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Disclaimer: No, the characters here do not belong to me, they belong to that genius, Riyoko Ikeda, and I have no intention of stealing anything, so please don’t sue.
Dedication: To the Boo, who loves Berusayu no Baru and all its presentations on the Takarazuka stage.
It all started with that painting, I suppose.
On that particularly bright Friday morning, I looked down onto my hastily scribbled schedule for the day to find it sitting there—“viewing of ‘M. Armand’ painting”—the sole appointment from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon.
It seemed unusual even if the Boss were on one of her rare holidays to be cleaning out an entire morning’s worth of appointments just to view a painting, but the location of the painting as well as the supposed painter were all the explanation needed for the time set aside.
I had heard of this particular oil painting from Mademoiselle Antoinette herself a few months ago. She had come to visit the Boss in the office for a brief chat, and it had been she who had suggested that the Boss take a look at it.
She had laughed when she saw the Boss raise a skeptical eyebrow at her words. “Exceptional,” she had continued. “You should go see for yourself if you doubt my words. Perhaps then you will be convinced that I have not been joking when I say she looks exactly like you. Who knows? Maybe she’s an ancient ancestor, for all we know?”
Indulgent as the Boss was to the lively Mademoiselle, her schedule had not permitted an excursion outside the city for activities not involving business. Until now.
I myself had just arrived from the Paris office. Stepping into the familiar, cool recesses of her spacious apartment, I found her bent over her laptop, as usual. Sunlight slanted into the room from an open window, turning her hair into a mass of molten gold. If only she could see herself at that moment. But then, she never does.
She spoke without looking up, “Ah, you’re here. How are things?”
I gave a brief summary of the goings-on in the office. To all this, she nodded absently, still lost in the contents of the computer screen before her.
Finally, she said, “I’m sorry to have to yank you all the way here on such short notice, but I might as well ask you to take a look at that painting, just in case I might decide to add it to the collection.”
I nodded, understanding perfectly. As her personal assistant, I was used to making the occasional art purchase on her behalf. Majority of the pieces from the family art collection, though, was managed by her father and his associates in the company.
Seeing that she was already dressed (in casual, loose white blouse and dark slacks with a light sweater draped over her shoulders) but not yet ready to depart, I made for some conversation. “I take it this particular oil painting is late eighteenth century, purportedly done by the artist Armand. If this is true, then it’s a rare collector’s piece.”
She looked up from the screen and smiled. “That’s what Fersen said. I told him I had to let Father see it first before I do anything.”
Fersen. That particular name was finding its way more and more into the Boss’ conversation these days.
I felt the hair on my nape stand as the Boss fixed me with a curious eye, one brow arched, and I realized that she had sensed something from my monosyllabic response to her words.
She is really too astute, I thought with an inward sigh. I returned her gaze with one as bland as I can make it to be, hoping she would veer away from asking questions.
Relieved, I saw her turn back to the computer as she turned the machine off.
“Come on then,” she said, standing up in one fluid motion.
Outside, she casually tossed me the keys to her car—another surprise. She usually refused to let anyone drive her around. I wondered briefly if she was feeling okay.
The drive to the airfield where the private company jet was kept was a quiet one. I was used to the Boss lapsing into brief periods of pensive silence, but not this long.
Which could mean only one thing.
“I take it you’ve not been sleeping again,” I said, before I could restrain myself.
For a moment, she did not say a word; she merely tilted her head a fraction and regarded me from the corner of her eye. Then, “that tone of voice has not been in evidence for quite some time.”
I almost smiled at her wry tone. I opted to shrug instead. “I’m just concerned,” I returned nonchalantly.
She nodded. “Right. As you always say,” she said.
For the thousandth time, I wondered how she could ever question my concern for her. If only you know how much…I would have wanted to say, but so far, I had not dared.
“And I’ll tell you what I’ve always told you, André Grandier,” she said, her voice hardening into that familiar steely tone that heralded a reproach, “you take care of my affairs, and I can take care of myself.”
Well, it was quite clear that something was pissing her off. I let it go for a while and concentrated on the road.
From the airfield, the jet took us to Arras, where the Boss’ family had a chateau that they occupied on rare vacations, but today we did not have time to make a stop there. From the landing strip, a car was waiting to take us to the mansion of Monsieur Lasonne, the art dealer.
M. Lasonne was a big, slightly rotund man with a mustache and an air of authority about him that probably helped sell a fortune in art pieces. Knowing that his present client was not to be taken in by airs, though, he opted to be natural and friendly.
“Ah, yes,” he said to me upon the Boss’ introduction that I was her personal assistant. Whether he thought it odd that I was servicing a woman was not seen in his countenance, and I had grown accustomed enough not to mind people’s speculations.
After a courteous round of drinks and small talk as well as a brief tour of the old portions of the mansion, we finally proceeded to the drawing room where the piece was waiting, propped onto a large easel.
“I swear, Madam,” said Lasonne, taking off the white linen that was draped over the painting, “when I first saw you at the door, I felt as though she herself had suddenly come to life and sprung out of the canvas. The likeness is so striking…”
From the tilt of her lips, I could tell that the Boss was slightly amused. First Mademoiselle Antoinette, now this person. What could the mystery be?
