Series: Windermeres in Love #2
How to plan the perfect heist? Take one bored Viscount…
A night out leads fun-loving Viscount Archer to one of London’s less genteel music halls… and a muse for the frustrated composer. But nothing goes easy for the wild Windermeres, and Archie finds himself playing her knight in shining armor instead.
Add a fake Contessa on a quest for justice…
Miss Valentina Hart may have the voice of an angel, but she has all the grit necessary to save her family after they were swindled out of their fortune. When Archie ruins her plans, she’s ready to gamble it all to take down the villain—which is where the horse comes in…
And watch the sparks fly as they steal each other’s hearts…
Tricking a villainous lord to save the fair damsel is just the sort of lark that Archie’s known for, but this time everything is different. He’s more interested in spending time with Valentina than planning the perfect con job. Can he pull off the greatest heist of all, winning his partner in crime’s heart?
Archie stepped inside the Five Graces theater, holding a mug of beer in each hand, and felt immediately at home.
Not that he should.
He was a lord, after all. Lord Daniel Windermere, Viscount Archer, in fact.
And the Five Graces?
Well, it was a theater of “low” entertainment. A place where London accents ranged too broadly for the narrow confines of Mayfair drawing rooms. A place where bodies jammed up against each other without anyone giving such proximity a second thought. A place that, frankly, stank.
A place that Archie loved down to the marrow of his noble bones.
“Archie!” came a shout.
Above the fray, he found his best friend in the world, Lord Rory Macbeth, Viscount Kilmuir—his world overflowed with titled gentlemen—waving at him from their usual spot—fifth row, dead center. Archie was adamant on that point. Whoever arrived first secured that pair of seats. From them, one could sink into the performance and, most importantly, the music.
His eye flicked toward the edge of the stage. Half hidden behind musty brown velvet curtains sat the piano, emitting the jangly tunes that would serve as the musical accompaniment tonight.
Sitting at the keyboard was George Fry, his nimble fingers flying across the keys, only missing a note here and there. The man was quite proficient for never having had a proper piano lesson in his life.
Archie, on the other hand, had plowed through years and years of lessons. Sure, he’d groused and complained like any child, but he and his instructor had known the truth.
That Archie’s very soul was contained in those keys.
He entered the fifth row of seats, apologetic smile on his mouth, one meant to charm as he jostled through, avoiding the knees of those already seated and stepping over entire laps when necessary, all without spilling a single, solitary drop of beer.
Still, his smile got him through. His was the sort of smile that charmed both women and men—women into his bed and men into friendship.
“Rory, old chap,” he called out.
“You’re late. I thought you were going to miss tonight.” Rory accepted the mug of beer into his massive bear paw of a hand. He was a great lumbering fellow by anyone’s measure. With his head of auburn hair and towering height, he lacked English elegance and refinement, which was just as well, given he was Scottish. Since the day they’d meet at Eton, Archie and Rory had been fast friends.
“Not a chance,” said Archie, holding up his mug in silent toast before knocking back a large swallow.
“What do you know about tonight’s entertainments?” asked Rory, swiping foam off his top lip.
“It’ll include a scene from Shakespeare, I believe,” said Archie
Rory groaned. “Not bloody Shakespeare.” He took another great swallow of drink. With the surname Macbeth, Rory had suffered through enough Shakespeare jokes to last three lifetimes, half of them told by Archie. “I was hoping they’d got that lass on the swing back.”
Archie snorted. “Don’t we all.”
Rory’s bright blue eyes lit up in a wistful smile. “She was truly quite skilled with the way she could flip up and down and around that swing. It never failed to impress.”
“Or leave much to the imagination,” said Archie, wry.
“Well,” said Rory, his grin turned boyishly roguish, “two things can be true at once.”
The stage lights flickered three times, informing the audience that the night’s entertainment was set to begin.
