Silence descended—a silence that was broken by Noelle’s helpless shout of laughter.
“Oh, André, I’m sorry,” she managed, tears of mirth stinging her eyes. She climbed down from the stool, bending to gather up the sketch pad and canvas—all of which was splattered with paint—and to try reassembling the crippled easel. “Papa, would you ask Bladewell to send in some towels?
towels,” she clarified. “It seems something unnerved Tempest, and she decided to live up to her name.”
Eric surveyed the room—a mass of upset jars, overturned furniture, and rivers of muddied color—his lips twitching despite his best attempts to still them. “I’ll see to it.” He turned into the hallway, issuing the command to the startled group of servants who’d gathered nearby to find out what the cause of the commotion was.
“I don’t think you can salvage this sketch,” Noelle assessed, frowning at the speckled picture of herself. “But even covered in paint, it’s an extraordinary likeness. You’re very talented, André.”
That seemed to mollify him somewhat, although he still looked quite piqued—his mouth set in a grim line, angry splotches of red darkening his cheeks. “True, but even I must have some semblance of normalcy in which to paint—exquisite subject or not. Not this … this …” He waved his hands, shaking his head as he sought words that were dire enough to describe the upheaval that had just taken place. “I can’t believe one cat is capable of wreaking this much havoc.”
“Yes, well, you don’t know Tempest.” Eric remained where he was, looming in the doorway. “She doesn’t do this often, but when she does, her destruction is never half-measure. In any case, today’s session is clearly at an end. You’ll have to resume another day.”
“Another day indeed,” André muttered. “It will take at least that long to purchase new supplies—paints, pens, pencils, brushes—for all I know, a whole new palette and easel.”
“Use this to do it.” Eric handed him a ten-pound note. “Consider it compensation from me and a peace offering from Noelle’s cat. As for your next sitting, when I said another day, I didn’t mean tomorrow. We’ll need more time than that to restore this room.” A quick scan of his surroundings. “The floor, the furnishings, even the drapes must be scrubbed. So take your time and buy whatever supplies you need. Come back … let’s see, how does three days from now sound? Or is that too soon?”
“No, no, three days would be fine.” André nodded, clutching the money and staring at it as if the very sight of remuneration would help ease his annoyance—and his discomfort at having to tell Baricci that his plan was delayed. “I’ll gather up what’s left of my things and return then.”
With a lingering glance at Noelle—a rueful, brooding glance—he began reassembling his easel.
Twenty minutes later, the entranceway door shut, and André was en route to the railroad station via Eric’s carriage.
Inside the sitting room, Noelle waited only for her father’s affirmative nod. Then she whirled about.
“You can come out now,” she hissed.
Ashford complied, brushing himself off as he rose to his feet.
“What in God’s name set Tempest off like that?” Noelle demanded.
“That much I guessed.”
“Then you should also have guessed why.”
If Noelle had expected sheepishness, she wasn’t getting it. On the contrary, Ashford looked utterly self-righteous and positively murderous.
“I very nearly charged out and broke Sardo’s jaw,” he informed her, anger flaring in his eyes. “If it weren’t for the fact that it would undo our entire plan and endanger you …”
“I thought you don’t lose control, don’t act before you think, and don’t take stupid chances,” Noelle reminded him dryly.
“I didn’t. Now I do.”
“Would one of you tell me what happened here?” Eric commanded. “Why did you want to break Sardo’s jaw, and why did your urge to do so incite Tempest’s frenzied behavior?”
“Answer the second part first,” Noelle urged swiftly.
Her father shot her a dark scowl. “In other words, I’m going to erupt when we address the first part.”
“Exactly.” Noelle inclined her head at Ashford. “Did you jolt the ledge? Although I can’t imagine that upsetting Tempest to the degree that it did.”
“No.” Ashford flexed the stiff muscles in his arms, rubbed the back of his neck. “When I saw Sardo make his sensual little move, I decided to thrash him. I was on my way when I realized how reckless my actions were, how dire the ramifications would be. So I jerked backwards into my original position. Unfortunately, Tempest’s tail got caught between my shoulder blade and the ledge. Given the speed of my movement and the weight of its impact, I’m sure I gave her tail a pretty painful squeeze. I freed her the instant I realized what was happening, but it was too late. She let out that furious yowl and took off.”
