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“Darling, calm down,” she said imploringly, “I’m sure you’re over-reacting.”
I stopped my pacing and stood at the center of her lavish, carpeted drawing room. It was early May, and the afternoon sun filtered brightly through the tall windows as I deliberated on how to proceed for a moment, then turned to face her as she sat a few yards away. I was disrupting her afternoon tea, I could see, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“It might seem that way, I know,” I said, striving to remain
objective and calm. “Nevertheless, I can’t jeopardize my work at de la
Saigne after what’s—“
”Jeopardize your work?!” she asked in shocked tones. “Is it really that serious? And all because Françoise saw me lay a hand on you? Whatever could that girl be thinking? Since when is it forbidden to touch somebody? Wouldn’t you say this is just a bit too much?”
I stared at Madame Dubois. “She’s-- she’s not a girl,” was all I could think to say.
“And you can stop defending her for just a brief minute,” Madame Dubois said as she picked up her cup of tea and took a dainty sip. “She is a girl, if she can do nothing but arrive at such a conclusion upon seeing us like that in a corridor.”
“Anyone could have arrived at such a conclusion after seeing us like that,” I countered, and stopped suddenly to wonder why I was still defending Françoise’s view, erroneous as it was.
“You mean to say you came all the way here to tell me that you do not want to be my editor anymore just because your boss thinks we’re having an affair?”
I stared at her incredulously for a moment, but to judge from her perplexed expression, it was awfully clear that Madame Dubois was genuinely confused at the fuss that I was making. I sighed and slowly walked over to take a seat opposite her, thinking that a long and thorough explanation was needed.
It was true that I was the editor of Madame Dubois, alias Vanessa d’Or, the sensational romance novelist who had steadfastly remained anonymous behind her outlandish pseudonym despite all attempts to track her down and identify her.
It had all come about when I had gone to visit a publisher friend of mine last year. Maximillian Laurent and I had met and had been active in the creative writers’ program for non-literature students while still in university, though our services had been more in the line of reviewing stories and doing critiques than actually writing our own masterpieces. After university, Max had gone on to work for a top Paris publishing company.
We had kept in touch regularly and sometimes had a bite to eat together if the time allowed. That evening, I had gone to fetch him in his office for dinner, as he wanted to discuss something with me.
“Ah, André,” he said, coming out to usher me into his office himself when I had announced myself at his secretary’s desk. “I want you to meet someone. She’s one of our best selling romance novelists and is currently working along your line of interest. I mentioned you and she says she actually knows you!”
“I must confess that contemporary romance novels are not exactly along my line of interest,” I said as I followed him into his vast office, “nor do I know of any contemporary romance novelists.”
“Well, she’s not just any romance novelist. She’s one of our most well-guarded secrets,” said Max with a gleeful expression. He moved out of the way once we were inside and there had sat Madame Dubois in one of her signature sleek, black outfits.
“André,” she said with a slight smile. “So nice to see you outside of work.”
The raven-haired, red-lipped and heavy lidded Madame Marguerite Dubois was the wife of Henri Dubois, one of the major investors at de Brun. She had unfortunately been widowed young and, as a consequence, was now one of the richest women in France.
One of the richest…and the most bored, if she had resorted to writing romance novels just for the heck of it, I had thought.
I had to swallow my own words when I found out that she was actually writing under the alias of Vanessa d’Or, whose tear-jerking novels had sold by the millions.
Upon seeing my stunned expression after Max’s astonishing revelation as to who she was in the world of romance, Madame Dubois had tossed back her dark mane and let out a throaty laugh, evidently enjoying my amazement.
“Obviously not just the bored, lonely widow whose many affairs are legend in the small world of Parisian high society,” she announced ironically.
Oh, and did I mention that she also had a flare for the dramatic?
It was probably why her books had sold so well. Interestingly enough, for someone who had the reputation she possessed, she was remarkable in hiding her identity and her career as a best selling writer from the public.
She had shed light on the matter during dinner by saying, “Don’t you think it is so much more interesting to stay anonymous and hear what others have to say about your works in the most stark and honest words possible?”
“Madame Dubois wants to know if you are interested in editing a series of books she wants to write. It’s set in the eighteenth century, and it will require a lot of research into the French writers of that time,” Max said. “I know eighteenth century writers are your thing in university—“
“--Were,” I corrected him, “were my thing. I have moved on to other interests now.”
