Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Sullivan's Woman, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  cadence was Irish. Cassidy responded to both.

  “I’m desperately impressed,” she said. He was obviously a lunatic but an appealing one. She forgot to be afraid.

  “Of course you are,” he agreed and turned her head to left profile. “It’s only to be expected.” He freed her chin at last, but the tingle of his fingers remained on her skin. “I’ve a houseboat just outside the city. We’ll go there and I can start sketching you tonight.”

  Cassidy’s eyes lit with wary amusement. “Aren’t you supposed to offer to show me sketches, or is this a variation on an old theme?” She no longer considered him dangerous, merely persistent.

  He sighed, and she watched the quick annoyance flash over his face. “The woman has a one-track mind. Listen . . . What is your name?”

  “Cassidy,” she answered automatically. “Cassidy St. John.”

  “Oh, no, half-Irish, half-English. We’ll have trouble there.” He stuck his hands into his pockets. His eyes seemed determined to know every inch of her face. “Cassidy, I have no need for your ten dollars, and no plans to tamper with your virtue. What I want is your face. I’ve a sketch pad and so forth on my houseboat.”

  “I wouldn’t go on Michelangelo’s boat if he handed me that line.” Cassidy relaxed the grip on her purse and pushed her hair from her shoulders. Though he made a swift sound of exasperation, she grinned.

  “All right.” She sensed the impatience in his stance as he glanced behind him. “We’ll get a cup of coffee in a well-lit, crowded restaurant. Will that suit you? If I try anything improper, you can break the table in half with your famous bare hand and draw attention.”

  Cassidy’s lips trembled into a fresh grin. “I think I could agree to that.” Before she could say anything else, he had her hand in his and was pulling her toward the cluster of restaurants. She felt an odd intimacy in the gesture, along with a sense of his absolute control and determination. He was a man, she decided, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He walked quickly. She wondered if he was perpetually in a hurry. His stride was smooth, loose-limbed.

  He pulled her into a small, rather dingy café and found a booth. The moment they were seated he again fixed her with his intent stare. His eyes, she noted, were even more blue than they had seemed in the dim light. Their color was intensified by his thick black lashes and bronze-toned skin. Cassidy met him stare for stare as she wondered what sort of man lived behind that incredible shade of blue. It was the waitress who broke her attention.

  “What’ll ya have?”

  “Oh . . . coffee,” she said when her companion made no move to speak or cease his staring. “Two coffees.” When the waitress clomped away, Cassidy turned back to him. “Why do you stare at me like that?” she demanded. It annoyed her that her nerves responded to the look. “It’s very rude,” she pointed out. “And very distracting.”

  “The light’s dreadful in here, but it’s some improvement over the fog. Don’t frown,” he ordered. “It gives you a line right here.” Before she could move he had lifted a finger and traced it down between her brows. “You have a remarkable face. I can’t decide whether the eyes are an advantage or a drawback. One tends to disbelieve violet.”

  As Cassidy attempted to digest this, the waitress returned with their coffee. Glancing up, he plucked the pencil from her pocket and gave her one of his lightning smiles. “I need this for a few minutes. Drink your coffee. Relax,” he directed with a careless gesture of his hand. “This won’t hurt a bit.”

  Cassidy obeyed as he began to sketch on the paper placemat in front of him. “Do you have a job we’ll need to work around or does your fictitious husband support you with his football prowess?”

  “How do you know he’s fictitious?” Cassidy countered and forced her eyes away from the planes of his face.

  “The same way I know you’d have a great deal of trouble with a two-by-four.” He continued to sketch. “Do you have a job?”

  “I was fired this afternoon,” she muttered into her coffee.

  “That simplifies matters. Don’t frown, I’m not a patient man. I’ll pay you the standard sitting fee.” He glanced up as Cassidy’s brows lifted. “What I have in mind should take no more than two months, if all goes well. Don’t look so shocked, Cassidy, my intentions were pure and honorable from the beginning. It was only your lurid imagination—”

  “My imagination is not that lurid,” she tossed back indignantly. She shifted in her seat as she felt her cheeks warm. “When people come looming up out of the fog and seizing other people—”

  “Looming?” he interrupted and stopped sketching long enough to give her a dry look. “I don’t believe I did any looming or seizing tonight.”

