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Authors: Rebecca Kelley

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BOOK: The Wedding Chase
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“Can they be ready in two days?”

“Two days?” Aunt Diana fluttered about the window. “It will take several dyings to get the colors right. Nothing will be ready for the house party.”

“Then I shall wear the best of my old gowns.”

“Oh, you should wait. But I know how you are when you have made up your mind.” She stopped abruptly. “There is a lovely, classically styled riding habit.… With a few tucks it should fit admirably. At least you would look presentable atop a horse.”

“If I ride.”

“You must ride. Lord Selby keeps a fine stable.”

“I would like to ride. If I remember how.” Zel resolutely
faced her aunt. “Please write Lady Selby and tell her to expect me. Will you come?”

“I must stay here and prepare your wardrobe.” Aunt Diana patted her arm. “I will probably have more fun. The guests may be very dull.”

“I will check on the coach times.” Zel’s voice was businesslike, with the plan now agreed upon.

“Zel Fleetwood. You will not take the public coach. Julianna’s sister will attend. You shall ride with her.”

“Aunt Diana, I cannot thank you enough, for all of this.” Zel put a hand on her aunt’s shoulder and kissed her cheek.

“You may run roughshod over me on most everything, Zel, but there is one other thing on which I will stand firm.” Aunt Diana rose to her full height, ready to do battle. “That monstrous hound of yours will remain here. He would surely intimidate even the sturdiest suitor, and Julianna would never, never allow a near horse in her house.”

“But Mouse will miss me. And he will obey no one but me.” Remus stirred, thumping his tail against her skirts.

“No, dear, Smythe will learn to control him, and the dog will carry on without you, for a few days.”

“I suppose you are right. Remus would frighten to death the type of husband I seek.” Zel laughed, but a vision of a well-favored face half-hidden by tousled black hair and a tall muscular form hoisting her brother’s body hovered in her mind. She squashed it. “After all, I am looking for the richest, oldest, most mild-mannered and most easily controlled man in England.”

Rafael owed him for this one. How would a dull country house party further his acceptance by polite society? Unlikely to advance his political career, it was more likely to place him irretrievably in that most deadly of spots, the marriage mart. Wolfgang shuddered as the borrowed valet
tied his cravat. Satan’s misbegotten! The thought of those matchmaking mamas turned his skin cold. A wife! The last thing in the world he needed or wanted.

He’d missed dinner but hadn’t timed his arrival well enough to miss what would surely be an excruciating musical evening. He pushed aside the valet’s hands. “Stop fussing. This will do.”

As he descended the stairs two at a time, the first lambent strains tickled his ears. The music swelled as he strode down the long hall. This was not the fumbling amateur recital typical of a country retreat. Lady Selby must have hired a professional musician.

Slipping into the crowded music room, he leaned against a silk-hung wall, absorbing the ebb and flow of the melodious tide of notes. Too soon the music stopped, applause forcing him to reluctantly bring his attention back to the gaudy room. A husky female voice informed the audience they had heard a selection of Bach’s preludes and fugues. Next she would play Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, recently named the
Moonlight Sonata
.

Beethoven, he sighed, ready for the music to consume him, but first to discover the maker of the astonishing sounds. Wolfgang edged along the wall toward the pianoforte, watching the pianist’s slim shoulders sway, as if buffeted by the very tones she produced. Moving until he stood nearly beside her at the piano bench, he leaned against the pier table, observing her delicate profile. Her face was flushed, her full lips parted, her large, ever-so-slightly slanted eyes glazed in sightless concentration. Strands of errant sable hair dusted her smooth brow.

Her breathing came fast and shallow, her hands alternately caressing, coaxing, and compelling the pianoforte until it became an animate object, quickened to do her bidding, alive at the touch of her long, slender fingers. A grimace passed over his face as he found himself blessing his mother. She gave him precious little in his life, but she had
given him this reverence for music. Nothing else stirred him so, yet gave him such peace.

The last note resounded throughout the room. The musical sorceress sat motionless, waiting while the applause played out. The crowd silently followed the hostess, Lady Selby, through the carved door, bursting into chatter upon reaching the hall.

Wolfgang found his progress arrested by a hand on his arm. “Gadth, man, odd to thee you here,” Jeremy Crawley, Lord Melbourne, drawled, his irritating childhood lisp increasingly exaggerated as the man advanced further into adulthood. “I’d have thought you’d be in Parith thelebrating Napoleon’th defeat.”

