Summer, Paris, 1792
The pretty butterflies had vanished from Versailles along with their queen. Verity Garnier glanced around the ballroom as she performed the steps of the minuet. The women were like pale moths in their simple white gowns, for few dared dress as lavishly as they had three years before. The attack on the Bastille had seen to that. But an actress should never bow to convention. Verity wore a gown of heavily ribbed, jonquil silk brocaded with roses from her last play.
When the music died away, her dance partner, Monsieur Picard escorted her from the floor, bowed and left her. She sat on a gilt chair beside a column and snapped open her fan, bored and longing to leave. But she was here at the invitation of Georges Danton and could not afford to insult a man as powerful as he.
Another influential man, a member of the Jacobin Club, sworn to protect the revolution from the aristocrats, Jacques Rocchard, strutted toward her with a glass of champagne in each hand. The confidence of the Jacobin’s was rising, as the Girondins lost power. He was dressed in the dreary black box-like coat and breeches the Jacobins had adopted. He held a glass out for her. “You look magnificent tonight, Mademoiselle Garnier.” His greedy, light brown eyes perused her form.
“Merci.” Tamping down a shudder, she forced a smile and sipped the cold liquid.
He leaned down, and his fingers brushed a powdered ringlet resting on her shoulder, a brief, sly action. “A triumph. You are like a spring bloom in a winter garden.”
Verity resisted the urge to smack his hand away. Around her, women whispered behind their fans, and men watched with interest. They knew what Jacques wanted. It was no secret that he desired her for his mistress. It would be difficult to keep him at arm’s length, but she was determined to try. More enemies than friends were to be found in Paris in these troubled times, and she needed friends desperately now. He could help her, should he feel inclined.
“My lady wife is away from home. Come to my apartment on the Rive Gauche, corner of the Rue Seguier, at midnight tomorrow night,” he murmured.
The arrangement didn’t suit her. She would be at his mercy. “Why do you persist after I have refused you twice?”
“A third time would be most unwise of you. Your father has been imprisoned, I’m told.” He looked very sure of himself. “And I like to collect beautiful things. You are undeniably beautiful, Mademoiselle.”
The mention of her father tightened her ribcage. She forced a smile. “As you wish, monsieur.”
Unwilling to upset his host, Jacques nodded and hurried away as Georges Danton made his way toward her.
Verity would think of the best way to deal with this later. Relief at Jacques departure was replaced by anxiety as she eyed the massively built and powerful man before her. She straightened her shoulders. His eyes held a victorious gleam, for he knew he held her future in his hands.
The fiacre traveled along the Seine as the homeless settled down for the night under its bridges. It was dangerous to be out alone and unescorted. As her father could no longer help her, Verity had to learn to adapt, a woman on her own in this city must learn to be devious. She caressed the reassuring bulk of the flintlock pistol in her reticule, but if a mob took it into their heads to rob her, the weapon would provide her little protection. Paris had become a surging crowd of inhumanity, first with the food riots and now as crowds flocked to watch the tumbrel take poor unfortunates to the guillotine.
The Comité de Surveillance was weeding out the aristos attempting to escape Paris. Even the king and the queen were in real danger after their dash for the Austrian border failed. It had been their ultimate downfall and tipped public opinion against them. How foolish they’d been. Such a serious miscalculation not to have gone to Belgium, for they would now be safe. They traveled at snail’s pace with too many attendants and relatives and were apprehended, their Swiss Guard slaughtered. Louis, and Marie Antoinette, seemed doomed and now France had declared war against Austria.
Verity shivered. What hope existed for her father, a humble academic who, motivated by his love for France, dared to voice his opinions? He stood accused of being a counter-revolutionary. On the Ile de la Cité were the towering walls of the Palais de Justice, and the Conciergerie, where the Guard had taken her papa, snatching him away in the night. She had been unable to learn anything about his imprisonment or his state of wellbeing. A few days later, men had come and stripped their home of most of its valuables. She found herself out on the street with just a few sticks of furniture and little money. An actress friend had offered to share her bed, but Verity could not stay with her for long.
The carriage pulled up as the clock struck midnight, the wishing hour. She doubted her wish would be granted tonight, but she refused to give up hope. Pulling the hood of her cloak over her head, she stepped from the vehicle and gave instructions to the coachman to wait.
Along the wall, shadows moved beyond the circle of lantern light. Verity hurried toward the ornate building overlooking Notre Dame de Paris. Badly damaged and desecrated, the Gothic cathedral stood silent across the water, stripped of its meaning. Paris was a godless city.
A yawning caretaker opened the door. He silently waved toward the staircase.
Verity climbed to the next floor and knocked on the door.
Jacques opened it. “Mademoiselle.” He stepped aside for her to pass. His apartments gleamed in the light of several candelabras. The opulent surroundings failed to match his simple country waistcoat and plaited hair, the dress of the Jacobins. Marble statues perched on pedestals, swags of silk decorated the windows, gilt mirrors and paintings filled every space on the walls. No servants appeared to attend them. Through a doorway, she glimpsed a four-poster bed festooned with rose damask. She attempted to calm herself with a deep breath.
“Allow me to take your cape.”
Verity had avoided men like him with some success since she’d become an actress. But a determined rake like Jacques was very sure of himself. He held the trump card. He knew she wanted something from him.
