From the winner of the Silver (2016) & Bronze (2014) Medals for Modern Historical Literary Fiction in the Global Ebook Awards comes the World War II romantic saga, Guardian Angel, the fourth instalment in the Master of Illusion series.
Ten-year-old French singer Nicolas de Beaulieu seems to have it all in the rigours and depression of the 1930s: money, social status, fame. But as he grows up, he becomes no stranger to grief and loss.
World War II begins and Nicolas finds himself in deadly peril, hunted by the Nazis. His already complicated relationship with the girl he loves takes a new direction when France surrenders to Germany, and they fight a different kind of war as part of la Résistance.
Hidden in the fastness of their mountain stronghold, every day is a battle of wits, courage and endurance as they fight to survive and undermine the overwhelming might of the Nazi war machine. And it appears the Nazis have the upper hand until salvation comes from an unexpected source ...
Fans of The Nightingale and The Lost Wife will enjoy this riveting historical romance saga.
2 June 1930
Armand Delaine sat in the baroque magnificence of the Opéra Magique on the eve of his departure for New York, absorbed in the harmony of the two most glorious voices he had ever heard: those of the divine Angel of Song and her son, le beau Nicolas—le dernier cri in Paris, and in Armand's judgement, the world.
His father had followed a story written over a lifetime and, scenting an even bigger one, was loath to let it go. ‘The late Madame Dupont,’ he told him, ‘made some intriguing statements regarding the child, Nicolas de Beaulieu. It is your task to prove or disprove them. I want you to follow him wherever he goes and write his biography, which, in due course, the house of Delaine shall publish. Times are lean, but I believe I shall contrive to clothe and sustain you as befits a respectable man of letters.’
The words ‘respectable man of letters’ gave Armand an idea. He wanted to show his father that his son had innovatory skills as well as literary ones. And that he could adequately clothe and feed himself. In line with this bid for independence, he jumped at his parent's wry suggestion that he adopt his mother's maiden name, Lemaitre. Being young and bookish, Armand asked no questions—then.
He made representation to the marquis de Beaulieu to such good purpose that he was now touring with them as secretary to the marquise, the sensational diva, Angelique and tutor to their equally gifted son, Nicolas.
He then made a secret vow: ‘I, Armand Delaine alias Lemaitre, am determined to seek out and unravel the mystery that my father, the publisher, so yearns to reveal.’ He obtained a peculiar satisfaction in the knowledge that whatever the story, he himself was to be a part of it: an essential character in an unknown plot. A shaft of excitement tingled his spine at the prospect of a lifetime of adventure with these talented people, for although he knew already how he would write it, he didn't know just what he would write.
18 August 1930
Our last evening in New York. My diva is stunning as always. And my pupil is excited. He occupies centrestage alone tonight. Strangely enough, I don't think he has any nerves. I could write so much about the beautiful Angelique, but this is meant to be the story of Beau Nicolas and not the hopeless yearnings of Armand Lemaitre for the Angel of Song.
Nicolas de Beaulieu stood at the front of the stage, bowing to his fans: the elite and privileged of New York.
It was his first solo, and he straightened in triumph before a standing ovation. He'd taken encore after encore, and he could not bear to leave them: These people who adored him so openly. He felt their love wash over him like warm breakers on a tropical shore. He was overwhelmed by it; his heart almost bursting with the love he felt in return.
His mother joined him, taking his hand as she smiled and bowed to their public. ‘We will sing Éternité d'amour and then we will go,’ she said. ‘It is fitting that you sing it with me. Angelpapa wrote it for Godmama's opera ballet Le Perdu. It was our favourite duet.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Perhaps you have told me before … More than once.’
‘If we weren't in front of an audience, I would box your ears!’
His lip lifted and his eyes flashed sapphire-blue—a strangely adult amusement lurking at the back of them. ‘If we weren't in front of an audience, my dear Mama, I would not dare.’
‘Cheek!’ she said, smiling at the audience.
‘But after we have sung and you still wish it, you may do so with my good will.’
She almost laughed, but au fond, she was shocked, too. Do other ten year olds speak like this? ‘As if I would! Come, now! On the count …’
He was scanning the audience as if looking for someone. His mother squeezed his hand, nudging him into another bow, after which he resumed his scrutiny.
Angelique blew a kiss to the audience and left the stage, but Nicolas lingered behind. ‘Come!’ she whispered, beckoning from the wings.
Nicolas bowed, took a last look around the standing, wildly cheering audience and went to where his mother, father and Armand were waiting for him. Armand was going to take him to supper at the Waldorf while Mama and Papa went to a reception at the French Embassy on this, their last night in New York.
‘Godmama and Monsieur Dupont weren't there tonight,’ he said. ‘I looked most carefully.’
‘So that is why you were ogling the audience!’ exclaimed Angelique. ‘Oh, Nicolas!’ She laughed, but Armand stood, stricken.
