19

Jacqueline walked into the breakfast parlor the next morning-and found Gerrard seated at the table, working his way through a plate of ham and sausages. He met her gaze, and murmured a greeting.

She returned it; wondering, she went to the sideboard.

The older ladies didn’t come down for breakfast; normally she was the only one there. Gerrard had been gone from her bed when she’d woken. Given the shifting landscape between them, she felt rather odd taking the chair opposite him at the otherwise empty table and nodding to Masters as he poured her tea. Almost a preview of how things might be.

Masters stepped back. Lowering his coffee cup, Gerrard caught her eye. “I received a message from Patience this morning. She, Vane and their brood are returning to Kent this afternoon. Given I’m not sleeping away the morning, I thought I’d go around and bid them farewell. I wondered if you were free to accompany me? You did promise Therese, and she won’t forget.”

Jacqueline’s expectation of a boring morning spent indoors evaporated. “Yes, thank you. I will come.” Aside from all else, it would give her a chance to reassess Patience’s view of her and Gerrard; his sister knew him better than anyone.

They left after breakfast, as soon as she’d changed her gown. The day was fine and sunny; they elected to walk the few blocks to Curzon Street.

Bradshaw opened the door to them. The atmosphere within the house was one step away from bedlam. Piles of boxes were already growing on the hall floor; footmen and maids were scurrying frantically.

“There you are!” From the gallery, Patience waved and came hurrying down the stairs. “What a blessing!” She embraced Gerrard, then Jacqueline, with equal fervor.

“We thought we’d come and bid the monsters adieu,” Gerrard said.

Patience put her hand over her heart. “If you can distract them for half an hour, I’ll be forever in your debt. They want to help, but they’re driving the staff demented.”

Smiling, Jacqueline turned to the stairs. “Are they in the nursery?”

“Yes-do go up. You know the way.” Patience turned away as her housekeeper bustled up.

Gerrard joined Jacqueline on the stairs and together they went up.

They spent nearly an hour with the children, Gerrard on the floor with the boys, drawing and talking of manly activities, Jacqueline with Therese in her lap, sitting in the window seat telling stories of princesses and unicorns, and playing with ribbons.

Retying Therese’s ribbons for the third time, Jacqueline watched Gerrard deal with the two boys. He was clearly first oars with them. And with Therese, but the little girl seemed determined to redirect her attention to Jacqueline, demanding acknowledgment in return, totally assured, as if convinced she had the right.

As if she saw Jacqueline as the female half of Gerrard.

Jacqueline would have dismissed the thought as reading too much into the actions of a small child, but she couldn’t. Therese’s certainty shone in her big blue eyes…and she hadn’t even seen Gerrard and Jacqueline in any social setting. Was it truly that obvious, even to babes?

Eventually, two nursemaids came to take the children down for luncheon. They made their good-byes, boisterous on the part of the boys, more dignified from Therese.

“And you’ll come with Uncle Gerrard when he visits us in the country.”

Crouching down, Jacqueline smiled and tweaked Therese’s ribbons. “I’ll come if I can, but that might not be possible.”

Therese frowned. Gerrard came to say good-bye. Brightening, she waved her arms; he obliged, and swung her up.

Jacqueline rose. Therese wrapped her arms tight about Gerrard’s neck and whispered something into his ear. His eyes shifted to Jacqueline, then he looked back at Therese as she eased her hold and leaned back.

He smiled. “All right. But…” He tickled Therese and she squealed. “You’re a devil’s imp, I’m sure.”

Therese giggled and squirmed. Gerrard set her down, and watched her hurry to join her waiting nursemaid. In the doorway, Therese blew kisses to both Jacqueline and him, then ran off; her laughter echoed back along the corridor, then faded.

Gerrard took Jacqueline’s arm. She glanced at his face; he was still smiling. “What did she ask?”

He met her eyes, then shrugged. “Just about when I’ll next come down to visit them.”

She wanted to press for details, but wasn’t quite game; she didn’t want to precipitate a decision she hadn’t yet made.

Downstairs, they found Patience and bade her farewell; clearly distracted, she hugged them both. “We’ll see you at the summer celebration.”

The comment was general; Jacqueline made no response. She’d heard of the summer gathering of the Cynster clan held at the ducal estate.

They found Vane in his study, up to his ears in investment reports. He smiled, rose and shook their hands; his gaze rested on her warmly, as if he, too, saw her as someone rather closer than a friend.

