2

With a lady approaching from either side, Cunningham dithered over whom to introduce first. The decision was taken out of his hands by the middle-aged lady, who swept up with a smile. “I’m Millicent Tregonning, Lord Tregonning’s sister.” She held out her hand. “Allow me to welcome you to Hellebore Hall.”

Brown haired, well dressed, but severe both in style and expression, Millicent Tregonning was saved from appearing overly hard by the softness of her hazel eyes. Clasping her hand, Gerrard bowed. “Thank you.”

He introduced Barnaby; stepping aside so his friend could greet the elder Miss Tregonning brought him closer to the younger lady-Lord Tregonning’s daughter, his subject, she who would be one focus of his artistic attention for the next several months.

She’d halted beside her aunt; of average height, clad in a gown of apple-green muslin enticingly displaying generous breasts, and hinting at a slender waist, nicely curved hips, and legs perfectly gauged to satisfy his critical eye, she calmly waited while Barnaby exchanged greetings. Momentarily free, Gerrard studied her.

Turning her head, unruffled, she met his gaze. Her eyes, a medley of gold, amber and green, were large, well spaced under delicately arched brown brows. Her hair was glossy teak with lighter shades streaked through it, neatly confined in a topknot with just a few ten-drils flirting about her ears. The pale oval of her face was bisected by a straight nose; her complexion was flawless, ivory tinged with a healthy glow, while her lips had been drawn with a subtle hand, full feminine curves yet exquisitely mobile-elementally expressive. He already knew where to look for hints of her real thoughts, her real feelings.

At present, her eyes were calm pools of quiet confidence; she was observing, assessing, totally contained. Totally unperturbed and unthreatened. Despite his presence, and Barnaby’s for that matter, he could detect not the slightest hint of feminine fluster.

She wasn’t seeing them as gentlemen-as men-but as something else.

The truth came to him as her gaze deflected to her aunt. She was viewing him solely as a painter.

“And this is my niece, my brother’s daughter, Miss Jacqueline Tregonning.”

Jacqueline turned to Gerrard Debbington. Smiling, she held out her hand. “Mr. Debbington. I hope your journey down was pleasant-it’s such a long way.”

He again met her gaze, then took her hand, the long fingers she’d remarked earlier closing, not too tightly yet firm and sure, about her slender bones. He bowed gracefully, his eyes never leaving hers. “Miss Tregonning. I’m grateful your father sought me out. The journey was indeed long, yet, had I not made it, I would certainly have lived to regret it.”

She barely registered his words. The tone of his voice, low, masculine, slid over her like a caress; the strength in his fingers, a sense of male power, spread over her skin and set her nerves flickering. His gaze held hers, intent with an interest she couldn’t name. Her fingers quivered in his-shocked, she stilled them.

His face, lightly tanned skin stretched over high cheekbones, the angular planes aristocratically austere, remained impassive, his expression politely detached-it was that intentness in his eyes, glowing brown, rich and alive as they held hers, that shook her.

That forced her to look again, and truly see.

She’d dubbed him society’s lion and he was unquestionably that, yet his polished elegance wasn’t a guise adopted for the world but a reflection of himself; it exuded from him, a tangible shield. His lightly waving hair, a darker brown than her own, was fashionably cut, framing his wide forehead and deep-set eyes; his brows were dark, well arched, his lashes long and thick.

He was tall, almost a head taller than she, broad of shoulder and long of limb; although he was lean rather than heavy, his graceful movements screamed of muscled strength camouflaged by stylish manners. That sense of innate strength was echoed in his face, in the hard lines of brow, nose and chin.

No fop, no self-absorbed popinjay. A lion, albeit a subtle one-in thinking him that she’d been right. He was dangerous, more dangerous than she’d imagined any man might be. Just by holding her hand, meeting her eyes and uttering a few words-what the devil had he said?-he’d made her lungs seize.

The realization rattled her; determinedly, she drew breath and politely inclined her head. “Indeed.” She hoped the old standby fitted; it usually did, regardless of what the preceding comment had been.

He smiled-briefly, tantalizingly-a genuine smile of such rampant charm she was distracted all over again. With an effort, she turned to his friend; Gerrard Debbington relinquished her hand, which aided considerably in her battle to focus her wits.

The tawny-haired god smiled at her. “Barnaby Adair, Miss Tregonning. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.”

She managed a smile and gave him her hand-and waited. Yet while Adair appeared cut from the same cloth as Gerrard Debbington, the clasp of his fingers had no discernible secondary effects; his eyes-a merry blue-were simply a pair of laughing eyes, and his voice held no power to make her forget his very words.

Relieved, she welcomed him, then stood back as Mitchel and Millicent made to usher the two gentlemen to the chaise, there to continue the introductions.

Mitchel, Millicent and Adair started off. Gerrard Debbington hesitated; she sensed him looking down at her. She looked up and met his eyes. With the lightest of gestures, the faintest lift of his brows, he indicated he expected her to accompany them. Acquiescing-she wasn’t entirely sure why, but quibbling was clearly ineligible-she stepped out in her aunt’s wake.

