Authors: Nina Rowan
|A Passion For Pleasure|
|Daring Hearts |
PRELUDE TO A KISS
A brilliant pianist and notorious rake, Sebastian Hall indulges his passion for music and women with equal aplomb. But now that his elder brother has married, his father insists he pursue a more respectable path and find a suitable wife.
MUSIC TO HER EARS
As a girl, Clara Whitmore quietly loved her piano teacher from afar. Yet her youthful crush cannot compare to the powerful desire she feels when she unexpectedly meets Sebastian again. Perhaps the man who once dominated her dreams could be the husband she has hoped for--and save her from the fate she most fears...
LOVE STRIKES A CHORD
Risking scandal, ruin, and their own reputations, Sebastian and Clara enter into a marriage of convenience. But the pair soon discovers that their undeniable attraction is anything but convenient. Swept up in a crescendo of desire, Sebastian and Clara take each other to new heights of ecstasy--until secrets from the past threaten to doom the duet forever. Now Sebastian will have to change his tune-and prove his love is true.
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For my great friend Franzeca Drouin
Merci mille fois
Thank you so much, Kimberly Witherspoon and William Callahan of InkWell Management, for your continued support of my writing career.
Selina McLemore, most excellent editor at Grand Central/Forever Romance, thank you for wrestling through this story with me and providing much-needed help and insights. And thank you to all at Grand Central Publishing who do such a wonderful job with art, production, and publicity.
Franzeca Drouin, you have my everlasting gratitude and awe. I really hope one day I get to sample your cooking. In France.
Thank you again, Rachel, Melody, and Bobbi for “critique meetings with coffee” and, as always, to my family for putting up with both me and the people who live inside my head.
30 September 1854
My dear brother Sebastian,
I send this via personal courier from Paris to ensure the haste and secrecy of its receipt. Herein is further information regarding my request for your assistance. When I corresponded with Monsieur Jacques Dupree about his inventions, he revealed the existence of plans he had drawn up for the construction of a machine that creates cryptographs.
I have recently learned that prior to his death, Monsieur Dupree sent the cipher machine specifications to a former apprentice, Mr. Granville Blake, at Blake’s Museum of Automata, 20 Old Bond Street, London. It is my belief that Monsieur Dupree sent him the plans to ensure their safe-keeping.
The machine appears to have numerous wartime uses, but I must study the mechanics, code, and transmission of cipher messages before determining its efficacy. To that effect and with recent difficulties in the Crimea, it is important that you do not tell anyone what you are looking for.
Should you find the plans for me, I will compensate you well. I understand from Grand Duchess Irina that you have returned to London for an indeterminate stay, so it is my hope this task will prove advantageous for us both.
he was carrying a head.
Sebastian Hall squinted and rubbed his gritty eyes. He blinked and looked again. Definitely a head. Cradled in one arm like a babe. It was a woman’s head with neatly coiffed brown hair. Though at this distance he couldn’t see her expression, he imagined it to be rather distressed.
He watched as the young woman crossed the empty ballroom to the stage, her steps both quick and measured and her posture straight in spite of her gruesome possession.
Sebastian pushed himself away from the piano. The room swayed a little as he rose, as if he were on the deck of a ship. He had once spent countless hours at the Royal Society of Musicians’ Hanover Square building, but now the place felt unfamiliar to him, almost oppressive. A hum, seasick-yellow, droned in his ears. He dragged a hand over his face and scrubbed at his rough jaw as he crossed the room.
The woman didn’t appear to see him, her path set unswervingly on her destination. A basket dangled over her left arm.
Sebastian cleared his throat. The guttural noise echoed in the vast room like the growl of a bear.
“Miss.” His voice sounded coarse, rusted with disuse.
The woman startled, jerking back and losing her grip on the head, which fell to the floor with a thump and then rolled. A cry of surprise sounded, though in his befuddled state Sebastian couldn’t tell from whom it had emerged. He looked down as the head rolled to a stop near his feet like the victim of an executioner’s ax.
A perfect, waxen face stared up at him, wide blue eyes unblinking, pink mouth, her hair beginning to escape a smooth chignon.
After a moment of regarding this turn of events, Sebastian bent to retrieve the head. The woman reached it before he did, scooping it back into her arms and stepping away from him.
“Sir! If you would please— Oh.”
Sebastian looked up into a pair of rather extraordinary eyes—a combination of blue and violet flecked with gold. Something flickered in his memory, though he couldn’t grasp its source.
Where had he—?
“Mr. Hall?” She tucked a stray lock of brown hair behind her ear, hugging the head closer to her chest. “I didn’t know you would be here.”
She frowned, glancing at his wrinkled clothes, unshaven jaw, and scuffed boots. For an uncomfortable moment he wanted to squirm under that sharp assessment. He pulled a hand through his hair in a futile effort at tidiness, then experienced a sting of annoyance over his self-consciousness.
“Are you…” He shook his head to try to clear it. “I’m afraid this room is closed until Lady Rossmore’s charity ball on Saturday.”
