The Hidden Duchess
Celeste ducked her head to avoid the low door frame as she was ushered into the cellar. Standing up on the other side, she faced around a dozen sizeable men squeezed into a tiny room. And they were all staring at her.
Unable to catch more than snatches of their rumbling conversations, Celeste consoled herself with determining the mood of the room by what she could see in their candlelit faces. Out of the dozen men, she could make out only two who regarded her with any kindness.
One was an old man. Celeste thought he looked the oldest in the group. Perhaps age had rewarded him with understanding, because he seemed to be arguing her case to the stony-faced man beside him. Celeste graced him with a small, grateful smile, and he winked back.
The other kind eyes belonged to her cousin.
The rest looked her over with various expressions--thoughtfulness, curiosity, embarrassment, even hostility. The words "murderess" and "duchess" reached her ears, and she inwardly cringed. The contempt in their voices seemed the same whether they were speaking of one or the other. Her stomach gurgled. Thankfully, it stayed quiet enough that the muttered conversations of the men covered the noise. They didn't need to know she hadn't been able to eat all day.
Certain that catching the eye of the hostile men would betray her trepidation, Celeste avoided their faces after a single glance. Appearing assured and self-contained in front of the peasants was paramount, even if her stomach was roiling and her heart pounding. She blinked rapidly, willing herself not to cry.
An unpleasant, dizzy feeling passed over her, and the conversation around her dulled as a greyness entered her vision. She almost lurched, feeling as if she had lost her balance for a moment. Thankfully, the dizziness passed as quickly as it had appeared.
"We've come to a decision, madame." Her cousin's deep, serious voice boomed through the room, despite him speaking quietly. Monsieur Daunou reminded Celeste of a bear; enormous, black-haired, and barrel-chested, with onyx eyes that had glinted with suspicion when he first spoke to her earlier, but which seemed to have softened in the candlelight of the timbered cellar.
Celeste tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. Even running her tongue over her parched lips was impossible. All her actions of the past days--her horror at learning she was accused of murder, her hurried exit from Paris, and the agonizing tediousness of her journey to the tiny village of Danguin, had led to this one moment.
Time seemed to stand still. The candle, guttering only a moment before, shone clear and bright. The smoke from the men's pipes hung motionless in the air. She stood perfectly immobile, even the soft swish of her dark-green worsted travelling dress against the stone floor stopped. For a long moment, the only thing Celeste was aware of was her heart, beating an unsteady tattoo. She held her breath, her eyes meeting Monsieur Daunou's for a suspended moment that felt like forever. Then a half smile crossed his face.
"We've decided you can stay. The price'll be five hundred louis."
She let out her breath, closing her eyes as she did so. Her entire body unclenched. From what seemed a long way away, she heard her own voice.
"Thank you, messieurs. I appreciate your consideration."
And with that, all the emotions of the past days crashed in on her--the fear, the distrust, the apprehension, along with the new feelings of giddy relief and happiness. She heard herself say in a strange, slurring tone, "I wonder if I could have something to eat, please," before she felt herself falling, and the world went black.
Celeste sat up with a gasp, her heart beating rapidly against her ribs. Her light chemise clung to her clammy skin, her breathing shallow and fast.
The dream had been vivid--first, seeing her husband's cold, stiff body lying in a great smear of his own blood, then looking down on a scene in the gendarme's quarters with her own ex-footman accusing her of murder, and finally she, in a plain white gown, dark red hair falling down her back, riding the tumbrel to the gallows, begging for her life, screaming out her innocence to the crowd, but unheard as they called for her blood.
As she lay back down and closed her eyes, a single tear slid free.
"Are you all right, madame?" a quiet, feminine voice asked.
Celeste darted upright again, her eyes wide, a sharp scold springing to her lips for whoever it was that had invaded her bedroom. However, as her bewildered gaze took in her surroundings, she realized she wasn't in her own lavish room.