Just the memory made Noelle dissolve into laughter again. “Papa, you should have seen her. She destroyed the entire room in less than a minute.”
“So I noticed.” Eric glanced at the towels that were draped across the sofa, settee, tables and floor. “This certainly brings back memories, Noelle. It took you fourteen years, but you’ve finally managed to teach Tempest everything you know.” His affectionate tone faded as Ashford’s initial phrase sank in. “What sensual little move?” he demanded.
Noelle didn’t look away. “I would have handled it, Papa. I would have dealt with André just fine without all the commotion.”
“How?” Ashford inquired. “By kissing him back?”
“He kissed you?” Eric thundered.
A sigh of frustration escaped Noelle’s lips. “That’s generally the prelude to seduction, Papa.”
“Yes, and we all know the culmination—or hadn’t you considered that?” Ashford bit out.
If she weren’t so thrilled by what this jealousy implied, she might be getting angry. “No, I hadn’t considered that—because it’s not a consideration. It would never get to that point. Ashford, André has a job to do. He’s doing it as quickly and effectively as he can—or, rather, he’s trying to.”
“He seemed to be making great strides.”
“He thinks so,” Noelle replied. “And I
him to think so. A kiss is harmless, but necessary. Besides, I didn’t kiss him. I let him kiss me. There’s a big difference between the two. But think about it—calmly and rationally,” she emphasized. “If I show André no encouragement at all, I’ll get no information at all. It’s my job to keep him eager, hopeful, and striving to win my affections—while I thwart him without his realizing it. In the interim, I’ll get him to trust me, to pass along a growing number of snippets about Baricci and his actions. We already learned something of their association: when they met, how many of André’s paintings are displayed at the Franco Gallery. We need to learn more. And we shall. But not if you explode every time he touches me.”
“Explode?” Eric interrupted. “Believe me, Noelle, Tremlett’s reaction was mild. If that libertine artist touches you again, I’ll kill him.”
“No, Papa, you won’t. You can’t.” The look she gave him was a plea for understanding, for trust. “We all knew what Sardo’s technique would be. It hardly comes as a surprise that he means to seduce me into revealing details or, at the very least, into offering my allegiance to Baricci. That was the whole reason behind our arranging for Ashford to be present throughout each session.” She turned to Ashford. “If I feel threatened, I’ll manage to let you know. I’ll get your attention—I promise. But unless that happens, you’ve got to let me do what I must: flirt with André, encourage him enough to let down his guard and loosen his tongue.”
Reluctantly, Ashford nodded. “Fine. I’ll try to control myself.”
“Papa?” Noelle inquired.
Eric scowled at the paint-splattered floor.
“If things get out of hand, I’ll kill him for you,” Ashford vowed.
That did the trick. “All right. I’ll trust Tremlett’s judgment.”
“And mine?” Noelle asked pointedly.
“Yes, Noelle—and yours.” Eric gazed questioningly at her. “On the subject of judgment, did you learn anything of importance today?”
“Only a little. As you saw for yourself, André is very moody and easily rankled. I had to tread carefully.”
“Speaking of which, he was damned reluctant to discuss any other artists Baricci deals with,” Ashford muttered, half to himself. “I wonder why.”
“That struck me as odd, too. And I don’t believe it’s strictly professional jealousy,” Noelle declared. “Any more than I believe André was unaware of my blood ties to Baricci before we had our little talk. I watched him while we were speaking. He hides his reactions well, but there’s a tension there that’s palpable. He’s performing a part—a part Baricci wants him to play.”
“I agree.” Ashford folded his arms across his chest. “But why is he unwilling to name other artists whose works are featured alongside his? Is that Baricci’s idea or his? Could it be that Sardo knows of an artist who’s working illegally with Baricci, and he’s afraid to give away that name for fear of ending up like Emily Mannering?”
“Do we know for certain Sardo himself isn’t helping Baricci steal those paintings?” Eric asked.
“If you mean, do we know for a fact that he hasn’t been present during the robberies, yes.” Ashford nodded. “Given how closely associated he is with Baricci, Sardo was originally one of my prime suspects. But I had him checked out months ago. He had alibis for every one of the thefts.” A frown. “Then again, so did Baricci. So all that suggests to me is that Baricci doesn’t dirty his hands. He hires thugs to do the actual stealing. After which, he takes over. As for Sardo—I don’t know the full extent of his involvement. But I don’t think he has the intelligence, the keenness of mind, to conjure up this scheme with Baricci.”
