Late Summer 1811 Paris, France
“Crimson?” the male voice drawled in disbelief. “Vraiment?”
Lady Clarissa Collins steadied her hand as she brushed the bright hue onto the canvas. She stepped back and narrowed her violet eyes critically over the voluptuous female model draped across the blue damask divan. The elegant sofa was placed several yards away from her easel and angled toward the outer studio wall. The late morning sun poured through the windows that made up the southern wall of the space, bathing the nearly naked woman in warm golden light.
Clarissa considered the canvas once again and used the tip of her little finger to barely smudge the fresh paint before nodding with satisfied decisiveness. “Now, Bernard, observe. Would you like to ask me again?”
Bernard St. Michelle, preeminent portrait painter of Paris and indeed all of Europe, frowned, lowered his thick black eyebrows into a forbidding vee, and turned toward the model. “You may go.”
The woman lazily reached for her dressing gown and rose, nodding to both before disappearing down the hall.
Bernard meticulously unrolled a white linen sleeve down one lean forearm and then the other. “Clarissa, how long have I been a painter?” he asked, his Gallic accent more pronounced.
Clarissa dipped her brush into a jug of turpentine and vigorously swished the bristles back and forth. She knew the answer to Bernard’s question, of course. In fact, she knew the entire conversation that was about to take place, since they’d had it too many times to count.
“Longer than I,” she answered, tapping the brush hard against the earthenware pitcher before dunking it a second time, resuming the swishing motions with more force.
Bernard adjusted his cuffs just so. “And while you were learning to dance and capture the attention of unsuspecting young men in London, what was I doing?”
Clarissa pulled the brush from the jar and rubbed the bristles with a paint-stained rag. Her grip was too tight, the pressure too fierce, and the slim wooden brush handle broke in two. “Destroying your tools?” she ventured, tossing the snapped end of the brush handle to the floor.
Bernard sighed deeply, ignoring the broken wood as he walked to where Clarissa stood. “I was working in London too, cherie, honing my craft during the Peace of Amiens. Even when the war broke out, I painted night and day—”
“Until returning to Paris—in the hull of a blockade runner, no less,” Clarissa interrupted. “I know, Bernard. And I will remember if I live to be two hundred and two.”
“Then you know that when I question your work, you must listen? I believe that I’ve earned such respect. Don’t you?”
He was right, of course. Since returning to Paris, Bernard’s popularity with the ton had grown, his limited availability making him only more desirable. Sheer genius combined with the adoration of the elite was difficult to deny.
Clarissa eyed the other brushes in the pitcher, the urge to break wood calling to her like a siren. “But I was right, Bernard. The touch of crimson to define the subject’s lip line is exactly what was needed.”
“That is hardly the point, my dear—and you know it.” Bernard pushed the table with the pitcher of brushes and the clutter of stained rags, paints, and palette knives beyond Clarissa’s reach. “How can you expect to grow as an artist if you do not allow the world—and others with more experience—to inform your work?”
His midnight black hair had escaped its queue and feathered about his temples like so many brushstrokes, piled one atop another.
No matter how hard she tried, Clarissa could never stay angry at Bernard—especially when he was right. And since the day she’d met him, he’d been right about everything, unlike the long list of French painting masters who, despite her talent, had refused to take her as an apprentice because she was female.
Five years earlier, when their world in England had come crashing down, Clarissa had agreed to flee with her mother to Paris. The prospect of studying with François Gérard or Jacques-Louis David had held all her hope for the future. When both artists scoffed at her request simply because she was a woman, Clarissa dismissed them as the idiots they clearly were and moved on, working her way down a list of suitable teachers in Paris.
Despite her impressive portfolio of work, everyone she approached refused, until she was left with one: Bernard St. Michelle, the highly respected and, arguably, most talented painter on the European continent. She’d not placed St. Michelle higher on her list, having overheard that even male artists of her caliber could not secure a position with him.
But when she’d found herself with nothing to lose, she’d had her finest painting delivered to him—signed “C. Collins”—and St. Michelle had granted her a personal interview. Clarissa had procured suitable men’s clothing and made her way to his studio, intent on letting her art speak for itself rather than her sex doing all the talking.
He’d agreed to take her on and with a handshake, the deal was sealed. Clarissa had taken particular pleasure in ripping the beaver hat from her head and revealing her topknot of glossy black curls.
Bernard had only sighed deeply and instructed her to arrive by eight in the morning—no earlier, no later—then told her to go.
Though he was her senior by only a handful of years, Bernard had become a mentor and friend, father and confidant. As trustworthy as he was endlessly talented. And he’d taught her more about her art and her life in the last five years than she’d learned in the previous nineteen.
