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by Sarah Blair 3 years ago in fiction
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In 19th-Century New Orleans, an artist's apprentice discovers her master's shocking secret.

Anna heard voices at the end of the hall and paused. The door to Stefan’s studio remained open a crack. A sliver of flickering lamplight drew a line across the Persian rug and made a sharp angle as it ran up the wall. A low, breathy laugh leaked through the crack that most certainly belonged to a woman.

Anna eased slowly toward the door. She wasn’t supposed to be home yet, but the night’s performance had been cancelled and the theater closed due to the recent outbreak of cholera.

It was unusual for Stefan to allow visitors inside his studio. Only the occasional subject posing for a portrait, and even then they had to pay an enormous sum to gain entrance to his most private work space. Anna was no visitor, however. As his apprentice, the studio belonged nearly as much to her. Though, she preferred to work in the mornings when the light was best.

Occasionally, they worked together on a particularly large piece. Always after sundown when he felt most inspired. Other times they each did their own work late into the night, sitting at opposite ends of the room, their brushes making the only sounds as they smoothed paint over canvas.

There were no sounds of painting now. It was startlingly quiet. Anna’s curiosity got the better of her, as it usually did. The carpet hushed the quick steps of her polished boots on the floor as she hastened to the end of the hall. She eased into the narrow line of light and peeked through the open door.

The couch had been moved into the middle of the room. Stefan’s palette remained untouched on top of his wooden stool. His current commission, a portrait of the Duchess Mirabelle LaFonte remained half-finished. Stefan had yet to bring out the delicate details of her arched brows and perfect little bow lips. She was the wife of none other than Jeffrey LaFonte, the Duke of Castille. Though Anna had never been quite satisfied as to why a Duke and Duchess would choose to reside in the sweaty swamp of New Orleans over the grand avenues of Paris.

The Duchess’ hair was a dark blonde, the color of fresh hay. In the portrait it was done up in a chignon with perfect round ringlets framing her face, tumbling down her neck. The woman on the couch wore the same peacock blue gown as the one in the portrait, but her hair fell loose and stringy around her face. Stefan’s hands tangled in the thick curls.

Anna’s breath caught in her throat and she watched. Stefan smoothed the woman’s hair away from her face and leaned in, whispering something in her ear. Anna couldn’t hear what he said, but the Duchess lowered her eyes. The low-cut décolletage made it possible to watch the blush creep slowly up her chest, climb up her neck, and settle deeply into her cheeks. Stefan smiled softly and murmured something else as he kissed each of her eyelids. She opened her eyes and cupped her palm around the back of Stefan’s neck.

Darkness crept into his eyes until Anna could no longer see the white at the edges. They were like the sky before a thunderstorm, when the clouds rolled in and covered the sky so thickly that day became night. The corner of his mouth turned up, and Anna saw a most unusual look of triumph. It was the same look he got when they played chess and he was about to win as he always did. The look that said, “I have you now. Checkmate.”

Stefan made no move forward. He let the Duchess close the distance between them. It was she who kissed him. Frantically. She scooted into his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. He returned the embrace and let her have her way for a moment, tilting his head to the side so that she might nip at his square shadowed jawline.

A knot tightened in Anna’s stomach. Who did this woman think she was throwing herself all over Stefan like this? More importantly, why did he let her? It was dangerous. If the Duke discovered the impropriety, there could be a duel. Anna opened her mouth and took in a breath, ready to interrupt them, but her words faded on her tongue.

Stefan grabbed a handful of the Duchess’ hair and pulled her face back, but kept his other arm around her waist, their bodies close. Her ample chest heaved with quick, shallow breaths, those bow lips now red and swollen from her enthusiastic display. Something about the way Stefan took hold of the Duchess’ hair made Anna swallow her protest completely.

The knot of apprehension in her stomach suddenly melted and drifted lower in her belly, creating an entirely different sensation within her. Stefan kissed the Duchess slower this time. He flicked his tongue out, barely touching it across her bottom lip before he took it between his teeth. A moan escaped the woman’s parted lips just before Stefan covered her entire mouth with his own. He pressed his tongue deep inside her mouth and she moved her hips against him. Anna’s face heated with her own rising blush.

She leaned against the edge of the doorframe, knees weak and shaking, as Stefan trailed a line of kisses down the Duchess’ neck. He reached below her neckline and pulled her breast out from her loosened corset. Her hardened nipple disappeared into his mouth. She buried her face in his coal black hair, her slender fingers digging into his shoulder. Anna dug her own fingertips into the doorframe for support as Stefan’s hand disappeared under the thick lace and fabric of the Duchess’ petticoat. She wondered what he might be doing under there to make the woman writhe like that.

She wished he would do it to her.

The already hot blush that burned her face flamed hotter with embarrassment and shame for the thought of it. Anna tried to push her unbidden desire away, but it wouldn’t be stopped.

All the times they’d been near one another, each glance, every touch, rose within her like the rush of the tide in the delta. The way his arms felt when he wrapped them around her. The many evenings they’d spent with their heads together, reading in the pale glow of the lamp. She enjoyed being the only one who could make him laugh; loved the way he touched her cheek when she made progress on one of her new techniques. Loved those strong hands as they smoothed paint across the canvas...

Anna shut her eyes and tucked those feelings far away in the dark folds of her mind. She opened her eyes just in time to see Stefan wrap his arm securely around the Duchess LaFonte and pull her head to the side exposing the white expanse of her elegant neck. He pressed his mouth to her and she tensed, sucking in a sharp gasp, before she moaned and smiled.

Whispers circulated constantly about the kind of person Stefan was. Somehow, Anna felt, she had always known even though it had never been spoken outright. It was just a part of who he was and she never questioned it. She knew when dawn came he was not meant to be disturbed. She knew that most of the rumors about people like him were untrue. In fact, they attended evening Mass on a regular basis together. He was quite pious. She knew that, as soon as he rose in the evening, he drank a glass of wine that wasn’t really wine.

The Duchess closed her eyes, rapt with ecstasy. Her eyelashes fluttered slightly as her rapid breaths evened out and she sighed. Stefan drank deeply. With each swallow she grew pale, and his skin flushed brighter with warmth. Anna felt the heat spread from her belly down between her legs. A crimson drop escaped his mouth, painting a thin line down the woman’s chest, slowing to a stop like a jewel on the mound of her breast. He pulled away and lapped it up, following the trail all the way back up to the wound on her neck. Anna let out a shaking sigh.

Stefan glanced to the open doorway.

Anna froze, hoping perhaps he wouldn’t notice her if she kept very, very still.

“Anna?” He guided the Duchess gently down onto the couch and rose slowly, hand extended. “Please, allow me to explain.”

The moment he took a step forward, Anna felt her feet move under her.

Without thinking she went for the narrow set of servant’s stairs that let out in the kitchen. Her shoulder slammed hard into the wall at the L turn, but somehow she kept going, right through the kitchen and out the back door.

The night air was thick enough to swallow. At this hour, the street was quiet and the lamps burned low. Oblique shadows crept out of every corner. A bell tolled in the distance down on the quay.

Anna ran. As fast as she could. She ran.


About the author

Sarah Blair

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