A Lady’s Tantalising Portrait (Preview)

Chapter One

Mayfair, London 1819

“Must we, Mother?” Rachel barely held back the annoyance and upset in her voice. “Is a painting of me that essential?”

Her mother, Mary Hampton, the Duchess of Hurstmere, stood to her side as Rachel’s maid, Jane Colton, finished with coifing Rachel’s hair. Tall and solemn, her mother’s dark-clad figure made her look more like a nun than a Duchess of England.

“Yes, my daughter, it is,” Lady Mary said.

Always my daughter, never my name, dear, or darling. Would it mortally harm you, Mother, to be a bit affectionate?

But that was how it was the Hampton House; it was as empty of affection as the ton was with compassion. She could not remember the last time her mother and father were affectionate to the other. As she had grown, she was sure that they had never been affectionate with each other.

The most emotion Rachel had seen with her parents was when they were in church, and then, that emotion was only religious reverence.

Jane slid the last pin into her hair, and she stood away for Rachel to see. Her thick black hair was pinned away from her face but cascaded around her shoulders in waves. The simple hairdo bared her alabaster skin and making her vivid blue eyes stand out like beacons.

She stood, feeling the entire length of her demure dark blue dress brush the tips of her shoes. Her arms were encased in full-sleeves, and her bodice, high and fastened up to her neck, made her slender form look like she was covered with a bedsheet twisted into a shapeless mockery of a dress.

The few times she had attended the ton’s affairs, Rachel’s cheeks had never stopped burning bright with humiliation. Against the new fashionable and elegant silk and satin gowns the other ladies wore, she looked like an odd stack of rose-colored velvet monstrosity with enough cloth to dress three.

The one time she had timidly mentioned it to her mother, Lady Mary had sniffed at it, “Silk, my daughter is the cloth of Cyprians and seductresses. You will not touch such a sinful cloth as long as I am alive.”

Rachel had learned not to ask for or ever yearn for finery or luxurious items. And she could accept that, but as the years had passed, she had grown with the deep-set fear that she would wake up one day and feel empty, passionless, and stoical as her parents.

What about her husband? The very one her parents were set on having her wed to by the end of the year? Would he be as apathetic as her parents? Could she live with such a man and snuff out the passion she had fought so hard to hide and hold onto inside her.

A soft knock came on the door, and while her mother turned, Rachel still peered in the mirror.

“The painter is here, Your Grace,” a maid said anxiously from the doorway. “Mr. William Smith is in the foyer waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” Lady Mary nodded curtly. “Now, come along, my daughter. You have your sitting now.”

Meekly, Rachel followed her mother from the room through the bare corridors and down the sweeping staircase. She kept a few steps behind her mother to mutter her discontentment about this whole sitting. The feeling that her parents were selfish in making a portrait that would stand in her place rested heavily on her heart.

Halfway down the staircase, Rachel caught sight of the man there—and nearly lost her step.

Mr. Smith was tall but not gangly, broad-shouldered, lean of hip, messy curly brown hair flying pell-mell around his face. His clothing was clean but worn…and odd clothes. A bright blue neckcloth stuck out from his baggy grey shirt with an odd patch of green cloth over his heart tucked into similarly loose maroon buff trousers.

As she neared, she saw the clean structure of his broad cheekbones and square jaw, and his bright green orbs glowed from his oval eyes. His eyes latched on her face and never moved.

“Ah, Mister Smith,” her mother greeted.

He gave an ostentatious bow, one Rachel believed would have been more fitted to the Prince Regent than her parents. “I am honored to be summoned by you, Your Grace. How may this humble artist serve you?”

Lady Mary looked pleased. “I have summoned you to paint my daughter’s portrait. I have been told that you are the best in London, what with having painted the Duchess Scarbrough’s daughter and the nephew of the French Dauphin?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” he nodded.

“Good,” Lady Mary said. “I want something even better than that one. Rachel, come and greet Mr. Smith.”

A flash of irritation and resentment ran through Rachel’s heart; she felt as if her mother were treating her as a pawn in a game of one-upmanship. Obediently, though, she came to her mother’s side and stood there.

