Excerpt: The Work of Art

Excerpt: The Work of Art

A Regency Romance

London, England
Spring, 1814

Captain Arthur Heywood had never seen such an ill-mannered assortment of canines in his life. The three mongrels burst into the library, galloping past the maid as she exited the room after serving the gentlemen their tea. She moved to evade the largest dog—some manner of deranged wolfhound—only to lose her balance and drop the tea tray. It fell to the marble floor with a resounding crash.

The gentlemen in the library leapt to their feet. The Earl of Edgeworth bellowed in outrage. Viscount Darly grabbed the wolfhound by the scruff of its neck. And their host, the renowned financier Mr. Edgar Townsend, shouted for assistance from behind the safety of his enormous mahogany desk.

Only Arthur remained seated. He had little choice in the matter. One of the dogs had knocked his cane to the floor, where it had promptly skittered out of reach across the marble. As a result, he was obliged to observe the chaotic scene from his place on the library sofa.

And chaotic it was.

Indeed, unless Arthur was very much mistaken, the giant snarling beast Darly was trying to subdue was seconds away from ripping the viscount’s head off.

“Basil, no!” a feminine voice called from the doorway.

Arthur looked up just in time to see a young lady rush into the room. She held a scraggly black terrier under one slender arm, much the way a great lady might carry a pampered pug. As she passed the sofa, she dropped the little dog straight into Arthur’s lap. She didn’t seem to notice he was there. Her attention was wholly fixed on Darly.

“Phyllida!” Townsend thundered. “What’s the meaning of this?”

The young lady ignored him and went straight to Darly. “Please release him, sir.” She placed a calming hand on the great dog’s wiry back. “He’s really quite gentle.”

“Gentle! This brute?” Darly lifted his eyes to the young lady’s face. And then he froze. “I beg your pardon, miss, I—”

“You must let him go,” she said. “I promise he won’t bite you.”

Still staring at her, Darly withdrew his hand from the dog’s neck and took a wary step back. Once released, the giant dog immediately ceased snarling and ran back toward the door and out of the library. The remaining two dogs—crossbreed collies by the look of them—quickly followed their rambunctious leader.

Arthur lifted the small terrier from his lap and lowered him to the floor to send him off with his fellows. The little dog squirmed violently.

“Oh no, sir!” The young lady hurried to the sofa and swept the terrier out of his arms. “He can’t be let down. He’s lame in one leg and finds it difficult to walk.”

At her words, the room fell deathly quiet.

Arthur supposed he should feel something. A sense of embarrassment or personal mortification. In truth, he felt nothing. Nothing save the mildest twinge of annoyance that he was here at all. He didn’t belong in Edgar Townsend’s library any more than he belonged in London. That he was required to remain was a source of bitterness to him. The careless words of a stranger could make things no worse.

“Phyllida,” Townsend said from between clenched teeth. “Haven’t I told you—”

“Papa?” Townsend’s eldest daughter appeared in the doorway. She was tying on a fashionable straw bonnet, giving every indication that she intended to go out. “What’s all the commotion?”

“Your cousin’s wretched dogs,” Townsend snapped.

In response, the young lady—Townsend’s niece, apparently—secured the little terrier more firmly under her arm and curtsied, rather gracefully, to the room at large. “My apologies, gentlemen,” she said to no one in particular. And then, her head held high and her spine very straight, she walked out of the library with Townsend’s daughter, shutting the door behind them.

Arthur leaned back against the cushions of the sofa, his injured leg stretched out before him. Darly crossed the floor to retrieve his cane. Arthur took it from him without a word. To the untrained eye it was no more than an expensively made walking stick, but everyone in the library knew full well that without it he couldn’t even have managed to walk across the room.

Townsend cleared his throat. “Those dogs are a damned nuisance. No manners at all and every one of them a mongrel. My niece refused to come up to London without them. I should’ve put my foot down, but—”           

“Your niece is uncommonly handsome, Townsend,” Darly interrupted. “I knew you had a young female relation up from Devonshire to stay with you, but I never imagined…”

Townsend returned to his seat, his face settling into the same shrewd lines as when he discussed any other investment. “Yes. Miss Satterthwaite is a singular young lady. She’s the granddaughter of Sir Charles of Satterthwaite Court in Devonshire. A distant relative of mine, recently passed away. He was knighted for services to the crown in ’79.”

Edgeworth frowned. “Satterthwaite Court. That’s the estate you inherited six months back, is it not?”

“It is, my lord.”

Darly laughed. “I suppose the girl came with it.”

