Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1), page 9
“We’d barely buried him when Ivan the Terrible’s people arrived to expel us,” she finished.
Johnnie frowned. “How did they know so quickly?
“Oh, my father had spent some time looking for him, probably to extract some kind of promise from him concerning us. He’d traced him to Russia a few months before the accident, but Ivan never wrote back to him. After the accident, he wrote again, so I suppose by the time he actually died, the wheels were in motion, as it were, to replace him. My aunt took us in, although she was already packing to come to Vienna.”
She shook off the memories, refocusing her gaze on Johnnie. “I don’t think you’re a very normal thief,” she observed, not for the first time. “Thank you for helping us so discreetly.”
For the first time in their acquaintance, she thought he actually flushed, although it may have been a trick of the candle light. “You’re paying me,” he reminded her gruffly.
“Yes, and talking of which, I haven’t had time to count the money. How much is it?”
“About the equivalent of three thousand pounds.”
“Three?” Lizzie sat up. “Oh, how wonderful. That’s more than I dared to hope. Well done, Johnnie!”
He shifted. “Well, look after it. What are you going to do with it? Do you have someone who would bank it for you?”
“No one who wouldn’t ask awkward questions,” she said ruefully. “I think I’ll have to hide it until we get home… Although I suppose we could live here. I rather like Vienna.”
“Well, there’s no hurry to decide. It doesn’t look as if the Congress is going to open very soon, never mind end before Christmas as everyone used to prophesy.”
Lizzie was silent, mulling over a few ideas and calculations.
She drew in her breath. “I don’t think you should thieve anymore. Wouldn’t you like to do some honest trade, instead? Maybe marry and have children?”
“One day,” he said vaguely. “Only I’m not very good at anything except soldiering. And there’s not much call for that now we’ve finally beaten Bonaparte.”
“But with a little money behind you, you could train to do something else,” Lizzie insisted. “Think about it. I’ll pay you twice what we agreed if you promise to use it to set yourself up with an honest living.”
Head in his hand, he gazed up at her unwaveringly. “You really mean it, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“It’s very kind, but… I think you might find Henrietta’s coming out will cost you rather more than you imagine.”
“She has a very wealthy godmother I mean to approach to sponsor her,” Lizzie said ingenuously.
A quick but intense smile flashed across his face, catching at an elusive memory. She didn’t try very hard to place it. It had been such a strange, full evening…
“And then you will become a governess?”
“That’s what I intend.”
“You would make a wonderfully fun governess,” he said. “My sisters would love you. My mother, on the other hand, would probably dismiss you in a day.”
“Oh, I mean to be a lot staider by then,” she said casually. “In any case, what do you know about governesses?”
“You’d be surprised. I’ve met a few.”
“I hope you didn’t steal from them,” Lizzie said anxiously. “They don’t have very much, you know.”
“No, I can honestly say I’ve never stolen from a governess,” Johnnie said. “But I can’t quite see why you’re so adamant about becoming one.”
“Well, like you and soldiering, I’m not really fit for anything else. I was brought up to be a lady, not a very useful member of society, but I’ve looked after my brother and sisters for as long as I can remember, so I think I have the necessary experience. How many sisters do you have?”
“Three. One married while I was away fighting.”
“To a good man?” she asked, catching the shadow that crossed his face.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I ever met him.”
“You should go home,” she said gently.
Again the smile flickered across his face. “Maybe I will.”
Lizzie was aware they were passing the time with idle chatter, distracting themselves from the problem—and in her case the guilt—of the injured and possibly dying man in the bed. But at the same time, there was comfort in the companionship, interest in her ally’s life and view of the world. He seemed to know a lot about the political situation in Europe, from an angle she found particularly fascinating. He didn’t like that Napoleon had been exiled merely as far as Elba, off the Italian coast, and blamed his own tsar for not being harsher.
“Oh, I met your tsar tonight,” she crowed. “He even asked me to dance.”
