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Authors: Evelyn Anthony

The French Bride

BOOK: The French Bride
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The French Bride

Evelyn Anthony

CHAPTER ONE

‘M. le Chevalier, your son!' Sir James Macdonald of Dundrenan, Chevalier of France and assistant to the Marquis de Monteynard, the Minister of War, took his wife's hand in his and pressed it gently. He looked down at her, into the lovely face that had changed so little after nearly thirty years of marriage, and said quietly: ‘Try to be patient with him, Katherine. He'll agree.'

‘I shan't speak to him at all; this last episode is too much to forgive!'

Sir James turned and spoke to the servant who stood by the door. They had their own apartments in the grounds of Versailles, which they occupied while attending the court, and a small château at Compiègne which had been given them by King Louis XV in one of his rare moments of generosity to the Scottish and Irish exiles who took refuge in France.

There were many like James Macdonald and his wife, exiles as a result of the last Stuart rising in the Highlands in 1745; most were penniless mercenaries and adventurers, living on their wits and on the charity of any rich nobleman who could be persuaded to take an interest in them. But the Macdonalds had prospered; James had distinguished himself in the Seven Years' War against England and Prussia, and the charm and beauty of his wife made powerful friends for them, including King Louis' mistress, the Comtesse du Barry. They were in favour and in receipt of a handsome pension, the latter they owed to the good offices of the Du Barry. Lady Katherine had been too well mannered and too politic to snub her when she had first made her appearance at Versailles and nobody imagined she would hold the King for more than a few weeks. The Macdonalds were twenty thousand livres a year richer as a result.

‘Admit M. Charles,' Sir James said.

Their only son had been waiting in the anteroom for nearly twenty minutes while his parents discussed what he knew to be his last and worst indiscretion. They were used to his women; he could remember the disgust and anger on his mother's face when she had discovered that two of her little chambermaids were pregnant by him at the same time, and he was only just sixteen himself. He had accepted her reproaches in the same mood in which he waited for them now; bored, impenitent, and mocking. He was leaning back against the wall, glancing at his own reflection in the mirror on the opposite side of the room; once he made the reflection a little bow.

The image in the glass showed a very fashionably dressed young French aristocrat, from the fine lace at his cravat to the embroidered coat and breeches and the diamond buckles on his shoes. But the face was not French; the features were thin and arrogant and the pale-green eyes belonged to the past; they were as much a part of that past as the perpetual mocking grin which never left his mouth unless he was angry or drunk. The face in the mirror was the face of a dead man. Charles was the double of his uncle Hugh Macdonald, who had lost his infamous life at the Battle of Culloden in the Highlands, long before Charles was born. He took out his watch and swore. Twenty minutes; it was his mother of course, who kept him waiting outside as if he were a lackey. She had always hated him. It almost made him laugh aloud to think of how much angrier she would be when she knew the exact amount of money he owed De Charlot.…

If it were not for that debt he would have gone to keep his appointment and let his parents go to the devil. He had often consigned them there in the course of his twenty-five years.

‘M. Charles, will you go in, please?'

Charles walked past the servant without looking at him, he never looked at servants; even when he kicked his own valet for some fault, he hardly bothered to glance at him. If the menservants at the château and Versailles detested him, the women responded only too well to a kind word or gesture.…

‘My dear father; madame, my mother.' He bowed low to both his parents. They were standing side by side and, as usual, his mother was holding his father's arm. Their fidelity to each other bored their son; he was only more bored by people who asked him if the story of their escape and marriage were really true.… Had all members of his mother's family perished in the attack the Macdonalds led upon their castle and had his father actually come on her with a drawn sword and then eloped with her instead …?

Dear God, he thought, how dull and smug and virtuous they were. He met his mother's eye, that blue, cold eye which had never once looked on him with maternal feeling. He rather admired her for that. Whatever she was, his mother was no fool. It was his father who spoke to him.

‘I suppose you know why we've sent for you?'

‘I can guess. You've read my note asking your assistance, and not unnaturally you want to know how much?'

Sir James's very dark eyes narrowed angrily.

‘Yes, my son,' he said. ‘We want to know how much you owe the Marquis de Charlot and we also want to know why you expect us to settle the debt for you. Before you took the trouble to write to me, I was informed by De Charlot that you had refused to pay him. Is that correct?'

