SEX, LIES & CHAMPAGNE

 

JUNE 5, 1987

CHATEAU LEBLEU
ÉPERNAY, FRANCE

I clenched my hands into fists of rage. Frenzied thoughts dashed through my head. I was erratic—circling the room like a moth—never landing anywhere—going nowhere. With each despondent tear I shed, I wiped away another with crazed fury. I was shattered. And in between my bouts of grief and distress I managed to repeat only one phrase over and over, That son of a bitch.

I threw our clothes into suitcases and trunks I’d grabbed from a storage room filled with centuries of his family’s inconsequential possessions. The baby cried out, his wail cutting to the heart of me. He was scared—confused. So was I. Even at three, he knew our lives were about to be turned inside out. When would he be old enough to know about his father? How would I tell him? How would I explain? When is a child old enough to comprehend betrayal? I was a grown woman and I couldn’t grasp the concept. I loved this man. I gave him everything, and somehow it wasn’t enough.

Adulterer. The word bulldozed past my scrambled thoughts and rattled around destroying my ego, my sense of being, my will to be alive. Did everyone know? Everyone but me? How long had our friends smiled at me, maintained their kind and gracious hospitality, all the while knowing the truth? All the while thinking what an idiot I must be.

The ideas in my head—fueled by emotion, not reason—were inducing physical pain in my body. The knots in my stomach, twisting with each piece of my life in France—our life—I tossed into the steamer trunk.

His crying made me cringe. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, I knitted my shoulders, my body shaking. I wanted to scream too. My instincts took over and instead, I stopped to sit on the side of the bed, lifting Tristan and the small bear he clutched in his arms from the play pen. I rocked his tiny body against my own. His head wet with perspiration, I didn’t know who was comforting whom.

The red double doors that led to our once sacred sanctuary burst open. A heady breeze blew through our bedroom from the vineyard below. I couldn’t turn to look at him. I couldn’t bear the sting of his blue eyes.

“Simone.” He breathed my name into the air, thick with tension and betrayal. “Simone, darling.”

I replied, my voice shaking with tears of despair. “There’s nothing you can say that will fix this, René. Not this.”

His hand gripped my shoulder from behind. I didn’t move. Rocking Tristan in my arms, the baby clung to me like wet clothes in a rainstorm.

“You have to believe me when I say it meant nothing. She means nothing to me. It was one night. One mistake.”

The mere sound of the word pushed me over the edge of reason. “Mistake?” Rage boiled from deep inside me, the sharp knife of infidelity turning my distress into madness. “She has a child, René. Your child. Your son.”

René faced me, staring into my swollen eyes. Slowly, he shook his head. He was trying to diffuse my anger with his usual sedate composure. It was his gift. René Lebleu could calm my fears armed with only his stoic demeanor and unruffled exterior. I’d never met another man who was as composed, cool, almost indifferent in traumatic moments. This time it wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t talk me down—again. This time I had proof he didn’t love me. He’d never loved me.

“Tristan is my son,” René whispered, stroking the blonde curls of the beautiful blue-eyed boy in my arms. “Tristan is our son. He’s the heir to the Lebleu héritage. I’ve waited a lifetime for him. I’ve waited a lifetime for you, my love. My Simone.”

My heavy tears fell like rain on Tristan’s blond curls. Taking a measured breath, I looked René in the eye. I was emotionally exhausted as was Tristan, now asleep in my arms.

“I waited a lifetime for the girl I saw in the café,” he said, his steady voice soothing me with his sentimental words. “The one drinking coffee and reading her book. The beautiful girl who captured my heart.” René brushed a soggy tendril from my wet forehead. “You wore a yellow sundress. You’d broken your shoe. Seeing you for the first time was like looking into the sun, and yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away.”

My mind wandered back to that day. Backpacking through Europe with friends after college graduation, I’d ventured on my own to Épernay. When I tripped and broke the strap on my sandal, I stopped at a small café in the heart of town for coffee. The manager offered me a piece of duct tape to repair it. René walked by. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. My French was subpar, his English perfect. And the way he spoke to me—as if I was the only woman ever created by God himself. He’d always treated me like a queen from the moment we met—even when I questioned why he would ever choose to be with me. And now, not only had he betrayed me, he’d fathered a child outside of what I believed was the perfect marriage with the perfect man.

I shook off the memory and his words. They were too heavy with regret. The regret of a person caught in a trap of his own doing. “No, René. You can’t talk your way out of this. This is more than a one night stand with a random woman on a drunken night out with Garan,” I hissed, referring to his oldest and best friend. “How could I ever know if she’s the only one, René? Maybe you have women stashed all over France. Women with whom you’ve fathered even more children.”

