"I'll have Claire come help you get ready for dinner; I'll tell her not to lace you too tightly and to hold her tongue. No one must know, Vivienne, about the baby, not until we are married, comprendre?"
"Bien," Gavin softly stroked my cheek; his expression very solemn yet full of hope. He kissed me lightly and I watched him leave.
As soon as he was gone I felt oddly out of sorts. I had the impression that something profound had just happened and though I desperately tried to remember and envision it my mind was shadowy and the images so distorted that I couldn't puzzle any of it out. All I could remember was that Gavin told me he loved me and when I heard him speak those words I discovered that I very much loved him, too.
"Then he kissed me…Oh, his kiss…" and I felt all over again the pressure of his lips against mine, the skipping beat of my heart, the fluttering in my stomach and the wistful desire for it to have been so much more than just a kiss. I began to imagine him undressing me and the caress of his fingertips as they explored my body. "Oh, Gavin," I unconsciously whispered.
I stood up and shook my head, trying to free it from the images. It was getting late and I knew I would be called down to dinner soon. Claire had not come, though, and I was reluctant to try getting dressed on my own. If it were any other day I would wear one of my simple gowns and ready myself but tonight Gavin was announcing our engagement and we were having a formal dinner.
I shimmied out of Claire's riding clothes and after hastily bathing myself I began rummaging through my selection of dresses and put one or two aside. As I turned back to give them a second looking over, my mother called to me.
"Oui, Mama, I'm here."
She came into the room and I noticed that she had one of her own gowns slung over her arm, "Gavin said you were having trouble finding a dress for tonight and thought that I might be able to help." As she said this I realized that Gavin must not have been able to find Claire and that he had sent my mother instead. "I haven't been able to wear this for years but it was a favorite of mine when I was younger and I couldn't bear to part with it," my mother continued as she held her dress to my shoulders and did a quick check for the fit. "I think it may be just about right," she smiled, "would you like to try it on?"
I ran my fingers over the fabric, "Oui, Mama, I would like that very much," I replied with sincerity.
It was a very pretty dress; covering my figure well but being subtly suggestive at the same time. The top half was fitted through the bust line down to where it rested on my hips then it fell in cascades of lace and ruffles in a straight line to the tips of my ankles. The dress itself was deep navy in color and the lace that accented the sleeves, neckline and front of the gown was a soft ivory.
My mother held the dress for me as I stepped into it. She eased it up and over my shoulders and gently laced the back together. "Is that too tight, dear?"
I took a deep breath, "No, Mama, I think that it's just fine." I lifted my hands over my head and gave a little twirl, "What do you think?"
"You look beautiful darling; perhaps a little pale, but we can fix that." My mother pinched my cheeks and smoothed my brows. "I never realized how pretty you were, Vivienne. I am so ashamed of myself for never seeing it. Any other mother would be bursting with pride to call you Daughter," I heard the regret in her voice and couldn't help noticing the tears she fought back.
There was nothing I could think to say in reply so I just opened my arms and hugged her close, "I love you, Mama. Thank you so much for the dress," I kissed her cheeks.
"I'll send Monique to do your hair," she turned to leave.
"Would you do it for me, Mama?" I reached for her hand.
She heard the meaning behind my question and knew I had said it more to please her than for any other reason. I grinned as she turned back and tugged her towards my vanity. My mother carefully brushed out my hair and put a deep part in it that she swept from right to left. Then she took two small handfuls from above my ears and after deftly braiding the locks fastened them at the back of my head. She curled an array of loose strands and artfully arranged them so that they fell about my shoulders and across my back then took a step away to admire her handiwork.
"I really don't think you need to do anything more than that," she said. "Your hair is so pretty; it would be a shame to pin it all up."
"Merci, Mama, it's perfect." I rose and hugged her.
The dinner bell rang and my mother offered to walk me down but I shook my head no, "I…Gavin…I'm a little nervous, Mama…I just need a few more minutes."
"Of course; take your time. I'll let everyone know you will be down shortly."
She closed the door as she left and when she was gone I went and stood in front of my vanity to look myself over one last time before I headed downstairs. I felt like there was something I was forgetting or something that I was missing. I closed my eyes and tried to picture whatever it was but the only thing that came to mind was Gavin.
He was behind me; somehow I knew he was standing right behind me and with my eyes still closed I called to him.
He nibbled my ear, "Yes, love…I'm here." He wrapped his arms around my waist and hugged me from behind. "I have something for you," he whispered. I felt his fingers searching the pocket of his waistcoat. "Ah, here it is. No peeking."
