In Victorian London, theatre is thriving and the word “actress” has been coined. Struggling Irish starlet Posy O’Connor is desperate to hit the big time. With her striking red hair, curvaceous figure and beautiful singing voice, she has no trouble securing a manager. Kindly old Mr Montague is nearing retirement, however. And one day out of the blue, he introduces Posy to his replacement – his nephew Billy Hutton.
Of part Italian descent, the charismatic Billy has firm ideas about Posy’s blossoming career. Intrigued by the swarthy impresario, she agrees to a minor role in a new play starring the toast of the British stage – the glamorous Blanche Delaunay. At first, Posy is thrilled at the chance of performing in city’s most prestigious theatre. But she quickly gets carried away, flouting orders and insulting her co-stars. To her horror, Billy hauls her backstage for a spanking, overheard by all. When this fails to do the trick and Posy throws another tantrum only days later, his remedy is even stricter discipline ….
Blanche meanwhile observes the tempestuous relationship develop between the red-head and the magnetic Mr Hutton. Old memories stir. Blanche too broke the rules as a fledgling performer, and ended up very sorry over a man’s knee. She starts to wonder what it’s like, when done a little more willingly…
Will Blanche dare to share her naughty fantasies with exotic younger lover Leon? And will Posy forgive Billy for humiliating her? As opening night looms, both women are forced to confront their true feelings.
Covent Garden, London
?Snuff boxes! Clocks! Buckles and buttons and bows! Come buy!? Stepping across the pavement, Posy O? Connor narrowly avoided tripping into a muddy puddle as the fat, gruff street vendor careered past her. She glared with irritation at his back, his grubby wares stacked clumsily upon it.
As she pulled the large doorbell of the office quarters for the third time, Posy cursed the freezing London rain. Without her umbrella, lost the evening before in a dingy tavern, she was soaked through. Tucking her long red hair under her poplar green tweed bonnet, she stamped her feet and shivered. If Mister Montague did not reply before she counted to ten, Posy swore to herself, she would forget all about her ambitions as a stage actress and take to walking the streets. At least then, she reasoned, men might be quicker to respond.
?Yes?? Montague?s impatient voice called from the window above. Posy stepped back on the pavement and craned her neck to look up.
?Mister Montague sir?? she called, the rain beating down on her weary face. ?We agreed to discuss matters today. About my future engagements??
Maurice Montague had talked of binding the warranty between them. Posy was determined to hold him to it. Life was already more than enough of a hand?to?mouth drudge. She needed proper recognition and the wages to go with it. She was a very good actress, and an even better singer. And Posy knew it.
?Come up then, girl, out of the rain.?
Montague slammed the window closed. Posy pushed open the thin wooden door and began to climb the dingy spiral staircase. She passed offices alive from inside with voices in conversation, scripted rehearsal or song. Each door carried a different name. There were the rooms of Flynn & Burgess, Minstrels; Aubrey Billingham, Agent for Dramatic Performers of Wizardry; Rawlings & Rawlings, Troupe Managers For Opera & Burletta; Neville & Devante, Providers of First Class Variety Shows. And tucked in the darkest corner of the top floor landing, the office of Maurice Montague, Impresario & Representative To Quality Thespians & Purveyors Of Song.
The 60?year?old man greeted her at the door with his customary bow.
?Do come in, my dear. Forgive my tardiness. It has been a desperately busy morning.?
Posy took a seat by the window and removed her sodden hat. Her long, thick, dark red hair tumbled to her slim shoulders. Backlit by the pale yellow foggy light of the wet winter day outside, Montague remarked to himself once again what a true find she was, deep green oval eyes set wide in perfect ivory skin, with a magnificent profile. To say nothing of her perfect little frame. Since he had first spotted her in Cheapside, ?chaunting? music?hall songs alongside a barrel?organ player and a one?eyed acrobat, Maurice Montague had seen the spark in Posy O? Connor. She had the makings of a very fine stage actress and an exquisite singing voice. For weeks he tracked her around the city?s less pleasing courtyards, watching her perform serpentine dances and act out tawdry melodrama in a way the words did not deserve. All for the odd penny bit.
When he finally introduced himself, Posy was wary and hostile. She was, she told Montague, ?no two?bit tail.? He realised at once that her nature was one of force. When she accepted that Montague was genuinely scouting for talent, she was overcome with gratitude. She resided then in a women?only lodging house with shared rooms, use of a tin bath twice a week and a bowl of beef and bread of an evening. But it was no whorehouse, Posy was insistent, and Maurice Montague believed her. He had been delighted to give her an opportunity as her agent?manager. In her first role as a peasant girl in a tragi?comedie, she won golden opinions from far and wide. Over 12 months, Montague had seen her begin to flourish in various theatrical roles. But the girl was terribly impatient and never seemed to listen to his counsel.
