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By Alicia Meadowes
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WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1979 by Alicia Meadowes
All rights reserved
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: October 2009
"C'est barbare! Our wits shall be jolted from our brain-box before we reach Paris in this tumbril of a coach," exclaimed the agitated little Frenchwoman accompanying the young girl beside her.
"Come, now, madame. Do not give in to your fears," the young woman responded in an effort to keep up her spirits. "You will cast us both into such glooms that we will be quite undone. Let us consider my good fortune. It is not every day that a pauper such as myself is turned into an heiress overnight."
"Hélas, mon petit chpu. That is what troubles me most about this mad adventure. This marriage with that English devil! He will eat you alive, that one. I remember him at your dear papa's funeral. So arrogant. And those wild blue eyes like Satan…"
"Madame!" The sharp command silenced further babble from her companion but stirred up a veritable storm of unrest in the girl's breast. She schooled her facial muscles into a mask of calm repose, but the frantic thoughts leaping wildly in her mind could not be subdued.
Nicole Harcourt had met her frightening cousin Valentin, the Viscount of Ardsmore, only a few times during her childhood. She was thirteen years old the last time she saw him. Almost eleven years had passed since her father's funeral, and yet the memory of Valentin Harcourt remained vivid in her mind. It was those fiery blue eyes that haunted her dreams and seemed to watch her haughtily through the accumulated fantasies of her adolescent years that she recalled most of all. Now she was on her way to meet Lady Eleanore, the Viscount's mother, to make the arrangements to marry him. Could it be true? She—the wife of that blond god she had worshipped in the secrecy of her heart all these years?
The presence of an inheritance had come as a shock. Aunt Sophie had remembered Nicole and made her, as well as Valentin, the joint heirs to her vast riches. Only four months ago Mr. Dilworth, a solicitor representing the Ardsmore interests had arrived at the small cottage in Beauvais where Nicole lived with Madame Lafitte and informed them of the will. Until Mr. Dilworth's arrival, Nicole's had been a life of quiet anonymity since the death of her mother three years before. Mr. Dilworth explained to the girl the incredible stipulation of her great-aunt Sophie's will; that Nicole must marry his lordship, Valentin Harcourt, Viscount of Ardsmore, or the inheritance would be lost to the entire family. This was Aunt Sophie's last attempt to reunite the two branches of the Harcourt family.
Eleven years ago Aunt Sophie came to France searching out her favorite nephew, Rupert Harcourt, Nicole's father. Aunt Sophie was determined to see her nephew reconciled to the Harcourt family, but her plans unravelled with the untimely death of Nicole's father.
His death left Nicole and her mother in difficult financial, straits, and almost completely isolated. They were alone in the world, except for a sister on her mother's side whose tie to them had never been strong. Nicole's aunt, Lorette Beauchamp, and her son, Phillippe, came to the funeral merely out of duty but offered little comfort to the lonely pair. In fact, Phillippe had snickered as the priest intoned prayers for the dead. It was Madame Lafitte who was their one rock of support throughout the trial of Rupert's death and burial.
Reluctantly, Sophie had supplied a small pension for Rupert's widow, Sylvie Harcourt, and requested that Nicole be allowed to return to London with her and be raised in a manner suitable to a child of aristocratic lineage. But, unbeknownst to Nicole, Sylvie had spitefully declined. She refused to let the Harcourts have any further opportunity to dominate her affairs, even though it meant denying Nicole her place in English society. Sylvie could never forgive nor forget her frigid reception by the Harcourt family. When Rupert presented Sylvie Moreau, former ballet dancer from the Opéra de Paris, as his wife to that arrogant dynasty, they closed ranks in frozen hauteur. He had committed the unpardonable. Rupert, to his chagrin, found he was unable to disguise the vulgar ambition of his lovely dancer-bride and force her down the unwilling throats of the English ton. He eventually retreated from London to eke out a ramshackle existence in pursuit of faro and chemin-de-fer. In 1803, with a temporary cessation of hostilities between England and France, Rupert took Sylvie and Nicole to the Continent where he continued his unstable quest of Lady Luck.
Although Nicole's father had cut himself off from the family, he nevertheless communicated with Aunt Sophie. He refused all efforts on her part to mend the family breach. However, when Sophie heard of Rupert's abrupt departure from England, she followed him with the intention of forcing him to comply with her wishes for peace, but it was too late. Rupert was fatally ill. Sophie attended the funeral accompanied by her great-nephew, Valentin, whom she had brought with her.
