The wagon carrying Jack Woodvine bumped and jerked along the poplar-lined lanes, a fine spray of mud rising up each time the huge wooden wheels splashed through a puddle.
He had given up checking the time and, even though the journey was far from comfortable, tried to doze as he passed along under the iron-gray sky. A chateau, they’d said. Different from the barracks he’d been in when he was first deployed. Doubtless it would be a dismal old fortress, but was it silly of him to hope for bright pennants fluttering from a turret?
Finally, the wagon drew up at a gatehouse of pale stone. As Jack climbed out, dragging his kitbag behind him, sunlight nudged back the clouds and turned the gray slate of the roofs to blue.
“You the new groom?” A soldier appeared from the gatehouse. His cap was so low over his eyes that Jack couldn’t make out his expression.
“Yes—Trooper Woodvine. Jack Woodvine.” He took a letter from his pocket and held it out to the man. “I’ve been transferred from another battalion. This is the Chateau de Desgravier?”
“Yes, Trooper! Turn left at the bottom of the drive for the stables. Quick march!”
The last thing Jack wanted to do was march, quickly or otherwise, but he shouldered his kitbag, jammed his cap onto his head and marched down the tree-lined avenue.
It was thickly leaved, but through the branches he could see the white stone of the chateau ahead. He rounded a bend in the driveway and he saw it—Chateau de Desgravier.
An enormous tower rose up in front of him, its roof reaching into a delicate point. Jack sighed, the spots of mud on his face cracking as he smiled. It might not have had pennants floating from it, but it was exactly like something from a fairytale. Beside the tower were the stone and brick and filigreed windows of what looked to Jack like a palace. Who would ever think that the front was only a few miles to the east?
Jack continued on his way, turning to his left just as he’d been ordered. The path here bore evidence of horses—straw, manure, the marks of horseshoes. Ahead, an archway, figures at work. A lad of Jack’s age maneuvering a wheelbarrow, another leading a horse out to the paddock.
This wouldn’t be so bad. It seemed to be a peaceful place, and easy work for a lad like Jack. He raised his hand and grinned at the grooms as he headed under the archway and into the vast stable yard.
Then he heard singing. In French.
Jack dropped his kitbag and looked round. The voice was that of a man, yet heightened slightly, giving it a teasing, effeminate edge, and Jack couldn’t help but follow it like a sailor lured by a siren, pulled along the row of open stables toward that lilting chanson. Inside those stables young men labored and sweated, brooms swept and spades shoveled, yet one of the boxes at the far corner of the yard seemed to have been transformed into an impromptu theater.
Jack hardly dared glance through that open door, yet he couldn’t help himself, blinking at the hazy darkness of the interior where half a dozen grooms lounged in the straw, watching the chanteur in rapt silence.
Right in front of Jack, his back to the door, was the figure of a young man, clad in jodhpurs, polished riding boots and nothing else. No, that wasn’t quite true, because he was wearing something, the sort of something Jack didn’t really see much of in Shropshire. It was some sort of silken scarf, a shawl, perhaps, that was looped around his neck twice, the wide, dazzling red fabric decorated with intricate yellow flowers. They were bright against the pale skin of his naked back, as bright as the tip of the cigarette that glowed in the end of a long ebony cigarette holder that the singer held in his elegant right hand. He gestured with it like a painter with his brush, making intricate movements with his wrist as he sang, his voice a low purr, then a high, tuneful trill, then a comically deep bass that drew laughter from his audience.
He moved with the confidence of a dancer, hips swinging seductively, head cocked to one side, free hand resting on his narrow hip and here, in this strange fairytale place, he was bewitching.
The singer executed a near-perfect pirouette yet quite suddenly, when he was facing Jack, stopped. He put the cigarette holder to his pink lips, drew in a long, deep breath and blew out a smoke ring, his full lips forming a perfect O.
“Well, now.” He sucked in his pale cheeks and asked, “Who on earth have we here?”
Jack blinked as the smoke ring drifted into his face.
“Tr-trooper Woodvine, reporting for Captain Thorne. I’ve been transferred—I’m his new groom. I don’t suppose—”
The words dried in Jack’s throat. As enthralling as this otherworldly figure was, with his slim face and high cheekbones, there was an unsettling glint of mockery in his narrow blue eyes.
