BOOK III IN THE ACADEMY OF LOVE: A PORTRAIT OF LOVE
Honoria ran down the stairs as if winged death were snapping at her heels.
It was ten minutes past noon; he would be here, already. She would have missed ten entire minutes of his company.
Of staring at him.
Of worshipping him.
She skidded to a halt outside her father’s studio and checked her reflection in the shiny brass urn that sat on a plinth across from the door. The belly of the vase stretched her eyes and made them look long and narrow while shrinking her overlarge mouth into a prim, bow-shaped moue. Honey wished she looked like this imaginary girl instead of the pale, gangly, and big-mouthed reality that stared back at her.
She wrinkled her stubby nose at her distorted brass reflection and hissed, sticking out her tongue and giggling at the evil image she’d just created. All she lacked to be truly horrifying were fangs.
He’s in there, an unamused part of her mind pointed out.
Honey pinched her cheeks to give them a bit of color and pushed her waist-length and far-too-curly hair back over her shoulders. Her father would not let her wear it up until her next birthday, when she would be sixteen. For an artist Daniel Keyes could sometimes be a stickler for propriety and—
Honey jumped and yelped, no doubt resembling a huge startled mouse in her hideous brown painting smock.
Correction, a huge mouse with a red face.
She didn’t want to turn around but she could hardly stand here all day. She swallowed noisily, as if her throat had rusted shut and then slowly, ever so slowly, turned on one heel.
Eyes the color of hydrangeas stared down at her, their corners crinkling.
Lord Simon Fairchild.
Even his name was beautiful.
But nothing compared to his face and person. Not only was he beautiful, he was taller than her. At over six feet Simon Fairchild didn’t exactly tower over her five foot ten-and-a-half-inch frame, but it was near enough. And it made Honey feel—for the first time in her fifteen and three-quarter years—petite.
He was golden and broad-shouldered and graceful and he looked like a hero out of a Norse epic, all chiseled angles and fair perfection. His sculpted lips curved into a smile that released butterflies into her body.
“My lord,” she croaked, dropping the world’s clumsiest curtsey.
He grinned and took her hand, bowing low over it before releasing her. “Good afternoon, Miss Honoria.” His voice was warm honey and it pooled low in her belly, the sensation . . . disturbing.
She blurted out the first words that leapt to mind, “You remembered my name.”
And then she wanted to hide.
His lips twitched and Honey only just stopped herself from smacking her palm to her forehead or crawling behind the big moth-eaten tapestry which covered much of the opposite wall.
Of course, he remembered her name, she’d only met him yesterday.
He clasped his hands behind his back, his gorgeous shoulders almost blocking the light from the cathedral window at the end of the hall. He was dressed for riding, which meant he would change into his portrait clothing once he entered her father’s studio.
Thinking of Simon Fairchild changing his clothing gave her an odd, swirly, hot feeling and made her palms sweat. And she seemed to be salivating more than was necessary, as if her mouth were anticipating a delicacy.
Say something, you fool! Ask him something. Keep him here. Don’t let him get—
“Are my sittings keeping you and your father in the city this summer, Miss Honoria?”
“Oh. No, we stay here most of the time.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded encouragingly.
“We rarely go into the country,” she added lamely, unable to come up with anything better. And then inspiration struck. “Will you be going to the country, Lord Saybrook?”
“I no longer hold that honor, Miss Keyes,” he reminded her gently.
Her face became hot yet again. “Oh, yes of course. The duke now has a son. You must be very . . .” Honey broke off—he must be very. . . what? Would a man be happy that he was no longer a duke’s heir? She bit her lip.
Lord Simon flashed his lovely white teeth. “I’m very happy and relieved.”
“You do not wish to be a duke?”
“No, I do not. Not only would it mean my brother’s death, but the position entails altogether too much responsibility in my view. Besides, I have other plans.”
“Yes, I wish to live at my country estate and breed horses.”
Honey could not imagine the elegant man-god across from her rusticating and living the life of a mere country squire. She leaned against the doorframe to her father’s studio, aware it was rude to keep a guest in the hall, but not wishing to share his attention with her father just yet.
“And you cannot do that and be duke?”
“Oh, I suppose the right kind of man could, but I wish for a quiet life, not responsibilities in Parliament and the management of hundreds of lives. No, the country life is the life for me. I’ll be happy on my much smaller estate.” He paused, his look speculative, as if he suddenly realized that he—a man of twenty—was confiding his aspirations to a mere fifteen-year-old.
Honey had seen the look before—every person she associated with was older than her. She’d never gone away to school, had no close relatives her age, and only socialized with her governess or her father’s friends. Being young had never bothered her before—but, suddenly, it felt . . . limiting.
He bent low to catch her gaze, which had dropped miserably to his feet. “But you can’t possibly find my boring plans of interest. While I’m off mucking about in my stables you’ll no doubt be whirling around ballrooms and breaking young men’s hearts.”
Honoria could not think of a single thing to say that would not be humiliating.
So—” he said when she remained stupidly mute, his shapely mouth ticking up on one side, his eyes warm yet gentle.
It was impossible not to smile when he was smiling. “So?” she echoed as the two of them stood staring at one another.
He chuckled and shook his head, as if she’d said something amusing. He gestured behind her to the studio door, which she was blocking with her body. “I’d better get inside. I believe I’m late and your papa is probably going to give me the raking I deserve.”
Honey stepped aside, gawking like the smitten fool she was. He opened the door and again gestured. “After you, Miss Honoria. That is if you are going to join us again today?”
“Of course, she is,” Honey’s father boomed from inside the brightly lighted room, where he was preparing his work area. His voice acted like a catalyst and Honey tore her eyes from Simon’s perfect features and bolted into the room.
“Good afternoon, Papa.”
Daniel Keyes gave her an approving smile as she went to her easel and then turned to Simon Fairchild. “My daughter will one day be England’s premier portrait painter,” he said, speaking with such certainty, pride, and love that Honey’s heart threatened to expand right out of her chest.
Lord Simon cut her one of his devastating smiles. “So, you will be painting a portrait of me while your father paints his?”
“Yes,” Honey said, pulling the cover off her much smaller canvas. She was glad to look away from Lord Simon’s distracting person; her wits were already scrambled from their brief conversation in the hall.
Her painting was coming along quite nicely, not that she would show it to anyone until it was completed. And even then ….
“Right now my daughter spends half her day studying and the other half honing her art. Once she is eighteen, she will be free to decide how to spend all her time,” Daniel Keyes said as the younger man stepped behind the large screen in the corner of the room.
To change his clothing.
Honey reminded herself to breathe and forced her gaze away from his head, which was visible above the screen. Her own face heated and she tried to control her breathing, which was soughing in and out just like their ancient butler Dowdle after he had climbed two sets of stairs.
“And will I get to see the portrait you are painting, Miss Keyes?”
Her head jerked up just in time to see him toss his waistcoat over the top of the screen. Which meant he was only wearing his shirt. His thin, fine, soft, muslin shirt. His eyes met hers as he did something behind the screen. Put on a coat? His other waistcoat?
Honey swallowed, but her father and Lord Simon were waiting with raised brows.
“I don’t know yet,” she mumbled.
“An artist’s prerogative,” Daniel Keyes said with a laugh. “She might not even let me see it, my lord.”
Her father was right. There were plenty of sketches and paintings that were only for her eyes and she rather suspected this painting might be another.
On Lord Simon’s fifth visit he asked her father if he could take Honey for a ride in his high-perch phaeton. Hyde Park was thin with people, but Honey still felt as if she were on the top of the world in his tall carriage with him beside her. It was the most magical afternoon of her life.
Until his next visit, when he took her to Gunters.
Miss Keebler, her governess, came along for that treat, but even the presence of her dour chaperone couldn’t dampen the day.
All that month Lord Simon took her places or dined at her father’s house and spent evenings mixing with the many artists and actors who comprised Daniel Keyes’s social circle, which included Honoria, who’d been allowed to eat dinner with her father’s guests since turning fifteen.
Part of her knew Lord Simon was only spending so much time with her because London in the summer was devoid of most of his usual friends and entertainments. But she didn’t care.
He took her on strolls after his sittings and they sat in the park together. Always with Miss Keebler nearby, of course.
