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A Fierce Wind (Donet Trilogy Book 3) by Regan Walker (1)

Prologue

Champ de Mars outside Paris, 14 July 1790

A light rain fell on the unfolding spectacle, the heavens mocking the gaiety of the occasion that mingled the revolution’s victors with the vanquished.

Frederick West shifted his gaze from the thronging crowds to the girl standing beside him, suddenly seized with a desire to protect her from the storm about to unleash its fury on France. She stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed on the long rows of soldiers in blue and white uniforms standing at attention in the center of the arena.

It seemed like only yesterday he was seventeen and giving the precocious ten-year-old French girl a tour of his family’s estate in West Sussex. She had insisted on riding their most spirited mare, her reckless streak manifesting itself even then.

At the time, the little minx had fascinated him. Eventually, fascination had turned into attraction. Now, at sixteen, Zoé Ariane Donet promised great beauty, the flower of French womanhood about to bloom.

Long hair the color of dark mahogany framed her delicate features. Her ivory skin reminded him of a painting of Venus he had once seen in Paris. Dove gray eyes spoke of her youthful innocence. Soon, her slim body, today attired in the tricolors of revolutionary France, would possess a woman’s curves.

“Freddie, look at all the banners! Aren’t you glad we came? C’est magnifique, non?” She spoke from beneath her plumed hat never turning her attention from the pageantry before her.

“Glad we came? I cannot say that, Pigeon, but I grant you, ’tis certainly a grand display.”

She huffed in frustration. “Somewhere on the field with all those soldiers is my dear Louis-Pierre, but I cannot see him.”

Ah yes, the French soldier she was so taken with. The latest of her girlish infatuations. Freddie took comfort in the knowledge that there would be others, none more significant than the last. He need not worry about her innocence, not yet anyway. Not many men would dally with the niece of the infamous Jean Donet, not even the naïve Louis-Pierre.

Donet, a man trusted by both commoners and king, had once been a pirate, then a privateer and, when Freddie first met him, a smuggler. He was ruthless when he needed to be and good with a blade. Six years ago, with the murder of her father and grandfather, Zoé had become his ward.

From where Freddie stood in the grandstands with the Donets, he had an excellent view of the other end of the field and the altar raised several stories into the air. Thousands had flocked to the Champ de Mars, their murmurs echoing in waves around the great arena as excitement rose for the celebration about to begin.

Some of the men sported le bonnet rouge, the red cap signifying liberty to the revolutionaries. Given the brutal way France’s revolution had begun the year before with the storming of the Bastille, Freddie thought the caps might as well signify blood. It was no surprise to him a revolution led by lawyers would have a cruel beginning.

Today’s grand show struck him as a ruse. All of Europe was holding its breath, for behind the ruse lurked a seething mass of discontent.

“To what end do you suppose we gather here, Pigeon?”

“Don’t be silly, Freddie,” said Zoé, shooting him a disapproving look. The stubborn set of her jaw spoke of the defiance he knew lay just below the surface. “You know very well the reason for this fête. France will no longer be governed by the whims of the king but by a written constitution.” Raising her chin, she added, “Comme l’Amérique.”

Freddie bit back the retort forming on his lips. He would allow Zoé the joy of the celebration. She would face reality soon enough. As for him, he did not consider France’s new constitution, forced on the French king and already the subject of controversy, to be at all like America’s. Two days before, the new Assemblée nationale had approved a Civil Constitution of the Clergy, condemned by the Pope for requiring priests to swear allegiance to the state in the strongest of terms.

Today’s celebration had little substance beneath the pomp. And Freddie was certain there would be much pomp. First the ceremonies, then oaths and speeches and finally, a grand feast where bread would be plentiful and fireworks would fill the night sky.

The French had a penchant for the spectacular.

“Oh, there he is!” exclaimed Zoé, waving to a soldier who doubtless could not see her in the grandstand. “Isn’t he handsome?” A sigh escaped her perfect rosebud lips. “So brave, so gallant…”

Freddie would never have described Louis-Pierre as gallant but perhaps to a girl of sixteen, the sparkling new uniform of the Blues, the name given to the republican soldiers, bestowed upon Louis-Pierre a certain sang-froid.

