Excerpt from Vixen in Velvet
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 Athenæum, 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 brush stroke, 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.
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.”
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 customers.
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 curtsey 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 an vivid blue that put sapphires and Tuscan skies to shame—and her plump mouth fall open slightly.
“Now you’ve done it,” he said under his breath. “Everybody’s staring.”
No exaggeration. Everybody in view had stopped whatever they were doing or saying to gape. Who could blame them? Gorgeous redheads didn’t drop into a fellow’s arms every day.
The commotion was drawing in people from the other rooms.
This day was turning out infinitely less boring than he’d expected.
Swanton thrust through his crowd of worshippers—treading on a few toes in the process—to hurry toward them. The worshippers followed. Even Lisburne’s cousins, Clara and Gladys Fairfax, tagged along, though neither looked especially worshipful or even enthusiastic.
“Great Zeus, what’s happened?” Swanton demanded.
“The lady fainted,” Lisburne said.
He knew that a number of people had seen the dressmaker trip—those, that is, who could tear their gazes from Swanton. Lisburne glanced about, lazily inviting any witnesses to contradict him. None did so. Even those blackguards Meffat and Theaker held their tongues for once.
True, Lady Gladys Fairfax did harrumph, but no one ever paid attention to her—not, that is, unless they wanted to work themselves into a murderous rage. Though she, too, had only very recently returned to London after some years’ absence, no one could have forgotten her, much in the way that no one forgot the plague, for instance, or the Great Fire, or a bout of hydrophobia.
“Merci,” Miss Noirot said in an undertone. Lisburne didn’t so much hear it as feel it, in the general environs of his chest.
“Je vous en prie,” he replied.
“It was only a momentary dizziness,” she said more audibly. “You may put me down now, my lord.”
“Are you quite sure, madame?” Swanton said. “You’re flushed, and no wonder. This infernal heat. Not a breath of a breeze this day.” He looked up at the skylight. Everybody else did, too. “And here’s the sun, blasting down on us, as though it made a wrong turn on its way to the Sahara Desert. Would somebody be so good as to fetch Madame a glass of water?”
Madame? Then Lisburne remembered the elegant trade card. One generally referred to a modiste, especially the expensive sort, as Madame, regardless of her marital status.
And Swanton knew this particular Madame. He’d never said a word, the sneak. But no, sneakiness wasn’t in character. More than likely, some poetic ecstasy had taken possession of him and he simply forgot until he saw her again. Typical.
Swanton’s father had died young at Waterloo, and Lisburne’s father had taken over the paternal role. That made Lisburne the protective elder brother, a position he retained on account of Swanton being Swanton.
“My lord, you’re too kind,” she said. “But I don’t require water. I’m quite well. It was only a moment’s faintness. Lord Lisburne, if you’d be so good as to let me down.”
She squirmed a little in Lisburne’s arms. That was fun.
Being a male in rude good health, all parts in prime working order, he wasn’t eager to let go of her. Still, since it had to be done, he made the most of it, easing her down with the greatest care, letting her body inch down along his, and not releasing her until a long, pulsing moment after her feet touched the floor.
She closed her eyes and said something under her breath, then opened them again and produced a smile, which she aimed straight at him. The smile was as dazzling as her eyes. The combined effect made him feel a little dizzy.
“Madame, if you feel strong enough, would you allow me to present my friends?” Swanton said. “I know they’re all clamoring to meet you.”
The gentlemen, beyond a doubt. They’d be wild to be made known to any attractive woman, especially in the present circumstances, when it was nigh impossible to get any attention from the lot swarming about Swanton.
But the ladies? Wishing to be introduced to a shopkeeper?
Perhaps not out of the question in this case, Lisburne decided. The three Noirot sisters had made themselves famous. He’d heard of them on the Continent recently. Their work, it was said, rivaled that of the celebrated Victorine of Paris, who required even queens to make appointments and attend her at her place of business.
Lisburne watched the dazzling gaze and smile sweep over the assembled audience.
“You’re too kind, my lord,” she said. “But I’ve disturbed everybody sufficiently today. The ladies will know where to find me: around the corner, at No. 56 St. James’s Street. And the ladies, as you know, are my primary concern.”
At the end of the speech, she shot a glance at somebody in the crowd. Cousin Clara? Then Madame curtseyed and started away.
The others turned away, the women first. Swanton resumed poeticizing or romanticizing or whatever he was doing, and they all moved on to Veronese’s Between Virtue and Vice.
Lisburne, however, watched Miss Noirot’s departure. She seemed not altogether steady on her feet, not quite so effortlessly graceful as before. At the top of the stairs, she took hold of the railing and winced.
Leonie was not allowed to make a quiet escape.
She heard the Marquess of Lisburne coming behind her. She knew who it was without looking. This was probably because he’d made her so keenly attuned to him, thanks to the extremely improper way he’d set her on her feet a moment ago. She was still vibrating.
Or perhaps he sent some sort of pulsation across the room, in the way certain gods had been believed to herald their arrival with strange lights or magical sounds or divine scent.
“You seem to be in pain,” he said. “May I assist you?”
“I was hoping to slink off quietly,” she said.
“No difficulty there. Everybody else is hovering about my cousin. He’s spouting about Virtue and Vice, and they all believe he’s saying something.” While he spoke, he took possession of her left arm and arranged it around his neck. He brought his arm round her waist.
She caught her breath.
“It must hurt like the devil,” he said. “On second thought, I’d better check your ankle before we proceed. It might be more damaged than we think.”
If he touched her ankle she would faint, and not necessarily for medical reasons.
