London, Early June 1831.
"Mr. Cunningham, as I've already made clear, I have no interest whatever in painting a portrait of Lord Tregonning's daughter." Gerrard Reginald Debbington lounged elegantly in an armchair in the smoking room of his select gentleman's club. Concealing his mounting frustration, he held Lord Tregonning's agent's gaze. "I agreed to this meeting in the hope that Lord Tregonning, having been informed of my refusal of the commission to paint the portrait, had agreed to allow me access to the Hellebore Hall gardens."
He was, after all, the ton's foremost landscape painter; Lord Tregonning's famous gardens were long overdue a visit from such as he.
Cunningham blanched. Clearing his throat, he glanced down at the papers spread on the small table between them.
Around them, a discreet hum held sway; Gerrard was peripherally aware of occasional glances thrown their way. Other members saw him, but on noticing Cunningham, they checked; recognizing that business was being conducted, they refrained from intruding.
Cunningham was in his mid-twenties, some years younger than Gerrard's twenty-nine. Attired in sober, rusty black over serviceable linen and a biscuit-colored waistcoat, his round face, faint frown and the intent attention he gave to his papers marked him clearly as someone's business agent.
By the time Cunningham deigned to speak, Gerrard had a sketch assembled in his head, titled "Business agent at work."
"Lord Tregonning has instructed me to convey that while he appreciates your reservations over committing to a portrait of a subject you haven't yet seen, such reservations only strengthen his conviction that you are indeed the painter he needs for this work. His lordship fully comprehends that you will paint his daughter as you see her, without any obfuscation. That is precisely what he wishes-he wants the portrait to be a faithful rendition, to accurately portray Miss Tregonning as she truly is."
Gerrard's lips thinned; this was going nowhere.
Without looking up, Cunningham went on, "In addition to the fee offered, you may take as many months short of a year as you deem necessary to complete the portrait, and over that time you will have unfettered access and unrestricted permission to sketch and paint the gardens of Hellebore Hall. Should you wish, you may bring a friend or companion; you would both be accommodated at Hellebore Hall for the duration of your stay."
Gerrard stifled his exasperation. He hadn't needed to hear that offer again, no matter how sweetly laced; he'd turned it down two weeks ago, when Cunningham had first sought him out.
Stirring, he caught Cunningham's eye. "Your employer misunderstands - I do not, indeed, have never painted on commission. Painting is an abiding interest, one I'm wealthy enough to indulge. Painting portraits, however, is no more than an incidental pastime, successful perhaps, but not in the main of serious attraction to me, to my painterly soul if you will."
Not strictly true, but in the present circumstance, apt enough. "While I would be delighted to have the opportunity to paint the Hellebore Hall gardens, not even that is sufficient incentive to tempt me to agree to a portrait I have no inclination, or need, to paint."
Cunningham held his gaze. He drew in a tight breath, glanced briefly down, then looked up again, his gaze fixing over Gerrard's left shoulder. "His lordship instructed me to inform you that this will be his final offer...and that should you refuse it, he will be forced to find some other painter to undertake the portrait, and that other painter will be accorded the same license in respect of the gardens as was offered to you. Subsequently, Lord Tregonning will ensure that during his lifetime and that of his immediate heirs, no other artist will be allowed access to the gardens of Hellebore Hall."
Suppressing his reaction, remaining seated, took all Gerrard's considerable willpower. What the devil was Tregonning about, resorting to what amounted to extortion....
He looked away, unseeing.
One thing was clear. Lord Tregonning was bound and determined to have him paint his daughter.
Leaning his elbow on the chair arm, his clenched jaw on his fist, fixing his gaze across the room he searched for some acceptable way out of the well-baited trap. None immediately leapt to mind; his violent antipathy to allowing some portrait panderer to be the only artist to gain access to the fabulous landscapes said to surround Hellebore Hall was clouding his perception.
He looked at Cunningham. "I need to consider his lordship's proposal more carefully."
Given the clipped accents that had infected his speech, he wasn't surprised that Cunningham kept his expression carefully neutral. The agent nodded once. "Yes, of course. How long...?"
"Twenty-four hours." If he let such a subject torture him for any longer, unresolved, he'd go insane. He rose and extended his hand. "You're at the Cumberland, I believe?"
Hurriedly gathering his papers, Cunningham stood and grasped his hand. "Yes. Ah...I'll wait to hear from you."
Gerrard nodded curtly. He remained by the chair until Cunningham had left, then stirred and followed him out.
