Authors: Mary Balogh
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“I have to cover them with a great deal of paint when I am onstage,” she told him.
“Almost,” he said, his gaze lowering to her mouth, “you have robbed me of my appetite for food.”
she said in that brisk voice he had heard once before. “But not quite. How foolish, Mr. Bedard, when your dinner awaits you on the table and you are hungry.”
“Ralf,” he said. “You had better call me Ralf.”
“Ralph,” she said. “It is time for dinner.”
And later they would indulge in dessert, he thought as he seated her at the table and took his place opposite her. A sweet delight that they would savor all night long. His blood hummed in anticipation of good sex. He had no doubt that it would be very good indeed. In the meantime she was right—his body needed to be fed.
He talked of London at her request since it appeared that she had never been there. He talked about the social scene during the Season—about the balls and routs and concerts, about Hyde Park and Carlton House and Vauxhall Gardens. She spoke about the theater at his urging, about the parts she had played and those she longed to play, about her fellow actors and about the directors she had worked with. She described it all slowly, with dreamy eyes and a smile on her lips as if it were a profession she thoroughly enjoyed.
They ate well. And yet it surprised Rannulf about an hour after they had begun to look down at the table and see that most of the large quantities of food were gone and that the bottle of wine was empty. He could hardly remember the taste of anything, though he had a feeling of general well-being—and a constant spark of anticipation.
He got to his feet, crossed to the fireplace, and pulled on the bell rope. He had the dishes cleared away and another bottle of wine brought up.
“More?” he asked Claire, tilting the bottle above her glass.
She set one hand over the top of it. “Oh, I really ought not,” she said.
“But you will.” He looked into her eyes.
She smiled. “But I will.” She removed her hand.
He leaned back in his chair after filling their glasses and taking a sip. Now was perhaps the moment. The meager light of day was finally fading beyond the windows. The rain pelting against them and the fire crackling in the hearth added an atmosphere of coziness and intimacy, unusual for summer. But there was something else.
“I want to see you act,” he said.
Her eyebrows rose and her hand, holding the wineglass, paused halfway to her mouth.
“I want to see you act,” he repeated.
“Here? Now?” She set the glass down on the table. “How absurd. There is no stage, there are no props, no other actors, no script.”
“A talented, experienced actress surely does not need a script for some parts,” he said. “And no stage or props either. There are any number of famous soliloquies that do not require other actors. Perform one for me, Claire. Please?”
He raised his glass and held it up to her in a silent toast.
She stared at him, the flush back in her cheeks. She was embarrassed, he thought in some surprise. Embarrassed to put on a private performance for a man who was about to become her lover. Perhaps it was difficult to think one’s way into a dramatic role under such circumstances.
“Well, I could do Portia’s famous speech, I suppose,” she said.
The Merchant of Venice,
” she explained. “Surely you know the ‘Quality of Mercy’ speech?”
“Shylock and Antonio were in court,” she said, leaning slightly across the table toward him, “for it to be decided if Shylock had the right to take a pound of flesh from Antonio. There was no doubt that he had such a right—it was stated clearly in the bond they had both agreed to. But then Portia arrived, intent on saving the dearest friend and benefactor of Bassanio, her love. She came disguised as a lawyer’s clerk and spoke up in Antonio’s defense. At first she appealed to Shylock’s better nature in the famous speech about mercy.”
“I remember now,” he said. “Do Portia for me, then.”
She got to her feet and looked around. “This is the courtroom,” she said. “It is no longer an inn dining parlor but a courtroom, in which the very life of a noble man hangs in the balance. It is a desperate situation. There would seem to be no hope. They are all here, all the principal players of the drama. Shylock sits in that chair.” She pointed at the chair Rannulf was occupying.
“I am Portia,” she said. “But I am disguised as a young man.”
