Watch Over Me
This story is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Watch Over Me © 2016 by Ann Somerville
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Published by Ann Somerville
Imagine your reaction, as a faithful and brave member of the noblesse d’épée, when your king rewards you for some particularly useful bit of loyal service with an isolated island in the Bay of Biscay, populated solely by several million seabirds and called, with no irony at all, ‘Île de Désespoir’. Your reaction is tempered somewhat by this reward coming with a hereditary title of ‘prince’, but essentially, it’s the geographic equivalent of one of those covers made out of nylon and topped by a female figurine wearing an expression of unutterable joy at having a toilet roll shoved between her legs.
You and your descendents endure the jokes about being the Prince of No Hope until the island, and the title, pass in obscurity, though your descendents are canny enough to hold onto both, hoping that one day they might be worth something.
And strangely, finally, they are. Because philately becomes lucrative, and so does being able to claim rights over the rich and diverse waters around your ‘island of no hope’. And when one of your descendants marries a rich American obsessed with conservation in the 1950’s, your family acquires a number of valuable properties in London and Paris and Switzerland, which prove to be attractive to wealthy, secretive individuals looking for diplomatic and taxation immunity. Flogging off citizenship and residency rights at several million dollars a pop for a principality on an island with no actual residents at all, is highly profitable, as is rent on your embassy’s properties in London and Paris and Switzerland. Pay enough, and anyone of sufficient stature can become not only a citizen and resident of what is now known as Cap de l’Espoir, but a diplomatic official with all the perks attendant on that office.
Unsurprisingly, Cap de l’Espoir becomes amazingly popular with stamp collectors, marine biologists, and some of the richest people you’ve never heard of.
You are Etiènne Louis Donadieu, and in three hundred or so years, your descendant of the same name will benefit from your stroke of good luck under the Bourbon kings. Unfortunately, the latest heir to the title of Prince de Cap de l’Espoir, may also be the last.
“Maman, do you expect me to simply invite some woman off the street and impregnate her, to provide you and Papa with an heir?”
“Don’t be so vulgar, Etiènne.”
“Then how am I supposed to ‘do my duty’ while unmarried and uninterested? Not to mention the fact I don’t even have the time to do everything you expect of me, let alone look for a wife?”
“I’ve told you before, we would find—”
My charge, Prince Etiènne Louis Donadieu, turned to me and rolled his eyes before facing his mother again. “We’ve tried this, Maman. With a conspicuous lack of success.”
“A conspicuous lack of cooperation, you mean. We found you several charming, eligible girls—”
“‘Charming’?” Etiènne spat. “A gold digger with nothing but her lineage to recommend her. Another who was already pregnant, and in love with the father. And the last one utterly without wit or charm or basic kindness. A fine selection. Anyway, I’m only twenty-nine. What’s the rush. Albert was fifty-three before he married Charlene.”
Princess Marie shuddered. “‘Charlene’—what a perfectly common name.”
“He’s not exactly the catch of the century either, Maman.”
“Well, we are not Grimaldis and we are not waiting until you’re in your dotage for an heir. Do you want to risk everything this family has achieved in marine conservation for the sake of sowing more wild oats?”
“If it weren’t for the Foundation, Maman, I’d have—” Etiènne remembered his manners. “I’m not sowing anything. I’m busy running your estates and the Foundation. I barely have time to socialise, and when I do, I want to spend it with someone I consider compatible, not some brainless brood mare who can’t spell ‘cetacean’ or tell me what one is. Why don’t you let Claude’s children be your heirs? It’s allowed.”
“They’re not suitable, as I’ve told you over and over. They’re not Catholic. And their father is….”
Etiènne threw up his hands. “Whatever, Maman. I’m sick of this conversation over and over and over, and I have things to do. I’ll see you soon.”
But the prince walked out, and I followed him. I hailed a taxi on Knightsbridge which took us out into the London traffic to head to the Cap de L’Espoir Marine Conservation Foundation’s office near Regent’s Park. “I’m seriously considering banking my sperm and faking my own death, Paul,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Might cause more problems than it solves, sir.”
“Would certainly solve one problem. Claude’s sons would be perfectly fine heirs, and Nasim’s a wonderful man. I’d marry him myself if he wasn’t taken.”
I coughed. “Wouldn’t solve the problem of an heir though.”
“No. But it would be worth it for the look on Maman’s face. Here we are, spitting distance from the best evidence ever for not forcing heirs to marry unsuitable partners,” he waved towards the Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, now behind us as we headed up Park Lane, “and she’s still ignoring reality. If I have to marry a Catholic, then I can’t divorce her, or she me, if the marriage is a failure. Does she expect me or this imaginary bride to live in misery together for the rest of our lives if we’re unsuitable?”
“Princess Caroline was divorced, sir.”
“And look at the mess that made. Anyway, ‘we are not Grimaldis’,” he quoted, mimicking his mother’s tone. “Sorry, boring you again.”
“No problem, sir.”
“You have the patience of a saint, Paul. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
How little he knew.
Hello, I’m Paul Villeneuve, and I’ve been Prince Etiènne’s bodyguard for one year, three months, and four days. Which, coincidentally, is exactly the same length of time I’ve been in love with him.
Etiènne’s business at the Foundation office took more time than expected, and so it was something of a rush to get to St Pancras for the six-thirty Eurostar to Paris. Business class was packed with it being Friday night, but since Etiènne was absorbed in reading on his laptop, he probably didn’t even notice. He ate while reading, barely looking at the food, while I could take my time over the meal. The Channel Tunnel, Tom Cruise-fuelled fantasies aside, was the safest possible place for my charge to be, so while I took note of our surroundings and anyone coming into the carriage, I could relax somewhat. My laptop was in my suitcase, but I could keep up with the news on my phone. I’d done that in London, and so once the meal was done, I closed my eyes to rest. Not to sleep. Never to sleep while with the client. That had been drilled into me by Titan House before they filled the Donadieu vacancy in-house.
I also closed my eyes because being this close to Etiènne ran the risk of me sitting there and staring at him like a lovelorn twit. I spent all my waking hours, six (and sometimes seven) days a week, sixty-two weeks out of the last year and a quarter, and I had yet to be tired of looking at him. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, lean of build and sharp of brain, he was a pint-sized male model—the Donadieu clan being built more like whippets than Great Danes. The planes of his cheekbones and the lines of his long, capable fingers were more familiar and sweet to me than my mother’s. Beside him, I was a slab of beef, and almost as smart.
Unfortunately for the Donadieus, as for many wealthy families, the ever-present risk of kidnap meant exchanging privacy for safety. Doubly so for Etiènne, since his conservation work and outspoken remarks about climate change and illegal fishing made him the target of those for whom climate change denial and overfishing were extremely profitable. The death threats were not confined to screeds in the post or online. Two years ago he nearly died in a knife attack the French police were quite sure had been motivated by his political views, though whether the attack had been politically or commercially motivated, hadn’t been determined. The moment he was released from hospital, Prince Jean-Claude and Princess Marie had insisted on him having a personal bodyguard, and after a year I’d replaced that man when he decided he’d had enough of spending his life dashing around Europe and guarding one clever but somewhat determined prince.
To be perfectly honest, my predecessor had grown sick of watching Etiènne’s messy love life and being browbeaten by his parents, particularly his mother, on the subject. I hadn’t reached that point, but I had sympathy with anyone who had.
It was nine before we reached Paris, and nearly ten by the time I carried our luggage into his apartment in Saint Germain-des-Prés. I was tired, but for Etiènne, the night had just started. He went to his bedroom to change into his clubbing gear. I, of course, would wear what a bodyguard always wore—a well cut suit, and, since we were in Paris, a Glock in its holster.
I didn’t need to ask where we were going. It would be somewhere in Le Marais, perhaps several somewheres. If I hadn’t been on duty, I’d have been happy to mingle with the Friday night club-goers and enjoy the dancing as much as Etiènne, but it was my lot and my job to stand anonymously on the sides, keeping an eye on him and making sure no one tried to kill, assassinate or punch him. His brain was far too valuable to addle with the fist of a drunken Frenchman unhappy with Etiènne’s sharp tongue. Etiènne was fluent in four languages and could be an absolute prick in another three. I’d stepped in quite a few times to stop fights.
Etiènne emerged in leather pants and a mesh shirt, perfect for the heat in the clubs. I was already sweating at the thought of it, but my jacket had to stay on to cover the holster. He was also wearing eyeliner and lipstick, some glittery bangles, and a gold chain around his neck. “How do I look?” he asked, turning around.
“Very nice, sir,” I said, wishing he wouldn’t torment me like this.
“Then let’s go.”
He told the taxi to go to Le Club 18, where he usually started. It would not be where he finished if he followed past habit, and tonight he did, moving from Le Club 18 to another to dance, flirt and snog appreciative men and eager women. I stood at the side, or above on a walkway, watching and waiting alongside other bodyguards doing the same. The better clubs kept us supplied with water and discreet places to relieve ourselves, because their clients needed protection and it took the pressure off the managers.
No matter what the weather, I was always too hot in the clubs, but no matter how much I sweated, the jacket stayed on. Etiènne wouldn’t mind if I went casual, but his mother would go ballistic, and the club managers would have discreet words with my prince should his guard reveal his weaponry. It was always a relief, however brief, to go outside while we walked to another club.
Around two, my prince chose a companion, this time male. As usual, club wear left little room to hide a weapon, but I would quickly run a scanner over the man at the apartment, and ask for ID ostensibly for their convenience and protection. If the companion complained, they’d be escorted out of the building. Etiènne was no fool.
Check completed, Etiènne and friend retreated to the bedroom. Finally, I was off duty not just for the night, but the following day and night as well. My weekend stand-in was already outside on guard. I gave her the information regarding Etiènne’s bedmate, and my mobile number. She would wait outside the room until ten o’clock, and be replaced by two more guards in turn. Etiènne always thought it amusing that it took three people to cover my days off.
“I don’t think we pay you enough, Paul,” he’d said once.
“I’m happy with my remuneration,” I’d said, not needing to lie. I was very well paid, had luxury accommodation for free, all health and travel costs covered on or off duty, a generous clothing allowance, and four weeks’ holiday a year at his expense. The only thing I didn’t have was time for a social life—the job had been specifically for a single man with no attachments, and I fitted the bill perfectly. My marriage had crashed and burned before I left the police force, and I’d neither sought nor met anyone else. Except for Etiènne, who was further out of reach than the man in the moon.
It wasn’t healthy to fixate on one’s protectee, and the reverse situation could end one’s career, as a former Royal protection officer friend of mine had found. Had Etiènne returned my interest, I’d have resigned the post for ethical reasons. But to my prince, I was simply a requirement of his wealth and position, and I was sure he took no more interest in me as a person than he did in his housekeeper. Less, actually, as she had known him since childhood, while I had only a year’s experience of him. So while he asked after her children and grandchildren, he had never shown any curiosity about my personal life. Maria Costello at Titan House had given Princess Maria all the necessary information to demonstrate my suitability for the job, and Etiènne had never asked for more than that.
I didn’t hang around the apartment on my day’s off, though I was of course permitted to, as it was my home too. In Paris and London, I headed to the museums and galleries in poor weather as it was today, and to the parks and gardens in the sunshine. Dinner and a movie would take me into the late evening, when I would go back to wherever we were staying. Etiènne would almost always be there when we were in the cities, because it was his downtime too. If we were at one of the research stations, then he and I would spend the time with the other people there, eating and drinking and behaving like undergraduates after exams. It was the closest I ever came to feeling his equal, but I never, ever forgot I was not. I could mingle, but never become part of the group.
On Sunday Etiènne met scientific colleagues at the Paris Cetacean Institute. These occasions were the times that he wanted me to dress down, and I became simply a personal assistant to Etiènne Donadieu PhD, not guard to Prince Etiènne de Cap de l’Espoir, though I still carried a firearm. The ‘personal assistant’ was not just a convenient fiction. I had no background in marine biology, but I did have a degree in policing, and so knew enough to find my way around scholarly journals and research notes and, naturally, the Internet. In the marine survey planned for the summer, there would be no passengers. Last year, I’d had to pick up enough about the subject, especially on cetaceans which was Etiènne’s particular field, and on other animals such as sharks, to work with him and the other biologists. But I wouldn’t go on the boat this year either. Space on the vessel was restricted to necessary personnel, none of whom would ever be suspected of trying to harm one of their benefactors and fellow scientists.
Weekends in Paris were when Etiènne was the happiest when he wasn’t out in the field or working on his research. London, though it was where he managed the Marine Conservation Foundation, so close to his heart, also meant seeing his parents, dearly loved but irritatingly inescapable. But Paris on a weekday meant working at the family’s offices, a task he loathed and would have gladly passed onto anyone else trustworthy and competent, if one could be had. Etiènne spent at least a week every fortnight overseeing investments and tenants and making sure the family’s financial present and future were secure.
I could hardly complain when I benefited from that income, but I hated to see Etiènne’s deteriorating mood as each day at his desk passed. He never treated me with less than courtesy—he took the concept of noblesse oblige quite seriously, and while he wouldn’t hesitate to use his clever brain to come up with the perfect insult for anyone behaving like a fool in the office or in a club, he was unfailingly polite to his servants at home or at work, and those who served him elsewhere. But his smiles became frowns, his forehead creased with annoyance and stress, and all playful remarks disappeared on those days. Etiènne Donadieu, le homme d’affaires, was the most distant and least favourite of his personas. To be fair, it was his least favourite as well.
We never drove in Paris. We took the Métro to Chateau D’eau, and walked the short distance to his building. Once inside the building and past security, he gave me his plans for the day. “Meetings again all day, Paul. I’ll call you when I’m ready to leave.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Wish I could join you in the gym. Ah, well. See you this evening.”
Inside the building, with its metal scans and security at Reception, Etiènne was as safe as he could be. I handed over my weapon and holster, and went down to the employees’ gym—another perk of the job, but a necessary one. Police officers often ran to fat, but Titan House-vetted bodyguards did not, so along with my regular visits to a gun range for practice, I worked out as often as I could. I had to. Etiènne’s housekeeper, Danielle, had a heavy hand with the cream and the butter, but her cooking was irresistible and my waistline would have expanded faster than my bank balance if I didn’t watch out.
At this time on a Monday morning, there were few people in the workout room. I recognised another guard and nodded to him, and smiled politely at a third man on the rowing machine. “Bonjour,” he wished me. I thought I detected an Italian accent, and an hour later, when we both stopped for a breather, he confirmed it.
“Pietro Agostinelli,” he said, introducing himself. “Originally from Assisi, now Milan.”
“Paul Villeneuve, from London. Nice to meet you.”
“You’re Prince Etiènne’s bodyguard,” he stated, rather than asking, in flawless French.
“How did you know?”
He tapped the side of his nose. “My job to know. I guard Margherita di Pasqua. She’s meeting your prince today.”
“Ah. Nice to meet you then. Is she visiting?”
“No, she’s taken a position in Fleury and Bonneville, the firm which handles the Donadieu accounts. I believe she’s to deal specifically with them.”
Hence the meeting. “You know Paris?”
He made a ‘comme çi, comme ça’ motion with his hands. “We visited a few times. Better than Milan, at least.”
“True. She’s taken an apartment here?”
“Not yet. We’re in a hotel for a couple of weeks while she looks.”
I pulled out my business card. “Feel free to look me up. I know it’s hard getting to know people here when you’re new.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind. For now, I have to shower, and run some errands. See you again?”
“Inevitably,” I said, grinning. “Ciao.”
I gave Pietro twenty minutes to clear the showers, then I went to my locker and pulled out my phone to put a request into Titan House for a background check on Margherita di Pasqua. I didn’t know her, and she would be in close contact with my charge—that was reason enough to make enquiries about her. By the time I had showered and changed, I had a report. Margherita, aged twenty-eight, was not wealthy in her own right, though she was hardly on the breadline. She was an MBA, a qualified accountant, and the youngest daughter of one of Italy’s wealthiest property magnates, Armando di Pasqua. The family had marital and blood ties to several European noble families Her mother was French, as my paternal grandparents had been, though she was from Corsica, not Normandy as they had been. Margherita was fluent in English, French, and Italian. The accompanying photo showed a very attractive young woman. No information about current relationships or past marriages. Nothing other than her father’s wealth to indicate why she needed a bodyguard—perhaps her Papa was just the cautious kind. The current political climate in the capital would be enough to worry any parent of a young lady moving there for the first time.
My caution proved its worth when Etiènne called me at three to say he would be dining with Margherita that evening at her hotel, the George V, and having drinks with her beforehand. Pietro and I would sit at a nearby table to keep an eye on the two of them. Margherita had her own car with her, so Pietro would drive the two of them, with me in the front, to the hotel at seven.
After I met Pietro in the basement garage with the car, he gave me the run down on how he wanted to proceed. “At the bar, we go in first, check the area, keep an eye out as usual. At the restaurant, we again go in first, check table positions, let them be seated first, and take our own. Then we watch the patrons, taking it in turns so we can eat. If there’s an attack, we protect our own first. Got it?”
“Yes.” This was also how I’d been trained to handle things, so I was happy. “Ever had a problem?”
“No, but in Paris, with these bombs and gunmen…. Her father was frantic when she decided to take the job here, but she wanted to get out from under his thumb.”
“But why in France?”
“She spent some of her childhood holidays here, so she knows it. Here we are. You let her in first, okay?”
He pulled up in front, and Etiènne stepped out quickly with a beautiful dark-haired woman on his arm. The photos didn’t do Margherita justice. They didn’t catch how luminous her green eyes were up close, the perfection of her blond hair and her grooming, nor her elegant walk. Etiènne looked enchanted. I couldn’t blame him. I held the door for her, and then for him. Pietro set off immediately I was seated in the front.
At the hotel, I let Etiènne out, Pietro held the door for his client. Pietro handed the car over to valet parking, then led the way into the hotel, while I followed behind. The bar was quiet, luxurious in décor. We checked it out, and took a seat near our clients, watching the area as we talked.
“Do you like this hotel?” I asked.
“It’ll do,” Pietro said, then laughed. “It’s beautiful. Perfect for her.”
“Agreed. How long have you been doing this line of work?”
