Vixen in velvet, p.1

Vixen in Velvet, page 1

 part  #3 of  The Dressmakers Series

 

Vixen in Velvet



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Vixen in Velvet


  Dedication

  In memory of my mother

  Acknowledgments

  Thanks to:

  May Chen: funny, wise, and understanding editor, whose patience surpasseth all understanding;

  Nancy Yost: brilliant, hardworking, witty, and inspiring agent;

  Isabella Bradford: kindred spirit and nerdy history co-enabler;

  Paul and Carol: providers of the perfect writer’s refuge on Cape Cod;

  Valerie Kerxhalli: advisor in matters of French;

  Colonial Williamsburg milliners and mantua makers and tailors, oh, my: experts in historic dress who continue to unlock the mysteries of clothing from the past;

  Cynthia, Vivian, and Kathy: sisters, cheerleaders, confidantes, friends;

  Walter: spouse, producer, cinematographer, and knight in shining armor.

  Contents

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Epilogue

  Author's Note

  About the Author

  By Loretta Chase

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Chapter One

  BRITISH INSTITUTION.—ANCIENT MASTERS. This annual Exhibition is the best set-off to the illiberality with which our grand signors shut up their pictures from the public—making, in fact, close boroughs of their collections.

  —The Athenaeum, 30 May 1835

  British Institution, Pall Mall, London

  Wednesday 8 July

  He lay naked but for a cloth draped over his manly parts. Head fallen back, eyes closed, mouth partly open, he slept too deeply to notice the imps playing with his armor and weapons, or the one blowing through a shell into his ear. The woman reclined nearby, her elbow resting on a red cushion. Unlike him, she was fully dressed, in gold-trimmed linen, and fully awake. She watched him with an unreadable expression. Did her lips hint at a smile or a frown, or was her mind elsewhere entirely?

  Leonie Noirot’s mind offered sixteen different answers, none satisfactory. What wasn’t in doubt was what this pair had been doing before the male—the Roman god Mars, according to the exhibition catalog—fell asleep.

  If anything else was in Leonie’s mind—her reason for coming here this day, for instance, or where “here” was or who she was—it had by now drifted to a distant corner of her skull. Nothing but the painting mattered or even existed.

  She stood before the Botticelli work titled Venus and Mars, and might have been standing on another planet or in another time, so completely did it absorb her. She stood and stared, and could have counted every brushstroke, trying to get to the bottom of it. What she couldn’t do was escape it.

  If anybody had stood in her way, she might have throttled that person. Oddly enough, nobody did. The British Institution’s Annual Summer Exhibition continued to attract visitors. It drew as well numerous artists, who set up their easels in the galleries, in order to copy the work of old masters. These artists made annoying obstacles of themselves while they desperately exercised what might be their only opportunity to copy works from private collections.

  Nobody stood in Leonie’s way. Nobody pontificated over her shoulder. She didn’t notice this, let alone wonder why. She hadn’t come for the art but for one specific reason.

  A most important reason . . . which she’d forgotten the instant her gaze landed on the painting.

  She might have stood transfixed until Doomsday, or until one of the caretakers pitched her out. But—

  A crash, sudden as a thunderclap, broke the room’s peace.

  She jumped, and stumbled backward.

  And hit a wall that oughtn’t to have been there.

  No, not a wall.

  It was big, warm, and alive.

  It smelled like a man: shaving soap and starch and wool. Two man-sized gloved hands, which lightly grasped her shoulders and smoothly restored her to an upright position, confirmed the impression.

  She turned quickly and looked up—a good ways up—at him.

  Ye gods.

  Or, more accurately, ye god Mars.

  Perhaps he wasn’t precisely like the image in the painting. For one thing, the living man was fully clothed, and most expensively, too. But the nose and forehead and mouth were so like. And the shape of the eyes especially. His, unlike the war god’s, were open.

  They were green, with gold flecks, like the gold streaks in his dark blond hair. And that was curly like Mars’s, and appealingly unruly. Something less easily definable in the eyes and mouth hinted at other kinds of unruliness: the mouth on the brink of a smile and the eyes open a degree too wide and innocent. Or was that stupidity?

  “In all the excitement, I seem to have put my foot under yours,” he said. “I do beg your pardon.”

  Not stupid.

  More important, he’d been standing too close, and she hadn’t noticed. Leonie never allowed anybody to sneak up on her. In Paris that could have been fatal. Even in London it was risky.

  She kept all her misgivings on the inside, as she’d learned to do eons ago.

  “I hope I did you no permanent injury,” she said. She let her gaze drift downward. His boots were immaculate. His valet had polished them to such a fearsome brilliance, the dust of London’s streets could only stagger away, blinded.

  His green gaze slid downward, too, to her footwear. “A small foot wrapped in a bit of satin and a sliver of leather doing damage? Odds against, don’t you think?”

  “The bits of satin and leather are half-boots called brodequins,” she said. “And my feet are not small. But it’s gallant of you to say so.”

