The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live!
Her palms lingered over him, smoothing across his chest, caressing the sleek muscles as if absorbing his strength through her skin. Her fingers traced the valley of his breastbone, down the ridges of his ribs to the flare of his hip, the cut of his thigh -- and the fullness of his manhood. And then she defined his virility with a lazy fingertip, sweetly, thoroughly, examining each indentation of the huge fig leaf.
Fighting the urge to hoot in laughter, Blake Hargrove clenched his teeth as he stood by the door watching the young woman stroke the statue.
Still totally fascinated and suddenly frustrated, she yanked her tiny glasses down her nose to peer over the gold rims at the statue's bulging bicep. Her eyes narrowed on the flow of the marble, her finger following the blue vein that ran along the contour of the arm.
Who was she? This woman who savored the headless, legless marble man like his living lover? She was bold to stand here in a public place such as this tiny art gallery and explore the fellow as if he were flesh and blood.
Blake grinned at his errant wish that she were caressing his flesh. Lord knew, she certainly roused his blood. Poor form, old man. Look at her walking suit, her carefully coiled chignon. The gleaming red hair. She's of a class which usually does not permit its women to go out alone, much less to a private gallery. Certainly not its back room either, filled solely by classical nudes.
What's more, this lovely woman admired the naked male body with such abandon that she had not heard Blake enter the back room. Even now, she caught her tongue between her teeth in concentration and pushed her nose flush against the fellow's forearm. She appeared to be ready either to kiss him or lick him, head to toe.
Blake wanted to chuckle -- or groan.
Time to break in on her reflections before he lost his own senses.
"Pardon me, madam," Blake injected, bowing slightly, though he hated to take his eyes off her for fear he'd miss another antic. Intrusion into the privacy of a patron visiting the back rooms of art galleries was a breach of etiquette of the highest water. Blake had spent most of his life among dealers and gallery owners, artists and their patrons, so he knew that one only compounded the crime of interrupting them if one embarrassed them for their appreciation of the finer aspects of a work of art. Yet, it was apparent from her gasp and her wild blush that he had committed both faux pas with this lady. "I did not mean to disturb you."
She dropped her hand from the Adonis as if Blake had shot her. "Oh! Forgive me -- "
"I owe you the apology. I did not intend to frighten you. I had no idea someone was here in the private viewing room and I strolled in...evidently" -- He gave her a rueful smile -- "without a sound."
She faced him fully now, her opalescent eyes wide with her surprise and her attempt to hide her chagrin. She put down one hand to hold back the sway of her skirts, which nonetheless furled out to endanger a terra cotta Cupid and one jade geisha. As a result, her glasses teetered on the tip of her nose, and she grabbed them and jammed them into her left skirt pocket.
Blake felt like a dolt unable to put her at ease. "If Monsieur Bartholome had told me someone was here, I assure you, I would have remained in the main gallery and waited until you -- "
"I was admiring him," she declared forthrightly, though her cheeks still flamed with her maidenly dismay. She began to furiously work something in her right skirt pocket. "He is superb."
But so are you. Blake strolled toward her, feeding a hunger to touch her as intimately as she had the work of art. Instead, he let his eyes caress her. "I rather enjoyed your perusal."
She blushed. A delicious cherry red spread across her high cheekbones. Her round face with winged brows, straight nose and jaw told him she herself could have modeled for any sculptor eager to create a new Helen of Troy. From what he could detect of her lush body beneath the gewgaws of the Wedgwood blue wool and endless petticoats, she had the full breasts and hips a sculptor would demand -- and appreciate when he had finished molding for the day -- and wished to spend the night refining his knowledge of her curves.
"The statue is well worth your attention," Blake changed his risqué tone, hating himself for his bluntness, hoping he might induce her to talk at length. "One of a kind." Like you.
Her pale eyes bore into him in curiosity. The color of lightning, they shocked him. Pinned him in place as if he were one of the butterflies in his brother John's dioramas. John collected the most gorgeous array of creatures, but none matched this one for splendor.
Red hair, the French called Titian. Porcelain skin, the English termed rose. A mouth, so generous that most men would say it should best be busied in the bedroom. But her eyes were what held him. Long-lashed, cat-like and so bright, he could barely stand to look into them.
