Vienna waltz the imperia.., p.25

Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1), page 25

 

Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1)


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  He began to smile, just because she was there. “I will if you like.”

  Her gaze flashed around the room at Mrs. Fawcett’s most interested guests and color rose to her cheeks. “I don’t like,” she muttered.

  Minerva brushed past him, put her arm around her cousin in comfort and support.

  The tsar and Boris entered behind Lizzie and Mrs. Fawcett bustled over to meet them.

  “Such goings-on,” their hostess said comfortably. “So what have we learned? That Mr. Grassic here buys and sells information to everyone, promoting distrust and endangering the whole Congress? That Colonel Savarin is innocent—”

  “Not necessarily,” one of the tsar’s older aides pointed out. “Blonsky says Savarin gave Grassic something. Best see what it is.”

  Grassic, who’d staggered to his feet once more, fended Vanya off with both hands. “Keep that madman away from me!”

  “Then be so good as to empty your pockets, sir,” the tsar said with dignity.

  Grassic lifted his chin. “While I have every respect for Your Majesty both as a sovereign and as a man, I believe I owe you no obedience, certainly none that impugns my honor.”

  “Nevertheless,” said quite another, very English voice haughtily as its owner eased his elegant way through the crowd. It was Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister. “Nevertheless, I believe you must do it. If you don’t, I will most certainly have you arrested on suspicion of treason while the whole matter is thoroughly investigated.”

  Grassic curled his lip. “On your own heads be it. The documents in my possession incriminate the very people who accuse me.” He removed a few folded papers from inside his coat and all but threw them at the British minister.

  “What are these?” Castlereagh murmured, unfolding the first.

  “That,” said Grassic smugly, “is what Miss Gaunt stole from her uncle and sold to me for a few schillings.”

  “My niece stole nothing from me,” Mr. Daniels said with dignity. “Though I confess I thought I was doing the right thing by buying information from Mr. Grassic in the past.”

  “Then what is this?” Lord Castlereagh asked without emphasis, still holding the document in front of his eyes. “What direct meeting did you have with M. de Talleyrand?”

  “None,” Lizzie said unexpectedly. “If you pass a candle over the top, you’ll see I’ve written something on it. In lemon juice. It’s a trick my brother learned somewhere.”

  With a glance of reluctant amusement, Castlereagh accepted the candlestick someone passed him and waved the paper above the flames for a few moments.

  “Ah, there it is,” he observed, and read out, “This is a forgery designed to trap Mr. Grassic. It was entirely invented by me, Elizabeth Gaunt, the 25th day of October, 1814.”

  Vanya began to laugh. “Nicely done, Lizzie! Apparently great minds think alike.”

  “You forget, I also have what you sold me!” Grassic snarled. There was a wildness in his eyes now that Vanya hadn’t seen before, as if he’d never imagined being in the situation where other people were flim-flamming him. He took out a handkerchief and mopped the sweat and blood from his face.

  Castlereagh bowed to the tsar and passed the remaining documents to him.

  “The supposed orders from Your Majesty to me,” Vanya said. “Except, as you’ll be aware, you never gave me any such orders, and neither of us were in the places stated in the orders—ever, I suspect.”

  “And the letter to Bonaparte?” Castlereagh asked, as if fascinated.

  “The part in Russian explains it.”

  The tsar’s scowl vanished. “Let me read it to you. This letter is a lot of nonsense composed by Ivan Petrovitch Savarin purely to confound the Englishman, Grassic.”

  Into the general laughter, Lizzie cried, “Minerva!”

  And Vanya saw that he’d been unforgivably careless. Grassic’s physical cowardice had fooled him. There must have been a penknife wrapped in the handkerchief he’d used to wipe his face, for he now held the weapon to Minerva Daniels’ throat.

  Dragging her in front of him as he moved across the ballroom, Grassic said, “No one should come near me if they want the girl to live.”

  Vanya began to calculate distances and times, to go over in his head the likely places he could intervene between here and the street… And then everything changed again as, quite unexpectedly, a pleasant looking young man who seemed too stunned even to move, suddenly acted, punching Grassic ruthlessly in the side of the jaw and snatching Minerva in his arms. The knife clattered to the floor as Grassic staggered into a pillar. Vanya grabbed him before he fell and, this time, didn’t let go. Boris searched his pockets, while Vanya twisted his arm up behind his back until he yelped.

