Standing under the shade of a tall building, tapping his thumb on the rounded knob of his walking stick, he watched her, tracking her movements along the crowded streets. He was mesmerised by the sway of her hips and the rosy sheen of her cheeks. At first, she appeared to be happy to weave her way through the market. When she picked up an item from a nearby stall, she fiddled with the object before replacing it. She seemed unsure of what to buy and increasingly perturbed by her surroundings.
He suspected she was visiting the city and wasn’t a local. Her paler skin and blonde hair added to his opinion that she was neither French nor Spanish. Her agitated mannerisms, the constant flicking of a loose strand of hair, illustrated her nervous disposition. A lack of a companion or chaperone surprised him. He deduced, from her clothing, she had some money to her name, thereby discounting her as a vagabond - though not the finest attire by any means, they were of good taste.
Her face was beautiful. However, not a beauty borne from refinement or breeding, more a simple attractiveness that evoked attentiveness on those whom dwelt on her features. She possessed a short delicate nose, an agreeable mouth with a broad smile and blue eyes. She’d bound her hair back and in the heat and wind, some strands had blown loose, curling about her chin. Her stature was slender not thin, her waist trim and her bosom full for her youthful age. Everything about her was quite appealing, if unrefined and lacking the finish of the class of lady he was accustomed to meeting.
Unable to resist her allure, he followed her through the increasing throng. She meandered down side streets to look at the lesser shops and occasionally she disappeared from his sight. Eventually she would reappear to stop and glance about her with bemusement, then her facial features changed. Those pretty eyes darted about here and everywhere, widening and her lower lip quivered. The girl was afraid.
She continued to wander about with little direction or purpose, and around her ankles the hem of rustic green dress collected dust. Her face flushed pink with more than the heat of the morning. He sensed she was lost and quite alone in her rambling. It was unwise of those responsible for her care to place such a vulnerable woman in a predicament. He wouldn’t have permitted it.
His wife would have known not to walk alone in a strange city. The young lady needed to understand her actions were foolish. His methods, the ones he had used in the past, would require certain lax attitudes to personal safety to result in punishment. Nothing harsh or terrible, but something to help remind her of her defencelessness. For a few seconds, he chuckled to himself then dismissed the visions of rouged cheeks from his. He abandoned them with blink of his eye. He’d sworn to himself he would not countenance such actions with another woman.
Gradually her distress became more apparent and her feet stumbled on the cobblestones as she pivoted in diminishing circles. She asked a shopkeeper for directions and the toothless man grinned at her before rambling on: she shrugged her shoulders, unable to understand. Her observer could not help smiling at her inability to follow directions and her lack of compass points. However, he could no longer stand by and watch her drift further into the dangerous backwaters of Nice.
Swinging his stick, he decided to come to her rescue. He was after all a gentleman.
Monaco, summer, 1894
Dearest Miss Lacey.
I hope you are keeping in good health and fine spirits.
The weather here is splendid if a little too hot. I fan myself constantly with very discernible effect on the flush of my skin. My chemise sticks to my ribs, my corset drains my energy and the air feels heavy with wind and heat.
Lady Stanbury is not in a better mood. I apologise if my letters can find no redeeming features in my employer. Daily I try to make her happy and provide the companionship she requests from me and daily I appear to fail her.
She blames me for the weather! The lack of decent parties to attend! The rudeness of the hotel staff! And so on.
What can I do? I know that widowhood can bring a lady into the state of melancholy and misery, but for four years she has repeated the virtues of her husband as if he has ascended to heaven and occupied it for himself. I, the mere lady’s companion, cannot compare to his abilities and social skills.
She finds my conversation dull. I fear she is little educated and I have you, dear governess, to thank for my wonderful education. I am so desperate to continue my lessons.
Yes, I am innocent, I confessed to her, but how can I expand my limited horizons if she denies me the knowledge that lies in books and pamphlets.
Oh forgive me, I have whined about my lady too much!
Please write. We remain here for at least two more weeks before she will move to a new location. I hope Paris! She speaks of Jersey or possibly Barcelona! I do not mind as long as I am allowed a little freedom.
Monaco, summer, 1894
Dearest Miss Lacey,
Thank you for your letter. As ever your words of both admonishment and encouragement provide me with suitable motivation. You are right, I complain far too much. I should be grateful to be in the company of a wealthy independent woman who has given me the opportunity to travel without financial burdens. I am young and have my whole life to explore my own wishes and desires.
