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The Foe In Sight

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Prologue

“I’m sure his face was a picture when you kissed him.”

“Why shouldn’t I make the first approach to a man I desire.”

“I could never be so bold.”

“You’d be amazed what would happen if a woman takes the initiative.”

Ninon watched Madame de la Chapelle’s face in the mirror, the arched eyebrows, the elegant hands, the kittyish smile. Truly, her friend was prettier than she thought herself to be, and younger than any widow should be.

“I’m sure I would.” Madame de la Chapelle adjusted the necklace around Ninon’s neck. “I’m sorry, is this too tight?” she asked as Ninon made a sound of discomfort in the back of her throat.

“Just… like this. Yes. This is admirable. Thank you very much, Madame. Now,” she turned around and faced the other woman with a smile. “Is there anyone you’re thinking of? Anyone whose closer acquaintance you desire?”

Madame de la Chapelle lowered her lashes and smiled her sweet smile. It was too dark to see her complexion, but Ninon could have sworn she was blushing.

“Come, come!” Ninon laughed. “Tell me! I shared a confidence with you. Surely you can return the compliment and tell me which man you would desire to kiss if you dared?” She took one slim hand in hers. “Perhaps I can be of use. Unless he’s one of those dreadful vulgar courtiers in whose company His Majesty so delights, I might make an exception for him and invite him to one of our gatherings.”

“He’s not one of them,” Madame de la Chapelle lowered her voice and sank down in a rustle of silk before Ninon. “You are going to laugh, Comtesse,” and she laughed herself. “It is one of his-” she pressed two fingers to Ninon’s lips, “friends.”

Even though the sudden intimacy of the gesture startled her, Ninon laughed. “Well… I’m feeling very indulgent these days, and who knows, he might prove quite diverting.”

“I’m sure he will.” For a moment, Madame de la Chapelle looked eager, her pretty smile turning from kittyish to catlike so that she appeared almost predatory.

“Are you acquainted with him at all?”

“We were introduced in Madame Arthénice’s Chambre bleue. He was reading a translation of English poetry that a friend of his wrote. Arthénice was amused that the English think their language is suited to anything but coarse jokes and vulgar battle cries. But I doubt he’ll remember me.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will. How could he not? And he can bring that English poem to read to us, this could be most amusing.”

“You shall invite him then?” The expression of delighted surprise on Madame de la Chapelle’s face was reward enough.

“Yes,” Ninon leaned forward and brushed a strand of curls from her friend’s brow. “I shall.” And she kissed the soft cheek, just above the corner of her mouth.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Thyself; cast all, yea, this white linen hence;
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

He did have a delightful reading voice, Ninon had to admit. Obviously a skilled elocutionist and quite eager to exhibit his skills in front of an audience. But which man wasn’t? She glanced at Madame de la Chapelle, amused to see her deeply enthralled. She looked almost as if she didn’t believe her luck.

“Did you mean to shock us, Monsieur Aramis, by reading these lines to us?” she asked once the echo of his voice had died away. “Because I can assure you, we are not.”

“Not at all.” He pressed his hand to his chest in a gesture that was presumably supposed to convey honesty, but which Ninon considered the well-practised routine of a courtier. “If you remember, it wasn’t my idea to read Donne to you. I did so at your request.”

“A request you followed most willingly.”

“As I would any of your requests.”

“Has anyone ever told you,” she got up and walked across the room to him, sat on the chaise longue by his side and took the sheets of paper from his hand, “that flattery rolls too smoothly off your tongue for your words to sound honest?”

“Ah. Such is the disadvantage of eloquence. I can’t help being articulate, Madame.”

“You are more than merely articulate, Monsieur.”

“If you object to my being polite as well, I’m really quite at a loss as to how best please you.” He leaned in and, with a tilt of his chin, said: “You will have to tell me.”

Madame de la Chapelle, who had remained silent ever since Aramis first started reading, now spoke, in a voice that Ninon had never heard from her before. “I am sure the Comtesse will let you know if there is anything you can do to please her.” Her face was half hidden behind her fan, and, languishing on a récamière, she almost looked like she had no interest in the conversation or, indeed, Aramis’ presence at all.

“And what about you, Madame?” He turned towards her with his entire body. Suddenly bereft of his attention, Ninon realised how focused it had been. How much the centre of the universe he had made her feel for the short few minutes they spoke so intimately, and she sighed an “ah!” of comprehension.

