Henri Renaud’s home was so very large compared to the Moulin Rouge. It had nice high ceilings with molding along the seam where the walls meets the ceilings. The color reminded Aria of Philip’s coffee with milk and sugar in it. The colors in the rooms—paintings, throw pillows, satin and taffeta gowns—simply added to the decorum and elegance. The foyer where they arrived joined a large sitting room to the left with large windows looking out on the front lawn reminiscent of the parks Pierre took her to. Aria also found the kitchen, several pantries—with their own functions, she was sure—a formal dining hall, smoking parlor, and large double French doors leading out to the garden.
Aria ascended the stairs to the second level and explored each room in turn like she had before. There were more bedrooms than she could ever think to use, many with their own washrooms. The largest door at the end of the hall was the largest room of all. Unlike the rest of his home, this room had dark brown wood lining the bottom half of the walls, golden paint covering the remaining wall to the ceiling. It was beautiful. There was a door leading to a washroom and another door leading to what could be described as a small library. Henri’s study.
Bookshelves taller than Aria—and easily taller than Pierre—lined the walls on two sides of the room. Large windows brought in as much moonlight now as Aria knew the sun brought in the morning. An oak desk sat in the midst of the bookshelves with little more than a light, writing instruments, and a pad of paper. On the far side of the room hanged paintings and maps. A small sofa completed the room. This was the most grand and the most comfortable room in the entire house, in Aria’s opinion.
She skimmed the books at eye-level on the bookshelves. Some titles were in French, but others were in so many other languages it was hard to know what they were called. Growing up in the Moulin Rouge didn’t exactly afford her an expansive education. She recognized some authors other courtesans had told her about, but she dared not touch any book out of fear she might actually damage something.
Aria eyed the desk. It could hold secrets, she supposed. And if there was any place that might hold secrets, it would be Henri’s study. At first she simply sat in the chair, taking in the view of the maps to her left and the windows to her right. How could he get work done here with such a view? Aria wondered. And then with a deep breath, Aria slowly and carefully pulled the top drawer of the desk out.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even more paper or writing instruments. None of the drawers held secrets to be discovered.
Aria chuckled to herself and stood from the desk. The maps were fascinating but could reveal nothing to someone who didn’t know what they were looking at. So the books absorbed her attention again.
“Have you found anything interesting?”
Aria turned to the doorway where Monsieur Renaud stood. He didn’t look upset she was in his study. Curious, perhaps. Aria wondered, for a moment, whether he’d witnessed her snooping.
“Your books,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a collection in my life. And there are so many languages…how could you choose what to read?”
Henri smiled kindly as he walked leisurely across the room toward her. “It’s a wonderful predicament, at least to me. Sometimes, I simply close my eyes and reach for a book and I’ve found that I end up with what I needed.”
“That sounds magical. But some of these seem too precious to touch. I would worry about them falling apart.”
Henri chuckled. “Which is why I know many magicians to restore them. I’ve worn many of these out reading them too much. Again, I find it a wonderful thing.” He grabbed a step-ladder and pulled it near one of bookshelves. “You are one of few that I know who might appreciate this.” Henri stepped up and pulled books from a shelf nearly out of his reach, one by one handing them to Aria without looking. She could recognize William Shakespeare’s name, but some of the titles were in other languages she couldn’t read. It didn’t matter at all. They were beautiful. “I still have some titles to collect, and his sonnets, too, but it’s still a good collection, wouldn’t you agree?”
Aria stared at the books in her hands like they were treasures. As far as she was concerned, they were. “My goodness,” she whispered. “You have so many.”
“It’s why I enjoy the plays so very much.”
“How have you collected them? From your business?”
Henri chuckled. “In a way, yes.” He beckoned her once again to join him on the small sofa. She was happy to follow and sit as comfortably as she could next to him, books still firmly clutched in her hands. “I travel so much and see my associates, many of whom know of my love of Shakespeare and collecting books. So sometimes I receive them as gifts or sometimes I hear rumors of who is looking to sell their books. And voila,” he gestured to the books in her hands.
“You are so incredibly fortunate, Monsieur Renaud.” Aria looked at the titles she couldn’t read, running her gloved fingers over the writing. “Can you read these ones? Or do you simply collect them because you can?”
“I can only read the ones in English, beside those in our native tongue. But I enjoy having them.” Henri sighed contented. “You don’t have to be so gentle with them. They are books. They’re designed to be held.”
Aria blushed a soft shade of red. “If you insist.” She opened the top book and flipped through some of the pages, noting how the letters were shaped. There were none of the accents she was accustomed to in the French language. “Which language is this one?”
Henri leaned over to get a better look. “English. That one is The Merchant of Venice.”
“Mm,” Aria nodded. She flipped through a few more pages before closing it and setting it beneath the pile. “Which play is your favorite one?”
Henri tipped his head back just a little as he pondered the question. Aria returned her gaze to the books. She should be asking questions about his business trying to find some angle for Pierre to use for his own business, not chatting about plays. But she enjoyed it. And Pierre never seemed the sort to have discussions about his favorite plays. Not that she ever tried.
“I don’t believe I have a favorite.”
Aria shook her head. “Surely there’s one that, given a choice, you’d rather see over another, isn’t there?”
Henri grinned. “Which is your favorite?”
