Kissing the Kavalier
This book is based on the opera, Arabella, by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmansthal. Hofmansthal died suddenly of a heart attack while dressing for his son's funeral, who had committed suicide. Strauss's intention was to make Zdenka, not Arabella, the heroine of the opera. I've done what I think the composer and librettist wanted and made Zdenka, the cross-dressing, younger sister, the main character of my book. I hope you enjoy this excerpt. I hope to publish it sometime in the next six months.
There's preceding Prologue, which I've chosen not to include.
Vienna, Austria, 1867
Gräfin Zdenka Waldner tugged at her gentleman's evening jacket. “Cousin Thomas's suits are becoming a bit snug. I can’t button it.”
“Your bosom is growing.” Gräfin Arabella, Zdenka’s beautiful, older sister, giggled.
Zdenka moaned. “Just what a boy like me needs. I don’t mind being your brother…” She squirmed and pulled at the tight wrappings. “But these bindings are bothersome.”
“After the Coachman’s Ball in a few weeks, you can give up being a boy and return to your rightful gender,” Arabella said, trying, Zdenka knew, to nudge her toward respectability.
“I’m not eager to return to being a woman. I’ve rather come to enjoy the freedom I have as a gentleman. I can do as I please, walk about unescorted, ride when and where I please.” Zdenka pressed her nose to the windowpane of the fiacre and watched as the houses and apartments, lit by gaslight, became elegant houses, and then palaces.
They had been in Vienna since the January, through snow, rain and sleet. Mercifully, spring murmured its impending arrival now, in this beginning of April. The city was beautiful, but noisy, with air sooty from coal fires, dwellings crowded together and women hunting for husbands. It was everything she could do not to find a mount and ride the distance back to their run-down estate in Hohenruppersdorf with its fields and pine forests, its pastures and livestock. Back to where she was most herself and no one cared if she wore pants or petticoats.
“Don't become too fond of being my brother,” Arabella said, using her big-sister know-it-all voice that chafed Zdenka. “Galloping about in trousers on the farm is one thing, but next fasching, you’ll be looking for your own husband and you’ll have to wear a dress.”
Fasching, the Viennese social season commenced in November and ended on Shrove Tuesday. It consisted of endless parties, balls, soirees, and general carousing, all meant to foster advantageous matches between the upper classes. The Coachman's Ball was the final ball before the gloomy descent of Lent when all of Catholic Austria refrained from life’s pleasures—even drinking hot chocolate. It was at that evening that many of the best matches were made.
“I like dresses fine, but they’re impractical for birthing lambs, riding, and pitching hay and bringing in crops. You, of all people, know how much I want to go home and rebuild the farm.” Zdenka scratched behind her ear. Mama had shorn her hair so she could pass as a boy, but the pomade used to control her curls felt like horse glue.
With Papa having gambled away most of their fortune, there wasn’t money for two debuts—which Zdenka didn’t want anyway. There wasn’t even money for Mama to buy a new gown and the ones she had were out of date, threadbare and shabby. Arabella had only this one Season to make a good match. So, Zdenka, dressed as a young man, was pressed into service as Arabella’s chaperone for every tea, soiree, dance, theater, orchestra or opera performance. Zdenka was willing to do anything, including stand on her head in front of St. Stephan’s Dom, if it meant Arabella could make a good match and save the farm from the debtors.
Arabella seemed not to hear her. “Next year, you'll return as my distant cousin and no one will be the wiser. You’ll have a brilliant season, and we’ll find you a tolerant, indulgent husband.”
Zdenka knew how to quiet her sister. “As far as I can tell, men only want a mindless vessel for their children.”
“Zdenka, how vulgar,” Arabella chided. “This is what comes from reading all those foreign newspapers and essays by those so-called emancipated women. It makes you appear unattractively intelligent. Really, you mustn't forget you are still a lady underneath those trousers.”
“Intelligence isn’t a bad characteristic in a lady. And I haven’t forgotten I’m female, but marriage isn’t necessary for running a farm.” Or for much else, as far as she could see from her parent's marriage.
“You do need marriage,” Arabella said, with an edge to her voice. “Mine. Don’t forget my marriage will save your beloved farm from Papa’s gambling.”
