Authors: Gwyn Cready
“Are you out of your
?” Abby stared at Undine, aghast. “Move in
? 'Tis dangerous enough to be within pistol-shot distance of the man, let alone living with the wee fiend.”
Undine put a finger to her lips to remind them of the party going on around them and led the group to the shelter of a hedgerow of firethorn and honeysuckle.
“'Tis only till I find the proof I've been looking for,” Undine said.
“Proof?” Serafina's eyes narrowed. She knew what Bridgewater was capable of as well as any of them.
“Someone is planning an attack in Scotland. We've heard rumblings for weeks. Yet none of my sources in the army can confirm it. I think Bridgewater knows something, and to be honest, I wonder if the bishop is involved as well, but I need proof. When I get it, I'll disappear into the Cheviot Hills faster than a hare.”
Duncan gave her a hard look. “You ken that's impossible. For the information to be useful, Bridgewater will have to be confident no one's discovered it, and if ye leave, he'll know the truth. You'll have to stay here, as his fiancÃ©e, until the attack has been foiledâand even after that because if that blackguard thinks ye had anything to do with the information being acted uponâ¦”
The memory of the acts Bridgewater had demonstrated himself capable of settled over the group.
“I'll join you,” Abby said. “You'll need a chaperone. I canâ”
,” Undine said flatly. “There's little danger. And in any case,” she said, adding to the lie, “Bridgewater would never allow it.”
” As chieftess, Abby was used to having her suggestions obeyed, and her words grew sharper. “Lie to us if you wish, but assure me you're not lying to yourself. The man blackmailed me and nearly forced himself on Serafina. His scurrilousness knows no bounds.”
“I know he's a danger,” Undine admitted, fingering the honeysuckle to avoid meeting her friend's eyes. “But I'll be cautious. You needn't worry.”
Serafina, ever the peacemaker, said, “We know how powerful Undine's spells are. I'm certain she has nothing to fear.”
“How long will the spell last?” Abby said.
“I don't know,” Undine said. “The couple has usually fallen in love by the time the spell wears off, so I never noticed.”
“Are we certain that won't happen?” Abby asked.
Gerard bit back a laugh. “I mean, the man
quite handsome, right, Undine? What's a rape attempt or two between friends?”
Serafina elbowed her new husband and looked at her shoes.
Duncan, who had once run an office of fifty clerks perennially in crisis, stepped forward. Though he didn't exercise it often, he had a presence that commanded a room. The group fell silent. “What happens if it does wear off? Bridgewater will know he was drugged.”
“The man stole the potion and drank it willingly,” Undine said. “I accept no blame in that.”
“That's not what I mean,” Duncan said. “He'll ken well enough you wouldn't accept an offer of marriage from him because ye love him. He'll know you took advantage of his drugged state to spy on him.”
Something pricked Undine's finger and she jerked. She'd mistaken a branch of firethorn for its fragrant neighbor, and a tiny globe of crimson appeared on her flesh. “Then I'd better be done and away before that happens.”
Michael Kent rubbed his eyes, sighed, and opened them again. No luck. Eve, the stage manager, was still clutching her headset, her eye twitching in time to the iambic pentameter being reeled off on the other side of the National Rose's back curtain.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked. The last act of the last matinee of the last play he would ever have to direct, and one of his idiot actors had left the theater to register for a kickball league? “Where's Jasper? Can't he step in?”
“He's already subbing for Stuart. Pink eye.”
“Jesus Christ. It's like a bloody fucking preschool in here.”
Lady Velopar, ancient patroness of the National Rose Theater and Michael's own personal guide through the circles of fund-raising hell, had appeared in a puff of Harvey Nichols perfume, along with her equally irritating companion, Lady Louise Balmaine.
“I beg your pardon, your ladyship.” He bowed.
“I was hoping you'd take Louise on a tour,” she said. “You know how people love those little insights of yours.”
“I would adore it. Howeverâand I do hesitate even to mention itâyou may have noticed we're in the midst of a performanceâ¦” He tilted his head politely toward the booming voices beyond the curtain.
Lady Louise clapped her hands. “Oh, how delightful! Is it
“Shakespeare,” Michael said.
“A shame,” the noblewoman said, her spirit pierced but not conquered. “I do like the spectacle.”
“I'd be honored to take you around,” Michael said, “but as we're in the midst of a performance as well as a small technical crisis, if you would be so good as to take a seat in the backstage loungeâ¦” He forced a smile.
“What's on?” Lady Velopar asked, peering around the curtains with interest.
Romeo and Juliet
âyour request, I believe.” Before she'd fallen pregnant by the heir to the Velopar Biscuit fortune, Constance Velopar had been an actress. Bonny Connie Bells, the Fort William Firecracker. He'd heard she'd played Beatrice to John Barrymore's Benedickâor had it been John Wilkes Booth's?
“Ah, Juliet, our fair, doomed Capulet.” Lady Velopar drew herself to full thespian readiness as if turning over an Austin 10 that hadn't been started since before the war. “âCome, vial,'” she said, sweeping her arm through the air. “âWhat if this mixture do not work at all?'” After a pause so long that Michael worried she'd suffered a stroke, Lady Velopar shook off her dramatic fugue and clapped her gloves into her palm. “An unhappy ending all around, this one is.”
“Actually,” Michael said, “if I can't find someone to play Friar Laurence and give Juliet the poison, we may have the first
Romeo and Juliet
that ends with a happily married couple on our hands.”
As if on cue, the actress playing Juliet flounced off the stage and came to a stop in front of Michael. “âThus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged,'” she said in a fair imitation of her leading man. “Yeah, well, tell that jackass if I have to purge the taste of bloody lamb vindaloo from my lips one more time, I'm going to bite off his leathery old tongue.” She swiped at her mouth and added, “Isn't Romeo supposed to be
“His Oscar is the reason we're packing them in like cordwood, you know,” Michael said politely as she stomped off. “Best Ingenue, York Regional Theatre, doesn't draw like you'd think it might.”
“Friar Laurence,” Eve reminded him forcefully.
“Is there liquor in the lounge?” Lady Velopar asked.
“God, I hope so.”
“We'll wait for you there then.” The women floated off like mist on the Thames.
“Joy.” He turned to Eve. “Any chance
know the lines?”
“I know all the lines,” she said, then lowered her voice to a whisper and pointed beyond the curtain. “I just can't say them in front of
A stage manager with stage fright. Perfect.
“How bad is it?”
“Random jabbering followed by hyperventilation, dry heaving, and tears.”
“Wow. And you're sure you're not an actress?” He patted her shoulder. “Don't worry. We shan't throw you to the wolves. You're the only sane one left.” He was glad he'd recommended her for the role of managing director. She was a dependable island of calm in an ever-stormy sea. His only regret was he wouldn't be there to see her surprise when she heard the news.
“Mr. Kent, I don't want to rush you, but we have”âshe held up a finger to hear the lines onstageâ“exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds before Friar Laurence makes his entrance.” She looked at the ball of burlap in her arms, then back at him with a hopeful smile.
an actor,” she said.
He took the priest's habit and unfurled it. “A thousand years ago.”
“You played Romeo. You won an Olivier for it.”
“I played Mercutio too. And Benvolio,” he said. “And the nurse once in sixth form. But that was all before I realized I hated acting and actors, and became a director so I could kick their bloody arses.”
,” snarled his Juliet, who'd returned even angrier. “There are two old harridans in my dressing room drinking the last of my gin. You
how I look forward to my gin.”
“Take Stuart's dressing room,” he said, tearing his shirt buttons loose and kicking off his loafers. “And one of those old harridans pays your salary. So button your lip and drown yourself in cheap whiskey like the rest of us.”
She stormed off.
“Do you know the lines?” Eve asked.
“Of course I bloody know the lines.” He threw the shirt under the soundboard and pulled off his socks. “I could do the thing in my sleepâif I ever sleep again.”
He slipped the friar's habit over his head, and she handed him the sandals and cincture.
“I can't believe you're retiring,” she said. “You've been such a savior to the Rose. Bankrupt, down at the heels, no artistic point of viewâuntil you stepped in and lifted her from the gutter.”
“And it only took twelve years and fifty-odd pints of blood.” He took the stage beard from her hands, fumbled with it a minute, realized he wouldn't have time to put it on properly, and shoved it in the pocket of his cassock.
“Don't joke. You did so much.”
“Yes. From artistic director and fund-raiser to nanny, tour guide, and supporting player. My trajectory has been meteoricâif you think of a meteor on its way to crash into the earth. If I stay any longer, I'll be cleaning the loo.”
“People love you. The queen called you a national treasure.”
A national treasure but no knighthood. Apparently, they're saving those for telecommunication billionaires.
“One always loves the people who'll work for glory. Cheaper than a pension.”
He rolled up his pant legs and slipped his feet in the sandals, which were two sizes too small and cut into his instep like a garrote.
Get on with it, Michael. In another week, you'll be sitting in a pub in Barcelona, sipping Sangria and reading
“Michael? Yoo-hoo?” Lady Velopar's call cut through the afternoon like a dagger. “There's no tonic.”
“Tonic,” Eve said, handing him the bottle of stage potion. “I'm on it.”
He was no longer surprised Genesius was the patron saint of actors, clowns, and torture victims. He only wished the man were the patron saint of spontaneous human combustion as well. What he wouldn't give to be lifted bodily from the place and spit out somewhere he'd never see an actor or patroness or corporate sponsor again.
“Why oh why,” he said, looking at the bottle, “can't this be real poison?”
Undine would relinquish neither the small satchel of clothes nor the much larger case of herbs, already propped open on the chest of drawers, to the young, doe-eyed lady's maid assigned her.
“I shall manage on my own,” Undine said, observing the ornate bedchamber without much enthusiasm. “Pray, don't trouble yourself.”
“'Tis no trouble, Lady BridgewaâMiss BridgewaterâI mean, milady. Oh dear, I'm afraid I don't know what to call you.” A bright pink crossed her cheeks. The girl shifted the linens in her arms and looked as if she may cry.
“Any of your choices is fine,” Undine said, “though I'm not Lady Bridgewater yet. Could you call me Undine, do you think?”
The girl stiffened. “I should be whipped for it, milady.”
“By whom?” Undine inquired casually, gazing at her case. A fortnight of flux ought to break the spirit of even the most hardened villain.
“Mrs. Janus. She's the housekeeper.”
“We shan't upset Mrs. Janus then. You may call me Mistress Douglas.”
The girl's jaw fell. “You
Undine laughed. Witches, she supposed, were born without fathers. Naiads, unfortunately, weren't. “I do, though few have ever heard it. But I shouldn't like to see you get in trouble.”
The girl bobbed her head. “Thank you, maâer, Mistress Douglas.”
Undine smiled. “And you? Might I be honored with the gift of
The girl's color rose higher. “Ardith.” She curtsied. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Well, Ardith, I shall require a great deal of privacy. The bed may be made and the fire drawn, but you are not to touch or move any of my things. There are herbs in that case that will scale your skin and turn your eyes a bright shade of orange.”
The girl took a step back. “In truth?”
“Ardith, we're going to have to work on your credulity, aye? I need you to be sharp-eyed and skeptical. 'Tis the only way to make your way in this world.”
“How long have you been part of the lodge's household?” she asked lightly, hoping Ardith was familiar with Bridgewater's habits.
“Not long. A few weeks. His lordship wishes to know if you'd like him to bring in a dressmaker?”
“Does his lordship not care for my taste?” Undine peered at the simple but exceedingly flattering silk gown that shimmered blue and chartreuse in the candle's glow. The snug bodice required no boning, the elbow sleeves permitted ease of movement, and a half-dozen hidden pockets meant she was never far from the tools of her trade.
“I think he thought only of the size of your satchel.” She added in a small voice, “And he is quite in love with you. I believe he longs to give you whatever you will accept from him.”
Undine sighed. “I am in need of a sturdy pair of boots.”
“I'll let him know.”
The door opened without a knock. “Undine,” Bridgewater said, “may I have a word?”
Oh, this will become tiresome quickly.
“Of course. Enter.”