Indeed, as Gerrard followed her from the study, leaving Vane to his work, she realized no one would describe her as Gerrard’s “friend.” That label had never fitted, but just what she was…

What she might be, what she would consent to be, she hadn’t yet decided.

They strolled back to the front hall. Gerrard paused amid the chaos. He glanced around, then took her hand. “Come-I want to show you something.”

He led her into the dining room, yet to be stripped of its plate and cocooned under Holland covers. Guiding her around the table, he halted before the hearth, looking up at the picture hanging over the mantelpiece.

It had already commanded her eyes, her attention. It was a portrait of Patience, seated, with her three elder children gathered about her. Who had painted it was not in doubt.

Jacqueline stared, her gaze drawn again and again to Patience’s face as she gazed down at her children. The emotion that glowed there was remarkable; it tugged at the heart, soothed the soul-reassured that the world was right, would be right, as long as such encompassing, all-powerful feeling existed within it.

“Of all the portraits I’ve done with children, this meant the most to me.” Beside her, his gaze on the portrait, Gerrard spoke quietly. “Patience was my surrogate mother for years-for me, painting this was the final step in growing up. As if in recognizing and bringing to the canvas what she feels for her children, the infinite depth that isn’t duplicated in any other relationship, I let her go.” His lips quirked. “And possibly let her let go, too.”

She said nothing, but looked again at the evocative portrait.

He shifted. “I have to admit, in painting that, I learned a great deal about motherhood.”

After a moment, he wound her arm with his; they left the room, and with a good-bye to Bradshaw, quit the house.

They walked briskly back. Gerrard glanced at her as they turned into Brook Street. “I’m going to the studio-I’ll want you to pose this afternoon, and then through the evening. You’ll have to cry off any engagement.” He frowned, looking ahead, not waiting for any agreement. “I’ll need the next two evenings entire from you to complete it as it should be.”

She could hardly argue; she nodded and climbed the front steps beside him. “I’ll tell Millicent.” And then send cards to the ladies whose entertainments they’d agreed to attend.

He paused before the door, met her eyes. All lightness had flown from his. After a moment, he murmured, “It won’t be long now.”

She nodded; Masters opened the door and they went in. The portrait would soon be finished-and then, between them, they’d have to face whatever was destined to be.

He was a font of ambiguous comments, utterances she could interpret in at least two ways, if not three.

That afternoon, Jacqueline posed beside the column in the studio, while Gerrard, with complete and utter absorption, painted her onto his canvas.

He’d let her peek before she’d taken up her position; there wasn’t that much more to do, but these final stages would be crucial to the overall quality and impact of the work.

She’d learned to be silent, to let her mind wander while keeping absolutely still, keeping her hand raised, her head tilted just so. Her expression didn’t matter; her face and features would be the last things he would paint, working from the multitude of sketches he’d already done. So she didn’t have to guard her thoughts. At present, his interest was fixed on her raised hand.

His focus had always intrigued her; it reached deeper, signified far more than mere concentration. Devotion and dedication were the concepts that sprang to mind, along with ruthless, relentless determination. He brought all three to the task, driven, quite clearly compelled.

From the corner of her eye, she glanced at him, briefly let her gaze drink in the sight of him standing poised behind his easel in shirt-sleeves, breeches and boots, wielding his brushes with consummate skill.

In arranging to have him paint her portrait, she hadn’t been searching for a champion, but she’d got one. He’d driven up and claimed the position, just like a knight of old, sworn to defend her honor, her reputation, against the world. That was the commitment he brought to her portrait; she no longer questioned that for him-as with the portrait of Patience and her children-this work meant more. He was painting it for her, in defense of her, yet the doing of it gave something to him, too.

The ability to vanquish those who’d dared threaten her.

Her gaze rested on him; now her eyes had been opened, she could see so much more. A chivalrous protectiveness he might feel for any lady, but the possessiveness that in her case went hand in hand with a protectiveness that was rigid, absolute, and knew no bounds, made it impossible to imagine that, success achieved and her dragons vanquished, he would simply shake her hand and drive away.

She hadn’t looked for marriage, not to him or any other, yet it seemed he was intent on bringing that to her, too.

As her successful champion, he could request a reward. Shifting her gaze, she wondered when he would ask. Of what he would ask, she no longer had any doubt.

How she would answer, she still didn’t know.

It all hinged on whether she loved him.

She felt like a Shakespearean heroine, gazing at the moon, asking: What is love?

