Alone in his study Gabriel Agreste sat in his full-grain, leather armchair reading his favorite book, if one could call it a book. It was actually a scrapbook, lovingly and painstakingly prepared by his late wife. It contained all of the newspaper clippings and magazine articles about him from the day he first launched his own fashion label, named after himself, of course, until almost the day Emilie Agreste died. He wasn’t so vain as to continue to collect and archive the proof of his accomplishments himself after her passing, (he had his assistant, Nathalie, for that, who started a separate volume) but it didn’t stop him from enjoying the fruits of her handiwork. It would be a detriment to her memory not to do so, or so he had convinced himself. Emilie was very proud of her husband afterall. And proud she should be, too. Gabriel had become the preeminent fashion designer of Paris. Everyone who was anyone wore his clothes. Other designers could only dream of creating such artistry. No one was as fashion forward, as creative with fabrics, and as innovative with findings as Gabriel Agreste. He had built his empire stitch by stitch. Late nights. Early mornings. Meals skipped. Holidays never taken. He dreamed fashion. He lived fashion.
Emilie never bothered him when he worked. She took care of things: the house, the children, the staff. He couldn’t be bothered with such mundane things. His focus had to be higher, loftier. Emilie understood. His finger traced her smile, captured in the picture now pasted in his book. She looked so happy as she stood beside him after he had won his first ACTE award. Yes, Emilie understood. Perhaps she was the only person who did. His sons certainly didn’t.
Felix, his oldest, Gabriel tolerated best if only because he was like himself not only in looks, but also in character. They had the same platinum blonde hair, the same hawkish nose, and the same indifference to those they deemed below them in not only intelligence, but also looks, talent, and social standing. In actuality Felix was highly intelligent. Being an avid reader he knew lots of facts, some important, but mostly trivial. He could quote all of the important poets and bend the logic of philosophers to his point of view. Anyone gazing upon his features would find him attractive, being blessed with a tall, thin frame and angular features. But, the main strike against him had to be that Felix was a snob on every count and took no trouble to hide it. He thought much of himself, being his father’s heir apparent. At the age of 22 he earned the position of Vice President of Marketing at Gabriel Fashions. The only requirements necessary were having the right last name and a business degree from a distinguished university that Gabriel happened to make a generous donation to just prior to Felix receiving his acceptance letter. Felix had no real interest in fashion. He had no passion to design and no talent to do so either. Running his father’s company was a means to allow him to do what he truly loved: spend his father’s fortune.
Adrien, on the other hand, was a great disappointment to his father. Seven years junior to his brother, Adrien took after his mother, not only in looks, but also in disposition. They had the same sandy-colored hair, the same kind, green eyes, and the same gentle, patient heart. Perhaps for these reasons Gabriel avoided Adrien, because he reminded the widower of his lost wife, a woman that he loved very deeply, even though he wasn’t particularly good at showing it. For most of Adrien’s life he had been a dutiful son, trying if not always succeeding to do his best in all things. He certainly was more accomplished than Felix, being fluent in several languages, including their native French as well as English, Italian, and Mandarin. He excelled in every subject especially science. He actually thought applied physics to be “fun”. But he was no mere bookworm, but also a star athlete. Trophies, banners, and medals decorated his childhood bedroom in a myriad of sports including basketball, lacrosse, and fencing. If any area of his resume appeared a bit thin, then it was in the arts. Adrien had no talent for drawing, painting, or design, like his father. However, he had a keen ear for music and could perform as a concert pianist if he so chose that as his livelihood. But, the career Gabriel had laid out for Adrien was that of a male fashion model. Adrien became the face of the Gabriel Fashions men’s line at the age of 11. Tall for his age, he easily passed as 13 years old at the time. All of Paris and, very soon after, all of the fashion world embraced the little boy, holding him up as a paragon of male beauty. He became famous almost overnight and with that his life changed forever. His parents pulled him out of public school and hired private tutors. Felix felt no such disruption, being allowed to finish his last year of lycee with his friends before beginning university. For the next three years Adrien lived in almost perfect isolation, venturing out of the house only for private lessons and modeling shoots. His constant companion, his only companion, was his mother. When she died something in Adrien changed, although Gabriel didn’t see it immediately, but slowly over time without her guiding influence Adrien began to change.
