By Michelle M. Pillow
Not all obsessions are bad.
Lord Harrison, Earl of Wrotham, once lived from pleasure to pleasure—until the rain-swept night he sets eyes on his best friend’s sister. Surely the beautiful temptress who dances in the moonlight can’t be the reserved, humorless prude of rumor.
Instantly smitten, he finds no pleasure in his old, roguish ways, and sets about taming his nature, molding himself into the kind of man he is sure will please her. Only then will he discover if she has a wild soul like his own, waiting to be released from the constraints of society.
Knowing the earl’s reputation as a scoundrel, Syrian Blakeney has no trouble holding off his affections…until her artist brother reveals a portrait he has painted of her. Does the world really see her as this prudish ice queen? Now it seems only the earl is able to see beyond the damning portrait and touch her most secret desires.
Does she rebel against the damning portrait, throwing caution to the wind? Or does she remain as she appears, as reserved and unfeeling as paint on canvas?
This book has been previously published and has been revised from its original release.
Warning: This book contains an ice queen who is as frigid as they come, and a slightly obsessive, reforming rogue willing to melt her icy heart, regardless of the cost.
PORTRAIT OF HIS OBSESSION
Michelle M. Pillow
Caldwell Country Estate, North of London, England, Spring 1868
"Please, Thomas, do hurry! My arms grow weary of this dreadful pose! I have no wish to see my portrait painted in such a way. Why can’t I sit on the swing?"
Syrian Blakeney sighed heavily, pretending to be more annoyed than she really was. She loved her brother dearly. He was her only family and her guardian--not to mention the Viscount Caldwell.
The morning was warm, filled with the floral scent of a refreshing country breeze. Thomas had posed her in the garden, near a broken stone wall. Roses climbed with small, orderly beauty. He refused to have the wall mended, saying that nature and time had perfected that which he could only hope to duplicate with paint and brush.
However, the wall was the only thing in disrepair at Caldwell Manor. The country estate was a beautiful haven, away from London where Thomas was often forced to go out of duty. Thomas loved the city, but found its pace too frantic for an artist who would lay back and soak up every nuance of a street, a face, a gesture. On more than one occasion, he’d been accused of staring overlong at things. But the plain-faced Lord Caldwell more than made up for his impropriety with a likeably infectious disposition. He was always readily forgiven.
The sun shone behind Syrian’s head, just to the right, gleaming atop her perfectly swept chignon of dark brown curls. Thomas refused to let her use a bonnet, saying the play of golden sunlight on her slender features was too distracted by such a waste of material. Her gown, a simple morning dress, conservative and prim, was of a fine, rich blue silk. It had little adornment to its high waist and rounded skirt. A veil of cream colored lawn crossed modestly over her breasts, hiding them from view.
He refused to let her see the portrait until he was done, but she didn’t mind. They only did it to pass the time away--or at least that’s why Syrian did it. To Thomas, it was much more. His art was everything to him.
"Because when you swing your skirts fly," Lord Caldwell teased at last, not realizing time had passed since her comment. He studied her with a most serious eye before turning back to his portrait of her. Syrian was surprised he even answered. When he worked, he got so involved that he sometimes forgot she was there. If she didn’t protest, he’d make her stand still for hours. Now that she thought of it, she’d been standing still for hours.
Syrian’s face turned a bright red at Thomas’s words. Her arms rose angrily to her hips, breaking their reserved pose. "My skirts have never flown an inch above my ankles, Thomas! What a wretched thing to say to me!"
"You’re much too serious, dear sister," Thomas laughed, tossing his boyishly handsome locks back as he turned again to the painting. Red and brown paint smudged the rolled linen sleeve of his expensive white shirt, but he didn’t care. He’d ruined more than his fair share of clothing with his passion for art. To prove the point, his morning coat, abandoned nearly an hour before, was tossed carelessly on the green lawn behind him, soaking in a mud puddle. "That’s precisely the reason I desire for you to stand in this exact pose. I would show the world just how proper you are. As an artist, it’s my duty to portray all that I see, as I see it. And you, dear Syrian, are standing now exactly as I see you when I close my eyes."
"Syrian." The softly musing voice instantly gave her chills. She hardened herself and the half smile of affection growing on her features fell into a reserved mask. Her dark eyes didn’t shine as they peered coolly out from her unmoving face. She instantly dropped her arms to her waist, folding together as Thomas had instructed.
"No, no," Thomas mumbled, distracted. "Lower your chin back down. I wish you reserved not haughty."
"Such a peculiar name for a woman," the low voice continued, as smooth as silk. Syrian did her best to ignore Harrison Rivenhall, The Earl of Wrotham, pretending that his voice didn’t give her chills. He’d come from the side door of their large country estate, walking leisurely about the gardens as if the place was his. She shivered to see his teasing arrogance.
