“But not from my own.” Ashford’s lips brushed the delicate veins at her wrist. “Still, your reasoning is sound. Perhaps your father will like the idea after all.” He released her hand, smoothed his palms over the curves of her shoulders. “If it will thwart Sardo’s efforts, I’m all for it myself.”
“Good.” Noelle sounded breathless again, her cheeks flushed with excitement—a combination of their upcoming adventure and the same yearning that singed Ashford’s blood. “We should go find Papa.” She didn’t budge.
“Yes, we should.” Ashford drew her against him, lifted her arms around his neck and kissed her deeply—once, twice—continuing to brush her lips with his. “But, given that
in a matter of minutes, why don’t we take advantage of this brief time together?”
“Not so brief,” Noelle corrected in a suggestive whisper. “You’re spending the night.”
“Don’t remind me.” His tongue teased her lower lip. “And don’t even consider what you’re considering. Because I won’t have the strength to turn you away, and your father will call me out and shoot me dead—
I’ve had the chance to savor every inch of you … again and again and again.”
“Um-m-m, I like the sound of that.”
“So do I. Too bloody much.” With that, Ashford raised his head, regarding Noelle solemnly from beneath hooded lids. “Sweetheart, when I finally make love to you, it’s going to include it all: the words, the commitment—everything.”
“When you finally make love to me … ,” Noelle repeated, stroking the nape of his neck with a sensual smile. “I’m not sure which sounds more wonderful: that, or the ‘everything’ you’re alluding to.”
Ashford’s eyes glittered with anticipation. “Both,
Both.” His jaw set with purpose. “And I intend to give them to you. It’s no longer a question of
It’s only a question of
ERIC BROMLEIGH WAS AS
enthusiastic as Noelle had predicted—almost.
There were two things that caused him to hesitate before agreeing to pack up the whole family and leave immediately for London.
The first was Sardo—or rather, his proximity.
“I agree the close quarters of our Town house will be good for dampening his ardor,” Eric muttered thoughtfully. He shot a quick, knowing glance at Noelle. “Although I do realize that has little to do with your eagerness to go and much more to do with providing me an excellent reason why you should.” Having made that accurate assessment, Eric folded his arms across his chest, dismissing Noelle’s attempt to best him and keeping to the issue at hand. “Still, even though you’re far more intrigued by the prospect of talking to Lady Mannering’s maid than you are by the notion of deterring Sardo, our traveling to London will accomplish just that.
he uses this as an opportunity to drop by for a ceaseless number of visits.”
“I considered that,” Ashford put in, duly impressed by Eric’s insight into Noelle. “But even if he does, it’s still preferable to his unexpected visits to Farrington. When he rides out here, he uses the distance as his excuse to remain in Dorsetshire for hours, even days. But in London, he has no excuse for lingering when it’s time to go home—not when home is but a few miles away.”
“True.” Eric nodded. “Getting rid of him will be far easier in that sense. Very well, that takes care of my first concern. Then there’s my second.”
“Baricci,” Ashford supplied, “and
“Exactly. How do we know that blackguard won’t try to make direct contact with Noelle once he knows she’s right there in London?”
“We don’t. But what would he hope to gain by doing so? He couldn’t very well show up on your doorstep; he knows damned well you’d never agree to let him see Noelle. As for the prospect of Noelle going to him, maybe responding to a persuasive letter from her sire, why would he expect that—at least at this point? Sardo has yet to win her over. So, Baricci has no reason to expect that Noelle’s feelings towards him have changed.
“But for the sake of supposition, let’s take the opposite point of view. Let’s say Baricci does intend to contact Noelle once she reaches London. If so, we might as well find out now. Because the Season will be commencing in a matter of weeks, by which time Noelle will definitely have arrived in Town. And Baricci knows it.”
Eric frowned, pondering Ashford’s irrefutable logic. “I realize you’re right, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying.”
“I vowed to protect Noelle, Lord Farrington,” Ashford reiterated quietly. “And I intend to keep that vow.”
Some of Ashford’s intensity must have conveyed itself to Eric, because he turned, meeting the younger man’s gaze before nodding, a flicker of awareness in his eyes. “I believe you will.” He cleared his throat. “It’s agreed then. We’ll begin packing tomorrow, right after Noelle’s sitting. The following day, we’ll leave for London.”
