Authors: Madeline Hunter
“And you, Burchard? What is your interest in this, or did you only come today to arrange a private meeting for His Grace?” Vergil asked.
Wellington answered as they all stood to make their way back to the hiding coach. “He is making some discreet enquiries for me regarding Lord Fairhall. Since you know him to be trustworthy, it is my hope that you will share anything that you learn with him so that we can resolve this quickly.”
It was another bold lie. Adrian was a friend, and experienced in both enquiries and discretion, but Vergil had no intention of telling anyone what he learned if it would reflect badly on either Milton or the Duclairc family.
He suspected that the truth would, for all of the reasons he had carefully avoided discussing today.
o you see what I mean?” Charlotte whispered.
She sat with Bianca in the drawing room while the house-party guests arrived.
Vergil stood by the mantel, chatting amiably with Fleur and her mother, Mrs. Monley. They had arrived just after midday, pulling up in a magnificent carriage.
“Nothing,” Charlotte muttered, shaking her head. “No â¦ well, I do not know what. Vergil may as well be talking to me, and Fleur to her father.”
Sitting on Charlotte's other side, Diane St. John, one of the countess's dearest friends, patted Charlotte's hand. Her soulful eyes showed amusement as she glanced to the mantel. “I would not worry for your brother or Miss Monley. Things are not always what they appear to be in such matters. They look perfect together, don't they? A matched pair.”
They did look well matched. Fleur was all grace and elegance, tall and slender, alabaster-skinned and dark of hair. Ringlets falling from a little beribboned topknot framed her oval face, which possessed a rose of a mouth. She had struck Bianca as an intelligent, soft-spoken person whose deep brown eyes did not miss much.
Bianca experienced a vague disappointment that she could not instantly dislike Fleur, as well as an inexplicable pang of melancholy whenever she looked to the group by the hearth.
“I fear that Vergil is sacrificing himself for her fortune,” Charlotte said. “He looks happy to see her, but considering that her family left London eight weeks ago and they have been apart all that time â¦”
“You do not know that,” Mrs. St. John said. “Perhaps when he is not here or in London, he is visiting her sometimes.”
“I think not. He goes to his manor in Lancashire, mostly. He has to tell his agents and Pen and the governess who comes to stay with me where he can be found. If it were anyone but Vergil, one might suspect that he visits a woman up there. Someone he loves but cannot marry.”
Bianca snapped her head around and stared at Charlotte's wistful expression. “That is a scandalous thing to suggest.”
“Such arrangements are very common, I have gathered. Pen has even suggested to me that I should expect my husband to form other friendships on occasion.”
Mrs. St. John lowered her lids. “I think that too many people have been very indiscreet when speaking around you, Charlotte.”
Bianca noted that Mrs. St. John did not say that Charlotte was wrong, or that her ignorance had led her to misinterpret Penelope's instruction.
explain a lot.
for one thing.” Charlotte nodded her head toward the mantel. “The delay in announcing a formal engagement for another. With her beauty and portion, she does not have to wait for him. The odd thing is that Fleur does not seem to mind how things stand. It is her mother who grows impatient.”
Yes, the mother was growing impatient. The eyes of Mrs. Monley were the brightest pair by the fireplace. She followed her daughter's conversation with a lovely smile and a cocked head that set the feather in her silk, corded turban at an inquisitive angle.
“The evening promises to be full. You should retire and rest,” a male voice said.
Bianca tore her attention from the mantel to see that Daniel St. John had joined them, and was addressing his wife. A handsome man who could quickly slip from passive coolness to intense attention, he now focused the latter on the subject of his interest.
“Daniel is very protective when I am in the family way,” Diane confided to them with a smile. “After two children, you know I am not very frail, my dear.”
“All the same, some quiet is in order.” He held out his hand to escort her.
Bianca did not miss the look that passed between them. Warmth, humor, and total absorption flowed in that fleeting connection. It was as if years of memories colored how they saw each other, and enriched even this commonplace exchange.
She glanced back to the mantel, and noticed how the demeanor that Vergil and Fleur displayed contrasted with this other couple's. She comprehended Charlotte's comment in new ways. There need be no overt demonstration to show passion and affection. In silent ways that involved no physical contact, a man and a woman could be intimately connected.
Diane St. John accepted her husband's command and rose. “I suppose a short rest would be a good idea.” Side by side, saying nothing, but speaking volumes, they strolled from the drawing room.
Activity in the hall heralded another carriage.
“Finally the last.” Charlotte rose to her feet. “This must be Mrs. Gaston. She is one of Pen's friends and a great patroness of the arts. She stood by Pen when others forsook her after the separation. I think Pen invited her just for you, because of your singing.”
Bianca and Charlotte followed Penelope and Vergil out to meet the new guest.
Mrs. Gaston had come in a large coach. Pen advanced with outstretched hands of welcome. “So good of you to make time for our little party.”
Mrs. Gaston was a beautiful woman with a winning smile, high cheekbones, and coppery brown hair. She carried herself with prideful elegance, and wore a dress with an exotic pattern and a bonnet with extravagant feathers. “It is you who are good to give me a chance to escape the city for a few days. I fear, however, that I have committed a
and must beg your indulgence for it.”
? You? Never.”
“Alas, yes. You see, I have brought a friend with me.”
“I wrote that your friends were welcome.”
“So you did. Normally I would have written to alert you all the same. This friend, however, arrived in town unexpectedly.”
A footman reached through the open door of the coach. A gloved hand and a sleeve
emerged. An elaborately coifed and hatted dark head ducked as the friend in question bent to step down.
“Maria,” Pen cried, embracing the statuesque figure swathed in pale blue muslin. “No one said you were coming to visit this year. This is a wonderful surprise for me.”
