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The Château

By aleatoire All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

Chapter 1

“Oh my dear, another season wasted!” Celia Goodwill’s mother sighed into her glove and looked out the window, in apparent distress. Her father was asleep against the seat, his head slumping back into the canvas of the carriage top.

Celia herself had just opened her extraordinarily battered copy of Evelina, a book which she was teased endlessly for reading. Her family thought her stuck in the past, but Celia preferred Evelina’s London, regardless of the year, to her less interesting version, which the family had just had the pleasure of departing. Annoyed that Lord Orville would have to wait, Celia shut her book and sat with her hands crossed over it in her lap, fingers toying with the fraying cloth cover. She looked up at her mother with a mild expression on her face, used to these sudden outbursts. “Wasted, mum? I thought we were much diverted for months.”

“Well of course we were diverted, but nothing has resulted from the frivolity! You will make me mad child, positively raving, if you are not married, and soon.” Her mother eyed her as though she were a wilting plant near the precipice of death, with no hope of rejuvenation.

“Then we may have to send for the doctor, because there has been no man as of yet who has either cared a whit about me, or whose company I have enjoyed for longer than an hour.” Celia looked down at her lap, knowing she shouldn’t react so strongly to her mother’s desire – what else could a mother want for a daughter, than marriage? – but she couldn’t help allowing her frustration at the matter show through.

“Miss!” Her mother replied sharply enough to cause her father to lazily open an eye. He soon fell back asleep, used to these sorts of tiffs between mother and daughter. “First of all,” Mrs. Goodwill continued, “You must make them give a ‘whit’ about you, as you say, and an hour a day is long enough, is it not?” She smiled sweetly across at her daughter, who cringed.

“I said an hour all together, not per day, mum,” Celia muttered, feeling churlish.

Her mother threw up her arms, nearly hitting her husband in the face with one of them, and cried, “You tire too easily, my child! No man is going to be able to hold your attention past courting, nor should you expect him to. A husband’s role is not to woo – that is only to entice women into marriage.”

Celia hugged the novel tighter to her person, looking out the window over the fields that lay at the edge of London, muttering, “Not everyone is like that.” Her mother huffed in exasperation; trying to sway her daughter’s mind from romance had been unsuccessful for all the years she’d been making the attempt. And Celia knew how she’d been trying – ever since she’d come out at court three years ago.

But Celia knew – or hoped, at the very least – that not every man was as uninterested – or even disinterested, for that matter – as her mother made them out to be. If Celia could read of such men in fiction, surely somewhere in reality they existed as well.

Whatever, Celia was just happy to be going home. She missed the grounds of their house, with all the trees and flowers. She hated missing their brilliance in Spring and Summer every year, just because she had to attend parties for four months straight. Her brother was lucky to be married and childless, with a wife sensible enough only to want to visit town infrequently, not inhabit it for a third of the year.

Celia thankfully enjoyed home in the winter, as well; the snow and the rain meant very few visitors, and the isolation was a welcome contrast to the bustle of the city.

She felt the same sense of relief she always did when she walked into their home later that evening, hoping to escape to her room and read until her candle burnt down to the wick. As she was on her way up the stairs, exhaustion from the journey creeping into her brain, she heard her parents continue a conversation in the drawing room.

“Celia needs to marry, soon,” her mother was saying. “I don’t know why she needs to be so obstinate – it doesn’t suit her beauty.”

She heard her father sigh in response, and the creaking of his chair as he leaned back into it, before she reached her door. She shook her head, refusing to be fazed by her mother’s admonitions. Celia was only nineteen; she could afford to wait for someone who truly loved her.

If there even was such a person, her brain reminded her, but she ignored it and went over to her bookshelf. She sighed as she replaced Evelina back in its spot, next to Ms. Burney’s other works. Her parents often urged her to read less frivolous titles but she still hadn’t been able to help amassing a collection of them. She sat down next to the shelf and stared up, her eyes scanning the spines. She nearly took out a melancholy volume of poetry, but stopped herself. She would not sit here and feel sorry for herself. She had nothing to feel sorry for – other than not being a dutiful daughter, her conscious reminded her again, but she quelled the thought. Her fictional beau would materialize in time to please her mother, as well as Celia, although she had a feeling he was never going to be found in London.

