Portia Stefani pulled her gaze from the moonlit countryside beyond the carriage window and stared at the well-worn letter she clutched in her hand.
She’d done the right thing, hadn’t she?
She’d read the letter so often that she’d memorized it:
Dear Signore Stefani,
The Stark Employment Agency forwarded your letter of interest regarding the teaching position. Naturally your skills and experience are well above what I’d hoped for in a piano teacher. It is my privilege to offer you a one-year term of employment. I require only two hours of instruction per day, six days per week. The remaining time would be your own.
Whitethorn Manor is in a very remote part of Cornwall, so if country living is anathema to you the position would not suit.
The letter’s author—Mr. Eustace Harrington—went on to offer a generous salary, suggest a start date and give instructions for reaching the manor. Nowhere in the letter did it say Ivo Stefani’s wife would be an acceptable substitute if the famous pianist was unavailable, uninterested, or . . . dead.
Portia’s hands shook as she refolded the brief missive and tucked it into her reticule. It was foolish to submit to her nerves, especially after she’d already accepted the private chaise, the nights in posting inns, and the meals Mr. Harrington’s money had provided.
She groaned and rested her aching temple against the cool glass, exhausted by the relentless whirl of thoughts. Her head had begun to pound several hours earlier and the pain increased with each mile. Weeks and weeks of living with her deception had taken its toll on both her mind and body. Thank God it would soon be over, no matter what happened.
The argument she’d relied on most heavily—that this deception was her only choice—had lost its conviction the closer she came to Whitethorn Manor. But that didn’t make it any less true. Portia had no money, no family—at least none who would acknowledge her—and her few friends were almost as poor as she was. She had nothing but debt since she’d been forced to close the Ivo Stefani Academy for Young Ladies.
She laughed and the bitter puff of air left a fleeting fog on the carriage window. Even now the ridiculous name amused her; Ivo had always possessed such grandiose dreams. It was unfortunate his dreams had rarely put food on their table, even before he abandoned her and their struggling school.
Although the small academy had been his idea and bore his name, her husband had pouted whenever Portia asked for help teaching or tutoring.
“Such work is fine for you, cara, but my ear bones,” he would shudder dramatically at this point, “they are in danger of breaking and bleeding if exposed to such abuse.”
“And how will your ear bones feel when they have no place to sleep?” Portia had asked on more than one occasion.
But Ivo had only laughed at her fears—and then run off with a woman whose very existence meant Portia’s ten-year marriage was nothing but a sham. Not that any of that mattered now. Ivo was gone and the humiliating truth with him; it no longer signified what he’d done or with whom he’d done it. What mattered was that Portia needed to survive and the only way she could do so was teaching music.
She could have found work in London, but the prospect of starting all over again in the same city had left her feeling tired and hopeless. If she hadn’t been destitute she might have considered the offer to share a house with three friends: Serena Lombard, Honoria Keyes, and Lady Winifred Sedgewick, all teachers from her now defunct school.
Unfortunately, all Portia had to offer anyone was debt, and most of it not even hers. But to the dunning agents who dogged her day and night it hadn’t mattered that Ivo had generated the mountain of bills without her knowledge.
No, she’d done far better to accept this well-paid position, even though she’d resorted to despicable—and probably criminal—deceit to get it.
The chaise shuddered to a halt and her thoughts scattered like startled pigeons.
Portia peered out the window and caught her breath. It was not a country house; it was a mansion: an imposing Palladian-style structure that loomed over the carriage, its massive portico and immense Venetian windows dominating the moonlit sky.
She had arrived.
The footmen had just removed their plates when Soames entered the dining room.
“I beg your pardon, sir, it appears the music teacher has arrived.”
Stacy Harrington took out his watch. “It’s quite late and no doubt he’s exhausted after his long journey. I’ll wait until morning to speak to him. Show him to his chambers and have Cook send up a tray.”
His aged butler did not move.
“Is there something else, Soames?”
“Well . . .”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Well, the thing is, sir, it’s not Signore Stefani.”
Stacy frowned at his usually imperturbable servant. “What is it, Soames?”
“It’s Signora Stefani,” Soames blurted.
“Very well, so he brought his wife with him. I wish he’d let us know, but tonight they can stay in the rooms you have prepared and tomorrow we can move them to a larger apartment.”
Soames cleared his throat. “Er, it is only Signora Stefani.”
His Aunt Frances, who’d been inching closer to the edge of her seat with each new piece of information, could no longer contain herself. “What on earth does he mean, Stacy?” she asked, rattled enough to call him by his childhood pet name in front of a servant.
Stacy didn’t mind the slip. In fact, he preferred “Stacy” to “Eustace”—which he’d always thought sounded like an undertaker’s name.
He turned from his aunt to his hovering servant. “My aunt wishes to know what on earth you mean, Soames?”
