About the book

There is something beautiful about his scars. Something that tells her he is the one.

Talented artist Louisa Notley finds herself in the awkward position of having to paint the portrait of the new Duke of Munboro. When she sees his face for the first time, her life changes completely.

Having no other choice but to accept his duties as the new Duke of Munboro, Jeremy Harper must say goodbye to his only mistress—the sea. The scars marring his body and face, though, are always there to remind him of his time of freedom. That is until he meets the artist meant to create his portrait, who, like a true siren of the land, keeps him ashore.

The attraction between them is strong but the minute Jeremy realizes he is in love, he finds a thief in his manor. When all fingers point at Louisa, he is determined to solve the mystery.

What he discovers, though, is that the only clue that can prove Louisa's innocence can also destroy her...

Chapter One

Last Rites


 The funeral chapel his mother had chosen was agreeable. That was no surprise – even as far as Munboro was from London, they still attracted a wellspring of competent labor. His father had worked hard to make sure the town was prospering. He was to be buried in the large burial ground behind the chapel rather than the family crypt per his last wishes. It was perhaps a little further away from his family seat than one would expect, but then Joseph Harper, late Duke of Munboro, had always gone his own way. It was one thing he and Jeremy had in common.

The spot wasn’t bad, either. It was right beneath a big old oak. The flower arrangements were purple and white. The ceremony was beautiful. His mother always had good taste.

There were many people inside the back room. All mourning the loss of their beloved Duke. Nobody noticed him slipping in, he was just another face in the crowd. Nobody recognized him. Nobody pretended to, either.

It had been five years since he’d ran away to the sea – fed up with the confines imposed on him as Marquess Steelboro and only son of the Duke. He had wanted to be free. He knew that as far as these people - the Haute Ton - were concerned,  he was dead to them. Dead for five years now. He might have been dead the minute he stepped out of the safe walls of Munboro and onto a sailing vessel to explore the wide seas. He had been everywhere from the Far East to India, and had explored the dark continent from tip to tail. He had run into pirates, been injured in battle – had the scars to prove it - and still, he had not come home.

He watched from the back as they lowered the coffin into the ground; he didn’t want to disturb the polite farewell rituals. Not on his behalf. His father had never truly loved him, so he wouldn’t have much to say and it wouldn’t matter to the late Duke if he was there or not. As long as his legacy continued, his father was not one to care for much else than his horses and his dogs. Even his wife – much as she doted upon her husband – came second to those. He snorted quietly, shaking his head. They had all been bit players in the great production that was Joseph Harper’s life but his mother had never seen it that way. She continued to be disappointed that Jeremy did not worship at the altar of his father’s greatness – as she did. She could not understand his antipathy.

Jeremy supposed he could not blame her. For all intents and purposes, the late Duke had been a great man.

After he was interred, the company filed back to Munboro Hall for refreshments, but Jeremy took the opportunity to bid his father a private goodbye. He squatted staring down at the coffin before collecting a handful of dirt and letting it slide between his fingers onto the coffin.

“I wish we had a chance to meet once again, Father. Rest in peace.”

He got to his feet, staring at the tip of the Hall just visible through the trees. He wondered if he should go there or simply return to his friend Daniel’s house where he was currently staying. It was not as if he would be missed.

He was not sure why he deigned to return to the Hall afterward. It was filled with charlatans and dissemblers, members of the Haute Ton who had spoken ill of his father behind his back but fawned on him to his face. His mother looked grief-stricken and inattentive to all, various important townspeople, probably come to remind the Dowager that she owed them goodwill or something. Jeremy took a step toward her, wondering if his approach would help or harm.

She was smiling; but not in a way that Jeremy remembered her smiling. The corners of her eyes didn’t crinkle. When she noticed him, her stare passed right by him, without stopping. And then her smile faded, and her body tensed. On second thought, there was no way that she did not notice him. Although she did not glance back at him, her rigid neck, her very stiffness gave her away. She was probably afraid that Jeremy would still be there if her eyes returned to the spot. Or perhaps she was afraid that he would not.

Well, he would definitely still be there.

Because he was not a ghost. Not yet. And if he was, he was back now to haunt them all with his repugnant scars and abrupt manner. He was the new Duke and much as no one would be glad of it, there was nothing for it but to wear the mantle with as much dignity as he could muster.

His mother touched the ring on her finger – then hid it. She was surrounded by mourners intent on having at least a word with her. His mother smiled again, the fake curt smile, then nodded and ducked into the other room.

