Excerpt: A Passionate Performance

Excerpt: A Passionate Performance

Book 3 ~ Love in Disguise

Chapter One

Chester, April 1816

“Very well, Harry. I shall be your bride,” Sarah Armistead said in an exasperated voice, “but this is the last time.”

Harry shot her a relieved smile. “You’ve got bottom, Sarah, I will give you that.”

She eyed him sharply. Harry’s colorful cant was not one of his endearing traits. “I promise you, Harry. I will not do it again.”

“With a bit of my luck and your skill, there should be no need to. Do you think you could manage to be increasing? ’Twould seal the deal.” He grinned.

Green eyes flashed him a look that instantly removed the smile from his face. “That is too much, even from you, Harry,” Sarah admonished as a flush swept her features. “I daresay my performances are not that good.”

Harry had the grace to look properly chastened. “Ought not to have said that. I forget my manners around you.”

“One must possess manners to forget them.” Sarah gifted him with the stern gaze she had perfected over many months of delivering setdowns to members of the masculine gender. Men often made unflattering assumptions about her character, but that did not mean she would tolerate such careless disregard of her sensibilities. “Any more remarks like that and you can very well go begging to your Aunt Agatha alone.”

“She will probably leave everything to Justin  anyway,” Harry grumbled, “even though he will never wed. No respectable woman would have him.”

“Oh?” Sarah flounced into the chair at her dressing table, angry at herself for accepting Harry’s offer, angry at the circumstances that had forced her to do it. “Pray, what is your cousin’s problem, Harry? Two heads? A weakness for Blue Ruin? An unquenchable thirst for the muslin set?”

“Not two heads. His one is more than a match for most men.” Harry eyed her cautiously, wary of her mood. “The last, perhaps.”

“Do you mean to say that your cousin is a rake?” Sarah pretended shock. “Never say I am marrying into a notorious family, Harry!”

Harry’s chin lifted mulishly. “I suppose every family has a scandal or two. My father was a paragon of virtue, not that it brought him anything. The money and title went to Oscar.”

“Oscar?” Sarah asked.

“Justin’s father — my father’s older brother. Anyway, I have kept my branch of the tree spotless, you may be assured.”

“Oh, yes,” Sarah retorted. “Paying an actress to pretend to be your bride is most aboveboard. I am surprised more young men have not thought of it.”

“Justin has a reputation,” Harry conceded, ignoring the barb. “Comes by it naturally. His father was infamous in his day. Aunt Agatha was cross as crabs after Justin’s duel with Greywood. She fears his scapegrace ways will result in the title being passed on to me prematurely.”

Harry blew a ponderous breath, like a man with many burdens. “She hounded me for months to wed and start my nursery. She had no children of her own — Claremont cocked up his toes years ago, with nary a male relative in sight, so it all went to her. Says she’ll settle her estate on our branch of the family. But she wants legitimate Trents, not the bastards Justin is rumored to have spread about the country.”

At Sarah’s glare, he managed an apologetic smile. “I ought not speak so baldly, should I? Even an actress has standards.”

That last comment did nothing for Sarah’s black mood as she studied the array of powders before her. It was time to get ready, even though there was not one chance in a hundred that she would get to play Ophelia tonight. Rose McIntosh was exceedingly healthy. An understudy could grow positively ancient waiting for Rose to succumb to so much as a headache.

Sarah could hardly blame Harry for his crude speech and his indelicate assumptions about her character. In a profession where women were viewed as no better than they had to be, upholding her reputation was a Sisyphean task. Her poor parents, were they still alive, would have been scandalized to know that she performed on stage for faceless strangers. They had enjoyed the little plays she had put on in the privacy of their home; for them, however, her talent was not for public consumption.

But they had been dead for five years, and her father’s last desperate business investment had removed any possibility of an inheritance. When William was younger, she had scraped by. But now that he was away at school….

