9

He only needed to see her, to speak with her. To reassure himself that she was all right.

He didn’t meet anyone on his way to her room, hardly surprising given the hour. Stalking to her door, he glanced down. Strong light showed beneath it. Grimly encouraged, he rapped on the door. Half a minute passed, then Jacqueline opened it.

Her eyes widened; she stared at him.

He tried not to stare back. She was wearing a fine lawn nightgown with a gauzy robe thrown over it. Her hair was down, a rich brown veil rippling over her shoulders-it was transparently clear she hadn’t been abed.

With the lamps blazing behind her, that wasn’t the only thing transparently evident.

Her mouth opened, but no words came out.

Jaw clenching, he reached for her arm and moved her back. Stepping into the room, he shut the door.

“What…?” She was still staring at him.

The light now reached her face. He noted her pallor; her stunned, lost and off-balance expression wasn’t solely due to his arrival. “I want to look through your wardrobe.”

Scanning the room, he saw a large armoire positioned along the side wall. He headed for it.

“My wardrobe?” Her tone incredulous but growing stronger, she flitted in a flutter of fine fabrics after him.

“I need to look over your gowns.”

“My gowns.” Not a question; her tone suggested he’d taken leave of his senses. “You need to see my gowns now.”

“Yes.” He pulled open the wardrobe doors, revealing a full length of hanging space filled with gowns. “You weren’t asleep.” He reached for a creation in amber silk.

She tried to peer into his face. “What are you about? Why this burning need to look at my gowns?” She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. “It’s after eleven!”

He didn’t look at her. “I need to gauge what will look best on you.”

“At night?”

Holding the amber gown before him, he shot her a sidelong glance; arrested, his gaze lingered. “Indeed.” He drank in the way the lamplight flowed over her skin, gilding it with the softest of gold washes. He drew in a shallow breath. “I might very well paint you in candlelight. Here-hold this.” Thrusting the amber gown into her hands, he dived back amid the rest.

“This”-he pulled out a bronze silk sheath and tossed it at her-“and this.” He added a gown in figured green satin to the pile growing in her arms. “Although”-he glanced back at the last gown-“that might be too dark. We’ll see.”

Returning to the wardrobe, he flipped through the contents, making more selections. “I have a certain look in mind-the color and style of your gown will be critical.”

Jacqueline watched him, bemused and suspicious. She accepted the dresses he piled in her arms, and wondered. At last, he stepped back, reached for the wardrobe doors-and shot her a swift glance that was too saber-sharp, too assessing, to be casual.

He met her gaze; she raised a brow.

His lips twisted, rather grimly. He closed the wardrobe doors and reached for her hand. “Come here.”

He towed her, her arms full with seven gowns, over to the hearth. Two lamps stood on either end of the mantelpiece, spilling strong, steady light out over the room.

“Here.” Drawing her about, he positioned her before the mantel, a foot or so from the lamp on one end. He stood back, looked, then shifted her a fraction closer to the lamp. He seemed to be judging the play of light on her hair.

“That’s it. Now turn your face up a little, toward the lamp.” His fingers touched, lingered beneath her chin. “Just so.” He cleared his throat. “Now.” Scooping the gowns out of her arms, he selected one in spring green, and flung the rest over her armchair.

Ignoring the thought of her maid’s protests, Jacqueline watched as he shook the spring-green gown out, looking at it, then at her; his gaze drifted down her body…she recalled how fine her nightgown and robe were, recalled she was standing before the fire.

Abruptly, he held up the gown, as if to preserve her modesty-although he’d already looked and, she would wager, his keen artist’s eyes had seen all there was to see. He handed her the gown. “Hold this against you and let me see.”

She did as he asked, mystified, wondering why she was humoring him, yet she stood before the fire, bathed in light, and allowed him to hand her gown after gown. Some he dismissed, others he returned to; the selection he’d chosen covered a range of colors from deepest forest green-a color, once she’d held it up, he rejected out of hand-to old gold, another shade that on examination didn’t meet with his approval.

“Somewhere in between,” he muttered, returning to a gown of eau de nil silk.

That he was in truth evaluating her gowns was plain enough, but the swift searching glances he every now and then directed her way assured her that wasn’t his sole aim. Indeed, as he returned to assessing gowns in various shades of bronze, she was increasingly sure his interest in her gowns and on the play of candlelight on her hair was not so much an aim as his excuse.

Finally, he stood back. Hands on hips, he studied her, head tilted, a critical expression in his eyes, a slight frown on his face. “That’s the closest you have to the right color-an intense bronze but with more gold than that is what we need. And, of course, the drape is all wrong, but at least now I know what’s necessary.”