Jeremy followed her.

It was quiet here. It was a small room adjoining the conservatory that had belonged to his mother for as long as he remembered. The door creaked behind him as it closed. His mother was standing in front of a painting of the late Duke, her breathing erratic.

“Did you really forget my face?”

His mother covered her eyes. “You cannot be here, it is impossible.”

She chanted it a few more times, each time getting a bit quieter, until it turned into a whisper, and then nothing more. She just stood there, frozen, waiting for something to happen. She turned around to face him and froze as if she didn’t know how to react, eyes wide, not daring to breathe.

“Your Grace, where did you—” the voice stopped short on seeing them facing off against each other.

Jeremy exhaled and put a smile on his face as he turned toward a familiar-looking man who had simply barged into the room. “You must be Mr. Gilbert Notley – the steward if memory serves?” He said.

“And who are you?” Gilbert moved quickly past him, ignoring his extended hand, and stopped in front of his mother. At least he was protective of her.

“You must have heard of me,” he answered, “but we never properly met. I’m Lord Steelboro, or I should probably say I’m Munboro now.”

“The Duke’s son? The one who is said to have died at sea—?” Gilbert glanced at the Dowager, but it seemed like the matter was confirmed if only by her expression.

“Still very much alive.” Jeremy murmured.

***

Louisa startled awake, opening her eyes and looking around for the threat. She realized but a moment later that she had been dreaming and everything was fine. She sat up in bed and sighed. The sun was nothing but a hint of pinks and oranges on the horizon. She stared through her open curtains left that way for just this purpose; wondering whether she had time to commit the scene to paper, before the Great Artist in the sky replaced the blue blackness tinged with peach and apricot, with blue skies and cheerful white clouds.

She leaned forward toward the tiny desk beside her bed, picking up a piece of charcoal and a paper and making a quick outline. She slid out of bed and ran to her armoire which was littered with brushes and paints. Quickly setting up beside the window, she did her best to have at least the broad strokes of the scene before her – Munboro waking to a new day – laid out on the canvas. The rest she would fill in from memory.

It was a common pastime of hers; trying to capture the majesty of a truly spectacular sunrise. She had not yet completed a painting that she was satisfied with, but every day brought a new opportunity to try again.

A knock at the door distracted her and she realized she was still in her night gown.

“A moment please!” she called, knowing full well that it was her father behind the door, summoning her for breakfast. They lived a fairly simple life. Americus Notley made a living as a portrait painter and his work was quite revered among the nobility. It kept him busy and earned him a fair living. Enough to employ a maid of all work so that Louisa did not have to be concerned with household chores and could dedicate her time to perfecting her craft.

She despaired of ever being anywhere near as competent as her father but he always said she was a better painter than he was. Louisa was quite sure he was cutting shams to make her feel better about her work – she appreciated it anyway.

Another knock on the door had her tripping toward it. Her father liked for them to break their fast together and say a prayer before they began their day. If Americus had a commission, they would go and fulfill it. If not, they would work on their own personal projects. Today, they were starting a new project. The old Duke of Munboro had sadly passed away and his son had taken over the title. The Dowager Duchess had commissioned her father to do his commemorative portrait. It had caused quite a stir because as far as the townspeople knew, the former Marquess of Steelboro had been lost at sea. To have him suddenly back among them was eliciting quite a lot of excitement. Louisa knew for a fact that the local dressmaker was seeing an increase in business as mothers with eligible daughters scrambled to deck them out as attractively as possible.

It was amusing to Louisa and she was glad that she was not one of those poor ladies. She had no interest in being a wife when she could be a painter.

She tripped down the stairs, a ready smile on her face as she came face to face with her father who was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs.

He smiled back, just as pleased to see her. “Good morning my dear, and how did you sleep?” he offered her his arm and she took it with a nod.

“Good morning, Father. I slept quite well. How about you?”

“My slumber was sound and peaceful,” he smiled wide at her as he said it, leading her to the kitchen where they would have their repast in company with Theodosia, their maid of all work. Her father seated her before nodding to the maid.

“Good morning all, about time you came down. The eggs are cooling.” Theodosia chided.

Louisa smiled happily and tucked in, listening with amusement as her father explained to Theodosia that no, the new Duke had not come back to life but had in actuality, not been dead in the first place. She was looking forward to meeting him – for sure he would have some tales to tell. Normally she would not presume that a duke would spare time for the likes of her, but according to local legend, this particular duke had run away to sea in order to avoid the trappings of his position.

