Masquerading the Marquess(6)

By: Anne Mallory




"This will be a splendid entertainment. You just have to immerse yourself in the role. Mistress to a cousin of a duke and earl, how exciting!"



Calliope frowned at the revealing dress. "Mistress in name only, and I’ve always been more fond of being in the chorus."



"But now you must be stage front. It’s the only way to attract the attention and get the information you need. You’ve been in the theater business too long not to be able to play the lead role."



Deirdre picked up a hairbrush from the dressing table. "So sit down and let me ready you for tonight. A handsome gentleman, a marvelous evening gown, a lovely coiffure, stunning jewelry and a new identity. I quite envy you the adventure."



Calliope laughed and plopped into the proffered chair. "Yes, I seem to remember you were quite willing to go along with all my schemes."



Deirdre pulled the brush through Calliope’s hair and fond remembrance lit her eyes. "I was al ways the one in trouble, however. Mother and Father seemed to think you were the innocent one and I spearheaded the mischief, when really it was the other way around."



There was no antipathy in the statement, only happy memories. The smell of burning assailed Calliope’s nostrils. Her breath quickened.



"Lud. The iron is too hot." Deirdre fiddled with the iron and Calliope tried to bring her breathing back under control.



Anything connected to fire always caused her anxiety.



It was so long ago, yet she could still remember the feel of the cinders in her hair. Her home engulfed in flames, her mother’s departing form as she ran back inside the inferno. She shut her eyes, trying to block the images. That night had brought her into the care of the Dalys. She had no how she managed to make it to their home, but she liked to think it was her mother’s spirit guiding her to safety. Her mother had been friends with the acting family, but hadn’t visited them often at their house.



In the wee hours of the morning Calliope was discovered huddled on their doorstep, too scared to knock. The Dalys had hustled her into the house and given her warm soup. Then she had been tucked into bed with Deirdre and sung to sleep by Mother Daly. They had been her family ever since.



Little by little Calliope relaxed her tightened muscles and gave herself up to Deirdre’s ministrations. Dee expertly pinned her locks and fastened a chestnut wig to her crown. Examining the assorted hues and tints in the containers littering the counter, Deirdre selected shades and placed them next to Calliope’s cheek. Once she was satisfied with her selections, she went to work. Deirdre’s brows furrowed in concentration as she alternately enhanced Calliope’s bone structure and disguised her face. Kohl was painted on her eyelids and a smattering of rouge tinted her cheeks and lips.



"Perfect. The men will be falling all over you. And yet, it won’t be you." Deirdre winked wickedly.



Calliope looked in the mirror. Although she saw her own features, she barely recognized the reflection. The odd sensation of freedom overtook her, as it did each time she became someone new. She was a new woman in a new guise, unfettered by the demons of the past. A knock sounded at the door, and before they could respond, it swung open to reveal Robert and a tall blond man with twinkling green eyes.



Robert stopped and his jaw dropped. "Cal?"



Calliope and Deirdre both grinned, and the handsome stranger in dark eveningwear stepped forward. A mixture of emotions crossed his face. His gaze surveyed her with the fond expression of one who had lost and then found an old friend. The warmth in his friendly green eyes sparked a feeling of kinship. His eyes then turned to Deirdre.



"Robert, you failed to mention there were two gorgeous ladies."



Deirdre tossed the man a saucy look. "Callie, I think we should switch roles for the evening. I promise to return with some great material for you."



The stranger winked, and Robert looked like he might gag.



"Please, this is difficult enough as it is. Stephen Chalmers, this is Miss Calliope Minton and Miss Deirdre Daly. Let us not forget the 'Miss' part, shall we?"



"Of course not, cousin. Ladies." He bowed low to each one and shot Robert an unapologetic grin. Robert ignored him. "Cal, Stephen knows the basics of your situation. I know you will enlighten him later on the particulars. Since tonight is your introduction as a couple, attending the opera should be a safe test to see if you suit one another and if you’d both like to continue this masquerade."