“Indeed.” She waited until his gaze rose to her eyes, then asked, “So why are you really here?”

He held her gaze, then opened his mouth.

“And don’t tell me it was to study my gowns.”

He shut his lips, pressed them tight. His eyes held hers as he debated, then his lips eased and he exhaled through his teeth, not quite a sigh, not quite an exhalation of frustration. “I was worried.”

A muttered confession. “About what?”

“About you.”

He didn’t sound pleased about it. When she looked her befuddlement, he reluctantly elaborated, “About what you might be thinking and feeling.” His hand rose, fingers spearing into his hair, but then he stopped and lowered his arm. “I was worried about how the revelations of the day had affected you.” He glanced away, his gaze falling on the pile of her discarded gowns. “But I did want to evaluate your gowns. I want to complete the portrait as soon as possible.”

A vise of cold iron closed about her chest. “Yes, of course.” Turning away, she moved to lay the bronze silk gown she’d been holding over the chair. “I expect you’ll want to leave as soon as possible.”

Guarding her expression, smoothing her features to rigid impassivity, she turned to face him-and found him, hands on hips, frowning, quite definitely, at her.

“No-I don’t want to leave as soon as possible. I want to complete the portrait and free you”-abruptly he gestured-“from all this-the suspicion and the well-meaning prison all around have created for you.”

The expression glowing darkly in his eyes made her heart leap, then thud. Oh seemed redundant. She moistened her lips-watched his eyes trace the movement of her tongue. “I thought”-she sucked in a breath and steadied her voice-“that perhaps, after this last, you might wish to leave-that you might wish you’d never agreed to paint my portrait.”

“No.” What rang in his tone brooked no argument. He held her gaze steadily. “I want you free of this intolerable situation…” His hesitation was palpable, but then he continued, his words precise and clear, “Free so we-you and I-can pursue what’s grown-growing-between us.”

Gerrard saw the “Oh” form in her mind, more tellingly saw her features ease as the control she’d imposed on them faded. He was searingly aware of an almost overpowering urge to close the distance between them and take her in his arms, to comfort her physically and emotionally, in every way open to him.

Not a good idea.

Dragging in a breath that was too tight for his liking, he forced himself to turn to the fireplace. “So-how do you feel about Thomas’s death?”

Not an easy question to make sound idle, not least because it wasn’t; he definitely wanted to know. He didn’t look at her, but studied the lamp on the mantelpiece. He felt her gaze on him, felt her consider-sensed the change in the atmosphere when she decided to tell him.

She rounded the chair; he turned his head and watched as she smoothed the gown she’d laid over it, then, drawing her robe closed, folding her arms, she paced across the room in a brooding, feminine way. Halting before the windows, she lifted her head and stared out at the dark. “It’s odd, but the point that upsets me most is that I can’t remember his face.”

He leaned back, setting his shoulders against the mantelpiece. “You haven’t seen it for over two years.”

“I know. But that’s a real measure of the fact that he’s gone. That he’s been gone, dead, for a long time, and I can’t change that.”

He said nothing, just waited.

After a while, she drew in a deep breath. “He was a nice…boy, really.” She glanced across the room at him. “He was kind, and we laughed, and I liked him, but…whatever might have been, might have come to be between Thomas and me-that I’ll never know.”

Abruptly, she swung from the windows and came pacing back, her brows knitted, her gaze on the floor. Halting a yard from him, she looked up and met his eyes. “You asked how I feel. I feel angry.”

She pushed back the hair that had swung forward, shielding one side of her face. “I’m not sure why I feel so strongly, and not just on Thomas’s behalf. The killer took something he wasn’t entitled to take-Thomas’s life, yes, but that wasn’t all. He struck because we-Thomas and I-would have had a marriage and a family, and that the killer didn’t want us to have. That’s why he killed-he wanted to deny us that.”

Her breasts swelled as she dragged in a huge breath. “He had no right.” Her voice shook with a medley of emotions. “He killed Thomas and stymied me-locked me into a cage of his making. And then he killed my mother.” Her face clouded. “Why?”

When she refocused on him, Gerrard pushed away from the mantelpiece. “With your mother, it can’t have been jealousy, or any variation of that. Perhaps she learned something the killer didn’t want known, either something about Thomas’s death, or something entirely different.”

She held his gaze. “But it was the same man, wasn’t it?”

“Barnaby will tell you that the odds of having two murderers in such a limited area are infinitesimal.”

Her gaze grew distant, assessing. “We have to catch him-expose him and trap him-and we need to do it soon.”