Guilt washed through Zdenka. “I do want you to marry someone you love, not just to save the farm. I appreciate your sacrifice for the family.”
But Zdenka had made a promise to her Grossmutti to keep the farm in the family, and she intended to keep it, even if it meant pushing Arabella toward the altar. Zdenka could still feel her grandmama’s knob-knuckled hands gripping her own small, dirty hands. In her quavering voice, Grandmama had said, ‘You are the last hope of our ancestors. Promise me you’ll never let the land leave our family. You can be whoever you want here at Friedenheim. I know you love the farm as much as I do. My destiny was here and yours is, too.’
A week later, grandmama had died in her sleep. Zdenka swore on her grave she would never let Friedenheim leave the Waldner family.
Arabella’s feet tip-tapped a rhythm on the floor of the fiacre. “I can’t wait for the Coachman’s ball. It’s the best and final ball of fasching. To think the Coachman’s ball has been held for two hundred years. That our parents attended the same ball.”
“By that night, you have to make up your mind which of the Grafen you will marry. You can’t keep waiting for the right man,” Zdenka said. Arabella could be such a giddy featherhead. Except for her obsession of finding the right man, ideas floated in and out of her mind like dandelion puffs.
“I know you think it’s silly, my waiting for the right man,” Arabella said with a wistful note in her voice. “But it’s all I’ve ever wanted since I was a child.”
“And what if he’s not rich, like one of the Grafen?” Zdenka asked. Because if the right man wasn’t rich, the once rich, noble Waldner’s would be homeless, as well as penniless. And Zdenka was determined not to let that happen.
“Then I'll make a practical and good match. I know what's expected of me, and I'll live up to my obligation,” Arabella said, affecting the more elevated tone and accent pervasive of Viennese upper class.
She had changed into a husband-hunter again. Zdenka missed the carefree sister who laughed from her belly, skipped when she was happy and let her hair trail down her back. This Arabella, in her heavy emerald brocade gown which fit her like a second skin was almost unrecognizable.
The fiacre jostled over a hole in the cobblestones and Arabella’s head bumped against the[ why did we say this?] side of the carriage, mussing her hair. “I’ll have to make a trip to the ladies robing room to straighten myself out.”
“Not a problem I have.” Zdenka touched her curls and winced, missing her once long braids. It was the only thing she disliked about being a young man. She consoled herself with the certainty her hair would grow back.
Their carriage pulled up to the palais one of Vienna's most infamous hostesses, Gräfin Thea Prokovsky. Arabella gave her fluttery Viennese laugh. “Let's not spoil the evening mooning a marriage of necessity. Let's enjoy ourselves, shall we, brother?”
Zdenka leapt out of the carriage, flipped down the step and helped Arabella down. As usual, heads turned to watch her. With Arabella on her elbow, the two started up the marble stairs. In front of them, an elderly man slipped and collapsed down on one knee with a groan of pain.
A strapping soldier quickly brushed past them, took the stairs two at a time, and helped the man to his feet. The soldier bent his head to speak to the old man. He brushed the knee of his trousers and steadied the man until he resumed climbing the stairs under his own power.
The soldier turned, and, for a moment he peered, not at Arabella, but for once, at Zdenka. Lamplight fell across his face, making it all sharp angles and shadows. His narrow-eyed gaze seemed at once wary and challenging.
Something in Zdenka bubbled like hot butter on a griddle. The sensation was not altogether unpleasant, but it was unfamiliar and confusing. Men were unnecessary.
Lieutenant Matteo Ritter’s eye twitched and the scar at his temple throbbed. He leaned against the wall until the pain receded somewhat. Considering what the other soldiers around Vienna had endured, his pain was of little consequence. A few headaches and diminished night vision, were nothing. He squared his shoulders. No matter how great the pain, he would surmount it. That’s what soldiers did; push down the pain, ignore it, forget how it happened.
