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The Art of Seduction
By KATHERINE O'NEAL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Katherine O'Neal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI must be in heaven.
Mason stepped from the carriage and into a perfect world. The rain was gone and it was a glorious Parisian day, the sky a brilliant blue, the air shimmering and dappled with fleecy clouds. The merest trifle of a perfumed breeze rippled through the bare branches of the trees that lined the fashionable Rue Lafitte.
And there before her, a line of people awaiting admittance to the Galerie Falconier stretched all the way down to the Boulevard Haussmann. A placard beside the entrance displayed, in French, words that seemed to have been snatched from a dream:
Exhibition of Paintings By the Celebrated American Impressionist Mason Caldwell
As she took in the scene, she caught her reflection in the gallery window and almost didn't recognize herself. She was corseted and bustled into a concoction of the palest pink, topped off with a playfully insouciant hat sporting ostrich feathers. Swathes of lace cascaded down in a veil to delicately obscure her face. Her newly dyed black hair made her look faintly exotic, masking her usual fresh-scrubbed country appearance. She liked the change. It made her feel so mischievous that she had to resist the impulse to spin about in glee.
Lisette stepped out behind her. "Are you ready for this,chérie?"
Mason looked at her friend. She was an effortlessly beautiful woman of twenty-two, raised on the streets of Montmartre-and wise to all its ways, despite the childlike innocence she exuded-with a tumble of sunshine blond hair, a pouty smile, and a lithe yet curvaceous body that was a prime attraction of the Cirque Fernando, where she was the featured trapeze artist.
"Ready?" Mason took an excited breath. "I've been ready for this all my life."
The dreamlike atmosphere continued as they entered the gallery. Auguste Falconier, the same man who'd said such scathing things to her before, now actually rushed forth to usher her in with welcoming arms. "Ah, Mademoiselle Caldwell, at last! The invited guests are all here and, as you have seen for yourself, the public outside clamors for admittance. Those inside are so eager to buy the paintings that the moment the preview is over, they will be trampling over one another to give us their money!"
He gestured past the foyer into the salon beyond. What she saw inside was just as she'd always imagined it: a crowd of wealthy patrons circulating with champagne in hand to admire her canvases, which were tastefully displayed throughout the high-ceilinged rooms of the former Second Empire row mansion.
"Allow me, Mademoiselle-may I call you Amy?"
Lisette nudged Mason and she started at the sound of the still-unfamiliar name. Rousing herself, she answered, "Yes, of course. By all means, call me Amy."
"Then, Mademoiselle Amy, allow me to show you our most heart-wrenching tribute to the artist, your late sister."
He led them to a glass display case. Inside was a collection of well-used personal effects: paint box, palette colored with rich smears of dried oil paint, tin can filled with brushes, stained smock, broad-brimmed straw hat, and in the center, a coat and a pair of shabby brown shoes.
"The shoes were those left by your sister on the bridge before she ju-" He corrected himself hastily, "Before she entered immortality. A last-minute idea on my part. I find them indescribably touching. Somehow they speak of her dedication, her poverty, and in the end, her desperation and tragedy."
Mason regarded the grimy shoes-the leather faded and worn, the toes scuffed from numerous painting expeditions in the Oise River Valley-and had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from smiling. It was too funny. She had other, nicer shoes, but none she'd have chosen to ruin on a midnight walk in the rain.
I'd love to see the look on this phony's face if he knew I wasn't the sister Amy just off the ship from America, but the dear departed herself.
Falconier allowed a moment of reverential silence before speaking. "I cannot tell you what an honor it is to represent an artist of such innovative genius as Mason Caldwell."
Lisette, rolling her eyes at the hypocrisy, put a hand on a shapely hip and spoke for the first time. "Genius? Was it her genius you referred to when you called her style impossible? When you told her to get them out of your sight?"
The proprietor drew himself up in outrage. "Mais, pas du tout! I said no such a thing! If someone of my staff dared to utter such defamation, I will discharge him from my employ immediately!" He turned to Mason with both hands on his heart. "I can say, Mademoiselle Amy, in all humility, that I recognized the monumental gift of your sister from the first."
Lisette, who feared nothing and no one, shook her head. "Ooh-la-la!"
"But come, everyone is eager to pay you their respects."
Falconier marched off, full of his own self-importance. Lisette put a hand on Mason's arm, waiting until he was out of range, then whispered to her, "Remember. You've never been to France before. You do not speak a word of French."
