Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1), page 16
He wore a gorgeous green and gold uniform somewhat casually and a lock of unruly black hair fell across his handsome face. With laughter just dying in his rather hard eyes and on his sculpted lips, he appeared perfectly comfortable among his aristocratic companions. Nevertheless, he was, undeniably, Johnnie.
His carelessly tied cravat would have appalled James; and yet he looked every inch a gentleman.
For an instant, Lizzie’s own shock seemed to be mirrored in his eyes, fixed unblinkingly on her face. Confused explanations tumbled through her brain: that their theft had been discovered and this was somehow part of her punishment; that Jonnie was in the midst of some fresh mischief that she needed to save her kind hostess from; that Johnnie wasn’t a thief and never had been, whatever she’d seen him do in the theatre that night; that he was something much worse, or much better…
Another faint, almost apologetic smile touched his lips and vanished as he dragged his gaze from her face to the duchess, and spoke in French. “It’s my belief Boris pocketed the whole Russian cake to give to the tsar.”
“Go to the devil,” said another voice close by, presumably Boris’.
Numbly, Lizzie registered that he knew these people, that they knew him, in whatever capacity. And then the duchess was inviting her to try the French cake and inquiring of Minerva what she thought of the Bavarian one. Like an automaton, Lizzie allowed herself to be herded away to a little circle of sofas and chairs around a low table. Before she sat, she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder once more.
He was still watching her, although as soon as she met his gaze, he shifted his own, significantly, to another door at the end of the salon. Lizzie looked hastily away and sat, murmuring thanks for the tea, and began to eat her cake with the elegant little fork.
“Miss Gaunt, what a pleasant surprise,” someone greeted her in English. It spoke volumes for her distraction, that although she knew she’d met him, she couldn’t, for a moment, think who he was.
“Mr. Grassic,” she remembered at last. “How do you do?” Greetings over, she introduced him to Minerva and Mr. Corner, who seemed to be getting along famously on their own.
“So which patriotic cake has the honor of your plate?” Mr. Grassic asked humorously.
“The French, since we’re all allies now. And since I’m assured French cakes are always the best.”
“The Viennese might dispute it.” Mr. Grassic waved one hand to an abandoned plate on the occasional table, presumably his own.
“Austria is next on my list, although if I try them all, I’ll need six stout footmen to carry me home.”
Only when Mr. Grassic’s eyes lit with surprised laughter did she realize this was hardly a ladylike thing to say. However, she liked the laughter that lightened his rather secretive face. Perhaps that was the reason she didn’t give him the set-down she should when he inquired about the identity of Mr. Corner.
“He’s on my uncle’s staff,” she said repressively. “Almost one of the family and excessively respectable.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” Mr. Grassic assured her. With a quick glance around them—in fact, for the moment, there was no one else close by—he lowered his voice further. “I was hoping your cousins weren’t both running wild.”
Lizzie, who’d used the moment to try to rediscover Johnnie, brought her frowning gaze back to Mr. Grassic. “What do you mean?”
“Just that I hear disturbing stories of the company James has been keeping and the debts he has incurred along the way.”
Again, it might have been distraction that prevented the set-down hovering on the tip of her tongue. Or perhaps it was the fact that he was a clergyman and that there was something very likeable about his worldly understanding. At any rate, she swallowed her sharp words, saying instead, “My cousin will find his own way. Don’t all young men learn from their mistakes?”
“Preferably before they fall flat on their faces,” Mr. Grassic said wryly. “Fischer’s is no place for him.”
“He knows it,” Lizzie said, suddenly uncomfortable discussing the issue which she thought of as private between herself and James. And Johnnie, she realized. “Excuse me,” she added as Dorothée caught her eye. Although it was hardly a summons, she used it as an excuse to stand up and move across the room to her friend.
