If Isabeau St. Croix had known it was going to be her last Christmas Eve, she would have had a third helping of plum pudding.
As it was, she was avoiding the drawing rooms. She’d never imagined a parlor could be so crowded and stuffy, but when she’d mentioned it to Benoit, he’d only laughed and told her to wait for summer, when coal fog clogged the city.
“Don’t think I don’t see you there, chou,” he remarked dryly.
He was tal and thin with a dashing mustache. So many fine gentlemen had fled France during the Revolution that every fine house in London now boasted a French chef. Never mind that most of those chefs had never even learned to boil an egg at home. They certainly did wel enough here. “Mais non, you are murdering my carrots.” He shooed away one of his harried helpers.
Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, Isabeau shrank back into the shadows of the bustling kitchen. She ought to have known better. Benoit was determined to have her dancing in satin slippers, as any nobleman’s daughter would.
Not too long ago she would have begged for the chance. And before that she would have expected it.
Spending a year on the streets of Paris had changed her.
Silk dresses and pearl earbobs seemed decadent now, and the concerns of fashion and gossip ridiculous. Benoit despaired that she preferred his company to the opera. But she loved the crackling of the hearth, the heavy scents of baking bread and roasting meat. Tonight there were bowls of oysters, plates of foie gras, a turkey stuffed with chestnuts, almond cream, and tiny perfect pastries in the shape of suns and hol y leaves.
Benoit was the only person she could truly talk to. Her uncle was kind enough, as was his wife, but he hadn’t lived in France for nearly two decades. Benoit had lived in Paris during the storming of the Bastil e. He knew. But he stil wasn’t going to let her hide out in the kitchen al night, no matter how she begged.
“One little slice of galette.” He handed her a plate and a fork.
It was a traditional Galette des Rois, served in every French house during the holidays. She took a greedy bite. The second mouthful revealed the hidden dry bean tucked into the cake.
She sucked the fil ing off it and dropped it onto her plate.
“Voilà!” Benoit grinned. “I knew you would get the bean. Now you are queen for the night.” He plucked the fork from her hand even though she protested. She hadn’t finished scraping every grain of sugar off the silver tines. “And so you must dance until dawn. Allez-y!”
She slid off a wooden stool, knowing she couldn’t avoid the festivities any longer. It would be rude of her, and she had every reason to be grateful to her uncle. It hadn’t been easy for her to steal enough money for the passage to England and he could have turned her away when she reached his doorstep. He’d never even met her, after al ; she was the daughter of his estranged brother. His dead estranged brother, who hadn’t spoken to him since before Isabeau was born. And if it wasn’t for her uncle Olivier, or Oliver St. Cross as he was known here, she’d be spending this Christmas the same as she’d spent the last: huddled under the eaves of a cafe hoping some citoyen might give in to the holiday spirit and buy her a meal. If not, she’d have nicked the coins from someone’s pocket and bought it for herself. One learned to do as one must while living in the al eys of Paris during the Great Terror.
“Allez, allez, ” Benoit urged her. “I insist you find some handsome young man to flirt with you.”
She couldn’t imagine any young man would notice her, even in the beautiful white silk gown she’d been given to wear. She stil felt skinny and hungry and smudged with dirt and hadn’t the vaguest notion how to dance anymore. She had confidence only in her abilities to steal food and to find the best rooftops on which to hide when the riots broke out.
She forced herself to leave the kitchen mostly because the thought of the dozens of guests upstairs terrified her so. Before Paris, she had lived on a grand family estate in the countryside.
The house had marble floors and silk settees and dusty vineyards where she could eat grapes until her fingers turned purple. But then her parents had been taken.
What was a Christmas bal to the threat of the guil otine?
She found her way to the drawing room, where the guests had gathered for the midnight supper. Her uncle had leaped at the chance to re-create his own favorite childhood memories of Réveillon under the guise of making his niece more comfortable. He wasn’t fooling anyone. They could al see how thril ed he was to be serving tourtiere and champagne to his friends. He stood by the main hearth, which was draped with evergreen branches and white lilies from the hothouse. His waistcoat was hol y-berry red, barely containing his cheerful girth.
“Ah, here she is,” he said.
Isabeau concentrated on smiling, on not tripping on the hem of her gown and not wiping her sweaty palms on her skirts, on anything but the curious and pitying eyes tracking her progress.
“My niece, Lady Isabeau St. Croix,” her uncle announced. In Paris she had introduced herself as Citoyenne Isabeau. It was safer.
“Oh, my dear,” an old woman fluttered at her, the ostrich feather in her hair bobbing sympathetical y. “How awful. How perfectly awful.”
“Madame.” She didn’t know what else to say to that, so she curtsied.
“Those barbarians,” she continued. “Never mind that now, you’re quite safe here. We English know the natural order of things.”