She frowns at her cards, more for show than anything else, and places them face down on the polished table. Merteuil finds the forfeit distasteful, but she reminds herself that she accepted a place at this table in order to listen, not to play.
The conversation in and of itself is not terribly interesting, her companions infuriatingly oblivious to what is actually going on, but the snippets of facts she is able to catch among the prattle makes the agony worth it.
She already knew of Valmont, of course—one could not live in Paris these days without hearing his name. Not that that in and of itself was remarkable; Paris was full of infamous figures whose rumored deeds never seemed to survive under intense inspection. But at the opera the previous night she had had him pointed out to her, for the first time—he was seated in an opposing box, favoring some clear-eyed girl with a practiced smile—and she knew, somehow, that everything she had heard about him was true. He was not an exceptionally handsome man, but there was a way in which he held himself, a way in which he moved, that commanded her attention. And there was something else, underneath, that she couldn’t name but felt compelled to experience.
Easing back into her chair she composes herself in order to appear bored, and listens intently as the other women speak of his scandals. Merteuil files each piece of information away, and allows herself one slight indulgence—she pictures him, as he was last night. The calm and controlled performance, the look that crossed his face when it seemed as if their eyes met, the way he toyed with his companion’s fine hair.
Before the curtain rose, she had been determined to have him.
She runs her fingers along the edge of the table and listens, absorbs.
A week passes before they are properly introduced, just as she had planned.
It’s her cousin, Madame de Volanges that makes the introduction, though it appears to cause her a great deal of pain. Her mouth is twisted in a smile that is not even attempting to mask her dislike at the task, and Merteuil finds herself equally disgusted by and pitying her relative’s lack of polish.
Their conversation is, on the surface, quite commonplace. They speak of the weather, minor gossip, everything that people of society talk about when they can’t speak what’s truly on their minds.
“I’ve heard a bit about you,” Valmont says at the mid-way point, his eyebrow arching. Something in his tone of voice, the way in which he tries not to stress any one word, tells her that there is a deeper layer to the statement. It was a statement, she decides, of support.
She keeps her face clear and open as she unfurls her fan. Her heart is pounding against her ribs, a flutter of adrenaline; she can almost see his eyes fixate on the pulse in her neck.
“Have you now?” she answers, measuring every word.
The edge of his mouth lifts—just briefly—and suddenly he is the handsomest man in the room.
Sometime later, when they manage to get a moment alone (society had never felt as suffocating to her as it has this afternoon) he leans in, just enough so that they are not noticed.
“My Marie has a fan of similar color,” he says, inclining his head toward the card table. She makes an effort to steal a gaze without being noticed and spots the girl from the opera, watching them with cautious, wide eyes.
“She looks like such an innocent,” she says, the words dripping with venom. Lightly, of course—the kind of venom meant to slip under others skin and that makes him only laugh. Of course the girl was no true innocent, not if she has been long in Valmont’s company, but it was obvious from the unguarded way she held herself that she was playing a game she wasn’t particularly skilled in.
He seems to read her thoughts. “She is. But I find a bit of innocence can be good for the soul.” Valmont lets the statement hang in the air a bit, before easing back into the settee. His eyes bore into hers and she grips her fan like a knife. “For a time, at least. Wouldn’t you agree?”
She lets the words linger in the air for a moment, savoring their taste, before meeting his eyes and favoring him with a smile.
“Oh yes. Of course I agree.”
It’s at the card table when she, appropriately enough, makes her first move.
“I see your niece has been much in the company of Monsieur Valmont,” she says, watching the older woman carefully.
Her opponent had always been skilled at hiding her hand, but she could not hide the distaste that passes her face even as she manages to keep it out of her voice. “Not so much. He takes her about, but then he knows her father. I know what they say about him. I keep a close watch her, I assure you Madame.”
Merteuil smiles, teeth slightly barred. A woman with no doubts would not be so defensive. “Of, course you do. And I trust you know I am only telling you this because of my own concerns—but young ladies don’t always go along with their best interests.” She waits three beats, and sighs. “Or so I hear.”
Her opponent folds her cards onto the table.
It was so simple she’s almost disgusted with herself.
She didn’t even have to create a scenario, just the impression of illicitness. The woman protested half-heartedly, as a pretense, but it was clear that once the thread had been pulled that that was enough. Anyone could have done it really—her opponents were so alarmingly stupid that she passingly wondered if she was being played by someone more skilled. But no—they apparently though the diligent eye of a dowager aunt would be protection enough, and failed to see that anyone would think otherwise.
One morning, soon after the card game, her maid tells her that the young lady was no longer in Paris. She had apparently been sent to stay with a distance, nameless relative who resided as far from polite society as possible.
Merteuil listens intently, and then selects a different gown, one that matches her eyes. She informs her maid that she should expect company.
Valmont arrives shortly after, his eyes burning. His mouth, however, is turned into a smirk that she mirrors.
“You honor me with your company,” she starts, as he bends to kiss her hand.
“My social calendar seems a bit empty at the moment.” He seats himself beside her on the settee; uninvited, but not unwelcome.
“How dreadful.” She forces herself to lean back, despite the pull. He leans in, not enough to close the difference between them but enough to stop any other words from leaving her mouth.
“Is it?” He shifts his weight, his hand brushing her skirts. “I’ve just had some rather unfortunate news that I hoped you could help me clarify.”
The light is dying by the time she finishes. The fire in his eyes is still there, but the reason behind it was clearly different.
“Did you enjoy it?” he asks when she’s done, and Merteuil responds with her coyest smile. He grips her waist and pulls her close.
In the morning she spies a darkening bruise just above her breast and feels—for the first time since the early days of her marriage—a fleeting sense of shame.
Not for anything that was done, of course. She had had her share of regretful experiences, generally because the reality did not live up to the illusion. Nothing could be farther from the truth in this case, but in the light of day she can’t help but chastise herself for falling so quickly, for letting him mark her in such an obvious manner. It was always best to leave such things invisible, though something about that moment, her blood singing with her victory, had made her not care.
Her maid says nothing when she helps her into a more conservative gown and Merteuil is reminded of why she had chosen the girl for this duty.
His card arrives that afternoon and she places it aside, telling the servant she is ill.
She’s angry at herself for feeling a pang when she realizes, sometime later, that Valmont followed her request to be left alone.
She sees him again later that week, at a dinner party. The girl with him is a mirror copy of Marie, darker but still innocent. They are seated at opposing ends of the table but she catches his eyes far too often for it to be can accident.
It’s a challenge.
Halfway through the meal Valmont reaches over to brush his lady’s hand, a gesture obvious to everyone but meant, she knows, for her. She bites her lip and takes a deep breath, feeling her corset press against where the bruise is fading. The slight twinge of pain sends shivers down her spin. She remembers his mouth there—he’d pushed her against the settee, her legs at an awkward angle and laces undone. Everything about it was crass and dangerous. She had never wanted a man more than she did at that moment. Until, of course, this party.
She turns to the guest beside her and flashes her perfected smile. “Who is that young woman?”