Sullivans woman, p.8
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.8
 

           Nora Roberts
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  might never understand. If one has to fall foolishly in love, she decided, there couldn’t be a more perfect man.

  They worked for hours, taking short breaks for Cassidy to stretch her muscles. Colin was always impatient to begin again. She sensed his mood, his excitement, and knew something exceptional was being created. The studio was alive with it. Eagerness, anticipation, tingled in the air.

  “The eyes,” he muttered and set down his palette. Quickly he stalked over to her. “Come, I need to see you closer.” He pulled her to just behind the easel. “The eyes can be the soul of a portrait.”

  Colin took her by the shoulders, and his face was barely an inch from hers. The smell of paint and turpentine was sharp in her nostrils. Cassidy knew she would never smell them again without thinking of him.

  “Look at me, Cass. Straight on.”

  She obeyed, though the look of his eyes nearly undid her. It was deep, intruding, reaching past what was offered and seeking the whole. Reflected in his eyes, she saw herself.

  I’m a prisoner there, she thought. His. Their breath mingled, and her lips parted, inviting his to close the minute distance. Something flickered and nearly caught flame. Abruptly he stepped back to his canvas.

  Cassidy spoke without thinking. “What did you see?”

  “Secrets,” Colin murmured as he painted. “Dreams. No, don’t look away, Cass, it’s your dreams I need.”

  Helplessly Cassidy brought her eyes back. It was far too late for resistance. Setting down his palette and brush, Colin frowned at the canvas for several long moments, then he stepped toward Cassidy and smiled.

  “It’s perfect. You gave me what I needed.”

  Cassidy felt a tiny thrill of alarm. “Is it finished?”

  “No, but nearly.” He lifted her hands and kissed them one at a time. “Soon.”

  “Soon,” she repeated and thought it an ugly word. Quickly she shoved back depression. “Then it must be going well.”

  “Yes, it’s going well.”

  “But you’re not going to let me see it yet.”

  “I’m superstitious.” He gave her hands a gentle squeeze. “Humor me.”

  “You let Gail see it.” Unable to prevent herself, Cassidy let resentment slip into her tone.

  “Gail’s an artist,” Colin pointed out. He released her hands, then patted her cheek. “Not the model.”

  With a sigh of defeat Cassidy turned to wander the room. “You must have painted her . . . at one time or other,” she commented. “She’s so striking, so vital.”

  “She can’t hold a pose for five minutes,” Colin said. He began to clean his brushes at the worktable.

  Smiling, Cassidy leaned on the windowsill. “Do you have a hard time with your seascapes?” she asked him. “Or do you simply command the water and clouds to stop fidgeting? I believe you could do it.” She stretched, then lifted the weight of her hair from her neck. With an expansive sigh, she let it fall again to tumble as it chose. The sun shimmered through its shades.

  When she turned her head to smile at Colin again, she found him watching her, the brush he was cleaning held idly in one hand. Something pulled at her, urging her to go to him. Instead, she walked to the other end of the room.

  “The first painting of yours I ever saw was an Irish landscape.” Cassidy kept her back to him and tried to speak naturally. “It was a small, exquisite work bathed in evening light. I liked it because it helped me imagine my mother. Isn’t that odd?” She turned back to him as the thought eclipsed her nerves. “I have several pictures of her, but that painting made her seem real. She rarely seems real to me.” Her voice softened with the words; then, suddenly, she smiled at him. “Are your parents alive, Colin?”

  His eyes held hers for a moment. “Yes.” He went back to cleaning his brushes. “Back in Ireland.”

  “They must miss you.”

  “Perhaps. They’ve six other children. I don’t imagine they find much time to be lonely.”

  “Six!” Cassidy exclaimed. Her lips curved at the thought. “Your mother must be remarkable.”

  Colin looked over again, flashing a grin. “She had a razor strap that could catch three of us at one time.”

  “No doubt you deserved it.”

  “No doubt.” He scrutinized the sable of his brush. “But I recall wishing a time or two her aim hadn’t been so keen.”

  “My father lectured,” Cassidy remembered, taking a long breath in and out. “I’d often wish he’d whack me a time or two and be done with it. Lectures are a great deal more painful, I think, than a razor strap.”

  “Like Professor Easterman’s at Berkeley?” Colin asked with a grin. Cassidy blinked at him.

  “How did you know about him?”

  “You told me yourself, Cass my love. Last week, I think it was. Or perhaps the week before.”

  “I never thought you were listening,” she murmured. Cassidy tried to remember all she had rambled about since the sittings had begun. Her teeth began to worry her bottom lip. “I can’t think of half the things I talked about.”

  “That’s all right, I do . . . well enough.” After wiping his hands on a rag, Colin turned back to her. She was frowning, displeased. “You’ve got those lines between your brows again, Cass,” he said lightly and smiled when she smoothed them out. “Well now, I’ve made you miss lunch, and that’s a crime when you’re already thin enough to slip under the door. Shall I poison you with whatever’s in the kitchen, or will you settle for coffee?”

