Read an Excerpt
He was here. Again.
Mina had told herself that she would not look for him, but as she stepped out from the wings her eyes darted to the audience thronged in the standing area in front of the stage, and her heart gave a jolt when she saw him.
The unique design of Shakespeare's Globe on London's South Bank meant that the actors on stage could see the individual faces of the audience. The theatre was a modern reconstruction of the famous Elizabethan playhouse, an amphitheatre with an open roof, above which the sky was now turning to indigo as dusk gathered. To try to recreate the atmosphere of the original theatre, minimal lighting was used, and without the glare of footlights Mina could clearly see the man's chiselled features; his razor-edged cheekbones and resolute jaw shaded with stubble that exacerbated his raw masculinity.
His mouth was unsmiling, almost stern, yet his lips held a sensual promise that Mina found intriguing. From the stage she could not make out the colour of his eyes, but she noted the lighter streaks in his dark blond hair. He was wearing the same black leather jacket he had worn on the three previous evenings, and he was so devastatingly sexy that Mina could not tear her eyes from him.
She was curious about why he was in the audience again. It was true that Joshua Hart's directorial debut of William Shakespeare's iconic love story Romeo and Juliet had received rave reviews, but why would anyone choose to stand for two and a half hours to watch the same play for three evenings in a row? Maybe he couldn't afford a seat in one of the galleries, she mused. Tickets for the standing areaknown as the yardwere inexpensive and popular, providing the best view of the stage and offering a unique sense of intimacy between the audience and the actors.
Mina tried to look away from him, but her head turned in his direction of its own accord, as if she were a puppet and he had pulled one of her strings. He was staring at her, and the intensity of his gaze stole her breath. Everything fadedthe audience and the members of the cast on stage with herand she was only aware of him.
On the periphery of her consciousness Mina became aware of the lengthening silence. She sensed the growing tension of the actors around her and realised that they were waiting for her to speak. Her mind went blank. She stared at the audience and sickening fear churned in her stomach as she registered the hundreds of pairs of eyes staring back at her.
Oh, God! Stage-fright was an actor's worst nightmare. Her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth and sweat beaded on her brow. Instinctively she raised her hands to her ears to check that her hearing aids were in place.
''Focus, Mina!' A fierce whisper from one of the other actors dragged her from the brink of panic. Her brain clicked into gear and, snatching a breath, she delivered her first line.
'"How now, who calls?"'
Kat Nichols, who was playing the role of Nurse, let out an audible sigh of relief.
'"Madam, I am here. What is your will?"'
The actress playing Lady Capulet stepped forward to speak her lines, and the conversation between Lady Capulet and the Nurse allowed Mina a few seconds to compose herself. Her hesitation had been brief and she prayed that the audience had been unaware of her lapse in concentration. But Joshua would not have missed it. The play's director was standing in the wings and even without glancing at him Mina sensed his irritation. Joshua Hart demanded perfection from every member of the cast, but especially from his daughter.
Mina knew she had ignored one of acting's golden rules when she had broken the 'fourth wall'the imaginary wall between the actors on stage and the audience. For a few moments she had stepped out of character of the teenage Juliet and given the audience a glimpse of her true selfMina Hart, a twenty-five year-old partially deaf actress.
It was unlikely that anyone in the audience was aware of her hearing impairment. Few people outside the circle of her family and close friends knew that as a result of contracting meningitis when she was eight she had been left with serious hearing loss. The digital hearing aids she wore were small enough to fit discreetly inside her ears and were hidden by her long hair. The latest designed aids enabled her to have a telephone conversation and listen to music. Sometimes she could almost forget how lonely and cut off she had felt as a deaf child who had struggled to cope in a world that overnight had become silent.
Although Mina had complete confidence in her hearing aids, old habits remained. She was an expert at lip-reading and from instinct rather than necessity she watched Lady Capulet's lips move as she spoke.
'"Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your dispositions to be married?"'
