Vanquished, p.7

Vanquished, page 7

 

Vanquished
 



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  Forgive me, Caledonia. Nothing personal, but I can't go back. I won't go back.

  No going back.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  "O do not praise my beauty more,

  In such world-wide degree,

  And say I am one all eyes adore;

  For these things harass me!"

  --THOMAS HARDY, The Beauty

  Do try to relax, Miss Rivers. You're looking stiff as a board."

  Head buried beneath the light-blocking cloth cover, Hadrian studied his "subject" through the camera's viewing portal. Owing to the high caliber of his apparatus, he rarely required posing devices such as a headrest or clamp. Had Caledonia Rivers managed to stay reasonably motionless, they should have managed quite nicely. In the course of the past two hours, however, he'd shot easily a half-dozen photographs, each one worse than its predecessor. Already the close atmosphere in his studio's staging area was choked with the acrid odor of magnesium powder--which hardly set the scene for seduction.

  Seated in his posing chair against a backdrop of painted-canvas woodland, she lifted her chin in an age-old gesture of defiance. "I am doing my best to cooperate, sir. You did caution me to hold still just as I cautioned you that I am not accustomed to sitting idle."

  At wit's end, he threw back the cover and straightened. Really, she could be the most infuriating of women. "You're not sitting, idle or otherwise. You're posing. Think of it as a task, your job, if that helps you."

  "I beg your pardon." She lifted her eyes to his face despite his express instruction to settle on a spot just beyond him and not look away.

  Shoving hands in his pockets--what better way to stave off the temptation of shaking her--he came around to the front of the camera. "I only mean that you don't strike me as a woman who relaxes much. What with the whole great world in want of saving, and you alone responsible for its salvation, there mustn't be a great deal of time for leisure, let alone amusement."

  "Right is not done by shirking one's duty, Mr. St. Claire." All at once, the stiff-lipped look she'd worn since her arrival slipped. "Oh, blast. I have shown myself to be a dreadful subject, I know. I have tried your patience sorely."

  Oh, she had tried his patience, all right, only not in the way she thought. From the past hours spent in her prickly presence, it was abundantly clear that seducing Caledonia Rivers, the so-called Maid of Mayfair, was not going to be a matter of a few hours or even a day.

  "It is only that I have never so much as had my portrait painted let alone sat for something as . . . unforgiving as a photograph." She looked down, pretending sudden interest in the long-fingered hands laced in her lap. Sitting there so hesitant and unsure, she seemed more girl than woman, so much so that Hadrian hadn't the heart to point out that she'd moved--again.

  Stepping over the striking cord, he closed the small gap between them. "You should make it a point to smile more, Miss Rivers." Reaching her, he lifted her chin on the edge of his hand, pleased when she didn't shy away. "You're quite lovely when you smile. Ah, now she blushes. Tell me, don't you think of yourself as pretty?" Resisting the urge to touch his thumb to that enticing cleft, he dropped his hand. "You are, you know, despite the pains you take to hide that fact."

  Her high forehead folded into a frown. "I am hiding nothing."

  "Nothing? Tell me, if I may be so bold to ask, who dresses you?" He let his gaze slip over her seated form from primly coiffed head to sensibly half-boot-shod feet.

  She looked at him as though he'd sprouted a third eye. "I dress myself. Why do you ask?"

  "That frock you're wearing is positively funerary."

  Her half-moon brows arched. "And just what is the matter with my gown?"

  "Rather you might ask what is right with it in which case I would reply in all honestly--nothing." He softened the statement with a smile.

  She answered with a huff. "A woman is more than an ornament to grace the arm of a man, sir."

  "You'll never grace the arm of anyone if you persist in dressing like a drab."

  She shot up from her chair. Tall though she was, he topped her by several inches, which for whatever reason pleased him enormously. "You are honest to the point of pain, sir, as well as abominably rude."

  Inexplicably invigorated, he answered, "In that case, I'll not hesitate to point out that the way you wear your hair, scraped into that tight little knot at the back of your head, brings to mind a maiden aunt."

