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Authors: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

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BOOK: Hotel Transylvania
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Your most humble and obedient cousin,
 

Robert Marcel Yves Etienne Pascal,
 

Marquis de Montalia

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

I declare, Comte," Mme. Cressie said, putting one hand to her lovely white throat, "you appear out of nowhere."

Saint-Germain bowed low over the hand she extended to him, his lips not quite brushing her strong, slender fingers. "It is only that when La Cressie is with us once again, all others must pale beside her. If I should spring out of the ground at your side, I would count myself fortunate, for how else would I find my way through all your admirers?"

La Cressie gave a shaky laugh. "Very gallant, sir. But you see, you alone are by me."

"Then it is my greater fortune." Saint-Germain glanced around the crowded room and nodded toward an alcove. "I have been anxious to talk to you, Madame, but I find that this room is a little noisy. Perhaps if we withdraw..."

She agreed, and turned with him to the alcove, her wide silken skirts rustling like leaves as she moved. She was dressed in sea green with a petticoat of ivory lace revealed where her skirt was caught up on panniers of very moderate width. Her fair hair was dressed simply, in a style known as the Turtle Dove, and the powder that covered it was scented with lilac.

Beside her, Saint-Germain was greatly contrasted: he wore small clothes and a wide-skirted coat of black silk whose turned-back cuffs revealed a black brocade. In completing the ensemble, he had affected black hose and shoes, so that only his embroidered waistcoat and his impeccably white lace at wrist and throat relieved the severity of his dress. Diamonds sparkled on his buckles, and there was a ruby glowing in the lace at his throat.

As he handed her onto a low seat in the alcove, Saint- Germain mentioned their contrast in dress, and La Cressie sighed. "You are kind, Comte, but I have a mirror. Even my husband has remarked on how I look. I fear my illness has left an effect on me. I see it in the glass." Again she put her hand to her throat, involuntarily touching a neat patch in the shape of a viola d'amore.

"It is true that you are still a little pale," he admitted as he shook out the deep lace ruffles at his wrists, "but such pallor becomes you. With your fair hair and light eyes, you are more ethereal than ever. I see the Marquise de la Sacre Sasseau looking daggers at you with those dark eyes of hers." He studied the long patch on her neck. "A clever conceit, Madame. You will establish a mode, I think."

"Thank you, Comte," she said, uncertainty belying her cool words. "I would like to set a fashion." Her voice was distant, and died away after a moment.

"What is it, Madame?" he asked softly when the silence was long between them.

She looked up suddenly, startled. "It is nothing, Comte, nothing." Her laugh was forced. "I have had some disturbing dreams of late."

"That is not unusual when one is recovering from an ill ness. Would you like me to give you a potion that would make your sleep easier?"

"You?" she said quickly, guiltily. "No, no, I did not mean that. It was simply that I thought perhaps we should be getting on to supper. I heard the lackey announce it some time ago, and I think now that I am hungry."

Saint-Germain smiled urbanely. He knew that she was not truly interested in supper, and that her appetite was dulled by her weakness, but he offered her his arm, and she laid her hand upon it.

The Hôtel de Ville was enjoying one of its busiest nights. In the grand ballroom, twenty musicians played for many dancers, moving on the inlaid floor like a sea of flowers, so many and varied were the colors of silks, brocades, satins, velvets, and laces they wore. There were card rooms, too, where even the banned hoca was played for dizzyingly high stakes. Here there was little noise, and the expression on the aristocratic faces was grim when there was any expression at all. Other games of chance were being played in rooms apart from the card room, and there the conversation was almost as glittering as the gold louis stacked on the tables in front of the elegant gamesters.

In the supper room, Saint-Germain greeted his many acquaintances with a distinguished inclination of the head and an occasional wave of the hand. He squired Mme. Cressie to one of the more secluded tables, and having seated her, he asked, "What am I to have the pleasure of fetching for you, Madame?"