Two nights had passed since the morning they’d farewelled Patience, since Gerrard had informed her he would be painting for longer hours. She’d posed through the afternoon and into the late evening of both days. He’d retired with her to the bed in the alcove, but later had returned to his canvas.

This morning, when at dawn he’d walked her back to her room, he’d told her he wouldn’t need her again. He was painting her face, her features; not only didn’t he need her for that, but he’d explained he didn’t want the distraction of setting eyes on her during the process.

She’d borne her banishment with good grace, but she’d grown accustomed to being awake at dawn. To being with him through the dark watches of the night.

Restless, she’d come to her window, to stare at the waning moon and ask the ancient question. Much good had it done her.

The lamps were still burning in the attics; she could see the reflection in the glasshouse panes. He was still working…Lips setting, she straightened. If he was, he needed to rest. He’d been painting almost around the clock for more than two days.

The night was hot and sultry; a thunderstorm grumbled in the distance as she slipped through the shadows of the upper corridor and eased open the door to the hidden stair. The boards didn’t creak as she quietly climbed; at the top, she opened the door to the studio, and peered in.

He wasn’t in front of the canvas. She looked around, then slipped in and closed the door. He wasn’t in the main section-but the portrait was.

It was complete, finished; she didn’t need him to tell her so.

It was remarkable, powerful. It drew her. She stood before it and stared, transfixed. The woman in the painting was her, yet a her with so much on show, so much plainly at stake, emotion welled and blocked her throat.

Amazing. She would never have believed he’d seen all that, much less that he could with mere paints depict it-her inner fears, the sense of imprisonment that had dogged her for the past year, her desperation to escape it, to flee. To leave it all behind, knowing, simultaneously, that she couldn’t.

He hadn’t painted simple innocence, although innocence was plainly there, but the emotions that gave innocence its credibility. Loss, confusion, and a sense of betrayal that had sunk to the soul.

She shivered; despite the heat, she wrapped her arms about her and clutched her wrapper close.

The setting was potent, frightening. Even safe in London in the attics of his house, she could taste the danger, the suffocating tension. Raw menace seeped from the dark leaves of the garden, trying to engulf her and draw her back, into the shadows. The moonlight was faint, a mere suggestion of illumination, not strong enough to light the path ahead.

Darkness predominated, not mere black but a palette of shifting colors, not passive but active evil, alive, still hungry, still wanting her.

The woman in the painting desperately needed someone to reach out and haul her free of the cloying web that miasmalike held her trapped.

The woman in the portrait was her.

She let out a shuddering breath. Drew another in, and looked away, slowly stepped away, out of the portrait’s hold. Beyond evocative, it would free her. Looking around, she searched for its creator.

For her champion who would succeed.

She found him in the alcove, asleep.

Stripped, he’d sprawled facedown across the bed. Standing in the gap between the tapestries, she let her gaze roam, over his muscled shoulders, over the sweep of his back, the indentations below his waist, the swell of his buttocks, the long, muscled lines of his legs.

Moving inside, she let the tapestry close behind her, shutting off the lamplight. Moonlight fell softly, illuminating the scene as she paused by the bed and let her wrapper fall. Raising her hands, she undid the ties of her loose nightgown, and let it slide down to puddle at her feet. Stepping free, she lifted one knee to the bed and crawled across it, to him.

He knew her touch; he didn’t wake when she set her palm to his side, and slowly, lovingly, ran it down. She didn’t stop to think, to question her heart; instead, she let it guide her, and followed it to its desire.

Gently, she urged him onto his back; obligingly he rolled over, still asleep.

Gerrard awoke to sensation. To the touch of her lips, to the heat of her mouth as she closed it around him. To the caress of her hands on his bare hip, on his balls. To the scent of her in the steamy night. To the swish of her hair like silk across his thighs, across his groin.

To the knowledge that she was there, naked, kneeling between his spread thighs, ministering to him. Evocatively. Devotedly.

The shuddering breath he drew in wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to steady his whirling head. Blindly, he reached down, touched her head, helplessly slid his fingers into the thick locks and clutched as his hips rose, thrusting to her tune.

To the music that rose about them.

Pleasure cascaded through him; eons passed as she played, then at his fevered urging rose up, straddled him, and took him in.

She rode him through the night, swept high on the wild winds of ecstasy, through a storm of passion while desire rained down and swamped them. Swirled, built, then dragged them under.

He rose and flipped her over, thrust deep and filled her.

Their bodies merged, slick and heated, in the relentless primal dance.

Total surrender.

