Read an ExcerptThe Venetian's Mistress
By Ann Elizabeth Cree Mills & Boon
Copyright © 2006 Ann Elizabeth Cree
All right reserved.
Lady Thais Margate's long-lashed blue eyes were filled with concern. "I did not mean to overset you. Perhaps I should not have said anything."
Cecily Renato took a deep breath and willed herself to remain calm. "Oh, no, you were quite right to tell me. It is just I am rather surprised." Actually she was quite shocked, but hardly wanted to tell her companion that. "I will speak to Mariana straight away."
"You must not be too hard on them for it was not a very...very improper kiss, but I know you would not want such a thing to happen again. If the wrong persons should come upon them...one would hate for there to be gossip."
"No. Of course not."
Lady Margate rose in a rustle of fashionable blue silk. "I must go for I have an appointment very soon, but I wished to see you the very first thing today. You may be assured that none of this will pass my lips."
Cecily stood as well. "I know you will not say anything.'At least she hoped she would not as Cecily hardly knew Lady Margate, who had leased a house in Avezza just over a month ago. But the lovely young widow had already impressedAvezza's residents, both Italian and English, by donating to several charitable causes as well as by heading up a committee to repair the damage done to the church of Santa Sofia during the French occupation.
LadyMargate took Cecily's hand. Although Cecily was not particularly tall, Lady Margate's fine-boned features and delicate build made Cecily feel ungainly next to her. Lady Margate smiled kindly. "You are such a devoted mother. I have no doubt you will do the right thing, although you must not be too harsh with your stepdaughter or Lord Ballister. The very first time I saw them together I could sense a special sympathy between them. It is most unfortunate that the Duke of Severin is unlikely to allow them to marry. I have heard from Severin himself that he wishes to procure an heiress for his cousin, preferably the daughter of a peer. There is a certain earl's daughter that I have heard...but that is only a rumour." She regarded Cecily with sympathetic eyes. "It would not be easy for your stepdaughter to live in England. The society is so very different, as you know."
"Yes, it is different." Cecily attempted to suppress the twinge of resentment she felt at Lady Margate's implication that Severin would not consider Mariana suitable for his cousin. "I will see you out." 'That will not be necessary.You must give your lovely daughter my regards. And Signora Zanetti.'She pressed Cecily's hand before releasing it, her grip surprisingly strong. Cecily accompanied her across the small salon to the staircase, which led to the ground floor.
She watched Lady Margate depart, her thoughts in turmoil. Mariana and Lord Ballister? How had this happened when she had made certain they never met except in company? Why had she not watched Mariana more closely last night at Lady Margate's conversazione?
Because she had been certain that Mariana's tendre for Lord Ballister had faded just as she was certain Lord Ballister's initial interest in her stepdaughter had died away. So when Mariana had gone to the garden with her friend, Teresa Carasco, and Teresa's brother, Cecily had not been concerned. Nor had she worried very much when Mariana had been unusually quiet and preoccupied on the carriage ride back home.
"Why was she here? That woman?"
Cecily jumped when her sister-in-law spoke from behind her. Barbarina had the disconcerting habit of suddenly appearing and startling her.
She turned. "Lady Margate was here to pay a visit, that is all."
"She is not good. She brings nothing but trouble." 'Surely not." When Barbarina merely stared at her, she tried again. "At least not today. I must speak to Mariana now."
"She came to tell you that the English lord has kissed Mariana, no? You must hope that she does not tell anyone else. Such as his cousin, the Duke. Or Rafaele."
"I have no idea why she would want to do so." Cecily said. "Please, Barbarina, do not eavesdrop."
"What can I do when you hold your conversations in the salon where everyone can hear?" She shrugged and fixed her dark gaze on Cecily. "You must send Mariana away before Rafaele learns of this. It will not please him to discover that you have allowed the cousin of the Duke to kiss Mariana."
"Rafaele is in Verona so it is unlikely he will hear of this. At any rate, nothing more will happen."
"You must hope not. For if Rafaele does, he will come and challenge the Lord Ballister to a duel. If that happens, the Duke will come and there will be another fight. In the end, Rafaele will send Mariana to the convent. Where you should have sent her as her mother, Caterina, had wished. Then there would be no need to worry about kisses."
Cecily quelled the sharp pang of hurt she still felt when Barbarina compared Cecily to her husband Marco's first wife and Mariana's mother. "I would hope that everyone would behave in a more civilised manner than that. Why do you think that they will fight if they meet? Is it because of something that happened in the past? When the Duke was here?" This was not the first time since Lord Ballister's arrival in Avezza that Barbarina had hinted at some sort of quarrel between Mariana's trustee, Rafaele Vianoli, and the Duke of Severin, who was Lord Ballister's guardian. "It would be better if you do not ask more questions." Cecily bit back her frustration. Barbarina always lapsed into odd, cryptic pronouncements when she no longer wished to answer any questions. "Very well. I won't. For now, I am going to speak to Mariana." She walked away before she said something she would later regret. She tried to be patient with Barbarina for, before he died, Marco had asked her to watch over his older widowed half-sister. She reminded herself as well that Barbarina had never really recovered from the discovery that her beloved husband had died while running off with another woman. But sometimes it was all she could do to keep her temper. Particularly at times like this.