  "I have a maiden aunt, and I'll have you know she is quite the fashion plate."

  "Then you would do well to emulate her. As for those spectacles, are they strictly necessary?"

  She hesitated, biting at her lip, confirming what he'd suspected--the eyewear was a bit of stagecraft, a screen for her to hide behind. "Only if I wish to see."

  "You look like a woman who sees far too much already. Take them off, won't you."

  She made no move to do so, but then he was coming to understand that obedience was nowhere in her nature. He admired her for that. Under other circumstances, he might even consider her a kindred spirit.

  But of course he had a job to do.

  Conscious of her gaze on his face, he reached out and gently lifted the wire frames from her face. He folded the glasses and handed them back, making sure their fingertips brushed. "Ah yes, better now. You have lovely eyes, beautifully shaped. My only regret is the impossibility of recapturing their color with pigments and paints. Such a vivid green, especially now that I've made you angry."

  Cheeks limned in rose, she shook her head. "I am not angry. Anger would be pointless, a waste of my energy."

  He started to postulate another use for all that famous energy of hers, but stopped himself in time. What the deuce had taken hold of him? All she need do was storm from his studio, and the game would be up before it had even begun. Could it be that part of him, some small core of decency buried deep within the rotten apple he'd become, was goading her in the hope she would do just that? Was it possible he might be trying to save Caledonia Rivers from . . . himself?

  Whatever his motive might be, it required all of his reserve not to reach out and touch that blush-tinted cheek. "I beg to differ. You are angry and rightly so. I am once again too frank. I have offended you. In future, I will endeavor to curb my tongue if not bite it outright."

  All this talk of tongues had her flushing rosier still, suggesting her thoughts were not quite as proper, as pure, as she would have him believe. "No, no don't alter anything on my account. I shouldn't wish for you to behave other than comes naturally to you." The telling blush deepened, and her gaze dropped to study the space between their feet. "What I mean to say is that more and more of late I find myself surrounded by persons who tell me what they suppose I would wish to hear. That becomes . . . tedious." She raised shy eyes to his face, and he felt something inside his chest gave way. "Your plain speaking took me aback at first, I admit, but I am finding it refreshing, a welcome change. I would be pleased if we could continue on as we are, with our discourse modeled on complete honesty."

  Complete honesty. Some emotion, guilt, perhaps, took a chokehold about Hadrian's throat. "In that case, allow me to repeat that I find you attractive, quite attractive indeed, and hang your high-minded ideals, I'll make no apology for it. But then again I'm a man, Miss Rivers, and thus a slave to my baser instincts, my bestial nature. I cannot help myself or so those infernal tracts of yours would have us all believe."

  Eyes glowing like embers, she regarded him. "Infernal tracts, indeed. I wonder, sir, if you are as open to instruction as you would have me believe."

  He took another step back. "There is only one way to find out. As they say, Miss Rivers, fire away."

  She slipped back into her seat. "Very well, then. I thought we would employ the Socratic Method with you, as the student, posing questions based upon what you have read."

  Clever girl, he thought, to turn their first session into a quiz in order to discern whether or not he'd done his homework. Fortunately he had. He thought back to the
pamphlet she'd pressed on him the night before. What a dreary affair that had been, a great deal of sanctimonious drivel though he'd hunkered down and plodded through it anyway. True, it wasn't very long but it was dense, a comprehensive listing of all the British laws pertaining to the social, political, and economic status of females. Sprinkled throughout were testimonials from various women--some provided their true names but most improvised aliases such as "Mary B" or the ubiquitous "Mrs. Smith." Some of the information was new to Hadrian--was it really the case that a husband held the legal right to imprison his wife in pursuit of his conjugal rights? For the most part, though, the contents confirmed that which he'd known before but, until now, hadn't given a great deal of thought. Yes, he'd realized that when a woman married everything she owned, inherited, or earned became the sole property of her husband. But as most of the women he'd known as Harry Stone owned, inherited, and earned nothing or the nearest thing to it, the law had never caused them any great concern. As for the women who came to his studio to have their portraits made, dressed to the nines and with servants in tow, they didn't appear to suffer overmuch-- except perhaps from boredom.

