The Look of Love
THE CURLING PEACOCK plume woven into Ina Duncan’s upswept hair bobbed as she looked around the well-appointed drawing room, desperate for an escape. All around her, guests of Mrs. Moira Sullivan—celebrated hostess, notorious matchmaker, and well-loved bon vivant—were clumped in little groups, discussing the monologue they’d just seen performed by one of London’s leading actresses on a tour of Scotland. The conversation was lively, as it always was during one of Mrs. Sullivan’s salons, but, unlike at most of these gatherings, Ina wasn’t enjoying herself one bit.
The blame lay solidly at the feet of Mr. Bartholomew and Mr. Gable. She’d made the mistake of wandering too close to them as they were in the midst of a heated discussion, and their talk had so offended her sensibilities she could hardly tear herself away. Now, if she wasn’t careful, she was liable to upend a tray of wineglasses on these pompous buffoons.
“Most women don’t have the capacity for the serious study of art,” said Mr. Bartholomew.
“On that we can both agree,” said Mr. Gable. “It’s preposterous the Royal Academy’s started letting them sit classes.”
Classes Ina would’ve given both her pinky fingers to attend—not that they knew or cared.
“What’s next? Live draping?” asked Mr. Bartholomew.
Mr. Gable scoffed, sending a cloud of condensation into his glass. “Can you imagine? A nude man sitting in the middle of a roomful of women.”
“That would give the ton the vapors.”
“It’s no matter,” said Mr. Gable. “The gentler sex has no eye for art.”
“Then why teach your daughters to paint and draw?” Ina asked, inserting herself into the loathsome conversation. “And Her Royal Highness Princess Louise sculpts. In fact, there have been a number of talented women sculptors. Mary Grant. Caroline Shawk Brooks. Alina Forsman. I could continue.”
“Those names are not familiar to me,” Mr. Bartholomew said with a shrug, as though his ignorance was the fault of her sex.
“Surely you don’t wish for ladies to exhaust themselves with such physical labor, Miss Duncan,” said Mr. Gable, clearly not sensing that she was a steam engine ready to explode. “Ladies need protection from themselves. That is why you’ll be under the care of your father until you’re married and your husband after that.”
“Ina Duncan need protection? That will be the day.”
She didn’t have to turn to see who’d come to her aid. She’d be able to pick Gavin Barrett’s voice out in a crowded room until her dying day.
“Mr. Barrett, perhaps you’d like to weigh in on this debate,” said Mr. Bartholomew.
She felt her friend stop right at her elbow, and when she stole a glance at him he wore that bemused look he so often donned when near her.
“I’m afraid I must steal Miss Duncan away for a moment,” he said apologetically. “Our hostess is asking after her.”
“Oh, what a shame,” said Ina, her voice as dry as French wine.
Gavin plucked up her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. To the casual observer, it was an innocent gesture, but the truth was he was clamping her fingers tight as a vise.
“This way,” Gavin said, leading her through the crowd of people, nodding hellos every few feet.
“If you value that hand, you’ll let go,” she whispered.
“Not until I’m certain you won’t pick up a fire poker and hit both of them,” he said, leaning in so only she could hear.
“I would do nothing of the sort.” Though now that he suggested it . . .
“Only because the poker was a good dozen feet away,” he said with a chuckle. “You look positively murderous.”
When they were well out of earshot of most people, Gavin loosened his grip and she snatched her hand back.
“That hurt,” she said as she shook it out dramatically.
“No it didn’t. You’ve got hands of steel from all your years of sculpting.”
She scowled. “Those hands won’t do me any good if you break them.”
He grinned. “I was hardly squeezing. Besides, I couldn’t risk you throttling Bartholomew. Although I’m sure Gable was just as odious.”
“Was it that obvious?” she asked.
“Only if someone were looking directly at you. What on earth were they talking about and how did you get roped into it?” he asked, helping himself to two glasses of wine that sat on a sideboard. He handed one to her and tipped the other in a little mock toast.
“I walked by as they were talking about how women can’t produce great art,” she said.
“I’m shocked you didn’t suddenly acquire the ability to shoot lightning bolts from your eyes.”
Gavin was one of the few people outside of her household who knew just how deeply those horrid men’s comments would have cut her. Sculpture was her passion, even if most brushed her art off as the amusing eccentricity of an overindulged young lady.
“One of these days I’m going to tell those men exactly what they can do with their opinions,” she muttered into her claret.
