Noelle shot him a teasing look. “Grace and I will come directly home. Unless, of course, you want to meet me at one of those private spots André alluded to. In that case, I might be convinced to elude Grace and stay out later.”
Ashford still wasn’t smiling. He massaged the back of his neck, scowling down at the floor. “I don’t like this, Noelle. You’re getting in over your head. I don’t want you with Sardo, except when I can scrutinize and, if necessary, act on his every move. And I sure as hell don’t want you near Baricci.”
“We need answers.”
“Not this way.” Ashford’s scowl deepened. “If you do make this visit, I’m following you. Don’t worry about my being spotted,” he added, cutting off her protest with a wave of his hand. “I’ll keep a healthy distance away. I’m extremely good at remaining undetected.” The irony of his statement would have been comical had the situation not been so unnerving. “Arguing with me is useless. You’re not going without me. Period.”
Noelle shrugged. “Fine. Just don’t let André see you.”
“I’ll manage,” Ashford returned dryly. “In any event, you’ll have to make an excuse to Sardo, delay this visit—as well as your portrait sittings—for several days.”
“Because of my trips to Lord Mannering’s house?”
“Partly. And partly because I don’t want Sardo anywhere near you without my being there.”
Now Noelle looked surprised. “Why won’t you be there? I thought you said you were leaving for London right away.”
“I’m leaving Southampton right away,” Ashford corrected. “I have one stop to make before I ride on to Town. It will only take an extra day or two. After which, I’ll be on my way to London.”
Noelle’s pause was thoughtful, and Ashford could almost read her mind, see the questions darting through her beautiful head. “May I ask where you’re going?”
Ashford weighed his words carefully. “Somewhere that will help me reassess that commitment I mentioned.”
“Somewhere—or to someone?”
“I see.” Noelle averted her gaze, fingering the folds of her gown. Then she walked over to the settee, leaned against its arm, and lifted her gaze to once again meet his. “I’ll put André off until you arrive,” she stated simply. “I’ll feign exhaustion if I have to. Papa will be delighted to act as my messenger—and my sentry. Besides, my main objective is to see Lady Mannering’s maid. I intend to do that, several times if need be, until she tells me what she knows. Hopefully, by that time you’ll have completed your other business.”
Crossing over, Ashford caressed Noelle’s cheek. “Count on it.”
A smile. “I will.”
He gazed down at her, his thoughts jumbled, torn between overwhelming emotion and stark worry that his absence would give her the opportunity to do something foolish and reckless in order to close in on Baricci. “Promise me you won’t go anywhere with Sardo until I arrive.”
Clearly she sensed his turmoil, because she agreed without pause or protest. “I promise. Now you promise me something.”
Ashford’s expression grew guarded. “Such as?”
“Don’t tell Papa of my intentions to visit Baricci’s gallery. Not yet. He’ll find out soon enough. But I don’t want to worry him days ahead of when I’ll be going.”
He hesitated for a moment, then relented. “Fine. I’ll say nothing, for now. But my promise only applies until I arrive in London. I won’t keep something from your father that might enable you to slip off and get into trouble.”
“Ah, but what if I’ve already done that by the time you arrive?”
“You just promised me you wouldn’t.”
“I promised I wouldn’t go anywhere with Sardo. I said nothing about going off on my own. Who knows what sort of mischief I might get into, left unguarded by my knight in shining armor?”
Ashford grinned, recognizing he was being baited. “Then I suppose your knight in shining armor will have to appoint a substitute to guard you in his stead. I’ll speak with Grace, warn her of your restless intentions, and instruct her to stick to you like a gumdrop.”
Noelle winced. “You win. I’ll stay put. Other than my visits to the Mannering house,” she added quickly.
“Agreed.” Ashford’s grin widened. “Sparring with you is quite a challenge, you know.”
“Is that a complaint?”
“Not at all. However, let me issue a word of warning: get used to frequent standoffs and an occasional loss. You’ve met your match. Me.”
“As have you, my lord,” Noelle responded, inclining her head to regard him thoughtfully. “The difference is, you have yet to realize it.”
Noelle had yet to realize it, but she’d found her destiny.