“Me?” Madame de la Chapelle moved her fan like a swan might move its wing, a sweeping, majestic gesture. “I doubt there is anything you can do to please me.”

Behind his back, Ninon smiled. It was quite wonderful to see her friend, a bookish, reserved woman, transform into a regal huntress.

“I’m sure you’re wrong, Madame,” Ninon said. “Monsieur Aramis could please you very well if he put his mind to it.” She touched his arm lightly. “Your reputation, Monsieur, precedes you.”

“By reputation you mean the collection of rumours put together haphazardly in the salons of Paris? Do you truly think they are to be believed?”

“In my experience there is usually some truth to them.”

“Well then. Would you like to know what your reputation is, according to the salons of Paris?”

“A woman’s reputation,” said Madame de la Chapelle, folding her fan and pointing it at him like a spearhead, “is always rather more brittle and subject to more malicious gossip than a man’s. Please do take this into account.”

“Thank you,” he said, inclining his head. “I’ve gone too far. Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to insult you, however obliquely.”

“Your eloquence is showing once again, Monsieur,” Ninon said, exchanging a look with the other woman. “That sounded almost honest.”

“It was,” he said, and the hint of laughter was gone from his voice. “There is nothing I can say to convince you of the sincerity of my words. I can only ask you to believe them.”

Ninon exchanged another look with her friend, who has sunk back into the cushions and was again fanning herself. Aramis was looking at Ninon, she was looking at Madame de la Chapelle, willing her to join in the conversation again, to engage his attention. She did not expect her to rise to her feet. Madame de la Chapelle swept over to where they were seated, moving through Ninon’s sunlit boudoir with the grace of a lioness, stood behind their chaise longue and leaned over to pick up the sheets of paper that Ninon had carelessly scattered across the seat. Ninon found herself staring at her décolleté and she caught Aramis do the same. A glance, a smile passed between them, and it made her feel, more than the words that had passed heretofore, that she could like that man.

“A friend of yours translated those lines, I think you said, Monsieur,” Madame de la Chapelle said. Aramis hmmed in assent.

“By ‘a friend’, do you mean yourself?”

He laughed. “Not at all. Is that what you were thinking? I assure you I’m not in the habit of hiding behind my friends.”

She lifted her eyes to his: “Are you in the habit of hiding at all?”

“Very rarely. And never,” he looked from her to Ninon and back again, “never from this.”

Madame de la Chapelle kissed him then. Ninon saw his lips part, ever so slightly, under the pressure of her mouth, and his hand came up to cup her face, fingertips brushing across the curve of her cheek. It was a short kiss, almost chaste, not at all like the one Ninon had shared with Athos, but when it was over, she found herself staring at them with her mouth dry and her palms wet, and Aramis smiled at her and said: “Thank you for the invitation, Madame.”

She hesitated for only a heartbeat. Then, she was kissing him, too, so that he’d not kiss her first. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction to fancy himself the seducer. She waited for him to touch her face, like he’d done with her friend, but she felt her hand seized instead, his fingers threading through hers, and when he pulled back, his gaze was full of warmth and laughter.

Ninon pressed her fingers to her mouth to stop her lips trembling, and glanced at Madame de la Chapelle, who was still leaning over the backrest of the chaise longue. It was as if a sudden depth had opened in a familiar lake: her eyes gleamed like a cat’s and there was a feral glint to the smile that hitherto used to look bashful. Aramis sat quite still with his head bent, toying with the feather in his hat, as if attempting to fade into the background to give them the space they needed.

At last, Madame de la Chapelle spoke. “I think, perhaps,” she said, “our hostess might have other amusements planned for this afternoon. We seem to have exhausted poetry.” The challenge was unmistakable, both in the words and in the eyes. Ninon’s spirits rose.

“Will you not sit here with us, Madame?” she said. “Unless Monsieur Aramis has any objections?”

“No objections, no,” he said, smiling again as if he couldn’t help himself. “Whatever I can do to oblige. I am happy to follow any of your requests.”

“So you say.”

He leaned in closer so that his breath brushed her skin. “Try me.”

