18

One of the great attractions of a trip to London was the chance of visiting the very best modistes. With Millicent, Jacqueline had taken full advantage of the capital’s amenities; when, that evening, she climbed Lady Sommerville’s staircase on Gerrard’s arm, she felt positively glowing in a gown of amber silk surprinted with a delicate dark bronze tracery.

She’d donned the new gown to bolster her confidence; she also hoped it would make her task that evening easier by attracting the attention of other gentlemen.

During their evenings’ entertainments, Gerrard always hovered by her side, presumably to ensure she remained untroubled, and so he could whisk her away when the clocks struck ten. She was his subject; naturally, he wanted her in the right frame of mind to pose for him. There was nothing more behind his attentiveness, his hovering, than that. They were lovers, true, and he was possessive in that sphere, but in general in society, she could see no reason for him to be so.

Not unless he was thinking of marrying her, which he wasn’t. That was what she needed to prove.

After greeting Lord and Lady Sommerville, she and Gerrard swept into the ballroom. It wasn’t a huge room, and this wasn’t, she’d been told, a large party, yet she was pleased to note numerous dark coats dotted amid the bright satins and silks.

Gerrard steered her in Millicent’s wake; they eventually stopped beside a chaise on which Lady Horatia Cynster sat. Exchanging pleasantries, Millicent settled beside her ladyship; with Gerrard, Jacqueline moved to stand to one side of the chaise.

Intent on her plan, she lifted her head and eagerly scanned the guests.

Gerrard seized the moment to less than approvingly scan her. Where the devil had she gotten that gown? The silk hugged her figure, clung to her breasts, outlined the quintessentially feminine curve of her waist and the evocative flare of her hips. As for the long line of her legs that always transfixed him, the fine material flirted and seduced, first revealing, then concealing as she moved. Worse, whenever she moved, the light corruscated over the complex fabric, drawing the eye to her delectable curves.

And not just his eye.

Mental alarm bells rang. Glancing around, he inwardly swore. It was summer. The crowd was small and commensurately more select-and of quite a different caliber to that of a ball during the Season. There were few bright young things in evidence; they were all attending country house parties in the hope of snaring a husband. Likewise, the younger gentlemen had in the main been hauled off by their fond mamas, to either do their duty by their sisters, or to look over the field, also at those same house parties.

The vast majority of those left in town, including all those strolling or prowling through Lady Sommerville’s ballroom, weren’t interested in snaring a husband or wife. They were, however, definitely interested in members of the opposite sex.

Too many of the gentlemen had already noticed Jacqueline.

He used the term “gentlemen” generically; many of the males present were wolves of the ton. He knew them; on the rare occasions he could be persuaded to attend such affairs, he was normally classed among their number.

Some dark emotion, one that made him feel like snarling, rose when he saw one of his peers cast his eye assessingly over Jacqueline. This would definitely be the last time she wore that gown in public, at least not until they were married, and perhaps not even then.

The intrigued gentleman noticed his hard stare; they locked eyes. After a moment, the gentleman’s lips curved; he inclined his head and moved on.

Just as well.

Gerrard glanced at Jacqueline, then surreptitiously drew out his watch and checked. It was just nine o’clock; he had an hour to endure before he could legitimately whisk her away. The obvious alternative tempted, but Horatia was there. Patience’s mama-in-law, she regarded him as a cross between a nephew and a grandson; she would notice any change in his schedule and report it.

Beside him, Jacqueline shifted; she slid her hand onto his arm. “Let’s stroll. Most others are.”

She started walking; he fell in beside her, not at all sure mingling with his strutting peers was a wise idea. But she was on his arm; he could steer her clear of any-

Halting, she half turned and smiled, inviting the attention of a couple nearby. “Good evening.”

Gerrard looked, and inwardly groaned.

Two unquestionably eager steps brought Perry Somerset, Lord Castleton, to Jacqueline’s side. Beside Perry, rather more reluctantly, came Mrs. Lucy Atwell, Perry’s current paramour.

Tall and stylishly handsome, Perry reached for Jacqueline’s hand, and threw Gerrard a glance. “Do introduce us, old chap.”

Inwardly gritting his teeth, he did; Perry bowed elegantly.