The men of London were… as ostentatious as she was obstinate. She was sure there were sensible ones, but they didn’t dance at balls, or go to pleasure gardens, and were too far engrossed in their own affairs to attend any dinners or pay any attention if they ever did go. And she was sure they all had easygoing parents, which – her heart sank as she thought this – one did not have unless one’s marriage or future were secured. She’d always hoped one man out of the many would be different, would be genuine. But after three years of being out in the world, she could safely say they were all the same there.

She hadn’t intended to make her mother so unhappy by being dissatisfied by so many suitors. And the first year, her mother had been glad she’d gone through so many, as a way of testing the waters. After they’d gone home with no promise last year, her mother had been less understanding, as she’d watched her daughter refuse two offers of marriage. Mind your eye, one had been from a gnarled, middle-aged Scotsman, with little prospects but gout and the bottle, but the other had been considered highly eligible.

He’d been one-and-twenty last year, the son of a merchant who had gained a title after winning a fortune importing Italian paper. The queen would only have her books printed on this paper, the son had told Celia in a highly overblown speech, that had made him look pompous rather than impressive. He took her constant respectful replies for approval, and had offered his hand just before the close of the season. His speeches, and even the flower he had presented to her were sickeningly sweet, and as his eyes repeatedly left hers to pursue the length of her person, Celia found herself vehemently refusing.

Her mother had naturally been furious, but her father had later told his daughter in private that he was proud of her for seeing that sort of man for what he truly was. “Alas,” he had said to her at the time, “By next year he will wed another of you blooming ladies, and he will destroy the bud of promise and good humour within her for ever. It is a fate I know you are too intelligent to befall. Do not let your mother’s anger upset you. I am pleased my daughter is so particular and discerning.” Celia appreciated his father’s respect for her intelligence, but she would have refused the man regardless of either parents’ feelings about the whole affair.

Her father had been right about him – a flighty young woman Celia had met a few times in the world had agreed to marry this rakish, self-entitled fop by this June. Celia felt sorry for her, although she hadn’t been the kindest of young ladies. Celia’s mother had only seen it as an opportunity for her own daughter, now that there was one less young lady on the market. She’d tried to goad Celia all season into flirting incessantly, which Celia tired of as she unravelled all the men within town. They were boring, simple, and self-absorbed, and Celia detested them all.

She stood and reached for another novel, any one. She ended up with Sense & Sensibility, and she made a face. She didn’t want to read about the confusing affairs of the Ferrars’, or Mr. Willoughby’s deceit. She’d had enough social politics to last two more years, at least. She retired to bed without reading anything before drifting off to sleep. She was so tired, of everything. She fell asleep dreaming of the man she was sure existed somewhere, anywhere, in the world.

“Celia, do you remember the Marquise de Cherigny?” her mother asked her at breakfast, one month after their return to the country. What a blissful return it had been, Celia thought, with no mention of titled names or marriage whatsoever. She’d suspected that was her father’s doing. So she involuntarily flinched at the mention of any sort of society. And she hadn’t recognized the name. “Mum?” she inquired, politely curious.

“Well, I may have mentioned her title once, but you’d know her name. Mademoiselle Charlotte Durant, we met her in town your first year. The half-French one who held all the champagne parties. She came back last year with her husband, but you never saw her. She was far too busy to throw another party, although I did see her for tea.”

Celia had been pressed to always visit with the young people as much as possible, so she wasn’t surprised she hadn’t seen the Marquise this year. She did remember her as Mademoiselle Durant, though. An incredibly lofty young woman with the misfortune of having two major metropolises to visit every year. Had she not enjoyed it so much, Celia would have pitied her. “Yes, I know the lady,” she replied as she picked at her porridge.

Her mother’s face lit up, “Oh, I am glad! She has sent an invitation for us, child, and I am certain it will be agreeable to you.”

At the word “invitation,” Celia dropped her spoon, heart suddenly sinking. Seeing this, her mother chided, “It won’t be London my dear, and being holed up in this house all winter will not beget you a husband.”

Well, at least it wouldn’t be London. But yet – “To where have we been invited?”

“To France, of course!” Her mother grinned excitedly. Seeing Celia’s face fall again, she explained hurriedly, “Oh not Paris, my dear, you are such a funny creature. She has invited us to her château in the Pyrénées.” She looked as if she wanted to add something else, but she stopped and smiled before taking a bite of her toast.

