Nicola and the ViscountMeg Cabot
Nicola and the Viscount
From Catherine and the Pirate
Many thanks to Beth Ader, Jennifer Brown, Laura Langlie, Abby McAden, and David Walton.
"Oh, Nicky." The Honorable Miss Eleanor Sheridan sighed. "I would give anything to be an orphan, like you. You are so lucky."
Miss Nicola Sparks, far from taking offense at her friend's remark, looked thoughtfully at her own reflection in the great gilt-framed mirror before them. "Aren't I, though?" she agreed.
Eleanor's mother let out an indignant harrumph. "Well, I like that!" the Lady Sheridan said as she handed a pile of Eleanor's undergarments to the girl's French maid to pack. "I'm terribly sorry your father and I have been so unobliging, Eleanor, in not perishing in a more timely manner."
Eleanor, who stood behind Nicola at the dressing table, examining her chestnut brown curls in the mirror with the same critical eye Nicola was applying to her glossy black ones, rolled her eyes.
"Oh, don't be tiresome, Mama," Eleanor said. "You know I don't wish you and Papa dead. It's only that lucky Nicola gets to pick from a horde of invitations where she'll go now that school's finished, while I have no choice in the matter at all. I've got to spend the rest of my life—until I'm. manned, in any case—with you and Papa and wretched Nat and Phil."
"I can arrange for you to spend the rest of your life with your great-aunts in Surrey," Lady Sheridan pointed out dryly, "if our household is so offensive to you. I am sure they would love to have you."
Eleanor's hazel eyes widened, and she spun from the dressing table to face her mother. "Surrey!" she burst out. "What in heavens name would I do in Surrey?"
"I'm sure I can't say." Lady Sheridan closed the first of her daughter's many trunks, then moved to the second. "But I can promise you'll find out if you don't start showing a little more sense. Nicola, lucky to be an orphan, indeed!"
Nicola, roused by this remark from an examination of her new, upswept coiffure—the first she'd ever been allowed by Martine, her own very strict French maid, who did not believe it was proper for girls younger than sixteen to wear their hair up—turned around on the tasseled stool upon which she sat, and said to her friend's mother with some gravity, "But I am lucky, Lady Sheridan. I mean, it isn't as if I ever actually knew my parents, so you see, I cannot miss them. They died a few months after I was born. And though their deaths were tragic, at least they perished together. . . ."
"So romantic," Eleanor said with a sigh. "I hope that when I die, it is like Nicky's parents did, drowning in the river Arno after a sudden storm."
"And though Father hadn't any money to speak of," Nicola went on calmly, as if Eleanor hadn't spoken, "he did leave me the abbey, which provides me with some income—not much, of course, but enough for a maid and school and new lace for a bonnet now and then, anyway."
Nicola turned back toward her reflection, which, though by no means the prettiest one at Madame Vieuxvincent's Seminary for Young Ladies—Eleanor surely had the distinction of being the most beautiful girl at school—no one, with the exception perhaps of Nicola herself, would dispute was anything but pleasing. Nicola found the fact that her nose bore traces of a powdering of freckles, left over from an injudicious river expedition the summer before with neither hat nor parasol, a dreadful shortcoming.
Still, freckles notwithstanding, she was forced to admit, "So really, Lady Sheridan, Eleanor is right. I am lucky. At least I have been, up until now. What shall happen to me next . . ." Nicola bit her lower lip, and watched in the mirror as it turned a deep scarlet. Rouge was strictly forbidden at the school—as, unfortunately for Nicolas freckles, was powder—and so the girls were forced to resort to pinches and bites if they hoped to achieve the effect of blooming health, though Nicola, with her ivory complexion and ebony lashes and hair, usually managed quite well without such tricks. "I haven't the slightest idea. I suppose now that I'm finished with my schooling, I shall be blown about by life, like a thistle in the wind."
"Well, if you should ever tire of being a thistle," Lady Sheridan said, shaking out one of her daughter's sadly crumpled shawls before handing it to Eleanor's maid, Mirabelle, to press between sheets of tissue, then fold into the trunk before them, "you are always welcome to stay with us, Nicola, for as long as you like."
