Paris, early August 1942
Isabella Guliette d'Aurenière-Reyer would have said she was a fairly levelheaded individual, if ever asked. She did not have a blazing hot temper like her mother or several of her offspring, nor her impatient husband. When irked, she had a tendency to roll her eyes and ignore whatever was occurring, perhaps think of a way to take revenge later on. Certainly, married to one such as Rupert, you had to learn to turn a blind eye to a lot of things. And there was no room for impulsiveness and impatience in her line of…business.
But still, sometimes you just need some quiet.
"Gabriel! Arabella-Marie! Stop this noise at once!"
They both turned around, her fourteen-year-old looking surly and her eleven-year-old still full of righteous fury, eyes blazing. "He started it, Maman!" she cried, gesturing violently at her elder brother.
Isabella rolled her eyes, already wishing she had not given in to irritation and ventured out of her study and into the large entrance hall of her city home on the Île Saint-Louis. Such stress was the last thing she needed that day. She had too many other vital things to think about.
"I could not care less who started it, I just want it to stop. I cannot get any work done while the two of you are caterwauling away out here."
"Make him give it back then!"
"Give what back?" Isabella looked at Gabriel, whose face only became surlier, and sighed. "Gabriel, I will ask you again not to taunt your sister so. Give whatever you have taken back and we will have no more of this."
"I haven't taken anything," Gabriel growled, making a sneering face that was as much directed at Arabella-Marie as her best friend Aveline St Clair, who glared back at him from underneath the tresses of rag-waved brown hair falling into her eyes. Arabella-Marie made a furious spitting noise and took a step forward, finger out and pointing at him again, looking as though she was going to lose her temper at any moment. Isabella stepped forward too, in case she needed to intervene. The two of them had been brawling evermore often recently, and now Arabella-Marie was that much older and more self-assertive they had been ending in physical tussles. A week before, when they were still on holiday in Egypt, she had become so infuriated by his teasing that she had scratched him down the side of his face, leaving marks that were still visible.
"You-you fucking liar!" she spat.
"Arabella-Marie!" Isabella protested, genuinely shocked that she had just heard such crude language from her young daughter, however much of a firebrand she was. "I am not having such language-"
"I don't care! I don't!" her daughter cried, stamping one of her feet on the parquet. "He has my sword! He took it from my room and I want it back!"
"He did, Tante Isabella," Aveline added, as polite as ever even while she looked incensed. "Laurence has it now, and he has gone and hidden."
No wonder Arabella-Marie was so incensed; it was one of her most prized possessions. It had been a present from Rupert when she was seven, and an absurdly fanciful thing to have given to a child. Painstakingly handcrafted and filigreed with the family crest near the hilt, and collapsed into itself into a size of a small dagger when one pressed down hard on a lever on the handle. Such a thing was a relatively new phenomenon, only having arisen in the past decade or so, and the weapons were still extortionate to manufacture considering how expert the craftsmanship had to be so the thing even worked; was sturdy enough to use. Even she had never bothered to have one made for herself.
But when Arabella-Marie had shown a keen interest in fencing and swordsmanship when she was six, Rupert - after a few months of silent disapproval that his daughter was obsessed with such a thing - showed a keen interest as soon as she proved to him that she was actually talented, and had then spoilt her rotten with the finest tutors and equipment. Isabella could not say she had ever complained. If Rupert had not, she knew she would have instead. She was the one who had given Arabella-Marie her first lesson, after all; set off her passion in the first place. She had felt that it was a vital skill she needed to have, and she had only been proved right as the years went on. Now her daughter was almost twelve and almost as good as her; more than able to defend herself, and she could not have been more grateful.
"Gabriel." She pushing her hair off her forehead with a tired hand. "Go and find Laurence and give Ella her sword back. I cannot believe I have to tell you at your age that it isn't fair to take things that don't belong to you."
"But we need it!" Gabriel protested, and Arabella-Marie looked even angrier at his sudden admittance of guilt. "How are we supposed to play war-"
"There are others you can use!" Arabella-Marie yelled.
"But yours is good! Why can't Laurence borrow-"
"Because it's not his!" Aveline said. "You and he can't take things without asking-"
"You're so selfish, the both of you! Selfish and immature and whiny, whiny little girls-"
"Gabriel, enough!" Isabella snapped as Arabella-Marie finally lost what self-control she had been exerting and hurled herself forwards at him with a roar, just as Isabella had feared she would. Luckily, Aveline caught her around the waist in time and managed to hold her back.
