Read an Excerpt
"A Perfect Duet"
by Jennifer Malin
"For half my life I begged my father to take the family into London each spring," Miranda Granville said, stepping out of the milliner's shop. "Isn't it curious that after three Seasons, I'm delighted to be staying in Gladstone this year?"
"Are you?" Her longtime friend Lady Elizabeth Ellsworth squinted as they moved into the sun. Adjusting her bonnet, she said, "Now that Edmund and I are betrothed, I know he should be my whole world, but I confess I rather miss the social whirl of the city."
"You were always better suited to the social whirl than I." Miranda glanced up and down the village street before they crossed to the shady side. "But surely planning your wedding must be more exciting than attending a few balls and routs."
The bride-to-be sighed. "Frankly, my mother has taken charge of all the planning. I have nothing to do but buy clothes for my trousseau."
Miranda laughed. "Such a sad lot in life."
A village woman selling flowers from a cart called out to them as they passed. "Flowers for my ladies? First roses of the season."
"How lovely." Lady Elizabeth stepped up and selected two nosegays of white roses. She passed one to Miranda and lifted the other to her own nose. "Perhaps you're right about spending this spring in the country. In London, the flowers never quite smell this lush, I think."
The vendor grinned. "There's no place like Gladstone in the spring, my lady. No other village in Cumbria can rival our May Day festival."
"I had forgotten about May Day." Elizabeth handed the woman several coins and turned to Miranda. "We must attend the May Day festivities."
A twinge of uneasiness wound through her. Miranda didn't like large gatherings of any sort. The only time she felt comfortable among a crowd was when she played pianoforte. Somehow, the music made her forget her insecurities. "Do you think so? It's been such a long time."
Elizabeth took her arm, and they set off toward Ellsworth Manor again. "All the more reason to go."
Miranda held up her nosegay and sniffed. "Who do you suppose will be chosen May Queen?"
"You will, doubtlessly."
"Oh, surely not!" She dropped her friend's arm, the mere thought heating her cheeks. "No one ever takes note of me."
Elizabeth grinned. "With Letitia Osgood married and my wedding pending, you are hands-down the most marriageable female in the village. Everyone is aware of that."
"And that's a good thing? Only one person needs to be aware of it--and, frankly, he doesn't seem to be taking note."
Her friend took her arm again. "Actually, this could be the perfect chance for you to bring my brother up to scratch. Julian will likely be crowned May King, and the two of you can spend the whole day dancing and making merry together. 'Tis just the sort of occasion to inspire him to make a public declaration of your...arrangement."
Since Miranda's childhood, her family and the Ellsworths had intended her and Lord Julian for one another, but now she was nearly two-and-twenty and no formal announcement had yet been made. Her first season out, she'd been in no hurry to marry. The following year, her grandfather's death had put her in mourning. Then last spring, Julian's grandmother had died. This year, however, no impediments remained, and he still hadn't spoken. The situation was on the verge of embarrassing her.
She cast her gaze downward as they turned onto a path that cut through a stand of woods nearing the Manor. "Julian leads such a carefree life as a bachelor that I begin to doubt he'll ever settle down."
"Oh, he has every intention of marrying you," Elizabeth said. "The only trouble is that he feels no urgency, while you, as a woman, can't wait forever. Somehow we must convince him that the wedded bliss you can offer him will be far more exciting than his current state."
"I fear I don't strike people as a very exciting woman. At gatherings, most people don't even notice me."
"Except when you play the pianoforte," Elizabeth said. "Everyone's enthralled by your playing."
"Not quite everyone. And though Julian professes his admiration, my music hasn't persuaded him that life with me would be heavenly."
"I fear he isn't exactly an aficionado. His pursuits are less serious." Elizabeth tapped her chin with a finger. "To impress him, you'll need to do something a bit daring. You need to show him you're not the mouse he thinks you are."
"I am the mouse he thinks I am."
"No, my dear, you are not. You can be quite lively when you're among people you trust. You mentioned that you're happy to be staying in Gladstone this year. Take advantage of your ease here and make an effort to come out of your shell."
She took a deep breath. "I suppose I could try, but I'm not certain how I'll fare. Sometimes I wish I were more like you, Eliza."
Elizabeth stared off into the trees in thought. "We need to come up with a plan to show you in your best light. Give me time, and I'll think of something."
Miranda kept quiet, but she'd begun to doubt anything would work with Julian--short of asking her father to intercede, which she would never do. Though technically the match was arranged, she had always hoped that Julian really loved her. She still recalled the time at his sister's sixth-birthday party when a maid had offered him and her a choice of red or white lollies. He'd chosen red for both of them and, as the servant left, had said to Miranda, "Red is for love."
Never had a ten-year-old said something so debonair.
