Sullivans woman, p.3
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.3
 

           Nora Roberts
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  “It’s my mother’s family name,” she said shortly. She opened her mouth to speak again.

  “I knew some Cassidys in Ireland,” he commented as he lifted her hands to examine them.

  “I don’t know any of my mother’s family,” Cassidy murmured, disconcerted by the feel of his hands on hers. “She died when I was born.”

  “I see.” Colin turned her palms up. “Your hands are very narrow-boned. And your father?”

  “His family was from Devon. He died four years ago. I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

  “It has to do with everything.” He lifted his eyes from her hands but kept them in his. “You get your eyes and hair from your mother’s family, and your skin and bone structure from your father’s. It’s a face of contradictions you have, Cassidy St. John, and precisely what I need. Your hair must have a dozen varying shades and it looks as though you’ve just taken your head from a pillow. You’re wise not to attempt to discipline it. Your eyes go just past Celtic-blue into violet and add a touch of the exotic with the shape of them. They tend to dream. But your bones are all English aristocracy. Your mouth tips the balance again, promising a passion the cool British complexion denies. Pure skin, just a hint of rose under the ivory. You haven’t walked through life without having to scale a few walls, yet there’s a definite aura of the ingenue around you. The painting I want to do must have certain elements. I need very specific qualities in my model. You have them.” He paused and inclined his head. “Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

  She was staring at him, transfixed, trying to see herself as he described. Did her heritage so heavily influence her looks? “I’m not at all certain that it does,” Cassidy murmured. She sighed, then her eyes found him again. “But I’m vain enough to want Colin Sullivan to paint me and destitute enough to need the job.” She smiled. “Shall I be immortal when you’ve finished? I’ve always wanted to be.”

  Colin laughed, and the sound was warm and free in the big room. He squeezed her hands, then surprisingly brought them to his lips. “You’ll do me, Cass.”

  Cassidy’s fumbling reply was interrupted as the studio door swung open.

  “Colin, I need to—” The woman who swirled into the room halted abruptly and fixed sharp eyes on Cassidy. “Sorry,” she said as her gaze drifted to their joined hands. “I didn’t know you were occupied.”

  “No matter, Gail,” Colin returned easily. “You know I lock the door when I’m working seriously. This is Cassidy St. John, who’ll be sitting for me. Cassidy, Gail Kingsley, a very talented artist who manages The Gallery.”

  Gail Kingsley was striking. She was tall and thin as a reed with a long, triangular face set off by a spiky cap of vivid red hair. Everything about her was vital and compelling. Her eyes were piercingly green and darkly accented, her mouth was wide and slashed in uncompromising scarlet. Gold hoops poked through the spikes of vibrant hair at her ears. Her dress was flowing, without definite line, a chaotic mix of greens washed over silk. The effect was bold and breathtaking. She moved forward, and her entire body seemed charged with nervous energy. Even her movements were quick and sharp, her eyes probing as they rested on Cassidy’s face. There was something in the look that made Cassidy instantly uncomfortable. It was a purposeful intrusion while it remained completely impersonal.

  “Good bones,” Gail commented in a dismissing tone. “But the coloring’s rather dull, don’t you think?”

  Cassidy spoke with annoyed directness. “We can’t all be redheads.”

  “True enough,” Colin said and, lifting a brow at Cassidy, turned to Gail. “What was it you needed? I want to get back to work.”

  There is a certain aura around people who have been intimate, Cassidy thought. It shows in a look, a gesture, a tone of voice. In the moment Gail’s eyes left Cassidy to meet Colin’s, she knew they were, or had been, lovers. Cassidy felt a vague sense of disappointment. Uncomfortable, she tried vainly to pull her hands from Colin’s. She received an absentminded frown.

  “It’s Higgin’s Portrait of a Girl. We’ve been offered five thousand, but Higgin won’t accept unless you approve. I’d like to have it firmed up today.”

  “Who made the offer?”

  “Charles Dupres.”

  “Tell Higgin to take it. Dupres won’t haggle and he’s fair. Anything else?” There was a simple dismissal in the words. Cassidy watched Gail’s eyes flare.