“I know. I saw.”
Her words, however, had brought Colonel Vanya galloping back into her mind, and since she couldn’t bear to think of him now, in this appalling and yet bizarrely comfortable scene, she hastily changed the subject. Johnnie, surprisingly, cooperated.
As they talked, their patient slept. Although he groaned occasionally and plucked helplessly at his bandages as though trying to prevent the pain beneath, he didn’t wake. Gradually, Lizzie’s own eyelids grew heavier and, in one of their companionable silences, she laid her head back on the chair wing and fell asleep.
She smiled, because someone was tickling her cheek. Or caressing it, perhaps. It must be her mother, though it didn’t feel like her mother’s hand smoothing hair from her face. She opened her eyes and her lips fell open in shock.
Most definitely not her mother, who had been dead for nearly ten years. Johnnie the thief, his finger over her lips, while his own made a shushing motion, bent over her.
“What?” she whispered.
“We need to go,” Johnnie said quietly. “Our friend’s still asleep.” He beckoned her further away from the bed, although their patient hadn’t woken during all their conversations last night. Perhaps he was afraid the man was only pretending sleep now and wished not to be overheard.
She followed him toward the door, where Misha waited. “I’ve spoken to the landlord,” Johnnie murmured. “I’ve given him money to care for our friend and he’ll hire a conveyance to send you back to Vienna as soon as you’re ready to go. I won’t be able to return here until late tonight, but I think he’s on the mend. And I’ll send a doctor over. He should get here around noon, all being well. You don’t need to worry.”
“Oh dear, I’d better give you money for all that,” she said worriedly, looking around for the carpet bag.
“It’s taken care of,” Johnnie said comfortably. “Go to your room and sleep for a couple of hours.”
“Actually, I’m not tired.” Instead, her stomach was rumbling. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Let me fetch you something to eat on the way. Are you going far?”
“Well…a long way round to Vienna,” Johnnie said evasively.
“I can smell new bread,” Lizzie said, opening the door. “I’ll fetch you some of that while you gather your things.”
Lizzie tripped downstairs, where the delicious bread scent still managed to rise above the stale beer and smoke smells of the airing taproom. Following her nose to the kitchen, she obtained from a flustered maid two warm loaves, two pats of fresh butter, a knife, and a plate.
“Sorry we can’t serve you better, right now,” the landlord’s wife said, almost apologetically as they met in the kitchen doorway. “Got a grand lady in the private parlor who’s most demanding.”
Lizzie accepted the implicit put-down meekly. She herself might be the daughter of a baron, but she certainly had no position in the world now. No one would describe her as a grand lady.
As she crossed the main hall toward the stairs, a woman’s voice hailed her from the half-open door of a room on the right, presumably the private parlor. “Girl! Fraulein!” it called in unmistakably English accents.
“I can’t drink coffee in the morning!” complained the room’s only occupant. “I insist on tea!”
The lady was stout and of middle years, wearing a lace cap over largely brown hair that looked to Lizzie as if it didn’t quite dare to go fully gray as it wished. Her gown was a dazzling shade of purple.
“How can I help you, madam?” Lizzie inquired civilly. “Shall I send the landlady or the maid to you? Or perhaps your own servant?”
The lady’s head jerked up from contemplating the evil coffee in the cup before her. Lizzie found herself raked from head to toe by an exceedingly sharp pair of blue-gray eyes.
“You’re not the maid,” she observed.
“No, but I can fetch her for you.”
“So you said. Are you the girl who’s eloping?”
“Oh dear,” Lizzie said. “I suppose I am, only I won’t. And the landlady promised not to tell people about what happened.”
The English lady gave a bark of laughter. “No hope of that. Why don’t you join me?”
“Oh, I couldn’t impose.”
“Trust me, I would welcome the company. I’ve been cooped up in a carriage with no one but my maid for days and all the decent coaching inns are full.”