A new idea to further her plans for reuniting the family struck Sophie as she studied Nicole standing next to Valentin, but it would have to wait. Sophie returned to England with Valentin, and the resumption of hostilities between England and France put an end to further contact between Nicole and the Harcourt family.
It was still early afternoon, and snow was falling heavily as Nicole Harcourt and Madame Lafitte arrived at an imposing residence on the Boulevard St-Germain. The coach pulled into the courtyard before the Hotel Belmon-taine, relinquished its passengers, and continued on its way. Madame Lafitte and Nicole stood in the courtyard, looking about in bewilderment and wondering what was to happen next. However, Madame Lafitte was not one to lose time in matters of wonderment. She sprang into voluble action, mounting the stairs and tugging Nicole along. She pounded the brass knocker forcefully and complained loudly at their lack of reception.
"C'est barbare!" complained the outraged Lafitte. "That not one member of the family should be here to welcome you. This is insupportable." She chose her adjectives freely from both French and English.
"It's insulting," Nicole agreed with heat.
At that moment the heavy oak door swung open and a poker-faced butler ushered them into the library. Again the pair stood looking about uneasily. This time they were in the middle of a room hung with quantities of red damask draperies that shut out much of the thin November sunlight. A small fire in the grate did little to relieve the heavy chill in the air, and the single branch of lighted candles was of little assistance against the wintry shadows filling the room.
"I suppose we may as well make ourselves comfortable," Nicole suggested and seated herself on the nearest straight-backed chair. "Come madame," she beckoned firmly. "Be seated here beside me." They sat in contemplative silence for a few minutes.
"I had hoped for more of a welcome from your relations," admitted Madame. Lafitte as the minutes passed. "It does not seem they are overanxious to receive you."
"Receive me indeed! They should be waiting here with open arms to welcome me. Do not forget, Fifi, were it not for me, they would not have the prospect of great-aunt Sophie's riches before them," Nicole declaimed with much feeling of justice on her side.
"But ma chère Nicole, the reverse is just as true of you. You stand to benefit no less than they. Come now, you must admit it," chided Madame Lafitte, who had calmed down once she was quietly seated and removed from the discomforts of a jostling coach.
Irritated, Nicole snapped, "Oh, Fifi, do not be so fair-minded. They do not deserve it. Look how they treat me already! Apparently they do not care enough to make me feel welcome in a strange house. It is evident that their attitude has not changed over the years. I am my mother's daughter, after all, and they could never forget that she was a… a dancer. This sets the pattern, do you not think so?"
"Patience, little one," Madame Lafitte counseled.
Nicole jumped up to pace nervously about the room. With a sigh she removed her pelisse and shook out her dark-blue dress. She untied her bonnet and began smoothing her hair into a semblance of order. She wore her dark tresses simply, without benefit of the hairdresser's arts.
"Stop fussing, Nicole," Madame Lafitte broke through her thoughts. "You are quite presentable. Come, sit down."
"I feel better on my feet," Nicole replied.
At that moment Lady Eleanore, the Viscountess Ards-more, swathed in sables and exuding self-importance, sailed grandly into the library trailed by her niece and companion, Cecily Fairfax. Nicole, noticing their elegant toilettes, felt at a disadvantage in her simple merino.
Lady Eleanore advanced toward Nicole, her thin lips pursed as she tilted her silvery head to one side and stared down her aquiline nose at the girl.
"My dear Nicole," Lady Eleanore finally broke through the frosty silence. "How happy I am to meet you again." She made no apology for her tardy arrival.
Nicole stood still allowing her cousin to brush her cheek with a cold kiss. "I too am happy to meet again after so many years, Cousin Eleanore." Nicole spoke through stiff lips.
"Cecily, dear, come meet Nicole Harcourt." Lady Eleanore addressed the young girl behind her.
Cecily examined the rather breathtaking picture Nicole presented and murmured her greeting. She viewed the silky luster of Nicole's blue-black hair and the smooth ìvory of her complexion with a sudden flash of despair. This was an undeniable beauty. One look at Nicole's violet eyes and Valentin was surely lost to Cecily forever. Valentin was soon to take this gorgeous creature to wife. There would be no room for Cecily in such a union. Her hatred of Nicole sprang forth on the moment.