I listened to Pietro talking about how he’d been in the Esercito Italiano for twenty years and had become a security officer in one of the di Pasqua family businesses before becoming a personal bodyguard to Armando’s daughter, while I watched Etiènne listening to Margherita, hanging on her every word. I’d never seen him so quickly captivated by anyone, his usual reserve apparently lost. They made a pretty pair, the two of them, and I couldn’t help but think that Margherita might be an acceptable bride even to Princess Maria. The thought of Etiènne being married to a woman he really loved hurt no worse than being in love with him. He was out of reach for me no matter what happened, but at least he would be happy if he was with a compatible partner. I wanted him to be happy above all else.
“And how about you, mio amico?”
I kept my eyes on our couple and the room as was my job. “Police force for nine years, Titan house for two years, and this job for just over a year.”
“Not any more. No kids. You?”
“Divorced, but I have three sons. The youngest is in the navy. Hard to have a relationship when you are a bodyguard, yes?”
I glanced at him. “Yes. But I don’t want one.”
He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t ask for more information, which was just as well because I wouldn’t have given him any.
Dinner went smoothly for them and for us. Pietro was a friendly bloke, although with limited interests, but since some of those included football, we had something to talk about other than the job. He also talked about his boys, of whom he was comically proud. He held no grudge against his ex-wife, saying the military was hard for spouses. I agreed, though my own divorce had other causes. I didn’t want to talk about that either.
Etiènne and Margherita finished their meal shortly after ten, and I wondered if he would invite her back to his apartment, or she would ask him back to hers. In the end, he had me summon a taxi for just the two of us. He kissed Margherita’s hand as he said goodbye, and she smiled in a way that promised good things for my prince if he were to meet her again. Which he would, I was sure of it.
He smiled all the way back to the apartment. “Did you have a nice meal, Paul?”
“Very nice, sir. And you?”
“Oh yes. She’s amazing. I can’t believe she just walked into my life like she was meant to be there. It’s a miracle. Perhaps I should light a candle at Notre Dame?”
“If you like, sir.”
He laughed. “I think I would need to go to confession first for skipping Mass so often if I did. I’m actually looking forward to the office tomorrow, can you imagine?”
“I’m glad, sir.” And I was, for him, at least.
Never having seen the prince in love, I didn’t know if the speed with which things moved was unusual or not, but it surprised me, and shocked Pietro. “Never,” he said, when I asked him if this was how Margherita’s relationships had progressed before. “Always she was careful and slow, afraid of what her father would say. But this time….” He made a throwing away gesture. “Caution to the winds.”
I couldn’t help but defend Etiènne’s reputation. “He’s a good man.”
“I know. But her father…wow, he’d better never cross the signore.”
“She better not annoy the princess.”
“In-laws, eh?” We agreed on that one completely.
After a mere two months of dinner dates, nights at one or the other’s apartment, and a weekend away in the Loire, Margherita was invited to come to London to spend a weekend with Etiènne’s parents in Kensington in the middle of March. “And if that doesn’t scare her away,” Etiènne said cheerfully as he and I returned to Paris the week before the expected visit, “nothing damn well will.”
“I hope it doesn’t,” I said. “She’s a lovely woman.”
Etiènne looked at me quizzically. “You’ve never expressed an opinion before on her. Or anyone I’ve been with, actually.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped the mark, sir.”
“Oh nonsense. I’m glad to have you be honest with me. Do you really like her?”
I’d trod into dangerous territory. “She’s lovely,” was all I could say. Good enough for you, I didn’t say. “I hope she makes you very happy.”
“She does. I’m very lucky, in love and in my friends.” He reached over and clasped my hand. “I know you work for me, but you’ve been a gift to my life. To have someone on whose discretion, loyalty—acceptance—I can utterly depend…I never wanted a bodyguard but now I’m glad Maman forced one on me.”
I smiled, but I suddenly had a vision of what lay in my future. Etiènne would ask Margherita to marry him, and of course she would say yes. They would live in France, most likely. He would ask me to join the household, but her father would insist on his guards being enough, and for peace’s sake, he would agree. Or perhaps they would live in Italy, and I would be completely unnecessary.
Or maybe I would work for him after they were married, but find it impossible to stand being around him with her, the children they would inevitably have, and knowing there was no hope, there had never been any hope of being with him any other way. And I would find the courage to quit and look for a job guarding someone I disliked, or cared nothing for.
Etiènne didn’t notice any change in my emotions because I had long grown used to hiding them, long before I’d met him, even before I had been divorced. It was one of the reasons I had been divorced, in fact. I just smiled, and thanked him, and resolved to work out the least painfully method of detaching from a man I was far too used to having in my life.
Prince Jean-Claude, Etiènne’s easygoing father, and more importantly, Princess Marie, loved Margherita on meeting her. Him for herself, and she for Margherita’s family connections, their money, and their appropriate race and faith. Not that any of this was expressed so bluntly, of course. That would have been too vulgar for the princess. But I’d seen her operate long enough to know what her questions meant, and what her concerns were, and what she looked like when she was satisfied. Etiènne, for once, left his mother’s company without being utterly exasperated.
With their approval in the bag, all that was needed now was the blessing of Margherita’s parents, and for that, they had to fly to Milan which they planned to do for Easter. This time, I would not have to watch the parental gauntlet as her father insisted that Etiènne would be safe and under his protection, and to take me would be the most egregious insult.
“So, you have six days off, Paul,” Etiènne said. “Will you go back to London?”
“Yes, I think so. Look up some friends and so on.” It was a complete lie. I had no close friends in London—they disappeared when my marriage did. I did, however, plan to talk to Maria Costello at Titan House about my future, maybe taking up a general security gig again. I didn’t want to be a full time personal guard any more. Too wearing on my emotional armour.
Etiènne had his own apartment in London, fortunately, so I didn’t have to stay with his parents, or worse, find a hotel. I could have stayed in Paris but I liked London better if I was on my own. I arranged a hire car to drive to Norfolk to visit my parents, but didn’t stay more than a night—my father and I had fallen out over my divorce, and I didn’t want to give him a chance to bring it up and flog the long dead horse. I did some walking by the sea, but that gave me too much unwelcome time to think, so in the end I went back to London and played tourist, caught up with the latest movies, and visited the galleries.
I met with Maria who was sympathetic to my situation. “We always have a position for someone with your skills and experience, Paul, especially someone who’s bilingual. Would you work in Paris again?”
It depended where Etiènne ended up. “Possibly.”
“I’ll keep my ear out for you then. The Donadieus will be sorry to lose you, I’m sure.”
I was not so sure, but I kept that opinion to myself. I returned to Paris the night before Etiènne’s return.
The next morning, he came straight from the airport to the office and was in an excellent mood when I came there to pick up his luggage and receive instructions. He was bubbling over with news. “It’s all arranged, Paul. She accepted my proposal of marriage.”
“Thank you. We’ll be married in the summer next year.”
“So far away?”
Etiènne grinned. “To hear my mother and mother-in-law to be, that’s cutting it fine. So many things to organise. Fortunately, the traditional role of the groom is to nod and keep out of everyone’s way.”
“In my experience, yes, it is.”
“The dives we’ve arranged this summer mean we can’t easily fit the wedding in this year anyway. But there’s two engagement parties to have, and God knows how many fittings and rehearsals. Good thing I love her, yes?”
“I hope so, sir.”
“I do, Paul. It’s amazing, but I do. But I want to ask an enormous favour of you. Please sit?”
I did, wondering what this could be about. “You’ve probably worked out that I won’t need a personal bodyguard any more once Margherita and I are wed. Her father wants to take that all on, and I can’t really argue since his people are competent enough. Not as good as you, I’m sure, but….” He shrugged. “For family harmony, you know?”
“I do, sir. I completely understand.”
“I’m glad. I don’t want you to think there’s been any…I’ve been very happy with you. More than happy. I consider you a friend.”
I barely stopped myself from showing my surprise. “Thank you.”
“So, I hope you will consider staying on right up to the wedding, if not a little longer. I understand if you want to look for something now—”
“No, sir. Not at all.” Because as soon as my fears became real, I realised I didn’t want to leave at all.
“Oh good. And the other thing I’d like, is for you to come on the dives this summer.”
“Sir?” I was certified to dive to thirty metres, but I was no scientist. “Why?”
“Because you’d enjoy them. But more than that, I think I could easily find a role for you with the Foundation, if you’re willing and interested. You already have a handle on the logistics, so if you could learn a bit more, then you could work with us on that. I mean, if you have a mind to change careers.”
“I….” I stopped. This was the very last thing I’d expected. “I’d very much like to come with you on the dives, but I’d like to think about the rest, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. It would be wonderful for me if you stayed. You’re a very effective assistant, and when I find good people I trust, I try to keep them around me.” He looked at me with those dark eyes I knew so well, loved so well, and yet he couldn’t possibly see what was in my heart. If he did, he’d get rid of me now.
“I’ll give it careful consideration, sir.”
“Thank you. Now, for today, I only need my suits and the other laundry dropped off at the apartment for Danielle. Apart from that, you can have the rest of the day and the evening free. Margherita and I are having dinner, and her man will see us there and back.”
“Sir, protocol says I should be there. Pietro’s her guard, not yours.”
“I think we can waive that now. Ah, but it bothers you?”
Absolutely, it bothered me. “You’re both tempting targets, sir.”
“Then, as you wish. We’ll leave here at seven. I don’t want anyone upset. I’m getting married, Paul. I still can’t believe it.”
He grinned, I smiled back. He was happy, and who was I to rain on that?
The offer to work with the Foundation was unexpected, though not unwelcome, but could I work with him after the wedding? Unrequited love was painful enough without being a masochist about the whole thing.
I could make my mind up later. A lot could happen in over a year, and in the meantime, I could have some interesting experiences while in Etiènne’s employ.
A formal engagement party would take place in Milan at the end of June, with both sets of parents attending. That would leave the summer clear for the main dive survey, which itself would take two weeks, with smaller dives also planned. But many of Etiènne’s close friends were impoverished students and researchers, and he didn’t want to impose by inviting them to something they might not be able be able to attend. So he arranged a less informal gathering to be held at the end of May in the gardens of the Cetacean Institute for about a hundred friends and colleagues, and their respective partners. Several of Margherita’s professional colleagues would be there, and three of her school friends now based in France were also expected. He left catering and other matters to a professional organiser, but security was placed in my and Pietro’s charge to arrange. I suggested we use the firm who provided my reliefs on my days off. Margherita’s father wanted to send some of his personal bodyguards over, but I convinced Etiènne, who convinced her father, that this was unnecessary and might make people feel less relaxed.
The warm weather that came with the end of May held a promise of summer, and let the party guests wear their nicest spring clothes. I was in my usual suit and tie, but Etiènne chose a smart linen jacket and collarless shirt, while his fiancée sported a flowery one-shouldered little number from Laura Biagiotti. Many of the guests did not dress to that level of fashion, though Margherita’s school friends set a high standard for the women. Pietro and I didn’t have to man the gates, though we had supervised the checking of the catering vans, and were linked by radio to the personnel at the entrances, and here and there around the gardens. The gendarmerie would also be keeping an eye on things.
All Pietro and I had to do mostly was watch our protectees, and mingle with the guests, keeping an ear out for problems. Neither of us expected anything to happen with a crowd like this. Our worst fear was a terrorist attack, but the party had not been publicised, the guests all known to the engaged couple, and we hoped, with good reason, it would not rise to anyone’s notice, especially when the season for garden parties had begun and there would be others of a much more glittering nature happening on the same Sunday.
Etiènne made a speech at three o’clock, welcoming people and introducing Margherita to his friends. Before that, and for a little while after, the two of them walked around as a couple, talking to friends and being introduced. Then Margherita’s chums claimed her and waltzed her away, Pietro following discreetly, while Etiènne found his dive buddies and beckoned me over to chat to them about the summer. “Paul’s refreshing his dive training, Charles,” he told his friend. “I thought we might start him on tagging when we go out.”
“Ever dived with whales before?” another of the group, Édouard, asked me.
“No, but I’d love to. If I’m not suitable, I can just stay upstairs and help with equipment.”
“Can’t see why we can’t give you a try. You have to start somewhere.”
“Of course. I know the principle, but I’m not sure how hard it is to use the gun that accurately.”
He and Charles took me aside to explain. We found a seat near a rockery, and Etiènne waved at me to say that this was fine. He was safe here. I could relax. Etiènne wandered off with another friend towards the institute’s offices.
Gerard joined us, and I had to admit I became so engrossed in the conversation, I lost track of time, and certainly where Etiènne was. My first warning of trouble came when I heard a woman scream in anger, and then Margherita came running out of the offices with one of her girl friends, Pietro hard on her heels. I belted over. “What’s happened?”
“That finocchio,” Margherita spat at me, followed by an angry tirade in Italian apparently directed at Etiènne.
Confused, I looked at Pietro who flicked his head back towards the building. “In there. We’re leaving, Paul.”
What the hell was going on? I ran to the offices. “Your highness? Where are you?”
No response. I checked the loos and the main office on the ground floor, then went up the stairs to see if he was in one of the conference rooms. I found him in the second one I looked in. His head was in his hands, but he was quite alone. “Sir? Are you all right?”
“No. No, wait, I’m fine, physically,” he said as I started towards him to check what was wrong.
“What happened? Signorina di Pasqua was very upset. She and her guard have left the party.”
“So should I, I suppose.” He stood and went searching on the floor in the corner of the room. I frowned, unable to discern what he was looking for. “Ah. There it is.”
He held the handsome engagement ring Margherita had been showing off so proudly only an hour ago. “She’s ended the engagement, sir?”
“Oh yes. She doesn’t want to be tied to un sale pédé after all.”
“What the hell? Sorry, I mean—”
With a wave, he dismissed my attempt to use more temperate language, then sat down heavily at a desk again. “One of my friends…we go back to University together. We were more than friends back then. We broke up, but it was all amicable. He came up to talk to me about my engagement, to wish me luck. He gave me a kiss out of friendship, but you know…not like a friend. She walked in right then. Her school friend is a mind reader. She’d kindly informed Margherita that I like boys too, but Margherita refused to believe her. But, well….” He rubbed his face. “The family are conservative Catholics. I keep forgetting there are people like that in the world. I tend not to encounter them in my world. Not like that, anyway.”
“But if you explain there was nothing—”
“There has been something in the past, and that’s all that matters, Paul.” He lifted sad eyes to mine. “I’m tainted, dirty to her.”
“Not in mine,” I snapped, utterly furious at this happening to him. “Uh…sorry for speaking out of turn.”
“It’s okay. Thank you. Anyway, it’s over. Even if she changed her mind, I don’t want to marry a homophobe.” His mouth formed a semblance of a smile. “Want an engagement ring? It’s going spare.” His attempt at the joke didn’t change the look in his eyes.
“Keep it for the one who loves you better. Because you deserve someone better.”
“Thank you. You’re…that’s really kind of you, Paul.” He put the ring in his pocket. “I should leave though. The party will end in an hour or so. Antoine can make my excuses. Would you be kind enough to talk to him, and we can slip out the back, if you order a taxi?”
“Yes, of course. Do you want to wait here?”
“Yes. I’m a coward but I can’t face everyone. Not now.”
“I understand, sir. Do you want to go to the apartment?”
“Of course. I hardly want to run back to London right now, and…oh God, I’m supposed to be at our offices tomorrow.”
“May I suggest you call in sick, sir?”
“Yes, I think I will. For the week, in fact.” He plastered a smile on his face. “Fancy a drive to the Médoc?”
The family had a villa down there on the coast, which served as one of the base for the research teams in the summer. “Sounds lovely, sir.”
“And we can turn the bloody phones off too. I’m not interested in being screamed at by all and sundry.”
“No, sir. I’ll speak to Antoine.”
He nodded and I went downstairs to find Antoine, the party organiser who had also acted as the MC for the event. I didn’t tell him what had happened, only that the prince had been called away, but that people were welcome to stay and enjoy the food and champagne. I thought he guessed something had gone wrong—Margherita had hardly been discreet—but kept his views to himself. I spoke to our security officers, and also to Charles who came over to ask what had happened. “He’s got a migraine,” I lied. “I’m taking him back to his apartment.”
“Do you want any help, Paul? I think we have some medical doctors here.”
I held up a hand. “No, it’s fine. He doesn’t want any fuss. Thank you for offering.”
I called a taxi and waited for it, then called Etiènne to ask him to come downstairs. By then he looked as if he really did have a migraine. I helped him into the vehicle, and sat beside him as we went south, back into the city.
The apartment was empty, since Danielle didn’t work on the weekends. He threw himself down on the couch in the living room. “You don’t need to keep the suit on, Paul,” he said. “I don’t plan to go anywhere tonight. You’re off duty now.”
“Yes, sir. Shall I put on some coffee before I change?”
“Please. Don’t let me drink, for God’s sake. If I start, I’d never stop in this mood.”
I put the kettle on, and went to my suite to change into a tidy shirt and clean jeans. When I returned from the kitchen with a tray, Etiènne had shucked his shoes and jacket, and was staring morosely at the unlit fireplace. I put the tray in front of him and poured a cup of coffee for him. “Have one too,” he said. “And would you like to sit? Unless you have something you’d rather be doing?”
“No, I’d like to sit with you.” I poured myself a cup and sat on the couch next to his.
“I should have told her,” he said after a bit. “But why? I had no intention of seeking another after we were married, or while we were engaged. I’m not like that. I didn’t ask for her sexual history. It’s none of my business.”
I nodded, but said nothing. I felt he just wanted to vent, and I was happy to listen.
“My mother will be furious, of course. And her father….” He shook his head. “Her papa will call the wrath of God down on me.”
“He better not try,” I felt moved to say. “She was wrong. Is wrong. You did nothing to be ashamed of.”
He looked at me. “You’re really not bothered by me…I mean, the men…are you?”
“No, sir. I’m bisexual too.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I had no idea.”
“You never needed to. Who I sleep with should never be something our employers have to pay attention to.”
“Do you…I mean, are you? You have someone now? God, what a rotten friend I am, never to ask.”
I had to smile a little. “No, sir, there’s no one at the moment. It’s the way I like it.”
“Ah. Another broken heart, I see.”
“Just a divorce. Not amicable, but years ago. It’s nothing to be concerned about, sir.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, no…not that. I just meant, it doesn’t affect my doing the job.”
“I can’t imagine you allowing that to happen. You’re too professional for that, Paul.”
“Thank you, sir.” But I hadn’t always been, unfortunately. “Do you still want to go to the villa tomorrow?”
