In which our heroine decides to court scandal.
Chapter 1 – A Promise of Scandal
Middleton Drawing Room
“I fear I might have made a terrible mistake.”
Poppy Middleton, daughter to Charles Middleton and niece to the current Earl of Dashwood, set her teacup down on the table to give Beatrix Hale her full attention.
Beatrix was Poppy’s bosom friend and a famous actress—though no one knew her true identity, as she used the stage name “Charlotte.” They’d met quite by accident on Bond Street six months ago when Beatrix had attempted to elude a suitor. Not in her nature to turn away a person in need, Poppy had stuck her booted foot out as the man in pursuit had hurried past her. Needless to say, the scoundrel had landed face first in a puddle of muddied water. Poppy had offered to accompany Beatrix to the theatre after that. An unlikely pair perhaps, but one carriage ride had been all it took for them to become fast friends.
“What happened?” Poppy asked, knitting her brows together. “Is that dreadful Mr. Hargrove bothering you at the theatre again?” Poppy had warned Beatrix to give the man a wide berth.
“Lord no. Hargrove is the least of my worries,” Beatrix said with a nervous laugh. “I overheard a conversation I should not have. It might be nothing, but it spooked me nonetheless.”
“Oh? Something juicy, I hope. Pray tell.”
“It’s dire, Poppy. I’m not sure I should even burden you with this.”
Poppy sat up straight. “Tell me, Beatrix. If what you overheard has you this rattled, best to share it so I can be of aid.”
“I do not know . . .” At Poppy’s determined look, she sighed. “I overheard two actors plot a riot.”
“A riot? Against the theatre? How diabolical. Are you sure they weren’t simply rehearsing?”
“One does not rehearse in hushed whispers.”
“Valid point. Did you recognize their voices?”
“One man, I believe, is Mr. Jennings. The other I do not know, but I’ll recognize his voice should I hear it again.”
“What about the manager of the theatre? Have you reported what you overheard?”
“This is no matter for Mr. Florence, Poppy. The man is more fragile than a fourteen-year-old girl. I sent word to Bow Street. Anonymously, of course.”
“That was five days ago.”
“And they have not sent anyone?” Poppy asked incredulously.
“Perhaps you should send another missive?”
“That’s not the problem.”
Poppy sat up a little. “There’s more?”
Beatrix nodded. “I gasped.”
“You gasped,” Poppy repeated slowly, not understanding the immediate significance.
Beatrix nodded. “Out loud.”
Understanding dawned. “You gasped while you were eavesdropping?”
“They were speaking of beheading a powerful man, or perhaps they said entity. My mind numbed at the mention of beheading.”
Poppy’s jaw slackened. “At the risk of sounding like a parrot, Beatrix, did you say beheading?”
Beatrix nodded with a grimace. “And to be fair, I was not intentionally eavesdropping. I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Or you were at the right place at the right time,” Poppy suggested and leaned forward to ask urgently, “But did they see you?”
Beatrix shook her head. “I ducked into the first available room and crawled behind a sofa. If they investigated the sound, they did not find me. But I’m scared.”
“Rightly so, though it is a comfort that they didn’t see you. While they may know that some female overheard them, they have no reason to think it’s you.”
Beatrix’s face fell.
“Do they have a reason to assume it’s you, Beatrix?”
“Perhaps. In my mad scramble to hide, my necklace unclasped. When I returned for it, it was gone. What if they discover that it’s mine?”
“Lord Above, that’s not good.”
Beatrix sighed. “It was my mother’s necklace, a unique piece, the only possession I have of her. Fortunately, it was the first time I wore the necklace to the theatre. A small comfort, I suppose.”
“Did anyone see you wear it that day?”
Beatrix shook her head.
“So they cannot know for certain the necklace belongs to you. Perhaps you are in the clear.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Yesterday, I entered my dressing room to find my brush, face balm, and my powder not as I arranged them. Someone was in my dressing room.”
Poppy’s eyes widened. If they had rifled through her dressing room, Beatrix had indeed overheard a disturbing plot. A chill went down her spine. Her friend may truly be in danger.
That troubled her.
Poppy made a swift, audacious decision. She had aided her friend back on Bond Street, she would help her now as well.
“You are sure Bow Street never sent anyone?” Poppy asked.
