When Wine Meets Cheese: A Love Story
As tired as she was, Annabelle's sleep was not fulfilling. She tossed and turned and was plagued by dreams for the whole night. When Clara aroused her the next morning, she felt like she hadn't slept at all. She went through her morning routines in a daze. Her aunt had to constantly repeat all of her questions. "Annabelle! What is the matter with you?"
"I'm sorry Aunt Sophie. I did not sleep well last night. Perhaps I will go lay down for a little while." Before Annabelle could leave the room, however, she was told by the butler that Mr. Stern had arrived. Annabelle went to sit back in her seat and the butler allowed Mr. Stern to come into the room. She tried to make sure Mr. Stern did not notice the obvious sneer that her aunt gave him when he entered the room. "Hello Mr. Stern. It is so good of you to call. Please sit down and join us for some tea." Mr. Stern smiled at Annabelle and took a seat near her as Annabelle rang for the tea.
"Mr. Stern, I am afraid that I have a previous engagement, so you will have to excuse me. I hope to see you in the future. Good day." Lady Sainte-Maure left the room and Annabelle hoped that he did not notice the obvious insincerity of her Aunt.
"Please forgive my aunt's rudeness. She does not really think before she speaks I think." Annabelle said to Mr. Stern. Embarrassed that her aunt would be so rude, Annabelle was glad that the tea arrived.
"Think nothing of it Lady Annabelle. I know that you do not share her feelings and I would gladly face your aunt to visit with you." Annabelle smiled at this and couldn't help but blush. She was so wrapped up in the moment that she almost forgot her purpose.
"Before I forget, you must tell me what occurred between you and Mr. Richmond. I know that it involved me, and I cannot bear to have the break up of your friendship on my conscience. Surely it wasn't so bad as to end such a long and strong friendship that exists between the two of you."
"You must not concern yourself with the problems between men. You just worry about keeping that smile on your face. I don't like to see you with a frown."
"Mr. Stern, how can you say that? I know it is because of me that you are not on speaking terms. If I have done something, I at least want the chance to make things right again." Not wanting to see Annabelle so sad, Mr. Stern did not have the heart to keep it from her.
"Well, the truth is that he insulted you. I could not stand there and let him insult you. I would have demanded satisfaction, but I didn't want to do it in front of ladies. I intend to demand that he take back his words."
"Oh Mr. Stern, you must not do that. What if one of you was killed? I would never be able to live with myself knowing that it was because of me. What was it that was so bad that he could have said to me? I know that there was something bothering him, but I don't know what I did to cause his hate. We were getting along so well and then for no reason he seemed to despise me. Please tell me what I have done to cause his dislike."
"Very well, but you must promise me that you will not take this as something I believe."
"Of course. Please tell me what I have done." Mr. Stern reached for Annabelle's hand and she did not stop him. She had to admit that she liked his attention.
"Well, he said that you were simply a social climber and only cared about money and titles. I argued with him about this, but he simply would not take it back. I know that is not what you are. I truly believe you are kind at heart and am not ashamed to know you better." Annabelle smiled, but couldn't help feeling terribly about her behavior. She knew that she must have given off that impression when she practically brushed Mr. Richmond aside when the Duke came to her. She must make him see somehow that she was only trying to appease her aunt. Mr. Stern was gently massaging her hand and she smiled at him.
"Thank you Mr. Stern for telling me this. I want you to know that I am not at all interested in social stature. I was simply trying to appease my aunt. She is the one with thoughts of grandeur. I feel, however, that I did give off the wrong impression, so there really is no reason not to forgive your friend." Mr. Stern assured her again that he did not share his former friend's opinion.
"I don't care what impression you think that you gave. What Richmond has done is not forgivable. I simply cannot go on being his friend. I allowed myself to ignore his other activities with the ladies of the court, but I cannot allow him to insult you."
"What other activities?" Annabelle asked with confusion clearly in her voice.
"Don't tell me you haven't heard the gossip. I thought everyone in Romagnola was talking of it. From what I hear, our dear Mr. Richmond has been quite friendly with some of the Queen's Ladies."
"Surely you don't believe that. He is one of your friends. You have known each other for such a long time. You know he wouldn't do something like that." Annabelle exclaimed in shock.
"How can you be so sure? How else do you think he became the sole provider of cheese for the court? I find it a little odd. Apparently a woman was seen leaving his farm just the other week."
"I simply won't believe this and I won't allow you to speak of it anymore."
"Very well, believe it or not. I am sorry to cut our tea short, but I have pressing business. Please tell your aunt I hope to see her soon and I was sorry to not be able to spend more time with her." Annabelle bid Mr. Stern farewell and then thought to herself. She had just received so much news that she didn't know where to start thinking. Surely Mr. Richmond was not that type of man. She had to admit that he spent a great deal of time with that one lady. She also noticed that another of the ladies was always watching him. She did not look very happy. Perhaps she was a former lover and did not like to see him with someone else. Annabelle could not make any sense of herself. She wanted to believe that he was a good man, but couldn't shake the suspicions that were growing in her head. She decided that she needed a second opinion, so she called for her bonnet and coat and then left the house to go see Eleanor. She would have some words of wisdom.
"Surely you don't believe Mr. Stern. We both know that Mr. Richmond is a kind-hearted gentleman. I do admit to hearing these rumors, but I know they can't be true. Mr. Stern is simply jealous of your obvious infatuation." Eleanor said once she got the story out of Annabelle.
"Oh Elly, I feel so rotten for the way that I treated him. How could I have been so rude? Surely he must have understood that I had a duty to fulfill."
"My dear, men in love do not see clearly."
"He isn't in love with me. How could you say that? We only just met." Annabelle said as she brushed the comment away.
"Say what you like, but I saw how hurt he was when you accepted the dance with the Duke. A man who feels nothing does not respond in that manner." Annabelle blushed at this; she was saved from making a response by the butler who was announcing another visitor.
"Mr. Richmond, miss." The butler said as he stepped aside to let the man enter. Annabelle and Eleanor were both in complete shock as was Mr. Richmond when he spotted Annabelle. The smile that had previously graced his face turned into a scowl.
"Mr. Richmond, how good of you to call. I did not expect you. Of course you know Lady Annabelle. Please sit down. I will just go see what is keeping the tea." Before anyone could say anything, Annabelle found herself alone with Mr. Richmond. She did not know how to begin. Mr. Richmond began to pace the room. He looked as if he was about to say something, but just continued pacing.
"Please tell Miss. Charbray that I apologize for not staying. I forgot an urgent business meeting that I must get to." Annabelle's face fell as she saw him head for the door. She was surprised, however, to see that he could not get it to open. "It seems like we are locked in here. I wonder how that could have happened."
"Mr. Richmond, I believe I know why the door is locked. I believe that I owe you an apology. It seems that I may have given off the wrong impression to you. I want you to know that I do not only care about titles and riches. I am just a simple country girl who was thrust into this position without any choice. I was only doing my duty at the ball. If I hurt your feelings I am truly very sorry, but you must know that I care nothing for all the glamour of the upper circles." Mr. Richmond stood in silence. Annabelle could see that he was working through what she had just said. She waited patiently for him to say something, but he remained silent. "Please say something. I know that you hate me now, but I do not want you to hate me. I greatly enjoy your company and would feel terrible that I have not only lost your company, but have also been the cause of the break up between two friends. Mr. Stern told me of your argument. You cannot throw away years of friendship over me. I will not be the cause of this." Mr. Richmond was silent still, but Annabelle felt that she could not say anymore. She was trying her hardest not to cry, but several stubborn tears fell down her cheek. She brushed them away quickly, hoping that he would not notice. Unfortunately he did notice. He immediately came to her and offered her his handkerchief.
"Please don't cry Lady Annabelle. You are much too pretty to have a splotchy face from tears. You are right that I was hurt by your actions, but I understand why you did what you did. Do you think that we could start over?" At this Annabelle smiled widely. Instead of preventing the tears, they flowed freely and Mr. Richmond did his best to comfort her. "Tomorrow I will call on Stern and apologize to him for my comments. You are right that we should not throw our friendship away over this. We have been through a lot together and I don't think that something like this should end our friendship."
"Oh I am so happy. There is something I should warn you about. I want you to know that I don't believe these rumors, but I feel that must tell you. There are several people saying that you are conducting yourself in a less than gentlemanlike manner. Mr. Stern in fact was the man who told me of these rumors and Eleanor confirmed that she too had heard this. I hope that I am right in not believing them." Annabelle looked at Richmond.
"I am sorry that you had to hear such horrible things. It is true that I have met with several of the Queen's ladies, but not as their lovers, but as a business consultant.
As you know, my cheese is the choice cheese of the court, and the head Lady-in-Waiting takes great pleasure in a good piece of cheese. I have an arrangement to deliver and extra order of cheese to the lady. The woman that people probably saw at my house was just delivering a message saying that they were running low on cheese and requested more. You must not listen to idle gossip. The woman that you saw me dancing with at the ball meant nothing to me. I was simply trying to make you hurt since you hurt me because the truth is that I have come to care deeply for you. In fact, I think I am falling in love with you and you broke my heart that night."
Annabelle began to cry again. "Oh Mr. Richmond, I feel terrible because what you don't know is that I think I am falling in love with you." Mr. Richmond jumped to his feet and pulled Annabelle with him. He swirled her around before realizing how inappropriately he must be acting.
"Oh Lady Annabelle, you don't know how happy you have made me."
"Please call me Annabelle. I don't really feel like a lady."
"You will always be a lady to me Annabelle. You must call me David as well." Their eyes locked and Annabelle thought she was going to swoon. Before she knew it David leaned in and kissed her. The kiss went as quickly as it came, but Annabelle had no conception of time. "Please forgive me for taking such liberties. I don't know what came over me. I don't..." Before he could finish his thought, Annabelle kissed him again. This time, the kiss lasted longer. They were interrupted, however, by someone clearing her throat in the background.
"I seem to be interrupting something. I see you two have made up. I am sorry for resorting to such measures, but I had to."
"It is quite alright," Mr. Richmond said embarrassedly, but with a giant smile. I really must be going if I am to catch Stern before he leaves his club. I will call on you tomorrow Annabelle. Goodbye Miss Charbray.
After he left Eleanor pressed her friend for all of the details. Both girls spent the rest of the afternoon talking and giggling. When the Admiral came in to see what all the fuss was about, both ladies simply laughed. "I came in here with another purpose as well. I have just received another invitation for a court ball. It appears that the King and Queen are hosting another ball. This is rather peculiar since it was not long ago that they had their other ball. I wonder what the occasion is." Both ladies were excited and Annabelle paid her farewells to the Charbrays and left for home. She felt giddy and excited. She left the house so miserably, and now could return with a smile on her face. She was greeted, however by her aunt who was not in a very pleasant mood.
"Annabelle dear, you must stop encouraging Mr. Stern. He is not in your class and it would be wrong to lead him on."
"I am not leading him on aunt. He is simply a friend. Have you heard anything about this ball at the court? The Admiral said he got an invitation." Annabelle asked, trying to change the subject.
"Yes, the invitation arrived not too long ago. This will give you another opportunity to get to know the Duke better and for him so see you. You must promise me to be on your best behavior."
"Aunt Sophie, why must I entertain the Duke? I do not care for him at all. He is a terrible man who cares only for his purse."
"You will be as charming as you can be in his presence. I don't care if you find him disagreeable. He is a wonderful match that will place you in the highest circles. He is the heir to the throne for heaven's sake. How can you not see what an honor it is that he has chosen you from all the other ladies."
"I do not like him. I want to marry for love not for the title."
"You will marry the Duke and that is the end of it. I do not want to hear another word about it. I certainly don't want you to entertain other young gentlemen who are not in your class. You are a lady, and must consider your family and status before all." Annabelle, who had been so happy at the thought of David, quickly had her hopes dashed. Her aunt would never allow him to court her. What was she thinking? She wondered if she could manage an excuse to postpone his visit. She would tell the butler to tell him that she was unwell. That is what she would do.
After she knew that Mr. Richmond was gone, she went to look out her window to catch a glimpse of him. What she saw, however, brought another smile to her face. There in the street was Mr. Stern and David and they were talking. They both shook hands and smiled at each other. She was so happy that they finally forgave each other.
Annabelle was delighted at the prospect of another ball, especially now that she and her friends understood one another. There would be no confusion this time. She would dance with Mr. Richmond, and with Mr. Stern as well, for he was a friend she would hate to lose, and Eleanor would be there to share her happiness. Lady Sainte-Maure was pleased as well, though for a different reason. Any chance of showing off her niece in the company of the Duke and the court was a chance not to be missed. Annabelle was thinking of none of this, however, as she and Clara planned her wardrobe for that evening.
The night of the ball arrived, and Annabelle and her aunt were whisked away in their carriage to glittering Ayershire Court. As they walked up the grand marble staircase, Annabelle tried not to gawk, still amazed to think she had been inside the palace once, let alone three times now. Once they had given in their wraps and gone into the main room, Lady Sainte-Maure took Annabelle by the arm and led her to greet some of the various important people she had been introduced to at the last ball. There seemed to be an endless stream of lords and ladies, and Annabelle's head was beginning to ache before she had even been there twenty minutes. At last, however, she spied Eleanor, who came to claim her.
"My dear Annabelle! You are well, I hope?"
"Very well, now that you have rescued me. I am looking forward to this ball -- I am only half as nervous as I was at the first one!"
"Oh, my dear, you will be lovely and charming, as always! You have no need to worry -- everyone likes you."
"You seem a little anxious yourself -- what is the matter?"