Mariana was in her bedchamber. She sat on a chair near the window and when Cecily entered she looked up from the book on her lap. Cecily crossed the room and pulled the small stool near the bed to the chair and sat down. "I must talk to you."
"Is something wrong, Mama?'From the anxious look on her daughter's lovely face, she suspected Mariana had a very good idea of why Cecily was there.
"Lady Margate came to tell me that she found you and Lord Ballister in an embrace last night. That he kissed you. Is this true?"
Mariana looked away for an instant before she answered. "He kissed me and I kissed him back."
Oh, dear. "I do not need to remind you that it is most improper for young unmarried girls to be alone with a man. And very improper to exchange a kiss with any man except a fiancé or a husband. Lord Ballister should know this. He also must know that he risked your reputation by such behaviour. You are fortunate that Lady Margate discovered you and not one of the other guests."
"It is not Si — Lord Ballister's fault. I asked him to meet me in the garden."
"Why would you do that?" 'I...I wished to talk to him." 'Have you met him alone like this before?" 'Only a...a few times."
Cecily tried to hide her shock. "Has he ever done anything besides kiss you?"
"No. We only talk. He has not kissed me before last night."
Thank God. "Then I must forbid you to see Lord Ballister again, except in the presence of others. I will not allow him to ruin your reputation."
"He wants to marry me," Mariana said flatly. Cecily's heart stopped for a fraction. "Did he tell you that?" she asked carefully.
"Yes. But he said he would not ask me until I am seventeen and then he will speak to you."
Cecily drew in a breath. "I see." She felt as if she'd been hit in the stomach. Did Lord Ballister hope to seduce Mariana by promising marriage? He did not seem the sort of young man to do so, but then she had not thought Mariana would ever arrange a rendezvous with a young man in a dark garden.
"You will approve, will you not?" Mariana asked. A note of anxiety had crept into her voice. "You are still young, too young to think of marriage," she began.
"Mama was seventeen when she married Papa." 'Yes, but they had known each other since childhood. You have known Lord Ballister scarcely a month." She hesitated. "It hardly matters whether I approve or not, for it is unlikely the Duke of Severin will. Or Rafaele."
"But why not? Because Cousin Raf and the Duke have quarrelled?"
Cecily started. "How do you know that?" 'Zia told me. But she would not tell me what the quarrel was about."
A surge of anger shot through Cecily. Barbarina had no business telling Mariana such a thing. "I am not even certain they did quarrel. There are other reasons, however, why a marriage between you and Lord Ballister is impossible." Mariana stared at her, her expression stricken. Cecily took her hands. "I am sorry, but you are scarcely more than a child. Some day you will meet a man whom you can love, someone more suited to you."
"There will be no one else." Mariana rose and Cecily could see she was fighting back tears. She walked to the door and stopped her hand on the handle. "You are wrong. I am not a child.'She left, her pale quietness more alarming than if she had burst into tears and run from the room as she had in the past when angry or upset.
Cecily quelled her impulse to go after Mariana, suspecting she would only make matters worse. Mixed in with her anger and worry was fear. Fear that Lord Ballister was more to her stepdaughter than a young girl's first love; fear that if Mariana was capable of meeting him alone, she was capable of something even more rash.
Surely Lord Ballister must realise he could not marry Mariana without his cousin's consent. He must have some idea that his cousin wished him to marry an heiress; although Mariana was not penniless, she was far from wealthy.
He must know, as well, that Mariana could not marry without Raf's and Cecily's permission. Although Raf was Mariana's trustee, Marco had left Mariana in Cecily's care and had made it clear that both Raf and Cecily were to approve any potential husband for Mariana.
If Raf and the Duke had indeed quarrelled, it was even more unlikely either man would approve, thank goodness.
Then she felt guilty for even thinking such a thing when Mariana was so unhappy. For her own selfish reasons, Cecily did not want Mariana to marry an Englishman. She could not bear to have Mariana go away and live in a country that Cecily could never return to.
Lord Ballister had told Mariana he would wait until she was seventeen before speaking to Cecily. She assumed he would wait until then to speak to his cousin as well. She only hoped that, by that time, Lord Ballister would be long gone and that Mariana would have recovered from her infatuation. What if they did not? What if they decided to run off together? She knew only too well how easy it was to take such a course.
She could not entertain that possibility. She must speak to Lord Ballister today and tell him in no uncertain terms that he was not to see Mariana alone and he was not to speak of marriage again.
Excerpted from The Venetian's Mistress by Ann Elizabeth Cree Copyright © 2006 by Ann Elizabeth Cree. Excerpted by permission.
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