Sullivans woman, p.9
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       Sullivan's Woman, p.9
 

           Nora Roberts
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  skies? she wondered. When Colin pulled to the curb, her gaze traveled down until it encountered the huge expanse of the hotel. Her lips parted in surprise as she recognized the area. Nob Hill. She had paid no attention to their direction.

  Her door was opened by a uniformed doorman who offered his hand to help her alight. She waited while Colin passed him a bill, then joined her.

  “Do you like seafood?” He took her hand and moved toward the entrance.

  “Why, yes, I—”

  “Good. They have rather exceptional seafood here.”

  “So I’ve heard,” Cassidy murmured.

  In a few steps she walked from a world she knew into one she had only read of.

  The restaurant was huge and sumptuous. High, iridescent glass ceilings crowned a room dripping with chandeliers. The carpet was rich, the tables many and elegantly white clothed. The maître d’ was immediately attentive, and as Colin called him by name Cassidy realized the artist was no stranger there.

  The secluded corner table set them apart from the vastness of the restaurant yet left Cassidy with a full view of the splendor. Jeff’s cheeseburger seemed light-years away. Having gawked as much as she deemed proper, Cassidy turned to Colin.

  “It seems I’m going to do better than tacos after all.”

  “I’m a man of my word,” he informed her. “That’s why I give it as seldom as possible. Wine?” he asked and smiled at her in his masterfully charming fashion. “You don’t look the cocktail type.”

  “Oh?” Her head tilted. “Why not?”

  “Too much innocence in those big violet eyes.” He brushed her hair behind her shoulder. “It almost makes me consider doing something bourgeois like cutting the wine with water.”

  A black-coated waiter stood respectfully at Colin’s elbow. “A bottle of Château Haut-Brion blanc,” he ordered, keeping his eyes on Cassidy. With a slight bow the waiter drifted backward and away. She watched him, then took another long look around the room, trying to absorb every detail. “I noticed by your desk that you’ve been working. Is it going well?”

  Cassidy studied Colin with some surprise. Perhaps he saw more than she assumed he did. “Yes, actually, I think it is. I’m having one of those periods when everything falls into place. They don’t last long, but they’re productive. Does it work like that with painting?”

  “Yes. Times when everything seems to flow without effort, and times when you scrape the canvas down again and again.” He smiled at her, and his long fingers traced her wrist. “Somewhat like you tearing up pages, I imagine.”

  The waiter returned with their wine, and the ritual of opening and tasting began. Gratefully, Cassidy remained silent. The pulse in her wrist had leapt at Colin’s casual touch, and she used the time to quiet its skittish rhythm. When her glass was filled, she was able to lift it with complete composure. The wine was lightly chilled and exquisite.

  “To your taste?” Colin asked as he watched her sip.

  Cassidy’s eyes smiled into his. “It could become a habit.”

  “Tell me what you’re writing about.” He, too, lifted his glass, but his free hand covered hers.

  “It’s about two people and their life together and apart from each other.”

  “A love story?”

  “Yes, a complex one.” She frowned a moment at their joined hands, then brought her eyes to Colin’s again. The flame of the candle threw gold among the violet. She reminded herself to enjoy the moment, not to think of tomorrow. A smile lifted her lips as she touched the glass to them. “They both seem to be volatile characters and get away from me sometimes. There’s a fierce determination in them both to stand separate, yet they’re drawn together. I’d like to think love allows them to remain separate in some aspects.”

  “Love makes its own rules, depending on who’s playing.” His finger trailed over her knuckles, then down to her nails before they traveled back. The simple gesture quickened her heartbeat. “Will they have a happy ending?”

  Cassidy allowed herself to absorb the pure blue of his eyes. “Perhaps they will,” she murmured. “Their destinies are in my hands.”

  Watching her, Colin brought her hand to his lips. “And for tonight, Cass,” he said softly, “is yours in mine?”

  Her eyes were dark and steady on his. “For tonight.”

  He smiled then, with the flash of the pirate. Lifting his glass, he toasted her. “To the long evening ahead.”

  It was a luxuriously lengthy meal. Wine sparkled in crystal. Even after endless courses, they lingered long over coffee. Cassidy savored each moment. If she was to have only one evening with the man she loved, she would relish each morsel of time. Perhaps by the force of her own will, she could slow the hands of the clock.

  The candle flickered low when they rose from the table. Her hand slipped into his. Just as they reached the lobby Cassidy heard Colin’s name called. Looking up, she saw a round, balding man in an impeccably cut suit coming toward them. He had a full smile and an extended hand. On reaching Colin, he pumped it enthusiastically while his other thumped on Colin’s shoulder. Cassidy saw a large diamond flash from the ring on his hand.

  “Sullivan, you rascal, it’s good to see you.”

  “Jack.” An easy grin spread over Colin’s face. “How’ve you been?”

  “Getting by, getting by. Have a little job in town.” His eyes drifted to Cassidy and lingered.

  “Cass, this is Jack Swanson, a perfect reprobate. Jack, Cassidy St. John, a perfect treasure.”