“Still,” Max said, “you will know more than the average person; you are the perfect editor for this series. Of course, given your hectic job, we can hire you as a freelance editor. I am sure this will not bring about any conflict of interest with your present work. You know we don’t usually do this kind of deal with just anyone, but I am confident that I can make this one exception—“
“Oh, Max,” said Madame Dubois as she laughed her deep laugh, “how very tactful you are! To judge from our friend’s dubious expression here, though, you are not convincing enough. Let me explain things more clearly to André.”
Here, she had turned to me and said, “I know you used to contribute essays and critiques of stories during your university days; I have read several, as a matter of fact. Simply brilliant. And given your in-depth knowledge of the subject matter that is to comprise the bulk of my work, I have already told Max here that I am not writing the books if you will not agree to edit them for me.”
Beside her, Max had given me an imploring look. I knew then that my good friend had drawn me into a trap. He knew very well that I would end up not having a choice but to accept this absurd assignment in order to rescue him.
But I had to admit that the first book she had sent for editing a couple of months later had actually been pretty engrossing, and I had found my evenings fully occupied when I did not have to take care of matters related to office work. For once, I had something interesting to do to keep me from thinking of Françoise incessantly.
Unfortunately, there had been a deadline for editing the novel, and that first book in a series of three was now being released as the latest top bestseller nationwide.
I had been sworn by contract to be silent as to Madame Dubois and her identity, but surely one could not just ignore her when one met her at a get-together like the de Brun wedding dinner. After dancing with Rosalie for a few turns, I had found her amongst the people in the crowded ballroom.
She had smiled her ironic smile when she saw me, and I had approached her after a break in the dancing.
“Careful,” she said as way of greeting. “People might talk when they see a young and handsome man like you approach an old hag like me.”
“Rubbish,” I said, smiling, for I had gotten used to her flirtatious ways by then, “you’re barely into your forties. I’d hardly call that old. As for the ‘hag’ part, whatever can possess you to say such a thing—unless you’re fishing for compliments.”
She had laughed at my words and had given me her hand as I asked her for the next dance.
Really, the rumors about this charming lady had been grossly exaggerated. Flirtatious she might be, but where the talk about her innumerable lovers sprang from I could not quite imagine.
As we glided across the dance floor, she remarked, “I am glad to see you here tonight, cheri, but I hope you won’t mind my asking how come I only get to see you so rarely in these functions?”
“There’s really no need to wonder, any more than I mind answering your question,” I said, “I came with the Boss.”
“Ah, Françoise,” she said knowingly. “Interesting woman, your boss. There’s something beneath that icy veneer of hers that would make for a fascinating character in a romance novel, don’t you think?”
“What?” I asked, amused. “Are you serious in casting her into one of your stories?”
“Why not?” she challenged. “Don’t tell me you don’t realize it. You’ve been with her for years! Don’t tell me you’re not aware of that smoldering sensuality that lies beneath the cool façade of the Iron Maiden, ready to be awakened anytime by the touch of a man?”
“Smoldering sensuality? Touch of a man?” I found myself laughingly repeating, though I had begun to feel uncomfortable in discussing Françoise with another woman. Another woman who was a romance novelist, to be exact.
She had merely laughed. “I’m sorry, darling,” she finally said. “My imagination does tend to run off with my sentences, doesn’t it? Still, what’s she like in private and out of that office suit?”
“I’m not telling you that just so you can publish a book!” I said, cushioning the bluntness of my words with a smile.
Her eyes had glittered with anticipation. “Is she really that alluring?” she asked and, catching my expression as I became uncertain of what to say or do next, she said smoothly, “Ah, but I see that I am distressing you. Poor darling. Torn between his perfect boss and his irrepressible writer. All right, I shall not ask anything more about Françoise’s personal life. But where is she? How come you’re here dancing with me and not with her?”
I had remained silent for a moment, and after I was sure that my voice could come out in a neutral tone, I said, “she’s probably out there somewhere in the gardens.”
Perhaps there had been something about my all-too-expressionless voice, or of a feature that had passed again over my face fleetingly when I said those words that had given Madame Dubois pause as she examined me carefully with her languorous eyes.
“I see,” she finally said, and I had cursed myself inwardly for being so transparent.
She had said no more afterward. And then came that horrid day when the emergency meetings were called after Louis de Brun had been admitted into hospital. She had actually seen me together with Françoise in the conference room, and had deliberately approached to strike up a conversation.
