About the book
There's something about craving the forbidden. Something terrifying and utterly exhilarating...
Leading dancer Anna Conolly's life is governed by one important principle: never become someone's mistress.
With a successful career at the London Theatre, she has no desire to fuel society's opinion of women like her. Until a man, belonging to the same circles she has sworn to avoid, causes her world to shift.
Despite his mother's insistence, finding a wife is the last thing Nathaniel Hawkins, the Duke of Yanborough wants. When his love for the performing arts leads him to the London Theater, he never expects to see his own destiny staring back at him from the center of the stage.
But the odds are against them, and the future seems grim…
Someone is going to great lengths not only to tear them apart but also to awaken them to reality. For their greatest enemy is also the one thing they can't live without: each other.
Anna sat at her dressing table backstage, carefully studying her own reflection in the looking glass. She removed her stage makeup in a practiced motion, applying cream and wiping it away with a soft cloth. As she did this, her own, familiar features began to emerge. Without the elaborate makeup, her face was pretty, though she thought it was rather an ordinary sort of pretty.
She looked young and innocent, but experience had taught her that this type of beauty could not last forever. Anna was the Prima Ballerina in the London Ballet Company, and she knew that she was incredibly lucky to have achieved such a position. She was even luckier for having achieved it without seducing the director.
Her own face having emerged from behind the makeup, Anna set quickly to work on her hair. It had been pulled back into a tight, elegant chignon, and now she removed the many pins holding it in place, her fingers searching through her thick locks to ensure that not a single pin was missed.
With a sigh of relief, she shook her head, allowing her hair to fall down her back in long, glossy, waves. Her scalp had been pulled so tight, that she could feel the skin relaxing to its usual shape as she ran her fingers through her hair.
It was with a feeling of mild regret that Anna rearranged and repined her hair. She could not meet her admirers at the after-party with her hair loose like a child’s. Thankfully, she could arrange it in a much looser, more natural style, even allowing a stray curl to escape here and there.
“Anna,” a voice called from the doorway, causing her to turn around.
“Hello, Mr. Bamber,” she replied, with a smile, seeing the company owner standing behind her.
“Hello, my dear,” he said with a smile, as he approached her. “Your adoring public awaits. I do hope that you will be ready to greet them shortly?”
He said this as though it were a question, but Anna understood that it was meant as an instruction. She did not fault Mr. Bamber for this, as she understood that keeping the fans of the ballet happy was part of her job. In fact, it was nearly as important as dancing well. Still, she sometimes wished that she could skip these after-parties all together.
“Yes, Mr. Bamber,” she said, keeping any hint of annoyance or tiredness out of her voice. “I am ready now.”
Anna stood up, smoothed out her skirts, and followed Mr. Bamber out of the dressing room and into the backstage parlor where dancers and select audience members could mingle. As ever, the parlor was full of male visitors—a mix of aristocrats and wealthy merchants. The ballerinas circulated about the room, along with a few of the male company members, chatting to their wealthy patrons.
Mr. Bamber cleared his throat loudly as he entered the parlor, with Anna at his side. “Gentlemen,” he said with a broad smile, “it is my great pleasure to present our prima ballerina, Miss Anna Conolly.”
He moved to the side, allowing Anna to become the focus of attention. She hated this part of her evenings, but knew that she must smile politely, as she curtseyed to the watching crowd. They clapped at her curtsey and she said “thank you” before moving further into the room.
Anna knew that she must circulate throughout the crowd, at least greeting each guest briefly. After two years in the ballet company, she had a great deal of experience making small talk with the sorts of gentlemen who visited ballerinas backstage. In fact, she had made a sort of game out of it.
It was usually easy to tell the aristocrats from the wealthy merchants by their social graces or lack thereof, but she tried to guess at the specifics of each visitor’s station. Had a gentleman come into his peerage, or was he still an heir? In what sort of trade did each merchant engage? Was he newly wealthy, or had his great-grandfather been as well? And of course, the only question that really mattered: was he looking for a mistress?
Anna could usually guess a merchant’s trade, and whether he was newly wealthy or not. It was more difficult to know whether a gentleman was a Duke or a Marquess, an Earl or a Viscount. The final question was the easiest to answer. Whether they were newly established wool merchants, or the last in a long line of Dukes, they were all looking for a mistress.