She didn’t want the wine, but it was a delaying tactic and would help banish her nerves. She turned the crystal glass sparkling with a myriad of flickering lights in her hand, then took a sip. A superb vintage she felt sure, and yet the wine soured in her mouth. She drank more allowing the ruby liquid to slide down her throat.
Jacques steeled her wrist. “Not so fast.” He took her glass and placed it on the table. “I dislike seducing women the worse for wine.”
“Why do you want me? Don’t tell me it’s because you like the way I look. There are many lovely actresses who would favor you. I’m only here because I need your help.”
He shrugged. “Ungallant of me to tell you, but you will persist. Your refusal to take a lover is the subject of much discussion. A virgin actress is as rare as a benevolent aristo. I bet my compatriots I would be the one to relieve you of that burden.” Jacques pulled on the cuff at his sleeve, his dark eyes shining with egotism. “It is true, is it not? You’ve refused all offers since you joined the theater.”
He took her silence as agreement and flicked his tongue over his full pink bottom lip. “The first time is seldom the best. Given time, I will introduce you to such delights you will thank me.”
He was so arrogant and confident of his abilities it sickened her, but it also gave her hope she might outsmart him in this cat-and-mouse game. “And I promise to thank you after you persuade the Comité de Sûreté Générale to release my father from imprisonment. I know your word carries enormous weight, citizen.” Verity attempted a smile of admiration. He was her last chance. She had again begged her father’s jailer, Georges Danton, for leniency, to no avail. Instead, he had given her a disturbing ultimatum.
Jacques wasn’t listening. He reached out and grabbed her, fast as a snake, pulling her roughly against him. “You will not leave here tonight without giving me something on account, however.”
He was strong for a short man. Verity gasped and tried to back away. “I am a good actress. How can you be sure I will not act out my pleasure with you?”
He paused. “You may the first time. But only the first time.”
“There won’t be a second, Jacques.”
He raised a brow. “Non?”
Danton’s orders had sent her plummeting into a spiral of despair, but she almost enjoyed telling Jacques. “Danton sends me to London to join an acting troupe. I leave tomorrow.”
She’d succeeded in surprising him. He dropped his hands from her waist. “Why would he do that?”
“He wishes me to perform a seduction of my own. I must entice a man back to France.”
“Who is this man?”
He frowned in puzzlement. “An Englishman?”
“Beaumont married into French aristocracy. I know nothing more.”
Jacques gave a seductive smile. “Then we’d best not waste the few hours left to us.”
“I hoped you would intervene on my account. You must act now, tonight. Give me a letter. If I can get Robespierre onside, I can remain in Paris.” She forced a smile. “And then you can spend more time with me.”
He shook his head. “My dear Verity, as attractive as that sounds, if I were to comply, my dear wife would hear of it.” He gestured around the luxurious room. “Her family’s money provides all this. She allows me only so much rope.”
Cold rage and despair flooded her veins. “You never intended to help me!” She spun away from him to snatch up her cape, but Jacques was faster. He dragged her struggling into the bedchamber and pushed her onto the bed.
“You are to seduce Lord Beaumont?” He leaned over her, tugging at his cravat. “Not a role for an innocent. You need to learn some technique, ma chère. And I am just the man to teach you.”
She shoved him away. “But I do not wish to be taught by such as you!” He drew back his arm and slapped her hard across the face. Bright lights flashed across her vision.
Verity drew in a ragged breath. “Demon!”
“Do not play games with me.” He removed his coat as she lay gasping on the bed, dizzy from his blow. Stepping closer, he stroked her stinging cheek with a finger.
“Do not worry, little one. If you don’t struggle I promise to be kind.”
She glared at him and silently cursed. Her reticule with the pistol was on the table in the other room. “We had an agreement. I trusted you to keep it.”
“Foolish of you,” he said coolly.
Nothing she said penetrated his arrogant assumption that he could take whatever he wished. She wanted to avert her eyes as he undressed, but fear kept her gaze fixed upon him as he stripped his shirt from his broad chest with its thick mat of graying dark hair. His pantaloons followed. Already, he was aroused. “See what our little disagreement has done to me.” He gave a guttural laugh and strutted around the bed.
Sick with fear, she swallowed bile and pressed her back against the bedpost, her eyes darting around for a way of escape. He stood between her and the door. A woman’s screams no longer brought help from any quarter. Determination in his hard gaze, he kneeled over her on the bed, his hot breath on her neck, as he pulled away the fichu to expose her breasts rising with each frantic breath. She reached behind her, and her fingers found the cold porcelain of an antique vase, on a table beside the bed.
She grasped it with her right hand and smashed it down on his head.
With a moan, Jacques fell on top of her.
She struggled to push him away. “Idiot!”
Unconscious, but he breathed well enough. She didn’t want his death bringing the authorities down on her head. It was a shame about the vase though.
Relieved she didn’t have to shoot him, she fled the bedchamber, snatching up her cloak and her reticule on the way out. She realized she had made a powerful enemy, perhaps it was just as well that she was leaving France at first light.
She hauled the hood of her cloak down over her face and ran down the stairs, hoping desperately that the driver had waited. Once in the street, her galloping pulse slowed. The carriage was there. She climbed in and crumpled against the squabs, blowing away an errant lock of hair with a puffed breath, annoyed and dismayed by her poor handling of this affair. Her temper always got her into trouble! Might she not have charmed the fellow around to her way of thinking? “Au nom de Dieu!” She shuddered, doubting it. Jacques would not have been stopped any other way. Even if she’d given in, she doubted he would have helped her. She must shrug off this failure and not lose her focus. Her father’s life depended on it.