“I have no desire to join the revelers. My tour in the army showed me all I wish to see of the Continent for years to come.”

He glanced over the shorter man’s shoulder. The pianoforte’s bench lay empty. Devil it! He scanned the room. Was she the brunette passing through the door? The woman’s face was averted, but she was too short.

Wolfgang walked beside Melbourne, his usual pace hampered by the deliberate cadence of the crowd. “The entertainment tonight was a cut above average.” Wolfgang’s voice projected the proper hint of boredom. “Did Lady Selby judge the talents of the company so meager as to require importing a musician?”

“Oh, that’th Mith Fleetwood.” Melbourne’s padded yellow shoulders shrugged. “Her aunt’th a friend to Lady Thelby.”

Fleetwood? He’d heard that name, and recently—the young fool several days ago at Maven’s. Stepping into the drawing room with Melbourne at his heels, Wolfgang again surveyed the crowd. Did the lovely body and seductive flow of hair of his apparition belong with the passionate face and manner of the pianist? This dull house party got better by the minute.

“I’d like an introduction,” Wolfgang announced, twisting to view the rest of the room.

“Introduction? Oh, to her. Why the devil would you want to meet her?” Melbourne eyed him with suspicion. “A bluethtocking. A dyed-in-the-wool thpinthter. And too bold at the pianoforte to be much of a lady.”

“Exactly.”

Melbourne grinned stupidly and gestured across the room. “That’th her thanding bethide Lady Thelby, over there.”

Wolfgang nodded his thanks and slipped over to stand beside Lady Selby and the woman Melbourne had indicated. Was this the impassioned pianist with whom he had shared a paean to the gods only moments earlier? She was brunette and very tall, with a delicate, pointed bone structure and a mouth too large for the accepted standards of beauty. He would be tempted to call her looks feline or even elfish except for her height and quiet dignity. But where was the spirit, the fire? And those spectacles and that shapeless mud-brown gown, where in Lucifer’s flaming realm did they come from?

Turning with exaggerated politeness to where Lady Selby spread herself on a brocaded sofa, Wolfgang lightly grasped the proffered hand. He brushed the woman’s fingers, plump sausages encased in kid gloves and golden rings, with his lips.

“Ah, Northcliffe, you decided to grace us with your presence.” Her jowled, turbanned head bobbed a greeting. “Never tell me you are here to peruse the latest batch of debutantes?”

“My lady, would I tell you such a tale? I am interested in establishing political, not family, ties.” He released her hand, lying effortlessly. “Forgive me for coming late but I had business in town.” He glanced at her silent companion. “If the rest of the week is equal to tonight, I shall breathlessly await your every entertainment.”

“My dear sir, if compliments are due, they are surely owing to the musical interpretations of Miss Fleetwood.” Her generous bosom quivering, she turned to the young woman standing at her side. “Zel, dear, have you met the earl?”

He regarded the object of Lady Selby’s inquiry. A faint coloring washed over her cheeks as her eyes darted away from his close scrutiny. A touch of feminine modesty as she remembered their first meeting?

“No, my lady,” she murmured, the low pitch rumbling gently as a cat’s purr.

“Miss Fleetwood, may I present Wolfgang Hardwicke, earl of Northcliffe.” Lady Selby shot him a look of warning. “Northcliffe, may I present Miss Grizelda Fleetwood.”

As he raised her gloved hand to his mouth her eyes lifted, her gaze dancing across his face. A faint scent of spice hovered about her. Now he could see beneath the thin lenses of her spectacles. A spark, a flash of golden fire illuminated her large sea-blue almond-shaped eyes.

“Charmed, Miss Fleetwood.” He held on to her long, slender fingers, his eyes capturing hers. “Your playing tonight was superb, and how brave to play the daring Herr Beethoven.”

“Brave, my lord?”

He focused his gaze on the laughter barely contained by her full lips. Did she think him a prude, offended by her ardent rendition of Beethoven? No, her embarrassment had fled at the mention of Wolfgang’s name—turning to amusement. But what right had she to laugh with a name like Grizelda?

“Miss Fleetwood, you need not stifle that giggle.” He lowered his thick eyebrows in his best fierce look. “My name has always been sorely abused. I hoped that one of your musical nature would have more compassion.”

