In this sequel to Song of Seduction… Love is the art of deception.
May 2, 2011
Greta Zwieg forges masterpieces. With her copies on their walls and the original paintings safely hidden, the noble families of Austria can rest assured their treasures will survive Napoleon’s advances. But now Greta’s uncle is changing the rules, selling her counterfeits as originals. Greta abhors the deceit. Anxious for her family’s safety in a perilous time, she is nevertheless determined to put things right.
Oliver Doerger is living a lie of his own. Acting as valet for his aristocratic half brother, Oliver thwarts an attempt on Greta’s life and is overwhelmed by the forbidden passion that flares between them. Although he’s not truly a servant, he is a bastard and a spy–certainly no match for a woman of such exquisite quality.
Though both fear discovery, they cannot resist each other. When the truth comes out, and the city falls into chaos, Greta and Oliver will be forced to choose: love or duty?
“Lofty’s latest release has all the elements of a great romance: suspense, passion and forbidden love.”~ RT Book Reviews
“Artists? Austrians? Pseudo-valets who are half-noble ex-military men? More, please!”
~ All About Romance
Leinz Manor, Outside of Salzburg
Little more than an hour remained for Greta to dress for an opera premiere she did not want to attend.
She hastened down the long corridor that connected the east and west wings of Leinz Manor. Even without slowing she could pick out the flaws in the paintings that adorned the walls. A shade of violet containing too much blue. A brush stroke too thick with paint. A horizon line three inches too low. For Greta, it was a hall of near misses.
Had she been allowed to put the evening’s remaining hours to their best use, she would be painting. The Leinz collection contained two more originals she had yet to copy, with orders waiting from three other noble families. Accompanying Uncle Thaddeus and her cousins to the opera did not play to her talents.
As always, however, her guardian got what he wanted.
He was intent on displaying his daughters, Theresa and Anna, with Greta as their chaperone. He believed a little time spent in good company would do wonders for his girls–especially if that company meant Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Salzburg.
At the sound of hammering, where each staccato strike echoed down the corridor, Greta frowned. She turned a corner and found two workmen pounding nails into a slim crate designed for shipping works of art.
“Pardon me,” she said. “What are you doing?”
The men paused in their duties and bowed. One removed a nail from between his teeth. “At His Lordship’s command, we’re boxing this painting.”
The ivory-flocked wallpaper was brighter in the rectangle of space where her copy of Titian’s Ars Moriendi once hung.
Greta had thought the copy suitably convincing, but perhaps not. No matter her long nights of frustrated work, she had never been able to match Titian’s ethereal blues. In the end she had taken her uncle’s advice–good enough will do. Had he changed his mind? Had he decided to return the original to its rightful spot? She had never known him to be so finicky.
But she stopped herself from asking. No one but her uncle’s trusted attendant, Herschel, knew of the forgeries. The originals had all been padded and packed into a windowless room in the manor’s east wing. Every other servant believed that Greta was merely cleaning the masterpieces, one by one.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why?”
“It’s to be shipped to a buyer in Vienna.”
“A buyer?” She quickly hid her frown. These men would not find such an arrangement amiss. “Would you open the crate for me?”
The men traded curdled expressions.
Her younger cousin Anna, barely fifteen, claimed that Greta could be charming and sweet if she tried. Finding the proper motivation to make the effort, however, often proved elusive. This was motivation enough. Just what was Uncle Thaddeus intending?
She found her prettiest, most convincing smile and dusted it off for the men. “I know my request makes more work for you, but I love this painting so dearly. I should like to see it one last time.” She ducked her gaze, then brought it back to each worker individually. Her eyelashes might have fluttered but she would never admit it. “Bitte.”
Neither servant moved. Greta’s unheeded request lingered in the still air of the corridor. If only she had bothered to learn their names! A personal appeal might be beyond refusing.
The man who had yet to speak was the first to move. He grabbed a long metal wedge and pried open the lid. His partner shrugged, joining him to lift the heavy wooden slats.
When the crate lay open, she knelt along the gleaming white marble and found where she had painted her initials into the texture of the bare tree trunk. Her secret stamp of ownership.
