George stared at a painting of what appeared to be the blurred image of a woman with flowing hair. Or was that a flowing gown? In any case, something was flowing around her. Blobs of blue and green paint were splattered along her feet and around her head—if that indeed was her head and not another random blob.
“Good heavens, what blind sot vomited that?” George wondered.
The man’s jaw dropped. Tears actually misted his eyes. “I—I did.”
Damn. George should have known as much. “I’m sorry, my good man, I didn’t mean… It’s most colorful,” he grappled. “I admire the subtle depth in the shades of blue and so much symbolism in those…well, whatever those splotches are at the bottom.”
“Water lilies, Lord Marylewick,” a familiar dusky voice said. Behind the man, Lilith materialized in all her brilliance. “It’s A Muse Amongst the Water Lilies,” she stated as if it were readily apparent Dutch realism.
Whenever Lilith appeared, George had the sensation of walking from a pitch-black room into the piercing sunshine. He needed time for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he didn’t approve of what he saw. Her lustrous auburn locks, adorned with flowers, were loose and flowing over her azure robe and gauzy shawl. From the way the thin silk of her robe rested on her ripe contours, he could only guess that she wore no semblance of undergarments. That tiny vein running over his temple began to throb, as did another part of his body.
“There, there.” She hugged the distraught artist. “Don’t let the horrid Lord Marylewick distress you. He has the sensibilities of a dishcloth.”
She impaled George with a glare. “You see, Lord Marylewick, it’s about capturing the ethereal and fleeting. Those moments when the beautiful morning light illuminates the garden in all its blues, greens, and golds. It is not a representation of reality, but a sensation captured in time. A sensual impression of a moment. And philosophically, we could argue that all we have are mere impressions of a greater reality.”
George’s mind had left off after the “impression of a moment” part. With Lilith now standing beside the painting, he could see the resemblance in the flowing gown and hair and splotches.
“Lilith!” he barked. “That had better not be your impression in those ethereal blobs.”
By God, she was a grown toddler. He couldn’t turn his back on her for a moment or she would be playing near fire or gleefully shedding her clothes for some filthy-minded artist. He didn’t wait for her answer but seized her wrist and dragged her through the nearest door, which led to a paneled study with a leather sofa stacked with pillows. Cluttering the walls were paintings of pale-skinned, nude ladies gazing off to some sorrowful horizon. Luckily, these paintings appeared to be from King George III’s reign, when Lilith hadn’t been born yet to pose for them.
He shut the door behind them. She sauntered to the mirror and began to curl her locks around her finger and then let them unfurl in spirals about her cheeks. There was a dangerous, ready-for-battle tilt to the edge of her mouth, lifting the little mole above her lip.
“Lilith, did you pose for that…that…Tart Amid Blue Pigeon Cack painting? And in a rag even a Covent prostitute would think twice about wearing for fear of attracting the wrong clientele?”
Anger flashed in her eyes for a half second, and then a delicious smile curled her lips. A warm shiver coursed over his skin.
“And what if I did?” Her eyes, the color of coffee, gazed at him from under her thick lashes. He couldn’t deny their sultry allure. “What would you do? Tuck me away to another boarding school? But I’m all grown up.” She shook her head and made a clucking sound. “What to do with a grown woman who dares to have a mind of her own?” She snapped her fingers. “Ah, why not control her by taking away her money?”
With gentlemen and ladies of his set, he might say that he “spoke on the level” or “gave the news straight.” There was nothing straightforward or level about Lilith. She was all curves and turns. Conversing with her was akin to Spanish flamenco dancing with words.
“I never took your money away,” he said, feeling like a weary father cursed with an errant, irresponsible child. “And if I truly controlled you, I would never have consented to your living with your father’s cousins. Your grandfather warned me about the Dahlgrens. Nor would I have consented to use his hard-earned money for this ridiculous party. Or allowed you to pose for illicit impressions of fleeting moments.”
“Good heavens, I never posed for anyone! The painting was in the man’s imagination—that mental faculty you are woefully missing, darling. I merely dressed as the muse in the painting as a lark for the exhibit opening.” She tossed back her wrists. “You know, a muse who inspires artists to great heights of fancy.”
“Lilith, the only people you are inspiring are unsavory men to low depths of debauchery.”
“Unsavory men?” She raised her arms and draped her gauzy shawl across his head and over his eyes. “I didn’t know you found me inspiring, Georgie.” The peaks of her unbound breasts lightly brushed against his chest. Ungentlemanly desire pooled in his sex.
“Lord Marylewick,” he corrected in a choked voice and pulled her garment from his person. “And try to behave with some semblance of propriety.”
“Propriety, propriety, propriety.” She tapped her finger on the side of her mouth, as if she were searching her memory for the meaning. “I remember now. It’s when you address a lady, such as myself, as Miss Dahlgren.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had addressed you inappropriately. But if one insists on acting like a child… You are, what? Three and twenty, and continuing to romanticize this ramshackle lifestyle that any lady of good sense would—”
“It’s the Lord Marylewick patronizing play!” She clasped her hands. “I adore it! In fact, I know every line. Wait. Wait. No, don’t continue.” She withdrew the cane and hat from his hand, letting her fingers flow over his skin. “Allow me.” She placed the hat over her head, the flowers sticking out around the brim. She scrunched her eyebrows. “It’s high time you grew up, my little lamb, and threw yourself to the wolves of high society.” She croaked like a stodgy man of seventy-five, not George’s thirty-one years.
He regretted coming here. He should have driven home to gentle, fictional Colette. And when they hauled Lilith into police court, he would say to the judge, “You see what I must suffer?”