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She glanced back over her shoulder, smiling, face half hidden by the hood of her cloak. No words, just the beckoning smile, part innocence, all invitation. His breath came in hard and fast as he reached for her, touched the billowing cloak His fingers passed through it like smoke, and with a soundless sigh the cloak dissolved, taking with it the fading vision as he lunged forward. He tried to cry out but could not. And there was nothing except loss and yearning
He awoke into darkness with a jolt, his breath shuddering as he sat bolt-upright. He'd had a hell of a dream; at least he thought he must have. Sweat cooled on his body and his heart hammered. Yes. Something about a cloak. Only he couldn't remember. Just that he had dreamed that he had wanted something and it had been taken from him. The cloak had taken it or had he lost it? He lay down again and closed his eyes. As he drifted back toward sleep the thought flickered.something? Or someone?
Evelyn Fitzhugh, Viscount St. Austell, stared mutely at the murals adorning the bedchamber walls of his Grosvenor Square mansion. A line from Lionel Trehearne's letter asking for the commission sprang to his mind: You may find, my lord, that the style of these pictures differs somewhat from your expectations.
He'd been so shamed by that cold "my lord" that he'd scarce noted the content. My lord from Lionel of all men. And the letter signed with a cool Trehearne. He deserved it, though, for what he'd done, so Evelyn had swallowed it with as good a grace as might be, and gone ahead with the commission. Despite the gulf of class between them, son and heir of a viscount and son of a schoolmaster, Lionel had been like an elder brother to him once, and Evelyn had repaid that with a betrayal of trust so base that even now he burned with shame to think of it. Youth might explain folly; it did not excuse a failure of honor.
Now, faced with the murals he had commissioned, he recalled the content of that letter; Lionel's style had changed. Fundamentally. Oh, the technique was recognis-ably his, the same economy of line that suggested shape and bulk with a few simple strokes of charcoal. But six years ago Lionel's work, while brilliant, had not left Evelyn this short of breath. Yes, it had been erotic, but thisthis aching sensualitywas new. He swallowed, looking again at the slender nymph gracing his bedchamber walls. Who was she? Only blocked and roughly sketched in charcoal as yet, even complete her identity would remain a mystery. In each of the five pictures her face was hidden, shadowed by a cloak in one as she looked back over her shoulder. in farewell? Her back was turned in the next as she melted into her lover's embrace and he bent to take her mouth. A veiling of soft tresses hid her face in the third paintinghow, with only a few strokes, had Lionel conveyed the silken glory of her hair.? Evelyn swallowed. Lionel had entitled that one The Nymph, Worshipping at the Feet of the God, Administers the Kiss of Venus to Apollo. The cascade of curls might hide the actual moment, but the naked god's head flung back in imminent ecstasy, the taut corded muscles and the hand sliding through the tumbled locks to stroke the nymph's throat, a gesture at once possessive and tender there was no doubt as to what she was doing. Evelyn's mouth dried and his heart hammered a slow, heavy rhythm. He hardly dared look at the next picturethe nymph surrendered in passion to her immortal lover.
In the final picture she lay sleeping and sated in her lover's arms, her face shielded by his tender, caressing hand . Evelyn shut his eyes and felt the cool fire of her tresses slipping through his fingers, the softness of her cheek against his shoulder, her quiet breathing a caress. He wouldn't lose her again. He couldn't
A rumble of carriage wheels down in the street jerked him out of the daydream to gaze again at the reality of what he had commissioned.
Who was she?
Dammit! Lionel was the last man alive he would have chosen for this commission! Six years ago Evelyn had accepted Lionel's ultimatum that he was to remain out of their lives. He'd done so. Only by chance had he heard through a mutual friend that Lionel had gone to Italy. He could only suppose that his friend had doubted his promise to keep away. After that Lionel had dropped out of sight, communicating with no one. Evelyn wouldn't even have known the man was back if he hadn't received the letter asking for the commission and submitting a series of pen and pencil sketches. He had no idea how Lionel had heard about it, although he supposed it was common knowledge that rakish Viscount St. Austell had asked for a set of murals to adorn his bedchamber walls in his Grosvenor Square mansion to celebrate taking possession after the exit of his last remaining paternal great-aunt to a cousin's country home.