"It is nothing," but she looked as if she didn't mean it. "I cannot see Lord Barrett anywhere."
"Oh, Elly!" laughed Annabelle. "The evening's only just begun. I'm sure he will be here very soon."
"Of course. You are right. Look -- there's the Duke."
Annabelle looked. Across the room, the Duke caught her eye and bowed. She curtseyed in response, and then turned shyly away.
"I wish he wouldn't stare at me so," she whispered.
"You're probably the only lady in the kingdom who wishes that!" said Eleanor.
"There is Lord Barrett."
Eleanor wheeled around, and smiled. "And who is with him, but Mr. Stern, and, do my eyes deceive me? Why no, I believe it is Mr. Richmond!"
"Please don't tease me, Elly! I shall giggle, or cry!"
As the gentlemen approached from one side, the Duke approached on the other. He looked a little displeased, and to preserve Annabelle from any unpleasantness, the three of them remained at a respectful distance.
"I hope I find you well this evening, Lady Annabelle?" he said in a very stately tone.
"I thank you Your Grace, yes, I am very well." She curtseyed. He smiled.
"I have come to ask you for the honor of the first two dances. You are not engaged already, I hope."
Annabelle hesitated, but a pinch from Eleanor spurred her on. "No, Your Grace. I would be most honored." She curtseyed again, and he smiled again.
"Excellent," he said. "I must greet a few of our guests, but I shall be back to collect you when the dancing starts."
"Thank you sir." He walked away, and Annabelle let out a deep breath. "He frightens me so, Elly!" she cried. "And he didn't even ask to be introduced to you -- that was rather rude, was it not?"
"The rich can afford to give offense wherever they go," her friend replied with a laugh.
The other gentlemen deemed it safe to approach now, and so they came up to the ladies. Eleanor and Lord Barrett stood a little apart, and Mr. Stern and Mr. Richmond spoke to Annabelle. When the pleasantries were finished, Mr. Richmond said, "Would you care for anything, Lady Annabelle? A glass of wine, perhaps?" She assented, and he went off to find it.
"A very good sort of chap, is Richmond," said Mr. Stern, a little wistfully. "Well, I hope at least I shall not be entirely shut out of your dance card -- we have always been friends, you know."
"Of course you shall not be shut out, Mr. Stern!" cried Annabelle. And she penciled him into her card then and there.
"Better put Richmond in too, while you're at it," said Stern, in a low tone, observing the Duke coming near as the orchestra began to tune up. "He may not get a chance to ask you."
Annabelle had just closed up the card when the Duke reached her side and offered his arm. She smiled graciously, and allowed herself to be led to the dance floor. On the way she passed Richmond, bearing her wine. She could not speak to him, of course, but gave him an apologetic and pleading look. He was not angered this time, for he understood her situation, and he smiled, and reassured her with his eyes that her wine would be waiting for her when the dance was finished. There were a great many couples lined up, and Annabelle had to walk past nearly all of them before she reached her place. She was nearly at the top of the set -- King Lorenzo and Queen Beatrice were opening the ball, and she and the Duke stood beside them. Her heart pounded as she recognized the prominence of her position. The music began, and the dancing commenced, and Annabelle did her best to enjoy herself, and not think about the hundreds of eyes that were watching her.
When the dances were over, the Duke brought her back to her aunt, and promised to rejoin them presently.
"I am proud of you, Annabelle," said Lady Sainte-Maure. "You do your duty well."
"Thank you, aunt. I think I should like to sit down. I believe I see Eleanor over there -- may I go to her?"
"Yes, but remember the Duke will be looking for you."
Annabelle went to Eleanor, and sat down beside her.
"How did you enjoy the dance?" Eleanor said.
"I think you enjoyed it more," said Annabelle with a smile.
In a moment Mr. Richmond appeared before them, wine glass in hand. "Here you are, Lady Annabelle," he said.
She thanked him. It was not a very refreshing drink, but it was sweet, and his bringing it made it sweeter. "I believe I have you down for the dance after the next," she said.
"Have you? Thank you for telling me. I shall be looking forward to it." He smiled. In a moment Mr. Stern came to claim her for his dance. She enjoyed it very much -- he was so much more comfortable to be with than the Duke! But she felt as if she were dancing on sunbeams when she danced at last with Mr. Richmond. He conversed very pleasantly, and his touch on her arm was quite pleasant as well. And to top it all off, he was so very handsome! Annabelle glanced around the room. She was still watched by many people -- her novelty had not yet worn off. She noticed that some of the ladies in waiting were particularly attentive, and she also noticed the Duke. He had been busy with other people, and with the King and Queen, and was unable to return before she began dancing again. She had seen him looking vaguely displeased while she danced with Stern, but he was absolutely glowering now, and the look on his face made her tremble so that she missed a step, and stumbled a little.
"Why Annabelle," said Richmond, "are you all right?"
"Oh yes, it is nothing," she said, and tried to smile and be herself again. But she grew more and more disconcerted when she saw the Duke go to her aunt, and begin speaking angrily to her.
Thankfully, Annabelle could not hear the conversation:
"Lady Sainte-Maure, what do you mean by this?"
"By what Your Grace? What do you mean? How have I offended?"
"You would throw your niece away on a cheese-farmer?"
"She has her little fancies, perhaps, Your Grace, but nothing will come of it. She is intelligent enough to know that he is not worth notice."
"Yet you let her waste her time with that riff raff?"
"I have tried Your Grace, to put an end to it, but one cannot be everywhere at functions such as this. You may rest assured I will speak to her about it." Lady Sainte-Maure looked nervous.
"You will speak to her, Lady Sainte-Maure. You will do more than speak. You will forbid her to see that young man. I do not want her to associate with him. Do you understand me? I believe I have some right to say so -- I take a great interest in her, and if she has not become too tainted, you may find yourself the aunt of a duchess soon enough."
Lady Sainte-Maure's eyes grew wide. "I will do everything in my power, Your Grace," she said. "My niece will not see him again. And you need not worry -- she has seen very little of him as it is, and at any rate, she knows her place. Please do not give up on her -- she is very young, that is all."
"Please do stop rambling, Lady Sainte-Maure. I have made my demand and you have acquiesced. There is nothing more to be said about it." He bowed curtly and walked away. Lady Sainte-Maure was unable to speak again for a full 10 minutes she was so astonished.
Soon enough, Richmond brought Annabelle back from the dance floor. When they reached Lady Sainte-Maure, he said, "May I bring you anything, Lady Sainte-Maure, Lady Annabelle?"
Annabelle was opening her mouth to respond, when her aunt interrupted, "No, sir. We do not require anything. You may leave us."
Annabelle looked at her in great surprise, and then looked at Richmond. With a steely expression, he bowed to Lady Sainte-Maure, and with a softer one he bowed to Annabelle. "Very well ma'am," he said, and walked away.
"Aunt Sophie!" cried Annabelle when he was out of hearing. "Whatever made you say such a thing?"
"Don't take airs with me, you goose," she replied. "How dare you question me? Do you realize the sort of talk you have been subjecting yourself to? You disgrace yourself, and me, and the fair name of your dead uncle with your behavior."
"Don't interrupt me! I have told you before, that Mr. Richmond is not worthy of your notice, and I tell you now that you are forbidden to see him again. Forbidden! Do I make myself clear? Your shining prospects will not be sullied by his cheesy hands."
"Oh!" Annabelle turned away, but Lady Sainte-Maure held her by the arm, and pulled her back.
"I will have you married to the Duke of Chambertin," she hissed, "if it is the last thing I do!"
Annabelle was absolutely stunned, and the tears rose quickly to her eyes.
"Stop crying, you aggravating girl! I won't have your eyes all puffy and red when the people that matter look at you!"
Annabelle did her best to pull herself together, not wanting to go to pieces in front of so many people, but it was very difficult. Her aunt's words had been a dreadful blow to her, and she knew that she would be thoroughly miserable for the rest of the night.
The Duke escorted them to supper, as he had before, but Annabelle could not feel any of the excitement that she had on that night. Her senses were dulled and her appetite gone, so that the wine tasted like water and the cheese -- which was the finest Richmond cheese, of course -- was entirely unpalatable.
In the middle of the supper, King Lorenzo stood up, and the footmen rang the golden cowbells to signal an announcement.
"My dear guests," he said, "you may have guessed by now why my Queen and I have gathered you here tonight to celebrate with us," here he smiled at her and patted her shoulder, "but I wish to announce it formally. Queen Beatrice, paragon of wifely virtue and queendom, is soon to be granted a new honor -- that of motherhood! Let us drink, my friends, to the Queen, and the forthcoming heir to the throne of Kalebeth!"
A cheer went up throughout the room, and even Annabelle was roused out of her gloom long enough to feel happy for the King and Queen. The ladies in waiting were applauding wildly, and one of them, whom Annabelle recognized as Lady Julia, seemed to be almost weeping. She glanced at the Duke, and saw that he was only smiling a bit, despite the fact that he was now relieved of the unhappy position he had explained to Annabelle the last time they met. Lady Sainte-Maure looked quite pleased, but if Annabelle had known what was passing through her aunt's mind, she would have shuddered. Lady Sainte-Maure was also thinking about wifely virtue and honors, and regal heirs -- Annabelle's. The possibility of Annabelle's becoming Queen one day, which had flitted about in the aunt's brain, was now gone, in view of the monarchs' announcement, but a duchess was nothing to sneeze at, especially when she was the wife of the most powerful man in the country second only to the King. She smiled as she thought of it.
Lady Sainte-Maure and Annabelle did not stay very long after supper -- Annabelle did not have the spirit for socializing any more, and her aunt did not want her to have any opportunities to speak with her inferiors. They went home, and a stony silence filled the carriage. Once in her room, Annabelle could not hold back her feelings any longer -- she told the whole of it to Clara, who was very sympathetic, and gave her some hot milk and put her to bed.
Annabelle awoke early the next morning -- much earlier than she had intended to. As she wondered what ever could have woken her, she suddenly became aware of the sound of ringing church bells. It seemed as if every church bell in the city was tolling. Such a mournful sound! Curious, she went downstairs to see if anyone knew what it was about. The other members of the household were standing in the hall, talking.
"What is happening?" asked Annabelle.
"Pierce, the butler, has been sent out to find the answer to that, miss," the servants answered. Annabelle went into the drawing room, to look out the window. People were running about in the street, and suddenly Pierce burst through the front door.
"What is it? What's happened?" everyone shouted, gathering around them.
Catching his breath, he motioned them to be silence. "Good God," he gasped. "The Queen is dead!"
Queen Beatrice's sudden demise was a terrible shock to the country. And even more shocking were the rumors that began to circulate in the few days after the news came down from the palace -- that the Queen had been murdered. It was a horrible thought -- after all, who in the whole of Kalebeth, or the world for that matter, could want her dead? No one had a bad word to say about her; she was cheerful and kind to all. Yet the naysayers were hard pressed to come up with another answer. The Queen was relatively young, and had been in the best of health when she met her end. And she had been so happy, anticipating the birth of her first child! That fact only escalated the tragedy of the whole matter. The poor King was beside himself with grief. He put to the doctors the question that the entire country was asking, and they replied that it could have simply been her heart -- or it could very well, and indeed most likely, have been poison.
But King Lorenzo was a practical man. His first priority was to see that his wife was laid to rest in the manner she deserved. Afterwards, he would see about an investigation. The casket itself was worth as much as the cost of an entire royal funeral -- it was constructed of the finest materials, and covered with gold and ivory and all sorts of precious gems. While it was being prepared, the Queen was laid out in her own room for the family, her ladies, and select members of the court to privately come and mourn. Once the funeral arrangements were settled, she was put in the Great Hall of the palace so that the rest of the court, and then the public at large, could come and pay their respects before the funeral, which would be held the next day.
Annabelle and Lady Sainte-Maure were among the first tier of people admitted to the Great Hall, and as she stood before the jeweled coffin, Annabelle could not prevent the tears from forming in her eyes. She had not known the Queen well at all, personally, but the few times she had been in her company, Queen Beatrice had been so kind to her, simple country girl though she was, and it was dreadful to think that such a generous life had been cruelly cut short. The King sat on a platform behind the casket, watching his subjects file past. Annabelle thought she had never seen a truer picture of grief.
The funeral the next morning was a grand, but somber, affair. It was held in the great cathedral of Romagnola, where the King and Queen had attended services every Sunday. The church was completely filled with mourners, and hundreds more lined the streets outside, waiting for the funeral procession to pass. The Queen's coffin was there at the front of the church, in all its sad splendor, and the King sat off to one side of it. On either side of him and a little behind, sat the Duke of Chambertin, as the King's nearest relation and representing the royal family (and indeed he virtually comprised it), and Lady Julia, the Queen's closest friend and representing the Ladies in Waiting. The three of them spoke not, nor did they take their eyes from the coffin as the organist played a hauntingly mournful song and everyone took their seats.
Annabelle was amazed by it all, and she attempted to discreetly turn her head and look around, and see who else was present. She caught sight of Eleanor and the Admiral several rows behind, and with a slight jerk of her head Eleanor motioned her to look farther back. Annabelle looked, and managed to get a glimpse of Richmond before her aunt pinched her arm and hissed at her to face forward. The ceremony began, and Annabelle was deeply touched by the elegant simplicity of it, which seemed to so well match Queen Beatrice's personality.
