Mayfair Maiden – Annabelle Anders

Peter Spencer, third son of the Earl of Ravensdale, leaned forward in his chair and slid his left hand downward, his fingers ghosting over the strings as his thumb caressed the smooth wood that made up the neck of his cello. Without question, he felt more comfortable with the curved instrument resting snugly between his legs than he felt doing almost anything else. He didn’t require an audience. He didn’t require praise. And yet… Blood thrummed through his veins at the knowledge that in less than one week, he would be studying under the finest cellist in all of England. His gaze skimmed the perimeter of the gilded ballroom, and he smiled to himself. He would not miss London society over the next six months. He’d never truly fit in with the other gents, playing cards, wagering, and pursuing other gentlemanly and not-so-gentlemanly entertainments. He’d always sensed that he wanted something else. Only a few lingering guests remained in the massive room, most having moved into the adjacent hall where supper was being served. There would be dancing after, but he’d fulfilled his obligation as a guest musician for the evening, leaving him free to bow out for the remainder of the night. If left to him, he would decline these invitations altogether. His mother, however, had a most annoying habit of accepting them on his behalf. He plucked a soft arpeggio, contemplating the farewell party his brother had threatened. Stone had mentioned scotch, cards, and a brothel—not necessarily in that order.

For God’s sake, it wasn’t as though Peter was getting married. He was simply moving to Brighton. Golden-red flashed across the room. Not fire, but it might as well be. The widowed Countess Starling. She stood nearby, partially hidden by a large column, staring out the terrace windows, hugging her arms in front of herself. This lady was living proof that beauty and wealth didn’t always equal happiness. Earlier, from his vantage point on the dais, he’d observed a cluster of popular ladies blatantly give her the cut direct. She’d handled it well, lifting her chin and moving along, not missing a step. But he’d seen it.

The hurt, the almost imperceptible shudder of pain. And now, rather than follow the crowd into the supper-room, she held herself back. She turned and met his gaze. Forest-green eyes, alabaster skin, and an hourglass shape to rival all figures. He rose. “My Lady,” he acknowledged her, balancing Rosa on her endpin. Since the first time he’d met the widow last summer at one of his mother’s house parties, she had intrigued him. Not only because of her beauty. Numerous nubile young beauties paraded themselves in society and hardly any of them ever captured his attention beyond a fleeting appreciation. No, Lady Starling intrigued him because of her failed potential.

She reminded him of a perfectly constructed violin that no one had ever bothered to tune. Unfortunately, she also intimidated the hell out of him. “Do you ever dance?” Her cool voice echoed in the empty hall. Peter narrowed his eyes and pushed back a wayward lock of hair. She didn’t appear to be hinting that she was seeking him out as an escort. “On occasion, but I prefer to be on this side of the dance floor.” He indicated the small box where the orchestra played. Her closed posture tugged at him, evoking a myriad of conflicting emotions. Pity. Desire.

And something else. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Peter ignored the urge to settle his gaze on her full bosoms, or her round, inviting hips, and dipped his chin to stare down at his instrument, which was a less-volatile curvaceous lady—one who would never betray him, a lady who would give her best so long as he took care of her properly. “I hate dancing.” Her voice was clipped, almost as though she was speaking to herself. “At least you have an excuse to avoid it.” He glanced back up in time to see her drag a disparaging gaze over his cello. He was oddly offended on behalf of his instrument. “I thought you were staying with your husband’s family in Brighton this spring.” Although her absence hadn’t protected her from being involved in the latest scandal.

The scandal, in fact, that led to Baron Chaswick’s hasty society wedding. “My in-laws try my patience. They were my husband’s family, never mine. Nothing for me there.” The droll tone of her voice hitched as she glanced toward the windows. “Perhaps nothing for me here, either.” Peter frowned, not so much at her circumstances, but at his response to the pain revealed when her façade slipped. No doubt, Lord Starling’s sisters had been less than welcoming. The Earl of Starling had been thirty years his wife’s senior. His family would not have accepted his widow warmly, as was usually the case when a wealthy and titled gentleman married a much younger, beautiful woman.