It might as well be his home, Syrian thought in ire, for he refuses to leave it.
"Syr-ian," the Earl drew out, as if tasting the word upon his firm lips, just to annoy her. Harrison smiled, seeing her cheeks pale slightly at his seductive tilting of her given name. It was the only response to him that she allowed, but it was enough to encourage his further perusal of her.
Syrian frowned. Wrotham was a rogue through and through. If he wasn’t such a good friend of Thomas’s, she would’ve thrown him out a week ago when he’d arrived at the estate. Naturally, she’d heard her brother mention his good friend the Earl. But, before his arrival, she’d never had the displeasure of meeting the man. Indeed, it was Syrian’s opinion that Thomas had been way too kind in his assessment of his friend. Lord Wrotham was an uncouth, undignified, ungentlemanly gentleman who was undoubtedly only tolerated in fine society because of his title and wealth.
"I see you have deigned to bless us with your presence this morning, or should I say this afternoon, Lord Wrotham," Syrian stated coolly, eyeing him with the hard depths of her reserved gaze. She hated to admit it, but seeing him standing in the sunlight, bright blue eyes lazily tilted beneath his lowered lids, staring into her as if searching her soul, did something to her composure. His skin was slightly bronzed as if the sun knew him well. This man never took anything seriously, unless it was to seriously endeavor to annoy her. Suddenly, she wasn’t so comfortable standing for Thomas with Wrotham’s inspecting stare on her. "Do I dare ask? Were you packing your trunks to leave us? I imagine an important man such as you has many demands on his time to ever overstay his welcome in one place."
It would’ve been a proper observation, but for the almost eager way her almond shaped eyes lit when she said the words. Harrison frowned slightly at her attempts to get rid of him. He tossed his hand with an air of indifference, though the battle sparked as his lips curled almost devilishly.
Syrian quivered ever so lightly to see the dimple she’d memorized in his cheek. It hadn’t been the first time she’d hinted at his leaving. By the look on her face, it wouldn’t be the last.
The Earl’s light locks were grown a little too long for fashion, but it only succeeded in adding to his already too potent roguish appeal. Syrian scowled, looking back to her brother as he worked. It annoyed her that the Earl was so handsome and pleasing to look at. She would much rather he took on the appearance of a troll. It would suit his personality better. Well, mayhap not, but it would suit her distaste for him and keep her eyes off the ever so alluring build of his frame.
The Earl had an ease about his appearance. Syrian liked to think of it as a laziness of dress. He was always covered, but with a careless charm. He carried a walking cane, though he never used it except to poke aimlessly at objects on the ground. A sapphire ring gleamed distractively on long fingers, connected to strong hands. Right now, the dark blue of his double-breasted jacket hung open to reveal a loosened cream tie over the high standing collar of his linen shirt. And, though his lighter vest was mostly buttoned, Syrian could see the play of his stomach muscles as he moved.
"Oh, do make your sister stop teasing me, Caldwell," Harrison stated dryly. He waved the hand with the cane indifferently at Syrian, as he went to stand behind his friend. Thomas didn’t notice the Earl looking over his back as he worked.
"Quite right," Thomas said in distraction. "Syrian, do stop moving your lips. I’m trying to … ah, there."
The Earl shot her a superior grin at Thomas’s absentminded reprimand. Syrian narrowed her gaze, but didn’t move.
"Ah, yes, Syrian," Thomas mused, pulling away his brush and stepping back from the canvas. He looked at his painting, then his sister, then to the painting once more. Distracted, he said, "It’s an unusual name. One doesn’t hear it often."
"Father named me after a small country in Africa," said Syrian smartly. "He said he always longed to see it."
Thomas began chuckling. His eyes cleared by small measures, as a grin formed on his mouth. Admitting, with much good-humor, he said, "Our father was drunk at the time, trying to drown out our mother’s screaming. He happened to be looking at a map when the doctor asked him about it. I remember him pointing his wobbling finger into the book with his eyes closed."
"That’s not what mother told me," Syrian protested, her cheeks flaming. She didn’t know why, but the sultry way the Earl looked at her portrait and licked his lips was having a strange effect on her limbs. Taking the opportunity to stare at him, she let her gaze travel over his straight nose to the dimple pressed into his cheek, watching it deepen and form. A tremor hit her spine, stinging her flesh and she instantly looked away. If she hadn’t been a lady, she would’ve cursed. What was wrong with her?
"Nevertheless, it’s true. I remember he asked me to read it for him. Anyhow, I never listened to what our mother had to say," Thomas replied, truthfully. His eyes again found his painting of her and he looked almost troubled. He reached as if he would take the brush to it and then pulled back, frowning vaguely. Then, sighing, he turned and laid his brush down on the small case at his side. He was finished. "She was much too serious--just like you. I see her in you, though I hate to admit as much."
