He’s not here. Scheherazade Martin said the words aloud in an attempt to force her mind to stop looking for someone she didn’t want to see. He wasn’t in tonight’s playhouse crowd, and she had no interest in being pursued by him anyway. She even prayed nightly that he would lose interest and leave her alone. But some desires went deeper than her mind’s ability to block. And yet, it made no sense. Why did she want him so?
He was a lord pursuing a passing fancy. She was an actress and no lord would deign to marry her no matter what he whispered. Besides, her longing was only a symptom of a larger problem. Yes, she craved Lord Blackstone, but she also wanted . . . something else. Something elusive.
The word love whispered through her mind, and she ruthlessly shut the idea away. Love didn’t come to the likes of her. Her goal was marriage and even that wouldn’t happen with him. So it was best if she stopped looking for Lord Blackstone and concentrated on the task at hand. She turned toward the Green Room, moving so quickly that she nearly caught her skirts on fire.
Move that lamp, she said to the newest stagehand, pointing to the offending lantern set casually on the floor where anyone could kick it. The Tavern Playhouse was small, barely enough room for a stage and fifty people, all standing. One little fire and the entire building would burn to the ground before she had the chance to scream. Do you want to be burned alive?
Yeh, grunted the boy, barely ten years old, but he didn’t move from where he was lying down, peering into a hole that led beneath the stage. Not until he was cuffed from behind by Seth.
Ow! he cried, leaping up, his fists raised. Wot’s that fer?
Seth didn’t answer, except to point at the lamp. He was a mute, but he still managed to handle an army of boys with seeming efficiency. Especially since he had the help of Joey, the oldest of Seth’s helpers.
That’s Lady Scher, lackwit, Joey barked as he came around from behind the curtain. We do wot she says as she says it. Or find yer bread elsewheres. He thrust his chin at the backstage door.
There was a tense moment when Scher thought the new boy would fight or bolt. Boys were the most unpredictable in their first week, but he looked at Seth’s massive bulk and changed his mind. Slumping over to the lantern, he grabbed it with enough force to break the handle. Seth was beside him in a minute, pulling him to the door by his ear. The boy started bellowing, but Scher turned away. She didn’t want to see Seth’s brand of discipline. All she cared about was that it worked, and that it was a damn sight better than what waited outside the Tavern Playhouse doors. Besides, she was already late for the Green Room.
Thank you for your help, Joey, she said.
Yes, m’lady, yes! I’ll finish up ‘ere. I’ll do it right an’ tight, jes how you like!
Scher managed a smile, and Joey’s face lit up like a beacon. You’re a good boy, she said as she slipped past another curtain to the hallway that led to their tiny Green Room. It was a narrow path and dark, but she had been walking it her entire life, so she paid little heed to where she stepped.
She was just ordering her thoughts to the task ahead when it happened. She felt an arm on hers, a push from the side, and then she was spun around to face her attacker. She had only the vaguest impression of largenesslarge hand, tall body, and a dull flap as his heavy cloak rippled around them. By the time she gasped, she was already pushed up against the wall. Her backside hit first, so she was able to prevent her head from banging painfully against a ladder, but that was all she could do as his body came hard and full against her, and his cloak hid her from sight.
Her hands fisted and her belly tensed. Slight as she was, she could still fight. And she was already drawing breath to scream. Seth and his boys would be at her side in a moment. No man dared accost Lady Scher, not in her own tavern.
You’re late, he said, his voice a dark shiver up her spine.
Him. The man who touched her too boldly every nightin person first, then later in her dreams. Tension coiled in her belly, as much from hunger now as from fear. Still, it took a moment for her to ease the breath from her lungs.
Demanding crowd, she whispered. She lifted her head to see better, but he had braced his forearm and cloak on the wall above her head. All was darkness in the shadows he created, though she already knew every angle of his chiseled masculine face. She concentrated instead on other impressions. His legs were spread just a little wider than her own, trapping her thighs between his. His belly was flat, but his groin was not, and she felt heat there like never before. But most of all, she smelled the mint of his breath. In a world of stale ale and men’s sweat, mint was a beautiful, elegant scent.
