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Portrait of a Scandal

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Chapter Two

Nathan stood up, handed over the finished sketch to his first customer of the night and held out his hand for payment. He thanked them for their compliments and made several comments witty enough to hit their mark, judging from the way the other occupants of the table flung back their heads and laughed. But he had no idea what he’d actually said. His mind was still reeling from the shock of seeing Amethyst Dalby.

After ten years of leaving him be, she had to go and invade territory that he’d come to think of as peculiarly his own.

Not that it mattered.

And to prove it, he would damn well confront her.

He turned and scanned the restaurant with apparent laziness, hesitated when he came to her table, affected surprise, then sauntered over.

If she had the effrontery to appear in public, with her latest paramour in tow, then it was time to remove the gloves. The days were long gone when he would have spared a lady’s blushes because of some ridiculous belief in chivalry towards the weaker sex.

The weaker sex! The cunning sex more like. He’d never met one who wasn’t hiding some secret or other, be it only her age, or how much she’d overspent her allowance.

Though none with secrets that had been as destructive as hers.

‘Miss Dalby,’ he said when he reached her table. ‘How surprising to see you here.’

‘In Paris, do you mean?’

‘Anywhere,’ he replied with a hard smile. ‘I would have thought...’ He trailed off, leaving her to draw her own conclusions as to where he might have gone with that statement. He’d made his opinion of her very plain when he’d discovered how duplicitous she’d been ten years ago. Back then, she’d had the sense to flee polite society and presumably return to the countryside.

He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on what might have become of her. But now she was here, why shouldn’t he find out? He glanced at her hand. No ring. And she hadn’t corrected him when he’d addressed her as Miss Dalby, either.

So it didn’t look as though she’d ever managed to entrap some poor unsuspecting male into marriage with a pretence of innocence. This man, this sallow-skinned, beetle-browed man whose face looked vaguely familiar, was not her husband. What then? A lover?

‘Are you not going to introduce me?’ He cocked an eyebrow in the direction of her male friend, wondering where he’d seen him before.

‘I see no need for that,’ she replied with a stiff smile.

No? He supposed it might be a little awkward, introducing a former lover to her current one. Especially if he was the jealous sort. He gave him a searching look and met with one of mutual antipathy. Was it possible the man felt...threatened? He could see why he might look like a potential competitor. Without putting too fine a point on it, he was younger, fitter and more handsome than the man she’d washed up with. Not that he saw himself in the light of competitor for her favours. God, no!

‘After all,’ she continued archly, ‘you cannot have come across to renew our acquaintance. I believe it is work you wish to solicit. Is it not?’

Of course it was. She didn’t need to remind him that whatever they’d had was finished.

‘I explained to madame,’ put in the man, proclaiming his nationality by the thickness of his accent, ‘that this is how you make your living. By drawing the likenesses of tourists.’

It wasn’t quite true. But he let it pass. It was...convenient, for the moment, to let everyone think he was earning his living from his pictures.

And simpler.

And that was why he’d strolled across to her table. Exactly why.

There could be no other reason.

‘Madame wishes you to make her the swift portrait,’ said the Frenchman.

Miss Dalby shot her French lover a look brimming with resentment. He looked steadily back at her, completely unrepentant.

Interesting. The Frenchman felt the need to assert his authority over her. To remind her who was in control. Or perhaps he’d already discovered how fickle she could be, since he clearly wasn’t going to permit her to flirt with a potential new conquest right before his eyes.

Wise man.

Miss Dalby needed firm handling if a man had a hope of keeping her in her place.

He had a sudden vision of doing exactly that. She was on her back, beneath him, he was holding her hands above her head... He blinked it away, busying himself with unfolding his stool and assembling his materials. No more than one minute in her presence and he was proving as susceptible to her charms as he’d ever been. The Frenchman, on whom he deliberately turned his back as he sat down, had every reason to be jealous. He must always be fighting off would-be rivals. What red-blooded male, coming within the radius of such a siren, could fail to think about bedding her?

Even though she was not dressed particularly well, there was no disguising her beauty. As a girl, she’d been remarkably pretty. But the years—in spite of what her lifestyle must have been like to judge from the company she was now keeping—had been good to her. She had grown into those cheekbones. And the skin that clad them was peachy soft and clear as cream. Those dark-brown eyes were as deep, lustrous and mysterious as they’d ever been.

It was a pity that for quick sketches like this, he only used a charcoal pencil. He would have liked to add colour to this portrait. Later, perhaps, he would record this meeting for his own satisfaction, commemorating it in paint.