Your advice about suggesting I read aloud to her was not taken well. My offer declined, so I returned to sewing her buttons back to her cuffs and blouses. She expands with each passing day as she exercises little and eats far too much rich food.
The weather has remained intolerably hot and humid. My appetite is not great and I would love to cook rather than have one more day of the hotel’s rather repetitive menu.
There, I am doing it again. Complaining!
My next letter, I shall be in a better mood.
Monaco, summer, 1894
Dearest Miss Lacey.
News! Lady Stanbury has broken her ankle. Slipped on a paving stone and tumbled. Twisting her delicate ankle it was found to be askew and had to be re-set by a local surgeon.
She is bed bound and requires the care of a nurse, relieving me of my duties during the day. She does not need me when she can order a nurse about her personage.
Therefore, in my freedom, I played tennis with a lovely young girl. She loves me to read to her and we have taken tennis lessons. Such a pretty thing, barely thirteen and very romantic. She dreams of meeting a prince and marrying him! I tell her I dream of a good, fine husband who I can serve dutifully as you told me a good wife should.
Tomorrow I go to Nice for a visit and though without chaperone, I know this will anger you, I will be in good spirits and concentrate on the markets to spend the little cash my lady bestows upon me.
Wishing you the best of health.
The midday heat induced a wave of nausea in Viola and she stumbled on the uneven cobblestones, adding to the discomfort of her feet. Her day trip to Nice had turned into a nightmare. Having been unable to find her way back to the main streets and along with the lack of cabs, meant she was quite lost. Her train back to Monaco was due to depart after lunch and Lady Stanbury expected her for afternoon tea. Viola waved her fan about her sweaty face while dust and her parched mouth caused her to splutter and cough.
With every passing minute, she could feel the panic rise and her stomach churned. Jostled and elbowed by passing traders and street vendors, she tried to find her but her temples throbbed. Her French, though excellent, did not cover the vernacular of the locals. She couldn’t understand the directions they gave her. Seeking out shade, she dreaded fainting, not that she had ever succumbed to the full swoon before that day. The tightness of her corset made her breaths painful and she longed to remove the cumbersome item of clothing. She regretted wearing the extra layer in the growing heat of the day.
“Oh God, help me,” she muttered.
“Please allow me instead.”
The voice came from nearby and Viola glanced around. An English voice like hers. A man’s and she quickly discounted many locals before she took in the gentleman standing three feet from her left shoulder.
She wanted to swoon again but not from the heat, but from the presence of the handsome stranger. A clean-shaven man of middling years. He wore a grey jacket, a vest with a Derby black necktie, white pointed shoes, which were indicative of the warm season, and an ebony walking stick with a rounded end. His hair was jet black and yet his eyes were a pale grey. She wouldn’t have known his nationality if he had not spoken—his appearance was cosmopolitan.
Viola knew the cut of his coat, the weave of the stripes in his trousers and satin ribbon about his trilby shouted wealth. He maintained a relaxed posture with one leg bent at the knee, and stared at her with a faintly amused expression, lips curling upwards. While she regained her composure, he stroked the smooth knob of his stick with long fingers.
“Sir?” Whom exactly was she addressing? She maintained a distance.
“You are, I surmise, quite lost?” He cocked his head and smiled.
“Well, yes, as it happens I am.”
“Where were you going to?”
“I had hoped to do more shopping.” Her shoulders slumped. She’d wasted much time. “Then some lunch and the train back to Monaco. That is where I am staying.”
“On your own?” He knotted his eyebrows.
“I... travelled today unaccompanied,” she confessed and his facial features hardened with displeasure. “Normally I provide companionship for the Lady Melissa Stanbury. Unfortunately, the lady has broken her ankle in a fall and I am—”
“Wandering about Nice without a chaperone?” he capped. “Not suitable for a young lady. What would your parents say?”
Viola’s heart pounded. How forward of him! She straightened her shoulders. “My parents are both deceased. My mother when I was born and my father two years passed.” She frowned at the recollection of the telegram, which informed her that her father had died of typhoid in Calcutta.
“You are without a guardian?” He tapped his stick on the ground and rested a hand on his hip.
Viola stuck out her chin. “I do not require one. I am twenty-two and have a meagre allowance to my name. My employer provides me with everything I require.”