?So what might be next, Mister Montague? I was hoping to hear of a more substantial engagement, as you promised? Otherwise I do fear I shall be forced to take work as a matchbox?maker simply to keep body and soul combined!?
Montague was also impressed by Posy?s hunger for employment. With her fine looks and good speech, refined at the convent, she could indeed have had it easy in one of the better brothels in Soho. But she was fast becoming known for her business?like head, as well as her undoubted skills as a player of emotive parts, even if Maurice Montague knew she required a great deal more experience.
?Now, now Posy! It was very far from a promise. I have travailed too long in this godforsaken occupation to offer up guarantees I am not equipped to keep. I have been promoting you far and wide, certainly. And your last turn, in the John Ford piece, has left something of a real impression on Shaftesbury Avenue. But we must be prudent, Posy. I wish to be selective with your work.?
Posy frowned, wiping the rain from her face and shaking her hair out to dry in the warmth from the coal fire. She knew she was extremely fortunate to have been selected quite by chance by a reputable company like Montague?s. It could have been a very sticky end otherwise, after she was removed from the convent at 17. Posy had never known her father. She and her mother took the boat from Ireland when Posy was 6, using her grandmother?s inheritance to rent rooms in Pimlico. It was relatively comfortable, but her strict Mammy sent her to the nuns at 12. She wanted her properly schooled in languages and spiritual matters.
Although she had always loved to read, Posy had not taken kindly to being shackled by such draconian conventions. A rebellion had set in. When Mammy was killed in the house fire, there was no one to pay for her schooling. Not even the city missionaries saw fit to provide guardianship, especially following only the briefest of interviews with Posy, when she showed scant regard for their ?miminy?piminy ways.? One interrogating tutor had been left nothing short of alarmed by her headstrong temperament. Posy cared not. No longer a minor, she had simply walked away. She wanted to be independent. The dramatic arts had always enticed Posy, a gifted soprano. On the first opportunity to perform on a real stage and with thanks to Montague?s finding her, Posy thrived.
?My situation has become rather urgent, Mister Montague. I was obliged yester?eve to perform a valueless comedietta in a tavern in Southwark, for the benefit of a party of carousing aldermen. I did rather hope there now might be a more auspicious role for me, after my stunning performance in the Ford.?
Montague laughed gently. The one thing Miss O? Connor certainly did not lack was confidence. It was at the heart of her great ability to command an audience. But she had just confirmed his worst fears.
?A little humility Posy, please. You are but 19 years of age. I?m afraid that you have a long road to travel, before you can compete with some of our more seasoned thespians. A cup of hot chocolate, perhaps? Then we might discuss the details of our on?going arrangements. I do have some interesting news as it happens!?
Shivering as her clothes dried on her back, the thought of a sweet hot drink was far too appealing for Posy to refuse. The end of the month loomed, and with it her lecherous landlord?s rent. Hunger for work was not purely artistic. Posy was down to her very last pennies and aware that the boots on her small wet feet had long ago worn thin.
?Splendid!? Posy smiled sweetly. ?I fully intend, by this time next year, to see my name at the top of the advertisement bills at Her Majesty?s!?
Montague was amused, but fired with the girl?s enthusiasm.
As Posy took up the large china tumbler of steaming chocolate, there came the sound of heavy feet ascending the stairwell. Without a knock, the door burst open.
?Uncle! The most marvellous piece of news! She says yes!?
Posy was taken aback as the room seemed to fill with the presence of the visitor. Standing very tall, the dark?haired man had to hunch to enter the cramped office. He was immaculately dressed in a royal navy serge tailcoat. A crisp linen shirt was tucked in tight breeches, offset by shining brown patent leather boots. With his final words, he had tapped the floor triumphantly with a silver?mounted walking stick, sporting a fine ivory handle. Presumably, Posy thought, this was a nephew old Montague had never mentioned. But far more intriguingly, who was the ?she? to whom this rather oafish man referred?
?I do beg your pardon,? he said, bowing very briefly to Posy. ?I had no idea my uncle had a visitor. Forgive me. William Hutton,? the slim young man looked Posy up and down. She remained uncomfortably damp in the window seat.
?William is my dear late sister?s eldest son, Posy.? Montague fumbled about with the chocolati?re, pouring another thick, hot cup. ?He is also in fact the interesting news I have just referred to. We are delighted to announce that William is joining me in the business.?
