If a man was capable of spontaneous combustion, Drake Chadwick, Duke of Ravenscar, teetered on the verge of bursting into flames. Bad news came often enough but this topped the charts as the most calamitous complication of the Season. No, not the Season; of his lifetime. In fact, he didn’t believe a word. Drake leaned forward, grinding his knuckles into his writing table. “Repeat yourself, sir. If there is the remotest truth to the blather you spewed, not only is Chadwick Theater ruined, my reputation will be smeared for the duration of eternity.” His stomach roiled to the point of losing his breakfast. Either that or he was about to commit murder. Mr. Howard Perkins, theater manager, raised his palms, stepping back as if he sensed his life was about to be smote. “Your Grace, I am simply the bearer of regrettable news.” “Regrettable?” Drake growled. “Profoundly catastrophic is more apt.” Perkins lowered his arms.
“I concede our situation is gravely dire, but we must face the fact that Mademoiselle Taglioni was not on the ship. Furthermore, I’m told she has signed a continuation of her contract with the Paris Opera and refuses to come to London.” “Good God, are the French angling to start another war?” Despite that the disaster was egregiously infuriating, he’d been deceived on an international scale. How the devil was he to explain this to his patrons, to all those ticket holders anxious to see the opening of a grand spectacle? “Who else knows about this?” “No one. I met Monsieur Travere and the troupe at the wharf, marshaled them into carriages and took them directly to the theater.” “And you left them there?” “To come here, Your Grace.” Drake picked up the program he’d saved from the performance of La Sylphide in Paris. The cover featured a rendering of the famous ballerina for whom he’d paid a premium. A payment for which he would be seeking recompense. “We have collected ticket revenues.
The premiere is sold out. I spent countless hours entertaining benefactors with the promise of Marie Taglioni’s London debut.” He faced his man while solutions rifled through his mind. “Tell me, who have they sent in her place? Fanny Essler? Emilie Bigottini?” Drake gave the globe a spin though, of course, when it drifted to a halt, bloody, bedamned Paris was facing him. The debut of his new theater had been years in the making—represented the culmination of his dreams. Drake’s greatest passions? Theater. Opera. Ballet. Shakespeare. But dukes did not appear in operas, ballets, or plays.
Dukes became benefactors and theater magnates. In Paris he’d found the perfect ballet for the grand opening of Chadwick Theater. Marie Taglioni had stunned the world with her performance of La Sylphide and Drake had salivated at the chance to be the first to introduce such talent to England. Nothing like the diva’s ethereal dancing had ever been seen in Britain. He’d promised all of London a phenomenal performance, an extravaganza, a display of epic brilliance. “Ah…” Perkins looked to his shoes. A very bad sign. “Monsieur Travere extolled the competence of Taglioni’s understudy.” “Understudy?” Drake boomed so loudly, his voice cracked. Without wasting one more tick of the clock, he marched for the door.
“Do not tell me I have paid an outrageous sum to present the most acclaimed ballet of this century, and the Parisians had the gall to send an understudy!” “That was exactly my response.” Perkins scurried behind as Drake bounded down the stairs of his town home. Pennyworth, Ravenscar’s butler, met them in the entry with gloves, hat and cane at the ready. Drake took them, giving a nod of thanks while a footman opened the door. “And how did Travere suggest his troupe repay the hundreds of Londoners who purchased advance tickets?” “He didn’t.” Before descending to Half Moon Street, Drake shoved his hat atop his head and tugged on his gloves. “That’s the first offense I must remedy.” By the time they’d marched the two-thirds of a mile to his new theater on Haymarket, Perkins was wheezing with beads of sweat streaming from his brow. Drake patted the man’s back. “Stand straight, old friend.
We need to don our battle armor for this confrontation.” Taking a deep breath, Drake glanced to the brass placard above the door bearing his family name gleaming in the afternoon sun. At the time, Chadwick Theater had a delightful ring, if not a tad vainglorious. He’d dreamed of elite members of the ton referring to Chadwicks over a cup of tea: “Will I see you at Almacks tonight?” asks one. “I could not possibly entertain attending a ball,” responds another. “No one can miss the debut of some-or-other ballet at Chadwicks…you haven’t tickets? Oh my, that is a quandary. Opening night has been sold out for over a month.” With a grumble, he pushed inside. There would be no Chadwicks if he didn’t sort out this dilemma posthaste. He’d be ruined.
