Rules of Engagement – Tracy Cooper-Posey

I ce on the lines slowed the train by two hours, making Cian seethe at the delay. He checked his watch constantly, although it didn’t make the long hand move any faster. Resentment underscored his impatience. He didn’t want to be on the train in the first place, only Lisa Grace’s wire had been both forceful and mildly incoherent. YOU MUST COME TO LONDON AT ONCE. TOMORROW. I WILL SHOW YOU THEN. —LISA GRACE Lisa Grace was inclined to hysterics and he might have dismissed her summons, for it was a bitterly cold week. The great hearth at Innesford was far more attractive than hours upon a rattling train and the empty streets and fog in London. Only, Lisa Grace was not in the habit of sending wires to anyone. As long as there was an easel in front of her and a view to capture, she let the world pass her by. Besides, she was his baby sister. For both reasons, Cian had risen early this morning, dressed in his warmest clothes and hurried to the train station at Truro. The delay had scraped his patience. As soon as the train halted at the London platform, he snatched his valise from the carrier rack, pushed the door open and stepped onto the platform.

There was not a slender blonde woman anywhere on the chilly platform. Had Lisa Grace the sense to return to the house on Park Lane and stay warm, once she learned of the late arrival? He strode over to the high-arched entrance tunnel. Cabs always lingered at the edge of the footpath beyond, hoping to snag a fare. The station master’s glassed-in office was half-way along the short tunnel. Warm orange gaslight shone through the big window. Low voices sounded. As Cian drew level with the pool of light, laughter rose. He glanced through the window, startled to hear such a cheerful sound on such a dismal day. Then he halted. Four men stood or crouched around the big stove in the corner of the office.

Through the stove’s grate door, Cian could see glowing coals. Seated beside the stove, a teacup and saucer balanced on her gloved hand and a napkin spread over her traveling suit, was Lisa Grace. Her feet were tucked neatly beneath her, her hems arranged prettily around her. An enterprising station employee had stacked volumes of train timetables beside her to form a temporary side table. A plate with the remains of a slice of fruitcake sat on the table. Shaking his head, Cian entered. The air was considerably warmer in the room, in both temperature and temperament. The men stood when they saw him. The station master himself came forward, his brow raised. “Cian!” Lisa Grace said, delight in her voice.

“You’re here!” “So are you. I thought I would find you at the townhouse, with paint on your nose,” he replied Lisa Grace put the cup and saucer upon the makeshift table. “When the wire came through advising the train was delayed, Master Stirling very kindly suggested I wait in his office.” The station master gave Cian a jovial smile. “It was far too cold on the platform for the young miss,” he said. “I appreciate your kindness,” Cian told him. “I hope Lady Annalies has not too greatly interfered with the running of the station?” Stirling straightened when he heard Lisa Grace’s title. Cian saw him reassess. “No, not at all, your Lordship,” he said politely. He hesitated.

“It’s an odd time of year to be in London, is it not?” “It is, indeed,” Cian told him. He beckoned to Lisa Grace, as she picked up her reticule and got to her feet. “I was telling them about the Master Artists on display at the Royal Academy’s winter exhibition,” Lisa Grace said. “No one seems to know about the new winter show.” “Not everyone is as deeply interested in art as you,” Cian reminded her. He held out his hand to Stirling. “Thank you again, Master Stirling.” Stirling shook his hand, then hurried to open the door for them. “It was a pleasure to meet you, my Lady,” he told Lisa Grace. “Thank you for the tea and cake,” she replied.

She took Cian’s elbow and waved at the other employees as they left. They all waved back. “You really waited here the whole time?” Cian asked her. “I didn’t want to miss you,” she said. “If I had gone back to the house to wait, I would have begun painting. Then the day would be gone, and this is too important.” Cian glanced at her as they stepped onto the footpath. She was not smiling. He held up his hand to the nearest waiting cab. The driver clicked his tongue to walk the horses forward and bring the cab closer to where they waited.

