Sullivans woman, p.7
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.7
 

           Nora Roberts
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  “No, madonna, stay. Come peruse the master’s work with me.” Without waiting for her assent he urged her across the room.

  Gail took a canvas, then propped it on an easel. It was the portrait of the nude with the milky skin. Cassidy glanced up to see Gail smiling.

  “Cassidy’s predecessor,” she announced, then stepped back to stand with Colin. Cassidy recognized the proprietary nature of the gesture. She turned her attention back to the portrait without looking at Colin.

  “An exquisite animal,” Vince murmured. “One would say a woman without boundaries. There is quite an attractive wickedness about her.” He turned his head to smile at Cassidy. “What do you think?”

  “It’s magnificent,” she replied immediately. “She makes me uncomfortable, and yet I envy her confidence in her own sexuality. I think she would intimidate most men . . . and enjoy it.”

  “Your model appears to be an astute judge of character.” Vince rubbed his thumb absently over Cassidy’s knuckles. “Yes, I want it. And the Faylor Gail showed me downstairs. He shows promise. Now, madonna . . .” He turned to face Cassidy again. His eyes were dark and appreciative. “You will have dinner with me tonight? The city is a lonely place without a beautiful woman.”

  Cassidy smiled, but before she could speak Colin laid a hand on her shoulder. “The paintings are yours, Vince. My model isn’t.”

  “Ah.” Vince’s one syllable was ripe with meaning. Cassidy’s eyes narrowed with fury. Smoothly Colin turned to take the painting from the easel.

  “Have someone package this and the Faylor for Vince,” he told Gail as he handed her the canvas. “I’ll be down shortly and we’ll discuss terms.”

  Without a word Gail crossed the studio and swung through the door. Vince watched her with a thoughtful eye, then turned back to Cassidy.

  “Arrivederci, Cassidy St. John.” He kissed her hand, then sighed with regret. “It seems I must find my own dream in the fog. I will expect a bargain price to soothe my crushing disappointment, my friend.” He shot a look at Colin as he moved to the door. “If you are ever in Italy, madonna . . .” With a final smile he left them.

  Trembling with rage, Cassidy turned on Colin the moment the door closed. “How dare you?” Now she had no need of blusher to bring color to her cheeks. “How dare you imply such a thing?”

  “I merely told Vince he could have the paintings but not my current model,” Colin countered. Carelessly he moved across the room and covered Cassidy’s portrait. “Any implication was purely coincidental.”

  “Oh, no!” Cassidy followed him, propelled by fury. “That was no coincidence. You knew precisely what you were doing. I won’t tolerate that sort of interference from you, Sullivan.” She took a finger and poked him in the chest. “I’m perfectly free to see whomever I choose, whenever I choose, and I won’t have you implying otherwise.”

  Colin hooked his hands in his pockets. For a moment he studied her face in silence. When he spoke it was with perfect calm. “You’re very young and remarkably naive. Vince is an old friend and a good one. He’s also a charming rake, if you’ll forgive the archaic term. He has no scruples with women.”

  “And you do?” Cassidy retorted in an instant of blind heat. She saw Colin stiffen, saw his eyes flare and the muscles in his face tense. For the first time she witnessed his calculated control of his temper.

  “Your point, Cass,” he said softly. “Well taken.” His hands stayed in his pockets as he watched her. “Don’t come back until Thursday,” he told her and turned to walk to the door. “I need a day or two.”

  Cassidy stood alone in the empty studio. I may have scored a point, she thought wretchedly, but this victory isn’t sweet. She was drained, physically as well as emotionally. She returned to the dressing room for her purse. Colin wasn’t the only one who needed a day or two.

  “Oh, what luck, I’ve caught you.” Gail swept into the studio just as Cassidy emerged from the dressing room. “I thought we might have a little chat.” Gail shot her a quick, flashing smile and leaned back against the closed door. “Just us two,” she added.

  Cassidy sighed with undisguised weariness. “Not now,” she said and shifted her purse to her shoulder. “I’ve had enough temperament for one day.”