"As if she would want to," Eleanor cried, turning away from the sun-filled window she'd gone to stand before. "Why, Nicky's had invitations to come and live with some of the richest girls at school! Sophia Dunleavy's asked her. Oh, and Charlotte Murphy. Even Lady Honoria Bartholomew's asked her. Her parents have a town house on Park Lane, and Lady Honoria's got her own curricle . . . not to mention an entire wardrobe copied straight from the fashion plates of La Belle Assemblée, just for her first season out And her father's an earl—the Earl of Farelly—and not a measly viscount, like Papa."
"Good Lord." But Lady Sheridan was not, as one might have thought, commenting on the grandness of Lady Honoria Bartholomew's lineage. "I can't imagine what Lady Farelly could be thinking, inviting a girl like Nicola to stay during her own daughter's first season out. The woman must be mad."
Nicola, hearing this, felt her eyes suddenly fill with tears. Why, Eleanor had been her most bosom friend through their years together at Madame's! How many holidays had Nicola spent at Sheridan Park? How many weekends had she passed at the Sheridans' London home? She had always rather fancied that kindly, comfortable Lady Sheridan looked upon her as a second daughter.
So why on earth would she ever say such a thing?
"A girl like Nicola?" Eleanor, much to Nicola's gratification, was quick to rush to her friend's defense. "Why, Mama! What a thing to say! And right in front of Nicky, too!"
But Lady Sheridan only looked annoyed. "For heaven's sake, Eleanor," she said in her no-nonsense way. "I only meant that Lady Farelly must not have the sense God gave a goose to invite a girl as pretty as Nicola to stay at a time when her own daughter—who is no picture, mind you, for all her money—will be angling for a husband."
Nicola realized that what she'd thought to be an insult of the worst kind had actually turned out to be rather a nice compliment. So she blinked back her tears and, feeling a rush of affection for her friend's mother, leaped from the tasseled stool and ran to embrace her.
"Oh, Lady Sheridan," Nicola cried, not caring that she'd nearly upset the armful of linens Mirabelle, the maid, had been carrying. "You are so wonderful! You almost make me wish I were staying with you, after all."
Lady Sheridan, looking a bit startled, nevertheless returned Nicola's hug, patting her fondly on the shoulder.
"You are a sweet girl, Nicola," Lady Sheridan admitted. "I think you've done a world of good for Eleanor. Lord knows we chose boarding school for her only as a last resort. All those governesses we hired despaired of her ever grasping even a basic knowledge of French and petit poin
t. But thanks to you—and Madame, of course—she's grown a good bit less silly. I believe it was because of your influence that she finally put her mind to her studies."
"Mama!" Eleanor protested. "I am hardly silly. Why, I received better marks than anyone in the entire school this term, with the exception of Nicola. And I read the whole of The Lay of the Minstrel only last month." But she was soon distracted by a noise outside her bedchamber window, and quickly forgot her outrage in her eagerness to report, "Oh, look, Nicky! It's him! The God himself! He did come, after all, just as Lady Honoria said he would!"
Nicola released Lady Sheridan at once and rushed to the window, nearly snagging her white muslin gown on the edge of one of Eleanor's trunks, and causing Mirabelle to gasp, "Oh, mademoiselle! Your lovely dress! Have a care!"
Eleanor, making room for Nicola on the window seat, declared scornfully, "Oh, who cares about a stupid dress when there's a god in the carriage drive?"
Lady Sheridan and her daughter's maid exchanged meaningful glances, but Nicola didn't care how flighty they thought her and Eleanor: it was well worth it, considering the sight that awaited them below. . . .
"Oh," Eleanor whispered, so as not to be overheard—for it was, after all, a warm spring day, and all the windows at Madame's had been thrown open to allow the air to circulate as the girls moved out, it being the last day of the school term. "Look at him, Nicky. Have you ever seen such a vision?"