  “It seemed a great deal like looming and seizing from my perspective,” she grumbled before she sipped her coffee. Her eyes dropped to the sketch he made. She set down the cup, her eyes widening with surprised admiration. “That’s wonderful!”

  In a few bold strokes he had captured her. She saw not just the shape of her own hair, but an expression she recognized as essentially her own. “It’s really wonderful,” she repeated as he began another sketch. “You really are talented. I thought you were bragging.”

  “I’m unflinchingly honest,” he murmured as his borrowed pencil moved across the placemat.

  Recognizing the quality of his work, Cassidy became more enthusiastic. Her mind raced ahead. Steady employment for two months would be a godsend. By the end of that time she should have heard from the publishing house that had her manuscript under consideration. Two months without having to sell toasters! She would have her evenings free to work on her new plot. The benefits began to mount and multiply. Destiny must have sent Mrs. Sommerson in search of a dress that afternoon.

  “Do you really want me to sit for you?”

  “You’re precisely what I need.” His manner suggested that the matter was already settled. The second sketch was nearly completed. His coffee cooled, untouched. “I want you to start in the morning. Nine should be early enough.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Keep your hair down, and don’t pile on layers of makeup, you’ll just have to wash it off. You might smudge up your eyes a bit, but little else.”

  “I haven’t said I’d—”

  “You’ll need the address, I suppose,” he continued, ignoring her protests. “Do you know the city well?”

  “I was born here,” she told him with a superior sniff. “But I—”

  “Well then, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding my studio.” He scrawled an address on the bottom of the placemat. Abruptly he lifted his eyes and captured hers again.

  They stared at each other amid the clatter of cutlery and chatter of voices. What Cassidy felt in that brief moment she could not define, but she knew she had never experienced it before. Then, as quickly as it had occurred, it passed. He rose, and she was left feeling as if she had run a very long race in a very short time.

  “Nine o’clock,” he said simply; then as an afterthought he dropped a bill on the table for the coffee. He left without another word.

  Reaching over, Cassidy picked up the placemat with the sketches and the address. For a moment she studied her face as he had seen it. Was her chin really shaped that way? she wondered and lifted her thumb and finger to trace it. She remembered his hand holding it in precisely the same fashion. With a shrug she dropped her hand, then carefully folded the placemat. It wouldn’t do any harm to go to his studio in the morning, she decided as she slipped the paper into her purse. She could get a look at things and then make up her mind if she wanted to sit for him or not. If she had any doubts, all she had to do was say no and walk out. Cassidy remembered his careless dominance and frowned. All I have to do, she repeated to herself sternly, is to say no and walk out. With this thought she rose and strolled out of the café.

  Chapter 2

  The morning was brilliantly clear, with a warmth promising more before afternoon. Cassidy dressed casually, not certain what was
de rigueur for a prospective artist’s model. Jeans and a full-sleeved white blouse seemed appropriate. As instructed she had left her hair loose, and her makeup was light enough to appear nonexistent. She had yet to decide if she would sit for the strange, intriguing man she had met in the fog, but she was curious enough to keep the appointment.

  With the address safely copied onto her own notepad and tucked in her purse, Cassidy grabbed a cable car that would take her downtown. The scribbled address had surprised her, as she had recognized the exclusiveness of the area. Somehow she’d expected her artist to have his studio near her own apartment in North Beach. There the atmosphere was informal and enduringly bohemian. Traditionally, clutches of writers and artists and musicians inhabited that section of the city and maintained its flavor. She wondered if perhaps he had a patron who had set him up in an expensive studio. He hadn’t fit her conception of an artist. At least, she corrected herself, until she had seen his hands. They were, Cassidy recalled, perhaps the most beautiful hands she had ever seen, long and narrow with lean, tapering fingers. The bones had been close to the surface. Sensitive hands. And strong, she added, remembering the feel of his fingers on her skin.

