We are ever striving after what is forbidden, and coveting what is denied to us. —Ovid
~ Provence ~
A shiver of fear ran down my back as I looked to the busy train platform outside my window. It’s only your imagination, Cora. Silently, I counted to thirty, watching businessmen shake hands before parting. A young husband tenderly bussed his wife on the cheek as she anxiously wound a handkerchief in her hands. A man caught my eye in passing. He smiled and tipped his hat in my direction and I hurriedly glanced back to my lap. But when I lifted my eyes, the blue eyes of the dapper blond gent inside the train car with me were locked on me again. He was clearly watching me over the top edge of his newspaper.
I sighed and glanced at Nell, beside me.
“Cora?” she asked, studying my face. “What is it?”
“That man three rows up,” I whispered, careful not to look his way. “Don’t look right away. Wait until I look back to the window. Then see if he isn’t studying us.”
“All right,” she said, a bit wan. Our near escape from kidnappers in Paris had left us all on edge. Even now, on this train bound for Provence, we had no idea if a telegram from our fathers, demanding we purchase passage on a steamship bound for home, would soon turn us right back around.
I looked back to the platform. The train whistle blew, and those few remaining boarded or departed. Our car lurched and then slowly began rolling forward. A man came up outside my window, keeping pace with us. It took me a moment to realize who it was.
“Pierre!” I whispered in sweet surprise, knowing he couldn’t hear me. He smiled and tucked a red rose in the crevice just outside the window, then kissed his fingers and placed them against the glass.
I smiled as Nell and Lil both giggled in excitement beside me and Vivian shushed them. I put my fingers to the glass and stared into his green eyes, mouthing the word good-bye. He was practically running now, and neared the end of the train platform. He mouthed the word adieu and stopped, lifting a hand. A wave of sorrow washed through me, surprising me as I craned my neck to see him as long as I could. I wouldn’t see him for a while, and this was the first time we’d been apart since I met him. His gesture had been undeniably moving. I knew for a fact he’d had several appointments this morning. Whom had he ignored in order to see me off?
“That might have been the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen,” Lil said with a dreamy sigh, settling back in her seat once all we could see were city buildings and streets with countless people going about their days.
“I would quite agree,” said a man, suddenly at the edge of our row. All four of us looked up at him—the blond man I thought had been watching me earlier. Will and Antonio rose behind him,
concerned since he’d approached us without introduction. “That was
Lord de Richelieu, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” I said before I’d thought it through. “Do you know Pierre?”
He gave me an odd smile. “Indeed. We have spoken on a number of occasions.”
Will and Antonio eased back a half step with this revelation. But they did not leave. The man glanced over either shoulder at them, smiled again, and resettled his hat in the crook of his arm. “Gentlemen, ladies,” he said to us all with a smart nod, and with that, he made his way down the aisle of the car, presumably heading toward the water closet.
“I told you we should have arranged for a private car,” Vivian grumbled toward Will.
“And as I said,” he returned benignly, “there were none to be had.” His eyes followed the man. “Did you catch his name?”
I shook my head. “He didn’t introduce himself. But if he knows Pierre, he can’t be all bad, right?”
Will’s eyes narrowed and flicked toward the window, where the petals of my rose were fluttering in the gathering breeze. “I would imagine Lord de Richelieu knows a great number of people,” he said, almost to himself, then looked down the empty aisle.
“If we’re to continue this journey,” I said lowly, “we can’t be looking over our shoulders the entire time, worried the kidnappers have returned.”
“And he hardly seems the type,” Viv added, equally as quiet. She lifted a hand and waved toward the end of the train. “So boldly approaching us.”
“Quite,” Will said, turning away then. But I could tell by the
gingerly way he took his seat—as if poised to spring back up—that he didn’t entirely agree.
I watched Will out of the corner of my eye as he leaned forward, arms on knees, to speak with his uncle, our tour guide, or “bear,” who sat beside Antonio Lombardi, his fellow guide and guardian for our group. They had risked much, taking us to our next destination before we received the blessing of our fathers to do so after the attack at Pierre’s chateau. As if he sensed that my gaze was still on him, Will glanced my way. I hurriedly turned my attention to the view outside my window, thinking of how he had saved me during the attack—and how that seemed to make Pierre jealous.…
I shifted uneasily as I stared at Pierre’s rose stubbornly clinging to the crevice in the window. It was actually timely, this parting. I needed some days to sort out just what I felt for Pierre de Richelieu. Or didn’t feel. Accepting his sister’s hospitality by staying in her Provençal chateau in Tarascon made me feel further…entwined. And yet the promise that we would literally be staying in a defensible fortress might very well be the only thing that would keep our fathers from sending an armed horde to collect us and cart us back to America. We were willing to do anything to continue this tour across Europe. Whatever it took.
