Painting the portrait of stunningly beautiful Ariana Blane is his biggest commission yet. Learning every curve of her body ignites feelings he thought were destroyed in battle. But he's not the only man who has Ariana in his sights….
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It was like walking in a dream.
All around him, history paintings, landscapes, allegories, portraits hung one next to the other like puzzle pieces until every space, floor to ceiling, was covered.
Jack wandered through the exhibition room of the Royal Academy of Art, gazing at the incredible variety, the skill, the beauty of the works. He could not believe he was here.
His regiment had been called back to England a year ago. Napoleon had abdicated, and the army had no immediate need for his services. Jack, like most of the young officers who'd lived through the war, had risen in rank. He'd been promoted to lieutenant, which gave him a bit more money when he went on half-pay. This gave him the opportunity to do what he yearned to do, needed to do. To draw. To paint. To create beauty and forget death and destruction.
Jack had gone directly to Bath, to the home of his mother and sister, the town where his mentor, Sir Cecil Harper, also lived. Sir Cecil had fostered Jack's need to draw ever since he'd been a boy and he became Jack's tutor again. Somehow the war had not robbed Jack of the ability to paint. At Sir Cecil's insistence, he submitted his paintings to the Royal Academy for its summer exhibition. Miraculously the Royal Academy accepted two of them.
They now hung here on the walls of Somerset House, home of the Royal Academy, next to the likes of Lawrence and Fuseli and Turner, in a room crowded with spectators who had not yet left the city for the summer.
Crowds disquieted Jack. The rumble of voices sounded in his ears like distant cannonade and set off memories that threatened to propel him back into the nightmare of war.
A gentleman brushed against him, and Jack almost swung at him. Luckily the man took no notice. Jack unclenched his fist, but the rumble grew louder and the sensation of cannons, more vivid. His heart beat faster and it seemed as if the room grew darker. This had happened before, a harbinger of a vision. Soon he would be back in battle again, complete with sounds and smells and fears.
Jack closed his eyes and held very still, hoping no one could tell the battle that waged inside. When he opened his eyes again, he gazed up at his sister's portrait, hung high and difficult to see, as befitted his status as a nobody. The painting grounded him. He was in London, at Somerset House, amid beauty. He smiled gratefully at her image.
'Which painting pleases you so?' a low and musical voice asked.
At Jack's elbow stood a young woman, breathtakingly lovely, looking precisely as if she had emerged from one of the canvases. For a brief moment he wondered if she too was a trick his mind was playing on him. Her skin was like silk of the palest rose, beautifully contrasted by her rich auburn hair. Her lips, deep and dusky pink, shimmered as if she'd that moment moistened them with her tongue. Large, sparkling eyes, the green of lush meadows and fringed with long mink-brown lashes, met his gaze with a fleeting expression of sympathy.
'Do say it is the one of the young lady.' She pointed to his sister's portrait.
Tearing his eyes away from her for a moment, he glanced back at the painting of his sister. 'Do you like that one?' he managed to respond.
'I do, indeed.' Her eyes narrowed in consideration. 'She is so fresh and lovely. The rendering is most life-like, but that is not the whole of it, I think—' she paused, moistening her lips, and more than Jack's artistic sensibilities came alive with the gesture '—it is most lovingly painted.'
'Lovingly painted?' Jack glanced back again at the canvas, but just for a second, because he could not bear to wrest his eyes from her.
'Yes.' She spoke as if conversing with a man to whom she had not been introduced was the most natural thing in the world, as if she were the calm in this room where Jack had just battled old demons. 'The young lady's expression. Her posture. It all bespeaks to emotion, her eagerness to see what the future holds for her and the fondness the artist has for her. It makes her even more beautiful. The painting is quite remarkable indeed.'
Jack could not help but flush with pride.
He'd painted Nancy's portrait primarily to lure commissions from prospective clients, but it had also given him the opportunity to become reacquainted with the sister who'd been a child when he'd kissed her goodbye before departing for the Peninsula. Nancy was eighteen now and had blossomed into a beauty as fresh and lovely as her portrait had been described. The painting's exquisite admirer looked to be no more than one or two years older than Nancy. If Jack painted her, however, he'd show a woman who knew precisely what she desired in life.
