Sullivans woman, p.4
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.4
 

           Nora Roberts
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  “Don’t be snide.” Gail touched a scarlet-tipped finger to her lips. “Colin and I often share models. I want to see if I can use you for anything.”

  “I’m not a box lunch, Miss Kingsley,” retorted Cassidy with feeling. “I don’t care to be shared.”

  “A good model should be flexible,” Gail reproved, stretching her slender arms to the ceiling in one long, luxurious movement. “I hope you don’t make a fool of yourself the way the last one did.”

  “The last one?” Cassidy responded, then immediately wanted to bite off her tongue.

  “She fell desperately in love with Colin.” Gail gave her quick light-switch smile again. Her sharp, rapid gestures skittered down Cassidy’s nerves. She was a cat looking for something to stalk. “Worse, she imagined Colin was in love with her. It was really quite pathetic. A lovely little thing—milky skin, dark gypsy eyes. Naturally Colin was beastly to her in the end. He tends to be when someone tries to pin him down. There’s nothing worse than having someone mooning and sighing over you, is there?”

  “I wouldn’t know,” Cassidy returned in mild tones. “But you needn’t worry that I’ll be mooning and sighing over Colin. He needs my face, I need a job.” She paused a moment. Perhaps, she thought, it’s best to be clear from the start. “You won’t have any trouble from me, Gail. I’m too busy to orchestrate a romance with Colin.”

  Gail stopped her pacing long enough to fix her with a speculative frown. The frown vanished, and she moved swiftly to the door. “That simplifies matters, doesn’t it? You can change through there.” She flung out an arm to her left and was gone.

  Cassidy took time to inhale deeply. She shook her head. Artists, she decided, were all as mad as hatters. Shrugging off Gail’s behavior, she moved to the door indicated and found a small dressing room. Closeting herself inside, Cassidy began to change. As before, the gown made her feel different. Perhaps, she thought as she pulled a brush through her hair, it’s the sensation of real silk against my skin, or the elegant simplicity of the line and color. Or is it because it’s the image of what Colin wants me to be?

  Whatever the reason, Cassidy couldn’t deny that she felt heightened when she wore the gown—more alive, more aware, more a woman. After giving herself one last quick glance in the mirror, she opened the door and stepped into the studio.

  “Oh, you’re here,” she said foolishly when she saw Colin scowling at a blank canvas. She had only a side view of him, and he didn’t turn at her entrance. His hands were stuffed in his pockets, and his weight was distributed evenly on both legs. There was an impression of sharp vitality held in check—waiting, straining a bit for release. He was dressed casually, as she was now accustomed to seeing him, and the clothes seemed to suit his rangy, loose-limbed build. His face was in a black study: brows lowered, eyes narrowed, mouth unsmiling. The thought crossed Cassidy’s mind that he was unscrupulously attractive and would be a terrifying man to care for. She remained where she was, certain he had not even heard her speak.

  “I’m going to start on canvas straightaway,” he said. Still he did not turn to acknowledge her. “There’re violets on the table.” With one shoulder he made a vague gesture. “They match your eyes.”

  Cassidy looked over and saw the small nosegay tossed amid the artistic rubble. Her face lit with instant pleasure. “Oh, they’re lovely!” Moving to the table, she took them, then buried her face in their delicate petals. The fragrance was subtle and sweet. Touched and charmed, Cassidy lifted her smile to thank him.

  “I want a spot of color against the dress,” Colin murmured. His preoccupation was obvious and complete. He did not glance at her or change expression.

  Pleasure shattered, Cassidy stared down at the tiny flowers and sighed. It’s my fault, she thought ruefully. He bought them for the painting, not for me. It was ridiculous to think otherwise. Why in the world should he buy me flowers? With a shake of her head and a wry smile, she moved over to join him. “Do you see me there already?” she asked. “On the empty canvas?”

  He turned then and looked at her, but the frown of his concentration remained. He lifted the hand that held the flowers. “Yes, they’ll do. Stand over here, I want the light from this window.”

  As he propelled her across the room, Cassidy twisted her head to look up at him. “Good morning, Colin,” she said in the bright, cheerful voice of a kindergarten instructor.

  He lifted a brow as he stopped by the window. “Manners are the least of my concerns when I’m working.”

