Mistaken identity, romance, suspense - perfect for fans of Bridgerton
'I cannot marry him,' said Caroline. 'I am not Kate. I am only her twin.'
All Caroline knew when she came to her senses was that when her twin sister's desperate plea for help came, she had rushed to Italy to be with her. There was a coach accident - but she can remember nothing more . . .
Now suddenly Kate had disappeared and Caroline found herself wearing Kate's clothes and unable to convince anyone she was really Caroline. But she had to convince someone. And quickly. Because Kate was about to marry her Italian nobleman cousin, Leoni...
Release date: June 16, 2022
Print pages: 208
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Stranger at the Wedding
Oh, the incomprehensible Italian language! Even though I lay at that moment rather more dead than alive upon the ground, it came to me that I was already thoroughly weary of its spineless, sing-song ways of speech. And this after scarcely two days in Italy … They were, I knew, supposed to be beautiful. Poetic, even. But to me, who spoke not a word, they sounded lisping and irredeemably monotonous. The language of Dante, perhaps – but even Dante, I felt sure, was finer by far when granted the manly angularities of his English translator.
That my dear sister Kate should have consented to come and live among a people who spoke in such a manner and even have agreed to be married to one of them – no matter how aristocratic – was a fact quite incomprehensible to me.
The ground upon which I lay was uncomfortably stony. I opened my eyes … and at once closed them again, finding the slanting glare intolerable, and – as full consciousness returned to me – the heat also. The dusty dryness of the air, scented with odours of parched grass and flowery perfumes, heavy and unfamiliar, brought with it vivid and immediate memories: memories of the leathery stuffiness inside Kate’s grand little carriage; of her curious, troubled behaviour; of the dashing equipage that pressed us from behind; of Kate’s cry of real distress; of the sudden lurch as the world seemed to turn over and over until …
Until what? I moved convulsively, brought up short by the pain in my head and in my right leg. There had been an accident. Perhaps our carriage had overturned. Perhaps I had been thrown out on to the potholed abomination that passed for a road in this detestable country. Perhaps … dear God, perhaps I was injured, seriously injured, even near to death … I sank back, whimpered a little, prayed to the Virgin that my end, when it came, would not be too painful.
‘Signorina Katerina? Per favore … please, signorina – you go well now? Eh? You go well now, Signorina Katerina?’
It was Argiento, Kate’s coachman. I had observed him but briefly when she and I finally met at the post-house in Avenza, and he had seemed to me an amiable, simple man, no longer young but handsome enough still to have a considerable opinion of himself. And how foolish his question was – of course Kate was going well! Kate was always going well. Once she had survived quite without hurt even a fall from the topmost branches of Grandfather Furneau’s cherry tree – and that at an age when she was well old enough to know better. Concerned though I was for her – sufficiently concerned to travel at very short notice all the way across Europe to be by her side – it was not her physical well-being that worried me. It was I who was the delicate one: she, sturdy girl, would hardly have been even mildly inconvenienced by a mere roadside spill.
‘Signorina Katerina – see, the coach go well also. We have need to hurry, signorina. The … your aunt will not be pleased if we are late.’
I felt a moment’s anxiety. Kate wasn’t answering. It was unlike her: courtesy to servants was one of Papa’s principal injunctions … Cautiously I opened my eyes, putting up one hand to shield them as I did so. What if she were indeed laid low on this, the very day before her wedding?
What I saw from beneath the safe shade of my hand caused me immediately to forget the probable imminence of death and leap sharply to my feet. I had been lying, I discovered, close by the roadside, propped up on cushions from the carriage’s interior, beneath the ineffective shade of some unidentifiable and half-dead tree. The horse and carriage were waiting, both apparently undamaged, a few yards off. But of my sister Kate there was no sign whatsoever. And the fool Argiento, standing over me, screwing his curious Italian hat into total shapelessness in his coarse brown hands, was addressing me in her stead.
‘Signorina Katerina – you must take more big care. The strike upon your head is –’
‘You are mistaken, Argiento.’ I spoke to him slowly, patiently. My sister had, after all, written of his kindness to her. ‘I am not Signorina Katerina. I am the signorina’s sister, just arrived from England.’
It was not, quite understandably, the first time that our identities had been confused, even by those who knew us well. Though Kate was by all accounts a full twenty minutes older than I, her seniority could not in all honesty be said to show itself either in her features or in her general demeanour. We were, in short, totally identical … identical, that is, in outward appearance. Within there were differences indeed, differences of refinement and sensibility that I believed at that time to lie somewhat in my favour.