Before, behind, between, above, below

Ninon blinked up to the canopy of her four-poster bed, drifting in and out of her mind with pleasure. Hands roamed her body, caressing her face, stroking her breasts, dipping into her armpits, painting intricate patterns across her stomach. She was sprawled atop Aramis, almost melted into him, and Madame de la Chapelle was kissing her, her mouth firm and soft at the same time and deliciously agile; her artful coiffure had come undone and her hair had spilled the scent of a dark, heady perfume over Ninon’s neck and chest. Beneath Ninon, Aramis’ body was a cradle, rocking her with the motion of his chest on every inhale and exhale. His breath was hot against her neck, and the brush of his beard was a delightful contrast to the soft touches of his tongue and his lips. She shivered with every move he made, her skin over-sensitised with sheer bliss.

“I think,” Madame de la Chapelle lifted her mouth from Ninon’s and began to drop open-mouthed kisses down her throat, with just a hint of teeth behind them, “the Comtesse has finally come to believe you, Monsieur. That you’d be happy to follow any of her requests.”

“Hmm…” Aramis purred into Ninon’s hair. “So far, I haven’t been given many requests to follow.” He shifted and spread his legs further apart, one knee bent, so that Ninon slipped fully between them, cushioned on one side by his thigh and on the other by her friend’s body.

“Would you perhaps,” Ninon turned her head and kissed him, messily, because it wasn’t easy to find his mouth from that angle, “would you like to voice a request yourself?”

“If Madame de la Chapelle would perhaps be so good as to let me remove her bodice.” She lifted her head from between Ninon’s breasts and straightened up, a wordless assent. Two pairs of hands instantly alighted on the laces, and Ninon found herself giggling as she and Aramis battled who would get more undone in the shorter space of time. Aramis won, unfairly, by swatting her hands away and then by bodily restraining them whilst untying the laces one-handedly.

“Are you trying to impress us with your prowess?” Ninon asked, whilst Madame de la Chapelle added:

“We won’t be judging you on your skills undoing laces, you know.”

“But you will be judging me, then?” He turned onto his side, rolling Ninon with him. “Interesting. For I wouldn’t dare judge you.”

“Oh, very smooth,” Ninon said, quite breathless, because he now ground his cock deliberately into her through the linen of his braies.

“Perhaps we should give Monsieur something else to do to employ his mouth,” Madame de la Chapelle suggested.

As he kissed a path down the length of Ninon’s leg, and then the other one, Madame de la Chapelle was providing the sensory counterpoint by pressing tiny bites, quite like a kitten, into her skin. Ninon lay in an ever-spreading damp patch, sweat and arousal steaming off her as if she’d been truly melting. They were both still partially clothed, while she lay naked before them, open to their gazes and their hands. The woman’s hands were the first to descend upon her: the scratch of a nail against the tender skin of her inner thigh, the teasing slide of a fingertip against her clitoris, the sensation of being filled with fingers that were not her own. Ninon gasped and pushed down onto Madame de la Chapelle’s hand, who said: “I think she is quite ready for you, Monsieur,” eliciting an obscene squelch by a twist of her hand. Aramis halted in his ministrations, glanced down and bit the inside of Ninon’s knee casually.

“Not yet,” he said, his voice snagging ever so slightly.

“No,” Ninon said, with a jerk of her hips. “Not that.”

“Not that?” Madame de la Chapelle pulled her fingers out and ground the flat of her palm against Ninon’s sex. “What about this, then?”

“Yes.” Ninon moaned, almost utterly undone. “This. Please.”

“Whatever you wish,” Aramis rubbed his cheek against her inner thigh, and then he lowered himself fully between her legs and licked inside her, sliding his tongue all the way up and over Madame de la Chapelle’s fingers.

Ninon was floating, gulping in air like a woman drowning, anchored to the world through the few hot spots that erupted on her body in the places where hands and lips touched her. She was being spread open by slim fingers, those of Madame de la Chapelle, who had curled up by her side, watching Aramis lick her. Ninon’s own fingers were tangled in his hair and she held his head in place, grinding herself against his mouth. Her moans and the wet sound of his fingers moving in and out of her filled the space between them. She was plunging fast towards release, so that when the delicious pressure of his mouth lifted and sudden cold hit her, she hissed in irritation. “What…?” Ninon raised her head and looked down, taking in Aramis’ darkened eyes, his open mouth. A sweat-soaked strand of hair hung across his face, making the picture of debauchery complete. And then, as if that weren’t enough, he spat out a hair and wiped his glistening mouth with the back of his hand. Ninon groaned and Aramis lowered his head again and rubbed his cheek against her open cunt.

