Authors: Rebecca Kelley
Her laughter stopped abruptly as his long fingers wrapped around her upper arm, directing her to the door. She grudgingly smiled her thanks for the rescue, then dug in her heels, tugging at his hand. “Where are we going?”
His reply was low and intimate. “I thought you might like to accompany me to the terrace and indulge in a more stimulating conversation.”
Before she could answer, they passed through the French doors, entering a terrace lit only by the graying rays of the setting sun. He guided her to a stone bench, sinking down beside her, the warmth of his leg inches from her own. Was he sitting too close? He must be, but should she move to the edge of the bench or stand indignantly? Wishing she had experience in these games men and women played, she shifted slightly.
“Who was the Mozart lover who named you?” As he
turned toward her, she could see the muscles bunch in his thigh. His knee nearly touched hers.
Zel controlled her voice. “My grandfather.” She watched as the twilight play of shadow and light flickered over the lines of his face. “I suppose I should be happy Beethoven was not a famous composer when I was born, or I might be Grizelda Ludwigia.”
He laughed, a musical growl coming from somewhere low in his chest. “That would be quite a mouthful indeed. My mother insisted on Wolfgang.” The gray of his eyes clouded slightly. “She loves music but was more concerned with countermanding my evangelical father’s choice, John Wesley, after the nonconformist religious leader. My full name is Wolfgang John Wesley Hardwicke.” The bright silver glint returned to his eyes. “I fought over that name so many times as a boy I’ve actually developed a perverse pride in it. But with your musical prowess, I’m sure Beethoven and Mozart would be honored for you to use their names.”
“My lord, your flattery goes too far.” The barely respectable distance between them diminished further. Zel slid to the edge of the bench to widen the gap, focusing on a previously unnoticed tiny streak of gray zigzagging through the glossy black hair above his right temple. Hair unfashionably long and tied with a ribbon at the nape of his neck.
Northcliffe narrowed the space. “ ’Tis not flattery, Miss Fleetwood. You play with incredible passion.” His eyes refused to release hers. “Your whole body is possessed by the music.”
“My lord, I do not believe this is proper discourse.” Zel flashed him what she hoped was a scathing look. Part of her knew she should leave him alone and return to the dull conversations in the drawing room. Another part of her longed to stay, unaccountably intrigued by his charm and flirtatious manner.
“I’m not known for my polite discourse, but I shall try to behave myself. The earlier piece by a Mr. Bach …” He
tapped long, tapering fingers on his thigh. “I pride myself on familiarity with all types of music, but he’s unknown to me.”
“He is not widely known in England. My old German music master introduced me to his preludes and fugues, regarding them as great teaching tools. I found them extraordinarily beautiful.” Zel cleared her throat, watching his hand as it stilled, then rested on his leg, very near her own thigh.
“Would you play more of them for me?” Northcliffe’s eyes gleamed in the soft twilight.
The air, fragrant with spring blooms, was cool, but Zel felt a warmth seep slowly through her body. “They are intended for the harpsichord or clavichord.” Her voice faltered as she contemplated a private recital. “Either are unlikely to be available.”
They sat in silence for several moments. Not an easy, companionable silence, but a silence filled with discomforting sensations, strange tingles in her legs, cool shivers along her back, heat flooding her abdomen. Zel could feel his eyes touching her, lingering where her skin lay exposed. Her hand darted to her bodice, smoothing over the fabric, making certain the cloth was still in place. She looked down at her feet, incapable of returning his gaze, then opened her mouth seeking anything to break the spell surrounding them.
“Are you one of my brother’s reprobate gambling friends?”
He laughed. “No, I am not his friend, reprobate or otherwise. He was drunk and I delivered him home as a favor to a friend.”
“And your friend was the gaming hell proprietor?”
He shifted about, rubbing his arm against hers. “Yes.”
Zel held her ground. “How did he get injured?”
“Injured? I thought he was drunk.”
“His jaw had a nasty bruise.”
“I never saw a bruise.” Northcliffe suddenly grasped her
hand in his while his other hand snatched her spectacles from her face. “Why do you wear these things?”