He told her about Everley, his home in the country, and what his plans were for new stables, improvements to the house which was Tudor and always in need of repair. He spoke of growing up with his brother on the great estate of Whitcomb and told her tales of ghosts in the castle and how he’d once dressed up in a sheet and terrified his nurse, earning the worst paddling of his youth.
Honoria told him about growing up surrounded by artists and how she’d pleaded with her father not to send her away to school. How she planned on taking over the management of the household when she was sixteen and taking care of him. She shared her dreams that she might go to the Continent someday—when it was once again safe to travel—and see all the great art she’d only been able to read about.
Honey knew it was unheard of for her father to require so many sittings—in fact, he usually finished his portraits after no more than ten meetings. But, for whatever reason—maybe because he knew how greatly she enjoyed it—he had the young nobleman visit the house over a period of thirty blissful days and sixteen sittings.
Honey wished it would never end.
“Will you accompany me for one last ice, Miss Honoria?”
Honey looked at her father as she laid aside her brush and he nodded, the somewhat distracted look in his eyes telling her that he was still deep inside his work.
Her father turned to Lord Simon, who’d emerged from behind the screen, once again dressed in his street clothing. “Did you bring that yellow bounder today?”
Simon—Honoria thought of him by his Christian name, now, although only in the privacy of her own mind, of course—smiled and shook his head. “No, sir, I’m afraid it will have to be my brother’s clunky old boat.”
Daniel Keyes chuckled at this characterization of the ducal barouche, which Honey had ridden in once before. “Why don’t we have a glass of something reviving while my daughter does whatever it is that women need to do before going out to eat ices?”
Honoria loved her Papa for many reasons, but especially for giving her this chance to change into the new dress she’d just purchased—hoping for a day like today to wear it.
She rang for the parlor maid to help her change—she didn’t have her own lady’s maid—and was down in her father’s study just as the men finished the amber liquid in their glasses.
They stood when she entered, and she wanted to weep with joy when Simon’s eyes widened appreciatively at her new costume.
It was a crème silk with a dozen rows of tiny primrose ruffles around the bottom, a spencer in the same yellow. Matching silk lined her bonnet, the wide ribbon tied in a floppy bow beneath her right ear.
“You look lovely, Honoria,” her father said, his eyes uncharacteristically serious, as if he knew how important this last outing was to her.
Not until they were seated in the big carriage, Miss Keeble beside her, did Simon speak.
“That is a smashing outfit, Miss Keyes. I’m glad it’s such a clear, sunny day so we can show off both you and that very pretty bonnet.”
Honoria tried not to preen at his words, but it was difficult to keep her smile from growing into a grin.
They spoke about her father’s portrait, which he would deliver sometime next month.
“I daresay my brother will plan some party for the unveiling. You will come with him to Whitcomb, of course?”
Had she heard him correctly? Was he inviting her to his family’s home? “I—I shall have to ask my father,” she said in a breathy voice that was likely inaudible above the street sounds.
“When you visit, we can ride out to Everley, which is not far from the duke’s home.”
“That would be lovely.” It was all she could force out, her mind too busy imagining herself mounted on a magnificent horse beside him, galloping across a stark, dramatic moor—which she knew very well did not exist in East Shropshire.
He spoke of his home and family on the brief ride and his words were like a siren’s song that held her entranced.
When they arrived outside the confectioner’s carriages lined the street both ways. Clearly they weren’t the only ones to have such an idea on a beautiful day.
“It will be stuffy inside and the tables outside are taken,” Simon said. “Shall we enjoy our treat in velvet-lined comfort?”
Honey and Miss Keeble agreed and Simon gestured to one of the waiters. Once they’d placed their orders they sat back and watched the fluctuating crowd, many of whom seemed to know Simon. Honoria was deep inside a fantasy where she and Simon were married and leaving for their country home tomorrow, only stopping to take leave of their many, many friends when Simon uttered a word—just one single word, but one that pulsed with more emotion than she’d heard from him in an entire month.
Simon’s enraptured expression sent her plummeting back down to earth. He was gazing at three women who’d stopped beside the carriage. To be precise, he was only looking at one of the women, and with his heart in his eyes. She—Bella—was the most beautiful woman Honoria had ever seen.
“Hello, Simon.” Bella smiled up at him as he scrambled down from the carriage. Her cherry red lips parted slightly to reveal dazzling, white teeth. She had skin like proverbial porcelain and navy-blue eyes. Her hair was brown, dark enough to look black, the ringlets glossy and luxurious beneath her straw bonnet.
Simon’s face was hot and eager and he wore an expression she’d never seen before—an expression he’d never worn for her.
Honey felt something crack inside her chest: Simon loved this beautiful creature.
“Bella, Agnes, Mrs. Frampton what are you doing in Town at this time of year?”
His words seemed to come from the bottom of a very deep well, and it was all she could do to remain upright in her seat.
The older woman—Mrs. Frampton—Honey supposed, answered him, “Agnes is getting married next month and we needed a few last-minute pieces of this and that.” She was speaking of one daughter, but her eyes were on the other—the one who looked like an angel come to life—right before her faded blue gaze flickered to Honoria. The gesture was minute, but Lord Simon had impeccable manners. Usually. A flush covered his beautiful, high cheekbones when he realized he’d neglected his hosting duties.
“Mrs. Frampton, Miss Agnes Frampton, and Miss Arabella Frampton, I have the honor of introducing you to Miss Honoria Keyes and her companion, Miss Keeble. Miss Keyes is Daniel Keyes’s daughter.”
Nods and smiles all around, but Honoria could hardly take her eyes off Arabella Frampton long enough to even remember what the other two women looked like. Either could Simon.
A waiter appeared with their ices.
“Would you care to join us?” Simon offered, blissfully unaware that his six words were like an ax to her heart.
“Yes, please do,” Honey said mechanically when four pairs of blue eyes turned her way.
The women did a very unconvincing job of demurring and Simon opened the barouche door and gestured inside. “Please. We shall be a bit cozy but I’m sure Miss Keyes will not mind?”
Nobody noticed that her smile was more suited to a death mask and Honoria soon found herself staring across at the three newcomers, Miss Keeble now beside her.
The strawberry ice she’d ordered tasted like ashes and Honoria wanted to be back at home, in her room, in her bed with the blankets pulled over her head. And never come out.
Later, she couldn’t recall a single word that was spoken, her only memory Simon’s expression and the way his eyes had lingered on the dark-haired beauty every chance he got.
She slept very little that night, her once vibrant world suddenly gray and colorless.
The next day was his final sitting and Honey had planned to remain in her room and avoid seeing him—hopefully ever again. But her father put an end to that hope at breakfast.
“You look as though you didn’t sleep well, Honey. What is the matter?” he asked when she joined him in the sunny breakfast room that overlooked the back garden.
Honey usually had a very healthy appetite and her father would have been suspicious if she’d refrained altogether so she served herself the smallest possible portion of everything from the sideboard.
“Just a bit of a headache, Papa.”
“Hmm.” He laid aside the newspaper he had been reading and gave her a piercing look, his eyes so similar to hers it was like looking in a mirror. “I know you’ve grown to like young Fairchild, my dear, but—although you do not act it—you are a girl of fifteen and he is a man of almost one-and-twenty. He is a good and kind gentleman so I’ve given you more latitude than a wise father probably would have.” He frowned. “I often regret not sending you to school and giving you an opportunity to mix with young girls your age. Perhaps—”
“Please, don’t Papa.” She laid down her fork and knife and met his worried gaze. “Don’t. I would be miserable if you sent me away. I would miss you and you know that painting is everything—”
“No, my dear, not everything. Don’t forget about life. About love. About experiencing joy—which is what you have been doing recently. Without experience in love, loss, pain, joy, and life one cannot make great art.”
Honey didn’t tell her father that after yesterday she now had far more familiarity with pain than she would have wished for.
Honoria jerked her gaze from The Most Perfect Man in Britain to the clock: it was almost two-thirty. Soon it would all be over. Soon her father would lay down his brush for the last time and say—
“Well, my lord, it appears I have captured enough of you to satisfy even my exacting mistress.” Daniel Keyes laid down his brush.
Simon, who’d been telling them about his plans for the remainder of the summer, smiled at Honoria. “You mean your daughter, sir?”