Lord Beaumont would be another obstacle, which she hoped she could manage with more aplomb. It would be a test of her acting skills, she had a hearty dislike of all men except for her father. They only wanted one thing from her. She’d promised her father not to become like other actresses, free with her favors. But if she had to break her promise to entice this lord back with her to Paris, then she would. It would take careful planning.
A gust of heavy, moisture-laden wind tugged at Henrietta’s Italian straw bonnet and threatened to rip her parasol from her grasp as she picked her way along the muddy paths at the village fair.
The occasion over which her father presided was a yearly event, with people traveling great distances to display their wares. Crowds milled in the town square and market hall, along with the livestock. Poultry, pigs, cows, and horses set up a cacophony of sounds, the air reeking of the farmyard.
“Where do you go, my lady, with such purpose in your step?” The question shook her out of her reverie.
Henrietta furled her umbrella and gazed up at the towering form of their neighbor, Squire Faraday. His kind eyes beneath the shaggy brows always reminded her of a Highland terrier. “The gypsy’s tent, to have my fortune told.”
“Ah, be careful, for you may not like what you hear.”
Henrietta smiled. “It’s just a bit of fun, Squire.”
“A young lady like y’self can only see good in the world.” Deep lines formed on his craggy face. “I trust your father, Lord Beaumont, knows of this?”
“He won’t mind, squire.” Henrietta hurried away. Many of the folk in these parts were superstitious, but despite that, a line of people waited outside the striped tent set up at the far end of the square. Henrietta made her way there greeted by townsfolk she had known all her life. She was confident the gypsy would only have good news for her. And if she didn’t Henrietta would take it with a grain of salt. She laughed to herself. Cook would advise her to throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder for luck.
The tower clock struck twelve, and some abandoned their places in search of food and drink. Next in line, she was relieved not to have to wait long. She wasn’t good at waiting. She could hear Nanny now. You’ll have to curb your headstrong ways or suffer the consequences, my girl!
At almost eighteen, she considered herself mature enough to deal with anything. She tucked a fair lock behind her ear, her hair pinned up in the style of a lady of fashion and eagerly looked forward to the excitement that awaited her in London. In a few short weeks, she was to go to her Aunt Gabrielle’s in Mayfair who would present her to the Queen and introduce Henrietta into polite society.
A man stumbled from the tent, blinking into the light. It was Mr. Greenleigh from the haberdashery. He looked right through her as if he didn’t recognize her.
Henrietta swallowed uneasily and lifted the flap. She peered into the shadowy interior. In the gloom cast by a lone candle burning in its holder, an old gypsy woman dressed in a brightly striped turban sat at a table before a crystal ball.
She beckoned Henrietta in. “Please be seated.” The crone’s voice creaked with age. She stretched out a lined hand with long curved fingernails, and Henrietta dropped the coins she was holding into it. The gypsy bit one then apparently satisfied, tossed them into a dish on the table. She raised the candle and stared into Henrietta’s face. She muttered to herself and waved her hands over the crystal ball.
Henrietta stared at the cloudy glass.
A prickle of fear climbed her spine as the crone took up a pack of worn old cards with strange pictures on them and placed them in a pattern over the table. The crone announced each card by name. In the center lay the Ten of Coins crossed with the Death card. Other cards the Five of Coins, the Knight of Cups, King of Swords, and The Lovers followed. Finally, the Tower appeared before the woman swept them from the table. She reached across and grasped Henrietta’s hand in her papery one, turned it over, and studied her palm.
“Yes… yes.” She raised her ancient eyes to Henrietta’s. “Someone you know will die a violent death.”
“No!” Henrietta’s eyes widened. She should not have come here. “That’s horrible!”
She half rose. “You should not say such a thing!”
The crone took her arm in a surprisingly firm grip. “Sit.”
Spellbound, Henrietta sank back. Was it her imagination, or did the crystal ball glow?
“Your life is about to change, child.” She shook her head violently, wobbling her turban. “You will face much trouble. Be warned, there is someone in your future you will want to trust, but you must not. And another who you feel you cannot trust, but for your life, you must.”
“But how shall I know?” Henrietta couldn’t drag her eyes from the glowing ball. A lump in her throat threatened to choke her. “You must tell me more!”
“When you are presented with a choice, you alone will be responsible, both for your fate and for the fate of others. You are yet to realize how strong and resourceful you can be. If you come through the period of trial, your future will be blessed.”
Did the crystal ball’s murky light fade before the gypsy tossed a cloth over it? “That is all.” The crone jerked her head toward the opening in the tent flap. “Go now.”
Henrietta hurried away, blinking back tears. A tall, broad-shouldered man strode toward her. Forgetting her grown-up demeanor, she snatched up her skirts and ran, her hair unraveling from its careful arrangement. She threw herself upon his familiar strong chest and drew in his manly scent with relief.
Her father grasped her shoulders and drew her away to study her face. “What is this?”
She gazed into his affectionate brown eyes and breathlessly recounted her experience. He laughed. “Shame on you, Hetta. I thought you too sensible to believe such rubbish.”
An arm around her shoulders he walked with her through the square.
“Lord Beaumont. Lady Henrietta.” Two ladies curtsied as they passed.
“Good day to you, Mrs. Freeman, Mrs. Brown.”