Mr. Smith’s gaze ran from the top of her head to the tips of her dress’ hem, and for the first time under such a look, Rachel shivered. Before she could say a word, he bowed to her, “Lady Hampton, I am incredibly pleased to meet you. ‘Tis true; your beauty should be immortalized on canvas. If only my modest talent can do your lovely image justice.”

Oddly, Rachel did not feel that he was currying favor with her. His words did not carry the sly undertone trickery or brownnosing; it could be that he was as eccentric as his clothes. She blushed. “I am delighted to meet you, as well, Mr. Smith.”

Nodding, he looked back at her mother, “Where should I set up, Your Grace?”

“Where do you think best?” her mother asked.

He looked thoughtful, and again, his eyes skimmed over Rachel’s face. “Do you have a solarium, Your Grace? The lighting there should be lovely.”

“Yes, we do,” Lady Mary nodded. “Miss Colton, would you please come with us. I want you to sit in while I am away attending to a matter with the church. His Grace should be back from his morning prayers and will drop in as well.”

“Mother? You are not going to be with us?” Rachel asked, surprised.

“No,” Lady Mary shook her head. “I do not want to impede Mr. Smith’s artistic process as I am made to understand artists can be rather particular with how they work.”

A wash of strange relief went through Rachel, and she only nodded. It was probably for the best as she did not think that having her mother and her criticizing gaze and words would help.

Jane curtsied to her mother and led Rachel and Mr. Smith up the sweeping staircase and down the corridors to the west wing where the public rooms were. The solarium was expensive, and the tall bow and mullioned windows gave enormous amounts of light into the room.

With a look over her shoulder, Rachel realized that Mr. Smith was carrying a wooden easel under his arm and slung over his other arm was the strap of a leather satchel. She looked around, wondering what more they would do there.

“Miss Colton, was it?” Mr. Smith asked, and at Jane’s nod, he continued. “Would you open those drapes to the east window wide and make sure that the space is good enough for me to move this chair there.”

When Jane went off, Rachel took a moment to admire Mr. Smith; his sculpted face, firm jaw, arching cheekbones, thin blade of a nose, and thick brow did not fit the person he was. She could easily see him in a dark ball suit, and meticulously tied cravat with a gaggle of debutantes reaching for him to marry them.

She watched as Jane fixed the curtains, and when they were set to Mr. Smith’s liking, she watched as he single-handedly lifted a wingback and set it at an angle to the window.

“My Lady?” Mr. Smith gestured to her. “Please.”

“Oh, yes, yes,” Rachel stuttered, hoping that the man had not caught on to her staring. Moving to the chair, Rachel sat and fixed her body in a way she thought appropriate for a portrait, face front and with little emotion.

But Mr. Smith shook his head, “No, no, that is not fitting. Turn to your side a little.”

She shifted, but it was not enough, and with more encouragement, she found herself sitting at an angle where she was slanted. Rachel felt the sunlight on half of her face, and the other half was shadowed.

“Would you tilt your face up?” he asked, and she did. “To the left a little.”

She tried to follow his instructions, but after three more ineffective tries, Mr. Smith came to her, notched a knee on the arm of the chair, and asked, “May I touch you?”

Wide-eyed, Rachel’s eyes shot to her maid, who looked as lost as she was. Looking back at Mr. Smith, Rachel nodded her permission. No man, except her father, had ever touched her, and Rachel felt the air in her chest hitch.

His fingertips were rough with calluses, and his skin was warm as he gently shifted her face to the left, where the light was coming from. He pulled away to consider, then lifted her head a little more, then used his thumb to shift her head just a smidgen more.

“There,” he sighed in satisfaction. “That is the best angle. Do you think that you can stay there for a good while?”

“I will do my best,” she said.

He pulled away, but the remnants of his touch still lingered on and under her skin. It took her all her efforts not to shiver at the still impression of his thumb on her chin. Not to mention the feelings that erupted in her chest at the intent look in his vivid eyes. Rachel had a strange feeling that he was seeing more of her than what she saw of herself.

From the corner of her eye, she saw him set up the easel and lay a hard slate on it before putting the paper. He flicked out his satchel, which unfolded again to reveal a section that had pencils slotted through little hoops. He slid one out and then pinned her with an all-encompassing gaze that he held for a long and somewhat nerve-wracking minute.