He walked the parks of the capital - St. James, Green Park, then into Hyde Park. A poor choice; his boots had barely touched the lawn when he was hailed by Lady Swaledale, eager to introduce him to her daughter and her niece. A bevy of matrons with bright-eyed damsels in tow leaned from their carriages, hoping to catch his attention; others hovered, parading along the grassed verge.
Spotting his aunt, Minnie, Lady Bellamy, in her carriage drawn up by the side of the Avenue, he excused himself to a particularly clinging fond mama on the grounds of paying his respects. The instant he reached the carriage, he grasped Minnie's hand and with an extravagant gesture, kissed it. "I'm throwing myself on your mercy - save me," he implored.
Minnie chortled. She patted his hand and leaned down to offer her lined cheek, which he dutifully bussed. "If you'd just make your choice, dear, they'd go off and hunt someone else."
"Not, of course, that we want you to rush your choice." Timms, Minnie's companion, leaned forward to give Gerrard her hand. "But while you remain unattached, you must expect to be pursued."
Gerrard assumed an expression of mock-dismay. "Et tu, Timms?"
Timms snorted. She'd grown more gaunt with the years, but there was nothing wrong with her mind.
Or with Minnie's; she regarded him shrewdly, if affectionately. "Endowed as you are with an excellent estate, and the business interests the Cynsters have sponsored you into, let alone being my principal heir, there's no getting away from it, m'boy - if you'd been as ugly as sin you might have given them pause, but as you are, celebrated gentleman painter that you've become, you're in a fair way to being a matchmaking mama's fondest dream."
Gerrard looked his disgust. "I'm not at all sure marriage, at least in the near future, is in my best interests."
That was his current stance, although not one he'd to date shared with anyone else.
"Oh?" Minnie opened her eyes wide. Serious for a moment, she searched his face, then her soft smile returned. "I wouldn't worry your head with such considerations, dear." She patted his hand. "When the right lady appears, it'll all be very plain."
Timms nodded sagely. "Indeed. No sense imagining it'll be up to you to decide."
Far from reassuring him, their words elicited a twinge of alarm. He hid it behind a smile. Sighting a group of friends, he seized the opportunity to retreat; farewelling Minnie and Timms, he strolled across the lawn.
The four gentlemen hailed him. All were known to him; all, like him, were of marriageable age and condition. They were standing a little apart, surveying the field.
"The Curtiss chit's quite fetching, ain't she?" Philip Montogomery raised his glass the better to observe the beauty parading with her two sisters.
"If you can stand the giggling," Elmore Standish replied. "For my money, the Etherington girl's more the ticket."
Gerrard half listened to their commentary; he was one of them in the social sense, yet his unconventional hobby set him apart. It had opened his eyes to a truth his peers had yet to see.
He exchanged a few comments, wrily cynical, then walked on, into the relative safety of Kensington Gardens. At that hour, the gravel walks were busy with nannies and nursemaids watching over their charges as they romped on the lawns. Few gentlemen strolled there; ladies of the ton rarely ventured that way.
He'd intended refocusing on Lord Tregonning's outrageous proposition; instead, the gay shrieks of the youngsters distracted him, sending his mind down a quite different track.
Family. Children. The next generation. A wife. A successful marriage.
All were elements he assumed one day he'd have; they still spoke to something in him, still meant something to him. They were things he still desired. Yet ironically, while his painting, especially his portraits, had elevated him to a position where he could have his pick of the unattached ladies, the very talent that enabled him to create such striking art had opened his eyes, and left him wary.
Of taking a wife. Of marriage. Most especially of love.
It wasn't a matter he was comfortable discussing; even thinking of love made him uneasy, as if doing so was somehow tempting fate. Yet what he'd seen and grappled with while painting his sister Patience and her husband, Vane Cynster, and later the other couples who'd sat for him, what he'd reacted to and striven to portray on canvas was so inherently powerful he'd have had to be blind not to comprehend the ability of that power to impact on his life. To affect him, to distract him. Perhaps to sap the creative energy he needed to give his works life.
If he surrendered to it.
If he ever fell in love, would he still be able to paint? Would falling in love, marrying for love, as his sister and so many others in his wider family had, be a wellspring of joy, or a creative disaster?
When painting, he poured all he was into the act, all his energies, all his passions; if he succumbed to love, would it drain him and impair his ability to paint? Was there even a connection - was the passion that fired love the same as that which fired his creative talent, or were the two totally separate?
