The notorious viscount and the most gossiped-about lady…
After years as a diplomat in the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Eastwood is reluctant to return to London society. His scandalous divorce has made him infamous, not to mention cantankerous! To halt the rumour mill, he should marry a quiet noblewoman — instead it’s bold, vibrant artist Faith Brookes who’s caught his attention. They are the least suitable match, so why is he like a moth to a flame?
Rumours abound, gentle reader, concerning a certain young poet of great regard and the eldest daughter of one of England’s premier portraitists after the pair were seen together again yesterday at the British Museum. Could this mean there is finally a betrothal in the offing for the unconventional Miss B. from Bloomsbury…?
Whispers from Behind the Fan
‘Are you absolutely certain you cannot do this alone?’ Her mother’s eyes were shooting unsubtle daggers at her father across the tight confines of the carriage in one last-ditch attempt to get him to change his mind. ‘Surely I do not need to remind you, Augustus, that the eldest boy is a…’ She dropped her voice to a pointed whisper and drew each letter in the air with her finger. ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E-E.’
Faith rolled her eyes, groaning aloud, exasperated in equal measure at both her mother’s unnecessary overprotectiveness and her continued insistence at spelling unsavoury words out in the presence of any one of her three daughters as if they were all too stupid to piece the letters together. Typically, it was ignored.
‘And he’s a nasty piece of work to boot, by all accounts.’ Her mother shuddered theatrically. ‘Completely and utterly R-U-T-H-L-E-S-S.’
‘I have been reading fluently for twenty years, Mama.’ Faith watched her father stifle a laugh at her matter-of-fact tone. ‘Although even if I was so daft as to be unable to decipher your complicated secret code, I can assure you that the world and his wife are already well aware of Viscount Eastwood’s scandal.’
It was impossible not to be.
For the entirety of last spring and summer it was all anyone talked about. After all, it wasn’t every day polite society got to watch a peer of the realm force a rushed petition through Parliament to offload his wife before she gave birth to their child.
Yet against all the odds, and no doubt thanks to his family’s superior connections, their mountains of very old money and Lord Eastwood’s important position in the government, he managed to get shot of the poor woman in under six months, on trumped-up charges of infidelity, simply because he bitterly regretted marrying beneath him. Quite an achievement when such things usually took years—if they were ever achieved at all.
He had even managed to get the deed done and dusted within a few days of the unfortunate woman going into labour. It had really been quite something to behold. Unheard of, truth be told. Unbelievably shocking, undeniably unpalatable, as it rendered the innocent child entirely illegitimate, and thoroughly engrossing to follow in the newspapers. So much so, Faith had been riveted, consumed with a visceral anger she had found extremely difficult to mask because she empathised with the wronged wife entirely. Because she too had once been deemed unsuitable by another viscount who was a presumptive earl-to-be, although thankfully her private shame and utter humiliation had not been in the public glare, or even the personal for that matter.
Her lily-livered, duplicitous and callous beau had always insisted on secrecy, and like the naive, stupid young fool she had once been, she had blithely complied. And what really galled now was that she had even enjoyed all the intrigue at the time. The stolen moments, the illicit kisses, even those under her parents’ own roof, had added a delicious frisson to her ill-fated romance which he had no doubt known was as seductive as his lies to an adventurous young woman who was as green around the gills as she had been. The only positive from the whole sorry debacle was that her dear family were still oblivious of her dreadful mistake.
Else she’d be in exactly the same leaky rowboat as the former Viscountess of Eastwood. Ruined as well as abandoned by the unworthy man she had thrown caution to the wind for—and doomed for all eternity to be maligned for ever as a result.
The stark similarities between her and this faceless, voiceless woman were uncanny. The only difference being that Faith hadn’t managed to get her morally moribund presumptive Earl to marry her, which was probably just as well, all things considered, even though it hadn’t felt particularly fortunate at the time. Which made Lord Eastwood’s ruthless behaviour all the more abhorrent. When one made one’s bed, one should have the basic decency to lie in it. Especially when one had taken holy vows to keep the thing for all eternity.
