“You’re going to love this play,” Marcus told me.
He led me out of my front door into the chill of the spring night. I had faced down John hours ago, refusing to allow Haydar to accompany us to the theatre. Only Henry’s gentle prodding, paired with his obvious concern for my welfare had coaxed me into conceding that Adnan and Doruk could guard me instead.
“It’s about two star-crossed lovers from warring families,” Marcus said. “Not to spoil anything, but this is a tragedy, and as you can imagine, it doesn’t go well for them.”
“It sounds like Romeo and Juliet.”
My brother’s face fell. “Oh, you’ve already seen it.”
“I haven’t seen it; I’ve read it. It’s one of the most famous plays ever written. Didn’t you learn anything at Eton?”
“I had better things to do than pay attention in class,” he said with an imperious wave of his hand.
He’d meant the comment as a joke, but instead of laughing, I had to fight down the urge to growl. Women weren’t allowed an education, and here he was, shoving it in my face that he had taken his own for granted.
I took a deep breath to calm myself and immediately regretted it. My corset pinched my bruised side. Harriet had tied it looser than normal, and we’d slipped a square of cotton coated in one of Mrs. Marston’s unguents between my skin and the whalebone to pad it, but it still hurt.
“Are you all right?” Marcus asked, catching sight of my expression.
“I’m fine, it’s this new corset,” I lied.
“I don’t know why you ladies wear those fangled contraptions.”
“Funny, I could say the same thing about your cravat,” I shot back.
He chuckled, but his laughter cut short when he caught sight of the new “footmen” that waited for us on either side of the carriage door. “Kit, who are they?” he asked, voice low.
“Our new footmen.”
His grip on my arm tightened. In anyone else, I might have suspected his distrust was born from some xenophobic origin, but Marcus’ valet was also Ottoman. No, like me, my brother simply saw more than he let on. He knew there was something off about Adnan and Doruk, and though each had adopted the more open and friendly appearances they had showed me in our entryway, Marcus sensed that there was more hidden beneath their servile surfaces.
“Be careful around them,” he warned when we were safely inside the cabin.
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re just footmen.”
“I mean it, Kit.”
I affected a sigh. “Yes, fine, if you insist. Now tell me, which character is Antoine playing?”
He filled me in during the drive, going into such detail about his lover’s fine performance that I felt like I’d already watched the show by the time we pulled up to Drury Lane.
The theatre loomed above us when we exited the carriage, its towering brick and stone façade acting as a backdrop to the chaos of the crowd in front of it, as if the entrance to the building was a stage unto itself, and us its actors. The torches ensconced on its exterior had been lit, and the breeze that had sprung up earlier in the day sent firelight dancing over the people who streamed in through the theater’s open doors.
I was thankful for my heavy cloak. The wind was frigid and filled with that sharp, clean, indefinable scent that promised snow. Our English spring, as always, was proving unpredictable, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a fine white dusting coated the city by the time the play ended.
“Your Grace,” Marcus said, offering his arm to me. His expression was the definition of polite, but there was a teasing edge in his gaze that made me want to roll my eyes at him.
“Thank you, Lord Rycroft,” I responded with stuffy formality.
He grinned and led me toward the doors.
Each gust of wind tugged at my hair and sent the diamond drops in my ears to swaying. Icy fingers grasped at my cloak and tried to tug it open. I was thankful for the crowd, because they blocked the worst of it, but just as we reached the doors, a particularly strong burst flattened my skirts to my legs unbecomingly. With one last push, we passed through the threshold and into the warmth of the theatre.
“Is my hair a mess?” I asked. It might have been a vain question, but it was also an important one. Our box was one of the eight that rose alongside the stage, and the entire audience would have a clear view of me throughout tonight’s performance. Now, of all times, I must present a flawless appearance.
“Come here,” Marcus said. He smoothed back a few loose strands with nimble fingers and then re-set two of my hair pins. “All done. Shall we proceed, or do you need to reapply your rouge too?”
I pinched his arm as I re-took it. “Cad.”
“Harlot,” he shot back.
I smiled despite myself. He might irritate me to no end at times, but I loved him like no one else. The fact that he could even make me smile tonight spoke volumes.
It took us nearly twenty minutes to get to our seats. It was closing night, and ever seat in the house was expected to be filled. We were forced to stop and greet countless acquaintances.
“It feels like we’re attending a ball, not a play,” Marcus grumbled at one point.
I couldn’t agree with him more, but I held my tongue. I was too busy trying to commit every person I saw to memory, replaying conversations so that I remembered them better, studying our surroundings for anything that looked off or anyone who seemed out of place, because I was positive that McNaught would demand that I recount it all for him.
Though Marcus complained about the crowd, he was in his element, joking with the men and flirting with the women. Unlike myself, he was friendly with almost everyone in polite society, and I was thankful that he did the majority of the talking as we wove our way through the crush.
