Sullivans woman, p.11
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.11
 

           Nora Roberts
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  Startled, Cassidy pulled her mouth from Colin’s but was unable to break his hold. Twisting her head, she stared at Gail Kingsley. She stood just at the top of the stairs, one hand poised on the railing. An emerald silk scarf rippled at her throat and trailed in the breeze.

  “That seems obvious enough,” Colin returned evenly. Flushing to the roots of her hair, Cassidy wriggled for freedom.

  “I do apologize, Colin darling. I had no idea you had company. So rare for you on a Sunday, after all.” She gave him a smile that established her knowledge of his habits. “I needed to pick up those Rothschild canvases, you remember? And we do have one or two things to discuss. I’ll just wait downstairs.” She crossed the deck as she spoke and opened a door that led inside. “Shall I make coffee for three?” she added, then disappeared without waiting for an answer.

  Cassidy twisted her head back to Colin, pressing her hands against his chest. “Let me go,” she demanded between her teeth. “Let me go this minute.”

  “Why? You seemed happy enough to be held a moment ago.”

  She threw back her head as she shoved against him. The muscles she had just tested made her movements useless. “A moment ago I was blinded by animal lust. I see perfectly now.”

  “Animal lust?” Colin repeated. He grinned widely in appreciation. “How interesting. Does it come over you often?”

  “Don’t you grin at me, Sullivan. Don’t you dare!”

  Colin released her without sobering his features. “At times it’s difficult not to.”

  “I won’t have you holding me while Gail stands there with her superior little smile.” With a sniff, she brushed at her T-shirt and shorts.

  “Why, Cass, are you jealous?” His grin grew yet wider. “How flattering.”

  Her head snapped up, her breathing grew rapid. “Why you smug, insufferable—”

  “You were perfectly willing to suffer me when you were blinded by animal lust.”

  A sound of temper came low in her throat. Tested past her limit, Cassidy took an enthusiastic swing at him that carried her in a complete circle. He dodged it, catching her neatly by the waist.

  “Women are supposed to slap,” he instructed. “Not punch.”

  “I never read the rules,” she snapped, then jerked away. Cassidy turned, intending to leave in the same manner she had arrived. Colin caught her hand and spun her back until she collided with his chest. He smiled, then kissed the tip of her nose.

  “What’s your hurry?”

  “There’s an old Irish saying,” she told him as she pushed away again. “Three’s a crowd.”

  He chuckled, patting her cheek. “Cass, don’t be a fool.”

  She rolled her eyes to the sky and prayed for willpower. Screaming wouldn’t solve anything. She took several deep breaths. “Oh, go . . . go paint your spinnakers,” she suggested and stalked down the steps to the lower deck.

  “Sure and it’s a fine-looking woman you are, Cassidy St. John,” Colin called after her in an exaggerated brogue. She glanced back over her shoulder with eyes blazing. He leaned companionably over the rail. “And it’s the truth it’s no more hardship watching your temper walking away than it is watching it coming ahead. Next time I’ll be wanting to paint you in a pose that shows your more charming end.”

  “When pigs fly,” she called back and doubled her pace. His laughter raced after her.

  Chapter 9

  Cassidy knew the painting was nearly finished. She had the frantic, hollow sensation of one living on borrowed time. Though she sensed the end would be almost a relief, a release from the tension of waiting, she tried to hold it off by sheer force of will. As she held the pose, she sensed Colin was perfecting, polishing, rather than creating fresh. His quick impatience had relaxed.

  He made no mention of her Sunday visit, and she was grateful. In retrospect, with her temper at a reasoning degree, she knew she had overreacted. She was also forced to admit that she had made a fool of herself. A complete fool.

  It’s not the first time, she mused. And perhaps, in a way, excusable. All I could see was a very public picture revealing my very private feelings. Then that silly little article . . . Then remembering Gail’s spouting off about a romantic press and Colin’s image. Cassidy caught herself before she scowled. Well, I won’t have to listen to her much longer. I’d better start picking up the pieces. It’s time to start thinking about tomorrow. A new job, she concluded dismally. A new start, she corrected. New experiences, new people. Empty nights.

