Excerpt: How To Distract A Duchess
How To Series, Book 2
“I’m going to have to shorten his willie.”
The artist stepped back from her easel and regarded the offending member with a critical eye. Her name was Artemisia. “Sounds like amnesia,” her father had complained when her mother insisted upon the unusual moniker. Artemisia Dalrymple Pelham-Smythe, to be exact. Such a heavy load might have been a burden for some. But Artemisia was a duchess, so most people simply called her ‘Your Grace.’
“Of course, it’s absolutely true to life,” she said finally, closing one eye and holding her thumb upraised to do a rough comparative measurement. “The proportions are accurate to the model, but critics tend to find well-endowed males in art to be prurient. I can’t imagine why. A willie is just a willie, after all. What do you think, Cuthbert?”
“On the subject of art, Your Grace, one is of no opinion.” Cuthbert set down the silver tray and poured out a steaming cup of tea with extreme dignity. “But if one may be so bold as to suggest, perhaps Madam would do well to be more delicate in her speech.”
Artemisia took the offered cup and sipped the aromatic blend. It was almost as good as the tea she grew up with in Bombay.
“I was being delicate, Cuthbert. That’s why I called it a willie instead of a pe–“
“Your daily reading, Your Grace,” Cuthbert interrupted smoothly, handing her a neatly folded newspaper.
Hiding her smile, Artemisia set down her tea cup. She knew she shouldn’t purposely try to irritate her butler, but his ears turned such a charming shade of purple when she did.
Artemisia ran her gaze over the headlines. “The Tattler?” She tried never to read the ubiquitous scandal sheets and The Tattler was worst of the lot, laden with juicy on dits and sly innuendo. “You know I’ve no time for such drivel.”
“Indeed. Then perhaps Madam should refrain from giving the writers so much fodder. The article just below the fold could not escape one’s notice. Will there be anything else, Your Grace?”
“No, I think that’s quite enough,” Artemisia said wryly.
The butler bowed and retreated with dignity. Almost as an afterthought, he stopped and turned back.
“A gentleman is waiting to see you, Madam.”
“Ah! That will be the model Mr. Phelps is sending round today. I’m ready to start sketches of Eros now that Neptune is finished. Nearly finished,” she amended, silently reminding herself that there was yet a willie to be shortened.
It is highly unlikely that this man is one of your young gods.” Cuthbert shook his head solemnly. “He dresses like a proper English gentleman.”
“There are so many second-hand clothing shops in London a stable lad can fit himself out like a lord if he wishes.”
Artemisia bit her lip. She realized she was sounding just like the writer in The Tattler who last week bemoaned the fact that class distinctions could no longer be made by dress–not with so many ladies’ maids larking about London as well turned out as their mistresses. It irked her that she should be mouthing the sentiments of a scandal sheet. Artemisia made a mental note not to read The Tattler again even if Cuthbert shoved it under her nose.
She consulted the ormulu mantle clock above her fireplace. Even in summer, she burned a fire for the comfort of her models. Goosebumps did not become an Olympian, after all. “Send the man in.”
Once Cuthbert closed the French doors to her studio, Artemisia released a pent-up sigh. Perhaps she should encourage him to retire, but the crusty gentleman’s gentleman probably wouldn’t hear of it. Cuthbert’s family had been with the estate for two generations. He had served Artemisia’s late husband, the Duke of Southwycke, as his father had served the duke’s father before him. Even though his master was dead and Cuthbert not-so-tacitly disapproved of his unconventional mistress, he lived to serve Southwycke. Anything else was unthinkable.
Artemisia donned a paint-daubed smock over her simple day dress and began assembling her materials. Today she’d do a few preliminary sketches and experiment with poses. Once she settled on a composition, she’d transfer her ideas to canvas with her brushes and pallet knife. As she arranged her tools, one of the soft sticks of chalk rolled from the table’s edge and she bent to retrieve it. She was so intent on her task, she didn’t even hear the door swing open behind her.
Trevelyn Deveridge had been warned the duchess had a well-earned reputation for the unexpected, but he certainly didn’t anticipate being greeted by the sight of her bottom first.
And a bottom as ripe as a plum, he almost said aloud. She wore no crinoline, no contraption of horsehair and wires to enhance her form, just a simple shift covered by a short smock, nothing to obscure what was a decidedly shapely derriere.