From what he’d heard of her sexual prowess, however, he could assume she’d kept the old man happy in his last days. His cohort, Chaswick, had attested to that after having embarked on an affair with her at a house party earlier that year. “I’ve finished playing for the night,” he surprised himself by saying. “Will you join me at a table in the supper-room?” He wasn’t hungry. He’d intended to pack Rosa up and send for his carriage. She shrugged, forcing a half-smile. A flame-colored curl fell forward, drawing Peter’s attention to her expansive décolletage. “Yes. Perhaps. No.

” Her ambiguous response reminded him why he’d never approached her before. It wasn’t polite to sit when a lady remained standing in his presence, but the usual rules didn’t apply here, did they? He lowered himself, thinking to experiment with a particular run that had been playing through his mind. He pressed his fingers onto the strings, sliding them down, a motion that felt as familiar to him as walking. And then Lady Starling sighed. A melodic sigh that slid from a high ‘D’ to low ‘D’, spanning a perfect octave. It sent a warmth down his spine and had him staring at her again, noticing the curve of her neck, feminine and fragile. And the delicate slope of her shoulders. “A stroll through the gardens then?” Likely, she’d refuse him again. He rubbed a hand beneath his cravat and then rolled his shoulders. Damned hot in here.

Halfway through the Season, one couldn’t escape the heat in even the most spectacular of Mayfair ballrooms. Especially after it had accommodated a few hundred sweating, dancing humans for several hours. Add to that the flames from all the candles… He’d need to pack Rosa up first. Lady Starling sent him a suspicious sideways glance. “Wouldn’t you prefer to ask one of the debutantes? I’m not fooled by your musical obsession, Mister Spencer. You’re one of Ravensdale’s sons and sought after as much as any titled gentleman.” Peter could only laugh at that. He was the third son of an earl—granted, an incredibly wealthy earl, ensuring that he would never lack funds. But his estate, Millcot Lodge in Essex, was a modest one, and he would never hold a title. Which was perfectly fine with him, as he was rather fond of his father and two older brothers—even if Stone had the most annoying habit of bruising his arm with the occasional brotherly sock.

“I’m not interested in strolling with any of the Mayfair maidens. I’m interested in strolling with you.” Because she had no marriage-minded mama who’d be watching his every move with her daughter. It wouldn’t be significant for him to be spotted alone with a widow. But more than that. He was interested in her. He had been for some time now. “Very well.” It wasn’t a resoundingly enthusiastic response, but he doubted the lady was ever resoundingly enthusiastic for much of anything. “Allow me a moment to put Rosa away.

” Carefully setting his cello to the side, he opened the large leather case that had been custom-built to protect her for transport. “You named it?” The question, like everything else she had said to this point, came out in mocking tones. Knowing it was a part of her armor, it didn’t bother him. “She,” Peter corrected her. “She’s more than a possession. She’s my life. The least she deserves is a name, don’t you think?” Lady Starling’s throat moved, as though his answer was difficult to swallow. “But it, pardon me, she, is replaceable. She’s an inanimate object—wood, metal, glue.” Peter snapped the metal closures into place and stroked a hand along the leather.

“But for now, she owns my heart.” It was the only way he could explain how he felt about the instrument. He’d owned several others before Rosa and cared equally for each and every one of them. But for today, Rosa was the one that brought his music to life. He moved around to the opening of the dais, vaguely aware that Lady Starling drifted in the same direction to meet him. “Shall I send for your wrap?” The evening was warm, but her gown might leave her catching a chill. By no means current on ladies’ fashion, Peter would nonetheless wager a year’s allowance that the plunging bodice of her garment challenged societal boundaries. The brilliant forest-green silk, almost identical to the color of her eyes, cinched in at her waist. The off-the-shoulder puffed sleeves draped lazily into the crooks of her elbows, where long satin gloves ended. “I’m fine.

” Her answer belied her expression. She was far from fine. Peter winged an arm. “Shall we, then?” MİRANDA HATED the relief that came with tucking her hand on Peter Spencer’s arm. When had she become this pathetic creature? A person who found herself envying an inanimate object? Because seeing this gentleman lovingly secure the instrument in its velvet-lined case had somehow managed to taunt her current state of aloneness. Pathetic indeed. She had become that woman. Beholden to no one, she did not conform to society’s dictates. She acknowledged her needs and pursued avenues for fulfillment. She would not apologize for who she was.

