Authors: Danielle Steel
“What is that about?” he asked with a stern expression, as he saw what she was reading. She had been sixteen at the time and was fascinated by it. She had read quite a lot of the Old Testament before that.
“It's interesting, Papa. The stories are wonderful, and so many things in it are exactly what we believe.” She preferred the New Testament to the Old. Her father found it less than amusing and had taken it away from her.
He didn't want his daughter reading a Christian Bible, and he had complained about it to her mother, and suggested that Monika keep a closer eye on what she was reading. In fact, Beata read everything she could get her hands on, including Aristotle and Plato. She was a voracious reader and loved the Greek philosophers. Even her father had to admit that if she had been a man, she would have been an extraordinary scholar. What he wanted for her now, as he did for Ulm and even for the other two sometime soon, was for her to get married. He was beginning to fear that she would become spinsterish and too serious if she waited much longer. He had a few ideas he wanted to explore in that vein that winter, but the war had disrupted everything. So many men were serving in the army, and many young people they knew had been killed in the past year. The uncertainty of the future was deeply disturbing.
Her father thought that Beata would do well with a man who was older than she was. He wanted a mature man for Beata, a man who could appreciate her intellect and share her interests. He wasn't opposed to that idea for Brigitte either, who could use a strong hand to control her. Although he loved all his children, he was extremely proud of his oldest daughter. He considered himself a man of wisdom and compassion. He was the kind of person others never hesitated to turn to. Beata had a deep love and respect for him, as she did for her mother, although she secretly admitted to the others that their mother was easier to talk to, and a little less daunting than their father. Their father was as serious as Beata, and often disapproved of his younger daughter's frivolity.
“I wish you didn't have to go back to the war,” Beata said sadly, as she chatted with Ulm while they continued walking. The others had turned back, and now she and Ulm were far ahead of them, instead of straggling behind.
“I hate to go back too, but I think it will be over soon.” He smiled at her reassuringly. He didn't believe that, but it was the sort of thing one said to women. Or at least he did. “I should be able to get leave again at Christmas.” She nodded, thinking that it seemed a lifetime away, and unable to bear the thought of how awful it would be if something happened to him. More than she ever told him, she adored him. She loved Horst too, but he seemed more like a silly younger brother than an older one. He loved to tease her, and he always made her laugh. What she and Ulm shared was different. They continued to chat pleasantly all the way back to the hotel, and that night they shared a final dinner before the boys left the next day. As always, Horst amused them endlessly with his imitations of everyone they'd met, and his outrageous stories about their friends.
All three of the men left the next day, and the three women stayed for the last three weeks of their holiday in Geneva. Jacob wanted them to stay in Switzerland as long as possible, although Brigitte was beginning to get bored. But Beata and her mother were perfectly content to be there. Brigitte and her mother went shopping one afternoon, and Beata said she would stay at the hotel, as she had a headache. In truth, she didn't, but she found it tiresome shopping with them. Brigitte always tried on everything in the shops, ordered dresses, hats, and shoes. Impressed by her good taste and keen fashion sense, their mother always indulged her. And after they exhausted the dressmakers and cobblers and milliners and the shops that made exquisite gloves, they would make the rounds of the jewelers. Beata knew they wouldn't be home until dinner, and she was content to sit in the sun, reading in the garden on her own.
After lunch, she went down to the lake and walked along the same path they had taken every day since they'd been there. It was a trifle cooler than the day before, and she was wearing a white silk dress, a hat to shield her from the sun, and a pale blue shawl the color of her eyes, draped over her shoulders. She was humming to herself as she strolled along. Most of the hotel guests were at lunch, or in town, and she had the path to herself, as she walked with her head down, thinking about her brothers. She heard a sound behind her suddenly, looked up, and was startled when she saw a tall young man who walked briskly past her on the path, and smiled as he did so. He was heading in the same direction, and she was so surprised as he brushed by her that she took a rapid step to the side, stumbled, and turned her ankle. It smarted for a minute but didn't seem serious, as he quickly reached a hand out and caught her before she fell.
