About the book
“My heart stops when you look at me…”
Clarissa Holworthy’s life has always been exciting. As the most famous actress in London, scandal and gossip surround her very being, making it very hard to escape from it. When a mysterious Earl attempts to get closer to her, she quickly finds out what lust really means…
Matthew Gardiner, Earl of Montfort, has been his mother’s pawn for far too long. And her determination to sabotage his dream of becoming an actor is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Especially after he meets a minx of a Lady that seems to hold the keys to more than his dream.
Their passionate encounters quickly come to a halt when whispers spread around London. Rumors of Matthew having an affair with a Lady who is not Clarissa. Heartbroken, Clarissa does everything in her power to avoid him. Until an even more painful truth comes out, ruining everything they have both worked so hard for...
A low chatter filled the theater as the locals gathered together and found their seats. Their general giddiness for the social event caused a hum to fill the building, as they all conversed with those who were familiar, and some who were not. For many, it was an opportunity to establish themselves as esteemed members of society, longing for the approval of others.
Matthew Gardiner knew that was the case for his mother, Bridget Gardiner, as she sat next to him in their rented box and discussed topics both dramatic and political with the men and women around her.
Bridget sat regally in her emerald dress, made with fine silk. It was rather large in body to show her ability to pay for such expensive fabric, and she wanted everyone in London to know it. The large hat on her head seemed to bring out the elegance in her even more so as she spoke.
“You would not believe the audacity of Mrs. Beauford’s companion. A bold one, she is,” one of the women said to Bridget as she waved a fan before her own face. She was red in the cheeks, overheated from the many bodies stuffed in the one theater.
Bridget scoffed, knowing how lenient Mrs. Beauford was with her staff. “I am not surprised in the slightest.”
The woman doubled down with an assertive nod as she continued, waving the fan with more determination. “When I asked the woman where Mrs. Beauford acquired her fine ivory comb, I was waved off as if I were too poor for such finery! Can you believe it?”
Matthew’s mother shook her head in distaste, and he grew curious as to whether or not she actually cared about the matter. Something told him her responses were more forced than genuine.
“My companion never steps even a toe out of line. Why pay a servant wages if she would rather act like a mutt than a servant?’ Bridget said evenly with her nose in the air. She swept a stray blond hair away from her face.
“My thoughts exactly,” the annoyed woman said with more fitful waves of her painted fan.
While Matthew had no interest in the topic of companions or servants, he tried his best to be polite. He found himself without much to add to the discussion, yet he offered his best look of understanding. When he thought it appropriate, Matthew either nodded in agreement, or he tried to feign sympathy, despite not knowing the woman at all.
Eventually, Matthew found his mind wandering toward the play and what it would soon entail. He hoped the crowd would be more decent than usual, as it was common for the audience to talk through the performances.
Matthew felt as though he were almost a different breed entirely, as he truly harbored interest in the theater and performances in general. He felt drawn to every art medium from a young age and had always dreamed of being an actor.
However, his mother never encouraged his creative dreams. Rather, she preferred for him to sit in the audience and develop his social standing further.
When Matthew was a child, he tried his best to involve himself in creative endeavors as much as possible. He wanted to practice performing, and to grow his talents over time. Yet whenever he tried, his mother always found a way to keep him busy with events and duties instead.
As much as Matthew wanted to pursue his acting dreams, he couldn’t due to his social standing. If he were to be seen on the stage, he would be no better than a common fool. His mother would never let that happen, not after she had spent so long building the Gardiner name. He was the Earl of Montfort, after all.
Ever since the passing of Matthew’s father, she put a grand significance in their social appeal, as she no longer had the Earl to depend on. Much to Matthew’s dismay, that responsibility fell upon his shoulders, which made him feel much like prized livestock, paraded around for the entertainment of others.
“Oh, Matthew will marry the finest lady in London, I can assure you,” she beamed with a proud smile. Rather, it was laced with her own self-interest.
“I have no doubt,” the woman agreed as she gave Matthew a friendly smile.
Matthew’s attention returned again to his mother’s words. He cleared his throat and nodded with a curt grin. He tried to hide the flustered look that tried to creep across his cheeks, as he didn’t take well to his mother discussing his private life.
In truth, Matthew had no current engagement, or even a woman in mind that he would like to marry. Instead, he was often forced to listen to his mother’s suggestions, despite how uninterested he found himself. His mother was often stubborn, especially when it came to her son’s future.
