Together they must make the choice—to stand and shield at any cost—and their love might be the deadliest weapon in all of France.
Perrin de Vesey hastened his steps on the slick Parisian cobblestone, wondering if this nighttime endeavor was a terrible mistake. He raised the crinkled missive in his gloved hand nearer to his eyes. Not that it was easy to read in the low-lit street to begin with, but the thick fog looming around him only worsened his ability to make out the words. Though it was just a bit of folded paper with a crimson wax seal, its contents ignited a newfound spark in his chest.
Perrin de Vesey,
There’s nothing more pitiful than a man who has everything yet does nothing. Open your eyes to the plight of the city. Innocents are slaughtered daily—not unlike your lost lover. Yet you hide in your aristocratic fortress. Grief is necessary, but when left too long inside one’s heart, it becomes a dangerous toxin.
Would your beloved Julien have wanted this existence for you? On this anniversary of his death, consider embarking on a greater mission. Join us at Crimson Rose tonight.
It’s time to chisel meaning out of the pain. Your friend,
The Scarlet Crest
Placing the letter in his waistcoat pocket for safekeeping, Perrin couldn’t shake the sensation that the worn parchment—written by an unknown sender—would somehow save him from the bleak pit that had engulfed his soul.
The question was, who’d sent the mysterious letter and why?
Given the personal details, the sender had to be a close acquaintance of one of his friends. Furthermore, the requested meeting place, Crimson Rose, was a discreet club that he and Julien had frequented. Within its walls, they’d enjoyed camaraderie with others who shared their inclinations. In fact, this Scarlet Crest had to be one of the club’s members. Only those with a particular silver signet could gain access.
He traced his finger along Julien’s ring, following the raised ridges of the club’s seal—a shield with a single rose. Perrin’s only prized possession, the ring stood as an engraved reminder of the man he’d lost.
The Scarlet Crest’s words lingered in his mind, urging his every step forward. True to the sender’s warning, the city had changed. Perrin could barely recognize one street from the next. Had the Parisian tenements always been so tightly crammed together?
Blast. He began to think he might have lost his way. This was the first time he’d attempted the journey to the club on his own. In the past, he’d always relied on Julien to guide the way. Perrin slowed his steps. A hollow void cooled his insides, an icy ache far worse than the wintry breeze on his cheeks.
With a huff, he rested his shoulder against a nearby wall and drew the trim of his wool cloak more tightly across his chest. As he’d feared, this evening’s outing was utter madness. But he wasn’t about to turn back now. Something inside him, perhaps Julien’s spirit, told him he was meant to do this. He’d meet this Scarlet Crest person...or people...and see what their call to action was about. Afterward, Perrin could either return to being miserable, or maybe—perhaps—he’d find more of this spark inside of him and start to live again.
Overhead, the familiar arched doors and carved blades of the salle d’armes with its crooked green sign sang to his murky memory. Only a few blocks remained before he’d reach his destination.
As if to spite him, a splatter of sleet cascaded from the thick, overcast sky. Perrin fixed his cloak and pushed off the wall, covering his head with the brim of his cocked hat. Within two steps, his foot landed in a puddle. Wet muck clung to his toes. Just his luck.
Kicking the mess from his left shoe, Perrin continued toward the alley. In spite of the late hour and the dismal weather, numerous citizens gathered about the isolated street. Unusual indeed, given that the club was located in a secluded alcove far from the main thoroughfare. In fact, the closer he ventured to his destination, the more boisterous the crowd grew.
He drew his cloak more tightly over his waistcoat to hide the fine embroidery of his attire. Oh, this crowd would not respond kindly to aristocratic flourishes. Not one bit. He quickened his stride, aiming for the next corner. When he reached the entrance to a narrow alley, Perrin staggered to a halt. Illuminated by the blaze of torches, a lurking mob raised sharpened pikes in accented beats to booming chants.
Perrin lowered his head and crept a few tentative steps away from the alley, fearing he’d made a horrendous mistake. He’d have to find another route to Crimson Rose. And soon.