The first sign, the large red flag that Gabriel should have see was when a few months after her death Adrien, at the age of 14, requested to return to public school. He wanted to have friends that were his own age and not paid staff. Of course Gabriel had refused, the very idea being ridiculous on several counts, especially safety. But, Adrien had rebelled, snuck out of the house and enrolled himself in the local secondary school. Ultimately, Gabriel had to relent and allow the boy to attend with the stipulation that he would obtain no less than très bien in all of his classes and he would continue to model. From there it had been downhill, coming into contact with those far below him, putting fanciful ideas into his head. Gabriel had tried to be understanding, tolerant even, but on some matters he could not abstain from putting his fatherly foot down. But it had all come to a head when Gabriel received the report of Adrien’s marks upon completion of his third semester at university. He had chosen medicine rather than business as his major field of study, which should have been acceptable, although disappointing that he did not want to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps and work in the family business, if only Adrien had wished to become a doctor, but a nurse? Unacceptable. Laughable, even. In his fury, Gabriel had cut all financial ties with his son, including paying for his education, removed him from his house, and fired him for good measure.
Gabriel had expected in the following months for Adrien to come crawling back on his knees, contrite and amenable. But, he hadn’t. He had come back, dutifully, for Sunday dinners and Christmas celebrations, but he never asked for his modeling job back or even for any financial assistance. He had struck out on his own, never to waver from his newfound independence. Despite Gabriel’s words of warning, his premonitions of failure and ruin, Adrien had flourished. It had been rocky at first, but his former Chinese tutor, Master Fu happily rented him a room in his house. Adrien completed his education, although it took him a year longer, since he had to work a part-time gig at the same time. With his registered nursing license in hand he gained employment at the local hospital, choosing emergency medicine as his calling, feeling that was where he could do the most good. Not longer after, he moved into a modest apartment in a decently acceptable neighborhood.
Any other parent might feel pride at his son’s resourcefulness. Did it not mirror Gabriel’s own story of breaking with his parents, building a successful fashion company from the ground up with nothing but a notebook full of ideas and a burning passion to chart his own course? And yet, the father’s favor had always been given to Felix, who had everything handed to him, and never to Adrien who from the age of 11 had worked every single day of his life. He was of no consequence, merely Adrien.
Perhaps if Adrien’s departure from Gabriel Fashions had not had such a dreadful impact, Gabriel could have forgiven his son for his treachery. But, indeed the lack of a recognizable, handsome face wearing the latest designs in every centerfold had hurt the fashion house. The public associated Adrien Agreste with Gabriel Fashions even more strongly than the line’s own designer and namesake. Without him, the label lacked an identity and no matter whom Gabriel signed to fill his son’s shoes no one ever came close to replacing him. There were other mistakes made, although Gabriel would be loathed to admit them: a costly jewelry line that never took off, a worker’s strike at his largest factory, a petty feud with a notable critic, and an overblown marketing budget to name a few. And so, as the intervening years passed Gabriel Fashions became, well, less and less fashionable, and less and less profitable. Consequently, Gabriel Agreste became more and more in debt.
It was his current financial troubles that made him seek the comfort of his wife’s scrapbook. Indulging in its pages, the nostalgia embracing him as lovingly as she would if she were there herself. A break, he needed a break from the constant worry and belt tightening.
“Sir,” a voice called, interrupting his respite. “Mme. Michelle is here to see you.”
“Very well,” Gabriel sighed, closing the scrapbook. “Please send her in, Nathalie.”
Adrien smiled fondly at the picture of the chubby baby in the arms of his mother. He doesn’t remember it, of course, being barely one years old at the time. Yet, based on the smile on his face, he must have been happy. How could one not be, gazing at the beauty of his mother? He sighed, closing his mother’s photo album. He placed it carefully in a box, marked on the side with the words “Family Photos”.
“What are you doing?” a condescending voice asked him. Adrien looked up with surprise. He had not heard his brother come into the room.
“Packing up mother’s things,” he mumbled as a second scrapbook joined the first inside of the box.
Adrien shrugged without looking up. “It doesn’t feel right to have the movers pack up her things. I’d rather do it myself.” He carefully placed a small, porcelain music box on a rolled out sheet of bubble wrap. He slowly brought one end up and around, swathing it in plastic protection.
Felix shook his head. “You shouldn’t bother. We aren’t moving. Father will come up with something.”
“Nathalie says that moving is the best thing we can do.”
“Nathalie doesn’t know everything,” Felix scoffed, crossing his arms in front of him, as he leaned against the door frame.
“She knows more than you!” Adrien countered with a smirk. He was used to his brother’s ways and had given up trying to change him. Of course, that didn’t mean he had to agree with him. On most issues he probably would have let it go, allowing his brother to say whatever came into his head, but when it came to the people that mattered, Adrien had learned the hard way that he should stand up for them, always.