“Perhaps André isn’t actively involved at all but is just aware of Baricci’s guilt,” Noelle proposed. “Isn’t it possible he’s spotted one or more of the stolen paintings during his visits to the gallery?” She made a frustrated sound. “I wanted to move towards asking him that; I even paved the way by bringing up the Rembrandt. But the timing was all wrong. He was so adamant about not discussing other artists’ works. If I’d pressed him by delving deeper into the other paintings he’s seen come and go, he would have gotten suspicious. And we can’t take that chance. Not yet.”
“We have three days to mull over what we’ve learned, gather new information, and refine our plan before your next session with Sardo.” Ashford’s glance shifted to Eric. “Which reminds me, thank you for buying us those three days. Your tactics were excellent. Sardo thinks you need the time to restore the sitting room.”
A corner of Eric’s mouth lifted. “We do.”
Ashford took in the room and grunted. “Good point.” A sober look. “In the meantime, I’ll visit Mannering, see if I can learn anything that would point in Baricci’s direction. I’ll leave for London immediately.” His gaze strayed to Noelle, and he cleared his throat, addressing Eric. “May I speak with Noelle alone for a minute?”
“Tremlett, I don’t think that’s necessary. You already had more than enough time alone together earlier today. …”
“Papa!” Chloe hovered in the doorway, her hair disheveled, a smudge of paint on one cheek. “I’ve tried every way I know to stop Tempest’s rampage, but she’s determined to rub the paint off her fur by rolling on every carpet and against every curtain in the house. Now she’s attacking our clothing. Mama’s in close pursuit, but none of us is swift enough to catch her.” A dramatic pause. “She’s about to dive into the new gowns you bought us for Noelle’s court presentation, and Mama’s so afraid that—”
“Dammit.” Eric was already taking long strides towards the hall. “It took that modiste months to finish those gowns. If that bloody cat ruins them …” The rest of his threat was lost as he charged past Chloe and disappeared toward the staircase.
Chloe peered after him, ensuring he’d gone. Then she stepped away from the sitting-room threshold, gripping the door handle and tossing Noelle and Ashford a saucy grin. “That might not save your gown, but it should buy you several minutes.” She nodded her encouragement, the perception in her eyes wise beyond her years. “Use them well.”
The door shut behind her.
Ashford’s jaw dropped. “Your sister is priceless,” he determined, amazement etched on his every feature. “A true genius at only thirteen years old.”
“Of course.” Noelle couldn’t wait to hug Chloe for her quick thinking and tender, romantic heart. “Resourcefulness runs in my family.”
“And mine.” Ashford’s grin faded quickly, and he drew Noelle into his arms, enfolded her against him. “Let’s not waste an instant of the time Chloe has gifted us,” he urged, tunneling his fingers through her hair and lifting her face to receive his kiss. “Not one extraordinary instant.”
Noelle’s reply was lost beneath the pressure of his mouth, the excitement of his tongue as it possessed hers. Fervently, she wound her arms about his neck, losing herself to the magic, and wishing they had hours, rather than minutes, to explore what was happening between them.
“I’m not sorry for wanting to choke Sardo,” Ashford muttered against her parted lips. “I might still do it when all this is over and Baricci is in Newgate where he belongs.” He raised his head, brushed each corner of her mouth with his. “I want no one’s arms around you but mine. Rational or not, it’s the way I feel.”
“I don’t want anyone’s arms around me but yours,” Noelle breathed, rising up on tiptoe to, once again, deepen the kiss. “What’s more, a London Season won’t change that. Nothing will.”
With a husky sound, Ashford sealed their lips in a slow, tantalizing caress that burned through all the unanswered questions, the obstacles, the reservations.
It was only the sound of Chloe’s approaching voice—a clear warning that their time together was about to be shattered—followed by the grounds for that warning: her father’s answering baritone, that forced them to end the kiss.
Noelle drew a slow, shuddering breath, her fingers still clutching Ashford’s coat. “Hurry back.”
“Discern and sort quickly.”
His husky chuckle shivered across her lips. “I will,
You have my word—I will.”