The woman's face was not beautiful, with its prominent features, but her manner possessed solid dignity and confidence. “It was an impetuous decision on my part,
Milan is horrible with heat, my musicians are acting like spoiled children, and the tenor for the next production is an arrogant young idiot who will not take direction. I simply left them all. Let them see how they fare without Catalani.”
“Oh, my, what fun,” Charlotte whispered to Bianca. “Do you know who that is?”
Bianca knew. For years the preeminent opera singer in England, Maria Catalani had returned to Italy six years ago and now managed an opera company in Milan.
What a wonderful twist of luck. With Mrs. Gaston and Catalani here, this house party promised to be vastly more interesting than she had expected.
Vergil stepped forward to greet Catalani, and kissed her hand smoothly. She said something quietly that brought a smile to his face.
If the unexpected visit of an opera singer to Laclere Park distressed him, he did not show it. Probably he would take the matter up with Penelope later.
Penelope brought the newcomers toward the house. Bianca's knees wobbled with excitement.
“This must be Charlotte. A young woman now, and so lovely,” Catalani said. “Are you out yet?”
“Next year,” Pen explained. “Vergil does not approve of the young age some girls come out these days.”
Catalani glanced back at the trailing viscount and her lips pursed with humor. “A good ploy, and it will be very effective. Let them wait for such a diamond. You will be the sensation of the season, Charlotte. I predict that your brothers will need four extra footmen just to guard the garden walls.”
Pen drew Catalani toward Bianca. “This is Bianca Kenwood, from Baltimore. She is Vergil's ward.”
“I have never had the pleasure of visiting your country. We will be sure to talk. I have many questions for you.”
“And I for you. I will be visiting Italy very soon.”
“You plan a grand tour for your sister and ward, Lord Laclere?” Catalani asked while Pen guided her into the house. “Ten extra footmen, then, if you send such beauties to my country.”
Bianca scooted to catch up with Charlotte, ecstatic by the turn of events. This party promised to be the highlight of her entire stay in England.
“That is all of them for today,” Charlotte explained. “Pen said that Mr. Witherby wrote that he would arrive tomorrow morning. Let us go rest before dinner.”
Bianca refused to do so unless it became clear that Catalani herself would retire. She waited until the stately Catalani floated up the stairs with Penelope beside her.
She found herself standing alone in the empty entrance hall, knowing it would be impossible to rest now. Looking for some way to relieve her itching excitement, she went into the library, found the volume of Shelley's poems that she had been reading, and tucked herself into the corner of a divan facing a far window.
This was her favorite spot for reading, especially in the afternoons. Shaded light flooded in the window and the breeze was divine. No one could see her here unless they walked around the divan. It had become one of her little nooks of privacy.
Bootsteps entered the room. She stretched and turned to see who had come. Dante spotted her and walked over, carrying his hat and riding whip. He threw himself onto a chair, facing her, and stretched out his booted legs.
“They are all here?” He had disappeared from the house after Fleur's arrival.
“All but Mr. Witherby.”
“I am surprised he is delayed. I would expect him to take advantage of every moment with my sister.”
“Pen. He has become a special friend to her during the last year. Or at least he thinks that he has. Don't know Pen's idea of it, although she appears to welcome his company. I'm sure that is why she has invited him, even though he is an old friend of Vergil's as well.”
The phrase “special friend” alluded to more than companionship. Dante often lapsed into speaking to her in this familiar manner, as if they shared some secret understanding of the world. His conspiratorial tones implied a type of intimacy.
He lounged casually, looking at her from beneath thick lashes in a way that always made her uncomfortable. They were always alone when he looked at her like that.
“Maria Catalani recently arrived with Mrs. Gaston. It was a surprise for everyone,” she said.
That caused his attention to sharpen. “Mrs. Gaston is here? I should have asked Pen who was attending before agreeing to stay myself.”
“You do not care for her?”
“Through sheer persistence she has managed to insert herself into many circles. She sees herself as a great patroness of artists, and wants others to know how she advances careers.”
“Does she? Advance careers?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn't know. Pen's artistic circles do not interest me much, and that seems to be what we have here. Mrs. Gaston and Catalani, you say. Lord Calne is another patron of the arts. Cornell Witherby will be good company, at least, although with the others here he will probably only talk about his poetry. Hopefully Vergil will distract him from that.”
“Do you think that Vergil will allow Catalani to stay?”
“Why wouldn't he?”
“I thought that, perhaps, with Fleur here and Charlotte and â¦”
Her allusion amused him. “This is Pen's party, and my brother knew what that would mean. Vergil may be a saint, but he is never rude. Besides, fame like Catalani's has a way of obscuring the means by which it is achieved.” He rose. “I think that I will go for a walk. I would be honored if you joined me. I will show you the ruins.”
Bianca had already found the ruins of Laclere Park's medieval keep, and she did not want to visit them alone with a rake. Especially one who looked down at her with the light currently shining in Dante's eyes.
“Thank you, but I think that I will continue reading my book for a while longer.”
A subtle annoyance altered his expression. To her astonishment, he reached out and stroked one finger along her jawline. “You do not have to be afraid of me, Bianca.”
She angled away from his touch. “Your brother said that it is not customary to address women in such a familiar way here.”
“I am not my brother.”
No, he was not. The last week had been full of this young man's attention. She had tried to discourage him. Unsuccessfully, so it appeared.
His hand touched her again, cupping her chin. Her eyes widened in disbelief when he tilted her head up, bent, and kissed her lips. It happened so quickly that shock left her immobile.
He misunderstood. Sliding down beside her, he deepened the kiss and moved to embrace her.
She broke away and made it to the window with a staggering lunge. Furious with embarrassment, she faced him down. “Do not dare do that again.”