"Madame, may I have a word with you, s'il vous plaît?"
La Comtesse de Chevalier turned from gazing out the window of her salon to face her lady's maid and companion. It wasn't like Cecile to engage her in conversation, and her tone was serious.
"Is something the matter, Cecile?"
The woman's countenance was as serene as usual. But no, perhaps there was a tightening in her lips, a slight frown creasing her smooth forehead. Could it be that she was upset, maybe even planning to end her service? What would Meredith ever do without her?
Cecile bit her lower lip, betraying nervousness, an emotion her mistress had never seen her display. "I could use your counsel, Madame, about a matter of the heart."
Meredith's eyes widened. When did Cecile have time for a personal life? She rarely left the estate or the townhouse when they were in London.
"Or not the heart precisely," she continued, "but about the possibility of securing a paramour."
Meredith couldn't have been more surprised if her lover, Christopher had walked into the room and announced he planned to follow in his father's footsteps and seek a seat in Parliament. She blinked to see if the image of Cecile twisting her hands together, self-possessed Cecile actually anxious, would dissolve like a dream.
"You wish to take a lover, and you're asking me for advice?"
"Please, sit down." Meredith gestured her to one of the small, gilt chairs and settled on another, determined not to display her shock at Cecile's request. For her maid to break her habitual reserve and come to Meredith like this, her desire must be very keen. "May I ask if there is a particular reason you've come to this decision ... or a particular person you have in mind?"
"Yes to both, Madame." Cecile's light gray-green eyes--eyes that could instantly assess the appropriate accoutrements for any gown--were trained on the carpet. Her long-fingered hands--hands that could expertly curl and twist Meredith's hair into elaborate designs in the blink of an eye--smoothed the folds of her dove gray skirt over her lap.
"You see, over the past year I've begun having ... different thoughts and feelings about my life and my future."
And you don't want to spend the rest of your life as my maid, Meredith guessed, embarrassed that she'd never quite thought of Cecile as a real person with hopes and dreams of her own. Most of their conversations tended to be one-sided.
"I realize it is most inappropriate of me to broach this subject with you, Madame, but I think, over the years, we've become close and, quite honestly, you are my one friend."
Meredith's heart clenched at the soft admission. "Mon amie, you know I've never been what one would consider orthodox. I want you to feel comfortable confiding in me, as I have in you so many times in the past. Please, tell me what you're thinking."
There was a pause in which only the clicking pendulum of the mantel clock disturbed the silence before Cecile began.
"I've seen how you've changed since Mr. Whitby came into your life. Before him, despite all your wealth and power and ... revelry, you were not happy. Now you glow."
Meredith nodded, glowing inside at the very mention of Christopher. She had set out to change his life, but he'd ended up becoming the center of hers. She hadn't meant for that to happen, to become so dependent for her happiness on another. It was frightening.
Cecile shrugged. "Of course, I don't expect to find true love. But I should like to experience an intimate relationship with a man, if only briefly. My life is such that it is not easy for me to find the time or opportunity to make that kind of a connection."
"Because you're at my beck and call, night and day. Oh, my dear, I never thought--"
"It is my place to serve you, Madame, and I'm glad to do so. But someone in my position might go her entire life without knowing the joys of"--she cleared her throat--"the flesh. And I would, just once, like to experience that."
"Yes, I can understand that." It was true, a genteel woman like Cecile, with her mysterious past, might spend her life in service. Outclassing the other servants but beneath the family, such a woman occupied a lonely place somewhere in the middle.
Meredith remembered her childhood governess, Miss Dawson, a gentlewoman who'd fallen on hard times. She'd seemed a sexless spinster then, but now Meredith remembered the abrupt nature of the woman's dismissal and the whispers quickly hushed whenever Meredith had entered the room. Had there been an affair involved?
"You have a specific man in mind then?" Her curiosity was piqued as she wondered what kind of man might have caught the stoic Cecile's attention.
A pink flush colored her pale complexion and she dipped her head. "Oui, a man I have seen but never spoken to, someone I would never have the opportunity to meet, not without your introduction."
"I see." Meredith was more intrigued than ever by the identity of the man who had brought Cecile to such a state. "Who is it? You have me on tenterhooks!"
"Sir Nathaniel Covington."
Meredith nearly laughed aloud, but produced a choked cough instead. "Oh."
"You must think I've lost my wits. Not only am I asking for your assistance with a most intimate matter, but the man I've set my sights on is clearly unattainable."
The Earl of Hillshire's second son, a decorated officer, knighted after the battle of Waterloo, wasn't remotely whom Meredith would have guessed. She'd imagined Cecile would have taken a fancy to someone she saw fairly frequently, someone more suitable to her station.
"Nothing's unattainable, but it may take considerable machination to achieve your goal." Meredith leaned forward and rested her hand on Cecile's knee. "A task I am more than willing to undertake on your behalf, my dear. You have been my confidante during many difficult times in my life. I want to help you achieve your desire."
"Thank you, Madame." Cecile's rare smile lit her oval face and made her pale eyes shine. She was really a very striking woman, although Meredith had rarely noticed it.
"You deserve happiness, and I'm sorry if I've been thoughtless in my regard for you. All these years you've been a very devoted friend, much more than a servant, and I fear I haven't returned the favor. I shall make it up to you now, starting with outfitting you in a new wardrobe."
Her mind raced as she imagined all that must be done to help Cecile achieve her goal. New dresses and coiffure were only the beginning. "We shall have to invent an identity. Perhaps I can introduce you as a relative from my late husband's family, come to visit."
"A false identity? I hadn't thought--"
"A weekend party with Covington as one of the guests will be an absolute necessity," Meredith continued. "And after that, if necessary, we'll spend time in London so you may have more opportunities to bump into him."
Cecile's cheeks had turned from pink to pale again. "I imagined an assignation of some type, but to actually attempt such a complicated charade--"
"Nonsense!" Meredith took her hand and squeezed it. "You can do this. Change is always frightening, but if this is really what you want, you must attempt it."
Cecile nodded, but her mouth was tense.
If I could but follow that advice myself, she thought. Taking the next step, the one she knew Chris wanted, was too hard. Every day she avoided talk of marriage, and the more time passed, the harder it grew to discuss the subject. If she'd been with child last year as she'd thought, she would have married him, but when the pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, everything had changed.
"Cecile, give me some time to come up with a course of action, but meanwhile, send for the dressmaker today. Whatever gowns you require will be my gift."
"Madame, that is too much. I only wish your advice. I have savings, and you know I can sew my own dresses."
"No. I insist. I want to do this." She rose and offered her hand to Cecile, drawing her to her feet. Meredith gave her a swift embrace and a peck on each cheek before letting her go. How strange to realize, all in a moment, that Cecile was as close to a sister as she would ever have.
"Thank you, Madame." Cecile's eyes glistened, but otherwise her face was as calm and composed as always as she turned and strode gracefully from the room.
A lover for Cecile? Who would've imagined the day would bring such a bizarre twist. Now that she'd promised to help, Meredith wasn't at all certain she could manage it. Nathaniel Covington was not a close friend and had only attended one dinner here as a guest of someone else. How could she invite him for a weekend without it appearing odd, and how could she ensure he would accept the invitation?