“And you’re certain this painting–this very one–has been purchased?”
The hitherto silent man spoke. “His Lordship pointed to it himself, Fräulein Zweig.”
Greta nodded. Now that she had confirmed the truth, she stifled the urge to find her uncle and force an explanation. She stayed, if only to make it appear worth the trouble of having opened the crate. The colors…she could hardly bear looking at it. Too shrill. No subtlety.
Disgusted with the shoddy result of so much effort, Greta rose and thanked the men. Then she hurried to her uncle’s study.
Upon being granted permission to enter, she closed the door and faced a nobleman no less intimidating for his short stature–or for being her uncle.
“My lord, you’re selling my copy of the Titian?”
Thaddeus, the Pfalzgraf of Leinz, raised a neatly groomed gray eyebrow. He set his quill aside and folded his fingers on the desk. “Shouldn’t you be dressed for the opera?”
“Yes, I should be.” Greta’s toe tapped compulsively. Her nerves were absorbed by the heavy woven silk rug. “But this…I deserve an explanation.”
“Niece, I hardly think that my business affairs are of your concern.”
“That painting is mine!”
Her uncle blinked.
Greta’s stomach turned over.
Entirely bald, his features pronounced and his demeanor graceful, Thaddeus stood from his desk. He had never harmed her–not directly–but she always found him menacing. His personality dominated any room. There in the cramped study, its shelves lined with countless books and the air thick with mold, ink and leather, he might as well have been a giant.
“I believe you were fairly compensated.” Only the way his eyes pinched at the corners revealed his gathering temper.
Greta tensed her hands against her abdomen. “Of course I was.” She had never dared to press him this far, not on any issue–more satisfied with rebelling in quiet ways. The stress of it made her fingers tremble and her throat burn. “You’ve been more than generous in extending your household to me. But I should simply like to know what will become of it.”
“I believe it will hang on the walls of Rothenberg Manor outside of Vienna. But truly, they could use it to light a bonfire and I wouldn’t protest. They’ve paid us handsomely for it, Margaret.”
She cringed at his use of her formal name. He was the only one who ever used it. “And they know it’s a copy, yes?”
Thaddeus smiled tightly, nothing more than a fold of skin pulling up toward his left cheek. “Let’s just say that their using it as kindling is exceptionally unlikely.”
“They believe it an original? That was never part of our agreement.”
“What I do with the copies you produce is not your concern.”
“But that’s fraud!”
He walked to within arm’s length. “I did not hear you say that, Margaret. You will not even think it. Am I understood?”
Whatever flash of bravery she had mustered fled like a mouse from a hungry cat. “Yes, my lord.”
“I’ve made you a promise, which I plan to fulfill. By the end of the year you will be married to a man befitting your station as my niece–no matter my sister’s folly in bringing you into this world.” He tipped her head, examining her with the thoroughness she applied to her paintings, and with as little delight. “Until that time you will do as you’re instructed.”
“Yes, my lord.”
His pinched mockery of a smile deepened. “Good girl. Now you have–” he checked the pocket watch at his waist fob, “–less than thirty minutes before our coach will depart for Salzburg. I do hope your maid can make you presentable on such short notice. Go.”
Greta bobbed a curtsy and fled. Almost blindly, her knees like mist, she sped through the manor toward her rooms.
He was selling her copies as originals. Why? Had financial matters become so strained as to require deception? Fear clawed up from her belly.
But whatever his reasons, he had renewed his promise–she would be married before the end of the year. No longer would she need to paint forgeries to earn her keep. With the right man as her husband, she could concentrate on her own artistic visions.
As she rang for her maid, she clung to that promise. Maybe this year he would keep it.
Oliver Doerger had attended more than a dozen operas in his twenty-six years, but he had never sat in the audience to soak up the spectacle. Yawning, he glanced around the cramped anteroom. Opera was not to be seen, it was to be heard in all its muffled glory. Or such was the case for Oliver and the thirteen valets who kept him company.
