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The Gentleman’s Muse

The Gentleman’s Muse







Summer Devon

Smashwords Edition

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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.


The Gentleman’s Muse


Copyright © 2017 by Summer Devon

Cover by Fantasia Frog

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.



Dedication



To Jennifer, Jennifer, Alyson, and Betsy, and of course, (dis)Grace! Thank you, thank you, beta-readers.


Chapter One



London, 1880



David had set out with purpose that morning. He’d thrilled at the sight of the gold dome of the cathedral and the magnificent Blackfriars Bridge. He’d gawked at the organ grinders, the throngs of gentlemen in suits, the elegant ladies in lace. Even the cats slinking along the iron fences seemed more exotic in the city than the cats back home.

Now he only wanted to trudge back to the inn and take off his uncomfortable shoes. His money would run out in a couple of days, and he felt only relief at the thought of returning home—until he imagined facing Bethie again.

He was making his way down a narrow street with brick-terraced houses when a man’s voice rang out. “Here, you! I need you.”

David stopped and looked around. A wild figure, with no hat or coat, raced across the pavement toward him in what must have been a black-and-red smoking jacket, tails flapping.

David considered racing away from the crazed gentleman, but that would look absurd, especially since several passersby and a dray cart had stopped to watch the exciting action.

“Sir?” he asked nervously.

“You…” The man bent and put his hands on his knees. He held out a large bony hand palm up and panted. After a few deep breaths, he straightened and pushed his other hand through his dark hair, leaving a streak of blue across his forehead.

David considered escape again. He took a step backward.

“No, wait. I beg your pardon.” The man had a plummy, upper-crust accent.

David took another step back, even more wary. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I would like to hire you. Immediately.”

The dray cart driver clicked to his horse and the pedestrians turned away—obviously disappointed there wasn’t to be something more dramatic going on.

David’s mouth opened and closed. He almost asked the gentleman if he wanted a carpenter, but remembered his ambitions in time. “You require a clerk?”

“No, no, I need a model, and you’re bloody perfect.”

David winced at the bad language.

The man didn’t notice. He was looking David up and down, like a cabinetmaker examining a load of lumber. Better that than the predatory look David had imagined when he’d first noticed the man.

The blue stripe on his forehead moved as the man raised his impressive eyebrows. “I saw you hours ago and thought about going after you then, but I was entirely too lazy, and then here you came in the other direction.”

“Ah,” David said. The man could recall David from all the people walking down the street? That seemed doubtful in a city of men in dark suits and hats.

“Come back to my studio, and we’ll talk.”

A year ago, David would have smiled and happily gone wherever the fine gent took him. Now he folded his arms over his chest and said, “No. I don’t think so.”

The man’s icy blue-gray eyes widened. “Good Lord, I’m not out to rob you. I’d attack someone who seems more prosperous if I were.”

David was wearing his Sunday best and had his grandfather’s silver watch. He’d felt entirely grand as he’d set out that morning.

And now this gentleman called him shabby. David wanted to walk away and maybe throw a curse over his shoulder.

And then tomorrow, he’d go home to Bethie—and no, that wouldn’t do. He had to find work, even if it was from this sort of man who oozed wealth and arrogance.

“Modeling,” David said. “For a picture, you mean?”

“Yes, that exactly.” The artist straightened the waistcoat under his odd silk jacket, then apparently noticed he’d smeared it with blue. “Bother. There’s another one ruined. Are you coming? I pay well.”

“How much?”

“Seven shillings.”

That settled the matter. David couldn’t possibly say no. During his busiest time with his uncle, he made twenty shillings—a whole pound—a week, but after the incident with George Hucksley, he didn’t get that sort of work.

He really shouldn’t have broken George’s fingers.

Without waiting for more, the gentleman turned and walked away. David hesitated only a moment before following. “What’s your name? Sir?” he said when he caught up with him.

“Isak Jensen. Yes, I know I don’t look Nordic.”

The hair was dark and the skin more toast than white milk, but there was something about Mr. Jensen’s face, a boniness that seemed Viking.

“I’m heartily sick of painting my own face,” Jensen said as he walked along. “Too raw. You have precisely the look I want. The jawline, the eyes are refined.”

“I hope I can be of service.” Only because I want the money, he finished silently.

“Hmm.” Jensen sounded uninterested, which was reassuring. David didn’t trust eagerness.

The man led him past the squat terraced houses, around the corner. He’d run a great distance, and thinking of the man running after him, wanting him that much, almost made David stop, refuse the job, and walk away.

They walked to another, far grander, row of houses, red brick behind the usual black wrought-iron fence—the place where David had seen and greeted a cat that very morning.

The entrance, with a single shiny red door under a canopy, wasn’t as grand as the manors back home, but close enough to make the back of David’s neck prickle.

He had worked in houses like this one, and had met George in one only slightly grander.

He followed the Viking man inside and looked around with his trained eye. Some of the wainscoting had been dented. A few plaster walls could use some repair, though the curving mahogany banister under his hand was smooth and perfect. He trailed after Jensen up the stairs, and then up more stairs, and even more—into a room with skylights and windows. He walked to the broad window that wasn’t original to the building and put his hand on the glass. “We’re on top of the city here. Look at all those chimney pots.”

Jensen said, “You’re not a servant, then.”

David turned away from the window. “No. Why did you think that?” It was refreshing to speak to this gentleman with little or no deference. That was what came of being suspicious, discouraged, and hungry—the one advantage.

“I suppose because the servants I know of sleep in attics and have fine views, though through smaller windows than these, of course. These are special.”

Jensen stood near a giant canvas that faced away from David. Was he going to dig out a hidden tray of paints and work on the monstrous thing?

As if he could read the unasked question, the artist gathered plain paper and pencils and said, “I’ll take some smaller studies. And take your photograph, if you don’t mind. You’re a very attractive man.” He said it almost disapprovingly, and again, David was reassured at the tone. He knew too well how pretty he and his sister were.

