August 29, 1794
The last few days had been exceptionally warm for end of August. Despite the late hour in the morning, Élise is still lying in bed. Sweat pearling on her forehead, her chemise feels clammy against her skin. Maybe it’s the heat that makes her feel so sluggish lately? She knows she should be up, washed, dressed and ready for the day by now, but she just can’t muster the energy. And there’s this queasiness in her stomach that just doesn’t want to go away. She has barely eaten anything the past 3 days. Madeleine is a wonderful cook -- she made sure both Arno and her have been well-fed since they took shelter at the Café, and Élise wonders if that’s the reason her breeches don’t quite fit as of late, she’s been forced to wear dresses! -- but the only food that seems to go down without a fuss is dry bread and water. What is wrong with me?, she asks herself. She closes her eyes and turns on her back, arms and legs sprawled, in search of cooling. Besides her, the bed is empty, the sheets feel cool under her hand. Arno must have gotten up quite early this morning, so silently she didn’t even wake up. Or is it afternoon already? Lost in her thoughts, she almost drifts back asleep until she hears quiet footsteps approaching. She opens her eyes to see Arno standing next to the bed, looking at her tenderly. Strands of dark hair are plastered on his forehead, his shirt is unbuttoned and he rolled up his sleeves. He sits on the edge of the bed, bringing his hand to her cheek to caress it softly. “Hey, you’re still in bed?” She nods, stretching her arms. He brushes her hair away from her forehead. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She sighs. “I don’t know. Maybe ask Madeleine to bring me some bread and water?”, she says in a low voice, barely audible.
He shakes his head. “Élise, you need to eat more than just bread and water. That’s all you’ve been eating lately. Don’t you want some soup instead?”
She covers her mouth with her hand, trying to repress a gag. “No, please, not soup. Just bread and water is fine.”
He frowns. “I’m worried about you.”
She manages a faint smile. “It’s the heat, I’m sure. This room is a real oven.”
He rises to his feet, extending a hand. “Then let me help you get washed up and dressed, and let’s go sit in the garden while it’s still in the shade. I bet you’ll feel better once you get some fresh air!”
She chuckles. “You’re right. I should get up…” Taking his extended hand in hers, she sits up and then gets out of bed and onto her feet, only to feel her legs failing out from under her. She brings a hand to her forehead. “I feel so dizzy all of a sudden…” she slurs.
“Woah… Élise!” He swiftly slips his arms under her armpits to hold her upright. She feels limp in his arms. With precaution, he lays her back on the bed, lifting up her legs. He sits next to her and gently taps on her too pale cheeks. “Élise, Élise, wake up! Look at me, please! Élise!” he cries, his voice cracking. He feels his chest tightening. What is wrong with her?, he wonders. She’s not herself the past few days. She doesn’t eat, she barely gets out of bed, she won’t let him touch her… And that’s really not like her, he admits to himself.
After a moment, she opens her eyes. She looks around, confused. “What just happened?”
Breathing a loud sigh of relief, he leans to kiss her lips softly. They feel cold. He looks at her with the widest of grins, putting on his best efforts to mask his worry. “You fainted, my love. You probably got up too fast, and you haven’t eaten enough…” She nods silently, closing her eyes. He gets up to fetch a washcloth, dipping it in the cool water of the washing basin next to the bed, and laying it gently on her forehead. “Élise, I’m going to send Madeleine to bring you something to eat. Are you going to be all right? Or do you want me to stay here with you?”
“I’ll be fine. I… I just need to rest.” she murmurs.
He strokes her cheek gently. “I’ll be back later to check on you, I promise.”
“I know you will,” she says, smiling softly.
He takes her hand and gently kisses it before leaving the room as quietly as he entered it.
Their room might be an oven, but the kitchen is much worse. He finds Madeleine, a stout middle-aged woman, at the working table kneading bread, the scarf covering her long brown hair damp with sweat. He taps on her shoulder, making her jolt and bring a flour-covered hand to her large bosomed chest.
“You scared me there, Monsieur Arno!” she exclaims, a broad grin illuminating her round face, reddened by the kitchen heat. “What can I do for you? Is Mademoiselle Élise feeling any better this morning? Oh, I’m sorry, I know it’s none of my business to ask such things.”
He smiles warmly. Madeleine is the best employees he has, always available, keeping their apartments clean and tidy, feeding them the most delicious food he’s had in a long time. He even got used to her constant chatter. She helped fill the silence that was surrounding him before Élise moved in to live with him at the Café.
