“A life in the theater?” William asked skeptically.
“She's an independent woman with a successful career.”
“A woman preferring a career to marriage?” William said, looking offended at the very idea. “It's unnatural.”
“Julia wants to make decisions for herself—hardly surprising after being managed and manipulated by Lord Hargate all her life.”
“I could understand it if she were a bluestocking or a hag…but a woman with her looks and breeding…” Confounded, William concentrated on the scene unfolding before them on the stage.
More characters made their entrances, a heavyset old man who garnered many laughs as Julia's socially ambitious father, and a small curly-haired woman as her personal maid. Soon a tall, blandly handsome suitor also appeared. He was intent on courting the aristocratic miss and also winning the approval of her father. A light conversation ensued, laced with charm and social satire.
Julia, in the character of Christine, exuded a mixture of sweetness and loneliness, clearly desiring more than the narrow confines of her life allowed. The next scene showed her in search of an adventure, daring to pose as a housemaid and venturing into town without a chaperone. Another skillfully painted backcloth and several set pieces were revealed, simulating a bustling seaside community.
Seeming lost amid the busy street merchants and townspeople, Christine wandered across the stage until she accidentally bumped into a tall, mahogany-haired man. Even before Logan Scott turned to reveal his face, the theater audience knew who he was, and burst into wild applause. His reception was as fervid as the response Julia had garnered, the shouts of approval and clapping hands lasting for a full minute or more. Like Julia, Scott chose to stay in character, waiting until the sound faded.
There was a tangible attraction between the two as they spoke. Every line of Julia's body was tense with wariness and curiosity. Logan Scott described himself as a servant to a local lord, but an appreciative laugh ran through the audience as they suspected that the identity was a ruse. Inexorably drawn to each other, the two made tentative plans to meet again, in secret. From then on the story took on a brisk momentum, at once romantic and lighthearted.
Glancing at his brother, Damon saw that William was watching the play with rapt attention. The skill of the actors made it nearly impossible to think of anything else. The supporting cast was strong, and Logan Scott was as talented as always, but Julia was undeniably the heart of the play. She was like a flame dancing across the stage, mysterious and vibrant. Every gesture seemed miraculously natural, each rise and fall of her voice filled with poignant meaning. She was the woman every man imagined himself falling in love with someday, desirable and infinitely difficult to possess. If Julia hadn't been a renowned celebrity before tonight, this performance would have ensured it.
It made the back of Damon's neck prickle with jealousy as he watched Julia and Logan interact as two lovers. He gritted his teeth each time they touched. At the moment they kissed, the theater was filled with wistful and envious sighs, while Damon longed to leap onto the stage and tear them apart.
During the temporary lull of a scene change, William turned to Damon with a speculative expression. “Do you suppose that Julia and Mr. Scott—”
“No,” Damon snapped, fully aware of what he was thinking.
“It certainly seems as if they are.”
“They're actors, Will. They're supposed to behave like two lovers—that's the point of the story.”
“They're very good at it,” came William's dubious reply.
The remark fanned the flames of Damon's jealousy, and he struggled to keep it under control. This was what it would be like, married to an actress. There would be doubts and resentment, and constant incentives to argue. Only a saint could withstand it—and God knew he was far from that.
Julia was filled with excitement and a calm sense of purpose as she waited in the wings for her next entrance. Gingerly she blotted the mist of sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, careful not to smear her makeup. The play was going wonderfully well, and she sensed that she was accomplishing everything she had hoped to in the part of Christine.
The laughter and enjoyment of the audience were invigorating, lending the performances of all the actors an extra sparkle. One of her favorite scenes was approaching, the one she and Logan had performed at the Brandons' weekend party. She and “James” would discover their true identities, with a blend of comedy and longing that she hoped would make everyone in the house laugh, and would touch their hearts at the same time.
Sensing a presence behind her, she turned and saw Logan nearby, his face crossed with shadows in the dimly lit wings. She smiled at him, arching her brows in silent question, and he winked at hen He hardly ever winked. “You must be pleased,” Julia said dryly. “Either that or there's something in your eye.”