‘Godmama? … Monsieur Dupont?’ he repeated.
‘Madame Dupont was my godmama: my mother's godmother. She reared me when … Never mind. On our last tour, Nicolas thought he saw her sitting in the audience with her husband Monsieur Dupont.’ Tears sprang into the beautiful eyes. ‘On the day she died, as it turned out.’
‘I didn't “thought” I saw her,’ corrected Nicolas. ‘I did see her … them.’ He surveyed Armand. ‘What do you think of that?’
Armand stared. Her godmother? Madame Dupont had reared this beautiful creature? My God! And her diaries are about to be published! He swallowed. ‘Most … unusual.’ Averting his eyes from the sight of his idol's husband cradling her to him and offering her a handkerchief, he said to Nicolas, ‘Come along, now. You can tell me all about it over supper.’
‘Oui, bien, bien!’ Nicolas ran to kiss his parents. ‘Goodnight, Mama and Papa.’
‘Goodnight, my darling.’ Angelique smiled through her tears. ‘Merci, Armand.’
Armand did not hear the marquis echo her sentiments. The words ‘goodnight, my darling’ reverberated in his head. He pretended that they were for him.
He was preoccupied during supper, lingering over a shrimp cocktail while his charge tucked into delicate sandwiches, cakes and lemonade. He tried to make the effort to question Nicolas about his sightings. But it was no use: the diaries loomed large in his thoughts. He began to wish that he'd paid more attention to what his father had said about the publishing date. Armand understood it to be after he'd found out what he could about Nicolas. So, perhaps there would be time, yet.
‘Armand? Armand!’ Nicolas turned a menu card into a paper aeroplane and launched it at his mentor.
He started, brushing it off his collar. ‘I beg your pardon?’ He took one glance at his pupil's fun-filled eyes. ‘Now, look here, young man!’
‘No! You look here.’ Nicolas stabbed a finger either side of his own nose. ‘Armand, dear old chap. Can we have some ice-cream? Please?’
‘What? After that exhibition? I doubt it!’
‘Please? You were away with the fairies. I only wanted to wake you up. Please?’
‘Oh, very well! I expect you'll have nightmares, though. Or be sick.’
‘Merci. I won't.’ Nicolas stood up, waving his napkin like a semaphore at the maître d'hôtel. ‘Eh bien, Monsieur! Ici, s'il vous plaît!’
Armand laughed. ‘That's the head waiter you're treating like that. Serve you right if he ignores you!’
But the maître d'hôtel not only did not ignore him, he beckoned to a minion with a trolley of desserts, another with a tray of coffee and wended his stately way through the tables. He bowed to Nicolas. ‘Ice-cream, Monsieur? Or strawberries, perhaps? Which would you like?’
Nicolas fixed him with his great blue eyes. ‘Could I possibly have ice-cream and strawberries, please, Monsieur? If it is not too greedy?’
‘You are a growing boy. Of course you may have both.’ He lowered his voice. ‘An extra helping of ice-cream?’
‘Bien sûr, Monsieur! You are a trump!’
Suppressing an exclamation, Armand grew red with embarrassment.
The maître d'hôtel turned. ‘Coffee, Monsieur?’ he murmured, beckoning the second waiter. ‘You are to be congratulated on such a spirited young charge.’ He turned back to Nicolas. ‘You are happy with our service, Monsieur?’
‘But, yes! It is perfection. Thank you.’
‘It was an absolute pleasure.’ The head waiter bowed and left them.
Armand surveyed the ecstatic expression as his pupil spooned in huge dollops of strawberries and ice-cream. ‘Incorrigible!’ he said, dropping three lumps of sugar in his coffee and forgetting to stir it.
Everyday life was something Armand had contrived to escape. Until now. His head in his books; he'd never given a thought to how real flesh-and-blood people might feel. Selfish! I've been selfish, he thought, suffering agonies of remorse.
In true journalistic style, he'd been prepared to sacrifice all for a story, seeing himself as an investigator and chronicler of an ongoing mystery. He'd no idea that he would not simply be an observer—that he would be forced into the maelstrom of the lives of the de Beaulieus—that he would fall hopelessly, deliriously, in love. He'd also had no idea that this family was so close to Madame Dupont. How could he? His father had been so secretive about the diaries.
He'd known Angelique was the daughter of the reclusive comte de Villefontaine and that she'd married the heir of the powerful duc de Belvoir, but he knew nothing of her relationship to Madame Dupont, since his father had not allowed him to read the manuscript. All he'd really known was that Madame Dupont had noticed something unusual about the child, Nicolas, that his father wanted to follow up. If only I'd thought! he told himself, writhing inside. I would have seen …
‘Are you unwell, Armand?’
Armand looked up to see his charge eyeing him anxiously.
‘No.’ He stirred. ‘Just … thinking.’