“Indeed.” His crisp tone drew her attention back to him. “And our first step is to complete the portrait.”

If anything, the discovery of Thomas’s body and their speculation over his death seemed to be hardening her resolve. He remembered thinking that if he were the murderer, he’d be wary of her, of underestimating her strength.

He reached for her arm. “I’m seriously considering painting you in candlelight. Come over here.” He drew her to the end of the mantelpiece and positioned her as before. Retrieving the last gown from the chair-the gown closest in hue to what he wanted-he held it out. “Hold that against you.”

Jacqueline did. She’d cried all her tears for Thomas long ago; it had been comforting to own to her anger, to be able to admit to it-to speak of it aloud and so give it strength. She watched as Gerrard stepped back, studying her with his painter’s eyes. There was an expression in them when he was given over to his art that she was learning to recognize.

That was comforting, too, for it gave her the freedom to think of other things, to acknowledge that he, hearing of her anger-an unconventional response from a young woman over the violent murder of her intended, surely?-hadn’t judged. He’d simply accepted, indeed, he’d seemed to understand, or to at least find nothing startling or shocking in her feelings.

He frowned. “The light’s too even.” He looked at the lamp, then scanned the room. “Candlestick?”

“On the dresser by the door.”

He crossed to pick it up and brought it back. He bent to light the wick at the small fire in the grate, then straightened and reached for her right hand. “Here-hold it like that.”

Leaving her clutching the gown to her chest, the candlestick held aloft, he went to the lamp at the far end of the mantelpiece. He turned down the wick; the light faded, then died.

Crossing in front of her, he glanced measuringly at her, then doused the other lamp, too. He looked at her, then adjusted her arm. “Hold it there.”

He stepped back, then back again. His eyes narrowed, scanning, checking; he spoke softly, vaguely, “I promise I won’t make you hold a candle-I’m just trying to get an idea of how it might look if…”

His words faded. She watched him look at her, not as a man but as a painter. Watched the change in his expression, the play of the candlelight on his features, watched a sense of awe slowly seize and grip him.

A silent minute passed, then he refocused on her face. “Perfect.”

She smiled.

He blinked. Slowly. His lashes rose, and suddenly she knew he was seeing her no longer as a painter, but as a man. He wasn’t seeing her as his subject, but as a woman, a woman the look in his dark eyes stated very clearly he desired.

Her heart expanded in her chest; it seemed to slow, then start to thud.

A need to explore his desire swept her. The killer had stolen from her any chance of that with Thomas, yet because of the same killer, Gerrard was now here.

That need took root, grew and filled her. Slowly, she closed her fingers, grasped the gown she’d been holding, and lifted it from her, and away. Extending her arm, she opened her hand and let the gown fall unregarded to the floor; his gaze didn’t shift, didn’t move from her to follow the silk as it fell.

His gaze, dark and burning, remained locked on her. At his sides, his hands slowly clenched; his jaw set, rocklike; his lips were a chiseled line.

He wasn’t going to move, to, as she had no doubt he would see it, take advantage of her; he was holding against it, against the impulse she could see flaring in his eyes.

She tilted her head, studying him as brazenly as he did her. She felt his gaze rake slowly down her body, outlined by the glow of the fire behind her. Her flesh reacted, heated, prickled-as physical a reaction as if he’d touched her. More reaction than if any other man had touched her, yet it was only his gaze, and the hunger she sensed behind it.

The clock ticked; for finite instants, desire held them, a force strong enough for them both to feel. To appreciate. She took a moment to savor it, to experience it, but that was all she dared-he was strong enough to break free, if she let him.

She was still holding the candlestick; other than the small fire, it was the sole source of light remaining in the room. To set it down, she would have to turn, to take her eyes from him, and break the spell.

No. The spell was hers, patently there, hers to use if she chose.

She chose.

Slowly, she extended her other hand, palm up-an unmistakable invitation.

For one heartbeat, as his gaze fixed on her palm, she wondered if he would decline. But then his eyes lifted and locked on hers, and the silly thought slipped away.

He moved to her, slowly, like the predator she’d sensed from the first he truly was. The ton’s artistic lion in truth, and he was here with her, in her bedchamber, and it was almost midnight.

He closed his hand about hers, engulfing her fingers with the heat and strength of his; as he stepped nearer, he raised her hand to his lips, and brushed a slow kiss over her knuckles.

His eyes, dark in the poor light, hadn’t left hers. He searched them briefly, then turned her hand and pressed a slow, deliberate kiss to the sensitive skin of her palm.

