I did not dare take Gavin near the farmhouses for fear of meeting either Deaglan or worse - Gabriel. Instead I turned us in the opposite direction and led him toward the kitchen gardens then further on into the shrubbery and formal grounds. I made sure to point out anything of significance or that I thought might interest Gavin hoping that if I were in constant dialogue there would be no opportunity for him to try and advance himself in my favor.
After about 15 minutes or so of moving along this way he abruptly stopped cutting my latest sentence short. He stepped in front of me and with an exasperated tone, "Ms. Rousseau, please, I am sure you understand that we are not on this errand together for the sake of educating me on your family's property."
I turned crimson and tried to look away, "Oui, Mr. Delacroix, je sais."
"Well, now that that is settled, please forget about the topiary and tell me something of yourself."
Trembling I looked up and wondered where to begin; what could I possibly tell him that I wouldn't much rather keep to myself.
He must have seen the fear and regret swimming in my eyes and kindly offered his elbow again and resumed walking. "Do you ride Ms. Rousseau?" he asked.
Something happened in that moment and though my anxiety was at its peak I cautiously answered, "Oui, but not so often as I should. I do not enjoy it very much. I am not very tall and it is sometimes hard for me to keep my saddle."
He laughed lightheartedly, "You should try stealing a pair of your brother's breeches and ride astride then."
"Oh, no…I…what if someone saw me!" I said aghast.
"Claire never rides side-saddle," he said with assurance. Honestly, I don't know many women who do anymore."
"Really?" I imagined myself sitting astride and galloping freely through the fields.
"Really; did you know that Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great were known to ride astride?"
"Non," I grew suspicious that he might be trying to have some fun at my expense, "you are teasing me."
"Indeed I am not. There is even a painting of Catherine to prove it. She was wearing an officer's uniform and sat astride while the portrait was taken."
"Huh?" I shook my head in disbelief.
"I see something," he was looking sideways at me, "something in your eyes. You are wondering what it would be like, and more so, wondering what it would be like to be a strong woman like Catherine or Marie."
I tried to suppress my grin and rather than adding anything additional to the topic I turned it away from myself, "Do you think your cousin is a strong woman?"
"Ha," he laughed out loud. "Claire is the strongest woman I know; she has a…a will that won't be denied. Whatever Claire wants, Claire gets."
"She must be very lucky then."
Gavin laughed again, "I guess you could say that, but it's not really luck if you're just taking what you want no matter the circumstances."
I had to wonder at this for a moment then sadly, softly said, "I do not think I will like her then."
"When you say it like that, she sounds like…like a tyran."
Then it was Gavin's turn to pause and think, "I guess in the most simplistic terms, that is exactly what she is," he said this as though he had only just realized the truth of it. He was quiet a moment longer then, "So we have talked of your land and your horsemanship; what other subject is safe for us to dwell upon?"
I said the first thing that came to mind, "What is Paris like?"
We had come to a shady part of the grounds and there was a bench tucked into a little alcove off the side of the path we were following. Gavin asked if I would like to sit down and soon we were in a lengthy question and answer about all things Paris. He knew just about everything there was to know but there was no fervor as he spoke and I felt that despite his long residence there, he did not love the city and it was more a matter of convenience that he lived there.
I asked him, "You sound as though you wouldn't live there if it weren't necessary."
"Non, I would not." He took a deep breath of air, "Non, I would rather live something like this," he motioned to all that he could see, "away from and wholly independent of the rest of the world." He looked completely sincere. "And you? Would you choose the city based on what I have told you or would you prefer to remain as you are?"
Though this was the first time anyone had ever asked me such a question, it was not the first time I had thought about it. "I would choose neither," I said. "I would live in a country cottage with a little garden and some sheep and cows and ducks. And my husband would tend our crops and together we would care for the animals and raise our children. We would be simple and happy and live our lives but one for the other with nothing ever to come between us," I sighed then blushed deeply realizing I had said much more than I intended.
Gavin was smiling broadly and without thought or hesitation asked, "And do you have this husband in mind?"
I abruptly stood up and brushed the folds from my dress, "Perhaps we should be heading back now. I'm sure we have been gone longer than we imagine. I wouldn't want to cause any unnecessary worry and besides your cousin may be refreshed and anxious for your company."
"Of course," his voice was somewhat vexed and it hinted at the disappointment I caused by the avoidance of his question.
