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Excerpt of Love's Portrait by Monica Burns

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Author Self-Published
September 2011
On Sale: September 17, 2011
ISBN: 0013421441
EAN: 2940013421448
Kindle: B005O54AOI
e-Book (reprint)
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Romance Erotica Sensual, Romance Historical

Also by Monica Burns:

Dangerous, August 2015
Paperback / e-Book
Mirage, July 2015
e-Book (reprint)
Wanton Christmas Wishes, November 2014
e-Book
His Mistress, April 2014
Paperback / e-Book
Love's Revenge, February 2013
e-Book (reprint)
A Bluestocking Christmas, November 2012
e-Book
Obsession, May 2012
e-Book (reprint)
Kismet, February 2012
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Inferno's Kiss, October 2011
Trade Size / e-Book
Love's Portrait, September 2011
e-Book (reprint)
Pleasure Me, March 2011
Paperback / e-Book
Assassin's Heart, September 2010
Paperback
Assassin's Honor, June 2010
Paperback
Kismet, January 2010
Paperback
Mirage, June 2009
Paperback
Dangerous, January 2009
Paperback
Forbidden Pleasures, February 2006
Trade Size (reprint)
Holly, Ivy, and Me, December 2005
e-Book
The Art of Pleasure, September 2005
Trade Size (reprint)
Rogue in Disguise, January 2005
e-Book

Excerpt of Love's Portrait by Monica Burns

(unedited)

Chapter 1

London, 1892

"It's wicked, Julia. Absolutely wicked!"

Alva's squeal of appalled dismay made Julia Westgard smiled with satisfaction. Her friend's horrified cry was an understatement. The painting was more than wicked. It was shocking. She turned back toward the painting she'd commissioned. Tipping her head to one side, she studied it with a critical eye.

The nude painting made her look lush and sensual. Isaac Peebles had managed to make Julia look almost beautiful. Almost, but not quite. Although she did like the way the artist had captured the color of her hair. Her hair was her best feature. On the canvas, soft gold highlights spun their way through dark red hair that tumbled over her bare shoulders. Peebles had also made her eyes the shade of green they became when she was angry. It made her eyes in the portrait far lovelier than the plain hazel ones she saw in the mirror everyday.

"I like it." Hands resting on her hips, she smiled with a sense of defiance. Oscar would have been horrified. No. He would have been furious, and her punishment would have been painful. Her fingers dug deep into the silk layering her hips. "I like it very much. Do you think I should hang it in the salon or the study?"

"Good Lord, Julia. You cannot possibly be serious!"

The appalled note in her friend's voice made Julia turn quickly toward the petite woman At the horrified look in Alva's blue eyes, she realized she'd teased her friend long enough. One hand pressed against the dove gray silk of her dress, she shook her head.

"I'm teasing you. Of course, I'm not serious."

The relief on her friend's pale features made her bite down on the inside of her mouth. Actually, she'd been more serious than she realized. She simply didn't possess the bravado to display the portrait. For all intents and purposes, she was a coward. The confident way she carried herself in front of her friends was nothing but a façade. Everything she said and did was a performance to cover up the inadequacies she felt every day. The shortcomings Oscar had regaled her with the entire time they'd been married.

Even though he'd been dead almost two years, his cruel taunts and behavior had left their mark. Oscar had played the impeccable, caring husband in public, but privately he'd taken every opportunity to humiliate her. The bedroom had been the worst degradation of all. The inadequate feelings her husband had cultivated in her still ran close to the surface, but since his death, she'd done everything possible to regain her self-worth. It was one of the reasons she'd commissioned the nude portrait. It had been an act of rebellion and an effort to regain the uninhibited joy for living she'd lost during almost ten years of marriage to a brute.

"Ah ha, Calvert said I would find you here."

Catherine Dewhurst poked her head into Julia's boudoir. At the lively sound of the woman's voice, Julia moved quickly to embrace her cousin. Of all her in-laws, Catherine had been the only Westgard to show her kindness when she'd married into the family. The two of them had found themselves married to men of a similar nature, only Catherine had been freed several years before Julia. Of all the people she knew, Catherine was the only one who could see beyond Julia's false façade.

"Come see what arrived this morning." She grasped Catherine's hand and pulled her cousin toward the painting.

"Is it here? Finally?"

Julia nodded and smiled widely as Catherine stepped around the easel holding the canvas to stare at the painting. Instantly, color flooded her cousin's cheek before laughter parted her lips.

"Dear Lord, Alva. However did you manage to keep from fainting?"

