The Baron’s BetrothalBy: Maggi Andersen
“Beat you to the river,” Vincent called.
Guy Truesdale rode with his twelve-year-old twin brother over the grounds of their father’s chateau. “If you ride that horse too hard, Papa will have your hide, Vincent.”
Vincent kicked his horse’s sides and forged ahead. “You’re just afraid I’ll win,” he called back. “And the steward’s daughter won’t gaze at you with calf eyes anymore.”
“Just to the giant oak, then.” Guy had stolen his first kiss behind that oak tree and wouldn’t mind repeating the experience. She was a pretty miss, older than him by two years. Said she might have married him one day if he hadn’t been born a baron’s son. Guy had laughed. Many years stretched ahead before he married, and he intended to live life to the full until then.
As Guy rode past him, Vincent swerved his horse into Guy’s mount, almost unseating him. Guy drew on the reins and trotted after his brother as he raced hell-for-leather over the meadow. He reached the tree and threw his hat in the air with a shout. It was always the same, Vincent had to win, had to be best at everything. As if he resented being born second.
When they returned home, pandemonium had broken out. Some of the staff had abandoned them, including the steward and his daughter.
Papa called them into the library, his forehead etched with deep lines. He placed his arms around their shoulders. “I don’t have to tell you that France faces troubling times,” he said. “I have ordered our trunks packed and our most valuable possessions removed from the chateau. It appears we may have to leave at any moment. There are bread riots in Paris, and the Sans Culottes are trawling the countryside wreaking havoc. I believe I’ve been a fair master and many of my servants will remain loyal, but I shan’t have them die for us, so best be prepared.”
“But Papa, you are English,” Guy said.
Papa shook his head. “But your mother is French, and my children are half French.”
Guy stared at Vincent, whose blue eyes dark with fear reflected his own. Shock at facing the guillotine sent icy water flooding through his veins. He could find no words.
During the night, Guy woke and sat up with a start, as the lick of flames engulfed the chateau walls. Smoke poured into the room. He threw back the bedclothes, coughing and struggling to breathe in the thick smoky air. “Vincent!”
His brother’s bed was empty.
“Mon dieu!” Guy fought his way to the window and stared out. The gardens flickered with flaming lights. Wild shouting reached his ears. Bands of peasants and those wearing the red liberty hats of the sans culottes, mostly workers and shopkeepers who despised the aristocracy, ran about the grounds with lighted torches. Paintings and furniture was dragged from the chateau onto the lawns and their horses led from the stables.
“Where is your brother?” His father appeared at the door with Maman, a handkerchief held to her face, her eyes enormous with panic as she held his sister’s hand.
“I don’t know, Papa,” Guy said, his voice tight with fear.
“I shall find him,” his father said grimly. “Look after your mother and sister.”
From the carriage hidden in the wood, Guy, with his sobbing maman and his younger sister, Genevieve, watched the west wing of the chateau crumble to the ground in a haze of sparks.
“The kitchens!” Genevieve gasped.
Guy’s father appeared, running through the trees. “Quickly, into the coach. We must leave now!”
“Vincent? Where’s my son?” Maman cried.
“I’ll find him, Papa!” Guy yelled about to spring forward.
His father grabbed his arm. “No, my boy, you will not. He is gone,” he said bitterly as he herded them into the coach. “Vincent was with the chef in the kitchen. No one has seen either of them.”
As the horses raced away along the country road, while his maman and sister wept, his father leaned across and placed a hand on Guy’s knee.
“When you are a man, you must return to England, my son, and claim what will be rightly yours at my death.”
He had waited so long for this. Guy Truesdale, the sixth Baron Fortescue, stood on the lawn verge of Golden Square and gazed at number twelve across the road with the bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth. The impressive size of the three-story townhouse was as he imagined, and the gardens in the square still well-ordered, but Soho was not as elegant as in his father’s time. It appeared to have changed considerably from the last century. The aristocracy had moved on to more salubrious areas. Back in those days, his father’s neighbor was a fashionable countess who held lavish balls. It was now a warehouse for musical instruments. The swell of an Italian aria emanated from an open window, sung by a tenor accompanied by the harpsichord and violin.