About the book
A duke scarred, a painter with light in her eyes, and the portrait that changes their lives...
When Miss Elinor Thorbourne's artist father falls seriously ill, she must do what she never thought she'd have to do: finish a painting in his place. Only, this one is the portrait of one very particular, very scarred Duke.
Widely known as a disgrace to his own family, Seth Hislop, newly-appointed Duke of Worthwood, is in no mood to entertain guests, much less a painter that his mother insists must complete his portrait. Especially when the artist is a beautiful lady that makes him even more conscious of the scars marring his visage.
Seth's demons aren't strong enough to keep him away from Elinor, and as the portrait progresses so do their feelings for each other. But sometimes love is not enough and when priceless heirlooms start going missing, all clues point to Elinor being the thief. And not only that...
Elinor Thorebourne pursed her lips together and flexed her bare ankle, her eyes tracing along the curve of her calf and down her rounded heel. She added careful strokes to her canvas, slowly detailing a dancing nymph. This was a commission from a wealthy American heiress who desired something scandalous to hang above her bed.
In truth, that was probably neither an appropriate subject for a young woman to paint, nor for hanging in an unmarried woman’s bedchamber. But Elinor privately hoped that the heiress might wish to continue her patronage. She seemed like a modern woman, like someone who’d be enjoyable—if maybe a little dangerous—to know.
Behind her, the door to the studio creaked open. Elinor’s eyes flitted to the mirror, which had been angled to capture her face. The figure behind her was tall and broad with thick auburn hair, which very recently had become streaked with white. It was Richard Thorebourne, her father. “Good morning,” she said.
“How long have you been working?” he asked.
Elinor wrinkled her nose, trying to recall precisely when she’d risen from bed. It had been after sunrise. “For a few hours,” she replied. “I woke and could not find sleep again.”
That was only partly the truth. The other part was that her own father had been sleeping later in the mornings. He’d seemed tired of late, but despite Elinor’s gentle inquiries about his health, refused to admit that anything might be amiss.
“It’s for—ah—the heiress?” her father asked. “Her name escapes me.”
“Miss Young,” Elinor replied.
Her father hummed and came to stand behind her. His eyes were sharp and gray-blue, like Elinor’s own. That was where their similarities ended, though. While his hair was a rich shade of auburn, Elinor’s own tresses were a warm shade of brown and fell in wild ringlets, which defied all attempts at tidiness. Sarah, Elinor’s dear mother, had similar hair. Elinor was too young to remember her poor mother, who’d died of consumption, but Sarah had been a favorite model of Elinor’s father. Sometimes, sitting amidst all her mother’s portraits, Elinor felt as though her mother were, at the same time, too absent and too present.
“An unusual request,” her father said.
“Because it came from a woman, you mean,” Elinor replied mischievously. “I notice that men seem to have no hesitation in collecting portraits of scandalously-clad women. Why, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Venus without her bosom exposed and bare.”
Her father’s tongue clicked against the roof of his mouth. “It’s excusable when you’re emulating the greats.”
“Am I not doing that? Behold, a nymph!” Elinor said, grinning. “Inspired by all the great artists.”
Her father’s expression softened with something like pity. “It’s a different matter when the painter is a woman.”
Elinor sighed. “You’ve told me so many times that you never held my sex against me.”
“I don’t. You’ve more talent than any artist I’ve ever met. I mean only that women artists are—the world treats them differently than it does men. You know that as well as I.”
Of course she knew.
“That doesn’t make it easier to hear it from you, Father,” Elinor muttered.
He sat down heavily in a chair. Elinor leaned forward and subtly tilted the mirror just a little, so she could catch his reflection along with hers. Then, she resumed making her lines. She drew quick, sharp lines around the curves of the nymph’s toes.
“I’ve never doubted that you can paint anything, Elinor. That’s why I’ve never forbidden you from subjects such as this.”
Elinor pursed her lips together. She could sense where this conversation was going.
“I suppose that you’re going to tell me now that I may find myself unable to find a husband if I am too scandalous in my artistic endeavors,” Elinor said.
“You know me well.”
Elinor shook her head. “And you know me well enough to know that I’ve no interest in taking a husband, so there’s no need to persist in asking me this.”
“Perhaps not,” he agreed, not sounding very upset. “I do feel it’s my duty to try upon occasion, though. It’s what your mother would’ve wanted.”
“Mother and I are very different creatures.”
“Perhaps that is because of my influence,” her father offered wryly.
“I’m entirely sure it’s that,” Elinor said gently. “I could not want for a better father.”
“You say that because you are loyal, Elinor. Painting is not the most profitable trade, and a great deal of your success as an artist is dependent on luck. In marriage, there is security for women.”
“You’ve succeeded, though,” Elinor argued. “And I’ve learned all I know from you. You’ve painted for aristocrats. Why, I daresay you’re the most famous painter in all of Worthwood.”
Elinor herself had not yet been afforded the opportunity to paint nobility or had that much success, but she’d gotten an heiress’ patronage. That indicated a fruitful start, didn’t it?
“I have,” her father said slowly.