She felt it like a brand, hot, searing, possessive. She couldn’t breathe as he took the tilting candlestick from her other hand; reaching past her, he set it on the mantelpiece behind her.

He stepped nearer, releasing her hand to fall on his shoulder, gathering her to him. She was excruciatingly aware of the strength in his muscled arms, of his hand as it spread across the back of her waist, of the insubstantial protection of her nightgown and robe.

Their eyes met, in one glance said all there was to say, then he bent his head as she lifted hers, and their lips met.

Touched, brushed. Fused.

The kiss slid straight into a sea of heat, of pleasured warmth as their lips melded and their tongues twined. She knew this, wanted it, and went forward without reservation, receiving each slow, languorous caress, returning it with abandon and inciting more, inviting even though she had little idea of what, precisely, came next. She wanted to know, wanted to feel; as the kiss deepened, as he angled his head and heat burgeoned, flared and raced through her, spreading under her skin, making her mentally reel until her wits slid away and she gave herself over to feeling, simply feeling, as desire flooded her and grew to a pounding beat, she burned to learn more.

Gerrard sensed the rising tide, the welling of desire, and behind that, a passion that was more-more powerful, more compelling, more enthralling-than any he’d felt before. Her mouth was a haven of feminine delight, soft, giving, beyond tempting; the feel of her body so scantily clad in his arms, leaning into him, sinking against him in na?ve surrender, was a potent lure.

With an effort, he lifted his head, broke the kiss enough to look into her face, into her eyes as her lids slowly rose. Enough to realize how rapidly he was breathing, how much his head was spinning…already.

Hauling in a breath, he said, “This is dangerous.”

And was shocked by how gravelly and harsh his voice sounded.

She didn’t blink, but studied his face. He felt her breasts expand against his chest as she drew a steadying breath.

“No.” Her gaze remained level, her lips soft, sheening, slightly swollen. “This is right.” After a moment, she added, “Can’t you feel it?”

He could. Every instinct he possessed was urging him on; not one suggested retreat. If she was willing to move forward, so was he.

She’d been searching his eyes; her lips slowly curved. Her gold-green eyes glowed. “You know it.” Sliding her hands up from where they’d rested until then, passive against his chest, she slid her palms along his face, framing it, then stretched upward and breathed against his lips, “Stop denying it. And me.” Then she kissed him.

He let her, let her coax, then more blatantly invite.

Then he accepted. Stopped denying what he wanted, what he felt compelled to explore. Her. And their passion.

In every imaginable way.

His arms tightened, urging her closer. She responded, pressing her body to his, her hands sliding back through his hair, then away as she locked her arms about his neck and clung. In his mind, he smiled, purely predatory, then eased his hold on her and let his hands roam.

Heard her breathing hitch as he closed his hands over her gorgeous breasts, full and firm, and kneaded. Sensed the surge of unadulterated desire that rose within her as he played, as he teased her senses awake, as he opened her eyes to sensual pleasure.

Their lips melded, a connection, a communication she clung to; his attention switched from her swollen breasts, from the ruched nipples pressing into his palms, to the succulent delight of her mouth, of her lips and her increasingly educated tongue.

She delighted him, simply and sincerely engaged with him; as he eased his hands from the now tight mounds of her breasts, he gave thanks for her directness, for her straightforward honesty, even in this.

Her clear and unequivocal encouragement wasn’t in doubt; she pressed kiss after increasingly scorching kiss on his lips, pressed close and ever closer, sliding her body, all lush curves and supple grace, against his.

He sent his hands sliding, palms beneath her robe, over the fine fabric of her nightgown, so thin it provided a mere whisper of separation between his skin and hers. He traced the indentation of her waist, let his fingers grip her hips, then ease as he explored, then he gave in to temptation and slid both hands down to cup her bottom. Lifting her against him, into him, he flagrantly molded her hips to him, to the rigid column of his erection.

Her breathing fractured, but she didn’t draw back. Instead, she gripped his face again, and pressed ever more heated, ever more eager kisses on him.

He thrust against her, suggestive yet restrained, and was rewarded with a gasp, smothered between their lips.

Thinking was no longer necessary. Juggling her, he stripped off her robe, left it lying on the floor as he swung her into his arms and carried her to the bed.

They broke from the kiss as he laid her down, yet when from beneath heavy lids her eyes met his, he detected no hint of second thoughts, of hesitation. Only a steady, unwavering purpose he was coming to recognize as intrinsically her.

