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She was late. Julia quickened her pace, trying to keep her skirts from dragging along the muddy ground, and at the same time shield her face from the persistent drizzle of cold autumn rain. If she didn't reach the Capital Theatre soon, her hair and clothes would be soaked. "My audition," she muttered despairingly, shouldering past the people on the broken, slippery sidewalk. A once-jaunty yellow feather drooped down from the brim of her small hat, and she pushed it back impatiently.
Today was one of the most important days of her life. If all went well, she might become part of the most successful acting company in England. However, if she failed to impress Logan Scott with her talents, she would have to return to the grimy little Daly Theatre in the Strand. The manager there, Mr. Bickerston, regarded the actresses as if they were prostitutes, turning a profit for himself by arranging for them to meet wealthy men. He was furious with Julia for refusing to associate with a lecherous old baron who had been willing to pay an exorbitant fee for the privilege of bedding her. "You'll obey my rules," Bickerston had spat at her, "or you're no longer in the company. The next time I find a man for you, you'll accept him or be damned!"
To make matters worse, Bickerston had a gambling problem, and he often couldn't pay the actors the full amount of their salaries. If Julia didn't make money soon, she wouldn't be able to afford the terrace room she had rented. And she couldn't resort to what the other actresses did, selling their sexual favors to supplement their income. For her that would never bea choice, even if she starved.
Julia sighed, her skin crawling at the thought of returning to the Strand. She had to find a better place to work. Tightening her grip on the damp sheaf of paper in her arms, she lowered her head and walked faster. All of a sudden she rammed into a hard object that nearly sent her sprawling backward. The stack of papers cascaded from her arms. Only a man's quick grab at her shoulders kept her from falling onto the muddy pavement.
"Are you all right, miss?" the man inquired, steadying her.
Julia bent to scoop up her sodden papers. To her dismay, the hem of her skirts dragged through a dirty puddle. "You should watch where you're going," she exclaimed.
"I might say the same to you, miss." The man's voice was as dry and rich as a glass of red wine. He helped her to retrieve the fallen papers, pausing to glance at them.
took them from him before he had the chance to read anything. "I'm on my way to an audition," she said crisply. "I'm very late." She began to walk past him, but he stopped her with a light touch on her shoulder.
"Which theater do you want?"
She looked up at him, blinking as a rain-laced breeze swept over her face. He was tall and wellbuilt, his wide shoulders covered with a heavy black coat. Through the veil of rain dripping from the brim of his dark hat, she could see blunt, attractive features and a pair of intense blue eyes. "I'm trying to find the Capital," she said.
"You've reached it." He indicated a nearby doorway. "That leads to the greenroom, where auditions are usually held."
"How do you know that?" she asked suspiciously.
A smile pulled at the corner of his wide, mobile mouth. "I'm a member of the company."
"Oh." She was taken aback, and a touch envious. Lucky, lucky man, to be a part of such a prestigious group.
His smile remained as he contemplated her. "If you wish, I'll show you the way."
Julia nodded and cautiously preceded him through the doorway into a quiet, dim hallway. Relieved to be out of the rain, she brushed at her damp skirts and tried to straighten them. Politely her companion waited until she removed her dripping hat and cloak, and he took them from her. "We'll leave these in a spare dressing room to dry," he said, opening a door and hanging the articles on the large brass hooks affixed to the wall. He removed his own hat and coat, and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair, trying to bring order to the short, wavy mass.
Julia smoothed her own dark hair, wishing she had a mirror to help restore her appearance.
"You look well enough," the man said, as if reading her thoughts.
For the first time, Julia smiled at him tentatively. "I was hoping for something better than that."
He shrugged. "Your looks won't matter as much as your acting skill."