Meanwhile, his fingers flew across the page, capturing the angle of her forehead, the arch of her brows. So easily. But then she wasn’t a fresh subject. Years ago, he’d spent hours drawing her face, her hands, the curve of her shoulder and the shadows where her skin disappeared into the silk of her evening gown. Not while she was actually present, of course, because she’d been masquerading as an innocent débutante and he’d been too green to consider flouting the conventions. But at night, when he was in his room alone, unable to sleep for yearning for her—yes, then he’d drawn her. Trying to capture her image, her essence.

What a fool he’d been.

He’d even bought some paints and attempted to reproduce the colours of that remarkable hair. He hadn’t been able to do it justice, back then. He hadn’t the skill. And he hadn’t been allowed to pursue his dream by taking lessons.

‘It’s for young ladies, or tradesmen,’ his father had snapped, when they’d discussed what he really wanted to do with his life, if not follow his brothers into one of the traditional professions. ‘Not a suitable pastime for sons of noblemen.’

He could do it now, though. He’d learned about light and shade. Pigment and perspective.

His fingers stilled. In spite of what his friend Fielding had said, she wasn’t merely a brunette. There were still those rich, warm tints in her hair that put him in mind of a really good port when you held the glass up to a candle.

Fielding had laughed when he’d admitted his obsession with it and clapped him on the back. ‘Got it bad, ain’t you?’

He glanced up, his hand hovering over the half-finished sketch. He might well have had it bad, but he hadn’t been wrong about her hair. It was just as glorious as it had ever been. After ten years, he might have expected to see the occasional strand of silver between the dark curls. Or perhaps signs that she was preserving an appearance of youth with dyes.

But that hair was not dyed. It could not look so soft, so glossy, so entirely...natural and eminently touchable...

He frowned, lowered his head and went back to work. He did not want to run his fingers through it, to see if it felt as soft as it looked. He could appreciate beauty when he saw it. He was an artist, after all. But then he would defy anybody to deny she had glorious hair. A lovely face. And sparkling eyes.

Though none of that altered the fact that she was poison.

He looked up, directly into her eyes, eyes that had once looked at him with what he’d thought was adoration. He smiled grimly. It was easier to read her now that he was older and wiser. She was looking at him assessingly, challengingly, with more than a measure of calculation simmering in the brew. All those things she’d taken such care to hide from him before.

Yes, she was poison right enough. Poison in a tantalising package.

From behind him, he heard her current lover shift impatiently in his chair. He probably regretted allowing her to have her way in this. It must irk him, having her looking at another man with such intent, while he was sitting mere inches away. But he was doing so, as though he was powerless to deny her anything.

God, she must be extraordinarily gifted between the sheets...

His mouth firming, he dropped his gaze to the page on his lap, adding a few deft strokes which put depth to the image he was creating.

‘There,’ he said, taking the finished sketch and tossing it to her lover.

The man looked at it, raised his brows and handed it across the table to Miss Dalby, who snatched at it.

‘This is...’ She frowned as she scanned the picture. ‘It is amazing, considering you did it so quickly.’ The expression in her eyes changed to what looked almost like respect. And he felt that glow which always came when people recognised his talent. His gift.

They might say he was a failure in every other department of his life, but nobody could deny he could draw.

‘How much do you charge?’

Miss Dalby was looking at the picture she held in her hands as though she couldn’t quite believe it. He stood up, folded up his stool and gave the insouciant shrug he always gave his subjects. And gave her the answer he always gave them, too.

‘Whatever you think it is worth.’

* * *

Whatever she thought it was worth? Oh, but that was priceless! She would have paid any amount of money to have him sitting at her feet, a supplicant. Ten years ago he’d swaggered everywhere, bestowing a smile here, an appreciative glance at some beauty there, with the air of a young god descended to the realms of lesser mortals. It was worth a king’s ransom to see him reduced to working for a living, when at one time he’d thought that she, with her lowly background and her lack of powerful connections, could be tossed aside as though she were nothing. And a delightful notion sprang to her mind.

‘Monsieur Le Brun.’ She beckoned the courier, who leant closer so that she could whisper into his ear. ‘I should like this young man to have the equivalent of twenty-five pounds. In French francs.’ It was the annual wage she paid her butler.

‘Do you have sufficient funds about you?’

His eyes widened. ‘No, madame, to carry such a sum on my person would be folly of the most reprehensible.’

‘Then you must draw it from the bank and see that he gets it. First thing tomorrow.’

‘But, madame—’

‘I insist.’

After a moment’s hesitation, he murmured, ‘I see, madame’, with what looked, for once, bafflingly, like approval. And then, ‘As you wish.’

He reached into his pocket and produced a heap of coins, which he dropped into Harcourt’s outstretched palm.

‘Please to furnish me with your direction,’ he said, ‘and I will call to settle with you for the rest.’

