Chapter One

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Gascony, 1667

Ysanne

The carriage wheels jolted over an uneven patch of road, and Ysanne's hands tightened around the potted apple tree in her lap. No apples grew on it yet, but she hoped that, once planted, its branches would be weighed down by fruit.

She couldn't eat them, of course, but . . .

Ysanne swallowed and closed her eyes.

Apples had been Julien's favourite. He would have liked to see them growing in the grounds of the house that had once been their home.

How long was it since she'd been back here?

Thirty years, at least.

She wondered if she would ever be able to let the old place go. No matter how far she travelled, or how long she stayed away, she always found her way back to that house.

Maybe she always would.

The carriage came to a stop, and a gloved hand knocked on the windowed door.

"Mademoiselle?"

Setting the apple tree on the floor, Ysanne moved across the padded seats, pushed aside the curtain, and opened the door. Marcel, one of the guards she had hired to escort her on the journey out into the countryside, stared back at her. His cheeks were flushed red with cold, his breath steaming on the frigid air.

Ysanne felt a faint pang of guilt.

It was a very long time since she had been aware of the cold, and sometimes she forgot that humans did still feel it. Still, the men were being paid handsomely for their trouble.

"Is something wrong?" she asked, leaning out of the carriage a little.

Flakes of snow settled in her hair.

"The road ahead is blocked," Marcel said. "A tree has come down. We'll need to go back and find a different route."

"Can't we go around it?"

Marcel hesitated. As usual, he didn't quite meet her eyes. All her guards were cautious around her. Even though she didn't claim any titles, it was clear to anyone that she had wealth and breeding, but Ysanne wasn't sure if that commanded their caution and respect as much as the fact that she wasn't human. They didn't know that, of course – any sensible vampire knew to keep their true nature well hidden – but they knew she was . . . different. On some primal level, perhaps, they sensed that she was a predator, something stronger and more powerful than they could ever hope to be.

"Begging your pardon, mademoiselle, but that would mean coming off the road, and the snow is getting deeper."

It would be deeper still by the time they had backtracked and found a different road, and there was no road leading to the house itself. One way or another, they would have to make their way through that snow.

"Go around the tree," Ysanne said.

Marcel's lips tightened, but he didn't object.

Ysanne closed the carriage door, and outside, Marcel's footsteps crunched in the snow as he moved off.

Settling back in her seat, Ysanne lifted the potted tree into her lap. "Not long now, my love," she whispered, stroking the leaves.

She wasn't fool enough to think that planting a tree for Julien would heal the aching wound that his loss had left in her heart, but she liked to think that this little tree would grow big and strong, that it would still be there long after she gave up on the house and it fell to ruin for good. She liked to think that, no matter how the world changed, this tree would survive, even though no one else would know what it signified.

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