It came on the moonlight, whispered through them both, and took them. Racked them.

At the last drew back and left them, sated and exhausted, together in the tangled ruins of his bed.

He woke the next morning with sunshine on his face.

Pleasure in his mind. Memories washing through him.

He lay on his back, sprawled naked beneath the dormer windows.

He’d never felt so decadently alive.

His lips curved, then he smiled, lifted his head and looked around.

She was no longer there, but her scent lingered. Her taste was still on his lips. He had a vague recollection of her whispering that she had to go back to her room, but that he should remain, and sleep.

In the hours prior to that they’d forsaken slumber, too hungry for each other. The minutes had spun out, desire drenched, stoked with passion. In the heat of the night, they’d burned. Soared. Shattered.

The pleasure of her abandoned loving had been soul-shatteringly sweet.

Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he sat up. He ran his hands over his face, then remembered, rose and walked through the tapestries into the studio. To the portrait that sat, complete in its last detail, on his easel.

It was done, and it was, as he’d always known it would be, the finest thing he’d yet accomplished.

Triumph welled, yet it wasn’t solely the triumph of achievement, of pride in a painting well done. It went deeper than that, ranged on a more fundamental plane.

After last night, he knew what she felt for him. There’d been a joy and a rightness in their joining that she’d seen and acknowledged, that she’d openheartedly embraced as strongly as he.

All the necessary pieces were falling into place.

She loved him. She would marry him.

All he had to do was take the portrait back to Cornwall, slay the specters of her past, expose the murderer if they could and win her free.

The future thereafter would be, not his, but theirs.

Turning, he strode to the bellpull and rang for Masters.

Jacqueline slept late. After rising and donning a new gown of sprigged muslin, she consumed a late breakfast in her room, then went downstairs.

Minnie, Timms and Millicent were in the drawing room, heads together, discussing their arrangements for the evening. When they’d learned that the portrait would be completed that day, and that Gerrard was set on returning to Cornwall with it as soon as possible, Millicent, urged on by Minnie and Timms, had declared they would hold a farewell dinner for all those of his family who had helped and supported them during their stay.

And, of course, have a private unveiling of the portrait, in reward as it were.

Gerrard had grimaced, but to her surprise agreed. To her, he’d admitted, “I’m curious to see how they’ll react.”

Patience and Vane had already left town, but most of the others who’d rallied around, encouraged Gerrard and lent her countenance, were still there, although most were, indeed, planning to leave for their estates any day.

Jacqueline confirmed that Gerrard hadn’t yet appeared downstairs. She listened to the guest list, made a few suggestions as the three older ladies wrestled with their seating plan, then excused herself and slipped away.

Going upstairs, she wondered if Gerrard was still sleeping. But as she climbed the hidden stairs to the studio, she heard voices. Looking up, she saw that the studio door had been left ajar.

In the same moment, she recognized Barnaby’s voice.

“Stokes was most exercised over the incident with the arrow.”

Arrow? Jacqueline halted on the last step, a yard from the door.

“Like us,” Barnaby continued, “he thinks the murderer attempting to kill you is an indication that the entire series of murders revolves about Jacqueline herself. She’s the only common link between the victims.”

Jacqueline stilled; she stared at the door, unseeing.

Barnaby went on, “Unlike us, Stokes doesn’t think it’s anything as simple as a jealous suitor.”

Jacqueline heard a swishing sound; Gerrard was cleaning his brushes.

“What does Stokes think?”

The question was flat; his tone held a menacing quality.

“Oh, he acknowledges the possibility of a jealous suitor, but as he points out, none have stepped forward to claim Jacqueline’s hand.”

“Except Sir Vincent.”

“True, but Sir Vincent’s behavior doesn’t suggest any deep and desperate passion. After Jacqueline refused him, he hasn’t shown his face again, hasn’t attempted to press his suit.”

After a moment, Gerrard prompted, “So?”

“So Stokes suggests we look further-what if the motive behind the murders is not for the murderer to marry Jacqueline himself, but to stop her marrying at all? She’s Tregonning’s heiress, after all.”

Gerrard grunted. “I checked. If she dies without issue-or is condemned for murder-on her father’s demise the estate entire goes to a distant cousin in Scotland. Said cousin hasn’t been south of the border for decades, and is, apparently, unaware of his potential good fortune.”

Jacqueline’s jaw dropped.

Silence reigned, then Barnaby asked, his tone reflecting the same stunned amazement she felt, “How the devil did you learn all that? I thought you’ve been painting nonstop?”

