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By´╝ÜJoanna Chambers

Part One


Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 18

Chapter One

May 1809

“I look awful,” Rose said flatly.

The girl in the looking glass was gaunt, her cheeks hollow. She still carried the red, angry marks of her recent illness on her face and body. She was a stranger, and Rose hated looking at her.

“You look fine,” Lottie said briskly, fastening the buttons at the back of Rose’s gown. “And in a few months, you will look lovely. Your hair will grow, and my cook will fatten you up again, cara.”

Rose eyed her tragically shorn hair, all cut off in the midst of raging fever. Lottie’s hairdresser had come yesterday afternoon and had done his best to style her short locks into something resembling a fashionable cap of curls, but she still looked like an early Christian martyr with her sad, shadowed eyes. Like Joan of Arc about to go to the stake.

When the buttons were all done up, Lottie looked up and smiled at Rose in the mirror. That smile roused an odd mixture of emotions in Rose. Fondness, resentment and an aching sort of envy. Carlotta Neroni—Rose’s father’s mistress—was very beautiful. In fact, she was Rose’s polar opposite.

A few months ago, Rose had hated Lottie, even though they’d never met. She’d resented the beautiful soprano who reportedly sang like an angel and looked like one too. The woman who’d drawn her father away from her. And then Rose had fallen ill.

Chicken pox. A childhood ailment she should have recovered from within a week or two. By the time Papa realised how ill she was, she was delirious with blood poisoning and the physicians couldn’t crack the fever. When Papa went to Lottie, it was probably for his own comfort; however, the result had been that Lottie had descended upon the household like a whirlwind. The physicians were told in no uncertain terms to stop bleeding Rose, her bedchamber was cleaned and aired, and the kitchens were commandeered by Lottie’s Italian cook. Under Lottie’s unsentimental ministrations, Rose had, against all the odds, recovered.

That had been weeks and weeks ago, and still Lottie was here, still fussing over Rose like a mother hen. She was looking at Rose now with that warm expression of hers that made her look as though she cared for Rose. Which was absurd, really, given that Rose had given Lottie no reason even to like her.

When she’d woken from her fever to find Lottie in residence, she’d been less than gracious to her. She’d been a querulous invalid too, but Lottie had borne her ill temper with cheerful amusement. Only in the last few weeks, as Rose had grown stronger and emerged from her selfish infirmity, had she realised how much Lottie had done for her. She’d tried, then, feebly, to make up for her poor behaviour, aware that her own father hadn’t had the patience to care for her as this woman had.

“What time is this visit to take place, cara?” Lottie asked now.

“Two o’clock.”

“And are you sure you wish to go?” Lottie’s expressive dark eyes clouded with concern. “I am sure your father would understand if you told him it was too soon.”

“I don’t mind,” Rose said. The truth was that Papa was bubbling over with enthusiasm to make this visit, and though he might agree to postpone it today, he’d only keep on and on about going until she agreed. It was easier to do it now. There was no point putting off the inevitable. It wasn’t as though she was going to start looking beautiful any time soon.

Lottie smiled. “It’s true what he says about you, you know.”

“What does who say?”

“Your papa. He says you’re an adventurous little thing when you’re not laid low.”

Rose smiled, even though Lottie was wrong. This was nothing to do with being adventurous. She couldn’t remember what that felt like anymore. This was about getting something unavoidable over with.

When Rose descended the stairs half an hour later, her father was waiting at the bottom, watching her with an indulgent expression he occasionally wore when he looked at her. It was an expression that made her realise he did love her in his way, though most of the time he didn’t much notice her. She pasted on a wavery smile for him.

Lottie had done her best. Rose knew she looked neat and presentable, though she felt like a child. She was just five feet tall and thin as a rake. Her height hadn’t troubled her when she was plumper, but now that she was so thin, she knew she looked very, very young. It was even worse without her clothes. She hated her jutting hipbones and her nonexistent breasts; hated that she could see her ribs. She tried to eat the food that Lottie pressed on her: rich roast meats, creamy potatoes, toothsome puddings swimming in custard. But although her appetite had improved, it was still tiny.