Archie settled back into his seat, careful not to give the impression that he was wholly, utterly, perhaps desperately, invested. For him, music was no idle or trifling thing, even in a place like the Five Graces, whose stage offered up all manner of entertainments on any given night. Singers…
Musicians… Acrobats… Magicians… He’d once seen a bear with a white ruff around his neck dance across this stage.
But it was the music that drew him in Thursday after Thursday. To be sure, it wasn’t refined or remotely elegant, but it pulsed with a raw energy one didn’t find in the tame drawing rooms of the ton.
This place held the promise of inspiration. Something that had been in short supply since he’d returned from Italy with his sisters last year. For him, these Thursday night entertainments were serious business, even if to all the world he looked like nothing more than a carefree aristocrat out for a lark—a look that was his particular specialty.
The Lord Archer the ton knew was always up for a jape with his ever-present, devil-may-care smile.
Only he knew the truth of his passions.
It was everything to him.
Perhaps his sisters understood a bit of it, for it was known he was quite proficient at the piano. But he desired to be more than merely proficient, good, or even great. For here was the thing: his music, it obsessed him.
And when he watched a musician on stage—like George Fry up there now—inspiration sparked within him, and something else, too. Envy. Those men and women performing tonight were professional musicians, making a living from their skill.
He was simply a viscount who would someday be an earl.
In truth, he’d been at odds and ends since returning from Italy. It was the blasted composition he’d been working on for months. He hadn’t been able to get anywhere with it since setting foot on
English soil. It was as if the muse had entirely abandoned him.
Apparently, his muse was Italian.
George Fry did something interesting with a minor key, and it sparked a little something within Archie. Perhaps his muse wasn’t Italian at all, but rather a Cockney gent from the East End.
The first performer was a man with a monkey. The act centered around the monkey being more refined than the handler, much to the delight of the crowd. Next came the Shakespeare. Although it was a scene from a comedy, Rory groaned and shut his eyes, snatching a quick nap. Then out sauntered a magician with a flamboyant flourish of his cape, his assistant trailing behind.
Archie sat forward in his seat. He attempted to pay attention to the magic tricks, but his eye kept straying toward the assistant. The woman was quite fetching with sable brown hair that hung loose to the small of her back and luminous brown eyes and full, luscious lips the color of rubies.
That mouth… It was made for sin.
He should elbow Rory, for he knew his friend would want to catch an eyeful of her, but Archie couldn’t.
He wanted her for himself.
Whistles and catcalls shot through the haze of desire that had begun building inside him. Once he paid attention to the actual performance, he saw what was obvious to everyone in the theater.
For all her beauty, the woman was a terrible magician’s assistant.
She gave away one trick after another before the magician could complete them. Further, the more purple-faced and frustrated the magician grew, the more flustered and clumsy the assistant became, worsening the cycle to the point of farce.
Yet Archie couldn’t laugh along with his fellow theatergoers. Usually, he found this crowd invigorating in its democratic response to performance. If it was great, they cheered loudly. If it was terrible, they booed just as loudly. Tonight…
It felt like bullying.
Tonight, he felt the distinct urge to punch someone in the nose.
Over a performer who had no business being on the stage?
Perhaps it was kinder this way. Perhaps the woman would realize the stage was no place for her and find another form of employment. Perhaps the crowd was doing her a favor.
Within minutes, thankfully, the magician and his beautiful, but hapless, assistant were ushered off stage by the compère. Rory startled awake, his blue eyes wide and unfocused. “What did I miss?”
“The magic act.”
“Oh, blast, why didn’t you wake me? The magicians are my favorite. Did he pull a rabbit out of a hat?”
“He did not.”
What the magician had done was pull a fair amount of lint from his hat, and the rabbit had hopped across the stage as if looking for his lost warren. Judging by the thunderous expression on the magician’s face, this, too, had been the fault of the assistant.
How had such a thoroughly untalented woman found her way onto the stage? The Five Graces might not have been the height of sophistication, but it was known for both its variety of performers and the quality of those performers.
It was her beauty, of course.
Rory slung back the remainder of his beer and burped into his hand. “Want another?”