Retracing his footsteps to the crooked sign of the salle d’armes, his dry shoe met the same icy puddle that had accosted his left foot. As he kicked the grime from the ruined brocade toe, a cluster of spirited citizens shouted in his direction. Perrin’s pulse quickened. The Scarlet Crest’s message thrummed through his mind.
Open your eyes.
These men and women dressed in mere rags, their skin filthy with muck and grime, had once fought for their freedom from the rule of the aristocrats. Yet here they were, years after the fall of the Bastille, and still they suffered. The citizens stomped toward him, their patriotic tricolored cockades spotting the street like angry stars. The round red, white, and blue ribbons were a chilling reminder that the Revolution hadn’t ended. He wondered if it ever would.
Perrin ought to have heeded Philippe’s advice and accepted the manservant’s offer to escort him. He always had the right of it, even when Perrin was too stubborn to accept the truth. He could already hear Philippe’s insubordinate chastisement ringing in his head.
Always acting before thinking. My lord, you’d do best to listen for once. You’d save yourself a great deal of pain.
A chorus of hooves struck the ground at a brisk tempo. Through the thick mist, the boxy form of a cart barreled toward him. The driver’s frantic pace swayed to the left before nearly toppling to the right. Perrin swatted sleet from his cheeks, narrowing his gaze. The crowd suddenly parted as the driver continued to navigate through it like a madman.
Though armed citizens struck at the wheels with their lengthy pikes, the driver plowed through the weapons. The cart’s cargo of barrels bobbled and nearly plummeted over the sides.
Perrin knew he had to move, yet he remained frozen in place. Visions of Julien’s last moments haunted him. Perhaps it was best to end it like this. So very near to the street where his Julien had been taken from him. Helpless. Alone.
“Move!” A dark figure dashed at him. A firm pair of hands gripped Perrin’s shoulders with brute force, thrusting him toward a nearby wall. Perrin looked back just as the cart broke free from the crowd. With a loud whinny, the horses trampled the exact spot in which he had stood.
In a series of huffs and stumbles, the stranger continued to push Perrin away from the crowd. His captor’s firm body collided against his with a thud as the man pressed Perrin into the wall. The air burst from Perrin’s lungs, and his ribs burned from the impact.
“Stop that cart!” A crone’s vociferous call pierced through a storm of shouts. “Aristos! Catch them!"
The stranger planted his hands at either side of Perrin’s head, caging him into place. Though the street was wild around them, the corner of the building hid them from view. Even if he wanted to cry for help, no one would hear over the noise of the crowd.
Heat thrummed from the man’s heavy breaths, his chest expanding and contracting like a bellows against Perrin’s back. The crumbling dust and debris of the stone scraped Perrin’s cheek. Ignoring the sting, he tried to push free from his captor, but to no avail. He strained to glance over his shoulder.
The cloaked figure towered over him.
Fear stabbed Perrin’s throat, stripping the sound from his voice. “Whatever you want, it’s yours.” He struggled against the man’s hold, aiming to turn around so he might meet his captor’s gaze. But Perrin only provoked the man to press closer. It was confirmed. Perrin never should have stepped foot outside of his house.
“Hold still.” His heavy breaths scratched across Perrin’s right ear as the man’s iron stance held Perrin in place. “I’m not a thief, you fool. I’m helping you. Unless you were hoping that mob would trample you."
“I wasn’t...” Perrin clamped his lips together. For yes...yes, he had been waiting to be put out of his misery.
Shame crushed his next breath as he envisioned Julien’s disappointment in him. Perrin had encouraged his lover to seek the sun whenever Julien’s memories of his father’s cruelty had darkened his soul. These past months, daylight offered Perrin little more than an icy reminder of all he’d lost.
“Don’t move, if you want to get out of this with all your limbs.” Urgency clawed under the stranger’s tone. His unwavering strength cast a soothing balm upon Perrin’s body, and his muscles slowly relaxed.
Closing his eyes, Perrin suddenly became aware of their position, their bodies melded together from thighs to hips to those impossibly strong arms. Though likely an unintended movement, his captor’s knee pushed slightly forward, rubbing Perrin’s legs in a manner that sprouted a hint of longing he’d thought he’d never experience again—to be wrapped in another’s arms all night. Protected. Safe.