Her orgasm rolled over her minutes later, with Madame de la Chapelle’s arm wrapped around her thigh and Aramis’ breath soothing her heated flesh. He stroked her trembling stomach, her shuddering thighs, and slithered up her body, pressing light kisses here and there along the way. The cross around his neck trailed behind, the scrape of metal cold and alien on her skin. Ninon, shaking and no longer mistress of herself, clutched the chain and pulled Aramis down by it, clinging to him with a muffled sob. “It’s all right,” he said, enveloping her with his body. “Look at me, it’s all right.” She opened her eyes and saw him smile. “It’s over,” he whispered, “you’re all right.”

Madame de la Chapelle stretched out on the other side and reached for Aramis, kissing him across Ninon, licking deeply into his mouth, licking off the taste of Ninon from his lips and tongue. “That was a fine performance, Monsieur,” she purred. “I wonder what else you can do.”

“Let me catch my breath and I’ll show you.”

She pushed him down with a hand against his shoulder so that he lay flat on his back, and then she clambered over Ninon and straddled him. “I fear we have been neglecting you.” She scratched her nails along the outline of his cock, halting at the wet patch that stood out starkly against the white linen.

“Not at all,” Aramis put his hand over hers and ground himself into it. “I assure you I’ve been most excellently entertained.”

She began to untie the laces and push the fabric down. Aramis raised his hips obligingly, and then it was off, and Madame de la Chapelle’s hands were back on him, spreading his legs so that she could settle between them. She looked a beautiful Medusa with her white forehead under massed dark curls that cascaded around her face and down her shoulders. As she wrapped her hand around his cock, an edgy, hungry look came upon her face, sharpening her features. Ninon climbed atop Aramis to sit astride him, sliding wetly down his body until she came within a breath’s width from her friend. Aramis hands came up to her hips, his thumbs drawing circles in the small of her back. She kissed the other woman, snaking one hand underneath her chemise until her fingers were buried knuckle-deep in slick flesh. Madame de la Chapelle swayed against her, her linen-covered breasts brushed against Ninon’s, and beneath her she felt Aramis moan, the tremor running up from between Ninon’s legs up her spine to make her head spin.

Madame de la Chapelle pulled back from the kiss. “Will you have him first?”

Ninon, thrown off balance by the sudden withdrawal of warm lips and the abrupt question, blinked at her in confusion. Madame de la Chapelle looked down pointedly. “Oh,” Ninon said and put her hand on the other woman’s. “No, I’m not having him at all. He’s all yours.”

“Are you keeping yourself pure for a husband after all?” There was a mocking edge to the glint of her eyes, the quirk of her lips, the tone of her voice.

Ninon, straddling a man’s stomach, one hand on his cock and the other teasing another woman’s cunt, snorted with laughter. “Hardly.” The risk of pregnancy and of disease, the fact that she’d only just met him, the lack of trust, of a bond – there was any number of reasons to forego that particular act, but she didn’t feel like sharing any of them with her lovers. Instead, she cast a glance at him over her shoulder, worried that she might find him look offended. But he merely looked amused. “You are of course very handsome and charming, Monsieur,” she said, sinking back to stretch herself out beside him. “But this is all that you are to me, at present.”

She’d expected him to laugh and to make her a witty reply, not to wordlessly carry her hand to his lips and kiss her fingertips. He then looked down his own body and lifted a corner of his mouth in a smirk. “You don’t have any such reservations, Madame,” he said, watching Madame de la Chapelle crawl up from between his legs. As she straddled his hips, his hands joined hers on her thighs, and, their gazes locked, they slowly hitched up her chemise together. Aramis parted his lips, and even through the sudden throb of blood in her ears Ninon was sure she heard him sigh. His gaze dropped to where Madame de la Chapelle was sitting on him, but all it encountered was bunched up linen.

Ninon wished it gone. She wished Madame de la Chapelle would bare herself for them as they had for her. She wished Aramis would tear the chemise off her with his teeth. But he merely lay there, very still, dragging the tips of his fingers over the exposed skin of her thighs. Ninon couldn’t even tell if they were joined yet, if what she has just witnessed was her friend taking his cock inside her.

