Disclaimer: Nope, characters are not mine. No copyright infringement intended.
I left Andre with the car and proceeded into the apartment alone. I never realized that the day would be so exhausting, considering that I had but one appointment in contrast to my usual schedule.
After I was inside my suite of rooms, I leaned back against the closed doors and willed myself to calm down.
That painting! What on earth…! Surely it must be a coincidence—as coincidental as the dreams that I had been having for months, perhaps?
Andre, with his sharp eyes that missed nothing, was right. I had not been sleeping well for sometime, and the dreams were the main reason why. No sooner would I close my eyes and I would see myself somewhere else, dressed in a stiff, white waistcoat of a uniform, with a sword—a genuine sword—at my side, walking along endless corridors in a huge palace with uniformed guards saluting everywhere I went.
Sometimes, I would find myself in these dreams on horseback, riding across a city with brick and stone buildings and not the towers of steel and glass of present-day downtown Paris. At other times I would find myself issuing orders to a platoon of men—orders such as I could never give in waking moments.
And I had a different name in these dreams.
What could it all mean? Every morning, I would wake up feeling exhausted, as though I had been leading another life while I slept. I would try recalling if I had had other dreams during the night—normal ones-about work, my family and friends, and I could not remember having any.
All I could remember was being this lady dressed as a man, in a resplendently white uniform with a sword. I could remember being addressed to as Commandant. I was there to protect someone very important.
Only now, wide awake, I could not remember all the details of the dreams.
And as for that painting, now that I had seen it, I did not know what to think. Fersen seemed to want me to see it, hoping for a response, but what sort of response was he expecting? Ever the art enthusiast, had it been Antoinette who told him so that he would ask me to look at it?
Here I go again, I thought, feeling the familiar, tearing ache inside every time I thought of Fersen.
Of Fersen and Antoinette.
This ache inside me was relatively new, and I hated it.
I briefly wondered if this painting had been a ploy of Fersen's to distract me from the rumors that were swiftly dogging him and Antoinette these past few weeks. Knowing Fersen, I doubt if he could ever stoop to these tactics. Still, the rumor was potentially scandalous, if not downright dangerous for the companies.
They were being seen with each other too often. That, in itself, was no big issue under normal circumstances, but why must they do it almost on the eve of Antoinette's wedding to the heir of the corporation?
It was disturbing to see how Antoinette was looking so happy every time she was with Fersen. That sparkle was distinctly lacking whenever she was with her fiance. Nobody was as transparent was she, and I feared that it would be her undoing.
The elders in the company and Auguste himself may not suspect anything yet, but I knew all about this saga from the very beginning. I knew how they met, Fersen and Antoinette. I was present at that party some months back, but I think it would be more appropriate if I started from the very beginning…
If you could remember that merger five months ago—the one that made headlines in the business world. Yes, the one where the de Brun group of companies (by which de la Saigne Industries was but a subsidiary of) acquired Lorraine Industries, that rising star of a corporation from Austria. It was all made possible because of the promise of marital ties between Auguste de Brun, grandson of our present CEO, and Antoinette, one of the many daughters (and heiresses) of the Iron Lady, Therese Lorraine, head of Lorraine Industries.
It was quite a match, requiring the full exercise of wily maneuvers and skilled negotiations as though a treaty were being struck between two nations.
Auguste de Brun, who had just turned thirty-six, was the despair of his grandfather. Auguste's own father had died very early and unexpectedly, and there had not been uncles to take up the line of succession. It was said that Auguste would rather prefer the company of books than stick his nose into the business, or find himself a suitable wife.
At least the latter problem had been solved, all thanks to that vacation Antoinette had taken the previous summer to tour France's art museums and, incidentally or not, to represent her mother in one of the many parties thrown by the main office upon her arrival.
Coincidentally or not, Auguste had also been in attendance in one of those parties—surprising, as he rarely bothered to. This had led everyone to believe that the hand of his grandfather—seemingly invisible for the moment but surely present—had a far-reaching hold than we might have suspected.
I could remember that the blond and lovely Antoinette had been sweet and poised, yet alluringly uncertain and vulnerable at that party. I really didn't know why, but it was pretty clear that she had warmed up to me instantly. Initially glued to the side of her mother's attaché, Mercy d'Argenteau, she had finally detached herself and made her way over to my side and Andre's. She very sweetly remarked what a lovely party it was.
