No one who knew Henry Hackett would ever think of accusing him of being a coward, at least no one who was in the same the room with him when they did so if he wished to leave it under his own steam. That doesn’t mean there weren’t times in Henry’s life when the found himself tempted to put off walking into what promised to be a contentious meeting in favor of finding a secluded corner where he could enjoy a nice hot cuppa. This very thought was running through his head as he stood before the door leading into Guy Tinsdal’s office, going over in his head for the umpteenth time two very different arguments. One was for continuing with the effort to unravel the mystery of the English Courtesan. The other was for putting an end to what had always been, in his opinion, something of a bootless errand.
Of them, the latter was by far the strongest and, by far, the easiest to make. Even before leaving Paris, he had come to the conclusion the effort required to find out who the person in the portrait was not only daunting, the cost of doing so would likely yield nothing more than an interesting piece of historical trivia, the kind university profs take such delight in quibbling over with their peers in the comfort of their university club. That he had gone to Kraków despite this had been a willful act he would be unable to justify if Tinsdal decided to make an issue of it. He wouldn’t of course. Tinsdal never questioned his judgment, which was why the argument for pressing on with the effort to uncover the history behind the portrait that Henry had been mulling over would be so difficult to make, for it had very little to do with the portrait itself.
The idea that he, Henry Horatio Hackett, was even thinking of allowing personal considerations to influence his judgment was astonishing, bordering on being downright shocking. Having based his entire professional life upon the sole guiding principle that a person’s wishes, desires, and needs were secondary to the accomplishment of his assigned task, whether it be in the service of Queen and Country, or Corporate Britannia, Henry could not believe he was even thinking of doing so now. And for what? He asked himself as he stood there before the door to Tinsdal’s office? To put a name to some woman who live and died over four-hundred and fifty years ago?
Bowing his head he mentally stepped back, letting out an audible sigh as he corrected himself. It wasn’t the woman in the portrait who had inexplicably captured his imagination. It was another whose past, while not near as intriguing as the English Courtesan’s must have been given her times, was doubtlessly no less difficult.
After watching Henry for several minutes without making a move to open the door in front of him as if trying to decide whether or not to go in, Tinsdal’s executive assistant chuckled. “If open sesame doesn’t work, you might try the door handle.”
Suddenly aware of just how long he’d been standing there, debating what he would tell Tinsdal, Henry gave the woman a weak smile as he was reaching for the door handle. “Ah, yes, why didn’t I think of that?”
From somewhere inside his flat, Megan heard Clive Barrow call out through the closed door. “It’s unlocked.”
Before grasping the door handle, she hosted the strap of her Elizabeth and James shoulder bag a little higher, carefully draped her Burberry raincoat over her forearm, and gave a quick glance down at the full, stylish midi-skirt and chic boots she was wearing. Ready, she drew herself up, opened the door, and went in.
“Megan. So nice of you to stop by,” Barrow called out after looking over his shoulder but a second to see who it was. “I just put the kettle on,” he muttered even as he was turning his attention back to the computer screen he was seated in front of. “Do be a dear and pour me a cup.”
Having expected Barrow to react as Henry had at dinner that one night in Kraków, Barrows’ failure to take note of how she was dressed left her deflated. Stifling her disappointment, Megan made her way to the kitchen where she took to picking through the stack of dirty dishes sitting in the sink and washing out a pair of cups and saucers. Having worked for Barrow for close to ten years, she should have expected as much. Still, the idea he couldn’t stop what he was doing for a second and take the time to greet her with a friendly hello was disheartening. Perhaps the Greeks had it right, she concluded as she took up a threadbare dishcloth and dried the clean cups. A leopard cannot change its spots. Clive Barrow, she opined, would always be Clive Barrow, a person who never had felt the need to alter a single thing in a life that was, for him, comfortable and safe.
The sound of Megan shifting a stack of books sitting near the edge of his desk with her elbow in an effort to find a space to set his cup of tea down caused Barrow to cast a quick glance away from the computer screen. “Careful,” he muttered.
“Sorry,” she replied reflexively.
Without another word, he turned his attention back to the computer screen even as he was carefully groping about with his right hand, searching for the handle of his teacup. “I’ve decided to try a something different,” he called out to Megan who was standing behind him, looking about the room in search of a place to sit. “Instead of spending a great deal of time recounting the early years of each artist’s life before going into their achievements, I thought I would focus on their works, adding whatever personal information seems necessary as I go along. The first rough draft of the chapters on the Dutch masters is over there, on the side table next to the sofa. Do be a dear, take them with you when you leave and go over them in order to make sure there aren’t any typos or misspellings.”
