Cherbourg, August 1, 1664
Ashamed of herself for upsetting her friend this way, Danielle turned around and surveyed the area to ensure that they were still alone. Papa had been adamant that Marie not use her gift of second sight to see into the future. Rumors of renewed interest in punishing witchery, especially since the plague had struck Europe again this year, killing thousands in Amsterdam, were rife. This season, the weather had been bad with violent storms, and the crops would be poor. Superstitious people, especially when hungry and frightened, goaded by priests who liked to blame everything on sin, could turn very quickly on those they did not understand.
Asking Marie to scry, especially out here in the meadow where anyone could have seen them, had been dangerous. Papa had enemies, like every other powerful man in France. Would it not enhance a man’s position if he were to accuse the ward of the Count de Cherbourg of witchcraft? Why, they might even be excommunicated for giving aid and comfort to the devil’s minion. She gave herself a shake. How could she have been so foolish?
The tears flowed down Marie’s pale cheeks as she continued to stare into the still water in the pond, drawn by the images only she could see. Danielle walked over to her, pulled the young girl up and away from the vision, and took her into her arms.
“Enough! I am so sorry, Marie. I should not have asked you to do this. I never expected you would have such a distressing vision. I am anxious to see Etienne. I wanted to know if the surprise he promised me in his letter would be asking for my hand in marriage.” She shook her head, her long, red tresses shining in the sunlight. “This must be a false vision, Marie, a punishment for my willfulness.”
Marie pulled away from her, anger and frustration evident in the set of her thin, trembling shoulders, and glared at Danielle. She raised her hand to wipe away the tears and shook her head from side to side.
“I have told you before, Elle. The visions never lie, but they do not always answer the questions I ask. They are not mine to command. Normally, they only show the near future, but this time they have shown me more.” Her tears continued to run down her cheeks.
Danielle stared at her companion, and an eerie frisson coursed through her body. For the first time, she feared Marie and her gift. As young girls, Danielle, Marie, and their playmates had often looked into the mirror or into the fire to see what would happen in the future, a harmless parlor game played by girls across France. Danielle had never seen anything during their foolishness, but when Marie claimed she had seen her father, the Count’s Captain of the Guard, fall from his horse, the game had ended. The fact that Marie’s father had died only a few weeks later from a fall, similar to the one she had described, had led to months of speculation about the child. The rumors had ended when Papa had made her his ward, offering her the protection of Cherbourg, but not everyone in the family had been pleased with that decision.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Danielle, turning away from her to avoid the pity she read clearly in Marie’s chocolate brown eyes, eyes that seemed older than her fourteen years. No matter what Marie had seen, the daughter of a Count was not to be pitied. Her life was one of ease and privilege—even Marie had to work for her keep, although her duties as Danielle’s companion were light.
“I realize that we are too young to marry now, but I had hoped we could become affianced. As his fiancée, I would be protected from the attentions of other, less desirable suitors.”
Marie reached out to her and took her hands. “I saw many things in the still waters today, including the answer to your question.” She hung her head, and terror gripped Danielle.
Her breath quickened, her heart pounded in her chest, and her palms grew wet. Suddenly, she did not want to know what Marie had seen, but her insatiable curiosity forced her to look at her friend and listen intently.
“Elle, I saw you broken-hearted, crying in the arms of a soldier. I am sorry, but while you will be a bride, Etienne will not be your groom.”
Danielle covered her ears, the words knife wounds to her heart. “No! I will not listen to any more of this. It is not true—it cannot be true.”
She swallowed the panic and bitterness in her throat. Marie had to be wrong. There was no way she could marry anyone but Etienne.
Giddy with anticipation for her sixteenth birthday party, the depressing prediction of the afternoon shoved to the back of her mind, Danielle stood in front of the looking glass admiring her gown. The royal blue silk frock showed off her bourgeoning woman’s body. It was a long-waisted slender dress, one worn without crinolines, ideally suited to her five foot, seven inch, slim frame. The neckline cut low, with a wide horizontal cream lace collar decorated by a central royal blue silk bow, exposed more of her bosom than her gowns usually did. The sleeves, set low in the shoulder, opened into a full ruff that ended just below the elbow and were similarly adorned with lace. The whalebone corset pushed up her firm young breasts, and the straps of her camisole, pulled down along her arms to hide them inside the gown’s sleeves, further lowered the neckline, accentuating her cleavage. With the dress, she wore a single rope of pearls and matching pearl drop earrings.
“Mama, it is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen. I cannot wait for Etienne to see it. Finally, he will have to admit I am a woman.” She put her arms around her mother and kissed her cheek. She drew back and noticed a momentary sadness in her mother’s eyes. She thought she knew what had put it there.
