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“And I’m telling you the truth, Everett,” said Lord Rivers Fitzroy. “The famous Madame Adelaide Mornay is the sorriest, most wretched excuse for a queen that I have ever witnessed.”
“Speak it louder, Fitzroy,” said his friend Sir Edward Everett as they squeezed through the narrow, noisy passage of King’s Theatre. The leading actors and actresses had scarcely taken their final bows, yet already the cramped spaces backstage were crowded with friends and other well-wishers. “There may have been one or two people in Drury Lane who didn’t hear you.”
“Let them hear me,” Rivers said as he maneuvered around a plaster statue of Charlemagne that had figured in the second act. “She was abominable, and you know it, too.”
“What I know is that she’s currently warming Mansfield’s bed,” Everett said, following close, “and I’ve no wish to make an enemy of a man like that. He doesn’t seem to find fault with her, at least not when he’s buried between her legs.”
As the third son of the Duke of Breconridge, Rivers wasn’t particularly intimidated by the Marquess of Mansfield or anyone else, unlike poor Everett, who as a lowly baronet lived in constant dread of offending one peer or another. “Damnation, but it’s crowded here tonight. Who are all these rogues?”
The gentlemen around them had the overwrought, pop-eyed eagerness that marked men in the pursuit of beautiful women who’d welcome their advances. He recognized the signs in himself, for he’d never worked half this hard to reach a palace ball populated by aristocratic virgins.
The door of the dancers’ dressing room stood open, and already Rivers could glimpse the intoxicating delights inside. Lovely, laughing young women, all in the process of shedding their gauzy, spangled costumes without a shred of modesty; what man with breath in his body could wish to be anywhere else? He loved how they darted confidently about in the crowded room, graceful and sleek, slipping teasingly among servants and well-wishers. He loved even their scent, a heady, sensual mixture of face-powder and pomatum, rosin and perfume and female exertion.
“Buoni sera, innamorati!” he called from the doorway, cheerfully greeting them in the Italian that was the native language of so many of the dancers. “Good evening to you all!”
“Buoni sera, Lord Rivers!” they chimed back, like schoolgirls with a recitation, and like schoolgirls, they collapsed into laughter afterward, while the other male visitors glowered unhappily.
Rivers was a favorite with the dancers, and not just because he was a duke’s son with deep pockets, either. He was tall and he was handsome, with glinting gold hair and bright blue eyes, but most of all, he genuinely liked this company of dancers. He sent them punch and chocolate biscuits. He knew all their names, which none of the other gentlemen who prowled about the dressing room had bothered to do. He not only spoke Italian, but he spoke Italian with a Neapolitan accent on account of having spent much time in Naples with a cousin who’d a villa there.
He was also the only gentleman in London who’d managed last year to have a brief love affair—they called it a poco amore, or little love—with Magdalena di Rossi, the lead dancer of their troupe, and survive unscathed. Even more amazingly, he’d managed to emerge after those two months in her bed as her friend. He’d the rare gift of knowing the exact moment to end affairs to make such a transition possible (although a handsome diamond brooch had helped immeasurably). All of which was why now, as soon as he sat in the chair that was offered to him, Magdalena came to sit on his knee with territorial affection.
“Mio caro amico.” She swept off his hat so she could kiss him loudly on each cheek without being poked in the eye. “Our evening is complete now that you are here, my lord.”
“Hah, you say that to every gentleman who comes through the door,” he said, and kissed her in return as he slipped his arm around her waist. Dancing had made her body firm and compact, and he’d always appreciated how her waist was narrow even without stays. “Truth has never been your strongest suit.”
She pouted coyly. She still wore her stage paint, with blackened brows and dark rings around her eyes, and with her lips scarlet, it was a formidable pout indeed.
“I am not truthful like you, my lord, no,” she admitted, trailing an idle finger along the collar of his silk coat. “But then, I am not English, with your English love of truth and, um, franchezza.”
“Franchezza?” repeated Everett, sitting nearby with another of the dancers on his knee. “I can only guess what manner of wickedness that may be.”
“It’s frankness,” Rivers said. “Magdalena has always believed I am too frank for my own good.”
“True enough,” Everett said. “You are frank to a dangerous fault. Do you dare repeat what you told me about Madame Adelaide’s performance?”
That instantly captured Magdalena’s interest. There was neither love nor respect between the acting side of the playhouse’s company and the dancers, with both groups claiming they were the real favorites with audiences.
“Oh, that lead-footed cow Adelaide,” she scoffed. “Vacca! I wonder that you could keep sufficiently awake to judge her, my lord. What did you say to Sir Edward, eh? What did you say of the vile Adelaide?”
