Give due light to the misled and lonely traveler...
-- John Milton
London, May 1819
The splatter of ice-cold champagne hit the marquis of Rannoch full in the face like a blast of well-chilled reality. From his lap, a buxom brunette leapt to her feet with an annoying scream, brushing ineffectually at the rivulets of wine that now marred her pink silk evening dress.
In a dimly lit back room of the Theatre Royal, Antoinette Fontaine stood before the fashionable après-theatre crowd, weaving unsteadily as she raised her empty glass in mock salute to the dark, surly man sprawled with casual arrogance before her. Already, the actress's flaming red hair was tumbling from its elaborate coiffure, while kohl-tinged tears trailed hopelessly down her face.
"Reas -- reason and love keep lit -- little comp'ny together now'days," she quoted, hopelessly slurring the words as she staggered toward him. In the background, several people tittered discreetly. Heads craned, and quizzing glasses came up to survey the commotion.
"You spiteful bitch!" wailed the brunette, still dabbing at her ruined dress. "Look what you've done to my best gown!"
"Shut up, Lily," growled Rannoch, unfolding his huge body from the chair and rising smoothly to his feet. "I can easily buy you a dozen." He crooked his finger at the weaving woman who now stood, her lips a sulky pout, in the center of the room. "To your dressing room, Antoinette. Go! Now."
"Better, my lord, that I sh-should burn in hell," spat the drunken woman through her choking sobs. "I'm done wi'ch you, Elliot, you m-mean-spirited bash -- bashtard." As if to make a point, she hurled the wine glass at his skull. Clearly, the alcohol had not greatly impaired the actress's aim. A spray of crystal bounced off the wall just above Rannoch's head.
The ruined dress now quickly forgotten, the brunette screamed again, bolting for cover in a streak of pink silk. Rannoch paid the fleeing woman no heed at all. Easy come, easy go; that was his motto. Another whore -- or another mistress, for that matter -- was a simple enough thing to find. Elliot Robert Armstrong, fifth marquis of Rannoch, seemed literally to trip over them everywhere he went. Sometimes it was almost tiresome.
With an indifferent shrug at the fleeing Lily, he returned his attentions to his current mistress. "You, Antoinette," he warned silkily, "are not finished with me until I am finished with you."
"Oh, bend over an' bugger yourself, you heartless pig," Antoinette snapped, her eyes narrowed into glittering slits. As if to yank it from her neck in disgust, she twisted one hand into the heavy, ornate necklace that trailed a dozen blood-red rubies around her stark white throat.
"Oh, I strongly recommend you keep that little trinket, my dear," whispered Rannoch. "You may soon have dire need of it."
Releasing the necklace, Antoinette raised a well-manicured finger and struggled mightily to point it in the marquis's direction. "Hah! I can do well enough w'out you, Elliot," she taunted, spitting out the words in a surly tone of drunken bravado tinged with pain. "Plenty of other men w'glad -- gladly keep me. An' do a better job, too, if you take my meaning." She gave another little lurch and hitched up the bodice of her disheveled gown.
Rannoch heard soft laughter ripple through the crowd again and felt himself go wild with anger. Forcing his voice to be calm, he wrapped his massive hand hard around her wrist and jerked her roughly toward him. "Then, by all means, Antoinette, have them," he whispered in a menacing tone, "and all at once, if you wish. I hardly think I give a damn."
Suddenly, a muscular, well-dressed gentleman stepped from the shadows. Wondering who had the audacity to trespass in the middle of such personal indignation, Rannoch lifted his eyes to threaten the man back into the crowd.
Major Matthew Winthrop. There was no mistaking his dark hair and military bearing. Rannoch felt himself relax fractionally.
"Rannoch," said Winthrop in a soothing tone, "it would appear that Miss Fontaine is rather overset tonight. Will you give me leave to escort her home? I daresay it would be for the best."
Elliot nodded stiffly and stepped back from Antoinette. "You are very obliging, Winthrop. I should be most grateful. And as to you, Antoinette" -- he lowered his voice -- "I shall wait upon you tomorrow at five, and we shall resolve this unpleasantness once and for all. Make certain that you are in. Do I make myself plain, woman?"
Antoinette merely shot him a sidelong glower of drunken rage as Winthrop wheeled her about and urged her gently toward the door. With a bitter, gnawing sadness, which Elliot would rather die than confess, he coldly watched them go, listening as the titters and whispers slowly subsided. It was time, he realized as he picked up his glass of whisky from the side table. Time to make a drastic change in his life. A new mistress, certainly, for Antoinette had just become far more trouble than she was worth. Unfortunately, the thought of another Antoinette did little to lift his black mood.
Four days later, the mid-morning sky was already gray and bleak when the marquis set out from London. A wiser man might have heeded the dark, scuttling clouds that were fast sailing in on the heels of a two-day rain. Indeed, Elliot did see them, but in his black, boiling anger he did not care. His disrespectful, ill-tempered, ungovernable mistress had deliberately ignored his orders, and he was nearly blind with unspent rage. Elliot flicked his whip hard against his topboot. A twenty-mile ride in pouring rain might, he wryly considered, cool his still-burning urge to choke every last gasp of breath out of Miss Antoinette Fontaine, who was, he had not been surprised to discover, nothing more than a jumped-up country girl. Annie Tanner, daughter of an innkeeper from Wrotham Ford, Essex.