Looking at his sister’s reserved features and then back at the portrait, Thomas shivered. It was uncanny. He’d done only too well a job portraying her and Thomas was usually the first to criticize his own work.
Syrian watched, motionless. Neither man smiled as they looked at her portrait. She gulped, wondering what was wrong. Too weak to step forward, she asked with forced lightness, "Are you finally done, Thomas? Can I move?"
Thomas merely nodded, his lips parted in hesitant breath. He shivered again and didn’t speak.
At her words, Harrison blinked and forced the lump down from his throat. When he looked over to her, the sudden haze left his playful stare and he declared, "You’ve captured her completely, Caldwell. Just think! If we were to hang it in the front hall and have a ball, everyone would bow to it and your sister wouldn’t have to attend. Let us try it. It should be great fun to see if anyone notices if she’s real or not."
"It does capture something of her, doesn’t it, Harry?" Thomas said. He was the only person who called Harrison, Harry--and only rarely at that. Whispering, he said, "It’s almost like I got her soul mixed up in the brush strokes."
"I daresay you must call the portrait something besides Syrian. Your sister doesn’t look like a wild native one bit," Harrison said. Seeing Syrian approaching, he goaded, "Perhaps, Prudence…?"
Syrian shot him a haughty glare. His charming smile was lost on her, as was his teasing. Coming around to stand between Thomas and the Earl, Syrian stiffened. All three stared at the portrait in silence. It definitely was her face staring out at her. But were her eyes really that somber and meticulous? Did her mouth press harshly as if she was an uninteresting bore and not a human with feelings? Was this how the world saw her, as a reserved, lackluster, unexciting, perhaps even wearisome, prude?
Tears came to her eyes, but Syrian refused to let them fall. She had too much stubborn pride for that. It was no wonder men never paid her much mind, though she was told her looks were very pretty and her slender figure pleasing. No wonder she’d not been asked to dance at balls or sought out by other women while in London last season.
Whispering low, she didn’t think, as she answered honestly, "I don’t like how you see me, Thomas."
"I think it’s precisely how you are seen, Miss Syrian. Brilliant Thomas!" Harrison answered, still smarting from her earlier remarks about him overstaying his welcome.
The words didn’t get the usual witty comeback Harrison expected. Suddenly, her wide eyes turned to him, almost tortured in their churning depths. His words had cut her deeply. Harrison flinched, instantly wishing he could take them back. He’d never had said them if he thought she could be affected by aught that came from his mouth. Her lips trembled slightly, but she said nothing. She again found the painting, studying it.
"I’m sure you are right, my lord," Syrian forced calmly. There was a stiff bite to her voice. Harrison opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. All that came to him wouldn’t be appropriate to utter, especially with Thomas so near. And surely the stiff woman at his side wouldn’t welcome his comfort--she barely welcomed him.
Thomas was oblivious to everything as he stared into the painted likeness of his sister’s eyes. With a touch of awe, he said, "This has to be my most honest work yet."
"Yes," Syrian said. Then, to steal the Earl’s choice of words, she added, "It’s truly brilliant, Thomas. It has opened my eyes. And now, having looked at it, I can’t help but wish to never see it again. No one should be forced to look at how they are perceived by everyone else. It’s too cruel a thing to do. There is comfort in illusions and you have crushed all of mine with this painting of yours. Oh, how I wish this portrait could show you the part of my soul that no one knows. Maybe then, I could tolerate looking at it."
Thomas’s mouth fell open at his sister’s hollow declaration. He moved to study her. Slowly, she nodded her head at both men, refusing to look at them directly. She was mortified beyond words at how they pictured her in their minds. Turning away to walk up the side path to the house, she didn’t say another word.
Thomas looked at where his sister disappeared and then back at the painting. Swallowing, he said thoughtfully, "Perhaps she’s right. I don’t know that I would wish to be shown myself through other’s eyes. It isn’t like a mirror where you can look at what you wish and disregard the rest."
Harrison had the strangest urge to run after Syrian. He held rigid. Thomas sighed.
"Your tactics for wooing my sister leave much to be desired. It has been a week and she has not warmed to you," Thomas stated. Both men’s gazes kept turning back to the portrait. Though they tried to look elsewhere, they couldn’t. "Are you ready to admit you were wrong about her? That she isn’t the, how did you put it? The other half of your dark, bloody heart?"
"On the contrary, seeing her reaction to this portrait only proves my point," a thoughtful Harrison murmured. He studied the long line of Syrian’s painted neck, the way her upper lip stretched beautifully over a full bottom one. If she’d only smile more, she’d be stunning.
Thomas frowned, confused.
