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.