Lucy and Jacqueline exchanged polite nods.

“I’m delighted to meet you, Miss Tregonning.” Lucy’s fine eyes roved Jacqueline’s gown. “I must compliment you on your attire-Cerise?”

“No, Celeste.”

“Ah.” Lucy flashed him a measuring look. “I’ve heard Mr. Debbington has been burning the midnight oil-literally-in painting a fabulous portrait of you. Do you find his demands difficult to meet?”

“Not at all.” Jacqueline’s smile was transparently assured. “I quite enjoy it.”

“Indeed?” Lucy’s brows arched; the look she threw him was arch, too. She knew that prior to Jacqueline, he’d only painted people he was close to; she was searching for some reason-the most obvious reason-as to why he was painting Jacqueline, but had refused to paint her, stunning though she was.

Before he could steer the conversation into safer, less ambiguous waters, Perry asked if they’d visited Kew Gardens.

That was such a strange question to hear coming from Perry, a rakehell who rarely saw the sun, both Gerrard and Lucy stared at him.

“No,” Jacqueline brightly replied. “But I’ve heard they’re impressive.”

“I’ve heard the same about the gardens at your home,” Perry said. “Perhaps you’d like to view Kew one afternoon, to compare?”

“No.” Gerrard laid his hand over Jacqueline’s on his sleeve. “I’m afraid we don’t have time-the sittings are quite arduous.”

Jacqueline looked at him. “But I don’t sit in the afternoons.”

He met her eyes. “You will be, starting tomorrow.”

“But-”

“And the very last thing we need is more freckles.”

She stared at him; she didn’t possess a single freckle, not anywhere, and he knew it.

The squeak of violins cut through the room.

“Perhaps some other time,” Perry said cheerily. “Meanwhile, if you would grant me the honor-”

“I’m afraid I’m before you, old boy.” Gerrard clamped his fingers about Jacqueline’s hand; catching her eye, he raised her fingers to his lips. “My dance, I believe?”

She thought-actively thought-about refusing him. He saw it in her eyes. What she saw in his-the emotion that flared in response-apparently convinced her to acquiesce with good grace.

He returned his gaze to Lucy and Perry. “If you’ll excuse us?”

“Of course.” Lucy was looking daggers at Perry, who hadn’t yet noticed.

Gerrard led Jacqueline to the dance floor, then swung her into his arms and stepped into the swirling throng. If he was wise, he wouldn’t make any comment. After all, what could he say?

“Why this sudden urge to consort with strangers?” Even to his ears, the question sounded ludicrous; worse, his tone registered as aggrieved.

He wasn’t surprised when she looked at him, her eyes wide. “What on earth do you mean? They’re other guests. I thought we should be sociable.”

Why? He bit his tongue and looked over her head, steering her into a turn. The soft shush of her skirts against his trousers, the feel of her supple body, pliant under his hand at her back, soothed his unexpected irritation. What was he so agitated over? A few words?

Or because she’d sought Perry’s attention?

He didn’t like the answer. Drawing her fractionally closer, he immersed himself in the dance, gave himself up to the predictable pleasure of waltzing her around the room. The whirling left them cocooned in time and space, alone in the middle of a crowd.

Alone with her-that was how he preferred to be. Until now he’d thought himself a social animal, at least when he wasn’t painting, but with her, when it came to her, he was discovering new aspects of himself every day.

Jacqueline remained silent, content to whirl safe in his arms while she thought through what had just occurred. Eventually, she looked up at Gerrard. “Is there an understanding between Lord Castleton and Mrs. Atwell?”

His lips thinned. “Yes.”

“Ah. I see.” She looked away. In stopping Castleton from claiming her hand, Gerrard had been steering her clear of stepping on Mrs. Atwell’s toes. Very properly. He hadn’t been acting possessively but protectively; it was sometimes difficult to tell.

She revisited her plan; it still seemed viable, but she clearly needed to make a few adjustments. Next time, she would have to find someone to entertain Gerrard, someone he was willing to be entertained by.

At the end of the dance, by mutual accord they resumed their stroll.

Finding someone she could be certain Gerrard would be willing to be entertained by wasn’t as easy as she’d hoped, but by dint of steady application, she finally set eyes on the perfect group.

