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A Most Rebellious Debutante
By Karen Abbott
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2010 Karen Abbott
All rights reserved.
SEATED ON A padded window seat overlooking the beautifully landscaped grounds of her home, seventeen-year-old Lucy Templeton presented a picture of studied elegance. Her chestnut hair was caught high in loose ringlets at the back of her head, held in place by a perfectly tied blue satin bow, the ends of which trailed down her cascading tresses. A few tendrils fell alluringly in front of her ears as she posed with her legs curled beneath the folds of her sprigged muslin gown, her head inclined towards the open copy of Walter Scott's recently published Lady Of The Lake that she held in one hand.
A casual observer might have presumed her to be engrossed in her book ... but, if she were observed for any length of time, it would be noticed that her other hand rarely moved to turn the page and, every so often, she sighed with impatience and leaned nearer to the windowpane. Where was he? He ought to have been here by now!
'He'll be here soon, miss,' her maid, seated on a chair a few feet away, assured her, glancing up from her sewing.
'Yes, I know, Susie ... but I do so hate to wait. Don't you?'
'Oh, aye, miss,' Susie responded wryly, knowing that her young mistress had no notion of the hours her maid spent awaiting her mistress's commands.
Lucy's heartbeat suddenly quickened as a sporting curricle appeared in the distance where the curve of the drive first allowed visitors a glimpse of the mellow stone house. The spinning wheels of the delicately hung curricle churned the smaller particles of crushed stone into clouds of dust as the driver wildly tooled his vehicle around the curve. He was here! Even at that distance she knew it was he!
Abandoning all pretence of reading, Lucy pressed her face to the cool glass of the window and avidly drank in every nuance of movement of the young driver, gasping with admiration as he flicked his long whip over the back of his matching greys, imagining rather than hearing the sharp crack, knowing that he considered himself to be a 'capital whip', and relished her adoring admiration of this feat.
She giggled at the sight of his passenger, nervously gripping the side of his seat with his left hand and clutching his violin to his chest with the other. She'd bet his face was as white as his shirt.
Her gaze followed the progress of the recklessly driven curricle as it approached the imposing frontage of Alverston Hall, craning her neck to watch the curricle come to a halt in front of the curved stone steps that led up to the magnificent pillared portico. The driver leaped from his seat and tossed the reins into the hands of the waiting footman before bounding up the steps. Only then did Lucy slip off the window seat.
'He's here!' she breathed unnecessarily, crossing the room to her bedroom door. Although she longed to run along the landing and down the magnificent stairway, she didn't immediately do so. Instead, she paused on the landing and smoothed out the creases of her gown ... then lightly patted her cheeks with her cool hands in an effort to dispel some of the heightened colour. Hearing the murmur of male voices drifting up from the entrance hall below, she leaned over the balustrade and peered down upon the white bewigged head of Hartley, the first footman, as he took the beaver hat that the dark-haired young man was holding out to him.
'Mario!' Lucy breathed silently.
As if he had heard her, Mario glanced upward, but Lucy had already withdrawn her head, smiling with delight as she did so. She didn't need to see him. She knew every contour of his bronzed face, his finely boned cheeks, his smooth forehead, his chin ... and his twinkling dark eyes that she just knew were, at this moment, glancing upwards, hoping to see her admiring gaze.
For a second, a tiny frown puckered her face. She knew she oughtn't to let her adoration be so obvious. Mama said that young ladies of good breeding held their feelings in check, but she couldn't help it. She loved him so!
Hartley had silently ascended the stairway.
'Your dancing master has arrived, Miss Lucy. Lady Templeton bids you and your maid join her in the music room.'
'Thank you, Hartley.'
She turned to face her maid. 'How do I look, Susie? Is my hair in place? Is my dress all right?'
'You look fine, miss ... not that Signor Vitali would notice if you weren't.' She sighed, looking as dreamy-eyed as her mistress. 'Ooh, he's lovely, ain't he, miss?'
'He is indeed, but don't let Mama see that you think so, or she will bring back that dowdy old Mr Harris out of his retirement ... and just think how dull that would be!'
Giggling at the thought, the two young women lightly descended the staircase, but paused outside the open door of the music room to compose their features ... and it was with downcast eyes that they entered the room.
'Ah, Lucy! Signor Vitali is here to commence your dancing lesson,' Lady Templeton greeted her younger daughter. 'Look sharp now, for you know we are to make calls later this afternoon!'
'Yes, Mama,' Lucy murmured demurely, her eyes still cast down, knowing full well that her dark eyelashes fanned alluringly across her cheeks as she did so.
'You have left us little time to make our preparations for our calls, signor!' her mama continued coolly, her gaze as frosty as her tone. 'I fear that I am unable to stay beyond these first few minutes ... but, no matter. Susie will act as chaperon on my behalf.'
The slender figure of the dancing master made an elaborate bow, his left hand held behind his back, his right hand flourishing an intricate pattern in the space between himself and the upright figure of Lady Templeton.
