Sullivans woman, p.6
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.6
 

           Nora Roberts
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  “Yes, I thought perhaps that’s why you brought the manuscript back.” She spoke calmly enough, but when he made no response she moaned in frustration. “Please, Colin, I’m no good with torture. I’d confess everything I knew before they stuck the first bamboo shoot under my fingernail. I’m a marshmallow. No, wait!” She held up both hands as he started to speak. She rose and then took a quick turn around the room. “If you hated it, I’ll only be devastated for a short time. I’m certain I’ll learn to function again . . . well, nearly certain. I want you to be frank. I don’t want any platitudes or cushioned letdowns.” She pushed her mane of hair back with both hands, letting her fingers linger on her temples a moment. “And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it was interesting. That’s the worst. The absolute worst!”

  “Are you finished?” he asked mildly.

  Cassidy blew out a long breath, tugged her hand through her hair and nodded. “Yes, I think so.”

  “Come here, Cass.” She obeyed instantly because his voice was quiet and gentle. Their eyes were level, and he took her hands in his. “I haven’t mentioned the book until now because I wanted to read it when I wouldn’t be interrupted. I thought it best not to talk about it until I finished.” His thumbs ran absently over the backs of her hands. “You have something rare, Cass, something elusive. Talent. It’s not something they taught you at Berkeley; it’s something you were born with. Your college years polished it, perhaps, disciplined it, but you provided the raw material.”

  Cassidy released her breath. Astonishing, she thought, that the opinion of a man known barely a week should have such weight. Jeff’s opinion had pleased her; Colin’s had left her speechless.

  “I don’t know what to say.” She shook her head helplessly. “That sounds trite, I know, but it’s true.” Her eyes drifted past him to the disorder of papers on her desk. “Sometimes you just want to chuck it all. It just isn’t worth the pain, the struggle.”

  “And you would choose to be a writer,” Colin said.

  “No, I never had any choice.” She brought her eyes back to his. The violet glowed almost black in the shadowed light. “If anything, it picked me. Did you choose to be an artist, Colin?”

  He studied her a moment, then shook his head. “No.” He turned her hands, palms up, and looked at them with lowered brows. “There are things that come to us whether we ask for them or not. Do you believe in destiny, Cass?”

  She moistened her lips, finding them suddenly dry, then swallowed. “Yes.” The single syllable was little more than a breath.

  “Of course, I was certain you did.” He lifted his eyes and locked them on hers. Cassidy’s heartbeat jumped skittishly. “Do you think it’s our destiny to be lovers, Cassidy?” Her mouth opened but no words came out. She shook her head in mute denial. “You’re a poor liar,” he observed; then, cupping her chin in his palm, he moved his lips to hers. In direct contrast to the ease and pleasantness of Jeff’s kiss, this brought a pain that seemed to vibrate in every cell of her body. Defensively Cassidy jerked her head back.

  “Don’t!”

  “Why?” he countered, and his voice was soft. “A kiss is a simple thing, a meeting of lips.”

  “No, it’s not simple,” Cassidy protested, feeling herself being pulled to him by his eyes only. “You take more.”

  He kissed one cheek, then the other, barely touching her skin. Cassidy’s eyelids fluttered down. “Only as much as you’ll give me, Cass. That much and no more.” His lips moved over hers, teasing, persuading, until her blood thundered in her brain. His fingers were gentle on her face. “You taste of things I’d forgotten,” he murmured. “Fresh, young things. Kiss me, Cass, I’ve a need for you.”

  With a moan, half-despair, half-wonder, she answered his need.

  The flames that leapt between them were intense and wild. Her brain sent out quick, desperate protests and was ignored. A hunger for him drove her; her mouth became urgent and searching as his hands began to explore her soft curves. The fear she felt only added to her excitement, the exquisite terror of losing control. She was overwhelmed by a primitive need, an ageless necessity. When their lips parted and met again, hers ached for the joining.

  Abruptly he tore his mouth from hers and buried it against her neck. Cassidy shuddered from the onslaught even as she tilted back her head to offer him more. With his teeth he brought her skin alive with delicious pain. His hands found their way under her shirt, running up her rib cage. With his thumbs he stroked the sides of her breast while she strained against him.