When he dropped his gaze, only then did Rachel suck in a breath. The burn in her lungs startled her a little, and from there, she made sure to take in measured breaths, but not deep enough for her to disturb the pose Mr. Smith wanted her to take.

The frequent tingle of her skin and the sporadic prickle of gooseflesh across her skin told her the times Mr. Smith’s astute eyes landed on her. Keeping her eyes away from him, Rachel wracked her mind; what was it about the man that piqued her attention and strange reaction to him? He made her quiver inside.

She thought back to the few balls she had attended, how the gentlemen would skip their eyes over and find the other more fashionable ladies, as if only they were worthy of their attention. Rachel had felt utterly undesirable and has suffered hours sitting on the sidelines with other wallflowers.

Now, to have the attention of a man secured on her felt strange and exciting. Even if it was only for a portrait, she felt seen, remarkable, and not as invisible as she once thought she was.

Truly, Rachel, he is only a painter; his attention is supposed to be on you. Do not romanticize it, no matter how handsome he is.

Rachel held the pose for a long as she could until strain began to sit into her shoulder. She could feel Mr. Smith’s eyes flick over her while his fingers flew over the paper. Under all her fascination with Mr. Smith, Rachel still felt miffed with her mother and this whole proceeding.

The grandfather clock’s hollow sound sounded in the air, and Rachel realized that it was the third time she had heard the chime. Had three hours passed by so quickly?

“I think—” Mr. Smith said as he laid down his pencils, “—that is all for now.”

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked. “I am sure we can go another—”

But then, her father strode into the room, his tall, burly figure clad in muted grey tones suddenly possessed the air in the room. He looked at her with tight censure in his dark green eyes, and Rachel knew that she was going to be scolded for contradicting a man. Dread settled stonily in her stomach.

Chapter Two

She’s still tense…why?

While moving the graphite over the paper, William kept his eyes flickering up and over the gentle lady sitting too stiffly for her to look normal. So, he took it upon himself to curve her stiff shoulder, smooth out the knit in her brow and remove the tautness from her neck.

Her face needed no retouching as she was enchanting, like a princess torn away from the pages of a fairy-tale. Her lovely oval face had softly rounded cheeks that framed rosy and full lips. The eyes that once met his were wide and rimmed with thick sable lashes making her emerald gaze so vivid.

William took pleasure in drawing in the delicate contours of her face, her pert nose, piquant little chin with a quaint divot at its center. Her dark locks fell in a controlled stream to her waist; he could not deny the need to see what it would like tangled and wind tossed. Even more, what would it feel like when the strands passed through his fingers?

She is a lady; I am only a commoner; nothing can happen, but I can dream.

Under her forced façade, Lady Hampton still looked very annoyed, and he wondered why. It was too soon for him to start digging into why she was miffed. But one day, as soon as the shock of their sessions wore off and he got to know her more, he would be able to tweak some answers out of her.

As time ticked away, he could see her getting more rigid, and when the echo of the grandfather’s chime came, he decided it was time to call off.

I think—” William said as he laid down his pencils, “—that is all for now.”

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked, snapping her head to him, and making her curtain of hair flutter. “I am sure we can go another—”

But then someone came in, and Lady Hampton paled. He pivoted a little to see an older man.

“Pardon her, Mister Smith,” George Hampton, the Duke of Hurstmere, reprimanded Lady Hampton, “She knows that it is not her place to contradict you. Isn’t that so, daughter?”

“Yes, Father,” she said quietly. “I apologize. It was not my place.”

But you meant every word—I can tell.

Turning, William bowed to the Duke, “Good afternoon, Your Grace. I am William Smith.”

Nodding tersely, the man came to look at the sketch on the papers, and his brows inched up. William watched as the Duke’s gaze flickered from the paper to his daughter, who was still seated. The sketch was not finished; some lines were bold and bright while some were faint and wispy, but what William was proud of was how he had captured her eyes.

“It is going to be one of many, Your Grace,” he explained. “The first drawing is hardly the one that will prove fortunate enough to be immortalized in oil.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” William said. “We will try a few more settings, in the library or garden perhaps, and find the right angles and backdrops to make the entire work stunning.”