Daniel laughed. “I meant my muse, Lord Simon, but you might have something there.” He looked over at Honey and raised his eyebrows. “Well, are you going to put poor Lord Simon out of his misery and show him his portrait?”
Before Honey could answer there was a sharp knock and the door opened to reveal their ancient butler, his face red with exertion.
“Good Lord,” her father paused in the act of wiping his hands on a turpsy rag to frown at his servant. “Have you been running, Dowdle?”
The old man was too occupied gasping for breath to answer. Instead, he held up a rectangle of cream-colored paper.
“For me?” Daniel Keyes took a step toward him.
“A post chaise is waiting outside,” Dowdle gasped before lurching across to the younger man and handing him the letter. “For Lord Saybrook,”
Honey was surprised at their butler’s slip with Simon’s title; Dowdle was usually such a stickler for propriety.
Simon tore open the letter and Honey watched as every bit of color drained from his face. He swallowed hard enough to be heard all the way across the room and then looked up.
“You’ll have to excuse me, sir. It’s. . . well, It seems my . . .my nephew developed a chill and a cough and—” He waved his hand in a churning motion, as if he were stirring the very air around him in the hope it would stimulate the correct words. His face was stiff and his eyes wide with horror. “My nephew, the young Marquess of Saybrook, has died. I must leave immediately for Whitcomb.”
Village of Whitcomb
Fourteen Years Later
Simon, Marquess of Saybrook, had been to the St. George Inn several times in the weeks since he’d finally been able to leave his bed. It had been his cousin, Raymond, who’d first persuaded Simon to go out for a pint—or six.
“It’ll make you feel more like yourself to visit some of your old haunts,” Raymond had cajoled when Simon had initially demurred.
It had taken only one night out with Raymond to convince Simon that his cousin was correct.
After that first evening, he’d gone to the cozy pub again and again, both with and without his cousin. It seemed the better he felt physically, the more he needed to drink.
He’d soon discovered that liked the St. George far better than the chambers he kept at his brother’s sprawling monstrosity, Whitcomb.
He and Raymond had taken rooms that first night—when neither of them had been in any condition to make the half-hour ride back home—and Simon had stayed at the inn several more times since.
Tonight was one of those nights.
A hot, rough hand slid over his chest and a silky-smooth leg wrapped around one of his thighs, pulling him from his thoughts. “That was lovely, my lord.”
Simon snorted at the serving maid’s lie; he’d mounted her roughly and ridden her with all the finesse of a soldier on leave.
Tonight was their first time together, but he’d seen the wench before—each time he drank at the George—and he’d ignored her overtures for weeks. The only reason he’d made no move to bed her was the sliver of decorum that had somehow lodged itself in his conscience. Whoring so close to home—and so close to where his mother and niece lived—had seemed very wrong. What if word of his activities were to make it to his brother’s house?
But tonight—after the set-to he’d had with Wyndham earlier—he’d decided he’d be bloody pleased if word of his debauchery reached his sanctimonious brother’s ears. Perhaps Wyndham might even release him from the shackles he’d bound him with if Simon behaved revoltingly enough.
So, when the barmaid had delivered his fifth—or was it sixth—drink and then lowered her pert bottom onto his lap, yet again, Simon had already been as hard as an oak plank. And when her questing hand slid between his thighs he’d spread them wider for her. Soon afterward, he’d taken her up to his room, where he’d mounted her like a man who’d not had a woman in a long, long time. Because he hadn’t—not in almost two years.
Simon realized she was stroking the scarred side of his torso and turned to face her.
She snatched away her hand, her eyes round. “I’m sorry, my lord, does that hurt?”
Simon took her hand and placed it between his thighs. “No, but these do.”
Her face shifted quickly from frightened to wicked and she giggled, her skilled hand massaging his sensitive jewels. Simon groaned and closed his eyes. “That feels bloody wonderful.”
He felt her move beside him, positioning herself to have better access to his body. Her other hand stroked him from groin to chest, teasing his remaining nipple until it was hard and tight and then moving to the other side, to the mass of scar tissue.
“What happened, my lord?” Her fingers were gentle and so tentative he could barely feel any pressure. The scars were thickest on his torso and he had very little sensation left, although they sure ached enough after a day’s exertion.
Simon opened his eyes and blinked up at her through the gloom. She was younger than he’d thought, her harsh features softened by the bounteous brown hair that now framed her round face and hung down her back. He realized he didn’t know her name but now seemed like the wrong time to ask. Instead he took a handful of hair and began to wind it around his fist, gradually pulling her lower.
“Exploding shrapnel,” he said, the two words a bit like shrapnel themselves. Her forehead wrinkled and Simon explained. “A cannon ball that breaks into many pieces in order to spray death and destruction more broadly.”
Her fingers traced the shot pattern down his side to his hip and he tightened his grip on her hair and tugged. She sucked air through clenched teeth, her eyelids becoming heavy at his rough handling, the look of wanton lust on her face making his prick throb.
He took her hand from his chest and kissed her palm.
“The Frenchies are evil buggers,” she said, her voice husky.
Simon laughed, in between kissing the rough callouses on her hand and tonguing the sensitive skin between her fingers, but there was no humor in it.
“It was one of ours, luv. It had some flaw and exploded; the entire side of the cannon came apart. A big section of the barrel hit my mount.” Poor Hector. He’d been a fine horse and had made it through seven years without a scratch. But the chunk of iron had taken his head off as cleanly as a cleaver. Simon knew it could have been his own head just as easily. People told him he was lucky.
“I was lucky,” he said out loud, just to see what the words tasted like—how they felt. They tasted like ashes and felt like nothing.
Her hand moved from his balls up his hard shaft and it was Simon’s turn to suck in a harsh breath.
“Yes, you were very lucky,” she murmured, her eyes roaming his body, the look in them an odd mix of morbid fascination and lust. Well, it was better than horror, which is what he’d expected to see. All his life he’d enjoyed the admiration of women and had come to expect it. Simon had to admit he’d wondered—even worried a little—if those days were over. He felt a hot rush of gratitude, heavily mixed with lust, for the woman above him: the first woman to see his scarred body naked.
Simon released her hair and hand and grabbed her hips, lifting her off the bed. She squealed and wiggled and the skin up and down his left side protested and burned like fire as he held her aloft. He wanted her again and would redeem himself and do better by her this time.
“Now it’s your turn to get lucky,” he said, as she spread her knees and reached between them to take his length in her hand. Simon lowered her body slowly onto his stand and thrust into her at the same time, the rough invasion causing both of them to gasp with pleasure.
“Oh, my lord.”
He groaned at the need in her voice and closed his eyes and began to move, pleased to discover that alcohol wasn’t the only way of escaping his thoughts.
Meanwhile, in London . . .
“Hello? Are you there, Honey?”
Honoria startled at the sound of her name and turned.
Her friend and housemate Serena Lombard stood in the open doorway, a puzzled expression on her face. “Is anything amiss, my dear?”
Honey realized she was standing in the middle of the room staring at the letter. She held up the ivory paper with the black wax seal.
“What is it?”
“A letter from the Duke of Plimpton.”
Serena’s eyebrows rose. “Hmm, Plimpton—didn’t your father once paint him? Or was that his brother, the marquess—Saybrook, isn’t he?”
A roaring sound pounded in Honey’s ears at the sound of his name: the first time she’d heard it spoken aloud in years.
Serena’s forehead creased with concern. “You are feeling ill, aren’t you? You are as pale as a ghost. What is it?”
Honey turned away and folded the letter with jerky, clumsy hands.
“Honey?” Serena’s fingers landed on her shoulder.
“I’m fine,” she squeezed out between clenched jaws. “Just a bit light-headed. I-I’m afraid I missed breakfast this morning,” she lied. It took three swallows to get rid of the lump in her throat and she forced her face into some semblance of self-possession before turning to her friend.
“Shall I ring for tea?” Serena asked in her slightly accented voice.
“Tea sounds perfect. And perhaps even some of Mamie’s butter biscuits. After all, one does not receive a piece of mail from a duke every day. I shall meet you in the parlor in ten minutes and tell you all about it,” Honoria promised, giving her friend what she hoped was a calm, encouraging smile.
“I’ll round up everyone and send for tea.”