He sighed. “I really do, but I can’t this week. Wish I could, though. Things will be insane, my parents will bombard me with messages and calls, and if she resigns, then that’ll throw things into turmoil at the office, and I just can’t deal with that kind of drama. Speaking of which….” He handed me his mobile phone. “Turn it off, leave it off. I’ll email Édith in a bit to let her know, and she can vet my messages. Everyone else can kiss my arse.”
He grinned at me, and suddenly the image of his mother doing that made me giggle stupidly. That set him off, and in moments we were holding our stomachs and laughing like schoolboys. “Oh, God,” he said after a bit. “It’s all so bloody ridiculous, don’t you think? She’s ridiculous, I’m ridiculous. My mother…she’ll be the worst. Maybe I should run away to South America for a year.”
“Need a bodyguard for that, sir?”
Still chuckling, he said, “If I need a bodyguard anywhere, it’ll be you, Paul. Screw Armando di Pasqua.”
“No, thank you, sir. He’s not my type.”
That set him off again. “God, not mine, either.”
He poured another coffee, and I thought he seemed better, so I dared to ask, “Will you go into work tomorrow then?”
“No. Let things quiet down. In fact, I’ll go to London tomorrow evening, spend the week there, maybe longer. I can get my mother’s yelling out of the way, and I do have things to do there. After that, I can lay low for a few days. I might manage to go to the villa mid-June, though. I can go down early, prepare for the summer. How does that sound, Paul?”
“Whatever you want, sir. London might be quieter right now.”
He winced. “Yes. I imagine the phones are running hot between here and Milan. Or perhaps she won’t want to tell Papa what happened.” He climbed to his feet. “I’m going to change. Thank you for listening to me ramble.”
He started to say something, but stopped, then turned towards his suite. I cleared up the coffee things and went to my own rooms. Thank God the French newspapers were unlikely to report any of this, even if they found out. But when his mother found out, that would be painful.
I kept Etiènne’s phone turned off, as he requested. However, an hour later my own phone rang. It was Pietro.
“I’m surprised to hear from you,” I said.
“Professional courtesy, mio amico. Also, just to see how things are with you. That was very unpleasant.”
“Yes, it was. And unnecessary.”
“Agreed. I don’t think like that, in case you’re wondering, but that family…. Anyway, she’s still crazy with anger, but she’ll calm down I hope. Those streghe will go home soon, I hope. They’re causing trouble.”
“No kidding. Will she return to Milan?”
“Over this? I don’t think so. She’s angry, but she has no reason to want to go back to her family with her tail between her legs, and plenty of reasons to stay in France. I never said any of this, you understand.”
“Said what?” I said, and he laughed.
“Your man, how is he?”
“Upset. Angry. He has a right to be, I think.”
“Me too. But who listens to us?”
Etiènne listens. “We’re going out of town this week. Ah, Pietro, he thinks her father might do something…unpleasant. That would be a very bad idea. The Donadieus are known here. It would not be a good thing for his reputation to hurt my prince.”
“Your prince, Paul?”
“Figure of speech. But you understand?”
“I understand, but I have no influence over any of these people. I think he would not do such a thing. It would make it into a real scandal and your prince’s family, they’re important to people who are important to the signore.”
“Good. Because I’d be very unhappy to have to act against the people you guard.”
“No need for threats, Paolo. Take him away, let him lick his wounds. My lady can do the same and her so-called friends can comfort her. You and me, we’re okay though?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. Keep in touch, Pietro. I bear no grudge against you.”
“Grazie. Good luck with your man, okay?”
“And you with your lady.”
Pietro snorted. “Yeah, I’ll need it. Ciao.”
Etiènne’s meeting with his mother about the broken engagement was just as painful as he’d feared. Actually, it was worse, for all Princess Marie hadn’t heard the real reason, and Etiènne wouldn’t enlighten her. “This is not to be borne, Etiènne. The scandal is atrocious. I thought you said the girl was sensible.”
“I let you make your own assessment, Maman. I though she was sensible.”
“And yet she leads you on a dance like this. Or did you do something unforgiveable? You weren’t sleeping with one of her friends, were you?”
“No, Maman,” he said, his colour rising in anger as it rarely did—and only with his mother. “It’s a private matter, and really, is there any point in going over it?”
“I have to wonder if you even take our family’s reputation seriously at all. One day you will inherit your father’s position, but if you’re going to carry on like Albert Grimaldi, perhaps it would be better that you didn’t.”
“Fine! I quit, abdicate…whatever the bloody term is. I don’t want the job, never did, and don’t care about ‘the family’s position’ at all. Find someone else to run the estates, Maman. I’m sick of it. I resign.”
He turned on his heel and walked out of the room, his mother following him. “Etiènne! Come back here. You can’t just not be the heir.”
He spun around and wagged his finger in her face. “I can, and I do. Claude can do it. or her kids can do it. Hell, let Paul here do it—he’s as good a man as anyone could want. Adopt him, Maman. But I am sick to death of living my life waiting for Papa to die. I love him, and as far as I’m concerned, if he outlives me, I’ll be delighted. So find someone else. I’m absolutely done.”
“What about the Foundation?” This was sly of her, knowing Etiènne’s real loyalty lay there and not with the family title. “We’ll withdraw funding.”
“Go ahead. I’d love to see the French or the Spanish swoop in and take over because Cap de l’Espoir doesn’t even work as a conservation haven any more. The Americans would love to shut you down.”
They glared at each other. “You can’t expect us to let you walk away, do you ?”
“You let Claude give up her claim on the title. Why am I so different?”
“You’re a man, Etiènne! The title is much stronger in a male heir’s hands. You know that.”
“Do I? And what if I choose a male spouse instead of a female one?”
“No? Our law mirrors the French except where explicitly different, and I know we haven’t made a law against same-sex marriage. I can marry whom I like. I could pull a Stéphanie Grimaldi and marry Paul, and then where would your heirs be?”
He didn’t mean it, and I kept my expression as bland as possible, but the princess turned on me. “Are you fucking him?” she demanded.
“No, your highness.”
“Leave him alone, Maman. His behaviour isn’t in question.”
“No, but you’ve mentioned him twice and by God, Etiènne, if you embarrass us that way, I’d rather have you disinherited!”
“You can’t sack me. I already quit. Paul, please?”
He walked away quickly with me at his heels. His mother thankfully didn’t follow. Out on the street, Etiènne turned to me. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to drag you into that mess.”
“No problem, sir. Where do you want to go now?”
“To the devil,” he muttered. “Somewhere I can think and drink and not have to be anyone.”
“A good pub, then?”
He looked startled, then laughed. “Are there any in Kensington? I’ve never been to one here.”
“I know just the place,” I said. I hailed us a car and told the driver to take us to The Hereford Arms in Gloucester Road.
Half an hour later, we were at the back of the pub, nursing pints of Fuller’s ale, and Etiènne was debating whether he should apologise to his mother. (I thought not, but kept my opinion to myself). “I’m twenty-nine, Paul. Papa is only fifty-five. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being lectured about my position, my heirs, my bride, and thinking about him dying. I want him alive and me doing what I love, which is marine biology. The fucking Donadieus are rich enough.”
I nodded, sipping my beer, knowing he was only venting.
“But if Cap de l’Espoir loses its independence, we lose the right to keep our waters a marine sanctuary. The fishing boats, the whalers, and the oil men will muscle in. A lot of what I’ve spent a long time working for, disappears. Claude believes in that side of things, but she got sick of Maman’s nagging about the family position long before I did. It helped she met the right man.” He stared gloomily into his beer. “If Margherita hadn’t broken the engagement, my problems would have been solved.”
“You’re not allowed to adopt?”
“I’m allowed, but there has to be a blood connection, and I’m all out of orphan nieces, nephews, and cousins. Anyway, I’d hate to have a child and inflict all this crap on them. Otherwise I could arrange a surrogate mother, or even just find some title-hungry socialite to impregnate and marry.” He shuddered. “I hate all this so much.”
“Do you want children? I mean, outside the title issue.”
He looked at me. “I do. Not to the point of doing anything to have them, but yes. Claude’s kids are lovely. But I don’t want to have them if I have to lay out their destiny in advance.”
“You’re still a young man, sir.”
“So you’re saying I should just wait and hope something comes up?”
“No, sir. I’m just pointing out the facts. I wouldn’t want to see you married to someone who only loved your title or your money. Or have a child just to keep your mother happy. Those decisions don’t tend to end well, do they?”
“No,” he said, drawing his finger through the damp on the table. He sighed. “It would serve her right if I did marry my bodyguard. Not you, of course. Some poor fool in the future.”
“If you loved him, and he loved you, why not?” I kept my tone as light as I could.
“I’d be all right if he was a noble too. But a bodyguard? ‘We’re not Grimaldis’.”
“I don’t know, sir. Somewhere there must be a penniless prince moonlighting as a security officer. Perhaps we could ask around in Waitrose.”
He barked out a laugh. “Paul, you’re very bad, you know? I should, I really should. An ad in the Times, perhaps?”
“I believe the traditional way is to post notices in the local forest. Think it would work in Hyde Park?”
“We could try.” At least he was smiling.
“Set up a hundred mattress test? With a real pea?”
He grinned. “I could ask Maman to hold a ball and see who turns up in glass Louis Vuittons.”
“Look for the overgrown castle with the sleeping prince who had one too many pricks.”
“Throw a rope made from hair out the window and see who crawls up?”
“That might work. I’d stay away from anyone dressed up like a swan though.”
He lifted his glass in salute. “See? Maybe one day my prince will come.”
“I’m sure you can find someone who will love you as you love them, sir. Noble or prince or….” I nearly said ‘bodyguard’. “Gardener.”
“I live in hope. But it still doesn’t answer the problem whether I apologise to Maman or not. And if I did, what do I apologise for? ‘Sorry I didn’t stand there and let you abuse me’?”
I sipped my beer again and didn’t answer, but he touched my wrist. “What do you think, Paul?”
“Sir, it’s not appropriate—”
“Please. Be honest, man to man. You’ve been married. You have more life experience than me.”
How could I refuse him when he asked like that? “Perhaps a note saying you’re sorry tempers grew hot, and that some time away from the subject would be good for both of you. Then ignore her trying to engage you on the subject, but keep communications open. You have to formally reject the claim to the title in writing, don’t you?”
“Then don’t do that yet. Give yourself time to think. It’s not forty-eight hours since the party.”
“And Margherita. You’re right. Thank you.”
“Do it by note, not over the phone. She’ll pick a fight again otherwise.”
“Oh, yes,” he said heavily. “I’m beginning to realise the engagement would have ended in disaster anyway. I couldn’t endure that degree of closed-mindedness, and it would have come out one way or another. I was trying not to see that for myself, but the evidence was there, now I think on it. Of course she might change.”
“Or she might re-consider?” I didn’t want her to, but it was a possibility, and it would solve his problem.
“Doubt it. I don’t think I could recover my feelings for her now. Is that shallow of me?” he asked.
“You can’t help how you feel, sir. And…she was bloody nasty to you.”
“She was.” He drank more of his beer. “I like this pub. Thank you. How do you know it?”
“Came here once or twice for lunch between jobs when I worked for Titan House. There are more around here than you think, despite the tourists.”
“I haven’t really been in a pub since I was at Oxford. I hadn’t realised how much I missed them.”
“I miss them too, when I’m in Paris. There are compensations, though.”
With nothing pressing to do that day, we stayed in the pub, talking about the relative merits of Paris and London, Chelsea and Paris St Germaine, French wine versus Australian, and which country had the prettiest women. Lunch started us on our favourite dishes in either country—Etiènne had a fondness for fish and chips, while I had a weakness for Danielle’s beef Bourguignon. “Actually, anything she cooks,” I said.
“She’s an angel. I swear I live in Paris simply because of her cooking.”
“Where would you live if you could?”
“On the coast. The villa would be lovely. If I didn’t have to manage our estates….”
“Perhaps it’s time you found someone else who can.”
“Yes, it is. Then I could move away from the capital, and I wouldn’t need a bodyguard, and I wouldn’t have to come back to London every other week. I don’t mean I’m in a hurry to get rid of you, Paul. I’ve made it clear I’m not, I hope.”
I smiled. “Yes, you have. If you’re only living there for the business, then a replacement would help improve your life.”
“I’d miss the clubs, but I can manage without them if there were other changes in my life. And who knows? Perhaps my prince or princess or the mother of my heirs lives there and I have only to go south to meet them.”
“Perhaps they do.”
He slapped the table. “Then, we agree. I’m quitting that too. No more princing, no more managing.”
I grinned. He was a little drunk, which I’d never seen before. He was adorable, flushed and bright-eyed and smiling. I lifted my glass. “To competent replacements, sir.”
He clinked my glass with his own. “And to telling my mother where to stick her damn heir. Um…perhaps that’s a little too rude.”
“Maybe a little.”
“I need to work on my familial diplomacy,” he said with the precise diction of the truly tipsy. “How strong is this bloody beer?”
“Strong enough that four pints will definitely make you legless. Sir,” I added. Maybe I was a little tipsy too.
“We should go home. Or order coffee.”
“Pub coffee is horrible,” I said. “Shall I hail a taxi?”
“I suppose.” He sighed. “I’m having such a good time. But I can’t stay here forever.”
“We can stay a little longer, if you want?”
He shook his head. “I’ve had more than enough to drink. But thank you, Paul. Again you’ve helped me when things have gone to shit. I could do worse than marrying you, whatever my mother thinks.”
“I hope you put that in your reference, sir.”
“Absolutely. I shall say ‘Paul Villeneuve is the best bodyguard a prince could marry, bar none’. Would that do?”
“Perfectly,” I said.
And who cared or knew that I wished it was true?
After the drama at the start of the week, the rest of it was remarkably sedate. Etiènne sent a note by post to his mother, and declared that was the end of the matter until at least the end of summer. He spent two days at the Foundation offices and dealt with the French end of things in the evening. Whether Margherita contacted him, I didn’t know and didn’t ask. The engagement ring was in his room back in Paris, and there it would stay, I presumed.
On Friday he’d arranged to visit his old prof at Oxford, and we spent the night there. This time Etiènne took me to a pub of his choosing, the Turf Tavern, which was busy but fun, hidden away where only those who knew about it—and there were clearly many who did—could find it. The building was medieval, but the food was modern and excellent, and the crafts beers perfectly acceptable.
“I miss this place,” Etiènne said with a sigh. “I need to get out of London more too.”
“You sound, if you don’t mind me saying it, sir, like a man in dire need of a long holiday.”
“Of course I don’t mind. And I do. Fortunately after next week, we can escape south. It’s all arranged. Danielle can have an extra long holiday, and I can spend a bit longer in the water. And you can keep on with your diving practice before the main event.”
“I’m looking forward to it, sir.”
He frowned. “You know, I think it’s safe to call me ‘Etiènne’ when we’re alone, Paul.”
“Sorry. Just protocol…Etiènne.” He grinned. “I’m just afraid I might slip up in public, and what would your mother say about that?”
“Oh, probably something unflattering about those Monaco royals again. But I don’t need to be ‘sir’ when we’re alone. Or on the boat, either. God, the looks I’d get. Nothing much more egalitarian than a bunch of biologists sharing a space. You’re not there as my guard, understand?”
“Yes, I do. Thank you.”
“Not at all. I’m planning to have a great time, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, unless you get seasick.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Splendid. Let’s pray for good weather too.”
It was our last evening skiving off, because the next day we were returning to Paris. Back to calling him ‘sir’, buggering off out of his way on my day off, watching his mood sink as he headed to the office. Only one week of that though, before two and a half months of what he considered—as did I—his real job. Two months for him to heal, to get completely over Margherita, and to think about the family situation with a calmer head. Two and a half months in his company as an equal, more or less. I couldn’t wait.
Etiènne had sent our personal diving equipment down south by courier, as the SEAT Leon he had in long-term parking would not carry that, our luggage and all his notes and papers. On Thursday evening, after the worst of the rush hour, I travelled by Métro to the garage where the car was stored, and drove it back to his building, calling him in advance to let him know I was in the loading zone. He waved to me as I exited the car, ready to grab our backpacks. He came out of the building carrying a document box and two briefcases. I popped the boot lid, but as I was about to sling the backpacks into the back of the car, three things happened simultaneously. Etiènne cried out, something shoved into my neck, and I fell to the ground writhing in pain.
Stun gun. Before the shock had released my limbs, one of the men who’d accosted us, jabbed something a lot sharper into my neck and my muscles went slack. I couldn’t move as my hands were cuffed behind me and I was manhandled into the boot of the car. The boot lid slammed down.
Etiènne yelled again, but his voice was cut off, and no matter how much I strained to hear it, I couldn’t pick it up again. I shouted too, but my voice was slurred and weak, and the next thing I knew, I woke up in the boot, still restrained, unaware of how much time had passed.
I had to yell and thrash about for some time before someone bothered to ask if I was all right. “Call the police! There’s been a kidnapping!” I had to say that three times before the person paid attention and did what I said.
A few minutes later, the gendarmes released me from the boot and I told them that Prince Etiènne Donadieu had been kidnapped around seven o’clock. It was now nine o’clock. Our luggage was missing, but Etiènne’s papers and documents had been dumped to the side of the entrance to our building.
With the cuffs removed, but still groggy from whatever the hell I’d been injected with, I was taken to a police station to give more information, and to be questioned myself. The gendarmerie would contact Etiènne’s family in London, I was told. I gave them the full history that I knew of threats against him, even of the broken engagement. At half past ten the gendarmes released me and allowed me to return to the apartment, where I called Marie Costello’s private number—the one only used for emergencies—and told her what had happened.
“I’ll liaise with the family,” she said. “Are you all right, Paul?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “What should I do now?”
“Stay in the apartment, cooperate fully, report any and all contacts with the kidnappers. Don’t contact anyone but me, the family or the police.”
“Yes, I understand. Maria, it’s my fault. I wasn’t doing my job.”
“Enough of that for now. We can do a post-mortem…I mean, a debrief, later. Go to sleep. You need to be sharp in the morning.”
“Yes,” I said, though there wasn’t a hope in hell of me doing that tonight.
“Thanks for letting me know. Goodnight.”
The apartment was empty. Danielle had already gone back to her family for the summer. So far as anyone knew, Etiènne and I shouldn’t even have still been here. Someone had been watching us—him—but I’d fucking missed it with my head up my arse about my bloody crush and dreaming about the summer.
I sat up by the phone until three am, and then, realising the kidnappers would not call this late, or to this number, I went to bed where I managed to catch a couple of hours of nightmare-ridden sleep.