Clearly affronted by the suggestion that she was incapable of surviving a shock, Alva's pale face took on a pinched look. "I'm not a simpleton, Catherine, I've seen nude paintings before, but this one is not in a museum. This something quite different."

"How is it different?" Julia straightened her back as she prepared herself for her friend's contempt.

"Well…it's you," Alva said as color flooded her face. "You're beautiful, Julia, but why in heaven's name did you have to have the man paint you naked? It's scandalous."

"I don't think it's scandalous."

"Rubbish, it's shocking. Why the man saw you naked." Alva's straitlaced tone sounded so much like Oscar's. She immediately tossed a pleading glance in her cousin's direction.

"Do try to explain to her, Catherine."

"Perhaps she has a point, Julia. It is a bit…reckless, isn't it?" Catherine sent her a sympathetic look. "I know you wish to free yourself from the memory of Oscar's cruelty, but what if the wrong person saw this? What if the artist talks?"

"Other than the two of you, no one else will see it, and Peebles has been well paid to be discreet."

Julia stalked across the room to the painting and replaced the cloth that had covered it earlier. If she'd wanted an unfavorable assessment of her behavior, she only had to listen to Oscar's voice in her head for that. It wasn't as if she'd gone without a chaperone, she'd taken her maid with her to each and every sitting.

Sitting for Isaac Peebles had offered her a freedom she'd never experienced before. The portrait sittings had been a way of freeing herself of the yoke Oscar had settled on her from the day they were married. She had been the one in control, no one else. With a final adjustment to the cloth she'd laid over the painting, she turned to face her friends.

"I'm sorry you find it in poor taste."

"You misunderstand me, Julia. It's exquisite work." Catherine shook her head and frowned. "I merely pointed out that if it were known among the Set that you…all I meant was that I would not like to see the portrait bring scandal down upon your head."

"There won't be a scandal, because I never had any intention of showing it to anyone else," Julia said in a stilted tone. Of all the people she knew, Catherine was the one person she'd thought would understand why she'd commissioned the portrait. She'd even thought sweet, inexperienced Alva would at least recognize Julia's desire to be reckless even if only in private. Left at the altar years ago, Alva had rejected every suitor since then and seemed content with her life, but there were moments when Julia thought her friend longed for something more.

"He did manage to get your hair color right, that's not easy to do. Even in the more…" Alva blushed deeply. "…the more intimate places."

The quiet statement hung in the air as Julia stared at her friend in stunned silence. Was Alva actually teasing her about the portrait? She shot a glance over toward her cousin. Catherine's expression was equally astonished. Indignation tilted Alva's pointed chin upward.

"Well, I can be outrageous sometimes too," she huffed, sending them both a sheepish glance as the room exploded with laughter. Julia shook her head as amusement continued to bubble out of her.

Julia faced the two women seated before her. Her best friends. The only two people she could count on to love her no matter how reckless she was. And of late, she'd been as rash just as Catherine had said. Oscar's family had viewed her purchase of shares in St. Claire Shipping as not only excessive, but foolhardy. Her brother-in-law, Albert, had even been bold enough to visit her lawyer and suggest Julia was incompetent.

Fortunately, Mr. Baxter had been the one to suggest she invest in a number of different endeavors, and had quickly sent her brother-in-law on his way. A fact she'd been heartily grateful for as Albert was becoming increasingly annoying in his attempts to influence her decisions. It was her own fault really. She'd leaned on him far too much in the year after Oscar's death.

She'd stayed in mourning for the requisite time period, but when she'd emerged, it had taken her several more months to find the courage to defy Albert's attempt to control her as Oscar had done. It hadn't been easy, but she'd finally managed to convince Albert that she had no intention of following his guidance in business or anything else. Julia intended to live her life as she wanted without a man to dictate to her.

It was her silent shout against the oppressive life she'd endured with Oscar. Her first attempt to reject the narrow confines of her life was the portrait. The adventure had only made her determined to take more risks and live a life free of someone else's dictates or disapproval.

She was the one in control now—no one else. She inhaled and exhaled a deep breath. The question now was whether her friends would support her in this new adventure she had devised. It was for a good cause, and that it was even more reckless and daring than having herself painted in the nude made her plan even more enticing.

"If you think the portrait is outrageous, then I'm afraid of what you'll say when you hear what I intend to contribute to the Society's next fundraiser." She turned to her cousin. "Shall we tell her, Catherine?"

