“I heard that she was completely naked.”
Cordelia Barclay did not mean to eavesdrop, truly she did not, but she could not help overhearing her brother’s stunned exclamation as she passed by the half-open door to the library that held Morgan and his best friend, Randall Calhoun.
Her ears perked up and she paused mid-step. Who was naked? Curious beyond belief, she retraced her steps and quietly stood at the library door.
Randall, Viscount Dinsmore, chuckled to show his amusement. “Do you mean to tell me one naked woman is causing such an uproar? Surely the ton has better things to concern themselves with than worrying about one woman’s lack of clothing.”
Morgan sighed and even though she could not see him Delia could imagine her older brother running his hand across his face in exasperation. “It is indecent, Rand. Surely even a rogue such as you will admit it is highly improper for a lady to pose in such a manner.”
Delia’s ears strained for Rand’s response. His lack of regard for society’s rules was the main reason she enjoyed his company.
He did not disappoint her by mincing his words.
“Bloody hell, Morgan. You sound as if you believe women should be trussed in corset and petticoats at all times.”
“Not all times,” Morgan drawled. “There are certain situations where nudity has its appeal.”
Delia rolled her eyes. Her brother’s recent rake attempts were becoming tiresome. She placed the blame fully on Rand’s shoulders. His influence had turned her normally staid, proper brother into an overbearing, pompous ass.
“I still do not understand the uproar,” Rand continued. “I saw the painting and I found it to be a glorious tribute to her timeless beauty and grace.”
Painting? Timeless beauty and grace? What the devil were Rand and her brother discussing? Delia crept forward another inch or so and pressed her ear closer to the opening.
Morgan was clearly surprised. “You saw the painting? When?”
“Last week. The dowager invited a select group of individuals to view the painting. I was lucky enough to receive an invitation.”
“The devil you did! Why did you not tell me sooner?”
Delia heard a rustle of clothing and could sense that Rand had stood and walked to the liquor cabinet. Even though he was a guest, Rand had always been made to feel at home within the Barclay household. A clink of crystal against glass indicated she had guessed correctly.
Her brother mumbled in agreement. “Is it true then? Did Lady Woodley pose nude for that scandalous painting?”
Delia covered her mouth with one hand to contain her gasp. Lady Woodley? The dowager was eighty if she were a day. Recovered from her small shock, she removed her hand and mentally applauded the feisty lady. What a truly marvelous idea! It would certainly knock society back on its heels, a feat that Delia had never been able to accomplish. Mostly due to her brother and the eagle eye he kept on her at all times.
When Rand did not immediately answer, Morgan’s voice grew impatient. “Don’t keep me in suspense, Rand. Are the rumors true?”
Rand must have nodded or given some sort of affirmative gesture because Morgan suddenly whooped with delight. “Oh, this is too much! What sort of perverted artist paints an elderly lady totally nude?”
Rand’s voice grew clipped and impatient. “The piece was tastefully done and I applaud the artist.”
Me too, Delia silently added. It was a rare man indeed who would sacrifice his good name for the sake of his art. Speaking of which, who was this artist?
Morgan sounded contrite. “I am sorry, Rand. I quite forgot that Lady Woodley is a close friend of your family. It is kind of you to defend her.”
“I am not defending her. I am defending an artist’s right to paint what he wants.”
“If naked ladies of the ton are what Calder Ramsey wants, I am afraid that he will die penniless.”
Now she had a name of the artist. Calder Ramsey. He sounded delightfully exciting and bold.
Rand’s voice grew bored. “Rumor has it that Lady Woodley paid a small fortune for the privilege of having Ramsey paint her. Already two matrons have approached her with the intent of having a similar portrait of themselves.”
“I do hope that Lady Rawley was one of the interested parties.”
Delia rolled her eyes again. Her brother had been enamored of the beautiful Lady Rawley since her debut several years earlier. When she married an elderly earl, Morgan had been heartbroken, but refused to give up hope of someday claiming her for his own.
“I hate to disappoint, but Lady Rawley did not seem to give it much consideration.”
Morgan heaved a great sigh. “Now that is truly tragic. With a body like that...” His voice trailed off suggestively. “If I were Ramsey, I would pay her for the honor.”
“Then Ramsey really would end up penniless,” Rand joked. “Besides, I thought you said nude paintings were indecent.”
“You misunderstand,” Morgan said. “I meant to say nude paintings of elderly ladies were indecent.”
“I doubt that Lady Woodley would be gratified to learn of the distinction.”
Morgan was quick to retract his previous statement. “Maybe I was a bit hasty in condemning the man before I see his work. I am sure that Lady Woodley would never participate in anything that could be construed as less than decent.”
