The high, mournful notes of a violin beckoned James into the manor. He nodded to the butler and handed off his cloak to his manservant, Richard, who went to join the rest of the servants waiting for their masters.
James entered the ballroom and headed towards the music. It was more than a little rude to arrive and not greet the host and hostess, but for once he didn’t care. Propriety be damned, he had to know where the music was coming from. He edged along the dance floor, avoiding both the dancers and the observers, and headed towards the stage, a small raised platform, where the musicians for the evening sat.
The notes of a piano, a clarinet, and a violin intertwined perfectly, creating music more wonderful than any James had ever heard before. The beauty of the music could all be attributed to the violin player. The man slowed and hastened his own playing to match it to the others, playing softly at moments when the others were more powerful and loudly when they were quiet.
The music flowed through the crowd, infecting them with the urge to dance. James had never seen a group of dancers enjoy themselves more. The music was a waltz, by Chopin, James thought, though the tempo was a tad faster than normal. The men and women on the dance floor hardly seemed to notice, but he could tell from the flushed cheeks and broad smiles that they were enjoying the quick pace.
It was all due to the violinist. The trills of his violin pulled the rest of the room into his music and swept them along on the song. James watched him push and pull the bow over the strings as his fingers danced along the neck, nimble and graceful.
The long fingers captivated him, but not as much as the violinist’s face. The man was fully involved in the music, his eyes closed, one foot silently tapping out the beat. His hair, long and black, was pulled back from his face and tied with a ribbon at the nape of his neck, and the man paid no attention to it as he played. James was amused as he watched it flip and flop all over the place with the violinist’s harsh movements.
As the song ended, the violinist’s movements slowed until no more notes echoed in the room. Only then did his eyes open. James found himself staring into them, fascinated by the brilliant green. The man gazed at him in return for mere seconds before shuttering his eyes and turning away. The man’s glance made James’ breathing stutter and his hands tremble.
He moved away from the platform, anxious to escape before anyone could see how the musician had captivated him. It was dangerous to pay too much attention to a man. Loving men was a perversion. Should anyone accuse him, James would face harsh fines, perhaps even a prison sentence. James didn’t dare open himself up to accusations about his preferences—he had too many other things to hide.
Glancing around the room, he spotted Elizabeth Osmond staring longingly at the dance floor. James headed in her direction, partially out of pity for her, but mostly for his own benefit. What better way to hide one’s proclivities towards men than by dancing with a woman? He pasted a smile on his face as he grew closer to the beautiful young lady.
The smile she offered him in return was quite attractive, but it did not tempt him in the slightest. James felt sorry for the girl. She’d likely end up a spinster, as she was already twenty-two years of age with no marriage prospects. She had been out for four years, but the gossip amongst the ton was that not a single man had shown interest in her.
James bowed to her. “May I have the honor of dancing this set with you?” he asked, presenting his hand.
Miss Osmond nodded and took it softly, her white kid glove skimming over James’ calluses. He led her to the dance floor, pulling her into position near three other couples as a quadrille began. James could hear the violin above the other instruments again, its notes twining around the spinning dancers and twirling them ever faster.
Following the head couple, he danced carefully with small steps to match his partner. He kept his eyes on Miss Osmond and the dancers around them, refusing to allow himself even a glance towards the musicians. They danced in silence for a few moments until Miss Osmond leaned towards him and whispered, “You seem terribly distracted; I am rather afraid you shall trod on my feet.”
James laughed lightly at her jibe, knowing she expected him to be offended by her mention of her lower limbs. “Fear not, my lady, for I am quite fleet-footed. I shall do my best to offer my attention to you though, rather than focusing on the beautiful music.”
They stepped around and then moved back together, continuously circling about their part of the dance floor. “The music is extraordinary, is it not?” she murmured when they were near enough to speak. The steps of the dance sent her whirling away seconds later, saving James from having to voice his opinion on the music… or the musicians.
Moments later the music brought her back, a gleam of gossip dancing in her eyes. “Lenore Edward informed me that her father hired the pianist and clarinetist for tonight, and it cost her father more for the two of them than all of the food.” Miss Osmond shot him a saucy smirk. “Do forgive me for speaking of money, Lord Riverside. My mother despairs of ever taming my tongue.” She paused momentarily. “I find topics which I am not to discuss most interesting.”
James clasped her hand and squeezed it gently enough that those watching would not see it. “I would agree, though not in the presence of Lady Catherine Osmond. Your mother is a most formidable woman.”