  His face remained clear in her mind, and she brooded over its image for several moments. Something about it tugged at a vague memory, but she couldn’t bring her recollection into focus. It was a distinctive face, unique in its raw appeal. She thought if she were an artist, it would be a face she would be compelled to paint. There were good bones there and shadows and secrets, dominated by the terrifying blue of his eyes.

  The trolley’s bells clanged and snapped Cassidy out of her reverie. Stupid, she thought and lifted her face to the breeze. I didn’t even get his name, and I’m obsessed with his face. He’s supposed to be obsessed with mine, not the other way around. She jumped from the trolley and stepped onto the sidewalk. She scanned the street numbers looking for the address. I was right, she mused, about the quality of the neighborhood.

  Still, like all of the city, it was a fascinating mixture of the exotic and the cosmopolitan, the romantic and the practical. San Francisco’s dual personality was as prevalent here as it was in Chinatown or on Telegraph Hill. There remained a blending of the antique and the revolutionary. Cassidy could hear the clang of the old-fashioned trolley as she looked up at a radically new steel-and-glass skyscraper.

  The day was fine and warm, and her body enjoyed it while her mind drifted back to the plot that sat on her desk at home. She brought her attention back to the present when she reached the number corresponding to the address in her purse. She stood frowning.

  The Gallery. Cassidy scanned the number on the door for confirmation, and her frown deepened. She’d browsed through The Gallery only a few months before, and she remembered quite well when it had opened five years ago. Since its opening it had gained an enviable reputation as a showcase for the finest art in the country. A showing at The Gallery could make a fledgling artist’s career or enhance that of a veteran. Collectors and connoisseurs were known to gather there to buy or to admire, to criticize or simply to be seen. Like much of the city it was a combination of the elegant and the unconventional. The architecture of the building was simple and unpretentious, while inside was a treasure trove of paintings and sculpture. Cassidy was also aware that one of The Gallery’s biggest draws was its owner, Colin Sullivan. She searched her memory for what she had read of him, then began to put the bits and pieces into order.

  An Irish immigrant, he had lived in America for more than fifteen years; his career had taken off when he had been barely twenty. Oil was his usual medium, and a unique use of shading and light his trademark. He had a reputation for impatience and brilliance. He would be just past thirty now and unmarried, though there had been several women linked romantically with him. There had been a princess once, and a prima ballerina. His paintings sold for exorbitant sums, and he rarely took commissions. He painted to please himself and painted well. As she stood in the warmth of the morning sunlight piecing together her tidbits of gossip and information, Cassidy recalled why the face of her artist had jarred a memory. She’d seen his picture in the newspaper when The Gallery had opened five years before. Colin Sullivan.

  She let out a long breath, then lifted her hands to either side of her head to push at her hair. Colin Sullivan wanted to paint her. He had once flatly refused to do a portrait of one of Hollywood’s reigning queens, but he wanted to paint Cassidy St. John, an unemployed writer whose greatest triumph to date was a short story printed in a woman’s magazine. All at once she remembered that she’d thought he’d been a mugger, that she had said absurd things to him, that she had told him with innocent audacity that his sketches were good. In annoyance and humiliation she chewed on her lip.

  He might have introduced himself, she thought with a frown, instead of sneaking up behind me and grabbing me. I behaved quite naturally under the circumstances. I’ve nothing to be embarrassed about. Besides, she reminded herself, he told me to come. He’s the one who arranged the entire thing. I’m only here to see if I want to take the job. Cassidy shifted her purse on her shoulder, wished briefly she had worn something more dignified or more exotic and moved to the front door of The Gallery. It was locked.

  She pushed against the door again, then concluded with a sigh that it was too early for The Gallery to be open. Perhaps there was a back entrance. He had spoken of a studio; surely it would have its own outside door. With this in mind Cassidy strolled around the side of the building and tried a side door, which refused to budge. Undaunted, she continued around the square brick building to its rear. When another door proved uncooperative, she turned her attention to a set of wooden steps leading to a second level.

  Craning her neck, she squinted against the sun and scanned the ring of windows. The glass tossed back the light. If I were an artist with a studio, she reflected, it would definitely be up there. She began to climb the L-shaped staircase. The treads were open and steep. Faced with another door at the top, she started to test the knob, hesitated, and opted to knock. Loudly. She glanced back over her shoulder and discovered the ground was surprisingly far below. A tiny sound of alarm escaped her when the door swung open.

