Kissing the Kavalier is a re-imagining of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella, told from the younger sister’s point of view. This historical romance offers a fresh locale and era and explores pre-feminism, post-war PTSD, and the inevitability of love.
Zdenka Waldner wants nothing to do with love, Viennese balls, elegant gowns, or the endless restrictions on women in 1867 Austria. Her passion is the ancestral farm where she mucks out stalls, rides astride, and tends the land. Saving her beloved farm depends on finding a rich husband for ravishing sister, Arabella. To provide her husband-shopping sister a chaperone while in Vienna, Zdenka dons ill-fitting pants and cropped hair, and masquerades as Arabella’s brother. Zdenka has no interest in the compromises marriage requires until she meets the handsome soldier whose trust and friendship twist her simple plan into a maze of deceit.
Lieutenant Matteo Ritter, a veteran of the Austro-Prussian war, believes himself responsible for devastating injuries to his men. He vows to atone for his mistakes and restore his honor. Enamored with Arabella but unable to openly compete with the Counts vying for her hand, Matteo recruits her brotherto deliver a series of love letters. Moved by his words, Zdenka engages in a Cyrano de Bergerac escapade that ignites passions and intensifies her ruse.
In a desperate bid for one night with Matteo, Zdenka devises a rendezvous that goes awry. To preserve their honor, Matteo insists on marriage, but can a union rooted in deception result in a happily ever after?
The Battle of Königgratz, Austria, September 1866
Matteo von Ritter, Lieutenant, Austria Fifth Cavalry, lay in the dirt in a culvert, hemmed in on all sides. Blood streamed from his head where a bullet had grazed his temple. His lungs squeezed, smoke choking him and burning his eyes.
Fields around the villages were littered with dead and dying, both Prussian and Austrian. Forest and field. Villages and low-slung rock formations. Fighting had commenced at sunrise. By four o’clock in the afternoon, even Matteo knew that only a humiliating retreat to the other side of the Elbe could possibly save the Austrian army. Neither side held their ground for long, beaten back by the inaction of timid generals and driven forward by the arrival of reinforcements. Tree trunks, blasted apart by artillery fire, littered the ground like matchsticks, their sap sizzling as they burned. The ground vibrated with the hail of shelling. Shrapnel shells whistled overhead. Screams of men and horses mixed together in a symphony of death.
A sheer rock wall blocked advance. To the right, dirt and rocks sprayed into the air, pounded by Austrian artillery. In the dense forest on the left, Prussians, with their new breach-loading guns, lay on the forest floor and picked off the Austrians when they stood to reload. To the left the forest crawled with Prussian infantrymen. Escape or advancement was impossible.
Against impossible odds, Matteo was determined to carry out the mission he’d been given: find a way around the Prussian flank. Matteo and two infantrymen from his regiment, Kurt and Luther, lay belly-flat in the dirt beside him. Matteo pointed to a cluster of boulders and scorched scrub around a depression in the field.
“Run!” he shouted.
Kurt bent low and sprinted toward the boulders. Luther lumbered after him. Matteo launched himself out of the dirt.
Two Prussian Cavalrymen, astride enormous black Mecklenburgs, galloped full-tilt out of the forest. Swords flashed against the sky. Their eyes were wild with battle-lust.
Luther drew his pistol, fired, missed. The soldier at whom he had aimed wheeled his horse and pinned Luther’s torso against the rock wall. He held Luther there to watch him suffer.
The horse crushed bone to stone, forcing the breath from Luther’s body. His face turned red, purple. The Prussian aimed his pistol at Luther’s head. The horse shied. A shot resounded.
Luther collapsed, screaming and holding his face in his hands. Blood spurted through his fingers and ran down the front of his uniform.
Lungs burning from the smoke, the taste of his own blood in his mouth, Matteo ran and leapt onto a smoldering tree trunk. He unsheathed his sword, the grip familiar as a dinner knife in his hand. Muscles straining, he extended his arm, forearm rigid. With a roar, he swept his sword in a wide arc. His sword sliced flesh, caught at bone, carried through.
The attacker’s head rolled off into the blackened undergrowth. The Mecklenburg careened towards the forest, dragging the corpse from one leg hung up in the stirrup.
Matteo spun around. Where was Kurt?
The second Prussian knocked Kurt on his back. The soldier reared his horse. Hooves descended with a sickening crunch.
Kurt let out a blood-curdling shriek and bucked off the ground. He cradled his mangled hand and writhed on the ground. The Prussian raised his sword to spike Kurt. Matteo struck a blow to the Prussian’s midsection, unseating the rider. The attacker pulled his pistol, but with one thrust of his sword, Matteo pinned him to the ground like a stag beetle.
Matteo hauled a screaming Kurt off the ground. His eyes rolled back in his head. Matteo put one arm around Kurt’s waist and looped Kurt’s arm over his shoulder.
Matteo shouted above the din. “We have to get Luther. Get back to the horses.” Matteo kept an arm around Kurt’s waist and dragged him along.
Through the murk of smoke, Matteo spotted Luther leaning against the rock wall, his breath heaving.
“Horses,” he sputtered, eyes wide. “Horses. Black monsters.”
Muscles twitching with exhaustion, Matteo grabbed him by the shirt front and helped him to stand. “Luther,” he shouted into the man’s face and gave him a shake until Luther’s eyes fixed on him. “Follow me.”
Blood streamed from a jagged gash on Luther’s forehead. He staggered, fell down. “Don’t leave me,” he gasped. “The horses.”
“Get up! Not a moment to lose.” Matteo shouted. “Run! Now!”
Matteo half-dragged, half-carried Kurt as they dodged burning trees, swamps of blood, bodies piled upon one another. “Not much further,” Matteo repeated over and over. Bullets whistled past. Mud sucked at his boots. Blood soaked his shirt.
“Should have turned back,” muttered Kurt. “Impossible.”
When Luther stumbled, Matteo bellowed, “We have all sworn the oath to love the name of honor more than fear death. Get up! I got us here, I’ll get us back.”
Luther staggered upright and lurched after Matteo.
Grimly, Matteo pressed ahead through the smoke and gunfire. Just when he thought he couldn’t go any further, they found the place where they had been forced to tie their horses and advance on foot.
His own horse, Reinhold, a steady, battle-hardened mount, was still alive, though squealing in fear. Kurt and Luther’s horses lay snorting and pawing the ground, mortally wounded and suffering horribly. Matteo pushed Kurt and Luther up on Reinhold then pulled his pistol and put the two animals out of their misery.
A shell exploded nearby. Dirt shot skyward in a volcano of dirt and rocks.
Matteo hurtled to the ground. Something tore through the back of his jacket. Pain sheared across his shoulder blade and wet oozed down his back. He gritted his teeth, got up, and took hold of Reinhold’s bridle.
He led Reinhold through the carnage, blast holes, dead soldiers, until they reached the village of Predmaritz. A few remaining medics had taken refuge in an old granary and set up a field hospital. Prussians had taken most of the medics prisoner, leaving men who might have survived with medical treatment to die on the battlefield.
Matteo stumbled the last few steps into the granary and grabbed a young medic by the collar. “Help,” he gasped. “Help. Them.”
Two days later, in a hospital on the other side of the Elbe river where they had been evacuated, Matteo remembered nothing of the Battle of Königgratz.
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 window pane 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.