The Soprano Ch. 05bybarabajagal001©
Engines roared to life and the world began sliding slowly backward. Claire gripped the armrests and stared mutely out the window. She loved to watch the ground drop away as the plane took off, even though it also made her nervous. Sebastien was a calming presence at her side, flicking through some magazine or other. As the plane straightened, he pushed the armrest up between them and drew her against his chest. He handed her a pair of headphones and she slipped them on, hearing the soft opening strains of Fauré's Requiem. It was the "Lullaby of Death," and it soothed her.
"Sleep now," he murmured against her hair, and she obeyed.
They were going to Paris for the Christmas holiday, although Sebastien had asked if she would be willing to stay at his family's country farmhouse in the days leading up to Christmas. Although his grandparents would no longer be there, his family hoped to keep up the tradition anyway. Claire was apprehensive about being in such close quarters with his entire family – all fifteen of them. What did people do in the country all together? What would the sleeping arrangements be? What was she supposed to do about presents?
She needn't have worried. Presents in the extended Boulet family were restricted to children – though teenagers and young adults sometimes received small trinkets as well – and coming from America, it was extremely easy to pick up a variety of little sweets and toys that would thrill the young ones.
As for what they would do, well, the more pertinent question would have been, when would they have time alone? Meals tended to be a lengthy affair with too many friendly cooks in the kitchen and lots of cheery conversation around the heavy wooden dining table. During daylight hours they would go on walks through cleared areas in the nearby woods or sled down the snowy hills or ice skate on the frozen lake in the village.
Then at night, after the children were in bed, the rest of them would gather in the great room around a merrily crackling fireplace and chat. Or they might take turns on the piano, singing jaunty tunes or soulful ballads. Eventually one couple or other would begin giving significant looks to each other, and around ten or eleven o'clock they would all wander back to their quarters and go to sleep, ready to be up with the sun the following day.
And what quarters they were! The Boulet family farmhouse was located about three hours driving distance from Paris, outside a sweet little town that was still more village than city. Its butter-yellow paint flaked charmingly, revealing the large grey stones it had been built with. The double front doors opened into a wood-paneled mudroom with a sweet little parlor just beyond. From there, the hallway split the ground floor asymmetrically – three bedrooms on one side with a bathroom between the front two, and the great room, kitchen, and dining room on the other side. At the far end of the hallway was the door to the backyard.
Above the ground floor were two more floors, each of which held four bedrooms and two bathrooms. When Sebastien was young, the two upper floors were generally populated by farmhands and distant family members. His grandparents' bedroom was the largest on the ground floor, and his siblings generally shared bedrooms when they visited.
The interior of the house was very pretty, simply furnished in medium-hued woods with exposed beams, some wood-paneled walls, and the rest papered or tiled with subtle patterns and soothing colors. Sebastien maintained that the interior had been redone, many times, but that his grandmother had preferred remodeling with the same materials over and over, so that the farmhouse when she died was similar to how it had been when she remembered visiting it as a child. Claire had found this admission – and the farmhouse generally – charming.
On this visit, Sebastien had asked to stay in his own favorite childhood room – on the ground floor, right beside the parlor. All of his siblings chose rooms upstairs, while his parents stayed in his grandparents' old room, leaving one ground floor room between them empty. All in the name of privacy, Claire supposed.
Not that it mattered. With a house full of people, neither of them were exactly feeling in the mood to get up to anything lascivious. Claire spent every night curled tightly around her lover in this strange place, and was astonished each morning to realize that this man, who had seemed so cold and distant, could be capable – even desire – such closeness.
Finally Christmas Eve came, and there was a bit of awkwardness as Claire realized that they were going to spend the evening in church. The only problem with spending religious holidays with your new boyfriend and his family, she thought ruefully, was that you had to have these kinds of conversations so much sooner than you might want to.
It wasn't that she had a problem with it – she hadn't been raised in a religious household, but as a classically trained singer she of course had to sing all kinds of religious materials. She didn't connect with them in the same way a believer might, but they were powerful in their own way to her. Sebastien explained that none of his family were particularly religious either, but Midnight Mass in town was a long-standing tradition that they all loved.
