5

The dinner party drew to a close; along with Millicent, Barnaby and a subdued Mitchel Cunningham, they thanked their hosts and left Tresdale Manor. They traveled back to Hellebore Hall in Lord Tregonning’s antiquated coach; the distance wasn’t great-the manor was the nearest large house-yet with only two horses pulling the heavy carriage, the journey took nearly half an hour.

Throughout, Gerrard sat in the dark, his shoulder against Barnaby’s, with Jacqueline sitting directly opposite, her knees, covered by the fine silk of her gown, courtesy of the country road frequently brushing his.

It wasn’t just the contact that unnerved her, but his unwavering regard. He knew she was conscious of it, but was past caring; he wanted answers to many questions, and she was the key to the most important.

That’s precisely what I need-what my father needs.

She knew; he wanted to hear it from her lips.

They reached the Hall and trailed into the foyer, there to exchange the customary good-nights. He bowed over Jacqueline’s hand, squeezed it, caught her eye as he released her. She couldn’t know what he intended, but at least she’d be alert.

The look she cast back at him as she followed Millicent up the wide staircase confirmed that.

With a nod to him and Barnaby, Mitchel Cunningham walked off down a corridor; after dallying a moment to let the ladies go ahead, he and Barnaby started up in their wake.

The gallery at the head of the stairs was long, and presently a collage of moonlight and shadow. The ladies turned right; a few paces behind, Gerrard and Barnaby headed left, toward their rooms. Gerrard put out a hand, halting Barnaby. Glancing back, he confirmed that Jacqueline and Millicent were sweeping on, unaware, and were now out of earshot. He turned to Barnaby. “Did you learn anything more about the suitor?”

“Only that he disappeared between two and three years ago, when Jacqueline was twenty. Although there’d been no formal declaration, she went into half-mourning. Then her mother died fourteen months ago, which in large part fills the time to date and explains why there have been no other suitors.”

“Did you hear anything about her mother’s death?”

“No, but I didn’t have the right opportunities to pursue it. It’s the older ladies we need to butter up for that.”

Gerrard nodded. Glancing back along the gallery, he saw Jacqueline turn down the corridor at its end, Millicent still by her side. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He turned and, swift and soft-footed, followed Jacqueline.

“Hey!” Barnaby kept his voice down.

“Tomorrow,” he flung back sotto voce, and continued on.

He reached the corridor and looked along it. It was empty; another corridor opened to the right at its end. He went quickly down, then peered around the corner into the next wing-and saw Jacqueline pause outside a door. She spoke to Millicent, who nodded, then walked on; Jacqueline opened the door and went in. He hung back, watching Millicent’s dark figure recede into the shadows. At last she stopped, opened a door, and went in. He waited until the faint click of the latch reached him, then walked-stalked-down the corridor.

Reaching Jacqueline’s door, he knocked-two sharp, preemptory raps, not overly loud.

An instant later, the door opened. A little maid, stunned, stared up at him.

Gerrard looked at the maid, then looked past her.

“Holly? Who is it?”

Holly’s eyes grew rounder. “Ah, it’s…”

Jacqueline came into view, halfway across the room. She’d taken off her jewelry, but had yet to unpin her hair. Her eyes widened, too.

Gerrard ignored the maid and beckoned, imperiously, to Jacqueline. “I need to talk to you.”

His tone gave her warning his mood was deadly serious; he wasn’t proposing any waltz in the moonlight.

She met his gaze; her expression grew careful. She came to the door.

The little maid ducked back, out of the way. Jacqueline set a hand to the door’s edge. “You need to talk to me now?”

“Yes. Now.” Reaching in, he grasped her hand, wrapping his fingers around hers. He glanced at the maid. “Wait here-your mistress will be back shortly.”

He tugged Jacqueline over the threshold. She opened her mouth. He shot her an openly furious glance; she blinked, stunned, and wisely said nothing. Unceremoniously, he towed her back along the corridor, back into the gallery, then down the side stairs that led directly to the terrace.

They emerged beside the drawing room, opposite the main stairs leading down into the gardens, to the path leading into the Garden of Night.

“No!” Jacqueline pulled back against his hold. “Not into the Garden of Night.”

He looked at her face. “Was it night when your mother died?”

She blinked; a moment passed before she said, “No. It was sometime in the late afternoon or early evening.”

He frowned. “You’re not sure when?”

She shook her head. “They found her later in the evening.”

He saw pain in her face, saw memories flit across her features, dulling her eyes. He nodded curtly and towed her unrelentingly on-along the terrace away from the main stairs.

She realized, and reluctantly kept pace. “Where are we going?”