Miss Osmond burst into raucous laughter, startling the couples around them and earning herself a sharp glance from the aforementioned Lady Catherine. It took three turns about their section of the dance floor before she could calm down.
“My lord, that is an understatement if I’ve ever heard one!” she exclaimed. Breathing harshly for a moment, she brought herself back under control. “Still, we’d best turn our conversation to a different topic. My mother has ears like a hawk, and I’d do well not to irritate her. She is already quite irked that I turned down Sir Mitchell’s offer to dance earlier this evening.” She snorted, an unladylike sound that suited her. “As if I would dance with that buffoon. He’d likely trip us both in the middle of the Grand March.”
James watched the young girl flush with frustration. The strong emotion brightened her eyes and warmed her cheeks, making her look quite attractive. It was a pity that such emotions were considered unfeminine—Miss Osmond’s true beauty would never be allowed to be seen in polite society. She’d likely spend much of her time this Season as a wallflower.
“I do not believe that is the most prudent topic to discuss, my dear,” he whispered quietly in her ear, wanting to save her from possible embarrassment if her mother caught wind of her speech.
She blinked at the reprimand and nodded. “Of course, my lord. My mouth does tend to run away with itself. Perhaps… the music, since you spoke of it.”
James wished he had not. It was too bad the girl cared nothing for society’s rules or he would silence her with a reminder that conversations should not be held on the dance floor. Instead, he offered little of his own opinion, asking her, “What of the music?”
“Why, the utter pull of it! I’ve never heard such wondrous music in my life. I do imagine that Sir Cade’s money was well spent on the musicians.”
James nodded in agreement. “And which of the instruments do you prefer?” he asked softly, hoping she would pick the right one.
She did as he hoped. “I must say that I’m quite in love with the violin. I attempted to play it once and could wrench only the most bothersome sounds out of it. I’m jealous of that man’s talent with it.”
James turned to look at the violinist again. The man’s passion for his music sent frissons of desire through James, and he had to look away. He covered his interest with a nonchalant, “He is quite good.”
“He’s more than good. He’s amazing. Miss Edward told me that he’s been with Sir Cade’s estate since before she was born, and that her father has not had him play at a ball in fifteen years. She believes it was because her father was saving him for her coming out ball. He has played for private parties though. He played Vivaldi’s Spring at a high tea Miss Edward put on this winter and it was easily the best music I’ve heard in ages.”
Miss Osmond gave a put upon sigh. “My mother is glaring at me for talking too much. Nevertheless, it’s her fault I am the way I am. She thought that dragging me to the theatre and orchestra would make me a clever but docile wife. She never realized that my intelligence would only tempt me to learn more.” Her eyes glittered. “You mustn’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been to a women’s suffrage meeting!”
James laughed, though nowhere near as loudly as Miss Osmond had earlier. The song ended and he walked her slowly back to where her mother stood glowering. “I won’t tell. Do try to temper your tongue though. Your mother would have the vapors if she knew what we’d spoken of.”
She frowned but bit back a response as he returned her to her mother. He bowed deeply and she offered him a curtsy in return. “Thank you for the dance, Miss Osmond.”
“Likewise. If it pleases you, do let us dance again. I’d like to continue our conversation.” The sparkle in her eyes told James that she knew she was not supposed to be so forward as to ask a man for another dance and that she had done it to irritate her mother.
James suppressed a grin and backed away as Lady Catherine began to berate her daughter for her lack of manners. He had enjoyed their time together, but he would not dance with her again that night. He dare not give her nor her mother the idea that he might be interested in courting her. Instead, he made his way around the room, dancing with as many women as he could, especially widows and spinsters. He didn’t learn anything else about the violinist, as the other women he danced with did not attempt to converse with him beyond a few niceties.
Nevertheless, he wanted to learn more about the man. He decided to visit Edward later that week and thank him for the invitation to the ball. It would be a good excuse to inquire after the violinist and perhaps contract him for a ball or two of his own.
James visited the manor only three days later. He knew he should have waited longer, but he hadn’t been able to forget the violinist. Three days had seemed like an eternity.
James handed his calling card, which bore his full title—James Bradford, Baron of Riverside—to the butler and was quickly shown into Sir Cade Edward’s study. The baronet stood as he entered, offering his hand.
“Lord Riverside, how nice to see you. May I enquire as to the purpose of your visit?” The older man’s eyes were flinty. James knew Edward hated that he was a baron whereas Edward was a mere baronet.