She had not been naïve when she joined the company, but Anna still found herself frustrated at the reputation that ballerinas had. Any man with money, whether he be a gentleman or a merchant, assumed that he could find a mistress in this parlor simply by saying hello to a pretty dancer. This assumption was all the more frustrating, because it was so often true.
Anna knew that as a ballerina, she was unlikely to marry and live a traditional life, but she could not help her dream of falling in love. She did not wish to be a wealthy gentleman’s mistress, kept in luxury, but also in secret. Even if she truly loved such a man, she would always be second to his wife, and she did not think she could stand such an arrangement.
“Hello, Miss Conolly,” a voice said from beside her. A short man of about fifty was smiling at her, holding out a glass of champagne. “You were absolutely marvelous on stage this evening. I could hardly take my eyes off you.”
As if to demonstrate, he lowered his eyes slowly down the length of her body and back up again.
He is most likely a merchant, as most gentlemen are more subtle in their approach.
He wore a fine silk top hat and cravat and she thought that his business must deal in the import of fine cloth.
“Why, thank you,” Anna said, adopting a shy smile that she found worked in most situations such as these. He looked at her expectantly, but seemed unperturbed when she said nothing further.
“My name is Mister Andrew Harper,” he said after a moment. “As the best couturier in London, I own the finest establishment in the city, just a few blocks from here. Perhaps you have been there? Harper and Sutton?”
“It is nice to meet you, Mr. Harper,” Anna said, still smiling, and finally taking the glass of champagne from his hand. Something about his manner was off-putting, but it would do her no good to offend the owner of such an important shop. “I have been to your shop quite often. Is your business partner, Mr. Sutton, here as well?”
Anna had hoped to show a flattering interest in Mr. Harper’s business, while simultaneously bringing a third party into the conversation.
“Ah, no, I’m afraid not,” Mr. Harper said, with a nod of his head. “Mr. Sutton died about a year ago.”
“Oh.” Anna cursed inwardly. Not only would she be forced to remain in one-on-one conversation with Mr. Harper, but she had brought up a sad subject without meaning to. “I am terribly sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, yes, it was a terrible loss,” Mr. Harper said, sounding sad. Then suddenly he shifted his tone and said, “He died with no heir, so his half of the business passed to me. Every cloud has its silver lining, eh?”
Anna could think of nothing to say to a pronouncement such as this, and laughed nervously. Mr. Harper seemed to take her laughter for agreement rather than shock. He let out a booming laugh of his own, before holding up his empty champagne glass to signal for a waiter to bring him another.
“Now, my dear, as I said, I could not take my eyes off of you on the stage tonight,” he said, leaning in closer to Anna, and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper, “but I think that perhaps you are even more lovely here and now.”
“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” Anna said politely, all the while looking around the room for a possible means of escaping this conversation. To her dismay, no easy solution presented itself.
“Am I mistaken, or is your gown a Harper and Sutton creation?” Mr. Harper asked, once again allowing his eyes to wander up and down Anna’s body, in a way that made her skin crawl.
“You are not mistaken, Mr. Harper, I purchased it only a few months ago from your shop.”
“Ah, of course, you can always tell by the details, my dear. There are many fine couturiers in London, as I’m sure you know,” here he winked at her, and Anna worked hard not flinch. “However, none use such fine silks as we do.”
Mr. Harper reached out with one large hand, and gently touched the lace at the end of her sleeve. Anna had learned by now not to flinch at moments like this, but she felt the smile on her face falter momentarily. Luckily, Mr. Harper was not looking at her face.
“Now this lace was made specially by a woman I met in Italy. I am quite confident that we are the only shop in all of Britain using such fine Italian lace.”
“Yes,” Anna said, pulling her arm away from his, but making sure to do so casually, so as not to offend him. “The lace is quite beautiful.”
Mr. Harper seemed to understand from this gesture that he would get no more than conversation from Anna this evening. To her surprise, he dropped his hand immediately, and continued to smile at her in a friendly way.
“Well, Miss Conolly, it has been lovely talking with you,” he said, “but I do not wish to keep you from the rest of your many admirers.”
He gestured to indicate the rest of the large group of visitors. Anna looked around the room and saw that most of the visitors were occupied, chatting to the other ballerinas, or to one another. Still, he was not wrong that she ought to mingle with the other guests, and she would not be disappointed to leave this conversation behind.
“Thank you, Mr. Harper, it was lovely to meet you,” Anna said, favoring him with a smile. She noticed that his eyes traveled up and down her body once more, but he merely smiled at her and walked away.
