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Threads of Silk
By Linda Chaikin
ZondervanCopyright © 2008 Linda Chaikin
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How far behind is the enemy? A day, several hours? Or are they ahead, waiting in ambush?
Mademoiselle Rachelle Macquinet flicked the reins of her horse to surge toward the bridge, listening above the wind for the dread sound of distant hooves pounding in pursuit.
She caught sight of the silhouette of the castle of Vendôme in the distance. Marquis Fabien's chief page, Gallaudet, galloped ahead while Fabien rode guard behind her. Here along the rim of the dark woods the forest encroached upon their path, enabling any ambush to avoid detection. Two of Fabien's finest swordsmen rode on either side of the road with an eye toward the dense shadows, one hand near their scabbards.
The cold rain pelted her face beneath her hooded cloak as they neared the castle. The horses trotted over the bridge toward the gate, and the imposing outline of the royal Bourbon estate rose up in the night to meet them with open arms like a biblical city of refuge.
I want to be married here; I want to give birth to his firstborn son here - but with so much in jeopardy, do we even have a chance? Can these sturdy walls offer safety from Madame le Serpent's emissaries?
Rachelle halted her horse outside the gate. The wind clawed at her hood and blustered against her as though snarling a protest over her safe arrival at the first destination in the long, treacherous journey.
She lifted her gaze to the towering wall where an armed guard arrayed in the Bourbon family colors of blue and red appeared, his billowing sleeves flapping.
Fabien maneuvered his horse beside her. "Is that you, Dumas?" he shouted. "Open the gate! It is I, your seigneur!"
"Monseigneur!" the guard shouted into the wind. "It is you!"
"I, and no other, unless on such a night you're expecting the ghost of Vendôme Hall."
Captain Dumas laughed, swung around, and yelled down to the inside of the courtyard, "Make haste, you dullards! It is le marquis, home from sinking Spanish galleons!"
Hearty voices rose and boots scuffled hastily over cobbles. She heard the clanking of bolts and chains, and the massive outer gate shuddered on its hinges and moved slowly open.
Rachelle blinked against flaming torches flickering in the stiff wind as guards drew back, forming a welcoming line and hailing their monseigneur with robust cheers.
She rode beside Fabien into the courtyard of the palais-château. Several of the guards closed the gate and replaced bolts and locks.
Horse hooves clattered forward, scabbards clinked, and Toledo steel glinted. The wet cobbles glimmered in the torchlight flowing down from the stone walls encircling the quad.
Wind-driven clouds tumbled across the sky, and from time to time, the pale moon pushed through. She glimpsed Fabien's handsome features, the strong jaw, slashing brows, and wavy hair the color of wheat, but the disarming smile that usually warmed her heart was replaced by a look of gravity beneath his dark, wide-brimmed hat with silver ornamentation.
He dismounted, and coming around beside her horse, lifted her down. She felt the cobbles beneath her thin soles as he escorted her across the courtyard toward a torch-lit alcove. Here, the great wooden entry door was strapped with iron - which encouraged her uneasy emotions.
Rachelle swept through into the grand salle of intricate masonry stonework and marble and where a glow from the hearth beckoned with a promise of warmth. Although she was chilled from the rainstorm and her clothing was wet, her attention was arrested by Fabien's sudden preoccupation with some new peril as Gallaudet, fair and lean, stood speaking to him in a low tone.
Rachelle tensed and listened intently, but caught little.
"- doubting his loyalties to you -"
"Mille diables! I cannot believe it. Who makes such a charge?"
Gallaudet's answer was indiscernible to her.
Fabien responded with a frown. Rachelle watched him reenter the courtyard where the rain plummeted, Gallaudet following.
Rachelle shivered, but it was not so much from cold as from fear. Mayhap a little excitement.
Pine logs on the grate heated the stones near the embers and released an aromatic fragrance. She stood holding her hands toward the radiant warmth. A drop of rainwater fell from the hem of her cloak and sizzled on the stones. In the light from glowing lamps of burnished brass inlaid with gemstones, she began admiring her surroundings: thick rugs of a design done in crimson, blue, and gold; wood and brocade furnishings; and intricate hanging tapestries.
Would she give Fabien sons and daughters to carry on the Bourbon title? Not if the Queen Mother has her way!
Rachelle intertwined her fingers tightly. Comte Maurice! That scheming fox! I would sooner be dead than married to him as the Queen Mother threatens.
The wood hissed and snapped. Her taut nerves responded as though the embers spewed forth venom. She could envision the mocking eyes of the Queen Mother watching her from the glowing coals, vowing to defeat their plans.
Why would it matter to the Queen Mother of France whom she, a couturière, married? The truth was, it did not. It was Fabien who mattered to her secret schemes.
I am merely the bait she uses to trap him. And what the Queen Mother wishes from him is too dark to contemplate.
From behind her, footsteps echoed and she whipped around as though expecting to confront her nemesis in the familiar black gown and coif.