She didn’t remain in the dark for long: Madame de la Chapelle raised herself on her knees and, sneaking one hand underneath the fabric and underneath herself, steadying herself with the other hand on his chest, lowered herself back onto him. Aramis continued to just watch her, motionless but for the heave of his chest and the flutter of his lashes. He sighed, then, a deep, shaky exhale, and overwhelmed by sudden lust as she witnessed the intense pleasure that rippled through his body in a powerful wave, Ninon rolled over and kissed him on the mouth, as easily as if she’d done it all her life.

Aramis breathed out a puff of laughter and pulled her closer with one arm. “I haven’t forgotten you, Madame,” he mouthed against her cheek. His beard, soaked in the smell of her sex, grazed over her skin, making her shiver. “I- ah!” He laughed again, low and delighted, and Ninon turned her head. Madame de la Chapelle had started to move on top of him, her green eyes alight, her mouth curved in a feline smile.

Ninon sat up. “Permit me,” she said, lifting the linen around the other woman’s hips.

“An excellent idea, Madame,” Aramis said in a low voice. “If you would be so kind.” He raised himself from his supine position until he was face to face with the woman atop him. “Hold this up, please.” He pushed the fabric into her hands and fell back into the cushions. His dark gaze dropped to where she was riding him. “This is much better. You are an exquisite sight, Madame. But I’m sure,” he lifted his eyes to her face, trailed his thumb between her legs and snuck it beneath her, watching her whole body jolt forward. “I’m sure you are aware of that,” he whispered, burying his hand deeper between their both bodies.

They both were, Ninon thought, some time later, an exquisite sight. But, oh, this was exquisite, too: kneeling face to face with her friend, the soft pressure of a woman’s mouth a soothing relief for her skin after the scratch of Aramis’ beard. Kneeling behind Madame de la Chapelle, Aramis pulled her chemise over her head and threw it carelessly aside. “An excellent idea, Monsieur,” Ninon said, echoing his words, and he smiled at her over the other woman’s shoulder. Then, his hands were on her breasts, then on her hips, and then, Ninon wasn’t quite sure whose hands that were that ghosted up and down her own back, into her hair, down her arms. The hand between her legs was her friend’s, she knew that, a woman’s hand, the fingers slim and nimble. She was rubbing her, they were rubbing each other, and even though the angle was wrong, the feel of it was right. The tingle building up in her loins, the numbness of her lips and her feet as lust sucked up the blood from her body and poured it into her centre. The weight between her legs was becoming too much, and Ninon shifted, spreading her knees further to accommodate what felt like infinite swelling. She dipped her fingers into the other woman and, at the gasp that rushed into her mouth, cupped her hand around the whole of her sex, pushed up against the weight that she knew was pulling down. The sudden slide of wet flesh against the back of her hand told her that Aramis had slipped his cock between Madame de la Chapelle’s legs from behind. Ninon spread her fingers to grant him access.

“Look at her,” Aramis whispered. So compelling was the sound of his voice that Ninon’s eyes snapped open at once, even though she didn’t know which one of them he addressed. Madame de la Chapelle’s eyes were a glittering green, her mouth a deep, bruised red, and she was staring into Ninon’s eyes, into Ninon’s soul, as Ninon’s hand slid against her, making way for Aramis’ cock that slowly buried itself inside her. Ninon felt them both, slick and heavy, and, in the then and there, it was as if she held both their hearts in the palm of her hand. When they began to move, it was like the first steps of a ballet de cour, their bodies gracefully interwoven in a deceptively simple rhythm. Madame de la Chapelle’s face was that of a mystic: its serene, almost otherworldly expression reminded Ninon of a statue of Saint Catherine. She kissed her again, reverently, and as she breathed soft kisses like the wings of a butterfly down her neck and along her shoulder, she found her mouth captured by Aramis’. He kissed her deeply, urgently, and then took her hand. “Come here.” She shuffled over until they kneeled side by side, until she ended up tucked in his one-armed embrace.

His other hand glided up Madame de la Chapelle’s spine, motioning her gently to lean forward. To Ninon’s surprise, she complied and braced herself against the headboard. Aramis lifted his hand off her back to cup Ninon’s face, kissing her again with lips and tongue. “Look at that.” He pulled out and Ninon stared at his cock quite enthralled, a glistening column of flesh against delicate rosé. “You should know, Ninon, there’s hardly anything a man will find more beautiful,” he whispered with his lips against her temple, “than the sight of a woman’s cunt,” punctuating the word with a scrape of his teeth on her skin, “when it’s dripping wet for him.” The sound of her given name in his voice, the filth rolling off his tongue, the scratch of his beard, the heat of his breath on her skin, the weight of his arm around her waist – the potent concoction of sensations dazed her momentarily. Ninon sagged in his arm, dropping her forehead on his shoulder; pressed her burning face into his cool skin. “You should know about the power you can have over a man,” he continued in the same low voice, meant for her ears only. “Any man you choose.”