When they caught up to Falconier, he said, "I realize, Mademoiselle Amy, that you are still raw from your tragedy, but we have some gentlemen of the press here who are panting to talk with you about our beloved Mason. And it is always wise to strike while the iron is hot, n'est-pas? So if you don't mind, please to follow me."
He didn't pause long enough to see whether she minded or not, but proceeded into the main salon where a group of gentlemen stood waiting with pencils and pads in hand and eyes hungry to embellish a story that was fast becoming the rage of Paris.
Mason had always dreamed of being the center of attention, all eyes on her, pencils poised to jot down every word she uttered. But it had been such a rush to pull herself together for this charade that she hadn't had time to fully formulate her story.
Don't slip. Don't let them suspect who you really are.
As she joined Falconier, she dabbed her eyes with her veil, as if brushing away a tear, and said with a feigned air of sorrow, "Yes, it's been quite an ordeal. But if it will help the legacy of poor Mason, of course I'll tell them whatever I can."
As she spoke, Lisette translated for those in the group who didn't understand English.
Falconier cleared his throat. "Gentlemen of the press, may I present Mademoiselle Amy Caldwell, the sister of our late-departed and much-missed artist. And with her, the lovely Mademoiselle Lisette Ladoux of the Cirque Fernando and Folies-Bergères. She was, as you know, a close personal friend of the artist and her primary model."
A thin man with a goatee began the proceedings. "Mademoiselle Caldwell, I am Etienne Debray of La Gauloise. May I ask, why do you think it is that your sister's work was so unappreciated in her brief life?"
Mason considered the question, then spoke slowly, "I know little about art, but I think her paintings may have threatened the people who always want things to remain the same."
"Why do you think there is such interest in her now?"
"I'm sorry, I can't answer that. Perhaps it's just that her time has come."
As Lisette translated, Mason noticed a man standing by himself several yards behind the reporters, staring at her with a penetrating gaze. The first thing she noticed was his size. He stood a full head above the rest of the crowd, with prominent wide shoulders and large hands that offered a captivating contrast to the ease with which he wore his expensively tailored suit. He'd forsaken the beard Parisian men favored and was clean-shaven, emphasizing the sculpted line of his jaw. He was the most arresting man she'd ever seen. But it wasn't just his individual features-dark hair, wide forehead, thick brows atop piercing dark eyes, vertical creases on either side of his mouth-that made him so. As handsome as he was at first glance, it was the energy he projected that riveted her attention, one of action and excitement, and the promise of adventure. It hit her like a physical blow. Raw. Feral. Brazenly sexual.
For a moment, she lost track of what Lisette was saying. Why was the man looking at her this way? She'd never seen him before, but he was inspecting her with a cheeky sort of intimacy. She felt positively naked beneath his unflinching scrutiny and had to resist the urge to adjust her clothing. Was it possible that he recognized her? But no, she'd taken great pains to change her appearance-dyeing her hair, wearing carefully applied cosmetics, even chopping off the long eyelashes that were her most noticeable feature.
She dragged her gaze away and forced herself to concentrate.
Another reporter asked, "But, mademoiselle, there is no precedent for what is going on here today. Surely much of the interest is due to the harrowing circumstances of your sister's demise. Such a wretched death for one so young, so beautiful, so talented."
Someone piped up with, "But it has done wonders for her career."
There were some snickers from the spectators who'd gathered round.
Falconier held up his hands. "Please, gentlemen, have some respect!"
The questioner added, "I certainly meant no disrespect. I only meant to point out that there is a quality to her life and death that seems to move people in a way that I have never seen before. She never had a patron, never sold a painting, never had the slightest encouragement from what we can tell. And yet she worked on, giving everything to her art, including, finally, her life. That is the mark of a true martyr, a ... Joan of Art."
As he coined the phrase, a silence descended on the crowd, as if suddenly realizing that they were a part of something larger than what had first been apparent.
Mason, taken aback by this, wasn't sure what to say. She glanced about at the dumbstruck crowd. As she did, her gaze met and held that of the man standing on the fringes. He gave a slow, single nod of his head that baffled her.
"Jeanne d'Art," repeated one of the reporters. "C'est formidable!"
The newsmen were now writing furiously. As they finished, another of them asked, "What are your plans for the paintings?"
Mason waited for Lisette to finish translating before she answered, "Monsieur Falconier will try to sell the eighteen here today-"
The intriguing man at the back shook his head, distracting her. She stumbled, then continued, "With the stipulation that, should the committee deem them acceptable, they be made available to be displayed at the World's Fair this summer. I understand they turned her down once, but Monsieur Falconier seems to think in light of the recent publicity ..."
"Are there more paintings?"