On that profound note, André smiled, walking back to his easel and rearranging the sketches he’d finished on the railroad trip back to London. He pressed his forefinger to his lips, pacing about as he pensively studied his own depictions.
Of course, they were just pencil sketches, mere hints of the beauty that was Noelle. Without detail, texture, and—most important—color, they were but rough, deficient outlines; preliminary, one-dimensional allusions to the vibrant, passionate woman they portrayed.
But fitting tributes nonetheless.
He walked forward, gathered the sketches together, and carried them to his bed. The lighting there was poor, but that didn’t matter. He preferred viewing her by the glow of a candle, anyway, the way she’d be when he finally had her here beside him, her lustrous hair spread out on his pillow, her body gloriously naked and arching for his.
And those eyes—those mesmerizing sapphire jewels—would be alive, blazing with the flames of passion, seeing only him, knowing only him, wanting only him.
Not like the others.
Violently, André struck a match, lighting the wick of the sole candle that sat on the floor beside his cot.
A muted golden aura surrounded him.
There. That was perfect.
He lay on his side, angled the sketches towards the light. First came the one he’d showed Noelle; the one in which she was curled up on the shore, craggy peaks surging up around her, water crashing at her feet. How vulnerable she looked. How alone.
He put the first sketch aside, turned to the next. Here she was walking into the waves, her arms outstretched as if to embrace the horizon. Her gown was damp and clinging to her skin, her sable hair dotted with diamond-droplets of water. She looked fragile, uncertain of her fate.
How he longed to reassure her, to tell her she was safe, that he’d take care of her.
That would come. Soon.
The final three sketches were more intimate, and he smiled as his gaze caressed them. He’d sketched these last, as he sat in the cove, savored every minute of their birth. Then he’d gazed at them for hours before reluctantly tucking them away in his portfolio, leaving them there until the studio door shut behind him and he was alone.
Alone. Just him and Noelle.
He spread the three sketches out on the floor, trying to decide which one he favored most. In the first she was draped in a chair. In the second, she was sprawled on the floor. And in the third, she was lounging on the bed. His bed. She was naked in all three of the sketches, and he could almost picture the creamy tones of her skin, the perfect curves of her breasts.
The bottomless blue of her eyes.
He was half-tempted to ready his palette and begin painting now. After all, it was the only way to determine which image was the most erotic. But no. André squelched the urge to do so. He’d spent so much of today creating her, gazing at her, even tasting her for the first time. Now was the time for dreaming, for reaping the rewards of his labor.
And for remembering.
Remembering the way her lips had softened beneath his, the way her breath had rushed against his mouth, mingled with his—even the way her body had tensed in surprised awareness. Ah, such innocence was more arousing than even he had imagined. He could hardly wait to feel her under him, begging him to take her, to teach her, to love her.
Yes, now was the time for dreaming. And for envisioning an ecstasy that would soon be his … hers … theirs.
Emotionally moved, he rose to his feet, taking the candle with him and crossing over to the corner of the studio that embraced his portraits. He held up the taper, watching its glow flicker across the row of canvases, noting that, even in the weak shaft of light, he could make out the vivid colors that defined his subjects, particularly the magnificent hue of their eyes. Soon, Noelle’s painting would hang beside these. No—at the head of them. She alone had proved herself worthy. She alone deserved a place of honor. And she’d have it.
Among the portraits.
And by his side.
Dusk settled over Northampton.
The carriage rounded Markham’s broad, circular drive, coming to a purposeful stop.
Daphne looked up from the novel she was reading and peered out the window of the green salon before turning to her husband, who was seated in an armchair, penning some new entries in a ledger.
“At last,” she announced, rising from the settee.
Pierce’s head came up, his brows drawing together in question. “At last—what?”
“At last, our son is here. I was wondering how long it would take him to come to Markham.” She crossed over, perched on the arm of Pierce’s chair. “Darling, it’s you he’ll want to see.”
Slowly, Pierce shut the ledger, placed it aside. “You think he’s here about Noelle?”