However, as much as she disapproved of the callous Viscount’s ungentlemanly behaviour, she couldn’t deny she was curious to finally meet him in the flesh. Thanks to her parents’ bohemian lifestyle she had met many scandalous individuals in their eclectic little corner of Bloomsbury, more still among the illustrious ranks of the aristocracy, but the cold and calculated Lord Eastwood was going to be her very first truly infamous one. Would his innate heartlessness be blatantly obvious from the outset or was it something he could mask? Her keen artist’s eye wanted to know.
‘I just don’t like the thought of it, Augustus! My poor nerves are already shot to smithereens with the worry and you haven’t even started working for the beast yet!’ Her mother was clearly agitated as she gripped her father’s sleeve. ‘I think it would be much more prudent if you paint him alone, two men together, rather than expose our daughter to his badness. Faith can accompany me to my fitting today instead and perhaps later, in a few weeks once you have enough preliminary sketches of him…’ She curled her lip in distaste. ‘She can work on the background for you safely from home. Well out of The Beast’s beastly clutches.’
‘Roberta—you are letting your imagination run away with you again.’ Her father knew full well a day spent idly twiddling her thumbs in the bowels of the Covent Garden theatre, while her soprano mother was fitted for her flamboyant stage costumes, was Faith’s idea of a living hell. As much as she loved her mother, they were cut from a very different cloth. ‘This is a huge commission, my darling.’ He squeezed his wife’s hand in reassurance. ‘And once again, to clarify for the umpteenth time, I am not actually working for The Beast per se—but his esteemed father who is an altogether more agreeable kettle of fish. Only a tiny fraction of our time over the coming months will be spent exclusively with the Viscount.’
He held up his finger and thumb an inch apart for emphasis. ‘The minutest fraction, which will be undoubtedly considerably less if his blatant lack of enthusiasm for the project is any gauge. When I met with the family last week, Lord Eastwood made no secret of the fact he was there on sufferance and made certain I knew he considered self-indulgent family portraits a complete waste of his valuable time and energy.’
‘I dare say much like his poor unfortunate wife was.’
Faith’s quip earned her a warning look from her father, one which obviously translated to you are not helping, before he covered it with a convincingly pained expression for the benefit of his own worried wife and changed tack.
‘Such a large composition will take several more months if Faith doesn’t assist me and despite the recent unfortunate scandal, it is still a prestigious and lucrative commission. I would be a fool not to give it my all. Especially as it’s been in the planning for over a year and society is already abuzz about the sheer scale of the project. The Earl of Writtle is a favourite of the King and a great friend of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. They are the very pinnacle of society, and instead of choosing Sir Thomas Lawrence like all the best ton inevitably does, they wanted me. This commission is a tremendous coup, Roberta! I am unequivocally committed. Left stranded without Faith’s help, I would need to work longer hours to get it completed in time to meet my other commitments. Significantly longer hours. I’d barely be home, Roberta…’
He let that reality hang for a moment, knowing his absence would bother her mother more than any association with a passing scandal ever could, when to all intents and purposes the Brookes family were a positive scandal in their own right anyway even without Faith’s secret but massive faux pas. The mason’s son turned artist, and the draper’s daughter turned opera singer, were only tolerated by society because they also happened to be the very best artist and the very best opera singer in all of Christendom. Her father’s rising star was shooting past all his rivals, including the painter-in-ordinary to His Majesty, Sir Thomas Lawrence. And now that he had been newly elected by the Royal Academy of Arts as their latest Academician, that star was destined to rise even farther.
‘Aside from the eldest Lord Eastwood…’
‘Please do not call him anything other than The Beast henceforth in my presence, Augustus!’ Her mother refused to be placated. ‘I have the measure of him and will never be swayed from it!’
‘All right—aside from the beastly Beast, the rest of the Earl of Writtle’s brood are delightful. You know they are. You have met them on many occasions. In fact, it was you who first introduced me to the family and saw the potential else I never would have accepted such a huge commission in the first place. You know I prefer the freedom of variety instead of months toiling over the same subjects. They were good people, you said. Influential people. And the Countess’s greatest wish was to have her nearest and dearest immortalised in oils, you said…by me.’
