Excerpt: Her Secret Desire

Book 1 : Lord Hawkesbury's Players

Her Secret Desire (Lord Hawkesbury's Players) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

London: Autumn 1589

Min had become accustomed to rejection, the feeling of a little piece of her heart being stripped off and cast to the city’s rats. After all, she’d been rejected by every theatre company manager in London, sometimes more than once. Now she stood face to face with the man capable of cutting her heart out completely. It was enough to make her stomach heave.

“Not you again.”

Roger Style stopped midstride and thrust both hands on hips exaggerated by his fashionably short trunkhose. He glanced up and down the street and must have realized he had nowhere else to go except past Min.

Disgruntled theatre-goers, leaving the White Swan Inn after suffering through his latest play, surged down the narrow thoroughfare and around him as if he were an island in the middle of a rapidly flowing stream. The irony was, they had no idea that he was the man responsible for the farce they’d paid good money to see. However, the crowd wasn’t so large that the buffeting would last long.

Min had to take her chance while Style could not escape. If she didn’t, there would be no more opportunities. London’s other theatre managers had already turned her down twice. Style was her last hope. The very last. None would listen to her pleas a third time.

Drawing in a solid dose of courage along with a deep breath, she planted her booted feet on the muddy ground and held up her manuscript. “Mr. Style, I’m simply asking that you read it. Just one little, quick read—”

“No.” Style took a step closer. He was short, only a little taller than Min herself, but he had presence borne from years of acting in leading roles. It was an advantage he knew how to use.

Min refused to be intimidated. Again. She’d backed down from Style once already. She’d been very close to throwing her manuscript in the fireplace afterwards, but sense had thankfully returned in time to save it from oblivion. She couldn’t afford to give up this time, not unless she wanted to find herself wed to Ned Taylor.

“I would be doing you an injustice, my dear, to read the play you thrust beneath my nose,” Style said. He linked his hands behind his back and squared his shoulders. “Due to the smallness of their brains, women cannot write plays. Alas, it is not of my doing, but God’s.” He indeed seemed quite apologetic on the Lord’s behalf. “It is His will that the gentler sex be given the gifts of beauty and…” He waved his gloved hands just like the wise old wizard he’d played on stage the month before in a rather forgettable play. “…other things. Reading it would simply encourage you to write more. In that endeavor, your poor brain would not be able to cope with so much activity and, in short, it might expire. Nay! It would expire. I cannot have that on my conscience.”

He smiled down at her the way a master smiles down at his favorite puppy after it has pissed on the rushes. Min almost bit her tongue off to refrain from saying something that would completely destroy her last chance. She might be desperate, but she liked to think she wasn’t a complete fool.

“Now, if you’ll be so good as to step aside.” He lifted thick, woolly brows, expectant.

“Please, Mr. Style, I shall be indebted to you. I’m not asking for money.” She put her right arm behind her back to hide the threadbare patch on the cloak sleeve. “Not much anyway. I simply want—”

“No.” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Would you like me to explain it to you again?” He tossed his head and brushed the cheek of a passerby with the long white plume decorating his hat. “Women cannot possibly write the sort of plays my company performs. The nuances, the rhythms, are simply too intricate for the poor female mind to comprehend.”

“Many women attend your plays, sir, and enjoy them.” Used to enjoy them, she might have added. After the most recent outbreak of the plague, Lord Hawkesbury’s Players—Style’s company—could no longer be relied upon to entertain. With their chief playwright succumbing to the disease that had emptied the city and ravaged those who’d remained behind, the new plays had been awful. Not a single one had lasted more than two performances. Most not even that many. As a consequence, audiences had dwindled. The one that attended this afternoon’s performance had already turned into a trickle leaving the inn. That alone gave Min hope. A theatre company with a diminishing audience equaled a desperate manager. And desperate people took risks.

Style lifted a hand. “Watching them is one thing,” he said, “writing them entirely another.”

What remained of Min’s heart sank into her stomach. It was hopeless. He wouldn’t look at her play if his life depended upon it, or his livelihood as it were. The crowd had dispersed entirely, the gray clouds encouraging them to find shelter before the rain broke and made the roads slippery and their ruffs droop. Style moved to step around her.

“Wait!” She caught his arm, jerking him to a halt.

“My girl,” he said with exaggerated effort, “I am very busy.” He glanced back at the inn. Looking for assistance from his players? It was unlikely they would come to his aid—they were probably still drowning their professional sorrows in the taproom. “Please remove yourself from my presence or I shall have to—”

“There’s been a misunderstanding.” She had to do something, say something, to get him to listen. “I didn’t write this play.”