  “I think I’ll pass on both those gracious invitations.” She swung around and glided toward the dressing room. “I’ll take my chances at home. I have a neighbor who hoards stale doughnuts.”

  Cassidy closed the door behind her and smiled. That wasn’t so bad, she told her reflection. The ground was only shaky a couple of times. Now that the worst of it’s over, the rest of the sittings should be easy.

  Humming lightly, she began to strip out of the gown. Everything’s going to be all right. After all, I’m a grown woman. I can handle myself.

  After she had slipped out of the dress, Cassidy held it aloft to shake out the folds. When the door opened, her humming turned to a shriek. In a quick jerk she pressed the dress against her naked skin and held on with both hands.

  “What about dinner?” Colin asked and leaned against the open door.

  “Colin!”

  “Yes?” he asked in a pleasant tone.

  “Colin, go away. I’m not dressed.” She hugged the dress close and hoped she was somewhat covered.

  “Yes, so I see, but you haven’t answered my question.”

  Cassidy made an anxious sound and swallowed. “What question?”

  “What about dinner?” he repeated. His eyes skimmed over her bare shoulders.

  “What about dinner?” she demanded.

  “You can’t eat stale doughnuts for dinner, Cass. It’s not healthy.” He smiled at the incredulity on her face. She shifted the dress a bit higher.

  “He keeps tacos as well,” she said primly. “Now, would you mind shutting the door on your way out?”

  “Tacos? Oh, no, that won’t do.” Colin shook his head and ignored her request. “I’ll have to feed you myself.”

  Cassidy began to demand her privacy again, then stopped. For a moment she studied him thoughtfully. “Colin, are you asking me for a date?”

  “A date?” he repeated. For a moment he said nothing as he appeared to consider the matter. One brow arched as he studied her. “It certainly seems that way.”

  “To dinner?” Cassidy asked cautiously.

  “To dinner.”

  “What time?”

  “Seven.”

  “Seven,” she repeated with a nod as she shut her ears on her practical side. “Now, close the door so I can get dressed.”

  “Certainly.” A wicked gleam shot into his eyes, making her clutch the dress with both hands. She took one wary step in retreat. “By the way, Cass, you’d never’ve been a successful general.”

>   “What?”

  “You forgot to cover your flank,” he told her as he shut the door behind him.

  Twisting her head, Cassidy caught the full rear length of herself in the mirror.

  Chapter 7

  As Cassidy dressed that evening she blessed her short skip into the boutique business. The wisteria crepe de chine was worth all the hours she had practiced patience. It was a thin, dreamlike dress with floating lines. Her shoulders were left bare as the bodice was caught with elastic just above her breasts. The material nipped in at the waist then fell fully to the knees. She slipped on the cap-sleeved matching jacket and tied it loosely at the waist. The color was good for her, eyes, she decided, bringing out the uniqueness of their shade. This was a night she didn’t want to feel ordinary.

  You shouldn’t even be going. Cassidy brought the brush through her hair violently in response to the nagging voice. I don’t care. I am going. You’ll get hurt. I’ll be hurt in any case. Moving quickly, she fastened small gold lover’s knots to her ears. Doesn’t everyone deserve one special moment? Aren’t I entitled to a glimpse of real happiness? I’ll have my one evening with him without that blasted painting between us. I’ll have my moment when he’s looking at me, seeing me, and not whatever it is he sees when we’re in the studio.

  She lifted her scent and sprayed a cloud as delicate as the wisteria. I won’t think about tomorrow, only tonight. The painting’s almost finished and then it’ll be over. I have to have something. One evening isn’t too much to ask. I’ll pay the price later, but I’m going to have it. After tossing her hair behind her shoulders, Cassidy glanced at her watch.

  “Oh, good grief, it’s already seven!” Frantically she began to search for her key. She was on her hands and knees, peering under the convertible sofa that doubled as her bed, when the knock came. “Yes, yes, yes, just a minute,” she called out crossly and stretched out for something shiny in the dark beneath the sofa.

  She pulled it out with an “Aha!” of triumph, then sighed when she saw a quarter and not a key in her fingers.

  “I said I’d buy,” Colin told her, and Cassidy’s head shot up. He stood inside her door, looking curiously at the woman on her hands and knees. Cassidy straightened up, blew her hair from her eyes and studied him.

  He wore a slimly tailored black suit. Its perfect cut accentuated the width of his shoulders and leanness of his build. His shirt was a splash of white in contrast and opened at the throat. Cassidy concluded Colin Sullivan would never restrict himself with a tie. She leaned back on her heels.

  “I’ve never seen you in a suit before,” she commented. The lamplight fell softly on her upturned face. “But you don’t look too conventional. I’m glad.”

