Read Echoes Online

Authors: Danielle Steel

Echoes (3 page)

“No, I'm not married,” he said with a look of amusement. “I've thought about it once or twice, but I never felt it was the right thing, in spite of a great deal of pressure from my family. Oldest son and all that. I don't want to make a mistake and marry the wrong woman. I'd rather be alone, so I am.”

“I agree.” She nodded, looking surprisingly determined. At times, she seemed almost childlike to him, and at other times, as she spoke to him, he could see that she had very definite ideas, like about marriage and going to university.

“What would you have studied, if they'd let you go to university?” he asked with interest, and she looked dreamy as she thought about it.

“Philosophy. The ancient Greeks, I think. Religion perhaps, or the philosophy of religion. I read the Bible once from beginning to end.” He looked impressed. She was obviously a brilliant girl, as well as being beautiful, and so very easy to talk to.

“And what did you think? I can't say I've read it, except in snips and bits, and mostly at weddings and funerals. I seem to spend most of my time on horses, and helping my father run our property. I have a lifelong romance with the earth.” It was hard to convey to her how much his land and his own turf meant to him. It had been bred into him.

“I think a lot of men do,” Beata said quietly. “Where is your family's property?” She was enjoying talking to him and didn't want it to end.

“It's in Dordogne. Horse country. It's near Périgord, near Bordeaux, if that means anything.” His eyes lit up just speaking of it, and she could see what it meant to him.

“I've never been there, but it must be beautiful if you love it so much.”

“It is,” he assured her. “And where do you live in Germany?”

“Cologne.”

“I've been there,” he said, looking pleased. “I like Bavaria very much, too. And I've had some lovely times in Berlin.”

“That's where my brother Horst wants to live, in Berlin. He can't, of course. He has to go to work for my father after the war, he thinks it's horrible, but he doesn't have any choice. My grandfather and my father and his brothers, and my brother Ulm all work there. It's a bank. I suppose it isn't much fun, but they all seem to like it well enough. I think it would be interesting,” she said, and he smiled at her. She was full of bright intelligent ideas, and interest in the world. Antoine was certain, looking at her, and listening to her, that if she had gone to university, or been able to work at the bank, she would have done well. He was still impressed that she had read the Bible as a young girl.

“What do you like to do?” he asked with interest.

“I love to read,” she said simply, “and to learn about things. I'd love to be a writer one day, but of course I can't do that either.” No man she would marry would tolerate her doing something like that, she would have to take care of him and their children.

“Maybe you will one day. I suppose it all depends on who you marry, or if you do. Do you have sisters as well, or only brothers?”

“I have a younger sister, Brigitte, she's seventeen. She loves going to parties, and dancing and dressing up, she can hardly wait to get married. She always tells me how boring I am,” Beata said with an impish grin, which made him want to reach out and hug her, even though they hadn't been properly introduced. He was suddenly so pleased that he had nearly knocked her down. It was beginning to seem like a stroke of good fortune that he had, and he had the feeling that Beata thought so, too.

“My brother thinks I'm very boring. But I must tell you, I find you anything but boring, Beata. I love talking to you.”

“I like talking to you.” She smiled shyly at him, wondering if she should go back to the hotel. They had been sitting on the bench together by then for quite a long time. Perhaps longer than they should. They sat in silence for a long moment, admiring the lake, and then he turned to her again.

“Would you like me to walk you back to the hotel? Your family might be worried about you.”

“My mother took my sister shopping. I don't think they'll be back till dinnertime, but perhaps I should go back,” she said responsibly, although she hated to leave.