Hardly a tremendous surprise when her father’s work had become quite sought after in the last few years, especially his informal group tableaus, and the waiting list for a painting had been long. However, there was no denying since the Writtle commission and his recent elevation with the Academy, that list was now enormous. His schedule was packed and, keen to monopolise on his good fortune, her father had promised the Countess of Writtle her painting would be completed before the end of the Season and the grand ball the family always held at the end of May. Hence, he would have to renege on that lofty promise without an effective assistant who could effortlessly mimic his style and share some of the burden. Faith was his most promising student and the only one he trusted enough to delegate to.
‘But that was a year ago, dear. A great deal has changed since then. Tell them you are suddenly unavailable, and this argument becomes moot.’
‘Roberta…’ Her father shook his head in disappointment. ‘Aside from the fact that would be very poor form and potentially catastrophic for my good reputation, I pride myself in being a man of my word and I will not entertain the idea of letting anyone down—no matter who they might be associated with or what that associate might have done. And while I understand that all your concerns are because Faith is our daughter, it would be grossly unfair of us to tar all the Earl’s family with the same brush now, wouldn’t it?’ Her father always saw the good in everyone—although from time to time that innate belief was grossly misplaced. ‘What sort of people would we be if we deserted decent folk simply because of some selfish individual’s actions which fall completely out of their control? Not to mention the Earl and Countess of Writtle are true patrons of the arts and we both know those are few and far between. They do not deserve such shoddy treatment and I will not be party to it.’
‘You are right.’ Roberta Brookes was nothing if not fiercely loyal to her legions of devoted fans, irrespective of whether they were paupers or peers. And despite all her current misgivings about Lord Beastly and his scandalous divorce, she really did have a generous nature and a heart of gold. ‘Absolutely right… The Earl and Countess of Writtle are good people…’
‘Of course they are!’ He winked at his daughter as they both watched the older woman waver. ‘Besides, my darling, Faith will be with me. What possible harm could come to her under the watchful eye of her own father?’
‘But he is such a handsome and titled D-E-V-I-L and she is such a pretty thing. What if her head is turned? I worry for the sanctity of her V-I-R-T-U-E.’
While Faith blinked in shock at the ludicrous suggestion, not having the heart to shatter her prudish mother’s illusions by telling her that she had stupidly given away her precious virtue to a lying blackguard years ago, her father’s spontaneous bark of laughter was genuine. ‘Have you gone completely mad, woman? You know our eldest better than anyone. It would take more than a handsome devil to turn her clever, discerning head. Edward Tate is possibly the handsomest man in London, and perhaps the entirety of England, and even he has failed to turn her head.’
‘More’s the pity!’ Her mother was convinced the poet was the perfect match for Faith and did her utmost to encourage the match. But while Faith liked Edward—because they had been friends for many years before he decided he wanted more than friendship—she harboured no romantic feelings for him, even while trying.
‘Or not,’ said her father with a sly wink towards Faith, ‘which rather proves my point. If anyone is going to give the nefarious Lord Eastwood short shrift, it is she. When has our Faith ever been able to keep her thoughts or opinions to herself?’
A character flaw her charming mother despaired of. ‘We all know I am too outspoken, Mama, and I’ve never suffered fools gladly.’ Not any more at any rate. Something she was immensely proud of, but she made a concerted effort to appear contrite. ‘Although I really am trying to temper those unfortunate traits.’
An outright lie. While she was entirely capable of being polite and biting her tongue as far as her father’s business was concerned, if a pithy comment was required, she was still more than happy to be the one to give it. Especially to someone with a lofty title. She abhorred the arrogant sense of superiority men from the aristocracy always had and loathed more that they always assumed any woman not of noble birth was always considered fair game. After the Earl-to-be had shattered all her childish illusions, and in the five years since he had skipped to pastures new without so much as a backwards glance, she had already accumulated enough indecent proposals from similar men of illustrious rank to fill a book and all without any encouragement on her part. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise she was entirely jaded with the breed.
‘I can assure you, it will be a cold day in hell before I allow a scoundrel to seduce me. No matter how handsome he is.’
‘It will take more than a fine face to tempt our eldest, Roberta, you know that. Unworthy scoundrels aside, how many decent suitors outside of that foppish poet have tried and failed to woo her over the years? She’s ridiculously choosy.’
Another thing Faith was proud of. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. Not to mention she would rather cut off her painting hand than allow history to ever repeat itself.
