~ COMING IN 2016 ~
Anticipation was often the best part.
Waiting, wondering, and wishing could be exquisite, regardless of whether the actual performance turned out to be delightfully witty or disappointingly wooden.
Jeremy took his seat on the bench.
In any case, the prelude to the performance was as much a part of the experience as the play itself. It provided amusement and filled the time. He’d arrived when the doors to the Theatre Royal opened so he could enjoy the music from the orchestra and watch the parade of theatre-goers as they took their places.
If he had paid a poor man to hold his seat, he would have missed the burgeoning excitement as the gallants and apprentices settled in the pit beside him. He wouldn’t have been able to observe the gentry and nobles fill the box seats that ran along the sides and back. And he wouldn’t have witnessed the friendly jostling of the hoi polloi as they crowded into the gallery above—where, by all rights, he belonged.
Wrist ruffles flouncing gracefully, Jeremy straightened his lace trimmed cravat. It was to his constant amazement that he wore an elegant brocade waistcoat, blue silk breeches with green ribbon sashes, silk stockings, and black leather shoes with silver buckles that reflected the candlelight. His tailor, hatter, and shoemaker addressed him as “your Lordship,” which made Jeremy want to cough or blush or beg their pardon. But he’d learned to stifle those inclinations and hide his reaction behind a mask of indifference. Most everyone else—at least those who had no economic dependence on him—treated him as if he were an impostor, and Jeremy could not gainsay them. He, more than anyone, knew that underneath the fine lace, silk, and ribbons beat the heart of a stableman and not the Earl of Ashton.
A head nodded in his direction and an artfully flexed brow seemed to point straight at him. The wisp of a conversation from a nearby vizard mask was just loud enough for him to hear the words “undeserving bastard.” Jeremy smiled. Since it was his birth, not his character, they referenced he couldn’t argue the point. He was a bastard, and so undeserving as to be ungrateful about the King suddenly elevating him to the nobility.
“Wholly unsuitable…” came a whisper from another direction.
Right again. Not only was he unsuitable, but he was well on the way to becoming a libertine and a wastrel—and he liked it that way. Within the last couple of weeks he’d picked up a tidy sum, and a friend as it turned out, betting on the horse races at Newmarket. He’d won enough money that he wouldn’t have to touch his allowance until All Saints Day, almost a six-month from now. His new friend had done well, too. They’d only returned to London because Clarence had business to attend.
The theatre was filling; newcomers mingled with the scent of candle wax and oranges, but there was no sight of Clarence. As usual, he had promised to be on time and was not, probably because he had not the same enjoyment of waiting. To him, showing up any time before the curtain rose was arriving promptly; if the play was a tragedy, appearing just before the curtain fell would work as well.
Jeremy preferred comedies too, especially those that involved hidden identities and true love overcoming all obstacles, like today’s play, which he’d seen before. Just as he enjoyed waiting, he never minded knowing how something would end as long as it ended well. That’s why he wagered only when the outcome was a sure thing, and why he bet on the horses instead of the outlandish things Clarence risked his money on, like cards and cock-fights, and whether a gentleman would pick up his hat with his left or his right hand. Clarence lost frequently. Jeremy did not, which is how he found himself hosting his new friend’s stay in London.
The music swelled and the chatter of voices rose with it. Jeremy caught snatches of a conversation.
“Black spots…plague…twenty years—”
“No reason for alarm,” another voice cut in.
“St. Giles…not inside the walls,” hissed a third.
Jeremy had heard these rumors already, if rumors they were. Plague deaths happened regularly. Until someone he knew to be sound and sensible told him there was an epidemic, he was determined not to think about it. He was not going to get all excited about gossip. If he believed even a quarter of the things people said about him, he wouldn’t recognize himself at all.
Looking once again for Clarence, he gazed idly around the large space. His neck froze as he spied a face in one of the box seats many rows behind him. A surge of heat burst from his heart before escaping through his fingers and toes and the top of his head. His breath caught.
It was her!