That gave Louisa hope that he would not feel that she was too much beneath his touch to speak to. Of course, she knew that her main occupation was going to be to assist her father with his task of getting the Duke on canvas. But she had learned that many people were uncomfortable with posing for hours and sometimes, making conversation helped. She truly hoped that the new Duke was one of those for she was eager to hear tales of far off places she would never visit.

***

Jeremy walked into the dining room and came to a stop when he saw his mother by the window, staring out at something he could not see.

“Mother?”

She jumped, before turning to stare at him with wide eyes.

“Are you quite all right?”

“I-I’m fine.”

Jeremy had noticed how skittish she was – he didn’t know if it was his father’s death that did it or if she had been like that for a while. There was really no one he could ask because he was not about to gossip with the help about his mother, and they had no nearby relatives who might know.

Jeremy moved to the table and sat down, his mother imitating him after a momentary hesitation. Miles, the butler, entered the room on cue and poured him a cup of tea.

He picked up a plate filling it with eggs, kippers, and fresh bread before placing it in front of Jeremy.

“Just some porridge for me, Miles,” his mother said quietly.

“Very good Your Grace,” the butler said before disappearing through the side door. He was back before long with his mother’s porridge. Jeremy watched as she spooned it into her mouth, his brow furrowed. Something was wrong with his mother – he could see that – but he did not know what to do about it.

She ate her porridge quietly, not saying a word and Jeremy took his cue from her, drizzling honey onto his bread and biting thoughtfully into it, as he tried to think what to do about her.

Suddenly she looked up at him. “The painter’s coming today,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The painter is coming today,” she repeated as if he had not heard what she said.

“Whatever for?”

She gave a small laugh. “Why to paint your portrait of course,” she said.

“My portrait? Since when was I–”

“It’s tradition. You are the new Duke. Your picture will be added to the gallery.”

Jeremy was bereft of words. If it was left to him, he would be happy to go through life without another glance at his features in a looking glass. He was altogether too aware of the meandering scar that ran from his temple to his jaw, barely missing his eye. The softened, misshapen skin of his arm, whiter than the rest of his flesh where the black tar had splashed on him.

The ship’s bosun had been intending to injure him badly enough to render him incapacitated having made a deal with a group of pirates to take over his ship. It was fate or luck that his cabin boy had pushed him out of the way…and had therefore taken the brunt of the attack to his back. Jeremy still had nightmares of his screaming.

He also had a stab wound to his side from the subsequent fight in which he had to kill the bosun. Every time he thought of it, he felt like a failure.

He did not think that a portrait of him was something he was interested in.

“Mother, can we please put it off for a few days? I still have many affairs to become acquainted with–” he tried.

“The painter is coming today,” the Dowager Duchess said firmly, clearly unprepared to brook any resistance.


Chapter Two

Picasso


They arrived at Munboro Hall at ten in the morning, hoping to give the new Duke sufficient time to finish his morning routine. The butler let them in and asked them to wait in the parlor. Her father fell onto the chesterfield sofa as if he was exhausted from their short walk and Louisa frowned in his direction. She had noticed his tendency to tire more easily than he had previously and had tried asking him about it. He always dismissed her concerns and she was sure that today would be no different.

The door opened and a tall man was standing in the doorway, tall enough that his dark un-bewigged hair, brushed against the top jamb of the door. He was regarding them both with trepidation as if they were unwelcome.

Her father got to his feet with a smile and bowed. “Americus Notley at your service,” he turned toward her, “and my daughter, Louisa.”

The man looked from her father to her, and then back to her father as if he did not know what to say to them.

“The Dowager Duchess commissioned me to paint a portrait of–” her father was saying since the man seemed unsure.

“I know why you’re here,” the man interrupted, “come with me.”

As abruptly as that he turned away, walking down the hall and clearly expecting them to follow. Louisa frowned at his rudeness but hurried after her father, her arms full as she carried the easel as well as the bag of paints. Her father had the canvas in his hands and he was walking as fast as possible, but could barely catch up.

The man in front of them stopped in front of a door and turned back. His green eyes shone out of a pale face, filled with an emotion Louisa could not identify.

“I think the conservatory will provide an interesting background for a portrait,” he said, “and the light is good.”