Even more abominable, his mother would be devastated, possibly forced to endure the rest of her days in far less comfort than she was entitled. He bristled, imagining the shock and disappointment on his mother’s face when he broke the news. After the death of his father, the duchess’ care and wellbeing had been Drake’s first priority. Disappointing her with a black mark against the Ravenscar legacy would send her to an early grave. Inside, the place was embroiled in chaos with hammers pounding above the relentless clatter of the pianoforte. The curtains were drawn on the stage where bedraggled dancers, still clad in traveling attire, queued in rows as they practiced pliés rather than rehearsing La Sylphide. Drake planted his fists onto his hips and scanned the mayhem for their leader. “There he is,” said Perkins, pointing and leading the way toward a rather short gentleman who was in dire need of a shave. “Travere, is it?” Drake asked in a low voice, eyeing the deceiver. Appearing affronted, the man sneered.
Unfortunately, Perkins stepped between them before the duke could brain the imbecile with a swing of his cane. “Monsieur Travere, allow me to introduce His Grace, Duke of Ravenscar—” Drake grasped Perkins’ shoulder and ushered him aside while he stepped so near the dance master, the man was forced to crane his neck. “Exactly what do you think you are about, coming to my theater with an understudy after I, in good faith, contracted Mademoiselle Taglioni for the Season?” “I must—” “She wasn’t on the ship.” He didn’t like that he was growling at the Frenchman, but nothing save the famous ballerina would be astounding enough for the London crowd. How in God’s name did Marchand expect him to meet the first payment due his lenders with an understudy? “Mais non, but—” “And you thought it was but a trifle to bring a substitute with no experience in her place?” “Your Grace, you must—” “Do you believe the English to be daft, uncivilized, and uncultured? Exactly how do you plan for a mere understudy to compensate me for my losses? You received payment in advance for Taglioni, the most famous ballerina in the history of dance, and you send me an untried, inexperienced, clumsy—” “Your Grace!” Travere had the audacity to stamp his foot. Annoyed by the man’s arrogance, Drake stiffened before the dance master continued, “If you will allow me to speak, I shall ease your concern. Our replacement is every bit as talented as Mademoiselle Taglioni, possibly more so.” At the surge of blood thrumming at his temples, Drake took in a deep breath. “I doubt your claims are true. I saw the diva’s performance at the Paris debut of La Sylphide and it was nothing short of stellar, hence my invitation for the privilege of opening what will become the most acclaimed theater in Britain.
” Drake threw up his arms, gesturing to the tiers of boxes festooned with gilt filigree and red brocade drapery. Even the ceiling had been painted with the final scene from Romeo and Juliet by England’s own Thomas Webster. “No expense has been spared. Damn it all, sir, I paid for a grand spectacle!” “And that is what you will receive.” With an upturned palm, Travere curtly gestured to the aisle. “Please, if you will allow me to return to my duties, I have little time and much to accomplish.” Gaping, Drake exchanged flabbergasted glances with Perkins. Was the Frenchman completely dicked in the nob? Did he know he was addressing not only a duke, but the man who held his future success by the cods? Drake could ruin Travere—see to it the only position he could hope to attain was that of a dance master in an Australian penal colony. “If I must remind you,” he seethed through his teeth, “I am holding the purse to this production and I will remain where I stand until I have my due.” He slammed the silver ball of his cane into his palm.
“I ought to call an end to this sham and send you back from whence you came.” “Ahem, I’m afraid that would leave us in a quite untenable situation,” Perkins edged in. Drake folded his arms and gave the dance master a pointed frown. No one needed to tell him he was in a scrape with no place to go. If he sent the Parisians back to the Continent and demanded damages for the loss of his investment, he doubted he’d see a halfpenny. If he allowed the performance to go forward without Marie Taglioni, his selfrespect would be damaged beyond repair. Mother had no idea the Pall Mall mansion had been put up for collateral. A matriarch of the ton, it would destroy her to move into a lesser home. And to add salt to the wound, Drake’s wager with Percy would be forfeit. He looked to the stage where three dancers halfheartedly marked their steps, doing nothing to calm his ire.
