For the more than 60,000 who downloaded Stealing Mercy—I’m attempting to write a prequel that answers the question of what happened to the missing cousin, Rita. At first I thought this would be a novella, which means I could technically end it, but the ending is still very far away. So, I can’t end it, even though I had intended to do so before I leave on Monday for a week in Washington. I’m in a quandary. End the thing, make it short and sweet—or give it more humph and substance?
Novel or novella? Sooner or later? Don’t hesitate to add your two cents.
Poke was playing her song! White hot anger, as mind altering as any potion or aphrodisiac, flashed through Rita. Clarisse, a virginal vision clothed in white lace, opened her mouth to sing and Rita grabbed the closest weapon she could find, a wig stand, and headed for the stage.
Clarisse’s high C turned to a squeak and her blonde curls bobbed when she saw Rita flying up the stairs, wielding the wooden head.
“That’s my song, you little strumpet!” Rita took center stage and swung the head at Clarisse.
Clarisse jumped nimbly away, straightened her dress and picked up her tune, leaving Poke, the pianist, a few stunned beats behind.
With the head braced in front of her like a battering ram, Rita charged. She landed in the curtains.
Clarisse climbed onto the piano bench, jostling Poke, who lifted his hands off the keyboard and flashed Rita a startled, although amused look. Clarisse, balancing beside the pianist, nudged him with her tiny shoe. “Please continue, sir. This audition is not over.”
“Oh yes it is!” Rita dropped the wooden head and it bounced around her feet as she lunged for Clarisse.
“Now, Miss Clarisse, you know I can’t let you climb on the piano.” Poke reached for Clarisse, struggling not to laugh. Rita now had two people she needed to kill.
Clarisse scooted across the lid of the upright piano on her bustle as Rita stepped on the bench and using Poke’s shoulder as a toe hold, she tried to join the music thieving Clarisse on the top. But Poke grabbed her around the waist and carried her to the front and center of the stage while she kicked and screamed.
“Can’t you see she’s a complete nutter, Ivan?” Clarisse said from her perch on top of the piano. “We simply cannot have her in the troupe.”
Rita wriggled so she could have a better look at Poke’s good natured face. “I wrote that song. It’s mine. She stole it!”
“I didn’t steal it. Besides, how can one steal a song?” Clarisse asked. “I simply heard it, learned it--”
“Through the paper thin walls while I wrote it. Do you want to know what I heard through the walls?” Rita smacked her lips, making kissing noises. “If you get a spot in the troupe, we will all know why!”
Clarisse gasped in outrage and Ivan laughed. “I got my position in the troupe because of my gifts and talent!” Clarisse stormed.
So, Clarisse already had a role with the troupe. Little wonder. “And your willingness to share your...gifts and talent.” Rita wiggled, but Poke wouldn’t let her go.
“Would you like to sing, Miss Michaels?” Ivan’s disembodied voice spoke from the theater seats. Because of the flickering glass lights lining the stage and the dark house, Rita couldn’t see Ivan and she wished she could. She needed to read his expression and gauge his response to her outburst.
Poke definitely didn’t seem in the least perturbed or unhappy about holding her. Of course, he was built like an ox. Rita knew he was not only the troupe’s accompanist, but also the “man at large” responsible for assembling and disassembling the heavy settings and scenery.
“Set her down,” Ivan said. “Let’s hear her.”
Clarisse put her balled fists on her hips. “We have heard quite enough from her!”
Poke chuckled and placed Rita down on the center of the stage. Rita flashed Clarisse a warning glance. She worried that Clarisse might start stomping on the piano keys or kicking at Poke, who was settling on his bench, acting as if having a blonde tart standing on top of his piano was de rigueur.
“You wrote this song? Then let’s hear it,” Ivan commanded.
“Ivan,” Clarisse’s tone turned silky soft, reminding Rita of Clarisse’s many private auditions before Ivan, where he had undoubtedly seen and heard more than just a song…or two.
“I’ve heard you, Clarisse. I know what you can do,” Ivan said, confirming Rita’s suspicions that Clarisse had only gone through the formality of the audition for the prime purpose of killing Rita’s chances of joining the traveling troupe and escaping dreary Seattle.
Poke played the opening bars while Rita stared into the lights. Blood pounded in her head and zinged through veins. Every nerve tingled and goose-bumps rose on her arms. The Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe was her ticket back to New York and she wasn’t about to let a trollop like Clarisse steal it from her.
Rita came in right on cue, her voice steelier than her spine and nearly as strong as her resolve.