He could, of course, have lived here even with Great-aunt Millicent in residence. However, the thought of being subjected to a catechism every time he failed to come home, or did anything even remotely scandalous, had been enough to keep him in lodgings since he had inherited his father's title four years earlier.
To make matters worse, Millicent had roundly condemned his interest in art. At least, not his interest precisely, but certainly his taste. That was one thing, but when she had taken it upon herself to slap a coat of scarlet paint across one of his favorite nudes, which he'd hung in a little-used guest chamber, it was the outside of enough.
This, then, was his revenge. Great-aunt Millicent, fond of extolling the virtues of her saintly father, the fourth viscount, was likely to have apoplexy when she heard what was now adorning the deceased saint's bedchamber walls.
Half a dozen painters had submitted sketches for Evelyn's inspection; he'd rejected them all. Very well, he'd asked for explicit, but none of them had looked anything but tawdry and lewd. His main aim might be to annoy Great-aunt Millicent, but that didn't mean he wanted to live with boring paintings. Except for Lionel's entry none had so much as caused his pulse to flicker. He might still have rejected it; even six years on, salt rubbed into a still-raw wound could sting. But the address given, a shop down by Westminster Bridge, suggested that Lionel was struggling. This was the only way Evelyn could help him and perhaps make amends for the carelessness that had broken their friendship.
That was what he was telling himself, anyway. He took another look at the worshipping nymph, and his body hardened. But he'd written back, suggesting terms for the commission and omitting all mention of their falling out, only writing politely at the end that he "hoped they were both well?"
Even now the memory of Loveday Trehearne shamed him. An endless regret for youthful, selfish folly. Mention her name in a letter to her brother he would not. Especially in a letter over this particular commission.
Lionel's reply had dealt only with the commission, agreeing to his terms with one stipulation: their only contact should be by letter. Payment for the work should be made directly to an account at Hoare's Bank. There would be no meeting. Which suggested that Loveday was still with him.
Evelyn turned back to the murals. The blocking was done. He owed Lionel money, which had to be paid before the actual painting would commence. And the sooner it was done, the sooner Lionel could finish the paintings and Evelyn could move back into the family mansion.
He ought not to be here. No contact. So why the devil, having bribed the shopkeeper for the address, was he standing in the rain on the Strand at the entrance to Little Frenchman's Yard, about to break that agreement? He'd paid the money owed at Hoare's. There was no possible reason for him to be here. Except.
He just wanted to see Lionel, dammit. Nothing else. Perhaps make amends. He wasn't going to dishonor himself again. Although judging by the dank, malodorous passage that led into the yard, it seemed unlikely that Loveday was still with Lionel. He would never have permitted his sister to live in a place like this. She could have married, or Married. Evelyn forced his suddenly clenched fists to relax.
It was none of his business if Loveday had married. He was considering a betrothal himself. Not that he'd met Miss Angaston yet, but delicate approaches had been made by his aunts to the lady's family. It was considered an excellent match by all concerned. Her wealth and beauty, his wealth and title. It was the sort of marriage he was expected to make; that had been dinned into him from childhood. In his world marriage was made for social advancement, for wealth, for convenience, to oblige one's family. He had never questioned that. He recalled his father's calm voice; suggesting possible brides, but assuring Evelyn that there was no hurry that if he wished to sow a few wild oats first, it was perfectly understandable . It had all made perfect sense at the time. It was the way of the world.
But his father had been gone for four years now. At twenty-eight, even without his aunts' less-than-subtle prodding, he knew that it was time to settle down. He had woken several months earlier, on his birthday, with a mouth like the bottom of a birdcage, and had wondered who the stranger in the mirror might be, and if he even liked him. He had responsibilities, people who depended on him; in short, he'd grown up.
Now Evelyn hesitated at the mouth of the passage. Something down there was snoring. His nose wrinkled at the sourness oozing from the passage. Six years ago Lionel Trehearne had lived in a decent set of rooms in Blooms-bury, with Loveday to keep house for him. Nothing fancy, but they had been comfortable on Lionel's earnings as a painter. Why was Lionel now living down here? Evelyn stepped into the darkness and, as his eyes adjusted, realized that the snoring came from a bundle of rags and newspaper at the far end.