‘Eh bien,’ said Nicolas. ‘They must be troubling thoughts. You look ill, Armand. Come back to our rooms, and I will read you a bedtime story to take them away.’
‘Thank you.’ Armand was touched by the boy's insight and compassion. He couldn't very well tell Nicolas that Angelique's disclosure had shocked him; or that what had shocked him even more was that he, Armand, cared.
They came home to France on the Olympic, as always. Nicolas was quite used to sea travel by now, having toured the world, singing with his mother from the time he was three. He turned to his tutor as they sailed out of New York harbour. ‘I love the Olympic. Do not you, Armand?’
‘Yes, she's a grand old lady. Showing her age a little now, of course.’
‘Armand? Is … is that why you seemed troubled last night.’ The boy hesitated, took a deep breath and rushed on: ‘Are you worried that, perhaps, we cannot pay you?’
‘No, no, of course not!’ A tiny smile lightened the tutor's rather grim expression. ‘What questions you do ask, Nicolas. Why would I be worried about something like that?’
‘This morning, I heard a lady ask Mama why she still sailed on the Olympic when the Île de France was now all the fashion for those who could afford it. And do you know what she said, Armand?’
‘No, what did she say?’
‘She said, “But, Madame, that is exactly why!”’ Anxious eyes studied the tutor's wan face. ‘What did she mean, Armand? Can we not afford it, do you think?’
‘Oh, I wouldn't think that would be the case, at all,’ said Armand, thinking of packed houses and the dock full of waving fans. ‘No, no, remember what your papa told you? Your mama needs to rest after her performances. Surely, you saw how tired she was this morning?’
‘Yes.’ Nicolas mulled this over. Relief sprang into the sombre blue eyes. ‘Oh, I see. You mean, she would have to be social when she wants to sleep?’
‘That is exactly what I mean, so there is no need to worry. And now,’ Armand looked at his watch, ‘I am going to get a book, sit in a deckchair and read in the sun.’
‘Bon.’ Nicolas, his fears relieved, stood at the rail on the promenade deck, contemplating the ocean. Water, as far as he could see … It could become boring, he supposed, such an expanse, except that it was always heaving and moving like a living creature. Who knew what lurked beneath the surface? It had always attracted him and continued to do so. But there was one thing that endlessly fascinated him that he'd pondered often from his earliest voyage: what made the wake that boiled out from under the ship, spreading out behind it like a highway?
Nicolas had asked his father.
‘It's the turbines,’ he said.
‘What is a turbine?’ countered Nicolas. ‘And, please, don't say an engine. I know it is not an engine.’
‘I think you know more than I do, mon fils. Perhaps I mean propellers? Yes, the propellers beat the water and move the ship along.’
‘But how, Papa? How do they do that?’
‘Oh, my son,’ laughed Etienne. ‘I am not an engineer. Perhaps you should ask Armand.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, he walked away.
How does beating the water into foam propel the ship? Nicolas thought that if he could just see them, these propellers, perhaps he would understand what they did.
He took a quick glance around the deck. His mother was lying on a chaise longue in the sun with her eyes closed. She had on becoming white lounging pyjamas with a halter top. He watched her for a moment. It was true that Mama was always so exhausted at the end of a tour. As Armand had reminded him, Papa said she used this time on the ship to recuperate and must not be disturbed.
Nicolas didn't know why his father fussed so over Mama. When they sang together, she was good fun, lit with an inner glow after each recital. She appeared to have boundless energy until the tour was over. Then she just seemed to collapse.
‘Mama lives on her nerves,’ explained his father. ‘That is why we must take the greatest care of her.’
Nicolas looked at his mother carefully. Yes, she was asleep. His eyes sought his tutor. Good. Armand had his head in a book, as usual, when he was at leisure. His gaze swivelled the other way. Papa was leaning on a bollard, paring a broken fingernail. Nicolas made a split-second decision. Now was as good a time as any to see what he wanted to see.
Leaping for the rail, Nicolas heaved himself on to it and leant over, grinning at his mother's frantic scream.
‘Etienne, Etienne, look! He will fall! No, no! God save my baby!’
Baby? I am not a baby! He wriggled farther, craning to see … No, just a little farther … Then both hands slipped. He was falling, grasping wildly at nothing. Suddenly, he felt a broad chest against his shoulder, taking his weight, easing him back. Invisible hands grasped his—guided them to the rail—held them there until he got his bearings. Angel had come to his rescue, as always. His fright evaporated. He was fine. Now, to see …
Two arms went round him from behind. ‘Careful, my son,’ murmured his father, depositing him on the deck. ‘We don't want to lose you …’
‘Oh, Papa! Why did you do that? I was quite safe ——’
‘Tiens! You were safe? I would hate to see you in danger, then!’
‘I only wanted to see the ocean. How it ——’
‘You can see it with both feet on the deck, can you not? It is all around.’
‘No, I meant coming out from under the ship. The propellers.’