“I know.” She squared her shoulders, determination in every inch of her body. “Etienne is his own man, but I love him so much. He has only thought of me as a childhood companion. Well, tonight he will see me in a different light.”
In keeping with the fashion of the day, Danielle’s auburn hair had not been powdered, but had been braided flat against her head on each side, with both braids pulled together into a long rope secured by a royal blue, silk ribbon, and drawn over her right shoulder.
Her mother frowned. “Elle,” she used her pet name. “I am sure Etienne will be surprised when he sees how much you have changed, but remember, you have seen him as a young man for some time now, whereas he may still consider you a child. You will have to give him time to adjust to the new you. My darling, much as it breaks my heart to say it, his emotions may never be the same as yours.”
Danielle shivered, Marie’s words of premonition, invading her thoughts for the moment, but she forced them away. She could not bear the notion that Etienne did not love her as she loved him. She could not imagine ever marrying another man.
“Mama, I want to be his wife. Is love always like this? This wanting and yearning just for the sight of him? I have not seen him since he left for Paris last May. I am more excited about seeing him tonight than I am about anything else.”
Her mother shook her head sadly, and Danielle could see that she was concerned.
“My child, you are so young. What you feel for Etienne is puppy love, an infatuation that will not last. I would spare you the tears if I could.”
Danielle frowned. Anger sparked in her, but she fought to keep it down. Why was it that everyone refused to take her love for Etienne seriously? She was not a child! As of this day, she was a woman, albeit a young one, but she knew her own heart. Her mother continued her lecture, a speech, like Marie’s premonition, she did not want to hear.
“Fifteen months is a very long time. Etienne is no longer a boy. He will be twenty-one in a few weeks, and his time in Paris will have changed him. Someday, you will realize that just because you want something to be so, does not mean it will be. I fear your father and I have spoiled you. Forget this talk of love and marriage. There will be time enough to discuss such matters when you are older. Go and enjoy your birthday. I will be here when you need me.”
Danielle shivered at her mother’s words, which were almost identical to those Marie had spoken earlier, but she dismissed her uncertainties. Nothing would spoil this night, certainly not foolish superstition and her overactive imagination. Mama and Marie were wrong; that was all there was to it. Etienne loved her, and once he saw her, he would realize it—of that, she had no doubt.
She kissed her mother’s cheek, and hurried from the room. No matter what Marie or her mother said, she knew that her feelings for Etienne were deep and true. He was the only man she would ever love.
The dancing had started more than two hours ago, and still Etienne had not arrived. Danielle stood impatiently on the edge of the salon watching for him. She had received many compliments and gifts from those in attendance. Though she did her best to be polite and listen to their words, her eyes continually searched the crowd. Where was he? She had danced many times, even scoffed at Marie’s silly predictions and danced with a couple of soldiers. Other than trodden toes, nothing bad had happened, but still, he had not arrived.
She looked nervously at the pendulum clock on the wall, a special gift from a Swiss aristocrat friend of her father’s. Soon, it would be time to eat, and she had hoped Etienne would be the one to escort her into supper. He had been unable to attend her birthday last year, but he had promised to be here tonight—Etienne always kept his promises.
As she started the next dance partnered by one of her father’s friends, she saw him. He stood on the edge of the crowd near her father, and their eyes met. She missed her step when she realized what he was wearing, and she shuddered. Fate could not be so cruel! As soon as the dance ended, she thanked her partner, excused herself, and started through the crowd towards him.
Etienne stood beside the Count de Cherbourg and watched Danielle as she finished the movements of the dance. She was stunning! Gone was his child-shadow, the redheaded hoyden who had followed him around, climbed trees, and gone fishing with him. An angel stood in her place. Her deep blue gown shimmered in the candlelight and gave her an ethereal look—the goddess Venus come to life could not have matched her beauty. She took his breath away. He was dismayed by what he was about to do. The excitement he had felt when he had donned his new uniform had vanished, replaced by a longing he had not anticipated.
“My daughter has become a beautiful woman, has she not?” asked the Count, looking at Danielle as she glided towards them.
“She most certainly has.” Etienne stared at the girl approaching him. “I was not prepared to see my young friend changed so much.”
“You know, Etienne, I think she is expecting different news from you tonight. She will be most distressed by your decision, but I understand your need to prove yourself. I would ask a favor of you.” His voice was solemn, far more severe than the situation implied.
Etienne tore his eyes away from the vision approaching him and wondered briefly what news Elle had been expecting, probably that he was back to stay. He looked up at the man who had been like a second father to him and responded to his request.
“Whatever you want sir, if it is in my power to do, consider it done.”