Matthew was thankful to be torn from the conversation once the curtains rose and the opening performers took their place on stage. They were dressed in the appropriate costumes, and the set was painted to match the royal scene before them.
Matthew had seen a few performances of Hamlet before, yet they weren’t half as grand. He found that the others lacked a certain kind of appeal, and he hoped this showing would be able to redeem the name.
At the start of the play, most of the crowd took it upon themselves to pay close attention, as the theater was quiet enough to hear the performers as they spoke. It made Matthew breathe a sigh of relief.
It came as a sudden surprise when he realized the starring role was played by a woman, who looked rather beautiful under the stage lighting. Her hair was a deep-brown color that was pulled back as part of her costume, and Matthew felt the sudden urge to run his fingers through it.
It was very unlike him to feel so attracted to someone he didn’t even know, even more so to an actress he wasn’t familiar with. Yet, Matthew couldn’t keep his eyes off of the woman as she moved around the stage, speaking her role passionately.
To his dismay, the audience members seemed to lose interest in the play, and they began to chatter among themselves once more.
Matthew heard as his mother conversed with the individuals around her, yet he wasn’t interested in such matters. Rather, he was enchanted by the actress on stage.
It had come to his attention that the theater was doing very well for itself. It was then when Matthew realized why that was the case.
The woman moved so fluidly within the role, that it felt as though she wasn’t acting at all. It was almost like a skin she could pull on when she needed; it was second nature for her.
Matthew was more immersed than he ever had been before, as he could hardly focus on what was happening around him. Instead, his eyes were glued on the stage and the actress while she delivered her lines expertly.
The feelings that seemed to ebb into Matthew’s heart were odd to him, yet he didn’t find himself fighting them. Instead, he welcomed the warmth he was cloaked in. He was fascinated by her and the wonderous world she brought to life from within the confines of the stage.
Matthew found himself sitting on the edge of his seat, almost as if he was moving along with the show, while his facial expressions changed depending on what was happening. The longer he watched, the more Matthew wanted to be on that stage, performing as he always wanted to.
Yet, he was confined to his seat in the crowd instead. If he could have his way, however, Matthew would have joined the woman and starred alongside her. Together, they would speak their lines passionately to move the crowd as if it were as simple as breathing.
Maybe then Matthew would feel more fulfilled and content in life. He couldn’t be sure, as the likelihood of him finding out seemed next to none.
“I believe they have it all wrong. A wedding by the beach? How untraditional,” she murmured to her friend for the evening as she displayed her disgust easily.
“And downright messy, I’d say!” the woman exclaimed, causing Matthew’s mother to cackle alongside her.
A part of Matthew wished he could subdue his mother and make her pay more attention, as he was so entranced by the scene that he thought everyone ought to be paying more attention. Besides, the insistent chatter took away from the woman’s speech.
However, Matthew wasn’t meant to be so engrossed in the play. Instead, he was meant to be climbing the social ladder, to build on their riches to last them a lifetime. He knew his mother would want him to be conversing with other highly placed men and women.
That wasn’t how Matthew planned on spending the evening. Instead, he was perfectly content being completely lost in the entertainment.
Matthew laughed loudly when the actress chased another character around the stage with a fake sword and received a sideways glance from his mother. He contained himself slightly when he noticed, yet his mother didn’t say a thing.
Instead, she continued to talk, uncaring for those who were actually invested in the performance.
There were instances when Matthew had to remind himself of where he was, and that it was only a made-up play. He was so convinced by the woman’s acting that he felt the story coming to life around him. It seemed like a dangerous power for her to have, as Matthew’s attention was in the palm of her hand. Yet, he didn’t even know her name.
“You see, My Son. This is why we attend the theater and opera as often as we can,” she sighed as she gazed at the socializing individuals all around them. Some were the same as Matthew while they looked forward respectfully, yet most were too busy discussing other matters. “Not only do we converse, but we get our faces out there as well. To be remembered, we need to go where the public is. Don’t you agree?”
“Oh, of course,” Matthew responded absently while his eyes remained on the stage.
“That is how we keep up our grand image, after all,” she murmured so that only her son could hear.
However, Matthew didn’t need to listen to know that was the true motive of all of their social activities. That was what it always was about.
As high-standing individuals, they needed to remind all others of who they were, and how impressive their possessions made them. It would be his mother’s last dying wish for Matthew to find a quality lady from a rich family to marry, in order to expand their own riches.
