Daniel Smythe-Smith hadn’t planned to return to London on the day of his family’s annual musicale, and indeed, his ears were wishing mightily that he hadn’t, but his heart . . . wel, that was another story.
It was good to be home. Even with the cacophony.
Especialy with the cacophony. Nothing said “home” to a Smythe-Smith male like badly played music.
He hadn’t wanted anyone to see him before the concert; he’d been gone three years, and he knew that his return would upstage the performance. The audience would probably have thanked him, but the last thing he wanted was to greet his family in front of a crowd of lords and ladies, most of whom probably thought he should have remained in exile.
But he wanted to see his family, and so as soon as he’d heard the music begin, he’d crept silently into the rehearsal room, tiptoed to the door, and opened it just a crack.
He smiled. There was Honoria, smiling that big smile of hers as she attacked her violin with her bow. She had no idea she couldn’t play, poor thing. His other sisters had been the same. But he loved them for trying.
At the other violin was—good heavens, was that Daisy? Wasn’t she still in the schoolroom? No, he supposed she must be sixteen by now, not yet out in society but no longer a young girl.
And there was Iris at the celo, looking miserable. And at the piano—
He paused. Who the devil was that at the piano? He leaned a little closer. Her head was down, and he couldn’t see much of her face, but one thing was for certain
—she was definitely not his cousin.
Wel, now, this was a mystery. He knew for a fact (because his mother had told him so, many times) that the Smythe-Smith quartet was comprised of unmarried Smythe-Smith young ladies, and no one else. The family was rather proud of this, that they’d produced so many musicaly inclined (his mother’s words, not his) female cousins. When one married, there was always another waiting to take her place. They had never needed an outsider to step in.
But more to the point, what outsider would want to step in?
One of his cousins must have taken il. That could be the only explanation. He tried to remember who ought to have been at the piano. Marigold? No, she was married now. Viola? He thought he’d received a letter saying she’d married, too. Sarah? It must have been Sarah.
He shook his head. He had a ferocious lot of female cousins.
He watched the lady at the piano with some interest. She was working very hard to keep up. Her head was bobbing up and down as she glanced at the music, and every now and then she’d wince. Harriet was next to her, turning the pages at all the wrong times.
Daniel chuckled. Whoever that poor girl was, he hoped his family was paying her wel.
And then, finaly, she lifted her fingers from the keys as Daisy began her painful violin solo. He watched her exhale, stretching her fingers, and then . . .
She looked up.
Time stopped. It simply stopped. It was the most maudlin and clichéd way of describing it, but those few seconds when her face was lifted toward his . . . they stretched and puled, melting into eternity.
She was beautiful. But that didn’t explain it. He’d seen beautiful women before. He’d slept with plenty of them, even. But this . . . Her . . . She . . .
Even his thoughts were tongue-tied.
Her hair was lustrously dark and thick, and it didn’t matter that it had been puled back into a serviceable bun. She didn’t need curling tongs or velvet ribbons. She could have scraped her hair back like a balerina, or shaved it all off, and she’d still be the most exquisite creature he’d ever beheld.
It was her face, it had to be. Heart-shaped and pale, with the most amazing dark, winged brows. In the dusky light, he couldn’t tell what color her eyes were, and that seemed a tragedy. But her lips . . .
He dearly hoped this woman was not married, because he was going to kiss her. The only question was when.
Then—he knew the instant it happened—she saw him. Her face jerked with a tiny gasp, and she froze, her eyes widening in alarm. He smiled wryly, shaking his head. Did she think him a madman, sneaking into Winstead House to spy on the concert?
Wel, he supposed it made sense. He had spent enough time being wary of strangers to recognize the trait in someone else. She didn’t know who he was, and there certainly wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the back room during the performance.
The amazing thing was, she didn’t look away. Her eyes held his, and he didn’t move, didn’t even breathe until the moment was broken by his cousin Harriet, jabbing at the dark-haired woman and presumably informing her that she’d missed her entrance.
She never looked up again.
But Daniel watched her. He watched her through every flip of the page, every fortissimo chord. He watched her so intently that at some point, he even ceased to hear the music. His mind played its own symphony, lush and ful, sweeping toward a perfect, inevitable climax.
Which it never reached. The spell was broken when the quartet slammed out its final notes and the four ladies stood to make their curtsies. The dark-haired beauty said something to Harriet, who was beaming at the applause as if she had been a player herself, and then took off so quickly Daniel was surprised she didn’t leave marks on the floor.
No matter. He’d find her.
He moved quickly through the back halway of Winstead House. He’d sneaked out himself many times when he was a young man; he knew exactly which route He moved quickly through the back halway of Winstead House. He’d sneaked out himself many times when he was a young man; he knew exactly which route someone would take to escape undetected. And sure enough, he cut her off right before she rounded the last corner toward the servants’ entrance. She didn’t see him right away, though, she didn’t see him until—