“That damned swindler.”
From the office door of Calder and Company, Lena
Frost could see the key, left precisely in the middle of the empty desktop.
Everything else was gone: Horatio’s inkwell, his penknife, his little toys,
even the carved bird he’d been toying with for the last several weeks. She knew
what it meant: Horatio had left. For good.
But did he take the money? She snatched up the
key as she rounded the desk. Perhaps he’d left it—or at least enough to pay the
remaining craftsmen and open the ex- hibition. Perhaps: the word felt
Five of the six desk drawers stuck out several
inches. Horatio had left in haste. She looked through the drawers, now a
jumble. Unused correspondence paper in a variety of sizes. An assortment of
bills, paid—because she had paid them—to the end of the quarter. A handful of
artist’s crayons, almost used up. She picked up the sanguine pencil, its tip a
ruddy red against her hand, then tossed it back into the drawer. Horatio was a
talented artist, but his real skill was with words, most of them lies.
Nothing in the drawers was of any importance.
Only the drawer where she kept the money box was
still shut. If the money was gone, her only hope would be to keep it quiet
until she could open the exhibition. Subscribers had paid in advance to see
what everyone was calling the most important art exhibition of the year. If she
didn’t open, she’d have to refund their money. If she could make it two more
weeks . . .
She hesitated before turning the key, torn
between needing to know and dreading the knowledge.
No. Whatever is here—or isn’t—I will face it,
as I always have. She turned the key. The
drawer opened about four inches, then stuck. Hope bloomed for a moment. Perhaps
the money box was still there, wedging the drawer in place, its banknotes and
coin all still neatly arranged in di- vided trays. She pushed the drawer in,
then tugged it out. But nothing would make it open wider.
She slid her hand in flat; there wasn’t room to
make a fist. Then she inched her fingers forward. She felt nothing but the
wooden bottom of the drawer. When she reached the halfway point, her stomach
turned sour. The box was gone. But she kept reaching, needing to know the
drawer was empty before she let herself sink into the despair already pooling
At the very back of the drawer, almost past her
reach, her fingertips felt the edge of a thick piece of paper. A banknote?
Perhaps he had left her enough to open the exhibition? Or at least to pay her
rent? Pressing the tips of her fingers against the paper, she dragged it forward
and out. The note was folded over twice, and she hesitated a moment, afraid of
what it might tell her.
The paper was fine, well made, one of the sheets
she used to correspond with wealthy patrons and subscribers. That in itself was
strange: Horatio normally wrote on paper with a large watermark of Britannia in
the middle of the page. He’d play a game with the ghost image, positioning his
salutation so that Britannia would look at the name of the addressee or so that
her spear would intersect with his period to make an invisible exclamation at
the end of his sentences. Lena had shaken her head at his games, finding it hard to
remain angry or frustrated with him. But if he’d endangered the exhibition, she
might remain angry with him forever.
Tightening her jaw, she unfolded the page. In
the center, Horatio had lettered a single word: “RUN.”
The despair in her stomach turned instantly to
an unreasoning fear. Every creak, every groan of the old building sounded like
a warning. Run.
She pushed the drawer closed, locked it, and
replaced the key in the center of the desktop.
Surveying the room, she tried to imagine where
Hora- tio might have hidden the money box. But, other than the desk, two
chairs, and the old engravings stuck with pins to the walls, the room was
almost empty. Everything was just as it had been for the last two years, except
the money was gone, and Horatio with it.
All he’d left her was the note. She held it out,
examin- ing the way Horatio’s R curved oddly beneath the bottom of the U,
and the final stroke of the N trailed upward. An extra blotch of ink
widened the line slightly before the tip, like the hand of a clock. She held
the page up to the light. No watermark, no secret design that played with the
She stood, her arms wrapped around her chest,
the note limp in one hand. She’d never expected him to betray her, to leave her
with no way out but to run. All her energy, her passion, drained out onto the
wooden floor and seeped away between the boards. The exhibition would fail. She
would fail. And this time she had nowhere to . . . run.
She traced the malformed letters of the note
once more, then she crushed it against her palm and shoved it in her pocket.