After the necessary introductions, she had exclaimed, "Francoise de la Saigne! I have heard so much about you. A very clever director, though I never expected you to be so young."
It was very easy for her to make lively conversation with people. She had this way about her that made one feel exulted and special whenever she chanced to speak to you. But of course, things had to be cut short as others started flocking around her, and very soon, she was led away for even more important introductions up the company ladder.
"She's very charming," remarked Andre as we watched her shake the hand of Louis de Brun himself.
"Very," I agreed, sipping my champagne.
The meeting between Antoinette and Auguste had been affable at best, but that was enough to start the lengthy negotiations from both sides of the net. I knew that negotiations were progressing as Antoinette came—or perhaps, was sent might be a better choice of words—to France more and more to represent her mother.
Each time we met at a party, she would delightedly exclaim, "there you are, Francoise! I was looking all over for you." And we would talk until somebody came along to take her away.
"Mademoiselle Lorraine seems to have become good friends with you," observed Father approvingly at one point. "It's a good sign."
"Of what?" I wanted to know, but he did not answer. Instead, he encouraged me to make the most of it.
And that was how I came to regard the girl with interest and pity. No doubt, she was not stupid nor unsophisticated, and I felt sure that she knew what was going on behind the scenes. I had initially thought that she might just turn out to be one those women who would welcome such an opportunity, such a match. But as one got to know her better, one would realize that she was not of that mold.
In fact, in reality, she was very much like a child in certain aspects. I would find out much later that she had willingly done everything to please her mother.
During the odd day when I was free and she was in Paris, I would accompany her to the art galleries in the afternoons and the opera in the evenings. One afternoon, as we sat in one of those open air cafes dotting the tree-lined avenues close to the galleries and I had just finished giving some instructions to Andre over the phone, I looked up to find her staring at me from across the table.
"I envy you, Francoise," she suddenly said.
"Me?" I asked, amused, "whatever for?"
She shrugged her elegant shoulders. "Oh, your freedom and the life you lead, I suppose," she said. "Look at you: the confident, successful, beautiful businesswoman, virtually the managing director of a company. To have accomplished something like that at your age. It's extraordinary."
I thought of telling her about the long, grueling hours under my father's tutelage for as long as I could remember, as well as dealing with the ceaseless problems inside a company consisting of thousands of people, but I thought twice about scaring her.
"Everything's got a price, and believe me, I've paid mine," I opted to say instead. "My life is not as glamorous as you might think it is. Nor is it easy."
"I know, I know," said Antoinette, nodding. "Still. I wish I can be as strong as you are, able to fend off the world and all, and more. I guess-"and here, she suddenly broke into a rueful laugh, "—I guess what I really want to say is, I'm glad to have a friend like you here."
It was only later that I learned from Andre that Auguste had proposed to her, and she had accepted.
The engagement was announced very soon after that afternoon in the café and announcement of the merger followed almost at its heels. For a while, Antoinette had fallen out of reach because she had been busy with the wedding plans. Auguste, deeming that his mission had been accomplished, had gone back to his world of books.
Then one evening, she called me.
"Hi, it's me. Are you doing anything tonight?" she asked, excitement clearly in her voice.
"No, nothing much," I said, pushing away the stacks of paperwork that I had brought home from the office. The Swedish office had sent a new partner, a certain Monsieur L. Fersen, over to look into the company operations, and I had already asked Rosalie to coordinate with his secretary for a lunch appointment.
"Fantastic!" she exclaimed over the phone. "Would you like to accompany me to a masquerade party? We don't have to dress up much. Regular eveningwear will do. Oh, and I'll come around to pick you up in an hour, all right?"
The exclusive, fancy party was the idea of a group of bored Parisian socialites. Naturally, as the future bride of Auguste de Brun, Antoinette would be getting invitations for this kind of nonsense. Due to my unfailing policy of never showing up, invitations for me had trickled to a stop a long time ago.
Too late to start concocting excuses as I had already told her I wasn't doing anything, I resigned myself to get up and get dressed. I got on the first dress I could lay my hands on in the cabinets–a Dior white evening suit (slacks, of course, as I never wore skirts), simple and graceful in line. A slight touch of make-up, a few strokes of the brush applied to hair and I was ready in no time.
