Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
Sophie made a deep curtsy to the Emperor Alexander, as etiquette required.
He immediately took her gloved hand to raise her to her feet. 'No, madame,' he said in his immaculate French, 'it is I who should bow to you. Such an exquisite voice. And such emotion. I swear that half your listeners were near to tears. I have never heard such a touching rendition of the tragic heroine.'
'Your Imperial Majesty is more than generous.' Her admirers in Venice had been gentlemen, or aristocrats; never monarchs. Sophie smiled shyly up at the Emperor. He was much taller than she was, with light brown, slightly receding hair, fine side-whiskers, and a ruddy, cheerful face. The many stars and orders on his dress uniform caught the light every time he moved. Yet, in spite of that daunting splendour, he gave the impression of geniality. And he was showing knowledgeable appreciation of an artistic performance.
He shook his head, returning her smile. 'No, indeed. Your singing, madame, has been the musical highlight of my visit to Vienna. May I hope to have the pleasure of hearing you sing again, on another occasion?'
'I am engaged for a number of performances in Vienna, your Majesty. Perhaps your Majesty-'
'Ah, yes. Yes, indeed. As you say, madame. But may I hope that there is still some free time, in your busy schedule of engagements, for performances to a more select audience?
Sophie swallowed. Did he really mean what she suspected? He would certainly not be the first to try to turn a recital into a more carnal assignation. But he was the Emperor of All the Russias. A mere opera singer could not openly question his motives. 'Maestro Verdicchio has arranged all my engagements, your Majesty,' she said, a little uncertainly. 'If your Majesty wishes, I could-'
He pursed his lips a little, as if trying to hide a smile, and reached for her hand once more, raising it for a gallant kiss. 'I shall look forward to hearing more of that radiant voice. For the moment, madame, I must bid you adieu.' With an elegant bow, he strode away to join his host on the far side of the huge salon.
The other guests, in deference to the presence of the Emperor, had stood at a discreet distance. Sophie now found herself alone. Little groups of aristocratic women were gossiping quietly, some of them nodding in Sophie's direction. She could very well imagine what they were saying. It seems that his Russian Majesty has decided to bed the Venetian Nightingale, just as he dallies with every other beautiful woman he encounters.
Sophie felt a tiny shudder run down her spine. How did one refuse an Emperor who had too much finesse to proposition a lady directly? If Alexander of Russia asked Verdicchio to organise a private recital for him, it would be a gross insult for her to decline.
'Madame Pietre? May I compliment you on your magnificent performance?' The low voice came from just behind Sophie's shoulder. Something about it was familiar, as if-
For a second time, her hand was taken and raised to a man's lips. He stood before her. Lord Leo Aikenhead. Her champion. And the man who had been troubling her dreams for more than a week. She could feel the colour rising on her neck. This man had thought her a lady, but now he knew what she was. Would she see contempt in his eyes? She did not dare to look.
'You must be thirsty after singing for so long, madame. A glass of champagne, perhaps?' With the ease of an old friend, he tucked her hand under his arm. 'I saw that you were besieged by half the men in the audience, and then by the Emperor, but not one of them had the wit to offer you more than fine words. I am hoping that my more practical offering will encourage you to keep me company for a little.' He drew her towards the side of the room where a waiter stood with a huge salver of champagne flutes.
She had misjudged him. He was still treating her as if she were a lady. Sophie allowed herself a tentative smile and relaxed a fraction.
'Much better,' he said gently. 'If you will forgive my remarking on it, madame, you were as tense as a spring. I could feel it, even in your fingertips.' As if to emphasise his words, he placed his free hand over her fingers for a second or two. It seemed to be intended as a friendly, reassuring gesture from a gentleman to the lady he was escorting.
But for Sophie there was nothing in the least reassuring about it. The shock ran up her arm like a stab of pain, so sharp that she almost gasped aloud. She should not have dared to relax, not even for a moment. Not with this man.
It seemed he had not noticed her body's reaction this time. He had turned aside to take a champagne flute from the tray.
'Try this, madame.' He put the glass into her unresisting fingers. Then he caught up another for himself and touched it to Sophie's. 'To the Venetian Nightingale. Whose spellbinding performance has been a revelation to me.'
