Vienna waltz the imperia.., p.18

Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1), page 18

 

Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1)


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  The door burst open again before Georgiana even reached it and a positively dazzling lady in silk and jewels sailed inside with the innkeeper and his wife both bowing and protesting like importunate dogs at her heels.

  “Oh the devil,” Johnnie uttered.

  Chapter Sixteen

  The fine lady, who seemed to take in every occupant in the room with one withering, haughty glance, said tartly, “I’ll thank you to mind your language.” Without even turning her head, she snapped “Be gone, sirrah,” to the landlord. “And take your good woman with you.”

  The landlady, her mouth opening and closing without making any sound, gazed at Mrs. Fawcett as though asking somewhat apologetically for permission to escape from a situation she no longer understood. Mrs. Fawcett waved one impatient hand and waited until the door closed.

  But even then, the fine lady was before her. Fixing Lizzie with a glare of loathing, she demanded, “What have you done to my son?”

  Lizzie blinked. “If this is your son, I wiped blood off his face.”

  The lady, holding herself rigid, advanced on Johnnie. Her face looked rather white. Johnnie, in spite of Lizzie’s instinctive movement to prevent it, rose to his feet. He seemed perfectly steady, even bent to take Lizzie’s hand and raise her, too. “Thank you,” he murmured. Then, dropping Lizzie’s hand he turned to the fine lady. “Forgive my dirt and blood. Consider yourself embraced with due filial duty and affection.”

  Only by the unfurling of her tightly fisted fingers did the lady give away any relief. “Well, since your hurts are clearly not serious, you had best present these people to me.”

  As though resigned now to the inevitable, whatever that was, Vanya said, “Of course. Allow me to introduce Mrs. Fawcett, from England. And the Misses Gaunt and –”

  “Gaunt?” the lady uttered with apparently fresh loathing. “Gaunt?”

  “Gaunt,” Vanya said firmly, fixing her with an expression Lizzie could only describe as ferocious. Even more surprising, the lady subsided, while Vanya also introduced Michael, who was hanging valiantly on to the dog with Henrietta’s aid, and Herr Schmidt. “My mother,” he finished with what appeared to be reluctance. “Countess Savarina.”

  “Savarin?” Georgiana repeated with quite as much hatred as the countess had uttered “Gaunt. Your mother is a Savarin? Johnnie, what does this mean?”

  “It means English children have no manners,” Countess Savarina said tartly.

  “Of course they do,” Lizzie countered. “But even the best of manners tend to lapse in the face of bejeweled strangers who turfed them out of their family home the same day they buried their father. Manners doesn’t really cover that one. Children, come, it’s time we left.”

  The countess, whose jaw had actually dropped during Lizzie’s speech, narrowed her eyes. “Past time,” she said grimly.

  Which is when Michael let go of the dog.

  Lizzie didn’t move. She knew Vanya would catch Dog before he knocked the countess over. And he did, almost distractedly. But that didn’t stop her petty pleasure in the countess’ suddenly alarmed backsteps.

  Lizzie walked to the door, ignoring Vanya’s burning gaze on her face. “Don’t take my words personally, Countess Savarina. I was referring to your son. Good night, Mrs. Fawcett. Thank you, as always, Herr Schmidt.”

  “Lizzie,” Vanya said quietly. There might have been a plea in his voice, but it was far too late for that. Dignity, belatedly, was all she had left. And for once, the children, and even Dog, following submissively on her heels, allowed her to have it.

  *

  “Johnnie? Johnnie is Ivan the Terrible?” Michael’s stunned voice drifted through the closed door, dripping with loathing as he spoke the hated name.

  Into the silence in the parlor, Mrs. Fawcett said distantly, “Excuse me. I must instruct my coachman.”

  The countess barely waited until she was out of the room before she exploded. “Ivan the Terrible? Do they think that is funny?”

  “No,” Vanya said, irritably, throwing himself into a chair by the table. “They think it’s apt since you evicted them before their father was cold.”

  “This is the first time I’ve left Russia,” she objected, clearly affronted.

  “You sent your orders, Mother. They were carried out. Let’s not demean ourselves further by pretending otherwise.”

