He walked away from love
Michael Cannon, Marquis of Langston, has one regret: that he didn’t marry Beth Bishop, especially after they became lovers. Instead, he’d been a coward. He used his family as an excuse to walk away, breaking her heart and disappointing her family who expected them to marry. It was the biggest mistake of his life.
Difficult circumstances and heart ache has changed her
After having her heart broken twice, by her lover and the death of her beloved father, spinster Beth Bishop works as a theatre set painter in between commissions in order to provide a living for her and her mother. Settled in East London and away from Society, Beth is determined to be taken seriously as an artist.
A chance meeting opens a door
A quest for recognition brings Beth into Michael’s life again reminding her of the passion they shared. But is his insistence to marry just guilt from past wrongs? Can he really love and accept the woman she is today? And can she trust in love again?
Spring 1825READ MORE
“I’m sorry, miss, but we are unable to take your piece for the Royal Exhibition this year. I’m afraid it doesn’t meet our standards.”
Elizabeth Bishop, or Beth as her mother called her, tightened her grip on the canvas of what she considered her finest work to date. It was different from anything she’d done while her father was alive. The poor flower girl near the street where she now lived was there every day without fail. Beth had given the child a coin when she could, taking the wilted flowers from the child for her mother. The juxtaposition of the gray fog that never seemed to dissipate and the bright yellow and white of the girl’s flowers had called to Beth in a way that the proper landscapes most ladies learned to paint never did. There was hopelessness, but also hope in many of the faces she saw in the streets now, and she felt the need to capture them on canvas.
“You’ve not even seen it clearly.”
“I’m sorry, Miss—”
“Miss Bishop, I can tell you went to a great deal of effort to get here, but it was for naught.”
“It was my understanding that the Royal Exhibition was open to everyone.”
“Everyone with talent.” The small, pompous balding man in front of her raised his chin and crossed his arms. He glanced down at her old coat and dress that was at least two years out of style. She wasn’t shabby, but she wasn’t as well dressed as the other ladies and gentlemen waiting in the Royal Academy of Art.
Anger surged through her. Normally she would swallow the disdain of those who thought they were above her, but not today. Not here. “Your name, sir?”
“I hardly think that is necessary, miss. Now run along before I have someone remove you.”
Her breath quickened and her eyes narrowed. “I will have your name, sir. In all the years that I have been in this building, never have I been treated in such an infamous manner.”
“Mr. Connors, is there something wrong?”
Beth flinched as the dark, husky voice spoke softly behind her. Could this day get any worse? Seeing Michael Camden, the Marquis of Langston, was the last thing she needed. She should have never let Sally Morgan talk her into putting this painting in the Exhibition. She should be at the Drury Lane Theatre working on the new set designs, not chasing an impossible dream.
“Lord Langston, I did not see you there,” Mr. Connors said as he straightened.
“This woman thought to enter the Exhibition. I was just expressing that her work did not meet our standards.” Disdain dripped from his voice like water from his chin.
Lord Michael Langston brushed past her as he stepped to confront Mr. Connors. His scent of man and soap wafted in her direction, causing all manner of memories, including the one where he promised to marry her, then disappeared.
“Miss Bishop is Sir Charles Bishop’s daughter.”
The man blanched. “I’m sorry, Miss Bishop, I had no idea.”
“Why don’t you let me handle this, Connors? There are several other artists waiting to submit their work.”
As Mr. Connors walked away to insult some other artist, Beth straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin and prepared for battle. She was no longer that pathetic girl he’d known five years ago. She was an independent woman, now, capable of taking care of herself. She turned to face him.
“It has been a long time, Miss Bishop. How have you been?”
Damn him, he still looked the same as he had when he studied art with her father, except a bit more honed, seasoned. His dark blonde hair waved away from his long face. His blue eyes were kind, his mouth tilted up in a slight smile. He was lean and tall as he towered over her.
“I am quite well, my lord, as you see.”
An uncomfortable silence settled between them that seemed louder than the noisy crowds around them. Beth could feel herself preparing to explode. Years of hurt and anger churned inside of her, needing a way out. It could not be here, surrounded by so many. “If you will excuse me, I must go.”