The butler’s parchment-like skin flushed. “It appears Signore Stefani is . . . well, he is dead, sir.”
His aunt gasped and Stacy sat back in his chair.
“Are you telling me there is a dead body in the carriage, Soames?”
“Oh no, sir, no.” Soames stopped and stared a point somewhere beyond Stacy’s left shoulder, blinking owlishly. His brow creased and he fingered his long chin. “At least . . .”
“Well?” Stacy prodded when it seemed the ancient man had calcified.
“I understand she is alone in the carriage, sir. No maid or, er, body.” He glanced down at his hand. “She brought this with her and claims she is here for the music position.”
Soames held out a folded piece of paper and Stacy took it. His own handwriting stared back at him; it was the letter he’d sent Ivo Stefani offering the famous pianist the position. Stacy put the letter aside.
“Very well, show Signora Stefani to her room, have Cook send up a tray, and tell her I shall speak to her tomorrow.”
“Very good, sir.”
His aunt waited until the agitated butler left before speaking.
Stacy was amused by how much meaning she put into the single word.
“Well, indeed, Aunt.”
“Wouldn’t you rather speak to her now? Why wait until morning?”
“She’s been in a carriage for almost three days, Aunt Frances. I daresay she is exhausted. Whether I speak to her now or in the morning, she’ll still need someplace to spend the night.” Besides, the woman had availed herself of a costly journey at his expense; he would question her at his leisure.
“But why has she come, my dear?”
“You heard Soames, Aunt, she’s come to teach.”
“Was there any mention of this in the correspondence you exchanged?”
“Not a word.”
“Can she really expect you to offer her the position after she deceived you?” She stopped, her brow wrinkling. “Unless. . . do you think it possible the hiring agency deceived you?”
“Someone certainly has.”
His aunt pursed her lips. “You must send her away.”
“I can hardly send her packing in the middle of the night, can I ma’am?”
“I suppose not,” she said, grudgingly. “But you must do so first thing tomorrow.”
Stacy raised his eyebrows at his aunt’s strident tone and she flushed under his silent stare and looked away.
Although his aunt had raised him from infancy, she’d always accepted he was master of both himself and Whitethorn Manor. Stacy couldn’t recall the last time she’d told him what he must or mustn’t do. She must be far more agitated than she appeared.
He gave her a reassuring smile. “There’s nothing to worry about, Aunt Frances. I shall take care of everything in the morning.” He took out his watch and glanced at it.
His aunt saw the gesture and stood. “I beg your pardon, my dear, I shall leave you to your port.”
Stacy met her at the dining room door and opened it for her. “I’ll join you shortly,” he promised before shutting the door behind her.
He extinguished all but one candle and poured himself a larger than average glass of port, taking a sip of the tawny liquid before removing his dark spectacles. The bridge of his nose ached from a day of wearing glasses and he absently massaged it while staring at the dining room ceiling, on which sly cherubs lolled and cavorted on clouds, avidly viewing human folly from a safe distance.
He supposed he should have expected something like this. Not that a woman would show up, of course, but that it would be impossible to engage a musician of Stefani’s caliber with such ease. When the employment agency wrote to tell him the famous pianist was seeking a teaching position, Stacy had wondered if it might be some sort of mistake.
Apparently it had been.
He couldn’t believe the reputable and well-regarded Stark agency would have lied about Ivo Stefani applying for the position. No, it must have been Mrs. Stefani.
Stacy shook his head. What manner of woman would embark on a long journey under such false pretenses? A bold one? A confident one? A desperate one?
He snorted; certainly a dishonest one.
Stacy could guess why she’d deceived him—no doubt she believed he would not engage a woman. He swirled his glass and stared into its warm depths. Would he? His lips twisted at the thought. No, he would not hire a female, although not for the reasons she might suspect.
While men might gawk and stare at him, they tended to overcome their curiosity—eventually. Women, on the other hand . . . Well, let’s just say he’d learned the hard way that women were not so forgiving—especially when it came to his eyes.
Stacy could do nothing about their reactions, but he could minimize his exposure to their fear or scorn. Other than his tenants’ wives, a few women in the village, and his female servants, he managed to avoid most women. Well, except for the women he visited in Plymouth; those women he generously compensated to ignore his appearance.
It said something about the state of his life that he’d so anticipated the arrival of a music teacher. Perhaps this debacle was a way of telling him his hobby was a foolish waste of time? God knew he had plenty on his plate managing his estates and businesses. But was his life to be devoid of any personal pleasure? He’d already accepted that he could never marry and have a family. Must he also give up playing the piano—one of the few things he loved—just because of his freakish appearance? Was he asking too much to engage a music teacher without fuss and bother? People did it all the time. True, it was usually for their children, but why should that matter?