  Meanwhile, Mr. Daniels said warmly, “That was excellently well-done, Corner! Perfectly placed! I can’t thank you enough.”

  And when Vanya glanced again at Minerva he saw her gaze locked with her cousin Lizzie’s. Lizzie closed one eye and Vanya wanted to laugh. So this was the unsuitable young man Minerva had chosen.

  “Well, at least you’ve done someone a favor,” Vanya murmured to Grassic.

  “So now Vanya is vindicated,” Mrs. Fawcett pursued.

  “Colonel Savarin is a true Russian hero without a stain on his record or his character,” the tsar pronounced. Miraculously, a glass had appeared in his hand. “A toast! I give you… Vanya!”

  “Vanya!” echoed all the gentlemen, especially the Russians, while the ladies clapped their hands with apparent delight.

  Lizzie stood alone, faintly smiling, but the frown tugging at her brow troubled Vanya, until a crash of glass made her jump. The tsar had thrown his crystal glass into the fireplace, though fortunately for Mrs. Fawcett, the other Russians forbore to emulate him for once. Instead, they all looked expectantly at Vanya, who felt laughter rise.

  Snatching a glass from the proffered tray, he raised it high. “To Mr. Corner!” he shouted and drank.

  “Mr. Corner!” responded Mr. Daniels and the other Englishmen with enthusiasm, while the young man himself blushed endearingly.

  “Mr. Corner,” the tsar said graciously and drank, though this time he didn’t feel compelled to throw his glass in the fireplace.

  *

  Presumably in recompense for his week on the run, the tsar insisted on providing his own carriage to convey Vanya back to his attic. Vanya didn’t much care. The Daniels’ had gone, taking Lizzie with them, and he hadn’t had a moment’s opportunity to speak to her again first. Everyone seemed to conspire to keep them apart, perhaps because of the scene far too many people had witnessed on the terrace, although thankfully the much more exciting subsequent events seemed to have driven the indiscretion much lower in the gossip chains.

  Vanya, who’d barely slept for a week and had drunk too much with the tsar on an empty stomach, was dog-tired as he bade his hostess farewell and thanked her for all her help in changing his fortunes. She gave him a brief, uncharacteristic hug, but fortunately, didn’t bring up the subject of Lizzie. He was in no condition to bear that.

  As he left the ballroom, a masked man by the door said, “Well done, Colonel Savarin.”

  Vanya barely spared him a glance and a mechanical smile. He even walked on another step before recognition dawned and he stopped.

  “Herr Schmidt. You really are alarmingly good at invisibility.”

  “The mask helps.”

  “I’ll take your word for it. What did I do well?”

  “Discovered your spies and exonerated yourself. It makes my life simpler and gives the Congress a chance. Thank you.”

  Vanya blinked. “Well, if we’re thanking each other, it was your information that put me on the right track.” He held out his hand. “You’re a strange fellow, Herr Schmidt, but I’m very glad to know you.”

  Herr Schmidt stared at the hand as if he didn’t know what to do with it. Vanya wouldn’t have been surprised if the policeman had simply walked away. But after a distinct pause, the man gr
asped his hand briefly and returned his gaze to the ballroom, eternally watchful. Vanya wondered if Mrs. Fawcett had actually invited him, or if he’d barged, much as Vanya himself had.

  Vanya tramped down the path to the street where the tsar’s own carriage awaited—not one of the Imperial Austrian green coaches on loan to visitors—muttered his address to the coachman and climbed in.

  Only as he threw himself moodily back in the seat and the vehicle began to move forward, did he become aware that he wasn’t alone. The outside lights on the carriage shone in the windows on the girl seated opposite.

  Tiredness, drunkenness all fell away like a heavy, wet towel cast aside. “Lizzie,” he uttered, launching himself across to the other seat and taking both her hands. “What the devil are you doing here?”

  He heard the catch in her breath, the unsteadiness in her voice. “You said to come with you. Here I am.”

