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Vauxhall Gardens was not a place Jameson Flynn would have chosen to spend his night hours, but his employer, the Marquess of Tannerton, required his presence.
To Flynn, Vauxhall was all faÃ§ade. Mere wooden structures painted to look like Greek temples or Chinese pavilions. Revellers were equally as false, wearing masks to disguise whether they be titled, rich, respectable, or rogue, pickpocket, lady of ill repute.
"Have some more ham.'Tannerton handed him the plate of paper-thin ham slices, a Vauxhall delicacy of dubious worth.
Rich as Croesus, Tanneras he liked to be calledate with as much enthusiasm as if he were dining at Carlton House instead of a supper box at Vauxhall. Flynn declined the Vauxhall delicacy but sipped his arrack, a heady mixture of rum and Benjamin flower that redeemed Vauxhall only a little in his eyes. It was not unusual for Tanner to seek Flynn out for companionship, but Flynn had no illusions. He was Tanner's secretary, not his friend.
To look at them, you might not guess which one was the marquess. Flynn prided himself on his appearance. His dark brown hair was always neatly in place, his black coat and trousers well tailored. Tanner, a few years older and lighter in colouring, took less care, often giving the impression he'd just dismounted from his horse.
Flynn placed his tankard on the table. "You brought me here for a purpose, sir. When am I to discover what it is?"
Tanner grinned and reached inside his coat, pulling out a piece of paper. He handed it to Flynn. "Regard this, if you will."
It was a Vauxhall programme, stating that, on this July night, a concert of vocal and instrumental music would be per-formed featuring a Miss Rose O'Keefe, Vauxhall Garden's newest flower.
Flynn ought to have guessed. A woman.
Ever since returning from Brussels, Tanner had gone back to his more characteristic pursuits of pleasure in whatever form he could find it. Or, Flynn might say, from whatever woman. And there were plenty of women willing to please him. Tanner had the reputation of being good to his mistresses, showering them with gifts, houses, and ultimately a nice little annuity when his interest inevitably waned. As a result, Tanner usually had his pick of actresses, opera dancers and songstresses.
"I am still at a loss. I surmise you have an interest in this Miss O'Keefe, but what do you require of me?" Flynn usually became involved in the monetary negotiations with Tanner's chÃ¨re amies or when it came time to deliver the congé, Tanner having an aversion to hysterics.
Tanner's eyes lit with animation. "You must assist me in winning the young lady."
Flynn nearly choked on his arrack. "I? Since when do you require my assistance on that end?"
Tanner leaned forward. "I tell you, Flynn. This one is ex-ceptional. No one heard of her before this summer. One night she just appeared in the orchestra box and sang. Rumour has it she sang again at the Cyprian's Masquerade, but that is not certain. In any event, this lady is not easily won."
Flynn shot him a sceptical expression.
Tanner went on, "Pomroy and I came to hear her the other evening.You've never heard the like, Flynn, let me tell you. There was nothing to be done but try to meet her.'He scowled and took a long sip of his drink. "Turns out she has a papa guarding her interests. I could not even manage to give the man my card. There were too many ramshackle fellows crowding him."
Flynn could just imagine the top-lofty marquess trying to push his way through the sorts that flocked around the female Vauxhall performers. "What is it you wish of me?"
Tanner leaned forward eagerly. "My idea is this. You discover a way to get to this father and how to negotiate on my behalf.'He nodded, as if agreeing with himself. "You have the gift of diplomacy, which you know I do not."
Flynn suspected all the negotiating required was to have said, "How much do you want?" and the lady would have fallen, but he kept that opinion to himself. He would act as broker; he'd performed such tasks for Tanner before, but always after Tanner made the initial conquest. The way Flynn looked at it, he was negotiating a contract, not so different from other contracts he negotiated for Tanner. Flynn nego-tiated the terms, the limits, the termination clause.
The orchestra, playing some distance from their supper box, its strains wafting louder and softer on the breeze, suddenly stopped. Tanner pulled out his timepiece. "I believe it is about time for her to perform. Make haste."
Flynn dutifully followed Tanner's long-legged stride to the Grove in the centre of the gardens where the two-storeyed gazebo held the orchestra high above the crowd. Tanner pushed his way to the front for the best view. He was filled with ex-citement, like a small boy about to witness a balloon ascent.
The music began, a tune familiar to Flynn, and, amid cheers and applause, Miss O'Keefe took her place in front of the orchestra. She began to sing:
When, like the dawning day Eileen Aroon Love sends his early ray,
Her crystalline voice filled the warm summer air, silenc-ing the revellers. Flynn lifted his gaze to her and all the glit-tering lamps strung on the gazebo and throughout the surrounding trees blurred. Only she filled his vision, dressed in a gown of deep red that fluttered in the light breeze.
Her hair, dark as the midnight sky, dramatically contrasted with skin as pale as clouds billowing over mountaintops. Her lips, now open in song, were as pink as a summer garden's rose.