“I’ll hire you for at least a few days,” Jensen said. “Payment at the end of each day so I don’t forget. All right?”

“Seven shillings a day, you said. Were you making a joke?”

“Isn’t that enough? It’s a shilling more than I pay most models. But you’re…” He stopped, frowned, and seemed to look for a word. “You’re perfect. As I said.”

It was more than twice what David had expected to earn. “No, no. That’s fine. I’ll take off my coat and jacket”—he raised his chin—“and waistcoat. But nothing more.”

An odd look came to Jensen’s face. “That won’t be necessary. At first. Just stand, and I’ll start with some sketches. No, maybe some action poses.”

David carefully draped his outer garments on a chair.

“Hurry, please. I don’t have much daylight left.” Jensen’s foot tapped.

As he lifted his pencil and a knife, his tone changed. “I hope you’ll have time tomorrow?” He sounded pleasant and undemanding for the first time, as if he extended an invitation.

David nodded, then asked, “What shall I do?”

Jensen stopped scraping at the pencil and frowned. “Just move about. Slowly. As if you were walking through some very thick mud.”

Such a bizarre thing to pretend, but David soon found he rather enjoyed play-acting. He picked up a length of wood, left from a stretcher, he supposed, and pretended to duel an imaginary opponent.

“Yes,” Jensen said. He hummed a little under his breath, then said, “You have such well-defined muscles. You’re not a clerk.”

“Not yet. I am here in London to get a job as one.”

“I hear there’s quite a demand.” Jensen spoke absently, apparently uninterested in his words or David’s. Most of his attention was directed to somewhere near David’s shoulders.

David considered telling him what he’d learned earlier in the day, that with no proper references, firms wouldn’t hire him. The letter from his employer, his uncle, wouldn’t make an impression on any company’s manager. A good finisher and a strong back didn’t help make a man a clerk. And if only they’d have asked for a sample of his writing—but he never got past the first few minutes of any of the nearly dozen inquiries, including at two employment agencies.

He found the topic too discouraging to think about, so David didn’t bother responding, and Jensen didn’t seem to notice, for all his attention seemed to be riveted on David. Jensen’s stare was unnerving, as if he memorized a meal he longed to gobble down and David was the food he salivated over—the wild-animal-chasing-down-prey look he’d first worn on the street.

David turned away until that stare made his back prickle. He’d rather face the menace of the man’s gaze head-on.

The time passed with only the scratch of pencil and chalk and something that looked like a stick of charcoal on paper.

“You don’t talk much,” Jensen said.

“I didn’t think you wanted me to distract you.”

“Mm.” Jensen’s first sound of approval. “I don’t mind some talk as long as I’m not working on your face.”

David wasn’t used to talking to strangers who were eccentric and clearly had too much money, and who looked at him with such interest.

“Do speak; it’s too quiet,” Jensen ordered. “And sit if you want.”

“Quiet? Not what I’d say.” David slumped in the chair, glad to rest his feet. “I can barely hear myself think here in the city, what with the sounds of costermongers and the clop of so many horses and all those rattling carts and carriages, and all that yelling. Now, in the country, Bethie and I sit outside in the evening, and we can hear the rustle of wings when a bird flies off in the distance.”

Jensen paused for a moment. “Bethie?”

David might have said, My sister; instead, he ignored the question. “Once I settle here, I’ll bring her.” He wanted this gentleman to think that he was married, though why it was anyone’s business—and why it mattered—he couldn’t say. “If I settle here,” he added, recalling his useless day.

“Get up and walk about again,” Jensen said. A few seconds passed before he added, “Please.”

As he rose, David’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

The artist scowled at him. “You are frowning. I want you to strike a heroic pose.”

“I don’t feel heroic.”

“How do you feel? From your slumped shoulders and that doleful face, I’d say a man who’s lost all joy.”

At the moment, that didn’t feel entirely wrong. David didn’t answer. He began to do another slow circle, each step taking a few seconds.

Jensen tapped the wooden board he used as a desk. “No, I am serious…er.” Jensen must have forgotten his name, but David decided not to help him. “You need to look less like a lost lamb.”

David’s stomach growled again, answering the question.

Jensen put down his chalk and the board. His long fingers were smeared with black. “Ah. I understand. You want your tea, I expect?”

He was hungry, but David wasn’t going to beg for food. “I should leave,” he said.

“No. I’ll order something. The sun is going down, but perhaps I might do some work by gas and candlelight.” Jensen swiped his hands together, then picked up a cloth and attempted a better job of cleaning himself. “There’s no way to summon the staff from up here, so I must go… You. Stay,” he commanded as if David were a dog.

He left the attic room, closing the door behind him.

David immediately walked to the large canvas, which was blank. There were sketches and smaller paintings stacked and piled against the walls. He gingerly lifted the board that held papers pinned to it. There was his own face, a slapdash version of it, but clearly David. And there was a picture of him sitting, standing, seeming to twist to the side.

David leafed through the pages quickly. Whatever else he was, the peculiar Mr. Jensen was an artist with more skill than David had seen before.

Jensen returned carrying a wicker basket. “Susan will be up with the tea shortly, but I grabbed some bread and whatnot. Look inside.”

He put the basket on the floor near David, then walked back to his easel.

David dropped to a squat to peer in at a heel of bread, a chunk of cheese, some thick slices of ham, and some sort of small meat pie, all wrapped in a white linen cloth. The smell of meat and bread made his mouth water.

There was only the rather tattered basket, the cloth, and the food. He rubbed his hands on his trousers and supposed he would look ungrateful if he mentioned the lack of utensils or plates. He looked up at Jensen. “Do you want some?”

