Italian Opera

Dawn brought no ready solution to Daniel’s problems, only a head that ached. When he went down to breakfast, a note was lying by his place at the table. It was from Jean, confirming his visit for midday. Daniel briefly shared the conversation that he had had with Jean the previous evening with Sam and his wife.

‘I presume that he means to bring Celine with him,’ Maria said. ‘In which case I shall remain at home to act as chaperone. We do not need salacious gossip to put paid to your plans before they can be effected.’

‘Thank you, Maria.’ Daniel nodded his gratitude.

Daniel was still not sure whether he liked his friend’s wife, nor in fact whether she approved of him. One thing in her favour was her assistance in bringing him together with Celine. She had acted as chaperone, messenger and confidante to Celine on several occasions over the past few months. Perhaps she saw something of her own past situation in the younger woman. He knew that her marriage to Sam had been more of convenience than of love. Her own father had been of the same mould as Celine’s – viewing his daughter as a mere chess piece rather than a person in their own right, to be loved. Sam knew this and had not minded. Marriage suited him and in the four months since their impromptu wedding he already seemed more content.

Sam left for the Olympia at eleven o’clock and the Harper’s carriage pulled up outside the house promptly an hour later. Maria ordered the housekeeper, a formidable woman named Mrs Shanklaw, to bring tea to the morning room as Celine and Jean were shown in. Daniel could tell in an instant that Jean had disclosed his plan to her already. Her eyes were filled with hope as she smiled and let him place a chaste kiss on her cheek, squeezing his larger hands in hers.

‘Jean, would you join me for a moment? There is a book upstairs in the study which I am sure would be of interest to you.’ Maria beckoned and he followed dutifully behind her.

‘We must be quick,’ Celine sat and patted the seat next to her for Daniel to sit. ‘Jean told me that you know everything. My father has already written to the Harpers. The letter arrived this morning. He has made arrangements for me to travel back to Paris on Friday.’

‘So soon!’ Daniel was dismayed. It was already Wednesday.

‘He has already promised my hand in marriage, though I am not considered worthy to be informed as to who my suitor is.’ Celine looked down at the floor, silent as she waited for Daniel to speak.

‘I love you Celine, even though we have only known one another a short time.’ Not long enough to feel at ease about the risks involved though, Daniel thought. ‘If you love me, if you can bear to give up all that you know then tell me now.’

‘Oh, Daniel, you know I love you. I would rather die than live without seeing you again. I cannot marry a man who I know I can never love. Any man chosen by my father will be as cold as he. I cannot, I cannot bear it.’ Her gaze, those blue eyes that were as exotic to him as his dark skin was to her, begged him to ask her the question.

‘Then Celine will you marry me?’

‘Yes!’ She threw her arms around his neck briefly, the footsteps of Mrs Shanklaw on the parquet floor of the corridor prompting a quick return to a neutral position. Maria and Jean returned as the housekeeper placed the tray down, Maria quickly resuming her hostess role and pouring the tea as the servant retreated back down the hall.

‘So?’ Jean prompted as he accepted his cup.

‘Daniel has asked me to marry him and I have accepted.’ Celine beamed, as though this were any ordinary happy proposal, rather than the social equivalent of a naked flame held to a trail of gunpowder.

‘Congratulations,’ Maria sipped her tea. ‘Jean tells me that there is a farewell dinner planned for tomorrow evening Celine.’

‘Yes,’ Celine answered. ‘Mrs Harper wanted to see me off in style.’

‘And so she shall. Please make sure that we are added to the guest list. Your four good friends who have helped make this summer so unforgettable for you,’ Maria instructed.

‘Maria, that cannot be a good idea,’ Daniel warned.

‘We must test the Harpers and check where their loyalty lies. Celine, you may find yourself a pariah when you defy your father but if there is a chance that some of your friends will stay true then we must give them the opportunity to do so. What do you say?’

Celine thought for a moment, then nodded. ‘Mrs Harper has been so good to me, I cannot believe that she would cast me aside like that. She married above her status when she met Mr Harper. She was my governess at one time and he a rich gentleman. Surely she will understand if no one else can.’

And so the test was set for the following evening, Daniel saying nothing despite his grave misgivings.

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