About the book
“The Siren waits thee, singing song for song…”
It all starts with a bet.
To become a famous opera singer is Lady Alexandra Watson’s wildest dream. After her mother’s tragic death, she is determined to never bind herself to a man or follow the rules. Even if she must attend the Season to help her friends marry.
Victor Faraday, the Earl of Larston’s only heir, has decided that his bloodline ends with him. Recently returned from Oxford, he and his friend are ready to conquer the business world. Until a siren’s song makes him stray from his course.
When a new business proposal comes with certain strings attached, Victor is faced with a deadly dilemma: a bargain to win Alexandra’s heart in order to achieve everything he ever wished for. It all starts with a bet and ends in blood on their hands.
What if I told you that a father desperately tried to make his daughter see reason, while she struggled to make her father see truth?
“Why won’t you understand, my dearest Sasha, that I only wish for the best for you?” George Watson, the Baron of Hampton, demanded of his daughter.
Alexandra sighed in exasperation. The upbeat tones of Muzio Clementi’s Duet in E-Flat Major had scarcely faded before the next argument began, picking up where the previous had left off a few days ago.
“No, Father,” she said, a picture of patience that she did not feel. “Though I know that you love me greatly, let us not pretend that what you are arguing for is my best interest.”
Lord Hampton’s expression was not pleased as he said, “Then in whose interests do I act? My own?”
Alexandra shook her head and touched her father’s arm, giving him a look full of pity. “Not at all. It has been ever so long since you even did such a thing for yourself. No, your sights are set on Society and how we are perceived by it. As if it matters!”
The Baron looked tired now, and Alexandra knew why. This was a conversation they had so often that they could sing it in harmony as well as they played together on the piano if they so chose. “It matters,” he said. “For one day you must be married, and–”
“Why should I marry?” Alexandra replied. She stood from the piano bench. “Am I not capable of living without a man to guide me, Father? You and Mother always taught me independence. Why is it so wrong that I should wish to sing?”
For that was all that Alexandra had ever dreamed since she was old enough to understand what it meant. Her whole life, she had wished for little but to stand on stage, dressed in operatic finery, sharing her voice and the music in her heart with the world.
Just like my darling departed Mother once did before Society stole the life from her very soul.
“Because it is not proper,” Lord Hampton told her, anger in his voice now. “As you well know. No person is casting doubt upon your accomplishments, child. You can play as well as any woman and sing better; you can read and write and manage your numbers well. Your needlework is of passing quality, you can speak conversationally of the sciences, and your French, Italian, and Russian are impeccable.”
“Precisely!” Alexandra replied impatiently. “So then, with all of these achievements, why should it be that I cannot care for myself? Why is it that I cannot use these accomplishments to benefit my life as I wish?”
“These talents are what make you a valuable social asset for the man who will one day become your husband, Sasha,” Lord Hampton replied. “You are a Baron’s daughter and a skilled woman at that. When you marry–”
“Which I shall not–” she interrupted, though her father kept speaking as though she hadn’t spoken.
“It will be to a man with a superior mind who can match your wit and who possesses superior intelligence so that he may help you rule the barony after my demise,” he finished virtuously.
Alexandra could not help but laugh. “My esteemed Father, I assure you. In my two-and-twenty years, I have met no man of superior intelligence except for yourself. English Society is made up of silly girls and pompous men, and I have little patience for any of it.”
“You are an English lady yourself!” her father protested.
She gave him a look, her ice-blue eyes flashing a little. “I am the daughter of a Russian soprano and a pianist.”
The Baron sighed. “It has been quite some time since I have been a pianist, my dear. Your mother and I made a choice to rejoin English Society when I came home to the Barony.”
“I made no such choice,” Alexandra said simply, “and I shall not.”
“And yet you shall attend the London Season when it begins,” Lord Hampton told her, folding his arms. Alexandra felt a rush of sympathetic affection for her poor, dear father. He really did try to show strictness toward her even now, though she could not remember it ever working. His voice was firm now. “You shall dance, and you shall converse, and you will present yourself as a proper young lady.”
Alexandra struggled not to roll her eyes. “I shall do all of those things, Father,” she said soothingly. She walked across the room to the hat stand on which her spencer jacket and bonnet waited. “Because I gave my promise to you, and to Alice and Viola.”
Her best friends had pleaded with her since both of them would be on the search this year for the man to be their husband. Viola, in particular, needed her, after all. While Alice Faraday was willing to marry to please her father, the Viscount of Ryder, Viola had even less wish to do so than Alexandra did.
My own objections are for the sake of my independence. If I could find a man that I loved who would not stifle it, then perhaps I would not mind so much.
But of course, her experience of her parents, who she knew had once loved each other desperately, proved that dream to be an impossibility.