“Wait,” I said when we were nearly free. “I know them.”
A couple stood near the stairs: Mary and Ben Ainsley. I guided my twin over to say hello.
“Your Grace,” they chorused, Mary dropping into a low curtsey as Ben bent into a bow.
“It’s so nice to see you both,” I said, giving them a real smile.
“You as well, Your Grace,” Mary said.
“May I introduce my brother, Lord Rycroft? Marcus, this is Mr. and Mrs. Ainsley. Benjamin is John’s head clerk.”
“A pleasure to meet you, my lord,” Ben said.
“And you as well, sir,” Marcus returned.
“If you’ll excuse us, we have to find our seats,” I said. “But Mary, I do hope you call again soon.”
“Of course, Your Grace. I’ll send a note around tomorrow morning,” she said.
“I’ll look for it,” I told her.
With that, we parted ways.
“I don’t believe it,” Marcus said. “My stuffy sister has made an actual friend.”
“Yes, well, I needed to find a replacement for my absent twin.”
“Kit,” he said, pausing to turn toward me. His expression was apologetic.
I tugged his arm to get us moving again. “I was only teasing. Come now, or we’ll never get to our seats.”
“Half teasing,” he said when we reached the stairs.
“Yes, but I meant it in good humor.”
We swept into our box a few minutes later, both of us stopping short. The sight of the theatre spread out in front of me chased the lingering darkness from my mind. Even after all this time, it still took my breath away. The highest-ranking nobles held the eight private boxes in the very front of the theater. There were four on each side of the stage, and when facing them, ours was the third up on the right. These boxes were more ornately decorated than the forty others that rose along the outer walls. They were hung with red velvet curtains, and the wood paneling was highly gilded and painted with scenes of cherubs and angels.
Beyond us, the theatre was full to bursting. The lively mob of commoners in the open seats below clamored over and around each other like an army of ants. Orange Girls hacked their wares, young rakes called out to friends and flirted with everything in a skirt, and those that were already in their cups spoke too loudly and roared with laughter, forcing others to yell in order to be heard over them. The noise was deafening.
I grinned as I took it all in. This boisterous disorder was one of the many reasons I’d always enjoyed coming to the theatre.
The domed ceiling rose a full four stories over the pit, and because the room had been designed to carry sound from the stage, it only amplified the cacophony. Columns dropped from the cavernous height to frame the stage. Above them was a scene carved straight from Olympus. The Greek theme was reflected throughout the theater: classical marble sculptures stood in every alcove; ancient designs were etched into the ceiling; the paintings interspersed around the room were full of dancing nymphs and cunning gods.
Lording over it all was a massive chandelier made of crystal and gold. It was said that heavy beams had to be added to the framework of the roof just to support its weight, and that the chain it hung from was made of solid steel. The stone that spread away from it tapered down to form an arch over each of the top boxes, the chandeliers hanging from them miniatures of the massive fixture above. Still more swung out from each floor, held in place by beautifully crafted wrought iron hinges.
The delicate woodwork and the heavy gilding that adorned the theatre were kept in impeccable repair, and they reflected all this golden light beatifically. Likewise, the theatregoers were displayed to their fullest, the candlelight dancing off jewels and opera glasses, falling softly on the delicately painted faces of the ladies before accentuating their corset-enhanced chests. Their male counterparts looked grander in the forgiving light, their shoulders wider, their hair so soft it begged to be touched. It was no wonder that most of the crowd would pay more attention to their fellow attendees than what was taking place on stage.
I hadn’t realized that I’d walked to the edge of our box to take it all in until Marcus joined me. “I love the theatre,” he said. “Is there any grander spectacle?”
I reached out and squeezed his hand.
Not long after we’d taken our seats, the musicians took theirs in the orchestra pit and began tuning their instruments. The noise only added to the din. Now that I was seated, my view of the theater was mostly obscured. I turned my attention to the boxes opposite us, thinking to make note of others in attendance that I might have missed during out entrance.
The box directly opposite ours belonged to the Duke of Glover, and I was surprised to see that the elderly man was actually in it. Like John, he rarely attended the theatre. His large family gathered around him. My gaze caught on a shadowy figure in the back row.
McNaught leaned forward into the light and smiled straight at me.
I stiffened, forced to release my grip on my opera glasses when they let loose an ominous crunch.
That smug, self-satisfied arse.
I gave McNaught my haughtiest glare and looked away, distracting myself from his presence by taking in still more faces, adding still more names to the growing register in my head. At this point, it might be more appropriate to simply make a list of those who weren’t in attendance.
