Coming in 2023!
Secrets, Lies, and a Lock
Ever since her father’s unexpected death, Cecilia Chenoweth has felt like the heroine of a bad Gothic novel. In addition to leaving her alone and destitute, her father made a deathbed confession that it was no mere fever that took her mother’s life some twenty years ago. Then he pressed a sinister key into her hands, bidding her to go forth and uncover the truth. If only she knew where to find the lock that will open to the mysterious key…
Cold, Bold, and Dangerous to Know
There is one man who recognizes the black key bearing the emblem of a snake: Marcus Latimer, the newly minted Duke of Trevissick. Now that his abusive father is rotting in hell where he belongs, Marcus is eager for his life to stop resembling a bad Gothic novel.
No one would ever have thought to pair the dangerously handsome duke with the meek little rector’s daughter. But as he helps Cecilia on her quest, Marcus discovers a well of passion hiding behind her sloe eyes that may just be a match for his own.
Two Hearts on a Perilous Path
But Cecilia’s search for the truth about her mother’s death unearths dark secrets from Marcus’s past, secrets that will destroy the new life he has built for his beloved sister and condemn one of the few people he cares about to death. What will he do when he is forced to choose between loyalty… and love?
Marcus waved off the butler’s offer to show him to the library. He was a frequent enough visitor to Astley House to know where it was, and where Lord Cheltenham kept the brandy.
He made his way through the crimson parlor, its walls lined with fine art.
Straight ahead, toward the back of the house, was the library.
He had just laid his hand upon the knob when the sound of a chord being struck upon the pianoforte came from the music room to his left.
Marcus froze. It was a minor chord, its very discordancy the key to its haunting beauty. But what had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end wasn’t the notes so much as the air of command with which they had been played.
A series of softer chords followed, then another accent. Without realizing his intentions, his feet drifted away from the library toward the open door to the music room. He listened to the dynamic peaks and valleys, perfectly executed and dramatic in their contrast, and recognized the piece as Beethoven’s Eight Piano Sonata. He had heard it in concert not a month ago, although whoever was playing it now was far superior in their interpretation of the music.
The notes trilled into a delicate arpeggio as he reached the doorway. He stopped short, recoiling in surprise.
Because seated at the pianoforte, in profile to him, was none other than Cecilia Chenoweth.
Was this the same timid little rector’s daughter who did nothing but stutter and stammer in his presence? The girl who was so meek she could not even meet his eye?
He could scarcely countenance it. Yet there she was, so absorbed in the keys that she did not mark his presence. In a way, he shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone said she was a rare talent on the pianoforte. He had also heard dozens of snide remarks about how she had been forced to lower herself by offering piano lessons (said in such a tone you could be forgiven for assuming this must be a euphemism for selling sexual favors on the corner of Piccadilly and St. James’s Street). This seemed like a callous thing to say about someone so recently orphaned even to Marcus, whose list of leading attributes did not include the word kindhearted.
Her right hand floated down the keyboard again in a delicate flourish. She was definitely good.
But the real test was about to come.
She paused dramatically, and then the tempo suddenly increased as she entered the technical section. She dropped down to a mezzo piano then slowly began to build, ratcheting the tension higher and higher before suddenly dropping it down again. Marcus felt rather than heard her crescendo and was startled to find that his heartrate had kicked up along with the tempo.
He held his breath as she came to a particularly challenging series of runs, but they were as clear and sparkling as a brilliant-cut diamond.
It wasn’t merely her technical proficiency, although he would describe that as flawless. Cecilia Chenoweth had a visceral understanding of the piece. She knew when to back off, when to crescendo, how to wring every ounce of emotion from the keys. The passion with which she played was visible on her face, and as she threw her head back, exposing a creamy expanse of her neck, Marcus found himself gripping the doorframe with white knuckles.
She was magnificent. He, who had attended hundreds of professional concerts over the years, featuring the finest musicians in all of Europe, had never heard anything like it.