“Very good sir,” her father said, trying to hasten his footsteps so he could step through the door before the man got tired of holding it open. Louisa darted forward and took hold of the door, to relieve the man of holding it and her father of the anxiety of having to hurry. Her eyes drifted upward to meet those of the man who was looking curiously down at her.

His eyes traveled down her frock to the easel she was holding. “Do you paint too?” he asked.

She was surprised that he addressed her directly. He seemed to exude an air of impatience about their presence and she had thought for sure that she had been dismissed from his mind even before her father made an introduction.

She nodded slowly, with a shy smile. “But don’t worry, I’m just here to assist my father. I won’t be doing any painting.”

The man nodded…he still had not introduced himself which Louisa found a bit rude. He knew who they were, the least he could do was tell them who he was and when they would be seeing the Duke. If she had not known that her Uncle Gilbert was the steward, she might have assumed that this man was. He was clearly a high-ranking member of the household just from the cut of his cravat.

Her father slipped into the room and she let go of the door. It swung closed behind her without her having to push it and she gazed at it in startlement.

The man moved further into the room and stood by an armchair in the corner. “Would this be suitable for your work?” he asked.

Her father looked around assessingly. “Yes, I most definitely can work with this.”

“Good. When do we start?”

Louisa gawped at the man. “You’re the Duke?” she blurted in her surprise.

His eyes cut to her in surprise. “Yes, I am.” He frowned. “Did I not introduce myself?”

She slowly shook her head.

“My apologies. I have a lot on my mind and everyone already seems to know who I am anyway.” To her surprise, he stuck out his hand to her, “Jeremy Harper, Duke of Munboro, at your service.”

She tentatively reached out and shook his hand before letting it go to curtsy. “Your Grace.”

He ignored that and turned to her father with his hand outstretched. Her father bowed over the hand with a murmured “Your Grace” as well.

“Well, that’s the formalities out of the way, you may call me Jeremy as we work. I’m not one to stand on ceremony.”

Louisa could not help how she gaped. She had never heard of a duke asking commoners to call him by his given name.

“Uh yes, Your…uh, Je-Jeremy,” her father said. Louisa silently began to set up, resolving to avoid having to call him anything if she could possibly help it.

Jeremy took his place in the armchair and crossed his legs, looking thoughtfully out of the window. He crossed his hands on his lap and Louisa’s eyes dropped to them, noting how long, delicate, and sensitive looking they were, despite the calluses she could see on the tips of his fingers.

They said that he had been at sea for a long time and so clearly, he wasn’t some weakling unused to physical labor but he had the hands of a pianist – his nails neatly trimmed and clean. Her hands itched to draw those hands and she had to turn away, busying herself with setting things up where they were within easy reach of her father. The Duke did not seem much interested in what they were doing which was odd.

Usually, their clients were full of suggestions and questions concerning what was about to transpire. Jeremy simply stared out of the window, looking like he wished himself anywhere else but here. Louisa did not think that he would tell her any stories about the sea. She certainly felt too tongue-tied to ask.

Suddenly the door opened and a whirlwind in the form of the Dowager Duchess entered the room. She was dressed in a light-blue muslin gown that billowed around her as if she carried her own personal breeze beneath her clothing. She floated toward Americus with a determined look on her face.

“Have you begun yet, Mr. Notley?” then she giggled looking to Louisa as if to share a joke. “So strange to call you Mr. Notley as well when I am usually referring to your brother when I say it.”

Jeremy had turned his head when his mother entered the room and now his eyes shone with interest. “Brother?” he asked.

“Oh yes, Your Grace, these are Mr. Notley’s brother and niece. They paint.”

Jeremy’s eyebrow rose. “So I see.”

“Mr. Notley is quite renowned. He has painted a portrait of the Prince Regent to commemorate Guy Fawkes’ Day.”

Jeremy’s mouth twisted. “That’s nice, Mother.”

Louisa frowned at his tone. He sounded extremely patronizing of his mother, which did not sit right with her. What gave him the right to look down upon them?

The Dowager Duchess looked uncertainly at her father and Americus sprang into action. “Right well…this is not an official portrait and so you are free to choose how you wish to be portrayed keeping in mind of course, that it will hang in your Gallery of Dukes.”

Jeremy raised a bored eyebrow. “Just get on with it, all right? I do not have all day.”

Louisa could feel the smoke come out of her ears at his rudeness. Nobody spoke to her father like that. She opened her mouth to snap back at him but her father stepped on her foot and she ended up yowling in pain instead. Jeremy was out of his chair at once and at her side, peering down at her face in concern. “Are you quite all right?”