“About Élise --” he begins.
She interrupts him, carrying on cheerfully with her kneading. “Oh there is something off about her lately. I can tell, I’ve got that kind of feeling, me. I don’t know her as much as I know you Monsieur, but she’s not herself, isn’t she? The poor Mademoiselle, all that nasty business that you two have gotten yourselves into, it wore her down. Us women are more fragile that you think, Monsieur.”
He rolls his eyes, his impatience growing. “Yes, possibly. But I would really appreciate if you could bring her a bit of bread and some fresh water, she had a…” He hesitates. “She had… an episode this morning. Most likely just a reaction to the heat.”
She raises an eyebrow. “An episode, you say, Monsieur?”
“She probably got up too fast, and she hasn’t been eating much… She said she felt dizzy… Anyway, I tucked her back in bed. I’ll check up on her later.” He puts his hand on her shoulder, his eyes imploring. “Would you be so kind as to go see her immediately?”
She nods. “Of course Monsieur Arno, right away.” She brushes her hands on her apron. “Faustine, take over the bread, will you?” she shouts at her assistant.
Élise heard a voice calling out, like in a dream. “Mademoiselle Élise? Mademoiselle Élise? Are you sleeping? I brought you some bread and water, just like Monsieur Arno asked.”
“Madeleine?” she mutters, opening her eyes. She must have fallen asleep right after Arno left. Madeleine puts the tray of food and water on the bedside table. “What time is it?” Élise asks, covering her eyes with her hand as Madeleine opens the shades, bathing the room in sunlight.
“It’s almost noon, Mademoiselle.”
“Right. It’s time I get up. Would you help me get dressed once I have finished eating?”
“Of course Mademoiselle. I’ll be right around the corner, just give me a shout when you need me!” She bows and shuffles out of the room.
Élise sits up in bed, propping herself up on the pillows. Her head wasn’t spinning, that was a good sign. She could smell the fresh loaf of bread next to her, but it wasn’t making her queasy. She breaks a piece of bread and brings it to her mouth, chewing on it carefully, looking out for any signs of nausea. Nothing. She swallows a bite, then another. She takes a few sips of water. Still nothing. Maybe I can actually do this, she thinks, smiling. She doesn’t really feel hungry, and she puts the bread back in the basket. Maybe she can eat some more later. “Madeleine? Are you there?” she calls.
The maid appears at the door. “You called me, Mademoiselle?” She looks at the bread in the basket, missing just a few bites. “Mademoiselle Élise, you didn’t eat much, did you? You need to eat more. I know it’s not my business to tell you what to do, but if I were your mother, I would make sure that you eat.”
Her mother. Élise hadn’t thought about her mother in a long, long time. And suddenly, she feels an immense wave of sadness submerging her, making her explode into tears, her whole body convulsing.
Madeleine rushes to Élise’s side and takes her into her arms. “Shhhh, my child,” she says in a soothing voice, smoothing Élise’s hair, desperately trying to calm down her uncontrollable sobbing. She holds her in her arms for several minutes until Élise’s sobbing quiets down.
Élise looks up, her eyes swollen and red, her cheeks flushed and covered in tears. She pulls away, visibly embarrassed, drying her cheeks with the palm of her hands. “Please forgive me, Madeleine, I… I don’t know what came over me.”
Madeleine fixes her gaze on the young woman in front of her. She takes her hand in hers, smiling kindly. “It’s all right, Mademoiselle. Don’t you worry about it. Now let’s get you dressed.”
The maid gathers freshly laundered clothes for Élise. She helps her out of her damp chemise and into the new one. “That should already feel better, doesn’t it?” she says encouragingly.
Élise nods. She agrees a fresh and dry chemise feels much better on her skin, but the smell of the lavender oil used for the laundry is hitting her nostrils in the most unpleasant way.
And then it hits her.
She barely has time to reach the chamber pot, where she vomits the few bites of bread and sips of water she had managed to keep down so far. Holding Élise’s hair out of the way, Madeleine rubs her back in silence, shaking her head.
After a moment, once the wave of nausea has passed, Élise takes a few deep breaths and walks back to the bed, sitting on the edge. Madeleine is silent, her brow furrowed. She grabs the corset and helps Élise put it on. When she begins tightening it, Élise yelps, clutching her breasts. “Auw! That’s a bit too tight, Madeleine! It… hurts.”