Nicola had to admit that she had not. At least not since the last time young Lord Sebastian had come to call upon his sister, the Lady Honoria, a fellow boarding student at the seminary.
"He has the veriest golden hair I ever saw," Eleanor declared in a low voice. "And look at those shoulders!"
Nicola, gazing down at the tall young man, saw neither the golden hair nor the impressive width of shoulder. Instead she remembered Lord Sebastian's eyes—as blue, she knew, as her own, and her own had been compared by a few of the more imaginative girls to the stone in the sapphire brooch Madame wore on special occasions such as today. Blue as the sky overhead Lord Sebastian Bartholomew's eyes had looked the first time she'd gazed into them. . . .
And that had been at the school's last recitation day the previous autumn, when Lady Honoria's brother, down from Oxford to visit his only sister, had complimented Nicola after her performance of Walter Scott's Marmion.
"Miss Sparks," Lord Sebastian had said, in a voice as gentle and deep as ever Nicola had imagined Lancelot addressing his fair Guenevere. "How I envy Lochinvar, if only for having his name formed by so sweet a pair of lips."
She'd received the compliment without a word, only a curtsy and, she feared, a blush. But how could she have spoken? What could she have said? Eleanor was quite right: the man was like a god, an absolute Apollo, or even an Adonis . . . at least as Apollo and Adonis were depicted by the great masters, copies of which Madame had hanging in the salon for her boarders' edification.
And like Apollo, the sun god, Lord Sebastian seared Nicola's soul. Just a single glance. That was all it took.
Well, had it taken Romeo more than that to seize forever the heart of his sweet Juliet?
And here Lord Sebastian was again, and this time Nicola was determined to do more than curtsy. No, this time she would impress the God with her wit and poise. See if she didn't.
And she supposed it wouldn't hurt that she looked so very well, with her new upswept coiffure. Why, the last time she'd seen him, she'd been in braids! He must have thought her positively childish! It was too bad about the freckles, but there was nothing, she supposed, to be done about those. At least until she got to London and was able to get her hands on some face powder.
"I wonder if he heard your Lady of the Lake at the recitation this morning," mused Eleanor, watching as Lord Sebastian directed a servant carrying one of his sister's trunks toward their waiting carriage. "If he did, he must certainly love you now. For no one can hear you recite Scott, Nicky, and not love you."
Nicola was fervently hoping this was true just as a decidedly unfeminine voice from behind the two girls demanded, "Who loves Nicky?"
Both Nicola and Eleanor spun around. Then, when they saw who it was, both girls moved instinctively to block the view from the window.
"Nathaniel, what can you be thinking?" Lady Sheridan scolded her eldest son. "Entering your sister's bedchamber without knocking first! I have never heard of such a thing."
"The door was open." Eleanor's older brother, the Honorable Nathaniel Sheridan, flopped onto a nearby settee and regarded the two girls with a gaze that was as speculative as it was mischievous. "Who loves Nicky?" he repeated.
Nicola, abashed, flung a look of appeal in Lady Sheridan's direction. Nathaniel Sheridan seemed to delight in mercilessly teasing his sister, as well as Nicola, whenever he happened to see her, which fortunately was not often, since Nathaniel had been, up until recently, busy studying for a mathematics first—which he had, in fact, successfully received—at Oxford.
But now, his degree secured, Nathaniel had been turned loose upon the world, and Nicola could not help feeling a bit sorry for it . . . the world, that is. Though she secretly suspected that Nathaniel's behavior would not have been half so infuriating had he not happened to be so very attractive. Oh, he was no Apollo—heaven forbid! No golden-haired, blue-eyed god he.
But he was quite tall, and did happen to have a very charming smile, and the way his brown hair sometimes flopped into his eyes—hazel, like his sister's—Nicola found disarming in the extreme. It was quite intolerable that so irritating a person could be so physically prepossessing.
Nathaniel's disdain for poetry, however, was a very great failing. He had once even had the gall to call the brave and handsome Lochinvar "that great ass," a sin for which Nicola knew she could never forgive him.