She narrowed her eyes at her father whose eyes twinkled mischievously back at her as if he hadn’t just almost broken her leg. “I’m fine, thank you,” she murmured through gritted teeth.

Jeremy did not move away. “Would you like to sit?” his hand hovered above her arm as if he would like to help her to a seat but wasn’t sure if he was allowed to touch her. On reflection, Louisa thought that sitting just might be a good thing. She limped to the nearest sofa as the Duke trailed beside her as if he was incapable of relaxing until she was fine. She flopped onto the seat with a sigh of relief and he immediately went down on his knees and took her foot in his hand.

“Our furniture is quite sturdy,” he said as if he assumed she had bumped her leg against a chair, “it can be quite unforgiving.”

She stared down at him, her mouth open in disbelief as he worked her shoe off and examined her feet as if he was some sort of sawbones. It was most unseemly and she looked up at her father for help.

He cleared his throat and the Duke seemed to come back to himself. He dropped her foot as if it was on fire and got to his feet. “Forgive me…I sometimes forget my manners. The formalities of living on land do not translate well on the open seas. I seem to have forgotten how to behave.” He gave an embarrassed laugh and Louisa’s heart immediately melted. She was not the only one feeling out of her depth here. She reached out, quite boldly she imagined, and squeezed his hand. “It’s all right.”

She reached down and pushed her foot back into her shoe, smoothing down her frock so her feet were completely covered. “Let’s get back to work, shall we?” she said breezily, getting to her feet.

They had completely forgotten about the Dowager Duchess until she spoke. “His Grace does the most outré things. You must try to overlook it.” Her voice startled Louisa and she nearly did stub her toe against a piece of furniture. She turned to find the Dowager glaring at Jeremy. He was looking back but his expression was bland.

“Forgive me, Mother,” he said but clearly he did not mean it. Louisa narrowed her eyes at him, annoyed that he would be so rude to his mother.

“Shall we begin?” her father asked.

“Yes, of course,” Jeremy moved back to the armchair and sat down, putting his chin on his knuckles and staring outside the window. Louisa took a deep breath, looking around for somewhere close by where she could sit down. There was a short stool in the corner and she went to get it, putting it next to her father’s easel and sitting down on it.

Her father was already creating broad strokes on the canvas, his face focused. She watched him; fascinated with his technique as always. His painting seemed to come from a place outside of conscious thought. It seemed to flow out of his hands onto the canvas without effort.

She already knew that this painting would be extraordinary.

***

The girl…Jeremy did not understand why she was here. She looked so soft, her eyes so expressive, her mouth…lush and inviting. When she looked at him, he felt stripped bare, as if she could see beyond all the barriers he put up and straight into his soul.

He avoided looking at her. It was bad enough that his mother had roped him into this ridiculous exercise. If he hadn’t been so worried about her, he would have refused.

There was something very wrong with his mother. If she was not off in her own world, she was having hysterics about petty things. She went from frantic to silent in the snap of a finger and Jeremy had no idea what to do about it. He was afraid that if these painters spent enough time around them, they would see what the Dowager was like and then she would be the talk of Munboro.

They would call her a hysteric.

Jeremy did not want that. His eyes flicked toward the girl again. She was sitting on a stool, staring as her father worked, looking fascinated. He had seen her frown when he was speaking with his mother and was surprised to feel somewhat ashamed, he did not understand it. He barely knew her name, and yet here he was, wanting her good opinion.

He had heard the legend of sirens at sea, who lured sailors to their deaths with their song. He imagined that if they were indeed real, this is how it might feel to be bewitched by one.

He chalked it up to an extended time at sea. She was the first young woman of his acquaintance since he had been back on shore. Perhaps he was just missing the company of someone soft and warm and sweet. Tonight he would visit the tavern and find someone to slake his desire, and then he would get over this foolish thing that had overtaken him in a matter of minutes.

Of their own volition, his eyes sought her out. She was cleaning a brush her father had used while he continued with another. Her hands worked quickly, moved with surety. He watched them work fascinated by the grace of their movement. They were most definitely not the hands of a lady and yet, they were beautiful nonetheless.

She turned her face and caught him watching her. Their gazes caught and they stared, seemingly unable to look away.

“Are you almost done?”

His mother’s voice broke the spell they were under; startled them both. The girl’s father laughed.

