Authors: Rebecca Kelley
That faint blush appeared again, as she set a well-worn portfolio on the table. “Do you sight read?”
“About as well as I play.”
“That will be fine. I have a few Bach pieces my music master arranged for four hands on the pianoforte.” Her low voice softened. “The easier part was for my brother. My part acts as the counterpoint. Would you like to try?”
“I would be honored to take instruction.” He bowed, sat back on the bench, and patted the seat beside him. “But please be kind to your humble pupil, Madam Music Master.”
An answering smile lit her face as she opened her portfolio. She pulled out some tattered papers before sitting a respectable distance from him on the bench. He took the music, scanned it quickly, and laid it out where they both could see.
Miss Fleetwood removed her eyeglasses, pushed back a wisp of dark brown hair, and ran bare fingers lightly over the keys. “Are you ready? My part joins in after the first few measures.”
Wolfgang began to tentatively tap out the notes. The piece was easy, and his confidence rapidly increased. Soon she
joined in, the notes prancing, circling, interlacing playfully. They both reached to turn the page, his hand met hers, skin to skin. A thrumming—a contralto’s lowest note—reverberated through him. Their gazes crossed and locked. Suddenly he wanted to touch much more than her fingers. As if he’d spoken the thought aloud, she looked away, stumbling over the next measure. She seemed to draw herself in, her slender form compact and contained, and continued the piece. He inhaled slowly, breathing in her scent, and found his place in the music, barely missing a note.
As they finished the arrangement, she turned to him with what might have been a smile had her mouth not been so tight. “I believe you could be quite good if you applied yourself.”
The corner of his lips twitched as he restrained an answering smile. “I’m always good when I apply myself, Miss Fleetwood.” The threatening grin broke through. “But speaking of good, you should see me ride. Do you ride?”
“Ride? What do you …” She hesitated slightly. “I ride, but not well.”
“Good. I’ve played your student, now you’ll play mine.” Wolfgang stretched contentedly. “In all modesty, my girl, my skills on a horse exceed yours on the keyboard. This afternoon?”
Her husky tone moved a shade higher. “I am not your girl, and the gentlemen were to engage in a billiards tournament.”
“Billiards is not my game, my lady.” He scanned her briefly. “In the name of equality you must permit this lesson. How else will my masculine pride survive?”
She met his eyes squarely. “I am also not your lady, as you well know, but I accept the lesson. For equality.”
Zel laid her spectacles on the tiny corner table, in the relentlessly feminine pastel-and-lace bedchamber. She
squinted at her reflection in the cheval glass. Her heavy hair was twisting out of the chignon, before the ride even began. The dark green riding habit had belonged to her Aunt Diana, and made over it felt like a second skin. She frowned, almost relieved the rest of her new wardrobe was not yet ready.
Striding down the stairs, she tugged at the jacket, trying to pull it free from its close hold on her breasts. The house was quiet, with the female guests in the drawing room gossiping as they attended to their stitchery and the men in the far wing telling tales as they competed at billiards.
Northcliffe would be lounging in the music room, as arranged. Zel hoped she would not shame herself with her lack of horsemanship. Good riding horses rarely lasted more than a few weeks around the Fleetwood house before they were lost in the next bout of gambling.
As he stood to greet her, Zel couldn’t ignore his lengthy perusal of her person, but glaring at him when the inspection paused overlong at her bodice didn’t stop the heated flush from rising in her cheeks.
“I prefer this ensemble over any I’ve seen you in yet.” The corner of his mouth quivered dangerously.
“You are guilty of the most counterfeit flattery.” Her tone aimed at severity and missed completely. “I am certain you know this is horribly out of date.”
“My dear, what does fashion matter when the fit is superb.” The twitch in his lips spilled over into a boyishly crooked grin. “And the color compliments your eyes.”
Zel tossed him a warning look. He smiled wider, tucking her hand in his elbow, guiding her out the door and down the hall.
The mare selected for her was a small even-tempered gray. Northcliffe lifted her effortlessly into the sidesaddle. When he turned to mount a chestnut stallion, she ran her palms down her sides to rid herself of the lingering feel of his hands.
As they rode slowly away from the stables it became obvious Northcliffe held back his enormous steed.
“If I am too slow for you, please ride ahead at your own pace.” Zel surveyed horse and rider who moved as one.