Henrietta calmed, reassured by her father’s unruffled manner and the deep, calm timber of his voice. She was proud that he was known in the district to be a fair man, despite the lean times. A widower, he had not remarried after the death of her mother, and many a female gaze followed their progress as he strode among them, sweeping her along with him to the waiting carriage.
The carriage traveled along the gravel drive bordered by ancient oaks. When the twisted apricot brick chimneys of her home came into view, the tightness in Henrietta’s shoulders eased. She tried to shrug off the unnerving experience and convince herself it was of no real consequence.
They alighted at the entrance to Beaumont Court, a rambling Tudor mansion which had been in the family since it was built over two hundred years ago. Nanny Felton greeted her at the door. “Henrietta, do I spy a stain on your new muslin?”
“It’s just dust, Nanny,” Henrietta gave her skirt a shake. “See, it brushes off. I wish you wouldn’t nag so.”
With a roll of her eyes, Henrietta hurried past her old nanny who had long since become a member of the family. She mounted the staircase carved with endearing gargoyles. A few steps farther on, she suffered another attack on her dignity. “Your hair has come down,” Nanny called from the paneled hall below. “I despair of turning you into a lady, Henrietta, I really do!”
Henrietta held up her skirts, thrust out her chin, and hurried out of range along the corridor.
She ran to her bedchamber, hoping to find Molly. There she stood, at the armoire with a lace fichu in her hand. “How did you manage to tear this, Lady Henrietta?”
An upstairs maid who was now her lady’s maid, Molly had lived at Beaumont Court most of her life, and she and Henrietta were more like friends.
“Don’t you start, Molly.” Feeling besieged, Henrietta picked up her heavy cat, Juliet, soon to have kittens, from the chair. She sat and stroked the cat’s black fur. Juliet’s loud purr soon filled the room. “Nanny has just scolded me, and I’m upset.”
“Nanny upset you?” Molly raised her eyebrows. She put down the fichu and crossed the room, a concerned frown on her freckled face. “What has happened?”
“Not Nanny. She just forgets I have grown up.” Henrietta recounted her experience at the fair.
Molly’s brow cleared. “’Tis a lot of rubbish. I went to see the gypsy myself.”
“You did? What did she tell you?”
Molly rubbed her forehead then adjusted her mobcap over her hair. “She said my Tom, who as I told you promised to marry me, will leave me.” Molly returned to her work, her hands busy folding a lawn nightgown. “How could I believe such a thing?”
“Then nothing she says can be true!” At Henrietta’s loud tone the cat leaped from her arms. Tom and Molly had been betrothed for almost a year. Tom worked with the farrier in the village. He and Molly planned to marry as soon as he set up his own business.
“Let us forget such nonsense,” Henrietta said in a brisk tone. “We have the trip to London to prepare for.”
She took the maid’s hands and danced her around the room. “London, Molly, just think about it!”
* * *
The days passed in a flurry of activity for Henrietta as dressmakers and milliners worked to provide an adequate wardrobe for her first London Season. Apart from her ball dress, she’d given the work to the village dressmaker who was skilled at copying the latest fashions.
They were to leave in an hour. Henrietta stood before the glass and angled the point of her bonnet over her forehead. She considered the effect to be as stylish as anyone might find in London. Molly finished the last of the packing, wrapping the delicate silks, satins, and muslins in silver paper. She placed them in the trunk on top of the dancing slippers and new shoes with pretty buckles.
Yesterday, Papa had presented Henrietta with a matched set of silvery pearls. He promised to allow her to wear the family sapphires, worn by her mother in the Gainsborough portrait in the long gallery when she ventured into London society. The parure of valuable gems had been in the family for generations.
Henrietta wished her mother was still with them. She had died when Henrietta was twelve. She hurried to her mother’s portrait. She often talked to her, a habit she’d adopted over the years. Her mother’s gentle eyes, filled with humor and intelligence, seemed to look directly at her, and Henrietta sensed her spirit was near. How beautiful she was, her fair hair soft around her face beneath the wide-brimmed straw hat. She stood beneath a huge oak in the oldest part of the garden, wearing the fashion of the day, a pale blue silk gown with rows of delicate lace at the elbow, the sapphires at her throat a sparkling contrast to her serene beauty.
“Goodbye, Mother. I will make you proud of me. I’m not nearly as beautiful, or as sweet as you. My impatience, I do try to control it!” She chewed her bottom lip. “But I will try to be everything you would have wished me to be. I promise.”
The Beaumont carriage drew up in Grosvenor Square before aunt’s townhouse designed in the French style by the famous Robert Adam. A liveried footman helped them alight. Henrietta had not seen her aunt for some years but remembered her with fondness. Her mother’s sister was known to be a ‘blue stocking’. She had been a close friend of Madame du Deffand when she lived in Paris and now held her own French-imitated salon of letters and literary breakfasts here in her London mansion.
“Henrietta, at last!” Aunt Gabrielle drew Henrietta against her soft bosom. “Let me look at you.” She released her. “Turn around. You have grown beautiful. Just like your darling mama.”
Her aunt kissed her father on his cheek. “How good it is to have you here, Anthony. I can’t tell you how much I have longed to see you both. Everything is arranged. Henrietta is to be presented at court at the next debutante ball, and Lady Pembroke has given us vouchers for Almack’s. How long might we have your company?”
“I must return home after the presentation. It’s hay season and many depend on me.”
“But that is what an estate manager and a steward are for. I believe you are making excuses!”
