"I'm going to have to shorten his willie."
The artist stepped back from her easel and regarded the offending member with a critical eye. Her name was Artemisia ("Sounds like amnesia," her father had complained when her mother insisted upon the unusual moniker)-Artemisia Dalrymple Pelham-Smythe, to be exact. Such a heavy load might have been a burden for some. But Artemisia was a duchess, so most people simply called her 'Your Grace.'
"Of course, it's absolutely true to life," she said finally, closing one eye and holding her thumb upraised to do a rough comparative measurement. "The proportions are accurate to the model, but critics tend to find well-endowed males in art to be prurient. I can't imagine why. A willie is just a willie, after all. What do you think, Cuthbert?"
"On the subject of art, Your Grace, one is of no opinion." Cuthbert set down the silver tea tray and poured out a steaming cup with extreme dignity. "But if one may be so bold as to suggest, perhaps Madam would do well to be more delicate in her speech."
Artemisia took the offered cup and sipped the aromatic blend. It was almost as good as the tea she grew up with in Bombay.
"I was being delicate, Cuthbert. That's why I called it a willie instead of a pe-"
"Your daily reading, Your Grace," Cuthbert interrupted smoothly, handing her a neatly folded newspaper.
Hiding her smile, Artemisia set down her tea cup. She knew she shouldn't purposely try to irritate her butler, but his ears turned such a charming shade of purple when she did.
Artemisia ran her gaze over the headlines. "The Tattler?" She tried never to read the ubiquitous scandal sheets and The Tattler was worst of the lot, laden with juicy on dits and sly innuendo. "You know I've no time for such drivel."
"Indeed. Then perhaps Madam should refrain from giving the writers so much fodder for their drivel. The article just below the fold could not escape one's notice. Will there be anything else, Your Grace?"
"No, I think that's quite enough," Artemisia said wryly.
The butler bowed and retreated with dignity. Almost as an afterthought, he stopped and turned back.
"A gentleman is waiting to see you, Madam."
"Ah! That will be the model Mr. Phelps is sending round today. I'm ready to start sketches of Eros now that Neptune is finished. Nearly finished," she amended, silently reminding herself that there was yet a willie to be shortened.
"It is highly unlikely that this man is one of your young gods." Cuthbert shook his head solemnly. "He dresses like a proper English gentleman."
"There are so many second-hand clothing shops in London a stable lad can fit himself out like a lord if he wishes."
Artemisia bit her lip. She realized she was sounding just like the writer in The Tattler who last week bemoaned the fact that distinctions of class could no longer be drawn by dress-not with so many ladies' maids larking about London as well turned out as their mistresses. It irked her that she should be mouthing the sentiments of a scandal sheet. Artemisia made a mental note not to read The Tattler again even if Cuthbert shoved it under her nose.
She consulted the Ormulu mantle clock above her fireplace. Even in summer, she burned a fire for the comfort of her figure models. Goosebumps do not become an Olympian, after all. "Send the man in."
Once Cuthbert closed the French doors to her studio, Artemisia released a pent-up sigh. Perhaps she should encourage him to retire, but the crusty gentleman's gentleman probably wouldn't hear of it. Cuthbert had been with the estate all his life, serving Artemisia's late husband, the Duke of Southwycke, as his father had served the Duke's father before him. Even though his master was dead and Cuthbert not-so-tacitly disapproved of his unconventional mistress, he lived to serve Southwycke. Anything else was unthinkable.
Artemisia donned a paint-daubed smock over her simple day dress and began assembling her materials. Today, she'd do a few preliminary sketches and experiment with poses. Once she settled on a composition, she'd transfer her ideas to canvas with her brushes and pallet knife. As she arranged her tools, one of the soft sticks of chalk rolled from the table's edge and she bent to retrieve it. She was so intent on her task, she didn't even hear the door swing open behind her.
* * *
Trevelyn Deveridge had been warned the duchess had a well-earned reputation for the unexpected, but he certainly didn't anticipate being greeted by the sight of her bottom first.
And a bottom as ripe as a plum, he almost said aloud. She wore no crinoline, no contraption of horsehair and wires to enhance her form, just a simple shift covered by a short smock, nothing to obscure what was a decidedly shapely derriere.
Stick to business, he ordered himself. You're here to find Beddington, not to see the sights.
Wiping off his salacious grin, Trevelyn cleared his throat.