Knowing her brother’s fear of the older lady, Delia swallowed a chuckle. She fought harder against laughter as Morgan continued speaking.
“You are not going to tell her what I said are you, Rand?”
“Relax, Morgan. I would never reveal your confidences even though the lady is my esteemed godmother.”
“Hell, I had quite forgotten about that,” Morgan said. He made an audible sound of choking. “Good lord, Rand. You mean to say that you saw a naked portrait of your godmother? Why, that is almost incestuous!”
Delia, who had been fighting laughter for most of the conversation, was unable to prevent a giggle from escaping. She blanched and clamped a hand over her mouth.
From the sudden silence inside the library she knew she had been heard. She gathered her rose silk skirts in one hand and prepared for a hasty retreat.
She barely made it two steps before the library door was wrenched open completely. Damn!
She lifted her gaze meekly to her brother’s face.
“Hello.” She gave him a small wave.
Morgan did not look happy to see her. His handsome face was wreathed with irritation. He put his hands on his hips and glared down at her.
“You’ve been eavesdropping again, haven’t you?”
She shook her head in denial. “No. I was merely walking by and could not help but overhear part of your conversation.”
Morgan growled and wrapped his hand around her wrist. “You might as well come in now since I am sure you overheard every word that was spoken.”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “Maybe not every word.”
Even though she was willing to follow him into the room, Morgan felt it necessary to tug her inside. He released her wrist and motioned for her to take a seat.
There were four armchairs in the library. She took the one nearest Rand since he looked the least angry at being interrupted. As she slid into the seat, she cast a glance at her brother’s best friend. He never failed to remind her of a fallen angel and today that impression was made even more apparent by the dark breeches and open throat shirt he was wearing. There was a small speck of something near his eye and she leaned forward to peer at it.
Rand noticed her gaze and his hand lifted to his face. “What is it?”
She pointed a finger at the speck. “There is something near your eye. A small smudge of dirt perhaps.”
He wiped away the smudge and smiled his thanks. “I was out riding in the park. It was quite muddy today.”
Seeing no need for explanations, she turned her attention back to her brother, who was watching their exchange with polite disinterest. She dropped her gaze to the tumbler of brandy at his elbow and lifted an eyebrow suggestively. When he did not take the hint, she stood and went to the liquor cabinet to pour her own glass.
She returned to her seat and was met by identical looks of amazement. She lifted the glass to her lips and took a small sip. “What is the matter?” She ignored the burn of the brandy as it slid down her throat.
Morgan reached for her glass and plucked it out of her fingers before she could take a second sip. “I was not aware that you had added partaking of alcohol to your list of sins. I am going to have to keep closer watch on you in the future.”
“You already watch me like a hawk,” she snapped and tried to retrieve her glass. “Give me back my glass.”
Morgan only moved it farther out of reach. “It is not proper for you to drink brandy.”
She leaned back in her seat and clutched the arms of the chair, patiently counting to ten. “Father used to let me have sips of brandy at bedtime.”
“Only to calm your nightmares,” Morgan pointed out. “You have not suffered that particular affliction in ten years.”
“How do you know?” she fired back.
Morgan patiently explained. “I sleep across the hall from you, remember? You used to wake the entire household with your screams. If you were having nightmares again, I would know.”
Rand stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankles. She moved aside her own feet so that he could have more room and tried another tactic on her brother. “I have not been sleeping well recently. Perhaps the brandy will help.”
Morgan laughed and glanced at Rand, who looked equally amused. Rand propped his elbow on the arm of the chair and motioned toward the glass. “Maybe you should just let your sister have her brandy.”
She shot Rand a grateful look. “Thank you, Rand. At least you always seem to have my best interests at heart.”
Morgan handed over the glass. “If she turns into a blind drunk, I am holding you personally responsible.”
Rand ran a finger over his lips to hide his amusement. “Duly noted.” He turned his head toward Delia and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Do try to hold your liquor, my dear.”
Delia resisted the urge to stick out her tongue, but just barely. She took another sip of the brandy and smacked her lips with satisfaction. She glanced around the room as if searching for something. “Would either of you gentlemen happen to have a cigar?”
Morgan, who detested the habit, shook his head. He obviously failed to see the humor in the situation. Rand, true to form, reached for a small box located at his elbow and extended it to her. She pretended to take her time pondering the selection. Finally, she chose a small cheroot and clamped it between her teeth.
“Need I remind you, Rand, this is my sister you are debauching?”
Rand ignored Morgan’s question and nodded encouragingly at Delia. “I do believe the proper way to go about it is to light one end.”
“Precisely,” Delia mumbled, somehow managing to keep the cheroot in place. She spied a candle and bent forward to light the cheroot. She sucked in her cheeks, as she had seen gentlemen do, and puffed several times. Satisfied that she had lit the cheroot, she sat back and puffed away.
