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Limoges, France 1646.
Fire. It was the only way she could describe it. The burning tendrils of faded pleasure that still snaked across her skin. The heated passion that surged in her heart whenever she thought of his name: Arnaud.
Concentrate! She sharply chided herself. But that was just it. She could not concentrate on the nobleman who repeated the vows that would make her his wife because her thoughts were still enthralled with the man whose masculine scent made her heart pulse and her palms sweat as he stood at her side.
Arnaud. There it was again. Her traitorous mind silently screaming for the man who had been sworn to protect her honour with his life- the man to whom she had given herself on the morning of her wedding day.
“Marriage is a sacred ritual begun in the garden of Eden, when the Lord God created man and woman and united them in a bond of purity,” the priest intoned drily. He had obviously performed many marriages, but the pouch of coins handed to him before the ceremony made him more poetic than usual. Nothing but the best would do for Monsieur de Limoges and his beautiful bride, Angélique de Toulouse.
From birth Angélique had been sequestered from the world, fully ignorant of its evils. Her father’s goal had been to raise a perfect child. “You will be as good as an angel of God,” he told her daily. Her childhood routine was dominated by prayer, domestic arts and hearing the Scriptures read so that she also would be prepared to rear children worthy of joining the heavenly choir.
Claude de Toulouse genuinely loved his daughter, this she knew beyond a shadow of doubt. He had showered her with affection since her birth and his love had only grown more poignant when her mother had succumbed to an unnamed illness. His love demanded she rise to his high standards. The depth of his hatred for evil was a strong as the depth of his love and Claude had repeatedly warned Angélique of the consequence for disgracing the family name. She would be cut off from her inheritance and would never see him again.
After her mother’s death Angélique began to seek the affection of friends. Her father’s protective walls limited the options to a handful of children who lived on the estate, one of whom was a young boy named Arnaud. Claude, a stern but fair man had not discouraged the relationship because he truly wanted to see his daughter smile again. The passing years had transformed friendship into romance and on her sixteenth birthday Arnaud had asked Angélique to become his wife.
Claude had firmly refused the match, considering it unsuitable despite his respect for Arnaud who, at twenty-five years of age, commanded his small band of men-at-arms on the estate. He did recognize, however that the time had come for Angélique to marry and had therefore invited Jean-Philippe de Limoges, a recent widower, to his chateâu. Within weeks the match was set and on her seventeenth birthday, Angélique left her home for the first and final time.
Trusting in Arnaud’s honor, Claude de Toulouse had commissioned him to lead an armed party and his daughter to her waiting husband in Limoges. The two-week journey had been largely uneventful and despite his best intentions Arnaud found his ardent attraction to Angélique impossible to ignore. The tension continued to build.
“Therefore shall a man leave both father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife. They two shall become one flesh,” the priest continued.
Angélique barely registered his words, but her pulse spiked as memories of the preceding days flooded her mind. The rapidly-building attraction between them had come to a head this morning when Arnaud had rapped on her door and entered without waiting on a response. He had come to escort her downstairs but Angélique, who expected to see her maid Marianne, wore nothing more than a thin shift. Fire. Heat had flooded her face and she turned away groping at anything to preserve her modesty but it was too late.
Closing and locking the door firmly behind him Arnaud had closed the gap between them in two strides.
“Please do not do this,” he had begged, dropping to his knees. “Do not throw away your happiness by marrying this-this old man when you know that you love me. Run away with me. Today. Now!”
“Arnaud, please do not make this more difficult than it already is,” she had begged, misery written in every inch of her pale face. “Father will not let us marry.”
He had risen to his feet, drawing her into the close embrace of his strong arms. “Kiss me,” he had whispered.
She had hesitated. A spark of rebellion kindled in her heart. One kiss only. I am far from home and Father will never know. Arnaud placed his face inches from her own. Just one kiss. I will not let him go any farther than a kiss.
“You were made for this,” he whispered in her ear.
“No.” She tried to resist. “It’s wrong.”
“It is no sin. We love each other. If it were not so, why would God make you so beautiful?”
“Arnaud,” she whispered her hands pressed against his broad, well-defined chest, her fingertips sensing the muscles that rippled beneath them. “It is wrong. My father told me many times that to love a man outside of marriage is sin and God will curse me for it. Besides…I am to be married today!” Her protest sounded weak even to her and Arnaud pushed harder.
“Do you really think that a loving God who made your body and mine would punish us for loving each other? Angélique, my angel, regarde-moi. Am I evil because I desire you, because I need you? I crave the air you breathe, mon amour.”
The force and the naked fervor behind his words made protests to melt away into a whirlwind of confusion. Was it true? Had she been wrong after all? Did God want her to be with this man or would he condemn her infidelity and send her to hell? Que Dieu m’en garde!
She had hesitated and in that one moment of weakness, he knew that she could not resist him. She had leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, tasting the pleasure he offered. The shock of that first kiss condemned her to the inferno that suddenly raged throughout her entire being. Fire. She was consumed by it and by a ravenous hunger for the man who had kindled the flame.
“And do you, Angélique de Toulouse know of anything that would hinder your union with this worthy man? Do you accept the hand of the esteemed Monsieur Jean-Philippe de Limoges in marriage vowing to be faithful unto him until death?”
She heard the priest but for a moment she could not answer. She felt Arnaud stiffen, heard the swift intake of his breath. To lie in the name of God was to condemn her soul. But to confess was to disgrace herself and her family name. She would be cut off from her father forever! She weighed the options in her head for only a brief moment. All eyes, except Arnaud’s, were on her. She could see the puzzled expressions of the villagers who gathered for the celebration. They were wondering why this devout woman would hesitate to accept the hand of a man as kind as Monsieur de Limoges.
Some subtle intuition caused Angélique to glance at her promised husband. His steady gaze lingered on her face for a moment and then passed over to Arnaud, who still examined the cracks in the floor of Saint-Michel-des-Lions. He suspects. Her face flushed crimson with heat as Jean-Philippe opened his mouth to speak.
“Is there anything you wish to say, my dear?”
She could delay no longer. In her passion she had eaten of the forbidden fruit; already her soul was being tortured by guilt. Perhaps the flames of hell were already licking at the ground underneath her feet even now. Fires above and fire below-there was no escape. She was condemned!
She turned to the priest. “Yes. Before God I swear that I have nothing to confess. I will honour him and be true to him until my last breath. This I vow before God and His holy saints.”
“Then in the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost, I pronounce you both, husband and wife.”
There. It was done. No. Angélique immediately rejected the thought. This is only beginning. She had betrayed her husband and sworn falsely by God to hide the shame of her failure. The candles on the altar danced excitedly and inside each one she imagined she saw a demon, an angel who like her had fallen from righteousness, writhing with delight at the torment she would endure from this moment on.
She groaned inwardly as she locked arms with her husband and turned to smile prettily towards the cheering onlookers.
“May you be fruitful. May your conception be multiplied and blessed of the Lord,” the priest chanted, quoting from the book of Genesis as groom and bride exited the chapel. Angélique’s eyes slid to Arnaud whose gaze finally lifted to meet hers. What she saw made her heart tremble. Arnaud had done the unthinkable.
Like a serpent he had slid into the purity of her Eden and seduced his master’s daughter. His eyes were those of a man haunted by personal failure. Yes.. Angélique thought. Fire rages uncontrollably within us and all around us. And how many will fall victim to the pyre that we ourselves have ignited?
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Excerpt from the prologue of Twiceborn:
Book One of the Secrets of Versailles trilogy
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