My Lady Nightingale
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by Evelyn Richardson
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Mademoiselle Isobel de Montargis aspired to be more than a music tutor to Lord Christian Hatherleigh's niece and nephew. She dreamed of becoming an actrice de l'opera, and Lord Christian, impressed by her talent, vowed to make her dream come true. But Lord Christian couldn't resist her charm--and Isobel couldn't ignore the passion he made her feel. Regency Romance by Evelyn Richardson; originally published by Signet
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: September 2009
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [380 KB]
Reading time: 248-347 min.
Slowly, deliberately, he climbed the marble steps to the imposing mansion in Grosvenor Square. It had been five years of fighting and marching in the heat and dust of the Peninsula, five years of living in tents or the occasional farmhouse, of wondering if supply wagons would make it across the rough terrain to feed them, five years of tension, exhaustion, and fear. It was odd that here nothing seemed to have changed at all, but then, his brother would never change. Albert was as staid and unchanging as the English countryside and as steeped in tradition as the monarchy itself.
The paneled mahogany door swung open to reveal Grinstead, more cadaverous than ever, but no less imposing. "Lord Christian!" The butler's hatchet-like face broke into something approaching a smile. "Welcome home, my lord. It is good to see you."
"Thank you, Grinstead. Is my brother home?"
"His Grace has gone to see Lord Liverpool."
"And the duchess?"
"Her Grace is at Madame Celeste's and some other establishments on Bond Street."
"Lady Sophia and Lady Augusta are at home, I trust?"
"That they are, my lord. Shall I tell them you are here?"
"Please." Christian handed his greatcoat and hat to the butler. "On second thought, Grinstead,"
"Yes, my lord?"
"Do not tell the girls who it is. Inform them simply that they have a visitor."
Again Grinstead betrayed the faintest glimmer of a smile. "Very good, my lord."
Christian wandered around the drawing room after the butler had left. As he had suspected, there was absolutely nothing different about it. The same Hepplewhite chairs were placed in precise groupings. The damask draperies hung in carefully arranged folds. The portrait of his father, the fifth Duke of Warminster, still frowned down at him from its place on the wall opposite the fireplace. The same looking glass over the mantel reflected the scene it had reflected five years ago. Only the face looking back at him had changed. There was still the same fire in the gray-green eyes, but it was tempered by a somber expression as though the eyes had witnessed too much, and there were fine lines at the corners from years of squinting into the bright Peninsular sun surveying the countryside for enemy activity. The high cheekbones were even more pronounced than they had been and the lean face, which had lost all the softness of youth, was deeply tanned. It was a face that had seen a great deal.
The tinkling sounds of a pianoforte broke into his reflections. Grinstead must have been mistaken in thinking that the girls were upstairs; they were in the music room. All the better, it would be even more of a surprise if he appeared unannounced. A voice was now mingling with the sound of the pianoforte. It was a rich voice and surprisingly strong for a young girl.
As Christian moved closer he could make out the words "meine Tochter nimmer mehr" followed by a brilliant trill. No, it could not be Augusta or Sophia. No young girl would attempt, much less succeed, in singing the Queen of the Night's demanding aria of revenge from Die Zauberflöte. In fact, not many adults would have the temerity or the range to do so. Now that he thought about it, Christian realized that he had never heard it sung so well.
Intrigued, he crept closer and peered carefully around the French doors that opened into the music room. From his vantage point he could see a slim woman seated at the pianoforte, her hands moving over the keys with assurance, her head tilted slightly as the liquid notes spilled from the slender, white column of her throat. Christian stood spellbound as the music carried him away into another world, a world which, despite the dire words of the song, was one of wonder, harmony, and beauty.
The music stopped. With a sigh and a little shake of the head the singer played the opening notes of the song again. What could have possibly displeased her with what had appeared to him to be a perfect performance? She must have talent indeed to think she could improve on what he had just heard. The beautiful sounds poured over him and he leaned against the door allowing her song to carry him into another realm, washing away the images of war and destruction that had been part of him for so long, and gave himself up to the power of music.
The exquisite moment was brought to abrupt conclusion by a loud bang that echoed around the room as the door against which Christian had been leaning slammed back against the wall behind him. The singer leapt up, nearly upsetting the bench on which she had been sitting, and turned around to face him, her dark blue eyes wide with alarm. As her gaze fell on Christian, the slightly guilty expression on her face turned into one of intense annoyance.
"How dare you, sir, a stranger, intrude without the decency to announce your presence!"
