Extract from Women of Verdun, Book One, Belle

Chapter 1: First Love

Belle could hardly contain her excitement. She had hoped she might get chosen but didn’t believe that would happen. At first she couldn’t imagine why she had been selected as one of the group of young people to go to Paris. Pere Batiste wanted his brightest ex-pupils to attend the exhibition, and as she had been an outstanding student while under his tutelage, he said she was a natural choice.
Her father helped to organise train passage to Paris for the group. The twelve young people would be chaperoned by the village priest along with two of the church ladies who helped at the school. Belle was pleased her father had not only agreed that she could go, but had also paid a large donation towards her admission tickets into the Exposition Universelle, which was the main reason for the trip.
This year was the one-hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Belle was looking forward to seeing the reconstruction of that historical fortress, along with many other exhibitions, not to mention the enormous tower made of iron that had captured everyone's interest. Apparently it was the tallest structure in the whole world, and she would be riding in a lift to the top of this wonder in less than twenty-four hours. The thought filled her with a mixture of dread and excitement.
Belle had enjoyed the privilege of attending the church school since her sixth birthday. She was now approaching her nineteenth year and had been helping to teach the younger children for the last four years. She had thought her education was long since completed, but the priest assured all the young people in the group that they still had much to learn. He explained the world was changing rapidly, and they would all benefit from seeing the modern inventions and ideas that would open their minds further at the World Fair in Paris.
The fact that Julien Augustine would be in the group was another reason to set butterflies soaring in Belle’s tummy. Julien was already apprenticed to his father’s boulangerie and far too old to be considered a youth in need of further education, but the priest had invited him along. She’d been seeing Julien frequently during the last few months and felt she had grown close to him. He was four years older than Belle, and she’d always looked up to him. They’d been close as children because their parents were good friends, but as the embarrassing changes of adolescence came upon Belle, she drew apart from him, and they became distant with each other.
From Belle’s point of view, she had been confused by her changing feelings towards Julien. She didn’t understand the physical responses of her body when he stood near to her, so she would withdraw in a state of bewilderment whenever he came close. Gradually, Julien seemed to think that she no longer wanted to be around him. He began to keep away, but his absence made her feel worse than ever. She wanted to be close to him, more than anything in the world, but had no idea how to make him aware of the emotions that were boiling inside her. She could only live in hope that he might eventually recognise her feelings, but she feared her hopes were in vain. Then, when Julien was called away to do his national service, Belle didn’t know how she would get through the two years without him.
Julien had always been her hero. He was intelligent, kind, funny, and he was in her opinion, the handsomest boy in town. He had hair very similar to hers. His was so dark it was almost black, and where her dark waves rippled down the length of her back, his curled gently around his ears and collar and flopped in a wave over his forehead. Belle’s eyes were green, but Julien’s were a startling shade of bright cerulean blue. She would never tire of staring into the depths of those unfathomable eyes.
When he first came home on leave, he looked even more handsome in his uniform. She was shy around him but longed for him to notice that she was no longer a child. He was the boy she had always dreamed of being kissed by but was too timid to think those thoughts in daylight hours. To imagine his arms enfolding her was almost more than she could bear. She often wondered what it would feel like to be held in his embrace with his firm body pressed against hers.
When his conscription ended, he returned to his father’s bakery, but Belle could see the change in him. He was no longer a boy. He now had the body of a man. Belle had developed too, and had the curves of a young woman. In her mind, they would be the perfect match, both physically and intellectually.
She excelled in reading and languages and was a star pupil while at school. Julien had also been a model student though his skills were evident in other areas. He was brilliant with numbers and had a brain like a sponge. Always thirsty for knowledge, he remembered everything and read anything he could get his hands on. Belle would always recall the first time they talked after Julien came home from the army for good.
Early in springtime she was enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll in the woods. The daffodils were dancing in the breeze, scenting her path with the aroma of spring.
Belle was breathing the clean, fresh air, which was a rare treat for her now that she had the responsibilities of adulthood on her shoulders. She spent her days helping in the dusty schoolrooms and working for her father, organising the orders and bookkeeping for his grocery shop. He had struggled with the paperwork since the death of her mother when Belle was fourteen. She liked to help her father. He paid her a small allowance for her endeavours but staring at numbers and columns for hours was not her idea of how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She preferred teaching the little ones and presumed that she would continue the role for as long as Pere Batiste needed her.