All the time she listened to, and even conversed on, various subjects from the importance or otherwise of having more than the strongest powers represented at the Congress, to the best dressmakers in Vienna, she knew she needed to speak to Johnnie and find out what in the world he was doing here. After the first shock of over-speculation, she couldn’t begin to imagine.
Eventually, she excused herself from Dorothée’s little group, too, and wandered across the room, pausing to exchange greetings with the few people she already knew, mostly from Dorothée’s “at home”. Drifting through the door Johnnie had appeared to indicate into the next salon, she found it was empty, but, curious now, she walked through the elegant apartment and out the door at the far end, which led to a hallway. On the other side of the hall, Johnnie himself leaned in a doorway.
Surprise—surely surprise—made her heart thud. He straightened at the sight of her and retreated into the room. With a quick glance around her, she followed him and closed the door.
“Johnnie, what in the world…?” she began urgently, only to break off when he took her hand and swung her unexpectedly into his arms. Furiously, she seized his lapels. “Are you drunk?”
“No,” he groaned. He swooped and kissed her mouth with stunning thoroughness.
Her hand, already raised to box his ears, stilled at the sheer, hot hunger of his lips which should have frightened her and yet didn’t; and then, slowly, she let her wrist and then her palm drop to his braided shoulder. Along with the butterflies in her stomach and the delicious weakness of her limbs, recognition began to dawn. At last. Unforgivably late.
“Vanya,” she whispered against his lips, which finally loosened as he smiled.
“There. I told you it would work. And it should explain everything.”
She stared at him, trying desperately to gather her wits from the rather delightful daze she’d been sinking into.
“Explain everything?” she said indignantly. “It makes everything even less comprehensible! Which are you really? Johnnie or Vanya?”
“Both. Johnnie is a sort of a rough translation of Vanya.”
“But….but the tsar knew you. You are Colonel Vanya! In which case—oh.” She broke off as understanding swept over her like a cold bath.
Whatever she’d seen him do in the theatre that first night, he wasn’t a thief. He wasn’t a one-time sergeant but a current officer of the Russian army. And with the collapse of what had come to be such a large part of her world, came the humiliating understanding of her own idiocy. She’d been blind, unable to see beyond the boundaries of supposed class. And he’d been making a fool of her the whole time.
She slipped out of his arms. He didn’t try to stop her.
“Why?” she said, in a small, hard voice.
His hands fell to his sides, but his gaze never released her. “Because you enchant me.”
She turned away from him because she wanted too much for that to be true. And she could no longer trust him.
He said, “You needed a thief and when you didn’t recognize me with my mask on, I couldn’t help trying to make you notice me.”
“I should have known,” she said, frowning at her shoes. “All the warnings were there that you were neither a thief nor a common soldier. I suppose you were laughing at me.”
There was a pause, which she didn’t expect to hurt quite so much. Then he said, “I think I meant to. But I ended up laughing with you. All of you.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said desolately. She didn’t even know what hurt most. That the encounter with Vanya wasn’t the spontaneous moment of romantic attraction that she’d been imagining, or that Johnnie, w
Wishing only to be far away from his scrutiny, she moved blindly toward the door. His fingers, rough and warm, closed around her wrist, staying her. The last thing she wanted to do, especially when her skin seemed to glow under his touch, was look at him. But she forced herself, because she’d show him no more weakness.
In truth, she didn’t know if she glared or pled, if anger or misery stared out of her face. But after an instant, his hard eyes oddly stricken, his hand fell away.
Without a word, she walked out of the room, unsure even where she was going. Fortunately, she retained enough sense not simply to keep walking until she left the Palm Palace, abandoning her cousin. Instead, she found herself back in the main salon, where she couldn’t possibly cry.
Fixing a social smile to her face, she wandered up to the table full of cakes which was at least temporarily bereft of patrons. At least she could pretend to gaze at them as if contemplating her next choice while trying to pull herself back together. It wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t.