Behind Vivian sat her beau, Andrew, reading a newspaper, sitting next to his younger brother, Hugh, who was already in the midst of a hand of gin rummy with Felix, my half brother. The rest of the car was filled with twelve others. Two of them—Yves and Claude— were private detectives our bear had hired to ensure our safety, the remaining number a mix of Parisians and tourists. The blond man had not yet returned. Thoughts of him made me wish for the private car, as Viv did. Not that it mattered all that much in terms of finery or comfort when comparing it with our first-class cabin. Deeply burnished mahogany graced the tables and trim. Rich, autumn-hued toile covered the cushions. Matching drapes were tied back beside each window. At the bar at the far end of the car were crystal decanters and goblets rattling and clinking as we crossed rough patches.
All in all, it was much finer than anything I’d ever experienced in my former life. It caught me…that odd sense of experience, understanding. A year ago, I would have been wide-eyed in wonder at such lavish surroundings. Now it felt more like I belonged within it. I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it, that I felt that way. What would happen to me when I returned to my normal, simple life? To school? A small town? Much of it beckoned to me. But never had it felt more distant than it did to me now.
Over the next hour, we slipped away from the last vestiges of the city and eased into hills ruled by French vintners and farmers. There were rows upon rows of spindly grapevines stubbornly making their way out of rocky soil; orchards of silvery-green olive trees; fields full of sunflowers not yet giving way to their heavy, yellow hats. The sun, rising hot and shoulder high, shone across my lap like a brilliant, golden blanket. Overcome by sudden weariness, I unpinned my hat, leaned my head against the window, and gradually succumbed to sleep even as Lillian and Nell, the youngest of both families, giggled beside me.
I cared not whether they laughed, nor whether there was any impropriety in my head rolling to one side or my mouth hanging open. As long as I did not end up snoring like a drunken sod, I figured a rest was warranted. Given the events of the day before, none of us had slept much, and we were all tired. Besides, the long train ride south was to take all day. If I could sleep away an hour or two of it, all the better.
When I awakened from my nap to find the girls now fighting sleep beside me, I smiled, stretched my neck a bit, and then picked my way past Lil to make my own visit to the WC. There were private water closets, or “WCs,”—one for men, one for women—on either end of the car. Vivian smiled at me, her green-brown eyes shifting to the girls. I was almost past the young gentlemen in our company when Hugh grabbed my wrist. I frowned down at him in irritation. “What’s this?” he said, dropping my hand and shrugging as if unfairly accused by my look alone. “Come now. I only wanted a word.” He flipped his brown hair out of his eyes.
I sighed. “What is it, Hugh?” I asked, schooling my tone into something civil. I seemed to be on a new, fairly even path with my half siblings and their friends, and I didn’t wish to ruin it.
He smiled, catlike, and folded his arms, glancing at Felix, then back to me. “I only wished to know what our Parisian host meant by his grand gesture as we departed.” He pointed toward where the rose had been, now long since blown away with the wind.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your affair.”
“Oh, but it is, actually. As you dozed away the morning,” he said, gesturing toward my seat, “I was thinking of a new import business Pierre may be interested in discussing. When shall we expect him to next join us?”
I eyed my brother, and Felix gave me a little shrug as if to say a joint venture wasn’t impossible. I straightened. “Pierre was going to do his best to see us before we finished our week in Provence and moved northward. He does intend, however, to meet up with us in Venice, if not before.”
“Ahh, yes. Venezia.” Hugh picked up his hand of cards again. “A fine place for romantic trysts.”
“Hugh,” Felix warned.
“Forgive me,” Hugh said, arching a brow, but with no trace of apology behind the words.
I sighed, rolled my eyes, and moved on toward the WC. As I reached the end of the car, the thick-necked, barrel-chested private detective, Yves, set aside his paper and rose, pulling aside the curtain that led to the tiny alcove. Feeling the heat of a blush rise up my neck, I looked into his small eyes. I knew he was only there to look after us, but did he intend to stand outside the WC door? What possible trouble could I encounter there? I ignored my impulse to protest, knowing this was a necessary evil if we were to continue on the Grand Tour. And after the events at Chateau Richelieu, I supposed it would be better to find comfort in the detectives’ presence rather than protest it.
