Ellen Markham tells herself she’s happy raising flowers and living in near penury in the Oxfordshire countryside, but when Valentine Windham moves in just on the other side of the wood, Ellen’s longing for things she can never have threatens to overcome her good sense. Valentine’s artistic soul, tender loving, and ducal determination tempt Ellen to trust and confide in a man who can only be endangered, should he learn of her past. For Valentine, regaining his musical skill becomes far less urgent than winning Ellen’s heart.
I first met Ellen FitzEngle in a scene written as part of David, Viscount Fairly's book (not yet published). I had no idea this encounter would grow into the romance of her lifetime—or of Lord Valentine's. Read the deleted scene from The Virtuoso »
Want more? Read this bonus deleted scene in which Ellen cannot contain her upset at the foolish things men get up to.
Or maybe you'd like to peek in on Axel Belmont and his lady wife before Valentine pays them a visit. Click here.
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Read An Excerpt
“My best advice is to give up playing the piano.”
Lord Valentine Windham heard his friend—a skilled and experienced physician—pronounce sentence and neither moved nor changed his expression. Being the youngest of five boys and named Valentine—for God’s sake!—had given him fast reflexes, abundant muscle, and an enviable poker face. Being called the baby boy any time he’d shown the least tender sentiment had fired his will to the strength of iron and given him the ability to withstand almost any blow without flinching.
But this… This was diabolical, this demand David made of him. To give up the one mistress Val loved, the one place he was happy and competent. To give up the home he’d forged for his soul despite his ducal father’s ridicule, his mother’s anxiety, and his siblings’ inability to understand what music had become to him.
He closed his eyes and drew breath into his lungs by act of will. “For how long?”
Silence, until Val opened his eyes and glanced down to where his left hand, angry and swollen, lay uselessly on his thigh. Beside him, David appeared to be making a polite pretense of surveying the paddocks and fields around them.
“Possibly for the rest of your life. It might heal but only if you rest it until you’re ready to scream with frustration, Val. Not just days, not just weeks, and by then you will have lost some of the dexterity you hone so keenly now. If you try too hard or too soon to regain it, you’ll make the hand worse than ever.”
“Months?” A month was forever when a man wanted only to do the one thing denied him.
“At least. And as long as I’m cheering you up, you need to watch for the condition to arise in the other hand. If you catch it early it might admit of less extensive treatment.”
“Both hands?” Val closed his eyes again and hunched in on himself where he sat on a low stone wall bordering the mare’s pasture on David’s pretty, tidy and not so little patch of Kent.
“Possibly. It is likely your left hand is in worse condition because of the untreated fracture you suffered as a small boy, but it’s also possible you’re right handed and so the right hand is stronger out of habit.”
Val roused himself to gather as many facts from David as he could. “Is the left weak, then?”
“Not weak, so much.” David, Viscount Fairly, pursed his lips where he sat beside Val on the wall. “It seems to me you have something like gout or rheumatism in your hand. It’s inflamed, swollen, and painful, without apparent cause. The test will be if you do rest it, and see improvement. That is not the signal to resume spending all hours on the piano bench, Valentine.”
“It’s the signal to what? All I do is spend hours on the piano bench, and occasionally escort my sisters about Town.”
“It’s the signal you’re dealing with a simple inflammation from over use, old son.” David slid a hand to Val’s nape and shook him gently. “Many people lead happy, productive lives without gluing their arses to the piano bench for twenty hours a day. Kiss some pretty girls, sniff a few roses, go see the Lakes.”
Val shoved off the wall, using only his right hand for balance. “I know you mean well but I don’t want to do anything but play the piano.”
“I know what you want.” David hopped down to fall in step beside Val. “What you want has gotten you a hand that can’t hold a tea cup and while that’s not fair, and it’s not right, it’s also not yet permanent.”
“I’m whining.” Val stopped and gazed toward the house where David’s viscountess Letty was no doubt tucking in their infant daughter for the evening. “I should be thanking you for bothering with me.”
“I am flattered to be of service. And you are not to let some idiot surgeon talk you into bleeding it.”
“I am absolutely sure of that. No bleeding, no blisters, no surgery, and no peculiar nostrums. You tend it as you would any other inflammation.”
“Which would mean?” Val forced himself to ask. But what would it matter, really? He might get the use of his hand back in a year, but how much conditioning and skill would he have lost by then? He loved his mistress, his muse, but she was jealous and unforgiving as hell.