She tilted her head. “You don’t remember me.”
Out of sheer habit, Sebastian attempted to muster a charming smile, though it had been so long since one had come naturally to him that his face felt like pulled clay.
“Well, far be it from me to forget a woman as enchanting as yourself,” he said. “Your name has slipped my mind, though of course I remember…that is, I must be out of my wits to—”
“For pity’s sake.” She seemed to be trying hard not to roll her eyes, though a blue-gold thread of amusement wove into her voice. “My name is…was Clara Whitmore. My younger brother and I both took piano lessons from you years ago when we stayed in Dorset.”
Sebastian struggled to make his brain work as he looked at her round, pretty face, her curly brown hair pulled into an untidy knot. A streak of grease or oil smudged her cheek. She looked like a thousand other ordinary women—a shopkeeper’s daughter, a dressmaker, a governess, a milliner’s apprentice.
Except for her eyes. And a tiny black birthmark punctuating the corner of her smooth left eyebrow, like the dot of a question mark.
“I was your student for a scant few months the summer I turned sixteen,” Clara continued, as if unaware of his scrutiny. “You weren’t much older, but people already spoke highly of your talent. I enjoyed many of your performances at various events in Dorset.”
A piece settled into place in Sebastian’s mind. Ten years ago he’d lived in Dorset, teaching, performing, and entering contests in an attempt to pay for a trip to the Continent that his father had refused to fund.
“Where did you live in Dorset?” he asked.
“Not far from Weymouth.”
“And does your father reside there still?” Sebastian asked.
“No, I’m afraid that property has long been abandoned.” Her eyes flickered downward, shading her expression. She shifted the head to her other arm. “So, Mr. Hall, I’ve continued to hear great things about you over the years. You conducted at Weimar this past summer, did you not?”
The admiring, bright pink note in her voice clawed at him. The fingers of his right hand flexed, a movement that caused tension to creep up his arm and into the rest of his body.
“Yes.” His voice sounded thin, stretched.
Clara blinked, a slight frown tipping her mouth again. Her eyes really were the strangest shade—a trick of the light, surely. No one had eyes that color. He certainly didn’t recall having noticed them when she was his student. He didn’t even recall having noticed
Discomfort pinched Sebastian’s chest. He wouldn’t have noticed her back then. Not when women had flocked to him with bright smiles and hot whispers. Among such birds of paradise, Clara Whitmore—even with her unusual eyes—would have been a plain brown sparrow.
She still is,
he told himself. Never mind the knot of regret that he couldn’t remember her—Clara Whitmore with the violet eyes that took his measure in one sweeping glance. No one could hide from that assessment. Not even him.
He straightened his shoulders, tucking his right hand into his pocket. He looked at the waxen head with an unspoken question.
“My uncle is introducing an automaton at Lady Rossmore’s ball,” Clara explained. “Her ladyship thinks it will be great entertainment if Uncle Granville demonstrates one of his musician automata at a Society of Musicians’ event. So I’m doing some of the initial preparations for him, as he was called out of town.”
A surge of comprehension rolled through Sebastian as the pieces began locking together in his mind.
“Then you are Mr. Granville Blake’s niece,” he said. “I’d expected…that is, Lady Rossmore said he might be here.”
“He’d intended to be, but owing to the circumstances, I’m to carry out his duties.” Clara touched the automaton’s head, drawing Sebastian’s gaze to her long fingers. “This is Millicent, the Musical Lady. Part of her anyhow. She plays four tunes on the harpsichord.”
—“interesting.” Though he’d heard Granville Blake dabbled in all sorts of mechanical toys and automata, Sebastian was interested in only one of the man’s many projects. Not for himself, but for his younger brother Darius.
And now he apparently had to be interested in Granville Blake’s niece, as well.
“You oughtn’t be here alone,” he told her. “Especially at this hour.”
“We’ve permission to bring in our equipment,” she replied. “We must start to assemble Millicent and her harpsichord. And I’m not alone. My uncle’s assistant, Tom, is just outside unloading the remaining crates.” She glanced behind him to the piano resting beside the stage. “Are you rehearsing for a performance at the ball?”
His jaw tensed. Six months ago, he might have been here in rehearsal. Now he was here to ensure the safe delivery and tuning of his Broadwood piano, which he had offered for the Society of Musicians’ indefinite use. Were it not for the fact that the Rossmores were friends of his father, Sebastian would have spent next Saturday evening wreathed in the smoke and noise of the Eagle Tavern.
“I will be at the ball,” he said, “but not performing.”
“Oh.” Clara Whitmore looked faintly confused. “Well, I do apologize for the interruption. I didn’t even know that anyone else would be here. Once Millicent is assembled, we’ll leave you to your work.”
The piano was all the evidence she needed to assume he’d been working.
He was about to respond with a sharp tone—though he had no idea what he’d say—when a needle of rational thought pierced the fog in his brain.
At the very least, he needed to be civil to Clara Whitmore if he wanted to learn more about her uncle’s projects.