  “In the circumstances, I ought to say something agreeable,” he said. “I ought as well to produce a clever reason for creeping up on you. Or a chivalrous reason, like intent to shield you from falling easels. But then you’d only decide I was an idiot. As anybody can see, the offending object is some yards away.”

  She was aware of somebody swearing, about three paintings to her left. From the same direction came the sound of wood scraped over wood and the rustling of a heavy fabric. She didn’t look that way. Girls who didn’t keep their wits about them when gods wandered their way got into trouble. Ask Daphne or Leda or Danaë.

  Today’s fitful sun had decided to stream through the skylight at this moment. Its rays fell upon the gold-streaked head.

  “Perhaps you were captivated by the painting,” she said. “And lost track of your surroundings.”

  “That’s a fine excuse,” he said. “But as it’s my painting, and I’ve had ample time to stare at the thing, it won’t do.”

  “Yours,” she said. She hadn’t looked up the lender’s name at the back of the catalog. She’d assumed the masterpiece must belong to the King or one of the royal dukes.

  “That is to say, I’m not Botticelli, you know, the fellow being dead some centuries. I’m Lisburne.”

  Leonie collected her wits, brought business to the front of her mind, and flipped through the pages of her mental ledger, wherein she kept her private compendium of Great Britain’s aristocracy as well as important tidbits from the gossip sheets and her gossipy cu
stomers.

  She found the entry easily, because she’d updated it not many days ago: Lisburne meant Simon Blair, the fourth Marquess of Lisburne. Age seven and twenty, he constituted the sole issue of the greatly lamented third Marquess of Lisburne, whose very recently remarried widow resided in Italy.

  Lord Lisburne, who’d lived abroad, too, for these last five or six years, had arrived from the Continent a fortnight ago with his first cousin and close friend Lord Swanton.

  The Viscount Swanton was Leonie’s reason for being in a Pall Mall gallery on a workday.

  She looked back at the painting. Then she looked about her, for the first time, really. It dawned on her, then, why nobody else had stood in her way. Elsewhere on the gallery walls hung landscapes, mythological and historical deaths and battles and such, and madonnas and other religious subjects. The Botticelli had nothing to do with any of them. No preaching, no violence, and definitely no bucolic innocence.

  “Interesting choice,” she said.

  “It stands out, rather, now you mention it,” he said. “No one seems to care much for Botticelli these days. My friends urged me to put in a battle scene.”

  “Instead you chose the aftermath,” she said.

  His green gaze shifted briefly to the painting, then back to her. “I could have sworn they’d been making love.”

  “And I could swear she’s vanquished him.”

  “Ah, but he’ll rise again to—er—fight another day,” he said.

  “I daresay.” She turned fully toward the painting and moved a step closer, though she knew she risked drowning in it. Again. Surely she’d seen equally beautiful works—in the Louvre, for instance. But this . . .

  Its owner moved to stand beside her. For a moment they regarded it in silence, an acute physically conscious one on her part.

  “Venus’s expression intrigues me,” she said. “I wonder what she’s thinking.”

  “There’s one difference between men and women,” he said. “He’s sleeping and she’s thinking.”

  “Somebody must think,” she said. “And it does so often seem to be the women.”

  “I always wonder why they don’t go to sleep, too,” he said.

  “I couldn’t say,” Leonie said. She truly couldn’t. Her understanding of the physical act between men and women, while as detailed and precise as her eldest sister could make it, was in no way based on personal experience—and this was not the time to imagine the experience, she reminded herself. Business came first, last, and always. Especially now. “What occupies me is a lady’s outward appearance.”

  She opened her reticule, withdrew a small card, and gave it to him. It was a beautiful card, as of course it must be, hers being the foremost establishment of its kind in London. The size of a lady’s calling card and elegantly engraved and colored, it was nonetheless a trade card for Maison Noirot, Dressmakers to Ladies of Fashion, No. 56 St. James’s Street.

  He studied it for a time.

  “I’m one of the proprietresses,” she said.

  He looked up from the card to meet her gaze. “You’re not the one married to my cousin Longmore?”

  She couldn’t be surprised he was a cousin of her newest brother-in-law. All the Great World seemed to be related to one another, and the Fairfax family, to which the Earl of Longmore belonged, was large in its main branch and prolific in its associated twigs and vines.

  “That’s my sister Sophy,” she said. “For future reference, she’s the blonde one.” That was the way Society thought of the three proprietresses of Maison Noirot, she knew: the Three Sisters—sometimes the Three Witches or French Tarts—the brunette, the blonde, and the redhead.

  “Right. And one of you is married to the Duke of Clevedon.”

  “My sister Marcelline. She’s the brunette.”

  “How good of your parents to make you easy to tell apart,” he said. “And how kind of you to explain. Were I to mistake, say, the Countess of Longmore for you, and make a stab at flirtation, her brute of a spouse would try to do me a violence, to the detriment of my neckcloth. I spent fully half an hour arranging it.”