Matthew knew the idea was very plain and simple in his mother’s mind, and he would need to jump hoops to keep his independence. However, he would eventually have to face the daunting responsibility of marriage and starting a family.
“You will never be forgotten, Mother. Lord Wesley and his wife have been eyeing your dress all night,” Matthew said to appease his mother, to prove he was indeed listening.
“You are very kind, Matthew.” She gave her son a warm smile as she settled back in her seat with a prestigious air about her. Her eyes returned to the play for a mere few minutes before she began talking again.
Among the thoughts of social standings, marriage, and his family’s wealth, Matthew recognized something very important. It was perhaps a reason as to why he felt so enamored by the woman he didn’t yet know.
Matthew had a deep love for the arts that he could never ignore, despite how often it was discouraged by his mother and the rest of the family. Whether it be acting, writing, or painting, Matthew was completely enthralled. It felt like a whole other life that he kept secret from the world.
Yet, the woman before him was constantly in pursuit of what she loved to do. It was evident that performing was something she held very dearly, as she moved with such grace and determination. No person could deliver lines so perfectly if they lacked passion within their heart. It was clear that the actress lived and breathed her roles.
Matthew admired the notion as he thought about how incredible that sort of life would be to lead. He would no longer need to be bothered by his status or who he would take as his wife. He could shamelessly chase after his dreams without feeling his mother’s scorn.
The woman was a direct link to the life he wanted, and she was more beautiful than any other he had laid eyes on before. Without even knowing each other, they already had a great deal in common, and Matthew could not deny it. The actress was a key to an opportunity Matthew did not want to miss out on.
“How has it been?”
Matthew looked over briefly as his dear friend Nathaniel took his seat next to him.
Unlike Matthew, Nathaniel was keen on taking advantage of every social situation. Typically, he spent more time outside the event than inside. However, Matthew had hardly even noticed his absence.
“Enthralling,” Matthew murmured once he looked back at the stage, trying to not appear completely lost in the performance. He didn’t want to seem too invested, despite how desperately he wished to keep his eyes trained on it forever.
“Fantastic,” Nathaniel added as he got comfortable and watched to the best of his abilities, despite the gentleman sat next to him who fancied a chat with him.
Truthfully, Matthew thought the whole play was fantastic. That bias seemed to come into play the moment he laid eyes on the star of the show, yet he felt the giddiness grow in his belly.
While he wasn’t sure exactly why, the new-found seed of excitement had been placed within him, and it made Matthew more optimistic. He was inspired by the woman and her ability to capture him simply by acting as a character.
Matthew watched as the actors played out their tedious and sometimes humorous death scenes, and he felt moved. He watched as they dramatically heaved their last breaths and slumped to the ground. Despite having already seen such a play, Matthew felt as though it was his first time.
A small part of Matthew was disappointed once the show had finished, and the actors took a bow. He clapped modestly while he kept his eyes on the young woman.
It was almost selfish of him, but Matthew wanted to know her. Even if it were for just a moment, he wished he could speak with her.
Unsure whether or not the excitement that flowed within him was brought on by the play or the woman, Matthew desired more of it. The Earl of Montfort wanted to see the performance at whatever cost necessary.
Clarissa made her way backstage with a giddy smile on her face, exhilarated from the performance. It didn’t matter how many times she went on stage, Clarissa was bound to feel just as excited as if it were the first.
She moved with her castmates as they all shared a mutual celebratory glee, happy for the successful show they put on together. Energized by the common energy, she began shedding parts of her costume, sharing smiles with her fellow actors and actresses.
“It was brilliant!” the stagehand called with a wide grin as he offered everyone his congratulations.
The girls all took their seats as they looked at themselves and one another in their vanity mirrors. Some began brushing out their hair, while others touched up their makeup.
“You looked stunning out there once again, Clarissa!” he said once he reached her.
While Clarissa thanked him wholeheartedly with a kind smile, she couldn’t help the blush that crept up her cheeks. She was grateful for the admiration, yet she felt the lingering eyes on her as she received the compliment.
Clarissa noticed a subtle change in the nearest girls, yet they managed to continue with their joyous expressions regardless.
“They ate it up out there!” one of her castmates said with pure elation in his eyes.
The rush that often came with acting and standing before an audience was an addictive one that Clarissa knew well. Ever since she was a child, she had longed to be on a stage, entertaining those who needed it most. She felt very fortunate to be able to call it her profession.