Yves rapped on the WC door before me, paused, and then turned the knob. Two steps away, the train steward’s eyes widened. Yves glanced inside and, apparently mollified that no kidnapper lurked atop the sink, gestured inward. I entered and closed the door behind me, knowing before I saw myself in the mirror that a mortified blush now covered my face. But as I stared at my reflection I giggled. “Well, now you can say you’ve been escorted into a restroom, Cora,” I muttered to myself before beginning the complicated process of seeing to my business in frightfully tight quarters. I shuddered to think what
the second-class cars’ WC might be like. While they could not be any
smaller, they were likely more rustic.
Afterward, I filled the basin with a bit of water, splashing my face. I’d become accustomed to the noise and sway of the train, much as I’d found my sea legs aboard ship, but here in the WC, the clack of the wheels crossing sections of rails was much louder than anything upon the sea.
A knock at the door startled me. “Mademoiselle?”
“Oui?” I said, leaning close, using some of the little French I knew.
Was he inquiring after me? Heavens! One would think I’d been in here for hours! Was there a time limit in French train bathrooms? “Oui, oui!” I called, hoping my tone said, Leave me be.
I wiped my face with a soft, Egyptian cotton towel and set it to one side, knowing the steward would replace it after I left. Then I straightened my traveling suit’s periwinkle jacket and exited, barely glancing at Yves as I passed him. It was one thing to keep an eye on someone and another to invade their privacy. I’d have to speak to Will about just what was appropriate.
I made my way to my seat just as another steward flicked out a white linen cloth across the table I shared with Lil and Nell. They’d awakened and stretched luxuriously, blinking with wide-eyed anticipation for the pot of tea and delicate pastries awaiting us on the cart.
“That suit complements your eyes, Cora,” Lillian said, greedily reaching for the first pastry, a luscious-looking croissant filled with a berry jam.
“Thank you,” I said, as I took my seat. Again, I marveled
at the idea of having more than a couple of dresses. Now I had trunks full of them.
Without asking, the steward poured each of us a cup of tea before moving on to the next table. I stirred a spoonful of sugar and some milk into mine and waited for Nell to choose her pastry before taking my own. I tore off a bite and slid it into my mouth, the delicate layers practically melting on my tongue. If there was one thing the French knew how to do exceedingly well, it was baking. Never in my life had I had such delicacies.
“So,” I said, taking a sip of my tea. “Pierre told me of his sister’s chateau. Would you like to hear about it?”
“Oh,” Lillian breathed. Then she clapped excitedly. “Yes, please.”
Nell nodded enthusiastically, her coils of hair bouncing.
“Apparently, the chateau sits directly upon the Rhône River, on the site of an ancient Roman castle. Its presence has long taunted its enemies across the water in Beaucaire, but, reportedly, people of both cities shared a fear of the Tarasque.”
Both girls stared at me with rounded eyes. “What is the Tarasque?” Nell asked, as if half afraid to know the answer.
I shook my head and pursed my lips as if vacillating in my decision about whether to tell them. I glanced at Vivian, and she gave me a small smile, already well versed in the game of older siblings.
“Please, Cora, tell us,” Lil pleaded.
“All right, then. I know you two are quite grown-up ladies. So promise me, if we go for a swim, you mustn’t fear the monster.”
Nell narrowed her eyes at me. “Monster,” she said flatly.
“Indeed. For many, many years, both those in Beaucaire and Tarascon feared the Tarasque, a river monster that ate both cattle and children.”
“Well, fortunately for us, we are neither cattle nor children,” Lil said primly.
“I’m sure you’re quite right,” I said, nodding and taking another sip of tea. The blond stranger passed by us then, and Vivian’s eyes met mine. How odd that he had been gone, all this time. Or had he slipped back in while I slept and left again? I consciously kept my gaze on my tea and croissant, never looking his way.
“Perhaps the old monster’s eyesight isn’t what it once was,” Felix said over his shoulder as he played a card.
“Yes,” Hugh said, joining in as he studied his hand. “I’ve heard tell that his teeth have fallen out and he simply gums his victims, breaking their bones until they’re a mushy mass he can swallow.”
“Ewww,” Nell said, wrinkling up her pert little nose. Then her eyebrows lifted. “Do either of you want that last pastry?”
I shook my head, as did Lil, and the round-faced girl eagerly scooped the pastry onto her plate.
“What else do you know of the chateau?” Lillian asked, tilting her head.