To be sure, the King likely could not have borne up under a more complicated ceremony. During the eulogy, he sat with his head in his hand, and had to dab at his face with his handkerchief now and then. Lady Julia, as well, had tears streaming down her face, though she sat up straight, and listened bravely, determined to perform respectfully this last service to her friend. The Duke put a hand on the King's shoulder at the especially stirring moments of the speech, and in truth, he seemed greatly affected himself. Annabelle was astonished to see such feeling in him. He did not make a show of his grief, with wailing and tears, which she would have suspected as insincere, but there was deep grief in his manner and expression.
There was much sniffling in the audience as well -- Queen Beatrice had been universally loved, and it was almost too much for her devoted subjects to bear. Annabelle could hear the Admiral occasionally blowing his nose behind her, and even Lady Sainte-Maure's handkerchief did not go unused. Towards the back of the nave, Richmond was sitting at the end of a row. He was attending carefully to what was being said, and so he was quite surprised when suddenly a note was flung into his lap. He looked around, thinking he heard a shuffling of skirts, but he saw no one. Quietly, he opened the paper. The message was hastily scrawled, and difficult to make out. It read:
Beware! He knows. You are in danger -- leave Romagnola immediately. All will be explained in two days' time
There was an address at the end, of an old cowshed on one of the more secluded roads out of town. There was no signature, and he did not know the hand. Richmond frowned, and folded up the note and put it in his pocket.
At the close of the eulogy, there was a profound silence throughout the church. After a moment, the Duke rose to make a statement on behalf of the King, a task he had been given earlier that morning, the King not feeling able to do it himself. Annabelle was greatly moved as he spoke. His voice broke more than once, and Annabelle's heart went out to him. He seemed so deeply sorrowful, and spoke so eloquently of Queen Beatrice, that Annabelle began to believe she had misjudged him. He felt deeply; she was sure of it. The Chambertin now speaking was nothing like the cold and haughty man she thought she knew. He was so warm in his praise, and so decided in his vow to bring her murderer to justice, that she began to wonder if there had been some history of which she was unaware. He spoke as if Queen Beatrice had been his own sister, or even something more -- perhaps he had even been in love with her! All sorts of romantic ideas swept through Annabelle's mind, as she considered this side of the Duke that had been invisible to her before.
When all was concluded, there was a grand procession out of the church. The coffin was conveyed, slowly and reverently, out and through the streets to the royal tomb, where Queen Beatrice was finally laid to rest. Annabelle was quiet and pensive during the carriage ride home, and still quiet when they were back in the comfort of their house. She absent mindedly sat down while her aunt went to see about tea, and was only startled back into consciousness when her aunt returned to the room and banged her fist on the table to wake her up.
Annabelle did not feel like sitting at tea with her aunt. The funeral had been a very sad event and very draining. In her little time at court, she had come to see how the Queen was such a presence among the other nobles and royals. Many people had turned up for the funeral, and even more lined the streets as the coffin passed by. Everyone was mourning the loss of so great a lady. Her reverie was interrupted, however, when the tea was brought by one of the servants. She smiled her gratitude and the maid Betsy curtsied to her. Annabelle hated having people waiting on her all the time. She felt like she should at least get to know the servants, even if her aunt disapproved. The more she thought of it, the more she realized that there wasn't much that her aunt did approve. "Annabelle dear?"
"Yes Aunt Sophie?"
"This is a very trying time for this country and I want you to be on your best behavior. The Duke is going to need all your support right now to get through this grief.
"Surely the Duke will not be able to spare time for me. There is so much to do with the investigation and his new duties. I am sure that he is distraught, but he certainly will not continue his courtship now." Annabelle was hoping that this was the case more so than she knew it to be.
"Annabelle, the Duke knows that since there will no longer be an heir to the throne unless the king remarries, and that does not seem likely. His marriage was not just of convenience. He truly loved the Queen a great deal and it was not without some arguing with his parents that he was finally allowed to marry her instead of one of the nobles of the court or a member of royalty from another country. Don't tell me you don't know how significant this event is. He is the heir to the throne, and it is his duty to marry and produce and heir."
"Aunt Sophie! How can you be so heartless? The Queen has not been dead a week and you care more how you can benefit from this sad event. Please excuse me, but I believe I will go practice my pianoforte." Annabelle did not stay to listen to what her aunt had to say.
In the music room, Annabelle sat at the piano and played a mournful tune. She did not think the death of the Queen would have affected her so greatly. She did not really know the woman, but there was something about that lady that drew Annabelle to her. She saw the love that the Queen bestowed on everyone, from the King and her ladies down to the lowly servants that waited upon her. She wondered at the story of the King and Queen. Her aunt had said that their marriage was not looked well upon by the King's parents. She was curious and wondered where she would be able to find out the story. Maybe Eleanor would know. She didn't want to ask her aunt and truthfully she didn't feel like speaking with her aunt right now. She was still angry with her for refusing to allow her to see Mr. Richmond. All she really cares about is social status and she cannot see beyond a title. She was surprised that she was allowed to maintain her friendships with anyone who didn't move in the highest circles or have a title. At least Eleanor was willing to help her to meet Mr. Richmond in secret. To the outside world and to the eyes of her aunt, it would look like she was accepting the Duke's attentions, but secretly she was with the man she really loved. Thinking that she would not be missed, she slipped out of the room and went to get her coat, bonnet, and gloves. She would go to see if Eleanor knew the story of the King Lorenzo and Queen Beatrice, but just as she was about to go out the door, she was prevented by someone else calling on them. Hoping that she could avoid staying she ducked into a drawing room, but little did she know that her aunt was in that very room.
"Where do you think you are going, Annabelle, without informing me?" Her aunt was looking at her with a stern glance waiting for an answer.
"I thought I would call on Eleanor this afternoon and I didn't want to bother anyone. I am perfectly capable of walking the short distance to her house. There was no need to trouble any of the servants who have plenty to do already."
"Whatever can you mean? The servants are here to serve you. That is their job, so it would not have been any trouble for you to call them. Also, you should never leave this house without informing anyone, especially now with a killer afoot. I am sick and tired of this disobedience. Your uncle must be rolling over in his grave knowing how little respect you have for all that he has given you." Annabelle tried to prevent the tears from falling down her cheeks, but she couldn't. There had been so much happening to her in the past few days, that all the grief just overwhelmed her. She tried to stop herself as her aunt told her that proper ladies did not cry. She was interrupted, however, by the announcement of the guest that Annabelle had almost avoided a few moments ago. "Dry your tears. You are not fit to be seen."
"The Duke of Chambertin." Pierce announced to the ladies. Annabelle gasped and wiped away the tears on her cheek. Her sniffling stopped, but the tears continued to fall.
"Good day Lady Sainte-Maure, Lady Annabelle."
"Oh your Grace, allow me to convey my deepest condolences. I know you were very close to the Queen. Please forgive Annabelle here. She seems overtaken with grief today. Please do sit down." The Duke looked over to Annabelle who tried to give him a smile. Instead of sitting in the seat offered by Lady Sainte-Maure, he went to Annabelle and gave her his handkerchief. He sat down next to her and went about comforting her. Lady Sainte-Maure meanwhile was thrilled with the actions of the Duke. Perhaps Annabelle's emotions were good for something.
"My dear Lady Annabelle. I know what you must be feeling. Queen Beatrice was like a sister to me. I too have been quite stricken with grief. I may look calm on the outside, but inside I am feeling just what you feel. Annabelle could not help but believe what the Duke was saying. He took her hand and she was grateful for his presence. Surprisingly he seemed to actually care about her. She still wasn't sure about him, but when she looked up, she saw that his cheeks too were wet with silent tears. She took his handkerchief and wiped them away.
"Your Grace, thank you for understanding. I know what you must be feeling and I am so sorry that our country has lost such a great woman." The Duke smiled, and for the first time Annabelle felt a connection to this man. He actually had feelings.
"Would you care to take a walk in the park with me? That is if your Aunt approves of course."
"Of course I approve. Thank you for honoring us in this way." Aunt Sophie knew that this might be the day that all her hopes would come true. Why else would the Duke want to take a walk in the park with Annabelle? She was sure that there would be a proposal before the week was out. Since Annabelle was already dressed to go out, there was no delay for the Duke. Aunt Sophie rang for Annabelle's maid to accompany them. While the Duke helped Annabelle down the steps, Aunt Sophie took Clara aside. "Now Clara, you are to accompany the Duke and Annabelle on their walk, but you are to remain at a distance so as to not cause any distress to the Duke. Do you understand girl?" Clara bobbed her head and curtsied. She quickly followed the couple out the door.
It was a pleasant day, rather inappropriate for such a day as a funeral, but then again it mirrored the Queen's sunny disposition. Annabelle thought that she must be smiling down on them and even though she was dead, was still cheering her somber countrymen. The Duke offered her his arm, and she accepted it without thinking. She was very confused as to his behavior. She didn't know what caused the transformation, but she hoped that he would not revert back to his old behavior, although this new attitude was quite unnerving. She was determined to hate the Duke because she knew she would be forced into a marriage with him. She would only marry for love and there was only one man that would fill the role of her love: David Richmond. At least the courtship with the Duke wouldn't be as unpleasant if he maintained his new behavior. Her thoughts were interrupted.
"It is a pleasant day even though it is a sad one." The Duke said as he led her along the path by the river. "I feel like it should be raining, for that would resemble the feeling of the country. I want to thank you for your kind words to me earlier. I am ashamed that I could lose control of my emotions like that. The Queen was a great lady and I will miss her a great deal. I vow here and now that I will find whoever has killed her. How could anyone take her life when she was so good to everyone? Especially when she was with child. How could anyone be so evil?" The Duke released Annabelle's arm and picked up some stones on the ground. He threw them into the water and began to pace by the water in obvious distress. Annabelle walked over to him and put her hand on his arm.
"I know how you feel. The killer will be caught and dealt with appropriately, but surely the best men in the country are out searching for the murderer. You must let those who are trained do their work."
"But how can I sit back and do nothing?" Annabelle led the Duke over to a bench under a tree and sat down next to him. She did not want to act in an improper manner, but he was in obvious need of comfort. She looked into his eyes and when he could finally speak again, he looked at her. "Thank you for putting up with me. Your comfort is just what I needed. Please forgive my behavior."
"There is nothing to forgive your Grace." The Duke smiled then stood up, offering his arm to Annabelle.
"Allow me to escort you home for I see the hour is late."
"Thank you your Grace. You must stay for supper if you are not otherwise engaged." Annabelle did not know why she invited him to stay. She knew her aunt would be pleased, but she didn't know why she was acting in the way she was.
"I would enjoy that very much. Thank you."
The next morning Annabelle woke in a good mood because she knew that she would get to see Mr. Richmond today. She was invited to luncheon with Eleanor and then Eleanor had arranged for him to call at her house that afternoon. Aunt Sophie would never know the difference. She just had to get through the morning callers before she could depart. She hoped that nobody would call because she wanted a few moments to herself to go over her time with the Duke. He was very attentive at dinner last night and had told her that he would like to see her again soon. He was going to an estate in the country for a day or two, but asked if he could call when he returned. Annabelle assured him that it would be fine and Aunt Sophie told him that he need never ask for permission to call.
After all of the callers were gone, Annabelle left to go see Eleanor. The luncheon was pleasant, but she could not wait for that afternoon when she would see her love. Eleanor noticed her distraction and smiled for she too was looking forward to that afternoon because she too had a caller that was expected.
After lunch the ladies awaited their gentlemen. Lord Barrett was the first to arrive, but Mr. Richmond was not long in following. He seemed nervous about something and Annabelle begged that he tell her what the matter was.
"I do not want to trouble you or scare you, but I fear that I may have to leave Romagnola. I received the most peculiar note. I do not know who sent it, but whoever it was is warning me that I may be in danger and that I should leave immediately. I don't know why I would be in danger, but the letter seemed to be written in great haste. I am to meet somebody tomorrow who will explain everything to me; therefore, I am sorry but I can't stay. I wanted to see you before I went. I can't bear to be apart from you. I will send you word of where I am when I get there. I know that your Aunt will not allow you to receive letters from me, so I will hide them inside of some cheese. She knows that you are fond of cheese and will think nothing of it if you have some. I will send it to Eleanor and she will give it to you. I spoke with her about this already. I hope to not be gone long, but I do not know."
"Oh David. What can this mean? Surely there is something that can be done? Are you sure this isn't a trap in itself?"
"Do not fret my love. I will be back by your side in no time." Annabelle bid him goodbye and then told Eleanor that she was going to go home. She didn't feel up to company at the moment. Eleanor and Lord Barrett said their goodbyes and Annabelle made her way home.
Before Richmond left the city, he wanted to make sure that Annabelle had something with which to remember him in case something dreadful were to happen, so he sat down at his desk and wrote her a note. He wrote what was in his heart and a better love letter could not be found in the country. Once finished, he folded it up as small as he could and then placed it inside a large chunk of Richmond Cheese. He put the two pieces together and then tied the package up. He hoped that it would not look too conspicuous. If Lady Sainte-Maure were to find out about the letter, he didn't know what would happen. Perhaps she would send her dogs out to find him, or worse she would tell the Duke and he would hunt him down. He knew that the Duke was his competitor for the hand of Annabelle, but he also knew he had the upper hand because he had her affection. He knew that she did not like the Duke and only put up with him for the sake of duty. He only hoped that love would win out in the end. He gave the package to one of the boys that worked on his farm and told him to give it to Miss. Charbray. After giving him a coin, the boy ran in the direction of the Charbray's home. Richmond then set about making his last arrangements before he made his way north.