‘You must not upset your mother, my son. Les femmes, they worry when they see their children dangling over the ship's rail. Why it should be …?’
‘You can laugh.’ His father put a loving hand on his shoulder. ‘Do not forget your mother's nerves.’
Instantly, Nicolas was remorseful. ‘I am sorry, Papa.’ He ran to hug his mother. ‘Dearest Mama, I did not mean to distress you.’
‘I know.’ She wrapped her arms around him. ‘Mon petit ange is a little thoughtless. Also, a little devil, I fear.’ Since she alleviated this accusation with a kiss on his brow, Nicolas was unworried. ‘You will go with Armand while I have my sleep in the sun. I cannot rest if I am thinking about you falling into the ocean.’ With another hug, she put him away. ‘Armand, ici!’
‘You called, Madame?’ Armand snapped shut his book and rose; his pale cheeks tinged with pink.
‘Yes. You must take your pupil in hand. He is endangering his life because, if you please, he wants to know what happens to the water beneath the ship!’
‘Aha! The young genius!’ Armand beamed. ‘Always wanting to find out things.’ He was genuinely enthused by the intellectual prowess of his pupil. ‘But he does not need to endanger his life to do so.’ He bowed to Angelique. ‘Pray excuse us, Madame. Come with me, young man. We will do a scientific study of how ships move in the ocean. Also, we may well inform ourselves of the finer definitions of a propeller and a turbine.’ He put an arm around Nicolas's shoulders and began to walk him away. ‘What would you say if I told you that in my cabin is a big picture book, some balsawood and a fretsaw? We will make our very own Olympic and float it in the pool. Then you will see …’
‘Oh, yes!’ cried Nicolas, skipping ahead. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’
Thank God for Armand, thought Angelique, smiling at these antics, always getting into the spirit of things. Nicolas will be safe with him. ‘Armand, you are an angel! Positively!’ she called after him. Watching her son's eccentric progress through the palm court, she did not see Armand redden at the gushing compliment. Angelique sighed and rolled over, calling Etienne to rub sweet-smelling coconut oil into her back and shoulders.
Armand glanced around his spacious cabin. He could not fault his employers for generosity, even though they were inclined to leave Nicolas with him unless they were either on stage or about to go on. It seemed that they found their son exhausting. He looked at the young boy. Even from here he could feel his energy and vitality. He pointed. ‘Over there: the smaller trunk.’
Going to stand beside his pupil, he indicated the necessary items. Only once did he mention the cause of this diversion. ‘You are not usually heedless of your safety, mon brave, and you are far from stupid. Why did you do it?’
‘Come, now! You know.’
Nicolas grinned. ‘I wanted to know how propellers work. Can you keep a secret, Armand?’
The tutor suppressed a groan, avoiding the bright, questioning gaze. ‘That doesn't explain your reckless behaviour. I suppose you wanted your mother's attention?’
Nicolas considered him, briefly. His mother's attention was just what he hadn't wanted. He shook his head. ‘Guess again.’
‘Pass me that book … No, not that one, the other … Right. It is in here, somewhere …’
‘Don't you want to know, Armand?’
‘If you wish to tell me: yes, I do. But not if you want to play silly games.’
‘You're in a mood, aren't you?’
The tutor raised his head. Grey eyes clashed with blue.
‘Very well.’ Nicolas capitulated. ‘Have you ever had a secret friend, Armand?’
‘Why, what did I say?’
‘Nothing. Go on …’
‘An imaginary friend as a small child, do you mean? I expect I did.’
‘Don't you remember?’
‘I have a secret friend. I've had him depuis longtemps—as long as I can remember. But he is not imaginary. He is real!’
‘His name is Angel. He tells me things and …’ Nicolas paused for effect. ‘He rescues me whenever I am in danger!’
The tutor blanched. ‘You are not serious!’
‘Oui, I am. He saved me when my hands slipped off the rail today.’
‘I saw no-one but your father. He was the one who rushed to your aid.’
‘Silly! Angel is invisible.’
‘Oh … And you think he will rescue you whenever you put yourself in mortal danger?’
‘Oui, he will. He has promised.’ The statement was quiet, assured.
‘It is a dangerous theory, mon brave. I would not put it to the test too often if I were you.’
Nicolas flicked him a glance, then began to read, ‘RMS Olympic. Scale model dimensions …’
Four thirty am, 25 August 1930
Today the ship docks, and we return to Paris. I must, must convince Father to cancel the publication of Madame Dupont's diaries. If I cannot, my heart trembles at my fate. I think of glorious amethyst eyes: how it would slay me if they looked upon me with reproach or reproof.
The ship docked at Cherbourg in the early hours. Nicolas, half-asleep, was shepherded by Armand down the gangway and across the pier, avoiding the sudden crowd: families reuniting; porters with great trolleys of luggage. Very soon, they found themselves in their private carriage on the New York Express to Paris.