  Cassidy was torn between pleasure at Colin’s description and astonishment as she put Swanson’s face and name together. Over the past twenty-five years he had produced some of the finest motion pictures in the industry. As he took her hand and squeezed it, she struggled to conceal her feelings.

  “Reprobate?” Swanson snorted and kept possession of Cassidy’s hand. “You can’t believe half the things this Irishman says. I’m a pillar of the community.”

  “There’s a plaque in his den that says so,” Colin added.

  “Never did have an ounce of respect. Still . . .” Swanson’s eyes roamed over Cassidy’s face. There was appreciation in the look. “His taste is flawless. Not an actress, are you?”

  “Not unless you count being a mushroom in the fourth-grade pageant.” Cassidy smiled.

  Swanson chuckled and nodded. “I’ve dealt with actresses who had lesser credits.”

  “Cassidy’s a writer,” Colin put in. He draped an arm around her shoulders, running his hand lightly down her arm. “You warned me to stay away from actresses.”

  “Since when have you listened to my sage advice?” Swanson scoffed. He pursed his lips as he studied Cassidy. Appreciation became speculation. “A writer. What sort of writer are you?”

  “Why, a brilliant one, of course,” she told him. “Without a scrap of ego or temperament.”

  Swanson patted her hand. “I’ve a late meeting or I’d steal you away from this young scamp now. We’ll have dinner before I leave town.” He cast an eye at Colin. “You can bring him along if you like.” With another slap for Colin’s shoulder, he lumbered away.

  “Quite a character, isn’t he?” Colin asked as he steered Cassidy toward the door again.

  “Marvelous.” It occurred to her that since meeting Colin, she had held hands with an Italian duke and one of Hollywood’s reigning monarchs.

  They stepped outside into the soft light of evening. The sun was gone, but some of its light still lingered. Cassidy slipped into the Ferrari with a contented sigh. She watched the first star flicker into life. With surprise she noted that Colin was headed away from the direction of her apartment.

  “Where are we going?”

  “There’s this little place I know.” He turned a corner and eased into traffic. “I thought you’d enjoy it.” He shot her a glance and a smile. “Not tired, are you?”

  Cassidy’s lips curved. “No, I’m not tired.”

  The nightclub was dimly lit and smoky. Tables were small
and crowded together. Jeans sat next to elegant evening dresses and splashy designer outfits. Brassy music blared from a band near a postage-stamp dance floor. Couples swayed together as they moved to the beat.

  Colin escorted Cassidy to a dark table at the side of the room. His name was called now and again, but he only made a gesture of acknowledgment and continued until they were seated.

  “This is wonderful! I’m certain it’s a front for gun running or jewel smuggling,” Cassidy exclaimed.

  Colin laughed, taking both her hands. “You’d like that, would you?”

  “Of course.” She grinned, and her eyes lit with mischief.

  A waitress had pushed her way over to them and stood, impatient, with her weight on one hip. “The lady needs champagne,” Colin told her.

  “Who doesn’t,” she mumbled and shoved her way back through the tables.

  Cassidy laughed with unbridled delight. “No deferential bows for Mr. Sullivan in here,” she commented.

  “It’s all a matter of atmosphere. I’m rather fond of sassy waitresses in the right setting. And,” he added softly, turning her hand over and kissing the inside of her wrist, “crowded tables that require very close contact. Poor lighting,” he continued, pressing his lips to her palm. “Where I can enjoy the taste of your skin in relative privacy.” With a slight movement of his head, he kissed the sensitive skin behind her ear.

  “Colin,” she said breathlessly and lifted her hand to his lips in defense. He merely took it in his and kissed her fingers.

  The bottle of champagne came down on the table with a bang. Colin pulled out a bill and handed it to the waitress. Shoving it in her pocket, she stalked away.

  “Annoyingly speedy service tonight,” he murmured as he opened the bottle. The pop was drowned out by the loud horns of the band. Cassidy accepted the wine and took a long, slow sip in the hope of stabilizing her pulse.

  They drank champagne in quiet companionship, watching the raucous nightlife revolve around them. Cassidy’s mood grew mellow and dreamy. Reality and make-believe became too difficult to separate. When Colin stood and took her hand, she rose to go with him to the dance floor.

  The music had turned low and bluesy. He slipped both arms around her waist, and in response she lifted hers to circle his neck. Their bodies came together. The air was thick with smoke and clashing perfumes. Other couples were little more than shadows in the dim light. Their movement was only a slow swaying with their bodies pressed close.

  Cassidy tilted back her head to look at him. Their eyes joined, their lips tarried less than a whisper apart. She felt a quick surge of desire. If they had been on an island without a trace of humanity, she could not have felt more alone with him. The music ended on a haunted bass note.

  Silently Colin took her hand and led her from the crowd.

  ***

  The moon was a white slice. Cooler air blew some of the heat from Cassidy’s blood and some of the clouds from her brain. The Ferrari climbed a hill, then descended. Cassidy smiled to herself. There was nothing in the evening she would have changed. No regrets.

  Fog curled in twisting fingers on the road ahead. As she glanced to the side Cassidy saw the solid mass of clouds over the bay below them. Again she turned to Colin.