But it was soon followed by a shudder of guilt. After Julien’s death, he’d vowed to never love another man. But to be held? Well, that was something he’d not considered. He’d simply assumed his body would never crave such contact again.
The stranger behind him stepped back, though his hands remained planted at either side of Perrin’s head. It was just enough room for Perrin to change positions and confront his so-called savior face-to-face.
“Catch the aristos! They’re getting away!"
Perrin looked to the raging crowd. Though he shuddered in fear, Perrin commiserated with their plight. It was no wonder these citizens hated those with wealth. Their beheaded King Louis XVI had come from a line of monarchs who’d lived in an overabundance of finery. The luxurious Palace of Versailles, with its boastful gilding and dazzling crystals, had been built upon the broken backs of starving peasants.
Perrin’s knees weakened, and his legs wobbled into mush. He leaned forward into his captor’s embrace. The man whispered soft assurances. Clearly, he didn’t have a clue that Perrin was one of those no-good wealthy aristocrats. Though Perrin didn’t deserve the momentary reprieve, he took a deep breath and melted into the hardened muscles his companion provided. A surprising wall of support and comfort.
Perrin tipped his head back, his hat tilting to accommodate the awkward position. The stranger’s build was muscular but not too broad. His height made it so Perrin’s nose almost grazed the stranger’s lips. It reminded him so much of Julien. Oh, how he missed the simple press of lips to nose.
“You can’t escape the Terror!” A shrill voice in the distance rattled Perrin out of his blissful cocoon.
The Terror. Perrin had vaguely overheard discussion amongst the household staff regarding Robespierre’s latest initiative. Afraid that scheming aristocrats would raise a foreign army against France, the Committee of Public Safety’s ruthless leader had turned neighbor against neighbor. According to the newly decreed Law of Suspects, anyone could be sent to prison for speaking a single word of doubt regarding the government’s relentless hunt for traitors.
Perrin would be damned if he lost another loved one to Robespierre’s blasted cockade-flaunting Republicans.
Shifting to sneak a better view of the chaos, Perrin found himself further imprisoned by his captor’s strong chest. The scent of mint and something citrus mixed with the heated breaths that tickled Perrin’s cheeks.
Perrin chanced an exhale, the sound like a stormy gust caught under the brim of his cocked hat.
“Death to aristos!” Several sansculottes emerged, following the tracks of the mob. Even through the cover of twilight, Perrin could see their dirt-smeared cheeks and red Phrygian caps. The knit triangular hats sagged from the weight of round, patriotic cockades. Their ankle-length striped trousers mocked the short breeches of the aristocracy.
“You’re safe now.” The comforting presence of those strong arms was stripped from Perrin as the stranger stepped back. “Next time you stroll through an angry mob, keep your eyes open, eh?” The man shook his head, his obsidian hair dangling over a set of hawklike amber eyes that struck Perrin’s soul.
The man staggered a few more steps away and fiddled with the tight fit of his breeches, his mannerisms a sharp contrast from the confidence he’d exuded just moments ago. The rough wool fabric appeared to be two sizes smaller than his frame demanded.
“Citoyen Chevalier. Thought I’d lost you.” A tall, lanky man coughed into his fist, hurrying toward them. “Damned traitors causing a ruckus. Did you see the grain they wasted off that cart? Despicable."
The captivating one called Chevalier whipped his gaze to the approaching blond-haired man, whose hooked nose accented a scowl. With such hollowed cheeks, the man’s twisting lips etched a fierce line down his jaw.
“This citizen was about to be trampled.” Chevalier’s eyes met Perrin’s. For a moment, the moonlight breached the fog and shone on his high cheekbones. His olive skin held a satin sheen.
A sharp wind lifted the heavy wool cloak from Perrin’s body, revealing his attire. Perrin’s heart stopped beating as Chevalier’s gaze trailed downward, pausing on his satin breeches. A twitching snarl formed on that lovely face, and Perrin knew immediately there’d be no companionship shared between them.