“Sorry.” Jack took a half-step backward. “I interrupted your song. I should…”
The singer moved a little, just enough that he could dart his head forward on its slender neck and draw his nose from Jack’s shoulder to his ear, breathing deeply all the way. They didn’t touch but the invasion, the authority, was clear. However lowly their station, Jack had wandered innocently into someone else’s domain.
When the young man’s nose reached Jack’s ear he threw his head back and let out a loud sigh through his parted lips, arms extended to either side. Then he finally spoke again, declaring to the heavens, “I smell new blood!”
Behind him, his small audience tittered nervously and his head dropped once more, those glittering blue eyes focused on Jack.
“Trooper Charles, sir!” He executed a courtly bow, the hand that held the cigarette twirling elaborately. “But you’re so darling and green that you may address me as Queenie. Aren’t you the lucky one?”
Jack reached for the doorframe to casually prop himself against it and essay the appearance of calm. Queenie?
“You may call me Jack.”
He extended his free hand to shake. A handshake showed the mettle of a man, his father was always telling him so. A good, firm hand at the market and a fellow would never have his prices beaten down.
Queenie’s narrow gaze slid down Jack like a snake and settled on his hand. He didn’t take it, didn’t move at all for a few seconds as the silence between them grew thicker. Then, in one quick movement, he placed his cigarette holder between Jack’s fingers and said, “Have a treat on me. Welcome to Cinderella’s doss house!”
Jack brought it hesitantly to his lips, smiling gamely at the grooms who made up Queenie’s audience. He pouted his lips against the carved ebony and inhaled.
The cough was so violent that Jack nearly dropped the holder, but an instinct in him born of a lifetime on a farm of tinder-dry hay meant he clamped it between his fingers. As he heaved for breath, he stamped on the nearby straw, suffocating any sparks that might have fallen.
The other grooms laughed and Queenie’s head tipped back to emit a bray of hilarity as a strong hand walloped Jack’s back.
A friendly Cockney burr chirruped, “Cough up, chicken—there’s a good lad!”
“We have a new little chicky in our nest,” Queenie told his audience, turning to address them. “I want you all to make him terribly welcome, or he might burn down our stables and then where would your Queenie sing?”
The stocky lad who had rescued Jack from his coughing fit was a head shorter than him. He pulled a face that could have been a smile or a sneer and took the cigarette holder from his fingers. He passed it to Queenie, all the while fixing his stare on the new arrival.
“Trooper Cole. Wilfred, that’s me. You’re Captain Thorne’s new boy, aren’t you?”
He laughed, then turned his head to spit on the floor, pulling a skinny roll-up from behind his ear.
“I’m Jack Woodvine. I mean…Trooper Woodvine.”
“I s’pose me and Queenie better take you to your quarters?”
“That would— But…oughtn’t I to introduce myself to Captain Thorne?”
“I’d say that’s a bit difficult, seeing as he’s not here at the moment.” Wilfred picked up Jack’s kitbag as easily as if it were spun from a feather. “Come on, soldier. Your palace awaits!”
“Captain T is an angel.” Queenie draped one arm sinuously around Jack’s shoulders and walked him back across the stable yard, his naked torso pressed to Jack’s rough tunic. “You’re going to have a bloody easy war, he’s soft as my mother’s newborn kitten.”
He glanced back at Wilfred and asked, “Wouldn’t you say so, Wilf?”
“Not half!” Wilfred laughed, striking a match to light his cigarette. “You couldn’t find a nicer bloke in the entire regiment.”
Jack grinned as they headed up the creaking wooden stairs above the stables. New quarters and new friends, and he wouldn’t have to rough it in a tent. Maybe there’d even be warm water for a bath.
“Well, that’s good to know. The officers were a bit…brusque at my last place.”
“Brusque?” Wilfred raised an amused eyebrow. “That’s a fancy word for a groom!”
“Ignore our lovely Wilf. Strong as an ox, bright as a coal shed.” At the top of the stairs Queenie turned to address Wilfred and Jack, his pale hand resting on the crooked handrail. “Thorny is adorable, not brusque at all. Welcome to our little slice of heaven!”
With that he lifted the latch and threw the door open, directing Jack to enter with another low bow.