“Well,” Lizzie said. “I would be honored.” She came farther into the room and set one loaf on the table with the butter. “Only I have to give this to my friends who are about to depart.”
As she spoke, she heard their unmistakable steps clattering downstairs.
“Excuse me one moment,” she said to the lady and scurried out to meet Johnnie and Misha in the hall. They stopped short, looking surprised as she ran up to them, proffering the bread and a packet of fresh butter.
“You can eat it on the way,” she encouraged. “I’m sorry, I never thought to wrap it.”
“No need,” Johnnie said, taking it from her. “Misha will keep it in his bag. Thank you.”
She gave him a slightly uncertain smile.
He drew in a breath. “Go back to Vienna and don’t worry.”
“Well, I will, because I don’t wish to start a hue and cry. But I’ll come back tomorrow to see to our friend.”
“There’s no need,” Johnnie said.
“I think there is. I thank you for your help, but he is my responsibility.”
Misha muttered something which caused Johnnie to frown impatiently though he didn’t so much as glance at his friend. His eyes didn’t leave Lizzie’s face.
Then he said abruptly, “Goodbye, Miss Lizzie.” And walked on without a backward glance.
Lizzie swallowed. It felt a very final farewell and, just for a moment, she felt quite forlorn. She walked back into the parlor to find the grand lady had stood up and walked across to the window. Lizzie joined her in time to see the ostler leading out two very skittish horses across the courtyard. Johnnie and Misha strode toward them. In one speedy motion that she barely saw, each threw himself onto a horse and galloped off out of the gate, leaving the ostler standing open-mouthed, his arms still held in the same position.
“Goodness,” Lizzie said, blinking. “I’ve never even seen cavalrymen mount quite like that.”
“Cossacks,” the lady pronounced. “I saw them in London when they came with the tsar and the grand duchess. Finest horsemen in the world. Bred to it from birth, practically.” She turned to face Lizzie. “But you’ll know that. Are you not eloping with one of them?”
“No,” Lizzie said firmly. “We’ve decided against it.”
“Probably for the best,” the lady said. “Society frowns on such ramshackle behavior. Pity really. Ruins a lot of fun, but there it is. Sit down and let’s be comfortable. I’m Eleanor Fawcett.”
“Elizabeth Gaunt. But please call me Lizzie. Everyone does.”
“Gaunt?” the lady said. “One of Launceton’s daughters?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said warily. She had the feeling her honesty was now ruining what was left of her reputation and probably contaminating Minerva, but somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to lie to the clear-eyed lady.
“Bad business,” Mrs. Fawcett said, shaking her head and pushing her reviled cup of coffee towards Lizzie, who accepted it gratefully. “I’m sorry you and your sisters were left in such a situation. Entails are the devil’s work. The secret is to marry before you’re destitute.”
“I’m afraid my father rather took us by surprise,” Lizzie said wryly.
Mrs. Fawcett gave another of her barks of laughter. “He did that a lot one way or another. You should know I was madly in love with the man for almost a whole year.”
“I know, but he was a handsome devil in those days.” She picked up the knife and began cutting the bread with unexpected skill. “Not sure he’d approve of you eloping with a Cossack officer.”
Not even an officer, Lizzie thought ruefully. But then, they’d never really been eloping. It was merely a less heinous crime than theft. And murder. Aloud she said, “Well, at least he’d approve of my deciding against it. Are you travelling to Vienna, ma’am?”
“That was my intention, since it seems to be where the most interesting people are. England’s deadly dull these days and since Bonaparte is now in chains—at least metaphorical chains—one can actually travel abroad again. I am taking advantage. What do you think of Vienna? Will I be amused?”
“Well, there are lots of parties,” Lizzie said. “Balls and masquerades and soirees are planned for every night. Troop reviews and other entertainments during the day and, if you care for such things, there are emperors, queens, and princes coming out of the woodwork. Even though the Congress itself is not yet open. You missed the emperor’s opening ball last night.”