Sophie forced herself to nod in acknowledgement of his words. He was watching her carefully as he drank, his deep blue eyes scrutinising her face intently. What could he see there? Disconcerted, she took a large swallow of her champagne. Too large. The bubbles caught in her throat. She choked.
'Water for madame!' Lord Leo snapped to the waiter. 'At once!'
The servant rushed to obey. Lord Leo set down both champagne flutes and led Sophie to an alcove at the side of the salon. She sank gratefully on to the red velvet bench seat, her coughing now more or less under control. But when she tried to speak, no words came out.
Lord Leo looked round impatiently for the servant and almost snatched the glass from his hands. 'There's barely enough water there to wet the inside of the glass,' he said testily. 'Go and fetch more. Quickly now.'
Sophie drank it in long gulps. It soothed her bruised throat. 'Thank you, sir,' she said, in something akin to her normal voice. Had she done any damage? Verdicchio would swiftly disown her if she could no longer earn enough to keep them both in the luxury he felt to be his due.
'You permit, madame?' Lord Leo indicated the vacant space beside her.
Sophie nodded. 'That is the second time you have rescued me, Lord Leo.'
'I think not, madame. On this occasion, I fear that I was the cause of your difficulty. Ah, here is what you need.' He indicated to the servant that he should place a small table at Sophie's hand and put the decanter of water within easy reach.
Sophie busied herself with refilling her glass, slowly, so that she had time to think. What did he want of her? At their first meeting, she had doubted that Lord Leo Aikenhead was a connoisseur of music. He had said nothing so far to change her mind. Mischievously, she murmured, without turning back to him, 'That last aria was one I seldom perform in gatherings such as this. The heroine's plight is so very tragic. Audiences seem to prefer the lighter pieces, as a rule. Is that your taste also, Lord Leo?'
His response was initially a little hesitant, but he soon recovered his normal confidence. 'I must tell you, madame, that your final aria was more touching than any I have ever heard,' he finished.
'You are too kind,' Sophie responded automatically. Was his compliment sincere? Rashly, and against her better judgement, she risked a glance up into his face, to find those fierce blue eyes fixed on her with an intensity that was almost frightening. She found herself recoiling a little. The elemental force of him was too powerful to withstand. He was dangerous, and yet she was drawn to him. Too close and he would burn her up.
She must keep her distance from this man.
She set down her glass with a sharp click. 'If you will excuse me now, sir, I think that Maestro Verdicchio wishes to speak to me.'
'Stay.' It was a low, almost animal growl.
He did not touch her or move to close the proper distance between them, but Sophie felt as if he had seized her and dragged her tight against his body. She could almost feel the heat of him prickling her skin. And yet they still sat half a yard apart!
'Sir?' She was hoarse all over again.
'Madame Pietre, I must tell you how ardently I admire you. Your voice, your beauty.' He allowed his gaze to roam slowly over Sophie's face and figure. 'You are exquisite. Incomparable.' He sighed rather theatrically. Then he nodded dismissively in the direction of Verdicchio, who was talking too loudly to one of the Emperor's entourage at the far end of the room. 'I understand that you already have a protector. But I beg you to consider my earnest desire to know you more nearly.'
Sophie was incapable of speech. Hot anger was starting to boil in her breast. But she remained motionless, except for a single raised eyebrow.
He seemed to take it as an invitation to continue with his proposition. 'I am fixed in Vienna for some time, madame. I would deem it an honour to be allowed to enjoy your company, and to serve you while I am here. Vienna has become something of a city of pleasure, has it not?'
There was now so much relaxed confidence in his face that she itched to slap him. It was clear in his eyes. They had become dark and limpid, full of desire. Not the slightest hint of wariness, or of doubt. He knew he was a personable man, and he expected Sophie to accept him as her new protector.
She swallowed and hardened her feelings against him. He was just like all the others. Worse, even. He had been prepared to consider her a lady, and to treat her as one, until the moment he learned that she was a mere opera singer. One song, one recital, and the last vestige of his respect for her had vanished. All he could think of was how to persuade this fallen woman into his bed.
Well, aristocrat or no, he was wrong, and Sophie Pietre was going to make him smart for his insolence. 'Pleasure, Lord Leo, comes only at a price,' she murmured silkily, looking up at him through her lashes.