The door shut behind her and Honoria’s brain spun like the colorful little wooden whirligig Serena’s young son had made for their back garden. The Duke of Plimpton—after all these years? She had not thought about the duke for a long time. But his brother Simon was a different matter. He still managed to escape from the Newgate-like prison she’d constructed in her mind just for him. It didn’t matter how thick she made the walls or how small the gap between the bars, he always found a way to escape and come find her.
Honey’s feet took her in the direction of her private storage cupboard, which she kept locked at all times. She stood on her tiptoes and felt for the key on top of the smallish wardrobe. It had been some time since she’d unlocked the door.
There wasn’t much inside, in fact the armoire wasn’t anywhere close to full. Four canvases leaned against each other, protected by old sheets.
The first was a painting of her mother. Although Honey had no memory of the woman on the canvas it was her father’s work and his love for the subject was evident in every stroke. It was his finest work, in her opinion. She knew it was wrong to keep it hidden in the dark but it was her only reminder of both her parents and that somehow made it intensely private.
The second portrait made her smile. It was the first painting she’d ever done. She could not have been older than five. It was, of course, a portrait of the person she loved most in the world: her father. It bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Keyes and it brought to mind his reaction the day she’d painted it. Joy and love and pride had shone brightly from his handsome face, so strong that even now the memory warmed her like a comforting blanket.
The third was a portrait of her. Her father had done many of her over the years—over a dozen, several of which still hung on the walls of their house. But this one? Well, this was special. He’d painted it not long after finishing Lord Simon’s portrait that summer.
Daniel Keyes had been a self-absorbed man in many ways, but not when it came to Honoria. He’d known it would have been unbearable to expose her unrequited love to questions, but this painting was proof he’d felt every ounce of her suffering in his heart. Just looking at the pain in her eyes was enough to make Honey’s throat tighten
She was beautiful in the portrait—far prettier than she was in life—her eyes like shards of broken ice, haunted, turned in on an internal landscape that was pure pain.
The portrait reminded her how her fifteen-year-old self hadn’t believed her bleeding heart would keep beating. Yet here she was: hearty and hale all these years later.
Her hand shook as she pulled the sheet from the fourth painting and looked into the smiling hyacinth-blue eyes of Simon Fairchild, the Marquess of Saybrook.
As it always did, the breath froze in her lungs. Honoria had painted many portraits in the past fourteen years but in none of the others had she captured the pure light and human essence of one of her subjects as she had in this one.
Her technique was far superior now to what it had been over a decade ago, but she’d never painted anything better. The laughter in his eyes was so vivid she could hear its echo.
Honey shook her head and dropped the cover back over the image that had haunted her far too often over the years. He wasn’t the only man she’d been fond of, of course, but no other man had inspired such depth of feeling.
She knew he’d gone to war because she’d read his name in the paper—when he’d returned. But what had happened to the young woman—Bella—and his plans for a life in the country?
Honoria locked the door on that question and dozens of others. She went to the small mirror beside the door and inspected her uninspiring reflection. Her heavy hair had come loose from its severe moorings and long tendrils wafted around her narrow face like a dun-colored gloriole.
To be honest, her narrow face with its pale gray eyes were significantly more appealing with disheveled locks as a frame, but it did not suit a woman of her age and position, so she did her best to tidy the loose strands without actually unpinning and re-braiding it all. The result was good enough for an afternoon tea with her housemates, who were spinsters like Honey.
A diminutive garden packed with blooms separated her painting studio from the small house where she’d spent her entire life. After her father died, she’d chosen to set up her painting studio in the carriage house, rather than his studio. It was foolish, but she’d left the studio untouched, not a shrine to him, but a place so full of his essence that she could not bear the thought of dismantling it.
As Honoria traversed the narrow walk that led to the back door of the house she noticed that Freddie’s peonies—the size of cabbages—had bloomed and died. It would be another summer of her life, her twenty-ninth summer.
That notion was vaguely depressing but she was in no mood to ask herself why that was, not today.
Freddie—Lady Winifred Sedgwick—glanced up from the small writing desk in the corner when Honoria entered the parlor.
“Serena will be here in a moment. She has become embroiled in a battle of wills.”
“Ah, a skirmish between Mrs. Brinkley and Una?”
“Who else.” It was not a question. Their housekeeper and cook were both the best of friends and the worst of enemies, depending on the day.
Honey dropped into her favorite seat, a battered green leather wingchair that had been her father’s favorite. She swore she could still smell the unmistakable combination of turpentine and bay rum she associated with him even though he had been gone six years. He’d died not long after her twenty-first birthday, passing away in his sleep—a quiet death utterly unlike his passionate, flamboyant life.
The door to the parlor swung open and Honoria’s mouth curved into a genuine smile. “Hello, Oliver. Have you escaped your lessons?”
Serena’s ten-year-old son dropped a creditable bow. “Mama said that I might come down for tea.”
“And Una’s biscuits?” she teased. He smiled and came to sit beside her. Honoria ruffled his messy brown curls. “What have you been working on? I haven’t heard any explosions lately.”
“Mama said no more experiments with the electricity maker.” He sounded mournful about that.
“How do you manage to entertain yourself in the face of such deprivation?”
“She gave me an automaton.” His grin was blinding.
“Ah. And have you taken it apart yet?”
He gave her a scoffing look that told her what he thought of such a foolish question.
Freddie came to join them after depositing a small pile of correspondence on the salver by the door. “He is making his own automaton, aren’t you, Oliver?”
Oliver called them all “aunt” and spoke a fluent mix of French and English that was beyond charming.
The door opened and his mother, accompanied by Mrs. Brinkley, with the tea tray, entered.
“Thank you, Mrs. Brinkley,” Honey said to the tiny housekeeper, who was looking a bit fierce.
“My pleasure, ma’am.” She plunked down the tray and then bustled from the room, no doubt headed back to the kitchen and a resumption of hostilities.
Beside her, Oliver’s stomach grumbled and Honey gave him a look of mock, open-mouthed shock.
He flushed. “J’ai faim.”
“English today, Oliver,” Serena reminded her son. “Did you get a letter from Miles?” she asked Freddie.
“Yes,” Freddie said, gesturing to the single page on her desk. “You may read it. He says he won’t be back from the country for at least another week.”
Miles Ingram was a friend of theirs who’d been the dancing master at the Stefani Academy for Young Ladies, where they’d all taught before the school closed last year.
There’d been seven teachers and they’d grown as close as siblings over the years they worked together. And now they were scattered to the four winds: Portia gone to the wilds of Cornwall; Annis living with her Grandmother in the tiny town of Cocklesham; and Lorelei with her brother and his family at his vicarage. Only Honoria, Serena, Freddie, and Miles remained in London.
Freddie busied herself with distributing tea, small sandwiches, and biscuits.
“Well?” Serena demanded. “Will you put us out of our misery, Honey? What does the duke have to say?”
“Perhaps she would like to wait until we’ve finished eating?” Freddie murmured.
“Oh, bother waiting,” Serena said.
Honey laughed at her friend’s impatience. “Very well, I shall read it to you.” She opened the letter and read it out loud:
I am writing you at the recommendation of Viscount Heath, whose wife’s portrait you painted this spring. I have seen the painting and found your rendering of the viscountess to be accurate without any evidence of flattery or over-indulgence.”
Honey couldn’t help chuckling at that. “Perhaps I should print that on my calling card—Accurate portraitist not given to flattery or over-indulgence?”
“Keep reading, my dear,” Serena urged.
“I would like to engage you to paint Her Grace and my daughter, Lady Rebecca, who is sixteen and—”
Serena clapped her hands and bounced up and down on the settee, jostling Freddie beside her. “Oh, Honey, that is marvelous.”
“Does he mention his terms?” Freddie asked, ever the practical one.
“He asks that I respond with my terms and the earliest date I will be available.” She placed the letter in Serena’s outstretched hand.
“When will you go?” Serena demanded, looking up from the letter, which she was cradling as if it were spun glass.
“Goodness, I’ve only just learned of it. I’ve not even decided if—”
“Pfffft! Don’t be coy. You know you will do it. How could you not? A duchess and her daughter. His Grace is quite well off, isn’t he?”