Stacy put down his glass with more force than necessary, and the crystal clattered on the polished burl wood surface. The more he thought about the woman’s deception, the angrier he became. How dare this female muck up what was supposed to be a simple business transaction? His aunt had been correct. Stacy should have summoned the woman before him, no matter how exhausted she was, and called her to account for her outrageous deception.
Thinking about his aunt made him realize it had been unkind to send her away when she was only concerned for his welfare—no matter how unnecessary her concern might be. She worried about him as if he were still a little boy rather than a man of five-and-thirty. Frances Tate was his only relative and had been mother and father to him, burying herself in the country and devoting her life to raising him. She’d never been married or even had a beau, as far as Stacy knew. Not for the first time did he feel guilty that she’d built her life around him. Poor Frances, at slightly over six feet tall, she was almost as great a misfit as he was.
Stacy pushed away his glass, picked up his spectacles, and stood. He would make up for his abrupt dismissal by playing for her—that always soothed her.
The butler’s reaction to Portia’s arrival had been so comical she would have laughed if her future did not hang in the balance. Indeed, if Mr. Harrington’s horror was a fraction of his servant’s, Portia would have been out in the road with her bags right now—or standing in front of the local magistrate.
Instead, she was in the middle of a luxurious suite comprised of a sitting room, a bedroom, and an enormous dressing room complete with a copper tub. The rooms were airy and spacious and decorated in a soothing combination of icy blue and warm chocolate brown. Portia sank into a wingback chair, took off her sturdy black ankle boots, and stretched her feet on the plush Aubusson carpet. Her body ached, she was dusty and gritty, and her brain was beyond sluggish. Thank God she didn’t have to face her prospective employer in this state.
She’d been both stunned and grateful when Mr. Harrington decided to postpone their encounter until morning. Tonight she’d take advantage of her brief reprieve and forget about whatever the master of the house had planned for her; tonight she’d enjoy the luxurious comfort of these rooms.
Portia had just opened her portmanteau and was searching for her nightgown when a maid entered with a large tray of food. The girl gave her a shy smile before carrying the tray to the sitting room and arranging the dishes on a table. She bobbed a curtsey when she’d finished, her large brown eyes brimming with curiosity.
“Mr. Soames said I should help you unpack or ask if you wished for a bath, ma’am.”
Portia had the good grace to blush; dinner in her room and an offer of a hot bath? Mr. Harrington was treating her with kindness and courtesy despite her deception.
There was no point unpacking but Portia couldn’t turn down a chance to bathe in the beautiful copper tub.
She smiled at the young woman. “I am Signora Stefani. What is your name?”
“I shan’t need any help unpacking, Daisy, but I would love a bath after my meal.”
“Very good, ma’am.” She dropped another curtsey and left, closing the sitting room door behind her.
The smell of food made her mouth water and Portia hastened to examine what the maid had brought: roasted fowl, whipped parsnips, fresh bread and butter, a carafe of wine, and clotted cream with fresh berries. It was the perfect meal for a weary, hungry traveler and she descended on it like a ravenous beast.
She had just popped the last berry into her mouth when Daisy opened the door.
“Your bath is ready, ma’am.”
Portia followed her to the copper tub, which was full of steaming water. Beside it was a marble-topped table with a stack of fluffy towels and several crystal decanters.
“Can I help you with your dress, ma’am?”
“Thank you, Daisy, but I shall manage.” She waited until the door closed behind the maid before unbuttoning the row of fasteners that ran down the side of her worn, brown traveling costume.
Portia glanced around the room as she undressed. A lovely Chippendale cabinet stood against one wall, rich brown velvet drapes flanked floor-to-ceiling windows, and a massive four-poster bed dominated the bedchamber.
She absently ran a hand over the blue silk counterpane, which felt like a cloud when she pressed her hand into it. A sharp pang shot through her as she considered her surroundings. The housemaid was sweet, the rooms were lovely, and the simple meal had been delicious—what a pity she would most likely have to leave all this tomorrow.
Portia had never received such grand treatment before, not even when she and Ivo had stayed in some of the finest houses in Europe. Her husband had been hailed as a great artist and had been much feted before the accident which had ended his career. Men had paid generous sums to have Ivo Stefani play for their peers, and women had fawned over his olive-skinned good looks and warm bedroom eyes.
But the wife of the great artist had not received the same treatment. For the most part, Portia had stayed in tiny garrets and endured the grudging, slighting treatment of servants while Ivo had bedded the mistress of the house, spent a fortune on expensive frippery, and gambled away most of the money he’d earned.
Portia realized she was gritting her teeth.
Relax, she told herself. Relax and enjoy the unexpected splendor, because the local magistrate will probably be waiting for you in the morning.