In any event, the chestnut was a worthy mount, not the most spirited of horses but good and solid, perfect for a long, damp journey. Elliot had every confidence of making excellent time and being back in town before dusk. Shoving his hand deep into the pocket of his greatcoat, he assured himself that the ruby bracelet was still secure. But touching the velvet case reminded him of Antoinette's skin. That bitch! He ought not trouble himself to give her a damn thing after the way she had behaved. How dare the woman challenge him in such a public way! And now to refuse his letters! Indeed, to refuse to so much as open the door to admit his messengers! Why, technically speaking, it was his damn door. Rannoch money had paid for it, and very nearly everything inside as well. Elliot decided that he ought to have the bloody thing knocked in with a sledgehammer.
But Antoinette was not inside. He knew that now. She had not been seen in town for three days and had missed her last two rehearsals at the Theatre Royal. No doubt about it, the woman had turned tail and run home to wait out Elliot's temper. Well, this time the mercurial actress had pushed him too far. This time it was over, and he would find her and tell her so.
A proverbial ill wind was whipping up from the east by the time Elliot managed to locate the crossroads that led to Wrotham Ford. Unfortunately, the adjacent road marker had been the recent victim of what looked to be a nasty encounter with a hay-laden tumbril and now lay almost flat on the ground, protruding crookedly from the mound of loosened earth at its base. Scattered about in the muddy roadway lay the damning evidence. Tufts of hay had blown hither and yon, some to be ensnared in the adjacent hedgerow but most to be ground beneath hooves and wheels into the two days' accumulation of mud that seemed to constitute the only road to Wrotham Ford.
With a hiss of aggravation, Elliot dismounted from the chestnut. As he swung his right leg down, however, the old wound in his hip cramped violently, aggravated by the pervasive damp. Rubbing his buttock, Elliot hobbled to the signpost, which lay on the far side of a long, nasty puddle. Stepping impatiently across it, Elliot watched in increasing frustration as both his glossy topboots became splattered with mud and worse. Damn, Kemble would go off on a pout over this. But there was no help for it. In disgust, Elliot pinched one wing of the signpost between the thumb and forefinger of his snug calfskin glove and lifted it carefully from the mire.
London. No. He twisted the post. Wanstead. No. Tottenham. Hardly. With another hiss, Elliot scraped a dollop of mud from the wing that pointed in the direction opposite London. Wrotham something. Yes, that would be it. Due north of London. Good Lord, but his arse hurt, an eternal reminder of Jeanette, whose husband had had such poor aim. Oh, yes! There was yet another selfish bitch who had brought him more pain than pleasure. Elliot hurled the signpost back to the ground with such a force that the barely buried end popped up out of its loosened base, flicking him head to toe with chunks of moist, soft dirt. Elliot hissed for the third time in as many minutes, limped back to his mount, and threw himself wearily into the saddle.
And then the deluge of rain began.
Two hours later, the marquis of Rannoch was well and truly lost in the countryside of rural England, or someplace that certainly seemed to him like the wilds of a distant, godforsaken land. Elliot, who hated to venture beyond London, rarely even bothered to visit his Scottish earldom. He certainly had no further interest in plodding through the remaining hills and vales of lower Essex. Yet here he was, plodding indeed, for since leaving Wrotham crossroads, he'd had the misfortune of seeing only one wide spot in the road, and the crumbling church, narrow pub, and half-dozen ancient houses could hardly have been termed a village. Even that meager spot was now long gone in his wake. Certainly, it had contained nothing that might have been mistaken for the inn owned by Antoinette's family, where he strongly suspected she would be found.
Elliot was cold, wet, hungry, and splattered with mud. It was time, he realized with a resigned sigh, to ask for directions. But where? Should he turn back two miles to the tiny pub? Suddenly, as if conjured up by fate, a well-lit house appeared around the next bend, some fifty yards from the main road.
Elliot stared through the mist at the tempting sight. A neatly kept drive swept up through informal gardens filled with spring flowers, then made an elegant circle in front of the wide, welcoming entrance. The house was far larger than almost any he'd seen since leaving London. But it was not grand. No, not grand. Pretty. Peaceful. Even elegant, perhaps, despite its hodgepodge exterior of sandstone and brick. The oddly pitched roof lines lay at a variety of angles, as if the original manor house had been frequently expanded down through the ages. The obviously ancient north end, primarily stone, was little more than a squat, four-story tower snaked with ivy. The main house consisted of three stories with a sweep of windows, at least six on each level. Toward the rear, Elliot could barely see a row of half-timbered cottages and a moderate carriage house. Beyond that, he saw nothing, though his sense of direction told him that he must be near the River Lea.
The rain still drizzled, bringing with it the warning of a premature dusk. In the house before him, Elliot could see that a soft, welcoming light already shone in almost every downstairs window. The warmth tugged at him, drew him nearer, and Elliot impulsively wanted to wade through the swirling mist, peer through the windows, and see what the people inside were doing. No, no. He wanted to hurry back to Richmond, light all his windows, and rush outside to see if the effort had any warming effect on his home.