'Of course, madame. I had expected nothing less.' He edged a little closer to Sophie. She could truly feel the heat of him now.
She retrieved her glass of water and took a tiny sip, holding his gaze all the while. 'I am relieved to hear we are of one mind on this, Lord Leo. But you would not expect me to accept such a nebulous offer, I am sure. Even from you.' She narrowed her eyes. 'Did you have something more specific to propose, perhaps?'
This time he really did look uncomfortable, but he was equal to her challenge. He raised his chin a little, and named the price he was prepared to pay. 'In addition,' he continued smoothly, 'I would of course provide you with all the luxuries such a beautiful lady could desire.'
She had expected him to suggest at least as much as the Baron von Beck. But this was not even a quarter of the Baron's offer. In that instant, Sophie almost felt sorry for Lord Leo. He had made things so easy for her.
But then she looked into his eyes once more, and saw there the desire for possession that had inflamed so many of her suitors, not one of whom had cared for more than her body and an opportunity to slake his lust. She hardened her heart. Lord Leo was no different from all the rest. Just meaner, when it came to money.
She rose swiftly to her feet and gazed down at him, lifting a stern hand to prevent him from moving from his seat. She wanted him to remain there, below her, gazing up like a suppliant. She wanted this arrogant aristocrat to learn how it felt to be humiliated. 'I thank you for your offer, Lord Leo. I do not stoop to call it insulting. That would demean both of us. Suffice it to say that, having heard the paltry value you set upon my company, I prefer to remain as I am. I was indebted to you before, I freely admit. But now, sir, I fancy that we are even. Good night to you.' She dipped him a tiny, impudent curtsy and walked serenely away before he had time to utter a word.
His Reluctant Mistress by Joanna Maitland
They quickened their pace along the side of the harbour. The ship that had brought them from Genoa was still lying at anchor, waiting for the tide. Her decks were swarming with Italian sailors. One or two of them shouted a greeting. Jack waved a hand, but did not pause. There was too much to do. ‘We should be able to—’
A loud shout stopped them in their tracks. Jack spun on his heel. A group of burly men had appeared from the inn where they had lodged overnight. Two of them had dirty grey bandages round their heads, and they were pointing at Jack and Ben. Jack gasped. ‘Those are the two ruffians from last night.’
Ben looked back. ‘The men with them don’t look anything like constables, either.’
As they watched, the group of Frenchmen split into two. The two bandaged men remained by the inn door, but their fellows were striding up the quayside towards Jack and Ben. A sudden shaft of watery sunlight caught the gleam of knife blades against dark clothing.
‘Dear God! The landlord must have been in league with them, and now they’re after us. I don’t like the odds, with five of them and two of us.’
‘We’d better run for it.’ Valise in hand, Ben started for the end of the harbour.
‘You go on. I’ll follow.’ Jack was digging into his pocket as Ben took to his heels. Then he yelled at the sailors on the Genoese ship. ‘Hey, you fellows! This is for you, with our thanks.’ He flung the handful of coins high in the air, right into the path of their pursuers. Without waiting to see the reaction from the ship, he turned and hared after Ben.
Behind him, Jack heard shouts in a mixture of languages. The sailors must be scrambling on to the quayside and fighting the Frenchmen for the coins. He and Ben had time to escape. They would—
Ahead of him, Ben had stopped and turned, foolishly waiting for Jack to catch up with him. A moment later, the sharp crack of a pistol echoed round the harbour. Ben cried out and fell to the ground. He had been shot!
In seconds, Jack had caught up with Ben and was hauling him back to his feet. He was conscious, though very pale. He had dropped his valise and was clutching at his shoulder. Jack put an arm round his waist. ‘Come on. Let me take your weight. We can get away.’
Ben gritted his teeth and did his best to run.
‘I will mind the horses, Guillaume, if you fetch the provisions.’
‘But, mistress, it’s not safe to leave you here alone with the coach and all the silk. You know what happened last night.’
Marguerite shook her head. ‘It will not happen again. Look.’ She took a step forward so that the folds of her skirt moved. They had been concealing her hand, and the pistol she had taken from the coach. ‘No one will try anything. If anyone should accost me, I will shoot him. Now, fetch the provisions, Guillaume, and be as quick as you can. We will have precious little time to stop on the road, and even you cannot manage without food.’