Her knees fainted beneath her and she slumped to the mattress, quite undone. Aramis’ eyes smiled tenderly at her, and he stroked her thigh with his fingertips. Then, his hand was gone, he was hauling up Madame de la Chapelle by her hips, and he thrust into her with a sharp snap. The woman rammed her teeth into her bottom lip to catch the gasp that threatened to escape her throat, hard, so hard that Ninon expected blood to surge forth at any moment. Aramis withdrew and thrust back again. Madame de la Chapelle burst out laughing: “How long.”

Another snap, so hard that Ninon was sure it must hurt.

“Do you think.”

Ninon glanced at Aramis’ face, shoving her hand between her own legs.

“Monsieur.”

She was so wet her fingers slipped in almost too easily.

“You will be able to.”

They were barely enough, Ninon pushed in three, twisting her wrist for a better angle.

“Keep this up?” Madame de la Chapelle laughed again, breathlessly, pounding back into him in time with his thrusts.

Aramis leaned in and nipped at the nape of her neck with his teeth. “As long as it takes,” he growled. Ninon groaned. Her blood had turned to pitch, thick and heavy under her skin and on the brink of boiling. It throbbed in her lips, pounded in her ears, made her stomach reel and her thighs shudder.

“Get on with it!” she snarled at Aramis. He stared at her and, for a brief moment, she thought he’d throw himself on her and ravish her instead, for he pulled back and pulled out, and Ninon’s heart stopped.

“Turn over.” Aramis leaned back to give Madame de la Chapelle room. “I want to see your face when you come.”

She was on her back and he back inside her in the blink of an eye. One smooth, fluid motion, their bodies falling into each other, her thighs around his hips, his tongue on her throat. “For all your demure widowhood and reticent manner, Madame,” Aramis hooked his arm under her knee and hitched her leg higher around his middle, “what you really want is a hard fuck. Am I right?”

She bit him then, teeth tearing through flesh, tendon and bone, Ninon was sure of that at the sight of the ferocious mouth clamped to his shoulder. Aramis hissed and drove into her, and Ninon watched her nails leaving red welts on his flanks and back, watched her hand curl around his throat with nails digging in like claws, watched them both tumble towards a vicious escalation, accompanied by the filthy slap of flesh against flesh, by snarled profanities, by damp heat rising in the space between them, swirling outwards, filling Ninon’s head. Her body slipped away from her when she came, a throbbing, sobbing mess, soaked in moisture and heat. There was nothing then, just emptiness and the sensation of floating in darkness, and when she opened her eyes again, it was to the sight of her friend arching off the mattress in a sinuous curve, her mouth open in a soundless cry, and, above her, Aramis was leaning back, all muscles from his stomach, down his leg, to his knee spasming as he spilled himself messily over and between the legs that were spread for him.

He hung over Madame de la Chapelle’s body, panting and shivering, balancing on one arm, the other hand between his legs. Ninon, trembling with the aftermath of her own release, pressed a kiss to the other woman’s still-open mouth, then to her breast, and then to Aramis’ shoulder, pushing him gently to the side and off her. She ducked her head and licked a line across her friend’s stomach, gathering Aramis’ seed up with her tongue. The salty-sharp taste made her mouth prickle. She heard Aramis whisper, “Oh my lord,” and then laugh shakily. “Come here, Ninon.” He kissed her over the other woman’s body, holding her face in both hands and sucking in her tongue more deeply than before, and it was dizzying and filthy and much too much for her overcharged senses to take. They both fell back into the cushions, either side of Madame de la Chapelle. Ninon slung an arm around her waist and laced her fingers with Aramis’.

“I wonder if Mr Donne is still alive,” Aramis mused in a voice rough with exhaustion. “I should like to write him a thank-you note.” He brought a hand up to his neck, feeling the welts there. “Do you always leave your mark, Madame?”