Rannulf pursed his lips in amusement as she looked around again. She lifted her arms, pulled back her hair, twisted it, and knotted it at the back of her neck. Then she disappeared for a moment into the bedchamber and came back buttoning his caped cloak about her. She still looked about as different as it was possible to be from any man. And then she had finished doing up the buttons and looked up directly into his eyes.
Rannulf almost recoiled from the hard, controlled expression on her face.
“‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ ” she told him in a voice to match the expression.
For a moment, foolishly, he thought that it was she, Claire Campbell, who was addressing him, Rannulf Bedwyn.
“‘It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath,’ ” she continued, coming closer to him, her expression softening slightly, becoming more pleading.
Devil take it, he thought, she was Portia, and he was that damned villain, Shylock.
“‘It is twice blest.’ ”
It was not a very long speech, but by the time she had finished it, Rannulf was thoroughly ashamed of himself and ready to pardon Antonio and even go down on his knees to grovel and beg pardon for having considered cutting a pound of flesh from his body. She was bending over him, tight-lipped and keen eyed, waiting for his answer.
“By Jove,” he said, “Shylock must have been made of iron.”
He was, he realized, half aroused. She was very good. She could bring a role alive without any of the fancy theatrics he associated with all the most famous actors and actresses he had ever seen onstage.
She straightened up and smiled at him, unbuttoning his cloak as she did so.
“What else can you do?” he asked. “Juliet?”
She made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I am two and twenty,” she said. “Juliet was about eight years younger and a pea-goose at that. I have never understood the appeal of that play.”
He chuckled. She was not a romantic, then.
“Ophelia?” he suggested.
She looked pained. “I suppose men like watching weak women,” she said with something like contempt in her voice. “They do not come any weaker than that silly Ophelia. She should simply have snapped her fingers in Hamlet’s face and told him to go and boil his head in oil.”
Rannulf threw his head back and shouted with laughter. She was looking pink and contrite when he lifted his head again.
“I’ll do Lady Macbeth,” she said. “She was foolish and could not sustain her wickedness, but she was no weakling for all that.”
“Her sleepwalking scene?” he asked. “Where she is washing her hands of blood?”
“There. You see?” She looked contemptuous again as she gestured toward him with one arm. “I suppose most men like that scene best. Wicked woman finally breaks down into madness because typical woman cannot be eternally strong.”
“Macbeth was hardly sane either by the end,” he reminded her. “I would say Shakespeare was impartial in his judgment of the relative strength of the male and female spirit.”
“I’ll do Lady Macbeth persuading Macbeth to murder Duncan,” she said.
And he, Rannulf supposed, was to be a silent Macbeth.
“But first,” she said, “I will finish my wine.”
Her glass was two-thirds full. She drained it in one gulp and set down the empty glass. Then she undid the knot of hair at her neck, and shook her hair free.
“Macbeth has just told his wife, ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ ” she said. “He is backing out of the planned murder; she is spurring him on.”
Rannulf nodded, and she turned her back for a moment and stood quite still. Then he watched her hands ball slowly into fists and she turned on him. He almost got up from his chair and retreated behind it. The green eyes pierced him with cold scorn.
“‘Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself?’ ” she asked him quietly. “‘Hath it slept since, / And wakes it now, to look so green and pale / At what it did so freely?’ ”
Rannulf resisted the urge to speak up in his own defense.
“‘From this time / Such I account thy love,’ ” she told him.
She spoke his lines too, leaning over him to do so and speaking in a low voice, giving him the impression that he was saying the words himself without moving his lips. As Lady Macbeth she whipped into him with her energy and contempt and wily persuasions. By the time she had finished, Rannulf could fully understand at last why Macbeth had committed such an asinine deed as murdering his king.
She was panting by the time she came to the end of her persuasions, looking cold and triumphant and slightly mad.
Rannulf found himself near to panting with desire. As her identification with the role she had played faded from her eyes and her body, they stared at each other, and the air between them fairly sizzled.
“Well,” he said softly.
