Let It Be Me
London weather is chilly—and the social scene even more so. Luckily, Bridget Forrester is just getting warmed up…
Bridget longs to meet a gentleman who doesn't mention her beautiful sister upon shaking her hand. But since being branded a shrew after a disastrous social season, Bridget knows she's lucky to even have a man come near her. It's enough to make a lady flee the country…
So Bridget heads to Venice for music lessons with the renowned Italian composer Vincenzo Carpenini, with whom she's been corresponding. But not only is Carpenini not expecting her, he doesn't even remember her! His friend, theater owner Oliver Merrick, does, though. And one look into her tantalizing green eyes has him cursing his impulsive letter-writing, which brought her across the continent. Yet before Merrick can apologize, Carpenini has ordered her away.
Little does either man know that they will soon be embroiled in a wager that will require the beautiful Miss Forrester's help—or that there'll be far more at stake in this gamble than money…
ISBN-10: 0425251209 • ISBN-13: 978-0425251201
» Beethoven’s Piano sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 is colloquially known as “The Appassionata”, named so for it’s tempestuous themes and dramatic execution. However, it was not first called The Appassionata until 1838 – and since Let It Be Me is set in 1824, I only ever referred to it as the No. 23.
» Music makes up a huge part of the world of Let It Be Me – and the classical composers of the late Regency era had the kind of fame and press akin to that of movie stars and moguls today. While Vincenzo Carpenini and Gustav Klein are composers of my own invention, others from the musical world that are mentioned, played or pop up in the background – such as Gioachino Rossini, Scarlatti, Marcello, Vivaldi, contralto Caroline Unger, theater impresario Domenico Barbaia, and of course, Ludwig Van Beethoven – are all very much real, and were responsible for some of the best known music in the world.
» As Bridget finds out from the ship captain who takes them to Italy, in 1824, Venice was not necessarily Italian. After the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, the city of Venice had been thoroughly defeated, and no longer capable of asserting their own independence as a Republic. Therefore, it was absorbed into the newly minted Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, and ruled over by the Hapsburg King of Austria, Francis I. It wouldn’t be until after Italy warred (several times) for its independence that Venice was ceded to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
» Bridget is the little sister of Sarah Forrester in If I Fall. Sarah makes a brief appearance at the end of Let It Be Me, but for most of the time, she’s off happily being a newlywed with Jack Fletcher.
» The reason Bridget (as a character) became a pianist was because I needed someone to be able to explain the plot of The Marriage if Figaro in If I Fall to the hero, Jack Fletcher. Hence, a defining characteristic of Bridget was that she was enthusiastic about music. Little did I know that it was that characteristic that would spur the plot for Bridget’s entire romance with Oliver Merrick, and with the city of Venice.
» For more Noble Notes, check out the Dear Reader letter in the back of Let It Be Me!
» And find out more about how Kate’s books are connected via this handy guide!
“I told you we should have stayed in Rome.”
Amanda puffed out the words on a sigh, low enough so their mother wouldn’t hear her frustration. Although their mother was already frustrated enough.
“What do you mean you have no rooms for us? We sent a messenger ahead to arrange for them!”
“Si, Signora, you did,” Signor Zinni, the proprietor of the Hotel Cortile, located right off the winding Grand Canal, stammered, wringing his hands. His English was very good (and not surprisingly, so was his German), which was likely why the establishment was recommended to them as being very friendly to travelers of the Forresters’ station and nationality. “But you arrived too quickly to receive our reply. The hotel is booked months in advance for Carnival!”
Carnival—not “a carnival,” as Bridget had been quick to dismiss it—was the festival of indulgence that preceded Lent. And it was something for which Venice, according to Amanda’s guidebook, was well known.
For the months of January and February, before Ash Wednesday descended and ushered in forty days of penance, Venetians took it upon themselves to make certain they had something to repent. Well, at least they had, before Napoleon and Austria took the stuffing out of the city. Now, the custom was limited only to those who had the funds and the time to do so—that is, the wealthy and the tourists. Which seemed to make up the entirety of the Hotel Cortile’s clientele.