  “Nothing that can’t wait. I’ll go give Higgin a call.”

  “Fine.” Colin turned back to Cassidy before Gail was halfway across the room. He was frowning at her hair as he pushed it back from her face. Over his shoulder, Cassidy watched Gail’s glance dart back when she reached the door. Gail shut it firmly behind her. Colin stepped away and scanned Cassidy from head to toe.

  “It won’t do,” he announced and scowled. “It won’t do at all.”

  Confused by his statement, shaken by what she had recognized in Gail’s eyes, Cassidy stared at him, then ran her fingers through her hair. “What won’t?”

  “That business you have on.” He made a gesture with his hand, a quick flick of the wrist, which encompassed her blouse and jeans and sandals.

  Cassidy looked down and ran her palms over her hips. “You didn’t specify how I should dress, and in any case I hadn’t decided to sit for you.” She shrugged her shoulders, annoyed with herself for feeling compelled to justify her attire. “You might have given me some details instead of scrawling down the address and bounding off.”

  “I want something smooth and flowing; no waist, no interruptions.” He ignored Cassidy’s comments. “Ivory, not white. Something long and sleek.” He took her waist in his hands, which threw her into speechless shock. “You haven’t any hips to speak of, and the waist of a child. I want a high neck so we won’t worry about the lack of cleavage.”

  Blushing furiously, Cassidy slipped down from the stool and pushed him away. “It’s my body, you know. I don’t care for your observations on it or your—your hands on it, either. My cleavage or the lack of it has nothing to do with you.”

  “Don’t be a child,” he said briskly and set her back on the stool. “At the moment, your body only interests me artistically. If that changes, you’ll know quickly enough.”

  “Now just a minute, Sullivan.” Cassidy slipped off the stool again, tossing back her head as she prepared to put him neatly in his place.

  “Spectacular.” He grabbed a handful of her hair to keep her face lifted to his. “Temper becomes you, Cass, but it’s not the mood I’m looking for. Another time, perhaps.” The corners of his mouth lifted as his fingers moved to massage her neck. His smile settled lazily over his face, and though Cassidy suspected the calculation, it was no less effective. She was conscious of his fingers on her skin. The essential physicality of the sensation was novel and intrigued her into silence. This was something new to be explored. His voice lowered into a caress no less potent than the hand on her skin. The faint lilt of Ireland intensified. “It’s an illusion I’m looking for, and a reality. A wish. Can you be a wish for me, Cass?”

  In that moment, with her face inches from his, their bodies just touching, the warmth of his fingers on her skin, Cassidy, felt she could be anything he asked. Nothing was impossible. This was where his power over women lay, she realized: in the quick charm, the piratical features, the light hint of an old country in his speech. Added to this was an undiluted sexuality he turned on at will and an impatience in the set of his shoulders. She knew he was aware of his power and used it shamelessly. Even this was somehow attractive. She felt herself submitting to it, drawn toward it while her emotions overshadowed her intellect. She wondered what his mouth would feel like on hers, and if the kiss would be as exciting as she imagined. Would she lose or find herself? Would she simply experience? As a defense against her own thoughts, she placed her hands on his chest and pushed herself to safety.

  “You’re not an easy man, are you, Colin?” Cassidy took a deep breath to steady her limb
s.

  “Not a bit.” There was careless agreement in his answer. She defined what flicked over his face as something between annoyance and curiosity. “How old are you, Cassidy?”

  “Twenty-three,” she answered, meeting his eyes levelly. “Why?”

  He shrugged, stuck his hands in his pockets, then paced the room. “I’ll need to know all there is to know about you before I’m done. What you are will creep into the portrait, and I’ll have to work with it. I’ve got to find the blasted dress quickly; I want to start. The time’s right.” There was an urgency in his movements that contrasted sharply with the man who had seduced her with his voice only moments before. Who was Colin Sullivan? Cassidy wondered. Though she knew finding out would be dangerous, she felt compelled to learn.