  “I’m awfully glad you cleared that up,” Cassidy replied, smiling broadly.

  “I’ve also been known to devour young, smart-tongued wenches for breakfast.”

  “Wenches!” Cassidy’s smile became a delighted grin. “How wonderfully anachronistic. It sounds lovely when you say it, too. I do wish you’d said lusty young wenches, though. I’ve always loved that phrase.”

  “The description doesn’t fit you.” Colin lifted her chin with one finger and brushed her hair over her shoulder with his other hand.

  “Oh.” Cassidy felt vaguely insulted.

  “Once I’ve set the pose, don’t fidget. I just might throw an easel at you if you do.” While he spoke, he moved her face and body with his hands. His touch was as impersonal as a physician’s. I might as well be a still-life arrangement, Cassidy thought. By his eyes, she saw that his mind had gone beyond her and into his art. She recognized his expression of absolute concentration from her own work. She, too, had a tendency to block out her surroundings and step into her own mind.

  At length he stood back and studied her in silence. It was a natural pose and simple. She stood straight, with the nosegay cupped in both hands and held just below her right hip. Her arms were relaxed, barely bent at the elbows. He had left her hair tumbled free, without design, over both shoulders. “Lift your chin a fraction higher.” He held up a hand to stop the movement. “There. Be still and don’t talk until I tell you.”

  Cassidy obeyed, moving only her eyes to watch him as he strode behind the easel again. He lifted a piece of charcoal. Minutes passed in utter silence as she watched the movements of his arms and shoulders and felt the probing power of his eyes. They returned again and again to her face. She knew he could look into her eyes and see directly into her soul, learning more perhaps than she knew herself. The sensation made her not nervous so much as curious. What would he see? How would he express it?

  “All right,” Colin said abruptly. “You can talk for the moment, but don’t move the pose. Tell me about those unpublished novels of yours.”

  He continued to work with such obsessed concentration that Cassidy assumed he had invited her to talk only to keep her relaxed. She doubted seriously if her words made more than a surface impression. If he heard them at all, he would forget them moments later.

  “There’s only one actually, or one and a half. I’m working on a second novel while the first bounces from rejection slip to rejection slip.” She started to shrug but caught herself in time. “It’s about a woman’s coming of age, the choices she makes, the mistakes. It’s rather sentimental, I suppose. I like to think she makes the right choices in the end. Do you know it’s very difficult to talk without your hands? I had no idea mine were so necessary to my vocabulary.”

  “It’s your Gaelic blood.” Colin frowned deeply at the canvas, then lifted his eyes to hers. By the movement of his shoulders she knew he continued to work. “Will you let me read your manuscript?”

  Surprised, Cassidy stared a moment before gathering her wits. “Well, yes, if you’d like. I—”

  “Good,” he interrupted and slashed another line on the canvas. “Bring it with you tomorrow. Be quiet now,” he commanded before Cassidy could speak again. “I’m going to work the face.”

  Silence reigned until he put down the charcoal and shook his head. “It’s not right.” He scowled at Cassidy, then paced. Unsure, she held the pose and her tongue. “You’re not giving me the right mood. Do you know what I want?” he demanded.
There was impatience and a hint of temper in his voice. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, seeing the question had been rhetorical. “I want more than an illusion. I want passion. You’ve passion in you, Cassidy, more, by heaven, than I need for this painting.” He turned to face her again, and she felt the room vibrate with his tension. Her heart began to quicken in response. “I want a promise. I want a woman who invites a lover. I want expectation and the freshness that springs from innocence. Untouched but not untouchable. It’s that you have to give me. That’s the essence of it.” In his frustration, the cadence of his native land became more obvious. The fire of his talent flickered in his eyes. Fascinated, Cassidy watched him, not speaking even when he stopped directly in front of her. “There would be a softness in your eyes and just a trace of heat. There would be a giving in the set of your mouth that comes from having just been kissed, from waiting to be kissed again. Like this.”

  His mouth took hers quickly, stunningly. He framed her face with his hands, thumbs brushing her cheeks while he took the kiss into trembling intimacy with terrifying speed. His lips were warm and soft and experienced. His tongue plundered without warning. Somewhere deep within her came an answer. Passion, long overlooked, smoldered, then kindled, then licked tentatively into flame. She tasted the flavor of power. As quickly as his mouth had taken, it liberated.