"Oh, there's no we in this idea at all." Catherine carefully removed the hat from her head, meticulously pushing the hatpin into the peacock feathered plumes that trailed down the back of the accessory. Sweeping the short train of her dark green gown to one side, her cousin took a seat next to Alva to eye Julia with a look of disapproval.

"We're—" She paused as Catherine arched a threatening brow at her. "I'm going to acquire a silk handkerchief from Morgan St. Claire and auction it off at the Society for Lost Angels to raise money for the new orphanage."

Alva tipped her head to one side, her expression puzzled. "Well that doesn't sound all that daring. I'm sure Mr. St. Claire will be happy to part with a piece of silk for the children."

"I don't intend to ask him for the handkerchief. I intend to sneak into his rooms at the Clarendon tomorrow night at the dinner party he's hosting for his investors." Julia smiled at the thought.

She was feeling quite pleased with herself about the plans for her latest adventure. To pull one over on Morgan St. Claire would be almost as pleasurable as when she occasionally found errors in his books. More importantly, it would be a gesture of support for all the women the man had dallied with before leaving them with nothing more than a monogrammed handkerchief as a token of their liaison.

"Oh my heavens, Julia. What if he catches you?" Alva sent her a horrified look.

"I have no intention of being caught. I've already made arrangements for one of the maids on his floor to give me access to his rooms and be my lookout."

"But couldn't you just ask him for the handkerchief? He's such a gentleman, I'm sure he won't refuse your request."

"Please, Alva, do not give her the opportunity to address Morgan St. Claire's faults." Catherine grimaced at the other woman. "We'll be here all day listening to her rail at the man's shortcomings."

"But Mr. St. Claire is said to be most charming," said Alva in a bewildered tone.

Julia glared at Catherine before she turned back to Alva. "Morgan St. Claire is a scoundrel of the worst kind who thinks nothing of tempting a woman into sin then leaving them heartbroken with nothing but a handkerchief as a memento of the affair."

She grimaced slightly. That wasn't completely fair of her. After all, she'd only heard rumors about the man's behavior. She knew better than to take the stories at face value. But on the other hand, she'd been on the receiving end of St. Claire's charm when he'd thought to circumvent her determination to review his books. Just yesterday, he'd teased her about wanting to learn everything she could about the shipping business.

"And your antipathy for the man makes me wonder why you chose to invest in his company?" Catherine eyed her mockingly.

"Business should never be guided by emotions. St. Claire Shipping is a sound investment."

"I see." Catherine's ironic tone earned her a look of puzzlement from Alva and a glare from Julia.

St. Claire Shipping had been an excellent investment. Armed with Baxter's list of candidates, she'd selected four different ventures including the shipping company. If Albert or any of the other Westgards were to discover she was actually reviewing accounting ledgers and conducting business in person with St. Claire, the family would immediately close ranks in an attempt to control her just as her husband had. Although perhaps they would have good reason in this instance.

Morgan St. Claire. A shudder rippled through her at the mere thought of the man. He'd been the one drawback to her investing in the company. Although she'd never met St. Claire until investing in his company, she was quite familiar with the man's reputation.

But it wasn't until she met him that she understood why so many women fell at his feet. Morgan St. Claire wasn't just handsome. His sinful dark looks were like a fierce storm threatening to tear her asunder. All the more disturbing were those piercing blue eyes that saw everything yet revealed nothing. There was an air about him that commanded obedience.

And he definitely didn't like his authority being questioned. Particularly when it came to her examination of his business. Something she'd done quite a bit of over the past few weeks. Even she'd been surprised by her daring when she'd insisted on reviewing the company's books before she invested her money.

Although she'd trusted Baxter's recommendations, she'd wanted to learn more about the businesses she'd chosen to invest her monies. Initially, St. Claire been stubborn in his refusal to grant her access to his accounting and clerks, but when she wouldn't budge on the issue, he'd begrudgingly agreed.

The fact that he'd conceded defeat in the face of her persistence had amazed her. Morgan St. Claire was a man who gave commands. He didn't take them. And his concession had bolstered her confidence more than anything else she'd done since Oscar's death. It had helped ease the feelings of worthlessness her husband had cultivated in her. But more importantly, it had given her a confidence she'd lost on her wedding day.

Oscar had controlled her every move their entire marriage, and that she'd found the wherewithal to stand up to Morgan St. Claire illustrated how far she'd come in such a short time. St. Claire was used to getting his way, but she'd stood her ground with him and won. The small victory had fortified her confidence, and strengthened her resolve never to let any man control her ever again.