When all was set, Richmond mounted his chestnut horse. As he was riding north, all he could think about was Annabelle. Everything around him reminded him of her. The color of the horse was like her hair, and the birds singing in the trees reminded him of her singing. Even the weather, which was sunny with not a cloud in the sky, reminded him of her ever-constant sunny disposition. "Why are you punishing me?" he yelled to the heavens. Despite the sun, the air was crisp, and Richmond was grateful for his warm wool coat, hat, and gloves. He wasn't quite sure where he was going, but he knew that if he stayed on the road, he would see the abandoned cow shed. All of the farms along the road were very well kept, so this abandoned one would be sure to stick out. Also he knew that it was roughly two miles north of the Angus farm, one of the largest cow breeders in this area of the country.
As he drew closer to the meeting point, he noticed that the air seemed to get cooler. He wasn't sure if this was God trying to be dramatic, or if evil really was lurking in the air. As he finally spotted what he thought must be the meeting point he saw several men on horses ride out to the road. He assumed that they were there to meet him. He looked at the cowshed and saw that there was a carriage as well. He could not make out the seal on the door, but he figured he would learn who it was soon enough.
The men, all on black horses, met Richmond in the road and told him to follow them to the shed where their master would like to have a few words with him. He was curious to see whom it was that had sent the note. It looked like the writing of a female, but he wasn't sure. When he entered the door, he was immediately faced with the stale air of a place long abandoned. The hay on the floor was rotten and the room smelled as if a cow had been left to die and then abandoned. He didn't know why they couldn't conduct this meeting outside, but he supposed that it was to ensure secrecy. Why then hadn't they done this at night if they didn't want to be seen? The carriage outside bore a seal, so the identity was not a secret. Richmond had forgotten to look at the seal closer before he entered the room.
Inside the room, there was a woman sitting at a bare table with a single candle on it. There was little light from the sole window. The door was shut behind him and it took a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. "Take a seat Mr. Richmond," a voice said from the corner of the room. Richmond looked in the corner, but all he saw were shadows. He looked at the woman sitting at the table and immediately recognized her as one of the ladies of the late Queen. She smiled at him and he realized that it was the same woman who came to his farm to pick up the cheese shipments for the ladies.
"Lady Margeurite, what are you doing here?" He asked. The lady smiled, but did not say anything.
"There is no time for questions. You will listen and you will obey."
"If I am to listen, I need to know to whom I am speaking." Richmond saw the shadows move. The man came closer. He wore a hat and a black cape. The material was very fine, so he was sure this man was a noble. Richmond could not make out his face until all was finally revealed as he stepped into the light. Richmond drew in a breath when he saw that it was none other than the Duke of Chambertin.
"Go wait outside in the carriage my dear." The lady stood and the Duke caressed her arm before she left the room. The two men were then left alone, if you could count being alone by being surrounded by several dark men on horseback.
"What is it you want from me?" Richmond said as the Duke took the seat recently vacated by Lady Margeurite.
"I want Lady Annabelle."
"What if Lady Annabelle doesn't want you? She knows that you are haughty and proud. Why would she want to be with you?"
"I don't care if she does like me. She will be mine. You might be mistaken about her opinion of me. We were quite comfortable with each other just the other day. Her heart is too sweet to hate anyone. I have brought you here today to give you a warning. I know you are secretly seeing her and I want that to stop. Either you sever all ties you have with her and tell her you don't love her, or that pretty little thing will die." Richmond was stunned at these words. He didn't know what to say. "It would be a shame to have to kill such a beautiful young woman, but if that is what it is going to take to get you to dump her, than I am willing to do it."
"Why would you kill her if you need her? I assume it is her money that you are after."
"Very perceptive my boy. It would be nice to have that great inheritance of hers, but I can marry another heiress if I wanted to. I am the second most powerful man in the country and next in line to the throne. Who would refuse me? I have to admit that I like Lady Annabelle. There is something about her that makes my blood run."
"You are disgusting. I hope you rot in hell before you ever lay a hand on her."
"Do you think that wise Mr. Richmond? It seems to me like I have the upper hand. You will break with her as I want you too, or I will kill her. That is, my men will kill her. I try to never kill a woman myself. I hate to see them squirm and scream unless we are involved in more pleasant activities that is. Best left to someone else. I can't bring myself to blemish a smooth and silky skin."
"You are disgusting. How dare you?"
"I suggest you do what I say then?" Richmond thought through his options and they did not seem optimistic. There was no way that he could out of this mess. The Duke had men everywhere working for him. "I will be watching you know. I have eyes everywhere." Richmond knew there was only one course of action, and as much as it pained him to do it, at least Annabelle would still be alive. He could not fathom her being married to such a man, but maybe he would by then find some way to save her. At least agreeing to this now, he would be able to buy some time to come up with a solution.
"Very well. I will break with her tomorrow. You need not worry. I will not betray you." With that the Duke laughed and sat back in his chair. The old legs squeaked under the pressure. The candle on the table cast and eerie glow on the man before him. Richmond knew that he was not a man with whom to be reckoned. He stood up and the Duke followed suit. Richmond waited for the Duke to leave the room, but the Duke waved him away. Perhaps he had other people to threaten that day and he was only a single meeting of many.
The light from outside was quite bright and Richmond had to shield his eyes until they adjusted. When he could finally see, he noticed that the weather had made a turn for the worse. There were several gray clouds that had moved in and the breeze had picked up. He knew that it would be either rain or snow and he prayed that it was snow. The snow at least would not be as wet and would not soak through his coat as fast. The men that were on horses greeted him when he came out of the room. All were dressed in dark capes and hats and had the look of evil about them. So theses were the Duke's henchmen. Richmond did not dare look into the eyes of any of them. He instead jumped onto his horse. He dreaded what he would have to do once he got back into town. How could he break Annabelle's heart? He rode away from the building and was glad to be away from that menacing crowd. As he was riding rain started falling from the sky in large drops. He knew that at any moment the sky would open up and pour down upon him. He only hoped that it would hold off until he made it back, but he had a two-hour ride ahead of him and the sky looked ready to burst at any moment. Then it did. Never before had it rained so hard as it did at that moment. Richmond tried to pull his coat in tighter around him, but he knew it was no use. He looked around for a place of shelter, but all that he saw were flat pastures. Of course he would have to be stuck in a downpour in flattest part of the country. There was not a tree in sight that could provide some protection from the raging winds and rain. Richmond knew that if he were to make it home alive, he would need to find someplace warm and dry. Where that was, he did not know.
After riding for about fifteen minutes, he came upon a small shed that looked as if it once housed tools for the plowing of the fields. He tried the door, but it was locked. He made a complete circle around the building trying to figure a way in. When no solution presented itself, he decided that he would have to break the door down. He took all his might and ran towards the door, but it wouldn't budge. All he was left with was a sore shoulder. Whoever owned this building didn't want anyone to enter. He rubbed his shoulder then took a few more steps back and tried a second time to open the door. This time the door flung open and Richmond was able to get out of the rain. The shed had just enough room to bring his horse in as well. When all were in, he shut the door and looked around the room. There were several old blankets on the floor, so her wrapped himself in them to wait out the storm. Luckily, it did not last long and before he knew it, the sun was shining again. He made his way back to his farm by nightfall, but sleep was not in his future. He paced around his room trying to figure out how he was going to tell Annabelle that he didn't love her and that they were through, but he knew that it would be impossible for him to sound convincing when all he had to do is look at her and he would melt. He didn't know how he would be able to stand to see her cry, as he was quite sure that she would. He tossed and turned all night and when the cock crowed to welcome the new day, Richmond had not gone to sleep. Sleep was futile, so he got up ate some breakfast against the protest of his stomach and went to the park to do some thinking. He had to figure out a way to meet Annabelle in a public place where she could not make too much of a scene. At least then he would not be totally alone with her. He made his way to the park where he knew she took a walk everyday with her maid and he hoped that he would run into her.
Annabelle strolled down the tree-lined lanes of the park, thoughtfully examining the dormant vegetation all around her. Clara walked along a few paces behind her, knocking at tree trunks with a stick she found, and sending little stones and pinecones flying as if it were a polo mallet. Annabelle noticed none of this, however, for her mind was filled with cheese and love notes and David Richmond's handsome face and kind voice. How lovely to be in love in the wintertime, she thought as she snuggled deeper into her fur collar. The bleakness of the day was brightened, and in every empty branch she saw the little bumps that would grow into buds, then thick leaves and flowers. She wondered when she would see him again; when he would return from wherever it was that he had gone. His confident manner had kept her from worrying much, and she was sure everything would turn out well.
In a moment she was jolted out of her reverie by Clara giving an especially hard whack on a hollow trunk, and she turned to ask her why she was making such a racket. Before she could form the words, however, she caught sight of someone standing in an avenue that branched off from the one she was walking in.
"David!" she cried, forgetting propriety in her joy to see him. They were too far apart for her to see the expression on his face very clearly, but if she had been required to guess, she would have had to say he seemed to wince. She took a few steps toward him, and waited for him to come.
Richmond's face could not show half the turmoil that raged in him. How pretty she looked there, amid the bare trees, like a star against the grey sky. She was smiling expectantly, and every bit of light that glanced from her eyes was like a dagger, plunging and twisting into his heart.
"I cannot do it," he said to himself. "I will not!" And he advanced toward her, with what he hoped was a pleasant expression. But what was that, behind the trees there? A shadow had passed, that was all. But no, there it was again -- a human shadow, his second shadow. The Duke had been true to his word -- he was being watched, and so was Annabelle. The menacing figure, still unnoticed by Annabelle, caught Richmond's eye and as he pointed to the innocent girl with one hand, made a slashing motion across his throat with the other. Richmond stopped short. For all he knew, there were more of the Duke's henchmen in the park right then, and even if there were not, there would be no stopping this one from making short work of Annabelle, and probably poor Clara too, right here and now. Richmond was unarmed, and would likely not be fast enough to save them. And what if they escaped now? The Duke was a powerful man, and Annabelle would be everyday in the greatest danger. But if he let her go, she would have a prosperous life, and want for nothing. The Duke would not hurt her if he had his way. But if he let her go, she would have a prosperous life, and want for nothing. The Duke would not hurt her if he had his way.
"Annabelle," he thought, "oh, my precious Annabelle, I hope to God that someday you will be able to forgive me for this -- someday, when you are rich and happy, and queen of this land, you will not curse me too harshly for what I am about to do." He closed his eyes, and steeled himself, then opened them again and walked steadily toward her.
"David!" she cried again, running up and taking his hands. "I am so glad you have returned! What happened? Is everything all right?"
"Yes, Lady Annabelle," he said coolly, shaking her off, "my business is in perfect order, thank you."
"Why David! What is the matter?" she stepped back, amazed.
"The matter, Lady Annabelle, is that other aspects of my life are in great disorder."
"Oh! Well, if you'll only tell me about them, David, perhaps I could help you. At least it might make you feel better to talk about your problem. Why don't we sit down?"
"You are my problem, and I would rather stand."
"I? What can you mean?"
"I am very sorry to have to speak to you here," he said, and meant it with all his heart, "for it will appear as if we have met by design."
"We have met by design before, you know."
"Yes, and I am sorry for it. I have let you compromise yourself in a most terrible fashion. It has been very wrong."
"Oh David, don't say that! You
know I'd do anything to see you! I don't care what anyone says."
"You should, however, and..."
"But I love you! You know that!"
"But I, Lady Annabelle, do not love you."
Silence. Annabelle was speechless with shock. She gasped, and stepped back, stumbling. Richmond reached out a hand to catch her, but let her go as soon as her balance was restored. Clara came running up, wielding her stick.
"What is it, miss?" she cried. "Are you all right?" She looked menacingly at Richmond.
"Please, Clara, give us a moment," said Annabelle. Clara dutifully backed away, though she continued to eye Richmond suspiciously.
"There is nothing more to say, Lady Annabelle," said Richmond.
"Oh yes there is! What has happened? Why have I lost your love?"
"You never had it. I am sorry that I gave you that impression; I fear I was simply carried away by your flattery and allowed those delusions to grow in you. I am easily attracted by a pretty face, you know."
"Those rumors about you are true, then."
"Believe what you like, it doesn't matter."
"Please, do not address me in such familiar terms. It pains me."
She put her hands to her face, and sobbed.
"Forgive me, Lady Annabelle," he said, with a bit more feeling than he perhaps should have allowed himself. He made his voice cold again however, and continued, "You know very well this trifling flirtation between us could not have amounted to anything substantial. We are far better off apart. You have your life to live, and I have mine. Goodbye, and I wish you health and happiness in the future." Without another word or look, he turned on his heel and quickly walked away.
Annabelle watched him go, though her eyes were clouded with tears. With a little cry of agony, she collapsed to the ground. Clara was at her side in an instant.
"Come home, miss, come home," she said soothingly, helping her up. "What a beast! I'll take a whack at him if you like, miss; I daresay I could catch him."
Annabelle could not speak for a minute, but she shook her head emphatically. "Let me sit down for a moment," she said at last. "Let me catch my breath before I go home." Clara led her to a bench, and she smiled gratefully as she sat down.
They were quiet for a few minutes, and then Clara whispered, "Lord, miss! I believe I see the Duke of Chambertin down the lane! He is coming this way -- sure he'll see you. Shall I tell him to be off?"
"No, but let's start home. Perhaps he won't recognize me." The young women started down the path, and were about to turn in to another lane, when they heard a voice behind them.
"Lady Annabelle!" called the Duke. She could not pretend she hadn't heard, and so she stopped, and turned around.
"Lady Annabelle," he said again, as he came up to them. "I could not pass without... Good God!" he cried. "What has happened? You have been weeping!"