Aria mimicked his posture, tipping her head back and humming softly until she decided. “Romeo and Juliet. Tragic, but sweet. And I got to meet you the first time I saw it, so that was nice.”
“Oh?” Henri looked genuinely interested. Aria was still new to the idea that someone would take an interest in her conversations or in something she said, not just having an interest in her body. She could get used to that.
“Of course. Going to the library or the parks are very nice, but I have enjoyed meeting new people. Had it not been for Monsieur Andreu, I wouldn’t know you and, by extension, that one could have such an impressive collection of Shakespearean plays.”
“If I find one’s gone missing should I search your skirts?”
Aria tipped her head back and laughed with only a little nervousness. “That would be too obvious, Monsieur.” Over the last year, Aria had been taught to converse, to flirt, to do many things that would make her clients happy. She had even been taught to lie and steal for what she needed. She never liked the idea. She never wanted to lie or cheat or steal. “Judging by your study, I would wager you could think of many more clever hiding places.”
Her words didn’t even seem to register to her companion. He laughed and nodded as if they were still conversing over Shakespearean plays. “Ah, yes. I do believe I could.”
Aria smiled returning her attention to the books in her lap. “Before I return to your lovely soiree, would you mind terribly if I asked you to read a scene from one of these wonderful books?”
“Not at all,” Henri said taking the stack from her lap. He shuffled through the books with ease, knowing what he was looking for. The rest of the books were stacked on the floor. Henri opened the cover and flipped to the first page holding the book so Aria could see the words also. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder, so close that Aria could faintly smell the warm aroma of his cologne.
Aria did not understand a word he read. She looked between the book and his face, watching how his mouth formed the words like she could figure out the trick to reading another language. But she couldn’t. Instead of unlocking linguistic mysteries, Aria scooted a little so she could comfortably rest her head on Henri’s shoulder, listening to him read; listening to him change his voice for the different characters in the scene.
Henri didn’t seem to mind her. He read to the end of the scene, holding the book open like a Bible.
“Did you fall asleep? Or are you just enjoying me that much?”
Aria chuckled. “I enjoy listening to you read, even if I don’t understand the words.”
Henri closed the book using his thumb as a bookmark. “You have a long life yet to life, Ariadne. Perhaps someday you will.”
Aria lifted her head a little, looking at the hopeful smile on his lips. He looked a decade younger in the moment. “I hope so,” she whispered.
Henri looked deep in her eyes, and then let his gaze wander around her face, his lips drawing near hers. She was captivated by him, by an anticipation she hadn’t experienced since Philip almost kissed her. Her stomach fluttered, her heart pounded in her chest, her skin felt alive. Her head tilted just so and her eyes closed as if it could coax him closer. She could feel his breath dance across her skin. His lip grazed her own, so close to capturing it her mouth opened just a touch wider.
“Pierre has outdone himself,” Henri whispered. Aria opened her mouth to say something before Henri added, “Did you think you’re the first young woman Pierre has brought to my home looking for my secrets?”
“I…I don’t know,” Aria managed with the subtle shake of her head. The anticipation of their almost-kiss disappeared as quickly as it’d manifested, leaving the young woman trembling. She was suddenly aware of how alone they truly were.
“There have been many—too many—before you. But you are unique, Mademoiselle.” Henri moved further away from Aria, though she saw he really didn’t want to. There was part of him that was still male and still wanted a woman’s touch.
Aria turned away. “I should return to Monsieur Andreu. He’ll wonder where I’ve been.”
“And later he’ll wonder why you failed as others before you have, jeopardizing your agreement.”
“How did you—”
Aria froze. She had always been under the impression Pierre was a private person who might keep her origins hidden lest it create a scandal. Apparently, she was wrong.
“Why are we here?”
Henri smiled. “I am perhaps the only one who knows how you truly met Monsieur Andreu. And because of where you originate…I will need your help. I cannot say when, but sometime in the next few months, I will need your help to find something more precious to me than my home, my business, and my book collection combined.”
“What could I possibly help you find that another couldn’t?”
The words hit Aria in a way she hadn’t expected. He was no cruel or vicious man manipulating young women for sport. He was looking for something few in the Moulin Rouge had. Aria considered herself lucky to have her mother, but she was the exception to the rule. And now someone was reaching out to try to find perhaps the only family he had left; perhaps the only family someone with the Moulin Rouge had left. Her heart twisted in her chest painfully.
Henri stood and grabbed the step-ladder reaching to the very top shelf of the bookshelf closest to the doors. He held a small plain envelope bulging at the seams in his hands when he returned. “If you agree to help me, this is yours to take back to Pierre; he would find it most useful for expanding his business. And if you truly help me—and I make contact with my son—I will owe you a debt which could never been quantified. I leave the choice to you.”
Aria didn’t need to consider the proposal long. Reluctantly, she nodded. “I know what it’s like to yearn for my father. All children of the Moulin Rouge know it.”
Henri looked like a weight had been removed from his shoulders. “Thank you, Ariadne.” He gave the envelope to her. “I suggest finding a hiding spot in your skirts for that. I have many competitors that would kill for that information.”
Henri stepped toward the door but stopped. “Oh, and I’d prefer to keep this discrete; just between you and me.” Henri left the room without another word and returned to the soiree. Once the envelope was secure between her corset and undergarments, Aria followed.