From the outer office, the hallway door creaked
open. When Horatio’d said run, she had no idea he meant so soon. Suddenly
afraid, she scanned the room. The inner office door was partly open. The drop
from the window to the street was three stories. She had nowhere to hide, and
only seconds to make a decision.
Heavy footfalls approached. Though the crew and
the ticket seller had left soon after she’d returned, the office door remained
open to prospective subscribers until she or Horatio left for the evening. But
should the intruder be dangerous, she would have no help. She looked down at
her clothes, her best dress and coat worn to meet a pub- lisher who’d agreed to
sell engraved prints of the panorama. With only a moment to imagine a plan, she
flung herself into a chair before the desk. Her only hope was to pretend to be
A tall man, strongly built, pushed the door
open. Stand- ing in the doorway, he seemed like one of the statues from the
Loggia dei Lanzi come to life. And he was beautiful. His clothes caressed his
form, revealing powerful shoul- ders, narrow waist, and firmly muscled thighs.
His black hair curled in thick waves like Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus.
In Florence, she’d marveled at the sculptures of the classical gods,
their muscles detailed in marble or bronze. But she’d never realized how
breathtaking it would be for those ancient heroes to come to life.
He examined the room slowly before he turned his
attention to her. And when his eyes met hers, it was both exhilarating—and
“Are you Mr. Calder? I wanted to subscribe to
the ex- hibition in your Rotunda.” She kept her tone breathless and a little
naive. “I saw a panorama once when I was a child—the Temples of Greece—and I’ve
never forgotten it, how you could stand in the middle and feel as if you had
been transported to a different place and time.” She spoke quickly, letting her
words jumble together in a rush of enthusiasm. “I’m looking forward to seeing
your painting. I’ve read all the clues you’ve advertised for de- ciphering the
topic. I think it must be Waterloo. What else could be painted in such a grand scale? How
hard must it be to paint all those figures—the horses, the flags, our men
marching valiantly into battle? It must be such a glorious scene!”
“Don’t forget the carrion birds and the jackals
ripping apart the bodies of the dead.” His voice was stern, but the sound of it
resonated down the line of her spine. “Or the bodies broken apart by the cannon
or the bayonet.”
“Well, sir!” She rose, feigning offense. “If you
treat a prospective subscriber so rudely, I will spend my sixpence elsewhere.” She
walked briskly toward the door. When he didn’t move out of her way, she stopped
just out of his reach.
He was considering her carefully, examining her
clothes and her figure beneath them. Under the focused attention, Lena felt
exposed, like a rabbit who’d encountered a hungry hawk.
Refusing to be intimidated, she examined him in
turn. His eyes were a cold green, his chin firm. His cravat, tied loosely
around his neck, made her wish it was tied even more loosely. Her fingers
itched for her sketchbook and pencil. Oh, that he would be just another
would-be subscriber! Then—perhaps—she could convince him to sit for her. She
pushed the thoughts away. He might be handsome, even devastatingly so, but if
he were Horatio’s enemy, he would likely be hers as well.
He remained in the doorway, and his stare
intensified. She felt the heat of it along her neck and cheeks. Her stomach
twisted, but whether in attraction or fear, she couldn’t be certain. The
silence between them grew, and Horatio’s message echoed in her ears: Run.
“Will you at least be a gentleman and
remove yourself from the doorway?” She pulled her shoulders back, as she did
with suppliers who wished to take their fee from Horatio instead of from her.
For a moment, he looked abashed, as if he hadn’t
considered that his behavior was ungentlemanly.
“It appears we both have business with Calder,
and we are both disappointed.” He stepped away from the door- way, giving her
ample room to escape.
Then, as she passed, he offered her a low bow,
as if she were a princess or queen. She felt his stare on her back as she
walked purposefully, but not too quickly, to the outer office door. She refused
to look back at him, afraid to reveal her fear—or her interest.
When she reached the outer door, she allowed
herself one last look at her Greek-god-come-to-life, but he had already moved
into the office and out of sight. She stepped into the hall, listening. A
subscriber likely wouldn’t wait too long for Horatio to return.
She heard the desk drawers open and close, and
papers rustle. Not a subscriber then, and her disappointment felt like a rock
in the pit of her belly. She waited another minute, but when she heard him
wrestling with the stuck drawer, she finally took Horatio’s advice.