  Though she was unaware of it, her expression was exactly what he’d demanded of her—expectant, inviting, innocent. Fleetingly he dropped his gaze to her mouth; then, taking his time, he removed his hands from her face. Impatience flickered in his eyes before he turned and strode to his easel.

  Cassidy tried to steady her spinning brain. Reason told her the kiss had meant nothing, a means to an end, but her heart thudded in contradiction. In a few brief seconds he had stirred up a hunger she hadn’t been aware of having, had stirred up desires she hadn’t been aware she had. It was more a revelation, she thought bemusedly, than a kiss. Forcing her breathing to slow, she tried to keep the quick encounter in perspective.

  She was a grown woman. Kisses were more common than handshakes. It was her treacherous imagination that had turned it into something else. Only my imagination, she decided as she calmed, and his utter effrontery. He’d taken her totally by surprise. He’d kissed her when he’d had no right to do so, and in a way that had been both proprietary and intimate. No man had ever been permitted either of the privileges, and his seizure of them had left her shaken. Cassidy could justify her reaction to Colin by intellectually dissecting the scene, its cause and results. She turned her emotions over to her mind and plotted the scene. She examined motivations. Still, something lingered inside her that could not quite be rationalized or explained away. Disturbed, she tried to ignore it.

  “We’ll stop now,” Colin stated abruptly and put aside the charcoal. He glanced up as he cleaned his hands on a paint rag. She thought perhaps he saw Cassidy St. John again for the first time since he had set the pose. “Relax.”

  When Cassidy obeyed, she was surprised to find her muscles stiff. “How long have I been standing there?” she demanded as she arched her back. “A good bit more than twenty minutes.”

  Colin shrugged, his eyes back on the canvas. “Perhaps. It’s moving nicely. Do you want coffee?”

  Cassidy scowled at his casual dismissal of the time. “Twenty minutes is quite long enough to stand in one position. I’ll bring a kitchen timer with me from now on, and yes, I want coffee.”

  He ignored the first two-thirds of her statement and headed for the door. “I’ll fix some.”

  “Am I allowed to look?” She gestured toward the canvas as he drew back the bolt.

  “No.”

  She made a sound of disgust. “What about the others?” Her gesture took in the canvases against the wall. “Are they a secret, too?”

  “Help yourself. Just stay away from the one I’m working on.” Colin disappeared, presumably to fetch the promised coffee.

  Making a face at the empty doorway, Cassidy set down the nosegay and wandered toward the neglected canvases. They were stacked here and tilted there, without order or design. Some were small while others were large enough to require some effort on her part to turn them around. Within moments, whatever minor irritation she’d felt was eclipsed by admiration for his talent. She saw why Colin Sullivan was considered a master of color and light. Moreover she saw the sensitivity she had detected in his hands and the strength she had felt there. There was insight and honesty in his portraits, vitality in his city scenes and landscapes. A play of shadows, a splatter of light, and the paintings breathed his mood. She wondered if he painted what he saw or what he felt, then understood it was a marriage of both. She decided that he saw more than the average mortal was entitled to see. His gift was as much in his perception as in his hands. The paintings moved her almost as deeply as the man had.

  Carefully she turned another canvas. The subject was beautiful. The woman’s undraped body lounged negligently on the couch that now sat empty at the far end of the studio. There was a lazy smile on her face and a careless confidence in the attitude of her naked limbs. From the milky skin and gypsy eyes, Cassidy recognized the model Gail had spoken of that morning.

  “A lovely creature, isn’t she?” Colin asked from behind. Cassidy started.

  “Yes.” She turned and accepted the proffered mug. “I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman.”

  Colin’s brow arched as he moved his shoulders. “Of a type, she’s nearly perfect, and her body is exquisite.”

  Cassidy frowned into her coffee and tried to pretend the stab of irritation didn’t exist.

  “She has a basic sexuality and is comfortable with it.”

  “Yes.” Sipping her coffee, Cassidy spoke mildly. “You’ve captured it remarkably well.”

  Her tone betrayed her. Colin grinned. “Ah, Cass, it’s an open book you are and surely the most delightful creature I’ve met in years.” The thickened brogue rolled easily off his tongue. Better women than she, Cassidy was certain, had fallen for the Gaelic charm.