“Mrs. Wainwright, what a pleasure to see you.” She smiled at the stylish matron and bobbed a curtsy, then exchanged greetings with the lady’s two unmarried daughters, Chloe and Claire. Jacqueline had met the trio at a number of afternoon engagements, and at a musicale.

The family knew Patience and Gerrard well; their home lay near Gerrard’s estate in Derbyshire. Gerrard shook hands and bowed. Chloe and Claire’s eyes lit; they responded warmly, and asked after his horses.

Delighted to have found such young ladies, of suitable age and perfectly sensible, to keep Gerrard company, Jacqueline turned her smile on the last member of the group-a handsome, well-dressed gentleman whose features declared him to be Chloe and Claire’s older brother, Rupert. Jacqueline recalled some mention of him.

“Hello!” Smiling, she gave him her hand. “You must be Rupert.”

“I confess I am.” With a delighted smile, Rupert bowed, all long-limbed grace. His eyes twinkled as he straightened. “Whatever tales they’ve told of me are probably true.”

She laughed.

“I heard you’re in town sitting for Gerrard-that’s quite a coup. Have you had time to see much of London?”

“A little-not perhaps as much as I’d have liked, but…”

Gerrard chatted with the Wainwright girls, simultaneously monitoring Jacqueline’s exchange with Rupert. He knew Rupert, knew his propensities, but Rupert was behaving himself-as usual when under his mother’s eagle eye.

Confirming that Mrs. Wainwright did indeed have her eye on Rupert, Gerrard relaxed, and gave his attention to Chole and Claire; he’d known them all their lives.

He didn’t see the danger, until it was too late.

“There’s the musicians again.” Rupert swept Jacqueline a bow. “Can I tempt you onto the floor, Miss Tregonning?”

Gerrard whipped around-but he’d danced the last dance with Jacqueline.

“Thank you.” Jacqueline smiled gloriously and gave Rupert her hand. “That would be delightful.”

No, it wouldn’t be. Gerrard inwardly swore; Mrs. Wainwright tensed, and shifted nervously. In something close to mounting panic, he watched Jacqueline, oblivious, smile and chat to Rupert as he led her to the floor…

Turning to Chloe, he reached for her hand. “If you would grant me the honor of this dance, Miss Wainwright?” He barely waited for her agreement before leading her in her brother’s wake.

The music swelled as they reached the floor; he swung Chloe into his arms, his gaze fixed on Jacqueline. They started revolving; he steered them as close to Jacqueline and Rupert as he could.

Chloe sighed. “Nothing will happen until the end of the dance.”

When he looked down at her, she rolled her eyes resignedly. “He uses the dance to butter them up-you know what he’s like. When the music ends, she’ll be curious to see whatever it is he’s invented this time, but still convinced he’s perfectly trustworthy.”

“As most of us know, he’s not.”

“Indeed. But there’s nothing you can do until the dance finishes, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop staring at them, and pay attention to where we’re going!” Chloe tugged at his shoulder; they barely avoided another couple.

Gerrard colored. “Sorry.” He hadn’t blushed in decades.

He tried to comply with Chloe’s edict-he knew she was right-but logic couldn’t prevail against the dark impulses surfacing; time and again, he darted glances at Jacqueline as, laughing and smiling gaily, she circled the floor in Rupert’s expert arms.

Jaw clenched, his teeth almost grinding, Gerrard waited for the waltz to wind to its conclusion.

Whirling around the room, Jacqueline wondered if any other man was ever going to meet, let alone eclipse, the standards Gerrard had set. Her senses assessed Rupert, and despite his obvious expertise, found him wanting. In just what way, she couldn’t say, but it was simply not the same as waltzing with Gerrard. Inwardly sighing, she continued to respond to Rupert’s conversation. He certainly had a glib tongue. They’d touched on various topics; he’d now steered the conversation to gardens.

Why they all thought she must be interested in gardens she had no idea. Yes, the gardens of Hellebore Hall were fantastic, but she’d grown up with them; she took their extravagant beauty and power largely for granted.

As if sensing how mild was her interest, Rupert shifted the conversation to statuary, specifically statues of Greek and Roman gods.

