The Art Of Seduction
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Mason Caldwell is not who she claims to be.
For one thing, she is alive and well.
As a masquerade her life is a masterpiece.
And only Richard Garrett has the power to expose the truth. . .
The Art Of Seduction
Frustrated by the world's indifference to her haunting, sensual paintings, Mason Caldwell boldly fakes her own death. The results are as brilliant as the colors imbuing her art. Now disguised as her surviving "sister" Amy, Mason enjoys the fruits of her deception--fame, wealth, and entry into the glittering halls of haute Paris.
It's a perfect deceit until art expert Richard Garrett enters the picture. For something about the Mason Caldwell myth doesn't sit right with him, and he intends to uncover the truth. . .if a shadowy past or his own heart doesn't betray him. But a woman of Mason's talents isn't easily undone, and a dangerous game of truths and lies can reveal hidden desires, igniting a passion beyond their control. . .
Release date: October 9, 2013
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
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The Art Of Seduction
Katherine O' Neal
30 January, 1889
What am I going to do?
The question burned in Mason Caldwell’s mind as she walked the drenched and dreary streets. She was soaked through, her light brown hair freed from its pins by the force of the gale, her overcoat clinging clammily to her body. But she’d long since ceased to care, or even to feel the discomfort. The rain as it lashed her seemed the outward manifestation of the tears she wouldn’t allow herself to shed, as if the sky itself mourned for her on this night when all her hopes and dreams had come to nothing.
The elaborately embossed envelope from the Exposition Committee had arrived that afternoon. Her hands trembling with excitement, she’d torn it open and unfolded its single page. But it was only her own letter of application with the word REJECTED stamped across it in brutal crimson letters—all eighteen submissions. Not even the courtesy of the form letter of rejection she knew other artists had received.
Remembering it now, the humiliation singed her cheeks.
Not even the slightest glimmer of a silver lining to grab on to.
Again, the question gripped her. What am I going to do?
What can I do?
It had been pouring for over twenty-four hours, the worst storm she could remember in her five years in Paris, battering the roof of her one-room flat and the cobblestone street below like an army of horses’ hooves barreling by, hour after hour, with no end in sight, as she’d wracked her brain for a solution. Something.
And now she walked the streets alone. It was past three in the morning. Here and there the last of the night’s drunken revelers passed her by, arms thrown around each other, reeling giddily, oblivious to the downpour. A few prostitutes huddled in doorways, yawning or casting disgusted glances at the deluge, which was bad for business. Mason looked at them with new eyes as she passed. What circumstances had driven them to sell themselves on the streets to any passer-by? Had they, too, come to Paris thinking they could conquer the world?
She walked on. The gas lamps sizzled and sparked in the rain, casting an eerie, shifting light show on the pavement before her. Or was it she who was weaving? She couldn’t tell. In her agitation, she’d eaten nothing since noon. And then tonight, in an effort to cheer her, her friend Lisette had taken her to the Café Tambourine and had coaxed her into drinking absinthe to dull the pain. The highly intoxicating, acrid liqueur had done nothing to deaden the sense of emptiness and loss and had only made her feel drugged and heavy limbed. It no doubt accounted for the sensation that she was weaving like a leaf in the torrent.
She was so wrapped up in her dilemma that she lost track of her surroundings until she found herself approaching the Pont de l’Alma, a bridge that spanned the Seine. It shouldn’t have surprised her, for she came here often. It afforded the most spectacular vantage point to watch the progress of the dazzling new construction project going up on the Left Bank. La Tour Eiffel they were calling it. She peered through the darkness and thought she could barely pick out its distinctive silhouette. It was nearly completed now, except for its crown, a graceful colossus of iron and steel—a tower of industrial lace—that was causing controversy among the conservative French elements who thought it ugly and couldn’t wait to tear it down.
But it had seemed to Mason a symbol of hope because it had been commissioned for L’Exposition Universelle Internationale in two months’ time, the same World’s Fair in which Mason had naively hoped her paintings would be exhibited. All the world would be coming to Paris for what promised to be the grandest showcase of industry and art in the history of France. It was her last chance. After all her rejection, she’d dared to believe that its art selection committee would finally be the one to recognize her talent.
