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Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London
The applause within the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden was deafening, even after the heavy red curtain had descended on Shakespeare's As You Like It, to shield London's most acclaimed darling of the theatre from the audience.
Miss Venetia Fox smiled and hugged her friend and fellow actress as they made their way from the stage. 'They are still on their feet, Alice.'
'I can't believe it! It's amazing! I've never seen a response like it.' Alice Sweetly's eyes were big as saucers. In her excitement her soft Irish lilt grew stronger.
Venetia laughed. 'You will get used to it.'
'You think this'll happen again?'
Venetia smiled at her protegee and nodded.
'You were right. Life doesn't get much better than this.' Alice's face was lit with the same euphoria that was flowing through Venetia's veins. Away from the glitz and glamour of the front of the house, the theatre's corridors were mean and narrow and the decor shabby, but it could not suppress the women's spirits.
Alice hesitated outside the door to the small dressing room that they shared and turned to look up into Vene-tia's face. 'Thank you, Venetia. For helping me. For persuading Mr Kemble to put me on stage with you tonight. For everything.'
'I knew you would be a star.' Venetia gave Alice another hug. 'After the green room we will celebrate.'
'Only after the green room,' Alice agreed. 'See, I'm learning to be professional, just like you taught me.'
Venetia laughed, and a joy welled up in her to see just how far Alice had come in the past year. Alice's face showed confidence, self-respect and excitement. Venetia felt like she was walking on air as she opened the dressing-room door.
She was still smiling as she stepped across the threshold and saw the bunch of roses that lay upon the dressing table. The smile dropped from her face and the lightness of her mood evaporated in an instant.
Alice chattered on oblivious, her face lighting even brighter when she saw the roses. 'Someone's ahead of the game tonight. Got in early before the others.' She touched a finger to the centre of the bouquet. 'Nice little quirk from the usual arrangement, too. Which one of us is the lucky girl, do you think?'
Venetia knew the answer to that question without reading the small white card that had been tucked within the brown paper wrapping the stems. There were twelve roses, soft and velvety and of the deepest darkest red, and nestling in the centre of their arrangement, in such contrast, was a single creamy white rose, just as Robert had said. It was the message for which she had waited these weeks past. It had been so long in the coming that she had almost forgotten what she had agreed to. Almost.
Venetia picked up the card with its scrawl of black ink.
'Looks like you've got yourself a new admirer. And one that hasn't signed so much as his initial.' Alice raised her eyebrows suggestively. 'Very mysterious.'
Not mysterious at all. Venetia forced a smile, but it felt wooden upon her lips. Her eyes moved over the card and she read aloud the single word written upon it in handwriting that she could not fail to recogniseTonight.
'Sounds intriguing,' said Alice. 'Who is he?'
'I have not the faintest idea,' Venetia lied and threw the card down on the dressing table carelessly, as if it meant nothing.
'That'll put the cat amongst the pigeons with Hawick and Devlin,' said Alice. 'Hawick thinks he's about to close the deal.'
'Then Hawick is wrong.' Venetia did not rise to the bait. 'You're leaning towards Devlin, then?' There was a mischievous sparkle in her friend's eye.
'I'm teasing you!' Alice grinned. 'But if I had a duke and a viscount fighting to make me their mistress, believe you me, I wouldn't be playing so hard to get.'
'Better to earn your own money than put yourself in a rich man's power,' Venetia said, but the rich man she was not thinking of was not the Duke of Hawick or Viscount Devlin, and the woman enslaved, not herself.
She moved her mind away from the past to focus on the evening ahead and just how she must snare a different rich man's interest. According to Robert's covert floral message the man would be waiting in the green room at this very moment. He was just another arrogant lust-ridden nobleman, like any other. Except he wasn't. But she did not let herself dwell upon who he was and what he had done. Nor did she think about the danger. Instead, she focused herself with cool dispassion to the task that lay ahead.
'Hurry yourself and turn around, Venetia. They're waiting for us in the green room.'
'A little waiting will serve to whet their appetites all the more.' They were waiting. He was waiting. Venetia smiled a grim smile at the challenge ahead of her as she presented her back to Alice to unlace the bodice of her stage costume.
