The Crofton Chronicles: Book One
Elizabethan actor Sebastian Hewel takes his bow at the proscenium only 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 his days as a leading lady are numbered, but with this last performance, he hopes to restore his family’s name and pay off his late father’s debts. Never mind the danger of losing his head should he be discovered.
He didn’t expect Anthony to be so charming and alluring—not to mention shrewd. While he applauds Sebastian’s plan, Anthony offers a mutually beneficial arrangement instead. Sebastian will need every drop of talent he has to survive with both his head and his heart intact, because this is the best part he’s ever had.
A Timeless Dreams title: While reaction to same-sex relationships throughout time and across cultures has not always been positive, these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma.
1st edition published by Dreamspinner Press, November 2012.
Winner in the 2013 Rainbow Awards.Sixth: Best LGBT Cover – Illustration
SEBASTIAN BOWED low, drinking in the applause. The audience clapped and whistled, their approval amplified by the round of the theater. He gathered up the folds of his dress and 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 theater as the other actors and the men who worked behind the scenes congratulated him on his performance—the final one for this run—until he finally made it to the cramped dressing room. The last of the other actors who shared the room were already on their way out. Their stage paint gone and dressed in their usual clothes, they were heading off to celebrate, and Sebastian assured them he’d join them just as soon as he’d shed his costume.
The cloying scent of rose oil hung heavily in the air, but it couldn’t mask the smell of London life that permeated through the bowels of the theater. 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 carelessly 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. “And 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 a message from his usually distant 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 honor-tarnishing heathen ways.”
Claire did not appear concerned by his words. “How would you like to be welcomed back into the family fold and also clear your father’s debts?”
“Honestly? I don’t care about my father’s debts or returning to the family fold.”
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, that 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’m merely the gray lamb of the family now. Bronwyn has taken up the mantle of black sheep.”
“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 covered her tracks well 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 wildly that 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.”
“You’ll just 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 churlish 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’d be stuck with her, since there’s no 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. “Bronwyn isn’t a particularly feminine girl. If I was being cruel, I could say that 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 dress as 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 your sister. 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 actually does. And if the rumors 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 that I portrayed Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“What rot! You will make a marvelous blushing bride, who unfortunately will be taken ill on her wedding night.”
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 that even the prostitutes look down on. And here I am, your way back to respectability. A way to wipe out your father’s debts and restore his good name.”
“And 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. “It was 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 just out of fancy, then there are many young bright things ready to take my place. And I’m up against 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. “So 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 didn’t know when his next meal would arrive or if he would be sleeping in a pigsty rather than a bed. “What time should I be at the town house tomorrow?”
Enjoyable read for historical romance fans who favor identity switches and non-Regency tales.
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