  The countess sniffed. “Well. They’d kept your poor dear father’s inheritance from him for too long.”

  Vanya blinked. “A week?”

  “All his life!” his mother corrected waving one encompassing arm with indignation. “And then to be treated like—”

  “You know there was nothing to inherit before the old man died,” Vanya interrupted. “My grandfather and my father both made good lives for themselves in Russia. None of us were ever left destitute. Which is what you did to the Gaunts. And then you swan in here dripping with diamonds and contempt. What kind of reception did you expect, exactly?”

  “I didn’t know she was a Gaunt,” the countess muttered. “What I expected was a little affection from my only son.”

  Vanya regarded her with the powerful mixture of frustration and affection she induced in him so easily. “Mother, what in God’s name are you doing here?”

  “I got it out of Misha that you came here with the so-called young lady. I thought she was inveigling you into marriage, so when I went to the Castlereaghs’—isn’t her ladyship a quite eccentric dresser?—and discovered you’d already left, I assumed you’d come here and made Misha show us the way.”

  “No, I mean what brought you to Vienna in the first place?”

  His mother shrugged elegantly. “You, of course. You never write to me, so I thought I’d come in person. And then I thought we could go on to England when this Congress is over and see this Launceton of yours…” Her eyes swept over him and narrowed. “Why are you bleeding, Vanya?”

  “When I find out, I’ll let you know.”

  “Does that man speak French?” the countess inquired, fixing her erratic gaze on Herr Schmidt who was gazing pensively out of the dark window.

  “I imagine so. And I imagine he speaks perfect Russian, too, so there’s no point in changing now.”

  “What is he doing here?”

  “Recovering. We shot him.” Vanya stood up. “I’ll order you a cup of tea while the horses are refreshed. Then we’re going back to Vienna.”

  *

  “It was the mother who threw us out,” Henrietta said quietly as the carriage bowled through the darkness. “Johnnie didn’t know. When he heard the truth from us, he helped you steal the necklace to make up for what she’d done. He was trying to do the right thing.”

  “That’s a very charitable interpretation,” Lizzie said. “Only I don’t think he did steal it. There’s no replica. Aunt Lucy’s still wearing it because he never took it in the first place, just induced her to take it off for that evening under some pretext. She said something about a broken clasp that turned out not to be broken. No wonder he wasn’t bothered about his buyer discovering paste instead of diamonds…”

  Michael, who’d seemed quite devastated by “Johnnie’s” betrayal, brightened. “You mean he just gave us three thousand pounds? Out of his own pocket?”

  “I think he might have,” Lizzie said dully. “Which is really…annoying of him, because now I feel obliged to give it back.”

  “Oh no, Lizzie,” Georgiana said earnestly. “Don’t do that. It’s really the least he could have done.”

  “But it makes us beholden to him!”

  “How?” Michael demanded. “Did he attach any strings to it?”

  “No, not yet, but—”

  “It seems to me,” Henrietta said, “that he went out of his way not to attach strings, so that we—you—would have no qualms about accepting it.”

  Lizzie rested her head on her hand and closed her eyes. She had no idea what to think anymore.

  *

  They got back to the house in the Skodeg
asse just after the rest of the family. Lizzie sent the younger ones off to bed and joined her aunt and Minerva in the drawing room to inquire after the ball. For once, it seemed, Minerva had enjoyed herself hugely and the reason soon became clear. She had danced twice with Mr. Corner, and since one of those had been the supper dance, she’s spent a good part of the evening in his company.

  “You’re wasting this opportunity!” Aunt Lucy scolded.

  “It didn’t feel wasted,” Minerva muttered. “I like being with Mr. Corner. I feel comfortable.”

  “Comfortable,” Aunt Lucy repeated as if she’d no idea of the word’s meaning. “You might as well spend the evening with your brother.”

  “James is not at all like Mr. Corner,” Minerva said with dignity. And at last, her tone seemed to pierce Aunt Lucy’s fantasy of a great match and untold family wealth.

  “Oh no,” she said. “Minerva, no. It will not do. He has nothing.”

  “I know,” Minerva said miserably.