Armand took Nicolas to their compartment and settled him in the top bunk where he went straight to sleep. The tutor flung himself down on the lower one, returning to the problem that had scarified his emotions since their last evening in New York. I cannot bear to hurt her! ‘Angelique …’ he whispered the name with hopeless longing, closing his eyes on the vision: her long, golden hair; her alluring scent; her willowy beauty; her glorious smile; her voice: to die for.
There was no getting away from it: he'd always known his father meant to publish the diaries of Madame Dupont. How could he have acquiesced in such infamy? He felt guilty, smirched: as if he were the worst traitor. The duc, so gentle and dignified; the marquis, a quiet wall of strength; his heroine, fragile and nervy; Nicolas, bright and confident: Armand knew that they would be shattered by this. Nothing would ever be the same for them. Do we have the right? he asked himself.
For the first time, he thought of the reasons behind his father's suggestion of a name change. Armand was certain to be dismissed if his real name were known. He clenched his fists. If only he could get to Paris in time to stop publication, convince his father that it would hurt too many people to be justified. No-one could know the ferment that raged behind the scholarly brow; the pale, austere expression.
Suddenly, he knew it was not just Angelique he loved, but all of them.
The automobile ride from the Gare Saint-Lazare seemed to be unconscionably slow. When they reached their apartments in the hôtel du Bois, Armand begged leave to make an urgent visit to his father.
‘Of course,’ said Etienne. ‘You have been away a long time. You must take a week to yourself.’
‘Merci, Monsieur, but a day or two will suffice.’
‘Nonsense! You have devoted all your time to Nicolas. If you are not exhausted, then you should be. There will be no argument: you must take a week.’
Armand's conscience flayed him at his employer's generosity.
The duc greeted his family lovingly. He was thin and looked distraught, as Angelique noticed. ‘But, Papa-duc: what have you been doing to yourself? You look all-in!’
‘Do I, my child? Well, that is no wonder. You see, I have received a great shock. You and Etienne must prepare for one, also.’
Etienne moved to hold Angelique firmly in his arms. ‘What is it, Papa?’
‘These.’ The duc picked up a set of three red leather-bound volumes. ‘We're all in them: you, me, the marquis du Bois, La Belle …’ His voice softened for an instant, then sharpened again. ‘Even Nicolas! The scandal will encompass us all!’
‘Scandal?’ asked Angelique, bewildered. ‘What scandal?’
‘One that should have been forgotten, but for the unscrupulous theft of Madame Dupont's diaries!’
‘Godmama's diaries? Why? Whatever can be in them?’
‘Don't …’ said Etienne, looking at his father's face.
Angelique moved to free herself from his suddenly tightened embrace. ‘Monsieur Bernaud's son, François, came to see me the day I returned from our tour … after Godmama died. He was asking about her diaries. It seems her instructions were that they be taken from her drawer and placed with her in the Dupont vault.’ She wrung her hands; her face reflecting the duc's grief. ‘I took him to her room—it was so lonely there …’ The beautiful eyes filled with sudden tears. She took a moment to go on. ‘And … showed him the drawer where she kept them. But it was empty. We searched the whole house and did not find them. And so, we could not …’
The duc ran his fingers over the tooled leather. ‘This was the last thing Ma Belle … Madame Dupont would have wanted: to hurt us. She ——’
‘When did you get them, Papa?’ Etienne interrupted the melancholy speech.
‘Yesterday,’ said the duc. ‘Your sister, Elise, sent them to me from our Embassy in London. She said that some kind acquaintance had given them to her, saying that our family should know what is being bandied about in all the salons about us! I read it last night. Which is why I look so tired, probably.’
‘I see,’ said Etienne. ‘No hope of stopping it, then?’
‘No. I have tried. It is too late.’
Angelique picked up a volume. ‘The Diaries of Madame Dupont. Author unknown,’ she read. ‘Anonymous? But who could it be? Someone who knew Godmama? Well enough to know where she kept her diaries? A servant, perhaps?’
‘No,’ said Etienne. ‘All the servants were loyal. They would never have ——’
‘Vive La Reine!’ muttered Nicolas, hunching over a semiquaver he was forming on a music scoresheet.
The duc spun around. ‘What did you say?’
‘Vive … La Reine …’ he faltered, looking from one shocked face to another.
‘Why?’ asked his father in a soft voice.
Nicolas shrugged. ‘I don't know. When Mama asked who could have written the book, it just popped into my head; so, I said it. Have I done something wrong?’
‘No, no, my angel!’ Angelique smoothed his hair. ‘We forgot you were here, so quiet as you were. Go along to the piano, now, for your practice.’
‘Cèline: the Countess Kireyevsky, of course!’ said the duc, clapping a hand to his brow. ‘There is no-one else who would do it! In her heyday as a ballerina, she was called “The Queen of Dance”, La Reine, for short. Though, how the child knew …?’