It was Fabien. She searched his face and found his countenance retained a sober cast. He tossed aside his hat and riding cloak, which were immediately taken up by a serving boy.
He walked up to her. His royal blue tunic with silver threads glinted in the firelight.
Under his gaze, a warmth began to smolder in her heart.
"You are exhausted, ma chérie."
"Non, I am well," she insisted, hoping to portray a bravery to match his own. She returned his smile, but his brow lifted in doubt.
"Exhausted - and wet," he said gravely and gently undid the clasp on her cloak. As he did, her honey autumn hair tumbled over her shoulder and across his hand.
She felt herself drawn toward him, even as the coals in the hearth had drawn her only minutes ago. His arm slipped around her, bringing her close. He raised a handful of her hair and looked at it in the firelight. Their lips met and all shadows fled. The rainy night was no longer bleak and dark. They were together in a wondrous place from which she did not want to withdraw, and the Queen Mother's spies seemed to be fleeing. She melted into his embrace.
Her senses immersed with his in the wonderment of their longing. It was incredible how her life had turned about so swiftly by his return to France and his commitment to their future.
"We have until dawn, then we must leave. I could send Gallaudet for a priest or a secret Calvinist pasteur. We could be married tonight-though your father is not likely to approve of my taking you without his knowledge. There is risk in whatever direction we take."
"It is you who are most at risk, mon amour, because I shall never marry Maurice! I shall go to the Bastille to die first!"
His fingers tightened on her forearms. "You will not die, chérie. I want you alive and safe. The Bastille is out of the question as long as I can wield my sword. The wisest action for both of us is escape to London."
"Then there is little doubt as to whether she may send guards here?"
His gravity returned and he released her. "My sweet, I have not the least doubt of it. She understood from the beginning how I would react when she sent her lettre to me in London. It will be to our detriment if we underestimate her vigor now in seizing us." He took a turn before the hearth, a hand at the back of his neck. "Non, we dare not stay here longer than this night. We must ride out by daybreak, chérie."
He saw the platter of roasted fowl and goblets of burgundy and silver cups of coffee. He chose a drumstick from the platter and offered her one. She declined and sank slowly to the stone bench, suddenly aware of her weariness.
She put a palm to her forehead. "So she already knows we are here. That means ..." She moved her gaze to his.
"Exactement. She expected me to return after she threatened to arrange your marriage to that cousin of mine. She would have had spies watching for me in Calais." He tossed the chicken bone aside and reached for another drumstick. "They would have reported to her the moment the Reprisal came into port, but I also believe she was notified when I rode into Paris."
She met his even gaze. "Therefore, she will soon know of our escape from Paris; perhaps she already does."
"I've already sent my messenger north to Calais. He takes a risk trying to slip through to Capitaine Nappier. The roads are under watch. If my plan succeeds, however, he will inform Nappier to sail the Reprisal to Dieppe to wait for us there."
Her stomach tightened. It would be at least a week before the ship arrived at the point of rendezvous in northern France.
She stood, matching his iron calmness, at least outwardly, even while her knees weakened at the thought of the Queen Mother's cold resolve to keep them in France for her purposes.
He drank from the goblet. "Reaching the Reprisal will prove difficult. It is a long ride to Dieppe." He studied her. "Can you endure it?"
She arched a brow and placed one hand on her hip. "Did I not keep up from Paris? I thought you would have noticed my riding skills." She cast him a glance and saw his appreciative smile.
"Ma belle, I noticed, I assure you - you were wondrous to behold." He lifted the goblet to his lips and eyed her over the rim. "And charmante as well."
She felt a flush come to her cheeks and turned back to the fire, holding her palms toward the warmth.
"Do not blame me if I worry for your health," he said. "You are my preeminent concern. I do not wish to see you so weary as you are now. Even so, joining Nappier at Dieppe will present our best opportunity to reach England. If we do not -" He paused, his brows drawn, looking at the goblet.
She pushed her hair away from her shoulder. "But Fabien, as you say, it will take Capitaine Nappier at least a week to reach Dieppe. If the Queen Mother suspects you will marry me before she can thwart us, she will act swiftly."
He set the goblet down and took hold of her gently. His soothing touch reassured her. "I have guards watching the road and horses are ready should we need to leave quickly by way of the woods."
"But if she overtakes us she will insist I marry Maurice. Let us not wait for the dawn. Let us leave at once. Now!"
His eyes, a deep blue with unusual violet hues, held her riveted as his fingers caressed the back of her neck.
"You underestimate my amour for you, ma belle." He clasped her hands tightly to his chest where she could feel his heartbeat, and it thrilled her. "My feelings for you will not endure having you married to Maurice. I will fight to defend you. Do you think I would have returned to France if I were not certain you were the only woman for me? If that were not so, by now I would have been on a voyage to the Americas."