Does he mean that he's in love with me? she had wondered at the time, awestruck.
Since then, however, he'd taken many other opportunities to flirt, but her question remained unanswered.
As she and Elizabeth emerged from the woods, the faint notes of a pianoforte drifted out of the manor house. Miranda recognized a strain of Beethoven's Fur Elise, superbly executed. Something coiled inside her abdomen. Only one person of her acquaintance--beside herself--could manage that piece with proficiency.
"Mr. Owen is visiting?" she asked her friend.
"Yes. He arrived yesterday." Elizabeth scanned her face then rolled her eyes. "I don't know why you let his comments bother you, Miranda."
The knot in her midsection tightened. No one stole her composure like Andrew Owen. She didn't know why, either. Well, perhaps she did--it was because he was always right! Normally when she played, she lost herself, completely fluid, completely confident. Mr. Owen made her doubt her competence, made her see that as far as she had come, she still wasn't quite at one with the music.
"Why does he have to focus so intently on my playing?" she asked. "Why can't he just leave me alone?"
"Your playing is hard to ignore, and music is Andrew's life. I swear he only means to help you but doesn't treat the matter with enough delicacy. He's told me dozens of times how much he admires your playing."
"Yet criticism is all he has for me."
"Not when he speaks to me about you." Elizabeth turned onto a walk that led around the side of the house. "Julian's probably with him now. Let's go to the conservatory."
"You ought to say hello to both of them. 'Tis only civil."
She sighed. "Very well, but I'm not going to play, no matter what Mr. Owen says. He always insists I play."
"Doesn't that prove he enjoys your music?"
Of course it didn't, but Miranda didn't answer, the growing sound of the music drawing her attention away. As they approached the vicinity of the conservatory, the tumbling piano notes grew stronger and came more rapidly.
Entranced by the building arpeggio, she slowed her pace.
Through one of the large windows, she spotted Mr. Owen at the keyboard, his movements vivid, his shock of blond hair flicking about as he struck the keys.
As she watched his fingers fly, her heart pounded. The instrument was an extension of his being. He didn't need to think about what key to strike any more than he had to remember to breathe.
Spellbound, she glided toward him, and the strains of the music swelled to exquisite heights. Throughout her body, her muscles contracted until she nearly couldn't bear the tension. Just as Elizabeth opened the French doors leading to the conservatory, he pounded out the climax of the movement.
Miranda sucked in her breath.
Cascades of softening notes rolled over each other to close out the song. He caressed the keys with the final notes, and gooseflesh rose on her forearms and thighs.
By God, he plays like...like a sorcerer, she thought.
A moment of awed silence followed. Then Elizabeth burst into applause, striding into the center of the room. "Bravo, Andrew! Bravo."
Mr. Owen turned around and gave the newcomers a crooked grin. He met Miranda's gaze, and a lump formed in her throat. Even a simple look from him could rattle her.
"Cousin Eliza and Miss Granville. What a pleasant surprise." He got up to meet them, his smile dazzling. His white teeth and blue eyes complemented the golden aura of his hair. He bowed to Elizabeth then took Miranda's hand and bent over it. As he let her fingers slide from his, she shuddered, obviously still suffering the effects of his playing.
"The Beethoven was magic," she breathed.
He lowered his gaze but smiled again. "Thank you, Miss Granville. Coming from you, such an assessment means much."
"Hello, Miranda," another male voice intoned from the opposite corner of the room.
Her gaze flew to Lord Julian, who rose slowly from an armchair. The object of her long-term tendre was a darker version of his cousin. His features were less angular than Mr. Owen's, and his hair and eyes were tinged dark brown. He epitomized the phrase "tall, dark and handsome."
He gave the ladies a perfunctory bow without coming forward. Reseating himself, he picked up a magazine and leafed through it.
"I was hoping you'd stop by, Miss Granville," Mr. Owen said. "Tell me, does my technique seem at all improved to you?"
"I believe so." Oddly, her voice still sounded breathless. The man truly flustered her. "You must be doing something different."
"Yes, I've been trying to maintain a balance of tension and relaxation throughout my arms and shoulders while I play. I hope we'll have a chance to discuss it. For the last few months, I've had the pleasure of studying with David Desroches."
The name of the renowned pianist nearly made her gape. She looked at him more closely. "Monsieur Desroches is in England--and you have been studying with him?"
"He has given me a few lessons." He grinned again. "I've mentioned you to him."
Skepticism shot through her, at last breaking the spell of his music. How dare he tease her about a matter she took so seriously. She crossed her arms over her chest. "I find it unlikely that Monsieur has time to chat about unknown and virtually untrained female musicians."
"Au contraire. Being French, Desroches is always interested in the fair sex. He was delighted to hear that England's premier female pianist is also a beauty."