Her arms, twined about his neck, had eased; now she tightened them, and drew him back to her-drew him down to the bed and her. He went with no more hesitation than she. After a long-drawn, incendiary kiss, one that left his mind reeling, he drew back and shrugged out of his coat, sat up and leaned down to ease off his boots. As the second boot thudded on the floor, he turned back to her, into the arms she held waiting. Stretching alongside her, he leaned over her, brushed back her hair and framed her face with one hand, found her lips with his, and filled her mouth.

Heat and longing poured through Jacqueline; she’d never felt so alive. So energized, so excited. Whatever he would show her she wanted to know, wherever he led, she wanted to explore. The reciprocity of their kisses had fascinated her before; now, the mutual give and take of their exchange had deepened, extending into a landscape she’d never seen, never even known existed-she wanted with all her heart, all the passion she’d held inside for so long, to go forward with him and learn more.

The candle on the mantelpiece across the room guttered. Shadows closed in, gently cloaking. Their eyes had adjusted; they could both see well enough-enough for her to glimpse his fingers as they undid the buttons down the front of her nightgown, for her to see his hand slide beneath the gaping placket. Then he touched her, and her lids fell; for long minutes, her senses condensed to tactile sensation, to experiencing every thrill his knowing caresses lavished on her willing flesh, to communicating through lips and tongue as he fondled, and taught her.

But then he drew back from the kiss. He held her gaze as he reached up and pushed her nightgown off her shoulder, baring her breast. She quelled a shiver, looked down, lost all ability to breathe as she watched his hand return to her breast, fondling knowingly, pandering to her senses.

A minute passed, and she learned to breathe again, then he shifted, kissed her once, thoroughly, then nudged her chin up and trailed kisses down her throat, and on-to her breast. He caressed the swollen curves, then traced a path to one tightly furled nipple. Licked, laved, then took it into his mouth, and suckled lightly.

Sensation, sharp, powerful as lightning, struck; she gasped, arched, her mind scrambling to absorb and acknowledge the sensations. Then his tongue swept her nipple, languorous and soothing. Heat spilled through her and she moaned, arching beneath him, clasping his head, wordlessly inviting more.

Which he gave. Unstintingly.

Caught in the landscape he’d conjured, she remained aware, unafraid-eager to go on. Increasingly desperate, although for what she longed she wasn’t sure, other than it was more.

He seemed to know. To understand the giddy, rushing tide that had caught her and was sweeping her on. Through quick, assessing glances, through sultry, knowing, measuring looks, he kept watch over her and guided her; this was a place he’d been to many times-he knew the ways.

That he enjoyed his role as mentor and guide she had no doubt. Her breasts seemed to fascinate him as much as his fascination with them enthralled her. He seemed addicted to tasting her-her lips, her skin, every curve of her breasts and throat. In the poor light, she couldn’t see the desire glowing in his eyes, yet she felt it; like a flame, it caressed and heated, warmed and reassured. The predatory tension that had infused him, that rode every muscle and turned it to steel, was, she instinctively knew, another sign-there was an aura of leashed aggression in him, one she’d evoked from the first, and increasingly sensed in his response to her.

It didn’t frighten her; it excited her.

Almost unbearably.

Seizing his face, she pressed a blatantly inciting kiss on him-and refused to let him go. She demanded he respond; within seconds they were engaged in a heated duel as she wantonly challenged him.

His hand gripped her hip, tensing, then released; she felt his fingers sweep down her thigh, over her knee. Then they slid beneath the hem of her nightgown. Boldly traced upward, lightly brushing the sensitive inner face of her thigh. Heat pooled low within her, throbbing, aching…then he touched the curls at the apex of her thighs.

Every nerve leapt; every sense focused, following his touch, tracking each and every light caress. She shifted beneath him, hips lifting, wanting more.

A sense of urgency welled and flooded her.

Shifting over her, he grasped her knee, pressed it wide, anchored it with his as his tongue plunged into her mouth and hotly plundered.

For an instant she was distracted, then she felt his palm sweep inward along her thigh, and he cupped her.

She felt the touch keenly, so intimate, so knowing. She stilled, expecting to be shocked…instead, desire surged and rushed through her, a hot tide that swept her into a sea of greedy need and wanton delight. He caressed; beyond thought, totally captured by feeling, she moved against him, wordlessly communing.

He understood her need, her urgency. He intimately explored her as she gasped through their kiss. Left no part of her softness untouched, uncaressed.

And she was spinning, her senses whirling, her nerves coiled tighter than any spring. She wanted to beg for more, to urge him on, but he held her to the kiss, filled her mouth and her senses completely with his maleness, then the kiss eased-as he slid one long finger into her.

She could no longer breathe, no longer think; she could only feel as he explored and learned-and she learned, too. Learned how desperate for his touch she could grow, how hot, how burning, how insistent her need for whatever came next could become.

