NAL Historical, February, 2015
This is from the opening chapter. It is something of Prologue since the main action takes place more than ten years later when Captain Robert Blake is in Portugal with his regiment during the Napoleonic Wars and Jeanne Morisette is there too, now a rich, flamboyant widow known by her Portuguese name, Joana da Fonte, the Marquesa das Minas. Robert recognizes her, but she does not recognize him. They are both spies working directly for the future Duke of Wellington, but only Joana knows that. This is how they first met as young teenagers in England.
The entertainment in progress at Haddington Hall in Sussex, country seat of the Marquess of Quesnay, could not exactly be dignified with the name of ball, though there was dancing, and the sounds of music and gaiety were wafting from the open windows of the main drawing room. It was a country entertainment and the numbers not large, there being only two guests staying at the house at that particular time to swell the ranks of the local gentry.
It was not a ball, but the boy sitting out of sight of the house on the seat surrounding the great marble fountain below the terrace wished that he was inside and a part of it all. He wished that reality could be suspended and that he could be there dancing with her, the dark-haired, dark-eyed young daughter of his father's guest. Or at least looking at her and perhaps talking with her. Perhaps fetching her a glass of lemonade. He wished…oh, he wished for the moon, as he always did. A dreamer—that was what his mother had often called him.
But there were two insurmountable reasons for his exclusion from the assembly: he was only seventeen years old, and he was the marquess's illegitimate son. That last fact had had particular meaning to him only during the past year and a half, since the sudden death of his mother. Through his childhood and much of his boyhood, it had seemed a normal way of life to have a father who visited him and his mother frequently but did not live with them, and a father who had a wife in the big house though no other children but him.
It was only in the year and a half since his mother's death that the reality of his situation had become fully apparent to him. He had been a fifteen-year-old boy without a home and with a father who had financed his mother's home but had never been a permanent part of it. His father had taken him to live in the big house. But he had felt all the awkwardness of his situation since moving there. He was not a member of the family—his father's wife, the marchioness, hated him and ignored his presence whenever she was forced to be in it. But he was not one of the servants either, of course.
It was only in the past year and a half that his father had begun to talk about his future and that the boy had realized that his illegitimacy made that future a tricky business. The marquess would buy him a commission in the army when he was eighteen, he had decided, but it would have to be with a line regiment and not with the cavalry—certainly not with the Guards. That would never do when the ranks of the Guards were filled with the sons of the nobility and upper gentry. The legitimate sons, that was.
He was his father's son, but illegitimate.
"You are not at the ball?" a soft little voice asked him suddenly, and he looked up to see the very reason why had had so wished to be in the drawing room—Jeanne Morisette, daughter of the Comte de Levisse, a royalist émigré who had fled from France during the Reign of Terror and lived in England ever since.
He felt his heart thump. He had never been close to her before, had never exchanged a word with her. He shrugged. "I don't want to be," he said. "It is not a ball anyway."
She sat down beside him, slender in a light-colored flimsy gown—he could not see the exact color in the darkness—her hair in myriad ringlets about her head, her eyes large and luminous in the moonlight. "But I wish I could be there even so," she said. "I thought I might be allowed to attend since it is just a country entertainment. But Papa said no. He said that fifteen is too young to be dancing with gentlemen. It is tiresome being young, is it not?"
Ah. So she had not been with the company after all. He had tortured himself for nothing. He shrugged again. "I am not so young," he said. "I am seventeen."
She sighed. "When I am seventeen," she said, "I shall dance every night and go to the theater and on picnics. I shall do just whatever I please when I am grown up."
Her face was bright and eager and she was prettier than any other girl he had seen. He had taken every opportunity during the past week to catch glimpses of her. She was like a bright little jewel, quite beyond his reach, of course, but lovely to look at and to dream of.
"Papa is going to take me back to France as soon as it is safe to go," she said with a sigh. "Everything seems to be settling down under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte. If it continues so, perhaps we will be able to return, Papa says. He says there is no point in continuing to dream of the return of a king."
"So you may do your dancing in Paris," he said.
"Yes." Her eyes were dreamy. "But I would just as soon stay in London. I know England better than I know France. I speak English better than I speak French. I would prefer to belong here."
But there was a trace of a French accent in her voice. It was one of the more attractive features about her. He liked to listen to her talk.
"You are the marquess's son, are you not?" she asked him. "But you do not have his name?"
"I have my mother's name," he said. "She died the winter before last."
"Ah," she said, "that is sad. My mother is dead too, but I do not remember her. I have always been with Papa for as long as I recall. What is your name?"
"Robert," he said.
"Robert." She gave his name its French intonation and then smiled and said it again with its English pronunciation. "Robert, dance with me. Do you dance?"
"My mother taught me," he said. "Out here? How can we dance out here?"
"Easily," she said, jumping lightly to her feet and stretching out a slim hand to him. "The music is quite loud enough."
"But you will hurt your feet on the stones," he said, looking down at her thin slippers as she led the way up onto the terrace.
She laughed. "I think, Robert, that you are looking for excuses," she said. "I think that your mother did not teach you at all, or that if she did, you were unteachable. I think perhaps you have two left feet." She laughed again.
"That is not so," he said indignantly. "If you wish to dance, then dance we will."
"That is a very grudging acceptance," she said. "You are supposed to be thrilled to dance with me. You are supposed to make me feel that there is nothing you wish for more in life than to dance with me. But no matter. Let us dance."
He knew very little about women's teasing. It was true that Mollie Lumsden, one of his father's undermaids, frequently put herself in his way and showed herself to him in provocative poses, most frequently bent over his bed as she made it up in the mornings. It was true too that on one occasion when he had tried to steal a kiss she had whisked herself off with a toss of the head and an assurance that her favors did not come free. But there was a world of difference between the buxom Mollie and Jeanne Morisette.