This was Rose O'Keefe, Vauxhall's newest singing sensa-tion? She seemed more like some dream incarnate. Flynn watched as she extended her arms towards the audience, as if to embrace them all. Hers was a graceful sensuality, but earthy and deeply arousing.
Were she no longer true Eileen Aroon What would her lover do,
Flynn swallowed against a sudden tightness in his throat. The Irish tune"Eileen Aroon'sung with the tiniest lilt, created a wave of emotion such as he'd not felt in years. He squeezed shut his stinging eyes and could almost see his mother at the old pianoforte, his father by her side, his brothers and sisters gathered around. He could almost hear his father's baritone booming loud and his sister Kathleen's sweet soprano blending in harmony. He could almost smell the rich earth, the fresh air, the green of home.
He'd not crossed the Irish Sea in the ten years since he'd sailed for Oxford, filled with ambition, but this singing temptress not only aroused his masculine senses, but also gave him an aching yearning for just one evening of song, laughter, and family.
"Is she not all I said she would be?" Tanner nudged him on the shoulder, grinning like a besotted fool.
Flynn glanced back to her. "She is exceptional.' , Never to love again, Eileen Aroon, Tanner also gaped at Rose O'Keefe, unmindful that his frank admiration showed so plainly on his face. Flynn hoped his own reaction appeared more circumspect, even though the heat of frank desire burned more hotly with each note she sang.
She seemed to represent all Flynn had left behind. Country. Family. Joy. Pleasure. It made him wish he'd answered his mother's monthly letters more than three times a year, wish he could wrap his arms around her and his father, roughhouse with his brothers, tease his sisters. He missed the laughter, the gaiety. How long had it been since he'd laughed out loud? Embraced a woman? Sung "Eileen Aroon'?
Flynn's ambition had driven him away from his past. He'd been the marquess's secretary for six years, but the position was a mere stepping stone. Flynn aimed to rise higher, in gov-ernment, perhaps, orhis grandest aspirationto serve royalty. Tanner supported his goals, taking Flynn with him to the Congress of Vienna and to Brussels, where powerful men learned Flynn's name and recognised his talent. The marquess assured him the time would soon come for a position suitable to Flynn's ambitions.
Which was why Flynn was shocked at his reaction to Rose O'Keefe. She propelled him back, not forwards, and her clear, poignant voice left him very aware of his manhood. Carnal desire and thoughts of home made an odd mixture indeed, and a thoroughly unwanted one. Still, at the moment, he seemed helpless to do anything but let her voice and vision carry him away.
Later he would plant his feet firmly back on the ground. He must, because this woman who had temporarily aroused his senses and unearthed a buried yearning for home was also the woman he must procure for his employer.
Rose glanced down at the crowd watching her, so silent, so appreciative! Her audience had grown larger with each per-formance, and she had even been mentioned favourably in the Morning Chronicle. She loved hearing her voice rise above the orchestra, resounding through the summer night air. The magic of Vauxhall seemed to charm her as well, as if singing an Irish air in this fanciful place were merely some lovely, lovely dream.
Mr Hook himself watched from the side of the balcony, smiling in approval. Rose tossed the elderly musical director a smile of her own before turning her attention back to her audience. She was so glad Miss HartMrs Sloane, she meanthad seen her perform before leaving for Italy on her wedding trip. Rose's brief time living with Miss Hart had taught her many lessons, but the one she treasured most was to be proud of who she was. And Rose was very proud this day. Proud enough to feel all her dreams were possible. She believed that some day she would be the celebrated singer all of London raved about. She would sing at Covent Garden, at Drury Lane ordare she hope?King's Theatre.
Rose scanned her audience again. Most of the faces lifted toward her in admiration were masculine ones. Since she'd been ten years old, men had been staring at her. At least now she knew how to hold her head up and be unafraid of their frank regard. She'd learned how to talk to gentlemen, how to encourage their interestor, more importantly, how to dis-courage it.
Rose's eye was drawn to two gentlemen in the audience below her. They stood close to the balcony, so that the lamps illuminated them. One was very tall, at least as tall as Mr Sloane, but it was not he who drew her attention as much as the one who stood so still, gazing up at her. This man's rapt expression made her heart skip a beat.
She sang the last bar.
Truth is a fixed star. Eileen Aroon,
Applause thundered skywards as the music faded. Rose stole a peek at the gentleman who had captured her interest. He continued to stand, statue-still, his eyes still upon her. She felt her cheeks go warm.
She bowed and threw a kiss, eyes slanting towards her quiet admirer, before beginning her next song. As she contin-ued through her performance, her gaze roved over all her admirers, but her eyes always returned to him.
Soon the orchestra began her final tune of the evening, "The Warning'.
"List to me, ye gentle fair; Cupid oft in ambush lies, 'Rose began softly, animating her facial expressions and her gestures. "Of the urchin have a care, Lest he take you by surprise, "
She let her voice grow louder and had to force herself not to direct the song at the mysterious gentleman, who still had not moved. She could neither distinguish his features nor see what colour were his eyes, but she fancied them locked upon her, as she wished to lock hers upon him.