It had been a good thing that Françoise had been herded off just then to appease a group of investors outside the room. “So,” Madame Dubois asked me as soon as Françoise had been out of earshot. “I trust the second book is with you already?”
“It is,” I said as we walked out the room together and across the corridor. “I got it just the other night. Unfortunately, I think I may not have enough time these coming weeks to start editing it.”
“Of course,” she replied. “This is such a nasty business, isn’t it? I hope Louis pulls through. I shudder to think of what will happen to the company if he doesn’t.”
“Yes, well…” I said, realizing that we were getting farther and farther away from Françoise.
“I would like you to take your time with it,” she said, and I could have sworn that she was aware of my uneasiness and was rather enjoying it. “And I would like to ask your opinion on the entire sixteenth chapter. I’m not at all sure I got the details right with Roussaeu and Nouvelle Heloise.”
I had jotted the chapter number down obediently in my notepad while keeping an anxious eye on Françoise’s receding figure.
We had finally stopped at the turn of the corridor, and Madame Dubois was still talking about her book.
“I’m so excited about this one,” she said, her eyes shining.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a bestseller just like the first book,” I told her rather hastily, “I have already started with the first chapter, but I just don’t know when I can sit down to work on it again—“
“I could not have done the first one without you. Do take your time on this one, cheri,” she said, laying a hand reassuringly on my chest. “There’s no rush.”
“All right, I will,” I said, smiling, glad that the interview was winding to a close.
And that was when Françoise had come onto the scene. Needless to say the ensuing misunderstanding and Françoise’s stubborn determination in evading any mention of it had been most frustrating. Ultimately, it had led me to this decision, which had led me right to Madame Dubois’s doorstep on a mild May afternoon with her manuscript that I had not finished editing.
“You mean to say you came all the way here to tell me that you do not want to be my editor anymore just because your boss thinks we’re having an affair?”
The question hung in the air as I took my seat facing her. “I can’t,” I finally said. “I’m sorry, I just can’t go on with this.”
Madame Dubois lowered her eyes as she continued to stir her tea. “I must say I am extremely disappointed with your announcement,” she finally said, and there was a hard glint in her eyes when she brought them up again to look at me, “but you must remember that you are under contract to finish editing all my three books. As much as I have come to like you, André, I will be left with no choice but to seek legal action for breach of contract.”
There was a heavy silence as we regarded each other for a moment above the tea things.
Suddenly, her gaze softened and a smile grazed her lips. “I can see that you’re about to tell me to go to hell with the contract,” she said, “but before you do, André, do tell me what this is really all about.”
I shook my head as I floundered for words. “I can’t have her misunderstand this—this whole thing about us,” I finally said.
“Ah, Françoise,” she said, nodding. “Now we’re getting somewhere. But, André, whatever did we do to prompt such a misunderstanding?”
“We didn’t do anything!”
“Exactly!” she said, suddenly straightening from her chair. “So why should you care so much about what she thinks?”
At my startled silence, she murmured, “I see.”
“See what?” I asked in anguish. As far as I was concerned, she saw just a tad too much into things and I didn’t like it.
She laughed. “Oh, darling! What a delightful boy you are!” she said. “You don’t need to pretend around me. How touching it must be to have a man so concerned over what a woman thinks that he’d rather sever any ties with other women than risk being misunderstood by her? Tell me, does Françoise know of your feelings?”
I sat there for a moment longer as if turned to stone. “No,” I finally said in a barely audible voice, “she doesn’t.”
The look she fixed me then was full of sympathy, and I felt relief flood through me at the thought that she might actually understand my plight.
“I suppose you may need to work on that a bit,” she said as she leaned back on her cushioned seat. “Although I must say that you’re along the right track by adding a little bit of jealousy into the equation.”
“Françoise isn’t jealous,” I said dully.
Madame Dubois smiled as she fixed me with a slanting look. “Isn’t she now?” she asked.
“Why would she be?” I asked.
“How would she know the real state of things if she does not want to talk about it?” she asked. “And, if you will allow me, my dear boy, there had been a time when you yourself must have wondered if there may not be just a little bit more to my intentions than what was on the surface, am I correct? You’d get this look on your face every time I push things just a bit too far. It’s very amusing!”
There was more laughter from her. “Dear me,” she said as she wiped away tears. “I haven’t enjoyed myself like this for a long time, but it’s so much fun teasing you.
