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The Actor and the Earl

The Crofton Chronicles (Book One)

by Rebecca Cohen

The Actor and the Earl - Rebecca Cohen - The Crofton Chronicles
Editions:Kindle - Second Edition: $ 3.99 USD
ISBN: B07ZP8HDFP
Pages: 230

Elizabethan actor Sebastian Hewel is about to embark on the role of a lifetime. When his twin sister, Bronwyn, reneges on the arrangement to marry Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, Sebastian reluctantly takes her place. At nineteen, Sebastian knows he is getting too old for the female leads, and the male ones are hard to come by. He might feel like he’s in one of Master Shakespeare’s plays, but with his performance as Lady Crofton, he hopes to pay off his late father’s debts. Never mind the danger of losing his head should he be discovered.

Sebastian didn’t expect Anthony to be so attractive and alluring—not to mention shrewd. Anthony sees through the ruse, but not being the type of man to care if his lovers wear a gown or a doublet, he is charmed by Sebastian, and offers a mutually beneficial alternative. Fool Anthony’s fellow nobles and court in an extravagant wedding, then retire to Crofton Hall to play Anthony’s beloved wife for a year or two, after which the young, but sickly, Lady Crofton will succumb to a fever, and Sebastian can return to his normal life.

Sebastian will need every drop of his acting talents to survive with both his head and his heart intact.

Third edition – previous editions published by Dreamspinner Press

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

 

Sebastian bowed low, drinking in the applause. The audience clapped and whistled, their approval amplified by the round of the theatre. Gathering up the folds of his dress, he curtseyed to Philip, who’d played Benedick to his Beatrice. Philip took his hand and kissed it, and the Swan’s crowd showed its appreciation of their on-stage chemistry with even louder cheers. With a smile so wide his cheeks ached, he bowed once more and departed stage right, into the wings.

Sebastian weaved through the rat runs of the theatre, not stopping to bathe in the adulations for his performance—the last for this run. Finally, he reached the cramped dressing room, where the last of the other actors who shared the room were already on their way out. Their stage paint gone and dressed in their own clothes, they were off to celebrate, and Sebastian assured them he’d join them just as soon as he’d shed his costume.

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The cloying scent of rose oil hung heavily in the air, but it couldn’t mask the smell of London life that permeated the bowels of the theatre. Even the romance of the stage couldn’t obscure the stench of England’s busiest city. He pulled off his periwig and dropped the mass of black ringlets to the right of the mirror on the dressing table. Next, he removed the dress, followed by the hateful bone-squeezing corset, both cast aside over the back of an empty chair.

Candles, scattered over every available surface, provided enough light to remove the thick layer of white that covered his face and neck, which he wiped away with clean rags and cold water as he sat in front of the mirror. Sebastian ran his fingers through his greasy black hair and grimaced at his reflection. Unfortunately, his own pale face wasn’t the only one looking back.

“Cousin Claire,” he said to the young woman standing behind him. She smiled, but the sentiment didn’t reach her eyes. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“My father sent me to talk to you.”

Sebastian groaned at the mention of Sir Francis Haven; he knew any message from his uncle was not going to be for his benefit. “What does he want? I distinctly remember him telling me not to darken his door again if I insisted on engaging in my honour-tarnishing heathen ways.”

Claire did not appear concerned by his words. “How would you like to be welcomed back into the family fold and clear your father’s debts?”

“Honestly? Why should I care about my father’s debts or returning to a family fold full of vipers?”

Claire stroked the skirt of her dress, pretending to smooth out an imaginary crease. “Really, Sebastian, I’ve known you since you were a babe in arms—you don’t mean that.”

He sighed, threw the rag onto the dressing table in front of him, and turned to face Claire. “Let us say, for argument’s sake, I want to appease your miserable sire. What does he want me to do?”

“Bronwyn has gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean by ‘gone’?”

Claire bit her bottom lip, taking a moment to carefully choose her words. “Your errant twin sister has reneged on an agreement she made with my father and has run off to Kent with Jeremiah, the blacksmith’s son.”

Sebastian laughed, both at his sister’s actions and Claire’s obvious discomfort. “Oh, I see,” he said, smirking. “I am merely a bruised fruit, now Bronwyn has taken up the mantle of rotten apple.”

“Yes, very witty, Sebastian. But it does not help the situation.”

“It is hardly the end of the world, Cousin. Can you not leave her alone to be happy?”

“Happy? By what notion has she earned happiness? Bronwyn was wily enough that we had trouble finding her, but if it becomes common knowledge, her disappearance would cause the tongues of London’s gossipmongers to wag so fiercely the family will be a laughingstock.”

“I doubt anyone would care about the actions of the daughter of a long-dead naval captain.” Sebastian tried his best to stop smiling but couldn’t completely manage it. “I am sure it is a very worrying time for you all, but you know where she is, and I assume she is safe, so I cannot see what the problem is.”

“The problem is she was supposed to meet her intended for the first time tomorrow, during supper at the family’s London town house.”