  “I’ll make it brief, then, and you can be on your way.” Gail spoke pleasantly enough, but Cassidy felt the antagonism just below the surface.

  It’s best not to argue, Cassidy decided. It’s best to hear her out, agree with everything she says, and go quietly. That’s the sensible thing to do.

  She gave her what she hoped was an inoffensive smile. “All right, go ahead, then.”

  Gail took a quick, sweeping survey. “I’m afraid perhaps I haven’t made myself clear . . . about myself and Colin.” Her voice was patient—teacher to student. Cassidy ignored a surge of annoyance and nodded.

  “Colin and I have been together for quite some time. We meet a certain need in each other. Over the years he’s had his share of flirtations, which I’m quite capable of overlooking. In many cases these relationships were intensified for the press.” She shrugged a gauze-covered shoulder. “Colin’s romantic image helps maintain the mystique of the artist. I’ll sanction anything when it helps his career. I understand him.”

  As if unable to remain still for more than short spurts, Gail began to roam the room.

  “I’m afraid I don’t see why you’re telling me this,” Cassidy began. The last thing she needed to hear at the moment was how experienced Colin Sullivan was with women.

  “Let’s you and I understand each other, too.” Gail stopped pacing and faced Cassidy again. Her eyes were hard and cold. “As long as Colin’s doing this painting, I have to tolerate you. I know better than to interfere with his work. But if you get in my way . . .” She wrapped her fingers around the strap of Cassidy’s purse. “I can find ways of removing people who get in my way.”

  “I’m sure you can,” Cassidy returned evenly. “I’m afraid you’ll find I don’t remove easily.” She pried Gail’s fingers from her strap. “Your relationship with Colin is your own affair. I’ve no intention of interfering with it. Not,” she added as a satisfied smile tilted the corner of Gail’s mouth, “because you threaten me. You don’t intimidate me, Gail. Actually, I feel rather sorry for you.”

  Cassidy ignored Gail’s harsh intake of breath and continued. “Your lack of confidence where Colin is concerned is pathetic. I’m no threat to you. A blind man could see he’s only interested in what he puts on that canvas over there.” She flung out a hand and pointed to the covered portrait. “I interest him as a thing, not as a person.” She felt a quick slash of pain as her own statement came home to her. She continued to speak, though the words rushed out in desperation. “I won’t interfere with you because I’m not in love with Colin, and I have no intention of ever being in love with him.”

  Whirling, she darted through the back door of the studio, slamming it at her back. Only after she had gulped in enough air to steady her nerves did Cassidy realize she had lied.

  Chapter 6

  For the next two days Cassidy buried herself in her work. She was determined to give herself a time of peace, a time of rest for her emotions. She knew she needed to cut herself off from Colin to accomplish it. The disruption of their day-to-day contact wasn’t enough. She knew she needed to block him from her mind. In addition, Cassidy forced herself not to consider the knowledge that had come to her after the scene with Gail. She wouldn’t think of being in love with Colin or of the circumstances that made her love impossible. For two days she would pretend she’d never met him.

  Cassidy wrote frantically. All her fears and pain and passion were expressed in her words. She worked late into the night, until she could be certain there would be no dreams to haunt her. When she slept, she slept deeply, exhausted by her own drive. More than once she forgot to eat.

  On the second day it began to rain. There was a solid gray wall outside Cassidy’s window of which she remained totally u
naware. Below, pedestrians scrambled about under umbrellas.

  Cassidy’s concentration was so complete that when a hand touched her shoulder, she screamed.

  “Wow, Cassidy, I’m sorry.” Jeff tried to look apologetic but grinned instead. “I knocked and called you twice. You were totally absorbed.”

  Cassidy held a hand against her heart as if to keep it in place. She took two deep breaths. “It’s all right. We all need to be terrified now and again. It keeps the blood moving. Is it your refrigerator?”

  Jeff grimaced as he ran a finger down her nose. “Is that where you think my heart is? In your refrigerator? Cassidy, I’m a sensitive guy, my mother’ll tell you.” Cassidy smiled, leaning back in her chair.