“It’s lovely and has survived through the ages, mostly as a prison. Pierre’s brother-in-law purchased it some time ago and restored it for his new bride. There is even a moat and drawbridge on the side that isn’t guarded by the river herself.”
“And both square and circular towers,” Will said, across the aisle. He gave me a gentle smile, nodding in obvious appreciation for my knowledge. “My uncle and I have admired it from afar in previous years but have never been inside. We very much look forward to the opportunity.”
“As do I,” I said, meeting his intense gaze.
His look made my breath catch in surprise. Because if I wasn’t mistaken, he wasn’t just talking about architecture and history.
Our hosts were not in their magnificent home when we arrived, but an attentive staff greeted us and showed us to our rooms, which were spread across two floors of the ancient castle. At first, this alarmed Will, but his uncle intervened, assuring him that we would be watched over by the detectives on guard in the hallways through the night. My heart pounded when I found I was one of only two downstairs, fearing I’d once again been relegated to lesser quarters since I was only half Kensington, but when the butler opened the door for me, my heart slowed to a quieter, yet bigger ka-thump as I looked around.
“The castle was once, uh, how you say…prison,” said the butler soberly, in halting English laced with a thick French accent. A thin smile grew across his lips. “But zee mistress of zee house has a way with making one thing into another. Her brother asked that you be given this suite.”
“I should say she is quite gifted,” I muttered, gazing open-mouthed at gothic arches rising in one dome after another above me in the L-shaped suite. I chose to ignore his revelation that Pierre had thought to assign me this room. I had no idea what the other rooms looked like, but I knew this was indeed special. One window looked out along the length of the Rhône River. A small balcony led to a private alcove directly above the water. On the far end, in the en suite bathroom that held a huge, claw-footed tub, was another window that showcased miles of rolling farmland.
“Merci,”I breathed as three stewards and Anna arrived with my trunks and valises.
“But of course, mademoiselle,” the tall, thin man said with a genteel nod. His keen eyes studied me a moment longer, and I wondered if he knew who I was…or rather, who I was to Pierre. I detected nothing but idle, bemused interest in him, even as he reluctantly turned and headed toward the door. Yet given the way he’d spoken of Pierre, he struck me as a servant who had known him for a good, long while. “If there is nothing else, mademoiselle?”
“No, thank you. I will be quite content.”
“Very well. I shall send down a tray of refreshments. Dinner shall be served at eight o’clock.” He gestured upward, apparently forgetting the English word for upstairs. He turned to go, thought better of it, and turned back to me. “While you shall be dining out-of-doors, you might wish to dress as if you are dining in the formal dining room, with eh…As it becomes, eh, later, it can be…” He rubbed his upper arms, as if cold.
“Chilly,” I said, supplying his missing word. “I’ll need a wrap. Thank you.”
He gave me another faint smile and left, then. Anna and I shared a look. “Servants’ quarters in one castle, a queen’s in another,” she said, lifting a trunk lid and shaking out an icy-blue gown. “I was
thinking you might wish to wear this tonight, miss. It has that smart
lace jacket that matches so well.”
“That’s fine,” I said, going to the French doors and slipping out onto the balcony. I brought a hand to my mouth. The platform was about eight feet long and only a couple of feet deep, with a roof, one of only two on this level, the only variations in the smooth, straight stone wall. Clearly, the balconies were later additions to a side of the castle that had been meant to be impossible to scale. The ancient wall rose straight from the water below, to a height of perhaps thirty or forty feet. Here and there bits of grass and moss sprouted between the gray stones, but she looked as sturdy as she had likely looked when she was built.
Down below, the river moved past slowly, a luxurious flow of liquid green.
“Miss Cora?” Anna said. “Do you wish for me to turn down your bed? Would you care to take a rest before supper?”
“Indeed,” I said, reluctantly turning back and peeling off my gloves, feeling the weight of our long train journey. I left the door open, liking the scent of the water and fresh air. “And perhaps a bath afterward?”
“Of course,” she said, going behind me to help me out of a jacket that clung to my arms, then unbuttoning the gown beneath. As it slipped away, I breathed a sigh of relief. A knock at the door revealed a steward carrying a silver tray laden with grapes, apples, a wedge of cheese, a hunk of bread, and a pitcher with two glasses. Anna set it on a small table. “Would you like me to pour you—”
“No, no, Anna,” I said, slipping under the incredibly soft sheets and fluffy down-filled cover. “You must be as weary as I am. Please.
