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“Pardon me, Lord Hawksridge. It certainly is busy tonight.”
Miles Weston nodded stiffly to the gentleman who passed to his left. Busy was an understatement, what a bloody crush. He pulled his companion closer, wrapping his arm around her shoulder to offer some buffer from the crowd around them. Glancing down to assess her level of discomfort he found her grinning from ear to ear. Of course. Susanna Ashby would not be afraid of the crowd of spectators flowing into Astley’s Theatre. She simply saw everything as an adventure.
She looked up at him, her eyes shining with excitement. “It must be a fantastic show to have drawn such a crowd.”
In the next moment she was jostled by a large woman swathed in red silk. Susanna stumbled against him. Miles scowled at the woman who didn’t even notice as she shoved the next person in front of her out of the way. He leaned down to speak into Susanna’s ear. “Follow your father, the stairs are just up ahead.”
Ahead of them Lord Dearborn escorted his wife to the left toward a grand staircase that led up to the private boxes. Miles and Susanna followed close behind. Once they all gained the red carpeted staircase, they were free of the crowd that flooded into the main Orchestra seating. Miles took in a deep breath and released his hold on Susanna. He straightened his sleeves one at a time and smoothed the front of his jacket.
“Oh my, that was quite the crush. Even worse than at Lady Arnold’s annual ball.” Lady Dearborn raised her handkerchief to her brow.
“It is open seating at the Orchestra level. That is, there is no seat assignment, which is why there is such a stampede to obtain a seat in front. And why I procured us a private box,” Miles replied. “This way.” He pointed down the corridor.
Lord Dearborn took his wife’s elbow and they started down the hallway.
He turned to Susanna. “You all right?”
“Yes, of course. I will admit it was a bit hairy there for a moment. Someone squeezed my backside quite inappropriately.”
“What? Who?” Miles turned to scan the crowd below them with a scowl. Unbelievable!
Susanna’s laughter rang out. “You should see your face. I’m just teasing. No one would dare to touch me with such a fierce-looking giant by my side.”
Miles swung back to face her and his breath caught. Susanna’s honey-brown eyes twinkled with mirth. Her lips turned up in a devilish grin as she laughed at his expense, which she often did. There was nothing she liked more than to tease him. And he always forgave her jests because secretly he loved to see her smile. Not that he would ever admit it to Susanna. He frowned disapprovingly for her benefit. “Come on, you, let’s not get behind.” Miles winged out an elbow.
She laid her hand on his arm and they followed her parents to the private box. As they walked through the thick velvet curtains into the box, Susanna gasped in delight. She dropped his arm and rushed to the railing. He had to admit that Astley’s Theatre was as ornate as any opera house in London. A massive chandelier hung from the center of a painted ceiling. Below was the ring where the show took place. Seats at the Orchestra level were placed around the ring so all the guests would have a good view. At one end of the theater red velvet curtains framed a stage. Miles wondered what part of the show would take place on a traditional stage. He turned to Susanna. “I thought this show involved horses?”
“Yes, the show is a theatrical reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo. It takes quite a bit of artistic license of course. But I believe the stage is used for the battle scenes. I heard there is real cannon fire.”
“That cannot be safe inside.” Miles raised his eyebrows. What sort of show had he purchased tickets for?
“I am here to enjoy the riding. Mr. Maddox took over ownership of the theater last year. He only hires the best riders for his show. Maddox is famous for his ability to do all sorts of tricks on a horse’s bare back. This I have to see!”
Her expression was bright with anticipation and she practically vibrated as she bounced on her toes. He wished to reach out and grab hold of her hand just to be a part of her excitement, to share in even a small portion of the passion for life that she seemed to live with every day. Instead, his sense of self-preservation made him take a step back. Susanna was dangerous and all too tempting. He turned to her parents, who were settling into the padded seats in the second row of four seats.
“Thank you so much for inviting us tonight, Lord Hawksridge.” Lady Dearborn smiled.
Miles gave a nod. “Lady Susanna has spoken about this show often. I thought she would enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will,” Susanna said from his elbow. “I do so appreciate your thoughtfulness.” She sat and arranged her emerald-green skirts. The candlelight set her auburn hair shining to a fiery red. The vibrant hue of her hair a reflection of her vibrant personality. She smiled up at him and her beauty struck him right in the center of his chest. Her long delicate nose sat perfectly centered between two high cheekbones. Her eyes wide and fringed in dark-blonde lashes were evenly spaced under finely arched eyebrows. But despite the perfect symmetry of her features, it was the always present gleam of laughter in her eye that was the most attractive.
She patted the seat next to her. “Sit, Hawksridge. I won’t bite.”
A loud boom followed by smoke drew their attention to the stage. From the smoke emerged a tall man dressed as a general. He raised his hands in the air. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Battle of Waterloo!”
Behind him, a dozen men on horses emerged from the wings, swords drawn. Then a white mare trotted in front of the stage and the announcer performed a handspring and deftly jumped from the edge of the stage onto the horse’s back landing backward in the saddle. The horse continued to trot toward the center ring as its rider looked dramatically around as though he couldn’t fathom why he was riding backward. The audience roared with laughter.
The man swung a leg over the horse’s hindquarters lightning quick and with one hand gripping the pommel of the saddle and one foot in a stirrup he rode hanging off the side of the horse tipping his hat to the audience as they made a full circle around the ring.
Next to Miles, Susanna gave up all pretense of calm and scooted forward to lean her elbows onto the balustrade in front of them. Her mouth formed an O as the performer jumped to the ground and using both feet launched himself back into the saddle. “Can you believe it?” Susanna exclaimed. “Amazing!”
Miles chuckled and settled into his seat to enjoy the show. His gaze never left Susanna’s face.
I enjoyed meeting you and your wife at Astley’s Theatre last week when my parents and I were invited by your employer Mr. Maddox to dine with the troupe. I have heard many good reviews of your skills as a riding instructor from acquaintances of mine. I wish to engage you for lessons. To be quite clear, I am already an accomplished rider but since I attended the performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre I have become entranced with idea of learning to trick ride. Your performance in the Battle of Waterloo was inspiring and I believe you would be the perfect instructor to teach me these high-level skills. Please make an appointment to discuss at your earliest convenience.
Lady Susanna Ashby
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