Halifax, Nova Scotia
Finton Morash pulled the cover off the portrait, stood back a few paces, and frowned. Half his hair was missing, as well as most of the background. The hand that was supposed to hold a book of law hung empty, giving the impression he was scratching his belly. This was not the image of a judge on the Queen’s bench.
Were his ears that large? Did he really appear glum all the time? Well, no, not glum, more like angry and mean. Certainly, when he delivered a verdict, he did his best to be stern and commanding. He was a judge after all. But this portrait was to be hung in the courthouse for eternity. Did he want strangers fifty years hence to assume he was always so bloody cantankerous?
He threw the cover over his ugly face. The problem of missing hair and empty hand might be unsolvable if he couldn’t find an artist to complete the work.
What a bloody mess. He paced from one end of his sitting room to the other. Poor Mr. Graves suffering an apoplexy couldn’t have come at a worse time. The unveiling was scheduled for two weeks. Even the Lieutenant Governor would be in attendance to see proof of how far little Fin, eldest son of a fisherman, had come in his chosen profession.
Instead, the worthy gentleman and succeeding generations of gentlemen might see that he was an ogre with large ears.
Perhaps his worry was for naught. Mrs. Graves had recommended a possible replacement and if the fellow was only halfway competent, he should be able to paint in some hair and a book. Not much hope for those enormous ears. He fingered the offending parts of his anatomy. They didn’t feel that big.
The doorknocker banged once and a moment later he heard the voice of his manservant, Jackson. And a woman? Not the artist then. She was probably one of the parades of neighborhood busybodies who felt compelled to stop in at regular intervals with offerings of baked goods. They seemed to think that unwed men faced starvation, even men with a comfortable income, a servant, and a horse and carriage. He shuddered. Or they arrived at regular intervals to remind him of their unwed daughters.
The parlor door opened. “Excuse me, Your Honor. Mrs. Taylor is here.”
“Who the blazes is Mrs. Taylor?” Not a single lady anyway, thank God.
A dowdy frump of a woman squeezed in past Jackson. “I am Mrs. Taylor. You have a portrait to be completed?”
A woman artist? Hell. She’d probably paint damned flowers everywhere. She might even perch a damned fairy on his shoulder, whispering in his enormous ear.
She turned to his butler, cook, general dogsbody. “Thank you, ah—”
“I’m called Jackson, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Jackson. May I leave my horse and buggy in the front?”
Horse and buggy meant she was reasonably well-off, though her attire belied that notion. He doubted the latest fashions leant toward shapeless mud-brown dresses. What the devil was she wearing on her feet?
“I’ll see to his care, ma’am.” Jackson bowed his head slightly, a smile on his dark face, and closed the door.
Jackson never smiled. Ever. And he certainly never bowed, being the son of a former slave from the southern states, a proud man who demanded respect before he gave it. A notion Fin applauded. The two men lived more as equals than as employer and servant, each doing the job they were trained for. Jackson would no more write a legal opinion than Fin would bake a pie.
Where the blazes had that smile come from?
The purported artist stood near the door, satchel in hand. May as well get on with it. “How do you do. Please take a seat. Would you care for tea?”
Her lips quirked. “I own a teashop, Mr. Morash. I’ve had my fill for the afternoon. But don’t let me keep you from the genial beverage.”
An artist and a shop owner? Bloody hell, a hobbyist. A dabbler in paints. Not what he needed.
Just that smallest of smiles changed her looks. She was almost pretty, in an ordinary way. She was also British by the sound of her, so perhaps she’d had training on the continent. Though he had to wonder, given her appearance, whether she had any appreciation for style, composition, or beauty. Or even good taste. Her dress didn’t fit, hanging in loose folds where breasts should be. Weren’t all women skilled with needle and thread and able to alter their garments?
No matter, she wasn’t here as his tailor, or as a woman. Though she definitely was a woman, lack of breasts notwithstanding.