She was probably going to tease Celia for her lack of desire for society. At least the Pyrénées wasn’t a city. Celia was sure there would be no way of getting out of the invitation, and she dreaded asking her next question: “For how long is the invitation extended?”

“She requests that her guests arrive in October and stay through to the new year. Is that not a more agreeable alternative than being shut in here alone for months?” Her eyes glimmered, with hope there would be young bachelors around all winter, Celia was sure.

“Even I will enjoy it, my dear,” her father notified her gently from down the table.

She sighed as she looked at him, annoyed he’d betrayed her this once. She glanced back and forth between her parents, deliberating on this invitation. She had to go, especially as her father had stated he would be participating. She supposed it wouldn’t be so bad to visit a French château; maybe she needed a change of scenery, maybe she was just sick of England and English men in general.

Resigned to a less tranquil winter than she’d enjoyed in previous years, she went back to eating her porridge after asking, “When must we leave?”

The rest of September was spent in preparation for their journey to France; Celia’s older brother and his wife travelled to meet them in the last week of the month so they might leave together. Celia was glad for her sister’s company which she did not often have, and felt that with the addition of her and her brother to their party, it would further be an enjoyable experience – as enjoyable as an extended soirée could be.

Celia tried not to think about the sort of men that would be present, not wanting to get her hopes up. But maybe Continental young men were different; maybe they were better than their English counterparts, more interesting. Or maybe Celia was being unrealistic. She refused to give in to that notion.

Travelling to France, and the Pyrénées in particular, took what felt like a lifetime. Celia’s legs felt like lead every time she stepped from one carriage only to enter another. She read through two of the novels she’d brought, and was about to begin a third, when they reached a small village in the south of France.

They were let out by a small inn, where, as Celia’s mother had informed them, a carriage from the château would be arriving at five o clock to take them up to it, and that they wouldn’t be the only guests taking it. “We are instructed to wait within the inn,” her mother explained yet again as they all stood there, luggage piled about them. Indeed, within that minute a porter emerged from the inn and began grabbing the articles. “We will store these with those of the others who are waiting.” Celia was skeptical about this place, but the whole village was overshadowed by the château, the gates of which she could see peeking out from behind the houses and the trees. Hopefully the citizens of this place felt close enough to the great house not to make any rash escapes with her – with their – things.

The inn was called Les Trois Corbeaux, and had an ominous carved sign depicting three black ravens silhouetted on a blue background. It creaked in the breeze as the five of them passed under it and through the door. Blinking to adjust from the midday sun to the dimly lit room, Celia observed observed an open square with a bar on her right, and a roaring, flickering hearth on her left. The windows were either too dirty or not present at all to filter enough sunlight through, marking the fireplace as the main lightsource. The bartender was a tall, thin man who seemed preoccupied with opening something behind the bar. He didn’t glance up as they entered.

Celia felt that if she were in town, this would surely be a place for young ladies to avoid. Sure enough, her mother eyed her as they were brought to a seat by the hearth, and one of the rare windows. She eyed Celia as if the dirt on the place would besmirch her daughter’s maidenly virtue. Celia refrained from rolling her eyes at her, or wrinkling her nose at the table. Celia focused instead on the other occupants of the room; at three-thirty in the afternoon, the inn was not burdened with many eating or drinking. Two grey-haired men sat in the far corner playing chess, their neckties thirty years out of date. There were only two other tables, and their sense of fashion was of this decade.

Near the bar, a young man, perhaps five-and-twenty, sat alone with a drink in one hand, a pen twisting through his fingers in the other. Just as Celia was looking, he put the drink down and ran a hand distractedly through his golden hair, his eyes troubled. Celia couldn’t see in the firelight what colour they were, but they were framed by long, dark eyelashes. He wore a long black coat that emphasized his wide shoulders and otherwise slim frame, and an emerald green silk necktie that looked as if it had cost more than what Celia’s father made in a year. What cause did he have to be troubled by?

Celia’s mother touched her on the arm, indicating there was a glass of water for her on the table. Celia realized she’d probably been staring, blushed, sipped the surprisingly refreshing water, and surveyed the other party in the room.

