Twice he has been close to the altar and still no duchess.
New York Times bestselling author Cathy Maxwell’s glittering Marrying the Duke series continues—Twice he has been close to the altar and still no duchess. Will the third time be the charm? A duke can’t marry just anyone. His wife must be of good family, be fertile, be young. Struggling playwright Sarah Pettijohn is absolutely the last woman Gavin Whitridge, Duke of Baynton, would ever fall in love with. She is an actress, born on the wrong side of the blanket, and always challenges his ducal authority. She never hesitates to tell him what she thinks. However, there is something about her that stirs his blood . . . which makes her perfect for a bargain he has in mind: In exchange for backing her play, he wants Sarah to teach him about love. And he, in turn, has a few things to teach her about men . . .
Sarah Pettijohn had vowed she would never play the role of the Siren again . . . and yet here she was, tucked high above the stage behind the proscenium arch so that the audience could not see her, dressed in practically nothing, waiting her turn on stage. From her perch, she watched the teeming mass of male bodies in the audience below and knew they did not bode well for her.
The owners of the theater, Geoff and Charles, were masters at creating a stir. The house was packed with men from every walk of life. The rich, the poor, the old, the young, and the stupid had all paid their four shillings because, as Geoff said, men could never have their fill of “tittie” watching. “No matter how much it costs them, they like to look.” Sarah was not showing her “titties.” She wore a nude shift beneath her diaphanous costume.
Granted there was little beneath the shift, but she was well covered compared to the other women in the company. She’d insisted upon it. She knew from the last time she had been compelled to play the Siren, six years ago, the male imagination could fill in the details, whether seen or not. Keeping her identity a secret was important, just as it had been in the past. To that purpose, Sarah wore a bejeweled mask and mounds of face paint and powder to create a fanciful, feminine creature with long lashes and golden skin. A black wig plaited into a thick braid hid her red hair. She’d also refused to attend rehearsals, preferring to practice her act in secret. She was not proud of what she was doing. She had a reputation to protect. After all, she wasn’t just an actress. She was a playwright. She’d agreed to play the Siren because Geoff and Charles promised to stage her play. Her play. For years, Sarah had rewritten and edited the work of men who used her talent and gave her none of the recognition. This past summer, Colman at the Haymarket Theater where she’d been part of the company for years, had promised to produce one of her plays but when the time came, he’d reneged and put one of his own on the schedule instead. One Sarah had rewritten for him.
Sarah had walked. She’d left his company with her head high, and her pockets empty. That is when Geoff and Charles had approached her. They were talented theater men who had staged the first Naughty Review in order to raise the funds to build the Bishop’s Hill Theater. It had been a one-night event, just as this was. At that time, Sarah had been desperate for money so that she could provide a home for her half-sister’s orphaned daughter. She didn’t expose her “titties” then, either, but she would have done that and more to protect Charlene. What no one had expected was for the Siren to become almost legendary in men’s minds. Even Sarah was astounded and she was thankful that she’d been disguised so no one knew who she was. For months after that first Review, personal notices were run in the papers from men either begging the actress playing the Siren to contact them or looking for information about her. Fortunately, those few people who knew Sarah never betrayed her. Now, after years of running their own theater, Geoff and Charles were deeply in debt. They were in danger of losing the Bishop’s Hill and hoped that if the Review worked once, it would do so again. “Everyone wants the Siren,” Charles had said.
“You do this for us and we will stage your play. We’ll all have what we want.” Sarah had reluctantly agreed. She’d had no choice, really. She didn’t have the means to stage the play herself. Charlene was now happily married and living in Boston, an ocean away. The time had come for Sarah to live her own life. If dancing and singing almost naked would bring her what she wanted, then so be it. A woman alone had to do what she must to survive—and if Sarah was one thing, she was a survivor.
She shifted her weight on the narrow shelf and tightened her hold on the silken rope that would be used to lower her to the stage. The Siren would be the last performance of the evening. She’d secreted herself an hour before the curtain. Below her, two female gladiators with swords shaped like phalluses left the stage. William Millroy, an Irish tenor, came out and began singing about being cuckolded by his wife. The audience wasn’t paying attention. They had come for women. Someone threw a cabbage at Will but he ducked. More vegetables and a few fruits were thrown to the delight of the crowd, especially when they hit their target. William scampered off stage to the sound of cheers.