The memory of just how much she owed this man had Clarissa sighing, her annoyance evaporating. She placed the flat of her palms on Bernard’s cheeks, cupping his face, and gently squeezed. “At least I did not throw the brush this time, oui?”
He raised a thick black eyebrow in agreement. “Nor did you shout. Improvement, indeed, my dear. The fire in your heart is beginning to meld with the sense in your head. One day you will be the finest portrait painter the world has ever seen. Such self-possession will be of great value when working with the aristocracy.”
“That, and my beaver hat,” Clarissa replied teasingly, playfully pinching Bernard’s face before turning to attend to the remaining brushes.
The sound of the front door slamming below followed by the heavy tread of feet on the stairs caught Clarissa’s attention.
“Jean-Marc?” she asked, referring to Bernard’s paramour.
“No.” Bernard shook his head, waving her toward the dressing screen in the corner. “He attends to his mama today,” he whispered. “Go.”
Clarissa complied, leaving the brushes to the turpentine and tiptoeing quickly toward the colorful screen. She’d made use of the hiding place many times before when delivery boys or Bernard’s friends had dropped in unexpectedly. A strategically placed peephole located in the upper corner of a painted butterfly’s wing allowed her to see all that was happening without revealing her presence.
She’d barely whisked out of sight when three men entered the spacious studio.
“Bonjour, Messieurs,” Bernard greeted them in his native French.
“Bernard St. Michelle?” the tallest of the three men asked. He was perhaps Bernard’s age, with small, glistening, black eyes and a balding head.
Bernard nodded. “Yes. And who might you be?”
The ratlike man stepped closer to view Clarissa’s canvas, eyeing the painting with a lascivious gleam before turning back to Bernard. “I’m a man with a business proposition that I feel certain you will not refuse.”
“If you’re in need of my services, I’m afraid you will leave here disappointed. I am committed to the Comte de Claudel until next year,” Bernard replied, his tone remaining even.
The Rat licked his thin lips. “Are you certain?” he inquired, gripping the carved silver top of his walking cane. With a quick twist, he pulled out a slim épée, the lethal fencing sword sliding silently from its hiding place. “Because, as I mentioned before, I’m quite certain you’ll find this proposal impossible to refuse.” He raised the blade and brought it down with force on the canvas. The painting ripped in two, a jagged cut appearing down the center of the model’s reclining body. “And I am never wrong,” he said, the words remarkable for their total lack of emotion.
Clarissa bit her hand to stifle the scream building in her throat. The men were more than common street ruffians and she was sensible enough, even when outraged by the wanton destruction of her canvas, to know when to keep quiet.
Bernard regarded the painting with quiet concern. “You have my attention, monsieur.”
The two men positioned behind the Rat smirked in unison, their broad heads nodding with approval.
“You’ll leave in three days’ time for London to paint a portrait for a wealthy Canadian. There will be compensation, of course, as would be expected. And lodg- ing . . .” the ratlike man paused and flicked a disdainful gaze about the cluttered studio, “. . . that will suit your needs.”
Bernard folded his arms across his chest. “And the comte?”
With a swift, smooth flick of his wrist, the man slashed the blade at Bernard and a thin line of blood appeared on his face. “Tell the comte what you will. It makes no difference to me.”
“And if I do not?”
“If you do not?” the Rat parroted disbelievingly. Without warning, he lunged at the dressing screen, the blade slashing the painted silk covering until all that stood was the wooden frame. “Then my employer, Durand, will kill the girl—and her mother, for good measure.”
An instinctive survival response had sent Clarissa stepping back and away from the deadly tip of the weapon. Now she was exposed by the shredded silk screen and she lunged at the swordsman, raking her nails against his cheek. “Not if I kill you first,” she spat out.
The Rat stood motionless, seemingly suspended by his utter surprise at Clarissa’s attack. The neckless pair stared at the unexpected sight of the slender woman in blue dimity attacking their superior.
Of the four men, Bernard recovered first, grabbing Clarissa and shoving her protectively behind him. “Three days, gentlemen. I trust you’ll stand by your word?”
The Rat touched his face, dabbing at the blood left by Clarissa’s nails before licking the red stain clean from his fingertip. “Three days. No more, no less,” he confirmed, his cold, menacing smile directed at Clarissa before he turned toward the hallway. The muscular pair of henchmen followed behind, their heavy footfalls growing more muted, until the outer door to the street below slammed and they were gone.
Bernard turned, his face set in stark lines.