What a colossal fool.
She closed her eyes and stood, hands on the stone rail of the bridge, face tipped back, allowing the shower to cool her fevered skin. She’d been so certain that she was on the right path. But she was only a cliché, after all, a pathetic joke: one more American who’d come to France determined to make it as a painter. Convinced, like all the others, that success and recognition would come if only she believed with all her heart and soul.
She’d started out with such hopes. Five years ago, grieving the death of her mother and desperate to leave behind the pain and despair, she’d taken her modest inheritance and had come to Paris—city of exiles, expatriates, and refugees. A city where you could start over and no one asked about your past. A city that appreciated artists and offered them freedom and support. Here, she’d had her first look at the controversial giants of Impressionism: Monet, Renoir, Degas. Looking at their work, she felt that she’d been struck by lightning. As a girl, her mother had taught her to paint and had taken her to art shows. But the works her mother loved had seemed dry, remote, antiquated. This new style was alive and modern, full of color and light. It spoke to her as nothing ever had before, and she knew she must answer its call.
For five years she’d followed a blissful crusade, playing with novel contrasts of color, experimenting with bold compositions and themes, and developing her own signature style. She’d flattered herself into believing this unique vision was so fresh, so daring, and so innovative that she might be taking Impressionism itself in a revolutionary new direction. Over the last year, she’d summed up this exciting personal breakthrough in eighteen canvases that she’d worked on day and night to finish in time to be considered for a place in the art pavilion of the Great Exposition.
But when she took a sampling to the Boulevard art galleries, hoping to gain their support, the dealers were unanimously appalled. Most of them hadn’t even been kind about it.
“But, Mademoiselle, these paintings are revolting!”
“I would lose my reputation were I to give my support to such atrocities.”
“Tell me, please, who would want such a thing hanging in their salon?”
The hardest to hear had been Monsieur Falconier, because he’d taken the time to bluntly explain his objections. “The style is simply impossible. Impressionism is difficult enough for the buying public to accept, and this goes beyond Impressionism to…I do not know what. The central figure in each of the paintings is appealing, I admit, rendered with a certain Renoiresque charm. But you’ve surrounded her with chaos and violence, a world that seems deliberately distorted to show its ugliness. You will receive no support for works such as these. They will be laughed at—no, jeered at. Please to take them out of my sight at once!”
Even with this harsh rejection, she’d clung to her hopes for the Exposition. It was well known that the judges were looking to represent not just the Salon painters and the Impressionists who were beginning to struggle their way into the mainstream, but the true avant-garde as well. So she’d submitted her work, rallying herself to believe in her vision, praying with every moment that passed that her canvases would be understood…appreciated…telling herself that all of it would have been worth it if only one person in all the world would look at her work and say, “Yes, I see.”
But it hadn’t happened.
And now she was left with nowhere to turn. She’d run out of options.
She felt more than humiliated. She felt angry and betrayed. The men who judged her did so through the veil of their own prejudices. As always, they were unwilling to accept a new vision, a new style. Especially the vision of a woman.
How could she have been so blind? To even think they would look upon her work with anything but contempt. It was her father all over again. Your painting is a waste of time. It will only bring you heartache.
She still felt the sting of his words. All these years later, the wound had never healed.
As she did so often in times of dejection, she thought again of her mother. The sad, gentle woman who’d painted as a way of escaping an intolerable existence. “Be careful what you wish for,” she’d warned Mason, “because you may well be given it. But it won’t be given in the way you think it will. You must be willing to pay the price.”
She would have taken success any way she could get it, would have paid any price. But her mother had been wrong. Wishing…hard work…perseverance…nothing had made any difference.
Had her father been right all along?
