Her nakedness did not bother her one bit. The route was dark and warm, and those she passed so caught up in their own work that none noticed her bare backside as she trod steadily, swiftly through the rabbit warren of backstage.
She tried to think logically of where he would have headed. They had performed here once or twice before, and she knew he sometimes liked to take a moment or two to himself, step out into the stagnant city air and smoke away his nerves. And she faltered as she approached the service doors to the cramped alleyway behind the theatre, unsure of who he might be with. She could not be sure the clutches of smokers and nervous ingénues would be as dismissive of her nakedness as the crewmen had been so far.
But as she stood, she caught the scent of his hair oil and tobacco – and perhaps it was her imagine, after all such scents cannot simply linger until someone desires to encounter them, but it was enough to make her turn away from the draughty walkway leading to the back doors.
Deeper backstage the rush of bodies was thicker, and she steeled herself for jeers, or to be scooped up and labelled mad, or a harlot. To be bundled out of the theatre and replaced by a chorus girl who would giggle and skip and misunderstand the entire act, and anger flared inside her at this imagined slight against the man she loved.
She found him amongst a tangle of ropes and plaster dust, in an alcove in the backest back of the stage, smoking and muttering to himself, his face turned to the wall.
“My Christ she’s beautiful, the things I would do to her. To touch her. How could I-How could I?” He drew on his cigarette deeply, angrily and discarded the butt into the shadows around him, his head sinking into his hands.
“I could have told her I loved her ten years ago. When I was young, instead of taking those years of her life selfishly. I’d have asked her to marry me that day, that hour. The first moment I saw her kind and clever face. Instead I’ve been a fool.”
Miriam touched his shoulder lightly.
“I have found you; how should I claim my prize?”
At her voice he turned, but his gaze remained upon the floor.
“You should leave me to my shame, Miriam.”
“And why should I do that, Mr Hart?”
“Your feet are bare.”
“My feet are the very least of my worries presently.”
She meant him. She meant her true and naked body hidden from public view only by swags and planks. But above all, she meant him.
Slowly, his eyeline travelled upwards, past her ankles, calves, knees. When he came to the soft flesh of her belly, he faltered, aware of the dark thatch of hair just below it.
“I hadn’t time to dress. I worried.”
At last he allowed himself to take in the rest of her, and drank in her quiet magic. She watched his cheeks colour, his mouth twitch to an almost-smile.
“You’ll catch a chill.” he said at length, rising to stand beside her.
“I am aflame, incandescent.” she whispered. “I could melt a block of ice with the slightest touch.”
He raised his hand and smoothed it across her brow. Their first intimacy. In spite of her bodily combustion, her heart shook, and her body followed suit.
“Are you quite sure of that?” Around them, the theatre bristled and clattered; his voice too, was low. and yet they could hear one another clearly.
He leaned and removed his jacket, and put it about her shoulders; in so doing, he brought her naked body closer to his own. “I cannot have my star taking ill.”
She felt him reaching into his jacket pocket; felt his fingers against her bare thigh as he grasped the chain of his watch and took it out. Holding it to the light, he tilted his head.
“Six fifteen. Hours before we tread the boards. Perhaps we ought to go back to the dressing room.”
He helped her settle the coat more comfortably about her shoulders, and buttoned it over her breasts, his fingers making only the slightest contact with the inviting skin beneath. She found it hard to stop herself falling against his touch, over and over. The final button was over her stomach – and some bewitching boldness made her reach for his hand, and draw it beneath the fine silk to her mound.
“To Venus.” she toasted the dusty room with her provocation and raised her body upwards to kiss him; a kiss she had waited almost a third of her life to take.