“With Clarissa on center stage, how could they not?” Another girl had said with as strange tone that didn’t quite fit what was meant to be a nice comment.
Clarissa smiled anyway, despite detecting the snideness in the woman’s voice. She was used to the subtle remarks, as Clarissa was considered the greatest actress in the theater. With such a title, of course, many of her castmates felt envious of her talent and how far it was able to take her.
While Clarissa was grateful to even be in her position, she wasn’t ecstatic about others making the performances all about her. The congratulations and praise were always appreciated, but Clarissa didn’t want it to create a wedge between herself and her fellow performers.
Instead, she wanted to be able to celebrate with everyone properly, without causing tension that always seemed to rise between them all. Clarissa wanted everyone to feel just as important.
Carrie-Lyn fanned her rosy cheeks as she leaned back in her chair, looking at Clarissa through the mirror. “The crowd always goes wild for our dear Hamlet.”
If Clarissa hadn’t known better, she would have taken the statement as a compliment. However, it was far too tainted with venom for her to accept it fully.
There was a time when Clarissa had gotten along very well with Carrie-Lyn. They had both joined the theater at the same time, and they became rather close. However, once Clarissa began scoring the bigger roles while Carrie-Lyn only managed to scrape up the lesser ones, the dark-haired woman cared less and less for Clarissa. It was a shame how jealousy was able to tear friendships apart so easily.
Clarissa pulled the ribbon out of her hair and ran her fingers through it with a gracious smile. “Everyone worked very hard tonight.”
There was a small cheer from those who didn’t carry much malice for Clarissa, most of them consisted of the men in the cast. However, Clarissa knew that the tensions were rising once again.
After every show, there seemed to be a grace period where everyone could reap the success of their show and appreciate one another for their contributions. Yet, it would slowly saturate with jealousy, and soon, everyone would feel a little icier toward Clarissa.
The cast straightened up and forced their smiles once again as the boss, Rupert Russel, strolled into the room with a beaming grin that seemed to brighten the room. He held his hands out, as if to give the entire cast a hug at once.
However, Clarissa felt as the color returned to her cheeks the moment he approached her and clapped a hand against her shoulder. “Fantastic work, Clarissa! I had several people ask me about you out there. They said to me, ‘Why, who is that extraordinary Hamlet?’ I told them all about you! Keep it up.”
Clarissa thanked him for his kind words as her heart rate sped up, excited by the prospect of being known by the greater public. While she loved the theater house greatly, Clarissa often wondered what it would be like to travel and perform for rich and noble people. She thought that if she were ever given the opportunity, she would take it.
“Spectacular!” Mr. Russel cried as he left the room, surely to converse more with the important individuals in the audience. His voice could be heard through the walls as he continued on. “What an excellent performance! Excellent!”
“It is all thanks to his wonderful star,” Carrie-Lyn murmured to the girls closest to her.
Immediately, Clarissa felt as the room filled with the gaseous poison of envy. The bright eyes and happy smiles seemed to fade once the boss was gone, as they either gave her sharp glances or busied themselves with their appearances. Some of the men even left the room, opting for a more cheerful crowd.
Defeated by the change in atmosphere, Clarissa sat properly in her chair and simply kept to herself as she removed the costume makeup from her face.
“How long do we have to put up with this?” Clarissa heard someone say behind her in a whisper.
“Perhaps she’ll join the circus and get out of our hair,” another snickered in a hushed tone.
The whispers continued despite how hard Clarissa tried to ignore their pettiness. Even with the toughest of skin, she couldn’t block it all out.
It wasn’t Clarissa’s fault that she was more talented than the other girls in the cast. Why should she be punished just for having a true passion for the craft, and being able to hone the skill as if it were her whole being?
It didn’t seem fair to Clarissa, not when she was only doing what she loved. Growing up, Clarissa had always heard from her family that if she could follow her passions and live with a purpose, then she would be undeniably happy every day after. However, she seemed to be lacking in that area of her life.
Clarissa was the reason the theater had been doing so well, and that was general knowledge. Despite not feeling like anything more than a performer, Clarissa was becoming somewhat of a celebrity in London. She wasn’t sure exactly when it started, but many people began attending the shows when they heard she had the starring role.
To her delight, Clarissa had even been featured in the papers from time to time as she was praised for her unbeatable ability to channel a character as if they weren’t fictional at all. She amazed the audiences with her brilliantly accurate tears, and the way she could bring characters to life with her own breath.
