The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 12)
Beside her, Thom tensed and sighed the long, slow sigh of a man attempting patience where none was deserved. She shouldn’t have brought him. And yet to be alone in this darkness, surrounded by strangers and velvet and gold—she couldn’t have borne it alone. Before she could reach over to touch his hand and make a small apology in the private sphere of the shadowed box, Casper’s spotlight flared into life again, casting him and his piano in a fierce light. He sat on the stool like a god, his long fingers bare and poised over the stark keyboard, and she realized she was holding her breath right along with the rest of the crowd, with the rabble and dukes and Coppers alike, waiting to be transported.
When he finally touched the keys after that masterful pause, the room filled with the perfect note, drawn out and commanding the very air. The song began, slow but rich and strong and saturated with purpose. It was several moments before Frannie remembered to breathe. She soon forgot again, hearing the miracle of his music. No wonder they called him Maestro.
The song he played was familiar yet utterly transfigured. Casper hunched over the keys, his every muscle tense, a look of profound joy on his face as his fingers coaxed magic from the piano almost too fast for Frannie’s eyes to follow. Although it began simply, the song grew more and more complex as Casper built upon the melody, adding trills and crashes as the tempo sped up. Frannie found herself on the edge of her seat, her teeth set firmly in the cloth of her glove as if awaiting some transformative moment that never came. When the song finally hit its crescendo, she wiped tears from the corners of her eyes and felt pleased that she hadn’t worn paint. Beside her, Thom sighed and settled back.
“Bugger, he’s good.”
She chuckled. “Bugger, indeed.”
After a studied pause, Casper rose and bowed to the audience, his hair flipping forward. The response was thunderous, loving, frenetic to the point of madness. As the brightly dressed bodies in the pit below surged toward the stage, the women struggling to clamber onto the boards in their long skirts, Frannie glanced around the theater, relieved to see no one who reminded her of Charles, much less the wastrel himself. She was startled when the lights went out, until she remembered that Casper wasn’t the only player.
When the spotlight went up again, the man hunched over the other piano stared out at the audience with narrow, haughty eyes. His fingers hovered over the keys, not with Casper’s teasing showmanship but with an expectant, measuring glare, as if he found the audience wanting and wished to punish them. He played the same song Casper had, beginning with the basic tune and adding his own frills. And although even Frannie’s amateur ears could tell it was technically quite good, there was something lacking. Spirit, fire, passion, joy. The man played as if he was angry at the piano and wished to strike it, again and again.
A low hum began in the pit as the crowd whispered and shook their heads. The pianist played faster, his top hat falling off as he lurched over the keys and his mauve coat flashing in the light. He was balding, and the top of his head was pink and moist with sweat. The man had barely missed being smacked in the face by the first moldy tomato when a melody sprang up in the darkness on the other half of the stage. It wasn’t the same song, but it somehow struck the perfect counterpoint.
The pianist played harder, angrily, cocking his head toward Casper’s piano. As the music from the shadows grew louder and more insistent, the crowd in the pit whispered and chuckled the way Frannie’s birds did when she brought out a bit of fruit and began to hand it around. As if they had a taste of something good and wanted more.
“It is my turn, sir!” the man shouted over his shoulder at the darkness hiding Casper’s piano.
“Is it? I thought this was a duel.”
The spotlight burst onto Casper, who had removed his jacket. The intimacy of his open shirt made it seem as if he were all alone in the world instead of displayed onstage before thousands of London’s richest and poorest spectators. The grin on his face told Frannie that he enjoyed enraging the other musician as much as he enjoyed playing.
With a growl of frustration, the pianist in the mauve jacket abruptly changed the song to something Frannie had never heard before. Casper’s fingers froze above the keyboard, his head cocked and his eyes turned skyward as if seeking answers there.
“Is that new?” Casper called.
“Just wrote it.”
“I bet I can guess how it ends.”
With a fierce laugh, Casper began playing the exact notes as the other pianist but, somehow, better. They played the song in near-perfect accordance, except that every now and then, Casper struck a chord or added a trill that improved the song markedly. The man in the mauve coat played faster, and even Frannie could tell when he hit the wrong key.
“You’ve been in my rooms, Sterling. You’ve tossed my drawers, damn you!”
“From what I hear, no one’s been in your drawers, Edwin.”
The pit roared and began to chant, “Maestro! Maestro! Maestro!”