“Funny you should ask,” said Archie, holding up his empty mug.
While Rory was gone, another two quick acts followed the magician. A scruffy, little dog who could perform all manner of tricks, including dancing on his hind legs, and a mime, who had the crowd transfixed by his inability to climb out of an invisible box.
Rory had just returned when the compère announced the next act. “It is my pleasure to introduce an opera singer making her stage debut tonight.”
Beside Archie, Rory groaned. “There are any number of drawing rooms in Mayfair where I could listen to a young lady caterwaul her way through Mozart, if that’s what I wanted.”
“A most beauteous young lady come all the way to our shores from enchanting Italy,” continued the compére, with a dramatic swish of his cape. “La Contessa!”
Into the quiet following the compére’s announcement stepped a woman, halting and unsure. She was dressed like a ghost from the last century with her tall white powdered wig, beauty mark placed on a high cheekbone, and wide pannier skirt. The costume was utterly ridiculous, which made it perfect for the Five Graces.
What wasn’t perfect?
Archie recognized the woman as the magician’s assistant.
Rory sat forward. “Now what do we have here?”
“She’s a stunner,” said Archie. Might as well get the obvious out of the way.
“Think she’s a real contessa?”
“Doubtful,” said Archie, dry.
Italian, he could allow with her luminous brown eyes and olive complexion.
But a contessa?
Not a chance.
Contessas didn’t sing for this crowd.
Rory shrugged. “Who would care anyway?”
An undeniable fact.
Hands clasped so tightly her knuckles shone white, she cleared her throat, thereby silencing half the crowd. She waited thirty seconds more, subtly shifting from foot to foot, clearly hoping the other half would follow the lead of their fellows. They didn’t.
Archie felt his hands clenching in his lap as he grew unaccountably angry. This was nothing short of a crime. To drag this woman on stage and offer her up as ridicule for the entertainment of the public…
She cleared her throat and opened her mouth, and a sound poured forth, filling the air, as voice after voice fell away and all that was left was hers, the entirety of the room suddenly enraptured by her. Archie couldn’t believe his ears, for what he was hearing was a pure high mezzosoprano without flaw—nothing less than the voice of an angel. It left him no choice but to sit back in his seat and let her voice flow over him, sink into him, and fill his soul with nourishment he hadn’t been aware he’d been craving all his life until this very moment.
She stepped forward, her voice strengthening in confidence. No longer was she a hapless magician’s assistant, but a woman in control—of herself, of this room. Her gaze roved across the crowd as she sang Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” aria. It was delicate and mournful and pure magnificence. Then her gaze landed on his, and the breath froze in Archie’s chest.
Eyes locked, the world simply fell away—only him and her, as if he could feel each individual cell of blood flowing through his veins.
Her gaze shifted, and the connection broke, like that.
The aria ended, and she stood before the audience, eyes shining, cheeks glowing, chest heaving.
The collective breath held under the spell she’d woven.
Archie felt winded…invigorated…inspired.
He needed more of it.
He needed more of her.
He shot to his feet, clapping like a maniac. Half a second later the room followed on a roar.
Everyone understood what they’d witnessed. Talent supreme… Magic.
Archie wanted more.
He glanced over at Rory, who was as awestruck as the rest of the room. “I’ll see you on the morrow for our morning ride?”
A crease formed between Rory’s eyebrows. “You’re hanging up your hatchet already?”
Not exactly, but he’d no intention of explaining to his friend the urges pulling at him. If he told
Rory he was heading backstage to meet the singer, Rory would get all nudge-nudge winky-winky and possibly waggle his eyebrows.
And this wasn’t that.
Well, maybe a little. The woman was attractive in the earthy, voluptuous way that, well, Archie rather liked.
But he needed to be in her presence, for other reasons. Reasons having to do with the muse now flowing through him.
He gave Rory a firm nod of farewell and began pushing through the crowd that had begun booing the compère. The audience wanted more of her, and preferably with fewer clothes. Philistines.
