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Much Ado About Magic Excerpt

 

London, September 1755

 

Lady Lucinda Malcolm Pembroke pulled the hood of her gray mantle around her face and hurried down the nearly empty halls of the art gallery ahead of the morning crowd.  She didn=t halt until she reached a full-length portrait of a laughing gentleman on a galloping white stallion.

Not precisely a gentleman, she supposed, trying to be honest with herself.  Romantic fantasies needn=t be gentlemen.  Looking up, she fell under the spell of the subject=s mysterious dark eyes all over again.  It was as if he looked just at her and that they shared a wonderful secret. She=d painted the portrait, so she knew its secret:  the dashing gentleman didn=t exist anywhere except in her imagination.

But that wasn=t how rumor had it. 

With a sigh, she admired the gentleman=s exotically dark complexion, rakish smile, and unsettling eyes.  She loved the contrast between his scarred, piratical features and his elegant clothes.  She=d deliberately given him a romantic white stallion and painted the innocent background of a family fair to contrast with his aura of d=anger.  Amazingly, the playful setting seemed to suit him.

The man didn=t exist. If he had, she would never have embarrassed herself and the subject by entering the oil in the exhibition.  She had even signed the painting with just her initials, to avoid any potential harm, except that there were enough people familiar with her style to set rumor rolling.  She would never understand why people saw more in her art than she intended.

She couldn=t imagine why the Earl of Lansdowne would want to ruin her triumph and this magnificent painting with his scandalous accusation. If he hadn=t suffered an apoplexy immediately after seeing the portrait and making his furious allegations, she would demand an apology.  She would never paint a murderer. 

The sound of footsteps warned her that the first arrivals at the gallery were approaching the back hall more quickly than she=d expected, probably heading directly for the scandal of the moment rather than examining the better-known works in the front hall.  She had no intention of making a spectacle of herself by appearing in public with the portrait.  Looking around, she located a small niche across the hall where she could sit, unobserved.

Her fingers itched for the sketchbook and pencil in her pocket.  She=d like to have a drawing of the exhibition for posterity. After this episode, her father wasn=t likely to let her enter another oil, and she couldn=t blame him.  She=d never meant to achieve notoriety.  She=d only wanted others to admire the portrait into which she=d poured her heart and soul. 

She peered around the corner of the niche as a tall man strode determinedly in her direction, the skirt of his elegant coat rippling about his legs with the strength of his stride. The coat was tailored to fit shoulders and a chest wider than that of most gentlemen.  The lapels and cut were of precisely this year=s fashion, except that the coat was black.  No gentleman wore black in London, not even for mourning.  How very odd.

 His neckcloth was a pristine white with just the right amount of starch for crispness without an inch of foppery.  His breeches were of a tawny silk that matched the elaborate embroidery on the coat=s lapels and pockets.  His long vest matched his breeches and was embroidered with black in a simplicity that caused her to sigh in admiration.  More gentlemen should accent their masculinity in this way instead of dressing as peacocks. 

But when he was close enough for her to see his face, she gasped in horror and drew back as far into the niche as she could go.

***


 

Crossing his arms over his new, correctly tailored and damned expensive clothes, Sir Trevelyan Rochester studied the ridiculous portrait hanging in the Royal Art Gallery for the entire world to see.  Fury bubbled at the outrage perpetrated on a perfectly respectable piece of canvas that would have been better used in making sails.  He dropped his gaze to the artist=s signature,  LMP, and his ire flared anew.  The coward hid behind initials.

He=d spent twenty years working his way up from impressed sailor to owner of his own ship, and not one man in those twenty years had dared insult him in such a flagrant mannerCnot and lived to tell about it, anyway.  He=d defeated bloodthirsty pirates, captured French privateers, gained his own letter of marque from the King of England himself, only to be humiliated by an unknown artist on the other side of the world who could not possibly know more than rumors of his exploits. 

Had it not been for his desire for peace and a home of his own rather than preparing for yet another senseless war with France over the colonies, he would never have walked the streets of London again.  Had the artist counted on his not returning to England?

He would make the damned man walk the plank at sword point and dispense with the gossipmongering, scandal-provoking scoundrel as a favor to society.  It was the duty of any self-respecting privateer to rid the world of enemies to king and country.

Except he=d resigned his commission and wasn=t a privateer any longer, and Mr. LMP had provoked only him and not king or country.

A deep scowl drew his eyebrows together as he studied the details.  It was his likeness, all right, unless he had a twin somewhere he didn=t know about.  Given the propensities of his noble family, that was possible but not likely.

