Sullivans woman, p.12
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.12
 

           Nora Roberts
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  “Setting yourself up as a duchess?” he asked coldly. “I should warn you, Vince is known for his generosity, but not his constancy.” His eyes raked her face. “Still, a woman like you should do very well for herself in a week or two.”

  “That’s beneath you, Colin.” She turned and took a step away, but he grabbed a handful of her hair. With a small sound of surprise and pain, she stared up at him.

  His eyes were shadowed and dark, as was his chin with at least a day’s growth of beard. It occurred to her suddenly that he looked exhausted. Thinking back, she knew he had never shown fatigue after hours of painting. His fingers tightened in her hair.

  “Colin.” In defense, she lifted a hand to his.

  “Such innocence,” he said softly. “Such innocence. You’re a clever woman, Cassidy.” His hands came to her shoulders, quickly, ruthlessly. She stared up at him in silence, tasting fear. “It’s one thing to lie with words, but another to lie with a look, to lie with the eyes day after day. That takes a special kind of cheat.”

  “No.” She shook her head as his words brought back the tears she had stemmed. “No, Colin, please.” She wanted to tell him she had never lied to him, but she couldn’t. She had lied the very last time they had been together. She could only shake her head and helplessly let the tears come.

  “What is it you want from me?” he demanded. His voice became more infuriated as tears slipped down her cheeks. The sun fell through the skylight and set them glinting. “Do you want me to forget that I looked at you day after day and saw something that was never there?”

  “I gave you what you wanted.” Tears became sobs and she struggled against him. “Please, let me go now. I gave you what you wanted. It’s finished.”

  “You gave me a shell, a mask. Isn’t that what you told me?” He pulled her closer, forcing her head back until she looked at him. “The rest was my imagination. Finished, Cass? How can something be finished when it never was?” His hand went back to her hair as she tried to lower her head. “You said that I’d drained you. Have you any idea what these past weeks have done to me?” He shook her, and her sobs grew wilder.

  “You were right when you told me that painting was nothing more than your face and body. There’s no warmth in you. I created the woman in that painting.”

  “Please, Colin. Enough.” She pressed her hands over her ears to shut out his words.

  “Do you cringe from the truth, Cassidy?” He tore her hands away, forcing her face back to his again. “Only you and I will know the painting’s a lie, that the woman there doesn’t exist. We served each other’s needs after all, didn’t we?” He pushed her aside with a whispered oath. “Get out.”

  Freed, Cassidy ran blindly for escape.

  Chapter 10

  It was late afternoon when Cassidy approached her apartment building. She had walked for a long time after her tears had dried. The city had been jammed with people, and she had sought the crowd while remaining separate. The pain had become numbed with fatigue. She was two blocks from home when the rain started, but she didn’t increase her pace. It was cool and soft.

  Inside her building she began an automatic search for her mailbox key. Her movements were mechanical, but she forced herself to perform the routine task. She would not crawl into a hole of despair. She would function. She would survive. These things she had promised herself during the long afternoon walk.

  With the key at last in the lock, Cassidy lifted the cover on the narrow slot and pulled out her mail. She riffled through the advertisements and bills automatically as she started for the stairs. Her feet came to an abrupt halt as she spotted the return address on one of the envelopes. New York.

  For several minutes she merely studied it, turning it over, then back again. Walking back to her mailbox, she pushed the rest of her mail back inside, then leaned against the wall. A rejection slip? she reflected, nibbling her bottom lip. Then where was the manuscript? She turned the envelope over again and swallowed.

  “Oh, the devil with it,” she muttered and ripped it open. She read the letter twice in absolute silence. “Oh, why now?” she asked and hated herself for weeping again. “I’m not ready for it now.” She forced back the tears and shook her head. “No, it’s the perfect time,” she corrected, then made herself read the letter again. There couldn’t be a better time.

  She stuffed the letter into her pocket and ran back into the rain. In ten minutes she was banging on Jeff’s door.