Sarah sighed heavily. Acting provided a decent living if one were fortunate to get steady circuit work and could tolerate being considered a loose woman. The best money was to be made on the side, however, and most actresses had few scruples where those side activities were concerned. Sarah had long since gotten used to the leering Lotharios who haunted the theater seeking actresses eager to feather their nests in exchange for performances of an entirely different sort.

Sometimes it was hard to hold her head up as she walked past them through the playhouse doors. She was a respectable woman, even if no one else knew it. Her mother had taught her that virtue was its own reward. If only the reward were not so…intangible.

William would be mortified if he knew the truth — that his sister was not the sedate lady’s companion he believed her to be but a member of one of the most disreputable professions in England. But her brother was tucked safely away at Eton, where a baron’s son belonged and where she meant to keep him. He would get the education he deserved, if she had to do every menial job in the theater, including scrubbing floors.

That did not include joining the muslin set herself, however. God had indeed given her a talent, and while she plied it in a forum her parents would not have sanctioned, she would never hire her body out for satisfaction of a man’s carnal appetites. For all the worldliness surrounding her, Sarah had only a vague notion of what those appetites involved; she only knew that she was determined to retain her honor.

Though it was not, perhaps, the simplest of tasks. She had recently discovered there were varying degrees of honor. This was the second time, for example, that Harry Trent had employed her to play the role of his wife for his Aunt Agatha who, with one foot in the grave, was determined that her wayward nephews would marry and produce heirs upon whom she could bestow her fortune. On the first occasion, Harry had driven her to his aunt’s estate for tea, and Sarah had played the demure, deferential bride with great skill.

Harry had assured her that the charade was harmless, that Aunt Agatha’s wits were dulled, and that Sarah was only helping to brighten the dear lady’s remaining time in this life. Sarah’s conscience had pricked her mightily, however, when the woman’s eyes lit up upon being presented with Harry’s “bride.” The keen spark in the lady’s eyes made Sarah deeply suspicious of Harry’s account of the situation. After that, Sarah vowed to restrict her roles to more benign ones, such as the recent job she had taken reading Shakespeare to an earl’s sickly wife.

But the earl and his wife had since removed to Bath. Then William had written to say that his funds had run out. Another letter had come from the headmaster saying that William was showing great promise in his studies. Thanks to Rose McIntosh’s superb health and the dearth of women’s roles in “Hamlet,” one of Mr. Stinson’s favorite plays, Sarah did not have money to send her brother. Mr. Stinson was extremely stingy when it came to paying understudies for a role they were never likely to perform.

Harry’s offer of a substantial sum for one last performance as his bride was a godsend. He did not have the ready at the moment but had promised to pay her upon receipt of his quarter allowance next month.

Aunt Agatha’s house party was next week, however, so her performance would be tendered on faith. Sarah eyed Harry dubiously.

“I intend this to be the last time. Have you thought about how you will explain my absence from future family events?”

Harry waved a dismissive hand. “I will say you died in childbirth, or some such. She will never know the truth. Aunt Agatha is practically a recluse. She rarely leaves that musty country estate. Telling her you have gone to your final reward will buy me a proper period of mourning. She would not dare pester me to remarry for at least a year — perhaps two, if I am especially heartbroken.”

Sarah shook her head. Harry was willing to go to absurd lengths to avoid the parson’s noose. “Has it ever occurred to you simply to look for a real wife? That would solve your problem.”

“Why would I want a wife? Women are pleasant enough to look at, and some have delightful, er, talents. But a wife is plaguesome. Why, George Ferguson’s bride spent a fortune last year on a wardrobe that she promptly declared to be out of fashion this Season. Who would want to settle down with one woman, when he can have a different one every night? If you will pardon my frankness.”

“I will pardon almost anything, Harry,” Sarah said evenly, “providing you pay me on time.”

“Do not worry. My allowance is due in three weeks. And now that Aunt Agatha believes me to be married, I think I can persuade her to increase the sum.” He winked. “Especially if it seems we are starting a nursery.”