“An aristocrat? You’re one of them?” Chevalier spat at Perrin’s feet.
Perrin opened his mouth and shut it, unable to contradict the accusation. He ought to have been more guarded.
“You thought you could hide your blackened heart behind that cloak forever?” Chevalier’s brow furrowed into a tight ridge.
“Excuse me?” The sheer hatred in the man’s curse lit a fire in Perrin’s chest, a mixture of shame and fury warring within him. He tugged the thick fabric over his fanciful attire, unable to explain the sentimental significance of his chosen suit.
“I’d wager your servants suffer moldy bread while you prance about in satin breeches and gold trim."
“You’d judge me by my breeches? I’ll have you know I supported your Revolution.” Perrin clamped his mouth shut, thinking it was best not to rile the man further—not when he was so close to a frazzled mob. “I’ve no quarrel with the Committee. I readily support their efforts. And my household staff eats better than I do.” Which was all the truer now that the mere smell of his favorite dishes sickened him. Even the sweetest flavors failed to bring Perrin satisfaction when Julien wasn’t there to enjoy them with him.
“I doubt that’s true. Aristos are terrible liars and thieves.” The other man scratched at a rather large pockmark on the side of his nose. “You flaunt your wealth on the street in those ridiculous clothes of yours when good men and women suffer."
“I...It breaks my heart to see the struggles on the street. No one should have to suffer."
Something like shock and maybe regret glimmered in Chevalier’s gaze. The lines on his face softened for a moment. “Open your eyes, aristo.” He gestured toward the waning crowd. “Suffering is all around us.”
Open your eyes. The Scarlet Crest’s message shot to the forefront of his mind. Perrin narrowed his gaze, wondering if this enraged citizen could possibly know the sender of that message.
“I’m suffering just listening to your lies.” The other man picked something out of his teeth and flung it to the street.
“My companion here is right.” Chevalier swatted his hand toward Perrin in a lazy sweep. “Your lies mean nothing."
“I hadn’t realized it had gotten this bad.” Perrin winced, knowing he ought to have kept quiet and let the men go along on their way. Could he have spoken anything worse? He sounded exactly like the sort of rich, arrogant prig they accused him of being. Perhaps if he’d mustered the strength to leave his house months ago, he might have done something about the misery around him. Lord knew he had enough priceless paintings crowding his hallways.
“Exactly my point.” Chevalier lifted his chin in defiance. “Your kind lavishes in comforts, eyes closed to the peril of others."
“That’s hardly fair. You’ve no idea what I’ve suffered.” Perrin bit his tongue before mentioning his lover had been unjustly guillotined. Perrin would only reveal himself to be tied to a traitor and therefore just as guilty as they’d accused Julien of being.
Chevalier’s lip twitched, and he puffed out a heavy breath. “Yes, I’m sure your inability to procure affordable silk and satin is a mighty hardship."
“You cast slander against my attire like it’s a crime to wear fine clothes, yet our leaders dress quite well. Consider Robespierre and his fine silk stockings. I doubt those are easy to come by these days."
Chevalier’s lanky companion squawked. “Watch your words."
“Ah, but you didn’t counter my statement.” Perrin kept his gaze on Chevalier’s. “How can you respect one man clad in fancy garb yet shun another?"
“Be careful, aristo. Madame Guillotine awaits you.” Chevalier’s friend cackled.
Chevalier nodded in agreement. “Indeed. I’ve had enough of your insolent accusations. Your sort can’t be trusted. You squandered our country’s wealth while great men like Robespierre fought to earn it."
To Perrin’s disappointment, he wasn’t given a chance to respond. Chevalier, that self-righteous accuser, grabbed his companion’s arm and walked past him with dramatic huffs.
Perrin opened his mouth to defend himself, then thought the better of it. There’d be no reasoning with a man like Chevalier.
Resuming his trek to Crimson Rose, Perrin placed his hand over the missive inside his waistcoat pocket. Thank God it was still there.
Open your eyes.
BLAKE FERRE writes LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Historical Romance Novels. A lover of the 18th Century, Blake can be found ogling over frock coats, embroidery, buttons, and velvet.