“Quite the show you put on tonight,” a voice sounded from the center of her dressing room, sending crawling worms down Rita’s back. She took a deep breath and threw a robe over her chemise. Boris Kidrick, a heavy drinker, tobacco chewer and black licorice sucker, carried his own unique odor—a smell that Rita easily recognized and did her best to avoid. She wondered when he had come in, because she hadn’t heard the door, although the clatter of the dancers and the tinkling of the piano could drown out a quiet slip through the door.
Rita poked her head over the screen and saw Boris standing amongst the overflowing costume trunks and crates of props, leering at her.
“I always try to entertain.” She kept her voice light. Her earlier outburst had left her tired and drained. She didn’t want another sparring match with Boris. Not tonight. Her glance fell on the fire tools beside the mantle. She considered caning him and finishing him off. She would be doing the world a favor and it would be in her debt. She would really like to be in a position to pull in some favors instead of the awkward, semi-clothed position she currently found herself.
The door flew open and Matilda breezed in, but she stopped short when she spotted Boris standing bull-like in the center of the dressing room. Matilda stepped to the screen, as if to protect Rita and glared at Boris. “Mr Kidrick, you must know men aren’t allowed in the dressing room!” Matilda crossed her arms across her chest and drew herself up to her impressive full height. She towered over the squatty Kidrick—especially in her high heels.
Boris chuckled. “I now own this room and that fancy stage you’re so fond of parading on.”
Hesitation flashed over Matilda’s haughty expression while Boris rubbed his hands together. “Didn’t know that, did ya?” He chuckled at Matilda’s sagging shoulders. “Good things are coming my way,” he said with an unpleasant glint in his eye. He winked at Rita and she ducked back behind the screen and tightened the belt on her robe. She waited for the door to close before she peeked out from behind the screen.
“He’s gone.” Melinda crossed the room, dropping articles of clothing on her way to the dressing table. She sat down before the mirror and began to rub her face with cream, leaving her stage makeup in runny smears. In the harsh light, she looked all of her forty years plus some.
“I didn’t know Mr. Taylor had sold the theater,” Rita said, settling down on the bench beside the older woman. With her long curls trailing down her back, Rita looked like a child beside her friend.
Matilda shrugged and frowned. “I had heard Kidrick had come into some money.”
“Any chance that he’ll lose it—and the theater?” Rita’s glance met Matilda’s in the glass.
“It’s inevitable. But until then, we have to live with him.” Matilda scrubbed at her worn and tired face. Once she had been beautiful. And under the stage lights, she moved like royalty. But here, in the quiet dressing room, after a long night of pretending of trying to carry a beauty she could no longer claim, Rita’s pink skin and blue eyes sharply contrasted with Matilda’s fading style.
Rita twisted her hair into a long thick braid.
“Don’t worry, pet, you’ll be on your way to New York long before we even get a new lock for the dressing room door.”
“Why do men like Boris consider actress synonymous with harlot?”
Matilda twitched a boney shoulder.
“King David liked to sing and dance and no one thought he was immoral.” Her voice faltered. “Until Bathsheba came out on the roof…Maybe he’s not the best example—but he did sing and dance.”
Matilda laughed. “There are plenty of noble and worthy performers.”
“Tell that to my father, my mother, my grandmother, and my cousins.” Rita swallowed. “Tell that to men like Boris.”
“Your father and mother—although they might not have meant to—have hurt you far worse than the likes of Boris Kidrick.”
Rita had learned a lot from Matilda since she had joined the Rose Arbor Reparatory, but that was one lesson that she had learned several months ago when her parents shipped her to God-forsaken Seattle.
Actually, where they had sent her was far worse than Seattle. They had sent her to her grandmother’s horse ranch—seven long, bumpy, jaw jarring and teeth rattling miles from Seattle. Had they really expected her to stay on a horse ranch surrounded by acres of pastures filled with horses, cattle and cow-pies. Did they really think she would learn to behave like her hick grandmother and shovel out stables?
“I don’t know why you’re so anxious to return to their company.”
Rita leaned against Matilda’s shoulder. “I don’t want to go to New York to see my parents!”
Matilda’s lips twitched. “You want to be on the New York stage.”
“Yes! Of course!”
“And you somehow imagine that you will sing and dance right beneath your family’s nose and they will never notice?”
“I’m an actress—and a wizard with makeup and design. They’ll never know it’s me.”
Matilda lifted her eyebrow. “That will never work. Your family has already summoned a posse to look for you.”
“But they’re looking here—they won’t think to look in New York!”
Skepticism clouded Matilda’s expression. “If they are as influential and prominent as you say—”
Rita lifted her chin. “No one can stop a shooting star.”