"Pardon me," he began, "but I must -- "
She took a step toward him. "No, you needn't go."
"I never intended it. I was going to apologize further for my forwardness." When clearly you are a woman of sensitivity.
"It is I who have disturbed you. With my rather flagrant study of his..."
"Good points?" Blake suggested and could have kicked himself that he had spoken so brazenly to her again.
To his joy, she grinned. "Assets," she corrected him in a contralto rich as melting chocolate. "And if I haven't embarrassed you totally with my examination of this gentleman" -- she tilted her head at the Greek god who stood between them -- "I ask you to stay and admire him. He certainly is worth every penny of the asking price. I had hoped to speak with Monsieur Bartholome, but he is detained with another customer and I must," she said with regret, "go myself."
"But I could not bear to take you from your inspection of the Adonis. He is unique."
"Yes, indeed," she said with awe and a quick glance at the torso. "He is the only representation of the god of love who truly looks -- " She colored outrageously. " -- sensuous."
Her knowledge of sculpture made him blink. What else did she know about this statue, sculpture in general, and how had she managed to learn it? Blake removed his gloves, putting them and his walking stick on the display table while he trained all his senses on her. "His sculptor is unknown," he offered leisurely, admiring the glow in her eyes at the topic.
"Yes, but we can tell from the type of marble and from his" -- she cleared her throat -- "fig leaf, that he was probably from an Athenian workshop of the first century."
"He was one of many works -- "
"Bound for Rome on a ship owned by Agrippa of the house of Herod."
"But it sank," he added, "near Napoli."
"However, we do know he is the more modestly rendered of the entire cargo," she smiled at their shared enthusiasm and recited more details as if this were a contest. "In fact, the six dancing women and four satyrs -- "
"Were so sensuous as to cause the fishermen who discovered them last year to cover them in blankets before transporting them to Rome." He was revealing that she knew as much as he about the provenance of the piece.
"So perhaps it was best they were shipwrecked because Herod's family would not have been happy to learn he had commissioned such interesting works."
"Nor" -- Blake nodded, taking great pleasure in the way her lips parted in anticipation of what next he would relate about the torso -- "would Agrippa's political supporters have been thrilled to discover that he was part owner of a Roman house of -- " Damn, he had walked into this repartee to lure her into conversation -- and now what did he dare to call this establishment?
"Prostitution," she supplied, but he could see it cost her a flush of her cheeks to mention it.
She was so young. Twenty, perhaps? Or a few years more. Women beneath the age of thirty rarely bothered to regard painting or sculpture. Those few educated enough to distinguish an oil from a watercolor, or a Praxiteles from a Michelangelo, were usually swept up at age nineteen by debuts and balls, swains and proposals, a suitable marriage, a country house and matching one in town, and then within nine months, motherhood. Few of them knew about prostitutes, in Victoria's London or Caligula's Rome, and nigh unto none would utter the word. This woman might be young, but she was educated in art -- and needed to be schooled in the sophistication she would require to continue to appreciate it without demurring like a Madonna.
"Ah, yes," she admitted at his raised brow, "I do know about such things." Blake breathed a bit more easily that she had declared it with such aplomb. "But I realize that as a woman, I am not supposed to."
"That is only what society says. I believe that women should be educated in art, as in all other disciplines."
She tilted her head, her eyes shimmering like moonlight. "Whatever would become of the empire if all British women were so free?"
"I daresay the empire would benefit if we freed more women to admire art such as you have today." He sauntered closer and savored her. She was a delectable looking woman. Ripe as an apple. Her smile, wide and ready. Her skin, without powder, perfect. Her lips, unrouged, were pink and wet, too full to be the fashion. He wanted to chuckle at her because the way she squinted up at him, he could tell she was blind without her glasses. But when he got closer, she relaxed, her eyes huge pale pools that drowned his logic for a moment. "Until then," he said, summoning his thoughts, "most gallery owners will continue to cover their more intricately rendered art with sheets."
She tipped her chin toward the Adonis. "But he was not."
"Monsieur thinks it a crime to hide perfection." If he has seen you, I wager he wants to unveil all your glories.
"Monsieur should be more careful of his treasures."
"Especially for the ladies who venture to the back room."
"Of which I am certain there have been none."
"Precisely. And scandalously unescorted, too," she added with a wicked hint in that mouth-watering voice.