Madeleine looks at her suspiciously. “Pardon me, Mademoiselle. How about we leave it out today? Let me just help you put on your dress.”
The light blue linen dress smells like lavender too, and Élise feels another wave of queasiness rising in her stomach. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths, the displeasing feeling slowly subsiding. She opens her eyes to find Arno standing in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest, looking serious. “That will be all, Madeleine, thank you,” he says calmly, walking towards the bed.
Madeleine gently rubs Élise’s shoulder. “As you wish, Monsieur.” She makes her way towards the door, but Arno stops her.
“Madeleine, can I have a word with you?” He takes her arm, leading her out of the room. Once he is sure Élise won’t be able to hear their conversation, he turns to Madeleine, his face distorted by the worry in his heart. “Madeleine, I beg of you. Do you have any idea what could possibly be wrong with Élise?”
She looks down, avoiding his gaze. “It’s not my place to tell you such things, Monsieur Arno.”
“Madeleine, if you know something, please tell me. Should I call a doctor? Is she ill?”
She looks at him sympathetically. “No, Monsieur Arno. No such thing. She is not ill. Mademoiselle Élise...” She pauses, taking a deep breath. “Mademoiselle Élise is with child, Monsieur Arno. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”
He gave her a bewildered look. “With… child? P… pregnant?” he stutters. Was it really happening? Was it a dream? Could she really be carrying his child? He bites on his fist to keep from screaming in joy. Or burst out in tears. One of the two. He’s not entirely sure what exactly is going through his own mind at the moment. Happiness? Fear?
She chuckles, amused by his reaction. “If you don’t believe me, I can call the doctor for you. But in my mind, there is no doubt. Mademoiselle is with child. I felt exactly the same when I was carrying my daughter. I was sick all the time, Monsieur Arno. All the time! And my neighbor, she --”
“Would you call the doctor for me, please?” he interrupts. “I… I just need to be sure.”
She nods. “As you wish, Monsieur Arno. I will have the doctor come over by the end of the afternoon.” She points at the bedroom. “You should go see her. Mademoiselle Élise needs you, more than ever.”
He smiles softly, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Madeleine. You are right, I should go see her.”
He turns around and walks back to the bedroom.
“Monsieur Arno?” Madeleine calls loudly from behind him. “You will make a fine father, Monsieur Arno. A fine father. Congratulations!”
Hearing her words, a wide grin forms on his face.
“What was all the fuss about, Arno? What did you two talk about?” Élise is sitting at the desk by the open window, an open book in her hands, desperately trying to catch a cool breeze, her light blue dress making her emerald eyes shine, despite the fatigue and the weariness. She brushed her hair and pinned them up, a few loose curls framing her face.
She was beautiful, as always. But he was now seeing her as someone else -- the mother of his child. He looks at her fondly. “Nothing my love, I just needed to discuss some matters of the Café with her. And I asked her to call the doctor for you.”
She turns towards him. “You did what?” she asks angrily.
His smile vanishes upon hearing her harsh tone of voice. He kneels next to the chair, cupping her face in his hands. “But I’m worried about you.”
She pushes his hands away. “NO! I don’t want to see the doctor! Leave me alone!” she shouts, her lower lip quivering.
He sighs, reluctantly getting up to his feet. He puts a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugs it away. Her behavior is puzzling him. She has always been quite a handful, but this was something else. “Élise, listen… listen to me. Just let the doctor ask you a few questions and examine you, it’ll be over before you know it. And we’ll know what’s going on. Élise, please… Do it for me.” he pleads.
“Sure,” she mutters. She props her chin on her hand to stare out the window, her face inexpressive.
His heart sinks. “I have to go now, but I’ll be back later, when the doctor comes by. I love you.”
She shrugs, her look vacant.
This is going to be nine very long months, he thinks while walking out of the room.
Loud footsteps can be heard down the corridor. Élise rubs her cheeks with her hands to get some color on them, and forces a smile as Madeleine, followed by the doctor and Arno, enter the room.
Madeleine discretely points towards Élise. “Here is your patient, doctor. Mademoiselle de la Serre hasn’t been feeling well lately.”
The doctor nods. “Thank you. Now please leave me alone with Mademoiselle.”