  Guitar in hand, he pulled open the door. “Cassidy, you’re back! Where’ve you been? We were ready to call out the marines.” Stopping, he took his eyes from the top of her head to her feet. “Hey . . . you’re drenched.”

  “I am not drenched,” Cassidy corrected as she dripped on the hall floor. She hoisted up a bottle of champagne. “I’m much too extraordinary to be drenched. I’ve been accepted into the annals of literature. I shall be copywritten and printed and posted in your public library.”

  “You sold your book!” Jeff let out a whoop and hugged her. His guitar pressed into her back.

  Laughing, Cassidy pulled away. “Is that any way to express such a momentous occurrence? Peasant.” She pushed back her sopping hair with her free hand. “However, I’m a superior person, and will share my bottle of champagne with you in my parlor. No dinner jacket required.” Turning, she walked to her own door, pushed it open, then gestured. Grinning, Jeff set down his guitar and followed her.

  “Here,” he said after he had closed the door and taken the bottle from her. “I’ll open it, you go get a towel and dry off or else you’ll die of pneumonia before the first copy hits the stands.”

  When she came back from the bathroom wrapped in a terry-cloth robe and rubbing a towel over her hair, Jeff was just releasing the cork. Champagne squirted out in a jet.

  “It’s good for the carpet,” he claimed and poured. “I could only find jelly glasses.”

  “My crystal’s been smashed,” Cassidy told him as she picked up her glass. “To a very wise man,” she said solemnly.

  “Who?” Jeff raised his glass.

  “My publisher,” she announced, then grinned and drank. “An excellent year,” she mused, gazing critically into the glass. The wine fizzed gently.

  “What year is it?” Jeff lifted the bottle curiously.

  “This one.” Cassidy laughed and drank again. “I only buy new champagne.”

  They drank again, then Jeff leaned over and kissed her. “Congratulations, babe.” He pulled the damp towel from her shoulders. “How does it feel?”

  “I don’t know.” She threw her head back and closed her eyes. “I feel like someone else.” Quickly she filled her glass again. She knew she had to keep moving, had to keep talking. She couldn’t think seriously about what she had won that day or she would remember what she had lost. “I should’ve bought two bottles,” she said, spinning in a circle. “This is definitely a two-bottle occasion.” She drank, feeling the wine rise to her head. “The last time I had champagne . . .” Cassidy stopped, remembering, then shook her head. Jeff eyed her in puzzlement. “No, no.” She gestured with her hand as if to wipe the thought away. “I had champagne at Barbara Seabright’s wedding in Sausalito. One of the ushers propositioned me in the cloakroom.”

  Jeff laughed and took another sip. A knock sounded. Cassidy called out, “Come in, there’s enough for—” Her words were cut off as Colin opened the door.

  Cassidy’s color drained slowly. Her eyes darkened. Jeff looked quickly from one to the other, then set down his glass.

  “Well, I gotta be going. Thanks for the champagne, babe. We’ll talk later.”

  “No, Jeff,” Cassidy began. “You don’t have to—”

  “I’ve got a gig,” he announced, lifting her restraining hand from his arm. She saw him exchange one long look with Colin before he slipped through the door.

  “Cass.” Colin stepped forward.

  “Colin, please go.” Shutting her eyes, she pressed her fingers between her brows. There was a
pressure in her chest and behind her lids. Don’t cry. Don’t cry, she ordered herself.

  “I know I haven’t any right to be here.” There was a low harshness in his tone. “I know I haven’t the right to ask you to listen to me. I’m asking anyway.”

  “There isn’t anything to say.” Cassidy forced herself to stand straight and face him. “I don’t want you here,” she said flatly.

  He flinched. “I understand, Cassidy, but I feel you have a right to an apology . . . an explanation.”

  Her hands were clenched, and slowly she spread her fingers and stared down at them. “I appreciate the offer, Colin, but it isn’t necessary. Now . . .” She lifted her eyes to his. “If that’s all . . .”

  “Oh, Cass, for pity’s sake, show more mercy than I did. At least let me apologize before you shut me out of your life.”

