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Authors: Charles Todd

The Walnut Tree

BOOK: The Walnut Tree
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The Walnut Tree

Charles Todd

Dedication

Mystery bookshops—old
bookshops—independent bookshops are disappearing at a rapid rate, and this
is a sad loss for everyone who loves books. A handful of book people are
bravely daring the odds by opening new ones. We met just such a bookshop in
Anaheim, California, specializing in mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi—complete
with café and fireplace. We wish them all the best.

Now comes the sad news that
an old and dear friend is shutting its doors.

So to you, Partners &
Crime, we dedicate this latest Charles Todd. We wish you were going to be
there to celebrate it with us. We just wish you were going to be there.
Period.

We owe you guys. More than we
can repay. And we love you all.

Thanks for the
memories.

And as Maggie put it, “God,
we had a blast.” Just knowing you all.

Chapter One

France, July 1914

I
was in Paris the day the French Army was mobilized.

And so began the Great War for the French. But not yet for the British . . .

When I left England, on an overly warm July morning in 1914, war clouds were gathering, but most of us believed that little more than posturing would come of it. And then war was upon us, and there was no time to think of anything else.

I'd traveled to France to visit Madeleine Villard. She'd been a classmate at L'Académie des Jeunes Filles in Paris, where I'd been sent to learn to speak French without a Scots accent. And I was in the wedding party when she married Henri. Now she was heavily pregnant with her first child, due in September, and was ordered not to travel to the Villard country house up in the cooler Marne Valley. She begged me to come to her in Paris, and I did, promising to amuse her and keep up her spirits.

Henri, her husband, was not as optimistic about the chances of war, but he put on a good face in front of his wife, to spare her any worry. Her brother, the handsome Alain, called nearly every day, and at first I thought it was concern for his sister that drew him to the house so often. I learned soon enough that it was my presence that brought him. I didn't quite know how to respond. Whether to be pleased or amused.

The truth was, I'd had such a schoolgirl crush on Alain. I hadn't told anyone, not even Madeleine.

At the end of each term, he had come to Paris to fetch Madeleine home, and every girl in the school stood with her nose pressed to the window glass to see him arrive. Tall, fair, already come down from university, he set hearts aflutter. I had met him again at Madeleine's wedding, but he had still seen me as the schoolgirl acquaintance of his sister, and in the midst of the wedding festivities, I doubt we'd spent more than five minutes in each other's company, save at the dinners and parties that were part of the celebration. He had danced with me once, an obligatory dance, but Madeleine had been over the moon with joy.

“I can't think of anyone I'd rather have as my sister,” she'd exclaimed as he brought me back to where I was sitting and, duty done, gone off to more exciting partners. I'd glimpsed the lovely brunette on his arm earlier in the evening.

I didn't have the heart to tell Madeleine that his interest was perfunctory and very likely to stay that way. I'd outgrown my infatuation, of course, but I still found Alain immensely attractive and exciting. Sadly he didn't appear to feel the same way about me, and I'd tried to be philosophical about that. Much good it did me.

Now I was no longer a callow schoolgirl. I'd made my debut into society and had achieved the sophistication that came with the rigorous training for a presentation at Court. I'd also come into my inheritance from my mother, when I was eighteen. She had died when I was only three years old, leaving my father and me to cling to each other in our grief. I think that was why he seldom let me out of his sight, for fear of losing me as well. Neither of us ever got over her death. It would have pleased my mother that I'd grown up as independent as she had been, free to choose my own clothing, much to the despair of my second cousin who was now head of the family. He had no daughters, only sons, and it was his opinion that young ladies should dress demurely. White muslin, blue satin sashes, the sweet and innocent fashion that was so popular. My father would have understood my liking for something more elegant, but then my father was dead. Cousin Kenneth had not only inherited his lands and his title, he'd also inherited me in the form of guardianship.

“That rose gown you wore at the ball last evening,” he'd said to me not six months earlier. “I should have thought something in pale blue or lemon yellow might be more suitable.”

“I'm a black Scot,” I said. He and his family had flaming red hair. “My dark hair is unsuited to pale colors. I look as if I'm dying of consumption.”

He grinned. “Surely it isn't that bad.”