“Not yet, Your Grace. It will take much longer than a few minutes to do this painting. Days.”

The Dowager huffed impatiently. “But I want the picture in the gallery soon. Can you not try to go faster?”

“I will try my best, Your Grace,” Americus said with a courteous bow. He showed no sign of irritation or anger at her unreasonable request which piqued Jeremy’s interest. Of course, he was perhaps simply showing respect for her station; or seeing as his brother had been the late Duke’s steward, he was already used to his mother’s temperament.

Whatever it was, he was pleased that the painter showed her the respect she deserved. Something inside him relaxed and he was not so anxious to have this painting over and done with.

“We shall utilize the late mornings until nuncheon for painting, but after that, I have other duties to attend to,” Jeremy said.

“Of course, Your Grace.”

“However, if you are able to continue the painting without me, you may stay and work for as long as you want.”

Americus nodded. “There are some things I can do without your presence, Your Grace but that comes later. In the early days, I am afraid I shall ask you to sit for as long as you can.”

“I understand.” Jeremy nodded.

“He will sit for you, don’t you worry Mr. Notley,” his mother chimed in, giving him a reproving glance. It was so reminiscent of each time she’d done so as a child that his heart leaped in his chest with the hope that she might be over her nerves. The next instant, however, she looked out of the window and disappeared back into her thoughts, her expression blank and empty.


Chapter Three

Notley Crew


Americus was done with the initial outline by noon and as he put his brush down he turned to the Duke with a nod. “All done for today, Your Grace.”

The Duke barely acknowledged him; he simply stood up from his seat and walked out of the room with a nod in Americus’ direction and the slightest of glances at Louisa. The Dowager Duchess had long wandered off.

 He had noticed the looks the Duke had flashed at his daughter and did not know what to make of them. Was he affronted that a woman would deign to assist in making his portrait or did he have some other interest in Louisa?

He turned as he heard the door open to behold his brother standing just inside the conservatory. “I am to escort you out,” he said to Americus, his face impassive.

“Greetings, Uncle Gilbert,” Louisa’s soft voice interrupted his musings and he turned to his daughter with a proud smile before giving Gilbert a narrowed glance.

The latter bowed and smiled. “It is good to see you, Louisa. And how do you fare?”

“I am well, Uncle,” she replied with a small curtsy, “I cannot complain. Father keeps me busy.” She smiled wide so that her twinkling sky blue eyes slitted so narrowly that they disappeared into her cheekbones.

“I am sure he does.”

Gilbert turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “Would you like some refreshment before you depart? We can have tea in my chambers.”

Americus lifted a surprised eyebrow. Gilbert was not one to offer such a thing without an ulterior motive. Americus was curious as to what it might be. “I suppose we have some time.”

“Excellent. Follow me.” His brother led the way down a darkened hallway and then turned right into a chamber furnished with a large wooden desk and chair. In the corner of the room was a chesterfield large enough to seat three and next to it was a shelf filled with books. Americus had never been to Gilbert’s office in all the years that he had worked for the late Duke. He wondered why he was here now.

“Have a seat.” The steward said before picking up a small bell and ringing it. Not long after, a footman appeared and Gilbert ordered some tea. He took a seat on the armchair and regarded them as they sat side by side on the sofa.

“This is a great opportunity that has presented itself to you – I expect that you shall have many other doors open once this painting is done.”

Americus snorted. “Need I remind you that I have painted actual royalty?”

Gilbert waved a hand. “Yes yes, I am aware you are well-known among London circles, but there is an opportunity here for long-term employment so that you need not live from commission to commission. You could become the Duke’s official portrait painter.”

“How many does he need?” Louisa asked with a frown and Americus felt affection swell in his breast. She had always been precocious, his Louisa, but also naïve. She could not see past the intrigues of others and expected everyone to be as straightforward as she was. It was an endearing yet worrying trait.

 “What Uncle Gilbert means, my dear is that the Duke could retain me as a member of his household and thus whatever kind of paintings he would want, I would be on hand to create.”

She leaned toward him. “Do you want that?”

That brought Americus up short. It was not a question he would have asked himself left to his own devices. He was an artist; he loved to paint but he was also a father with a responsibility to his daughter and what Gilbert was getting at was security.

So what did it matter if he wanted it or not?

“Tell us more about your new master. He seems much more aloof than the old Duke.” Americus said in an effort to change the subject.