“I’ll need to see this fledgling whom you deem remarkable.” “I’m afraid that is not advisable.” If Travere could pose any greater a buffoon, he’d just crossed the line. “Mademoiselle LeClair has been a day on a rocking ship in foul weather and before that, two days riding in a carriage from Paris to Calais. She will not be in ideal form until she has had a night of rest.” About to swallow his spleen, it took five and twenty years of practiced restraint to keep from wrapping his fingers around Travere’s neck. “If I do not have the pleasure of witnessing a performance by your prodigy within the next quarter-hour, I will have you and your band of miscreants escorted off the premises with no passage home.” “All right then.” Travere scratched his head, making his hair stand on end. Most likely, the man needed a good tot of rum, given these circumstances were presumably not of his doing.
Nonetheless, he was the responsible party who had been sent to ensure the ballet was fit for the premiere opening of a grand theater. “If you will take a seat, I shall arrange for a demonstration.” “Thank you,” said Perkins, though Drake wouldn’t have wasted his breath. “Mind you,” the dance master added, “there will be no costumes and we will be working only with a rehearsal pianist.” “Good God, man!” Drake’s spleen had finally burst. “Stop spitting excuses and see to your obligation.” Marching across the parterre, he opted not to sit in his second-tier center box. Rather, he stood at the back of the pit with his arms crossed. Mr. Perkins followed suit.
Together, they waited without a word between them while Travere waved a baton and shouted orders in French, making dancers scurry about. The rehearsal pianist fumbled through pages of music as if he had no idea what he was doing. The stage had cleared by the time the accompanist flipped out his coattails, sat erect, his fingers at the ready, his gaze focused on the dance master. Travere gave the man a nod and, after a few measures of introduction, a circle of ladies bourréed from stage left, their arms swaying above their heads like wheat. A cascade of scales accompanied each dancer as she, in turn, bent at the waist emulating the opening of a flower until only one remained in the center, her arms held in first position. Without the illumination of the gaslights, details blurred into silhouettes. The shadowy and remaining figure was smaller than the others and wore a dark traveling dress. The outline of her hair was disarrayed as if she had returned from the midst of a tempest. “The unveiling of a dormouse,” Drake growled behind his fingers. Disastrous.
If my mother suffers one day from the consequences of Marchand’s backstabbing, I will call him out and show no mercy. The music paused for a moment, then continued into another set of tumbling scales while Miss Dormouse appeared to float forward, opening her arms. Admittedly, her port de bras was reminiscent of the graceful revealing of a peacock’s tail. Drake ignored the whisper of tingles along the backs of his arms. He even considered calling a halt to the performance until his jaw dropped. With a whirlwind of notes, the ballerina commenced a mesmerizing display of twirls on the tips of her toes as Taglioni had done in Paris. However, Miss Mouse extended her leg so high in the air, Drake reached forward as if to prevent her from snapping in two. On the dance continued with a flurry of effortless grace. Then his heart stopped as she leaped so high in the air, it was as if a breeze had captured the woman and took her sailing aloft until she elegantly descended and performed a glissade into an arabesque, finishing with a pirouette. When the music ended, a void spread through Drake’s chest and refused to stop expanding until Perkins began to applaud.
Suddenly realizing he’d just watched a woman dance so passionately that polite society would consider her movement lewd, he elbowed his theater manager in the arm. “Did Travere mention the ballerina’s name?” he whispered. “LeClair, if my memory serves.” Perkins waggled his brows. “She is astounding.” “Shocking is more apt.” The man grinned, deviousness filling his eyes. “Yes.” “But she’s still plain.” “I disagree.
I would classify the woman as perhaps…” The theater manager adjusted his spectacles thoughtfully. “An enchantress.” “Hmm.” Drake shifted his gaze to the ornate painting on the ceiling which alone had cost a fortune. It’s a damnable risk, but such beauty deserves to be seen. “Lord save us, I will allow the premiere to go on as planned.” “Shall I inform Monsieur Travere?” “It may lead to my ruination but do so.” Heading for the door, Drake intended to slip home and drown his misery in a bottle of brandy. A theater bearing his name was opening four days hence with a young woman who danced like Beelzebub’s mistress and who looked like… Not a dormouse. Who knew what the gaslights would reveal come opening night? Damnation, I am doomed.