When she came to pick me up, she had arrived in a taxi. To my arguments that we take my car at least, she merely laughed and said, "Relax, Francoise! We need to travel incognito if we don't want the Office to come howling after us. Auguste and Grandpapa don't know I've taken the evening off. Even Mercy doesn't know. Come on, it will be such fun!"
The party was held in one of the socialites' expensive and lavish apartments in Ile St. Louis. A small, silly party where everybody knew everyone else, masks put on or not.
So much for Auguste and Grandpapa not knowing, I thought. They'll find out as soon as these people start to talk tomorrow.
Still, Antoinette was thrilled at the thought of anonymity, whether the whole thing was an illusion or not, and she had very gamely put on a pair of dark paper glasses to mask her eyes.
It was not the time or place to ask her how she was doing. The loud music and dancing ensured that conversation would be difficult. And Antoinette herself would be difficult to keep to one's side. No sooner had we entered the suite then a flock of masked women descended upon us. Pretty soon, Antoinette was made to circulate the room for chit chat while I got the astonished, "Francoise! What on earth are you doing here? Not that you're not a sight for sore eyes, of course, but it's really been so long since we've last seen you in one of these soirees!"
After other greetings along the same lines as well as various short conversations with acquaintances, I finally got enough room to move to the sofa with some champagne. Sighing, I let my gaze wander as I planned my leave of this place as soon as possible. I would have to ask Andre to come along later with a car and whisk me away.
While going through the crowd idly, my eyes alighted on a masked man in a tuxedo whom I had never seen before. He seemed to know me, for as he met my gaze, he gave me a little nod. He moved on to talk to a woman near him.
I frowned as I followed his graceful, unhurried movements across the room. Fashionable brown hair, a tall, sturdy frame. A full, firm mouth underneath the mask. I could not come up with anyone who could fit the specific features of this particular man, and after a while, I let it go.
When the dancing recommenced, with the stranger taking Antoinette's hand, I decided I had performed my obligations and I made up my mind to call Andre.
"You've got to get me out of here," I said as he answered his phone.
"Where are you exactly?" he wanted to know.
I gave him the address of the apartment. He jotted it down, and I could hear the laughter in his voice as he said, "that ought to teach you a lesson: bring me along next time!"
"Very funny," I returned. "I wasn't even planning to come here. I had to work the Sweden papers tonight, as you very well know. It was only because Antoinette had asked—"
I stopped short then because I just saw the subject of our conversation stop dancing abruptly. She turned to go out to the terrace, with the stranger in tow.
"Let's talk later," I said to Andre. "Just come over here as soon as you can."
There was something wrong with the way Anoinette had hurried to the terrace. And that man seemed to be getting too sticky.
Walking over to the glass doors that led to the terrace, I saw them by the balcony. The man had his hand on Antoinette's shoulder, and he was leaning in toward her.
The next minute, I had stepped out and called firmly, "Antoinette. I think it's time we're going."
There was a soft gasp as they put some distance between them. I could see Antoinette's mask in the man's hands.
"Fra—Francoise," Antoinette stammered, blushing as I advanced. "This gentleman was just asking for an introduction…"
"Oh, good," I said politely as I turned to him. "Let me introduce you to her then. She is Mademoiselle Antoinette Lorraine, fiancée of Auguste de Brun. And you are?"
Upon hearing this, there was a sharp intake of breath from the man, but he recovered very quickly. "My apologies. I didn't know," he said. "How very convenient for all of us to be meeting here!"
I frowned as I repeated. "You are…?"
"Fersen. Lars Fersen," he said. "And you are Francoise de la Saigne."
I couldn't believe my ears. "You're L. Fersen…from the Swedish office!" I asked incredulously.
He nodded, smiling, and took off his mask. An astonishingly handsome face was revealed. "Madamoiselle Lamorielle from your office has called to confirm that we are to have lunch this Saturday at eleven," he said in impeccable French.
The grim atmosphere that pervaded during the ride back home was almost palpable. It was enough to stop Andre from asking any questions, anyway.
After a long silence, Antoinette spoke up hesitantly, "he…nothing happened, Francoise."
