Finalist in the 2021 RWA Vivian Award
Best First Published Book
Best Historical-Mid Length
A singer who has lost her faith in love…
They call her La Luminosa–beautiful, talented, and far above the touch of mere mortals. But they don’t know her secret—that she’s learned love has a high price and the grand passion she sings about is nothing but a lie. She’ll settle for a marriage of respect and security. But decent men don’t marry opera singers…and she can’t afford to make another mistake.
So when Sarah is invited to a country house musicale, she sets her sights on one last chance to dazzle the earl’s heir, the kind of husband who could solve all her problems. If only her every step wasn’t dogged by his brother—a frustrating and handsome vicar.
A vicar who has lost his way…
Evander Ambrose can deliver a sermon, a baby, or baskets to the poor, but nothing can deliver the vicar of Six Oaks from the maddeningly beautiful Sarah. She has obviously been sent from the underworld to try him. To tempt him. To drive him insane. But he will grant his ailing father’s wish to stop Sarah from luring his brother into marriage. Even if it means putting himself temporarily in the line of fire. But distracting her is more difficult than he expects because she keeps making him forget that vicars definitely can’t fall for opera singers.
A Song of Secrets is a sweet regency romance.
Performance of ‘The Magic Flute’ London, 1811
Sarah Hayworth stood behind the towering velvet curtains, head bowed, waiting for her entrance into act two.
The King’s Theater and Opera House was raucous tonight, filled to capacity for the performance of The Magic Flute. Guineas would burst from the coffers, although getting her fair share was another story.
She closed her eyes and listened to them chant her name, letting the excitement swell inside, imagining a perfect performance. In front of the curtain, the opera was in progress, but that didn’t stop them. They knew the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria was next, and they were ready to be thrilled. Eight hundred people, and the Prince of Wales himself, waiting for this one performance. Waiting for her.
Luckily, she was born to thrill them. If they weren’t on their feet at the end, hearts racing, faces flushed, and hands creating a crescendo of applause, Sarah would consider the evening a failure. She needed to give them value for those guineas, as much as she needed their ovations in return. Accolades meant more contracts, and contracts meant more much-needed funds to send home.
Just a few minutes more.
She took a deep breath, filled her lungs with backstage air, and wrinkled her nose. It smelled like musty undergarments. But those kinds of thoughts didn’t help. She rubbed her hands together, hoping the heat would miraculously travel to her frozen toes.
“What’s the matter?” Miss Jones, her dresser, lady’s maid and closest ally, fussed around, arranging her veil so the galaxy of diamantes sewn on it displayed to perfection.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Sarah replied, feeling a familiar tremor start in her jaw. She stretched her neck to stop the jitters before they took hold.
Miss Jones continued to fuss. “Nonsense. You have at least five years left in you. Are your nerves affecting you?” She darted around like a wren, her tiny frame bursting with energy at odds with her somber black dress and tightly wound bun.
Sarah nodded. “They are trying, despite my repeated requests for them not to.”
Miss Jones stood in front of her and rubbed Sarah’s arms vigorously. “You’re cold again. There’s a hot brick in the dressing room warming your slippers, if that helps.”
The tremor turned into a full-blown bout of shivering. “Can I wear them now?” It didn’t matter what caused it, nerves or the cold November night—the result would be a disaster if she couldn’t control it. A voice that warbled instead of soared. But she could control it—she had to control it. There were hundreds of people out there. She would not make a fool of herself.
“Never fear,” Jones said, her brown-eyed gaze calm and steadying. “All will be better when you sing the first note. And somehow I don’t think the Queen of the Night wears pink slippers.”
Just the thought of sitting atop her crescent moon wearing fluffy slippers made Sarah smile. She turned to Miss Jones. “Do you think anyone would notice if I did? It would be a wonderful joke.”
“Let me assure you, they notice everything.” Jones laughed quietly, finished her veil fluffing, and began prodding the star-topped tiara to make sure it was secure. It was, with the force of a hundred pins stabbing into her scalp. Sarah winced and waved a hand at Jones, who stopped fussing immediately.
“Very well,” Jones said with her usual efficiency. “I’m off. Now don’t let Edwina upstage you or confuddle you, or I’ll have to kill her, and it would be sad to see me end my days in Newgate.”
Sarah straightened her shoulders and looked ahead. “She won’t. We had words. I’m sure she’d like to sing abroad one day, and if she crosses me tonight, I’ll make sure she never does.” She’d once been that upstart soprano, eager to shine, not caring who she had to stand on to do it. But never would she have risked the success of the opera she was singing in to do so. Unfortunately, Edwina, who played her daughter Pamina, seemed more than willing to do anything if it meant her star shone brighter.
“Bah,” said Jones. “She’s too stupid to realize how far your influence extends. Be on guard.”
All very well for her to say. But Mozart’s jewel of an aria, exhilarating, vengeful, and masterful, demanded her entire attention. In another five minutes, she wouldn’t be thinking of her toes or Edwina or anything but the barrage of celestial high notes that stretched her beyond natural and into the supernatural. Anything else led to failure.