A few moments later, the conductor stood on his raised podium in the pit, and as the first few notes of the opening piece began to sound, the roar of the crowd dwindled to a low-level hum. Beside me, Marcus leaned forward in his seat, his face rapt as he listened to the music. When the song ended, the first layer of the red velvet curtains on stage were slowly pulled back, revealing a single, black-clad figure standing in front of the second, grander set. It was a man in his late forties, his hands clasped behind his back as he took a few steps forward. Though he was physically unremarkable, there was something in the way he carried himself that drew the eye, that silenced the crowd.
“Two households,” he spoke, his low voice resonating through the room as though it had been magically amplified. “Both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.” I barely caught myself as I started to lean toward him, wanting a better view, wanting to let his melodic tone roll over me. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
I knew in that moment the next time I read the play, I would hear this man’s voice in my mind, would never forget such a riveting speech.
When he was finished, he bowed before walking off stage, the curtains behind him opening as he withdrew. The play progressed from there, and though Romeo was dashing and Juliet fair, neither of the actors playing them possessed the same charisma as the man who had delivered the prologue.
“There he is. Antoine,” Marcus whispered a few scenes later, grabbing my arm as a young man swaggered into view.
Oh, but he was handsome. His face was youthful and bright, almost too pretty to be masculine, with a wide mouth, narrow nose, and slightly tilted eyes. The mop of hair that sat above it all was dark and curly, lending him a devil-may-care rakishness. Like the man from earlier, there was something about him that drew you in, and I could easily see why he had captured my brother.
“Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance,” he said, one arm casually draped over the handle of his prop sword, the other swinging out to gesticulate.
He was good. Better than Romeo. He was so enthralling that near silence reigned in the theater each time he spoke.
“True, I talk of dreams;
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the North
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping South.”
“He’s incredible, Marcus,” I whispered, reaching out to grip my brother’s hand.
He squeezed mine tightly in return.
At intermission, we stood from our seats to mingle with our neighbors. I was the first to step from our box. Just as Marcus followed me, I caught sight of the Earl and Countess of Osley.
“Oh, for the love of God. Not now,” I said. I couldn’t deal with them tonight.
Marcus let out an indignant squawk as I shoved him back inside. “What the bloody hell?”
“The Osleys,” I said, tugging the curtains shut behind us.
He shuddered. He might not share a long-standing familial grudge with the earl, but he disliked them both nonetheless. They were widely considered insufferable.
A moment later the curtains of our box twitched open, but instead of the Osleys, someone even worse stepped inside: The Duchess of Amesbury.
Marcus groaned under his breath.
“Your Grace,” we greeted in tandem.
“Ah, I see your brother has managed to drag you to closing night. No doubt your husband knew better than to attend,” she said, somehow insulting us without her own attendance seeming hypocritical. I’d learned long ago that no one had perfected the art of the subtle cut quite like she.
“He did, Your Grace.”
We spent the next few minutes in her company, Marcus’s dislike written all over his face and my own hidden deep within. Though she kept the conversation casual, the duchess made it known in no uncertain terms that I was now persona non grata to her.
“What the hell did you do to rile that old bat?” Marcus asked after she left.
“I may have instigated a minor uprising in her recital room.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “My sister, the revolutionary.”
There were still ten minutes left in the intermission, and we left our box and sought out more pleasant company. We found it in Randolph, Marcus’ close friend, a man I knew more tales about than I probably should have. I attempted to wipe all knowledge of them from my expression when he introduced me to his wife, a pretty young lady from a grander house than his, who had brought a considerable dowry to the union.
Marcus suffered no such compunction. “It must bring back memories, being here,” he said to his friend.
“Ah, yes,” Randolph answered, sending a panicked look at his wife.
“One of the dancers looks a little familiar, don’t you think?” my brother pressed.
I would have elbowed him in the ribs if it wouldn’t have been so obvious.
Randolph’s wife wasn’t a fool. She caught the undertow to Marcus’s jests and turned to look up at her husband in a way that didn’t bode well for the man.
“Yes, well, it was so nice to see you again, Randolph, but I think I hear the end of intermission tone,” I said, dragging my brother away.
Marcus laughed all the way back to our box.
“You are incorrigible,” I said.
“One of the many reasons you love me so much,” he told me, dropping back into his seat.
I went to take my own and froze. A small, white envelope sat upon the cushion.
No! Not here! Not now! I pleaded, blinking furiously in the hope that it would disappear. It didn’t, and I knew, I knew, that whoever had placed it there was watching. I schooled my face the best I could, snatched it up, and sat down.
Marcus turned to me just as I slid it up my sleeve “What was that?”
“Nothing,” I told him, praying that he would drop the subject.
I should have known better.
“You look as though you’ve seen a ghost, Kit. Don’t you bloody tell me it’s nothing.” His handsome face was full of concern as he leaned toward me, an expression that anyone watching would also notice.
It was only with monumental effort that I kept my own turmoil at bay. Instead, I forced my lips up into a smile. “Marcus, if you love me, you will sit back in your chair right now. I beg of you, don’t cause a scene. Please.”