Because of the sudden publicity, Clarissa gained more foot traffic for the theater, and she was rewarded with a nice bonus. To seemingly bury herself even further with her castmates, Clarissa was the highest-paid actress, much to everyone else’s dismay.
She didn’t ask for the raise. Rather, Mr. Russel was beyond happy to pay the young woman more for her great work. While the boss obviously cared deeply about his business and the money it brought him, he always made sure his workers were well looked after.
Ultimately, that meant the cast had even more of a reason to be upset with Clarissa. She wasn’t able to express to them how much she didn’t want it to divide them. Clarissa wanted to be friends with all of them, without needing to worry about what was being said behind her back. She wanted them to know that she didn’t hold herself any higher based on her money or her talents.
As much as Clarissa loved the theater house and the stage she performed on, she had to admit that it was a rather lonely job from time to time. She had to be careful about who she trusted, as not everyone had her back.
One fellow actress was an exception, however. Clarissa’s dear friend Anna Parsons was about the only person she could trust wholeheartedly, as they often confided in one another and spent many long hours practicing together.
Anna was a sweet girl with rich blonde hair and brown eyes that looked like honey if the light hit them right. She was the same age as Clarissa, yet they didn’t grow up together. Rather, the girls met at the theater house once Anna auditioned for a job.
While many of the other women chose to throw their hard eyes at Clarissa, Anna never did. Instead, she often found a place by her side, and she would help deflect their terribly debilitating envy.
Even now, Anna joined Clarissa in the empty seat next to her as she offered her friend a smile. Anna also started removing her makeup so that she could move on to a party that was being thrown not too far from the theater.
“You know, their words do have truth in them,” Anna said softly as she wiped the makeup from her face.
Clarissa gave her a sideways glance as she questioned what the girl had meant.
However, Anna’s lip only pulled as she thought about how it could have been taken in a negative way, yet she meant it only positively. “The crowd does go wild for you.”
Clarissa couldn’t help the smile that came to her face as she recognized one of the only genuine compliments she received that evening. “Thank you, Anna. You did great out there too.”
Anna was warmed by her friend’s kindness as she leaned forward to get a better look at what she was doing. “You are too kind. I just hope Russel didn’t notice the one line I mixed up.”
The friends exchanged slight grimaces, knowing how important it was for them to get their lines perfectly. Although Clarissa knew it was minor enough, as she didn’t even notice.
“He was likely too busy chatting anyway,” Anna added, seemingly to reassure herself.
There was a moment of quiet between the two girls as they finished removing the light costume makeup before they fixed their hair properly once more. Then, Anna gave Clarissa a small pout.
“Are you certain you can’t make it to the gathering tonight? It is supposed to be a fairly large one.”
Clarissa knew that Anna would want her there desperately, yet the thought of being surrounded by many people didn’t sound very appealing. While her friend’s companionship was able to lift her spirits somewhat, Clarissa still felt burned by the comments she had received from her castmates. She was too tired to dance and frolic about.
Instead, Clarissa wanted to stay in and get a good rest in the quiet space of her quarters.
Clarissa tried her best to keep her final answer firm and in good spirit, as she didn’t want to worry the girl either. She leaned back in her chair with a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have it in me tonight.”
Anna sighed with feigned annoyance before she lifted the corners of her lips once more. “All right, but you can’t miss out next time! Promise me?”
Clarissa let her head tilt to the side as she gave her a tired nod. “Promise.”
Anna seemed to brighten further at the statement, then she jumped up from her seat and hurried behind the dressing screen.
“I will let you know who was there!” Anna exclaimed excitedly, as she always looked forward to the grandness of parties, and the presence of important people.
“If it is going to be a large party, then how will you keep track of them all?” Clarissa entertained from her seat.
She watched as some of the other actresses walked out of the room once they were finished, likely off to the party or to chat with the remaining crowd. To Clarissa’s relief, the room’s atmosphere grew lighter, and she felt less scrutinized than she had before.
Anna popped her head over with a knowing grin. “I never forget important faces!”
Clarissa was always happy when Anna went out to gatherings, as the girl wasn’t quite as well off as she would have liked. Clarissa often thought that Anna’s hopes and dreams were much greater than her purse, as she too wanted to walk among those esteemed faces as one of them.