Trying not to breathe deeply, he traversed the passage with its damp walls. Stepping over the snoring bundle and its reek of gin, he came out into the yard. Hemmed on all sides by shabby buildings that leaned on each other in haphazard support, with just that one passage leading in, the yard seemed to repel what little damp, gray light was left in the day. Hard to imagine that even in the blaze of high noon the place would be anything but dank and drear. In the dying light of a rainy day it breathed despair.
A boy watched from the mouth of an open door. As Evelyn approached, dull eyes sharpened with wariness.
He stopped. "Good afternoon. I'm looking for Lionel Trehearne."
The child shrugged.
A battle-torn ginger cat slunk past, jaws weighed down by a rat nearly its own size.
Narrowing his gaze, Evelyn slid his hand into his coat pocket and jingled a few coins. "That your tongue the cat's got?"
A shake of the head. A flicker of what might be humor in the eyes. "Nah. Ut be a rat. Big un."
"So it is," said Evelyn. "And you can talk. NowMr Trehearne?" He jingled the coins again.
Straightening, the child pointed to a door over the passage, reached by rickety steps. "Up there. Leastways, I s'pose that's who yeh mean. Nowt else here for a toff like you."
Evelyn flipped a shilling piece to the boy. "Thank you."
The coin vanished, snatched in midair and tucked away in the putrid rags.
Evelyn mounted the steps warily. They were just as rickety as they looked. Every one creaked in protest and he tested each tread, keeping his weight to the sides, telling himself that the structure would probably survive a few more minutes.
The door at the top was as makeshift as the staircase. He knocked, hoping that Lionel would let him speak before flinging him straight back down the stairs. Listening, he waited, and eventually heard soft footfalls on the other side.
Then "Who is it?"
His stomach plummeted. Not the baritone rumble he'd expected. Not even a male voice. Soft, musical, the light cadences fell sweetly in a familiar pattern. Words thickened on his tongue, unformed like his thoughts. Yet one word, one thought, cut crystal bright.
One thought twisted clear of the tangle and with it, anger.
"It's meEvelyn. Open the door." A bolt scraped back and the door opened. "I see six years have not robbed you of one iota of charm," said Loveday Trehearne.
For a moment all he could do was stare at the woman in the misshapen doorway, and try to reconcile her with the girl he remembered. Long-lidded tawny eyes, the red-gold hair, the firm chin. A small, reddened hand came up in an achingly familiar gesture to push back an errant curl.
So much the same.and yet where the golden eyes had once held the joy and bubble of laughing innocence there was the hard edge of wariness, and with it something darkerdespair? Where once her bright curls had been bundled into a loose knot with bits forever escaping, now it was confined severelyjust that one shorter lock tumbling down to tempt a man's fingers. And her mouth, once so soft and quick to smile, looked as though it had forgotten what a smile was.
"Dammit, Loveday," he said, stepping past her. "What in Hades is Lionel about, bringing you to this.dump!"
Her eyes sharpened to blazing daggers. "Did I invite you in, my lord?"
The icy tones slashed deep, touching hurts he'd rather forget.
"If you didn't intend to invite me in, why open the door?" he demanded. And wanted to bite his tongue out. This was Loveday, and she had every right to want his hide for a hearth rug.
Her fists clenched, and her mouth flattened. "Good question. Easier to push you down the stairs with the door open, do you think?"
He dragged in a breath and forced a lid on the roiling ferment within. He had deserved that.
"I'm sorry. All right? I never meant to hurt you!"
"You didn't mean anything!"
Lord! Where had that frozen whip come from?
"I made a mistake. I never should have touched you."
"You made a mistake?" Her teeth were clenched, eyes narrowed., "How unfortunate for you." And as quickly, the blaze was extinguished in a cool smile. "You were told not to come here. That was part of the agreement, as I recall."
"Did you make that stipulation?"
She shrugged. "Why would that make a difference?"
"Where is he? Lionel made good money as a painter. Judging by the sketches he sent me, he still could. Why are you living like this?"
The delicate brows rose. "Like what? In squalor? Fashions change, my lord. In art.as well as women."
"Don't do that!"
"What? Stop speaking the truth?"