He prowled by her side.

By the simple expedient of not moving until she did, Gerrard kept Jacqueline Tregonning beside him throughout the introductions. He had no interest whatever in those he met, yet he was adept at the social niceties; part of his mind dealt with them, responding appropriately, placing names with faces, noting the connections. None of those with whom he spoke would have guessed his entire attention was riveted on the woman by his side.

He could barely believe his luck. Far from being a hated and deeply detested chore, painting Lord Tregonning’s daughter was going to be…precisely the sort of challenge he relished.

She’d captured every last shred of his awareness; there was so much about her to learn. Put simply, she fascinated him.

He was distantly conscious that elements of that fascination were similar to those elicited by ladies who sexually rather than artistically caught his eye, yet given Jacqueline Tregonning was the first lady he’d decided to paint to whom he was not in some way related, he wasn’t sure that wasn’t to be expected. He saw women as they were, as whole, complete, sexual beings; that was one of the reasons behind his portraits’ success.

With Jacqueline Tregonning, he’d struck painter’s gold-a subject who had depth, who had layers of emotions and feelings, cares and concerns, all residing behind a face that in itself was intriguing. Just one glance into her beautiful eyes and he’d known what he was looking at-a subject who embodied the vital thing he needed to create a true work of art. She was an enigma.

She was too young to be as she was. Ladies of her years did not normally possess depths, let alone hidden depths; they hadn’t lived long enough, hadn’t experienced enough of life’s tragedies to have acquired them. Yet Jacqueline Tregonning was the epitome of a person of whom it was said: still waters run deep. She was a still, deep pool, calm and glossy smooth on the surface, but with strong currents, strong emotions, running beneath.

Of what those emotions were, of what had caused not just them but her to be as she was, he had as yet no clue, yet he would need to learn the answer to that and all else about her in order to capture all he could see in her eyes, all he could sense behind her controlled expression.

He remained attuned to her as they spoke with those present; with each one, he instinctively catalogued not so much her outward reactions as what he sensed of her true feelings. Reserve, distance, a keeping apart. Her attitude was so consistent, so striking, the words resonated in his head. It wasn’t shyness; she didn’t seem at all shy. She was comfortable and assured, at ease in her own home with people he gathered she’d known most of her life. But she didn’t trust them.

Not a single one, with the sole exception of her aunt Millicent.

He was assimilating that when he heard a slow step and the soft thump of a cane. He turned, as did the others, as an older gentleman appeared in the doorway. The man located him, studied him, then came forward. Slowly, yet his movements weren’t frail or ponderous so much as measured.

Marcus, Lord Tregonning, was of the old school. Gerrard recognized the signs-the outdated cut of his coat, the knee breeches, the deliberately slow gait, the cane he didn’t need, the apparent invisibility of all others beyond the person in his lordship’s sights.

Himself. He was glad of the discipline Vane and Gabriel Cynster had taught him, the ability to keep his expression impassive, in this case squelching the urge to smile. Neither he nor Barnaby were likely to be affected by the intimidatory style of their grandsires.

From the corner of his eye, he could see Barnaby fighting a grin-an appreciative one, although his lordship was unlikely to see it so. They were, after all, guests in the man’s house, and there they stood, very much like predators, of distinctly different caliber to the other males in the room, bloods in their prime in the old lion’s territory.

Lord Tregonning’s dark gaze held a sharper, even more critical assessment than his daughter’s had. His face was pale, deeply lined, by grief, Gerrard suspected. His hair was still thick and dark, his eyes heavy-lidded and sunk deep; he carried himself erect, spine rigid. The hand wrapped about the head of the cane was aged, the skin mottled, but his grip showed no sign of weakness. The description that sprang to Gerrard’s mind was careworn, yet still as proud as bedamned.

His lordship halted no more than two feet distant. Old eyes, agatey brown, bored into his, then Lord Tregonning nodded. “Gerrard Debbington, I presume?”

Gerrard bowed. His lordship extended his hand; Gerrard shook it, calmly returning the old man’s steady regard.

“I’m delighted you were able to accept my commission, sir.”

Gerrard knew better than to display eagerness over business dealings. “The gardens, as you know, are a draw-the chance to paint them was difficult to pass up.”

Tregonning raised his brows. “And the portrait?”

Gerrard glanced at Jacqueline Tregonning; she’d moved a few paces away to chat with the other young ladies. “As to that, I believe my initial reservations, those I understand Mr. Cunningham conveyed to you, have been laid to rest. I’m quite looking forward to commencing the work.”

It took effort to keep his drawl even, his tone no more than mildly interested; in reality, he would like nothing better than to consign Tregonning and everyone else to some outer planet so he could haul out his sketch pad, sit Jacqueline Tregonning down, and get started.

Forcing his gaze from her, he turned back to his host in time to glimpse relief fleetingly flit across Tregonning’s worn features. “If you’ll permit me to introduce the Honorable Barnaby Adair?”

