For Tony and Lisa Putman,
who gave me a larger world.
Many thanks to my critique group, Linda Stachler, Janet Greer, and Sharon Stealy; to Kathy Fischer-Brown, who always comes up with the right music or the perfect book; and to the able and talented women of GEnie Romance Exchange. And as always, thanks to the Sisters—you know who you are.
To souls oppress’d and dumb with grief,
The Gods ordain this kind releif;
That Musick shou’d in sounds convey,
What dying Lovers dare not say.
Lucien Harrow was drunk.
It was not uncommon. In his set, to be sober at three of a muggy early summer morning would have been a far more unusual occurrence.
What was uncommon was the fact that he sat in his shirtsleeves in his study, his brocaded waistcoat flung over the back of a chair, dipping his quill again and again in a pot of ink.
A powerful sense of desperation—unblunted by the spirits he’d consumed—drove him to scrawl notations over the paper. In his head pounded a wild, ringing gypsy music, a swirl and a dance, a little turn…
He squeezed his eyes closed and pushed away from the writing table, dropping the quill and picking up his glass. His head bobbed in time to the sound in his mind, the notes undrowned. Unsteadily, he aimed himself for the sideboard and the decanter of claret.
Crystal bottle in hand, he hummed the music aloud, over and over, swinging the bottle as if he were conducting. And as he hummed, he saw the notes as a river of colors.
They rose and swirled, like an elaborate braid, each strand woven around the others, none muddied or muted. Unless he wished it.
The claret shone in his glass, ruby colored, like the sound of viola. Lucien pushed his hair from his face and drank deeply, then stumbled back to his desk, carrying the glass. Some splashed onto his hand. A burn in his belly warned him to cease, but he drank it all in a single swallow.
He then gathered the sheaf of papers over which he’d been laboring, and calmly, deliberately held them over the flame of the candle until they caught fire. When they were black and curled, he tossed them on the grate and stumbled toward bed, having silenced the sounds one more time.
One more time.
Black or fair, or tall or low,
I alike with all can sport.
A rose thorn bit Madeline’s finger,
another tiny, stinging scratch to add to the many marks covering her hands. Absently, she straightened. Sucking welling drips of blood from her finger, she eyed a cloud of dust that marked the arrival of yet another pair of visitors. Their figures were haloed against the lowering gold light of a late May afternoon.
Guests had been trailing in most of the day in a slow, sporadic trail, Londonites fleeing the strange early heat of the city. Among them would be the marquess Beauchamp.
Madeline wondered if one of these might be he, the man who would, with any luck, be her husband before the year was through. As this pair, one on a horse, the other a phaeton, raced through dusty bars of sunlight on the drive, Madeline doubted seriously either of them was the marquess. She’d heard he was a conservative man.
Since it was the marquess she awaited, Madeline turned away. Overly warm and feeling dusty, she knew she ought to go inside and bathe before supper, but a curious stubbornness kept her wandering through the ragged hedges and neglected flower beds, pausing to peer at one bush or another with a frown.
Once the gardens at Whitethorn had been famous throughout England, the legacy of the first earl of Whitethorn. Madeline had often thought the man was her spiritual grandfather, for she alone among his descendants had been born with his passion for the place. Juliette, her stepmother, was in favor of allowing it to go wild in the fashion of the day, but Madeline couldn’t bear the thought.
Unfortunately, there was simply not enough money left in the estate to pay the gardeners required to maintain formal gardens of this size. And not even Madeline, with her love and the knowledge she’d laboriously uncovered for herself, could hope to do it alone.
With a sigh, she shook her skirts and wound her way toward the house over a path covered with lemon thyme. The sound of the two riders pounding up the graveled drive reached her. She brushed away a stray lock of hair as she looked through the
a window cut in the eight-foot-high topiary hedge.
The riders raced up the road madly. The gleaming, sporty phaeton rocked dangerously in the rain-rutted course. The other man rode on a beautiful, lean black horse; beast and man were illuminated with the bars of hazy light falling through thick tree branches. They were young men, London rakes, a breed of man beneath Madeline’s contempt. She found their arrogance and idleness a bore.
And yet, as they laughed and shouted, each goading the other to a faster pace, Madeline felt her blood rise in a strange excitement. It was in particular the man on the horse who caught her eye. He wore no powder or wig, and his thick dark hair was drawn back into a queue with a black ribbon. His body was long and sinuously made, and he rode as if he and the horse were one being. From where she stood, his face gave the impression of exotic tilts and powerful bones.
But it was the hedonism Madeline ordinarily found so distasteful in such men that drew her now, made her take up her skirts and run toward the opening of the maze so she would not lose sight of him behind the hedge.
She broke through to the open stretch of lawn between the maze and the Elizabethan house of Whitethorn just as the man urged his horse into a full run. Light dappled faster and faster over his dark hair, his dark horse, his long legs. Next to him, only a little behind, the phaeton rocked noisily.
As they neared the end of the drive, Madeline burst into a run. The man on the horse left the road and bolted across the same lawn. His speed was almost dizzying, and he headed with purpose for a shoulder-high hedge that edged the house garden.
Madeline froze. They would both be killed.