She pushed away the thought and added a generous splash of lavender-scented bath oil to the steaming water before lowering her tired body into sheer heaven.
By the time she finished washing her hair, her eyelids were heavy with fatigue and she lay back against the warm copper and closed her eyes.
I will rest my eyes. Just for a minute…
Portia woke with a start to cold bathwater, pruned fingers, and pebbled skin. It was all she could do to pull her stiff, aching body from the tub and dry herself. She barely had enough strength left to drag a comb through her damp hair and don her threadbare nightgown before burrowing into the decadent bed. She closed her eyes and was immediately in the grip of a tedious half-dream that revolved around an unending carriage ride.
She was drifting in a deep, dreamless sleep when something awakened her. She pushed aside a tangled mass of curls and squinted at the candle she’d left burning across the room. The clock on her nightstand showed it was just past two.
Portia groaned and dropped her head onto the pillow. In addition to leaving the candle burning, she’d forgotten to draw the curtains, and moonlight flooded the room. She would need to extinguish the candle and close the drapes if she hoped to get any sleep.
Grumbling, she pushed off the blankets, heaved herself out of bed, and padded across the thick carpet to the window. She was about to pull the drapes shut when she noticed a small stone balcony beyond the rippled glass. The well-oiled window latch turned without a sound and she opened the casement and stepped out into a wonderland.
A cool breeze stirred her nightgown and the moon cast a magical glow, illuminating the countryside for miles around. It was one of those moons that hung so low in the sky you felt you could reach out and touch it. Even more light came from a series of lanterns that ran from the corner of the house half-way down the drive.
Portia wondered who would need such a brilliant display of light in the middle of the night but shrugged the thought away. Who knew what country folk did, and why?
Although the night was chilly, it was too beautiful to resist. Portia leaned against the cold stone and filled her lungs with crisp, non-London air, a temporary queen of her moonlit kingdom.
To the west lay a sliver of ocean; the shimmering waves were visible, but too far away to hear them crashing against the shore. Formal gardens surrounded the house to the west and south and beyond them lay a wood large enough to be called a forest.
Portia closed her eyes and drank in the quiet of the night. What a lovely, lovely place this was. And what a terrible shame this would probably be her only night to enjoy it. Her regret was so bitter it left a bad taste in her mouth; she never should have lied. She should’ve written to Mr. Harrington using her own name. She could’ve provided him with proof of her training, which was every bit as impressive as Ivo’s, not to mention her experience operating a school—not that a closed school was a ringing endorsement.
She’d done them both a disservice by not giving him the truth and allowing him to make his decision. Now her deception would stand between them, and rightly so.
Portia gnawed at her lower lip until it was raw, furious at her impetuosity. She was almost nine-and-twenty, would she never learn to think before she acted? She must have been mad to think this would work, and even if—
A slight sound intruded on her misery and Portia opened her eyes. Something white and ghostly flickered in the trees at the edge of the woods. She took a step back and stood in the shroud of the heavy velvet drapes, pulling them closer around her body. A figure emerged from the woods and Portia caught her breath as the white blur solidified: It was not a ghost, but a person on a large white horse.
Horse and rider picked their way past the line of trees before exploding into a gallop and blazing across the rolling parkland like a shooting star, closing the distance between the woods and the house in a matter of moments.
The spectral pair slowed as they approached the drive, the bright lanterns affording Portia a better look. No, most certainly not a ghost, but a very substantial-looking man. He wore no coat or waistcoat, only a white shirt that must have become damp from his exertions and now adhered to his torso like a second skin. He controlled his mount with long, muscular thighs encased in breeches and tucked into dark boots. The moonlight turned both horse and man and an eerie silver white.
Portia inched closer to the balcony as he approached, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face as he passed beneath the lantern that hung nearby. The drapes moved with her and the light from the candle behind her escaped and cast a dim line across the cobble drive that was like an arrow pointing toward her window.
Horse and rider swung around as one toward the balcony.
Portia gasped, stumbled back into the room and slammed the casement shut, fumbling with the lock. She pulled the drapes and collapsed against them, her heart pounding as if she’d been running.
Good Lord! How was that possible?
It was after eleven o’clock by the time a servant arrived to escort Portia to her interview with the master of the house.
She’d been awake, dressed, and waiting for hours—in spite of the fact she’d not had much sleep. She’d tried, but every time she’d closed her eyes a haunting ivory face had flashed into her mind.
And those eyes . . .
Of course she knew it had been a man on the horse and not a ghost or demon. Even so, sleep had evaded her. She’d stared into the darkness above her bed, where phantom images formed and dissolved endlessly.
She’d tried to count sheep or think of other more pleasant things. Like the friends she’d left behind, the five women and one man who’d once been her employees but were now her family. Now her friends were scattered to the four winds, each forced to scratch out an existence on society’s fringes. It was probable—likely, in fact—that Portia might never see some of them again.
