France, 1668 Hélène de Bonnefoi’s spirit has been squashed by the ever-critical aunt and uncle who raised her. Serving as nanny and stand-in mother to her cousin’s child has saved her from the convent, especially after her cousin’s death. When suspicious accidents threaten the toddler, Hélène overcomes her near-blindness to seek the help of the child’s father, a colonel in Louis XIV’s army. Jean-Louis, Colonel de Cantière, has spent his life proving his worth, integrity, and honor, first to his family and now in the army. When his daughter’s caretaker appears in his camp during a siege, claiming someone is trying to kill the girl, his loyalties are sorely tested. Hélène must convince Jean-Louis the threat is real. But the true danger is to the heart of a shy young woman who has always loved her cousin’s husband from afar and to the colonel’s desire to resist complicated emotions.
His first view of Mademoiselle Hélène took his breath away. She was sitting in a beam of light, smiling down at the little girl who sat next to her on the bench. Her hair glinted gold in the sunlight, and her pink lips parted as she laughed.
“Mademoiselle Hélène, Colonel de Cantière is here to see you,” said the woman.
Jean-Louis bowed deeply and raised himself again to find Mademoiselle Hélène curtseying to him and the little girl staring at him, wide-eyed. Mademoiselle Hélène’s features had gone blank, erasing the sunshine and beauty he had witnessed.
“Ondine, chérie,” she said to the girl. “It is your papa, come to see us. Get up and curtsey, ma petite.”
The girl stood up on the bench and bobbed clumsily, clutching at Mademoiselle Hélène for support and reassurance.
Jean-Louis hadn’t seen his daughter since his wife’s funeral, over a year before. She likely had no memory of him, and yet her mistrust cut him to the heart.
“Please, Monsieur, join us for breakfast,” said Mademoiselle Hélène in the soft, shy voice that made him want to protect her.
He gritted his teeth. He was ridiculous. There was no threat here. It was leftover nerves from the battle and a lack of sleep, surely. The long argument with the Prince de Condé to get leave for two days to solve the problem, coupled with the long journey, had sapped what was left of his wits.
He sat across the table from the lady and his daughter and waved Fourbier to a chair. The innkeeper’s wife entered with a servant bringing bread and jam.
They ate in strained silence. He complimented the woman on the delightful sausage; it had been weeks since he had eaten properly, even though he knew he ate better than his soldiers. “Well, Mademoiselle Hélène, I would like the rest of the story of how you came to bring my daughter to a war.”
Hélène looked down at her lap, blushing. “I do not know how I had the strength to do it, but I was so frightened for Ondine. I didn’t feel safe with my aunt and uncle Ferand.”
“You said there was a fire? And your uncle thought it was nothing serious?”
“He said it was just a dropped candle, but there was a great deal of smoke under the door of the nursery. And Ondine had not drunk her milk. She did not want it—if a child who is not even three does not want something, there is no point in forcing—and so we gave it to the cat that sleeps in her dressing room.”
Jean-Louis scratched at his head, confused. He encountered his damned wig, though, and didn’t dare disarrange it any more than it already was so brought his hand back down to the table.
Mademoiselle Hélène turned to the serving girl. “Lily, could you watch Ondine for a short time while I speak to the colonel in the hall?”
The girl agreed, glancing fearfully at Fourbier, who nodded. Jean-Louis followed Mademoiselle Hélène into the dark, cramped hall.
“I did not wish to frighten Ondine. She understands most of what we say, though she doesn’t speak clearly yet.” She dragged her hand along the wall until they were ten feet from the breakfast room.
Jean-Louis leaned against the opposite wall, glancing out a tiny, wavy window to where his carriage was waiting. He wondered again if this was a horrible waste of time.
“You see, Ondine did not drink her milk, but the cat did. When the smoke started, Ondine cried for me to save the cat, but I found it on the floor under the bed, vomiting and twitching. I took up Ondine and opened the window and called for help as I stepped out onto the ledge.”
“The third-story ledge by the nursery?” His heart wrenched.
“Yes. I knew I could walk along it to the balcony two windows down. Amandine used to climb out to escape lessons. The ledge is wide enough to walk on, if one is careful. I had Ondine in the shawl I use to carry her when she gets tired on walks. She stayed very still.”
Jean-Louis stared at Mademoiselle Hélène for a long time after she stopped talking. She was looking in his direction, but not meeting his eyes. He would not have thought her so bold as to walk along a ledge or speak an entire sentence. “Tell me the rest. Why your uncle did not agree there was a threat. Why you chose to leave anyway.”
She sighed and looked down at her twisting hands. She was nervous, not bold at all. “He said the cat must have breathed smoke. The fire was put out very quickly. They were already throwing water on it when I came back in through the schoolroom. We were hardly in, though, when the window broke.”
“Broke?” he snapped. “How?”
“I’m not sure. The window, which is like a narrow door, really, jerked out of my hand and shattered,” she said. “And then I heard a crack.”
His heart stuttered. He swallowed. “Like a gunshot?”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philippa Lodge has been an avid reader since she asked her mother to point out where it said “Ma” in Little House in the Big Woods. She read everything she could get her hands on until grad school in French Studies, at which time she lost her reading mojo. Only through the twin discoveries of Harry Potter and romance has she gotten her groove back and gone back to what she loved about seventeenth century France: kings, swords, opulence, and love. She lives in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA with her husband, three children, two cats, and a head full of courtesans.