  “I’ve got that gig in the coffeehouse down the street tonight. Come with me.”

  “Oh, Jeff, I’d love to, but—” She began to make her excuses with a gesture at the papers on her desk. Jeff cut her off.

  “Listen, you’ve been chained to this machine for two days. When are you coming up for air?”

  She shrugged and poked a finger at her dictionary. “I’ve got to go back to the studio tomorrow, and—”

  “All the more reason for a break tonight. You’re pushing yourself, babe. Take a rest.” Jeff watched her face carefully and pressed his advantage. “I could use a friendly face in the audience, you know. We rising stars are very insecure.” He grinned through his beard.

  Cassidy sighed, then smiled. “All right, but I can’t stay late.”

  “I play from eight to eleven,” he told her, then ruffled her hair. “You can be home and tucked into bed before midnight.”

  “Okay, I’ll be there at eight.” Cassidy glanced down at her watch, frowned, then tapped its face with her fingertips. “What time is it? My watch stopped at two-fifteen.”

  “A.M. or P.M.?” Jeff asked dryly. He shook his head. “It’s after seven. Hey.” He gave her a shrewd look. “Have you eaten?”

  Cassidy cast her mind back and recalled an apple at noon. “No, not really.”

  With a snort of disgust Jeff hauled her to her feet. “Come on with me now, and I’ll spring for a quick hamburger.”

  Cassidy pushed her hair back out of her face. “Golly, I haven’t had such a generous offer for a long time.”

  “Just get a coat,” Jeff retorted, stalking to her door. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s pouring outside.”

  Cassidy glanced out her window. “So it is,” she agreed. She pulled a yellow slicker out of the closet and dragged it on. “Can I have a cheeseburger?” she asked Jeff as she breezed past him.

  “Women. Never satisfied.” He closed the door behind them.

  The rain didn’t bother Cassidy. It was refreshing after her hibernation. The hurried cheeseburger and soft drink were a banquet after the scant meals of the past two days. The smoky, crowded coffeehouse gave her a taste of humanity that she relished after her solitude.

  Seated near the back, she drank thick café au lait and listened to Jeff’s soothing, introspective music. The evening had grown late when she realized she had relaxed her guard. Colin had slipped over her barrier without her being aware. He stood clearly in her mind’s eye. Once he had breached her defenses, Cassidy knew it was useless to attempt to force him out again. She closed her eyes a moment, then opened them, accepting the inevitable. She could not avoid thinking of him forever.

  Colin Sullivan was a brilliant artist. He was a confident man who twisted life to suit himself. He had wit and charm and sensitivity. He was selfish and arrogant and totally dedicated to his work. He was thoughtless and domineering and capable of violence.

  And I love him completely.

  Cassidy trembled with a sigh, then stared into her coffee. I’m an idiot, a romantic fool who knew the pitfalls, then fell into one anyway. I see he has a lover, I understand he sees me as important only as a subject for his painting. I’m aware he would make love to me without his heart ever being touched. I know there’ve been dozens of women in his life, and none of them have lasted.

  No, not even Gail, she mused, for all her claims. She’s just another woman who’s touched the corners of his life. Colin’s never made a commitment to a woman. Knowing all this, and wanting a healthy, one-to-one relationship with a man, I fall in love with him. Brilliant.

  It’s insane. He’ll trample me. So what do I do? Slowly Cassidy lifted her coffee and sipped. She drifted away from her surroundings.

  I have to finish the portrait; I gave my word. It would be impossible to be in the studio together day after day and not speak. I’m not capable of feuding in any case. Her elbows were propped on the table, the cup held between her hands, but her eyes were staring over the rim and into the distance.

  Fighting with him is too dangerous because it brings the emotions to the surface. I don’t know how deeply inside me he’s capable of seeing. I won’t humiliate myself or embarrass him with the fact that I’ve been stupid enough to fall in love with him. The only thing to do is to behave naturally. Hold the pose for him, talk when he asks me to talk and be friendly. The painting seems to be moving well; it should be finished in a few more weeks. Surely I can behave properly for that amount of time. And when it’s finished . . .