You’ve done enough. Go and take your own nap, if you wish. Just be sure I rise in time to get ready. Otherwise, I’m liable to sleep through the night in this haven.”
She shook me awake a couple of hours later. I bathed and dressed, and Anna put up my hair in a clever twist, adding progressive sections of hair until it wreathed my head. “Where did you learn to do that?” I asked, turning one way and then the other in the mirror.
“A maid on the train showed us,” she said, obviously pleased that I was pleased. She tucked a small ivory-colored feather on a comb into the folds of my hair and patted my shoulders. “You’ll be the prettiest on the porch,” she said proudly.
I smiled at her praise and rose to follow her to the bed, where she’d laid out my lace jacket. “It’ll hardly keep me warm with all those holes,” I said as she slid it over my shoulders. “It’s more for show.”
“Pish,” she said. “France has lovely, warm evenings, even this close to the water. You’ll be fine. I’ll check in on you in an hour or so. Give me the signal, and I’ll fetch you another wrap if necessary.”
“Thank you, Anna.”
“Of course,” she said, staring at me as I hesitated.
I looked down. I was wringing my gloved hands.
“It’s Pierre’s sister,” I whispered.
“Ahh. She’ll be as delightful as m’lord, no doubt. Go in with your head held high. Give her no corner to push you around. You are her guest. And her brother is smitten with you. That will either raise her ire or make you immediate kin. Either way, you’ll win her over, I know it.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence.” Still, I stood there.
“Well? Go on, then. You’ll do no winnin’ of her here, hiding away.”
I laughed under my breath and turned to do as she asked. Outside, Will waited, looking handsome even in his too-short pants and tight black jacket. He wore a crisp white shirt and a perfectly knotted tie. His hair was slicked back in dapper fashion, giving him a refined, decidedly distinguished appearance. “William,” I greeted him with a smile.
“Cora,” he said, raising a brow. “You look lovely.” He offered his arm, clearly his reason for waiting at my door—to escort me upstairs.
I took his arm, quietly assessing his strength in the bulk of it beneath my fingers, and we began climbing the two flights of stone stairs to the upper floor.
“Miss Kensington?” I paused and looked over my shoulder, and Will did the same.
It was the blond man from the train. His bright blue eyes flicked from Will to me and back again, the hint of a smile again on his lips. He was dressed for dinner, and he emerged from the suite across the hall from my own, obviously an honored guest. We turned fully around and waited for him to reach us.
“We didn’t have the opportunity for proper introductions on the train,” he said. “I’m Arthur Stapleton. Art, my friends call me.” He reached out a hand to Will.
“William McCabe,” he said. “And as you’ve already guessed, this is Miss Kensington. Miss Cora Kensington.”
“Cora Diehl Kensington,” I said, quietly correcting, offering Art
my gloved hand. “What a coincidence that we were headed to the same household here in Provence.”
“Quite,” he said, that smile quirking the corners of his lips again. “Celine and Adrien are lovely hosts. You’re in for quite a treat.” We turned and walked up the stairs, with him hurrying to come up on my other side. I resisted the urge to sneak a look at Will. Was it only my imagination? Or was there some hidden story with this one? I knew Will wouldn’t like it that a man had been put into a room directly across from mine. It was hardly suitable.…
“The Bellamy dinners above the Rhône are renowned the world over,” Art said. “Or am I speaking out of turn? Perhaps you’re well acquainted, and we simply have not yet crossed paths.”
“No,” Will said, “this is our first time. We were the guests of Lord de Richelieu in Paris. He sent us here to his sister.”
“Fine company you keep, then,” Art said.
“Indeed. A blessing. And you, Art?” Will said. “Clearly you’re an American. How did you come to sojourn here above the Rhône?”
“Business,” he said easily. “Sometimes you have to go places you’d rather not. Sometimes you go places you wish you never had to leave.”
We reached the top of the stairs and moved down a grand hallway with stone floors and a thickly padded red carpet that ran the length of it.
“How long will you be here in Provence?” Will asked.
Art shrugged. “A week, maybe two. I’ll see how things progress.”
“From where do you hail?”
“Long way from home.”
“No farther than any other American in the south of France,” Art said. We entered the main dining room then, and others in our party came up to us, the girls gushing over my hair and their fine rooms. Art slipped away and went to greet a couple that looked like a matched set, each trim and about the same height, equally handsome. Salt and pepper, I thought, or pepper and salt. He had jet-black hair. She had blonde hair, a shade lighter than her brother’s.
