In the crowd leaving the final performance of Senza Amore no one notices another opulently dressed man, even when he slips into spaces where he should not be. He pauses for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light in a narrow room dominated by huge rolls of fading backdrops.
“Setzer!” a chorus girl scolds him, hitting him with her fan. “You may as well give those flowers to me. She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Why Antoinette, shouldn’t we let the lady herself be the judge of that?” Setzer asks, but the girl has already left him behind. He wends his way through a clutter of crates, props, and performers in various states of undress, to a particular private dressing room. He raps on the door. The muffled voices inside are suddenly silenced, and the door cracked.
“Mister Gabbiani,” the mustachioed face of the Impresario says through the crack. “This is hardly the time for—“
“Let him in,” a female voice commands.
The door is opened and Setzer is a glimpse of his quarry, seated at her vanity in a voluminous gown of creamy silk, and her hair piled atop her head in ornate curls. The familiar scents of perfume and powder cause his heart rate to rise in anticipation.
“Leave us,” the lady says, continuing to remove pins from her hair without bothering to look back at the two men in her dressing room.
“But Maria, it is barely tolerable that—“
“Leave us,” she repeats.
The Impresario nods once and turns to leave without comment, though he does give Setzer a pointed frown as he closes the door behind him.
“Oh, Maria,” Setzer says, savoring her name on his tongue.
Maria pulls a comb from her hair. She glances at him through the mirror but does not turn to face him.
“The roses. You need not have.”
“They were cut at the peak of their lives as tributes to your beauty. Sacrifices for a goddess. You could give them a little regard. You won’t allow me to give anything else.”
“’Give?’” she scoffs. “Put them over there,” she waves at a corner of the room, where half a dozen other flower arrangements are scattered on a table, forgotten. He is not her only worshipper, he thinks as he lays his roses among their fellows, but he is the only one in her dressing room.
“You were splendid tonight,” Setzer says.
She does not reply or even turn to look at him, but he sees the smallest of smiles on her painted face. He removes his coat, pulls up a chair, and watches her as she washes away her makeup. He isn’t sure whether the dramatic stage makeup or her unpainted face excite him more. Both are required, he supposes. The peeling away of layers and pretenses. The dramatic lines of the stage melt into something softer, like watching a porcelain doll turn into a woman. He feels a pull in his heart as he looks at her. So few are privileged to see her like this.
“Come away with me,” he says.
“You know I won’t.”
“Why?” he asks softly.
“My only love is the stage,” she says with a self-mocking smile.
“You do love it, don’t you?” he says as he approaches her languidly. “The attention? The applause? The worship.”
He bends to one knee beside her, and takes her hand.
“Allow me to worship you,” he begs, and kisses her ring finger. Still she does not look at him, but she has paused in her toilette, and does not stop him.
He kisses her wrist, and up her arm until his lips encounter the lace of her gown. Still, she says nothing, but offers a small encouragement by pushing away from her mirror to give him room.
“Do you want me to kiss your feet? Is that the worship my goddess requires?”
He drops to both knees now, and removes one embroidered silken slipper. He presses his lips to her stockinged foot. Finally, she is looking down at him, watching. She pulls up her skirts, careful to reveal only a peek of one bare thigh, and he honors the silent request, unhitching the stocking from her garter and pulling it down ever so slowly to reveal soft, bare flesh.
He kisses her now-bare foot again, caresses her calf and kisses the soft skin of the inside of her thigh. She says nothing and makes no move to touch him, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees her in her mirror, eyes hooded, one hand clasped to her breast, watching him intently.
“My dear, I understand your reservations,” Setzer warns as he removes her other shoe and stocking. “But if you don’t stop me soon I am going to ravish you.”
“Oh you wicked man, I could beg you to.”
“Then do it,” Setzer says with a thrill of pleasure.
“I would risk too much.”
“Luck favors me,” he lies.
“Favors you, but not I,” she says. “Having you in here is a scandal and therefore good for business, actually taking you as a lover is another matter entirely. Convince me?” she fairly pouts.
“Mmmm,” he agrees, and crawls to his feet to slink behind her. He caresses the long, graceful angle of her neck and pulls the last few pins from her hair, letting it fall in soft blonde waves he buries his hands in as he kisses her hairline, her cheek, her neck.
He can feel her breath coming faster now, and she lets out a small moan as he kisses behind her ear. He watches the pair of them in the mirror. He isn’t fond of his own reflection. He doesn’t like the reminder of the crash in the scars on his face, but he is fond of his pale hands on her rosy flesh. Her breasts are soft and generous, and the neckline of her gown dips low. He tries to reach underneath her dress but is frustrated by the tight fabric. He runs his hands down her back but can’t find any clasps.
“How do you take this off?” he asks desperately.
“Behind the lace on the left,” she gasps, and stands to give him access. He looses the buttons carefully, fighting the urge to pop them. He is painfully eager but still respectful of fine clothing.
She finally steps out of the gown, nude before him except for corset and panties. They stare at each other for a moment. Her pupils are wide with desire and the low lamplight, and he has a moment’s impression that he is about to be devoured before she advances on him, shoving him to the nearest wall and claiming his mouth with hers. In her bare feet, she only an inch or so shorter than he, and when he kicks off his boots, they are of a height. It occurs to him that this desperate clash is the first time they’ve kissed.