"He's not worth it, Ella," Aveline ground out as she admirably managed to keep her best friend at bay despite Arabella's vicious struggling and the fact that she was quite a bit shorter and more slightly-built than her at their current age. She glared at Gabriel over Arabella-Marie's shoulder. "Just go away and stop causing trouble, and tell my stupid brother the same. The both of you can piss off!"
"Aveline, I would appreciate it if you would also not use such language in this house."
Aveline looked across at her, red heat blooming in her cheeks, mortified. No matter how much she had seemed to begin to emulate Arabella-Marie's forward, precocious temperament in recent years, it seemed the mild-mannered child of yesteryear was still hiding inside; deeply respectful to her elders, gracious and decorous, the way Arabella-Marie had never mastered, no matter how many etiquette lessons her grandmother had tried to get her to attend.
"I'm so, so sorry, Madame," she stuttered out, so shocked that she let go of the wriggling body in her arms. "I didn't-I didn't mean-"
"Yes you did! Don't apologise to her!"
"Quite," Isabella said, mouth set in a firm, displeased line. She could not, however, be bothered to chastise her daughter. If trying to instil any sort of discipline had not worked after almost twelve years, she doubted it ever would. All she would achieve was a tantrum and then probably a dramatic storm upstairs, accompanied by cursing and wailing about the injustices of the world and how awful her life was, completed by the slamming of her bedroom door; something that she had begun to make a habit of over the last two years. And whilst in the past Isabella had had a knack of soothing her down from her hysterics, she could no longer. Every time she had tried since Arabella-Marie had come home for the first time after what he had done to her, in the Christmas of 1940, she had been angrily rebuffed. It seemed only Aveline had a handle on her now, something Isabella could not help be a little grateful for. Someone certainly needed to, for when she was no longer-
"Make him give it back, now!" Arabella-Marie demanded, and by the sound of the waver in her voice she was beginning to move from incensed to tearful. A certain overemotional unsteadiness in her daughter had been another consequence of his brutal actions that it seemed was never going to fade, no matter how much distance continued to grow between the event and the present. "It isn't funny, Maman! He keeps doing this, and teasing me, and calling me names-"
"You bring it on yourself!" Gabriel retorted. "Maybe if you weren't so bloody peculiar-"
"Take that back!" Aveline stepped in front of her, and Arabella-Marie fisted her hands into her blouse and rested her face between her shoulder blades. She was crying. Isabella's heart sunk, torn between wanting to go over there and try and offer some comfort - even whilst knowing she would be yelled and told to leave her alone - and staying where she was because she knew at this point she had to. They had had their idyllic trip to visit Rupert's family in Austria, and then immersed themselves in history and adventure in Egypt, and it was time to start putting some distance between herself and her children. If she did not it would only make it harder when the time came.
Arabella-Marie was not a child anymore, either. She was too old to be mollycoddled, especially after the brutal entry into adulthood that had been given her in the September of 1940. Isabella knew that was why she kept being pushed away. Arabella-Marie had had no one to comfort her for months; had had to find the strength to keep her head up on her own, and she could not bear the thought that someone thought her weak and pitiful now. She was too proud. And Isabella understood that all too well, for she was exactly the same.
"Stop talking about her like that, Gabriel!" Aveline continued to rage. "It is cruel and unnecessary-"
"She is, though! She's-"
"Enough!" Isabella lost her own temper. "Gabriel Rupert Mathieu, go to my study now!"
Looking sulky, he nonetheless slumped off without another word. Aveline was watching Isabella, as though waiting for her next move. In the silence, Arabella-Marie's snuffles into the back of her blouse had become audible, and something twisted inside her stomach at the fact that her daughter was still crying, and she was still standing there, doing nothing, as though she was already gone.