“Someplace that’s relatively open.”

Where they’d be visible to anyone who looked out, but out of earshot of the house-private, yet not hidden, not secluded. Somewhere that would reduce the impropriety of talking with her alone in the middle of the night.

“The Garden of Athena will do.” The formal garden, the least conducive to seduction. Seduction was definitely not what he had in mind.

And any lingering influence to wisdom wouldn’t go astray.

Resigned, Jacqueline followed him along the terrace, then grabbed up her skirts as he went quickly down the secondary stairs that led to the Garden of Athena. That one look he’d shot her when she’d been about to protest had been enough to assure her humoring him would be wise, no matter what weevil had wormed its way into his brain. Clearly he’d learned about her mother’s death; how much he’d heard she’d no doubt soon learn.

Despite the tension humming through him, suppressed temper she had not a doubt, despite his precipitate actions, the abruptness of his growled words-despite the strength in the fingers wrapped about her hand-she felt not the slightest quiver of alarm, not the smallest qualm in allowing him to lead her far from her room, into the depths of the gardens in the dark of the night.

It wasn’t, in truth, all that dark. As he stalked along the graveled path through Athena’s garden, between the neatly clipped hedges and geometrically laid rows of olive trees, the moon bathed all about them in a steady radiance that cast everything in either silver or smudged black, a moorish enamel.

They reached the center of the formal garden, a circle between the inner points of four long rectangles. Abruptly, Gerrard halted; releasing her hand, he swung to face her.

His eyes, black in the night, raked her face, then locked on her eyes. “You know why your father wanted me-specifically me-to paint your portrait, don’t you?”

She studied his face, then lifted her chin. “Yes.”

“How did you know?”

Because she and Millicent had concocted the plan and Millicent had seeded it into her father’s brain. She decided against confessing, not until she knew why he was so angry. “He didn’t tell me, but once I heard of your reputation, his…purpose wasn’t hard to guess.”

“Not for you, or for any of those others interested in the mystery of your mother’s death.”

A vise slowly tightened about her chest; she ignored it. “I suspect that’s so, although I haven’t thought much of it.”

They’ve certainly thought of it.”

She hoped so, but his tone sounded vicious. Unsure of his direction, she made no response.

After a long moment of, distinctly grimly, studying her face, he abruptly said, “Let’s take off the gloves here.”

When she raised her brows in surprise, he clarified, “And speak plainly. For some reason that I’ve yet to fathom, you are suspected of being in some way behind your mother’s falling from that terrace”-he stabbed a finger toward the place in question-“to her death. Your father”-his jaw clenched; hands gripping his hips, he swung and paced away-“being one of those who credit portrait painters with an ability to see beyond any superficial fa?ade, has commissioned me to paint a portrait of you, presumably convinced that I will see, and through my painting reveal, your guilt or innocence.”

Reined temper-nay, fury-invested every sharp, decisive movement; it resonated in his tone, in the crisply bitten-off words. Swinging around, he stalked back to her. Halting before her, he looked into her face. “Is that correct?”

She held his gaze, replayed all he’d said, then nodded. Once. “Yes.”

For one second, she thought he’d explode. Then he swung violently away, hands rising to the sky as if invoking the gods whose gardens surrounded them. “In the name of all Heaven, why?”

He swung back; his gaze impaled her. “Why does your father suspect you? How can he suspect you? You didn’t have anything to do with it.”

She stared at him, dumbstruck, for one heartbeat quite sure the earth beneath her feet had tilted. Slowly, she blinked, but his expression-the charged conviction she could see in it, limned in silver-didn’t change. Softly, she exhaled; the vise about her lungs eased a notch. “How do you know?”

He did know, absolutely; it was written in his face. He’d already seen the truth where others did not.

Impatient, he pulled a face, but the intensity in his expression didn’t waver. “I see-I know. Believe me, I know.” He moved closer, his gaze razor sharp as he examined her face. “I’ve seen evil-I’ve looked into the eyes of more than one man who truly was evil. Some people hide it well, but if I spend sufficient time with them, they’ll slip and it’ll show-and I’ll know.”

He paused, then went on, his gaze steadying on her eyes. “I’ve been watching you carefully, albeit for less than two days. What I’ve seen is all manner of emotions, complicated and complex feelings, but of the shadow of evil I’ve seen not a trace.”

After a moment, he added, “I would have by now if it was there. What I see is something quite different.”

His voice had changed, softened. Enough for her to feel she could ask, “What do you see?”

He looked at her for the space of ten slow heartbeats, then shook his head. “I’m not good with words-I paint things I can’t describe.”

