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Authors: Sandra Heath

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The Makeshift Marriage

BOOK: The Makeshift Marriage
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THE MAKESHIFT MARRIAGE

 

Sandra Heath

 

Chapter 1

 

The principal bedchamber of the Hotel Contarini was justifiably renowned as one of the most magnificent in Venice, for its windows afforded an unrivaled prospect of the Grand Canal. The guidebooks extolled its virtues, and during the season there was always an eager throng of fashionable souls eager to be privileged enough to occupy it. Once inside, it was obvious why the
beau monde
of Europe cherished this particular chamber, for its walls were hung with golden silk, the ceiling was festooned with gilded plasterwork, and the furniture was the ornate lacquered chinoiserie so peculiar to Venice. There was not a surface left undecorated, and that which man had adorned, nature beautified still further with delicate water reflections from the canal outside. The crystal droplets of the chandeliers shimmered in translucent light as the early spring sun rose higher in the sky above the city. A sea breeze moved the gauze curtains and only a few sounds penetrated the silence, but none of them disturbed the sleep of the young Englishwoman in the canopied bed.

She did not hear a maid calling softly to her that it was time to rise, nor did she hear the song of a passing gondolier. Her slumber was deep because she was exhausted after a long journey from England in jolting stagecoaches on roads which were badly rutted after a hard winter. Her long dark hair spread over the silk pillow in a cloud of tangled curls, and her demure night bonnet lay unused on a console table. Anyone looking at her as she slept in this royal room would have been forgiven for thinking she was a princess, for they would have seen a sweet profile, a flawless complexion, and a certain rose
-
like fragility of which any princess would have been justifiably proud. But she was not of royal blood, nor even a titled lady. Her name was simply Miss Laura Milbanke and she was squandering what little fortune she had on this once-in-a-lifetime visit to the most romantic and beautiful city in the world.

Her arrival at the hotel the night before had been greeted with some degree of surprise, for it had been fully expected that she would have several servants to attend her
—for only the very rich took the principal bedchamber. Her emergence from the gondola, completely alone, had caused not a few whispers. To her shame she had resorted to a mumbled fib or two about her maid having contracted a fever and having had to return to England, when the truth was that she was not, and never had been, in a position to employ a maid. Laura Milbanke was the epitome of that unfortunate class of creature—the poor relation. Her family was grand enough in its way, for on her mother’s side she was connected to the Hazeldons of Sussex, but that meant very little when her own branch was impoverished due to poor investments and the somewhat dubious distinction of having lost everything on the turn of a card. For that her mother had never forgiven her father.

But the quarrels of unhappy parents did not concern poor Laura for long, for she was left an orphan at a very early age and had found herself being taken under the wing of her Aunt Hazeldon, a matriarchal dragon who always made absolutely certain that Laura ‘knew her place’
.
And that place was very low in the varied and complicated pecking order at Hazeldon Court. Laura was above the servants, and below the family; she occupied a no-man’s-land in between and knew the advantages and disadvantages of both sides. Not wishing to appear mean in the eyes of her peers, Aunt Hazeldon had seen to it that Laura had a considerable and fashionable wardrobe, and that she had enjoyed the services of one of the lesser maids
—not a true lady’s maid, one must understand, for that would not have done at all and would have puffed up Laura’s head with undeserved importance! This, together with a comfortable room and all the comforts of a grand house, was the advantageous side of Laura’s life.

On the side of disadvantage came the times when she was not permitted to dine with the family because an important guest was expected. She was not allowed to accept invitations which could have led to her meeting a young gentleman who might have offered for her hand and thus have elevated her above her rather dull and plain cousins who would have stood little chance beside Laura’s outstanding beauty. But for all that, Laura was not ungrateful, for she knew well enough that without her aunt’s protection, her life could have been so very dreadful. It was one thing to be grateful, however, and quite another to be happy. Laura had never known true happiness, and she sought refuge in dreams to compensate for this dreadful gap in her life.

She had found the guidebook, a relic of her late uncle’s grand tour, in the library at Hazeldon Court, and Venice had filled her thoughts from the moment she had turned the first page. Over and over again she had read that little leather-bound book, and she felt she knew by heart everything there was to know about the city which was denied to her both by her impoverished situation and by the interminable war with Bonaparte’s France. Europe had been effectively closed to travelers, and it was this last fact which had given her a little comfort over the years, for even had she been a wealthy woman she would still not have been able to see Venice; but then Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo had removed even that small consolation. She had dreamed on, however, imagining herself in the principal bedchamber at the Hotel Contarini…
.

The change in her circumstances had come quite suddenly and had been totally unexpected. Early in 1816 Aunt Hazeldon was suddenly struck down by an ailment which had rapidly taken its toll, for by the end of January she had been laid to rest in the family mausoleum. Laura’s cousins had lost no time in informing her that she was no longer welcome beneath their roof, and she was left with a small bequest in her aunt’s will
—and an uncertain future. She knew nothing of the outside world, and the only life she felt able to contemplate was that of being a lady’s companion, for after all, was that not what she had been hitherto? Unfortunately, the only position that presented itself had been that of companion to Lady Mountfort, a dowager renowned for her mercurial temper and penny-pinching meanness. With her cousins insisting that she leave, however, Laura felt she had no option but to accept the position with Lady Mountfort.