So after a long day in which Sebastien's mother, older sister, and occasionally some of the others, were ensconced in the kitchen making preparations for the evening meal, they ate a light meal and bundled up in warm coats and snow boots for the walk into town. It didn't take long; in twenty minutes they were within sight of the little churchyard, the doors to the sanctuary open and welcoming with their soft yellow light.
Claire couldn't remember the last time she'd been to a church service, and she'd certainly never been to one given in French. She let the words wash over her, cuddled up in the crook of Sebastien's arm. The choir was small, but the acoustics in the little church made it seem like a much greater group of people. Some songs she recognized the familiar Christmastime melodies of, and others were new – some Latin, some French. It was truly beautiful.
The service ended just after midnight and Claire was close to yawning. All of the children were asleep or nearly so, and each of them was in the arms of a parent. They walked back in the cold, clear night, Claire marveling at the stars overhead. She and Sebastien hung back a little from the rest of the group, holding hands.
"It is a lovely night," he murmured.
"Yes, it is. Part of me wishes we could go straight to our bedroom when we return," she said wistfully, nuzzling his shoulder with her nose.
"So do I, but then we would miss dinner, and we do not want to miss that. Especially since our absence would make a very ripe topic of conversation for my family."
"True. But still...to drag you behind one of these trees here. Well," she added with a blush as he looked down at her with a raised eyebrow, "to be dragged, would be more like it."
Back at the farmhouse, all the children had been tucked into their warm beds upstairs and the adults had set the table with the midnight meal. Claire thought she had never seen so much food in one place before. There were platters of raw oysters, shelled lobster meat, escargot in garlicky butter, roasted pheasant and quail, dishes of vegetables steamed and dressed, warm loaves of crusty bread, and a tureen of some savory soup. In the kitchen awaited a crisp green salad, chunks of cheeses, dried fruits, honey, and a buche de noel.
Claire indulged herself – they all did – and it was a sated and happy group that wandered off to their beds that night. She was so tired that she almost needed him to undress her, and she snuggled up to him in the bed – so much narrower than his back home – and fell asleep immediately.
Something awoke Claire, though she couldn't be sure what it was. She rolled over, reaching for Sebastien in the dark, but he wasn't there. Turning back toward the edge of the bed, she peeked at the clock. Three o'clock in the morning. She'd been asleep for just a couple of hours, and where was he? Dimly, she heard strains of piano music and she frowned. What was he doing out there playing piano at this time of night?
Sliding out of bed, she shivered. She wore only a long, black chiffon nightgown. It was a bit sheer, but in this dark no one would see anything, even if they were awake. In bare feet, she crept to the doorway, peeking down the hallway and seeing the soft light from the dining room. She tiptoed down the hall, listening as the music grew stronger. He was playing Beethoven again.
In the dining room, Sebastien sat at the old upright piano playing as softly as he could manage. The only light came from a little wall sconce above the piano, but he didn't really need it. There was no sheet music on the piano and he played from memory. Claire approached the piano bench silently, running her hand lightly down his back to announce her presence. He stiffened in surprise, but relaxed when she slid onto the bench beside him.
When he came to the end of the piece he sat for a long moment with his hands poised above the keys, and then began something else. Claire recognized it right away as one of the four-hand waltzes composed by Brahms that Sebastien had been teaching her as a bit of fun. She placed her hands over the higher keys and began tapping out the melodies she remembered. It was light, bright, dancelike. So different from the mood he'd begun in.
At the end of the piece he turned to her, kissing her lightly. He stood, swept her off the bench and into his arms and carried her back into the bedroom they were sharing. Onto the little bed they tumbled, drawing the down comforter over them and kissing until their mouths were sore and their eyelids were drooping once more. Then, Sebastien curled up behind Claire, holding her close to his body and nuzzling her neck until they'd both fallen asleep.
