| My False Heart
Sonnet Books, November 1999
|Excerpt from the novel My False Heart|
In which Lord Rannoch Concocts a Ruse
Miss Stone withdrew to take the seat to the right of her easel and motioned him toward a chair opposite. Her blue eyes flicked up at him as she turned the page in a sketchbook then replaced it against the easel. "Now tell me, Mr. Roberts—what do you have in mind?"
Elliot swallowed hard. "I daresay that just . . . just the usual should suffice."
A faint smile played at Miss Stone’s lips as she fixed her gaze on him. They were very close, not more than six feet apart, and Elliot could see her eyes narrow perceptively. "Just the usual? Nothing exotic? Symbolic? Abstract?"
She was toying with him, and Elliot felt exceedingly stupid. Big and stupid, like the raw-boned Scottish boy he’d been ten years ago. Stiffly, he inclined his head. "I beg your pardon, ma’am. I fear have no notion—"
Miss Stone did laugh then, a rich, musical laugh that made Elliot think, oddly enough, of clean, cool water flowing through green lowland braes. "Very well, Mr. Roberts. I shan’t torture you. After all, your heart is apparently in the right place, since this is to be a gift for your fiancée—?"
"My . . . fiancée?"
Miss Stone frowned. "Indeed, I have that much aright, do I not? I recollect that is what Mr. Weyden said in his letter—that this portrait is a betrothal gift?"
Elliot hedged, artfully avoiding her question. "I would like for you to paint my portrait, Miss Stone, in keeping with your tastes. Certainly, I have no preconceived notion as to how such a thing ought to be done."
"And as to your fiancée’s preference?"
"I rather doubt, Miss Stone, that any woman’s judgement in such things—" Elliot let his gaze drift over the beautiful works which hung from the walls, "—could equal yours."
His hostess nodded curtly. "Very well," she murmured. "And Mr. Weyden has informed you of the price of this commission?" Miss Stone, her head tilted to one side, had begun to make light pencil marks upon the sketchpad.
"I—whatever your charge, I am willing to pay it."
Miss Stone’s brows arched elegantly at that. "Indeed? But you should understand that there are a dozen competent portrait artists conveniently located within two miles of the City of London who will do this work for half of what I shall ask—"
"That doesn’t signify," Elliot interrupted. "I want you to do it, and besides, I rather enjoyed my ride in the country."
"How unusual to enjoy riding in a drenching rain," murmured Evangeline Stone. "I fear you shall be inconvenienced by several such rides before this portrait is completed."
Elliot paused. He had not considered such a thing. In fact, he hadn’t considered anything at all. And regrettably, he was not the least put off by the thought of spending a great deal of time sequestered with Evangeline Stone in her studio. Good Lord—what was he doing here? In the middle of nowhere, pretending to be someone he was not, and watching this breathtaking woman sketch his likeness? It was insane.
But Elliot could bring himself to neither explain, apologize, leave, nor to do any of the things he ought to have done long since. He felt transfixed by—no, drawn to this place. And to this woman. Abjectly, he raised his eyes to meet her pointed gaze. "I just want you to paint my portrait," he answered honestly, his voice soft.
Miss Stone made no answer, but she began to sketch in earnest, her hand sliding back and forth across the paper in bold, sweeping motions. As she worked, her eyes flicked back and forth from the paper to his face, over and over again. Twice, Miss Stone stopped suddenly to focus on his eyes, holding his gaze in long, timeless moments, her hand frozen elegantly in mid-stroke.
Elliot sat, stoically, watching her work. It was fascinating. No, mesmerizing. He wondered what she saw when she stared into his eyes so boldly. What was she sketching? What did she see when she looked at him?
"I am merely studying your face at present," she commented, as if in answer to his unspoken queries. "I prefer to begin with a few sketches to familiarize myself with your bones; the way the planes and angles catch the light. Turn your head, please, Mr. Roberts. Just slightly to the left—yes, that’s it. Thank you." She resumed her work and continued thus for another quarter-hour or longer.