Tregonning shook hands with Barnaby; Gerrard seized the moment to confirm his impression. Yes, Tregonning had fractionally relaxed; the rigid set of his shoulders had eased, the sense of grim resolution had faded somewhat.

Turning from Barnaby, Tregonning eyed him once more, measuringly yet, Gerrard felt, also with a touch of approval. “Perhaps”-Tregonning flicked a glance at the ladies, both young and not so young attempting to appear not to be listening for all they were worth-“we should repair to my study and discuss your requirements.”

“Indeed.” Gerrard glanced at Jacqueline, now moving further down the room. “It would be wise to establish the procedures I’ll follow, and what will be necessary to ensure a portrait of the quality I imagine we both wish to see.”

“Good, good.” Tregonning gestured to the door. “If you’ll come with me…?”

“Marcus? Marcus, do wait!”

With Tregonning, Gerrard turned to see the older lady introduced as Lady Fritham, a close neighbor, beckoning.

Brows rising, Tregonning held his ground. “Yes, Maria?”

“I’m holding a dinner party tomorrow evening, and I wished to invite you and Mr. Debbington and Mr. Adair to attend. It’ll be the perfect opportunity for them to meet our local set.” Her improbably blond curls quivering with eagerness, Lady Fritham opened her blue eyes wide and clasped bejeweled hands to her bosom. “Do say you’ll come, gentlemen.”

Gerrard glanced at Tregonning, deferring to his host.

Tregonning met his gaze briefly, then looked again at Lady Fritham. “I’m sure Mr. Debbington and Mr. Adair will be delighted to accept, Maria. As for myself, I fear you must excuse me.”

He bowed with austere grace, then turned away.

“I’ll remain here.” Barnaby nodded politely and went to join Millicent Tregonning.

Lord Tregonning made for the doors. Gerrard fell in beside him, wondering whether his lordship would summon his daughter-wondering if he should suggest it. They reached the doorway; Tregonning didn’t glance back. Inwardly shrugging, Gerrard followed him out.

Tregonning asked about London in the terms of one who hadn’t visited in decades; Gerrard replied as they crossed the hall and headed down a long corridor.

In some ways, his host was almost as intriguing as his daughter. There was an aura of weariness about the man; it colored his voice, yet was countered by a strong sense of grim, unquenchable resolve. Tregonning’s wasn’t a face Gerrard could read; the man kept his emotions too locked away, repressed, concealed, and under too tight a rein to be accurately discerned even by an observer as acute as Gerrard knew himself to be.

He thought again of Jacqueline Tregonning. Perhaps the reserve he sensed in her was a familial trait, but in her case, her exterior hadn’t yet ossified. Regardless, that didn’t explain how she, a young lady of…he wasn’t sure of her age…came to have tragic secrets.

He looked about him as they walked. He was accustomed to ducal residences, but this house was enormous and more convoluted in design than was usual. The furnishings were of good but not exceptional quality, tending toward the dark, heavy and ornate, with ornamentation approaching the baroque. The overall effect was Gothic, fanciful, but not overwhelming.

At the end of the corridor, Tregonning preceded him up a flight of stairs. Opening a door off the landing, he led the way into a darkly appointed yet luxurious study.

It was a comfortable room, very male in ambience; sinking into the large leather armchair Tregonning indicated, Gerrard suspected his host spent most of his reclusive days there.

Settling into another armchair, Tregonning gestured. “My house and staff are at your disposal. What do you need?”

Gerrard told him. “The studio must have excellent light-old nurseries are often suitable.”

Tregonning nodded. “We have a large nursery no longer in use. I’ll give orders for it to be cleared and made ready. It has very large windows.”

“Excellent. I’ll inspect it to confirm it will suit. It would be helpful if my room, and that of my man, Compton, could be located nearby.”

Tregonning waved. “I’m sure the inestimable Mrs. Carpenter will be able to arrange matters as you wish.”

Gerrard detailed his other requirements-a long table, a double lock on the door, and other sundry items. Tregonning accepted all without quibble, naming those of his staff who would handle each point.

“I’ve brought all else I need with me-Compton should be arriving shortly with the luggage. While I will at some point have to return to the capital to replenish my supplies, exactly when is impossible to guess.”

Tregonning nodded. “Do you have any idea how long the portrait will take?”

“At this stage, I can’t say. My previous portraits were executed over a period of months; the longest took eight months. However, in those cases, the subjects were well-known to me. In your daughter’s case, I’ll need to spend some time simply observing her before I attempt even preliminary sketches.

“Apropos of that, one matter we should discuss is sittings, and what that term encompasses. For a portrait of the nature you wish, I’ll need, at least initially, to have first call on your daughter’s time. I’ll need to observe her in different situations and settings about this house, her home. It’s essential I have some understanding of her character and personality before I set pencil to paper.” He added, purely as a matter of form, “I assume she understands this and is willing to commit the time necessary for a successful portrait.”