?I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister Hutton.?
Posy?s soft, formal tone revealed more than a hint of her Irish roots, immediately beguiling to Hutton. She was quite a head?spinner, he thought.
?And I am also rather more than a visitor,? Posy continued. ?Your kind Uncle has no doubt told you about me. Posy O? Connor, professional actress. I recently starred in the enormously successful John Ford reproduction at The Marquis playhouse.?
Haughtily, Posy offered up her hand for Hutton to kiss it. He merely nodded and set about removing his tailcoat. Enormously successful? This one was quite above herself.
?I?m afraid I do not recall,? he said distractedly, leafing through a manuscript on the large desk that took up the centre of the room.
At once, Posy felt she did not take to this blunderbuss. And what of his announcement? The greatest curiosity was now hers.
?At least we are all now acquainted,? said Montague, settling back at his desk. The cups of chocolate steamed in the dimly lit room. William Hutton took up a chair and sat between desk and window, affording himself a proper look at the young woman who had so boldly presented herself. She was a creature of great beauty, of that there was no doubt. That rich red hair was magnificent, and those green eyes the greatest asset. The fitted day gown, though homespun, was of purple Irish crochet?lace that suited her quite perfectly. She had the sweetest cleavage, and underneath the lacy petticoats that skimmed atop her black riding style boots, the slimmest ankles. Posy O? Connor was every bit the little darling.
?So, young William. It would sound as though your assignation with our fair flower this morning has ended with success, if I am not mistaken?? Old Montague rubbed his hands excitedly.
Posy was irritated by Hutton stumbling in so indecorously to this, her private meeting with her mentor. And who was this ?fair flower? who might just as well be standing in the middle of the room herself, such was all the talk of her? It was quite a puzzle. Nevertheless, Posy found she could not remove her eyes from William Hutton. He was perhaps five, six years older than her. And exceedingly handsome, she remarked to herself. His thick, black wavy hair flopped casually over a broad forehead. The deep blue eyes were a striking contrast to his complexion, which gave off the look of having been exposed to the sun. Still, his bustling around the bureau was more than a nuisance on a day that had not started well in the first place.
?Would you rather I took my leave, Mister Montague?? Posy asked, sitting upright and making a business of rearranging her skirts and bonnet.
?Pray, no,? Hutton interjected before giving his uncle a chance to reply. ?I have been quite peremptory, inviting myself to what is clearly a professional intimacy. But if it is not an affront, might I be privy to whatever dealings are afoot? Since I shall be presiding over your engagements in any case, Miss O? Connor. Perhaps it makes best sense, Uncle??
Montague felt the atmosphere in the tiny attic office grow tense. He saw Posy bristle, her jaw set hard.
?Ah, yes. Indeed, young William. There is no reason to curtail our discourse. Given that you will be acting as sole agent?manager to all our stars from henceforth!?
Hutton stood up and wandered over to the window. Posy was flush with rising temper. Was this some family scheme? Montague?s nephew spoke easily, his strong voice carrying all the confidence of a well?tutored public speaker.
?I do have scant fondness for the word ?star,? Uncle. I intend to act as a ?society?manager.? If an artiste works hard and performs to the highest level of their skills, I shall retain them and promote them with all my energies, no matter how little known to fame they have been, or may become. But I shall always be reliant on the general excellence of the ensemble. Rather than on any single ?star? that may, at any moment, be eclipsed. And that sentiment shall be true regardless of age. Or gender.?
With the final words of his grand speech, Hutton studied Posy at closer range. She felt an unmistakable frisson of odd excitement as he did so. Still, she did not care for his pompous oratory, and glared at him from the corner of her eye.
?How interesting for you, Mister Hutton. If we might return to the matter in hand. I have been without paid employment for one month, and my bed?sitting?room is not provided gratis. Mister Montague??
Maurice Montague fiddled awkwardly with the chain of his pince?nez spectacles.
?The fact of the matter is, Posy dear, as William has so eloquently described, I have allocated that particular area of our enterprise to his very good attention. Whatever your next engagement, it shall be entirely his to oversee.?
He coughed awkwardly. Montague had seen Posy?s sourer moods unbridled more than once in the past and knew just how obstinate she could be. The girl fumed.
?And you did not see fit to consult me?? she said quietly, her anger nonetheless detectable.
Staring out into the grey miserable streets, Hutton smiled broadly to himself. Tending to this fiery young thing would be great sport, he reckoned. Posy caught the smell of his clary?sage cologne and looked him up and down discreetly. Beside her, he towered tall and extremely broad in girth. For now he decided to afford her a little leeway and spoke cheerily.