Arno wanted to stay, but there was no argument possible with the doctor’s firm tone. “Yes, of course doctor.” He meets Élise’s gaze for a few seconds, looking contrite, before turning around and following Madeleine outside of the room. As they walk away, he taps on Madeleine’s shoulder, gesturing her to keep silent and to continue walking. Not wanting to miss anything of the conversation, he flattens against the wall right away from the door, careful not to make a sound.
Meanwhile, the doctor is ready to begin examining his patient. “Mademoiselle, would you please lie down. Do you need any help?”
“I’ll be fine thank you,” she says dryly. She carefully gets up to her feet, walks back to the bed and sits down.
“Please Mademoiselle, lie down.” She obeys reluctantly, laying her hands on her stomach, her fingers intertwined. “Now, let me ask you a few questions”, the doctor continues.
“Of course, doctor,” she says in a faint voice.
“Can you describe your current ailments?” the doctor asks, nonchalantly cleaning his spectacles with a handkerchief.
She stares at the ceiling, gathering her thoughts. “For the last 3 or 4 days, I haven’t been able to eat much, feeling queasy most of the time. I’m also very tired. This morning, when trying to get out of bed, I seemed to have… swooned.”
The doctor nods, putting on his spectacles and neatly folding back his handkerchief. “Good, good. Please continue. Anything else? Such as pain, or discomfort…?”
“Well, this is quite embarrassing to be talking about this with a… man, but… my…” She hesitates, blushing. “My... breasts are quite... tender as of late.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Would you say, Mademoiselle de la Serre, that this queasiness that you report, manifests itself mostly upon waking up?”
She looks at the doctor, confused. “Yes, now that you mention it, yes, I would say so.”
“May I ask you, Mademoiselle, when was your last bleeding?”
She frowns. Looking at the calendar has been the least of her worry the past few months, or even years. “Er… this is a very good question. I… I can’t remember exactly, but it has to be somewhere around mid-July.”
Outside the room, Arno grimaces. That’s more information than he really wished to hear. I better get used to it, he thinks to himself, keeping his ears peeled for the rest of the conversation.
The doctor continues. “And, if I may ask, would you say that you are… regular? If so, would you say you should have expected your bleeding almost… 3 weeks ago?”
Élise’s heart skips a beat. No, it’s impossible. It can’t be... I can’t be… Of course, it was possible that she was pregnant. After all, she’s been sharing Arno’s bed since she moved in at the Café. She smiles faintly, feeling a tingle in her core at the thought of their wild nights. And mornings. And… Her reverie is interrupted by the discrete coughing of the doctor, who was awaiting her answer. “Y... Yes, I am. And… Yes… I suppose so.” Her hands fly to cover her mouth, tears pricking her eyes, reality sinking in.
“Mademoiselle, I don’t think I need to examine you any further,” the doctor declares with a warm smile. “You are not ill. It’s quite clear to me that you are expecting a child.”
You are expecting a child. The words echo in her head, dizzying her. She feels her chest tightening, her breathing becoming shallow, her hands going numb. She closes her eyes, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. She wasn’t ready to raise a child. Not now. She has so much to do to pursue her father’s legacy.
You are expecting a child. The same words are filling Arno’s heart with joy, his eyes welling with tears. All his life, he’s been accepted, then rejected, wherever he went. But his dream is finally coming true: his own family, with the woman he loves more than everything.
The doctor places a reassuring hand on Élise’s shoulder. “I understand this might be quite a shock. Let me call in your… fiancé, I presume?”
She tries to say something, but there is no sound. No, he is not my fiancé, she wanted to say. Before the doctor even said a word, Arno appears in the doorway, trying to keep a straight face but struggling to hide his elation.
The doctor steps away from the bed, extending a hand towards Arno to shake it. “Ah, Monsieur Dorian, I was just about to fetch you. It seems congratulations are in order. Mademoiselle is not ill, she is simply... expecting. If my calculations are correct, and if God is on your side, she should give birth around mid-April of next year.”
Élise shakes her head, the initial shock of the announcement of her pregnancy making place for bitterness and resentment. “You’ve been eavesdropping, haven’t you?” she snaps, looking at Arno straight in the eyes. “You’ll never change. Not ever. You’ll always be an Assassin…”
Here we go again. He looks down, heavyhearted. “Élise, I’m sorry, I...”
“Oh save it," she hisses.
The doctor pauses, looking at one then the other, confounded about the scene that was playing before him. “I think I will leave you two to… discuss the matter. Goodbye Monsieur Dorian, goodbye Mademoiselle de la Serre. I know the way out.”