  Lizzie, ignored by both of them up till now, chose to take a seat by Minerva, facing her aunt. “I believe my uncle had nothing,” she remarked, “when you married him. And now he is to be made an Ambassador and given a knighthood.”

  “That is not to be talked of just yet,” her aunt said with dignity. “And even so, it has taken us twenty years of struggle. I don’t want that for you, Minerva.”

  “Why not?” Lizzie asked. “Your house was always the most pleasant I knew. Not huge like Launceton Hall, but there was rarely any bad-tempered shouting or tension, either. It always seemed to me you and my uncle ran a happy home. I would want that for Minerva.”

  Aunt Lucy stared at her as if stricken. Then it turned into a glare. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Lizzie. If you’ve nothing helpful to contribute to the discussion, you may go to bed.”

  “As you wish,” Lizzie said, standing up. In fact, a little oblivion seemed very attractive.

  “I’ll go, too,” Minerva said, following her.

  Inevitably, Minerva poured out her heart on the way upstairs. Lizzie listened patiently and made sympathetic noises. She rather thought things would work out for Minerva in the end, if she just held out. It was her own happiness that seemed suddenly impossible.

  As she undressed and lay down beside Georgiana, she tried desperately to get back her contentedness with the future she’d already worked out: a pleasant cottage in the country with the children, a successful London season for Henrietta, followed by a brilliant match, and at least a few years of governessing for Lizzie. Michael would get a commission in the army, Georgiana would be provided for and she, Lizzie, might even find a place with one of them, helping out.

  Poor relation, a voice whispered unkindly in her head.

  And besides, what if Henrietta falls in love with a poor man? Are you going to be like Aunt Lucy and push her into a marriage she doesn’t want just so you can stop worrying?

  In any case, it was all moot now. She was going to have to give the money back to Johnnie. Vanya. Cousin Ivan…

  “Be still, Lizzie,” Georgiana muttered.

  But she couldn’t settle. To avoid disturbing the others, she rose, wrapped a shawl around her nightgown in the dark, and left the bedroom. The rest of the house was in darkness, too. Everyone must have retired. Lizzie lit the candle left in the hall and walked silently downstairs. If she had a plan at all, it was merely to pace around the drawing room until all this churning within her was quiet and she could sleep.

  But as she quietly pushed open the drawing room door, she saw there was a light already there, another person with another candle. James stood by the bookcase, his candle beside him, thumbing through the heap of papers Mr. Corner had left for Mr. Daniels.

  “Are you thinking of going into diplomatic service, too?” Lizzie asked.

  James jumped visibly, almost leapt in the air, muffling a cry. “Good God, Lizzie, don’t creep up on a man!”

  “Sorry. What are you doing?”

  “Oh, nothing. I couldn’t sleep. Just looking for something to do.”

  Since she herself was wandering about for no better reason, perhaps she shouldn’t have doubted him. But she knew him very well. And even if she hadn’t, she had enough younger siblings to spot shiftiness when she saw it. Even in the poor light, he made no effort to meet her gaze. She could have sworn he was blushing and he certainly held himself with unusual stiffness.

  Lizzie walked further into the room. James made what looked like an involuntary shooing motion with his hands, then seemed to force himself to stillness.

  “If you’re in more trouble,” she said carefully, “it might help you to tell me?”

  “Of course I’m not. Why should you imagine I’m in trouble just because I can’t sleep?”

  “Oh, I don’t know. It might have something to do with the fact that you owe several thousand pounds you can’t pay to some not very pleasant people.”

  “Oh, thanks for bringing that up,” James said petulantly. “No wonder a fellow can’t sleep!” And he stormed past her without a word of good night.

  *

  James hurried along the Skodegasse in the direction of the Graben. He thought, after his initial shock of finding Lizzie there watching him, that he’d handled himself rather well. He was almost home and dry. And out of the woods. Although it was late, the Graben was by no means deserted. James walked up one side and down the other, then walked breadth-wise back and forth across it. But he could see no sign of Grassic who, however, had made it clear he might not attend their meeting in person.

  He gave James to understand he was a very busy man with a great deal of importance that most people never realized. All James saw were some rough looking characters he doubted had any lawful business in any land. One of them detached himself from a tree on James’s third horizontal foray and ambled toward him.