His voice rose for the first time. “Don’t be ridiculous, Simone. You know me better than that. You and Tristan are my life. My whole life.”

“Do I, René? The last time I checked, we took vows to love and cherish each other—to remain faithful to one another.”

He took a seat in the chair across from me with a heavy sigh, surveying the suitcases and clothes strewn about the room. “Simone,” he muttered, dropping his head. “We both know you haven’t been well since the baby came. We both know you haven’t been faithful to me, my love.”

I bristled. “You think I’ve been with another man?”

He nodded.

“Who?”

René blinked hard, focusing his gaze on Tristan, asleep in my arms.

“You think I’m cheating on you with our son?”

His reply was short, and sober. “Yes.”

I stared through him. Nothing René said made sense to me. Not anymore. Not tonight.

“In the last three years I can count on my hands the number of times we made love, Simone.”

I stiffened once more, but didn’t speak. It was true. But it wasn’t because I didn’t love René. My priorities had shifted from wife to mother—my thoughts often scrambled and joyless after Tristan was born. Unable to sleep well and often overwhelmed by being a mother when I had no idea how to do it well enough for the miracle we’d created in Tristan, I had trouble concentrating or mustering interest in what had once brought me great joy. “You’re telling me you made love to another woman because I gave too much attention to our son? The son you say is the love of your life?”

“I know you want to be the best mother, Simone. And you are. But in the process you’ve neglected what gave us Tristan in the first place—our love. Us.”

“There is no us. You gave up on us when you had sex with that woman!” Tristan flinched in my arms, but didn’t wake. He was too exhausted. I gently rocked him, trying to make up for my outburst, then fell into tears once more. “And without a condom, René? How could you be so selfish?”

René stood and paced. Tristan stirred again. I rocked him harder.

“My love, in order to have given you anything, we would have to fuck!” The words seethed from his clenched teeth as he shouted in a whisper.

Gasping, I stood, cradling Tristan’s head in my hand. Rushing from the room, I gently placed him in his bed. He was almost too big for the crib, but I wasn’t ready to give up the things that still made him my baby. Not yet.

René stood beside me, leaning in to stroke the blonde curls on Tristan’s head. My body shook with anger and adrenaline at the mere brush of René’s shoulder to mine. Tears fell from my eyes, leaving wet stains on the striped blue crib sheet. “How could you do this to us? How could you do this to me?”

“Don’t tear us apart, Simone. Not over this.”

Wiping my wet face, I turned and left the room. I needed to remain focused. I needed to pack. It was already four in the afternoon. By six we would be on our way back to America. To what, I didn’t know. I’d cut all ties with my parents. It had taken me until adulthood to realize what horrible people they were—and yet they were the only parents I’d ever known. Even if they’d kept that truth and others from me.

René followed me closely, the heat from his body palpable on my skin. “Where will you go?” he asked. “What will you do? This is your home. I am your family. Your only real family.”

“How dare you?”

“Listen to me, Simone. I’m here for you. I’ve always been here for you, but we have things we need to talk about. You haven’t been the same since you discovered—”

“What? That you’re an adulterer?”

He shook his head. “No, Simone. You know what I’m referring to. I’ll admit, we have our problems—together, and on our own.”

I tried to ignore him and everything he said. The temptation would be too great to fall into his arms. I did love him so, but what I knew and heard in my head was, leave.

“Did you hear what I said?” he asked, dressing himself in his impervious cloak of stoicism.

Suddenly, without Tristan in my arms I wanted to fight. I was ready to fight. Turning, I looked into René’s eyes and knew in an instant. There was no reason. I understood myself well enough to know I’d never recover from René’s infidelity. Every time he left, I would imagine him on his way to another woman—another family. How could he ever be a father to Tristan with another son to raise? Who would be the heir apparent to Champagne Lebleu? Tristan? Or René’s bastard?

My blood boiled, the initial shock and hurt quickly giving way to rage as I rode the emotional rollercoaster of his infidelity. I wanted answers. I deserved answers. Who was this woman? How did he meet her? What was the child’s name? I wanted to know. I needed to know. My sense of urgency to pack and leave for the States waned. I straightened myself, brushing back the loose strands of hair from my cheek. Smoothing the pencil skirt over my hips, I looked at René—studying his face. It was the face I loved. The man I trusted with my life. Now he seemed like a stranger to me and yet, I knew him better than ever. It was as if a light had been turned on and I could finally see him in the shocking glare of the truth. He wasn’t the man I knew. The man I loved and married would never make love to another woman. He wouldn’t have a child with another woman. “Tell me one thing, René.” I brought my voice to a calm place for the first time since learning of his infidelity.