But she had tasks to do and a reputation to maintain, so she pushed against his chest. They are expecting me in the Green Room.
He eased back, but not because she pushed him. She could not have moved him if she put all her weight into it. But he was a gentleman, and so he moved off her. She would have sighed in regret, but he didn’t go far enough for that. There was barely an inch of heated air between them.
What’s wrong? he asked, startling her once again. You seem sad.
She held her breath, stunned that he could read her so easily. Then she released it in a controlled laugh. La, sir, but there is not
He caught her chin fast enough to make her gasp. Do not lie to me, Lady Scher.
She didn’t speak. She hadn’t the breath, not with him so dark and so forceful before her.
Tell me, he whispered as he bent his head to her neck. His lips began a slow tease to her skin, and she shivered in response. God help her, he was good at what he did. And when his tongue teased a circle just beneath her jawline, she was ready to do whatever he commanded.
She didn’t. She couldn’t. As the daughter of an actress, she’d learned early not to trust anyone, least of all a man. I’m tired, is all. Delilah has the headache, which always makes her unpredictable, and Seth caught one of the boys pickpocketing. The child is turned out now, and you know how his life will go. It saddens me, ’tis all.
He didn’t answer because he was ministering to her collarbone, right above the fichu of her modest, brown gown. But she knew he heard her. He was a man who used all his senses. He likely read the rapid pulse of her heart, the shallow whisper of her breath, and the feminine weakness in her knees. For her part, she knew his sharp features and his brown eyes, whether she could see him or not. She knew that taken piece by piece, his looks were average, his build unremarkable except for his height. But as a whole, he had presence. When he looked at her, she felt as if he were looking straight through her into her thoughts. And so he learned things that he should not. Like when she lied about her mood.
He pulled back far enough to hover over her lips. Below, his legs tightened ever so slightly against the outside of her thighs. I don’t like it when you lie.
Of course you do, she countered. You’d love it were I to lie with you, but that will never happen.
He brushed his lips across hers, and she felt her mouth swell from the caress. Grammatical banter. I’m impressed, he whispered, and she could taste the mint on his breath.
I went to school, she said stiffly.
Then lay your troubles aside as you lie with me, and together
We will lay all our lies to rest?
He chuckled, the sound sending a low tremor through her belly. Yes.
No. She forced herself to push him away as reality intruded with the sound of raucous laughter from the Green Room. She was needed in there. Lady Scher’s presence tended to dampen the worst of the high spirits.
I must go, she said as she pressed her palms to his chest and pushed.
He didn’t move. If anything, his legs pressed her harder against the wall. Tell me what saddens you.
Do not presume She got no more words out. His mouth was upon hers. Not brutally, with lips and teeth mashed together. Not gently, as one might reserve for a virginal new wife. But assuredly, with nips of teeth against the edge of her lips and the tease of his tongue between the tiny seam she allowed.
She did not want to kiss him. She did not want the heat of his body to infiltrate her own. She did not like it that she opened her mouth to him, relishing every sweep of his tongue. She was no virgin, but neither was she a whore. Her role in the theater company was as a lady hostess, and so she needed the illusion of purity.
He stripped all that away. He did no more than kiss her, then invade her mouth and touch her until she was lightheaded from the joy of it. He didn’t even press his hips against her so that she could feel his hunger. But she knew it nonetheless, and she knew her own. In barely more than a month, he’d become as vital to her as the cash in the cash box. This man was the newest and brightest light in her very gray and cluttered life.
He finished his kiss, and she damned herself for releasing a moue of regret. Even in the darkness, she saw his teeth flash white as he grinned. So she made her tone especially sharp as a way to salvage her pride.
I must go. Tonight is not the night for Delilah to preside alone. She’s likely to alienate someone.
Tell me what has happened, he coaxed. I might be able to help, you know.
She might have told him then. She might have spilled her entire malaise in a heated rush, but she couldn’t explain what she didn’t herself understand. So she shook her head. It takes a lot more than grammar to gain my trust, Lord Blackstone.
I can do more, he said, his every word a sensuous promise. I will
No, she said making sure her weariness showed in her voice. I must go.
