She was choosing between the blue and black evening dresses, holding one in each hand out in front of her, when there was a knock on the door.
“Entrer”, Nicoline said.
Just as she turned around the bedroom door opened, and Federline came in with a smile on his face.
“Monsieur Federline”, she said. “This is not-“
She lost the last word, but he found it.
“Appropriate?” He just grinned. “Well, you’re decent and I’m decent and no one is around. Who cares about appropriate?”
At least he left the door open when he stepped further into the room.
Nicoline smiled. “And I’m French.”
Federline laughed and took a few steps closer to her, until they were standing right in front of each other.
“The thing is that I’ve gotten you a present”, he said, reaching out a small piece of paper towards her. She raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”
A bit hesitantly she put down both the dresses on the bed behind her and accepted the paper from his hand.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a ticket to the opera”, he said proudly. “For Tartuffe this evening. I saw it last week and it was quite enchanting, a very thought-provoking piece.”
It sounded like a much rehearsed line, one that was not his own. Like a parrot repeating its master. Nicoline understood quickly that that master was most certainly Charles, but she appreciated the decency that had made Federline say I instead of we.
“It is kind, Monsieur Federline”, she said, trying to hand the ticket back. “But I can’t-“
“I won’t accept a no.” Federline clasped his hands behind his back demonstratively. “Let me explain – did you know that today is Guerin’s birthday?”
Nicoline shook her head and felt embarrassed. What a snob he would take her for! She would explain that Guerin fiercely disliked her and would never tell her anything about himself, but she could not come up with the right words fast enough, nor could she figure out why it would concern her what Federline thought.
“Well, it is”, he continued. “So I convinced your husband to give all the servants the evening off and will drag him out to dinner, then we’ll spend some time at the club. So that leaves you, and as this was my doing I saw it as my responsibility to give you somewhere to go.”
She looked down at the ticket and lowered her arms as she gave up on returning it.
“It’s in French”, he said. “So, I thought you would appreciate it. Maybe it will feel like home.”
“Thank you”, she said weakly. “You are much…” She smiled in embarrassment as she forgot how to finish the sentence.
“Considerate?” He smiled happily and did not mention her blunder. “Thank you, Madame Carmichael. I just feel that I need to make myself useful. I am living in your house.”
And at once her smile faded.
“My husband’s house”, she corrected.
His eyes shone with compassion and he tilted his head to the side.
“Nevertheless”, he said. “I don’t want you to feel that I have forced myself in. We’ve been living under the same roof for a month and spoken only once, but I would truly like it if we could be friends.”
She shook her head slightly, thinking about all the reasons they should not be, about what people would say, what Charles would say, what she would be able to say.
“Are you thinking of the language barrier?” Federline said. “I do think it’s more of a mental thing, you’ve been speaking wonderfully now. I have no doubt that if you put your mind to it you could communicate very well in English, don’t you? You seem very bright, I think.”
Nicoline knew that she had not said much, but she still felt her cheeks blush and her voice was weaker when she said, “Thank you.”
He smiled and got up on his tiptoes, looking over her at the dresses on the bed.
“Are those the ones you’re choosing between for tonight?” he asked.
She looked back at them. “Yes, I-“
“Well, not now that you’re going to the opera, of course.” He was taking quick steps towards her wardrobe. “Your husband’s been teaching me about fashion and I find it all rather interesting, do you mind?”
He reached out for the wardrobe and looked back at her. She shook her head.
Federline opened up the wardrobe. “Why, look at this!”
He started flipping through the dresses, humming on a song, as if he was concerned about making her feel pressured to speak if he let the room be silent for too long. And maybe he was. Maybe that was why he had been talking non-stop since she had stepped in, and she had not gotten out more than a few words. She did not know if she would have felt forced to speak if he had not, but she appreciated his solicitude. It had been longer than she could remember since someone had cared about what she felt.
“How about,” Federline twirled around with a dress in front of himself, “this?”
It was sleeveless, light pink and very wide, with white lace around the bust and bows on the skirt.
“Is it not too-“ Nicoline waved her hand in lack of a word.
“Extravagant?” He looked down at it. “I don’t think so. Not for the opera, not on you.” He looked up at her again, with a sincere face an even more truthful voice. “You’re a very beautiful woman, do you know that?”
She opened her mouth, but before she could reply he waved her off as if it was dumb of him to even request an answer.
“Of course you do”, he said. “Everyone does. Well, everyone expect one.”
He shook his head at the absurdity. Nicoline took a deep, shivering breath and planned to say god knows what, but once again she was rescued from making herself into a fool.
“Just imagine how you’d look in this!” Federline exclaimed, as he started to spin around and around with the dress in front of himself. “With your hair up like that and a handsome fellow at your arm!”
She hid a chuckle behind her hand and tried to make her face stern.
“And who is the handsome fellow?” she asked with a raised brow.
“Anyone but old Charlie!” the spinning man replied.
In a second all air was sucked out of the room, taking all the joy of dancing and beauty of the pink dress with it. Federline stopped dead in his tracks and looked at Nicoline.
“Charlie?” she repeated.
“Don’t tell him I said that”, he said. “I wouldn’t be long lived.”
And like that, the situation was saved. He came closer.
“You have-“ Nicoline tried.
He put the dress up against her body. “A lot of nerve?”
He held the dress against her and looked at it, until he brought up his gaze and met her eyes.
“Audacity?” He smirked. “But I wear it so well, don’t I?”
She did not know how she managed to scoff when she could not even breathe properly, but she was very proud that she did, even though it sounded a bit nervous.
“Hold this”, he said.
She obeyed, and he let go and took a step back, observing her with thoughtful nods.
“Exquisite”, he declared.
Nicoline looked down at the dress. She had not worn it since she left France. Now she was too old, too proper. Did she dare? Did she care about how they would talk, how they would say that she was just trying to ensnare young men? Did she care that everyone thought she was a fallen woman, when she had always been her husband faithful, always sat silent when he returned home late at night, always looked the other way?
Looking at Federline, she was not sure.
“I choose this”, she said.
He slammed his hands together in joy. “Excellent choice, Madame!”
She stroked out some creases on the dress and imagined the evening in front of her. It was going to be fantastic. How could it be anything but, with that dress?
“Do you mind if I look at the jewellery too?” Federline asked, pointing to her dressing table. “I’m having ever so much fun!” he admitted with a grin.
“No”, she said, admitting that she was too.
He went over to the dressing table and opened it, poking through her belongings as if they were his own. She did not mind.
She gently placed the third dress on top of the other two on the bed and joined him by the jewellery.
“What about”, she pointed at the ruby necklace, “this?”
For no particular reason she remembered that he had complimented it the first time they met. But now he shook his head.
“No…” he said thoughtfully. “Not with that dress. That would be too extravagant. No, how about this?”
He was referring to the simple pearl necklace he had just pulled up.
“Around that neck of yours”, he said. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
“If you say”, Nicoline smiled.
Federline put the necklace on the dressing table. “And matching earrings.”
They stood looking at each other in silence for a few seconds. She had grown so used to having him do all the talking that she now found herself unable to do it herself, when he had at last run out of words.
“Well”, he said eventually. “I should leave. Before it actually becomes inappropriate.”
She gave him a smile as goodbye, and he turned around and left the room. But he did not take the magic of the moment away, and Nicoline’s heart was still racing.
She opened up her hand and looked at the small, completely ordinary opera ticket, thinking about his final words. What had he meant? That it could be considered inappropriate, or – she sucked in a breath – that it would become inappropriate?