"I still don't see why you find it necessary to sneak into the man's hotel room instead of just asking for a handkerchief." Alva's disapproving tone pulled Julia out of her thoughts.

Frustrated, she shook her head. Didn't either one of her friends understand why she needed to do this? Her actions would have appalled Oscar, and that alone was enough to make her do it. But it also gave her the opportunity to provide the Society for Lost Angels with an item that would fill their coffers. She had no doubt that there was more than one woman willing to pay handsomely to own a St. Claire handkerchief, if only for the notoriety of its original owner.

"Because, Alva, it won't have as dramatic an impact if I ask him for one. Sneaking into the man's hotel room and taking a handkerchief without getting caught will cause a stir among the ladies. They'll want details about his hotel room, which I'll be happy to elaborate on as long as they bid on the blasted thing."

"Surely you're not going to admit to the Society that you entered the man's room." Alva looked askance at the idea.

"Of course not." With a wave of her hand, Julia smiled patiently at her friend. "I'm simply going to explain that the woman who took the handkerchief prefers to remain anonymous. For obvious reasons, of course."

"Of course." Catherine coughed her disparagement forcing Julia to glare at the woman.

"I'll tell everyone the woman took the handkerchief on a dare and agreed to let me share the tale of her nerve wracking adventure."

"I think it's far too dangerous, Julia. Surely there has to some other way to acquire the man's handkerchief." Alva frowned in clear disapproval. "Catherine, she'll listen to you. Tell her it's a mistake to even attempt this."

"I've already tried," her cousin said in a disgruntled tone. "I can't reason with her."

"Because you've not been able to tell me that my plan won't work." Julia eyed Catherine with irritation. "I'm taking every precaution, and it's something I have to do."

She wasn't altogether sure why this latest scheme of hers was so important. It just was. The only real risk with having Peebles painting her had been trusting him not to show the canvas to anyone. The man had an impeccable reputation for discretion, and she'd paid him well to keep the portrait a secret. As there had been not the slightest hint of rumor regarding her sittings, she was certain the man had kept her confidence.

But the entire time the man was painting her, she'd experienced an exhilaration that had been intoxicating. Maybe that was why her plan to steal St. Claire's handkerchief was so important to her. She wanted to experience that sensation again. The pleasure of doing something wicked and getting away with it.

The portrait had been a simple adventure. Taking a handkerchief from St. Claire's room was much more risky. Frighteningly so, but she wanted to test her newfound courage to be even more daring. Of course, she wasn't sure how courageous it was to undertake what was for intents and purposes a rather foolhardy venture. But she'd made up her mind and refused to back down now.

"But how will you prove that it's really Mr. St. Claire's handkerchief?" Alva's brow puckered as she was clearly trying to find holes in Julia's well-laid plans.

"His monogram. We've all heard the story of how he gives a handkerchief to each of his mistresses as a parting gift when he breaks with them." Julia grimaced at her words. "Supposedly for the woman to dry her eyes."

She had no idea if the story was true or not, but she wouldn't put it past the man's arrogance. The man was a well-known womanizer, and she could see why. As much as she hated to admit it, St. Claire had a dizzying effect on the senses.

"Oh that sounds so romantic."

"Don't be a ninny, Alva. It's not romantic at all." Catherine turned her glare on Julia. "As for you, cousin, I think you've gone mad. You'll cause a sensation if you're caught, and there's the distinct possibility of being ostracized. You know how the Queen is about circumspect behavior. Although as far as Prince Edward is concerned, the man would probably applaud you. Still, polite society won't overlook an outright discretion of this sort."

Julia waved her cousin's concerns aside. "I won't get caught. I have it all planned out. Dinner is being served in St. Claire's private dining room at the Clarendon tomorrow night. I'll simply ask to refresh myself then run upstairs and retrieve the handkerchief from the man's room. I'll be back at the dinner party before anyone is the wiser."

"What is that old adage? The best laid plans go astray?" Catherine mouth was tight with disapproval, but there was concern in her gaze too.

"My maid knows the maid on St. Claire's floor. The girl is quite trustworthy. I promise you. Nothing will go wrong."

Julia smiled at both of her friends with a sense of extreme satisfaction. Nothing would go wrong. She was certain of it, and she was going to enjoy auctioning off one of St. Claire's handkerchiefs. She would be the first woman to own one that hadn't been given in a moment of pity.

Read additional chapters at Monica Burns Website.

Excerpt from Love's Portrait by Monica Burns
All rights reserved by publisher and author

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