“He’s the son of a merchant, he’s successful in investments, he has a lot of money, and his hobby is boxing.”
Apparently, the mention of her imaginary lover had helped to shut the coachman up. But Amélie continued, not letting up on her momentum.
“Of course, for a hobby, he’s pretty good. He’s won several league titles.”
“I may be a maid, but I’m sure he wouldn’t take kindly to being insulted in a cheap carriage like this.”
“It’s not that. I received a summons because of him beating a nobleman who harassed me, and I’m on my way to attend the trial as a witness.”
That seemed to be enough. Amelie slipped the letter in and muttered.
“Just drive straight to the post office next to St Francis Hospital.”
As she was accustomed to the life of a maid, it had become routine for her to suppress her anger inside every day. But when she confronted the nasty coachman, she felt a little relieved. Her body, which had been feeling restless, also seemed to have improved slightly…
Even if it’s all fiction.
The character she’s been using to portray Amélie’s lover is the famous Duke Olivier Dampierre.
She thought everything about the man was useless information, but it turned out to be so useful. She was almost grateful for a moment to a nobleman she had never met.
Olivier Dampierre and people like him probably have no worries at all. For example, unlike Amélie, the distant amount of 1,700 francs would be nothing but a matter of opening the safe to take it out.
He’s a lot richer than the Count of Biché, so he won’t go to jail for it. If he gets sick, he’ll be able to get a doctor from the university hospital to come to his house.
He won’t have to ride to the clinic in a cheap two-wheeler and get motion sickness. And he won’t be given cheap looks by a lowly coachman.
He wouldn’t mind that I borrowed his face as a virtual lover on a day like today.
He’s not going to blend into Amelie’s world, not even a shadow.
The coachman remained silent, looking straight ahead, and the carriage was only just entering Ezon’s entrance.
Amélie, thanking the Duke of Dampierre in her heart, curled up in a throbbing ball and buried her back in the sheets.
* * *
St Francis was a decent hospital, but it was not generous enough to allow a sick maid to remain in bed for long.
Those who were admitted to the wards were generally those who could afford to pay for the expensive medicines, the tax on hospital beds, and the poor food. With 1,700 francs in debt overnight, Amélie had little choice.
Amelie dragged her throbbing body through the hospital lobby. She had spent almost all of Mrs Maxine’s money on injections and medication. Even though she’d been prescribed the cheapest medication.
“Go home and get some rest.”
The clerk at the hospital who cut off the receipt muttered nonchalantly. It was a perfunctory greeting, but even that felt like a handful of warmth to Amelie. Shaking off the fever, she left the hospital and stepped out into the street.
It was April, but people were still wearing their coats, and even as she huddled into a ball, a chill ran through her.
With her bonnet tied tightly and pressed down, and her hood pulled over it, Amelie kept her head down and started walking. She had to move quickly if she was to complete her business before the post office closed.
Clutching the few remaining pennies in her pocket and the court order, Amelie gritted her teeth and stumbled along, her stomach churning. She had just rounded the corner when a voice called out to her.
A gruff voice from behind her called her to a halt.
* * *
Unlike the pristine boulevards, the spidery alleyways of Ezon were filthy, with pools of mud everywhere.
Before she had a chance to process what was happening, Amelie was shoved roughly against a wall.
“Who… who are you?”
“You should know better.”
The voice is icy cold. Frightened, Amelie’s body shuddered. The hand that had been gripping her shoulder the entire time dropped, and a large shadow fell in front of her.
“Yes? I, I don’t know anything.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
A low voice growled menacingly. She barely dared to look up, shivering, when she felt the hard, cold metal under her chin. The man pointing the tip of his cane spoke coldly.
“Who is your master who sent me the letter?”
Amelie managed to raise her gaze to the man’s chest. He looked like a young nobleman in his dust-free blue suit, a jewelled watch strap dangling sensuously.
“Answer. I asked you who your master is, with all this shenanigans.”
The tip of the cane pressed against the tip of his chin again.
“You were proud to come in and out of my house, and now you pretend to be innocent?”
The man reached out again, seemingly unable to contain his anger, and squeezed Amelie’s shoulder.
“Sh, it hurts.”
Tears welled up in Amelie’s horrified eyes.
“Tell me, who is this crazy bitch you serve.”
For a moment, I thought of Katarina, but that didn’t seem to be the case. So maybe he had me confused with someone else…
Who is this man, who is doing this to me.
“No matter how much your master pushes me like a crazy bitch, there is no way I’m crawling into your master’s bed.”
What the hell is this?
Before she could explain, the man’s cane pressed hard under her chin. She slowly lifted her head, tears streaming down her cheeks.
The nape of the man’s neck came into view. The cravat with a jewelled pin was dizzyingly colourful. Red-patterned silk, bejewelled gold ornaments…
“You entered my house a little while ago. And now that you’re caught, you’re shedding false tears.”
“I, I never entered any place.”
Barely able to contain her trembling, Amelie endeavoured to discern the man’s identity.
The thin sheepskin gloves gripping an ebony cane, the cuffs peeking out of the sleeves of his fine suit, were eye-poppingly expensive. Those must be jewellery…
He didn’t look like an ordinary man at all.
The tip of the cane lifted her chin further, and Amelie was forced to stand on her tiptoes, almost strangled.
Leaning back against the wall, she managed to spit out the words that were about to spill out.
“I’m a maid at the Biché mansion.”
The cane slipped from under her chin, and Amélie, no longer steady on her feet, staggered to her feet.
“Count Biché. Why would the Countess do this to me?”
“My lord, I don’t know what you mean, I only came to Ezon to attend to my personal affairs…”
Amelie looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. The unlit alley was dark. The faceless man took a step back from her. The tip of his frock coat brushed against her cowering face.
“I am Amelie Gagnier, working for the Count of Biché. I’m not doing anything else.”
“I didn’t break into anyone’s house.”
“Are you kidding me?”
The man’s voice was cold. He was breathing pretty hard now, too.
“I followed you from the next alley. You were the only maid with a hood up.”
“At St Francis Hospital, I had just come out of treatment. The hood was on because I was so sick.”
“Even though I was following you the whole time?”
Tears of frustration rolled down her cheeks. Amelie sobbed and pleaded.
“Maybe you’re a terrible chaser…”
The man fell silent, seemingly at a loss for words. Staggering to her feet, Amelie fumbled in her pocket and pulled out the receipt.
“Here… is the receipt. Go to St Francis Hospital and check it out.”
Wobbling as if she might collapse, Amelie finally propped herself up against the grimy wall. Breathing heavily, she checked the receipt the man had taken from her hand.
It was only in hindsight that she realised it came with a court order.
“I, uh, need that back…”
Amelie’s head snapped up in surprise, and she made eye contact with the man.
He was quite tall. He was a head taller than Amelie. Just then, the setting sun cast a handful of rays through the cramped alleyway.
Amelie let out a small groan as she saw the man’s face. It was a face she recognised.
His face, sharpened by the sunlight, made a strong enough impression to make her head spin for a moment. His dark blond hair shone brightly in a halo, and his green eyes were deep as they bore into Amelie.
“By any chance…”
As Amelie blinked and caught her breath, a slow, troubled glow came over the man’s face.