Honey’s friends did not know of her girlhood infatuation with the duke’s younger brother. Why should they? Who told their friends such embarrassing things? She shuddered at the thought of disgorging such a pitiful confession.
Serena and Freddie were watching her with expectant expressions.
A slight knock on the door made her jump.
It was Nounou, Oliver’s nurse.
Serena smiled at her son. “You may take some of Una’s biscuits up to the schoolroom.”
Oliver—who’d been behaving with remarkable composure for a little boy in the middle of a tedious adult conversation— rose from the sofa with alacrity, dropping a gentlemanly bow before following the French woman from the room.
Honoria waited until the door closed before clearing her throat and asking Freddie the dreaded question. “What do you know of the Duke of Plimpton and his current household?”
Winifred Sedgewick made her living as a matchmaker, even though she despised the term, and there was very little about society she did not know
“I know His Grace has been married for almost twenty years and that his wife was the Duke of Shropshire’s youngest. She is delicate and cannot have more children. I believe the daughter is their only surviving child.”
So, the duchess had never had any more children after their only son died.
“The duke’s younger brother, Marquess of Saybrook, is heir presumptive,” Freddie continued, unaware of the chaos the name caused in Honoria’s breast.
“Ah, yes,” Serena said in between bites of biscuit. “He was at Waterloo.” She paused and frowned. “Was there not something odd about his return?”
“Yes,” Freddie said, “he was not found until after three days on the battlefield. I have not seen his name this past Season, so I daresay he is still mending.”
Honoria knew all of this. She’d followed the story of his return like a woman obsessed. She took a sip of tea and saw her hand was white from squeezing the cup’s handle.
“I cannot imagine what he must have endured,” Freddie said, shaking her head.
“Do you think he lives with his brother?” Honey forced the words through numb lips.
“That I do not know. Why do you ask? Oh,” Freddie’s eyes widened slightly. “Ah, I recall, now. You know him—the Marquess of Saybrook—don’t you, Honey?”
“Didn’t your father paint his portrait?” Serena asked before Honey could answer.
Freddie was the most perceptive person Honey had ever met. Luckily, she was also the most private and avoided probing into other people’s lives.
Serena did not. “What was he like?” she demanded, dipping a biscuit into her tea and then popping the soggy mess into her mouth, licking her fingers.
Honey bit back a smile at her friend’s free and easy ways. She could hardly imagine the scandal the voluptuous Frenchwoman must have caused during her brief sojourn among the ton.
“It’s been a long time since I last saw him, Serena.” Fourteen years, one week, and three days. Not that she was counting.
Serena gave one of her very French shrugs. “You must remember something about him?”
Honey sighed—why bother lying? “He was the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen.”
Serena’s biscuit froze an inch from her open mouth. “Surely he is not more handsome than Miles?” Serena demanded.
Honey’s face heated.
The Frenchwoman chuckled. “Ah, that must be a rare sight to see.”
Honey turned away from her knowing look and fussed with the handle of her teacup.
“I believe he stayed with his brother when he first returned,” Freddie said, mercifully changing the subject. “But he does have an estate of his own.”
“Yes, Everley.” Honoria’s voice was barely a whisper. She set down her cup and saucer with steady hands and then looked at her friends. Freddie’s beautiful, inscrutable face remained expressionless but Serena met her gaze with a bold, challenging stare.
“Well?” The irrepressible Frenchwoman broke the uncomfortable silence, her hazel eyes sparkling. “When will you leave?”
Simon was flying.
Or the very next thing to flying.
The sorrel stallion with its flaxen mane and tail was not only beautiful, he was also as enamored of speed as his master. Bacchus was his name but Simon would have done better to name him Mercury he was so fleet.
When they approached the end of the path that opened onto the long and somewhat hilly drive leading down to Whitcomb Simon gave the horse his head. Bacchus knew the road well and his powerful muscles exploded. The wind was so fierce Simon swore he could hear it whistling past the scarred remnants of his deaf ear.
His muscles bunched and stretched like that of his mount, the damaged skin of his face, throat, and torso burning. The pain was almost cathartic and it reminded him he was alive, something he needed to tell himself at least a dozen times a day.
“I’m alive,” he whispered.
The wind ripped away his words but they pounded through his mind and body. He was alive.
Thundering hooves and blurring trees cocooned him. Alive.
He crested the ridge—and almost collided with a post chaise that was ambling down the center of the road.
“Holy hell!” His voice was so loud it caused the big stallion between his thighs to startle.
Life shrank to a fraction of a second as he shifted his seat and flexed his legs, sending Bacchus charging toward the slight gap to the right of the carriage.
He was vaguely aware of the postilion using his entire body to wrench his team to the left. The carriage skittered sideways and the wheels rolled into the soft, damp soil beside the drive.
Simon thundered past without slowing, his heart pounding louder than the wind. He laughed, the sound mad to his own ears.
He was alive.
Honey looked out the window just in time to catch a glimpse of the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
And then the chaise lurched to the side, throwing her, her book, and her cloak to the floor. Luckily the cloak went before she did and softened her fall so she was more startled than hurt when she landed on her knees. She held onto the seat as the carriage bounced over rough ground, waiting until the vehicle began to slow before pushing herself up until she could grasp the leather strap beside the door.
Her heart pounded like a drum in her ears, and not just because of the scare.
He was here. She closed her eyes and relived the lighting-fast image of a Norse god on a magnificent mount. The image—no matter how fleeting—had shown him to be just as beautiful as before.
Simon was here.
The chaise shuddered to a halt and shook her out of her stunned reverie.
So he was here? What difference did that make? She’d known it might be the case. She’d prepared herself for seeing him again. Or at least she’d thought she had.
Honey grimaced at her pitiful dithering and released the strap, collapsing back against the squabs as the chaise shifted on its springs.
The door opened and the burly groom appeared in the opening. “You all right, Miss?” His homely face was creased with concern.
“Just a little shaken up. What happened?”
His expression shifted from concern to disgust. “Naught but a lunatic, riding hell-bent for leather. Beggin’ your pardon, Miss.” He pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “He came out of nowhere and went past in a blur—riding the damned finest piece of horseflesh I’ve ever seen,” he said with grudging admiration, and then grimaced, “Beggin’ your pardon, Miss.”
Honey wanted to roll her eyes; men and their horses. “Are we close to Whitcomb House?”
“Aye, naught but ten minutes away.”
She smoothed her navy blue traveling dress over her lap with shaking hands. Good God. She would see him again.
“All right then?” the groom asked.
She mustered a smile and nodded. “Yes—yes of course. I am fine and ready to resume the journey.”
He closed the door and within moments they were rolling.
She stared out the window and tried to sooth her jangled nerves, but the beautiful profile and flash of golden hair was stuck in her mind’s eye—a problem with artists. She would have known that classical profile—distinct enough to grace a coin—anywhere. Hatless with buckskin breeches, black clawhammer, and tall leather boots completed the brief picture. He’d looked vital, not damaged at all. He looked like a Corinthian—or at least that is what she imaged they looked like, those men who relished their own physicality: bruising riders, crack marksmen, determined pugilists, and other such overtly-masculine foolishness.
Her stomach quivered at the image her mind would not relinquish. How could she endure the proximity of such a beautiful, vital, distracting man? It was simply too—
Honey shook herself, her anxiety suddenly annoying rather than crippling: she was nine-and-twenty, not fifteen. So what if he was here? She wasn’t painting him, she was painting the duke’s wife and child. She was here to work, to build her reputation as a portraitist and a commission for a duke was a powerful thing—could be a powerful thing—if she concentrated and did her best.
You are a woman grown—no longer a tall, skinny, gangly fifteen-year-old, the logical, soothing voice in her head reminded her.
Honoria snorted at the thought. No, she was now a tall, skinny, gangly twenty-nine-year-old. Good Lord. Hadn’t she learned anything in fourteen years?
The racing of her heart told her she’d not learned much—at least not when it came to Simon Fairchild.
She took control of her thoughts and bent them to her will, crushing the hopes, dreams, fears, and yearnings of her younger, infatuated self into a small, harmless cube and then placing it into a the prison in her mind with all the other dangerous thoughts, and then locking the door .
