Two and a half weeks later, Hélène stepped off the train at Albany station. It had been an easy ride despite the deep chill in the air and mounds of snow. Excitement pounded in her veins. It wasn't the first time she had travelled to meet with Howard but it was a much easier trip from her granddaughter's home in Manhattan to Howard's penthouse. However, the splendour of that grandiose home was much too large to be comfortable. Often it was filled with people who were taking care of Howard, as the governor, and the team of people who cared for the massive space, which occupied one complete floor. His newly found niece Reiba also needed a handful of people to help with the children and ease their transition to life in America. Hélène often felt overwhelmed just finding her way around the 6,000 sq feet of living space. The need to be discreet seemed to override any and all feelings of intimacy.
In Montreal, the happy couple had much more privacy. Her children seldom dropped by unannounced. She was free and available to give him all the time in the world, but his visits were few and far between. He was an extraordinarily busy man. She lived for those days, though many times it was just hours. Distance added considerable strain to a relationship already mired in many issues.
Hélène felt that she had done everything possible to settle her conscience regarding their love affair. That Howard's wife, who spent many months in a semi comatose state, had transitioned, did not justify any past or current action but she reasoned that she had not asked for love. Its advent into her life was there for a purpose. She had neither the heart nor the will to refuse.
Her steps out of the train station were measured and purposeful. The sun was just setting. Ledgister waited beside the same car that had taken her from Manhattan to Montreal just before Christmas.
'Good to see you again, Ma'am… Hélène.' She gave him a look about the name. 'I try Ma'am but I just can't do it. You are the boss's lady and I gotta respect that.'
'Not to worry, Ledgister. Call me anything you Iike. I am just so happy to see you. It's bitterly cold.'
He wasted no time hustling her to the car. Hélène climbed in, grateful for the warmth. The train had been chilly. After sharing her Christmas with the governor's distant cousin, she felt comfortable with him, asking a lot of questions to cover up her nervousness. He responded, sharing what he knew of an area that wasn't home to him either.
'It's nice enough Ma'am. Not much night life but very peaceful.'
Hélène wasn't sure what to expect. Howard had described the place in detail but he was a man and his perspective was limited to space and usefulness. The fairly short picturesque drive up to the house had a few ground lights here and there to define the road. The trees were stately pines and maples, but little else could be seen except for the soft lights on the wide porch.
If Hélène could describe her perfect house, the vision before her eyes would be it. Even if the interior was unappealing, the outside reminded her of every chintzy movie she had ever seen with country houses. Wide-eyed and smiling she waited for Ledgister to come to a full stop before exhaling.
He assisted her out of the car and through the snow. The front door opened before her. She expected a housekeeper, but it was Howard. He held out his arms and she ran the last few steps to fill the space between them.
'My love, my love, you are here. Come in. Please.'
Hélène was even more thrilled and surprised to see Howard. The joy, so evident in his eyes and voice warmed her completely. He put her away from him to look into her eyes then removed the coat, which felt like a barrier between them. She saw Ledgister slip by with her suitcase before returning her attention back to Howard.
The house seemed as charming inside as out.
Howard assisted Helen to a bench situated in the foyer. He watched as she removed her long winter boots and pulled on a pair of house slippers, which she carried in her purse.
'Let me show you around the house first, then we can have something to eat.'
'It looks lovely from the little I've seen. I'm looking forward to getting a full tour.'
Hélène meant what she said. The house was in mint condition. The colours were burnished gold, reds, and browns. They started in the living room, just off the foyer. A pair of French doors separated the two areas. The room was filled with comfy couches and chairs accented with inviting cushions. Various wall hangings added a cornucopia of international scenes. From there they went to the dining area. A dark highly polished table for six was placed at the center. The wood tone set off the walls. A centerpiece of blooming orchids provided an elegant contrast.
After leaving the dining area they went into the kitchen. Helen could not hide her delight. She let out a squeal of pure pleasure. Howard who was just about to apologize for the wood stove that dominated one corner of the kitchen said nothing. His love made a beeline to its silver and black color, running her hands over its stately old-fashioned beauty.
'This reminds me of my childhood. My grandmother cooked on an old stove like this and I have never seen one since. I hope that I will have the opportunity to use it while I am here. The challenge is exciting.'
Howard nodded surprised to find that the most intriguing part of the downstairs was a large old-fashioned, virtually obsolete, cooking utensil. There was a newer stove in another corner but she had absolutely no interest in that.
'This is so important when you have a power failure. You can always cook and keep warm if you have a wooden stove. How delightful this is.'
Hélène looked around at the other appliances with interest but her eyes continued to stray back to the wood stove. When she was finally able to tear herself away, he guided her through another set of double doors that opened out to a closed-in patio overlooking the backyard. Everything was covered with snow. A smaller building could be seen off to the side.
'That's Ledgy's quarters. There is a fully self-contained apartment over the garage but he cooks here.'
'Does he cook on the wooden stove?'
'Oh yes. His reaction was pretty much like yours.'
Hélène chuckled. She was not surprised. Looking out into the dark, it was difficult to determine what if anything the land would look like in the spring. She was not however disappointed by what promised to be a beautiful view.
Howard then directed her to the upstairs. They mounted the steps slowly admiring the old-fashioned wooden banister, stopping to look at more artwork lining the walls. On the second floor, he took her to a smaller bedroom with a double bed, dresser. He then took her to the next room. To her absolute delight she saw the one thing, which Howard knew, would capture her heart. In the middle of the room was a simply gorgeous grand piano. Helen walked towards it with eager steps. She sat on the lovely walnut bench running her fingers up and down the ivory keys. Her movements were neither random nor casual. She stretched her fingers to their maximum before sighing in delight.