  She tossed her head, but the glare she had intended to flash at him turned of its own volition into a smile. “I can’t keep up with you, Sullivan.” She studied him over the rim of her mug. Sunlight shot through her hair and shadowed the silk of the dress. “Why did you settle in San Francisco?” she asked.

  Colin straddled one of the abandoned wooden chairs, keeping his eyes on her. She wondered if he saw her as a person now or still as a subject. “It’s a cross section of the world. I like the contrasts and its sordid history.”

  “And that it trades on that sordid history rather than apologizing for it,” Cassidy concluded with an agreeing nod. “But don’t you miss Ireland?”

  “I go back now and then.” He lifted his coffee and drank deeply. “It feeds me, like a mother’s breast. Here I find passion, there I find peace. The soul requires both.” He glanced up at her again and searched her face. The violet of her eyes had darkened. Her expression revealed her thoughts. They were all on him. Colin turned away from the innocent candor of her eyes. “Finish your coffee. I want to perfect the preliminary outline today. I’ll start in oil tomorrow.”

  ***

  The morning passed almost completely in silence while she took advantage of Colin’s absorption to study him. She had read of the dark devil looks and fiery blue eyes of the volatile black Irish, and now she found them even more compelling in the flesh. She wondered at the strange quirk in her own personality that caused her to find moodiness appealing.

  With only the barest effort she could feel the swift excitement of his lips on hers. Warmed, she drifted with the sensation. For a moment she imagined what it would be like to be held by him in earnest. Though her experience with men had been limited, her instincts told her Colin Sullivan was dangerous. He interested her too much. His dominance challenged her, his physicality attracted her, his moodiness intrigued her.

  Gail Kingsley’s scathing comment about Cassidy’s predecessor came ba
ck to her. She had a quick mental picture of the redhead’s demanding beauty and the model’s sultry allure. Cassidy St. John, she mused, is at neither end of the spectrum. She isn’t strikingly vivid nor steamily sexy. Feminine extremes apparently appeal to Colin both as an artist and as a man. She caught herself, annoyed with the train of her own thoughts. It would not do to get involved or form any personal attachments with a man like Colin Sullivan. Don’t get too close, she cautioned herself. Don’t open any doors. Don’t get hurt. The last warning came from nowhere and surprised her.

  “Relax.”

  Cassidy focused on Colin and found him staring down at the canvas. His attention was concentrated on what only he could see. “Go change,” he directed without glancing up. Cassidy’s thoughts darkened at his tone. Rude, she decided, was a mild sort of word for describing Sullivan the artist. Controlling her temper, Cassidy went back to the dressing room.

  My worries are groundless, she told herself and closed the door smartly. No one could possibly get close enough to that man to be hurt.

  A few moments later Cassidy emerged from the dressing room in her own clothes. Colin stood, facing the window, his hands jammed into his pockets, his eyes narrowed on some view of his own.

  “I’ve left the dress hanging in the other room,” Cassidy said coldly. “I’ll just be off, since you seem to be done.” She snatched up her purse from the chair. Even as she swung it over her shoulder and turned for the door, Colin took her hand in his.

  “You’ve that line between your brows again, Cass.” He lifted a finger to trace it. “Smooth it out and I’ll buy you some lunch before you go.”

  The line deepened. “Don’t use that patronizing tone on me, Sullivan. I’m not an empty-headed art groupie to be patted and babied into smiles.”

  His brow lifted a fraction. “Quite right. Then again, there’s no need to go off in a tiff.”

  “I’m not in a tiff,” Cassidy insisted as she tried to jerk out of his hold. “I’m simply having a perfectly normal reaction to rudeness. Let go of my hand.”

  “When I’m through with it,” he replied evenly. “You should mind your temper, Cass my love. It does alluring things to your face, and I’m not one for resisting what appeals to me.”

  “It’s abundantly clear the only appeal I have for you is on that canvas over there.” Cassidy wriggled her hand in an attempt to free it. With a quick flick of the wrist, Colin tumbled her into his chest. Mutinous and glowing, her face lifted to his. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

  “You challenge me to prove you wrong.” There was amusement in his eyes now and something else that made her heart beat erratically.

  “I don’t challenge you to anything,” she corrected with a furious toss of her head. Her hair swung and lifted with the movement, then settled into its own appealing disarray.

 
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