They both stood up reluctantly, and he inquired how her ankle felt. He was pleased to hear that it didn't bother her, and he offered her his arm, as they walked slowly back toward the hotel. She tucked her hand into his arm, and they chatted as they strolled, talking about a variety of things. They both agreed that they hated parties generally but loved to dance. He was pleased to hear that she liked horses and had ridden to hounds. They both liked boats and had a passion for the sea. She said she never got seasick, which he found hard to believe. But she confessed that she was afraid of dogs, since she'd been bitten as a small child. And they both agreed that they loved Italy, although he said that he was extremely fond of Germany, too, which wasn't something he could admit openly at the moment. The war, and the fact that their respective countries were currently enemies, seemed of no importance to either of them as they got to know each other. Antoine looked seriously disappointed as they got back to the hotel. He hated leaving her, although he had plans to meet his family for dinner. He would have liked to spend many more hours with her and was clearly lingering, as they stood in front of the hotel, looking at each other.

“Would you like to have tea?” he suggested, and her eyes lit up at the idea.

“That would be very nice, thank you.” He led her to the terrace where they were serving tea, and elegant women were sitting together and chatting, or prosperous-looking couples were eating little sandwiches and speaking in hushed tones in French, German, Italian, and English.

They shared a very proper high tea, and finally, unable to drag it out any longer, he walked her into the lobby, and stood looking down at her. She seemed tiny and appeared fragile to him, but in fact after hours of talking to her, he knew that she was spirited and more than capable of defending her ideas. She had strong opinions about many things, and so far he agreed with most of them. And the ones he didn't agree with amused him. There was nothing boring about her. He found her incredibly exciting and breathtakingly beautiful. All he knew was that he had to see her again.

“Do you suppose your mother would allow you to have lunch with me tomorrow?” He looked hopeful, as he longed to touch her hand but didn't dare. Even more, he would have loved to touch her face. She had exquisite skin.

“I'm not sure,” Beata said honestly. It was going to be difficult to explain how they met, and the fact that they had spent so much time together, chatting, without a chaperone. But nothing untoward had happened, and he was unfailingly polite and obviously well-born. There was nothing they could object to, except the fact that he was French, which was admittedly inconvenient at the moment. But this was Switzerland, after all. It wasn't like meeting him at home. And just because their countries were enemies didn't mean he was a bad man. But she wasn't sure her mother would see it that way, in fact she was almost positive she wouldn't, since her brothers were participating in a war against the French and could be killed by them at any moment. Her parents were rigidly patriotic and not necessarily famous for their open minds, as she knew well, and Antoine feared. Beata was also aware that if he presented himself as a suitor, her family would consider him ineligible because he was obviously not Jewish. But worrying about that seemed premature.

“Perhaps your mother and sister would join us for lunch, too?” he asked hopefully. He had no intention of giving up. A war seemed like a small obstacle to him at this point. Beata was too wonderful and magical to lose over something like that.

“I'll ask them,” Beata said quietly. She was going to do more than ask, she had every intention of fighting like a tiger to see him again, and she was afraid she might have to. Beata knew that in her mother's eyes, he would have two major strikes against him, his nationality and his faith.

“Should I call your mother and ask her myself?” He looked concerned.

“No, I'll do it,” she said, shaking her head. They were suddenly allies in an unspoken conspiracy, the continuation of their friendship, or whatever this was. Beata didn't think he was flirting with her and only hoped that they could be friends. She didn't dare imagine more.

“May I call you tonight?” he asked, looking nervous, and she gave him her room number. She was sharing the room with Brigitte.

“We're eating at the hotel tonight.” For once.

“So are we,” he said with a look of surprise. “Maybe we'll see each other, and I can introduce myself to your mother and sister.” And then he looked worried. “How shall we say we met?” Their chance meeting had been fortuitous, but not entirely decorous. And their long conversation had been unusual, to say the least. Beata laughed at the question. “I'll just say you knocked me down, and then picked me up.”

“I'm sure she'll be impressed by that. Will you say I pushed you into the mud, or just that I dropped you into the lake to clean you up after you fell?” Beata laughed like a child at his suggestions, and Antoine looked happier than he had in years. “You really are very silly. You could at least tell her that I caught your arm and kept you from falling, even though I did try to knock you over as I rushed past.” But he no longer regretted it. The minor mishap had served him well. “And you could have the decency to tell your mother that I properly introduced myself.”