White masks, faces blank and frozen, made to hide the sinners from the consequences of their sins, had stared back at them from other gondolas—some made out of plaster, some heavy ceramic. Yet all were strangely beautiful and grotesque. People danced in the streets and on the footbridges that arched over the narrower canals. And the music! There was music pouring out of every window, on every corner. No matter their exhaustion at travel, it made Bridget’s senses awake with wonder, made her body vibrate with melody.
“Just wait until my husband’s friends at the Society of Historical Art and Architecture of the Known World in London hear about this,” Lady Forrester was saying in grand, tragic tones. It had taken two ships and a gondola to get them to this hotel, and Bridget knew her mother was not about to set foot on another waterborne vessel without putting up a fight. “They are the ones who recommended your establishment, Mr. Zinni. And they travel. Quite often.”
Zinni blanched, as was appropriate. “Signora, the Carnival will be over after this Tuesday,” he replied, thinking quickly. “Indeed, in four days time, you can have an entire floor of the hotel to yourselves.” Lady Forrester squinted, then raised one imperious eyebrow at the little man. “At no additional cost, of course,” he murmured.
Their mother, who relished negotiating more than was seemly for a lady of quality, preened a bit at winning that battle. But then she steadied herself and raised her eyebrow again at the hotelier. “That is all well and good, but what do I and my poor daughters do in the meantime?”
“I... I know not, Signora.” Zinni shrugged. “Perhaps some of our gentlemen customers can be persuaded to share a space for a time? But it would take some lire...”
While their mother metaphorically rolled up her sleeves and set about haggling for a room like the very best fishwife, Bridget turned to Amanda, who was waiting by their luggage, trying to stay out of the way of the numerous people passing through the hotel’s main entrance.
“Is Mother still negotiating with that poor man?” Amanda asked, her eyes never leaving the guidebook except to occasionally peek out the window, as if confirming something she had read.
“Intimidating him is more like it.” Bridget threw her eyes over to her sister. “What are you reading about now?”
“Where we are,” Amanda said. “Did you know that there are no carriages in Venice? No buggies? The narrowness of the streets and all the steps on the bridges don’t allow for it. If you rode in a carriage, you’d never get anywhere.” She nodded to the window, which opened up onto a smaller canal. “Everything has to be transported via those little flat boats. That or walking.”
“Mother will be so pleased,” Bridget said under her breath. “To have the choice between boats or walking.” Amanda giggled. “Why do you have your nose in that thing constantly?” Bridget asked, suddenly struck by how often she had seen her sister buried in that book of late.
But Amanda just shrugged. “I like to know things. You and Mother and Sarah never tell me anything, so I have to figure it out on my own.”
Bridget blinked in surprise. Although she supposed it was true. Last season, Amanda was shielded from most of the dramatics, which drove the girl crazy with curiosity. And when she had decided to persuade her mother to take them to Italy, Bridget had simply told her sister to follow her lead, not giving her any more information than that. Surely she deserved a little more consideration.
“So,” Bridget exhaled, seating herself next to Amanda. Amanda looked up, slightly surprised at this newfound attention. “Where are we? Precisely.”
Amanda flipped the pages in the guidebook and found one with a detailed map of the streets and canals of the main island of Venice. The Grand Canal bisected the picture, and Amanda pointed to a small canal just to the east of it. “Here. Rio di San Marina.”
Bridget dutifully looked to where Amanda’s finger pointed, but her eyes found themselves falling on another rio, just a few canals away.
Rio di San Salvador.
Her breath caught as little pinpricks of awareness spread across her scalp. In the letter they had received from Carpenini’s friend Mr. Merrick, regarding taking lessons with the Signore, he had given his address as the Rio di San Salvador.
And Mr. Merrick would know where she could find Carpenini.
Bridget peered closer at the map, her nose coming close enough to touch the pages.
“Good heavens, Bridge, do you need to borrow Mother’s spectacles?” Amanda said, startling Bridget out of her reverie.
“What?” Bridget asked, her focus blurry as her head came up from the page. “Oh, no—ah, may I borrow this for a moment?”
“Mother!” Bridget said breathlessly. “Look, we are on the Rio di San Marina.”
“Yes, my dear, that’s lovely. But I am trying to deal with our arrangements, as you see...”
“But, look how close we are to the Rio di San Salvador!” Bridget could not keep the excitement out of her voice. “We could go there this very afternoon and ask Mr. Merrick to help us find Carpenini...”