“Wonderful!” Noelle hugged her father.
“I wonder how Sardo will react to this bit of news,” Ashford commented aloud. “He certainly won’t appreciate relinquishing the privacy afforded him at Farrington Manor. On the other hand, he’ll realize just what we did: that he’ll be in closer proximity to Noelle, better able to press his suit more frequently and, in his mind, with a better degree of success.”
“We’ll soon find out,” Noelle replied. “I’ll tell him tomorrow.”
André’s reaction was astonishment.
In the process of cleaning up, he lowered his palette, his dark brows arching in surprise. “London? So soon?”
“Yes.” Noelle nodded, leaping lightly down from her stool. “According to Mama, we have days of shopping yet to do, and several trips to make to the modiste. My Court presentation is mere weeks away. I’ve got to be ready.”
Concern flickered in Sardo’s eyes. “This doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the painting of your portrait, does it?”
“Of course not. We’re just changing the address where our creative sessions will take place.” Noelle walked over, touched André’s arm lightly. “You’ll love our Town house sitting room. It’s sunny and light and infinitely cozier than this one is. I’m sure you’ll feel greatly inspired there.”
He captured her fingers, brought them to his mouth. “If you’re there, I’m sure I will.”
“I have a splendid idea!” Noelle proclaimed in an exhilarated tone that made Ashford tense beneath the ledge. She was up to something—something he knew instinctively he was not going to like.
Her next words confirmed it.
“André, I know you’re terribly busy, and Lord knows I’ll be exhausted from a constant stream of parties, but maybe when I get to London we could find time for you to escort me to the Franco Gallery and show me around. I’ve only been there once, and I barely caught a glimpse of the paintings that were on display. I’d love a guided tour—not to mention a chance to see which of those creations are yours. Would you be willing?”
I’d be willing to take you anywhere, anytime.” Sardo’s evocative reply had that muffled quality again, and Ashford gritted his teeth, wondering where the hell the bastard’s lips were this time.
He crept forward, peeked around the sofa’s corner, and saw Sardo kissing the inside of Noelle’s wrist.
“Then we can go?” she asked.
“The instant you arrive in Town.” Sardo’s lips shifted upwards to her forearm, then to the curve of her neck. “And afterwards, we can send Grace off on an errand, go somewhere we can be alone.” He raised his head, gazed deeply into her eyes. “Does that notion shock you?”
Noelle wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. “Shock me? No. But I don’t think—”
Her words were silenced by Sardo’s mouth, a persuasive kiss that was clearly the prelude to something more.
Irrational fury exploded in Ashford’s skull, and it took every shred of his self-control not to lunge forward and beat Sardo senseless.
Noelle was already twisting away. “André—don’t.”
Sardo smiled, the self-assured smile of a man who knew women, who knew how to transform a “no” to “yes.” With calculated precision, he sifted Noelle’s hair through his fingers. “Now I
shocked you. Forgive me.” He brought the silky strands to his face, inhaled deeply. “Your scent is intoxicating. As intoxicating as your beauty, your innocence. I didn’t mean to frighten you,
“I’m not frightened,” she denied, tugging her hair free. “Just startled.”
“Don’t be startled.” He caressed the nape of her neck. “We’ll go slowly. As slowly as you like. Just tell me what you want, when you want it, and it’s yours.”
Noelle took a small backwards step, breaking contact with Sardo. “I can’t think when you say such things.” She massaged her temples, clearly unnerved by his flagrant advances. “Please, André. No more today.”
“Of course not.” The look he bestowed upon her was gentle, sympathetic, and he made no move to touch her again. “I have a suggestion. You have a great deal to do today—packing, preparations. Why don’t I take my leave now? I’ll drop by your Town house in several days and arrange to escort you to the Franco Gallery. How would that be?”
“Perfect.” She lowered her lashes. “Thank you for understanding.”
