Be Warned: These are the scribblings of a writer unruly, unsupervised, and largely unrepentant

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Private Collection - Excerpt#3

The final excerpt I'm sharing with you this week is from Claudine's story about the third portrait in Randolph Blackwood's collection. Enjoy!


She sat on a Hepplewhite chair, her hands gathered in her lap, nodding occasionally, rarely smiling. The man with her did most of the talking, but she was evidently in charge of the fitting. The tailor fluttered around her with all the obsequiousness of the serpent around Eve.

Harry watched through the window for a few moments before he entered the shop. No one immediately came to serve him— too busy tending to the blonde and her young man at the back of the room. He’d meant to walk up to her, introduce himself and explain about the painting, but that idea fell by the wayside. His father’s solicitor had assured him Louisa Deveraux was dead. Was it possible some trick of the light had made this woman look like her?

“May I help you, sir?”

He turned, jumping slightly, scratching his unshaven chin. A short, bald fellow waited at his elbow, tape measure in hand, a haughty expression on his round face as he took in Harry’s crumpled traveling clothes and poor grooming.

“I— yes.” Harry realized the woman had looked over at him. “I need— an umbrella.”

“An umbrella, sir?”

“For this dreadful weather.”

“I’m afraid we don’t sell umbrellas, sir.”

She was still looking, something about him having caught her attention. Over the glass-fronted cabinets and through stiffly-posed wooden mannequins, their gazes caught and held. For a few seconds it seemed as if they were both entrapped by their own curiosity. She was more beautiful than her portrait. Her eyes were the same cool blue, but not so sad. They were alive, inquisitive, and intelligent.

“Perhaps a hat then,” he said, finally pulling his attention onward, his eyes skimming the shelves.

“Top hat, sir? Bowler, straw boater, tweed cap…?”

“Bring one of each and I’ll try them on.”

The bell attached to the shop door jingled again and a cool draft blew through the room. Almost at once, a high woman’s voice exclaimed, “Harry Blackwood, it is you! What are you doing in London?”

He cringed, lowering his chin into the collar of his coat. Rosamund Wakely had one of those unforgettable voices that could cut through a man’s head like a saw through butter. She also had an equally unforgettable, very large, flat pair of feet. It was almost twenty years since he was first obliged to partner her at a dance, but he still hadn’t fully recovered from the bruises. She and her tribe of equally unattractive, loud-voiced sisters grew up in a town not far from the village where he lived as a boy, and since there was a dire shortage of young girls whose families allowed them to run about after the Blackwood “spawn”, he’d had to take what he could get in those days. Thankfully, she’d quickly transferred her affections from him to his more handsome brother Luke, who barely noticed her existence. That unfulfilled passion kept her busy for a few years, until Luke went away to university and Rosamund went to live with relatives in London. The last he heard, she was married to a Lord something-or-other and had birthed a litter of four boys. All this he learned from his youngest brother, Adam, who lived and worked in London now, flourishing in his career as an architect and often coming into contact with faces from their past.

“I thought you lived up north somewhere,” Rosamund exclaimed, noisily clopping forward on her massive feet.

He finally turned to face her, feeling as if he had no more choice now than he did when he was seventeen and she first cornered him for a dance. “Roz. How nice to see you. Is the family well? Children…?” He rattled away, not even aware of what he said.

She began asking him about Luke. In the corner of his eye he saw the blonde woman stand and move slowly around a display of evening jackets on wooden forms, surreptitiously positioning herself closer.  

“I have a bone to pick with your brother,” Rosamund announced, poking him in the chest with one thuggish finger.

“Which one?” he muttered.

“Lucien, of course! The blighter promised to visit me the last time he was here, and then when he came, he shut himself up in some wretched museum and didn’t come out again.”

“That sounds like my brother.” Luke preferred books and dusty old antiquities to the company of people and usually avoided women entirely. And unlike Harry, he had no qualms about using the most monstrous lies to save himself from women like Roz.

“Claimed he caught some dreadful tropical disease while he was abroad, that all his hair and teeth had fallen out, his leg was gangrenous, and he couldn’t see anyone because he was virulently contagious. With worms.”

“Ah.”

“Is any of that true?”

He shrugged. “I— ”

The blonde moved closer, definitely listening, feigning interest in a stack of cloth samples, holding them up to the light of the window.

While most extremely fair-headed Englishwomen had ivory pale skin, hers was a soft shade of caramel, as if she belonged in a sunnier climate. She wasn’t a winter blonde like the woman in the portrait; she was all summer. When he looked at her, he could almost hear waves lapping alongside a swiftly moving vessel, hearty breezes puffing through thick canvas sails overhead. He smelled seaweed and salt, felt the sun on his face as if it was August, and he stood on the bow of a ship, staring out at the sapphire horizon, an endless expanse of heaven. For the second time that day he thought of his old pirate captain fantasy.

She was a treasure ship, a slender, flighty shape ahead of him, visible each time the sail billowed and arched.

“Well?” Roz prodded him again with her finger, bringing him back to this rainy day.

“The last time I saw Luke he didn’t have all his hair, but perhaps it grew back.”

“Grew back indeed! The man’s a rotten liar and terribly unsociable. He’ll die alone and miserable if he doesn’t get out more. What about you? Why aren’t you married yet?” She bellowed rudely in his face, “Didn’t your father just die? He must have left you plenty of money.”