I couldn't help but smile as well, but I stood my ground all the same. “You aren't a woman, Cousin Kenneth. Ask Cousin Catriona. She'll understand.” His wife was known for her excellent taste in all matters of dress.

He said in exasperation, “How am I to find a husband for you, my dear? If you make it so difficult? You're as headstrong as your father was.”

“I'd rather choose my own husband, if you please,” I told him. But I knew how unlikely that was. By the terms of my father's will, I was Cousin Kenneth's ward until I was thirty. My father had wanted to protect me, in the event he wasn't there. And to my great sorrow, he wasn't. Had he known—had he had a premonition that he would die young?

The suggestion made my cousin frown, and there was an undercurrent of worry in his voice as he asked, “There isn't anyone you have particularly in mind? Someone you met in London. Or France? Someone . . . unsuitable?”

To his credit Kenneth had been very forbearing. But he also took his duty seriously, and in the end, he would insist when he felt it was in my best interests.

“I'm not likely to run off with Gypsies or one of the ghillies,” I answered as lightly as I could. When that didn't erase the frown, I said, “No. You needn't worry that I'll do anything so foolish. I know what I owe to my name and my station. Still, I'd like some say in the matter. After all, I'm the one who must live with your choice.” My parents had married for love. It had also been a very fine match. I was discovering how rare a thing this was, in my circle.

“I've had several very fine offers for your hand, Elspeth, and I can't go on putting them off. You must understand that your husband is your future, and it's not a matter to treat lightly.” And then he'd added, “If there's a war, the eligible men will be the first to die.”

I could only promise to remember his good advice.

And now here I was, in France, Alain Montigny suddenly realizing that I exist. The more I saw of him, the more I liked him. I could easily imagine spending the rest of my life with him. He reminded me a little of Bruce, Cousin Kenneth's middle son. Perhaps that's why I felt so comfortable in Alain's company.

Madeleine was always finding new ways of throwing us together. Concerts. The opera. Dinner parties. Whatever invitations she could persuade Henri to accept on my behalf—after making certain that Alain would also be present. Poor Henri became, unwittingly, the matchmaker.

“She cannot stay cooped up in my rooms all day. And you know how I fall asleep in the evenings. She's used to London society,” she had told her husband. “We must contrive amusements for her. After all, look how happy she has made me. I want her to be happy too.” She'd given me an account of the conversation a few weeks later.

Henri, bless him, was a lovely man who cared deeply for his wife and spoiled her without reservations. But we talked on these excursions, he and I, about the war, and one night as we were returning from a dinner party, he said to me, “England isn't involved at the moment. That could change. You speak French like a native, but your papers are British. If the Germans can't be stopped, you could find yourself accused of spying.”

I hadn't considered my own danger. Still, I said, “Surely there's plenty of time. As long as Germany respects the frontiers of Belgium, England won't come into the war.”

“Yes, well, I think our own frontiers with Germany are too strongly fortified. She will have to come through Belgium even if it forces England into the war.”

I'd heard one of our acquaintances in the War Office mention the same possibility before I left London. It was not very comforting to find that Henri believed it would happen. Not now with Madeleine's baby on the way and my friendship with Alain daily growing into something more. Was it love I felt? Surely it must be. We had such wonderful times together. There were outings in his motorcar, picnics in the countryside, evenings sitting side by side at the theater or a dinner party. Henri or one of Madeleine's friends chaperoned. I lost count of the number of people who told me what a handsome couple we were, he so fair and I so dark. Even strangers, like the priest in Chartres or the woman in the flower shop outside the gates of Versailles. The French are far more forward than the English in matters of the heart.

Alain said one afternoon as he brought me back from an excursion to St. Denis in the motorcar, “Would you find it so very hard to live in France, Lady Elspeth? It's a very long way from Scotland.”

But my heart was no longer in Scotland. Not since my father's sudden, tragic death. We had been close, he and I, and I mourned him still. It was his love of speed—in boats, motorcars, even an aircraft—that had made him the most exciting man I knew. And it was his love of speed that had killed him. Lord Douglas had lived as his ancestors had, with that Highland spirit that had led them to follow Bonnie Prince Charlie and die at Culloden Moor rather than bow down to the King of England. There's a portrait in the gallery of the castle showing the Prince and one of my ancestors and another man standing together in the courtyard of the castle as it was then. And my ancestor could have been my father, down to the elegant way he stood in his kilt. Like a prince himself.