“I only turned it,” she said. “If I’d done worse, I’d be sitting on the step, sobbing with as much mortification as pain.”
“I can carry you,” he said.
“No,” she said, and added belatedly, “thank you.”
They proceeded down the stairs slowly. She did sums in her head to distract her from the warmth of the big body supporting hers. It wasn’t easy. She had stared too long at the Botticelli, and her mind was making pictures of the muscular arms and torso with no elegant covering whatsoever.
By the time they reached the first landing, her usually well-ordered brain was wandering into strange byways and taking excessive notice of physical sensations.
She made herself speak. “I can only hope that people assume I was dazzled by my brief encounter with Lord Swanton,” she said.
“That’s what I’ll tell them, if you like,” he said. “But I received the impression you knew each other.”
“Paris,” she said. “Ages ago.”
“It can’t be a very long age,” he said. “You’re somewhat damaged but not quite decrepit.”
“It was his first visit to Paris,” she said.
“More than five years ago, then,” he said.
When Leonie was nearly sixteen, happy in her work and her family and especially her beautiful infant niece, and reveling in the success of Emmeline, Cousin Emma’s splendid dressmaking shop.
Before the world fell apart.
“Lord Swanton came to my cousin’s shop to buy a gift for his mother,” she said. “He was sweet-tempered and courteous. In Paris, gentlemen often mistook a dressmaker’s shop for a brothel.”
Those who persisted in the mistake tended to have unfortunate accidents.
One of the first rules Leonie had ever learned was, Men only want one thing. Cousin Emma had taught her young charges as much about defending themselves against encroaching men as she had about dressmaking. She had not, however, taught her girls anything about dealing with Roman gods. It was trickier than one would think to maintain a businesslike attitude, even though Leonie was the most businesslike of the three sisters. That wasn’t saying much, when you came down to it. Marcelline and Sophy had always had their heads in the clouds: dreamers and schemers and typical Noirots, typical DeLuceys.
He smelled so clean, like the air after rain. How did he do that? Was it scent? A miraculous new soap?
By the time they reached the ground floor, the throbbing in her ankle seemed to have lessened somewhat.
“I think I can make do with your arm,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“My ankle is better,” she said. “I needn’t lean on you quite so much.”
The fact was, she didn’t have to lean at all, because he held her so firmly against him. She was aware of every inch of his muscled arm and—through all the layers of chemise, corset, dress, and pelerine—exactly where his fingers rested at the bottom of her rib cage.
She let go of his neck. He let go of her waist and offered his arm. She placed her gloved hand on his, and he grasped it as firmly as he’d grasped her waist.
She told herself this was hardly intimacy, compared to his holding her along the length of his body, but the fact was, no man had got this close to her in years. Still, that didn’t explain why she wanted to run away. She knew how to defend herself, did she not? She knew better than to let herself fall under the spell of a handsome face and form and low, seductive voice.
She couldn’t allow panic to rule. Her ankle was only marginally better. Without help, she’d have to limp back to the shop on a hot day. Though she had only a short distance to travel, the last bit was uphill. By the time she got there, she’d have worsened the injury and wouldn’t be fit for anything.
Business first, last, and always. As they passed through the door and out into Pall Mall, she set her mind to calculating his net worth, reminded herself of imminent wives and/or mistresses, and beat down unwanted emotions with numbers, as she so often did. Her clumsiness might well have put off Lady Clara’s companion. This might be the only new business Leonie would attract today.
“You said something about business,” he said.
“I did?” Her heart raced. Was she speaking her thoughts aloud without realizing? Had she suffered a concussion without noticing?
“Before, when you hurried away to my cousin.”
“Oh, that,” she said. “Yes. Where Lord Swanton goes, one usually finds a large supply of young ladies. He’d mentioned to one of our customers his intention of visiting the British Institution this afternoon. It seemed a good opportunity to make the shop’s work known to those unfamiliar with it.”
“Nothing to do with his poetry, then.”
She shrugged, and paid for it with a twinge in her ankle. “I run a shop, my lord,” she said. “I lack the romantic sensibility.” She’d worked since childhood. The young women who worshipped Lord Swanton hadn’t lived in Paris during the chaos, misery, and destruction of the cholera. Grief, suffering, and death weren’t romantic to her.
“It stumps me, I’ll admit,” he said. “I don’t see what’s romantic about it. But then, neither do most men. The ailment seems to strike young women, with a few exceptions. Though she’s at the vulnerable age, Cousin Clara looked bored, I thought. My cousin Gladys looked sour-tempered, but that’s the way she usually looks, so it’s hard to tell whether she’s an idolater or not.”
“Cousin Gladys,” she said. “The young lady with Lady Clara?”
“Lady Gladys Fairfax,” he said. “Lord Boulsworth’s daughter. Clara’s great uncle, you know. The military hero. I’m not sure what’s lured Gladys back to London, though I do have an unnerving suspicion. I say, you’re not well, Miss Noirot.”
They’d reached the bottom of St. James’s Street, and the day’s extreme warmth, already prodigious in Pall Mall, now blasted at them on a hot wind, which carried as well the dust of vehicles, riders, and pedestrians. Leonie’s head ached at least as much as her ankle did. She was trying to remember when last she’d heard Lady Gladys Fairfax mentioned, but pain, heat, and confusion overwhelmed her brain.
“That does it,” he said. “I’m carrying you.”
He simply swooped down and did it, before she got the protest out, and then it was muffled against his neckcloth.
“Yes, everyone will stare,” he said. “Good advertising, don’t you think? Do you know, I do believe I’m getting the hang of this business thing.”