He knew, and led her unerringly on, until her senses sparked, then ignited, until her nerves unraveled, until her existence fractured and stars rushed down her veins to explode in molten glory.

Spreading pleasure and delight through her.

She found herself floating in a golden sea, physical content lapping over and about her, barely sentient, yet aware that he hadn’t left her.

That he hadn’t…

Gerrard watched completion claim her; he’d never seen any sight so gratifying, so soothing to his male ego. He ached, literally throbbed with the need to take her, to follow their road to its natural end, yet even as he acknowledged the pressure, he knew he wouldn’t-not yet.

Despite her certainty, her unwavering sureness, she was too new to this. Too innocent to simply seize. Easing his fingers from the scorching slickness of her body, he gently drew her nightgown down. He continued to ignore his clamoring demons, and simply watched her.

When her lids finally fluttered, then rose, he leaned down and kissed her, openly possessive, then drew back. Even in the dim light, he could sense her confusion, could feel it in the way her fingers gripped his sleeve. He reached for them; taking her hand in his, he kissed her fingers, then leaned over her once more to brush her mouth. “Not yet.” He murmured the words against her swollen lips, then drew back and sat up.

Her fingers tensed on his. She frowned. “I…don’t understand.”

He let his lips twist wryly. Sliding his fingers from hers, he reached for his boots. “I know. But there’s no need to rush-and going any further now would be rushing.”

That was crystal clear in his mind. Regardless, he was a man, not a saint; he wasn’t strong enough to hold against any entreaties, especially from her, especially now. Boots on, he rose and reached for his coat. “Sleep well-I’ll see you in the morning.”

He forced himself to shrug on his coat, then turn and cross to the door. Opening it, without looking back he went out and quietly shut it behind him.

As he walked to his room, he owned to amazement. His nature wasn’t gentle or understanding; it certainly wasn’t self-sacrificing. In situations such as this, he was commanding and demanding. If a lady offered, he took.

She’d urged him to take her, had wanted him to, her invitation clear and repeated, yet for her, for the sake of what he and she needed to explore, for the sake of what was growing between them, he’d found it, if not easy, then at least possible, more, desirable, to walk away.

Quite what that said of what was growing between them, he didn’t want to think.

Contrary to his expectations, he slept well enough-the sleep of the righteous, no doubt. By the time he walked into the breakfast parlor, he was focused on one thing-pressing ahead with the portrait.

Elements of it were clear in his mind, yet the exact composition still eluded him. Until he had that clear, he couldn’t start.

Immediately after breakfast ended, he commandeered Jacqueline-who seemed perfectly ready to be commandeered-simultaneously rejecting a suggestion from Barnaby that they ought to ride into St. Just and listen to what was being said about Thomas Entwhistle’s murder.

Unperturbed, Barnaby shrugged, and went without them.

Gerrard paced the terrace until Jacqueline joined him, then, her hand locked in his, he towed her into the gardens.

He took her first to the Garden of Apollo, to where the sundial stood in its small section of lawn. Setting down his sketch pad and pencils, he led her to the sundial, and posed her as he wished, standing beside it. He looked at her face; her eyes met his.

For one long instant, they studied each other-he searched for any hint of the maidenly fluster he’d expected but thus far had failed to detect. Last night, she’d bared her breasts to him, let him touch her intimately, writhed and gasped beneath him as he’d brought her to glory; he’d more than half-expected some degree of retreat.

Instead, her customary certainty shone from her eyes. Steady, unwavering, sure. They stood only a foot apart, yet a light smile flirted about her lips…as if she knew what he was looking for and was delighting in confounding him.

He humphed, then bent his head and swiftly kissed her. “Stay there.” Without meeting her eyes again, he turned and strode back to his sketch pad.

That exchange set the tone for their morning. They talked, but their words remained light, their meaning superficial, their true communication carried by looks, glances, fleeting touches. They were both not on edge, but aware-each hyperaware of the other, but also aware of other sensations, like the lilting breeze, the caress of the sun, the perfumes and colors and shifting shade as they moved about the gardens.

The luncheon gong rang and they returned to the house. Millicent joined them; Barnaby had yet to return and Mitchel remained in his office.

Millicent appeared a trifle distracted. “I’m not at all sure how best to handle the inquiries.”

Gerrard frowned. “Inquiries?”

“Well…” Millicent waved her fork. “A body was found in the gardens. That of a young man who disappeared and who we all thought of as Jacqueline’s fianc?. We’ll have a horde of visitors this afternoon, I assure you. The only reason they haven’t appeared yet is that it was probably too late for a morning visit by the time they heard.”