So here she was; alone, once more.
The thought left her morose, restless, and full of self-pity, and she tossed and turned until the pink fingers of dawn crept over the horizon. Only then had she fallen into a shallow, fitful sleep.
Splinters of bright sunlight penetrated the gap between the velvet drapes and woke her just before eight o’clock. The face that greeted her in the mirror had blood-shot eyes with bags beneath them. Portia wanted to cry when she saw her reflection, but that would have made her nose red, too.
So she’d dressed herself and combed out the frightful mess that was her hair, pulling it back into a knot that was so tight it actually seemed to diminish the bags beneath her eyes.
And then she’d placed a cool cloth on her forehead and fretted until a knock jarred her from her worries.
It was the butler, Soames.
“Mr. Harrington will see you in the library, ma’am.” In contrast to last night, when the old man had appeared almost frantic, this morning his wrinkled face and rheumy blue eyes were the epitome of butleresque impassivity.
They descended a different set of stairs than the one she’d come up the night before. Soames turned right when they reached the bottom and led her down a wide, dimly lit hall before stopping in front of a set of double doors.
He flung open the door on the right and motioned her inside. “The library, ma’am.”
Portia peered into the room, the interior of which was hardly visible. The only light came from a single candle on the far side.
“Thank you, Soames.” The deep voice came from the same direction as the light. “Please, come in and take a seat, Signora Stefani.”
Portia took a hesitant step inside the room and jumped when the door snapped shut behind her.
“I suppose you find it rather dark.” A flare of light followed his words and a pale hand lit three more candles. The nimbus of light grew until a skull with two black eye sockets materialized beside it. Portia gasped and the skull shifted into a mask of scorn.
“Please, don’t be alarmed. I’m not dangerous and won’t harm you.”
Her face flamed, both at her foolish reaction and his mocking tone. She could see now that the two black spots were merely dark spectacles and the skull was just a very pale face—the same face she’d seen last night. The moonlight hadn’t been playing tricks: Eustace Harrington’s hair and skin were as white as freshly fallen snow. Only his frowning lips had any color.
“I have albinism, Signora Stefani. That means I suffer from a lack of pigment. You needn’t worry, it’s not contagious.”
Portia laughed and his expression shifted from scornful to haughty.
“I’m not laughing at you, Mr. Harrington,” she hastened to assure him. “I’m laughing because I’m perfectly aware you’re not a contagion. I’ve heard of your condition before.” Portia didn’t tell him the only other person she’d heard of had been stoned to death by superstitious peasants in a village outside Rome.
“Then I don’t have to worry you will faint or scream?” he asked, his tone caustic.
“Not unless you give me good reason to do either, sir.”
He ignored her attempt at levity. “Why have you come to Whitethorn Manor?”
Portia took a deep breath and commenced the speech she’d rehearsed all the way from London.
“You wished to engage a music tutor with superior talent—I am such a person. I trained at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the most respected music school in the world. My father was an instructor there for many years and I was one of his pupils.” She paused. When he didn’t speak, she continued. “The Accademia doesn’t admit women, but I am, nevertheless, a classically trained pianist. I’m not Ivo Stefani, but I’m good. Very good.” Portia stopped before her crushing anxiety got the better of her and leaked through her carefully constructed façade.
The white face across from her remained motionless. Had he expected her to apologize? To beg? Something very close to terror spread through her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Perhaps she should—
“When did your husband die?” he asked the question coolly, much as he might ask what time it was or whether she preferred tea to coffee.
Portia swallowed her irritation at his calm, deliberate manner—which made her feel like a recalcitrant schoolgirl standing before a headmistress. She reminded herself that he was the injured party in this transaction; she deserved cool treatment, at the very least.
“A little less than a year ago.”
“So it was you who responded to my original advertisement and then sent me a letter, signing your husband’s name.”
Her hot face became even hotter. “Yes.”
“If you are so highly qualified, why did you not apply under your own name instead of lying?”
The word lying was like a spark on dry tinder.
Portia opened her mouth, but the shrill voice of reason stopped her. Be humble, Portia! Grovel! Only last night you promised no more impetuous behavior and—Portia shoved the voice aside. After all—what did she have to lose by speaking her mind? The man was obviously not going to hire her.
“Tell me, Mr. Harrington, would you have engaged a woman tutor?”
He leaned back in his chair, his mouth pulling into a slight smile. “That’s hardly the point, is it?”
The man was toying with her and feeding off her humiliation and fear. She shot to her feet and he stood with her.
“Are you leaving, Signora Stefani?”
“Why should I stay? You’ve made your opinion of female musicians quite clear.”
“Oh? I thought we were speaking of your deception rather than your musical abilities.”