“How about a slice of Austrian cake?” said the man suddenly beside her. She couldn’t think how she’d failed to recognize that deep, teasing voice, so obvious now as belonging to both Johnnie and Colonel Vanya. He must have followed her across the hall and back into the main reception room, for he stood very still beside her now, overwhelming her, his gaze burning in to her averted face. “In honor of our friend, Herr Schmidt,” he suggested.
She gasped, spinning to face him in outrage—or was it laughter? In any case, her suddenness attracted a few curious glances. If she wasn’t careful, she’d start scandalous rumors, on top of everything else.
“You really are shameless, aren’t you?” she said, struggling to keep her voice light.
“No, I’m thoroughly ashamed,” he said quietly. “I should have told you before this.”
She realized she was staring at his deft hand, cutting a slice of the iced cake emblazoned with eagles. “Then why didn’t you?”
“I suppose I liked that you looked—differently—on Colonel Vanya.”
“You should have told me before the ball, when I first met you outside the theatre, that I’d got it hopelessly wrong!”
“I know. But I was drunk and then I didn’t want to explain the sordid story of Madame Fischer’s necklace. I still don’t want you to think about that.”
“And besides, I expect it was all very amusing.” She couldn’t quite keep the indignation from her voice, especially when a soft laugh broke from him.
“Oh, it was,” he agreed. “Right up until you shot Herr Schmidt and, even then, if I’m honest. I do have fun with you, Lizzie Gaunt.”
She blinked at the slice of cake which appeared in front of her. Her hand took the plate without her conscious volition.
He said, “I imagined we had fun together.”
She glanced up at him, the rare urge to hurt warring with her belief that there was no way she could hurt him, short of slapping him. Or shooting him.
She didn’t expect his eyes to be so serious, so…anxious. Stupidly, it gave her hope, although of what, she couldn’t even begin to guess.
He said intensely, “Lizzie, there’s more.”
“Oh no.” Right now, she couldn’t take more.
She spun away from him and came face to face with Mr. Grassic.
“Ah, the Austrian, I perceive,” the clergyman said blandly. “Come and sit over here and tell me your verdict.”
Grateful for any reason to walk away from Vanya—or Johnnie—just then, she went with him.
“Is that man bothering you?” Mr. Grassic asked with rather more seriousness than she had yet heard from him, as he settled her on a quiet sofa and joined her there.
“Colonel Vanya? Of course not,” she said hastily. “We had a disagreement over cake.”
“Cake,” Mr. Grassic repeated. He seemed to be gazing at her very closely, uncomfortably so. “You are aware he has a most unsavory reputation? Brawling, dueling, gambling. And—forgive me—women.”
“His reputation is nothing to me,” she assured him.
She didn’t care about the first three, and the last…well, she’d always known it. It had been there in his eyes the first time she’d met him in the carriage and he’d gazed at her so warmly through the darkness. And in his practiced flirting at the Emperor’s ball. She could recognize that now for what it was. She just wished it didn’t hurt. Nothing had ever hurt like this. What in the world was the matter with her?
“But of course it is.” Mr. Grassic was frowning at her. “It has to be… Good God, you don’t know who he is, do you?”
“Oh, I do. Colonel Vanya.” A quick glance showed him still alone by the table, still watching her. She didn’t know if that made her indignant or furiously happy.
Mr. Grassic leaned forward, blocking her view. “Vanya is not a surname in Russia,” he said urgently. “It’s a diminutive of the Christian name Ivan.”
Something stirred in her brain and in her stomach. Ivan was the Russian form of John. Vanya then would be like Johnnie, just as he’d said. But the clergyman wouldn’t stop talking.
“The rumor here is,” Mr. Grassic said relentlessly, “that the colonel has recently come into an English inheritance.”
Ivan the Terrible. “No,” she said aloud. But the blood was singing in her ears. She had to fight down the dizziness. None of this could be true.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Grassic said pityingly, “you would allow me to escort you home?”
He stood, holding out his hand to her. Ignoring it, she raised her eyes to Vanya, gazing at her—glowering at her even—from the cake table. There’s more, he’d said.