Three weeks. With luck, William could scrape by until then. He was nearly living on charity as it was. Sarah sighed and began to apply Venetian talc to her skin as Harry watched in fascination. She supposed that a proper lady would not have allowed Harry access to her dressing room, but as her dressing area was simply an open alcove off the theater’s back hall, the fact of his presence there seemed merely incidental and perfectly acceptable. After all, dozens of people rushed by nightly. A little screen behind which to change was all she had, and that she shared with several other actresses. There was no privacy in the theater.

In the mirror she could see Harry watching as the profusion of freckles on her nose slowly disappeared and the genteel baron’s daughter vanished before his eyes. Sarah had learned the artifices of her profession well. She thoroughly enjoyed disappearing into a role; it was one of the pleasures of acting. Pretense took the edge off the harsh realities of life. On stage, she became someone else — a woman with passions that bubbled over without a care for society’s strictures, a grand lady with a comfortable life and servants to command, a princess awaiting rescue from a love-struck knight.

Real life was not like that. It was about changing one’s clothes behind a dingy screen and hoping for a modicum of privacy, trying desperately to scrape together the funds to keep William at school, sharing a bed with another actress in a cramped room in a bawdy boarding house. And it was about holding one’s head up high, no matter what people thought. It was important not to feel the humiliation. For then, all was lost.

When at last Sarah turned to face Harry, her skin was ghostly white and her pale lashes had been darkened with a preparation of elderberries. Carefully, she tucked her thick auburn hair under a blond wig. Her green eyes, the only remaining genuine feature, gleamed with unnatural brightness.

“Good God, Sarah,” Harry exclaimed. “You look very unlike yourself. In fact, you look rather…”

“Ill? Mad, perhaps?” She gave him one of her best eerie smiles. “‘They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.’” She rolled her eyes heavenward. “‘Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.’”

At his baffled look, she laughed. It was far from a carefree expression of mirth, however. “’Tis not me before you, but Ophelia,” Sarah explained. At his blank expression, she added: “You do know that she was quite mad?”

He frowned.

Sarah sighed. “Do not worry, Harry. For your Aunt Agatha, I shall once more be your demure, devoted bride. Exceedingly healthy and perfectly sane.”

He nodded uncertainly.

***

Justin, Viscount Linton, stepped down from his claret-trimmed carriage with the easy grace of one of his finest Arabians. His keen grey eyes narrowed, hawk-like, as he took in the number of carriages waiting in the drive. It was as he suspected. Aunt Agatha was entertaining guests. Predominantly female, if he did not miss his guess.

These duty calls were damned inconvenient, especially now, as he had more pressing concerns in town. But he supposed he could spare a week in the country for his elderly aunt, the only woman who had never bored him. He was between mistresses, which perhaps accounted for the edgy restlessness that plagued him recently. Aunt Agatha had undoubtedly sensed that fact, as very little escaped her attention. She had begun campaigning again. The house party was ample proof of that. The woman never gave up hope of transforming her debauched nephew into a paragon of respectability.

The party would undoubtedly include an array of eligible young ladies with their wary mothers. Justin scowled. Debutantes bored him. Their mothers, on the other hand, occasionally could be most interesting.

Stifling a yawn, he ascended the steps to his aunt’s ancient mansion. Married women offered benefits that inexperienced debutantes did not. Once you got past the cat-and-mouse game they were obliged to play, the wives of other men could be most rapacious in their appetites. No one knew that better than a man of his repute.

“Hello, Sidney.” Justin clapped his aunt’s aging butler on the back with the familiarity of long acquaintance.

The butler allowed himself a slight smile and opened his mouth to return the greeting. But just then, Justin gave a mild exclamation.

“What is this?” he demanded, lightly touching the butler’s ear and appearing to pull something from it. “Tsk, tsk,” he said, shaking his head. “You ought to be more careful about your toilette, man.”

