BACKSTAGE

Excerpt from The Seamstress Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2024)

With the crowd taking its time to thin out, Jo and Noah took the steps along the side of the stage, then ducked behind the curtain. Dimly lit by a few gas lamps mounted on the rough wooden walls, the backstage area was thick with the scent of sweat and stage makeup.

Pressing close to one another, actors chatted and laughed, their jubilation contagious. Taking in the scene, Jo felt a twinge of longing, remembering her more carefree days before she’d taken charge of the newspaper. Back then, she’d acted in theatricals and been part of similar opening night celebrations.

In the midst of the cast and crew, Will Storey, a surfman from the Point Adams Lifesaving Station and sweetheart of Jo’s friend Clara Shelton, hoisted a bottle of champagne, splashing it into the glasses thrust before him.

“To Mr. Ross,” one of the actors said, raising his glass.

A middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye, the theatre’s owner raised his glass too. “And to our talented Astorians,” he said. “San Francisco has nothing on us.”

All around, glasses clinked.

Jo craned her neck, searching for Gus and Amity. “There they are.” She nodded toward the edge of the circle, where the couple stood hand in hand beside a jumble of props and costumes waiting to be sorted and put away.

So like Gus, she thought as she and Noah made their way toward them, shunning attention though he was the show’s star.

“Oh no,” he said as they approached. “It’s the critic, come to retract her praise.

“Never.” Jo kissed his cheek. “I didn’t think you could do any better than you did at last night’s rehearsal, but clearly I was wrong.”

Noah clapped his back. “Well done, my man.”

“And the costumes,” Jo said. “You’ve made marvelous work of a task thrust on you at the last minute, Amity.”

“I had help, you know,” Amity said. “Although there was one snag, right before the curtain went up, and I…”

Her voice trailed off as from the far end of the curtain, a boy of perhaps eight or nine years rushed toward them. He had a lean, active build, a smattering of freckles across his nose, and a mop of unruly brown hair that fell into his eyes as he rather skidded to a stop in front of Gus. Swiping his hair back, he held out a program. “May I have your autograph, sir?”

“Well, now.” Gus’s smile broadened. “I suppose you may, though I’ll need something to write with.”

“I’ve a pencil.” As a reporter, Jo always carried one. She uncinched her reticule and reached inside for it.

At the same time, the boy bounded off toward a small table near the pile of props and snatched up a fountain pen. Rushing back, he handed it to Gus. “Here you go, sir.”

“Quite the go-getter, are you?” He and Amity exchanged bemused glances. “What’s your name, lad?”

The boy straightened. “Patrick, sir.”

Gus scribbled across the front of the program. To Patrick, with highest regards. Gus Leighton.

Leaning toward Jo, Noah whispered, “Do we think Patrick has parents? He seems to have materialized out of thin air.”

Gus handed back the program. Squinting at what Gus had written, Patrick mouthed the words. “With highest regards,” he said aloud. “Gosh. Thanks, Mr. Leighton.” He squared his shoulders. “Guess where I’m headed?”

“Can’t think where that would be,” Gus said.

“Alaska. There’s bears there, you know. And gold. Lots of gold. Only Daniel says—"

“Patrick.” From the spot where the lad had come in, a woman bustled toward them. Though she looked to be not much older than Jo, she was plainly dressed for an evening at the theatre, perhaps having taken advantage of the balcony seats that Mr. Ross offered at reduced rates. Her dark hair was pulled back in a simple bun, with wisps of it framing her face. Her features were attractive, but her emerald eyes, while striking, also bespoke weariness.

She grabbed the boy by the hand. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” There was a melodic lilt to her words, reminding Jo of the way Clara Shelton’s mother spoke.

“But you said I’d get to meet Mr. Leighton,” Patrick said.

“I didn’t say meet him right this minute, did I?” The woman sighed. “Now you’ve rushed off and ruined everything, as usual.”

Lowering his head, Patrick scuffed the wooden floor with the toe of his boot. “Sorry, Aunt Margaret.”

“There’s no harm done, Ma’am,” Amity said.

Beside her, Gus turned pale. “Margaret,” he said dully. “Margaret Callahan.”

Margaret’s eyes flashed. “It’s Margaret O’Leary now.” She held his gaze a moment, then turned to the boy. “Patrick, run along to Daniel.” She nodded toward the dark figure of a man waiting in the wings. “I need to have a word with Mr. Leighton.”

The boy did as he was told, retreating with little sign of his former exuberance. Margaret O’Leary stepped forward to face Gus. Biting her lip, Amity reached for his hand.

“Thought you’d rid yourself of us Callahans, didn’t you?” The weariness in Margaret’s eyes shifted to something more akin to fierceness. “It weren’t enough that you killed Da. You had to drive us off the farm too. Drive us out of the country.”

from The Seamstress Secret: Book Four of The Tidewater Chronicles

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