Unless you want to meet sooner.
Tabitha paced the floor of her bedroom in great agitation. “What was I thinking? What am I doing?”
She wrung her hands so much, they began to chafe.
She had presented herself—she had been so… so, forward, so like a woman of the night, or one of those widows people talked about behind their hands.
Her mother would be appalled.
“Unless you want to meet sooner?” How could she have said such a thing? To Mr. Beauchamp! She hadn’t meant, that. She didn’t want some sort of flirtation, or worse–a dalliance–of any kind.
But before she could retract her words, he had agreed!
And now they were meant to meet in the music room, at the pianoforte to practice for the musicale. He intended to turn pages for her at the bench.
But his wink suggested that’s not all he intended.
Her cheeks heated. Blast her wretched brothers, Mrs. Hemming, and this whole party.
Furious with herself and them, she grabbed a shawl and determined to tour the house. Perhaps she would become good and lost and avoid the whole evening altogether. Dinner did sound delicious. Smells wafted up a stairwell near the kitchen earlier. She’d ask for a tray.
She hurried down the hallway, careful not to get caught outside anyone’s bedroom. A small thought suggested she wake Joanne, but her dear maid would have enough to do if Tabitha decided on dinner after all, and she let her sleep.
She found a circular stairwell at the end of the hall, and she hurried down the steps. A new excitement thrilled her. She was at last deciding something for herself, even if it was just a solitary tour of the house, she reveled in it. And no one was hovering. She squealed and did a few steps to the Quadrille as she skipped down each stair.
“Did you happen upon a spider?”
She jumped. “Who is that?” The stairs curved to her front in a broad circular pattern.
“I am under here.” His voice, mellow, golden like honey.
“What?” Her heart skipped.
She rounded the bottom. The space opened up into an expansive, well-lit gallery. She turned toward his voice. But then she stopped, looking away quickly. A man she did not know, dressed in livery, sat at the base of a white statue, and she couldn’t dare to gaze upon it again.
For it depicted a completely naked man, in half repose, and she had seen enough in one glance to know she should not take a second. She turned immediately and made to run up the stairs, but the man’s voice stopped her. “Wait.”
She paused, curious in spite of her embarrassment.
“It is art. One of the great sculptors. One of the most beautiful I have seen.”
She turned back to him. “I have not seen you.” She told herself it was ridiculous to be nervous. The man was a footman, one of the Countess’ many servants. Perhaps he would help her find a good part of the house to explore.
He nodded. “You wouldn’t have noticed with the rain coming down the way it was, but it was I who held your umbrella.”
Of course she did not notice, and she would not be made to feel guilty for it. “Well, I will leave you to your…” what? Why was he sitting here alone?
She stopped. “So am I.” The words tumbled out before she could stop them.
He tilted his head. “This painting is lovely.” He sat facing a beautiful depiction of the view out her bedroom window. “I could assist you in your hiding. The artwork here is remarkable, despite the unfortunate lack of apparel on the man behind me.”
His hair, dark, jet black almost, his eyes an icy blue. His jaw, sharp, sculpted. The man was beautiful, tanned, rugged-looking even in livery. Intriguing. If she were to admit, dangerous. She chided herself for the direction of her thoughts, but the mystery felt a bit delicious. Because it was harmless. What trouble could one encounter with a footman?
Although amused, she refused to smile. One did not hide with a footman. “I must be going.”
“Might I accompany you?” Again, his voice shivered up her arms.
“But then neither of us,” her voice caught and she cleared her throat, “would be alone.”
He quirked an eyebrow, and she tried to avoid a view of the statue behind him.
Standing, he moved closer. “I didn’t know the goal was solitude; I am hiding but I do not have to hide alone.” His white teeth flashed in an open grin. Disarming, charming, friendly. “The countess asked that I ensure the comfort of all our guests, which includes preventing many from becoming lost.” His eyes widened, waiting.