“It won’t damage Ari to practice restraint. Besides, if I galloped off, your mare would likely attempt to follow.”
“Ari?” She gripped the reins tighter. “Is he your horse?”
“Yes, Aristophanes would never forgive a country outing without him.” He ran tapering fingers through the thick mane.
“Aristophanes? Are you an admirer of Greek drama?”
“My guilty secret.” He studied her face, as if expecting a reaction.
“I too enjoy Greek drama and philosophy.”
“Ah, mademoiselle is a bluestocking?” His smile spred deep enough to summon up the lone dimple.
“I’ve been called that.” She felt herself bristle. “I find it a title of honor.”
“I meant no offense. Women have few ways to use their minds.” Northcliffe gave her an accusing look. “I’ve offered my equestrian expertise to one who needs it little. More experience will increase your confidence. And your seat is excellent.”
He might be a master horseman, but he could use educating on the uses of a woman’s mind. Yet the day, replete with birdsong and wildflowers, was too lovely for dissension. She held her tongue, watching his hands lightly enfold the reins. Long, slim, graceful hands contrasting with his hard masculine body.
After a long canter past meadows and furrowed fields, they reached a narrow stream and dismounted, allowing the horses to drink. Zel pulled off a glove, stooping to dip her hand in the rocky brook. The cool water ran through her fingers, the force of its flow pressing against her palm. Cupping her hand, she lifted the liquid to her lips, swallowing what didn’t run down her chin and throat. She rose and met
his eyes, challenging his pointed stare as she wiped her sleeve across her mouth.
“I remembered where I’ve heard the name Grizelda.” Northcliffe lounged against a tree, a mischievous grin playing about his mobile mouth. “Chaucer’s
. Griselda, the virtuous wife. She who endures all manner of testing by her husband but remains loyal, ever willing to submit to the domination of her lord and master.”
Zel grimaced, settling on a large, flat boulder. “That horrid little story.” She bit her lip. “Unfortunately, society would not only permit but applaud the husband’s actions.”
“Forgive me, I’ve dug too deep and uncovered a reformer.”
She felt her color rise at the smile in his voice. “I am indeed proud to be a women’s reformer, sir.”
“Your cause isn’t well supported by those in power.”
She snorted. “But as an earl, you are part of that group.”
“Touché. I’m a member of Parliament.” Northcliffe strode the short distance between them and laid a hand on her arm. “But my time and energy are consumed with tenants’ rights.”
She leaned sideways, away from his hand, and pulled on her glove, but she couldn’t stop herself from looking at him in surprise. “You are a tenant advocate? Astonishing for a landowning peer.”
“I’ve been a peer long enough to know my tenants are my responsibility. If they can’t feed their children, the blame is mine, by my mismanagement or greed.”
“I am pleased to hear such views coming from one in the House of Lords.” Zel watched, mesmerized, as the bright sun reflected off the lines and planes of his face.
“I’m not totally alone, Grizelda.” He smiled. “What does your family call you? Surely a woman so lovely must go by a prettier name than Grizelda.”
“Zel.” She returned his smile, the compliment somehow offsetting his familiarity. “Sometimes Zelda or Zelly.”
“Zel.” Holding her gaze, he climbed onto the boulder, scooting closer until his body connected warmly with her own.
She twisted away abrubtly, shoving him hard with her shoulder. Unbalanced, he toppled off the rock, hitting the ground with a thud and a groan.
“Oh, Lord! Did I hurt you?” Zel slid off the rock, kneeling at his prone form, stroking his forehead and closed eyelids with her fingertips. “Are you injured?”
Strong fingers grasped hers. His lids popped open. “You pack quite a force in that slim frame.” Northcliffe pulled her hand to his chest. “Was I such a bad boy you had to beat me?”
“Do not be silly. I never meant to hurt you.” She frowned at her fingers splayed over his chest. “Should I go for help?”
He sat up, wincing, keeping her hand at his chest. “There’s nothing wrong with me your sweet touch wouldn’t cure.”
Zel yanked her hand free, jumping to her feet, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. “If there is nothing wrong with you, then we may return and dress for dinner.”