“Rest,” David said sternly as they approached the house. “Cold soaks, willow bark tea by the bucket, and at all costs avoid the laudanum. If you can find a position where the hand is comfortable, you might consider sleeping with it splinted like that. Massage, if you can stand it.”
“As if I had some tired old man’s ailment. You’re sure about the laudanum? It’s the only thing that lets me keep playing.”
“Laudanum lets you continue to aggravate it,” David shot back. “It masks the pain, it cures nothing, and it can become addictive.”
A beat of silence went by.
Val nodded once, as much of an admission as he would make.
“Christ.” David stopped in his tracks. “How long have you been using it?”
“Off and on for months. Not regularly. What it gives in ability to keep playing, it takes away in ability to focus on what I’m creating. The pain goes away, but so does both manual and mental dexterity. And I can still see my hand is swollen and the wrong color.”
“Get rid of the poppy. It has a place, but I don’t recommend it for you.”
“You think your heart’s breaking,” David said, “but you still have that hand, Valentine, and you can do many, many things with it. If you treat it right now, someday you might be able to make music with it again.”
“Is there anything you’re not telling me?” Val asked, his tone flat.
“Well, yes,” David replied as they gained the back terraces of the manor house. “There’s another possibility regarding the onset of the symptoms.”
“More good news?”
“Perhaps.” David met his gaze steadily, which was slightly disconcerting. In addition to height and blond good looks, David Worthington, Viscount Fairly, had one blue eye and one green eye. “With a situation like this, where there is no immediate trauma, no exposure to disease, no clear cause for the symptoms, it can be beneficial to look at other aspects of well being.”
“In the king’s English, David, please.” Much more of David’s learned medical prosing on and Val was going to break a laudanum bottle over his friend’s head.
“Sickness can originate in the emotions,” David said quietly. “The term broken heart can be literal and you did say the sensations began just after you buried your brother Victor.”
“As we were burying Victor,” Val corrected him, not wanting to think of the pain he’d felt as he scooped up a symbolic fistful of cold earth to toss on Victor’s coffin. “What in the hell does that have to do with whether I can ever again thunder away at Herr Beethoven’s latest sonata?”
“That is for you to puzzle out, as you’ll have ample time to ponder on it, won’t you?”
“Suppose I will at that.” Val felt David’s arm land across his shoulders and made no move to shrug it off, though the last thing he wanted was pity. The numbness in his hand was apparently spreading to the rest of him—just not quickly enough.
“You really seem to be thriving here, cousin.”
“I am quite comfortable.” Ellen FitzEngle smiled at Frederick Markham with reciprocal pleasantness. The last thing she needed was to admit vulnerability to him, or to let him see he had any impact on her existence at all. She smoothed her hair back with a steady hand, and leveled guileless eyes at her guest, enemy and de facto landlord.
“Hmm.” Frederick glanced around the tidy little cottage, a condescending smile implying enormous satisfaction at Ellen’s come down in the world. “Not quite like Roxbury House, is it? Nor in a league with Roxbury Hall.”
“But manageable for a widow of limited means. Would you like more tea?”
“’Fraid I can’t stay.” Frederick rose, his body at twenty-two still giving the impression of not having grown into his arms and legs. How he maintained his fashionable dark curls, she could only guess. He fancied himself something of a Corinthian, paid punctilious attention to his attire, boxed at Gentlemen Jackson’s, fenced at Alberto’s, and accepted any bet involving his racing curricle.
And still to Ellen he would always be the gangly, awkward adolescent whose malice she had sorely underestimated. There was only five years difference in their ages, but she felt decades his senior in sorrow and regret.
“I did want to let you know, though,”—Frederick paused with his hand on the door latch—“I’ll likely be selling the place. A fellow has expenses and the solicitors are deuced tightfisted with the Roxbury funds.”
“My thanks for the warning.” Ellen nodded, refusing to show any other reaction. Selling meant she’d be homeless of course, as she occupied a tenant cottage on the Markham estate. The new owner might allow her to stay on. Her property was profitable, but she didn’t have a signed lease so the new owner might also toss her out on her ear.
“Thought it only sporting to let you know.” Frederick opened the door and swung his gaze out to his waiting vehicle. A tiger held the reins of the matched bays and Ellen could only wonder how such spirited horses navigated the little track leading to her door.
“Oh, and I almost forgot.” Freddie’s smile turned positively gleeful. “I brought you a little something from the Hall.”
