Excerpt from The Education of Mrs. Brimley
Emma’s stomach lurched as if she were Blondin, the famous tightrope artist, suspended high in the Crystal Palace with nothing but a thin wire for foothold. One misstep and severe consequences would surely ensue. Behind her, the trodden path led back to the relative safety of Pettibone School. Before her stood the massive, many-gabled manor of Black Oak in all its gothic glory.
The confidence that had effectively carried her away from Pettibone somehow had eroded along the way. Now she questioned the wisdom of what could be an awkward intrusion. She hesitated to catch her breath and quell the uneasiness that roiled in the pit of her stomach. Then, like Blondin, she moved ahead one slow step at a time.
The path approached Black Oak from the back, past shrubs deformed by their heavy burden of snow and jutting skeletons of plants long past seed. The house appeared twice the size of Pettibone, with far more grandeur and far less warmth. No light shone through the windows. If not for the pale ribbons of smoke rising from several chimneys, she would have thought the structure uninhabited. A dog barked and she hurried along lest the hounds be set loose.
Circling around the manor, Emma discovered the front entrance. With one final deep breath for courage, she rapped sharply on the heavy oak door.
She shivered, more from dread than cold. The winter light had rapidly faded; already a pale full moon hovered over the horizon. Making this forbidden call, alone, under the cover of night, broke every tenet in The Ladies’ Guide to Proper Etiquette.
A solemn-faced gentleman opened the door and looked her up and down.
“You’re late.” He ushered her swiftly inside.
Dumbfounded by the reception, Emma let herself be moved along, if only to escape the cold. Fog rapidly appeared on her lenses, making it difficult to see where she was going. “I couldn’t send my card ahead for reasons I can -–”
“No time for that,” he said. “Give me your cloak. Quickly now.”
Her numb fingers fumbled over the fastenings, much to his apparent agitation.
“This is a most puzzling household,” she said, handing over the heavy woolen cloak. “I am given to think you were expecting me.”
“We expected you several days earlier. You may wait there.” He pointed toward a small salon near the front entrance. “I will let his lordship know that you’ve arrived.” The servant left with her outer garment folded over his arm.
Fortunately, the condensation on her glasses had begun to evaporate, or she’d never have been able to negotiate the dim salon with its clutter of furniture. She stretched her palms to the welcoming warmth of an inviting fire hissing beneath an ornately carved overmantel.
She had expected that country living tolerated less formality than the rigid manners of the city, but this reception had lacked even the basics of propriety. “A most puzzling household, indeed,” she murmured to the flames.
“You’re thinner than I recall.”
Shocked by the proximity of a deep baritone voice, Emma spun about, then curtsied by force of habit to the broad-shouldered man framed in the doorway. She squinted, trying to imagine him slouched in the corner of a leather-bound seat. Was this really the man from the carriage? Without the soft slur and poetic refrains of the night before, his familiar voice held more authority and power. The fluttering about her rib cage, however, convinced her this must indeed be her dark angel. No one else had so affected her by mere presence alone. She inclined her head. “My lord.”
“None of that nonsense. Come closer,” he commanded. “Let me take a better look at you.”
She winced. Manners were truly different this far north. Not only did he receive her without benefit of his neck cloth, but he also issued orders as if she were a servant. Clasping her hands together, she approached as requested. “My lord, I’ve come about a matter –”
“Sssh, don’t speak.”
Surprised, she stopped an arm’s length away. She could understand his refusing to receive her due to the lateness of the hour, and her uninvited call, but commanding her not to talk? What manner of custom was this?
He stepped forward. The tips of his fingers reached toward her face and gently lifted her chin, pulling her gaze up to meet his. He was as attractive in the glow from the fire as he had been in moonlight, an image of tantalizing innocence compromised by sinful promise.
Her throat dried to ash as she took in long black lashes framing eyes so dark they reflected the leap of flames behind her. His fingertips must have captured the heat of the flames as well, for they warmed the sensitive underside of her chin.
Mesmerized, she felt as if her whole being were in his power, captured by the touch of his expressive hand. It was the most delicious sensation that she had ever experienced in her life. Her breath escaped on a sigh.
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Was I drinking when I hired you? I don’t seem to recall–”
“Hired!” The spell broken, she stepped back, escaping from his touch. “Sir, you did not hire me.”
His brows rose nearly to the defiant lock of black hair curled on his forehead. “Are you not the woman who agreed to model for my painting?”
“No,” she answered, first shocked, then insulted by the absurd notion. “I’ve come to speak to you about a book.”
“Rubbish.” He stalked toward the hall, and she noticed, for the first time, that he leaned on a walking stick that moved in tandem with his left leg. “I haven’t the time or inclination to discuss a book with you, Mrs. … Mrs. …” He stopped and turned, his brow furled. “Who are you?”
