Authors: Lilac Lacey
‘I’m told, Mr Fosse, that you only paint the most beautiful of women.’ Leo looked up sharply from his palette at the girl seated on a white damask chair in front of him, her hand resting on the head of a rather irritating little dog. The dog was still for the moment but its tooth marks were clearly visible in the expensive upholstery of the chair. Never mind, he would add the repair bill to the price of the portrait he was now painting. No, he would add the cost of a whole new chair; Lady Susannah’s father could afford it.
‘You’re right,’ he said, narrowing his eyes as he considered the shading under her elbow, the shift of her taffeta dress adding a rich interest which was unfortunately lacking in the subject herself. Still, Lord Maxwell’s money was reputed to have come from textiles. Perhaps he would be more appreciative of a portrait which showed how expensively he could dress his daughter than one which attempted to offset a beauty - which owed more to youth than to fineness of features - by painting her clothes in subtle shades. ‘I prefer to paint beautiful women, but I do make exceptions.’
Lady Susannah gasped and turned a rather unbecoming shade of red. Leo inwardly cursed himself for misjudging her, she had not been fishing for a compliment but had simply been making artless conversation and now he had callously insulted her. How could he repair the damage without appearing to be a fawning artist suddenly aware of the fragility of his commission? The little dog whined and Leo saw that Lady Susannah had twined her fingers rather tightly into the fur at the back of its neck. She looked near to tears and Leo remembered how young she was, just out of the schoolroom and making her debut this season. He realised he would have to swallow his pride and make amends, chances were that she would take what he said at face value and realise he was attempting to protect the considerable sum the that her father was paying him to paint her.
‘Beautiful women are easier to paint,’ he said, briskly stippling around the dog’s muzzle, as if he had not noticed Lady Susannah’s distress. ‘You yourself are proving a very easy subject.’ It was true, the simple lines of her face, while not compelling in themselves, proved no challenge to his artistic skills. He did not add that his two statements were not connected. He risked a quick glance at her face and saw that she had sufficiently composed herself. Now if only she would desist from further conversation. ‘I’m going to paint your mouth now,’ Leo said, adding the finest of white lines to depict the dog’s whiskers. ‘It would help me if you were absolutely still.’
‘Certainly,’ Lady Susannah said, and drew herself up into a rigid pose quite unlike the one she had first adopted, but it did not matter, he had blocked in her outline in that first session, he only needed the subject present in order to capture the details – and to control the dog.
Both the dog and Lady Susannah were growing restless as the light began to fade two hours later while her aunt, who was there as chaperone, slumbered on a chaise longue in the corner. Leo decided to take pity on all of them and finish painting for the day. ‘Will you need me to sit for you again, Mr Fosse?’ Lady Susannah asked timidly. Her repeated misuse of his name was starting to jar and it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her it was
Fosse, but he held back, she was just a girl; she hadn’t been trying to put him in his place and remind him he was merely a lowly artist as some of his clients did.
Leo shook his head. ‘Just one last time, when the work is almost finished, to ensure that I have completely captured your look,’ he said. ‘I will send you a note, if that is agreeable to you, to let you know when I need you.’
‘Of course,’ Lady Susannah said. ‘Aunt Louise!’ The elderly woman woke with a start. Courteously Leo held the door open for his clients. Many other artists of his acquaintance left their clients to see themselves out, claiming that they were professionals and would not humble themselves to open and shut their studio doors like butlers. But Leo remembered the father of his childhood springing up with alacrity to offer guests every possible courtesy and he felt no need to do less with his customers. Of course that had been his father long ago, before gambling and gin had taken hold of him and eventually ended his life with pain and penury. Angrily Leo brushed the thought aside; he would remember the best of his father, not the worst. He splashed some turpentine onto a rag and began to vigorously clean the oil paint out of his brushes. He would go out tonight, he decided, and see his friends. He had spent too much time alone lately, painting, but his latest landscape, a city view of St Paul’s from the river, was progressing well, he could afford to take some time off. Freddie had mentioned a bit of a card party at his house in Russell Square, he would go there. He wouldn’t play, of course, but he was bound to catch up with several old friends.
‘Don’t tell me, my dearest Freddie, your reputation would be ruined if you consented to play only for pennies!’ Lady Tara Penge looked up at her host, laughing, and waved her fan at him mockingly. She was quite sure Freddie would not take offence at her jibe; he was far too good-natured for that. But she was equally sure he would not be happy playing in a game with such low stakes and she wanted to make her position clear from the outset.
Freddie didn’t disappoint her. He gave her a mock bow. ‘Lady Tara, no one of consequence would ever take me seriously again.’
Tara arched her eyebrows, more than happy with the opening he had given her. ‘Am I of no consequence myself then?’ she asked.
‘My dearest Tara, you are a woman of the greatest consequence, never doubt it,’ Freddie said. He seized her hand and Tara briefly let herself enjoy the warmth of his touch and the brush of his lips through the fine mesh of her glove.
‘Lady Tara, I will play with you,’ an accented voice said and turning, Tara saw Philippe La Monte standing gracefully behind her. ‘That is,’ Philippe continued, ‘if you will consent to play for farthings, as I fear pennies may be beyond my means.’
‘Of course,’ Tara said, smiling warmly at the Frenchman. Philippe was handsome and charming and had lost everything but his manners when he had fled from France to escape the guillotine. She hoped he would find himself an heiress or at least a rich mistress soon. Meanwhile if gambling for farthings would keep him in the right social circle to meet such a woman she was more than happy to accomodate him. Much as she enjoyed his company she had no desire to marry him herself but she knew her attentions would add to his attractiveness. ‘Won’t you sit beside me?’ she asked, moving her chair a little to the left, allowing just enough space for him to draw up another and place it next to hers.