Tregonning blinked. It was the first time Gerrard had seen him anything less than absolutely, unquestioningly confident of all around him.

Jacqueline Tregonning’s assessing look flashed into his mind; a sinking feeling assailed him. Had she agreed to let him paint her?

Tregonning frowned. “She indicated she was willing to sit for a portrait, but I didn’t then know what you’ve just explained. She may well not appreciate the necessity…” He stirred, lips firming. “I’ll speak with her.”

“No. With due respect, it might be better if I did. I could then answer any questions she may have, which will ensure there are no subsequent misunderstandings.” Gerrard held Tregonning’s gaze. “The demands on her time will actually decrease once we commence formal sittings.”

Tregonning’s face cleared; nodding, he relaxed in his chair. “That might be best. She did say she was agreeable, and I’m sure she won’t refuse, but it would be wise for her to know what you need of her.”

Gerrard quietly exhaled. He had much greater confidence in his powers of persuasion than he had in Tregonning’s. The man seemed distant from everything, and that might well include his daughter; while he hadn’t yet gained even an inkling of Jacqueline’s attitude to her father, he didn’t want to risk any adverse reaction from her.

He was even more determined than Tregonning that his portrait of Jacqueline Tregonning would go ahead, and under the most favorable circumstances. So he’d talk to the lady himself, and ensure he got an agreement he could fall back on if she later turned difficult.

Reviewing all they’d covered, he continued, “As I don’t normally accept commissions, I think it wise to be plain about what I’ll eventually deliver. The commission is for a final, framed, full-length portrait in oils of your daughter-unless there’s some major catastrophe that prevents its execution, that’s what I’ll deliver to you within the next year. I, however, will retain all sketches and preliminary works. In addition, I never permit any early viewing of my work-the first you’ll see of it will be the completed work I present to you. Should you not wish to accept it, I will keep the portrait and no commission will apply.”

Tregonning was nodding. “That’s entirely acceptable.” He caught Gerrard’s eye. “You’re also keen to paint the gardens.”

Gerrard blinked. “Indeed.” He glanced at the window; the fabulous gardens that had for decades obsessed him and his peers lay displayed before him. “Whatever sketches and paintings of the gardens I complete will be mine to keep. Should I ever offer any for sale, you will, of course, be given first refusal.”

Tregonning humphed. “I suppose,” he said, levering himself up from the depths of the armchair, “that you’ll want to start exploring the gardens straightaway.”

His gaze still locked on the vista beyond the window, Gerrard rose, too, then turned to meet Tregonning’s old eyes. “Actually, no. I don’t anticipate exploring the gardens, artistically speaking, other than as a backdrop for your daughter, until I’ve got the portrait under way.”

Tregonning was surprised but pleased, indeed, gratified.

Accompanying him back to the drawing room, Gerrard was aware of the irony. He’d come here to paint the gardens of Hellebore Hall, yet despite his obsession with them, ever since he’d laid eyes on Jacqueline Tregonning, he’d been consumed by thoughts of painting her.

Against her allure, not even the Garden of Night could compete.

They returned to the front hall. Lord Tregonning saw him to the drawing room door, but stopped short of entering. “I’ll instruct Treadle and Mrs. Carpenter as to your needs-no doubt they’ll consult with you.”

“Thank you.”

With a nod, Tregonning turned away. Gerrard watched him walk back in the direction from which they’d come. Feminine chatter spilled out of the drawing room. Clearly his lordship intended to seek refuge in his study, leaving him and Barnaby to the tender mercies of Lady Fritham, Mrs. Myles and the censorious Mrs. Elcott.

Accepting the inevitable, he turned and strolled back into the fray. Tea had been served in his absence; Millicent Tregonning smiled and poured him a cup. Accepting it, he chatted to her and Mrs. Myles, seated beside her, regarding his first impressions of the area. Mrs. Myles was instantly recognizable as a mother with daughters to establish; her bright eyes and gushing comments explained why Barnaby was on the other side of the room.

Returning his empty cup, Gerrard excused himself and followed.

Of course, neither he nor Barnaby could truly escape. They would remain the cynosure of local attention until the novelty of their presence faded.

Avoiding the chaise on which Lady Fritham sat absorbed in spirited argument with the severe Mrs. Elcott-clad in gray twill that matched her gray hair, the vicar’s wife behaved as if holding herself ready to be scandalized at any moment-he walked down the room to where the younger crew was holding court, Barnaby unsurprisingly center stage.

The Misses Myles saw him approaching, and quickly shifted to create a space between them. He smiled his practiced smile, and with an easy nod strolled around the group to Jacqueline Tregonning’s side.

Although following Barnaby’s tale, she sensed him draw near. She glanced fleetingly up at him, then moved aside to allow him to stand beside her. Detecting exasperation in her brief glance, Gerrard wondered…then realized she couldn’t study him while he was standing next to her.

His lips eased, curved.