“I have been. My brother-in-law, and others, haven’t been.”

“Ah.” After a moment, Barnaby added, “I wish I knew how they ferreted out such things.”

A dark smile colored Gerrard’s voice as he said, “Remind me to introduce you to the Duke of St. Ives.”

“Hmm, yes, well, none of that gets us any further, unfortunately. Whoever it is who wants Jacqueline free of any potential husband is still lurking around Hellebore Hall, waiting for her to return.”

“It’s interesting, don’t you think, that they haven’t followed us to town?”

“Indeed-which is another reason to think it isn’t Sir Vincent. He’s known about town, and could have come up easily enough.”

“Matthew Brisenden couldn’t have.”

“True, but I’ve never seen him as our murderer.”

Gerrard sighed. “I hate to agree with you, but Jacqueline says he’s protective of her, and I think she’s right.”

Outside the door, Jacqueline set her lips. How kind of him to agree with her, but why hadn’t he told her someone had shot an arrow at him? When?

As to why…

“Regardless of our villain’s identity, our way forward is clear.” Gerrard’s voice held steely determination, and a quiet, unshakable resolution. “The portrait is both the key and the bait. We take it back to Hellebore Hall, arrange to show it, and wait for him to strike.”

Jacqueline heard footsteps, Barnaby walking around.

A pause ensued, then he said, “You know, I didn’t entirely believe you could achieve this with a portrait. Damned if it isn’t as good as a real clue. Everyone seeing it will know-and start thinking of who the real murderer might be. And yes, you’re right-it’s bait. He’ll come for it-if at all possible, he’ll destroy it.”

Barnaby’s voice strengthened as he swung around. “But he’ll also come after you.”

“I know.” Gerrard’s voice held a note of imperturbable anticipation. “I’ll be waiting for him.”

Jacqueline stood on the stair, those words revolving in her head. Gerrard and Barnaby discussed the dinner that evening, then the logistics of returning with all speed to Cornwall; she paid little attention, too absorbed with their earlier revelations.

Then Barnaby made to leave. He hadn’t come through the house; he must have used the external stairs. On a spike of relief, she heard them both moving across the studio to the outside door.

Quietly, she turned, and slipped down into the house.

Gerrard gave her precious little time to straighten her tangled thoughts, to steady her whirling head.

Fifteen minutes later, he found her in the back parlor where she’d taken refuge to think without distraction.

She stopped thinking the moment he walked in.

He smiled, all his effortless charm to the fore, a light that was solely for her glowing in his eyes.

That private warmth, the intimate connection, brought memories of the past night crashing back.

She’d thought, last night, that she’d discovered what love was-a surrender, a selfless giving, a devotion that could edge into worship.

From her position on the chaise, she watched him cross the room to her, and it was crystal clear she had a great deal yet to learn.

She drew a tight breath. “Is it completely finished?”

He nodded. “Yes.” He halted a few paces before her, standing easily, his hands sliding into his pockets as his eyes, still glowing brown, searched her face. “I-”

“I’ve been thinking.” She cut across him without compunction. It was imperative she take control of this interview; she knew it was important to keep her gaze steady on his face, but she had to fight to do it. “Millicent and I can take the portrait back-now it’s finished your commission is completed. There’s no need for you and Mr. Adair to trouble yourselves with the long journey back and forth.”

His face changed; in the blink of an eye, his expression turned to stone, his warm gaze to one sharp as a surgeon’s knife.

The silence lengthened, then he said, his tone even and deceptively mild, “I came to ask for your hand-to ask you to be my wife.”

The words were a blow in the center of her chest. Her eyes started to close, to shut out the pain; she forced them open, forced herself to meet and hold his gaze. “I…haven’t, don’t, think of marriage.”

A moment passed, then he said, “I know that initially, when we first became lovers, you weren’t thinking of marriage, not at all. But since then, since coming to London…I think if you consult your memories, you’ll see that you have been, if only instinctively, considering the prospect for some time.”

A straightforward denial leapt to her lips; her gaze trapped in his, she held it back. She recalled Minnie and Timms’s meddling; if they’d prodded her, how much more likely were they to have prodded him? And in doing so accurately informed him of her state. Those two saw far too much.

“I won’t marry you. I don’t wish you to return to Hellebore Hall.” She sat on the chaise, her hands clasped in her lap, and looked up at him steadily. He remained standing, studying her; the intensity of his gaze held her caged.