Gilbert shrugged. “Not much is known about him since he ran off to sea. He and his father had some kind of falling out. It is believed that his father wanted him to wed. He was said to have contracted a marriage with a suitable young lady but when the young marquess heard about it, he refused point-blank to entertain the match. Words were spoken and the old Duke apparently ordered the marquess to accede to his demands or he would be renounced. The marquess packed his belongings and left.”

“What was wrong with the lady he was to marry?” Louisa asked with wide eyes.

“Oh, nothing was wrong with her, he simply did not want to do as he was asked. He wanted his freedom he said. His father wanted him to be responsible.”

“And so he went to sea. I noticed the scarring on his hands, his neck, the slash across his face – are they all a result of his seafaring adventures?” Americus asked.

Gilbert nodded. “Yes. We were all quite flummoxed when he appeared at the funeral. Reports had it that he was lost at sea a few years ago.”

“Clearly that wasn’t true,” Louisa said.

Gilbert regarded her with an indulgent smile. “No, it was not. Things have been tense since his return nevertheless. Nobody knows what to make of him and his mother–” he abruptly stopped speaking.

Americus leaned forward. “What about her? I notice she is somewhat…” he fumbled for a word.

“Out of sorts?” Gilbert said, “Yes. She has not been the same since her husband’s death. I think the young Duke’s sudden appearance also discombobulated her quite a bit. It’s not every day one’s kin rises from the dead.”

“But she must be glad of it.” Louisa protested.

“I am sure she is. But her nerves have never been strong. It is a tremendous strain.”

“Huh…” Americus said thoughtfully, “It is all passing strange. What are the new Duke’s plans? Does he mean to stay and take over his father’s duties or turn them over to you to oversee?”

Gilbert shook his head. “We do not know what his plans are. He has not shared them.”

Americus sighed deeply. “In any case, he will be here for the duration while his portrait is painted.”

“Indeed. I should not put it past the Dowager to have thought of that when she suggested it.” Gilbert smiled.

“Well…” Americus slapped his thigh, “I am glad to be of assistance.”

At that moment, the footman came in with a tray of tea and honey cakes and the conversation became more general.

***

Jeremy looked up from his desk to see his friend Daniel lounging in the doorway. “Shearcaster! Do they not announce visitors anymore? Have I been at sea that long?”

Daniel laughed, strolling languidly into the room and folding himself into the armchair across from Jeremy. “Miles looked run off his feet. I told him I could find my way perfectly well on my own.”

Jeremy lifted an eyebrow. “Run off his feet? Are you accusing me of overworking my staff?”

Daniel scoffed. “I expect your staff could run rings around you, Munboro. But no, your mother needed him for something, however.”

Jeremy’s stomach dropped at the thought of his mother. He could not help it. Her increasingly erratic behavior was worrying. Daniel’s face sobered as he looked at Jeremy. “Anything I can do?”

Jeremy sighed, shaking his head. “I expect we shall just have to get through this difficult time. She should be all right…eventually.”

“Do you want me to ask–” Daniel began to say.

“No!” Jeremy replied, even before he heard who Daniel meant to ask, “Nobody can know about her. Let her be.”

“Very well then.” Daniel’s voice was quietly worried. Jeremy heard the apprehension in his friend’s voice, but there was little he could do to assuage it. His mother was ill, he knew this. If they asked anyone for help, the entire ton would know it by week’s end. He was not willing to subject his mother to the vicious gossip that would ensue. He knew what the ton said about him, he could take it. But not his mother.

***

Her father was very quiet as they rode home and Louisa kept shooting glances at him, wondering what was on his mind. She followed silently as he led the way home, planning the rest of her day. She could not help but mull over everything her Uncle Gilbert had told them about the new Duke. She didn’t know if she pitied him or envied him. He had the courage to break away from his family’s expectations and go his own way – at least for a time. In the end, he had been forced to come back and fulfill his destiny as the new duke. However, nobody could take his experience of the sea away from him.

Her thoughts went to his scars. They were not immediately obvious when one looked at him. Indeed, one would have to stare quite rudely in order to notice the mottled skin of his neck, mostly covered by his cravat. The slash across his face was dashing rather than disfiguring although she had noticed that he turned his head so that only the unblemished side was visible to her father as he painted. Perhaps he was self-conscious about his scars.