  Unable to respond, Cassidy merely stared at him. He stooped to pick up the bottle of champagne. “I seem to have interrupted a celebration.” He set the bottle back and looked at her. “Yours?”

  “Yes.” Cassidy swallowed and tried to speak lightly. “Yes, mine. My manuscript was accepted for publication. I had a letter today.”

  “Cass.” He moved toward her, lifting a hand to touch her cheek.

  Cassidy stiffened and took a quick step back. Catching the look that crossed his face, she knew she had hurt him. Colin slowly dropped his hand.

  “I’m sorry,” Cassidy began.

  “Don’t be.” His voice had a quiet, final quality. “I can hardly expect you to welcome my touch. I hurt you.” He paused, looking down at his hand a moment before bringing his gaze back to her face. His eyes searched hers. “Because I know you as well as I know myself, I’m aware of how badly I hurt you. I have to live with that. I haven’t the right to ask you to forgive me, but I’ll ask you to hear me out.”

  “All right, Colin, I’m listening,” Cassidy said wearily. She drew a deep breath and tried to speak calmly. “Why don’t you sit down.”

  He shook his head and, turning, moved back to the window and looked out, resting his hands in the sill. “The rain’s stopped and there’s fog. I still remember how you looked that night, standing in the fog looking up at the sky. I thought you were a mirage.” He murmured the last sentence, as if to himself. “I had an image in my mind of a woman. My own idea of perfection, a balance of qualities. When I saw you, I knew I had found her. I had to paint you.”

  For a moment he lapsed into silence, brooding out at the gloom. “After we’d started, I found everything in you I’d ever looked for—goodness, spirit, intelligence, strength, passion. The longer I painted you, the more you fascinated me. I told you once you bewitched me; I almost believe it. I’ve never known a woman I’ve wanted more than I’ve wanted you.”

  He turned then and faced her. The play of the light threw his features into shadows. “Each time I touched you, I wanted more. I didn’t make love to you that night on the houseboat because I wouldn’t have you think of yourself as just one of my lovers. I couldn’t take advantage of your being in love with me.”

  At his words, Cassidy’s eyes closed. She made a soft sound of despair.

  “Please, don’t turn away. Let me finish. The day the painting was finished, you denied everything. You said the things I’d seen had been in my own imagination. You were so cool and dispassionate. You very nearly destroyed me. . . . I had no idea anyone had such power over me,” he continued softly. “It was a revelation, and it hurt a great deal. I wanted more from you, I needed more, but you told me you had nothing left. I was angry when you ran away, and I let you go. When I came here later, you were gone.

  “I’ve been out of my mind for over two weeks, not knowing where you were or when—worse, if— you were coming back. Your friend next door had your cryptic little note and nothing else.”

  “You saw Jeff?” she asked.

  “Cassidy, don’t you understand? You disappeared. The last time I saw you, you were running away from me, and then you were gone. I didn’t know where you were, or how to find you, if something had happened to you. I’ve been going slowly mad.”

  She took a step toward him. “Colin, I’m sorry. I had no idea you’d be concerned. . . .”

  “Concerned?” he repeated. “I was frantic! Two weeks, Cassidy. Two weeks without a word. Do you know what a helpless feeling it is to simply have to wait? Not to know. I’ve haunted Fisherman’s Wharf, been everywhere in the city. Where in heaven’s name were you?” he demanded furiously, then held up a hand before she could answer. She watched him take a deep breath before turning away from her. “I’m sorry. I haven’t had much sleep lately, and I’m not completely in control.”

  His movements became restless again. He stopped and lifted Cassidy’s discarded glass of champagne. Thoughtfully, he studied the etchings on the side. “An interesting concept in a wineglass,” he murmured. Turning back, he toasted her. “To you, Cass. To only you.” He drank, then set down the empty glass.

