I woke early the following morning and hurriedly dressed before quietly slipping from my room and making my way to the kitchen. I found one of the baskets that our chef used to gather herbs and placed it on the table. After rifling through the pantry and our other stores of food I selected a number of my favorite things and carefully arranged them one after the other in the basket.
Once I was satisfied with my cache I collected my coat and shoes then stepped out into the dewy morning air. The world was just waking it seemed as I strode down the path towards the farmhouses. We hadn't made any formal plans but I promised Gabriel that I would come see him and I knew I needed to get up and out before my brothers or they would be sure to ruin any opportunity I would have had at any other time during the day.
I wasn't sure which house was his so when I finally came to the first of the farmhouses I turned and made my way towards the barn where we had met just a dozen or so hours beforehand. The barn door was open so I walked in and there was Gabriel, sitting on the steps leading up to the loft, a book in hand and a long, thin straw protruding from his lips.
He was so engrossed with whatever it was he was reading that he didn't hear me come in. I unwittingly watched him for a moment as I was overcome with shyness and unsure how to announce myself. A lock of his hair fell into his eyes and when he brushed it aside he caught sight of me standing in the doorway smiling at him.
He put the book on one of the steps and hopped down, "Vivienne, you came!" his face was alight with happiness.
"Oui, I promised, Je n'ai pas?"
"It's early. I didn't expect you so soon," he took my hands and smiled down into my eyes.
"But you were waiting for me?"
"What makes you so sure?" he teased.
Suddenly I wasn't so sure and I looked away completely embarrassed by my assumption. He let go of one of my hands and lifted the other over my head and twirled me around, "I am teasing! Of course I was waiting for you. I came early just to be sure I wouldn't miss you!" I was so relieved and when we were facing one another my heart began to race; I could feel it pounding against my chest.
I needed a distraction to compose myself, "What are you reading?" I peered over his shoulder to where he had left his book.
"Les Trois Mousquetaires."
"Dumas," I nodded, "I have not read it but my brothers," I regretted bringing them up and spoiling our moment, "have." I remembered the time they decided to swordplay with some sticks they had found and somehow managed to sharpen to vicious points. One of them had caught me in the temple as I tried to navigate the stairs while they darted after me shouting as they ran "Tous pour un et un pour tous!" The cook had managed to pinch the wound together and plaster it up so I only had a tiny scar but it would always be there to remind me.
I held my tongue and didn't tell Gabriel the story but he could see that I had some unhappy memory swimming around in my mind and he changed the subject.
"You've brought a basket. Are we having a picnic?"
I was swept back to the moment, "Yes, if you like."
He rifled through my supplies, "Mmm, I think I would like very much. Do you ride, or would you prefer to sit astride with me again?"
I considered the prospect of sharing the saddle with him and having the joy of feeling him close, "I can ride," the words came bubbling out before I could check them.
He looked disappointed for a brief moment then turned to one of the stables and brought one of the horses out and quickly saddled her. He was about to fetch a second but just then Philippe and Jean burst into the doorway with their slings at the ready. There was no time to think, Gabriel leapt onto the mare's back and reaching down lifted me into the saddle behind him. He kicked the stirrups and mowed my brothers down as they pelted us on our way by.
"Au revoir mes amis!" He called over his shoulder as we darted across the fields towards the vineyards. I could hear the laughter in his voice and the thrill of the moment had me smiling too. "Do you think they will chase us?"
There was no way they would catch us on foot and I really wasn't sure whether they would bother to saddle their own horses and come after us.
"I don't know, maybe," I suggested as I adjusted the basket so that it wasn't so uncomfortable looped around my arm.
Gabriel slowed our pace, "Well, we will ride in the stream that way they will not know which way we went."
He turned from the path to the vineyards and headed towards the forest. The stream was tucked several yards beyond the tree line and once we were obstructed by the foliage he backtracked towards the farmhouses. "If your brothers find our trail they will follow it to the stream and imagine us to be moving along it away from them. We can double-back and by the time they realize what we have done it will be too late."
"Oui, oui," I exclaimed, "you're right, I'm sure of it!" and in my excitement I squeezed him tightly. Suddenly I remembered myself and I tried to ease an inch or so away from him.
Gabriel stole a glance over his shoulder at me, "Are you uncomfortable? Would you like to sit in front?"
"No, I think I should stay here, just to be safe, in case my brothers catch up to us."
"Right," he nodded.
Neither of us spoke for a number of minutes as we meandered along at an easy pace; the mare picking its way upstream. My mind was a whirlwind and I couldn't think of anything whatsoever to say. Eventually Gabriel broke away from the stream and brought us into a little clearing. There was a huge, level boulder centered in the middle of it and one or two fallen trees that crisscrossed to the right of where we came in but other than that it was quite unremarkable.