For a half a second, Rivers hesitated, considering not repeating the opinion he’d given to Everett earlier. Not only would it serve to inflate Magdalena’s considerable pride further (an inflation that it did not need) to hear him criticize her rival, but the part about how he could do better smacked of boastfulness. He’d had a quantity of excellent smuggled wine with his dinner, enough to give him bravado, yet not quite enough to have him completely unaware of the peril of making a foolhardy statement. His father had always cautioned him against that, reminding him of the fine line between confidence and being a braggart.
But in that half second of reflection, he decided this was confidence, not boasting. More important, it was the truth, and so with a smile he answered her.
“I said that Madame Adelaide is the sorriest, most wretched excuse for a queen that I have ever witnessed,” he declared, heedless of who overheard him. “There is not one iota of royalty to her or to her performance, and if it were not for the lord who’s keeping her and paying for the production, she wouldn’t have a place on this stage.”
“Bah, that’s nothing new,” Magdalena said, disappointed. “Everyone knows that of her.”
“But why doesn’t she make a study of Her Majesty, so that she might better play queens?” he asked. He was serious, too, for willful ignorance was incomprehensible to him; with study and application, anything seemed possible. “If she’d rather not model herself on the queen, then there are plenty of regal duchesses about London. Why doesn’t she observe them to perfect her art?”
“Because she has no art, that is why,” Magdalena said with a dismissive sweep of her hand. “My dancers and I practice every day of our lives, hour after hour until we fall from weariness, but actresses like Adelaide are idle and useless—useless! They do not believe they need do more than display their breasts and mumble through their lines, and expect their suffering audience to be grateful for that.”
“Madame Adelaide should take lessons from you, Fitzroy,” Everett said. “Give her training in how to behave like a queen.”
Rivers smiled, entertained by the idea of giving lessons in regal deportment. God knows he’d seen his share of haughty, queenly ladies, and those were just in his own family.
“I could do it,” he said, “and do it well, too. Given the time to develop a proper course of study and a woman who is reasonably clever and willing to apply herself, anything would be possible.”
Everett groaned. “Only if the poor thing didn’t perish from boredom first. ‘A proper course of study’! My God, Fitzroy, could you make it sound any more tedious?”
“It would be an education, Everett, not a seduction,” Rivers said. “Not that you would know the difference. But it’s only the most idle of speculation, since I doubt Madame would agree to become my student.”
“No, she would not,” Magdalena agreed, and heaved a bosom-raising sigh directly beneath Rivers’s nose. “More’s the pity, mio caro. It would be something to see, yes?”
A small tiring-girl—one of the servants who helped the dancers dress—hurried up to her, bobbing a quick curtsey. In her arms was an enormous bouquet of flowers, so large that it dwarfed the young woman holding it, a vibrant splash of floral color against her white apron and kerchief. Magdalena plucked the sender’s note free, read it, and scowled, shoving it disdainfully back among the flowers.
“Such beautiful flowers from such a ridiculous man,” she said derisively. “But it’s not the fault of the poor blossoms to have been sent by a churlish oaf. Allocco!”
Rivers sympathized with the poor oaf. Any romantic attachment with Magdalena was fraught with such scenes. At first the drama was exciting, yes, but over time it became too exhausting to be pleasurable. He had to keep reminding himself of that as she sat on his leg, her bottom pressing against his thigh in a very enticing manner.
Magdalena’s thoughts, however, had already gone elsewhere.
“Tell me, my lord,” she said in the coaxing voice she employed to get what she wanted. “What if you attempted to train a lesser actress? One who was not as proud? One who, with your, ah, education, could knock the vile Adelaide from her post?”
“Do better than that, Fitzroy,” Everett said with a bit of bravado of his own. “Take some ordinary hussy and turn her into your regal actress, the toast of London. Take this chit here. She’d do.”
He caught the arm of the tiring-girl who had just presented the bouquet to Magdalena and pulled her back. The young woman caught her heel on the hem of her petticoats and stumbled, nearly dropping the flowers, and Magdalena rolled her eyes with disgust.
“So clumsy, Lucia,” she scolded, bored, as if she couldn’t really be bothered to say more. “Mind you don’t drop my flowers.”
“No, signora,” the young woman murmured, her dark eyes enormous in her small face. Although she was obviously from Naples like Magdalena and the rest of the dancers, she lacked their lush figures as well as their voluptuous beauty. She was more delicate, her skin paler, and the dark linen clothes she wore were in stark contrast to the gaudy bright silks and ribbons around her. Rivers saw that, like too many young servants, she had a waifish quality to her that spoke of long hours and low wages.
Yet there was also an unmistakable spark in her eyes, a defiant fire that not even the somber clothes could completely douse, and Rivers guessed that she would like nothing better than to hurl the flowers into Magdalena’s face. He sympathized. He’d often felt that way himself.