He laughed. “I’ve made no secret of my dislike of the Season. I come to London only when my presence is required at parliament. I’m a rustic at heart.” He smiled at Henrietta. “Hetta will prove a great companion. She will enjoy shopping for fripperies with you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll ensure that my horses are properly cared for.”
Watching him walk to the stables in the mews, Aunt Gabrielle shook her head. “I’ve given up matchmaking for your father. No one will ever take your mama’s place. I’ll take you up to your bedchamber. Come, child. You must be dusty after your journey. Then we shall have coffee and a long chat.”
She followed her aunt into the black-and-white marble circular foyer where a shimmering crystal chandelier hung. They climbed the sweeping staircase to the upper floors. Along the walls in recesses were exquisite artifacts from all over the globe her uncle brought back from his travels. She didn’t remember him, he’d died many years ago. Her aunt left her at her chamber door. Inside, Molly awaited her.
Henrietta drew off her bonnet and tucked a curl into place before the mirror. “Isn’t this quite the most elegant house?”
“And London right outside the door!” Molly’s hazel eyes danced. “I have laid out the white and green patterned muslin.”
* * *
Verity’s coach pulled up outside the Queen’s Theater in Haymarket. She alighted keen to view her troupe’s new home. The theater’s three Doric columns rose above a stone basement, with a grand pediment and balustrade. Members of the troupe were already installed inside being fitted for costumes and preparing for their first performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Sarah Siddens had graciously chosen to leave the Drury Theater and join them to play Gertrude for one season. Verity had studied her lines during her trip across the channel and was confident of tackling her role as Ophelia.
English speaking actors had abandoned France after the National Convention suppressed all Royal Académies, including the Académie Française. Verity had been disgusted by this latest absurdity. Her father made sure she learned to speak English and had long planned for them to abandon France for a country which would not condemn his philosophical views, but they had left it too late, it seemed.
Verity wasn’t entirely sure that England would welcome her father’s radical views either, but this country had a better system of government. She disliked the selfish and ruthless manner, in which the king and the aristocracy ruled the French people. Queen Marie Antoinette had attended several of Verity’s plays with her painted and bejeweled entourage in their fine silks and satins. Their careless manner contrasted poorly with the starving peasants fighting for a crust of bread.
Verity and her father accepted that changes needed to be made, but hopes for a better and fairer form of government faded as events went from bad to worse. The hollow pain of worry for her father’s health and welfare tightened her chest. Here she was in England without him, their plans in ashes, and about to play a very different role, one of a femme galante.
She gave instructions to the coachman for her trunk and bandboxes to be taken to the hotel, then she straightened her shoulders and picked up her skirts to climb the steps. Her reputation preceded her, but her performance must live up to it. She must do what Danton asked and be quick about it. If she failed, her life would not be worth living, here or anywhere.
First, she must discover more about this Lord Beaumont. His deceased wife had been French that was all she knew. She felt confident he would have an Achilles heel. For most men did.
Verity walked into the theater as the cast members gathered around to greet her. She pushed her concerns to the back of her mind as the world with which she was familiar embraced her.
Sarah Siddens, a tall woman with dark hair, over-bright eyes, and a striking figure, advanced on her. “I am so glad to meet you, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Ophelia is a favorite part of mine. One might say I’ve made it my own, but you look perfect for the role.”
It was left unsaid as to whether Verity’s acting was also up to scratch. Sarah seemed larger than life towering over Verity. It was best to give the actress her due and start off on the right foot. Verity sank into a low curtsey, then rising, squared her shoulders. “Your reputation as a breath-taking Ophelia is well known to us in France, Mrs. Siddens.” Her mouth suddenly dry, she fought to appear calm. “I have no wish to step into your shoes, merely to do the role justice.”
Sarah nodded, apparently satisfied. At least for now.
Henrietta pulled aside the curtains and opened the French doors onto a narrow balcony overlooking the street. Below her, traffic lumbered past, everyone busy and going somewhere. She took a huge breath and danced away into the room. “How utterly charming, I just know I’m going to have a wonderful adventure in London.”
After changing into a white muslin gown with a pattern of mint green ivy leaves, Henrietta hurried down to the drawing room. She found her aunt reading as she lay back comfortably amid cushions on a high-backed satin sofa. Aunt Gabrielle obviously spent much of her time in this room. Despite its grand proportions, it had a relaxed feel. Books were piled on every surface. A japanned lacquer looking glass, which hung over the Adam’s white marble fireplace reflected the late afternoon sun slanting in through long windows, framed by richly brocaded silk hangings. Aunt Gabrielle’s babies, two adorable liver-spotted cocker spaniels lay asleep on the rose pink and blue patterned rug by the fire. They woke at Henrietta’s entrance and bounced up to welcome her. She bent to stroke their silky coats.
“They like you,” Aunt Gabrielle said. “Animals are instinctive.”
A servant girl with an ample white apron pinned behind laid out the tea things on the pedestal table. Henrietta selected an iced cake and listened to her aunt’s exciting plans for the Season. When her father joined them, he and her aunt’s conversation drifted back to the past. Saddened, Henrietta listened to their reminiscences of the time when her mother was alive. But she could never stay down for long, and after eating several more delicious tiny cakes with her coffee she was eager to see the house. She begged a tour, and her aunt, with a laugh and a shake of her head at her father, rose to oblige her.