  Her thoughts trailed off into darkness. And when the painting’s finished, what? I pick up the pieces, she answered. For a moment her eyes were lost and sad. When the painting’s finished and Colin drops out of my life, the universe will still function. What a small thing one person’s happiness is, she reflected. What a tiny, finite slice of the whole.

  With a sigh Cassidy shook off her thoughts and finished the coffee. Setting down the cup she let herself be stroked by Jeff’s quiet music.

  ***

  Cassidy pulled her jacket closer as she stood outside the studio door and searched her bag for the key Colin had given her.

  Blasted key, she grumbled silently as she groped for it. She blew her hair from her eyes then pulled out a notepad, three pencils, and a linty sourball.

  “How did that get in there?” she mumbled. Her eyes flew up when Colin opened the door. “Oh. Hello.”

  He inclined his head at the greeting, then dropped his eyes to her laden hands. “Looking for something?”

  Cassidy followed his gaze. Embarrassed, she dumped everything back into her bag and fumbled for poise. “No, I . . . nothing. I didn’t think you’d be here so early.” She shifted her purse back to her shoulder.

  “It appears it’s fortunate I am. Have you lost your key, Cass?” There was a smile on his face that made her feel foolish and scatterbrained.

  “No, I haven’t lost it,” she muttered. “I just can’t find it.” She walked past him into the studio. Her shoulder barely brushed his chest and she felt a jolt of heat. It wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought. “I’ll change,” she said briefly, then went directly to the dressing room.

  When she emerged, Colin was setting his palette and gave her not so much as a glance. His ignoring of her brought a wave of relief. There, you see, she told herself, there’s nothing to worry about.

  “I’m going to do some work on her face today,” Colin stated, still mixing paints. His use of the impersonal pronoun was further proof his thoughts were not on Cassidy St. John. She denied the existence of the ache in her chest. Keeping silent, she waited until he was finished, then stood obligingly while he set the pose. She would, she determined, give him absolutely no trouble. But when he cupped her chin in his hand, she stiffened and jerked away.

  Colin’s eyes heated. “I need to see the shape of your face through my hands.” He set the pose again with meticulous care, barely making contact. “It’s not enough to see it with my eyes. Do you understand?”

  She nodded, feeling foolish. Colin waited a moment, then took her chin again, but lightly, with just his fingertips. Cassidy forced herself to remain still. “Relax, Cassidy, I need you relaxed.” The patient tone of the order surprised her into obeying. He murmured his approval as his fingers trailed over he
r skin.

  To Cassidy it was an agony of delight. His touch was gentle, though he frowned in concentration. She wondered if he could feel the heat rising to her skin. Colin traced her jawline and ran his fingers over her cheekbones. Cassidy focused on bringing air in and out of her lungs at an even pace. She tried to tell herself that his touch was as impersonal as a doctor’s, but when his hand lingered on her cheek she brought her eyes warily to his.

  “Hold steady,” he commanded briskly, then turned to go to his easel. “Look at me,” he ordered as he picked up his palette and brush.

  Cassidy obeyed, trying to put her mind on anything but the man who painted her. Even as her eyes met his, she realized it was hopeless. She could not look at him and not see him. She could not be with him and not be aware of him. She could not block him out of her mind with any more success than she could block him out of her heart.

  Would it be wrong, she wondered, to let myself dream a little? Would it be wrong to look for some pieces of happiness in the time I have left with him? Unhappiness will come soon enough. Can’t I just enjoy being near him and pay the price after he’s gone? It seemed a small thing.

  Cassidy watched him work, memorizing every part of him. There would come a time, she knew, when she would want the memories. She studied the dark fullness of the hair falling on his forehead and curling over his collar. She studied the black arched brows that were capable of expressing so many moods. The planes of his face fascinated her. His eyes lifted again and again to her face as he painted. There was a fierce concentration in them, an urgency that intensified an already impossible blue.

  She couldn’t see his hands, but she envisioned them, long and narrow and beautiful. She could feel them learning her face, seeing what perhaps she herself would never see, understanding what she
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