Claire Poplar was leaving.
No doubt when Polite Society discovered where she’d gone, they’d refer to the deed as “running away.” Nor, given her family’s involvement in the disappearance of a young earl years earlier, would society be altogether wrong.
After all, what lady would choose to remain in a place where her family’s sins lived strongest? Where a woman was looked down upon and judged and where there existed no future beyond that scandal? No lady would do that. Not when there was the possibility of escaping it all.
Nor, for that matter, did she blame society for their contempt. At all. Her parents had orchestrated a heinous crime when they’d had a young earl kidnapped so that Claire’s father could assume the rank of earl… and claim all the fortunes that went with it. Because the baronetcy her father had possessed hadn’t been enough.
Because there’d been a thirst for even more wealth. And more lands.
When her father’s sins had had come to light, Claire and her siblings, by nature of their blood connection had become inextricably linked with that plot to secure a grander title, with even greater wealth.
As such, Claire had just one thought in mind—escape. Leaving her family’s sins and crimes far behind, and starting over anew.
And it was her art that would set her free.
All she need do was convince famed artist Caleb Gray—her sister-in-law Poppy’s art instructor—to allow her to join him on his next tour, and help coordinate her placement at the Académie des Beaux-Arts; one of few institutions that accepted female students.
Caleb Gray, who rather… disliked her.
But he hadn’t always.
When he’d first begun arriving to visit Poppy for lessons, he and Claire had gotten on well enough. And it was that once-gruff, but not unkind, gentleman to whom she’d put her appeal.
Or perhaps that’s just what you’re telling yourself. Perhaps you imagined those handful of warm, teasing exchanges before he turned to ice.
Because it was a certainty that Caleb had been a foe longer than he’d been… a friend.
Standing outside the townhouse he kept, concealed by nothing more than a deep-hooded cloak, she found that reminder to be almost enough to make her consider leaving.
Perhaps she would have if she weren’t so desperate.
Either way, before her courage deserted her, Claire collected the bronze ring upon one of the double doors and brought it down hard.
The clang of metal upon oak thundered inordinately loud.
And she stiffened, braced for people to duck their heads outside their windows and doorways to catch sight of the scandalous creature venturing here alone.
Alas… no one came running or rushing out.
And that included Mr. Caleb Gray’s butler.
She wrinkled her nose.
Claire waited several moments, long enough so as not to be considered rude, but short enough so as not to risk being discovered out here, any more than she already had risked that.
Catching the ring once more, she brought the knocker down.
Grumbling came from the other side of those double panels, and her heart lifted. Excitement at being that much closer to her goal managed to supersede the deserved anxiety of meeting with a man she’d been at odds with for the past handful of months.
Caleb’s butler drew the door open. “What?” he demanded.
Claire went absolutely motionless. For this was decidedly not his butler.
Caleb raked an up-and-down stare over her hooded person. “You,” he muttered.
So he knew who she was. She took heart at that realization and also the fact that he’d not told her to leave.
“You answer your own door,” she blurted, forgetting to drop her voice to a whisper.
Should she have expected anything different from an American than to be so unconventional as to see to such a mundane task himself? And… she quite liked that about him.
Folding his arms, he nudged his deeply squared jaw her way. “Aren’t there rules with you people on ladies not paying visits to random households?”
“Is that really just an English thing? Or an American one, as well?” she asked, curiosity over that question more pressing than the fact that she risked ruin by being caught discussing anything with a gentleman. Alone. At midnight. “That is, regarding the servants.”
“Is that why you’ve come, Your Highness? To chat about international servant protocols?”
Did she detect a smile on his hard, perfectly masculine lips? Nay, it was gone so quick it had likely been a play of shadows, a flicker of the moon’s glow, or her own imagination… or all three.
Caleb Gray didn’t smile at her. Not any longer.
Once, he had.
Once, he’d even teased her and…
He made to shut the door.
Claire wedged her sketch pad between the door and the jamb to stop him. “I beg your pardon?” He’d just close the panel in her face? Though, should you really expect anything different? Actually, yes, she did. “How dare you, Mr. Gray?”
“How dare I? Tsk, tsk.” He managed to drawl that mocking clucking of his tongue. “Is this how you treat your craft?” He looked pointedly at the book, and it did not escape her notice that he’d not closed the door on her work.
Just like that, he provided Claire her perfect segue. “Yes, well, interestingly, that is what I came here to speak with you about.”
“You came to speak with me about how you don’t respect art?” he asked, his expression deadpan.
Indignation brought her spine straight. “I beg your pardon. I do not—” She squinted. No. It was there. A glint… or a glimmer. This time, of amusement. Claire stomped her foot. “Oh, will you just let me in?”
He hesitated a moment, and then sticking his head out, he glanced up and down the street. Then, collecting her by the wrist, he tugged her quickly inside. “What?” he demanded without preamble.
This was how their exchange would occur? In the middle of his foyer?
His very dusty foyer.
She sneezed, catching that achoo in her gloved fingers. “Perhaps we might speak somewhere more—”
“No,” he cut her off.
“I’d rather not speak about such sensitive matters”—she dropped her voice to a whisper—“with servants about… with anyone about.”
“You’ve no worries there. The help I have go on their way at the end of the day. They won’t return for four hours. I trust this meeting isn’t going to take the whole four?”
Too intrigued to be annoyed by his teasing query, she did another glance about. “No… servants,” she murmured, shoving her hood back. “How…” Her words and thoughts trailed off as his entire form was brought fully into focus. English gentlemen as a rule were wiry and pale and achingly… everything this man before her was not. Broad and powerful of form, as if Poseidon himself had tired of the sea and set himself up among mere mortals, Caleb Gray… captivated. “Fascinating?” she managed to finish, her voice breathless to her own ears.
He moved his gaze over her face. His thick, dark brown lashes swept low as he homed his focus on… her mouth. Not for the first time since they’d met, she thought he might kiss her. Warmth filled her belly, and her chest hitched as he inched his lips closer to hers. Claire angled her head up to—
Something that looked very much like horror lit his eyes. Caleb took a quick step back.
Shame brought her toes curling tight.
“What are you doing here, Claire?” he asked quietly, but not with the condescension that had recently crept into his tones whenever they spoke. “Is everything all—?”
“I want you to take me to Paris,” she blurted and then flinched as soon as the words left her lips. She’d thought to come in here with a good deal more… tact. Alas, he was an American. Perhaps he’d appreciate her directness.