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Montagu House, London
“Wouldn’t youloveto know?” Dowager Duchess Louisa winked at her two great-granddaughters who were whispering about her.
The pair blushed hotly when they realized Lu had overheard them wondering how many lovers she’d had in her eighty-odd years.
Thetrés grande damewas presiding over a levee of her one hundred and one descendants.
“After all, I belonged to the decadent Georgian era. You cannot expect me to even pay lip service to the rigid respectability of the repressed Victorians.”
“Is it true, Your Grace, that you declined the office of Mistress of the Robes to her Majesty the Queen?” Maud asked in awe.
Lu threw back her head and laughed. “Not once, but twice. One of my greatest passions is beautiful raiment in brilliant colors, such as red. Just the thought of Queen Victoria’s dull and dowdy garments gives me the shudders.”
“Her daughter-in-law Princess Alexandra has lovely taste in clothes,” Maud said.
“Indeed she has. It will be a most welcome change to have a queen who is fashionable. I cannot wait.”
The girls looked incredulous that the old girl expected to outlive Queen Victoria.
The corners of Lu’s lips lifted in a wry smile. “I’m not ready to stick my spoon in the wall for another decade. I fully intend to welcome in the next era with gusto.” She waved her crimson ostrich-feather fan languidly. “A little decadence never hurt anyone.”
The room fell silent as Louisa’s youngest daughter Evelyn, Marchioness of Lansdowne, read congratulatory letters from Her Majesty Queen Victoria and His Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales.
The future Duke of Leeds, who was married to her favorite granddaughter, handed her a glass of champagne and kissed her cheek. He raised his own glass. “I drink a toast to the best-looking woman in London.”
“I’ll give you a toast an Irishman taught me:
Here’s to you and here’s to me,
And if someday we disagree,
Sod you . . . here’s to me!”
Louisa sat in the place of honor so that the speeches could begin. Her great-granddaughter Maud and her cousin returned, eager to learn all they could about their fascinating great-grandmother.
“What is it now, Miss Inquisitive?”
“I heard that you first met James Hamilton when you were a little girl. Is that true, Your Grace?”
Louisa’s mind took wing and soared back over the decades to Carlton House. “It was July 1819. . . . I remember it all as if it were yesterday.”
Carlton House, London
“Lady Louisa, will you marry me?”
Louisa Jane Russell, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, stared at the boy who had planted himself before her, and saw the determination written on his face. “Who the devil are you?” she demanded.
Nine-year-old James Hamilton, needing to impress the beautiful seven-year-old, raised his chin with pride. “I am the Marquis of Abercorn.” He pronounced itAvercorn.
“Do you have a speech impediment?”
James drew himself up to his full height. “Certainly not!”
“Then why did you sayAvercornwhen your name isAbercorn?”
James hid a smile. He resisted the impulse to correct the dark little beauty and inform her that the letter ‘b’ in his title was pronounced ‘v’. “You may call me whatever you like, if you will consent to be my future wife.”
“Isn’t Abercorn an Irish title?”
“Yes, it is. My name is James Hamilton. I came into my grandfather’s title last year.” His heart was doing a jig just looking at her. “You haven’t answered my question, Lady Louisa. Will you marry me?”
She raised her lashes and stared at him. “Marry an Irishman with a speech impediment? You must be mad!”
Louisa joined her older sister, Georgy. She eyed the glass of wine in her hand and licked her lips. “Where’s Mother?”
“She’s in the scarlet drawing room with Jack and Charles. Our insufferable brothers have cornered Prinny and are asking all sorts of ridiculous questions about the decorations on his portly chest. Who was that handsome devil you were talking to?”
“His name is James Hamilton. His good looks are very deceiving. He’s actually quite stupid.” She dismissed him from her thoughts. “I’m ravenous. I was too nervous to eat before I performed my dance but now my belly is rolling.” Louisa could see that her sister wasn’t even listening to her. She was searching for someone in the crowd of young people invited to Carlton House for the children’s party. When Georgy darted into the throng of pedigreed youngsters, she sprang after her. “Wait a minute. Where’s the refreshment room?”
To Louisa’s consternation, her sister stopped before James Hamilton and began talking to him. She turned her back on them and was heading in the direction of the scarlet drawing room when she encountered the Prince of Wales.
“My dear, your Spanish dance was delightful.” He touched the red fringe on her shawl with a pudgy finger. “You have your mother’s exquisite beauty. What may I do to show you my appreciation?”
“Could you get me some ham sandwiches, Your Highness, and a glass of sugared wine? I’m very hungry.”