“Very well.” He pried one of her fingers off his arm, using only his thumb and forefinger as if he might catch something from her. As soon as he let go of her finger, she clamped it down on his arm again.

“What I mean to say is, a woman didn’t write this play, a man did.”

Style frowned. “Then why didn’t you tell me so before?”

She shrugged. She didn’t have an answer for that. Not yet.

“Well, if you didn’t,” he said, “who did?”

She quickly scanned the faces of passersby, but therein lay the flaw in her plan—they passed by. Style would not believe one of them had interest in their conversation. There was only one man who lingered. He had his back to them and was a little near for her liking. Well, he’d have to do; Style was growing restless.

“Him,” she said.

“Him?” Style’s eyes narrowed as he studied the man. Min studied him too. He leaned against the wall of a haberdasher’s shop, arms and ankles crossed. He was tall and dark haired. Unlike the gentleman fops she was familiar with, he wore simple black with no elaborate stitching and not a hint of jewelry. Even his ruff was small. She couldn’t determine the material of his doublet and hose, but they fit him well. Not a sag in sight. A talented tailor had made them precisely for this man’s body. And what a body. Wide shoulders and a fine leg with a muscled and shapely calf.

The figure in question suddenly shifted, a barely noticeable stiffening of his back and shoulders. Min noticed it, however. She felt strangely in tune with him—like the fiddler off stage and dancer on it, they were separate and yet together.

“Then why didn’t he approach me himself instead of sending you?” Style cocked his head to the side without taking his gaze off the stranger. “Lo!” he called out.

“Shhh!” Min hissed. “He’s, er, shy.” She cringed. She might have an overactive imagination but it wasn’t a particularly quick one. The man must have heard because he turned around. Min swallowed a gasp. He was very handsome with tanned skin that spoke of warmer climes or an intriguing parentage. But it was his eyes that sent a shimmer of heat up her spine. They were bright blue, the color of a summer sky. Amidst all that darkness, they were an oasis—vivid and glorious. And they were staring straight at her.

“He doesn’t look shy,” Style said. He most certainly did not. Min had never seen a man quite like him. He exuded a self-contained power, and despite his idle stance, she could see he was alert to his surroundings—a cat lazing in the sun but with an eye on the mouse. Or in this case, Min.

“Well, he is shy,” she said. “Very.”

“I want to meet him.”

“No!” She leaped in front of Style. He peered over her head and frowned. “Oh. He’s gone.”

Thank you, Lord. Min breathed out and managed a smile. “As I said. Shy.”

“He shouldn’t be. Men who look like that don’t need to be shy. I wonder if he’s ever thought of acting. He’d make quite a striking figure on stage.”

“I’ll ask him next time I see him.” She held out her manuscript. “Will you read his play?”

Style took it and Min felt her heart rebuild itself in that instant. She didn’t squeal in delight, but it was an effort not to.

“I’ll read it tonight,” he said.

“Wonderful. I’ll meet you back here tomorrow, same time. You won’t be disappointed, sir.”

Style cast his eye over the front page. “Bring the playwright.”

“The…er, yes, of course. He’ll be here.” Her face heated at the lie, knowing she’d need another to explain why she hadn’t brought him.

“Good day, Mistress…What was your name?”

“Peabody. Minerva Peabody.”

Style nodded and left, hurrying the short distance to Gracechurch Street without looking back. Min watched him go with a growing sense of exhilaration. He was going to read it! The battle was half won. She might finally, finally see her dream of two years come to fruition, and just in time too.

Money was running out and Ned Taylor was hovering, preparing to swoop in and snatch her for his wife. She would rather live in poverty than wed that swine of a man, but her father could not. He was too old. And poverty meant they would lose their beloved maid, Jane.

Tears of joy welled in her eyes. It was almost too much. She felt like she would burst if she didn’t tell someone. But who? Her father would be angry that she’d wasted so much time on her play instead of helping him, and her friends didn’t quite understand how much it meant to her. The few who knew she harbored the dream of being a playwright thought her mad.

Min sighed. Her earlier enthusiasm faded. If only her mother were still alive… She turned to go. And bumped into something hard. Not something, someone. A tall man, with strong hands that gripped her shoulders to steady her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, peering up at him. “I—Oh! It’s you.”

The stranger with the too-blue eyes glared down his nose at her. “Why were you watching me?” No preamble, no “Are you all right?” or “Hello, my name is Percy Percival, what’s yours?”