As usual, concentrating on his work had driven all other considerations from his head. He looked at Jacqueline, and sensed her drawing back, sealing herself off behind that inner barrier she’d perfected to deal with her world.

“Can you manage alone?” He looked at Millicent. “I’m afraid I need Jacqueline for the rest of the day. I need to define the exact pose before I can start the portrait-and we clearly need the portrait finished without delay.”

Millicent thought. “Actually, it might be better if Jacqueline wasn’t present.” With a determined air, she turned to Jacqueline. “I wasn’t here when Thomas disappeared, so it’s easier for me to stick to the facts without acknowledging any of the speculation. And without you there, they’ll find it difficult to introduce any suggestion of involvement on your part. No, indeed.” Turning back to Gerrard, she nodded. “By all means devote yourselves to the portrait, and leave me to deal with the rumormongers.”

Gerrard smiled, but glanced at Jacqueline, his question in his eyes.

She met his gaze, chin firm, but then nodded. “Perhaps you’re right, Aunt. The less opportunity they have to air their mistaken beliefs, the better.”

But when he led her back to the gardens, her concern remained. He said nothing; her distance wasn’t an issue as today he was working with her body, her pose, not her face and expressions. Those he was coming to know very well. As for her body…

Her distraction helped, allowing him to concentrate on her figure, on the lines of her body, without evoking in her the sort of awareness that would, in turn, arouse him. Distract him. He took her into the Garden of Poseidon, posing her again at the head of the long pool, some yards before the entrance to the Garden of Night. He positioned her, then stepped back and sketched, not so much her-he merely outlined her body-but the setting.

Exercising a painter’s sleight of hand, he altered the perspective so that in the sketch she appeared to be standing within the entrance, framed by it.

The afternoon light was perfect, illuminating the entrance yet leaving all beyond it in shadow. In the portrait, the scene would be lit by moonlight-the hardest of all lights to use-but today’s clarity gave him all the lines he would need, sharply delineating every vine leaf, every twisting, trailing shoot.

Once he had her outline set within the frame, he waved her to a seat nearby. “I’m working on background. I have all I need of you for the present-you can rest.”

Jerked from her less-than-heartening reverie, Jacqueline inwardly raised her brows. From his tone, definitely his painter’s voice, it sounded more as if she was in his way. Not that she minded; she’d been standing for most of the day. Crossing to the wrought-iron seat set before a thickly planted border, she sank onto it. Leaning on the arm, she looked at him.

She expected her mind to return to wondering how Millicent was coping in the drawing room, and what the attitude of the visiting ladies was. She was very much afraid she knew; they’d assume she was guilty of Thomas’s murder, too. The idea hurt almost as much as her realization, when she’d emerged from deep mourning, that they thought she’d killed her mother.

Such matters certainly intruded, but with her eyes on Gerrard, they failed to capture her mind. Instead, she thought of him-not just of last night, and the pleasure he’d introduced her to, not just of his clear expectation that she would succumb to feminine fluster over it, and might regret it, not of the fact that she hadn’t, and didn’t, but of him. Just him.

The concentration in his face, in his stance, the sense of immense energy he focused on his work, was enthralling. Watching him wield it for her, in the creation of the portrait that by his own words he saw as freeing her from her strange prison, moved her and held her attention completely.

It was, in a way, like watching her champion battle in the lists for her; like any such lady, she couldn’t look away.

Eventually, he looked down, and considered his sketches. The fervor that had held him faded; she sensed he was content with what he’d achieved.

She was tempted, but having been warned, she didn’t ask to see what he’d done.

As if he’d heard her thoughts, he looked at her. He seemed to consider, then he scooped up his spare pencils, tucked them in a pocket, and strolled across to the seat.

He sat beside her; he met her eyes, then looked down and opened his sketch pad. “I want you to see the concept I’m working on.”

Astonished, she shifted to stare at him. “I thought you never, ever, showed your preliminary work to anyone?”

His lips thinned, but his voice remained even, if a trifle irritated. “Normally, I don’t, but in your case, you have a sufficiently artistic eye to understand, to see what I see, what I’m trying to capture.”

She studied his profile, then shifted closer and looked at the sketch pad. “So what are you trying to capture-”

She broke off as he showed her. The first sheet contained a sketch in barest outline-her, her body, poised within the entrance to the Garden of Night. The next contained details of the entrance; those following filled in various sections of the arched entry, and then came a set defining various elements and aspects.