‘It is,' Charles answered coolly. ‘Since I had no money to my credit and other – er – rather pressing bills, I couldn't do anything else. I did ask him to wait, though.'

‘Not according to De Charlot,' his father cut in. ‘I understood from him that you had threatened to kill him if he pressed you for the money. He came to me in some alarm.'

Charles laughed. ‘The miserable little cur! I daresay he
was
alarmed … I told him if he came pestering me for a few paltry thousands, I'd take him out and cut his throat!' There was no grin on his face now; his father appreciated only too well why the Marquis de Charlot had sought him out, stuttering with fright and indignation and ending the interview by threatening to complain to the King.

‘Did he tell you how much I owed him?'

‘Ten thousand livres!' Lady Katherine spoke for the first time. ‘Ten thousand livres lost in a night at faro. Do you know how much your father and I possessed to live on in our first years here? Less than half that! And when you lose it, you behave like some common cutthroat and threaten the man! James, tell him what we've decided and let's get the business over before I lose my temper with him.'

‘My dear mother,' Charles said calmly. ‘You are always losing your temper with me. If you don't tonight, I shall be quite disappointed. I played cards, I lost the money. I also lost my temper as a result of being dunned. Other nights I usually win, but no one mentions that. Are you going to pay it for me, or shall I carry out my threat to De Charlot? I wouldn't have asked you so soon again except that I heard a rumour he was going to the King.'

‘It's no rumour,' Katherine retorted. ‘That's why we sent for you. The last time was six months ago and your father and I swore we'd never pay another gambling loss for you whatever the consequences. But things have changed since then. James, you tell him.'

She turned away and walked to the other end of the room. She was so agitated that she couldn't trust herself. Her son, the child of their consuming love, the result of a passion which had survived the hazards of war, of clan feuds, even of murder itself, still bound them indivisibly after twenty-seven years, their son and now their heir to the impounded estates in the Highlands, was the reincarnation of one of the most evil men that she had ever known, the cruel and pitiless Hugh Macdonald who had killed her own brother and once tried to murder her. From the moment she saw that resemblance in the child she held in her arms, all love for him had disappeared. He had proved to be like his uncle in more ways than his looks. He gambled, he fought, he seduced without mercy or moral considerations of any kind; at the age of nineteen he had killed three men in duels over women and cards, and one unhappy creature who had allowed herself to be involved with him committed suicide when he told her to go back to the husband who had turned her out.

Thank God, Katherine thought, thank God we have Jean. They both loved their daughter, happily married to a gentle, scholarly French nobleman and the mother of three small children. Thank God, she thought again, that we have Jean.

‘As your mother said,' Sir James began, ‘we told you last time we would never settle another debt for you. As far as we are concerned, De Charlot could go to the King and you could learn a very salutary lesson in the Bastille for a month or two. I wouldn't lift a hand to interfere except for just one thing. The English Government have agreed to restore our estates in Scotland. Not to me, unfortunately, they've got long memories; but to you, my son.'

‘Really?' The light eyes gleamed and then he half closed them as if he were a little bored; it was a trick which had once brought his father's hand down on the side of his head with such force that he had sprawled on the floor. He had been a youth then; not even James would dare to strike him now.

‘You mean that I am the heir to Dundrenan and Clandara?'

‘You are, or at least you will be as soon as I accept the terms and surrender my own claims and your mother's. You are the future chief of the Macdonalds of Dundrenan and the closest blood heir of the Frasers of Clandara. You can bring the two clans together and give them the leadership they've lacked for twenty-seven years. That means more to me than your miserable debts; that's why I shan't let De Charlot go to the King and accuse you, and your mother feels the same.'

‘I'm very grateful,' Charles said. ‘I can't see myself as a chief in the Highlands, but if the lands are good and the property … I daresay I'll pay a visit and see what can be done with it.'

‘There's a condition.' Katherine came back and put her arm around her husband. ‘No debt will be paid and no inheritance accepted unless you meet this, Charles. Refuse, and you can take your debts and your difficulties out of this room and never enter it again. We'll ask the English to transfer your rights to Jean. I'm not sure we shouldn't do that anyway!'

BOOK: The French Bride
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