Anna circulated throughout the parlor for the remainder of the evening, talking with familiar patrons and meeting new ones. She was careful always to keep a nearly full champagne glass in her hand, knowing that if any of the gentlemen present saw her with an empty glass they would insist on bringing her a fresh one.
Anna liked champagne quite as much as the rest of the ballerinas in the company, but she had learned early during her time there that more than two glasses would cause her to wake up with a headache the following morning. She would be performing again tomorrow night and could not afford to spend the day feeling unwell.
“Anna,” she heard a loud whisper to her left. Turning to look for the source of the sound, Anna saw her friend, Bridget Rowley, calling to her. Bridget had joined the company shortly before Anna and had taken Anna under her wing when she first arrived, and they had become fast friends.
Anna breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing her friend. “Oh, Bridget, I’m so glad that you are here. I wondered where you had gone off to.”
Bridget said nothing of where she had been, and merely laughed quietly. “I see that you were speaking to Mr. Harper,” she said, turning the conversation back to Anna.
“Yes, he recognized that my gown came from his shop.”
“Oh, of course.” Anna said, giggling a bit now, “and I suppose there was some detail that he simply had to point out by touching it?”
“The lace on my sleeve,” Anna said, pointing to the lace in question, “but how did you know?”
Bridget looked at Anna and raised a single eyebrow. “Just be glad that it wasn’t the bustline,” she said with a conspiratorial grin. Anna blushed at the thought of Mr. Harper touching the bustline of her gown. The idea horrified her, but she could not help laughing nervously at the look on Bridget’s face.
Anna knew that Bridget would have given anything to be the prima ballerina, just as any of the girls in the company would. Anna herself, would have given almost anything to have Bridget’s confidence and self-possession. She had watched Bridget interact with patrons for nearly two years, and admired her ease with these wealthy gentlemen.
Bridget had a way of rejecting the advances of gentlemen seeking mistresses without hurting their feelings. Anna worked hard to accomplish the same goal. She was usually successful, but she wished that she could do it with the same ease and grace as her friend.
“Did you see,” Bridget said, recalling Anna from her own wandering thoughts, “that Camilla is talking to the Viscount of Essex again?”
“Hmm?” Anna asked. She had noticed nothing of the sort, and had no idea why it would be a subject of conversation if she had.
“Camilla Grafton. Talking to the Viscount of Essex. She has been talking to him all night,” Bridget said, sounding exasperated. “He was here just last week and it was quite the same. They ought to at least be discreet about it.”
“Oh, of course,” Anna said. She was too focused on her own interactions with the patrons in the parlor to notice such things, but trusted Bridget to pay attention to them, and to report on them accurately. And if what Bridget said was true, then Anna agreed that Camilla ought to be more discreet.
It was an open secret that many members of the ton had mistresses amongst the members of the ballet company, but it was unwise to flaunt such attachments. The gentlemen involved might experience a moment of scandal, but ultimately would be unharmed by such a revelation. The ballerinas, on the other hand, were likely to lose their position if discovered by the ladies of the ton.
Nathaniel Hawkins, the Duke of Yanborough, sat in the small library of his family’s London townhouse. He had newly come into his peerage and was struggling to keep pace with his colleagues in Parliament. Most of them were gentlemen he had known growing up, either as friends of his father, or the fathers of his schoolmates.
His father’s political allies and rivals alike had offered Nathaniel condolences on the death of his father when he had first arrived in the House of Lords a week ago. However, within moments, the other peers were talking to one another about a variety of issues, most of which were completely unfamiliar to Nathaniel.
The gentlemen formed small clusters throughout the room, based on what, Nathaniel could not say. Not knowing which group he ought to join, Nathaniel had floated about the chamber, joining none of them. He had been relieved when the assembly was called to order, all the more so because he knew that he would not need to speak on any issue so early in his tenure. He also knew that there would be no votes taken that day, so there was no chance of casting a vote which he would later regret.
However, Nathaniel knew that he could not avoid those duties indefinitely, and the mere thought of eventually speaking on complex policy issues made him feel woefully underprepared. He had been spending several hours each day in the library reading up on a variety of subjects in order to correct that lack.
Nathaniel was reading through some of his father’s old letters from his colleagues, discussing a particularly dry piece of legislation, when he heard a knock at the library door. Thankful for a reason to give up on the exceptionally dull letter in his hand, he called, “Come in.”
