Excerpt from Your Scandalous Ways
Venice, that night, at the opera.
Though the season had not officially started, the boxes and pit of La Fenice were very nearly filled. This, James was aware, was partly because Rossini’s popular La Gazza Ladra was being performed and partly because Francesca Bonnard and her friends occupied one of the most expensive of the theater’s four tiers of boxes. As many people were looking up at her box as were looking at the stage.
And, this being Italy, many other people were doing neither.
As he well knew, Italian theaters were a different species from those in England. In Italy, theaters were social centers. To accommodate sociable theatergoers, the stairs and refreshment rooms were enormous. The vast foyers had been used until very recently for gambling. Now, with gambling forbidden, theatergoers were reduced to playing backgammon.
During the season, the educated classes attended the theater four or five times a week. Since this was a home away from home, the boxes were large as well, many of them furnished like drawing rooms and used in much the same way. From some, one could barely see the stage.
During the performance, people ate, drank, and talked. They played at cards, flirtation, and seduction. Servants went in and out. The opera or play provided background color and music, for the most part.
But at certain important times in the performance--the start of a favorite aria, for instance--the audience became hushed, and attended with all its might.
Such a hush was not in progress as James entered the box where Francesca Bonnard held court. Several parties on stage were screeching and bellowing something or other to which no one was paying the slightest heed.
No one paid James any heed, either. He appeared to be merely one of the several wigged and liveried servants going in and out with this or that: food, wine, a shawl. Playing a servant was easy. Those they served took little notice of them. He might stab the crown prince of Gilenia in the neck in front of a dozen witnesses, and later, not one of those witnesses would be able to identify James as the killer. No one would remember what kind of wig or livery he wore.
He was certain of this, having done away with two pieces of human slime under similar conditions.
Lurenze, however, was merely in the way. Since, given the lady’s reputation, one must expect a male--or several--to be in the way, James preferred the obstacle to be young and not overly intelligent. The French Count Magny, with the advantages of age and experience--which included not losing his head, literally, during the Terror or thereafter--might have proved a more serious obstacle.
James’s attention shifted from the golden-haired boy to the harlot beside him. They sat at the front of the box, Lurenze in the seat of honor at her right. He’d turned in his seat to gaze worshipfully at her. She, facing the stage, pretended not to notice the adoration.
From where he stood, James had only the rear view, of a smoothly curving neck and shoulders. Her hair, piled with artful carelessness, was a deep chestnut with fiery glints where the light caught it. A few loose tendrils made her seem the slightest degree tousled. The effect created was not of one who’d recently risen from bed but one who had a moment ago slipped out of a lover’s embrace.
And most effective. Even James, jaded as he was, was aware of a stirring-up below the belly, a narrowing of focus, and a softening of brain.
But then, she ought to be good at stirring up men, he thought, considering her price.
His gaze drifted lower.
A sapphire and diamond necklace adorned her long, velvety neck. Matching drops hung at her shell-like ears. While Lurenze murmured something in her ear, she let her shawl slip down.
James’s jaw dropped.
The dress had almost no back at all! She must have had her corset specially made to accommodate it.
Her shoulder blades were plainly visible. An oddly shaped birthmark marked the right one.
He pulled his eyes back into his head and his tongue back into his mouth.
Well, then, she was a fine piece, as well as a bold one, no question about that. Someone thought she was worth those sapphires, certainly, and that was saying something. James wasn’t sure he’d ever seen their like, and he’d seen--and stolen--heaps of fine jewelry. They surpassed the emeralds he’d reclaimed from Marta Fazi not many months ago.
Bottle in hand, he advanced to fill their glasses.
Lurenze, who’d leaned in so close that his yellow curls were in danger of becoming entangled with her earrings, paused, leaned back a little, and frowned. Then he took out his quizzing glass and studied her half-naked back. “But this is a serpent,” he said.
James, surprised, leaned toward her, too. The prince was right. It wasn’t a birthmark but a tattoo.
“You, how dare you to stare so obscene at the lady?” Lurenze said. “Impudent person! Put your eyes back in your face. And watch before you spill--”
“Oops,” James said under his breath as he let the bottle in his hand tilt downward, splashing wine on the front of his highness’s trousers.
Lurenze gazed down in dismay at the dark stain spreading over his crotch.
“Perdono, perdono,” James said, all false contrition. “Sono mortificato, eccellenza.” He took the towel from his arm and dabbed awkwardly and not gently at the wet spot.
Bonnard’s attention remained upon the stage, but her shoulders shook slightly. James heard a suppressed giggle to his left, from the only other female in the box. He didn’t look that way but went on vigorously dabbing with the towel.
The red-faced prince pushed his hand away. “Stop! Enough! Go away! Ottar! Where is my servant? Ottar!”
Simultaneously, a few hundred heads swiveled their way and a few hundred voices said, in angry unison, “Shh!”
Ninetta’s aria was about to begin.
“Perdonatemi, perdonatemi,” James whispered. “Mi dispiace, mi dispiace.” Continuing to apologize, he backed away, the picture of servile shame and fear.
La Bonnard turned round then, and looked James full in the face.
He should have been prepared. He should have acted reflexively but for some reason he didn’t. He was half a heartbeat too slow. The look caught him, and the unearthly countenance stopped him dead.
Isis, Lord Byron had dubbed her, after the Egyptian goddess. Now James saw why: the strange, elongated green eyes...the wide mouth...the exotic lines of nose and cheek and jaw.
James felt it, too, the power of her remarkable face and form, the impact as powerful as a blow. Heat raced through him, top to bottom, bottom to top, at a speed that left him stunned.
It lasted but a heartbeat in time--he was an old hand, after all--and he averted his gaze. Yet he was aware, angrily aware, that he’d been slow.
He was aware, angrily aware, of being thrown off balance.
By a look, a mere look.
And it wasn’t over yet.
She looked him up. She looked him down. Then she looked away, her gaze reverting to the stage.
But in the last instant before she turned away, James saw her mouth curve into a long, wicked smile.