It made her feel warm knowing that the parties made Anna giddy and hopeful. In a way, seeing the lavish lives others lived served as inspiration for Anna, and she would try harder to achieve her goals.
Clarissa looked down at her hands as she fiddled with them as she thought, but her attention returned when she noticed that Anna was next to her suddenly. Her friend gave her a worried look.
“What’s the matter?”
Clarissa sighed, considering whether or not she wanted to tell her. However, it was Anna. She told her almost everything. She leaned her head against the back of the chair.
“I was happy to see everyone in such good spirits after the show, and I meant to celebrate with them. Then it soured and everyone is upset with me!” Clarissa admitted with a pit in her stomach as she thought about it.
Clarissa never intended to be in the position she found herself. While she worked for it, of course, Clarissa didn’t want to be seen as the best actress in the theater. Instead, she simply wanted to perform and follow through with what made her happiest.
“I don’t mean to come across as too important. I want to feel connected with everyone equally, yet they don’t seem interested,” Clarissa continued as doubt swam in her belly.
Anna’s features turned more empathetic as she took her seat again, all while she reached for Clarissa’s hand.
“Clarissa, you have done nothing wrong. You were not wicked about it in any way. The others just don’t know how to keep their thoughts to themselves,” she murmured quietly in hopes of lifting the girl’s spirits. “You are a brilliant actress, and the perfect Hamlet! It may be difficult, but you have to ignore them. One day they’ll realize how silly they were.”
Clarissa smiled at her dear Anna before she pulled her into a hug, as they were all alone in the dressing room.
“I appreciate your friendship immensely, Anna.”
“I appreciate yours as well, Clarissa. Don’t let them make you feel unworthy of what you have.”
Together, the two friends had a small celebration of their own as they continued to discuss the performance. Clarissa left the room feeling more at ease than she had before, despite the guilt that remained. Things would be much easier if others weren’t quite so envious.
Anna bid farewell to Clarissa as she left for the party, and Clarissa wished her luck before she walked off to find her room, ready for a proper night’s sleep.
The thoughts of the young actress seemed to plague Matthew’s mind even as she went off the stage to rejoin the cast of the play. He couldn’t help but wish he could jump up from his seat and join her, to ask the woman for her name.
While it felt like a simple and somewhat foolish thing to crave, Matthew just wanted to hear what it would sound like for her name to leave her lips. He had never once wanted to know such a thing as intensely as he did then.
Matthew had known what attraction felt like before, as he had been exposed to many beautiful regal women in his past. Yet, most of them seemed to fall short, as they lacked something that Matthew didn’t know he had been searching for all along.
Those women would make fine enough wives to raise his children if that was what Matthew wanted. Yet, none of them seemed to have a sense of adventure, or the spark of excitement in the name of pursuit. Many of them did as they were told, when they were told as most fine women did.
However, that wasn’t what Matthew wanted. He knew deep down that he needed someone who wasn’t afraid to go after what they wanted most in life. Matthew wanted to feel inspired by whomever he was to marry, and for him to be their muse as well.
It was suddenly very clear to Matthew that these thoughts were new and original, brought on simply by the sight of the woman and her incredible talent. He felt it was obtuse to immediately declare that she was everything he desired, yet at the same time, Matthew couldn’t deny it either.
The suddenness of his attraction toward her was overwhelming, and Matthew wasn’t quite sure what to think of it.
While it was an exciting thought to find someone so unbelievably appealing that he couldn’t be without her, it worried Matthew. He began to question whether he was unwell, or simply spiraling into insanity. There was no way for him to be sure, as the adrenaline from the spectacle seemed to course through his system still.
Matthew continued to wonder then, if his excitement was truly for her, or if it was brought on by the splendor of the show itself. He often found himself beyond content and delight whenever he attended plays, as they always managed to satisfy his taste for the arts.
“Come, we should join the others out in the hall,” Nathaniel said to Matthew, which tore his attention away from his relentless overthinking. “There is no sense staying here.”
“Very well,” Matthew murmured as he stood and followed his friend out to where the audience members were gathered. “Perhaps it will distract my mind.”
He was annoyed by the persistent thoughts of the woman, as he had felt much more at ease before he spotted her on stage. Thus, Matthew continued to look at the crowd of people around him, hoping to at least see her face again.
There was a strong pull at Matthew’s heart as he longed for the woman. For whatever reason, he had already felt connected to her, as if he had known her for a lifetime already. While it made him feel like a fool, Matthew had a hard time calming his thoughts down to focus on the follow-through task.