Art watched as we neared them. I had the distinct impression he was observing my every move. Was it simply paranoia? Or my fear of the moment, feeling unready to meet Pierre’s sister? My fear that she’d look me over and find me wanting before I even opened my mouth? I squared my shoulders and met her steady gaze as Art introduced us, noticing she did not share Pierre’s green eyes; hers were rather a warm brown that made her blonde hair all the more exotic.
“Adrien and Celine, this is Cora Diehl Kensington, and William McCabe, her tour guide.”
My eyes went to Will’s for a moment. We’d never said Will was our group’s guide…but maybe Art had met with others in our company and found that much out. I quickly returned my gaze to Celine’s, wanting her to recognize only quiet confidence in me, not doubt or fear. That was one thing I’d learned about the aristocratic crowd to date—if you gave them any edge, they pushed it.
“Ahh, Cora. Belle, belle,” Celine said, smiling as she looked me over in an invasive and yet completely warm manner. Cora, beautiful, beautiful, I thought her words meant, given her pleased expression as she assessed me. “I see why you’ve stolen my brother’s heart,” she said, leaning toward me as if sharing a secret. Then she leaned back and looked at her husband. “Is she not?”
“Indeed she is,” he said.
“I, uhh, thank you,” I said, feeling the heat of my blush and wondering what Will was thinking.
“And according to Pierre, you have a beautiful heart, too,” she said, taking my hand and tucking it into the crook of her arm. “I’m certain we shall be fast friends. If he loves you, then so shall I.”
I stiffened. No such declarations of love had been shared between myself and Pierre—it was far too soon. I struggled not to cringe as we walked away from Will. And then I wondered why I was so concerned about him. Far more had transpired between me and Pierre than between Will and me.…
Celine led me outside and onto an expansive stone patio that might have once been the roof of the castle. The edge was rimmed with a wall that reached up to my knees, leaving an expansive, sumptuous view of the river, the woods across from it, another castle, and here and there, the glow of other homes. In the center of the patio was a perfectly formal table, complete with candelabra, sterling, china, and crystal. Celine deposited me at her husband’s right. He pulled out my chair as his wife directed others to fill in around us. Will was several places down from me, on the right, past Andrew and Lillian. And Arthur Stapleton was directly across from me, with Vivian on his left.
“Your name is so familiar to me,” Vivian said to Arthur as soon as we were seated. The footman handed us each a cloth napkin. “Have we met before?”
“It’s unlikely. I would have remembered such a fine acquaintance
as you,” he said, casting a respectful eye in Andrew’s direction. “The Stapletons cut a wide swath,” he said. “The family runs a vineyard in California—”
“A fine vineyard,” Adrien interrupted from the head of the table, lifting his empty glass as a footman filled it.
“And they have holdings in several mines in Colorado. Perhaps my uncle and your father have done business together?”
“Perhaps,” Vivian mused, but her brow knit in confusion, as if she were trying to puzzle it out. “Is that what brings you to Provence? Your family’s vineyard business?”
“In part,” Arthur said, lifting his own glass—admiring the color, I guessed. “I never refuse an opportunity to partake of Adrien’s wines.”
“Nor any other opportunity,” Adrien said with a laugh. “Don’t let him fool you. His business is to imbibe among the world’s finest citizens, gathering stories.”
“I do enjoy that,” Arthur said with a smile, meeting my eye again with that particular quirk teasing the corner of his lips. “I meet the most engaging people as I travel about. Andrew, be a good fellow and tell me about your travels. I hear you’re on the Grand Tour.”
All our champagne glasses were filled, the golden bubbles apparently from the Bellamys’ vineyards, and a toast was made to “our new American friends.” And then the food was served. Course after course…canapés, cream of asparagus soup, watercress salad with roasted squab, then poached salmon with cucumber and fresh dill. By the time we paused for a delicate rose water and mint sorbet, I was feeling the strain of my corset’s ribbons.
As they served the sixth course—a tender filet mignon, topped
with foie gras and truffle drizzled with cognac—Andrew’s recounting of our Grand Tour moved from Paris and to our intended itinerary ahead.
“Come now,” Adrien said, lifting his goblet of red wine and taking a sip. “Tell us more of your adventures at Chateau de Richelieu. From what Celine and I’ve heard from Pierre, you were lucky to escape with your lives.” His eyes drifted over me, as if he hoped I might pick up the story where Andrew left off. Andrew paused, clearly caught and wishing to avoid the topic—not wishing to upset the younger girls, who trembled any time it was mentioned. I glanced at Hugh and Felix, who had clearly been overly imbibing, accepting glass after glass of champagne and wine, with little water in between.