Arno shakes the doctor’s hand once more. “Thank you, doctor. Thank you.” After the doctor has left, he turns towards Élise with a sheepish smile, only to receive pillow square in the face. “And what did I do to deserve this?” he asks, vexed, clutching his nose.
“I don’t know… maybe not pulling out on time, as you always do?” she retorts, her eyes squinted in anger.
He takes a deep breath, sitting on the edge of the bed leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his face turned towards her. “It’s the first time I hear you complain about it. I thought you wanted a baby as much as I did. Otherwise, you would have stopped me. You know the risks.” His voice is calm, even, but inside, his heart is breaking.
Her mouth opens in disbelief. “You were doing it ON PURPOSE? And HOW DARE YOU make this sound like it’s MY FAULT!” She firmly crosses her arms over her chest, fuming.
He takes his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. “NO! No, it’s not what I’m saying…” He pauses. “I’ve been… careless, I know. More than once. Most of the time. Okay, all the time.”
“And look where it got us. I’m pregnant now, thank you very much.” She looks away, avoiding his gaze.
He takes her hand in his, but she pulls her hand away. “I don’t want to fight, not today. Not ever. I love you. With all my heart. Look at me, please.” he implores.
She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but he was right. It was as much her fault as it was his. She knew the risks, he knew them too. This baby, the symbol of their love, should bring them closer together, not tear them apart. She feels her chest tightening again, and tears stream down her cheeks. “Arno, we talked about this before… We can’t… I can’t…” she says between sobs.
He carefully moves closer to her, expecting to be pushed away. To his surprise, she throws herself in his arms, burying her head in his chest. He holds her tightly against him while her sobbing quiets down, placing soft kisses on the top of her head. After a moment, he breaks the silence. “We need to flee Paris.”
“What?” she asks, baffled.
“We’ve been hiding here for a month now. Where are your allies? You wrote to several of them, but did they even return your letters? You have to face the truth, Élise. If word gets out that you’re here, that we are here, and that you’re pregnant…” He tightens his embrace. “I don’t want to think about what could happen to you. We can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous.”
She pulls her head back to look at him, a perplexed look on her face. He had a point. She hadn’t heard from anyone to whom she reached out to, in the hope of gathering support from within the Order. Memories of the trap she almost fell into several years ago resurface. Again, she is trapped, but for a different reason. “What do you suggest?”
“Let’s just go, far away. What about the Alps? In your letters, you talked about a farm, with goats…”
She bursts out in laughter. “You’ve got to be joking! That was just me rambling, I wasn’t seriously thinking…”
“Well, I am very serious”, he interrupts. “Don’t you want a quiet life, just you and me… and the baby?” He place a hand on her belly. His hand is warm, comforting, and protective.
She looks at his beautiful dreamy eyes, her heart melting. He is right, again. It's too dangerous for her, for them. She has a baby to protect now. But this is so sudden, and totally different than what she expected of her life after avenging her father. “I… I need to pursue my father’s work…”
He grips her shoulders. “I almost lost you out there in that Temple. I’m not going to let that happen again, ever. And I’m not going to let anything happen to our child. Listen to me. We must flee.”
She shakes her head. “You don’t understand. I’m carrying my father’s surname, I have responsibilities!”
He takes her chin in his hand, staring into her green eyes. “Then take mine. It doesn’t have as much weight as your father’s, but it’s yours to take, if you want it.”
She smiles, chuckling a little. “Arno, are you…?”
“Am I asking you to marry me? Yes, yes, I am.” There is no hesitation in his voice. Never has he been so sure of his love for her and his desire to make her his wife.
“I suppose I can’t have a child out of wedlock, my father would have been mortified…”
“Élise, is that a yes?” he asks, a broad smile on his face.
She laughs. “Yes. Of course it’s a yes.”
He lowered his lips to hers and swept her up with a passionate kiss, their earlier quarrels entirely forgotten.
After a moment, she breaks the kiss. “Arno?”
“Yes, my love?”
“Just so we’re clear, I’m keeping my name.”
He laughs wholeheartedly. “We’ll talk about that later.” He places a quick kiss on her forehead. “I’ll drop by the city hall tomorrow to arrange a marriage license. There’s no time for the banns, and to be honest, I’m not interested in both our names to be out in the open, with a time and date. It’s too risky.”
