Being two-timed in love is never a pleasant experience, and it hurt a lot when twenty-eight-year-old actress Laura Reynolds learned that was what Kyle McKenna was doing to her.
He was supposed to be her leading man in life as well as in the TV soap in which they'd both played minor roles, although since then her character had expired in a fatal encounter with a rampaging grizzly bear. But Kyle wasn't the faithful partner he pretended, as she discovered when she came home early one night and caught him in their bed with another actress. It was a moment that changed her life. Suddenly she had to get as far away from New York as possible, and since she'd always been interested in the London stage, she decided to spend some time in England. She'd just had money left to her by her only aunt and had no other family or employment ties, so she simply packed up and left.
In London she shared a Berkeley Square apartment with three other actresses, one of whom had parents wealthy enough to provide her with such a beautifully furnished, expensive place. It was one of the square's original Georgian houses, but was done out in the Art Deco style. Lily Ponting-Smith was only too pleased to take in three acting friends she'd met at an audition at which they'd all four been unsuccessful. She charged well below the going price for such lodgings, and her guests were well aware of how lucky they were.
One of the four, Jenny Fitzgerald from Dublin, became Laura's close friend. A dark-eyed, striking brunette, Jenny was engaged to a talented young Welsh chef named Alun Meredith, who was in charge of the kitchens at her parents' fashionable hotel in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire. Jenny and Laura were to go there on vacation when the gala night of their new theater was over. They would not be needed after that, because the Hannover's first true production was a prestigious new adaption of The Duchess of Malfi, which had precious little call for singing and dancing!
The two friends, who went to auditions together, had managed to get taken on at the Hannover Theater, which had occupied its corner site in Haymarket since 1818. The theater was in dire need of restoration. Funds were necessary, and to raise them it was decided to restage the original first night. The project was set to be a gala occasion attended by royalty, and for Laura and Jenny, members of the chorus, it was very exciting indeed.
The great night arrived, and everyone wore copies of the original period costumes. Laura didn't know it, but before the evening was over, she'd have embarked upon a much more incredible adventure in time than the mere recreation of an old theater production. But the precision and dedication of the recreation had jolted the past, so arousing long-forgotten people and events that they would intrude into the present, often to the point of banishing it completely.
Laura had no inkling of what was to come as she and Jenny waited together for the curtain to rise. She fiddled with her costume, a knee-length rose muslin dress with a tight natural waistline encircled by a wide purple satin sash. Then she adjusted the tall white plumes fixed in her long tumbling chestnut curls, which were twisted up and pinned to resemble a style from the Regency period. Her sea-green eyes were apprehensive, because she was as prone to stage fright now as she had been on her very first night ever.
She still sensed nothing, even as her first step through time commenced. Outside in Haymarket the past had already begun to merge with the present, and as the modern crowds thronged the wet January night to see the royal limousine arrive, a beautiful late evening in May 1818 became thinly visible, although only Laura would have been able to see it had she been out there. Beyond the clamor of now, the quieter tones of the Regency Period could be heard in old Haymarket--the clatter of hooves upon cobbles, the calls of a flower girl on the corner, and the soft flick of a coachman's whip as he tooled a gleaming private carriage toward the brand-new Hannover.
The two gentlemen inside, Stephen Woodville and Sir Miles Lowestoft, would be late for the curtain, but they had a box and so weren't concerned, especially Stephen, who'd had to be dragged from a gaming hell and would rather not be attending the opening night at all. He was thirty-two years old and blond, but not particularly good looking, and had been cursed with frail health since being invalided out of Wellington's Peninsular army. His was an amiable nature, which unfortunately made him easy prey to Sir Miles Lowestoft, whose good qualities were nonexistent.
Stephen's black evening coat and white silk breeches were plain but well cut, and there was a simple gold pin on his neckcloth knot. A top hat shaded his tired eyes from the setting sun, and he slouched on his seat in a most inelegant manner. He was a man with many problems, not the least of which was a clandestine and dangerous liaison of which he was bitterly ashamed but did not want to end. It had begun in Weymouth at the turn of the year, and was with Marianna Deveril, the nineteen-year-old heiress sister of a close friend. Marianna was intended for the son and heir of the Earl of Sivintree, but it was Stephen to whom she'd secretly given her heart--as well as a great deal more. Soon it would be her twentieth birthday, and a celebratory ball was to be held at Deveril House, her home in the Cotswolds. Stephen had accepted an invitation to stay on as a house guest afterward, even though he knew it was not only wrong of him, but also presented a serious temptation to providence. If his good friend, Marianna's brother and guardian, Sir Blair Deveril, ever found out, pistols at dawn would almost certainly result.
Miles Lowestoft was the last person in whom Stephen should have confided, and he was about to reap the consequences. Miles was a sly fox of a man in his late thirties, with amber eyes and sandy hair that gave him a vulpine appearance to match his nature. Like Stephen, he wore formal black, with an abundance of lace at his throat and cuffs, and there was a quizzing glass dangling elegantly from a hand where a very distinctive black unicorn signet ring shone in the evening light.
