Margaret McPhee


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Dicing with the Dangerous Lord

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"
Venetia knew exactly how to identify the man for whom she was looking. He carries an ebony walking cane topped with a silver wolf’s-head in which the eyes are two set emeralds. Robert’s words rang in her head as she worked her way through the men around the green room, all the while scanning for the walking cane. There were canes aplenty but none the one that she sought. Yet both it and its owner were here; Robert would not have sent the message had he not been certain. And then she noticed the dark red curtain, masking the French doors to the balcony, sway slightly in the breeze. A frisson of uneasiness whispered within her at the realization of having to do this alone with him, out there in the darkness.

It took thirty minutes to reach the curtain, via Razeby and Haworth and Devlin. But then at last she was able to slip unnoticed behind it. The door was only slightly ajar. She took a deep breath, pushed it silently open and, closing it quietly behind her, stepped out into the cool dampness of the London night.

The moonlight silhouetted him where he stood looking out over the lamp-lit streets of Covent Garden; a dark, lithe figure, silent and unmoving as if he were carved of the same Portland stone as the balustrade that contained the balcony. Her gaze moved over the dark beaver hat and gloves held in his left hand, and then on to the walking cane in his right.

The tip of it touched to the leather of his glossy black riding boot and beneath his hand she could see the glint of the stick’s silver wolf’s-head handle and the glow of two tiny green gems within. And in that small moment before he moved, all of Robert’s words over who this man was and what he had done, seemed to whisper in her ear, making her blood run cold. But even then she did not consider changing her mind. She stepped forward, relishing the challenge.


He glanced round, half-turned to her.

‘Do you mind if I...?’ She gestured towards the coping that topped the balustrade just along from where he stood.

‘Not at all.’ It was a smooth, low, well-spoken voice, not harsh and cold as one might have imagined for such a man. ‘I was just leaving.’ His expression was serious, unsmiling, nothing of the hopeful flirtation that was upon every other male face within the green room.

‘Not on my account I hope.’ She kept her voice low and lazy and seductive as she strolled over to the balustrade, stopping, not too close to him but close enough, and looking not at him but out over the same view he had been watching. ‘Who would have thought such a spot could offer such refuge?’ She knew the way to draw a man into conversation, to entice his interest by offering a little of herself. It was a necessary skill of any successful actress and Venetia had spent years perfecting the method.

‘Refuge?’ he asked.
She kept her gaze fixed on the lamp-lit streets below. The breeze breathed its chill against her cheeks, against her exposed décolletage.

‘A few precious moments of calm in a night full of frenzy and demand.’ She watched the carriages and the groups of gentlemen with their mistresses on their arms. ‘I often come out here before the performance...and after. To think. I find it helpful.’

‘You do not enjoy acting?’

‘I enjoy acting very much. But not that which goes with it.’

‘You mean the green room?’

‘And more. But,’ she inhaled deeply and slowly released the breath, and the chill of the night air lent it a misty quality, ‘it is all part of my job. Written into my contract, would you believe?’

‘To entice and delight.’

‘Some may call it that.’ She leaned slightly closer to him, presenting him with a better view of her cleavage. ‘But in reality to generate interest in, and donations to, the theatre. You paid more to visit the green room than you did for your theatre ticket, did you not, sir?’

‘I did.’

‘To be seduced.’

‘By you, Miss Fox?’


‘Perhaps...’ She let the word hang in the air as a suggestion before lowering her voice as if they were two conspirators speaking secrets. ‘Or then again, perhaps not. We actresses are not supposed to tell. Such truths quite spoil the illusion.’ She smiled, but only because the role called for it. Then glanced across at him, and looked at the murderer properly for the first time. At his olive-skinned face with its chiselled angles and planes that lent him a handsomeness she had not expected. At his dark hair that hung in ebony sheened waves, and his eyes that were black as midnight and held such dark brooding intensity within that had nothing to do with their colour. His gaze met hers and it was as if he had stroked a finger down the naked length of her spine.

She stared into those dark compelling eyes and her heart gave a stutter and her stomach turned a somersault. She stared, shocked and unable look away. The moment stretched between them and all the while he held her imprisoned in that steady scrutinising gaze as surely as she did any other man’s. Her heart was pounding as she finally managed to tear her eyes away and lower her gaze. With a determination of iron she masked the fluster, reined herself in, but all the willpower in the world could not suppress the shiver that rippled right through her. It took every ounce of her experience upon the stage to regain her poise before she could look at him once again.


‘The nights grow colder and an actress can hardly wear her woollens and flannels to work,’ she said by way of excuse, knowing that he had seen the shiver.

