As Captain Ambrose Pendleton strode through the gates of Vauxhall Gardens, he didn’t see the crush of people or the lights in the trees, or hear the music. He was thinking only of seeing his friend Orsini once again.
But first there was the show, which Orsini had raved about in his letter. Cosima was from his stable of talent, and Orsini had been insistent that his friend watch the most remarkable, exquisite and well-formed young lady to grace the continental stage.
And her adorable performing parrot!
Ambrose entered the pavilion where Cosima was to perform. He took his seat and, as he waited for the show to begin, found himself enjoying the hubbub of ordinary people around him. How nice it was to be back among the throng of humanity, without the smell of gunpowder or the roar of cannon or the parade-ground shout. He glanced about the audience, wondering if his friend was there, but Orsini was nowhere to be seen.
The quartet struck a note, and applause rang through the pavilion as the velvet curtain was drawn back. The woman who emerged was tall and slender but, as Orsini had promised, well-formed. Here in a summer London, her diaphanous gown and tumbling curls transported Ambrose instantly back to his youth in Italy, to a world of classical myth and striking women, yet none that he could recall were as striking as the creature who now tripped across the stage, one slender arm outstretched for the bright blue parrot that perched upon her pale wrist, the yellow and red feathers beneath its wings and at its breast shimmering.
A woman in Roman dress and a parrot… It was very Orsini, if nothing else.
There was likely nothing else quite like it in London that night as the magnificent Cosima ran through her repertoire of silly stories—just the right side of bawdy—and Italian songs, sometimes accompanied for the sake of comedy by the bird and sometimes, for the sake of entertainment, by the quartet. Every man in the audience was enraptured by her, enchanted by each flick of her auburn curls, each sly aside, and every woman became a confidante, laughing behind ladylike hands at some wry comment from the performer on the stage.
Wherever had Orsini found her? Ambrose wondered, though he knew instinctively that some of this material must belong to his friend, for it had that same devilish mischief so beloved by Amadeo Orsini. They claimed that she was his sister but Ambrose knew better, for he had met Orsini’s numerous siblings and none of them were La Cosima.
Yet she certainly could have been family.
The show ended with rapturous applause, Cosima curtseying to her admiring audience as the parrot took a small, proper bow. Reluctantly, Ambrose followed the crowd out of the pavilion and back into the balmy summer air. He would happily have watched Cosima and her parrot perform all evening, if not for his promised reunion with Orsini.
Off he went toward the Cascade, where they had arranged to meet. But he couldn’t see Orsini anywhere. Where was the young man Ambrose remembered, always decked out in silks? He certainly would have noticed him among the crowd—unless, and Ambrose thought it most unlikely, the great impresario had adopted a somber guise.
But wouldn’t he notice Orsini’s dancing eyes, and his knowing smile, and his—what the devil?
“Now, madam, please stop that!” Ambrose laughed politely—as politely as a man could with a woman’s hands over his eyes. He could smell her perfume and feel the lace of her gloves and hear her giggle. “You must have confused me for your husband, or your sweetheart!” Or a paying customer, but Ambrose thought it best not to voice that.
“Captain Pendleton,” came the singsong-voiced reply from close to his ear. “The great Orsini begs your indulgence, but, alas, he is detained by matters feminine. He asks that I escort you to supper tonight!”
Ambrose clenched his jaw. Matters feminine? Was Orsini involved in some sort of intrigue with a lady?
And why did he recognize the woman’s voice—but of course!
He turned quickly and took her hands as they fell from his face. There she was, standing before him, the leading lady of Orsini’s show, a dazzlingly red shawl wrapped around her narrow shoulders. As much as he’d longed to see his friend, what an honor it was to be favored by such a performer—and the parrot too, who perched on her shoulder like a little admiral.
“How excited I am to make your acquaintance!” Ambrose bent to kiss her gloved hand. “I very much enjoyed your show this evening.”
The parrot administered a sharp peck to Ambrose’s hair and Cosima exclaimed, “Pagolo! Captain, forgive my little chaperone, he is so very protective of his Cosima and his applause!”
“I enjoyed your performance too, Pagolo, of course.” Ambrose grinned as he gave the imperious parrot a bow. “How very remiss that I did not congratulate you, as well.”