These the man Argiento might have been forgiven for not immediately appreciating. But for him still to mistake us, even dressed so dissimilarly as we were, truly signified his being of unusually low intellect, even for a foreigner.
She was wearing the scarlet watered-silk she had chosen at Madame Clare’s in Bond Street but a few days before leaving for Italy some three months ago. I had marked it so particularly because – in spite of my loving concern for her – her appearance in that blazing post-house yard had confirmed my general belief that scarlet was a colour altogether too potent for young ladies of our delicate complexion and corn-gold hair. I myself had chosen for the final stage of my arduous journey the palest of dove greys, with a fringed mantilla to the exact blue of my eyes. She in scarlet, therefore, I in grey.
The coachman screwed up his face at me. ‘But Signorina Katerina, I –’
My patience thinned. Could he really be so stupid? ‘I am not Signorina Katerina. My name is Caroline. Signorina Carolina.’
Still he gaped at me. ‘Signorina Carolina?’
‘Certainly. Now, perhaps you would tell me where my sister, where Signorina, Katerina is. Time enough has been wasted already on this ridiculous accident.’
I swung round, intending to return to the carriage in case for some reason Kate were waiting for me within. Certainly there seemed to be nowhere else in that parched landscape where she might have taken refuge. The hem of my skirt caught in a fallen branch and I stooped impatiently to free it. Looking down, I froze in horror, my hand motionless in its luxurious crimson folds. Crimson. Crimson skirt, crimson over-panels, crimson bodice trimmed with coffee-coloured lace. Kate’s dress. I was, for some unaccountable reason, wearing my sister’s clothes.
Even the shoes that showed beneath the skirt’s hem as I lifted it were hers. If a joke had been played on me, then it was a poor one.
I drew myself up. What I lacked in inches I had learned from the example of our dear Queen, who was also daintily built, to make up for with the straightness of my back, and a calm awareness of my not inconsiderable position in the world.
‘Evidently, Argiento, my sister has asked that you join in a little game with her. A game at my expense. Very well. The game has now been played, and I am suitably discomfited. I would be obliged now if you would summon her from wherever she is hiding. The sooner the joke is shared and got over with, the sooner we can be on our way again to our aunt.’
During this calm and reasonable speech he had been earnestly studying my face, his lips moving as if in imitation of my own. Now, ‘Non comprendo, signorina. I not understand you.’
I controlled myself. This was, as everyone knew, the way foreigners had when they did not wish to be of assistance. ‘Bring Signorina Katerina to me at once!’ I said, with great clarity and forcefulness.
At this unmistakable command my sister’s coachman did a greatly curious thing: he threw his indeterminate Italian hat upon the ground and trampled on it. Then he picked it up, pulled it uncompromisingly down about his ears, and stalked off in the direction of the carriage. Once there, he climbed on to the box and sat, his head fixed rigidly to the front. The horse, sensing his arrival, fidgeted its feet, raising little clouds of white dust.
What to do now? Obviously the coachman would not dare drive off and leave me alone by the roadside. Equally obviously however, his pride – or something just as ridiculous – had been in some manner deeply offended. I left him to it. He was, after all, no employee of mine. And besides, he would almost certainly pretend not to understand if I gave him the sound dressing-down he so richly deserved.
I went to the coach, looked inside, found it empty. This hardly surprised me: if Kate were playing one of her pranks, then she would have known the coach to be the first place I must look for her. As I closed its door, however, the joke assumed a new proportion. My reflection in the window told me that not only was I wearing her clothes but that my hair beneath her bonnet was now in her style also, curls tumbling from under its brim in the casual way she thought so becoming. She, and presumably her Italian nobleman also.
The care she had taken over her foolish deception troubled me. She herself would have been the first to admit that usually she was a somewhat slipshod person.
A moment later, as I walked round the back of the carriage, a new and even more disturbing worry was added to my burden. My baggage was completely disappeared – all the hat-boxes and valises I had guarded so anxiously on the innumerable changes and overnight stops of my journey from England.
Disappeared. Vanished. Spirited away.
Now indeed Kate had gone too far! I strode a distance away down the track ignoring the aches in my body, calling to her loudly, all sense of dignity lost in the recklessness of my anger. The way was mercilessly hot, and my voice puny in the surrounding silence. And answer came there none.