Or perhaps he should be more than civil. Women had always responded to his attentions. Even if now those attentions were corroded with neglect, Miss Whitmore didn’t appear the sort who had much to judge them—or him—by.
The thought that she might possess no touchstone by which to judge him was strangely liberating.
“Would you care for a currant muffin?” She opened the basket. “I thought I’d better bring something to eat since I don’t know how long Tom and I will be here. We’re not quite as adept at assembling Millicent as Uncle Granville is, especially when it comes to the machinery contained within the harpsichord bench. I’ve also got apples and shortbread, as well as a bit of seed cake left over from tea…”
She kept talking. He stopped listening.
Instead he stared at the curve of her cheek, the graceful slope of her neck revealed by her half-turned head. He watched the movement of her lips—a lovely, full mouth she had—and the way her thick eyelashes swept like feathers to her cheekbones.
She looked up to find him watching her. The hint of a flush spread across her pale skin. With a sudden desire to see that flush darken, Sebastian let his gaze wander from her slender throat down across the curves of her body, her tapered waist, the flare of her hips beneath her full skirt. Then he followed the path back to her face.
There. Color bloomed on her cheeks. Her teeth sank into her lush lower lip. Consternation glinted in her violet eyes. He wondered what she’d look like with her hair unpinned, if it would be long and tangled and thick.
“I…er, I should carry on with my work,” Clara went on, ducking her head. “Tom will be in directly, and there’s a great deal to do. Please, take a muffin, if you’d like.”
Sebastian rolled his shoulders back. A cracking noise split through his neck as he stretched. He realized for the first time that day he’d almost forgotten the headache pressing against his skull.
“Thank you.” Again he experienced that wicked urge to provoke a reaction. “I’m not hungry. Not for food.”
Her lips parted on a silent little gasp, as if she wasn’t certain whether to be offended by his indecorous tone or to ignore it altogether. Expressing offense, of course, meant she’d have to reveal that she had recognized the implications of his words.
She gave a nonchalant shrug and shifted, then held Millicent’s head out to him. “If you please, sir—”
“I please, Miss Whitmore.” His voice dropped an octave. “Often and well.”
He was drunk. Or recently had been.
That didn’t explain why Clara’s heart beat like an overwound clock, or why the rough undercurrent of Mr. Hall’s words heated her skin, but at least it explained
She tried to breathe evenly. Although ten years had passed since she had last seen him, she recalled with striking clarity the way his presence had made her pulse quicken. She remembered him leaning over her shoulder as he demonstrated the position of his fingers on the piano keys. She remembered the assured tone of his voice as he spoke of quarter notes and major scales…but he’d been distant then, a brilliant pianist, a dashing young man who already attracted beautiful women, who would one day perform for kings and emperors.
Now the distance had closed. He stood before her close enough to touch. Though he could not be over thirty years of age, he seemed older, diminished somehow. Had he…fallen?
An ache pierced Clara’s heart. Sebastian Hall had always been disheveled, but in a rather appealing fashion suited to his artistic profession.
I’ve no time to fuss
, his manner had proclaimed.
I’ve got magic to weave.
And he had, with kaleidoscope threads and fairy-dust needles. At dinner parties and concerts, Mr. Hall spun music through the air and made Clara’s blood echo with notes that had never before moved her.
Not until Sebastian Hall had brought them to life. Sleeves pushed up to his elbows, hair tumbling across his forehead, he’d played the piano with a restless energy that could in no way be contained by the polish of formality.
But now? Now he was just…messy. At least three days’ worth of whiskers roughened his jaw, and his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them for even longer than that. Dark circles ringed his eyes. He appeared hollowed out, like a gourd or shell devoid of its essence.
Clara tilted her head to the side and frowned. Although Mr. Hall’s eyes were shot through with blood, they contained a sharpness that overindulgence would have blunted. And his movements—they were tense, restless, none of his edges smeared by the taint of spirits.
She stepped a little closer to him. Her nose twitched. No rank smell of ale or brandy wafted from his person. Only…
She breathed deeper.
Crisp night air. Wood smoke. The rich, faintly bitter scent of coffee. Clara inhaled again, the scent of him sliding deep into her blood and warming a place that had long been frozen over.
His deep voice, threaded with cracks yet still resonant, broke into her brief reverie. Such a pleasure to hear his voice wrap around her former name, evoking the golden days when she had been young, when William and their mother had been alive and sunshine-yellow dandelions colored the hills of Dorset like strokes of paint.
She lifted her gaze to find Mr. Hall watching her, his eyes dark and hooded. Her face warmed.
“Sir, are you…are you ill?” she asked.
The frank question didn’t appear to disconcert him. Instead, a vague smile curved his mouth—a smile in which any trace of humor surrendered to wickedness. A faint power crackled around him, as if attempting to break through his crust of lassitude.
“Ill?” he repeated. “Yes, Miss Whitmore, I am ill indeed.”
He took a step forward, his hands flexing at his sides. She stepped back. Her heart thumped a restive beat. She glanced at the door, suddenly wishing Tom would hurry and arrive.