“Hello, Nathaniel,” his mother said.
The Dowager Duchess was a small, severe looking person, and the furrow between her eyes seemed to have become permanent since the recent death of her husband. Her face had always been stern looking, but Nathaniel knew this visage to hide a warm and nurturing spirit. He smiled at his mother as she entered the room.
“What are you learning about today, Nathaniel?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Well, right now I am just reading through some of father’s old letters about military funding.”
“That sounds dreadfully dull,” she said, with all of her signature bluntness. Still, Nathaniel could not help but laugh at her words.
“Well, I cannot argue with your assessment, Mother,” he said, tossing the letter aside onto the mahogany table next to him. He ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair, and let out a deep sigh. Nathaniel stretched his long arms and legs, adjusting his broad frame in the chair.
“Perhaps you ought to take a break from all of this…research?” she said, her tone softer now.
“Perhaps…” Nathaniel said, uncertainly, “but I really ought to know more about the issues being discussed in the Lords. How can I be of any use if I am not well-informed?”
“Of course, you need to be well-informed,” his mother replied in the same soft, soothing tone.
The Dowager Duchess crossed the room and sat down in the armchair closest to Nathaniel’s. Turning to him, she took his hands in hers and looked him squarely in the eye.
“But, Nathaniel, you are well-informed. You were born to do this, and your father and I sent you to the finest schools to ensure that you would know everything that you needed when you took up your peerage. Surely, you are just as qualified as anyone else in the House of Lords.”
Nathaniel offered his mother a weak smile. He knew that she meant well, and was trying to reassure him, but her words only made him feel more inadequate. She was right, he had been born to this role. He had received the finest education that money could buy.
And yet, in spite of all of that preparation, I still feel unprepared to take up my father’s work. What is wrong with me?
Though he said nothing, his mother seemed to know what Nathaniel was thinking, for she said, “You know, your father felt the same way when he entered Parliament.”
“What do you mean?” Nathaniel was taken aback by this revelation, for he had always thought of his father as all-knowing, his confidence unshakable.
“Well, his father did what he could to teach him what he would need to know. And, of course, your father attended the same fine schools that you did. He was as prepared for his peerage as it was possible to be.”
Nathaniel looked at his mother searchingly, wondering how this was supposed to help him. He was about to ask her what she meant, but it seemed that she had only paused for dramatic effect.
“In spite of all of that,” she continued, “he felt overwhelmed when he first entered Parliament. He even went so far as to suggest, only to me, and of course only in private, that the House of Commons ought to be the upper chamber, since the members were elected, and therefore more qualified than the Lords.”
The Dowager Duchess laughed aloud at the mere suggestion, and Nathaniel looked at his mother, bemused. He could never imagine his father thinking such a thing, much less saying it aloud.
What an absurd notion.
“Surely you must be jesting, Mother.”
“Oh no,” his Mother said, although she continued to laugh slightly. “He would never have admitted it to anyone else, but your father told me many years later that the idea had crossed his mind. He wondered what could be wrong with him, to have felt so unprepared in spite of his education and upbringing.”
“He always seemed so sure of himself, and his abilities,” Nathaniel said. He remembered his father as a stoic figure, decisive, and sure of his own rightness at all times. Nathaniel had loved him, as all good sons ought to do, but he thought that perhaps he would have felt more comfortable in his father’s presence if he had known about the older man’s insecurities.
“Yes, he was,” Nathaniel’s mother said, “but not always. His first year in Parliament was a trial for him. He would not tell me much about it at the time, but I could see that he felt anxious and unsure of himself. Many years later he confessed to me that he had thought himself a bit of a fraud that first year.”
Nathaniel nodded to his mother, feeling that he could relate very much to that feeling.
“In time, though, he became more confident,” she continued. “He got to know his colleagues and formed political alliances, as well as friendships. He learned more about the inner workings of politics and government by being present in Parliament than he ever could have done at school, and you will, too.”
Nathaniel breathed a sigh of relief. He was not sure whether he would ever be as confident and competent as his father had been, but he was beginning to see a glimmer of hope. The thought crossed his mind that his mother might be making this story up to comfort him, but he quickly dismissed it. She was kind, but if anything, she was prone to understatement, not overstatement.
“Thank you, Mother,” Nathaniel said, smiling broadly at her now.
“You are quite welcome. And, of course, you have an advantage over your father in this regard.”