It was worse for Viola, though; shy, introverted Viola Omond, the daughter of Duke of Keswick, who would rather spend her life inside with her books and music than attend balls. While Alexandra was not fond of Society norms, Viola seemed uncomfortable around people in general. She and Alice spent much of their time trying to help the poor girl to emerge into the bright blossom they knew she could be.
“Many girls would not dream of showing such disrespect to their fathers, you know,” the Baron said. “And many fathers would not allow such disobedient girls to simply go as they please.”
“Indeed,” Alexandra agreed. “But then, many girls are not blessed, as I am, to have such a wonderful father as you. I do not disrespect you at all, Father. I simply know my value, because you taught it to me.”
She finished fastening her jacket and tying her bonnet over her blonde hair. “I must be going. Alice is expecting me.”
“Alice sees you daily,” Lord Hampton said. He was staring up at her – even more so than usual since he was sitting; Alexandra was very tall for a woman, while her father was of average height. “Stay and at least finish our conversation, much good as it will do.”
He sounded grumpy, though Alexandra knew he had no actual problem with her visiting her friend. Alice had no mother and a father always away, and so Alexandra was often her only source of entertainment in a day. She was practically part of the family.
Unfazed, she said, “I cannot. If you wish me to behave as a proper young lady, then it wouldn’t do to miss a standing appointment. I shall return in a few hours!”
And then, without another word, she walked out of the piano room. She had already alerted Frances that she would be leaving, and she knew her companion would be waiting in the entranceway. Sure enough, the thirty-something-year-old kitchen matron waited for her with a nervous smile.
Ah, she heard the arguing. Oh well.
“Shall we, Frances?” she said with a smile.
“Of course, Miss,” Frances replied.
On their way out, Alexandra reflected on what had just passed between herself and the Baron. She hated arguing with her father, but Alexandra knew that she must remain firm.
No more of this, now. I shall put it out of my head. After all, Alice awaits.
Two young men rode in a carriage, laughing and joking, discussing the future as only recent university graduates truly can: with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
The first was Victor Faraday, the son and heir to the Earl of Larston. Victor was excited about returning home. It had been far too long since he had laid eyes upon his parents, and he longed to tell them of his plans and the education he had gathered at the university.
Beside Victor sat Troy Atkins, otherwise known as the Marquess of Mast. It had been a lesser title of his father, given to him once his eldest brother had taken over as Duke of Lentingale. Troy had been Victor’s closest friend since their school days at Eton, and now they had traversed the perils of Oxford together, too.
“I simply cannot wait for our travels to begin,” Victor said enthusiastically. He had always wanted to travel the world. He wished to visit the faraway countries which had whole histories outside of the British Isles. “I, the traveling businessman, and you, my esteemed colleague, there to record it all.”
Troy leaned forward. He was the most lackadaisical person that Victor had ever known, laid back to the point where he would border on sloth was it not fueled by manic energy. He was a third son, and so knew not the responsibilities of heirship, and had taken on a carefree approach to life as a result.
And our banter reflects off one another like a mirrored surface. That’s how we end up in most of our trouble.
“What makes you think that I should wish to follow you around, taking notes of your adventures?” Troy asked, the look on his face positively stunned at such an assumption.
Victor wanted to laugh, but he donned a look of equal seriousness in his brown eyes. “Why, of course, Sir. How could I forget?” he said. “I must first humble myself to you, the winner of the esteemed Newdigate Prize for Poetry, and beg that you might consider placing your pen to my lesser deeds.”
Troy’s false sternness relaxed into a grin, his green eyes sparkling under his mop of red hair. “That sounds much better. I am sure I could condescend to help you in some way, my friend.”
Victor chuckled, running a hand through his own brown curls. “I cannot wait to tell my parents of our plans,” he said contentedly as he looked out at the passing green of the countryside.
They were almost home now. Troy would be staying with Victor at Larston Manor for several months, at his own request. The ostensible reason was that he wished to be close to London for the beginning of the Season – the Manor was only an hour away from the city, after all – but Victor suspected there were other reasons.
Troy’s lips always seal when I try to question him on his brothers or his late parents. I suspect some reluctance to return home, though I cannot possibly imagine why.
Still, if Troy wished for Victor to know, then he would allow him to speak in his own time. For now, they would enjoy their freedom, their youth, and how their whole future was laid out ahead of them.
“Shall the esteemed Earl and Countess of Larston be fond of this rascal of a third son stealing their heir away to expand into the colonies, do you think?” Troy asked with a wry smirk. “In my own experience, I have found new ideas a rather foreign concept in the halls of nobility.”
His eyes went dark for a moment at that, and, not for the first time, Victor felt a frisson of unease at Troy’s expression. Whatever was locked up inside of him, it was dark. He spent most of his time keeping it under the surface, but Victor was never quite sure what to make of it when it rose to the top.