He'd thought long and hard, but had found little comfort. Painting was an intrinsic part of him; every instinct he possessed violently recoiled from any act that might reduce his ability to paint.
So he'd recoiled from marriage. Stepped back. Regardless of Timms's view, he'd made the decision that for him, at least for the next several years, love was an emotion he'd do well to avoid; marriage, therefore, did not presently feature on his horizon.
That decision ought to have settled his mind. Instead, he remained restless, dissatisfied. Not yet at peace with his direction.
Regardless, he couldn't see any other sensible course.
Refocusing, he discovered he'd stopped; he stood staring at a group of children playing about the pond. His fingers itched, a familiar symptom of the craving for a pencil and sketch pad. He remained for several minutes, letting the vignettes of children at play sink into his visual memory, then moved on.
This time, he succeeded in turning his mind to Lord Tregonning's offer. To considering its pros and cons. Desires, instincts and the consequent impulses left him twisting in the wind, swinging first this way, then that. Returning to the bridge over the Serpentine, he halted and took stock.
In three hours he'd accomplished precisely nothing, beyond confirming how accurately Tregonning had read him. He couldn't discuss such a proposal with any fellow artist; his non-artist friends wouldn't comprehend how tempted yet torn he felt.
He needed to talk to someone who understood.
It was nearly five o'clock when he climbed the steps of Vane and Patience Cynster's house in Curzon Street. Patience was his older sister. His parents had died when he was young; Patience had been his surrogate parent for years. When she'd married Vane, Gerrard had found himself welcomed into the Cynster fold, treated as one of the family, as Vane's protégé. In becoming the man he now was, the influence of the Cynsters had been critical, a fact for which he was deeply grateful.
His father, Reggie, had been no satisfactory model; to the Cynsters, Gerrard owed not just his financial success, but also his elegance, his unshakable confidence, and that touch of hard-edged arrogance that among tonnish gentlemen set them, and him, apart.
In reply to his knock, Bradshaw, Vane's butler, opened the door; beaming, he assured him that Vane and Patience were indeed in and presently to be found in the back parlor.
Gerrard knew what that meant. Handing over his cane, he smiled and waved Bradshaw back. "I'll announce myself."
"Indeed, sir." Fighting a grin, Bradshaw bowed.
Gerrard heard the shrieks before he opened the parlor door. The instant he did, silence fell. Three heads jerked up, pinning him with accusatory stares - then his nephews and niece realized who'd dared to interrupt their playtime.
They came to life like demons. Uttering ear-splitting cries of "Uncle Gerrard!" they hurled themselves at him.
Laughing, he caught the eldest, Christopher, and dangled him upside down. Christopher shrieked with joy; laughing, Gregory jumped up and down, peering into his brother's upturned face. Therese joined in. After shaking Christopher thoroughly, Gerrard set him down and, growling like an ogre, spread his arms and swept the younger two up.
Juggling them, he walked to the chaise facing the fireplace.
From the armchair angled before the hearth, with her youngest son, Martin, bobbing on her knees, Patience smiled indulgently up at him.
His broad shoulders propped against the side of Patience's chair, Vane grinned; he'd been wrestling with the three older children when Gerrard had walked in. "What brings you our way? Surely not the chance to have your hair pulled by our resident monsters."
Disengaging Gregory's and Therese's death-grips on his previously neat locks, Gerrard fleetingly returned the grin. "Oh, I don't know." Setting the pair on the chaise, he dropped down to sit between them. He looked from one to the other. "There's a certain something about them, don't you think?"
The children crowed, and seized the opening to bombard him with tales of their recent exploits. He listened, as always drawn in by their innocent, untarnished view of mundane events. Eventually, they tired. The boys slumped on either side of him; Therese yawned, slipped from the chaise and crawled into her father's lap.
Vane dropped a kiss on her soft curls and settled her, then looked at Gerrard. "So what is it? There's obviously something."
Leaning back, Gerrard told them of Lord Tregonning's offer.
"So you see, I'm trapped. I absolutely definitely don't want to do the portrait - his daughter will doubtless prove to be a typical, spoilt featherbrain, worse, one who's used to ruling as queen in her rustic territory. There'll be nothing there for me to paint beyond vacuous selfinterest."
"She might not be that bad," Patience said.
"There's every likelihood she'll be even worse." He sighed deeply. "I rue the day I allowed those portraits of the twins to be shown."