Up to this point, Megan had been content to patiently wait until her old mentor had finished up what he’d been working on when she had come in to bring up the reason she’d dropped by. She wasn’t even surprised he was asking her to go over the draft manuscript he was writing, or more correctly re-writing for what had to have been the sixth time. Or was this the seventh, she found herself wondering. Having lost track, Megan gave her head a quick shake. No, she concluded as she watched him while slowly sipping her tea. What was really irking her was his failure to ask her what she’d been up to. Deciding to tear a page out of Henry Hackett’s book, she decided to seize the initiative. “I stopped by in the hope you might do me a favor.”
“A favor?” Barrow muttered without looking over to the settee she’d settled after shoving a pile of freshly laundered sheets and towels aside.
“Yes. I was wondering if you could give Connie a call and see if you could convince her to grant me a few more weeks to follow up on the background of the portrait Guy Tinsdal has asked me to look into.”
For the first time since she’d arrived, Barrow stopped what he was doing, spun his desk chair about, and took to staring at Megan over the top of his reading glasses. “Don’t tell me you’re still working on that?”
It wasn’t the question that caused Megan to flinch. Rather, it was the way he had spit out the word ‘That.’ Setting her teacup on top of the draft chapters Barrow had mentioned but a few moments earlier, she folded her hands on her lap. “I am,” she replied evenly.
“I thought you sent me an email a week or so ago that said everyone who’s seen the portrait agreed that it wasn’t painted by da Vinci.”
“Then why on earth are you still wasting your time with it?”
“I had something of an epiphany, Dr. Barrow,” Megan began slowly as she looked down at her clasped hands nestled in the folds of her skirt. “I suddenly realized there is more to the portraits we care for and preserve.” At this point, she glanced up, meeting his questioning gaze with an expression that was calm, self-assured, and determined. “As fascinating as the techniques and materials the artist used to create them, the subject of each and every work has a story which the artist and the subject wish to share.”
“Megan, dear girl, you’re an art historian, nothing more,” Barrow declared in a tone that was familiar. It was one he had often relied on in the past to remind her or another one of his minions that he and he alone knew what was best, or that a novel idea they had been foolish enough to bring to his attention wasn’t worthy of a second thought.
“I’m sorry, but I believe you’re wrong. There is a story, a history hidden beneath the paint and brush strokes. The woman in Guy Tinsdal’s portrait, the so called English Courtesan, was a real person who not only lived at a time when Europe was emerging from the darkness of the Middle Ages, she bore witness to the events that are the foundation of our modern world. I would not be surprised in the least if she even met and rubbed shoulders with the very people who helped shape that world.”
Having heard others like the young woman seated across the room from him go on like she was many, many times before, Barrow couldn’t help but chuckle. Even when he saw the look on her face, one that betrayed a rage she was having difficulty reining in, he continued to snicker. “Whatever it is you think you’ve discovered has nothing to do with what we’re about. Do yourself a favor, Megan, leave the writing of history to the people who deal with that sort of thing for a living and go back to the Gallery where you belong.”
‘Where you belong.’ Such a simple concept, rendered by Barrows without a jot of hesitation of serious reflection, was not so simple for a person such as Megan, who’d spent much of her life trying to find just where she did belong. As a child, she’d dutifully followed the well charted path her parents and her teachers laid out before her, a path filled with pitfalls and dead ends only she was able to see. At university her peers had encouraged her to explore the world around her, which she did, only to find that world, the one that existed within the ancient walls of Oxford, was but a bubble, a way station in life that bore little resemblance to the one they would soon find themselves. Even the Gallery proved to be nothing more than a place where she was free to indulge her passion for art, but little else, for while it was true her coworkers treated her with all the respect a gifted art historian was due, she did not fit in any of the comfortable niches they retired to when they hung up their smocks at the end of the day and left the Gallery.
Unable to trust what she might say by way of response, Megan came to her feet and took up her shoulder bag. “Thank you for the tea and your time,” she snipped crisply. Then, without waiting for him to bid her goodbye, she pivoted about and left.
The temptation to get up and chase after the girl in order to remind her she had forgotten to take the copy of the opening chapters of his book he’d asked her to look over was dismissed. She’d be back, he told himself before turning his attention back to what he’d been doing. After all, where else did she have to go?