  “I think I know one that might do,” she hazarded while his mood swirled around the room. “It’s more oyster than ivory, actually, but it’s simple and straight with a high neck. It’s also horribly expensive. It’s silk, you see—”

  “Where is it?” Colin demanded and stopped his pacing directly in front of her. “Never mind,” he continued even as she opened her mouth to tell him. “Let’s go have a look.”

  He had her by the hand and had passed through the back door before she could say another word. Cassidy took care to go along peacefully down the stairs, not wishing to risk a broken neck. “Which way?” he demanded as he marched her to the front of the building.

  “It’s just a few blocks that way,” she said and pointed to the left. “But Colin—” Before she could finish her thought, she was being piloted at full speed down the sidewalk. “Colin, I think you should know . . . Good grief, I should’ve worn my track shoes. Would you slow down?”

  “You’ve got long legs,” he told her and continued without slackening his pace. Making a brief sound of disgust, Cassidy trotted to keep up. “I think you should know the dress is in the shop I was fired from yesterday.”

  “A dress shop?” This appeared to interest him enough to slow him down while he glanced at her. With a gesture of absent familiarity, he tucked her hair behind her ear. “What were you doing working in a dress shop?”

  Cassidy sent him a withering stare. “I was earning a living, Sullivan. Some of us are required to do so in order to eat.”

  “Don’t be nasty, Cass,” he advised mildly. “You’re not a professional dress clerk.”

  “Which is precisely why I was fired.” Amused by her own ineptitude, she grinned. “I’m also not a professional waitress, which is why I was fired from Jim’s Bar and Grill. I objected to having certain parts of my anatomy pinched, and dumped a bowl of coleslaw on a paying customer. I won’t go into my brief career as a switchboard operator. It’s a sad, pitiful story, and it’s such a lovely day.” She tossed back her head to smile at Colin and found him watching her.

  “If you’re not a professional clerk or waitress or switchboard operator, what are you, Cass?”

  “A struggling writer who seems singularly inept at holding a proper job since college.”

  “A writer.” He nodded as he looked down at her. “What do you write?”

  “Unpublished novels,” she told him and smiled again. “And an occasional article on the effects of perfume on the modern man. I have to keep my hand in.”

  “And are you any good?” Colin skirted another pedestrian without taking his eyes from Cassidy.

  “I’m positively brimming with fresh, undiscovered talent.” She tossed her hair behind her shoulders, then pointed. “There we are, The Best Boutique. I wonder what Julia will have to say about this. She’ll probably think you’re keeping me.” She bit her lip to suppress a giggle, then slid her glance back to his. “Have you any smoldering looks up your sleeve, Colin?” Mischief danced in her eyes as she paused outside the front door of the shop. “You could send me a few and give Julia something to talk about for weeks.” She swung through the door, her lovely face flushed with laughter.

  True to form, Julia greeted Colin with scrupulous politeness and only the faintest glimmer of curiosity. There was a speculative glance for her former clerk, then recognition of Colin widened her eyes. She lifted a brow at Cassidy’s request for the oyster silk dress, then proceeded to wait on them personally.

  In the changing room Cassidy stripped off her jeans and marveled at the irony of life. Little more than twenty-four hours before, she had been standing outside that very room with discarded dresses heaped over her arms . . . without a thought of Colin Sullivan in her head. Now he seemed to dominate both her thoughts and her actions. The thin, cool silk was slipping over her head because he wished it. Her heart beat just a fraction quicker because he waited to see the results. Cassidy fastened the zipper, held her breath and turned. Her reflection stared back at her with undisguised awe.

  The dress fell from a severely high neck in a straight line, softened by the fragility of the material. Her arms and shoulders gleamed under the thin transparency of its full sleeves. Her hair glowed with life against the delicacy of color. Cassidy let out her breath slowly. It was a wish of a dress, as romantic as the material, as practical as its line. In it she not only looked both elegant and vulnerable but felt it. With taut nerves she moistened her lips and stepped from the changing room.