“No, no.” Jensen sounded annoyed. He’d already taken up his board and chalk. “It’s all for you. Eat, and I’ll make more studies at the same time. But if you would stay in that position for another few minutes?”

So David ate, kneeling over a basket, feeling rather like a wild animal or a very small child.

The food soon distracted him again. The meat pie was the best he’d ever eaten, and not only because of his sharp hunger. The flaky crust and sauce made the food into something far more important and memorable than the word “pie” could convey.

“You may sit if you wish,” Jensen said. “But if you could stay on the floor, that would be best. I think tailor style.”

David obeyed.

Before he’d eaten the rest of the food, there was a single tap on the door. “Enter,” Jensen said. Without looking away from David or his board, he spoke to the maid who came into the room. “Put it on the back table.”

The maid deposited the tray and looked David up and down, her brows and mouth drawn into a fierce scowl. She was about his age of twenty-two, and pretty, despite her large hooked nose.

She asked Jensen, “Anything else, sir?”

“That’s all,” he said. “Tell Cook I might want you to pose tomorrow.”

The maid’s face brightened at once. “Glad to, sir.”

“Some poses with this fellow, perhaps? But I promise nothing you’d object to,” he added.

“No, of course, sir.” Her features had relaxed, and she even managed to nod to David before leaving. It was the nod of two equals, with no deference to him. But then again, his fingers were slick with the grease of the pie and he was sitting on the floor, eating like a savage.

After the maid left, Jensen put down his chalk with a large sigh and went to the tray. He poured two cups. “Milk? Sugar?” he demanded.

“Both, please.” He actually felt a ripple of excitement at the thought. When had milk and sugar become luxuries? After the incident with George, of course.

Jensen brought a cup and saucer to David who hesitated. Should he wipe his fingers on the fine white cloth? He said, “I’m not sure I should handle that china. My hands are dirty.”

Jensen laughed and held up his hand not holding the cup. His palm was smeared with colors and black chalk. “Just take the cup, would you?”

For a few minutes, they sat, drinking tea, David on the floor, the artist on a stool next to the large canvas. The sun had turned pink and orange. David gazed out the huge windows. “If I were a painter, I’d do that rather than this.” He pointed at himself.

“I’m no Turner.”

The name was familiar, but David didn’t want to show his ignorance.

“Besides, you’re more…interesting.” Jensen shifted his attention from David long enough to squint at the glittering light as if it offended him. “Bother. You look tired. I should stop. But only if you’ll be back in the morning?” He pulled a watch from his pocket. “I think at eight a.m.”

David gulped down the rest of his tea. “That’ll suit me.” He put his cup and saucer on the tray and grabbed several cubes of sugar, slipping them into his pocket.

Jensen pointed at his jacket pocket and scowled. “If you’re hungry, I can get you more food.”

David’s face heated. He’d forgotten that Jensen’s entire attention had been focused on his face and form all evening—no reason he’d stop staring now.

“The sugar is for a horse,” he lied. “Thank you anyway.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Eight is good.”

Jensen started shuffling through papers. Apparently, David had been dismissed.

He cleared his throat. “Mr. Jensen?”

“Well?” Jensen looked up from the piles of drawings, pausing with one of David’s face in his hand.

“You said I should ask for my pay at the end of the day.”

“Oh yes. Right.” For one of the first times, Jensen seemed flustered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. There was at least two pounds on his palm. He counted out the shillings and dropped them into David’s hand. “Good that you reminded me.” A genuine smile briefly lit his eyes. “You don’t seem shy or full of the usual bowing and scraping. Makes my life easier if I don’t have to worry about overstepping. I expect you’ll tell me if I do.”

The food in David’s stomach suddenly seemed to weigh too much. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Jensen waved a hand as if wiping away cobwebs between them. “If I keep you in one position too long while we’re working, or if you have to piss, you’ll tell me.” It was an order, of course. The gentleman was stern, ­­­­but nothing else, thank goodness.

David expected his new employer would stay in the studio and David would show himself out, but no, Jensen opened the door to the studio and escorted him down the two flights of stairs.

At the bottom, Jensen paused. “How long will you stay in London?” He looked up at the ceiling and over at a small stained-glass window, then down at his well-polished shoes. Anywhere but at David, which was odd after the two or more hours of staring he’d done.

“I can stay more’n a week, thanks to this.” David jingled the coins. “As soon as I find a good permanent position, I’ll send for Bethie.”

“Ah yes, Bethie.” A ghost of a smile passed over the artist’s face, and he glanced into David’s eyes for a moment, then away that gaze went, fast as a panicked child.

“Thank you, sir,” David said. When Jensen didn’t move, he walked to the front door and opened it himself. “I’ll see you in the morning.” David left as quickly as he could. He didn’t wait to have the gentleman change his mind about the next day’s work.

*

The light seemed to die when the glorious man shut the door behind him.

“Jesus,” Isak said softly. “Holy Jesus.” And he wasn’t sure if it was a prayer or a curse. At least Isak could breathe again.

His hands started to shake, perhaps from the strong sensations rushing through his body, excitement of his perceptions and arousal of his spirit and… “Be quiet,” he ordered his body.

“Sir?” Susan the maid stood at the bottom of the stairs.

“Nothing.” He noticed the tray from the studio in her hands. “Susan. You know you’re not to go into the studio without permission.”

Even in the darkening corridor, he could see her mouth go tight and her blush. “I forgot, sir.”

That was a lie, of course, and they both knew it.

He wasn’t about to reprimand her further, though. She was a diligent servant and, far more important, a fine model, though of course she was never naked. When he’d noticed she sometimes hovered near the studio—where he spent most of his waking hours—he’d worried for a time that she would attempt to seduce him, but she seemed more interested in the extra pay she’d get for modeling.

“Very well. Please keep it in mind in the future.”

“Yes, sir.” She hurried off toward the kitchen, the teacups clinking on the saucers.

