Jean came back the next morning and gently rapped on my door. "Viv?" he softly called.
"Yep, right there," I finished tucking my hair up. "Good morning," I opened the door and let him in. One of the servants was with him.
"Is now a good time?"
"Oh, yeah, of course. I was just about to head down to breakfast."
"Me, too," Jean held his elbow out to me and I graciously accepted. "Would you leave the key on the vanity when you're done?"
The servant nodded and quickly got to work.
My parents were in the dining room sipping coffee while they waited for us to join them.
"Good morning, Mama…Papa," I said to each.
Jean and I took our seats. We kept a pretty constant conversation throughout the meal engaging our mother and father with our questions about the impending visitors. We learned that they were business associates of my father's and that they exported our family's wines to America. They were coming to settle their curiosity about our vineyards and were eager to see them along with our cellars first hand.
"And what are their names, Papa?"
"Mr. and Ms. Delacroix," he replied. "Cousins," he continued, "but you would never know it to look at them. They are apples from two very different trees," he laughed. "She is very beautiful," he paused and as if just coming to the realization, "very much like you Vivienne." My father seemed to scrutinize me as he said this. "She is a bit taller and her complexion a bit fairer, but her hair…" again he paused, "and her eyes, though yours are…what color are your eyes Vivienne?"
It offended me that he did not know but I kept my tone in check, "Hazel, I would say; mostly green, but somewhat brown, too."
"Hmm, non, Claire's are more amber than anything else."
I noticed my mother out of the corner of my eye and the look of pain that was playing on her features. I'm sure it was upsetting for her to hear my father talk of another woman's beauty so openly. Jean noticed, too, and tried to turn the conversation. "And Mr. Delacroix, what is he like?" Jean asked.
"Gavin," I frowned, "that is not a French name?"
"Non, it is not. His mother was English, and he was named after her father. He bears that washed-out look of the Englishman, too," my father chuckled. "Gavin is tall and pasty; his hair is like straw and he is always wearing this useless laissez-faire look on his face. One might think him a half-wit if you were just to look at him without knowing him. His mind is in stark contrast to his appearance though. He doesn't speak much but when he does it is insightful and to the point to be sure."
"Gavin Delacroix," I said the name to myself and tried to picture him in my mind.
My father turned and cocked his head at me, "Perhaps I am being too harsh on the young man's features. Women have softer hearts and softer eyes and can often find the beauty that lies beneath. I'm sure you will be a better judge than I, Vivienne, and give the man his due."
I wasn't sure what he meant but there seemed to be some hidden implication in what my father had said. Either way he had given me a lot to think about. I finished my breakfast and excused myself to take Isolde for her morning walk. Before I left the house Jean approached me, "Don't forget your key. You should get it now and lock up. It will need to be a habit so there is no opportunity for…for anything unfortunate to happen."
"Yes, yes of course." I ran up to my room and collected the key then secured the door and tried it in the lock once or twice just to be sure.
When I was satisfied that all was in order I headed outdoors and together Isolde and I walked to the stables. Gabriel was shoeing one of the horses and smiled at us as we strolled into the barn. I told Isolde to run and play as I waited for Gabriel to finish so that I could greet him properly.
"Mmm," he smiled and hugged me off my feet. He spun me around once or twice before setting me down lightly and taking my face in his hands so he could kiss me. "Good morning, chérie! I'm so happy to see you!"
He took my breath away - every time I saw him it renewed my heart and my head. I knew I could bear anything as long as we were together.
"Oh, I love you!" I squeezed him back.
He looked down at me and brushed my cheeks with his thumbs then cocked his head at me, "Is everything alright?" he asked concernedly.
"Oui, Gabriel, everything is fine. I…I am just going to miss you when my father's company arrives. I am sure he will expect me to help entertain his guests while they are here and I won't be able to get away quite so often."
"I know," he sighed, "Jean suggested the same thing yesterday." Gabriel gave me a quirky little smile, "He is not quite the person I imagined him to be," he said as he took my hand and led me to the steps leading up to the loft and he drew me down onto his lap as he took a seat.
"Why did you say that?" I asked somewhat puzzled by the statement.
"He was very talkative when he came for your father's horse yesterday," Gabriel absently stroked my hair while he spoke. "He openly told me that he was glad that you and I are so…close…I think was the word he used, and that he had never seen you so buoyant and happy. He told me he has never forgiven himself for all the trouble he gave you and that he has much and more to make up to you. Then he offered to help us, if ever he can, in any way we might need it."
I was taken aback, "Jean said all that?"
"Mmm, hmm," Gabriel nodded. "He said something else, too."
"Oh, what was that?"
"That there are possible outcomes that we need to keep in mind and that we should use extra care and discretion during all our…interactions."
"He knows," I sighed, "but I didn't tell him, Gabriel."
"I know, love. He is…your brother is…just very insightful. He mentioned Philippe, too, and although I did not fully understand his meaning, that I should never underestimate the cruelty he is capable of."
"I don't think you need to worry about Philippe," I smiled up at him as I stroked his strong, shapely arms.
Gabriel narrowed his eyes, "I don't think Jean was referring to what he might do to me." I felt my body tense at the suggestion. "And now I know he was right. Philippe would hurt you to hurt me, wouldn't he? That is what Jean was saying."