“I say.” His hazel eyes lit. “There’s a fascinating statue in the library here. Have you seen it?”

She shook her head. “This is only the second time I’ve visited here.”

“Ah, well-this is not to be missed. I’m sure Lady Sommerville, if she’d thought of it, would have suggested you view it. Coming from a house surrounded by gardens devoted to various gods, you’ll appreciate it-it’s a fabulously lifelike depiction of a thoroughly remarkable naked god. I’ve never been able to decide which one-perhaps you could hazard a guess.”

The music slowed; their feet halted. Rupert took her hand. “Come-let me show it to you. I assure you, it’ll take your breath away.”

He looked so eager, she hadn’t the heart to argue, let alone refuse. Especially as Rupert was helping her prove her point. She glanced back as he led her out into a corridor; she couldn’t see Gerrard. When last she’d glimpsed him, he’d been waltzing with Chloe.

The sight had caused her an unexpected pang, yet if, as she contended, his interest in her derived solely from her being his subject, and not at all because he saw her as his intended bride, then naturally, given the right opportunity, his attention should wander.

If she spent the next hour with Rupert and other gentlemen, quite apart from Gerrard, while he spent that time enjoying the company of some other lady or ladies, then surely she could cite that as tangible evidence-as factual, actual proof-that he didn’t see her as his future wife.

Rupert halted, threw open a door and waved her through. Crossing the threshold, she heaved an inward sigh. She felt certain that if Gerrard did see her as his bride, he wouldn’t allow her to be alone with Rupert.

Yet he had. So…here she was, in a darkened library. Actually alone with Rupert. She’d assumed the room would be open to guests, with lamps lit and maybe a few older gentlemen snoozing in armchairs. Instead, it was deserted, the dark shadows thrown by packed bookcases and heavily curtained windows encroaching on a desk and chairs grouped in the room’s center.

Rupert closed the door, plunging the room into deeper darkness. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust.

She looked about, swiveling to scan the room. “Where’s the statue?”

Rupert drew near. “Well, my dear, just give me a few minutes, and I’ll create it-to your abundant satisfaction.”

His tone warned her; clearly she’d made a serious error in judgment. Swinging to face him, she stared. “What?”

Rupert shrugged off his coat and tossed it on the desk. He smiled, his hands rising to his cravat. “Confess. You didn’t really think there was a statue, not one of marble, did you?”

His attempt at a seductive purr grated on her nerves. “Yes! I did!” She glared at him. “And here-” Grabbing his coat, she thrust it at him. “Put that back on.”

Rupert waggled his eyebrows. “No.” His cravat half undone, he undid his waistcoat and tugged his shirt from his waistband. “I promised you a naked god, and I always keep my promises.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, then nodded. “Very well. But I never promised I’d stay and watch.”

She darted to the side, intending to slip past him and race to the door.

He was quick, too quick; stepping sideways, he blocked her path.

Then he smiled, cynical yet still stupidly eager, and moved nearer.

Pressing her, herding her, back toward the desk.

He took her out this way.” Gerrard stalked into the corridor, towing Chloe behind him. He wanted a witness, especially one of Rupert’s family, so there’d be someone who’d know the reason for him thrashing Rupert to within an inch of his life.

“Are you sure?” Chloe asked, her tone beyond resigned.

“Yes.” Gerrard paused and looked up and down the corridor. “Where the devil have they gone? There’s no rooms open this way.”

“Rupert won’t be looking for an open room.”

Gerrard swore, and headed down the corridor, Chloe’s hand in his. “Your brother’s incorrigible.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Me? I don’t waltz young ladies out of ballrooms.”

“Precisely.”

Chloe’s tone was tart. Gerrard threw her a warning glance, which she met with a sour look.

“Ooooow!!” Crash!

The commotion came from a room further down the corridor. Gerrard dropped Chloe’s hand and ran.

“No!”

As he flung open the door, he realized it was Rupert shrieking.

Stop it! That’s enough. Put the damned thing down!”

The sight that met his eyes brought Gerrard up short. Rupert, his shirt hanging open and cravat askew, was on the floor, on his arse, desperately scrabbling backward from Jacqueline, a virago wielding a long wooden ruler.