He watched her go, considering how he’d capture that pose—hands on a tray, trying to rush away without running. But the vague interest in her pose was burned away by the need to return to his studio and truly capture the workman’s face.

Isak had once had a horse that inspired him. And for a time, he’d been captivated by the face of a retired gentleman he’d painted. Certainly he’d enjoyed making small sketches of his former lover—face only, Reed had demanded—but never before had his urge to paint been so closely entwined with his desire.

He still felt shaken, his appetite destroyed by the excitement created by the workman. And that man would be back in the morning. He ran up the stairs two at a time to return to his studio.

He’d heard of love at first sight and thought it was rubbish. Inspiration, lust, longing all slammed into existence by a single glimpse—today, he’d learned that encountering that laundry list of symptoms could be absolutely true. The epiphany had occurred in less than a minute.

That morning, he’d sat by his breakfast room window, staring out at the street, drinking tea, idly making lists of supplies he required. A man strode down his street. The man walked like no one else, full of life, his face lit as he gazed about himself. That had been more than enough to wake the drowsy Isak entirely. But then the man had stopped just at his house and smiled down at something—the cook’s cat. Could Isak imagine receiving a smile like that? The thought had made him simultaneously aroused and disgusted with himself for thinking like a swooning maiden.

It was only a few hours ago that he’d watched as the man had taken off his hat for a moment, pushed back his hair, and replaced the hat. The simple actions as he walked and smiled, the easy confidence as he’d swept his hand up and pulled off his hat, the grace as he’d pushed at his hair—everything about the workman dressed in an ill-fitting suit had touched Isak, jolted him, more like, as if a dark room had been suddenly illuminated by a hundred electric bulbs all at once.

He’d watched until the figure disappeared, and then he’d rushed upstairs to his studio. He’d worked harder than he had for weeks. He was no Dante, but that model, oh, he was definitely Beatrice.

Beatrice and Dante had never fucked, likely done nothing more than hold a few brief conversations, he reminded himself. Had they even touched? Did Beatrice, dead by her early twenties, have any idea she’d been such a focus for Dante? Never mind, Isak had no intention of ever allowing the man to know what he’d done to him. The workman—or whatever he was—might see some of his effect on Isak. The studies he’d made would show anyone that fact.

He sorted through his drawings, trying to understand what drew him to the workman, and how he could translate the liveliness to color and line. The glow to the man. Had he imagined it? Yes, probably. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to convey it in a scene, possibly a whole room. Yes, just a regular room, with other people, and his model on a sofa, perhaps, wearing the same expression he’d had as when he’d smiled at a cat. Or his model on a street corner? Waiting for a tram to pass? His model a shining bit of treasure in an ordinary scene, a face in a crowd, and yet so much…more.

For a moment, he tried to fetch up the name. What was it again? But Isak would do well to ignore that sort of fact. The man would remain a face and form. His personality and his life, his time with Bethie—now, that name Isak could recall—would remain a mystery and one Isak shouldn’t care about. He’d ignore his instinct to learn every fact about his new model. That inane push to have the model talk in that soft country burr was stupid. He must keep his art and his other desires separate.

He had trouble sleeping that night and got out of bed at midnight to go to the studio. Isak didn’t want to work on the drawings he already had of his model, so he did another sketch of the man from memory. At eight the next morning, he’d compare his sketch to the reality and see if his memory was accurate.

Still wide awake and unwilling to leave the studio, he decided to work on a commission, a portrait of an old school friend who needed the painting for his country estate’s wall. Nigel’s mother had nagged him to sit because all baronets stretching back to antiquity had portraits.

“Make it as handsome or ugly as you wish,” Nigel had told Isak. “I have no need to impress my descendants with my phiz, only to keep my mother happy. And the wall of rogues is along a dark old corridor, so don’t bother with your best details.”

Isak discovered he should work on Nigel’s suit only because, without Nigel in front of him, he wanted to give Nigel’s pale skin a honeyed hue, and lend his chin and jaw more strength—in other words, turn him into his model.

He stopped work only when he decided that if he didn’t get enough sleep, he would be tired once his model showed up again in the morning.

In bed, he read the latest letter from his brother, another man like Nigel, bound to tradition and family and land. Poor old Gerry was trapped and trying to drag Isak back with him into that world. Isak had agreed to hold the party Gerry insisted upon, but only reluctantly. The best families and their daughters would attend. He might easily escape the events in London but this one would be impossible to duck out of.

Up by six thirty a.m. and in his studio by seven. Eight came and went. He walked back downstairs and out the door, feeling foolish about looking up and down the street. Nonsense. He would not behave as a girl promised a treat by a suitor.

He stomped back up the stairs and started work on the background of another portrait.

The model appeared at nine a.m. He came into the studio apologizing, looking pale and with dark circles under his eyes, more a sad poet than robust outdoorsman. Both versions fired Isak’s imagination and made him itch to pick up his pencils.

“I apologize for being late. I had trouble sleeping.”

“And why was that?”

He hesitated. “It’s hardly important.”

“I asked because I’m interested,” Isak said. “Go on, tell me.”

“The inn is noisy, and I’m not… I’m still worrying about finding work. After this week, I mean.”

And worrying about his Bethie, no doubt. Was he married and unused to sleeping without her body lying beside him? The image of his model twined around another popped into his head. That would be elegant. He’d have to do some sleeping studies and perhaps convince Susan to allow some contact with the model. The two of them wrapped tight in each other’s arms. The model nearly naked, eyes closed. Another bout of desire seized Isak, wound him tight, and he moved behind his work table to hide the evidence.

“You might stay here.” Isak spoke without thinking too hard, because if he stopped to consider, he’d know himself as a fool. “It would save you the cost of the inn and then allow you to get to work on time.”

“I couldn’t!” The model sounded positively horrified, as if he could see into Isak’s lust-filled soul.