Christian grinned appreciatively. She was as lovely to look at as she was to listen to and in her anger she was magnificent. It would be too bad to quell that anger by offering an explanation. "I was not aware that I was the stranger here."
"And how, who..." The singer rose in a stately manner prepared to launch into a stinging retort and then apparently thought the better of it. After all, if one was not certain of someone else's identity, it was better to exercise a little caution, no matter how provoked one might be. "Well, whoever you are, you are a stranger to me and it is exceedingly rude of you to intrude upon what is obviously a private moment." The frostiness of her expression, which conveyed to him so eloquently that she considered him nothing but a barbarian, her icy tone, and the haughty lift of the head told him more clearly than she could have said that this was a person accustomed to commanding respect. But who was she?
She was too young to be a friend of the duchess's, too old for Sophia and Augusta, and she was not a cousin or a niece, for he knew all the cousins and nieces. And she was not a servant, of that he was quite certain. The accent, though it was a little difficult to place, was refined, and the proud carriage was definitely not that of a servant.
"Rude, perhaps, but you must blame yourself for it is the fault of your exquisite music." His eyes drifted over her, admiring the tall, slender figure, the generous bosom, and the long line of leg hinted at ever so slightly under the walking dress of cambric muslin. "And your even more exquisite person that have made me forget my manners entirely."
As Christian had anticipated, the delicate color that rose in her cheeks at this deliberately provocative remark made her a picture to behold and emphasized the deep sapphire of eyes that blazed with barely repressed anger.
The singer snatched at her music and stalked toward the door. He realized that he had gone too far. "Forgive me, I..."
He was interrupted by the sounds of running feet as two golden-haired girls attired in matching white frocks came racing into the room. "Uncle Christian, Uncle Christian," they cried in unison as they flung themselves at him.
Grabbing each of them in one strong arm he laughed and swung them off the floor. "Sophia, Augusta! And what would your mama and papa say if they saw their precious young ladies acting like perfect savages?" Both girls laughed as the elder replied, "Mama would not mind. She would be so glad to see you herself that she would give you a big hug."
"Oh, Papa"--the younger sister dismissed the Duke of Warminster with a shrug of her slight shoulder--"he is an old stick, and besides..."
"Gussie! You are dreadful! You must not say such a thing." Sophia was horrified.
"But it is true. He is always so proper and he never lets us have any fun or laughs with us the way Uncle Christian does, does he, Uncle Christian?"
Appealed to directly, Christian was at a loss for words, but Sophia came to her uncle's rescue. "You know it is not polite to ask questions like that, Gussie. Now, Uncle Christian"--she adopted her most grown-up tone of voice--" do tell us about your trip here. But first, has anyone offered you any refreshment?"
"Nnnnno." Christian's lip quivered. Sophia was the image of her mother. A quick glance at the singer whose eyes were dancing, informed him that she too was amused by the resemblance and he decided to seize the moment to his best advantage. "Thank you; I have just had a very hearty breakfast at my own lodgings, but you could do something for me."
"What?" Two pair of blue eyes turned toward him.
"You could introduce me to this young lady here who sings 'Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen' like an angel." Christian observed the young lady's look of surprise with smug satisfaction. So she had not expected him to recognize the aria, so much for her dismissing him as a complete barbarian.
"Oh, we are being most unmannerly," Sophia apologized. "This is Mademoiselle Isobel de Montargis. She comes to teach us French and music."
"And her father is a French duc whom the revolutionaries wanted to put to the guillotine, but he escaped with the family in the middle of the night in their carriage and went to Switzerland, until they came to England, that is," Gussie informed him with bloodthirsty relish.
"Hush, Gussie. It is not polite to say things like that in public."
"But I think it is very exciting and Mademoiselle Isobel is very brave and her story is very romantic."
"Nevertheless, it is possible that Mademoiselle does not want her history told every time she meets someone. Do you, mademoiselle?" Sophia appealed to her instructress.
Isobel was at a loss for words, but help came from an unexpected quarter. "I expect that Mademoiselle would prefer to be introduced as the talented artist she is rather than having her past related to a perfect stranger. Sophia is in the right of it, Gussie." Christian laid a comforting hand on his youngest niece's shoulder. "It can be rather uncomfortable to have such personal things made known to a perfect stranger no matter how interesting those things are. And I"--he bowed to her, an ironic gleam in his eye--"am the Duke of Warminster's brother, Lord Christian Hatherleigh."