  He stared at her, then slowly lifted her hands to his lips, one after the other. “You are wonderful.”

  “Not really,” she said. “I’m afraid, wherever we’re going, we need to stop off first at my aunt’s and collect the children. And Dog.”

  His lips twitched. “Of course we do,” he said gravely. “But I think I might have a better plan. I’ll take you back to the Skodegasse and restore you to your aunt for the night. In the morning, I’ll call again and…and I don’t really know how one does this. There’s no one I can ask formally for your hand, is there?”

  Only by the faint upward twitch of her lip did she betray that she hadn’t even been sure of that.

  “Oh Lizzie, what do you take me for?” And yet, even thinking that, even in all her uncertainty, still she’d come. “God knows I don’t deserve you. I can’t even find the words to ask you because I don’t want to say what everyone else has said before.”

  “I didn’t need words to know you,” she said. And taking it for the invitation it was, he took her in his arms and kissed her with aching tenderness. Her response was sweet and immediate, and when he ended it, she put her hand up to his cheek and kissed him again.

  “Was that my proposal of marriage accepted?” he asked huskily.

  “Yes, please. Only…”

  “Only what? Are you concerned that we’re cousins? It’s a very distant relationship—”

  She waved one dismissive hand and clutched his lapel. “No, no, that doesn’t matter.”

  He searched her eyes, frowning. “I promise I’ll care for the children, and Launceton—”

  “Oh, I never doubted that. It’s just… I know you’re not a monogamous man,” she finished in a rush.

  He drew back to look into her face. “Who told you that?”

  “Countess Gelitzina.” She caught his hand to her face while he struggled with shame and words. “I don’t mind about her,” she assured him. “Or about any of them. But I don’t want to know. And I don’t want the children to know.”

  “Lizzie. I wish Sonia hadn’t…but there, she had every right to say, to think, what she did. I didn’t treat her well. I haven’t treated a lot of women very well. But now there is you, there is only you. Not just from duty but from desire, from reality. Only you.”

  For several moments after this, neither of them could speak. At last, Vanya realized the carriage had stopped. They were outside his building. Releasing Lizzie, he stuck his head out of the window and instructed the coachman to drive to the Skodegasse.

  The carriage rumbled back into motion.

  “And your mother doesn’t like me,” Lizzie confessed.

  Vanya gave a shout of laughter. “My mother will like you, once she realizes you like me and no longer call me Ivan the Terrible. You won’t, will you?”

  “Not unless you become tyrannical,” Lizzie replied, smiling as she laid her head on his shoulders. “I like being with you, Vanya.”

  “I certainly like this much better than our first meeting in a carriage.”

  “Did you despise me very badly?”

  “Lord no, you intrigued me beyond belief. I wanted to kiss you then. And a lot more besides.”

  Even in the shadows, with her face averted, he saw her flush. He kissed her hair. “We’ll get to that, too,” he promised. “Very soon. Very, very soon. If you have no objection to the Orthodox rite, we can be married before the end of the week. Sooner. Tomorrow.”

  She gave an unsteady, breathless little laugh. “You really don’t care about gossip, do you?”

  “No.” He caught her chin in his fingers, caressing as he turned her face up to his. “But I would like to waltz with you again on our wedding day.”

  She smiled, dragging his hand to her lips and kissing it. “I’d like that, too. In fact, I might insist upon it.”

  Epilogue

  Ten days later, Lizzie waltzed publicly in the arms of Colonel Ivan Petrovitch Savarin, also known as John Gaunt, fifth Baron of Launceton. That was unlikely enough. What really took her breath away was the fact that he’d just become her husband.

  Despite the protests of Aunt Lucy and Lady Castlereagh, they’d been married by a Russian Orthodox priest in a beautiful church near the meat market. The tsar and tsarina had both been there, as were the Duchess of Sagan, Dorothée de Talleyrand, and her uncle.

  To the accompaniment of exquisite singing, crowns had been held over her head and Vanya’s. The words giving her to a man she’d known less than two months, whom she’d hardly had a moment to lay eyes on in the last ten days, had been spoken in a language she didn’t even understand. And when it was done, when he kissed her, the heat of his mouth almost stopped her breath.