Portia ground her teeth, furious that he was correct. Again.
He gestured to her chair. “Please, won’t you be seated? I’ve gone to a great deal of effort and expense to bring you here. Won’t you extend me the courtesy of a few minutes of your time and perhaps some answers?”
Everything he said was fair—maddeningly so—but for some reason that did nothing to mollify her unreasonable anger.
“And what will you do if I refuse, Mr. Harrington? Summon the local magistrate?’
He sighed. “I am the local magistrate, Signora Stefani.”
Portia gave a short, mirthless laugh and dropped into her chair. “Ask whatever you like.”
He resumed his seat, ignoring both her rude behavior and angry words. “I’m curious why there was no mention of your husband’s death in the papers, Signora?”
She’d expected this question much sooner, but that didn’t mean she was eager to begin telling even more lies.
“My husband did not die in England.” She paused, “Perhaps you heard of his accident?”
“Yes, his arm was badly crushed and he could no longer play. I assumed that was why he responded to my advertisement.”
“I’m afraid my husband found teaching an unbearable reminder of everything he’d lost.” That much was true. “He needed to get away from the memories of his past and do something meaningful with his life. He decided the best way to do that was to join the army.” Lies, lies, lies. Luckily her face couldn’t get any hotter.
Pale eyebrows shot up above his dark glasses, a reaction that could mean surprise, disbelief, or some other emotion. Portia assumed it was surprise. After all, he hadn’t known Ivo. If he had, he’d be doubled over with laughter right now: Ivo Stefani had not entertained an altruistic thought in his entire life.
“There’s not much more to tell. He went to Naples and died shortly afterward in the Battle of Tolentino.” Would he dare to ask which side her husband fought with? Or would he assume the worst and dismiss her on the spot for being the widow of a man some in England might consider a traitor?
“Tell me, Signora,” he said, resting his elbows on his desk and leaning forward, the action bringing his fascinating face closer to the light. “What did you think would happen when you presented yourself to me under false pretenses?”
She’d asked herself the same thing—but in more brutal words—countless times. Why, then, was she so angry when he asked her a question he had every right to ask?
Because you’re ashamed of what you’ve done and nothing is more agonizing than knowing one is in the wrong.
The annoying little voice was correct, but that didn’t mean Portia had to like it. Still, she could control her behavior better.
“I’m sorry for my deception and I apologize.” She clamped her lips shut. But then her mouth opened and more words tumbled out. “If you tell me what you spent to bring me here, I will gladly repay you.” She stunned herself with the foolish words; just where would she get the money?
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Portia ground her teeth at the smug, but apt, observation.
Mr. Harrington’s features shifted into an expression of mild distaste. “We could haggle like costermongers over repayment for your journey or you could give me a demonstration of your musical ability.” His pale lips twisted into a mocking smile. “I know which I would prefer.”
Portia bristled at his sarcasm but hope surged in her breast. Would he consider engaging her? Or was this some petty form of revenge?
She studied his unreadable face. He reminded her of the famous stone she’d seen in the British Museum—the one named after the Egyptian port city of Rosetta. He bore no physical resemblance to the black chunk of rock, but he emanated the same inscrutable quality. Was he toying with her? Raising her hopes just so he could—
Portia seized control of her whirling thoughts. The truth was, she didn’t care what his motivations were. Playing the piano was far better than answering questions for which she had no answers or at least none that were palatable.
She inclined her head with hauteur to match his. “You are entitled to a demonstration of my abilities. What would you like me to play?”
“I will leave that to your discretion. You are, after all, the expert,” he added wryly. “Shall I take you to the music room right now or do you need time to prepare?”
Portia heard the challenge beneath his taunting question and smiled; what a pleasure it would be to shove his scornful words down his throat. She stood. “There is no time like the present, Mr. Harrington.”
Portia stole glances at Eustace Harrington as he led her down the long hall. His aquiline nose, shapely lips, and chiseled jaw were the stuff of classical sculpture and his skin and fashionably cut hair were whiter even than alabaster. Only his glasses disturbed the vision of a male version of Galatea come to life: Eustace Harrington was the most fascinating-looking man she’d ever seen.
He opened the door to a room every bit as dark as the library and turned to her, a Sphinx-like smile curving his lips. “Pardon my rudeness Signora, but I’m going to precede you and light the way.” He lit five candles in the candelabrum beside the piano before taking a seat as far from the light as possible, effectively hiding himself from her view.
Portia approached the instrument and stopped abruptly. “My goodness.”
“What is it, Signora?”
“You have a Schmidt.” She ran her fingers reverently across the glossy case.
“You approve?” His voice held the first hint of warmth she’d heard.
“It’s a piano worthy of a concert dais.” Even Ivo had never played on finer.
“There is sheet music in the cabinet behind you.”