"Oh!" She straightened and turned abruptly. Trevelyn's first impression was that the duchess was much younger than he expected and far more comely. Several locks of her raven hair had escaped from the loose chignon, teasing along her delicate neck and nape, the curls off on jaunts of their own, as if she'd just risen from a rousing tussle on a feather tick. He flexed his fingers, imaging threading the silky tendrils through them. As if she read his thoughts, a becoming flush kissed her cheeks. Then her delicately arched brows lowered in a frown.
"You're late," she accused.
"Your pardon, Your Grace, but-"
"Spare me your excuses. Surely Mr. Phelps explained that punctuality is essential to your position. I don't want to lose the morning light."
"Clearly, there's been a misunderstanding, Mum," he began in his best imitation of a rough country burr while he made an old-fashioned courtly leg to her. He'd been trained to adopt an assumed identity when the situation called for one. Trevelyn had already decided this was a job for Thomas Doverspike, his less aristocratic alter-ego. "Allow me to introduce myself, an' it please you. I'm-"
"No names, please," she said crisply. "At least, not until the painting is well under way. I find calling you by the title of the work enables us to maintain professional distance." The duchess beckoned him closer with a wave of her slim fingers. "Well, don't just stand there. Come here so I can get a good look at you."
Amused by her abrupt manner, Trevelyn swallowed his retort and strode forward. The first lesson drummed into him when he joined Her Majesty's corps of intelligence officers was to listen more than he spoke. He might learn a wealth of information if he simply let his subject talk. The duchess had obviously mistaken him for someone seeking employment. Once she realized her error, she'd be embarrassed enough to tell him anything.
Even where to find the elusive Mr. Beddington.
She eyed him carefully, walking a slow half-circle around him. Finally she stopped and riveted him with a directness in her gaze he seldom saw. Her eyes were a deep, moss green and a faint streak of blue chalk was smudged near her temple. The scent of oleander, mingled with oil paint, wafted about her. He inhaled her sweet fragrance, surprised to find his soft palate aching for him to plant a kiss on the chalk smudge.
She shook her head. "No, I'm afraid you won't do at all."
Trev blinked in surprise. Women usually found him most agreeable. "An' it not be too forward to ask, in what manner do I disappoint Your Grace?"
"The fault is not yours. I shall have to speak to Mr. Phelps about this. I specifically requested blond curls and a soft, cherubic countenance for my Eros. While there is a hint of a wave in your hair, it is definitely chestnut and the planes and angles of your face are far too jarring to belong to the god of love. With those brooding dark eyes and strong jaw line, you're much more a god of . . ."
She stopped and her eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment as if she were seeing something other than him. One of her brows arched in decision.
"There's nothing else for it," the duchess said. "You shall be Mars, my god of war."
"I've been called many things, Your Grace. A god of anything was never one of them." He inclined his head slightly. "I'm honored."
"You will be," she said with certainty. "When I'm finished, your face and form will be immortal. Now then. Let's begin, shall we? The dressing room is through that door. There's a robe in there for you. Remove your clothing-all of it, if you please-and return in the robe. Pray be quick about it. The sun waits for no one."
And neither evidently did the Duchess of Southwycke. She wanted him naked as God made him, did she? Acceding to her request would certainly provide him with an opportunity to spend enough time with her to glean all the information he sought, probably without her ever knowing his true business. Trevelyn never expect to have to pose as a figure model to serve his Queen, but he'd done far more difficult things for the sake of Victoria Regina. Besides, when a lady asks so prettily for a fellow to disrobe, how could a gentleman in good conscience refuse?
Especially when the lady is a well-favored, widowed duchess, Trevelyn decided. No marriage trap here, even if the session ends in something more involved than etchings.
He might have thought better of it if the duchess had been a wrinkled old hag, but a leisurely morning spent unclothed in the company of a lovely woman would be far more interesting than the quick interview he'd expected. He squared his shoulders and decided to play the hand dealt him. Trevelyn headed for the dressing room, whistling Rule Britannia between his teeth.
The things one does for one's Queen and country. . .
* * *
Artemisia tapped her toe with impatience, waiting for her newest subject to emerge from the dressing room. She could see why Cuthbert confused him with a true gentleman. His doeskin breeches were soft and clean-looking, but her keen eye spotted the slightest shininess of wear on his waistcoat and once he spoke, his accent clearly marked him as a young man trying to dress a notch or two above his station.