All Victor could think to do was act like he had not seen. The one time he’d questioned his friend about it, it had not ended well. Troy had refused to speak with him for almost a week. They had been but boys then, still at Eton, but the experience was not one that Victor cared to repeat.
Instead of questioning him, then, Victor laughed and said, “Nonsense, Troy. My parents may be a little stiff-necked, but their time has long since passed. The Prince Regent sits upon the throne, women have taken to publishing novels, and the Duke of Wellington contends with Bonaparte for the future of Europe. Times are changing, and it is our generation who will beckon in this bright future.”
“And we shall lead this great generational revolution, shall we? You with your business acumen and I with my pen?” Troy asked. The sarcasm was still there, of course, but Victor could not but notice a little hope there, too.
He placed a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We shall,” he said confidently. “You and I, Troy Atkins, shall be as the spear’s head and lead the world into greatness.”
Troy considered this. “Well, in that case, mon ami, I have a wonderful suggestion as to where we should start this gallant mission.”
“Do tell,” Victor said, though he could tell by the gleam in his friend’s eyes that some kind of japery would follow, perhaps even at Victor’s own expense.
Troy leaned back in his seat, his hands folded behind his head. Despite the improperness of the action, he had kicked his feet up and placed them on the seats opposite where the two men sat in the carriage. “Is it not obvious? London, of course. And this is the perfect time of year for it.”
Dubiously, Victor replied, “You wish to attend the social Season?”
“Not quite,” Troy replied. He winked salaciously and said, “I was more of a mind to attend the masquerade balls and the high-class establishments on King’s Place.”
Victor blinked in surprise, barked a laugh, and shoved at Troy’s shoulder. “Keep your filthy mouth going so, and my Mother will not allow you inside our doors. You shall sleep in the barn with the other dogs!”
Troy chuckled. “I have woke in worse places. Send me a milkmaid to keep me warm, and I shall thrive no matter where I lay my head.”
At this, Victor rolled his eyes and allowed the conversation to flow into a more relaxed banter. He knew better than to press when Troy was in this kind of mood – but really, all he thought about was women and drink! Yes, Victor enjoyed a conversation with an intelligent lady as much as the next gentleman. Still, Troy’s coarse approach left him baffled.
How can his brilliant mind be so lost in scandal when the world gives us so much more to occupy our time?
Victor knew that many young men of his age would be focused only on getting a wife now. English Society dictated that a man of decent fortune like himself should procure a woman of good sense to produce heirs and attend parties. Once, as a child, Victor had found all of this fascinating. As he had grown, though, especially after meeting Troy, he began to see it all for the farce it really was.
The rolling hills gave way to the sight of the gleaming stone path that led to the Manor – and Victor’s childhood home. His heart swelled in excitement at seeing his parents once more.
Yes, they might find it difficult to understand at first, but together, he and Troy would convince them and gain their support for the life ahead. Reputation was a burden disguised as a boon, and there was no way in all the world that he would tolerate its limitations any longer.
The world awaited – and Victor would take it, no matter the cost.
“My son!” Lady Penelope Faraday cried, pulling Victor into her arms the second he had followed the butler into the drawing room. “My darling son, welcome home!”
It was a beautiful room, one which had not changed in all the time that Victor had been away. This pleased him; when he was younger, it had always been his favorite. It bore walls of the deepest forest green, interrupted only by the white panel at the bottom and the silver-and-gold twisting banner along the top of the wall.
The floor was meticulously furnished wood, and upon it sat the strange Palladian-style furniture that his mother so favored. The too-big, exquisitely feminine furnishings had been a great source of stress to the Lady when Victor was young, as she had spent much time fussing over him to get down from the lavish settee or the grandiose carved bookcase for fear of them being destroyed.
But the best part was the ceiling art, and how Father and I used to lay and explore the image day after day.
He glanced up now, to the image of a blue sky with delicate wispy clouds, complete with bluebirds flitting across it. As a boy, he and his Father used to make believe that the birds would move, and with their backs on the fine carpet, they’d place bets on which would win today’s race across the ceiling.
“Your head is still in the clouds, my boy,” the Lady said fondly when he didn’t answer her right away.
Victor hugged her tight. “How do you do, Mama?” he asked affectionately. In company, of course, she would be ‘Mother.’ Still, it pleased him to refer to her informally when there was nobody else here but family. Well, family and Troy, but that was more or less the same thing.
He kissed her on each cheek in the French manner, smiling as she swooped in to do the same. “My little Victor,” she said affectionately. “You’ve grown so! Hasn’t he, Robert? Come forth and see your son!”
“Bring him in so I may see him in the light,” Victor’s father’s voice came from behind his mother’s skirts.
“Of course,” the Countess of Larston replied with a smile, taking Victor’s hand and pulling him forward.