Arabella-Marie lifted her head up then, cheeks red and wet, sniffing, and looked bleakly over at Isabella. Isabella stared back, not knowing quite what to say in the face of their expectance. She had never been a fantastic mother; she would be the first person to admit that, but she felt suddenly useless and bewildered in a way she never had before. It hurt. And it hurt because it hit her yet again that in only a few months there would be no one for Arabella-Marie to look to like that. Rupert, for however much he loved his children, had always been a stoic, undemonstrative father, and their grandparents could not be around all the time; they had their own lives, and lived out in Versailles. However busy and caught up in her own life Isabella had always been, she was her children's primary point of adult contact; particularly Arabella-Marie's. It would be gone soon, and then who would mediate fights between her and Gabriel; try and keep some sort of order in the house, and a hundred and one other such things?
"I will have a word with him," she finally said, knowing she had to say something. "I will make him give it back."
Arabella-Marie continued to look blank, and so frighteningly hollow. Aveline nodded. "Thank you, Tante Isabella." She turned her head and gave Arabella-Marie a smile, and a little nudge. She said nothing in return, but looked away from Isabella to slide her arms around Aveline's waist and bury her face back into her blouse.
Isabella watched them, chewing on her bottom lip for a clue as to what she was supposed to do now. Go and talk to Gabriel, yes - and she was not looking forward to that in the least - but she felt guilty walking away from her daughter when she was still upset. "Girls, how about I give you some money and you can go for a walk and get some ice cream. It is a lovely day; you should not be cooped up inside anyway," she thus suggested. Having them out of the house sounded like a good idea for other reasons too, and she was considering sending Gabriel and Laurence the same way. Not only would it be an advantage that the two pairs could not get into any more fights, she did not like the idea of any them stumbling upon the meeting she was due to have in less than an hour. Her children were grown-up now, aware, and it would be so much harder to explain away why she and several strangers were shut away in her study for hours.
"You should go to that place off the Place de la Concorde, Arabella-Marie," she continued to babble, knowing that she was grinning idiotically, far too chirpy, but finding her face stuck. A part of her feared what she might say or do if she did not pretend to be so cheerful. "And then maybe you can visit the palace and see your great-grandparents."
Raising her head from Aveline's blouse again, Arabella-Marie gave a little shrug. "I don't care."
"Oh, I think it might be a good idea," Aveline said, head turned again to try and catch her eye. "If I see Laurence anytime soon I will end up punching him."
She shrugged again. "Fine. If you want to."
"Only if you want to, Ella."
Arabella-Marie gave a soft snort, eyes cast down at the floor. "Does it really matter what I want?"
Isabella's heart twinged again. "Excellent!" she said, strolling over to a large sideboard near the front door and counting out some notes from one of its drawers. "Do go and visit your great-grandparents, darling; I know they would love to see you."
She detected another vague shrug from her daughter, who had finally detached herself from Aveline and now stood with her hands shoved in the front pockets of some trousers that Isabella was sure had belonged to Henri when he was about ten, still staring down at her shoes. Aveline prodded her in the side with her elbow, and managed to raise a twitch on her lips, but little more.
Isabella handed the money over to Aveline, knowing it would be the sensible thing to do even if Arabella-Marie was not so despondent. Her goddaughter's eyes widened as she looked down at the thick wad, far too much for a simple meander to an ice cream parlour. Isabella had not even realised how much she was doling out until she saw it there clutched in a small tanned hand, and had to hold back a wry laugh. That really was guilt made corporeal.
"Thank you for being so generous, Tante Isabella," Aveline said, "but I think this is too-"
"Nonsense," she said quickly. "Now, the two of you go and have a lovely time and treat yourselves to whatever you want, ice cream or not."
"Oh. Well, thank you very much." Aveline gave Arabella-Marie a grin and linked their arms together, giving her a gentle tug in the direction of the door. "Come on, Ella."
Arabella-Marie did not look especially enthused, but she let Aveline lead her away out of the front door. She heard Aveline begin to speak, trying to coax her best friend out of her mood, and her voice drifted away on the breeze as the two of them exited the carriageway that ran between their house and the next, and proceeded up the road and away. Isabella breathed a sigh of relief as soon as she could no longer hear them. Aveline would cheer her up in time, and the two of them were safely away from the house for the next few hours.
And thus it was on to her next unpleasant task. She proceeded back into the small parlour that led off the grand entrance hall, and through it to her secluded study. Gabriel sat in an armchair before her desk, still looking surly and sour, his arms crossed over his chest.
"I didn't do anything wrong!" he spat as soon as she closed the door behind her and he became alerted to her presence.