Across the circle, the Misses Myles’s eyes brightened. Without appearing to notice, Gerrard gave his attention to Barnaby. The last thing he wished was to raise any hopes in the Misses Myles’s young breasts.

The thought had him glancing discreetly down, to his left, to where Jacqueline’s breasts rose above the scooped neckline of her gown. Her skin was flawless, creamy white; his fingertips tingled-he would wager that skin was rose-petal soft.

Although of perfectly acceptable style for a young lady some years beyond her first season, Jacqueline’s endowments filled out the gown in a manner guaranteed to draw gentlemen’s eyes. Retrieving his gaze, Gerrard glanced around the circle; other than Barnaby, who he was aware had noticed, the other two gentlemen seemed oblivious of Jacqueline’s charms. Contempt for the familiar, or…?

In between attending Barnaby’s story, Mitchel Cunningham ignored the Myles sisters and shot brief, very brief, glances at Eleanor Fritham, Lady Fritham’s daughter. Eleanor was indeed a beauty, a touch older than Jacqueline and in very different style. She was taller, reed slender, with alabaster skin and long, pale fair hair. Her eyes were cerulean blue, her lashes and brows brown. She was using them shamelessly on Barnaby, her attention slavishly fixed on him.

Much good would it do her. She might be a beauty, yet Gerrard instinctively knew she was unlikely to be of serious interest to either him or Barnaby.

Noting another of Cunningham’s swift glances, Gerrard made a mental note to mention the association to Barnaby, purely in pursuit of a peaceful existence, something Barnaby appreciated as much as he.

The brevity of Cunningham’s glances was almost certainly attributable to the other gentleman in the group, Eleanor’s older brother, Jordan Fritham. A brown-haired, precociously superior gentleman in his mid-twenties, he stood between his sister and the Myles girls. Taking in Jordan’s stance, Gerrard smothered a grin. The sketch that sprang to life in his mind was titled: “Cock of the Local Walk Greatly Displeased by the Appearance of Interlopers on His Patch.”

Barnaby and he were the interlopers, yet as far as Gerrard could tell, it wasn’t his attention to Jacqueline but Eleanor’s to Barnaby that was ruffling Jordan’s feathers. He strove to hide his reaction, but there was a hard glint in his eyes, a twist to his thin lips that screamed his irritation.

“So when Monteith came thundering up in his curricle thinking he’d won”-Barnaby struck a dramatic pose-“there was George Bragg, leaning on his whip, waiting to greet him!”

The Myles sisters gasped; Eleanor Fritham’s eyes glowed with laughter. With an engaging grin, Barnaby concluded his tale of the latest curricle-racing scandal. “Monteith was furious, of course, but there was nothing he could do but put a good face on it and stump up the blunt.”

“Oh, that must have hurt.” Eleanor lightly clapped her hands.

“Oh, it did,” Barnaby assured her. “Monteith took off for his Highland eyrie and hasn’t been sighted since.”

Gerrard knew the story; he’d been there. Jordan Fritham made some slighting comment about London horseflesh. Gerrard didn’t catch Barnaby’s reply; Jacqueline had turned to him, considering him. He looked down and met her frankly measuring gaze.

“Are you inclined to such pastimes, Mr. Debbington?”

She’d forgotten he was a man again. He smiled, deliberately charming, and watched her blink. “No,” he murmured. “I have better things-more rewarding things-to do with my time.”

For an instant, she held his gaze, then the bustling rustle of skirts gave her an excuse to glance away.

And breathe in. Deeply. He was acutely aware-to his fingertips aware-of the rise and fall of her breasts.

The interruption was Lady Fritham, come to summon Eleanor and Jordan away. Mrs. Myles somewhat reluctantly followed, gathering her daughters, and the party broke up.

Millicent, Mitchel and Jacqueline went to see the visitors to their carriages. Following some paces behind, Gerrard and Barnaby halted in the front hall.

“An unthreatening bunch, don’t you think?” Barnaby said.

“I’ve been focusing on Jacqueline Tregonning.”

“I noticed.” Barnaby’s eyes danced. “Artist smitten by subject-not an entirely original plot.”

“Not smitten, you idiot, just absorbed. There’s a great deal more to her than meets the eye.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on the latter. As for the former”-Barnaby shot him a sidelong glance he chose to ignore-“we’ll see.”

Mrs. Carpenter entered the hall. She came forward. “Mr. Debbington, Mr. Adair, we have your rooms ready. If you’ll come with me, we can make sure they suit.”

Gerrard smiled. “I’m sure they will.” With a last glance for Jacqueline, standing, waving, on the front porch, he turned and with Barnaby followed Mrs. Carpenter upstairs.

She and her staff had been as efficient as Lord Tregonning had intimated; the room to which she led Gerrard was just along the first-floor corridor from the stairs that led up to the old nursery.

“Treadle’s had the footmen up there moving the heavy pieces. I’ll have the maids go up first thing tomorrow, sir. Perhaps if you’ll look in after breakfast and let us know how you’d like things set up?”