Beatrix nodded. “I’d have heard whispers through the grapevine.”
“Well, if Bow Street will not look into this matter, and on the chance the men do suspect you of overhearing their plot, we must remove the only evidence that truly ties you to the scene—your mother’s necklace.”
“You mean steal it back?”
“How?” Beatrix asked. “I’m not as fearless as you are, Poppy. I shall never be brave enough to retrieve the necklace from Jennings. It might not even be with him.”
“You are an actress, Beatrix. Some would argue that you are the bravest amongst women.”
“That is different. There is no risk to my life involved.”
“Perhaps, but you have me. We are smart, resourceful, and will be courageous together. I have no doubt, as partners, we will find your necklace in no time.”
“But how? You aren’t with me at the theatre, Poppy.”
“Splendid point,” Poppy said. “I shall need to be there if I am to be of any help.”
“That’s not possible. The theatre is not hiring at present. Your presence will arise suspicion.”
Poppy’s mind raced. There had to be some way . . . “Your identity behind Charlotte is a secret, correct? Even from the theatre?”
Beatrix nodded. “That is the success behind Charlotte. I use paint, powder, and rouge to conceal myself.”
Poppy cocked her head in thought. The start of a bold plan sculpted in her mind. “What if we share identities?”
“Share identities?” Beatrix blinked. “Are you being serious? We look nothing alike.”
“Oh, I’m wholeheartedly committed,” Poppy declared. “The only way I can enter the theatre without rising suspicion is by being you.”
“But you’re not me.”
“We are not that far off in appearance, Beatrix. You have taken great care to keep your identity hidden. No one will tell us apart because no one will suspect you to be someone else. We don’t need to look alike. We merely have to give the appearance that we do. I’ll powder my hair and color my face. No one is going to look that closely.”
“What about our height?”
“I’m an inch or two shorter.”
“I’ve more curves than you.”
“Nothing a few layers of material and some padding won’t fix.”
“Saint’s preserve me,” Beatrix said with a shake of her head. “What of our voices? Even if we pull off the look, our pitches are not the same.”
“I shall whisper and act as though I’m resting my voice.”
“What of my performances?”
“We can switch places for those,” Poppy said lightly. “Lord knows, the last thing I wish to do is take to the stage and sing.”
“Even if that works, Poppy, there cannot be two Charlottes at the theatre at the same time. It’s too much of a risk.”
“There won’t be. Since the rehearsals for your upcoming play is in the evenings, I shall take your place during the day. We can switch at predetermined locations and times. You mentioned once that no one enters your dressing room?”
“Yes, but my dressing room is in the main building, whereas Mr. Jennings and the rest of the performers’ rooms are in a building across the street. I hardly ever venture there.”
“I see,” Poppy said thoughtfully. “Nevertheless, I shall figure something out when the time comes. I’m all about embracing opportunities.”
“This is mad, Poppy. What about our mannerisms? If nothing else gives us away, certain quirks . . . even if the eye does not catch them, the mind will.”
“You are overthinking this, Beatrix. Actresses act. I daresay no one will give me a second look. But I shall do my best to avoid your colleagues where possible.”
“You are crazy, Poppy. You are aware of that?”
“Of course, and you are not the first to question my sanity.” Poppy grinned. “You certainly shall not be the last.”
Beatrix shook her head. “Let’s say we do find my necklace. What happens then? What about the beheading? The riot? What if I am merely overreacting? What if I heard wrong?”
“You wouldn’t be scared if you hadn’t overheard what you did, Beatrix.” Poppy leaned over to give her friend’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “If it does turn out to be nothing, at the very least, I’d have lived a day in Beatrix Hale’s life. Smashing, right? And if there is a sinister plot underfoot, then hopefully the embarrassment is enough for Bow Street to look into matters they deem unimportant.”
“I still find it infuriating that they never sent an officer to investigate.”
“Lazy goats, the lot of them,” Poppy agreed. “Do not worry, Beatrix. We will get to the bottom of this.”
Beatrix gave a wan smile. “Will your absence during the day not raise suspicion with your family?”
“Fortunately, no. My sisters are touring the countryside with their husbands and my father is occupied with matters of science. I am free at least until my sisters return to London, which, if I am honest, I am dreading.”