He leaned in. “Does it involve coarse language?”
“That’s hardly ladylike,” he said.
“Neither is teaching me to swear with such variety in French, Italian, German, Latin, and Greek, but that didn’t stop you.”
A rich laugh bubbled up from Gavin’s chest. “I know you have a reputation as an original, but we’ve been friends long enough that I know there are two times you might make a bit too much trouble even by your standards: when you’re bored and when you’re angry.”
“I’m not a child who needs to be managed,” said Ina, crossing her arms over her chest before realizing it was a rather childlike gesture. She quickly uncrossed them and fiddled with the stem of her glass.
“Oh no,” he said. “I’ll not be goaded into an argument with you just because those men made you angry.”
“You’re no fun,” she said.
“Ah, but I am. Who else will teach you to throw a proper punch or go tearing through Holyrood Park with you at eight o’clock in the morning?”
She shrugged. She had to give him that. When it came to indulging the frantic energy that sometimes consumed her when she didn’t have a project, Gavin was always by her side.
He’d been her father’s friend first, one of the rare few writers Arthur Duncan respected enough to summon to his study to discuss some aspect of his sprawling book that never seemed to be done. But over the years Gavin had become her friend, as well.
She’d never forget the day he’d walked uninvited into the poky little room she called a studio, sat down, and begun chatting as though it was completely normal for a young lady to be going at a block of stone with a set of tools. For some inexplicable reason, having him in her space didn’t bother her, and she found that he was one of the few people around whom she could work.
He kept coming back—at first every week, and then every other day, and finally every day—bringing her sandwiches when she forgot to eat and talking to her about everything from the novel he was working on to the latest lecture he’d been to at one of the city’s art societies. Soon she found herself debating him between chisel taps, reaching into her own knowledge as an artist to hurl counterpoints at him. It was on this mutual love of art that their friendship had been born.
“Did you know that Mrs. Sullivan is in possession of a Carriera?” Gavin asked suddenly.
Ina’s heart skipped a beat. “What?”
“It’s one of her lesser works and small, but it’s undoubtedly a Carriera hanging in the library,” he said.
Rosalba Carriera had painted for the kings of Europe more than one hundred years ago. Carriera had achieved such acclaim that no one could deny the vivacity and brilliance of her work. Her paintings were treasures, rarer than colorless diamonds.
“How did she acquire one? And when?” Ina had only ever seen Carrieras reproduced as lithographs in her father’s huge art books.
“No one is entirely sure, but some say Mrs. Sullivan was given the painting by a groom as a thank-you for smoothing the way for his marriage to the woman he loved, despite opposition from the parents on both sides. Speaking of our hostess, I’m to understand she has some connection to Mr. Dunne and his new journal. He’s looking for works to serialize.”
Gavin had published his first and only book five years ago to modest success—enough to encourage him to write another. But then a year had turned into two years and then three. When he'd finally delivered the manuscript to his publisher, he was told it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Ina had watched him swallow that disappointment and close in on himself. If he wanted to write again, surely that was a good sign.
“Go speak to Mrs. Sullivan. Everyone should know how brilliant you are,” she said.
His eyes crinkled with his smile. “You’re sure you’ll be all right? Bartholomew and Gable are still roaming free.”
“If I see them advancing in this direction, I’ll run,” she said.
“That would be a sight.”
Ina watched her best friend retreat. As soon as she was sure he wasn’t about to turn back, she let her shoulders sag with exhaustion. What she really wanted was to go home, but suggesting such a thing to her aunt would only earn her a lecture about how Ina still hadn’t secured a husband and never would if she didn’t apply herself socially. What Mrs. Coleman failed to understand was that she didn’t want to be married. It brought too many complications and demanded too many sacrifices—nearly all of them falling upon the wife. She was in the unique position of being an heiress of a large enough fortune to ensure a comfortable life of independence, but not so much that she attracted too much unwanted attention. That her father couldn’t care whether she married or not so long as it didn’t interrupt his work was also to her advantage.
Ina had her art and her friends, and that was more than enough.
Of course, she thought as she peered around the room, tonight she did want one more thing. To see the Carriera.
Under normal circumstances she would’ve asked directly to view the work, but that would’ve meant wading through the crowd surrounding her hostess. In all likelihood, she’d be put off until another visit, and it might be days before she was able to see the Carriera. All for a painting that was hanging in a room on the very floor on which she now stood.