But it would not. Elliot knew that much for certain. With a soft flick of his whip, Elliot urged the chestnut up the drive, dismounted, and bounded up the two steps to the threshold of the charming house. His fatigue lifting, Elliot no longer noticed that his boots made a moist, squishing sound when he walked, or that his coat was filthy, his gloves muddied.
Following his brisk knock, the door swung wide open into a warm, lavishly carpeted hallway filled with good smells and cheerful sounds. No less than three arrangements of fresh flowers sat stationed about the hall. Laughter and music rang through the corridors. A house party, perhaps? Elliot turned his attention to the plump, pleasant-looking woman whose black bombazine and starched linen made plain her status as housekeeper. A shiny ring of keys hung from her waist, jingling delightfully as she stood smiling on the threshold, anxiously beckoning him inside.
"Oh, bless me, sir! Here ye be at last, and what with Bolton already givin' up on your ever coming!" Elliot merely stared at the cheerful woman, who immediately seized his hat and whip. "Now, give me your gloves, sir. Ah, bad luck in the mud, I see." She dangled the thumb of his glove between two pudgy fingers. "Indeed, what a foul, foul day! I do declare, you've had a nasty trip up from London, have ye not? Let's fetch you a nice dish o' tea. Miss will insist upon it, to be sure."
From the far reaches of the hall, the smell of cooked apples and warm cinnamon wafted out. In the back of the house, a maid scurried across the corridor with a well-laden tray, two fat tabbies trotting expectantly behind. This house, tucked into the middle of nowhere, looked, felt, and even smelled like a home should. Someone else's home, of course, since Elliot had never known such a place in his life. But this house was nonetheless tempting, for it seemed at once vaguely familiar and oddly foreign.
"Coat!" demanded the plump woman with brisk cheer, and Elliot snapped to attention, looking at the housekeeper in mute amazement as he obediently handed her his greatcoat. Surely he was not invited to stay? Reluctant to say anything that might break the strange spell, Elliot looked anxiously about the inviting home, feeling as if he'd somehow been transported into a cozy fantasyland of warmth and laughter. From deep inside the house, a pianoforte tinkled, then burst into a strange, rousing tune which Elliot couldn't have named if someone had held a gun to his head. A fit of feminine giggles burst forth.
"A waltz! I want a waltz!" insisted a youthful male voice, and the laughter burst forth again. "Who shall be my partner?" The females merely tittered.
"Fritz!" cried a laughing girl. "What's become of Fritz? Surely he will give you a dance!"
At last, Elliot managed to stammer, "My good woman, who -- whose house is this?"
The plump housekeeper paused, his sundry items of dripping apparel in hand, and blinked at him oddly for a long moment. "Hmm...why, it queers me to guess, sir!"
"You -- you do not know, either?" Elliot was feeling seriously confused. But in an exceedingly warm and pleasant way.
The housekeeper pursed her lips as if in deep thought. "Well, I should venture to say that, technically speaking, 'tis prob'ly Mr. Michael's house."
The housekeeper shot him a sideways glance laced with amiable warning. "Aye, but it's Miss Stone who be in charge here, and no mistake! Now, let's get you out o' those wet boots and into the studio before she has a fit. You know what artists are like! Though, in truth, Miss Stone's really as much an angel as her name implies."
"Stone?" asked Elliot, a quizzical smile beginning to tug at his lips. The name certainly did not sound celestial.
The housekeeper's brow furrowed. "Oh, no! No, indeed! Evangeline! But, no...you probably came looking for someone else entirely, did ye not?" Her eyes narrowed shrewdly even as she beamed at him.
Elliot nodded, trying to hide his disappointment at being found out. "Yes, I did. I was wondering when you might realize it."
The housekeeper nodded sagely. "Aye, happens here often enough. Like as not, you expected to find some stuffy gentleman named Edmund or Edgar van Artevalde, did ye not? Well, you're in for a pleasant surprise, indeed."
Elliot was on the verge of admitting that he'd had nothing but a series of pleasant surprises these last two minutes and that he hadn't a clue as to who Mr. van Artevalde might be, but the housekeeper was motioning impatiently for his boots again. "Er -- no, ma'am," Elliot averred. "I daresay I ought to keep my boots -- "
"Well, suit yourself, I always say!" interposed the woman with a shrug. "But you'll catch your death, mark my word. And we stand on no ceremony here at Chatham Lodge, so you may as well have 'em off."
Chatham Lodge. How pretty it sounded, though it meant nothing at all to him. Elliot was struck with the fleeting impression that if he should turn and walk back out the front door into the mist, he might return here tomorrow to find that Chatham Lodge had never existed. It seemed that fanciful to him.
Almost immediately, a wide door in the rear of the hall burst open, and another housemaid darted out. A small black dog shot from between her legs, pink tongue dangling, and headed undoubtedly toward the lively crowd. "Mrs. Penworthy!" called the maid, clearly oblivious to the skittering animal, "Miss Stone says to fetch the London gent straightaways to the studio. She says as how the good light is fair to disappearin' on account of the rain, and she's ter'ble anxious to see him."