“I dropped by to thank you for the invitation to your daughter’s debutante ball, Sir Cade. It was truly lovely.” James couldn’t help but emphasize their difference in status by addressing him as Sir—etiquette declared it the appropriate title for a baronet, whereas James, as a baron, was lucky enough to be called Lord.
The man flushed a mottled puce, which contrasted badly with his foppish blond hair that was beginning to gray. “Of course, milord. My wife and I were grateful for your presence.” Edward smiled but his teeth were clenched.
They spent a few minutes making small talk about Parliament and the recent changes in the economy. Edward began to grow antsy, so James brought up his real purpose for visiting. “I enjoyed your ball tremendously. The music was especially wonderful. May I ask how I can contract the musicians? I’m planning on having a few small balls this Season.”
Edward smiled darkly. “I’ll write down the addresses at which the pianist and clarinetist can be reached. The violinist, however, is a member of my own estate, due to a large debt he owes me.”
“Is that so? Would it be possible for me to hire him from you?”
Edward shook his head. “I’m afraid not. My daughter grew up listening to his music, and I’d always planned for him to play for her debutante balls.”
“I’d pay you enough that you could hire someone else,” said James. He knew he sounded anxious, but he didn’t care. Something about the violinist entranced him and he wanted the chance to get closer to him.
Edward seemed as though he were contemplating the offer, but James tried not to get his hopes up. Sure enough, Edward refused. “Having him play exclusively for my balls will serve me far better than money ever could.”
Good music could make a ball, but that seemed a bit extreme. Still, James knew what Edward needed: connections for his daughter. “Perhaps a trade would be more in order?”
Edward visibly perked up. “What kind of trade?”
James fought a grin. “My manservant plays the piano, flute, and clarinet extraordinarily well. I’ve had him tutored in instruments since he was a young boy, but I would like him to learn at least the rudiments of violin playing. In exchange for your violinist staying at my manor and providing daily lessons to the boy, I will loan you my manservant for your balls. He would present a good image to your guests, I promise.” And James would have access to the violinist every single day.
Edward frowned. “It would be nice to have a larger variety of music, which his skills would afford me...”
“I would also, of course, offer your family a standing invitation to all of my events this Season.”
“Will you be having many soirees?” Edward’s eyes glittered with greed. Miss Edward would be able to meet titled men at James’ events, giving Edward the chance to secure a prominent husband for his daughter. James had known Cade Edward for years, and the man never stopped trying to secure a higher social standing for himself.
“I’m planning on three or four balls and a good many small dinners with friends. This is the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s death, and she always loved the Social Season. Filling Riverside Manor with gaiety will be a tribute to her memory.” It was the truth, and it worked well for James’ purposes. He didn’t think it would matter to Edward, but he added, “That’s why I want to contract your violinist. The violin was my mother’s favorite instrument.”
Edward ran his hand through his hair. “Your mother was a gentlewoman, God rest her soul.” James lowered his head as if saddened to remember her passing, but it was really to hide a frown. Edward, barely out of mourning for his first wife’s death in childbirth, had attempted to court the Dowager Lady Riverside a mere week after she stopped wearing her widow’s weeds. His mother had been a gentlewoman, but she had still cursed the man many times over for his callous actions.
“I’ll gladly allow you to hire my musician, so long as both he and your manservant are made available to play for each of my balls,” Edward continued. “There is, of course, the matter of a contract.”
James took a moment to grin while Edward couldn’t see his face. He straightened his expression and raised his head. “I’d be happy to sign one. Do you have time to write it now?”
“Yes, yes.” Edward had already placed a sheet of paper on the desk before him. “I’ll make this short...”
Edward scribbled down the terms of the deal and handed it to James to read. He corrected a few things, and when they had both agreed upon the terms and the price to hire the violinist and signed two identical copies of it, they stood and shook hands.
“I’m glad that I was able to visit today, Sir Cade. I do believe everything will work out wonderfully.”
Edward agreed and escorted him to the door, where James’ carriage stood waiting.
James took his coat from the butler. “Good day, sir.”
“Good day, milord,” replied Edward.
James was halfway down the steps before something occurred to him. He turned halfway around so he could see the door. “Sir Cade, I didn’t think to inquire before, but what is your violinist’s name?”
“Sheamus.” Edward’s eyes gleamed. “Sheamus Flynn.”
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