"Please, Your Grace, I am quite all right, I assure you," but as she said it her voice wavered and she tumbled into tears again.
"That beast!" mumbled Clara, supporting her mistress.
"What?" said the Duke sharply.
"That beast of a young man," said Clara, oblivious to Annabelle's attempts to shush her, "said some dreadful things."
"Who is this?" said the Duke leading her back to the bench. "What brute has caused you this distress? Tell me, and I will make him pay for it!"
"No, no!" cried Annabelle. "I want no violence on my behalf."
"Then tell me," said the Duke soothingly, "so that I may know how to comfort you."
She looked up at him, and he smiled into her red, puffy eyes.
"My little woes could not possibly interest you, sir," she said.
He glanced up at Clara. "Will you stand by, please? I shall call you when you are needed again." Clara curtseyed and moved off some little distance. "Now, Lady Annabelle," he continued, "I assure you, anything that touches you, for good or ill, touches me. Do, tell me what is wrong -- perhaps I can help you."
He gently took her hands, and in her misery she was very grateful for any kindness. "A... a friend, Your Grace," she said, trying to choose her words carefully, "has... revoked his friendship, and I don't know why. He said he never cared for me..." Here she broke off, and sobbed again. The Duke put his arm around her, and she cried into his greatcoat.
"There, there, my dear," he said softly. "It is a terrible thing to be betrayed, to have one's trust deceived. There is nothing worse than a man who breaks faith with another. I must say, Lady Annabelle, that you needn't hide behind words like ‘friend' and ‘friendship.' I have long known I had a rival for your affections. It saddened me greatly, I admit to you, for I have so much to offer you, and -- well. It grieves me to see you so grieved. And yet, in a small way, I have some reason for gladness. This man's disloyalty gives me an opportunity to demonstrate my constancy. Do not despair, my girl. There are others who care for you, if he does not."
Annabelle spluttered a little, and turned her innocent, vulnerable little face up to him again.
"Dry your eyes, now," he said, handing her his handkerchief. "We must get you home before you catch cold. What a dreary day this is!" He motioned to Clara to come back, and the three of them made their way back to the Sainte-Maure townhouse. As they walked, Annabelle looked around at the trees with very different thoughts than the ones she had had only a little while before. In the empty branches, which had been full of promise then, she saw only a mirror of the desolation of her heart.
When they reached the house, the Duke stayed and talked with Lady Sainte-Maure while Clara hurried Annabelle upstairs unseen. Annabelle did not come down for dinner; she claimed a headache. She spent a wretched night. In her mind's eye she saw over and over and over again the conversation with Richmond. She could think of nothing else, and in the gloomiest watches of the night she felt that she simply could not bear the pain. She was greatly surprised when morning dawned, and she realized she had slept a little. The sleep had brought her no rest, however, and she was tired and listless that day, unwilling to do anything or see anyone. Lady Sainte-Maure, after her chat with the Duke the day before, attributed it to lovesickness, which was true, of course, though in a way she did not suspect. She smiled at her niece throughout the day, and told her she was doing well, but warned her not to behave so in front of the Duke.
In another day or so, Annabelle's tears were spent. Her eyes were dry -- she simply could not weep anymore. As the sharp pain of grief turned into a bitter ache, she began to feel as angry as she had felt shocked and sorrowful at first. How could he have treated her so? How could he have told her he loved her, and led her to believe he did by all his words and actions, and then abandon her so cruelly and abruptly? It was a vicious thing he had done, and she could not understand it, and she gave up trying to understand. She told the whole sad story to Eleanor, who was equally appalled. Eleanor ranted and raved, and stormed about the room declaring she was ashamed to have ever let such a monster into her house. She begged Annabelle's forgiveness for encouraging the affair, and promised to cut him whenever she saw him in public from now on. Annabelle felt a little better to have her friend's support, yet she knew there would be no returning to her former high spirits.
The Duke began to call more often, much to Lady Sainte-Maure's delight. Annabelle was not displeased to see him. He was proud and arrogant, to be sure, and she still felt a twinge of uneasiness when she was with him, but he was kinder to her than Richmond had been, at any rate.
One afternoon, they were walking in the vineyard behind Lady Sainte-Maure's house. The Duke had been carrying the conversation for quite some time, which was not unusual, but this time he had been making an effort to draw Annabelle out of herself, which was not easy these days.
"Do you know," he remarked, "that this is the oldest vineyard in Romagnola?"
"No, I did not know."
"It's quite legendary, really. Has no one ever told you the story of your uncle?"
"Aunt Sophie has told me he was a great and well-respected man, but no more than that."
"He was that, certainly. Your uncle was, perhaps, the greatest entrepreneur of his day. He was the man who brought wine to Kalebeth, and introduced us to the palatable pairing that has made our nation's success."
Annabelle looked up with curiosity.
"Yes," continued the Duke, glad to have finally hit upon something that interested her. "Kalebeth was a dry nation of tea drinkers once -- we thought we were contented with our milk and cheese -- and then one day your uncle arrived, with his first crop of grapes, and our little land has never been the same since." He plucked a leaf from the arbor. "It is lovely when the grapes are ripe, is it not?" he asked. "Your uncle bought up as much land as he could here in the city, and planted our first vine. And when his finest wine met our farmers' finest cheese... well, it was a blessed day. There are now many vineyards across the countryside. Lord Sainte-Maure is partially responsible for the prosperity our land enjoys today. It is a great inheritance for you, Lady Annabelle."
"I did not realize that," she mused.
"Lady Annabelle, do you realize that I love you?" he stopped suddenly, and looked at her intently.
"Your Grace!" she cried, not knowing what else to say.
"My dear Annabelle, you have captured my heart, and I cannot rest until you tell me one thing. Will you consent to be my wife? May I have the honor and utmost joy of one day soon calling you my duchess?"
Annabelle trembled with astonishment. This tall and handsome and formidable man, the most powerful man in the country, wanted to marry her! She could not help but be reminded of course, that very recently she had been hoping for a proposal to come from quite a different quarter. She heard Richmond's voice saying, ‘I do not love you,' and dropped her eyes.
"Annabelle," said the Duke in a low voice, gently taking her hand and pressing it persuasively to his lips, "do not torture me -- your next word decides my fate."
She felt his eyes so intense, so concentrated on her, that she wanted to draw back, but couldn't. At last she found her voice. "Yes, sir," she said, raising her eyes to him, "I will marry you."
Annabelle lowered her head, feeling suddenly dizzy. It was done; she was engaged to the Duke. He took her chin in his hand, and gently raised her face.
"Annabelle, my love, you have made me the happiest man in the kingdom." He set a seductively light kiss upon her mouth. "Lips as sweet as wine," he mused. "Is that how the saying goes?"
"I do not know, Your Grace," she said in confusion.
"Now now, Annabelle," he said, as they began walking slowly back to the house, "none of this formality. You may call me Chambertin now."
"Thank you sir." But Annabelle's mind was too full to allow her to give much notice to this generous concession. She was thinking of the last time Richmond had kissed her, and the tears rose in her eyes. One or two rolled down her cheek before she could stop them. She wiped them away quickly, hoping the Duke would not see, but he did.
"Why these tears, my love? I dare not flatter myself they are tears of joy." He stopped and looked full in her face.
Startled, Annabelle could only stammer, "It is a day of much emotion, sir. I... I have never been engaged before." She winced at this last bit, but it was too late. The Duke merely smiled pleasantly, however, and said,
"No? Well, I am glad of it. I shall go in to ask Lady Sainte-Maure's consent immediately, if that is acceptable to you."
"Yes, of course," she replied. Though it was a moot point, of course -- was there any doubt of her aunt's approval?
They went into the house, and the Duke begged a private interview with Lady Sainte-Maure in the late earl's study. Annabelle paced in the drawing room, still unsure what to make of it all. In a moment she heard her betrothed's footstep in the hall. He stopped in the doorway, smiled, made a gallant bow, and promised to return tomorrow. He had been gone only a few seconds when a noise like a small scream was heard in the study. Annabelle was going to investigate, when her aunt quite literally bounded into the room. Annabelle had never seen the old woman move so quickly, nor look so animated. Fearing her aunt would have some sort of apoplectic fit, she shouted over the woman's incoherent cries of glee, "Aunt Sophie! For heaven's sake, please sit down!" She tried to lead her to a sofa, but her aunt would not be subdued.
"My dear girl, my dearest dearest girl!" Lady Sainte-Maure said, when at last she could speak rationally. She took her niece's hands and squeezed them joyfully. "This is the proudest day of my life! Oh, if your uncle had only lived to see this! You have done a great thing for your family, Annabelle." She stopped for breath, and Annabelle used the pause to make her sit down at last.
"Aunt Sophie, are you all right? Shall I send for some tea? Or do you require brandy?"
"No, no my girl. I have not been so happy in years and years! You have made me proud, so very proud! You could not have done better if you had engaged to marry the king's son himself."
"There is no such person, aunt."
"No, and that is the very wonder of it -- the effect will be just the same! To think, the House of Sainte-Maure will be united with the Royal House! For a country bumpkin, Annabelle, you have proved worthy of your ancestors. You will be the richest lady in the land, and will heap honor upon the family name!" She carried on in this manner for some time, and Annabelle was forced to sit and listen to her. At last, however, a visitor came for her aunt, and Annabelle escaped to her own room. In a few minutes, she slipped back downstairs and away to see Eleanor, for she felt she would burst if she did not speak to someone.
Upon hearing the news, Eleanor was speechless for a full minute. At last however, she gave her friend a squeeze and said that she certainly deserved a duke, after the way she had been treated.
"I don't know why someone as grand as he should care about me, Elly, but there you have it," said Annabelle.
"Of course he cares for you! You must stop thinking of yourself as a nobody. I am so happy for you! Just think -- how grand you will be!"
"Yes, he has said his estate is very large."
"Lord, Annabelle! Of course it is -- he has lands all over the country. And the palace! You will being going often to the palace, and will be in company with the King, and will dine with him all the time."
"Yes, I suppose so," said Annabelle, perking up a little.
"And you will be so very rich! Think of all the jewels and carriages and head of cattle you will have! You will never want for anything. And what's more," Eleanor said with a telling look, "your aunt will never again have reason to lecture you. And if she does, you can toss her into the dungeon."
Annabelle laughed. "Yes, it does sound rather good, the way you put it. I was unsure about it when I came, but you have cheered me up very much."
"Unsure!" cried Eleanor. "Annabelle, this is a chance that you should not pass up. And I'll be able to say I knew you when you first came here!" A thought struck her. "But Annabelle, you will not forget me, will you, when you become great? You will not think me too far beneath you?"
"Gracious, Elly," said Annabelle. "None of this will change our friendship." They chatted for a little while longer, until Annabelle decided she should start for home, before her aunt noticed she was missing. Talking to Eleanor had certainly been a help, as she had anticipated. She went home feeling much more optimistic about the marriage than she had been when she left.
The Duke called the next day, as promised, and was very charming. The day after that, he brought Annabelle to see the King, to whom he had already related the news of the engagement. Annabelle was extremely anxious about this second presentation, especially in the light of recent events. But as she walked up to him in the Great Hall, with the Duke at her side, King Lorenzo stood and came down to meet her.
"My dear Lady Annabelle," he said with a wistful smile, "It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to our family. There will be youth and life again in these halls, and I am very glad of it."
Elegantly engraved cards announcing the engagement were soon sent out throughout the kingdom. Mr. Richmond, who had not left his farm ever since his last interview with Annabelle, received one of course, and he tossed it into the fire. He threw himself just as carelessly into a chair, and miserably watched the little card burn. He could not bear to think of Annabelle marrying anyone else, and yet he knew he had driven her to it, though it was for her own safety. She must hate him. He could not blame her for hating him -- after all, that was the effect he had been trying to produce, to save her life. But the idea of it broke his heart, just the same. The look on her face when he saw her last would haunt him till his dying day. If only she knew why he had done it! She might be able to forgive him, then.
As the paper in the hearth disintegrated into ash and dispersed in smoke, he wondered, why should she not know? His eyes widened. It might ease both of their minds, to have the truth known between them. She was safe now, he thought wildly. The Duke had carried his point, the wedding would take place. Why not tell her? He would not give the details of the Duke's threats, no, he would only tell her he had been made to understand it was for her own good. He would only beg forgiveness for the way he had spoken to her.
Desperately he leapt from his chair, and sought out paper and a pen. He wrote and rewrote, and rewrote again, till the fire had burned itself out. His note ran thus:
I have heard the news that you are to be married. I am glad you will be so well settled. That being so, I feel it is possible for me now to explain some of my past conduct. What I said to you that day in the park was not true, Annabelle, and I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me that lie when you know the cause of it. I had all the best intentions toward you, but I could not help but see that the Duke of Chambertin was my rival for your hand, my very powerful rival. After much deliberation and debate, it became clear to me that I could never offer you the security and prosperity that he is able to give you. I am only a cheese farmer, and you are already a great lady. I gave you up, Annabelle, because I could not stand between you and the life you deserve. Believe me, that your happiness has been my sole motivation, and that I wish you happy and well for the rest of your life.
Carefully, Richmond folded up the note and placed it within a wheel of cheese, as he had done with the last note he sent her. "A cheese of truth, a peacemaking cheese," he murmured to himself. He packed up the cheese and wrote out an address label, and sent it off, hoping fervently for its success.
Annabelle was sitting in the drawing room with the Duke, when a maid came in carrying a large, round package.
"Parcel come for you, miss," she said.