  Her joints went fluid, leaving her helpless but for his support. For a moment, when their lips met again, there was nothing she had that was not his. The offer was complete and unconditional. Slowly, with his hands on her shoulders, Colin drew her away. Her lashes fluttered up, then down, before she found the strength to open her eyes. His expression was dark and forbidding. Briefly his hands tightened.

  “It seems you were right,” he began in a voice thick with desire. “A kiss isn’t a simple thing. I want you, Cass, and you’d best know nothing in heaven or hell will keep me from taking you when I’ve a mind to.” His hands relaxed, the grip becoming a caress. “When the painting’s finished, we’ll have no choice but to meet our destinies.”

  “No.” Frightened, disturbed by feelings that were too intense, Cassidy pulled out of his arms. She dragged a trembling hand through her hair, and her breath came quickly. “No, Colin, I won’t be the latest in your string of lovers. I won’t! I think more of myself than that. That’s something you’d best understand.” She stepped away from him, her shoulders straightening with inherent pride.

  Colin’s eyes narrowed. She could see his temper rising. “It should be an interesting contest.” He took a step forward and grabbed a handful of her hair. With a quick jerk he brought her face to his, then gave her a hard, brief kiss. Cassidy’s breath trembled out, but she kept her eyes steady. “Time will tell, Cass my love. Now it’s late, nearly midnight, and I’d best be on my way.” Lifting her hand, he brushed her fingers with his lips. “Sinning is much more appealing after midnight.” With another careless smile, he turned for the door. Reaching it, he pushed the latch so that it would engage when he shut it. “Find your keys,” he ordered and was gone.

  Chapter 5

  Another week passed without any clash between Colin and Cassidy. She had returned to his studio the day after his visit to her apartment determined to resist him. She’d spoken the truth when she’d told him she wouldn’t be one of his lovers.

  All her life she had waited for a relationship with depth and permanence. Her own ideals and her dedication to her studies had kept her aloof from men, and her aloofness had prolonged her naiveté. She’d grown up with only a father and had never closely witnessed the commitment of a man and a woman to each other. She had watched her father enjoy several light relationships as she’d grown up, but none of the women in his life had become important to him. Watching him drift through life with only his work, Cassidy had vowed she would find someone one day to share hers.

  She didn’t consider her vow romantic, but as necessary to her soul as food was to her body. Until she found what she searched for, she would wait. Before Colin there had never been any temptation to do otherwise. Still, when she returned to his studio, she was prepared to stand firm against him. Her preparation proved unnecessary.

  Colin spoke to her only briefly, and when he set the pose his touch was impersonal. But there seemed to be some surge of emotion just under the surface of his face, something that just stirred the air. Whether it was temper or passion or excitement, Cassidy had no way of knowing. She knew only she was vitally aware of it . . . and of him.

  They passed the days with only what needed to be said, and long gaps of silence filled the sessions. By the end of the week Cassidy’s nerves were stretched taut. She wondered if Colin felt the tension, or if it was simply within her. He seemed intent only on the painting.

  ***

  The sun fell over Cassidy warml
y, but her muscles were growing stiff from holding the pose. Colin stood behind his easel, and she watched his brush move from palette to canvas. He could work for hours without a moment’s rest. Cassidy tried to imagine how he had painted her.

  Will I hang in The Gallery or face the wall in a corner up here until he decides what to do with me? she thought. Will I be sold for some astronomical price and hang in a manor house in England? What will he title me? Woman in White. Woman with Violets. She tried to imagine being discussed and pondered over by an art class in a university. A century from now, will someone see me in some dusty gallery and wonder who I was or what I was thinking when he painted me?

  The idea gave Cassidy an odd feeling, one she was not certain wholly pleased her. How much of her soul could Colin see, and how much would be revealed with oil and canvas? Would she, in essence, be as naked as the model who’d lounged on the couch?

  Colin swore roundly, snapping her attention back to him. Her eyes widened as he slammed down his palette.

  “You’ve moved the pose.” He stalked toward her as her mouth opened to form an apology. “Hold still, blast you,” he ordered curtly, adjusting her shoulders with impatient hands. His brows were lowered in annoyance. “I won’t tolerate fidgeting.”