Townsend fixed the viscount with a repressive glare. “Miss Satterthwaite was left with no means of support. I had no obligation to her, of course, but I’m not a hardhearted man. She’s of an age with my two daughters, and I’ve plenty of room here in London. I invited her to stay until such time as she can be married. I have high hopes that now she’s here in town, she’ll make an excellent match.”

“Her eyes are extraordinary,” Darly murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

Edgeworth snorted. The oldest man in the room, he had a great property in Hertfordshire and was, for all intents and purposes, little more than a titled farmer. “I had a sheepdog once just the same. One blue eye and one brown. Would hardly call it extraordinary.”

Arthur hadn’t seen her eyes. Even when she’d taken her dog from out of his arms, she’d most decidedly refused to look at him. He’d thought her behavior had something to do with his appearance. Now, however, as he listened to the other men discuss Miss Satterthwaite, it occurred to him that it likely had more to do with her own.

“Her eyes are hardly her only asset, Lord Edgeworth,” Townsend said. “Even a man as particular as you are couldn’t fail to see her other enticements.”  

Arthur hadn’t paid much attention to Miss Satterthwaite’s enticements. She’d come into the room in a rush of radiant feminine energy and had left just as quickly, remaining only long enough for him to get an impression of a softly curved figure and a mass of dark auburn hair that was coming loose from the pins meant to hold it.

She might well be beautiful, but things of that nature made no difference to him anymore. He’d only come away from his estate in Somersetshire to transact some business for his father. Once it was concluded, he would return to the country, and as far as he was concerned, he’d be happy if he never saw another living person again.

During a few subdued chuckles, Darly addressed Townsend. “If you intend to see your niece married off, what are you hiding her away for?”

A ghost of a smile crossed Townsend’s cadaverous face. “My sister, Mrs. Vale, has been overseeing the arrangements. Miss Satterthwaite will make her debut into society at Lord and Lady Worthing’s ball on Saturday.”

Darly burst into laughter. “So, that’s your game, is it?”

“The Collector,” Edgeworth said. “He never misses one of Worthing’s soirees.”

The Duke of Moreland was an avid collector of anything rare and valuable. He had a particular attraction to those priceless objects that were one of a kind—highly coveted treasures that, if possessed, would earn him the envy and admiration of other men. Indeed, many said his single-minded pursuit of such rarities pushed the limits of obsession and bordered on the edge of mania.

If he desired some unique item, Moreland would stop at nothing to acquire it. And if, by some chance, complete and total possession managed to evade him—an event which happened infrequently—there were apocryphal tales of the vengeance he’d exacted against those foolish enough to have deprived him of his goal.

Arthur knew of the man’s reputation, but he’d had no idea that Moreland’s passion for collecting extended to human beings.

“I heard Moreland’s on the lookout for a new wife,” Edgeworth said. “Last one died quite suddenly, I believe. Drowned in a fountain or some such unlikely event.”

“A tragic accident.” Townsend gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “She was a foolish young chit just out of the schoolroom. He’s made it known that his next wife will be of more mature years.”

“How old is your niece?” Darly asked. “I expect she must fit the bill.”

“She is three and twenty.”

Edgeworth tilted back his teacup and downed the contents in one gulp. “If he’s interested in your niece, Townsend, no doubt he’ll make it worth your while.”

Townsend bowed his head in silent acknowledgement.

“It’s rotten luck that at his age he still gets first choice of all the young ladies,” Darly said. “You should introduce her to us.”

“And I shall,” Townsend said. “When you all come to dinner next week.”

Darly set his teacup and saucer down onto a side table with a clatter. “I see no need to delay.”

Townsend frowned. “Regrettably, my lord, I believe Miss Satterthwaite and my daughters have already left for their afternoon walk. Perhaps some other time—”

“Then why don’t we join the ladies?” Darly suggested. “It’s damnably fine weather today. We could all do with some air.”

Townsend was plainly not keen on the proposition, but he wasn’t the type of man to offend his business partners. Especially not over something as inconsequential as an introduction. “Very well. A short turn about the park can do no harm.”      

Edgeworth glanced at Arthur. “What say you, Heywood? Are you able, man?” There was a trace of pity in his words. “No shame in begging off.”

Arthur’s hand tightened on the handle of his cane. “I’m confident I can manage.”

“Splendid.” Darly stood, straightening the cuffs of his expensively cut coat. “If we leave at once, I’m sure we’ll catch up with them directly.”

*  *  *  *

Phyllida Satterthwaite lifted her face to the sun, heedless of the danger its rays might wreak on her complexion. She loved nothing more than fresh air and exercise. Long rambles with her dogs had been a daily occurrence while living with her grandfather in Devonshire. She’d often walked miles to visit the tenants, or to call on friends in the village, with Basil, Jasper, and Dash trotting along at her heels and Fox held safe in her arms.