Why was she singing at the Five Graces? Her technique and stage sense weren’t yet perfected, but she was young and those skills would come with proper guidance.
Didn’t she understand her worth?
While the crowd remained mostly distracted by the contortionist who had taken to the stage,
Archie slipped behind the dusty brown curtain, and found himself in the midst of another sort of chaos— tetchy performers hying to and fro as they readied themselves. Here sat a clown in silent contemplation. There a dancer shouting for a glass of water while applying a thick coating of kohl to her eyebrows.
“La Contessa?” Archie asked a woman who was combing the fur of the monkey he’d seen take the stage earlier.
The woman silently pointed her comb in the direction of a short, dark corridor, and Archie followed it to a room that appeared to be empty at first glance. Except it wasn’t empty. There, behind a screen in the corner, flickered orange candlelight.
He strode over and peered around the wooden frame. Back to him, she sat before a dressing table.
Wig off, she was half undressed, down to chemise, corset, and drawers. He knew from other backstage visits that performers weren’t too fussy about their state of dress—or undress.
“Contessa?” he spoke into the silence.
Luminous brown eyes shifted and met his in the mirror, and he experienced that jolt again. As if a vise had tightened in his chest.
“Buona sera,” he said, choosing to greet her in Italian.
She simply nodded and resumed wiping stage makeup off her face. He sensed he’d been dismissed.
He’d once heard his smile described as pure sunshine. Yet this woman remained utterly, fixedly unmoved. Not charmed in the least.
His intrigue only grew.
He was always intrigued by the ones who didn’t give him the time of day.
When he made no movement to leave, her gaze met his again in the mirror. “Well?” she asked, the single word more demand than question.
Archie knew a few truths at once. The woman wasn’t Italian, and certainly no contessa. But she wasn’t from London, either. With that one well, he had her down as a country lass.
What was a lass from the country named La Contessa doing singing German opera in Southwark?
“Well, what?” He would play along. He liked games. They usually worked out in his favor.
“Are you going to stand there all night? Or make yourself useful?”
He stepped forward, oddly flat-footed. He usually had no trouble making himself useful to a woman—in a wide and imaginative variety of ways, if he said so himself—but with this woman he was flummoxed. “I’m not sure where to start.” Sometimes the truth worked best.
She heaved a great sigh and tipped her head to the side. “You’re not a stagehand, are you?”
Annoyance crossed her face. “No matter. You have hands, don’t you?”
He held them up and rotated as if putting them on display for a prospective buyer.
“Surely you can use them to unknot this dreadful corset,” she said, exasperated.
“I see nothing dreadful about your corset.”
In fact, the corset did amazing things for what was a stunning figure. Emphasizing the curves of her waist. Rounding the generous mounds of her bosom.
She snorted. “You don’t have to try breathing in it, do you?”
She stood, back still to him, and placed her palms flat on the dressing table. He closed the distance separating them, thinking perhaps he shouldn’t. This interaction wasn’t proceeding at all how he would’ve liked.
He stopped three feet from her and contemplated the rather dauntingly complex system of laces and knots. This corset must date back to the 1750s, well before his time of unknotting ladies’ corsets, which these days were simple stays.
“I’m afraid this may be well outside my level of expertise,” he confessed, buying time, really. For here was the thing: if he began tugging one knot open, then another, and another, he wouldn’t stop until he had the garment on the floor and convinced La Contessa to join him in his bed—or against that wall over there.
“Then what use are you?” she huffed.
Oh, she really didn’t want an answer to that question. He gave her the answer that fit within the bounds of propriety. “Not much, according to more than a few people.”
Her head canted, and again her gaze met his in the mirror. “You’re a proper nob, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know about the proper part.”
Her gaze narrowed. Clearly, her mind was running a calculation, and one and one weren’t making two. “What are you doing here?”
“Enjoying an evening’s entertainment.”
She shook her head. “Here…with me.”
Now, they were getting somewhere.
“As it turns out, I’m here to ask a very similar question of you.” He made her wait a few ticks of time. “What are you doing here? End of.”
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