The Count looked at him, smiled sadly, and sighed. “Life does not always turn out as we hope it will. Promise me that you will look out for her, that you will be there when she needs you.”
Sobered by the request, Etienne nodded and answered as honestly as he could. “It would be an honor to watch out for your daughter, sir, but you know my commission will take me far from here. I would never allow harm to come to Danielle, not if I could help it. In as much as I am able to do as you ask, you have my word. ”
The Count nodded. “I can ask no more.”
Etienne turned away to look again at the young girl approaching.
As she neared him, she smiled weakly and held out her hands. He saw uncertainty on her face, an emotion he would never have attributed to her. She was the feisty, intrepid explorer who had followed him around like a faithful pup. Never had she shown fear.
“Etienne!” she exclaimed. “I was afraid that you might not be coming. Look at you. Not a military uniform—do not tell me you have joined the King’s army!” She sounded horrified at the prospect.
Etienne smiled and took her hand, placing a small gift box in it.
“Me? Miss your sixteenth birthday? Never! Happy birthday, Elle,” he said, and moved closer to give her the traditional peck on each cheek. The brief contact of his lips on her tender skin filled him with unexpected desire. He stepped back and addressed her father.
“Your grace, with your permission, I would like to take Danielle out into the garden. It is quite warm in here, and I would like to speak to her privately.”
“Of course, I wish I could escape for a few moments myself,” the Count answered. “Here comes your mother, Elle. Go, before she decides it would not be appropriate for you to be with Etienne without a chaperone, now that you are a young woman.”
The air was cooler outside, but Etienne continued to perspire. His months of training to become one of the King’s soldiers had sculpted his body and removed every inch of unnecessary fat. He had been so eager to boast to Danielle about his new commission, and how he would travel the world, and make something of himself. Suddenly, he felt as if his dreams were coming to an end. How proud he had been of his new uniform, his gold lieutenant’s epaulettes decorating his deep blue coat.
He had taken great pains with his appearance tonight, wanting to impress Elle with his new responsibilities; he wanted her to be proud of him. Like the other young officers in his regiment, he had left his hair unpowdered, pulled into a queue, secured with a white, silk ribbon, and had grown a beard that followed the edge of his face, but exposed his mouth. The regiment required that he keep his neck shaved, and the mustache on his upper lip neatly trimmed. He raised his finger to the tiny crescent scar below his left eye, the result of a swordsmanship training accident, which he felt gave him a dash of mystery. Now, instead of feeling proud of his appearance, he felt as if the white lace jabot at his neck were a noose, threatening to choke him.
Where had his sweet Danielle gone? When he had last seen her, she had been awkward, her arms and legs too long for her young body. They had been almost constant companions for eight years; how could his tomboy friend have changed this much in so short a time?
Instead of staying on the veranda, he led her down the steps and along the path to the rose arbor, where they could have some privacy. They sat on the small stone bench, a place where they had sat many times, discussing his plans for the future—all the wonderful places he would go, things he would do—plans that the child Elle had probably thought included her. He shook his head sadly; how foolish he had been.
Danielle opened the gift, and inhaled sharply in surprise.
“Oh, Etienne; it is beautiful,” she whispered holding up the gold chain from which hung a lapis lazuli cross. “I will wear it always.” She leaned towards him and kissed his cheek. She turned her back to him, so that he could fasten the chain at her neck. The beautiful deep blue cross hung low on her bosom, skirting the top of her cleavage.
“Elle, I need to tell you something. Look at me,” he said, and turned her to face him. In the moonlight, she took on an otherworldly beauty, and he suddenly hardened with the heat of desire unlike anything he had ever felt. He longed to place his lips where the cross lay on her bosom. How had he not realized how he truly felt about her? The deep affection he had harbored for the young girl had blossomed into something much more intense for the young woman with him now, but nothing could ever come of it. A relationship between them was impossible.
He steeled himself against the pain such thoughts caused him and began.
“My father has purchased a commission for me, and I leave for Marseilles in the morning to join my regiment. There has been some trouble in the East, and we are being dispatched to take care of it. I do not know when we will be back—perhaps a year, maybe more.”
She looked at him as if he had struck her, all color seeping from her cheeks. Her titian hair framed the alabaster oval of her face, engraving it on his memory.
“No, Etienne, no,” she cried jumping up, wringing her hands in agitation. “You cannot do this! Tell me you are playing a prank on me as you used to do. Why do you have to join the army? Why go fight the Turks? What about all the plans we made?” she wailed through her sobs. “You will be killed. How will I go on without you? You are everything to me.”