Those days were but a memory now.

It had been six months since her grandfather’s death, and only a month since she’d first met Edgar Townsend. Uncle Edgar, as he’d encouraged her to call him, was the last living male heir to her grandfather’s estate. At the end of her period of mourning, he’d arrived in Fox Cross and proceeded to make a thorough inventory of Satterthwaite Court—and of Philly herself.

He’d quickly come to the decision that Satterthwaite Court was to be let and those things of value within it sold at auction. Philly’s own future was decided with no less efficiency. She was to return to London with her uncle. He’d finance a season for her so that she might find herself a suitable husband.

“It’s the least I can do in memory of your grandfather,” he’d said. “He wouldn’t have wanted you to be forced into servitude upon his death.”

Philly was decidedly unenthusiastic about this scheme, but she’d said very little in argument against it. Any influence she had remaining at Satterthwaite Court was exerted solely on behalf of the servants, with particular care for the nearly blind housekeeper and the butler who was so infirm he walked with two sticks.

Once all was settled, Philly and her four dogs had been whisked away to London.

There was nothing of the country ramble to her walks now—certainly not when accompanied by her two cousins. Elizabeth and Abigail Townsend were town creatures. They preferred a leisurely promenade. All the better to display the elegant fashions afforded them by their father’s legendary business acumen.

“Lord Darly is a viscount,” Elizabeth said as she walked at Philly’s side. “An unmarried viscount.” At four-and-twenty, Elizabeth was still unmarried herself.

Abigail trailed along behind the two older girls. She was a mere eighteen, her romantic future bright before her. “He’s very handsome.”

Elizabeth ignored her younger sister. “Then there’s Captain Heywood. Heaven knows what he was doing there. He hasn’t been out in society in ages. I suppose Papa has tempted him with some lucrative scheme bound to make them all heaps of money.” 

Philly’s dogs tangled about the skirts of her plain muslin gown. With its faded blue pelisse, it was nowhere near as fashionable as the walking dresses worn by her cousins. Certainly not as fashionable as the dresses that had been purchased for her since arriving in London. Beautiful gowns of every variety. Far too beautiful to wear for a simple stroll in the park, or so Philly thought.

Uncle Edgar’s widowed sister, Mrs. Vale, would be apoplectic to see her clothed as she was now.

Not that it mattered. Whenever Philly was left to her own devices, she always reverted back to the simple gowns she’d worn while living with her grandfather. It was one of her only acts of defiance.

She bent to let the dogs off their leads. They ran a short distance ahead, leaping and jumping in circles. Fox remained firmly in her arms. “Which one was Captain Heywood?”

“The dark-haired gentleman on the sofa. How could you not see him? He was holding your little brute just as surely as you’re holding him now.”

Philly hugged Fox closer to her chest. “I didn’t pay him any particular attention.”

Abigail caught up with them to walk at Philly’s right. “Arthur Heywood is the second son of the Earl of Gordon. He was horribly hurt in the war.”

“Was he?”

“Indeed,” Elizabeth said. “I heard that, after he was injured, he lay on the battlefield for days, left for dead. And that when the other soldiers finally found him, he was half mad.”

Philly reflected on this information a moment. “If he’s half mad, why is he doing business with your father?”

“Well, he must not be mad now,” Elizabeth replied with some irritation, “but everyone knows he’s never been quite right since he returned from fighting in Spain.”

“The story is rather romantic,” Abigail said. “Before he left to fight, he was engaged to Lady Eliot. Her name was Caroline Battersby then and—”

“It’s not romantic at all,” Elizabeth interrupted. “It’s true that they were engaged, but by the time Captain Heywood came back to England, Caroline Battersby had already married Baron Eliot. She didn’t even write to tell Captain Heywood she was ending their engagement.”

“But he’s never stopped loving her,” Abigail said. “And he’s vowed never to marry—”

“Who would have him? He’s a thoroughly unpleasant man, and now he’s come back from the war, he can hardly walk.”

Philly remembered what she’d said when she’d retrieved Fox from Captain Heywood’s grasp. She stifled a groan. Good heavens. What must he have thought of her? That she would make such a thoughtless remark about someone’s infirmity!

“Lady Eliot has been widowed for over a twelve-month,” Abigail said. “I wonder that, now Captain Heywood has come to town on business, he might not go and see her? Or perhaps he hasn’t come to London on business at all? Perhaps he’s heard that Lord Eliot died, and has come to reunite with Lady Eliot now she’s out of her widow’s weeds? Oh, he must love her desperately!”