‘Well, there is that…’ Her mother glanced at her and sighed, although probably more out of frustration at her eldest daughter’s acid tongue than relief she possessed one. ‘I have seen no recent evidence to suggest that cynical attitude towards all gentlemen will ever change.’ Though not for the want of her trying. Roberta Brookes believed in love and marriage. By Faith’s age she had been married for three years and had already given birth to two of her three daughters. She struggled to understand her eldest daughter’s reluctance to entertain anyone, while Faith could hardly explain to her all the exceedingly good reasons why that was.
Her mother sighed again, clearly in two minds still but on the cusp of backing down. ‘But I suppose, in this instance, I am prepared to acknowledge her unhealthy cynicism, lack of tact and determined forthrightness might come in handy around The Beast.’
‘Undoubtedly it will.’ Her father wrapped his arm around his wife and kissed the top of her head. ‘You see, you really are worrying unduly, my darling, and you really shouldn’t when you have quite enough on your plate already with rehearsals.’
Faith nodded, even though they had had the same circular argument about her involvement in the Writtle commission for over a month now, going toe to toe with her lovable but stubborn mother was never the way to win her around.
‘Così fan Tutte has been your dream for so long, Mama… Please don’t spoil it by worrying about me.’ In the Brookes household, great stock was put on dreams and ambition because if both her parents hadn’t dared reach for the stars, they would still be masons and drapers eking out a hard living exactly as their own parents and grandparents had done before them. ‘You need to focus all your energies on giving London the virtuosa performance everyone is holding their breath for. In return, you have my solemn pledge I shall avoid The Beast at all costs and if I cannot avoid him, I shall remain unequivocally so pithy, cynical, tactless and forthright he is left in no doubt how much I heartily disapprove of him. If my head is turned in any direction it will be upwards—so I can better glare at him from down my nose.’ For good measure she decided to demonstrate this, earning her another amused nod from her father.
‘Intimidatingly haughty, darling. Well done! The beastly Beast won’t know what’s hit him when he sees that. Doesn’t she look fearsome, Roberta?’
After a long, withering sigh, her mother finally nodded. ‘Very well. I shall reluctantly capitulate. But only as long as I have your word, Augustus, that Faith is supervised by you at all times while you work on this commission.’ Her narrowed eyes turned to her daughter. ‘And that you, dear girl, desist being your usual headstrong self and let him! I want both of you to make that promise here and now or I shan’t rest.’
Her father winced as their eyes locked. They both knew keeping to that pledge was going to nigh on impossible. In the two years Faith had been her father’s occasional assistant, they had found their own way of working harmoniously and it was rarely together. No work got achieved otherwise. She liked to talk incessantly or sing to herself while she painted, and he preferred total silence which she abhorred. Therefore, when she assisted with his larger commissions, she created the whimsical and sentimental backgrounds which made a coveted Brookes tableau unique while he, as a complete and often irrational portrait perfectionist, concentrated on honing the pose and the expressions of the people in multiple sketches which he used to paint in the foreground later on in blissful peace. Usually entirely oblivious of the poor sitter who must be bored stiff with all the relentless posing while he captured them just so.
While their combined efforts always complemented one another perfectly and there was no denying they made the perfect artistic team, rarely, if ever, did they paint in the same room. If they were forced to do so, it would only be a matter of time before one of them murdered the other.
‘You have my word I shall keep her close by.’ He winced again over his wife’s head as he said it, looking decidedly ill at ease to be stretching the truth. He already had a rigorous schedule of sittings booked with each member of the Writtle clan—and those were just his preliminary sketches. There would be more. There were always more. Obsessive preparation was part of her father’s process, whereas Faith liked to paint as the muse took her.
Conscious she was staring straight at her, Faith offered her mother her best approximation of a reassuring smile. ‘And I promise that I shall never be more than a few yards away from Papa while The Beast is in the residence.’ As long as twenty or thirty yards separated by a solid brick wall still constituted a few.
As soon as their carriage pulled up outside the Earl of Writtle’s impressive Grosvenor Square town house, a waiting footman opened the door and Faith practically tumbled out of it in her haste to escape in case the begrudging permission she had just been gifted was swiftly rescinded. If her father’s haste to join her was any indication, he too feared the distinct possibility of either an immediate retraction or a thorough interrogation which would ultimately expose the truth. Together they pasted twin smiles on their faces as they waved off the carriage and simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief as it disappeared out of sight.