Stephen put his lack of enthusiasm for the theater into words. "I resent being hauled away from the card table just to go to a first night," he grumbled.
"I could understand if you were on a winning streak, but you haven't won a single hand all day."
"Maybe, but I abhor the theater."
"My dear fellow, I'm not taking you to see the production, I want you to view a particularly exquisite redheaded figurante."
Stephen was irritated. "A chorus actress? You've forced me to come with you in order to watch some talentless wench with too much bosom?"
"This one is far from talentless."
"I wonder if that's what your wife would say." Stephen mused.
"Saint Estelle the Martyr would pray forgiveness for a week if she even clapped eyes upon an actress," Miles replied acidly. He abhorred the devout, slightly unbalanced heiress he'd married and then banished to his Scottish estate. He'd married her for her money, but on the recent death of her father, on account of which she cloaked herself in layers of black, he'd found out he couldn't lay hands upon as much as he hoped. A large sum was mysteriously missing, and no one knew where it was. He'd have suspected her of salting it away herself had he not held her intelligence in such low esteem.
The carriage halted at the Hannover, and as the two men alighted, neither noticed another carriage drawing up along the street behind them. The woman inside was swathed in black mourning gauze, and a veil concealed her from any casual glance, but the black unicorn ring on her finger identified her as Miles' unloved wife, Estelle, who was supposed to be far away north of the border.
Jealous tears shimmered in her tortured eyes. Who was her rival this time? A cheap little adventuress? A sinful fallen creature whose favors could be purchased for a few coins?
Inside the theater, the box keeper conducted Stephen and Miles to their box directly above the royal box and thus above the stage as well. Their view would be second only to that of the guests of honor. The sound of laughter filled the crowded auditorium as the audience enjoyed the antics of the clowns cavorting on the stage.
Stephen groaned inwardly. Oh, no, not clowns! His cup overflowed. He leaned back in his seat and gazed around. The smell of fresh paint, barely dry plaster, and new wood was intensified by the heat from the patent luster lamps.
Miles was looking around too, and noted a stout, sour-faced, wiry-haired gentleman in a box opposite. He nudged Stephen. "I see the grizzled Earl of Sivintree honors the premises with his presence," he murmured.
Dismayed, Stephen looked at Marianna's prospective father-in-law. "God, how I loathe that man and his chinless nonentity of a son," he breathed.
"Oh, I wouldn't describe Alex as a chinless nonentity exactly, more a vacant vessel. All the Handworths are fools, with the exception of the old boy, of course. He's as nasty a piece of work as you'll find anywhere in the ranks of England's nobility," Miles replied. "But no match for me," he added with a mirthless chuckle.
The clowns finished and the chorus came on stage. There were several redheads, but one was particularly beautiful. Stephen's gaze moved over her. She was slender-waisted, with a curvaceous figure, magnificent long legs, and bright chestnut curls that might have inspired Titian himself.
Miles glanced at him. "I see you've espied her," he murmured.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Laura Reynolds, and I first noticed her at Drury Lane," Miles breathed softly, his gaze lingering on the figure on the stage.
"Well, I can see why you're interested," Stephen conceded.
"Having her isn't my prime purpose," Miles replied.
Stephen was surprised. "No?"
"What does the name Celina convey to you?" Miles asked, in an apparent change of subject.
Stephen became very still, for the only Celina he knew of was Blair Deveril's late wife, whom he'd never met because the marriage had taken place while he was in Spain with the army, and she had died before he was discharged. Blair had adored her, and still did. She was the ever-present ghost in her grieving widower's life, a beloved shade who held sway over his every waking hour. "I take it you're referring to Blair's wife?" he asked after a moment.
"You have my word for it that Laura Reynolds might be Celina reborn," Miles replied softly.
"What's this about, Miles?" Stephen asked warily.
"I have a score to settle with Deveril, and you're going to help me settle it," Miles replied softly.
Stephen was startled. "Because he caught you with that ace up your sleeve in Weymouth?"
"There was no ace!" Miles snapped.
Stephen fell prudently silent.
"As it happens, Deveril's false accusation is only part of it; more important by far is the diamond necklace."
Stephen looked blankly at him. "What diamond necklace?"
"The family heirloom my father wagered and lost to Deveril's father ten years ago."
"This is the first I've heard of it."
A nerve flickered by Miles' mouth as he went on. "On his deathbed, my father said Deveril cheated, and since then I've been determined to get the necklace back. I don't particularly care how I do it."
Stephen wasn't sure what to say. He'd always wondered what was at the root of the ill feeling between Blair and Miles, and many possibilities had suggested themselves-- including a quarrel over Celina--but never a dispute over diamonds.
Miles drew a long breath. "You and sweet Laura Reynolds are going to help me retrieve what's mine. I want the real necklace exchanged for a paste copy I've had made."