She wasn’t sure that was the truth, but before she could think of how to probe, he asked, “I need to know before I speak with him-why does your father think you were in any way involved with your mother’s death?”

Apprehension flared. “Why-what are you going to speak with him about?”

His temper returned; the smile he flashed her was all restrained violence. “Because I have no intention of being his unwitting pawn in judging his daughter.”

“No!” She grasped his sleeve. “Please-you must do the portrait. You agreed!”

Her desperation rang clearly. He frowned, then he twisted his arm, breaking her grip, catching her hand. She felt his fingers move over hers, then they stilled.

A moment passed, then he sighed. He raked his other hand through his hair, met her eyes again. “I don’t understand. Why don’t you simply tell him you’re innocent? Force him to believe you-surely he will? He’s your father.”

His frown deepened. “You shouldn’t have to go through this, to face what amounts to a public examination with me as your inquisitor, laying all you are bare.”

Concern, open and sincere, colored his tone-concern for her. It had been so long since she’d been offered such straightforward and unconditional support-and more, defense-she wanted to close her eyes, wrap herself in all the tenor of his voice conveyed, and wallow.

But he was confused, and he had to understand-had to understand and agree to paint her portrait.

She drew in a long breath, felt the cool night air reach her brain. She glanced around; her gaze fell on the bench around the central fountain, presently silent and still. She gestured. “Let’s sit, and I’ll explain what happened, and you’ll see why things are as they are.”

Why I need you to paint me as I truly am.

He didn’t release her hand, but led her to the bench, waited until she sat, then sat beside her. Leaning forward, one elbow on his knee so he could watch her face, he closed his hand around hers-and waited.

She was supremely conscious of his nearness; ignoring her prickling senses, she cleared her throat. “Papa…you must understand he’s in an invidious position. He loved my mother dearly-she was literally the light of his life. When she died, that light went out and he lost…his connection with the world. He was dependent on her in that sense, so losing her was doubly difficult for him. This is what happened, what he knows.”

Pausing, she assembled the facts in her mind. “My mother and I got along well, as well as any mother and daughter. Socially speaking, I’m more like her than Papa-I quite enjoy entertaining, the balls and parties. Mama lived for them-entertaining was a central part of her existence. She and I shared our liking of that part of life, but I’m also my father’s daughter, and can manage perfectly well on a diet of peace and quiet that would have driven Mama insane.”

A small smile curved her lips as she remembered; she felt it fade as her memories rolled on. “She was thrilled when Thomas Entwhistle started calling-he’s the son of Sir Harvey Entwhistle. I suppose you would say he was my suitor. We planned to wed, we talked of announcing our betrothal…and then Thomas disappeared.

“Mama was…upset. As was I, of course, but after a time she seemed to think that I’d said something to Thomas to send him off, but I hadn’t.” She frowned, looked down. And saw her hand cradled in Gerrard’s strong fingers. She drew breath and went on, “That was the start of a…” She paused, then shrugged. “I suppose it was a growing estrangement. No specific break, just a stepping back on her part-I never understood why. Perhaps with time…but then…”

She drew a huge breath; lifting her head, she looked straight ahead, felt Gerrard’s fingers firm about hers. “The day of her death, she came down late to breakfast-Papa had already gone to his study. She passed Mitchel in the doorway as he left. She looked…as if she hadn’t slept all night.”

She glanced at Gerrard. “My mother was beautiful, but even the slightest illness showed in her face. I asked what was wrong, but she denied anything was. She plainly wanted me to ignore her state, so I did. Then she realized I was in my riding habit. I can remember her looking at me-no, at it…it was so strange. She’d seen the habit any number of times-she’d bought it for me-but that morning she looked at it as if it were…oh, greasy kitchen rags. A nauseating sight. She asked where I was going-her voice was odd. I told her I was going riding with the others-she went dead white, and said no.

“I was so taken aback I laughed. But then I realized she was in earnest. I asked why not, but she would only shake her head and say I couldn’t go.”

She sighed; the deadening feeling that afflicted her whenever she thought of the rest of that day slipped slowly down her veins. “We argued. Increasingly bitterly. The servants heard, of course, and I think Mitchel did, too-his office is just down the hall from the breakfast parlor. She simply kept saying I couldn’t go riding-no reason, no explanation of any kind. She got increasingly strident…in the end, I simply walked out.”

When she didn’t go on, Gerrard stroked her hand, gently prompted, “And?”

“I went riding.”

He frowned. “And she fell from the terrace?”

