Authors: Anne Stuart
Tags: #epub, #Mobi, #Contemporary Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Fiction
SEEN AND NOT HEARD
Copyright © Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge, 1988
Felice Champêtre moved slowly through her stuffy apartment on the rue Broca, her faded silk skirt rustling softly as it bumped against whatnot tables, an overstuffed armchair, a precarious pile of fashion magazines. She was brooding on the inequality of fate. Her ankles had swollen dreadfully in this damp, rainy weather, and the arthritis in her hands made it almost impossible to make a decent cup of tea. It was miserable to get old, miserable and unfair.
She’d been a great beauty, sixty years ago. Paris had been between wars then, money had been plentiful, and life was very gay. Now she was old and alone in a tacky apartment that held all the things she couldn’t bear to part with, the contents of a huge house squeezed into her present small flat. No one came to see her, and when they did, all she did was complain about how wretched life was. And then, of course, they didn’t come back.
She edged her way into the tiny kitchen, peering out of the grimy window into the rain as it washed over the city she once loved and now hated with a grim, unrelenting passion. The kettle was too heavy for her—she’d have to make do with the iron-tasting tap water.
She sighed, leaning against the old sink, as the cold loneliness settled around her. There were times when she
thought she’d welcome death, a release from all this misery. She was getting so tired of the struggle.
Of course, there were moments of pleasure still. That young man in the park yesterday had been very sweet, very gallant. It was odd to see him there—that park was usually the province of old people like herself. She didn’t even know why she went there. She didn’t like old people any more than all those young, arrogant Parisians did.
But the young man hadn’t been arrogant. He’d been courteous, gentle, even mildly flirtatious. People no longer knew how to flirt. It had been wonderful for a few brief moments to forget she was an eighty-year-old woman, to become young and desirable again.
He said he might come to tea. She knew he wouldn’t—he was only being polite. But she could hope.
Still, today might be the day. She could feel it in her ancient, arthritic bones. She would put the kettle on anyway, just in case he happened to climb the three flights of stairs to her apartment.
The kettle trembled in her hands, and she set it in the sink and turned the tap. The rusty water gushed out noisily, covering any sound in the apartment. Felice couldn’t hear the tiny scratchings at the front door lock, couldn’t hear the flimsy door opening and closing, couldn’t hear the stealthy, silent footsteps through the living area.
But her apartment was a dangerous maze of jumbled furniture. She heard the crash as one precariously balanced table of china toppled over, and she turned to blink nearsightedly through the shadowy room.
“Who’s there?” Her voice was sharp, honed from years of nagging her late husband. Her fierce expression softened. “Oh, it’s you!” she said. “I was hoping you might come today. I was just about to put the kettle on for tea.”
“There’s no need,” he said gently, moving into the kitchen, his feet making no sound at all.
“How did you get in? I always lock the door,” Felice chattered, suddenly, unaccountably nervous. She turned back to the sink. The kettle was now full—it would be much too heavy to lift.
“Don’t be frightened of me, Felice,” he said behind her, his voice soft and soothing, like a lover’s. She hadn’t heard a lover’s voice in thirty years, and for a moment she shut her eyes as a wave of bittersweet memories swept over her.
She opened them again, for a brief, startled moment, when she felt the hard thrust of the knife up, up into her heart. And then she closed them once more, dying with a soft, graceful shudder.
He’d done well. There was never much blood if he did it right. He’d botched it once, and had to take a shower before he left. But this time it was very neat, very fast. An artistic job.
The water was still running into the sink, overflowing the old kettle, the sound mixing with the steady drone of the heavy rain. He reached past her crumpled body to turn the tap off, then stopped. He would leave it.
He pulled the knife free and hoisted the old woman’s body into his arms, carrying her back through the cluttered living room over to the narrow bed. He set her down, arranging her carefully, her hands together in a prayerful attitude covering the neat wound. She lay there like a repentant effigy from a fifteenth-century tomb, her faded, too observant eyes shut forever. He took off her shoes and stockings, placing them neatly beside the bed, and stared down at her for a long, thoughtful moment.
He bent down and kissed her on her mouth. It opened slackly beneath his, and he took his time. When he pulled back, he closed her lips, slid the knife into the special pouch inside his loose trousers, and walked out the door, turning up his collar against the heavy rain that would greet him when he walked out into the street. There was a gentle, dreamy smile on his handsome face. He had done well.
Claire MacIntyre wrapped her hands around her mug of coffee and stared out into the rainy afternoon. The heavy ceramic was warm and hard beneath her hands, and she looked down to see that she was clenching it, her knuckles white with strain.
She removed her hands carefully, dropping them into her
lap, keeping them loose, keeping herself from clutching them together. Rain made her tense. The thought of Marc driving back to Paris with Nicole in tow made her want to scream with anxiety. Instead she sat in the old kitchen of Marc’s mammoth apartment and drank too much coffee.
Was it only six months ago that it had happened? The pouring rain that turned to ice on the narrow streets of Brockton, Massachusetts, the car wheels that lost all traction, the sharp, desperate turn? She could still feel twinges from the whiplash that had twisted her neck muscles. Could the child feel anything at all?
As usual she’d been fighting with Brian. She’d known better than to fall in love with a married man, but that knowledge hadn’t helped her. For eighteen months they’d fought, culminating in that last fight as Brian drove too fast through the icy streets of Brockton.
