Authors: Beatriz Williams
He frowned. “Do you need one?”
I folded my arms and sank into the armchair next to the bed. His pajamas were fine silky cotton and striped in blue, and one lapel was still folded endearingly on the inside, as if belonging to a little boy who had dressed himself too hastily. The blueness brought out the bright caramel of his eyes and, by some elusive trick, made his chest seem even sturdier than before. His color had returned, pink and new; his hair was brushed; his thick jaw was smooth and smelled of shaving soap. You would hardly have known he was hurt, except for the bulky dressing that distended one blue-striped pajama leg. “What do you think?” I said.
He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand. “You are a nurse. You see before you an injured man. You have a cabin, a change of clothes, a dozen men to serve you. What more is necessary for an obedient young lady who knows it is impertinent to ask questions?”
I opened my mouth to say something indignant, and then I saw the expression on his face as he lit the cigarette between his lips with a sharp-edged gold lighter and tossed the lighter back on the nightstand. The end of the cigarette flared orange. I said, “You
realize you're at my mercy, don't you?”
“I have known that for some time, yes. Since you first walked into that miserable boathouse in your white dress and stained it with my blood.”
“Oh, you're flirting again. Anyway, I returned the favor, didn't I?”
“Yes. We are now bound at the most elemental level, aren't we? I believe the ancients would say we have taken a sacred oath, and are bound together for eternity.” He reached for the ashtray and placed it on the bed, next to his leg, and his eyes danced.
“If that's your strategy for conquering my virtue, you'll have to try much harder.”
Stefan's face turned more serious. He placed his hand with the
cigarette on the topmost book, the Goethe, nearly covering it, and said, “What I mean by all that, of course, is
, Mademoiselle. Because there are really no proper words to describe my gratitude.”
I leaned forward and turned the lapel of his pajamas right side out. “Since we are now bound together for eternity,” I said, “you may call me Annabelle.”
Of course, my full name was much longer.
I was christened Annabelle Marie-Elisabeth, Princesse de CrÃ©ouville, a title bought for me by my mother, who married Prince Edouard de CrÃ©ouville with her share of the colossal fortune left to her and her sister by their father, a New England industrialist. Textiles, I believe. I never met the man who was my grandfather. My father was impoverished, as European nobility generally was, and generously happy to make the necessary bargain.
At least my mother was beautiful. Not beautiful like a film starâon a woman with less money, her beauty would be labeled
âbut striking enough to set her apart from most of the debutantes that year. So she married her prince, she gave birth to Charles nine months later and me another four years after that, and then,
ooh la la,
caught her husband in bed with Peggy Guggenheim and asked for a divorce. (
But everybody's doing it,
my father protested, and my mother said,
Adultery or Peggy Guggenheim?
and my father replied,
) So that was the end of that, though in order to secure my father's cooperation in the divorce (he was Catholic and so was the marriage) my mother had to leave behind what remained of her fortune.
C'est la vie.
We moved back to America and lived in a modest house in Brookline, Massachusetts, summering with relatives in Cape Cod, until Mummy's appendix burst and it was back to France and Saint Cecilia's on the storm-dashed Brittany coast.
“But that is medieval,” said Stefan, to whom I was relating this story a week later, on a pair of deck chairs overlooking a fascinating sunset. He was still in pajamas, smoking a cigarette and drinking a dry martini; I wore a lavender sundress and sipped lemonade.
“My father's Paris apartment was hardly the place for an eleven-year-old girl,” I pointed out.
“True. And I suppose I have no right to complain, having reaped the benefit of your convent education. But I hate to think of my Annabelle being imprisoned in such a bitter climate, when she is so clearly meant for sunshine and freedom. And then to have lost such a mother at such an age, and your father so clearly unworthy of this gift with which he was entrusted. It enrages me. Are you sure you won't have a drink?”
“I mean a real one, Annabelle. A grown-up drink.”
“I don't drink when I'm on duty.”
