I’m late, thought Henry Davenport frantically as he ran down the street dodging carriages and looking over his shoulder in the hopes that the horsecar would be coming. He had started out trying to pull on his jacket and hold his hat on his head at the same time but it had failed so miserably that he gave up and thrown the former under his arm for safekeeping. It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m running late. She’s going to kill me.
He kept running, excusing himself as he weaved through the crowd of people shopping on Market Street, glancing back as his breath became shorter and shorter just in case his salvation came up the tracks behind him. It finally did appear, but he saw it out of the corner of his eye just as he turned down the side street that led to the theatre.
“Fine timing,” Henry thought acidly as he hurried up the steps, pulling on his jacket at last. It had become less about looking nice for the performance and more about hiding the perspiration from his dash across town. He wiped his face with his handkerchief, raising a hand in greeting to the middle-aged man who was watching the door.
“Evenin,’ Mr. Davenport,” he said with a smile. “Here for the performance?”
“That’s right,” he replied, finally catching his breath. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
“Miss Brooks was looking for ye a few minutes ago. She’s backstage if ye want to go talk to her.” He motioned to the stage door and Henry sighed with relief.
“Thank you, Martin. I wouldn’t want her to think I didn’t come.” With a nod, Martin pushed the door open and held it for Henry. He gave him a brief smile and ducked inside. Still winded from his run, he paused in front of the door to the dressing room to run his fingers through his sandy brown hair before he announced his presence. He was able to tell just by feeling it that the care he’d taken with it before he left the house had been pointless, but there was nothing for it now. Henry did the best he could, then put his hat back on and knocked.
“Coming,” said a female voice from inside the dressing room. Henry waited patiently for the door to swing open and when it did, it revealed a very lovely young woman. She was heavily made up and her waist-length blonde hair was pulled back into a thick plait, both of which were at odds with the dressing gown she wore. “Oh,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I was expecting my dresser.”
“Don’t be angry,” Henry said, a note of pleading in his voice. “At least I made it before the curtain went up, right?”
“Barely.” Ardelia Brooks’ voice was sharp and chilly as ice but she stepped aside to allow him into the dressing room. Henry was filled with relief until he saw another man sitting on the small couch pushed against the wall.
“Good evening,” the man said with a smile. He was already in full regal costume and Henry assumed that he must be the one playing Romeo.
“Good evening,” Henry replied warily.
“Henry, this is Richard Carrington,” Ardelia said. “You haven’t had a chance to meet him yet. He’s from Chicago and he’s a fine actor.”
“Hello, Henry,” the man named Richard said, grabbing Henry’s hand before he had a chance to say otherwise. “Good to meet you. I’m sorry I’m going to be the one on stage with your friend Ardelia tonight. Thought I’d apologize in advance.”
“No need to apologize,” Henry said, the smile frozen on his face. “It’s all part of being an actress. Besides, it’s only a play.”
“Of course you’re right. Still, I’d be a little uncomfortable if it was my friend that was going to be kissing another man in front of myself and a room full of people.” The shrug he gave was somehow more irritating than anything he’d said and Henry gritted his teeth, hoping it still looked like a smile. “Ardelia tells me you’re a scientist.”
“Engineer,” corrected Henry. “I’m working on applying different power to various modes of transportation.” He tried not to sound as smug as he felt. “We’re getting quite close to a way to modify the horse-drawn cars we’ve got now to a cable line. Of course, it also involves a complete restructuring of the lines.”
“Well, I hope your design works out better than what you’ve got now,” Richard said with a broad smile. “The hills around here are a little steep for the horses.” He laughed, a hearty sound that grated on Henry’s nerves. “No wonder everything moves so slowly.”
“Henry’s doing brilliant work,” said Ardelia defensively, moving to his side and putting a hand on his arm. “I’m sure it’s going to completely change the city.” She looked up at him and he felt a surge of warmth unfurl in his stomach and move through his body. “I don’t know where he gets all his ideas.”
“Here and there,” Henry said. “I read quite a few magazines, and a number of my friends travel overseas. They’re forever bringing me news of what’s happening in Europe and fascinating things from the unexplored countries. Look at this,” he said, taking a silver cigarette case out of his pocket and opening it with a flourish. Amidst the carefully rolled cigarettes was one that looked more like a thin cigar. Henry took it out and held it up to the light so Richard and Ardelia could see it better.
“My,” Ardelia said curiously. “What on Earth is that?”
“It’s a sort of cigarette,” he said. “My friend Reilly was in Indonesia for several months studying the natives and brought some of them back.” Ardelia took one sniff and wrinkled her nose.
“They smell like medicine,” she said.
“Reilly claims they’re quite good,” Henry said, slightly affronted. The whole reason he’d been late was because he wanted to bring her the odd brown cigarette. “Look, if you don’t want to smoke it, I will. There’s no need to waste it.”