When I woke, I dragged myself out of bed and called the police for an update. No news, no ransom demand. Fuck. On my phone was a message from Etiènne’s mother, demanding I call her. I waited until seven o’clock London time to do so. The phone was answered on the first ring.
“Paul? How did this happen?”
“We were ambushed, your highness. There was nothing I could do to stop it.”
“And yet you were hired precisely to stop this happening. Consider yourself fired. Get out of the apartment now.”
“Should I not stay at least until Etiènne is found, ma’am? They might call here.”
“Very well. But you leave then. You let him down. Let us down. I intend to complain to Ms Costello.”
“As you wish, ma’am.”
She hung up. Well, that was that then. But wild horses wouldn’t remove me from Paris until Etiènne was found.
By nightfall, there still had been no ransom demand or any contact. This could not be good news for Etiènne’s survival. I felt utterly helpless, and was fast losing hope that Etiènne was still alive. The only light in the tunnel was that no body had been found, and the attackers had not shot him on the spot.
By ten that night, I was wrung out from nervous tension and frustrated impatience. The only way I would sleep would be with medication, which I had in my bedside table. I had the pill bottle in my hand, about to open it, when my phone rang. I snatched it up. “Hello?”
“Paul, it’s Pietro.”
I sagged. “Oh. You heard about the prince?”
“Yes. The police came to talk to Margherita today. I need you to meet me outside in twenty minutes.”
“Outside? You mean this building?”
“Yes. Don’t tell the police, bring your gun.”
“Pietro, what’s going—”
“I can’t talk now, Paolo. Hurry up and come downstairs.”
Confused, I got dressed again, making sure my gun was loaded before I put it into my holster. On impulse, I grabbed a blanket, our large first aid kit, and a set of Etiènne’s clothes, putting them into an overnight bag, before I headed downstairs.
Nineteen minutes later, Pietro pulled up in Margherita’s car. “Get in.”
I obeyed, and he sped off. “I know where he is. At least, I know where he was.”
“Margherita. She told the police this afternoon that she knew nothing about your prince’s abduction , but I knew she was lying. I waited a bit and then told her that I couldn’t stand by and see a man murdered, no matter what she thought he’d done. She got angry and defensive, told me I was fired, so I threatened to call the police and let their mind readers work on her, her father be damned. Finally she told me that her father had promised Prince Etiènne would pay for insulting her good name. She swears they weren’t going to kill him, just give him a thrashing. I had to question her some more before she would tell me where he was taken. I called you as soon as I was sure she was telling me the truth.”
I exhaled. “Little bitch. He didn’t do anything to her.”
“Watch your mouth, Paul.”
“She sacked you!”
“Yes, but I won’t have her insulted. I won’t have her taken to the police either, so you can’t tell anyone what I just told you.”
“If he’s not alive, you try and stop me, Pietro. If he is…then I’ll say nothing.”
He nodded, his eyes still on the road. “All right. I didn’t sign up to be part of killing. Neither did she, if she’s telling the truth.”
“You’re not sure?”
He was silent for a while. “Pietro?” I urged.
“I heard her say some pretty nasty things about the prince to her father. She made him very angry on her behalf. If she cares the man is alive, it’s only because it would look bad for her.”
“Great,” I muttered. “How far is it?”
“Two hours at least.”
“It could make the difference between life and death. Please, we have to tell the police.”
“No. If he’s dead, he’s already dead. Otherwise, he takes his chances. You promised.”
I felt sick. “I did. Did you bring any supplies? I have a first aid kit.”
“I have a fully equiped medical kit in the car. Some water as well.”
“You better pray he doesn’t die, and that he’s not already dead.”
“I did pray. I’m praying now. Now shut up and let me drive.”
We were headed south. Two hours in this direction would put us past Orléans, solidly in the countryside. Pietro turned off on a road towards Vouzon and down an unmetalled track down to a derelict barn. There were no vehicles in sight, no sign of movement, but I still opened the window and drew my weapon in case of trouble.
Pietro stopped the car outside the barn, leaving the deadlights on, and I ran to throw open the rickety door. In the light from the car, I saw Etiènne immediately, naked and bloodied, hanging slumped from a rope slung over a rafter, not quite able to kneel in the dust. His back was a mess—he’d been whipped, and worse. I tried to lift him but he groaned pitifully. “Pietro, bring me a knife or something to cut the rope!”
I moved in front of Etiènne. His tear-streaked face was swollen and heavily bruised. “Etiènne, it’s Paul. You’re safe now.”
He tried to open his eyes but the lids were too swollen, and his mouth too dry and sticky for him to speak. “Shhh, we’ll get you down, love,” I murmured.
Pietro ran in, carrying a battery-operated lantern which gave us better light, and used a Stanley knife to saw at the rope where it was anchored. A few seconds later, I was able to lower Etiènne to the ground. I supported him carefully, though there wasn’t an inch of him that wasn’t lacerated or bruised that I could see. “I’ll get a blanket,” Pietro said.
“Medical kit too. And the water.”
Etiènne was conscious and in great pain. Whoever had beaten him had added the sadism of not even allowing him to take his weight on his knees when they’d lowered the rope. I wanted to kill them slowly and painfully for that alone. I stroked his hair and did my best to soothe him while I waited for Pietro to bring the supplies, but I couldn’t tell if it was helping or not.
Etiènne was too badly injured to lay flat so I kept him upright while Pietro draped a blanket around his shoulders. I cleaned his face with a sterile wipe, and offered him some water, which he sipped with difficulty. “We have to get him to a hospital,” I said.
“No hospitals. No police. You promised.”
“But he’s hurt.”
“He’ll live.” I glared at Pietro for his callousness. “I’m serious. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. We take him back to Paris and I’ll get a doctor to your apartment.”
“And how do we get him into the building in this condition?”
He looked around. “Your bags are there. You brought clothes. We get him dressed—”
“It’ll be agony for him!”
To my shock, Etiènne clutched weakly at my shirt. “No police,” he whispered. “Do as he says.”
Pietro looked at me. I gritted my teeth. “All right. But for God’s sake, give him a little time.”
“We can do that. I wish him no harm, Paul. I have morphine in the kit too. I’m qualified to use it.”
Between us, we had a fair bit of training so I reluctantly agreed. Pietro had a blood pressure kit in the car. Etiènne’s pressure was okay, and he had no sign of a raging infection. We checked his breathing and pulse, but there didn’t seem to be any indication of internal injuries, though the superficial damage was horrific.
“I want to kill her for this,” I muttered to Pietro.
“I understand, but you cannot lay a finger on her. I won’t let you, Paul. Concentrate on your man for now.”
So after we gave Etiènne the morphine, we cleaned him up as best we could, and put dressings over the worst lacerations. Then we dressed him in the loosest clothes he had in his pack. I left off the shoes until we had to put them on at the building.
The morphine had left him too drowsy to talk, but he seemed more comfortable. We lay the front passenger seat down at an angle, and I made a pillow out of a blanket for him. Then we carried him to the car, belted him in, and laid the other blanket over him. I still wished we could call an ambulance, or at least put heart and oxygen monitors on him. “He’ll be okay,” Pietro said. “I would not risk him if I didn’t believe that.”
If he wasn’t so set on protecting his precious Margherita, that statement would have meant more to me. But he promised we would stop in an hour to check on Etiènne, and I would watch him as best I could, so we set off. We would arrive in Paris before dawn, so that would give us additional cover to take him into the apartment. While he drove, Pietro called a doctor who knew the di Pasqua family, and gave her the details of Etiènne’s condition. She agreed with Pietro that the prince would be all right for a couple of hours in a car, though she made no promises about after we arrived and she’d seen him.
“We will pay for a nurse,” Pietro said. “Whatever he needs.”
“No thanks. I’d rather trust Al Qaeda. I’ll organise a nurse. We have to tell the police he’s been found.”
“Yes, after the doctor sees him. But you can’t tell them how or where, or by who.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh right. I’m sure they’ll let me get away with that.”
“Your man will back you up.”
“Why the hell should he?”
Pietro looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “You think he wants his name plastered all over the papers, and the reason for the beating? You think his family want that? No, Paolo, this one will be hushed up.”
“And what about you? Where will you go?”
He gave me a half-grin. “They’re not the only family in Italy who needs a trained bodyguard, my friend. I have options.”
“I have contacts, if you want them.”
“You’ll need them for yourself, no?”
“I guess I will.” I hadn’t really thought about that too much. I didn’t care either, so long as Etiènne was safe. “But let me know.”
We stopped at motorway services near Fresnay-l’Évêque for me to check Etiènne’s condition. Still unconscious but also still stable, according to his blood pressure, so we continued on into the night.
Pietro called the doctor when we were twenty minutes out, and she was waiting for us as we arrived at Etiènne’s building. We carried him inside, and the doctor had us place him on his bed and undress him. Then she examined him while Pietro brought up the luggage he’d recovered from the barn.
“Paolo, I can’t stay. I need to get the car back and away from here,” he said once he’d set the bags down.
“Then go. Thank you, my friend.” I shook his hand.
“You’re welcome. But please remember your promise.”
I let him out and returned to Etiènne’s bedroom. The doctor had attached a IV, hanging the bag from a light near the bed. She drew me out of the room so we could speak. “We’ll need a nurse and other equipment,” she said. “He will require morphine for a couple of days.”
I found the number of the medical service we used, and gave it to her. “Tell them what you need, and tell them it’s for the Donadieus.”
She called them and ordered it all. “Will you be here to look after him?” she asked.
“Of course. How bad is it?”
“Painful. Not life threatening unless there is an infection which is a definite risk. I’m prescribing antibiotics for that. He needs an x-ray to check his face but there’s so much swelling now, it’s pointless. I don’t think anything else is broken. Has he urinated?”
“Then there may be blood and that, we’ll need to check out. The nurse will see to it. He can eat what he likes, but it will have to be soft foods. No alcohol or caffeine. Lots of fluids, but otherwise, whatever he feels like.”
“How long before he’s back to normal?”
“A couple of weeks at least, more if his cheekbone is fractured. Do you want his own doctor to take over?”
“Not…yet. Uh…it’s a delicate matter.”
She made a face. “I guessed as much. So, I’ll check on him every day, and you call me if there is any change. The nurse will be here in an hour. If you are really worried, call an ambulance. Damn discretion.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She gave me her card, and I let her out.
I went back to the bedroom. Etiènne was asleep. The injuries to his face and torso looked even worse now that he’d been cleaned up a bit. I sat by the bed and stroked his hair. After the nurse arrived, I would call the police, and they could contact the family. But for now, it was just him and me. If not for Pietro and his sense of fair play, I could have lost Etiènne, and all because I hadn’t done my job properly. He deserved better from his bodyguard.
Dawn was breaking as the nurse arrived. She set up a pole for the IV bag, checked Etiènne’s blood pressure and pulse, and generally gave me an impression of competence. She showed no shock at all at his condition, only checking the dressings we’d put on at the barn, and replacing them where needed. She also put an icepack on his face to help with the swelling there. She gave me a list of things to obtain from a pharmacy that morning. I would have to do some shopping too, as the apartment had been emptied of perishables in anticipation of our absence. No housekeeper to help either. Even though I was sacked, I had a lot of work to do that day.
I gave it three hours for plausibility, then I called the police to tell them that Etiènne had been dumped at the door of the building and someone had buzzed on the intercom to tell me to come and pick him up. Shortly afterwards, two officers turned up to question me about my false story, but as I stuck to the lie, and Etiènne was still asleep but very obviously alive, there wasn’t much they could do about it right then. They said they would call the family. I told the nurse that no one was to speak to the prince but me, even his mother, because the situation was complicated. She gave me a knowing look, and promised to cooperate.
I knew exactly when Etiènne’s mother received the news because she called me while I was still in the pharmacy. I sent the call to voice mail, and the next three calls went the same way. When she messaged me, I replied that her son would call her laterm but he was sedated at the moment. I ignored her emails while I bought some essential food items in Carrefour.
When Maria Costello rang while I was in the lift up to the apartment, I answered. “Paul, what the hell is going on? Prince Etiènne’s mother has been screaming at me on the phone.”
I gave her the same lie I’d told the police. “He’ll speak to her later, Maria. She’s a very tiring woman, and he’s not well.”
“She says she sacked you.”
“Yes. But I work for him, and he hasn’t said anything to me yet. He needs someone in the apartment other than the nurse. The doctor ordered it.”
“I hope you’re not playing some stupid game there, Paul.”
“No, ma’am. Just protecting my client, who’s not Princess Marie.”
“She’s not going to be happy.”
She exhaled noisily. “Usually people are lot more grateful when they get their children back.”
“Why do you think I’m keeping her away from him?”
“I can understand that,” she said, and I heard the smile in her voice. “Keep me informed. I don’t want this bouncing back on the firm.”
The nurse came out to meet me as I walked in the door. “He’s awake and refusing more morphine until he speaks to you.” I handed her the parcels from the pharmacy and went to Etiènne’s room.
He was now propped up a little. Still looked like hell. “It’s me, sir.” I sat by the bed and he reached out blindly for my hand.
“Can’t see,” he whispered.
“I know, it’s the swelling. The doctor says you’ll be fine in a couple of weeks.”
“Can I dive then?”
“I don’t know.”
He slumped on the pillows. “I, uh, lied to the police,” I said. “I said you were dumped here. But I’ll tell them the truth if you want it.”
“No. No police. It was because of her. Her father…wanted me punished.”
“Which he had no right to do.”
His hand tightened a little. “No. But leave it as it is. I’ll handle it.”
“Your mother is screaming at people.”
He winced. “Can’t deal with her now.”
“No, sir. I told her you’d call when you were ready. But the police will want to talk to you as soon as you’re officially awake.”
“Okay. God, it hurts, Paul. I wanted to be brave but I couldn’t.”
I reached over and stroked the hair off his forehead. “No one could be in the face of that. I know the truth. She lied to her father. You did nothing wrong, Etiènne.” He squeezed my hand again. “Take the morphine, get more rest. You need it to heal. Are you hungry?”
“No. But don’t leave?”
“No, I won’t. I might have to step out to make a couple of calls, but that’s all.”
He fell silent. After a minute or two, I realised he had dozed off. The nurse was at the door and I beckoned her over. “You can give him what he needs now.”
Once she’d injected the morphine into the IV line, Etiènne relaxed even more into true unconsciousness. Once I was sure he was under, I went outside to call the police again, to tell them he’d woken briefly and they could probably speak to him that afternoon or tomorrow. I changed my clothes to something more suitable to sit in by the bed of a sick man, and made coffee for the nurse and myself. With breakfast in hand, I returned to Etiènne’s room, and took up residence in the armchair.
“I’ll watch him, sir,” the nurse said.
“No, I made a promise. You don’t have to hang around in here all day. Go have something to eat.”
I wanted to stay awake and watchful, but the reality was that the chair was comfortable, I had been without sleep for over twenty-four hours, and I’d been under tension all that time, so I had to admit to dozing off a few times. But each time, Etiènne was soundly asleep, the only change being where the icepack was on his face, or if it was there at all.
The nurse woke me several hours later. “He’s awake,” she whispered.
I reached over for Etiènne’s hand, and found him looking at me through slightly less swollen eyes. “Sir?”
“Etiènne,” he murmured. “You should go to bed, Paul.”
“I said I’d stay.”
“And you did.” He rolled back and looked at the ceiling. “I suppose I need to speak to people. Police or Maman first?”
“Your mother, I think. I’ll tell the police you’re ready, if you are.”
“Let’s get it over with. Then you sleep.”
“Maybe,” I said with a smile. “Do you want something to eat first?”
“I bought soup.”
“That’ll do. But call my mother and let me speak to her first, please?”
I tipped my head at the nurse to indicate she should step outside, then I dialled Princess Marie’s number. “Your son for you, your highness.”
Etiènne was only able to say, “I’m safe and fine, Maman,” before his mother launched into a tirade at him. At one point, he pulled the phone away from his ear and I thought he might actually hang up on her. But something in what she said caught his attention. “No. Absolutely not. He’s staying with me. You don’t pay his salary. No. Maman, I have to go.”
Then he hung up. “She wants you fired.”
“She’s not going to win this one.”
I took the phone from him. Now was not the time to argue, in his condition. “Soup, then the police?”
“Thank you, Paul.” He sank back on the pillow, looking worse than before. I wished he’d waited a day before he’d called his mother, but the amount of havoc she might have caused was considerable.
The police said they would be around immediately. I put on the soup to heat, and suggested to the nurse she go out for a walk and maybe a late lunch if she wanted. I hadn’t yet worked out if she was staying overnight or whether she’d be replaced. There were a lot of things I needed to sort out. Some assistant I was.
‘Immediately’ turned out to be half an hour. I let the gendarmes into Etiènne’s room, then stayed at the door. The interview didn’t take long. Apart from telling them he didn’t remember how he came back to the apartment—which may have been true for all I knew, considering his condition—Etiènne said he would not be cooperating with the investigation as it was a private matter. The gendarmes made some noises about his permission not being needed, which technically it wasn’t, but I knew without his help, it would go no further. They left with sour expressions. I didn’t blame them. Several serious crimes had been committed and they wanted to catch the perps. I wanted to catch them too, but my loyalty to Etiènne restrained me.
But I did ask, as I helped him eat his soup, why the hell he was protecting his former fiancée? “I’m not,” he said. “I’m protecting our family. But I’m not lying down and letting the di Pasquas walk all over me. Just give me a few days, Paul.”
“Her man found out where you were, and helped me bring you back. I don’t want him hurt.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll hit much higher than that. I won’t let you be hurt either.”
Whether he’d feel the same when he’d recovered and realised my ‘protection’ had not been worth what he was paying for it, I didn’t know, but I didn’t want him upset over any of that right now.
The doctor checked him over the next day, and said the drip was no longer needed. Etiènne insisted on the nursing being cancelled with it, and the morphine too as he disliked being on it. He’d make do with over the counter medication. The doctor thought he would be all right, if less comfortable, and agreed, so long as I reported any changes to her.
With the application of icepacks, his face was less swollen, though the bruising had become much more obvious. The doctor thought there were probably no fractures present, though an x-ray in a few days would prove that. She also suggested a little gentle activity as and when he could manage it, and otherwise, continuing on with the regime we had started until he was back on his feet.
