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Sylvie de Courcey thrust a narrow foot into her dusty boot, praying that her father wouldn't notice she'd failed to polish her shoes once again. Not that it would matter for long. Today was the day! She had been looking forward to this trip to Paris for months, and now the carriage was rolling into the courtyard, ready to take her away. Keeping the Countess Racine de Boyce company in her Paris mansion promised to be great fun. The families had been close for years.
"Hurry, Miss Sylvie, do hurry!" Agnes Green, her maid, cried from the corridor outside her bedchamber. "Your mother and father are waiting in the courtyard, and the carriage has been pulled around!"
"I'm coming!" Though a native of Champagne, France, the nineteen-year-old yelled in English. She and Agnes always spoke English. It was one of the reasons the Englishwoman was hired. Maid, governess, loving advocate, sometimes judge, sometimes jury that was Agnes. Sylvie didn't remember a time when Agnes hadn't been there.
Yanking her straw bonnet over her black hair, she caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror as she sped by. Sylvie's reflection was bony and angular and would have been worse except for the extra potato Agnes would slip onto her plate when Papa wasn't looking. Like any girl on her way to Paris, Sylvie was suddenly self-conscious. All those beautiful women and handsome men sporting about, why, she'd be plainer than a mouse in her sturdy, country clothes. A tall mouse, thank goodness, but a mouse nevertheless. Perhaps her height alone would cause her to stand out a bit. But do I really want to stand out? she thought, biting her lip. That was clearly a thought for later. Her father would be furious if she kept him from his work any longer.
Down the great stone staircase of Chateau du Soleil, through the large medieval hall where lords and ladies had once feasted, and beneath the portal that had once received kings and queens from all over Europe, Sylvie's feet flew. The blinding spring sunlight, the clear air of Champagne, and the dew of morning hit her forcefully and she breathed in deeply. How could anything go wrong on a day like today?
"Into the carriage with you!" Agnes ordered. "Or we'll miss the train."
"Just a moment!" Sylvie focused her attention on her parents. Armand de Courcey endured his daughter's hug in his usual stiff manner, not patting her back and barely bringing his arms up to complete the embrace. He quickly pulled away and Sylvie turned to her mother, whose response was quite the opposite. Collette de Courcey was clingy and sopping wet with tears.
Several seconds later her feet had escaped the dusty courtyard and were firmly settled on the floor of the old, but well-cared-for carriage. Rupert Green, who did double duty as stable master and Agnes's cherished husband, had wisely chosen the open vehicle for Sylvie's departure. A day like this was too glorious to waste. Agnes climbed aboard, looking and moving much like a bear with a hair bun.
"Look, there's Rupert!" Sylvie cried as Agnes's husband appeared at the stable doors and waved a large hand. She waved back excitedly, then turned to her parents. She wished she could cry and make Mama feel more missed, but she couldn't. "I shall miss you, Mama! Good-bye, Father!"
Collette de Courcey, her stiff red hair blowing in the stubborn March breeze, clung to Armand's rigid arm. "Now, Sylvie," she said, forcing a bright smile to her pale lips, "do not forget your manners! I have raised you to stand your own with any of those city ladies. Always have a handkerchief with you and please, whatever you do, excuse yourself from the room if you need to use it." She choked back a sob, immediately raising her own handkerchief to her lips. "What am I going to do without you?"
"You shall do just fine," Sylvie said. "I won't shame you in front of the countess."
"Oh, Armand!" his wife sobbed.
Vineyard owner Armand de Courcey rolled his eyes as his wife now clung to him like a helpless child. His foot tapped in agitation. Thin lips were drawn inward as he ran a large, heavy hand over his bald head. "Don't make such a to-do about this. She'll only be gone for the spring. How hard can keeping an old woman company be?"
"But Father, she's not that old. She's Mama's friend."
"Go on!" The wiry man barked at the driver, extricating himself from his wife's grasp without bothering to hide his distaste. "Get her out of here, Guilliaume."
Collette fished in her pocket for her rosary. "Your father is right, Sylvie. You do not want to miss the train! Give my love to my dear friend Racine. Tell her again how sorry I am I was unable to attend her daughter's wedding." Her soft voice shook. "Write often, ma cherie. Do not forget to say your prayers! Do not forget your dear mama!" A tear slipped down her cheek. More followed.
With a shake of the reins, the driver clicked his tongue and the two black horses inched forward, then picked up their pace, leaving Collette and Armand behind. As the vehicle rolled down the hill and out of sight, Sylvie turned back. Armand was already walking quickly away. Collette was waving, the rosary dangling through her fingers, the mother-of-pearl beads jumping about.
Sylvie did her best to put them out of her mind. With her father it was easy. He had never been around anyway, always working, working building a dynasty, married to his grapes. Thoughts of her mother, however, would be harder to put off. Collette wasn't around too much either, if Sylvie was honest. She was usually on her knees in the chapel. Only when she was enveloped in some personal crisis did she seek Sylvie's advice, warmth, and support. Collette had successfully reversed the roles of mother and daughter, mistaking Sylvie's investment for her own. If Sylvie wasn't laboring in her father's fields, she was working for her mother's sanity or taking over her duties as chatelaine. Serving her parents had become her life.
Sylvie placed her hand in Agnes's. The maid grasped it warmly and patted it. Her blue eyes twinkled as she said, "As beautiful as Chateu du Soliel looks right now, I know you're glad to be getting away for a while."
"I'm ready to leave. In fact, I should have left the place years ago." Sylvie rolled her eyes.