“I don’t know why you think so highly of her. Who is Nathalie Sancoeur? Who would she be without father? She’s an employee , Adrien. She does what she’s told. She thinks what we tell her to think.”
Adrien shook his head sadly, “Nathalie’s the closest thing we have to a mother.”
“If Mother could only hear you now, she’d die on the spot from mortification!”
“I’m sure Mother would be very pleased and all together grateful for everything she has done for this family, especially after she passed away. You should be grateful, too.”
“She’s been compensated for her work, and very well, I might add. Nathalie doesn’t need my gratitude.”
“A thank you is always appreciated,” a familiar female voice responded.
Felix jumped in surprise. “Nathalie! I didn’t see you there.” His face betrayed his mortification at being overheard.
“No?” A smile passed between her and Adrien. “I came to tell you both that Mme. Michelle is here. She’s with your father in his study.”
Adrien was on his feet in an instant, hurriedly chasing after his brother out into the hall and down the flight of stairs. The two blondes arrived at the door to the study at practically the same moment, stopping short to knock and almost falling over each other in the process. The quick click of Nathalie’s heels as she approached at a much more dignified rate could be heard echoing behind them.
Through the door their father’s muffled voice gave them permission to enter.
“Very well,” Gabriel nodded. “The house appears...satisfactory.”
“What house?” both sons asked at the same time.
“Ah! Felix! Adrien! So good to see you,” Mme. Michelle greeted them. “I was just telling your father about the house in Milan I found for you.”
“Milan?” Adrien cried in disdain.
“Milan!” Felix cried in exuberance.
“Milan,” Gabriel confirmed with an adjustment of his glasses.
“Father, I thought we decided that a small house in the outer suburbs of Paris would be the most cost effective and least disruptive to your business operations,” Adrien asserted.
“ We didn’t decide anything,” Felix retorted circling his finger to include only the three Agreste men. “ We decided that if we must move, then Milan would suit us best,” he indicated himself and his father. “You shouldn’t have a say. You don’t have to move. You won’t have to live somewhere else.”
Gabriel’s silence seemed to affirm his eldest son’s statements.
“You can’t possibly hope to save money by staying in Milan!” Adrien looked to the two women for help, hoping that their expertise in real estate and business, respectively, would persuade his father toward his much more sensible option.
“Actually, the house I found for your father and brother is very nearly within the prescribed budget and is much smaller than their current home,” Mme. Michelle explained, but was quick to add, “but not so modest as to demean their good standing in society. It is in the best neighborhood, where they will rub elbows with those of the highest taste, especially in fashion.”
“Sounds expensive,” Adrien mumbled.
“Milan also affords the opportunity to make and strengthen our contacts within the Italian fashion industry,” Nathalie added. “We might even explore expanding our pret-a-porter lines, which the Milan fashion houses have made so successful.”
“Let’s not get into that discussion,” Gabriel said wearily, waving off his assistant. It had been a long standing argument between Gabriel and just about everyone at Gabriel Fashions as to how much ready to wear clothes to produce. The famed fashion designer was of the opinion that doing so diluted the brand, making it too commercial and common. Advocates for doing so argued that it was highly profitable and should at least be considered as a viable option.
“Moving to the suburbs signals to everyone that we are in some state of decline,” Felix reasoned.
“We are in a state of decline,” Adrien retorted, but he was ignored by his family.
“By going to Milan we can put on the facade that Gabriel Fashion is expanding,” Felix continued.
“And that’s all that matters, right? Appearances?” Adrien questioned with an eye roll. “Father, I feel very strongly that this is a mistake.”
“You always let your feelings guide you, Adrien. You’re just like your mother,” Gabriel chided. “Your brother is right and since we have found a house within the budget agreed upon I really don’t think that you have any reason to object, especially since, as Felix noted, you will not be inconvenienced to move there.”
That seemed to settle the subject of Milan rather thoroughly. Adrien crossed his arms protectively across his chest. He supposed that he shouldn’t be surprised that his opinion was not considered nor that his advice was not taken, yet it still chafed.
“What about renting this house out?” Adrien asked, regarding the Paris mansion. “Has a tenant been found?”
“Ah!” Mme. Michelle smiled. “I was just getting to that. Yes, I found a very good prospective tenant. It’s a couple from New York.”
“Americans,” Felix sneered.
“No, actually, they’re French, but have been living in New York for about eight years. Their daughter has business here and they wish to move back to be near her. Actually, their daughter and a niece will be living with them as well, both grown and employed. They all have excellent credit and their combined incomes are such that the monthly rent will be of no hardship.”
