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The tall, dark gentleman was watching her again. Despite the glare of the gas lights on the stage, Lissa was quite certain his gaze was fixed on her from the shadowy depths of his box. Among the dozen skimpily clad odalisques holding uncomfortable poses about the Turkish Sultan on his bejewelled couch, she alone was the object of his attention.
A tremor shook her, a thrill of mingled alarm and excitement. New as she was to the profession, Lissa had already learnt that when a gentleman regarded an actress in that particular fashion, he had only one thing on his mind.
The sole question now was whether to reject outright his forthcoming offer of "protection," or to risk an attempt to carry out her plan.
"Stir your stumps," Minette hissed in her ear. "It's your turn."
Belatedly Lissa realized that the music had changed. As Nicole, her sensual solo dance finished, rejoined the harem, the orchestra struck up the introduction to Lissa's song. Her steps a compromise between a hasty trot and the much rehearsed languorous glide, she moved to the front of the stage, her long brown hair, worn loose, floating behind her.
It took all her self-control not to peep up at the gilt, crimson-velvet draped box whence, she knew, the dark gentleman was staring. Suddenly her gauzy draperies seemed all too scanty, as if the thigh-length chemise worn beneath to satisfy the Censor had vanished. Willing herself not to blush, she launched into the mournful ballad about how she had been riven from her home by pirates and sold into slavery in Constantinople. Set to a tune adapted from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, the song brought the usual storm of applause.
Next camethe dance of the concubines, greeted by more hearty applause along with the whistles of the vulgar in the galleries and cheers from the dashing blades in the pit. The Grand Asiatic Ballet was proving a popular piece for the opening of the new Royal Coburg Theatre.
A troop of Janissaries marched onstage and the slave-girls fled, with coquettish backward glances.
Safely hidden in the gloom of the wings, the odalisques slumped onto benches to rest their aching limbs. Nicole and Minette joined Lissa.
"Lord Ashe's got his glims on you all right, Lissa," whispered Nicole, a voluptuous brunette, "and it ain't your voice he's after, neither, you lucky hen."
"The dark swell in the third box on the left, second tier. Di'n't you notice him ogling you?"
"She noticed awright," said Minette with a hushed giggle. "Nearly missed her turn, she was so busy making sheep's eyes back at him."
Lissa forbore to correct this misconception. "I didn't know his name," she explained.
"He's a baron, he is," Minette told her. "Plump in the pockets, too--not one of them lords as lives on the banks of the River Tick--and generous with it. They say he gave the Skylark a river of emeralds the other day when he cast her off."
"The Skylark? Miss Carew of the Royal Opera House?"
"That's her, duck, the high-flyingest bird of paradise on the town. She's been Lord Ashe's light-o'-love these six months or more but he's tired of her at last, just like the rest. He's in the market for a new chère-amie, and it looks like you're the one to land in clover."
"Lucky hen," said Nicole again, with envy.
Lissa could not tell them she had no intention of becoming Lord Ashe's mistress. If she asked their advice about her plan, as she longed to, they would think her positively crackbrained for spurning a young, handsome, wealthy nobleman. Still less was it possible to explain that she had not yet sunk so low as to exchange her virtue for gold and jewels. They would be insulted. Neither Nicole nor Minette made any secret of their lovers. It was expected in the world of the theatre. How else was a poor girl to survive?
"I cannot understand why Lord Ashe should be interested in me," Lissa said honestly, recollecting her visit to Covent Garden during a rehearsal, in the course of her search for employment. "I have seen Miss Carew. She is a true beauty, with a superb voice."
"Your voice'd be as good if it was prop'ly trained," Minette assured her, "and you've got a genteel way about you. They say he goes for that."
"Your looks'd be none so bad neither," added Nicole, "if you wasn't so skinny. 'Spect his lordship's planning on feeding you up."
Lissa's empty stomach chose that moment to growl loudly. All three girls burst out laughing.
"Hush, ladies!" the stage-manager hissed at them, though there was little fear of the audience hearing them over the martial music accompanying the Janissaries' dance.
A clash of cymbals brought the slave-girls to their feet, ready for their next entrance. Lissa vowed to herself not to cast so much as a glance towards Lord Ashe's box. Sheep's eyes, indeed! He must not be able to claim justifiably that she had encouraged him.
