Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

The Muse of Maiden Lane Excerpt

Book 4: Belles of London

Hampshire, England
December 1862

Stella Hobhouse raced down the gaslit corridor, the voluminous skirts of her white silk and crepe ball gown clutched in her gloved hands, and the swelling notes of Strauss’s “Lava-Ströme” waltz chasing at her heels.

She was well aware of the ironclad rules that governed the lives of ladies. Those rules were somewhat less rigid among fashionable society than they were in Fostonbury, the suffocatingly restrictive Derbyshire village that she and her pious clergyman brother, Daniel, called home. But one rule remained as inflexible in London as it was across Britain entire: a respectable female did not color her hair.

Only actresses and—Stella blushed to admit to herself—prostitutes would resort to such tawdry tricks. A young lady of Stella’s station would never reduce herself to purchasing a bottle of Circassian gold hair dye. Not even one procured through the post.

Great God, what had driven her to do it?

And what on earth had possessed her to copy, of all things, the exact shade of gilded auburn hair portrayed in the Whistler painting she’d seen on display in the Berners Street Gallery? The very painting that had been recommended to her by the handsome artist she’d encountered sketching at the British Museum?

It was a question she’d been asking herself ever since she’d entered the Earl of March’s grand gothic ballroom and spied that very same man—a person she’d never expected to see again in her life—seated in his wheeled chair at the edge of the polished wood floor. He’d been dressed, not in the plain suit and carelessly knotted cravat he’d worn at the museum, but in flawless black-and-white eveningwear. She’d realized, all at once, that he was a guest here. Not just an eccentric artist who loitered about museum portrait galleries, but a gentleman.

Mortification had rushed over her in a mighty flood, drowning out all rational thought. Her only instinct had been to flee the ballroom before he saw her. And that’s precisely what Stella had done: fled.

She ducked into a dimly lit anteroom at the end of the corridor. Music drifted after her, rising and falling, a waltz she was meant to be dancing with some gentleman or other. Resting her back against one of the shadowy, silk-papered walls, she pressed a hand to her corseted midriff, willing her nerves to steady and her breath to calm.

It wasn’t as though she’d committed a crime. It was only a bit of playacting. A chance to be someone else for a change. To experience the world as a young lady whose hair hadn’t turned completely gray at the age of sixteen.

Aside from her best friend, Lady Anne Deveril, only Anne’s mother, the Countess of Arundell, and Anne’s beau, Mr. Hartford, were aware of what Stella had looked like before she’d dyed it. There was no one else in attendance at the house party who knew her. Even if there were, Stella doubted very much that they’d recognize her. As a young lady with gray hair, possessed of modest breeding and little fortune, she was often dismissed and ignored. No one ever saw her. Not really. Indeed, no one seemed to notice her at all.

But tonight, she’d drawn every eye. Anne had called her luminous. Ethereal. And for the first time in her life, Stella had felt that way.

Until she’d seen him.

And it was him, whatever his manner of dress. He had the same inky black hair. The same turn of countenance, with sharply hewn features and a mouth that curved with equally sharp humor. A dangerous countenance. It was the face of a gentleman who saw too much. A face from which nothing—and no one—was hidden.

Stella exhaled an uneven breath. It wouldn’t do, this ridiculous surge of schoolgirlish embarrassment. She was two-and-twenty. A steady, sensible young lady, not some green girl prone to fits of the vapors.

She must compose herself and return to the ball.

It was the only practical course. Lord March’s house party was a week in length, and would be filled with Christmas festivities. She couldn’t very well hide the entire time. Besides, there was a good chance the gentleman wouldn’t recognize her. He’d met her only once before, and then just briefly.

Perhaps she’d overreacted?

But of course, she had!

There was no way the gentleman would remember her. They’d been in each other’s company for less than five minutes that day at the museum and had exchanged no more than a handful of words. He’d doubtless forgotten her the moment she was out of his sight.

To be sure, Stella felt a little foolish, now she thought of it rationally.

