Vienna Dawn - The Imperial Season, Book 3
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Intrigue, suspicion and true love at the Congress of Vienna...
“You and I should pretend to be engaged,” she said blithely. “To each other.”
En route to Vienna, where the great powers of Europe are making peace and elaborate entertainments, spirited Russian countess Dunya Savarina is rescued from ruin by Captain Richard Trelawny, a wounded British officer who has given up on life and happiness.
Resourcefully, Dunya secures Trelawny’s alliance in her masterplan to marry her first love. After all, having lost an arm and an affianced bride in rapid succession, the captain is clearly in need of her peculiar brand of help in his own affairs. Together they embark upon a deception intended to win back their old loves.
Roused from indifference by Dunya’s whirlwind vitality, Trelawny adroitly handles his sham engagement, hostile family, wicked seducers, espionage, elopements and duels, all the while protecting Dunya and trying very hard not to fall in love with her.
And Dunya begins to suspect that first love is not always the greatest love – or even the most fun.
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"terrific and well thought out... Dunya and Richard are especially wonderful... The ending was fun too!"
"Good pacing in plot, interesting characters, adventurous and romantic."
"full of mystery, princes, secret police, a secret hideout, love and so much more."
"Ever so delightful... Mary Lancaster did it again! I fell in love with characters and relationships faster than I could read. She truly has an excellent grasp of the human condition."
"Lively, spirited, engaging read of intrigue and death!"
"A swoonworthy hero, a strong, capable heroine, suspense, and intrigue..." - Amazon reader reviews
Dunya had made a dangerous mistake. The English lord, very far from being her savior, seemed more likely to be her ruin.
She sprang to her feet, drawing to her full, but not terribly impressive five feet height and endeavored to appear both haughty and disdainful. This proved unexpectedly difficult to achieve while internally kicking herself yet again for over-impulsive stupidity.
“I believe we have failed to understand each other,” she said coldly. “I require a
bedchamber of my own.”
Lord Sebastian Niven, who claimed to have been a major in Wellington’s army, gave an unpleasant smile. He rose lazily to his feet, as if the courtesy were dragged out of him.
“Don’t you feel it’s a little late to be worrying about appearances? You arrived at the inn alone, near dark, to meet me. You have since dined in my company. Trust me, the landlady does not expect you to sleep alone.”
Dunya’s face burned. Her heart was bursting with fury, not least because his every word had the advantage of truth.
She lifted her chin. “Sir, you insult me. You would not dare say such things were my brother present.”
Lord Sebastian sighed. “My dear girl, I thought we had established we were escaping from the tyranny of your brother?”
“Brother-in-law,” she corrected at once. “My brother is a different man entirely and you would be sensible not to enrage him.” She backed away from him. “Now, since there seems to be no bell here, be so good as to summon the innkeeper or his wife.”
An infuriating, knowing smile hovered around Lord Sebastian’s lips. And there was a predatory glint in his eye as he strolled across the room after her. How had she failed to notice these unpleasant qualities before?
“Enough, Mademoiselle,” he drawled in his execrable French. “The chase, while most charming, is over and we both know you are wined, dined, and won.”
For the first time, actual fear began to prickle through her anger. She couldn’t stay here and be remotely safe.
“On the contrary,” she said with spirit. “I have changed my mind and will travel on to Vienna tonight.” She spun about, wrenched open the door, and fled as fast as she could across the hall, calling for the landlady.
She doubted anyone would hear her. Although the entrance hall to the inn was set up as a public coffee room, it was quite empty at this hour. And the racket from the taproom beyond the opposite door would easily drown her voice from the innkeeper and his wife, who were both bound to be in there with such a crowd. Meanwhile, Lord Sebastian was strolling after her with maddening calm, cutting off her escape via the taproom door.
“If that’s your wish, we can carry on the charade a little longer,” he said, clearly amused. “Run from me then and I shall pursue you. The catching will be all the sweeter.”
“Oh you misunderstand!” she said desperately. “You misunderstand everything!”
He only laughed, drawing inexorably closer, even though she still backed away toward the stairs.
Not the stairs! her common sense screamed, for his bedchamber, which he clearly imagined she would share, was up there. A candle in a wall sconce dimly lit the way, although the landing vanished into darkness.
Her breath caught. There would be locks on the bedchamber doors. He had told her earlier that the house was quiet so far as overnight guests were concerned. All she had to do was shut herself in one of the rooms and lock the door. He would never make himself look foolish by asking the innkeeper to let him in, or by breaking in the door to get at her. And if it turned out to be his bedchamber, all the better. He could either sleep in the private parlor where they’d just dined, or ask the landlord for another room. Either was fine with Dunya. She’d worry about the rest of the mess tomorrow.
Without further thought, she whisked around and bolted upstairs. Behind her, Lord Sebastian laughed softly, but she heard his footsteps behind her, far faster than she’d imagined possible. In real fear now, she leapt onto the dark landing, stumbled along the wall until she found the indent of a door, then fumbled for the latch and fell inside, slamming the door hard behind her.