  Colin was charming Julia into blushes. The incongruity of flirtatious color in the cool, composed face turned Cassidy’s nerves into amusement. There was the devil of a smile in Colin’s eyes as he lifted Julia’s hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles. Cassidy schooled her features to sobriety. A hint of a smile lurked on her lips.

  “Colin.”

  He turned as she called his name. The smile that lit his face and brightened his eyes faded, then died. Releasing Julia’s hand, he took a few steps closer but kept half the room between them. Cassidy, who had been about to grin and spin a circle for inspection, stood still, hypnotized by his eyes.

  Very slowly, his eyes left her face to travel down the length of her, then back again. Cassidy’s cheeks grew warm with the flurry of her emotions. How could he make her feel so vitalized and then so enervated with just a look? She wanted to speak, to break her own trance, but the words were jumbled and uncooperative. She found she could only repeat his name.

  “Colin?” There was the faintest hint of invitation in the word, a question even she did not understand.

  Something flashed in his eyes and was gone. The intense concentration was inexplicably replaced by irritation. When he spoke it was brisk and dismissive.

  “That will do very well. Have it packed up and bring it with you tomorrow. We’ll start then.”

  Cassidy’s mind raced with a hundred questions and a hundred demands. His tone stiffened her pride, however, and hers was cool when she spoke. “Is that all?”

  “That’s all.” Temper hovered in his voice. “Nine o’clock tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

  Cassidy took a deep breath and let it out carefully. In that moment she was certain she despised him. They watched each other for another minute while the air crackled with tension and something more volatile. Then she turned her back on him and glided into the changing room.

  Chapter 3

  Cassidy spent most of the night lecturing herself. By morning she felt she had herself firmly in hand. There had been absolutely no reason for her to be annoyed with Colin. His brisk, impersonal attitude over the dress was only to be expected. As she rode the trolley across town, she shifted the dress box into her other arm and determined to preserve a cool, professional distance from him.

  He’s simply my employer. He’s an artist, obviously a temperamental one. She added the modifier with a sniff. Deftly she jumped from the cable car to finish the trip on foot. He’s a man who sees something in my face he wants to paint. He has no personal feelings for me, nor I for him. How could I? I barely know Colin Sullivan. What I felt yesterday was simply the overflow of his personality. It’s very strong, very magnetic. I only imagined that there was an immediate affinity between us. Things don’t happen that way,
not that fast. All there is between us is the bond between artist and subject. I was writing scenes again.

  Cassidy paused at the base of the stairs that led to Colin’s studio. Still, he might have thanked me for finding the dress he was looking for, she thought. Never mind. She made an involuntary gesture with her hand as she climbed the steps. He’s so self-absorbed he probably forgot I suggested the shop in the first place. With a quick toss of her head, Cassidy knocked, prepared to be brisk and professional in her new employ. Her resolve wavered a bit when Gail Kingsley opened the door.

  “Hello,” she said and smiled despite the cool assessment in Gail’s eyes. For an answer Gail made a sweeping arm gesture into the room that would have seemed overdone on anyone else. Flamboyance suited her.

  Gail was just as striking today in a shocking-pink jumpsuit no other redhead would have had the courage to wear. Colin was nowhere in sight. Cassidy was torn between admiration for the redhead’s style and disappointment that Colin hadn’t answered the door. She felt juvenile and ragged in jeans and a pullover.

  “Am I too early?”

  Gail placed her hands on her narrow hips and walked around Cassidy slowly. “No, Colin’s tied up. He’ll be along. Is that curl in your hair natural or have you a perm?”

  “It’s natural,” Cassidy replied evenly.

  “And the color?”

  “Mine, too.” Gail’s bold perfume dominated the scents of paint. When she came back to stand in front of her, Cassidy met her eyes levelly. “Why?”

  “Just curious, dear heart. Just curious.” Gail flashed a quick, dazzling smile that snapped on and off like a light. It was momentarily blinding, then all trace of it vanished. “Colin’s quite taken with your face. He seems to be drifting into a romantic period. I’ve always avoided that sort of technique.” She narrowed her eyes until she seemed to be examining the pores of Cassidy’s skin.

  “Want to count my teeth?” Cassidy invited.

 
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