She shook her head. “No. That was sometime later. This was the morning. I rode out, and we went into St. Just. I didn’t get back until mid-afternoon, and went straight to my room. Despite the ride, I was…upset. Unhappy and uncertain. I didn’t know what would happen, but I wasn’t going to be treated like a child, told I couldn’t go here or there with no reason.

“I threw myself on my bed-and fell asleep. Later, I woke, bathed and dressed for dinner, then went down. My father came down-I could tell he knew nothing of the argument. Then Mitchel came in, and we waited for my mother to appear.” She lifted her free hand in a small gesture. “She never did.”

After a moment, she went on, “Eventually, Papa sent upstairs and Mama’s maid came hurrying down, saying Mama hadn’t come up to change for dinner. She’d had afternoon tea in the parlor, but when Treadle collected the tray, she wasn’t there. He’d assumed she was walking on the terrace, or had gone down into the gardens.

“Everyone thought she must have gone walking and perhaps sprained her ankle. The servants went out to look; they scoured the gardens. They didn’t search the Garden of Night until last, because it’s so close to the house-you can hear anyone calling from there, and anyone there can hear those on the terrace. But she couldn’t, of course, because she was dead.”

Gerrard sat, slowly stroking his fingers over her hand, putting all she’d told him in sequence, in context. “I still don’t understand why anyone would imagine you had a hand in your mother’s death.”

She laughed, not humorously; there was pain in the sound. “You could say that came about by default.” She looked down at her fingers, locked in his. “Default in the sense that there were no other suspects. Also in the sense that I didn’t protest my innocence, not until far too late.”

She drew in an unsteady breath. “Immediately after…when they found her and later, I was distraught. Despite that odd estrangement, we’d still been very close. I was…in anguish, not just over her death and the manner of it, but because of the argument, because she’d gone with that between us, because the last words we’d exchanged were so horrible.”

Her voice quavered; she swallowed and shook her head. “I cried for days. I don’t remember all I said-all I know is that people view how I behaved then as a sign of my guilt.”

Gerrard felt his jaw clench. To honestly and openly grieve for a parent, then have that held against one, used against one…he smothered the caustic words that rose to his tongue; her revelations were flowing freely-not a good time to interrupt.

She went on, her voice low but clear, her gaze fixed on their linked hands. “We went into deep mourning-I didn’t set foot out of the house for three months and I didn’t receive callers. I don’t remember much of that time other than that Millicent came for the funeral and stayed. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

“Eventually, however, I emerged, and went about again…and that was when I realized what people were thinking-that I’d pushed Mama to her death. When I first realized, I laughed, it struck me as so nonsensical. I couldn’t believe anyone would credit it. I assumed it was one of those silly notions that flare, then fade…only it didn’t.”

Jacqueline heard the strength building in her voice, felt again the upswell of hurt and, even more, the anger that had followed it, that fueled her determination to see her plan through. She looked up. “By the time I realized that, it was too late. I tried to speak with my father, but he refused to discuss the subject. The others were the same-the Frithams, even Mrs. Elcott, who’ll normally talk about anything. She was the one who made me understand what was going on-that the reason they all wished the subject of Mama’s death closed, deemed an accident and forgotten, was because they all believed that any examination of the facts would point to me.”

She drew breath, and more evenly stated, “They think they’re protecting me. The only people who believe in my innocence are Millicent, Jordan and Eleanor. The other younger people weren’t aware or involved, so they don’t have any real opinion, but everyone else…we’ve tried, but none of us can get the subject mentioned, let alone discussed!”

Frustration rang in her tone; Gerrard squeezed her fingers. “So while you were in deep mourning, essentially cut off, you were tried, found guilty-and then absolved, with the incident to be buried.”

“Yes!” She thought for a moment, then amended, “Well, no, not quite. Everyone around has known me all my life-they don’t want to believe I’m guilty. But they fear I am, so they’ve decided to avoid the question altogether. They don’t want to look at who killed Mama because they’re afraid they’ll find it was me, so they’ve declared her death an accident, and are determined to leave well enough alone.”

“But you don’t want it left alone.”

“No!” She shot him a glance-wondered, fleetingly, why she felt she could be so open, so direct, so unguarded with him. “Mama’s death wasn’t an accident. But until I can convince them it wasn’t me who pushed her over the balustrade, they won’t look for who did.”

She saw in his eyes that he understood. After a moment, she went on, her gaze locked with his, “Jordan and Eleanor gave up, but Millicent and I-we kept thinking. We had to find a way to make people question the notion that’s become embedded in their brains-that it was me. We thought of a portrait. If it was good enough to show my innocence clearly…it was the only way we could think of to open people’s eyes.”

His eyes narrowed, steady on hers. “So having me paint you was your idea.”