While his mother was off conversing with some acquaintances, he could still hear her voice in his head, instructing Matthew to speak with the people, and to spread a good name for their family.
However, he couldn’t be bothered to do such a thing, not while he had a woman on his mind.
Then, Matthew’s world seemed to come to a sudden halt the moment he laid eyes on her once more. Matthew even stopped to wonder if it was truly her, as she was no longer in her costume. Yet, there was no way he could mistake her perfection.
There was a strong giddiness under Matthew’s feet, as if he needed to approach her immediately. He wanted to race over to her and introduce himself, yet Matthew couldn’t bring himself to do it. He knew there was only a small window for the opportunity, which sent his anxiety even higher.
The idea came to Matthew suddenly when he considered the thought of going to her quarters, where she would likely be heading to call it a night. There was a chance he could intercept her before then to give her his name, with the hopes of knowing hers in return. However, the notion of sneaking into her room didn’t sound like a wise one.
While Matthew wanted to meet her desperately, he didn’t want to ruin either of their reputations by acting seemingly indecent. Matthew needed to keep his wits about him, while also satisfying the sudden need to know her name.
Matthew was stumped and conflicted, unable to make the decision for himself. Hoping to find some reason within his greatest friend, Matthew turned to speak into Nathaniel’s ear without taking his eyes off of the woman as she spoke with a man before carefully navigating out of the hall.
“There is a beautiful woman I wish to meet, yet I can’t risk putting her in a compromised position. I can’t let her get away, yet I don’t even know her name. What should I do?”
However, Matthew’s words seemed to fall on deaf ears as Nathaniel was busy looking around the room frantically, as if something were on his mind. He glanced nervous from left to right.
Nathaniel released a stumped sound, as if he had considered the words for a mere second without offering much advice.
“I could walk up to her and introduce myself, however, she is likely on her way to rest for the evening. Or I could forget about the whole thing and pretend this thought never crossed my mind.” Matthew hummed more to himself than anything as he tossed up the options.
Matthew was not one to be upfront and abrupt. Rather, he was a more subtle individual who didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. That characteristic of his often made Matthew feel very different from his mother and the rest of the family.
This made him feel even more conflicted, as he didn’t want to interrupt the woman. Still, he couldn’t fight the urge that told him to meet her before it was too late.
“Are you listening?” Matthew asked Nathaniel as he turned to see the expression on his friend’s face.
While his demeanor was strange, Matthew was of no mind to ask him. He was still too torn up about his options to worry about what was going on in Nathaniel’s mind.
There was an uninterested nod as Nathaniel continued to scan the room. “Yes, of course.”
However, Matthew released a sigh and told himself to forget about it. Nobody else could make the decision for himself. Matthew knew there was no easy way to confront the situation.
Either Matthew could try his best to scrub the woman from his mind and move on as he likely should have, with a high possibility that disappointment and misery would follow. Or he could simply pull himself together and go meet her, which sounded better.
Eventually, Matthew grew tired of the constant back and forth in his own mind. He didn’t want to constantly battle himself over what he felt was right or wrong. Instead, Matthew wanted to simply act on whatever desire came to his mind.
At last, Matthew let go of a deep breath as he pulled more air into his chest to prepare himself.
“That settles it. I will go introduce myself,” Matthew said as he added fragments of confidence back into his tone.
Nathaniel seemingly held no opinion in the matter, even as he gave his friend a distant nod.
Just as Matthew went to follow the actress, he was suddenly stopped when a young woman stepped in front of him and offered him a low curtsy.
“Good evening, My Lord. My name is Carrie-Lyn River, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The young woman looked no older than twenty as she gave her pleasantries to Matthew, who stood with a glossed look over his eyes. She looked up at him with a pretty face done up with a rosy powder on her cheeks. Her hair was almost as dark as crow feathers, pinned up as if she were on her way out for the night.
Out of obligation, Matthew gave the woman a smile and a bow of his head. He took her in, as he entertained the woman for a moment. While she was beautiful to see, he wasn’t quite sure whether or not she measured up to the woman that was on his mind.
“The pleasure is mine. I saw you on the stage, did I not?”
A wider smile took over Carrie-Lyn’s face, as she was delighted to be recognized by the Earl. She could hardly contain the excitement. “Yes, of course, My Lord! I was not in the starring role, yet I take an immense pride in every character I play.”