I waited patiently until I felt the caress of the pearls that he draped around my neck and carefully clasped beneath my hair. I opened my eyes and marveled at the beautiful way they were strung together. There were three strands, one made up of small delicate pearls, the next slightly larger ones and the third set of pearls nearly double in size of the first. The three strands were held together by intricately carved ornaments that also held the strands apart so that they appeared to plunge in little tiers, one to the next, across my chest.
"Oh," I cautiously touched them and was awestruck by their luster, "ils sont magnifiques!"
"Vous êtes magnifique," he bent over my shoulder and tilted my chin so he could kiss me. "May I walk you down to dinner?"
He took my hand and placed it in the crook of his arm then led me down to the dining room. My parents and brothers were already seated and they all stood up as we came in and took our seats. I felt so different, so confident and at ease. I glanced around the table and greeted my family one by one starting with my father, then Jean and Philippe and my mother.
Finally my eyes fell on Gabriel; I had completely forgotten that he would be there. I smiled across the table toward him, "Thank you so much for joining us this evening," I said with formality.
"Thank you for inviting me," his eyes were bright and there seemed to be some hidden, happy meaning in his expression.
I had never seen Gabriel in anything other than his every day attire. The suit he wore was a little dated and hinted at being just a bit too small for his frame. I wondered if it was his or something he had borrowed or that his father had given him to wear. He looked very handsome either way and I was surprised that I had never noticed how attractive he was.
He seemed to be waiting for me to say more but I turned to Gavin instead, "Where is Claire?" I asked.
There was a flash of surprise that he tried to suppress then Gavin shrugged and with utter indifference said that he did not know. He had not seen her since we returned from the cellars but it was not unlike Claire to venture off on her own from time to time. She was a bit of an adventuress and could not bear to be idle overlong in one place. My father seconded Gavin's opinion and no one seemed to feel the peculiarity of her absence.
The first course was served and though Gavin had nearly all my attention I felt Gabriel watching us closely from where he sat across and to the left of me. He seemed reluctant to try and eat and I guessed he was nervous about choosing the wrong utensil. He looked confused anyway and I decided that he had probably never sat down to a formal dinner. I glanced his way and with what I hoped was an expression of encouragement lifted a bite of the appetizer with my fingers so that he would know that was the proper way to handle the dish.
I did this with each new course; smiled encouragingly and held my fork or knife so he could clearly see which to use and took a delicate bite. I was still not feeling overly well and only managed a few tastes of everything that was presented. Most of my time was spent talking and laughing with Gavin. I could feel his thigh against mine all through dinner, we were sitting so close together, and it made me feel giddy and alive. Every time I met his eyes they seemed to be telling me something - how beautiful he thought I looked, how much he loved me, how much he wanted me, and I reveled in the knowledge just as I did his touch.
I hadn't noticed but by the time dessert was served Gabriel had gone from confused to disappointed, to completely frustrated and outwardly angry. Jean had spoken with him all through dinner and my mother had managed to engage him as well so I hardly realized that he was there except while we were being served and there was a break in the various conversations around the table. Then I would remember to show him how to manage the dish being set before him and quickly return my attention to Gavin.
As the last of the plates was being placed Gavin motioned to the servant. He came around and bent down between us so he could hear Gavin's request then nodded and hurried off. When everyone had had their fill of dessert and the dishes had been cleared away the servant returned holding a tray laden with flutes of champagne. He stood behind Gavin who rose from his seat and took one of the glasses.
Gavin tapped his rim twice and drew everyone's attention. "About a year ago I met the man whose table we have all enjoyed this evening. It was on a rainy night in Paris as I was stepping out of my hotel to make the evening's post and he was racing in to escape the sudden cloudburst. Neither of us was paying much attention as Providence would have it and we crashed together. My letters were scattered and his umbrella was broken and a profuse effusion of curses followed. Then we looked at one another and together realizing the futility of it all laughed as heartily as two men could."
"We clapped one another on the shoulder and with a timepiece's precision uttered the same apology one to the other - Let me buy you a drink."
"Well, over the course of this drink I learned to love this man who told me such stories of his wife, his home, his sons," Gavin looked from my father, to Philippe; he shot a barb of malice at Gabriel as he skipped over him and nodded to Jean then my mother. My mind was too busy to notice because I knew where the speech was leading everyone, "and his daughter." Gavin looked down at me adoringly and placed his flute on the table. He reached for my hand. I stood up.