“The most precious treasures are those that must be searched for, yearned for, and once found, savored.” He captured her hand and pressed a chaste kiss to her knuckles. “I’m a patient man, Noelle. I can wait. Just remember that what you’ll experience in my arms you can never find among the cold, passionless members of the
No self-contained nobleman or impersonal ball, however glittering, can awaken you as I will. Think about that while you’re packing for your London Season.”
Noelle’s gaze lifted and met Sardo’s. “I will.”
“Most of all, think about me.”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, giving him a tentative smile. “I already do, André. You’re on my mind more than you can imagine.”
His answering smile was dazzling. “That fact will sustain me these next few days. And we’ll explore it once you reach London.”
Ashford accosted Noelle the instant Sardo left the manor.
“I don’t know who to kill first, you or that lecherous snake,” he ground out, his eyes ablaze. “What the hell were you thinking, enticing him to take you to Baricci’s gallery? How am I supposed to protect you on that risky jaunt? I’m a bit too large to fit in your mantle pocket, or hadn’t you noticed?”
Noelle’s lips twitched, and she folded her arms across her breasts. “Honestly, Ashford. For a man who swears he never loses control, you bellow like a wounded animal every time André comes near me.”
Do you call the way he just devoured your mouth coming near you?”
An impish grin. “Don’t worry. You’re a far better kisser than he is.”
Ashford’s eyes narrowed menacingly. “Noelle, don’t push me.”
“Very well,” she sighed. “The reason I suggested the tour of the gallery was to see if I could determine what other artists paint for Baricci. André certainly didn’t want to discuss the topic when I broached it head-on. So I thought perhaps the subtle approach would be more successful.”
She leaned forward excitedly, warming to her own scheme. “I’ll stroll about the gallery, lovingly scrutinize every painting André created, and extol his artistic genius. Conversely, I’ll comment upon the obvious inferiority of those paintings that aren’t his. During the course of our conversation, I’m sure I can prompt him into uttering the names of some of those mediocre artists—names I’ll eventually pass on to you for investigation. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find that one or two of them have been supplying Mr. Baricci with more than just their own paintings.”
“I’ve already checked out the other artists whose works have come and gone from Baricci’s gallery,” Ashford informed her. “At least those whose signatures were or are visible.”
“But there were some signatures you couldn’t make out?” Noelle probed.
“Seven or eight of them over the past year,” he admitted. “Those were either missing or scrawled so far in the corners that the frames conceal them.”
“Then you’ll describe those paintings to me, tell me where in the gallery they’re located. I’ll concentrate on them.”
“No, you’ll concentrate on Lady Mannering’s maid.
handle the gallery.”
“If you could handle the gallery, you would have done so already,” Noelle assessed shrewdly. “The truth is, there’s no realistic way for you to get the missing information we need. If you walk up to Mr. Williams and ask him for the names of the artists whose signatures are concealed, do you really think he’ll merely provide you with them, assume it’s passing interest on your part?”
Ashford’s jaw set. “No. But if you think he won’t be wary of you, won’t watch your every move, then you’re mistaken.”
“Of course I realize he’ll be eyeing me like a hawk. But I’ll do nothing to arouse his suspicions. Remember, I won’t be requesting inflammatory information—at least not from him. I’ll simply be wandering about the gallery, hanging onto André’s arm and admiring the Franco’s extensive collection. Also, remember that whatever reports Baricci has received thus far have shown me to be putty in André’s hands. As for my relationship with you-—whether personal or conspiratorial—it’s nil. André believes I’m falling desperately in love with him—a fact he’ll have boasted about to Baricci and to Williams. So they might be wary of me, but they’ll have no basis for apprehension. As a result, I’m far more likely than you to find out something.”
Noelle tossed Ashford a saucy grin. “And who knows? Perhaps I’ll spy the Rembrandt peeking out of a closet somewhere.”
Every muscle in Ashford’s body went rigid. “Don’t even consider searching the place,” he commanded. “I’m warning you, Noelle. If you do, I’ll call a halt to this entire plan, walk into the Franco, and carry you out bodily.”
“All right, all right.” Seeing his reaction, Noelle held up her palms, dismissing the notion at once. “I won’t budge from André’s side. As for danger, there won’t be any. I’ll make sure we arrive there at the height of the afternoon, when the gallery is filled with customers. Also, don’t forget that Grace will be with us.”