What if I took just a peek?
She knew she shouldn’t. Snooping around the house of the woman who’d extended her hospitality was beyond the pale, and yet if she was clever about it she could slip away, let herself into the library, and have a few moments uninterrupted in front of the painting. It just might be the trigger she needed for an idea; after tonight she might have the subject for her entry into the Royal Sculpture Society of Scotland’s exhibition.
She set her glass down gently. No one was watching her. The library shouldn’t be hard to find. All it would cost her was five minutes. If she encountered a servant she’d simply say she’d become lost when looking for the ladies’ retiring room—the little white lie would hurt no one.
With a shiver of excitement, Ina backed up to the door behind her, found the brass handle with her back, and gave it a turn. The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges—a sign that this was exactly what she should be doing. With a secret smile, she slipped through the doorway.
She crept down the quiet corridor on the balls of her feet, grateful that there was carpet to muffle the fall of her leather-soled slippers.
Overhead, something creaked, and she leaped up, her hand clutching her chest.
Breathe, you fool. It’s just the house settling.
She was still scolding herself when she heard voices down the hallway—of two women, if her ears could be trusted. Moving swiftly, Ina darted into a room with a half-open door, closing it just as the voices grew louder.
“It’s like watching a pot of water boil. If you sit around waiting for the toffs to clear out we’ll be here all night,” said a young woman.
Her companion snorted. “And think what a state the drawing room will be in when they’re all gone.”
Maids. She closed her eyes and prayed they wouldn’t think to look in the room where she hid.
Mercifully two sets of footfalls passed the door without stopping. After several moments she poked her head around the door and glanced in either direction. Everything was silent, save for the dull hum of hubbub from the drawing rooms.
Swiftly Ina crossed the landing at the top of the grand stairs and tried the first door on her right. It was nothing more than a small closet, stuffed with tables, chairs, and bric-a-brac. She shut the door and shot across the hallway to the next room.
“Found you,” she said softly. Although the gaslights were turned low, she could still make out rows and rows of books sitting like neat little soldiers on massive shelves lining all four walls.
Her skirts rustled as she stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. Someone had left the fire burning in the hearth and, mingled with the musty comfort of old paper and leather bindings, it wrapped her in a warm hug.
Now where was the Carriera? She skimmed the walls before landing on a gap in the bookcases where the fireplace stood. There, hanging in stately fashion above the mantel, was the painting.
Ina’s lips parted as she approached. In this warm glow of light, the painting almost shone. The woman immortalized in oils looked out at her boldly, her hands resting gently in the folds of her elaborate, embroidered dress that sat on hoops so old Ina’s grandmother might have worn them had she not been a mere shipbuilder’s wife.
She reached her fingers up until they were just inches away from the paint so she could trace the line of the brushstrokes through the air. “Aren’t you a wonder?” she murmured.
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
Ina yelped and spun. Sitting in a large leather armchair with one leg crossed casually at the knee sat Sir Kier Gowan, rogue and reprobate.
“I thought I was alone,” she said, her heart pounding in her throat.
“So did I.” His eyes raked over her body as though she wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. “But I’m always pleased to find myself in the company of a beautiful woman.”
She took a tiny step backward toward the door, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on Sir Kier as a deer might a wolf. “I wouldn’t dream of interrupting your respite,” she said, nodding to the cigar that dangled from his left hand.
He brought the cigar to his lips and took a pull. Slowly he blew out a stream of fragrant smoke, and then pointed it at her.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced.”
And that’s the way it’s going to stay. Toying with rakes was a dangerous game she didn’t want to play.
“Well, we can hardly stand on ceremony, can we? Not when there’s nobody here to make the introductions,” he said, a cruel smile crossing his lips.
“There’s no need. I’m already fully aware of who you are,” she said, keeping her tone casual—bored, even—in hopes that he’d see there’d be no fun in chasing her.
“Of course you do,” he said with a chuckle. “Who doesn’t in this waterlogged city?”
“Are you disparaging Edinburgh?” she asked, before she could stop herself. Engaging in any more conversation with this man would be social suicide, but defending her home was a powerful instinct too.
“I suppose it’s all well and good for one who’s never known anything else, but there’s really no substitute for the pleasures of London,” he said, chomping down on his cigar again.
Ina crossed her arms over her chest and stared him down. “Then you’d best take the next train out of Waverley.”