  Cassidy’s mouth snapped shut on her apology. Swift and heated, her temper rose. With one quick jerk she pulled out of his hands. “Don’t you speak to me that way, Sullivan.” She threw her nosegay on the windowsill and glared at him. “I was not fidgeting, and if I were, it would be because I’m human, not a—a robot or a dime-store dummy.” She tossed her head, effectively destroying his arrangement of her hair. “I’m sure it’s difficult to understand a mere mortal when one is so lofty and godlike, but we can’t all be perfect.”

  “Your opinions are neither requested nor desired.” Colin’s voice was as cold as his eyes were heated. “The only thing I require from a model is that she hold still.” He took her shoulders again, firmly. “Keep your temper to yourself when I’m working.”

  “Go paint a tree, then,” she invited furiously. “It won’t give you any back talk.” Cassidy turned to stalk to the dressing room, but Colin grabbed her arm and spun her around. His face was alive with temper.

  “No one walks away from me.”

  “Is that so?” Cassidy lifted her chin, infuriated with his arrogance. “Watch this.” She turned her back on him only to be whirled around again before she had taken two steps. “Let go of me,” she ordered as blood surged angrily under her skin. Nerves that had been stretched for a week strained to the breaking point. “I’ve nothing more to say, and I’m through holding your blasted pose for the day.”

  His grip on her arm tightened. “Very well, but there’s more between us than painting and talking, isn’t there?” He bit off the words as he dragged her against him.

  Cassidy’s heart jumped to her throat when she felt the violence of his fingers against her skin. She saw that temper ruled him now, a temper sharp enough to cut through any protest she could make. He was a man of passion, and she was aware that his darker side could carry them both past the turning point. In a desperate attempt to hold him off, Cassidy arched away from him. Even as she made the move, his mouth crushed hers. She tasted his fury.

  Her sounds of protest were muffled, her arms pinioned by his. In her throat, her heart thudded with the knowledge that she was totally at his mercy. His lips were bruising, unyielding, as his tongue penetrated her mouth. The kiss became as intimate as it was savage. When she tried to turn her face from his, he gripped her hair tightly and held her still. His mouth was hard and hot and ruthless. Behind her closed lids, a dull red mist swirled. For the first time in her life, Cassidy feared she would faint. Her protests became slighter. Colin took more.

  He was pulling her too deep too quickly, down dark corridors, beyond the border of thought and into sensation. There was no gentleness on the journey, only hard, uncompromising demand. Unable to fight him any longer, Cassidy went limp. She made no struggle when his hand moved to unfasten the dress. Her body was consumed by fire, instinctively responding to his touch. The knock on the studio door vibrated like a cannon through the room. Ignoring it, Colin continued to ravish her mouth.

  “Colin.” Dimly Cassidy heard Gail Kingsley’s voice and the sound of another knock. “There’s someone here to see you.”

  With a savage oath, Colin tore his mouth from Cassidy’s. He released her abruptly, and freed of support she staggered and fell against him. Cursing again, he took her arms and held her away, but his words halted as he studied her wide, frightened eyes.

  Her mouth was trembling, swollen by his demands. Her breath sobbed in and out of her lungs as she clung to him for balance.

  “Colin, don’t be nasty.” Gail’s voice sounded with practiced patience through the door. “You must be pretty well finished by now.”

  “All right, blast it!” he called out brusquely to Gail but kept his eyes on Cassidy. Leading her by the arm, he walked to the dressing room. Inside he turned her again to face him. In silence she looked up, struggling to balance her system and discipline her breathing. The need to weep was tearing at her.

  An expression came and went in Colin’s eyes. “Change,” he said in a quiet voice. He seemed to hesitate, as if to say more, then he turned away. When he shut the door, Cassidy turned to face the wall.

  She let the trembling run its course. Several minutes passed before the voices in the studio penetrated.

  There was Gail’s quick, nervous tone and Colin’s, calm now, without any trace of the temper of passion that had dominated it before. An unfamiliar voice mixed with theirs. It was light and male with an Italian accent. Cassidy concentrated on the voices rather than the words. Turning, she stared at her own reflection. What she saw left her stunned.

  Color had not yet returned to her cheeks, leaving them nearly as white as the dress she wore. Her eyes were haunted. It was the look of utter vulnerability that disturbed her the most; the look of a woman accepting defeat.