Stephen suddenly felt noticeably cooler, even though the theater was hot. "And how, exactly, do you propose this is to be achieved?" he asked quietly, his voice barely audible above the noise of the show.
"Before I explain fully, let me point out that there's more to it than just the necklace. I want Deveril's heart to be broken. Laura Reynolds' resemblance to Celina is nothing short of miraculous. She'll be his adored wife returned, and will cause him exquisite emotional pain."
His chilling malice made Stephen draw back. "Look, Miles, leave me out of this. You and the actress proceed without me."
"You'll do as I wish, dear boy," Miles replied softly.
"No!" The single exclamation was uttered so loudly that people in nearby boxes craned their necks. Stephen colored, and looked angrily at Miles. "No, I won't do it," he said more evenly.
"Then I'll call in all your IOUs together," was the ruthless reply.
"Damn you," Stephen whispered.
"Most would say I'm damned already, but that's beside the point. You're going to do what I want, Stephen. It's very simple. In return for regaining your IOUs, you're to take Laura Reynolds with you when you stay for Marianna Deveril's twentieth birthday ball next week."
Stephen was appalled. "Escort an actress to a society ball, Marianna's ball at that? You must be mad! I won't do it, nor will I countenance hurting Marianna in such a cruel way."
His voice had risen again, and Miles quietened him furiously. "Keep your voice down, I don't want the world to know my business! It's Deveril's own invitation, he wants you to take Laura Reynolds with you, maybe not to the actual ball, but he certainly wants to see her."
"Eh? I don't believe it."
"It's the truth."
"And what is my connection to her supposed to be? That she's my long-lost sister? He'll really swallow that!"
"Don't be ridiculous, dear boy. It's all arranged. You see, I know that your staid, rather stuffy aunt, the ever-proper Lady Tangwood, was going to be your sweetheart's chaperone for her first London Season this summer, until fresh, supposedly virginal Marianna marries the future Earl of Sivintree in the early autumn. I also know Lady Tangwood's ill health has caused her to withdraw from this arrangement and retreat to her estate in Yorkshire. Oh, yes, there is very little I don't know. The explanatory letter she sent to Deveril House before she left, er, fell in my hands."
Miles paused, and then smiled again. "One of my many talents is an uncanny ability to copy handwriting. A replacement letter, complete with Lady Tangwood's seal, was duly delivered into Deveril's hands. Its contents were quite simple. Lady Tangwood apologized most profusely for letting them down, but recommended instead a certain Mrs. Reynolds, a widow who, although young and beautiful, is a model of decorum and is everything deemed desirable in a chaperone. Lady Tangwood also suggested you bring Mrs. Reynolds with you."
Stephen was shaken. "You--you've already written this?"
"I have, and Deveril has agreed to consider the matter. He replied to Lady Tangwood that he wishes you to bring Mrs. Reynolds with you next week for her suitability to be assessed. This letter too was, er, intercepted. He doesn't specify that she will be accommodated at the house, so I suggest you take a room for her at the King's Head in nearby Cirencester."
Stephen's resolve hardened. "I won't be your cat's-paw."
A flinty light shone in Miles' eyes. "Very well, but be warned, I'll not only call in all your IOUs, but see Deveril is apprised of the goings on with his sister. Even supposing you survive the resultant duel, debtor's prison isn't the most salubrious of surroundings, or so I'm told, and with your health as spent as it is at the moment, I fear you'll soon succumb to some pernicious ague or other. Be sensible, man; I'm presenting you with the means of retrieving your IOUs. Remember now, I hold all the trumps."
Stephen ran his fingers agitatedly through his hair. "I wish to God I'd never told you anything about Marianna," he breathed.
"I'm sure you do, but it's a little late now."
Stephen felt utterly sick. Miles did indeed hold the trumps. One thing was certain, if his bluff on this were called, Stephen Woodville's obituary would soon appear in The Times, whether through failing health proving fatal in prison, or because of a fatal dawn meeting with Blair! He strove to extricate himself. "You're mad if you imagine a minor actress can ape the lady well enough to be Marianna Deveril's chaperone!"
"Laura Reynolds is no ordinary actress; she's really very good, and not a whore, like so many of her kind. She comes from a surprisingly well-bred background of Norfolk gentry, and can conduct herself in society. Her family has debts, and she came to London to be Lady Dalrymple's companion, but discovered more could be earned treading the boards." Miles gave a cool smile. "I've made it my business to purchase these debts, as well as the ancestral home near Norwich, so if Laura wishes to protect her kinfolk, she must do as I ask. Their debts will then be wiped out, and their home returned."
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?" Stephen was bitter. "If only I'd never fallen in with you."
"But you did, and now you're in my clutches, so I suggest you bow to my wishes."
Visions of prison and Marianna's ruin flashed before Stephen's eyes. "You leave me no choice," he said, hating himself, and Miles.
Miles gave a coldly triumphant smile that reached through the centuries to touch the future Laura Reynolds as she waited nervously in the wings for the gala evening to commence.