* * *

Nathan’s lips twisted into a cynical smile as he scrawled his address on the back of the sketch he’d just drawn. It was obvious this impudent fellow meant to call round and warn him to stay away from the beauty he currently had in his keeping. From the sneer about the fellow’s lips, the Frenchman assumed he was penniless. It was the trap so many people fell into where he was concerned, because he wore old clothes when he was sketching, clothes that he didn’t mind getting ruined by charcoal dust, or from sitting in the dirt when there was an interesting subject he simply had to capture.

This Frenchman planned to make the point that Nathan need not bother trying to compete. He had the wealth to satisfy her. To keep her. And what did he, a shabby, itinerant artist, have to offer?

Apart from relative youth, good looks and a roguish smile?

And all of a sudden, he had an almost overbearing urge to do it. To take her away from this slimy excuse of a man. To pursue her, and win her, and enslave her, and bind her to him...and then throw her away.

Because, dammit, somebody ought to punish her, for every single thing he’d gone through this last ten years. If she hadn’t set her sights on him and damn near enslaved him, then he wouldn’t have been so devastated when he found out what lay concealed behind the pretty façade. He would not have agreed to the disastrous marriage brokered by his family, or embarked on an equally disastrous political career, from which he’d only managed to extricate himself by committing what amounted to social suicide.

Oh, yes, if there were any justice in the world...

Only of course there wasn’t. That was one lesson life had taught him only too well. Honesty was never rewarded. The devious were the ones who inherited the earth, not the meek.

Tucking the pile of coins into his satchel, along with his supplies, he employed the smile he’d perfected during his years in politics, directing it in turn at the Frenchman, at Miss Dalby, and at the mousy woman who was sitting with them at table.

And strode out of the door.

* * *

‘Goodness,’ breathed Mrs Mountsorrel. ‘I have heard of him, of course, but I never expected him to be quite so...’ She flushed and faded into a series of utterances that could only be described as twittering.

But then that performance was the one he’d used so many times to reduce susceptible females to a state of fluttering, twittering, hen-witted compliance. Having those heavy-lidded, knowing hazel eyes trained so intently on her face would have had the same effect upon her, too, if she hadn’t been enjoying seeing him grovelling at her feet quite so much. And then again, there was something about the combination of those aristocratic good looks, and the shabby clothing, that might have tugged at her heartstrings, had she any heart left for him to tug at.

‘He has the reputation with the ladies rather unsavoury,’ put in Monsieur Le Brun, at his most prune-faced.

‘Oh, yes, I know all about that,’ twittered Fenella. ‘Miss Dalby is always reading accounts of his doings that appear in the newspapers. Why, his wife wasn’t dead five minutes before the most terrible rumours started up. And then, of course, when he fell from grace so spectacularly, there was no doubting the truth of it. He would have sued for libel if the papers had been making it up. Or is it slander?’

‘You sound as though you find him fascinating,’ he said, with narrowed eyes.

‘Oh, no, not I. It is Amethyst who followed his career in public life so closely. I mean, Miss Dalby, of course.’

He turned to her with a frown.

‘Well, madame, I...I commend you for wishing to aid someone you have known in the past. And being so generous, it is one thing, but I implore you not to be deceived by his so-charming smile.’

Oh. So that was why, for once, he hadn’t argued with her about the way she chose to spend her own money. He thought she was being generous to a friend who’d fallen on hard times.

If only he knew!

‘It is rather distressing,’ put in Fenella, ‘to see a man from his background sunk so low.’

‘He brought it all on himself,’ said Amethyst tartly.

‘And yet you have been so generous to him,’ said Monsieur Le Brun.

‘Well...’ she began, squirming in her seat, and blushing. It hadn’t been generosity, but a desire to rub his nose in the reversal of their fortunes that had prompted her to pay him a year’s wages for five minutes’ work.

‘I don’t see why you should be so surprised,’ said Fenella stoutly. ‘I thought you were more perceptive than that, monsieur. Surely you have noticed that she doesn’t like people to know how generous she is. She hides it behind gruff manners, and...and eccentric ways. But deep down, there is nobody kinder than my Miss Dalby. Why, if you only knew how she came to my rescue—’

Amethyst held up her hand to silence her. ‘Fenella. Stop right there. I hired you in a fit of temper with the ladies of Stanton Basset, you know I did. Mrs Podmore came round, not five minutes after Aunt Georgie’s funeral, telling me that I would have to employ some female to live with me so long as I remained single or I would no longer be considered respectable. So I marched straight round to your house and offered you the post just to spite them.’