Standing in the library at Hazeldon Court that dull winter afternoon, she had steeled herself to write the necessary letter. Outside the snowdrops were nodding beneath the hedges of the maze, and a little snow still clung to the ground. The library was always a dark room and she had lit a candle before sitting down to write. The light of the feeble flame had fallen across the guide book. The thought had suddenly struck her that Venice was within her grasp after all. She had immediately dismissed the notion, dipping her quill in the ink and beginning to write, but the thought would not go away; it insisted upon being heard. She had only a little money from her aunt’s estate, but it was sufficient for a journey to Venice. She could, if it was available, occupy that room in the Hotel Contarini for several weeks, and thus she would have for the rest of her life memories to call upon whenever things seemed about to overwhelm her. Oh, it was a foolish, foolish notion, of course, but she could not put it out of her mind. How could she possibly contemplate squandering absolutely everything on a
vacation?
How? Only too easily, for she had dreamed of just this one thing for so long that the dream had almost become an ambition, and Laura Milbanke was not one to turn her back upon such a thing. Her mind was made up in a moment. She
would
go to Venice, and she
would
see all those fabled sights, and then she would return to England
—and Lady Mountfort. And so she had penned two letters that afternoon, one to her future employer, postponing the moment of taking up the post, and one to the Hotel Contarini, on the impressive Hazeldon Court parchment reserved exclusively for important communications. She had smiled a little to herself, for what more important communication could there be than this?

A month later, when the catkins were yellow in the Sussex hedgerows, Laura had set off upon her dreamed of adventure, leaving England’s shores for the first
—and probably the last—time in her life.

Some doves fluttered noisily past her windows now, and at last she began to stir, stretching her arms luxuriously above her head and opening her deep blue eyes. She looked slowly around the room. It was everything she had dreamed it would be. In such surroundings she would be able to forget her woeful circumstances and pretend for just a little while that she was as privileged and carefree as any fine lady.

Slipping from the bed, she crossed the crushed marble floor to the tall windows that opened on to the balcony. She had arrived the night before in darkness and had seen little of Venice from her gondola, and now she held her breath in anticipation as she drew the delicate curtains aside. Dazed by the sheer magnificence of the sight that greeted her, she stepped unwarily out onto the balcony where the window boxes were bright with grape hyacinths. Seagoing ships rode the Grand Canal, which winked and flashed in the spring sunshine, and there were smaller boats of all descriptions thronging the busy water. Black gondolas rocked at blue and gold mooring posts by the steps of the hotel, and the gondoliers stood talking together as they waited for custom. Their red sashes were a vivid splash of color against their white shirts, and the ribbons in their hats flapped in the breeze. They were laughing together at some shared joke, and Laura found herself smiling too, although she could not hear what they said. Across the canal she saw a fruit merchant’s barge swaying by the walls of a house, and far above a maidservant lowered a basket to him on a rope.

The moment was broken suddenly by an intrusive martial sound that put an end to the gondoliers’ laughter. An Austrian military band struck up somewhere nearby and the Teutonic music was a harsh reminder that Venice was no longer her own mistress but had been ignominiously defeated by Bonaparte and then bartered for Austria’s territories in the Netherlands. After centuries of being the undisputed queen of the Adriatic,
la Serenissima
was now merely a slave. Although by the end of the wars, Austria had been Britain’s ally, Laura’s sympathies lay with Venice and she felt as instinctive a dislike for the military music as did the gondoliers.

Ignoring the music, she remained on the balcony, savoring everything she could see from her vantage point and unmindful still that she was plainly visible to all in her nightgown, her hair unhampered even by the night bonnet which was
de rigueur
for all ladies of quality. She was reminded quite sharply of her misconduct, however, when she found herself looking straight into the disapproving eyes of a very handsome and fashionable young gentleman seated in a gondola that was nosing its way toward the hotel steps. His very blond hair was startling as he lounged in the black craft, and the plain cut of his excellently tailored clothes marked him instantly as an Englishman. His top hat lay discarded for the moment on the seat of the felze beside him and he was toying idly with the thick frill of his shirt at his cuff. His face was very lean and bronzed, and he continued to look up at her until the gondola slid from sight beneath the balcony. Only then could she gather her scattered wits enough to hurry back into the safety of her room. How could she have been so utterly foolish and remiss? What must he think of her? Her cheeks flushed scarlet with mortification.

Thoughts of her
faux pas
and the unknown gentleman vanished a moment later, however, when her glance fell on the golden clock on the mantelpiece and she realized how dreadfully late she already was for breakfast. With a gasp she began to untie her nightgown, for if she did not hurry, she would surely be too late to take breakfast at all! She shivered as she bathed her face in the ice-cold water she poured from the porcelain jug.

In a short while she was very properly and demurely dressed in a pale green sprigged muslin chemise gown. Her dark hair was twisted into a Grecian knot at the back of her head, and wisps of dainty curls framed her face. A lace day cap rested on top of her head and her only jewelry was a black velvet ribbon at her throat. A lozenge-shaped reticule swung at her wrist as she picked up her Kashmir shawl. There, she thought, she looked well enough even for Carlton House itself let alone the dining room of the Hotel Contarini! Her blue eyes sparkled at the somewhat fanciful thought of the likes of Miss Laura Milbanke gracing the halls of the Prince Regent’s London house! With a final pat of her hair she left the room. It was the first day of March, and her first day in Venice had commenced.

 

Chapter 2

 

Tiredness the night before had robbed her of any appreciation of the grand staircase or the echoing vestibule with its magnificently patterned marble floor, but now she gazed around in wonder as she descended. The Hotel Contarini was very splendid, and indeed had once been the most beautiful palace in this city of palaces. Two white-uniformed Austrian officers paused on the staircase as she passed, their eyes warm with admiration as they bowed, their heels clicking smartly together. She hardly noticed them beyond allowing them a polite inclination of her head.

BOOK: The Makeshift Marriage
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