Who was this girl?
He listened, rapt, until she hammered out the final chords with a flourish, then he broke into applause.
Miss Chenoweth shrieked as she spun to face him, eyes huge, one hand flying to her heart. Her chest rose and fell as if she’d been sprinting, and he fancied it was not from her exertions at the keyboard.
He stepped into the room. “Beethoven, Miss Chenoweth? How scandalous.”
She gazed up at him, her sloe eyes wide with terror. Gone was the passionate, confident performer. She was once again the shrinking little vicar’s daughter, cowed by his mere presence.
He wondered if she could even manage to form an answer.
Just when he was ready to give up, she drew in a breath. “I am sorry to have offended your delicate sensibilities.”
Had mousy little Cecilia Chenoweth just delivered a retort? Would wonders never cease? “I haven’t a single delicate sensibility, as you surely are aware. And thank God for it. Otherwise, I would have been shocked, absolutely shocked, by the sight of you thrashing about—”
She drew herself up primly. “I was not thrashing.”
“You were so far gone that near the end, I am fairly certain you slavered upon the keys.”
She raised her chin. “I most certainly did not.”
He leaned forward. “I can see a drop just there, upon the middle C.”
She narrowed her eyes at him before inspecting—then wiping—the offending key. “Although I would not presume to call myself an expert on Beethoven—”
“You should, if that performance is any indication.”
“—my personal opinion is that if the performer is not flailing madly and foaming at the mouth, they’re not even trying.”
That startled a laugh out of him. “I am inclined to agree, but still, it is shockingly unladylike.”
“You prefer something ladylike, do you? Shall I play you ‘The Battle of Prague’?” she offered, referring to a particularly vapid piece he was subjected to at every home musicale.
“What you should play,” he said, giving her a pointed look as he flicked his coattails out of the way and seated himself upon a plush orange silk chaise longue, “is the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’”
She stared at him, as still as a fawn crouched in the tall grass hiding from a wolf, as if a single blink would spell her doom.
He raised an eyebrow expectantly.
Shaking herself, she turned back to the keyboard and began to play.
Ceci was having the strangest afternoon of her life.
She was spending time with the Duke of Trevissick.
No. That wasn’t quite right.
He was spending time with her.
Considering that the expression Marcus Latimer usually assumed whenever his gaze fell upon her could be best described with the words, isn’t that a pity, this was a shocking turn of events.
And not only was he voluntarily remaining in her presence. Suddenly the Duke of Trevissick, the man who had always regarded her as dull and pathetic, found her impressive. Because she was certain that he did.
It was an almost incomprehensible reversal, and she wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, surely anything was better than dull and pathetic.
Yet she feared the inevitable letdown when he decided she was not so interesting as he had supposed.
She had no idea how she was going to speak to him when the music concluded. But that didn’t matter at the moment, because right now she was playing ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ one of her very favorite pieces, and one she had been playing more oft of late. Her emotions following the death of her father had been something of a jumble. Of course she felt the things one would suspect—sorrow, loneliness, grief.
But, if she was being honest, there were times when she felt angry at her father. It was his fault that she now found herself destitute, his obsession with her mother’s fate that had led him spend every last farthing on an army of investigators, none of whom had uncovered anything of value.
But her bitterness also stemmed from the fact that he had kept something so significant from her for so long. She could understand why he hadn’t revealed that her mother had not really died of a fever when she had been a girl of six. But she was one-and-twenty—old enough to have been told the truth.
And mixed up with her sorrow and anger was a sad sort of confusion that was difficult to put into words. They had always been so close, and her trust in her father had been absolute.
Now, she was left wondering if she had ever known him at all.
Ceci might not have had the words to describe this mess of feelings, which fluctuated by the minute. But she did have Beethoven. And no matter how tangled and confused her emotions might be, the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ managed to encompass them all.