She nodded and indicated that they begin walking, keeping herself turned away from the statue. “Then I would most appreciate your assistance in my own tour.”
He joined her side with a bow. “Shall I lead us or do you already have a nefarious plan in mind?”
“You’d best lead. I’m not accomplished at anything nefarious, and this house is the largest I have ever seen.”
“I do know a few places and am quite versed at nefarious.”
When she gasped, he winked and added, “But we shall stick with activities as un-nefarious as possible.
His smile sent a delicious thrill down her back.
He led her to a room with a wall of windows and at the end, a beautiful piano forte. Mr. Beauchamp sat at the bench, running his fingers along the keys.
Oh no, oh no!
She tried to back away silently, pulling on the footman’s arm, but her guide called into the room, “Pardon us for the intrusion.”
And she wished to float away out the window onto the countess’ extensive grounds.
Mr. Beauchamp turned, and his eyebrows shot up higher on his forehead than she thought an eyebrow could go. His gaze flitted from her to the man at her side and back; Then a slow smile spread across his mouth. He stood to approach them, bowing to her. “You surprise me again.”
He nodded in her direction and then left the room.
She wanted to sink, no melt, anything that would stop her embarrassed thoughts.
The footman cleared his throat. “Do you know him?”
“Do you have some sort of understanding?”
“Not at all. But I had agreed to meet him here.”
“But you were hiding, away from here..”
“And then I brought you to the very spot.”
He burst out laughing.
“You are bold for a footman.”
When she frowned her irritation at him, he tried to stop. “Oh come now, surely you can see the hilarity of the situation. And his expression.” He paused and tilted his head to the side. “He took it well, all things considering.”
“Yes, he did.” She dreaded already when she must meet Mr. Beauchamp again. How could she ever breach this subject to explain?
“Why the despondent face? Let us sit and make music.”
She did not want to face anyone at the party just yet so she nodded. As she searched through the sheets looking for a piece she enjoyed, he ran his fingers over the keys and began to play.
“You are wonderful!” She sat beside him, ready to turn his pages, but he played from memory. And then he began to sing, and she had never heard lovelier tones. She joined him, creating harmony where she could.
When the song ended, a magic had settled over her. The music echoing in her mind, still. She wondered, who was this talented person? How did he come to be so musically trained?
But clapping behind her startled them both.
Henry, followed by Edward, entered, and the room shrunk, or the ceiling lowered— something that caused the tight feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space.
Edward’s face darkened more, the longer he stood there in silence, looking from her to the man at her side and back.
Henry cleared his throat. “That was beautiful playing. I don’t believe we have met…” He stepped forward, eyes wide in expectation.
Tabitha opened her mouth. What was Henry doing? The man is a servant.
An awkward moment settled on them. Then the man stood and bowed. “My lord. No, we wouldn’t have. If you’ll excuse me.” He tipped his head and then walked from the room.
Tabitha grinned. She couldn’t help it. How liberating to see him disregard an introduction, do what he pleased, when he pleased. She turned to Henry. “I don’t know him either.”
“What?” Edward at last found his voice. “You sit here alone in a room, cozy on the piano bench with a man none of us know? A servant?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose…”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all. Of course you did it on purpose.” Edward stepped closer. “Did he do anything to you?”
Shocked, she stuttered, “D-do anything? Of course not. Unless you mean escorting me on a tour of the house?”
Henry sat beside her. “Edward is just asking if he behaved in a gentlemanly manner.” His eyes searched hers, kind concern softening her stubborn resistance to the overbearing Edward.
She sighed. “He was a perfect gentleman. We stumbled upon this room, and when he sat to play, I was enchanted. Did you hear his voice?”
Henry’s face pinched, then cleared. “Do you hold some sort of regard for him?”