Straightening from the wall, she smoothed her skirts, steeling herself to return to the ballroom. It was then she heard : the unmistakable rattle of wheels drawing ever closer down the length of the marble corridor. The sound came to an abrupt halt outside the door of the anteroom where she was hiding.

A gentleman’s deep voice broke through the shadows. “Good lord,” he said in cheerful amazement. “It is you.”

***

Teddy Hayes rolled his wheeled chair into the dim interior of the anteroom. He wasn’t about to wait for a gilt-edged invitation. Not after he’d spent the last three months excoriating himself for not discovering the mysterious young lady’s name on the last occasion they’d met.

He’d been so thunderstruck by her then, so jaw droppingly dazzled, that it hadn’t even occurred to him to ask until after she’d gone. By then, it was too late. There had been no one around who could enlighten him. No fashionable acquaintances who might know her identity.

Such was the price of being new to London.

Teddy was a visitor here. A guest, not a member of polite society. Aside from the small circle of friends that his older sister, Laura, and her husband, Alex Archer, surrounded themselves with, there was no one to whom Teddy could apply for information. Love his relations as he did, he was reluctant to ask them for help in such matters. Some things were private. Especially when it came to the subject of silver-haired goddesses he’d encountered in the British Museum.

“Why did you run away?” he asked.

The young lady stood with her back to the wall. Her white pearl- and crepe-festooned skirts bowed out in front of her in an arc of petticoats and crinoline. “I did no such thing,” she said stiffly.

It was the first she’d spoken since he’d entered the room. She had a soft, even voice, with a hint of velvet at the back of it. The kind of voice that could soothe as easily as it could seduce.

Teddy’s blood thrummed with an unexpected pulse of heat.

He instantly dismissed the feeling. He hadn’t gone after her because he was attracted to her. Not as a man, anyway. His interest was purely artistic. “You did,” he said.

The same moment he’d clapped eyes on her from across the crowded ballroom, she’d spun on her heel and disappeared out the doors in a flurry of glittering skirts. He’d been left staring after her in dismay as the orchestra struck up the opening waltz, wondering for all of fifteen seconds whether he’d been mistaken.

“I felt a little faint,” she replied, a trifle defensively. “I needed air.”

“And you’re taking it here?” He cast a dubious glance around the anteroom as he wheeled himself to the nearest lamp. It sat upon a low inlaid walnut table beside one of the damask-upholstered settees. Striking a friction match, he lit the wick. The room was at once bathed in a soft halo of light. “You might at least have opened a window.”

“It’s storming outside,” she replied as he turned his chair to face her. “In case you hadn’t noticed.”

Teddy examined her in the glow of the lamp. She looked different than she had that day at the British Museum. He should know. The memory of her had been etched into his brain for months.

It wasn’t because she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—though she was beautiful. It was because she was different. And not just an oddity in her manner, or in the style of her dress or coiffure. She was strikingly different.

When he’d encountered her that day in the King’s Gallery, her hair had been uniformly silver—the color of fine platinum or sterling. When coupled with her silver-blue eyes and the tender gravity of her manner, it had given her the look of a shimmering, vaporous spirit, newly alighted from the heavens to engage with lowly humankind.

She’d reminded him of one of the mythological Pleiades—the seven sisters the Greek god Zeus had famously transformed into stars to grace the night sky. Teddy had never in his life seen a woman that better embodied the myth. As an artist, the sight hadn’t failed to make an impression on him.

“I notice everything,” he said.

The young lady’s throat worked on a delicate swallow. She edged toward the door. “I beg your pardon. I must return to the ballroom. My friends will be wondering—”

“I trust you’re not afraid of me?”

She stilled. Her lips compressed in a vaguely affronted line. “Indeed, I am not.”

“You appear so.”

“If I do, it’s only because I don’t know you.”

“We’ve met before,” he reminded her. “It was some months ago. You were in the King’s Gallery of the British Museum admiring a Van Dyck drawing.”

“I remember,” she said frostily.