From his earliest years, he'd been a landscape artist. He still was - it was his first and deepest calling - but ten years ago, purely out of curiosity, he'd tried his hand at painting portraits of couples. Vane and Patience had been the first he'd asked to sit for him; that painting hung above the drawing room fireplace in their house in Kent, safely private. He'd subsequently painted other couples, all family or connections, but the resulting paintings had always graced private rooms. Yet his hankering for challenge had lured him on; after painting portraits of each couple, he'd decided to paint matching portraits of the Cynster twins, Amanda, now Countess of Dexter, and Amelia, Viscountess Calverton, each holding their firstborn sons.
Intended to be hung in their country homes, those of the ton who saw the portraits while they'd still been in London had set up such a clamor the custodians of the Royal Academy had begged, literally begged him to allow the works to be shown in the annual portrait exhibition. The attention had been sweet; he'd allowed himself to be persuaded.
And had lived to regret it.
Vane regarded him with amused affection. "So hard to be such a success."
Gerrard snorted. "I should appoint you my agent and let you deal with the horde of matrons each of whom are ineradicably convinced that their daughter is the perfect subject for my next great portrait."
Patience jigged Martin on her knee. "It is just one portrait."
Gerrard shook his head. "That's not how it works. It's one of those great risks - choosing a subject. At present, my reputation is solid and intact. One truly ghastly portrait could incalculably damage it. Regardless, I refuse to pander to the expectations of my subjects, or their parents. I paint what I see, which means Lord Tregonning and his darling daughter are very likely to be disappointed."
The children were growing restless. Patience rose as their nurse looked in; she beckoned to the matronly woman and glanced at the children. "It's time for your tea. Bread pudding tonight, don't forget."
Gerrard hid a wry smile as the allure of bread pudding trumped the attraction of remaining with him. Both boys slid to the ground, reciting polite farewells. Therese, helped up out of her father's lap, blew him a kiss, then ran to beat her brothers out of the door.
Patience handed the baby over, then shut the door on her departing brood and returned to her chair. "So why are you so agonized? Simply decline his lordship's invitation."
"That's just it." Gerrard raked his fingers through his hair. "If I decline, I not only lose all chance of painting the famous Garden of Night myself, but ensure that the only painter who'll get the chance in the next fifty years will be some portrait dabbler who probably won't even recognize what he's looking at."
"Which will be what?" Vane rose, stretched, then moved to another chair. "What is it about these gardens that makes them so special?"
"The gardens of Hellebore Hall in Cornwall were originally designed in 1710." Gerrard had searched out the details after Cunningham had first called on him. "The area's unique-a narrow protected valley angled southwest that captures the weather in such a way that the most fantastic plants and trees that grow nowhere else in England thrive there.
"The house is situated at the head of the valley which runs all the way to the sea. The proposed designs were seen by many, and generated much excitement at the time. Subsequently, the gardens were created over some thirty-odd years, but the family turned reclusive. Very few people have seen the gardens complete." He glanced at Patience. "The few who did were enraptured. Landscape artists have been itching to paint the gardens of Hellebore Hall for decades. None have succeeded in gaining permission." His lips quirked. He glanced at Vane. "The valley and its gardens lie within a large private estate, and the cove is rocky and dangerous, so slipping in and sketching on the sly has never been a viable option."
"So every landscape painter in England - "
"And the Continent and even the Americas."
" - would jump at the opportunity to paint these gardens." Vane cocked his head. "Are you sure you want to pass up the chance?"
Gerrard let out an explosive breath. "No. That's my problem. Especially given the Garden of Night."
"Which is?" Patience asked.
"The gardens comprise multiple areas, each named for an ancient god or mythical being. There's a Garden of Hercules, which stands along one ridge and has lots of big, tall trees, and a Garden of Artemis, with topiary animals, and so on.
"One of the areas is the Garden of Venus. It contains a large number of aphrodisiacs and heavily perfumed species, many of which are night-blooming, and incorporates a grotto and a pool fed by the stream that runs through the valley. It's located at the valley's head, just below the house. Due to some quirk of nature, that particular area grew rampant. One lucky soul who saw it only a decade or so after planting described it as a gothic heaven - a dark landscape to eclipse all others. It became known as the Garden of Night."
He paused, then added, "In landscape artist's terms, painting the Garden of Night is akin to attaining the Holy Grail. It's there, but has for generations remained out of reach."
Vane grimaced. "Difficult choice."