He had survived his third viewing of the tedious New Melodramatic Spectacle and the Grand Asiatic Ballet. At last the Splendid Harlequinade called Midnight Revelry drew towards its close. As Janissaries, now transformed into parti-coloured Harlequins, chased squealing odalisque-Columbines from the stage, Robert Ashe's gaze followed the little singer.
He shook his head in puzzlement. What was it about her that attracted him? As different as a female well could be from the gorgeous, flamboyant Skylark, she was scarcely even pretty except for those wide grey eyes in her thin face. To one who considered himself a connoisseur of music as well as of feminine pulchritude, her voice was mediocre--strong, sweet and true but unpolished.
Yet something there enchanted him, the graceful turn of a wrist, a glimpse of a slender ankle, a certain air of fragile, virginal innocence.
Though she was new to the London stage, years of experience in the provinces must have honed the art that looked so artless. Her apparent youth had to be the result of the clever application of cosmetics. She intrigued him.
He wanted her.
Well, he'd try her out tonight, and if she pleased him it would be time enough to consider a longer term arrangement.
He reached for his hat and gloves, blessing the impulse which had brought him back alone to the Coburg Theatre tonight. No need to make excuses to guests for deserting them the instant the performance ended. No need, in fact, to keep his seat until the end. The final scene between the chief Harlequin and Columbine and the jealous Pantaloon was almost over. He'd slip out during the Grand Finale and be waiting in the Green Room when the girls emerged from the dressing-rooms.
Ashe found himself neither the first nor the last gentleman with the same notion. Half a dozen others preceded him, from a pair of sprigs scarce out of short coats, blushingly agog at their own daring, to an elderly lecher more in need of a nurse than a lightskirt.
A fair, foppish gentleman a few years older than Ashe sauntered up to him as he entered the room.
"On dit that you have given the Skylark her congé, Ashe," he said in a languid drawl, staring disapprovingly through his quizzing glass at the two abashed youths.
"Even the best grow tiresome in time."
"True, alas." He lowered the glass, restoring his eyes to their normal size above the round, rather full cheeks which dominated his underslung chin. "Might have a try there. There's nothing in this crop to match her."
"The Skylark's not your usual style, is she? I thought you preferred less ripe charmers." Ashe had always regarded with distaste Lord Quentin Teague's pursuit of young, unsophisticated damsels, though he had no evidence the man was actually a corrupter of innocents. Now that he found himself drawn to the little singer, he had lost his grounds for disapproval.
Of course, her unworldly air was a mask, he told himself. No doubt it enabled her to exacted a higher price from her lovers than her meagre figure otherwise allowed.
"I fear you are too late for la belle Carew, anyway, Teague," he continued. "She has already accepted carte blanche from Bosworth."
"Ah well," sighed Lord Quentin philosophically, "Daresay it's all for the best. She's an expensive bit of muslin and my pockets ain't quite as deep as yours."
"Not to mention that my sister would be bound to hear of your taking up with so prominent a Paphian," Ashe noted, his tone dry.
"My eternal devotion to Lady Orton has nothing to do with such affairs, my dear fellow. Besides, she won't have me."
"Daphne has the deepest doubts about your suitability as a step-papa for Colin."
"Justifiably, mon vieux, justifiably," Lord Quentin admitted with the greatest good humour. "Were we wed, I'd pack the squalling brat straight off to school. Ah, Waddingham," he addressed one of a group of gentlemen just entering the Green Room, "I've a bone to pick with you."
He drifted away. Ashe was accosted by another of the group. By the time they finished discussing the merits and demerits of a horse he was considering purchasing, the room was crowded.
A sudden lull in the buzz of conversation announced the arrival of the performers. A bell-like laugh rang out, and the babble resumed as admirers and well-wishers gathered about the principal actors and actresses. Excusing himself, Ashe made his way through the mob. Over their heads, he saw the girls of the chorus coming through the door from backstage, a fluttering, twittering flock of bright-hued ladybirds.
Amongst them, he sought in vain for his songstress.
Then he spotted her. He might not have recognized her had she not raised her bowed head, revealing those luminous grey eyes beneath the brim of the dowdy black bonnet hiding her beautiful hair. In contrast to her colourful companions, she was dressed in an ill-fitting, Quakerish grey gown, long-sleeved and high to the neck, and she carried a dark brown cloak over her arm.