Dread seeped up from Ellen’s stomach, filling her throat with bile and foreboding. Any present from Frederick was bound to bring ill will, if not worse.
Frederick bent into his curricle and withdrew a small potted plant. “You being the gardener in the family, I thought you might like a little cutting from Roxbury. You needn’t thank me.”
“Most gracious of you, nonetheless.” Ellen offered him a cool smile as he put the clay pot in her hand and climbed aboard. “Safe journey to Town, Frederick.”
He waited, clearly wishing she’d look at the little plant, but then gave up and yelled at his tiger to let the horses go. The child’s hand hadn’t left the reins before Frederick was cracking the whip, the horses lunging forward and the curricle slewing around in Ellen’s front yard as the boy scrambled up onto his post behind the seat.
And ye gods, ye gods, was Ellen ever glad to see the last of the man. She glanced at the plant in her hand, rolled her eyes and walked around to the back of her property to toss it pot and all on her compost heap.
How like Frederick to give her an herb often used to settle the stomach, while he intimated he’d be tearing the roof from over her head. He’d been threatening for several years now, as winters in Italy, autumn at Melton, a lengthy stint in London each spring, and expensive friends all around did not permit a man to hold on to decrepit unentailed estates for long.
She should be grateful she’d had five years to settle in, to grieve and to heal. She had a few friends in nearby Little Weldon, some nice memories, and some satisfaction with what she’d been able to accomplish on this lovely little property.
And now all that accomplishment was to be taken from her.
She poured herself a cup of tea and took it to her back porch, where the vista was one of endless, riotous flowerbeds. They were her livelihood and her solace, her greatest joy and her most treasured necessity. Sachets and soaps, herbs for cooking, and bouquets for market, they all brought a fair penny and the pennies added up. Fruits and vegetables created yet still more income as did the preserves and pies made from them.
“And if we have to move,”—Ellen addressed the fat-headed orange tom cat who strolled up the porch steps—“we have a bit put by now, don’t we, Marmalade?”
Himself squeezed up his eyes in feline inscrutability, which Ellen took for supportive agreement. The cat had been abandoned at the manor house through the wood and had gladly given up a diet of mice for the occasional dish of cream on Ellen’s porch.
His company, though, combined with Frederick’s visit and the threat to her livelihood put Ellen in a wistful, even lonely mood. She sipped her tea in the waning afternoon light and brought forth the memories that pleased her most. She didn’t visit them often, but saved them for low moments when she’d hug them around her like a favorite shawl, the one that always made a girl feel pretty and special.
She thought about her first pony, about the day she’d found Marmalade sitting king-of-all-he-surveyed in a tree near the cottage like a welcoming committee from the fairy folk. She thought about the flowers she’d put together for all the village weddings, and the flowers on her own wedding day. And she thought about a chance visit from that handsome Mr. Windham, though it had been just a few moments stolen in the evening sunshine, and more than a year had passed since those moments.
Ellen set her chair to rocking, hugged the memory closer still, and banished all thoughts of Frederick, homelessness and poverty from her mind.
A life devoted to music did not develop in one any ability to appreciate idleness, much less vice. Val had run his errands, paid his duty calls to family—and that had been particularly difficult, as family was spread all over the Home Counties—and tended to every detail of his business he could think to tend to. He’d taken several sessions guest- conducting the Philarmonic Society Orchestra, because he’d promised his friend Edward Kirkland he would, but they were painful afternoons.
And amid all this peripatetic activity, his head was full of music. Mozart’s Requiem figured prominently, but it was all he could do not to let his hands wander over any available keyboard tapping out a little rendition of “Hot Cross Buns.”
He owned two manufactories that built, of course, pianos. One for grands, one for uprights. They did a surprisingly brisk trade, and as the Americans in particular had decided snobbery required well made English goods, many of the grands were shipped overseas at very significant cost to the buyers. And as the Americans were a nation of wanderers, in the last five years, word of Val’s pianos had spread to the four corners of the earth.
He’d been in the habit of personally playing each instrument before releasing it for sale. The temptation to just sit down and dabble a little…
Dabbling, for Val, could go on literally for days. Oh, he’d heed the calls of nature, to eat, sleep, and tend to bodily functions, but when a particular theme got into his brain, earthly concerns were so many intermissions in the ongoing concert that was his life.
Had been his life.
For the first time, Val was forced to consider what younger sons of the nobility actually did with themselves. They could apparently drink, whore, duel and what? The Corsican had met his match at Waterloo, which left gambling.