“I shall console myself with having met you. Are you with Lucy Daniels?”
“Yes…um.” Lizzie, who was buttering a slice of bread, laid down her knife. “Aunt Lucy doesn’t know I’m here. I hope,” she added fervently.
Mrs. Fawcett blinked. “You mean you didn’t leave a farewell note?”
“No,” Lizzie said, shifting in her seat.
Mrs. Fawcett lifted her slice of bread. “Excellent. The trouble with notes is, one’s folly is in writing and therefore undeniable. As it is, you may travel back with me and we’ll make up some story to satisfy Lucy and the world.”
“I’m hoping we won’t need to,” Lizzie said gratefully. “The children were going to cover for me until noon at least. Because of last night’s ball, no one should be up before then.”
“Children!” Mrs. Fawcett exclaimed. “What children?”
“My brother and sisters. They’re also with my aunt.”
For the first time, Lizzie saw Mrs. Fawcett’s face grow wintry with disapproval. “You were going to leave them alone to run away with a Cossack?”
“Well, not exactly,” Lizzie said desperately. “It was very wrong of me, I know, but it was all part of a plan to help all of us. Only…it wasn’t a very good plan, so I won’t explain it to you.”
“You’re quite resourceful, aren’t you?” Mrs. Fawcett said thoughtfully. “Is your Cossack a decent sort of a man?”
No, he’s a thief. The impossibility of saying any such thing closed up her throat. “He’s always behaved to me with kindness,” she said truthfully.
“And decency?” Mrs. Fawcett insisted, so significantly that even Lizzie finally understood her point.
She blushed. “Perfect decency.”
“Well, that’s something. To be honest, I was quite confused as to which one you shot. The eloper or the brother.”
“Oh dear.” She had no reason to trust Mrs. Fawcett with the truth.
Despite the fact that she seemed to have been acquainted with Papa and Aunt Lucy, and appeared disposed to kindness, Lizzie knew she could not rely on a stranger’s silence. And yet if Lizzie said nothing, God knew what stories the woman might spread in Vie
Mrs. Fawcett’s eyes widened. “Were you?” she asked so breathlessly that Lizzie realized she’d found an unlikely fellow spirit.
“Sadly no, but he tried to take my bag and Johnnie objected and hit him and then there was a fight and I tried to make them stop, only my pistol went off and the thief or the policeman or whoever he is, was shot.”
Mrs. Fawcett ate her bread and butter in silence. At last she said, “Of course you would have to take a pistol on an elopement… Where is he now? The man you shot.”
“In one of the rooms upstairs. We watched him all night to make sure he didn’t die, though to be honest, I haven’t much—any!—experience with gunshot wounds and I’m not quite sure how I would have kept him from dying if he’d shown any signs of it.”
“No, but it’s in your favor that you tried,” Mrs. Fawcett assured her. “So, what are your plans now? Once you’ve assured his continued existence, how will you prevent him charging you with attempted murder? Or espionage?”
Lizzie lifted her chin. “I’ll tell him the truth,” she said, although because she couldn’t help it, she added, “Sort of… After all, if I’d truly meant him ill, why would I be helping him now?”
“That is a very god question. Why are you helping him now?”
Lizzie blinked. “I couldn’t let him die.”
“And your Cossack was of the same mind?”
“Of course. It was Johnnie who dug the ball out of him.” She shuddered. “He must be in a lot of pain whenever he is awake. I don’t suppose you could lend me some laudanum for him? The landlady only had a few drops and those will be gone as soon as he wakes.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Mrs. Fawcett said almost mechanically. Her gaze was fixed on Lizzie’s face with clear fascination. Uncomfortable under such scrutiny, Lizzie jumped to her feet.
“Talking of which,” she said brightly. “I had better get back and see how he does. Thank you for the coffee, ma’am, and your company.”
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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