Christmas Day dawned brighter than any other day that week, with a charming fresh coat of snow outside. When Claire and Sebastien finally awoke, breakfast had been cooked and was waiting in the dining room. They had left their own presents for each other back at the flat in Paris to be opened when they returned, and they spent the late morning and early afternoon watching the kids play.
Dinner started early that evening, significantly simpler than the night before. There were leftover roasted meats, baked up in a bubbling cream sauce beneath puff pastry, and an assortment of vegetable dishes. Conversation had revolved largely around the return to work for all of them after the blissful vacation, whose birthdays were coming up, what news there was from friends of the family.
"Ah, our anniversary is coming up soon," Sarah said, shooting a significant glance at Sebastien, who rolled his eyes. Uh-oh. Claire knew what this was going to be about. His older sister had been getting on his case for ages about getting married, and she wasn't exactly excited about being in the room for the next round of teasing.
"How long have you been married?" Claire asked politely.
"Nearly ten years, and they have been the most glorious of my life, I think. Do you know that Jean and I dated only six months before our equally brief engagement?"
"And it will be six years for me and Ángel," Gerard piped up. The grin on his face made Claire wonder if the little teasing she thought had been just between Sarah and Sebastien was in fact some colossal family joke. Or argument, she added in her head as Sebastien tensed.
"Indeed, brother," added Raoul, "and four for my Lizbet and I."
"Yes, yes, you are all very happy, and I am very happy for you. Please drop it," Sebastien said, "as this is not a discussion I care to have again."
"Oh no, do explain it to us again, mon chou," Sarah chimed in again, clearly entertained.
"We have not known each other long enough to discuss such things, and as we work together it would be very...delicate," he said carefully. He was right on both counts, thought Claire. Though what they were doing now was plenty delicate enough as far as working together was concerned, and she suspected his family thought the same thing. "Please," he reiterated. "Now is not the time."
At that moment, Justine came back into the room; she had excused herself just after the discussion had begun and her eyes were still sparkling with the humor of the topic. She sat back down and fixed Claire with a pseudo-serious look.
"Tell us, Claire, when will you make an honest man out of my brother?" Although the question had been addressed to her, she knew its real target – as did everyone else. Sebastien slammed his knife down onto the table with a sharp bang as he spoke angrily.
"Please, as we have discussed innumerable times before, we are not getting married!"
In the sudden silence, Claire went very still beside him. She noticed that he had frozen, too, perhaps already regretting his outburst, but the damage had been done. Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment, the sharp ache in her chest compounded by the knowledge that the entire table was watching her, waiting for her response. She wanted to run, but it wouldn't help.
"Well," she said lightly, "not with that attitude, we're not." The tension lifted fractionally. Justine and Annette exchanged amused glances and Claire laughed a little, softly, so she didn't cry. Sebastien made a twitching move toward her leg with his left hand, but looking up at him she fixed him with such an intense stare that he retreated.
The dinner conversation returned to other, less charged, topics and Claire was able to participate, giving everyone the impression that it had just been a little bump in her day. But to her, it certainly felt as if everything had changed.
Christmas night, Claire excused herself from the great room. She needed a few moments alone but, she reflected as she started down the hallway toward the bedroom, perhaps not in the room where she and Sebastien had spent such warm, lovely nights. Turning on her heel, she slunk down the hallway and slipped out the back door, moving quickly away from the house. Her lungs constricted in the cold, and she made for the barn. It might be a little warmer in there, she reasoned.
She figured that she had about ten minutes before Sebastien would think to come looking for her, but she had barely made it to the shadow of the barn before she felt his fingertips grazing her elbow.
"Don't touch me," she snapped venomously, whirling on Sebastien and surprising him with her anger. His eyes filled with some unreadable emotion: regret, maybe, fear, anger.
"Mon abeille," he began.
"Don't call me that, either. I am so furious, I don't even want to see you right now."
"What did you want me to do, turn and propose to you at the dinner table?" he asked, getting angry himself.
Of course not, she thought immediately, although the thought inexplicably filled her with a jolt of pleasure. Not at the table, not with an audience, maybe not at all. The thoughts hurt and confused her. Did she want to marry him? Well, who knew? It wasn't the conversation she'd expected or wanted to have with herself that evening.