Stick to business, he ordered himself. You’re here to find Beddington, not to see the sights.
Wiping off his salacious grin, Trevelyn cleared his throat.
“Oh!” She straightened and turned abruptly. Trevelyn’s first impression was that the duchess was much younger than he expected and far more comely. Several locks of her raven hair had escaped from the loose chignon, teasing her delicate neck and nape, the curls off on jaunts of their own. She looked as if she’d just risen from a rousing tussle on a feather tick. He flexed his fingers, imagining threading the silky tendrils through them. As if she read his thoughts, a becoming flush kissed her cheeks. Then her delicately arched brows lowered in a frown.
“You’re late,” she accused.
“Your pardon, Your Grace, but–“
“Spare me your excuses. Surely Mr. Phelps explained that punctuality is essential to your position. I don’t want to lose the morning light.”
“Clearly, there’s been a misunderstanding, mum,” he began in his best imitation of a rough country burr while he made an old-fashioned courtly leg to her. He’d been trained to adopt an assumed identity when the situation called for one. Trevelyn had already decided this was a job for Thomas Doverspike, his less aristocratic alter-ego. “Allow me to introduce myself, an’ it please you. I’m–“
“No names, please,” she said crisply. “At least, not until the painting is well under way. I find calling you by the title of the work enables us to maintain professional distance.” The duchess beckoned him closer with a wave of her slim fingers. “Well, don’t just stand there. Come here so I can get a good look at you.”
Amused by her abrupt manner, Trevelyn swallowed his retort and strode forward. The first lesson drummed into him when he joined Her Majesty’s corps of intelligence officers was to listen more than he spoke. He might learn a wealth of information if he simply let his subject talk. The duchess had obviously mistaken him for someone seeking employment. Once she realized her error, she’d be embarrassed enough to tell him anything.
Even where to find the elusive Mr. Beddington.
She eyed him carefully, walking a slow half-circle around him. Finally she stopped and pinned him with a direct gaze. Her eyes were a deep, moss green and a faint streak of blue chalk was smudged near her temple. The scent of oleander, mingled with oil paint, wafted about her. He inhaled her sweet fragrance, surprised to find his soft palate aching for him to plant a kiss on the chalk smudge.
She shook her head. “No, I’m afraid you won’t do at all.”
Trev blinked in surprise. Women usually found him most agreeable. “An’ it not be too forward to ask, in what manner do I disappoint Your Grace?”
“The fault is not yours. I shall have to speak to Mr. Phelps about this. I specifically requested blond curls and a soft, cherubic face for my Eros. While there is a hint of a wave in your hair, the color is definitely chestnut and the planes and angles of your face are far too jarring to belong to the god of love. With those brooding dark eyes and strong jaw line, you’re much more a god of…”
She stopped and her eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment as if she were seeing something other than him. One of her brows arched.
“There’s nothing else for it,” the duchess said. “You shall be Mars, my god of war.”
“I’ve been called many things, Your Grace. A god of anything was never one of them.” He inclined his head slightly. “I’m honored.”
“You will be,” she said with certainty. “When I’m finished, your face and form will be immortal. Now then. Let’s begin, shall we? The dressing room is through that door. There’s a robe in there for you. Remove your clothing–all of it, if you please–and return in the robe. Pray be quick about it. The sun waits for no one.”
And neither evidently did the Duchess of Southwycke. She wanted him naked as God made him, did she? Trevelyn never expected to have to pose as a figure model to serve his Queen, but he’d done far more difficult things for the sake of Victoria Regina. Besides, when a lady asks so prettily for a gentleman to disrobe, how could he in good conscience refuse?
Especially when the lady is a well-favored, widowed duchess, Trevelyn decided. No marriage trap here, even if the session ends in something more involved than etchings.
He might have thought better of it if the duchess had been a wrinkled old hag, but a leisurely morning spent unclothed in the company of a lovely woman would be far more interesting than the quick interview he’d expected. And if all went well, the job would certainly provide him with an opportunity to spend enough time with her to glean all the information he sought, probably without her ever knowing his true business.
He squared his shoulders and decided to play the hand dealt him. Trevelyn headed for the dressing room, whistling Rule Britannia between his teeth.
The things one does for one’s Queen and country…