"Well, considering that you took one of your sister's prized possessions without asking and then upset her to the point of tears, I will have to respectfully disagree," she said, sitting down behind her desk.
"She's a girl. She should not even have a sword," Gabriel retorted. Isabella raised her eyebrows.
"I am also a girl. Are you saying that I should not have one either?"
Gabriel squirmed in awkwardness. "You're my mother. It's different."
He remained silent for a few moments, still looking awkward, and then suddenly exclaimed, "She annoys me! She is so loud and obnoxious and it is a thousand times worse whenever stupid Aveline is here. She starts acting out and showing off and goading me in front of her, saying anything I can do she can do better. 'Avie, Avie, Avie!'," he mimicked in a high-pitched voice. "'Watch this, Avie! Look how amazing I am! I am the best at everything, aren't I? Aren't I? Oh, say I am! Tell me I'm wonderful!'"
"Don't be cruel, darling," Isabella said, feeling saddened. "Your sister has been through a lot over the past two years."
"I know. And I'm sorry for that, I really am, but it is a lot to put up with."
Isabella sighed, leaning her elbows on top of the desk and cradling her thumbs under her chin, hands pressed together, trying to think how to best phrase her words. "Gabriel, when people are hurting it is not unusual to…overcompensate."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, Ella has always been a bit of a handful, but before what happened in Saint Lucia I am sure you do not remember her being quite so…virulent in her moods."
"She has become much worse," Gabriel admitted, though he sounded reluctant about doing so. "She is so short and sharp and she changes like the wind. You say one wrong word and she acts like she is going to murder you for it. And she is so defensive. The other day, I said something - and I can't even remember what it was, but it wasn't personal - and she took it as though I had defamed her and went absolutely mad."
Isabella knew exactly what he meant. She too had been on the receiving end of Arabella-Marie's harsh defences more time than she cared to remember. It ached too much to, for knowing what had caused their development.
"I don't know how Aveline stands it," Gabriel muttered. "But then she is the only one Ella won't ever snap at. The two of them act like they are in love, or something. It's ghastly."
She looked down at her desk, eyebrows quirked upwards no matter how hard she had worked to keep them where they were. That was a conversation she certainly did not need to have with her son, or with anyone, ever. She was hoping that whatever seemed to be going on under the surface was nothing at all; just young friends become that bit too close, and they would grow out of being each other's everything in time, as they matured. It was nothing. Of course it was nothing.
"Just please, be a bit nicer to her," she said. "I know she annoys you, but she is not doing it deliberately. You, on the other hand, are, and you are also a lot older and you should know better. Try not to be around her if you can't stand to, but don't mock her and steal her things. It is only going to make it all worse."
"Fine. I am just glad the summer is half over and she will be going back to England soon."
"Don't say that, please," Isabella implored, feeling pained again. It only made what she had to do all the harder for knowing that her children would probably not unite afterwards and take care of one another. "Not while you know why she is there."
"But I don't know why." Gabriel frowned at her. "You have never seen fit to explain it to any of us. Why did Tante Suzanne-"
"Not now, darling."
"Then when? It has been two years!"
Never. They could never know, not any of them, not about any of it. That some of Rupert's suspicions were far too close to the truth was bad enough, and she had to constantly fend off his attempts to talk about it. It had put so much distance between them that their marriage was in as poor a state as it had ever been.
"It is not something I even really understand myself," she therefore lied. "Now off you run, Gabriel. Go and find Laurence and return Arabella-Marie's sword to her bedroom before she comes back. And here, have…" She opened one of her desk drawers to find her wallet, thankful that she had put it in there the day before. She counted out a generous amount and handed it to her confused son. "Why don't you and Laurence go and do something fun, in return for giving the sword back and not bothering the girls again?"
Gabriel took the money, giving a nod, and still looking nonplussed and a little quarrelsome. "All right."
"Good. Have a nice time, darling. And keep safe."
He stood up, mouth open to speak, and for a moment she thought that he was going to argue with her; push for an answer to his earlier question, but mercifully he did not. He left without a fuss and she slumped in relief as soon as the door had closed behind him, lowering her head until it was resting on the cool wood of her desk.