He nodded and hurried across the Place du Cul de Boeuf to the baker’s on the corner of the Canebière, the long, wide street leading up from the port to the main part of the city.
Marguerite sighed and buried the pistol more deeply among her skirts. She refused to be afraid, even though they were still all too close to the port and the ruffians who frequented it. Last night had been dangerous, terrifying even, but it had been her own fault for sleeping without a guard. She would not make such a mistake again. On another occasion, she might not be lucky enough to have a gentleman come to her aid. He had been most courageous, launching himself into the fray with no thought for his own safety. And covered by only a thin bed sheet, to boot! She should have been embarrassed, of course, but she had been too intent on dealing with the attackers.
Now she remembered that her rescuer’s naked torso had seemed shapely and well muscled, like a classical statue. She fancied his hair had been dark. And he was tall, too. But what she remembered most clearly was his voice, its strong, rich tone inspiring confidence and helping her to overcome her terror. She would treasure the memory of that voice.
It was a pity she had not had a chance to thank him properly, or even to ask his name. Everything had happened so quickly. As soon as both men were securely bound, he had disappeared to arrange for them to be taken to gaol. Marguerite had been left alone to sleep, if she could. And she had, soothed by the memory of that remarkable voice.
This morning she had rid herself of such missish fancies. As a matter of courtesy, she would have liked to seek him out, but it had been much too early. She had not left a note. How could she, for a man with no name? But she now felt more than a little guilty. It was a breach of good manners to have failed to thank him. If she ever saw him again, she would remedy that, but the chances were extremely slim. She walked thoughtfully to the leader’s head and raised her free hand to stroke his neck.
And then she heard the sound of running feet.
She tightened her hold on the butt of the pistol, and turned. Two men had rounded the corner from the Quai du Port. One, a fair-haired stranger, was leaning heavily on his darker fellow. Why, it was the gentleman who had come to her rescue just hours before! She stepped quickly away from the horses. What was happening? What should she do? The men looked to be in some distress. The fair-haired one seemed to be struggling to stay upright. Without the support of his friend, he would probably have fallen to the ground.
Marguerite knew she had to help her rescuer as he had helped her. It was a matter of honour. She owed him. She hurried forward, still gripping the pistol. ‘Sir, what is the matter?’
‘My friend has been shot,’ the darker man gasped, ‘by a gang of villains. They are just behind us.’
Marguerite did not hesitate. ‘Quickly. Inside my coach.’ She ran forward to fling open the door, scrambled inside and began throwing most of the parcels of silk to one side. ‘Lay him here.’ She pointed to the floor where the seat had been removed to make room for her stores.
The two men did not speak. They simply acted. The dark man threw his valise into the corner of the coach, then half-pushed, half-lifted his injured fellow into the space Marguerite had cleared. In seconds, he was lying on a bed of packaged silk.
‘You, too.’ She gestured urgently. There was room for both of them.
The dark man nodded and lay alongside his fellow.
Marguerite quickly heaped all the remaining packages on top of them. It was a ramshackle pile, but there was nothing to betray what was hidden underneath it. She jumped quickly to the ground and closed the door at her back. She took a deep breath, looking round. There was no one, yet, but she could hear running feet again. And this time, there were more of them. She swallowed hard, pushed the pistol more deeply within her skirts and straightened her shoulders.
She was about to move back to the horses’ heads when she noticed a bloodstain on the ground by her foot. Dear God, that would give them away! She moved to cover as much of the stain as possible with her boot, hoping the shadow of her long skirt would hide the rest. Provided she did not move — and she had no intention of doing so — the blood would not be seen. Guillaume would return soon, and then there would be two of them to outface whatever scoundrel was prepared to shoot an unarmed man in broad daylight.
She did not have long to wait. Barely seconds after she had hidden the bloodstain, five dirty and sinister-looking Frenchmen rounded the corner at a run and skittered to a stop, one of them slipping on the gravelly surface of the square. They were all looking about them suspiciously, clearly wondering where their quarry had gone. She heard disjointed words in the local thieves’ cant. She did not understand them all, but enough to make clear that the two fugitives were in real danger. As was she, for hiding them!