He stepped back and away, but before she could duck past, he grabbed her hand. His fingers were gloved, as they always were, and hers were blunt and chapped, as they always were. I will come to you tonight, he whispered. I will make it better.
I am too tired.
His teeth flashed again with a boyish grin. I will revive you.
How she wanted to say yes. The simmering of her blood clamored that she wanted him to bed her, to own her as a man owned a woman, but she would not walk that path again. When she was sixteen, she had believed a man’s lies. Now she had that experience and the example of a dozen more actresses to know that the men who came to the Tavern Playhouse offered sweet kisses and pretty lies. That path led nowhere. The only escape for women like her was with a wedding ring, and that was not being offered by Lord Blackstone. No, my lord.
He bowed in acknowledgment, though there was mockery in the movement. The kind of mockery all titled men had for their actress whores. Yes, Lady Scher. Tonight.
She walked away, though she had to force her reluctant feet to move. She listened for the sound of his footstepseither coming closer to her or withdrawingbut she heard nothing over the growing noise of the Green Room. Then she was pushing open the door with her customary quietness and slipping inside with the pretense of subtlety.
A few people saw her. Delilah was the first, her eyes flashing with a mixture of gratitude and irritation at Scher’s late arrival. Their lead actress loved the flattery of her admirers, but sometimes their demands grew wearisome. Even from across the tiny room, Scher could see a pinched tightness to her smile, and most especially to her gestures. But at least she wasn’t cursing anyone, and she looked like a queen seated at the only cushioned chair in the room.
Three other actresses acknowledged her with a flicker of an eye or a slight nod. They held court in the other corners, but made sure in one way or another that their admirers knew Lady Scher was here. After all, so long as the lady was here, they could pretend they were chaperoned and cling to the illusion of being a higher sort of actress. It was a lie, of course, but one that brought in a better class of clientele. And that benefited them all.
Scher maneuvered into the tiny room as gracefully as possible. Not too many tonightbarely more than a dozen guestswhich made it easier to breathe, but Scher feared for the company pocketbook. The Green Room offered special brandies and wines, all with higher prices. The more people crushed in here, the more who would drink while waiting for their turn with Delilah.
Scher scanned the crowd, memorizing the faces as she did every night. She saw men she genuinely liked, including Mr. Frazier, who stood in the corner playing with Annette’s dog. He had a way with animals, and that made him a favorite. He glanced up when she passed and flashed her a warm smile, which she returned. But she couldn’t tarry to chat, especially since a hand abruptly grasped hers in a sweaty clasp. She tried not to cringe. Even she, the lady of the tavern, had to suffer through being grabbed at every turn.
Lady Scher! Lady Scher! Tell her she must give me a kiss! It was Mr. Babbott, his thin features looking almost gaunt this evening.
A ribbon! called another young man, Mr. Phipps she believed. I demand a ribbon that has penetrated her most precious hair!
Ribald laughter followed that rather sad double entendre.
Poor Mr. Phipps, Delilah trilled. Have you been working on that all day?
All last night, he returned with a suggestive waggled of his eyebrows.
More laughter greeted his words. Scher smiled with a vague kind of aloofness. As the Lady Scher, she was not meant to understand these things. So she gently extricated her hand from Mr. Babbott and gestured for tea. Mr. Babbott, she knew, did not like ale. And their brandy was too expensive for him.
Oh, no, Mr. Babbott whispered as he shook his head at Nell the barmaid. I am a little arrears, these days, and cannot afford even tea.
How well she knew that, but he had other services to offer. It shall be free, Mr. Babbott, she whispered into his ear. If you can encourage your young friends to depart early. I believe Delilah has the headache.
His eyes grew misty for a moment as he looked at Scher’s lead actress. Of course, he said. Of course I will, if you will but tell her of the service I do on her behalf.
Scher repressed an inward sigh. He had no hope with Delilah. Surely he knew that. But of course, he didn’t, so with a rare show of generosity, she called for a bun as well. A gift from me, she said when the food arrived. So that you know you are valued.
Again, his eyes misted, but this time they were trained on her. You are a true lady, he said as he quickly took the bun. He didn’t even secret it away into a pocket but bit into it right there. It must have been quite a long time since he’d last eaten.