“I'm pleased that you haven't let your personal problems interfere with your acting,” he murmured. “You're giving a fairly decent performance tonight.”
“I never said I was having personal problems.”
“You didn't need to.” Logan turned her to face the expanse of stage that lay just beyond the wings. “But that is the only thing that matters. The stage will never fail you, as long as you give yourself to it completely.”
“Don't you ever tire of it?” Julia asked softly, staring at the long wooden boards, weathered from thousands of foot marks and scuffs left by scenery. “Don't you ever want something you can't find here?”
“No,” Logan said at once. “That's for conventional people—something you and I are not.” Hearing his cue, he moved past her and strode onto the stage in character. Frowning, Julia held a fold of a soft velvet curtain and stroked its worn softness. She stepped forward to gain a better view of the scene in progress, and saw Arlyss waiting in the wing opposite her. They exchanged a grin and a little wave, both of them sharing pleasure in the play's success.
There was a hot, pungent smell in the air, the familiar scents of paint, sweat, and the calcium flares used to light the stage. But there was a new, nearly undetectable addition to the mix. Frowning curiously, Julia looked past Arlyss to the backcloth and flats. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but a sixth sense told her that something was wrong. Troubled, she turned to some of the crew nearby, a group of scene shifters and carpenters preparing for the next change of sets. She wondered if they too had the sense that something was off-kilter, but they seemed unperturbed.
All of a sudden, Julia caught a whiff of smoke. A throb of panic went through her body. Wondering if it was her imagination, she inhaled more deeply. The smell was stronger this time. Her heart slammed in her chest, and her thoughts turned into chaos. Fire had destroyed the theaters in both Drury Lane and Covent Garden eighteen years before. The death toll was frequently heavy in such situations, not only from the fire and smoke, but also from the panic that ensued in a crowded building. People would be crushed and trampled, even if the fire was quickly brought under control. Her cue was approaching—she had to tell someone—but where was the fire if she couldn't see it?
As if in answer to her silent question, the flat on stage right erupted into flames. It must have been overheated by a carelessly positioned lamp or flare, the blaze traveling greedily across the paint-coated surface. The actors on stage froze in sudden awareness of the disaster, while screams shot through the audience. “My God,” Julia whispered, while members of the crew shoved past her with a volley of curses.
“Sweet Jesus,” William exclaimed, staring spellbound at the blaze that had begun on the side of the stage. “Damon—we have to get out of here!” The boxes above, below, and around them were bursting in pandemonium as the audience realized what was happening. People fought frenziedly, pushing and shoving each other in the savage battle to escape the potential deathtrap. Women screamed in horror, while men brawled and pummeled to forge a path through the riot.
Damon stared at the blaze onstage, realizing it would be a miracle if they contained it. The Water reservoirs built above the stage appeared to be of little use, despite the crew's frantic efforts to douse the fire. Red flames snaked along the painted flats and shot across the backcloth, sending scraps of scenery curling and blazing to the stage. Through the smoke and the rain of fire, Damon could see Julia's slender form arching and bending as she plied a water-soaked cloth to beat back the flames. He was filled with terror and fury. She had remained behind with the male cast and crew to combat the fire. “Damn you, Julia!” he shouted, the sound lost in the frightened roar of the crowd. All conscious thought was consumed in the need to reach her.
Running from the box, he made his way to one of the twin grand staircases that led to the main theater hall on the first floor. The stairs were packed with the writhing, screaming mob. William was at his heels, following him as he launched himself into the melee. “Let's try the side entrance,” William panted. “Less crowded than the front.”
“You go that way,” Damon said over his shoulder. “I'm heading back inside.”
“For what? For Julia? She's surrounded by a dozen people who are perfectly capable of taking care of her. By the time you reach the stage, she'll be outside…and you could very well be trapped!”
“She won't leave,” Damon said hoarsely, staying close to the railing and shoving his way down a few more steps.
William grunted with the effort to follow him. “Anyone foolish enough to stay in that furnace deserves what they get!” He swore as he realized Damon wasn't listening to him. “I'll be damned ft if I go with you! Unlike you, I don't have a heroic bone in my body.”
“I want you to leave.”