Elinor could sense his unspoken words: but I’m not a woman, and everything will be harder for you because you are.
“Your efforts are appreciated,” Elinor said. “Truly, Father.”
His many, many efforts.
“And yet you’re still not any more amenable to the idea of marriage.”
“Not in the slightest.”
Her father sighed, but when Elinor dared a glance at him, she caught a flash of humor in his countenance. Sometimes, she wondered if he even really wanted her to marry or if he just feigned that he did out of a sense of fatherly duty.
She considered her nymph again and gently sketched a few curls, letting the dark, delicate tendrils caress the nymph’s forehead and chin. Elinor pursed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, visualizing what the final result would be. Around her, the studio seemed to fade away until all that remained was the scratch of her charcoal on the canvas and the oily scent of paint pigments.
A fist pounded on the door, so suddenly that Elinor jumped. Her charcoal missed its intended mark, and Elinor hissed between her teeth. “I was doing so well,” she muttered.
Heat rose to her face. She knew it was absurd to be so utterly vexed by a mild interruption, but there was something so irrationally bothersome about having her concentration broken, if only for a few seconds.
She stood and dusted her hands on her skirts. “Were you expecting visitors, Father?”
“Not that I recall.”
Elinor crossed the floor, only belatedly remembering that she wore only one shoe. The other had been abandoned by her chair, so she could use her own ankle as a reference. She had too much pride to admit that such a detail had escaped her, though, and continued to the door with a slightly uneven step.
She composed her face into a mask of friendliness, hiding her irritation. It was unintentional, after all, and it would never do to be rude to a visitor. Elinor threw open the door, wincing a little as the bright winter sun swept into the room. “Good morning!” she greeted cheerfully.
“Good morning, Miss.”
The man in the door was old and bent over, his skin withered by time like an old tree. His hair was thinning, wisps of it emerging like bits of cloud-fluff from beneath his hat.
“Won’t you come in out of the cold?” Elinor asked.
He smiled. “That would be lovely.”
Elinor allowed him entrance and gestured towards the seat by the fire. “Won’t you be seated?”
“That’s not necessary. I don’t imagine I’ll stay long,” the man replied. “Her Grace will most certainly desire a prompt reply.”
Elinor’s heart gave an anxious, little flutter. Of her father’s many prestigious patrons, he’d never been asked to give his services to a Duchess. What an honor!
Her father rose from before his painting and nodded cordially. “Welcome—”
“John Edwards,” the man supplied.
“—Mr. Edwards,” Elinor’s father said. “How may I be of service to you?”
“Mr. Thorebourne, I presume?” Mr. Edwards asked.
Elinor’s father nodded. “Indeed.”
Mr. Edwards reached inside his coat and produced a letter, tied neatly closed with a length of red ribbon. “I am to deliver this letter to you and wait for your reply.”
Her father accepted the letter and unfolded it. Elinor clasped her hands in front of her and tried not to appear as though she was terribly excited. What would a Duchess want from her father?
He might be away for a long time.
Often, her father’s aristocratic patrons preferred that he journey to meet them, and in her father’s long absences, Elinor managed the studio herself. She felt a sharp pang in her chest at the thought of him being away. Despite his protests, she was still quite sure that something ailed her father. He seemed as though his energy dissipated a little more each day. Perhaps it was only a bout of melancholy brought on by the cold season, but she could not help but worry over him.
“It’s the Dowager Duchess of Worthwood,” her father said.
Oh! Elinor felt herself relax. It was the local Dowager Duchess, which meant no long journey for her tired father. Besides, her Uncle Henry was steward to the Duke, which meant that her father would have someone with him on the unfamiliar estate.
“Is she requesting a portrait of herself?” Elinor asked.
Her father shook his head. “No, it seems that it’s of the new Duke.”
Elinor blinked. She’d known that the Duke of Worthwood was deceased. His death had come last year after—or so the rumors said—a long struggle against some terrible illness, which baffled even the best of physicians. She’d not heard of a successor’s arrival yet, so the new Duke must’ve only arrived recently.
Her father seated himself and pursed his lips together, appearing contemplative. “Hm…now, I’m curious.”
“About?” Elinor prompted.
Elinor’s father glanced at Mr. Edwards, who waited patiently by the door. “Nothing, dear. I’m just musing over something Her Grace has said. I’ll accept the task, of course.”
“She’ll be pleased to hear of it,” Mr. Edwards replied. “If you refused, I was to insist that you are the only painter in the dukedom who would possibly have the skills to produce work of the quality Her Grace expects.”
Elinor’s father laughed heartily. “I’m hardly that great, but nevertheless, you may assure Her Grace that I’ll take the task. I shall make preparations at once.”
Mr. Edwards bowed his head. “Thank you.”
As Mr. Edwards turned to leave, Elinor saw her father pause. He opened his mouth as though he wished to speak, but then closed it. No words ever emerged.
Elinor glanced at her father, and when he noticed her look, he gave her a small shake of his head. Pursing her lips together, Elinor escorted Mr. Edwards to the door.
He smiled at her. “A good day to you, Miss.”