The exquisite poetry of Shakespeare's prose was music to Mina's ears and touched her soul. Reality slipped away. She was not an actress, she was Juliet, a maid of not yet fourteen who was expected to marry a man of her parents' choosing, a girl on the brink of womanhood who was not free to fall in love, unaware that by the end of the night she would have lost her heart irrevocably to Romeo.
Speaking in a clear voice, Juliet replied to her mother.
'"It is an honour that I dream not of."'
The play continued without further hitches, but in one corner of her mind Mina was aware that the man in the audience didn't take his eyes off her.
Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers was drawing to its tragic conclusion. After standing for more than two hours, Prince Aksel Thoresen's legs were beginning to ache, but he barely registered the discomfort. His eyes were riveted on the stage, as Juliet, kneeling by her dead husband Romeo, picked up a dagger and plunged the blade into her heart.
A collective sigh from the audience rippled around the theatre like a mournful breeze. Everyone knew how the ill-fated love story ended, but as Juliet's lifeless form slumped across the body of her lover Aksel felt a sudden constriction in his throat. All the members of the cast were skilled actors, but Mina Hart, who played Juliet, was outstanding. Her vivid and emotive portrayal of a young woman falling in love was electrifying.
Aksel's decision to visit Shakespeare's Globe three nights ago had been at the end of another frustrating day of discussions between the governing council of Storvhal and British government ministers. Storvhal was a principality stretching above Norway and Russia in the Arctic Circle. The country had been governed by the Thoresen royal dynasty for eight hundred years, and Aksel, as monarch and head of state, had supreme authority over his elected council of government. It was a position of great privilege and responsibility that he had shouldered since the death of his father, Prince Geir. He had never admitted to anyone that sometimes the role that had been his destiny from birth felt like a burden.
His visit to London had been to discuss proposals for a new trade agreement between Britain and Storvhal, but negotiations had been hampered by endless red tape. A trip to the theatre had seemed a good way to unwind, away from the rounds of diplomatic talks. He had certainly not expected that he would develop a fascination with the play's leading actress.
The play ended, and as the actors walked onto the stage and bowed to the audience Aksel could not tear his eyes from Mina. This was the last evening that the play would be performed at the Globe. It was also his last night in London. Having finally secured a trade agreement with the UK, tomorrow he was returning to Storvhal and his royal duties, which, as his grandmother constantly reminded him, meant that he must choose a suitable bride to be his princess and produce an heir.
'It is your duty to ensure the continuation of the Thoresen royal dynasty,' Princess Eldrun had insisted in a surprisingly fierce voice for a woman of ninety who had recently been seriously ill with pneumonia. 'It is my greatest wish to see you married before I die.'
Emotional blackmail from anyone else would have left Aksel unmoved. From childhood it had been impressed on him that duty and responsibility took precedence over his personal feelings. Only once had he allowed his heart to rule his head. He had been in his twenties when he had fallen in love with a beautiful Russian model, but the discovery that Karena had betrayed him was only one of the reasons why he had built an impenetrable wall around his emotions.
His grandmother was the single chink in his armour. Princess Eldrun had helped her husband, Prince Fredrik, to rule Storvhal for fifty years and Aksel had immense respect for her. When she had fallen ill and the doctors had warned him to prepare for the worst he had realised just how much he valued her wise counsel. But even for his grandmother's sake Aksel was not going to rush into marriage. He would choose a bride when he was ready, but it would not be a love match. Being Prince of Storvhal allowed Aksel many privileges but falling in love was not one of them, just as it had not been for his Viking ancestors.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that his grandmother's health was failing that had caused his uncharacteristic emotional response to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, he brooded. Today was the twelfth anniversary of when his father had been killed in a helicopter crash in Monacothe playground of the rich and famous where Prince Geir had spent most of his timeto the dismay of the Storvha-lian people. In contrast to his father Aksel had devoted himself to affairs of state and slowly won back support for the monarchy, but his popularity came with a price.
In Storvhal he could rarely escape the limelight. The media watched him closely, determined to report any sign of him becoming a party-loving playboy as his father had been. There would be no opportunities for him to go out alone as he had been able to do in London. If he went to the theatre he would have to sit in the royal box, in full view of everyone in the auditorium. He would not be able to stand unrecognised in a crowd and be moved almost to tears by the greatest love story ever told.