She pulled herself up to her full height and stared proudly at them. But if she had hoped to frighten them off, she was mistaken. Two of them muttered in low voices and then came towards her. One was openly carrying a knife.
Marguerite continued to stare loftily at them. She did not dare to move from the bloodstained spot. And she would not show fear. She had learnt that only a few hours ago. ‘Put that thing away,’ she snapped.
The knifeman stopped dead and stared at her. Then, looking suddenly a little sheepish, he tucked the knife into his boot.
Marguerite waited. She had had one small victory, but there were still five of them, five men against one woman. The pistol, hard against her leg, provided some reassurance. If either of these two tried to assault her, she would shoot him.
‘We be looking for two men. Fugitives,’ the knifeman said, forcing a false smile. ‘They came this way, mistress. Did you see where they went?’
‘Two men?’ Marguerite raised her eyebrows.
‘Aye,’ said the second man. ‘One dark, one fair. The fair one would be limping, and bleeding. He was shot.’
‘Shot?’ Marguerite put as much horror as she could into her voice.
‘By the constable, mistress. They be wanted, by the law.’
‘Aye,’ agreed the knifeman. ‘We be deputised, by the constable. He’s too fat to run.’ The second man laughed shortly.
‘Ah. Yes, I did see two men, one helping the other. They went into the old town.’ She pointed to the maze of squalid streets that opened off the tiny square and ran the entire length of the harbour. ‘Over there.’
‘Thank ye, mistress.’
‘I doubt you’ll be able to catch them,’ Marguerite said earnestly. ‘They were some way ahead of you, and running. And in that labyrinth…’ She shrugged her shoulders.
‘True, mistress, but we be able to follow the blood trail. The fair one, he was bleeding.’ He began to scan the ground for signs.
Marguerite took half a step forward. The bloodstain was completely hidden by her shadow. ‘Well, I hope you do, if they are fugitives. But I must tell you that they stopped at the corner, over there, and I think the dark man put a pad on the fair man’s wound. So there may be no trail for you to follow.’ She raised her hands in the universal gesture of helplessness. ‘But if you’re quick, you may succeed.’
‘Aye,’ said the knifeman. ‘Come, Jean. We must go.’ They both looked across to the narrow street Marguerite had indicated. Then waving to their accomplices to join them, they trotted off.
Marguerite stood motionless until all five of them had disappeared into the
dark and malodorous streets of the oldest quarter of Marseilles.
Ben was barely half-conscious now. Jack rather wished he would swoon completely, for he was starting to mutter and groan with the pain of his wound. Jack laid a hand gently over Ben’s mouth, trying to muffle the sound. If that did not work, he was going to have to hit him, to knock him out. It would be a terrible thing to do to a friend who already had a bullet in him. But he would do it if he had to, to prevent Ben’s English moans from betraying them.
Ben gave another long groan and went limp. Thank God, Jack thought. Let him stay that way until they were out of this dangerous coil.
He listened intently. He could hear the woman dealing most adroitly with their pursuers. She was sending them off into the warren of the old city. It was the place where any fugitive would choose to hide, of course, but she had even concocted a story as to why there would be no blood trail to follow. What a woman! Not only was she ready to confront robbers at the dead of night, she was also extremely quick-witted. Jack was not sure he would have done half as well.
He could hear the sound of the men rushing away in pursuit of their phantom quarry. The woman would come back now, and then Jack and Ben would need to find somewhere else to hide. It could not be among the harbour inns, that was for certain, for they had already been betrayed once by that route. Perhaps if—
The carriage door opened. It swayed as someone climbed in. ‘Do not move an inch.’ It was the lady’s voice, soft but strong.
The coach swayed again as the lady took her place on the bench seat.
‘Put the provisions on the floor, Guillaume,’ she said, in a slightly louder voice, ‘and then let us be off. I have had quite enough of this city, full of thieves and vagabonds. Let us show it a clean pair of heels.’
‘Yes, miss.’ It was a man’s voice, an older voice, and it was followed by the sound of the door closing.
‘Don’t move yet,’ she whispered. And then the carriage started forward. She was leaving Marseilles. And she was taking Jack and Ben with her.
Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
This page was last updated on 4 March, 2009