Rudy stood in shadows, his bicycle abandoned in the alleyway. A flickering gaslight on the corner etched the outline of his narrow shape and the mass of dark hair above his brows. He clenched his teeth to maintain his nerve. His hands dug deeply into his pockets. He didn't trust them loose. They might reach out to her, give him away. He tried to tilt his head the way Gus Brunner did so easily, chin up, eyes peering lazily out from beneath lowered lids, but he had none of the remoteness that seemed to come naturally to Gus. Rudy's eyes glittered in the lamplight, black coals framed in long lashes.
The crowds moved in surges, small groups circling each other, the men in top hats and satin lined capes, the women in whispering silks and feathers. They called back and forth, recognizing friends, hurrying toward carriages, shouting names of destinations, cheerfully demanding promises to meet at Kinsley's or Palmer House.
Most of them were gone, the street emptied of carriages, when she emerged, surrounded by four gentlemen in dark evening wear.
She was a candle flame in their center, her red-gold mass of curls tumbling beneath her high feathered hat, her bodice foaming with lace ruffles beneath her diamond collar and across the swell of her breasts. Her waist was so narrow he could imagine spanning his hands around it. Her skirt billowed in cloud like draperies that hinted at the shape of her hips, the length of her legs, before swirling behind her and up into the layered bustle.
Above the street smells of horses and lanterns wafted a heavy sweetness of her perfume. Rudy pinned his hands more firmly in his pockets, but his feet moved without his permission, a step toward her, and his mouth went slack with the sight of her.
His mind screamed, "Caroline."
His mouth whispered it.
She turned, barely, her head moving above the diamond collar, her eyes swinging more rapidly.
Had she heard him? He thought he would die. Had he said her name aloud? Had he dared to? And if the gentlemen heard him, what would they do to him?
But the gentlemen moved forward, outbidding each other as they raised their hands to summon the carriage, to open the door, to sweep and gesture around her as though each owned her.
Over their shoulders her glance returned to Rudy, her lids lowered almost not at all, but her mouth moved in a secret smile and he knew that she had seen him.
She always saw him.
One of the men placed his hand at her waist to help her into the carriage and Rudy imagined the way that straight spine felt beneath the white silk.
Long after the carriage rattled away, he pressed himself against the dry bricks of the theater's alley wall, still warm from the day's heat, and ran his damp palms down his trousers to dry them, and wondered what it would be like to touch her, the crisp hair, the silk skin, the soft mouth.
He knew that she was the Mrs. Leslie Carter of the trial of six years earlier, something that had happened when he was a boy and made her a famous name, but he didn't care and never asked anyone about her past. Today she was Mrs. Leslie Carter of the stage, a presence so blinding that when she swept toward the footlights, the audience and theater and stage and other actors disappeared and all Rudy saw was Mrs. Leslie Carter.
He went to her performances as often as he had the price of admission.
Whether he attended the performance or not, he always waited afterward to see her emerge. Thinking of her made his body ache and his mind empty and sometimes he even seemed to go deaf and blind for a few moments. When the aching began to recede, he thought her name, Caroline, Caroline, to keep the tremors alive as long as possible.
Taking a pebble from the alley, he scratched at the bricks, drawing a faint heart shape, filling it with the names Rudy and Caroline.
His passion ebbed. Whistling, he cast the pebble into the street where it skipped three times before rolling away into silence.
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