“Maybe I will.” For a moment, Beata looked genuinely worried as she looked up at him, somewhat embarrassed by what she was about to suggest. “Do you suppose it would be terrible to tell her you're Swiss?”

He hesitated and then nodded. He could see that his nationality was a problem for her, or she feared it would be for her mother. What was going to be a much bigger problem was that he was a French nobleman and not Jewish, but Beata would never have said that to him. She was cherishing the illusion that since they were just friends, her mother wouldn't mind that much. What harm was there in making friends with a Christian? Several of her parents' friends were. It was an argument she planned to use if her mother objected to Beata having lunch with him.

“I am a quarter Swiss, after all. I'll just have to remember not to count in front of your mother, or I might say
soixante-dix
instead of
septante.
That would be a bit of a giveaway. But I don't mind if it's easier for you to say I'm Swiss. It's a shame that has to be an issue for any of us these days.” The truth was that his own family would be horrified that he was making friends with a German girl and, worse than that, was totally smitten by her. There was no love lost these days between the Germans and the French. But he didn't see why he and Beata should pay a price for it. “Don't worry, we'll work it out,” he said gently to her, as she looked up at him with her enormous blue eyes. “It's all right, Beata. I promise. One way or another, we will see each other tomorrow.” He was not going to let anything stand between them, and she felt totally protected as she stood looking up at Antoine. They were nearly strangers to each other, and yet she knew that she already trusted him. Something remarkable and wonderful had happened between them that afternoon. “I'll call you tonight,” he said softly, as she stepped into the elevator, and turned to smile at him as the elevator operator closed the doors. He was still standing, looking at her, as the doors closed, and she rode upstairs, knowing that in a single afternoon her whole life had changed. And Antoine was smiling to himself as he left the hotel.

2

MUCH TO HER CHAGRIN
, B
EATA WAS NOT PREPARED FOR
the reaction of her mother, when she casually suggested lunch with Antoine to her when they got home. Beata said that they had met at the hotel at teatime, had spoken for a short while, and Antoine had suggested they all have lunch the following day. She didn't have the courage to suggest to her mother that she and Antoine have lunch alone. Her mother looked horrified at the suggestion, as it was.

“With a total stranger? Beata, have you taken leave of your senses? You don't know this man. What were you doing that he invited you to lunch?” Her mother looked highly suspicious, she had only left Beata alone for a few hours, and it wasn't like her to have a conversation with a strange man. He was obviously some sort of masher, trying to prey on young girls, and loitering around the hotel. Monika Wittgenstein was not as innocent as her daughter, and she was incensed that this man had made advances to her, and even worse, that Beata seemed to find it appealing. It only proved to her mother that she was desperately naïve and still a child. And she assumed only the worst of Antoine.

“I was just having tea on the terrace,” Beata said, looking upset. This had not gone well, and she didn't know what to say to Antoine. “We started speaking, about nothing in particular. He was very polite.”

“How old is he? And what's he doing here instead of in the war?”

“He's Swiss,” Beata said primly. That was something at least. She never lied to her mother, although Brigitte did frequently, and this was a first for her. But somehow seeing Antoine seemed worth any risk she had to take or any breach it involved. In a single afternoon he had won not only her loyalty but her heart.

“Why wasn't he working? What's he doing loitering around a hotel?” As far as Monika was concerned, respectable men worked. They did not have time to hang around hotels at teatime, picking up young girls.

“He's visiting, just as we are. He's here to see his family, because his grandfather just died.”

“I'm sorry to hear it,” Monika said tersely, “and he may be a perfectly nice man, but he is a total stranger. We have not been properly introduced to him by anyone who knows us or him, and we are not going to have lunch with him.” And then as an afterthought, a few minutes later, “What's his name?”

“Antoine de Vallerand.” Her mother's eyes met hers and held them in a viselike grip for a long time. She wondered if Beata had met him before, but there was nothing duplicitous about the girl. She was just young and foolish and naïve.

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