It was Portia’s turn to smile mockingly. “That won’t be necessary.” She seated herself and ran through a few scales to loosen her hands. The instrument was easily the finest she’d ever played. The pianos her father had used to teach his students had been well-made, but most of them had been abused by hundreds of hands and years of constant use. This piano was exquisite, the sound immaculate.
She launched into Bach’s Goldberg Variations, beginning with “Variatio 14. a 2 Clav.”
The piece was lively—almost giddy—and the multitude of cross-overs was a perfect way to demonstrate her technical ability for the man who sat in judgment of her.
Portia could claim, without exaggeration, that she’d been Ivo’s superior when it came to Bach.
“Of course you favor him,” Ivo had taunted her in a fit of pique. “He has no passion, only mathematics—perfect for your English soul.” He’d often flung the fact she was half-English at her as if that were some sort of flaw.
Portia moved without pause to “Variatio 15. Canone alla Quinta. a 1 Clav.: Andante.” It was sheer pain and coiled itself around her and squeezed and squeezed, leaving her battered and bruised by the time she moved to the last selection.
“Variatio 5” was sweetness and light and it washed over her like a healing rain, soothing her with its gentle, caressing tranquility.
When the final notes left her fingers, Portia folded her hands in her lap and looked into the darkness. A long pause followed, which was something Mr. Harrington appeared to excel at.
“Your playing is exquisite.” An almost undetectable tremor ran beneath his cool voice and Portia didn’t bother to hide her triumphant smile. Good! Bach should never leave a person unmoved.
“It appears your claims were not hyperbole, you are a very good musician.”
Portia refused to acknowledge such faint praise; she was beyond good.
“I was going to suggest a trial period to see if we might suit . . .” his words trailed off, as if he’d surprised himself with the offer. He’d certainly surprised Portia—rendered her dumbstruck, in fact. “But since you appear to have taken me in dislike—”
“I would be honored,” Portia blurted before he could retract his offer. “And very grateful.” She squirmed in the agonizing pause that followed. The distant ticking of a clock was the only sound and Portia was just about to start babbling when his cool, unhurried voice pierced the darkness between them.
“I think a month would be sufficient. At the end of the trial period I will either extend an offer for the full term of employment or I will pay you for the month and arrange for your journey back to London.”
Portia’s pride rebelled at the not-so-subtle threat behind his words: She’d better perform to his liking if she wanted to stay.
Fortunately, this time she seized control of her pride, wrestled it into submission, and swallowed her irrational temper. “That sounds more than fair, Mr. Harrington.” She hesitated, “A month will give me time to see if I like living in such a remote location.”
He chuckled at her small show of defiance, the sound warm and inviting and at odds with his chilly manner and remote exterior. “You’ve never lived in the country before, Signora?”
“I’ve done little more than drive through the countryside.”
“Ah. Well, I should hate to keep you here now that you’ve seen how rural we are. Perhaps you would rather return to London?”
Portia almost laughed; the clever snake had let her tie her own noose and then insert her neck. It was too bad for him she refused to hang herself.
“I’ve come a long way, Mr. Harrington. It would be foolish not to give the situation a chance.” Her stomach churned in the taut silence that followed.
“How shall you structure my lessons, Signora Stefani?”
Dizzying relief washed through her body and Portia scrambled to gather her wits. “I will need to determine your level of skill to answer that question. Is there a time of day you prefer to play?”
“I usually practice a few hours before dinner.”
“Let us keep to your schedule. Today you can play whatever you’ve been working on, which will give me a chance to assess your strengths and weaknesses.”
He emerged from the gloom and stopped short of the candelabrum. “I am less prone to eye strain if the light is dim. Will that be an issue?” He used one long, elegant finger to push his black spectacles up the bridge of his equally elegant nose.
Portia wrenched her eyes away from his mesmerizing face and stared at his stylish cravat instead. “As long as you are able to see the notes on the page,” she said lightly.
“Then I shall meet you here at four o’clock. That will leave you with two hours to rest before dinner. My aunt and I take our mid-day meals separately but meet for dinner. We dine at eight o’clock, which is rather late for the country. You will, of course, join us.”
Portia flushed at the unexpected offer—although it was really more of a command—thrilled she wouldn’t be banished to her room for the next month.
“I would be delighted.”
“Do you ride, Signora?”
“I’m afraid riding was not part of growing up in Rome. I am fond of walking, however, and the countryside looks lovely.”
“We have our share of walking paths,” he agreed, “but a gig will allow you to access town more readily. I will instruct Hawkins, my stable master, to show you how to operate the conveyance.”
“That is most kind of you.”
Harrington inclined his head. “I shall see you at four, Signora.”
Portia waited until he’d turned before closing her eyes, weak with relief. She could stay—at least for now—and wouldn’t have to beg and scrape her way back to London and live off her friends’ charity.
