â€śHeâ€™s not here.â€ť Scheherazade Martin said the words aloud
in an attempt to force her mind to stop looking for someone
she didnâ€™t want to see. He wasnâ€™t in tonightâ€™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
mindâ€™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 â€śloveâ€ť whispered through her mind, and she
ruthlessly shut the idea away. Love didnâ€™t come to the
likes of her. Her goal was marriage and even that wouldnâ€™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.
â€śMove that lamp,â€ť 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. â€śDo
you want to be burned alive?â€ť
â€śYeh,â€ť grunted the boy, barely ten years old, but he didnâ€™t
move from where he was lying down, peering into a hole that
led beneath the stage. Not until he was cuffed from behind
â€śOw!â€ť he cried, leaping up, his fists raised. â€śWotâ€™s that
Seth didnâ€™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 Sethâ€™s helpers.
â€śThatâ€™s Lady Scher, lackwit,â€ť Joey barked as he came around
from behind the curtain. â€śWe do wot she says as she says
it. Or find yer bread elsewheres.â€ť 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 Sethâ€™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 didnâ€™t
want to see Sethâ€™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.
â€śThank you for your help, Joey,â€ť she said.
â€śYes, mâ€™lady, yes! Iâ€™ll finish up â€™ere. Iâ€™ll do it right
anâ€™ tight, jes how you like!â€ť
Scher managed a smile, and Joeyâ€™s face lit up like a
beacon. â€śYouâ€™re a good boy,â€ť 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 largenessâ€”large 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
â€śYouâ€™re late,â€ť he said, his voice a dark shiver up her
Him. The man who touched her too boldly every nightâ€”in
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.
â€śDemanding crowd,â€ť 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 menâ€™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. â€śThey are expecting me in the
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 didnâ€™t go far enough for that.
There was barely an inch of heated air between them.
â€śWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ť he asked, startling her once again. â€śYou
She held her breath, stunned that he could read her so
easily. Then she released it in a controlled laugh. â€śLa,
sir, but there is notâ€”â€ť
He caught her chin fast enough to make her gasp. â€śDo not
lie to me, Lady Scher.â€ť
She didnâ€™t speak. She hadnâ€™t the breath, not with him so
dark and so forceful before her.
â€śTell me,â€ť 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 didnâ€™t. She couldnâ€™t. As the daughter of an actress,
sheâ€™d learned early not to trust anyone, least of all a
man. â€śIâ€™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, â€™tis all.â€ť
He didnâ€™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. â€śI donâ€™t like it when you lie.â€ť
â€śOf course you do,â€ť she countered. â€śYouâ€™d love it were I to
lie with you, but that will never happen.â€ť
He brushed his lips across hers, and she felt her mouth
swell from the caress. â€śGrammatical banter. Iâ€™m impressed,â€ť
he whispered, and she could taste the mint on his breath.
â€śI went to school,â€ť she said stiffly.
â€śThen lay your troubles aside as you lie with me, and
â€śWe will lay all our lies to rest?â€ť
He chuckled, the sound sending a low tremor through her
â€śNo.â€ť 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 Scherâ€™s presence tended
to dampen the worst of the high spirits.
â€śI must go,â€ť she said as she pressed her palms to his chest
He didnâ€™t move. If anything, his legs pressed her harder
against the wall. â€śTell me what saddens you.â€ť
â€śDo not presumeâ€”â€ť 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 didnâ€™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, heâ€™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.