Nicolas lingered just beyond the doorway, sneaking back in when he saw he'd been forgotten by his mother. She was staring at his grand-père. ‘When François Bernaud asked the countess if she had them, she said she knew nothing about them. She also said that they were hers by right, since she was Godmama's only child; and if they were found, she wanted them. François said, “No: If they were found, they were to be placed in Godmama's casket, as per the instructions in her will.”’
‘And what did Cèline say to that?’
‘She just smiled nastily and said that it was just as well that they were missing, then.’ Angelique's eyes clouded with puzzlement. ‘I couldn't make her out, at all … Oh, and she said to ask the nurses. But when François finally tracked one of them down, Nurse Jacques said the other, Nurse LeFevre, had given Madame's diaries to her daughter. When he took it up with the countess, she said the nurses were lying and it was obvious that they had stolen them.’
‘I cannot see the nurses doing it,’ said Etienne, rubbing his chin.
‘Non, bien sûr,’ agreed the duc. ‘They were good women.’ He thought it over. ‘No, on balance, if one had to decide who the liar was, it would have to be Cèline.’
‘But would she not honour her mother's wishes?’ asked Angelique.
‘She never did, that I knew of.’
‘Why would she do such a thing?’
The duc lifted a shoulder. ‘For money or spite. Or both. Her life was governed by greed and malice. It was apparent, even from her childhood. She hated your guardian, my child.’
‘But … Why?’
‘Jealousy, perhaps? A form of insanity? She took after her father, in that respect.’
‘Her father?’ queried Etienne. ‘You're not saying Monsieur Dupont …?’
‘No. She was not Monsieur Dupont's child.’ The duc tapped a volume. ‘It is all in here. She even admits to attempted murder. The child of a murderer. La Belle was … raped,’ he whispered the word.
‘I know. Angelpapa told me,’ said Angelique. ‘Poor Godmama.’
‘In that case,’ said Etienne. ‘Won't it be as bad for Cèline as it is for us?’
‘Yes, Papa-duc: why would she allow that to come out?’
‘I don't know. But, I believe, to court notoriety; the way a mass murderer tries to admit to more killings than he actually does. She may also wish it to be known that she is the daughter of a prince. And,’ he added dryly, ‘it will bring publicity to the Opéra Magique. The more people come to sightsee and indulge their curiosity, the more money it will make.’
‘And, perhaps,’ said Etienne, ‘there is a psychological factor: no-one will point the finger at her as the author, reasoning that she would be the last person to want the diaries published.’
‘I should never have agreed to her taking over the management of the theatre when Godmama's staff retired!’
‘You had little choice in the matter, my love, since we were still in America. It was a crisis, and the countess stepped in. We were grateful enough at the time. And the Opéra Magique is doing well under her management.’
‘Yes, her reforms have brought full houses,’ said the duc, with a frown. ‘There is no doubt of that. But lately, I have heard it whispered that she went after the old management with a hatchet, so to speak, making it so difficult for them that they had to resign.’
‘Do you mean that they did not retire voluntarily, due to age and ill-health, as we thought?’ gasped Angelique. ‘You are saying that they were forced into it by the countess?’
‘Oui. My information is that her demands were intolerable. They did try to withstand her but eventually gave in. Some ulterior motive there must be, but I don't quite see it yet.’
‘Control,’ said Etienne. ‘The woman must be a megalomaniac!’
‘Oh, poor dear Mathilde, Monsieur Merignac and Jeanne! Something must be done for them, at once! If only I'd known!’ Angelique's eyes flashed. ‘I have a good mind never to sing there again! She is a harpy and a thief! A criminal!’
‘I understand your loyalty to Madame Dupont's old retainers, my dear love. And we will do something for them, never fear. I will set it in motion before the day is out; I promise you. But you are making the wrong decision.’
‘Why? You don't, surely, think we should allow her to get away with this, do you?’ demanded Angelique.
‘I think the scandal will be forgotten a lot faster if we all put a brave face on it and go on as usual.’
‘You're right,’ agreed the duc. He addressed his daughter-in-law: ‘The Opéra Magique is half-yours, my dear. You can have as much say as Cèline.’
‘Yes,’ affirmed Etienne. ‘And perhaps we should look into the question of its management more closely when we have time; although, she does seem to be quite efficient. But we have bookings for recitals to honour. It is your fans we should be thinking of, not the Countess Kireyevsky! Besides, we cannot prove she did this.’
‘We just know,’ murmured Nicolas, inscribing a neat fanfare on his scoresheet.
‘Oh!’ Angelique swooped. ‘Give me that! I sent you to practise at the piano.’
‘Mama?’ The big blue eyes were sad, entreating. ‘I miss Armand … When will he come back?’
But, for once, his mother stood firm. ‘In a week. Go, now!’
Armand greeted his father with an expression of doom.
‘Why the long face? Has the world ended?’