“We’d all be dead if it weren’t for Cora,” Felix said, lifting his goblet in my direction. “Which certainly calls for a belated toast. To Cora.”
The others reluctantly followed his lead and lifted their own goblets. “To Cora.”
When I dared to look around, I found that Art was studying me. I shifted in my seat and looked down at Felix as he went on, willing him to look my way again so I could shush him. “Really now, Felix,” I cut in. “It was a combined effort.”
“Don’t let her fool you,” he said, his words slurring. “They taught her well on that Montana farm. Raised her up strong. She’s a scrapper, I tell you. A scrapper. All dolled up, you wouldn’t guess it. But she’s a scrapper. My other sisters couldn’t’ve done what she did that night. I’m proud she’s one of the Kensingtons now.”
Andrew rose and walked around the table.
“Uh-oh,” Felix said, eyes big and laughing. “I’m in trouble,” he
said to Hugh, who lifted his own brows in delight over this latest turn of events. “What? May I not compliment my sister? I was simply answering our host’s question!” He lifted his hands up, feigning defense as Andrew reached him. Andrew paused a moment until Felix lowered his hands, and then he bent to say a few words in Felix’s ear. Chastened, Felix quieted and raised his hands. “Forgive me,” he slurred. “I quite forgot myself.”
“No, no,” Celine said, leaning back against the high back and one arm of her chair in languid fashion. “This is exactly what we look for in dinner conversation, no? An exotic, exciting story? It’s just the sort of thing Arthur relishes.”
I looked over at Art as he smiled down at our hostess. “Your table is always rich with lore, Celine,” he said, lifting his goblet in a silent toast.
“It was Cora who led the girls out,” Hugh said, picking up the story that I had hoped would die. “She was the one who found the hidden passageways and pulled them out.” He shrugged his shoulder. “Of course, I would’ve done the same, had I not been tied up.”
“You were tied up?” Celine said. “In my brother’s home? How is this possible? Such a travesty!”
“Indeed,” Hugh said. “But Will and Cora managed to turn the tide, and sent a maid running for help. The intruders had cut the phone line. Murdered the butler.”
Celine gasped. I glanced down at the girls. Both were quiet, hands in their laps.
“Really,” I said. “Might we turn our conversation to more palatable topics? The girls—”
“Who would do such a thing?” Arthur asked, picking up on
Celine’s indignation, making me feel as if he were on our side. “What were they after?”
“We think they wanted to nab the girls,” Felix said. “Lucky Cora and Will got to Lil and Nell before the intruders could.”
“They came after us with axes,” Lillian said, her voice shaking.
Celine gasped. “Truly? What a nightmare!”
“Really, Lil. You don’t have to relive it,” I said. “We can converse about something else.”
“No,” she said, her eyes meeting mine. “It’s true. You saved us. You and Will. If it weren’t for you…” Her eyes welled up with tears, and she swallowed hard. She shook her head.
“Did they catch them all?” Art asked, fiddling with his sterling spoon, straightening it, and then meeting my eyes from under a concerned, hooded brow.
“All but two of them,” I said. We had to move on from this if the girls were to get any sleep at all tonight. “Happily, we’re far from them now.”
“And in a castle, an ancient stronghold,” Adrien said with a warm, reassuring tone. A footman cleared my half-eaten plate, and another delivered a delicate custard drizzled with a golden sauce and several gigantic raspberries. “We shall pull up the drawbridge and release crocodiles into the moat this night,” he said with a gentle smile. “No one will get to you here. Trust me on this.” His eyes moved to my sister and to Nell, reassuring them as well.
“Merci, Monsieur Bellamy.” I took a tiny bite of my custard, but my stomach roiled. From thoughts of the attack? Or simply because I was miserably full?
“Forgive me, Cora,” Art said, watching me set down my spoon.
“I didn’t mean to upset you by egging him on.”
“Oh, it’s all right.” I forced a smile to my face. “It’s all behind us. Only hardships like this for us to endure now,” I said, waving about.
Art smiled and then laughed. “Your brother’s right, Cora,” he said, taking a sip from his glass. “You are an uncommon sort of society girl.”
Was it my imagination, or did he intend to goad me? Did he already know of my parentage? Had the story made the rounds among European society? Adrien had said Art enjoyed such stories.…
Fortunately, the bear picked up his own tale, and the whole table listened as he shared of one tour group’s misadventures aboard a Greek yacht, years ago. “From then on,” he finished, “we cut Greece from our itinerary.” He shook his gray head.