Victor went gladly, making a subtle gesture to Troy that he should follow them. The Earl of Larston, Robert Faraday, stood to embrace his son as well.
“You do me an honor, Father,” Victor told him, leaning into his hug as he had as a child. “May I introduce you both to the Marquess of Mast?”
“You may,” Robert said, releasing Victor after giving him an affectionate pat on the cheek. He and the Countess turned to see the still-quiet Troy. “I am honored to make your acquaintance, my young Lord. I knew your father well.”
“So did I,” Troy said quietly.
Victor’s smile stayed fixed in place, but he wanted to groan. He had forgotten to warn his parents in his letters that Troy’s late parents were a topic to be avoided at all costs. Victor did not know the details exactly, but he remembered how Troy had always sought out their attention when they were younger.
And then just two years ago, they were gone, leaving his eldest brother Alvin a Dukedom and him only a secondary Marquessate.
The Marquessate of Bryn had been much preferred to Mast, of course. Sadly, as Troy’s brother Stanley was older, it had been granted to him upon the previous Duke’s death instead.
Attempting joviality to brush past the awkwardness, Victor said, “Why do we all stand? Come, come, let us sit and have a conversation together.”
“Yes, quite,” the Lady said, clapping her hands together. She rang a small bell, and a young servant entered the room. “Meredith, fetch us some sandwiches, dear, won’t you?”
And so they did. The maid fetched tea first of all, then made herself scarce as the family and Troy sat on the settees around the small table. As expected, Penelope spent quite some time filling him in on social goings on – the Earl of Markston was marrying a girl from Scotland; the Lady Johnstone was with child; the late Baron Pepton’s daughter had ascended to the title of Baroness in lieu of any male heirs.
Victor listened politely to all of this, but his mind wandered. The sandwiches arrived at some point, and he absently murmured thanks to the servant who had brought them. He kept meeting Troy’s eyes and seeing his own feeling reflected back at him there.
How boring all of this is! How pointless!
“And now you are home,” Lord Larston said, clapping his hands together once in pleasure. “And we can begin your training and your true induction into the peerage.”
Victor blinked, taken aback. “I am sorry, Father; I do not understand what you mean.”
Lord and Lady Larston exchanged looks, and then both of them laughed as though Victor had told them the most excellent joke. “Why,” Lady Larston said, “your father talks about your preparations for the heirship, of course.”
The heirship? But Father is young yet, and I have plans before then!
He could feel Troy tensing behind him, and he silently begged him to keep his mouth shut.
“Now? I have only just returned from Oxford,” he said, trying to make light of it all.
“And why not now?” Lord Larston asked, raising an eyebrow. “I am not getting any younger. Who else will take over the Earldom upon my demise?”
“God forbid! Do not talk so, Father,” Victor said uneasily, while Troy gave a low snort.
Victor examined the Earl before him, his first good look at his father in a long time. Lord Larston had so far lived to the middle of his fifth decade; his once brown hair turned to an iron grey. He’d met the decade-younger Penelope on her twenty-first birthday and been enraptured by her – her blonde hair, her large grey eyes. He’d taken part in a brief war for her affections and then married her within three weeks.
They had only been blessed with a single child – Victor – and it seemed that they were unable to conceive otherwise. It made sense, Victor supposed, that his Father’s mind would be on the heirship. But not now.
He was trying to think of a way to bring it up delicately when Troy laughed too carelessly and said, “Well, now, that is going to cause quite a problem, isn’t it?”
Victor sighed as both his parents swiveled their heads to face the visitor.
“A problem, Sir?” Lady Larston asked stiffly. Victor was nervous about her tone. When they were still boys at Eton, his parents had found Troy a less-than-appealing influence on their son. They had assured him that the past was the past, but Victor could not help but notice the flash in her eyes now.
Troy leaned forward. “Well, yes, My Lady. Victor and I already have plans in place that will take up the next several years, at least.”
“And what plans are these?” she asked, her attention on Victor now.
He found himself irritated by her tone. He was not a child! He was a man grown, and his life was his own. And so he spoke, telling them of their grand plans to expand out into the colonies, to turn a profit and explore the wide world.
His parents listened, increasingly aghast. “But this is foolish,” Lord Larston said. “You are the heir to an Earl, not a businessman, my son. Your focus must be here on your titles and on your estate. Our estate.”
Victor shook his head, more determined than ever now. He would not be called foolish, not for plans which he had spent so many nights of his life planning in detail. “My focus is on the world as it will be, and how we will shape it,” he said. “The world is changing, and so must we all. I love and respect you, my parents, but Society as you know it is outdated and ridiculous, and I shall not be part of it, not at the expense of my goals.”
“What is this?” Lord Larston demanded. Victor saw his neck begin to turn red – a sure sign of his anger – but the Countess put her hand on her husband’s arm. Her face was drawn, her eyes focused not on Victor, but on Troy.