“Bridget,” her mother said on a sigh. “We just arrived. Surely it can wait.”
“But we could walk there easily—”
“I don’t think so, my dear. Now, Signor Zinni, surely such a sum would be by week, not by night...”
“Bridget, I said no!” Her mother ordered, turning her attention fully to her daughter. Her gaze was straight and focused—albeit slightly squinted, without her spectacles. “It would be utterly unseemly for us to impose upon the man, without any notice.” Then, with a little more kindness, “I know you are excitable, but do keep in mind this holiday is not solely for the purpose of your musical instruction. We are in Italy to... take a respite. And I personally think you would do better to show more of an interest in our surroundings than in the prospect of being taught by Carpenini.”
The words stung. “You... you don’t wish me to study with him?”
“I did not say that, my dear.” Her mother laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Once we are settled in, we shall send a note to Mr. Merrick. I promise. You’ve waited this long. What’s another day or two?”
A day or two. Her mother wanted to wait a day or two, when Mr. Merrick, who knew where to find Signor Carpenini, was a mere two canals away? Bridget clamped down on an automatic, panicked reply, instead taking a deep breath and settling on what she needed to do.
She had waited this long, as her mother had said. But that was precisely why she could not wait another minute longer.
“I’m sorry, Mother. You are right,” Bridget said meekly, once she found her voice. “I think the madness of travel and this busy room has unsettled me.”
Her mother smiled at her daughter but then turned sharply to Zinni. “You see that? Your Carnival madness has unsettled my daughter.”
“Signorina, you can rest in the dining room; surely it will be less crowded...”
“No, thank you. Mother, if it is all right with you, I think I shall stand outside the front door. Take in some fresh air.”
Her mother looked worried for a second. But since all of her attention was on Zinni, it was possible her focus was on her next counteroffer. “Do not leave sight of the door. And keep Molly with you,” her mother said finally. Bridget slid her glance to where Molly, the girls’ lady’s maid, was chatting with one of the footmen and gesturing toward the trunks, likely trying to ascertain which one should go where. “And,” her mother continued, “do not let your reticule off your wrist. Tie it twice if you must. Now, Signor Zinni, about that dining room—is it private?
“Oh, and wear your bonnet!” her mother called back, as Bridget headed for the Hotel Cortile’s entrance, grabbing Molly on her way. “If you get any more freckles you will be one big spot!”
“All right, miss, it’s that one,” Molly said, pointing to a crumbling redbrick structure as she rejoined Bridget on the path that ran alongside the buildings on the north side of the Rio di San Salvador. They could not walk on the rio itself, as the buildings abutted right up against the water, but there were footpaths and alleyways on the back side of the houses.
“Are you certain, Molly?” Bridget asked nervously. The house looked very plain from this side. Very nondescript.
“Well, frankly, no, miss, I’m not. But I went over to that chap and said, ‘Signor Merrick?’ and he said a string of Italian I didn’t understand and then he pointed to this house. And then he tried to pinch my bum,” Molly finished darkly. “I still canna believe your mother let you to go off on your own like this and find the letter-writing gent.”
“She was busy with the hotel proprietor and said I should take a walk,” Bridget lied smoothly.
It had not taken long to get here. With the help of Amanda’s guidebook, she and Molly had made their way from the hotel to the Rio di San Salvador. They could have taken a gondola, but neither Bridget nor Molly had much money, and none of the local currency at any rate. So they walked. Molly had expected to get lost, but Bridget had always been able to read a map. Music, maths, and maps were all things at which she excelled, and all were connected in her mind somehow. After all, finding where you were going in music was akin to finding where you were going on the streets, wasn’t it?
However, one minor flaw in the plan was that she hadn’t known which particular house was Mr. Merrick’s, and thus they had spent a considerable length of time walking the footpaths on the other side of the canal, crossing back and forth when there was a bridge, asking people in the crudest of Italian if they spoke English and consequently if they knew which home was Signor Merrick’s, and getting Molly’s bum pinched.
But, Bridget thought, she was finally here. A thrill of anticipation went through her. It was better that she came here herself, not sending a note and waiting days to hear a reply. And it was better that she came alone. Her mother, Amanda, they did not understand. None of her family really understood how she felt about music.
She must play again—because without the music, what was she? The melodies in her head would dry up and the silence would be intolerable.