Protecting his head with his raised arms, Rupert wasn’t escaping.

“You fiend!” Jacqueline laid into him, slapping the ruler against his thigh. “You witless…” Words failed her. Dragging in a breath, she brandished the ruler. “Put your clothes back on this instant! Do you hear me? Now!

Gerrard had known she had a temper; he hadn’t previously seen it totally unleashed.

Her eyes blazed as, unimpressed with Rupert’s bumbling attempts to find his buttonholes, she stepped nearer and raised her arm.

“No, no-see, I’m dressing-I am!”

“Good!” She stood over him and glared. “Don’t you ever-ever!-try such a thing with any other young lady. If you do, I’ll hear of it, and I’ll…I’ll-”

“I have a horsewhip you can borrow.”

Jacqueline jerked her head up, stared at Gerrard as he calmly-too calmly, with far too much control-strolled into the room. Snapping her mouth shut, she straightened, and slipped the ruler behind her, into the folds of her skirts. “Ah…” She really didn’t like the feral look in Gerrard’s eyes, which were fixed unwaveringly on Rupert. “Rupert had an accident.”

Gerrard’s lips curved, not in a smile. “I know just what sort of accident Rupert had. What, incidentally, caused the crash?”

“He fell over a stool.”

After she’d pushed him, then whacked him with the ruler.

“How unfortunate.”

Gerrard’s drawl was deepening-worsening.

“Yes, well…” Jacqueline blew out a breath, puffing aside a lock of hair her tussle with Rupert had loosened. “As you can see”-she went to gesture at the cowering Rupert, then realized she had the ruler in that hand and switched to using her other-“he’s…getting himself together again.”

Much as she was tempted to leave Rupert to whatever fate Gerrard might mete out, it was, in a way, at her instigation that Rupert had come to be alone with her. She’d never imagined he’d do anything so patently silly, but…He was nearly finished buttoning his shirt. He didn’t seem able to look away from them, his eyes wide, resting first on her, then on Gerrard; he looked like he was struggling not to whimper. “And then he’s leaving,” she pointedly said, hoping he’d take the hint and go with all speed.

“Oh, he’s definitely leaving.”

Gerrard took one step, grasped Rupert’s arm and hauled him to his feet.

“Here! I say, old chap-”

Resisting the urge to shake Rupert, Gerrard marched him to the door. “Just be thankful there are ladies present.”

Rupert goggled at Chloe, a silent martyr in the doorway, and shut up.

Chloe stepped back. Gerrard thrust Rupert, still struggling to tuck his shirttails in, through the door, then nodded to Chloe. “If you’ll excuse us?”

No real question; he shut the door on Chloe’s suddenly interested face and turned back into the room.

Jacqueline watched Gerrard stalk, slowly, toward her. While he’d been occupied, she’d tossed the ruler back on the desk, and quickly smoothed down her skirts. Pressing her hands together, she lifted her chin.

“What the devil were you thinking, going off alone with Rupert?” Gerrard halted immediately before her, his expression hard, a definite scowl in his eyes. His tone was harsh, rather flat.

She tilted her chin higher, and suppressed an answering frown. “He said there was a special statue in here. I had no idea he had such a…a salacious scheme in mind.”

“Well, he did.” Gerrard’s eyes bored into hers; his accents were exceedingly clipped. “Indeed, I think it safe to say most of the gentlemen you’ll meet in this season will be entertaining salacious thoughts of you. Most, however, won’t act on them, not unless you encourage them-for instance, by going apart with them in a setting such as this!”

He paused; she saw something-some emotion-roiling behind his eyes. Instead of giving voice to it, lips compressing, he reached for her hand, turned and headed for the door. “I would be exceedingly grateful if in the remaining few days we’re in town, you could refrain from consorting with other men.”

Towed behind him, she almost tripped. “No.” She pulled back on his hand, then almost tipped backward as with a low growl, he swung to face her. “What I mean,” she hastily amended, eyeing his harsh expression, “is why?”

For a moment, he said nothing, just stared at her. Then, “In case it’s slipped your mind, we’re lovers.”