His mouth quirked. Naturally, she did. He’d offended her then. Been too blunt. Too free with his opinions. It was a failing of his, one made worse by the virulent strain of scarlet fever he’d contracted in his youth. The illness had left his legs partially paralyzed, but had done nothing to curb the sharpness of his mind. Indeed, his sister often remarked that the more Teddy felt constrained by his disability, the less of a guard he was willing to set on his tongue.

It wasn’t deliberate. He didn’t mean to be rude or unkind. But he knew firsthand how short life could be, and how suddenly it might all come to an end. The time one had left was too precious to squander. He had no patience for mincing words.

“I recommended a painting to you,” he said. “Mr. Whistler’s new piece—The Woman in White. It was on display at the Berners Street Gallery at the time.”

She blushed to the roots of her hair. Her auburn hair. It was now the same shade as the titian-haired lady depicted in Whistler’s painting. “I could hardly forget,” she said. “It doesn’t follow that I know you. We haven’t been introduced. Not properly.”

“That’s easily remedied.” He wheeled a half turn closer to her. “My name is Edward Hayes. Most everyone calls me Teddy. And you are?”

“Stella Hobhouse,” she blurted out, “but that isn’t the point—”

“Stella,” he repeated. A pleased smile tugged at his mouth. “Like a star.” Surely it was a sign? He was meant to find her again.

She drew herself up with offended dignity. “I did not give you permission to use my Christian name.”

“Why shouldn’t I when it’s so beautiful?” He wheeled nearer. “By the by . . . what happened to your silver hair, Stella?”

Her mouth fell open. “Why that’s . . . that’s none of your business!”

“You dyed it, I suppose.” He frowned. “I wish you wouldn’t have.”

“How dare you, sir? To presume to make personal remarks about my—” She broke off. “Is this how you address ladies of your acquaintance?”

“With honesty and candor? Indeed, it is how I address ladies. It’s the same way I address gentlemen. I see no need to insult you by dancing about with euphemisms.”

“It’s not an insult. It’s decorum. Politeness. There are rules—”

“Yes, I’ve heard of them. I suppose that’s how it must be in London. But we’re not in London any longer. We’re in Hampshire.” His smile returned. “And house parties are wild places, I’m told.”

She stared at him, the expression in her silvery blue eyes both intrigued and appalled. “How is it that you come to be here at Sutton Park? Do you know Lord March?”

“I don’t,” he admitted.

“Then what are you doing at his house party?”

“I’m not here by choice,” he said. “My sister and brother-in-law were invited. As I traveled with them from France, they thought it best I accompany them.”

It had been the only way to set Laura’s mind at ease. He’d been in his chair for nearly five years, the first several of which she’d been his caregiver. It was a difficult role for her to relinquish. Never mind that Teddy was better now than he’d been in ages. She still worried about him to an excessive degree.

“They told me there would be great opportunities for sketching.” He cast a grim glance at the rain beating down upon the windows. “I’m reserving judgment.”

She inched toward the door. “Your relations are acquainted with Lord March?”

“Only slightly. My brother-in-law is arranging to purchase a new strain of the earl’s roses for our perfumery in Grasse. Hayes’s Perfumes. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”

Again, she stilled, her curiosity seeming to get the better of her. “Hayes’s Lavender Water?” She brightened with recognition. “Is that you?”

For once, Teddy was grateful for the negligible fame that his late father’s perfume business brought to the family name. “It’s partly me. I inherited half of the company when my father died. But it’s my sister and brother-in-law who run it. My interests lie elsewhere.”

“You’re an artist,” she said.

“I am.” He paused. “May I ask you an impertinent question?”

She huffed a reluctant laugh. “Haven’t you already?”

His smile broadened. “Tell me, Stella—”

Her chin dipped. She shook her head. “Please don’t call me that—”

“Tell me, Miss Hobhouse,” he amended. “Would you object to my painting you?”

Excerpted from The Muse of Maiden Lane by Mimi Matthews. Copyright © 2024 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group. All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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