The painting depicted himCSir Trevelyan Rochester, knighted by His Majesty for action beyond the call of dutyCriding a prissy white horse adorned with red ribbons on a beach in the midst of what appeared to be a summer fair.  Trev assumed Mr. LMP had intended to poke fun by decking out him, a feared privateer, in macaroni attire of fluffy lace jabot and useless cuffs that spilled lace past his fingers. The artist had given him boots instead of clocked stockings, but the boots were cuffed and shiny and foolish for riding.

The subject of the portrait was defiantly hatless and wigless.  A deep blue riband tied his hair back, and one black strand blew loose to fall across his battle-scarred cheek.  Trev had to admit the artist had captured his olive complexion and sharp features with painful accuracy.  His mother=s mixed Jamaican heritage could not be denied.  Brushed with tar, his noble grandfather had called his coloring, just before he=d let the Navy take him to do with as they would.

Still, the painting was hopelessly silly.  The man in it managed to look romantically dashing despite a touch of savagery behind his flashing dark eyes.  Trev didn=t mind that so much, but the contrast between the man and the frivolous white horse was laughable.

No wonder people were talking.  Still, he did not see what had sent his cousin=s widow into such fits when he=d arrived at her door.  He=d spent all his adult years on the other side of the world, and she couldn=t know him from Adam, but she had barely given him a minute to introduce himself before slamming the door in his face. 

It was James, their old butler, who had sneaked out to explain about the portrait all London was talking about.  The preposterous painting was so well known that word of it had spread even to the rural village in the south of England where his late cousin=s family resided.  James hadn=t had time to explain why the portrait was so scandalous.  Or perhaps he hadn=t known.


 

Trev hated being the center of scandal before he=d even set foot in England.  He=d come home hoping to turn his prize money into a respectable merchant fleet so he could live out his remaining years in the peace of England rather than the perpetual warfare over the West Indies.  He wanted the solidity of land beneath his feet for a change.  He=d foolishly hoped that his wealth would pave his way despite his mixed heritage and the earl=s refusal to acknowledge his legitimacy.  If he didn=t know better, he=d think his grandfather had planned this humiliation.

He studied the portrait, trying to determine why he=d been slandered and shut out before he could do anything to deserve it.

The painting made him look a fop, he supposed, but he hadn=t been in England to sit for it.  He could see no reason for alarm, except for the smirch on his masculinity.  That could cause difficulty in his search for a wife, but he doubted any sensible woman in his presence would question his virility.

He was about to spin around and stalk out when a whisper from the crowd gathering behind him caught his ear. During years of living by his wits, he=d learned to keep his senses tuned to all about him.  He eavesdropped unabashedly.

AThey say the earl had an apoplexy right on this spot.@  The whisper was distinctly feminine and horrified.  Trev crossed his arms and pretended to study the portrait.

AIt=s a Malcolm prediction, of a certainty,@ another voice said in awe.  ASee that boat sinking in the corner?  It=s the viscount=s.  The red is quite recognizable.  They say he=s been missing at sea for months.@

Trev ground his molars and waited.  Malcolm?  The M in LMP stood for Malcolm?  He would know the full name of the blackguard who=d put his face upon a wall without permission.

 AThere could be other red yachts,@ a male voice said scornfully.  ABut the man certainly looks a pirate.  No wonder the earl recognized him.@

ABut Rochester hasn=t been in England since childhood,@ the first female voice protested.  AHow could the artist have painted him so accurately that the earl could recognize him, without having seen him?@

 AThey don=t hold fairs on the shore in Sussex,@ a bored male voice drawled.  AIt=s a hoax.@

Trev couldn=t agree more.  The silly little boat in the painting was hardly noticeable.  The grieving widow standing on the rocky shoreline was buried in veils and could be anyone.  An artist=s ploy, contrasting laughter with grief or some such flummery.  His cousin had gone down at sea months ago, so to add his yacht to the background was the artist=s deliberate scandal-mongering, not foretelling.

Now he understood why his cousin=s widow had slammed the door in his faceCthe portrait showed him laughing as his cousin=s yacht sank.  He=d have to wring the artist=s neck after all.  Laurence had been a good, decent man, and his death was no laughing matter.

AThe shire held a fair this year,@ a timid voice countered.  AThe new Duke of Sommersville sponsored one.  That is when the yacht went down.@

The crowd murmured more loudly as the conversation picked up in several places at once.  AHe looks dangerous enough to have murdered his cousin,@ someone said in response to a comment about his scar.