  “To my houseboat,” he told her before she could form the question. “I have something for you.”

  Warning lights flashed on and off in her brain. The bittersweet taste of danger was in her mouth. Cassidy looked out on the fog-choked bay and told herself she should ask Colin to take her home. But the night isn’t over, she reminded herself. I promised myself tonight.

  Fog swirled more thickly as they drove toward sea level. Now and again, from somewhere deep in the mist, came the low warning horns. She’d lost all sense of time when Colin stopped the car. Once again she was in a make-believe world. This one had drifting mists and the sigh of lapping water. Colin led her toward a shrouded shape. The high, maniacal call of a loon speared the silence. A narrow rope bridge swayed lightly under her feet as they crossed it. A breeze blew aside a curtain of fog, and the houseboat jumped into the opening.

  “Oh, Colin.” She stopped to stare at it with delight and surprise. “It’s wonderful.”

  She saw a wide structure of aged wood in two levels with a high deck on the bow. Fog misted over again as they approached.

  Inside Cassidy shook the dampness from her hair as Colin switched on a light. They walked down two steps and into the living room. It was a large square room with a low, inviting couch and tables scattered for convenience. To the right another short set of stairs led to the galley.

  “How marvelous to live on the water.” Cassidy spun to Colin and smiled.

  “On a clear night the city’s all prisms and crystals. In the fog it’s brooding and wrapped in mystery.” He came to her and, with a habitual gesture, brushed her hair behind her shoulder. His fingers lingered. “Your hair’s damp,” he murmured. “Do you know how many shades of gold and brown I used to paint your hair? It changes in every light, daring someone to define its color.” Colin frowned suddenly and dropped his hand. “You should have a brandy to ward off the chill.”

  He turned away and walked to a cabinet. Cassidy watched him pour brandy into snifters while she dealt with the effect the intimate tone of his voice and the touch of his hand had had on her.

  After accepting the brandy she turned to wander around the room. On a far wall was a painting of the bay at sunrise. The sky was molten with color, reds and golds at their most intense. There was a feeling of frenzied motion and brilliance. Even before she looked for the signature, Cassidy knew it was a Kingsley.

  “She’s immensely talented,” Colin commented from behind.

  “Yes,” Cassidy agreed with sincerity. The painting gripped her. “It makes the start of a day demand your attention. A sunrise like this would be exciting, but I don’t think I could begin each morning with such violence, however beautiful.”

  “Are you speaking of the painting or of the artist?”

  Realizing his question had followed her thoughts, Cassidy shrugged and stepped away. “Strange,” she began again. “One would think an artist would cover his walls with paintings. You have relatively few.” She began to examine his collection, moving slowly from one to the next. Abruptly she stopped, staring at a small canvas. It was the Irish landscape she had told him of that morning.

  “I wondered if you’d remember it.” He stood behind her again, but this time his hands came to her shoulders. There was something casually possessive in the gesture.

  “Yes, of course I do.”

  “I was twenty when I painted that. On my first trip back to Ireland.”

  “How odd that I should have spoken of it just this morning,” Cassidy murmured.

  “Destiny, Cass,” Colin claimed and kissed the top of her head. Stepping around her, he took the canvas from the wall. “I want you to have it.”

  Cassidy’s eyes flew to his. “No, Colin, I couldn’t.” Distress and amazement mingled in her voice.

  “No?” His brow arched under his fall of hair. “You appeared to like it.”

  “Oh, Colin, you know I do. It’s beautiful, it’s wonderful.” Her distress deepened, reflecting clearly on her face. “I can’t just take one of your paintings.”

  “You’re not taking it, I’m giving it to you,” he countered. “That’s one of the privileges of the artist.”

  “Colin.” Her eyes went back to the painting, then lifted to his. “You wouldn’t have kept it all this time if it hadn’t meant something special to you. You’d have sold it.”

  “Some things you don’t sell. Some things you give.” He held the small canvas out to her. “Please.”

  Tears thickened in her throat. “I’ve never heard you say ‘please’ before.”

  “I save it for special occasions.”

  Cassidy looked back at him. He had given her more than the painting; it was a bond—between herself and a woman she had never known. Her smile c
ame slowly. “Thank you.”

  Colin traced her lips with a fingertip. “This is one of the loveliest things about you,” he murmured. “Come,” he said abruptly. “Sit down and drink your brandy.” He took the canvas and set it aside, then led Cassidy to the sofa.

  “Do you paint here, too?” she asked as she sipped her brandy.

  “Sometimes.”

  “I remember the night I met you, your wanting me to come back here for sketches.”

  “And you threatened me with a husband in a football helmet.”

  “It was the best I could think up on the spur of the moment.” She turned her head to grin at him and found his face dangerously close. His fingers tangled in her hair before she could ease away. Slowly he leaned closer until his lips brushed her cheek. Feather light, the kiss moved to her other cheek, lingering over her lips without touching. Still, she could taste the kiss on them.

  “Colin,” Cassidy whispered. She put a hand to his chest as his lips moved to her temple. She knew the warmth she felt was not from
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