Ashe grinned. She was carrying the pose of innocence almost too far. Few gentlemen in search of a bit of fun would pay her the least heed--which was all to the good, since it meant he'd have few or no rivals for her favours.
Except for Teague. Damn the fellow, he was heading straight for her, a determined look in his protuberant blue eyes. The hint of competition whetting his blood, Ashe hastened his pace, but he was farther off by several feet and several obstructive couples intent on their own affairs.
"Sorry," he muttered, brushing past a dancer whose plump bosom quivered in an apparent attempt to leap from her brief cherry-striped bodice.
Teague stopped, his arm caught by an acquaintance. Ashe forged on.
"No show tomorrow, Lissa," cried the wearer of the cherry-striped bodice from behind him. "Make the most of it."
The girl--Lissa--half raised her hand in acknowledgement, blushing. Close to, she appeared not a day older than she had on the stage. The top of her head scarce reaching his chin, she gazed up at Ashe with combined defiance and appeal.
He frowned. "You're very young."
Lissa drew herself up proudly. "I am nineteen, sir."
"Well out of leading-strings," he agreed with a smile. "Will you give me the pleasure of taking supper with me, Miss ... Lissa?"
"F-Findlay, my lord. Melissa Findlay. I...."
As she hesitated, Lord Quentin joined them.
"Stolen a march on me, eh, Ashe?" he said, trying without success to hide his annoyance. "Not your usual style. You'll not keep his interest long, my dear. Do better with me."
She recoiled a trifle, almost imperceptibly, but her voice was composed. "I thank you, sir, but Lord Ashe was beforehand with his kind invitation."
Shrugging, Teague reached into his breast-pocket for his card-case. "As you will," he said indifferently, handing her a card. "When he tires of you, you may contact me here. It's just possible I may still be interested." He turned away.
Ashe took her cloak and draped it about her shoulders, which drooped a little beneath the weight of the thick, heavy duffel. If she satisfied him, if they reached a satisfactory arrangement, he would clothe her in velvet and cashmere against the chill of the spring nights, he thought.
Tentatively she laid a hand light as a butterfly on his proffered arm. He noted with complacency that she had let Teague's card drop to the floor.
To Lissa's dismayed eyes, the cushioned couch against the far wall dominated the candlelit private parlour of the Piazza Coffee House, Covent Garden. As big as a bed, it loomed threateningly beyond the table in the centre of the room.
She had assumed a change of scenery before the third act of this farce. No matter, she assured herself stoutly. The play was to be booed and hissed from the stage before it reached its dénouement.
Nonetheless, she could not quite suppress a tremor of anxiety. What if the principal actor refused to retire into the wings, turning her planned comedy into a tragical drama? Though Lord Ashe had thus far treated her with courteous consideration, she could not but be aware of a forceful masculinity held in check.
The heat of his gaze contradicted the mildness of his tone as he handed his hat and gloves to the obsequious waiter and said, "Allow me to relieve you of your cloak and bonnet, Miss Findlay."
Paradoxically, the fire in his hungry brown eyes made Lissa shiver--and not entirely from alarm.
Divested of her outer clothing, she somehow felt as exposed in her modest kerseymere gown as she had in the diaphanous stage draperies. She crossed to the fireplace and held out her hands to the flames.
"It is chilly for May," Lord Ashe remarked. He turned to the waiter. "Turtle soup to start with, and asparagus, and then the finest delicacies from tonight's bill of fare. Miss Findlay, do you care for creams and jellies?"
Creams and jellies! After a moment of yearning, Lissa said firmly, "I prefer pastries, sir."
"Pastries it is, and whatever hothouse fruit you have." He ordered wines with exotic names, which Lissa promised herself not to so much as taste, then he added, "Bring everything at once, if you please. We shall serve ourselves."
The waiter cast a curious glance at Lissa as she uttered an involuntary, inarticulate protest. She had counted on frequent interruptions from servants.
Lord Ashe nodded dismissal at the waiter and came to join her by the fire, smiling.
"Did you wish to be waited on hand and foot?" he asked in a caressing voice. "Never fear, I shall be your cavaliere servente." In answer to her look of enquiry, he explained, "Your willing slave, a slave of love."