He stood and reached for her, taking her into his arms, holding her as the sobs racked her body. The words were the sweetest he had ever heard, and yet, they opened a gaping wound in his heart that might never heal.
“Mon amie, you are speaking nonsense, and you know it,” he whispered into her hair. He held her close, at first tenderly, and then with the desperation of a man holding the woman he wants and needs, but knows he can never have.
“Elle, you know that all the grand plans we discussed were just impossible dreams and can never be. Look at you. You are the daughter of a count. I am the third son of a minor noble—I have no title, no fortune, and now I am a soldier. A lieutenant is not always in the midst of the battle. I will be safe enough, I assure you. I have no intention of finding myself in an infidel’s prison or an early grave.” He felt her tremble at his words.
“Promise me that you will come back to me, Etienne; you are a man of your word. If you say that you will come back, then I know I can hold you to your promise.” The tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and her body shuddered with her sobs.
“I promise I will come back,” he said, knowing that it could be many years before he could do so, and thinking of the promise he had given her father moments earlier. Was he doomed to betray his words to them both?
Someday she would forgive him, and in time, she would forget him, but he would never forget her. She would haunt him for the rest of his life, and this promise, one he might never be able to keep, would damn him to the fires of everlasting Hell.
He cradled her in his arms as she continued to weep. Gently, his hands rubbed small circles on her back, his chest painfully aware of her young, firm breasts pressing into it. She lifted her arms and looped them around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder. He tried to move away from her, but she refused to loosen her hold. His rigid erection pressing against the stomacher beneath her gown was bittersweet agony. He crooned words meant to soothe, bent to kiss the top of her head, but she raised hers, so that his lips met her brow. It was his undoing.
He could not fight his sudden need for her. He lavished delicate kisses on her face, tasting her tears, his lips trailing down the curve of her neck to her shoulders. Her skin was silky, sweeter than the sweetest honey, and smelled of the floral soap and scent she used. He raised his head and sought her lips, softly, delicately, and then with a purpose, like a starving man finally being fed.
He ran the tip of his tongue over her moist lips, and although untutored in the ways of the world, her mouth instinctively opened to him like a morning glory welcoming the sun. His tongue probed the sweet depths, tasting, wanting more, and devouring what was offered to him.
Danielle’s response to his kiss aroused him beyond the ability to think rationally. His hands left her back to travel along the side of her ribcage to cup the fullness of her breasts straining against her gown. He tore his lips from hers, and transferred them to the flesh above the lacy edge of her dress where he lovingly rained kisses on her mounds. She moaned and threw her head back giving him greater access.
With trembling fingers, he slid the dress lower, exposing her to his hungry gaze. Her mounds were swollen by her response; the dark pink nipples stood erect waiting for his touch. He tenderly kneaded her breasts, eliciting a series of soft moans from her. His mouth replaced his hands as he suckled, causing her to whimper with need. He moved his hand lower rucking her skirt as he sought the dress’ hem.
The sound of someone calling her name dragged him back to reality. Oh God! What had he done? He looked at her, and could not avoid seeing the evidence of his lust. Her lips, swollen by the assault of his kisses, were slightly parted, and her dress continued to expose her breasts. In her glazed eyes, he saw wonder and hunger, and he recognized that he had done this to her, that he had taken her innocence, treated her like a trollop, and damned himself. Was this how he honored his promise to her father? He had to protect her from the eyes of others.
Knowing she was too innocent to realize and understand what her eager response had done to him was cold comfort. With every scrap of decency he had left, he pulled her deeper into the shadows of the arbor, using his body to shield her from prying eyes, although the evidence of his hunger would not be hidden easily.
When he was sure the servant had moved on, he turned to help her, but she had already done what she could to put herself in order. He fought the urge to take her in his arms again; the look on her face was almost more than he could bear. Tears streamed down her cheeks—tears of shame, tears of need, tears of accusation—tears he had caused with his boorish and careless behaviour.
“You cannot leave me now, Etienne, not after this. You love me; I know you do, just as I love you,” she accused, the words stabbing him as she uttered them. “You cannot leave me now!”
He did not look at her; he hung his head. “I am sorry, Elle; I should never have touched you like that; I hope you can forgive me one day.” Without another word, he left her in the arbor, fleeing the manor as if the hounds of Hell were after him.
Just as he reached the stables, a servant stopped him.
“Lieutenant Blouin,” he called. “The Count de Cherbourg asked me to give you this before you left.” The man handed Etienne a note.
He opened it. Inside were the words Remember your promise. Etienne mounted his horse and rode away from the manor.
The Captain’s Promise is available at http://www.amazon.com/The-Captains-Promise-ebook/dp/B00EZPTX8G/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379270738&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=The+Captain%27s+Promisel