Fifteen minutes later she heard Laurence and Gabriel leave, and just in time. Her guests ended up being early. No sooner had the front door shut behind them than she heard it opening again, and the butler greeting people that were certainly not any of her children come home early. Arabella-Marie and Gabriel would be gone for hours, flush with freedom and money; Henri was due to be at a school friend's house until dinnertime, and Antoine was away on a two-day fishing trip to the Loire Valley with Rupert, and his cousins Tristan and Jean, in a rare display of fatherly attention. Besides, they would never have been greeted so formally.
She ventured out into the entrance hall to see two people, one of whom was a welcome sight while the other-
"Brettelyn," she said coolly, not having known he was coming and not at all appreciating not having been informed about it in advance. One needed to gird one's stomach for a visit from him.
"Ah, Isabella!" He affectedly greeted her with kisses on both cheeks, as abhorrent as ever. She looked to his cousin Benjamin for answers as to what was going on, but nothing in his face gave anything away.
"Bonjour," he said when it was his turn to greet her, with a polite embrace and a solitary kiss millimetres above her cheek. He looked somewhat like Brettelyn, with wavy hair and the same nose, but the similarities ended there. He was a far more palatable creature, and putting aside such small physical similarities they could not have been more different. His face was far softer, reminding Isabella at certain angles of the cherubic child he had once been, as well as imbuing him with a natural openness that Brettelyn simply lacked. She had also always been rather fond of him. "I am sorry we are a little early. Brettelyn overestimated the time it would take to get here."
She did not doubt that Brettelyn had done so deliberately, just to irritate her. "Where is your uncle?" she asked Benjamin.
He looked awkward. "Ah, you see…he is not here."
"I beg your pardon?"
He could not be serious. Not at this late date. Not when things were so close to having to happen. That was why they were having this meeting; to put the final, definitive touches on things. To make them inevitable.
"No, he is in Paris," Benjamin hastily amended, "but he has been held up. I…he is with Robert."
"Yes, Robert, Benj's brother," Brettelyn added, sounding far too chipper about such a serious occurrence. Benjamin glared at him.
"You do not have to remind me of that fact at every single given opportunity, you know! I am well aware that I am closely related to that fiend!"
Brettelyn held his hands up in a pacifying gesture. "I was just making sure Isabella knew who we were talking about."
Isabella cast her eyes to the ceiling, feeling despair flooding through her. She could not believe Richard had not tried to get in contact with her over this; had thought it a suitable substitution to send his twenty-two-year-old nephew along with his equally young cousin, who might as well have been an infant badger for all the use he was. It was him she needed to liaise with, not them, and especially not while they insisted on indulging in childish verbal battles every few seconds.
"He is my half-brother, anyway, you twat. And this meeting he is having with my uncle is important."
"I never said it wasn't, Ashcotte; untwist your bloody girly knickers."
"Do the two of you mind?" Isabella snapped. Both their heads turned back to her, Benjamin looking contrite and Brettelyn wearing his usual smirk that Isabella would swear he had mastered before the age of ten; she certainly remembered seeing it then and thinking that he was possibly the smuggest child to ever exist. "Richard is meeting with Robert? Why? They have not been in direct contact for years. Every time Richard has tried to reach out to him…"
"Robert contacted Richard, actually," Benjamin said.
Something dropped low in Isabella's stomach. She had not anticipated that eventuality. "Why?"
"I…" Benjamin trailed off and pressed his lips together, clearly ill at ease. "Perhaps we should go and sit down somewhere private."
"Yes, yes, of course." She headed straight towards her study, gesturing for them to follow her.
"Might we have some tea?" Brettelyn asked. "I'm parched."
"Oh, for God's sake, this is hardly the time," Benjamin said. The look of disgust on his face was palpable; she did not need to turn around to know it was there.
"What? It was a long drive here."
"From Neuilly? Gosh yes, miles…"
"Has anyone ever told you that you cannot pull off sarcasm, dear cousin?"
Isabella sat back down in her chair, wearily. How could Richard have thought it appropriate to send Brettelyn at all at a time like this; with news like this? It would have been so much more acceptable if Benjamin had come alone. Where Brettelyn was concerned, one head was always better than two. It was a shame, because his mother had been one of Isabella's closest friends. God knew what had gone wrong with her only child.
"I will ring for tea," she said, and leant behind her to pull the little lever that would send a bell clanging in the kitchens. Brettelyn did not even have the decency to thank her, just sat himself down in a chair he had pulled up, crossing his legs. Benjamin was still glaring at him.
"Might we resume our conversation?"
"Quite," he said. "Robert telephoned Uncle this morning. He said that he too was in Paris and he thought they should meet. Uncle was naturally cautious, because it has been such a long time, but Richard kept insisting that it was not a trap. He sounded quite frantic. Desperate."
Robert Ashcotte, desperate? Isabella would have not thought the cold-hearted boy capable of such a thing, or of any strong emotions. Anyone who would betray his family the way he had; do the things he had, had to be completely without conscience.
"Have you heard from Richard since he went to meet him?" If they had not, a thousand awful scenarios were ready to fill her mind, each one bloody and final. Benjamin, however, nodded.
"He telephoned me an hour ago; that is why we are here. He wanted us to let you know what was going on…to be here until he is finished and can join us. He thought it better than putting off this meeting and then coming later; leaving you completely in the dark."
She was not sure whether she would have preferred that or not. At least she would have been able to go about her day, blissfully ignorant, and not now have to make small talk with Benjamin and Brettelyn, and trying not to worry.
"What did Robert want?" she dared ask.
"I think…" Benjamin looked discomforted again, and unsure of himself, both rare things. It only made the situation that much more real. "Uncle did not say much, obviously, but I think-"
After a short tap on the door it was opened, typically at the worst time possible. The girl there gave a smart little curtsey. "You rang, Madame?"
"Tea, please," Isabella replied, managing to keep her voice steady despite her pounding heart. "Some cakes and sandwiches too. I fear we will be here for a while."
The girl curtseyed again, and then left, closing the door behind her. Benjamin breathed out, heavily.
"As I was saying, he did not tell me much; he hardly could, with Robert right there. But he said…he said he was trying to negotiate."
"Negotiate." She refused to let herself contemplate the possible meanings of that word.
"Robert said he was…unhappy with some of the decisions Harwood has made."
"And he wants to negotiate? To see if we can…"
"Bridge some sort of peace? Potentially."
Isabella put a hand over her mouth, trying to will down her emotions. Could this really be happening? Just when she had resigned herself to the fact that she had no other choice but to try and fix things in the most final way, could it be that she would not have to at all? That Richard and Robert would come to some accord and it would all be over?
"Did he sound optimistic?"
Brettelyn was the one to answer. "He didn't sound unoptimistic. He doesn't want to get his hopes up, of course, but if he is still there after all this time…well, they have to actually be talking."
"I agree with Abbeys for once," Benjamin said. "It is a good sign. For all the dreadful things Robert has done, he is not unreasonable. Not like Harwood. And he and Uncle were very close before everything happened, so…" He sighed, sitting back in his chair and lifting his shoulders a fraction. "I do not want to get my hopes up either. I don't even want to begin to imagine how you must feel."
Isabella did not want to, either. She was trying her utmost to keep everything suppressed, and yet little sparks of optimism were flying around inside and she was powerless to stop them. There was a chance, a real chance, that there might yet be a solution. That she might get to stay and watch her children grow up; help Arabella-Marie navigate her adolescence, as Isabella could tell someone was going to need to do. And Antoine…Antoine was only ten and young for his age besides. It was beyond cruel to leave him too…it was beyond cruel to leave any of them.
But there had been no other way, before this sudden ray of light. She had gone over and over things with Richard for months, and they had come to the same conclusion every time. To keep the peace, to keep her family safe, she had to disappear…unless, by some miracle, Robert Ashcotte's abrupt obtaining of a conscience bore out.
And so they waited, drinking tea and eating cake and sandwiches - or rather, Benjamin and Brettelyn did, while Isabella sipped from a glass of water and stared into space, still trying to keep her hopes dampened down. The longer they waited, though - and they waited several hours - the harder it became. If Richard and Robert were together for such an age…how could they be doing anything other than drawing up a peace plan? If compromise was impossible, it could be nothing but a very short conversation.
It was almost six o'clock when he arrived, and Isabella was beginning to fear the return of her children. With this latest knowledge, she wanted them to be around when her visitors were there less than ever.
Richard had a key, and let himself into the house. He did not knock on the door of her study, either, just came straight in, nearly giving the three of them heart attacks, considering the tense atmosphere. Brettelyn upended the dregs of his latest cup of tea onto his crotch and began to swear loudly. Glaring at him again, Benjamin tossed him a handkerchief.