And she must play better, too—because she knew she could. Knew it in her bones that she had it in her.
And Carpenini had seen it. Five years ago, before her nerves overcame her, before the tortures of the London season, he had heard her play one song and seen that she had it in her.
And with that surety giving her strength, she squared her shoulders and went to knock on the little door on the side of the brick house.
“Frederico, get the door, would you?”
Oliver Merrick stamped down the stairs of his house, his eyes on the papers in his hand. Bills, bills, a letter from his father, more bills. Damn it all, but none of this was ever going to be under control, was it?
Oliver reached the landing just as another tentative knock came from the door to the street.
“Frederico?” he called again for his erstwhile valet/butler/footman/occasional cook. But Frederico did not respond, lazy bastard. Indeed, the only sound Oliver heard was the same phrase of music, repeated over and over again, coming from the main sitting room. It would stop between playings, a scratching of a pencil could be heard, and then it would start again.
Oliver knew this was a bad sign. If his friend was on a good streak, the music would never stop.
“I’ll just get the door myself, shall I?” he grumbled under his breath in his fluent Italian. Even if his mother hadn’t been the classic dark-haired, olive-skinned (both of which he’d inherited), passionate firebrand that typified the race, he’d spent enough of the past decade in Venice to speak like a native.
Strange, he thought as he crossed to the door, it couldn’t be a caller. His friends from the theatre and any prospective commissions for Vincenzo would come by gondola via the canal. The latter of which were very few and far between.
The only people who ever came by the street door were the grocer and . . .
Oh no. Not again.
He knew what he would find. “Goddammit, Vincenzo,” he breathed, as he threw open the doors. “You are out to drive me insane with your whores, aren’t you?”
But his self-ramblings were cut short when he found himself staring down into the greenest eyes he had ever seen.
Like the lagoon when it caught the sun just so, making the water turn jewel-toned and alive, those eyes stared up at him, wide and trembling with nervous resolve. Freckles danced over her nose and cheeks like someone had reached down from above and sprinkled them there. Freckles that he found oddly familiar but could not place. Dark curls were tucked up in her bonnet, but a tendril behind her ear had escaped, trailing down her neck. She had a kind of delicate prettiness rarely seen in the streets of Venice, where bright colors and extravagant beauty seemed the fashion.
Oliver was halfway to enchanted in the space of a breath. But then he remembered he was supposed to be annoyed.
“Sorry, ladies,” he said in Italian, his face as stern as he could make it, “he’s not taking visitors today, nor is there coin to pay for your services.” When those green eyes just blinked, then looked nervously back at the older, more practical-looking woman behind her, he let out a breath.
“Look, Carpenini might have sent for you, but I’m sending you away. I’m sorry, but the best I can do is pay for a gondola to take you back where you came from.”
“Carpenini!” the green-eyed enchantress finally said, her language and accent decidedly English. That was shocking enough. What was more shocking was what she said next. “That is exactly why I am here!”
English. She was English. He blinked twice. And by her cultured tones, she was a lady. One who, considering what he had assumed her to be, he fervently hoped did not know the Venetian dialect.
“Er . . . can I help you, miss?” His English, so rarely used here, felt thick and awkward on his tongue. He suddenly became very aware of the fact that he hadn’t put shoes on yet that day.
“Yes,” the girl replied, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice. “I should like to see Mr. Merrick, please.”
“I thought you looked familiar,” she said, and smiled.
And she had one hell of a smile. Seemed a bit rough, though, somehow. As if the muscles in her face had briefly forgotten how to arrange themselves. But smile she did, and Oliver again found he was losing himself in her impish countenance.
“Might we come in, sir?” the practical, stiffer one said from behind the green-eyed one. “My lady has been traveling for weeks, after all.”
Oliver shook himself out of his reverie and stepped back to admit them to his foyer. He felt immediately awkward about the surroundings. The rugs were threadbare and the plaster was crumbling in a way he found charming, but he supposed young ladies of good family might not.
“You seem familiar, too,” he finally blurted. “Er, your freckles.”
A delightful blush spread across her cheek, and Oliver found himself wishing it would happen again. And again, and again.
“We have met before, briefly, Mr. Merrick,” she said, her eyes meeting his. “I am Miss Forrester, and you wrote me a letter.”
