“Aria?” A voice called to the young woman while she slept, bringing her awareness floating from the darkness of her eyelids to her brightly lit boudoir. Someone shook her shoulder as they called her name. Opening her eyes seemed too much work. It would be too bright. And there would be questions. And she didn’t want to answer.
Aria’s eyes flickered open anyways settling on Pierre Andreu’s face. He looked so concerned, so old, as she struggled to remember what had happened.
“Thank goodness. Did you collapse? Can you sit up?”
Aria nodded and slowly pushed herself into a seated position. She wasn’t in bed anymore. Maybe she hadn’t been in bed to begin with. She was cold. “Monsieur Andreu…I’m sorry to worry you. I feel fine. Cold, but fine.”
Pierre dragged the blanket from her bed to the floor, bundling her inside it. “You scared me to death! I nearly called for a doctor. Why were you on the floor?”
Aria looked away. “I didn’t have a good evening after I came home last night from the opera.” Her eyes started watering as the memory of her fight with Philip—what she said and hadn’t meant—came back. “I said something awful to Philip last night and…”
Pierre’s arms wrapped around her and pulled the young woman into him, letting her cry into his chest. “Shh, it’s going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
Aria shook her head. “He hates me now. I know it.”
Moments passed while Aria let her emotions run away from her. She couldn’t stop crying. She remembered crying a lot last night, too, and then she fell asleep. When she finally couldn’t cry for another second, Aria pulled back and wiped her hands with her hands.
“I’m sorry, Pierre.”
Pierre brushed the hair from her face. “Don’t be sorry. I’m sure you and Philip will reconcile again, like you did before. It will just take time.”
Aria mustered a small insincere smile. “I hope so.” She took a deep breath and finally found the strength to stand. “Let me dress. I look awful. You deserve to come back to something better than this.”
Pierre kissed her forehead in the same spot Philip had days ago. She shivered. “Seeing you like this keeps you real, not just some fantasy. You’re a real woman with hopes and dreams, wants and needs. I enjoy it all. The good, and the not-so-good.”
Aria’s smile became a little more genuine. “That’s sweet in its own way.” For the first time, it was Aria who brought her lips to meet his for a moment before she pulled away. With a boyish grin, Pierre helped Aria to her feet, sitting in a chair as she disappeared behind the partition to change out of her nightgown.
“How was your trip? Did it go well?”
“It went very well. I know Monsieur Renaud gave him up ages ago, but I’m optimistic we’ve come to a fair agreement.”
Aria pulled a day gown from the armoire and began dressing. It would be rather comfortable for just about anything they could do together, even if it was simply chatting in her room. “I saw Monsieur Renaud at the opera, and he’d mentioned the man had stolen from him and damaged his wares.”
“Any shipper could do that to any one. I’m willing to take the chance. And if I have to go speak with him about it I’ll have a good reason to take you with me to show you something not in Paris.”
Aria laced the stays as well as she could have. But sleeping on the floor hadn’t done her any favors.
“Pierre?” She asked timidly. “May I have some assistance, please?”
Aria blushed deeply when Pierre appeared behind her. She knew he could probably see her face in the mirror, but it wasn’t important. She was fully clothed, but the idea that he’d be on this side of the partition was enough to make her mind race.
Pierre grabbed the laces from her hand and pulled each one in turn until it was snug, but comfortable.
He must have helped dress his wife, she thought. When the laces were tied into a neat bow, he smiled and stepped away.
Aria turned to face him. “Thank you.”
“I was going to give you some free time at a library or park. Would you prefer to do something else instead?”
“The park sounds lovely. I would just like to be away from here for a while.”
Pierre offered his arm and she took it and they left the room. They wove through the corridors chatting about the events over the last few days apart. The sights are what made traveling through France so appealing and so bearable, and some day he was going to whisk her away even for a short time. As they left, Aria was grateful she hadn’t seen any signs of Philip. It made everything easier that way.
The carriage took them to a park rather far from any of the other places they’d gone together before. It was a lovely change of pace, even if it looked so much like the other parks she’d been to. Sculptures, rows of hedges for privacy, a walking path, small body of water with associated animals. They apparently didn’t change much.
“There is something I wanted to talk to you about,” Pierre said as they strolled along the path. “Madeline expressed concern over Monsieur Renaud joining you during the opera. Did something happen that I should be made aware of?”
Aria stopped walking, letting her arm pull free of Pierre’s grasp. He stopped two paces ahead of her. There was no one around them to hear them, so who cared if it became a little heated? “Do you trust me?” Before Pierre could answer, she continued. “Have I given you any reason not to trust me?”
Yes. You have.
“No, you haven’t, Ariadne.”
“All I did was invite a man to enjoy the second half of the opera with two ladies. I sat with an empty space between us so I wouldn’t…” Philip’s words the night before danced in her head like cancan girls. Aria shook the thoughts away with a small shake of her head. “So I wouldn’t give the wrong impression,” she finished quietly. “Was I wrong?”
Pierre looked at her for a long moment without saying a word. To an extent, it was written on his face, even if she wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Finally, he sighed. “No. You weren’t wrong. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have minded in the least.”
Aria stood a little straighter. “What did Madeline tell you? That I hiked my skirts up to entice him?”
Pierre looked around to make sure no one had been around to hear the comment. “Nothing like that. I don’t think it’s worth discussing.” Pierre closed the distance and reached for her hand, but she slid from his grasp once more.
“It is to me, Pierre.” Aria tried not to look angry; she wasn’t sure how well she was doing. “What did she tell you?”
He sighed with more exasperation than defeat. “She simply expressed concern over how willing you were to invite another man into the balcony. I believe the words she used were ‘eager’ and ‘desperate’.”
Aria held his gaze. She had been neither of those things at the opera. Surely, even someone as young as Madeline would know the difference. Even if she didn’t, why should his maid feel so concerned over the conduct of his escort? Something about Madeline felt strange when she first met the girl, even if she didn’t quite register it at the moment, but she’d only assumed it was a quirk of being the maid of a wealthy, lonely man.
Something in her mind clicked and suddenly it was as if she was seeing a new side of her companion. “May I ask another question?”
This time, Aria ensured no one would hear her voice. “Have you ever—even once—taken Madeline to your bed?”
Pierre looked unrepentant. “Yes. I have.”
“And yet it is her word you would trust over mine. You pay for me to escort you and, hopefully, find the treasures your competitors would hide from you; you pay her to clean your home and satisfy your lust when it strikes you. I will never blame you for being a man with needs, so long as you don’t let it cloud your judgment. I have a lot more to lose than she does. Your word could destroy me in a second. I am not so naive to forget that or give you a reason to do so.”
Having said her peace, Aria closed the distance between them and wrapped her arm around his once again, allowing him to lead her along at his leisure.