To be honest, there was no place from which an answer might have been expected: only skimpy olive groves and rough open ground for many hundreds of yards on either side, and Kate no more given to cross-country walking than I. There were peeling terra-cotta houses, to be sure, and vineyards, and improbably steep little wooded hills, but none of them within a lady’s reasonable competence.
Realizing this, I stopped my pointless striding and turned. Behind me the carriage seemed very far away and black and tiny. On the road and in all the surrounding countryside nothing moved. I became aware that evening was gathering. I had never felt more alone … and my sole companion the unreassuring Argiento.
I forced myself to walk slowly and calmly back to him, not to run, certainly not to throw myself blubbering upon his mercy as I would have dearly liked to do. Still, I reminded myself that Kate had written that he was kind. It was time to put his kindness to the test.
The return to the coach took long enough for me to order my thoughts. The explanation of my present circumstance – simple as these things always are when one sets one’s mind to them – was clear enough. Accordingly I went along the side of the coach and stopped below where Argiento was sitting. I did not look up at him – I did not wish to appear to be begging – and I spoke firmly so that he should see I knew very well how the trick had been worked and was not in the least upset by it.
‘I want you, Argiento, to drive me at once to where that other coach has taken my sister – has taken my sister and all my luggage.’
There was a long pause. Not a bird sang. Silence. At last, grudgingly, ‘The other coach, signorina?’
I counted up to ten beneath my breath, as Papa would have us do when sorely tried. ‘The coach that came up on us, Argiento. The dark green coach with all the gilding. The coach that undoubtedly caused our spill. I have no doubt at all that you know where it now is.’
‘Ah signorina – that coach …’ Movements above my head suggested that he was coming down to join me. At last, progress.
He stood before me, his hat off again and held respectfully against his chest. ‘I think that coach – il porco – is not stop.’
‘Stop? Of course it stopped.’
He shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘Perhaps you are right, Signorina Katerina. I not remember. I fall from the seat and hit the my head.’
Forestalling my angry correction of my name he bent towards me and parted his thick black hair to display a noticeable bump and abrasion. The conclusion for me to draw was obvious. Too obvious.
‘You remember the accident very well, Argiento,’ I said sharply. ‘The other coach stopped, my sister changed clothes with me while I was unconscious. Then she drove off in it, taking my luggage with her. Doubtless you effected the transfer. It was to be a joke. You see, I know all about it. Well, the joke’s over now.’
He straightened his back, shrugged again. ‘You know, signorina. But I, I not know. I fall from the seat and hit the my head. Pfft!’ He mimed unconsciousness.
So he was keeping to his story. It was really too impossible. He and I, unconscious both? And for so long a time as to make feasible the total change in my appearance and the removal of my traps? It was really too impossible … And yet the alternative was impossible also – that the accident should have been contrived, that Kate could have counted on oblivion claiming me for such an obligingly long period … not to mention the improbable part played by the mysterious third party in the escapade, the cloaked driver of that other coach, that dashing green and gilt equipage.
Somehow I managed to retain at least an outward composure. There had to be a flaw in his version of events … and then, suddenly, I saw it. ‘Argiento, you say that I am Signorina Katerina –’
‘Si, signorina.’ He nodded vehemently. ‘La bellissima Signorina Kat –’
‘In that case, Argiento, where is my sister? Where is Signorina Carolina?’
He stared at me, his expression showing sudden deep concern. ‘The signorina’s sister is a Londra. Every people know that. The Signorina Carolina is with her gentile papa. In Inghilterra.’
The word reeled about me. Suddenly the joke had become a nightmare. ‘But Argiento –’
‘The signorina go not well, I think. She forget. Every people know the Signorina Carolina is in Inghilterra.’
I turned from him, closed my eyes, held on to the side of the carriage for support, leaned my forehead against its sun-hot lacquered panel. If I pressed him it was clear what the man would say. In the nightmare that my life had become he would tell me that he had never been to Avenza, never visited the post-house there. He would tell me that he had picked up nobody, loaded no luggage. His afternoon’s excursion might have been for any purpose – simply a leisurely drive in the country perhaps. He would say anything. He would say that I, Caroline Furneau, did not exist.
