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"It's wicked, Julia. Absolutely wicked!"
Alva's squeal of shock made Julia Westgard smile with delight. Her friend was right, the painting was wickedly shocking. She turned back toward the painting she'd commissioned. Tipping her head to one side, she studied it with a critical eye.
Was that really how Isaac Peebles saw her? The nude painting made her look lush and sensual, almost beautiful. Almost, but not quite. She did like the way he'd captured the color of her hair. Soft golden highlights glistened in the dark red hair that tumbled over her shoulders. It was her best feature. And he'd made her eyes close to the green they got when she was angry. He'd made her gaze far more attractive than the plain hazel one she saw in the mirror everyday.
"I like it." Hands resting on her hips, she smiled. "I like it very much. Do you think I should hang it in the salon or the study?"
"Good Lord, Julia. You cannot possibly be serious!"
Tickled once more to have shocked her friend, Julia turned toward the petite woman, the bustle of her gown whispering softly at her quick turn. The horrified look in Alva's blue eyes made her realize she'd teased her friend enough. One hand pressed against the dove gray taffeta of her dress, she shook her head.
"I'm teasing you. I don't have that much self-confidence."
The relief on her friend's pale features made her grimace. No, of course she didn't have that much confidence. The confident air she put on for family and friends was nothing short of bravado. Everything she did was an act to cover up the inadequacies she felt every day--the shortcomings Oscar had regaled her withthe entire time they'd been married. Even though he'd been dead almost two years, she could still feel the sting of his cruel taunts and behavior.
Ever the impeccable husband in public, in private he'd found numerous ways to shame and degrade her. From vicious insults to the occasional slap, Oscar had controlled every aspect of her life. She'd never quite figured out how she'd survived, but she had. And she was all the stronger for it.
Still, she'd yet to succeed in shedding herself of the insecurities her husband had cultivated in her. They were always close at hand, just beneath the surface. It was one of the reasons she'd commissioned the nude portrait. It was her attempt to repair her spirit, to regain the independence she'd lost in her marriage.
"Ah, there you two are." Catherine Dewhurst poked her head into Julia's boudoir. "I thought you two would be in the study discussing the latest review of Lady Windermere's Fan."
Julia stepped forward to embrace her cousin by marriage. Of all her in-laws, Catherine was the only one who could see beyond the false façade. The woman had been her guardian angel on more than one occasion.
"I have something much more exciting than a review of Oscar Wilde's new play. Come see what I have."
"Is it here? Finally?"
Julia nodded her head and grinned as her cousin moved to look at the front of the painting. Catherine's face went red before laughter parted her lips.
"Oh my word, however did you manage to keep from fainting, Alva?"
Affronted, Alva's pale face took on a pinched look. "I have no idea. It's scandalous, I tell you, scandalous."
"I don't think it's scandalous." Julia shook her head
"Rubbish, it's shocking. Why, the man saw you naked."
Frustrated with her friend's straitlaced tone that sounded so much like Oscar's disapproval, Julia tossed a pleading glance in her cousin's direction. "Do try to explain to her, Catherine."
"Perhaps she has a point, Julia. It is a bit ... risqué, even for you."
Disappointed by her cousin's response, she stalked to the painting and replaced the cloth that had covered it earlier. If she'd wanted an unfavorable assessment of her behavior, she only had to listen to Oscar's voice in her head for that. It wasn't as if she'd gone without a chaperone; she'd taken her maid with her to each and every sitting.
Sitting for Isaac Peebles had offered her a freedom she'd never experienced before. The portrait sittings had been a release from the rigors of society. More importantly, they had been a means of freeing herself of the yoke Oscar had settled on her from the day they were married. With a final adjustment to the cloth over the painting, she turned to face her friends.
"There. You don't have to burden your eyes with the subject matter anymore."
Catherine arched her eyebrows at her and shook her head. "I didn't say I didn't like it. I merely pointed out that it was a bit more ... adventurous than most portraits."
"He did manage to get your hair color right, and that's not easy to do. Even in the more..." Alva blushed deeply, "...the more intimate places."
The woman's words hung in the air for a long moment as Julia stared at her friend in stunned silence. Was prudish, little Alva actually teasing her about the portrait? She shot a glance over toward her cousin. Catherine's expression was equally astonished. Indignation tilted Alva's pointed chin upward.
"Well, I can be daring sometimes too," she huffed, sending them both a sheepish glance as the room exploded with laughter. Julia shook her head as amusement continued to bubble out of her.
"If you found the portrait daring, then wait until you hear what I've planned for the Society's next fundraiser." She turned to her cousin. "Shall we tell her, Catherine?"
"Oh, there's no we in this idea at all." Catherine carefully removed the hat from her head, meticulously pushing the hat pin into the back of the peacock feathered plumes that trailed down the back of the accessory. Sweeping the train of her dark green gown to one side, she took a seat next to Alva.
Julia faced the two women seated before her. Her best friends. The only two people she could count on to love her no matter what she said or did. And of late, she'd been quite bold. Securing shares in St. Claire Shipping had been viewed by Oscar's family as not only excessive but foolhardy as well. If they were to discover she was actually reviewing accounting ledgers and conducting business in person with St. Claire, the family would close ranks around her in an attempt to control her just as her husband had. But perhaps they would have good reason in this instance.
Morgan St. Claire. The thought of the man sent a shudder rippling through her. He was an arrogant bastard. One who didn't like anyone questioning his way of doing business--something she'd done quite a bit of over the past few weeks. Even she'd been surprised by her daring, and it was a miracle the man hadn't choked her yet.