Not more than ten steps away sat the woman whose likeness he gazed upon daily. He’d been shopping for a frame the day his eyes had landed upon the miniature of the dark-haired beauty. A vulnerability in her eyes had captivated him and he’d purchased it on the spot. He’d come to believe she wasn’t real. But she was.
Jeremy inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh.
Her hair was the same lustrous shade of chestnut brown as in the portrait, hanging in the same ringlets on the sides of her face the way all fashionable ladies wore theirs. In person, it had a special gleam as the tightly sprung coils danced in the candlelight. Creamy white skin, wide-set eyes, and rosebud lips sat above a determined chin just as they did in the picture. But there the resemblance ended. He couldn’t detect the sweet defenselessness that made him yearn to hold her. Perhaps that was because the lips on the real woman were in constant motion, as were her hands. With long elegant fingers, they danced about one moment, then stabbed at the air the next.
Who was she?
And why did she speak with such intensity?
An elderly woman sat next to her, her white hair piled under a lacy white cap. She was smiling and nodding along with the young woman’s hand gestures, which were directed at the man in front of her.
Something bumped his knee. Jeremy shifted and moved his feet just in time to avoid being trod on by an overlarge woman. Pulling off his hat to protect the seat beside him, he looked up to see a face with an arrangement of beauty marks so elaborate it appeared she wore the constellation Orion on her left cheek. She was followed by a small man who nodded as he passed, stepping carefully over Jeremy’s toes.
As he turned back to see the woman in the portrait, Jeremy realized who she was talking to. Leaning with a casual negligence against a post that ran up to the gallery, it could not be anyone else. Especially since Clarence was wearing the hat and clothing that Jeremy had seen him put on that morning.
Now the woman was pointing at his friend and shaking her head in such a way that it appeared she was not pleased. Her lips formed into a straight line and her hands fluttered out of sight. Clarence took that moment to doff his hat and make her a grand bow. He turned, caught sight of Jeremy and, with visible relief, moved in his direction.
“You are early,” Jeremy smiled at Clarence’s approach. “And by that I mean you are not late.” He removed his hat from the seat.
Clarence stepped into the row without treading anywhere close to Jeremy’s toes. He dropped onto his spot on the bench. “Had I known my cousin was here, I’d have waited until tomorrow to arrive.”
“Cousin?” Jeremy restrained himself from looking back at her.
“Not a close one—through our great-great-grands, which is all I’m willing to share with that termagant. Indeed, I’d prefer to be much farther away from her than I am at this moment.” He released a long dramatic sigh that was quite unlike him. “One look from her is enough to make milk curdle.” Clarence smiled, “Even when it is still in the cow.”
Jeremy chuckled. “But she looks like an angel,” he protested mildly.
“Angel from hades perchance; she’s an unholy terror.”
“There did appear to be some disagreement between you.”
“All on her side, I assure you.” Clarence shrugged. “I merely said I preferred the banter of Etheridge’s Sir Frederick and the Widow to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick. I was lucky to escape without damage to my person.”
Jeremy allowed himself a glance back at her. She was listening to the other woman with a gentle smile, her face radiant and ethereal. He wanted to know if her eyes were the same green as in the portrait. Did she smell of lilac or honeysuckle or another scent altogether? Did her voice sound musical? What would those curls feel like wrapped around his wrists or running through his fingers? Most importantly, what was her—“
Clarence coughed. “Will the play ever begin?”
Which proved, once again, that Clarence had no aptitude for waiting.
“This cousin…” Jeremy began as casually as he could manage. “I did not know you had family here in London.”
“I don’t. She is visiting her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Huntington—who is not my grandmother, by the way. Apparently her long-suffering parents are finally marrying her off. Or trying to.”
“Has she a name?”
Clarence looked at him curiously. “Of course, although I cannot see what you would do with it.”
“I don’t know myself,” said Jeremy. Except it would be nice to have a name to go with the miniature. “While you might have fear of uttering it, I have no fear of knowing it. A name is but a name and does not, on it’s own, carry a ferocious bite.”