“And a good day to you,” she replied.
She waited until he’d reached his horse, waiting patiently for him. For being late December, it wasn’t a bad day for traveling. The ground was barren of snow and rain, and the clouds did not hide the sun as they so often did in England. Still, Elinor thought of her own father, who was quickly aging before her eyes, when she looked at Mr. John Edwards. She hoped that the cold did not trouble the man too terribly.
Elinor closed the door and placed her back against it. Her father still sat gazing thoughtfully at the letter, as if he’d stumbled upon some puzzle in it that he couldn’t quite solve.
“Was is it?” Elinor asked.
He arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“There’s something in that letter that you find strange, something that you’re not sharing with me.”
“You are too perceptive for your own good.”
Elinor smiled. “You’ve always claimed that a good perception is crucial to being a good artist.”
“You shouldn’t use your elders’ words against them,” he replied, with clearly feigned severity.
“I shall endeavor to remember that, my dearest elder.”
“But this letter is…unusual. Her Grace has described her son as being heavily scarred, and her wording is strange. I’m unsure if she fears that painting scars is beneath my skills or if she is hoping I’ll erase them entirely.”
Elinor raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t unusual for an artist to flatter a subject. Scars were removed, waists adjusted, and clothes made more delicate. It did seem rather odd that Her Grace would think the matter bore mentioning, however, when it was expected that an artist would work to please a patron. Paintings did not have to hold any truth in them—they could be, instead, an ideal. A vision of perfection that had never existed and which would remain forever frozen in time.
“Evidently, his scars are the result of a naval accident,” her father said. “We must ensure that we do not seem taken aback by them. Otherwise, we might offend them.”
Her heart leaped. He said we. Elinor knew that she wouldn’t be permitted to do any of the painting. She’d only help her father arrange his workplace on the estate, but she nevertheless felt a rare delight at the thought of catching a glimpse of the famed estate.
“We’ll be able to visit Uncle Henry while we’re there,” she said.
Her father didn’t look entirely pleased with the idea. “Indeed.”
Elinor returned to her chair and twisted around in it, surveying her father carefully. “Won’t you ever forgive my dear uncle?”
Her father and uncle were always cordial to one another and overly polite when in the company of others, but Elinor knew that the men disliked one another. When they were together, a nervous energy seemed to infuse the very air around them, and although Uncle Henry had always been kind to Elinor, her father remained unmoved.
“No,” her father replied. “I never shall.”
Her father’s dislike was the result of some unforgivable wrong in the past. Her father had explained that much to her, but he’d never described precisely what that wrong was.
“If I held a grudge for so long, you’d scold me,” Elinor said.
“You’d say that it was detrimental to me, that anger is an illness which slowly erodes the nature of good men and women.”
Her father’s lips twitched in amusement. “It is to your benefit that you’ve made no enemies, my dear Elinor.”
“Is my uncle your enemy?” Elinor asked.
Her father didn’t answer at first. He merely frowned and looked askance, his eyes fixed upon the letter from the Dowager Duchess. “We do not get along, and I don’t imagine we ever will. Sometimes, that’s just what happens between people, Elinor. I don’t care to discuss the matter further.”
Elinor nodded and said nothing else about it. Still, she pursed her lips together, thinking hard. Her father insisted that it was nothing, but she knew somehow, deep inside, that wasn’t true. Elinor’s father was the kindest, most patient man she’d ever met. For him to hold a grudge so long, something truly dreadful must’ve happened between himself and her beloved uncle. But what?
His mother was staring at him.
Seth curled his fingers tightly around the teacup. The porcelain felt far more delicate and fragile than it had when he left England, so much so that he feared—really quite irrationally—that the small cup might break between his fingers. The scars and callouses on his hands only served to reinforce the feeling. These were not the hands of a gentleman.
His mother made a soft sound. It was somewhere between a wistful sigh and a titter of laughter. “You’re looking at that drink as if you’ve never seen tea before.”
There was an uncomfortable silence between them. Seth looked at his mother, who continued to stare at him. In his absence, his mother had aged well. Her hair remained thick and black, untouched by gray. The years had been kind to her face, which bore still much of the smooth complexion that had made his mother a great beauty in her youth. At that moment, Seth realized he looked quite a lot like her. Their eyes were different—his gold-green and hers soft blue—but their hair was the same. Their faces, too. That was, if one didn’t notice the scars marring the right side of his face.
And only a blind man could miss them.
“Seth?” his mother prompted.
“I was thinking about the cup,” Seth said, trying for a jovial tone. “Quite a different vessel than I’ve become recently accustomed to.”
“You mean the Prince Regent isn’t supplying our noble naval forces with teacups made of the finest porcelain?” his mother asked.
Seth grinned. Florence, the beautiful Dowager Duchess of Worthwood and his own mother, had been famous among the ton for her good humor. Since the death of the late Duke, however, that humor had been scarce. Seth felt a warm relief at seeing it emerge even briefly.
“It is not so,” he said, feigning an expression of utter dismay.
“I’m sure it won’t seem strange for long,” his mother replied. “Soon, it will be as familiar to you as if you’d never left.”
