Prologue

The cold highland wind whipped at her hair and cheeks as she plucked the last of the roses, laid them into the coarse straw basket and turned to leave the orchard. But then an impulse grabbed her and she ran instead to the arms of the blustery force, rosy face upturned in a simple childlike rapture.

"Christine!" She opened her eyes.

"What is my wildflower doing out in the cold, and without your bonnet?" Father had returned. "And what of my roses! There'll be hardly any petals left on them in this harsh wind. Now let's get your half-mad head out of the clouds and under a roof." A loving hand rested on her shoulder as he walked with her to an idyllic cottage on a pasture-green hillock, where she and her sisters had grown up.

Arnaud Klimt's little family comprised of himself, a middle-aged vineyard owner and his three daughters – the eldest Matilde, a glossy chestnut-haired beauty, followed by blond petite Marguerite and rosy-cheeked brunette Christine. The widowed man had ceased to participate actively in the wine business and now sold his quality grapes to established foundries. The house was a spacious but not sprawling affair, with a simple creamy whitewash and brick-red windowsills and roof. Fine days were spent strolling about the garden and flower orchard, when the three girls were freed from their studies. Unerringly modern in his ideas, Arnaud insisted that his daughters receive enough of an education to support themselves whether they ever needed to or not. After all, he could afford the best tutors in the region – that was a quality investment. Too bad Mattie and Meg would rather spend it on fripperies like new gowns for every party they were invited to. Of the three, it was Christine who devoured books almost religiously; her face lit up with enjoyment at the discovery of a new tome to fill her restless mind with. Her sisters often teased her that too much poring over books would age her prematurely into a dusty, dowdy spinster, but she accepted the teasing good-naturedly (although once, she had thrown a heavy book at Matilde's head for calling her a stuck-up little schoolteacher). Besides, she had her fair share of suitors, one of who pursued her quite determinedly, albeit in a most gentlemanly manner. Insofar he had never tried to steal a kiss or win favours such as handkerchiefs from her; Meg and Matilde would have gotten bored of him by now, even if he was the son of a Vicomte. But Raoul de Chagny was also Christine's good friend, and she never refused an evening in his company.

Arnaud generally did not approve of elites like the de Chagnys, whom he described as "mincing, pinched-nose powdered creatures, an entirely foppish brand of people who have never made a dime of their own in their lives." However, when Raoul proved to be quite the opposite, Arnaud consented to let him court Christine – "See what you can make of my rambunctious daughter then; if you can tame this wild horse, she's yours!" he had chuckled.

Raoul was a good-looking boyish sort of man with charming but not "mincing" manners and an easy-going sense of humour. He shared with Christine a love of literature, and both appreciated each other's open-mindedness.

One rare balmy day they were walking through Arnaud's beloved rose orchards (Christine had always thought her father lovably strange for liking roses) when Raoul turned to her and said: "Christine, are you happy?"

"I am always happy when I'm with you, Raoul."

"Do you think…do you like to spend time with me? Or am I, say, a bother to you – a tiresome thorn in your side?"

She raised an eyebrow at him, lips quirked in a half-grin. "Raoul, you know I don't like it when people talk in riddles."

After a pause, he said, "You do like me, don't you?"

She smiled. "Of course I do. You're one of the best friends I ever had."

"No, I don't think you understand me."

"You don't mean – " She smiled again, but this time it was laced with apology. "I – oh, I don't mean to offend you, Raoul. But I cannot give you answer – I am not sure at the moment."

He frowned. "Christine, I'm so sorry."

"There is nothing to be sorry about."

"I have not ruined our friendship, have I? You will still pluck berries and exchange books and walk in the town square with me?"

She laughed a little at his anxiety. "Honestly, Raoul, I wish you wouldn't be so timid sometimes! Of course I will. I shall even kiss you if you like." And keeping to her word, she planted a kiss on his cheek – although it felt to him to be much too sisterly.

"Well, I'm sure in time you will come to like me as more than a friend, my darling Chrissy."

"Perhaps. But I shall have to make up my mind on that. You know, I can be notoriously fickle."

"On the other hand, I have always found you to be captivatingly strong-minded."

"And you are a perfect man, everything a girl could want." She threw off her light cloak and ran to the patch of cherry trees ahead. "But I'm afraid my first husband will always be Adventure." She made to climb the nearest tree, and Raoul laughed at her rakishness. "Oh, do give me a hand up, Raoul!" she called. And they climbed and laughed raucously as if they were children.

This simple happy life was all the Klimt family had known, but it would be shattered when one day Arnaud failed to return from a long journey.