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Portrait of a Scotsman
Author: Evie Dunmore

 

Chapter 1

 

 

London, August 1880


   As she hovered on the rain-soaked pavement in front of the Chelsea town house she was about to infiltrate, feeling hot beneath her woolen cloak, Hattie Greenfield couldn’t help but think back to the last time she had run from her protection officer. It had resulted in an altercation with a toad of a policeman and a dear friend being held at Millbank prison. She supposed all the most perilous adventures began with escaping dour Mr. Graves. All the best ones, too.

   She eyed the lacquered front door atop the steps. The iron-cast lion’s maw holding the door knocker had absurdly long, pointy teeth. The warning that she was about to enter the lion’s den was almost too shrill to ignore for someone selectively superstitious. But this time, her adventure wasn’t an inherently risky women’s rights march on Parliament Square; it was a private art gallery tour. Perfectly harmless.

   She lifted her skirts in one hand and began the ascent.

   Her friends would point out that the gallery was owned by Mr. Blackstone, a man society had nicknamed Beelzebub, and that he also happened to be her father’s business rival, and no, she shouldn’t be found admiring his Pre-Raphaelites unchaperoned. However, it was safe to assume that Mr. Beelzebub wasn’t present; in fact, very few people had ever seen him in the flesh. Second, she had registered for the tour as Miss Jones, classics student at Cambridge, not as Harriet Greenfield, Oxford art student and banking heiress. Third, the full tour through his gallery of arts and antiques comprised a handful of other young art connoisseurs and likely their chaperones, and the invitation in her reticule said she was keeping them waiting. The tour had begun at two o’clock sharp and her small pocket watch was all but burning a hole through her bodice.

   The thuds of the door knocker appeared to fade away unnoticed into the entrance hall beyond. She rang the bell.

   Silence.

   Beneath the hem of her plain cloak, her wet foot began to tap. They must have started the tour without her. She had climbed from the cab, which had become hopelessly stuck in rain and traffic soon after leaving Victoria Station, and had braved the remaining quarter of a mile on foot—for nothing? The pounding of iron on oak became insistent.

   Or perhaps she had done it again. She fumbled for her reticule between the folds of her cloak and pulled out the invitation. She squinted at the address, then back at the house number with full attention. It was still number twelve Carlyle Square. The square was small; she doubted there was a house number one-and-twenty. She knocked again, and again.

   The heavy door swung back unexpectedly.

   The man facing her was not a butler. His thinning gray hair was disheveled, he wore a paint-stained apron, and he smelled pungently of . . . antique wax polish? She tried to assess without staring whether his long, lined face was familiar to her from the artistic circles. His assessment of her person wasn’t subtle: his gaze searched the empty space where a female companion should have been, then roamed from her sodden hem up to her undoubtedly frizzy red hair.

   “And you’ll be?” he drawled.

   She cleared her throat. “I’m here for the tour.”

   “The tour?” Comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes. “The tour.”

   “Yes.”

   His thin lips curled with derision. “I see.”

   She shifted from one foot to the other. “I’m afraid I was delayed on my journey. I have come all the way from outside London, you see, then my companion was . . . unwell, and then there was such dreadful traffic on Lyall Street because of the heavy rain; the roads are—”

   “Come on, then,” he said, and abruptly stepped aside with a wave of his hand.

   He was cross; male artists had this prerogative, to let it be known that they were cross when one interrupted their work.

   No maid was in sight to take her cloak; in fact, the place felt yawningly empty. A nervous sensation fluttered in her belly. But the wax-polish man was already several paces ahead, his hasty footsteps echoing on the black-and-white tiles of the entrance hall.

   “Sir.” She hurried after him, water squelching between her toes.

   They turned into a shadowed corridor. To her left, intriguingly elegant lines of statues and vases beckoned, but not slipping on the floor in wet heels demanded her full attention. Ahead, the man had stopped and opened a door. He motioned for her to enter, but she hesitated on the doorstep, for while the room was brightly lit, there was no trace of the group. There was no one here at all. The painter flicked his fingers impatiently at the nearest settee. “Go on, take a seat.”

   Even from here she could tell the settee was from the days of Louis XIV, and sitting on the butter-yellow silk in her damp cloak would damage it.

   “Will you send someone to take my coat, please, Mr. . . . ?”

   The man inclined his head in a mock bow. “You shall be seen to shortly.”

   “Sir, I must ask you to—”

   The door was firmly closed in her face, and she stood blinking at white wood paneling.

   “Right.” She blew out a breath.

   In the silence, her heartbeat was loud in her ears. Warm sweat trickled down her back. Dangerous, said her instincts. Underworld lord. Those were her friend Lucie’s words after finding out her fiancé, Lord Ballentine, had borrowed money from Mr. Blackstone to purchase a publishing house quite recently . . .

   She tried a smile. “Adventurous,” she said. “This is fabulous, and adventurous.”

   She turned back to the room. This was a pirate’s lair. And the treasures were piled up high. Every shelf and table surface coming into focus was crowded with splendor: glossy porcelain couples— Meissen, at a second glance—filigree ivory-and-gold statuettes, ornately carved boxes with softly rounded edges in all shades of jade green. Select pieces were illuminated by small table lamps with ceramic shades so fine the gaslight shone through them as if they were made of silk. The wall opposite was papered in a riotously floral Morris wallpaper—a waste, because it was covered from floor to ceiling in paintings, their gilded frames nearly touching.

   “Oh my.” She laughed softly. A Cranach the Elder was on display next to a picnic scene that looked like a Monet. Objectively, more intriguing than the Pre-Raphaelites. Shockingly, the glowing embers in the fireplace to her right held the greatest appeal today. As she carefully picked her way through the array of decorated side tables, her cloak jostled one of them and sent a porcelain ballerina swaying precariously on her pointy toes. Goodness. What had possessed Mr. Blackstone or his curator to jumble these precious pieces together like guests of a carelessly composed dinner party, and in a room open to the public no less?

   The heat coming from the fireplace was feeble. Her reflection in the wide mirror above the mantelshelf was equally disappointing: the purple feather on her hat was thin as a rat’s tail, her usually silky curls were a riot, her upturned nose glowed pink. If this was what her brief walk had done to her face, what havoc had it wreaked upon her slippers? She stuck out a foot from beneath her hem. Dainty heels, white silk, embroidered with the tiniest pearls. A wholly inappropriate choice for an outing, but one of her favorite pairs. Clearly damaged beyond repair. Her stomach dipped.

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