?I am sure my dear uncle will not mind my saying that he has earned the entitlement to a more sedate daily existence. He will now attend solely to the ledgers and the wages ? the hospitality and the bookings, and so forth. While he does so, I shall promote and nurture the talent. Therefore I ought to have introduced myself a little more formally, Miss O? Connor. I am your new agent?manager. And I am most charmed to meet you.?
With that, Hutton turned and gave an altogether more elaborate bow, his right hand swirling gentle shapes in the air before his face. Old Montague smiled too widely and with a distinct strain. Posy was furious.
?Mister Montague, really I do take great exception. Young I may be, but you yourself have championed me. I was under the impression this would remain the case. Instead it seems you are ? casually loaning me out, to a man I have never met in my life!? She rose abruptly from the chair, her bonnet tumbling to her feet. While Hutton retrieved it without a blink, Montague waved his hand and stood to face her. He looked rather more cross than Posy had ever seen him before.
?Come now, Posy. William writes the most erudite references, has a consummate knowledge of all matters theatrical, and is a superb orator. His good humour and adroitness are unmatched in our circles, I am not afraid to say. He has all the attributes necessary to promote your fine skills. And do please remember Posy,? his tone grew sterner still, ?you are not the only actress on our books.?
?So I hear!? said Posy, her voice rising slightly. She deliberately avoided William Hutton?s gaze.
?Your nephew seems already pre?occupied with another. Given the exalted tones of his entrance! What of this mysterious competitor of mine, Mister Hutton? This ?fair flower? we hear so much of? Is she a ?star?? Oh, I forget ? the word is not permitted. Even if it was the very description given of me by The Pall Mall Gazette for my last performance!?
Hutton laughed gently, only adding to her ire. Montague frowned.
?You do not suit such conceited speech, Posy. Be at peace and hear what it is we propose, please.?
Posy fumed, rather at a loss. Hutton drained the last of his chocolate and held out his arms. He was greatly enjoying seeing the red?haired minx in action. She would not be granted much further scope in which to cast forth the sparks of her temper, he decided. Therefore he elected to allow her just an inch or two more.
?Dear Miss O? Connor, I fear we have commenced in the most miserably inappropriate manner. Might I now proffer a suggestion??
Post sniffed and watched him. She took in the fine, tasteful quality of all that he wore, from his silk?edged cuffs, to the pale green cravat and cambric pocket?handkerchief.
?And what might that be, young Mister Hutton??
Both men were amused and faintly impressed by Posy?s daring to point out Hutton?s junior position within the company. He took it as another pleasing challenge.
?If I might entice you to join me for a bite of luncheon, then perhaps we can discuss our joint plans for Montague and Nephew in a more civilised milieu? They are plans that do, in all sincerity, include your charming self. It is almost after noon and I am ravenous. What say you to a plate of hot mutton? Followed perhaps by steamed apricot gateau? With whipped cream, flavoured by vanilla? Can I tempt you? I know of the very establishment to cater so, on this foulest February day!?
Hutton smiled, disarming Posy with his cool, velvety voice and the ease with which he continued to meet her eyes, unwaveringly. They really were the deepest blue she had ever seen, certainly when matched with such ebony black hair. Having not eaten since dawn, she was extremely hungry, and the charming way he described the meal left her mouth?watering.
?Very well, then. Provided we concentrate most keenly on my engagements. Mister Montague, I bid you a good afternoon. In the hope that some sort of arrangement can be struck, we shall perhaps return to sign the agreement manuscript you mentioned not a week ago?? She peered at Montague, who smiled and nodded. Sweeping from the room and down the stairs, Posy called over her shoulder.
?Hurry, Mister Hutton. I do believe the rain falls heavier. And I should very much appreciate the use of your umbrella.?
With a smiling nod to his uncle, Hutton did as bidden and followed his new client down the stairs. He noted her sprightly gait and the way stray locks of her burnished red hair tumbled from beneath her little green bonnet, down the dark purple of her Figaro jacket to her waist. But most delightful of all, swathed in the polonaise skirt of the gown, was a neat little bottom, a rear as sweetly curved and perfect as any Billy Hutton had ever had the pleasure of observing at such close quarters. Whistling happily, he told himself that if Miss Posy O? Connor chose to make repeated habit of pouting and issuing loose demands, he would seek swift remedy by introducing that little seat most indelicately to the hard palm of his right hand. And right then, rare had been the thoughts that tantalised him more.