I had always known my own mind, and so had my father.

I said, “I have no close ties to Scotland these days. I've lived in England for the past two years.” In a house in Cornwall that had once belonged to my mother's brother, a lovely old stone mansion that overlooked the sea and was said to have been built by one of Drake's captains in the days of the great Queen Elizabeth, she of the Armada and a love for handsome, dashing men.

“And you finished your schooling in France.”

I smiled. “So I did.”

“I remember you from those days. The prettiest girl in the room by far, and with a dignity that was impressive in one so young.”

I hadn't thought he'd noticed me. And he most certainly had no time for me at his sister's wedding.

As if he'd heard the thought, he said, “At the wedding you were still too young. And I was still too green to think of marriage. I had the world to see and conquer.”

“Then it's fortunate that I came back to Paris.”

“Not fortunate. It was my suggestion to my sister.” He grinned. “And she didn't require a great deal of urging.”

A conspiracy. I didn't know whether to be amused or angry. I wasn't used to having my life arranged by others.

As we were turning into the courtyard of the Villard house, he glanced in my direction and saw my expression.

“I have already made plans to go to England in September, as soon as Madeleine has her child. Perhaps you'll allow me to escort you home. I'd like very much to meet your cousin.”

“Ah.” It was all I could manage to say, for one of the footmen had come up to hand me down from the motorcar. But my thoughts were flying in every direction. If Alain asked my cousin Kenneth for my hand in marriage—he had all but told me he would—what would I say? What answer would I give? Suddenly I had no idea.

“Would you mind?” Alain asked as we walked into the cool foyer of the Villard house. His gaze was on my face, but I didn't look up.

“I should think you and Cousin Kenneth enjoy each other's company.” And that, I told myself, was as silly a response as I could have come up with if I'd had weeks to prepare my answer.

A gentleman never spoke of marriage to a lady before addressing the head of her family. But Alain had asked my permission, in a roundabout way, and I could have said no, in the same polite fashion. It was a kindness on his part to consider my feelings, and as I was to learn, Alain was always thoughtful.

“It's agreed then.”

And with a smile as he touched the brim of his hat, Alain went to his house to change. I stood looking after his motorcar and found myself wondering what better answer I'd have given, if I'd had a little time to think through his question.

What would Cousin Kenneth think of a Frenchman? I smiled to myself. A little lower than a Gypsy, because he was foreign? My cousin wasn't overly fond of foreigners. He had said so often enough. But then it wouldn't be Kenneth who married one, would it? And while there was no title in Alain's family, his blood was probably bluer than mine, his fortune larger. A suitable match in every sense.

But was I in love with Alain?

How could I not be?

I turned, running up the stairs to tell Madeleine about our drive—but not about our conversation.

And then the Germans marched. Without considering anyone else's plans but their own.

What's more, they marched not across the well-defended German-French border, but through the tiny, fairly new country of Belgium. The Belgians were fighting gallantly from all reports, but it appeared that they would be overwhelmed in a matter of days. Refugees poured into France, bringing tales of hardships, wholesale looting, and atrocities with them.

The British issued an ultimatum—withdraw from Belgium or face the consequences.

War, staring all of us in the face.

Madeleine was in hysterics when she learned that Henri had been called up, that his orders required him to report to his command immediately. No last dinner together, no lingering farewells. The doctor had to be sent for.

He feared for her child and told her in no uncertain terms that she must calm down or risk losing it.

I had to take her hands in mine and say forcibly, “You cannot send Henri off to fight the Germans, knowing this child is stillborn and that he must leave you to grieve alone. It would be too cruel, Madeleine. You must show him how brave you are, as brave as he is. Besides, there are rumors that the war will be over by Christmas. He'll be home by then, you'll see.”

“But why can't they let him stay? Just until the baby is born? Why is that too much to ask?”

“I'm here with you,” I said. “They must think one Highland Scot is enough protection for one baby.”

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