Artist’s Model to Society Lady – A Secret That could Ruin Her
Modelling nude for an artist might earn her keep, but when Tallie comes into an inheritance and takes her place in Society her secret would ruin her. She finds herself constantly in the company of Lord Arndale – suspicious of Tallie’s past he still captures her heart. But dare she trust him?
Miss Talitha Grey shivered delicately and risked a glance downwards. A single length of sheer white linen draped across her shoulder and fell to the floor at front and back: beneath it her naked skin had a faintly blue tinge. Tallie strongly suspected that it was marred by goose bumps.
With a resigned sigh she flexed her fingers on the gilded bow in her left hand and fixed her gaze once again on the screen of moth-eaten blue brocade which was doing duty for the skies of Classical Greece. Perhaps if she thought hard enough about it she could imagine that she was bathed in the heat of that ancient sun, her skin caressed by the lightest of warm zephyrs and not by the whistling draughts which entered the attic studio by every door and ill-fitting window frame.
Tallie exerted her vivid imagination and summoned up the distant sound of shepherds’ pan pipes floating over olive groves to drown out the noise of arguing carters from Panton Square far below. She was concentrating on conjuring up the scent of wood smoke and pine woods to counteract the distressing smells of poor drainage and coal fires when a voice behind her said peevishly, “Miss Grey! You have moved!”
Taking care to hold her pose and not turn her head Tallie said, “I assure you I have not, Mr Harland.”
“Something has changed,” the speaker asserted. Tallie could hear the creak of the wooden platform on which Mr Frederick Harland had perched himself to reach the top of the vast canvas. On it he was depicting an epic scene of ancient Greece with the figure of the goddess Diana in the foreground, her back turned to the onlooker, her gaze sweeping the wooded hillsides and distant temples until it reached the wine-dark Aegean sea.
There was more creaking, the muttering which was the normal counterpart to Mr Harland’s mental processes and then the floorboards protested as he walked towards her. “Your skin colour has changed,” he announced with a faint air of accusation.
“I am cold,” Tallie responded placatingly without turning her head. Frederick Harland, she had discovered, took no more and no less interest in her naked form than he did in the colour, form and texture of a bowl of fruit, an antique urn or a length of drapery. When in the grip of his muse he was vague, inconsiderate and sometimes testy but he was also kindly, paid her very well and was reassuringly safe to be alone with – whatever her state of undress.
“Cold? Has the fire gone out?”
“I believe it has not been lit today, Mr Harland.” Tallie wished she had thought to insist on a taper being set to the fire before they had started the session, but her mind had been on other things and it was not until the pose had been set and the artist had clambered up onto his scaffold that she realised that the lofty attic room was almost as chill as the February streets outside.
“Oh. Hmm. Well, another ten minutes and then we will stop.” The boards groaned again as he walked back to the canvas. “In any case, I need more of that red for the skin tones, and the azure for the sky. The cost of lapis is extortionate…”
Tallie stopped listening as he grumbled on, his words indistinguishable. A slightly worried frown creased her brow as she resumed her own thoughts. At least in this pose she did not have to guard her expression, for she was standing with only a hint of her right profile visible from behind, her long, slightly waving, blonde hair falling free to midway down her back.
Her feet were bare. A fine filet of gold cord circled her brow, its trailing ends forming a darker accent in her hair, and the linen drapery revealed her left side, the curve of her hip, the swell of her buttock and the length of her leg. All of which normally delightful features were now unmistakeably disfigured by a rash of goose bumps.
Still, at half a guinea a sitting she could hardly complain, for Tallie had no option but to make her own living and the guineas from Mr Harland paid the rent. The fact that she was engaged in an occupation which was entirely beyond the pale for any lady and which would be regarded by almost every right-thinking person as scarce better than prostitution, did not concern her.
It was fortunate, both for the artist and for Tallie, that he was not only the possessor of a modest inheritance but also had a flourishing and lucrative business in portraiture, an occupation he despised as mere craftsmanship. On three days a week he indulged his Classical passion. For the rest of the time he painted Society portraits in the rather more salubrious studio on the first floor of the ramshackle house. It was a tribute to his work that the ton were prepared to make the journey to the shabby house in the decidedly unfashionable street just off Leicester Square to have their likenesses taken.