He’d forgotten their brief meeting in the carriage. She wasn’t surprised. She rarely made a memorable impression on people. He had been well in his cups last night. Still she had hoped…
“I am Mrs. Brimley, sir. I’m a new teacher at the Pettibone School for Young Ladies.” Now that he knew she was a fellow intellectual, surely he would listen. She followed him down the corridor. “I need to talk to you about –”
“Thomas, I need you,” he bellowed toward the high ceilings before turning to address her in a more refined manner. “Thomas will show you out.” He spun on his heel and disappeared into another room.
Stunned, she stopped in place, staring at the empty hallway. Disappointment stabbed deep. Even if her unanticipated appearance hadn’t intrigued him, he shouldn’t have dismissed her so rudely. The long cold walk back to Pettibone loomed, with nothing to justify her risk of coming.
He mustn’t ignore me. He is my only hope. Resolve buoyed her. He must be made to listen.
“Wait!” She lifted her skirts and ran down the hall. “At least hear me out.” She followed him into the room, closed the door behind her, then leaned against it to deny him exit.
Her gaze swept the room in astonishment.
It was as if the sun had been harnessed and made to shine exclusively in this magical place. Strategically placed mirrors in ornate, gilded frames reflected light from both the fireplace and numerous lamps. Riotous colored cloths and canvases, some painted, some not, lay scattered throughout. So much color and discord made her head swim. “What is this place?” she whispered in awe.
“You are trespassing in my studio.”
In the midst of the color and confusion stood Lord Nicholas Chambers, rolling up the sleeves of his linen shirt like a circus ringmaster preparing to bring order from chaos. As a refined woman, she should have been shocked to observe such an intimate gesture, but the sight of his bared forearms caused her pulse to race. Tensed muscles gleamed with a fine sheen of black hair, rough yet alluring. An ache spread through her. How would it feel to be captured within those arms? She stroked the dowdy black bombazine sleeve that concealed her own forearm, silently wishing he’d roll the cloth back one more fold, expose one more inch.
A pounding ensued on the door at her back, breaking the spell and reminding her of her desperate need. She raised her voice to a near shout.
“I have risked both my reputation and my employment coming here. The least you can do is listen to my plea.”
“Plea, Mrs. Brimley?” One dark brow lifted in question. “As you are new to this area, I should warn you. Women in dire circumstances rarely come to me for assistance.”
Another reference to his terrible reputation, though from his lips, the words sounded more like an invitation than a warning. Although she’d asked for his full attention, now that she had it, she wished it otherwise. His masculine virility was like a physical force, attacking her senses, and now he concentrated it fully on her. She could barely breathe. She crushed her bustle into the door, needing its support.
“It’s all right, Thomas,” he shouted, as the pounding continued behind her. “I’ll call if I need you.”
The pounding stopped, although her insides continued to vibrate.
“All right, Mrs. Brimley. As you appear to hold me hostage, to what purpose do I owe this pleasure?”
She was tongue-tied. What to say? How to begin to explain her awkward, embarrassing need?
He turned to a small table by his side. “May I offer you a brandy? It might loosen your tongue.”
She stiffened her spine, annoyed with herself and her cowardice. “I don’t indulge, sir.”
“More’s the pity.” He began to pour from a crystal decanter. “My model has abandoned me at a most inconvenient time.” He paused, then glanced at an empty canvas across the room. “No, I correct myself. At a time that is worse than inconvenient. At a catastrophic time.”
He raised his arm to a prominent burgundy velvet divan situated on a raised dais in the center of the room. “As you can see, my model has failed to materialize. In her stead, a madwoman with a plea has assaulted my household to discuss –” he glanced back at her — “what was it … a book?”
He saluted her with his filled glass. “At this point, a stiff drink is about the only sensible course of action.”
Her breath caught. He moved like a finely crafted poem: strong, fluid, purposeful. Watching him swallow the amber liquid, she was transported back to the intimacy of that shared carriage. Her throat felt as dry as the pages of her books. He swirled the liquid in his glass and looked to her, expectant, waiting. She shook herself from her reverie.
“I’m not a madwoman, sir. I’ve come in search of knowledge.” He was a learned man, she reminded herself. And a talented artist, as evidenced by the dozen or so masterfully rendered landscapes and still-life arrangements scattered about the room. Surely he could help her. She smiled at the thought. Once he understood her need, he would most certainly oblige.
“Then you’ve come to the wrong place.” He grasped the walking stick propped against the table, then carried his glass to a nearby easel. “Ask anyone. I have no knowledge of anything but debauchery.” He sneered in her direction. “Surely a young widow would have no wish to learn about that.”