Trev snorted.  No self-respecting murderer would wear that much lace, he wagered.  It would get all bloody.  Just try using a sword with lace wrapped around the fingers!

ANow that the viscount=s gone, if the earl dies, Rochester could claim the title,@ said a female, followed by a horrified, AThe man should hang!@ 


 

Trev figured neither spectator knew what she was talking about since Laurence had left an infant son as heir and his grandfather had declared him illegitimate.  Truth never fazed good gossip, though.

Both comments overrode the more sensible voice that said, ABut the man says he just arrived in England, and the viscount died last summer.@

AI know Lady Lucinda,@ a timid female interjected.  AShe always paints one of her kittens into the landscape.  See the orange tabby in the tree?  It died of old age in April.  That oil was painted last winter, well before the viscount=s yacht went down.  I saw her working on it.@

A gasp of awe escaped the fascinated crowd, and Trev gritted his teeth at this nonsense.

AIf the Prophetess painted it, then it must be true,@ said another woman.  AShe painted Pelham in his grave before he died.@

AShe painted my mother walking across Westminster Bridge before it was finished.@

ALady Roxbury fainted when she saw the Prophetess in the parkC painting Roxbury with a woman that wasn=t her and children that weren=t theirs.@

AYou know his mistress is bearing his child,@ someone else murmured.

The whispers grew riper and louder, but Trev disregarded all the gossip except the relevantCa woman artist!  Rocked by the enormity of such perfidiousness, he had only one thought in mindCto locate this attention-seeking Prophetess who had painted him as his cousin=s murderer and throttle her until she admitted to all London that the painting was a hoax.  Furious, he swirled around to cut a path through the crowd.

Confronted with the man in the portrait come to life before their eyes, the crowd recoiled in horror. 

Feeling as murderous as they believed him, Trev stalked off without looking right or left.

#

Lucinda slid deeper into the shadows of the alcove and held her breath until Sir Trevelyan swept past, bronzed features scowling, Spanish eyes flashing, and manly muscles rippling.

Her gaze dropped to the lethal rapier emerging from his coattails, and she trembled.

Foolishly, her traitorous fingers itched for her paintbrushes.  This time, she wanted to paint him as a thundercloud in the form of a man.  She could see now that her first attempt was sadly lacking in comparison with the reality.

The man actually existed!  The Earl of Lansdowne had been right.  She couldn=t believe it.  How could she have painted a man in her head, only to see him walk out of a crowd like that?  Could the other gossip be true then?  Had that man, that pirate, been in England during the fair as she=d painted him?  Could she have actually seen him last winter, when he=d filled her dreams?

She didn=t think she wanted to be around to find out.  He looked angry enough to commit murder, but oddly enough, she=d been drawn to the sadness in his dark eyes.  There was something in the way he held himself. . . She couldn=t put her finger on why he fascinated her. 

That=s what she deserved for listening to romantic tales of heroes and villains told by silly women with nothing better to do. She really ought to know better than to waste her time in ballrooms and salons listening to the chatter of simpering misses. It had been the fashion this season to admire heroes. The tales they=d told of commanders at sea and warriors on land and knights of old had given her dreams until she=d had to capture them on canvas. 


 

She supposed they had talked of privateers like Sir Trevelyan, who had captured a renegade French warship that had blocked a British harbor a year or so ago.  She remembered the story anyway, but she=d not been thinking of it when she=d painted the portrait.  At the time, she=d thought the painting showed a fantasy hero with a romantic, fun loving nature.  She=d thoroughly enjoyed the contradictions of character she=d conveyed.

She could dash that foolery right now.  She couldn=t imagine anyone less romantic or more dangerous than the man who=d just left the gallery.  Perhaps there was some truth behind the rumor of his being a murderer after all.  After all, privateers were licensed to kill.

She shivered, and, tucking the hood of her mantle more securely over her distinctive white-blond hair, hastened to a back exit.

If rumor were true, Sir Trevelyan Rochester had murdered his cousin to claim the title and estates his grandfather had denied him.

If rumor were true, her painting provided evidence that Rochester had been in England when he had said he was not, destroying his credibility and alibi.

She knew the last rumor was based on false assumptions, but how would she ever explain the coincidence of the resemblance?  She couldn=t.  And now a dangerous privateer knew her name.

She=d caused scandals enough in the past but none of this magnitude.  It was past time she left London before the privateer stormed the walls of her home to murder her.

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt Copyright 2005 Patricia Rice

 

 
 

2005 Patricia Rice

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