“Will you explain, now, what this is all about?” Cian asked. He opened the cab door and helped her into the carriage. Before he could give the driver the address, Lisa Grace pressed her lace-covered fingers over his. “Not to the house, Cian,” she said quickly. “Piccadilly—the Blake & Steele Gallery.” Cian raised his brow. He passed the directions to the driver, then got in and closed the door. As the cab jerked into motion, he looked at his sister. “What is all this mystery? Have you yet more paintings on display at the gallery?” “Oh, not the Blake & Steele Gallery,” she said and gave a little grimace. “It isn’t exactly the Royal Academy.

” “You have paintings at many galleries which are not the Royal Academy,” he pointed out. “Not at this one,” she assured him. She took his hand. “Thank you for coming when I asked, Cian.” “Why wouldn’t I?” “Because it is a miserable day in a miserable month and I know you hate art and artists.” “I don’t hate them,” he said quickly. “I simply have no time for the silliness which goes with it. I am happy to listen to you speak about it, for you at least have kept your head despite success.” He smiled. “Most of the time,” he added.

She gave him a small smile in return. “I should warn you that the Blake & Steele Gallery is rather…forward-looking.” Cian considered her. “So why are we going there?” Her smile was even smaller. “It will be easier to show you, Cian. Then you will understand.” She lapsed into silence. Cian peered through the dirty cab window at the nearly empty streets. This part of London at this time of year was deserted. In another couple of weeks, the peerage would trickle into London for the first session of the House of Lords for the year, while the majority of the ton would not venture back to London until after Easter.

“How was Algeria?” Lisa Grace asked. “That is where you went, isn’t it?” “Algeria was dry,” Cian said. “And bloody,” he added. “There was trouble?” “That is why we sailed there. Daniel was injured—but you must have heard about that by now, surely?” Lisa Grace frowned. “I did. Was it very bad?” “Bad enough,” Cian said. “His face will be scarred for life.” “Oh…” She pressed her lips together. “His pretty face!” “Iefan, too,” he added.

“His leg was badly smashed by a bullet.” Lisa Grace shook her head. “Iefan is always in trouble.” “I think that may change now,” Cian said. “Mairin and he are…” He hesitated, for there had been no formal announcement yet. The Natasha Marie had only tied up at Falmouth three days ago and everyone was still recovering from the winter voyage. Lisa Grace’s eyes widened. “Really? Oh, how simply marvelous! I must write to her and learn the details.” “You would learn them sooner if you stayed at Innesford or Marblethorpe like everyone else,” Cian pointed out. Lisa Grace’s mouth turned down.

“The winter exhibition is too important to miss.” “It must be lonely in the townhouse at this time of year,” he remarked. “I barely notice,” Lisa Grace admitted. “I am getting rather a lot of work done, despite the terrible light.” She stirred. “We will be there in a moment,” she said, as the cab turned into Piccadilly. He had no idea what Lisa Grace was up to, although his heart stirred a little at her pronouncement. What lay ahead? He paid the cabbie while she stood on the footpath, a pretty picture in brown and gold, a fox fur about her neck and a fur hat on her golden curls. There were few pedestrians and all of them glanced at her as they past. Cian held out his arm once more.

“Very well. I am suitably braced and prepared. You had better show me.” He looked up at the dark green visage of the gallery. It had large glass windows in which were displayed framed landscapes…yet the landscapes were oddly portrayed, making it impossible to discern details. The paint was blotchy and indistinct. “That looks rather a mess,” he murmured. “That mess is priced at one hundred guineas,” Lisa Grace said, with a smile. Cian raised his brow. “Really?” She laughed.

“I thought that might impress you.” She led him into the gallery. An attendant nodded at them but left them to browse. “There are what you would call normal paintings toward the back of the gallery,” Lisa Grace added. “Come along.” She led him through a maze of easels and stands holding more work which, in his uneducated opinion, lacked artistic merit. The pictures at the back of the gallery were all portraits, most of them full length. Some poses of the subjects were…odd. A woman sprawled on her stomach, her hems splayed and her lower legs revealed. A man in shirt sleeves, his shirt unbuttoned.