â€śI must go. Tonight is not the night for Delilah to preside
alone. Sheâ€™s likely to alienate someone.â€ť
â€śTell me what has happened,â€ť he coaxed. â€śI might be able to
help, you know.â€ť
She might have told him then. She might have spilled her
entire malaise in a heated rush, but she couldnâ€™t explain
what she didnâ€™t herself understand. So she shook her
head. â€śIt takes a lot more than grammar to gain my trust,
â€śI can do more,â€ť he said, his every word a sensuous
promise. â€śI willâ€”â€ť
â€śNo,â€ť she said making sure her weariness showed in her
voice. â€śI must go.â€ť
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. â€śI will come to you tonight,â€ť he whispered. â€śI
will make it better.â€ť
â€śI am too tired.â€ť
His teeth flashed again with a boyish grin. â€śI will revive
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 manâ€™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. â€śNo, my lord.â€ť
He bowed in acknowledgment, though there was mockery in the
movement. The kind of mockery all titled men had for their
actress whores. â€śYes, Lady Scher. Tonight.â€ť
She walked away, though she had to force her reluctant feet
to move. She listened for the sound of his footstepsâ€”either
coming closer to her or withdrawingâ€”but 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
Scherâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 â€śladyâ€ť
was here, they could pretend they were â€śchaperonedâ€ť 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 tonightâ€”barely more than a dozen
guestsâ€”which 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 Annetteâ€™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 couldnâ€™t tarry to
chat, especially since a hand abruptly grasped hers in a
sweaty clasp. She tried not to cringe. Even she, the â€śladyâ€ť
of the tavern, had to suffer through being grabbed at every
â€śLady Scher! Lady Scher! Tell her she must give me a kiss!â€ť
It was Mr. Babbott, his thin features looking almost gaunt
â€śA ribbon!â€ť called another young man, Mr. Phipps she
believed. â€śI demand a ribbon that has penetrated her most
Ribald laughter followed that rather sad double entendre.
â€śPoor Mr. Phipps,â€ť Delilah trilled. â€śHave you been working
on that all day?â€ť
â€śAll last night,â€ť he returned with a suggestive waggled of
More laughter greeted his words. Scher smiled with a vague
kind of aloofness. As the â€śLadyâ€ť 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.
â€śOh, no,â€ť Mr. Babbott whispered as he shook his head at
Nell the barmaid. â€śI am a little arrears, these days, and
cannot afford even tea.â€ť
How well she knew that, but he had other services to
offer. â€śIt shall be free, Mr. Babbott,â€ť she whispered into
his ear. â€śIf you can encourage your young friends to depart
early. I believe Delilah has the headache.â€ť
His eyes grew misty for a moment as he looked at Scherâ€™s
lead actress. â€śOf course,â€ť he said. â€śOf course I will, if
you will but tell her of the service I do on her behalf.â€ť
Scher repressed an inward sigh. He had no hope with
Delilah. Surely he knew that. But of course, he didnâ€™t, so
with a rare show of generosity, she called for a bun as
well. â€śA gift from me,â€ť she said when the food arrived. â€śSo
that you know you are valued.â€ť
Again, his eyes misted, but this time they were trained on
her. â€śYou are a true lady,â€ť he said as he quickly took the
bun. He didnâ€™t even secret it away into a pocket but bit
into it right there. It must have been quite a long time
since heâ€™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. Sheâ€™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 didnâ€™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. â€śDear, dear,â€ť he
drawled loudly. â€śI believe the air has gone stale.â€ť 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
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 Delilahâ€™s disappearance. He
would watch over the remaining girls. Most had already made
their nightâ€™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.
â€śMr. Frazier, how wonderful to see you tonight.â€ť It wasnâ€™t
a full lie. She genuinely liked the man. He was a paying
customerâ€”one of their best in both pocketbook and lineageâ€”
and so she set aside her fatigue to chat with him. â€śDid you
like the new act with the dog?â€ť
â€śKit,â€ť he said earnestly, completely ignoring her
question. â€śI have asked you to call me Kit.â€ť
â€śAh,â€ť she said, as she patted his arm, â€śbut you know how
very inappropriate it is.â€ť
He glanced around. â€śPlease, Scheherazade, is there
somewhere private we could go to talk?â€ť
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 Sethâ€™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.
â€śAie, blimey!â€ť interrupted Annette from the opposite side
of the room. â€śIâ€™ve forgotten me wig again. Come along,
dears, and help me with the powder.â€ť
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.
â€śI donâ€™t understand,â€ť she murmured. And she didnâ€™t, she
truly didnâ€™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
She turned back to her companion, only to gasp in shock at
the sight of him on one knee before her.
â€śOh, pray do not look so frightened!â€ť he cried. â€śThis is a
joyous time, or rather I hope it will be.â€ť He grasped her
hand in his own.
â€śMr. Frazier,â€ť she whispered, her mind much too slow to
â€śI 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?â€ť