“Of course you could,” Isak snapped, annoyed at himself for making the offer and his determination to make it come true. “If it would make you feel better, I’ll deduct a trice for your bed and board.”

The model immediately relaxed. He even smiled as he nodded. “Yes, naturally you should.”

“It’s settled, then. You work with me for a couple of hours and then fetch your belongings from the inn.” He unrolled the fresh paper. “After lunch,” he added. “I’ll feed you, of course.”

‘There’s no need. I have money from yesterday.” The model’s manner had grown starchy again. Apparently, he was as proud as Reed, who’d always been conscious of his lack of funds.

“As you wish.” Isak wasn’t going to argue with him about the small matters. He obviously wasn’t in service or he’d obey more easily. What had he said yesterday? He’d talked about wood and planks.

“What should I do now?” He shrugged off his coat and waistcoat.

“Your shirt and vest as well,” Isak said.

“Shirt, yes, undershirt, no.”

Isak snorted. “You are an independent sort.”

“How’s that?”

“Well. I don’t expect a lot of kowtowing or hat pulling, but shouldn’t a carpenter or cabinetmaker know about the rules of interaction between classes? Could that be why you’re not getting hired for work as a clerk?”

The man’s mouth opened. He snapped it shut again, really a snap of teeth Isak could hear.

“Go on,” Isak coaxed. “You were going to tell me something?”

“No,” the model said and suddenly gave a glorious smile—far too fleeting to be captured, dash it. “You could be right, at that. I mean about why I didn’t get hired for work. I do have a good hand at copying. And they all advertised for the positions.” He pulled off his shirt and then, after a long minute, unbuttoned his undergarment. It lay over his trousers since he’d dressed in a one-piece item.

But good Christ, Isak had no interest in his clothing, only in the smooth lines of his biceps and the planes of his stomach. Even the nervous hand he pressed over his chest called to Isak, powerful fingers, tapered and long. This man was the most glorious form he’d ever seen in his life. No wonder he was so skittish—it must be rather difficult to be entirely lovely. What did Bethie think to have a suitor who must be more vital and attractive than herself, or did she not mind being a moth and destroyed by the beauty of his light? There couldn’t be room for two such glorious people in a relationship.

He had to say something. “Thank you for allowing me to study your form as well as your face.”

The model grunted and turned his back on Isak, yet another lovely angle. They worked in silence for a time, the model’s trapezius and latissimus dorsi shifting under his skin as he held the pose.

“How long you been an artist?” the model asked after a time.

Usually Isak would discourage any conversation, but perhaps if they talked, his persistent near-arousal would vanish and he could concentrate on his fingers’ work rather than allowing other parts of his anatomy to rule his brain.

“I can’t recall a time I wasn’t messing about with paper and pencil,” he said. He laid aside the slapdash drawing he’d just done, pleased. It showed the man’s underlying vibrancy.

The model nodded. “I’m about the same with wood.”

“You’re a carpenter?” Had the man volunteered as much yesterday?

“A clerk.” The model glanced over his shoulder at Isak. “I am now a clerk.”

“Yes, certainly.” Isak waved his pencil at him. “Lean over, as if you were adjusting shoe laces.”

His mouth went dry as those lines lengthened and the details of the model’s transverse abdominis and erector spinae were delineated.

The oblivious model said, “I just mess about with wood in my spare time. Now that I’m not a carpenter.”

Isak cleared his throat. He adjusted his position and got another piece of paper. “When you were a carpenter, did you mess about with wood during your off hours?”

Oh Lord, mess about with wood. He stifled a schoolboy’s guffaw.

“Not so much, but I didn’t have as much free time when we had a lot of work.” The model seemed to droop a little.

“We?”

“I worked with my uncle.”

After a few moments of silence, the model talked about his uncle, a man he seemed to admire, and the various projects they’d worked on together. Isak worked and half-listened. When the model fell silent, Isak found he wanted to hear more, and said, “It seems you and your uncle were up for any sort of task, from framing a house to carving the mantels inside.”

“Yes.”

“You sound so wistful. If the work was so good and plentiful, why aren’t you staying in your village and doing what you love?”

“Situations.” And the chatty model suddenly went silent.

But Isak was too curious now to let it go. “Ah?” he said. “You have to leave your home because?”

More silence. He ventured, “Something to do with your Bethie?”

“Rather not say.”

“You don’t mind talking about your work, but your private life is your own business?”

The model gave a sharp breath and started, a small motion, but Isak was completely tuned to every movement he made.

“Never mind,” Isak said. “I’m sure your Bethie is beyond rebuke.”

The model said, rather hotly, “She’s too well-bred to be doing what I’m doing here.”

Isak had faced this sort of nonsense before. The fact that the man was a narrow-minded fool should help ease his attraction. “Are you insulting the females who work as my models?”

The model’s blush suffused his face and chest with red. After a moment, he spoke again, and, as usual, without any deference. “Not that so much as I’m defending Bethie. I only know what people say about models, not the truth of it. That they’re all…” He waved a hand.

“They are not all whores.” Jensen went to the sketches, a smaller painting, one of the several he was making of Lady Alice, and held up the canvas. “She is one of my models and a paragon of virtue and morality.” And rather a dragon, but that wasn’t the issue.

“She’s sitting for a portrait. Isn’t that a different matter?”

“I look at her and I make sketches and I apply paint. The process is the same for every model.”

“It’s all the same for you. That’s interesting.” The man’s half grin was gorgeous. Clearly, he considered any awkwardness over. He slapped his naked belly. “’Cept some are less clothed than others, and I expect that’s where the difference lies.”

Isak put down the sketch. “Since neither of us is working, perhaps it is time to take a break.”

The model walked off the platform. Unfortunately, he pulled on his underclothes and shirt. He went to the portrait of Lady Alice. “’Tis lovely work,” he said. “But she looks like a real terror. The sort who’d whip dogs with her parasol.”