Desperately, she felt around the wood for the key, and found only the empty hole of the lock. Confound this wretched inn! She hurled her shoulder against the door and peered around to see which heavy piece of furniture she might be able to use instead.
A fire burned in the grate, surely an ominous sign. The flickering glow partially illuminated an un-curtained bed, and a recumbent young man in his shirt sleeves. Straight blond hair flopped untidily over his pale forehead.
He regarded her with only faint surprise. Dunya froze.
“Hello,” he said in English.
But at least English came naturally to her. She had once had an English governess. “Oh, the devil! Is this your chamber?”
“So I was told.”
“Oh goodness, I am so sorry! It’s just that he told me no one else was staying here so I thought I was safe.”
“Safe from what?” the occupant enquired, propping himself up on one elbow. At least he appeared to be mostly dressed and reclining on the bed rather than in it. “I shan’t offer you violence, you know.”
“Not you,” Dunya said, jerking her head ruefully at the door. “Him. I was entirely mistaken in him. I thought he would help me in my plan, but he turns out to be a wicked seducer—or at least I think he is, though I’ve never met one before. And I suspect he thinks I am some kind of courtesan which I most certainly am not.”
“Well no, pretty much anyone could see that,” the young man agreed. “So you’re hiding in here from him?”
The latch rattled, making Dunya jump. An instant later, the door pushed against her, sending her stumbling further into the room. The young man in the bed twisted himself into an almost sitting position as Lord Sebastian Niven stepped into the room, bearing a candle in one hand.
Dunya, fighting her desire to hurl herself behind the stranger’s pillows, straightened her shoulders and stared at Niven with as much disdain as she could muster. Of course, he saw her at once.
“My dear,” he purred and halted abruptly, brought up short presumably by the sight of the man in the bed.
“Evening, my lord,” the stranger said mildly.
Dunya’s heart sank all over again. They knew each other. Lord Sebastian would browbeat the stranger—who didn’t seem terribly well—into giving her up.
Niven blinked in the flaring candlelight. “Trelawny? When did you arrive in this benighted house?”
“You’re looking a bit peaky,” Niven remarked, not unkindly. “I’m sorry my companion disturbed you. I’ll take her away directly.”
Dunya glared fire at him, her mouth already opening to refuse. Right now, the stranger appeared very much the lesser threat. But neither gentleman seemed to be paying her any attention. Their gazes had locked.
“That won’t be necessary,” the stranger said clearly. “The lady has voiced a preference to stay.”
At last, Niven’s gaze flickered to her. “Has she, by God?”
“Yes,” Dunya said flatly.
Niven’s eyes narrowed, moving from her to the young man. Dunya was afraid to breathe. What if there was actually a fight? What if Lord Sebastian simply dragged her away? The stranger was just that, with no obligation to intervene on her behalf more than he already had. In her admittedly limited experience, men understood and covered up each other’s indiscretions. Well, she could still scratch and kick and—.
“Good night, my lord,” the stranger said firmly.
For an instant, it hung in the balance. Dunya felt she could have cut the air between them with a knife. And then Niven gave a reluctant and not entirely pleasant smile.
“Very well. Your chamber, Trelawny, your rules.” He bowed mockingly in Dunya’s direction. “I’ll see you later, little bird. You won’t hide in here forever.” And turning, he strolled out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
“Oh thank you!” Dunya breathed, taking an impulsive step toward the bed. “How in the world did you achieve that? Do you outrank him?”
A breath of laughter escaped the stranger, whose head fell back against the pillows, apparently exhausted. “By no means.”
“Sir, you are ill,” she said contritely. “Let me help you.” Seizing the glass of water from the night stand, she bent over him. His eyes opened, staring directly into hers. They were a light hazel, flecked with darker brown and green and reflected amber from the fire. Taken with the fair hair, it was an unusual, and handsome combination. However, in that unguarded moment, she read chiefly pain there.
That pain threw her, stilled her with the glass held too far from his lips. For the space of several uncomfortable heartbeats, his eyes held hers. Then he blinked, breaking her spell of paralysis.
“Drink this,” she said abruptly, raising the glass to his lips. His hand came up holding the glass for himself so firmly that she slid her own fingers free. And saw, finally, that the other sleeve of his shirt was empty. He had only one arm.
He sipped the water. “Thank you,” he said, and made to lay it on the night stand. She took it from him.
“Do you need anything else? Is there someone I can call for you?”
“Jenkins will be back soon enough.”
“Jenkins? Your servant?” she hazarded, taking in the truckle bed at the other side of the room. “I’m doubly sorry for troubling you. And doubly grateful! It never entered my stupid head that you were ill.”
“Not ill, precisely. I just had a bit of surgery on a troublesome old wound, so I’m weak as a kitten. How come you to be in Niven’s company? Where is your family?”
“Ah.” She eased herself onto the edge of the bed. “I’m afraid I’ve been excessively silly,” she confessed. “I ran away from my sister because we quarreled and I thought Lord Sebastian would be able to help me.”
“Help you in what, for God’s sake?”