She laughed. 'I ought not to expect a gentleman to understand emotion.' She gazed back at the painting. 'Except the artist. He captures it perfectly.'
He smiled inwardly. If she only knew how often emotion was his enemy, skirmishing with him even in this room.
Again her green eyes sought his. 'Did you know the artist has another painting here?' She took his arm. 'Come. I will show you. You will be surprised.'
She led him to another corner of the room where, among all the great artists, she had discovered his other work.
'See?' She pointed to the painting of a British soldier raising the flag atBadajoz. 'The one above the landscape. Of the soldier. Look at the emotions of relief and victory and fatigue on the soldier's face.' She opened her catalogue and scanned the pages. ' Victory at Badajoz, it is called, and the artist is Jack Vernon.' Her gaze returned to the painting. 'What is so fascinating to me is that Vernon also hints at the amount of suffering the man must have endured to reach this place. Is that not marvellous?
'You like this one, too, then?' Jack could not have felt more gratified had the President of the Academy, Benjamin West himself, made the comment.
'I do.' She nodded emphatically.
He'd painted Victory at Badajoz to show that fleeting moment when it felt as if the siege of Badajoz had been worth what it cost. She had seen precisely what he'd wanted to convey.
Jack turned to her. 'Do you know so much of soldiering?'
She laughed again. 'Nothing at all, I assure you. But this is exactly how I would imagine such a moment to feel.' She took his arm again. 'Let me show you another.'
She led him to a painting the catalogue listed as The Surrender of Pamplona. Wellington, who only this month had become Duke of Wellington, was shown in Roman garb and on horseback accepting the surrender of the Spanish city of Pamplona, depicted in the painting as a female figure. The painting was stunningly composed and evocative of classical Roman friezes. Its technique was flawless.
'You like this one, as well?' he asked her. 'It is well done. Very well done.'
She gave it a dismissive gesture. 'It is ridiculous, Wellington in Roman robes!'
He smiled in amusement. 'It is allegorical.'
She sent him a withering look. 'I know it is allegorical, but do you not think it ridiculous to depict such an event as if it occurred in ancient Rome?' Her gaze swung back to the painting. 'Look at it. I do not dispute that it is well done, but it pales in comparison to the other painting of victory, does it not? Where is the emotion in this one?'
He examined the painting again, as she had demanded, but could not resist continuing the debate. 'Is it not unfair to compare the two when the aim of each is so different? One is an allegory and the other a history painting.'
She made a frustrated sound and shook her head in dismay. 'You do not understand me. I am saying that this artist takes all the meaning, all the emotion, away by making this painting an allegory. A victory in war must be an emotional event, can you not agree? The painting of Badajoz shows that. I much prefer to see how it really was.'
How it really was? If only she knew to what extent he had idealised that moment in Badajoz. He'd not shown the stone of the fortress slick with blood, nor the mutilated bodies, nor the agony of the dying.
He glanced back at his painting. He'd not deliberately set about depicting the emotion of victory in the painting of it. He'd meant only to show he could do more than paint portraits. With the war over, he supposed there might be some interest in military art. If someone wished him to paint a scene from a battle, he would do it, even if he must hide how it really was.
Jack glanced back at his painting and again at the allegory.
Some emotion, indeed, had crept into his painting, emotion absent from the other.
He turned his gaze upon the woman. 'I do see your point.'
She grinned in triumph. 'Excellent.'
'I cede to your expertise on the subject of art.' He bowed.
'Expertise? Nonsense. I know even less of art than of soldiering.' Her eyes sparkled with mischief. 'But that does not prevent me from expressing my opinion, does it?'
Jack was suddenly eager to identify himself to her, to let her know he was the artist she so admired. 'Allow me to make myself known to you—'
'Ariana!' At that moment an older woman, also quite beautiful, rushed up to her. 'I have been searching the rooms for you. There is someone you must meet.'
The young woman gave Jack an apologetic look as her companion pulled on her arm. 'We must hurry.'
Jack bowed and the young woman made a hurried curtsy before being pulled away.
Ariana. Jack repeated the name in his mind, a name as lovely and unusual as its bearer.