Tallie was mentally casting her accounts in an effort to decide whether she could see the winter out without replacing her hair-brown walking dress and pelisse or whether her other, publicly acknowledged, occupation required her to make an investment in a new outfit.
This financial review was more than enough to account for the crease between her brows but the frown vanished to be replaced with an expression of real anxiety at the sound of the knocker thudding four floors below, soon followed by the sound of a number of male voices echoing up the uncarpeted stairwell.
With an exclamation of impatience at the interruption Mr Harland cast down his palette with a clatter and, clambering down from his post, flung open the attic door.
“Mr Harland doesn’t receive clients on Wednesdays gentlemen. Tuesdays and Thursdays are his days. You can’t go up there now, sir!”
“Dammit, I wrote to say I would call to arrange my aunt’s portrait and I have no intention of trailing back another day at Harland’s convenience.” The drawling voice was arrogantly dismissive of the colourman’s protests. “Are you saying he is not here?”
“Yes, sir, I mean no, sir, he is here but he…”
“Perhaps he is with someone?” It was a new voice, carrying easily up to Tallie far above. A coolly sardonic, rather bored voice which made the previous speaker sound affectedly high-handed.
“The man has just said that Harland does not have clients on a Wednesday, Nick. Step out of my way, fellow, I have no intention of standing here banding words with you all afternoon.”
“But the master’s working with a model, sir! You can’t go up there!” From the rising note of Peter’s voice the speaker had pushed past him and was already on the stairs.
“What? A female model? Now that is more the thing! Come on, you fellows, this should be good sport.” The voice had lost its drawling arrogance and held a note of excitement which made Tallie’s chilled skin crawl. They were coming up, and it appeared that there were several men in the group.
Tallie had disrobed in a room on the floor below, having learned from experience of the effect that the dusty attic had on her small wardrobe, and her only covering was the fragile length of linen. She cast round wildly, her heart thudding. The attics, although essentially one large open space, rambled around corners made by the construction of racks of canvases and piles of dusty props and in one corner, shielded by the largest rack, there was a large cupboard with a door to it.
“I will hide in the closet,” she said urgently to the artist who was exclaiming in irritation at the interruption. “Whatever you do, Mr Harland, do not let them know I am here or I will be quite ruined.”
He nodded distractedly. “Yes, yes, into the closet with you. I wonder if any of the gentlemen would care to buy an historical canvas?”
Tallie did not stop to argue but ran on bare feet across the splintery boards. She whisked round the corner of the racking as the voices outside neared the attic and jerked open the cupboard door. The key which had been on the outside clattered to the floor.
Tallie scrabbled for it but it was nowhere to be seen. With a sob of frustration she abandoned the search and pulled the door to behind her. The closet was lit by a tiny window, begrimed with dirt and cobwebs but sufficient for her to see that the space contained nothing in which she might cover herself and nothing to wedge the door with. Not, she realised despairingly, that wedging it would have done any good, for it opened outwards.
The men had reached the attic now. Through the warped boards which framed the closet she could hear at least four voices. The arrogant man and the sardonic man she recognised from their voices far below; their companions had equally well-bred tones and in them she could recognise a kind of febrile excitement at the thought of what they were going to find in the studio.
Tallie felt quite ill with apprehension and scrabbled to pull her linen draperies around herself in some gesture towards a decent covering. Her fingers closed on air and chilled skin. The length of fabric had gone. Wildly she cast around the little closet as though three yards of white cloth could be hiding in an empty space, then she recalled the slight tug at her shoulder as she had hastened around the racking.
Harland’s voice was clearly audible as she stood there shivering with cold and fear, her ear pressed against the door panels. He sounded flustered. “Gentlemen, as you can see, I am alone, but really not in a fit state to receive. However, now you are here, what can I do for you, Mr Lynley? Something about a portrait of your aunt I believe you wrote?”
“Alone?” The owner of the arrogant voice – Mr Lynley, she deduced – appeared to take no notice of the artist’s question. “Your man said you had a model up here.”
“He is mistaken. I was working from the nude earlier, but…”
“Nude, I’ll say! See here you fellows!” This voice was younger, excited.
“Take care, my lord! That platform is not very stable!” So, one of them had climbed up to the canvas.
“Bloody hell.” It was Lynley, his voice strangely flat with what even Tallie in her innocence could recognise as lust. Then the excitement came back to his tone. “I’ll bet she’s still here, Harland, you dog. Come on men, yoicks and tally ho!”