  The magnificent wedding breakfast was hosted by her proud aunt and uncle at Mrs. Fawcett’s house since it was much larger. The children, though gleefully excited, were unprecedentedly well behaved. James, while privately maintaining his heart was broken, ate with cheerful gusto. Minerva, Lizzie’s chief attendant, despite sitting beside Mr. Corner, kept watching her with puzzlement, as if wondering how Lizzie could have wished to marry someone as alarming as Cousin Ivan.

  Laughter bubbled up inside Lizzie. She felt animated, almost sparkling as she drank champagne and flitted from guest to guest. And yet, only when the orchestra struck up and Vanya led her onto the floor and into his arms, did she feel she’d come home.

  And this time, she remembered not to look at her feet, but into his devouring eyes. The warmth there both thrilled and frightened her.

  “Do you want to dance all night or shall we make our escape?” he murmured. His deep, low voice vibrated through her, making her shiver.

  Already?

  A friend of Vanya’s had given them his summer place outside the city for a week. After the whirl of excitement and frenzied activity leading up to the wedding, she longed to be alone there with him, even though her stomach twisted almost painfully with anticipation. And with the inevitable virginal fear she was determined to hide from him.

  “Maybe after this dance,” she managed.

  He smiled, holding her closer. Just a little too close. Vanya would never care for propriety. Instead, he steered her through the couples who’d joined them on the floor, dancing circuitously but inexorably towards the ballroom doors, and out into the hall—where they literally bumped into Herr Schmidt.

  Vanya laughed and held out his hand to the policeman. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

  “Neither did I,” Herr Schmidt said. Although he shook Vanya’s hand and bowed in Lizzie’s direction, his attention was all on the ballroom beyond the open doors. “Congratulations on your marriage,” he added, “but I’m afraid I’m here in a professional capacity.”

  “I didn’t do it,” Vanya said flippantly, while Lizzie followed the policeman’s gaze across the ballroom—surprisingly enough to a young woman in a pale blue gown, sitting with an elderly gentleman.

  Since Mrs. Fawcett liked this lady, Lizzie had met her a few times at social gatherings over the last week and found her both funny and peculiarly tense. Although perhaps not conventionally be
autiful, she was attractive, clever, and just eccentric enough to appeal to Lizzie, as well as to many gentlemen of her acquaintance. In fact, she was engaged to marry the Crown Prince of Kriegenstein.

  “Miss Esther Lisle,” Lizzie said aloud, wondering at Herr Schmidt’s interest. “She’s going to be a princess.”

  “No, I’m afraid she isn’t.” Herr Schmidt sat down on one of the upright chairs to the left of the doorway.

  “Oh dear,” Lizzie said, frowning at him. “What—”

  “It isn’t your problem, Lady Launceton. I haven’t come to—ah…cause you trouble. I imagine you’ll have enough of that from your husband. Good evening.”

  “Good evening,” Vanya said wryly. and taking Lizzie back into his arms, he danced her across the hallway to the front door.

  Half-protesting, half-laughing, she gave in, letting Miss Lisle’s unknown troubles dissolve in her own personal excitement. She would always feel this around Vanya…

  Miraculously, a carriage awaited them in the street. Vanya handed her in, closed the door and sat very close to her. As the horses set off, he wrapped a warm cloak around her. Lizzie’s heart beat and beat, and when he began to kiss her, she gasped and held on to him as if to her only salvation.

  As soon as they entered the sumptuous summer palace, he dismissed the waiting, wooden-faced servants with a handful of coins, before simply leading her upstairs and into a huge bed chamber.

  Lizzie trembled as he stilled at last. Tipping up her chin with one finger, he gazed into her eyes, reading, it seemed, what she tried to hide, for his kiss was soft on her lips, gentler than before.

  “We’re still waltzing,” he said unsteadily and swung her back into the familiar steps. Only now, he held her thrillingly close, so close that their bodies held very few secrets from each other. “It’s just another waltz…”

  And then, with care and fun and, ultimately, with breathless, blinding passion, he taught her the joy of the dance.

 
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