"There is more to your sister than her prim exterior, Caldwell," Harrison said. "It may be buried deep, but it’s there. It’s what I saw in her when first I laid eyes on her, dancing unaware in a rainstorm. It’s that one memory that has haunted me since. I’m hopeless. I can’t be rid of her."
"I still say you are mistaken. It must have been one of the maids you witnessed," Thomas answered, unconvinced. Harrison had been pressing him for permission to court his sister for a full year. At first, Thomas thought it a joke. The very idea of the passionate Earl courting his seemingly passionless sister was laughable, until Harrison became so desolate and withdrawn from the usual pleasures of his roguish life that Thomas realized his friend was quite serious.
Thomas nearly keeled over with a heart attack the moment Lord Wrotham confessed his love for his Syrian. They were old friends. Caldwell knew him well--well enough to know when he was lying. Finally, Thomas had relented, if only to prove to Harrison that Syrian wasn’t his type of woman. The Earl hadn’t even met his sister until a week ago, had never heard her speak. And Thomas was sure that the cold slights Syrian had been giving Harrison all week would’ve been enough to dissuade him from his purpose. It hadn’t. If anything the Earl only seemed more determined.
Harrison closed his eyes, remembering vividly each detail of his unforgettable vision. Syrian had been in the rain, chasing after some silly kitten, trying to save it from a puddle. Her dress had been soiled and wet, clinging indecently to her slender frame. He’d been too stunned to move. She hadn’t known he was there, watching her from the shadows, so close he could’ve touched the bodice clinging to her ripened breasts.
At the time, he’d been running away from an angry husband who was intent on having his head. Harrison had drunkenly slept with the man’s wife and had no wish to take the cuckolded man’s life in a duel, in addition to his dignity. Knowing he was close to Caldwell Manor, he’d gone there for sanctuary to wait out the storm before heading on to London.
That’s when his life changed. Frozen, stiff with rain, he’d been contemplating waking the household. Knowing that Thomas waited in London for him kept him outside in the garden. Naturally, he’d been told that Thomas had a prudish sister whose reserved nature was legendary amongst societal circles. Even Thomas admitted his sister was tame of spirit to the point of lacking one. The knowledge hadn’t prepared Harrison for what he saw.
She’d stopped right next to him on the garden path, giving up as the kitten darted away beneath a thorny bush to hide. He thought she’d have run back, huffing in anger at the darned little beast. Instead, she merely smiled, glancing over her shoulder to the house. An impish pleasure lit her wide eyes as she turned to the full moon. The blue light bathed over her skin, making it seem almost translucent. The image struck him deeply. Every time he thought of it, his body would stir, his member growing so hard it pulsed with an angry fire. Harrison frowned. No matter how hard or how often he stroked it, he couldn’t seem to find release. And other women held no appeal.
Syrian’s dark hair had been wet, and she looked more like a drowned cat than a woman. But her eyes glistened in such a way and her lips spread playfully, as she twirled in the moonlight, tasting the rain, embracing the storm. From that moment, it was love.
It had been over a year and, try as he might, he couldn’t get her out of his head. He’d tried to forget her at first, aimlessly taking to bed any woman who’d have him. It didn’t work, only lasted a few days, and soon the flavor of the world was lost to him, as each night his temptress danced into his dreams.
He’d watch for her endlessly at balls and operas, looking into the distance for the sight of her, hoping for the chance at an introduction. He had endless conversations in his head with her, none of which had come to pass. She didn’t go to balls and he’d missed her introduction into society. The year she came out, he’d been in Italy--tasting all the beautiful flavors of women the country had to offer. Harrison liked his women wild, naughty, feisty.
Syrian, by reputation, was none of those things. She was boringly proper, so prudish that even the church would surely call it a sin. She was self aware, judging with those damnably wide eyes--nothing that had ever attracted him in the past. But that night, in the rain, he couldn’t get it out of his head. He was obsessed.
"Ah, you take it, Harry," Thomas said at length, unaware of his friend’s thoughts. "I know you’re wasting your time with my sister. The dream is in your head, my friend, not reality. Take the portrait as a gift, so that you may look upon it and see the reality. I wouldn’t have it upsetting Syrian by hanging it in her presence."
Harrison didn’t move.
Turning to walk away, Thomas called, "Come, let us go see what Mrs. Brown has cooked up. I’ll send someone out to deliver the portrait to your guestroom."
Before moving to follow his host, the Earl whispered to himself, his heart nearly to the point it could take no more of Syrian’s rejections and slights, "I wish I really could see the truth of her soul in this painting. Then, mayhap, I’d have the answer to winning her heart."
Harrison forced his eyes away and didn’t look back. Slowly, he turned, following Thomas back into the country estate.
© copyright December 2004, Michelle M. Pillow
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author’s imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.