“Do you remember what I said regarding the fire in your heart and the sense in your head?” he asked, clutching Clarissa’s arms so tightly the skin beneath his hands turned white.
“Yes,” she answered, wincing at the pressure of his fingers, a thousand unanswered questions threatening to spill from her lips.
“I was wrong.”
Clarissa eased from beneath his hands and lifted the hem of her smock, pressing it firmly against the line of blood welling on Bernard’s cheek. “Who were those men?” she asked, unable to control the tremble in her voice.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Bernard said grimly, his dark gaze meeting Clarissa’s wide eyes. “But I may know someone who can tell us more.”
James Marlowe detested salt water. Swimming was all well and good, but taking in repeated mouthfuls of the briny liquid was, in a word, hell. He dug his heels into the wet sand and looked out over the black water of the English Channel. A full moon rode high in the night sky, illuminating the crest and curl of the rolling waves.
He’d known from the beginning that penetrating Napoleon’s darkest of organizations, Les Moines—The Monks—would be difficult. But when Henry Prescott, Viscount Carmichael, asked, one hardly thought in terms of ease.
He spat once, then twice, grimacing when the salty taste failed to disappear. James was an agent within the Young Corinthians, an elite British government spy organization that operated outside the bounds of normal channels.
Carmichael was the liaison between the spies and those in control of the British government at the highest level—and those at the top were anxious to be rid of Bonaparte. When intelligence reports revealed Les Moines’s troublesome strides toward securing Napoleon’s dreams of adding Russia and Britain to his continental empire, Carmichael was tasked with putting an end to their efforts—once and for all—by fair means or foul.
James untucked his sodden linen shirt, pulling it free of his waistband, and rolled his aching shoulders. Carmichael had made it clear that no one but himself would know the true nature of James’s assignment. He’d have very little in the way of resources other than his skill and wits. James was well aware that eventually all within the Young Corinthians would assume he had betrayed his compatriots and become a traitor to Crown and Country. It was not a role he relished, but he’d rather take it on himself than have Carmichael hand it off to one of his fellow Corinthians. Compared to others, he had little to lose—and no one to care if he died while carrying out his assignment.
And so he’d agreed. It had taken over a year to secure his footing within the organization, and six months more to prove his dedication to the cause, establishing a place in the despicable group.
Which had landed him squarely on the beach of St. Aldhelm’s Isle, where he’d done battle with his fellow Corinthians mere hours before. His most recent undertaking for Les Moines had had him hunting for emeralds in the wilds of Dorset. He’d managed to ensure that the jewels would not fall into Napoleon’s hands, but not without incident. The time had come to reveal himself as a traitor to his fellow Corinthian agents, and thus he’d been shot at by a baronet’s daughter while trying to board a boat. Acting on instinct, he’d sunk below the waves and swum until his lungs nearly burst. When he’d surfaced, the Corinthians were gone, leaving the world to mourn the loss of James Marlowe, traitor.
He doubted anyone would spend more than a passing moment regretting his “death.”
Out on the dark water, a light flickered, rising and falling on the swell of the waves.
He shoved himself up from the wet sand, standing as the light drew brighter with the approach of a boat that was scheduled to retrieve both James and the jewels.
There would be hell to pay for the loss of the emeralds, he thought, and his apparent untimely demise would be a nuisance. But James was well versed in the art of improvising.
“Un beau soir pour aller nager, oui?” one of the men called out, the other crewmen responding to his sally with hearty laughter as they shipped their oars.
A lovely evening for a swim, James silently repeated the man’s words in English, grinding his teeth with the effort it took to keep from snarling a reply. He walked to the water’s edge and stepped in, the wet sand sucking at his boots as he waded through the surf to the waiting boat.
“Merriment not from you, Marlowe?” the man asked in broken English as he offered James his hand.
James hauled himself up into the small skiff, the boat rocking as he took a seat near the bow. “The emeralds are gone,” he growled in French, hardly having the patience for Morel’s butchering of his mother tongue.
“Oh,” Morel replied matter-of-factly in his sailors’ patois. “They’ll likely kill you, then. It was a pleasure knowing you.”
A second rousing chorus of laughter broke out as the men lowered their oars and began to row. Morel pounded James on the back with a beefy hand. “I am joking, of course. Dixon and his men will see to the emeralds.”
James knew Morel was wrong. There was no way the traitorous Mr. Dixon could retrieve the emeralds—now that they were in the possession of the Corinthians. Still, James saw no benefit in answering the man either way, so he simply nodded and looked out toward the waiting ship that would take him to France.
“Still, if I were you,” Morel suggested, “I would give some thought to explaining yourself. Your aristocratic English face will only get you so far.”
