Welcome to the fourth of ten excerpts from BOND OF FIRE.
Château de Sainte-Pazanne (a day’s ride inland from the west coast of France), The Vendée, France, April 1787
Celeste de Sainte-Pazanne shielded her eyes against the harsh sun, looking for the most beloved figure in the world. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and the air shimmered with heat, sending little swirls of dust above the road below.
Forests rippled over the surrounding hills, now quiet and waiting for nightfall. The small river, which gave Sainte-Pazanne its name and prosperity, flowed patiently toward the Atlantic, one of the few local rivers which didn’t feed into the Loire. Its mother spring had never run dry, even in a drought as severe as this one. Wheat fields whispered in the light breeze, while cattle slept under ancient oaks.
If she saw him first, they could always take their time returning to the château – and pretend his horse had thrown a shoe or something similarly silly. Papa and Maman had always grumbled good naturedly over her thinner excuses, knowing they could trust Raoul’s honor, but had never punished her too severely. Surely today they’d be even more lenient, since he would return to the academy tomorrow.
She’d worked so hard on preparing to see him this time, starting with the prettiest dress chère Hélène had sent her. But while she’d been having her hair pinned up in the latest fashion, her clumsy, clumsy maid had scorched her dress. She’d had her thoroughly whipped, of course, until all the girl could do was cry about not being able to sit down. Idiot! As if that mattered next to damaging her perfect dress.
Thankfully, Maman’s maid had fixed everything with a clever bit of embroidery, so all was well now.
She’d probably have another maid soon, her third this year.
There! His chestnut gelding Samson was just cresting the ridge to enter the small valley.
She waved her hat wildly, its long ribbons whipping like banners.
Raoul stood in his stirrups and swung his own hat like a semaphore. He dropped back into the saddle and kicked Samson into a gallop. They charged toward her down the well-tended road like immortals, or a knight of old come to carry his lady off. Other horses, which had been idly grazing in the green pastures, flung up their heads to watch. Some neighed and came down to the stone walls to race beside him, forming a cavalcade.
She laughed for sheer joy and spun, hugging herself. Dearest, dearest Raoul. Normally such a sober young cadet, but he’d remembered her longing for a romantic display on her nineteenth birthday.
She ran to join him, leaving her mare tethered by the small roadside shrine.
Raoul jumped off Samson a few feet away from her, tossing his reins over the well-trained horse’s head to bring him to an immediate stop.
They flung themselves at each other in a pool of blazing sunlight, as if all the saints blessed their love.
“Raoul, mon amour!”
She had no words after that, because he was kissing her too fiercely, his arms locked around her, and her feet dangling off the ground. She sank her hands into his hair and set about the delightful task of convincing him his sentiments were returned in full.
Some minutes passed before either of them formed a sentence. Raoul was the first to do so, of course.
“Do your parents know you’re here? Anyone could see you. Promise me you’ll be more careful in the future.”
Dearest Raoul, always so concerned about her reputation.
“I’m sure they do, but I promise to be good next time.” She pretended to dust off his hat, while watching him straighten his cravat.
Raoul de Beynac came from a long line of soldiers, famed for honor, courage, intelligence – and lack of money. He was a natural with horses and the sword and a deadly shot from a remarkably young age. His dark eyes were normally calm, but he could trip up a liar within moments – or make her heart sing. Even Papa had admitted Raoul had the quickest brain of any young man in the Vendée and the bravest heart. At barely twenty, he was still filling out his long-limbed frame with muscle.
Someday, she’d be able to see everything that lay underneath his coat. Someday. . .
“Maman told me to take flowers to the Blessed Virgin’s shrine. She had to know you’d be arriving on the same road from your sister Louise’s house.”
“Très bien.” His crisp voice gave his approval such a martial air, she almost swooned.
Ah well, her parents were glad she had such an honorable lover, even if she wasn’t always so certain of the benefits. She was sure if she’d been pregnant, chère Hélène would have given her a large enough dowry for them to marry. Instead, they had to wait for him to graduate from the cavalry school at Saumur and take up his commission from the king.
Raoul clapped his hat back on his head, and they strolled together, hand-in-hand, toward the patient Samson.
“How do you think I look?” she asked, a trifle nervously. This was the first time in years he hadn’t immediately complimented her on something about her appearance.
There was a pause.
Celeste stared up at him, shocked and hurt. Hélène had sent her new outfit by special courier from Paris, saying it was all the rage. The tightly fitted peach satin jacket flattered her bosom and tiny waist, while the creamy muslin skirts hinted at her long legs. The pure white fichu at her throat would hopefully inspire a man to consider removing it. She’d thought when she’d donned it she looked quite fetching, and hopefully irresistible.
“Celeste, mon ange, remember never to fear me! I would give my life not to hurt you.”
She did so enjoy hearing him call her an angel.
He caught up her hands and kissed them extravagantly. “You are far too beautiful for me to describe. You are ravishing, incredible, a goddess come to earth, a. . .”
She peeped up at him through her eyelashes, her sore heart eased somewhat. “But?” she prompted.
“You should be wearing honest French silk and thereby supporting our starving weavers in Lyons.” He kissed her fingertips, eyeing her a bit sternly. “Instead of flaunting imported Hapsburg muslin from Austria.”
Oh, was his problem as simple as that?
“Dearest Raoul, you are always considering other people’s welfare. Just as you stand up for peasants against noblemen’s mischief or the clergy’s abuses. Or argue the merits of the Americans’ republic, because it allows ordinary citizens to protect themselves.”
He spread his hands, clearly recognizing the litany of arguments he’d had with her father. He’d never backed down, although he’d always been very respectful to a retired soldier.
“You will be a splendid officer, always looking out for your men – and your wife.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“Are you certain you wish to marry me?” A greater seriousness sharpened his voice and deepened his eyes.
A breeze whispered down the road, making the dust dance around her ankles like demons. Samson tossed up his head, snorting nervously.
Celeste stiffened her spine, determined to fight as well as any man for the only joy she’d ever truly dreamed of. “Have you changed your mind?”
“Never that, Celeste, never. Count me faithful beyond death as I have sworn before, as I will swear again.” Fierce devotion blazed from his countenance. “But you are young and have never left Sainte-Pazanne. You could meet another. . .”
“Not like you!” Truth rang through the valley.
His lips curved warmly, as though he wished to kiss her. She leaned forward hopefully, but he continued speaking relentlessly.
“Or I could be killed. I am a soldier, Celeste. I could lie in my grave long years before you come to meet me.”
Leaves rustled somewhere deep in the forest, like a foretaste of a hollow future.
“That doesn’t matter. That has never mattered.” She gripped him by the arms, as desperately as she’d follow him across France and Europe given the chance. Her throat was very tight, and she fought to utter the words that would make him understand.
“Celeste, my heart. . .” Their gazes locked, his as passionate as hers. His strong hands wrapped around her wrists, tying them together.
“I have loved you for as long as I can remember, and I will love you until the day I die,” she choked out.
“If I go first, Celeste, above all else I want you to be happy.”
She shook her head fiercely, the tears on her eyelashes haloing him in light until he seemed an angel come to earth.
“You are everything that makes my life worth living, Raoul. If I ever offer myself to another, may the good Lord strike me dead!”
“My love!” Raoul fiercely snatched her to him, and their lips met, sealing the eternal pledge.
Excerpt from Bond of Fire by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2008 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved