A Reckless Desire

By: Isabella Bradford

LONDON

May, 1775

“And I’m telling you the truth, Everett,” said Lord Rivers Fitzroy. “The famous Madame Adelaide Mornay is the sorriest, most wretched excuse for a queen that I have ever witnessed.”

“Speak it louder, Fitzroy,” said his friend Sir Edward Everett as they squeezed through the narrow, noisy passage of King’s Theatre. The leading actors and actresses had scarcely taken their final bows, yet already the cramped spaces backstage were crowded with friends and other well-wishers. “There may have been one or two people in Drury Lane who didn’t hear you.”

“Let them hear me,” Rivers said as he maneuvered around a plaster statue of Charlemagne that had figured into the second act. “She was abominable, and you know it, too.”

“What I know is that she’s currently warming Mansfield’s bed,” Everett said, following close, “and I’ve no wish to make an enemy of a man like that. He doesn’t seem to find fault with her, at least not when he’s buried between her legs.”

As the third son of the Duke of Breconridge, Rivers wasn’t particularly intimidated by the Marquess of Mansfield or anyone else, unlike poor Everett, who as a lowly baronet lived in constant dread of offending one peer or another. “Damnation, but it’s crowded here tonight. Who are all these rogues?”

The gentlemen around them had the overwrought, pop-eyed eagerness that marked men in the pursuit of beautiful women who’d welcome their advances. He recognized the signs in himself, for he’d never worked half this hard to reach a palace ball populated by aristocratic virgins.

The door of the dancers’ dressing room stood open, and already Rivers could glimpse the intoxicating delights inside. Lovely, laughing young women, all in the process of shedding their gauzy, spangled costumes without a shred of modesty; what man with breath in his body could wish to be anywhere else? He loved how they darted confidently about in the crowded room, graceful and sleek, slipping teasingly among servants and well-wishers. He loved even their scent, a heady, sensual mixture of face-powder and pomatum, rosin and perfume and female exertion.

“Buona sera, innamorati!” he called from the doorway, cheerfully greeting them in the Italian that was the native language of so many of the dancers. “Good evening to you all!”

“Buona sera, Lord Rivers!” they chimed back, like schoolgirls with a recitation, and like schoolgirls, they collapsed into laughter afterward, while the other male visitors glowered unhappily.

Rivers was a favorite with the dancers, and not just because he was a duke’s son with deep pockets, either. He was tall and he was handsome, with glinting gold hair and bright blue eyes, but most of all, he genuinely liked this company of dancers. He sent them punch and chocolate biscuits. He’d learned all their names, which none of the other gentlemen who prowled about the dressing room had bothered to do. He not only spoke Italian, but he spoke Italian with a Neapolitan accent on account of having spent much time in Naples with a cousin who’d a villa there.

He was also the only gentleman in London who’d managed last year to have a brief love affair—they called it a poco amore, or little love—with Magdalena di Rossi, the lead dancer of their troupe, and survive unscathed. Even more amazingly, he’d managed to emerge after those two months in her bed as her friend. He’d the rare gift of knowing the exact moment to end affairs to make such a transition possible (although a handsome diamond brooch had helped immeasurably). All of which was why now, as soon as he sat in the chair that was offered to him, Magdalena came to sit on his knee with territorial affection.

“Il mio caro amico.” She swept off his hat so she could kiss him loudly on each cheek without being poked in the eye. “Our evening is complete now that you are here, my lord.”

“Hah, you say that to every gentleman who comes through the door,” he said, and kissed her in return as he slipped his arm around her waist. Dancing had made her body firm and compact, and he’d always appreciated how her waist was narrow even without stays. “Truth has never been your strongest suit.”

She pouted coyly. She still wore her stage paint, with blackened brows and dark rings around her eyes, and with her lips scarlet, it was a formidable pout indeed.

“I am not truthful like you, my lord, no,” she admitted, trailing an idle finger along the collar of his silk coat. “But then, I am not English, with your English love of truth and, um, franchezza.”

“Franchezza?” repeated Everett, sitting nearby with another of the dancers on his knee. “I can only guess what manner of wickedness that may be.”

“It’s frankness,” Rivers said. “Magdalena has always believed I am too frank for my own good.”

“True enough,” Everett said. “You are frank to a dangerous fault. Do you dare repeat what you told me about Madame Adelaide’s performance?”

That instantly captured Magdalena’s interest. There was neither love nor respect between the acting side of the playhouse’s company and the dancers, with both groups claiming they were the real favorites with audiences.

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