Elliot decided that he was as terrible anxious to see the mysterious Miss Stone as she was to see him.
"Oh, oh -- yes, indeed," murmured Mrs. Penworthy, and, with one last resigned glance at Elliot's boots, she darted down the hall with impressive haste, motioning for Elliot to follow.
Well, what the hell! As the Iron Duke always said, "In for a penny, in for a pound." Elliot caught up with the bobbing, jingling housekeeper halfway down the hall, passing, as he joined her, a drawing room filled to overflowing with young people. In the center of the laughing crowd, a handsome youth with a fichu tied dramatically about his head seemed to be dancing a boulanger. Aloft, he held his partner -- the small black dog. Apparently, the errant Fritz had returned, and with an empty slot on his dance card.
Elliot suppressed a snort of laughter, but just then the housekeeper turned abruptly down a short corridor that shot off to the right and threw open the double doors that lay at the end.
Elliot was escorted into a cavernous, whitewashed chamber with a bank of high, vaulted windows that ran along the south end of the room. Above, a narrow gallery ran along the southerly and westerly sides, and below, a huge blank canvas stood propped against the wall, as did several easels and a half dozen partially completed paintings. The ancient stone floor was bare, save for a matching set of opulent Turkish carpets. One was spread beneath the desk, which sat, along with two side chairs, in the northeast corner. Opposite the desk, a long, rough-hewn worktable held pots and jars of assorted shapes. On the farthest wall, a long, well-worn leather sofa and a pair of carved armchairs were grouped into a sitting area upon another carpet. Paintings, both watercolor and oil, in varying sizes and styles, covered almost every expanse of wall. In the few blank spaces that remained, pencil sketches had been neatly tacked into place. The thick, sharp tang of solvent and oil hung heavily in the air.
Near the center of the room stood an easel, and rising from the chair beside it was quite possibly the most beautiful woman Elliot had ever had the pleasure to encounter in all of his thirty-four nefarious years. The mysterious Miss Stone, he presumed. She was a dainty, fine-boned woman in her late twenties, with a sensually full mouth and strong, high cheekbones. Her eyes were china blue and wide-set, her nose a serious straight angle, and her neatly braided hair, the color of rich buttermilk, was twisted into a plain yet elegant arrangement. Attired in a simple dark blue dress, Miss Stone also wore a coarse smock liberally blotted with stains in a rainbow of hues.
She came quickly toward him with a strong, purposeful step that seemed out of character with her size and appearance. "Thank you, Mrs. Penworthy," she said in a low, rich voice which held a distinctly Continental accent that Elliot could not identify. "You may leave us now."
Miss Stone closed the short distance between them, her face bright and smiling and one hand extended just a bit too high for a handshake. Suddenly, she was near enough to touch him, and, surprisingly, she did so, reaching higher still to grasp his chin in her hand. Elliot suppressed a sharp gasp as her warm fingers touched his jawbone. Slowly, methodically, she twisted his face this way and that. Her grip was sure, her fingers surprisingly strong.
"Excellent bones," she murmured, staring up into his face with open admiration. "You are most striking, Mr. -- Mr. -- " Appearing suddenly embarrassed, she turned to scrabble about in the papers on her desk. "So sorry -- I'm sure I must have Peter Weyden's letter right here. You wanted...let me see, you wanted..."
Miss Stone continued her frantic search, then finally turned to him in surrender. "I must beg your sincere forgiveness, sir, for I do seem to have misplaced the note. Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me your name, and explain to me exactly what you had in mind?"
Miss Stone's face seemed fixed in anticipation, and Elliot suddenly realized that she really had been expecting someone else altogether. Someone from London. Someone who had not come. There was no magic spell. He did not belong here. And if he told this warm, beautiful woman his name, she might very well recognize it and pitch him right back into the cold, dreary day from which he'd just come. But he had no choice. A black-hearted devil he might be, but Elliot prided himself on being an honest one. With a resigned bow, he reluctantly answered, "I am Elliot Robert -- "
Suddenly, a crash of glass echoed down the hall, and the tinkle of the pianoforte came to an abrupt halt. A long, dead silence fell across the gaiety that had previously drifted from the drawing room. "Good Lord," muttered Miss Stone, one hand fluttering to her temple. "Please excuse me, Mr. Roberts! I collect we've just lost another vase. Or a mirror perhaps. I do ask that the boys not cavort or play catch in the long hall, but, well -- such temptation! And on such a dreadful rainy day..." Miss Stone let her explanation trail away behind her as she headed for the door.
Mr. Roberts? Mr. Roberts. How simple. A nice enough name, really. And certainly he had not said that he was Mr. Roberts. Indeed, that misconception was one that Miss Stone had drawn entirely of her own accord. And he really did want to stay, if only for a few moments. Just a little bit ashamed of what he was considering, Elliot stared down at the toes of his ruined boots. It was then that he realized that his huge foot had come to rest on a folded scrap of paper. Slowly, Elliot bent down to pick it up. It was a tiny note addressed in a stiff, old-fashioned copperplate to Miss E. Stone. Obviously, the missive had been hand-delivered, since the note gave no direction.