She sighs, weary. “I don’t really have energy to take care of those things…”
“Leave it all to me. Just take of yourself… and our baby,” he says, caressing her cheek with a hand, and her belly with the other.
“And how are we going to pay for that farm of yours? Did you even think about it?” she asks, concerned.
“I could sell the Café…”
She shakes her head in disagreement. “No, you worked so hard to make it thrive-”
He takes her head in his hands. “Which means it will bring good money. And we need to cut our ties with Paris, otherwise they could track us down. The past is the past, Élise. You said it yourself. Going forward isn’t necessarily an ending…”
“You remember.” She smiles as fond memories of the hot air balloon ride, two years before, flood her mind.
He returns her smile. “How could I ever forget that night?” He kisses her lips softly, then her cheeks, and pulls her close, wrapping his hands around her back, rocking her gently. She rests her head on his chest, humming in contentment. After the turmoil of the past years, filled with anger and revenge, it was time for a new beginning. The perspective of motherhood was particularly daunting, but at this right moment, safely tucked in his arms, she felt she could take on the world. As long as they are together.. “I’m not sure I’m ready to be a mother. But this child is here now. And maybe you’re right. Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I wanted a baby… Our baby. ”
“Come on, let’s get you out of this room. Let’s go downstairs and celebrate,” he says, beaming.
Holding hands like two young lovers, they make their way downstairs to the ground floor. A handful of employees are busying themselves in preparation of the evening’s performance, dusting, cleaning, and rearranging the tables and chairs, all under Madeleine’s watchful eye. The bustling immediately stops as they come off the last step and enter the Café area. Madeleine runs towards them and hugs them both tightly. “And?” she asks with a knowing smile.
Their gaze locked on each other for a brief instant. “Élise is indeed pregnant, and the baby is due mid-April,” he announces in a low voice, squeezing Élise’s hand. Pregnant. With his child. He still can’t quite realize it.
“Awwwww, I’m so happy for you!” she cheers, rubbing both their shoulders.
Arno puts his finger in front of his lips. “Madeleine, you’ll have to keep this quiet for now, please. We’ll explain later.”
She frowns. “Oh of course Monsieur Arno. Not a problem. Now can I get you two anything? Something to drink?” She turns towards Élise, smiling warmly. “Something to eat, Mademoiselle?”
“Actually, that would be lovely. I’m ravenous!” Élise says, returning her smile.
“I’ll bring you a warm plate of pot-au-feu, Mademoiselle. We need to keep you and your baby well fed. Just go sit by your favorite table, I’ll be right back with food and wine!” she says, hurrying back to the kitchen.
Still holding her hand, Arno leads Élise through the Café, to their table by the window. They barely have time to sit down, as Madeleine comes back carrying a large tray, containing two plates, two glasses, and a bottle of Bordeaux.
“I brought your favorite, Monsieur Arno,” she says in a low voice, arranging the content of the tray on their table. “I thought you might want to celebrate.”
He pours some wine in Élise’s glass and his own. “You are reading my mind. Thank you Madeleine. What would we do without you?”
She bows her head lightly and smiles. “I’m just doing my job, Monsieur. Just doing my job. Enjoy your meal!” She hastens back to work, barking orders at the employees who were standing still.
He looks at Élise sitting across him, with her chin resting in her hand, smiling. They both raise their glasses in a toast. “To a future filled with love!” he says cheerfully, knocking his glass against hers.
She chuckles. “To a future filled with love,” she says before taking a big sip of wine. She immediately grimaces at the taste. “Blergh, this wine is off!”
He raises an eyebrow, then takes a large gulp himself, sighing in satisfaction. “Really? I think it tastes just fine.”
She takes another sip, her face contorting. “No, seriously, the wine is off. And it’s making me nauseous…” she says, placing her hand in front of her mouth.
“Could it just be because you’re pregnant?” he asks, puzzled. “Honestly, this wine tastes absolutely fine. More than fine actually, it’s superb!” He empties his glass with a toss of the head and pours himself another one.
“How would I know, I’ve never been pregnant before. And you know me, I can never refuse wine.” She moves her glass to his side of the table, shaking her head. “There, you can have mine, I’m not drinking this.”
“If you insist”, he says, taking her glass in his hand and bringing it to his mouth to empty it in a couple of large slugs.
“While you’re getting yourself drunk, I’m just going to sit here and eat, I’m starving!” she laughs, then attacking the content of her plate in copious bites.