I refused to leave him alone that second day, but by the third, he was a little more mobile, and there were matters I needed to attend to, like the impounded car and his research papers which had been collected for evidence, now no longed needed by the police. When I mentioned that I had to restock the kitchen, Etiènne asked me not to. “We’re still going to the villa,” he said.
“But you’re in no condition to travel.”
“A five-hour journey? I’ll be fine. I doubt they’ll want to abduct me twice.”
“That’s not what I meant. Your back is a mess.”
“And they have beds down there. I promised myself a vacation, and I shall have it, so on Friday, we’re leaving. I’ll manage.”
I didn’t like it, but he knew how much pain he was in. At least the car was comfortable enough. I didn’t buy any more supplies beyond what we could use that day, and the next.
Etiènne also asked—demanded, rather—that Margherita come to the apartment before we left for the villa. I thought she would refuse but he must have pushed the right buttons because she turned up late Thursday morning, with Pietro, looking grim, in attendance. She was as lovely as ever but I couldn’t admire her now, knowing her heart was so black.
Etiènne had asked me to help him to dress in a good suit, and so the only sign of his injuries was the bruising on his face. Margherita appeared unmoved as she sat down, her haughty expression betraying no emotion beyond disgust at everyone present.
“Pleased at the results, Margherita?” Etiènne asked.
“You have only yourself to blame.”
“Ah, we know that’s not true. I imagine you think I haven’t reported your role in all this in deference to your father and my family. You’re wrong. I plan to tell everything I know about this to the police and have you arrested for conspiracy to murder.”
She gasped and Pietro took a step forward. I got in front of him. “Back off, my friend.”
“So I did. He didn’t. Keep back.” I showed him my gun under my jacket. “I mean it, Pietro.”
His eyes narrowed but he obeyed.
“You can’t,” Margherita said, looking around for Pietro’s support, then back to Etiènne. “The scandal—”
“What scandal, mademoiselle? That I’m bisexual and you’re a bigot? That your father is an intolerant bully? You think that will make your family look good?”
She tossed her head. “You have no proof of any of it.”
“No? I think you’ll find there is. DNA, CCTV, phone records, finger prints, all kinds of things. Once they start digging, it will be traced back to your father, and his reasons will trace back to you. However, if you want to avoid being arrested and having your father extradited, I will accept two things in exchange for my silence.”
“What two things?” Her expression was wary, but I sensed hopefulness too.
“First, you resign your job and get the hell out of Paris. I don’t want to ever see you or hear your name again.”
She lifted her chin. “How dare you.”
“Easily. The second is that your father donate four million euros to the Paris Cetacean Institute.”
“Never! This is blackmail!”
He shrugged. I glanced at Pietro and to my amazement, he was smiling slightly. He’d expected something much worse. “Up to you, Margherita. I did nothing to warrant what your father’s thugs did, and more than that, they attacked Paul and could have killed him. These things have consequences. So you choose. A dignified retreat and a more than reasonable compensation donated to charity, or your name dragged through the muck. I have some very colourful bruises under this suit, and goodness me, they would look just dreadful in the newspapers. And I have many friends in this town, none of whom are the least bothered by my sexuality. You do not. You won’t be popular once this gets out.” He turned to me. “Paul, your phone if you would?”
“Certainly, sir.” I handed it over. “The number for the investigating officers is in my call history.”
“Thank you. Margherita?”
“You expect me to agree to this now?”
“You have something more pressing to do than protecting your precious reputation?”
She scowled at him, then pulled her phone out of her purse. “I need to call my father.”
Her expression still thunderous, she dialled the number, and there followed a short but furious conversation in Italian with her father. From Pietro’s expression, I gathered my friend was gleaning a certain amount of pleasure from what he could hear. Etiènne hid a smirk behind his hand, and managed to wink at me with one damaged eye.
When she was done, she put the phone in her bag again. “I hate you.”
“The feeling is mutual. Does he agree?”
“Yes. But you’re a dead man if you try anything against us.”
“Paul, please be my witness that Mademoiselle di Pasqua just made a death threat against me.”
“Yes, sir. I will.” She turned to snarl at me. I kept my expression bland.
Etiènne drew a piece of paper from his breast pocket. “These are the bank details for the Institute. You will email those to your father now, and I’ll expect a confirmation of the transfer within two hours. While we wait, you can compose your letter of resignation from Fleury and Bonneville with immediate effect.”
She looked about to refuse but seeing his expression, she wilted. We all watched in silence as she poked at her phone, angry tears in her eyes. “There, done.”
“Show me that you’ve sent the emails.”
She thrust her phone at me, and I handed it to him. He checked. “Very well, and now we wait for your papa.”
“You expect me to just sit here?”
He raised my phone. “Why, yes, I do.”
It was an uncomfortable half hour as we waited for her phone to confirm the receipt of two emails—one accepting her resignation, the other from her father. When the latter came, Etiènne called the Institute and asked them to confirm the money had arrived, which would take a few minutes. He hung up to wait for the call, then looked at her. “One more thing, Margherita. Your man there, Pietro, has more decency and honour and loyalty in his fingernails than in your entire family. He saved my life, and I owe him a debt. I owe you, signore,” he said, looking at Pietro. “Should Mademoiselle di Pasqua be so foolish as to have you sacked, you have a job with me for the asking. And for anything else, whatever and whenever that may be.”
“Grazie mille, sua altezza.”
If Margherita’s look could have killed, Pietro and Etiènne would have died on the spot.
The Institute’s secretary called back and expressed joy at such a large donation, now confirmed. Etiènne politely accepted the thanks, then hung up. “You’re free to go. Get out of my sight and my life.”
Her lip curled in disgust as she stood. “Vaffanculo,” she spat. Etiènne’s calm expression didn’t change.
Pietro guided her out of the apartment. I didn’t bother opening doors for them.
“Well, that was unpleasant,” Etiènne said, holding his chest.
“You should go back to bed, sir. Etiènne,” I corrected at his look. “Also—well done.”
He grinned, even though he winced too. “Thank you. God, this is such a bloody nuisance. Help me, Paul?”
I helped him undress and settled him into bed. “You’ll keep in touch with her man? I don’t want him to suffer for helping me.”
“I will,” I promised. “If he’s beaten or killed, I’ll be at the police before you can make it. Just warning you.”
“You have my permission. This has gone more than far enough. I had no idea she could be like this. I should have, though, meeting her father.”
I could have commented about Etiènne’s lack of resemblance to his own mother, but thought it best to stay quiet. “Something to eat, Etiènne?”
“Yes, please. I’d love a drink,” he added mournfully.
“Perhaps at the villa?”
“Perhaps. I won’t need one then, though. Are you all right, Paul? You’ve looked somewhat troubled since I spoke to my mother. She won’t have you sacked, I promised.”
So much for thinking I’d kept my feelings hidden. “Let me just get your lunch and medication first, and we can talk, if you wish.”
He still needed soft food, so it was soup and bread again, with a piece of brie and some grapes. I had my doubts that he would be ready to travel the next day, but he was looking forward to it, and after the business with Margherita, a change of scenery would be very welcome.
“Come and sit, Paul,” he said as I put the tray over his lap. “Where’s your lunch?”
“In the kitchen. You wanted to talk?”
“I want to know if there is something wrong. I want all the nasty surprises done with.”
“Well, the thing is—your mother wasn’t wrong about me. I failed you, so I wish to resign.”
He went still. “I thought you wanted to stay.”
“Before I let you be kidnapped right under my nose, I did. But I couldn’t protect you. You need someone…better.”
“No! Resign if you hate me or the job, but not for this. Nothing would have stopped them. They had guns, Paul. If they couldn’t subdue you, you would have been shot instead.”
“But someone was watching you, the apartment, and damn it, we knew there could be a threat from her father. I’d even discussed it with Pietro, though he said he thought the man wouldn’t do anything. I should have warned you.”
“And then done what?” He sipped some water before he continued. “Left town earlier? So they would have waited a little longer? Or followed us south?”
“I could have told the police.”
“And they would have watched me twenty-four hours a day, I don’t think. Paul, you were right next to me when they attacked. How could you have paid more attention than that?”
“I was fiddling with the car.”
“At my request.” He winced again. “Damn it, being angry hurts. No. We will not speak of this again. I won’t lose you over this shit, understand? Paul?”
“Now get your lunch and keep me company, please. I hate eating alone.” He reached out for my hand, then squeezed it. “You have my total trust and support. Never doubt it.”
“Thank you. I won’t fail you again.”
“You haven’t.” He smiled up at me. “No more. I need you to be you, Paul, more than I need a perfect bodyguard. Yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
Oh God, I was in so much trouble.
After an x-ray on Friday morning confirmed that Etiènne had no cheek or other fractures, we made a successful escape from Paris down to the Médoc peninsula. He was, by now, much more mobile, though still in considerable pain from so many deep bruises and cuts. He claimed the painkillers he was taking were enough, but I wished he’d had something stronger, at least for the drive. I took it easy and as smoothly as I could, and he didn’t complain. Only at the end of the trip when he faced the stairs up to the villa did he frown.
“I don’t think I can manage those, Paul.”
I would have carried him if that wouldn’t have been just as painful. All I could do was take his less damaged arm and boost him up as quickly as I could. He was white with pain by the time we reached the top, and had to take long breaths before he could continue. “Sick of this,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”
The villa was ready for us, and had been for a week. A couple of perishables had gone off, but most of it was okay. We were supposed to fend for ourselves over the summer, with a cleaner coming in twice a week and that was that. But we hadn’t reckoned on it just being me to look after things until the rest of researchers arrived in two weeks’ time. I wasn’t much of a cook, unfortunately.
“Never mind,” Etiènne assured me. “If we have to live off baguettes and cheese for two weeks, we will.”
Despite the pain, he looked much more cheerful than he had done in Paris. Perhaps it was the dispensing with the whole Margherita thing, or simply the prospect of two months away from the office. I settled him on the terrace, on a lounger facing the sea, then brought him some bread and camembert and a glass of wine. He looked as content as I’d seen him in months.
“Comfortable?” I asked, sitting near him.
“Very,” he said, smiling at me. “I could sleep here.”
“I suspect that might not be a good idea, Etiènne.”
“Oh, but Papa, I want to.”
I grinned at him. “Then we’ll have to see. Where are the whales?”
“Too far away just yet. But bring the binoculars. There’s plenty to see other than whales.”
We spent an hour or so bird watching, with Etiènne explaining to me how the birds and the sea mammals and the other sea life were all intricately bound together through the transfer of nutrients from shore to sea and back again. As the sun cooled off, I brought a blanket out for him, but he didn’t want to move. I worried he might burn, but he didn’t care. “It’s the best I’ve felt since you found me. Don’t fret.”
We didn’t talk about the abduction, or what had happened to him. I only knew what had been done to him from the evidence on his body. I let him know as politely as I could that I would listen if he wanted to talk, but so far, he hadn’t. Which was fine. Some people did and some people didn’t. I didn’t want to either, back in the day. I should have done, though.
I went inside to make coffee, but when I returned, he was fast asleep. I put the tray down, and pulled my chair closer so I could watch over him. I stroked his hair back from his face, a guilty pleasure of mine, and he stirred. I whipped my hand away, but he didn’t wake properly. I shouldn’t have touched him at all, but since the abduction, I needed that reassurance that he was alive and well.
I let him sleep until the breeze turned into a real wind, and quite cold. He groused a little at being woken, but accepted he needed to move. “When I am old and grey and full of sleep,” he said as I helped him stand. “I feel like I’m ninety.”
“You’re looking well for your age, your highness.”
He batted me with the hat I’d put on his head while he slept. “Cheeky man.”
With a bit of careful supervision, I managed to produce trout au gratin and a passable salad, and that with some decent bread, made a satisfying meal. Etiènne had another glass of wine, and took the stronger painkillers after the meal. I kept an eye on him but he seemed to be okay, especially once the pain relief kicked in.
We retired early. We were sharing a room on the ground floor, as the other bedrooms were upstairs and being kept tidy for the incoming guests. He sat propped up on pillows, reading a research separate, while I watched a documentary on my tablet.
By the time I was done, he was asleep. I took the paper from his hands and turned off the light. I couldn’t resist a gentle stroke to his hair. Sleep well, my prince.
Yeah, I was a sappy sod.
It was normal for me to wake a couple of times each night, and being in a strange room with another person guaranteed I would wake more often than that. But something woke me this time—a noise, gone before I could register what it was. I rolled over and saw Etiènne was not in bed. The door to the ensuite was open, and the light off. I got up, put my holster and the gun on over my shoulder and crept out. “Etiènne? Are you all right?”
“I’m here,” he said. His voice sounded choked up, like his nose was blocked.
I dropped the holster on a side table, and walked towards where his voice had come from. He was in the front sitting room, on the couch, the curtains open so the light of the full moon poured in on him. He was holding himself and shaking. I came and sat beside him.
His head drooped. “I had a dream. Too realistic. It woke me up, but now I’m too scared to go back to sleep.”
He snuffled again. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he turned a little towards me. Maybe it was too bold of me, but I hated to see him do distressed. I put my arm lightly around him, so he could easily shrug it off if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He curled into my careful hug, reaching for my free hand.
“It was like…like….”
“Being there again?”
“Yes. I’m not a coward, but….”
“You’re not a coward. No ‘but’.”
“I had some dreams before, but not like this. I can still feel it. Them. The smell of that place.” He shuddered and his voice grew thick. “I could do nothing to stop them. They handled me like…like a toy. A broken toy.”
I cupped his head with my hand, and stroked his hair. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “You did nothing to deserve it.”
“They weren’t worried I could identify them. They boasted about the lesson I’d be taught. They wanted to beat the ‘faggot’ out of me, they said.”
Jesus. I held him while the shaking lessened, until he pushed away from me and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Damn it. Sorry. I need a drink.”
“Alcohol makes the dreams worse, take it from me.” I didn’t let go of his other hand. “Some of the painkillers too. The opiods.”
He stared at me, dark eyes glistening in the moonlight. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing. Not to me.”
I took a deep breath, and looked away. “I worked on a unit investigating child abuse. To convict someone of possessing child porn, we have to watch everything they have on their computers and the like, to see if the child can be identified, and then to assess the nature and content so we know what to charge them with, and the judge can decide on sentencing. I, uh, had to watch a lot of it. A lot of very young children, even little babies, being abused. Raped. Some people can put it aside, use the normality of their lives to compensate. It’s the only way to cope. But not everyone can. I started to dream about what I’d seen, began to see signs of abuse everywhere I looked, and eventually developed PTSD. My marriage was in trouble and me being so knotted up about this didn’t help. I couldn’t talk to her about it. Eventually she had an affair and got pregnant, so we split up. She went off with her new guy. I went on sick leave and eventually I left the Force.” I looked at him, at his horrified expression. “So trust me, I know alcohol and pills don’t really work.”
“Therapy, anti-depressants. Letting the memories fade, replacing them with better ones. You don’t necessarily have PTSD. It’s only been a week, Etiènne.”
He pulled his hand away from mine, but slowly, without any distress. “I didn’t mean to burden you.”
“You didn’t. I want to help. When I saw you in that barn, I felt…I was so angry, so worried. If Pietro hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I’d have done. Helping you helps ease my conscience. My worry too,” I added as I saw him about to protest that I didn’t need to feel guilty. “But maybe you’d prefer to talk to someone you’re closer to? Your sister? One of your friends?”
He reached for my hand. “No, you. I don’t feel ashamed with you. I don’t have to explain, or apologise for who I am. You let me feel like a man, but also that I can feel afraid. Without shame.”
Without asking, I put my arm around him again. “Whatever you need, Etiènne.”
He rested against me, and I kept holding him. When I felt him sag into proper sleep, I didn’t move. I held him until the moonlight faded and the sun rose, wondering if I could really help keep the evil memories away.
I dozed off eventually with the warmth of the early morning sun on my feet. When I woke, Etiènne was gone. I found him back in bed, sound asleep. I didn’t want to disturb him so I closed the door and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, which I nursed back on the couch. It looked like being another beautiful day by the ocean. Inside my head was somewhat more turbulent.
“Good morning, Paul.”
I turned and looked over the couch. Etiènne was still in pyjamas with a dressing gown over the top. His smile was a little uncertain. “How do you feel?” I asked.
“Better. A little foolish.”
I got up. “No need. Would you like breakfast?” He was still moving slowly and too carefully. I motioned him over to the kitchen table. “Coffee? Muesli?”
“Yes, please, but you shouldn’t have to wait on me. It’s your holiday too.”
“It’s my pleasure.” I looked at him and made sure he realised I wasn’t saying that just to be polite. I touched him on the shoulder as I passed. “How’s the pain?”
“Better. I’m worried about the dive though.”
“Give it another week. I think you’ll find you feel a lot better. At least the bruises will.” His face still looked awful, though less swollen. The bruising was now in full bloom. He’d be scaring children for at least another week if not more.
He sat in silence as I made the coffee. I set the jug and mugs down in front of him, and the muesli packet but he made no move to serve himself. “Do you need help?”
He shook himself. “Never mind. We can talk later.” He poured out some muesli, and I went back to make some toast.
I wasn’t going to mention any of it, if he didn’t want to talk about it. Being forced to talk about something felt shitty, no matter what the topic.
He set himself up on the terrace again, this time at a table under an umbrella, so he could work on his laptop. Not, he made sure, on anything to do with the office. We had arranged that I had the only phone that could be called and answered—his was turned off, and the landline to the villa went to his message service. He would check vetted emails from his secretary, Édith, once or twice a week, and spend a couple of hours on Friday mornings at most, dealing with anything she couldn’t handle. Other than that, he was out of contact for anyone but close friends and his research acquaintances. It was an arrangement which was probably driving his mother insane, and I was petty enough to appreciate it for that very reason.
Last year, when I’d only been with him a few months, and he wasn’t down here for so long, we had been rather casual about security with the other researchers around. This year, after the attack, knowing that the senior di Pasqua would have a grudge the size of Sicily against Etiènne, and being down here on our own, I wasn’t going to take things for granted. I wore my gun all the time, the ground floor was locked up with the alarms set at all times, and I would not be leaving the villa without him. That meant food and other groceries would have to be delivered, but that wasn’t hard to arrange if enough money was offered.
So I had a lot of time free and not much to do in it. I used the small weights room for an hour or so, then had a swim. Etiènne was still working when I had dried off. “Coffee?” I asked.
“Something cold? Water will do.”
I brought out glasses of mineral water and ice, the ibuprofen he was due, and some fruit to eat with it. “Thank you,” he murmured, not looking at me.