The smile slid from her face. In one sense, this was exactly the knowledge she was seeking, but only the polite form of debauchery, the sort between a husband and wife. From the anger and disappointment in his voice, perhaps asking for his assistance would be tantamount to an insult. She searched in her cuff for the comfort of her mother’s handkerchief. This was not proceeding according to plan.
“Let me begin again,” she managed, searching for the right words. “This is most difficult to explain.”
She moved deeper into the room, moving closer to the elegant divan, such an odd placement for an extravagant piece. Then she remembered Beatrice’s and his mention of debauchery. Is that where it took place? On a raised elevated platform so others could see. She had heard rumors in London of such practices, but she had never encountered physical evidence. Her heart raced. She had indeed stumbled into the devil’s den.
Feeling familiar warmth coddle her cheeks, she turned her back to the furniture, studying instead a painting of a bowl of fruit until her face could cool. “I … I was hoping you might have a book or some drawings that I might study–”
Laughter rumbled from his chest. He exchanged a small canvas at the easel for paper tacked on a board. “Are you a critic, Mrs. Brimley? Is that what you wish to discuss?” The humor left his voice. “I have critics aplenty. I don’t require another.”
“I’m not a critic,” she said, surprised. “How could one criticize your obvious talent? Why I could almost pluck one of the cherries out of this painting and suck its sweet nectar.”
He stared at her. “You think I have talent?”
“I’m not an art critic, my lord,” she said, believing she may have trespassed the proper boundaries of pride. “But I do find this painting quite pleasing.”
She glanced back at the painting. Indeed, his brushstrokes, alternately bold and delicate, were of a master’s hand, obviously rendered by talented fingers. Her gloved hand reached to the very spot where his artist’s fingers had caressed her chin. Heat resurged in her cheeks.
“If you’re not a critic, then what are you, Mrs. Brimley?” His voice shocked her back to reality. She turned toward him.
“I … I’m a teacher in need of viewing a portrayal of a special subject,” she stammered. “I had hoped you could direct me to a source.”
He cast her a sideways glance. “What kind of special subject?”
“This is most difficult,” she began, searching for socially acceptable words to explain her need. “The nature of the subject is such that I’m not sure there exists a proper way to address…”
His sigh signaled annoyance. Patience did not appear to be his virtue. She took a deep breath and, finding no other recourse, lowered her voice to a near whisper. “I need to see a painting of –”
“Speak up, Mrs. Brimley,” he intoned in a particularly loud voice. “You are interrupting my work and unless you can articulate your purpose -–”
“I need to see a painting of a man’s genitals.” Cowering in embarrassment at having to shout such a shocking request, she glanced again about the room to verify no one else had witnessed her humiliation.
But for the hiss of the fire, there was silence. Chambers stood deadly still, his face contorted in apparent disbelief. Suddenly, he laughed. Loud raucous laughter that erupted from his chest and shook his entire body in mirth. He laughed so hard, he knocked against the drawing board and it slammed to the wooden floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. He laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks.
Never had she been so mortified. If only she had had the foresight to slip a fan on her wrist, she could hide behind its folds. Having mentally rehearsed this moment on her trek through the woods, she had anticipated that he’d be shocked, or disgusted, but not that she would be subject to ridicule. Her cheeks burned hot enough to melt wax.
“Mrs. Brimley, you jest!” He tried to drink from his glass of brandy, but he was seized by gales of laughter. His hand shook, splashing the liquid onto a set of charcoal sticks. He abandoned the glass for one of the charcoals and shook the liquid off. “Pray tell me, why do you wish to see such a thing?”
The grin on his lips, combined with her own mortification, did not encourage her to cooperate. She had been the subject of jests before, a cruel experience that she did not wish to repeat, especially with this man. Unfortunately, she suspected her explanation would only provide more fuel for his frivolity. “A gentleman wouldn’t ask such a question,” she snapped.
“Mrs. Brimley, you forced your way into my studio seeking assistance. You will humor me if I insist on an answer.” The laughter eased from his face. He reached for the fallen board and propped it on the easel. “Why do you need to view such material?”
Despite her rigid training, her shoulders sagged. She turned away so he couldn’t see her face, and removed her glasses pretending to clean them, needing time. Think. Think. What to say?
She heard the impatience in his tone. Exasperated by her lack of courage, she turned to him, shoving the lenses back in place. “I’m to teach the girls at Pettibone how to prepare for their marital duties, and I’m lacking in essential information.”
His hand moved freely over the paper in tiny arcs. His focus on his work and not on her person lessened her embarrassment almost to the point of gratitude. Words came easier without his laughter or his intense stare.
“How is it, Mrs. Brimley, that you lack such basic information? Has not Mr. Brimley provided adequate instruction?”