Min swallowed. Blinked. Remembered to breathe. The man was overwhelming up close. Taller, broader across the shoulders with an air of danger that simmered around him. From afar he’d been like an exotic delicacy—a delicious morsel that was, alas, out of her reach—but now she received the full force of his presence. Power rippled through his touch into her body, making the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand to attention. His blue glare bored into her as if he were trying to extract the answer directly from her head. There was a jaded languor about those eyes, as if they’d seen too much and cared too little.

“I wasn’t watching you,” she said, her voice small. She cleared her throat. “Anyway, it was you who was watching me.”

His gaze slid to her shoulders. As if he’d just realized he was still holding her, he let them go. “You are mistaken.”

“I am not. You were looking directly at me for quite some time.”

“No.”

“No?”

“As I said, you’re mistaken. I was merely looking in your general direction.”

“At what precisely?”

A pulse throbbed in his cheek. “You ask a lot of questions.”

“I’m merely curious. As a playwright, it helps to be curious about people. Besides, one question does not ‘a lot’ make. So, what or whom were you looking at if not at me?” She wasn’t sure why she persisted. Perhaps it was to learn more about him. He might prove useful as the basis for one of her characters.

“That,” he said in a tone that could have frozen the Thames, “is none of your business.”

She sighed. He was harder to talk to than her father in the midst of his research.

“Are you going to tell me why you were looking at me or will I have to force it out of you?” he persisted.

She gasped. “Force? What kind of force?” She glanced around and wondered if any of the lingering youths or hawkers would come to her aid if she screamed.

The street had become oddly quiet now that the performance was long over, and the sky had turned sinister. Everyone must have gone home or into one of the nearby shops in anticipation of a downpour.

“You could always not answer the question to find out,” he said. “If you’re curious enough, that is.”

She crossed her arms. She didn’t like to be teased.

“Who was that man with you?” he asked.

She saw no reason not to tell him. “Roger Style, manager and lead actor for Lord Hawkesbury’s Players.”

“The theatre company?”

“Yes.” She thought she saw him smile but she must have been mistaken. He didn’t look like a man who knew how to smile. He glanced back at the White Swan Inn.

“And that parcel you gave him was your play?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. I see.” He bent down to her level and pinned her to the spot with an unwavering glare. “So what, madam, does Roger Style and your play have to do with me?” She opened her mouth to utter whatever excuse came out first, but he stopped her by raising a finger. “No,” he said. “I want a direct answer this time.” Now she wished she’d chosen someone else, someone with blander features and considerably smaller in stature. Someone who didn’t turn her insides hot and cold with one glance or look like he could squeeze answers out of her. Someone with a little less strength of character. She reined in her galloping attention.

“Style wouldn’t read a play written by a woman, so I told him a man wrote it.” She took a cautious step away from him but it didn’t weaken his effect on her. Only the distance of oceans would achieve that—no, not even then. “In short, I told him you wrote it.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You.”

“Why me?”

Because you have broad shoulders. She shrugged. “You were standing about, not doing anything in particular and then you turned around and stared at me.”

“I thought we cleared that up. I wasn’t staring at you.” Amusement flared in those blue depths again. Min found it irritating, despite her attraction, but it wouldn’t do to let him see. She needed him, after all. “However, if it pleases your playwright’s fancy to think that I was, then go ahead and indulge in that fantasy.”

Heat flared from her throat to her hairline. “Your eyes were pointed at me, sir,” she said, trying hard to sweeten her tone. “And since my eyes are in perfect working order, I do not think I was mistaken.”

He sighed and looked briefly heavenward as if seeking a sign. “I wasn’t watching you, I was watching your companion.” The sound of her vanity bursting momentarily filled her ears. Her heart dipped. It really was her own silly fault to have assumed he had been staring at her. She was hardly the sort of woman to inspire a man like him to spend his afternoon looking at a stranger. She tucked a stray lock of hair back into her hood.

“Style? But why?”

He hesitated, just a little, then said, “I want to join his company.”

“Lord Hawkesbury’s Players? As what?”

He shrugged. “In any capacity. And it seems, madam, that you have helped my plight.”

She didn’t believe him. He didn’t even know Style was the manager of Lord Hawkesbury’s Players until she’d told him and now he wanted to work for Style’s company? She wasn’t a fool. But why lie? What did this man have to hide? And what had she got herself into by using him? Whatever it was, it seemed only fair that he now use her. That would teach her not to think her schemes through properly before opening her mouth. The stranger rubbed his stubbly chin, lost in thought.