‘Indeed.’ His eyes moved over her dress, over the bare skin it revealed, and the pale swell of her breasts before coming back up to her face. ‘That would not do at all.’

Play the part. It is just another role. He is just another man. ‘So...what is your excuse?’ She held his gaze, her appearance once more the cool, calm, enticing Miss Fox, but beneath the surface her composure was still ruffled. ‘Why are you braving the chill of a November evening instead of enjoying the hospitality of the green room?’

His eyes moved back to the Bow Street view. ‘I have things on my mind.’

‘You disappoint me. There was me thinking that you had come outside alone to wait for me.’ He glanced round at her and she curved her lips to show that she was teasing him, even though her heart was still beating that bit too fast. ‘Things from which an evening at the theatre cannot distract you?’

‘Quite.’

‘They must be serious or perhaps it is a comment upon Miss Sweetly’s and my acting abilities.’

‘Rest assured your acting abilities remain unchallenged.’

‘You flatter me. And flattery is not permitted out here; I have a rule that it must remain confined to the green room.’

‘The truth is quite the contrary, Miss Fox. I enjoyed the performance very much.’

She smiled a wry smile and let her gaze wander back to the view. ‘In that case I am intrigued as to precisely what it is that so preoccupies your mind, sir.’

The sounds from the streets below drifted up to her. The silence seemed so long that she wondered if she had gone too far in asking so blatantly.

‘Trust me, you do not wish to know.’ And there was something in the way he said it, a dangerous haunting honesty that quite chilled her to the bone.

She turned her gaze away, watching the view once more that he would not see the truth in her eyes. ‘We all have things on our minds.’

‘Learning your lines, or deliberating in your choice of Hawick or Devlin?’ he asked.

‘Not quite,’ she said, and thought with irony of just what she had come out here to do to him.

‘Then what, may I ask?’

She looked at him across the small distance and wondered just for the tiniest of moments what he would do if she were to tell him and the thought made her smile in earnest. ‘You are asking me to spill my secrets and we have not even been introduced, sir.’ She arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow, the ultimate femme fatale. ‘What manner of woman do you take me for?’

He glanced at her again, the dark eyes studying her face.

Their gazes held and even though she was prepared this time, the same prickling sensation stroked against her nerves. Her heart was racing and not only because she feared that he meant to walk away.

‘Forgive me,’ he said at last and gave a small bow of his head. ‘I am Linwood.’

‘Venetia Fox. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Linwood,’ she said mocking polite formality.

‘Miss Fox.’ Just the sound of his voice, rich and dark as chocolate, sent goose bumps erupting over her body.

She focused. Breathed. Let her gaze drop to his lips, to linger there for the smallest moment before returning to his eyes.

‘So now we are introduced,’ she lowered the pitch of her voice.

‘We are,’ he agreed.

She smiled, a slow, seductive, suggestive smile.

‘You can go ahead and tell me what is on your mind,’ he said.

‘Oh, you really do not wish to know, Lord Linwood. Trust me.’ It was a parody of the words he had used to her.

‘Touché, Miss Fox.’ There was a hint of amusement in his voice although his face betrayed nothing of it.

Her mouth curved as she turned her attention once more to the London streets beyond and below. ‘So what brings you to the green room tonight? I have not seen you here before.’

‘I accompany my friend Razeby. To use your own words, he wishes to be seduced, or, perhaps more accurately, to do the seducing.’

‘And you?’

‘I am not in the market for a mistress, Miss Fox.’

‘Nor I, in the market for a protector.’ Her eyes were cool and disdainful with truth.

‘Hawick and Devlin seem to be under another impression.’

‘Hawick and Devlin are mistaken.’ She let just enough steel show.

His eyes slid to hers. He paused. ‘And had I come outside alone to wait for you...?’

‘Just the two of us, out here, alone in the darkness...' She raised her eyebrow ever so slightly. ‘Who knows what might have happened?’

Neither made any move, only looked at one another across the small space of darkness. She stood still, calm, everything of her posture inviting, alluring, sensual. And in her eyes and on her lips was the merest suggestion of a smile and so much more.

The balcony door opened. ‘Linwood, I-' Razeby halted at the sight of her. ‘Forgive me, I did not realize-’

‘If you will excuse me, gentlemen.’ Only then did she break the gaze that bound her and Linwood together, and took her time over a small desultory curtsey. ‘Lord Linwood.’ Her eyes met his one last time before moving to Razeby. ‘Lord Razeby.’ And as she passed Linwood she leaned close enough to smell his cologne, and whispered softly for his ears alone, ‘Until the next time, my lord.’

She walked past Razeby into the greenroom, without a backward glance at either man, even though she could feel the weight of both their gazes following her.

And just like that, the matter was begun."


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