Annabelle thanked her, and took it with curiosity. She was very startled when she opened it and discovered a cheese.
"Who brought this?" she asked quickly.
"A boy from Miss Charbray's, miss," answered the maid. "You don't suspect it's poisoned, do you?" she said with wide eyes. It was a common fear in Romagnola these days.
"No, no. Not at all," said Annabelle, and dismissed her. "Would you like a piece of cheese, sir?" she said to her guest, with some confusion.
"Thank you, no," he replied, noticing that it looked very much like Richmond cheese.
Annabelle stood up and brought it to a table. "I'll just set it here, then, for now," she said, with her back to him. Hastily she pulled it apart. There was a paper there, just as she suspected. She unfolded it and saw the signature. She uttered a little sound of displeasure, and crumpled up the note. What on earth could he want now? Probably money, or a preferment at court, or something, now that she was in a position to influence those things. Oh no, you don't, she thought, I've had enough of this from you. She flounced across the room to the fireplace, near which the Duke was sitting, and threw the little paper into the flames, unread.
"May I ask, my dear, what that was?" said the Duke lightly. Annabelle had returned to her seat with a discomfited expression.
"It was a note, sir, from Mr. Richmond."
"Does he always send a message with his dairy shipments?"
She was held by his searching eyes, and was unable to lie. "We have communicated by such means, sir," she said, dropping her head, "in past times."
"A clever young man," said the Duke, in the same light tone. "What did this missive say, if it is not too bold of me to inquire?"
"I don't know, sir, I didn't read it. I am still too..." she stopped herself, not wanting to say something that would offend him and bring her aunt's wrath down upon her.
"I understand completely, my love," he said, reassuringly. "You have not forgotten the injury he has done you. That is quite natural. You have done well, to burn it. Be assured, my dear, that soon you will be in a place where he will not be able to get at you. You will rise even higher above him than you already are, and that must give you some satisfaction." The Duke smiled, and Annabelle smiled, greatly relieved that he was not angry at her emotional response.
The Duke certainly was not angry with her -- in fact, he thought her quite charming when she rushed angrily to the hearth with a flushed face and a few strands of hair coming undone. He was very angry, however, with Richmond. Annabelle's state of mind had been an immense stroke of luck. Who knew what might have happened, if she had read the note? He would have very gladly fished it out of the ashes, to see if he could read any of it, if she had gone out of the room for a moment. But he was left to wonder, and he wondered what other tricks Richmond might be up to.
The next day, Annabelle received an unexpected visit from Eleanor. Her friend hurried into the room, flustered and agitated.
"What is it, Elly?"
"Oh! Have you not heard the news?"
"News? What news?"
"They have arrested the Queen's murderer!"
"They have? That is very good news indeed. I hope they lock him away forever, or chop off his head. Do you know who it was?"
Eleanor nodded dismally. "Oh Annabelle," she said, "It is David Richmond."
Annabelle was shocked. Utterly shocked. "Say again?"
"David Richmond, our Mr. Richmond. Oh, I cannot believe I was assisting a murderer in his suit to you! Good Lord! Think what might have happened!"
"But what possible reason could he have for killing Queen Beatrice?"
"She didn't pay him enough for his cheese, who knows?" answered Eleanor. "I only know that they have put an end to the investigation, and have put him in prison."
"Oh Elly!" Annabelle could say nothing more. How could it be? Had she really misjudged him so much? Everything she had once believed about him seemed to be crashing to the ground. How could she have been so foolish as to think she knew him? How could she have been so easily deceived? Had she really loved a murderer? The thought made her shudder. It was all too terrible, and she still could not completely bring herself to believe it, though she could not doubt Eleanor's truthfulness.
The bell rang and the Duke of Chambertin was announced. "Ask him," whispered Eleanor as he came into the room. "He was in charge of the investigation, you know."
The Duke made a stately bow, and they all sat down. The Duke began to make small talk, hoping Miss Charbray would leave. Eleanor kicked her friend's foot several times, until she spoke up.
"Is it true, sir?" she asked timidly, but earnestly, "about the Queen's killer being found?"
"Yes, it is," he replied. "It is most regrettable, that a young man of such promise as Mr. Richmond should throw himself away by these means, but it is so. You can imagine how much it honors me to be the bringer of justice for our beloved late monarch. You need not fear, ladies; Richmond is no longer a threat to the peace of our kingdom. He will pay for his crime."
"What are you going to do with him?" asked Annabelle.
"Those details will be decided at some future time," said the Duke, with a dismissive wave of his hand. He examined his fingernails unconcernedly, but gave a quick glance in her direction. "Your feelings must be rather disarranged, Lady Annabelle," he said, looking back at his hand. "I understand that very well. In fact, that is one cause of my visit here this morning." Satisfied that his manicure was in order, he looked back at the ladies. "I have come to issue an invitation," he announced. "Will you excuse us, Miss Charbray? Where is Lady Sainte-Maure, Annabelle?"
"She ... she is in her room, I believe. I will call her."
The Duke nodded, and Annabelle and Eleanor walked out of the room. Seeing the embarrassed and apologetic look on her friend's face, Miss Charbray whispered, "Think nothing of it. Only tell me all about it, wherever he takes you!" Annabelle nodded and said goodbye.
A few minutes later, the Duke stood before Lady Sainte-Maure and Annabelle, proposing an excursion to an estate in the country belonging to him. "I want my new bride to have as much chance as possible to become accustomed to the new homes at her disposal."
"Why of course, Your Grace," said Lady Sainte-Maure, "we are extremely honored, and will be delighted to accompany you. We are most grateful." Annabelle thanked him as well, in her quieter manner, and the date was set for the journey into the country.
The carriage ride was not an easy one for Annabelle. Both her aunt and the Duke were great talkers, and she could not have gotten a word of her own in, even if she had wished to join in their conversation, which, as it happened, was quite dull to her. She felt partially rewarded for her suffering, however, when finally the Duke's great house came into sight. It was a magnificently large building, and it even seemed to have towers. It was set on a massive expanse of lawn, and was the only structure for miles. It was some time after she caught a first glimpse of it that they actually reached the drive. But at last she was able to escape from the coach, and the Duke led them in to an ornately decorated parlor. It had some of the finest furniture in the kingdom, he told them, but added that it was only a bachelor's parlor after all, and lacked a lady's touch. Annabelle would be welcome to make suggestions and improvements once she came to share it with him. Annabelle blushed, Lady Sainte-Maure beamed, and the Duke called for tea.
After they had taken some refreshment, the Duke proposed a tour of the house. "It is too large for me to make use of all the rooms myself, but it has a great many charming spaces, and Annabelle may have her choice of them for her own apartments." Lady Sainte-Maure protested that she was too much fatigued from the journey to take in such a large place, but would very happily await them in the parlor. Annabelle was embarrassed, but the Duke smilingly offered his arm, and she had no choice but to take it.
They wandered through room after room, and he kept up a running commentary about all of them -- what they were used for, who had used them, what type of furniture was found in each. Annabelle was rather overwhelmed by it all, but she tried to make intelligent remarks. They had gotten up to the third floor, when footsteps were heard in the corridor behind them. A servant came charging up to them and declared that His Grace had a visitor, calling on an urgent matter of business. The Duke frowned, and led Annabelle into a small drawing room.
"Wait here, will you my love? I shan't be gone long. And there is a music room at the end of the corridor, if you would like to amuse yourself there." He bowed and was gone, and she was left alone.
Annabelle found herself looking around at her surroundings. She was shocked to think that one day, this would be her house and she would be giving other people tours of it. It was all so strange. The last few days had been so surreal. She could not say that the Duke was ever unkind to her, but she sensed a preoccupation when he was with her. He did not neglect her by any means, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere. When she questioned him before, he brushed it aside, saying that he could not think of anything else when she was in the room. She smiled at this, and was flattered that he would say such a thing, but something was still wrong. Of course her aunt was overjoyed with the news and had not left her alone for two minutes together. She was always forcing her to look at patterns and arrangements. In fact, all of Romagnola seemed to be talking about their impending nuptials. She knew that the Duke was the most eligible man in town, but she did not expect so much attention. From all the married people she got the kindest sentiments, but she noticed several glares from young ladies whom she suspected had harbored hopes of being in her shoes. Eleanor had been supportive the entire time, but she still could not explain the feeling that had taken a permanent residence in her head.
Annabelle looked at her surroundings and found that everything was at the height of elegance, if a little outdated, which she assumed to be because a single man certainly wouldn't notice such things. There were dozens of paintings covering the red-fabric walls, making the room dark and masculine, suggestive of its owner. There was a large sofa in front of the fireplace and several chairs and tables. She assumed that this was probably one of the Duke's sitting rooms that he used while upstairs because it obviously lacked a female touch. She decided that the Duke probably wouldn't be returning any time soon because the business seemed quite urgent, so she let her curiosity get the best of her and she left the room to do some exploring. The hallway was long and dark. The day was somewhat cloudy, so there was not much light shining in the windows. The red velvet curtains had been drawn and Annabelle stopped to admire the view from one of the windows. Outside she saw the cattle plains below; the green pastures speckled every now and then with cattle. There were few spots where the snow of the other day had not melted and she could feel the draft from the window. The view was pretty from the hall, but the land looked so desolate in the winter. There seemed to be nothing cheerful in the gray skies and bare trees that were scarce on the plains. In the distance she saw the rolling hills that led gradually to the snow-capped peaks. The land seemed to go on forever, and she hoped one day she would be able to see all of it. In her short life thus far, she had seen very little of her country and she wanted to know what else was out there. She also hoped that one day she would get to see other countries and have other adventures.
She continued her exploration down the hall. She passed more and more portraits of ancestors. All seemed to have that same look that the Duke had. She came upon one portrait, however, that seemed different from the rest. It was not the traditional portrait, but was instead set in an outdoor scene. There was a pretty young woman sitting under a tree with a cow grazing nearby. She wondered who the woman was. She looked to see if it said anywhere, but there was no name. The woman looked sad in the painting, and Annabelle wondered why. She also wondered why such a portrait had made it into the grand hallway.
Annabelle continued down the hallway until she came to two large wooden doors. Curious as to what was behind them, she turned the handles. The door opened slowly to reveal a dark room. She stepped inside, and immediately a blush came to her face. She was in the master bedroom. Too embarrassed to move, she simply took in her surroundings. The room was very dark and done in a masculine style similar to the sitting room. Against one wall there was a great mahogany bed that seemed too large for any normal person. She thought that if she slept in it, she would be lost. In front of the fireplace, there was a chaise and two chairs. On one of the tables there was a pile of books and several letters. Not wanting to disturb anything, she turned her attention to the other side of the room. On that wall was another door. Not wanting to be caught in the room, she almost left, but her curiosity got the best of her. She walked over to the door and opened it. Inside was a dressing room where she found several articles of men's clothing, which she assumed belonged to the Duke. At the end was another door that led into another changing room, one decidedly brighter that she assumed to be for the mistress of the house. She blushed at the thought that she soon would be fulfilling that role. She decided that the room was pleasant enough, but some changes would have to be made. At the end of that room, there was yet another door, that she knew to be her future bedroom. At first she was hesitant to open it, but once again, she could not resist.
The room was pleasant, but in great need of improvement. She could tell that the room had not been disturbed in quite some time. There was a little sitting area by the fire and the walls were a pleasant cream color. The curtains matched the yellow of the bedspread and Annabelle admitted to herself that she liked the room. There was nothing foreboding in the cheerful colors. She walked around the room, and came to yet another door. She couldn't imagine what could be in there. Certainly all the rooms weren't connected to each other. She moved to the door and turned the handle. The door creaked as it opened, suggestive that it had been some time since it was last opened. The curtains were drawn in this room, and all of the furniture was covered by sheets. Annabelle walked over to one of the sheets and lifted it. She sneezed when the dust that had been resting on it flew up her nose. When she got her senses under control, she was able to see what it was. Immediately she dropped the blanket. It was a cradle. Embarrassed beyond belief, she ran from the room and down the hall. She did not want to explore any more rooms. She walked quickly down the hall, but when she looked up, she did not recognize her surroundings. She was not in the great hall, but a back hall. She supposed that it led to the servants' quarters. It must have been a way for the maids to tend to the baby without disturbing anyone. She continued down the hallway thinking that it would probably be best to turn around and go back the way she came, but she had no interest in going back into the nursery. She also wasn't sure which way she had turned in her embarrassment. Before this moment, she did not realize what would be expected of her. She would have to produce an heir for the country. This thought scared her, and she chose to put that in the back of her mind for now. She continued down the hall, but stopped suddenly. She thought that she heard a whimpering sound. Deciding that it was only her mind playing tricks on her, she continued walking, but she heard it again. There was certainly somebody crying. Annabelle tried to follow the noise. It led her down several hallways to the end of the house. The closer she got, the louder the crying. She now knew that it was certainly a person crying and a female at that. "Is someone there?" she called out. She heard a gasp in response. "Hello? Are you alright?" There was silence, but then the woman spoke.
"Who is there?" the woman asked in a shaky voice.
"It is Annabelle Touraine. Who are you?"
"I am Lady Julia Chambertin. Please help me. I am being held in here."
"Who is holding you here?" Annabelle was shocked at what she heard. She walked to the door and sat on the floor in front of it to hear Lady Julia better. "What monster would hold you, of all people, against your will?"
"Your what?" Annabelle didn't know what to think. Certainly the Duke was not capable of something like this. "Surely you must be mistaken. He would never do such a thing."
