Mysterious Lover (Crime & Passion #1) - Mary Lancaster

Chapter One

Grizelda liked to lose herself in opera, in the exquisite music and the inevitable tragedy. Unfortunately, there was little chance of that tonight, since her mother was restless and needed someone else to be running around for her.

“Don’t you find it too warm in here?” the duchess whispered audibly to her son as she rummaged in her tiny reticule. “Where is my fan?”

“You gave it to Griz,” Forsythe replied without taking his gaze off the stage. Grizelda suspected he was pursuing one of the chorus girls—which may have been what made their mother so restless, since she was trying to promote a match between Forsythe and their youngest guest, Miss Watters.

Griz intercepted her mother’s glare, and remembered where she’d put the fan. “I’ll fetch it,” she murmured, and slipped from her chair. To her surprise, Miss Watters’s brother smiled at her as she hurried past. Disconcerted—for she was used to being the invisible member of her noble family—she settled her spectacles more firmly on her nose and walked out of the private box into the quiet corridor.

It took only a minute to reach the cloakroom and retrieve her mother’s fan from the pocket of her cloak. With a word of thanks, she left, so lost in thoughts of Fidelio, that she walked straight into a large, solid object. The object was traveling with such speed that she was sent sprawling into the wall. It felt, she imagined, like being hit by a railway train.

However, this particular train, a tall man with a dark green cloak falling from one shoulder, halted abruptly, reaching out to stop her from falling forward again.

“Forgive me, are you hurt?”

Dazed, Grizelda stared up at the most handsome male face she had ever seen. Raven hair fell forward over a nobly high forehead. Dramatic black brows arched perfectly over a pair of long-lashed, melting brown eyes. High cheekbones, a thin nose, and generous mouth lent him a deceptive air of delicacy—there had been nothing delicate about the force of the hard body slamming into hers. He was so lean that had he been less handsome, he might have looked cadaverous, but as it was, his ridiculous good looks snatched at one’s breath.

Fortunately, she was immune to young men’s charms and well past the age of being enslaved by a pretty face. Though it was true, his voice did have an intriguing effect on her. It must have been the foreign accent.

“Just winded,” she replied hastily. “Like falling off a horse.”

His lips quirked upward. A hint of amusement overlayed the relief in his eyes. His grip on her arm loosened, and he stepped back. “May I escort you somewhere, madam?”

She shook her head, and at the corner of her eye, glimpsed a familiar figure flitting down the steps from the foyer to the front doors. Surely that was Nancy, the housemaid? What the devil was she doing here?

“No, thank you,” she replied, dragging her gaze back to the handsome stranger.

He bowed with considerable grace and hurried on his way to the door. Grizelda, oddly disappointed, moved more slowly toward the staircase, touching the fan to be sure it still dangled from her wrist.

Her wayward mind could not help wondering why Nancy was at the theatre. It was not her evening off, and she really had no business being out of the house. Normally, Griz would not have troubled about a servant slipping away for a few hours. She did not grudge them the extra time, and in any case, it was not her business but her mother’s or the housekeeper’s. But Nancy had been acting recently as her lady’s maid, helping her fasten and unfasten gowns, and dressing her hair in a manner that didn’t annoy Their Graces. And she had seemed distracted that evening as she’d helped Griz dress for the opera.

Griz had taken three steps up the staircase before she changed her mind and hurried back down. She did not bother with her cloak since she only meant to glance outside and see if Nancy was still there. If the handsome stranger was still outside, she might even ask him if he had noticed which way Nancy went.

The liveried doorman asked in some surprise if he could help her.

“Oh, no, I just want a moment’s air,” she replied, sweeping outside.

The road in front was well lit, and carriages lined the roads. A few coachmen had gathered for a gossip nearby. But there was no sign of either Nancy or the foreign gentleman until she spun around