“How is it?” Rand asked, obviously struggling to hide his amusement.
“Excellent,” she answered. In truth, her eyes were watering from the smoke and the taste was horrible. She took a deep puff and it went straight into her lungs. Her eyes widened as her chest constricted in a coughing fit.
Rand immediately removed the cheroot from her hands and stubbed it out. His hand moved to her back and rubbed with comforting circles, while she hacked in a completely unattractive manner.
When she was through coughing, he bent close to her ear and whispered for her benefit only. “Next time, take a smaller amount into your lungs.”
Her tongue felt fuzzy. She moved it from side to side before answering. “I do not think there will be a next time, but thank you for the advice.”
She took another sip of her brandy and grimaced. The taste was even worse. She set it aside and pretended to forget it was there.
Morgan, who had watched with an impassive face, finally shook his head. “How could I have been cursed with such a difficult sibling?”
This time, she did stick out her tongue. “I wonder the same thing about you every day.”
Morgan leaned forward and steepled his hands under his chin. “Now, where was I? Oh yes. I believe I was on the verge of lecturing you about eavesdropping.” He made a face. “Again.”
Rand shifted in his chair and rose to his feet. “Perhaps I should leave you two alone.”
Morgan glanced up. “Why bother? It is not the first time and I am sure it will not be the last time that you witness me lecturing Delia.”
Rand cast her a questioning glance, as if seeking permission to remain in the room. She nodded and gestured that he sit down again. “Please stay. You are like family, after all.”
Rand took his seat and gave her a reassuring smile, as if he knew that what Morgan was about to say was going to be unpleasant. She blinked in surprise as she noticed the beauty of Rand’s smile for the first time. She had always considered him handsome, but she had never felt such warmth from a mere smile, especially his. He was almost like a brother.
Why, it would be incestuous! At the thought, she suddenly remembered her purpose for being in the library. She had quite forgotten about Calder Ramsey and his scandalous painting.
She leaned forward eagerly. “Can we get the lecture over with quickly so I can hear more about Lady Woodley’s painting?”
Morgan’s fingers tapped out a staccato rhythm on the arm of his chair. “It does not bear repeating.”
“Which? My lecture or the painting?” she quipped.
“The painting,” Morgan clarified. He was interrupted by their butler, Greaves, who arrived to inform Morgan that he had another visitor.
“Thank you, Greaves,” Morgan answered and climbed to his feet. He shot Rand a brief look. “Excuse me. I will only be a moment.” He then glanced at Delia. “You seem to have another reprieve.”
As he quit the room, he gave Delia a fierce look, silently commanding her to stay where she was. It was needless, since she had no intention of going anywhere. She fully intended on getting the entire story from Rand.
As soon as the door closed behind her brother, she turned to Rand with an excited gleam in her eyes. “Is she really completely nude?”
Rand draped one arm casually over the back of the chair. The green velvet of the chair lent his dark eyes a hazel glow. “I don’t think Morgan wants me to discuss this subject with you.”
“Piffle,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Who cares what Morgan wants?”
“He is my friend,” Rand pointed out.
“Yes, but you are my friend also.” She could sense that he was wavering, so she went in for the kill. “Please, Rand?”
She batted her eyes at him and pouted the tiniest bit. He was never able to resist her when she begged, a fact she used to her advantage on more than one occasion.
Rand glanced to the door, but she knew his decision had already been made. She turned toward him expectantly. He lifted his back from the chair as he leaned forward slightly. “What do you want to know?”
“Everything. Who is this Ramsey? How did Lady Woodley meet him? Are there any other of his paintings?”
“I am afraid I cannot answer those questions. Not much is known about Ramsey. My godmother is refusing to speak of him and no one claims to be aware of any of his other works.”
Her face fell in disappointment. “But Lady Woodley was nude?”
Rand nodded. “Yes.”
“How astonishing!” she breathed. “I wish I could see it.”
Rand appeared surprised by her interest. “I was not aware you possessed an appreciation for art.”
“Normally I don’t,” she admitted. “But this proves to be very interesting. Do you suppose your godmother would let me see the painting?”
Rand shrugged. “She has been showing it to virtually everyone, so I do not think she would mind. If you would like, I could get you an invitation.”
“Oh, please do!” She leaned forward enough to toss her arms around his shoulders and give him a brief hug. “You are such a good friend.” She pressed a kiss against his cheek, feeling the slight rasp of his stubble against her skin.
She drew back and gazed at him as if he had given her the moon. “I suppose we should not let Morgan know I intend to see the painting.”
He seemed to understand her silent plea. “It will be our secret.”
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