With another wave of shame, only the second Elliot had felt in about a decade, he flipped open the note to stare at the scrawled signature. The body of the note was written in neither English nor French, the only two languages Elliot had ever troubled himself to learn. Nonetheless, at a quick glance, he made out the signature. Peter Weyden. This was Mr. Weyden's letter. Miss Stone's footfalls sounded back down the hall, and Elliot spun toward the door, clutching the note behind his back.
Miss Stone, looking slightly vexed, appeared on the threshold. "Vase? Or mirror?" he asked, trying to be charming and cordial. It was a bit of a stretch for Elliot, who, generally speaking, bothered to be neither.
"Worse," muttered Miss Stone, apparently unimpressed with either his charm or his cordiality. "A window."
Elliot's discerning eye swept Evangeline Stone's lithe figure, noting the elegant sway of her hips as she stalked back into the room. "How unpleasant," he murmured, ruthlessly shoving the note deep into his coat pocket.
Miss Stone merely shrugged and shot him a resigned look. "I shall summon the glazier tomorrow. In the meantime, I have tasked Michael and Theo with sweeping up the glass, since they are the guilty parties."
"Michael and Theo?"
Miss Stone smiled somewhat wearily. "Yes, my impish younger brother and my -- my cousin. Theodore Weyden."
"Weyden?" Elliot parroted stupidly.
Miss Stone withdrew to take the seat to the right of her easel and motioned him toward a chair opposite. "Yes. But of course! I forget that you are acquainted with Peter Weyden. Theo, you see, is his nephew."
"And your cousin as well?"
"In a manner of speaking." Miss Stone's cool blue eyes flicked up at him as she turned the page in a sketchbook and then replaced it against the easel. "Now, tell me, Mr. Roberts, what do you have in mind?"
Elliot swallowed hard. "I daresay that just...just the usual should suffice, I think."
A faint smile played at Miss Stone's lips as she fixed her gaze on him. They were very close, not more than six feet apart, and Elliot could see her eyes narrow perceptively. "Just the usual? Nothing exotic? Symbolic? Abstract?"
She was toying with him, and Elliot felt exceedingly stupid. Big and stupid, like the raw-boned Scottish boy he'd been ten years ago. Stiffly, he inclined his head. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. I fear I have no notion -- "
Miss Stone did laugh then, a rich, musical laugh that made Elliot think, oddly enough, of clean, cool water flowing through green lowland braes. "Very well, Mr. Roberts. I shan't torture you. After all, your heart is apparently in the right place, since this is to be a gift for your fiancée -- ?"
Miss Stone frowned. "Indeed, I have that much aright, do I not? I recollect that is what Mr. Weyden said in his letter, that this portrait is a betrothal gift."
Elliot hedged, artfully avoiding her question. "I would like for you to paint my portrait, Miss Stone, in keeping with your tastes. Certainly, I have no preconceived notion as to how such a thing ought to be done."
"And as to your fiancée's preference?"
"I rather doubt, Miss Stone, that any woman's judgment in such things" -- Elliot let his gaze drift over the beautiful works that hung from the walls -- "could equal yours."
His hostess nodded curtly. "Very well," she murmured. "And Mr. Weyden has informed you of the price of this commission?" Miss Stone, her head tilted to one side, had begun to make light pencil marks upon the sketchpad.
"I -- whatever your charge, I am willing to pay it."
Miss Stone's brows arched elegantly at that. "Indeed? But you should understand that there are a dozen competent portrait artists conveniently located within two miles of the City of London who will do this work for half of what I shall ask."
"That doesn't signify," Elliot interrupted. "I want you to do it, and besides, I rather enjoyed my ride in the country."
"How unusual to enjoy riding in a drenching rain," murmured Evangeline Stone. "I fear you shall be inconvenienced by several such rides before this portrait is completed."
Elliot paused. He had not considered such a thing. In fact, he hadn't considered anything at all. And regrettably, he was not the least put off by the thought of spending a great deal of time sequestered with Evangeline Stone in her studio.
Good Lord -- what was he doing here? In the middle of nowhere, pretending to be someone he was not, and watching this breathtaking woman sketch his likeness? It was insane. But Elliot could bring himself neither to explain, to apologize, to leave, nor to do any of the things he ought to have done long since. He felt transfixed by -- no, drawn to this place. And to this woman. Abjectly, he raised his eyes to meet her pointed gaze. "I just want you to paint my portrait," he answered honestly, his voice soft.
Miss Stone made no answer, but she began to sketch in earnest, her hand sliding back and forth across the paper in bold, sweeping motions. As she worked, her eyes flicked back and forth from the paper to his face, over and over again. Twice, Miss Stone stopped suddenly to focus on his eyes, holding his gaze in long, timeless moments, her hand frozen elegantly in mid-stroke.
Elliot sat stoically, watching her work. It was fascinating. No, mesmerizing. He wondered what she saw when she stared into his eyes so boldly. What was she sketching? What did she see when she looked at him?
"I am merely studying your face at present," she commented, as if in answer to his unspoken queries. "I prefer to begin with a few sketches to familiarize myself with your bones, the way the planes and angles catch the light. Turn your head, please, Mr. Roberts. Just slightly to the left -- yes, that's it. Thank you." She resumed her work and continued thus for another quarter hour or longer.
