A Passion for Pleasure - By Nina Rowan
She was carrying a head.
Sebastian Hall squinted and rubbed his gritty eyes. He blinked and looked again. Definitely a head. Cradled in one arm like a babe. It was a woman’s head with neatly coiffed brown hair. Though at this distance he couldn’t see her expression, he imagined it to be rather distressed.
He watched as the young woman crossed the empty ballroom to the stage, her steps both quick and measured and her posture straight in spite of her gruesome possession.
Sebastian pushed himself away from the piano. The room swayed a little as he rose, as if he were on the deck of a ship. He had once spent countless hours at the Royal Society of Musicians’ Hanover Square building, but now the place felt unfamiliar to him, almost oppressive. A hum, seasick-yellow, droned in his ears. He dragged a hand over his face and scrubbed at his rough jaw as he crossed the room.
The woman didn’t appear to see him, her path set unswervingly on her destination. A basket dangled over her left arm.
Sebastian cleared his throat. The guttural noise echoed in the vast room like the growl of a bear.
“Miss.” His voice sounded coarse, rusted with disuse.
The woman startled, jerking back and losing her grip on the head, which fell to the floor with a thump and then rolled. A cry of surprise sounded, though in his befuddled state Sebastian couldn’t tell from whom it had emerged. He looked down as the head rolled to a stop near his feet like the victim of an executioner’s ax.
A perfect, waxen face stared up at him, wide blue eyes unblinking, pink mouth, her hair beginning to escape a smooth chignon.
After a moment of regarding this turn of events, Sebastian bent to retrieve the head. The woman reached it before he did, scooping it back into her arms and stepping away from him.
“Sir! If you would please— Oh.”
Sebastian looked up into a pair of rather extraordinary eyes—a combination of blue and violet flecked with gold. Something flickered in his memory, though he couldn’t grasp its source.
Where had he—?
“Mr. Hall?” She tucked a stray lock of brown hair behind her ear, hugging the head closer to her chest. “I didn’t know you would be here.”
She frowned, glancing at his wrinkled clothes, unshaven jaw, and scuffed boots. For an uncomfortable moment he wanted to squirm under that sharp assessment. He pulled a hand through his hair in a futile effort at tidiness, then experienced a sting of annoyance over his self-consciousness.
“Are you…” He shook his head to try to clear it. “I’m afraid this room is closed until Lady Rossmore’s charity ball on Saturday.”
She tilted her head. “You don’t remember me.”
Out of sheer habit, Sebastian attempted to muster a charming smile, though it had been so long since one had come naturally to him that his face felt like pulled clay.
“Well, far be it from me to forget a woman as enchanting as yourself,” he said. “Your name has slipped my mind, though of course I remember…that is, I must be out of my wits to—”
“For pity’s sake.” She seemed to be trying hard not to roll her eyes, though a blue-gold thread of amusement wove into her voice. “My name is…was Clara Whitmore. My younger brother and I both took piano lessons from you years ago when we stayed in Dorset.”
Sebastian struggled to make his brain work as he looked at her round, pretty face, her curly brown hair pulled into an untidy knot. A streak of grease or oil smudged her cheek. She looked like a thousand other ordinary women—a shopkeeper’s daughter, a dressmaker, a governess, a milliner’s apprentice.
Except for her eyes. And a tiny black birthmark punctuating the corner of her smooth left eyebrow, like the dot of a question mark.
“I was your student for a scant few months the summer I turned sixteen,” Clara continued, as if unaware of his scrutiny. “You weren’t much older, but people already spoke highly of your talent. I enjoyed many of your performances at various events in Dorset.”
A piece settled into place in Sebastian’s mind. Ten years ago he’d lived in Dorset, teaching, performing, and entering contests in an attempt to pay for a trip to the Continent that his father had refused to fund.
“Where did you live in Dorset?” he asked.
“Not far from Weymouth.”
“And does your father reside there still?” Sebastian asked.
“No, I’m afraid that property has long been abandoned.” Her eyes flickered downward, shading her expression. She shifted the head