As he beheld the queen of hearts dangling between Justin’s fingers, the butler emitted a long-suffering sigh. “It is always a pleasure to see you, my lord.”

Justin’s laughter momentarily erased the lines of cynicism on his face as he stepped into the house. His aunt would be waiting somewhere upstairs to ring a peal over him. He might as well get it over with. Tolerating Aunt Agatha’s tirades was the least he could do for the woman who had practically raised him after his parents died. His harsh features softened as he thought of his crusty relative. 

Aunt Agatha did not approve of his antics or, indeed, most of his pursuits. Nor did she scruple to say so. It was regrettable that the scandalous reputation he had achieved in London had come to her attention here in Cheshire. In his dealings with the female sex, she thought him frankly predatory. Had the topic been suitable for discussion, he would have told her that he was careful to seduce only those women who wished to be seduced and that most women, in his experience, enjoyed the chase. They wore their virtue like a Sunday frock, pulling it on and off as the occasion warranted.

Except for his aunts — and he was beset by two of the troublesome creatures — Justin had never met a woman he truly liked. For him, congress between the sexes was simply a matter of mutual need. 

Which brought him to a pressing problem. At the moment he had urgent need of a woman — an actress, and a very good one at that. One who was desperate, for the role he had in mind would be dangerous. He had combed the London theaters for actresses willing to take the job, to no avail.

And who could blame them? It was not every day a woman was asked to kill a man.

Chapter Two

“In a moment you will meet my other nephew,” Lady Agatha Claremont said. “My sister Arabella’s son. Doubtless you have never seen him in town. Justin moves in rather exceptional circles.”

The frown accompanying that last comment made it clear that Harry’s aunt did not approve of those circles. Sarah adjusted her bonnet and smiled politely.

“Harry has spoken admiringly of his cousin,” she said carefully, certain that she was not supposed to know of Viscount Linton’s unsavory reputation. “You must be very proud of him, ma’am.”

Lady Claremont’s gaze narrowed. “Justin is an unrepentant rake. If Harry has not told you that by now, he is an idiot. Forewarned is forearmed.”

Sarah blinked. At that first tea several weeks ago, Lady Claremont had merely regarded her with silent scrutiny as Harry gabbed away like a magpie. Sarah had taken the lady’s silence as sign of a placid, perhaps even feeble nature. But the sharp-tongued grande dame who greeted her today did not seem feeble or dull-witted. In fact, Sarah had the dreadful feeling that Harry had painted a picture of his aunt that was entirely inaccurate. Her stomach lurched queasily. She would have to be very careful not to raise Lady Claremont’s suspicions.

Lady Claremont turned to greet the other guests as they entered the spacious parlor. In the whirlwind of introductions Sarah registered the presence of several young ladies and their mamas, an older gentleman who apparently lived nearby, and two men about Harry’s age.

As she was trying to commit their names to memory, the back of her neck began to tingle, as if someone were watching her. Sarah felt suddenly awkward, as if she had stepped onstage and somehow forgotten her lines. Surreptitiously studying the other guests, she could not detect that anyone was paying her an extraordinary amount of attention. Still, the uneasy feeling did not go away. 

Sarah smiled pleasantly, but her mouth grew dry and her heart began to race. The symptoms were not unlike those of stage fright, and although dozens of performances had inured her to an audience’s scrutiny, she sensed that whoever watched her was no benign spectator.

There was a threat here, and it was imminent.

As if to confirm that fact, the space around her suddenly seemed to contract. The sunlight streaming in through the window behind her vanished, chased by a looming shadow. With growing apprehension, Sarah turned.

A tall gentleman, his expression unreadable, bowed politely. His glossy chestnut hair was thick and unruly, tousled in the style of the day — although something told her the man had not a care for fashion. His eyes were a cool, unfathomable grey. They regarded her assessingly for an uncommonly long moment. There was about his features an arrogance that proclaimed his class, and while his expression was one of perfect civility, there was an insolence in his air that suggested his manners were but a thin veneer.