  "I do wonder, given womankind's softer, more sentimental nature and innate aversion to warring, might extending the vote to females not place the empire at grave risk? Given the less demanding education of girls, was it an unwarranted fear that some female voters--barring present company, of course-- might lack sufficient intellect to fully grasp the issues?"

  Eyes very green, very angry, and very much focused on his face, she answered, "If women as a sex are averse to war, perhaps that is a good thing. Men, as history bears out, seem to have entirely too great a fondness for it. As to the supposed intellectual inferiority of women, why not throw open the doors of the presently all-male public schools and universities to girls and young women and let their academic record as a sex set the issue to rest once and for all? Instead, men--barring present company, of course--contrive to keep women ignorant and oppressed."

  Hadrian backed up to the camera. Positioning the lens, he leaned in to frame his shot. "Better . . . much better. Now, mind you hold that position. Quite as still as you can manage." He took the striking cord in hand and pulled. The flash flared, illuminating Caledonia Rivers in a burst of actinic radiance. "Ah, better now. You should allow yourself the luxury of temper more often, Miss Rivers."

  She stared at him aghast. "You're taking my picture . . . now?"

  He slipped out from the cover long enough to smile at her. "No better time than the present. Do you know your eyes turn from sage to dark green when you're in a passion?" Passion. He'd chosen the word deliberately and the blush climbing from her throat to her cheeks told him he'd found his mark. Enjoying himself immensely, he added, "Why, they are glittering like emeralds."

  "I am not in a passion, as you say."

  Ducking back beneath the sheet, he called out, "Suit yourself, Miss Rivers. You were saying?"

  "Er . . . ah yes. And once a woman is wed, her very body belongs to her husband. Should she be moved to deny him, he has the right--the legal right, Mr. St. Claire--to hold her captive until she surrenders as well as the right to force her. Legalized rape, if you will, how as a civilized man can you countenance that?"

  "So you are an advocate of Free Love, then?"

  Looking adorably flustered, she hesitated before answering, "If a woman must marry, then she should be able to follow her own inclinations and sensibilities in selecting a mate. As it stands now, far too many gently born women are as good as sold to the highest bidder, trading their liberty for a title and a name. Should she leave her husband and seek a divorce, she forfeits any right not only to her property but to see her children, if that is the husband's wish."

  "If she left them in the first place then perhaps she doesn't deserve to."

  The scorching look she leveled him might have melted his camera's lens. "And what of all the men who leave their wives and families or, barring that, keep mistresses?

  "I'm the very last person to claim that the world is fair, Miss Rivers. On the other hand, I expect you'd be rather shocked at the number of married women who manage to navigate a way around the rules." He thought of the wayward matrons he'd helped in that regard and was glad for the cover that hid his smile.

  She rose from her chair. "I think you are deliberately goading me."

  Uncovering himself and straightening, he made no move to deny it. "And what of you, Miss Rivers, what do you advocate when it comes to managing intimate relations between the sexes?"

  She flushed that delectable shade of pale pink that had him thinking of summertime peaches but to her credit, she didn't look away. "It is my personal belief that . . . sexual congress should be reserved as an expression of the deepest regard and esteem, that it should only take place between two persons whose minds and souls are prepared to meet on the highest of planes."

  Sexual congress . . . ah, they were getting somewhere at last. "And must those two people be married before their souls meet on this highest plane, do you think?"

  "Preferably."

  "Preferably, but not always?" He took a step toward her.

  "On occasion there are special circumstances that keep one soul apart from its mate."

  "And yet you also countenance divorce?"

  "If you mean an easement of the current divorce laws to afford fair and equitable access, then yes, I do."