“Why?” Beatrix questioned. “They seem lovely.”
“As the last remaining unattached Middleton female, I can only imagine their meddlesome minds upon their return.”
“Do you not wish to find a nice lord to marry?”
A nice lord.
There had been a time Poppy had wanted exactly that. Fall in love with a nice lord and live happily ever after. But too much had happened since those days.
For one, she had nearly perished in a fire two years ago after helping her cousin, Belle, and the Shaw brothers save a lady from an abusive husband. A smidgeon of black powder might have been involved. Well, a whole lot more than a smidgeon had been involved.
Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for James Shaw, Poppy would have been trapped in a building consumed with flames. He had rushed into the blazing danger and saved her life.
The point being, nothing changed priorities quite like a near-death experience. Not that Poppy did not want to live happily ever after any longer. Quite the contrary, she still wanted those things. But somehow, somewhere, the lens through which she regarded the world had changed. Her life felt different. Her dreams small. Almost as if they had dislodged from her current self. As though a vital part of her being had displaced that fateful day and she hadn’t been able to fit it back together again.
“It’s not that I do not wish to marry,” Poppy finally said. “My expectations have changed over the last two years. I wish my life to have impact.”
Beatrix nodded. “What are your expectations now?”
“That, not even I know.”
Her friend arched a brow.
Of course, Poppy could not expect Beatrix to understand when she did not understand it herself. To Beatrix, any advantageous match that would elevate her position in society, regardless of the man, ought to be snatched eagerly. Romance and love were for the books.
Not so for Poppy. Her parents had loved each other deeply before her mother’s death, leaving her father to raise three daughters on his own. Poppy glimpsed that love in her father even to this day. And she wanted no less. Sadly, having stared death in the face, she felt nothing short of ill when faced with society’s gentlemen of leisure.
Poppy had one life.
She wanted to make the most of every second.
“Well, if one has no expectations,” Beatrix said, “one can have no disappointments, I suppose. Seems rather liberating, does it not?”
“An intriguing thought.” Poppy paused, allowing a grin to spread on her lips. “What should I expect from impersonating an actress, I wonder.”
“To get caught.”
Poppy laughed. “Do not be so quick to doubt my abilities, Beatrix. I am quite good at acting.”
“We shall see,” Beatrix said, her lips lifting at the corners. “As for your expectations, all advice I can give you is this: Do not settle for anything less than what your heart desires. Lord knows it is hard enough to follow your dreams as it is.”
“Words to live by,” Poppy agreed. “Honestly, this is just the challenge I need to give my life some perspective. Tell me what being you will entail.”
Beatrix scrunched her brows in thought. “You will be required to practice your scenes before rehearsals start. As you know, I have my own dressing room, so I am rarely bothered. Snooping around Jennings will be noticed. I’ve hardly ever spoken to the man.”
“There is always a first time, right? I promise to be subtle.”
Beatrix smiled in answer. “Your subtle is not the same as my subtle.”
Poppy harrumphed. “What can you tell me about Jennings?”
“He keeps to himself.”
“That is all you can tell me?”
“Well, yes,” Beatrix murmured. She took a sip of tea. “I keep to myself as well.”
“That, at least, is the marvel of the theatre. You are always acting even when you are not.”
“I suppose.” She thought for a moment. “If anyone questions the change, merely say you are rehearsing. You might also have to elude Hargrove.”
Poppy furrowed her gaze. “That lout? I thought he is no longer a concern? He is still trailing after you?”
“I’m afraid so. But I’ve learned to manage him.”
Poppy inwardly groaned. Of course, the rat was still hounding Beatrix, or rather Charlotte. She shuddered. The man was slimy and determined. Poppy vowed she would rid Beatrix of that nuisance once and for all.
Then you are truly doing this? The thought intruded on her rant about Hargrove. Was she indeed going to pretend to be an actress to retrieve a necklace and help a friend?
Of course, I am.
Poppy shoved the part of her conscience that held lingering doubts into a box. She would be lying if she said she was not intrigued and thoroughly excited. The prospect of experiencing the life of an actress was thrilling.
“We are truly doing this?” Beatrix asked, echoing Poppy’s thoughts.
Poppy nodded, reaching for a lemon cake. “Yes.” She took a bite and savored the sweetness. “What could go wrong?”