Prinny hid a smile and bowed gallantly. “Your wish is my command, Lady Louisa. I am always delighted to please a lady.”
Louisa decided to follow him and with every step she happily clicked the castanets she’d used in her Spanish shawl dance. She instinctively knew if there was food to be had, the corpulent prince regent would home in on it like a pig unearthing truffles.
Prinny took delight in Lady Louisa’s dainty appetite. “All the Russell children are most impressive. Your brothers are such fine young men.”
Her brows drew together.My brothers are young savages. She swallowed the last morsel. “Thank you for the sandwiches, Your Highness. It was a lovely party. I shall take my wine with me so I may savor it.” She sketched a curtsy and departed.
Louisa scanned the ranks of doting parents for her mother but didn’t see her. Her eyes, however, met those of a striking-looking woman wearing a white turban decorated with a large ruby. She recognized her as Princess Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador.
Louisa smiled, and when the Russian noblewoman beckoned, she sat down beside her. “Are you enjoying the party, Princess Lieven?”
“I was overcome withennuiuntil I saw you dance, Lady Louisa.” She stroked the silk shawl. “Red is a bold color. Do you like it?”
“I love it . . . it makes me feel alive.”
“Red has a power all its own. You should wear it often. It is a striking color for a lady with dark hair and green eyes like yours.”
Louisa was enthralled. “Do you have Gypsy blood, Princess Lieven?”
“My blood is quite blue, I assure you. But I do havepsychicpower—the ability to see into the future. It is a gift or a curse, depending on the circumstances.”
“How fascinating!” Louisa sipped her sugared wine. “Can you seemyfuture?”
Dorothea Lieven ran the tip of her tongue over her rouged lips. “Would you truly want to know your future, child?”
"Oh, yes, please,” she said avidly.
“Set your wine down and give me your hand.”
Louisa did as she was bidden and gazed enthralled as the wraithlike princess stared down at her open palm.
“You have a long life ahead of you, Louisa Russell. You will live to be almost a hundred years old. You will be a great favorite at Court and will live to see five different monarchs sit on the throne of England.”
Old King George is about to die and the prince regent will be king soon. Louisa pictured a plump Prinny sitting on the throne, wearing a glittering crown.
“I see many children surrounding you.”
“Yes, there are so many of us that Father calls Woburn Abbey the rabbit warren. Mother isn’t going to have any more babies, is she?” Louisa asked anxiously. At Christmas her mother had given birth to a lifeless baby boy.
“Georgina, Duchess of Bedford, is a friend of mine. I think it entirely probable she will have more. But I was speaking of your own children surrounding you.”
Louisa was horrified. “You must be mistaken. I intend to be a dancer and an actress on the stage. I don’t want a horde of children. Perhaps I will consider having just one little girl but no boys, certainly.”
Princess Lieven brushed Louisa’s dark curls from her serious forehead. “Nonsense. You will have more than a dozen children, all beautiful.” She saw the look of dismay on the child’s face and hastened to assure her. “There will be more girls than boys.”
Louisa jumped up in alarm. Her mother’s agonizing screams as she gave birth the last three years in a row echoed in her memory. “I must find Mother. Please excuse me, Princess Lieven.”
It didn’t take her long to recognize the Duchess of Bedford’s hat across the chamber. Her mother always wore the most spectacular creations. Louisa hurried to her side and found her surrounded by young people. Her brothers Charles and Jack, as well as her cousin Arthur Lennox, were conversing with their school friends from Westminster, including James Hamilton. Her sister Georgy was batting her eyelashes at Abercorn in a ridiculous manner.
Her Aunt Charlotte, the Dowager Duchess of Richmond, had brought her three youngest daughters, Madelina, Lottie, and Sophia, since Fife House was close by.
“There you are, Pussycat.” Georgina smiled at her daughter. “Your dance was a great success, darling.”
Her female cousins looked impressed, but her brothers snickered and she pointedly ignored them.“Are you hungry?” her mother asked with concern.
James Hamilton stepped forward and fished in his pocket. “I have something you might like, Lady Louisa.”
“No, thank you.” Her refusal was coolly polite. “His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, brought me some sandwiches.” Suddenly her eyes sparkled with delight. Sitting in the middle of Abercorn’s palm was a sugared mouse. “Oh, how sweet. I absolutely cannot resist it.” She took the offered treasure to her mouth and licked it.
As the two duchesses and their families made their way toward the Carlton House door, James gazed after Louisa Russell. Her dance had mesmerized him. Her lithe, graceful movements combined with her dark beauty captured his imagination and made his heart sing. He had lost his heart watching her dance. That she was garbed in red seemed prophetic. The Abercorn ancestral color was crimson.