She removed a small handkerchief from her cuff, worrying it with her hands. She had hoped to keep her circumstances secret and not come to this revelation. However, given the nature of the requested assistance, she saw no escape. She lowered her gaze, as well as her tone. “There is no Mr. Brimley.”
“You are a widow, are you not?”
Even though she could not see his face, she could well imagine one of those dark eyebrows rising.
She shook her head and waited for his reaction. Given her admission, he would be justified in demanding her departure. Without his assistance, she would have to admit her masquerade to the spinster sisters. She’d be back on her uncle’s doorstep in a matter of days.
Chambers’s silence encouraged further explanation. She took a breath for courage.
“In order to procure this position, I pretended to have been married. I had no idea I’d be expected to teach bedroom etiquette.” There. She had admitted her deceit. She should feel ashamed, she supposed, but telling the truth actually made her feel a bit better. She had never anticipated how physically taxing this burden of lies and deceit would be. She lifted her chin but still avoided his gaze. “I suppose you must think me devoid of all honor.”
Chambers chuckled deep in his throat. “You do not wish to know my thoughts, Miss Brimley.”
His voice, low and seductive, brought her gaze round to meet his. A dark, forbidden knowledge smoldered deep in his eyes, fueling a resonant response within her. For the first time, she recognized her vulnerability, alone with this man. Awareness tingled up her spine. She stepped back, gulping a swift intake of needed air.
He chuckled deep in his throat. “Your secret is safe.” A slight smile tipped his lips before he turned his attention back to the drawing board. “The ladies at the school wouldn’t nay-say your instructions. Make something up. They won’t know the difference.”
“But I don’t wish to lie to the girls,” she insisted. “They trust me to tell them the truth.” Granted she had already told more misrepresentations in the past two days than she had in her entire lifetime, but lying to the Higgins sisters was necessary. Lying to children, abominable. She glanced quickly about the room. “Haven’t you a painting or a picture in a book that might assist me?”
He traded his piece of charcoal for his glass, considering her over the rim while he drank. He tilted his head slightly. “I may have something.”
For the first time that evening, Emma felt a stirring of hope that this scandalous foray might yield positive results.
Chambers slipped the knob of the walking stick under his left palm and moved toward a desk pushed against a back wall. He shifted through a clutter of papers.
“I have a friend in Paris, Auguste Rodin, who created a bronze statute of a full-size nude male. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?” He looked back at her over his shoulder. “It caused quite a stir at exhibition.”
She shook her head. Chambers’s awkward posture suggested he’d be more comfortable if he allowed his walking prop to bear more of his weight. His pride, she guessed, disagreed. Her heart softened. She understood a thing or two about pride.
“Some time ago, Rodin sent a letter with a drawing … yes, here it is.” He brought several pages of the letter over to the dais. Shifting through them, he produced the one with a detailed drawing of a male figure. “Just as you requested, a picture of a man as God made him.”
Proper etiquette demanded she couldn’t acknowledge her observation regarding his altered gait. She couldn’t even ask how his condition occurred, although she’d admit to being curious. Accepting the offered paper, she hesitantly pulled her gaze from his broadening smile.
She adjusted her glasses so as to see, then memorize, every detail. Anticipation fluttered in her chest. This, after all, constituted not only the purpose of her visit, but also the culmination of all the speculation of her youth.
The drawing portrayed an athletic man, an Adonis, she supposed. Her gaze skimmed the bare shoulders and slipped past the trim midriff, focusing instead on the forbidden area between the man’s muscular legs — that very spot deemed improper for virginal eyes.
Her lips parted in surprise.
“Why, it’s so small. I believe I could cover it with one hand.” As if to prove her theory, she stretched her hand, base to tip. Although she wasn’t exactly sure what she had expected, this appendage hadn’t the menacing character alluded to in so many poems. Disappointed, she turned to Chambers.
“Why is there so much commotion over two small potatoes in a twisted sack?”
Chambers’s eyes crinkled, his amusement at her inexperience evident. “This man is flaccid. An aroused man looks much different.”
“Can you show me?” she asked.
He nearly choked. “You wish to see my manhood?”
“I thought you might have another picture.” Emma’s cheeks burned at her blunder, although she was shocked to realize a small part of her wished to answer in the affirmative. She pushed her spectacles up her nose trying to think prim, innocent thoughts.
“I need to let the girls know what to expect.”
His lips thinned a moment before he pivoted smartly using the stick and retreated to his easel. Derision filled his voice. “I assure you I have no interest in retaining pictures of aroused men in my studio, in my house, or on my person.”
“You are an artist,” she insisted, not willing to let the opportunity pass. “Perhaps you can create a drawing for me, purely for scientific purposes, of course.”