“Where’s the Siren?” someone called out. A chant began. “Siren! Siren!” Sarah shook her head. Men could be so ridiculous. They had been doing this all evening. Her nerves were frayed.
A group of bare-breasted dancers costumed as sheep came out onto the stage and the men forgot their chanting and roared their approval. One gent leaped from one of the boxes upon the sheep nearest him. Sarah knew the girl. Irene. She screamed and pushed his hands away from her breasts just as the bullyboys Geoff and Charles had hired rushed forward to toss the man into the pit. Laughter and ribald comments met his comeuppance. The music started and the sheep pranced around while a shepherd ran among them poking them in the bum with his staff. Every time he touched a sheep, she’d cry “Baaa” and the audience started mimicking the sound with an obscenity in place of the “Baa.” Sarah had an urge to go down on that stage and lecture the men on manners. If they kept up this rowdiness, her performance would be a short one. In fact, she would make it quick.
She would sing one song, escape this theater without anyone being wiser to who she really was, and then she could start living the rest of her life the way she wished. She’d cast her play, The Fitful Widow: A Light Comedy Concerning the Foolishness of Men, and prove that her talent was equal to any male playwright’s.
Her fierce determination came to an abrupt halt as she recognized one of the men in the very expensive boxes to the side of the stage. Uncertain she could believe her eyes, she leaned forward as far as she dared on the platform for a better view, balancing herself by holding on to the rope. It was him. There was no mistaking the broad shoulders or that arrogantly proud tilt of the head.
The Duke of Baynton, that Pillar of Morality, the Nonesuch, the Maker of Ministries was at the Naughty Review. Sarah sat back, stunned, and then drew a deep breath. Who knew? Baynton was mortal after all. Or perhaps he had wandered in by chance? Oh no, he wouldn’t. She distinctly remembered him coolly informing her that he did not attend the theater. Well, he had added, save for the occasional Shakespeare.
This was no Shakespeare. And it was intriguing to see him here. The duke had once wooed her niece Charlene. When Charlene had run off with another, his twin brother, no less, Baynton had gone after them and Sarah had insisted on accompanying him so that she could protect her beloved niece. In the end, Baynton had not won the lady.
Charlene had married the man she loved and the duke had been somewhat gracious about it—that is, to everyone save Sarah. Apparently he did not appreciate outspoken women. She had little admiration for him as well. Two days of traveling to Scotland with him had convinced her that no other man on earth could be more insufferable or self-righteous than Baynton. At their parting, she had prayed to never set eyes upon him again—except this was good. This was a moment to be relished. Watched only Shakespeare. The hypocrite. If she’d had a shoe on, she would have thrown it down right on his head. Let him think it was the judgment of God Almighty for being in such an immoral place. Sarah would have adored seeing the expression on his handsome face . . . and he was handsome. Sarah was not blind to his looks. It was the words that came out of his mouth she didn’t like.
But gazing at him, well, that was pleasure. In truth, she’d been overjoyed when he’d first called on Charlene. She’d wanted what was best for her niece and the Duke of Baynton was the best London had to offer. He was wealthy, respected, honored, and Char would have made a lovely duchess. Sarah could even recall the last words she’d heard the duke speak. Baynton had paid Sarah’s way home from Scotland by private coach rather than endure more travel time with her. He’d mentioned within her hearing that it had been “money well spent. She is too opinionated by half.” Words that Sarah had found surprisingly hurtful, although she’d had her fill of him as well. The sheep were almost done with their act. It had gone on overlong. The crowd no longer yelled crudities or baaa’ed. They grew restless. That was the problem with this sort of entertainment. It could never capture the imagination—not in the way a well-written play could. The Siren was up next. Had Sarah thought to make her performance quick and be done with it? That had been before spying the Duke of Puffed Up Consequence in her audience. She stood and wrapped the silken rope around her hand, readying herself to step off the platform the moment the dancers on stage finished. She felt strong, powerful, and inspired to give the performance of her lifetime. If Baynton thought his matched set of grays were high flyers, wait until he witnessed the Siren.