It boggled the mind but certainly did not entertain for long.
Glancing at his cards, Val felt a wave of despair. Here he was, seated amid the power and plenty of the realm’s aristocracy and he was about to burst out cursing for lack of ability to play a simple nursery rhyme.
A fucking, bedamned nursery rhyme was denied him.
“Your turn, Windham,” Darius Lindsey drawled. By some unspoken accord, Lindsey had become Val’s latest carousing companion, though Val had his suspicions as to how this had come about. “Or not, if you’d rather cash in.”
Val glanced again at his cards and felt the heavy irony of divine humor at work. In the two weeks since Val had stopped making music, his luck had become uncannily good at all games of chance. The pile of chips before him was obscenely ample, but Val was comforted to note Lindsey was managing fairly well too.
Not so, young Baron Roxbury, seated across from Val. The man was playing too deep, visibly sweating in the candlelight.
“You can’t back out now,” Roxbury said, desperation in his voice. “Wouldn’t be sporting in the least. A fellow needs a chance to win back his own, don’tcha know?”
“Believe you’re about out of chips, old boy,” Lindsey said. “Why don’t we all call it a night, and things will look less daunting in the morning?”
“Not a bad idea,” Val chimed in on cue, for he had no intention of spending the entire night watching Roxbury dig himself even deeper in debt. “My eyes grow tired. The smoke is rather thick.”
“One more round.” Roxbury’s hand shot out and gripped Val’s right wrist when Val would have swept his chips to the edge of the table. “All I need is one more.”
“My dear,” Lindsey’s voice cut in softly, “I don’t think you can make the ante.”
“I can.” Roxbury’s chin went up. “With this.” He fumbled in his breast pocket and tossed a document on the table that bore the ribbons and seals of legality.
“I’m out.” Darius stood. “Roxbury, if you need a small loan to cover your losses, I’m sure it can be arranged until next quarter. Lord Val, you coming?”
“He can’t.” Roxbury answered for Val as the other two players murmured their excuses and left the table. “He owes me one more hand.”
“He owes you nothing,” Lindsey said. “You’re half seas over and in hock up to your eyebrows. Do yourself a favor and call it a night, Roxbury.”
“One more hand.” Roxbury held Val’s gaze and it was difficult for a decent man to decide what would be the kinder move: To allow Roxbury what he thought would save him or to minimize the man’s losses.
One more hand Val thought, the irony quirking his lips.
“One more.” Val nodded, meeting Lindsey’s exasperated glance. “But call for our hats and gloves, would you, Dare?”
Lindsey took the proffered excuse to leave, but said something to the two men loitering by the door as they finished their drinks. With his peripheral vision, Val noted both sidled over to the corner and topped off those drinks. Witnesses, Val thought, realizing Lindsey brought a certain sophistication Val lacked to the suddenly dangerous business of gentlemanly idleness.
“Shall we cut for the deal?” Val asked. “Perhaps you can tell me exactly what you’ve tossed into the pot.”
“An estate.” Roxbury turned the top half of the deck over, revealing the jack of spades and smiling hugely. “A tidy little property a short day’s ride from Town out in Oxfordshire. Been in the family but doesn’t merit much attention.”
“Doesn’t merit much attention?” Val quirked an eyebrow and cut the queen of hearts.
Well, of course, Val sighed inwardly as the little mi-re-do tune to “Hot Cross Buns” ran through his head. “My deal.”
Roxbury shrugged in what Val supposed was an attempt at casual disregard. “It’s not the family seat. Haven’t spent a night there myself so there’s little point to keeping the place staffed, but it’s worth a pretty penny.”
“How many acres?” Val asked, dealing—with his right hand.
“Few thousand.” Another shrug as the final cards were dealt. “Home farm, home wood, dairy, pastures, a few tenants, that sort of thing.” Roxbury picked up his cards and from the man’s expression, Val knew with sinking certainty this unstaffed, neglected, miserable little ruin of a country estate was all but his.
He could throw the game, of course.
Hot cross buns, hot cross buns.
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns.
He wasn’t going to throw the game. The place might be useful as a dower property for a relative, or a retreat for Val that wasn’t surrounded by friends and family. If it required attention, so much the better as nobody sane spent the entire summer sweltering in Town.
Surrounded by pianos at every turn.Val looked at his cards and almost smiled. Of course, a full house, queens over jacks. How fitting.