He smiled at Isobel. "Therefore, forgetting entirely that I heard a single word of what Augusta related, let me say that I am delighted to make your acquaintance and to thank you for providing me with the most tranquil, uplifting moments I have known for some time."
"Yes. Uncle Christian has been away in the war forever. He has been in all sorts of battles and Mama says he was a great hero at a place called Vitoria. Sophia and I have been writing to him for ages."
"There you go again, Gussie." Sophia was clearly disgusted with her irrepressible sister. It was Christian's turn to look just the slightest bit self-conscious at his niece's loquacity.
Isobel quickly repressed a smile at the man's obvious embarrassment. She was still annoyed at him for catching her unawares at her practice and she was even more annoyed at him for looking at her in that bold manner, his gray-green eyes sweeping over her from head to foot as though she were some delectable morsel of patisserie. The fact that his gaze had been so obviously appreciative only added to her irritation. She wished she had dared to do the same to him, to make him see how it felt to be stared at in that odious fashion, but she was certainly going to do nothing more to increase his conceit. The lazy, impudent smile had warned her at the very beginning of her encounter that he was a man much accustomed to being the object of female attention. Isobel had seen enough of that self-satisfied air among the courtiers who were her father's friends not to recognize it instantly for what it was.
But in this man's case, she admitted grudgingly to herself, it was deserved. She was a tall woman, but he towered above her. The severe cut of his coat and his total lack of ornamentation or affectation in dress, so different from the émigrés' more elaborate costumes, only emphasized the broad shoulders and slim hips, the sinewy strength that was so apparent in every movement and every gesture. While the men surrounding Louis XVIII, the Comte d'Artois, the Due de Bern, and their entourages were soft and languid, this man was hard and alert. From the lean, tanned planes of his angular face to the well-shaped hands with their long, capable fingers he was a powerful figure, exuding an energy that could quite take one's breath away, if one were susceptible to that sort of thing. But Isobel was not. She had lived long enough among men who exuded that self-conscious charm, men who had charm and nothing else, to be the least bit taken in by it. Still, she could not help being gratified that he had identified the aria that she had been practicing and recognized it for the challenge it presented to even the most skillful singer.
"We are so glad you are home safe, Uncle Christian. Papa was very worried when he read in the dispatches that you had been wounded." Sophia's voice brought Isobel back to the moment at hand.
"Was he now? He need not have concerned himself, 'twas only a scratch."
The sarcastic tone surprised Isobel. She stole a glance at him under her lashes. The cynical twist of his lips and the ironic glint in his eye puzzled her. Was it not natural for one relative to be concerned for the safety of another?
Gussie, completely unaware of the change in her uncle's voice continued, "Yes, that is what he said at first, but then Mama told us that in foreign countries sometimes even the slightest wound can bring on a putrid fever and he began to fret."
"That is true enough." It was spoken almost as an afterthought and Isobel was not even sure that she had heard it or observed the bleak look that had crept into his eyes and was so quickly banished as he leaned over and tugged on one of Augusta's blond curls. "But that is of no account now. Tell me what you have been doing with yourselves since your last letters, and how are your new ponies?"
The girls launched into such a voluble description of riding lessons, the spaniel's latest litter of puppies, and excursions to such London landmarks as the Tower and Astley's that their uncle was obliged to protest. "Whoa, whoa, one at a time. Let us beg Mademoiselle de Montargis's pardon and then you sit on one side of me, Augusta, and Sophia on the other side. Now, tell me one at a time, or I shall never be able to keep it all straight." He winked conspiratorially at Isobel as he took his place on the sofa opposite the pianoforte with a niece snuggled on either side of him.
Isobel was at leisure to observe him as he sat there, his auburn head bent over first one little girl and then the other as he listened to their latest trials and tribulations, the most recent joys and sorrows in their lives. He was a strange mixture of qualities, she decided at last--impudent yet understanding, teasing yet compassionate, and though she took herself severely to task for it, she could not help but be curious about him.
It was this curiosity that made Isobel stay even though she told herself that it was merely good manners. If she had left the minute his attention was focused elsewhere it would have seemed pettish. She could easily have bid them all adieu, for she had finished her lesson and her practice session afterward, but bold and unmannerly as her employer's brother had been and as annoyed as she was by it, she could not help thinking that he was like a breath of fresh air in her circumscribed existence and she found herself listening to his tales of adventure in the Peninsula with the same breathless eagerness as her pupils.