“Of course I want to,” Ardelia said boldly. “J-just not before the performance.” Her eyes lit up with interest and he felt a burst of affection for her. This was the reason he loved Ardelia, with both her fascination for all things foreign and willingness to try them. “You smoke some of it and tell me what it’s like.”
“All right.” He stuck the cigarette between his lips, located a match in his jacket and lit it. Both Ardelia and Richard looked dubiously at him, waiting for his response.
The cigarette was strange to be sure. It tasted medicinal but had a sweetness to it that reminded him of pipe tobacco. But unlike a regular cigarette it seemed to make him lightheaded. Cigars often had the same effect, however, and he assumed it was something to do with the wrapping. Not wanting to look as if he had no idea what he was doing, Henry acted as if nothing was wrong.
“What is it like?” Ardelia leaned eagerly toward him.
“It’s rather interesting,” said Henry, taking another puff. “Like nothing I’ve tried before.”
“It smells like some sort of spice,” Richard said, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be smoking it?”
“Mr. Carrington, we need you on stage.” A young man with a book in his hand stuck his head into the dressing room, then frowned at Henry. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you not to smoke that in here. You could set the costumes on fire with—” He wrinkled his nose. “—whatever it is.”
“Sorry,” Henry said, looking for a place to put it out. “I’ll just go outside.”
“You can’t go outside! The play is starting!” Ardelia’s composure was on the brink of collapsing and Henry gave her a smile that became far more genuine when Richard had followed the stagehand out. “Henry, you promised you’d watch it!”
“Of course I’m going to watch it,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t be silly.” Henry opened the door and motioned to the exit. “Martin will let me back inside. Besides, you don’t go on for a while, I’ve got plenty of time to finish my cigarette.” She looked as if she was going to protest again but he put two fingers against her lips. “I promise I’ll be back in time to see your first line.”
“All right,” she relented and Henry stepped out with his cigarette in hand before she could protest again. He passed Martin, who said he would be more than happy to let him in when he was done, and went out the door he had just flown across town to enter.
Once outside he leaned against the wall and took a long inhale of the brown cigarette. Loath though he was to admit it, Richard had been right about it. It smelled for all the world like the sweet bread his aunt used to make when he was a boy but didn’t taste anything like it. He continued to smoke it on general principle and released a long strip of smoke amidst a long, drawn out sigh.
Of course it was going to kill him to watch Richard kiss Ardelia. He’d known her for more than two years now and every day he wished that he could find a reason to take her in his arms but the closest he’d come was when he used his chest to break her fall after her boot slipped on the wet stairs. No amount of telling himself that it was just a part of her job and that he’d have to get used to seeing other men kissing her was going to make it any easier. He’d realized almost from the start that he would have to accept that they would never be more than friends but he still wanted to be near her, even if it was just to watch her play Juliet.
He decided to give up on the cigarette and flicked it onto the ground, then stepped on it for good measure. Martin was waiting at the door and let him through it and into the theatre, where Richard and another man were deep in discussion onstage. Henry made his way as close to the front as he could get, then slid into a seat on the aisle.
It wasn’t long before Ardelia appeared with two other women. He barely heard a word they were saying, he was so enraptured by Ardelia in her green dress. It had a square neck and long sleeves, and went so beautifully with her blonde hair that he was hard pressed to believe that anyone in the theatre was paying attention to anything else. Even the headache that had started behind his eyes couldn’t keep him from staring at her, and when she opened her mouth to speak her first line he smiled.
“’How now! Who calls?’”
“’Your mother,’” said the older woman, motioning to the third woman, who was dressed in a much more elaborate version of Ardelia’s dress.
“’Madam, I am here. What is your will?’” Ardelia moved across the stage to the woman playing Lady Capulet and Henry pressed a hand to his temple. It was as if his headache was getting worse by the second and he tried to will it away.
By the close of the first Act, his headache had become so bad that it was turning his stomach. It was becoming difficult to concentrate on the play in front of him and he’d resigned himself to simply watching Ardelia without trying to make sense of the words she spoke. Henry hoped desperately for the end of the act so he could step outside and get some air.
It had to have been the cigarette, he thought. Whatever was in it gave me this damned headache. He reminded himself to kill Reilly the next time he saw him. Another stab of pain shot behind his eyes and he forced himself to keep them open and look at the stage.
“’Then have my lips the sin that they have took.’” Ardelia stepped toward Richard and he leaned forward to kiss her. Before their lips could meet, however, darkness hit Henry like a punch and he slid sideways out of his seat and onto the floor of the aisle, unable to hear the shouts that rose around him a moment later.
“Henry, wake up.”
