée ignored all three and turned to face Jack. “What do you mean, what do I think about children?”
“Mine,” he clarified quickly. “Their education.”
She frowned. “What’s wrong with their education?”
“They haven’t got one.”
“Take your shot,” Bastien called out.
Jack brandished his cue. And missed. Possibly because his eyes were on Désirée, rather than the table.
“You are seeking advice?” she asked. “From someone who has never birthed nor raised a child?”
“Take your shot,” Bastien groaned.
She did. Perfect point.
Jack’s gaze was still on her. “I’m seeking advice from a young lady who I assume knows other young ladies. Do you know anyone with experience teaching children?”
Tutoring. She imagined any number of young women would leap at the chance to tutor Jack’s children—if only because it brought them closer to Cressmouth’s most eligible resident bachelor. But did she know anyone with actual experience teaching children?
“Désirée…” Lucien warned.
She took another shot. Another point.
Désirée had the same amount of child tutoring experience her friends did—which was to say, none at all. What she did have was a family in desperate need of money, and years of practice wrangling the three biggest enfants of all—Lucien, Bastien, and Uncle Jasper.
An idea tickled her skin. If she could cram English conjugation down Lucien’s stubborn throat, certainly she could tutor Annie and Frederick in… whatever ten-year-olds needed tutoring in.
“You don’t know anyone capable of teaching children?” she asked carefully.
Bastien leaned a hip against the table. “Désirée has plenty of experience with children. She tutors Lucien all the time. Weren’t you saying you wished those lessons would stop? Here’s your chance.”
“The only thing I recall wishing to say,” Lucien gritted out, “is that you can take this bright red ball and shove—”
“I’ll do it,” Désirée said decisively.
Jack startled backward. “You’ll be their governess?”
“Their… what?” she stammered. Governess sounded significantly more involved than tutor. Then again, money was money. The faster they earned it, the sooner they could leave. “What kind of governess?”
Bastien poured himself a fresh glass of brandy. “The ‘teaches children’ sort of governess, genius.”
“No,” said Lucien. “Absolutely not.”
“It isn’t manual labor,” she pointed out. “Governesses are genteel.”
“Not that it matters,” Jack said with obvious confusion. “There aren’t too many blacksmiths in High Society, either.”
“Not helping,” Désirée hissed.
“Whose shot is it?” Bastien asked.
Lucien glared at him. “Désirée’s.”
She pointed her cue. Another point. “Lucien, calm down and think rationally. It would not be ‘real’ work.”
“Er…” Jack cleared his throat. “I feel I should disclose that my children are absolutely an enormous amount of work.”
“No,” Lucien said again.
“Ladies can do favors, can they not?” Désirée coaxed. “Perhaps volunteer, in exchange for pay?”
Bastien snorted. “That’s not what ‘volunteer’ means.”
“See?” Lucien pointed at Désirée. “Terrible governess. The answer is no.”
Jack stepped so close she could smell the sandalwood at his throat. “So you’re saying, in theory, that you might voluntarily donate some of your time, in exchange for me voluntarily donating some of my money?”
Lucien leapt to his feet. “You are not paying my sister for any favors!”
The insinuation should make her blush. Instead, she eyed Jack with interest. He might not think of her in that way, but she had on several occasions wondered what it would be like to—
“Désirée,” Bastien barked. “Your turn.”
This time, she blushed. And won another point. “Yes, to being a governess. I suggest a temporary arrangement in which—”
“Désirée will not accept work of any kind from any man.” Lucien’s eyes were thunderous. “She is a lady.”
Bastien tilted his hand back and forth. “Or would be. Except she’s not.”
“Will be,” Lucien enunciated. “After we return to France.”
“Where they will have no idea whether I did or didn’t tutor anyone’s children whilst in England,” Désirée pointed out. She made a pointed face that she hoped said, Stop being arrogant. We need this money.
Lucien’s intractable expression said, Over my dead body. “This isn’t one of your remèdes Désirée.”
Jack blinked. “Remèdes?”
Bastien puffed up his chest with pride. “Her remèdes are second to none. Our sister could find a way to make a bomb out of a fur muff and a hat pin.”
Jack blinked a few more times. “Why would she need a grenade?”
“The grenade isn’t the point,” Désirée said quickly. “Resourcefulness is the point.”