He pursed his lips. “Except common sense it would appear.”
“Sir!” exclaimed Viola. “I am well educated. I would have you know—”
“No doubt. Education does not breed wits and a good sense of direction. You shouldn’t be about this place unaccompanied. I will return you to the station for your journey back to Monaco.”
“I wish to take luncheon first.” She lied. Her stomach rumbled not from hunger, but nervous energy.
“Then at least let me provide you with my company,” he offered.
“I… I… don’t even know your name, sir,” she stuttered. “How could I possibly go with a stranger?”
“Very wise.” He grinned. “Allow me to introduce myself then. I am Sir Anton Valise, the 4th baronet of Chariston, Dorset. And you?” He bowed, tipping his hat as he straightened.
“Oh!” A baronet!
Her attitude towards his kindness shamed her—she curtseyed, hiding her flaming cheeks. “My name is Viola Pritchard. My father was a diplomat in Her Majesty’s service until his untimely death. I originate from Nottinghamshire.” She rose and he greeted her with a broad smile.
“A delight to meet you, Miss Pritchard. Please allow me the pleasure of escorting you to lunch.”
He stuck his elbow out and after a few seconds of reservation, she slipped her hand through the loop and rested her arm in his.
“Thank you, Sir Anton,” she said faintly. She had never been in such close proximity to a strange man before now and her skin tingled beneath her corset.
They walked at a sedate pace as he guided her back with relative ease to the place she first had come to when exiting her cab: a plaza with main restaurants and cafes. He took her to one and they entered the cool interior.
“I’m sorry, Sir Anton,” she whispered, “I cannot afford this place. My allowance does not fill my purse with many coins.”
“Not to worry, Miss Pritchard. Allow me to indulge you.”
Viola bit down on her lip. Lady Stanbury wouldn’t be keen for her to take lunch with man and for him to pay the expense too. But, who would tell her mistress, she reasoned.
“Thank you, I am grateful for your kindness,” she said, as he pulled out a chair for her. “I have been most ungracious towards your generosity and consideration.”
“Forgiven. How could I not resist the company of so charming a lady as yourself.”
Viola whisked out her fan and fluttered it close to her hot cheeks.
Luncheon passed at a leisurely pace. He winkled out of her the location of her hotel in Monaco, the status of her lady and the nature of her employment. He also deduced she was intelligent and knowledgeable within her confining view of the world.
He heard her talk with praise for her old governess and with little enthusiasm for her lady. She mentioned nothing of men. No brothers or cousins to keep her company during childhood and she inferred she hadn’t experienced the wooing or courtship of a young man since leaving her protective home life. Her innocence intrigued Anton. How virtuous was the girl and to what extent had she experienced love in her life?
Her laughter was light and airy, her manners excellent though she lacked the regal graces of the ladies he socialised with in London. Occasionally she giggled childishly and the sound didn’t irritate him, which surprised him. He had no time for children. As offspring and heirs, they had uses but beyond that he had no desire to fritter his time away with wayward, contrary children.
Anton couldn’t stop focussing on her face, a rather pretty creature and he was quite taken by her. At closer quarters, her skin had freckled slightly in the strong sun and her hair had bleached. Her height was above average for a woman, yet still came far short of his six foot stature. Trim about the waist, he fancied it would be so even without the aid of a corset. The rise and fall of her well-shaped bosom was hard to ignore, consequently, he kept his gaze on her eyes.
Her companion equally fascinated Viola. Older than her by maybe ten years or so, he retained youthful features. Perhaps because he was clean-shaven and his dark hair was untinged by greyness. His cheekbones were unusually high, his lips thin, eyes piercing and bright in the dim light of the restaurant’s interior. He possessed broad shoulders and a flat belly, making the cut of his waistcoat superior in refinement.
Viola squeezed her legs tight together under her skirt. The sensation, which fluttered inside, wouldn’t dissipate and made her uncertain of her emotions. Never before had she felt such feelings as the ones coursing through her bloodstream. She was unsure how to respond—to be disgusted in her behaviour or to acknowledge an awakening of cravings that had remained unrequited and unmet.
“Is there a Lady Valise?” she asked, between courses.
“There was,” he said with brevity. “She died.”
“I am sorry, Sir Anton,” said Viola hastily. “I did not mean to distress you.”
“You have not,” he said, then descended into silence as the waiter served them.