  James braced himself. Almost over. And then someone seized his arm from behind and marched him back the way he’d come.

  After the first shock, James dug his heels in. “What do you think you’re doing?” he panted, trying to detach the viselike fingers from his arm.

  “Getting you out of even more trouble,” said the tall man beside him. Although James was no weakling, he seemed to have no ability to resist his abductor.

  “Who are you? What do you want?” James demanded.

  “I’m your big cousin Ivan and I want to teach you a lesson.”

  *

  In the morning, although Lizzie still tried very hard to re-conjure her optimism of the last couple of weeks, she couldn’t help feeling that all she had were a lot of problems with no likely solutions. But there were a few things she knew she had to do and so, as soon as she discovered that her aunt was awake, she knocked on her door and sat on the end of her bed, watching her drink coffee in an unusually morose manner.

  “Is something wrong, Aunt Lucy?” Lizzie asked.

  Aunt Lucy sighed. “No, nothing that cannot be mended. Did you wish to talk to me about something in particular?”

  “Actually, yes.” She took a deep breath, reluctant to upset her good-natured aunt any further. “Did you know that Countess Savarina is in Vienna? Cousin Ivan’s mother?”

  Aunt Lucy wrinkled her nose and set down her coffee cup. “Yes. Dreadful creature, dripping quite vulgarly in diamonds. She was at Lady Castlereagh’s. Her ladyship was kind enough to point her out to me.”

  “Were you wearing the necklace?” Lizzie asked.

  An almost mischievous smile flitted across her aunt’s face. “Well, I was, but funnily enough the clasp was loose again, so I took it off.”

  “Probably best,” Lizzie said gravely.

  “I thought so.”

  “Maybe you should send it back to England with the next dispatches?”

  “Or I could call on her and return it in person. But, oh Lizzie, apparently the son is here, too. You know, Ivan the Terrible? Only you really must stop using that name now, just in case we’re obliged to meet him.


  “I’ll try,” Lizzie said breathlessly.

  Benson came in, bearing a silver plate with a card on it. “If you please, ma’am,” she said grimly, presenting the plate.

  Aunt Lucy picked up the card. Her jaw dropped and she all but threw the card at Lizzie. “Countess Savarina! Now what do I do? Benson, have them tell her I’m not at home. No, wait, of course I am, it’s eleven o’clock in the morning… Drat it, Lizzie, do I want to offend the woman or not? Do I receive her?”

  “With icy composure, if at all,” Lizzie advised.

  “Benson, has Mr. Daniels left yet?”

  “Yes, ma’am, an hour ago.”

  Aunt Lucy gnawed her lip, gazing at Lizzie, then, abruptly, she threw back the covers. “I’ll be down directly,” she announced with decision. “Give the wretched woman refreshment. Lizzie, you must come with me.”

  “Oh no, Aunt, that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

  “Why ever not? You are my strength and besides, I want to show her exactly who she displaced.”

  “Yes, but I…I met her last night when I was with Mrs. Fawcett at the inn and I’m afraid I wasn’t terribly…conciliatory. We didn’t…get along.”

  Aunt Lucy’s smile was uncharacteristically ferocious. “What a shame,” she uttered.

  “Shall I change into the better dress?” Lizzie asked, bowing to the inevitable.

  “On no account,” Aunt Lucy ordered.

  If Aunt Lucy expected to make the countess feel guilty for her treatment of the late baron’s family, Lizzie thought she was barking up the wrong tree. Countess Savarina did not strike her as the kind of woman who even noticed other people’s misfortunes, let alone accepted responsibility for them. On the other hand, Lizzie caught herself up for accepting Henrietta’s explanation of Johnnie’s—Cousin Ivan’s—conduct and blaming everything on his mother. She wanted to believe it too much.

  Ten minutes later, she entered the drawing room in Aunt Lucy’s wake and discovered the countess seated stiffly on the chair by the fireplace. She rose as they came in and movement by the window caught Lizzie’s attention. Another figure turned to face them, in full military uniform. Lizzie’s heart seemed to dive straight into her stomach, churning up everything that was meant to be there. She couldn’t look at him, though she was fairly sure he bowed in their direction.

 
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