Matthew’s smile lingered, despite himself. He thought there was a potential connection between them there, as Matthew considered the idea of speaking with her for just a moment.
“Brilliant. Every chance to be on stage is a blessing,” Matthew murmured with a glint in his smile, curious if she felt the same way.
However, the young woman skimmed over the performance and instead gave him a knowing look. “I heard you were the man to talk to.”
Matthew felt as his hope dropped quickly from his chest, and he had to conceal the disappointment that showed on his face. “Is that so?”
It became evident that Carrie-Lyn was simply a social climber much like the rest of them. To his dismay, she cared naught for the theater – not truly. Instead, it was merely an opportunity for her to connect with people of importance.
Matthew doubted whether she actually enjoyed being in his presence or not.
“Oh yes,” Carrie-Lyn nodded urgently, with her hands together. The greed seemed to pool into her eyes, growing with hope despite Matthew’s emotional withdrawal from the interaction. “It seems as though you enjoyed the show. It would be an honor to perform for you further if that would interest you. I can make myself available any time, and I am very flexible in my roles.”
Matthew almost pitied the girl as he looked at her, seeing how brightly the want appeared in her young eyes. It wasn’t the first time an entertainer asked to work at the Montfort Estate, yet he wasn’t so sure her offering was as innocent as it seemed. It also wasn’t the first time a woman offered to comfort him, that he nearly always declined.
While the disappointment had entered his chest, it was quickly removed when Matthew recalled the woman who had occupied his mind, and how not all hope was lost. Carrie-Lyn wasn’t the woman he had been after.
Matthew smiled again as he held his hands politely behind his back. “Well, isn’t that something. I will have to look into it.”
Matthew knew that Carrie-Lyn had wholeheartedly believed his forced banter, and a part of him felt somewhat guilty for leading her on. Yet, he reached a point of desperation that told him to leave the young woman behind for the one he truly wanted.
“It would be a dream,” Carrie-Lyn beamed, far happier than she should have been. “I know many classics, as well as a few modern roles to divulge you, if that would please you. I am quite a renowned actress, you know.”
While Matthew didn’t believe her for a moment, he made sure to enforce his smile. Matthew wasn’t as uninformed as the young woman had assumed, as he was more than aware of the true star at the theater.
For some time, he had heard about a talented actress that had been captivating her audiences by storm, yet it took Matthew some time before he was blessed with the luxury of seeing her skill with his own eyes. He was thankful for the opportunity.
Matthew felt more inclined to recognize the talented from the mediocre, as theater and art were the very foundation of everything he loved. From his time spent watching plays and other sorts of performances, Matthew knew how to spot passion over learned skill, or even actors and actresses that tried much too hard to imply that they had any sort of talent.
“I am sure that is true,” Matthew said as kindly as he could, although he gave her a final bow as he tried to escape what had felt like a trap.
It was clear to Matthew that the conversation was nothing more than an employment opportunity, or perhaps an attempt at seduction, as Miss River was a pretty young woman.
However, her intentions mattered not, as Matthew wanted nothing to do with it. Rather, he simply wanted to find the woman he was after, to introduce himself properly to finally relieve the want that was making his chest ache.
Carrie-Lyn’s hopeful smile continued despite recognizing that the conversation was coming to a close, and she was about to lose her opportunity.
“I don’t believe the Estate is currently looking for performers. However, I will inform you if that changes,” Matthew said at last, a sign that he was finished with the conversation.
The young woman grasped at whatever final chance she had as she tried her best to form the words. However, she resolved to simply offer him a curtsy.
“Have a good evening,” Matthew said plainly before he dismissed himself and ventured through the crowd of people, leaving Carrie-Lyn on her own.
As Matthew navigated through the individuals of London, he released a deep breath to remove the guilt from within him. He wasn’t sure why he felt that way, as he had been pinned into the position in the first place. Matthew had only dodged an uncomfortable interaction, without sacrificing his family’s image.
Rather than dwell on it, Matthew refocused his mind on the mysterious young woman he had been pining over for the last few hours.
With more purpose in his steps, Matthew broke into another hall until he made his way to a more private area. He could only assume the sleeping quarters were nearby.
The Earl of Montfort continued to search through the theater house, as his heart beat harder in his chest, poised to call upon the most charming version of himself.
He couldn’t let the woman get away from him, not without knowing her name at the very least.
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