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Birches and Magnolias

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The return of the lone Mr Woolf gives the Hushbournes concern for their stable, successful life based on decades worth of deceit and secrecy. As their hopes for their sons's promising future begin to take off, will Mr Woolf's suspicions bring him to a discovery of a much, darker, sinister truth being hidden by the family...

Drama / Mystery
4.8 8 reviews
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Chapter 1

The King’s guests felt as though his smouldering eyes were peering directly into their soul. His scrutinising manner, his power, his mighty grandeur and his distinguished, mischievous, silent smirk, held all of his admirers utterly speechless, even the King himself. He let out a soft, trembling breath of pleased astonishment as his eyes met those of his portrait’s. In his opinion, no artist before had ever managed to capture him quite so accurately. That little sneer, that glimmer in his eyes that only he knew the true meaning of, was so elegantly instilled on canvas by none other than young Rupert Hushbourne. As the guests admired the handsome artist’s skilful work, whispers and astonished gasps began to echo through the gallery. Not only was Rupert Hushbourne from a well to do family, talented and appealing to the eye, he was also unmarried.

‘He has surpassed his father.’

‘Truly brilliant!’

The artist’s proud father, Francis Hushbourne listened to the spreading echoes, giving his spouse, Elizabeth a crooked little smile. Having eventually taken in the glorious image of himself, the King enthusiastically shook Rupert’s hand and waved the artist’s parents over to join them.

‘I am more than impressed, Rupert! You have managed to paint me as I have always wanted, that is how I see myself, and that is how I want others to remember me. I am in love with it!’ The King declared.

‘I am so pleased that it is to your liking, Your Majesty!’ Rupert bowed, glancing briefly at his father, whose sharp, keen eyes were eating up his son’s instant success.

‘You both must be very proud! And Francis, I hope you are not too jealous.’ The King teased old Mr Hushbourne. ‘You are good, my late brother thought there could be no artist better than you, but I must be honest, this…’ the King stopped to admire the portrait again ‘this is something else. I find it taking my breath away each time I set my eyes upon it.’

‘I cannot express in words how proud we are of Rupert. Thank you, Your Majesty.’ Old Francis Hushbourne smiled as he lowered his head respectfully.

‘I am intrigued to see what Woolf thinks. He is back from Paris, or Berlin, maybe St Petersburg…Wherever he was, I have asked him to come back to London to advise me on the refurbishment of the grand gallery, I may want your input also, Francis, I value your opinion. Where is he?’ The King rose onto his toes and looked around the gallery for Mr Woolf, who was nowhere to be seen, as his short figure was concealed by the tremendous height and width of his closest friend, Lord Axby.

‘Of course, Your Majesty, I am always at your service.’ Mr Hushbourne complied while glancing across the room, also in search of Mr Woolf.

‘Rupert.’ The King took the young artist by the shoulder. ‘The portrait is magnificent! But you must all excuse me, my guests require my attention, being King and all, you know. I hope your daughter is well, Francis, Elizabeth!’ Muttered the King as he departed to interact with his guests, all so eager to speak with him, he was the King, after all.

Rupert’s smile widened to the point where his perfectly symmetrical lips looked as though they were about to tear at the corners. He gracefully swept a glass of champagne from a passing footman’s tray and raised it to his mother. She returned his gesture with a proud, graceful nod, before looking up at the magnificent portrait and scrutinising it inch by inch, almost as though she was deliberately trying to find fault in it. Rupert paid little attention, and was soon politely dragged away by all those wishing to be painted by him.

‘Mr Woolf is back in London?’ Elizabeth Hushbourne gave her husband a worrisome glance.

‘It appears, so. Do not look so startled, my dear. He has kept his word God knows for how many years now. There is no reason for anything to change, is there?’ Old Mr Hushbourne said reassuringly, convinced that what he said was indeed true…

‘I mean…You are the expert on all this art business…’ Lord Axby turned to admire the portrait from afar while standing beside Mr Bernard Woolf, already on his third glass of champagne ‘But I think its bloody wonderful, the young fella’s managed to, to capture that little, roguish look His Majesty always has across His face. You know that look, as though He knows something that we don’t, like He’s looking down at all of us, secretly laughing. It is very good though, I’d like to have a portrait by young Hushbourne too, I think. Anyway, you’re the expert, what do you say?’ Axby nudged his old friend with his elbow, causing him to lose his footing a little.

‘I must say, it is quite breath-taking. You can see some similarities to his father’s methods, but this is…better…as much as it displeases me to say it…’ Replied Mr Woolf, with little emotion, a little cold, even.

‘Ah yes, I forgot you have a bit of a tiff with the Hushbournes. Weren’t you in love with her when you were a youth?’ Axby nudged his friend again.

‘In love with who, Axby?’

‘Elizabeth Hushbourne, I remember you telling me, about a quarter of a century ago or longer, just as you were beginning to become known. We were both very young then, she was slightly older, but far more stunning than anyone else. Yes, you fancied her, I remember now! She’s aged well though, what do you think? How long is it since you saw them last?’

‘About twelve years now.’ Woolf gritted his teeth as he set his eyes on the woman who rejected and mocked him when he foolishly admitted his feelings to her.

He was not quite nineteen and beginning to find his feet in the world of art dealing, having followed in his father’s footsteps, while she, a little older, was already married to the uprising artist, Mr Francis Hushbourne. Having to often be in the same social circles, the young man grew besotted with the stunning, beautiful Mrs Hushbourne, and while all the other admirers kept their feelings to themselves and simply looked, young Mr Woolf confessed his love for her, a decision he lived to regret till that day, in all its senses. Young Bernard Woolf eventually decided to overcome his feelings and refusal by focusing on his career, learning to forget about his affection and attachment to her, despite the awkward relationship that would develop between them in the years to come. Francis Hushbourne, of course, the handsome, uprising artistic genius saw no threat in young Bernard, having even mocked and teased him a little once his wife told him of the young man’s feelings. Mr Bernard Woolf was no threat to Mr Francis Hushbourne, until it became evidently clear that the only way to achieve fame outside of England as an artist, was through the by then influential, Mr Bernard Woolf.

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