  “You’re an amazing creature, Cassidy.” He held out a hand to help her up, touching the other to her hair as she rose.

  Standing, she tilted her head back and smiled at him. “Do you think so?”

  A smile was his answer as he stepped back, keeping her hand in his. “You look lovely.” The survey he made was quick and thorough. “Perfectly lovely.” Taking her other hand, he turned it palm up and revealed the quarter. “Cab fare?” he asked. “It won’t take you far.”

  Cassidy frowned down at her own hand. “I thought it was my key.”

  “Of course.” Colin took the quarter and examined it critically. “It looks remarkably like one.”

  “It did in the dark under the sofa,” Cassidy retorted, then resumed her search. “It has to be here somewhere,” she muttered as she shuffled through papers on her desk. “I’ve looked everywhere, positively everywhere.”

  “Where’s the bedroom?” Colin asked, watching her shake out the pages of a dictionary.

  “This is the bedroom,” Cassidy informed him and poked through the leaves of a fern. “And the living room, and the study and the parlor. I like things all in one place, it saves steps.” She found an eraser under a pile of notebooks and scowled at it. “I looked all over for this yesterday.” With a long sigh she set it down.

  “All right, just a minute,” she said to the room in general as she leaned back on the desk. “I’ll get it.” Her eyes closed as she rubbed the tip of her finger over the bridge of her nose. “Last time I had it, I’d been to the market. I came in,” she said, pointing to the door, “and I took the bag into the kitchen. I put a can of juice into the freezer, and . . .” Her eyes widened before she scrambled into the next room.

  When she came back, she bounced the key from palm to palm. “It’s cold,” she explained and flushed under Colin’s amused glance. “I must have been thinking of something else when I left it in there.” Picking up a small gold bag, Cassidy dropped the frozen key inside. “That should do it.” She moved to the door and engaged the lock. Gravely, Colin walked to her, then cupped her face in his hands.

  “Cass.”

  “Yes?”

  “You don’t have any shoes on.”

  “Oh.” She lifted her shoulders, then let them fall. “I suppose I’ll need them.”

  He kissed her forehead and let her go. “It’s best to be prepared for anything.” A grin accompanied the gesture of his arm. “They seem to be by your desk.”

  In silence, Cassidy walked to the desk and slipped into her shoes. Her eyes were smiling as she returned to Colin. “Well, have I forgotten anything else?”

  He took her hand, interlocking their fingers. “No.”

  “Do you like organized people particularly, Colin?” She tilted her head with the question.

  “Not particularly.”

  “Good. Shall we go?”

  ***

  Cassidy’s first surprise of the evening was the Ferrari that sat by the curb. It was red and sleek and flashy. “That must be yours,” she murmured, taking her eyes from bumper to bumper, then back again. “Or my neighbor has suddenly inherited a fortune.”

  “One of Vince’s bribes.” Colin opened the door on the passenger side. “For this I did a portrait of his niece. A remarkably plain creature with an overbite. Shall I put the top up?”

  “No, don’t.” Cassidy settled into the seat as she watched him round the hood. Cinderella never had a pumpkin like this, she thought and smiled. “I thought you didn’t paint anyone unless you were particularly interested in the subject.”

  “Vince is one of the few people I have difficulty refusing.” The Ferrari roared into life. Excitement vibrated under Cassidy’s feet.

  “Did you know you can buy a three-bedroom brick rambler in New Jersey for what this car costs? With a carport and five spreading junipers.”

  Colin grinned and swung away from the curb. “I’d make a lousy neighbor.”

  Colin drove expertly through the city. They skirted Golden Gate Park, and avoided the labyrinthine stretches of freeway. They took side roads, narrow roads, and he maneuvered through traffic with smooth skill.

  Cassidy could smell the varied scents from the sidewalk flower vendors and hear the brassy clang of the trolley bell. Tilting her head back, she could see the peak of a slender skyscraper. “Where’re we going?” she asked but cared little as the breeze fluttered over her cheeks. It was enough to be with him.

  “To eat,” Colin returned. “I’m starving.”

  Cassidy turned to face him. “For an Irishman, you’re not exactly talkative. Look.” She sat up and pointed. “The fog’s coming in.”

  It loomed over the bay, swallowing the bridge with surprising speed. As Cassidy watched, only the pinnacles of the Golden Gate speared the tumbling cloud.

  “There’ll be foghorns tonight,” she murmured, then looked at Colin again. “They make such a lonely sound. It always makes me sad, though I never know why.”

  “What sound makes you happy?” He glanced over to her, and she brushed wisps of flying hair from her face.

  “Popping corn,” she answered instantly, then laughed at herself.

  Leaning her head back, Cassidy looked up at the sky. It was piercingly blue. How many cities could have tumbling fog and blue
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