Seth tried not to let his face fall. His mother was only trying to be kind and—Seth strongly suspected—trying to occupy herself after the death of her beloved husband. His parents hadn’t been a love-match, but they’d grown to love one another. They’d been one another’s dearest friends, and as painful as the ache knotting in his own chest was, Seth could scarcely imagine how painful it must be for his mother.
I wonder if she’s not trying to shape me into the remedy for her own grief.
He didn’t resent her if she had, and that was why he tried to be presentable. It was why he didn’t voice the deep, dull ache inside him. He ached for the sea breezes and the scent of salt water and the long stretches of blue-gray water. Some part of him had always known that he’d return to England and become the Duke of Worthwood, but he hadn’t anticipated the sea being such an alluring mistress, whose every wave coaxed him further from his duty to the dukedom.
“And you’ll have a proper Season,” his mother continued.
“I’m sure the young ladies will be flocking to me,” he replied dryly.
Her eyes flitted over his face, taking in the scars for what must’ve been the thousandth time since his return. “Of course they will be,” she replied. “You’re a young Duke.”
He was a title and a fortune, and it hardly mattered if a mass of scars spread a net-like pattern over the right half of his face. Seth nearly suggested that any potential suitors view him only from his left, but he knew his mother would be horrified by that sort of blatant, dark humor. That was simply how Seth dealt with difficult things, though. He buried them beneath a veneer of bravado and dark witticisms.
“And a new Duke especially is a cause for celebration,” his mother continued, “especially when that new Duke isn’t an incurable rake.”
“Have the rakes grown more numerous since I last spent time in England?” he asked.
“They have, indeed,” his mother said gravely.
“It must be a difficult time to be a young lady, then,” he offered.
His mother nodded and set her cup and saucer on the table before her. The clinking of the porcelain against the wood made a faint chiming sound, which seemed to sink all the way down to Seth’s bones.
“These occasions are usually celebrated with portraits,” she said.
“An excess of rakes is?” Seth asked.
“New Dukes,” his mother clarified.
Seth’s shoulders tensed. He placed his own teacup on the table, resulting in a much louder sound than his mother had. Seth frowned. Had he ever really been a gentleman at all? His mannerisms seemed so rough now. No, not even rough. Just…
Not enough. Lacking, somehow.
"I’m quite content not to celebrate the occasion in the usual manner,” Seth said. “You need not worry.”
“Of course you’ll celebrate it in the usual manner.”
Seth sighed. He leaned forward, placing his forearms on his knees. When his mother’s eyes narrowed, he straightened again. “Mother, what would be the point of it?”
“I’ve told you the point of it.”
Seth shook his head. “I’ve no desire to have some painter create a vision of what I might be if not for this—” He gestured at his face, although there was really no need for it. The scars were present in every conversation between them. “It wouldn’t be me.”
“Then the artist will paint you scars and all,” his mother persisted. “It’s important that we celebrate, nevertheless.”
“Even you find me grotesque now,” Seth said, his tone gentle. “I know you try to be kind and that you try not to stare at me because you’re my mother, and you are kind. But that is still the truth. Why would you want something so deformed gracing the walls of our ancestral home?”
His mother stared at him for a long moment. Her expression was soft and fond. “You’re right. I keep staring at them, but it isn’t because I find you deformed or repulsive. I am saddened that you’d ever think that.”
“I don’t mean it so harshly, Mother. It’s in our nature to stare at unsettling things. It’s in our nature to be…drawn to beautiful things and to dislike things which are not lovely.”
“I know you don’t,” she replied, sighing. “But still, it isn’t that. I can become accustomed to some scars. It’s more that they’re a reminder.”
Seth closed his eyes and inhaled sharply. A cold sense of dread filled him. “Of what?”
“Of how much danger there is in the world,” she said. “What if something worse had happened? What if you’d been seriously hurt? Or worse, what if you’d died?”
Like your father.
The words remained unspoken, but Seth heard them anyway.
He opened his eyes and met his mother’s fretful gaze. Her brow was furrowed and her eyes shining with such earnestness and hurt that Seth felt himself softening. “I didn’t die, Mother,” he said, “and I came as soon as I heard of Father’s death. I’m not going anywhere.”
He fought down the sudden wave of sadness which swept over him. It was selfish to long for the sea when his mother’s heart was so shattered. And why wouldn’t it be? His father had been a good man and a wise Duke, and Seth himself felt a twinge of guilt for having not been at his father’s bedside during his last days.
“I know, and that’s why I want to see you married and with a family of your own. I just want you to be happy.”
It was more than that. She wanted to be sure he couldn’t leave. If Seth couldn’t leave, his mother wouldn’t worry about something terrible befalling him. But for how long? Seth swallowed.
“I am happy, Mother. But don’t you think it would be better if I just stayed and tended to the dukedom for a little while? I could help you.”
“Do you think I’m unable to look after myself?” his mother asked, raising her chin proudly.
“Of course you can,” Seth replied, “but I have been away for a long time now. Wouldn’t it be nice for it to be just us for a while? Surely, we don’t need to think of courtship just yet.”