“I will tell you everything, Simone. It’s the only way we can move forward as a family.”

The word stuck in my head, boring a hole through my raw emotions. What was this family he saw in our future? Me and Tristan? Or me, Tristan and the bastard?

“Who is your lover, René? What’s her name?”

His shoulders dropped and he stared at the ancient Persian rug on the floor of our once sacred bedroom. “She isn’t my lover, Simone. It was one night. One drunken night I wish to God I could take back.”

“But you can’t. And now you have a son. A son who isn’t Tristan.”

I watched the anger inside him simmer for only moment before finally coming to a boil. I could see the fury behind his eyes, and yet I knew he wouldn’t lash out. He knew he couldn’t. He’d have to take whatever I wanted to say and swallow it down along with his pride. “Tristan is my son, Simone. He’s our son.”

“What’s her name, René?”

He hesitated.

“Do you know her name?”

He pursed his lips and grimaced. “Of course I know her name.”

“Because you shouted it when you were making love to her?” My shattered state of mind and fragile ego showed itself in the one simple question. Tears fell from my eyes as I collapsed onto the floor. I didn’t know who I was anymore. If I wasn’t René Lebleu’s wife, who was I?

He fell to his knees, cradling me in his arms—weeping. “It wasn’t like that Simone. Please don’t fantasize this into something it’s not. I don’t love her. I’ve never loved her. I made a stupid, stupid mistake on a drunken night when I was feeling alone and sorry for myself. It never should’ve happened, but it did. I didn’t hear from her or see her again—until last week.”

I rolled into René’s arms, his hand stroking my back. “She called from the hospital to tell you about your new baby.” I whispered the words, but it didn’t make them any less painful.

René nodded.

“She wants money?”

He shook his head. “She wasn’t going to tell me.”

“But she did, René. She did. Why now? If she’d told you sooner, you could’ve made another decision.”

He stared off into the distance.

I sat up; the clarity of my mind showing itself in fits and starts. “I know why she waited, René. It’s too late to do anything but own up. She called you now because she knows she has you where she wants you. Anyone who knows René Lebleu understands you would never neglect your responsibility. Especially a child.”

He raised his eyebrows in silent agreement.

“And yet somehow in all that fine upstanding manliness, you managed to neglect the two things you say mean the most to you.”

He flashed back to reality and stared me in the face. He had no reply.

“I take that back,” I said, standing to hurriedly stuff the remaining clothes into the last trunk, snapping the locks shut. “There are things that mean more to you. You love your family’s business. You love that silly horse. You love champagne.”

“Simone,” he begged, his eyes flooding with tears.

“I hope you find happiness with her and your new son, René, because Tristan and I are leaving. We’re going home.”

“You are home.”

“We’re going back to America where I can make a life for him. One that doesn’t involve his philandering father. And you know my parents, René. You must know how badly I want to leave if I’m willing to go back to…that.” I paused in the doorway to address him one last time. “Just tell me, René.”

“Don’t go, Simone. I’m begging you. You know I love you. I love you more than life itself. I could never love another. Ever.”

“But you could make love to another.”

“What I did that night was not making love. I don’t even remember it. I don’t love her. I’ll never love her. I could never love anyone the way I love you and Tristan. You have to believe me.”

“They’re beautiful words, René. I wish I could trust they were genuine, but I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t anymore.”

“My love for you and Tristan will always be real. Always.”

“Just tell me, René. Please.”

I watched him wipe the tears from his eyes and look at me as if I’d given him a death sentence. “Tell you what?”

“Her name! His name.”

“Margaux. Margaux Martin.”

“And?”

René blenched. “Pierre.”

A wave of distress overcame me. In a gasp, I swallowed the lump in my throat and whispered the words. “You…named him after your father?”

He shook his head. “She named him.”

“Well.” My head buzzed and my heart beat out of my chest with anxiety and uncertainty. Yet somehow, I found the strength to paste a counterfeit smile across my lips as the tears fell from my swollen eyes. “You must be very pleased.” I choked, the lump in my throat barely allowing a breath to cross my lips, let alone words. “Another Pierre Lebleu to carry on the family name—the family business. Don’t you worry about Tristan, René. I’ll see to it he becomes a man. The man you’ll never be. The man you couldn’t be.”

I shut the door knowing in my heart I would never see René Gaspard Lebleu again. And as long as I could draw a breath, he would never see Tristan.

 

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