He stared at Mina Hart. The cast wore Renaissance costumes and she was dressed in a simple white gown made of gauzy material that skimmed her slender figure. Her long auburn hair framed her heart-shaped face and she looked innocent yet sensual. Aksel felt his body tauten with desire. For a moment he allowed himself to imagine what might happen if he were free to pursue her. But the inescapable truth was that his life was bound by duty. For the past three evenings he had escaped to a fantasy world, but now he must step back to reality.
This was the last time he would see Mina. He studied her face as if he could imprint her features on his memory, and felt a curious ache in his chest as he murmured beneath his breath, 'Goodbye, sweet Juliet.'
'Are you coming for a drink?' Kat Nichols asked as she followed Mina out of the theatre. 'Everyone's meeting up at the Riverside Arms to celebrate the play's successful run.'
Mina had planned to go straight home after the evening performance but she changed her mind when Kat gave a persuasive smile. 'Okay, I'll come for one drink. It's strange to think that we won't be appearing at the Globe any more.'
'But maybe we'll be appearing on Broadway soon.' Kat gave Mina a sideways glance as they walked the short distance to the pub. 'Everyone knows that your father has been in negotiations to take the production to New York. Has he said anything to you about what's going to happen?'
Mina shook her head. 'I know everyone thinks Joshua confides in me because I'm his daughter, but he doesn't treat me any differently from the rest of the cast. I had to audition three times for the role of Juliet. Dad doesn't give me any special favours.'
If anything, her father was tougher on her than other members of the cast, Mina thought ruefully. Joshua Hart was himself a brilliant actor, and a demanding perfectionist. He was not the easiest man to get on with, and Mina's relationship with him had been strained since the events that had happened while she had been filming in America had led Joshua to accuse her of bringing the Hart name into disrepute.
Kat was not deterred. 'Just imagine if we do appear on Broadway! It would be a fantastic career opportunity. You never know, we might even get spotted by a top film director and whisked off to LA.'
'Take it from me, LA isn't so wonderful,' Mina said drily.
Kat gave her a close look. 'I've heard rumours, but what did actually happen when you went to America to make a film?'
Mina hesitated. She had become good friends with Kat, but even so she could not bear to talk about the darkest period of her life. Her memories of the film director Dexter Price were still painful two years after their relationship had ended in a storm of newspaper headlines. She couldn't believe she had been such a gullible fool to have fallen in love with Dex, but she had been alone in LA for her first major film roleyoung, naive, and desperately insecure about her hearing impairment. The American film industry demanded perfection, and she had felt acutely conscious of her disability.
She had been grateful for Dexter's reassurance, and within a short time she had fallen for his blend of sophistication and easy charm. Looking back, Mina wondered if one reason why she had been drawn to Dex was because he had reminded her of her father. Both were powerful men who were highly regarded in the acting world, and Dex had given her the support she had always craved from Joshua Hart. When Mina had found out that Dex had lied to her it was not only his betrayal that had left her heartbroken, but the fact that once again her father had failed to support her when she had needed him.
Kat's voice jolted Mina from her thoughts. She gave her friend an apologetic smile as they reached the pub and she opened the door. 'I'll tell you about it another time.'
The pub was busy and fortunately the din of voices was too loud for Kat to pursue the subject. Mina spotted some of the play's cast sitting at a nearby table. 'I'll get the first round,' she told Kat. 'Save me a seat.'
As she fought her way to the bar Mina decided she would have one drink and then leave. The noisy pub made her feel disorientated and she longed for the peace and quiet of her flat. She suspected that there were a few journalists amongst the crowd. Rumours that Joshua Hart's production of Romeo and Juliet might go to New York were circulating, and for the past week the paparazzi had been hanging about the theatre hoping for a scoop.
Mina squeezed through the crowd of people gathered in front of the bar and tried to catch the barman's eye. 'Excuse me!'