Wishing to hear no more of Zoé’s current love interest, Freddie turned his attention to her uncle. Jean Donet, comte de Saintonge, watched the pageantry with worried eyes, occasionally darting glances at the king and his brother, the comte de Provence, whose strained expressions belied their seeming acceptance of the new order of things.

On the other side of Donet stood Freddie’s eldest sister, Joanna, who had married the comte six years ago. Freddie had accompanied the Donets to their château set amidst the cognac-producing vineyards in Saintonge and to their homes in Lorient and Paris. But it was the spymasters in London who decided he should work alongside Donet in his merchant shipping business. In the wake of the revolution, Donet moved his family and his business to the Isle of Guernsey, an English Crown dependency just off the coast of Normandy.

Donet didn’t trust the lawyers either.

At twenty-three, Freddie had gone from an English earl’s younger brother to a man of merchant ships and the sea.

And a spy for the British Crown.

At the urging of the French king, Donet had traveled to Paris for this Fête de la Fédération. The celebration was the brainchild of Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun. The least reputable of France’s bishops and no friend of the clergy, he had supported the measure that nationalized the Church.

Freddie agreed with Zoé on one point, that the event was supposed to draw all levels of French society together—the clergy, the nobility and everyone else—to swear allegiance to the new constitution and to celebrate, in appearance at least, national unity. But, to Freddie’s mind, the veneer of unity was a bit thin, like brawling children forced to be friends. Only these were not children and they would never be friends.

The attack on the Bastille had only begun the rip in France’s society. A month ago, the Assemblée had abolished all titles, liveries and orders of knighthood, destroying the symbols of the Ancien Régime, a gesture most nobles received with disdain. Even the address of “Monsieur” was no longer permitted. Not that it bothered Donet, who had never expected to have a title and didn’t much want one. But, like Freddie, the former pirate was not unmindful of the effect of such sweeping changes.

A fierce wind had swept France to the end of an era, but did this celebration mark the beginning of something better?

As though answering his unspoken question, cannons at the other end of the field boomed, sending smoke billowing into the air.

Exuberant cheers rose from the crowd.

The rain stopped as if on cue.

Talleyrand, surrounded by hundreds of priests, doubtless ones who had accepted their new roles, mounted the podium above the cannons to say mass.

The liturgy was mercifully short. As it ended, into the arena, on a splendid white horse, rode Lafayette, chief of the new National Guard, hero of the American Revolution and confidant of the king.

The crowd thundered its approval. At Freddie’s side, caught up in the fervor, Zoé clasped her hands to her bosom.

Lafayette dismounted and climbed the steps to bow before the king. Then he turned to address the massive crowd. In a loud voice, he proclaimed, “We swear to always remain faithful to the nation, to the law and to the king, to uphold by all our power the constitution decreed by l’Assemblée nationale…”

The people erupted in loud applause.

Watching Lafayette’s face, Freddie was inclined to think the marquis believed his own words. Freddie exchanged a glance with Donet that spoke loudly of their shared doubt as to where such oaths would lead.

When the cheers died down, King Louis rose from his chair in the royal box not far from where Freddie stood. “I, King of the French, swear to maintain the constitution decreed by l’Assemblée nationale and accepted by me.”

An awkward silence hung in the air, followed by a few random displays of clapping.

The hairs on the back of Freddie’s neck prickled. The veneer of unity had cracked.

Zoé pressed her fingers to her mouth and looked from the king to the silent crowd.

Marie Antoinette suddenly lifted her son, the dauphin, in her arms. “Look, my son, they’re united, just like me, with the same sentiments!”

The people rose to their feet and applauded enthusiastically.

Zoé beamed her pleasure and joined in.

Freddie fought the urge to dampen her enthusiasm, but refrained. It would do no good. For the moment, she had become a supporter of the revolution. Instead, he leaned toward Donet. “King Louis may have pledged his oath to the new constitution and the queen may have joined him, but after the humiliation they have suffered and their virtual imprisonment in the Tuileries Palace, I doubt they are as agreeable as they appear.”

Donet’s ebony brows drew together above his intense black eyes. “The king’s own brother, the comte d’Artois, left France days after the Bastille fell, like a rat quitting a sinking ship. I cannot help but think Louis should have gone with him. Already the nobles clamor to book passage on my ships to carry them away from what they fear is coming.”

Freddie shifted his gaze to Zoé, comforted in the knowledge that when the storm broke, she would be safe on Guernsey.