  Leonie was an experienced businesswoman of one and twenty, not a sheltered young lady. She examined the neckcloth in a businesslike manner—or tried to. This proved a great deal more difficult than it ought to be.

  Below the finely chiseled angle of his jaw, his neckcloth was not only immaculate but so flawlessly folded and creased that it might have been carved of marble.

  The rest of his dress was inhumanly perfect, too. So were his face and physique.

  The inner woman felt light-headed, and thought this would be a good time to swoon. The dressmaker regarded the neckcloth with a critical eye. “You employed your time to excellent effect,” she said.

  “Not that it makes the least difference,” he said. “No one looks at the other fellows when he’s about.”

  “He,” she said.

  “My poetical cousin. I’m overburdened with cousins. Oh, there they are now, blast it.”

  She became aware of voices coming from the central staircase.

  She turned that way as hats and heads rose into view. Torsos soon followed. After a moment’s apparent confusion about which way to go, the group, mainly young women, surged toward the archway of the gallery in which she stood. There they came to a halt, with only a moderate degree of unladylike pushing and elbowing. The clump of women opened up to make way for a tall, slender, ethereal-looking gentleman. He wore his flaxen hair overlong and his clothing with theatrical flair.

  “Him,” Lord Lisburne said.

  “Lord Swanton,” she said.

  “Who else could it be, with two dozen girls looking up at him, every one of them wearing the same besotted expression.”

  Leonie’s gaze took in the women, all about her age or younger, except for a handful of mamas or aunts obliged to chaperon. Near the outer edge of Lord Swanton’s worshippers and their reluctant attendants she spied Sophy’s new sister-in-law, Lady Clara Fairfax, looking bored. Her ladyship stood with a plain young woman who was dressed stupendously wrong.

  Leonie’s spirits soared. She’d come intending to add to her clientele. This was more than she’d dared to hope for.

  For a moment she almost forgot ye god Mars and even the painting. Almost. She beat down her excitement and turned her attention back to Lord Lisburne.

  “Thank you, my lord, for stopping me from toppling like the unfortunate artist’s easel,” she said. “Thank you for choosing that particular painting to lend to the exhibition. I don’t care for scenes of violence, which seem to be so popular. And saintly beings are so trying. But this experience was sublime.”

  “Which experience, exactly?” he said. “Our acquaintance has been short but eventful.”

  She was tempted to linger and continue flirting. He was so good at it. Moreover, in addition to being beautiful he was a nobleman who owned a painting that, popular or not, was probably priceless. Beyond a doubt he owned several hundred other priceless or at least stunningly costly objects, along with two or three immense houses set upon large expanses of Great Britain. If—or more likely, when—he took a wife and/or set up a mistress, he’d pay for her housing, servants, carriage, horses, etc. etc.—and, most important of et ceteras, her clothing.

  But the girl, Clara’s friend, looked out of sorts and seemed ready to bolt. A prize like that didn’t turn up every day. Leonie had already obtained Lord Lisburne’s attention, in any event. He’d saunter into the shop one of these days, if she was any judge of men.

  “It has, indeed,” Leonie said. “However, I came on business.”

  “Business,” he said.

  “Ladies,” she said. “Dresses.” She made a brisk gesture, indicating her ensemble, which she’d spent well more than half an hour arranging for this event. “Advertising.”

  Then she made a quick c
urtsey and started toward Lord Swanton and his acolytes. She heard a muffled sound behind her, but she couldn’t take the time to look back. The ill-dressed girl was tugging on Lady Clara’s arm.

  Leonie walked more quickly.

  Eyes on Lady Clara’s companion, she didn’t see the canvas cloth in her way.

  The toe of her brodequin caught on it and she pitched forward.

  She was aware of a collective gasp, interspersed with titters, as she went down, arms flailing ungracefully.

  Lisburne hadn’t noticed the artist’s cloth, either. He was too busy taking in the rear view of Miss Noirot, though he’d already fully employed the opportunity to study that at length—at a distance as well as at improperly close quarters—while she stood before the Botticelli, oblivious to him and everybody and everything else. When she’d turned to look up at him, he’d nearly staggered, thinking Botticelli’s Venus had come to life: the same—or very like—heart-shaped face and alluringly imperfect nose . . . the ripe mouth with its hint of a smile or deep thought or troublesome recollection . . . the surprisingly determined chin.

  His mind might have wandered into indecorous fantasies but his reflexes were in sharp working order. He moved forward, caught her, and swept her up into his arms in one smooth movement.

  Ladies’ dress had only grown more extravagantly fanciful since he was last in England, nearly six years ago. It was hard to tell which parts of a girl were real and which were created for artistic effect. While he appreciated artistic effect, he was happy to discover that what seemed to be a gloriously shapely form was artificial only in the most superficial way. Judging by the warm parts with which he was in contact, her body was as lavishly rounded as he’d supposed. She smelled good, too.

  He saw her eyes widen—eyes of a vivid blue that put sapphires and Tuscan skies to shame—and her plump mouth fall open slightly.

 
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