She sat stunned, watching as he peered through the lenses, then scanned her face. “You hide lovely eyes. Inside they appeared a blue green, but now they are green—”
“Sir, return my spectacles and my hand.” Zel tried to pull away, but his grip held firm.
“—with flashing golden flecks.” His face advanced to within inches of hers. “The eyes of a cat. What is the color?”
“Ordinary hazel.” With a note of command in her voice, she attempted to wrest control of the interchange once more. “My spectacles and my hand, please. It is time to go inside.”
His lips twitched. “I’ll return you to the drawing room.” Turning her hand, he placed the spectacles in her palm, and released her. “I warned you, I rarely behave.” His lips spread into a wide smile, the single dimple hanging at one corner.
“Northcliffe!” A trilling flutelike voice followed them onto the terrace. A stylish, beautiful blonde well beyond the first blush of youth looked past Zel. She might have stepped off a fashion plate, with her filmy, pastel muslin gown clinging to her boldly full figure. “Come inside, you naughty boy. I swear I will die of boredom without you.”
“Isadora, I had no idea you were in need of me.” His murmur was the texture of raw silk, but his eyes were cold steel. “Have you met my new friend, Miss Fleetwood?”
“I heard her performance, but we haven’t met.” The woman’s eyes brushed over Zel, returning quickly to Northcliffe.
“Then I shall do the honors.” Northcliffe stood, gazing from one woman to the other. “Lady Horeton, may I present Miss Grizelda Fleetwood. Miss Fleetwood, may I present Isadora Morganton, Lady Horeton.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Lady Horeton.” Zel felt awkward beside the petite, graceful woman.
“Call me Isadora, dear.” The corners of her mouth curled ever so slightly upward. “I would love to call you Grizelda.”
Coughing an unwilling assent, Zel turned away from Northcliffe’s intent look. An image filled her mind of two cats fighting over a canary. Zel blinked to clear the vision. She was not a cat, and Northcliffe resembled no canary she had ever seen. He was undoubtably handsome, but not a picture of masculine beauty for women to fight over. His nose was a bit too long. His mouth was too wide and his jaw too prominent. In all, entirely too rugged to be considered beautiful.
“Your gown is most unusual, Grizelda, dear.” Lady Horeton rubbed against Northcliffe. “Was it made especially for you?”
Nodding again, Zel scanned the voluptuous woman before her. “I dress for comfort and utility, not for style.”
Lady Horeton’s laughter tinkled, high and sharp, like a tiny bell. “How wonderfully wise of you.”
Northcliffe laughed, a short bark. “Odd as it seems, some women do value wisdom. Where is Lord Horeton?”
The petite blonde gave him an oddly hard look, then smiled again. “You know the poor old dear would never survive a trip longer than five miles from London.”
Rising beside Northcliffe, Zel towered over Lady Horeton, who quickly grasped Northcliffe’s arm. He reached for Zel with his free hand, but she pointedly ignored his offer, escaping through the French doors. She had foolishly begun to feel she could joust with Northcliffe, but Lady Horeton, and her smooth, coy manner, made Zel feel gauche and coarse. Her sophisticated clothing further served to emphasize Zel’s dowdy appearance.
Zel did not speak to Northcliffe during the remainder of the evening, but she again found herself surveyed by his keen eyes and felt an uneasy mixture of irritation and pleasure. A flush heated her cheeks as the quirk at the corner of his mouth indicated he was aware of and amused by her response to him.
* * *
Despite the strange bed, Wolfgang slept deeply, awakening uncharacteristically groggy and muddled. A vague image clouded his thoughts. A dream image of a sleek, sable cat with glittering golden fire in its sea-hued eyes and an elfin grin on its very uncatlike lips. He stretched into the pillows, frowning, surprised at the vision hovering in his mind. The frown slowly transformed into a wide smile as he realized Miss Grizelda Amadea Fleetwood would be even more astonished than he to find herself the object of his dreams.