“I knew I’d have you eating out of my hand. It’s a trick I learned when I was taming my Arabian mare.” Abercorn smiled.
Montagu House, London
At the levee in Montagu House, Dowager Duchess Louisa looked at her great-granddaughter Maud. “Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
Maud nodded. “Thank you for telling us the story, Your Grace.”
The duchess sat back as the speeches began, extolling her virtues, but Louisa’s memories of Abercorn held her fast.The next time I saw James, I was suffering from a broken heart, as only a sixteen-year-old girl can.
“May I see the painting?” Louisa stroked her pony’s neck with a loving hand. Her heart beat wildly as she gazed at the handsome young man who was working on her portrait.
“No, you may not, Mistress Impatience. The afternoon light is perfect. Ten more minutes is all I ask.”
“Then it will be finished, Lanny?”
“No, it won’t be finished.” He flashed her an indulgent smile. “Perhaps tomorrow, or the next day. Do you find posing tiresome, Louisa?”
“Oh no!” She felt her cheeks blush and said shyly, “I like spending the afternoon in your company.”I wish you would go on painting me forever.
Louisa’s father, the Duke of Bedford, had been Edwin Landseer’s patron for more than four years and had commissioned the talented young artist to paint portraits of his wife Georgina and his younger children.
Louisa had considered the artist a familiar friend of the family. But as she posed for him, holding the reins of her pony, her feelings for the handsome young man underwent an amazing transformation.
“Can you make me as beautiful as my mother?” she asked eagerly. Throughout her life Lady Louisa had been told she was the image of her exquisite mother, but she didn’t quite believe it.
“You are the prettiest young lady I have ever painted. With the same beautiful dark green eyes, you are truly your mother’s daughter.”
Louisa lowered her lashes shyly at the lovely compliment. It was the first real praise she had ever received from a member of the opposite sex, and it made her heart flutter.
Thinking an insect had landed on her face, she brushed her fingers across her cheek. Then she felt something hit her chin and heard a muffled giggle. She swooped down immediately and scooped up her youngest brother, Alex, from beneath the mulberry bushes. She kissed his chubby cheek. “You horrid louts shouldn’t be teaching him such naughty tricks.”
Cosmo and Henry, eleven and twelve respectively, sniggered loudly and moved a safe distance away, but still within taunting distance. “Catch us if you can, Cracknut!”
“Just ignore them,” Edwin advised.
“They think it hilarious to call me by the name of my pet dormouse. The boys have run wild for years since Father has been ill; Mother has spent all her time with him.” John Russell, Duke of Bedford, had suffered a stroke, in 1822, paralyzing his right side, distorting his mouth, and crippling his arm.
“Because of your mother’s devoted nursing, your father is much improved and has regained his vigor.” Edwin Landseer wiped his brushes. “That’s enough for today. Your older brothers will soon be home from Oxford for the summer. They’ll box Henry and Cosmo across the ear if they catch them teasing you.”
“No they won’t! They are a brotherhood of demons from hell. Instead of three, there will be six to taunt me, to say nothing of their loutish friends who’ll come to stay. Therabbit warrenwill become amadhouse! The only one who ever champions me is my half-brother, Johnny, but he seldom visits because of his Parliamentary duties.”
“Then I shall be your champion.”
Louisa sighed. “Thank you, kind sir.” As she watched him carry his paints and canvas toward the house, she pictured him on a white charger, wearing her colors at a jousting tournament.
She set her young brother on his feet. “You may come with me while I put Coltsfootin the paddock.”
“Don’t want to. I’m playing soldiers with Cosmo and Henry.”
“All right, Alexander the Ingrate, off you go.” Louisa led her pony along the manicured path that led to the stables. Her mind was filled with Lanny’s handsome image. The teasing look in his blue eyes made him irresistibly attractive. All of her family, except the baby, had dark hair and eyes, and Edwin’s fair coloring was striking.He thinks I am the prettiest young lady he has ever painted!
As she opened the paddock gate, she saw that her sister Georgy and her groom had returned from their ride. She suddenly felt a pang of remorse at reveling in her own pretty face. Her sister had inherited none of their mother’s great beauty and could only be described as plain. Although Louisa never reflected on it, that was the reason she loved Georgy so deeply and felt fiercely protective toward her.
The young groom raised his arms to help Lady Georgianna dismount. As she came down from the saddle, she allowed her body to slide against his and then dropped to her knees in the grass. When she saw her sister, she quickly jumped up and moved away from him. “Lu, are you spying on me?”