"But how can you appreciate a work of art with another chattering in your ear?" he mused.
She tisked. "Sacrilege. And to that end -- " She side-stepped Blake. " -- I will leave you to admire him in peace."
"But I could not bear to run you out." Blake felt a gnawing need to keep her talking. She was rare. A woman of breeding and intellect who understood and appreciated art. He met so few attractive women under the age of dotage who could discuss art with any twinkle in their eyes -- and here was a connoisseur who discussed it with a charmer's blush.
"You don't. I need to go. I am late for an appointment." She dug her gloves from her skirt pocket -- and sighed at the sight of the delicate crocheting clumped around a tiny ball of gray material.
"Clay." Blake recognized the substance immediately. After his four years of modeling classes in Paris -- and his sister's obsession with sculpting, how could he not?
This woman mimed what Blake knew was a small curse under her breath. "I should have taken it out before I left home." She began to pick at her once white crocheted gloves, the holes of which were chock full of little dribs and drabs of clay.
He grinned. "Do you make a practice to walk around with clay in your skirts?"
"Well, of course," she replied with a merry dose of self-deprecation. "Doesn't everyone?"
"Everyone who wishes to sculpt." Blake put his hand out. "Permit me to help you. I am an expert at such activities."
"Really?" She paused in her picking to survey him with skepticism. "How is that?"
"My sister and I once carried balls of this stuff about in our own pockets. Stroking them, shaping them as we walked or talked or ate. Drove the laundress to tear her hair out when we left the clumps in our pockets."
"Alas," she sighed like a Drury Lane actress, "our butler was already bald."
"Mmmm, yes," she laughed, "but he resigned, nonetheless."
"I dunked clay in the family crystal and mucked the glasses so, he could not clean them."
"Ah, the trials of being an artist," he lamented.
"There are few of us. Fewer women, still. Your sister is a sculptor?" she asked, clearly eager to learn of another Englishwoman who had similar interests.
"Was." Before she died.
"I see," she said, chastised at his curt reply.
"What are you creating?" he quickly added. He did not wish to talk about Barbara, but her.
She looked away, then back at him. "I wish I knew. And you?" she asked after a glimpse of his hands. "Your skin is free of clay dust and charcoal. And your nails are unbroken. Not like mine." She raised her hands and turned them over once and again. She splayed her fingers. "They cramp and I -- "
He caught both her hands in his. "Let me -- " he pleaded as she startled at his effrontery, then closed her eyes as he began to massage her fingers. "I remember the pain I'd get from sketching and afterward manipulating clay into their images. You have elegant hands," he murmured, "callused by your use of chisels and drills."
She relaxed at his ministrations. "But your skin is soft."
"I gave up my art."
"I wish I could," she said with anger, then snatched her hands away. "My apologies. I do not mean to be distasteful. You must think me ridiculous, fondling statues and then speaking so...bluntly."
"On the contrary, I find your knowledge of sculpting beguiling. Your honesty refreshing."
"You need not be polite, sir. Say you find me -- "
She snorted and tugged at the glove he held.
"Determined." He kept a tight grip on it. "And strong."
She blew a gust of air up to ruffle her bangs. "It is distressing to fight you for my gloves, you realize. Give over, will you?" she surrendered to the smile that teased her lips. "I am used to men and women who do not understand me."
"Oh, but I do. I, too, was once prone to insights and moods few others suffered."
That secret, shared so easily, quieted her. "Why did you abandon your art?"
"I was not superb."
She searched his eyes. Empathy blossomed in her own.
"And you?" he asked. "Why do you wish to give up yours?"
"I may not be superb, either."
"But you are not certain of that."
"No," she agreed. "Not yet."
"Well, then you must continue, must you not, until you confront all your doubts and have an answer."
"Meanwhile, I dabble."
He picked out one pellet of wet gray matter. "Dabbling is not working. It is play without purpose and can give you no peace. Am I right?" He watched her wrestle with his own bluntness, then determined to soften the blow. He withdrew his handkerchief from his pocket, rolled the specks of clay together and deposited the round mass in it. A glance at her left hand gave him a surprise -- and a delight. You have no husband, he thought with a greed that stunned him because he had never cared to totally claim any woman. Not even a mistress.