"I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but he is the one who has locked me in here. I know things that he does not want the public to know, and I am a risk to his operation. He has just engaged himself to some young rich thing, and I fear for her. If only I could get out of this room, I might be able to inform my maid so that she could get help." Annabelle's head was spinning.
"But ... I am that rich young thing." She did not know what to think. What did this all mean?
"Oh my dear, I am so sorry, but I must warn you not to marry the Duke. He is an evil man. My poor David is in danger, and I cannot do anything. How is a mother to help her son when that vile man has me locked up in here?"
"Wait ... did you say David?"
"Yes, David Richmond. I know that you know him. I have seen the two of you together. I was sure that he was in love with you. I must say that it is most surprising that you are to marry the Duke."
"David Richmond!" Annabelle could not speak for a full five minutes. "He is your son?"
"Yes, although he does not know it. That is why I am in here."
"Why would the Duke care that he is your son and why does he not live with you?" He told me that he was an orphan like me."
"He doesn't know that I am his mother. It was kept a secret because of his father and my husband. As you know, I was married to the Duke's elder brother, but what most people don't know was that I was in love with another man. I was betrothed to the then Duke of Chambertin even though I had met him only once. My parents arranged the marriage when they found out that I was pregnant. I should never have given into my love, but our love was so strong, nothing could stop us. I knew that we could never be together because he was who he was, but we decided we wanted one night together before both of us sealed our fates. That was the only night we had together, and it was the last time I ever saw him for quite some time. I was taken away to have my baby and when I returned, I did not know how to act. I also did not want him to suspect anything. He does not know that he has a son, and neither did anyone else but my family. The Duke agreed to marry me and keep the secret because he found me beautiful and I had a great dowry. I was not allowed to keep David. I was forced to give him up at birth so that nobody would accuse me of not being chaste before my wedding. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I married the Duke shortly after the birth, and my love later married as well. He managed to fall in love again, and I was happy for him. Although I was upset at first, I was happy for them both. His parents did not approve of her, but I saw that she was a good wife for him, and they lived a happy life. In fact I befriended Beatrice and she allowed me to serve her after my husband died, and left the dukedom to his brother."
"Wait!! Did you just say Beatrice?" Annabelle could not take in the news fast enough.
"Oh dear, I should not have said anything, but there is something about you my dear. I know that I can trust you. I don't know why I feel this way, but I know I can trust you with my secret. There are only two other people who know the truth: the Duke and my maid Margeurite. Yes, David's father is the King. I am ashamed to admit it, but we were so in love and we were so young. That was a long time ago, and neither harbors that feeling anymore. The King does not know that he has a son, and I wanted to keep it that way. It would only hurt him, and he would be ashamed that he could not atone for his mistakes. I would not have him feel guilty for something that he should not feel guilty about. I had hoped that one day I could tell them both, but I felt that it was best that I only watched from afar. I ensured that he succeeded in life and made sure that his cheese thrived. He is a good man, and I am so scared that he will be blamed for this murder of our dear Queen. Margeurite has always helped me to support David, but somehow the present Duke found out my secret. He was afraid that I would come out in the open and tell everyone that the King has a son. That would end all chances of him taking the throne. I know that the Duke is responsible for the murder of the Queen. It must be so. Who else would do such a thing? It was certainly not David. Speaking of David, whatever happened between the two of you?"
Annabelle could barely comprehend all this new information, and it took her several minutes before she could speak. "He said that he didn't love me. He was so cold and mean. I was shocked and devastated. The Duke was there to cheer me. He was very kind to me. Was the Duke behind all this?"
"I believe he was."
"Now that I look back, he did manage to show up at the right time. How could I be so stupid? He really was only after my money. Why me though? There are plenty of other young ladies with inheritances. Why did he pick me? What do I have to offer him that others do not?"
"Surely you must know how beautiful you are? A pretty face is the Duke's weak point. Your beauty is your curse. Just like mine was for me."
"What will I do? I am to marry him. How will I help David and get out of this engagement?" Annabelle was in tears now. She thought her situation was hopeless.
"Calm down my dear. We must take this one step at a time. I want you to find my maid Margeurite. She will know what to do and she will get help. Once I escape, I will meet up with you at the old ranch on the outskirts of town. Go there alone, and make sure nobody follows you. There, we will concoct a plan."
"Where will I find Margeurite?"
"She is working in this house. She has blonde hair and is probably with the other servants. She was also a lady of the Queen, but only out of the generosity of the Queen. She took her in because she felt sorry for her. Her father was killed in the Stampede and her mother died in childbirth. Margeurite was always somewhat wild, but under the influence of the Queen, she blossomed into a very nice young lady. I befriended her and she has been helping me by smuggling information about my son to me. Please find her and tell her where I am."
"I will try. Thank you for trusting me. I must go now if I am to find her. The Duke was called away, but I know he will be back soon."
"Go down the hall and make a right. She should be in the first room on your left. Tell her that I sent you and she will know what to do." Annabelle assured Lady Julia that she would do her best. She followed her directions and found the room. She tapped on the door and heard someone move on the inside. The door opened and there was a pretty blonde woman on the other side. Annabelle, once assured that it was in fact Margeurite, told her everything. Margeurite told her that she would take care of everything and told her how to get back to the parlor. Annabelle made her way back, and waited in fear for the Duke to return.
When Marguerite left Annabelle, instead of going for help, she went straight for the Duke. She knew that she would be rewarded well for this information. She wondered if she would get a new dress or some jewels for this information. She continued down the hall as thoughts of glamour and glitz ran through her head. She almost missed the Duke when she passed by his study. He was talking to a man in a hushed voice and when he saw that she had arrived she could see the desire spring to his eyes. She was glad that she had worn the extra-low cut dress.
"One moment my dear. I am just finishing up some business. Please sit down and I will be right with you." Marguerite sat in a chair in the direct line of sight of the Duke. She knew that he couldn't resist her, but she wanted to make sure she stayed in his favor. After all, she now had competition. She was not going to allow the Duke to forget her once he married that little rich twerp. "Now Jackson, are you sure you know what the plan is? I don't want my shipments messed up like the last time. You came this close to being caught by the authorities. That is six ships worth of goods that I don't want lost. If you pull this out, I promise you your hard work will be rewarded."
"You know you can rely on me sir. The reason for the problems last month was because of a certain leak to the authorities. I assure you that the situation was dealt with and there will be no further problems."
"Good. I expect only good news." He gave the man a sack of coins and dismissed him before turning to Marguerite. "My dear, you look ravishing. Come here and sit on my lap and tell me what is troubling you." Marguerite walked to the Duke's chair and sat on his lap. She caressed his chest and gave him a long kiss before beginning to speak. She knew the Duke was in her power now.
"I have some information for you. It turns out that your little fiancé stumbled upon your sister and now knows the truth. It seems she told him everything. Lady Annabelle came to tell me that Lady Julia needed my help."
"She what!!!" The Duke threw Marguerite off his lap. I thought you were watching her to make sure that nobody found her. That was your one job." Marguerite rubbed her back where she had hit the desk.
"But, I came to tell you as soon as I could." She was very confused at the Duke's response.
"Get out of my sight. I will decide what to do with you later. For now I have to get this situation back under control." Marguerite left the room as fast as she could. She did not want to incur any more of the Duke's wrath. She thought he would have been happy to know this.
The Duke was left alone in his study to think. It didn't take long for him to realize that there was only one solution, so he set off for where he had left Annabelle. He found her sitting on the edge of one of the chairs. She was trying not to give any sign that she was distressed, but the Duke knew what must have been going through her mind. He walked toward her and took her hand. She smiled at him and he knew that this was going to be easy. She wasn't smart enough to foil his plan. One threat would take care of her. "So, it seems you have learned my little secret." Annabelle's face went white and she started to shake. "Now the question is, what am I going to do about it?" He grazed his fingers along her cheek. Annabelle took a step back and shuddered, but the Duke put a hand behind her neck and forcefully drew her toward him. She tried to break free from him, but he was too strong. He kissed her, and she felt sick. She wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. "My dear sister-in-law let you in on something that you were not supposed to know. It is too bad that I will have to do something about it. I liked it when you didn't act like a whimpering little girl around me. You had passion and that is what I liked about you."
"What are you going to do to me?" Annabelle said in a very shaky voice. She tried to put on a straight face and give off the impression that she was not afraid, but when she opened her mouth, her words were quiet and shaky.
"What am I going to do to you?" The Duke laughed. "I have you in my power and you will do whatever I want. You say one word to anyone or I find out that this gets out, and you can say goodbye to David Richmond. I have the power to eliminate him if you know what I mean. It would be no trouble to me."
"No, please do not hurt him."
"Oh, death would not hurt him."
"Please, please. I will do anything you want. Just don't kill David." Annabelle could no longer hold back the tears. They poured down her cheeks as she begged him not to kill David. The Duke laughed. He loved having women in his power and this one came with benefits.
"Very well. I will not kill your little boyfriend if you agree to certain things." Annabelle shook her head and waited for her fate. "First, you will not tell anyone about any of the things you learned. You will continue on as if you had never heard anything different. Second, you will still marry me in a few weeks. Once we are married, I will expect you to give me two heirs, and then you may live your own life in whatever way you want. I will not ask questions as long as my reputation is intact. If you comply with these things, I will release your Mr. Richmond after the wedding and he will be free. Don't comply, and I will kill him and you. Do we have an agreement?"
Annabelle shook her head yes and wiped away the remaining tears. From this moment, she would never know happiness again. The Duke then offered her his arm and escorted her to a place where she could wash her face. "I don't want your aunt to suspect anything. Don't think that I won't know what you are doing. I have eyes everywhere." Annabelle rinsed her face in a basin and then tried to calm her nerves. By the time they reached the drawing room, she was mostly composed and walked to where her aunt was sitting.
"My dear, I hope you liked your future house. Your Grace, thank you for the tour. Please allow me to ring for our carriage. I know we must be keeping you from some important business. Especially now that the Queen's murderer has been found. I could not believe it when I heard who it was. Shows you that you really can't trust commoners." Annabelle's color went paler if that was possible. "My dear, are you ill?"
"No aunt, I am just tired. Could we go home now?"
"Of course dear. With all the excitement you have had today, you must be exhausted."
"You have no idea," Annabelle said under her breath. The Duke eyed her and she put on a smile. "Thank you your Grace for a lovely afternoon." The Duke kissed her hand and offered his arm to both women to escort them to the waiting carriage. He helped them both inside and said his farewells. He lingered over Annabelle's hand and gave it a squeeze. She looked up and when their eyes met, an understanding passed between them. Annabelle knew the Duke was not a man with which to be trifled.
Once they were gone, the Duke went to Julia's room. He unlocked the door and she stood in shock. "How dare you? Do you think I am stupid? That I wouldn't find out?"
"What do you mean?" Julia said, trying to sound innocent.
"You know what I mean. Don't play dumb with me. Marguerite told me everything. You thought you could trust her didn't you? Well, she has been playing you from the start. How else do you think I know all I know?" Julia's face went white.
"Marguerite..." Tears sprang to her eyes. The one person she thought she could trust, the one to whom she had told everything, all this time a fake. Julia collapsed to the floor. There was no hope now.
"Get up." The Duke grabbed her by the arms and threw her on the bed. Julia screamed in pain as his fingers dug into her flesh. He slapped her across the face when she resisted him. The burning immediately arose to her cheek and she tried to make herself as small as she could on the bed. "Pack your things. You will be leaving town for a little while. I can't have you around messing anything else up. I am sending you to my estate in the north. I know that you are familiar with it because it belonged to my brother. You spent much time there if I remember correctly, so you will be quite comfortable. You have one hour to collect yourself. I will send my man for you then."
When the Duke was gone, Julia let out her controlled sobs. Everyone she thought she could trust turned out to be evil. She had trusted the Duke when she was married to the former Duke with her secret because she believed herself to be in love with him and he with her. He was very good at acting. Her entire world crumbled around her and she didn't know what to think or do, so she got up and packed her bags. Maybe in the north she could come up with a plan.
The man arrived an hour later and took her trunks. She was escorted to a carriage outside and the Duke came out to remind her once again what would happen if she did anything. She saw that she would be traveling with several men who did not look friendly at all. She only hoped that they would not hurt her. They rode out of the grounds and headed north. As the last glimpse of Kalebeth was gone, so was any hope that remained in Julia's heart.
The Duke knew he still had one more person to see. He knew that Richmond was plotting in prison, so he wanted to make sure he fully understood what would happen if anything happened.
He arrived at the jail in a short time. The building was tall and bare. The stones were jagged and there was a stench that permeated the air around it. He met with the warden who then took him to Richmond's cell. It was at the end of a very dark hallway at the back of the building. There were no other prisoners in this wing, and it was only accessed by special permission from the Duke. The Duke insisted on maximum security. Richmond was seated on the floor, his clothing in tatters and a three-day growth of beard on his chin. When the Duke came to the cell, Richmond made no sign of knowing that someone had come. "Well Richmond, nice accommodations." Richmond finally looked at the Duke. There was such hatred in his eyes that the Duke laughed. "I have some news for you that you will like. I have decided that you shall be released."
"Released?" Richmond was confused.
"Yes, after I am married, I will have no further use of you. I thought of leaving you here to rot in jail, but I thought it would be more torture if you were free and still know that you could never have Annabelle." Richmond ran for the bars of the cell, but the chains threw him back toward the wall. "Maybe I will even allow you to attend our wedding. Everyone will be there, including my men to assure that you don't do anything. I will have to think about that. I don't know how far you might go. Know this though, one word, one motion, one anything that will reveal any truth to anyone, and your little Annabelle dies with you. Be warned. I will not go back on my word." The Duke left and Richmond was left to ponder his fate. There must be someway to get word to someone. He wondered why he was going to be released. Perhaps it was because someone found out about him. He didn't know. He hoped it wasn't Annabelle. She would be terrified to know that she is marrying a murderer. "Oh Annabelle my love. Hear me. I want you to know that I will rescue you. I don't know how or when, but I will do it."