"Oh, please." She turned away. Grabbing her friend's arm, she tugged her toward the door to the hall. "Come on, Eliza. Let's show your mother the hat you purchased."
Elizabeth looked back over her shoulder and shrugged. "She doesn't believe, you, Cuz."
Miranda's face burned as she exited. Why did Mr. Owen always have to toy with her? England's premier female pianist, indeed. She knew a sarcastic remark when she heard one.
Andrew frowned as he watched Miss Granville go, her coppery curls bouncing. She held her head high, affording him an excellent view of her delicately curved neck.
Why did she never take him at his word?
"Tsk, tsk." His cousin stepped up behind him. "Heavy-handed compliments don't work with Miranda, Cuz. You'll need more finesse to impress a woman like her."
He glanced over his shoulder with a curled lip. "And I suppose you have more finesse?"
Privately, however, he knew Julian was right. Miranda Granville was sensitive, and Andrew didn't seem to have the savoire-faire to address her properly. He could no sooner pay her a compliment without offending her than he could offer her musical advice.
"I've had Miranda pegged since she and I were in the nursery," Julian said. "Goes to show you that I've always had a way with females."
"A title will warrant you that." Andrew tried to smile, but he couldn't quite keep the bite from his tone--not that he really resented his cousin's title. His own prospects were good enough, and the female interest he gained through his musical skills usually made up for by what he lost in having no title.
Except when it came to Miranda. The thing he did resent about Julian was that he had Miranda--and for all Andrew could tell, he didn't even want her.
"Speaking of ladies," Julian said, "let's walk over to the Red Lion and have an ale. There's a new barmaid working there--Betsy. I want to remind her to meet me at the bonfire on May Eve."
Andrew crossed his arms over his chest. He almost wished Miranda were still standing outside the door to overhear. Would that have cured her of her tendre for his cousin? Or, after all these years, was she so resolved to marry the rogue that she'd accept him even if she knew all of his failings?
Julian grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair and slung it over his shoulder. "Are you coming with me or not?"
He wasn't keen to go, but only that morning he'd promised his uncle he'd try to temper his cousin's drinking. How he was going to do so, he had no idea. "I'll come, but can we keep it to one pint? I'd like you to go shooting with me this afternoon, and we'd do better with clear heads."
Julian shrugged. "Very well. Your besting me on the range has become tiresome. One pint it is."
One the way out, they stopped by the front hall to fetch hats. The sound of feminine voices drifted out of the drawing room. Andrew glanced through the door and saw Eliza and Miranda on the sofa without his aunt.
Julian moved to the threshold of the room. "I thought you two went to show Mother your fribbles."
"She is occupied with Cook." Eliza picked up a copy of a fashion periodical and flipped through the pages. "Where are you and Andrew going?"
"To the Red Lion to hear what the villagers have in store for May Eve. It's been years since I've attended a bonfire. The efforts of other towns always pale in comparison to Gladstone's. Somehow we've managed to retain the pagan spirit of the old Beltane customs here."
"May Eve, you say?" His sister lowered her magazine. She gave Miss Granville a sideways glance, then looked back to her brother. "Why, Miranda was just telling me she wants to attend the bonfire this year."
Andrew could scarcely believe his ears. The local May Eve celebrations often ended with inebriated couples slipping off into the woods for a tumble. Of course, a well-bred female wouldn't know that, being shielded from such activities. He brushed past Julian. "Pardon me, Miss Granville, but you don't want to attend the bonfire. It's sure to degenerate into a sordid occasion."
She lifted her chin. "Is that so?"
Julian followed him into the room, smirking. "No doubt Miranda intends to be safely home in bed by the time the festivities grow raucous."
"No, no," Elizabeth said. She glanced toward the doorway, apparently to check for eavesdroppers. In a whisper, she continued, "Miranda means to steal out of her house just before midnight and be present for the best part of the evening."
Miss Granville looked at her friend with raised eyebrows, and Andrew wondered if she were being goaded into the adventure. It wouldn't be the first time his fair cousin had led her astray.
He shook his head. "Out of the question. The risk of being accosted is too great. Everyone present will be drinking."
Julian grinned. "She'll be fine, Cuz. I'll wait outside the gate at Granville Lodge and accompany her to the bonfire myself. 'Tis a brilliant scheme. It will be the most amusement we've had in ages, Miranda."
Just like Julian to encourage such a daft plan. And with the way he drank, he couldn't be counted on to protect a lady. Andrew grimaced. "I'll go with you then."
"Hardly." His cousin waved a hand at him. "You'll only spoil the fun with that Friday face of yours."