“Is there anything you would like assistance with?”
“Yes, if you feel like it. I have a list of references I’d like the papers for. Do you think you could do the searches and shoot them over for me?”
He emailed me the list. I had his logins for the various academic libraries and subscription services, so all I had to do was search for the title and download it if it was available. That didn’t take long but then he asked if I could skim the papers I’d found and look for certain terms and species.
By the time I’d finished, the sun was high and the day was almost too hot to bear. He didn’t want to move inside, however. “It’s helping me loosen up. I don’t want to sit in the chair any more, though.” He moved to a lounger, and we ate lunch together on the terrace.
All morning he’d been…not unfriendly, but decidedly formal with me, like he’d been the first couple of months I’d worked for him. Probably embarrassment over the night before.
I brought him more water, and sat down next to him again. “Etiènne, you have no reason to feel that I might think less of you because of your nightmares.”
He stared at me. “I don’t…uh…no. You explained. Paul, if I say what’s on my mind, you might leave, and I don’t want that. That’s why I can’t talk about it.”
“There’s nothing you could say beyond ‘you’re fired’ that would make me leave. Is that what you want to say?”
“No!” He looked at me in horror, and had to drink some water before he could speak again. “My God, no. Because of last night? You think I’m a monster?”
“No. So if that’s not the problem, what is it?”
“Uh. Look, if I’ve misunderstood, I apologise in advance. But…do you have feelings for me?”
Shit. I tried to keep smiling. “You’re my friend. Of course I have feelings.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. Last night, you held me….”
“As a friend, Etiènne. One friend helping another friend.”
“So…I’ve misread things?”
I bit my lip. “You’re my boss.”
“Ah. Then I apologise. This is a situation I haven’t experienced before.”
“Nothing to apologise for. It’s been bothering you. Are we okay then?”
He smiled. “Yes. And I’m very grateful for what you did last night.”
“Any time. I mean it. Wake me if you can’t sleep. I don’t want that bastard to hurt you any more than he already did. You can get over this, and I want to help you do that. So whatever you need. I mean it. As a friend.”
“As a friend. A good friend.”
He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you. Now I think I might lie down for a bit.”
I helped him up, but he insisted on walking on his own to the bedroom. I took his papers and laptop inside and left it on the dining table.
Etiènne was no coward, but I was. I could have told him the truth, but I was utterly afraid of his reaction. I’d been careless, certainly reckless, hoping he would accept my inappropriate affection under the cover of friendship. What had I been thinking? Less than a month ago he’d been desperately in love, that relationship had crashed and burned in the most devastating way possible, and then he’d endured nothing short of prolonged torture.
I was a pig for doing that to him. If I wanted to help him, I had to keep my feelings to myself. And given his reaction, keep them hidden for as long as I worked for him.
If that wasn’t enough for me, too bad. Tough luck, Villeneuve.
I sat up with him twice more in the next week, but he was coping pretty well. Every day he was bit more mobile, and by the end of that week, he was able to go swimming, which helped loosen him up even more. The bruises on his face were yellowing. By the time the rest of the team was here, he would look normal again. A few cuts remained on his back, and one on his thigh was troublesome, but they were all healing.
We returned to an easy, friendly companionship after my stupidity, but I never sensed that he would have appreciated more than I’d admitted to. Not that I really thought he did, but to be so close to him, never closer, tore at me sometimes. Other times, I was simply glad to be with him at all.
Once he was fit enough to dive and walk for extended periods, we could go down to the dock with our dive equipment and check out L’Épervier, the dive boat Etiènne had chartered for the summer, one whose crew of six had worked with him a number of times. He introduced me to the skipper, a charming man from Guinea called Christian.
“Welcome aboard, Paul. Do you know much about boats?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. I’ve been on them for diving, but not for any length of time.”
“That’s fine. Etiènne will show where everything is and where you’ll sleep. The important thing is to obey the crew, hold onto the rails on deck, and keep out of the way if something is happening.”
“I can do all that.”
He gave me a brilliant smile. “Then we’ll get on very well.”
While Etiènne’s research interest was in cetaceans, his wider concerns were with ocean conservation and its health, so the team of researchers would be doing a variety of different tasks—species counting, whale tagging, logging, and photography, and looking at the frequency, size and positions of predators like sharks. Near the end of the longest run of three weeks, we would also dive on the reefs and underwater cliffs near Cap de l’Espoir, which housed a diverse and valuable group of invertebrates and corals. When anyone wasn’t diving, or processing samples, then they would be assigned to general chores.
I didn’t know much about boats, as I’d told Christian, but I knew L’Épervier was pretty big. Twenty-eight metres long, with berths for nineteen people, a comfortable deck under shade at the back and a spacious saloon. Etiènne showed me the room we would share. “You like it?”
“Looks great,” I said. It was cosy, but not overly cramped.
“I always try to get this vessel. It suits everyone perfectly and there’s room for everyone. On a long run, that’s important. Let me show you the rest.”
We spread out the dive equipment and checked it all carefully. “Are you going out today, Etiènne?” Christian asked when we were done.
“Er, tomorrow, if that’s okay?”
Christian looked a little surprised at the delay. We had come down ready for a dive, after all. “Sure, boss. The weather report is good. Good today too, if you change your mind.”
Etiènne hesitated, then said, “Sure, why not. Just a short run, let Paul get a feel for the water. You can decide where. Maybe that submarine wreck?”
“Yeah, that’s a good place. Ready to go when you say.”
“Take her out when we change then.”
Divers always changed into their suits on deck—there was never enough room anywhere else to do it—so Etiènne’s fading bruises and healing whip cuts were visible to all. None of the crew said a thing, if they saw, but I caught Christian looking and his eyes widening in horror. Etiènne didn’t see him, thank God.
“Ready when you are, captain,” I called when Etiènne said we were done.
The big Mercedes engine rumbled into life, slowly exiting the marina, then roaring as we picked up speed. “It’s a world war two German submarine that sank in 1943,” Etiènne said. “A lot of sea life.” He shifted again, trying to get comfortable in the wet suit and under the weight of the tanks.
“Do you want to call it off?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Getting back in the saddle and all that.”
Once in the water, he was fine. While the wreck was familiar to him, he obviously enjoyed exploring it again, and showing me the abundant corals, crustaceans and small fish using the ruins as shelter. Even with all the reading I’d been doing, I could only identify about half the species, but I had fun photographing them, and watching the little creatures feeding on plankton and each other. We only spent twenty minutes in the water, long enough before it would become too cold to bear. I climbed onto the boat, and then with Christian, helped Etiènne up out of the water.
“You’re injured,” Christian said to him as Etiènne removed his mask.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“Etiènne, I’m responsible for the safety of everyone on board. Are you really fit?”
Etiènne looked him in the eye. “I will be, I promise.”
“He will,” I said.
“Very well. I’m sorry for what has happened,” he added in a quiet voice, carefully clasping Etiènne’s shoulder. “I’ve seen such marks before.”
Etiènne nodded and moved away to remove his tanks. “Leave it,” I murmured to Christian. “I’m watching him.”
The warm sun was welcome on our shoulders. “How do you feel?” I asked him.
“Good. Very good. I needed this. And I will be fit. I’m fit now.”
“I know. He’s just shocked.”
Etiènne made a face. “I better tell the team, I suppose. Before speculation goes mad.”
“I don’t see why you can’t tell the truth. You’ve done nothing shameful.”
He straightened. “No, I haven’t. So, yes, I will. Thank you, Paul.”
“Any time, Etiènne.”
Once we were docked, he took Christian aside for a private discussion. Watching Christian’s face change from polite interest to sympathy, I knew telling him the truth had been the right thing to do. The man had already guessed the worst of it, so why not tell him everything?
Etiènne was quiet as he drove back to the villa. He went off to shower, and I used another bathroom to do the same. The chill from the water had soaked into my bones.
When Etiènne emerged, I offered lunch and coffee on the terrace, in the sun. “That would be perfect,” he said. “I’m still cold.”
“Dry suits next time?”
“Definitely.” And they had the advantage of allowing us to keep more clothes on underneath, so Etiènne didn’t have to expose anything he didn’t want to expose.
I let him decide if he wanted to talk about the morning. I was content watching him and watching the ocean. It was our last day alone for a while—the first team of researchers arrived tomorrow, and would spend the night, before we all boarded the boat. The second and third groups would arrive at intervals thereafter. Etiènne and I would concentrate on the whales and other cetaceans with his friends and co-researchers, Charles and Édouard, but help out the others if we weren’t working on that. The weather was generally more favourable towards the end of summer but we would snatch opportunities as we could.
“I’m finding it hard to shake the sense of shame,” he murmured after we’d basked in the sun for about an hour. “I feel dirty, even though I know I did nothing wrong. I didn’t feel this way after the first time I was attacked.”
“They went out of their way to make it humiliating and painful for that reason.”
“Yes. And I know that. So why can’t I…just tell people the truth?”
“We condition women to believe assaults are their fault, and that message gets through to men too. Men are taught that we have to be strong all the time and if we can’t protect ourselves, we’re weak and unworthy. None of that is true. You’re not the only one to react to assault this way though. Far from it. But know that I don’t, Christian doesn’t, think you’re weak.”
“I don’t want pity.”
“It’s not pity. It’s concern for a friend, an employer, and for him, someone he has a duty of care towards. If I’d been the one tied up and whipped, would you pity me?”
He sat up to look at me. “No. I thank God every day that at least it was only me, and not you as well.”
“There you go, then. Keep reminding yourself when you feel ashamed, that we’re not ashamed of you. The only people who need to feel shame, aren’t here.”
He nodded. “Did you hear from Pietro?”
“Yes. The fools sacked him after all that. He’s been staying with his second-oldest son and his wife, just for a break. He’d appreciate any contacts you might have for him though, in France or Italy.
“I’ll do better than that. Forward me his contact information, will you? I’m going to send some emails.”
Now that was the prince I knew best, the one who saw a problem and acted on it immediately. I picked up our lunch plates and cups, and followed him inside. If helping Pietro helped Etiènne, I would be glad twice over.
Etiènne had a troubled night again. I sat with him on the sofa, him leaning on me, but not speaking. I wanted to hold him but didn’t want to cause the confusion I’d roused before. Still, I thought I’d helped. He went back to bed an hour later, and slept until morning. As usual it took me longer to go back to sleep. Punishment for not being as selfless as I pretended, I supposed.
Charles and Édouard arrived first, around ten, having driven down from Paris. There were hugs and backslaps all round, even for me. “You went quiet after the party,” Charles complained to Etiènne. “What happened?”
“Tell you later,” Etiènne said. “Paul, do you want to show them their room? I’ll put coffee on.”
“I’m so glad you’re coming with us on the boat,” Édouard said as we climbed the stairs. “Shame you didn’t last year.”
“I wouldn’t have contributed much. I hope I can this year, though.”
“We’ll work your butt off,” Charles assured me, grinning.
The next arrivals turned up at noon. Husband and wife researchers, Tim and Karen, both Brits who spoke little French. It didn’t matter since so many of this group were bilingual, but my presence was a pleasant surprise. “I’ve tried to learn as much as I can,” Tim confessed, “but in Paris you just get dirty looks if your French isn’t perfect, and everyone I work with over here speaks better English than I do.”
“I know. I often forget which language Etiènne and I are speaking in. We switch back and forth all the time.”
“He is half-Canadian, though,” Karen said.
I raised an eyebrow. “I think he prefers to think of himself as all Cap de l’Espoir.”
“No man is an island, except Etiènne,” Tim said.
We cracked up. “You have to tell him that one,” I said.
Geoff and Jean, both Canadian, arrived at two, and the last, Marco, from Palermo, arrived at three. Lunch was a snack and chat affair as everyone settled in, put equipment into Charles’ SUV to take down to the marina, and got to know each other, since the common denominator was Etiènne.
At eight, we settled into the living room with bowls of pasta, glasses of wine, and cheese from every country represented in the group. “Except mine,” Etiènne said mournfully.
I nudged Tim, who repeated his ‘no man is an island’ line, and Etiènne stared at him in delight. “I am an island, you’re right! I have a super power after all.”
“Maybe you can use it to find a way to produce cheese from seabirds,” I said, and there was a collected ‘Yuck’ in three languages. “Okay, not such a good idea.”
“No one is eating our seabirds,” Etiènne declared. “Except other seabirds.”
“And the occasional shark,” Édouard added. He was the resident expert.
“I’ll allow them,” Etiènne graciously said. “No humans, though.”
“So, you were going to tell us about Margherita?” Charles said. “Is this a good time?”
Etiènne looked at me, took a sip of wine, and nodded. “Sure. So you know she ran out of the party? That was after she found Alexis giving me a friendly kiss. That’s all it was, I swear. But that confirmed what she’d heard, that I liked men too. So she threw her ring at me, called me a bunch of vile names, and the engagement was off.”
“Nasty,” Geoff said.
“Oh, that wasn’t the worst. Two weeks later, her father, outraged that I had almost deceived his innocent little girl into marrying ‘un pédé’, had his thugs kidnap me, take me to an isolated farm, and thrash me with a horsewhip. Fortunately Margherita’s bodyguard caught wind of this, told Paul, and the two of them rescued me.”
There was a stunned silence, broken only by Marco’s vehement “figlio di puttana!” which even I understood.
“Tell me you went to the police,” Charles said.
“Wouldn’t have done any good, and just caused an uproar with my family.”
“So they got away scot-free?” Tim asked.
Etiènne’s colour was high, but he sipped his wine and seemed calm. “Oh no, not at all.” He made them wait a few seconds.
“Go on,” Édouard said.
“Well, I made Margherita resign from her job and leave Paris. I also made her father donate four million euros to the Paris Cetacean Institute which hopefully will offset some of the damage he and his companies have done to the environment.”
His timing was perfect. Everyone stared. I fell in love all over again, and waited for the reaction.
“That’s…that’s beyond brilliant,” Charles breathed.
“It’s positively Machiavellian,” Elizabeth said.
Édouard lifted his wine glass in salute. “Remind me never to piss you off, my friend.”
I grinned. Etiènne glanced at me, then smiled. “It takes a lot to make me that angry.”
“But are you all right now?” Charles asked. “This was only a couple of weeks ago?”
“I’m fine. Paul has been looking after me tenderly as a mother. Well, not my mother,” he added, and Charles laughed. “But I still have some marks, so I wanted you to know in case it raised any questions. I’m fit to dive, I promise.”
“Then that’s all that matters to me,” Charles said. “Well done, Etiènne. I’d like to see that bastard in prison, but since it wouldn’t have happened, this is the next best thing.”
We all headed to bed early, since we would head to the boat at seven o’clock. Etiènne was sitting on his bed when I returned from the bathroom. “Was that okay?”
“It was a thing of beauty, your highness. How do you feel?”
“Better, strangely. When I look at it as getting revenge in the best way against a bad man, it’s something to be proud of. I hadn’t, until this evening.”
“There you go. You used your superpower for good.”
He grinned at me. “I’m going to get a T-shirt with that line on it.”
“And one for me? ‘No man guards an island, except for me’?”
“Done. And I will only ever have one made, so no one else can ever guard me. How do you like the sound of that?”
“Music to my ears.”
We turned out our lights. If he ever did get that T-shirt made, it would be my most cherished possession and I would try to work out how to wear it around Princess Marie, too.
Over the next seven weeks, Charles’s promise to work my butt off was kept, not just by him, but everyone. I did a lot of diving, took a lot of geotagged photos, shot tagging guns at ten whales and one mako shark, measured a couple of hundred fish, counted many more invertebrates, learned how not to be thrown overboard in a big swell, was seasick twice during atrocious weather (so was everyone else), and learned more than I ever wanted to know about the eccentricities of boat toilets. We returned to shore four times to change research personnel and to restock, and once to obtain medical treatment for Marco who slipped and fell, and broke his wrist. Fortunately it was close to the end of his research time, but it was bad luck for him all the same.
I’d never seen Etiènne happier or more at ease. These were his people, this was his profession, his vocation, and he was living the dream. And because he was happy, I was happy. Because he was safe, I could relax completely. And I was having fun, learning things and gaining skills I never thought I’d need, as well as using a few I’d learned during my degree but hadn’t exploited until this trip.
When the weather wasn’t foul, we hung out on the deck. If it rained, we came inside to the saloon. We didn’t drink too much because we needed to be alert the next day and didn’t want to be out of it should a problem arise during the night. But a lot of cheap wine was drunk during the trips, and a lot of gossip exchanged. Also, a lot of songs were sung, often badly, though a few of the people who came onboard at different times had very nice voices. I certainly didn’t, and Etiènne was, at best, passable in a crowd, but Christian and his mate, Julien, played decent guitar, so we had some fun musical evenings.
But eventually we came to the end of the final run, and as had apparently become traditional for Etiènne, he insisted on setting foot on his principality to be. Landing at Cap de l’Espoir was tricky, and only possible in the dinghy from the larger boat. We motored to a tiny sandy cove, moored up, and jumped ashore with backpacks full of food and wine, and material to made a campfire.
Etiènne planted his feet firmly and declared, “Now you will all call me ‘Prince Etiènne Louis Donadieu’ and address me as ‘your highness’, peasants.”
Charles threw a wine bottle cap at him. “Bring on the tumbrels, mes enfants!”
“Traitor,” Etiènne grumbled, before coming to sit by my side. “Who’s got the food?”
We had three hours before we had to return. Christian had left two crew members on board L’Épervier, so he could come over and celebrate a very successful season with us. “I want to buy your boat,” Etiènne said. “And hire you all permanently. The Foundation could use you.”
Christian didn’t immediately object but pointed out that half the year, he went south to the Mediterranean which was very profitable for him. “I wouldn’t mind a permanent six-month booking though.”
“I’ll talk to the people in London about it. I don’t want to piddle around using other boats and other crews. You’re the best, and I want you.”
“Here, here,” Édouard said.
I didn’t say much that evening. I wanted to remember it all, store it in my mind as a time to think back on and know it was once possible to be completely at peace and happy. Because I had come to a decision which would probably mean I would never feel that way again for a long time. Better to cut things cleanly and in a civilised fashion, than reach a point where every day was a misery. Right now, and only for now, it was wonderful. But soon we returned to Paris, a renewed search for a suitable spouse, the whole petty business of the right heir of the right colour, and Etiènne would lose this happiness of golden time as much as I would.