That he was not, in fact, a valet held little importance. The pretense had to be maintained. On that night, as an unseen soprano’s voice wavered high above the servants’ hushed conversations, Oliver was not charged with collecting secrets or scouting political interests. His task was much more serious.
Hearty applause, dulled by the thick walls that separated the anteroom from the concert hall, marked the end of the first half. The valets scrambled up from their bench seats and eliminated all traces of merriment or fatigue. Shoulders braced and spines straightened. Clothes were hastily smoothed. Men who had just been enjoying an hour’s relaxation–napping, swapping gossip, sharing snuff and nips of whiskey from concealed flasks–transformed back into servants. Oliver watched with detached appreciation even as he executed the same subtle adjustments to his clothing and demeanor, tugging on the wig he detested.
They filed silently out of the anteroom and waited in the heart of Grand Duke Ferdinand’s palatial Residenz. On the other side of the wide corridor, ladies’ maids emerged from another discreet door. Oliver wondered if the atmosphere in the maids’ anteroom was equally lax during their hours of waiting. Most likely. One green girl had yet to erase a smile from her fresh, pretty face. The woman next to her elbowed her in the ribs, banishing whatever personality the girl had inadvertently displayed.
Over four years Oliver had seen this transformation repeated too many times to count. He was probably alone in that he was always impressed.
Bathed in the subdued chatter of cultured voices, the opera’s esteemed audience emerged from Carabinierisaal–the palace’s largest hall. Men wore impeccable suits and women mingled in exquisite evening gowns. Oliver smoothly traversed the crowd before falling into step behind Lord Christoph Venner and his wife, Ingrid. Like any good valet, he endeavored to remain invisible until called for.
“Meine Liebe,” Christoph said to his wife, “there’s Lady Mayr.”
Ingrid glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “If you require a private word with Oliver, you have only to say so.”
Christoph, as tall as a man could be without appearing peculiar, was not built for levity. The trait simply had not been included in his anatomical composition, which made the smile he reserved for Ingrid all the more intimate. “I would like a private word with Oliver.”
Her husband’s opposite in every aspect of temperament, Ingrid beamed. “Oh, Venner, look. There’s Lady Mayr. I would be remiss if I didn’t pay my respects.”
Christoph bowed over her gloved hand and kissed it. “Enjoy yourself, meine Liebe.”
After Ingrid had slipped into the crowd of perfume, silk and gossip, Christoph led Oliver to a secluded corner of the wide, echoing hall. “Any sign?”
“None,” Oliver said. “If anyone intends to act on those threats against Duke Ferdinand, I haven’t caught word of it.”
“Good.” In a rare show of temper, Christoph muttered a clipped string of curses. “Why Ingrid insisted on coming out tonight, I’ll never know.”
“Of course you do. She’s bored and stifled.”
Oliver would describe his half brother’s features as hawkish, except when emotion filled his deeply set eyes and dragged him back toward Homo sapiens. Right now that emotion was panic.
“I can’t help wanting to protect her,” Christoph said. “And the baby.”
Nodding his sympathies, Oliver allowed his gaze to drift over the mingling guests–out of habit, but also out of respect. Ingrid’s two miscarriages weighed heavily on Christoph. Now six months pregnant, further along than she had ever achieved, Ingrid became happier with each passing day. The esteemed Lord Venner, a man used to bending the world to his authority, grew ever more anxious.
Not to mention the issue of Napoleon. The British and the Austrians had only just entered into a fresh coalition against the self-styled French emperor, which meant Salzburg would inevitably feel the pinch of those warring powers. Soon. The timing of potential hostilities and Ingrid’s final few months with child could not have been more menacing.
“I cannot abide being here when she should be resting,” Christoph continued. “And with the potential of violence against the duke, no less.” He accepted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and sipped.
Oliver wanted a drink, too, but he would have to wait until the second act. The necessity of maintaining his guise as Christoph’s valet meant behaving as such in every respect. There was no better way to glean secrets than to be invisible–secrets that could impact the future of the Venner family and the whole of Salzburg.
“Next time you could bring the entertainment to her,” Oliver said, “but you’d have to let her plan a party.”
“Part with sanity or money. You know I dislike such choices.”
