Blood Feud Page 17

Croix annual bal was famous throughout the countryside; aristocrats traveled from as far away as Paris to attend. At ten years old, Isabeau was too young to join in but final y old enough to escape her nurse’s attentions. She had already staked out a perfect hiding spot, inside a painted armoire with a cracked keyhole. She’d be able to see al the fine gowns and the diamond cravat pins and the pet poodles on gold-chain leashes. She bounced a little in her excitement. Her mother’s glance slid toward her and she stil ed instantly.

“You’re very pretty, Maman,” she flattered.

“Thank you, chouette. ” Amandine smiled at her in the mirror, clasping a necklace with three tiers of diamonds, pearls, and a sapphire the size of a robin’s egg. She took a sip of red wine, dabbing her lips delicately with a handkerchief.

“I think you’l be even prettier than the queen. And our house is so much better than Versail es.”

Amandine looked amused. “Do you think so, chouette?”

“Everyone says so,” Isabeau assured her proudly. “They say the nobles pee in the back staircases, Maman! We would never pee on the floor.”

Amandine laughed. “You are quite right, Isabeau.”

“Except for Sabot,” she felt obliged to admit. “But he’s only a puppy.”

Amandine’s head maidservant plucked the gown off the hanger. “Madame.”

Amandine stood up to let another maid tie her panniers into place and secure her corset. The gown slipped over the top.

Isabeau scuttled forward to lift the hem so it wouldn’t catch on the edge of the vanity table. It was surprisingly heavy and she wondered how her mother could stand so tal under al that weight. Her wig tipped precariously to the side and she caught it with one manicured hand.

“Francine,” she said. “We’l need more pins.”

“Oui, madame.”

When the wig was secure again, Amandine turned to admire herself in the long cheval glass.

“Oh, Maman,” Isabeau breathed. “Tu es si belle! ” When she was grown-up, she was going to wear lip color and a heart-shaped patch on her cheek, just like her mother.

Amandine smiled. “I remember watching your grandmother prepare for bal s.” She reached for a hair-ribbon-length piece of cloth just like her dress. “Here, petite. I didn’t need this after al .

You may keep it.”

Isabeau took it with a wide surprised smile. “Merci.” She rubbed it against her cheek reverently. She fol owed her mother out through her bedchamber down the mahogany steps, staying behind the maids. Her father, Jean-Paul St. Croix, waited at the bottom of the staircase. The duke was perfectly arranged, from his rol ed wig to the gold buckles on his heeled shoes.

“Ma chere,” he greeted Amandine. “Spectacular as always.” Isabeau kept close to the maids, sneaking behind a potted cypress tree when they abandoned her for other duties. She ran to the bal room as fast as she could, ducking around footmen bearing jugs of wine and champagne, and servants carting gilded chairs and baskets of sugared fruit. She crept into the armoire, which usual y stored excess table linens. Every single piece had been needed for the buffet tables at the back of the room and the more formal dining room across the hal , so the cupboard was empty. She fit perfectly inside once she’d drawn her knees up to her chest. She left the door open a sliver; it was even better than peering through the keyhole.

It didn’t take long for the first guests to arrive. She could just imagine the beautiful carriages pul ing up the limestone lane, drawn by magnificent horses with plumes in their manes. The footmen rushed through the bal room, lighting the last of the candles and oil lamps. The crystal chandeliers glittered over tables laden with al manner of delicacies: strawberries, marzipan birds, sugared orange peels, roast goose, oysters, lavender biscuits, petits fours, and chocolate-glazed candies.

Isabeau rubbed her stomach, which was growling at the sight of so many desserts. She’d missed her supper by hiding away from her nurse.

She forgot her hunger the very moment the guests began to pour through the doors. The women laughed behind painted lace fans, the men bowed with sharp precision. She could smel the heavy perfume and eau de toilette mingling with the warm pâtés being circulated on silver platters. Champagne flowed like rivers at springtime. The orchestra began to play and the music fil ed every corner, even the dark space of the armoire.

music fil ed every corner, even the dark space of the armoire.

She imagined this was what angels’ music must sound like, al pianoforte and harp and the soaring, ethereal voice of the opera singer.

Her parents joined the crowds just as the gaming tables began to fil up. Painted cards and coins changed hands.

Someone’s pet poodle growled at the singer. Isabeau felt her stomach clutch hungrily again and wondered if she dared escape her safe hiding spot. If she was caught not only would she be sent straight to bed, which would be mortifying enough, but she’d also never be able to use this armoire to hide in again. She chewed on her lower lip, considering. Final y the smel of al that food grew to be too heavy a temptation.

She eased the door open a few inches, waiting to see if she’d been noticed. A couple passed by, intertwined. They paused, kissing passionately. Isabeau made a disgusted face.

The man looked as if he was trying to eat that lady’s face. It didn’t look comfortable at al . He should eat some supper if he was that hungry.

She slipped out, landing quietly to hide behind the woman’s gown. Her panniers stuck out so far on either side of her, she was the width of three people. Neither she nor her companion noticed. They seemed to be breathing rather hard, as if they’d run a race around the garden. Isabeau abandoned them for the thick brocade curtains, pouncing from one window to another.

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