The blonde turned her head slightly and he caught a twitch, a slight dimple that might herald a smile.

Harry replied, “Yes, Randolph just passed away.”

“After the life he led it’s a surprise he lasted as long as he did.”

“Quite.” He smiled, pulling on every inch of his patience, wishing Rosamund Wakely would just go away. Much the same sensation she’d given him all those years ago when he had no choice but to dance with her.

“You ought to be married,” she declared. “I don’t know why you haven’t found someone by now. You’ll be a lonely old man too.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“Don’t be flippant, Harry. You always were too flippant. You never took anything seriously, never gave any woman a chance to take you in hand. As for Lucien, he has the most deplorable manners and seems intent on playing the role of an eccentric recluse. Only Adam was ever sensible and even he can be distinctly odd at times. His fiancée, Matilda Hawkesworth, certainly has an uphill task taming him.”

Harry smirked. Aware that Adam was currently staying in the country at their father’s house, far away from London and his wealthy fiancée, but only a few convenient miles from the older woman he’d lusted after quite blatantly for the last five years, he very much doubted Miss Hawkesworth would ever succeed in taming his little brother.

“You’re getting old, you know, Harry. Soon won’t be fit for any woman and I only say that for your own good. Poor man.” She paused, tossed him a quick up and down appraisal, and then added, “Remember my sister Emily? Widowed again now. She’d be perfect for you— wouldn’t put up with your nonsense and all that gallivanting about. She soon squared her last husband away.”

“Directly into a grave it seems.”

“You can’t be a Casanova forever, you know. Time you settled down and came to heel. Where are you staying? Emily’s with me for a few weeks. I ought to get the two of you together. Emily was always rather fond of you in her silly way.”

Alarm shot through him like a bolt of lightning and he was struck dumb at the thought of the insipid, giggling Emily Wakely thrust down his throat over weak tea and scones in some stifling little parlor. If only he could be like Luke, think of some outrageous excuse and not be ashamed to use it.

And suddenly, on that grey, forbidding day, the sun came out. The blonde by the window swung around and said, “Harry, darling, do come and help me choose a pattern.”

He exhaled at last, and Roz Wakely rotated on her great flippers to look at the woman she apparently hadn’t noticed before.

“Hello, I’m Claudine Deveraux.” The stranger advanced gracefully, gloveless hand extended at the end of a long, slender arm. “I can see Harry hasn’t told you a thing about me. He can be so secretive.”

“Yes,” Roz replied. “He can, can’t he?” She stabbed Harry with a fierce scowl before returning her gaze to the other woman. “Where did he find you?” she demanded with her usual politesse.

The woman he now knew as Claudine smiled at him and said, “In his dreams.”

 * * * *

She just couldn’t help herself. The poor old fellow looked so beleaguered. It wasn’t like her to be soft, but something about his troubled, weathered face and rumpled curly head made her want to wrap him in warm scarves and feed him. She also took a quick dislike to the grasping woman who threw herself at him without mercy. Claudine had seen condescending women like this one before, so busy criticizing other people they paid no attention to their own behavior. This sort of woman was always scanning the room for a better prospect, a more advantageous connection, and trampling others to get there while actually pretending to be a benign, benevolent friend.

Claudine walked up to the man she knew only as Harry and patted his cheek, an improperly familiar gesture. “He does so hate to shop for new clothes, but it simply must be done.” Between thumb and forefinger, she squeezed his unshaven chin playfully, while he looked down at her with eyes the color of hot coffee. “Please do excuse us,” she tossed another smile over her shoulder at the gaping women. “Harry needs a fitting.” Linking her arm under his, she swept him away toward the back of the shop.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I think.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They heard the little bell on the door ring again shortly afterward and knew the woman had gone out. Then she removed her arm from his.

“Have I ruined your reputation?” she said.

He gave a short, puzzled laugh. “I don’t think that’s possible. I’m a Blackwood. Haven’t you heard about us?”

Under all that rough stubble, he might almost be handsome, she supposed. For an old man. His teeth were very good, white and strong and all in their proper place. “Should I have?”

“Perhaps it’s better that you haven’t.” His eyes were darker now, almost black, but they were warm, thoughtful, appreciative. “And why would an association with you ruin my reputation?”

She decided not to answer that. Instead, she looked over at the front of the shop and decreed it safe for his retreat. “I do hope she isn’t waiting for you outside.”

“Perhaps you’d care to walk out with me? In case I need your protection again.”

She laughed. It couldn’t be helped. His sorrowful, puppy-dog expression was beyond even her sterling resistance. “I can walk with you as far as the corner, but then I’m afraid we must part ways, sir.”

“Must we? It seems a terrible shame. Our relationship began with so much promise.” He rubbed a hand over the stubble of his chin where she’d squeezed it earlier, and his eyes took on a new gleam, thoughtful, wily. There was a twitch in his jaw, the beginnings of a dangerous, artful smile.

Blackwood. She tried to remember if she’d ever heard the name before. She felt certain she should have, even if it was only as a warning...

Want to read more about the Blackwood brothers and their father's muses? Check out A Private Collection from all online booksellers and here.

(Painting above by Thomas Francis Dicksee)

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