"You wear no rings," he ventured, changing the tone of their intimacy so that she might not fly away from him. Handing over his handkerchief and her clay, he felt a glee he explained to himself as one artist exulting in another's freedom. The unvarnished truth was, he was delighted she was unattached.
"My aunt tells me I should."
He arched a brow, relieved he had gentled her. "Ah. The family heirlooms must be paraded, eh?" When I would wager the most precious family jewel is you, dressed in nothing at all but your blushes. Or your chuckles.
She chortled. "How did you know?"
I have an eye for treasures. "I too have an aunt who likes to remind me I must exhibit the family's bounty."
Her gaze drifted from his silk cravat and gold watch fob, to his ivory walking stick. "You do them proud. Down to your signet ring."
He relished the fact that she would take so much of him in and appreciate his attire. He grinned, wishing to appreciate her unattired.
"As for me, I hate the feel of that weight dragging me down. My fingers can't move. Not to sketch or model. Even if I don't sculpt as often as I used to."
"And how often did you used to?" he asked, but he predicted her answer. There was in her every movement a vitality, an economy that spoke of a compulsion to move, to do, to try. He had once been possessed by his need to create and he knew how its demands could propel the body.
"Every day." She smiled, until in her eyes an apology gleamed. "Now if you will excuse me. I will leave you to enjoy the Adonis." She would have walked around Blake, headed for the front room of the little gallery.
"Why did you stop sculpting?" His question halted her.
She turned with a swirl of skirts that sent a bronze nymph somersaulting toward the floor. "Good heavens," she said as she caught it and hugged it to her chest.
He strode up to her. "Why?"
"A number of reasons."
"I see. And they are -- ?"
"Forward, aren't you?"
"Second only to persistent. I understand your challenges because my sister's were similar to yours -- and so were my own." He felt such sorrow for her dilemma. "Why did you stop?"
"My tutor said I had ceased to develop. He claimed I could never excel unless I changed a great deal."
"Was he right?"
"Yes." She replaced the naked girl on the display table, patted her on the head and stepped away from any other objects.
"He said I needed to grow older, experience tragedy or love before I could be -- " She lowered her voice. " -- a great artist."
"What was your response?"
"I was naïve enough to argue with him."
"If you believed in yourself enough to argue with him, why did you stop sculpting?" He waited as she summoned words which seemed too loathsome to utter.
"His criticism ate at my enjoyment of my work. I questioned every movement of the pick, each pressure applied to the drill."
"So you allowed another person's views to affect your view of your own work?"
"Yes," she acknowledged, "didn't you?"
"No. I stopped because I learned -- I saw -- " He put his thumb to his chest. " -- in here that I was not unique. If you have certainty about your work, no one can make a judgment that affects your own view."
"My tutor is an artist with many patrons. Acclaimed. A maestro of the Guild of St. Jerome in Florence. He should recognize talent when he sees it."
"But he may not," Blake insisted. "He might lack the perspective."
"I thought of that. Once."
"And what happened?"
"Soon after we argued, I experienced tragedy. And now I find little to thrill me."
"So you lack inspiration," he announced with an insight that must have struck a chord because she turned her head to one side and stared off as if to find solace among the shelves.
"Yes, among other things. Conditions are not right. I have responsibilities now that I did not last year and I am constantly worried that I am making poor decisions."
"Self-doubt," he said, "kills the will to create."
Her exquisite face tipped up to his. Shock that he understood and gratitude that he did flowed over her expression. "Yes," she breathed, "but knowing what is wrong with me does not change things." She fiddled with her gloves. "I must go. I have an appointment at my dressmaker's and I must meet my aunt there." She tried to walk around him.
He hated the idea that they would part on this sad note. "Perhaps it is time you drew women as umbrellas."
She stopped in her tracks, spun and let laughter shake her shoulders. "Who does that?"
"A young French painter. A friend of mine. When he is too self-critical, he creates the ridiculous to inspire the divine."
"A wise man. Would I know his name?"
"Not now. But you will. Toulouse-Lautrec."
Humor dimmed as truth clouded her eyes. "Part of my problem is that I have not found the right inspiration."
He wished to give her one. "You could try a man...as a walking stick."
Her gaze examined the breadth of his shoulders. "Or a gladiator."
He resisted the urge to hug her. "I have a suggestion."