  Cassidy dropped her eyes. “Colin, I am sorry you were worried. I was working, and—”

  “Don’t.” The word stopped her, and her eyes shot back to his. “Don’t explain to me,” he said in more controlled tones. “Just listen. When I walked into the studio today and saw you with Vince, something snapped. I can give you excuses—pressure, exhaustion, madness, take your pick. None of them make up for the things I said to you.” His eyes were eloquent on hers. “I despise myself for making you cry. I hated the things I said to you even as I said them. Finding you there, with Vince, after looking for you everywhere for days . . .” He stopped, shaking his head, then moved back to the window.

  “Gail arranged the timing very well,” he said. “She knew what I’d been through the past two weeks and knows me well enough to predict how I’d react finding you alone with Vince. She sent him up to the studio on a fictitious errand before I got back to The Gallery. She told me the two of you were meeting up there. She made the suggestion, but I grabbed on to it with both hands.” He rubbed his fingers over the back of his neck as if to release some tension.

  “We’d been occasional lovers up until about a year ago when things got a bit complicated. I should have remembered whom I was dealing with, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly. Gail’s decided to take a long—perhaps permanent—sabbatical on the East Coast.” He paused a moment, then turned to study her. “I’d like to think you could understand why I behaved so abominably.”

  In the silence Cassidy could just hear Jeff’s guitar through the thin walls of the apartment. “Colin.” Her eyes searched his face, then softened. “You look so tired.”

  His expression altered, and for a moment she thought he would cross to her. He stood still, however, keeping the distance between them. “I don’t know when I fell in love with you. Perhaps it was that first night in the fog. Perhaps it was when you first wore that dress. Perhaps it was years before I met you. I suppose it doesn’t matter when.”

  Cassidy stared at him, robbed of speech. “I’m not an easy man, Cassidy, you told me that once.”

  “Yes,” she managed. “I remember.”

  “I’m selfish and given to temper and black moods. I have little patience except with my work. I can promise to hurt you, to infuriate you, to be unreasonable and impatient, but no one will love you more. No one.” He paused, but still she could only stare at him, transfixed. “I’m asking you to forget what makes sense and be my wife and my lover and mother my children. I’m asking that you share your life with me, taking me as I am.” He paused again, and his voice softened. “I love you, Cass. This time, my destiny’s in your hands.”

  She watched him as he spoke, heard the cadence of his native land grow stronger in his speech. Still he made no move toward her, but stood across the room with shadows playing over his face. Cassidy remembered how he had looked when she had flinched away from his touch.

  Slowly she walked to him. Reaching up, she circled his neck with her arms, then buried her face against his shoulder. “Hold me.”
His arms came gently around her as his cheek lowered to the top of her head. “Hold me, Sullivan,” she ordered again, pressing hard against him. She turned her head until her mouth found his.

  His arms drew tight around her, and she murmured in pleasure at their strength. “I love you,” she whispered as their lips parted, then clung again. “I’ve needed to tell you for so long.”

  “You told me every time you looked at me.” Colin buried his face in her hair. “I refused to believe I’d fallen in love with you, that it could have happened so quickly, so effortlessly. The painting was nearly finished when I admitted to myself I’d never be able to live without you.”

  His voice lowered, and he drew her closer. “I’ve been crazy these last two weeks, staring at your portrait and not knowing where you were or if I’d ever see you again.”

  “Now you have me,” she murmured, making no objection when his hands slipped under the terry cloth to roam her skin. “And Vince will have the portrait.”

  “No, I told you once some things can’t be sold. The portrait has too much of both of us in it.” He shook his head, breathing in the rain-fresh fragrance of her hair. “Not even for Vince.”

  “But I thought . . .” She realized that she had only assumed Vince had been speaking of her portrait. There was a new wealth of happiness in the knowledge that Colin had not intended to sell what was to her a revelation of their love.

  “What did you think?”

  “No, it’s nothing.” She pressed her lips against his neck. “I love you.” Her mouth roamed slowly up his jawline, savoring what she knew now was hers.

  “Cass.” She felt his heart thud desperately against hers as his fingers tightened in her hair. “Do you know what you do to me?”

  “Show me,” she whispered against his ear.

  With a groan, Colin kissed her again. She could taste his need for her and wondered at the strength of it. Her answer was to offer everything.

 
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