As she worked at the fierce knot of a reticule and then began to rummage in it, a sense of the familiar began to mingle with a sense of dread. “Miss... Brittany Forrester?”
A small frown flashed across her face. “Bridget,” she replied tersely, and then handed him a piece of paper from her reticule. A letter written in his own hand.
“You wrote me on behalf of your friend Signor Carpenini, who heard me play some years ago, and wondered if I would be amenable to taking instruction from him when he—you—came back to England. Unfortunately I learned that you would not be coming to England after all, so...”
“Miss Forrester,” he interrupted her. “Please do not tell me that you came all the way to Venice because of this letter?”
“No.” The word came out weakly, and Oliver knew it was a lie. “My family is taking a holiday... and since we were in Venice and you were here, we thought... I thought, that maybe...”
Oliver wanted to let his head come down into his hands. Oh, hell. Oh damn, and blast. He cursed profusely under his breath in Italian, which was a language much better equipped for the current predicament.
“Miss Forrester, I am afraid there has been a terrible misunderstanding. You see, I did write this letter, yes, but Vincenzo—Signor Carpenini, that is—is in the middle of a composition. And when he’s composing, he does not take on stude—”
But Miss Forrester was not listening to him. Instead her face had taken on a dreamy faraway look, and her fingers began to twitch in time to the music, as if playing imaginary keys.
“Is that,” she finally asked, “the Signore? Is Carpenini here?”
Her face lit up with the possibility, and she took a few unconscious steps toward the door to the drawing room.
“Miss Forrester, please do not disturb him,” Oliver cried, then reached out and grabbed her arm just as she reached the closed door.
“I won’t,” she replied, stilling beneath his touch. “I just wanted to hear better. Is that an A-minor key?”
“I don’t know,” he began to say, and drew her back a little. But, unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
It could have been the sound of voices in the hallway, especially female ones, that drew his attention. It could have been Oliver’s doing, speaking too loudly or too near the door. It could have been the gentle touch of Miss Forrester’s hand on the drawing room door latch. But in any case, the music abruptly stopped, footsteps sounded as they crossed the room, and the drawing door was flung open from the inside.
“What the hell is going on out here? Don’t you realize I’m composing?” the short-tempered man who emerged from the drawing room said in grunting Italian.
“Signor Carpenini,” Miss Forrester breathed.
Oliver straightened and kept his hand on Miss Forrester’s arm. Then, his mind remembering better manners than he’d known he had, he turned to the girl at his side. “Miss Forrester, this is Signor Vincenzo Carpenini. Vincenzo, this is Miss Forrester.”
Miss Forrester—and the woman with her, whom Oliver decided was her maid—dropped to a curtsy. He still kept his hand on her arm—for some unknown reason, he knew that touch was the only thing keeping her from flying away—and he could feel her shaking.
“Signore, this is a great honor,” she began, but was cut off by Carpenini as he crossed the room and grabbed her under the chin.
“Vincenzo!” Oliver cried, pulling Miss Forrester back.
“English, eh?” his friend said, his dark eyes going cold. And then, in his own English, he turned to Oliver. “If you are to bring a whore for me, Oliver, at least be sure she is beautiful. This one is too small to be of any use.”
And with that, the great composer stepped back into the drawing room and slammed the door, rattling the dusty chandelier in the foyer.
“I am so sorry; he’s a bit—” But as Oliver looked down into Miss Forrester’s face, he knew his apologies would be for naught. She was utterly and completely shattered.
“Molly.” Her voice shook. “We should go.”
The maid—Molly—nodded, and before he knew it, she had whisked Miss Forrester out the door to the street.
“Miss Forrester, wait!” he cried, jolting out of his shock. He ran after them, into the street, heedless of his lack of shoes. “At least let me see you home—this is no city for a lady alone!”
But it was too late. Miss Forrester and Molly moved quickly from the alley into the main street, disappearing into the crowds of pedestrians going about their day.
“Damn it all,” Oliver breathed, as he walked back to his house. No, he thought, his vision going red. Not damn it all. Damn Vincenzo Carpenini.
“Vincenzo, you bastard!” he growled, and his friend looked up from the score on the pianoforte. “Do you have any idea who that was?”
“No.” The composer blinked at him. “Should I care?”
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