But even as she clamped a hand over her mouth, watching in horror, the black beast leaped with stunning grace over the squared hedge. Horse and man hung—haloed and gilded by the afternoon light—for an endless time against the sky.
As he hung there, suspended in midair, looking like Pan, like some untamed beast come in from the wild, the man laughed. The sound rang with robust defiance into the day, and Madeline felt her heart catch with a sharp pang.
To be so free!
Horse and rider landed nimbly on the other side of the hedge. For one long moment, Madeline stared after him, her heart pounding. Then, setting her mouth, she gathered her skirts and turned away to slip into the house by a side door. She didn’t wish to greet anyone in such spirits, and particularly not the man who’d risked life and limb for a foolish jump.
The sound of the free male laughter, the easy camaraderie of bets won and lost, followed her as she ducked into the house.
Lucien Harrow dismounted with a victorious cry.
"Foolish bet, Jonathan!"
Jonathan leaped from the carriage nimbly and set his wig aright. "I would have won it had you not taken that suicidal leap!"
From the top of the wide stone steps came a female voice, at once mocking and congratulatory. "Well done, Harrow! We saw it from the windows."
Lucien leaped up the steps and took her hand, his breath still coming fast. The widowed countess, though well past the first blush of beauty, was still generally counted to be the most glorious creature London had ever seen—and word was her sexual appetites were as prodigious as her beauty.
Lucien had never been her lover, but he never ruled out the possibility. With a mocking smile of his own, he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a bold, moist kiss to it.
A flicker of approval danced in the violet eyes. "Dear boy, I’m so glad you could come!"
Jonathan elbowed Lucien aside, not at all covertly, and swept the countess into a lewd embrace. Over his head, Juliette met Lucien’s eyes with a tiny smile, lifting one eyebrow lightly.
"Jealousy doesn’t become you, Jonathan," she said in reproof, tapping him with her fan as she moved away, trailing lace and brocade and the scent of her omnipresent cosmetics. "Come have refreshment, gentlemen."
Jonathan shoved Lucien, only half in play. "This is one you’ll not spoil, man."
A slow smile spread over Lucien’s face. "You know I cannot resist a challenge, Jonathan. Do you so doubt your prowess?"
Jonathan, recovering, laughed. "Hardly." As if all was forgotten, he gestured for both to go inside.
But both of them knew Jonathan had revealed too much. Lucien smiled to himself, plucking a rose from the bush alongside the door. Jonathan in love—fancy that.
And with the most notoriously unfaithful woman in all of England.
Interesting indeed. Lucien doubted he’d try to seduce her himself; for all her beauty she was a female of surprisingly sharp edges. He fancied women a little softer.
Nonetheless, there was nothing like a good tangle of amour and vice to brighten the dull countryside. Perhaps his exile would not be so deadly boring as he’d feared.
Juliette sailed into Madeline’s chambers just before eight, dressed in a gown of apricot silk that displayed her awe-inspiring bosom and flawless skin to perfection.
Pearls gleamed around her long neck, and coquettish curls framed a perfectly shaped ear.
"Ah!" she said in her resonant voice. "You’re nearly done. Wonderful!" She rounded Madeline, examining her. "And you are beautiful tonight, sweet."
Madeline held her head very still, allowing the maids to finish dressing her hair, which was piled high on her head and laced with emeralds. Wryly, she gazed at Juliette.
It was impossible to feel any sense of beauty in the presence of the countess, and Madeline had long ago ceased to try. Even her youth was no benefit where Juliette was concerned—every single detail of the woman was exactly what it should be to draw the attention of men. Her teeth, her eyes, her hair; her magnificent figure and modulated voice.
The maids finished with her, and Madeline waved them away to don her long gloves, which would effectively hide the scratches on her hands. "Is he here?" she asked, not looking at Juliette.
"Yes." Juliette smiled and stepped forward to take the patch box from Madeline’s hands. "He’s rather impatient to meet you."
"I’ve heard he looks like a pig—all pink and beady-eyed. If he’s that awful, I’ll not marry him, no matter how much money he has or how close to the throne."
Juliette’s lips tightened infinitesimally. "You’ll marry as I wish, or lose this estate.
Your father gambled far too much and we are paying the price."
"Oh, it was his gambling," Madeline said with a lift of a brow. "Fourteen years ago?"
There was a flicker of steel in the violet eyes. "Do try, Madeline, this once?"
Madeline took her fan from the dressing table and flicked it open in an expert, mocking imitation of Juliette. "I’ll try," she said.
When Madeline would have walked out with Juliette, the countess stopped her.
"No, my dear," she said, smiling. "You’ll enter alone tonight."
Madeline inclined her head and let her stepmother go down ahead of her. Before her trip to the Continent, Madeline had oft been used as a foil for Juliette’s jeweled loveliness. Tonight, perhaps the aim was to display Madeline in a better light.
Certainly no expense had been spared on the dress, made of brocaded forest green velvet, cut in a wide square at the bodice—or what there was of a bodice. The color agreed with Madeline’s pale skin and dark hair, and the necklace of emeralds, so cold at first, had warmed and now lay with a comforting, glowing weight against her chest. The fabric and jewels made her feel a little less the dull child. Cynically, she supposed if she were to wed a marquess, she’d get used to such things.