“As a rule, I do not go around showing off my beloved, no matter what you will hear from the rumor mills,” she continued, turning serious, “but I think I will make this one exception. You must be thankful I have a desperate need of you as an editor, cheri, to explain anything at all to you.”
At that, she picked up her cell phone and pressed a number. “Dearest, do come into the drawing room for a minute,” she said and rang off.
A few minutes later the doors opened and a man with curling blond hair, handsome and in his late thirties, dressed in tennis shirt and pants, came in. He nodded to me as he crossed the room and approached us. It took me a moment to realize who he was, and when I did recall his name, I was too surprised to say anything.
But I knew Leonard Durand! He was three years ahead of me in university. As I watched, astonished, he approached Madame Dubois and gave her a long, lingering kiss on the mouth.
After a while, I looked away, cheeks actually growing warm at the sight of such intimacy. When they finished, I said, “Uh…so--so those articles of mine in university that you’ve read. They actually came from—“
Madame Dubois nodded as Leo gave me a brief smile, but she refused to be detracted from her present point. “Françoise has better start worrying if she finds me kissing you like that,” she said wickedly, a devilish twinkle in her eyes.
One could not describe the days that followed Louis de Brun’s death. The company was in a tumult, to say the very least. And to have Françoise insert a brief but savage meeting into her extremely hard-pressed schedule to confront Nicholas de la Motte meant that she was thoroughly displeased with the man’s actions.
To ensure that the man would not be able to dodge her this time around, she had taken time to drop in unannounced at his office. Things had not started out well, as he had kept us waiting by arriving late for work for a full half hour.
By the time she was through with him, Françoise had given him a sound thrashing over the haphazard inventory and accounting he had been doing at his branch.
“I expect this mess cleared up in two weeks. Your financial report has better be on my desk by that time. And if you ever dare to dismiss my summons like that again next time I shall ensure that more surprise visits will be on their way,” she said frostily, her eyes never leaving de la Motte.
The guy, on the other hand, was insolent enough to meet her gaze head-on with nothing but resentment in evidence on his features. He very wisely kept his tongue though, which prevented matters from taking a turn for the worse.
“Who the hell does he think he is?” stormed Françoise as we headed down the lift to the basement parking lot of the building. “Does he really think that just because he’s backed by Rohan at the main office he can escape censure if he does anything wrong in my area of responsibility? Does he think I’m going to let him go just like that? Does he really think I’m that stupid and inept?”
She must have caught my small smile, for she suddenly turned to me and grabbed my coat in a hard grip. “Do you think this is funny, André?” she demanded, and when I remained silent a moment longer, she prompted, “say something!”
“One of the things I like about you, Françoise, is that on the surface, you might appear to be as cold as ice, but there’s a fire burning deep inside you. As for fools thinking you stupid or inept, well…that’s why they’re fools,” I said.
This, said in a perfectly level and matter-of-fact tone, made her blink as she stared at me in surprise. I felt her grip relax as she turned away from me and said, “Come on. We’re wasting precious time here. We’d better be getting back to the office.”
This time, I could not hide my triumphant smile as I followed her to the car.
It was quite exhilarating to catch Françoise by surprise. I was making progress, and I must admit that the long talk with Madame Dubois had something to do with it.
Perhaps it was not quite as hopeless as I had thought, this quest to win Françoise’s heart. I must persevere then…
Toward the middle of May, the meetings at de Brun had not yet abated, and we found that more trips to the head office was to be expected as the weeks following Louis’ departure from this world drew on.
At one such meeting, Françoise and I came across Madamoiselle Antoinette—I meant Madame.
“I might as well tell you this, André,” Françoise was saying as we strode through the large reception area of the building’s first floor on our way to the lifts. “I have sent Monsieur Dagout to investigate into the financial state of the branches under Nicholas de la Motte. I’d also like you to investigate the man himself, and kindly see to it that Dagout does not make himself conspicuous.”
“All right,” I said, feeling that Françoise was bound to take this step sooner or later where de la Motte was concerned.
One of the lifts opened as soon as we reached it, and Antoinette stepped out. She seemed to have adjusted pretty well to all the pressure around her; gone was the haunted expression we had seen on her face the first few weeks Louis had gone and Auguste had taken over.
“How have you been?” she asked us warmly as we shook her hand. “I’ve come with Auguste just to see how things are coming along.”
“It’s a long wait for your husband, Antoinette,” warned Françoise. “I understand the meetings are going to go on until 6 pm.”
