Cruel Choices

Excerpt: Chapter One

Paris, 15 April 1788

Lucie woke from a troubled sleep. In her dream the village priest had tormented her again, with threats more cruel than ever before. "Satan holds you tightly in his claws," he had said. His eyes, bright as burning coals, his grizzled face twisted into a dreadful scowl. He had raged, "Before highnoon, you will be in Hell."

She felt groggy, but managed to shake the priest out of her mind. Her eyes focused poorly. Sunlight was pouring into the room. Half the morning must be gone. She lay on her back, staring at shifting shadows on the ceiling, bringing up impressions of her visit. They were strange and exciting—and frightening.

Last night at supper she had drunk wine. Perhaps too much. She remembered feeling light-headed afterward when making love with Denis. She looked around. No sign of him. Must be downstairs, dressing his master. Prior to coming here last night, she had seen the Marquis de Bresse only from a distance, had admired his fashionable clothes, elegant manners, handsome features. But at supper, she had noticed his eyes, pale blue, cold as ice, even when he smiled and gave her compliments. He had studied her as if she were a choice cut of meat. She shuddered. How would it be to work as a maid for such a master?

He would teach her, he said. And last night at supper, he had dressed as a waiter in pink livery. Denis, playing the host, had on a splendid pink suit with silver embroidery. She was supposed to be a distinguished female guest, a courtesan, Denis had said. Whatever that meant. He had dressed her in a fashionable, low-cut silk gown, taught her how to sit at the table, and how to comment on food and eat it properly.

During the meal, she boldly asked the marquis how much he would pay for her services. He gave her an odd look. "As much as you're worth."

She needed a more encouraging answer than that! Madame Tessier and Denis had loaned her money, much more than she could hope to repay. She had no job. They were losing patience with her, would turn her over to the police and she'd go to prison. Her only options were to work for the marquis or to sell her sexual favours at the Palais-Royal. She could never ask her father for money. He would mock her.

She recalled the day that she had left home for Paris. The priest had confronted her in the village street. "You are a vain, obstinate, ungrateful girl," he had shouted. "You should obey your parents, stay at home and work hard like your mother and sisters." He had shaken his finger at her. "Paris will be the death of you. And you will surely end up in Hell." At night, while she was asleep in her garret room, he would sneak into her dreams like a hideous monster, his piercing red eyes reproaching her shameful pleasures.

She heard steps outside the room. Her heart leaped. She clasped the cross hanging from her neck. At her confirmation the priest said it would ward off evil demons. Denis didn't knock, just opened the door for the marquis. He walked in, still playing the waiter, carrying a breakfast tray. She pulled the thin woolen blanket up to her chin—she was naked. Unbeckoned, terror was setting in.

What was going on? There was a sinister air about these men.

“Sit up,” Denis commanded and shoved a bolster behind her back. Meanwhile the marquis set the tray on a table, then came to her with a cup of coffee.

"Drink this," he ordered. "It will do you good. I made it myself and spooned in much sugar."

The coffee was black, its aroma strong. She took the cup with trembling hands, nearly spilling its contents. The taste was curious, sweet and bitter at the same time. She drank half the cup and handed it back to the marquis. He frowned, waved his hand. "Finish it." His gaze had become intense, as if his eyes could bore into her head.

"I can't drink any more. It's too strong."

"Finish it, or I'll pour it down your throat. It's expensive. I'll not have you waste it."

All the frustrations of these past few months in Paris without money or friends came crashing down upon her. She felt utterly defeated. Tears came to her eyes. But she took the cup, this time shaking it so much that drops spilled on her hands. When she finished the coffee, the marquis took the cup, then pulled away the blanket and leered at her. She clutched her cross, tried to protest, but she couldn't speak. Then a powerful sensation of unease and fear raced through her body and seized her mind. Suddenly, she choked, couldn't breathe, ripped the cross from her neck, flailed her arms wildly. Her body jerked and twisted out of control. The marquis's leer turned into an angry frown. He lifted the cup, glared at it.

Moments later, Lucie fell into a dark abyss.

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