Isabella barely noticed the goings-on. She was staring transfixed at Richard, waiting for him to speak, to confirm her hopes and put her out of her misery. He looked so tired; older, somehow, all through a matter of hours with his erstwhile nephew.
But he said nothing, just stared back at her. The only sound in the room was Brettelyn continuing to rhapsodise about his ruined trousers, and Benjamin telling him to stop being such an idiot.
"Richard?" she finally said when she could bear it no longer, and her voice came out croaky, hushed. "Richard, please…"
"I'm sorry, Izzie." With those three words, Isabella felt her entire world collapse; the last hope she had never thought she would even have, snuffed out. He did not need to say anything else. She knew what he meant. His voice had been broken; worn-out and shaken, and she covered her face with her hands, unable to bear the idea of any of them seeing the pain wrought across it. She had never been emotional until the past two years, when suddenly everything had become acutely real and the people she loved had begun to pay the price for her sins. It built up inside her and boiled over, sometimes; left her crying for hours until she had nothing left to expel, and thus the cycle begun again.
"What happened?" she heard Benjamin ask, quietly. Even Brettelyn had gone silent and stopped fussing.
"I thought we were going to get somewhere, I really did. Robert was so contrite at the beginning of the meeting, telling me he had never intended for any of it to go this far. He said Harwood would still be a problem, but he could work on him. After all, in the end, he is the one wielding a great deal of the power. We said…we…we even got as far as writing up a list of truces. But then we came to Arabella-Marie."
Isabella forced herself to remove her hands from her face and look at him. She could not hide from this. "And?"
"I insisted that Harwood give her back, permanently. He said that Harwood would never go for it, no matter what. He said…he said…Lord…"
"What did he say, Richard?" she asked, voice hard.
"He said that Harwood wanted to kill her," Richard admitted. Behind him, Benjamin closed his eyes, looking repulsed. "That he had never intended to let this farce of schooling her in England and giving her back to you over the holidays continue for this long. He thought he would win before it needed to. And now he has not, and is not, and he has had enough. He is beginning to feel powerless and wants to do something to prove that he is-"
"What, by murdering an eleven-year-old girl!" Benjamin burst out. "The man is insane! Sick!"
"Well, no one doubts that." Richard sighed. "I asked him what would make Harwood reconsider. What would make him feel secure. Robert said…he said probably you. Which is what we have always known. What we have been discussing for months. Harwood will not feel appeased until one of you is in the ground."
"And unless we make a move first and have it be me, it will be Ella," she whispered. "Because as soon as she goes back to England in September I cannot protect her. He will have her at his mercy." She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, and with it tears and despair that it had still come to this. Perhaps it was always going to. Perhaps this was what was destined to happen. "Nothing has changed."
Richard shook his head. "To give Robert his credit, he was quite reasonable. If he had not insisted that Arabella-Marie die I think we could have resolved this entire thing. As it was, though, that was his price for peace. That was Harwood's price for peace. And it is one we will never pay."
He looked thunderstruck. "You don't have to thank me, Izzie! My God, she is only a child! Do you think I would let a child-"
"But she is my child." She looked at him, straight in the eyes. "If she was not my child, are you saying that you would not consider making the sacrifice in the name of the greater good? Because of how many others it would save; how many years of blood and struggle and suffering?"
"You would. Many people would. I might even, were she not my daughter. But she is and so I will be selfish. I would die before I would be anything other than selfish. I…I will die."
"You know there is no other way," Richard said gently, crouching down and clasping one of her hands. "It is not something Harwood has expressed as an option, but Robert is sure that if you were to be out of the picture instead, he would relent. After all, without you-"
"Ella means nothing." She gave him a sad smile. "There is no link, and she will never know the truth, thank God. She cannot possibly be any threat."
He nodded, giving her hand a squeeze. "I'm so sorry I could not do more for you, love."