“Then you’ll have to inform the gentleman of the lucky escape he has unwittingly had. Although I understand now why you are concerned that she has disappeared, and it has nothing to do with courtly gossip.”

“The church is reserved for three days’ time,” she continued, ignoring Sebastian’s comment. “This was meant to be the way for the Hewels to repay their debt to my father, Sebastian. The earl has conferred a very generous gift to secure their union, and my father does not wish to give it back.”

“Gift? Who would give us money to marry Bronwyn? I was convinced we would be stuck with her, since her plainness of face and sharp tongue would make a match difficult, even if there had money left from my father’s estate for her dowry.”

“Lord Crofton has been most generous.”

“That is because he has not met Bronwyn, or he would’ve sewn shut his purse.”

Claire’s eyes narrowed. “You should not be so flippant.”

“Claire, as moved as I am by your father’s misfortune to lose the money, I still fail to see my part in the drama.”

Leaning over, Claire picked up the periwig from in front of the mirror. “As you said, Bronwyn isn’t a particularly feminine girl. If I were to be cruel, I could say she looked little better than a man in a dress.”

“Claire, you’d better not be suggesting what I think you’re suggesting.”

“And it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve masqueraded as your sister, would it? I recall you winning several wagers that you could take the place of your sister and not be discovered. One of which resulted in a black eye for a delivery boy.”

Sebastian snatched back his periwig. “That was years ago.”

Claire laughed. “Don’t think for one minute that because you have grown older you look less like her. You’ve still got the same high cheekbones and pretty green eyes.”

“That is beside the point.”

“I think it is exactly the point, Sebastian. Just think of it as another acting job.”

Sebastian scowled at her, but she didn’t appear even slightly perturbed. “No! Absolutely not.”

“Oh, come now. I saw your performance tonight. You make a more convincing woman than Bronwyn does. And if the rumours at court are true about Lord Crofton, I doubt he’d object even if our ruse was discovered.”

“What do you mean if he finds out? I’m sure on my so-called wedding night he’d soon discover my decidedly unfeminine attributes.”

“Do you have that little faith in us? We have everything planned down to the smallest detail.” Sebastian rolled his eyes, and Claire smacked him. “A little faith goes a long way, Cousin.”

“I’m sorry, Claire, but this is sounding more ridiculous than some of the plays I’ve been in, and let me remind you I portrayed Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“What rot! You will make a marvellous blushing bride, who unfortunately will be taken ill on her wedding night. Such a cruel twist of fate for our dear maiden.”

Sebastian dropped his head into his hands. “Please tell me you’ve not convinced some charlatan physician into your ridiculous scheming.”

“I know you are less than fond of the healing arts, but can you at least agree to be amicable?”

“You are forgetting, Cousin,” Sebastian said, bristling, “that I have not agreed to anything.”

Claire cocked her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. “But you will do it, won’t you, Sebastian? As much as you claim to like this absurd life of yours, you are at any moment one slip from the gutter, in a job even the prostitutes look down on. Here I am, your way back to respectability. A way to wipe out your father’s debts and restore his good name.”

“What use have I for respectability—especially as the way you think I could earn it would be by the most unrespectable of means?”

Claire played with a ringlet of her dark hair. “It is odd, don’t you think, that you still find yourself cast as a woman? I mean, by now you should be the hero or the amorous male lead.”

Sebastian did not like the way Claire’s words echoed his own thoughts, but he was damned if he would admit it. “Beatrice is a challenging role—a great role. Not something I would have refused—”

“But surely you’d have preferred to have played Benedick or Claudio over the aging maiden?”

“Beatrice is not one of Master Shakespeare’s fickle heroines. She is strong, brave—”

“But still a woman.” Claire’s eyes sparkled, and Sebastian knew she had seen through his protests.

“I am but a few months away from twenty,” he said as he looked down at the periwig that lay useless in his hands. “If I were to refuse a role out of fancy, then there are many young bright things ready to take my place. There are older actors with greater experience for the male characters. Believe me, it is better to play a female role while I still can than to be relegated to the chorus.”

Claire laid a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder, and he raised his eyes to meet hers in the mirror, knowing exactly where the conversation was going. “You are lucky, then, because here I am, offering you a way to escape such a terrible fate as being just a blurred face in a crowd scene. What do you say, Cousin? Will you play your sister?”

There really was only one answer he could give. An actor’s life was not so wonderful. At times, he hadn’t known when his next meal would come from or if he would be sleeping in a pigsty rather than a bed. “At what hour should I be at the town house tomorrow?”

COLLAPSE

About the Author

REBECCA COHEN spends her days dreaming of a living in a Tudor manor house, or a Georgian mansion. Alas, the closest she comes to this is through her characters in her historical romance novels. She also dreams of intergalactic adventures and fantasy realms, but because she’s not yet got her space or dimensional travel plans finalised, she lives happily in leafy Hertfordshire, England, with her husband and young son. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and sloe gin with lemon tonic in the other.

First published in 2011, Rebecca primarily writes gay romance but in many sub-genres (historical, sci fi, fantasy, contemporary), and she simply can’t bear not to follow a story even if it is set in a different time, space or reality.


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