But until I told him my decision, we were still here, trapped in honey and friendship, and I would suck all the sweetness out while I could, watching the setting sun over the ocean, here on this dramatic and once worthless sea stack, with a few screeching seabirds and the sounds of good friends and colleagues as the soundtrack.
Time was up, metaphorically and in reality. Etiènne climbed to his feet, and lifted his paper cup. “Scientia potentia est. To science, my friends.”
We drank, then tossed the paper cups on the fire. Etiènne and Charles thoroughly extinguished it, before crushing the few charred remains so the tide could wash them away.
And so ended my summer of dreams.
Christian sailed through the night to have us docked back in the marina by seven am. Charles and Éduoard were leaving their dive gear with us to allow it to dry, and Etiènne would ship it back to Paris with our own gear. This left them enough room to give two other team members a lift to the airport, while I drove Joe and Oliver. Once every one had collected their bags from the villa and their research materials packed, we left for the airport together, leaving Etiènne at the villa.
I returned at midday. The silence in the villa after everyone had gone was a little creepy after the rowdy, friendly atmosphere on the boat, and I was glad when the cleaner turned up to inject a bit of bustle and noise in the place. Etiènne had buried himself in his emails that morning, dealing with unavoidable estate business, and was still immersed on my return. I went for a swim, and wondered when the best time to talk to him might be.
I chose the late afternoon, when the onshore breeze cooled the house, and made sitting on the balcony a pleasure. I poured us both some chilled fruit juice to drink while we watched the swimmers down on the beach, catching the sun and adding to the sun cancer statistics.
“Only another week before we have to go to London,” Etiènne said, sounding mournful. “I like the end of summer less and less each year.”
“Me too. I have some bad news for you, I’m afraid.” He looked at me, head tilted enquiringly. “I’m resigning.”
He stared at me. “In God’s name, why?”
“For personal reasons. Nothing to do with how you’ve treated me. I’ve had a wonderful time, and you’ve been generous and kind.”
“You have another job?”
I shook my head. “No. I can work as much or as little notice as you want, but I have to go.”
He pursed his lips, his eyes rather hurt. “It’s your decision, of course. But am I not entitled to an explanation? Is it someone in your family? You’ve received bad news? Can’t we work around it?”
His eyes widened again, this time in alarm. “Your heart? Paul, we have to get you medical help. You can’t just walk away and expect me—”
I held up my hands. “Wait, wait. Don’t panic, Etiènne. I’m speaking metaphorically. I need to leave before mine breaks. No one can mend a broken heart.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I lied to you. When you asked me if I had feelings…and I said they were those of a friend. I lied. I do have feelings. I love you.”
He exhaled. “Thank God.”
Well, that was a surprise. “What?”
“I thought I was going mad, seeing things that were not there.”
“Um…do you realise what I mean, Etiènne? I’m in love with you. I have almost since I started working for you. I can’t bear it any longer and it’s not fair on you that I should…impose.”
“How are you imposing, Paul? You think I can’t cope with how you feel?”
I squirmed in my chair. “You were relieved when I denied what you thought was going on.”
“Only because I thought I’d imagined it because I was off balance. So you’re just going to leave? You won’t give me a chance to talk to you about it?”
“What is there to talk about? I’ve been very unprofessional as it is. I won’t hold it against you if you can’t give me a reference.”
He shook his head. “Paul, Paul, you’re a bloody idiot.” He reached over suddenly and grabbed the front of my shirt. I yelped a little, thinking he was going to hit me.
He didn’t hit me. He kissed me, and after the first shock, I kissed him back, my hands in his hair, tasting the sweetness of fruit on his tongue, smelling the spices in his aftershave.
He pulled back. “Idiot,” he repeated, grinning at me. “You don’t have to leave at all.”
“How…you never…I had no idea. Do you just fancy me? Just for sex?”
“Do I strike you as hard up for sex?” He stroked my cheek. I turned my face and kissed the palm of his hand. “You say you’ve been unprofessional? It’s me who’s been trying to be professional towards you.”
“For how long?”
“A while. Before Margherita. I did nothing because I thought you would leave, and because…well, my mother’s too much to inflict on you.”
“You were going to inflict her on Margherita.”
He shrugged. “She comes from the same kind of world. Money, privilege. Arrogance. Like me. Like mine. You’re….”
“Salt of the earth?”
“No, no, not that. You’ve suffered. You’ve laboured for where you are. I’ve had it handed it to me, I know that. So had she. The difference between us was that I wanted to give something back because of my privileges in life, and she wanted to guard hers even to the detriment of others. You only want to give, even to one like me who has so much. You’re a better man than I will ever be.”
“That’s really not true.”
“I would love the chance to argue your merits while you are fucking me.”
My mouth went dry and I grabbed some water. “Wow.” The devil was looking at me from under long eyelashes and enjoying the effect on me. “But I still have to quit. A protectee and a guard in a relationship is bad, and I don’t just mean in a Princess Diana kind of way. I was distracted that night, too caught up in thinking about being with you down here.”
“You couldn’t have stopped them.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But if I was distracted then, how much worse will it be now I know my feelings are returned.” I sipped the water. “Besides, your mother will have a stroke.”
“My mother’s always on the verge of an embolism over some insufferable inconvenience or other. I’ll handle her. Come here.”
I scooted the chair closer so we could kiss again. “Maybe we should continue this discussion in bed,” he murmured.
“But how can I respect you in the morning, boss?”
“Shut up and show me what you’ve got, Paul.”
There’s a lot to be said for sex with a younger man with a lot more experience than me. If I didn’t say it, it was only because my mouth was too busy at the time.
The sun hadn’t even set by the time I lay next to him, sweaty and sated. “I won’t have to quit. I’ll die in a week if this is what it’s like with you.”
He ran his hand down my chest and put it over my cock, which refused to listen. The spirit was willing, the flesh was weak, that kind of thing. “No stamina.”
“Bloody hell, Etiènne. You’re not a man, you’re a satyr.”
“Whatever else anyone has said about me, I hope none of them have ever had any complaints about my manners in bed.”
“It’s not your manners.” I rolled over to kiss him. “It’s the people who taught you all this stuff. I don’t know whether to thank them or shoot them.”
“Don’t whine, my love. Make supper instead.”
“Isn’t it your turn, my prince?”
He grinned under my kiss. “But now I’m too sore to stand.”
“Ah, I see the method in your madness.”
I made a simple pasta and sauce supper, and his lips were my dessert. “If you knew how long I’ve wanted to kiss you,” he said.
“Since about a month after you started working for me? You were putting your holster on at the apartment and something about the way you stood and the way your eyes kept watching me…turned me on so much. Of course I wasn’t going to ever say anything. But I knew you were hot.”
“Delusional,” I said, though I grinned at him.
“But then I discovered how decent you were. How you knew the right things to say to me when Maman had gone too far again. How you never looked at me like I was a slut because I had someone in my bed. Some of the others did.”
“The other guards? Who? I’ll have them fired.”
He waved a hand. “It’s not important. They weren’t unsubtle about it. No overt sneers or insults. Just the way their eyes narrowed, or their mouths did. And you were supportive over Margherita before and after. Now I know how much generosity that took. I wish you’d been more critical, actually.”
“I had no reason to be, Etiènne. I saw what you saw. Less, perhaps.”
He reached for his water. “If I’d been less careful about ruining our professional relationship, and less desperate to get Maman off my back, I might have been more cautious and taken my time before proposing.”
“But you were in love?”
He shrugged. “I thought I was. Now I wonder how much of it was relief at finally solving one of my biggest problems. She was very nice when it counted, we had similar interests, and she was capable in bed. I went too fast and paid the price.”
“I’m not. If I’d married her and then discovered her views? My God, divorcing her would have been so much worse than a broken engagement.”
I took his hand. “Speaking of going too fast, Etiènne…I’m going to cause you a lot more problems, while solving nothing.”
“I don’t want you because you’ll solve my problems. My mother will explode, for sure. Though you’re not being Catholic might be as much of a problem in the end as you’re being a man, I suspect. Although that is a problem too—for her.”
“No baby princes or princesses.”
“Not from me, anyway.”
“And I’m your employee. At least until I send my resignation in.”
He kissed my cheek. “Stop. Give me this week to enjoy you? We have time to work out things, and I’m making a few plans of my own. Even if you quit, I want you around me because no one makes me feel safer or more cared for.” He shook his head. “That, there. That’s what she was missing. She wanted to be cared for, but she never reciprocated. She wouldn’t have tended my wounds, or held me while I cried. I was fool enough to think I would never need it.”
“You don’t know she wouldn’t.”
“Oh yes, I did. How could I have been so stupid, Paul?”
“Many a man has married a worse woman for worse reasons, Etiènne.”
“Your wife? Was she horrible?”
“Not at all. I’m the one who failed. She wanted to help but I wouldn’t open up. I couldn’t…to talk about what I’d seen. I didn’t want to share that, pollute someone else. I pushed her away, and she found someone who could love her how she needed to be loved. I cheated on her before she did.”
“You don’t seem the type. I should warn you, I dislike infidelity intensely.”
His eyes held only questions, not judgement. “It was only one night, and she never found out. I went drinking after work and a decent looking bloke made a pass at me. I thought why the hell not, since things were so bad at home. I felt like trash afterwards. But the thing was, I also felt better, more alive while we were at it than I’d felt in months. My wife couldn’t reach me that way, not by that stage. Which isn’t her fault. She’s a good person. Margherita isn’t fit to wipe her feet.”
He kissed my ear and stroked his long fingers through my short hair. “But you aren’t friends?”
“No. I behaved badly when she left. Mocked her for being pregnant. I was a complete bastard and I’m not proud of myself at all. I wish I could apologise, but it’s too late.”
I turned to look into his eyes. “I don’t know, now. If you were her, what would you want?”
“Closure. But I’m not your therapist, my love. I don’t judge you for any of that because I’ve never been through what you did. I only ask you to treat me well, and those around me the same way. I see nothing to show me you wouldn’t.”
I put my arm around him and pulled him closer. “I’ve wanted you so long. I’m terrified of failing you.”
“Just be you, that’s all I want.”
That golden week by the ocean, making love to Etiènne, swimming, jogging, walking together, or sitting on the balcony watching the sunset as we held hands, was even sweeter than the time we’d had on the boat, because this time I didn’t have to hide my feelings. Like all good times, it had to end, but at least when it did, I still had him, and we were still together.
Nonetheless there were landmines to dodge, and barriers to overcome. “I know you said you want me to keep working for you,” I said to him one night as we sat on the couch, watching the moonlight over the ocean, “but what if we break up? I don’t want my CV to show that for years I was working for the man I was fucking. Or that I wasn’t working at all, living off you. I want a real job.”
“Guarding me is a real job, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but the ethics don’t look good. I’m never going to be a researcher. It’s not my vocation. I’ll gladly help you with your work, but it’s still not a career path.” I held him closer. Even talking about a future without him scared me.
“You can hardly be a personal bodyguard to someone else and be with me. The hours are as unreasonable as the clients.”
I nibbled at his jaw line. “Yes, they are. Though some of the clients are better than others.”
He slid his hand inside my shirt. “So…what do you suggest?”
“I have no idea. I thought I’d found a new career when I joined Titan House. I found love instead.”
“And killed your career. I’m sorry, Paul. We don’t have to continue if you don’t—”
I’d put my hand over his mouth. “Don’t even think it.”
“All right. Sorry.”
“Honestly. After everything I’ve been through, agonising over you for months and bloody months.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Kiss it better.”
He climbed onto me and did his best to apologise with his very talented lips. It was a pretty good effort, I thought.
“Better?” he asked when we were done.
“Yes. Just never do it again.”
“I won’t. Look, my love, I have more money than I have any need for. I wouldn’t have to lift a finger for the rest of my life if I didn’t want to. I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t settle some of that on you and put you in the same position.”
“And if we break up in a year’s time, you’ll have wasted your money on me.”
“Not a waste, Paul. God.” He ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “How about we give it a year? Either we break up then and you go back to London and look for another client, or we marry and the family trust settles the same amount on you as it did on Nasim when he married Claude. If you want to, you can work for me either as a guard or a research assistant, or both if you want. If not, you can lie around on the couch eating bon-bons if you want. Or undertake studies. You can do whatever you wish. Even divorce me if it comes to it, if things go bad. Which I don’t want or expect them to, but….”
“Exactly. All I ask for is fidelity. If you want someone else, then go. I won’t stop you. But I won’t keep you either.”
“Perfectly fair. I hope you can trust me.”
“I know I can. So how does that sound?”
“And your mother? The succession?”
“Don’t care, don’t care. Let us have this year, okay?”
“I’d let you have my life, willingly.”
He twisted and held my face in his hands. “I feel the same. But one year to be sure. Okay?”
And then it was back to Paris, back to the same old, same old. Except that it wasn’t. Even that Métro ride into the office wasn’t as glum as usual, though we kept it as professional as always, if you didn’t count the occasional affectionate look, and the guiding hand on his back which meant ‘I love you’ as much as ‘I want to help you’.
We had talked about how to handle our new position with other people who weren’t his parents. He was all for openness, though he didn’t see the point in giving his mother ammunition to attack either of us right away. He wanted me to be sure I could handle the pressure from his family and any friends who might look askance at my sleeping with my own boss. On the other hand, he had no intention of concealing what I meant to him. So in one way not much changed—I still considered myself responsible for his safety, and would act as bodyguard when one was needed. But when he went out, we would go out as a couple, and if that required extra security, he would pay for it. When meeting his friends, he would tell them things had changed, if appropriate.
I liked this low key approach—anything to avoid more drama from Princess Marie. It was honestly no one’s business but ours. Etiènne had never courted publicity, and had never been featured in gossip columns. The only one who was uptight about who he was with, was his mother.
I continued to live with him in his apartment, only now sleeping in his bed rather in another room. I didn’t have to search any bed-mates he picked up from a club, because there weren’t any. I went with him to a couple of clubs and we had a great time, but he went home with me. (And the sex after hours of dancing with him was amazing.)
He was working on other changes too. The extended stay in the Médoc had been an experiment to see just how effectively he could manage things without physically being in the office of either the family estate management or the Foundation. It turned out the answer was, very effectively.
“Now, the question is,” he said over dinner in his London apartment, “is where we want to be based. I’m growing tired of being attacked in Paris, I have to admit.”
I hadn’t been able to shake the fear that Armando di Pasqua was still gunning for Etiènne, even though Pietro had confirmed Margherita had left Paris, which might lessen the senior di Pasqua’s need for revenge. On the other hand, the entire vendetta was based on nonsense, so his motives were unguessable. “The villa?”
“Hmmm, tempting. Perhaps a bit remote and not so nice in the winter?”
“Where makes sense for your research?”
“Paris or London are both as good. London means my parents, though. Not an insurmountable problem, though. I like this apartment and it’s not ridiculously big for the two of us. The Paris one is silly if I don’t intend to spend much time there. We don’t need one that size just for us, and Danielle has been talking about retiring for a year or more. I could sell it back to the family if they want to keep it.”
“Perhaps outside Paris? But with good train connections?”
“Sounds good.” He looked at me. “Don’t you have a preference?”
“I don’t mind, so long as it’s with you.”
He grinned. “You’re so romantic.”
“No, just not picky. But Paris isn’t safe any more.”
“Agreed. So, we find a place outside. Done.”
It was different for rich people, but I already knew that. Once I had the basics of how much he wanted to spend and the minimum size he wanted, and knowing we needed access by public transport to central Paris and the Cetacean Institute, I could begin the search, while he got on with his two jobs. Now Etienne considered himself a researcher first and a manager second, with the research taking precedence over everything else. Beginning immediately, he worked from home in Paris, only going into the office in an emergency. Same with the Foundation. We would not be going back and forth every other week, but spend longer periods at a stretch in London and Paris.
While I searched for a new home near Paris, he bought the villa in the Médoc from the family, and began negotiations for a permanent spring/summer contract for Christian’s services and his boat. The Foundation’s accountant wasn’t enthusiastic until Etiènne told the Cetacean Institute of the possibility of the boat being available to them as well, which would spread the cost. Then it made economic sense, and the deal was struck.
“If old man di Pasqua knew his money was going towards my work amongst others, he would have a heart attack,” Etiènne told me when he announced the news.
“Shall I tell him or will you?”
“Naughty man. How could you think such a thing?”
He was teasing, but the memory of finding Etiènne bloodied and beaten and left to die in that barn haunted me. I wasn’t generous enough to think di Pasqua had already suffered enough for what he’d done.
Realistically, we wouldn’t be moving from central Paris until the new year, and that suited Etiènne as his sister and her family were coming over for the Xmas holidays and would stay with us. Etiènne had been invited to London for Xmas but had declined, given his mother’s persistent unreasonableness about everything, and most recently, his decision to cut down his office hours. Claude had decided to decline the invitation too, in solidarity, though he hadn’t asked her to.
“Won’t this poison things permanently between you and your parents?” I asked him.
“No more than my mother has done with her raging. Poor Papa. All she talks about these days is the heir, the heir, forgetting that the title isn’t vacant, I’m not dead either, and by the time I am, climate change might mean Cap de l’Espoir could be underwater. Claude is well out of it. Besides, Maman flew to New York in October. She hasn’t been to Paris in over a year. She makes no particular effort to see me, but I’m supposed to bend over at her every whim? No thanks. I miss Papa though. Thank God for email.”
I understood his position but I couldn’t help but wonder how things would work out if and when Etiènne told her of our changed relationship. He told me not to worry—he would not allow her to hurt me—but still, I did worry. Family was important to him. It was to me too, but my problem was my father, not my mother. I had failed as a man by letting my wife get pregnant by another, according to him, and no second relationship, even with a prince, would change that. It was hard to miss the good wishes from a man whose opinion was so ridiculous. I missed my mother though. I couldn’t even email her. He watched everything she did.
Etiènne and I had a ridiculous amount of fun decorating the apartment for Xmas, and buying books for his nephews—no toys at the request of their parents. Danielle had retired with a handsome lump sum from a grateful prince, so we had to prepare a Xmas meal on our own. Etiènne could cook reasonably well, fortunately, and the apartment was not lacking in equipment for anything he might tackle.