“I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you, and certainly didn't mean to knock you over.” He looked instantly apologetic and concerned, and Beata noted that he was astonishingly handsome. Tall, fair, with eyes the color of her own, and long powerful arms and athletic shoulders. He kept a firm grasp on her arm as he spoke to her. She realized her hat was slightly askew from their encounter. She straightened it, while secretly glancing at him. He looked a little bit older than her older brother. He was wearing white slacks and a dark blue blazer, a navy tie, and a very good-looking straw hat that made him look somewhat rakish.
“Thank you, I'm fine. It was silly of me. I didn't hear you in time to get out of your way.”
“Or see me, until I nearly knocked you down. I'm afraid it was a deplorable performance on my part. Are you all right? How's your ankle?” He looked sympathetic and kind.
“It's fine. You caught me before I did any real damage to it.” He had spoken to her in French, and she responded in the same language. She had learned French at school and polished it diligently since then. Her father had also insisted that they learn English, and he thought they should speak Italian and Spanish as well. Beata had studied both but never really perfected either. Her English was passable, but her French was fluent.
“Would you like to sit down for a moment?” He pointed to a bench near them, with a peaceful view of the lake, and he seemed reluctant to let go of her arm. He acted as though he was afraid she would fall over if he let go of his firm grip on her, and she smiled at him.
“Really, I'm fine.” But the prospect of sitting next to him for a moment appealed to her. It wasn't the sort of thing she normally did, in fact she had never done anything like it, but he was so pleasant and polite and seemed so remorseful over their near-accident that she felt sorry for him. And it appeared harmless to sit and chat with him for a minute before continuing her walk. She had nothing to rush back to the hotel for, she knew that her mother and sister would be gone for hours. She let him lead her to the bench, and he sat down beside her with a respectful distance between them.
“Are you truly all right?” He looked down at her ankle, peering just beneath the hem of her skirt, and was relieved to see that it didn't appear to be swollen.
“I promise.” She smiled at him.
“I meant to just slip past you and not disturb you. I should have said something or warned you. I was a million miles away, thinking about this damnable war, it's such an awful thing.” He looked troubled as he said it, and sat back against the bench as she watched him. She had never met anyone even remotely like him. He looked like a handsome prince in a fairy tale, and he was remarkably friendly. There seemed to be no airs or pretensions about him. He looked like one of Ulm's friends, although he was far better looking.
“You're not Swiss then?” she asked with interest.
“I'm French,” he said simply, and as he said it, she frowned and said nothing. “Is that awful? My grandfather is Swiss actually, my mother's father. That's why I'm here. He died two weeks ago, and I had to come and help settle the estate with my brother and parents. They gave me a leave to do it.” He was remarkably easy and open, without being presumptuous or inappropriately familiar. He seemed very well-bred and aristocratic, and extremely polite.
“No, it's not awful at all,” she answered honestly, as her eyes looked directly into his. “I'm German.” She half-expected him to leap from the bench and tell her he hated Germans. They were enemies in the war after all, and she had no idea how he would react to her confession.
“Do you expect me to blame you for the war?” he asked gently, smiling at her. She was a young girl, and incredibly pretty. He thought her truly beautiful, and as he spoke to her, he was touched by her apologetic expression. She seemed like a remarkable young woman, and he was suddenly glad he had nearly knocked her over. “Did you do this? Is this dreadful war your fault, mademoiselle? Should I be angry at you?” he teased her, and she laughed along with him.
“I hope not,” she said, smiling. “Are you in the army?” she inquired. He had mentioned being on leave.
“In the cavalry. I attended the equestrian academy called Saumur.” Beata knew it was where all the aristocrats became officers of the cavalry, which was a most prestigious unit.
“That must be interesting.” She liked horses and had ridden a lot as a young girl. She loved riding with her brothers, particularly Ulm. Horst always went wild and drove his horses into a frenzy, which in turn spooked hers. “My brothers are in the army, too.”
