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Authors: Annette Chaudet

Tags: #General Fiction

Beloved (10 page)

BOOK: Beloved
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He turned his attention to Marco and Lise as they stood arm in arm listening to the music. The fair, blonde Lise was a perfect match for Marco’s darker good looks and everyone expected that they would be betrothed in the coming year.

Not always at ease in the company of women, Grégoire wished he shared both Richard’s and Marco’s self-assurance in that area. Their household, even with the addition of the Jonvauxs and the DiClementis, seemed to have turned into a close-knit group of bachelors, relieved only by Christina’s feminine presence until quite recently, when Lise had come to join them. Cybelle, busy with her own family, rarely visited Beauvu now.

Intent on his studies at the medical college at Marseilles, Grégoire had shunned the lively society of the other students. There had been no time for him to take an active interest in any young lady. Everyone, including his stepfather, had always assumed he would continue his studies by joining the Church and so Grégoire had not often been seen in the social circles of Provence. It didn’t bother him in the least. He was so absorbed in his studies that he hadn’t thought about anything else for some years. But he was beginning to wonder if everyone’s expectations for his future had caused his lack of interest in women. Was the subtle call to the Church, which had been with him all his life, finally going to claim him?

He smiled to himself, beginning to consider the possibility of a wife and family of his own for the first time in his life. A choice that would soon have to be made. It was an interesting prospect.

“I propose that we drink to the continued flowering of the blossom in our midst. Christina,” said Louis, raising his glass when Christina finished her song. “May the next year bring you continued happiness, my dear.”

Christina blushed prettily as the toast was made, and Louis leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then he went to the stack of gifts on the large table in the center of the room and pulled out a rectangular package.

“Well, I’ll begin.” He handed the package to Richard. “To a son who has made me very proud.”

Richard smiled and embraced his father. It was so very good to be home again with the people he loved. He untied the ribbon, grinning broadly as the shining dagger slithered out of the wrapping and into his hand like a luminous snake. It was a beautifully crafted piece, the glittering silver handle cast in the shape of an ankh.

“Father, it’s beautiful! Wherever did you find it?”

“It came up from Egypt,” Louis answered. “I discovered it last time I was in Tunis.”

Richard was everything that Louis had hoped for in each of his children, and while he was pleased with all of them—for they had all succeeded in their chosen endeavors—it was his youngest who would follow in his footsteps. Richard would continue the Magniet line and, when the time came, take his place as Baron among the elite of France.

“Thank you,” Richard said sincerely, embracing his father once again.

That began the exchange of gifts in an atmosphere of happy excitement.

When Guy’s turn finally came, he went to the table and selected a rather important-looking box, which he immediately took to Christina. Before he could hand it to her, she dodged him and retrieved the small package she had for him.

“Oh wait. Please, open mine first,” she said, handing it to Guy. It was a lovely handkerchief delicately embroidered with mulberry leaves, Christina’s own work. Guy smiled as he tucked it into his sleeve, then urged her to open the gift he’d given her.

Christina carefully untied the ribbon that encircled the flat velvet box. She lifted the lid, revealing an incredible sapphire necklace. Christina looked at Guy in astonishment. What on earth was he thinking to give her such a thing?

When Marcel saw the necklace, he nearly choked on his wine. Over the past three years his unpredictable son had grown increasingly distant and Marcel had watched his dream of a warm and loving bond between them turn into a nightmare of threats and manipulation. Surely this time Guy had gone too far!

Everyone in the room was silent, all of them uneasy about the gift that seemed much too lavish for a fifteen year old girl, and far to important a piece to be given to a friend. Christina looked around the room in confusion. She saw the surprised faces, but no one seemed willing to speak. She looked at Richard and he smiled encouragingly.

Nervously, she broke the silence. “It…it’s beautiful…I don’t know what to say!”

Guy’s eyes sparkled. He didn’t care what any of the others thought.