'I should not have let you persuade me into coming here.' Within the green room of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Francis Winslow, or Viscount Linwood as he was known, moved his gaze over the mix of gentlemen and peers already flirting with those minor actresses who had come straight from the stage. The room was decorated in the rococo style, the green walls edged with elaborate gold-leafed plasterwork, and set with large ornate mirrors before which crystal-decked candles burned. From the centre of the ceiling a single chandelier had been suspended, studded with few enough candles to hide the shabbiness of the room's gentility.
'Why? Do you not want to see the celebrated Miss Fox, or Miss Sweetly?' The Marquis of Razeby raised an arrogant eyebrow.
'Some other time, perhaps.'
'Hell, Linwood, it will do you good and I tell you they are worth the seeing. If you thought they looked good upon the stage, wait until you see them up close. Miss Fox is all cool silver moonlight, and Miss Sweetly, all warm golden sunshine. Both divine in their own ways.' He moved his hands in the outline of the curves of a woman's body. 'If you know what I mean.'
'So I saw.'
'Which would you go for?' 'I am not looking for a woman right now.' 'Been a while since the last one.' Razeby arched an eyebrow.
'It has,' agreed Linwood. 'I have had other things on my mind. I still have.'
Razeby persisted. 'Maybe. But I think what you need is an armful of something warm and curvaceous and soft to distract you '
'I do not wish to be distracted.' There was only one thing on Linwood's mind right now. And he would have given the world if it had been something as frivolous and meaningless and pleasurable as a light-skirt. But those days were long gone and, given the mess his life was in now, he knew they would never return.
'I have been working on Miss Sweetly and she is ripe for the plucking, but Miss Fox, well, she is a different story altogether. Sweetness versus sophistication. Can you imagine having both of them together? At the same time?' Razeby blew out a sigh.
He understood Razeby was only trying to help, but his friend knew nothing of the truth, of what had happened, of the things he had done. He pushed away the thoughts, the memory of that final scene with Rotherham. 'I will leave you to your actresses and your imagining,' Linwood said. 'And wait for you on the balcony.'
'Miserable sod!' Razeby smiled in his good-natured way and shook his head.
Linwood's lips curved in the ghost of a smile.
Venetia knew exactly how to identify the man for whom she was looking. He carries an ebony walking cane topped with a silver wolf's-head in which the eyes are two set emeralds. Robert's words rang in her head as she worked her way through the men around the green room, all the while scanning for the walking cane. There were canes aplenty, but not the one that she sought. Yet both it and its owner were here; Robert would not have sent the message had he not been certain. And then she noticed the dark red curtain, masking the French doors to the balcony, sway slightly in the breeze. A frisson of uneasiness whispered within her at the realisation of having to do this alone with him, out there in the darkness.
It took thirty minutes to reach the curtain, via Razeby and Haworth and Devlin. But then at last she was able to slip unnoticed behind it. The door was only slightly ajar. She took a deep breath, pushed it silently open and, closing it quietly behind her, stepped out into the cool dampness of the London night.
The moonlight silhouetted him where he stood looking out over the lamp-lit street; a dark, lithe figure, silent and unmoving as if he were carved of the same Portland stone as the balustrade that contained the balcony. Her gaze moved over the dark beaver hat and gloves held in his left hand, and then on to the walking cane in his right. The tip of it touched to the leather of his glossy black riding boot and beneath his hand she could see the glint of the stick's silver wolf's-head handle and the glow of two tiny green gems within. And in that small moment before he moved, all of Robert's warnings about this man and what he had done seemed to whisper in her ear, making her blood run cold. But even then she did not consider changing her mind. She stepped forwards, relishing the challenge.
He glanced round, half turned to her.
'Do you mind if I ?' She gestured towards the coping that topped the balustrade just along from where he stood.
'Not at all.' It was a smooth, low, well-spoken voice, not harsh and cold as one might have imagined for such a man. 'I was just leaving.' His expression was serious, unsmiling, nothing of the hopeful flirtation that was upon every other male face within the green room.
