The two people stood at a crossroads. Should they circle the lake once more, or should they take the shortcut back to the cottage, exposing themselves to the public as planned.
Olivier hesitated for a moment and then, without saying a word, chose to circle the lake once more.
“It should be a bit more natural. People should also get more drunk.”
She could feel him slowing his stride to a deliberate pace, to match her pace. Amélie’s heart pounded harder.
The wind rustled the leaves, and except for the occasional night cry, the two of them were alone on the wide lakeshore.
There were no conversations, but Amélie’s mind was in turmoil, wishing the night bird had cried louder, wishing the wind had blown harder.
And if only there was no such thing as consideration…
The coat on her shoulders, the pace to match her steps, the hand in hers, the walk through the dark forest. It meant so much to her that she forgot about the 2,000 francs for a moment.
Her hand stiffened. Olivier’s hand twitched in hers. The little duke’s fingers, which had only been lightly clasped, shifted slightly and intertwined deeply with hers. At the same time, Olivier’s fingertips, sliding slowly, grazed Amélie’s nails.
The slightest of movements, and every nerve in her body went to her fingers.
“You’re doing well, Amélie.”
Her breath caught in her throat.
“Don’t be intimidated, you need to be more…”
The Duke’s words faded away as he suddenly stopped walking. Amélie looked down at her shoe tip, which was bathed in the cold moonlight. Her posture was awkward because she had also stopped abruptly.
I feel stupid…
“Again, again. You’re looking down like you’ve been kidnapped. From now on, look at my face.”
She hadn’t had the courage to look at his face, but now she had no choice but to lift her head.
Very carefully, Amélie’s gaze travelled from his stunning shoes to the barge of his well-ironed army-blue cashmere suit.
“Raise your head higher.”
Her gaze travelled up from the knees, to the waist, and lingered for a moment on the vest, again of the same material.
A ruby the size of a fingernail dangled from the end of a golden watch chain that went through a buttonhole. It’s impossible to do more than that.
“Master, this is enough for me.”
He bent down to her eye level. Just a little above the waist at most, within sight if she craned her head slightly in front of her master.
But Olivier Dampierre was a man who never gave up.
“Amélie, look me in the eye.”
As if to soothe her, Olivier’s thumb brushed lightly against her knuckles.
Startled, Amélie forced her chin up slightly. It was at an odd angle. That’s why, right under his collarbone, only the wide expanse of his chest was visible in her field of vision…
A low chuckle escaped him.
“Aren’t you looking at my chest too much?”
“Look at my eyes.”
As he spoke, Olivier tugged on her hand. Amélie, who had almost spilled onto him, looked up in surprise.
Amélie couldn’t move.
The man’s gaze was so deep as he smiled and stared down at her. As if she were something special.
“Look me in the eye and say it, Amélie Gagnier.”
“You’re not a maid tonight, you’re just Amélie Gagnier. Remember that.”
Amélie’s gaze hovered for a moment over that unreal face. As she stared into that dreamy, loving gaze, she suddenly remembered an old maid’s adage and came to her senses.
‘Noblemen are scum.’
That sentence, which had dominated her thoughts throughout her life as a maid, brought Amélie to her senses.
The night view of the opera theater that she once looked at. The dazzlingly beautiful things that pierced her heart.
‘I’m glad I brought her here!’
The young back of Katarina’s head as she casually turned away. A flash of gold as she left her seat.
The theatre door slamming shut in front of her. The pretty, good, expensive things that always seem to be around her, just flitting by.
Wake up, Amélie. Don’t be fooled by that sweetness. After all, a maid is just an expendable item to be discarded when their time is up. She’s just a pretty doll that will be left behind after tonight.
Nevertheless, her heart was already racing. She still couldn’t take her eyes off him.
Even though she knew it was a fake, she couldn’t stop herself. It was hard to take her eyes off his eyes, which, unlike the first time, were slowly heating up.
Even though she already knew that the piercing way he looked at her was the sign of a skilfully crafted deception.
The pupils, deeper than their natural colour in the darkness, the lashes, the eyebrows above them, the hair that flowed slightly over his forehead, again his nose, his lips, his cheeks…
Amélie, who had been studying him in silence, found herself staring at him, speechless.
They stood frozen in a very vague and unreal moment, a warm breeze tickling their cheeks, flower petals rustling and falling overhead.