  "So then you as good as admit that a woman who marries for love may be mistaken in her inclinations?"

  A cloud crossed her face. "When a man is courting a woman, there is much about his nature he may choose to conceal."

  He studied her for a moment before asking, "May not the same be said of the woman?"

  "A gently bred young woman is reared to please in all things, to be docile and quiet in company. If she presents herself as other than her true self, it is not artifice or wiles that lead her to do so but a simple ignorance of who her true self is."

  "I cannot help but observe that your theories all speak to high-born women. What of women in the merchant class or even the so-called lower orders? Those women who are not gently bred as you say, do your high-minded theories apply to them as well?"

  She shrugged, which did interesting things to the high slopes of her breasts beneath the shirtwaist. "I suppose so but--"

  "You suppose?"

  Her hesitation helped to peg her as exactly what he'd been hoping for, a toffee-nosed society bitch who considered the so-called "lower orders" to be almost a separate species. Ruining her--he just might enjoy it after all.

  "For a woman who is otherwise so firm in her convictions, you demonstrate a delightful ambiguity when it comes to relations between the sexes. On one hand, you say women should choose for themselves who and how they shall love and yet when that freedom leads them astray, you assume they must have been seduced against their wills."

  Her eyes glittered, her cheeks flushed. She was looking very angry now and, it occurred to him, very beautiful. "I made no such claim. You are twisting my words."

  "On the contrary, I am but mirroring them much as a photograph depicts only that which the camera lens sees."

  "I believe our session is at an end. I really must be on my way." She looked past him to the shop door as if willing it to open.

  He backed up. "I have enjoyed our conversation, Miss Rivers. I have enjoyed it immensely. If nothing else, our discourse has served to show just how far off the mark my thinking still is. You have quite a challenge ahead of you; I trust you see that now. I confess I cannot wait for our next session."

  "Another session!" She paused in collecting her things to stare at him, mouth falling open. "But surely two hours suffices to make a single portrait?"

  He shook his head. "Photography is not merely a medium for artistic expression and documentary, Miss Rivers. It is a process for uncovering truth. To do so, we mustn't exhaust ourselves--or in any way attempt to hurry that process along. I will spend this evening developing the images
we've taken thus far, but I have the innate sense that today was but the beginning of our journey. We shall require several more sessions at least before I arrive at a composition that will do you justice."

  "Several more!"

  He nodded. "Indeed. Still, I suspect you are not comfortable here, not yet, at any rate. And I rather fancy capturing you as I first saw you, brisk and busy in Parliament Square, not posing amidst a contrivance of painted scenery and props. Fortunately, I can set up out-of-doors easily enough."

  "But it is winter."

  "As it was the other day, when you and your suffragette sisters held your frosty vigil. Unless, of course, you are worried to be seen in public with me. I wouldn't want to sully that sterling reputation of yours, after all."

  She lifted her chin, a habit of hers; or so he was coming to see. "What nonsense . . . though I can't come tomorrow as I've meetings all day."

  "The day after, then?"

  She hesitated, and then nodded. "Very well, then. I believe I am free on Wednesday after ten o'clock? Will that do?"

  Feeling much like a cat with a very delectable canary in its sights, Hadrian could barely conceal his satisfied smile. "Excellent. As it is winter, midmorning is when the light is at its best."

  The London Women's Suffrage Society had its headquarters at Langham Place. Accustomed as Callie was to coming in to the clicking of typewriter keys and the ringing of the telephone, she walked in to find the office quiet as a tomb.

  Sober-faced, Harriet descended on her before she had the chance to get her coat off. "Callie, there you are. I was on the verge of sending someone out to search for you."

  Callie glanced over her shoulder to the women volunteers, usually so brisk and busy, sitting silent and sullen at the conference table. Heart sinking, she turned back to Harriet. "Something's gone terribly wrong, hasn't it?"

  "I'm afraid so." The secretary nodded to the folded newspapers stacked on Callie's desk. "You'd best read for yourself."

 

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