They were another young man and a woman of perhaps middle age, sitting by the largest window in the room. The young man appeared bored, his half-drained glass sitting inches from the long, graceful fingers of one hand, the other tucked in his pocket – he was sneaking glances at his pocket watch, Celia realized, while the woman looked about the room. She was sitting not quite relaxed, as if she were waiting for something, and sent continued glances at the door. The juxtaposition of the man’s relaxed, almost ambivalent posture to her active one made Celia wonder what was going on. She then realized she was observing different modes of waiting – they were most likely waiting for the carriage, as she and her family were. What else could be occurring in this little place?

Convinced they were fellow passengers, Celia took a closer look at their persons, noting the similarities between the two. They must be mother and son, she realized: both had small, straight noses, a dusting of freckles – which Celia caught by some of the sunlight from the window – and the same auburn hair, thick and wavy. Their mouths were wide, with full, rounded lips. Where they differed was where most men did from women: the son’s jaw was squared, but his cheeks were the same as his mother’s, rounded and with a hint of cheekbones. Their eyes were different as well: where hers were smaller and – quieter, in a way, Celia could think of no better description, the young man’s were dark and not only betrayed his boredom, but an awareness that scared Celia slightly. His lowered, black lashes and furrowed brows made her feel as if he knew she was observing him, and she looked away before he could glance across at her. She was seconds late doing so, however, and his eyes raised to hers. She blushed deep and looked away and out the window, but not before she saw golden sparks in his eyes, illuminated by the rays of sun forcing their way through the dust-coated window.

A smile had tugged at his lips but she didn’t know how long it had stayed; her eyes were on her lap, fingers twisting the tassels on her shawl as she tried to look preoccupied. Her family was silent as her brother and father sipped beer, and she hazarded a slow glance back at the young man and his mother, pausing on the blonde man who was now writing furiously, his pen in danger of danger of ripping the parchment. His eyes too, although still troubled, brimmed with a terrifying awareness that was both intriguing and off-putting. Shaking her head slightly, Celia moved her eyes to the other young man and saw him leaning forward, saying something to his mother. His glass was finished, and when he leaned back his mother stood and he did so soon after. He offered her his arm and they walked past the burning hearth, past Celia and her family, and out the door. Celia accidentally locked eyes with him again, but this time he hastily looked away, up and forward as they left.

Celia felt her heart inexplicably sink as they walked away – her hunch had been wrong; they were not château guests, just two people at an inn. Maybe they weren’t even mother and son – Celia let her mind race over the possibilities until she realized what she was doing. She forced herself back to the conversation at her table, which was slight, but she soon wondered what the blonde man was up to.

She sent her attention back to him; he was still writing, though with less fervour — “Miss!” her mother whacked Celia on the wrist with her fan, and she started. “Yes mum?” she answered, perhaps a bit of annoyance showing through in her voice.

“We were just wondering if you were excited to finally be at the château,” her sister leaned forward and informed her in a soft voice.

Celia coloured, embarrassed at her lack of attention. Her sister was a kind woman, who genuinely wanted to know what Celia felt, and Celia felt bad; she shouldn’t have such hostile responses. “Yes dear, I’m sure it will be a pleasurable experience,” she replied gravely, her voice low.

“Oh Miss Goodwill, how serious you are! I am certainly overjoyed at this visit!” Her mother had the ability to make everything sound punctuated with exclamation marks, without actually yelling.

She was overjoyed because she had hope this would be how Celia found a husband, but it was futile to continue arguing with her about it. Celia wasn’t so pessimistic as to believe it could never happen, but so far, she didn’t see many options about. “I am excited for the change in scene,” she replied with some enthusiasm, and some relief. She was just glad, as she’d told herself several times over, that it wasn’t London. Even this dingy room was becoming more welcoming as the hearth continued to warm her. She shrugged her shawl down her shoulders and made a point not to look around the room anymore.

Around four thirty, just as Celia was growing tired of sitting so long in the same mode and listening to her mother give her advice on flirting – “Don’t be so direct, darling, it scares them off, and for goodness’ sakes talk of nothing serious” – the door opened, and along with the gust of cold mountain air, two silhouettes entered the inn. The sun was low behind them in the sky, and Celia could just make out their shapes as they stepped in. One was shorter and obviously feminine, although sturdily built, and the other was tall, with a wide chest and slim waist.

The pair strode past the hearth, and with a jolt Celia realized she’d been wrong. The young man and middle-aged woman had not merely been stopping in for drink – they had returned and in time to take the coach to the chateau.

