Masquerading the Marquess(7)

By: Anne Mallory

"Society." Calliope was tense. She had assumed Robert would fill him in. After all, Stephen was a member of the ton. What if he wasn’t amenable?

"Yes, yes, of course." He waved his hand in dismissal. "Not much else to talk about these days other than social commentary, and nothing else would explain this scheme."

She relaxed and regarded him in amusement.

He leaned forward in his seat. "Whom do you pick on in particular?"

"You’ll just have to wait and see."

A flash of surprise crossed his features, and then he sat back and grinned. "Cheeky little thing, aren’t you? I just better not see myself pictured at Ackermann’s."

She bit back a retort as the carriage pulled to a stop.

Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as Stephen’s smile disappeared and a more solemn expression replaced it. "Ready?"

She nodded, and they exited the carriage.

A swarm of people had gathered outside the theater. Milling about the entrance were beggars, pickpockets, prostitutes, courtesans, members of the ton and middle-class men. Each group had a role and every one of them was actively engaging in it. Calliope watched as a pickpocket quickly dipped a hand into the pocket of a man who was soliciting the services of a doxy. A beggar petitioned an inexperienced young man for change. Unable to extricate himself, the young man looked increasingly concerned. The tableau swirled through her consciousness as she prepared herself for her role.

A path opened and they strolled toward the entrance. Calliope observed the demeanor and nuances of the high-paid ladies and adjusted hers accordingly. A practiced flick of the wrist, a brazen flash of the eyes, a skillful movement of the hand across the chest, a sway of the hips. She witnessed subtle flirting and overt invitations. By the time they entered, she was ready to perform.

Calliope took in a deep breath. Esmerelda exhaled.

Stephen smiled appreciatively and gave her waist a reassuring squeeze.

As they meandered through the lobby, Stephen stopped periodically to chat with acquaintances. The men assessed her with considerable interest, some gawking rudely and others examining her in a speculative, yet friendly manner. She experienced a heady rush of pleasure and power. The reception was better than Calliope had received in any ballroom. The awkwardness of the past faded, and she relaxed.

Stephen guided her toward the stairway, and Calliope caught sight of a fiery-haired beauty, one of the loveliest women she had ever seen. Calliope followed the woman’s adoring gaze and looked straight into the midnight eyes of the Marquess of Angelford. He was staring at her intently.

She stumbled slightly and heat raced to her cheeks. Stephen gripped her waist and held her upright, covering the mistake. He sent her a questioning look, but she shook her head. They ascended the stairs and she attempted to regain her composure as they entered his box. Her pleasant feeling of euphoria had evaporated with a single glance from Angelford. She shook off the dark feeling and focused on the task at hand. So what if he was here. Had she really expected never to see him again?

Stephen began sharing humorous stories about several patrons while Calliope made mental notes of their relationships and mannerisms. She unconsciously scanned the boxes for Angelford and then scolded herself when she realized what she was doing. Faces and lorgnettes turned her way, and Calliope found it disconcerting to be scrutinized by the assemblage.

"I find this tableau quite amusing, " Stephen said.

She smiled. "Yes, finding caricature ideas is exhilarating when you first begin."

"No, I think you misunderstand. Here I am observing the audience and looking for interesting tidbits about them to share with you, while those below are focused on my beautiful escort and preparing interesting gossip about us. The irony."

He continued to scan the crowd and said as an aside, "I haven’t shared our secret. James and Stella don’t know our real relationship."

She was about to ask who James and Stella were when she heard someone enter the box. She turned to greet the newcomers and blanched at the familiar dark gaze of Angelford. There were many men named James in the ton, so why did this have to be the one to whom Stephen referred?

The redhead, presumably Stella, entered the box with ay bright look on her face. "It’s been so long, Stephen."

Stephen stood and kissed her outstretched hand. "Stella, you are stunning as ever."

Stephen grasped the marquess’s hand in a familiar manner. "Hullo, James."