“If I let you delay it, you’ll never begin searching for an eligible wife,” his mother said.
Seth smiled wryly. “I’m to submit myself to the whims of the ton’s ladies then, am I?”
“And to those of the artist who comes to paint you.”
“No,” Seth replied. “We can compromise on this. I’ll do the Season, but there will be no artists.”
“That would be a pity,” his mother replied, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes.
Seth arched an eyebrow. “You’ve already found someone, haven’t you?”
“Indeed, I have,” she said. “I’ve already invited him to the estate. It would be quite a shame, wouldn’t it? To send him away without work. He’s quite a good artist, and I imagine he probably had to refuse other commissions to take mine. He’s the brother of Henry Thorebourne, too. Your father’s steward, if you may recall? I’m quite sure we wouldn’t want to offend him by sending his brother away. It’s difficult to find effective, trustworthy stewards.”
Seth felt a flare of irritation, but it was quickly smothered. His mother was just trying to make him feel at home. She was just trying to soothe her own worried mind. How could he fault her for that?
“You aren’t fair, Mother,” Seth said. “I suppose if I refuse to pose, you’ll have your artist watch me from afar and work from memory?”
Seth imagined some poor, intrepid artist climbing in a tree to watch as he passed on his morning ride.
“I was rather thinking—in that case—we’d wait until you were asleep,” his mother said, her face the picture of composure.
Despite himself, Seth laughed. He’d always admired that fire in his mother. She didn’t ask for permission. She simply acted, and the people around her had to accept her decisions. His mother had played her hand well.
“Then, you shall have both your portrait and the Season you desire for me,” Seth said.
He didn’t want either in his future. Seth wanted the sea. For now, though, he could make his mother happy. He could help soothe the grief that his father’s absence had left, even if it meant forcing aside his own desires and his own doubts.
He didn’t belong in this world anymore, but he owed it to his mother to try.
Seth had been at home for scarcely a week, and it already felt like forever. He rubbed his face and considered simply returning to his bed for the remainder of the day. It was barely noon, but he’d been sleeping poorly of late. His room was too still and too quiet, the whistling of the wind outside his window no substitute for the waves rocking against the hull of a ship.
But then, Mother will worry.
Instead, he walked along the familiar route between his bedroom and his father’s—his—study. Seth remembered these halls as a child and how he’d often fled from his governess down them.
"A little higher, perhaps?” A woman’s soft voice drifted from the parlor. “No, that isn’t—”
That sounded bad. Seth swept into the parlor, expecting a sobbing maid and broken antique. What he found was infinitely stranger. Lengths of fabric were draped over the nearby table. Wooden, square frames and white canvas littered the floor.
The artist, of course.
Most surprisingly, there was a young woman bent over on the floor before the mantle. From where he stood, Seth saw only ringlets of warm, chestnut hair and her voluminous blue skirts.
“I’m fine,” she said, before he could even speak. “It’s this chair. Will you get the nails for me? I’m going to fix it now.”
The woman straightened, and Seth saw a chair tipped over before her. It seemed that she’d been standing upon it and fallen.
Is that the artist? A woman? I thought my mother said the artist was a man, Henry’s brother.
Maybe he hadn’t remembered the conversation quite right.
“Where are they?” Seth asked, his voice strangled.
This was just baffling.
The woman spun around, nearly tripping over the length of white cloth she held draped over her arms. She was beautiful. Her face was delicate and fine-boned, her cheeks flushed with warmth. And her eyes! They were the color of the sea on a stormy day, that same sad blue-gray that made his heart ache. Staring at that young lady made Seth’s heartbeat quicken, and he became far more aware of his scarred face than he ever had with his mother or the staff.
If my mother is serious about my attending the Season, it’s going to be awful.
He didn’t want to think about all those well-bred, beautiful ladies staring at him, pitying him or being repulsed by him. Seth wasn’t sure which was worse, and he couldn’t quite decide which feeling was stronger in this woman.
She laughed, and Seth’s face grew hot. Was she laughing at his appearance? That stung. He straightened his spine, determined to face this derision with grace.
He hesitated when she smiled at him, the expression genuine and cheerful.
“I’m so sorry, Your Grace,” she said. “I was anticipating my father’s arrival, and when I saw you instead, I just—it caught me unaware. I asked you to fetch nails for me!”
Ah, he’d been wrong about her intentions. Seth tried not to appear too obviously relieved. Perhaps the scars had made him more sensitive than he would’ve liked.
“I was going to do as you said,” Seth replied.
Her eyes were bright and curious. “You were. That was—ah, very gentlemanly of you, Your Grace.”
He felt suddenly very foolish and cleared his throat, trying to regain some semblance of composure. Had he really changed so much that an artist was able to render him so ineffectual? Admittedly, he’d never seen such a beautiful artist. A woman artist.
Did he even know any female artists? Most ladies painted or drew, but he didn’t know any who’d made a profession with such skills. “What—I thought the artist was—”
“My father,” the woman replied. “I’m Elinor Thorebourne. I was—Her Grace wanted to use this room, so I was setting it up for my father.”
