“Odette, you’ve hardly touched your cremerolle. Why did I go to so much trouble to make your favorite if you are just going to let it get stale on your plate?” Helga said as she poured herself a second glass of wine.
Her daydream collapsing, Odette mumbled some apology. She forced herself to eat to appease her dear friend Helga, as she did go to the effort to have her and Cadence over for charades. Though as she glanced about the room, it did not seem like Helga and Henrick went to that much trouble to prepare their cottage for company. Dirty coffee cups occupied the corners of every table and no visible effort was made to clear up the cat hair, nor Helga’s. She smirked as she glanced over at Cadence’s constantly shaking leg, knowing that she battled the urge to give the place a good turnover.
Cadence, having been emboldened by her glass of Bordeaux, said, “It must be because your cremerolles are not as good as mine.” She cast a playful glance at Helga.
“No one’s pastries are as good as yours,” Helga said, thwacking Cadence with a pillow. “But I have to try.”
Henrick picked up a fistful of the cremerolles. “Well, I think yours are the best.” He placed the hand not covered in powdered sugar upon his wife’s back. He took a bite with a dramatic flourish. “Unparalleled! It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten!”
“You’re mad,” Helga said. She gave him a little shove before nestling back up to him. “But at least you know how to stay on my good side.” Helga turned her attention back to Odette and said, “You know, Henrick has acquired some paintings from a new artist. He’s trying to sell them to collectors, but I think they belong in a museum. I want to get your opinion on them.” She rose up and pulled Odette towards the bedroom.
“A museum would never take them, they’re too new and too avant-garde,” Henrick said as he followed the ladies.
Helga pushed him back towards the sofa. “I want Odette’s unbiased opinion. You’ll bias her.” She yanked Odette inside the bedroom and poked her head around the door. “Back in a moment!”
Odette plopped down on the unmade bed and examined the paintings leaning up against the wall. “None of these are new.”
Helga pulled two out from beneath an old portrait of some unknown noble that Henrick had never been able to sell. “If you really want to critique some paintings, here they are.” She laid them upon the carpet then sat next to Odette on the bed. “But what I really pulled in you in for was to see why you’ve lost your appetite.”
“What? I haven’t lost my ap-”
Helga put her hand between herself and Odette’s lying mouth. “Yes, you have. You hardly touched your stew and Cadence told me you haven’t been eating anything but bread scraps this past week. Now, this has only happened before with the man whom shall not be named, so I’m assuming you’ve met someone.”
“I’ve met a good many people. We receive many new customers in the bake shop.” Odette stared down at the paintings. “While I like the style, I believe Henrick is correct, a museum won’t accept these.”
“Don’t try to change the subject. Listen, I won’t tell a soul, not even Cadence nor Henrick! If this man doesn’t know about your, um, illness, I’ll keep that a secret until you’re ready. Or forever! I’ll take it to my grave. Please, Odette, I only want to help.” Helga grabbed Odette’s face and forced her to look her in the eyes.
Odette thought back to her agreement with Edmund, over a fortnight ago now. All fanciful notions of their one day eloping and running off to the alps were shoved to the furthest corners of her mind. But the dream of becoming a governess for a darling little girl in Edmund’s family’s stately mansion remained at the forefront of her waking thoughts. His lack of contact the past weeks crushed her spirits and her hope withered like the autumn thistles in the frost. Yet, her resolve had not crumbled and she stood up and declared, “I get a tad lonely sometimes, but I can promise you, I’m taking care of myself just fine.” And she walked out into the drawing room where she could no longer be interrogated.
The sky darkened outside with alarming speed. Odette stared outside at the early stars peeking out of the purple sky as she swept the bakery’s floor. Melancholy swelled inside her heart as she mourned the fleeting daylight with the change of the seasons. Events of the past weeks cropped up with the melancholy feelings: going to the valley yet never seeing Edmund and Helga’s interrogation. The disappointment and the lingering feeling of betrayal of her friend threatened to crush her. She hummed to herself and focused her mind on a happier thought, of how magnificent the alps would look nestled in a blanket of snow. But as the darkness shrouded the lonely shop, she wished she was not the only one still working, though it was fair for her to do the lock up, being the family night owl.
While wiping the counter, the door squeaked open and startled Odette. The washrag splashed against the floor as she cried out. “I’m so sorry, but we’re closed for the day,” she said as she turned to see the man that had come in so late.
Edmund stood with one foot in and the other out. “I apologize, would you like me to come back at another time?”