She half smiled. “You must understand,” she said, “that I am somewhat rusty. I have not acted for three months and am out of practice.”
“Heaven help us,” he said, getting to his feet, “if you were
practice. I might be dashing off into the rain to find the nearest available king to assassinate.”
“So what do you think?” she asked him.
“I think,” he said, “that it is time for bed.”
For a moment he thought she was going to refuse. She stared at him, licked her lips, drew breath as if to say something, then nodded.
“Yes,” she said.
He bent his head and kissed her. He was quite ready to tumble her to the floor and take her there and then, but why put them to that discomfort when there was a perfectly comfortable-looking bed in the next room? Besides, there were certain bodily realities to consider.
“Go and get ready,” he said. “I’ll wander downstairs for ten minutes.”
Again she hesitated and licked her lips.
“Yes,” she said and turned away. A moment later the bedchamber door closed behind her.
The next ten minutes, Rannulf thought, were going to feel like an uncomfortable eternity.
Devil take it, but she could act.
udith stood with her back against the bedchamber door after she had shut it, and closed her eyes. Her head was spinning, her heart was thumping, and she was breathless. There were so many reasons for all three conditions that she could not possibly sort through them all to regain her customary composure.
Primarily, she had drunk too much wine. Four glasses in all. She had never before drunk more than half a glass in one day, and even that had happened only three or four times in her life. She was not drunk—she could think quite coherently and walk a straight line. But even so, she
consumed all that wine.
Then there had been the intoxicating excitement of acting before an audience—even if it
been an audience of only one. Acting had always been a part of her very secret life, something she did when she was quite, quite sure she was alone and unobserved. She had never really thought of it as
though, but as the bringing alive of another human being through the words the dramatist had provided. She had always had the ability to think her way into another person’s body and mind and know just what it felt like to be that person under those circumstances. Sometimes she had tried to use that ability to write stories, but it was not in the written word that her talent lay. She needed to create or re-create characters with her very body and voice. When she acted the part of Portia or Lady Macbeth, she
But tonight acting had been more intoxicating than the wine she had drunk. She had played for her audience of one better than she had ever played before. He had been both Shylock and Macbeth, and yet he had been Ralph Bedard too, and she had been strangely excited, exhilarated by him. It had seemed as if the very air between them were sizzling with invisible energy.
She opened her eyes suddenly and hurried toward the screen at the far side of the room. She had only ten minutes in which to get ready—less than ten now. Her portmanteau had arrived and been brought up, she saw with relief. She would have a nightgown to wear.
But she stopped abruptly even as she bent down to open the bag.
For what? He had just kissed her again. He was coming in ten minutes’ time—less—to take her to bed. To do
to her. She was not even fully aware, except in the vaguest, most sketchy of ways, just what
was. Her knees felt unsteady. She felt breathless and lightheaded again. She was not going to let it happen . . . was she?
It was time to end the adventure. But it had been—it
—such a very splendid adventure. And there would be no others. Not ever. She knew that women who fell into poverty and lived as unpaid poor relations in the homes of their wealthier family members stood little or no chance of ever changing the condition of their lives. There was only now, today. And tonight.
Judith tore open the portmanteau in haste. She was wasting precious time. How embarrassing it would be if he returned to find her in her shift or before she had relieved herself or washed herself or brushed her hair! She would think later about
about how she would avoid it. There was a wooden settle in the other room. With a pillow and her cloak and one of the blankets from the bed, it would make a tolerable sleeping place.
He must surely have stayed away for longer than ten minutes. She was standing in front of the fire, clad decently in her cotton nightgown, brushing her hair, when his knock came at the door and it opened before she could cross the room to it or call out any summons. She felt suddenly naked. She also knew that she must be more inebriated than she had realized. She felt a rush of longing rather than the horror she knew she ought to be feeling. She did not
to end the adventure. She wanted to experience
before her youth and her life came to an effective end. She wanted all of it—with Ralph Bedard. He was breathtakingly attractive—she wished there were a more powerful word than that for his appeal.