“My thanks, Mrs. Carpenter, and to Treadle, too. I’ll consult with you after breakfast.”

Mrs. Carpenter bobbed a curtsy and left. Gerrard turned and surveyed the room. It was large, with a sitting area before a wide fireplace and a huge tester bed set on a dais at the opposite end. A door to one side of the fireplace led to a dressing room from which Compton had looked out, nodded on seeing him, then retreated to finish unpacking his things.

They’d left Barnaby in a similar room, in the same wing but closer to the main stairs. Gerrard ambled to the open dressing room door and looked in. “Everything to our liking?”

“Indeed, sir.” Compton had been with him for eight years; a veteran of the Peninsula campaigns, he was now approaching middle age. “A very well-run enterprise, and a pleasant household with it.” Compton shot Gerrard a sidelong glance. “Belowstairs, at least.”

“As to abovestairs,” Gerrard said, answering the unvoiced question, “all seems comfortable enough, but we’re still at first glance. Where does Cunningham fit in, do you know?”

“Eats with the family, he does.” After a moment, Compton asked, “Want me to ask about?”

“Not about him, but report anything you hear about the younger Miss Tregonning-I need to get to know her better, and quickly.”

“Will do. Now, will the brown Bath superfine do for tonight, or do you want to go with the black?”

Gerrard considered. “The black.” Leaving Compton to fig out his evening clothes, he turned back into the bedroom and headed for the glass-paned doors that opened onto the balcony.

The private semicircular balcony ran half the length of the room. Because of the odd shape of the house and the angle of the room next door, no other room was visible, and vice versa; both balcony and room were essentially private, and offered a unique and stunning view over the gardens.

Gerrard stepped out, entranced.

Even through the lengthening shadows of approaching dusk, the gardens were magical-fantastical shapes rose out of the twilight, a plethora of fairy-tale landscapes scattered across and down the valley, each opening out from the last, then merging into the next.

On the horizon, the sea shimmered gold in the last light of the dying sun, then melted through shades of gilt and silver laid over blue to become the iridescent surf breaking on the rocks clogging the inlet’s narrow beach. He let his gaze slowly travel nearer, noting how the gardens became progressively more structured the closer they got to the house. In the ring of areas adjoining the house, he glimpsed a garden of round boulders on one ridge, a formal Italianate garden nearer at hand, statuary in another section and a towering pinetum on the other ridge.

He could hear the tinkling music of water running over rock. Looking down toward the sound, he saw a terrace below the balcony. The terrace skirted the house on the valley side, giving views and also access to the gardens; he could just make out steps leading down in several places. Toward the middle of the house, a denser, darker patch of thick vegetation ran right up to the terrace, perhaps even extending beneath it.

That, Gerrard guessed, on a mild surge of satisfaction, had to be the famous Garden of Night.

Tomorrow, he’d explore. He tried to focus on the prospect, only to find his mind drifting, insistently, back to Jacqueline Tregonning.

How was he going to gain her trust, gain her confidence enough to learn all he wanted to know?

Considering the best way to approach a young lady he now knew wasn’t as conventional as he’d blithely assumed, he wandered back into the room, absentmindedly shutting the door on the darkening gardens.

Dinner was a curious experience. The food was excellent, the conversation beyond subdued. The hour passed in oddly peaceful quiet, with long stretches of silence, yet strangely without any sense of repression. They spoke as necessary, but there was no compulsion to fill the gaps.

Gerrard was fascinated. Both he and Barnaby had been watchful, quick to match their hosts’ behavior. Both found the family intriguing, Barnaby because, as a student of crime, he found the vagaries of human nature absorbing, while for Gerrard, Jacqueline’s interaction with her family would inevitably form the cornerstone of his mental picture of her, the basis of the understanding he ultimately brought to her portrait.

Regardless of the relative silence, the established procedures were followed; when the covers were drawn, the ladies rose and left the gentlemen to pass the port. Mitchel asked Barnaby about the curricle-racing scandal. Lord Tregonning grasped the moment to inquire whether the room he’d been given met with Gerrard’s approval. On being assured it did, his lordship nodded and lapsed once more into comfortable silence.

Gerrard sat back, comfortable, too, and considered his best way forward with Jacqueline. At the end of a restful twenty minutes, they all rose and quit the dining room. Lord Tregonning left them in the hall, heading for his study. Together with Mitchel and Barnaby, Gerrard strolled back to the drawing room.

They crossed the threshold to the gentle strains of a sonata. Gerrard looked at the pianoforte set in one corner, but it was Millicent at the keys. Jacqueline was seated at one end of the central chaise, a lamp on the table beside her, the soft light sheening on her tumbling curls as, head bent, she plied her needle over a piece of embroidery.

He headed her way, eager to learn of her interests, her pastimes-of her.

She looked up, smiled politely, then made to gather up the embroidery; a basket sat by her feet.

“No-I’d like to look.” He smiled when, surprised, she blinked up at him. He summoned his charm. “If I may?”

