First of all, here's the opening scene. For something a little more romantic, scroll down...
I first saw him in Vienna.
Sometimes now I think it was in Vienna that I first saw anything at all, but that's not strictly true. Actually, I first saw clearly in London, at the mature age of twenty-seven, by the simple expedient of purchasing a pair of spectacles - and all at once I was enchanted, amazed by the beauty of everything, the sharpness, the detail that suddenly became clear to me!
I suppose this euphoria might account for the very odd thing I did in London, but at the time I could only wonder why I had never bought them before, how I could have let so much of my life pass in a dull, myopic haze.
Well, it was easy really. As a child I was ashamed of my constantly worsening disability and hid it lest I be thought stupid. Needless to say I kept my secret and was still thought stupid, which just shows the pointlessness of vanity. After that, as a young girl, no one would let me have spectacles on the grounds that gentlemen didn't want to marry ladies so disfigured - apparently it gives us a daunting air of intelligence. Myself, I can't help thinking that neither do gentlemen wish to marry ladies who cut them dead in the street and ignore them at parties simply from not being able to see who the devil they are.
I speak from experience, incidentally. By the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I had only ever received one offer of marriage, an engagement from which I was freed with embarrassing speed. Just as well, for had I married, I would not have been in the position of looking for a genteel situation in London, never have bought my spectacles, never have answered that fatal advertisement, and so never have found myself in an opulent private hotel room, being interviewed by Count and Countess István Szelényi for the post of governess to their two children.
It was at this interview that my spectacles really came in to their own. I was still fascinated by the newly discovered details of people's features and expressions, but when I first encountered Count István and his wife, I was completely bowled over by the sheer sharp beauty before me. As I said, it's the only excuse I have for my odd - my bad - behaviour.
The Count stood up as I entered the room and approached with a faint, formal smile. Of course, he wasn't really seeing me: nobles of Count Szelényi's rank do not see governesses, even if they deign to interview them.
Tall, dark, splendidly built and impeccably dressed, he was younger than I had expected and handsome enough to have turned to jelly the knees of any impressionable young lady, even one used to the joys of perfect vision.
"Miss Kettles?" he said, and naturally his voice was charming too: low, cultivated and exotically accented.
"Count Szelényi?" I countered, inclining my head with a little too much pride - I found it very hard to behave like a governess.
"Yes, I am István Szelényi. This is my wife. Please sit down."
I sat, casting a glance at the lady while I did so. As befitted the wife of so magnificent a nobleman, she was both elegant and beautiful. She was sitting by the window, relaxing against her chair back in a way that would have appalled my Aunt Edith, but somehow she still exuded aristocratic splendour, her fashionable morning gown of pink silk billowing in luxuriant flounces around her chair. Aloof and superior, she managed to acknowledge me by the slightest nod, but she never said a word throughout the entire interview, contenting herself with occasional glances at me from under her long, blond eyelashes. They were secretive glances, almost suspicious, and it struck me that she looked so at all women who came in contact with her husband. Obviously I set her mind at rest - well, I have never been much of a threat to Beauty - for she raised no objection to my engagement.
"You are a little younger than I expected," Count István began, civilly but with no trace of hesitation.
I said, "I am twenty-seven," and looked straight into his fine, grey eyes. I saw no recognition there. I felt none myself.
"May I ask what your experience is?"
"To be honest, none," I told him flatly. I think I smiled.
He sighed. "Then perhaps you will tell me what qualifies you to take charge of my children?"
"I have been well educated," I returned calmly. "I know my arithmetic, history and geography. I can play the piano-forte and sew. I have Latin, French and Hungarian..."
"Hungarian?" he pounced. I knew he would.
He leaned back in his chair, regarding me thoughtfully. "That is unusual in an English lady, is it not?"
"I dare say, but I am Scottish," I said pedantically, adding by way of explanation, "My mother's family were Hungarian."
Again, I looked straight in to his eyes. But he only smiled faintly. He doesn't know, I thought and felt laughter bubble up inside me. It was a bitter sort of mirth, but it still made me reckless, so I choked it back, and waited.
"That is fortunate for us," he observed. "In Hungary, people of our class tend to speak in French, but I do not forget I am a Magyar. I would have my children grow up with a thorough knowledge of their own language, as well as French and German - do you have any German, Miss Kettles?"
"A little," I said cautiously. He nodded consideringly. Again there was a pause.
"Do you have references?" he enquired at last. I delved in to my reticule for the required letters. The Count accepted them, read them quickly, occasionally casting a quick, almost curious glance at me. "Your father was a minister of the church?"
"Yes," I answered, feeling my heart bump. "He died some three months ago. To be frank it is why I am now in need of a situation."
And how he would have disapproved of this one! I shuddered to think of what he would have said. I hoped the dead did not really watch over us.
