Read an Excerpt
Valerie Stewart saw him first when he walked into the music room, and her eyes opened appreciably in surprise.
Trey Braddock-Black at an afternoon piano recital.
It had to be unprecedented.
Her small start of surprise set up a flurried chain reaction of swiveling heads, and Erik Satie, Emma Peabody’s newest discovery from Paris, momentarily lost his audience’s attention.
Montana’s most eligible bachelor stood near the door with one shoulder resting against the pale gray wall, his arms crossed negligently across his chest, and smiled a slow upcurving of acknowledgment. He was familiar with being conspicuous—whether for his scandalous reputation, his handsome half-breed looks, or his family’s considerable wealth, Trey Braddock-Black was habitually scrutinized.
He dipped his head in a small measured nod to the room at large, his long black hair sweeping forward briefly with the movement. Reminded of their manners, everyone quickly looked back to the bearded young man with the pince-nez, playing his newest composition on Emma Peabody’s grand piano. And for the next twenty minutes, Emma’s guests studiously avoided overt glances at Hazard Black’s disreputable son while busy minds silently contemplated which female had lured Trey to this afternoon recital. There was no question in anyone’s judgment that his unusual appearance was prompted by a woman.
Emma’s music room was large, its dove-white walls detailed in gilded molding, the parquet floor of a plume and fret motif laid by Italian workmen who had recently refurbished the Tsar’s palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Elegant banquettes covered in delicious yellow cabbage-rose silk print were informally arranged as in a drawing room with pretty, painted caned chairs from Venice scattered between the banquettes and small tables punctuating the whole so no guest need reach far for a glass of champagne or a sweet.
Among the heterogeneous guests, numerous fashionable young ladies, beautifully dressed by their mothers with their daddy’s money, languorously disposed on the yellow silk banquettes, their long, full skirts draping in colorful folds, their bonnets frilled and beribboned, appeared like so many colorful blossoms. With the melodious purity of Satie’s music swelling and flowing through the luxurious room, assessing glances strayed past the politicians, businessmen, and bankers; glossed over the matrons and dowagers; and dwelt occasionally with studied scrutiny on one or the other of the pretty young ladies. Who had he come to see?
The pretty young ladies were in universal accord—their covert glances were on the tall, dark man leaning against Emma’s wall.
So when Satie finished, when the polite clapping subsided, surreptitious reconnaissance watched and waited to see the woman.
It was a moment only before Valerie Stewart, elegant in burgundy velvet and a stylish bonnet of silk azaleas, rose and walked over to Trey.
A concerted consensus pronounced a silent Ahh while the young ladies democratically reflected, Damn.
Valerie stood very close like she always did, he thought, so one was aware of her fine breasts.
“Good afternoon, darling, you look”—Valerie paused suggestively while her kohled eyes traveled leisurely up Trey’s tall, muscular form arrayed in Savile Row’s finest tailoring—“well.” Her sentence ended in a lush, purring resonance.
He wanted to say, “You can’t eat me alive right here in Emma’s music room, Valerie, dear,” but it would have been presumptuous and ill-mannered, so he smiled politely and said instead, “Thank you, and you’re beautiful as usual, Valerie.” Her dark hair and pale skin was enhanced by the rich burgundy. “Did you like Erik’s compositions?”
Waving her kid-gloved hand dismissively, she made a small moue. “They all sound the same, don’t you think?” Valerie’s appreciation of the arts was confined to being seen at the right receptions and recitals and understanding the finer points of jewelry appraisal.
Trey’s pale eyes widened momentarily in a swift reflex action at her crass simplicity, or more aptly, he decided an instant later, her crass discourtesy. “No, darling,” he murmured, his deep voice tinged with a cultivated insouciance, “they all sound remarkably different.”
Looking up at him from under her heavy lashes, her face delicately tipped so her best side showed to advantage, she turned the conversation to her favorite topic—herself. “Have you missed me?” It was a flirtatious, coy phrase, breathed in a husky, intimate tone.
“Of course.” The required responses came effortlessly. Pushing away from the wall, he glanced over the silk azaleas on her bonnet to the group surrounding Satie at the piano.
“When can I see you again, darling?” Her voice was honeyed, and she moved a step closer so her scent filled his nostrils.
“Later,” Trey said evasively. He was here to see his friend, not flirt, and taking a half step, he began to move around her.
Lifting her closed fan fractionally, Valerie blocked his movement. “When later?” she inquired with a pretty pout.