There were no social engagements planned for that evening and after a game of faro they retired early. Her aunt warned her that city hours were different from the country. She must get used to dining later, retiring in the early hours of the morning then sleeping until noon. It sounded refined and perfectly delightful. Henrietta was sure she would quickly adjust. She drifted off to sleep to the foreign sounds of the metropolis beyond the window, far noisier than the country.
Henrietta woke refreshed. Sunlight peeked through the curtains of her new bedchamber. The clatter of carriage wheels over the cobbles and the jingle of harnesses drew her to the window. She shrugged into her dressing gown and opened the French doors stepping out onto the balcony. A smart carriage passed at a fast clip, with a man nodding off to sleep inside. It was most probably bearing some nobleman home from an engagement that kept him up ’til dawn. A merchant’s cart pulled up at the curb with foodstuffs to deliver below stairs. A group of thoroughbred horses danced along, ridden by the gentry on their way to ride in the park. She clutched her blue silk dressing gown around her and edged forward for a better look.
A blood chestnut stallion pranced about, nervously rearing when a cart laden with vegetables got too close. The rider, a man in smart riding clothes, handled the excited horse with ease, patting its neck and settling the stallion down. He rode beneath Henrietta’s balcony and caught sight of her. With a devilish smile, he swept off his hat revealing hair as blue-black as a raven’s wing. Henrietta gasped and darted inside.
Aware of her dishabille, she peeked from behind the curtains. He laughed and rode off.
She swished the curtains shut. Oh, fig! Had she already committed a faux pas? Annoyed, she found the dark-haired man difficult to dismiss. She expected she would forget all about him tonight. It was her first ball. Suddenly ravenous, she pulled the bell for Molly. It was impossible to wait hours for breakfast.
* * *
Beaumont, rode through the park toward the gates. The early morning mist still clung in fragile cobwebs to the branches. The hired hack wasn’t up to too much, but the ride cleared his head. Back in Buckinghamshire, Thunder, his favorite horse, would be pining for him. He arrived back at the mews to find Gabrielle walking up and down the path in front of the stables.
“Why are you up so early?” he asked his sister-in-law as he dismounted.
“I’m worried.” She clutched some correspondence in her hand.
“Is that from Philippe?” He tossed the reins to the groom, and after leaving instructions to return the horse to the park stables, he walked beside her to the house.
“If only it was. It’s a friend of mine in Paris, Madame Fauquier. It’s distressing what is happening there.” She waved the letter. “There has been unbelievable bloodshed, Anthony! And I haven’t received a letter from Philippe for ages.”
“You know the state of the postal service. How long ago was that sent? But if we don’t hear from your brother soon, something must be done. I could write to the British Embassy,” he said thoughtfully. “But that would take some weeks.”
“Surely you can’t be thinking of traveling to France?” Gabrielle screwed the letter up in her hands. “The French National Assembly has turned against aristocrats. You are known there as the fourth Viscount Beaumont who married into a French aristocratic family. A Tory who believes in the monarchy. Did you not stand with Burke in Parliament against the actions of the French?”
“They would have to answer to the British government were they to murder an English nobleman in cold blood.”
Gabrielle sighed heavily. “These are my countrymen I’m ashamed to say. Of course, reform was needed in France, but the actions of the Girondins are becoming dangerously unhinged.” She tapped his arm with the screwed-up letter. “Madame Fauquier says now that they’ve declared the guillotine as the official method of execution, they hold mock trials. Hundreds of innocent people die daily.”
Anthony took her hands to still them between his larger ones. “Please don’t get yourself in a fret, Gabby. You’ll make yourself ill again. I’m sure Philippe will be in touch soon. It must be difficult for him to get word to us.”
“I’ve begged him to come to England these past six months. He mentioned joining the émigré army of all things. Nevertheless, you must promise me you won’t go to France. It would not do to place both your lives in danger. You must first consider Henrietta.”
“I can’t promise, Gabby, but I’ll delay it for now.”
Henrietta stood before her aunt in the drawing room.
“Turn around,” Aunt Gabrielle instructed.
She pirouetted to display her ball dress of white India muslin embroidered with tiny flowers and decorated with a wide, pale pink sash. The scooped neckline featured a modest lace fichu, the sleeves long and tight-fitting with frills at the wrist.
Molly had threaded her powdered fair curls with a ribbon, and she wore the pearls her father had given her.
Aunt Gabrielle smiled. “You are beautiful, Henrietta.”
“Thank you, aunt.” Would she ever reach such heights of elegance as Gabrielle? She wore a smoke-gray silk gown striped dark red, with rubies at her ears and throat. On her breast, she had pinned a single red rose.
When Henrietta complimented her, she touched the rose and said, with a catch in her voice, “Your uncle used to give me red roses. I always wear one for him.”
Her father walked in, tall and imposing in evening clothes. How different he looked, like a handsome stranger. “With two beautiful ladies on my arm tonight, I’ll be the envy of all the men.”
* * *
Henrietta’s first engagement was Baroness Le Trobe’s ball. A French émigré, she entertained lavishly in her north London mansion. The drive was alight with lamps from the queue of carriages. Ahead, candles burned in every window of the house. Henrietta had never seen such an extravagant display. The anticipation of what might lie ahead almost robbed her of breath.
They were announced by a majordomo and entered to be greeted by the Countess.
“I have a treat in store,” she said, as a butler gathered gentleman’s coats and ladies’ evening capes. “A French acting troupe has come tonight from the Queen’s Theater. My countrywoman, the renowned Parisian actress Mademoiselle Garnier, has consented to perform a scene from Hamlet with the French actor, Henri-Louis Bouchard.”
