In the Face of Death (Madelaine de Montalia #2)

Chapter 12

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"Oh, Madame de Montalia," she enthused, prettily half turning so that the tiers of her skirt fluttered becomingly around her. "I was so happy to see you arrive with Baron deStoeckl."

"Why is that?" Madelaine asked, adding. "My felicitations on your anniversary. May all those to come be as happy."

"Thank you," said Fanny, a smug hint of a smile snowing her delight in this occasion. "I am a fortunate woman; my husband is devoted to me."

"Yes, you are fortunate," said Madelaine. "The more so that you are fond of him."

Fanny clasped her hand to her throat, touching her new necklace. "Dear me, yes. I have seen marriages—well, we all have—where the partners do not suit, and one is forever trapped trying to win the other, with flattery and gifts and other signs of affection that gain nothing but aggravation. The greater the effort, the greater the failure in those sad cases. Fortunately, I am not of their number."

"Which must please all your friends," said Madelaine, thinking that festive small talk had not changed appreciably in the one hundred thirty years she had been alive. "I see the Captain has given you a wonderful remembrance."

"So he has," she preened. "How good of you to notice." She looked around, then moved a step nearer to Madelaine. "I mentioned Baron deStoeckl just now, in the hope that there might be… an interesting announcement from Mm?"

Madelaine realized at once what Fanny sought to know; she chuckled. "Do not let his affianced bride hear you say that, or she will never lend me his escort again."

Fanny's face wilted. "Oh. An affianced bride, you say?"

"So he has informed me," said Madelaine, her good humor unaltered. "Dear Mrs. Kent, you must know that even with your best efforts, few of us can become as happy as you are with your Captain. Although I appreciate your wish to see me thus." She regarded Fanny, trying not to lose patience with her.

"Yes," said Fanny naively. "It is true that happiness like ours is rare. But I think it is necessary for a woman to have a husband in this world. Life is quite impossible without one." Impulsively she put her hand on Madelaine's arm. "And I hate to see you so alone."

"I deal well enough with my single condition," said Madelaine, knowing that Fanny intended the best for her, but offended by the intrusion in spite of her intuition.

"But the future; think of the future, Madame." Her pretty face was now puckered with distress. "What will become of you? I cannot bear to think of it, not when I know you to be a prize any man would be glad to win."

"Please, Mrs. Kent," Madelaine said, her manner less conciliating than before, "do not think that you must make arrangements for me. I have no wish to be any man's prize. I am capable of caring for myself; I value your interest as I ought, but I must ask you not to pursue the matter."

Fanny dabbed a tear from her eye with her lace handkerchief. "If you insist, I will refrain, but why I should, I cannot grasp. Surely you must know that we all wish you well. Nothing would please us more than to see you well situated." She lowered her eyes to the flower beds. 'This will be so splendid next spring. Don't you look forward to seeing it?"

"Yes," Madelaine answered, "and I regret that I will no longer be in San Francisco when they bloom."

Fanny's expression changed to shock. "What are you saying, Madame?"

"Only that my purpose for being in your country will take me away from here before much more time goes by; I will be leaving soon, ahead of winter setting in, for I do not like hazardous travel," said Madelaine, trying to make these statements calmly so that Fanny would not be too inquisitive about her plans.

"Gracious," said Fanny, nonplussed to the point of brief silence. "What purpose is that, Madame de Montalia?"

"I am making a study of America; the United States are part of my subjects." It was not a lie, Madelaine reminded herself, though it was also not quite the truth.

"But why would you want to do that?" Fanny marveled. "Why should a well-born woman like you undertake so arduous a task?"

"Curiosity," said Madelaine. "Women are supposed to be more curious than men, aren't we?"

"Well, I suppose so," said Fanny dubiously, then turned as she heard her name called. She waved in response, then looked guiltily at Madelaine. "Oh, dear. You must excuse me, Madame. My husband needs me."