“One more thing Signora.”
Portia looked up and saw her new employer was standing in the open doorway.
“Yes, Mr. Harrington?”
“As far as I’m concerned the subject of your deception is closed. I will not bring it up again.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“However, I want you to understand I do not tolerate lying from the people I employ.”
His cool rebuke crushed the gratitude Portia had been feeling and her hackles rose. But she triumphed over her nature and caught the angry retort before it left her mouth.
“I understand, Mr. Harrington.”
He nodded and the door clicked shut behind him.
Portia stared into the dimness, the exhilaration of only a few moments ago now tainted by anger—and fear. His words echoed in her head and she ruthlessly pushed them to the back of her mind. She’d told him everything he needed to know. The truth about her past was none of his concern and made no difference to her teaching. All Mr. Harrington needed to know about her life with Ivo was that he was gone.
Stacy sat down at his desk, extinguished the candles, and removed his glasses, letting his eyes rest in the velvety blackness of the library.
What the bloody hell had he just done? He’d gone in there determined to give her a proper raking and send her packing; instead, he’d been stupefied by her playing and then offered her a damned job.
He was still awed by her brief performance—a masterful demonstration of passion and precision he could never aspire to.
Don’t forget her person, a sly voice in his head reminded him.
Stacy snorted. As if that were bloody likely.
He’d caught only a glimpse of her last night, but it had been enough to pique his interest. She’d looked wild on the balcony, her eyes huge, her full lips forming a surprised O when he’d caught her spying. Untamed spirals of dark hair haloed her pale face, her thin garment rendered all but transparent by the candlelight behind her.
Blood rushed to his groin at the memory of her voluptuous silhouette.
Christ. Stacy shifted in his chair.
Last night’s woman had been alluring, but so had this morning’s, although for entirely different reasons.
Gone were the wild eyes and in their place was a haughty stare. She’d restrained her magnificent hair so brutally Stacy wondered if he’d only imagined her unruly curls. Her serviceable brown dress was high-necked and long sleeved, but it could not hide the enticing body he’d so briefly seen last night.
Her nose, undoubtedly a gift from some Italian ancestor, was her most prominent feature and ensured she’d never be considered a conventional beauty. That said, her dusky hair, creamy skin, and voluptuous body made for a delicious—and dangerous—combination.
But her attractive person wasn’t all that captured his interest.
She’d entered the library prepared for battle, armed only with her pride and talent—but, oh, what formidable weapons those turned out to be!
A fire burned inside her and Stacy had seen the flames—hell, he’d been scorched by them—when she spoke of her ability. She’d faced him with an arrogant confidence that had been damn near erotic, and, as it turned out, not at all unwarranted.
And then he’d become aroused when she’d played.
He should be ashamed by his body’s earthy reaction, but he wasn’t. A man would have to be dead from the neck down not to become hard. She’d swung from tightly laced to tempestuous and flushed—like a woman in the throes of passion—in the blink of an eye. The experience had not only been arousing, it had been soul-shattering: Stacy could practice for a hundred years and never play half as well.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t try.
There was no doubt in his mind Signora Stefani had much to teach him—but would he be able to learn anything in her distracting presence?
You are not some rutting buck sensing a mate. Surely you can control your urges?
Of course he could control his urges, but control or lack of it was not the bloody question. The question was: Would he be able to concentrate on his music or would he spend his lessons fantasizing about bending her over the piano?
Stacy grimaced. It sounded more than a little pathetic when put so baldly.
But the truth was pathetic: He was randy. Terribly randy, in fact. He’d spent most of the last two months in Barnstaple, busy with the refitting of two new ships. As a result, it had been ages since his last visit to the Plymouth establishment where he satisfied such urges.
Fine. The brothel I frequent. Is that better?
Stacy refused to be ashamed of what he did. Paying a prostitute was a far better practice than getting bastards on one’s servants or local maidens, a thing the local squire did with disgusting frequency.
There is always a wife.
He didn’t even bother to justify that ridiculous thought.
The truth was that he should’ve set up a mistress long ago, but the notion left him cold. What a lot of bother not only for him, but also for some poor woman. What must it be like to sit around one’s house all day waiting for a man to arrive and mount you?
Thoughts of mounting made his body tighten and he dropped his head against the back of his chair. A month was a bloody long time and he was already lusting after the poor widow, a woman who was only here to earn her bread.
Stacy frowned, sobered by that thought. He’d always been sickened by men who preyed on their tenants, servants, or other dependents. So, all he needed to do for the next thirty days was think of Signora Stefani as just another servant. Just a month, and then he would do what he should have done this morning and send her away. Surely he could suppress his unseemly urges for a month?
“Hell,” he muttered, squeezing his temples, it was going to be a long month.