It was gratifying to hear Isak had captured the spirit of his model. “I’d say more the sort to slay her enemies in battle.”

“Yes.” The model backed up and looked at the portrait, then moved closer again, as if he’d been trained to view art. “That is it. A fierce warrior. A lady with the heart of a general, the kind that doesn’t put up with a single word of backtalk from his men. If she likes that about herself, she’ll like this picture.”

Well, damn. His model had amusing flights of fancy. Really, the man showing any form of intelligence was a nuisance. Isak wished he hadn’t invited him to stay.

“Is there a pub near here where I can get a bite?” the model asked.

“Nonsense. You’ll eat here.” Wait, hold on, hadn’t he just wished the man not to hang about the place when they weren’t working? He answered that by saying, “I’d like to get back to work as soon as may be, and the nearest pub is a bit of a walk.”

“Thank you,” the model said, but he sounded a little resentful, or perhaps cautious. “I’ll just go down to the kitchen, then, so the help aren’t bothered.”

“They’re paid well enough.”

“’Tis what I did when I was a carpenter and our employers were kind enough to offer refreshment.”

“You don’t need to slink off to eat.” Isak wondered if he was more annoyed with the model or himself. The answer must be himself, because the model was being thoroughly reasonable and at last placing proper distance between them.




Chapter Two



David wanted to curse the man, but only said, “Very well, sir.”

Damn Mr. Jensen. Damn the man for reawakening all the old longing and hunger David had conquered. As he’d posed, he had talked of his old life out loud mostly to remind himself of all he’d lost because of his own stupidity. Good to recall the life before George, when he’d been safe and the work had been gratifying.

And you were aching to get out of Bidswell for ages, my boy. That was his uncle’s voice scolding him for not being entirely truthful.

Not at such a cost to Bethie, he reminded the voice, and that shut his imaginary uncle up.

The reminder did nothing to appease that resurfaced hunger—here was another gentleman coming into his life, pretending to listen to him and then ordering him about—and David liked it.

No, it wasn’t the orders he enjoyed, it was the company. Mr. Jensen had a dry sort of manner that appealed to David. Though George’s manner had covered something worse, David had liked his sharp sarcasm, entirely different from his family’s pious manner, his own former pious manner. He would never poke or prod, or at least he wouldn’t have before George.

And Mr. Jensen had skill the likes of which David had never seen in his village. He had not even seen evidence of such talent. He’d admired art on the walls of the houses he’d worked in, but these paintings and drawing made that art look stiff and overworked. This work had vigor, and the fact that he could see the brushstrokes in the portraits made it all seem far more thriving, connected to life.

Not that artwork should be something to concern a man—decoration was a lady’s concern, as his uncle had pointed out often enough. David might feel the unnatural impulses, but he could fight the worst of their effects. Oh, do shut up. You’d long for cock even if you were the manliest of men. And that was the worst voice of all, the amused disdain of an imaginary version of George, the gentleman he’d briefly cared for.

He’d fallen so hard and fast, he should have known it was false. The ache left behind when the attraction turned to hate seemed to make it feel too real, though.

“You do look as if someone tortured your favorite dog,” Mr. Jensen said.

David spoke without thinking. “We’re not at work now. No need to watch me so close.”

The artist drew back, and David expected some sort of angry retort. Instead, Jensen said, “You’re right. We both need a break, eh? You should go down to the kitchen. Send up the maid to me if you would.”

“And I’ll eat downstairs?” David said.

“Yes. That’s best.”

The gentleman seemed shaken somehow, as if David had caught him in a despicable act. And for once, David didn’t want to get one over on the rich, entitled man. This gent had been more than kind and was paying far too well.

“I apologize for being rude,” David said. “I was thinking of disturbing things, which means you were right. No dog torturing, though.”

The man wouldn’t look at him. He organized his supplies. David wished he’d been less unpleasant. He added, “Thank you, sir.” There. A bit of the forelock grabbing and bowing might help.

Jensen gave a single nod. “You’ll return in a half hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

He left the studio and trotted down the flights of stairs. Near the front door, he found a manservant, wearing a black tailcoat and a high collar, who directed him to the kitchen, down the parquet floors to a doorway and then slate steps. Once he drew near, it was easy enough to find. The scents of meat and bread drew him.

A gray-haired woman in a maid’s uniform sat at the table and looked him up and down with a half smile. “Ah, now, Susan, your man model is here.”

Susan the maid said, “Do be quiet, Myra.”

The two women held knives and sat facing bowls that seemed to contain a mountain of already peeled potatoes.

David remained in the doorway. He knew better than to barge around a busy kitchen. “All that for a single gentleman?” he asked.

A thin woman wrapped in a huge, very white apron bustled over after shoving some coal into the large, modern stove. “Come on, come on. You’re here for lunch? Aren’t you? I’m Mrs. Beaumont, the cook.” She pointed to a seat at the far end of the table. “You sit down here.”

“You’re very busy,” he tried again.

“We’re preparing for a party next week.” The cook plunked a bowl of mutton stew in front of him and handed him a spoon and fork and a huge white napkin that was stiff with starch. The stew smelled like rosemary. He ate a few bites and decided it tasted better than anything he’d eaten since the Christmas before. There was no need for a knife, for the pieces had been cut small and the meat was entirely tender. Perhaps it was even lamb and not mutton.

The cook watched him for a moment, her hands on her hips. “I see you’re curious why the girls are here.”

He had no notion what she was talking about. He had a mouthful of stew, though he was trying not to bolt the delicious food, so he only shrugged.

The cook went on. “We know ’tis not the done thing to have the housemaids doing kitchen work, but this is not the usual sort of establishment.”

Myra gave a laugh. “Isn’t that the truth.”

He asked, “What do you mean not usual?”