‘Not yet, but I think it is about to. For me, at any rate.’ He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. ‘Father, I have come to beg you not to publish those manuscripts based on the diaries of Madame Dupont.’
‘Please, Father! Madame Dupont was the godmother of my employer's wife: she even reared her! Angelique, the marquise de Beaulieu—she will be distraught—her nerves are not strong. You do not know …’
‘What are you rambling on about?’
‘The great diva: Angelique! The Angel of Song! Of course, you know who I am talking about! She is magnificent! She ——’ He stopped for breath.
‘Ah, now I understand!’ Monsieur Delaine regarded this unusual animation in his son with a rueful eye. ‘You have fallen in love, mon fils?’
Armand's colour rose. ‘And what if I have?’
‘I am sorry for you.’
‘You need not be! To serve her is all I ask.’
‘Ah, my son … I have read of such devotion.’ The publisher scratched his top lip with a forefinger. ‘And quite recently, too.’
Armand grasped his father's hands. ‘Mon père, you must listen to me! These manuscripts: they must not be published. They must not!’
‘My son, you are too late. It has already been done. Everyone who is anyone in Paris has bought them.’
‘No! Why did you not wait for my contribution? Why did you break your schedule?’
The publisher's lips tightened. ‘Because, unlike you, I don't live with my head in the clouds! Times are hard. I couldn't afford not to.’ He viewed his son's distraught appearance with compassion. ‘I am sorry. It was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made. You see, if the house of Delaine is to survive, something had to be done, and quickly. That is why I couldn't wait.’ He jingled the coins in his pocket. ‘The diaries were a windfall in that respect.’
Armand tore his hair. ‘Survive? Survive? If it is a matter of survival …?’ He controlled himself with an effort, whispering, ‘So, for the house of Delaine to survive, it is fitting that we destroy the house of de Beaulieu?’ He flung himself blindly around the room. ‘Let it not be!’ he shouted. In that moment, he was so consumed with revulsion that he decided to keep the name Lemaitre.
‘Mon fils, control yourself! I did what I had to do. It is done and cannot be undone.’
Armand sank into an armchair in misery. ‘I would rather die myself than distress that beautiful angel.’
‘Melodramatic nonsense!’ snapped his father. ‘Here! Read them for yourself and then tell me they should not have been published. If you dare!’ He threw the volumes at him and strode out, as angry at the pricking of his own conscience as at the theatrics of his son.
Evening, 25 August 1930
Time is running out. How shall I face these people I love? As a traitor? God forbid! Yet, I do not see myself as a hero—even an anonymous one.
‘So, Madame: you are satisfied with Lanvin's vision for you, as faithfully transcribed by me?’ Madame Minette, one of a team of sketchers employed by the great designer Lanvin, touched the elegant creation on the sketchblock reverently.
‘Oh, yes! It is perfection, Madame. I cannot wait to see it made up!’ Angelique looked up, startled, as Nicolas bounced into the room.
‘Mama!’ He stopped, executing a bow that delighted her visitor. ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, Madame Minette! I am sorry, Mama, I did not know you were busy!’
‘It is perfectly all right, my dear one. We are almost finished. What is it?’
‘I have had my piano lesson, and Monsieur Merignac wants to take me to the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra. May we have the car, Mama, s'il vous plaît?’
‘Of course, Petit. Mary is over in the hospice with her husband. Tell her I said you may go.’
‘Bien! Merci, Mama.’ He turned a friendly gaze on the sketcher from Lanvin. ‘Our chauffeur is a lady. Have you ever heard of that, Madame?’
‘Never, Monsieur! You are très avant-garde, n'est-ce pas?’ said the woman; her eyes twinkling. ‘Do you like this gown your mama has chosen to wear when she sings with you? She will look beautiful, hein?’
Nicolas came forward to cast a critical eye over the flowing creation with Lanvin's signature embroidery: in this instance, stylised roses cascading from the shoulder and repeated from the waistline down one side and across the front of the dress. ‘The material?’ he asked.
‘White silk,’ replied Madame Minette, hugely entertained. ‘You approve?’
‘Mmm! And the embroidery?’
‘Seed pearls, crystals and silver thread. What do you think?’
‘Épatante! But Mama always looks beautiful.’
His mother laughed. ‘Little flatterer! Go along now. And mind you don't tire Monsieur Merignac. Not too much standing, hein?’
‘No, Mama. Monsieur Merignac is …’ Nicolas threw wide his arms. ‘Oh, ancien!’ At the couturière's chuckle, he sent his mother a speculative glance. ‘I do miss Armand!’
Angelique made a shooing gesture and he ran out.
‘What a beautiful child! So full of spirit and espièglerie! You are to be congratulated, Madame. No wonder he is so popular with audiences.’
‘He is wonderful! But such a handful without Armand.’
‘You've let him go then?’
‘Armand Delaine: You've dismissed him? I thought you would. It was only to be expected.’
