Excerpt from Captives of the Night
Paris, March 1828
“I don't want to meet him." Leila jerked her arm from her husband's grasp. "I have a painting to finish, and no time to make idle chitchat with another degenerate aristocrat while you get drunk."
Francis shrugged. "Surely Madame Vraisses' portrait can wait a few minutes. The Comte d'Esmond is perishing to meet you, my precious. He admires your work." He took her hand. "Come, don't be cross. Only ten minutes. Then you can run away and hide in your studio."
She stared coldly at the hand grasping hers. With a short laugh, Francis withdrew it.
Turning away from his dissolute face, she moved to the hall mirror—and frowned at her reflection. She had been planning to work in the studio, which meant that her thick, gold-streaked hair was merely dragged back from her face and tied behind with a ragged ribbon.
"If you want me to make a good impression, I'd better tidy myself," she said. But when she started toward the stairs, Francis blocked her way.
"You're beautiful," he said. "You don't need to tidy anything. I like you mussed."
"Because you're thoroughly undiscriminating."
"No, because it makes you look like what you are. Tempestuous. Passionate." His voice was taunting. His gaze trailed over her ample bosom to linger on her—regrettably—equally lavish hips. "One of these nights—maybe tonight, my love—I'll remind you."
She crushed a surge of revulsion and a fear she told herself was irrational. She hadn't let him touch her in years. The last time he'd tried to wrestle her into an embrace, she'd broken his favorite oriental urn over his head. She would fight him to the death—and he knew it—rather than submit, ever again, to the body he'd shared with countless women, and to the humiliation he called lovemaking.
"You wouldn't live to tell of it." Pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear, she gave him a cold smile. "Do you know, Francis, how sympathetic French juries are to any reasonably attractive murderess?"
He only grinned. "What a hard creature you've turned out. And such a sweet kitten you were once. But you're hard to everyone, aren't you? If they get in your way, you walk over them. Best that way, I agree. Still, it's a pity. You're such a lovely baggage." He leaned toward her.
The door knocker sounded.
With an oath, Francis drew back. Shoving a loose hairpin back into place, Leila hurried to the parlor, her husband close behind. By the time their visitor was announced, they were perfectly composed, the model of a proper British couple: Leila, her posture straight, upon a chair, with Francis standing dutifully at her side.
Their guest was ushered in.
And Leila forgot everything, including breathing.
The Comte d'Esmond was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. In real life, that is. She'd encountered his like in paintings, but even Botticelli would have wept to behold such a model.
Greetings were exchanged over her head, whose internal mechanisms had temporarily ceased functioning.
Francis's nudge brought her back to the moment. Leila numbly offered her hand. "Monsieur."
The count bowed low over her hand. His lips brushed her knuckles.
His hair was pale, silken gold, a fraction longer than fashion decreed.
He also held her hand rather longer than etiquette decreed—long enough to draw her gaze to his and rivet all her consciousness there.
His eyes were deep sapphire blue, burningly intense. He released her hand, but not her gaze. "This is the greatest of honors, Madame Beaumont. I saw your work in Russia—a portrait of the Princess Lieven's cousin. I tried to purchase it, but the owner knew what he had, and would not sell. 'You must go to Paris,' he told me, 'and get one of your own.' And so I have come."
"From Russia?" Leila resisted the urge to press her hand to her pounding heart. Good grief. He'd come all the way from Russia—this man who probably couldn't cross a street in St. Petersburg without having to fight off a hundred desperate painters. Artists would sell their firstborn for a chance to paint this face. "Not merely for a portrait, surely."
His sensuous mouth eased into a lazy smile. "Ah, well, I had some business in Paris. You must not think it is mere vanity which brings me. Yet it is only human nature to wish for permanence. One seeks out the artist as one might seek out the gods, and all to the same purpose: immortality."
"How true," said Francis. "At this very moment, we are all slowly decaying. One moment, the mirror reflects a well-looking man in his prime. In the next, he's a mottled old toad."
Leila was aware of the faint antagonism in her husband's voice, but it was the count who held her attention. She saw something flash in his fiercely blue eyes, and that brief glitter changed not only his face, but the atmosphere of the room itself. For one queer instant the face of an angel became its opposite, his soft chuckle the Devil's own laughter.
"And in the next moment," Esmond said, releasing Leila's gaze to turn to Francis, "he's a banquet for worms."
He was still smiling, his eyes genuinely amused, the devilish expression utterly vanished. Yet the tension in the room increased another notch.
"Even portraits can't last forever," she said. "Since few materials are permanently stable, there's bound to be decay."
"There are paintings in Egyptian tombs, thousands of years old," he said. "But it hardly matters. We shall not have the opportunity to discover how many centuries your works endure. For us, it is the present that matters, and I hope, Madame, you will find time in this so-fleeting present to accommodate me."
"I'm afraid you'll want some patience," Francis said as he moved to the table bearing a tray of decanters. "Leila is in the process of completing one commission, and she's engaged for two more."
"I am known for my patience," the count answered. "The tsar declared me the most patient man he'd ever met."
There was a clink of crystal striking crystal and a pause before Francis responded. "You travel in exalted circles, monsieur. An intimate of Tsar Nicholas, are you?"
"We spoke on occasion. That is not intimacy." The potent blue gaze settled again upon Leila. "My definition of intimacy is most precise and particular."
The room's temperature seemed to be climbing rapidly. Leila decided it was time to leave, whether her allotted ten minutes had passed or not. As the count accepted a wineglass from Francis, she rose. "I had better get back to work," she said.
"Certainly, my love," said Francis. "I'm sure the count understands."
"I understand, and yet I must regret the loss." This time Esmond's intent blue gaze swept her from head to toe.
Leila had endured far too many such surveys to mistake the meaning. For the first time, however, she felt that meaning in every muscle of her body. Worse, she felt the pull of attraction, dragging at her will.
But she reacted outwardly in the usual way, her countenance becoming more frigidly polite, her posture more arrogantly defiant. "Unfortunately, Madame Vraisses will regret even more the delay of her portrait," she said. "And she is one of the least patient women in the world."
"And you, I suspect, are another." He stepped closer, making her pulse race. He was taller and more powerfully built than she'd thought at first. "You have the eyes of a tigress, Madame. Most unusual—and I do not mean the golden color alone. But you are an artist, and so you see more than others can."
"I do believe my wife sees plainly enough that you're flirting with her," said Francis, moving to her side.
"But of course. What other polite homage may a man pay another man's wife? You are not offended, I hope." The count treated Francis to an expression of limpid innocence.
"No one is in the least offended," Leila said briskly. "We may be English, but we have lived in Paris for nearly nine years. Still, I am a working woman, monsieur—"
"Esmond," he corrected.
"Monsieur," she said firmly. "And so, I must excuse myself and return to work." She did not offer her hand this time. Instead, she swept him her haughtiest curtsy.
He answered with a graceful bow.
As she headed for the door a tightly smiling Francis hurried to open for her, Esmond's voice came from behind her. "Until next we meet, Madame Beaumont," he said softly.
Something echoed in the back of her mind, making her pause on the threshold. A memory. A voice. But no. If she'd met him before, she would have remembered. Such a man would be impossible to forget. She gave the faintest of nods and continued on.