“I know nothing about such procedure, so I will leave you to master your trade,” Duke Hurstmere said. “And Rachel, no more contradicting Mr. Smith, you hear me?”

“Yes, Father,” she said meekly. “I do.”

“Are we finished here, Mr. Smith?” he asked.

Shooting a look over to the young lady, William replied, “For the time being, yes.”

“Good,” the Duke said. “Rachel, come with me.”

A flash of despondency ran over her face, but she masked it quickly. “Yes, Father, and again, Mr. Smith, I do apologize.”

He bowed, “No harm was taken, My Lady. Have a good evening.”

While the lady, her maid, and her father left the room, William packed up the pencils. He shot a look to the drawing and back to the pencils before packing up the papers in the leather folio that would keep it flat. Before he met the Duchess and her daughter, a maid had shown him to a modest room in the guest’s quarters, so he knew where to retire.

At least they did not stick me with the servants’ halls. I have had enough of that.

He got his things together, closed the easel up and tucked it under his arm, and left to the secondary set of stairs that led to the same quarters that the main staircase led up to.

The room was quaint, and the bedroom was spacious. He took a moment to appreciate the crisp linens dressing the four-poster bed and the water waiting for him on the washstand. Crossing to the window, he glanced out, expecting to find a view of the English countryside, and smiled at the sight of the vibrant gated garden.

The dying sunlight hit him as he gazed out beyond the garden to see the winding, twisting hedge maze, centered by a flowing marble fountain. Instantly, his hand started to twitch with the urge to reach for his pencils and paper to catch the moment. The sunlight dazzled over the marble, and the water spewing from the fish’s mouth broke the light in a mesmerizing phantasmagoria of colors. The sight begged to be drawn.

But he lifted his left hand and used his right to massage it. William knew the dangers of overdoing it with his hand. He cringed a little at the memory of how stiff his hand had been some years before when he had used it from sunrise to sundown.

He turned away to appreciate the washstand, and the stack of clean towels sat beside it. Leaving the window open, he went to disrobe from his day clothes and donned another set after a quick wash. The housekeeper had assured him that he would be getting the same meals with his board, but it would be best for him to dine in the kitchen.

Dressed in loose trousers and a long linen shirt, an acquisition from his travels in Scotland, he left for the kitchens and greeted the cook. After a quiet exchange of words, the thick beef stew and flaky brown bread were sat before him, and William began to eat.

Having dined in many manor houses, William was used to eating good meals, but just like the rest, felt the same loneliness that came wrapping itself around him. It was an old feeling that had settled itself inside him from the day he had left home to chase his dream of being an artiste.

Finishing his meal, William handed the utensils to a maid and drifted back to his room. Working with the aristocracy had been a double-edged sword; he had met a lot of lovely ladies, but none of them had paid him any mind. He had lingered on the edge of their world, only able to look in.

But now, why do I feel as if things will be different.

He perched at the window again and gazed out at the countryside and the rolling hills beyond the boundaries of the manor lands. He wished England were like Scotland; back in the lowlands, the lawn would be teeming with fireflies, tiny dots of lightning to color the bushes and flowers.

The image of Lady Hampton’s face, interspersed with the fireflies in his mind, had him reaching for his private sketchbook and his pencil. He framed her with her head looking up, her long, luxurious hair fanning out, and the pinpricks of the lightning bugs formed a halo around her head.

He drew until the gibbous moon was high in the sky, and the relaxed look that he had given the lady rested on his mind while he went to bed. Hopefully, the next day he would get a chance to find out what had made her so angry.

***

Dawn found William wandering through the garden, the sketchbook in the crook of his arm while he detailed a dewdrop still lingering on the Begonia’s petal. He drew another line down the stem of the flower and added a little shade to the petal while patiently waiting for Lady Hampton to speak.

He had seen her enter the garden a while ago but had pretended not to see her because he wanted her to be bold. From the way her father had spoken to her the day before, he had a deep, troubling feeling that her family did not give her much room to control her life.

If she wanted to be married, she would have to learn to be a little more assertive.

“You take deep study of all your subjects, don’t you?” her voice was quiet but sweet, like honey.