“Don’t say anything. It was my mother’s.” Guy glared in defiance at the disapproving faces that surrounded him. “I know she would have wanted you to have it.” The last remark was directed at his father, who had turned away, shaking his head as he leaned on a chair for support.

Louis watched the interaction between father and son with concern. It was obvious Marcel was surprised by his son’s choice of gifts.

Again, silence blanketed the room.

“Here, let me put it on for you.”

Richard watched Guy closely. This must be the reason he’d seemed so pleased with himself all evening. But why on earth would he give such a significant family piece to Christina? Surely he would want to save his mother’s best things for the woman he would marry.

“I don’t think…” Christina looked helplessly at Richard as she felt the weight of the stones at her throat. Guy caught her by the shoulders, kissing her firmly on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Christina.”

She felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment.

Richard, displeased by the look on Guy’s face or the sight of his fingers digging into the pale skin of Christina’s shoulders, took a step toward them.

But Antonio moved first, coughing self-consciously as he stepped between Christina and Guy, hoping to break the tension as he presented his gift to Marco. While Marco unwrapped the heavy package, Christina moved away from Guy until she was standing beside Richard. He immediately slipped his arm around her waist, but turned to Marco and admired the beautiful pistol Antonio had given him.

The next package was for Richard. Christina watched anxiously as he removed the ribbon and unfolded the paper. It was another lavishly embroidered handkerchief, this one edged with the delicate lace that Christina had made herself. But there was something heavy rolled up in it—a long gold chain that had been her mother’s.

“Thank you, Chrissa,” he said, bending down so she could hook it around his neck. She straightened the shining links across the lace of his
jabot
. Richard was touched by her thoughtfulness. Taking her hand, he kissed her cheek.

Christina looked at him expectantly, but it was Grégoire who picked up one of the two remaining packages from the table and brought it to her. He had made a small book for her that named and illustrated the wildflowers of Provence.

Christina looked again to Richard and then at the last remaining package. She didn’t mind that his gift for her was the last. It made it that much more special. He smiled at her but made no move toward the table. Her brother finally reached for the solitary package and presented it to her. It was heavy.

“Merry Christmas, Tina,” Marco said, embracing his sister.

Christina was terribly disappointed. Was it possible that Richard, always so generous with his gifts, was really not going to give her anything for Christmas? But she hid her feelings as she removed the ribbon and unfolded the pale green silk to reveal a beautiful glass ball filled with what seemed to be thousands of tiny flowers.

“Marco! It’s like the one that Zia Maria used to have!” Her aunt’s
millefiori
glass ball had been a childhood favorite.

Marco laughed. “I’m afraid this one’s much smaller, but I’m glad you like it.” He hugged her again.

The last gift had been opened and Antonio proposed a toast.

“To good friends who have become family…a happy and prosperous new year to each of you!”

Everyone except Christina raised a glass with a smile. She was watching Richard with an unhappy expression on her sweet face.

Richard noticed and moved over next to her. “Chrissa, is anything wrong?”

“No…I…” She looked down at her untouched glass, realizing she was behaving like a spoiled child. Hadn’t Richard always been generous with her? Hadn’t he always included something special with each of his many letters?

Richard laughed, unable to continue the ruse any longer.

“It seems I’ve forgotten something!” he said, with a snap of his fingers and a mysterious twinkle in his eye.

Curious, everyone in the room watched him open the tall double doors to the hallway. He went out, and returned a moment later with the covered basket he’d left in Albert’s care and brought it to Christina.

She took it from him, looking up in surprise as something within it stirred.

“Richard…” she squealed. “It’s moving! What is it?”

Again, he laughed. “Well, see for yourself. Open it!”

Everyone crowded around the harpsichord, anxious to see. Only Guy held himself back from the group. He’d been surprised and strangely elated when it seemed Richard had failed to give Christina a gift. If she had nothing from Richard it would make his own gift to her all the more special. But Richard had not forgotten. No matter. Whatever might be in that basket could never compare with the beautiful sapphires that lay so delicately against the ivory skin of Christina’s throat.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as she reached in and removed a tiny white kitten.