'Howard. What can i say?' She was near tears and shaking her head.
'What you just did was thanks enough. To give voice and beauty to wood, strings, and metal is a divine gift. There is a wall switch in the corner that's connected to the sound system. I can hear you play wherever I am in the house, but you always decide when. Tomorrow you can indulge to your hearts content. Right now there is more to see. When we come back here I want you to open that door… but not now.'
Hélène didn't ask what was behind yet another set of double doors, but it would matter little. A beautiful piano was always her hearts delight. They left the room. She gave one wistful backward look promising to do justice to the glorious instrument.
'This used to be four bedrooms. This is my study here. Both rooms are sound proof so I can work while you play. Pardon me, we can both work. This is where we will play.'
He opened the door to a large bright bedroom. The bed was queen sized, sporting a soft head-board and lots more comfy pillows. The colours reminded Hélène of a churning Caribbean sea. For a brief moment she felt like a mermaid.
'You can change anything you don't like.'
Hélène shook her head. 'Howard, everything here is a wonderful compromise. This house is bigger than mine but smaller than your penthouse. The colours are a blend of what I have at home and your living space In New York. The bed is a queen, a sweet cross between your king and my double. I love it!'
She threw her arms around Howard. If he could be happy here she could. That's all that mattered and she told him so with multiple kisses and endless hugs.
'Hélène, before we eat, I want to tell you something.' He held her shoulders as he spoke commanding her full attention. 'All my life I have never wanted for anything material. I have been able to give and receive everything, except a deep and passionate love until now. We are together because of some gift from our better angels or the grace of God or whatever entity bestows love. This house is not mine. It's ours. You and I own it. You decide what works for you and what doesn't. What you see is a start. If I die, it is yours, if I live it is ours. You are free to come or go as you please, but I hope you will stay as much or as often as you want.'
There were no words that Hélène could find to express what she was feeling. No one in her life ever gave thought to her happiness. When she returned from her first visit with Philippe in California, he had secretly refurbished her home in Montreal as a gift, as a penance or as a balm to his conscience. She was deeply appreciative of his attentiveness even though he got her pregnant and walked away without a word. Philippe could never make up for missing their daughter's life. Hélène forgave him, while also accepting responsibility for her own actions. What she felt with Howard was a deep desire to submit fully to an all consuming love and one in which she felt herself to be an equal partner despite Howard's wealth and position.
The pieces of her past that begun to unravel in Montreal, fell away completely. 'This, this, she thought, this was how it was meant to be.
Ledgister had prepared a delicious full meal casserole. He left it to warm in the bottom of the electric stove. A light mixed salad was in the fridge. They sat and ate together at the kitchen table, sharing a bottle of wine. Conversation ranged on many topics. Politics was not one of them. They cleaned up together. Hélène could not remember feeling so happy and content. They mutually agreed to leave downstairs and have an early night.
'Do you have a song for me?' she asked, referring to their promise to share a melody after being apart.
'I do. And you?' he asked jokingly. Her repertoire of songs far outweighed anything he could produce.
'I managed to find something.'
Although the queen bed invited their presence, the ritual of sharing their love in song before bed was taken seriously. In truth, Hélène couldn't wait to get her hands on those beautiful keys again. In the music room, Howard asked her to open the double doors, which revealed a small collection of instruments that he knew she would use.
'If Ledgister is not working, I hope he will join me here from time to time. He has a great perspective on music.'
'I am pretty sure you won't have to ask him twice. He thinks the world of you already.'
Hélène smiled and fingered each of the instruments. At a glance she could tell they were of high quality but she would not expect less of Howard. If he had to choose between name brand and quality, he always went with the best. There was a panel on the wall, which seemed to house recording devices. She hoped that Ledgister understood the workings. She would love to record several projects pending on her musical calendar.
Hélène turned back to thank him. Howard was already seated at the piano. She smiled at him encouraging him to start. She would never critique his playing or singing. Howard often practiced very hard learning a piece to share. The goal was to make her feel special. His rendition of the song, "Make You Feel My Love" was as gentle and inviting as anything she had heard. She did not join in but listened with a full heart.
'That's beautiful Howard. So beautiful! I truly feel your love.'
He said nothing but rose from the bench and offered a soft peck on her cheek.
Hélène sat down, reflecting on her own choice. She thought about the words, separating them from the hundreds of tunes in her head. The melody wasn't piano dominant. Her voice would be the primary instrument in a song, which had a full range if she was to sing with the same energy as she first heard it. She manufactured a few notes of introduction in preparation. The song, from the movie Waiting to Exhale and originally sung by Patti LaBelle was a delight and allowed full voice to her feelings about the man who stood in front of her, offering a loving smile to warm her heart.
Once she began, Hélène gave it all. 'My love, sweet love, with you nothing else matters….'
She had no need to worry about disturbing anyone or anything except her lover. She had no audience to please and no microphone forcing her to modify her performance. What Howard heard turned his heart upside down and around. He was stunned into silence, feeling every note penetrate his being with the raw honesty of the words. Tears fell from his eyes.
The final line, 'I could not love you more….' rang out then pierced his heart and body with the truth of it. He gathered Hélène into his arms holding her as tightly as he had done on their last night in Montreal feeling renewed in the strength of their union and knowing all was right in their world.
For now, I have completed this story. I will come back to it at some time in the future. You can learn about the beginnings of their love story and follow their family adventures in FanFiction: Beauty and the Beast: Books 10, 11, 12.
My thanks, as always, to AF for her inspiration and KT for her contribution to the story idea.