If only he meant love, not mere passion! Lissa was swept with a wave of longing to be truly loved by this man, or at least to be able to trust him, to let his broad shoulders share the weight of her self-imposed burdens. Impossible dream.
"I am perfectly able to help myself, my lord," she said primly.
He laughed, but turned the subject as a pair of waiters came in to set the table with a snowy white cloth, gleaming silver and sparkling crystal.
"Is the Royal Coburg a satisfactory employer, Miss Findlay?"
"I was fortunate indeed to find a new theatre about to open its doors when I came to London. It is very difficult to get a place in the established companies."
"You are a newcomer to the metropolis? I guessed it."
Afraid he was going to ask whence she came, Lissa frantically racked her brains for a polite but uninformative answer. To her relief, he merely asked whether she had yet viewed many of the sights of the city.
He seemed rather startled to learn she had seen nothing but St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. She nearly explained that, after visits to the great churches upon her arrival, all her time and energy had been spent on the search for work. How close to despair she had often come! How close to despair she was now, for even if tonight's scheme succeeded, the success would be no more than a temporary remedy.
She nearly explained, but she could not bear that Lord Ashe should suppose her to be making a deliberate play for sympathy. So she smiled, with an effort, and said she had heard there was to be a balloon ascension from Hyde Park tomorrow which she hoped to attend.
"I trust the weather will cooperate," his lordship observed. "In my experience, these events are postponed as often as not. Ah, here is our supper. Will you be seated, ma'am?"
He held her chair for her, facing the fire not the couch to her relief--relief spoiled when she realized his place was laid adjacent to her rather than opposite. She tucked her feet back under her chair for fear of colliding with his ankles.
However, the savoury odour rising dizzyingly from the tureen before her drove all fears of the baron's expectations from her mind.
Whether to eat her fill was the only remaining doubt. She glanced calculatingly from the dishes crowding the table top to the figure of her host. Broad shoulders and powerful chest tapered to slim waist and flanks: Lord Ashe did not look as though he was given to overindulgence in food. There would be plenty left whatever inroads she made, and she would regret not having taken full advantage of the bountiful supply should he fail to fall in with her plans.
Turtle soup; asparagus to dip in melted butter; turbot in lobster sauce; cutlets of spring lamb with minted new peas and new potatoes; a fricassee of chicken and mushrooms; stuffed fillet of veal in a pastry case--Lissa sampled everything. She had never eaten such well-seasoned, deliciously sauced, beautifully garnished dishes before.
Lord Ashe watched with an air of amused tolerance. Recalling Minette's jest about his wishing to feed her up, Lissa almost giggled aloud. He himself ate little, though emptying his glass with some regularity. Lissa took a sip or two of wine after a rather salty mouthful. She did not care for the taste, so was not tempted to drink more, despite his lordship's occasional gentle urging.
He was a charming host. Besides keeping her plate filled, as promised, he made her laugh with a droll review of the Coburg Theatre's melodrama, ballet, and harlequinade, always exempting her own performance from his wit.
He went on to tell fascinating stories of the London theatre world, of Sheridan and Byron, of Kemble, Siddons, and Kean, and the great soprano Catalani.
"You ought to take singing lessons," he said, "if you wish to advance in your profession. I daresay I could arrange for one of the best teachers to accept you as a pupil. Ah, you have reached the sweets stage, I see. Try one of these petit puits d'amour." He reached for a plate of jam tarts, the crimped puff paste circles glazed to a golden shine around the jewel-bright centres.
Lissa took one. "Petit puits...?" she asked, nibbling.
"You don't speak French? No, of course you don't." Lord Ashe looked a trifle disconcerted.
On the point of informing him that, though ignorant of French, she read Greek, Lissa held her tongue. It was bound to lead to unwanted curiosity, and he already sensed something smoky about her antecedents, or he would not have unconsciously expected her to know French.
Before she could think of some way to distract him from the subject, Lord Ashe pushed back his chair and took her hand in his. At the touch of his lean, warm fingers, a shock ran up her arm. She froze.
She had almost forgotten his purpose in treating her to supper.
"Puits d'amour, 'little wells of love.'" His burning gaze moved from her eyes to linger on her lips, then down to her bosom. "I am eager to discover what you have hidden behind that Puritan costume, my Lissa. If you have eaten your fill, it is past time to plumb the Well of Love."