The Viscountess, viewing Nicole's beauty with the dispassionate eyes of the future mdther-in-law, found her displeasure less in Nicole's appearance than in her credentials. The daughter of a dancer! Well, what cannot be changed must be endured. The girl certainly had a presence about her, and her exquisite figure in the proper clothes would command admiration. Nicole and Valentin would make a striking couple, no doubt of it. The Har-courts would carry off the affair with their usual panache.
This wedding, forced on her by Sophie's eccentricity, must be accomplished with all due haste. Valentin's expectations had held off creditors of every description far beyond their limits. The family coffers were bare and the situation was desperate, but there was no need for Nicole to be apprised of this. Such knowledge was sure to strengthen the girl's position. Only look how bold she appeared, standing silently before them, waiting for her to carry on the business of this meeting.
"Well, shall we put aside further display of amenities and get on with the business at hand?' Lady Eleanore suggested haughtily.
"As you wish, Lady Eleanore," Nicole answered quietly.
"We have ourselves just arrived from London and taken residence here at the Hotel Belmontaine. This house should afford us a suitable background for the wedding and all affairs attendant upon that event, don't you think?" The Viscountess did not wait for an answer. "I believe it will be to everyone's advantage to accomplish this wedding as speedily as possible. As a matter of fact, arrangements for a civil ceremony at the British Embassy have been scheduled for six weeks hence. That will give us enough time for fittings and completing your trousseau, as well as a few quiet introductions into society."
Nicole was surprised at the speed with which everything was being arranged. "But my dear cousin," Nicole interrupted her. "You go along too fast for me. I must inform you that I have not entirely made up my mind to this marriage."
The Viscountess stared unbelievingly. "What is that you say? Not made up your mind? Surely you are jesting," she exclaimed sharply. "You are here. You know the conditions of the will. What else is there?"
"There is another party necessary to fulfill the conditions of that will, I believe," Nicole answered firmly.
"But the Viscount has consented. He is perfectly amenable to great-aunt Sophie's… demands."
"Perhaps I would like some evidence of a more tangible nature. I have yet to set eyes upon my prospective bridegroom in person. Eleven years is a long time."
"But my dear girl, this is a marriage of convenience. Surely you do not expect the Viscount to go through the hypocrisy of a courtship?"
Her words stung Nicole cruelly. "Perhaps not a courtship, but at least he could give some time to our becoming acquainted."
Lady Eleanore turned her bewildered eyes to Cecily who shrugged her shoulders eloquently.
Nicole was enjoying her cousin's discomfort and sudden loss of grand manner. It assuaged a little that cold arrival earlier.
During the lull that followed, Cecily Fairfax could hardly sit still. Could there be some hope for her after all? Would this half-French nobody relinquish her claim to Valentin? She could barely breathe, so great was her agitation.
"My son is a member of the Duke of Wellington's staff engaged in delicate matters of state for His Majesty in Vienna. As such he is not at liberty to come and go to satisfy the whims of a romantic girl." The Viscountess picked up the attack again with alacrity
"There is nothing romantic about my desire to reacquaint myself with Viscount Ardsmore, I assure you," Nicole lied nervously. "There are matters he and I should settle between us before marriage plans proceed further."
"What matters, may I ask?" Lady Eleanore demanded arrogantly.
Nicole faltered for a moment. What matters, indeed? She would die before admitting to her cousin the fears she felt about Valentin. Her fear that the idol of her dreams would find her wanting. That he would not love her with the same desperate devotion as hers—a devotion born of years of romantic fantasies in which Valentin pursued her, wooed her, rescued her, ravished her, protected her and loved her again and again. It could not be just a marriage of convenience!
"I would prefer to see the Viscount before we proceed further," Nicole replied with quiet determination.
Lady Eleanore recognized Nicole's intransigence. "Very well. I will post a letter to my son in Vienna this very night. I had hoped to spare him any unnecessary inconvenience, but I see you are determined to present obstacles. Nevertheless, I must insist that you remain with us at Belmontaine so that the preliminary fittings can be made. Even you must realize that a trousseau is not assembled overnight." Anger prodded the Viscountess to speak with unconcealed disdain.