“No,” William said in outrage. “With my luck you'll perish in the fire…and then I'll have to be the responsible eldest son…Hell, I'd rather take my chances in here.”
Ignoring his brother's complaints, Damon continued to the bottom of the stairs, vaulting over the railing when there were only a few feet left. William followed him into the swarm, toward the doors that led to the pit and orchestra seats. It was nearly impossible to make way through the violent flow of the crowd, but they managed to travel a few feet at a time until they were in the middle of the bedlam. The air was rife with wholesale panic.
Leaping over rows of seats in an effort to reach the stage, Damon caught a glimpse of Julia. She was beating out flames with a vengeance, trying to stop them from spreading to the curtains. Crew members worked nearby to remove flammable ground pieces and collapse the flats before the blaze could reach the frontispiece of the stage and the scaffolding above. Yearning to throttle his wife for placing herself in such danger, Damon scrambled around the orchestra pit and hoisted himself onto the stage.
Half-blind from smoke and fumes, Julia beat at the yellow flames that tore across the scenery, while bits of burning ash stung her arms. Her breath burned in her raw throat, escaping in angry sobs of denial. The theater must not be destroyed—it meant more to her than she had realized. She was dimly aware of Logan nearby, working desperately to save the only thing that mattered to him. He wouldn't survive the loss of the Capital—he would stay there even if it burned to the ground.
Her arms trembled with exhaustion, and she felt her body swaying as it was engulfed in blasts of heat. She heard warning shouts from somewhere nearby, but she didn't pause in her battle to smother the flames that had begun to eat at one of the side curtains. Suddenly she was hit hard around the middle, her waist and sides compressed by a force that drove the breath from her. Flinching from pain and shock, she couldn't make a move to defend herself as she was dragged across the space of several yards. There was a cracking, whooshing sound in her ears, mingling with the heavy throb of her pulse.
As she pushed a lock of sweat-soaked hair from her eyes, Julia realized that the crew had collapsed the flat on stage right. She had been standing directly in its path. Someone had pulled her out of harm's way, the same person who was now beating at her skirts, his hand descending with bruising thwacks against her thighs and calves. Coughing, struggling for air, she tried to evade him before realizing with a thrill of horror that bits of burning residue from the backcloth had set her costume on fire.
When the material of her skirts was extinguished, her rescuer stood up, his face looming dark and furious over hers. Silhouetted against the background of fire and smoke, he looked like the devil. His bronzed face gleamed with sweat, his broad chest lifting as he took in deep, gulping breaths.
“Damon,” she said, her lips feeling numb as they formed his name. He seemed ready to kill her. His hands clamped around her, and he began to yank her off the stage in spite of her protests.
“Jessica?” She heard Logan Scott's voice from nearby. He paused in his efforts to contain the fire, his eyes narrowed to slits as he glanced from her to Damon. “For God's sake, get her out of here!”
“My pleasure,” Damon muttered.
Wincing at her husband's painful hold on her, Julia allowed him to usher her offstage to the I greenroom. “This way,” she managed to say, before she was overtaken by a spasm of coughing. She led him through the back of the theater, pausing only when she sensed that someone else was with them. She turned to get a hasty glance of a man who bore a startling resemblance to Damon. It could only be his brother. “L-Lord William?” she stammered.
“Yes, it's William,” Damon said impatiently. “There'll be time for introductions later. Let's go.”
Scowling at his high-handedness, Julia went to the door opening onto the street. She nearly collided with a small figure bolting back inside. It was Arlyss, bubbling over with relief and panicked excitement. “Jessica!” she exclaimed thankfully. “When I realized you weren't outside, I had to come back and find you…” She paused as she saw the two tall, dark-haired men behind Julia. A droll smile lit her face. “It seems you've already been rescued. Now I see that I should have stayed inside the theater and waited for help myself!”
William stepped forward, gallantly offering his arm to escort her. “I admire you for having the sense to leave immediately, Miss…”
“Barry,” she said. Her bright gaze missed no detail of his elegantly tailored clothes and dark, handsome looks. “Arlyss Barry.”
“Lord William Savage,” he said, introducing himself with a flourish. “At your service, Miss Barry.”
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