“This is this…boy, speaking through our son once more,” she said in disgust. “Before you came into our lives, Troy Atkins, my son was a good, obedient lad. You have spent the last decade and more filling his head with this…this–”
“Mother!” Victor said, shocked. “You are referring to your guest!”
He looked to Troy, worried that the darkness would be back. On the contrary, though, the red-haired man looked amused. His smile was bright as he said, “Actually, My Lady, if you will refer to me, I believe the proper peerage title is My Lord Marquess, or My Lord Mast if you prefer.”
The offended look on his mother’s face checked Victor’s laughter, but before he could intervene, Troy made it quite clear that he wasn’t finished talking.
“Because, since Society is so important to you, my dear Countess, you must recall that as a Marquess, this boy outranks both your fine self and your husband,” Troy finished, showing his teeth.
“Watch your tongue when you speak to my wife!” Lord Larston insisted.
“And what have I said that is untrue, My Lord?” Troy demanded.
Victor stood, putting his hands out between them. “Enough of this. We are all friends here,” he insisted. “Father, Mother, you must understand that Duke Lentingale has already given his permission for Troy to undertake this journey. Why, then, should I not–”
“Because,” his father said through gritted teeth. “My Lord Mast is nobody’s heir. He is in charge of a small estate of no consequence. You are the sole person who can take over my duties, Son, and you must be here to learn how to do it properly!”
“And besides, do you not wish to attend the Season?” his mother entreated. “Is it not time for you to settle down and find a wife?”
“A wife! You mean like the daughters of your friends whom you have so subtly placed in contact with me over the years?” Victor asked incredulously. “Some silly girl with her head in the clouds? Do not insult me in such a way, Mama, I beg of you.”
“If you do not take a wife,” the Countess said patiently, “Then how in the world do you expect to produce heirs? Come, now, abandon these silly plans and–”
“I will not!” Victor replied irritably. “Enough of this. I shall take no wife and tie myself to no estate. If you do not support me, then I shall find someone who will.”
The Earl scowled, folding his arms. “We will not support you in this folly. I doubt you will find someone who will, Son.”
Annoyed and hiding some chagrin, Victor looked away from his parents and back to Troy. “Come, friend. Let us be going. We would not want to miss our next appointment,” he said firmly, though, of course, they had no such plans.
Troy stood without question, stopping only to give a deliberately elaborate bow to the Earl and Countess before following Victor toward the door.
“Stop!” Lady Larston insisted, distress clear in her tone now. “Victor! You only just returned this moment! Where shall you go?”
Away from here, to the only person who may help. And I may make my father hate me in the process.
“I will be back this evening,” he said curtly. Without another word, he and Troy left the drawing room and stormed straight out of the grand front entrance of the Manor.
Troy said nothing as he followed Victor to the stable and simply chose a horse as he was instructed.
Only once they were mounted did he say, “Not that I disapprove of your dramatics, Vic, but to where shall we go?”
Victor frowned, gently urging his horse into a trot. As they rode away from the Manor – the home he had only just returned to – he said, “We are going to someone who might help us.”
“And who is that?” Troy asked. “Some rich woman’s father?”
Despite his irritation at his parents and the general operation of English Society now, Victor had to smile. Troy’s joking manner never failed to lift his mood, even if it was not always particularly well-timed. “Not quite,” he laughed. “No, we are instead going to visit my father’s worst rival.”
Troy perked up at this. “Oh, really, now?” he asked. “And prithee tell, who would that be? Another Earl? Perhaps some unfortunate Count?”
“Not quite,” Victor said with a tight smile. “We’re going to see his brother, Lord Ryder.”
Troy’s laugh echoed around the countryside as they traveled along the road. “Ah, of course. If you must undermine a man, then you go to the person who shall be able to do it most effectively.”
“It is not like that,” Victor argued. “My father and Lord Ryder have not spoken to one another in quite some time. They cannot stand to be in the same room unless some event or the other absolutely requires it.”
“And this is one of those requirements?” Troy asked. Victor couldn’t see it, but he knew his friend had one red eyebrow raised in question.
“No,” Victor said innocently, “but what greater reason should a man need to go and visit his only uncle?”
Viola was already at Alice’s home when Alexandra finally arrived. The two of them were in the drawing room, intensely studying some sheet of music so intently that they did not even seem to notice that Alexandra had entered the room. The butler had greeted her at the door, but since she was there daily, it was not hard for her to convince him not to announce her presence so that she could play a joke on her friends.
Alexandra grinned, quietly nodded at the butler who had shown her inside and made her way toward the other girls. She could only see the back of their heads over the burgundy-and-mahogany settee – Viola and her raven-colored waterfall, Alice and her shining bronze curls. Alexandra waited until she was directly behind them before, in a very silly voice, she said, “And just what are you two young ladies doing?”