Claude and family arrived on the day before Xmas Eve. Etiènne arranged a private car for them from the airport, and they turned up at four in the afternoon. I’d met them all before in my position as a bodyguard, and Etiènne hadn’t told his sister of recent developments, wanting to surprise her. So, after all the welcomes and hugs, and the kids looking at the tree with presents underneath, and squealing over their bedroom, I brought them all coffee—hot chocolate for the kids—and biscuits in the living room, pouring for everyone, as normal as you please. Claude smiled politely in thanks as I handed the cup to her, not suspecting a thing. It was only when I sat down next to Etiènne and he put his arm around me and kissed my cheek, that she realised something had changed.
“Are you and Paul…?”
Etiènne’s expression was pure innocence. “Yes, Claude?”
Nasim grinned at him. “Don’t tease, Etiènne. We’re all jetlagged.”
“Fair enough. Yes, Paul and I are together.”
Five-year-old Sébastian tugged at Claude’s sleeve. “Maman, what does that mean?”
“It means your uncle is very happy with his new boyfriend,” Etiènne explained. “Paul is my boyfriend.”
“Oh. Okay.” He wandered off to play with Vincent, his three-year-old brother.
“It’s that simple?” Claude asked.
“Yes, but there’s a lot more story to it which might be best left until the boys are in bed.”
“Only if you want to tell it,” she said. “Congratulations, anyway.”
“Yes, indeed,” Nasim said, lifting his cup. “Does this have something to do with the flurry of angry emails from Princess Marie over the summer?”
Claude groaned. “God, don’t talk about it. If I hear one more damn word about Etiènne’s failed engagement, I may vomit.”
“Then I better wait until after Xmas to talk about it all,” Etiènne said. “But enough of that. Tell me all your news.”
Once the children had retired, we ate a late supper, and Etiènne told his sister the details behind the broken engagement and our getting together. She and Nasim listened in horror as he went through the same routine as he had at the villa in the summer, and not even the punchline of how he’d exacted revenge on Armando di Pasqua, could wipe that horror from their minds. “Etiènne, you could have died.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “And she didn’t give a shit.”
“But he’ll come after you again,” Nasim said. “Both of you.”
“He hasn’t so far. I had a friend of a mutual friend pass a hint along that I’ve made a full sworn statement, as has Paul, and these have been deposited with my lawyer, to be given to the police in the event of anything happening to us. I also recorded the conversation with her that day, which will also be given to the police. I’m hoping that, and the need to keep Margherita clear of any scandal, will keep him out of our way.”
“It’s not enough,” Claude said. “You need protection.”
“I’m sleeping with my protection, dear.”
Nasim smirked at me. I smiled back. “Also we’re moving out of Paris. It’s not ideal but even a squad of guards couldn’t stop someone killing Etiènne if they were determined enough. We have to count on di Pasqua thinking he’s not worth more trouble.”
“It makes me ill,” Claude says. “I hate being so far away from you.”
“The point is, you’re far away from Maman, which is more important.”
“Sadly, yes. Paul, are you really ready to join this circus?”
“If we’re still happy together in the summer, why not? I’ve met your mother a number of times, and seen her at her worst too. If Etiènne can bear it, so can I. And we can run away too if we need to.” I took Etiènne’s hand. “Is Ushuaia far enough away for you?”
“Almost,” he said. “Don’t worry, Claude. I’ve become addicted to staying alive and being happy. I won’t give away either without a fight.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you happy,” Nasim said. “When we saw you last year, you looked so harried.”
“I was. Now I’m not, and I have a companion I love. Makes a huge difference.”
“Are you planning to go to Mass tomorrow night?” Claude asked.
“Yes, if you want. Not, if you’re not. I’m a bad Catholic, I’m afraid.”
“Who isn’t? But Midnight mass at Notre Dame is so beautiful. What about you, Paul?”
“Are you going, Nasim?”
“No. For the obvious reasons, and anyway the boys are a little too young to appreciate it.”
“Okay, I’ll stay here with you. Seeing it last year was lovely, but I don’t need to see it again.”
“Then we’ll have supper, the boys can open their gifts, and Claude and I will go to Mass, while you and Nasim stay here.”
That night, in bed, I asked Etiènne if he minded I wasn’t going with him to midnight Mass. “Not at all, my love. I’m only going for nostalgic reasons, not religious. It’s a lovely service but you’ve seen it. This isn’t about my mother and her Catholic obsession, is it?”
“A bit,” I admitted. “Seeing how much she hates Nasim being Muslim.”
“Maman dislikes Nasim for being brown, cleverer than her, taking her daughter away to America, apparently encouraging Claude to give up her claim to the title—which isn’t true—and his being Muslim is right at the bottom of the list. Anyway, he’s as Muslim as I am Catholic—pretty much in name only.”
“I’m not even sure I believe in God.”
“Your business entirely, Paul. Maman’s a convert to Catholicism and they tend to be the most fervent believers. The rest of us don’t care what other people do or believe.”
“Do you think Claude might change her mind about the title, if it meant saving the principality’s territory?”
“Maybe, but it won’t come to that. I have plans to put to her.” Etiènne kissed my forehead. “Don’t worry about this crap. That’s literally my job.”
“If it makes you stressed, then it’s my business.”
“It doesn’t, not any more. You’re the reason for that.”
“I can’t wait until we move. Claude isn’t wrong about the dangers here. Every day we stay is a risk.”
“I know. I can’t say I feel as relaxed as I pretended to her. But what more can we do?”
“Spend the rest of the time until the purchase is complete in London or the villa.”
He stroked my cheek. “You’re serious?”
“Then we will. We don’t even have to live in France if you’re that worried.”
“I don’t want to go that far but a few months spending less time here overall would be good. I know you made a deal with the di Pasquas and all the reasons you have for not making this public, but those men being on the loose worries me. Pisses me off too.”’
“It’s too late to find them now, unless we involve the police.”
“Not completely. You know Titan House employs a lot of ex-cops, right? There’s a reason for that. The firm does private investigation, including the kind of things the police would otherwise handle. You could ask them or their French equivalent to at least identify those men and find out where they are. I’d have already asked, but I never told Maria Costello the truth about how we got you back, and, um, it’s expensive. Very expensive.”
He pursed his lips. “No harm in asking about it, though? You would feel happier, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I would.” I tugged him closer and he snuggled in under my chin. “But it’s your choice.”
“Then ask for me, Paul. Feasibility, costs, all that. Then I’ll speak to her, okay?”
“You haven’t asked for a damn thing from me yet, and the only thing you do want, is to do with my safety. You’re a terrible person to buy gifts for.”
“I can’t answer that without sounding like the sappiest romantic in the world. But it’s true. You’re the only gift I want, Etiènne.”
Etiènne tickled me and made me yelp. “Absolutely the sappiest romantic ever. But thank you. I may be a bad Catholic but I thank whoever’s in charge up there for bringing you into my life.”
“Maria Costello? Your mother?” I asked innocently, then yelped again as the tickling began again in earnest.
Xmas turned out to be a peaceful oasis in what had been a busy and not always pleasant year. Claude and Nasim stayed with us until after New Year, and made us promise to visit New York for the season next year. Etiènne readily agreed, though I wondered if his mother would forgive being snubbed two years in a row. “We can visit her for her birthday in November, or she can fly to New York again. Maybe if we keep leaving her out of our holiday celebrations because she spoils them, she’ll learn to change her behaviour. She’s not a child, and not senile. She can work it out.”
I felt sorry for Etiènne’s father though. At least he wasn’t afraid to travel without her, as my mother was without my father. The antagonism between Etiènne and his mother would only grow worse if we stayed together, and I worried about that but not enough to break up with him. He felt the same. By the time he had completed the purchase of a house in Orsay, I knew I would never want to leave him, at the end of a year, at the end of a century. He never gave me reason to think he felt any different.
Before Xmas Etiènne had put in an offer for a large renovated farmhouse in Bois-le-Roi and it had been accepted. Even though it needed a bit of modernisation, I loved it. It was close to the forest of Fontainebleu, yet we could be in Paris in half an hour by train. We could host Claude and her family when she visited, yet the house wasn’t so large we would rattle around in it. We moved in at the end of February, and immediately, Etiènne relaxed. It wasn’t that he was immune to anyone trying to harm him, but anyone stalking him would stick out like a sore thumb. I installed a suite of security measures, which would help him be safer.
But the best news of all was that Titan House had managed to identity the men, both Italian, who’d abducted and assaulted him. Since Etiènne could positively identify them, and the details of his injuries had been recorded by the doctor who attended, a conviction seemed likely if they were extradited. However, prosecuting the men would mean going after Armando di Pasqua too, thus inviting him to retaliate. The Titan House investigators had spoken informally to the gendarmes, and it was felt that if the men were arrested and charged, then they could be offered a deal whereby they pleaded guilty and made statements to be kept on file as to who had hired them, they would serve much smaller sentences. With those and the covert recording of the confrontation with Margherita, di Pasqua could be extradited and prosecuted if he caused any more trouble. We discussed the pros and cons for nearly two weeks. The risk to Etiènne was high either way.
In the end, Etiènne gave Titan House’s report to the police, and made a clean breast of why he was worried about pursuing anyone over his abduction. The police agreed to keep the report on file, and if the men—or Armando di Pasqua—re-entered France, they would be arrested and questioned. Etiènne could decide what to do if that happened. He and I were happy that if the men stayed out of the country, and away from us.
“And so the bully wins,” Etiènne said to me after the final meeting with the police.
“I think there are four million euros’ worth of argument against that. Even for someone like him, that’s going to sting. Anyway, he didn’t win. He wanted to defeat you, ruin you. You proved in so many ways that he did nothing of the sort.”
He kissed me. “Only because of you.” He took my hands. “Paul, I know we said a year, but I don’t want to wait any more. Will you marry me?”
“Yes. Will you marry me?”
He smiled. “Yes, of course. Let’s get things moving so we can marry before we go south for the dive season. I can ask my lawyers to handle all the paperwork for you.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“No need to thank me. I’m being greedy. I want to call you mine.”
“You don’t need to marry me for that. I think this calls for celebratory sex.”
I put my arms around his waist. “And today, my prince will come.”
He groaned and rested his head on my shoulder. “Oh God, Paul, that’s awful. Never say that again.”
“Can’t use my fingerprints joke either, then?”
He lifted his head to glare at me. “No. No jokes about my damn title. I hate the thing.”
“Won’t I be a prince too when we get married?”
“Yes. You still aren’t allowed to make prince jokes. I’ve heard them all. Or nearly all of them. Public schoolboys are merciless.”
“Poor Paul, if you keep this up. Bad puns have a negative effect on my libido.”
“Oh. Consider all puns, jokes, quips and smartarse remarks about princes, kings, titles and crowns erased from my data core.”
“My libido is suddenly back online.”
“Then let’s take it for a run.”
to: hhjean_claude @donadieu.net
from: [email protected]
My dearest Papa and Maman
I trust this finds you well. I am writing to announce that I married Mr Paul Villeneuve of Paris and London on May 31 in a small civil ceremony in Bois-le-roi. After the dive season finishes, we plan a larger celebration for family and friends at our house in September, if we can find a date suitable for you. I understand from Édith that the weekend of September 9-10 is clear? If that is good for you both, I will go ahead and make arrangements. Claude is planning to fly over once the date is firm.
I don’t need to introduce Paul to you, of course, as you both know him. He is of excellent character, as you are aware, and not only has been a loyal and professional bodyguard while employed, but is now is indispensable as my research assistant. I look forward to you getting to know him better as your son-in-law.
It is my intention to designate him my heir to any title I may inherit in the fullness of time, as well as my entire estate. This has been discussed at length with Claude and she is perfectly content. I also intend to request the trustees to settle on him a sum at our marriage equivalent to that granted to Nasim. Although Paul is entitled to the courtesy title of Prince upon our marriage, he does not intend to use it. We have decided to unite our surnames and will be known as Etiènne and Paul Villeneuve-Donadieu.
After discussions with Claude, she has agreed that in the absence of any other heir to any titles I may hold at my death, I may designate Sébastien and then Vincent as my heirs. There is nothing in our or French law which requires heirs to be Catholic, and since my only concern with the retention of the title and principality is the preservation of sovereignty over our marine possessions, I believe these arrangements are adequate, though as Papa understands, we must take steps to solidify protection of these waters through the cooperation of the French and Spanish governments. In this Paul and I are united, and will continue to work with you to achieve this.
I hope you can find it in your heart to be glad of my good news, and that you will be able to attend our wedding celebrations.
Your loving son,
from: [email protected]
Subject: My engagement
Many apologies for the Vesuvius-like eruption of anger you will have to bear when Maman receives the news of my marriage to Paul. I hope once the dust settles, we can move past this tiresome episode and concentrate again on the work of the Foundation.
Paul sends his good wishes, as do I, and we sincerely hope you can come to the party in September.
from: [email protected]
Subject: Re: My engagement
Etiènne, this is unconscionable! Marrying your bodyguard? Why not your butcher, or your housekeeper? And he’s not even Catholic? How can you do this? Claude’s boys are being raised without any religion at all. This is no way for the House of Donadieu to conduct its affairs. The Grimaldis may sleep with their servants. We do not.
Call me as soon as you receive this.
to: [email protected]adieu.net
from: [email protected]
Subject: Re: My engagement
The “House of Donadieu” is too pretentious a way to refer to our little family, and all this drama is over the title to a lump of rock in the Atlantic.
I believe passionately in the splendid conservation work Papa’s parents began, and which you and Papa, and now I, continue with so much success. But I’m really not interested in our ‘house’, or its name, or its ‘affairs’. I’ll gladly surrender any claim to the title immediately if you will please give up haranguing me on this subject. If you don’t want me to do that, then please desist anyway. You have not the slightest chance of making me regret my decision to marry Paul, but you have every chance of my abandoning the Foundation and the family estate just to be free of this constant, overbearing criticism.
You have no idea what a good man you have gained as a son-in-law. I hope one day you will give him the chance to show you. But your opinion of him changes mine not at all.
Maman, I am awfully close to cutting all ties with you for the sake of my mental health. I don’t wish this. Paul does not, and I know Papa does not either. I beg you to show some sense here.
As for sleeping with the servants, you should be grateful that I at least managed not to get myself pregnant by one.
I would prefer not to call you until you can discuss this politely.
Grom: [email protected]
Subject: Re: My engagement
My dear boy
You underestimated the force of the eruption. It was more like Mt Tambora than Vesuvius.
However, I’ve weathered worse. I’m concerned your mother may anger you into disinheriting yourself. Please don’t. As for her threats to do so, she hasn’t the power or the authority to do so, and I would never allow her to have it. She’s a marvellous woman in so many ways, but on this subject, she’s a menace to herself and those around her.
The discussions with the French on how we could best preserve the marine reserve in the event of the title becoming vacant, as ever, move slowly. Things now look a little more promising, but we have some way to go before I can relax about it. One can never trust politicians, unfortunately, so we need to keep the title and the principality safe for at least this coming generation. It’s one of the rare good arguments for a hereditary system, but that brings with it these tiresome worries about who exactly inherits. Like you, I would prefer to be a full time conservationist and forget about the title completely. Perhaps I’ll achieve that in my lifetime. God grant me many years to do so, so I can hand things over to you and your husband with a clear conscience.
I plan to attend your wedding party even if I have to do it alone. Wild horses couldn’t stop me. Your young man always impressed me in his role as your guard, and I’m sure he’ll do just as well as your husband.
Don’t fret about your mother. Too much time in London always makes her too obsessed with minutiae. I think it’s time we took another long cruise.
Love to you and Paul,
I hope a letter from me won’t be too unwelcome. I’m writing to say what I should have said when we divorced.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being a poor husband and partner to you. I’m sorry for being so self-absorbed and not caring about your worries and needs. I’m sorry for not giving you the children you wanted. And I am so, so sorry for how I treated you when you left.
I hope you are happy now, and that your children are doing well. You deserved better than me, and you deserve to be happy now.
I recently remarried, and I didn’t want to start a new life without recognising that I had behaved badly in my old one, and without telling you that I know how much you did for me and how much you tried to do.
I wish you and your family all the best for the future.
Etiènne watched me post the letter into the letter box. “Feel better?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know if she’ll read it, or it’ll come at the worst time, or she’ll see it as some kind of insult. It’s a bit selfish after all. It’s all about me and what I want. I don’t know where she is in her life now. I should do. I should have cared enough.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and we started back down the road to our house. “It’s done now, and I think it was the right thing to do. Now, are you ready for this party on Saturday?”
“Definitely not,” I said, shuddering. He grinned at me. “Your mother still hates me.”
“But she’ll behave because of her noblesse oblige, trust me. Papa likes you, Claude likes you. My friends like you. I adore you.”
“I would hope so, Monsieur Villeneuve-Donadieu.”
“But of course I do, Monsieur Villeneuve-Donadieu.”
“Then all we need to do is hope it doesn’t rain.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You really think that’s all that can go wrong with a hundred people coming to a garden party?”
“You’ve ordered plenty of booze, the party organiser is handling everything else, Claude can manage your parents, and if we need to, our bedroom has a lock on it. So the only thing we need to care about is the Seine flooding, and that’s out of our hands. Also, we’re already married and nothing will change that, not even the worst tantrum your mother can throw. So I don’t care what else happens, so long as no one dies or gets hurt. Let them drink until dawn. I’m snatching you away on the stroke of midnight.”
He moved in front of me, dark eyes full of amusement and devilry. “Tell me more about this ‘stroke’ thing, Paul.”
“Certainly, your highness. A exclusive preview awaits you at home.”
This story takes place in the same ‘verse as More Than a Thousand Words.
Titan House—See More Than a Thousand Words
Former Royal protection officer—Steve McCallum from More Than a Thousand Words
“Her school friend is a mind reader”— we’re in the More Than a Thousand Words ‘verse
Île de Désespoir’ — Island of No Hope/Island of Despair
Cap de l’Espoir—Cape of Hope
Esercito Italiano—Italian Army
Finocchio, un sale pédé—homophobic slurs in Italian and French
“Grazie mille, sua altezza.”—“Thank you very much, your highness.”
Vaffanculo—fuck you, go fuck yourself, go to hell (take your pick :) )
Scientia potentia est—Knowledge is power
There is no Paris Cetacean Institute. Or to my knowledge, a firm called ‘Fleury and Bonneville’.
The characters’ opinions on the Monaco Royals do not represent those of the author.
Le Marais—Gay-friendly area of Paris
The villa is definitely not in the town of Soulac-sur-mer in the Médoc, but in one which might resemble it.
“Chelsea and Paris St Germaine”—soccer (in Australia/America) or football (as the rest of the world calls it) teams in England and France respectively.
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