“Something to remember me by,” she whispered, luxuriating between them like a cat in the sun.

“I was hardly in danger of forgetting you.” He leaned in and kissed the hollow of her throat, right underneath her pearl necklace. “No man ever could.”

“That reminds me,” Ninon said, toying with a lock of dark hair. “You two have an acquaintance in common, Monsieur Aramis.”

“Indeed? I assume you don’t mean Arthénice.”

“No. Athos.”

“Indeed?” When he had sounded merely politely interested before, the curious lilt in his voice was now unmistakable. “You know Athos, Madame?”

“A passing acquaintance,” she said, repeating the explanation she’d given Ninon. “I knew him through my husband.”

“Your husband died, I believe.”

“Yes. Several years ago. In a silly little skirmish.”

“I’m sorry.”

“He didn’t even fall in combat,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard him, her fingers playing with the string of pearls around her neck. “Didn’t even leave me that consolation.”

Ninon and Aramis exchanged a look, but before any of them could speak, Madame de la Chapelle came back from her melancholy reverie. “That is all in the past now,” she said, quite cheerfully.

“I am sure you can get married again, if you wished to,” Aramis said.

She shook her head. “Oh no. I am now following the Comtesse’s example. I will not take a husband again.”

“Only lovers?” Aramis smiled.

“Lovers, yes. Or perhaps a lover.” She lowered her eyes bashfully and her fingers danced along the length of Ninon’s arm that lay across her. They fell silent then, and Ninon was left wondering if her friend’s desire for Aramis had been satiated by that afternoon’s adventure. Without her quite knowing how, her thoughts turned to Athos; she wondered if she’d have preferred it to be him, rather than his friend, in bed with them. But no. She would not wish to share him with the other woman. She glanced over at Aramis, whose hand was skittering across Madame de la Chapelle’s chest, her stomach, occasionally straying over to Ninon’s own body. The gesture was playful, but his eyes, fixed into the distance, were thoughtful.

He caught her staring and smiled. “You are very pensive, Madame.” Outside the window, evening was falling. They had whiled away the entire afternoon in Ninon’s bed. The rays of the setting sun set her chamber alight with a red glow.

“Merely fatigued, Monsieur,” she said. “It is getting late. I believe it is time for you to leave.”

“You are right, Madame. Time has simply flown.” Aramis leaned over and nipped at Madame de la Chapelle’s collarbone and then pushed himself further across her and kissed Ninon on the shoulder. He rolled out of bed and disappeared behind the paravent, where they heard him pour water from the ewer into the washbasin and clean himself. Beside her, her friend stirred, stretched and closed her arms around Ninon. When Aramis re-emerged, he was wearing his shirt and breeches and looking around in confusion: “Have you seen my…”

“The boudoir,” both women said in unison.

“Of course.” His gaze lingered on them both for a moment, but he didn’t say anything and crossed the threshold to the adjoining chamber.

Ninon extricated herself from the languid limbs that were wrapped around her and got up as well. She pulled on a chemise and followed Aramis, who was almost completely dressed now, buckling his last belt and casting a searching glance around. “My hat?” She fetched it wordlessly from where it had fallen behind the chaise longue.

“Thank you.” He held the hat before his chest and stood looking down at her. “For everything.” He smiled.

Ninon closed the distance between them and kissed him, chastely, on the mouth, burying her hands in his hair one last time. “Thank you,” she said. “And please, give my regards to Athos.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Degraded to a mere messenger? I am heartbroken.” But his eyes were smiling. “If there is anything you wish to say to Athos, you should do it in person. He won’t thank you if you, ah,” he laughed softly, “if you got a third party involved.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Of course not.” He kissed her hand. “Goodbye, Madame. Oh, and, how can I put the question discreetly: am I still welcome to join your gatherings occasionally, or have I forfeited that right by-” he gestured vaguely.

“By your scandalous behaviour, you mean? It was quite shocking, I admit. But,” she said smiling. “You are welcome to come and see us, from time to time. Do not expect a reprise, however.”

“I know.”

He bowed. Then, he was gone, and as she turned around, Ninon saw Madame de la Chapelle standing in the door, naked but for the pearls around her neck. “You want to see him again, then,” she said to Ninon.

“Don’t you?”

“Perhaps.” The green eyes fixed on the door through which he’d vanished and an odd shadow passed over her face. “That could be most… interesting.”