He reaches out and touches the tip of her nose with his finger. “It’s good to see you eat,’ he says tenderly, staring into her eyes.
She smiles while chewing her food. “You should eat too. It’s delicious!” she says with her mouth full, waving her fork.
“Élise de la Serre, don’t you have any manners? You can’t talk with a full mouth!” he reprimands her with a wink, before taking a bite of meat.
She smiles faintly, a melancholic look on her face. “My father used to say that all the time, bless his soul. I wish he was still alive to meet his first grandchild…” He takes her hand and brings it up to his lips. No words were needed, as they both feel the same emptiness in their heart, left by the death of their parents. They finish eating in silence, glancing at each other from time to time, as to say everything is going to be okay, we’ll get through this -- together.
Madeleine quietly makes her way to their table, carrying the tray. She starts gathering the empty plates to bring them back to the kitchen. “Madeleine, can you sit down with us for a moment?” Arno says, putting a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Oh. Of course, Monsieur Arno. What’s the matter? Is there something you need? Did I do something wrong?” she asks, leaving the tray on the table and sitting down, visibly nervous.
He smiles reassuringly, but he has a grave look on his face. “No, it’s nothing you’ve done. But we need to tell you something. Promise me you won’t tell anyone, it’s very important for our safety, and for the baby’s.”
“S… sure, of course!” she stutters, fidgeting with her apron.
“Madeleine, this baby wasn’t exactly planned, as you’ve probably figured out, but we are welcoming this child with open arms” he begins in a low voice, being careful as to not being heard by other employees. “Unfortunately, due to all of our… business, as you call it, Élise’s life is potentially in danger. We’ve been keeping a low profile this past month, but it’s just a matter of time. And with a baby…”
She looks at both of them, frowning. “W.. what are you saying?”
“We must flee Paris as soon as possible,” Élise continues solemnly. “We’d rather stay, believe me, but -”
“You are leaving? To go where? When?” she interrupts, stunned by the revelation of their upcoming departure. She had been looking forward to helping Élise before and after the baby’s arrival, and she can’t help but feeling downhearted at the perspective of never being able to see this baby grow up.
“For safety reasons, we can’t tell you where we’re going. I will put the Café up for sale tomorrow. As for when…” He pauses, smiling. “We’re planning on leaving as soon as possible after the wedding.”
She covers her mouth with her hand to repress a cry of joy. “The wedding?”
“Yes, we’re getting married. But again, not a word about it for the time being, understood? We don’t have a date yet, but it will be very soon,” he says, covering her hand with his.
Élise reaches out to take Madeleine’s other hand in hers. “And I’ll need your help Madeleine, as I know absolutely nothing about dresses and flowers!”
Madeleine’s eyes fill with tears. “You can count on me, both of you!” she says, wiping a tear away from her cheek. “Oh I’m going to miss you, Monsieur Arno. There has never been a good owner like you here, never ever. But…” She sighs, shaking her head. “I understand you have no other choice. I don’t want to know about that business of yours, it’s really none of my business, I just wish it didn’t put Mademoiselle Élise and the baby in danger. It’s not fair!”
One by one, the tables are filling with patrons who are coming to watch the play. “We’ll have to continue this discussion at another time, Madeleine,” he whispers, his eyes looking around the room to see if anyone was spying on their conversation.
She gets up to her feet, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the palms of her hand, and then wiping her palms on her apron. “Of course Monsieur Arno. I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone. Would you like another bottle of wine?” she asks as she finishes piling the empty plates and the empty bottle on the tray.
He smiles. “Yes, one of the same if you still have one. It was divine. And some tea for Élise, please.”
She bows her head, hauling the tray on her shoulder. “I’ll be right back!”
Moments later, she returns with another bottle of Bordeaux and a pot of tea. “Congratulations again, Monsieur Arno and Mademoiselle Élise. I really wish you all, all the best,” she says with a thin voice, before turning around and rushing back to the kitchen.
Élise moves her chair to sit closer to him, resting her head comfortably on his shoulder as he wraps his arm around hers. “Arno? I think we broke the poor woman’s heart.”
“I think you’re right. We didn’t have a choice though, did we?” He lifts her chin with his thumb and index, kissing her lips softly. “I don’t want to talk about this right now. Let’s just enjoy the play.”
“Good idea,” she says, closing her eyes, smiling contentedly, her stomach full, the warmth of his body against hers enveloping and soothing. It wasn’t long before she was asleep in his arms.
