She didn‘t look back at him. She didn‘t trust herself to. ―Tamino?" she murmured.
―The ladies are going to show him a portrait of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night.
He will fall instantly in love."
Annabel leaned forward, not that she was going to be able to see the portrait from up in the box.
She knew the tale was just a fantasy, but really, that had to be a remarkable portraitist.
―I always wondered about the portraitist," Mr. Grey said. ―He must be incandescently talented."
Annabel turned sharply and blinked.
―What is it?" he asked.
―Nothing," she said, feeling vaguely dazed. ―Just…I was thinking the same thing."
He smiled again, but this time it was different. Almost as if…No, it could not be that. He could not be smiling at her as if he‘d found a kindred spirit. Because they could not be kindred spirits.
Annabel could not allow it. It would be unbearable.
Determined to enjoy the opera more than she was enjoying Mr. Grey‘s intermittent narration, she turned her attention back to the stage, allowing herself to be swept up in the story. It was a ludicrous tale, really, but the music was so wonderful she didn‘t care.
Every few minutes Mr. Grey would continue his commentary, which Annabel had to admit aided her understanding immensely. His words were part narration and part observation, and Annabel could not help but be entertained. She would hear the rustle of his clothing as he leaned in, then feel the heat of his skin as his lips approached her ear. Then came his words, always astute, frequently amusing, tickling her ear, making her heart skip.
It had to be the most wonderful way to experience the opera.
―This is the final scene," he whispered, as some sort of judicial proceeding began on stage.
―Of the play?" she asked in surprise. The hero and heroine hadn‘t even met each other yet.
―Of the first act," he told her.
―Oh." Of course. She turned front again, and within a few minutes, Tamino and Pamina finally clapped eyes on each other and instantly embraced…
…and were separated.
―Well," Annabel said as the curtain went down, ―I suppose there wouldn‘t be much of a second act if they weren‘t torn apart at the end of the scene."
―You seem suspicious of the romance," Mr. Grey said.
―You must admit, it is a bit far-fetched that he should fall in love with her portrait, and she should fall in love with his…" Annabel felt her brow furrow. ―Why did she fall in love with him?"
―Because Papageno told her he was coming to save her," Louisa said, leaning forward.
―Oh, of course," Annabel replied, rolling her eyes. ―She fell in love because a man wearing feathers told her she would be saved by a man she‘d never met."
―You don‘t believe in love at first sight, Miss Winslow?" Mr. Grey asked.
―I did not say that."
―Then you do believe?"
―I don‘t believe or not believe," Annabel replied, not trusting the glint in his eye. ―I myself have not witnessed it, but that does not mean it does not exist. And it was not love at first sight. How can it be love at first sight if she has not even seen him?"
―It is difficult to argue with such logic," he murmured.
―I should hope so."
He chuckled at that, then frowned as he looked toward the back row. ―Harry and Olivia seem to have disappeared," he said.
Annabel twisted and looked over her shoulder. ―I hope nothing is wrong."
―Oh, I assure you that nothing is wrong ," Mr. Grey said cryptically.
Annabel blushed, not entirely sure what he meant, but certain nonetheless that it could not be proper.
Mr. Grey must have seen her go pink, because he chuckled, then leaned toward her with a mischievous gleam in his eye. There was something dangerously intimate in his expression, as if he knew her, or as if he would know her, or wanted to know her, or—
―Annabel," Louisa said loudly, ―will you come with me to the retiring room?"
―Of course." Annabel had no particular need to ―retire," but if there was one thing she had learned in London, it was that one never refused an invitation to accompany another lady to the retiring room. Why this was so, she was not certain, but she‘d declined once and had been told that it had been very bad form.
―I await your return," Mr. Grey said, standing.
Annabel nodded and followed Louisa out. They were barely two steps out of the box when Louisa grabbed her upper arm and whispered urgently, ―What have you been talking about?"
―With Mr. Grey?"
―Of course with Mr. Grey. The two of you were practically touching heads the entire performance."
―That can‘t be true."
―I assure you, it can. And you were sitting in the front. Everyone will have seen it."
Annabel began to feel nervous. ―What do you mean by everyone?"
Louisa looked furtively about. Crowds were beginning to spill out from the boxes, everyone dressed in their finest opera attire. ―I don‘t know if Lord Newbury is in attendance," she whispered, ―but if not, he‘ll surely hear about this soon."
Annabel swallowed nervously. She did not wish to jeopardize her impending match with the earl, but at the same time…
She desperately did.
―It is not Lord Newbury I‘m worried about," Louisa continued, looping her arm through Annabel‘s to bring her closer. ―You know I pray that the match will fall through."
―Grandmama Vickers," Louisa cut in. ―And Lord Vickers. They will be livid if they think you have purposefully sabotaged the courtship."