He lifted his head and gave her a gentle smile, “I find that a close examination gives the best results. Good morning, My Lady.”

Her guarded eyes flickered away from him to another bush but went back to him, “You too, Mr. Smith.”

“Call me William,” he said.

She shook her head, “I’m sorry, I could not dare.”

Cocking his head, he insisted, “In public, perhaps, but I would much prefer for you to call me William.”

“It is not right,” she said. “I would not be able to reply in kind, so please, do not ask me again.”

Deciding not to push—well for now—William agreed. “May I ask, why were you upset yesterday? You were very tense in the sitting.”

“I—” Her head snapped over her shoulder, and her face paled a little. “I am sorry, I have to go.”

Before William could say a word, she was gone, disappearing in the dissipating mist like an ephemeral spirit, leaving William to wonder why she had run off so fast.

Perhaps her parents keep her close, like a babe in leading strings. And with how they dominate her, how is she ever going to marry?

After contemplating over it for a while, Edward decided that it probably was not his concern. All he needed to do was do an excellent job with her portrait, get his payment, and leave off to another job.

But the thought from last night—that somehow this assignment would be different came back to him.

I suppose I will have to wait and see.

He did not have to wait long to see why Lady Hampton had hurried off. While rounding the garden, he came up to a small stone chapel and saw her and her parents kneeling before the alter with a quick look inside.

And they are religious; that would explain why the Duke said that she knows better not to contradict me. I suppose they have taught her to submit to every man too.

Walking away from the building, William wondered what more there was to Lady Hampton, or should he call her Rachel? She had the look of a scared rabbit—but then yesterday, her shoulders had squared in defiance.

Were there more sides to the lovely lady than what she showed to the world?

He went back to his room to dress for the day, wondering how long the three would take in the chapel. Musing about the drawing resting in the folio, he wondered if the sunroom was the right setting for Rachel. It seemed so sterile and plain. Did it fit her?

I will need to know more about the lady before deciding on that.

He arrived at the solarium before Rachel and her maid did, set up the easel, laid out his pencils, and fixed the drapes when the two walked in. Rachel had her hair in the same style as yesterday, and though her dress was a different color, it was the same high-necked puritan style.

It dawned on him that her parents did not want her in any current clothing; another piece added to the portrait of Rachel’s complex life. He felt sorry for her.

A woman of her beauty should be clothed in the finest silks and trefoils.

He bowed. “Good morning, My Lady and Miss Colton.”

“You too, Mr. Smith,” she curtsied.

“Shall we pick on where we left off?” he asked pointedly.

She looked confused for a moment. He knew she was wondering if he meant the portrait or the aborted conversation they had earlier. She flushed, and he knew that she had landed on the conversation, but Rachel gestured to the chair.

“Yes, please.”

She sat, and William leaned in to angle her face again; he dropped his voice so only she could hear, “Are you still upset?”

Her gaze flickered, “Yes.”

Slightly taken-aback by her forthrightness, William realized that his impression of her was all wrong. It was not only that she held all her feelings inside; she just did not have anyone to tell them to. If her parents were so controlling, he would wager that they were unwilling to listen to her deepest concerns.

“I’m sorry.” He pulled his fingers from her face. “If you want a listening ear, I would be more than happy to listen. You should not have to bear such burdens in your heart.”

She made to reply but bit her lip and turned away. Instead of taking her hesitation as a refusal, he took it to mean that she needed more time. After all, she would be spilling her innermost secrets to a stranger.

Going back to the easel, William reached for his pencil.

***

I’m sorry. If you want a listening ear, I would be more than happy to listen. You should not have to bear such burdens in your heart.

It was not only Mr. Smith’s kind words that had her considering his offer but his earnest look as well. She wondered why he wanted to know. Because her stiffness might make his task worse? Or was he genuinely concerned about her?

When the morning session ended, and Rachel asked Jane to get her some water, she turned to Mr. Smith. “Why do you want to know how I feel? Does it matter to you?”

He set his pencils away. “Yes, because I hate to see someone in distress.”

Warily, Rachel asked, “And you are sure this is not because my expressions would make your assignment hard?”