His tone had grown dangerous again; for one fanciful instant she felt as if she was in a darkened room with a large wild animal. Her nerves flickered. Her eyes locked on his, she carefully said, “Yes, but that’s…private. Just because we’re lovers shouldn’t mean I don’t dance or speak with other gentlemen. No one else knows we’re lovers-it looks odd if I cling to your arm all the time.”

And you cling to mine. People are getting quite the wrong idea…But she didn’t wish to be quite so forthright. He might feel obliged to marry her if society expected it, but once the portrait was finished, she’d return to Cornwall, and society would be irrelevant.

She could see thoughts shifting behind his eyes.

His expression hardened, his jaw set. “We’ll only be in town for a few more days-any additional oddity will be neither here nor there.”

Turning, he started towing her to the door again.

Her grand plan lay in shreds, and if he adhered to his pigheaded edict and insisted she remain by his side, she’d never be able to correct the mistaken impression they’d given the ladies of his family-and possibly everyone else.

They were nearing the door. She dug in her heels and tugged back. “No. What you don’t understand-”

He halted; his chest swelled, then he rounded on her. His eyes blazed; his features resembled a granite mask. The air between them shimmered with aggression, and poorly concealed possessiveness. “Do you recall”-his voice had lowered, his diction precise, his tone a dark warning-“agreeing to be mine until I released you?”

She had to nod. “Yes, but-”

“I haven’t released you.” His eyes burned, holding hers. “Until I do, you’re mine-andnoother’s.”

She stared at him, stunned; she’d never imagined he’d draw such a line.

Apparently believing her silence denoted agreement, he continued in a fractionally less domineering vein as he turned and opened the door, “Specifically, you will not encourage any other gentlemen-you won’t seek their company, nor encourage them to seek yours.”

Drawing her through the door, he reached back, shut it-and to her continuing dumbfounded astonishment went on as he led her back to the ballroom, “And most importantly, you will not go anywhere alone with cads like Rupert-”

She shook aside her astonishment; it was doing her no good. “How the devil was I to know he was a cad?” Her temper rose. “If you want my opinion, Rupert’s a handsome lackwit. For the good of young ladies everywhere he should be locked up in Derbyshire-”

“If you’d remembered your promise-”

“I didn’t promise you my every hour!”

“I have news for you. You did.” His voice had gone dangerously flat. The gaze he bent on her was hard and unyielding. “Even if you didn’t mean it, I’m claiming exactly that-every last hour of every day.”

She searched his eyes; her jaw fell.

He held her gaze for a pregnant instant, then looked ahead and whisked her into the ballroom.

Jacqueline snapped her mouth shut, bit her tongue, swallowed her scream of frustration; too many pairs of eyes had fastened on them.

Setting her hand on his arm, Gerrard led her through the guests; only she was aware of his glamour, the contradiction between his outward languid elegance as he nodded to others, and the tension in the muscles beneath her fingers, the rampant possessiveness in the hand covering hers on his sleeve.

She plastered a light smile over her clenched teeth. Bloody-minded, arrogant, obstreporous man! She was only trying to make all right with his family-

It hit her. Suddenly, just like that, in the middle of Lady Sommerville’s ballroom.

The scales fell from her eyes with a resounding crash. She halted abruptly, almost swaying from the shock.

Gerrard smoothly shifted; long fingers closing about her elbow, he propelled her on. “We’re leaving.”

“Now?” A species of panic clutched at her stomach. She looked for Millicent. “But it’s not yet ten.”

“Close enough. Millicent will know we’ve left. Horatia will drive her home.”

It was a routine they’d followed for the last week, but…She needed to think. Desperately needed time to straighten her tangled thoughts.

Her frighteningly dizzying novel thoughts.

In no mood to brook any resistance, Gerrard escorted her out of the ballroom and down the stairs. In the foyer, they waited while his carriage was summoned, then he handed her in and joined her. The door was shut, the horses given the office. The carriage rattled out along the road, and they were alone, sitting side by side in the warm dark.

Teeth gritted, he held his demons down, soothed them with the fact that she was with him, beside him, unharmed, and would remain so, with him, from now on. Until he’d finished the portrait, extricated her from the web of suspicion in Cornwall-and carried her off and married her.