The chaise crested the ridge and Honey gasped. “Oh my goodness.” Her eyes darted wildly as she tried to take it all in. Massive oaks flanked both sides of the drive at regular intervals, allowing glimpses of rolling parkland beyond. This was no house, not even a mansion—it seemed to stretch for miles and resemble a mediaeval township. The drive led to a massive gatehouse that must have been part of the original edifice, its lines soaring and imposing.
Honoria had heard Whitcomb compared in size and character to Knole House and now understood why it was considered a national treasure. Her fingers itched to sketch it and she knew she would need to come back to this vantage point.
The sun was already low in the sky when the carriage rolled onto the cobble drive that curved in front of the massive entrance.
A blond man dressed in a dark coat and pantaloons waited at the foot of the shallow stone steps that led to arched doors at least fifteen feet at their peak, the heavy, weathered wood bound with intricate iron strapping.
Over the entrance the dragon and greyhound of Henry VIII supported the Royal Arms of England.
Even before the carriage had come to a full stop the man strode toward her, two liveried servants following in his wake. For a moment, Honey’s heart thundered in her ears: was that Simon?
Impossible, Simon had just passed her carriage.
The man’s resemblance to Simon became superficial the closer he came. While he was blond, his hair was not Simon’s unusual, and striking, gold. He was shorter—perhaps even shorter than Honey—his build stout rather than lithe and well formed. His eyes were blue, but sky-blue rather than hydrangea.
“Welcome to Whitcomb House, Miss Keyes. I am the duke’s cousin, Raymond Fairchild.” He helped Honey descended from the carriage. “The duke wished to meet you but, unfortunately, he’s indisposed. He has asked that I be here to greet you. How was your journey?”
“It was lovely.”
“Excellent, I’m glad to hear it.” He looked so overjoyed that Honey actually believed him. “I daresay you would like a cup of hot tea and an hour to rest?” He gestured toward the house, not waiting for an answer. “His Grace will see you in the library before dinner. But come, I will show you to your rooms.”
Honoria followed the shorter, bustling man into a hall that was straight out of a Shakespearean play. Her jaw sagged as she tilted back her head and gazed up at the four-centered-arch ceiling.
“This is the Great Hall and was built in the 1490s,” He said, not slowing. “The older parts of the house are not used as much as the South Wing, which was added in the 1740s and affords far more convenience and comfort. The family dines in the smaller dining room when not entertaining. His Grace has requested that you dine with the family.” His tone said the request was not really a request.
They ascended ancient flagstone steps that turned twice at ninety-degree angles and opened onto yet another long hall, this one heading back in the direction they just came.
“This may seem a rather odd way of reaching the South Wing,” he said in a confiding tone, as if reading her thoughts, “But it will make more sense shortly.”
They passed through a lengthy wood-paneled hall; the dark wood floor covered with an ancient carpet runner that muffled their steps. Heavy iron sconces lighted their way at intervals and a massive rose window at the far end added an almost religious air.
He turned down a hallway on the right before they came to the spectacular window, leading them down an almost identical corridor.
“Is it only the duke and duchess and their daughter who live here?” Honey asked as they ascended what felt like a half story, entering a much wider and airier hall that was illuminated by cathedral windows with intricate tracery.
“His Grace’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Plimpton and his brother, Marquess of Saybrook, also live at Whitcomb.” He cut her a quick smile. “As do I.” He took yet another right, this hallway narrow and windowless.
Lord, she was so lost she could wander for weeks.
“The only one of the family to keep chambers in the East Wing is my cousin, Lord Saybrook.”
Honey blinked at the disapproval she heard in the jovial man’s voice. So, the marquess was . . . difficult? Or was that merely the opinion of an envious poor relation?
They turned yet another corner but this time she staggered to a halt.
“Goodness,” she murmured.
“This is the older of the two portrait galleries,” Mr. Fairchild said, his increasingly distant voice causing Honey to resume walking, her head swiveling wildly to take in the almost suffocating number of portraits that covered the high, paneled walls, jammed together so tightly that the frames touched in places.
Good God—she recognized the unmistakable style of Holbein. Holbein! She made an undignified squeaking sound. Her portrait would hang in a collection which contained one by Hans Holbein?
Pulling her eyes away from the portrait—the subject a middle-aged man with no great physical beauty, but with a countenance so knowing that Honey felt as if he were looking at her—was like pulling a heavy wagon from deep, sucking mud.
“Yes?” she said dazedly, turning her head and blinking, as if she’d just been blinded by a lighthouse lantern.
“It is just a little further.”
Honey hurried after him, pointedly keeping her eyes from the flow of portraits that assaulted her peripheral vision.
Later, she would come back later. This gallery would be reason enough to learn the layout of the maze-like house.
Something Mr. Fairchild had just said sank in.
“Did you say this was the old gallery?”
“Yes, the new gallery is on the first floor. That is where the newer portraits hang.”
Like her father’s portrait of Simon Fairchild.
Honey’s heart pounded like a young girl’s facing her first assembly: Simon and more paintings.
They ascended yet one more set of stairs, these wooden and carpeted with a rich maroon and gold pattern that seemed to levitate above the floor. Honey felt almost guilty stepping on such lovely, intricate work. She had never seen its like.
“And here we are,” he said, flinging open the first door on the right.
Honey gaped. She was vaguely aware that she was spending far too much time with her mouth hanging open and shut it.
The sitting room was a cream and lemon-yellow shade that felt crisp and cool. Delicate, spindle-legged chairs and a low-slung settee were arranged in front of a massive fireplace with an off-white marble mantle and surround.
“Through this door,” he opened a door to the right, “Is your dressing room.” The room was monstrous and Honey’s paltry collection of dresses would scarcely fill a corner of one of the huge armoires. A washstand, dressing table, clothing chest, several chairs and damask covered chaise longue, and large bathing tub near a fireplace weren’t enough to make the huge room feel crowded.
“And here is your bed chamber.” This last door opened to the most opulent room of the three. A monstrous four-poster bed held pride of place, curtained and canopied in the same lemon yellow and cream, but with hints of gold in the floor coverings and rich velvet drapes that covered the floor to ceiling windows that made up part of one wall.
Honey saw that he was waiting for some reaction. “These rooms are lovely and quite . . . spacious.”
“This is the family’s section of the house. This room used to belong to His Grace’s grandmother.”
“How kind of the duke to treat me with such generosity and condescension.”
Mr. Fairchild looked like he agreed. “He is quite excited that you are here to paint our dear Becca and the duchess,” he said. “Do you ride?” he asked.
“Well, I’m sure you won’t be working all the time, so I hope you’ll allow me to show you some of the beauties of Whitcomb.”
Before she could answer the door opened and a footman entered with her portmanteau.
“Ah, there is your baggage,” Mr. Fairchild said. “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering a light tea and I will send up a maid to assist you.”
“You’re most kind,” Honey murmured.
“Is there anything else I can arrange for you, Miss Keyes?”
“No, thank you. This is all very lovely.”
He smiled. “The duke’s study is at the other end of the Old Gallery. Ring the bell and a servant will escort you. His Grace will expect you at seven.”
“Thank you.” Honey didn’t bother telling Mr. Fairchild that she’d be able to find her way back to those portraits asleep and in the dark.
Honey was ready a full fifteen minutes before her meeting. Rather than sit in her room staring out at the view—admittedly quite a remarkable one that provided a sweeping panorama of the topiary and past that, the deer park—she made her way to the old gallery.
The wide, black and white tiled corridor was partly illuminated with windows set high above, perhaps thirty feet. The angle of the light was such that it would never touch directly on a painting.
She noticed she was actually walking on tiptoes as she made her way down the length of the hall, as if approaching a holy relic. Well, for her this was the equivalent of a holy relic.
Her gaze flickered greedily across the collected booty of centuries.
She dazedly registered styles, names, heroes: a Van Dyke, a Devit, a Seymore—complete with trusty steed, a Dance-Holland, a—she gasped and lurched toward a portrait slightly smaller than those beside it—a Hogarth! The subject, a beautiful woman whose eyes and expression invited the viewer into her boudoir, indeed, who promised and enticed—
A door down the hall swung open so hard it crashed against the wall hard enough that she could feel the vibration in her feet.
“You can go sod yourself, Wyndham!” The roar filled the hallway, although its owner was still inside the room.
Honey had never heard the voice pulse with so much rage when she’d known him, but she recognized it all the same.