Pity her time in London had taught her to look for such distinctions. The rules were much more relaxed during her unconventional upbringing on the frontier of British India. She was used to gossiping with her ayah, visiting the Rana's daughters, taking tea with the Viceroy's wife and dancing with enlisted men all on the same day. In London, she must be ever mindful of her place or the scandal sheets would flay her for some breech of acceptable behavior.
Her gaze fell on the Tattler still on the tray next to her teacup. She knew she shouldn't, but her curiosity got the better of her.
"Well, let's see what's got the wind up Cuthbert's drawers, shall we?" Artemisia said to the marmalade-colored cat sunning itself in the window sill. Despite her intention not to read the butler's offering, she gathered up The Tattler, perched on the settee and spread the scandal sheet across her knees. The tabby leaped from the sill and tiptoed across the back of the settee, hovering near Artemisia's shoulder to rumble unquestioning approval in her ear. A smaller grey cat crept under the settee to weave about her shins. She leaned down and scratched beneath his chin absently while she read The Tattler.
London's favorite Merry Widow, the infamous Duchess of S, made quite a splash Sunday last-literally. She was found cavorting in the St. James fountain with unnamed associates of the lower sort. The peeress with pretensions to artistic inclinations claimed to be researching how a water nymph feels for her current work in progress-rumored to be a scandalous set of paintings of the entire Greek pantheon in the altogether.
Truly, the bon ton would delight in shunning the feckless widow, if only her Grace hadn't stolen the march on London society and shunned it first.
"At least they got the subject of the paintings right, Castor," she said to the orange cat near her shoulder. "But precious little else. Isn't that right, Pollux?"
She lifted the grey cat to her lap and let him knead her thighs till he was ready to settle in a furry ball. The scandal sheet's words stung. But even to herself, she wouldn't admit how vulnerable to hurt she was, so she took refuge in irritation.
"Pretensions to artistic inclinations, indeed."
When she was barely old enough to hold a quill, her ayah recognized her innate talent. The Indian nurse reported Artemisia's skill to her father, who engaged drawing tutors for his precocious eldest daughter. By the time she was twelve, her portraiture was in much demand among the wildly eclectic British community associated with "John Company" in that remote outpost of the Empire. Now she was grown, she wanted more than anything for her work to be recognized, not as that of a gifted child, but as an artist in the full bloom of her talent.
So far, London society had done its best to discourage her. The proper range of subject matter for female artists was forget-me-nots or sparrows, certainly not scantily-clad or-Perish the thought!-naked young men.
"Nude, not naked. There's a world of difference," Artemisia amended to the critics in her mind. "Honestly, Pollux, you'd think the ton had nothing better to do than peep and snicker over its peers. Busybodies, every one of them."
Artemisia cast the scandal sheet to the floor and purposefully trod it under foot on her way back to her easel. What did she care what they thought?
And yet her chest ached strangely.
Growing up riding elephants on tiger hunts hadn't prepared her for dealing with the sharp claws of the bon ton. When her husband was alive, his exalted rank insulated her from society's scratches. Now that Artemisia was on her own, though 'Her Grace' before her name helped, the self-appointed arbiters of acceptable behavior lost no chance to express their disapproval. The young Duchess of Southwycke was judged decidedly "odd." Small wonder she became reclusive and when she did venture out, it was often in the company of those far beneath her station.
The romp through the fountain was probably ill-advised, especially since she hadn't anticipated how transparent wet muslin became, but she credited the outing with infusing her Neptune with a wonderful sense of motion.
"Ah! There you are." Artemisia looked up when she heard the door hinge squeak. Ordinarily, she'd speak to Cuthbert about such a defect, but now she was grateful for the warning. She was not in the habit of greeting her models posterior first and the incident had thrown her strangely off balance.
The new fellow sauntered toward her, a tuft of dark hairs peeping from the deep vee in his robe, hands in his pockets as if he were in his own dressing room. Unlike her previous models, he seemed totally at ease.
"Let's just try a pose or two before you disrobe, shall we?" she said, determined to ease him gently into the work. "Most of my models find it more comfortable to get into character prior to-"
"I have faults aplenty, Your Grace, but shyness is not one of them," he said as he shrugged out of the plush velvet dressing gown she'd provided for him. He let the garment drop to the parquet floor.
He cocked his head at her. "How do you want me?"