A Music Recital
The Duke of Villiers’s townhouse
At fifteen, Emilia Gwendolyn Carrington already had a pretty good idea of what hell was like. Mia’s governess had taught her all about Dante’s nine infernal circles.
Mia’s first circle had required her to make her debut at fifteen, under the aegis of a hired chaperone, because her mother was dead. Her second circle had added a far worse indignity: her charming, widowed father was conducting a flagrant affaire with a married duchess that everyone in the fashionable world knew about.
She had entered the third circle over the last year or so, when against all reason, she had fallen desperately in love with the same duchess’ son, Vander. He was the most sensitive, intelligent boy in the world (or so Mia thought). And he was beautiful too, with a face that resembled the stone angels that guarded babies’ graves.
The remaining circles of hell? All six?
They were revealing themselves in rapid succession. Mia had begged her father to attend the Villiers’s musicale on the chance that the object of her adoration, Evander Septimus Brody, future Duke of Pindar, would be present. It seemed probable since the Duke of Villiers’s eldest son, Tobias, was best mates with Vander.
As it turned out, the house was indeed overrun with boys on holiday from Eton and among the horde was Vander, who roundly ignored her. Mia didn’t mind that: she was happy worshipping him from afar. He was too godlike for someone like her.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he danced attendance on any other girl. He and the other Etonians spent their time swigging brandy although it was not yet noon, cursing loudly, and generally pretending to be far older than their fifteen years. Mia finally retreated to the library, a tranquil room with book-lined walls.
She was searching the shelves for anything resembling her favorite novel, Eliza Heywood’s Love in Excess, when she heard, to her horror, the sound of boys approaching. Even worse, she quickly recognized the voices as those of Vander and his friend Tobias, who seemed to be calling himself Thorn these days.
The library was at the end of the corridor, so there was no escape. Panicked, Mia dashed behind the sofa and slid down until she was entirely concealed.
It was only then that she truly understood that she had entered that final, innermost circle of hell.
The boys were discussing a love poem.
Not just any love poem, either.
They were puzzling over The Love Song of E. Septimus Brody—in other words, a poem addressed explicitly to Vander—that Mia herself had written. That she had poured her heart, her love, and her tears into.
It wasn’t very good; none of her poems were very good.
Still, it was her poem, and it was supposed to be safely in her desk back home. Not being bandied about at a musicale. And definitely not in the hands of the very boy she’d written it about.
Even in the midst of a wave of nausea, Mia guessed what had happened. Her father had found the poem and thought it would be amusing to share with his mistress, and his mistress had in turn shared it with her son. Mia had been such a fool to give it that title.
At least Vander wasn’t howling with laughter, probably because he couldn’t understand it. He and Thorn were hardly literary types, if a fifteen-year-old boy could be such a thing.
“Do you suppose the part about how moonbeams kiss the sea is some sort of innuendo?” Thorn asked.
Mia rolled her eyes. What an absurd suggestion. He probably still moved his lips when he read.
“I don’t think so,” Vander answered, rather uncertainly. “Let’s toss it in the fire. I don’t want anyone to see it.”
She had scarcely breathed a sigh of relief when there was a clatter of boots and a boy shouted, “I’ve been looking all over for you fellows. One of the Villiers twins just threw up from nerves. It stinks down there!”
“I can’t imagine why you were looking for us, Rotter,” Vander stated, sounding all of a sudden like a future duke. “We told you last week that we wanted nothing more to do with you.”
“Bloody hell, no need to be nasty,” the boy retorted, entirely unmoved by this set-down. “What have you got there?” To Mia’s horror, the question was followed by the sound of a scuffle and tearing paper.
If Dante had conceived of a tenth circle of hell, this was it. Francis Oakenrott was a boy as rotten as his name implied. She had met him twice, at house parties her father dragged her along to. It was a case of mutual loathing-at-first-sight.
“A love poem,” he shouted, clearly delighted. “Don’t tell me that you’ve taken up with an opera dancer with a literary bent. The headmaster will have your guts for garters.”
“Give me that,” Vander snarled.
But Oakenrott apparently evaded capture. “Blazing hell, this is utter rubbish!” He broke into an escalating, barking laugh. Another thump followed. “Oh, for God’s sake, back off and let me read it. It’s too late to keep your little secret now. You’d think you were ashamed.”
Mia pulled a sofa pillow over her face with a silent groan. She wanted to die, to fall into a crack in the floor.
“I am mad with love,” Oakenrott recited, in a squeaky falsetto. “You know, I could see this on the stage. Have you been hanging about the back door of Drury Lane?”
“She’s definitely cracked,” Thorn said. “Who could fancy a smelly, sweaty bloke like you?”
“You’re just jealous,” Vander retorted. “She’d have to be barmy to look in your direction. Or Rotter’s.”
“So who’s the madwoman?” Oakenrott said, paper rustling as he turned it over. “Emilia Carrington? You mean the daughter of your mother’s—”
“Don’t,” Vander warned, his voice suddenly dangerous.
There was a telling moment of silence. “Right. I’ll just go back to this literary masterpiece. No one understands my plight,” he read, his voice squealing even higher. “I like this part about the moonbeam kissing the sea. Obviously, you have the moonbeam, and she’s the sea.” He went into another barking cascade of guffaws. A sob rose up Mia’s chest, pressing so hard that pain shot through her breastbone.
“You’re such an ass,” Thorn said. “How old is that girl, anyway?”
“The same as me,” Vander replied. “Fifteen.”
“In my dreams, you married me,” Oakenrott said, reading from the beginning of the next stanza. A tear slid down Mia’s neck. “Your beauty makes me drunk.”
Oakenrott hooted. Vander groaned.
She heard a hearty slap and then Thorn said, “Look at it this way, at least you’ve managed to charm a girl who knows a thing or two about brandy.”
“Not as much as you do, after last night!” Vander retorted.
Likely they were all drunken sots. Mia’s governess had told her that boys pretending to be men drank far too much.
Oakenrott was relentless; he just wouldn’t shut up. “My room is full of moonlight, and your eyes are like pearls.” Do you suppose you’re being invited to take your pearly eyes into her moonlit room?”
“I’d have to grope my way,” Vander said, and Mia could hear the laughter in his voice. “Nobody could see through pearly eyes.”