Ding, ding, ding, ding…
The twelve chimes of midnight rang out. Amélie’s eyelids fluttered open, like someone just waking up from a dream. She felt like a slap her on the cheek, and only then did she wake up.
The Duke took a couple of steps back with a rueful shrug. At one point, their faces were almost touching.
Olivier let go of Amélie’s hand and slowly removed the glove from his hand. He tugged lightly on the fingertips of the glove, and a long, straight finger and a large palm slowly slipped out.
“It’s a little… hot.”
Olivier tucked the glove in politely, slightly furrowed his brow, then held out his hand again. Amélie’s small hand overlapped her large, hard palm, causing a strange sensation.
Amélie did not know. That for Olivier this was a great adventure.
* * *
The night in the outbuilding grew dark.
The unbridled Katarina believed in her parents’ permission and drank greedily, reveling, and several times more bottles than usual were rolled around the party.
Even cheap absinthe with mixed with something unknown was being passed around as the ‘latest fad,’ and before midnight there were drunken young people everywhere.
The smell of cheap booze, cologne, and sweat mixed with the stifling heat of the room was suffocating. There was fighting, crying, shouting, muttering to themselves, stumbling, tearing at clothes, and just general messiness everywhere in the dark.
In the midst of the chaos, a brawl broke out among the drunken men.
A feud over the love of a young countess had turned catastrophic. After some shouting and shoving, the duel was settled with a few punches from the surrounding crowd…
The son of the Marquis, whose face was swollen and puffy, was resentful after losing both his lover and his position. He was about to call the police with the servant he brought, but changed his mind as he thought it could backfire on him if things escalated further.
In any case, the master of the house seems to have gone off her rocker early, and the butlers and maids of the Biché family have been running around in a frenzy since earlier.
This late at night, no one will know who crawls in from anywhere…
He decided to call in a reporter from the weekly magazine Ezon, whom he had always known.
* * *
Ezon’s nights are filled with nightlife at all times of the year.
But even on those same nights, those who are awake, those who have stepped away from the sticky heat of the night, endure long, free hours of labour under dim lamps.
The journalists of the Weekly Ezon, who were on duty, had just finished dinner at a café and, with nothing better to do, were playing poker in the company of journalists from other newspapers.
Suddenly, the door to the office bursts open and a valet bursts into the room.
He was drenched in sweat and shouting so loudly that at first they thought there was a murder.
The servant paused to mention his master’s name, and then began a long story.
It was a rather absurd tale of how the eldest son of a random marquis had been humiliated in some way by the second son of a random baronet, and that he wanted reporters to come and interview him about his grievances.
“In the middle of the night?”
“Whose eldest son?”
The journalists’ response was mild.
“If we were those despicable people who blindly follow whoever comes and goes, we wouldn’t be in journalism, right? I mean, we must have come this far because we know what we’re doing.”
The arrogant gaze of the journalist who spoke like that scanned the servant from head to toe. It was a look as if to say, ‘What are you still doing as someone else’s servant at this time?’
It wasn’t an insult from his master, but from a stranger, and this time, the valet was offended. When he stood still, showing his displeasure, someone spoke soothingly.
“Come on, Valet. The Biché mansion is too far from here. It’s a half-hour carriage ride. I don’t think its a big enough news to be travelling there at this hour.”
Someone shouted, and the reporters’ eyes turned back to the poker board in unison.
“Eight, damn it.”
Even as the reporters grumbled and cleared the board, the servant remained stubbornly in place.
He was too proud to say it in front of the reporters, but his master has a terrible hand when he was drunk. If he returned empty-handed, there would surely be a dire price to pay.
“So, the party at the Biché manor, you say it’s so rowdy? I heard that all of Ezon’s finest young men were hanging out there.”
Glancing at the servant who stood there undeterred, the reporter added a few more words.
“They say it’s getting more promiscuous by the minute. If there’s a fight, it’ll be worth watching.”
Soon enough, the reporters were shuffling the next hand. As they talked and seemed unwilling to get off their arses, the valet stiffened and picked up the pieces.
“Yeah, well, it’s not your average party. We’ve got all sorts of people there. Like the famous Olivier Dampierre who’s come this time…”
The reporter’s hand stopped shuffling the deck.