He offered me his arm again and we traced our path back to the house. Thankfully by the time we arrived Jean had managed to convince Philippe that they too had an obligation to entertain Gavin for some part of the day. Jean had concocted a plan to ride to the vineyards that afternoon and the cellars the following so that Gavin could see as much of the wine making process from start to finish as possible.
Gavin graciously accepted their invitation, thanked me for my company and after saying how much he looked forward to our meeting again at dinner, said farewell.
I had a lot to think about and rather than join my parents who were chatting over coffee in the parlor I went up to my room and lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes and tried to remember everything that had happened in the day so far. As I re-imagined it all I smiled to myself because my mind was substituting Gabriel for Gavin in all that had taken place between us.
Gabriel was the one I was smiling at and talking with all through lunch. He was the one my mother and father prompted me to venture outdoors with. And when I told my dreams of love and family to him, it was Gabriel who was listening and wondering if he was the husband I had in mind.
I must have dozed off for an hour or so because I awoke to a knock on my door, "Vivienne? May I come in?" my mother called softly.
Groggily I drew myself up and answered the door, "Oui, Mama, what is it?"
She was holding a dress box tied with a silken ribbon and one of the servants was with her, "I have a gift for you. It's from Ms. Delacroix; she is hoping you will wear it tonight at dinner."
"Have you met her then?"
"Non, I have not, not yet," my mother said somewhat nervously. "She had it sent down to me so that I could bring it to you." She handed me the box.
I brought it to my bed and eased the ribbon off. I fumbled with the lid and when I managed to remove it my mother and the servant peered in with me. Together my mother and I peeled back the soft linen wrapping then carefully lifted the gown out of the box.
It was so simple and elegant made from very fine silk the color of merlot. The neckline opened to just beyond my collarbone almost to the tip of my shoulders. It had some delicate lace sewn around it but little else for decoration. The waist was high and enhanced by a broad ribbon of matching color and the skirt itself fanned out from there and fell to the floor in soft, shimmering folds.
My mother held it up to me, "Oh, it's beautiful. You are going to look so beautiful in it!" she beamed. "Here," she took the servants hand and led her to the doorway, "we'll give you a moment to get it on then we can pin it up if it needs to be fitted at all."
They closed the door behind them and I slipped out of my rumbled dress and into my new gown. I couldn't lace up the back, but from the feel of it, the gown fit perfectly. I opened the door and let my mother back in. She gasped when she saw me, and made a quick circular inspection before deftly lacing up the back and doing another round of surveying.
She shook her head, "It's stunning and it just amazes me how well it fits. What do you think, Vivienne?" she steered me towards the mirror.
I was used to my somber, practical dresses and this was my first true evening gown. It was quite a transformation for me and I couldn't help wishing Gabriel could see me just then, "It's beautiful, Mama; very, very beautiful and it feels so soft and smooth." I ran my fingers over the fabric in emphasis.
My mother came and stood behind me looking over my shoulder at our reflection. She kissed my cheek, "Monique will do your hair for you. Take your time and take care that nothing happens to your dress before dinner."
She smiled and left while Monique had me take a seat at the vanity. She began combing out my hair and sectioning off the pieces to be curled and the ones to be pinned up. It took nearly an hour for her to feel as though my look was complete and when she was done I thoroughly thanked her for her efforts.
After she left I sat at the vanity a minute or two longer turning my head this way and that; studying my hair, my face, and though I felt very pretty wondering if I truly was. For some reason I remembered the drawing Gabriel had done of me and how he had seemed to make me look much more beautiful than I actually was. I felt like I was living the moment that he had somehow caught on paper, and that the girl I was there, was the girl in the reflection before me.
The dinner bell rang and I carefully extracted myself from my seat. I counted to 100 before I opened my door so that I would be sure that I wouldn't be the first to descend. I was eager to show myself and glowing with happiness as I made the final turn into the dining room. The murmuring from the various conversations suddenly died down and everyone looked my way as I stood in the doorway. It was nerve-wracking and I was frozen in place unable to control the sudden self-consciousness that seized me.
Gavin quickly strode towards me and after a foray of compliments led me to the table and helped me to my seat. I glanced from one look of disbelief to the next, and as I did they all transformed into brilliant smiles and words of praise. I blushed and thanked, smiled and trembled and finally the conversations resumed one by one. Jean and my mother spoke softly, my father and Philippe also in hushed voices and soon after Gavin began telling me of his visit to the vineyards.
As he spoke I realized that we were still waiting for one more place at the table to be filled, "Is Claire not joining us?" I interrupted Gavin.
Then as if on cue she was standing in the doorway where I had just stood and an awestruck silence fell once more on the room.