Gerrard nodded. "Very much a damned if I do, and damned if I don't decision."
Patience looked from one to the other. "Actually, the decision's quite simple." She caught Gerrard's eye. "All you have to decide is whether you're willing to risk that your talent is up to the task of painting a reasonable portrait of this young lady, against the certainty of being able to paint your Holy Grail."
She tilted her head. "Put it another way - how much do you want to paint the Garden of Night? Enough to challenge yourself to creating a decent portrait of one young lady?"
Gerrard met her grey eyes, held her direct gaze. After a moment, he glanced at Vane. "Sisters."
* * *
Even after Patience's succinct reduction of the decision facing him, he might have refused, if it hadn't been for the dream. He spent the evening with Patience and Vane, idly chatting about other things; when he parted from Patience in the hall, she kissed his cheek and whispered, "You know what you want to do, so do it. Take the risk."
He'd smiled, patted her shoulder, then ambled home, wondering, examining the possibilties, but increasingly along the lines of how he might pull off a portrait of a vain flibbertigibbet without being overtly insulting.
Reaching his rooms in Duke Street, he climbed the stairs to his bedchamber. Compton, his gentlemen's gentleman, came hurrying up to divest him of his coat and bear it away to be brushed and accorded all proper respect. Gerrard grinned, undressed and fell into bed.
And dreamed of the Garden of Night.
He'd never seen it, yet it appeared so vivid, so enticing, so mesmerizingly dark. So full of that dramatic energy that as a painter he was most attuned to. There was danger and excitement, a hint of menace, and something even more profound, more elementally sinister lurking in its shadows.
It called to him. Whispered seductively.
He woke in the morning with the summons still fresh in his mind.
He didn't believe in portents.
Rising, donning a velvet robe over trousers and shirt, he went downstairs. Making major decisions on an empty stomach was never wise.
He'd barely made a start on ham and eggs when a rat-a-tat-tat knock fell on the front door. Recognizing the signal, he reached for the coffee pot and filled his cup - before the Honorable Barnaby Adair could drain the pot dry.
The parlor door flew open. "My heavens!" Barnaby, a tall, elegant, golden-haired figure sporting a dramatically hunted look, swept in. "May the saints preserve me from all doting mamas!" His gaze fell on the coffee pot. "Any left?"
Smiling, Gerrard waved at both pot and platters as Compton hurried in with an additional place setting. "Help yourself."
"Thank you - you're a savior." Barnaby sank into the chair beside Gerrard.
Gerrard eyed him with affectionate amusement. "And good morning to you. What's put you out? Did Lady Harrington's ball prove too exercising?"
"Not Harrington." Barnaby closed his eyes, savoring the coffee. "She's a decent enough sort." Opening his eyes, he considered the platters. "It was Lady Oglethorpe and her daughter Melissa."
"Ah!" Gerrard recalled the connection. "The old friend of your dear mama's who was hoping you'd oblige and escort her darling about town?"
"The same." Barnaby took a bite of toast. "You remember the story of the ugly duckling? Well, Melissa is that in reverse."
Barnaby and he were much of an age, of similar temperament and background, had similar likes and dislikes, and both favored an eccentric pastime. He couldn't remember how they'd first come to knock around town together, but over the last five years, they'd seen each other through various adventures, growing ever more comfortable in each other's company, and now unhesitatingly called on the other for any and all support.
"Nothing for it," Barnaby declared. "I shall have to flee the capital."
Gerrard grinned. "It can't be that bad."
"Yes, it can. I tell you, Lady Oglethorpe isn't looking to me just for escort duties. She has a gleam in her eye I mistrust, and if that wasn't bad enough, the dreadful Melissa clasped her hands to her bosom - not a bad bosom, but the rest is hopeless - and fervently stated that yours truly was her ideal, and that no gentleman in the ton could hold a candle to my magnificence." Barnaby grimaced horrendously. "Coming it a great deal too strong, as the pater would say - made me feel quite ill. And it's June - don't they know the hunting season's over?"
Gerrard regarded his friend thoughtfully. Barnaby was the third son of an earl, and had inherited a substantial estate from a maternal aunt; like Gerrard, he was a prime target for matrons with daughters to establish. While Gerrard could and did use his painting as an excuse to avoid the worst of the invitations, Barnaby's hobby of studying crime was a far less acceptable diversion.
"I suppose," Barnaby mused, "I could go to m'sister's, but I'm no longer sure she's not dangerous, too." His eyes narrowed. "If she invited the Oglethorpes to visit over summer..." He shuddered.
