Authors: Julie Anne Long
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
The man recovered. “Paintings of Italians, sir, or paintings of Italy, or paintings painted by Italian artists, or paintings of—”
The man didn’t even blink. Admirable. Chase peered: he saw the telltale powder marks beneath the skin. Yes, as he’d suspected: this one had been a soldier.
“Italian cows, sir? Or cows in addition to the Italian paintings? Or—”
“Italian cows.” Chase made it a drawled challenge. The clerk reared back, accepting the challenge. His eyes rolled ceilingward and he cocked one eyebrow, presumably to aid concentration, as he mentally prowled the museum corridors. Somewhere, an ancient clock tocked out seconds. One…two…
“The East Wing!” A triumphant pink flushed the man’s face. “Go straight back and bear right at the puppetry exhibit. The room is small, and adjacent to a room filled with sixteenth-century bedroom furniture.”
Oh, God. The news that there was a puppetry exhibit was very unwelcome.
“You’ll find paintings by Italian painters of Italian landscapes, and in these you’ll see cows and other farm creatures, should you care to these you’ll see cows and other farm creatures, should you care to look at those as well, sir.”
This was said without a trace of irony. He was no doubt accustomed to all manner of daft questions and specific requests from the aristocracy.
“My thanks,” Chase said sincerely, because he was always genuinely pleased to encounter anyone who knew their job, and he invariably enjoyed testing people as much as he enjoyed being tested.
The man nodded acceptance. “If you would sign the book, sir?”
Chase signed his name and rank: Captain Charles Sylvaine Eversea, taking an immodest amount of space on the page. He surreptitiously thumbed through a few pages and found a ragged quarter inch of paper remaining in the seam where a page had been torn from the book. And scarcely any names on the other pages.
“Are all of your visitors required to sign the book?” Chase asked.
How on earth did the Montmorency justify its existence if no one came to see it? But then again, it was only Monday, the start of a new week, and perhaps the ton was still recovering from drinking the night before.
And then he went where the man pointed. The clerk peered down at his name as Chase left.
And went still as a stone.
Linseed oil and beeswax couldn’t completely banish the must of aging wood and upholstery, of old things moldering together in a crowded and dim space. Chase passed a room filled with Egyptian antiquities: saw sarcophagi propped along the wall, and tiny ancient glass bottles shining dully behind the newer glass of cases, slabs of stones with Egyptian letters etched into them, fragments of the stories of other people’s lives or perhaps codes of law. Another room made his soldier’s heart leap: here was armor, suits hammered both for horses and men. Italian armor he recognized quickly; another suit, he knew, hailed from the twelfth century. The Everseas owned several suits of the stuff, all apparently bequeathed by ancestors, all positioned strategically throughout the house and kept gleaming and oiled by the servants. They’d damaged one suit in an attempt to extract his brother Colin from it when Colin was thirteen years old, but to be fair, his brothers had all dared him to get into it. Judging from the armor, the men in the Eversea clan had been much smaller centuries ago. Doubtless they’d been forced to grow larger in order to defend themselves against the Redmonds.
The thought amused him.
He would treat himself to a look around this room one day. To make up for the fact that he would have to walk by…
He tried not to look, but there they were. Rows of them lined the walls on specially built shelves. Little bodiless hand puppets with their heavy heads and tiny little hands. Some suspended on hooks, like torture victims.
And then there were the marionettes.
When he was younger, his uncles had told them—because he and his brothers begged them to, as it was the nature of little boys to be gory—stories of medieval torture, about how accused criminals were strapped to a table and strategically stretched and stretched and stretched until their limbs popped from their sockets and dangled uselessly.
This is what Chase thought of when he saw marionettes. Rattling, wrecked, unnatural things with screamy falsetto voices provided by invisible people yanking at strings. Evidently, people throughout the centuries had considered this entertainment. The first marionette performance he’d seen gave him a nightmare when he was six years old, and he had avoided them as much as he could ever since.