When Belle decided on a stroll in the sunshine, she wandered aimlessly, allowing her footsteps to guide her to the wooded copse. As she drew closer to the scrubby trees, she noticed the familiar form of a young man, sitting hunched in the middle of a small clearing. When she first realised the figure in the woods was Julien she almost turned to walk in the opposite direction but her heart ruled her feet and led her onwards, towards the object of her fascination.
Julien had been sitting on a fallen tree, surrounded by daffodils. His head was bowed low over a well-worn, red-bound book, his dark hair falling over his eyes. He glanced up from his reading, tossed his hair from his face, and Belle would never forget the welcoming smile he aimed at her. She would always remember the way his smile lit her insides.
‘Bonjour, Belle. What a lovely surprise that you are here.'
Belle’s heart skipped a few beats, and she tried to compose herself as she stuttered, ‘B, bonjour, Julien.’ Then she dared to ask, ‘What are you reading?’
‘Nothing of interest to you, I’m sure. It is a book full of traditional recipes. The old French pastries are enjoying something of a Renaissance and father would like me to introduce a range of vintage inspired sweetmeats and fancies to our shelves. So you find me doing some research.’
‘I love your father’s patisserie. He always has the best cakes in the district. Are you allowed to make the confectionery yet?’ Belle’s interest in his work seemed to break the ice between them and soon they were chatting like the old friends they had been as children.
‘If truth be told, Belle, I’m no pastry chef. I can’t measure up to father’s exacting standards. He calls me a baker, an insult to any budding confectioner, but I know my tarts are a disgrace though my baguettes are passable. You know I’d rather have my nose in a book than my hands in the dough.’
Belle laughed. ‘Then we should swap places, Julien. I love to make sweetmeats in my father’s kitchen, but he has me peering at his accounts and ordering his wares.’
Julien’s loud responsive laugh warmed Belle’s insides, and she flushed.
‘Do you really like to bake, Belle?’ he asked when they stopped laughing.
‘When I have the time and the ingredients,’ she answered. ‘I’d love to see some of those recipes.’ She nodded at the book in his hands.
‘Then you shall.’ He shuffled along the rough bark of the fallen tree, making room for her to sit beside him.
Tentatively, she moved closer and dared to lean into his side. When his arm came about her shoulders, she shivered with pleasure. He was friendly, nothing more, but it felt so good to be close to him. She could smell his sun-warmed skin mingling with the scent of daffodils and couldn’t help resting her head on his firm chest in a ruse to look more intently at the pages of the book.
They discussed recipes and ingredients for the rest of the afternoon, and when clouds covered the lowering sun they realised how late the day had become and reluctantly got to their feet.
‘I’ve enjoyed spending time with you, Belle.’ Julien had gripped her hand firmly, and she got the impression that he didn’t want to let it go. ‘Might we do this again?’
‘Of course, Julien.’ She stared into his intense blue eyes and knew that Julien couldn’t fail to recognise the desire in her face. She longed to feel the touch of his lips on hers but realised she couldn’t allow it if he should attempt to do the very thing that her heart craved. She lowered her lashes and forced a bright smile to her lips to disguise her deeper feelings. ‘I’d love to discuss the finer points of patisserie with you.’ She reluctantly pulled her hand from his. ‘Anytime you care to talk about sweetmeats; you’ll find me a willing listener.’ She’d tried to make light of her feelings to save face. It would never do for him to guess how she felt about him, especially if she were reading his intentions incorrectly. She hoped he might come to view her as a young, desirable woman, but was afraid that Julien was only interested in her as the childhood friend she had always been. She was happy to hear him suggest another meeting. He seemed sincere in his wish to see her again, and they arranged to meet the following weekend.
Their friendship had blossomed over the next months. They reconnected the closeness they had enjoyed as children, and Belle’s feelings developed into something much deeper than simple friendship. The more they saw of each other, the greater her hopes of a happy future grew. They had seen each other frequently since that first meeting, but Julien had never tried to take things further, and Belle had no idea how to encourage him to acknowledge her changed emotion towards him. She had no one to confide in, no female friend that was old enough, or experienced enough to give her advice on matters of the heart. Her mother would have been the natural person for her to turn to, but she had died some years ago and she could never discuss her growing attachment to Julien with her father. If only she could read his heart, and know that he felt the same way. She could only hope and pray that one day he would declare that he did.
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