Instead of simply scurrying away—as she should have done—she stood motionless, her eyes riveted on the gaping doorway. A soft murmur broke the silence—the person who was currently being yelled at, she supposed.
“Ha!” The word dripped with loathing and fury. “I don’t bloody care; haven’t you been listening? The whole place can go to the devil and you along with it. I’m telling you for the last time, Wyndham—do not meddle in my affairs ever again or I swear you shall live to regret it.” The enraged speaker catapulted out of the open doorway.
Even though Honey was frozen he must have noticed something out of the corner of his eye because he stopped and whirled around to face her.
She gave a small, nearly inaudible, gasp of surprise. Good Lord. What had happened to him?
He surged toward her with an odd, lurching gait that drove her back a step, raw rage rolling from him like waves of heat.
“Who the devil are you? And what are you doing lurking about and listening at keyholes?” He kept walking, driving her back and back, until she hit the wall and felt something sharp jab her in the hip. The thought that she might have damaged a priceless painting was even more horrifying than the furious man stalking her. She turned to look over her shoulder and nearly fainted with relief when she saw it was only the corner of a plinth bearing a marble bust.
A hand grabbed her arm ungently and swung her around. The face that looked down on her was not far different from the beautiful portrait she had painted all those years ago—on the right side.
But the left side had been vandalized with angry red scars that had destroyed the smooth, high-boned beauty of one half of his face. The slashes and gashes and pits bore the slick sheen of recently healed wounds. His magnificent golden-blond hair had been cropped brutally close, doing nothing to hide what remained of his left ear or the deep horizontal groves that began at his jaw and deeply scored his cheek. He glared down at her with the same beautiful blue eyes, but the left eyelid was pulled down at the outside corner, the stretched skin giving the eye a perpetually sinister cast. He’d been tall and lithe when she’d known him but now his broad shoulders were heavily muscled and massive rather than graceful.
It was Simon, but it was not Simon.
The man in front of her was a byproduct of war: a more intense, distilled form of his prior self. He was sinew, muscle, and bone—all softness and excess flesh had been burnt away. What remained was pure warrior, a man branded, bent, and distorted by violence.
This was not the Simon she knew, nor did he appear to know her.
The crushing realization left her sick inside; he looked at her with no recognition at all in his glorious, damaged eyes. He did not know her.
Honoria wanted to weep.
“Simon.” The word was quietly spoken but it cracked like a bullwhip in the cavernous hallway.
Both Honey and Simon Fairchild startled, as if they’d been caught in the act of something indecent, yet still they could not look away from each other.
Rather than release her, her captor’s hand squeezed tighter while his jaw worked, as if he were chewing his options and found them indigestible. His eyes narrowed and the nostrils of his fine, aquiline nose flared as he struggled to impose some modicum of control—as he appeared to remember that it was not her he was angry at.
He dropped her arm as if she’d scalded him and spun away, his expression—on both the angel and monster sides—disdainful. He pushed past the other man without speaking and lurched down the hall, his steps awkward but swift.
The air in his wake crackled and Honey felt as though she’d been picked up by a powerful cyclone and tossed aside, her ears ringing, her soul battered.
Honey had never met the Duke of Plimpton in person. By the time her father finished Simon’s portrait the duke had merely sent a lackey to collect it, the grand ceremony planned for its unveiling never spoken of again.
His Grace of Plimpton looked nothing like Simon. He was a paler, slighter, and far less noticeable version than his younger brother in just about every way except for his air of cool dignity and quiet power.
Unlike Simon, the duke’s hair was a nondescript brown. His features were regular and not unattractive, but, on the whole, unexceptional. He lacked Simon’s size and was not much above medium height, lean and compact rather than broad and towering like his younger brother. Only in the shape of their tilted eyes did she see any resemblance. But where Simon’s were the Egyptian blue of a Raphael painting, the duke’s were a dull gray that was every bit as nondescript as the rest of him. Simon Fairchild was a blazing star while the duke was the distant and unknowable dark side of the moon.
He also looked quite ill. There were dark smudges beneath his eyes and his skin had an unhealthy sheen. Honey supposed this was the indisposition that Mr. Fairchild had mentioned.
The duke gestured to the open doorway. “Please, come inside my study.”
Honoria’s legs wobbled a little as she crossed the carpeted hall between them.
He shut the door and gestured to the two chairs arrayed before a desk. “Have a seat.”
His desk was a slab of black wood supported by scaly gilt legs that looked as if they had once belonged to some monstrous mythical creature. It was the most magnificent desk she had ever seen and it should have made the man standing behind fade into insignificance. But the duke’s understated authority bent the grandeur of the room to his will and she realized he might not look as physically imposing or handsome as Simon, but he possessed enormous presence.
Honey lowered her still-trembling form into one of the brown leather chairs across from him. She’d been around artists all her life so she was accustomed to high-strung emoting, but even her father had not been as mercurial or violent as the man out in the hall.
“Welcome to Whitcomb, Miss Keyes. I hope you are not too fatigued from your journey?”
Ah, so they were going to pretend like the human hurricane in the portrait gallery didn’t exist. That was fine with Honey.
“Not at all, Your Grace.” She was pleased by her cool, even tone and could see by the slight lessening of tension in the duke’s face that he was relieved that she’d decided to play along.
“Thank you for arranging such a luxurious carriage.” The duke had, in fact, seen to all the facets of her journey and had not stinted.
“I am pleased you have accepted this commission, Miss Keyes. Your father’s portrait of my brother captured his spirit and is one of my favorites.” He paused and she smiled at his kind words. “He was a great artist and I am sorry for his passing.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Would you care for something to drink before dinner?” He gestured to a selection of decanters on a table not far from his desk.
“No thank you, your housekeeper was kind enough to provide a cup of tea in my room.”
Pleasantries out of the way, his attitude became brisk. “It will only be the family at dinner tonight. My wife does not dine with us as she is unwell. My daughter, Lady Rebecca, my mother, and my brother—” a minute flicker of irritation disturbed his calm façade but quickly passed. “will dine with us this evening. We entertain from time to time, and you will, of course, join us.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“Perhaps you might explain your preferred method of work so I can inform Her Grace as to what is expected?”
“I will need a few sessions to become acquainted with Lady Rebecca and Her Grace. During these sessions I will make sketches. I will also look at the gowns and accessories they have chosen as well as discuss the preferred setting or background. I like to give the subjects the final say in all such matters but sometimes my guidance can be helpful for aesthetic reasons.”
He rested his elbows on the surface of his desk and glanced down at his interlaced hands for a long moment before looking up. “My wife will not be able to sit for protracted periods of time.”
Honey didn’t think the duke looked as if he could sit for protracted periods of time, either. She hoped that whatever ailed him was not an influenza or something contagious.
“I understand, Your Grace, and I will take as many sketches as I can during the time I’m allotted. I will endeavor not to overtire Her Grace.”
“Thank you, Miss Keyes, I can see you are thoughtful as well as accommodating and I appreciate both characteristics.” He stood, indicating their brief meeting was over. “I shall see you at dinner—please ring for a servant to show you the way.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Honoria waited until the door closed behind her to smile at what his words had implied: that she was kind, accommodating, and bland—for an artist.
The other artists, friends, and hangers-on who’d surrounded Daniel Keyes had often commented on Honoria’s calm, even-tempered nature. People had never stopped marveling that she was nothing like her larger-than-life father, with his unconventional clothing, wild hair, and flamboyant personality.
“How can you paint without passion?” more than one of her father’s painter friends had asked her.
Only Daniel Keyes had never made her feel deficient about her temperate disposition.
“All of this,” he’d said to her once, waving one ring-encrusted hand to encompass his unconventionally garbed person. “Is showmanship, Honey. A person does not need to be ostentatious to be a real artist. And you, my love, are not only a real artist, but you also possess a very rare quality in that your company is soothing and rejuvenating.”
Honey supposed she could have chosen to be insulted by his words. After all, it was a common belief that a woman had to be passionate in order to inspire passion. But, instead, she’d found his assessment of her to be comforting.