He sat up abruptly, decision made. She would be a pleasant distraction at an otherwise monotonous house party. A mild dalliance, and if it built to more—fulfilling—activities, so much the better. He would not normally pursue an unmarried miss, but she was surely no innocent fresh out of the schoolroom. She was old enough and intelligent enough to understand the ways of men and women and make her own decisions. If she declined his advances, he’d cut his losses and return to London to seek a new mistress among the bored wives of the ton.
Wolfgang flung off the bedclothes. Blazing lakes of brimstone! Within the week he would press his lips to that slender, graceful neck and warm himself in the fire flickering in her eyes.
A graceful song in parts
Standing before Lady Selby’s ornate basin and mirror, Wolfgang splashed cold water on his face and neck. Lucifer and his cat! He’d wet the damn dressing again! Frowning, he ripped the bandage off his shoulder. A narrow scab came up with it. The scurvy footpads who attacked him three days ago outside Brooks’s Club had barely scratched the skin. Rank amateurs! He dabbed at a few drops of blood with the gauze dressing. The runner he’d hired at Bow Street should be responding with a report, detailing the identity of the assailants and the reason for the attack. Maybe it was just a simple robbery.
Deciding the wound didn’t merit a new dressing, he quickly donned attire of which even his valet would approve: buff pantaloons, white shirt, pale blue waistcoat, and black Hessians. Finishing off a simple cravat knot, he slid into the snug morning jacket. He felt a little lost without Jenkins’s attendance, but the staunch retainer deserved a few days off. An adult male should be able to dress himself on occasion.
Wolfgang rooted through the pile of last night’s clothing for a hair ribbon, finally finding the black strip tangled
about a rumpled waistcoat. He’d had a week his friend, Freddie, would be proud of, first the fight at the gambling hell and the next night the footpad attack. What did Miss Fleetwood know about the fight? He’d evaded her questions, but he knew the issue hadn’t died. Frowning at his reflection in the glass, he brushed his hair, tied it in a queue, then set out in search of breakfast.
The sideboard in the bright breakfast room was filled with rashers of bacon, kidney pie, salmon, eggs, jam tarts, dried fruit, toast, coffee, and tea. He loaded a plate, joining the sparse gathering around the table. As conversation ran equally sparse he ate rapidly, excusing himself to wander the house.
Eventually, Wolfgang found himself in the music room. He hadn’t practiced in months but, inspired by Miss Fleetwood’s performance, he couldn’t resist trying his hand. First the pianoforte, then its player.
A smile brushed his lips. Her sweet blush contrasted so intriguingly with her bold behavior. She followed along with his game of cat and mouse, allowing him to sit far too close, moving away only a bit to encourage rather than discourage him. Yet when faced with competition, she deserted the field, leaving him in Isadora’s clutches despite his silent plea for aid.
He sighed, seating himself on the bench. If he wished to be an honorable gentleman, any doubts dictated that he leave her alone. But why should he allow a few scruples to interfere with his amusements? And she did amuse him.
He would proceed with flirtation, moving ever so skillfully into seduction. Smiling, Wolfgang rifled through the sheet music arrayed on the pianoforte. Finding a familiar Mozart sonata, he began to softly finger the hardwood keys.
He was thoroughly destroying the piece when he sensed another presence in the room. A spicy scent. Wolfgang turned to see Grizelda Fleetwood, in another dowdy gown,
hesitating at the door. He stopped abruptly, surprised at his embarrassment.
“Discovered! The foul deed uncovered!” He smiled, eased the bench back, and stood with a flourish. “I confess my guilt. I’ve murdered Mozart.”
She laughed, a throaty sound of full, easy humor that struck a chord within him. Her laughter bore no resemblance to the rehearsed titter affected by the ladies of the ton. “I wouldn’t call it murder, my lord, maybe a little unintentional mayhem. You have a fine hand, but it’s clear you rarely practice.”
“The truth is indeed revealed. I seldom, almost never, practice. Lacking discipline, I have become a much better listener than player.” Wolfgang took a step closer, drawing her eyes to his. “You are quite beyond my touch.”