“How so?” Nathaniel asked, genuinely confused by this assessment of the situation.
“Your father was already married when he took up his peerage. Everyone knows that the best way to shore up a political alliance is with a marriage.”
“I see,” Nathaniel said, with no trace of enthusiasm in his voice. At only five-and-twenty, he had hoped to put off discussions of marriage for a few more years. He knew that it was foolish, but Nathaniel harbored a secret hope of marrying for love, rather than political convenience.
“You must get to know your colleagues in Parliament. Surely some of them have unwed daughters or sisters, or perhaps wards for whom they would prefer not to be responsible for any longer.”
“Yes, I suppose they might,” Nathaniel said, trying to keep his tone casual. He knew that in the end he would likely be compelled to marry a suitable young lady for just such reasons as these, but he did not relish the idea. For the time being, however, he did not wish to argue with his mother about it, nor did he want her to think him particularly enthusiastic about the idea.
“Well, in any case, you would do well to get to know your colleagues a bit more before making any sort of decision.”
“I quite agree,” Nathaniel said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.
“On another subject, would you like to escort me to the ballet this evening?” the Dowager Duchess asked.
Nathaniel had never been to the ballet with his mother, but he knew that she loved it. In truth, he was not particularly interested in the idea, but seeing the look on his mother’s face, he felt that he could not say no to her. No doubt she was missing the company of her husband who used to accompany her regularly.
“All right, Mother. That sounds lovely,” Nathaniel said. Although he was not excited about the ballet itself, he thought that it would be good for him to get out of the house after a long afternoon of fruitless research.
“You are so good to me, Nathaniel,” his mother said, sounding genuinely moved by this simple gesture. “Thank you.”
“You are quite welcome, Mother,” Nathaniel said, somewhat taken aback by her reaction. “I am looking forward to it.”
The Dowager Duchess smiled at her son, ruefully, “Now Nathaniel, I know you too well to believe that, but I do appreciate it all the same. And I must say, I know that you are not, in fact, looking forward to the ballet, but I rather think that you will enjoy it all the same.”
Michael chuckled at this, and smiling, he replied, “Well, I do hope that you are right.”
“I shall leave you to your reading,” his Mother said, standing up to leave, “but I am looking forward to tonight. We will leave at eight o’clock. Do try not to worry too much before then.”
Once his mother had left the library, Nathaniel picked up the letter he had been reading earlier. He tried again to make sense of it, but soon put it aside. Reflecting on what his mother had told him about his father, Nathaniel felt a sense of relief.
The problem was not that he could not understand the letters his father had exchanged with his colleagues. In fact, he could understand them perfectly well. What he needed, was to learn the context in which such letters became important.
His schools and his father had taught him the rules of Parliamentary debate and procedure. He was familiar with the history of the British empire, and its politics. The rest of what he needed to know, he would have to learn through experiencing it.
Nathaniel thought that perhaps he would meet some of his colleagues at the ballet tonight. It seemed just the sort of place where Peers might meet one another socially. Nathaniel suddenly recalled his father telling him once that most of the business of Parliament took place outside of the debate chamber.
Nathaniel had not known what his father meant at the time, but now he supposed that he meant in social settings like the ballet or the opera. Of course, there had always been house parties and hunts as well, but Nathaniel supposed he might have a better chance of being invited to those if he made some connections here in London.
By the time he began getting ready for the evening’s outing, Nathaniel was feeling more optimistic than he had in days. Perhaps he would even enjoy the ballet itself, just as his mother had predicted.
Anna had spent several hours in her room at the boarding house preparing for the evening’s performance. She spent much of the time stretching her muscles to ensure that she would not injure herself in the course of the performance. In addition to this, she examined her stockings closely, and was pleased to find that no repairs were needed.
Having placed her stockings and slippers into a bag, along with her favorite knitted shawl, Anna went downstairs to the boarding house’s kitchen. Mrs. Hughes, the landlady, was used to the unusual hours that Anna kept, since most of her tenants were performers of one kind or another.
Mrs. Hughes kept a pot of stew warming over the hearth at all times, so that her tenants could take their meals when their schedules allowed. Anna sat down at the kitchen table with a bowl of savory stew, and a slice of freshly baked bread. It was a late lunch, or rather a very early dinner, but Anna preferred to eat at least a few hours before a performance.