Christina was overwhelmed. She was afraid Richard had forgotten her, and now this! She held the small ball of fur against her cheek, smiling as the kitten began to purr.

The others shared Christina’s delight and acknowledged Richard’s unconventional choice of a gift as they settled themselves around the room and fell into more intimate conversations, leaving Richard and Christina alone together at the harpsichord.

“What a perfect present! Where did you get her?” Christina was enchanted.

“She was waiting for me—and for you—in Arles when we docked.”

She held the kitten to her chest and it immediately went after one of the glittering sapphires at her throat. Its tiny claws caught in the fine chain of the necklace and Christina, in an effort to extricate it, undid the clasp. The kitten freed, she laid the necklace on the harpsichord. She and Richard moved over to one of the sofas, the elegant jewels forgotten as the two of them proceeded to entice the little ball of fur with a bit of ribbon.

Neither of them noticed the look on Guy’s face as he slipped out of the room.

One by one the others said their goodnights, finally leaving Richard and Christina alone. She sat with him on the sofa, her feet curled beneath her skirts, her head resting against his shoulder as she absentmindedly stroked the kitten that slept between them.

“I love the kitten,” she said softly.

“What are you going to name her?”

They’d fallen back into their usual roles, the awkwardness of the afternoon forgotten.

“I don’t know…perhaps Espérance.”

“Hope?” Richard looked down at her. “What is it you hope for, Chrissa?”

“To be with you,” she answered.

“You
are
with me.”

“But you’ll be leaving again soon, won’t you?”

“Not for two months.”

Sighing, she leaned back against him. “Will we ever be together?”

“Soon, Beloved. Soon.” He pressed his lips to the top of her head, then held up his hand, his palm to hers. She smiled as she pressed her fingers against his, repeating the words and gestures they’d shared for as long as she could remember.

“Thou art beloved of me…” he began.

“Thou art beloved of me.” she repeated softly.

“And I of thee…”

“And I of thee.”

“And so it will be…”

“And so it will be.”

“For eternity.” They whispered the last words together.

Christina looked up at him and this time it was impossible for Richard to avoid the kiss. He no longer wanted to.

As their lips met, Richard could only think that it was going to be a very long year.

Three days later the little kitten was found dead, its tiny skull crushed.

The two weeks remaining before Christina returned to Venice flew by, and though Richard spent nearly every waking moment of those days with her, she would have given anything to have stayed in Arles. On their last night together, they shared a quiet supper in her father’s library. Both Antonio and Marco were out for the evening and Christina tried to forestall her grief over their pending separation by imagining that she and Richard were finally married and that this was just another evening meal for them as husband and wife. Yet, try as she might, she couldn’t forget that after tomorrow, it might be months before she’d see him again.

All through their meal Richard watched a cloud of melancholy descend over Christina, knowing he was the cause of her unhappiness. Taking her hand, he led her from the table to her father’s big chair that faced the warm glow of the marble fireplace. He sat down and easily pulled her into his lap.

Christina, without saying a word, slipped her arms around his neck and laid her cheek against his shoulder. They had shared so many evenings like that, from the time she was small and Richard had spent many a summer night reading to her at Beauvu.

“Beloved, why are you so sad?” He knew the answer, but hoped to find some way to comfort her.

“You know how I hate for us to be apart, and it seems that each time I have to say goodbye to you, it becomes more difficult.”

“But we have all the rest of our lives to spend together. Despite the way you feel tonight, it really won’t be that much longer until we’re married, Chrissa.” He ran his hand gently over her hair. “Whenever you feel like you’ve been waiting a long time for us to be together, just remember I’ve been waiting six years longer.”

Christina sighed, unconvinced. She’d heard these arguments countless times. It didn’t change the way she felt whenever she was away from him.

“Will you be back at Beauvu this summer?” she asked hopefully.

Richard hesitated. He knew she wouldn’t be pleased, but he was also unwilling to give her any sort of false hope.

BOOK: Beloved
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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