He looked down at the painting she held in her hands. “I see you’ve brought a painting for the Exhibition. May I see it?”
“I see no point, sir.” Her grip tightened on the painting. “I’ve been informed that it’s not good enough.”
“Mr. Connors is rather exuberant in his quest for the very best selections for the show. Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion.”
“Mr. Connors made it very clear how he felt about my entry, my lord.” She didn’t even try to keep the disdain from her voice. “I doubt my circumstances will improve if I show the painting to you.” Beth took pleasure in his jaw tightening.
“Show me the painting, Miss Bishop.”
There would be no disobeying him when used his lordly voice. The man was in line to inherit a dukedom, the imperious tone came with his position in society. Reluctantly, Beth held out the painting for him.
Langston took the canvas from her and held it up, a frown on his face. Beth gripped her hands tightly together waiting for his comments, hating the swirling feeling in her stomach as if his opinion still mattered to her. It did not matter. She would not let it matter.
“Mr. Connors said it was accomplished.”
Langston just raised an eyebrow but did not comment.
Beth studied his face for any sign of criticism. She’d painted her soul on that canvas. She wanted to snatch it out of his hands, protect it, protect herself.
“This is very good, Miss Bishop. Better than your father, in my opinion.”
Surprise coursed through her. “Thank you, my lord.”
Lord Langston didn’t speak for a moment.
“You aren’t going to accept it either, are you?” Beth made to take the painting from him.
“I didn’t say that.” He gripped the painting. “Let me see what I can do. I know the president well.”
Her shoulders slumped. They would take the painting only because she was Charles Bishop’s daughter. Sir Charles Bishop, the royal portrait painter, until the palsy took his gift and left anger in its place.
She didn’t want to be included out of pity. The poor daughter of a great painter until he couldn’t hold the brush steady any longer. “Thank you, Lord Langston, but I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Beth took the painting from him and dipped a curtsy. “Good day, sir.”
Head held high she turned from the astonishment on Langston’s face, and made her way through the crowds. Her walking boots echoed on the marble floors of the entrance. She pushed through the door into the park where gravel crunched beneath her feet. She marched through the gate and onto the Strand, back straight, eyes forward, her lips clinched tight to keep the trembling at bay. Never let them see you cry. Never let them know you think you are less than they are. The words thrummed through her head.
But she was less. She worked for a living when most ladies her age were married with children. Her hands were rough from the solvents she used with her paints. Her clothes smelled of turpentine and spirits. She worked in a theatre creating the sets for the various performances to pay off her mother’s debts.
Beth made it around the corner of the building before the tears in her eyes welled over. She swiped at them as she walked the few blocks to Catherine Street where the theatre was located. She was luckier than most. She could earn her own way with her art. She was more independent than she had been as a young lady in society. Perhaps her friends now were not as well-heeled as in her old life, but they were good friends. Good people who had dreams and aspirations, same as she.
The walk from the Royal Academy was quick, just five minutes or so and Beth found herself at the back door of the theatre. The doorman let her in. “Good Morning, Miss Bishop.”
“Good Morning, Mr. Carter. How is your wife today?” Beth said with a smile. Mr. Carter had escorted her home near Red Lion Square when the hour grew late. It took him well out of his way, but he still did it. She appreciated the gesture and the stories of his wife and children. Gentlemen didn’t have to be dressed by the finest tailor on St. James Street or have a title to his name. Gentlemen existed everywhere.
“She’s doing right well, miss. You’ve been crying, miss. Is there anything I can do?”
Another reminder how lucky she was. Beth smiled at Mr. Carter. “No, I’m just disappointed that they didn’t take my painting.”
“Don’t worry, they will. You are a great artist and if those toffs can’t see that, then they’re blind.”
Beth felt tears well up in her eyes at his kind words. “Thank you, Mr. Carter.”
She entered the darkness of the theatre and made her way back to the large space behind the stage where the sets where worked on. The room was filled with an assortment of furniture, large canvas backdrops, and other assorted items used on the stage. She leaned the painting against the wall with some other old canvases. Dust danced in the light from the overhead windows. The room smelled of the soothing scents of wood, paint, and solvents.