She couldn’t bear it.
“Thank you,” she managed to say to Mr. Grassic, standing and handing him her untouched slice of cake. “My cousin and I have Mr. Corner’s escort. And it’s time we returned home.”
It amused Mr. Grassic that in Vienna great business as well as small seemed to be conducted mainly at glittering social events where nothing should have mattered but the cut of a coat or the color of a gown, and nothing more important than the latest scandalous on-dits were discussed. Here, his complicated life was made much easier by everyone with whom he needed to do business, great and small, thoughtfully gathering together of an evening under one roof.
On this particular evening, the roof was Lord Castlereagh’s, and everyone who was anyone in Europe attended, including the tsar and several of his dashing officers, not least the smirking Major Blonsky and the glowering Colonel Savarin who, everyone said, was spoiling for a fight. The Austrian Emperor Francis was there with the Austrian Empress, and Prince Metternich, of course. Sir Charles Stewart arrived drunk as usual; and, as Grassic had hoped, Mr. Jeremy Daniels and his family.
He looked around in vain for Miss Gaunt, but in the end, had to make do with Miss Daniels, who danced with him under the jealous eye of young Mr. Corner and the approving gaze of her mama. As he’d hoped, word about his prospects and his private wealth had got around and Miss Daniels could yet be useful to him. Not that he had any intention of marrying where there was no money. Not for anyone less than the oddly dazzling Miss Gaunt, at any rate. Which provided, he acknowledged, yet another reason to get rid of the troublesome Colonel Savarin.
However, in the continuing absence of Agent Z, his first business of the evening was with Mr. James Daniels, whom he discovered not at the card tables, for once, but dancing dutiful attendance upon his mother and sister.
“Hello, Daniels,” he greeted him in friendly spirit. “Eschewing the cards for tonight?”
“Forever,” James said gloomily. “I only ever lose.”
“It is a fool’s game,” Grassic agreed. “You should rejoice at being free of it.”
“I would, only…” He cast a glance over at his family, then shuffled a few paces away from them.
Grassic followed. “Only what?”
“Only I’m in rather deep already. I say, old fellow, I hate to ask a friend, but you couldn’t lend me a couple of thousand, could you?”
“I couldn’t,” Grassic said apologetically. “I don’t have that kind of money. Contrary to popular rumor. Who knows where such stories start?”
“Sorry I asked.” James, clearly mortified, blushed furiously.
“Don’t be,” Grassic said kindly. “I would help if I could. It’s just—” He broke off as if a bright idea had just occurred to him. “Of course. Look, I don’t have nearly enough for your needs, but I can put you in the way of earning some.”
“A clerk’s salary won’t really cut it, Grassic, but thanks for the thought.”
Grassic moved closer. “I’m not talking about clerking. I’m talking about serious money. It’s there to be earned in Vienna right now and better it goes to you than to someone a lot less worthy.”
James stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean people pay for information to be laid neatly before them.”
James’ jaw dropped. “Spying?” he uttered with loathing.
Grassic laughed. “Hardly. We’ll leave that to Metternich, shall we? No, the information I mean is freely available, just not all in one place. You’d be breaking no one’s trust, no one’s laws or your own honor. But you could earn…what? Somewhere between five hundred and a thousand pounds, just by setting down the gist of the secret discussions between the British and the French. With proof, of course. And there’s more, much more that a young man in your position could do for the smooth running of the Congress.”
Vanya didn’t even know what he was doing at the Castlereaghs’ ball. He’d known Lizzie wouldn’t be there and, yet, part of him had hoped. After all, she shouldn’t have been at the Duchess of Sagan’s either but there she’d been.
Other author's books:
- The Wicked Heir (Blackhaven Brides Book 12)The Wicked GovernessVienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1)The Wicked Baron (Blackhaven Brides Book 1)Widow's Treasure (The Marriage Maker Book 19)
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