And, because of her gender, she would forever pay the price. Before she’d felt him watching her, she’d already been caught in the emptiness of her need. When she’d met his gaze, the vacuum had widened, expanded. She wasn’t so oblivious that she would fool herself. He’d pitied her—as had nearly every other guest who’d lowered themselves to speak with her tonight. Likely, she’d be criticized for sullying this charming young man with her company. But he wanted her. Of that, she was fairly certain. He was younger than her thirty years, perhaps closer to five and twenty. And he had an odd innocence about him.

“Are you as angelic as people say?” she couldn’t help asking. He glanced over at her with raised brows and for a moment, she was lost in the blue of his eyes. Not grayish-blue or greenish-blue. If a perfect blue existed, it would be the color of Peter Spencer’s eyes. “Depends on who you ask,” he answered. “My mother would be inclined to say yes but any of my siblings would disagree.” She couldn’t imagine having family like that. “Do you have brothers and sisters?” he asked. “No.” She’d been raised by her widowed father.

And Mrs. Lemur, her governess. “I was an only child. My mother died shortly after I was born.” Their steps echoed loudly on the parquet floor. “My sympathies that you didn’t know your mother but also my congratulations that you didn’t have siblings to torment you.” He opened the French door and gestured for her to precede him into the shadowed garden. “I always wanted a brother or sister.” Odd thing for her to tell him. But it was sweet that he’d pretend interest in her person, in any of the meaningless details of her life.

His sweetness made her feel jaded—jaded at the age of thirty. And guilty that she would defile him with her need. Before marrying Lord Starling, she’d thought she’d enjoy being a widow—being answerable to no one. And yet she’d come to depend on his company—on his affection. Her husband’s death had left her feeling lonely. Perhaps it was this loneliness that unhinged her tonight. One too many snubs had cracked her armor. A breeze stirred the leaves overhead, and the murmuring voices of the guests all but disappeared when the door closed behind them. She half-expected him to slide one hand around her waist—and then lower—she’d invited him outside alone, after all. Instead, he tucked her hand into his arm again, leading her onto a wide garden path.

He’d told her he wasn’t interested in walking a Mayfair maiden. He’d said he was interested in walking with her. Heat spread to her core as she imagined how his interest might play out. They’d walk a little farther… Would he kiss her? Feign romance? Torches burned at various intervals, shedding light on the flagstone walkway. They had been spaced far enough apart, however, that a couple could easily stop in the shadows. Would his kiss taste youthful and innocent? Or did he hide a secret wickedness? “I wouldn’t trade my sister and brothers for the world.” He spoke matter of factly, without expectation, as though this was to be the most innocent of strolls. “I am lucky to have them.” She’d accustomed herself to absorbing undercurrents of censure in most of her conversations. She sensed nothing like that from him.

“But families will go their separate ways. Eventually. They marry, they abandon you,” she added, almost to validate her own life in some way. “They die.” “I suppose.” He sounded thoughtful. “You don’t get on well with your husband’s sisters?” She had tried. When she’d received the invitation to stay with them in Brighton this spring, she’d been hopeful for their acceptance. “I had hoped…” She sighed. “But their welcome came along with the stipulation that I hand over my inheritance.

” “Surely, Miranda, you must know that Baldwin made a mistake when he left his investment accounts to you.” Her late husband’s youngest sister, Susan, had waited two days into Miranda’s visit before commencing their campaign. “He always intended it to be put back into the estates,” Agnes tacked on. Because Agnes’s son, Peregrine, had inherited the title and all that came with it. Tenant rents provided more than adequate income, and there had been trusts set aside for each of them, but in their opinion, it wasn’t enough. They hated that he’d left her anything, let alone the bulk of his unentailed wealth. “That is unfortunate.” Her companion said. Miranda barked out a laugh. Only, rather than sounding cynical, some of the hurt she felt escaped.

She withdrew a fan and waved it below her chin to recover any dignity she’d lost. Because her chortle had sounded almost like a sob. Mr. Spencer didn’t comment but led her off the trail to a charming folly draped in ivy and other unrecognizable vines. It seemed to have been all but forgotten by the gardener. He covered her hand with his, comfortingly. Miranda was well aware that he had not led her into the darkness so that he could comfort her.


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