Gerrard leaned back and reached for his coffee cup. "If you're set on escaping the dreadful Melissa, you could come with me to Cornwall."
"Cornwall?" Barnaby blinked his blue eyes wide. "What's in Cornwall?"
Gerrard told him.
Barnaby perked up.
"Mind you," Gerrard warned, "there'll be at least one unmarried young lady present, and where there's one - "
"There's usually a pack." Barnaby nodded. "Nevertheless, I've handled all - comers to now - it's just Melissa, her mother and the family connection that have so demoralized me."
Said demoralization had clearly been transient; Barnaby fell to demolishing the last sausage, then he looked at Gerrard. "So, when do we leave?"
Gerrard met his eyes. Patience had been right, not that he'd ever tell her. "I'll write to Tregonning's agent today. I'll need to get in extra supplies, and make sure all else is in order here...shall we say the end of next week?"
"Excellent!" Barnaby raised his cup in a toast, drained it, then reached for the coffee pot. "I'm sure I can lie low until then."
* * *
Twelve days later, Gerrard tooled his curricle between a pair of worn stone gateposts bearing plaques proclaiming them the entrance to Hellebore Hall.
"It's certainly a long way from London." Relaxed on the seat beside him, Barnaby looked around, curious and mildly intrigued.
They'd set out from the capital four mornings before, and spelled Gerrard's matched grays over the distance, stopping at inns that caught their fancy each lunchtime and each evening.
The driveway, a continuation of the lane they'd taken off the road to St. Just and St. Mawes, was lined with old, large boled, thickly canopied trees. The fields on either side were screened by dense hedgerows. A sense of being enclosed in a living corridor, a shifting collage of browns and greens, was pervasive. Between the tops of the hedges and the overhanging branches, they caught tantalizing glimpses of the sea, sparkling silver under a cerulean sky. Ahead and to the right, the strip of sea was bounded by distant headlands, a medly of olive, purple and smoky grey in the early afternoon light.
Gerrard squinted against the glare. "By my reckoning, that stretch of water must be Carrick Roads. Falmouth ought to lie directly ahead."
Barnaby looked. "It's too far to make out the town, but there are certainly plenty of sails out there."
The land dipped; the lane followed, curving slowly south and west. They lost sight of Carrick Roads as the spur leading to St. Mawes intervened on their right, then the tree sentinels that had lined the lane abruptly ended. The curricle rattled on, into the sunshine.
They both caught their breath.
Before them lay one of the irregular inlets where an ancient valley had been drowned by the sea. To their right lay the St. Mawes arm of the Roseland peninsula, solid protection from any cold north wind; to their left, the rougher heathland of the southern arm rose, cutting off any buffets from the south. The horses trotted on and the view shifted, a new vista opening as they descended yet further.
The lane led them down through sloping fields, then steeply pitched and gabled roofs appeared ahead, between them and the blue-green waters of the inlet. Swinging in a wide, descending arc, the lane went past the house that majestically rose into view, then curved back to end in a wide sweep of gravel before the front door.
Rounding the final curve, Gerrard slowed his horses; neither he nor Barnaby uttered a word as they descended the last stretch. The house was...eccentric, fabulous-wonderful. There were turrets too numerous to count, multiple balconies laced with wrought iron, odd shaped buttresses aplenty, windows of all descriptions, and segments of rooms forming fanciful angles in the gray stone walls.
"You didn't say anything about the house," Barnaby said as the horses neared the forecourt and they were forced to stop staring.
"I didn't know about the house," Gerrard replied. "I'd only heard about the gardens."
Arms of those gardens, the famous gardens of Hellebore Hall, reached out of the valley above which the house sat and embraced the fantastical creation, but the major part of the gardens lay hidden behind. Poised sentrylike at the upper end of the valley that ran down to the inlet's rocky shore, the house blocked all view of the valley itself and the gardens it contained.
Gerrard let out the breath he hadn't been aware he'd been holding. "No wonder no one ever succeeded in slipping in to paint undetected."
Barnaby shot him an amused look, straightening as Gerrard tightened the reins, and they entered the shaded forecourt of Hellebore Hall.
* * *
Seated in the drawing room of Hellebore Hall, Jacqueline Tregonning caught the sound she'd been waiting for - the clop of hooves, the soft scrunch of gravel under a carriage's wheels.