  “Fortunately, I finished the face yesterday,” Colin commented. “Your expression’s altered a dozen times in the last ten minutes. Amazing what a range you have.”

  “I’m sorry. I was . . .” She searched for a word and settled on an inanity. “Thinking.”

  “Yes, I could see.” His eyes caught hers. “Unhappy thoughts.”

  “No, I was working out a scene.”

  “Mmm,” Colin commented noncommittally, then stepped back from the easel. “Not a particularly joyful one.”

  “No. They can’t all be.” She swallowed. “It’s finished, isn’t it?”

  “Yes. Quite finished.” Cassidy let out a quiet sigh as she watched his critical study. “Come, have a look,” he invited. He held out his hand, but his eyes remained on the canvas.

  It surprised her that she was afraid. Colin glanced up at her and lifted a brow.

  “Come on, then.”

  Her fingers tightened around the nosegay, but she walked toward him. Obediently she slipped her hand into his extended one. She turned and looked.

  Cassidy had tried to imagine it a hundred times, but it was nothing like what she’d thought. The background was dark and shadowy, playing on shading and depth. In its midst, she stood highlighted in the oyster-white dress. Her nosegay was a surprising splash of color calling attention to the frailty of her hands. Pride was in the stance, in the tilt of her head. Her hair was thick and gloriously tumbled, offsetting the quiet innocence of the dress. It was hair that invited passion. There was a delicacy in the bones of her face she had been unaware of, a fragility competing with the strength of the features. She had been right in thinking he would see her as she had never seen herself.

  Her lips were parted, unsmiling but waiting to smile. The smile would be to welcome a lover. The knowledge was in her expression, along with the anticipation of something yet to come. The eyes told everything. They were the eyes of a woman consumed by love . . . the eyes of innocence waiting to be surrendered. No one could look at it and remain unaware that the woman in the painting had loved the man who painted it.

  “So silent, Cass?” Colin murmured and slipped an arm around her shoulders.

  “I can’t find the word,” she whispered, then drew a trembling breath. “Nothing’s adequate, and anything less would sound platitudinous.” She leaned against him a moment. “Colin.” Cassidy tried to forget for a moment that the eyes in the painting were naked with love. She tried to see the whole and not the revelation of her emotions. Secrets, he had said. Dreams.

  Colin kissed her neck above the silk of the dress, then released her. “Rarely, an artist steps back from his work and is astonished that his hands have created something extraordinary.” She could hear the excitement in his voice, a wonder she had not expected him to be capable of feeling. “This is the finest thing I’ve ever done.” He turned to her then. “I’m grateful to you, Cassidy. You’re the soul of it.”

  Unable to bear his words, Cassidy turned away. She had to cling to some rags of pride. Desperately she kept her voice calm. “I’ve always felt the artist is the soul of a painting.” Cassidy dropped the nosegay on the worktable, then continued to wander around the room. The silk whispered over her legs. “It’s your—your imagination, your talent. How much of me is really in that painting?”

  There was silence for a long moment, but Cassidy didn’t turn back to him. “Don’t you know?” Cassidy moistened her lips and struggled to keep her tone light as she turned around.

 
My face,” she agreed; then, gesturing down the dress, she added, “My body. The rest is yours, Colin, I can’t take credit for it. You set the mood, you drew out of me what you already saw. You had the vision. It was a wish you asked me to be, and that’s what you’ve made. It’s your illusion.” Saying the words caused her more pain than she had believed possible. Still, she felt they had to be said.

  “Is that how you see it?” Colin’s look was speculative, but she sensed the anger just beneath the surface. “You stood, and I pulled the strings.”

  “You’re the artist, Colin.” She shrugged and answered lightly. “I’m just an unemployed writer.”