Love, it seemed, sometimes demanded sacrifice, even after surrender. If that was how it was, then for him, she would be strong enough, even for that.

His eyes narrowed; his gaze didn’t waver. “Was it a dream then, last night? And early this morning? I thought it was you, the angel who visited me in my bed beneath the stars.” Abruptly he moved, a predator circling before her, his eyes never leaving her, never releasing her. “You who took me into her mouth, into her body-”

“Don’t.” She shut her eyes, seized the moment to breathe in and out. “You know it was me.” Opening her eyes, she met his gaze, now darkly burning. “It changes nothing. It won’t happen again.”

The ends of his lips lifted, the half-smile wholly intent. “Oh, but it will-again, and again. Because you love me-and I love you.”

She rose to her feet, opened her mouth, but no words came. Nothing good enough to challenge the knowledge in his eyes.

Her hesitation was all the confirmation Gerrard needed; the look in her eyes, as if she was desperately casting about for some argument to counter his, and failing, placed the matter of their mutual state beyond doubt. A weight lifted from his shoulders; relief was a heady draft coursing through his veins. That much, then, was as he’d thought. What remained a mystery was the reason for her sudden-and if he were truthful, unnerving-tack.

This wasn’t how he’d imagined his proposal would go.

He stepped closer, close enough for their senses to flare.

She locked her eyes on his, narrowed them. Her jaw tightened. “I will not marry you-you can’t make me say yes. And under no circumstances are you to return to Hellebore Hall.”

He held her gaze, slowly arched one brow. “How do you plan to stop me?”

She frowned.

He went on, “I’ve no intention of letting you refuse my suit. I’ll keep after you, keep seducing you-you’ll have to agree in the end.” Resolution rang in his tone; to him there was no other option. “As for returning to the Hall, either with you in your father’s coach, or ahead of you in my curricle-either way, I’ll be there to hand you down.”

Still frowning, she looked down, staring at his waistcoat. A moment ticked past, then she looked up and met his eyes. “I won’t agree to marry you-I won’t acknowledge that I love you in any way. I can’t stop you from returning to the Hall, but I can speak with my father and make him understand why he must turn you away, and insist you return to London.”

The stony determination he saw in her eyes chilled him. “Why don’t you explain that to me?”

Her features tightened. “Very well. Think of this-I’ve loved, and lost twice to this murderer. First with Thomas, a young girl’s love, which was bad enough, and then with Mama-and that was devastating.” Her voice shook, her lashes flickered, but she drew breath and went on, lifting her eyes to his, the green and gold burning with a fire he took a moment to place, to recognize, “Now there’s you. This murderer is waiting at the Hall-we both know that. To love and lose a third time…”

Dragging in a breath, she shook her head. “No-I won’t risk it. If you understand at all, you won’t ask that of me.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, then quietly replied, “I do understand.” He reached for her hand, let his fingers slide over hers, then twine. Lock. “But I’m not asking you to love and lose a third time. I’m asking you to love, and have the courage to embrace it and fight for it, with me.”

She opened her mouth-he squeezed her fingers to silence her. “Before you argue, consider this-whatever you say, whatever you do, no longer matters. I know you love me-you’ve shown me you do-and I love you. I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if need be, and badger you until you accept me as your husband.”

Her eyes searched his, then he sensed her inner sigh. “I know he tried to kill you-I know about the arrow.”

“Ah.” He held her gaze as perception swung, revolved, then settled again. He remembered the door to the stairs, left open by the footman who’d come to remove his shaving water; he’d been on his way to shut it when Barnaby had knocked on the other door. Suddenly all was clear.

She tried to tug her hand from his; when he didn’t let go, she glared at him. Belligerently. “When were you going to tell me? Never? But if we’re considering things, then you ought to consider this-if I loved you, I’d move heaven and earth to keep you from this madman.”

He searched her eyes, then he smiled.

Jacqueline’s heart melted; there was no charm in the gesture, no artful seduction, just an overflowing understanding, acceptance, and love. It glowed in the rich brown of his eyes, a light she couldn’t mistake, a light he made no effort to conceal.

He raised his free hand and cradled her cheek, tipping her face up so he could study her eyes more closely. When he spoke, it was with awe, as if he’d made some great discovery. “It’s not your heart you’re trying to shield by denying you love me-it’s me. You’re trying to protect me.”

Of course. “Perhaps. But-”

His smile deepened; he bent his head and kissed her.