That was his plan, and it was set in stone. Immutable, not open to modification.

Thank heavens Timms had, in her inimitable fashion, warned him. If she hadn’t met him in the corridor that evening and twitted him over allowing Jacqueline to remain in ignorance of his intentions, if Timms hadn’t mentioned the conversation she and Minnie had had with Jacqueline, he’d never have guessed what Jacqueline was about, what was behind her seeking to spend time with other men-and his reaction would have been a great deal less controlled.

Given how fraught, how provoked he’d still felt, even guessing her reasons, the gods only knew what horrors Timms and her teasing had averted.

Sitting in the carriage as it rocked along, excruciatingly aware of Jacqueline beside him, warm, feminine, the perfect answer to his every desire, no matter how deep or dark, guilt seeped through him; the blame for her uncertainty over his intentions lay squarely at his door.

He’d shied away from speaking-of his wish to marry her and even more of his need to marry her-and part of that, definitely, had been a craven wish to protect his own heart, by not acknowledging it, to conceal the vulnerability he felt over loving her.

Be that as it may, he still couldn’t speak, not until the portrait was finished, and she-her winning free of the suspicions over her mother’s death-no longer depended on him, on his talents, and his exercising those in her cause. Waiting was still the honorable way forward.

Imagining it-putting his proposal to the test, laying his future at her feet-sent apprehension snaking down his spine. To him his future might be immutable, but it would only be so if she agreed.

He still had no real idea of her feelings, felt no certainty over how she would react. Did she love him? He still didn’t know.

Drawing in a breath, he shifted to glance at her. She’d been staring straight ahead, unusually silent. The flare from a street lamp fleetingly lit her face. Her expression looked…unreadable.

He frowned. “I expect the portrait to take two, possibly three, more days to complete. After that, I suggest we return to Cornwall with all speed. We set the stage before we left-no sense delaying and letting the questions we successfully raised fade from people’s minds.”

Through the gloom, Jacqueline studied his face. “Only three days?” She hadn’t seen the portrait in the last day or so, hadn’t realized he was so close to finishing it.

He nodded, and looked ahead. “I’d appreciate it if you could remain at the house over that time. In case I need to check a line or adjust the shading.”

She felt her expression harden. “And you’ll be able to concentrate better if you know I’m in the house, and not gallivanting about falling prey to gentlemen cads?”

His jaw tightened. A fraught moment passed, then he nodded. “Precisely.”

He glanced, sharply, at her; even through the dimness she felt the lancing quality of his gaze. “Three days, and the portrait will be finished…” His voice faded; he cleared his throat and looked away. “As for what’s between us, we’ll talk of that later.”

She narrowed her eyes, glared through the gloom, but he was looking out of the window. Later? Damn him! He was intending to marry her.

Just thinking the words left her shaken, as if the earth had tilted beneath her feet. In some ways it had.

Everyone else had seen it; only she hadn’t.

She wasn’t at all sure how she felt about that.

The carriage rocked to a halt in Brook Street. He descended to the pavement and handed her down, then escorted her up the steps and into the front hall.

Masters shut the door behind them. Jacqueline smiled at him. “Aunt Millicent will return later. I doubt she’ll be late.”

“Indeed, miss-she rarely is.” Masters bowed and retreated.

Gerrard took her arm. Grasping her skirts, she climbed the stairs beside him.

In the gallery, she paused. Drawing breath, she faced him. “I’m really not feeling all that well-a bit…unsteady.” True enough; her wits were whirling giddily. “I know you’re in a rush to complete the portrait, but I wonder if you can manage without me for tonight.”

The lamps were turned low, yet even in the weak light, the concern that filled his eyes, his whole face, was visible. His grip on her arm firmed, as if he thought she might faint. “Damn! I knew I was pushing you too hard. You should have said.”

That last was uttered through gritted teeth, but there was enough self-censure in his tone for her to let it pass; he was irate with himself, not her.

“Come-let’s get you to bed.” He glanced at her as he steered her along the corridor. “It isn’t something you ate?”

She shook her head. It was something she’d heard, something she’d realized. “I’m just…overtired.” And she needed time alone to think.

