Preoccupied by the weight of his own history, he managed to sit comfortably in the fauteuil chair behind the desk, one ankle crossed over his knee. His riding attire was immaculate, not a stitch out of place, from the Trone d’Amour knot in his black silk cravat to the shine on his Hoby boots.
Were this unpleasant business complete, he could take one of his two remaining riding horses to the hidden cave in the cliffs at the back of his lifeless formal garden, the spot with the best view of Calais. He had sat there so many times that he could see and hear the docks in his mind, even if the city were obscured by fog, as it would be today.
He tapped his riding crop on the heel of his boot as he observed, “You look shabby, Michelle. Did you leave your bourgeois husband and the money he stole by guillotine?”
She flinched as if slapped. “Non, Monseigneur, he died many years ago and his money with him. I am untidy because it has been a long journey, and I came directly from the harbor.” She glanced at the bag just inside the door. “I did not even stop to arrange lodging, for I knew you would want to hear my news without delay.”
“You look like you serviced a boat filled with sailors to pay for the crossing,” he sneered. “Did you plan to service me to secure your bed for the night?” When her head ducked away from his vicious tone, he added, “Perhaps if you go down on your knees for my stableboy, he will share his haystack.”
Her face flushed, but she only said, “I have important information, Monseigneur.”
“It must be vital,” he said with a mordant jeer, “to bring you all the way from Épinal. What will your information cost me this time? I have no more family for your fiancé to ransom.”
“Monseigneur, as always, I wish only to serve your interests.” She failed to keep the reproof from her tone when she said, “You recall it was I who told you of the duchess’s betrayal, and I who aided in your escape, at great danger to myself. I have been loyal to you since we were children, Monseigneur, and always a friend to your sisters before the—” Her voice broke. “I had hoped my long devotion to la famille Fouret would serve to assure you of my intent.”
His face and voice remained cold, but he asked, for the first time without derision, “What has brought you so far from home?”
“It is about the duchesse, Monseigneur.”
He sat up swiftly, his knuckles white on the edge of his desk. “Amelia?” His lips were drawn in a thin line, eyebrows a dark slash in a face suddenly drained of color. “What information can there be about her?”
“There was a man asking questions, seeking out servants from the château. Of course, very few remain in Épinal, but he was quite determined to discover the circumstances of her death.”
“Non, Monseigneur, not the constabulary, nor the king’s men. Un Anglais. He said he knew her as a child.”
He sat back to consider what Englishman might be asking questions after thirty years. Amelia’s family was long dead, and once he had disposed of the peasant with whom, according to Michelle, his wife had betrayed him, she’d had no friends to make inquiries. He had never taken her to Court, nor made his marriage known there, and she had never been allowed the freedom to become known in Épinal. Aside from the few servants who had attended her at the château, most also now dead, he couldn’t think of one person in England or France who would even remember his wife’s name.
“Who is he?”
“I do not know, Monseigneur,” she winced, turning her face away as though expecting a blow. “He paid well to ensure no one spoke his name, and did not find me before he returned to Paris.” Implied in her tone: of all his servants, she was the only one who had kept her silence about him, though he knew that was probably why no one gave her the man’s name.
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Mariana Gabrielle is a pen name for Mari Christie, who is not romantic--at all. Therefore, her starry-eyed alter ego lives vicariously through characters who believe in their own happy-ever-afters. And believe they must, as Mariana loves her heroes and heroines, but truly dotes on her villains, and almost all of her characters' hearts have been bruised, broken, and scarred long before they reach the pages of her books.
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