"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 faĂ§ade.
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 faĂ§ade.
"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
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.
"Wellâ€¦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
"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
"Do try to explain to her, Catherine."
"Perhaps she has a point, Julia. It is a bitâ€¦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
"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
"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 youâ€¦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 moreâ€¦" Alva blushed deeply. "â€¦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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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