Seth raised an eyebrow. “By climbing on furniture?”
Elinor flushed. “I was trying to pin this over the mantle,” she said, raising the fabric in her arms. “It’s important to get the draping right before painting, but I’d forgotten that chair is just—terrible.”
It must, indeed, be terrible if it wouldn’t even withstand the weight of such a slight young woman.
“You could’ve used one of our chairs,” Seth replied. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”
“I’m unaccustomed to asking for help, but that’s very gracious of you. Thank you, Your Grace.”
Seth glanced at the mantle, and he could see that two small nails had been lightly driven into the wall just over the mantle. Miss Thorebourne must’ve nailed them up there before her chair broke. “Is that where this goes?” he asked, nodding to the wall.
“Yes,” she replied, seeming taken aback.
Seth gestured for the fabric. “I should be tall enough to reach without difficulty. Allow me.”
She hesitated, clenching the fabric to her chest. Seth raised an eyebrow, unsure if the woman might be about to refuse his help. He’d never quite encountered that from a woman before.
“You couldn’t possibly,” she said.
“You’ll have to instruct me, then,” he replied.
Seth hadn’t thought it was possible for Miss Thorebourne’s face to become any redder, but it did. Had he embarrassed her? Seth couldn’t be certain, but that was a lovely color on her. It made her eyes seem brighter.
At last, she surrendered her fabric. “I meant that a Duke ought not to be hanging fabric, Your Grace.”
“I’ll pretend it’s a sail, then.”
Those he could manage quite well.
Miss Thorebourne straightened, the remark seeming to awaken something inside her. “We shall see, Your Grace.”
She spoke like someone who knew some etiquette for speaking with the nobility, but perhaps, not much practice. Or maybe she was just very forward. Seth wasn’t certain.
His heart thundered, and his pulse quickened. It didn’t matter what she thought. He was a Duke. He was the one who knew all the rules of etiquette and all those intricate social rituals. If he wanted to be generous, he could send someone to help the lady hang her fabric, but he shouldn’t do it himself. He shouldn’t even be alone with her. Any proper gentleman would leave.
“I should…” Seth trailed off.
He wasn’t accustomed to being indecisive, but he felt as if his own heart rebelled against him. Seth knew he ought to leave, wanted to leave, and yet this beautiful woman filled him with such a primal longing to stay and help. He cleared his throat.
I’ll steady myself. I’ll count to five and then decide.
It was a strategy which had always helped him steady his nerves when faced with difficult decisions at sea. Seth imagined the ever-present rocking of the ship and the sound of the waving echoing against a hull.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
It was time to decide.
The sweet scent of orange blossoms and spice drifted into Elinor’s nose. She wanted to inhale, to take the scent of His Grace’s cologne in even deeper. Elinor’s face felt like a furnace. Her eyes flitted to the Duke as he approached the mantle.
The scars were…more substantial than she’d imagined they might be. Although her father had warned her about them, Elinor had really thought that the Duke’s scar might be only a small trifle, a sliver of one from a childhood injury. People could be strange about such things.
But that isn’t it at all.
It took everything in her not to stare, fascinated, at him. Stranger still was that the left side of His Grace’s face was shockingly handsome. He had a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and spring-green eyes. Her mind whirled, trying to calculate the pigments that would be grinded together to create that lovely, lively color.
“Can I just throw it up there, or is there some special way you have in mind?” He was so near to her that Elinor swore she could feel his voice rumble the air between them.
This wasn’t anything untoward, though. He was simply helping her hang a cloth. Her father would probably perish on the spot, though, if he learned that she’d let His Grace do something that was so far beneath his station. An anxious laugh tumbled past her lips.
“I see you find my ignorance amusing, also.”
“No,” Elinor replied.
This man probably thought that she was a fool. He probably thought her some weak-minded creature who couldn’t even carry a conversation, instead of the young, professional painter she wanted to be.
“I was thinking that my father would be appalled,” she replied, “that I’m having a Duke act as my apprentice.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that His Grace smiled. “I suppose we’d better finish this quickly, then. Your father need not know.”
Elinor swallowed. He had a deep, pleasant voice which carried like thunder. “Yes, quickly. Lift it up a bit, won’t you?”
I cannot order His Grace to do this.
If her father learned of this, he’d surely forbid her from ever interacting with any of his aristocratic patrons ever again. No one ordered a Duke around, especially not a woman. A working woman.
His Grace didn’t seem terribly bothered, though. He raised the end of the fabric at her direction and paused, as if waiting for further guidance.
Is it so terrible if he’s letting me direct him?
Probably. He was likely appalled and too polite to say so. Elinor bit the inside of her cheek. She felt as though she was on terribly rugged terrain. It was bad enough that he’d met her in such a humiliating manner, sprawled in front of a chair like she’d been.
“Actually, Your Grace,” Elinor said. “I really should do this myself.”