“Élise? Did I ever tell you…?” he begins, looking at her tenderly as she is resting her head on his lap, touching her cheek softly. The Café is quiet. Tonight’s show is over and most clients have left the establishment.
She opens her eyes in a daze. “Tell me what?” she mumbles. I must have fallen asleep again.
“Did I ever tell you that you are beautiful?”
She rubs her eyes and blinks a few times, then smiles faintly, her cheeks taking on a rosy color. “I don’t know. Maybe? I honestly don’t keep track of those things.”
He leans forward to kiss her forehead, her nose, her cheeks, her lips. “I’ve told you that I loved you... I’ve told you that I wanted you... I’ve told you that I wanted you to be my wife... I’ve told you that I wanted a family with you… But I can’t recall one single instance when I actually told you that you are beautiful.”
“Arno, you’re rambling. You’re drunk,” she says, chuckling.
“I’m not drunk, I’m just happy!” he replies with a broad grin, hugging her tightly against him.
She points at the table, smirking. “That’s your second bottle of the evening. And you had another one with our meal. And I can definitely smell it on your breath. You’re drunk.”
He raises his hands in surrender. “Then I’m both drunk and happy. And you’re beautiful. And I wouldn’t be so drunk if you would have helped me drink those bottles.”
She sits up in her chair, massaging her stiff neck, stretching her arms and straightening her back. “I don’t think I’ll be drinking wine for a while, I’m nauseous just thinking about it…”
“All right, no wine for you then!” he retorts, emptying the bottle in his glass and drinking it in one gulp.
“I’m tired, I want to go to bed,” she says yawning, her eyes heavy.
“You’ve been sleeping -- pardon, snoring! -- in my arms most of the evening, do you really need more sleep?” he teases, his own eyes getting heavier by the second. He kisses her lips softly. “Bedtime it is. For both of us. Today has been quite a day. And we have a long day ahead tomorrow.”
They both get up to their feet on wobbly legs, but for different reasons. Arm in arm, giggling, they walk back to the staircase and up to their room. They stumble several times, missing a step, triggering more giggles. Midway up the stairs, he slides his arm around her waist, squeezing her bum, while his other arm pulls her head closer to his for a deep, sloppy kiss. She could taste the wine in his mouth, and it was making her gag. She shakes her head, tearing her lips away from his. “Arno, no. Not now. Let’s just go to bed.”
“But that’s exactly where I want to go…” he purrs, his speech slurred.
She laughs. “To bed to sleep. It’s too warm, I’m exhausted, you are drunk, and we don’t even know if it’s safe for the baby…”
He kisses her cheek, his lips moving down to her jawline. “You could never survive a nine months drought, I know you too well!”
She takes his head in her hands, staring deep in his drowsy eyes. “I said NO!” she reiterates firmly. “I love you. But not tonight,” she continues, her tone somewhat mellower.
He was visibly put out by her rejection, but he knew too well not to insist. He winces. His eyes were throbbing. I really had too much wine. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have… You’re right, I need some sleep!”
She wraps her arm around the small of his back while he wraps his around her shoulder, supporting each other, going up the rest of the stairs and to their room. They undress quietly, lost in their thoughts. It had been a long, emotional, and tiresome day. He briefly glances as her as she unpins her hair, letting it fall like a red halo around her freckled skin. Gosh, she is beautiful, he thinks to himself. And she is mine. A baby and a wife on the same day, was Lady Luck finally on his side? They climb into bed, laying side by side like slotted spoons. He brushes her hair away, kissing the back of her neck softly. “I love you. Sleep well, my love.” After a moment and without warning, he rolls her onto her back, making her squeal.
“What are you doing?” she asks, startled.
He leans over her to place a kiss on her belly, patting it gently. “I just forgot to kiss our son goodnight,” he defends.
“Our son, huh?” She chuckles, threading her fingers in his hair. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s going to be a girl. Mother’s instinct, that sort of thing.”
He shakes his head in disagreement. “We’ll see about that!”
He moves back up her body to kiss her lips one more time before taking his original position, his arm wrapped around her waist and her stomach, nuzzling her hair. Sighing blissfully, fatigue setting in, they close their eyes. It’s not long until the sound of his snoring fills the room.
Mother's instinct. She never thought she would utter those words, but tonight, they felt right. She brings her hands to her belly, one atop the other. “Goodnight, little baby,” she whispers before drifting asleep.