“Much to my dismay,” Will added. “I’d dearly love to return.”
“Well, my boy,” his uncle said, patting him on the back, “when the business is yours, you can take your clients where you wish. The world will be your own oyster.”
Will smiled and winked for effect. “Do I detect a dare in those words, Uncle? Do you not think I have it in me?”
“Ah, no, son. I think you have more than enough mettle to take it on. It shall be a delight to see how you make the tour your own.”
I loved their relationship, the way the bear could be the tough taskmaster one moment and the doting uncle the next. It made me long for my own papa, who was now in Minnesota, and wonder how he was faring since his stroke.
First thing tomorrow, I’ll see about sending a telegram, I thought. I needed to know how he and my mother were doing—and, likely,
they hungered for word from me as well. It struck me that I hoped I
wouldn’t hear from Wallace Kensington at all. Because it’d only take one sentence from him or Mr. Morgan for this whole Grand Tour to end. And as much as I missed home, there was much, much yet here for me to discover.
Will luxuriated in the rare opportunity to have some space to himself as he watched the warm rays of a dawning sun stream through cross-mullioned windows.
He yawned and forced his legs out from under the fine, warm covers. He sat up, resting his feet on the Turkish carpet, the chill of the stone beneath seeping up to meet his skin. This place will be frigid come winter. He shivered at the thought of it, glad they’d arrived in summer. He knew that as the sun climbed, baking the arid Alpilles region, he’d likely be sweating, wishing for the cool of morn, but for now he rubbed his arms and rose to hurriedly dress.
But when he entered the dining hall for breakfast, he saw Art, Felix, and Hugh, soaking wet and shivering, standing on the edge of the far wall, their host beside them in a similar state. Celine, their hostess and the only other person up yet, lifted her china cup in welcome. “Bonjour,” she greeted him.
“Bonjour, madame,” he said with a nod and partial bow.
“Shall you breakfast with me, monsieur, or do you favor a dip in the Rhône as my husband is fond of doing each morning?”
“Each morning, madame? Even come winter?”
“Even come winter,” she said, shaking her head as if the man were beyond reason. “He says that it gives him, ahhh, la vie.”
Life. Will smiled and looked out through the French doors to the vast patio beyond it. Felix was stepping up on the wall again. “By your leave, madame, I’d best see to my clients,” he said.
“Please,” she said, gesturing outward as if he were merely the latest lost cause.
Will’s heart skipped a beat as he shut the door, even as Art and Felix leaped together, hollering all the way down. Adrien Bellamy and Hugh exchanged a delighted look and laughed as the sound of a splash rose from the river. “Hugh!” Will called.
The man glanced over his shoulder. “McCabe! Quickly! Find your bathing costume and join us.”
Their host nodded and put his fists to his chest. “Il va mettre les cheveux sur votre poitrine,” he said, nodding and smiling, encouraging him. It will put hair on your chest. “It is what you Americans say, no?”
Will laughed and walked up to the wall beside them and looked down. Thirty feet below, Felix was swimming toward shore. Will laughed and shook his head. It looked incredibly dangerous. As well as overwhelmingly fun. The only chance he’d have to join them was if he leaped before Uncle Stuart arrived for breakfast. As much as the old man preached about joining the locals in whatever exercise they had planned—in order to “better experience a place”—Will highly doubted he’d endorse this particular adventure.
Quickly, he unknotted his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, peeling both away.
“Bon, bon!” their host praised. With a salute, Adrien dived off the edge, his arms outstretched and feet together, before bringing his arms together and slicing through the blue-green water below.
Will whistled lowly. “That takes some chops. And it has to hurt.” Far below, their host reached the surface, bubbles still rising from his entry.
“You’re going in nothing but your trousers?” Hugh asked, his teeth chattering.
“It’s more than you have on,” Will said, yanking off his shoes and then his socks.
Hugh shrugged and looked down at the water.
“How many times have you jumped?” Will asked.
“This will be my third. The key is to break the surface tension with your hands or feet. Slice it. Otherwise, it’ll feel like you’ve just slammed into a wall. Trust me.”
Will gave him a grim smile and stepped up beside him. The drop seemed far longer than it had a moment before.
“Scared?” Hugh taunted.
“I’d be a fool if I wasn’t,” Will said, rubbing his hands together.
Hugh laughed. “Just don’t land on me,” Hugh said. And then he leaped.