A dreadful dizziness afflicted me. Tears came to my eyes. Furtively I plucked the kerchief from my sleeve – even in my extremity I would not have him see me so openly humiliated … Could it be that his words were sincere? If so, then was it his mind that was deranged or mine? Had the accident affected his memory, or filled mine with false recollections, with the images of a dangerous insanity? Was I in truth not Caroline at all, but Kate? Always there had been a closeness between us, more than simply that of family, of sisters, of blood. Could I be sure that I was not Kate?
Her letters to me, my anxious discussions with Papa, the interminable journey out from England, could all these not be mere fevered imaginings? Could not I, could not Kate, on the very eve of her marriage, wish so desperately that she were I, that I were she, that Caroline were Kate and Kate were Caroline …?
I smoothed the crumpled kerchief between my fingers. I was Caroline. I had Caroline’s memories, her schooldays behind me, her little secrets, her friends … yet there, embroidered in the corner of my damp little kerchief was the letter K. K for Katherine.
I felt the lightest touch on my arm. ‘Signorina?’
Argiento. His voice was gentle, his touch also. If he were lying to me then he was my direst enemy, for he was driving me to the brink of madness. If not, then … But he was the coachman, and I was I. Kate or Caroline, Caroline or Kate, I was still a daughter of Robert Furneau.
I returned the kerchief to my sleeve. ‘Drive me at once to the Palazzo.’ I kept my head averted. ‘Aunt Evelina will be waiting. We must not keep my aunt waiting.’
Without further word he circled me, opened the carriage door, handed me in, closed the door behind me. I sank back on the soft leather seat. It comforted me that he should still know what was expected of him. And already, with the mention of my aunt’s name, I was feeling better. Brusque though she might be, and sorely hard to please, yet at least she would be able to sort out the truth of the matter. She and her brother the old count, father to cousin Leoni, Kate’s future husband. There was Kate to be found. The old man would have retainers who could conduct the search. And there must be some manner of police, even in this benighted country.
Able to believe now that my troubles would soon be over I felt reasonably at peace as Argiento started us upon the final stage of the journey to Carrara. I gazed out at the dusty Italian landscape. The sun was now above the abrupt little western hills. Soon the carriage slowed and began to climb. One moment I looked from the window to see flat fields and vineyards stretching away into the pale evening mist, and the next we were seemingly hundreds of feet up in the air, the road winding along the edge of a veritable precipice, the level valley bottom far below. As we climbed, so the red autumn sun descended, keeping us in his carnadine eye as the ground below us merged into a dreaming twilight. At last the air outside was cool and I could lower the coach’s single, dust-caked window.
I remembered my sister’s letters. Tuscany is a state of grace, she had written. Though it was a play on words, and for a Catholic perilously close to blasphemy, I now for the first time began to get an inkling of what she had meant. The discomforts of the stage along the parched coast road were forgotten. Likewise the well-meaning but stifling solicitude of the worthy Wilkinsons with whom I had travelled was left far behind me. As far, in truth, as they themselves, who were perhaps at this very moment lurching wearily into yet another uncomfortable post-house on their continuing journey to Rome. While I, I rode now through blessedly dusky hills, past aromatic cypress groves, along terraces touched with evening gold, and climbing always so that the panorama ever widened and tiny villages, each on its own wooded hillock, were revealed like islands in the mist below.
A state of grace … I can truly think of no other way in which to describe the peace that descended on me. An unreasonable peace certainly – considering my present situation and the disturbing nature of recent events – but nevertheless a real peace, soothing to my poor bruised body and uplifting to my mind.
It did not matter that the distance to Carrara and to the Palazzo Torrigiani was longer than I had expected. Time became meaningless as we plodded ever upward. I was being transported as in a dream, from nowhere into nowhere, caring only for the moment, needing only the immediate and magical impressions of my senses …
The twilight deepened. We passed an ornate gateway, skirted a high wall that threw back at us the comfortable clop of the horse’s hooves. The wall ended at a little country church with dark arcading, the road turning sharply at its corner. Beyond was a bridge high above a noisy, rushing streamlet, and thereafter the incline was long and straight with, at its end, sharp points of light set in a black irregular mass of masonry against the purpling velvet sky. Windows. Bright jewels, each signifying home, and family, and love; each sending out a warm ray of welcome.
That, then, was how I first saw the noble marbled city of Carrara. We had crossed the river Carrione, and high above us were the city’s impregnable fortifications. And it was only as I recognized these and understood their cold purpose, that the dream faded and I was left, utterly alone and afraid, in a strange country. For even in my fuddled romantic state, you see, I had to admit that warm rays of welcome did not sort well with hill-top fortresses and impregnable fortifications. It was, furthermore, after dark – a circumstance generally acknowledged to be perilous to young ladies at the best of times.