"Of course not, you...you...you idiot!" she finished, feeling triumphant and guilty at the hurt look on his face. "They were just having some fun at your expense. You could have ignored them, you know!"
"You do not understand" he cried, throwing up his hands in frustration. "Every time I call, every time I see them, they have to bring it up. I believe they want me to marry you even more than I do."
"You...do...?" she whispered, not sure if she felt more pleased or more terrified by the idea.
"I cannot simply marry you because my family wants me to," he protested, ignoring her whispered question. Oh. He doesn't want to.
"Are you an adult or not?" she snapped irritably. "Why do you even care what they think?"
"I do not care what they think! I care what you think!" he yelled, startling her into silence. "Well? Since you have so many opinions..."
"I...I don't want to talk about it right now," she said softly, turning away from him.
"I thought you would not," he said bitterly behind her.
"What do you want from me?" she cried, turning to him again. "I wasn't expecting to have to deal with this."
"Well. I do not want to be something you must put up with," he said coldly. "I never saw myself as the type to marry, and I do not see that changing any time soon."
"Fine," she said, spitting out the word with more finality than she had intended. "I want to go home," she added softly after a moment.
"Very well," he replied, frowning. "I shall inform my family of our departure."
"You don't have to come," she muttered, unsure if she was pleased when Sebastien took a step back, looking wounded.
"I am not leaving you to find your way to our flat and make arrangements on your own."
"Why? Don't even trust me to do that?"
"Of course I trust you," he said very quietly. "Do you think I want to stay here with these assholes after my girlfriend has left me?" Her eyes widened; she had never heard him swear like that before. There was a trace of humor in his voice, but couldn't bring herself to respond in kind.
"Now you know how I feel."
"I know very well how you felt from the moment I let those inexcusably cruel words out of my mouth." If this was his attempt to make up, she wasn't giving him the pleasure. Anger still curled hot and ready in her belly.
"You would rather be with me than them right now?"
Sebastien turned and walked back up to the house without a word. Claire followed and they packed their things in silence. Truthfully, she didn't know what to say. What could she say? When they were finished, they said their rather awkward goodbyes to the family. They had obviously figured out that some argument had happened. Justine was nearly in tears, thinking she had ruined everything. Perhaps she had; Claire simply wasn't sure anymore.
Back in their rented car, they had barely gotten out of the little town before Claire came to an astonishing realization: she wasn't angry. Yes, Sebastien had said something thoughtless, but it hadn't been intentionally hurtful. It had really come up too suddenly; neither of them was ready to deal with this topic of conversation.
So what was she feeling? A sudden, strong twinge between her thighs told her. Oh. She was aroused. Perhaps it was that they were so close, trapped in the little steel box for three hours, after they had not made love in several days. Apparently the argument, unpleasant as it had been, had really riled her up. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Was it hot?
"What?" Sebastien asked.
"I...um, nothing." Why was she being so shy? Did it have to be so hard to say, 'Maestro, I want you'? Apparently, yes. She licked her lip nervously, chewing on it absentmindedly as she glanced at him.
"Stop that. You are distracting me."
"Stop what?" she asked, genuinely curious. Could he feel it, too? Surely she wasn't making any obvious signs that she was aroused.
"You know what," he replied, his voice sounding strained. She looked down. Her chest was heaving with shallow, too-fast breaths and she was squeezing her legs together to abate the tingling sensations, but he couldn't possibly see that.
"I don't know," she whispered, reaching out to brush her fingertips over his thigh as he drove.
His skin felt hot through the fabric, which she noticed was pulled rather tightly over him. God, was he hard already? Her fingertips strayed closer, but he caught them up in one hand, squeezing down so hard that it hurt. She whimpered, the sparks of pain sending tremors of pleasure running through her. He groaned in response, flicked his eyes up to the rearview mirror and then suddenly jerked the car onto a tiny dirt road. He drove until the trees had swallowed them up, Claire's fingers still clutched in his, and then pulled into a little clearing, the car rumbling in protest.