James smiled warmly and returned the greeting.

Calliope looked from one to the other. They appeared to be very old, very good friends. She had confessed to the best friend of her nemesis? After she jumped over the railing she was going to hunt Robert down and deliver a good beating.

"James, Stella, this is Esmerelda."

Calliope couldn’t help herself and shot Stephen a quick, dirty look. Her new name sounded even worse when spoken as an introduction than it had in the carriage.

Stephen grinned. The cad had obviously interpreted her thoughts.

Stella smiled, but Angelford’s gaze was piercing.

"Stephen has been away so long. Where did the two of you meet?" Stella asked. "I love a good story."

Calliope allowed her lashes to slowly brush her cheekbones, something she had seen other women do, and related the tale they had concocted. "We met in Vauxhall, and it was love at first sight."

Angelford was observing her intently when Stephen said, "Yes, pet, it was something at first sight, definitely."

Angelford turned and glared at Stephen.

The curtain rose and they took their seats. Unfortunately, Calliope was positioned so her leg was brushing Angelford’s. She could feel the heat emanating from his leg and tried to surreptitiously move closer to Stephen. Angelford bent away from her, helping Stella arrange her dress, but as he sat back, his legs were even closer. There was nowhere for Calliope to move, so she tried to ignore the flurries in the pit of her stomach.

She folded her clammy hands in her lap. Angelford crossed his ankles and brushed her leg. A flash surged through her and perspiration gathered on her brow.

Calliope again considered how to move out of leg-brushing range without drawing attention. She turned her head slightly and received the full impact of his gaze.

He was smirking.

Anger coursed through her. He had been toying with her the entire time. How typical of a rake to poach on a friend’s territory.

She gave him a dark look then fixed her eyes on the stage. Her thoughts were in tumult during the entire first act of the opera.

James’s blood pulsed. It was Miss Stafford. He had known her from the first moment he spied her in the lobby, although he had to credit her for the disguise. It was very good.

Her appearance and hair color were completely changed, but the stormy eyes were the same. She was doing a credible job disguising her voice, although the melodic tones still shot tingles up his spine. Her elusive scent and outraged expression had been the final nails in the coffin of her disguise.

She was an enigma. What game was she playing? What caused her to go from a dowdy lady’s companion to a gorgeous courtesan? And what the bloody hell was she doing with Stephen?

The latter was the question foremost on his mind.

Stephen had just returned from a sensitive government assignment and it was uncharacteristic for him to have a mistress. Why had he selected this woman? How had they really met?

James brushed a resigned hand over his left sleeve and straightened his perfectly tailored jacket. He was going to have to investigate, make some inquiries in the ton.

That meant attending more functions, which he’d never enjoyed. They were trite and endless, even if necessary. Not many people would describe the beau monde as a soothing group, but James had quickly figured how to use them to his advantage. The ton was very much like a continual business negotiation, and James was an excellent businessman. Having to rebuild a fortune made or broke a man in the business world.

A thought nagged at him. He had been attending numerous functions, but had selected only the affairs he knew Lady Simpson would accept, and thus Miss Stafford. The realization made him irritable, so he pushed it aside.

What was she doing here? James had sensed her presence before spotting her in the lobby. When he turned he had expected to see spectacles, cane and dowdy garb. Instead he had seen a barely clad, sparkling beauty, reveling in the attention she attracted.

The sense of connection had grown stronger as she neared, and when she had met his eyes, her identity had been confirmed.

Perhaps she was a spy. At least it would explain his odd reactions to her. It was a cheering notion.

The first act of the opera ended and the assemblage rose. Gentlemen and their escorts began their promenade through the lobby, making connections and showing off their finery. It was business, after all.

Stella spoke to Esmerelda as they excused themselves and exited the box. Stephen turned toward James and leaned back in his chair, casually crossing his ankles to mimic James’s posture.

"The ladies will be fine. Now, do you want to tell me what’s going on?"

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