Dicing with the Dangerous Lord - By Margaret McPhee
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London
The applause within the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden was deafening, even after the heavy red curtain had descended on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, to shield London’s most acclaimed darling of the theatre from the audience.
Miss Venetia Fox smiled and hugged her friend and fellow actress as they made their way from the stage. ‘They are still on their feet, Alice.’
‘I can’t believe it! It’s amazing! I’ve never seen a response like it.’ Alice Sweetly’s eyes were big as saucers. In her excitement her soft Irish lilt grew stronger.
Venetia laughed. ‘You will get used to it.’
‘You think this’ll happen again?’
Venetia smiled at her protégée and nodded.
‘You were right. Life doesn’t get much better than this.’ Alice’s face was lit with the same euphoria that was flowing through Venetia’s veins. Away from the glitz and glamour of the front of the house, the theatre’s corridors were mean and narrow and the décor shabby, but it could not suppress the women’s spirits.
Alice hesitated outside the door to the small dressing room that they shared and turned to look up into Venetia’s face. ‘Thank you, Venetia. For helping me. For persuading Mr Kemble to put me on stage with you tonight. For everything.’
‘I knew you would be a star.’ Venetia gave Alice another hug. ‘After the green room we will celebrate.’
‘Only after the green room,’ Alice agreed. ‘See, I’m learning to be professional, just like you taught me.’
Venetia laughed, and a joy welled up in her to see just how far Alice had come in the past year. Alice’s face showed confidence, self-respect and excitement. Venetia felt like she was walking on air as she opened the dressing-room door.
She was still smiling as she stepped across the threshold and saw the bunch of roses that lay upon the dressing table. The smile dropped from her face and the lightness of her mood evaporated in an instant.
Alice chattered on oblivious, her face lighting even brighter when she saw the roses. ‘Someone’s ahead of the game tonight. Got in early before the others.’ She touched a finger to the centre of the bouquet. ‘Nice little quirk from the usual arrangement, too. Which one of us is the lucky girl, do you think?’
Venetia knew the answer to that question without reading the small white card that had been tucked within the brown paper wrapping the stems. There were twelve roses, soft and velvety and of the deepest darkest red, and nestling in the centre of their arrangement, in such contrast, was a single creamy white rose, just as Robert had said. It was the message for which she had waited these weeks past. It had been so long in the coming that she had almost forgotten what she had agreed to. Almost.
Venetia picked up the card with its scrawl of black ink.
‘Looks like you’ve got yourself a new admirer. And one that hasn’t signed so much as his initial.’ Alice raised her eyebrows suggestively. ‘Very mysterious.’
Not mysterious at all. Venetia forced a smile, but it felt wooden upon her lips. Her eyes moved over the card and she read aloud the single word written upon it in handwriting that she could not fail to recognise—Tonight.
‘Sounds intriguing,’ said Alice. ‘Who is he?’
‘I have not the faintest idea,’ Venetia lied and threw the card down on the dressing table carelessly, as if it meant nothing.
‘That’ll put the cat amongst the pigeons with Hawick and Devlin,’ said Alice. ‘Hawick thinks he’s about to close the deal.’
‘Then Hawick is wrong.’ Venetia did not rise to the bait.
‘You’re leaning towards Devlin, then?’ There was a mischievous sparkle in her friend’s eye.
‘I’m teasing you!’ Alice grinned. ‘But if I had a duke and a viscount fighting to make me their mistress, believe you me, I wouldn’t be playing so hard to get.’
‘Better to earn your own money than put yourself in a rich man’s power,’ Venetia said, but the rich man she was not thinking of was not the Duke of Hawick or Viscount Devlin, and the woman enslaved, not herself.
She moved her mind away from the past to focus on the evening ahead...and just how she must snare a different rich man’s interest. According to Robert’s covert floral message the man would be waiting in the green room at this very moment. He was just another arrogant lust-ridden nobleman, like any other. Except he wasn’t. But she did not let herself dwell upon who he was and what he had done. Nor did she think