He swooped down out of the saddle and took the basket from me. After placing it on the boulder he turned back to help me down. So far our encounters had not offered much opportunity for me to really get a good look at him, but as I slid off the horse's back and stood facing him I couldn't turn my eyes away.
Most everything about him seemed so ordinary; his hair - dark brown and somewhat coppery, sun-kissed complexion, full lips, slightly square jaw line, but then I noticed, really noticed, his eyes for the first time. I couldn't tell if they were blue or green or brown because they seemed somehow to reflect all those colors and to shift and change with each second that passed.
"It's a shame we don't have a blanket," he led me towards the boulder. "Here," he put his hands on my waist and tucked me up on the edge before vaulting up beside me. He rifled through the basket and pulled out the kerchief I had used to wrap the bread in. Gabriel spread it between us and began to lay out our picnic. When he was done he exclaimed, "So many wonderful things, I don't know where to begin!"
"I wasn't sure what you would like so I brought a little of everything," I blushed.
"Well, then I guess it is time we got to know one another, n'est-ce pas? You first, ask me anything…anything at all that you would like to know about me," he was very enthusiastic.
"Oh, uh, how old are you?"
"I am 16; and you?
"I am 14; I will be 15 in August."
He picked up an apple and took a generous bite, "Oh, I forgot myself; I should have offered it to you first. Here," he reached into his boot and pulled out a small, intricate blade, hastily wiped it on the kerchief and carved off a slice of the apple for me. "And your brothers?"
"Philippe is 17 and Jean is 16."
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Gabriel looked painfully away, "Non, my mother died when I was born and since then it has just been me and Papa."
I reached out and put a hand on his knee, "I'm so sorry," I whispered.
"Non, it's fine, I never knew her and it is only sad because I know that my father loved her very much."
I nibbled my apple slice and while we took turns asking questions of one another the rest of our picnic slowly disappeared as well. Gabriel was very easy to talk to and had hundreds of stories about his life on the farm. He had me laughing and smiling throughout the morning. At one point there was a lull in the conversation and we both realized how uncomfortable we were getting from sitting on the rock so long. He asked if I would like to stretch my legs and helped me down. Together we walked in circles around the little clearing and continued our efforts to get to know each other.
"I wish we had met sooner," I sighed, "how is it that we have lived so close to one another and we have never met?"
"I have been wondering the same thing," he stopped and faced me. He put his hands on my arms, "I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that I am very happy that we finally have."
Flustered I looked away, "Gabriel, it is getting late. I think I should probably go home now."
"Oui," he said completely forlorn, "your family will be missing you, but first…" he led me back to the boulder. "I have rescued you twice now; that makes me your champion," he said it jokingly but there was an earnestness in his eyes that made me believe he was being completely sincere, too. "You must reward me with a favour to show your appreciation."
I wasn't wearing gloves or a bonnet or any ribbons of any sort, "I'm afraid I don't have anything to offer you…" I giggled as I played along, "my gallant sir."
"Ah, but you have," he took the little knife from where he had left it during our picnic. He turned me around and bundled all but a tiny handful of hair from the back of my neck, "Hold it up for me," he solemnly said. I did as he asked and he used the knife to snip the long lock from the base of my neck. When he was done he handed it to me and knelt down, "Please, milady, a token of your affection," he begged.
My heart leapt and tears stood in my eyes. I took the lock of hair and wound it round his wrist before tying it in a loose knot. The world seemed to grow suddenly brighter as he stood up and took my face in his hands. He kissed me, softly, gently, lovingly, "Do you love me Vivienne? I want you to love me," he whispered against my lips.
I was trembling as I wound my arms around his neck, "Yes, Gabriel. I love you."
We stood together our arms wrapped around each other for a number of minutes. Neither of us said anything, but eventually we stepped apart. He carefully repacked the basket and handed it to me before collecting the mare and climbing into the saddle. He slid back as far as he could and helped me take a seat in front of him.
I savored the feel of his arms at my sides and leaned my head against his chest while we rode back to the stream. We stayed that way until we were in the open again and on the path back towards the farmhouses. Gabriel offered to bring me home, but I refused knowing the curiosity that I would be forced to face if my family happened to see us together.
"When will I see you again?"
"I don't know Gabriel, but I will come, as soon as I can, I promise."
He smiled and kissed me on my cheek, "There," he pointed, "that is my house. If I am not in the barn, you can find me there."
I nodded, "Goodbye Gabriel," I waved as I hurried up the path.