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Hildegarde

"Well, what are we going to do with the girl?" one of the officers murmured. "Should we take her into custody?"

"She's scarcely more than a child," was the reply. "He kept her here. She's committed no crime as far as we know."

"She could have helped him steal the painting."

I ducked my head. I had often feared I would end up in a prison or worse for my association with Giraud.

Again, the woman's eyes were on me, penetrating. "What's your name, girl?"

A long silence ensued as I remained staring at the pock-marked floor, breathing through a sense of deep panic that my relatively stable life was no more. Then, "Gisele," I said reluctantly.

The woman looked at the officers. "I press no charges against Gisele. Merely M. Giraud for the theft of my family's painting."

"As you wish, mademoiselle." The blue-eyed officer, German in appearance I decided, nodded at me. "You are free to go."

The officers and the lady trailed down the stairs as I remained crouched in the shadows, listening to the street sounds through open windows. A cold autumn-tinged wind blew against me. I thought of how cold this room was in winter. I slept on this floor every night with burlap to cover and cushion me.

I found my legs would no longer support me and I sank to a wobbling heap on the floor, pressed my face against the stained boards and looked at the tools scattered around me, the tools that had restored that beautiful painting.

I lay senseless for what seemed like hours, though my thoughts were in such disarray time lost all meaning. It might have been a few moments. My mind traveled countless avenues asking questions and seeking answers about my uncertain future. When I opened my eyes a figure was standing at the top of the stairs. For a moment I thought it was the figure in the painting that had haunted my dreams.

She moved toward me slowly. Her girth was generous, womanly, but her footfalls were silent. She crouched near me, the gathered skirts of her brown wool dress spreading. Her hair, almost black, spilled in short, curling bangs across her ivory forehead. Beneath her watchful gaze I felt like a wild creature caught.

"Gisele," she said softly. "What will you do?"

I had no answer.

"My name is Hildegarde von Bertram. I would like it if you would accompany me, Gisele. You did a remarkable job restoring my painting. In my father's castle there are many such paintings. You could work for us."

I stared at her like a witless person, unable to believe this turn in fortune. Suddenly her satin-lined duster, warmed by her body, was around my shoulders. I looked from one lapel to the other, and at her face. Her eyes, still terrifying me with their intensity, remained on mine. No one had ever looked at me so long and so hard without wanting something from me. I wanted to run away from her. Some part of me didn't like her. I knew I would be a fool if I didn't go, and I felt myself sinking into the warmth of her coat.

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