Even from across the room, the look on Megan’s face and the way she made her way over to where he’d been waiting for her to join him for lunch was enough to tell Henry she was royally pissed. Just what had put a burr under her saddle didn’t matter. What was important was finding a way to smooth her ruffled feathers before informing her of the results of his meeting with Tinsdal earlier that morning.
When she was but a few feet from the table, Henry came to his feet, but said little more than, “Megan,” by way of a greeting. Best, he told himself, to allow her to settle down, enjoy a sip of the wine, and place their orders. What he had to tell her could wait.
Henry’s pity greeting suited Megan just fine, for she was in no mood for the lighthearted banter Henry seemed so fond of engaging her in before settling down to business. Taking her seat, she did her best to avoid making eye contact with him. Even when he filled her wine glass, a quick, muttered “Thanks,” was the best she could muster by way of showing her appreciation. After placing her order with a crisp curtness that warned the waiter she was in no mood to listen to him blithely prattle on as waiters often do, she did little more than hold her wineglass before her, staring into it as if trying to decide if she wished to share with Henry whatever it was that was troubling her.
Concluding his wait-and-see strategy wasn’t working, Henry decided it was up to him to take the lead. “I spoke to Tinsdal this morning.”
Well aware he had gone off to meet with his boss while she had headed over to the National Gallery to plead her case with hers, Megan stared at him quizzically. “And?” she asked when he didn’t continue.
“I gave him a quick rundown on our progress.”
“That must have taken all of, oh, two minutes,” Megan grumbled before taking a long sip of wine.
“I also told him about the theory you and I discussed in Kraków.”
“He’s just as intrigued by the possibility as we were.”
“Intrigued enough to consider following that up, provided you’re game.”
“Oh, I’m game,” Megan snipped without giving the idea a whit of thought. “I expect I’m even more eager to see where this leads than either you or your Mr. Tinsdal are. Unfortunately, Connie Mulberry refuses to grant an extension to my leave of absence.”
“Have you gone to Barrow and asked him if he would plead your case to your current boss like you were talking about?”
Megan’s immediate response was a quick, sharp glare through angry, narrow eyes, informing him Henry Barrow, and not Mulberry at the National Gallery, was the source of her foul mood. Deciding it might not be a good idea to ask Megan what had transpired between her and a man she held in such high esteem, he turned his attention to determining where that left them.
Megan didn’t give him a chance to do so. “I have been handed an ultimatum,” she groused as she again took to staring down at the content of her wineglass. “Connie made it quite clear to me that unlike Indiana Jones, I won’t have a nice, comfy position to come back to if I persist in yomping about Europe, higgledy-piggledy with Conan the Barbarian, searching for the Holy Grail.”
Were it not for the sharpness of her tone of voice, Henry would have laughed. Still, he could not resist having a spot of fun. “Was it your boss who called me Conan the Barbarian, or you?”
Suddenly realizing what she’d said, Megan cringed. “It was me,” Megan replied sheepishly as she peeked up at Henry through her lashes.
“When? At the National Gallery?”
“No, just now. Have you not been keeping up with current events?”
Not sure if he should laugh or be concerned, Henry remained silent as he watched Megan drain her glass, set it on the table, and slid it toward him. “Thank you sir, I’ll have another.”
The timely arrival of their meals kept Henry from pressing her any further. It also allowed Megan an opportunity to mull her options over before committing herself to a definitive course of action.
Sensing they were both in need of some time to sort out the results of their efforts earlier in the day, Henry suggested they take a stroll through Hyde Park, a place he often went whenever he needed to take a break from his responsibilities or to think his way through a particularly knotty problem.
Megan readily agreed. Prior to embarking on what she and Henry had taken to calling The Quest, the idea of setting aside the tasks her supervisors at the National Gallery heaped upon her in order to wander about a park was one she never would have given a thought to. And while she had become fond of the walks Henry insisted on, her reasons seldom had anything to do with clearing away mental fog and cobwebs or noodling over a problem that was bedeviling them.
The sight of two mothers quietly chatting with each other as they pushed their modern, sophisticated, multipurpose prams along caught her attention. With all thoughts and concerns pleasantly dulled by the wine she had enjoyed during lunch, her mind swerved away from any thoughts concerning the English Courtesan and onto something very different, one she did her best to avoid. What would her life be like, she found herself wondering as she watched the mothers and prams go by, if she could have a life no different than theirs? Would she be happy being a mother? Could she do what a friend of hers at the National Gallery had done when she had discovered she was pregnant and serve notice she would be leaving as soon as she had began her third trimester?