She hoped that one day she would be able to hear the story of how he got them from the horse’s mouth. In the meantime, she had a lot to do. She knew full well that after her father had been painting uninterrupted for a considerable length of time, his hands tended to shake with pain and exhaustion. It never used to be that way but it seemed to get worse with every painting. They never discussed it between them but Louisa had taken to stocking up on kava kava, St. John’s Wort, and Valerian root for the pain. She obtained them from an old woman who sold her wares in the market.

Many dismissed her in favor of the old sawbones. but Louisa knew that her remedies worked. As soon as they got back home, she dug out the herbs and set them to steep. Her father sat down wearily on his stool, trying to disguise the shaking in his hands but not succeeding. Louisa watched him worriedly. In her estimation, the shaking seemed to be getting worse and she felt the need to point it out but knew that there was no point.

What could they do about it even if they acknowledged it? Not much. She set out a cloth that she would dip in the hot water once the herbs were done steeping as well as an apron. She draped them on a chair as they waited, and then turned her attention to her drawing of the sunrise this morning. Perhaps she could finish it while they waited. It would help her to relax and not dwell on things she could not change such as her father’s advancing infirmity.

From behind her, she heard him sigh and turned to him. “Can I get you anything?”

He smiled sadly at her, “No, my dear. I am perfectly fine. Simply tired and worn down with age I think.”

“You are not that old.” She protested.

Americus laughed. “Tell that to my hands.”

They both looked down at the shaking digits, Louisa biting her lip with worry while Americus’ face was bleak. His hands were tools of his trade. Without them, how would they earn a living?

“I shall ask Mrs. Marni if she knows something that might stop it.” Louisa declared.

Americus nodded. “You can try, my girl. And I am grateful for your care but I fear no herb will make this better.” He stared down at his hands as if they did not belong to him. “They have been getting steadily worse with every day that passes. I cannot deny it any longer. My hands are failing me.”

Louisa sighed, eyes dropping. She did not know what to say. She stood up to check on the herbs and found them gently steaming. “Not long now,” she murmured, just for something to say before stumbling out of the room as she desperately swallowed the lump in her throat.

If it was up to her, she would gladly have taken over for her father, looked for clients and done the paintings. But nobody wanted to be painted by a woman. As much as she loved the craft, and would have wanted to dedicate her life to perfect it; everyone in her life saw her as simply a bride-in-waiting. Even her beloved father wanted nothing for her but that she finds herself a good husband and live happily as his wife.

He dismissed her when she said that all she wanted to do was paint. It made her even more envious of the new Duke of Munboro. As much as he had to return to land and take up the mantle, he had five years at sea; of being nothing but a sailor to look back on. She did not even have that.

All she had was her ever-growing pile of paintings of the sunrise that her father indulged her by hanging up in his studio. He did acknowledge that they were good and that she was talented but only in a placating way that did nothing to encourage her to hone her skills into a craft.

She knew he was just protecting her. It would be an injustice for him to fan her dreams when there was really nowhere that they could go. Still, she wished for him to think of her the same way that he thought of himself – as a painter, an artist. Because that is how she viewed herself.

She wondered if the Duke could tell her of other lands, where, perhaps, a woman might excel at a craft, and be allowed to do so. Dismissing the thought at once, she went back to the kitchen to check on her tisane. She determined that it had steeped enough and dipped the waiting towel into it.

“Hold out your hand, father,” she said and he did as she said so she could carefully wrap his hand in the towel. He hissed with pain but she ignored him, gently massaging the heat and herbs into his skin.

“That’s it. Just a little more and we’ll be done,” she murmured soothingly as she pressed forcibly down between his joints. He gritted his teeth but said not a word in protest. After she had thoroughly massaged his flesh with the warm cloth she put it aside and stared at his hand.

His still-shaking hand.

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37 COMMENTS

  1. Looks very interesting. Wondering what is wrong with his mother. Don’t think it is all grief. I’m thinking Louisa will end up finishing the painting in secret. Wondering what really happened to Jeremy. Getting really excited.

  2. I think eventually Louisa will be able to help rhe dowager become stable and help finish the painting which Jeremy will admire.
    So excited to read it.

  3. Great start I’m very interested in finding out what is going on with the Dutchess (poisoning perhaps) and what type of mysterious plot is being unleashed in the background. Looking forward to full release.

  4. Loved the preview; it looks like Louisa’s father might have either the start of Parkinson’s or else maybe some kind of inflammatory arthritis, poor man; so Louisa will have to be the one to finish the painting. I can hardly wait to read the rest of the story!

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