The stagehands lowered her crescent moon on a series of pulleys until it was directly behind her, and then, one on each side, they lifted her gently onto the white wooden seat, attaching her to it with a hook around her silver corded belt. She often wondered whether the hook would save her if she fell and had long ago concluded that it probably wouldn’t. They stepped away and she was hoisted into the air like a sack of grain onto a cargo ship.
Jerk. Jerk. The tiara didn’t move an inch.
Her feet dangled, and she took a deep, calming breath. Think of something happy. An image of Antony rose in her mind. Yes, that worked. Antony, Viscount Morley, waiting in the audience, full of pride and admiration, dressed in some glorious Weston creation with his romantic windswept hair. Not quite a lover, but more than a friend.
The man who had left a small but expensive present in the form of a diamond pendant for her before this last performance of the season.
Closing her eyes, she wrapped her fingers around the cold stone that now hung around her neck on a black velvet ribbon. She loathed to wear it in public like this—but loathed even more leaving it in her dressing room for anyone to take. Which was probably why he’d had it delivered just before her performance. He would want to see it on her.
But what did it mean?
Was it an ‘I-want-to-marry-you’ diamond or a ‘would-you-like-to-be-my-mistress’ diamond? If it was the former, it would be accepted with grace; if it was the latter… things were about to get complicated. Again.
Clinging to the rail at the back of the giant moon, she took another deep breath, and the nerves subsided somewhat. She continued the internal monologue to calm them even further. Listen to them, still chanting her name. Yet another breath and the nerves retreated, replaced with excitement. This was it—the final performance of The Magic Flute. Tonight, her contract would be complete and she would receive a draft for five hundred pounds to pay all the people that wanted a piece of her. Then life would be beautiful! She had no reason to be nervous. She smiled, and, as if in answer, the curtains drew open, the boys side stage pulling with all their might. The audience cheered and then stilled to the hushed quiet she was accustomed to and would have been aghast not to receive.
All gave La Luminosa her due.
The moon lowered slowly and Sarah, the Queen of the Night, floated ethereally. She looked around her in mock disdain. It was time to give her daughter Pamina a dagger and order her to kill the enemy.
In the nicest way possible, of course.
* * *
Evander Ambrose, second son of the Earl of Wrotham, tipped his head back into the plush velvet of the seat and closed his eyes, letting the music flow over him. The opera, he supposed, was as good a place as any to question his existence. After all, there was sublime music to accompany the soul’s descent, and nobody expected him to talk, least of all his father. He felt like he was floating on a river of sound, ebbing and flowing to Mozart’s tricksy beat. Feel it, damn you.
It should have soothed and uplifted him, made him feel alive, and set his soul alight. Instead—nothing. Just the feel of his too-tight neckcloth and the aching throb of yet another headache.
Forget it, his soul said. Nothing to see here.
Indeed, there was nothing to see since Eleanor died, even though those dear scruffs he called sons needed him now more than ever. He had felt so good in the past days, finally through the worst of the grief, finally feeling like himself again. Then he’d seen someone on Bond Street that looked just like Eleanor from behind that had left him bereft for the rest of the day. He only hoped he climbed out of it faster this time. Heaven knew she would not have wanted him to grieve. She was far too practical for that.
He cracked one eye open in response to the unnatural quiet that had descended on the opera house. They’d finally stopped their rude chanting. He was alone in his thinking, but he could never understand why society came to the opera only to spend most of the time ignoring the music and the stage. Or jeering or heckling. They were ill-bred, the lot of them. Nothing could make him join that debacle.
“Evander, are you falling asleep? Wake up. She’s about to come on.” Father poked him in the ribs with a sharp, bony elbow.
The scenery of mountain ranges parted to reveal a lush garden complete with stone pillars and a fountain. The audience cheered as a glowing moon descended from the ceiling. Because there she sat, suspended in a sky painted with a thousand stars, her ridiculously long legs hanging from the side. Her gown was the color of midnight and tied with bands of silver, her hair billowing and dark. Her costume was low cut, revealing a glorious expanse of skin that glowed brighter than the moon beneath her as if made of stardust itself.
“By Jove,” he breathed, not of his own volition.
“Indeed,” Father replied reverently. “They call her La Luminosa. I can see why. Look at that bosom. Like two goose-down pillows. Oh, but I could sink into that.” He lifted his opera monocle for closer inspection.
“Sink and then probably fall asleep, knowing you.” Evander’s eyes were good enough, and their box close enough that he didn’t need the monocle. Although it wasn’t the admittedly fine bosom that caught his attention. More like he didn’t know where to look: her face, which was almost angelic despite that fact she was playing a devilish character, her hair, which was dark and glossy, or her long legs, which truly defied description of any kind.
His father sighed. “Ah, but what a fine sleep it would be.”
Evander watched his father rather than the stage. Despite all the gadding about they’d done today, the old earl was still energized. They’d spent hours at Tattersalls alone, before settling on a beautiful mare called Midnight, then it was straight to White’s in the afternoon for brandy and catching up with equally old and decrepit cronies, rolling straight into dinner at Boodle’s. Evander had thought the day over until the earl announced he’d procured a box at the opera. Apparently, every ounce of fun was to be squeezed from this London trip the earl had assured his wife was “just to ensure my affairs are in order.” It was all Evander could do to keep up.