She shook her head. “The idea of the portrait was ours. Millicent took months to seed the notion into my father’s head. For him, a portrait was a viable way forward-if it shows me guilty, he’ll hide it away; even if someone finds it, it’s not proof, not real proof that can convict someone of a crime. To him, a portrait is the only way to end his…well, his misery. He loves me, but he loved Mama even more, and he’s torn by thinking I killed her-and yet not knowing.”

Her voice had thickened; clearing her throat, she went on, “Entirely fortuitously through her correspondents in town, Millicent heard of the Academy’s exhibition and your portraits-the information seemed godsent. She suggested your name to Papa.” She paused, then added, “You know the rest.”

Gerrard held her gaze for a moment longer, then straightened; looking out across the regimented rows of olive trees, he leaned back against the edge of the fountain. The stone was cold across his shoulders; the sensation helped to anchor him, to help him re-form his view of what, precisely, was going on at Hellebore Hall.

So much more than he’d imagined when he’d accepted the commission to paint Lord Tregonning’s daughter.

What she’d told him…he didn’t doubt it was the truth. Not only was he sure she couldn’t successfully lie to him, what she’d said explained so much he hadn’t understood, like Tregonning’s position-invidious indeed-and his choice of the way forward, and the attitude of others toward Jacqueline. And hers to them.

He’d held her hand throughout; the feel of her fingers, slim and slender under his, helped settle his thoughts, and focus his mind in the right direction. Forward. “What are you expecting to happen once the portrait is painted and shown?” He glanced at her, caught her gaze. “Once people start to question the circumstances of your mother’s death, won’t they think…” He paused, then rephrased, “Couldn’t the answer be suicide?”

She shook her head vehemently. “No-no one who knew Mama would even suggest it. She loved life, loved living. She wouldn’t have suddenly decided she no longer wished to.”

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. No one has ever raised that prospect, not even though, believing me guilty yet not wanting it to be so, they’d grasp at any straw, even that.” She straightened, briefly searched his face. “Until I-we-convince them it wasn’t me, that it’s all right-safe if you like-to look for Mama’s killer, they won’t. And the real killer will remain free.”

Looking into her eyes, he grasped the point she knew, but had thus far not stated. “Your mother’s killer is still here-he’s someone you know.”

She held his gaze steadily. “He must be. You’ve seen the estate. It’s not easy to slip in undetected, not unless you know the place, and there were no gypsies or suspicious outsiders in the area when she died.”

He looked away, across the garden, still, silent and eerily beautiful under the now waning moon. A moment passed, then he felt her fingers tense within his hand, lightly grip. He turned his head, met her gaze, darkly shadowed in the night.

“You will paint my portrait, won’t you?”

How could he refuse?

She angled her head, brows arching, faintly challenging. “Can you do it? Paint me that well that my innocence will show?”

“Yes.” He had absolutely no doubt he could.

She drew a breath, held it, then quietly said, “I can understand your resistance to being manipulated into being an unwitting judge, but at my request, could you agree to being a witting one?”

He held her gaze, let a moment tick by purely out of habit; he didn’t need to think. “If you truly wish it, then yes. I will.”

She smiled.

“There will, however, be a price.”

Her brows rose, this time in surprise, but, her eyes searching his, she didn’t confuse his “price” with his commission. “What?”

He didn’t know-he didn’t even know what had prompted him to utter the words, but he wasn’t about to take them back. “I’m not certain, yet.”

She held his gaze, then calmly replied, “Let me know when you are.”

Desire lanced through him. From her tone, low and faintly sultry, he couldn’t tell whether she was deliberately challenging him, or simply meeting his challenge with her usual directness.

She drew breath and evenly continued, “Until then…I’ll do whatever you ask, tell you anything you wish, sit for however many hours you want-just as long as you paint me as I truly am so that everyone will know I’m not my mother’s murderer.”

“Done.” He held her gaze for an instant longer, then lifted the hand he held to his lips. He brushed a kiss to her knuckles, watched the slight shiver she fought to suppress, then turned her hand and, watching her still, deliberately pressed a much more intimate kiss to her palm.

And had the satisfaction of seeing her lids fall, of sensing her irrepressible response.

She was the quintessential damsel in distress and she’d asked him to be her champion; as such, he was entitled to her favor.

But he’d yet to decide what he wanted from her, and they were in the middle of an open garden. Reining in his impulses, with her unusually strong, unexpectedly definite, he rose, drew her to her feet, and escorted her back into the house.

Hell’s bells-what a coil!” Barnaby paused to study Gerrard’s face. “Can you truly do that-paint innocence?”