A gentle voice at his side spoke, bringing Henry out of unconsciousness. He was suddenly aware that his face was damp and cold and reached up to move the wet cloth away from his eyes. Ardelia sat beside the couch he was laying on, wearing a blue dress he’d seen her in a hundred times and he realized with horror that it meant he’d missed the rest of the play.
“You passed out,” she said softly. “Right at the end of the first act. It scared me half to death. Luckily there was a doctor in the audience, and one of the other gentlemen helped Martin bring you in here to lie down.” She took the cloth from his hand and dabbed at his forehead. Henry sat up and covered his face with his hands. “Are you all right? Should I get the doctor again?”
“I’m so sorry, Ardelia.” Henry spoke from behind his hands, too embarrassed to meet her gaze. He wished she would leave the room so he could go back home and never have to look her in the eye again. “That native tobacco must have had a bad effect on me. I’m sorry I ruined your play.”
“Oh no,” she said with a cheerful smile. “We finished it without you. I’ve only been sitting here a little while now that everyone else is gone.”
Somehow this did not offer Henry any comfort. He supposed that a part of him had been hoping that she had been so upset by his illness that she had rushed from the stage and sat at his side for hours until he woke up. As soon as he thought it, he realized how ridiculous it sounded and sighed heavily before he could stop himself. Nothing short of a natural disaster would keep Ardelia from acting, and his passing out in a theatre hardly qualified.
“Then I’m sorry I interrupted it. And I’m sorry I spoiled your Valentine’s Day.” He looked up at her, hoping that he wouldn’t see disappointment in her light blue eyes. “I really did want to see you.”
“It’s all right,” she said, still smiling. “So long as you’re feeling well, you can come back tomorrow to see it.”
“Tomorrow?” For some reason it hadn’t occurred to him that she would be performing again and he returned her smile with relief. “Thank God.”
“I’m glad you want to come back,” Ardelia said. “For a moment I was worried that my acting was so terrible it caused you to have a fit.”
“No, not at all!” Henry grabbed her hands. “You were wonderful! I truly believed you were Juliet. Much more convincing than that Carrington fellow.” Ardelia laughed, the most beautiful sound Henry had ever heard, and shook her head.
“Come along, then.” She pulled her hands out of his and put the cloth that had been over his eyes into the small basin on the table. “We should be going home. Everyone else has gone.” Ardelia stood up and Henry followed.
The light from one of the lamps caught her hair, making it look as if she had a halo, and Henry felt his heart begin to beat harder. They were completely alone in the theatre. It was the first time they had been alone since they met and he wasn’t sure if it would happen again anytime soon. Emboldened by this thought Henry waited until she turned back around, then put his hands on her shoulders, leaned in, and kissed her. He waited for her to pull away, to slap him across the face and tell him she never wanted to see him again. Instead she leaned into him, as if asking for more.
Henry put his arms around her and held her, wanting to keep her close as long as he could, or at least until she came to her senses. Instead, she sat back down on the couch, her lips firmly pressed to his the entire time and her arms around his neck, pulling him down with her.
Then, without knowing how or why he had gotten there, he was unbuttoning the blouse of her dress to reveal the soft white cotton and stays beneath that kept her figure in check. Henry cursed her shirtwaist for its suffocating modesty and his fingertips ran along the stiff, forbidding bottom edge of her corset, tugging at it as if he could force it to come away from her body. Ardelia murmured impatiently, then pulled his hand away from her waist and drew it down onto her thigh. He hadn’t been expecting this, and the sudden boldness of her action made him stiffen with anticipation.
He ran his hand up the stockinged side of her leg until his palm met smooth skin and a shiver moved through Ardelia’s body. His hand traveled further into the loose folds of her drawers and followed the curve of her buttock, making her inhale slowly. The feel of her breath on the side of his neck made his erection press uncomfortably against the inside of his trousers and he shifted so that his knee was on the couch between her legs. When she spread them further, he moved his hand until he found the split in her drawers with his fingers and ran one lightly inside.
Ardelia’s back arched and she gasped softly in surprise, then grabbed his waist and pulled him toward her. Henry didn’t need to be told. He unbuttoned his trousers and pushed them down while she pulled up her dress, then knelt again between her legs and lifted her hips so he could press his hardness against the warm, wet mystery beneath the silk. Their eyes met, his questioning and hers certain, then he pushed forward and her fingers twisted in the fabric of his jacket.
Unable to control himself, Henry thrust over and over into her searching for the source of the heat that seemed to radiate from within Ardelia, drawing him closer to the edge of his climax until he fell over in a shout of relief and ecstasy that was echoed from her lips a moment later. He stayed inside her, panting, as she ran the back of her hand over her forehead to wipe away the light sheen of sweat.
“I think my headache is gone,” Henry managed, and Ardelia laughed. It was still the most beautiful thing he had heard and he leaned down to kiss her again.
So much for accepting her friendship, he thought.