She was shivering in her saturated coat. Leaning on the rail, she looked down into the inky waters of the Seine. She could hear it rushing far below her, the current stronger than she’d ever seen it. She closed her eyes, feeling faint, feeling strangely as if she were melding with the river, becoming one with it. She knew the feeling must be caused by the effects of the absinthe, but somehow it seemed more than that. “I need help,” she whispered to the river gushing below. “I can’t do any more myself. I need…help.”
She didn’t know how long she stood there repeating the phrase over and over in her head. But after a while she became aware that the rain had slackened. It seemed to her that something had changed. She lifted her eyes and suddenly was struck by the beauty all around her. She turned, glancing east toward the lights of the city, misty in the rain, glistening indistinctly in the distance as the majestic Seine cut its way through the heart of the city like a ribbon of quicksilver.
And then, like a mirage, a figure emerged from the mist and rain, coming toward her across the bridge. The figure of a woman encased in a colorless cloak, holding the hood about her head against the wind as the cape flapped behind. Mason watched her approach, wondering if the absinthe was playing tricks with her mind. Was she seeing things?
But the phantom spoke in French, calling, “Are you in trouble?”
Mason looked around, wondering where the woman had come from. “No, Madame, I’m fine,” she answered, also in French. “But thank you for your concern.”
“I know better.”
Mason turned away, assuming the woman would walk on. But she didn’t. Her voice rose again above the sound of the elements. “You feel that all is hopeless. That you have been beaten down so far there is nowhere to turn. That no one understands your pain. That the Seine, with her sweet embrace, is your only friend. Your only solace. Your only solution.”
Stunned, Mason glanced down at the raging river, then back again at the woman. She thinks I’m going to jump!
“No, Madame, you misunderstand.”
But the woman continued as if Mason hadn’t spoken. “The temptation is great, is it not?” she called into the wind. “To leave the world you know behind. To become one of the faceless who give their last breath to Mother Seine.”
The words shamed her. It had never occurred to her to take the easy way out. But still, she’d been indulging in a riot of self-pity and that had never been her way.
“No,” she declared, straightening her stance. “You’re perceptive to see that I have problems, but they haven’t beaten me. Not yet, anyway.”
“Then I envy you,” the woman said, lowering her hands so the wind blew back her hood. For the first time, Mason saw her face. She carried all the sadness of the world in her eyes. Eyes like Mason’s mother. “I wish that I, too, had your resolve. But, unfortunately, my strength is at its end.”
With that, the woman smiled tenderly at Mason, then, with startling swiftness, mounted the balustrade and hurled herself headlong into the river.
It was such a shock that it took a moment for Mason to realize what had happened. When she did, she leaned over and saw the cloaked figure being carried away like a matchstick in a storm drain.
Mason’s mind darted about in a panic. I’ve got to do something, but…what?
She stared down into the rushing water, which suddenly seemed so far below her, fighting the numbness of her mind, trying desperately to think. I’m a good swimmer. I can save her.
She had to try. Wrenching off her shoes and coat, she straddled the rail, took a deep breath, and let herself drop feetfirst from the bridge.
The moment she hit the water, she knew she was in trouble. The icy current, far more violent than she’d supposed, began to pull her downward so she could barely keep her head above the surface. She sputtered and coughed the water from her lungs. Lack of food and the effects of the absinthe had left her with no reservoir of strength. As she tried to ignore her own peril and swim toward the rapidly careening woman, the tide shifted suddenly and forced her in another direction.
Mason swam for all she was worth. I have to keep trying. I can’t let her die like this.
Soon her struggle to reach the woman became symbolic of her own resurrected will to survive. The two became one: Her refusal to bow to crushing defeat fueled her determination to beat the river and pull the woman from its grasp.
But it was all she could do to stay afloat. The Seine was stronger than even her fierce will. With mounting panic, she reached for one of the severed tree limbs rushing by, but it sank under her weight.
She was already dangerously exhausted. The woman was now completely out of sight. She tried to force her arms and legs to move, but they were dead weight.
Suddenly, the truth loomed before her. She was going to drown.
Panic choked her. She shook off the lethargy, scratched and clawed to summon some latent strength, to battle like a fury her inevitable end. But it was no use. The current dragged her down, her clothing weighing her like a stone.