“Yes, but don’t ask how.” Sprawled in an armchair, waiting while Barnaby dressed for the day, Gerrard looked out at the sunlit gardens, at the lightly ruffling canopies. “It’s not so much a finite quality, as something that shines through in the absence of aspects that dim or tarnish it, like guilt and evil. In this case, given the effect the crime has had on Jacqueline, it’ll be a case of painting all she is, of getting the balance of the different elements right so that it’s plain what isn’t there.”

“The evil necessary to commit matricide?”

“Precisely.”

Seeing Barnaby loading his pockets with the paraphernalia he always carried-not just the usual gentlemanly things like handkerchief, watch and coin purse, but a pencil and notepad, string, and pocketknife-Gerrard rose. “In the circumstances, I want to get started on the portrait straightaway. The sooner I get to grips with it-get down what I need to show and decide how to pull it off-the better.”

The sooner Jacqueline would be free of the haunting of her mother’s death. And the sooner he’d be free, too, although what it was that, courtesy of Lord Tregonning bringing him here, now had him in its grip, he wasn’t sure.

As they left the room, Barnaby shot him a glance. “So you’re committed to this-to doing the portrait and, through that, starting a search for the real killer?”

“Yes.” They started down the corridor; Gerrard looked at Barnaby. “Why do you ask?”

Barnaby met his gaze, for once deadly serious. “Because, dear boy, if that’s your tack, then you really will need me here to watch your back.”

They’d reached the stairs; a noise in the hall below had them both looking down. Jacqueline, unaware of them, crossed the hall, heading for the breakfast parlor. She passed out of sight. In step, they started down.

“And, of course,” Barnaby mused, “someone will need to watch the lovely Miss Tregonning’s back, too.”

Gerrard knew a taunt when he heard one, knew he should resist, yet still he heard himself say, far too definitely to be misconstrued, “That, you may leave to me.”

Suppressed laughter rippled beneath Barnaby’s words. “I was sure you’d feel that way.”

An instant later, however, when they stepped off the stairs and Barnaby glanced at him, all trace of amusement had flown. “All teasing aside, chum, we will need to exercise a degree of alertness. I haven’t learned any more to the point yet, but I’ve heard more than enough to convince me there’s something very odd going on down here.”

He wanted to start sketching her immediately, but…

“I’m terribly sorry.” Faint color tinged Jacqueline’s cheeks. “Last evening, Giles Trewarren invited me to ride with him and a few of the others to St. Just this morning-I agreed to meet them at the top of the lane.”

Gerrard could read in her eyes that their discussion of the previous night-all she’d promised in return for his agreement to paint her-was fresh in her mind; she truly was sorry she’d accepted Giles’s invitation.

In light of that, he swallowed the urge to throw a painterly tantrum and insist she spend the day with him, wandering the house and gardens while he drew her out, and captured what showed in quick pencil sketches. The most preliminary of works, there would be many of them before he was satisfied he had the right setting, the right pose, and even more importantly the right expression for the portrait he was determined to create.

His enthusiasm and determination were running high; his commitment was absolute. Despite the success of his portraits of the twins, he was convinced his portrait of Jacqueline would transcend them; it would be the finest thing he’d done to date. His fingers were not just itching, the tips were almost burning with the desire to grip a pencil and wield it.

“I do hope you don’t mind?”

Her hazel eyes declared her sincerity. He inwardly sighed. “Perhaps Mr. Adair and I could accompany you-if you don’t mind?”

She smiled, genuinely relieved. Perhaps genuinely pleased? “That would be perfect. You haven’t seen much of the local area yet, and St. Just is the nearest town.”

Barnaby was happy to go jauntering-happy for the opportunity to talk to more locals and see what he could learn of the mysteries. After breakfast, the three of them met on the terrace, then headed for the stables.

Jacqueline was an accomplished rider; Gerrard inferred as much from the spirited bay mare that was waiting for her at the mounting block. Swinging up to the saddle of the chestnut gelding the stableman had chosen for him, he settled the horse, watching as Jacqueline let her mount prance, let her dance, then deftly brought her alongside.

The instant Barnaby had finished getting acquainted with his mount, a young black, they headed out, Jacqueline in the lead. She left the drive almost immediately, turning onto a grassed track between rolling green fields. Gerrard, watching her, caught the laughing glance she threw over her shoulder, then she touched her heels to the mare’s flanks-and raced ahead.

He was after her in an instant, instinctively, without thought.

With a startled “Whoop!” Barnaby followed.

They thundered over the turf, the rush of their passage converting the mild breeze to a wild wind whistling past their ears, raking through their hair.