Viola shrieked in alarm, but Alice was already laughing. “Sasha, you beast!” she objected. “Do you mean to send poor Viola off to meet her Maker?”
Alexandra grinned, taking a seat on the chair next to the settee. “Not at all,” she said primly. “Though it may be preferable than meeting her husband.”
Viola made a face. “Oh, Alexandra, do not tease me so,” she pleaded. “You know I have no wish to do so, no more than I have any choice.”
“It shall not be so bad,” Alice insisted, shooting a look of censure toward Alexandra. “After all, just think – so many new people to meet! And the fine dresses, and the dances–”
“You are trying to help, and yet I fear I might faint from terror at what you propose now!” Viola said.
Alexandra felt a surge of pity for her. All of the girls were the same age, but ever since they were children, Alice and Alexandra’s job was to look after the shy, retiring Viola. For whatever reason, the dark-haired girl simply could not function for long periods when social norms were demanded of her. She feared too much noise and too little space.
But I cannot help you avoid this. I can only hold your hand while you do as your parents have bid of you and find a husband.
Alice tutted. “Well, now, that is all very theatrical,” she said. “I, on the other hand, shall view all of this as what it is – a chance to make friends, to have fun, and to find a husband who shall help lift my father from his debts.”
Alexandra sighed. “It seems unfair that you should look to a husband based only on how much he has a year. Do you not crave love?”
“I crave only my books,” Viola replied. “I do not wish to wed, and yet my father’s heart would break if I do not find a man who will help our family maintain our status.”
“And I have no time for love,” Alice replied frankly. “It would be nice, yes, but it cannot be my target. If every girl sought love, then we should all marry paupers. I must find at least a Count, or perhaps an Earl. It is the only way my family can prosper.”
“What of your heart?” Alexandra asked. “For I know you have one. You were desperately in love with young Thomas Bright when we were younger.”
“Yes, and where would my family and myself be if I had married him? He was little more than a talented blacksmith,” Alice replied. “I appreciate your concern, but it is rather misplaced. Your heart shall never have its wants fulfilled either, after all!”
Viola looked uncertain. “Do you really mean it when you claim that you shall never marry, dear Alexandra?”
“My heart wants only the stage and the audiences to listen to me sing,” Alexandra replied. “I shall have it, and you shall have your husbands. I will help you find the most wealthy and kind men in all of London…but first, you shall help me to sing.”
The other two girls laughed. No doubt, they were amused at Alexandra’s ability to always return to where her passions truly lived. They agreed that they would play together now, as they often did, and they moved to their places around the piano without even having to discuss it.
Alexandra loved this piano. Though it was not as grandiose as her own at home, it felt warm and familiar with its dark burnished wood and shining bright keys. It was claw-footed, like a bathtub; it was an oddity that the girls never failed to find terribly amusing.
Viola took a seat on the piano bench, setting the sheet music that she and Alice had been studying up on the music shelf. Viola always played when they practiced together. Alice’s piano was tolerable, but her talents lay in drawing and creating, not in instruments.
“What shall we sing today?” Alexandra asked. She peered over Viola’s shoulder and was delighted to see one of her favorite pieces reflected back at her.
It was the recitativo of Vitellia and Publio in the thirteenth scene of the second act of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, a song they all knew well. Given how Vitellia’s aim was power through either murder or marriage, it seemed remarkably apt for the business they had just been discussing.
“I shall sing the recitative part, my friends, though please do not mock me,” Alice replied. “I know that my singing voice runs deeper than most women’s, but I am hardly able to hit the bass notes!”
“Sing as you can,” Alexandra encouraged.
“That is quite fine for you to say, Sasha, but we cannot all be a soprano who could bring a tear to the eye of angels,” Alice teased. Nonetheless, she nodded, and after a moment, Viola began to play.
When Alexandra began to sing, it was like she had been transported to another world – a world of dreams, of happiness. She knew that she stood in Alice’s drawing room, but in her mind’s eye, she was Vitellia, agonizing over her choice. Did she take her freedom and her victory? Was her marriage to the emperor worth the death of her beloved Sesto?
Real tears formed in her eyes as she sang. “Si scemi il delitto di Sesto, se scusar non si può–”
“Father!” Alice cried out in surprise, and Viola’s hand slipped to the wrong key. Alexandra opened her eyes, startled out of Vitellia, and back into herself, only to see three men in the doorway, watching her.
One was Lord Ryder, Alice’s father – a plump grey-haired man with the same brown eyes that Alice herself had. He was a friendly gentleman, though it was always a surprise to see him in the Manor and not out on some business or the other.