“Are you still on duty, then?” He crushed the spent cigarette into an ashtray and plucked the olive out of his martini. He handed it to me.
I popped the gin-soaked olive into my mouth. “Yes, very much.”
“I am sorry to hear that. I had hoped, by now, you were staying of your own accord. Do you not enjoy these long hours on the deck of my beautiful ship, when you read to me in your charming voice, and then I return the favor by teaching you German and telling you stories until the sun sets?”
“Of course I do. But until you're wearing a dinner jacket instead of pajamas, and your crutches have been put away, you're still my patient. And then you won't need me anymore, so I'll go back home.”
He finished the martini and reached for another cigarette. “Ah, Annabelle. You crush me. But you know already I have no need of a nurse. Dr. Duchamps told me so yesterday, when he removed the stitches.” He tapped his leg with his cigarette. “I am nearly healed.”
“He didn't tell
“Perhaps he is a romantic fellow and wants you to stay right here with me, tending to my many needs.”
Suddenly I was tired of all the flirting, all the charming innuendo that meant nothing at all. I braced my hands on the arms of the deck chair and lifted myself away.
“Where are you going?” asked Stefan.
“To get some air.”
The air at the
's prow was no fresher than the air twenty feet away in the center of the deckâand we both knew itâbut I spread my hands out anyway and drew in a deep and briny breath. The breeze was picking up with the setting of the sun. My dress wound softly around my legs. I wasn't wearing shoes; shoes seemed pointless on the well-scrubbed deck of a yacht like this. The bow pointed west, toward the dying red sun, and to my left the water washed against the shore of the Ãle Saint-Honorat, a few hundred yards away.
I thought, It's time to go, Annabelle. You're falling in love
Because how could you not fall in love with Stefan, when he was so handsome and dark-haired, so well read and well spoken and ridden with mysterious midnight bulletsâthe highwayman, and you the landlord's dark-eyed daughter!âand you were nursing him back to health on a yacht moored off the southern coast of France? When you had spent so many long hours on the deck of his beautiful ship, in a perfect exchange of amity, while the sun glowed above you and then fell lazily away. And it was August, and you were nineteen and had never been kissed. This thing was inevitable, it was impossible that I
fall in love with him.
For God's sake, what had my brother been thinking? Did he imagine I still wore pigtails? I thought of the woman who had visited Stefan that first day, who had held Stefan's hand in hers, tall and lithe and glittering. She hadn't returnedâwomen like her had little to do with sickroomsâbut she would. How could you not return to a man like Stefan?
Time to go home, Annabelle. Wherever that was.
I closed my eyes to the last of the sun. When I turned around, Stefan's deck chair was empty.
I didn't have much to pack, and when I finished it was time to bring Stefan his dinner, which I had formed the habit of doing myself. He wasn't in his room, however. After several minutes of fruitless searching, I found him in the library, with his leg propped up on the sofa.
He waved to the desk. “You can put it there.”
“Oh, yes, my lord and master.” I set the tray down with a little more crash than necessary.
Stefan looked up. “What was that?”
I put my hands behind my back. “I'm leaving tomorrow morning. The wound is healing well, and you're well out of danger of infection. You don't need me.”
He placed his finger in the crease of the book and closed it. “What makes you think that?”
“Because the flesh has knit well, there's no sign of redness or suppurationâ”
“No, I mean thinking that I don't need you.”
I screwed my hands together. “I'm going to miss this flirting of yours.”
“I am not flirting, Annabelle.”
His face was serious. A Stefan without a smile could look very severe indeed; there was a spare quality to all those bones and angles, a minimum of fuss. My hands were damp; I wiped them carefully on the back of my dress, so he wouldn't see. “I've already packed,” I said. “It's for the best.”
He went on looking at me in his steady way, as if he were waiting for me to change my mind. Or maybe not: Maybe he was eager for me to leave, so his mistress could return. Nurse out; mistress in. The patient's progress. For everyone's good health and serenity, really.