Myra said, “Our Mr. Jensen’s a painter. Means he’s not like regular people. Artists, tchah.”

“He said he’d hire more help,” Susan said. “He pays better’n most and isn’t demanding. Isn’t his fault if Judge is a lazy devil.”

“You would defend him, Miss Model.”

“Girls,” Mrs. Beaumont said. “Not in front of our guest.”

“Anyway, the agency will send over help for the party, I know that,” Susan said, ignoring the order from the cook.

“They better send along a few good servers instead of the clods he’s hired just ’cause they had good bone structure.”

“Myra,” the cook said sharply.

“Not hardly gossip. Everyone knows he likes odd-looking or attractive people.” She nodded at Susan. “Least some have talent more than just sitting around.”

“Thank you, I suppose,” Susan said.

“Enough!” Mrs. Beaumont slapped the table with her open palm. The maids and David jumped.

They all fell silent. David finished his stew and saw he still had fifteen minutes before he had to climb back up to the attic studio.

“The necessary is out back?” he asked Susan.

“Not at all. We have plumbing inside.”

“Even the servants?”

“Sure and we use the same facilities as the master.”

“Told you it’s not like other houses,” Myra murmured after a quick look in the cook’s direction.

He thanked the cook and the others and found the water closet, which had hidden pipes and was far more elegant than George’s. That gave him a sense of silly triumph until he reminded himself that, though George was in the past, in about seven months, his presence would make itself known again. Poor Bethie.

The footman-like servant waited for him outside the WC, his arms folded. “I sent a maid up when you came down, and I was correct. You forgot to order food for Mr. Jensen.”

David said, “Hope he wasn’t too annoyed.”

He isn’t.” The emphasis on the first word showed the servant’s own annoyance.

David held out a hand. “I’m Lewis, David Lewis. Sorry I forgot to pass along the message.”

“I am Mr. Judge.” The man eyed David’s hand and didn’t reach to shake. “I am in charge of this household.”

Like that, was he? David might not understand the details, but he knew the basics about household hierarchies and had no interest in being wedged into this man’s world or under his thumb. “Oh yes, the man who’s going to hire more staff.” David let his hand drop. “Eventually.”

The thin-nosed blighter narrowed his eyes. “Are the servants gossiping again?”

“Well, now. You do know I’m up in that room with Mr. Jensen for hours.” David wasn’t exactly lying, more what his uncle called skirting the issue.

Mr. Judge’s eyes widened, and he went pale. “He has made remarks? But that…”

“Yes?” David asked.

Judge recovered. “You’d best go up at once. He will certainly notice if you’re not there when you’re expected.”

Once upon a time, David would do the head-duck, the yessir, and scurry off to do the bidding of the top-tier servants in a house like this. But he’d discovered that if you act as if you had power, then sometimes you actually did. “All right. And I’ll tell him you informed me you’re off to the agency to hire more help, hmm? You don’t want to worry the gentleman, what with the big party next week.”

Judge turned and walked away without a word.

Well-fed and happy with his surroundings, David climbed the many stairs. He might even offer to take off every stitch if his employer would rather have a naked form to work from.

In the sunlit studio, Mr. Jensen was ignoring a tray containing a glass of wine, a basket of bread, and a bowl of stew. He was busy messing with paper and pencil, as usual. No wonder he was thin and had a hungry look. The food on his tray was the same sort of stew David had just eaten, though the bowl was a great deal fancier, all white, pink, blue, and gold.

He looked up and frowned at David. “Get enough food? Let’s get started.”

“Plenty. But we ought to wait until you’re done with your meal.”

“Yes, of course.” He grabbed up the bowl and gulped down the stew as quickly as a starving child. His manners were worse than David’s, and that was saying something.

David couldn’t help staring.

“I’m in a hurry,” Jensen explained through a mouthful of potato. “I had an idea for my first painting of you.”

“First? You’ll do more than one?”

Jensen nodded. “Your face is too interesting to use in just one major composition. Usually, beauty is insipid. There’s a sameness to attractive features. But not yours. There is a rather glorious light, a quality in your expression and eyes, especially when you’re amused, that I want to capture.”

David rubbed his nose. What was he supposed to say to remarks like that? He settled on “Thank you.”

Jensen put aside the bowl. “Now we will get to work.”

David still felt awkward about the strange compliment. He’d grown used to being stared at as Jensen worked, but the discomfort rose again. Jensen had talked about how he saw David instead of just being a craftsman and doing the work. That talk of beauty, of all things, added a strange sensation to the whole studio, particularly in the air between them.

David pulled off his jacket and waistcoat more slowly.

“I shouldn’t have said anything about your looks,” Jensen said. “I’ve made you self-conscious.”

David clicked his tongue and yanked his shirt from his trousers. “I’ll recover. Don’t mean to go all shy and blushing.” He flung the shirt over the jacket and the rest of his clothes. His unmentionables were one piece, so he unbuttoned them and pulled out his arms. Once again, he was naked from the waist up, but the idea of taking off all his clothes was no longer an easy plan.

Jensen’s words and his avid stare seemed too powerful, and David didn’t want to bare the part of himself that might show how much he liked Jensen. Hell, even thinking about an erection proved dangerous. He felt the soft brush of cloth that told him he might be getting a rise even now

A fear erection was something new to him—he wasn’t attracted to danger, only to men with power and taste and dark hair.

Mr. Jensen was exactly the type of person he desired.

“Try to look determined,” Jensen said.

Right. Back to work. David put his hands on his hips, which reminded him of Mrs. Beaumont scolding the maids. That couldn’t be what the artist would look for.

David, posing as determined—and, yes, he was, indeed. He thought of his journey to London and the offices full of sneering gentlemen who wouldn’t hire a carpenter to copy receipts, even when he offered to show his fine hand or do some sums. His accent must have stopped them—no country bumpkins for their fine offices. Thinking of that search didn’t work, because the artist wanted determined, not defeated. Hadn’t Jensen said he’d seen a light in David? Such words made David blush but they also made him sure he could show whatever face the man required.