Where am I?
The chill in the air set her to shivering, despite the rough blankets covering her. Looking around, her puzzled gaze fell on a petite, young woman with a mess of curly, blond hair who regarded her gravely from the side of the bed.
"You've had yourself a nightmare." The girl reached out, and Celeste shrank back defensively before realizing that the girl only wanted to reach behind to fluff up the pillow and smooth the bedsheets. "'Tis only to be expected, considering the terrible time you've had."
Celeste rubbed her forehead, wincing at an encroaching headache. "Where am I?" Her voice sounded awful--croaky and thick, unlike her usual tones. She swallowed and ran her tongue over her dry lips.
"You're at our farm. Mine and Marcel's. I'm Louise, your cousin." She smiled then, and Celeste felt compelled to smile back. "I'm who the men called when you fainted. Men!" Louise bustled around the room, folding and tidying as she went. "No good in a crisis. Of course, I sent them all away so I could untie your stays, but you wouldn't wake. ‘All she needs is a little sleep,' I said to Marcel, so we carried you to his bedroom and look! I was right. You've been asleep for nearly fourteen hours, and you're good as new."
Celeste closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "In truth, I have a splitting headache, and my throat feels like fire. Would you be so kind as to procure me a little water?"
"I can do better than that, madame. If you care to get up, we've breakfast set out for you downstairs."
Celeste shuddered, her bile rising at the very thought of eating. "I don't really care for breakfast. Just a little water, if you don't mind."
"But breakfast'll do you the world of good."
"Just water, please." Celeste's tone became sharp. She winced. Shouting did not help her headache one bit.
"Oh. Well, if that's all you need." Louise stiffly moved to the other side of the bed to where a glass and pitcher were resting on a nearby table. She poured the crystal clear water into the glass, then handed it to Celeste, who drank greedily. She wasn't in Paris any more--the water there had an unpleasant tang to it. Celeste exulted in the flow of the cold, pure liquid down her parched throat.
The water seemed to assist with clearing the fog in her mind, and her headache abated enough for her to finally take an interest in her surroundings.
"So you are my cousin," she mused, glancing around the room, barely noticing the grin and nod she received from Louise. "Is this my room?" If it was, she would need to make some serious changes to the decor. Like brocaded drapes instead of the loose, flapping curtains that covered the window now.
"Oh no," replied Louise. "This is Marcel's room. You and I will be sharing my room."
"Sharing?" Her brows drew together. "Will we be sharing your maid as well?"
To her surprise, Louise burst out laughing. "Oh, madame, you are funny. We have no maid. I take care of the house and garden; indeed, the house is so small, if I had a maid I'd do nothing but trip over her all day."
Celeste was aghast. "No maid at all? Then who will help me with my clothes? And dress my hair?"
Louise laughed again, then as she caught Celeste's narrowing eyes, her mouth fell open. "You're serious, aren't you?"
She stared at Celeste for a long moment, then gave a confused smile. "Around here, madame, we dress ourselves. And take care of our own hair. I'm afraid you will need to do the same."
Looking at Louise's riot of curls, Celeste couldn't help the thought that her cousin could benefit from the deft touch of a good lady's maid, but she didn't voice the opinion. With an impatient sigh, she flicked back the blanket and threw her legs over the side of the bed. Her head pounded for a moment when she stood, but she closed her eyes and the moment passed. "Very well. I am nothing if not adaptable. Now, where are my valises? It's just fortunate I packed my chemises de la Reine. I should be able to dress myself in those, although it will still be a struggle. As for my hair..." She shrugged her shoulders before looking around. "Where are my valises, madame?" Her gaze returned to Louise, who looked surprised.
"Oh no, I'm not a madame. I'm a mademoiselle. And to my friends, I'm Louise."
"But I thought you and Monsieur Daunou were..."