He stood looking at her with narrowed eyes, his lips pursed, his eyes moving slowly down her body to her bare feet.
“Is it your profession or your instinct,” he said at last, his voice low, “that has taught you to understate your appearance? White cotton, with not a frill or a flounce! You are very wise. Your beauty speaks loud and clear for itself.”
She was ugly. She knew that. People—even her own mother—had always compared her hair to carrots when she was a child, and it had never been a compliment. Her skin had always been too pale, her face too disfigured with freckles, her teeth too large. And then, by a horrible cruelty of fate, just when her hair had begun to darken a shade and the worst of her freckles had begun to disappear and her face and mouth had started to fit her teeth, she had begun to shoot up into something resembling a beanpole. She had grown as tall as Papa. She had felt only temporary relief when the beanpole had begun to take on the shape of a woman. To add insult to injury, that shape had come to include very full breasts and wide hips. She had always been an embarrassment to her family and worse than that to herself. Papa had been forever instructing her to dress more modestly and to cover her hair, and he had been forever blaming her for the leering glances men tended to send her way. It had always been a severe burden to be the ugly one of the family.
But tonight she was willing to accept that for some strange reason—probably the wine, since he had drunk more of it than she had—Ralph Bedard found her attractive.
She smiled slowly at him without removing her eyes from his. Wine had a strange effect. She felt a degree removed from reality, as if she were observing herself rather than up front
herself. She could stand in a bedchamber in her nightgown with a man, knowing that he intended taking her to bed within the next few minutes, and yet smile at him with slow invitation without feeling quite responsible for what she did. The observer was doing nothing to intervene on the side of virtue and respectability. And Judith did not want her to.
“I suppose you have been told a thousand times how beautiful you are,” he said, his voice sounding wonderfully husky.
There! He really was drunk.
“A thousand and one now,” she said, still smiling. “And I suppose you have been told a thousand and one times how handsome you are.”
It was a lie. He was not handsome. His nose was too prominent, his eyebrows too dark, his hair too unruly, his skin too swarthy. But he was overpoweringly attractive, and attractive seemed ten times more appealing than handsome at this precise moment.
“A thousand and two now.” He came toward her and she knew the moment of decision was upon her. But instead of grabbing her, he stopped a foot away from her and held out his hand. “Give me the brush.”
She handed it to him, expecting him to toss it over his shoulder before proceeding to business. Would she allow him to proceed? Her breathing quickened.
“Sit down,” he told her. “On the side of the bed.”
Not lie? Were there still a few moments left to enjoy, then, before she must put an end to it all? The bed had been turned down neatly for the night while they were still in the dining room, just as the fire had been built up and her portmanteau and fresh water placed behind the screen.
She sat down, her feet side by side on the floor, her hands clasped in her lap, watching him strip off his form-fitting coat, his waistcoat, and his neckcloth. He sat on a chair and pulled off his boots before standing up in his stockinged feet.
Oh, dear, she thought, she ought not to be watching this. But it was so very enjoyable a sight. He was a large man, but she would swear there was not one ounce of unnecessary fat on him. He was broad-shouldered but far slimmer of waist and hip. His legs were long and powerfully muscled. He showed to distinct advantage wearing only his shirt and breeches.
He picked up her brush again and walked around to the other side of the bed. She felt his weight depress the mattress behind her. She did not turn to look. This was the moment when she should get to her feet. Ah, but she did not
to. And then she could feel his body heat against her back even though he did not touch her.
Then he did—with the brush. He settled it just above her forehead—she could see the white of his shirtsleeve from the corner of her right eye—and drew it backward through the length of her hair. He was kneeling behind her for the purpose of brushing her hair! As soon as she realized the innocence of his intention, she tipped back her head and closed her eyes.