"It is enough that you tried. I never thought we would even get a chance." And how she wished they never had. Having hope snatched away from you was so much worse than never having had it in the first place. She had been resigned to fate; had been approaching calm and rational about it, all ranting and raving and sobbing over and done, and now-
"Maman?" The knock on the door, the alert to the fact that someone was there, happened too quickly and she could do nothing. She had knocked while turning the handle; a habit she had had since very young, too impatient and eager to knock and wait. All eyes turned to the doorway; fell on the slim girl just shy of her twelfth birthday with mussed golden curls falling over her shoulders and chest, which were encased in a loose white blouse with a new chocolate ice cream stain. Paired with Henri's old trousers and a pair of scuffed brown leather shoes, inelegant and naïvely adverse, she suddenly looked so young to Isabella. She had always been a precocious child, so she had stopped babying her at a young age, but now she looked nothing but youthful, and too youthful. She looked helpless, even while she stood there politely smiling at her mother's guests. Isabella was projecting her own emotions onto her, she knew, but they were still honest ones. She was helpless. She was too young. And there was no other way for any of this to go.
"What is it, darling? I'm busy."
"I'm sorry for interrupting; I didn't know you had company. I wanted to thank you for the money you gave Ava and I. It was very kind. And I…I'm…I'm sorry for cursing, and being rude. I know you don't like it."
"Well, I accept your apology, thank you." She smiled, and she knew it was shaky, just as her voice was, and prayed Arabella-Marie did not notice, or question it.
Arabella-Marie nodded, and turned to leave, giving everyone one last smile but not making to step over a boundary and greet Richard or Benjamin or Brettelyn if her mother was not going to prompt her to. It was a nice change, but Isabella could not bring herself to be too thrilled. What did it matter, in the scheme of things? Her daughter was having a placid five minutes, but then she usually did after a big show of emotion. After what Isabella was going to put her through, she suspected that the shows of emotion would only become worse, her moods and behaviour more erratic.
"So that's her," Brettelyn said, once the door was closed once more. "She has grown since the last time I saw her."
"She has become quite the little woman!" Benjamin added, chuckling. "Looks just like you, too, Isabella!"
Isabella tried to muster up a smile, knowing they were trying to lighten the atmosphere, as though such a thing were possible. She continued to stare at the spot where Arabella-Marie had been moments before. In a few months this would now all be gone. She would be 'dead', they would have relocated, and everything in this house covered with dustsheets. An entire era ended, and Isabella was not sure that Rupert would even keep the children in Paris once she was gone. He had mentioned more than once that at some point he would like to return to Austria and it was not unthinkable that with his wife dead he would take the opportunity to do so. She felt all the worse for thinking about how they would be ripped away from everything they had ever known at the worst possible time; taken away from their friends and families and home, but perhaps it would be for the better. Perhaps they would be safer in Vienna.
Then again, she could not help but maudlinly wonder whether they would ever be safe at all, if things had gone this far. Had someone told her the future years before, she would have laughed in their face and said they were mad. This could never possibly happen. She would never need to take such extreme measures to guarantee her family's safety. And if she had known, however tempting the life offered to her might have been, by God she would have never become involved. She would have stayed as far away as possible; perhaps even taken Rupert's desire to return to his homeland and run with it, away from temptation.
But there was no time for regrets, and she did not believe in them. Life was what it was, and going over and over the past and thinking about what she could have done differently was going to solve nothing.
Richard squeezed her hand again. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"What do you think?" he said, giving a little hysterical laugh. She felt hysterical. She felt mad, because all this was madness, and it was really going to happen. She had not been able to quite believe it before.
"How do you think she will take it?" Benjamin suddenly asked, voice soft. He was looking back at the door, contemplative.
Hard. She would take it hard, feeling too much as always. Countless times Isabella had wished that her daughter's personality were a little more like hers, because of how easier things would be for her. She had been made in her own image visually, despite there not being an true maternal bond between them, and no one would have ever thought Arabella-Marie was not hers on sight, but their personalities could not have been more different. Her daughter had a temperament much more like Isabella's own mother, Marie, who Isabella had often had a hard time understanding too; with her quick, hot temper and pervasive emotions, and a complete inability to just let things be.
But then that was not surprising, seeing as her mother was still Arabella-Marie's grandmother. Isabella was only grateful that her daughter had turned out nothing like her natural mother, her simpering younger sister Suzanne. Suzanne who had begun this whole sorry farce in youthful ignorance and who had done nothing but wash her hands of it now; living in denial and refusing to acknowledge any of Edmund Harwood's evils, even as they were right under her nose.