“Are you going to see Style again about your play?”

“Yes.”

“When and where?”

“Why?”

A sense of foreboding congealed in her stomach.

“Just answer the question.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Then I will follow you and tell your father or husband or whoever is head of your household that you have been consorting with theatrical types.”

Her jaw hurt. She forced it to move so she could say: “Consorting?”

“They can put their own interpretation on the word.” He blinked lazily. Min wanted to scratch those too-blue eyes out, wanted to punch him on the chin like an insulted man would. But she wasn’t a man, and he wasn’t like any man she’d encountered.

“Is your name Lucifer by any chance?”

His cheek twitched. “No.”

She spun round and strode off, hating God, the devil, and whatever witchcraft had sent this man to her. Walk away. Walk far away from him now. Yet she couldn’t. Not entirely. If he was to go to Style and tell the manager he did not write the play, her last hope would be dashed and it would be Ned Taylor for her.

“I’m meeting Style here tomorrow at this time,” she shot back over her shoulder. By then she would be fully recovered from this girlish folly. Her dramatic exit was ruined when he fell into step alongside her.

“To make our ruse seem authentic,” he said, “we’d best exchange names. I’m Blake.”

A fat drop of rain exploded on her nose and she swiped it with her sleeve. “Is that a first name or last?” she said, flipping up the hood of her cloak.

“It’s what you can call me. And you?”

More drops fell. She picked up her pace and headed for shelter. The overhanging upper stories of the houses and shops lining the narrow street provided perfect cover for London’s fickle weather. The paved surface quickly became slippery and little rivulets began to trickle between the stones, bringing with it mud, horse dung, and refuse from nearby Leadenhall Market. Min kept her gaze down and dodged the worst in her haste to reach dryness. Suddenly a solid arm circled her waist and jerked her back into an equally solid body.

“Watch it,” Blake murmured in her ear. A barrel-sized man stumbled past, too intent on his wineskin to notice anyone or anything in his path. Min looked once again into the eyes of her savior. No, not her savior. She really must stop thinking of him as that. But he had just saved her from being knocked over and landing on her rear in the muck. And he was staring at her again, this time with an odd expression that she couldn’t decipher.

She smiled tentatively and placed a hand on the arm that still held her snugly against his body. Beneath the leather doublet, she could feel thick muscle. Or was it padding? It was hard to tell so she squeezed. Definitely not padding. He let go of her waist and smoothed a wrinkle out of her coat at the shoulder. His thumb brushed against her throat in a movement so exquisitely gentle it made everything inside Min stop.

Her heart, her breath, her thoughts. Every part of her focused on that thumb and the way it caressed her, moving from her throat to her jaw to her lower lip. It tickled but there was no way she would pull back, no way she would break the touch. She couldn’t. She was in his thrall.

A strange hush surrounded them. She could hear nothing except his light breathing, see nothing except his face, so intent on his task. It was as if they were floating inside a bubble; the outside world became irrelevant. It was quite simply magical.

Then Blake did something unexpected. He smiled. Not a full, beaming smile but more a twitch of one corner of his mouth. It was accompanied by a derisive curl of his lip and a soft grunt. He was sneering. He removed his hand and the bubble burst. She swallowed and pressed her fingertips to her mouth but it didn’t feel the same. Didn’t have nearly the same effect. He cleared his throat and lifted an eyebrow. She let her hand fall and tried to concentrate on not looking like a silly female who’d never been touched in quite the way he’d just touched her. Even though she hadn’t. Nor would she again, a small insidious voice inside her said. Not if Ned got his way.

Raindrops splashed off Blake’s shoulders and plastered his hair to his face. “You should watch where you’re going,” he said.

She huddled into her cloak but it was too thin and had too many holes to be effective against the damp. “Min.”

His gaze shifted to her. Water dripped from the ends of his hair and lashes. “Pardon?”

“You can call me Min.”

“Min.”

She thought he would ask her about her name but he didn’t. He bowed slightly.

“I’ll see you here tomorrow, Min.” He turned back the way they’d come, his stride leisurely compared to the few remaining people who scurried like ants to get out of the rain.

Min raced off in the opposite direction, resisting the urge to look back at him. She wouldn’t give into temptation. She still had enough self-control to resist the blue-eyed Lucifer. Her resistance lasted all the way to the corner where she weakened and snuck a peek.

Blake was gone.