“Well,” I said. “Good night, then.”
“Good night, Mademoiselle de CrÃ©ouville,” he said softly, and I turned and left the room before I could cry.
I woke up suddenly at three o'clock in the morning and couldn't go back to sleep. The wind had changed direction, drawing the yacht around on her mooring; you started to notice these things when you'd been living on a ship for a week and a half, the subtle tugs and pulls on the architecture around you, the various qualities of the air. My legs twitched restlessly. I rose from my bed and went out on deck.
The night was clear and dry and unnaturally warm. I had been right about the change in wind: the familiar shape of the Ãle Sainte-Marguerite now rose up to port, lit by a buoyant white moon. I made my way down the deck, and I had nearly reached the railing when I realized that Stefan's deck chair was still out, and Stefan was in it.
I spun around, expecting his voice to reach me, some comment rich with
. But he lay still, overflowing the chair, and in the pale glow of the moon it seemed as if his eyes were closed. I thought, I should go back to my cabin right now.
But my cabin was hot and stuffy, and while it was hot outside, here in the still Mediterranean night, at least there was moving air. I stepped carefully to the rail, making as little noise as possible, and stared down at the inviting ripples of cool water, the narrow silver path of moonlight daring me toward the jagged shore of the island.
If I were still a girl on Cape Cod, I thought, I would take that dare. If I hadn't spent seven years at a convent, learning to subdue myself, I would dive right off this ship and swim two hundred yards around the rocks and cliffs and the treacherous Pointe du Dragon to stagger ashore on the Ãle Sainte-Marguerite, where France's most notorious prisoner spent a decade of his life, dreaming over the sea. I had been like that, once; I had taken dares. I had swum fearlessly into the surf. When had
I evaporated into this sapless young lady, observing life, living wholly on the inside, waiting for everything to happen to me? When had I decided the risk wasn't worth the effort?
I looked back over my shoulder, at Stefan's quiet body. He wasn't wearing his pajamas, I realized. He was wearing something else, a suit, a dinner jacket. As if he were waiting to meet someone, at three o'clock in the morning, on the deck of his yacht; as if he had a glamorous appointment of some kind, and the lady was late. The blood splintered down my veins, making me dizzy, the kind of drunkenness that comes from a succession of dry martinis swallowed too quickly.
You should wake him, I thought. You should do it. You have to be kissed by someone, sometime. Why not him? Why not here and now, in the moonlight, by somebody familiar with the practice of kissing?
“Good evening,” he said.
I nearly flipped over the railing, backward into the sea. “I didn't realize you were here.”
“I'm here most nights. The cabin's too stuffy for me.” He sat up and swung his left foot down to the deck, next to a silver bucket, glinting in the moonlight. “Join me. I have champagne.”
“At this hour?”
“Can you think of a better one?”
“I don't drink on duty.”
“But you're not on duty, are you? You have tendered your resignation to me, and rather coldly at that, considering what we have shared.” He rested his elbow on his left knee and considered me. I was wearing my nightgown and my dressing gown belted over it, like a Victorian maiden afraid of ravishment. My hair was loose and just touched my shoulders. “Is something the matter?” he said.
“There must be something the matter. It's not even dawn yet, and here you are, out on deck, looking as if you mean to do something dramatic.”
I laughed. “Do I? I can't imagine what. I don't do dramatic things.”
“Oh, no. You only wrap tourniquets around the legs of dying menâ”
“You weren't dying, not quite, and anyway, I wasn't the one who put the tourniquet on you.”
He waved his hand. “You carry him in a boat across the seaâ”
, a very still and familiar harbor.”
“Toward an unknown destination, a yacht, and you nurse him back to health. All without knowing who he is, and why he's there, and why he's been shot through the leg and nearly killed. Whether you've just committed an illegal act and are now wanted by a dozen different branches of the police.”
“I doubt it. Not in France, in any case.”
“Well, that's a relief.”