“Ah, there were many when he first returned. The chaos he created at Crépuscule set the town ablaze with rumors. Some were truly wild, but a few emerged as popular. Some people say that he killed Gaston during the war to inherit the chateau and is haunted by actions. Others said that he had taken up dueling in Germany, and gained his limp from a duel over a woman that he ultimately lost. These people have tried to cast him as some exotic adventurer, their ideas based more on fables than reality. Another theory is that the war took all interest in life from him and he joined the nihilist school of thought. Whatever he did, I do not know. However, I do know that every year since his return, on or near about the fifteenth of May, he comes to my shop and buy a large collection of wine. What he takes differs yearly, except for one thing. He makes sure that I have a bottle of 1897 Malbec. Every year he asks for that, without explanation. The fifteenth is fast approaching, and I expect him here at any time.”

The sommelier stopped to finish his wine, setting the small glass back on the counter when he was finished. He swept his gaze across the travelers, before settling on Charlotte. His voice, once dismissive, took a serious tone. “Philippe d’Avout is not a man to bother. He is troubled and distant. Soon after he returned, he once assaulted a man that questioned the goings on at Crépuscule and nearly killed him. Since then, he mostly avoids us, and we mostly avoid him. I suggest that you let him leave your thoughts and enjoy your time in Aubellet.”

LaPadite shifted the conversation back to the men’s plans to explore the countryside, leaving d’Avout a topic of the past. The wine continued to flow and the mood among the patrons eased. Charlotte smiled, but her mind flashed back to the dead stare of d’Avout. She wanted to put the image far from her mind, but it continued to unsettle her.


The sun hung directly overhead. Charlotte and Elizabeth sat at an outside table, sipping chilled wine from the nearby winery. A day had passed since d’Avout had passed through town. The men were now off somewhere, fishing and reminiscing about the war. That left the women to peruse the shops of Aubellet and amuse themselves, which only led them to LaPadite’s winery and a few carefully selected bottles.

Charlotte had chosen a simple dress and a small hat for the day, while Elizabeth wore pants and a jacket, a look that had become popular with the women of Paris. Charlotte rested her chin on her hand, looking at her friend.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“Do what, dear?” Elizabeth said.

“Harry and James, how do you do it? You have been playing the two ever since we left. You seem to choose between them each day like you would a dress.”

Elizabeth broke into a coquettish laugh. “Oh that. Charlotte, it’s easy. Unlike you, I’ve never been married.”

“Are you saying I’m an old maid?”

“I’m simply saying that you went from poor Andrew to dear Geoffrey without much of a transition. You’ve missed out on quite a life in Paris.”

“I get as tight as you.”

“I don’t mean drinks, Charlotte. We are young and free, why shouldn’t we go and enjoy life?”

“Hmm, I see what you mean. Sometimes this whole thing seems like a blur. It’s a loss of innocence, but it’s so fulfilling. I just wish Geoffrey would embrace it.”

Elizabeth leaned over her drink with a look of concern on her face. “You aren’t happy with Lord Dryden?”

“He’s just been so moody lately. I’ll be honest, I’ll be happy when we leave this town.”

“I understand Charlotte,” Elizabeth replied with a smile. It faded a look of realization dawned on her face. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry, I left my purse back at the hotel. Can you wait here while I go get it?”

“Of course.”

“Good. And don’t drink all of the wine!”

Elizabeth hurried away from the winery, back towards the town square and their hotel. For her part, Charlotte sat idly by. She poured herself a full glass from the wine bottle, hoping it would last her while her friend was gone. She stared into the dark liquid, watching it swirl around inside the glass. She lost herself in there, her mind wandering.

“What do you mean by ‘a loss of innocence’?”

Charlotte jumped in her seat. She looked up from her wine. Philippe d’Avout stood in front of her, his cane in hand and that same dead stare in his eyes. Her hands instinctively gripped the edge of the table. His voice, there was something about it that scared her. It felt hollow and empty; just like his eyes.

She tried to speak, but found that she could not figure out what to say. Finally, after a moment of stammering, she asked, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

D’Avout’s look changed. The glare abetted, but the dead face did not alter. He pulled out Elizabeth’s chair. “I am sorry; I could not but overhear what you were saying. Please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Philippe d’Avout. May I sit down?”

Charlotte nodded. Her hands still gripped the table. There was something so unnerving about the man in front of her. What was it? Why did he frighten her?

“My name is Charlotte Miller,” she heard herself say.

“Hello Miss Miller,” d’Avout replied. “You are English, I take it?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am here with my fiancé and his friends.”

D’Avout nodded, then curtly spoke before she could say anything else. “Can you explain to me what you meant by a ‘loss of innocence?’”

Charlotte took a deep breath, trying to choose the right words. “It has to do with my fiancé. Or, you could say it has to do with the war. I was married once before. I knew him only briefly, it was arranged by my mother. I was young, and only three weeks after we married, he left for Holland. He died somewhere out there. It did not seem to affect me, he was just a person to me, not my husband.

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