His lips set; he opened her door and guided her in. She’d expected him to ring for her maid and leave her. Instead, he led her to her dressing stool, sat her gently down, and proceeded to pull the pins from her hair.

She stared at him in the mirror. “Ah…my maid can do that. You should go to the studio.”

He shook his head. “I want to see you settled.”

She tried twice more to get him to leave, to no avail. Then, to her even greater astonishment, after tucking her into bed, he hesitated, frowning down at her, then shrugged out of his coat. “I’ll sleep with you for a while. The portrait will go faster if I take a break, and without you…”

The suspicion that he knew she wasn’t truly ill and was calling her bluff, as it were, occurred only to be dismissed; the look on his face was a transparent medley of concern and worry.

Guilt jabbed at her, but she desperately needed time to think. How she was to accomplish that with him lying naked beside her…

He slid under the covers and reached for her. She half expected him to make love to her; instead, he gathered her gently into his arms, settling her against his warmth. He bent his head, searched for her lips, but there was no passion in his kiss, only gentleness.

“Go to sleep.”

With that order, he relaxed beside her, around her, sinking deeper into the soft mattress.

He fell asleep in minutes.

She didn’t.

Listening to his breathing, she turned her mind to all she had to sort through-the observations, the revelations, the inescapable conclusion.

He did, indeed, intend to marry her.

That much was now beyond doubt. Viewing his behavior from that perspective, there was no contradiction, no reason to question the conclusion everyone, it seemed, had reached.

What was in question was how she felt, not just about his wanting to marry her, but about his failure to mention the matter despite having opportunities aplenty.

She felt she should be angry, yet that seemed too simple, too superficial a response. Decisions on marriage were too serious, too important, to be governed by such reactions.

Timms had warned her to think of her answer; that was assuredly sound advice. Yet in evaluating him, and his desire for her, the one uncertainty she even now could not resolve was the element that had, from the first, been a complicating factor between them. Was his interest in her, passionate and intense though it was, primarily a painter’s fascination, something that would dissipate once he’d painted her enough to satisfy his obsession-or was there something deeper, more enduring, behind it?

She couldn’t answer that question, no matter how she examined, analyzed and thought. Unless he told her which alternative was the truth, she wouldn’t see it, not until it was too late. Without him telling her, without him being willing to reveal that much to her, she wouldn’t be able to answer him.

Stalemate. She turned her mind to the other aspect she had to resolve. He hadn’t said anything, had given not the slightest indication he wanted her for his bride, yet it wasn’t hard to see that should she wish to refuse him, her position-thanks to him-was now seriously weak.

She glanced at him, lying slumped beside her, one heavy arm thrown over her waist. He was lying on his stomach, his face by her shoulder…She had to resist a sudden urge to run her fingers through his heavily tousled hair.

He’d manipulated her. She was increasingly sure that was true. Increasingly sure that he’d made the decision to marry her relatively early in their acquaintance, perhaps even before he’d taken her to his bed. At her insistence, true enough, yet she wasn’t sure, any longer, just who had been inciting whom.

It was patently obvious he’d realized she hadn’t read his direction, that she hadn’t understood his ultimate aim. Studying his profile in the dimness, she wasn’t the least bit amused by what was in effect deceit by omission. Admittedly, he, and many others, too, would consider his actions as being “for her own good”; that in no way excused them, not to her.

Almost as if he could feel her disapproval, even in his sleep, he stirred, heavy and warm beside her. His arm tightened about her as if checking…with a soft gusty sigh, all tension left him and he slipped into deep sleep again.

Even asleep, he was possessive. And protective.

She looked at him, felt him half surrounding her. A warm feeling, part elation, part simple joy, rose within her, spread, then flooded through her, slowly subsiding.

How was she to answer him when he asked?

Was she prepared to cut off her nose to spite her face?

Was she prepared to live her life without him, without experiencing that warm feeling in the night, that elation-that simple joy?

The answer to that wasn’t one she needed to search for; it was there, in her mind, clear and shining, unequivocally true.

Was that love? Did she love him?

She still wasn’t entirely sure. She would think more on that, yet for now, how was she to manage this-manage him? How was she to cope?

She sighed and turned her mind to that-and fell asleep.

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