Lisa Grace glanced at Cian as they progressed through the portraits. She was no longer smiling. Cian cleared his throat when his glance fell upon a portrait of a woman with her hair down. The portrait captured only her head and her shoulders, yet her shoulders were bare. With her hair hanging free in that way, it implied she was nude. He could feel his cheeks heating. He was very aware of Lisa Grace beside him. “A few more steps, brother,” she murmured. They took the few steps then Lisa Grace turned him to face a full-length portrait in a five-foothigh gilt frame. A pair of plinths stood on either side of the frame, holding vases of yellow roses, making the portrait a feature of this section of the gallery.

Cian studied the portrait, his heart plummeting. The woman in the portrait was nude. There was no denying it, for the artists had captured every sensual curve of her body. He had posed her so she stood in shadow, while her head was turned to look up at what must have been a high window, for sunlight fell on her face and shoulders. She seemed to strain to see through the window, as if she longed to be out there in the sunshine. The sheet or cloth she held against her hid the essential details of her body, but only just. It looked as though she was about to drop the sheet—as if even that much cloth was an unnecessary hindrance to her leap toward the light. The woman’s face was clear and detailed. Rich brown hair, strong brows arched over brown eyes, a determined chin, a slender throat. Eleanore.

Cian’s heart didn’t just squeeze. It seemed to stop for a long, painful moment or two. Lisa Grace said, “I am right, am I not? That is Lady Eleanore Neville? The Duke of Gainford’s sister?” Cian swallowed. The movement hurt. “How did you know?” he whispered. “I’ve seen her before,” Lisa Grace said. “At the opera house, mostly. It is the ton, Cian. Everyone knows everyone.” He shook his head and made himself tear his gaze away from the figure in the portrait.

“I mean, how did you know to show me?” Lisa Grace hesitated. Then she stepped forward and touched the canvas lightly. Her fingertip pressed against the image of a big vase of yellow roses which exactly matched in color the real ones on either side of the frame. Among the painted roses was a single black one. “An ebony rose,” Lisa Grace said. She raised a brow. “There is only one place in England where they grow.” “Innesford,” Cian said, his breath evaporating. Had Eleanore arranged for the black rose to be included in the painting? Had she directed the artists to add it in, knowing Cian would see it? Or had the vase of yellow roses the artist had captured included a black one—was it one of the many bouquets he had sent her over the years? Cian’s gaze returned to Eleanore’s face, turned up toward the light. God above, how he ached to touch her! That beautiful face… It had been her face which had first captured his attention, at the opera.

He had fallen in love with her for other reasons, though. Looking at this picture was like seeing those reasons written for the world to read. The way she was leaning toward the light, as if she would fly toward it if she longed hard enough… They were the same, he and Eleanore. They had discovered the similarities through three years of letter writing, when they bared their souls, while the rest of the world had no idea they even knew each other. She had been lost within her huge family, with no control over her fate. Her helplessness was made worse because no one recognized it. No one in her family knew her—not truly. Even Eleanore did not really know herself. She had never been given the chance to learn. All of it was a familiar cry to Cian.

“I wasn’t sure whether I should send for you,” Lisa Grace added. “Not until I saw your face just now.” She moved back to his side and took his arm once more. “Now I know.” She glanced at the picture once more. “It’s actually very good,” she added, her tone conversational. “I’ve heard some passing comments about the artist, although I’ve never met him and this is the first work of his I’ve seen.” She studied the painting. “He makes me feel as if I know Lady Eleanore a little.” “A little too much,” Cian growled.

“So will the rest of London, when they see it.” He looked around for the attendant. “What are you going to do?” Lisa Grace asked. “What else?” Cian said. “I will buy the damn thing and lock it in a cellar where no one will ever see it.” He left Lisa Grace at the painting and went in search of the attendant, his temper brewing. He could feel the anger building. When would Eleanore stop vexing his life? He would flay her for this…this wildness. Then a wry voice in his mind corrected him. Of course he would not flay her.

When it came to Eleanore, he was singularly incapable of doing anything at all.

.

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