As she realized the futility of her struggles, alarm gave way to a resignation that dazed her more than absinthe ever could.
I’m twenty-five years old and I’m going to die.
But then another realization swept through her, more powerful than the last.
She’d never even been in love. She’d never found the one man who could cherish her for who she really was, who could believe in her for no reason except that he loved her with all his heart and soul.
And that, she knew now—when it was too late—was the true tragedy.
She couldn’t let it happen. She had to fight for another chance. Her lungs were about to burst. Help me, she prayed once again. With a surge of desperation, she shot upward, breaking the surface and taking a deep, rasping gulp of air.
But as she did, something heavy crashed into her, cracking her head. She reached for it, flailing, hoping to use it to keep afloat. But her arms lost all sensation and the world spun madly as she felt consciousness begin to slip away.
Her last bitter thought as blackness stole upon her was of the cruel irony of fate.
I ask for help and this is what I get!
I must be in heaven.
Mason stepped from the carriage and into a perfect world. The rain was gone and it was a glorious Parisian day, the sky a brilliant blue, the air shimmering and dappled with fleecy clouds. The merest trifle of a perfumed breeze rippled through the bare branches of the trees that lined the fashionable Rue Lafitte.
And there before her, a line of people awaiting admittance to the Galerie Falconier stretched all the way down to the Boulevard Haussmann. A placard beside the entrance displayed, in French, words that seemed to have been snatched from a dream:
Exhibition of Paintings
By the Celebrated
As she took in the scene, she caught her reflection in the gallery window and almost didn’t recognize herself. She was corseted and bustled into a concoction of the palest pink, topped off with a playfully insouciant hat sporting ostrich feathers. Swathes of lace cascaded down in a veil to delicately obscure her face. Her newly dyed black hair made her look faintly exotic, masking her usual fresh-scrubbed country appearance. She liked the change. It made her feel so mischievous that she had to resist the impulse to spin about in glee.
Lisette stepped out behind her. “Are you ready for this, chérie?”
Mason looked at her friend. She was an effortlessly beautiful woman of twenty-two, raised on the streets of Montmartre—and wise to all its ways, despite the childlike innocence she exuded—with a tumble of sunshine blond hair, a pouty smile, and a lithe yet curvaceous body that was a prime attraction of the Cirque Fernando, where she was the featured trapeze artist.
“Ready?” Mason took an excited breath. “I’ve been ready for this all my life.”
The dreamlike atmosphere continued as they entered the gallery. Auguste Falconier, the same man who’d said such scathing things to her before, now actually rushed forth to usher her in with welcoming arms. “Ah, Mademoiselle Caldwell, at last! The invited guests are all here and, as you have seen for yourself, the public outside clamors for admittance. Those inside are so eager to buy the paintings that the moment the preview is over, they will be trampling over one another to give us their money!”
He gestured past the foyer into the salon beyond. What she saw inside was just as she’d always imagined it: a crowd of wealthy patrons circulating with champagne in hand to admire her canvases, which were tastefully displayed throughout the high-ceilinged rooms of the former Second Empire row mansion.
“Allow me, Mademoiselle—may I call you Amy?”
Lisette nudged Mason and she started at the sound of the still-unfamiliar name. Rousing herself, she answered, “Yes, of course. By all means, call me Amy.”
“Then, Mademoiselle Amy, allow me to show you our most heart-wrenching tribute to the artist, your late sister.”
He led them to a glass display case. Inside was a collection of well-used personal effects: paint box, palette colored with rich smears of dried oil paint, tin can filled with brushes, stained smock, broad-brimmed straw hat, and in the center, a coat and a pair of shabby brown shoes.
“The shoes were those left by your sister on the bridge before she ju—” He corrected himself hastily, “Before she entered immortality. A last-minute idea on my part. I find them indescribably touching. Somehow they speak of her dedication, her poverty, and in the end, her desperation and tragedy.”