"By all means," said Madelaine, and went back to her perusal of the flower beds. But she could not bring herself to concentrate on what she saw now, for Fanny Kent's well-meaning interference niggled at the back of her thoughts, and she remembered how Saint-Germain had cautioned her against making herself too noticeable in society. At the time, she had thought the advice too protective, but now she could perceive the reason for his warning, and she tried to think how best to undo the damage she had done.

A short while later, Baron deStoeckl found her once more. He carried a glass of champagne, and he smiled broadly, his whole manner amiable, his eyes shrewd. As usual, he addressed her in French. "How are you faring, Madame?"

"Well enough," she said, taking care not to appear too interested in him. "Fanny Kent was hoping she could make a match of us."

Baron deStoeckl chuckled. "And did you tell her of my promised bride at home?"

"Yes," said Madelaine. "I think she was more disappointed than shocked."

He strolled along beside her, content to say little as they went. Finally, as he reached the foot of the garden, he remarked, "I hope you will not allow yourself to worry about what she said to you."

"It is not my intention," said Madelaine, trying to sound unconcerned, and went on impulsively, "but it galls me to think I have been foolish enough to expose myself to her…"

"Scrutiny?" suggested deStoeckl when Madelaine did not goon.

"Something of the sort," she admitted. "Though that may be too strong a word."

They started back to where most of the guests were gathered. DeStoeckl gestured to indicate the expansive garden. "You know, at the rate this city is growing, holdings of this size will soon vanish. Ask William what it was like when he was in California the first time. It was nothing like the place you see now. Once the Rush was on, San Francisco mushroomed. And it is mushrooming still." He grinned impishly. "William learned a great deal then, and it has stood him in good stead now. He claims that at the time, he had other things on his mind. Ask him why they called Monterey Bay 'Sherman's Punch Bowl,' six years ago."

"You may be right about the city," she said with verve, not wanting to be pulled into talking about Sherman. "Though it would be a pity to lose this garden."

"The price of land is rising steadily," deStoeckl reminded her. "And buildings are going up everywhere. I venture to guess that one day the city will stretch from the Bay to the Pacific itself." He saw the mayor signal to him. "I will return later," he said as he went to answer the summons.

It was too early to leave the party, but Madelaine wanted some relief from it. She went into the house and looked about for the library; the chance to read would diminish her growing anxiety.

There was no library, only two small shelves of books in the withdrawing room. With a sigh, she resigned herself to the limited fare, and taking a copy of Bleak House from the top shelf, sat down to read, deciding she would discover at last what it was Sherman so admired in Dickens.

'1 wondered what had become of you," said a voice from the door, a young importer stood there, smiling fatuously at Madelaine. "No fair, you running off the way you did."

'It is too bright in the garden; I fear I do poorly in such bright sun," she said, noticing the fellow looked a bit flushed. "So do you, it would seem."

"The sun doesn't bother me," he boasted and held up his glass in a toast to her. "But not looking at you does. You're better than the sun any day of the week."

This flattery was more alarming than complimenting; Madelaine began to wonder if the high color in the young man's face did not result from too much champagne rather than too much sun; there was a certain glaze to his eyes that suggested it. A quiver of consternation went through her as she recalled other unwelcome encounters: Alain Baudilet in Omats' garden, Gerard le Mat on the road to her estate in Provence, Ralph Whitestone in her box after The Duchess of Malfi. "Thank you for the pretty words," she said automatically, continuing with great deliberation. "I think, perhaps, it is time to rejoin the others."

The young man gave her a lupine grin. "Not so fast. I thought we could have a little… talk on our own."

"Did you?" Madelaine closed the novel and put it back into its place on the shelf. "I fear you were mistaken." She rose and started toward the door, not so quickly that she would seem to confront the young man. With all the composure she could muster, she said, "Will you let me by?"

He extended his arm to block the door. "I don't think so. Not yet."

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