‘I would be delighted, mademoiselle,’ Philippe said and in a moment he was ensconced cosily beside her.
‘Will you deal?’ Tara asked cheerfully. She passed him the deck which she had been expertly shuffling, allowing her fingers to brush against his as he took the cards.
‘You are too kind,’ Philippe murmured and Tara laughed.
She played badly that evening and it took all her skill to ensure the other players did too, but it was worth the effort. At the end of the game Philippe was half a crown richer than when he’d begun and she could tell from the look in his eye when they concluded the game that he was relieved to have even so trifling a sum in his pocket to take home.
‘My dear Tara,’ Freddie said gaily, passing by their table as they stood up, ‘I am a ruined man, come and console me.’
‘Has your own game finished so soon?’ Tara asked. ‘I did not expect you to emerge until dawn.’
‘Alas, I have been out-bid and have been forced to retire,’ Freddie said. ‘Come and help me drown my sorrows with a glass of something.’
‘Adieu, Philippe,’ Tara said, extending her hand towards him. Philippe did not let her down; he took her hand in his and kissed it warmly. Tara let herself enjoy the slight fluttering sensation the touch of his lips elicited from within her, before allowing Freddie to tuck her arm into his and lead her over to the sideboard where refreshments awaited them.
‘Will you take a glass of wine?’ Freddie murmured and Tara looked at the array of decanters lined up before her, their ruby and gold contents gleaming in the lamp-light.
‘White, I think,’ she said, certain that whatever she chose would be of a good vintage, she knew Freddie to be a generous host who paid attention to details. ‘White for purity,’ she added, looking up at him from through her lashes. As she had expected, Freddie chuckled.
‘Something you would know all about,’ he teased. She said nothing, but smiled at him demurely as she toyed with the idea of letting him kiss her good night later. She had not encouraged Freddie before, but he was undeniably attractive with his neat, dark looks and his touch on her arm was firm and confident. They chatted for a while about mutual acquaintances of which they had many until a familiar voice interrupted them from across the room.
‘Tara, Freddie, you’re up for a bit of sport, aren’t you? I know I’m late, but I can’t have missed all the fun around here.’ Delicately removing herself just a little further from Freddie, Tara smiled at the latecomer, perhaps the most ardent of her suitors, Sir Rodney Hulme.
‘Please excuse me,’ Freddie said, ‘a friend of mine has just arrived and I’m not sure if he knows anybody.’
‘Who, Rodney?’ Tara asked, confused. ‘He knows everybody.’
Freddie shook his head, ‘No, the fellow behind him.’ Tara had a vague impression of a tall dark-haired man who had just entered the room, but Rodney bore down on her, distracting her by clasping her hands in his.
‘Tara, you are looking divine this evening,’ he said and Tara felt it would be churlish to affect a false modesty. She was wearing a dress of deep red, which brought out her strong colouring and ensured that every time she stood up she was noticed. Rodney himself was the most handsome man she knew, with his deep blonde hair and blue eyes and she was aware that together they made a striking pair as they strolled around the room. ‘I hoped you would be here tonight,’ Rodney continued and Tara noticed that he was looking particularly pleased with life. ‘I have just come into possession of a Phaeton and a matching pair.’
‘How wonderful for you,’ Tara murmured, such an acquisition on Rodney’s part was hardly surprising nor impressive , but she knew how important these things were to men so she did her best to appear interested.
‘They’re a pair of bay geldings,’ Rodney said with an enthusiasm she could tell he thought she shared. ‘Three year olds, well trained but with plenty of go in them.’
‘You’ll be setting records in Regent’s Park,’ Tara said, wondering where Rodney thought he would try these new horses at top speed. Rodney did not seem to pick up on her facetiousness.
‘I should think so!’ he said. ‘I’m planning to take the Phaeton out tomorrow afternoon, for her debut, so to speak. I was wondering if you’d care to join me?’
Tara considered her social calendar. She was attending a concert at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens the following evening with some family friends, but a short spin around the park should not make her late for that, particularly if Rodney intended to proceed at speed. ‘I should be delighted,’ she said and immediately wondered if she had acted rashly when she saw a gleam come into Rodney’s eye. She hoped very much that he wasn’t planning to propose, it would be such a waste of an admirer. She had been proposed to twice last season and once in each of her preceding seasons and inevitably as soon as she had rejected a man he ceased to be an amusing companion and either eyed her soulfully for the rest of the season or cut her dead completely. She enjoyed Rodney’s company, not enough to want to marry him, but quite enough to want to keep him as a friend. It was on the tip of her tongue to say that she had just remembered that she had promised to take tea with her aunt, but Rodney forestalled her.
‘Jolly good,’ he said, looking gleefully like a child with a new toy which he couldn’t wait to share and Tara couldn’t bring herself to dampen his enthusiasm. Besides, if he intended to propose he would find a time to do so with or without her co-operation. Perhaps it would be best to simply get it over with.
When pressed, Leo accepted a glass of Freddie’s driest white wine. It was excellent. He could see the deep red dress of the lady Sir Rodney Hulme had cornered reflected perfectly in the curve of the glass. He took another sip and re-examined the glass. Even in the tiny reflection he could see at once that there was something about her which immediately made him want to paint her. Perhaps it was her vivid colouring or the strength of her features; he glanced covertly at the real thing. It was both, and the sheer femininity of her figure only made her all the more compelling.
‘There are some new faces here tonight,’ he observed to Freddie.
Freddie chuckled, ‘You’ve been hiding in your garret for too long, as far as most of my guests are concerned you are the newcomer here.’
‘It’s not a garret,’ Leo said irritably, ‘it’s a perfectly respectable set of first floor rooms with a view of the river.’
‘From the wrong side,’ Freddie said.