“I know he is.” Daphne sighed, intertwining her fingers with Pierce’s. “I can still remember your anguish when you faced this decision. Why must all things come full circle—good and bad alike? Why isn’t it possible for parents to spare their children the pain they themselves endured?”
“Because only by enduring that pain can our children experience the joys that lie beyond it,” Pierce replied, bringing their joined hands to his lips, kissing Daphne’s fingertips. “Don’t worry, Snow Flame. The fact that Ashford’s here means he knows what he wants.”
“Help him attain it,” Daphne appealed softly. “Help him to have what we have.”
Pierce’s eyes darkened with emotion. “Consider it done.”
Leaning down, Daphne brushed her husband’s lips with hers. “I don’t care how many years have elapsed,” she whispered. “You’re still the very best at answering prayers.”
She was halfway to the door when Ashford strode in.
“Hello, Mother,” he said with a weary smile.
Daphne leaned up, kissed her son’s cheek. “You look exhausted. Have you eaten?”
“Now that I consider it, no.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “At least not since noontime.”
“I’ll have a tray sent in. You sit down, relax, and have a talk with your father.” She continued on her way.
Daphne paused in the doorway. “Yes?”
“Aren’t you going to ask why I’m here?”
A profound smile. “No.”
She shut the door in her wake.
Ashford stared at the closed door for a long moment. Then he turned back to his father. “I take it you’ve been expecting me?”
Pierce grinned, gestured for his son to take a seat. “Your mother’s been waiting for days now.”
“She’s amazing.” Ashford perched at the edge of the settee, gripping his knees and meeting his father’s gaze.
“Do you want to discuss the investigation first?” Pierce inquired, crossing one long leg over the other. “Or shall we defer that issue and get right to the main purpose of your visit?”
“The latter.” Taking a deep breath, Ashford plunged into his dilemma, wasting no time on preliminaries or diversions. “I’ve been decisive since I was born, clearheaded since I could think, and unswerving since I could crawl. Why the hell am I floundering now?”
“Because now you’re in love,” Pierce replied, equally as straightforward as his son.
Ashford nodded, releasing his breath in a rush. “That much I know. It’s everything else that’s suddenly out of focus.”
“I repeat, now you’re in love. And love does that to you.” Pierce rose, crossing over to pour two snifters of brandy. He handed one to Ashford, planting himself before his son and staring into the contents of his glass as he swirled them about. “My cause is a big part of my soul, Ashford. But you, your brothers and sisters, and—above all—your mother, are my life.
“I can still remember the moment I realized that fact, knew it to the very core of my being.” Pierce’s head came up and he gazed solemnly at his son. “It was when your mother placed my palm on her abdomen and told me I was going to be a father. I’ll never forget that moment. It followed the most frightening night of my life, a night when your mother dragged me home from a robbery with a bullet in my shoulder, then took over and delivered my tin cup of money, endangered her own freedom, her own safety, because of choices I’d made, a life I’d chosen.
“I’d never felt so helpless, so terrified. Suddenly, with all the speed and impact of the bullet that had struck me, I realized I could lose everything: my wife, my future—and a life I’d only just acquired and, cause or not, was entitled to.”
Pierce swallowed, visibly moved by his own memories. “Ashford, that night for the first time I realized that I mattered—and not only as a faceless, nameless crusader whose duty it was to establish equity for the oppressed and the needy. I mattered as a man, a man who loved and was loved by a very special woman. At that moment, everything changed.
changed. I made a decision. And I’ve never once in all these years regretted that decision. Never.”
Ashford absorbed his father’s words, took a healthy swallow of brandy. “That night was a dramatic turning point for you. But beforehand—all the weeks and months that preceded it—I can’t imagine how torn you must have felt.”
“Yes, I was torn—from the instant I met your mother. I was more than torn. I was tormented. Before she came into my life, there was no decision to contemplate, much less to make. I was motivated solely by anger, vengeance, and emotional wounds that had never healed. Then I met Daphne. She added a dimension to my life that I’d never envisioned: the idea of caring not about many, but about one; one person who needed me, loved me, and whom I needed and loved desperately in return. All at once, I faced a raging conflict: my own life versus the life I owed others. Similar to the conflict you’re facing now.”