"Heaven forbid! He's my brother." Louise trilled with laughter again, a sound that was already beginning to grate on Celeste's nerves. Her headache returned a little, and she closed her eyes, rotating her shoulders to relax them. Louise continued speaking.
"Your dresses are very beautiful; however, my brother said they'd be far too fancy for the role you're to play here. Those layers and layers of muslin--they'll be torn in minutes when you start weeding in the garden or going back and forth between the house and the fields and the barn. Very lovely for tea parties and promenading, but far from practical. He said you were to wear this dress instead." Her tone softened. "It was one of my mother's."
Louise produced a simple pale-blue frock made from a coarse cloth. There was a voluminous off-white petticoat to go under the dress, an apron, and a wraparound shawl. The ensemble was obviously worn, but the clothes were clean and serviceable.
Celeste thought she would rather die than wear them. She took a step back from Louise's offering, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I'm not sure I heard you correctly. Weeding in the garden?" Now it was her turn to laugh, quick and brittle. "Exactly what role am I to play here? And what do you mean by going through my trunk?" With each question her voice grew a little shriller.
Louise blushed slightly but held her ground. "I'm very sorry, madame, but we had to check your clothes would be suitable."
"Suitable for what?"
"Perhaps you should get dressed, madame, and my brother can explain over breakfast," Louise encouraged.
"No. I will not get dressed, I do not require breakfast, and I want an explanation right now." She stamped her foot, her clenched fists punching downward. Louise stared at her open-mouthed.
It was at that moment Monsieur Daunou strode into the room.
The duchess gasped. She had met her cousin the previous evening, but she hadn't quite recalled just how large he was. She noticed he had to duck to avoid the door frame, and when in the room, he dominated it. Obsidian eyes scowled down at her from a height of at least a head taller than herself, jetty hair, heavy, inky brows--in fact, everything about her cousin was dark--like a huge, black bear.
The duchess's color rose as she realized he had caught the end of her temper tantrum, followed quickly by the realization that she was only wearing a very thin chemise which left little to the imagination. She crossed her arms over her body, casting an indignant glare at her large cousin. He fixed his black stare on Celeste's face but directed his question at Louise. "Is she refusing to cooperate?"
Before Celeste could answer, his sister set herself between the two of them and placed a soothing hand on her brother's arm.
"Marcel, she's still half-asleep. She doesn't know what's happened since yesterday, and you haven't given me the chance to tell her yet, so, of course, she's going to be a bit defensive. Give us a minute." Louise pushed him gently out the door and closed it behind him.
Celeste released a breath she didn't know she had been holding, glad to be released from his scornful black gaze. She had seen his jaw working, his lips set in a thin, straight line. She shivered. Marcel Daunou was not a man who was used to being crossed.
Louise gave a theatrical sigh and rolled her eyes. "That was my brother, Marcel. He's completely uncultured and behaves inappropriately most of the time. But he's the very best of brothers and only has your best interests at heart."
Celeste drew herself up, dredging up the tattered remains of her outrage. "What did he mean by entering a lady's bedchamber unbidden? If he were to do that in my house, I would have him flogged." The words sounded petty, even to Celeste's ears.
"Like I said, he just doesn't seem to be able to behave appropriate-like. You'll get used to it." With that, she again produced the blue dress, and her voice took on a wheedling tone. "Come now, madame. Aren't you curious? Don't you want to know how it's been fixed so you can stay here? Please, get dressed, and Marcel can tell you."
Celeste held back for a moment, unwilling to concede even this small battle. Her own gowns gave her confidence and poise--when she wore them, she felt like the duchess she was supposed to be. Out of them, well, she was just plain Celeste Martin, practically the same terrified, gauche young woman who had married the duke five years ago.
That was not the face she wanted to show to these people, and especially not to her towering bear of a cousin. She needed to appear collected, detached, no matter how much he intimidated her. She needed to be sure her cousins realized what she was doing here, and how her exile would operate.