None of the others scattered about the large room heard; they were too busy speculating on aspects of the nature of the visitors who'd just arrived.
Jacqueline preferred not to speculate, not when she could view with her own eyes, and make up her own mind.
Smoothly, quietly, she rose from the armchair beside the chaise on which sat her closest friend, Eleanor Fritham, and Eleanor's mother, Lady Fritham of neighboring Tresdale Manor. Both were engaged in a spirited discussion with Mrs. Elcott, the vicar's wife, over the descriptions of the two gentlemen shortly expected that Mrs. Elcott's and Lady Fritham's correspondents in the capital had provided.
"Bound to be arrogant, the pair of them, my cousin said." Mrs. Elcott grimaced disparagingly. "I daresay they'll think themselves a cut above us."
"I don't see why they should," Eleanor returned. "Lady Humphries wrote that while both were from excellent families, very much the haut ton, they were perfectly personable and amenable to being entertained." Eleanor appealed to her mother. "Why would they turn their noses up at us? Aside from all else, we're all the society there is around here - they'll lead very quiet lives if they cut us."
"True," Lady Fritham agreed. "But if they're half as well-bred as her ladyship makes out, they won't be high in the instep. Mark my words" - Lady Fritham nodded portentiously, setting her multiple chins and the ribbons in her cap bobbing - "the mark of a true gentleman shows in the ease with which he comports himself in any company."
Unobtrusively slipping away, gliding silently up the long room to the window that gave the best view of the front portico, Jacqueline cynically noted the others present; aside from her father's sister, Millicent, who after her mother's death had come to live with them, none had any real reason to be there.
Not unless one deemed rampant curiosity sufficient reason.
Jordan Fritham, Eleanor's brother, stood chatting with Mrs. Myles and her daughters, Clara and Rosa, both as yet unwed. Millicent stood with them, Mitchel Cunningham by her side. The group was engrossed in discussing portraiture, and the singular success of Mitchel and her father in persuading society's foremost artistic lion to grace Hellebore Hall and favor her with his talents.
Calmly, Jacqueline approached the window. Regardless of her father's, Mitchel's or the artistic lion's belief, she would be the one bestowing the favor. She hadn't yet decided whether she would sit for him, and wouldn't, not until she'd evaluated the man, his talents, and, most importantly, his integrity.
She knew why her father had been so insistent this man, and only he, could paint the portrait her father required. Millicent had been nothing short of brilliant in planting the right seeds in her father's mind, and nurturing them to fruition. As the one most intimately involved on all counts, Jacqueline was aware that the man himself would be pivotal; without him, his talents, and his vaunted integrity regarding his work, their plans would come to nought.
And there was no other way to turn.
Halting two paces from the window, she looked out at the occupants of the curricle that had just rocked to a stop before the portico; in the circumstances she felt no compunction in spying on Gerrard Debbington.
First, she had to identify which of the two men he was. The one who wasn't driving? That tawny-haired gentleman stepped lithely down, then paused to throw a laughing comment to the other man, who remained on the box seat, the reins held loosely in his long-fingered hands.
The grays between the curricle's shafts were prime horseflesh, and had been well-spelled; Jacqueline registered that in the briefest of glances. The man holding the reins was dark-haired, with strong, chiseled features; the tawny-haired one was prettier, the darker the more handsome.
In the second it took her to blink, she realized how odd it was for her to notice; male beauty rarely impinged on her mind. Then she looked again at the pair in the forecourt, and inwardly admitted that their physical attributes were hard to ignore.
The man on the box seat moved; a groom appeared and he descended from the carriage, handing over the reins.
And she had her answer; he was the painter. He was Gerrard Debbington.
A dozen little things confirmed it, from the strength apparent in those very long fingers as he surrendered the ribbons, to the austere perfection of his clothes, and the reined intensity that hung about him, every bit as real as his fashionable coat.
That intensity came as a shock. She'd steeled herself to deal with some fashionable fribble or vain popinjay, but this man was something quite different.
She watched as he answered his friend with a quiet word; the line of his thin lips didn't so much curve as ease - the veriest hint of a smile. Controlled power, intensity harnessed, ruthless determination - those were the impressions that sprang to her mind as he turned.
And looked straight at her.
Her breath caught, suspended, but she didn't move; she was standing too far from the pane for him to see her. Then she heard skirts rustling, footsteps pattering at the far end of the room; glancing sideways, she saw Eleanor, both Myles girls and their mothers crowding around the far window that was angled to the forecourt. Jordan peered over their heads.