The land rose steadily as they climbed out of the valley in which the Hall stood. When she crested the rise, Jacqueline pulled up, her mare cavorting, eager to fly on.

She looked back.

Gerrard was close behind her, closer than she’d realized; he wheeled the chestnut to a halt beside her. Barnaby, a few seconds behind, slowed; it was he who noticed the view first.

“I say!” His eyes grew round.

Gerrard turned. He said nothing, but when she looked at his face, she smiled. He was speechless. In that instant, the artist in him, the ability of his talent to take control of him utterly, was manifest. He sat mesmerized by the view, the magnificent sweep across Carrick Roads to Falmouth on the shore beyond.

“Well,” Barnaby said, “never let it be said that Cornwall has no scenery.”

“Indeed not!” She asked about the scenery of his own country; it transpired he’d been born and raised in Suffolk.

“Undramatic views we have aplenty-lots of windmills and flat fields. But”-sitting his horse, he looked again across the water-“nothing like this.”

After a moment, he glanced at Gerrard, between them, still staring avidly across the water, then he looked at Jacqueline. “You could try twitting him on the scenery of his county-it might break the spell.”

Gerrard murmured, “I can hear, you know.”

“Ah, but you can’t see. Not anything beyond the landscape, anyway.” Barnaby nodded down the rise to where a group ahorse milled at a spot in a lane. “Are they waiting for us?”

Jacqueline looked and waved. “Yes. That’s our group.” She glanced at Gerrard; he gestured her on.

“I take it that spot’s the top of the lane?”

“Yes.” She urged her mare into a walk, angling down the rise. “It’s where we usually meet. From there, we can follow the lane that way”-she pointed south-“to St. Mawes, or if we go north a little way, we’ll come to the lane to St. Just.”

Gerrard took stock of the group ahead. Both Trewarrens, Giles and Cedric, were there, both Frithams, and both Hancock girls, Cecily and Mary. He saw Jacqueline regard Cecily with some surprise; given his treatment of Cecily the previous evening, he had to wonder why, if she wasn’t a regular member of the riding group, she’d come.

He didn’t have to wonder for long. When they joined the others and exchanged greetings, Cecily treated him coolly, then turned her attention entire on Barnaby.

Gerrard stifled a grin. If Cecily had thought him harsh in putting her in her place, she’d be well advised not to corner Barnaby.

Leaving Barnaby to fend for himself, he gave his attention entire to Jacqueline, to observing how she reacted to the others and they to her, not joining in with the group but standing one pace back, neither judging nor encouraging, prepared to be amused, but not making any demands. It was a stance that worked well as they trotted down the lane to St. Just, then walked down the steep streets to an ancient inn, the Jug and Anchor. Leaving their horses in the inn’s stables, they set out along a stone-paved path that wended around the steep shoreline, giving glorious views across Carrick Roads.

It should have been a battle not to let the landscape claim him; instead, walking by Jacqueline’s side, unable to-with no reason to-take her arm, yet highly conscious of the desire to do so, his attention didn’t waver in the least. Indeed, it seemed oddly heightened, more focused on her because of their company, yet when, realizing, he looked more closely, he couldn’t understand why some part of him felt as if the younger males-Jordan, Giles and Cedric-posed some threat.

Jacqueline herself remained calm, composed, not as aloof, as carefully shielded as she had been in the company of their elders, yet she appeared perfectly capable of snubbing any pretentious behavior toward her. Not that any of the younger men tried.

Listening to their conversation, mostly led by Jacqueline and Eleanor, walking on her other side, he concluded they were all simply friends, easy in their joint company. Only Jordan occasioned any constraint, and that purely because of his arrogance. His attitude was so staggeringly superior, Gerrard found it hard not to let his amusement show.

At one point, on the heels of a statement from Jordan that “Everyone who’s anyone knows that the latest color for coats is light brown-tan to be precise,” Jacqueline cast him a glance, almost as if she worried that he might take umbrage; his coat, after all, was deep green. He felt his lips ease; she smiled lightly back, then looked ahead, and with that he felt quite content-content enough to shut his ears to anything Jordan might say.

They turned back to the inn at midday. They’d decided to take luncheon there; Gerrard gathered it was a routine they’d often followed in younger days. He glanced back to see how Barnaby was faring, and was frankly surprised to see no sign of ennui in his friend’s face. Quite the opposite; Barnaby was being his charming best, and Cecily was enthralled…

Barnaby had found a source of information nearer to hand than the “older ladies.”

Facing forward, Gerrard smiled, and kept pace at Jacqueline’s side as they approached the inn and climbed the steps to its porch.