“Of course not.” Louisa removed her pony’s bridle. “Lanny wanted me to pose with Coltsfoot and I’m just returning her to the paddock.” She watched Dick lead her sister’s mare and his own mount into the stables.
“He’s devilishly attractive, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I do. I can’t wait to see my portrait.”
“I don’t mean Lanny, for God’s sake. I meanDick!”
“Ah.” Louisa hesitated. “You shouldn’t let him touch you like that.”
“Shouldn’t I? You’re such a prude, Lu. You have no sense of fun. You’re a late bloomer—you haven’t even begun to notice the opposite sex yet.”
Louisa blushed, remembering how her heart had fluttered a half hour ago.
“You’re seventeen and I bet you’ve never even been kissed.”
Lu pictured Lanny touching his lips to hers and her cheeks grew hot.
“A wager!” Georgy challenged. “A guinea says you won’t experience a kiss before you turn eighteen in July.”
“Of course I will, if I put my mind to it.”
“Use your breasts, not your brain,” her sister advised knowingly.
Louisa changed her dress and hurried downstairs to the Venetian drawing room to have a word with her mother before the evening meal. Dinner at Woburn was at six o’clock and seldom were there fewer than twenty people seated in the formal dining room, which displayed the duke’s collection of Van Dyke paintings.
She found her mother conversing with her best friend, Lady Holland, whose Ampthill estate was also in Bedfordshire. “Hello, Aunt Beth.” Louisa glanced anxiously at her mother, who had been looking wan and tired lately. Baby Rachel was only two, and when she cried in the night her mother sat rocking her for hours until she went back to sleep. Louisa’s concern eased when she saw that she looked both happy and well.
“Hello, Lu. What have you been up to?” Beth patted the blue velvet settee, inviting her to join them.
“Lanny is painting my portrait with Coltsfoot, but he won’t show it to me until it’s finished.”
“Posing with animals can be most trying. I once had my portrait painted holding a fidgety spaniel on my knee. Never again!”
“What happened? Did it pee on you?” Georgina teased. “Edwin has an affinity for painting animals. His talent is unmatched. When we were in the Highlands in the autumn, he did the most spectacular painting of a stag. Though I’ve sketched all my life, my artistic ability pales beside his. I wish he could transfer his genius to me.”
“Speaking of the Highlands,” Louisa said tentatively, “is it true that when you were my age, Grandmama took you on a recruiting mission, where you offered a kiss and a guinea to any male who would join the Gordon Highlanders regiment?”
“It is the gospel truth. It was so successful that we recruited a thousand men!”
Louisa gasped. “You kissed athousand men?”
“Not quite a thousand,” Georgina said with a wink. “My sister and mother kissed a couple of hundred, but I got the lion’s share.”
“I’ve never been kissed once!”
Louisa’s words hung in the air, as Georgina and Beth exchanged a significant glance.
“Your mother loves to tease and exaggerate, Lu. You mustn’t take her seriously.”
“Darling, a kiss is an insignificant trifle. You’ll have kisses aplenty, once you are presented and make your debut. The young gentlemen will be fighting over you.”
If kisses have so little importance and Georgy kisses Dick, I’ll have to find someone before my birthday. I can’t lose a wager with my sister. Trouble is, there’s only one person I want to kiss.
“There’s the gong for dinner. Your father hates tardiness.” Georgina waited until her daughter hurried off and then remarked to Beth, “Lu is so unworldly. That’s what comes of living at Woburn instead of London. At her age my four sisters and I were positively bold and sophisticated by comparison.”
“Well, you were all brought up by the indomitable Jane Gordon. How could you be other than wise in the ways of the wicked world?” Beth teased.
“Very true. The women of my family were both audacious and shrewd.”
By the time they arrived in the dining room, Louisa’s brothers, Henry and Cosmo, were already at the table. Alexander’s nanny brought in her charge, sat him down, and departed. The Duke of Bedford, with the aid of a walking stick, arrived with his friend Lord Holland and Edwin Landseer. Her father’s young physician, Harry Halford, who had resided with them since the duke had suffered his stroke, followed them.
When Henry gallantly held Georgina’s chair, then did the same for Louisa, she smiled and said, “Thank you, Uncle Holly.” When Edwin performed the same service for Lady Holland, Louisa felt positively envious.
John Russell’s dark brows drew together. “Where’s Georgy? A lack of promptness is ill mannered.”
Her father was displaying what her mother referred to asRussell firmness. Louisa cleared her throat. “Georgy was reading,” she improvised quickly. “She must have gotten so absorbed, she didn’t hear the dinner gong.”
“What was she reading?” he asked with skepticism.