"Such stories of his daughter that I knew I needed to know her, felt in my heart that I must know her and that if she was even half as remarkable as he expressed her to be that she would be twice as extraordinary as any other woman I had ever met."
I blushed profusely at the warm praise and lowered my eyes.
"Every day that passed from then to this all my idle moments were spent thinking on and wondering about the girl whose images would not, could not be stricken from my mind. The very idea that such a woman existed emboldened me to beg Mr. Rousseau for an introduction and here I find myself in her presence, her at my side and I know that I can never be without her by my side again."
Gavin knelt down, my heart stopped; he bowed his head over my hand and looked up, "Vivienne Alysse Rousseau," joyous tears sprung to my eyes, "will you marry me?"
"Yes, Gavin…yes, yes, yes…I will," and I took his face in my hands and kissed him.
He reached in his pocket and this time pulled out an emerald engagement ring set in gold and accented by an array of brilliant diamonds. As he slipped it onto my finger I caught some movement from the corner of my eye. Gabriel abruptly stood up a look of complete astonishment sweeping across his face. I noticed Jean had the same expression as he caught at Gabriel's arm to hold him back from leaping across the table. Gabriel was shaking his head and his mouth moved but no words came out as he struck Jean in the chest and turned to flee. Philippe jumped up to defend his brother but Gabriel was already several paces away and out of Philippe's reach.
Gavin called to Philippe, "Let him go," it was all he needed to say. Philippe helped Jean to his feet and together they both slumped back down into their chairs. "Forget him," Gavin softly stated and his gaze fell on each of us in turn.
A moment later my father burst out of his chair, "Congratulations," he cried and his words carried us all back to the occasion at hand. My father toasted Gavin and I where we stood and the others followed suit. The disruption of Gabriel's departure was quickly forgotten and Gavin led me around the table as I proudly held my hand out for them all to see and appreciate the splendor of his ring. Once each member of my family had had their chance to offer their happy wishes for our future together we all made our way to the parlor.
Gavin took a seat on the chaise and pulled me down beside him, "Stretch yourself out," he suggested and so l kicked off my shoes and laid across the length of the cushion and rested the back of my head against his shoulder. His free hand stroked some of the loose strands of my hair and I sighed in complete contentment. "Are you comfortable?" he asked.
"Oui; I could stay like this forever."
"Not forever," he chuckled, "I will bring you up to your room soon so you can rest. You will need it to stay strong for us," he whispered against my temple so no one else would hear and laid his hand on my belly.
Then he absently picked up one of my hands and began massaging the fleshy part of my palm. It felt wonderful for so simple a touch and before I knew it I was sound asleep while everyone around me talked openly and excitedly over the events of the day. Hours later he roused me with a kiss and said that I needed to head upstairs. I started to protest, but he simply wouldn't hear it and instead gathered me up and told me to say goodnight to my family.
"Goodnight," I yawned as he carried me away.
Once we were in my room I asked if he would stay a moment and help me with my laces. I held my hair for him and turned away. I felt his fingertips fumbling with the knot and then one by one the strands were loosened until the weight of the gown dragged itself from my shoulders and it fell to the floor.
"Vivienne," his voice full of reluctance and regret, "it can't be like this for us, not tonight anyway."
I turned to face him, "But why? I love you and we are to be married, why should we wait?"
Gavin seemed to be hiding his face, "I'm not feeling well…I'm not…I'm not strong enough tonight…I'm afraid…afraid of what I might…I could hurt you, Vivienne, without knowing it or meaning to," he turned back to face me.
"I don't understand," I pleaded.
"I know," he hugged me and apologized once more, "everything will be different once we are in Paris, and then when we move to America - New York or Boston…"
I shook my head and lunged for him unwilling to accept his denial. I could feel him hard against me and knew he wanted me as badly as I wanted him. I reached up and began to unbutton his shirt and to tug it from his pants. He seized my hands, more roughly than he intended and forced them to my sides.
"I said NO, Vivienne!"
All my desire and passion just vanished and I started to cry.
"Oh, no, I'm sorry…I didn't mean…you see…don't you see," and before I could react he kissed me and I felt his teeth against my lower lip then the sharp pain as he pierced it's delicate flesh. I could taste my blood and a moment later his blood mingling with mine, "you understand, Vivienne, don't you understand?"
"Oui, Gavin," my response came tumbling out, "I understand," I said even though I didn't understand at all.
"Goodnight, Vivienne. I love you."
"I love you, too," I kissed his cheek and said goodnight before he hurried away.