Mason regarded the grimy shoes—the leather faded and worn, the toes scuffed from numerous painting expeditions in the Oise River Valley—and had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from smiling. It was too funny. She had other, nicer shoes, but none she’d have chosen to ruin on a midnight walk in the rain.
I’d love to see the look on this phony’s face if he knew I wasn’t the sister Amy just off the ship from America, but the dear departed herself.
Falconier allowed a moment of reverential silence before speaking. “I cannot tell you what an honor it is to represent an artist of such innovative genius as Mason Caldwell.”
Lisette, rolling her eyes at the hypocrisy, put a hand on a shapely hip and spoke for the first time. “Genius? Was it her genius you referred to when you called her style impossible? When you told her to get them out of your sight?”
The proprietor drew himself up in outrage. “Mais, pas du tout! I said no such a thing! If someone of my staff dared to utter such defamation, I will discharge him from my employ immediately!” He turned to Mason with both hands on his heart. “I can say, Mademoiselle Amy, in all humility, that I recognized the monumental gift of your sister from the first.”
Lisette, who feared nothing and no one, shook her head. “Ooh-la-la!”
“But come, everyone is eager to pay you their respects.”
Falconier marched off, full of his own self-importance. Lisette put a hand on Mason’s arm, waiting until he was out of range, then whispered to her, “Remember. You’ve never been to France before. You do not speak a word of French.”
When they caught up to Falconier, he said, “I realize, Mademoiselle Amy, that you are still raw from your tragedy, but we have some gentlemen of the press here who are panting to talk with you about our beloved Mason. And it is always wise to strike while the iron is hot, n’est-pas? So if you don’t mind, please to follow me.”
He didn’t pause long enough to see whether she minded or not, but proceeded into the main salon where a group of gentlemen stood waiting with pencils and pads in hand and eyes hungry to embellish a story that was fast becoming the rage of Paris.
Mason had always dreamed of being the center of attention, all eyes on her, pencils poised to jot down every word she uttered. But it had been such a rush to pull herself together for this charade that she hadn’t had time to fully formulate her story.
Don’t slip. Don’t let them suspect who you really are.
As she joined Falconier, she dabbed her eyes with her veil, as if brushing away a tear, and said with a feigned air of sorrow, “Yes, it’s been quite an ordeal. But if it will help the legacy of poor Mason, of course I’ll tell them whatever I can.”
As she spoke, Lisette translated for those in the group who didn’t understand English.
Falconier cleared his throat. “Gentlemen of the press, may I present Mademoiselle Amy Caldwell, the sister of our late-departed and much-missed artist. And with her, the lovely Mademoiselle Lisette Ladoux of the Cirque Fernando and Folies-Bergères. She was, as you know, a close personal friend of the artist and her primary model.”
A thin man with a goatee began the proceedings. “Mademoiselle Caldwell, I am Etienne Debray of La Gauloise. May I ask, why do you think it is that your sister’s work was so unappreciated in her brief life?”
Mason considered the question, then spoke slowly, “I know little about art, but I think her paintings may have threatened the people who always want things to remain the same.”
“Why do you think there is such interest in her now?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t answer that. Perhaps it’s just that her time has come.”
As Lisette translated, Mason noticed a man standing by himself several yards behind the reporters, staring at her with a penetrating gaze. The first thing she noticed was his size. He stood a full head above the rest of the crowd, with prominent wide shoulders and large hands that offered a captivating contrast to the ease with which he wore his expensively tailored suit. He’d forsaken the beard Parisian men favored and was clean-shaven, emphasizing the sculpted line of his jaw. He was the most arresting man she’d ever seen. But it wasn’t just his individual features—dark hair, wide forehead, thick brows atop piercing dark eyes, vertical creases on either side of his mouth—that made him so. As handsome as he was at first glance, it was the energy he projected that riveted her attention, one of action and excitement, and the promise of adventure. It hit her like a physical blow. Raw. Feral. Brazenly sexual.