They are all a tangle, she messily undoing his buttons, biting at his neck, pulling at his hair, he unhooking the clasps of her corset. His arousal meets a dizzying height as her breasts press against his bare chest. She slows for a moment, makes her kiss deep, sweet, wet, and steps back. Her fingers trail the scars that continue down his chest, but makes not comment on them. She lips her lips, eager, but also hesitant. It occurs to Setzer that Maria doesn’t know exactly what to do from here.
“The floor, or…standing?” Setzer asks.
Maria frowns at the floor in disgust.
“Right. Lean in front of the mirror,” he says, tilting his head toward it. “I want to watch you.”
She takes the cue to pull down her panties, slowly, twisting her body coquettishly with the motion, watching him all the while, gauging his reaction. He drinks her in as he removes his breeches. Nude, she is a wholly different creature than she was in her gown and stage makeup, but still wholly lovely, rosey lamplight kind to an already beautiful face. They kiss again, and he turns her around and guides her to the mirror. She plants her palms on the vanity and waits, suddenly awkward. Has she never done this before? He wonders.
He caresses her butt and thighs, and slides a hand between her legs. She is deliciously wet. The time he took teasing her paid off.
He guides himself into her, pushing her back downward gently to make the angles right. She is almost painfully tight, and Setzer wonders again whether this is her first time coupling with a man. Her eyes, reflected in the mirror, are squeezed shut, whether from pain or pleasure or both he cannot say. His first slow, tentative movements elicit a low moan, and he can’t help himself, the sound is so unmistakably La Maria, twinkling star of the Jidoor opera house, that he laughs.
“Don’t laugh at me, you wretch—oh. Oooooh.”
He doesn’t have the breath or the sense to explain. He can only continue sliding in and out of her, drinking in the sight of her backside before him and her frontside in the mirror, her soft curves bouncing as his pace quickens.
The structures of his mind collapse into an animal rhythm, searching hands, the soft sound of this belle's voice as he pushes into her, driving them both toward climax. Can anyone outside hear her? The thought entices him, and he groans with it himself. Pleasure pulls him over the edge, and he shudders with the force of it.
He pulls out of her carefully, and pulls her to stand, leaning into her and breathing heavily into her neck. Her breath is coming quickly, but not quickly or frantically enough for him to be sure she has climaxed herself. He cups her breast, teasing the nipple with his thumb as his breath slows. He could stop here and sink into a stupor of self-satisfied contentment, but this is their first time together, and he cannot leave her with any doubts that succumbing to his temptation was worth it.
“Sit,” he says huskily.
She turns to look at him questioningly. Her hair is mussed, and her cheeks and lips are every bit as rosy as her makeup had made them only minutes ago. He pulls her into another kiss, deep and languorous.
“Sit,” he says as they pull apart. “I'm not done with you yet.”
She does as told, and sits at her upholstered vanity stool. He drops to his knees in front of her, and pushes her thighs apart.
“What?” she asks with slight alarm, and Setzer smiles to himself, because he is good at this art and she seems unaware of its very existence. He pulls himself close, putting one hand at her waist and one on her thigh. He takes the first tentative licks of her and groans at the feel and taste of her against his tongue. His cock begins to stiffen again.
Maria starts. Setzer stops and looks up at her face, smirking.
“Are you well, madame?”
She nods hurriedly, wide-eyed.
“Then may I be allowed to continue my worship?”
With this, her startled manner relaxes and her eyes hood. “You may,” she says imperiously.
Setzer sets back to his work, burying his face in her. She moans, not the weak, breathy sounds she made when they coupled, but louder, more raw and helpless. She bites the flesh between her thumb and forefinger, trying to stifle herself. Her other hand lands in his hair, alternately caressing his scalp and pulling as he pushes her beyond boundaries of pleasure he is now certain that she has never crossed.
Tender as she is from their coupling, he does not have to work long before her thighs are shuddering against him and she seems to be struggling to breathe at all. He continues, unrelenting, as her body is racked with waves of pleasure, and she cries out, blurring the line between a moan and a scream. He pulls away from her finally, resting his hands on her thighs.
They stare at one another for a long moment. She cups his cheek.
“Oh, you devil,” she says.
They dress in silence. Setzer doesn't dare speak, lest he frighten his quarry away forever, but helps her button her dress, less elaborate but no less flattering than her stage clothes.
“When will I see you again?” he finally ventures as she rearranges her hair at the mirror.
She does not answer for a long time as she pins her hair in place.
“The Dream Oath opens in three weeks,” she says without looking at him.
“Three weeks?” That was such a long time! He was resisting the temptation to rip her out of her bodice now.
“Rehearsals will be grueling,” she says. “Florian has written a part just for me. Named her after me and everything.”
“The starring role, I hope?”
“Of course,” she says, her lips curling into a smile. “And just think, opening night? All those people? I know you love to make a scene.”
He pulls her into his arms as she stands.
“I'll be sure to write a fitting one, then.”