“Oh! It’s you, no, you may come in,” Odette said as she tossed the washrag into the kitchen. She brushed the flour from her skirts and grabbed the candle. It served as a barrier between her and Edmund. Perhaps it was the darkness or how startled she was when he came in without so much as a knock, but her muscles tensed up, prepared to use the flame to her advantage.
Edmund gestured to the candle. “I do enjoy seeing the rustic lighting still being used in Geneva. In Berlin, where I’m from, electric lighting has became the new normal.”
Odette’s mouth remained open as she tried to discern the reason for his presence. “Um, have you come for bread?” she asked.
“No, no, I’m quite set when it comes to food. I came to see you, to talk to you about the opportunity that I had mentioned before.”
“Oh, yes! I thought you had forgotten about me.” She regretted the words as they departed her mouth.
“No, I do apologize for the delay. My family was still sorting matters out with my niece. We are interested in hiring you for the position. We looked into your past history and education-”
“Oh no,” Odette gasped before she could stop herself.
“Whatever is the matter?” Edmund appeared as though he had no idea for the disturbance in Odette’s countenance.
What did Odette have to lose? Surely he already knew. She let out a sigh that nearly blew out the candle. “Well, if you’ve inquired into my history, you must know about the divorce. That usually ruins all chances of my employment.”
Edmund’s face took on a warm glow, blending together with the candle and oil lamps all around them. “That won’t be a problem for us, Ms. Dufour. We of all peoples understand difficult familial circumstances, which is what I came here to speak with you about. Truth be told, I’m glad to catch you alone. A recent tragedy has befallen us, hence why I’ve moved from Berlin. I know it is a large favor to ask, but I’ll need your secrecy if you should choose to accept the position.”
Odette took a step forward, hope lighting up her eyes. “I’m certain that if you would at least shed some light on the plight of the child and inform me of my living situation that I will be perfectly understanding and accommodating.”
“Yes, well, as for your living situation, I’ve acquired the mansion overlooking the valley with my inheritance. You would be near your family and have spacious private quarters. As for your charge, my niece, Ingrid, has been in a wretched accident. She can’t remember anything of her former life and she’s become quite,” he sucked in a hissing breath, “deformed, as a result. I’m a physician, so they’ve sent the girl to live with me. The situation is too devastating, too disturbing for the other children of my sister. And they need someone whom can provide round the clock care for her. As I’m the inheritor of our parent’s estate, I have the means to provide that, but I need help when it comes to the education of the girl.” Water gathering in his eyes reflected the golden candlelight as he spoke. “She needs a female presence in her life, poor thing, and the servants, well, they’re not as educated as someone like you. They’re afraid she has some rare disease that they can catch, just because she looks different. I can only do so much for her, but a child needs a paternal figure as well as a maternal, don’t you agree, Ms. Dufour?”
Odette felt like a puddle upon the floor and Edmund splashed about in her emotions. Her heart exploded as she listened to the plight of poor Ingrid, not to mention the strings tugging at her desire for a family life. No, she could never have her own flesh and blood children, but she would treat an adopted daughter as her own, better than her own.
“I do, I would treat the girl no differently than any other pupil,” she said when she could at last muster the words.
“I knew you would,” Edmund said, withdrawing his wallet. “Now, I fear I must broach the subject of your compensation. In addition to your room and board, I could offer you 1,600 francs.”
Odette’s brain sputtered at the figure. “That- that isn’t a normal governess wage…”
“I thought you may say that.” From his wallet, he pulled out a folded up contract. He motioned for her to join him at the counter. “This contract says that you will not mention the unfortunate circumstances of my family to anyone. I’m afraid that they require the strictest privacy. You see, we come from a rather well-known family in Berlin and if this were to get out, it could ruin them. But if you sign, you will get the handsome salary aforementioned.”
Odette scanned the contract in the dim candlelight. “I don’t truly understand why a deformed girl would ruin a family’s reputation, but I respect their wishes.” She saw no mention of any of the family member’s names, only Edmund’s and Ingrid’s. She wished she could know more, but she assumed she would find out with the position. “I won’t have to give my family any details about the girl, but I will still be able to see them, won’t I?”
“Of course,” Edmund said, his eyes as beautiful as ever and filled with reassurance. “You simply can’t mention her name or any of her deformities. But you’re more than welcome to assure them of your success in mentoring your pupil.”
Having fully examined the contract, Odette said, “Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. How soon can I start?”
Edmund handed her a pen from his jacket pocket and said, “Tomorrow.”