'My sincere apologies, signora. My preceding pupil ... she needs much extra tuition. She ees not as responsive as your delightful daughter. As for you, signora, you need no time at all to make preparations of beauty! You are a picture of delight to ze eyes of any man. And we Italianos ... we love ze beauty of ze mature English rose!'
Lucy hid a smile at his words. Flatterer! He could charm the birds out of the sky! It was a wonder her mama fell for it! But a glance at her mama's face showed that Mario's charm had worked. Her mama's earlier chilly expression had given way to a glow of pleasure. Little did her mama know that his true admiration was for her daughter.
Mario turned towards Lucy, a warm gleam in his sparkling eyes. He made his bow and Lucy sank into a curtsy before him as if he were a royal duke at the Prince Regent's great Fête at Carlton House on 19 June, safe in the knowledge that it was part of her lesson.
Mario took hold of her hand and drew her to her feet, nodding to his violinist to strike up the music.
'We begin wiz a simple minuet, I think,' he murmured, holding her hand at the required height, squeezing her fingers gently, to remind her of his hidden love.
Her heart beating erratically, Lucy flickered a glance at him through her long, dark eyelashes, but instantly cast them down again. Not while Mama was still in the room!
Her body performed the delicate pattern of intricate steps while her heart raced with pleasure and delight. How fortunate she was to be able to hold the hand of her beloved under the eagle eye of her mama without incurring sharp censure. The very audacity of it heightened her excitement and she hardly knew how she kept her face suitably demure.
As they moved out of her mama's hearing, Mario's whispered endearments brought a faint blush to her cheeks. The words were in Mario's own language but she didn't need to know their exact translation in order to understand their meaning! They were words of love – a universal language!
By the time they were counting out the steps of a quadrille, Lady Templeton had departed to her salon, leaving only Susie in attendance. Lucy concentrated on differentiating between the chassés, jettés, glissades and the coupes de balance, unaware that Mario had manoeuvred her into a far corner of the room where the caressing touch of his hand went unnoticed by her maid.
'Ah, you have such elegance and grace!' he murmured softly in her ear. 'Zere is a new dance zat I would like to teach you, cara mia. Eet ees called ze waltz. You have heard of eet?'
Lucy's eyes widened. 'Why, yes, but it is very daring, isn't it?' She grinned wickedly. 'Mama says it is far too strenuous for young ladies and will lead to fainting fits! But I am sure she is wrong. Can you teach it to me?'
'Oh, I would find eet a great pleasure, but it involves holding you in my arms. I fear your mama might be displeased.'
He looked so woebegone that Lucy laughed. 'She isn't here! And I'm sure Susie won't tell tales of me!'
'No, I have ze better idea! Leave eet to me.' He strode over to his musician and murmured some words that Lucy couldn't hear. He came back smiling.
'Come! We begin over here.'
He led her to the centre of the room and nodded to the violinist to begin. Smiling into her eyes, he lifted her right hand with his left and placed his right hand around her waist, drawing her closer to him.
Lucy gasped with pleasure. She was sure she could feel Mario's heart beating through the layers of clothing that separated them. Could he feel hers? They were beating the same rhythm, she was sure.
'Put your left hand on my shoulder,' Mario instructed her, adding softly in her ear, 'Press closer to me then you can sense which way to move. Si, just so! Now we begin. One two three. One two three. See! Bellissimo! Eet ees so easy!'
Lucy began to follow his steps, hesitantly at first, but, as she relaxed into the regular rhythm, she could feel the pressure of his thighs against hers directing her steps. It was heavenly. Her body felt as though it were liberated, moving under a power outside of herself as she felt herself being revolved round and round. Almost lost in the heady experience, she raised her eyes and was startled to find Mario's eyes were locked with hers. She felt as though she were drowning in the depth of his gaze. Surely, she was about to collapse in his arms? The ecstasy of it! Oh, no wonder mamas didn't want their daughters to learn this dance!
Suddenly, the violinist began to lose the rhythm and his playing came to an abrupt end as he bent over as a paroxysm of coughing seized him.
Awakened out of their trance-like feeling, Lucy felt a bewildered disappointment flow over her as their steps slowed and then stopped.
Mario waved an impatient hand towards Susie. 'You, girl, go to ze kitchen and get him a glass of water,' he commanded. 'Better still, take him with you.'
'But ... Miss Lucy?' Susie implored. 'I must stay here.'
The violinist began another fit of coughing, red in the face by now. Lucy felt quite concerned for him. 'Oh, do take him, Susie. The man is nearly choking. Look, I'll come —'
'No. Your maid can manage. He will be all right,' Mario restrained her. 'Go, girl, before he collapses.'
Very reluctantly, Susie opened the door and gestured to the man to follow her. She cast a glance over her shoulder as she left the room but could see no alternative but to do as the dancing master had bidden her.