Her brows inched upward. "My aunt has trained me so well, sir, that I know I should not ask this next question. But my year in a studio in Florence among male and female students who were more worldly than I compels me to say my curiosity is aroused."
"I am indebted to your associates."
She chuckled. "What is your inspiration, sir?"
"A sunrise. A sunset."
"Available to me already."
"Not where I know it to be best."
"And where is that, sir?"
Be sensible, Hargrove. Don't tell her you'd like her to see the day begin and end in your bed. She is an English girl, gently reared, and winsome in spite of her artist's experiences.
"I give an annual weekend party at my home with more than twenty guests. It is on the Isle of Wight. The view of the sun and the moon on the sea is -- "
Her face hardened to a mask. "At Sandown?"
He began to bow, take her hand. "Yes, I -- "
She withdrew from his reach. "Not Blake Hargrove?"
For a second, Risa was struck by the irony of her situation. Here was a man she could laugh with, confide in. And yet, he was the man at whose home her sister Maddie had died. The man whom many thought had encouraged her sister's affections, induced her to come to his house party on the Isle of Wight, and then let her sail a treacherous sea alone. To die.
"Yes." He straightened, puzzled. "I am -- "
"Blake Hargrove. My God. I have wanted to meet you for months. I hoped you would return from France soon so that we could talk -- and now here you are, in a tiny gallery, of all places." You must tell me more about the night Maddie died. What you thought, said, did, before and after she sailed away from your dock.
He examined her so intricately this time, Risa felt as if he had photographed her. Memorized her. "I regret to say I do not know who -- "
"I am Cerise Lindsay. You knew my sister. Well."
"Madelaine? She did tell me her younger sister was a sculptor, but you are...so..." He took in her hair and lips. "So very...different from her."
Maddie had been five foot two, with chestnut hair and honey eyes. She possessed a nervous energy that reminded Risa of a high-strung tabby cat she'd kept as a childhood pet.
"I regret deeply how she died," he said softly, seemingly at a loss for more words.
But Risa was not. "So you said in your condolence letter to me last August," she lashed out at him with a civility that surprised her. "I have waited for you for six months to return from France so that I could ask you details about her death. Her drowning was no accident." Maddie was an expert sailor. An excellent swimmer. "It could not have been."
He looked as if she had slapped him. "The constable and the coroner were satisfied that Maddie lost control of her sailboat off the coast of Sandown."
"But I am not."
"So I see. If you would permit me to -- "
"Apologize? What happened to my sister merits more than another of your apologies, my lord."
"I was not about to do that, my lady."
Risa had her mouth open ready to chastise him for the brief letter of condolence he had sent her last year after Maddie's funeral. "No?"
"I did that already. And evidently not to your satisfaction, either. So I was about to ask you to have tea with me."
She squinted up at him. He certainly looked sincere.
"I wish to talk with you at length about the circumstances surrounding your sister's death and -- "
"I cannot do it now." Why didn't you come to me last August after Maddie drowned in your little sailboat? Why not any day since then?
"Ahhhh, hallo -- " came the sing-song voice of the French ex-patriot who owned the shop.
"I can make an excuse and we can slip away," Blake urged her.
"I want to, but -- "
"There you are, Mademoiselle le Comtesse!"
"I have a dressmaker's appointment in ten minutes," she told Hargrove. "I wish I could cancel or postpone it, but I cannot. Besides, my aunt is meeting me."
Maurice Bartholome sailed forward, hands extended.
"Bring her," Blake insisted.
"Her presence would complicate our discussion." Make it into a shouting match.
"Your aunt never liked me."
"Exactly." She feigned a smile at the shopkeeper who was now upon them. "Bonjour, monsieur. I regret to say I must leave. I will return day after tomorrow to talk with you. In the morning at ten. I hope you will take no other clients at that time," she told him, annoyed with the man who had kept her waiting so long that she must return to ask him why Maddie had come to see him last year before her death. "I must speak with you soon -- and privately."
"Oh, but mademoiselle, I did not know you had arrived. And you, Monsieur le Comte, I did not hear you come in," he said to Blake Hargrove. "Pardonnez-moi. I was with another patron. Bah, it is my assistant who is the laggard. I try to train him to use his -- how do you say? -- his mutton head and tell me who enters, n'est-ce pas? I see you have met the lovely lady, oui?"