“One of your lovely books on botany.” Lu managed not to choke on the lie.The only interest Georgy takes in flora and fauna is rolling in the grass.
The soup was being served by the time Georgy slid into her chair. Louisa saw that she hadn’t changed from her riding dress and there were telltale green stains on her skirt. “Please excuse me,” Georgy begged sweetly.
Her father’s stern voice rang out. “Georgianna . . .”
To deflect the reprimand, Louisa took her courage in both hands. “May I dance for you after dinner? Georgy will play for me.”
“That would be lovely,” Beth enthused.
Instead of the usual rude protests from her brothers, Louisa saw Henry and Cosmo exchange a sly smile and wondered what the young demons were up to.
“Lanny, when you have finished the portrait of Lu with her pony, I would like you to paint her in one of her ballet gowns. What do you think?”
“An excellent suggestion, Your Grace. It would be my pleasure.”
Louisa lowered her eyes to the beautiful birds and butterflies that decorated her Meissen soup plate and thought it sacrilege when the footman filled it with consommé.Lanny wants to paint me . . . It will give him pleasure.Her heart began to sing. She closed her eyes and her imagination took flight:They were standing by the fountain in the center of the maze. He dipped his head and gently touched his lips to hers. She raised her lashes and gazed into his adoring, deep blue eyes.Then Georgy joggled her elbow and her fantasy dissolved. Lu cast a guilty look across the table and to her great delight, Lanny smiled at her.Perhaps he read my mind!Her breath caught in her throat.
Before the soup plates were removed and the spring lamb was served, the adults were arguing the merits of breast-feeding. Dr. Halford sided with the Duchess of Bedford, and her racy rejoinders soon had the company laughing. “There’s nothing more entertaining thantitillatingconversation at dinner.”
Louisa glanced at her father and was relieved to see he’d forgotten Georgy’s tardiness. The conversation turned to politics, as it invariably did at Woburn. Tonight Louisa’s newly awakened yearnings outweighed her interest in politics, so through the rest of the meal she sat daydreaming about the handsome young artist.Tonight I will dance especially for Lanny.When she was twelve, it came as a devastating realization that a duke’s daughter could not perform on the public stage. But Woburn had its own private theater, which had helped to blunt her disappointment. When she was onstage dancing or acting a role in a play, she took on a persona of confidence and self-assurance. Her costume became a disguise that masked her shyness and insecurity.
After dinner, the ladies usually withdrew to the blue drawing room while the men drank, but tonight everyone repaired to Woburn’s theater to watch Louisa perform.
Alexander trotted beside his sister. “I like watching you dance, Lulu.”
“Thank you.” She thought him sweet, if only because he was too young to be a hellion.
Georgy took her seat at the harpsichord while Louisa went backstage. In the costume room she lifted the lid of the trunk that held her ballet dresses and slippers. With dismay, she discovered that the ribbons had been cut from all her satin dancing slippers. “Damn and blast the young devils!”
She rummaged to the bottom of the trunk and pulled out a pair of toe shoes they’d overlooked. Though she hadn’t intended to perform a toe dance, she quickly changed her plans. She removed her gown and petticoat and donned a white bell-shaped ballet dress. Then she sat down on the trunk, pulled on the shoes, and crisscrossed their satin ribbons around her ankles so they were firmly secured.
Louisa walked to the center of the stage, raised her chin, and posed dramatically. She held still, completely poised, with the composure of a professional performer. Her sister knew only a few dance selections, and Lu had learned to match her steps to whatever notes Georgy played.
When the music began, she rose to her toes and danceddemi pointe, with dainty little steps that carried her across the stage. She was graceful as a gazelle, swaying with the music as if it were part of her being. She raised her arms, leaped into the air, and landed perfectly on her toes without missing a beat. She was as light as a butterfly as she spiraled across the stage, dancing her heart out for only one person.
The music ended on a crescendo and Louisa swept into a low curtsey, her head almost touching her ankles. When she rose to acknowledge the applause, she gave Lanny a radiant smile. Then she extended her hand toward Georgy and watched her take a bow.
Louisa did not feel the pain until she left the stage. She hobbled over to the trunk and removed her shoes and stockings. All of her toes were raw and bleeding. She winced as she dabbed them with her petticoat and then smiled.
It was worth it!
Before she went to bed, she made an entry in her private journal. She put down only the important things in her life, like her feelings for Lanny. The diary’s clasp had a small lock and key for safekeeping. When she was finished, she carefully put the book away in the secret drawer of her writing desk and hid the key.No one must ever find it and read it. These are the secrets of my heart.