“Valerie, dear,” Trey said with a quick grin, touching her arms lightly, “you pout beautifully, but I came to Emma’s today to see Erik. Come with me,” he invited with a well-bred courtesy, “and talk to him.”
“He’s only a second pianist at a Paris club,” she replied disdainfully, her values based on money, position, and dress, “and odd and disheveled … and bohemian. Why would I want to talk to him?”
“He’s also an imaginative composer,” Trey said quietly, annoyed at her bourgeois attitude. “Now, if you’ll excuse me …” and he moved her gently out of his way.
Trey had met Erik Satie at the Chat Noir in Paris the previous year, and when he’d gone up to compliment the pianist on his virtuosity, they’d discovered much in common. Born within months of each other, both were enamored of the piano, detested Wagner, adored Chopin, and resisted the conservatory method of training. Largely self-taught as a pianist, Trey was instinctively attracted to the eccentric young composer who dressed à la bohème, affecting flowing tie, velvet coat, and soft felt hat. Whenever Trey was in Paris, they made the rounds of the clubs and salons, and then in the wee hours, in Trey’s lodgings over Pernod and brandy, they practiced Satie’s newest works. Largely through Trey’s enthusiastic insistence, Satie had been introduced to Emma Peabody, the arbiter of avant-garde music in Helena.
A tall, ramrod-straight, gray-haired dowager, Emma spoke in blunt, brusque phrases, but she knew music, and she’d been a friend to Trey since his childhood. “Got out of her clutches, I see,” she said gruffly as he came up to greet her. “You were late.”
“Which do I answer first?” Trey said with a boyish grin.
“Neither,” she replied curtly. “Can’t tolerate Valerie. Detest lateness. Hate excuses worse. And don’t try to bamboozle me with that charming smile … I’m too old. Save it for flirts like Miss Stewart over there. He’s good,” she abruptly declared with a nod of her chignoned head, as if she were buying Satie at auction. “Damn good.”
“I told you.” Emma had been reluctant at first when Trey had suggested Satie for her annual recital, feeling he was too outré, and his soft reproof was amused.
“What do you know, you young pup?” she harrumphed. “You’re still wet behind the ears.”
“Know enough not to like Wagner,” he replied genially.
“Smart boy. Damn sauerkraut mock heroics. Ruined music for a decade.” Emma’s face always colored up when Wagner was discussed, and Trey soothingly distracted her.
“Unlike Erik’s work. I thought the Gymnopédies was particularly fresh.”
Emma’s color subsided; Wagner’s deficiencies were discarded in favor of Satie’s splendid talent.… “His work is hauntingly simple,” she agreed, “and bold too,” she added with a brisk nod. “And then his passages of medieval dissonance appear, and it seems as though one’s transported to another time. How does he do it?”
“Pernod,” Trey said, his smile roguish, “for starters.”
“Wicked boy.” And she clipped him a stinging thwack on his arm with her ivory fan. “You’re going to have to mend your disreputable ways someday.” But there was a smile behind her brusque words, and her snapping brown eyes were filled with affection.
“Just so long as ‘someday’ remains in the vague future,” Trey replied teasingly. “Come now, I want to give Erik my compliments, and you can tell him he’s worth another five thousand to you because of the Gymnopédies.”
Placing his hand lightly under her elbow, he began guiding her around the clusters of music lovers scattered throughout the high-ceilinged music room.
“I’m already paying him more than Liapounoff,” Emma protested as they skirted the governor and his wife with a smile and a nod.
“There,” Trey murmured, lifting a glass of champagne from a passing tray and handing it to her, “my point, exactly. He’s better than Liapounoff.”
“If you think he’s worth so much, you pay him.” And she drained her champagne in a single swallow, her style of drinking much like her speech syntax—unceremonious and direct.
Trey politely relieved her of her empty glass, set it in a potted palm they passed, and, turning back to her, said, “He won’t take money from me. Besides, Emma, my sweet,” he said with a lazy drawl, “you can’t take it with you.”
Stopping abruptly, she turned to him and, looking up into his finely modeled face framed by long, sleek hair the color of midnight, inquired tartly in that flinty, businesslike tone that had made the bank she owned first in the territory, “What are you going to do for me if I sink another five thousand into your friend?”
He replied in quiet, measured tones that wouldn’t carry. “I’ll come to one of your dinners and entertain that grandniece of yours you’re always pushing at me.” And when he broke into a smile and winked, a déjà vu image of his father twenty-some years ago flashed into her mind: every woman had wanted him—like this boy.