Come along, Celeste. You can do this. You don't need the gowns when you can clothe yourself in the Grand Façade.
The Grand Façade was the name she had made up for the persona of the duchess that she had been forced to cultivate when she first got to Paris. Right now, she needed the Grand Façade more than anything.
She rolled her eyes and sighed, making a great show of stepping into the gown and allowing Louise to help her into the sleeves. It felt rough and itchy against her delicate skin. She squirmed in discomfort.
"Just what is this garment made of? It's terribly itchy. And so heavy, I can hardly walk."
"It's wool, madame. As are the petticoats. Believe me, you'll appreciate the warmth."
Celeste doubted there was anything about the dress she would ever appreciate, but again, she kept the sentiment to herself.
Still chatting away, Louise led Celeste downstairs to what was obviously the kitchen. A pot of water bubbled merrily over the low fire and a rough bench held a tub, over the lip of which peeked dirty dishes. A substantial though simple breakfast was laid out on the large wooden table in the center of the room.
Celeste's stomach churned in revulsion at the plethora of different food smells. At her home in Paris, her chef knew not to place food in front of her until at least three hours after she awoke.
Louise didn't notice Celeste's apprehension. "I wanted you to feel at home, and I know in the big châteaus and cafes in Paris you can get nearly anything you want for breakfast, so I've given you everything we have to offer. Pork, eggs, crepes, cheese, bread, whatever you would like."
"Is there coffee?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
Celeste unwillingly forced herself to sit down at the table. If Louise had gone to this much trouble, it would only be politic to try to eat something. She thought she might be able to stomach a crepe and maybe a little of the white meat from the pork. She ate slowly, to ensure her delicate stomach didn't revolt at the early-morning onslaught.
Truth be told, the weak winter sunlight slanting in through the window and the warmth from the cooking fire made the kitchen quite a comfortable place to be, despite its rustic homeliness, and Celeste found herself relaxing for the first time in days, ever since de Lacey had come rushing to her rooms, insisting that she leave Paris immediately. It was nice to relax, to forget her troubles, and just listen to the sounds of the world--birds chirping, the wind blowing--for a long moment, she closed her eyes and smiled, reveling in the simplicity and thinking how easy it would be to stay here.
But before she could do that, there was the matter of the inevitable audience she would have to take with Monsieur Daunou. The very thought of him made her heart beat in trepidation. She knew she would have to swallow down her fear and wished to God there was at least the fortifying comfort of coffee.
Finishing her last tiny mouthful of crepe, Celeste asked Louise where she might find Monsieur Daunou.
"Just go through the door there, and you'll see the barn, off to your right. He'll be in there."
The barn was a big, clean, airy space, obviously well looked after, and it was here that Celeste discovered Monsieur Daunou crouching down, working on an old piece of farming equipment that the duchess didn't recognize.
He must have heard her footsteps, because without looking up from his work, her cousin asked, "Have you ever milked a cow?"
At this, he squinted up at her through the morning sunlight. "Really?" His voice was politely incredulous, which annoyed Celeste enough to spur her on to substantiate her words.
"I lived on a farm as a girl. I have milked cows, collected eggs, raised vegetables..."
"But have you ever mucked out a horse stall? Or hewn wheat? Or branded cows?"
"No, of course not."
"Washed dishes? Mended clothes?"
"No, I had servants for that."
"Helped those less fortunate?"
"I gave to the various charitable institutions."
"What did you do that was useful, madame?" Monsieur Daunou's eyebrows were low over his onyx eyes, his mouth a tight line of disapproval.
Celeste bristled. "I do not see how my manner of occupation has anything to do with you."
Marcel stood up, towering over her. Celeste refused to allow herself to be cowed and continued to stare into his face, one haughty eyebrow raised, despite the pattering of her fearful heart.
"While you are here, you will be Celeste Martin, recently widowed, from a farming community the other side of Toulouse. You will need to work to perpetuate the story."