The other two, she did not recognize. The first was a wiry youthful man with a mess of red hair, startling green eyes, and a face full of freckles. He was leaning against the doorframe, grinning as he watched their performance, his expression sparkling with some secret joke.
The last, though, truly gave Alexandra pause as she stopped to take him in. This young man was even taller than the Viscount, his brown hair artfully disheveled in the Roman style. His eyes – she knew those eyes, though from where she could not say.
The way he’s looking at me…it is so remarkably familiar.
It was not only his eyes, though. His clothing was…not unfashionable, particularly, but neither did it conform to the trends to which Alexandra had grown accustomed. His waistcoat wasn’t the usual black or grey, but a vibrant red color that screamed of the fashions of Paris or Milan. The sleeves of his white shirt were ruffled, though his neck was not, and, strangely, for a gentleman of his class, he wore a pair of buckskins on his legs. His tailcoat, too, was red and black.
In short, though he was dressed appropriately, it was also in a relaxed, forward-thinking manner, the likes of which Alexandra found intriguing on a gentleman of Society. It made her pay attention more than she might otherwise, bringing him even more into focus than his red-haired companion.
“Forgive me, Ladies,” the brown-haired man said. His voice was melodic and deep. Alexandra, still in the operatic mindset, wondered how his voice would sound paired with her own, perhaps harmonizing one of the sweeping love duets she so rarely was able to practice. “I heard your singing, and I had to come and see for myself.”
“Oh!” Alice said. Her confusion suddenly cleared, and she hurried over, taking the dark-haired man by the hand and leading him inside. The red-haired one followed, and Alexandra saw how his eyes lingered on Alice.
It makes sense. With her doe-eyes and glossy hair, Alice attracts attention wherever she treads.
“This is my cousin! How naughty that you and my father should not tell me you were going to visit!” She grinned as she approached Viola and Alexandra. “Sasha, Viola, please meet the future Earl of Larston, Victor Faraday, and his friend–?”
“Troy,” the red-haired lad said.
“Troy Atkins, Marquess of Mast,” Victor supplied. “Who prefers to be known by his first name only.”
“Wonderful,” Alice chirped. “And, gentlemen, these are my closest friends – Miss Alexandra Watson of Hampton, and Lady Viola Omond of Keswick.”
Both men bowed, Victor slightly more deeply.
“Such lovely ladies we had not at Oxford,” Troy said with a wink, which made Alice blush and Alexandra chuckle. Viola simply looked a little confused, going very quiet as she often did when around strangers.
“Do not tease the ladies, Troy,” Victor admonished. He gave Viola a gentle smile, “You play beautifully, My Lady.”
It was rare that Viola opened to a stranger. Still, now her face glowed with the praise, and Alexandra felt a rush of positivity to Alice’s cousin.
“But you simply must stay and talk with us,” Alice said enthusiastically. “It has been several years, and I would love to get to know your friend and introduce mine in return!”
“As much as I would like to stay and chat with you and your esteemed friends, Cousin, I fear my uncle would prefer I attend to him immediately,” Victor said. It sounded like he genuinely regretted this.
Is it my imagination, or do his glances swing in my direction often? What is he thinking?
“Indeed,” Lord Ryder said. “Perhaps young Lord Mast would prefer to stay and be entertained by your playing – I certainly have no objections. But as my nephew has come to see me, Daughter, I must steal him away.”
Troy half stood, but Victor shook his head. “No, Troy. I think I should first speak with my uncle alone,” he said.
Troy caught his eye, and some understanding seemed to pass between them.
“Jolly good,” Alice’s father replied. He called for his butler, who once again appeared out of seemingly nowhere, and requested he stay to keep an eye on the ladies and the young gentleman while the uncle and nephew discussed his reason for visiting. “Come, now, Victor.”
“Yes,” Victor agreed, standing.
Alexandra was surprised at the shiver of disappointment that went through her at that. The dark-haired Earl’s son intrigued her. His clothing was unusual, his gaze intelligent, his voice melodic. She would have loved to hear him sing.
“Are you a singer, Lo–Troy?” Alice asked politely.
“Oh, no,” he laughed, “not me. Victor has, in fact, told me that I may never again sing in his esteemed presence.”
“Only if you wish to replace your ears afterward,” Victor teased. His uncle let out a belly laugh and beckoned, and Victor said, “I regret that I must go. I hope to see you again soon, my Ladies. I shall enjoy singing with you greatly.”
Before he and Lord Ryder disappeared through the door again, Alexandra met his eyes. For just a second, the world seemed to stop on its axis. There was nothing but Alexandra herself and his pair of deep-brown eyes.
Then, before she could get a hold of herself, he was gone, and Alice’s hand was on her shoulder.
“Sasha?” Alice asked. “Are you quite all right?”
“I am,” she said. “My apologies, my thoughts carried away with me.”
“So,” Troy said, “what shall we sing?”
