London. May 1814
He'd finally lost his sanity. There was simply no other way to explain it. His breathing quickened as a lone tallow taper sputtered, the bright orange flame turning smoky. Dionysus tore his gaze from his work long enough to search the cluttered workshop-the floor littered with discarded brushes and paints-for a replacement.
"Sir?" a servant called after tapping on the door. "Sir? Please, will you eat today?"
Dionysus, too absorbed in his work, lit a new taper and returned his attentions to the canvas. His heart thundered in his chest. He lifted his brush and pulled it slowly across the canvas-tracing the gentle curve of a thigh.
He'd only seen her briefly at the Baneshire's ball. She was a widow, one of the grand matrons of the ton had whispered, after taking notice of his overlong stare. He could not, no matter how hard he tried, lift his eyes from the beautiful creature dancing-nay-floating like a gossamer faery across the glassy ballroom floor.
"She's my niece," the Earl of Baneshire had told him when asked. "Her husband died on a battlefield in France, poor thing. Left her without a sou. It appears his estate was mortgaged to the hilt." The earl paused to watch his niece curtsy to the man she'd been dancing with as the set came to a close. "She's just now out of mourning clothes. It warms my heart to see her in something other than widow's weeds. I could introduce her to you."
Dionysus's heart had been hammering, like now. His palms had grown moist and his mouth dry.
Could it be her? Could it really be her?
"No, no, thank you," he'd said with a bow. He didn't even ask her name before finding a footman, before demanding his carriage sought and his cloak retrieved. No matter what, he could not stay.
He could not.
That very evening he'd locked himself in his workshop, trying desperately to exorcise the demon that had stolen his sanity. He'd tossed aside six canvases before finally finding the right strokes and the right shades of pigment to create a portrait of the woman.
He held his breath, lightly tinting the tips of her breasts with a delicate paint prepared from powdered garnets. Her deep eyes from crushed sapphires. Her full lips from the dust of rubies.
As he stepped back, a wave of dizziness overtook him. He reached out to steady himself against a small worktable. He'd missed too many meals, lost too many nights of sleep. Pulling a shaky hand through his hair, he stared at the image in front of him.
It was perfect.
She was perfect.
Now that the work was finally finished and his obsession drained away, he could see what he'd done for what it was-madness.
Unable to lift his eyes from the painting, he sank to his knees. What had he been thinking? What had he created?
No one could ever see it.
But to destroy it, to deface the perfect image of her, would surely be echoed by the destruction of his soul.
His strength gone, Dionysus curled up at the base of his easel and fell asleep with her perfect ruby lips smiling down on him.