I turned to her. "Of course nothing happened," I said.
"Honestly, he didn't do anything except ask me who I was and removed my mask. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with that. He's bound to know, anyway," said Antoinette, like a child who was intercepting a scolding before she even got one.
I sighed. "I believe you, Antoinette," I said softly. "There is no need to justify anything to me, but I hope that you will understand that different people will take things differently. You will see that people from the de Brun offices are strange that way. At least nobody noticed the episode, so there wasn't any harm done."
Of course, what I couldn't really tell her were the subtle hypocrisies that lay just below the surface of polished society. Scandal was a favorite dish of the rich and the bored, though they would expect to get away with anything so long as it was done discreetly. But then, I would not think Antoinette to be too innocent of this unspoken double standard. And it would be hilarious for me, a Parisian, to pass judgment on her.
She was actually free to do what she liked; her only problem would be to face up to consequences. Monumental ones, in her case, and it was because of these consequences that I feared for her.
In the dim coolness of the car, she looked at me miserably, and I could see that she was about to say something in response to the remark that I had just made. She changed her mind at the last minute and sat back in the shadows of the car.
The next day, Lars Fersen was formally introduced to the company heads during a staff meeting. As a representative from Sweden's newly opened branch, he was to stay for some months here in France to take in the operations of the de Brun group of companies. He was to start with Victor Girodelle's operations, followed by mine, and transferring to the main headquarters afterwards.
He had behaved impeccably when he was introduced to Antoinette in front of her fiance's family, and acted as though they had seen each other only that morning instead of on a balcony during the previous evening.
Over time, I came to see that he was indeed an exemplary man- a gentleman, if such a man still existed in this world, highly intelligent, witty and certainly attractive. As he spent those months in the de la Saigne offices, he had become a close friend of mine as well.
Too close, I thought. We have become too close now. None of the mess that I am currently in is his fault. It is entirely mine. I have allowed myself to fall in love with him. When or how it had come about, I have no idea. It just…happened…
Remembering the way Andre's face had frozen for an instant at the mention of Fersen's name only this morning made me feel squeamish and uncomfortable. Have I been that obvious? I thought as I felt the first pangs of mortification.
I dared not ask any more from Andre.
Of course, with the way Antoinette and Fersen were being seen together so often, people were bound to notice soon. It would be catastrophic to the companies if the paparazzi were to take it up. Knowing Antoinette, who was still flushed with her newfound happiness over an intimacy that was obviously developing, would probably not be able to realize the possible consequences right now. I would have to talk to Fersen himself.
Now, lying on the couch in my apartment, I closed my eyes as weariness swept through me. It would be so nice to sleep…and sleep—
My cell phone was suddenly and stridently ringing on the coffee table. By the tone, I could tell that it was Father. Presumably, news had reached his ears regarding that portrait I had just bought in Arras. Needless to say, he was not pleased at not having been consulted before the purchase.
I did have every intention of consulting him, only it flew out of my head the moment I saw the portrait's contents.
I stared at the phone in detached wonder as it kept on ringing, and then suddenly it was not ringing anymore. I closed my eyes again.Good…please, just leave me alone for a while…
But I knew it was not going to work. They were never going to leave me alone. If they couldn't reach me now, they could reach me later. Or worse. They could reach somebody else.
I picked up the phone and dialed his number on auto.
"Bon soir," he answered.
"Andre, where are you?" I asked without opening my eyes.
He sighed. "I am being summoned to your parents' house ASAP," he answered in a resigned voice.
"He wouldn't even talk to you over the phone?"
"I'll be on my way then. Might as well have dinner there. There's absolutely nothing to eat in this apartment," I said and hung up.
As tired as I was, I couldn't let Father tear Andre to pieces in my place.
Author's Note: It is very difficult to decide on the names of the characters as they live in the present. For Louis Auguste, also known as Louis XVI, I have cut the name short to Auguste. The "Brun" in de Brun is actually translated as "brown", which is what Bourbon means. Antoinette's surname is taken from the name of the House of Marie Antoinette's father—Lorraine. As for Fersen and Oscar, I have decided to change their names. An explanation will unfold in the succeeding chapters. I hoped you enjoyed this chapter.