Nicole bit back an angry rejoinder as Madame Lafitte grasped her elbow. Now that the gauntlet was flung between them, Nicole, repressed a tremor of fear. Perhaps she had gone too far. After all, her cousin was only engineering the accomplishment of Nicole's dearest, deepest desire. What was she doing to be throwing obstacles in the way? She would marry Valentin tomorrow, were he to ask her. And even if he did not come to ask her, she would still marry him.
Lady Eleanore rang for the housekeeper. "Madame Dupré, please show my, guests to their rooms." She turned to Nicole. "If you will follow Madame Dupré, she will see that your needs are cared for. You will find your boxes already unpacked. And now if you will excuse me, I will go write that letter." She swept from the room just as grandly as she had entered minutes ago with Cecily trailing in her wake.
Once they reached Nicole's bedroom, Madame Lafitte began to lecture her charge. Although the lady had voiced considerable criticism of the marriage and the bridegroom, she never doubted for a moment that. Nicole would or should marry Viscount Ardsmore. She had accepted it as a foregone conclusion. The marriage represented a heaven-sent opportunity for Nicole's financial security. Madame Lafitte was conscience-stricken, that she might have contributed through foolish babble to Nicole's possible rejection of this good fortune. But the girl proudly refused to listen to her.
A pale sunlight filtered into the breakfast room at the back of the house. There was a sideboard amply provided with eggs, ham and kidneys, but Nicole preferred the French custom of coffee and croissants for breakfast. Were it not for the cold winter light, the room surrounded by windows on three sides would be a cheerful retreat, providing, as it did, a charming view of the terrace and gardens to the rear of the house.
The bed chamber in which Nicole had just spent the night was a far cry from the homely little room of her girlhood in Beauvais. It was of immense proportions and luxurious appointments with blue satin paneling on the walls and matching velvet draperies at the tall windows. She had just bathed in comfortable warmth before a substantial fireplace and yet her temper was not that of one well pleased with her changed circumstances. Yesterday's interview with her cousin still rankled, and Nicole was not in a mood for appreciating her sudden change in fortune.
As soon as Madame Lafitte entered the breakfast room, she resumed her attack on Nicole. She had to convince the girl to accommodate the Harcourts.
"Ma chère Nicole, let me speak to you as your own dear mama would…"
"That is hardly the right tactic to employ, madame, since it is my own dear mama who suffered most at the hands of the cruel Harcourt family."
C'est vrai, but…"
"But nothing, Fifi. My father was forced to leave London because my mother was scorned for being a ballet dancer. Do you think I can forget that? At last fate has dealt a few trump cards to this side of the family, and I shall play them well. Let them squirm a little. Revenge can be sweet."
"You sound bitter, Nicole."
"Why shouldn't I sound bitter?"
"You must forget the past, child, and think of the future. It could be rosy. Regard your changed circumstances, and furthermore, the young man who came to your papa's funeral was very handsome, n'est-ce pas?"
"Valentin is another matter," Nicole admitted. She could still see him standing tall and aloof at the graveside, a fugitive ray of sunlight glinting against the burnished gold of his hair. He had seemed a vision materialized briefly from a girlhood dream of the ideal knight, all strength and beauty and valor. Yet now he was to be hers for a mere nod of assent. It was Lady Eleanore, his mother, who stood in the way. That woman roused all Nicole's latent bitterness for those years when she and her mother were outcast Harcourts, denied recognition be cause they were beneath family consideration. That the Harcourts might have some justice on their side, considering her mother's low birth and questionable career, only lent fuel to the fire of Nicole's wrath.
A young serving girl interrupted Nicole's ruminations. "Excuse me, mademoiselle, but the Viscountess awaits you in the drawing room."
"Thank you, Lily. Tell my cousin I shall be with her directly." As the door closed behind the maid, Nicole turned to Madame. Lafitte, a sly smile of satisfaction lifting the corners of her mouth. "Anxious, wouldn't you say?"
"Nicole, take that smug expression off your face," Madame Lafitte pleaded.
"Why should I?" she demanded tartly. The look grew more pronounced as she walked through the door, Madame Lafitte followed her into the drawing room unable to still the disquiet agitating her bosom.
Lady Eleanore was seated on a divan before the, fireplace looking regal and composed in a morning dress of grey silk, her only ornament a ruby brooch at her throat. She seemed all ice and steel to the girl coming to greet her.
"Cousin Eleanore," Nicole kissed the proffered cheek and decided on direct attack. "Have you written to the Viscount concerning my desire to see him before wedding plans go forth?"
