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Authors: Katherine O'Neal

The Art of Seduction

BOOK: The Art of Seduction
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The Art of Seduction
The Art of Seduction
KATHERINE O'NEAL

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

For Machi

Prologue

Paris
30 January, 1889

W
hat 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.

Utter failure.

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.

Anything.

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.

BOOK: The Art of Seduction
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