“Of course she doesn’t.” Edward frowned. “For a servant?” He stepped closer to her. “An excellent opportunity to explain, there will be no regard for anyone until we have discovered who the man is and who are his family. There are things to consider, Tabitha, you can’t just go around feeling regard for people without consulting me.” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Listen to yourself, brother. He is a servant. Can’t you behave in a rational manner?” She sighed. “Just because the man is handsome and marvelous on the pianoforte” Henry stiffened beside her. “Does not change the ridiculous direction of your thoughts.” She turned to Henry. “Or you. Regard? You wondered if I felt regard? For a servant?”
Even after all the absurd things she had ever heard Edward or even Henry, say, this topped them all. Though if she were to admit it, regard would have been felt, were it allowed.
The chagrin on Henry’s face made her laugh. He brought a hand up to his mouth, covering his growing smile. Then he gave up and burst out laughing. “Really Edward. She has a point. We quite lost ourselves. Consult you in the future? About her regard?”
Henry turned around on the bench and nudged her with his shoulder. “I quite forgot what I was about. You did look rather cozy in here together.” He shifted through some sheet music. “But let’s leave that behind us, shall we? I would love to hear you play. Won’t you?”
His face, boyish in his pleading, everything inside softened and she scooted forward, “Of course.” Her heart picked up. Perhaps he could finally see her, not as the kid sister, running after them everywhere, but as she had become. Suddenly shy, she glanced at his face.
He watched her with an intensity she hadn’t seen before. Then he tilted towards her nudging her shoulder with his own again. “Come now, Tabby Cat, don’t trip over the keys like last time.”
Her hope deflated. But she rallied. “I never trip over keys.” Friendship had worked well for many years. At least he sat closely. Their clothes almost touching, his warmth making her feel more alive than she had before. So she made a show of stretching out her fingers, placed them on the keys, as if a great maestro were about to begin—and played a silly little tune they had all learned in the nursery.
He tipped his head back and laughed, singing the words. And it was nothing like her previous harmony with the mystery vocalist. But she joined him and their song was warm and lovely. And completely hilarious. If the women of the ton could see their lord now.
Edward cleared his throat. “If we are finished being juvenile.”
Henry shook his head. “Oh, we are not nearly done, Edward. Come, you remember it.”
“They are about to call us in for dinner.”
Tabitha waved a hand at him over her shoulder. “Don’t be concerned on my account. I’m having a tray sent up.” She was not about to tell him about Mr. Beauchamp, but she did not want to run into him again today. Just the thought of him brought heat to her cheeks. She stared at the floor, remembering.
“Tabitha?” Henry’s voice was soft. He reached a hand over, running the edge of his little finger along her cheek.
She shook her head. “It is nothing.”
Edward moved so that he stood on the opposite side of the piano, in their eyesight. “We still need to discuss what happened here, Tabitha.”
“Nothing happened. I wanted to be alone, stumbled upon a footman, and we walked together. I have never seen him before. And he obviously does not wish to be known.”
She grinned before she could stop herself.
“You cannot behave in such a way. Alone with a gentleman. A footman. ” He pulled out his timepiece. “Come, I’ll walk you to your room before going in to dinner.”
She straightened her back. “I’m not ready to go up just yet.”
Henry stood. “Perhaps you’d like a tour of statuary hall first?” He offered his arm. Then he turned to Edward. “Would that be acceptable? Much more public part of the house.”
Edward replaced his timepiece and straightened his jacket. “I thank you Henry. We could not look out for her without your assistance. Do let me know if this becomes bothersome.”
Henry placed a hand on her shoulder. “No bother, of course. You are like family to me, all of you.” He turned to grin at Tabitha, and her heart sank. Then, in a lower voice to Edward, he said, “If a young lady changes from being passably interesting to intriguing, I may need to take a moment elsewhere if you know what I mean.”
A spark of irritation flared inside Tabitha so hot and so fast, she could not squelch her reaction. “Don’t let me get in your way.”
He tilted his head in curiosity. “You wouldn’t of course, I just said I would step away to pursue the interest.”
She stood, not able to bear another moment of the callous manner in which they all referred to her. “No tour will be necessary. I think I should like to go to dinner after all.”