Annabelle spent the next few days trying to come up with some way to get out of the mess she was in, but she could think of nothing to help them out of their dire situation. If only there was someone she could talk to that could help her figure this problem out, but she knew that it was too dangerous. Instead, she took each day as it came and each day passed without a solution. In a short time, Annabelle found herself packed up in a coach, headed for the Duke's estate in the northern reaches of the kingdom. To her aunt's knowledge, she was only going off to explore another of her future homes, at a distance too far for Lady Sainte-Maure to accompany her. But Annabelle knew why she was making this voyage. She was being put out of the way, held prisoner until all hope of escaping the Duke was gone. Her thoughts matched the dismal countryside as she watched it roll by out the window of the carriage. It was desolate country, cold and grey even in the summer, and at this time of year it was the one place in the land most chilling to the body and the soul. And here, Annabelle was to pass the time before her wedding.
They arrived at the house, a formidable old stone fortress, worthy of the windswept waste surrounding it, and the Duke's henchmen took Annabelle by the arm and led her in.
"You are not to go outside these walls until further notice," one of them said to her, "but you have the run of the house till then. By His Grace's orders."
"Very generous, I'm sure," muttered Annabelle. The men left her alone in the entry hall, after securely fastening the door. There would be no guided tour this time. She looked up and saw someone coming down the stairs. "Lady Julia!" she said.
"Oh, Annabelle! He hasn't sent you here, has he?"
"Yes, he has."
"I feared he might. Come upstairs, my dear, and rest from your journey. The walls have ears down here."
They went upstairs, and were soon settled in a parlor with cups of tea.
"I had not expected to see you here, Lady Julia," said Annabelle.
"I had hoped not to see you here," the older woman replied. "But here we are. We have been put safely out of the way. I don't know how we can get you out of your engagement now," she said sadly. "While you were in town, surrounded by friends and family and society, you were a little safer. Now..." She shook her head.
Annabelle looked nervous. "I begin to think he has brought me here to ... Well, if he did do it to the Queen, he can do it to... I wonder if I shall ever return home."
Lady Julia patted her arm. "No, Annabelle, he hasn't brought you here to murder you. He wants your inheritance, and he wants you. He will marry you. That is all I meant."
"I cannot believe I ever thought he had kind feelings toward me, or anyone. How stupid I have been!"
"Don't say such things -- you are too hard on yourself."
"And poor David Richmond has been imprisoned because of me, I know it."
"Because of you? Certainly not."
"He sent me a message one day, while the Duke was visiting me. I was too angry with him to hide it. I burned the note without reading it, and told the Duke whom it was from. Oh, if only I knew what it had said! If only I hadn't been so hasty!"
"It's beginning to be clearer," said Lady Julia with a sigh. "We have both been betrayed, Annabelle."
"And I have betrayed David. How naïve, and blind I have been!"
"Not intentionally, dear; you cannot blame yourself. I don't know what to do now, but wait. Perhaps some opportunity may yet come."
"I still love him so, Lady Julia! I did not realize it, until the Duke threatened me with harm to him. Even if he no longer loves me, I could not let harm come to him."
"It is out of your hands now, dear."
"But he will be released, Lady Julia. It is a condition of my marrying the Duke."
"Annabelle! Did that evil man put you up to that?"
"No, Lady Julia, I agreed of my own will. I do not care what happens to me -- if I cannot be with David Richmond, it doesn't matter what happens. And my conscience will be a little clearer, anyway."
"My poor, poor girl."
Meanwhile, in Romagnola, Miss Charbray heard the news that her friend had gone north to one of the Chambertin estates. Eleanor was surprised that she should have gone without saying goodbye, or sending her any word. She hoped that Annabelle was not angry with her for having forwarded the Richmond cheese. She had thought, or hoped at any rate, it might contain some sort of apology or explanation. It was before the murder accusation had come, of course; else she never would have sent it. Annabelle's lack of communication since they last met, as well as her hasty removal to another part of the country, made her friend anxious to heal any injuries.
She sent a note, and shortly received a curt reply -- not from Annabelle, but from the Duke. He wrote that Annabelle was busy with arrangements for the wedding and had no time for any social business until after her marriage, and would Miss Charbray kindly not bother her anymore. Eleanor was shocked and offended at this ungracious message, and she had a deep foreboding that Annabelle had never seen her letter. She could not help feeling that something very strange was going on.
She suddenly had a burning curiosity to know what was in the cheese Richmond had sent, and why it had come after he had broken all ties with Annabelle. And why had everything happened so suddenly? He and Annabelle had been clearly in love, and then all at once it was over. And the next thing she knew, Annabelle was engaged to marry the Duke, Richmond was in jail, and Annabelle had gone off to the farthest reaches of the land. Though she could not precisely pinpoint any evidence, something seemed wrong, and she began to worry for her friend.
She sent a letter to Mr. Stern, who was scheduled to come back to town in a short time, to urge him to hasten his return, and consult with her on her suspicions. Mr. Stern came very quickly, and soon they were seated in the Charbray's parlor, somberly discussing their mutual friend.
"I feel very powerless, Mr. Stern, and a little silly," said Eleanor, after telling him of her uneasiness, "because I have no proof of anything, only something tells me that there is danger afoot."
Mr. Stern nodded and sat for a moment, lost in thought. Finally he said, "Miss Charbray, you know Lady Annabelle very well, and if you believe there is something unusual in her behavior of late, I will make no argument against it. And knowing Richmond as I do, I am hard pressed to take the appearances of this matter, as it concerns him, as fact."
"Then you also think there may be something under the surface -- that this business is not as cut and dried as we have been led to believe?"
"Yes, that is what I think, and your suspicions only confirm mine. Does Lady Sainte-Maure suspect anything dishonorable in the Duke's intentions?"
"Dishonorable? In the Duke?" Eleanor laughed. "Please, Mr. Stern, do be serious. He is rich, and he is heir to the throne. What is more honorable than that?"
"Heir to the throne," mused Stern. "How close he came to losing his claim. How fortunate for him that he did not."
"Those are treasonous words, Mr. Stern. Of course we have all had passing thoughts of that nature at some time, but to say it out loud! Do be careful."
Mr. Stern was thoughtful. "Any offspring of the King is a threat to him," he murmured. "Miss Charbray, have you ever wondered why the Duke has always seemed to dislike Richmond so strongly? Why, even before they were rivals for Lady Annabelle, he could never stomach Richmond cheese and advised against its being the official court cheese? And it is roundly believed that Richmond is somebody's natural child -- have you ever wondered whose?"
"Either you are mocking my suspicions, sir, or you read too many novels," said Eleanor. "This is the stuff of romances and gothic stories."
"I have no intention of mocking you. I am merely speculating. But whether the problem is on a large or small scale, we are agreed that there is a problem, and it is certainly worth looking into, for our friends' sakes -- especially poor Lady Annabelle's sake."
"What do you suggest?"
"You have your connections at court, Miss Charbray? You always seem to have the latest news before anyone else does." She nodded, and he continued, "Then perhaps you would be so good as to contact them, and see what you can find out. I am going to visit Mrs. Brown, Richmond's childhood caretaker. She is likely frantic with worry about him anyway."
"Very good, Mr. Stern. Let us meet here again in a few days to report on our findings." They parted, and set about seeking out the information they needed.
Eleanor's maid was a friend of the chief housemaid at the palace, and she sent her there to find out what she could. Meanwhile, Mr. Stern paid a visit to Mrs. Brown, who was indeed very anxious to hear about her former charge. He told her a little bit about the events leading up to his visit. Tearfully, she showed him the room in which Richmond had been arrested and carted off. "I haven't heard a word since!" she cried. Stern looked around at the cold fireplace, and the empty writing table, and shook his head sadly.
"Mrs. Brown, I believe that Richmond is innocent, and I am working to acquit him. Anything you can tell me of his history would be greatly appreciated."
"He was a very kind and generous child, and a kind, generous, hard-working young man."
"Yes, I know that is so. But what of his earlier history?"
"On that score, I have nothing to say."
"Mrs. Brown, if you know anything about his parents, it is of the greatest importance."
"I have given my word not to tell a soul, and I intend to keep my promise." She clamped her mouth shut resolutely. Mr. Stern sighed. Suddenly, he spied a piece of paper crumpled up under the table leg.
"What's this?" he said, and picked it up. He drew in his breath quickly as he read it, for it was one of the early drafts of Richmond's last note to Annabelle. "Good God!" he murmured under his breath. "He was threatened! He must have been." He turned to his companion and said, "Read this, Mrs. Brown. He must have been warned not to see Lady Annabelle again, and his imprisonment is perhaps a result of not heeding that warning." He tried again to persuade her of the importance of giving any information she knew.
At last, she said, "If I have anything to tell, it would be proper to tell it to his ears only."
"Well then," said Stern, "we will try to find an opportunity."
A few days later, he returned, with Mrs. Brown, to Eleanor's parlor. When she knew what role the old woman might play, Eleanor was very glad to see her.
"What have you found out, Miss Charbray?" asked Mr. Stern.
"The palace is a little more tight-lipped these days than it used to be," she said, "but knowing what and who to ask usually gets results. It is generally believed (though religiously kept unspoken) among the highest tiers of the staff, that the King had an illegitimate child at some point before his marriage, though whether it is alive or dead they do not know. And it is also thought that he had an affair with one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, though again, which one is not known, and they are dispersed now. However, one of them is the Duke's sister in law, and she and her lady's maid Lady Marguerite, have been the most closely associated with Richmond. So you see, there are many connected pieces, but I have not found a link to fit them perfectly together."
Mrs. Brown raised her eyebrows at all of this, but remained silent.
"That is all extremely interesting, Miss Charbray," said Stern. "I found this at the Richmond estate." He handed her the crinkled note. "I think this may be a copy of the message he sent to Lady Annabelle, that she never read. If she had, the present situation might have been different."
Eleanor's eyes grew wide. "I knew there must be some explanation!" she said. "And if the Duke knew of it... Oh!" she cried. "I have forgotten the most important part. My maid uncovered a rumor -- only a rumor, you understand, but the last few rumors she heard proved true -- that the Duke is going to have him released on the wedding day. They say it is to display his generosity, but if there were evidence of his guilt, I don't believe it would be done. If he truly is released, I shall take that as proof that the Duke was simply holding him there until his marriage was complete."
"Well!" cried Mr. Stern. "Either way," he said, "I think we must find some way to get word to him of all this. Both he and Lady Annabelle have been deceived and likely threatened somehow, and if what we suspect of the Duke is true... this marriage should not take place!"
"But what can we do?" said Eleanor. "What proof have we against him? What proof have we of Richmond's innocence? And the wedding will be in only a couple of days."
"Patience, children," said Mrs. Brown, who had been silent and thoughtful through all of this. "I think we will do well enough to wait for the wedding day." The other two chafed at this, but could think of nothing else to do.
Frightful was the night on which Annabelle was retrieved from the Duke's northern castle. There were many tears as she was taken unceremoniously from the parlor where she had been sitting up with Lady Julia (neither had much use for sleep these days), and she was tossed roughly into the coach. Much to her surprise, the Duke was sitting in the seat across from her, carelessly examining his fingernails.
"Rejoice, my dear," he said, on seeing her stricken face. "In a few hours you will be officially mine, in every way."
Annabelle shot him a vicious glare, but could not speak.
"A few words of caution, love," he went on. "You will notice among the guests a certain Mr. Richmond." Annabelle looked up in surprise. "Yes. He will be present for both his and your punishment for giving me difficulties. It will be delightful to me to watch you."
"How can you be so cruel?" she cried.
He only smiled. "Don't interrupt me; I have not finished. If you think it would be grand, or noble, or romantic to say something at the ceremony that alludes to your feelings for him, or your feelings for me, or anything whatsoever that will disrupt the ceremony, you do so at the peril of your lives. Do you understand me? He will not live to hear another word you ever utter. Is this all quite clear, my love?" She did not reply, but only dropped her eyes. He smiled, and watched her coolly. She shrunk and twisted uncomfortably under his gaze the entire way back to Romagnola.
A few hours later, the grand cathedral was filling with the wedding guests. Stern was there, and Miss Charbray and her father, and Richmond was present as well, cleaned up a bit, standing in the back, being carefully watched with many pairs of eyes. Yet none of those pairs of eyes deemed it necessary to check the old woman who rushed up to him with joy, and threw her arms about his neck and whispered glad words in his ear. They saw his own eyes grow wide, but why should he not be affected at the greeting of his childhood caretaker, who had been separated from him this way? In a few minutes, the music began to play, the bride appeared, and the ceremony was underway.
A little while longer, and Annabelle was standing in the grand cathedral, beside the man she loathed more than anyone else in the world. She was dressed beautifully, he had never been more handsome or elegant, the church was arrayed with the finest luxury money could buy, and there were hundreds of her future subjects behind her, envious and wishing her well. Yet she had never been so miserable. She wanted to cry, she wanted to scream, she wanted to run away, as fast and as far as she could go. And she would have done it, if it were only her life in danger. But any false move she made would destroy Richmond. That thought alone kept her upright and composed, as the minister proclaimed the words that burned her to the core: "I now pronounce you man and wife."
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.