“I saw him the year I came out,” Elizabeth said. “He was a cold, unfeeling gentleman, even then. Too impressed with himself by half.”

“He didn’t ask her to dance,” Abigail whispered. “He was frightfully rude.”

Elizabeth’s chin lifted a notch. “Rubbish. I never thought him handsome. And now he has altered so much I would hardly know him.”

They hadn’t gone much farther when Philly heard her uncle calling out to them. She stopped, along with her cousins, and turned to look.

Uncle Edgar and the gentlemen who had been with him in the library were walking toward them. To her dismay, Captain Heywood was with them.

As they approached, Philly discreetly took his measure. He was much taller than the other gentlemen, with broad shoulders and a lean, athletic build that seemed at odds with his use of a cane. Whatever had happened to him in the war, he still had the proud, upright carriage of a soldier.

His hair was jet black with the barest hint of gray at his temples. His suit of clothes was black as well; unnecessarily austere, as if he were in mourning. But it was his face that caught her notice most of all. It was solemn, almost to the point of harshness, and in it she had the distinct impression of pain.

It was hurting him to walk, as surely as it hurt when Fox attempted it. Why was he doing it, then? And why had her uncle and his friends been so insensitive as to impose such an activity upon him?

“Come, girls,” Uncle Edgar said. “We’re resolved to accompany you on your turn about the park. Lord Edgeworth, Lord Darly, Captain Heywood. My daughters, Elizabeth and Abigail. And my niece, Miss Phyllida Satterthwaite.”

As the introductions were made, Philly felt herself under painful scrutiny, and though she made the necessary polite replies, she instinctively looked away from the gentlemen who spoke to her.

This was the part of life in London she enjoyed least. These strained encounters with sophisticated strangers. She never felt so shy—so completely out of her element—as when they were peppering her with questions, or gazing with open curiosity at her face.

Lord Darly wasn’t any different. He made no attempt to conceal his avid stare. She supposed she should be honored. He was a gentleman of rank and fortune, eager to make her acquaintance. A handsome gentleman, too—if one liked golden-haired dandies of the fashionable variety.

As for Captain Heywood, it seemed he had no interest in her at all. He gave her the barest acknowledgement, his voice deep and a little rough, as if from lack of use, and then resumed looking fixedly off at some point beyond where she stood.

Why on earth had he come into the park? It was obviously not out of any desire to obtain a formal introduction to her. His mind was somewhere else entirely. Perhaps he was, even now, thinking of Lady Eliot?  

“Shall we, ladies?” Lord Darly asked, giving Philly and her cousins a gleaming smile.

Philly wrapped both of her arms around Fox, holding him securely against her chest as she resumed walking. Basil, Jasper, and Dash meandered along beside her, their tongues lolling. They were too exhausted from racing around in the grass to pay the gentlemen any mind.

Lord Edgeworth and Uncle Edgar led their little procession. Philly, her cousins, and Lord Darly followed, with Captain Heywood walking a few steps behind.

Lord Darly talked easily to the ladies on a number of topics, ranging from the weather to Lord and Lady Worthing’s upcoming ball. Elizabeth made frequent flirtatious responses, and Abigail joined in whenever her older sister would allow it.    

Philly had little to say, and when asked a question, usually confined herself to one-word answers. It wasn’t long until Lord Darly gave up his efforts to draw her out and directed his attentions to her much more obliging cousins.

Occasionally, Philly looked back and couldn’t help but notice that Captain Heywood’s gait was becoming more stilted, and the expression of pain on his face more pronounced.

Her heart swelled with compassion for him.

While Uncle Edgar and Lord Edgeworth talked together rather loudly about the stock exchange, and Lord Darly and her cousins laughed about some comedy at Drury Lane they’d all happened to see, Philly began to walk a little slower, shortening her stride until she was, quite naturally, at Captain Heywood’s side.

She took a deep breath. “I beg your pardon, sir. Might I avail myself of your arm?”

*  *  *  *

At the sound of Miss Satterthwaite’s voice, Arthur’s already uneven gait faltered. He’d been staring straight ahead, concentrating on putting one booted foot in front of the other, even as his leg screamed in protest. How long had she been beside him? Seconds? Longer? And now she desired a supportive arm? From him?

In another time and another place, he might have laughed. Her request was that ridiculous. That utterly absurd.

But a gentleman didn’t laugh in the face of a lady.

Instead, he wordlessly offered her his arm. The gesture was stiff. Formal.

In answer, Miss Satterthwaite shifted her little terrier into her left arm and linked her right arm through his.