The Count nodded. "Of course. I understand. These gentlemen speak very highly of you."
From the corner of my eye I saw the Countess give me a slightly longer look. The Count leaned forward to hand the letters back to me. I took them without comment.
He said, "May I ask what brought you south to London?"
Before I could help it I shrugged. Aunt Edith wouldn't have liked that either. "Partly a desire for change," I said honestly, "and partly because I was told there is a greater variety of situations to be found here."
"I see," said the Count. "You realize what this post would entail?"
"Yes, I think so. I would be teaching your son who is seven and your daughter who is six."
"Of course, but we would require you to do so in Buda-Pest," he said a little drily. "Also in Vienna when I have to attend the Emperor, and in my father's castle in Transylvania. It is all a long way from home."
"I have no home," I said quickly and then, disgusted by the pathos of such a statement, I added, "I have nothing to keep me here; I have always wanted to see the world, and I need a situation." I smiled faintly. "I am told Transylvania is incredibly beautiful."
How fortunate I would now have my spectacles to appreciate it.
The Count said, "Mmm." He stood up. "Our tour here is nearly over. We plan to leave London at the end of this week. We will travel as fast as possible to Vienna, where we may stay some time before going on to Buda-Pest. I move around a lot, Miss Kettles, and my family go with me. You may find it tiring caring for small children in such circumstances, but I shall expect them to be taught just the same."
I nodded. He glanced at his wife, but she was gazing out of the window and didn't turn.
"Then you accept the post at the salary stated?"
With every ounce of sense I had, I knew that this was madness and that I should stop before it went any further. But I couldn't help myself. After all, the salary was extremely generous.
"Yes," I said brazenly, "I accept. I have just one question however. Your advertisement mentioned a 'replacement' - why did your previous governess leave?"
I told you I was feeling reckless. Such blatant curiosity could easily have cost me the situation. Perhaps I was trying to lose it, knowing in my heart I shouldn't even be thinking of it. However, it was the Count who looked embarrassed. He half-turned, tidying some papers on the table before him.
"She did not choose to leave," he said at last. "She - er - died."
I blinked. "Oh dear," I murmured. "How - daunting."
The Countess lifted her head, and I saw her china blue eyes were full of laughter - a mirth not entirely free of malice.
Copyright Mary Lancaster 2006. Unedited excerpt, may differ slightly from published version.
And here's the romantic excerpt!
And abruptly, I was ashamed. My heart was breaking, but he was going to war, where the risks were unthinkable... Desperately, I forced the fear out of my mind, allowing him to take my hands again. I even smiled, tremulously, and felt him relax as if in relief.
"You must make a very smart hussar." My voice hardly shook at all.
"You always said I should find another tailor." His eyes were smiling properly now as his hands slid up my arms to my shoulders. I became suddenly aware of how little I was wearing, and the breath caught in my throat for reasons quite other than fear.
He said softly, "I wonder if you know how beautiful you are like this?"
My whole body began to flush. I didn't know if it was with embarrassment or pleasure, but I recognized the delicious ache that spread through me when his thumbs began lightly to caress my shoulders. I had thought of a clever reply, but now it flew out of my head. He moved one hand, gently pushing my loose hair back from my neck, his eyes all the while holding mine.
"Tell me the truth this time, Katie," he murmured. "Will you not miss me, even a little?"
I miss you every moment you are away from me. I cannot bear it if you go... But I didn't want to speak those words, and no others would come. I gazed up at him mutely. I suppose he read my answer in my eyes, while his clever, sensitive fingers tenderly stroked the side of my neck.
Slowly, his head bent towards me. Amazingly, I felt his lips on my neck, where his fingers had been, and a shudder of purely sensual pleasure ran through me. My arms moved of their own volition to hold him, then fell weakly back to my side. His fair head moved, tracing a line of kisses, warm and sweet and downwards. With a little gasp, I caught his face in my hands, and he straightened, his dark eyes clouded, his cheeks hollow in the pale lamp light. I was so consumed by love that I wanted to weep.
"No words, Katie?" he whispered, touching my lips with one finger. "Not even a simple yes?"
I made an effort. "What was the question?"
He gave a low, warm breath of laughter. "Will you miss me?" he repeated, and his finger moved caressingly from my lips to my chin, sliding slowly down my neck till it was stopped between my breasts by my carelessly laced night gown. "Will you?"
I could not move, could not breathe. There were more fingers now, his whole hand moving, caressing, softly closing. I could not even think of being outraged: I melted under his touch, and sensing it, knowing it, his other arm went around me, sweeping down my back and drawing me hard against him. My breath caught, and sighed at the devastating touch of his body. I was lost in delicious weakness.
"Will you?" he whispered, his lips almost touching mine.
Copyright Mary Lancaster 2006. Unedited excerpt, may differ slightly from published version.
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