Northcliffe maintained a light banter as they remounted and rode back to the house. He stopped in a clump of trees just short of the stables, sliding smoothly off Ari’s back. His hands clasped her waist, lifting her from her mount. “Thank you for the splendid afternoon.” He lowered her gently to the ground, then eyes focusing on her mouth, he pulled off his glove. Raising a finger, he softly traced the curve of her lower lip.
Zel jumped back, stung, her lip tingling from the caress, pushing against him with the hand still braced against his shoulder. He flinched and stepped back, releasing her abruptly. Her hand dropped. It felt warm, sticky. She gasped, watching a stain widen on his jacket.
“My God! You are bleeding.”
She thrust aside his neckcloth and jacket. Ignoring his protests, she quickly unfastened the top of his shirt to examine the wound. “My God! Did I do this?”
“Of course not. It happened several days ago.”
“This needs to be thoroughly cleaned and bandaged.” She lectured him to assuage her guilt. Despite his disclaimer she was sure the fall off the boulder had caused the bleeding. “You should be in bed. Not out riding.”
“With all your other talents I can’t believe you’re a nurse too!” She rewarded his attempt at humor with a stern glare.
“I will accompany you to your room and let you observe my nursing skills firsthand.” Zel signaled a groom to handle the horses and hooked Northcliffe’s arm, leading him to the house.
“I’d normally not deny you entrance to my chambers, but I don’t need a nurse.” His smile was obviously forced. “If you insist on mending my hurts, it would be better done downstairs.”
Zel blushed at her lack of propriety and ordered the footman at the front door to usher them into an empty salon and send for hot water and bandages.
Pulling Northcliffe into the indicated gray-and-white room, Zel yanked off her stained gloves and helped him slip out of his jacket and waistcoat. She pushed him down on the sofa and removed his neckcloth, then unfastened the remaining buttons on his shirt so she could poke at the wound.
“Bloody devil’s spawn!” He growled, shoving her hands away.
“This looks like a knife cut, and it should have been stitched. Why didn’t you seek a physician?” She stopped. Lord, she was reprimanding him like a despotic schoolmistress.
“I saw a doctor, but I told him it didn’t need stitching.” He sucked in a breath when she prodded the wound again. “It’s a flea bite. I’ve had worse.” As he tried to sit she leaned
over him, a hand on his uninjured shoulder, the other on the opposite arm. His lips curled as he settled into the cushions.
Zel released him and took a step backward. “You will stay put and allow me to clean the wound. Lady Selby’s physician was at the musicale last night and may still be here.”
A maid entered with water and cloths. Zel took a cloth and ordered her to fetch the doctor.
“This may hurt a little.” She wet the cloth and began scrubbing blood off the wound.
He stiffened, hissing. “By Lucifer’s scaly skin, woman, have a little care. You’re taking off hide with the blood.”
She pinched back a smile at his colorful language, but gentled the strokes. “Now, my lord, may I hear how a respectable gentleman came to have a knife wound at his throat?”
“Miss Fleetwood, you’re sadly mistaken in thinking me a respectable gentleman. But if you must know about my little adventure, I was set on by footpads several nights ago outside my club.” His look oozed studied masculine insouciance. “And I’m not bragging to say they came out of the affair in much worse condition than I.”
Zel scowled at him as she rinsed the cloth. “Violence is nothing of which to be proud.”
“Ah.” Northcliffe raised his thick black brows. “Have I hit on another cause?”
“Do not take the focus off yourself.” She squeezed the water from the cloth. “You undoubtably were not taking precautions to avoid the incident.” This was none of her business, but she continued to act like a guilty, meddling fool.
“This little speech sounds well used.” He winced when she again rubbed too hard. “Your brother?”
Warmth touched her cheeks. “Excuse me, please. I had no right to say what I did. I am certainly not your mother.”
“Ahem.” She whirled about as Dr. Lyndon shuffled in.
He slowly approached the sofa then quickly took stock of the situation, eyes bright under thick eyeglasses and grizzled brows.
“This wound is several days old and should have been stitched, my lord.” The doctor turned to Zel, handing her a leather case. “We need to get him to his room. Could you bring this while I help him up the stairs?”
“I’ll manage on my own.” Wolfgang rose to his feet.
“I’m sure you can, young man, but you will take my arm all the same.” Dr. Lyndon did not wait for an argument but grabbed Northcliffe’s good arm and moved out of the room.