But if only he could remember how he’d gotten his wounds, perhaps it might ease his conscience.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, he strode into the familiar, glittering drawing room of his aunt’s palais. Soldiers milled about the room. Like him, they had had the questionable good fortune to return from the Battle of Königgratz. After just arriving home from the battlefield, a party was the last place he wanted to be, but he couldn’t let his aunt Thea down. A string quartet played the Blue Danube waltz and the melody caressed his ear and slowed his heartbeat. The new gas chandelier cast a warm glow over the crowd, reflected off the gilt mirrors, gleamed on the heavy wine-red satin drapes.
Wine red, thank God and not blood red.
He searched the crowd for his aunt, the Gräfin Thea Ritter Prokovsky, but there was only a sea of ladies waltzing in the arms of their handsome escorts. Light glimmering over the whirling satin skirts made the backs of his eyes ache. The chattering of the crowd grated against his bones. Vibration in the floor reminded him of the way the earth shook under the bombardment of Prussian cannonballs.
He waved over the footman with a tray of champagne flutes. First order of business: make sure the fellow kept up a steady supply of the mind-numbing drink so he could get through the evening.
As was to be expected, his cousin Edward was on the other side of the room, wooing a gaggle of beauties. Edward was his slightly older, libertine cousin. He never met a woman he didn’t try to seduce, although he preferred married ones so that permanent entanglements never became an issue. Edward, like other members of the Viennese aristocracy, had remained in Vienna, dancing, drinking and flirting. They didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, how close the Prussians came to overrunning all the beautiful palais’, their spacious squares, pretty parks, crushing their way of life. These people don’t know how close they came to losing everything. How close they came to death. How many good men had died so they wouldn’t have to forego evenings like this.
Since the war with the Prussians, nothing had changed in Vienna.
Only he had changed.
Aunt Thea’s throaty voice carried through the crowd. She was across the room, lambasting the French Ambassador for the failure of the French to come to Austria’s aid when Kaiser Wilhelm invaded Austrian territory. The poor ambassador was backed up against a statue with no avenue of escape.
When Matteo moved into her field of vision, Aunt Thea paused her tirade, gasped and threw open her arms wide. Her generous embrace flooded him with the sense of safety he had known growing up in this home.
She held his face in her hands, tears in her eyes. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come back.” She turned her cheek for his kiss.
He bent to kiss her cheek. “I only returned last night. I had to at least clean up before I showed my face.” He gestured to the room with his champagne flute. “Nice of you to invite so many of the returned soldiers.”
“Someone has to do something for them,” she said, her tone acid with righteous indignation. “The Emperor seems to have forgotten them entirely. A party isn’t much, but it’s the least I can do.”
A fearsomely intelligent, diminutive woman with a tongue like a horsewhip, Matteo adored the woman who had raised him when his parents were killed in a carriage crash. She championed every injustice, ignored propriety and spoke without reserve. Even though her hair was shot through with silver and wrinkles traced her forehead, her intelligence and fearlessness made her one of the handsomest women in the room.
At that moment, Matteo’s eye chose to twitch. He blinked fast and hard to still the infernal thing.
Thea leaned closer to inspect his face. “Have you something in your eye?”
“Only a cinder of some sort.” Rubbing his eye, he turned away to stop his aunt’s questioning stare. Nothing another glass of champagne couldn't cure. He waved the footman over and exchanged his empty glass for a full one.
Fräulein Drossler, a husband-shopping debutante, swept past. Her slow, appreciative glance down Matteo's frame culminated with a lingering gaze of invitation.
Matteo appreciated the dangerous dip of her neckline and her narrow, cinched waist. She was tall and comely, with upturned brown eyes and a lascivious pout, but Matteo couldn’t seem to will his body to respond with desire. Something about her left him cold.
Thea raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly as the young woman passed. “No one has offered for her hand.”
He looked at his aunt reprovingly. “She, as are most of these women, only seeking men with a good pedigree or a fortune. I have neither.”
A string quartet broke into an arrangement of a duet, Bei Männer, welche Liebe fühlen, from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, Matteo’s favorite tune. The lilt of the strings floated out of the music room, wrapped around Matteo’s heart, and eased the wire of tension running up the back of his neck. He recalled the words to the duet.
For men who feel love, a good heart too, is never lacking.
The high purpose of love proclaims there is nothing higher than wife and man.