"Yes, Maurice, I have had the pleasure." Blake Hargrove glanced over at Risa once more. "I wish we had more time to continue our conversation."
"She is incomparable, non? And she shares a passion for art. Cerise Lindsay, the fourteenth countess of Rossborough. The oldest title in Britain, oui, mademoiselle?"
Lord Hargrove shot up a hand. "Please, Maurice, leave us, will you? I have to talk to the countess alone."
"No. Not here." She did not wish to speak in front of Bartholome.
The gallery owner's eyes drifted back and forth with delight. "Ah, if you will permit me, I suggest my office."
"Thank you, Maurice." Blake steered her toward the shop owner's private room off the gallery. "Forgive me for commandeering it, but we must have privacy."
She halted. "I cannot talk with you now. If I do not meet my aunt, there will be fireworks. Then the wretched gown will not be finished for tomorrow and surely the sky will fall." Of course if it would, I need not appear at Court and make my debut bow to Her Majesty.
"After all your vehemence -- " Hargrove arched a brow. " -- I am astonished that a gown takes precedence over talking with me about your sister."
She extracted her arm from his grip. "Our meeting here was accidental. And my appointment is one I cannot change." Ironic as it is, I came here to London to meet you, and to disguise that, I agreed to my aunt Elizabeth's demand that I debut. Now, here you are -- and the debut keeps me from talking with you.
"Then I will call on you this evening."
"No. Never come near Park Lane."
Hargrove's ruddy complexion turned to ash. "I am not welcome."
"If it were only I in the house, yes, you would be, but my aunt is there and -- "
"I understand," he said, "completely."
"I also do not wish anyone to think that you and I are the least bit involved. It would not do." My Aunt Elizabeth and my cousin Georgianna would think me ready for Bedlam that I would even speak to the man who had spurned Maddie.
Scandal mongers who had spread rumors last autumn that Maddie might have killed herself over Blake Hargrove's rejection of her advances would be surprised as well. The wags would hold a May Day fest if they learned that Risa met him at all, let alone privately.
"I agree," he said. "I must think of my reputation, too."
Risa tried not to gape. Her aunt had drilled into her head the fact that Blake Hargrove was one of the most renowned rakes in London. Over thirty years of age, he had never married, never even been betrothed, but many, many times he had taken a mistress. "By all means."
"Mademoiselle!" Bartholome was horrified at Risa's agreement.
"Please, Maurice," Hargrove waved a hand at the Frenchman, who took his cue and left them. "Very well, my lady. I need to talk to you too. At length." He frowned. "What are you doing after the dressmaker's?"
"The milliner's," she said with distaste for the fripperies of being dressed like a spring chicken. Dressed for the kill, she had always told Maddie that was really what Debutante Season amounted to. "Another day, I promise you, we will talk. And our conversation will not be very pleasant."
"I do not expect it, though I might wish for it."
She tried to ignore the sorrow in his voice. But she could not deny the sadness she felt at her realization that they might not ever be friendly as they had been here for a few brief minutes. "I will send round my card and communicate with you about a time and place we can meet." She yanked up her gloves.
"Make it soon."
"I assure you, Lord Hargrove, learning more about my sister's death is my sole objective in life. It is the reason I came to London. Why I cannot sculpt. Why I will not draw a happy breath until I discover all the facts about what really happened to Maddie that night at your estate."
"Name the day, the place, and time. I will meet you and tell you all I know." He doffed his hat. "I doubt it will do either of us any good, however."
Despair crept into her voice. "And why is that?"
"Because, my dear countess, I am as haunted as you by your sister's death. You see, I have just returned to London after spending six months in Paris trying to find clues to Maddie's demise -- and I discovered absolutely nothing."
"Why would you find clues to Maddie's death in Paris?" He could not thwart her with such silliness. "Maddie spoke only a smattering of schoolgirl French and had visited Paris only once with her governess when she was fifteen. Maddie hated the city -- and thought Frenchmen haughty. You must be mistaken."
"I see that you are, too, Lady Lindsay. About quite a few facts."
How dare you. "I hope you will enlighten me, then."
His hard green eyes suddenly swam with sympathy. "I pray you will let me."
Copyright © 1999 by Jo-Ann Power