“His career has been long and celebrated.” Cosima tapped her finger gently against the parrot’s beak and he cocked his head to one side. “He might teach all of us how to improve our performances, he thinks! Now, sir, what delights might the gardens offer an innocent Italian girl and her escort?”
“We are stood before the marvel of the gardens, dear lady. The Cascade! Now watch carefully, for I think it is due a performance.” Ambrose offered Cosima his arm as the crowd swelled around them.
He couldn’t hold back his smile as the curtain lifted and Cosima’s elegant fingers gripped his sleeve, her mouth falling open in an expression of perfect wonder. Before them the night lit up bright as fireworks illuminated the heavens and the gasps and appreciative murmurs of the audience greeted the scene of bucolic splendor. As the artificial metallic water cascaded down, a mill wheel gently turned, the intricately rendered bridge in the center crossed first by a coach and horses, then a whole troop of soldiers, strolling ladies and ambling gentleman. It was magnificent, Ambrose knew, but he took more pleasure in his companion’s wonder than the mechanical marvel he had seen a dozen or more times.
“How is it done?” Cosima laughed, shaking her head in utter wonder. “What a thing engineering must be, it is all sorcery to me!”
Ambrose knew, but only because his father had told him, for he had an acquaintance who had known the fellow who had devised it. Even so, it still didn’t make much sense to Ambrose, which gave him pause—how would he ever follow his father’s wishes and turn industrialist now that he had left the Army?
“Cogs and wheels, I believe. Gears and pulleys.” Ambrose wafted his hand, as if it was all thoroughly familiar to him and actually rather dull. “And such things of that nature. Now, may I offer you a refreshment? You must be in need of one after your performance.”
“Cogs and wheels,” Pagolo agreed, pecking at Ambrose’s hair again. “Cogs! Wheels!”
“You should not pay him any heed.” Cosima slipped her arm opportunely through Ambrose’s own. “I confess, sir, I am of a mind to dance!”
A dance with such a lady as Cosima? Ambrose nodded, quite unable to form a coherent reply. His evening was not turning out quite as he had expected, but how lovely to lead Cosima toward the first dance floor that presented itself, and witness at close hand the glee leaping in her eyes.
“See? Is not Vauxhall Gardens the most splendid of places, Cosima? Have you ever known the like?” They stood, arms linked, on the edge of the dance floor and watched the couples in the set.
“Cogs,” decided Pagolo somewhat archly, earning himself a sharp look from his mistress. She turned her gaze back to the dancers, tapping one silk-slippered foot lightly in time to the music as she twirled an auburn curl around her finger.
With Cosima absorbed by the dancers, Ambrose had a chance to see her unobserved. She was a dazzling lady, quite unlike the women Ambrose was used to, the daughters of ambitious parents keen to see their charge wed to a captain of industry’s son. None of those girls had Cosima’s grace, or her easy elegance, and certainly none of them could have put on a show such as Cosima had that evening.
The more Ambrose looked, the more he saw something oddly familiar about her. The large hazel eyes, for one, but perhaps that was not unusual among Italians. The rather prominent nose, but it wasn’t shaped quite the same as Orsini’s. Even so…
“Gosh, I hope you shan’t think me an impertinent sort of fellow, but are you not—tell me now, if my dear friend Orsini had a sister, would she be you?”
“Alas, he does not have a sister, though the world thinks it is so.” Cosima turned her head just a little, then dropped her voice to a whisper and asked, “Wasn’t that a riotous night in Florence, Pen? You and that saucy old creature in the wimple, your eyes nearly popped out of your head!”
Ambrose Pendleton’s eyes nearly burst from their sockets again as he realized his error. Unless Cosima was an exceptional mimic, but—
“Orsini! My dear friend!” He clapped the elegant lady on the back and pumped her arm up and down with eager enthusiasm. “As I live and breathe!”
They were now the object of some amusement, for what sort of a gentleman behaved like that to—as far as anyone else knew—a lady? Ambrose felt a blush rise to his face and the parrot glared at him from his perch on Cosima’s shoulder.
“Unhand me, sir,” Orsini—for it was he—teased in that delicate voice, the pretty young man of just a few years ago barely visible beneath the construct of Cosima. “Did you really not know your old friend? I take that as an exceptionally fine review of my work!”