Matilda smiled and wiped off her face cream. “Laws, child, have you no fear of heights?”
Christian Roberts sat at the gaming table, coins on his left side and a flask on his right. A pair of kings, accompanied by a six, a four and a whatchamacallit, swam in and out of his vision. What was that? He tried holding the cards a little further away and willed his eyes to focus on the whatchamacallit. Was it a queen—or that other card that he couldn’t remember the name of—or was it another king? He really hoped it was another king. He held his cards away from his chest, but after just half a second, he slapped them face down on the table. He didn’t trust his friends—not even his partner.
And he was pretty sure they weren’t his friends. Not really. They tolerated him because he had a steady stream of cash…and whiskey…and he liked a good game. A game with Kings. Not that he didn’t like the Queens. He didn’t even mind the whatchamacallits, when they came in pairs. Although one by his lonesome couldn’t do much good. He picked up his hand and tried to steady his gaze while an ox-like man pounded on the piano.
Christian threw the musician a frustrated glance. Maybe he could focus if that brute would stop filling the room with that awful sound. He looked around at the men sharing his table, trying to read them. No one else seemed to mind the racket coming from the piano in the corner.
“You in?” Percy asked.
He was definitely inside because the piano was inside. Never really ever seen a piano outside—unless it was on its way from one place to another. And yep, there were the bottles lining the shelves behind the bar. A wood floor. A stamped brass stamped ceiling. Four walls. Definitely inside. He nodded.
“Well?” Reynolds prompted.
Aw. The game. He was supposed to ante up. What did that even mean? What a funny expression. Sounded like auntie up…Christian tried to think of how his Aunt Margaret would respond if someone tried to ante up her. He snorted at the thought.
“What’s so funny?” Kidrick demanded.
Christian’s mind raced. He couldn’t admit that he was thinking of his Aunt Margaret. His attention flicked over the men surrounding him. They all looked so grim and serious, he doubted that any of them even had an aunt. Especially not like his Aunt Margaret who liked to bake tarts and give each pie a ridiculous name.
“Have you had a chance to take a bite out of Little Boy Louis,” she would ask him, referencing a blue berry tart. He chuckled low and deep.
“Damned French,” Kidrick muttered.
“I say now--” bad form cussing his nationality. Well, his mother’s nationality. His eyes welled as he thought of his mother. He blinked away his tears, because while he wasn’t sure whether or not the brutes at his table had aunts, he was very sure that they never cried. At least not over a pair of kings. Or a trio of kings. He still couldn’t tell but he did push in all of his pile of coins.
“You sure, Roberts?” Percy lifted an eyebrow at him.
Christian laid his cards on the table. And from the reaction, he guessed it was a trio of kings after all. He smiled as he scooped the pot into his bag, then stood and swagger-staggered toward the door.
“Hey! Roberts—you can’t just leave.” Reynolds called after him.
“You gotta give us a chance to win it back,” Kidrick said.
Christian looked at the stars shining through the window. He had to get away from the tavern’s smoke and stench. He paused at the open door. But first—he raised his hand to stop the calls of his playmates. They let out a collective sigh as Christian turned back to the room, but then groaned as Christian sat down at the piano, bumping hips with the brute at the keyboard.
“’Scuse me,” Christian mumbled. The pianist relinquished his seat as Christian poised his fingers over the keyboard and began to play Dickson’s “Land of Long Ago.” For just a second the ribald laughter hushed and only music filled the night as the piano cast a spell over the crowded and smoke filled room. He ended as abruptly as he had begun and pushed away from the instrument and out the door.
Rita literally danced when she heard the news. Her feet skipped, her toes pointed, her knees wanted to drop to the ground in worshipful thanksgiving, but she pirouetted instead.
“You won’t regret this!” she promised Ivan, stopping mid dance to hug him.
The craggy faced man smiled while the blonde beauty behind him mouthed, “Oh yes he will.”
But Rita wasn’t about to let Clarisse piddle in her pot of pure happiness. She had an all expense paid ticket out of Seattle. Her family would never think to follow the Rose Arbor troupe across the country. Think of all the cities she would get to see! When she had traveled before it had all been by rail, accompanied by her stiff, self-righteous cousin who never let her leave the safety of the sleeper car. But with the troupe they’d go from city to city and perform on the very best stages!
“Not so fast!” Ivan warned. “You have to prove to me you can do this.” He handed her a sheaf of music. “Come up with a dance for this.”