He turned to her. Elinor’s eyes swept down the right side of his face, at the thick lattice of scars. What had caused such an injury? It was like nothing she’d seen before, but then, the only injures she’d seen were small ones. She’d seen accidental slices with knives while trying to cut a piece of canvas or sharpen a quill, and she’d gotten small pinprick injuries in grinding her pigments. Never anything like this, though.
“It’s really appalling that you think I’m unable to hang a bit of cloth,” the Duke said.
She met his eyes squarely, a bit of defiance burning in her. “It isn’t that. It’s that you should not be here, or rather, I shouldn’t be here with you. Unchaperoned. Having you do this.”
There was something fierce in his expression, and Elinor felt a sudden jolt of fear. She didn’t have experience with powerful men. She didn’t know how to behave around them, and she had to remember that any of her misbehavior would reflect poorly on her father.
This was a Duke. This was the most prestigious commission he’d ever gotten. She could not ruin this for him, not for her poor father who worked so very hard.
“I am quite aware of what I should and shouldn’t be doing,” His Grace said, “but I do appreciate the reminder, Miss Thorebourne.”
She’d angered him. He suddenly seemed so much taller to her, to have so much more presence. Elinor swallowed, unsure. She didn’t have much experience with men, either. Her heart beat so loudly that she heard its echo reverberate through her own skull.
“Then, why are you here?” she asked, a little breathless.
Maybe he was a rake or some abhorrent libertine.
“Because I heard your chair break,” His Grace said. “I thought you—I thought something might’ve broken. Actually—no. I’m going to hang this up whether you like it or not. If you injure yourself doing it, I’ll have that on my conscience.”
“I can do it myself,” Elinor replied.
“It didn’t look like that when I entered the room.”
Elinor’s face flushed. She might deserve this. He’d tried to do her a kindness, and she’d offended him. And yet that proud, rebellious spark in her burned with indignation. How dare he mock her?
She had a rather impulsive desire to surprise him, but that was most certainly not a wise course to take. She didn’t even know what she’d do.
“Were you hurt?” His Grace asked, his voice softening.
“I said I was fine.”
“I find that when most people say they’re fine, they don’t really mean it.”
“The only thing injured was my pride,” Elinor said.
“That seems reasonable. I’ve often heard it said that pride goeth before the fall,” His Grace replied.
Elinor covered her mouth with a hand. She would not give him the satisfaction of believing that she found such a terrible comment amusing. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. He seemed as if he didn’t know quite what to make of her, either.
Maybe he doesn’t.
He’d been away for a very long time; she realized rather suddenly. Perhaps his terrible accident had changed him, too. Maybe that was why he was so—so uneven in his mannerisms. Since he’d returned to England, he’d probably been faced with people staring at him.
She felt suddenly guilty and unsure. Maybe it didn’t matter how she behaved right then, as long as she wasn’t like one of those other countless people gawking at him. After she helped her father arrange this room, she’d return home and probably never set foot on the estate again aside from the odd delivery of pigments and brushes. Maybe a quick visit to her uncle.
“I don’t know what to make of you,” she admitted honestly.
“What would you like to make of me?” he asked.
He seemed curious, challenging even. Elinor pursed her lips together. “I haven’t the faintest. I feel as though I’ve made a poor impression on you.”
“A poor impression…” he echoed thoughtfully.
His Grace raised the fabric and placed it over the nails. Elinor winced at how tightly bunched together it was; that would never do for the background of a portrait. The fabric needed to be held much looser.
“You don’t like it?” he asked.
She tugged a little on the fabric, carefully loosening the tight bunches and pausing to look at how the light played over the it. Her father would be painting at around this time because the light streamed just perfectly through the windows.
“It just needs a little bit of adjusting. Backgrounds are a crucial component of portraiture.”
“Are they? I’ve never noticed them, truthfully.”
“That’s part of the point. They’re there to enhance the subject, so it draws the eye. And you can direct the eye with fabric and other embellishments.”
Elinor’s father was especially good with drawing the curves and lines of fabric until they looked so real that the viewer felt as if he could reach out and touch them.
“You know a great deal about portraits not to be a painter.”
“I am a painter,” she replied. “I’m just not your painter, Your Grace.”
Elinor reached for the other end of the fabric, adjusting it to match. His Grace watched quietly, but Elinor could never forget that he wasn’t there. She felt him behind her, strong and steady. An anxious, crackling energy like the first signs of a coming storm seemed to radiate from his powerful figure.
She couldn’t decide whether she ought to be afraid of him or not. He seemed to be such a contradiction, so beautiful and so grotesque. So open, but still so guarded. Kind and helpful, but quick to offend.
If I’d had more experience with either men or aristocrats, I’d know what to do.
She felt a sudden flood of embarrassment for rejecting every potential suitor who’d shown interest in her. If she’d had just a little more experience, her feelings wouldn’t be such a tangled mess of contradictions.
“So I’m to have fabric and a mantle behind me?” His Grace asked at last, fingering the fine satin.
“It will look beautiful on canvas,” Elinor replied.
He frowned, the scars pulling taut near the right side of his mouth. “I’m sure.”
“You don’t sound pleased.”
His Grace shrugged. “I’m not especially enthusiastic about having my portrait painted. This is all to please my dear mother.”