Calliope nodded.



"It’s a long ride, so the two of you can decide we specifics of your arrangement? He cleared his throat. "She is to return at a decent hour. Alone."



He sent Stephen a warning look, but the blond Adonis blithely brushed it aside. "Miss Minton, shall we begin?" he inquired as he placed Calliope’s hand in his while tossing a flirtatious wink to Deirdre. He smelled like a forest, fresh pine in the morning. An odd choice of cologne, but refreshing. Most men smelled as cloying as the females.



They exited the theater. At the end of the alley was a splendid carriage harnessed to four dark horses standing at attention. Calliope’s palms felt damp as she waded into the still night.



"Are you ready to proceed?" Stephen seemed concerned. He held out a hand to help her inside.



She hesitated but nodded in response. They settled into the carriage and it moved smoothly toward the opera house.



"We are attending The Barber of Seville, " as Stephen said.



"Il Barbiere I Siviglia is one of my favorites."



"So you’re familiar with the story? Excellent."



"Yes. One has to feel for the sufferings of Bartolo. His jealousy over the beautiful Rosina is comical, but sad to watch."



"I saw it performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan several years ago with my friend James. A family acquaintance played Figaro and his comic 'Largo al factorum' nearly brought the house down."



"How wonderful. I regret my mother was never able to see it."



Stephen patted her hand. It was an odd reaction, but comforting.



"Other than warning me to be a gentleman and explaining my role in this arrangement, Robert didn’t elaborate on the details leading to this ruse. Mind you, I’m delighted to be your escort, but I’m also very curious."



If she truly wanted his help, then she owed it to him to be as honest as possible. "I am a caricaturist, as I’m sure Robert informed you. I recently completed a position as a lady’s companion. Quite an awful job, if I do say, but it served its’ purpose. I thought this role might provide an opportunity to sharpen my skills and vary my acquaintances.'



She waited for a negative reaction, but none was forthcoming.



Instead, he said, “A companion to Lady Simpson, correct? I don’t envy you the experience."



She searched his unfamiliar features. "How is it I’ve never seen you in society, Mr. Chalmers?"



"It has been a long time since I have stayed in London more than a few weeks at a time. Too long, really. "



Stephen looked to the window and did not elaborate. A short silence ensued, and Calliope pried her nervous fingers from her wrap.



He roused himself and looked at her. "Robert said I must not refer to you as Calliope, although it is quite an ideal name for a woman in your position. Perfectly uncommon."



"I thought Maria would be nice."



"Too plain."



"Cecille?"



"We need something flashy. Something befitting a siren."



She blushed and ran her fingers down the silky blue-green gown.



His eyes lit up. "Esmerelda."



Aghast, Calliope sputtered, "How about Selina?"



"Esmerelda is perfect."



"I’m not an Esmerelda."



He shrugged. "There really is no way around it, since that’s what I’ll be calling you this evening."



She stared at him, nearly at a loss for words. "You’re being difficult."



He grinned unrepentantly. "According to my friends, being difficult is my modus operandi."



What an exasperating man.



Taking pity on her, he sketched his family history and pursuits, telling her he would introduce his friends as they were met. He wasn’t titled, but his smooth voice and commanding presence bespoke his heritage. He left gaps in his background, but she made no comment until he was finished.



"Here’s what I thought we could do tonight-"



"A woman with a plan. I’m in love."



"Somehow I bet that happens on a frequent basis, Mr. Chalmers." She was quickly becoming comfortable with him, and grateful for the feeling.



He winked, and she continued, “After the last overture I thought we could slip out rather than mill with the others. It will give me time to get my bearings and give you an opportunity to change your mind about this whole scheme."



"I won’t change my mind, Miss Minton, but I think it’s a sound plan. A quick in and out will titillate the crowd. Make them more curious."



"Exactly. And I should have enough time to determine a direction for my work."



"I haven’t yet been able to view your caricatures. What do you illustrate?"

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