“What line of business are they in?” Gabriel asked.
“Let me see,” the realtor hummed as she flipped through some pages. “Ah, yes, M. Dupain is a baker. He and his wife, Mme. Cheng, have bakeries in both New York and here in Paris.”
“Would that be…” Adrien swallowed hard, “Tom and Sabine’s Bakery?”
“The very same!” Mme. Michelle laughed with surprise as she tapped the stack of papers. “It’s very popular I understand. I can’t say that I’ve ever been there myself, but…”
“This will not do,” Gabriel crossed his arms, smugly. “I will not rent out my house to a...a...baker!”
“Is there something wrong with bakers?” Mme. Michelle asked. She looked to the others for help. Felix sneered out of general disdain. Nathalie looked rather indifferent and Adrien, well, he looked like he might be sick. He sat down heavily on a spare chair and stared at the floor.
“Yes, indeed there is something wrong with bakers!” Gabriel jumped to his feet. “Their very existence is abhorrent to me. Do you not see that their goods are the very thing, the very thing that makes people obese and unseemly? And, then these are the very people who are completely unfit to be seen, trying to squeeze their flabby, misshapen bodies into my masterpieces! I assure you Mme. Michelle that there is no way possible to make fat people look good, no matter how many vertical stripes you put on them!” He turned his back on the gathering.
Mme. Michelle had never seen Gabriel Agreste so animated about anything and as such was completely at a loss as to what to say.
“Sir, you can’t place the blame for people being overweight on those who bake bread and cake,” Nathalie said calmly, trying to reason with him.
“Then who should I blame?” he asked, not turning around.
“The very people who ingest too much and exercise too little,” Nathalie answered simply, ignoring other contributing factors such as food addiction and genetic predisposition. “It sounds as if M. Dupain will be a solid tenant. He has every advantage, including multiple and steady incomes.”
“A married couple with grown children and no pets is the ideal tenant,” Mme. Michelle put in. “They will be very easy on the furnishings.”
Nathalie nodded in agreement. The two women waited as the older man mulled over their arguments. He tapped his chin with his finger as he thought. Mme. Michelle shifted in her seat. She was not used to waiting on M. Agreste as Nathalie and his sons were. Gabriel never made any decision quickly. Perhaps out of nervousness, Mme. Michelle continued to talk.
“And, Mme. Cheng sounded very sensible and reasonable on the phone. She went over the particulars regarding the terms of the rental very carefully. I have no doubt she’s a very capable business woman,” Mme. Michelle asserted. She waited a moment and then added, “And, M. Dupain is very good-natured, agreeable on all counts.”
The clock sitting on the mantel ticked loudly as they waited.
“And, the daughter and niece are in the fashion industry themselves,” Mme. Michelle offered as an additional argument in their favor, but Nathalie tried to wave her off. She knew that would not curry any favor with him.
“Hmph,” he grumbled. “No doubt trying to get to me in the hopes of advancing their careers. Are they designers?”
“I...I couldn’t say, sir,” Mme. Michelle answered, fearing that telling him the truth would only put him off. She searched her mind for something else to say, but fell short.
“I’m sure it will be of little consequence,” Felix sniffed. “We will be long gone by the time they would move in. When are they looking to move?”
“M. Dupain and Mme. Cheng are in Paris until the end of the week, making the arrangements for their daughter’s arrival in about a month’s time. If they could be allowed to see the house for an hour or so, then I’m sure all could be satisfactorily arranged…”
Adrien did not bother to listen to the rest of the conversation, not that he had heard much anyway once he had realized who it was that would be renting their house. As if in a daze, he walked out solemnly. He meant to return to his mother’s room to finish packing up her things, but instead he found himself in his old bedroom. Not much had changed since he had left. His fencing banners still hung on the wall. The shelves still full of his gaming and anime collection. He flopped face down onto the bed. The silent tears staining his cheeks hidden from view. He knew not how long he laid there. A gentle knock interrupted him.
“Adrien?” Nathalie called. “Are you alright? You left so strangely.” Upon seeing his crumpled face she hurried to sit beside him.
“I’m okay,” he sniffed. “I just wasn’t expecting to hear her name.”
“Whose name?” she asked mystified.
“Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” he answered with tears glistening in his eyes.
Nathalie blinked. No one had spoken that name. And then it dawned on her. “Is that?”