Lord Ryder led Victor up two sets of stairs toward his ornate study. Victor was surprised by how different it was from his father’s. Where Lord Larston’s study was decorated in breezy light green and light polished wood, giving it a springtime forest effect, Lord Ryder’s was dark burgundy and filled with luxurious leather seating. The wood of the chairs and desk, too, were so dark as to be approaching black.
He beckoned Victor to sit, and sat across from him, a smile on his face.
Victor was rather startlingly reminded of meeting his friendly tutor at Oxford. He had been a man around his uncle’s age, or maybe a little older. He had a serious, lightly mocking attitude, but in a jocular manner that made him universally beloved among his students. He got the same feeling from Lord Ryder now, and he hoped it was accurate.
“Well, Nephew, this is a surprise,” Lord Ryder said with a genial smile. “Can I get you a drink?”
“No, thank you, Uncle,” he said. “And I know it has been quite some time since we saw one another.” He hesitated and said, “Um, my Father sends his regards, despite the…inheritance issues.”
I believe that is why they are on the outs, though, of course, my Father refuses to ever speak of it.
Lord Ryder started laughing. “Don’t try to flatter me, Son. I know that your Father does no such thing. My older brother and I have not seen eye to eye in many years. I have long since been on his list of people with whom he would rather not associate.”
Victor shrugged ruefully. “Well, I shall be joining you there soon, I think,” he said. He quickly explained the conversation he had just had – or failed to have – with his parents. “And I do not understand why they insist on being so recalcitrant. My plans are good and will be profitable for us. They are stuck in the past when we must move ahead.”
His uncle studied him for a moment, not saying anything. Eventually, he nodded and said, “And what do you wish for me to do about this, my Lad?”
“I need help,” Victor said instantly. “I am but five-and-twenty, and still inexperienced in the ways of the world. I need someone to guide me through the process of beginning in such investments. Will you help me?”
Lord Ryder chuckled indulgently. “My, my. You sound rather like my Alice’s young friend, Miss Watson. She, too, has heady dreams beyond Society, or so Alice tells me.”
Miss Watson. The soprano, wasn’t she?
The girl had been fascinating to Victor the moment his eyes fell on her, though, of course, he had tried hard not to show it and sincerely hoped she didn’t see it. But there was something different about her, starting with her fair skin and thick-waved blonde hair, and then continuing down the light-blue gown she had worn so easily. She did not look like a girl from London, nor indeed from anywhere in England, though it had been with a Society accent when she’d spoken.
I wonder where she has come from? Did she have a foreign mother?
“Well, in any case,” Lord Ryder said, “I think your ideas are truly capital, and I would love to be involved. I have connections the world over, and favors owed that I would be able to cash in if I thought it would help you. However, I would need a significant base of wealth–”
“That is no problem, Uncle,” Victor said enthusiastically, sensing he may finally have someone on his side. “I have a fair amount hidden away for such an event, and I would trust you to invest it where you will.”
Lord Ryder smiled as though Victor had paid him a great compliment, but it was only the truth. He could not understand how his father and uncle could be out of sorts in such a way. Ryder was one of the most charming, charismatic men that Victor had ever met.
They went back and forth on the details for a short while, and then they reached across the table and shook hands. Lord Ryder promised to speak with his connections and be in touch as soon as he could. “Don’t worry, my dear boy. With determination and a little luck, we can make a great oak grow from the tiniest seed of an idea.”
When his uncle dismissed him, Victor left his study and felt as though he was walking on air. He had never expected it to go so well! His father would be angry – but then, his father had been angry with his ideas anyway. There was nothing here but gain.
He found his uncle’s butler just outside, and he was led back down to the drawing room where the women were now sitting and talking with Troy. Victor’s friend had a massive smile on his face, and Victor couldn’t help but laugh.
Around women, he is unstoppable. It fascinates me how he knows no shame. It’s almost inspiring.
“Excuse me, Ladies,” he said apologetically. All three looked at him and then started giggling, and he felt his ears turn warm. What was it about a woman’s laugh, even in jest, that could cut so quickly to the soul? “I must steal the Marquess away from you.”
“So long as you bring him back some time, Cousin,” Alice said with a grin. “Shall we see you at the first ball of the Season?”
“Will you all be there?” Troy asked as he approached Victor.
“We shall,” said the gentle-voiced soprano.
Suddenly, attending a few dances seemed not to be so bad. Combined with the pleasure of how well things had gone with his uncle, in fact, it positively seemed like a wonderful idea.
“Then you could not keep us away,” Victor said with a smile.
He and Troy bid their farewells and left. As they walked around the corridor, they heard the gentle sound of women’s laughter.
For some reason that had nothing at all to do with his success with his uncle, Victor thought that he wouldn’t forget that sound for a long time.
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