‘What she hasn’t told you,’ said Fenella, turning to Monsieur Le Brun who was regarding his employer with raised eyebrows, ‘was that she’d never been able to abide the way everyone gossiped about me. But she’d never been able to do much about it apart from offer her friendship until after her aunt died.’

‘Well, it was dreadful, the way they treated you. It must have been hard enough, coming to live in a place where you knew nobody, with a small baby to care for, without people starting those malicious rumours about you having invented a husband.’

‘For all you knew, I might have done.’

‘Well, what difference would it have made? If you had been seduced and abandoned, surely you were due some sympathy and support? What would you have been guilty of, after all? Being young and foolish, and taken in by some glib promises made by a smooth-talking scoundrel.’

Was she still talking about Fenella? Amethyst wondered as she shakily reached for her glass, and downed the last of its contents. Or had it been seeing Nathan Harcourt that had stirred up such a martial spirit? And bother it, but Monsieur Le Brun was leaning back in his chair, his eyes flicking from one to another with keen interest.

They were both revealing far more about themselves and their past than he had any right to know.

‘I think we have said enough upon this subject,’ she said, setting her glass down with quiet deliberation.

‘She always gets embarrassed when anyone sings her praises,’ Fenella informed Monsieur Le Brun. ‘But I cannot help myself. For she didn’t just give me work to support myself and Sophie, she made sure my little girl finally had all that a gentleman’s daughter should have had. All the things,’ she said with a quivering lip, ‘that my own family denied her, because they never approved of Frederick. A nurse, beautiful clothes, a pony and, best of all, an education...’

‘Well, she’s such a bright little thing.’ And it wasn’t as if Amethyst was ever going to have any children of her own. At seven and twenty she was firmly on the shelf. No man would look twice at her if it weren’t for the fortune her aunt had left her. As she knew only too well.

‘So don’t you go thinking,’ she said, hauling herself up by the scruff of the neck, ‘that I’m...a pigeon for the plucking. Put one foot wrong and I will give you your marching orders,’ she finished.

‘Miss Dalby!’ Fenella turned a puzzled, disappointed face towards her. ‘There is no need to keep on treating Monsieur Le Brun as if he is working out ways to rob you. Hasn’t he proved over and over again on this trip how very honest, hard working and...ingenious he is?’

And he was sitting right there, listening.

‘If you must discuss Monsieur Le Brun’s many and various skills, please have the goodness to do so when we return to the privacy of our own rooms.’

‘I expect it was the shock of seeing Nathan Harcourt that has made her so out of reason cross,’ Fenella explained to Monsieur Le Brun, who was by now starting to look rather amused. ‘They used to know one another quite well, you see. He led poor Miss Dalby to believe they might make a match of it—’

‘Fenella! Monsieur Le Brun does not need to know any of this.’

Fenella smiled at her, before carrying on in the same confidential tone. ‘He was the youngest son of an earl, you know. Well, I suppose he still is.’ She giggled.

And that was when it hit Amethyst.

‘Fenella, I think you have had rather too much to drink.’

Fenella blinked. Her eyes widened. ‘Do you really think so?’ She peered down at her glass. ‘Surely not. I have only been sipping at my wine, and, look—the glass is still half-full...’

What she clearly hadn’t noticed was the way the waiters kept topping up the glass. And taking away the empty bottles and bringing fresh ones.

‘Nevertheless, it is time to go home, Monsieur Le Brun, wouldn’t you say?’

It said a great deal for the amount of wine Fenella had inadvertently consumed that it took both her and Monsieur Le Brun to get her into her coat and through the door. Then, when the fresh air hit her, she swayed on her feet. Monsieur Le Brun proved to have remarkably swift reflexes, because he caught her arm, tactfully supporting her before she could embarrass herself. Just to be on the safe side, Amethyst took her other arm, and between them they steered her through the crowds milling about the central courtyard of the Palais Royale.

But she was almost certain she heard him chuckle.

‘This is not funny,’ she snapped as they ushered her through the archway that led into the street that would take them home.

‘She isn’t used to dining out like this. Or having waiters going round topping up her glass. And as for that wine...well, it was downright deceitful. It tasted so fruity and pleasant...more like cordial than anything with alcohol in it.’

‘It was not the wine. It is Paris,’ said Monsieur Le Brun with an insouciant shrug. ‘It has the effect most surprising on many people. So we must make sure, as her friends, that we take especially good care of her from now on.’

Her friends? Monsieur Le Brun considered himself Fenella’s friend? And what was worse, he was putting himself on a level with her, as though they were...a team, or something.

Well, that would not do. It would not do at all.

And just as soon as she could think of the right words to do so, she was going to put Monsieur Le Brun firmly in his place.

But not until they’d got Fenella safely home.

.

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