He must have heard the desperation in my voice, because he leaned away from me and straightened in his seat without another word. His face wasn’t the blank mask that I would have hoped for, but it was as close as someone so unused to schooling their features could manage, and I was infinitely thankful for his effort.
I looked away from him and sought out McNaught. He was back in his box and already staring at me. I met his gaze with a blank face, hoping that he knew something was wrong by the fact that I wasn’t glaring at him again or looking away. After a moment, he stood up and spoke to his father before slipping out.
The play resumed.
“Marcus, someone might be coming over here,” I said. “No, don’t look at me. Keep watching the play as though everything is fine. If a man speaks from behind us in a moment, don’t react, and don’t turn around.”
“What the bloody hell is going on?” he ground out, eyes locked on the stage.
“I’ll tell you everything later. I promise.” It was a lie, but I would have said anything in that moment to get him to play along.
Minutes dragged by as I waited for McNaught to arrive, not even sure if he would. My hands shook in my lap. I hated this. Was my every public appearance now under the threat of corruption from our unknown assailants? Would I never know a moment of peace again? Was I doomed to spend my adulthood on tenterhooks just like I had as a child, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next blow to fall?
I had no idea how I would make it through the rest of the play or the social niceties afterward, where I might be forced to meet the very person terrorizing me and never even know it. Where I might smile and speak to them while they silently laughed in my face.
“I’m here,” came McNaught’s voice from behind us.
Both me and Marcus jumped in our seats.
“Put your hand low by your side and form a fist,” McNaught told me. I did as I was instructed. “Hold out one finger if you received another one,” he said. I stuck out a finger. “Can you toss it back to me? One finger for yes.” I told him yes, and as inconspicuously as I could, I slid the missive out of my sleeve and flicked it toward the rear of our box.
He didn’t say anything else, and I had no idea if he’d read the note, or if he’d gone, because I couldn’t hear him. I spent the next hour looking blindly down on the players below me, pretending not to be on the brink of a meltdown, pretending that everything was fine. It was not. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take. What did the letter say? Was it the last? Were there still more to come? When would I get the next one? While at a ball, or another recital, or while riding in the park? And how many more could I receive before I broke down in public? These questions plagued my mind, kept me from hearing or seeing anything that was happening on stage. Someone could have lit it on fire, and I would have continued staring down at it impassively.
The worst part was knowing with all my heart that out there in the audience, staring up at me, was someone sent to spy on me. Had they seen me freeze for a moment before I sat? Had they watched as Marcus berated me and then sat back as though nothing had happened? Did they watch me still, inspecting my face for signs of fear and worry? And were they doing so of their own volition, or had they been forced to? Were they just as terrified and trapped as I now felt, nothing more than another victim?
McNaught never returned to his seat. The play ended with him still out there somewhere, searching for the person who had left me the note. I stood and clapped with everyone else as the cast took their final bow, thankful that I’d managed to hold myself together.
“Marcus,” I said. “I can’t go back and meet Antoine. Not now.”
“So I surmised. I’ll see you to your carriage and make your excuses to him. Then I’m coming to your house, and you better explain just what the fuck is going on,” he ground out, clearly furious with me.
It only deepened my despair. I was going to have to lie to him again. And I didn’t know if he would believe me, or if another lie would break something between us, distance him from me even further and leave me even more alone than I already was.
The next twenty minutes were unbearable. Every gaze that met mine seemed to hide secrets, and every pair of lips that curled up into a smile looked sinister. When the Countess of Osley smirked at me across the room, I made a promise to myself that if it was she and her husband sending me the notes, I would claw those laughing eyes out of her face with my bare hands.
Marcus handed me up into my carriage what felt like a lifetime later. It wasn’t until the door shut behind me that I noticed there was already a shadowy figure seated in the opposite corner. I nearly screamed, my nerves shot, but I caught a glint of familiar blue eyes in the darkness and managed to stifle the sound as I collapsed into my seat.
I sagged back into the cushion, and, to my great embarrassment, started sobbing. The raging river of my emotions had finally found an outlet, my body bleeding out the anxiety, anger, and fear of the last hour. I hated the fact that it was happening in front of McNaught, hated him even more for seeing me so helpless again.
He leaned forward and offered me his kerchief.
I slapped his hand away. “You don’t get to console me right now.” Instead, I dried my eyes with the sleeve of my dress. I’d rather ruin the silk than accept his help.
The carriage rolled forward.
“Don’t you want to know what it said?” he asked.
He stared at me in silence for several long minutes.
Unable to deny my need to know what was written in the note, I finally nodded.
“And Henry Fletcher.”
Altogether, they now read, “I know a secret about your husband and Henry Fletcher.”
We were quiet the rest of the way home.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.