At the Highwayman's Pleasure(8)

By: Sarah Mallory

 ‘Very much.’ She sent him a twinkling look. ‘I was compared very favourably with Mrs Siddons.’

 ‘And now you will take Allingford by storm. I am very grateful that you have deigned to grace my little theatre with your presence.’

 ‘Nonsense, you know I owe everything to you. When you wrote to tell me you had lost your leading lady, how could I refuse to help you? After all, I owe you everything, for taking me in and looking after me all those years ago.’

 ‘I had my reward—you are a natural actress and your success reflected well upon my travelling players, so well that investors were persuaded to join me in building the theatre here.’

 ‘Yet still you encouraged me to try my luck in London.’

 ‘Your talent deserves a wider audience.’ He sat back, smiling. ‘I looked out for you in the newspapers—Agnes Bennet, darling of Drury Lane! How long ago was it, five years?’

 ‘About that, yes.’

 ‘But you quit London just as you were making a name for yourself. Why was that, my dear?’

 Charity cradled her wine glass in her hands.

 ‘I fell in with a bad crowd. When I realised how bad I was disgusted, with myself as well as with them. I decided to leave that life, and Agnes Bennet, behind me.’ She gave a wry smile. ‘It was a miracle that I escaped with my virtue intact.’

 ‘So you are Charity Weston again.’

 ‘Yes, and I have spent the last few years touring the country, building a new career for myself.’

 ‘And doing very well, if the reports are to be believed.’ Hywel got up to fetch the decanter and refill their glasses. ‘So why did you come to Allingford, my dear?’

 ‘Why, because you asked me—your leading lady had contracted inflammation of the lungs and retired to Worthing with her husband.’

 ‘When I wrote I hardly expected you to accept.’

 She spread her hands. ‘I wanted to come back to the north.’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘Being able to play in a theatre rather than an inn or a barn is very welcome, Hywel, and when you told me you were the owner and manager here I could not help myself!’

 ‘Away with your flattery, baggage! Please do not mistake me, my dear, I am delighted to have you rejoin my theatre. Many of your old friends are still working for me. But it is very close to your old home. And to your father.’

 She shrugged. ‘Saltby is several miles away. I doubt Phineas ever comes to Allingford, and it is even more unlikely that he would visit the theatre.’

 ‘But he is no longer at Saltby, my dear. He lives in Beringham now.’

 She sat up. ‘So close?’ She chewed her lip, frowning, then said slowly, ‘It matters not. I am no longer afraid of him. Besides, I am tired of my wandering life, Hywel. I am minded to settle down, and where better than Allingford, where I can continue to work in the theatre?’

 ‘But using your real name—is that not rather a risk? Weston is bound to take it amiss when he discovers you are here.’

 ‘I have hidden behind a stage name for too long. I have accepted the courtesy title of Mrs Weston, but I will go no further. I want to be myself now.’ She sipped her wine. ‘I have heard nothing of Phineas since I left.’ His brows lifted and she continued, ‘I stopped calling him “Father” years ago. He does not deserve the title. Is my stepmother still living?’

 ‘No. She died several years ago, before he moved to Beringham. He is a man of property now. It appears your stepmother left him a tidy sum.’

 Charity looked up, surprised. ‘Really? I knew he had married her for her dowry, but I had thought it was all spent.’

 ‘Apparently not, since he came to Beringham a man of some means. He has married again and his wife brings with her a small fortune. He is now a magistrate, too.’

 ‘Is he indeed?’ She grimaced. ‘Poor Beringham.’

 ‘Very true. Thankfully we have a county border between us. He rules with a rod of iron and will allow no theatres or entertainments in his area.’ He grinned. ‘All the better for me, of course, since those who want to see a play must come to Allingford.’

 ‘It must irk him dreadfully to know people are free to enjoy themselves here. I wonder if he is aware that the theatre in Scarborough was built by a clergyman? He would certainly not approve of that! Phineas believes salvation can only come about through suffering.’

 ‘As long as it is not his own.’

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