  After a long, silent study, he crossed to her. There was a steady calculation about the way his hands took her shoulders. She had felt that seeking, probing look before and stiffened her defenses against it. His fingers tightened on her skin. “Has the woman in that portrait anything to do with you?” He asked the question slowly.

  Cassidy swallowed the knot in her throat. “Why, of course, Colin, I’ve just told you—”

  He shook her so quickly, the words slid back down her throat. She saw the fury on his face, the vivid temper she knew could turn violent. “Do you think it was only your face I wanted? Just the shell? Is there nothing that’s inside you in that painting?”

  “Must you have everything?” she demanded in despair and anger. “Must you have it all?” Her voice thickened with emotion. “You’ve drained me, Colin. That’s drained me.” She flung a hand toward the canvas. “I’ve given you everything, how much more do you want?”

  She pushed him away as a tidal wave of anguish engulfed her. “You never looked at me, thought of me, unless it was because of that painting.” She pushed her hair back with both hands, pressing her fingers against her temples. “I won’t give you any more. I can’t, there isn’t any. It’s all there!” She gestured again, and her voice shook. “Thank God it’s over.”

  With a quick jerk, she was out of his hold and running from the studio.

  ***

  Cassidy spent the next two weeks in the apartment of vacationing friends. Leaving a brief note for Jeff, she packed up her typewriter and buried herself in work. She unplugged the phone, bolted the door, and shut herself in. For two weeks she tried to forget there was a world outside the people and places of her imagination. She lost herself in her characters in an attempt to forget Cassidy St. John. If she didn’t exist, she couldn’t feel pain. At the end of the interlude, she’d shed five pounds, produced a hundred pages of fresh copy and nearly balanced her nerves.

  As she returned, hauling her typewriter back up the steps to her apartment, she heard Jeff’s guitar playing through his door. For a moment she hesitated, thinking to stop and tell him she was back, but she passed into her own apartment. She wasn’t ready to answer questions. She considered calling Colin at The Gallery to apologize, then decided against that as well. It was best that their break had been complete. If they parted on good terms, he might be tempted to get in touch with her from time to time. Cassidy knew she could never bear the casual friendliness.

  She packed up the dress she had worn on her flight from the studio. Her fingers lingered on the material as she placed it back in the dress box. So much had happened since she had first put it on. Quickly she smoothed the tissue over it and closed the lid. That part of her life was over. Turning, she went to the phone to call The Gallery. The clerk who answered referred her immediately to Gail.

  “Why, hello, Cassidy. Where did you run off to?”

  “I have the dress from the portrait and the key to the studio,” Cassidy told her. “I’d like someone to come pick them up.”

  “I see.” There was a brief hesitation before Gail continued. “I’m afraid we’re just terribly busy right now, dear. I know Colin particularly wanted that dress. Be sweet and drop it by? You can just let yourself into the studio and leave everything there. Colin’s away, and we’re just swamped.”

  “I’d rather not—”

  “Thank you, darling. I must run.” The phone clicked. With a quick oath of annoyance, Cassidy hung up.

  Colin’s away, she thought as she picked up the dress box. Now’s the time to finish it completely.

  A short time later Cassidy pushed open the back door of Colin’s studio. The familiar scents reached out and brought him vividly to her mind. Resolutely she pushed him away. Now is not the time, she told herself and walked briskly to his worktable to set down the dress and key.

  For a moment she stood in the room’s center and looked about her. She had spent hours there, days. Every detail was already etched with clarity on her memory. Yet she wanted to see it all again. A part of her was afraid she would forget something, something small and insignificant and vital. It surprised her that the portrait still stood on the easel. Forgetting her promise to leave quickly, Cassidy walked over to study it one last time.

  How could he look at that, she wondered as she gazed into her own eyes, and believe the things I said? I can only be grateful that he did. I can only be grateful he believed what I said rather than what he saw. Reaching out a hand, she touched the painted violets.