In the ballroom, a quartet played, and dancers executed the graceful steps of the minuet. Several young men approached Henrietta and begged her to keep them a dance. Her mind whirling, she could only agree and hope there were enough dances to go around.
A man appeared at her elbow. “I do hope you have a dance left, Lady Henrietta?”
One glance at the tall dark-haired man and her heart leaped. It was he who had ridden beneath her balcony earlier in the day. Close-up, he was even more imposing in blue-black and white.
“Mr. Hartley, I don’t believe you’ve met my niece, Lady Henrietta,” Aunt Gabrielle said.
A smile warmed his eyes and played at the corner of his well-shaped mouth before he bowed over her hand. Henrietta curtseyed aware her heart beat oddly fast.
“I feel we have met before, Lady Henrietta?” Mr. Hartley raised a black eyebrow.
Was he laughing at her? She hated how her cheeks burned. She suspected he knew of her discomfort and toyed with her.
“You could not have met my niece, Mr. Hartley,” Aunt Gabrielle said. “She’s only just come to town.”
“Forgive me. I’m mistaken.” He bowed again, his eyes discreetly lowered, but not before she caught the flash of amusement in them which confirmed her fears.
The desire grew to give him a sharp set down, but with her aunt watching, Henrietta held her tongue. “I certainly don’t recall meeting you, Mr. Hartley.” She waved her fan airily. “But I’ve met so many people since I arrived in London you must forgive me. Try as I might, I cannot remember everyone.”
Aunt Gabrielle frowned at her. “You must forgive my niece, Mr. Hartley, she is new to society.”
He bent over Henrietta’s hand. “Touché,” he murmured.
He straightened. “Please don’t give it another thought, Lady Beldon. I find honesty and the lack of artifice refreshing.”
Henrietta rose from her curtsey, her eyes lowered. The horrible man was scolding her. He knew she lied.
“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, and shall look forward to our dance.” He turned away and disappeared into the throng of people.
“I trust you’ll think before you speak, Henrietta,” her aunt said with a frown. “London society prides itself on its manners. Although it is the French who are best at entertaining wit and repartee, I must say.”
Quickly claimed for the quadrille, Henrietta danced with an eye on the room but saw no sign of Hartley among the dancers or conversing with those clustered around the edge of the dance floor. It wasn’t done, her aunt had instructed her, for her to stand up more than twice with the same man. Three more dances followed. Each partner different and all quite dull. Her father led her onto the floor for a country dance. She had never danced with him before and felt proud. He stood head and shoulders above any other man there, except perhaps, Mr. Hartley. Her father had danced with several ladies tonight and appeared to enjoy their company as much as they did his. Henrietta wished he might find happiness again, but a selfish part of her hoped it would be with someone she liked.
The Master of Ceremonies made an announcement. The play was to begin. The musicians packed up and left the dais as the Baroness’s guests took their seats in the long drawing room for the performance of Hamlet. The doors to the adjoining conservatory were thrown open, and a small stage had been set up with rows of chairs arranged around it. After everyone had settled down, a woman entered dressed in a simple white gown with a yellow sash and flowers in her long, loose golden locks. She looked almost ethereal as she took her place on the stage beside the male actor playing Laertes. The audience clapped politely. There were many French here tonight. Henrietta considered herself half-French. She was distressed to learn of the atrocities happening in France, and like her father and her aunt she was concerned for her uncle’s safety.
She leaned forward enraptured as Mademoiselle Garnier became Ophelia. The actress was spellbinding, and her rendition flawless. The candlelight played on her lovely face and bright hair as she used her voice and slender figure to portray the fragile, slightly mad, Ophelia to perfection.
You might have heard a hairpin drop when she sang a sad little song “And will he never come again?” in a heartrendingly sweet voice suffused with emotion. The words died away, but the guests remained silent for a long moment. Then they broke into enthusiastic applause and called for an encore.
“You must come to see the play,” Mademoiselle Garnier called and kissed her hands to them. With a graceful curtsey, she left the stage. She wove her way through the throng, accepting compliments in a charming manner. At the Baroness’s side, she murmured in her ear. Henrietta was astonished when the Baroness led the actress over to where they stood.
“Mademoiselle, an outstanding performance.” Her father bowed over the actress’s hand. If he was surprised to be singled out, he didn’t show it. But then she’d always thought her father an elegant man, and by the expression in Mademoiselle’s eyes, she obviously did too.
“Merci.” Mademoiselle Garnier gazed up at him. “I’d be delighted for you and your daughter to attend the play as my guests, Lord Beaumont.”
Henrietta expected her father to decline Mademoiselle’s offer. When he accepted, she stared at him in surprise. Had he decided to remain longer in London?
“I am delighted.” Mademoiselle Garnier accepted a glass of champagne from a waiter. “Please come backstage after the performance.” She turned to smile at Henrietta. “How fortunate to have such a pretty daughter.”
Henrietta gave a quick bob in response. Her father touched her lightly on the shoulder. “Thank you, Mademoiselle. Hetta is a joy to me.”
The actress’s violet-blue gaze touched briefly on Henrietta before returning to her father. “I look forward to meeting you both again at the theater.”
Baroness La Trobe drew the actress away to meet others waiting patiently for the privilege.