Adrien nodded miserably. She wrapped an arm around him.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “Not for the world would I have you hurt. I’ll tell Mme. Michelle that we simply cannot rent the house to Mlle. Dupain-Cheng and her parents.”
“No! Don’t do that!” Adrien wailed. “That’s worse! It’ll be like rejecting her all over again. Please, Nathalie, promise me you won’t do that!”
“But, Adrien! To have the girl to whom you were married rent your family’s house...it’s too strange, too awful to be borne.”
“We were only married for 3 days in practical terms, 15 days by law. It’s not as if we were really married. We had no home of our own, no children, no life together...not really.”
“It’s fine, Nathalie. I’m fine.” He sighed as he brought his knees to his chin, hugging his legs. “I just wish…”
“What?” Nathalie prodded, “That you had stayed married? Adrien,” she shook her head, “you must agree that at 19 it would have been terribly difficult for you to do so.”
“But not impossible.”
“Your father was against you. He would have thrown you out of the house and cut you off financially. How would you have continued your education much less fed and clothed yourself? Neither one of you had a job. M. Dupain for all of his wealth and multiple incomes now, certainly couldn’t have afforded to take you in at the time.”
“But less than a year later father did throw me out, cut off my income, and I...I survived! I found work, I found a place to live. I had some savings from modeling. We could have figured it out, Nathalie. If only I had believed in myself...and us.” He slumped sideways, letting his head fall on the pillow and curling his body away from her.
“Even M. Dupain and Mme. Cheng agreed that you two were too young. Nineteen!” Nathalie shook her head.
“It’s not like we had just met. I’d known her for over five years and we’d been dating for over two. We may’ve been young, but our relationship wasn’t,” he reminded her.
“I know you regret her,” Nathalie said. “I’m sorry. I truly felt, indeed I still feel, that I gave you good advice.”
“I know,” he said sitting up and turning toward her with a sad smile. “I know.” Adrien had withstood the threats and bullying of his father, but when Nathalie came to him and calmly and rationally explained why his marriage was a mistake, he relented. “I don’t blame you. I only wish I hadn’t allowed myself to be persuaded. I should have been more steadfast.”
“As I recall the argument that persuaded you was not one that offered you any advantages. You agreed to the annulment for her sake.” Nathalie covered his hand with her own. “I know you made the right decision. Your father would have ruined any chances Mlle. Dupain-Cheng would’ve had in the fashion industry. She never would’ve won that contest and as such she never would’ve been discovered by Audrey Bourgeois and been taken to New York to start her own line. She wouldn’t have even been allowed to enter the contest in the first place.”
Adrien sighed, “I couldn’t allow that to happen. Becoming a fashion designer...it’s her dream. She’s so talented, Nathalie.”
“Obviously,” the older woman agreed. “She’s become quite successful. Formed her own label at the age of 20. Earned her first million during her first year of operations. She took New York and Hollywood by storm.”
“I’m happy for her. She deserves it.” He sighed again. “And now she’s coming here…” The gravity of that statement hung in the air. How would things go with Marinette back in Paris? How would it be with her living right here in his own house?
“Adrien,” Nathalie began, but then hesitated. “If she truly loved you, then why not come back for you once she had become a success?”
“Would you?” he asked rhetorically. “I hurt her very badly. It’s no wonder she’s never forgiven me. I tried to apologize. For two years I tried to make contact with her. I called her cell phone, but she must have changed numbers after moving to New York. I tried emailing her, but same thing, no response.”
“Wouldn’t any of her friends give you her new contact information?”
“No,” he replied with an empty laugh. “They hate me, too. I lost most of my friends when Marinette and I broke up. Chloe stuck with me, but she always preferred me anyway.”
A heavy silence fell over them as painful memories flooded Adrien’s senses.
“I tried calling her office in New York,” he continued. “I left messages with her assistant. I even wrote her a letter and asked Chloe’s mother to hand deliver it for me.”
“And did she?”
Adrien nodded. “But, Mme. Bourgeois said that Marinette ripped it up without even reading it. After that...I stopped trying to contact her.” His eyes began to fill with tears again. He wiped them away with the palm of his hand.
“That probably was for the best…” Nathalie replied lamely.
“Do you think…” Adrien hesitated, hope now filling his eyes as this new idea came into his head. “Do you think it means anything, her wanting to rent this house of all places?”
“I think it’s likely an unfortunate coincidence. I think her parents must have entertained the idea without realizing who the owner is. When they find out, I’m sure that will put an end to any interest in renting it,” she assured him.
Adrien nodded, “You’re probably right. Still though...to think she might live here. She might even choose my room as her bedroom.”