'Not on my account, I hope.' She kept her voice low and lazy and seductive as she strolled over to the balustrade, stopping, not too close to him but close enough, and looking not at him but out over the same view he had been watching. 'Who would have thought such a spot could offer such refuge?' She knew the way to draw a man into conversation, to entice his interest by offering a little of herself. It was a necessary skill of any successful actress and Venetia had spent years perfecting the method.
'Refuge?' he asked.
She kept her gaze fixed on the lamp-lit streets below. The breeze breathed its chill against her cheeks, against her exposed decolletage.
'A few precious moments of calm in a night full of frenzy and demand.' She watched the carriages and the groups of gentlemen with their mistresses on their arms. 'I often come out here before the performance and after. To think. I find it helpful.'
'You do not enjoy acting?'
'I enjoy acting very much. But not that which goes with it.'
'You mean the green room?'
'And more. But' she inhaled deeply and slowly released the breath, and the chill of the night air lent it a misty quality 'it is all part of my job. Written into my contract, would you believe?'
'To entice and delight.'
'Some may call it that.' She leaned slightly closer to him, presenting him with a better view of her cleavage. 'But in reality to generate interest in, and donations to, the theatre. You paid more to visit the green room than you did for your theatre ticket, did you not, sir?' 'I did.'
'To be seduced.' 'By you, Miss Fox?'
'Perhaps ' She let the word hang in the air as a suggestion before lowering her voice as if they were two conspirators speaking secrets. 'Or then again, perhaps not. We actresses are not supposed to tell. Such truths quite spoil the illusion.' She smiled, but only because the role called for it, then glanced across at him, and looked at the murderer properly for the first time. At his olive-skinned face with its chiselled angles and planes that lent him a handsomeness she had not expected. At his dark hair that hung in ebony-sheened waves, and his eyes that were black as midnight and held such dark brooding intensity within that had nothing to do with their colour. His gaze met hers and it was as if he had stroked a finger down the naked length of her spine.
She stared into those dark compelling eyes and her heart gave a stutter and her stomach turned a somersault. She stared, shocked and unable look away. The moment stretched between them and all the while he held her imprisoned in that steady, scrutinising gaze as surely as she did any other man's. Her heart was pounding as she finally managed to tear her eyes away and lower her gaze. With a determination of iron she masked the fluster, reined herself in, but all the willpower in the world could not suppress the shiver that rippled right through her. It took every ounce of her experience upon the stage to regain her poise before she could look at him once again.
'The nights grow colder and an actress can hardly wear her woollens and flannels to work,' she said by way of excuse, knowing that he had seen the shiver.
'Indeed.' His eyes moved over her dress, over the bare skin it revealed and the pale swell of her breasts before coming back up to her face. 'That would not do at all.'
Play the part. It is just another role. He is just another man. 'So what is your excuse?' She held his gaze, her appearance once more the cool, calm, enticing Miss Fox, but beneath the surface her composure was still ruffled. 'Why are you braving the chill of a November evening instead of enjoying the hospitality of the green room?'
His eyes moved back to the Bow Street view. 'I have things on my mind.'
'You disappoint me. There was me thinking that you had come outside alone to wait for me.' He glanced round at her and she curved her lips to show that she was teasing him, even though her heart was still beating that bit too fast. 'Things from which an evening at the theatre cannot distract you?'
'They must be serious or perhaps it is a comment upon Miss Sweetly's and my acting abilities.'
'Rest assured your acting abilities remain unchallenged.'
'You flatter me. And flattery is not permitted out here. I have a rule that it must remain confined to the green room.'
'The truth is quite the contrary, Miss Fox. I enjoyed the performance very much.'
She smiled a wry smile and let her gaze wander back to the view. 'In that case I am intrigued as to precisely what it is that so preoccupies your mind, sir.'
The sounds from the streets below drifted up to her. The silence seemed so long that she wondered if she had gone too far in asking so blatantly.
'Trust me, you do not wish to know.' And there was something in the way he said it, a dangerous, haunting honesty that quite chilled her to the bone.