Scher patted his hand and moved away, her desperation growing. She was not a true lady, no matter what anyone here pretended. She was not a true chaperone nor an actress nor anything but a hanger-on in this gray life of the theater. She’d been born here. Twenty-five years ago, her mother had stood where Delilah now reigned. Over the years, Scheherazade had played the part of the baby Jesus, had toddled through the crowd pulling on wigs and pocketing coins, and then later tried her hand at acting. She had sung and danced and played the lute, searching for a place in the only home she had ever known.
But she didn’t have the talent. She would never be a lead actress, could never become more than another singer/whore in the troupe. She had tried desperately to be the star, especially after her golden sister Cleopatra died. She had tried to fill the role, but she was not the beautiful nightingale that Delilah was. That Cleo had been. So Scher found a different way to be useful. She ran the tavern, she supervised the costumes, and most of all, she cared for the money. That gave her a role here, a function at the Tavern Playhouse, but it did not make her one of them any more than it made her a lady.
Meanwhile, Mr. Babbott finished his bun and tea, then began sniffing the air quite conspicuously. Dear, dear, he drawled loudly. I believe the air has gone stale. As he spoke, his eyes turned to Mr. George Hale who was cursed with frequent bouts of gas.
The man flushed red and began to protest his innocence, but it was too late. The damage had been done and he was forced to endure a great deal of mockery. That, in turn, gave Delilah just the opportunity she required to claim illness and escape. And with the lead attraction gone, others soon departed.
Scher continued to play the gracious hostess. She made polite, semiflirtatious banter with the clientele, and soon, she was rewarded with a quiet nod from Seth who had slipped in within moments of Delilah’s disappearance. He would watch over the remaining girls. Most had already made their night’s selection and would soon disappear upstairs or to the boarding house next door.
All was at it should be, and so Scher was free to tend to her more solitary duties. She turned to go but knew she would never make it. Kit was still here, chatting amicably with Annette, waiting until that moment when Scher was free. He truly was a sweet man, smart and charming with his sandy hair and freckled face. And now that the crowd had thinned, he crossed to her side.
Mr. Frazier, how wonderful to see you tonight. It wasn’t a full lie. She genuinely liked the man. He was a paying customerone of their best in both pocketbook and lineage and so she set aside her fatigue to chat with him. Did you like the new act with the dog?
Kit, he said earnestly, completely ignoring her question. I have asked you to call me Kit.
Ah, she said, as she patted his arm, but you know how very inappropriate it is.
He glanced around. Please, Scheherazade, is there somewhere private we could go to talk?
She thought of the hallway between the stage and the Green Room. She thought of the shadows and how in the entire theater, the most privacy could be had in those short minutes when Seth’s boys were busy on the stage and the actresses were busy in the Green Room. But those minutes were gone. There was nowhere private anymore tonight.
Aie, blimey! interrupted Annette from the opposite side of the room. I’ve forgotten me wig again. Come along, dears, and help me with the powder.
Scher looked up, feeling rather dazed as Annette shot a stern look at the other two remaining actresses. Within moments all of them had gathered up their gentlemen and shuttled them out the door. One even picked up the dog. Seth held the door as all slipped out, then he turned back to her. With a slight nod of approval, he ducked away, pulling the door shut behind him. Faster than Scher thought possible, the Green Room was empty save for herself and Mr. Frazier.
I don’t understand, she murmured. And she didn’t, she truly didn’t. Mr. Frazier was the fourth son of a titled family. He was young, foolish even at times, but would eventually grow into a steady man. He was not one prone to taking mistresses, nor was he wealthy enough to have bribed the room to leave him alone with her. What could possibly be happening?
She turned back to her companion, only to gasp in shock at the sight of him on one knee before her.
Oh, pray do not look so frightened! he cried. This is a joyous time, or rather I hope it will be. He grasped her hand in his own.
Mr. Frazier, she whispered, her mind much too slow to follow.
I wish to ask . . . That is, I want to beg, to plead with you. Please, sweet Scheherazade, will you do me the greatest honor of becoming my wife?