“Oh, I won’t be hanging around that long,” replied Antoinette cheerfully. “In fact, I’m on my way out to do some shopping. Ah! I see Yolande’s already there!”
We watched as she made her way across the lobby to greet another woman. After a short talk, she motioned for us to come over.
Exchanging glances with Françoise, we set out to meet the newcomer. The woman was actually quite beautiful, with long, wavy blond hair tied up and away from a sweet-looking face.
“This is Yolande Martin, Françoise. Yolande, Françoise de la Saigne,” Antoinette said as Françoise reached out to shake the woman’s hand. To us, she explained: “We met while Auguste and I were in Greece for the honeymoon.”
After the brief intro, Antoinette said, “We have to go. I hope your meeting goes well.”
“So that’s Yolande Martin,” Françoise said as we went back to wait for the lifts.
“Familiar name,” I remarked. “I’m sure I’ve heard of it before.”
“Tabloids, probably,” said Françoise. “She was in a bit of society news a few years back, though she had lain low ever since.”
“What was the news about?” I wanted to know.
“I can’t remember now…something about gambling,” answered Françoise, taking one last look at the departing figures of Antoinette and Yolande as we stepped into the waiting elevator.
A few days later, Françoise gave me the daily papers to point out an article or two about Antoinette in the society columns.
“She’s making headlines,” I observed as I skimmed over the article about Antoinette being seen and photographed shopping almost every day.
“They’ve not let go of her ever since the wedding and several months prior to that,” said Françoise.
“She seems to be enjoying herself,” I said as I folded the paper away.
“I’m worried,” Françoise said.
“Why would you worry?” I said with a laugh. “They don’t get this much coverage in the papers, but I’m sure your sisters shop almost everyday, too.”
“Getting such heavy coverage in the papers is exactly the reason why I’m worried,” she answered.
“Well, I’m sure she’ll be fine,” I said.
“I hope so,” Françoise said as she moved on to check her next appointment. “My meeting with the U.S. group isn’t until two in the afternoon, right?”
“Correct,” replied Rosalie as she checked her clipboard. “Oh, and this just arrived for you. It’s from your sister Josephine.”
“What is it?” Françoise asked as she reached for the heavy package wrapped in brown paper that Rosalie was handing over.
We watched her as she tore off the paper, revealing a hard cover book. She held it up for a moment to read the title, and I took care not to show too much interest in her expression as she did so. I would have been able to identify that book anywhere even if I were only to see it from the back—it was the book that I had been editing for Madame Dubois all those months ago.
Françoise finally set the book down and shook her head. “That Josephine,” she said. “She’s finally made good her threat in buying me a copy.”
“It’s that bestseller from Vanessa d’Or,” said Rosalie, interested, as she leaned in to read the title.
“Vanessa d’Or,“ murmured Françoise. “Isn’t she that romance novelist who likes to write sappy stories? But the reviews I’ve read of this book all say it’s quite a good one. What do you think, André?”
“Read it,” I said. “I think you will like it.”
“I take it you’ve done so already. All right, if you say so,” she said and set the book aside to get back to work.
I turned away lest she saw me smile.
I should have known that the way things were going was just too good to last. All those small, inconsequential victories, those golden days when I thought I was gradually drawing nearer to Françoise all drew to a close with one seemingly casual but significant remark made by her toward the first week of June.
The day started well enough. We had been chatting as Françoise started checking her emails in the office.
“I finally picked it up and started reading it late last night,” she was saying of the book by Madame Dubois as she coursed through the messages in her inbox, “I’m actually already three quarters through and--”
And then came the abrupt silence as one email message caught and held her attention.
As the silence drew on, I looked up. “What is it?” I asked.
She held up her head only long enough to say, “Nothing. It’s just…Fersen has been transferred to the main office here in Paris.”
I knew from the subtle way her voice had changed from one breath to the next at the mention of Fersen meant that all my efforts in the last few months to get to her had been in vain.
Nothing had changed. It was clear who still held sway over Françoise’s heart. Now that he was coming back, it seemed that nothing was ever going to change.
Author’s Notes: Yolande Martin’s basis is Yolande Gabrielle, Comtesse de Polignac. I have decided to pattern Madame Dubois on another character in the RoV manga, the Black Countess, Elizabeth de Montclair. While it may not be so convincing right now, all will be explained in due time.
To Be Continued…
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