“My lord, please excuse my rudeness.” The glint in her
eyes held no contrition. “But you see, I suffer also from the curse of Mozart. My second name is Amadea.”

His mouth twitched and spread open in a wide grin he knew exposed that annoying boyish dimple. He clasped her hand again. The covering of smooth, cool kid thwarted direct contact, but he was rewarded by the return of that touch of color to her pale high cheek bones.

“We are destined to become the best of friends.” As his thumb grazed over her palm, her color deepened. “We are blessed with the love of music and cursed with a name made for jest.”

Lady Selby took Zel’s arm, pinning Wolfgang with a protective glare. “You must reprimand Northcliffe severely when he becomes too familiar. He is a most incorrigible, ah, flirt, you know.” She pulled more forcefully on Zel’s arm. “Come along, dear, we must introduce you to the other guests.”

Wolfgang flashed a ghost of a bow. “Miss Fleetwood, we
will
speak again.”

Lady Selby steered her away from him as if she were a green debutante. Certainly she was well into her twenties, too old to be considered an innocent needing to be spared a little flirtation, even from such a known rakehell as he.

His eyes moved lazily over her departing figure. Her ill-fitting, hideous gown made a nearly effective disguise, but after the view of her in her night rail, his practiced eye could see the very appropriately placed curves and infinitely long limbs that moved with feline grace. Her scraggly chignon, pale complexion, and wire-rimmed spectacles made it equally difficult to ascertain the charms of her countenance. But he had seen her glow as she played Beethoven, and he had seen the flash in her eyes when she concealed her laughter.

There was a mystery here. Why would an unmarried woman fail to capitalize on her beauty? Unless she had no interest in dangling after a husband. Perhaps the intriguing
Miss Fleetwood remained a miss because she had no more interest in marriage than he. This house party could certainly be enlivened by a little flirtation. Or more than a flirtation if the impassioned pianoforte recital correctly reflected her other inclinations.

Zel took a steadying breath as Lady Selby drew her across the room. She was unused to the company of men, except for her family, and Lord Northcliffe’s presence overpowered her, to say the least. It was not just his size, although that was considerable, nor his piercing silver eyes, nor his long sensual face. He had an air about him … something uncompromising and untamed.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts. He was not the type of man to suit her purposes, but his forward manner confused her. Her face heated again. He had looked at her as he had that night in her upstairs hall, when she had worn nothing but her night rail. She should coquettishly rap him with her fan as she had seen more sophisticated women do, or, better yet, discourage any fancy he may have for her by slapping his handsome, insolent face. Zel nearly laughed aloud at her conceit. A man such as he would have no real interest in her, but perhaps she could practice some flirtation with him, prepare herself for London.

No, wisdom dictated she was out of her depth and should stay far away from him. She found herself tempted to turn, wanting to know if his eyes followed her, or if he quickly found other diversion. Straightening her shoulders, she directed her eyes to her hostess and the tiny gray-haired woman on Lady Selby’s other arm, whose name she failed to catch.

The evening was a blur of faces and polite conversation. Zel felt like a baby chick under the plump, protective wing of Lady Selby. Aunt Diana’s introductory letter had done its work too well. She must have been presented to every unattached man in the county.

Between spells of watching the intricate plasterwork on
the walls, Zel found herself responding demurely to comments on the weather, fashion, and the prince regent’s latest exploits. Several times she felt herself the subject of pointed observation. When she glanced around she discovered Lord Northcliffe nearby, a black-haired, silver-eyed wolf, regarding her intently. She chuckled softly at her flight of fancy, receiving a sharp look from the stout older gentleman who had been describing modern sheep-raising techniques.

“Lord Astin, I believe your wife is looking for you.” Northcliffe’s deep voice resonated near her ear. “I last saw her in the library.”

As Astin made his excuses, Zel, skin tingling with the blush moving up her throat and cheeks, turned to Northcliffe. She felt far too aware of how broad his shoulders were in his perfectly fitted midnight-blue evening coat and how he stood so tall her eyes barely met his chin, she who looked down on most men’s brows or hairlines.

“Your knight errant, mademoiselle, at your command.” He winked broadly. “Specializing in rescuing fair damsels from the evil dragon of boredom.”

BOOK: The Wedding Chase
4.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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