He raised his chin and stared out the window, fixing his gaze on a chimney pot in the distance. He’d wager a fine house lay under that chimney, precisely the sort of place he’d choose as a home for Bethie. He’d imitate fine speech—Jensen would be good for that. And even listening to the maids would help him shed any accent. The thought of settling in the city at last must have given him the determined appearance Jensen wanted, for the other man breathed, “Exactly that. Yes, precisely.”

The rest of the afternoon passed slowly. David adopted a standing pose. The scratch of pencil and charcoal was replaced with the smoother sound of brushes, and the air reeked of linseed oil.

David’s limbs ached and tingled from holding too still. He wished he could go back to the three- or four-minute poses—or that he’d not propped his foot or arm at such an angle. He remembered he must speak up if he wanted to stop, but when he did the first time, Jensen muttered something about one minute.

“No, now,” David said and sat before he fell.

Jensen cursed, then blinked. “Beg pardon,” he said. He seemed to come out of a fog in which he’d been alone with his brushes, paint, and canvas, and David was an afterthought. And here David thought the artist had paid such close attention to him—not him, just the meat of his form. It should have been a relief, but it disappointed him, a little. The thought that there were seven shillings at the end of the day, and that would be the important thing, cheered him considerably. And with his board here instead of at the pricey inn, he’d save even more money.

David paced the room and shook out his arms and legs, thinking of the note he’d send to Bethie. That put him into a fine frame of mind, and he soon went back to the plinth to resume his pose.

“Not quite,” Jensen said. “Your arm was not so…” He propped his own paint-smeared fist on his narrow hip and pushed his elbow out. David attempted the same pose.

“No, no.” Jensen stepped close. The smell of paint and oil almost covered his own scent, but when David drew in a sharp, surprised breath, he caught the faint male odor and had the shocking response of immediate arousal. It didn’t help when Jensen reached out and grasped his wrist. David wanted to protest, to pull back, but then Jensen might see his indignation as fear.

And so it was, because he very much did not want this attraction.

For a moment, Jensen held David’s wrist as he pushed his arm up and to the side and then, as suddenly as a lightning strike, he seemed to understand the intimacy of the moment. He shivered and released David. “I beg your pardon. One forgets that you’re…I am…” He hurried back to his canvas.

He looked at David and then quickly away again, at his arrangement of paints. Oh, damn, he must have seen David was half-aroused. In this pose, it was not easy to hide it. David tilted his leg up just a trice more.

Jensen said, “It is not anyone’s fault…” He shook his head. “Not at all.”

What the hell was the man muttering about? But it would be best to bring them both back to work. David shifted his fist and arm. “This more the way you want me to stand?”

Jensen looked up at him again, another of those hungry examinations, not the critical measuring eye. It seemed as potent as the man’s touch on David’s wrist, which still felt that warmth, almost a minute after he’d been grasped.

“Yes. That will do.” Jensen picked up a brush and began work again. Back into dull routine, David thought gratefully.

When a nearby church tolled the hour of six, David said, “I’m done for the day, sir.”

This time, there was no complaining or asking for another minute. The painter nodded and put down the cloth he held. “Thank you.”

David rubbed his hands together to get the feeling back in his fingers that had been in the air too long. “And my pay?”

“Yes, of course.” Instead of handing over the pay, Jensen dropped the coins on the table next to the door.

David pulled on his shirt. “Do I come back up here this evening or tomorrow?”

“What?” Jensen scowled at him.

He’d pushed the upper-class bloke’s goodwill too far, perhaps. All those hours posing as a determined man. “The offer to stay in your house, sir. But if you’d rather I not—”

“No, of course you should stay.” He reached for his painting cloth and managed to smear more red across his knuckles. “Go and get your things and return here. You’ll have to talk to Judge, and I expect the cook can give you dinner.”

David remembered the exchange with Judge and groaned.

“What’s wrong?” Jensen looked up from wiping his hands.

Better to get his version out before he heard it from anyone else. “I talked to your footman or butler. Mr. Judge, you know.”

“Yes, of course I know Judge.” Jensen’s brows went up. He actually seemed interested in something other than painting. “You seem perturbed. Why would talking to Judge upset you?”

“Ah. See, I didn’t exactly lie to him about conversations we might have had in here, but I didn’t tell the honest truth to him either.” He stopped to pick his words more carefully. “I was given to understand that there will be an event here next week. A party.”

It was Jensen’s turn to make a despairing sound. “Yes, I know that too well. My brother insisted. What about it?”

“And I also heard that more help was needed to serve and so on.”

“That’s Judge’s purview.”

David wasn’t sure what that purview meant but made a guess. “I think that’s what I said to him.” He paused a moment. “I put words in your mouth, to be honest. I said that you were worrying that it mightn’t get done right.”

“I’m not worried. I don’t indulge in belowstairs gossip,” Jensen grumbled. “It’s not my business how they do their job.”

That was an interesting way to look at it, David thought. It wasn’t indifference, after all, but a belief that his staff members were good at what they were hired to do.

“Ah, it’s like this, Mr. Jensen.” David fidgeted with a button on his waistcoat. “Judge and I might have had some words. And I might have seen that Judge wasn’t doing all he was supposed to. And I could have said something about it to him, and it could have sounded as if it were words I’d heard you say.”

“Do you mean you told Judge that I was worried he wasn’t doing his job? Lord, man, you do see how entirely high-handed that behavior seems?”

“Yes. I do. That’s why I groaned.” David finished pulling on his coat and picked up his hat. “Considering what I done, maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to bring me into the house to stay, especially when the place is in a bit of an uproar about the party.”


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