Claire shuddered, taking a sip of the steaming coffee. She shouldn’t be taking in any more caffeine, she knew that. But somehow the only thing she could do was sit there and drink coffee and wait till Marc came back safely.
Marc, she thought with that odd clutching of nervousness and desire that had become habit with her. What would she have done without him? He had saved her, become her shelter in a storm, her Prince Charming, her protector, her lover, and, for the last few months, her life.
Brian hadn’t stopped for more than a moment. They’d both seen the child’s body lying there in the icy rain, and then he’d reversed the car and driven on as fast as he could, ignoring her screams of protest.
It had all happened so quickly. Hit-and-run, the newspapers called it. Probably some drunk driver. There were no witnesses, no one had come forward. In all likelihood the case would never be solved.
Not if Brian could help it. And Claire had kept silent, knowing that she was an accessory, knowing that implicating Brian wouldn’t help the nine-year-old girl fighting for her life at Mass General.
So she’d said nothing. She’d broken off with Brian, holed
up in her apartment, and turned off her telephone, waiting for the child to die, knowing that if that happened she would have to go to the police.
But when the newspapers reported that the child’s six-week coma ended, not in death, but in a murmured word of recognition, Claire had given in to her friend Joyce’s suspicious demands, given up her guilt-plagued vigil, and gone with her to a party in Boston.
She’d had every intention of leaving early. Now that she knew the girl would live, might even live a normal, healthy life, a huge weight had left her. All she felt was a great, empty exhaustion. But she drank the imported champagne, smiled a huge, insincere smile, and wondered how quickly she could leave.
Joyce worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a managerial capacity that Claire never quite understood. This particular party was to honor Le Théâtre du Mime at the conclusion of their first American tour. Joyce had charge of the arrangements, and Claire followed in her efficient friend’s wake, smiling blindly at the French artists. Until she met Marc Bonnard. And then her smile was no longer blind.
He was very handsome, but then, the room was full of handsome men. He hadn’t been an inch taller than her own five feet eight inches, and his lean, graceful body probably didn’t weigh much more than hers. He looked very French, with a sensual mouth, a strong nose, sleepy, laughing eyes, and a thick wave of black hair that tumbled enchantingly down his high forehead. He had taken one look at her and made up his mind, he told her later. Learning that she couldn’t, and would never, speak French didn’t deter him in the slightest. It added to the mystery, he said. He had enough English for both of them. Besides, he was a mime. What did they need with words?
She fascinated him, he said. With her huge, sorrowful eyes, her narrow, elegant face and hands, her untamed mane of red gold hair. What secrets lay behind those sad, haunted eyes?
She didn’t tell him. She went back to his hotel room with him, back to his bed with him, where she found she didn’t have to think, didn’t have to remember. One week later she flew over to Paris to live with him in the huge old apartment he’d inherited on the left bank of the Seine. One month later she met his daughter Nicole.
Claire took another sip of coffee. It was cooling now, no longer the hot comfort it had first been. Maybe she should brew another pot, just to warm her up. The chill, heavy rain could reach inside your bones. It must be hell to be old in such a climate.
She’d known about Nicole, of course. If she’d stopped to consider, if she hadn’t been so mesmerized by Marc and his seemingly inexhaustible passion, she would have known the lure of a motherless nine-year-old was part of her abrupt decision to leave. She had kept silent when her lover had almost killed one young girl. Perhaps she could redeem herself with another.
Nicole wouldn’t have any part of it. She’d taken one look at the interloper, the American who thought she’d take her mother’s place, and her response had been politely contemptuous. And for once Claire was glad that she couldn’t speak French.
That hadn’t helped an already tense situation. A bilingual nine-year-old couldn’t comprehend that an intelligent thirty-year-old could have learning disabilities that kept her from understanding even the rudiments of a language Nicole considered far superior to English. The first two months of Claire’s stay in Paris were a kaleidoscope of frustration, irritation, guilt, and an almost mindless pleasure. And the omnipresent second thoughts.
Things had settled down, of course. Nicole began to accept her, grudgingly. With her beloved
on an extended visit to her elderly sister in Los Angeles, Nicole had no one else to turn to.
Because her hostility extended to Marc. She eyed her father out of solemn, bespectacled eyes, her sallow face blank when he exerted all his charm to tease her out of her
sulks. She was polite, too polite, to him, to Claire. It was only when she finally screamed at Claire, her stolid self-control vanishing, that Claire felt she was getting somewhere.
And then Marc had sent her away to school, removing her from the day school she’d been attending. Claire had fought him on it, but she had no leverage. Even Nicole seemed resigned to it, packing her clothes with her usual sober demeanor, giving Claire a chaste kiss on the cheek before following her handsome father out the door.
Marc and Claire had been left alone in the huge old apartment, lovers on holiday in Paris. The Théâtre du Mime was on sabbatical. All Marc had to do was make love to Claire, and he applied himself to the task quite diligently.
He wanted to marry her. Claire looked down at the dark, oily dregs of her coffee and felt her stomach knot. She could think of no reason not to. She loved him, she loved him to distraction. When he was around she couldn’t think of anything but him, of the hours they spent together, of the fiendishly clever ways he had of arousing and teasing and ultimately satisfying her. Her sex life with Brian had been mundane, almost boring, a small part of her life. With Marc, it became the focus of everything, so much so that it sometimes frightened her.