Sitting across from her at the table were two sisters, Daisy and Lily, who made their living performing a double musical act. They had been living at Mrs. Hughes’s boarding house for only a few months, and Anna did not know them very well, as they tended to keep mostly to themselves.
“Good afternoon,” Anna said, smiling warmly at the young women sitting across from her. They looked so much alike, that Anna could never remember which of them was Daisy and which was Lily. She hoped that they could not sense her uncertainty.
“Good afternoon, Anna,” the slightly taller one said. “Do you have a performance this evening?”
“Yes, I’ve just been preparing in my room. I shall have to go to the theater directly after I eat,” she said. “And what about you? Will you be performing tonight?”
“Yes, Daisy and I will be singing at the Opera House this evening,” she said, looking quite pleased.
Anna made a mental note that the taller of the two sisters was Lily, and hoped that she would find some way of remembering this bit of information in the future.
“That sounds wonderful.” Anna said, feeling genuinely impressed that they had been hired by such a prestigious venue. “I do wish that I could come and hear you sing some time.”
“And I would love to come to the ballet.” Daisy spoke for the first time. “Only, we always have to work at the same time.”
“Yes, I suppose that is the difficulty of being an entertainer of one kind or another,” Lily agreed with her sister. “You can never enjoy the entertainments yourself.”
Both Anna and Daisy nodded their heads in agreement with this. Anna had never thought much about it before, but now that she did, she supposed that it was a shame that she could never attend the opera, or see a play. She was always on stage or in rehearsals at the times when those things took place.
Perhaps, someday, when I am retired from dancing, I shall spend my evenings at every other sort of show that London has to offer.
She ate her stew quickly, soaking up the rich gravy with the freshly baked bread. She would not go on stage for three more hours, so she ate heartily, wanting to keep her energy up, and not needing to worry about being too full while dancing.
As Anna finished eating, Mrs. Hughes entered the kitchen with a large basket hanging from one arm. Anna could see that she had just been out to the market for her basket contained eggs, a variety of vegetables, and a few packages wrapped in brown paper and tied with strings, which Anna thought must have come from the butcher’s shop.
Anna stood up from the table and walked over to Mrs. Hughes, offering to help her put away her purchases.
“Thank you, dearie,” Mrs. Hughes said, smiling fondly at her. Mrs. Hughes was a tall, stocky woman, whom Anna guessed was about forty years old. Having no children of her own, Mrs. Hughes acted as something of a mother to the young women who lived at her establishment.
As far as Anna knew, there was no Mr. Hughes, or at least there had not been for quite some time. Mrs. Hughes never talked about her husband, but everyone seemed to understand that she must have had one at some point. In any case, she ran the boarding house herself, without the support or interference of male relations.
Anna supposed that it must be difficult for a single woman of Mrs. Hughes’s age to run a business on her own, but she admired her landlady for managing it so well. She could not help but wonder what she might do when she was forty years old. She knew perfectly well that she would no longer be a ballerina at that age.
Will I have a husband and children to care for? Or will I be on my own, like Mrs. Hughes?
Once the shopping had been put away, Anna bid Mrs. Hughes, Daisy, and Lily farewell. She walked through the kitchen to the hallway and then out of the front door carrying her bag. It was only a few minutes’ walk to the theater, and Anna breathed in the crisp, late afternoon air.
As she walked, she considered her own future. When she had joined the ballet company, her friends had joked that perhaps she would end up marrying one of the wealthy patrons. Her mother, who had always been a practical sort of person, had warned Anna not to entertain such foolish notions.
“Those gentlemen will shower you with gifts and sweet words, I do not doubt it,” her mother had said to her, “but they will marry the daughters of other gentlemen. Never forget that, my dear, no matter what they tell you.”
Anna supposed that her mother was right about this, and she had no particular interest in marrying a gentleman. However, she did hope that her future might include falling in love, getting married, and having a family. She had no idea how this might happen, but she could not stop herself from wishing it, however impractical it might seem.
When she arrived at the theater, most of the other ballerinas were already there, in various stages of makeup and costume. As the prima ballerina, Anna enjoyed the luxury of a later call time. Her costume, hair, and makeup would be completed immediately before going on stage, while the other dancers would have to wait several hours in full makeup and costume before the performance would begin.
“Hello,” Bridget called to Anna, as she entered the room. Anna walked over to her friend and sat down next to her in front of a large mirror.