Shut up. And stop staring at her non-breasts.
He pulled his hands from his trouser pockets, moments too late for proper manners, and gestured at the draped easel near the window. “Would you care to see the portrait?”
“As that’s the reason for my being here, yes.”
So there was to be no small talk, no aimless gossip, no empty flattery. Foregoing all that unnecessary chatter was an admirable quality in a woman. He once again pulled the cover from the portrait and tossed it onto a nearby chair. Would she think his ears larger than normal?
She stared at the canvas, hands on hips, lips pursed. Seconds passed, then minutes. He shoved his hands back in his pockets, shifting weight from one foot to the other. And still she said nothing, nor did her expression change.
Not the praise for which he’d hoped. He’d best take charge of the situation else they’d be there until the supper hour. “Can you finish it?”
She jumped, literally, as if she’d forgotten his presence. People usually didn’t forget he was in the room. Clerks in his chambers were paid to be attentive. Fellow judges and lawyers respected his intelligence.
And ladies, even married ladies, engaged in mild flirtation. He was known as the Golden Judge, however much he disliked that moniker. Unmarried at forty-one years of age made him a much sought-after bachelor.
Therefore, he was seldom ignored. He didn’t much care for it.
Mrs. Taylor squared her slender shoulders. “Yes-that is-yes, I believe I can. There’s not much left to do.”
“So you’ll slap on some hair?” Cover that bald spot. He smoothed his hair and hoped the image wasn’t a foretaste of future baldness.
She smiled. No, that didn’t come near describing the transformation. Her face came alive. Several years fell from her age as her blue eyes sparkled and her pink lips glistened against white teeth.
What had brought her to this former colony of the British Empire? Perhaps her husband sought a better life in a less crowded country like so many others had done. And she was duty bound to accompany him, leaving behind all she held dear. Well, except for her husband of course.
Devil take it, what did he care about the reasons? His only concern was that the portrait got finished well enough and on time.
“Yes, I’ll slap on some hair.” She approached, close enough for him to feel the heat from her body, and studied his head.
He studied her in turn, from the ugly bonnet to the ugly dress, to the ugly boots visible below the stained hem. She didn’t smell ugly though. He breathed in a mix of common soap and something, something…bread. Of course, she ran a tearoom. That’s why she smelled good enough to eat.
Her gaze travelled all over his head. “The only issue…”
Hell, his ears. “Yes?”
“Let me show you.” She pulled a small painting from the bag she’d been carrying and stood next to a window. “You’ll need to come here.”
That smile again, laced with a hint of teasing. Were she single he’d suspect her of flirting, or perhaps he was just in the mood for flirting. He’d not been with a woman in a hell of a long time. God knew this woman wasn’t his type. He liked a woman to have a woman’s shape, breasts and hips for a start. Mrs. Taylor resembled a box more than an hourglass.
He looked at the small painting over her shoulder. She was a tiny thing, short and square.
Warm and sweet.
She was not his type and not only because she was married and therefore untouchable.
The painting she held was of a harbor scene at dusk, the reds and oranges of sunset reflected in the water. He could almost hear water lapping against the wharf. Mrs. Taylor was a skilled artist. “I must say you—”
“Can you see the brush strokes?” She tilted the painting so that light shone at an angle across the surface.
She returned to the portrait and tugged at the easel, moving it into the shaft of late afternoon sun. “Mr. Grave’s brush strokes are longer, and he uses more paint in certain areas.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Can you see? Come closer, I won’t bite.”
The woman winked. Could she be a married lady who didn’t always behave as married ladies should? He tore his gaze from her smile and concentrated on what he was supposed to be concentrating on. Not on her lips. “Is that a problem?”
“I’ll need to practice if I’m to copy his style.”
“How long will that take?” Damn, more delays. Perhaps he should hire a caricaturist and be done with the blasted thing.