Ariana Blane glanced back at the tall gentleman with whom she had so boldly spoken. She left him with regret, certain she would prefer his company to whomever her mother was so determined she should meet.
She doubted she would ever forget him, so tall, well formed and muscular. He wore his clothes so very well one could forget his coat and trousers were not the most fashionable. His face was strong, chiselled, solid, the face of a man one could depend upon to do what needed to be done. His dark hair was slightly tousled and in need of a trim, and the shadow of a beard was already evident in mid-afternoon. It gave him a rakish air that was quite irresistible.
But it was that fleeting moment of emotion she'd seen in him that had made her so brazenly decide to speak to him. She doubted anyone else would have noticed, but something had shaken him and he'd fought to overcome it. All in an instant.
When she approached him his eyes held her captive. As light a brown as matured brandy, they were unlike any she had seen before. They gave the impression that he had seen more of the world than he found bearable.
And that he could see more of her than she might wish to show.
She sighed. Such an intriguing man.
He had almost introduced himself when her mother interrupted. Ariana wished she'd discovered who he was. She was not in the habit of showing an interest in a man, but he had piqued her curiosity. Now she might never see him again.
Unless she managed to appear on stage, as she was determined to do. Perhaps he would see her perform and seek her out in the Green Room afterwards.
Her mother brought her over to a dignified-looking gentleman of compact build and suppressed energy. Her brows rose. He did not appear to be one of the ageing men of wealth to whom her mother persisted in introducing her. You would think her mother wished her to place herself under a gentleman's protection rather than seek a career on the London stage.
Of course, her mother had been successful doing both and very likely had the same future in mind for her daughter.
Allow me to make you known to my daughter, Mr Arnold.' Her mother gave her a tight smile full of warning that this introduction was important. 'My daughter, Miss Ariana Blane.'
She needn't have worried. Ariana recognised the name. She bestowed on Mr Arnold her most glittery smile and made a graceful curtsy. 'Sir.'
'Why, she is lovely, Daphne.' Mr Arnold beamed. 'Very lovely indeed.'
Her mother pursed her lips, not quite as pleased with Mr Arnold's enthusiastic assessment as Ariana was. 'Mr Arnold manages the Drury Lane Theatre, dear.'
An explanation is unnecessary, Mama.'Ariana took a step forwards. 'Everyone in the theatre knows who Mr Arnold is. I am greatly honoured to meet you, sir.' She extended her hand to him.
He clasped her fingers. 'And I, you, Miss Blane.'
Ariana inclined her head towards him. 'I believe you have breathed new life into the theatre with your remarkable Edmund Kean.'
Edmund Kean's performance of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice had been a sensation, critically acclaimed far and wide.
The man smiled. 'Did you see Kean's performance?'
'I did and was most impressed,' Ariana responded.
'You saw the performance?' Her mother looked astonished. 'I did not know you had been in London.'
Ariana turned to her. A few of us came just to see Kean. There was no time to contact you. We returned almost immediately lest we miss our own performance.'
Arnold continued without heeding the interruption. 'Your mother has informed me that you are an actress.'
Ariana smiled. 'Of course I am! What else should the daughter of the famous Daphne Blane be but an actress? It is in my blood, sir. It is my passion.'
He nodded with approval. 'You have been with a company?'
'The Fisher Company.'
A very minor company,' her mother said.
'I am acquainted with Mr Fisher.' Mr Arnold appeared impressed.
Four years ago, when Ariana had just turned eighteen, she'd accepted a position teaching poetry at the boarding school in Bury St Edmunds she'd attended since age nine. She'd thought she had no other means of making a life for herself. At the time her mother had a new gentleman under her roof, and would not have welcomed Ariana's return. Fate intervened when the Fisher Company came to the town to perform Blood Will Have Blood at the Theatre Royal, and Ariana attended the performance.
The play could not have been more exciting, complete with storm, shipwreck, horses and battle. The next day Ariana packed up her belongings, left the school, and sought out Mr Fisher, begging for a chance to join the company. She knew he hired her only because she was the famous Daphne Blane's daughter, but she did not care. Ariana had found the life she wanted to live.
'What have you performed?' Mr Arnold asked her.