She tried to hold aloof, apart, tried desperately to simply exist and not be swayed…and failed. A shuddering sigh escaped her, and she sank into his arms, parted her lips and welcomed him in.

And felt, again, the power rise between them, felt it swell and whirl and cocoon them. Felt it bind them, hold them, fuse them until they were not the same separate beings they once had been.

When he lifted his head, she was defeated-not by him, but by that power. He, too, seemed caught. When he spoke, his voice was raspy, gravelly. “I thank you for the thought, sweetheart.” He brushed a kiss to her knuckles, then met her eyes. “But that’s not how it’s going to be.”

For a long moment, she felt as if she was drowning in his eyes, then he said, “Timms said something, not long ago, when she was twitting me about love and my attitude to it. I can’t remember her words, but I remember her meaning: when it comes to love, what will be will be-it’s not up to us to decree.”

Those words were patently, self-evidently true. There was no point arguing. However…“I won’t agree to marry you.”

He held her gaze, then nodded. “Very well. If you insist, we won’t make the announcement yet.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. He met her look blankly. Unyieldingly. But she could be unyielding, too; if she gave in, even to a secret betrothal, he would use it to, as he would see it, protect her. “No, I am not agreeing. Not yet. Once we’ve exposed our madman, you can ask me again.” A memory stirred. “Knights who champion ladies can’t claim their reward until after the dragon is slain.”

His eyes narrowed; the look in them held more than a touch of hard arrogance, of his customary ruthlessness. His lips thinned, but then he nodded. “Very well.” He drew a deep breath, his chest swelling against her breasts. “We’ll take the portrait back to Hellebore Hall and, hand in hand, side by side, wait for the murderer to appear.”

But first they had a family dinner to attend, all the while concealing the complex web of emotions that, it seemed, hour by hour steadily grew, wove and twined more tightly, linking them ever more incontrovertibly.

He, of course, encouraged it, and she was helpless to prevent it.

They’d arranged to show the portrait in the drawing room; it stood in pride of place before the empty hearth. Before any others arrived, Minnie, Timms and Millicent stood in a semicircle in front of it-and simply stared.

Then Minnie turned to Jacqueline, and took her hand. “My dear, I confess I had no idea matters were quite so bad.” She glanced back at the portrait. “But I can see they are.” She looked up at Gerrard. “Dear boy, this is the best you’ve ever done-and for more than one reason.”

Timms gruffly concurred. “It conveys so much-there’s so much of you both in it-hopefully it’ll accomplish all you need.”

The doorbell pealed; guests started to arrive. Without exception, all were amazed and somewhat stunned by the portrait. Jacqueline’s head spun with all the comments, but she’d met everyone before, knew them, felt comfortable in their company, felt at home within their circle.

Despite all the portrait so eloquently revealed, although she did indeed feel her emotions exposed, she didn’t feel vulnerable. In part it was a matter of trust-of trusting all those around her-but it was also a reflection of the strength she drew from the light in Gerrard’s eyes when they rested on her, from the touch of his fingers lightly trailing her arm as he passed by.

Nothing occurred to mar the evening. The conversation about the dinner table was all about the portrait, of what others saw in it, of their hopes for it. Of the situation that awaited her, Gerrard, Millicent and Barnaby at the Hall, and how they planned to resolve it.

Warm wishes flowed all around them, but in the glances the men shared, Jacqueline read a seriousness, and a readiness to support in whatever manner was required, that was almost medieval. A rallying to the clarion call, a warriorlike response from elegant gentlemen who were clearly only one small step removed from their sword-wielding ancestors.

It was obvious that Gerrard was cut from the same cloth.

None of the men dallied about the table; all rose and followed the ladies back to the drawing room, back to the portrait. Powerful and evocative, it dominated the gathering.

“It takes my breath away.” Amelia stood before it, examining it anew. “But not in a pleasant way.”

Jacqueline had met the twins, Amanda, Countess of Dexter, and Amelia, Viscountess Calverton, at a number of functions. They were a few years older than she, but so full of life she’d been immediately drawn to them. Their husbands, both tall, handsome men, cousins in fact, stood nearby; they’d been teased over the dinner table about their rivalry over who would fill their nursery first-both twins had given birth to firstborn sons within a month of each other, then, later, to daughters, again within the space of a month.

“It gives me the shivers.” Standing beside Amelia, Amanda realistically demonstrated. She turned to Jacqueline. “I hope that whatever that represents”-she pointed to the louring, threatening Garden of Night-“is defeated and behind you.”