The violins, viola and cello, traded the melody back and forth like a feather on a breeze, filling the room with Mozart’s unquenchable joy. It was such a hopeful, happy tune. For what felt like the first time since he had returned, Matteo smiled to himself.
Thea smiled up at him. “I told them to play that for you.”
“Thank you, but I suspect the Mozart wasn’t the only reason you wanted me here this evening.”
Thea threw her head back and laughed unabashedly. “Gräfin Arabella Waldner, the queen of the Season is coming tonight. I want to introduce you.”
“Ah ha,” he laughed. “I knew it.”
She gave him an innocent seeming smile. “Can you blame me? I’ve given up on Edward ever settling down, and I thought a young woman might lighten your spirit in a way not even Mozart can.”
The champagne was beginning to do its work. Matteo’s shoulders relaxed. Faces softened. Eyes were less accusatory, voices less abrasive. A few more drinks and he might feel almost normal again.
“I suppose it won’t hurt,” Matteo said. “Is she as beautiful and smart as you? Educated? Well-read?”
“I’m glad you have such high standards.” Thea sighed in mock dismay. “But you may have to settle for pretty or intelligent.”
“And why is she the queen of the season?” He motioned for the footman with the champagne again and sensed Thea’s silent condemnation as he tossed back the drink.
“She is gorgeous, sweet and charming, and unattached.”
“And so are you,” Matteo said.
“But not for my trying,” said Prince Dimitry Vladimir Gornostaev as he strode up.
The Prince was Thea’s much-younger Russian lover, with whom she lived openly. Her defiance of all social conventions had earned her the reputation of being scandalous. Consequently, she had been exiled from many Society drawing rooms. The Prince was short, brilliant funny, and darkly handsome. His thick brown hair was combed back over his boxy head, and he wore a sharply trimmed beard. Best of all, he loved Thea.
The Prince shook Matteo’s hand. “The woman she’s trying to get you to notice has arrived. She is in the ladies robing room and will make her appearance momentarily. The brother, her chaperone, is waiting in the foyer.”
“Thank you, my darling,” Thea said to the Prince. “I think she will be perfect for Matteo.”
The Prince gave Matteo a long-suffering look, then said to Thea, “You are the most meddlesome, forthright woman in the world, and I love you.” The Prince kissed her soundly on the mouth, causing several guests to stare.
Matteo was touched by these signs of affection and reminded that theirs was the kind of love he wanted, not the stormy relationship of his long-dead parents.
“Lead the way, General,” Matteo teased. He winged his arm at Thea and escorted her through the crowd to the foyer.
There stood a strangely, lovely young man.
“Grafen Zdenko Waldner,” Thea said. “How nice of you to come. I’d like to introduce my nephew, Matteo Ritter, Fifth Regiment of the Imperial Cavalry.”
Matteo saw a flash of recognition in the young man’s eyes. They’d seen one another outside on the stairs.
Matteo was stunned by his angelic face. He was definitely the sort who preferred boys, but he was startlingly, well, there was no other way to put it, Grafen Zdenko Waldner was pretty. Not just pretty, but almost alluring. Sensuous even. He had creamy skin and his cheekbones looked as though they had been smeared with peaches. Other men weren’t pretty. They were handsome, rugged, leathery or even lumpish, and they didn’t have lush lower lips, like Zdenko. Men didn’t have such thick brown lashes on their green eyes. Matteo had never seen dancing amber flecks in another man’s eyes.
Matteo felt embarrassed at the thoughts. Had that bullet to his temple done something to his male parts as well? Since returning from the war, it was the first thought he’d had that resembled something like lust.
But Grafen Waldner was a sartorial disaster. His ginger curls were plastered to his head with enough pomade to grease a pig. His overlarge coat had frayed sleeves and was missing buttons. Hi, trousers sagged at the knees, and floppy vest reminded Matteo of a scarecrow. Or of the white Carrera marble statue of the Adonis in the museum. The word ‘nudity’ passed through Matteo’s mind. His reaction made no sense whatsoever.
Thea was staring at him, her eyebrows raised, a look of alarm on her face.
Matteo blinked. Grafen Waldner had his hand out, blushing like a school girl. Matteo wasn’t sure if he should bow or shake his hand. Thea slipped her hand into his elbow and pinched.