  When the door of the studio opened, Cassidy jerked her hand from the painting and whirled. Her heart flew to her throat.

  “Cassidy?” Vince strolled into the room with a wide smile. “What a surprise.” In seconds, her hands were enveloped by his.

  “Hello.” Her voice was a trifle unsteady, but she managed to smile at him.

  He heard the breathlessness in her voice and saw there was little color in her face. “Did you know Colin has been looking for you?”

  “No.” She felt a moment’s panic and glanced at the door. “No, I didn’t. I’ve been away, I’ve been working. I just . . .” She drew her hands away and clasped them together as she heard herself ramble. “I just brought back the dress I wore for the portrait.”

  Vince’s dark eyes became shrewd. “Were you hiding, madonna?”

  “No.” Cassidy turned and walked to a window. “No, of course not, I was working.” She saw the sparrow, busily feeding three babies with gaping mouths. “I didn’t realize you were going to be in America this long.” Say anything, she told herself, but don’t think until you’re out of here.

  “I have stayed a bit longer in order to convince Colin to sell me a painting he was reluctant to part with.”

  Cassidy gripped the windowsill tightly. You knew he would sell it. You knew from the beginning all that would be left would be dollars and cents. Did you expect him to keep it and think of you? Shaking her head, she made a quiet sound of despair.

  “Cassidy.” Vince’s hand pressed lightly on her shoulder.

  “I shouldn’t have come here,” she whispered, shaking her head again. “I should’ve known better.” She started to flee, but he tightened his grip and turned her to face him. As he studied her, he lifted a hand to brush her cheek. “Please . . .” She closed her eyes. “Please don’t be kind to me. I’m not as strong as I thought I was.”

  “And you love him very much.”

  Cassidy’s eyes flew open. “No, it’s only that I—”

  “Madonna.” Vince stopped her with a finger to her lips. There was a wealth of understanding in his eyes. “I’ve seen the portrait. It speaks louder than your words.”

  Lowering her head, Cassidy pressed the heel of her hand between her brows. “I don’t want to . . . I’m trying so very hard not to. I have to go,” she said quickly.

  “Cassidy.” Vince held her shoulders. His voice was gentle. “You must see him . . . speak to him.”

  “I can’t.” She placed her hands on his chest, shaking her head in desperation. “Please, don’t tell him. Please, just take the portrait and let it be over.” Her voice broke, and when she found herself cradled against Vince’s chest she made no protest. “I always knew it was going to be over.” She closed her eyes on the tears, but allowed herself to be held until the need to release them faded. He stroked her hair and kept silent until he f
elt her breathing steady. Gently he kissed the top of her head then tilted her face to his.

  “Cassidy, Colin is my friend—”

  “Interesting.” Cassidy’s eyes darted to the doorway . . . and to Colin. “I’d thought so myself.” His voice was quiet. “It appears I’ve been mistaken about more than one person recently.” Even before he crossed the room, Cassidy felt the danger. “Gail told me I’d find you up here,” he said when he stood directly in front of them. “With my friend.”

  “Colin . . .” Vince began, only to be cut off with a fierce look.

  “Take your hands off her, and keep out of this. When I’ve finished, you can pick up where you left off.”

  Hearing the fury in his words, Cassidy nudged out of Vince’s hold. “Please,” she murmured, not wanting to cause any trouble between them. “Leave us alone for a moment.” When Vince’s hand stayed on her arm, she turned her eyes to him. “Please,” she repeated.

  Reluctantly Vince dropped his hand. “Very well, cara.” He turned briefly to Colin. “I’ve never known you to be mistaken about anyone, my friend.” He walked across the room, then closed the door quietly behind him. Cassidy waited an extra moment before she spoke.

  “I came to return the dress and the key.” She moistened her lips when he only stared down at her. “Gail told me you were away.”

  “How convenient the studio was available for you and Vince.”

  “Colin, don’t.”

 
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