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Beth Levine Ain is a former children's book editor and the author of WHEN CHRISTMAS COMES AGAIN: THE WORLD WAR I DIARY OF SIMONE SPENCER. She lives in New York.
Sabine closed her bedroom door softly behind her. She walked, holding her breath, down the hallway and paused at the top of the staircase. Downstairs, the house was buzzing. Sabine could hear Cook shouting frantic commands at his staff and the maids shuffling around on hands and knees, polishing the floors one last time. The flowers had arrived,and everyone was surely waiting with frayed nerves for Mother to come and either approve or dismiss them.
Sabine began her descent, stepping all the way to the left side of step number twelve to avoid its creaky spot. If she could just get out for a little while, she could make it through the rest of the day. She needed air. Three more steps and I'll be down the stairs and through the front door, she thought as she stared at her feet. One . . . two . . .
"Sabine!" Madame Margaux Durand was standing with her arms crossed at the bottom of the staircase. She had appeared out of nowhere.
"Mother," Sabine said carefully. "I was just on my way down to--"
"Honestly, darling, let's not start the lies this early in the morning. This is far too important a day for your usual nonsense. All of Paris has been vying for an invitation to our home to meet Mr. Franklin, and you're trying to sneak away. Do you have any idea how important this is for me, for our family? Do you know how many girls your age envy your position?"
Without giving Sabine a chance to answer, her mother continued: "Now, turn yourself around, go have a bath, and wait for Brigitte to come help you get ready for the party." Madame Durand uncrossed her arms and shooed her daughter away, back up the stairs, back into the long hallway that led to Sabine's suite, back into the room that, despite its grandeur, felt like a prison cell to Sabine. She was trapped.
Sabine threw herself onto her bed, and the giant satin duvet fluffed up all around her. She wished she could sink right into the mattress and disappear. All that would be left when Brigitte came to find her would be the small indentation of a sixteen-year-old girl. A girl, it would come to be known, whose mother had driven her to insanity and who, on themorning of the biggest ball to be thrown in Paris in an age, had simply vanished.
"Sabine." Her governess poked at her cheek impatiently. Sabine blinked and looked up; she had fallen asleep in the bathtub. "You could have drowned!"
"Wouldn’t that have ruined Mother’s ball?" Sabine replied wearily as she hoisted herself out of the tub and into the towel Brigitte held for her. "Actually, no," she said, rethinking. "I'm sure she wouldn't have let that happen. She simply would have told the guests that I had come down with a cold or something, and then she'd smile, sip her champagne, and plan to deal with the details tomorrow."
Brigitte played along with Sabine. "You're probably right. Only I'm sure she wouldn't have had the time to handle the details first thing in the morning.She'd have too much gossip to tend to. Who was wearing what, who had had too much to drink--"
"Who hadn’t paid enough attention to her!" added Sabine. "She'd have wanted to wait until afternoon, at least, to call for the coroner." Sabine laughed, and Brigitte, who was shaking her head, followed her into the dressing room. "Now, let's get me into this gown, shall we?" Sabine asked.
There was a knock at the door, and Brigitte went to answer it. From the dressing room, Sabine heard Brigitte's voice rise up, and she peeked around the corner out of curiosity. She recognized the profile of Brigitte's son, Michel, whose face hadn't changed since he was a little boy. Fair-skinned with deep, dark eyes and black hair, he was handsome, if a bit scruffy. Though she and Michel had been friendly as children--back when Sabine was a little rougher around the edges than her mother would have liked--their young friendship had come to an end long ago. Sabine had no use for him now. But he was Brigitte's son, so the Durands all tolerated his presence in the household from time to time. It was thereason he was even allowed upstairs. He had special consideration. Michel and his mother were very close, and Sabine had to admit that Michel was a good son for coming by so often to see his mother--even if it meant Sabine had to tolerate him when she wasn't in the mood.
Madame Durand hired Brigitte Bernard when Sabine was just a baby. She had come highly recommended, but she had a small baby herself, andshe would have to care for him in addition to Sabine. This was permissible to Madame Durand only because Brigitte had been the governess to a highly regarded family and that was just the kind of governess she had been seeking--not because she wanted Sabine to have the best care, Sabine knew. But because she wanted everyone in Paris to know that her daughter had the very best governess.
Michel had been a wonderful built-in playmate for Sabine, and he had always helped around the house, particularly with the gardening--he had anatural green thumb. But as they grew older and became teenagers, Madame Durand felt that it was time for him to go find work somewhere else. Brigitte had threatened to leave if Margaux wouldn't hire Michel to her staff--she would not have been able to bear being away from her only son. So Madame Durand had a choice to make: lose her daughter’s governess, who was by that time a favorite and trusted employee, or take on Brigitte's illegitimate son as a member of her staff.