  No. No, I won’t. She pressed her palm over the face in the glass. He’ll win nothing that way, and we both know it. Quickly she stripped out of the dress and began to pull on her clothes. The straight, uncompromising lines of her khakis and button-down shirt made her appear less frail, and she began a careful repair of her face. The conversation in the outer room started to penetrate her thoughts. The first moments of eavesdropping were unconscious.

  “An interesting use of color, Colin. You seem to be working toward a rather dreamlike effect.” Hearing Gail’s comment, Cassidy realized they were discussing the painting. She frowned as she applied blusher to her cheeks. He lets her look at it, she thought resentfully. Why not me? “It seems almost sentimental. That should be a surprise to the art world.”

  “Sentimental, yes.” The Italian voice cut in while Cassidy now eavesdropped shamelessly. “But there is passion in this play of color here, and a rather cool practicality in the line of the dress. I’m intrigued, Colin; I can’t figure out your intention.”

  “I have more than one,” Cassidy heard him answer in his dry, ironic tone.

  “How well I know.” The Italian chuckled, then made a sound of curiosity. “You have not begun the face.”

  “No.” Cassidy recognized the dismissal in the word, but the Italian ignored it.

  “She interests me . . . and you, too, it appears. She would be beautiful, of course, and young enough to suit the dress and the violets. Still, she must have something more.” Cassidy waited for Colin’s reply, but none came. The Italian continued, undaunted. “Will you keep her hidden, my friend?”

  “Yes, Colin, where is Cassidy?” Gail’s question held an undertone of amusement that made Cassidy’s eyes narrow. “You know she’d adore meeting Vince.” She gave a light laugh. “She is rather a sweet-looking thing. Don’t tell me we ran her off?”

  Thoroughly annoyed with the condescending description, Cassidy turned and opened the door. “Not at all,” she said and gave the t
rio by the easel a brilliant smile. “And of course I’d adore meeting Vince.” She saw Gail’s eyes glitter with a quick fury, then shifted her gaze to Colin. His face told her nothing, and again her gaze shifted.

  The man beside Colin was nearly a head shorter, but his lean build and proud carriage gave the illusion of height. His hair was as dark as Colin’s, but straight, and his eyes were darkly brown against the olive of his skin. He had smooth, handsome features, and when he smiled he was all but irresistible.

  “Ah, bella.” The compliment was a sigh before he crossed the room to take both of Cassidy’s hands in his. “Bellisima. But of course, she is perfection. Where did you find her, Colin?” he demanded as his eyes caressed her face. “I will go and set up camp there until I find a prize of my own.”

  Cassidy laughed, amused by his undisguised flirtation. “In the fog,” she told him when Colin remained silent. “I thought he was a mugger.”

  “Ah, my angel, he is much worse than that.” Vince turned to Colin with a grin but retained Cassidy’s hand. “He is a black Irish dog whose paintings I buy because I have nothing better to do with my money.”

  Colin lifted a brow as he moved to join them. “Vince, Cassidy St. John. Cass, Vincente Clemenza, the duke of Maracanti.”

  At the introduction Cassidy’s eyes grew wide. “Ah, now you have impressed her with my title.” Vince’s teeth flashed into a grin. “How accommodating of you.” With perfect charm he lifted both of Cassidy’s hands to his lips. “My pleasure, sigñorina. Will you marry me?”

  “I’ve always thought I’d make a spectacular duchess. Do I curtsy?” she asked, smiling at him over their joined hands. “I’m not certain I know how.”

  “Vince normally requires that one kneel and kiss his ring.” At the comment, Cassidy let her eyes drift to Colin. His gaze was dark and brooding on her face. Fractionally, she lifted her chin. Though he said nothing, she sensed his acknowledgment of the gesture.

  “You exaggerate, my friend.” Vince released Cassidy’s hands, then laid his own on Colin’s shoulder. “As never before, I envy you your gift. You will give me first claim on the portrait.”

  Colin’s eyes remained fixed on Cassidy’s face. “There’s been a prior claim.”

  “Indeed.” Vince shrugged. The movement was at once elegant and foreign. “I shall have to outbid my competition.” There was an inflection in his tone of a man used to having his own way. Hearing it Cassidy wondered how he and Colin dealt together with such apparent amiability.

  “Vince wanted to see Janeen,” Gail cut in and moved across the room to a stack of canvases.

  “If you’ll excuse me, then,” Cassidy began, but Vince scooped up her hand again.

 
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