If he’d ever told a soul how he felt about marionettes, he’d known he could expect his brothers to pool their allowances to buy him a marionette for every birthday; that he would likely never be able to go up to bed at night without wondering whether one was stashed beneath his blankets; that he would have been surprised by a puppet show now and again when he went to the loo, which meant he would have screamed and pissed everywhere.
The Eversea boys were endlessly inventive. Chase was intelligent and excelled at self-preservation.
He’d never enjoyed watching Punch swinging his stick at Judy, but marionettes were by far the most loathsome. And there was an enormous one perched up high in a chair, presiding dourly over this wing of the museum. Doubtless centuries old and priceless and a fine example of Czechoslovakian craftsmanship and all that, but it had bulging eyes painted white and dotted with minute blue pupils, had bulging eyes painted white and dotted with minute blue pupils, outsized grim ruby lips, and a nose like a petrified potato: enormous and misshapen. A deliberate wart sprang from it. Its face was carved into a scowl. Its legs and arms dangled impotently from a body covered in a white shirt and lederhosen.
Chase spared this atrocity a killing glance, then pretended it wasn’t there at all, though he thought he felt its eyes on his back. And at last found himself in what appeared to be the East Wing, because cherubs and angels swam into view.
There was a woman standing alone in this room.
She was apparently riveted by a painting covering about threequarters of the back wall. Tall. Slim. An air of suppressed vigor, as though stillness was an unnatural state for her. Her pelisse fell from her shoulders in the sort of effortless line only certain modistes seemed able to achieve—he had sisters, he’d kept a mistress or two, he recognized the difference; perhaps they paid crews of seamstresses to massage the fabric into languid compliance. She wore a hat with a feather in it—a subtle hat, a subtle feather—brown and fluffy but not at all fussy. Pretty hat, the urchin had told him, and he’d been right. From bonnet to boots she was, in fact, dressed in rich shades of brown, from chocolate to the dark gold trimming the pelisse. The overall effect should have been one of camouflage, given the old wood and muted light surrounding her. But she was the sort of woman who had no hope of remaining unnoticed regardless of where or how still she stood. She had presence. Given his gait, he, for that matter, had little hope of remaining stealthy.
He stepped forward. The floor gave an irritated squeak against the press of his walking stick.
She didn’t turn.
She appeared to be drinking in the painting.
Chase casually paused before a painting called The Miracle, at least according to a brass plate affixed to the frame. The artist was an Italian whose surname was nearly as long as the painting itself and primarily comprised of vowels. He supposed it would be considered pastoral—there were trees clustered in a meadow, with two muscular black cows and two improbably fluffy sheep arranged beneath them—and in the sky were two winged cherubs so fat that surely the miracle in question was how they had gotten aloft at all. They would have needed to have the wingspans of albatrosses, not those foolish wee flaps sprouting from their shoulders, he decided, irritated. One of the cows was looking up at them with what he fancied was an expression of surprise and alarm. Which was precisely the expression he would wear if he’d suddenly noticed two fat cherubs bearing down on him.
Now, a fine James Ward picture of a horse, or an Antoine-Jean Gros battlefield scene, even if it depicted Bonaparte doing something fraudulently benevolent with lepers, something practical, visceral, something of actual life…
Though doubtless Colin would have been enthralled by that cow, he thought sardonically.
He threw a quick sharp glance sideways. Interesting: the feather in the woman’s bonnet was quivering as though someone had sighed over it. Had she turned so quickly to look at him that he’d missed it?
It seemed unlikely.
Her face was still aimed at the painting; her back was still aimed at him. She seemed rooted to the spot.
He began to need to get a look at her face.
From somewhere in the museum he heard what sounded like…was it a giggle? A female sound. Ethereal. A trifle eerie, but then the whole damned place was. Doubtless a member of the cleaning staff taking inordinate glee in her work, since no other woman had signed the book apart from “Mrs. Smithson.”
He craned his head toward the painting that transfixed Mrs. Smithson: it was large, blue of sky but otherwise comprised of glowing celestial shades of pink and gold and pearl, and crowded with all manner of things, trees and livestock and whatnot, and it had cherubs, too. A bloody swarm of them, like bees. His sister Genevieve, an expert on painters of nearly every provenance both popular and obscure, would likely know the reason Italians seemed to want to put them on everything. Maybe he should ask her when he returned home.