Elliot, still transfixed, eventually lost track of time. He was, therefore, surprised to hear himself blurt out a question into the protracted silence of the studio. "How long have you been a portrait painter, Miss Stone?"
The soft, whisking of her pencil stopped abruptly.
"I’m sorry," he belatedly added. "I should have said an artist. How long have you been an artist?"
"Portrait painter will suffice, Mr. Roberts. You need not fear insulting me. I am well aware that most portraits, unlike landscapes for example, do not carry great artistic weight at present. Nonetheless, I take great pride in all my work."
"And you do other types of work, do you not?" His gaze floated over the room’s north wall, the upper half of which was covered in landscapes.
"Not all of those are mine, Mr. Roberts. But yes, I do the occasional landscape. However, society’s obsession with immortality insures that the business of portrait work is both consistent and lucrative."
"You make no apologies. I rather like that."
"I cannot afford to," she replied briskly, ripping away one sheet of paper and laying it carefully to one side. Elliot was disappointed to see that she placed it face down. "And to answer your question, I have been painting all my life, but only in the last seven years have I built my—my reputation. Such as it may be," she added.
"Forgive me, Miss Stone, but you have a lovely accent—almost French. Did you study abroad?"
"Yes," she said simply, but Elliot saw that her expression had begun to soften.
"What a wonderful opportunity for—for . . . "
"For a female?" Her gaze caught his again and Elliot could see a flash of blue fire. "I am Flemish, Mr. Roberts. My father was an English artist who met my mother in the studios of Brugge. Since neither his work nor his bride were acceptable to his family, my parents found life abroad much more to their liking."
"Ah, I see. And how long have you been in England?"
"Since my mother’s death, almost ten years now."
"And your father?"
"My father passed away five years ago."
"I am sorry, Miss Stone. Have you no husband, no family, save your brother?"
Evangeline Stone’s cool gaze came to rest squarely on his face and Elliot realized that he had overstepped himself. Badly. What had possessed him to ask such impertinent questions? Belatedly, he tried to apologize but Miss Stone cut him off with a toss of her hand.
"Pray do not regard it, Mr. Roberts. I can hear the kindness in your voice. I have also a younger sister, Nicolette, and a cousin, Frederica. Michael is eleven."
"Surely you cannot be responsible for them?" he asked incredulously.
"Most assuredly, sir, I am. Fortunately, I have assistance. Peter Weyden was my father’s business partner for many years, and he now serves us in many ways; as a sort of uncle, a trustee, and a guardian. He helps oversee our investments, he supervises our estate manager, and he screens my commissions; all other matters he leaves to me." Her face was fixed in a tight smile. "We are in good hands, Mr. Roberts. And far from destitute, I can assure you."
"I’m sorry, Miss Stone. I certainly never meant to imply—"
"I’m quite sure, sir, that you did not. Pray lift your chin just slightly please. Yes, that is—ah, perfect." She made three or four quick marks then set down her pencil. "Mr. Roberts, the day grows quite late, and the light is fading. We can do no more today, I am afraid."
Elliot suppressed a wave of disappointment. "I see."
"When might it be convenient for you to return?"
Elliot opened his mouth to answer but his reply was forestalled by yet another commotion in the hall. Suddenly the door burst inward and a pretty, round-figured woman attired in a gown of brilliant purple sailed through the door. A boy and a girl, whom Elliot had spied earlier among the crowd in the drawing room, followed hard on her heels.
"Evie, my darling! You shall never guess who—" She stopped short as she spied Elliot from across the room. "Oh, my dear! Pray forgive me, for I did not know that Mr. Hart had finally come!"
Elliot froze. Mr. Hart. Not Mr. Roberts. How humiliating to have his silly ruse found out. With a sigh of regret, Elliot forced himself to rise and make a weak bow to the lady.