As if on cue, Morel’s motley gang erupted in rough laughter once again.
“How long is the crossing to France?” James asked, ignoring Morel’s comment.
“Twelve hours. Anxious to be rid of your country?”
James deducted twelve hours from the coming months it would take to bring down Les Moines. The sale of the emeralds had been intended to fund Napoleon’s fight. With the jewels now in safe hands, James was that much closer to slapping the hell out of the organization.
“Something like that.”
“Clarissa, do sit down.” Isabelle Collins, daughter of the Comte de Tulaine, the estranged wife of Robert Collins, the Marquess of Westbridge, and Clarissa’s beloved mother patted the space next to her on the gold settee.
“Mother, please,” Clarissa groaned. She pressed her forehead to the cool glass panes of the window. Below, Parisian society strolled past 123 rue de la Fontaine, blissfully unaware of the tempest of emotion within Clarissa and Isabelle’s home. “How you can sit still is beyond me.”
“I am hungry and thirsty. Now, do come and sit, chérie.”
Clarissa lifted her head and turned, taking in her mother’s somber face. “We are in danger—Bernard is in danger,” she began, sitting down and taking the offered cup of tea. “I’ve been to the studio, his home. He is nowhere to be found.”
“Not even at the tavern?” Isabelle asked in a whisper.
Clarissa reached for a fourth sugar cube and pitched it into the cup. “No,” she replied grimly, “not even the tavern.”
“I feel sure Monsieur St. Michelle would not want to involve you further.” Isabelle patted Clarissa’s arm reassuringly, though her darkened eyes betrayed her concern.
Clarissa returned her cup to the silver tray with a snap, the sweetened brew sloshing over the sides and onto the plate of biscuits. “But I am involved—we are involved, Mother. Those horrible men threatened both of us. I’ve no idea how, but they knew I was there, as if they’d been watching Bernard’s studio.”
Isabelle traced the rim of her delicate cup with the tip of her forefinger, frowning in thought. “Chérie, could they not have heard your footsteps?”
“Even so, how did they know of you?” Clarissa countered.
“What young woman does not possess a mother?”
Unable to sit still, Clarissa rose from the settee and began to pace the plush carpet. Her muslin skirts swirled about her ankles, echoing her agitation. “Mother, this is all too coincidental. I cannot believe their knowledge can be explained so easily.”
Isabelle gently set her cup and saucer on the tray, then cleared her throat. “Clarissa, chérie, there is no need to be so dramatic.”
“On the contrary—this is hardly my emotions at play,” Clarissa countered, clasping her hands behind her back as she stalked the length of the room and back.
She was afraid. Deep within her bones, she was terrified, and for good reason. Her mother’s response, however, was hardly surprising. Before they had left London to live in France, Isabelle could not have been a more doting mother, loving wife, and caring friend. Her beauty and charm were matched only by the love she lavished on all those fortunate enough to be in her life.
And then her husband’s flagrant affair came to light. The other woman was never identified, nor would Clarissa’s father deny or confirm, but the damage was done all the same. Isabelle shut tight her heart and escaped into herself, choosing existence over emotion, the safety of distance over the danger of involvement.
Her father’s betrayal had destroyed Clarissa as well, though her response could not have been more different from her mother’s. She was enraged. She was embittered. She craved revenge.
For Clarissa, the betrayal was twofold, with the most important men in her life disappointing her in the worst way. For just as her father had set light to the happiness and security of her well-fashioned world, James had seen fit to burn it to the ground. James Marlowe, youngest son of the Baron of Richmond, the love of Clarissa’s life, had destroyed her world as surely as her father had set fire to Isabelle’s.
“My dear,” Isabelle said in a controlled tone, interrupting Clarissa’s thoughts. “Let us not quarrel yet again on this point.”
Clarissa stopped pacing and moved quickly to her mother, dropping to her knees next to Isabelle. “Maman, we are different, you and I—this you know all too well. You find weakness in love. I find my strength. I love Bernard, for he’s been both mentor and dear friend to me here in Paris. I owe him far more than I can ever repay. Therefore I must ensure his safety. I simply could not do anything else. Can you understand?”
Isabelle took Clarissa’s hand and kissed it, holding it to her cheek as though it were the greatest of treasures. “I do, chérie, I do. But what is to be done? It seems that St. Michelle does not want your help. And do not forget: You are one woman against three ruffians. Hardly enviable odds.”
“True enough,” Clarissa agreed, “though perhaps not insurmountable.”
Excerpted from The Sinner Who Seduced Me by Stefanie Sloane. Copyright © 2011 by Stefanie Sloane. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.