Mason hadn't expected the question. But on impulse, she said, "Yes, many."
As she translated, Lisette tossed her a quizzical frown. This wasn't part of the plan.
Falconier looked pleasantly startled. "Really! But this is magnifique! And where are they?"
Thinking on her feet, Mason said, "My sister shipped them back to me in Massachusetts. I could have them sent over if anyone wanted to see them."
Falconier had brightened considerably at this news. He rubbed his smooth, white hands together, and his eyes sparked with the glint of avarice. "Want to see them? The world will demand to see them! And you may rest assured that the Falconier Gallery will be the enthusiastic broker for these masterpieces."
Lisette couldn't help but smile at his greed. "How kind of the monsieur," she quipped.
One of the reporters was nibbling thoughtfully on his pencil. "What do you surmise will happen to all this interest? Will it continue to grow?"
"I can answer that question."
Mason turned to see Lucien Morrel, the city's foremost art critic. She'd read his reviews and respected his opinion for years. He'd been instrumental in the careers of Renoir and Degas in the days when the art establishment had turned a blind eye to the revolution in painting that was going on all around them. Now he was about to pronounce judgment on her work. Unconsciously, she held her breath.
"In two weeks' time," the learned man proclaimed, "this Mason Caldwell will have been completely forgotten. Her current notoriety is entirely without substance or merit. Her technique is sloppy, the subject matter tends toward the macabre, and her colors bear no relation to the physical reality they're supposed to convey. In short, her work is not art. It is an affront to art. This morbid interest in her is due solely to the fact that she surely realized she had no talent and, having come to this astute recognition, ended her life by flinging herself from the Pont de l'Alma. A romantic notion that at present has the bourgeoisie swooning and lining up to see her paintings, but that is all. Parisians are notorious for loving a good suicide. No, no, my friends. What we are experiencing here is not the discovery of a new master; it is a carnival sideshow."
Lisette turned to Mason, her eyes brimming with consternation. Mason waved a hand, silently telling her not to bother to translate. Hearing it once was enough.
Mason turned away, feeling flushed and overheated, wanting nothing more than to bolt from the crushing rejection.
But at that moment, her gaze once again found the handsome stranger at the back. He was still watching her. Now he slowly shook his head, then rolled his eyes. His meaning was clear. He was telling her that the revered Monsieur Morrel was talking through his hat. The warmth of it flowed through her, coursing courage and a badly needed jolt of appreciation through her veins.
Caught off guard by the critic's denunciation, Falconier had turned white. But he was saved from having to react by a sudden shuffling in the crowd and a harsh male voice calling out, "Where is Falconier?"
All eyes turned to a man of medium height, slim but well built, with slicked-back black hair and a distinctly disreputable air. It was the infamous gangster Juno Dargelos. As he and two burly bodyguards moved their way, the elegant bystanders parted in a flurry of scandalized whispers.
Spotting the proprietor, Dargelos called out, "I will buy them, Falconier. All the pictures of Lisette."
Seeing him, Lisette raised her face to the ceiling and cried out, "Oh no! Not again!"
The intruder peered at her like a love-struck spaniel, and said, "Did you think I would let anyone else possess the pictures of my darling turtledove?"
With a stamp of her foot, Lisette fired back, "How many times must I tell you, Juno? I am not your turtledove, and never will be!"
The presence of the gang chieftain provided a delicious new twist to the story. The reporters jumped on it, firing questions at him.
"Eh, Juno, what are you doing so far from Belleville?"
"You don't own the police in this part of town, after all."
"Haven't you heard that Inspector Duval has sworn he will not rest until the day he packs you off to Devil's Island?"
Dargelos extended both arms toward Lisette in a gesture worthy of a Puccini hero. "For the woman I adore, I would swim to Devil's Island and back."
As Lisette groaned, Mason took the opportunity to steal away. She looked around, trying to spot her silent advisor, but he'd moved on. Finally, she saw him in the farthest corner of the salon, his back to her.
As Falconier nervously protested that most of the paintings featured Mademoiselle Ladoux and he couldn't possibly sell all of them to the man-"I have regular customers here, Monsieur, whom I must honor!"-Mason made her way to join the fascinating stranger. As she neared, she realized he was staring at one particular painting. Like the others, it featured an idealized young woman surrounded by nightmarish imagery: a world of chaos in which line and form were exaggerated to create a sense of menace. But unlike the others, the figure at the center was herself. Her only experiment in self-portraiture.
Excerpted from The Art of Seduction by KATHERINE O'NEAL Copyright © 2007 by Katherine O'Neal. Excerpted by permission.
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