Bridgewater's gaze cut to Ardith and flicked her away as if she were a trifling bug. She put down the linens and ran.
“How happy I am to see you settled here,” he said.
Undine ducked a curtsy in agreement.
“Is the girl to your liking?” he asked. “The housekeeper has some questions.”
“She'll do nicely. Thank you.”
“Good. Very good.” He glanced briefly over his shoulder at the hall, and Undine had an uncomfortable sense Ardith should have stayed. “The bishop has surprised me,” he said. “I'm expecting a man from my solicitor's office tomorrow from London to work out some matters regarding my estate and will. 'Tis a long distance, aye, but the matters are important. There'll be additional papers for them to draw up after we marry, which will entail another journey.”
Undine felt an odd tingle up her spine. “Oh? And how has the bishop surprised you?”
“He's offered to forgo the banns and marry us tonight.”
Undine swallowed her shock. “
“'Tis only for the paperwork, my dear. Nothing will change between us till you're ready. The bishop's offer is kind, and I need his supportâ
need his supportâif we are to bring this eternal fighting to an end. In any case,” he added with a gentle smile, “if anything were to happen to me, I'd want you to have the protection and benefit of my name.”
She looked in the sharp blue of those eyes.
Does he even remember the beating he gave me?
“No,” she said firmly. “I can't marry at a moment's notice. I've barely unpacked my things here. Give me a few weeks. Please.”
“The bishop is near to insisting. 'Twill make no difference in our lives.” He took her hand in his and the blue turned as deep as a loch's. “You swore your troth to me, even if you said you needed time. You have not made me so happy only to break my heart, have you? Your affection was real, was it not? Not false orâ¦orâ¦” His gaze caught the case of herbs, and he hesitated.
“No, of course not,” she said firmly. “My heart is unchanged. Of that you can be certain. I justâ¦ Tonight?” She blew out a puff of air and gave him a weak smile.
“Aye, my love, tonight.”
The joy in his eyes was unsettling. “But my friendsâ¦”
“We shall throw a real party when you're ready and do it all again. Your friends will be here then, I promise. No one needs to know about tonight's vows unless you tell them. Except the bishop, of course, and my solicitor.”
And the servants. And by tomorrow, the news will have reached every man, woman, and child between Carlisle and Edinburgh.
“I'll need a dress,” she said. “Surely you don't want me to become Lady Bridgewater in this old thing.”
“You look lovely in everything. But you needn't worry. I took the liberty of having a gownâseveral, actuallyâmade for you. Have you not looked in your wardrobe?”
She shook her head. He crossed to the painted ebony piece and opened the door. The most spectacular gown of pale pink and seed pearls hung at the front. It would befit a queen on her coronation.
So why was the queen that emerged in her head Anne Boleyn?
“It makes me almost breathless,” she said, sinking into the chair.
“Oh, aye. Give me a few moments to marshal my reserves and I shallâ¦join you.”
“Marshal your reserves?” He laughed. “You make our wedding sound like an army tactic.”
And I have been ambushed.
When he disappeared, still chuckling, she sunk into a chair and considered. She could run, she could marry, or she could delay. The risk of delay was elevating his suspicion. Through the cloud of the spell he had, for an instant, considered the relevance of her herbs to his love. She had pushed him from the edge of realization with a quick affirmation of her affection, but she might not be around when the next moment of clarity descended.
The risk of running was discovery. If a slight hesitation was enough to arouse suspicion, her disappearance would end the game. On one hand, she'd be safe, though Bridgewater would pursue her to the four corners of the earth to exact his revenge. On the other, she'd know no more of England's plans than she did now.
She forbore to consider the risk of marrying. Having to submit to the will of any man, let alone that ruthless prickâ¦ She might as well be hung.
Undine unfolded herself and stood before her jars and potsâwormwood, yarrow, elf's wort, ashweed. What had the versatility? The immediacy? The impact? She rubbed her neck to soothe her jangling nerves. She needed something to happen right now that would convince Bridgewater to put off the wedding. But she'd seen the way he ran the lives of the people around him. It would take an act of God toâ
An act of God?
She straightened as the realization washed over her.
That's exactly what I need.