She held him tightly, the thought of losing him forever too much to endure.
She turned her eyes to his. "If you had gone on to Fort Caroline ... I cannot bear to think of what might have happened -"
"The loss, I assure you, would have been mine." He brushed his lips against her forehead, shielding her hands between his. "If I had returned to find I was too late, and lost you to court intrigue, I would have never forgiven myself."
Her heart purred as he stroked her hair and kissed her temple.
He brought her left hand to his lips, kissing her ring finger. "I will not rest content until I place the Bourbon wedding ring on your hand. "You know I love you, Rachelle, chérie, fully and completely. I could wish most profoundly to seal our marriage tonight, but in doing so we face another dilemma, one we cannot ignore. You know, even as I, what it is."
She turned her head aside. Yes ... she knew. Her feelings, so uplifted only moments ago, now collapsed. The Queen Mother was not the only one who could separate them.
"If I claim you in marriage tonight without addressing the matter of my Christian faith to Monsieur Arnaut," he said of her father, "I will surely offend the deep significance of his spiritual belief."
She drew back slightly and then lowered herself to the bench. Feeling cold again, she looked at the red coals but felt no satisfying warmth.
"Oui," she murmured, "I have been thinking of this since we left Paris, and it is a great concern. Père Arnaut will be highly disappointed with me. It is because he does not fully understand you yet, nor does ma mère," she said of her mother, Madame Clair. She turned her head toward him. "But when they know your heart as I do, they will have no such concerns."
"Perhaps. Until then, to Monsieur Arnaut it is an established fact that I've been a practicing Catholic while at court. In my brief meeting with him at Calais, I regret I did nothing to try to bridge our differences."
Rachelle lifted her chin as she thought of the confrontation between her and Fabien over his determination to leave France on a two-year privateering mission against Spain, which had nearly led to the disintegration of their relationship.
"The reason for my reluctance to persuade Monsieur Arnaut in Calais is evident. I'd no idea of the impending circumstance that would lead to my swift return to France to declare myself to you. And now, should I marry his daughter in his absence, he will judge me most arrogant."
Rachelle knew how shocked her parents would be upon discovering their daughter's sudden marriage. Though marriage into the Bourbon family would be considered a great honor, Fabien's perceived loyalty to the Roman Church would distress her parents, ardent supporters of the Reformation in France.
She paraded up and down before the glowing coals, plucking at the damp lace on her sleeves. "Madame Clair was convinced you could never become serious about marriage and wished for me to avoid you. Since you are a royal Bourbon, she thought it likely you would eventually marry a princesse." She glanced at him.
"She was correct on the last point, I have found my princesse - it is you."
That thrilled her, but despite his fervor, a tiny fear gnawed at her. "Yet, your Bourbon family, the princes of the blood -" she tossed up her hands in a helpless gesture - "they are not likely to be pleased with your choice."
"I have considered them," he said briefly. "But I decided years ago that I would not marry a woman merely to gain possessions or influence. I have come forward to commit myself to you in Christian marriage. Even so, we know, do we not, it is your parents' reaction that will be important should we marry tonight without seeking their permission. Their faith in the Scriptures is strong, as it should be. That I am Catholic - or was - will worry them. Assuredly, I will be accused of taking unfair advantage of their daughter in their absence. This is likely to breed resentment. It is no light thing, chérie, for a Catholic marquis to marry a Huguenot when France totters on the edge of religious civil war."
She moved away, restless, clenching the folds of her skirt between her fingers. "Oh, if only they were here to speak with you, to see your faith as genuine. Instead," she said, "they are in London. We could journey to Lyon, otherwise, to the Château de Silk, and meet with them. Mère speaks of the admonition from Scripture to not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers."
"We are not unequally yoked in belief. Pasteur Bertrand, for one, could bear witness of that."
She recalled the unusual circumstance of her father's cousin, Bertrand Macquinet, a Geneva trained pastor, who sailed with Fabien on his last voyage to aid Holland against Spain.
"He could convince your parents. Unfortunately, we would have to contact him by lettre. We can be in London sooner ourselves by voyaging from Dieppe on the Reprisal."
If only Cousin Bertrand were here! She had always been close to Bertrand; he'd become a second father to her. He could not only convince Père Arnaut and Mère Clair of Fabien's faith in Christ alone for salvation, but he could perform the marriage ceremony. But Bertrand was in England leading a Huguenot church in the Spitalfields district outside London, where many French Protestants had fled from the fiery stake in France.
Her hope for marriage before reaching London was disintegrating, which meant she remained at risk of falling into the will of the Queen Mother - and Maurice.
Excerpted from Threads of Silk by Linda Chaikin Copyright © 2008 by Linda Chaikin. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You are missing out if you havent read this series. Probably my favorite series from Linda C.
Wonderful book. I first started reading The Silk series.You wont put it down ! i promise you . Its so romantic but also includes murder and revenge. all God in the center of everything.