As she sank into the music, everything else fell away. She forgot about her humiliation last night at the ball. She forgot about the fact that Madeline Sherborne had failed to appear for her pianoforte lesson yesterday, and this meant Ceci was out another shilling, a shilling she needed badly as holes were starting to form in the soles of her dancing slippers.
She even forgot that Marcus Latimer was in the room.
When you were playing Beethoven, you were allowed to wear your heart on your sleeve, to be impassioned to the point of being overwrought. You were supposed to. Which was, of course, why young ladies were not permitted to play certain works of Beethoven.
But here she was, playing one of those forbidden pieces. And when it came to the pianoforte, Ceci did not play anything by half-measures.
After striking the mournful final chords, she let them linger in the air. Slowly she became aware of her surroundings.
The Astleys’ rosewood pianoforte.
The orange and white music room.
The Duke of Trevissick, seated nearby.
She hesitated a beat before turning to the chaise, nervous of his response.
What she saw made her recoil.
Because Marcus Latimer, the man who never had a single hair out of place, whose posture was always as upright and starchy as his meticulously arranged cravats, lay sprawled against the blood-orange cushions of the chaise.
His right foot was on the floor, but his left boot dangled in the air. He had thrown an arm across his face, which made it difficult to gauge his reaction.
He groaned and rubbed his forehead. “Incandescent,” he said, sitting up. He gave a single tug at his exquisitely tailored chocolate brown coat and it settled into place without a single wrinkle. Abruptly the ordinary man who had needed a moment of repose was gone, and the immaculate duke had returned.
His gaze snapped to hers. “Why have I never heard you play before?”
The question was sharp, as if it were somehow her fault. “I honestly do not know. You are a frequent guest at Lady Cheltenham’s gatherings, and she always asks me to play.”
Awareness flashed in his pale blue eyes. “Ah, but Mr. Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy is inevitably in attendance as well. I am therefore forced to flee the music room, lest I be subjected to the bassoon.”
Ceci bit her lip. “Mr. Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy has improved significantly in the past year, and—”
“He is atrocious,” he said with a note of finality. “That still does not explain why I have not heard you play anywhere else.”
Ceci gave a humorless laugh. “I am not invited to play anywhere else. The last thing a hostess wants is for her own girls to suffer in comparison to the penniless daughter of a country vicar.”
“Well, you should be forewarned that I intend to request you by name at every gathering going forward.”
Ceci’s cheeks warmed. “That would cause gossip.”
He shrugged a negligent shoulder. “Who cares?”
She felt annoyance simmering up. Spoken like a man, a rich and titled one, who had the liberty of not giving a fig about what people were saying behind his back. “As an unmarried woman, I have to care.”
“Ah, but you won’t be unmarried for long. Are you not all but betrothed to Archibald Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy?”
Now her cheeks were truly burning. “You have been misinformed,” she said quickly. “Mr. Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy has not made me an offer of marriage.”
The duke looked baldly skeptical. “But he is courting you.”
“Yes, but that does not necessarily mean a proposal will follow.”
“Of course it does. I know Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy. He wouldn’t have asked to court you unless he was gravely serious about marrying you.”
Gravely serious. Not exactly the romantic sentiment to set a girl’s heart aflutter. “I would never assume—”
“Do you mean to accept him?”
She sputtered in protest. “I do not even know how to answer that, considering he has made me no proposal.”
“When he asks you—”
“Who even knows if he means to?”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. If he were to ask you, what would you say?”
She swallowed. This was one of several questions that kept her awake at night, tossing and turning in her bed. Given the chance, would she marry a very good man, but one she knew with a growing certainty that she would never grow to love? Would she sacrifice the possibility of making a love match for the security she so desperately needed?
The silence stretched on as she weighed her words. Finally, she said, “I daresay that only a great fool would turn down so fine a man as Archibald Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy.”
Look for The Duke’s Dark Secret in 2023!