Elliot, still transfixed, eventually lost track of time. He was, therefore, surprised to hear himself blurt out a question into the protracted silence of the studio. "How long have you been a portrait painter, Miss Stone?" The soft whisking of her pencil stopped abruptly. "I'm sorry," he belatedly added. "I should have said an artist. How long have you been an artist?"
"Portrait painter will suffice, Mr. Roberts. You need not fear insulting me. I am well aware that most portraits, unlike landscapes, for example, do not carry great artistic weight at present. Nonetheless, I take great pride in all my work."
"And you do other types of work, do you not?" His gaze floated over the room's north wall, the upper half of which was covered in landscapes.
"Not all of those are mine, Mr. Roberts. But yes, I do the occasional landscape. However, society's obsession with immortality ensures that the business of portrait work is both consistent and lucrative."
"You make no apologies. I rather like that."
"I cannot afford to," she replied briskly, ripping away one sheet of paper and laying it carefully to one side. Elliot was disappointed to see that she placed it facedown. "And to answer your question, I have been painting all my life, but only in the last seven years have I built my -- my reputation. Such as it may be," she added.
"Forgive me, Miss Stone, but you have a lovely accent -- almost French. Did you study abroad?"
"Yes," she said simply, but Elliot saw that her expression had begun to soften.
"What a wonderful opportunity for -- for..."
"For a female?" Her gaze caught his again, and Elliot could see a flash of blue fire. "I am Flemish, Mr. Roberts. My father was an English artist who met my mother in the studios of Brugge. Since neither his work nor his bride was acceptable to his family, my parents found life abroad much more to their liking."
"Ah, I see. And how long have you been in England?"
"Since my mother's death, almost ten years now."
"And your father?"
"My father passed away five years ago."
"I am sorry, Miss Stone. Have you no husband, no family, save your brother?"
Evangeline Stone's cool gaze came to rest squarely on his face, and Elliot realized that he had overstepped himself. Badly. What had possessed him to ask such impertinent questions? Belatedly, he tried to apologize, but Miss Stone cut him off with a toss of her hand.
"Pray do not regard it, Mr. Roberts. I can hear the kindness in your voice. I have also a younger sister, Nicolette, and a cousin, Frederica. Michael is eleven."
"Surely you cannot be responsible for them?" he asked incredulously.
"Most assuredly, sir, I am. Fortunately, I have assistance. Peter Weyden was my father's business partner for many years, and he now serves us in many ways, as a sort of uncle, a trustee, and a guardian. He helps oversee our investments, he supervises our estate manager, and he screens my commissions; all other matters he leaves to me." Her face was fixed in a tight smile. "We are in good hands, Mr. Roberts. And far from destitute, I can assure you."
"I'm sorry, Miss Stone. I certainly never meant to imply -- "
"I'm quite sure, sir, that you did not. Pray lift your chin just slightly, please. Yes, that is -- ah, perfect." She made three or four quick marks, then set down her pencil. "Mr. Roberts, the day grows quite late, and the light is fading. We can do no more today, I am afraid."
Elliot suppressed a wave of disappointment. "I see."
"When might it be convenient for you to return?"
Elliot opened his mouth to answer, but his reply was forestalled by yet another commotion in the hall. Suddenly, the door burst inward, and a pretty, round-figured woman attired in a gown of brilliant purple sailed through the door. A boy and a girl, whom Elliot had spied earlier among the crowd in the drawing room, followed hard on her heels.
"Evie, my darling! You shall never guess who -- " She stopped short as she spied Elliot from across the room. "Oh, my dear! Pray forgive me, for I did not know that Mr. Hart had finally come!"
Elliot froze. Mr. Hart. Not Mr. Roberts. How humiliating to have his silly ruse found out. With a sigh of regret, Elliot forced himself to rise and make a weak bow to the lady. Miss Stone was by now on her feet.
"Aunt Winnie! See! See! We tried to tell you," insisted the eldest child, a flaxen-haired boy. He was undoubtedly Michael Stone, for he was the very image of his elder sister. "Evie has a guest, just as we said."
"Well, so she does, my dears!" The woman in purple was blushing now. She was remarkably attractive, in a bold, voluptuous sort of way, and appeared to be in her middle to late thirties.
"Not at all, Winnie," interjected Miss Stone, "for we were just finishing. Do come meet Mr. Elliot Roberts. Mr. Roberts, this is my companion, Winnie Weyden, who is Peter Weyden's sister-in-law. And this is my young brother, Michael Stone. And my cousin, Frederica d'Avillez."
The two children, who looked to be perhaps ten and eight, greeted Elliot amiably. Then, almost immediately, the girl, a slight child with black hair and olive skin, seemed to slip shyly behind Evangeline Stone's skirts, very nearly disappearing.
"Mrs. Weyden," murmured Elliot politely, nodding to them in turn. "Michael. Miss d'Avillez. It is a pleasure, to be sure."
"Oh!" chirped Winnie Weyden, still blushing. "Hart? Roberts? They sound not at all alike, do they? Pray forgive me," she said, her rich golden ringlets dancing nervously about her round, pleasant face. "I vow, I cannot remember the names of my own children, let alone anyone else!"