Still, as an investor in his company, she'd insisted on reviewing the books. She wasn't about to hand over a small portion of her fortune without solid evidence that the man knew how to run his business. He'd rebelled against the suggestion, but when she wouldn't budge on the issue, he'd begrudgingly agreed to her request.
The fact that he'd conceded defeat in the face of her persistence had amazed her. It had been a small concession, but one that had bolstered her confidence more than anything else she'd done since Oscar's death. It had helped ease the feelings of worthlessness he had fostered in her.
The question now was whether her friends would support her in this new adventure she had devised. It was for a good cause, and she needed to do something daring. Something to break out of the narrow confines of the life she'd lived for far too long.
Even though Oscar was gone, the repressive atmosphere lingered in the house they'd shared. It was as stuffy, stiff and rigid as Queen Victoria herself. That was why she'd chosen to do something foolhardy and daring. She would be the one in control--no one else. It would be one more silent shout against the oppressive life she'd endured for so long. One more protest against Oscar and his hypocrisy. She inhaled and exhaled a deep breath.
"We're--" She paused as Catherine arched a threatening brow at her. "I'm going to acquire a silk handkerchief from Morgan St. Claire and auction it off at the Society for Lost Angels to raise money for the new orphanage."
Alva tipped her head to one side, her expression puzzled. "Well, that doesn't sound all that bold. I'm sure Mr. St. Claire will be happy to part with a piece of silk for the children."
"I don't intend to ask him for the handkerchief. I intend to sneak into his rooms at the Clarendon tomorrow night at the dinner party he's having for his investors." Julia smiled at the notion.
She was feeling quite pleased with herself about this bold plan. To pull one over on Morgan St. Claire would be almost as pleasurable as when she occasionally found errors in his books. More importantly, it would be a blow in support of all the women he'd dallied with before leaving them with simply a monogrammed handkerchief as a token of the affair.
"Oh my! You can't do that, Julia. What if he catches you?" Alva sent her a horrified look.
"I don't intend to get caught. I've already made arrangements for one of the maids on his floor to give me access to his rooms."
"Couldn't you just ask him for the handkerchief? He's such a gentleman, I'm sure he won't refuse your request."
"Oh, don't get her started on Morgan St. Claire." Catherine grimaced at Alva. "We'll be here all day listening to her rail at the man's shortcomings."
"But I've always found Mr. St. Claire quite charming," said Alva in a bewildered tone.
Julia glared at her. "Morgan St. Claire is full of himself and enjoys tempting women into heartbreak. He's a scoundrel of the worst kind."
"Which makes me wonder why you chose to invest in his company?" Catherine sent her a look filled with mockery.
"Business should never be guided by emotions. St. Claire Shipping is a sound investment."
"I see." Catherine's ironic tone earned her a look of puzzlement from Alva and a glare from Julia.
"I still don't see why you're going to sneak into the man's hotel room instead of just asking for a handkerchief." Alva frowned in disapproval.
Closing her eyes, Julia shook her head. "Because it won't have as dramatic an impact if I ask him for one. Sneaking into the man's hotel room and taking a handkerchief without getting caught will cause a stir among the ladies. They'll want details about his hotel room, which I'll be happy to elaborate on as they bid on the blasted thing."
"Surely you're not going to admit to the Society that you entered the man's room." Alva looked askance at the idea and Julia frowned. For once her prudent friend was right.
"I see your point." With a wave of her hand, Julia smiled. "Well, I'll just explain that the woman who took the handkerchief prefers to remain anonymous. I can just share this mysterious woman's adventures as she might herself."
Catherine coughed her disapproval at this change in plans, forcing Julia to send her another glare. She refused to give way on this adventure. It was something she had to do. She wasn't sure why, it was simply that she needed to test the waters and her new found courage. Of course, she wasn't sure how courageous it was to undertake such a foolish adventure. But she'd declared her intentions, and she refused to back down now.
Alva's brow puckered. "How will you prove that it's really Mr. St. Claire's handkerchief?"
"His monogram. I have it on good authority that he always gives a handkerchief to each of his ladies when they part so the woman can dry her tears." Julia grimaced at her words. The arrogance of the man.
"Oh, that sounds so romantic."
"Don't be a ninny, Alva. It's not romantic at all." Catherine turned her glare on Julia. "As for you, cousin, I think you've gone mad. If you're caught, you'll cause a sensation, with the distinct possibility of being ostracized. You know how the Queen is about circumspect behavior. Although as far as Prince Edward is concerned, the man would probably applaud you. Still, polite society won't overlook an outright indiscretion of this sort."
Julia waved her cousin's concerns aside. "I won't get caught. I have it all planned out. Dinner is being served in St. Claire's private dining room at the Clarendon. I'll simply ask to refresh myself then run upstairs and retrieve the handkerchief from the man's room. I'll be back at the dinner party before anyone is the wiser."
"What is that old adage? The best laid plans go astray?" Catherine mouth was tight with disapproval, but there was concern in her gaze too.
"My maid knows the maid on St. Claire's floor. The girl is quite trustworthy. I promise you, nothing will go wrong."
Julia smiled at both of her friends. No, nothing was going to go wrong, and she was going to enjoy auctioning off one of St. Claire's handkerchiefs. She would be the first woman to own one that hadn't been handed out in a moment of pity.