Or at least, that’s what Celia was assuming (because she was hoping for it?). She shook her head again, and tried to look away from the man as he took a seat, noticing how he appeared perfectly at ease in the chair, and in the room. He was smiling, a less intimidating expression, yet still able to stir the heart. She reminded herself not to stare and focused her attention back to the family, who were all looking at the door. So even they were becoming impatient. “What time is it, father?” Celia asked, looking over to him as he consulted his watch.

“Nearly time, dear,” he smiled over at her, and then broke into a grin. “Although maybe enough time yet that Mrs. Goodwill will allow me another glass.”

“Certainly not sir,” she replied, throwing him a glare that Celia knew was in jest. Her father only laughed in response, sharing a look with her brother that seemed to say “Oh, the women we love.” Her mother – and sister – rolled their eyes at their husbands, and Celia looked down at her lap again. Was this being in love? A constant barrage of teasing that one beared with good humour forever? Celia didn’t understand real-life couples, and sometimes, wasn’t sure she even wanted to.

Mr. Goodwill never did get to order another glass, as soon after this conversation the porter came through a side door announcing the carriage for the Chateau de Charigny was arrived.

Her family standing and busying themselves with sorting out their apparel after having sat so long, Celia had time again to observe the other tables in the room. By this time, a party of four had arrived, with a woman of about Celia’s age and a man about her brother’s, as well as a young couple who appeared very obviously newly married. These tables, along with the blonde man and the mother and son pair, also stood, and Celia wasn’t sure how she felt that her assumptions of both young men had been correct.

The blonde man was the first to exit the inn, although the mother was only a hair’s breadth behind, despite having been sitting twice as far from the door with her son. Her son followed behind her with an impatient look on his face.

Celia’s family was last to leave, behind the party of four, and Celia found herself behind the other young woman in the clamour, accidentally stepping upon the hem of her dress. She looked over her shoulder in surprise, and started when she found another being so close to her. Celia smiled and murmured, “I beg your pardon,” but received only a glare in response. Two seconds later, she was gone through the door with her family.

Celia was now worried to be in a carriage with her, and cringed at the thought of formally meeting her. To her temporary relief, outside there were not one, but two carriages for everyone. She watched as the girl and her family hastened to the first one, where the blonde man and mother and son were about to alight. The young woman threw both young men a sugared, practiced smile, and Celia felt a surge of jealousy course unexpectedly through her. She reminded herself as she sat next to her mother that they were probably the same churlish pricks she was used to – yet, they had looked so different. Perhaps she did want to be introduced. Then she remembered their eyes, the blonde’s so pained, and the other’s so intimidating. She shuddered, and tried to hide the movement by pretending she was chilled.

Her mother had finally noticed the eligibility level of the men that had all passed in front of them and in to the other carriage, as they became better visible in the light of the sun beginning to set. She nudged Celia now in the carriage and, making no attempt to lower her voice, began discussing these men’s potential merits. “If I’m correct in my knowledge, the blonde one is an Irish lord, with a French mother who’s since passed, poor dear – but his manners should be impeccable. The one in the other family, with the pointy chin, is Ian Rose, and not only he but the whole lot are a bunch of prattling fools. He spends money he doesn’t have, and he’s a dreadful philanderer. And yet, his family is slated to be titled…”

Celia waited for her to say anything about the other man, not wanting to ask lest she appear too interested in the whole situation. She only wanted to know if her suspicions were correct, and his travelling companion was indeed his mother. She didn’t have long to wait, for her mother continued, “Of course, the Irish lord has the most money of all of them – the last I saw get into that carriage was Mr. Hameln – he was with his mother. I’m sure you saw them dear. Anyway,” she continued with barely a breath, “I’m not sure he’s rather worth your time; last I heard there was an arrangement, and he’ll be on his way back to Germany after this. And you of course, sir,” she leaned across towards the newly married young man – “Although handsome, M. d’Aubigny here is now happily married, and no longer eligible.”

The man coloured and his wife blushed deeply, clutching his arm – both unsure of what to say. Celia suspected her mother had been into the wine during their wait, more than Celia had realized, as she’d been busy people-watching.

She sighed and looked out the window the rest of the way, watching the sun sink below the mountaintops and wishing for some solitude this winter.

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