She almost swooned from the delight of it. The brush set her scalp to tingling. She could hear her hair crackle. Occasionally she could feel his free hand moving her hair back over her ear or behind her shoulder. It was surely the most delicious feeling in the world, having one’s hair brushed by someone else—by a man. She could feel his heat and smell his cologne. She could hear his breathing. Soon she felt relaxed and languorous and yet strangely stimulated and alert at the same time. Her breasts felt tight. An aching pulse was beating pleasurably between her legs.
“It feels good?” he asked her after a while, his voice low and husky.
“Mmm.” She could not muster the energy for a more eloquent reply.
He continued drawing the slow, rhythmic strokes through her hair until finally he tossed aside the brush. She heard it thud to the floor at the foot of the bed. And then she was aware that he had moved closer to her. He had spread his knees and moved them to either side of her so that if she wished she could move her hands outward to rest on them. His chest came against her back, and his hands slipped beneath her arms and cupped the undersides of her breasts. She heard him draw a slow, audible breath.
She almost jumped to her feet in panic. Not her breasts. They were
embarrassing. But her slight inebriation slowed both her shock and her reactions. His hands were warm and gentle. And his thumbs were brushing over her nipples, which were strangely hard and tender. Yet he was not hurting her. Instead, his touch was sending raw aches shooting up into her throat and spiraling down between her legs and she was throbbing—inside.
He did not seem to be finding her breasts grotesque.
She closed her eyes again and tipped her head back to rest against his shoulder. Just a little more. Just a few moments longer. She would end it soon. His thumbs were gone from her nipples then, and she could feel his fingers opening the buttons down the front of her nightgown and folding the edges back so that she must be exposed from shoulders to navel. When his hands came back to circle the naked flesh of her breasts, to lift them and fondle them, to pinch and rub and pulse against her nipples, she knew that finally her adventure, her stolen dream, was perfect.
This was what she had always wanted. This. Ah, just this ever since she had become a woman. To feel a man touch her and see her and not judge her inadequate. To allow the touch. To revel in it without shame or fear. She willed the moment never—ah, please, never—to end.
“Stand up,” he murmured against her ear, and though she was reluctant to move away from his touch, she obeyed and opened her eyes to watch her nightgown slip away to the floor. She felt curiously unembarrassed even though the fire was still burning and two candles were flickering on the mantel, and she had always hated looking at herself in a mirror. She sat down again.
She was aware of him pulling his shirt off over his head and tossing it to join her brush on the floor. And then his bare chest was warm and solid against her back, and his arms were beneath hers again. He rubbed his hands hard over her breasts and then spread them flat over her ribs and moved them down over her waist and abdomen. She set back her head and closed her eyes again and moved her shoulders and back to rub against him. His chest was lightly furry. He slid his hands down her legs to her knees and back up again. She spread her arms and set them along his outer thighs, cupping his knees with her hands.
It was at the next moment that she knew she had passed the point at which she might have stopped what was to happen. But she did not care. She
not. Common sense and propriety and morality would show her the full extent of the error of her ways in the glaring light of tomorrow, but though she knew it, she simply did not care. This was the night that would give light and warmth and meaning to all the rest of her days. She knew that just as certainly. Fallen woman—who would ever know? Who would ever care?
His right hand had moved down between her legs to the warm, secret place. She should have been horrified. Yet she heard herself make a low sound of approval deep in her throat, and she opened her legs a little to allow him freer access.
She was very warm there. She could tell that by the contrasting coolness of his fingers. She feared she might also be wet. But he did not recoil. His fingers explored her, parting folds, rubbing lightly between them, finding the innermost reaches and sliding up a little way inside. She could hear the sounds of wetness but was beyond embarrassment. It did not take her long to understand that he knew exactly what he was doing. Desire throbbed through her entire being. And then he did something with his thumb, something so light that she could not even tell exactly what he did. Except that desire suddenly crashed into pain and beyond pain even before she could feel it. She arched her back, every muscle in her body tensing, and cried out before collapsing, panting and trembling, back against him.