Then I saw the Boss look at the canvas and the small smile disappeared from her face. I looked over her shoulder and saw the canvas for the first time…and felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me.
There she was, astride a rearing horse, dressed in battle gear with a sword raised in her right hand. The curling, golden locks of hair fell gracefully onto her shoulders—the same ones a few inches away from me.
But it was the face, with those sapphire eyes…so incredibly the same…
All of a sudden, I felt as though the room was receding, as though a tunnel had suddenly sprung between myself and the others in the room, distancing them. I could hear Lasonne’s voice as if from far away, “Of course, the artist Armand was a prominent portrait painter in the latter years of Louis XVI, but the Revolution had destroyed most of his work. I have consulted several experts, and they are most enthusiastic about the authenticity of this piece…”
“Who is she?” I could hear the Boss ask faintly.
“It is not known. Here she is depicted as Mars, the God of War, but who she is in real life is most likely to remain hidden…”
I could feel a headache suddenly coming on, and realized that I was starting to sweat. All of a sudden, the room seemed very hot.
“…a great stroke of luck, really…very recent find…evidence of being moved from one place to another, but still remarkably well-preserved…”
The words were gradually mixing together into a jumble of nonsensical sound, and for a moment, I was afraid. Afraid I might remember something…many things…about to burst forth from my mind like a dam--
I quickly came around to find the Boss shaking me slightly on the shoulder. “André, are you alright?” she asked, her voice full of concern.
I swallowed hard and nodded. The room and everyone in it had gone back to the way they were. They way they had always been.
“You dropped your cell,” the Boss pointed out, and I bent down hastily to retrieve the phone from the thickly carpeted floor.
She tuned back to Lasonne. “I’ll buy it,” she said simply.
The trip back to Paris in the late afternoon was once again uncharacteristically silent, but this time, I contributed little to break it.
That painting…it was just too strange! But the resemblance was just too striking to be coincidental. If I had not known any better, I would have thought it a recent portrait of the Boss rather than one over two centuries old.
In the plane, sitting across from me, the Boss was wrapped in her own thoughts, eyes hooded, face closed to scrutiny. It was evident that she did not want to talk about the painting or anything pertaining to the trip to Arras, and I could see that I was not going to be needed as soon as we reached Paris. Indeed, she bade me goodnight once the car reached her apartment building.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she threw over her shoulder as she went inside.
And that left me with some hours in my hands that evening. Dead hours.
I was used to being busy until well past midnight, sometimes even until dawn, just taking care of all the Boss’ affairs left in my hands, but an early night was something of a novelty.
I guess I might try calling Rosalie, the Boss’ secretary, to ask her if she wanted to have dinner out (as friends, of course) and to discuss the latest that needed to be done in the office, but that was too trivial. As if we could not sneak some time here and there from our busy schedules everyday to work it out. Besides, Rosalie could be out tonight with some of her girl friends. God knows she has more friends than I do.
Ah, but I’m afraid I am painting a very poor picture of myself! Here, let me reintroduce you to me: I am André Grandier, 33 years of age, single, male, tallish, with dark brown hair and green eyes, the personal assistant of Françoise de la Saigne (Mademoiselle, I might add, as she wasn’t married, but then, nobody dared call her Mademoiselle to her face) who, in turn, was the managing director of de La Saigne Industries. The Boss was one year my junior, but of course, nobody would have guessed that by the way she commanded her staff.
By all accounts, the lady I served was imposing, but she wasn’t always so. I would know, as I practically grew up with her in her father’s mansion.
As the grandson of the head housekeeper, I was handed over to my grandmother for general care after my parents died in an auto accident when I was just eight years old. Naturally, Granny had tried to raise me as best she could but I was only one of her worries as she tried to make ends meet. That was when Monsieur de la Saigne himself stepped in.
With school fees and allowances taken care of, I was asked to do the family a simple favor, to befriend and accompany the precocious youngest daughter in her daily activities. Of course, they took me in for Granny’s sake, as she had been with them nearly all her adult years, but I was thankful all the same.
The family only had daughters, and by the time the last one was born, Monsieur was resigned to the fact that he would have to raise this little one to take charge of the company as though she were the son he never had.
That was also one of the reasons why Monsieur had needed me to be there for Françoise. “She has no brothers,” her father had said, “and she will need all the help she can get in dealing with men. She will have to get used to them, as her future will probably have a lot to do with managing people. Do you understand, André?”
I said I did. As it turned out, I was to spend nearly all my life with the Boss, and I would not have it any other way. I graduated from university with a degree in business management, but in the end, it was to her side that I volunteered to go to. When her father had heard of my decision, he had rejoiced; nobody knew Françoise as well as I did. I would be a great help to her as her personal assistant, a trusted aide who knew her quirks and would be able to meet her rigorous schedules in the company.
The Boss herself, though she did not say a word when she found out, seemed pleased by my decision.
As for myself, I could only say this: I would have given anything to be with her, for by the time I graduated from university, I had fallen in love.
Except that nobody knew.
Nobody needed to know. At least, not now.
My phone was ringing, and I could see that the Boss and I had a lot of explaining to do to Monsieur de la Saigne over the sudden and totally unexpected purchase of a very expensive oil painting that afternoon.
To Be Continued…
pubblicazione sul sito Little Corner del novembre 2005
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