Because of the scars?
Elinor wanted to ask, but she knew not to. “Parents have a way of making you do things you don’t wish to,” she said instead.
Footsteps pounded on the floor. Elinor jumped away, trying not to appear as though she’d been standing close to the Duke. Her father entered, arms laden with paints and brushes. He looked between Elinor and the Duke with an expression of vague alarm.
“Ah,” His Grace said. “You must be the artist. Miss Thorebourne told me that I ought to be expecting you. I just wanted to see what background you were arranging for me.”
Elinor smiled, as her father’s eyes lingered on her. She straightened, trying to reassure that she’d handled herself well. Of course, it didn’t matter if she had or not. All that really mattered was what the Duke thought.
“She was explaining to me how important this bit of cloth is,” the Duke added, tracing a scarred finger down the length of the satin.
“Well, Elinor is quite right, of course,” her father said. “Would you mind terribly if I asked you to sit, Your Grace? Since you’re here already. The light is good, and we could begin thinking of a pose for you.”
“Of course,” His Grace replied smoothly.
Elinor stepped back, covertly straightening the still-toppled chair. The gesture was noticed by His Grace, who gave her a mischievous glance and a wry smirk. Some of the surprise at his scars had begun to fade, and Elinor began to notice smaller things about him.
His hair was so black and sleek that it resembled a raven’s feathers in the midday sun. And his eyes were lovely—green and gold. He shifted at her father’s directions, and in her mind’s eye, Elinor envisioned how the sketch would take shape. Bold lines for His Grace’s broad shoulders, gentler shapes for the shape of his neck—
“I think this,” Elinor’s father said, stepping back.
Elinor watched and bit the inside of her cheek. She thought the Duke ought to turn his head a little more to the left, so the light traced the line of his jaw, rather than obscuring part of it in shadow.
He’d been a very handsome man once. Now that she was really looking at him, she saw that. And he was still that same man, just scarred. She tilted her head, thinking that the scars covering his face resembled something. Maybe it was the bark of a tree? Or clouds spread against a sky. She searched for a pattern in his face, trying to puzzle how she’d paint him, even though she’d never have the opportunity.
“I’m sure it’s sufficient if you say so,” His Grace replied.
Elinor retrieved a large mirror and placed it before the Duke, so he could see himself seated. He pressed his lips together in a thin line and furrowed his brow.
“I suppose it’s fine.”
He sounded subdued in a way he hadn’t before. Elinor leaned against the mirror and slowly held up a finger. “Don’t you think, Father….”
Her father glanced at her.
“He should turn his head just a little.”
Elinor moved her finger, and His Grace followed the gesture. A small smile came to Elinor’s face. That was better.
“We want to make sure His Grace’s generations of descendants appreciate his strong jawline,” Elinor said, without thinking.
His Grace smiled, and an amused light came to his lovely eyes. “Thank you, Miss Thorebourne. We most certainly would not want my grandchildren to miss one of my more admirable characteristics.”
Elinor’s father gave her a warning look. She knew what that meant—she needed to show a little more restraint. Elinor suspected His Grace already found her lacking in restraint, something which her father would also agree with if he’d heard all the things she’d said.
It was difficult to feel repentant, though, when His Grace looked at her with such genuine amusement.
“Will you move your hands for me?” her father continued, recovering quickly.
His Grace did as asked, clasping his hands different ways. This continued for a while longer with Elinor watching silently behind the mirror. Her father was undeniably a master of his trade, but she wondered how he would manage painting this Duke. He’d never painted anyone with scars before. All blemishes were always smoothed over or tactfully ignored. Until now.
She imagined the colors building upon one another and the delicate highlights. This would be a challenge.
“Your daughter paints, also?” the Duke asked.
Although he spoke to her father, His Grace’s eyes remained on her.
"I do,” Elinor answered. “Not men, of course.”
Not living ones, anyway. She’d copied some of her father’s work and some of the images she’d seen in the art of the great artists, the Classical masters and the painters of the Renaissance. That wasn’t strictly appropriate either, but no one needed to know about that. Not even her father.
“Of course,” the Duke replied.
“She’s very talented,” Elinor’s father said. “I couldn’t want for a better apprentice.”
Her father said that, and Elinor believed him. But he still didn’t seem to think her talent was enough. If he did, he wouldn’t mention marriage so often.
“Perhaps you’ll paint my mother someday, Miss Thorebourne,” he said, “or my future Duchess.”
“I should like to, Your Grace,” she replied.
His Grace smiled, but this expression seemed less sincere than the last one. He looked as though he found marriage as pleasant as walking to the gallows. Elinor felt a swell of sympathy. She knew that feeling well enough, but she didn’t say so.
He’s an odd man.
She didn’t know what to make of him, but she felt as if she’d like to know him better. She’d like to know about his contradictions, about why he seemed to feel as uneven about everything as she herself did. But it was pointless to think about things like that. Even if she saw the Duke again, it wasn’t as if they’d ever really talk. Today’s conversation had been a coincidence, one that would never happen again.
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