The man in the mauve coat faltered again, and Frannie sat forward in her seat. After the next wrong note, he stood so violently that his bench fell over backward. Slamming his fist down on the keys, the man spun and stepped to the edge of his spotlight, halting just before the dark swatch of stage separating his piano and the one that Casper still played, finishing the song with a masterly flourish.
Casper stood, smirking and tall, not even out of breath. They faced each other, a strip of darkness between them. The crowd’s chant grew as they surged forward, arms grasping for Casper.
“Maestro! Maestro! Maestro!”
Casper turned to the crowd and put one finger to his lips. The pit quieted to an unruly whisper. Frannie leaned forward in her seat, fascinated by the animal energy in the air.
The man’s voice rang out in the silence, his frustration and fury echoing off the boxes. “You promised me a fair trial, Sterling.”
“I promised you a duel.”
“Stealing my compositions is low, even for you!”
“I’ve stolen nothing, Edwin.”
Someone in the crowd shouted, “You tell ’im, Maestro!” and an egg exploded against the mauve jacket and slid down the man’s breeches to land on his buckled shoe.
Shaking his head as if trying to rid himself of a fly, the man crossed the darkness and stood, bare inches away from Casper, who, to his credit, didn’t flinch.
“Where’d you learn that song, then? No one’s ever heard it. It’s locked up in my home. Where’d you learn it, you lying chit?”
Casper cocked his head, giving the crowd a wink and a flash of dimples. “I heard it in a dream.”
The pit erupted in laughter and cheers, and Casper bowed, first to the crowd and then, with a saucy flourish, to the man in the mauve jacket.
“Maestro! Maestro! Maestro!”
It was a mercy when the smaller man finally stalked offstage, a hail of eggs in his wake.
“Would you like to hear more?” Casper called, one hand cupped to his ear, and the crowd’s answering “Hurrah!” made him throw back his head and laugh.
“I think I’ve heard enough,” Thom grumbled, shifting in his seat as if his kilt itched him horribly.
Casper sat down at his bench, turning back the cuffs on his shirt. The spotlight on the other piano winked out, leaving only the Maestro and his instrument and a dazzling smile. He cracked his fingers one by one and began to play a song that made Frannie’s heart thunder against her corset. It wasn’t fair, that one man should be so beautiful and charming and have such otherworldly skill. For just a moment, she longed to discover if he could master a woman’s body as perfectly as he played.
“Just let’s hear the end of this song,” Frannie murmured, her hand moving to cover Thom’s as her betraying eyes stubbornly clung to Casper.
Thom stopped in mid-sentence, and Frannie tried to turn to him and discover what was wrong. But she couldn’t move. The fashionably poofed sleeve of her jacket was pinned to her seat by an arrow. She was slightly confused and just stared at it for a moment before Thom shoved her to the ground with an angry rip of indigo taffeta. He landed on top of her, breathing hard as her heart leaped into her throat and her fingers and toes went numb in fear. Casper’s song played on, not slipping a single note, as Frannie put one glove to the bare shoulder exposed by the arrow’s tear.
“Are ye hurt, lass?” It came as a whisper.
“You . . . you say that a lot.”
“Are you?” More forcefully this time.
“Only by your weight, I think. Was that . . . ?”
“Aye, a bolt from a small crossbow. It didn’t catch your skin?”
She shook her head, or tried to. Her hat and tight jacket made it difficult, sprawled under Thom as she was.
“Only my jacket.”
“Thank the gods.”
They lay there for a moment, long enough for her to notice the rise and fall of his chest and the woodsy scent that rose from his skin, reminding her a little of the heady, smoky Scotch that Bertram had sometimes stolen from their father’s liquor cabinet. She’d poured it all down the loo, after their parents’ funeral, just to be sure her brother’s recklessness didn’t get out of hand. Frannie didn’t hear any more arrows, but then again, she hadn’t heard the first one, thanks to Casper’s playing and the shouts of the rabble.
“Is it safe?”
“I don’t know anymore, lass. You’re having a run of awfully bad luck. And you’re shivering like a wee pup in the night. Scared a bit?”
“Can ye wait here, on the floor, while I fetch the Coppers?”
Frannie gasped. “No Coppers.”
He let out a contemplative breath, going still. “Escape it is, then.”
Casper’s song ended with a crescendo, and the lights went up, nearly blinding Frannie. The crowd went mad with shouting and stamping and clapping and whistling. Thom gently climbed off of her, leaving her exposed and cold with dread.