“I own that I did not!” Ambrose offered Cosima—Orsini—it was confusing—his arm again. “I had thought there was something familiar about Cosima. Her humor on the stage, for one. And—” Ambrose cleared his throat. He tore his gaze from his friend and watched the dancers skip by instead. “And her eyes.”
“Amadeo Orsini was simply one more pretty young actor in a sea of pretty young actors.” Cosima pouted softly. “Cosima was merely intended as a party piece and yet her star soon eclipsed mine, and I could never hold back a beautiful young lady!”
“When you wrote and told me you’d given up the stage for the role of impresario, I had no idea that—” Entranced, Ambrose found himself gazing once more into the large hazel eyes of his friend. “My goodness, but you do make a very pretty lady.”
“I have devoted myself instead to producing and managing the career of the dear, mysterious Cosima,” he told Ambrose. “It allows me to see two rather different views of the world, I can assure you!”
“I’m not surprised!” Ambrose smiled to himself, rather pleased to have Cosima on his arm. “And I wager there must be quite a fight for your hand from king and emperor alike.”
“All remain disappointed, for Cosima has yet to find the fellow who might claim her heart.” He blinked, long eyelashes batting as he teased, “Perhaps that has changed tonight, kind sir!”
Heavens, what a thought!
“That depends—I have no title, but I do have a very wealthy father!” Ambrose patted Cosima’s hand. A note of sadness came into his voice. “Alas, I believe that Father has found a wife for me—not that he has told me so, but what else can I assume when a young lady is so frequent a visitor to our house?”
“Oh!” Orsini sounded genuinely surprised by that revelation. “Tell, Pen. Who and what?”
“There is an industrialist, by the name of Mr. Tarbottom—”
Orsini opened his eyes very wide, then blinked as though he had something in his eye, the blinks growing more frequent until, with a hoot of noise, he broke into a fit of hilarity. He patted Ambrose’s arm daintily and threw back his head, his laughter filling the air as Pagolo joined in for good measure.
“Yes, really—Mr. Tarbottom.” Ambrose tried to narrow his lips in disapproval at his friend’s reaction, but the gray cloud that had followed him in recent weeks began to dissolve in the face of such unbridled laughter. “Where was I? Yes—Mr. Tarbottom is an American industrialist, and he happens to have both an open position in his mines and a daughter of marriageable age. If I know my father, he will believe my fortune is set.”
“A position?” Orsini nodded, his smile fading a little. “He must have mines in England then, yes? I am to remain here for a time, Pen, so I shall visit your mines and entertain the workers if you wish!”
“If only that were so.” Ambrose’s gaze passed slowly over the revelers and the pavilions, the garlanded trees and the musicians and dancers and tumblers. “I very much doubt I shall ever return, alas. The position Mr. Tarbottom would offer me is in America.”
Orsini’s chin dipped, his gaze falling away to the floor. He said nothing for a few moments, but gave Ambrose’s arm a little squeeze. “You must be very excited, Pen.”
Ambrose stared ahead, over the dancers, not really seeing anything, even though he knew that he was unlikely to visit Vauxhall again. He pursed his lips and shook his head.
“If Waterloo wasn’t bad enough—I only want some peace and blasted quiet! Father is so desperate to impress the Tarbottoms, and he cornered me, saying ‘Little Harriet has taken quite a shine to you, Amby! You could do with a wife, and think of all the money I’ve spent to raise you as a gentleman, and don’t think I’ll let you sit about here on the fruits of my labors. I don’t care what you got up to at Waterloo, you’re not a hero now!’ Father’s intentions are all too obvious, do you not think?”
“I am so very sorry, Pen, for I know how you dreamed of the theater, and I had never thought a fellow like you might be on the battlefield, let alone in industry.” Orsini sighed and stroked his finger down Pagolo’s feathered back. “Can you not say no, thank you, Father, for the theater life is the one for me?”
“How can I not accept?” Ambrose gaped at his friend in surprise. No matter how odious the proposition was, the thought of rebelling against his father’s will had to be dismissed. “Father decided my profession for me while I was yet in my cradle. I owe him my duty as his son—I cannot refuse his wishes.”
“And what of the young lady in question? Is she as charming as Cosima?”