Clarence regarded him for a moment before shrugging. “When we were children I would call her Lizzie the Loathsome, which was nothing compared to what she would call me.”
Jeremy smiled. “And that was?”
“I’m not going to tell you. But I will give you her name. It’s Lady Elizabeth Stanfield. And now,” Clarence lifted his hand dismissively, “I will say no more of her.”
That made her the Duke of Suffolk’s daughter. As such—even with his new title—she was out of his league and, therefore, out of the question. But it didn’t matter. He simply wanted to meet her and see her close-up. Just once.
“Does this mean you will not introduce us?” Jeremy pressed, knowing Clarence could not refuse. His friend owed him too much.
Clarence gave him another unblinking stare. “I do believe you have lost your good sense. When one tells you to beware of a viper the best thing to do is to leave it alone not to poke it with a stick.” When Jeremy didn’t take back his request, Clarence shook his head. “After the play, if I must. But have no doubt, you will be sorry.”
Never did it take so long for a play to begin and never did acts drag on as they did in Beggar’s Bush that afternoon. Jeremy kept restraining himself from looking back at her. Even so, he managed a few glances and each time her gaze was fixed firmly on the characters on the stage.
The play held little charm for him. Nor did the scene changes, which he usually found to be magical. Even the asides the actors aimed at the audience held no appeal.
Jeremy had to admit that there were times when anticipation was not the best part.
At last the play was over. The final bows were taken. The announcement of the next day’s performance was made. Jeremy rose immediately and had to wait for Clarence, who seemed put out by his quick readiness. Glancing back, he was relieved to see that she was still seated with her grandmother and not rushing to leave with the rest of the crowd.
Clarence in the lead, they painstakingly worked their way to the back of the pit with the rest of the crush. In his urgency, Jeremy stepped on more than one set of toes, eliciting complaints and a hard elbow to his middle from—it turned out—the large woman with Orion on her cheek.
As they finally reached the back balustrade, Jeremy looked toward the face that had captivated him for so many months. She was looking away from him, rising and helping her grandmother to stand. This put both women several heads above the men.
Jeremy nudged his friend to speak.
“My dear cousin,” announced Clarence, loud enough to get her attention. He removed his hat revealing a head of curly, light brown hair.
The women paused, turning in their direction.
Looking up, Clarence smiled stiffly. “If I may, I would like to make an introduction.” The older woman inclined her head. “Lady Huntington and Lady Elizabeth Stanfield,” he stepped aside, “may I present Lord Ashton.”
Jeremy doffed his hat and bowed awkwardly since the crowd had him pressed against the railing.
Lady Huntington examined him carefully, as if she knew exactly who he was and did not approve, but said nothing.
Expression blank, Lady Elizabeth’s eyes seemed to be focused on his neck.
Jeremy swallowed as if his cravat had suddenly become too tight. “Did you enjoy the play?” he blurted out.
Her eyes rose to meet his. She looked at him for a long moment. It was too dark to see the shade of green in her eyes—or if they were green at all. But he could see that she was far more beautiful than in the miniature.
When she didn’t respond, Jeremy leaned forward. “It’s very loud in here,” he said raising his voice. “I asked if you enjoyed the play?”
One dark brow arched high. “I heard you the first time. And, no,” she said her voice like ice. “I did not.” Turning her glacial gaze upon her cousin, she dismissed Jeremy. “When next you seek to present one of your cohorts, Clarence, have the decency to do so in a respectable fashion, rather than accosting us from the pit.” She lifted her chin as she took the Countess’s arm. “Neither Grandmére, nor I, are one of your orange girls to be shouted after like the rabble. See to it that you do not forget yourself in the future.” And with that, she and the Countess turned their backs on them and left.
“How I loathe her,” Clarence said, shoving on his hat in an obvious huff. “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me.”
“Maybe…” Jeremy said, still clutching his hat to his breast and following the straight back of Lady Elizabeth until she disappeared into the crowd.
…but I doubt it.
If you would like to know when The Unsuitable Earl is released,
sign up for my Very Occasional Newsletter