The inn door opened; a young gentleman stepped out. He stopped the instant he saw them. His gaze passed over the men, and locked on Jacqueline. “I saw you riding down earlier-I’ve booked the parlor.”

There was a fractional hesitation, then Jacqueline smiled and went forward. “Matthew, how lovely of you to see to it.”

Giving the young man her hand, she turned to introduce them. “Matthew Brisenden-Gerrard Debbington.” To Matthew, she said, “Papa has asked Gerrard to paint my portrait.” She looked at Gerrard. “Matthew is the son of Mr. Brisenden, the sexton.”

Gerrard shook hands; the intensely disapproving look in Brisenden’s face wasn’t hard to interpret. To some, painters ranked only a few rungs higher than opera dancers on the “persons whose existence should be deplored” scale. However, his elegance, and the fact he’d been commissioned by Lord Tregonning, was clearly causing young Brisenden some difficulty. He wasn’t sure how he should treat him.

Gerrard smiled charmingly, and left him to figure it out on his own.

At least, that was his intention, until Matthew reached for Jacqueline’s arm. Beside her, Gerrard sensed her recoil, but they were too tightly packed into the porch for her to avoid Brisenden’s grasping fingers; he locked them about her elbow.

Gerrard was aware of Barnaby’s surprise, then the swift, warning glance his friend sent him-he was more aware of a sudden surge of reaction that left him tensed, momentarily deaf, with his vision closed down, cloudy around the edges, crystal clear in the center, something that normally would have sent him into a panic, but just now seemed totally right…

What might have transpired he couldn’t have said, but he-they-were saved from it by two men trying to leave the inn. They couldn’t get through the door because Brisenden was blocking their way. He had to release Jacqueline and move on to allow the two past.

Gerrard reached for Jacqueline’s hand, wound her arm through his and laid her hand on his sleeve. Her fingers fluttered, but then settled and gripped lightly-a tentative touch he felt to his marrow. The departing customers clattered down the steps, and Brisenden reascended; Gerrard waved to the door. “Why don’t you lead us in, Brisenden?”

Brisenden noted Jacqueline’s hand lying on his sleeve. The young man’s expression turned to stone. He raised his eyes and met Gerrard’s levelly, but then he inclined his head and led the way in.

From that point on, ably assisted by Barnaby who alternated between acting the distracting fool and deftly engineering both seating and conversation, Gerrard took charge. Enough was enough; Brisenden was banished to the end of the table farthest from Jacqueline, who found herself sitting between Gerrard and Jordan Fritham.

Despite his painful superiority, Jordan had given not the slightest hint of any interest in Jacqueline. In return for Barnaby’s keeping Brisenden occupied, Gerrard felt saving his friend from Jordan was the least he could do.

The meal passed smoothly and pleasantly enough. The conversation flowed easily, ranging over the usual elements of country life, the upcoming church fair, the fishing, the expected balls and parties-who had been to London for the Season and would be there to report the latest news…Almost in unison, all eyes turned to Barnaby.

He smiled, and happily regaled them with a tale of two sisters intent on taking the ton and its peers by storm. Only Gerrard knew how severely censored Barnaby’s account was; he was amused and impressed by how agile his friend’s mind could be.

At the end of the meal, they all rose and left, settling with the innkeeper by placing the whole on their respective fathers’ slates.

Their horses were waiting. Matthew hovered, transparently expecting to help Jacqueline to mount; he didn’t get a chance.

Gerrard escorted her from the inn, down the steps, to her mare’s side. With a crisp command to the groom to hold the mare steady, he released Jacqueline, grasped her waist and lifted her to her saddle.

Easily. But then his eyes locked with hers, the feel of her body, lithe and elementally feminine between his hands, registered, the widening of her lovely eyes impinged…He realized he’d stopped breathing. He had to battle to force his hands from her, to let her go, and step back.

“Thank you.” She sounded even more winded than he felt.

Walking to where another groom held his mount, he flung himself into the saddle. By the time they’d all mounted and were ready to start the steep climb up the lane, he’d managed to unlock his jaw, and was breathing normally again.

He brought his chestnut alongside Jacqueline’s mare as they started up the incline. She noticed, but other than a fleeting look, did nothing, said nothing.

He wasn’t sure there was anything she could have said. Nothing that would have left either of them less on edge. Less aware.

Matthew Brisenden stood on the inn porch, his hand raised in farewell.

Regardless of his senses’ preoccupation with the woman riding by his side, Gerrard felt Brisenden’s dark and brooding gaze between his shoulder blades until they reached the upper slope and left the inn behind.

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