She pursed her lips again, pink and plump, as if she were asking for a kiss. Did she also taste like bread and cookies and cakes? A shame she was married. “A few days. Using Mr. Graves’ brushes will help tremendously. And I see that you have all the paints.” She rummaged through the jumble of pots and tubes atop a small table.
“Have you done portraits before?” The harbor scene was skillfully done, but there was a difference between a wooden dock and a face, no matter how wooden the face appeared. He glared at his painted self. Did he never smile?
She pulled a second painting from the bag. “This is the closest I’ve come to a portrait using oils. I’ve done a fair number in pencil but, well, I no longer have any of those.”
He studied the grouping of three young women perched on a bench next to the pond in the Public Gardens. The pond was his favorite spot in the formal gardens, surrounded by shade trees and populated with an interesting array of waterfowl. Young children floated their paper boats and teased them along with a stick. And inevitably, someone would fall in and get a proper dunking, and a proper scolding. Though the lady’s faces weren’t shown in fine detail, he got a sense of their laughter and their enjoyment of the fine summer day. “Where are your sketches now?”
She put both paintings away. “The ship’s hold sprung a leak on the journey from England.” She shrugged as if it was of no consequence, but he saw her biting her lip, her face tight with suppressed emotion.
“I’m sorry you lost your work.”
She shrugged again. “Better than losing a life, right?”
“Certainly, but painful nonetheless.”
“I have additional paintings in my tearoom. You might want to examine those before making a decision.”
“Which tearoom is this?”
“The Fenwick, on Gottigen Street.”
“I’m not familiar with it.”
“My cousin set up shop only a year ago. I joined her in February, but she’s since moved to Toronto.”
“What does your husband do?”
“He’s buried in England.”
“My condolences.” Not married. Did she grieve still for her late spouse? Or was her earlier teasing and winking a signal that she would welcome a man’s attentions? His attentions?
“Had you run a tearoom in England?”
She ducked her head to rummage in her satchel. “No.” She spent several moments buckling and unbuckling the straps.
Given her apparent reluctance to meet his gaze, there was more to that answer than one word, something she didn’t want to share. “I expect you perfected your baking in your old home. My married sister is a wonderful cook.” He perched on the edge of the windowsill, wondering if any details would be forthcoming. He was convinced that Mrs. Taylor kept secrets. His infallible instinct had raised a warning flag.
“I, ah—well, of course, running a business has its challenges. Shall I see you tomorrow?”
“Given the importance of this portrait—” And given her reluctance to discuss her past, he was wary. People left their native country, braving the dangers of sea travel, for many reasons. Starting fresh or fleeing the past were but two. He was all too familiar with the latter reason.
“I understand.” She held out a hand. “A pleasure making your acquaintance.”
He took her small, gloved hand. “The pleasure was all mine. At what hour does your tearoom open?”
She quirked a brow as if surprised at his continued interest. “My first customers arrive at seven.”
She chuckled and pulled her hand from his, leaving it strangely empty. “Yes, it is frightfully early. Shop girls from the boarding houses seem to enjoy a bit of home-cooking before starting their workday.”
“I won’t visit your shop that early.”
“Don’t you know the early bird gets the worm?”
Fin held the sitting room door for Mrs. Taylor. The widow Taylor. “Ah, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
She burst out laughing, a deep, melodious laugh that involved her entire body, suggesting the sharing of a private joke, or enjoying a romp amongst rumpled quilts. “That is so true. You’ll be the mouse then.”
“I’m counting on it. Good day, Mrs. Taylor. Until tomorrow.”
“Shall I expect your wife as well?”
“I’m not married.”
She hesitated for the briefest of moments before sweeping from the room. Was she surprised that a man of his years survived without a wife? Or was it recognition of them both being alone in the world?
Fin closed the door and returned to the easel. He’d been an attorney for several years before his appointment to the bench where he’d sat in judgment for all manner of crimes. He spotted cheats and liars easily, hence his reputation. And the blasted label.
Something was definitely not quite right about the mysterious Mrs. Taylor.