He took her hand and pressed it to her chest. Again, his touch strummed up a shiver inside her, and she knew he felt it. “If it bothers you, it will make your soul dark. You are too young and too pure to have a dark soul.”

Tilting her head a little, Rachel tried to find a hint of deception in his gaze, but she had little experience in spotting trickery. With a long inhale, she sank to her chair and trained her eyes out the window.

“They hardly listen to me,” she murmured, then flicked a look to Mr. Smith. “My parents, I mean. They only listen when it is something that they want for me but will dismiss me when it is something that I want for myself.”

A fleeting tick in his jaw and a dark flash over his eyes told her that he was displeased as well. Feeling a bit boldened, Rachel said, “Not to offend you, Mr. Smith, but I had not agreed to this painting. I suppose that explains why I was so stiff and tense during yesterday’s fitting.”

“I see.”

His simple answer was not one she had expected, but it had not come with any judgment or terseness.

“I feel—” she bit back the words sacred, terrified, and trapped, “—looked over. As if I were a child and not the lady they know I am.”

“Is that the only thing you fear?” Mr. Smith asked pointedly, and without knowing if it were right of her to tell him more but not wanting to lie to him, Rachel nodded.

“No, but I don’t think I shall share that with you,” Rachel said. “I do not mean to disrespect you; I just—” she faltered.

Mr. Smith took her words in good stride. “I am not insulted, My Lady. Why should anyone share their fears with a stranger? I, however, am honored that you chose to tell me what you have. And be assured, not a word of what you have told me will leave my lips…unless you ask me to.”

Stunned but comforted that he would not tell her parents, Rachel smiled. “I—”

But then, Jane came back into the room, and Rachel shifted her words. “Thank you.”

He moved his head and looked around, his expression contemplative. “I am not sure this is the best environment for you.”

She blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I think this room is too bare and bland,” he replied. “There is little coloring and not much…Joie de verve to do your beauty justice.”

Reddening, Rachel ducked her head. That was twice Mr. Smith had alluded to her beauty, something she had not thought of before. No one— particularly no man—had ever uttered those words. And he had done it so calmly that she wondered if he realized what he had said.

“Where do you think?” she asked.

His eyes met hers, and his gaze was level. “I do not know yet, but I suppose we will have time to find out. Let’s finish this session, shall we? The right location will find us along the way.”

He moved back to the easel while Rachel reached for the glass that Jane still held. She drank, then handed it back to her before regaining her position from before.

Can I tell him all that concerns me about this? That I feel this portrait is a cheap way of selling me off to me who would not care about me?

Looking at him, she met his eyes briefly, and his flickering smile placed her at ease. Mayhap I can trust him.


“A Lady’s Tantalising Portrait” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

The charming Lady Rachel Hampton grew up in a very powerful but conservative family, having everything but her precious freedom. As her parents excluded her from London’s sinful high society, she was left alone, dreaming of a love that could release her from her golden cage. Yet, when the time to find a match arrives, an arranged marriage will destroy her hopes for true happiness. Little did she know that after the commission of her portrait, the most passionate and wicked man was about to appear in her life and change her world forever. Rachel’s meeting with the attractive artist will tantalise her innocent mind and stimulate her most inappropriate thoughts. When his flaming touch sets her heart on fire, will Rachel finally fight for her scandalous romance against her parents’ will?

William Smith, a very desirable and talented artist in London, is an enticing, wild at heart, and fiery young man. After Rachel’s parents hire him to paint her portrait, he quickly realises she is the most tempting woman he has ever laid eyes on, and completely different from all the pretentious ladies of the ton. Nevertheless, things turn dangerously complicated when he finds himself unable to resist her pure beauty and the fierce desire that burns between them. Knowing that he is diving into a perilous situation with her, will he manage to control his untamed passion?

Rachel and William’s guilty game of seduction starts from the very first painting session and leads them into a secret lustful affair. They may come from different classes, but the hot flame of attraction between them triggers their love that grows stronger every day. However, when their hot romance is exposed by Rachel’s parents, it seems that their affection will face a most cruel society that utterly demands their separation. Will Rachel and William choose to risk it all for the sake of their forbidden temptation or will their connection be overshadowed by their merciless misfortune?

“A Lady’s Tantalising Portrait” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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