Arthur’s entire body tensed. It had been years since he’d been in such close proximity with another human being. A feminine hand on his sleeve would have been challenge enough. But there was no ladylike formality in Miss Satterthwaite’s touch. Her hold on his arm was firm and true. It took an effort to resume walking. A single-minded focus on the contractions of his muscles and the rhythm of his breath.

They’d gone no more than a few uneasy steps when understanding set in.

She’d positioned herself so close to his side that anyone watching them would have thought she was leaning on him. Indeed, he suspected she’d meant to convey just that impression. In reality, it was quite the opposite. Without a pitying look or a word of sympathy, Miss Satterthwaite had lent him her support. And she’d done it in just such a way as to spare his foolish pride.

Arthur was oddly moved at the same time he recoiled from her kindness.

The rest of their party was much farther ahead now. None of them seemed to have noticed that he and Miss Satterthwaite were walking arm in arm. Edgeworth’s booming voice carried on the afternoon breeze, as did the intermittent laughter of Darly and the Townsend chits. Arthur imagined they were all still talking about the same tedious subjects they’d been discussing twenty minutes before.

He considered saying something to Miss Satterthwaite. He could comment on the weather, perhaps, or ask her about her life in Devonshire. It was a foolish notion, and one he quickly dismissed. He’d seen her awkward interaction with Darly and Edgeworth, and unless he was very much mistaken, she was as little inclined to meaningless chatter as he was himself.

They walked on in silence, Miss Satterthwaite matching Arthur’s stride with an effortless grace. She never hurried him, and seemed to know just when to slow down, and when to hold his arm more securely. He found it rather remarkable considering the fact that she appeared to be paying him no attention at all.

When he cast her a cautious glance, he saw that she was more focused on her dogs than on the humorless gentleman on her arm. He also saw the delicate line of her neck and jaw, the voluptuous curve of her lips, and the way the bright sunlight caused her dark hair to glow with warmth.

“Captain Heywood?”

He tensed, much as he had when she’d first taken his arm. “Ma’am?”

She looked up at him. “Would you mind very much escorting me back to the house? The dogs and I have walked enough for today.”

Because she was speaking to him directly, Arthur felt at complete liberty to look at her face and immediately experienced for himself the rather startling effect of her mismatched eyes. One was a deep blue and the other the color of amber. They were large and fringed with thick lashes, set under a pair of dark, arching brows.

Such a striking feature might have overpowered the face of a woman less lovely, but for Miss Satterthwaite her eyes only complemented and enhanced the whole. From her elegant cheekbones to her generous mouth and daintily rounded chin, the rest of her face bespoke the same soft femininity he’d observed in her profile and her figure. There was no hardness to her, no sharply hewn contours or harsh angles, only an inherent gentleness that manifested itself in every aspect of her person. Arthur had never seen the like of it.

He searched her sweet, rather serious expression for some sign of pity. He didn’t find it. And yet he suspected that her desire to return home had more to do with his infirmity than with her own exhaustion. “If you wish. But perhaps you should first inform your uncle?”

She looked ahead at Townsend, who was deep in conversation with Edgeworth, and then to her two cousins who were still laughing with Darly. “I doubt it’s necessary.”

“Very well,” he said.

Without another word, they turned and headed back to the townhouse. Arthur’s gait was even stiffer, and they walked so slowly it felt as if they made no progress at all. The whole experience was an exercise in humiliation. He cursed himself for being so foolish and so proud as to accept the invitation to walk into the park in the first place. What had he been thinking? His leg was sure to cause him agony for days now.

When they finally reached the stone steps that led to the front door of the townhouse, Miss Satterthwaite tightened her grip on his arm. Arthur took each step with painful deliberation, as conscious of her presence at his side as he was of the pain in his injured leg.

She said nothing except to urge one of her dogs to hurry along into the house when the butler opened the door to admit them. Again, she seemed to take no particular notice of his infirmity, but Arthur leaned on her as they climbed the stairs, and whether she acknowledged him or not, Miss Satterthwaite gave him the full strength of her support.

She kept with him as they walked across the entry hall and into the library. Only then, within an easy distance of the sofa, did she relinquish his arm. “Thank you for escorting me home, Captain Heywood. If you’ll have a seat, I’m sure my uncle will be back directly.” She inclined her head. “Good afternoon.”

“Ma’am.” Arthur made a slight bow. By the time he raised his head, she was already heading toward the door—one small, bedraggled dog under her arm and three larger ones at her heels.

His face settled into a grim frown. He had no interest in society anymore. No interest, he sometimes felt, in life. But his gaze lingered on Phyllida Satterthwaite, his eyes following her graceful figure until she and her dogs were completely out of his sight.

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