I took a deep breath intending to deny it and assure him that I was perfectly safe. I couldn't lie to Gabriel, though; I loved him too much to attempt it and was certain he would know any falsehood from a truth if it were coming from me. "Oui, Gabriel. Jean is right, Philippe…Philippe is…it's unspeakable what he might be capable of."
"Well, I can see how much it pains you to talk like this, so I will not ask, but Vivienne," he stood me up and forced me to face him, "I love you, and I would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. Promise you will come to me if he ever hurts you in any way."
I looked down at his feet, "Je promets."
"Bien," he took my chin and tilted it up so he could kiss me. "Are we still meeting at lunchtime," his voice was free from all its previous seriousness.
"Oui," and all the joy of our love came flooding back to me.
"Good. I'll finish my work and see you there."
I savored his hug goodbye and called to Isolde.
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully and as midday approached I took a moment to freshen up and pack a lunch for Gabriel and I as well as a little something for Isolde. Just as I was about to slip out through the kitchen my father and Cook walked in having a heated discussion.
"Vivienne," my father exclaimed, "what are you doing here?"
"I'm…I was just getting some things for…for Isolde and me to have a picnic."
"A picnic, you say. A picnic…that's an excellent idea," my father turned back to Cook, "let's plan a dinner out of doors instead. It's a beautiful time of year to dine al fresco, don't you agree?"
"Oui, Monsieur, it is. Perfect I would say," he sounded relieved.
"And let's make it in honor of Vivienne's birthday." My father turned to me, "Vivienne, why don't you make the menu; it should be all your favorite things."
"Of course Papa. I will do it this afternoon when I get back."
"I would like you to do it now. Philippe may be back tonight or tomorrow at the latest and I want everything arranged before he returns with our guests."
"But Papa, I have plans."
"Plans to picnic with your dog," my father guffawed at the notion, "I hardly think that trumps the importance of planning your birthday dinner."
I looked sadly at my basket and longingly out the window towards the farmhouses, "I don't want my basket to go to waste, surely it can…"
"Non, surely it cannot. Cook, help Vivienne make her menu." My father pivoted on his heel and strode out of the kitchen.
Cook motioned me to take a seat, "Well, let's get started; the sooner we begin the sooner we are fini. He brought out his notes and scribbled down my name and the day the dinner was to be served. Let's start with the hors d'oeuvres."
"Hors d'oeuvres…" I thought to myself. It had been some time since we had had a formal dinner. I wondered how many courses I would have to plan. "I don't know what to suggest," I looked to Cook hopefully.
He began rattling off options and giving me brief descriptions of each. It was overwhelming and though I was instructed to choose my favorites I thought of all the people I would need to please other than myself. I wanted my mother and father to be proud of my selections and I wanted to impress our guests but the more I considered the options the less inclined I was to make a decision. There was also the distraction of knowing I was going to disappoint Gabriel by missing him at the clearing that afternoon hanging over me.
I couldn't keep myself from glancing out the window every few moments and I was beginning to irritate Cook with my daydreaming and inability commit to anything with any surety. An hour later my father returned to the kitchen and asked how we were progressing. I reluctantly confessed that we hadn't gotten past the fish course and his face fell with disappointment.
"Vivienne, I have not asked you for a single contribution to the success of our visit save for this."
"You asked me to give up my room," I absently retorted; my eyes widening in disbelief that I had spoken so challengingly to my father.
His face went livid with suppressed anger, "Cook, would you excuse us a moment," he said though his eyes were fixed on me. I couldn't hide the fear in my face, "You should be afraid," his voice twinged with cruelty.
"I'm sorry, Papa," teary-eyed I stuttered.
He clenched his fist to his forehead and took a deep breath to master his temper. When he looked up nearly all his anger was gone. I felt dizzy as we stood facing one another and a wave of déjà vu swept over me. It was that look again, that needy, sickly look. My father suddenly appeared very much like he had the last time he was home; pale, anxious and there, there was that unmistakable mark on his neck again.
He took a step towards me and grasped my elbows, "I need you to do this for me, Vivienne. I need you to make a fine impression on our guests. There is a great deal depending on this visit and how well it goes," he peered earnestly into my eyes.
Without knowing why I felt very sorry for him, "Oui, Papa. I will do my best, je promets."
"Bien," he kissed me on my forehead.
Cook returned and with newfound vigor we worked out the remaining courses as well as wines to go with each. For dessert I told Cook that I would prefer coffee and if I could procure it there was a recipe for crème puffs that I thought he might try his hand at. He seemed more than satisfied when we were done and as soon as he scribbled the last of his notes I made my escape.
Isolde and I raced toward the farmhouses knowing that after the amount of time that had passed the barn was the most likely place for me to find Gabriel. He was in the loft tossing bales of hay down to the stables. I raced up the stairs and threw myself into his arms.
"I'm sorry," I cried, "I'm so, so sorry."
"Ssh, love, ssh…no, no, no, don't be sorry. I am just glad you are alright. I have been so worried about you," he held me back and kissed my cheeks. "There is more, isn't there. It's not just that you couldn't meet me."
As if his words triggered my understanding I gasped and covered my mouth, "Oh…oh…oh…"
Gabriel sat on one of the hay bales and drew me down beside him, "What is it?"
"I…I…I think my father intends me to…to…"
"To what, Vivienne? To what?"
"To have me marry one of his guests," the words rushed out and I felt faint as I considered the possibility.