  “You’re late,” Colin stated with a frown of impatience and took her hand, pulling her inside before she could respond. Her senses were immediately assailed with the scents of turpentine and oils. He looked no less formidable in broad daylight than he had in the murky fog. In precisely the same manner he had employed the night before, he caught her chin in his hand.

  “Mr. Sullivan . . .” Cassidy began, flustered.

  “Shh!” He tilted her head to the left, narrowed his eyes, and stared. “Yes, it’s even better in decent light. Come over here, I want some proper sketches.”

  “Mr. Sullivan,” Cassidy tried again as he yanked her across a high, airy room lined with canvases and cluttered with equipment. “I’d like to know a little more about all this before I commit myself.”

  “Sit here,” he commanded and pushed her down on a stool. “Don’t slouch,” he added as he turned away.

  “Mr. Sullivan! Would you please listen to me?”

  “Presently,” he replied as he picked up a wide pad and a pencil. “For now be quiet.”

  Totally at a loss, Cassidy sighed gustily and folded her hands. It would be simpler, she decided, to let him get his sketches out of his system. She allowed her eyes to wander and search the room.

  It was large, barnlike, with wide windows and a skylight that pleased her enormously. The expanses of glass let in all the available sunlight. The floor was wood and bare, except for splatters of paint, and the walls were a neutral cream. Unframed canvases were stacked helter-skelter, facing the walls. Easels were propped here and there, and a large table was scattered with paints and brushes and rags and bottles. There was a couch at the far end of the room, sitting there as if added in afterthought. Three wooden chairs were placed at odd intervals as if pushed aside by an impatient hand and left w
herever they landed. There were two other stools, two inside doors, and a large goosenecked high-intensity lamp.

  “Look out the window,” Colin ordered abruptly. “I want a profile.”

  She obeyed. The vague annoyance she felt slipped away as she spotted a sparrow building a nest in the crook of an oak. The bird moved busily, carrying wisps of this and that in her beak. Patient and tenacious, she swooped and searched and built, then swooped again. Her wings caught the sun. Enchanted, Cassidy watched her. A quiet smile touched her lips and warmed her eyes.

  “What do you see?” Colin moved to her, and her absorption was so deep she neither jolted nor turned.

  “That bird there.” She pointed as the sparrow made another quick dive. “Look how determined she is to finish that nest. The whole thing built from bits of string and grass and whatever other treasures sparrows find. We need bricks and concrete and prefabricated walls, but that little bird can build a perfectly adequate home out of next to nothing, without hands, without tools, without a union representative. Marvelous, don’t you think?” Cassidy turned her head and smiled. He was closer than she had imagined, his face near hers in order for him to follow her line of vision. As she turned, he shifted his eyes from the window and caught hers. She felt a sudden jolt, as if she had stood too quickly and lost her inner balance.

  “You might be even more perfect than I had originally thought,” Colin said. He brushed her hair behind one shoulder.

  She suddenly remembered her resolve to be businesslike. “Mr. Sullivan—”

  “Colin,” he interrupted. He continued to arrange her hair. “Or just Sullivan, if you like.”

  “Colin, then,” she said patiently. “I had no idea who you were last night. It didn’t occur to me until I was standing outside The Gallery.” She shifted, faintly disturbed that he remained standing so close. “Of course, I’m flattered that you want to paint me, but I’d like to know what’s expected of me, and—”

  “You’re expected to hold a pose for twenty minutes without fidgeting,” he began while he pushed her hair forward again, then back over her other shoulder. His fingers brushed Cassidy’s neck and caused her to frown. He appeared not to notice. “You’re expected to follow instructions and keep quiet unless I tell you otherwise. You’re expected to be on time and not to babble about leaving early so you can meet your boyfriend.”

  “I was on time,” Cassidy retorted and tossed her head so that his arrangement of her hair flew into confusion. “You didn’t tell me to come to the back, and I wandered around until I found the right door.”

  “Bright, too,” he said dryly. “Your eyes darken dramatically when your Irish is up. Who named you Cassidy?”