Elliot breathed a sigh of relief. "Pray think no more of it, Mrs. Weyden. As it happens, I am just taking my leave."
"I shall see you out," murmured Evangeline Stone, making her way around the chairs and past the newcomers. Evie. He rather liked that name.
"Yes, to be sure," agreed Mrs. Weyden. "But do have a care, Mr. Roberts. The rain has worsened considerably, and this road is now barely passable. I have just come from the vicarage and very nearly did not make my way back -- "
The group rambled down the hall with Miss Stone in the lead. The boy and girl, laughing and chattering, followed Elliot like good-natured puppies as Winnie Weyden continued her rambling exhortations. " -- and our coachman said in all his seven and fifty years he's never seen the like. Mud nigh up to our hubs! I do hope, Mr. Roberts, that you've come to us on horseback? For I cannot think that a coach could safely make its way back to the London road this evening."
The elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Penworthy, met them in the hall, Elliot's hat in hand. Just then, the door flew open to admit a burst of whipping rain, followed by a stooped, elderly man in a long black coat. "Bolton!" cried the housekeeper, setting aside the hat to pull off the man's drenched coat. "Pray, how did you find your daughter? And whatever took ye so long?"
The elderly man, whom Elliot now saw was dressed in formal butler's garb, seemed unfazed by the half dozen people crowding his hall and was obviously returning to his post from an unpleasant excursion in the rain.
"My good woman," the butler answered Mrs. Penworthy as he handed her his sodden hat, "I was quite unable to see my daughter. However, Squire Ellows, whom I met at the bridge to Wrotham Ford, tells me that she and the new babe go on very well."
"Haven't seen her?" echoed the cheerful housekeeper. "Gone all that way in this torrent and haven't seen her?"
"No, indeed, madam. The bridge washed out, and none can pass through. I was obliged to shout at Squire Ellows across the water and could do little more. I've spent these last two hours pushing carriages out of mud, and I am none the better for it, I can tell you!"
"Pushing carriages! At your age?" The housekeeper tugged on the bell. "Are ye daft? Best send for more tea, or we'll likely have both you and Mr. Roberts here dying of lung fever or such like, what with the both of you nigh drowned a-traipsing about in it."
At this, the elderly butler looked at Elliot with what appeared to be perfectly amiable disinterest. "Indeed, sir. Indeed. And I shouldn't go back out, if I were you." As if to give credence to the old man's warning, the skies opened wider still, and the rain began to hammer unmercifully at the front door. From the narrow window, Elliot could scarcely make out the front walkway, let alone the gardens beyond.
"Hullo, Mama!" chimed a pleasant voice, and Elliot turned to see a young man striding down the hall from the drawing room. It was the same fellow he'd observed earlier dancing madly about with the fichu tied around his head. He smiled warmly at Elliot. "And Evie, who's this? Have we a guest?"
Evangeline interrupted. "Mr. Roberts, this is Augustus Weyden, Mrs. Weyden's eldest. Gus, this is Elliot Roberts."
"Indeed, Gussie," added Mrs. Weyden as Gus pumped Elliot's hand up and down with the youthful enthusiasm of one who hopes he has met a kindred spirit. "Mr. Roberts has come to have his portrait done. He was just on his way back to town."
"Shouldn't recommend it, sir," insisted Gus Weyden, shaking his head. Elliot gazed at the young man appraisingly. He was young -- twenty, perhaps -- tall and lanky, with his mother's gold-brown hair. A handsome fellow, Augustus Weyden was dressed for the country in a simple, well-cut blue coat and fawn trousers. Nonetheless, a hint of the youthful dandy lingered, evidenced by a fine cravat en cascade. "Best rack up here for the nonce," finished Gus with an amiable shrug. "Lots of room, and Cook turns out an excellent joint." Just then, a second young man, obviously another Weyden, stepped out of the drawing room and nodded politely in Elliot's direction. Undoubtedly this was Theo, the rambunctious window breaker.
Winnie Weyden smiled at her younger son, then turned to Miss Stone. "Indeed, Evie, dear. I daresay it would be best if Mr. Roberts stayed. I shall have Tess lay another place for dinner," she added, as if the matter were settled.
"Thank you, Mrs. Weyden," interjected Elliot. "You are exceedingly kind, but I do not go back to town tonight. In fact, I have business...nearby."
"Bridge is out," mumbled the butler in a tone that implied he found Elliot's intelligence wanting.
"Yes, but I haven't got a carriage. Surely a horse -- " But Elliot's protestation was cut off by a warm hand encircling his arm. He looked down into the bottomless blue eyes of Evangeline Stone, and an enigmatic, nameless longing seized him, stealing his breath and taking him quite by surprise. The sweet emotion twisted roughly inside his stomach, fast bringing him to the edge of pain.
"Please stay, Mr. Roberts," she softly insisted, so near that he could smell her warm fragrance. For the briefest moment, Elliot ceased to think. "It is perfectly proper, I can assure you," continued Miss Stone, apparently oblivious to the effect she was having on his senses. "We entertain frequently here, and I would be exceedingly glad for your company tonight."
"I should not like to impose."