She stared at him for a moment, then made a small gesture. “If you wish.” Her tone stated she didn’t understand why he would.

Sitting beside her, he cast an inevitably critical eye over the fine linen she spread on her lap so he could see. His gaze raced over it, then slowed. It was his turn to blink. He leaned closer, looked harder.

He’d expected the usual embroidery ladies wasted their time with, some conventional scene done in conventional style. That wasn’t what she was creating.

And creating it was.

His painter’s eyes drank in the lines, the balance of shapes and colors, the use of varying textures to give the illusion of depth. “This isn’t from a pattern.”

No question. After a moment, she said, “I make it up as I do it. I have a picture in my head.”

He was barely conscious of nodding; he hadn’t expected her to have any artistic streak, but this…He pointed to a patch above the center. “You’ll need a visually strong element there-it’s the focal point.”

The look she cast him was faintly irritated. “I know.” She gathered the linen, tucking the strands of silk she was working with into the folds. “There’s a sundial there.”

He could see it; that would work. He glanced at her as she bent to tuck the embroidery into the basket. “Do you paint or draw?”

She hesitated, then answered, “I draw a little, but mostly in preparation.” She looked back, met his eyes. “I do watercolors.”

Not perhaps the easiest of confessions to make to the country’s foremost landscape artist; his landscapes were watercolors. “You must show me your works sometime.”

Her eyes, currently more green than gold, snapped. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“I mean it.” His tone, clipped and definite, faintly impatient, emphasized that fact. “I want to-will need to-see them.”

She held his gaze, faintly puzzled; beyond that, he couldn’t read her thoughts. Then she said, “Speaking of painting, are the amenities provided adequate to your needs? If there’s anything more you require, please ask.”

A clear change of subject, but she’d given him precisely the opening he wanted.

“The amenities are satisfactory, however, there are a number of aspects we need to discuss.” He glanced at the pianoforte; Barnaby was turning music for Millicent and chatting with Mitchel. Before dinner, he’d asked Barnaby to keep Millicent and any others occupied to clear his way with Jacqueline. Barnaby had grinned widely, but wisely made no comment beyond assuring him he’d be delighted to oblige.

He returned his gaze to Jacqueline’s face. “I find music rather distracting. Perhaps we could walk on the terrace, and I’ll explain what will be necessary to create the portrait your father wants.”

She hesitated, her gaze on his face yet not, he would swear, seeing him, then she nodded. “That would be helpful.”

Rising, he offered his hand. Again she hesitated, yet this time he knew why; he was aware of how she steeled herself before placing her fingers in his. He gripped, and felt a surge of purely male satisfaction at the faint tremor he detected before she suppressed it. He drew her up, then released her; suavely waving her to the French doors open to the terrace, he reminded himself it formed no part of his plan to discompose her, much less make her wary of being in his company.

Side by side they strolled out, into the soft night. Onto the terrace he’d seen from his balcony. Below his room, the terrace was relatively narrow; here it spread wide, an area in which guests from the drawing room and the ballroom next door could gather and admire the view.

Tonight the view was shrouded in shadows, the moon a mere sliver shedding just enough light to limn all it touched in silver, transforming the gardens into a fantastical landscape, yet his attention remained on the creation who walked beside him, not on those spread before him.

She’d walked to the right, away from the area he was increasingly certain contained the Garden of Night. It was said to be best viewed in the evening, yet he felt no urgency over exploring it just yet; he’d see it in daylight first, tomorrow maybe.

He glanced at Jacqueline. Her gown of pale green silk faded to beaten silver in the faint light; her skin appeared translucent; only the rich color of her hair retained its warmth. Her expression was calm, composed, yet he sensed she was thinking rapidly.

It seemed wise to speak before she could distract him. “I mentioned to your father the necessary demands that sitting for a portrait places on the subject-he wasn’t sure you were aware of the details.”

Strolling slowly beside him, Jacqueline told herself to concentrate on his words, and ignore the voice that uttered them. “What are those demands-in detail?”

Lifting her head, she met his eyes, dark in the night, and marveled again that she was so quiveringly aware of him in a way she’d never been of any other before. She battled to quell a shiver, difficult to excuse given the warmth of the gentle, perfumed breeze wafting about them.

After a moment, he replied, “Initially, I’ll demand a great deal of, if not most of, your time, although largely in social settings, much the usual round of your life. I need to gain a strong sense of who you are, how you feel about many subjects.” He glanced out at the gardens. “How you react to things, your likes, dislikes, and the reasons behind them. The subjects you’re happy to talk of, and those you’d rather avoid.”

They walked on for a few paces, then he looked at her. “Basically, I need to get to know you.”

She studied his face. The light was good enough for her to make out his expression, but she couldn’t read his eyes. His expression he controlled; his eyes were more revealing. What he was suggesting was frankly unnerving. “I thought portraitists paint”-she gestured-“at best what they see.”

His lips quirked in wry acknowledgment of the qualification. “Most do. I don’t. I paint more.”

“How so?”