Rita studied the music, noting the eighth notes and basic time signature. She recognized the popular ballad and since she already knew the song and its message—choreographing a dance would be fairly simple. Behind Ivan, Clarisse smirked, making Rita wonder what sort of dance Clarisse had used for her audition piece.
“I want to see it tomorrow morning,” Ivan warned.
“I’ll be ready.” But she would need to practice, preferably with Poke, and far away from Clarisse’s spying eyes. She couldn’t let Clarisse sabotage this opportunity. She would need to come up with the dance on her own and then practice with Poke’s accompaniment just once…or maybe twice.
“We won’t leave for a couple of days,” Ivan told her, his voice full of laughter. “And you can only bring one trunk.”
“I wouldn’t care if I could only bring dancing shoes!”
“That would be interesting,” Ivan said.
“We’re not that kind of show,” Clarisse said, coming behind Ivan and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I told you—she’s not reparatory material.”
“We’re taking a chance on you,” Ivan told her, ignoring Clarisse. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of travel. You will, no doubt, find the reparatory demanding and challenging. That’s why I want to see if you can come up with an original dance overnight.”
“I love challenges! Challenges suit my nature,” Rita told him, flashing Ivan a smile and fighting the impulse to stick her tongue out at frowning Clarisse.
Rita pushed through the theater doors and found herself in the back alley. She needed to practice someplace far from Clarisse…some spacious, private place where Clarisse would never look. Her eyes landed on the outhouses. She wrinkled her nose as she drew closer to a small, smelly clearing, far from windows and prying eyes.
Christian exited the outhouse and caught a sudden chill. A skin-pricking sensation said he wasn’t alone. Animals. Possibly a red fox, a raccoon, skunk, or an opossum. “Hey-ho?” he called out. Only the night birds answered. He tightened his hand on his bag of gold. Something skittered in a nearby thicket, and a twig snapped. He watched the moonlight flicker through the boughs of a pine tree then followed the sound of falling feet.
What was dancing in the moonlight? A fairy? Her dark hair had come loose and swirled around spinning shoulders. Her delicate skin glowed beneath the stars and her body moved to music that only she could hear. Such a beautiful creature belonged deep in the woods, or in a valley of wildflowers, or on a gilded throne—she did not belong in a dusty clearing behind the privy with only alley cats as an audience. Unable to stop himself, he drew closer.
“Mon dieu qu'est ce que tu?”
Obviously startled, she stopped. “You’re French.”
Christian shook his head. “No, I am drunk.”
She studied him, as if assessing his potential danger. He tried to look harmless, which wasn’t difficult, since he was basically harmless. Unless he was mad.
“Do you always speak French when drunk?”
Christian shrugged. He wasn’t good at answering questions when he was drunk. He was much better with questions when he was sober. Although, he was capable of asking questions and he had asked one that she hadn’t answered.
“I asked my question first.”
“Well, it was silly question—anyone can see what I am.”
“You speak French.” He stepped closer and peered at her. With all that dark hair and her dark red lips, she looked like his mother. “Are you French?”
“No. Are you?”
“Partly.” He paused. “Don’t let me stop you.” He waved his hand at her. “Carry on.”
She scowled at him. “I’m not going to dance if you’re going to stand there and watch.”
“Why ever not?” He motioned toward the theater. “I assume you came from the theater, where you presumably dance for hundreds on the stage, so why would you not dance for me here?”
Her arms dangled at her side. “I no longer feel like dancing. You killed my mood.” She jabbed a finger in his face. “But I’m not going to let you spoil my happiness!”
“Of course, I would be devastated if I did.” He tilted his head to the side, smiling. “Do you always dance when you are happy?”
“Of course not. Although, I haven’t been this happy for a long time, so it’s hard to know.”
“Why are you so happy?” An unpleasant though occurred to him. “Are you in love?”
She shook her head.
“Good. I’m glad. Love can make you do regrettable things.”
“Have you been in love?”
Christian didn’t want to talk about love. He wanted to watch this girl dance. “Will you dance for me?”
“Will you dance with me?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m very rich.”
She laughed and the noise delighted him. He didn’t want her to stop, but after a few moments, she did.
“Why should that matter?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Damned if I know, but it usually seems to. Now, will you dance with me?” he repeated.
She shook her head.
“Can I walk you home?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him. She took his hand and led him to the theater’s back door.
“You live here?”
She pointed to the sky. “On the third floor.”
“Why are you so happy?”
She took a deep breath and told him of her plans to join the Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe.
“That’s not happy, that’s sad."
“Why would you say that?”
“Because this might be the only chance I’ll ever have to do this,” he said, before taking her in his arms and kissing her.