Fortunately Lady Sheridan was as disapproving of her eldest son's occasionally waggish treatment of his sister and her friends as Nicola was of his lack of respect for literary beauty.
"You'll be addressing Nicola as Miss Sparks from now on, Nathaniel," the young man's mother declared. "As of today, she is no longer in the schoolroom, and you will accord her the courtesy you would if she were a stranger to you, and not Eleanor's particular friend." To Nicola, Lady Sheridan said, "But you, my dear, should still feel free to crack him over the head with your parasol if he persists in being irritating."
Before Nathaniel could protest too much over this, Eleanor's other brother, ten-year-old Phillip, burst into the bedchamber his sister would soon be vacating forever, also without bothering to knock. He had no eyes for his female relations, however. All his attention was focused on his twenty-year-old brother.
"Nat," he cried excitedly. "You should see the phaeton that just pulled round! Matching bays, eighteen hands each if they're an inch, and had to have cost a hundred quid each, easy—"
"Phillip!" Lady Sheridan was shocked by the lack of decorum her sons were exhibiting. "Really. A gentleman always knocks before entering a lady's boudoir."
But her youngest son merely looked confused. "Lady? What lady? It's only Eleanor's room, after all. Listen, Nat, you must come and see these bays—"
"Mademoiselle." All eyes turned to the doorway, where Nicola's maid Martine stood, holding on to her mistress's bonnet and parasol, her dark eyes wide. "Begging your pardon, mademoiselle, but the Lady Farelly sent me to fetch you. Their carriage just pulled round. They are all waiting for you downstairs."
"So those are Lord Farelly's bays, then," Phillip said with a low, appreciative whistle. "Well, no wonder."
His elder brother's reaction to this news was not nearly so sanguine, however. Nathaniel nearly leaped from the seat in which he'd been lolling a second before. "Lord Farelly?" he burst out, not very politely. "What the devil? You're not going to stay with the Bartholomews, are you, Nicky?"
"What if I am?" Nicola wanted to know, as she reached for the bonnet her maid held. "They are perfectly nice people."
"Perfectly rich people, you mean," P
hillip said. "No wonder Nicky's staying with them, with bays like that."
"Phillip!" Lady Sheridan looked to be at the end of her patience with her children. "It is uncouth to comment upon the financial status of others. And Nathaniel, I told you before, you are to address Nicola as Miss Sparks."
"And really, Phil," Eleanor said scornfully. "The idea of Nicky choosing to stay with the Bartholomews over us simply because they happen to have more money than we do is positively ridiculous. How could you think something so wicked, and of our Nicky? Why, it's got nothing to do with that The fact is, she's in love with Lord Sebas—"
"Eleanor!" Nicola cried.
But it was too late. The damage was done.
"So that's who you were talking about when I walked in." Nathaniel pushed some dark hair from his eyes and glared at Nicola. "Well, just so you know, Sebastian Bartholomew is nothing but an oarsman"
Nicola, furious over hearing the God slighted—though she couldn't imagine why joining a college rowing team should be such a crime—but equally furious with Eleanor for letting her most treasured secret slip, gasped. She could not remember ever feeling so truly angry with anyone. Anger, Madame had always reminded her pupils, was unbecoming in a lady. And so Nicola struggled to contain her feelings. But she could not. They burst from her in a frothy torrent.
"You should be ashamed of yourself, saying things like that," Nicola cried. "You don't even know him!"
"I know him a good deal better than you do," Nathaniel replied. "He was in my same college at Oxford."
"And?" Nicola demanded. "So what if he was an oarsman? I should think that's a good deal more exciting than what you were doing at Oxford."
"Getting an education, you mean?" Nathaniel's laugh was humorless. "Yes, I should say Bartholomew had a more exciting time of it at Oxford than I did."
Though she still wasn't certain what he meant, Nicola felt another spurt of rage. How dared anyone speak disparagingly of the God! She wanted to break something, but since this was Eleanor's room, and not her own, there was nothing nearby that she could get away with breaking, so she settled for stamping a slippered foot and declaring, "You make him sound like a wastrel!"