‘I'm sorry? I don't know anyone called Armand Delaine.’
‘Your child's tutor. Your secretary.’
‘Oh, Armand!’ Angelique laughed. ‘Armand Lemaitre, you mean? No, no, he is on holiday. We will be glad to have him back. Nicolas asks after him every day.’
Madame Minette pursed her lips; she seemed to consider before she spoke. ‘Madame, normally I would not say this, but you are too long-standing and valued a client for me to pass over it. I am sorry to have to tell you this, but that young man has been deceiving you … One sees why, of course.’
‘Armand has been deceiving us? But why?’
‘He is the son of … the publisher. You know …’ Madame Minette paused delicately.
‘No!’ Angelique turned quite pale; her hand going to her exquisitely draped neckline. So, not only had her couturière read the book, but Armand was a traitor, insinuating himself into their lives to spy on them. It was too much. She began to fight for breath.
‘Madame, I am sorry. What can I do?’
‘Smelling … salts,’ gasped Angelique. ‘In … that drawer … over there.’
‘Here,’ said Madame Minette, regretting that she had spoken. If Lanvin ever heard of this indiscretion, it would be the end of her career. ‘Try to take deep breaths, Madame. In a moment, I will ring for your maid.’
‘No.’ Angelique inhaled deeply and waved a hand. ‘I am feeling better now.’ She visibly pulled herself together, smiling at her visitor. ‘Thank you for your help, Madame. I am sorry ——’
‘No, no. I am the one who is sorry, believe me. But I thought you should know …’
‘Yes, indeed, Madame, and I am grateful. You may tell Lanvin that I am thrilled with her design. I look forward to the fitting.’
Madame Minette took the hint and left, wearing a very troubled expression.
Angelique waited only until the front door closed behind the woman before voicing her distress: ‘Etienne! Etienne! Oh, someone find him for me!’
‘Doucement, Madame.’ Justin, the butler, appeared silently. ‘I have sent the groom with a message for Monsieur le marquis. He will not be long delayed. A small dose of your nerve tonic, Madame? I have it here. I have sent for your maid, also.’
‘Thank you.’ Angelique sank into an armchair and drank the cordial; her chest heaving. The knowledge that Armand—on whom she relied so heavily to care for Nicolas and smooth over the difficulties that accompanied fame—had lied and betrayed them was enough to starve her of air whenever she thought about it. Her fingers convulsed on the bottle of smelling salts.
Her maid hurried in. ‘I am so sorry, Madame. I went to get your new parfum, Joy by Monsieur Patou, while you were with Madame Minette; and I had to wait and wait. Shall I take you up to your boudoir? Do you wish to try it?’
‘No.’ Angelique waved dismissal. ‘I will wait … here.’ She turned as the door opened. ‘Etienne?’
The marquis strode swiftly to her side. ‘What is it, my love?’
‘Oh, Etienne, I cannot, cannot believe it!’
‘Cannot believe what, Chérie?’
‘I cannot believe that Armand is a traitor!’
‘Armand a traitor? What nonsense is this? Come now, you are working yourself up for nothing, my darling.’
‘No.’ She clung to his hands and told him what Madame Minette had said to her.
He was silent, gripping her fingers, staring out the window, a rigid set to his lips. He looked at her. ‘You know what this means, don't you?’
‘But Nicolas is so attached to him!’
‘All the more reason to let him go.’
‘But poor Nicolas!’
‘We will just have to make sure we spend more time with him.’
She didn't quite meet his eyes. Her love for Nicolas was as strong as ever. It was just that he was so tiring.
Upon Armand's return, the butler met him, expressionless. ‘Monsieur le marquis wishes to see you in his study, Monsieur. Immediately.’
‘Yes, thank you, Justin.’ Armand wondered if it were possible to feel any more wretched than he did already. Sooner than he wanted, he faced the study door. He knocked and was bidden to enter.
‘Ah, Armand …’ The quiet tones of the marquis de Beaulieu were oddly intimidating. ‘Just the person to answer a question that has been bothering me. Before we go any further, I will ask it of you: is your name Lemaitre or is it Delaine?’
Armand's breath caught in his throat. He flushed to the roots of his hair. ‘It was Delaine, Monsieur, but it is now Lemaitre. Je regrette …’
‘So do I.’
‘Believe me, Monsieur, I tried to stop it. I would not, for the world … It was why I asked for leave. But I was too late, the book had already been published. I beg your forgiveness and that of Madame la marquise …’
‘It is possibly too late for that, also,’ murmured Etienne.
Armand ducked his head. ‘Yes.’ His throat worked. ‘I must tender my resignation, Monsieur.’
‘You have a month's wages owing.’
‘No! I cannot take your money! Pardon, Monsieur.’ He swallowed. ‘I am desolated to have hurt your family. Those I love ——’ He stopped abruptly, gasped, ‘Adieu,’ and bounded for the door.
The marquis sighed and went out after him.