For a moment, she lost track of what Lisette was saying. Why was the man looking at her this way? She’d never seen him before, but he was inspecting her with a cheeky sort of intimacy. She felt positively naked beneath his unflinching scrutiny and had to resist the urge to adjust her clothing. Was it possible that he recognized her? But no, she’d taken great pains to change her appearance—dyeing her hair, wearing carefully applied cosmetics, even chopping off the long eyelashes that were her most noticeable feature.
She dragged her gaze away and forced herself to concentrate.
Another reporter asked, “But, mademoiselle, there is no precedent for what is going on here today. Surely much of the interest is due to the harrowing circumstances of your sister’s demise. Such a wretched death for one so young, so beautiful, so talented.”
Someone piped up with, “But it has done wonders for her career.”
There were some snickers from the spectators who’d gathered round.
Falconier held up his hands. “Please, gentlemen, have some respect!”
The questioner added, “I certainly meant no disrespect. I only meant to point out that there is a quality to her life and death that seems to move people in a way that I have never seen before. She never had a patron, never sold a painting, never had the slightest encouragement from what we can tell. And yet she worked on, giving everything to her art, including, finally, her life. That is the mark of a true martyr, a…Joan of Art.”
As he coined the phrase, a silence descended on the crowd, as if suddenly realizing that they were a part of something larger than what had first been apparent.
Mason, taken aback by this, wasn’t sure what to say. She glanced about at the dumbstruck crowd. As she did, her gaze met and held that of the man standing on the fringes. He gave a slow, single nod of his head that baffled her.
“Jeanne d’Art,” repeated one of the reporters. “C’est formidable!”
The newsmen were now writing furiously. As they finished, another of them asked, “What are your plans for the paintings?”
Mason waited for Lisette to finish translating before she answered, “Monsieur Falconier will try to sell the eighteen here today—”
The intriguing man at the back shook his head, distracting her. She stumbled, then continued, “With the stipulation that, should the committee deem them acceptable, they be made available to be displayed at the World’s Fair this summer. I understand they turned her down once, but Monsieur Falconier seems to think in light of the recent publicity…”
“Are there more paintings?”
Mason hadn’t expected the question. But on impulse, she said, “Yes, many.”
As she translated, Lisette tossed her a quizzical frown. This wasn’t part of the plan.
Falconier looked pleasantly startled. “Really! But this is magnifique! And where are they?”
Thinking on her feet, Mason said, “My sister shipped them back to me in Massachusetts. I could have them sent over if anyone wanted to see them.”
Falconier had brightened considerably at this news. He rubbed his smooth, white hands together, and his eyes sparked with the glint of avarice. “Want to see them? The world will demand to see them! And you may rest assured that the Falconier Gallery will be the enthusiastic broker for these masterpieces.”
Lisette couldn’t help but smile at his greed. “How kind of the monsieur,” she quipped.
One of the reporters was nibbling thoughtfully on his pencil. “What do you surmise will happen to all this interest? Will it continue to grow?”
“I can answer that question.”
Mason turned to see Lucien Morrel, the city’s foremost art critic. She’d read his reviews and respected his opinion for years. He’d been instrumental in the careers of Renoir and Degas in the days when the art establishment had turned a blind eye to the revolution in painting that was going on all around them. Now he was about to pronounce judgment on her work. Unconsciously, she held her breath.
“In two weeks’ time,” the learned man proclaimed, “this Mason Caldwell will have been completely forgotten. Her current notoriety is entirely without substance or merit. Her technique is sloppy, the subject matter tends toward the macabre, and her colors bear no relation to the physical reality they’re supposed to convey. In short, her work is not art. It is an affront to art. This morbid interest in her is due solely to the fact that she surely realized she had no talent and, having come to this astute recognition, ended her life by flinging herself from the Pont de l’Alma. A romantic notion that at present has the bourgeoisie swooning and lining up to see her paintings, but that is all. Parisians are notorious for loving a good suicide. No, no, my friends. What we are experiencing here is not the discovery of a new master; it is a carnival sideshow.”
Lisette turned to Mason, her eyes brimming with consternation. Mason waved a hand,. . .
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