"Not at all." She shook her head. "As you can see, we always have a jolly house full, and one more can be no inconvenience. Indeed, if you are an early riser, then you'll find that the morning light here is of an excellent quality. Spare me two hours tomorrow, and I shall begin your portrait, yes? Then the water will no doubt have receded, and you may ford the stream."
Miss Stone's warm hand slipped slowly away from Elliot's arm, and with it went his resolve. Staying the night made some sense, he reassured himself. And although Elliot generally gave no consideration whatsoever to the propriety of his actions, he now paused to give a passing thought to the matter. However, his hostess was a grown woman, chaperoned by a mature companion and a gaggle of cheerful young people, so surely his remaining -- or at least the honorable Elliot Roberts's remaining -- would not be improper.
And indeed, if he managed to reach Wrotham Ford this late in the day, he would simply find himself obliged to put up for the night at Mr. Tanner's inn. Not a very pleasant prospect, that. Far better, whispered the devil perched upon his shoulder, to go tomorrow when the weather has cleared.
"Ah, come on, Roberts," cajoled Gus Weyden, apparently in cahoots with Elliot's personal demons. "Stokely, Theo, and I need a competent fourth for cards tonight. Evie don't like 'em, and Mama's dreadful!"
"Augustus!" scolded his mother, rapping him soundly on the hand. "You should be grateful that I -- "
"Quiet, please!" called Miss Stone sharply over the din. "We are inundating our guest with people whose names he cannot possibly remember. Let us not add confusion and quarreling to the mayhem just yet!"
"Indeed," murmured Winnie Weyden in agreement. "There are far too many of us!"
"Mrs. Penworthy," directed Evangeline, "please show Mr. Roberts to the Tower Room. Frederica," she said, looking at her little cousin, "go tell Cook there shall be nine to dinner. Michael, find Polly and tell her to prepare hot water for Mr. Roberts's bath, for he's been soaked to the skin."
As Miss Stone's young brother trotted off to do her bidding, Elliot opened his mouth to protest, but his hostess was still issuing orders while the people who filled the hallway stood at attention. For a moment, the directives seemed out of place coming from such a pretty, delicate thing, and it struck him that Evangeline Stone was a woman of great contrasts. Looks could, indeed, be deceiving, for there was apparently nothing delicate about her.
"And Bolton shall see to the brushing of your jacket and trousers, Mr. Roberts. Now, Gussie," Evangeline continued, turning her gaze firmly upon the elder Weyden son, "go to the stables and tell Hurst he's to stable Mr. Roberts's horse for the night."
"Oh, Evie! It's pouring!" whined the young man pitifully.
"Then shut your mouth, Gus, and you shan't drown," replied Miss Stone firmly. "Now, Theo," she said, turning her attentions to the younger Weyden boy, "finish cleaning the broken glass in the drawing room. And where is Nicolette? What has become of my sister?"
"Here," said a soft voice from the drawing-room door. A beautiful young woman who looked very like Miss Stone darted into the crowded hall.
"Nicolette, I'm finished painting for the day. Will you clean brushes for me?" asked Miss Stone, and the girl nodded. "Later, we shall begin work on pigments for tomorrow, since Mr. Roberts has agreed to stay the night."
Elliot was just about to point out that he'd agreed to no such thing when he was struck by two dissimilar thoughts. The first was that one did not easily disagree with Evangeline Stone's instructions, and the second, even more surprising thought was that he really had no wish to disagree with her. Indeed, it was pleasant to have someone see so efficiently to his comforts -- a bath, clean clothes, a warm meal, and good company. Someone who was not even being paid to do so.
After all was carefully considered, Elliot could think of nothing he'd rather do than spend the evening enjoying the odd companionship of this very large, very strange family.
Just for tonight, whispered the devil. What could be the harm?
Copyright © 1999 by S.T. Woodhouse
My False Heart
When Elliot Armstrong, the dissolute marquis of Rannoch, pursues a spiteful mistress into the wilds of Essex to sever their relationship, he is surprised to find himself hopelessly lost -- in more ways than one. Inexplicably drawn to a warmly fit house along an isolated country lane, he is mistaken for an overdue guest -- but he dares not reveal his identity for fear of being tossed back out into the torrential rain, a fate he admittedly deserves. The loving family that innocently welcomes Rannoch into their midst soon challenges his cynical convictions, and ultimately, resurrects his shattered dreams.
The beautiful Evangeline van Artevalde is an artist of exceptional talent and extraordinary secrets. Isolated from society by choice, the half-Flemish refugee has fled her homeland in search of a secure haven for the children in her family. But even the Essex countryside, she finds, is not without danger. As the clutches of her aristocratic English relatives tighten, Evangeline holds them at bay by sheer force of will, unleashing her emotions only within the walls of her studio. The furthest thing from her heart is desire -- until a drenched, strikingly handsome man shows up at her doorstep late one night. Soon, Evangeline finds she can no longer confine her passions to oil paint and canvas.
Drawn by desire, Elliot and Evangeline discover a powerful love neither thought possible. But malevolent forces surround them, and soon their secrets will be exposed and their hearts tested to unthinkable limits. Only if they can forgive the past will they have a future....