She flushed. “In my plan to marry my betrothed.”
He stared. “I’m no expert, but I fail to see how running away with a notorious rake will please your betrothed or soften the hearts of your family.”
“Oh dear, is he a rake? I should have known,” Dunya said ruefully. “I have a habit of seeing only the part of a situation I wish to.”
“Don’t we all?” the stranger murmured.
“I thought he would protect me when I ran away, which would have the added advantage of perhaps making Etienne jealous.”
“I can see that part might work,” the stranger allowed.
Dunya caught his gaze. “But it might, in fact, have given him a disgust of me,” she guessed.
“Not being acquainted with Etienne, I couldn’t say. But why did you need to run away in the first place? Just because you quarreled with your sister?”
“Oh no, I always meant to run away once we were close enough to Vienna, to oblige Etienne to look for me—then I would, of course, be found, and Etienne would be so relieved and happy to see me that he would remember we were engaged.”
The stranger blinked. “I doubt that’s something any man is likely to forget.”
“You would think so,” Dunya agreed. “But I don’t mean he has forgotten, precisely. It’s just that after he left Russia, he wrote saying I should consider myself free to marry someone of more certain prospects. He thinks that is noble. I think it is dull.”
“It does sound dull,” the stranger agreed. “And I can see that wouldn’t suit you at all.”
“Well no. I would much rather marry a penniless émigré, but now his lands are restored, he has the ear of M.de Talleyrand and we are all at peace once more. It seems to me Etienne’s scruples are no longer necessary.”
The stranger frowned. “Please tell me you haven’t run all the way from Russia to Vienna on your own?”
Dunya laughed. “Of course not! I was with my sister and her husband and all the servants, right up until this afternoon when I ran away.”
“So that Etienne would look for you,” the stranger said. “I see. And where is your sister going?”
“To Vienna, of course.”
“Then, pardon my dullness. Why did you not simply stay with your sister? If your Etienne is with Talleyrand in Vienna—”
“Well, he wrote me such a stupid letter when I told him we were coming. Saying he could not in honor hold me to any engagement, that I was little more than a child when we last met, and that we should therefore consider ourselves un-engaged. He said he must consider worldly matters for both of us. How ridiculous is that?”
“Utterly,” the stranger agreed with gratifying quickness. “How old, exactly, are you?”
“Nineteen,” Dunya replied. “Although it’s true I haven’t seen him since I was seventeen, but even so, I wasn’t a child then and I’m certainly not now.”
“So… if you vanished, to be found by Etienne—especially in the company of Lord Sebastian Niven—you would force him to marry you after all?”
“That was my plan. He would have to exchange one scruple for another and marry me to save my reputation.”
The stranger nodded thoughtfully. “You don’t feel,” he suggested, “that this might make for a rather uncomfortable marriage?”
“Oh no. Not when we love each other.”
“I see. And you’re quite sure you still love him though you haven’t seen him for two years?”
“I will always love him,” she said simply.
The stranger’s gaze fixed on her face. After several moments, he said, “You are loyal.”
“I am. We all are in my family.”
The stranger rested his head back against the pillow, still regarding her. “May I know your name, Mademoiselle?”
“Avdotya Petrovna Savarina. But everyone calls me Dunya.”
“You are very open for a young lady on such an adventure. Does Niven know your name as well?”
“Not my surname or title,” she said thoughtfully. “Which may be how he came to misjudge me. Not that my being of lesser station would have given him an excuse to ruin me,” she added. “But I suppose it might explain some of his behavior.”
“I suppose it might. And Etienne is also a gentleman? Does your family approve of the match?”
“Well…they didn’t forbid it,” Dunya said. “Precisely. But then, my brother was away and never actually met Etienne. I don’t know if my mother told him. She was more interested in my sister’s marriage at the time. Anastasia’s husband is worthy,” she added with scorn.
Damning,” the stranger agreed. Something glinted in his eyes, making her smile.
“Are you laughing at me?” she asked without rancor. “I can’t help it. We all value Nikolai. I even love him. Sort of. But I could never marry someone like him, whatever my mother says about taming me with a stern husband and children.” She shuddered.
“Then Etienne is not worthy or stern?”
“Oh no! He is charming and makes me laugh all the time. Besides being excessively handsome. What is your name, sir? Did Lord Sebastian call you Mr.…Tre-loh-nee?”
“Richard Trelawny, Captain of the 95th Rifles.” The stranger offered his hand, which she took cordially.
“What happened to your other arm?” she blurted.
He didn’t seem to mind. “The Battle of Toulouse. A wound that festered.”
“Was that the operation you endured recently?”
“Oh no. I lost the arm on the battlefield, but the wound misbehaved. There was some foreign body higher up, now safely removed.”
“It must hurt terribly.”
He shrugged, as if uncomfortable for the first time. “I barely notice it, to be honest. And at least it was my right arm.” He smiled faintly. “I’m left-handed.”
The latch clicked and the door opened. Dunya leapt to her feet, not sure what she planned to do, but feeling fiercely protective not only of herself but of the wounded young man who’d tried to help her.