If he deigned to return home.
He was gentleman enough to wonder how he ought to approach an unescorted woman of apparent quality…when she finally moved. Subtly, yet discernibly: a restless tilt of her head, a slight roll of one shoulder.
She might as well have driven a boot heel between his ribs. His breath left him in a single painful gust, and he stared, struggling for equilibrium, and tightened his grip on his walking stick to brace himself against the force of memories blowing him back and back through the years, to Waterloo, to Brussels, to all the other times he’d seen her do precisely that.
And, inevitably, to the last time he’d touched Rosalind March. Roses. He should have known.
Mrs. Rosalind March had known Captain Eversea was approaching even before she heard the floor squeak. She’d forgotten he had a way of disturbing the atmosphere of a place, like any proper thunderstorm. The little hairs on the back of her neck stirred with it. The backs of her arms were cold with nerves.
He’d come. Triumph!
But now she was uneasy. She decided to allow him to approach her. Or, rather, this is what she told herself. She preferred this to the version where she hadn’t the nerve to speak to him, despite the fact that she’d been impulsive enough to send for him.
“Your…messenger…gave me inadequate directions to this rendezvous, Mrs. March. Or should I say, Mrs. Smithson.”
The words contained all the warmth of a commanding officer chastising a subaltern and were steeped in irony. But…oh. The voice. How had she not been prepared to hear his voice again?
Deceptively gentle, dark and velvet textured: it lulled like opium smoke when the conversation was casual and close—during a waltz, at one’s elbow during a dinner party.
In command, he could make a single word crack like a pistol shot. His voice was a weapon.
The irony in it was because he understood precisely why she’d chosen her messenger: if she’d sent for him, he very likely would not have come.
Quite rightly he associated Rosalind March with trouble.
“And good morning to you, Captain Eversea. Very good to hear you once again exerting yourself to charm.”
She held out her hand for him to bow over.
As ever a gentleman—in the little niceties and rituals that bound together his class, anyway—he didn’t hesitate, didn’t twitch a brow: he bent, took her fingers lightly in his.
Hardly a touch at all.
She glanced down at his fingers and knew a vertigo comprised of a rush of years: she’d seen his hands cleaning weapons, absently knuckling away the black powder from his lips after he’d loaded a musket, hoisting weapons to his shoulders in drills, lifting up the heads of dying soldiers to offer water. She’d seen them lift brandy snifters, clap her husband on the shoulder in camaraderie, help silk-clad women in and out of carriages.
She knew the weight and heat of them pressed against the small of her back during a dance. She knew how his bare fingers felt threaded through her hair, cradling her head, to tip it back to—
She withdrew her fingers from his quickly. Her rib cage tightened, fortifying herself against a tide of memories.
She pointedly looked into his face, and not at the hand gripping the horse-head-topped walking stick, his Waterloo souvenir, which he horse-head-topped walking stick, his Waterloo souvenir, which he was grinding into the floor as if to punish it for being necessary. He’d always seemed etched from something more enduring than mere human flesh; he’d always seemed somehow more distinct than anyone else in any room. She was not surprised to find his face even harder now. Time and sun and pain and long nights involving God only knew what manner of male diversions had engraved lines at the corners of his eyes, sharpened and deepened the angles and hollows of his long face, made an implacable thing of his mouth. From the looks of things, it would make a veritable creaking noise should he attempt to turn it up into a smile now. His eyes…his eyes could still cut diamonds. Could light a mine shaft.
They were blue.
No: “blue” was an inadequate word for what they were. She turned from him to gaze at the painting. Rubinetto was painted in the corner in tiny, uneven black letters. She’d spent a goodly portion of her courage and strength on that oh-so-casual greeting, and she needed a moment to marshal more of it.
“Hideous,” he said, with absolute authority. He meant the painting. He was frowning punitively at it.
Wonderful. It was no comfort to discover he was precisely as he ever was.