Such a question, she had concluded long ago, could not be answered relying on logic alone. Drawing up a checklist, enumerating the pros and cons and weighting the sum of each in an effort to discover which course of action was most favorable did not apply when matters of the heart were involved. Being at peace with yourself, content with who and what you were was not the same as being satisfied with a job well done. One was rewarding, the other, satisfying in ways that defied description.
Unable to help herself, Megan glanced over her shoulder as the mothers and their prams continued along the path. There was more to the satisfaction the two women seemed to be relishing than a child alone could bring. Both struck Megan as being intelligent, sophisticated women who needed more than just a child to give meaning to their lives, something that for her, was little more than a dream. Ever so carefully she took to looking over at Henry out of the corner of her eyes.
The idea that a man like him could be the key to making that dream a reality was one she did her best to avoid. There had always been a reason for putting off exploring that possibility. Now, however, not only did the quest she was engaged in provide her with the opportunity, the man who she was paired with was very much the sort she had often found herself contemplating.
“Before I tell you what Tinsdal decided,” Henry declared out of the clear blue without looking over at Megan, “I think you should know I recommended we put an end to this effort.”
Thrown on her back foot by the abruptness with which Henry had broken the companionable silence she had been enjoying and the sudden need to shove aside her untimely musings, it took longer than it should have for what he had said to register. “You did what?”
Unable to look Megan in the eye, Henry continued to stare straight ahead. “I said, I told Tinsdal I did not believe it was in his best interests to pursue this effort any further.”
“Great, fine,” Megan huffed bitterly as she looked down at the path before them as she scrambled to figure out what this meant to her, an effort that didn’t take all that long. For her it would be back to the National Gallery where she would resume her duties. In a week, if that, everything she’d seen and done during this foray into the exciting world few art historians ever have a chance to visit that she’d been introduced to would be but a memory. She could almost smell the distinct odor of the subway she took each morning, and again in the evening, as she shuttled back and forth between her small, one room flat and the cubical she worked out of at the National Gallery.
It took Henry far longer than it should have to appreciate just how his statement must have sounded to the young woman next to him. “For once Tinsdal disagreed.”
Snapping her head about, Megan took to staring at up at him. “And?”
“Just when I think I’ve got a that man figured out, he up and does something that throws me.”
The long pause that followed this statement, and the look in Henry’s eye, left Megan wondering what would mean to her. What was so startling to her was not the realization continuing on would mean she’d lose her job at the National Gallery. Rather, it was the way her heart skipped a beat when she realized this would mean she would be able to spend more time with the man at her side. This caused her to quickly turn her head away, least Henry see the way her cheeks were glowing.
If he noticed, Henry made no effort to let on as he continued. “Guy seems to think the idea of finding out who the woman in the portrait was is well worth the effort and the expense. While he didn’t bother to go into much detail with me why he feels that way, I suspect he found the idea that we might be onto something that has some historical significant to be just as captivating as you do.”
Pleased Henry was either oblivious to the way she’d reacted to his announcement, or was being a gentlemen, Megan forced herself to set aside her untimely feelings and turn her attention, instead, to more immediate and practical matters.
Connie Mulberry wasn’t the kind of woman to make idle threats. As much as she had gone out of her way to repeatedly tell Megan she would miss her, Megan knew Connie would have no qualms about replacing her with another, fresh young face, one she would be able to mold in the same way Clive Barrow had her. God knows, Megan told herself, there were enough well qualified art historians, fresh out of university, who’d eagerly beat down Connie’s door once word got out there was an opening at the National Gallery, a door that would be bolted shut to her when she finally did finish the quest to learn all she could about the mysterious woman known only as the English Courtesan.
Eventually, when she finally was able to look back up at Henry, she realized the reason she had decided to throw caution to the wind and see this quest of theirs through to the end had nothing at all to do with art history or the story the young woman in the portrait had to tell them. Having risked all once in order to fulfill on dream, the time had come to venture out into the uncharted waters that lay beyond the safe harbor she’d been hiding in. This time that journey would not be a lonely one, or at least she hoped it wouldn’t be.
“Can we count you in?” Henry asked as he cocked a questioning brow.
“Oh, I’m in.” Hopefully, she whispered silently to herself, you are too.
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