Thus, distressed again and quaking, I was born under the city gates and into a gloomy maze of narrow thoroughfares. Occasionally lights flared bravely from torches on walls; elsewhere shadows loomed and figures sidled, and now and then a gentleman made his intrepid way on foot, accompanied by servants bearing torches and stout cudgels. I was thankful then for Argiento, unpredictable though he might be, for the sturdy breadth of his shoulders and the cruel whip in its leather socket at his side.
Suddenly he brought our tired horse to a clattering standstill. I held my breath. We could not have arrived – – the street outside was mean and lined with blank house-fronts, narrow and forbidding. Were we about to be set upon? Distantly I detected the faint pure tinkling of a bell … Such an undangerous sound it was that I craned from the coach window at its approach.
All at once, from an alley just in front of us, there emerged a boy dressed all in white, carrying a lighted candle in his left hand, a silvery bell in his right. Close behind him came a priest bearing a ciborium with the Blessed Sacrament, and over his head a white canopy embroidered all in gold, supported by a second white-clad acolyte.
I crossed myself as the three of them passed from view. Somewhere near at hand in this dark, mysterious city a man was dying, and it was to him, in the simple solemn procession I had just witnessed, that the Last Sacrament was being taken. It was a touching and reassuring spectacle.
Argiento whipped up the horse, and as we passed the mouth of the alley into which the little group had disappeared I caught one last glimpse of the flickering candle flame, the whiteness of robes already faint and moth-like between the leaning walls.
And so, at last, we came to what I took to be the city’s main square, brightly lit, with coming and going, and stall-keepers at work, and a party of musicians stamping their feet and strumming guitars. A far cry from the sophisticated pleasures of London, perhaps, but a great improvement on the murky by-ways of the previous quarter-hour or so.
My coachman conducted us round, past a finely frescoed church, to the square’s far side. There he dismounted and hung upon a large black iron bell-pull set into the wall. A short conversation followed with some unseen party and then heavy wooden gates opened and we were able to drive in beneath the archway. We crossed a courtyard ornamented with a many-tiered fountain, an affair of nymphs and tritons that in the future I was to find inexcusably vulgar. But not at that moment, for then – only a matter of seconds before I was to confront at last my formidable aunt – I scarcely saw it.
To say that I was suddenly nervous would be an understatement. I was terrified. At the best of times – in London and therefore not on her home territory – Aunt Evelina was an impatient and irascible person. Here in the city of her birth, faced with my dire problems, she might well evince a fury quite beyond all bounds: fury at me, at Kate, at Argiento, at the sheer inconvenience that life was wont to heap upon her. Back on the road I had thought in my distress of Aunt Evelina as a species of saviour. Now, within the walls of her brother’s Palazzo, she took on the aspect more of an ogre.
The carriage passed the noble flight of marble steps on which I had expected to be deposited and continued on along the façade, stopping in due course at a far plainer entrance, a round-topped doorway set flush in the wall, unostentatious yet complementing charmingly the lines of high shuttered windows on either side. I realized at once that I should not have been surprised to be brought here, for naturally propriety would have demanded that Kate and my aunt had a discreet and separate entrance while residing actually in the same building as Kate’s future husband.
(Indeed, as I then remembered, in her quaintly formal Italian way Aunt Evelina had been most insistent on the working out of such details before she would agree to her brother’s request for a local, Carrara wedding.)
So there I was, decanted at the doorway, glad to have Argiento still at my side as some small measure of moral support, summoning courage for the few paces that would take me into the house and the fearful presence of my aunt. Alas, even those few lingering steps in which to compose the exact words of my explanations were denied me. Hardly had the coach behind me settled upon its springs before the door in front burst open and Aunt Evelina herself steamed forth.
To give myself time I bobbed a small curtsey. ‘Aunt Evelina, I –’
‘You are disgracefully late, Katherine.’ She disentangled her ebony stick from the folds of her skirt and pointed with it dramatically. ‘I shall speak with you later.’
I had neither the time nor the boldness to correct her concerning my identity before she had turned to Argiento and poured upon him a stream of her native Italian clearly offensive in the extreme. He received this meekly, his head bent – though from what I had seen of him I would have thought this a most unlikely circumstance. Only when she paused – . . .
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