He didn’t immediately answer; as they walked on, she sensed he was considering the question for the first time. Eventually, he said, “I think it’s because every person I’ve painted to date is someone I’ve known for years, someone I’m connected to, whose background and family I know.” He met her gaze. “What I paint goes far deeper than a face and an outward expression. Just as with landscapes I paint not just the detail but the atmosphere as well, so, too, with people. It’s the intangibles that are most powerful.”

She nodded and looked ahead. “I’ve heard of your reputation, but I’ve never seen any of your works.”

“All are in private hands.”

She glanced at him. “You don’t show them?”

“Not the portraits. They were created as gifts.” He lightly shrugged. “And to see if I could.”

“Do you mean to say my portrait will be the first for which you’ve received a commission?”

Her tone was even, the question direct if somewhat forward; nevertheless, it struck a nerve. Gerrard halted, and waited until she did the same and faced him. “Miss Tregonning, why do I get the impression you’re assessing my abilities as a portraitist?”

She blinked at him, then equally succinctly replied, “Probably because I am.” She tilted her head, studying him. “Surely you didn’t expect me to simply agree to be painted by”-she gestured-“someone whose talents are unknown to me?”

“Just any old artist” was what she’d meant to say. He narrowed his eyes; she didn’t react, her expression remained open. “Your father gave me to understand that you’d agreed to allow me to paint your portrait.”

She frowned slightly. Her gaze remained steady on his face. “I agreed to sit for a portrait. Not to sit for any particular painter. Papa chose you-I’ve yet to decide whether you meet my requirements.”

Again he had cause to thank Vane and Gabriel Cynster for teaching him the knack of impassivity in the face of extreme provocation. He let a moment go by-a fraught moment in which he reined in his reaction, and found words in which he could acceptably express it. “Miss Tregonning, do you have any idea how many petitions, if not outright pleas, I’ve received to do portraits of young ladies of the ton?”

“No, of course not, but that’s neither here nor there. This is me, my portrait, not theirs. I’m not one to be ruled by the opinion of the giddy horde.” She looked at him with slightly more interest. “Why did you refuse them? I assume you did?”

“Yes. I did.” His words were excessively clipped; she didn’t seem perturbed in the least. Her eyes remained on his, waiting…“I wasn’t interested in painting any of them. Now, before we go any further”-before she asked the obvious next question-“it seems I should share with you the particulars I made clear to your father. I paint what’s there, both in a face and behind it. I won’t alter, exaggerate or suppress what I see-any portrait I paint will be a faithful representation not just of how the person appears, but also of who they are.”

She’d raised her brows at his fervor, but all she said was, “And what they are?”

“Indeed. In the final work, what they are will show through.”

She held his gaze for a moment-a frankly assessing moment-then she nodded, once, decisively. “Good. That’s precisely what I need-what my father needs.”

She turned and walked on. Gerrard mentally shook his head, then followed, still grappling with the way the situation had swung around. Apparently his painting her was not, as he’d thought, a case of his conferring a boon on her; it seemed there’d been a real question of whether she’d condescend to sit for him!

The possibility of her not doing so forced him to tread carefully. Lengthening his stride, he came up with her. He glanced at her face; her expression was uninformative, her eyes veiled. “So…” He felt forced to ask the plain question. “Will you sit for me?”

She halted and faced him. Calmly, she met his gaze. For the first time, he felt he was seeing further-that she was letting him sense something of the woman she was, and the strength she possessed-the reason, surely, for her steadiness, her assurance, so much stronger than usually found in young ladies of her age…

“How old are you?”

She blinked. “Why? Does it matter?”

His lips thinned at the faint amusement in her tone. “I need to get to know you, to understand you, and knowing how old you are helps to get an idea of your life, and what questions to ask, what else I need to know.”

She hesitated; he sensed her withdrawing, being more careful. “I’m twenty-three.” She lifted her chin. “How old are you?”

He recognized the diversion, but calmly replied, “Twenty-nine.”

Her brows rose. “You seem older.”

It was hard to remain on his high horse when she was so determinedly ignoring convention. “I know.” The understated elegance he’d absorbed from Vane always had made him appear more mature.

He continued to hold her gaze. “So do you.” Also true.

She smiled fleetingly, a genuine, amused if faintly wry expression. It was the first spontaneous smile he’d seen from her; he immediately determined to see more.

They stood for a moment, each studying the other, then he said, “You haven’t answered my question.”

She held his gaze for a moment longer, then her lips slowly curved. Swinging around, she started strolling back toward the drawing room. “If you’re half the painter you believe yourself to be”-she glanced over her shoulder, caught his eye, then faced forward and strolled on-“then, yes, I’ll sit for you.” Her words drifted back to him. “Papa chose well, it seems.”

He watched her walk away, aware to his bones of her bold yet veiled challenge, and his response to it. Deliberately, he fixed his gaze on her exposed nape, then let it slide caressingly down her back, tracing the line from shoulder to hip, to ankle…then he stirred, and followed her.

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