He looked at her pensively for a long moment, lost in her blue eyes, which were darker than his own. He had never seen hair as dark contrasted by skin as white. She looked like a painting sitting there on the bench. “Wouldn't it be nice if troubles between nations could be resolved as simply as this, two people sitting on a bench on a summer afternoon, looking out at a lake. We could talk things out, and agree, instead of the way things are, with young men dying on battlefields.” What he said made her knit her brows again, he had reminded her of how vulnerable her brothers were.
“It would be nice. My older brother thinks it will be over soon.”
“I wish I could agree,” he said politely. “I fear that once you put weapons in men's hands, they don't let go of them easily. I think this could go on for years.”
“I hope you're wrong,” she said quietly.
“So do I,” and then he looked embarrassed again. “I've been incredibly rude. I am Antoine de Vallerand.” He stood up, bowed, and sat down again. And she smiled as he did.
“I am Beata Wittgenstein.” She pronounced the W like a V.
“How is it that you speak such perfect French?” he asked. “Your French is almost flawless, without any accent. In fact, you sound Parisian.” He would never have guessed she was German. He was fascinated by her, and it never occurred to him, even once he heard her name, that she was Jewish. Unlike most people of his ilk and milieu, it made no difference to him. He never gave it a thought. All he saw in her was a beautiful intelligent young woman.
“I learned French in school.” She smiled at him.
“No, you didn't, or if you did, you are far more clever than I. I learned English in school, or so they say, and I can't speak a word. And my German is absolutely terrible. I don't have your gift. Most French people don't. We speak French and not much else. We assume the whole world will learn French so they can speak to us, and how fortunate that you did. Do you speak English, too?” He somehow suspected that she did. Although they didn't know each other, and he could tell that she was shy, she looked extremely bright and surprisingly at ease. She was amazed herself by how comfortable she was with him. Even though he was a stranger, she felt safe with him.
“I speak English,” she admitted, “though not as well as French.”
“Do you go to school?” She looked young to him. He was thirty-two, twelve years older than she.
“No. Not anymore. I finished,” she answered shyly. “But I read a great deal. I would have liked to go to university, but my father wouldn't let me.”
“Why not?” he asked, and then caught himself with a smile. “He thinks you should get married and have babies. You don't need to go to university. Am I correct?”
“Yes, completely.” She beamed at him.
“And you don't want to get married?” He was beginning to remind her more and more of Ulm. She felt as though she and Antoine were old friends, and he seemed to feel equally at ease with her. She felt able to be completely honest with him, which was rare for her. She was usually extremely shy with men.
“I don't want to get married unless I fall in love with someone,” she said simply, and he nodded.
“That sounds sensible. Do your parents agree with that idea?”
“I'm not sure. Their marriage was arranged for them, and they think that's a good thing. They want my brothers to get married, too.”
“How old are your brothers?”
“Twenty-three and twenty-seven. One of them is quite serious, and the other just wants to have fun, and is a bit wild.” She smiled cautiously at Antoine.
“Sounds like my brother and I.”
“How old is he?”
“Five years younger. He is twenty-seven, like your older brother, and I am a very old man of thirty-two. They've given up hope for me.” And until that moment, so had he.
“Which one are you?”
“Which one?” He looked blank for a moment and then understood. “Ah yes, he's the wild one. I'm the boring one.” And then he caught himself. “Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that your older brother is boring. Just serious, I imagine. I've always been the responsible one, my brother just isn't. He's too busy having fun to even think about being responsible. Maybe he's right. I'm much quieter than he is.”
“And you're not married?” she asked with interest. It was the oddest chance meeting. They were asking each other things they would never have dared to inquire about in a ballroom or a drawing room, or at a dinner party. But here, sitting on a bench, looking out at the lake, it seemed perfectly all right to ask him anything she wanted. She was curious about him. There was a lovely, decent feeling about him, in spite of his striking good looks. For all she knew, he was the rakish one and he was lying to her, but it didn't seem that way. She believed everything he said, and had the feeling he felt the same way about her.