"So you have not changed your mind?" Lady Eleanore questioned reprovingly.
"I regret that my wishes do not meet with your approval, Cousin, but I muât insist. It does not seem improper to me to want to become acquainted with my prospective bridegroom."
"I daresay it does not. I suppose one must make allowances considering your unfortunate upbringing." The Viscountess was prepared to be equally direct.
Nicole's quick temper flared, and this time she did not bite back her retort. The obvious slur on her background was too much to bear. "My upbringing as a French girl of gentle birth was the equal of any, I dare say. As a matter of fact, there are those who feel that true culture stops this side of the English Channel, dear Cousin. I believe England has been aptly described as'a nation of shopkeepers, has it not?"
Lady Eleanore's prolonged gasp echoed ominously about the room. Cold with fury she drew herself up to the full limits of her imposing height. "You dare to speak to me that way?"
Nicole merely stared in return.
"You may be sure Ardsmore shall receive a full accounting of the quality of person, or should I say lack of quality of the person with whom it is his misfortune to be forced to ally himself."
"I am sure my quality or lack of it will be sufficiently compensated for by the price tag I bear."
"I find your manner common and vulgar."
"And do you find the subject of money also common and vulgar?"
"You are insulting as well."
"The wedding can always be called off," Nicole stated quietly.
"Do not try to threaten me, you wicked girl. How would you like to return to Beauvais and enjoy the luxuries of French culture that you could afford should you reject the Viscount?"
"There are worse conditions than poverty."
"Really? And what are they, pray tell?"
"I suggest you consider a loveless union with a fortune-hunting rake," Nicole retorted heatedly.
"Nicole, Nicole, taisez-vous." Madame Lafitte intervened, no longer able to suppress her concern. "Composez-vous. This is not to be countenanced. Lady Eleanore is soon to be your mama-in-law. Only think what you are saying. You must apologize and control your tongue."
Madame Lafitte's outburst provided the necessary break in hostilities. Nicole visibly wilted as waves of shame washed over her. How could she have spoken with such disregard for the proprieties? What was wrong with her?
The Viscountess seemed to recover a semblance of her lost dignity. "I think, perhaps, enough has been said. I shall write Ardsmore at once and let him take matters in to his own hands. It is regrettable that you choose to think of the Viscount in such unflattering terms. There are young ladies of breeding among the English ton who would not find your prospects so distasteful." And having the last word, she flounced through the doors leaving behind a stricken Nicole. |
What devil had prompted her to lash out so wildly? Nicole no more thought of Valentin as a fortune hunter than as a country peasant. With characteristic French practicality, Nicole accepted the contract set up by Aunt Sophie as a mutually beneficial pact. She found nothing distasteful in the fact that both she and the Viscount were in need of the fortune thus supplied. In fact, it created a condition of equality between them. It was Lady Eleanore that she could not abide. But why, oh, why, had she lost her temper? What would Valentin say when he heard about her shocking behavior? She did not wish to offend him, but fear and pride warred within her. What if he reacted to her as his family had done toward her mother? Could she bear it—loving him the way she did?
As the days passed, the atmosphere remained tense between Nicole and Lady Eleanore. Each refrained from causing further rift in the uneasy alliance necessary between them. Almost docilely Nicole submitted to Lady Eleanore's carefully worded advice about her new wardrobe, and when the Viscountess suggested a series of small dinner parties to introduce Nicole to members of society, Nicole acquiesced without demur.
Nevertheless, it was not without some trepidation that she approached her initial presentation which was to be a dinner party for twelve. Lady Eleanore had prepared well, and the dining room at the Hotel Belmontaine was sumptuously decorated for the occasion. Everywhere were gilt-framed mirrors reflecting a myriad of candles in golden sconces; lavish paintings of ladies in silks and satins disporting themselves amid the shrubberies of luxurious gardens lined the walls. The long dining table was hung with a figured damask cloth bordered by heavy Belgian lace. Dainty pink roses on the gleaming china were complemented by tiny nosegays of fresh roses at each place setting. Lady Eleanore was a true Harcourt when it came to spending money, and she was no less adept at the consumption of fortunes than were her improvident husband, the late Viscount Ardsmore, Harrison Harcourt, and his now-penniless heir, Valentin.
- On Sale
- Oct 31, 2009
- Page Count
- 209 pages
- Grand Central Publishing