'What a shame, and we were doing so well!' Lucy exclaimed in disappointment, stepping away a little from her partner. 'Oh, what a wonderful dance! But are you sure it will be allowed in the salons? It seems very risqué!'
Mario laughed, his white teeth gleaming. 'You are one of ze first to dance it ... but it is gaining favour in private gatherings and will soon be danced in ze best of assembly rooms. It is under consideration wiz ze matriarchs of Almack's and I expect it to be accepted zere before too long. So, I am teaching my pupils so zat zey will be amongst ze first to perform ze dance in public! But no one has picked it up as quickly as you, bella mia.'
'Really?' Lucy's eyes sparkled. 'Oh, it was wonderful!'
She began to move by herself, her arms outstretched in the required position, twirling herself around and around, her eyes closed as if she were dreaming. She felt a hand about her waist and her right hand taken in hold again. Her eyes flew open to see Mario's smiling face just above hers.
'Who needs music?' he said lightly. 'It ees here in our hearts!'
He drew her close again and began once more to twirl her round and round. Laughing in delight, Lucy twirled and whirled in ever faster movements until she felt so dizzy she was sure she was about to fall.
'Oh, stop, stop!' she laughed, collapsing against him, laughing up into his smiling face.
'Ah, cara mia!' Mario breathed, raising his hand to her face, gently stroking her cheek with the tips of his fingers.
Lucy felt a shiver of delight run through her body. Oh, this was heaven! She loved him so much. She parted her lips to breathe his name and Mario lowered his face towards her. Lucy closed her eyes in anticipation of the touch of his lips upon hers —
'Lucy! Signor Vitali!' came enraged tones from the doorway. 'What is the meaning of this outrage? Release my daughter at once, signor!'
'Mama!' Lucy gasped, brought down to earth with a start, suddenly aware of the compromising position in which she was being held. She made an effort to step aside but was temporarily unable to do so and she realized that Mario was shocked into immobility by her mother's sudden appearance in the room.
'Mama, it is not as you think!' she insisted tremulously. 'It is a new dance and Mario says it will soon be danced at Almack's in Town.' she hastened to explain. 'It is from ... from ...'
'From Austria,' Mario obligingly supplied. 'It ees quite ze rage out zere, milady. Why, even royalty have been known to enjoy ze dance!'
Lady Templeton's eyebrows rose as her daughter made use of her dancing master's Christian name. 'I don't care if our own Prince Regent enjoys it!' she exclaimed, her wrath still apparent. 'Release my daughter from that unseemly hold at once, sir!'
Lucy slipped from within the circle of his arms and stepped towards her mama. 'But, Mama. We meant no harm!'
'Retire to your room, Lucy,' Lady Templeton commanded icily. 'And, you, signor, leave at once! I have grave misgivings about your suitability as my daughter's dancing master – indeed, as any young lady's dancing master ... and I have no doubt that when Lord Templeton hears of this, there will be severe repercussions, as you will, no doubt, discover when I spread the word!'
'But, Mama! You can't! We are in love! Tell her, Mario! Tell her that we love each other!'
She flew back to him and seized hold of his hand before facing her mama again. 'We ... we intend to be married!' she declared passionately.
Lady Templeton's eyebrows rose again. 'Indeed? And you, signor? You know that permission for that will never be granted!'
Mario bowed before her, a little less flamboyantly than earlier. However, a tiny smile hovered about his lips.
'I think I need to request an audience with Lord Templeton, milady,' he responded quietly.
Lucy's gasp of delight was stilled by her mother's icy reply.
'That request will not be granted, signor!'
'Oh, I think it will, milady. Don't forget that I, too, have the ear of many in society!'
Lucy was puzzled. What did he mean? She looked at him uncertainly.
He didn't meet her eyes. Instead, they were fixed on her mama's face, his lips slightly twisted by an inscrutable glimmer of a smile.
'Indeed?' Lady Templeton narrowed her eyes. She continued slowly, 'I think I have your measure, signor.'
'I am sure you do, milady.'
They eyed each other silently for a moment. Lady Templeton was the first to break the hold.
'Go to your room, Lucy. We will leave this in the hands of your father.'
Lucy looked uncertainly from her mother's face to Mario's. Mario's eyes remained fixed on her mother.
'Go now!' her mother repeated.
Mario made no move to restrain her and, stifling a lump that threatened to invade her throat, Lucy ran from the room. Her heart was in turmoil. Would Mario manage to convince her father? Would her father listen when she added her pleas?
But, even as she ran up the stairs, she was filled with unease. Why had Mario not echoed her declaration of love? Why would he not meet her gaze? He could at least have given his assurance that he would do his best to persuade her father to be sympathetic towards them, even if Papa insisted that they wait a year or so ... maybe until she had had her Season?
Excerpted from A Most Rebellious Debutante by Karen Abbott. Copyright © 2010 Karen Abbott. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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