His gaze took in her leghorn bonnet with the pink ribbons, moved downward to her pink spencer and sedate cambric frock, and settled on her left hand, which held the glove she had removed in order to show Lady Claremont the opal ring that had once belonged to Harry’s late mother and which she now wore.

“So it is true, after all.” He shook his head. “My condolences, madam.”

“I beg your pardon?” Sarah managed, trying to ignore the hammering of her pulse as the intense grey eyes held hers. Her breathing was shallow — like an actor who ran out of wind before the soliloquy was finished. She felt queasy.

Her odd reaction seemed to interest him. His gaze held hers rather longer than was polite, and his lips curled in an unsettling smile.

“I take it you are my cousin’s new bride, though I could scarcely credit that Harry had decided to wed.” Brilliant shards gleamed within his grey eyes. “Now that I have seen you, I quite understand.”

At her blank stare, he shot her a half-smile evidently intended to appear apologetic. “How remiss of me. I am Linton, Harry’s cousin,” he said. “No doubt he has been filling your head with all manner of scandalous things about me. Most of them true, unfortunately.”

Sarah decided there was nothing remotely apologetic about that smile.

“I am pleased to meet you, Lord Linton,” she said. The queasiness in her stomach grew, as did the doubts about the wisdom of her masquerade. Even if Lady Claremont suspected nothing, there was still this man to get around — and he appeared to be sharp-witted and not a little dangerous.

“To think that Harry has turned responsible,” he continued blandly, with a slight shake of his head. “To be sure, my aunt’s dictates can be most persuasive.” He paused for a heartbeat. “But I imagine that Harry was not thinking of Aunt Agatha on his wedding night.” This bald comment was uttered with such polished civility that Sarah was completely taken aback.

It was undoubtedly acceptable for a man to flirt with a married woman, but all the nuanced performances Sarah had ever witnessed had not prepared her to penetrate the layers of meaning beneath his words, or indeed, to fathom his intent. She stared at him uncertainly. She had the notion that a proper young matron might take offense.

“I believe you are being impertinent, my lord,” she said with what she hoped was the right amount of sternness.

He nodded approvingly at her reprimand, although his eyes narrowed. “Quite right. You will forgive me, Mrs. Trent. I am not very respectable, you see.” He eyed her mournfully and took her hand, squeezing it lightly in an unconvincing imitation of a polite handshake.

Sarah’s palm tingled as it met his cool, dry fingers. Her own skin was excessively warm, even damp — to her great mortification, as she was certain that a proper young bride did not perspire when a man other than her husband touched her palm. Something told her that he took great satisfaction in eliciting such a response.

“Good Lord, Justin! Leave the girl alone,” commanded Lady Claremont, who approached as Sarah was wondering why she could not seem to pull her hand from his. “Sarah has but just arrived. She must be longing to exchange her traveling clothes for something more comfortable. You must not bombard her with your rakish charm. And do not play all innocent with me,” she admonished as his brows rose in a fair imitation of astonishment, “for I know that you are always looking for trouble.”

“Not at all, Aunt,” he replied gravely. “In my experience, it is the other way around.” He gave Sarah a glittering smile and bowed deeply. “Adieu, madam, for the nonce.”

Sarah almost expelled a sigh of relief at his departure. But as he turned to leave, Lord Linton abruptly halted and pulled something from the flapped pocket of his dove-colored tailcoat. “I believe this is yours, Mrs. Trent,” he said.

Sarah stared. In his hand was her glove. The same glove she had held most securely during their encounter. “How did you …?” She broke off in utter confusion.

“Illusion, Mrs. Trent.” He eyed her steadily. “The world is full of it, you see.”

With that comment, he left the room. The sun came streaming cheerfully through the window again, but Sarah felt decidedly ill.