"Whatever you're having," she answered absently.

"I am not hungry just at present," he said, thinking that it was not quite the truth. "I see that they have hams and chicken for the evening, and what appears to be a dish with deviled lobster." He smiled down at her with the full force of his dark, fascinating eyes. "Perhaps you will be kind enough to let me choose for you?"

She was lost in his eyes, in the depth and promise of them. "Yes," she murmured. "Whatever you think is best."

There was a little frown between her brows, and her hand stole again to her throat.

With another careful bow, Saint-Germain threaded his way through the supper crush to the long buffet set out for the midnight repast. As he filled a plate for La Cressie, he paused to talk with le Duc de Vandonne, a youngish man with strange, shifty eyes who was an embarrassment to his family and a shame to himself.

"I hate these functions," de Vandonne said through tight teeth as he pulled at the lace at his neck. "I dread them, and I hate them."

"Then why did you come?" Saint-Germain asked, taking his attention from a venison liver pâté with juniper berries that he had spooned generously onto La Cressie's plate.

"Because if I do not come, then I am castigated by my mother and her two sisters." He spoke in a voice thickened by revulsion. "I cannot escape them: they live with me. So here I am. They expect me to find a wife, to attract some very acceptable virgin to my title and my bed." He sneered. "I have better uses for virgins than that."

"Oh?" Saint-Germain turned back to the buffet. He knew that le Duc had some of the less acceptable perversions, but even then, the remark puzzled him.

De Vandonne giggled, and the sound of it froze Saint- Germain. "Beauvrai said it takes a virgin. I wish we could find one. A real one, I mean. One we could use."

"Use for what?" Saint-Germain raised his brows and molded his features to an expression of faint, polite inquiry, masking the cold dread of certainty he felt

"You know, for this and for that," de Vandonne said evasively. “This isn't the place to talk about it." Le Due's face grew harder. "You aren't one of us, anyway. Though I hear you're a foreigner, and foreigners sometimes go in for this kind of thing." He reached for another glass of wine as a waiter bore a tray by, and swore when his own clumsiness spilled wine on the cascade of lace at his throat. He tossed off half the wine and turned again to Saint-Germain. "Do you like virgins?"

"I'm not in that line, I'm afraid," he said, making a perfunctory leg and returning through the gathering crowd to Mme. Cressie.

"Heavens, I can't eat this much, Comte," she said in pretty confusion as he set the laden plate before her.

Saint-Germain smiled. "Well, do you know, since I am not certain of what you like, I thought perhaps a greater variety would please you. And if there is more than you want, the food itself might add to your hunger, and strengthen your appetite. I cannot help but believe that part of this pallor you complain of comes from lack of food." He seated himself across from her.

"But you do not eat, Saint-Germain," she pointed out.

He waved this away. "I am engaged to dine later. Come, then. The pâté. And after that, some of this excellent aspic or perhaps the eggs à la Florentine."

Mme. Cressie was torn. To have the pleasure of the company of the popular and mysterious Comte was certainly a plume in her social cap, and a pleasant change from the indifference of her husband. But at close range she found Saint-Germain disturbing. His probing eyes, she discovered, were too acute, too capable of finding out the truth, and the disquieting and genuine concern he had shown her threatened to destroy her careful defenses. She nibbled at the pâté and pondered her predicament.

"If you have trouble, Madame, you may tell me," he said to her in a low tone. "I give my Word that I will not betray you."

Again she hesitated, struck by his amazing perspicacity. "I am not sure I understand you, Comte."

Saint-Germain leaned forward and said gently, "Clearly, my dear, you are not entirely yourself yet. And even more clearly you are deeply troubled. If you would want to tell me what it is that worries you, perhaps I can suggest something that would be of help to you. I have heard," he said with even more sympathy, "that your husband is not much at home. Now, while I cannot restore lost affection, or inspire it where it does not exist, I may have some remedy for your sorrow."