* * * Before he made it outside, a man dressed in full-length trousers and a woolen doublet stepped from the shadows, his neckcloth uneven and hastily tied as if he could ill afford a valet. “Yer Grace, Maxwell with the Morning Post ’ere.” Drake stopped. Wonderful. The vultures had already begun to descend, posturing to pick the remains of his carcass. “Is it true Marie Taglioni gave ye the slip?” The meddler sounded as if he’d just arisen from the bowels of the East End. Drake should have ignored the impertinence and kept going but he didn’t. “Where the devil did you hear that?” “Sailors off the ship, Yer Grace. Said ye’re in more trouble ’an King Charlie at Whitehall.” “They are mistaken, I assure you.
” “I’ve seen the passenger manifest. Taglioni wasn’t aboard. Wha’ ye aim to do? Will Chadwicks still open come Tuesday?” Well, the bird had already flown and a day hadn’t yet passed. May as well set things in motion and cause a real stir. “Did the sailors not tell you?” Drake leveled his gaze with the journalist’s. “Can’t say they did.” Licking his lips, the man leaned in, clearly hungry for a scandal and all too eager to report the news of His Grace’s impending ruination. Once Drake’s lenders caught wind of imminent disaster, they’d be pushing for early payment, eager to claim the premium real estate occupied by Ravenscar Hall. “I’ll only say this once.” Drake tapped the tip of his cane on the floor.
“Chadwick Theater will open as planned, debuting a mystery ballerina.” “Cor.” The man gaped with wide eyes. “But people ’ave paid to see Taglioni.” “They have, and I will not honor one single request for an advance refund. If, after the performance, Chadwick’s patrons are not satisfied, the theater will consider any reasonable appeal for reimbursement.” “She’s that good, eh?” “We shall find out Tuesday evening, shall we not?” “If ye please, can ye give us ’er name?” “Mademoiselle LeClair. I tell you here and now, London will be dazzled with talent never before seen on the stage.” Drake tugged up his gloves. “Good day, sir.
” He strode away, swinging his cane as if he hadn’t a care. Unfortunately, the tempest swirling in his chest was as ominous as the thunder overhead. And droplets slapping his face served as dancing pixies sent from Satan come to laugh at his demise. Chapter Two Bria dropped onto a chair in the backstage dressing room and rubbed her neck. Traveling had taken its toll, but she mustn’t give in to exhaustion. For the first time in days, she was finally able to stretch her legs and dance. Being confined in a carriage and then the steamer packet across the channel had all but suffocated her. And then Monsieur Travere had been cajoled into giving a demonstration for the Duke of Ravenscar and Mr. Perkins. Did they not know dancers couldn’t step off a ship and deliver their best? Goodness, she’d spent the entire sea leg of the voyage on deck with her head over the rail.
To her chagrin, she’d given the worst performance of her life. At least it felt miserable. Wearing soiled traveling clothes, weary, and half-starved, who would not feel miserable? She’d been astounded afterward when Mr. Perkins came forward and told them the ballet would open as planned. Throughout the demonstration, Bria was convinced the duke would make good on his threats and send them away. And all because of her. The man had spoken harshly when he’d confronted the dance master—had judged her before she’d been given a chance to rest and perform at her best. Of course, His Grace couldn’t know dancing the lead role was her life’s ambition. Neither did he know she would expel every ounce of strength she possessed to ensure the theater’s debut was a success. If Chadwick Theater failed, she would fail, and Britannia LeClair had worked too hard and fought too many battles to be humiliated and sent back to Paris as a national disappointment.
Removing her slipper, she massaged her toes. She should have realized the proprietor of Chadwick Theater would be angry, though neither Messieurs Marchand nor Travere had indicated the Duke of Ravenscar had not been informed that Marie had decided to stay in Paris. No wonder His Grace was furious. But his fury burned as if a flame had burst inside her. His words instilled doubt in her abilities. And he’d made her so self-aware standing in the parterre looking as noble as the King of England—no doubt passing judgement like a king as well. Somehow, in the next four days she needed to recondition and regain her polish lest she not be ready for Tuesday’s debut. If Ravenscar had truly been deceived, then she had naught but to give a performance as never before seen on the stage either in Paris or London. If he sent her home, her dancing career would be ruined—a travesty that would crush Bria to her very soul.