It was all Andrew could do not to roll his eyes. He had no intention of leaving Miss Granville to his cousin's care, but there was no sense arguing with him. If he had to, he'd follow Julian to make sure nothing untoward happened.
He slapped his hat on his head. "Are we going to the pub, or have you changed your mind, now that you and Miss Granville have plans for May Eve?"
"No, I still have business at the pub." He turned toward the ladies and gave them an exaggerated bow, his spirits obviously boosted by the foolhardy scheme. "Miranda, I'll meet you outside the gates of your house at eleven on Friday night."
She gave him a wavering smile and nodded. "Thank you. I look forward to it."
Andrew bowed, too, and swept out of the room. Without waiting to see if Julian followed, he strode out of the house and turned onto the path that led toward the village.
Every visit to his relatives' got more vexing. At one time, when he was seven or eight, his audacious, slightly older cousin had seemed daring and funny. Then they'd reached their teens, and Andrew began to notice Miss Granville. At first he viewed her merely as a competitor for Julian's attention. Then her musical talent began to emerge, and his ears perked up. She was the only other young person he knew who could play Beethoven as well as he. He thrived on the competition between them, and at some point his admiration for her grew physical as well as musical. Unfortunately, her infatuation with his cousin lingered. She'd never given him reason for hope.
The sound of quick footsteps swelled from behind him. As he reached a bridge that spanned a small stream, Julian joined him. "What's the hurry, Cuz?"
He ignored the question. "How are you going to handle the barmaid now that you've made arrangements to meet Miss Granville on May Eve?"
"Why? Are you hoping I'll leave the barmaid for you?"
Andrew snorted. "If I want a loose woman on May Eve, I'm sure there will be plenty on hand at the bonfire."
His cousin laughed. "True enough. Some wench there is likely to take a fancy to you--but I didn't think the bonfire would be your cup of tea. You'll attend then?"
He kicked a stone off the dirt path. "I'll be there."
"The Beltane magic must be strong this year. Even the wallflowers are determined to enjoy themselves. Imagine both you and Miranda joining the festivities."
Andrew looked at him with a frown. "You do realize you'll have to treat Miss Granville differently from the way you handle your barmaid consorts? You can't lure her into the bushes and have a tumble with her."
"Dear Cuz, you forget, Miranda and I are practically betrothed."
His jaw dropped. "You don't mean to take her before you put a ring on her finger?"
Julian laughed. He bent and scooped up a piece of fallen branch from the road, breaking twigs off the main shoot. "Don't look so panicked. Miranda would never allow that, though it may be interesting to see how much she will allow. Do you know I've never even tried to kiss her?"
Actually, he had wondered about it. Gazing off into the shady undergrowth beside the trail, he enjoyed a brief sense of satisfaction, knowing they'd never kissed. Then he remembered that May Eve would likely change the situation. He cleared his throat. "What will you tell the barmaid when we reach the Red Lion?"
"I'll tell her to meet me at midnight."
"You can't make assignations with two women for the same event!"
"Of course I can." Finished stripping his branch, Julian used it as a walking stick. "Didn't you notice that I fixed on eleven o'clock as the time I shall meet Miranda? She won't want to stay out long. We'll walk to the bonfire, spend a half-hour there, and have a mug or two of mead. Then she'll complain of the noise or the insects, and I'll take her home. Naturally, I'll show her a 'short cut' through the woods, so I can try my luck with her on the way."
Andrew grit his teeth. "And what if the barmaid shows up at the bonfire early?"
"It won't happen. The Red Lion doesn't shut until eleven, and she'll have to clean up afterwards."
He shook his head. "You have no scruples."
"Come on, Cuz. Are you telling me that if you had two beautiful women seeking your company on the same night, you would disappoint one of them?"
They emerged from the woods, stepping onto the start of Market Street in the Village.
After the shade of the dense trees, Andrew squinted in the sunlight. "Better that than risk disappointing both, if they find out about one another."
"Perhaps you might disappoint two women, even if they didn't know about one another." Julian laughed and put his hand on Andrew's shoulder. "I'm jesting, of course. But rest assured, I shall disappoint no one on May Eve. I quite look forward to the evening."
They reached the tavern and Andrew shrugged off his cousin's grasp, reaching for the door handle. This may be my last visit to Gladstone, he thought. He didn't know how much more of Julian he could bear. The May Eve scheme gave him a sense of foreboding. Either the barmaid would show up early, or Julian would drink too much and compromise Miranda.
He could almost hope for the former, if it wouldn't mean Miranda would be humiliated. As for the other possibility, perhaps he could prevent it if he kept an eye on the pair.
Entering the pub, he bit his lower lip. He didn't relish the prospect of attending the bonfire and watching his cousin try to steal kisses from Miranda. He would go, however, and make damn-well sure that Julian pressed his luck no further than that.