She picked at her food, feeling she had shattered any conversation between them with her impertinent question. The silence continued and she sighed.
“What?” asked Sir Anton.
Viola hadn’t intended her annoyance to show outwardly. “Nothing,” she blustered. “Are you here on business?”
His face brightened when she changed the topic. “Partly. The summer in Dorset has been unusually wet and I wished for warmth and sunshine. I had some business in Spain and came to the south of France to enjoy a brief period of respite.”
“You have a particular business you undertake?”
“I have a large estate with numerous tenants. Vineyards in France, olive groves in Spain, some factories, which produce fine cuisine. I have to confess to being a man of some wealth, though mainly attached to assets.”
“I see,” said Viola, although she did not really understand the nature of commerce and industry.
He smiled. “There is no family to take an interest in your well-being?”
Viola placed her knife and fork together, and patted her lips with the linen napkin. “A stepmother who I would wish to forget.” Viola couldn’t hide her bitterness, the tone laced in her voice.
“You think she failed in her duties as his wife?” Sir Anton leant back on the wooden chair.
“Why yes. They rarely had each other’s company. She refused to go overseas. What is a wife to do but be at her husband’s side and show him her devotion? My governess detested my step-mother so I suppose her influence shows in my thoughts.”
“A formidable governess then.”
“Strict but not uncaring of me. She has been the only adult in my life with a longstanding presence. Without her I.... I dread to think.” Viola halted.
To lose another significant person in her life would be too much pain. Her father might have been physically absent from her life but he had written to her regularly. Long letters filled with adventure and drama. She still missed his handwriting and style of prose.
Anton felt an unusual pang of tenderness to the young woman, and perhaps something else, which he hadn’t felt in a while—a longing for feminine company. Neglected by many and left to her own devices, the young lady before him had shaped into a beautiful creature. A tempting one and he wondered what it would feel to have her close by him, touching her and holding her tight to his body. Even more so, to have her bent over and naked, offering herself up to him. Shaking his head unconsciously, he dismissed his random thoughts. He had to make her his first and there were many hurdles to leap over before he could dare to love again.
“Please allow me to escort you back to Monaco. I have nothing further to do in Nice and I can take up residence in Monte Carlo,”
Anton watched the surprise spread across her face. She couldn’t hide the pleasure from her features; she wanted to spend more time with him.
“I... I would be honoured by your company, Sir Anton.” She trembled slightly as he smiled at her.
“Very good, Miss Pritchard.” He glanced over to a waiter and signalled for the bill. “I have to collect a few belongings from my lodgings. The rest can be forwarded.”
The agreement made, the afternoon progressed quickly. He hailed a cab and took her to his rented villa, retrieving an overnight bag before leaving instructions that the rest of his baggage was to be brought to Monaco. His valet made a careful note of all of his master’s instructions. Anton didn’t hide his hovering companion from the curious servant who listened to the string of commands rattled off by him.
For Viola, the return journey to Monaco was more eventful than going, as Anton provided her with a knowledgeable commentary and reams of information about growing conditions for grapes and the long process of producing a good quality wine. She listened attentively, which pleased him greatly.
Anton returned Viola to her hotel promptly and there was a few awkward moments in the hotel lobby.
“I am so grateful to you, Sir Anton,” she stammered. “I do not know where to begin...”
“Then don’t, if you cannot,” he said simply. Uncharacteristically, his fingers darted out and touched the back of her hand before withdrawing it quickly. Why he was drawn to her remained a beguiling mystery and one he could no longer ignore. “I would like to have your company again, Miss Pritchard. If you could escape the demands of your lady without gaining her disapproving looks.”
“I would rather she did not know,” admitted Viola.
“Mmmm,” murmured Anton.
Protocol dictated he should seek permission before taking Lady Stanbury’s charge from her. He knew what she would say in response, making the request pointless. Etiquette be damned, he would court whoever he pleased.
“Very well, Miss Pritchard,” he announced. “Tomorrow, after breakfast, would you like to view the sailing yachts in the marina?”
“Oh yes please, Sir Anton.” She rose up on her tiptoes, as if to expect a kiss, then ducked down again.
“Very good. Ten o’clock prompt. Here in the lobby.” Anton bowed and Viola gave a brief curtsey. For a few seconds they eyed each other, unable to let go of their visual exchange. Finally, he turned and walked out without looking back.