This might not be the life she had planned for herself, but it was good. She was content. Removing her bonnet, coat, and gloves, she pulled on the stained coverall to protect her dress, then walked to the table and looked at the approved sketches she’d made for the next production, The Taming of The Shrew.
Beth turned as the door opened behind her. Sally Morgan strolled in with two glasses and a bottle. Beth smiled at her friend who was dressed to perfection in a rose silk gown. Sally was the epitome of an English lady, with pale skin, golden hair coifed in the latest style and large blue eyes. Had she been born of the quality, she’d have taken the ton by storm. Beth envied her confidence. Next to Sally, she was just a brown mouse of a woman.
“Thomas told me the painting was rejected. I brought port to drown our sorrows.” Sally set the bottle down and poured two glasses. “Now, tell me everything.” She pushed the glass into Beth’s hands.
Beth took a sip of port and savored the sweet warmth of the wine before she spoke. “I wasn’t good enough.”
“Says who?” Sally demanded, her hand on her hip. “I bet it was some little wart of a man who has the talent of a large bug.”
Beth laughed. “Thank you for that.”
“Just because my mother was a seamstress, doesn’t mean I don’t know good art when I see it.” Sally sat in one of the chairs against the wall. “I know you had your heart set on getting into the Royal Exhibition.”
“We don’t always get what we want in life.”
“Was it horrible? Returning to the Academy after so many years?”
Beth leaned against the table and sipped her port. “How could I have forgotten how snobbish people are? I think the man rejected the painting because my pelisse was out of style.”
Sally said nothing for a long moment. “There are times I forget you came from that world. That level of prejudice is normal for the rest of us.”
“Sally, I didn’t mean—”
Sally held up her hand. “I know you didn’t. You should be married now with children. You should be dancing at balls, walking in Hyde park with your husband, not working here.”
“I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind. I was always on the fringe of the ton, never a diamond of the first water. I had no dowry and little else to recommend me. At least here I have purpose.”
Sally laughed. “Very few of us have anything to recommend us, but we make our way, don’t we?”
“That we do.”
“Did you see him?”
Beth didn’t pretend not to understand who Sally was talking about. They had very few secrets from each other. Sally’s friendship was Beth’s treasured possession. Sally had helped her survive the theatre world. She’d encouraged her to go after her dreams. “Lord Langston? Yes. I did.”
Sally leaned forward. “And?”
“How did he look?”
Beth smiled. “You know very well how he looked. His friend, Mr. St. Clair drags him to the theatre every time you are on stage.”
“I meant how did he look to you? I’m assuming he recognized you?”
“Of course, it’s only been five years and I’ve not changed that much. He looked every inch the Marquis that he is.”
“Mr. St. Clair says he’s to marry soon.”
Pain stabbed through Beth. She wasn’t surprised by this news. His position in society required that he treat their understanding as if it never happened, despite the small bit of hope she had that Langston was different. At Sarah’s gentle words, it fizzled a bit more. “As he should. He is to inherit a dukedom. He’ll need the usual heir and a spare.”
“Why didn’t he marry you?”
Beth set the glass down before she spilled it all over her work table. “His mother became ill and he left to be with her. We exchanged letters for a while, but then his letters stopped.”
“You were a lady, he should have married you.” Sally tossed back the remainder of her port. “I hate when men make promises to women then break them as if we do not matter.”
“Sally, it’s old history, and frankly, I’m quite content with my life now.”
“I am angry on your behalf. It had to have been painful to live through,” Sally said as she looked around the room. “Where is the painting?”
“Against the wall, there. Why?”
Sally walked over and picked up the painting. “Do you mind if I put it in my dressing room for a while?”
Beth narrowed her eyes at her friend. “To what purpose?”
Sally grinned as she tucked the painting under her arm. “Perhaps there is more than one way to get a painting into this year’s Royal Exhibition.”
Hope surged through her. “You’d do that for me?”
Sally approached and took Beth’s hand in hers and squeezed it. “What are friends for?”
Beth gripped Sally’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
“Enough of this emotional drivel. We both have work to do. I’ve lines to learn and you’ve sets to design. Make sure you make me look spectacular.”
Beth laughed. “That won’t be difficult.”