“Hello, Bridget, how are you?” Anna asked, brightly, as she began to arrange her makeup. She could feel the eyes of the other members of the corps de ballet upon her, but she was determined not to look at them. Anna knew that she was not well liked by the other dancers.
She had tried her best to be friendly with them when she had started at the London Ballet Company, but had soon found that it was impossible. Mr. Bamber tended to ignore everyone else when Anna was in the room, and she could not blame them for being resentful of this. She only wished that they would direct their anger at him rather than her.
“I’m quite well,” Bridget said, a mysterious smile playing on her lips.
“Well, I am glad to hear that,” Anna said, intrigued by her friend’s expression. “What is it that makes you so happy today?”
“Oh, nothing in particular,” Bridget said, examining her face closely in the mirror as she began to apply her makeup. “I suppose it is just such a beautiful day.”
“Hmm…I suppose…” Anna said, though she was not certain whether Bridget was being honest with her. The day was nice enough, but it had been rather cloudy and dull when Anna was outside.
Leaning in a bit closer, Bridget spoke again, this time in a whisper. “Camilla never came home last night.”
“What?” Anna asked, in an excited whisper. Camilla and Bridget shared a room in a different boarding house, though the arrangement was strictly one of financial necessity. They were not friends, and Bridget often had stories to share about Camilla.
Bridget nodded gravely, but she could not entirely hide the grin on her face. “I think that she must have gone to an inn with the Viscount of Essex after the reception.”
“You don’t think that she might have stayed with a friend?” Anna asked, though she thought this rather unlikely.
“What friend?” Bridget asked, sarcastically, “Does she have any?”
Anna looked around the dressing room quickly to make sure they were not overheard. She saw Camilla sitting in the far corner, mending something on her costume, head bent low over her work. Other dancers were scattered about the room, some working on their costumes, some stretching, some chatting to one another while they got ready. None seemed to be paying Anna and Bridget any attention at all.
“None of whom I am aware,” Anna said, feeling a slight twinge of guilt at her words.
It is her own fault for being so mean-spirited, though.
“Precisely,” Bridget said, as though this settled the matter. “I do hope she has the good sense to get something out of the affair, at least.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked, though she had an inkling of what it might be.
“Well, I’d really rather not share a room with her indefinitely. Perhaps the Viscount will install her in a posh flat, where he can visit her any time he grows tired of his wife’s company.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose that would be nice,” Anna said, “but Bridget, would you be able to afford your room without someone else to share it?”
The look on Bridget’s face seemed to harden, and Anna worried that she had offended her one friend in the company. She silently berated herself for being too blunt, but when she looked again, Bridget’s face was warm and open as ever.
Perhaps I only imagined that look.
“Oh, I am sure I will be quite all right,” Bridget said, her tone light and casual, “especially if Mr. Bamber starts paying us on a regular schedule as promised.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked. She had always received her pay in full and on time, and had no reason to believe this would not be the case for all members of the company.
“Have you never had your pay later than you should?” Bridget asked. “No, I can see from the look on your face that you have not. Well, of course not, you are the star, after all. But the rest of us sometimes go weeks without any pay. In the end we always get what we are owed, I think, though some people are not so good at keeping track.”
“Oh, Bridget, that is terrible.” Anna said.
“You really had no idea?” Bridget asked, her voice incredulous.
“None at all.” Anna said, “You know that no one else here speaks to me more than they absolutely must. Why did you not tell me before now?”
“Oh, I suppose I thought that you knew,” Bridget said.
“I am sorry, I had no idea,” Anna said. “Do you think that I ought to speak to Mr. Bamber? Perhaps I could convince him to be more careful with the payments? I am sure that it is just an oversight on his part.”
“An oversight?” Bridget asked. She sounded skeptical, but said, “I suppose that is possible. In any event, I do not think that you need to speak to him. I am not sure that doing so would be helpful, and it is probably best to leave it to those of us who are affected by the problem.”
Anna could not really have said why, but she felt a bit put off by this insistence that she not get involved in the problem of wages not being paid. She wanted to help Bridget, who was her friend, and she even felt compelled to help the other dancers. They were no friends of hers, but they worked hard and deserved to be paid for their work.
Anna knew that she must focus now, as she would be going on stage in just over an hour. She tried to put thoughts of the other dancers out of her mind, and instead focused on her makeup and hair, making sure that every element of her appearance was exactly as it should be before getting into her costume.
All right, now I am prepared for whatever might happen tonight.
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