They danced a minuet, the moon bathing the cobbles of the terrace in a mellow light, both of them silent and concentrating on the distant music and their steps—although his attention was not entirely on just those two things either. His eyes were on the slender moonlit form of the girl with whom he danced. Her hand in his was warm and soft. He thought that life might never have a finer moment to offer him.
"You are very tall," she said as the music drew to an end.
He was close to six feet in height. Unfortunately his growing had all been done upward. To say that he was thin would be to understate the case. He hated to look at himself in a looking glass. He longed to be a handsome, muscular man and wondered if he ever would be anything more than gangly and ugly.
"And you have lovely blond hair," she said. "I have noticed you all week and wished that I had hair that waved like yours." She laughed lightly. "I am glad you do not wear it short. It would be such a waste."
He was dazzled. He was still holding her soft little hand in his.
"I am supposed to be in my room," she said. "Papa would have forty fits if he knew I was out here."
"You are quite safe," he said. "I shall see that no harm comes to you."
She looked up at him from beneath her lashes, an imp of mischief in her eyes. "You may kiss me if you wish," she said.
His eyes widened. What Mollie had denied, Jeanne Morisette would grant? But how could he kiss her? He knew nothing about kissing.
"Of course," she said, if you do not wish to, I shall return to the house. Perhaps you are afraid."
He was. Mortally afraid. "Of course I am not afraid," he said scornfully. And he set his hands at her waist—they almost met about it—and lowered his head and kissed her. He kissed her as he had always kissed his mother on the cheek—though he kissed Jeanne on the lips—briefly and with a smacking sound.
She was all softness and subtle fragrance. And her hands were on his shoulders, her thumbs against the skin of his neck. Her dark eyes looked inquiringly into his. He swallowed and knew that his bobbing Adam's apple would reveal his nervousness.
"And of course I wish to," he said, and he lowered his head and laid his lips against hers again, keeping them there for a few self-indulgent moments and noting with a shock the unfamiliar effects of the embrace on his body—the breathlessness, the rush of heat, the tightening in his groin. He lifted his head.
"Oh, Robert," she said with a sigh, "you can have no idea how tiresome it is to be fifteen. Or can you? Do you remember what it was like? Though it is entirely different for a boy, of course. I am still expected to behave like a child, when I am not a child. I must be quiet and prim, and welcome the company of your father and mother—no, the marchioness is not your mother, is she?—and of my own papa. And I am to be denied the company of the young people who are at present dancing and enjoying themselves in the drawing room. How will I endure it here for another whole week?"
He wished he could pluck some stars from the sky and lay them at her feet. He wished that the music would continue for a week so that he could dance with her and help see her to the end of the boredom of an unwelcome visit to the country.
"I will be here too," he said with a shrug.
She looked up at him eagerly—the top of her head reached barely to his shoulder. "Yes," she said. "I shall steal away and spend time with you, Robert. It will be fun and my maid is very easy to escape. She is lazy, but I never complain to Papa because sometimes it is an advantage to have a lazy maid." She laughed her light, infectious laugh. "You are very handsome. Will you take me to the ruins tomorrow? We went there two days ago, but the marchioness would not let me explore them lest I hurt myself. All I could do was look and listen to your father tell the history of the old castle."
"I will take you," he said. But he noted the fact that she had spoken of stealing away to be with him. And of course she was right. It was not at all the thing for the two of them even to have met. They certainly should never have talked or danced. Or kissed. There would be all hell to pay if he were caught taking her to the ruins. He should explain that to her more clearly. But he was seventeen years old, and the realities of life were new to him He still thought it possible to fight against them, or at least to ignore them.
"Will you?" she asked eagerly, clasping her hands to her slender, budding bosom. "After luncheon? I shall go to my room for a rest, as the marchioness is always urging me to do. Where shall I meet you?"
"The other side of the stables," he said, pointing. It is almost a mile to the ruins. Will you be able to walk that far?"
"Of course I can walk there," she said scornfully. "And climb. I want to climb up the tower."
"It is dangerous," he said. "some of the stairs have crumbled away."
"But you have climbed it, have you not?" she said.
"Then I shall climb it too," she said. "Is there a good view from the top?"
"You can see to the village and beyond," he said.
The music was playing a quadrille in the drawing room.
"Tomorrow," she said. "After luncheon. At last there will be a day to look forward to. Good night, Robert."
She held out one slim hand to him. He took it and realized in some confusion that she meant him to kiss it. He raised it to his lips and felt foolish and flattered and wonderful.
"Good night, Miss Morisette," he said.
She laughed up at him. "You are a courtier after all," she said. "You have just made me feel at least eighteen years old. It is Jeanne, Robert. Jeanne the French way and Robert the English way."
"Good night, Jeanne," he said, and he was glad of the darkness, which hid his blushes.
She turned and tripped lightly over the cobbles of the terrace and around to the side of the house. She had, he realized, come out through the servants' entrance and was returning the same way. He wondered if she had come out merely for the fresh air or if she had seen him from an upstairs window. The window of her bedchamber overlooked the terrace and the fountain.
He liked to believe that it was his presence out there that had drawn her. She had called him tall. She had not commented on his thinness, only on his height. And she had called the blondness of his hair lovely and had approved of the fact that he liked to wear it overlong. She had called him handsome—very handsome. And she had asked him to kiss her. She had asked him to take her to the ruins the next day. She had said that at last there would be a day to look forward to.
He was no longer merely attracted to her slim dark beauty, he realized, the sounds of music and gaiety from the drawing room forgotten. He was deeply, irrevocably in love with Jeanne Morisette.
© Mary Balogh