‘I hate lying to her.’
‘Technically, you didn’t lie, Papa. I will always be close by.’
‘And technically, any justification which starts with the word technically is fundamentally problematic and would be unlikely to stand up in court. A lie by omission is still a lie as far as a marriage is concerned. One day, I pray you will keep your tart mouth closed long enough to fool an upstanding and unsuspecting man into marrying you before he learns you are a complete harridan who is best avoided—and then you will understand the turmoil.’
‘I rather like being a harridan.’ It was the constant weapon in her arsenal which could be relied upon to thwart the unwanted advances of any man who thought a girl not from the illustrious ranks of the aristocracy fair game. ‘Unless, of course, dear Mama is right and the handsome D-E-V-I-L in there miraculously turns my head and makes me forget to be one.’
‘I think that is as likely as me managing to supervise you at all times. Not even the Almighty Himself is capable of such a momentous miracle if you are suitably riled.’ He slanted her a warning glance. ‘That said, please don’t go in there spoiling for a fight, Faith. Lord Beastly aside, this family really are good people and I would be mortified if you offended them. Remember, we are here in a professional capacity and as such, I expect you to comport yourself in a professional manner at all times irrespective of your private feelings. Even when riled.’
She frowned, a little offended. When it came to her work, she was always professional. That veneer had only ever slipped once and in her defence only because the randy old sitter had made inappropriate physical advances while she had been preoccupied with mixing some paint. ‘If you don’t mind me saying, Papa, that is an entirely unnecessary and unwarranted reminder. Of course, I will be the epitome of good manners and professionalism. Exactly as I always am. Even around The Beast himself.’
After a beat of silence, her father’s expression softened. ‘It was an unnecessary reminder and I apologise. Forgive me, Faith. I am afraid after being married for a quarter of a century, your mother’s voice is in my head and…’ He huffed out a put-upon grunt. ‘Well…there’s been so many dreadful stories about Lord Eastwood in the papers, who could blame you for having strong opinions regarding him? Especially as I have a fair few of them myself and he has done little when I have encountered him to allay those fears. I suspect, for the next three months, we shall both have to bite our tongues whenever we come into contact with him.’
As the footmen relieved them of their burdens, keen to dismiss the small tiff before they stepped into the fray, she took her father’s arm and dropped her voice to a whisper as they followed the men up the pristine marble steps.
‘Talking of Lord Beastly, do you think he will be gracing us with his presence today?’ After everything she had heard about him, she couldn’t help but be intrigued. ‘I confess, I cannot wait to see if this particular devil actually does have horns.’
‘None that I saw, but perhaps he files them down?’
‘I suppose we’ll have to check inside his boots for cloven hooves to be thoroughly sure.’
Their wholly inappropriate mumbled discussion came to abrupt end when a smart butler met them in the hallway and briskly took their coats before escorting them to the drawing room. There they were promptly welcomed by the smiling Earl of Writtle, his grinning Countess, their two beaming adult daughters each beside their two genial husbands and two equally charming, cheerful grandchildren who giggled up at them from an explosion of toys on the Persian carpet. All in all, a perfectly lovely display of honest-to-goodness friendliness.
The only other person in the room, a tall man, stood detached from the rest of the family beside the fireplace, with jet-black hair and the greenest eyes Faith had ever seen, wearing a scowl which would curdle even the freshest milk. The scowl aside, there was no doubting her mother’s initial assessment was correct.
The beastly Lord Eastwood was a handsome devil—if devils were your type.
Fortunately, they were no longer hers. Either equipped fully with or without horns. Unfortunately, some devil inside her apparently scrambled her wits and took control of her tongue the moment his big hand politely shook hers, making her completely forget her resolve to be polite and professional at all times. As soon as the strange heat from his fingers seared through her gloves and set her nerve endings bouncing uncontrollably, she managed to unintentionally say exactly what she was thinking.
‘Lord Eastwood—I’ve read so much about you. I do hope, for your sake at least, some of it is untrue.’
Available in-stores and online from the 19th of January 2021