Unlike her, they'd crowded close to the glass.
Looking back at Gerrard Debbington, she saw him studying them, and inwardly smiled. If he sensed someone watching him, he'd think it was them.
Gerrard regarded the cluster of faces blatantly staring from the wide windows facing the forecourt. Raising a supercilious brow, he turned away; avoiding the gaze of the single woman standing back from the window closest to the portico, he looked at Barnaby. "It seems we're expected."
Barnaby could see the goggling crowd, too, but the angle of the nearer window hid the lone woman from him. He gestured to the door. "Shall we make our entrance?"
Gerrard nodded. "Ring the bell."
Strolling to an iron handle dangling by the door, Barnaby gave it a tug.
Turning his head, Gerrard looked once more at the woman. Her stillness confirmed she thought he couldn't see her. Light spilled into the room from windows behind her, diagonally across from where she stood; courtesy of that she was, indeed, primarily a silhouette, barely illuminated. She was intelligent enough, then, to have realized that.
But she'd forgotten, or hadn't known of, the effect of painted woodwork. Gerrard would take an oath the frame surrounding the window was at least eight inches wide, and painted white. It threw back enough light, diffused and soft, true, but light nevertheless, to let him see her face.
Just her face.
He'd already glimpsed three youthful female faces, every bit as uninspiring as he'd expected, in the other group. Doubtless his subject was one of them; God knew how he'd manage.
This lady, however...he could paint her. He knew it in an instant; just a glance, that's all it took. Even though her features weren't that clear to him, there was a quality - one of stillness, of depth, of a complexity behind the pale oval of her face - that commanded his attention.
Just like his dream of the Garden of Night, the sight of her face reached for him, touched him, called to the artist that was his soul.
The front door opened and he turned away. Outwardly set himself to the task of greeting and being greeted. Cunningham was there, doing the honors; Gerrard shook his hand, his expression mild, his mind elsewhere.
A governess, or a companion. She was in the drawing room, the doors of which he could now see, so unless she beat a very rapid retreat, he would meet her. Then he'd have to find some way of ensuring she was included along with the gardens in the other subjects he was permitted to paint.
"This is Treadle." Cunningham introduced the butler, who bowed. "And Mrs. Carpenter, our housekeeper."
A stern-faced, competent-looking woman bobbed a curtsy. "Anything you need, sirs, please ask." Mrs. Carpenter straightened. "I've not yet assigned rooms, not being sure of your requirements. Perhaps, once you've looked around and decided which rooms would best suit, you could let Treadle and me know, and we'll have everything arranged in a blink."
Gerrard smiled. "Thank you. We will." The charm behind his smile worked its usual magic; Mrs. Carpenter's face eased, and Treadle unbent a fraction.
"This is Mr. Adair." Gerrard introduced Barnaby, who with his usual air of genial bonhomie nodded to the two servants and Cunningham.
Gerrard looked at Cunningham.
Who seemed suddenly on edge. "Ah...if you'll come this way, I'll introduce you to the ladies, and inform Lord Tregonning that you're here."
Gerrard let his smile grow a fraction more intent. "Thank you."
Cunningham turned and preceded them to the double doors leading into what Gerrard had surmised must be the drawing room.
He was right. They stepped into a room long enough to boast three separate areas for comfortable conversation. At one end, no longer by the window but gathered about the chairs angled before a large fireplace, was the group of ladies and the young man who'd peered out at them, and one other, middle-aged lady he hadn't previously seen.
Directly ahead, on the chaise that faced the doors, were two matrons, one of whom was eyeing Barnaby and him with incipient disapproval.
Although he didn't glance her way, Gerrard was instantly aware of the single lady, standing alone and regarding them levelly from the other end of the room.
Suppressing his impatience, he halted beside Cunningham, who'd paused a yard over the threshold. Barnaby halted just behind his shoulder. Gerrard looked at the bevy of young misses, waiting to see which one came forward - which of the three he was going to hate to have to paint. To his surprise, they all hung back.
The middle-aged lady, a welcoming expression on her face, started toward them.
As did the lone lady on his left.
The middle-aged lady was too old; she couldn't be his subject.
The younger lady drew nearer; he could no longer resist, but looked directly at her.
And saw her, her face, for the first time in good light.
He met her eyes, and realized his error.
Not a governess. Not a companion.
The lady his fingers were already itching to paint was Lord Tregonning's daughter.