One of her father’s lovers had once had the poor judgement to chide Honoria during a dinner at their house. “You are far too . . . mild to ever be a truly successful artist, my dear. You must not appear so buttoned-down. Try to cultivate an air of mystery, even if you do not feel mysterious.” Honey recalled how the woman’s cool eyes had flickered over her person, unaware of Daniel Keyes’s gathering wrath at the end of the table. The woman’s full lips had folded with distaste at the conclusion of her inspection. “Lord knows your person is too … unusual to hide, so you might as well make the best of what you have and dress with more flair.”
Honoria had found the woman’s advice amusing rather than insulting but Daniel Keyes had responded with all the anger and emotion she could have desired in a champion, banishing his erstwhile lover from their lives before dinner had even ended.
Honoria had not, even for an instant, considered taking the woman’s ridiculous counseling. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy brighter colors and more interesting styles—like the avant-guarde clothing her friend Serena wore—but such garments never looked quite right on her.
She had long ago accommodated herself to the fact that she looked like a governess rather than a sought-after portrait painter. The same went for her behavior and bearing; she was calm to the point of phlegmatic, but that was the way she was made and no amount of artificial emoting would change that.
Thinking about emoting turned her thoughts to Simon Fairchild. And thinking about Simon Fairchild stripped away everything she’d believed herself to be—cool and collected—and left her raw, furious, and hurt.
So, it seems there is something—or someone—that can change your phlegmatic bearing, Honey.
She snorted at the taunting thought but she couldn’t deny the truth of it.
Honey had kept him on a pedestal for fourteen years and he’d not even remembered who she was.
Simon slammed the door to his chambers with unnecessary force and stalked into his dressing room. His valet was fussing with clothing but put his work aside and turned to help Simon, who waved away his help.
“I’ll undress myself, Peel.” Simon yanked off his cravat and tossed it to the older man, who’d been with him before he’d joined the calvary and then served as his batman through the grueling years on the Continent. Peel knew him better than any other person on earth; the poor bastard.
To Peel’s enduring shock, Simon often joked their relationship was very much like a marriage, but without the bedding. Peel was a bloody prude when it came to such humor.
“Ring for a bath.”
“Right away, my lord.”
He left Simon alone and without anyone to growl at. It was just as well; Simon was in such a vile mood he wouldn’t bear his own company if he could find some way around it.
He was behaving badly and shaming himself and yet he could not seem to stop arguing and fighting and yelling with Wyndham at every opportunity. He needed to get away, but his brother kept him on such a tight leash it chaffed.
He snatched a decanter off the highboy dresser and poured a stiff shot of brandy. Drink was the only way he’d found to escape himself—at least with his clothing on—even if it was only for a little while and even if the price of escape was high. And even if his brother would always be waiting for him at the end of what little bit of escape he could snatch for himself.
Bloody, damned Wyndham. Why could he not leave Simon be? Why must they have the same argument time and again? Why was the man so relentless? Where did he get such strength? Why couldn’t he just accept that Simon was not cut from the same cloth as he was and would be a disaster as duke? Besides, what did he care who took the title after he died? He would be dead for God’s sake. Who cared about what happened after they died? Simon had enough to do worrying about what happened when he was alive. In fact, he would rather not worry about it. Or anything else, for that matter.
He knew that was a childish attitude and utterly unreasonable. But he didn’t care; arguing with Wyndham always brought the worst out in him and it always had. The man was colder than an iceberg in December. The angrier and irater Simon became, the calmer and more distant Wyndham became. It became a challenge to see if Simon could draw a rise out of him. Not that he’d ever managed such a feat. No, all he managed to do was drive himself into a greater froth and make a bigger ass of himself.
His brother’s image rose up before him and Simon frowned; Wyndham did not look well. In fact, Simon thought he’d looked rather the worse for wear for a while now.
Can you blame him? You are probably driving him into an early grave with your idiocy.
Simon clenched his jaws against the unwanted—but likely true—thought.
“Blast and damn and bloody hell,” he muttered, putting his brother from his mind with a forceful shove.
He shrugged out of his coat, grimacing at the pain the small motion caused in his neck and shoulders. Would it always be this way? Would his skin burn and ache even if he lived to one hundred? Another thing alcohol was good for—the pain. Not that there weren’t better things for that, things he’d enjoyed far too much during the war. Simon thrust those “things” from his mind.
He tossed the coat over a chair and unbuttoned his waistcoat, forcing himself to use his left hand. It was not nearly as damaged as the rest of his left side as his hand had been in front of his body when the cannon exploded. But it still burned like hell whenever he used it for fussy tasks like unhooking buttons.
The doctor had cautioned him against mollycoddling his left side, telling him the more active he was the quicker the pain would go away. Not that it would ever go away completely. Some activities, he’d told Simon, would exacerbate the injuries. Activities like riding, the only thing that made life worthwhile anymore.
He grimaced at the self-pitying thought and slipped into his favorite robe, a battered green and gold silk banyan that had been with him throughout the War and which he associated with better times. It had been a garment he’d worn after surviving each uncertain day; something he’d only slipped on when he’d been clean of blood and grime and death. It was a symbol of cheating death yet once more and a reminder of those nights when he’d been hot and hard and lucky enough to find some willing, eager woman to slip into.
Simon shook his head at the foolish thoughts. Memories of days that had been both better and worse; memories so old and faded they might as well have belonged to some other man. This was his life now: a sort of half-life that Wyndham insisted on foisting on him.
You could have a different life—a better life.
Oh yes, that he could. Just as soon as he danced to Wyndham’s bloody tune and married a woman of his brother’s bloody choosing. Only if he capitulated to his brother’s demands could he have the life he’d always wanted. Well, part of it—the part that didn’t include Bella.
Ahhhh, Bella, the voice taunted. But she is long gone. So long gone. You can’t even remember her face and yet you cling to her memory—and your anger—like a child.
So what if he couldn’t always recall Bella’s face? He couldn’t recall lots of things, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t happened. His bloody head had been batted about more violently than a cricket ball. But he could recall Bella clearly enough—and often enough—for it to matter. And he would not buckle to his brother’s demands that he take a wife. He would never marry. Ever.
You need a woman, not a wife.
“Shut the hell up,” Simon snapped, and then realized he was bickering with his own mind as if he were some sort of lunatic.
He threw back the remains of his glass, bared his teeth at the pleasant burn, and poured himself another. He paused, the glass half-way to his mouth.
Perhaps the annoying voice in his head was right: he needed a woman. Lord. When was the last time he’d had sex with someone other than his own hand? He knew the answer to that question to the exact day: two weeks. Not since the night he’d bedded Lily Bancroft, the serving wench at the St. George. His intention of fucking his way out from under his brother’s thumb had dissipated the following day when he’d realized he’d be using an innocent bystander in his war against Wyndham. Not that Lily was either innocent or reluctant to be used—those being her own words.
“When will I see you again, my lord,” she’d asked the morning after their torrid night, as she’d gathered up her scattered clothing.
Simon’s head had been pounding, his conscience no longer numbed by ale. “I’m not sure that is wise.”
“Why? Do you fear for my reputation?”
Simon had winced at her justly mocking tone.
“I’m a grown woman, my lord,” she’d said standing before him naked to prove her point. “My Tommy died in Spain so I’m my own mistress now.”
He’d felt doubly appalled at that point: he’d just bedded a serving wench who was also a war widow.
Like a coward, Simon had slunk away and not gone back.
He flexed his left arm; the taut, scarred skin tingled, but was not painful. At least not much. He was better every day and even the worst of his wounds was well on the road to healing.
Peel appeared in the open doorway. “Will you have a shave before dinner, my lord?”
Simon looked up from his red, rough forearm and grunted. Dinner? He stared at the fragrant, golden liquid in his other hand, suddenly recalling the tall, skinny wench he’d found lurking outside Wyndham’s study. Who the bloody hell was she? She’d looked familiar but he couldn’t recall ever meeting a woman so tall. Her wide, gray eyes hovered in his mind—surprised and outraged. He smirked at the memory. Well, that’s what you get for eavesdropping, missy.
He took another drink and realized Peel was still waiting. “Dinner, eh?” He’d been eating in his room more often than not these days, but he couldn’t help admit to some curiosity about the woman he’d just met. Perhaps she would be dining with the family?
Well, what the hell else did he have to do? He snorted and then quaffed the contents of the glass. “Yes, a shave before dinner, Peel.”