“Wasn’t Mademoiselle Garnier wonderful,” Henrietta said when she and her father were alone. He didn’t answer, staring thoughtfully after the actress. “Papa?”
“Yes, wonderful. In appearance, she reminds me a little of your mother.”
“Was Mama as lovely as Mademoiselle?”
“Your mother’s fine qualities went far beyond beauty. She was a selfless and a highly moral woman.”
“And Mademoiselle Garnier would not be?”
“You are yet to learn the ways of the world, Henrietta. I don’t know Mademoiselle Garnier, so I shall not judge her.” He chucked her lightly under the chin, but his gaze returned to the stage as if seeking Mademoiselle there.
Her father’s behavior surprised her. He was usually unaffected by ladies, even when they tried hard to gain his attention. But he seemed bothered by the actress. She did not have time to reflect on it, however, as the musicians struck up in the ballroom again, and when she entered, a tall dark-haired man appeared at her side. She caught her breath as Mr. Hartley offered her his arm.
“My dance I believe?”
They took to the dance floor for the Roger de Coverley. Henrietta had time to study Mr. Hartley at close quarters as they advanced and retreated, performing the intricate steps. When they held hands for a moment, his gaze found hers. “Why, your eyes are green, Lady Henrietta.”
She flushed, forgetting she’d been secretly noting the smoky blue-gray color of his.
“As you see, Mr. Hartley.” She spun away.
“I am delighted,” he continued smoothly as if they hadn’t been interrupted, “for I thought them blue.”
They met again. “Such an unusual green. And blue is a most common eye color found in England, do you not think?”
“Yours are blue, Mr. Hartley.” Henrietta didn’t feel inclined to admit they were more gray than blue, not like the sky, but shadows over a deep mysterious lake. For some reason, she wanted to get the upper hand with this man.
He grinned. “You noticed.”
“One could hardly fail to. This dance is so long-winded.” Unable to sustain a fiery gaze when his was so pleasantly warm, she fixed on his satin waistcoat, admiring the etched silver buttons.
“Your hair is as fair as a Greek goddess,” he said when the next opportunity arose. “I like the way you wear it tonight, bound up with ribbon.”
“Yours is as black as a raven’s wing. Did you know that in the country, ravens are badly behaved birds?” she asked in a conversational tone. She glanced guiltily around at her aunt. But Aunt Gabrielle was too far away to hear although she watched them closely.
A man dancing in their set coughed.
Mr. Hartley chuckled. “I prefer yours flowing free as you wore it when I first spied you on your balcony. Like Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, I was tempted to play Romeo and climb up to you.”
“A good thing you didn’t, Mr. Hartley, for I would have thrown a pitcher of water over you.”
The neighboring man’s cough turned into a guffaw which made his partner frown and inquire what ailed him.
“I wonder if you would have,” he said, raising a dark eyebrow.
“You doubt me? We country girls learn to deal with many bothersome situations, Mr. Hartley.”
How maddening that the dance ended just when she was getting into her stride. Mr. Hartley paused at the edge of the dance floor. “Why someone has trodden on your shoe, Lady Henrietta. I trust it wasn’t me.” He bent at her feet to dust her shoe with his handkerchief. People stared, including her aunt. Henrietta’s cheeks grew hot as she stared down at his dark head. He was deliberately disconcerting her, she was sure. And he had succeeded for her fingers itched to touch his unpowdered black locks. When he stood, she averted her gaze.
“I believe it was you, Mr. Hartley,” she said to control her disturbing urges. “But please don’t concern yourself about a little mark. It was that final turn when you stumbled.”
“I stumbled? How extraordinarily clumsy of me.” His lips twitched. “Then I apologize profusely.” He returned his handkerchief to his pocket, his eyes brimming with laughter. “It’s been my pleasure, Lady Henrietta.”
Henrietta swept him a deep curtsy. “And mine, Mr. Hartley.”
“I trust we will meet again.” He offered her his arm and escorted her back to where her aunt sat among the dowagers watching them.
“London is a big town. I doubt that’s likely.” Annoyingly, Henrietta’s heart fluttered in the hope of meeting him again.
“Oh, we will, for the ton tends to flock together, in ballrooms, drawing rooms or on horseback.”
Henrietta watched him walk away. What was his given name? His handkerchief bore the monogram ‘C. H.’. Cornelius? Christopher? Charles? Cuthbert? She giggled behind her fan. She dared not ask her aunt, for that lady was far too observant.
Hours later, everyone began to depart, retrieving coats, cloaks, reticules, and shawls.
Her father placed her cape around her shoulders. “Did you enjoy your first dance, Hetta?”
“It was lovely, especially the play.” She turned and gazed up at him. “Did you enjoy it too?” Ordinarily, his thoughts would be on his cattle, and he would have suffered through this for her, but now she doubted it. He looked far too pleased to be here.
“I found the play most entertaining.”
Aunt Gabrielle had come to join them. “I am gratified that you weren’t horribly bored tonight, Anthony. When you came under sufferance.”
“I suspect Papa intends to remain in London after my presentation,” Henrietta said.
“I shall like that above all things,” her aunt said. “But I wonder what attraction has made you so enamored of London society when it has failed to tempt you before.”
Henrietta studied him. “Yes, Papa, do tell.”
He laughed and guided them toward the door. “One might ask you, Hetta, how much you enjoyed that last dance with Christian Hartley.”
Henrietta’s cheeks grew warm. So, his name was Christian. She repeated it under her breath as her aunt cast her a sidelong glance.