“I want her so badly I can barely breathe.”
Not exactly what he wanted to hear his seventy-year-old happily married father say, but Evander supposed the circumstances were extenuating. “It could just be your condition causing the breathlessness.”
The earl quirked his white eyebrows, giving Evander the sardonic glare he deserved. “Must you remind me? Such a bore.” He slapped his leg and turned to Evander. “Dammit, I’m going to have her.”
A sentiment Evander could relate to and probably one every man in the theater had. Futilely, without doubt. “I’m sure Mother will be pleased.”
Father shot him a wicked smile. “No, you dolt, for the musicale. My last Yuletide musicale.”
Evander ignored the lump that formed in his throat at that statement. “More like you want her to sing to you in your sickbed. You know, I’m beginning to wonder if this illness isn’t just a masquerade so you can do every bad thing you ever wanted to do in the knowledge no one will reprimand you.” It wasn’t true but was still worth saying, if only for the wicked grin it brought to his father’s face.
“Well, the excuse ‘I’m dying’ tends to have the desired effect. Even your mother will welcome La Luminosa into the bosom of the family if I tell her it will make me happy.”
“That’s likely true.” Mother was only ever happy when he was. Evander couldn’t decide if it was ridiculously devoted or unhinged. Perhaps it was both.
There was a comfortable silence between them as the earl gazed longingly at his newest goal and his son gazed at his father’s beloved profile, the long, straight nose so like his own, silver hair caught at the back of his neck in an old-fashioned queue with a black velvet ribbon. This was a good day. Tomorrow might bring something entirely different.
The vision in question faced her onstage daughter, who sat on the edge of her bed and started talking. The room hushed further still, if that was possible.
Mrs. Hayworth uttered her lines, commanding her daughter to listen. Her gaze darted up to Morley’s box, almost as if she couldn’t help herself, and once she did, it seemed like she couldn’t look away.
There Morley sat, looking like thunder. Next to him was what could only be a debutante in stark-white muslin and fresh-faced naivety.
Ah, he’d heard the wealthy viscount was recently betrothed.
He’d also heard that the famous La Luminosa was his light-o’-love. And if he was a wagering man, he’d wager his entire living that the opera singer was only just discovering Morley’s tumble into the parson’s trap. Evander smiled to himself. It was like watching an opera within an opera. And he wasn’t the only one watching. Soon the entire theater was agog, the thousands of candles in those giant chandeliers illuminating the prima donna and Morley equally.
And if he looked like thunder, then she was the lightning, her countenance so electric that at any moment bolts would fling from her person straight to his heart. And that emotion, that darkness, it was riveting. Every word she spoke bristled with anger, and it was all directed at that bounder Morley. At least, he’d been a bounder at Eton, but perhaps he’d changed. Nothing else could explain him landing such a lovely. Unless it was his money. Ah yes, that always helped.
Then, in a moment that perhaps nobody else noticed, Sarah Hayworth’s shoulders drooped briefly, and he’d swear he saw her blink rapidly, as though to hold back tears. It was gone in a trice, and she was the proud queen once again, but it was too late. His protective instinct was roused, and he knew that she wasn’t as impervious as the newspapers and illustrators would like London to believe. He looked away, not able to watch her heartbreak. He willed her strength, strength to forget Morley and carry on as if he meant nothing to her. Strength to tackle one of the world’s most difficult vocal performances, “Der Hölle Rache,” which he knew was due to start any moment.
This song was what he thought he’d come to see until the sight of her dangling on a crescent moon had wiped all coherent thought from his mind. He closed his eyes again, knowing that it was disrespectful to watch her struggle even if he felt compelled to do so. He waited. The orchestra waited.
But no notes came. He cracked one eye open to see that she was blinking furiously again. And damn the crowd, they were lapping it up like cats with cream.
Evander sighed. Look how she loved him. Look how devastated she was by his betrayal. He couldn’t fathom that kind of tempestuous love and would likely never experience it. The only love he’d experienced had been solid and quiet. It had left his heart in a cage of grief, whereas her disappointment soared around the theater for all to see.
What did Morley do to deserve such feeling? She was like a work of art, and Evander’s heart was breaking with hers, damn the stupid pathetic organ.
He leaned forward in his seat, looking to his right, where Morley’s box was. “You’re too good for him anyway,” he shouted, in the grand English tradition he abhorred of interrupting a stage performance. “Run for the hills, Mrs. Hayworth, and take that diamond with you.” Evander’s voice carried; after all, he’d trained it to do just that for ten years. The crowd cheered in delight. Evander sat back, half-horrified, half-elated.
“Well said.” Father clapped him on the knee, warm approval in his eyes.
“It was the least I could do.” Bounders like Morley had all the luck. A beautiful fiancée and London’s most beautiful opera singer.
Vicars like him? Not so much.