“I’ve come with my sister, but she’s just fixing her hair,” Grafen Waldner was saying.
Matteo managed a smile, but not a single word came to mind.
Thea turned to Phillipe, the head butler to discuss some logistical matters pertaining to the party. Matteo was left alone, with Grafen Waldner. The young man took a few steps into the drawing room. His eyes swept the room. “So many soldiers,” he murmured in his peculiar voice. “I’ve seen so many wounded men in Vienna since the war ended. I hope much is being done to take care of them.” He turned his green eyes to Matteo. “Your aunt said you were in the cavalry.”
Matteo nodded. “I read in Die Zeitung that the cavalry was decimated at Königgratz. I’m sorry if you lost friends.”
No one wanted to know. Didn’t ask. But the first words out of this soft young man were words which Matteo had waited to hear since he’d returned.
Grafen Waldner’s pretty mouth opened and closed. “Pardon me if I’ve spoken out of turn.”
“Not at all. It’s kind of you to think of it,” Matteo said. “No one knows what it was like, and even we soldiers want to forget.”
But, then, there were things he wanted, needed to remember, but could not.
This is an excerpt of a book I've been writing for ages and I think it's finally done. Hope you enjoy the excerpt.
Accidental Daughter Told from the perspective of three women, Accidental Daughter is about an artist who paints salacious portraits of her jailbird sister as a catharsis of past wrongs until the artist’s brave teenaged niece teaches them both the most important lesson of all: family doesn’t need to define you.
Downstairs, somebody punched at the doorbell over and over.
“Go away,” Jenna shouted from the upstairs. “If you’re a Mormon, I’m a Wiccan.”
Her painting was finally finished and she’d taken her revenge on her sister, Lara, in the only way Jenna knew how. By painting her the way she felt.
She honked into a tissue and threw it into the overflowing wastebasket. When a painting was finished, it was a high like breathing laughing gas and watching the soppiest illness-of-the-week movie at the same time.
The snapshot she’d replicated was pinned to her easel. She stepped back to compare the photo to the painting. The waving daffodils, her smiling parents, the wide white porch where they all stood. The painting was a perfect replica.
Except for Lara holding here skirt up to show her malevolent red panties.
It was the day Lara had wrecked her life.
Well, one of the days, anyway. Jenna would certainly never lack material. There was the day in the middle school lunchroom that Lara had anointed her as the Brown Blob with a carton of chocolate milk. Then there was the day at the beach when Lara had called out to two cute boys to help her get the beached whale (Jenna) back in the water. Jenna had just called Lara stupid for flunking yet another class, but still.
“Helloooo!” came a shout from downstairs.
What was it about that voice made her scalp climb off her head?
The paintings of her younger sister were purely an exercise in art therapy, not meant to be shown. A therapist once told Jenna to paint happy paintings without Lara. But when she painted Lara, Jenna felt like she’d opened a release valve on a fire hydrant.
So she had fired the therapist and kept painting Lara.
The doorknocker jackhammered. She would have to buy one of those fake-barking-dog machines.
“Hellooo! Jenna, please come to the door.”
Whoever it was knew her name.
She stomped down the stairs and flung open the door.
Lara stood on her porch, as though she had leapt from one of Jenna’s canvases to breathing, lethal, life.
It felt like someone had wrapped their hands around Jenna’s throat, cutting off her air.
“Hi, Jenna.” Lara smiled warmly as if they’d only seen one another last week.
Jenna’s brain stuttered. She blurted out, “What do you want?”
Money. Lara always wanted money. It was why Jenna had slapped a restraining order on her. To keep her from conning their Dad, who had dementia, out of money. Money Jenna had given him.
Lara said, “Long time no see.”
Not long enough.
The seven years since they had seen one another hadn’t beaten the gorgeous out of Lara, but there was desperation in her eyes. At 35, she was still a show-stopper.
Jenna stepped outside onto the porch and pulled the door, not quite, but almost closed. That should clue her in that now wasn’t a good time. Never was a good time.
Lara held her ground and the space between her and Jenna dropped twenty degrees. “Autumn, you remember your Aunt Jenna?””