Jacqueline looked at the painting. “Not yet.” She met the twins’ eyes. “We hope it soon will be.”

“Humph!” Amanda swung to Gerrard. “All I can say is, if you can see all that well enough to paint it, you’d better be intending to take her hand and pull her out of there.”

Gerrard’s lips curved in a relaxed and open smile. “Rest assured, I fully intend to do just that.” He shot a glance at Jacqueline. “And, indeed, lead her rather further.”

Into a new life. His eyes stated that clearly; for a moment, Jacqueline was lost in the promise that glowed in his brown eyes.

Amelia made a strangled sound, smothering some comment. Both Jacqueline and Gerrard looked to see the twins exchanging glances, then Amanda shook her head with mock severity at Amelia, and took her sister’s arm. “No-don’t say a word. Whatever word we do say will be taken amiss, so…let’s retire and leave these two to their own devices.”

With smiles that could only be construed as regally smug, the twins swept off to join their husbands.

Grandes dames in the making,” Gerrard muttered.

Another Cynster lady Jacqueline had grown close to was Flick-Felicity-Demon Cynster’s wife. Demon Harry was Vane’s younger brother, an ex-hellion if ever there was one. The resemblance between him and Vane was not strong physically, but Jacqueline saw it in myriad little things. Like the hard glint in Demon’s blue eyes when he paused beside Gerrard to discuss their return to Hellebore Hall.

Flick tugged her hand, distracting her. “You must promise to come to Newmarket later in the year.” She held up a hand, imperious for all she was a slip of a thing. “With Gerrard or without him, regardless, I’ll expect to see you.”

She could only smile, and agree. Dillon Caxton, Flick’s cousin and, as Jacqueline understood it, Demon’s prot?g? in many ways, joined them. He was startlingly handsome in Byronic fashion; his manners were assured, his address polished, but Jacqueline sensed he held himself back, behind an inner wall of reserve.

Nevertheless, he was a close friend of Gerrard’s; after chatting easily with Flick and herself, Dillon turned to Gerrard and asked if he would introduce him to Barnaby. “Demon mentioned his hobby. There’s a little matter at Newmarket that I think might interest him.”

Gerrard raised his brows, but readily agreed.

He left her with Flick, but returned within minutes, much to Flick’s amusement.

The rest of the evening passed in a pleasant whirl. The last guests to depart were Horatia and her husband, George.

“Take care, dear.” Horatia touched cheeks. “And we’ll see you later in the month.”

Without waiting for a response, Horatia turned to Gerrard. “Whatever you need to do in Cornwall, don’t take too long about it. We’ll expect to hear the end of this story when we see you both at Somersham.”

Gerrard innocently swore he wouldn’t drag his heels.

Jacqueline narrowed her eyes at him; another of his ambiguous comments, or so she suspected.

When, later, he joined her in her bed, when, later, she was lying pleasured witless and at peace in his arms, she realized she’d started seeing her-their-future from his family’s perspective. And coveting what she saw.

Yet…

Gerrard shifted, then pressed a kiss to her temple. “What is it?”

She hesitated; when the words came, she let them fall as they would-nothing but honesty between them. “I haven’t had a future for so long, I’m finding it hard, difficult, to believe in what might be.”

“Us?”

That simple little word encompassed so much.

“Yes.”

She wondered if he would reassure her with the obvious phrases. Instead, after some minutes, he murmured, “It’s as Timms said: what will be will be. All we can do is go forward, together, and see what lies along our path-what fate has in store for us.”

If she’d had any doubt that he was following her thoughts accurately, they were banished when his voice hardened.

“But first, together, we have to catch a murderer.”

The next day they set out to do just that with single-minded focus. Gerrard seemed even more driven than over painting the portrait in the first place; his impatience infected her.

The day flew with preparations. By evening, all was ready for their departure early the following morn. Barnaby, of course, was to join them. If it hadn’t been for the distance, Minnie and Timms would have come, too.

“You’ll have to tell us everything when you return.” Minnie drew Jacqueline down, kissed her cheek, patted her hand, then released her.

She and Millicent retired early.

Later, Gerrard came to her room. To her bed. To her.

There were no longer any shields, any doubts, any questions between them. Only the unvoiced threat of a murderer.

That only made them more determined, more open and defiant in their ardor. Their bodies twined, their hearts soared, their senses steeped in the pleasure of the other, giving, taking, lavishing, receiving, until the world shattered, and the glory took them.

And their souls flew, hand in hand, side by side.

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