She sat up, affronted, her face scarlet. "Sir!"

Immediately he saw his mistake. "No, no, Madame misunderstands me." He gave her a wry grin to dispel her lingering doubts. "Although, if that is what you desire, no doubt it would not be difficult for you to find one who would assist you. But consider me excused. It is not that I do not admire you: I find you a delicious woman. But you must realize that I gave up such congress long, long ago."

La Cressie felt her flush fading, and took advantage of the moment to study the strange man across the table from her. He did not have the look of a celibate, but she had to admit there had been no rumors about him, either with women or men. And it was not because no one would have him. Indeed, she remembered suddenly—and the thought brought a ghost of a smile to her mouth—that one or two women had kept Saint-Germain under determined siege for several months, but nothing had come of it. She nodded. "We both seem to have misunderstood."

Saint-Germain opened his hands. "If you misunderstood, what can I be but flattered?" He looked down at her plate. "But you are not eating, Madame. Is the fare unsatisfactory?"

Dutifully she picked up the heavily scrolled silver fork. "I don't wish to give offense, Comte," she said as she took another bite of the venison pâté.

"That would be impossible, Madame," he said, and in this automatically gallant response there was a covert hint of boredom. He adjusted the foaming white lace that spread over his black-and-silver-brocade waistcoat, so that the diamonds pinned in the folds shone like water drops, and the great ruby glowed like the heart of a poet.

La Cressie smiled enviously at the jewels, thinking it unfair that Saint-Germain should have so many magnificent diamonds as well as the huge ruby. Then she banished these thoughts from her mind and turned her attention to the eggs à la Florentine.

Saint-Germain watched her eat, faint amusement lurking in his dark eyes. It was good she was hungry, if only to please him. He touched his hair to be sure that the white powder that was utterly required for a correct formal appearance still clung there. He was sure that his valet, Roger, had done the job with his usual skill, and was pleased when his fingers came away with only the faintest dusting of powder. He nodded slightly to himself, and reflected that each age had had its own absurdities of fashion, and surely powdered hair in France was no worse than perfumed cones of fat in long-vanished Thebes. He dismissed the thought and asked La Cressie, "Is the aspic to your taste, Madame?"

She looked up at him through her thick, fair lashes. "Excellent, as you would expect of this Hôtel. You were right about the food itself making me hungry." She obviously felt self-conscious, for she said softly, "I fear I am very poor company, Comte."

"No, Madame, I assure you. It is a joy to see you at table." That was no less than the truth. "It brings some of the color back to your cheeks."

"That may be the wine I have drunk," she said archly.

"It becomes you." He rose as another supper party came near, as courtesy dictated, and made a bow.

One or two of the new party returned this salutation, and then a small man with bandy legs and the airs of an exquisite stepped forward, staring. He wore a ridiculous wig, with three pigeon's wings over each ear. His coat was of peach satin with gold lacings, and the skirt was stiffly whaleboned. The waistcoat was puce silk embroidered with butterflies, his small clothes the same peach satin as the coat, bringing undue attention to spindly legs, and this was not decreased by mauve silken hose accented with peach clocks. His old- fashioned shoes had high red heels, so that he minced like a woman as he walked. The triple-tiered lace at his throat rose with indignation, and the shine of topazes caught in the light. "Damnation!" he swore in a voice that was raspy from the over-use of snuff, and too loud.

Saint-Germain looked at the man. "Sir?"

"You're the charlatan!" he cried, tugging on the arm of one of his companions. "I've never seen such effrontery. He's here. Next thing, he'll tell you he owns the place!"

A shy smile pulled at Saint-Germain's mouth. "I beg your pardon, but I am certain I do not own this Hôtel."

"Be sarcastic with me, will you?" The man stamped forward, and the skirts of his coat swayed. "I say it to your face, you scoundrel: you're a hoax and a liar."

BOOK: Hotel Transylvania
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