It was apparent why he so rarely showed such preliminary work; she appreciated his trusting her to be able to interpret it, to fuse all the sketches to get some idea of the final work.

“Me escaping the Garden of Night.” Just saying the words, she felt the concept’s power. She looked at the entrance, gilded by the late afternoon sun, but with sultry, shadowy, oppressive gloom lurking behind it.

Watching her face, Gerrard saw that she’d seen and grasped his vision, that she understood. He’d broken his absolute, until-now-invariable rule because he’d wanted her to know that the portrait truly would be powerful enough to shatter all preconceived notions of her guilt, that it would speak of her innocence strongly enough to make people rethink, and revisit, their assumptions. Ultimately, that it would be powerful enough to evoke the specter of the real killer.

Her knowing that, believing that, would be important in making the whole work, in bringing life to the portrait that he was beyond convinced would be his greatest yet.

He hadn’t wanted her opinion, but her approval, and her support.

The thought was almost shocking; he bundled it out of his mind as she looked at him.

“You haven’t yet sketched me in the entrance itself. I’m willing to pose there”-she glanced down at his sketches-“for this.”

He shook his head. “I don’t need you to do that-I’ll pose you in the studio. I want the scene lit by moonlight, and while I’ve done enough landscapes to know how to manage that for the setting, people are harder. I’ll need to work in candlelight, and convert that to moonlight.” He caught her gaze. “Your pose will be difficult as it is-indoors will be bad enough.”

She looked into his eyes, then pulled a face. “Thank you for the warning.” She glanced toward the Garden of Night. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

They both turned as footsteps sounded, swinging down through the Garden of Vesta.

“Barnaby.” Gerrard closed his sketchbook.

“I wonder if he’s been up to the house?”

Barnaby emerged from the path and saw them. He grinned and ambled over. “Richards said he thought you were here. I decided, after the exigencies of my morning, that I shouldn’t place any further strain on my temper-according to Richards there’s a platoon of local ladies in the drawing room.”

Subsiding onto the grass before the seat, Barnaby heaved a long sigh, then stretched out, folding his arms over his chest and closing his eyes.

Gerrard grinned; he prodded Barnaby with his boot. “So report-what did you learn in St. Just?”

Barnaby’s features set; it was instantly apparent whatever he’d discovered hadn’t made him happy. “It’s nonsensical. Well, no, I can-just possibly-understand that people do leap to conclusions based on precious little fact, and the only widely known fact regarding Thomas’s disappearance and now death is that the last person to have seen him, and what’s more, to have been in the gardens with him, is Jacqueline.”

Opening his eyes, Barnaby looked at her. “If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I wouldn’t have believed how widespread, or indeed how entrenched, suspicion against you is. As it was, I had to be careful what I said-how much I let out and, most importantly, how I reacted to-” Clearly frustrated, he gestured with both hands. “ ‘Established fact’!”

Looking at Jacqueline, Barnaby assayed a grin. “I assure you, I deserve a medal for discretion.” He glanced at Gerrard, met his eyes. “But it was distressing, and rather unnerving.”

Gerrard frowned. Barnaby didn’t use words like “distressing” and “unnerving” without cause. Indeed, very little unnerved Barnaby.

Lying back, eyes closed, Barnaby refolded his arms, frowning, too. Eventually, Gerrard asked, “What are you thinking?” It was patently obvious something portentous was brewing in Barnaby’s brain.

Barnaby sighed. “I honestly think we have to act now-not leave everything until later, until the portrait’s finished and we can use it to open people’s eyes.” Opening his own, he looked up at them both. “The portrait’s critical to making people rethink their views of your mother’s murder, but Thomas…” His gaze rested on Jacqueline. “That’s another case, and we can’t let them hang the blame on you without cause. If we let it go, let them think what they are without challenging it now, then we’re going to face a much harder battle to make them open their minds later.”

Barnaby looked at Gerrard. “I think we need to speak to Tregonning-lay before him the clear evidence Jacqueline was in no way involved in Thomas’s murder, and also the facts demonstrating she’s innocent of her mother’s murder, too.”

Jacqueline drew a not entirely steady breath. “Why do we need to convince Papa?”

Barnaby met her gaze. “Because we need to present a united front, first to last, and when it comes to the local gentry, his attitude is the most crucial. Millicent’s, Gerrard’s, and my opinions are all very well, but if your father doesn’t support you, well, you can see how hard it’s going to be.”

Abruptly, Barnaby lay back and shook his fists at the sky. “And it shouldn’t be hard because you’re not guilty!”

He glanced at them both. “Sorry, but I really think we need to recruit Lord Tregonning.”

Contents

Обращение к пользователям