"Absolutely not." She was truly aghast. "I've never worked in my life! And I have very little desire to start now."
"Your desire is of no interest to me." Her cousin turned away and crouched to return to his task, picking up a mallet and hammering a bolt into the piece of equipment. For a moment, Celeste was distracted by the way the muscles in her cousin's shoulder and arm contracted to bring the hammer down. They looked smooth and hard, and she found herself wondering how they would feel under her fingers, and as her mind clouded, she started to reach out to touch them. But the rhythmic metallic clang of the mallet hitting the bolt brought her back to reality, and she flushed, snatching her fingers back. What on earth was she doing? In the time it took her to regain her equanimity, her cousin had completed ramming the bolt home.
She took a quick, fretful turn about the barn. This was not what she expected when she decided to flee to her cousins in the little village of Danguin.
"I cannot work, monsieur."
"Are your limbs functional?"
"Are you in reasonable health?"
"Then you can work."
She raised an eyebrow. He wanted war, did he? Well then, war would be what he got. "Very well then. I will not work."
"Yes, you will."
"No, I will not."
"If I say so, you will."
"No, I will not."
"Yes, you will."
"Will you force me?"
"If I have to, yes."
"Feel free to try."
Monsieur Daunou stood again and stepped close to her, invading her space. She felt her pulse quicken and a blush come to her cheek at his proximity, but she refused to yield, not even one step. His voice betrayed his barely controlled temper. "Perhaps you'd prefer that I send you home. Would that be better?" She tried not to respond, but she felt a crease of worry cross her forehead, which he noticed immediately.
"You seem concerned by that possibility. Why would a beautiful woman want to leave her life behind? Perhaps you did kill your husband after all; that's why you were forced to come here."
The duchess stared up at him, her face whitening with anger. She could hardly process her cousin's damning words, let alone formulate an answer. He sneered and turned away from her.
"Your silence speaks volumes, madame."
With this final insult, Celeste sprang to life. She reached up to grasp him by the shoulder, turning him back to face her. "Why, you self-righteous, arrogant, peasant pig! How dare you suggest such a thing!"
"It seems to be the only story that fits all the circumstances."
"You know nothing," she spat at him. "I may not have loved my husband, but I loved my life. I loved my freedom. Marie Antoinette herself would ask me to tea! I would never do anything to jeopardize my place in that society."
"And yet, now, you are here, in our society."
And with that sentence, Celeste's shoulders slumped. "Yes. Here I am," she replied dully. A single tear trickled down her cheek as she stepped away from him.
He turned his shoulder, his tone gruff and intractable. "While you are in our home, you'll have to act like a member of our family. Mucking out stables, milking, washing, mending, helping Louise with the village children, cooking, tending the home garden, that sort of thing. I don't expect you to winnow the fields. At least not yet," he finished with a glance of humor in her direction, but the smile died on his face as he caught her expression, her brows drawn and a scowl marring her features.
A moment of silence hung between them. Celeste left it to stretch out for as long as possible, until her cousin started to make some comment, and then she interrupted.
"I will not."
The duchess stood, tall and haughty, looking up at the imposing Monsieur Daunou.
He lunged at Celeste, picking her up and throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of wheat. Without another word, he started marching back to the house, choosing not to hear Celeste's shrieks and threats.
"What are you doing? Unhand me this instant, peasant! Do you know who I am? I could have you hanged for this!"
She pummeled his back with her fists as he swept her into the house, past an astonished Louise, up the stairs, and into the bedroom she had slept in. He dropped her on the unmade bed and said, "If you won't work, you'll stay locked in this room."
"This is preposterous. You will keep me prisoner?"
"No. You can leave any time. But if you choose to stay, you will work."
"I shall not."
"Then you leave me no choice." The last thing she saw before the door swung closed and the ominous click of a heavy lock sounded was the smug look on Monsieur Daunou's face.