He leaned forward in his chair, his arms braced on his knees. “Who are you that you’re so bold when alone in a room with a gentleman you don’t know?”
Panic flared up in her. She’d intrigued rather than repelled the man. Not a good idea.
“I’m just here to see that painting,” she said, struggling to insert ennui into her voice.
Sir Kier followed her gaze. “That?”
He stood to get a closer look. “It hardly looks worth the canvas it’s painted on.”
Her eyes narrowed. “It happens to have been painted by one of the most important women artists of the last century.”
“Well, that explains it.”
She bristled. “I beg your pardon?”
He took one step toward her and then another. “Have I offended your sensibilities, Miss . . . ?”
She stumbled back to keep the distance between them, her mind racing as it ran through each scenario. If he laid even a finger on her and anyone found out, she’d be ruined. She could try to run, but if he caught her she’d be ruined, and likely hurt in the struggle. She couldn’t scream, because if someone came to her aid, she’d be ruined. Ina was struggling to find any scenario that didn’t end in her complete and utter ruination.
Her father might be wealthy enough to make her spinsterhood acceptable, but there was no amount of wealth that’d make society take her back if she was found with Sir Kier. Her friends would be forced to give her up for the good of their own reputations. The invitations would dry up. She’d be alone, the fate that awaited all women who overstepped society’s boundaries, whether it was their choice or not.
Gavin would still be there for you.
But at what cost? She had no doubt he’d stand by her, but losing his good opinion would hurt more than anything else. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—let that happen. She had to get herself out of that room, and fast.
“Is this what you do at parties?” she asked, forcing haughtiness into her voice. “Wait for young women to stumble into your web?”
Sir Kier’s next step hitched. “If you’re implying—”
“And what are you doing in Mrs. Sullivan’s library?” she asked, hands on her hips, mimicking the pose her aunt struck when she was about to deliver a lecture. Men like Sir Kier were used to being the predators, and if she was bolder, more powerful than he perhaps she stood a chance of unmanning the brute.
He cleared his throat. “I’m the guest of Count Erovick.”
No doubt the German aristocrat had failed to mention Sir Kier’s name when he inquired about bringing a friend along, for she doubted very much that Mrs. Sullivan would want a man of Sir Kier’s reputation at her salon.
“So you decided to take advantage of your hostess’s hospitality and skulk in the lady’s library?”
She’d frozen him in place. Here was a man rumored to be nothing if not a hellion, a libertine, a very bad man indeed, and yet he was thrown by a young lady standing up to him. Perhaps she would be able to extricate herself from this situation after all.
“Wait, I do know who you are.” Sir Kier’s eyes sparked with some wicked idea. “Miss Ina Duncan. I’m beginning to believe the rumors I’ve heard about you may be true.”
The rumors. The bane of her existence.
“Please enlighten me,” she said, but her haughtiness was rushing away. She had to get to the door and away from this horrible man.
“You’re the daughter of that crazy recluse Duncan no one ever sees anymore. Not that anyone can blame him when his wife was two steps away from being a whore.”
It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before, but Sir Kier’s words slashed at her heart nonetheless. Tears pricked her eyes, but she refused to give this man the satisfaction of seeing her cry. No one got to see that.
He was leering at her now. “How much do you take after good old Mamma?”
“I’ll bid you good night,” she said, turning quickly.
He lunged and snatched her hand off the doorknob.
“What are you doing?” she cried, jerking her hand back, but his grip didn’t slip.
“I’m going to lift your skirts,” he said. “And you’re going to like it.”
Moving fast, she twisted out of his grip, a decorative bit of lace tearing from the cuff of her evening dress. He staggered, and she realized that the man was so deep in his cups he could barely keep his balance.
Good, she thought, putting an armchair between them.
“You don’t want to do this,” she said. “We could be caught. You don’t want to be saddled with marrying me.”
The monstrous man began to laugh. “Marry you? As though anyone would believe Brianna Duncan’s daughter.”
He made another lunge for her, his meaty hand wrapping around the bones of her wrist and squeezing. She cried out and, acting on pure instinct, she drew her other hand back and hit him square in the face.
Sir Kier roared as his nose exploded with blood. The door banged open, and Gavin barreled in and slammed the blackguard against a bookshelf.
Any relief Ina might have felt, however, was short-lived, for standing in the doorway was Mrs. Sullivan, and it was clear that the most powerful hostess in Edinburgh was livid.