“I cannot shelter you from the truth, no matter how distressing.”
Christoph lifted one wickedly arched brow. “And here I thought I paid you well enough.”
“Not that well.”
They had only been on speaking terms for a little over four years, but now Oliver could hardly imagine life without the brother he respected above all other men of his acquaintance. He had no one else, not after years in the Prussian army. Not after his wayward youth. That no one actually knew they were brothers was of little importance, not when he enjoyed the security and purpose inherent in his position.
A young woman in Ingrid’s circle caught Oliver’s attention–caught it and held it. Her well-proportioned figure was wrapped in a comely silk gown of deep shimmering blue. The high waist held her full breasts up to be admired. White lace trim fell toward the floor along a series of pleats that made the most of her diminutive height. But no matter how decadent her body, her face was even more arresting. Oliver had believed such melancholy banned in good society.
Christoph cleared his throat. “Do you recognize her?”
Shaking his head, Oliver was unable to speak. Why did she appear so sad?
“She’s the Pfalzgraf of Leinz’s niece. Those are his daughters there with her.” Christoph finished his champagne and, with no waiter nearby, handed the empty glass to Oliver. “I was at Leinz Manor last month to solicit funds for the city defenses. Leinz introduced me to all three, who were in the midst of planning a mid-August ball. He seemed rather too eager to get them off his hands.”
That prodded Oliver from his reverie. “Aren’t most fathers these days?”
Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France only seven months earlier. Few leaders and even fewer ordinary citizens doubted that his armies would soon resume their bloody plunder of the Continent. Women were entering the marriage market at younger and younger ages, and with even more urgency.
“Margaret Zweig is her name, but she’s called Greta.”
“She’s divine,” Oliver said.
At his brother’s subtle humor, Oliver tightened his fingers around the stem of the champagne coupe. He could no more approach a woman like Greta Zweig than he could ride a hobbyhorse to the South Pole. Which would be his more repulsive attribute–that he was a bastard or a spy posing as a lowly valet? Neither would recommend him to a lady of quality.
Oliver indulged in one last look at the delicious young woman. Piles of blond hair sat on her head like a supple crown. Pale skin smoothed over plump cheeks and an elegant throat, down to where shadows formed in the deep hollow of her cleavage. He licked his lower lip. And yet he was still drawn to her eyes, to her strangely detached expression.
He inhaled sharply and let the breath out in a huff. Enough of this.
Soon the intermission would end. Soon he would be back among the loose-limbed servants and their gossip. He had his duties: to protect the only family he had left and to investigate rumors that had crept through the city’s guts for weeks. He and his brother had worked tirelessly to position Christoph as one of Duke Ferdinand’s primary political confidants. The duke’s future would determine that of their family. To lose their new leader to assassination would be the foul end to two years of subtle labor. Beyond that, all of Salzburg was already jumping at Napoleon’s shadow.
Another assassination attempt against the duke could completely topple public confidence.
“Enjoy the rest of your opera,” Oliver said, smiling as he issued an efficient bow.
Christoph rolled his eyes to the ceiling, as if beseeching patience from the highest possible authority. His lack of appreciation for the arts was legendary in a city that defined itself by a zealous commitment to music. “I endeavor merely to stay awake.”
A flicker of movement in the shadows bristled the hairs on Oliver’s neck. He handed back the champagne coupe.
Christoph frowned. “What is it?”
“Go. Stay close to Ingrid.”
Oliver edged along the outer wall of the hall. The figure had ducked into an alcove, one that faced where Duke Ferdinand stood in a loose knot of attendants.
Enjoying the burst of aggression in his veins–such a welcome change to restraint, manners and one particular sad-eyed woman–Oliver closed in on the alcove. At the mental count of three he ducked inside and lodged his forearm against a stranger’s windpipe.
The man gurgled. His face purpled, almost obscuring his unexpectedly familiar features.
Oliver’s heart thudded twice. His stomach tied into a hard knot as old, old memories assailed him like a hard wind.
“Karl?” He released the pressure only slightly. “My God, Karl, is that you?”
“You should see your face, Oliver,” the man choked out. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”