André went very still. “Go to hell, Franco,” he muttered thickly.
He turned on his heel and stalked out of the office.
“Are you sure dragging me out of the gallery right in front of André was a good idea?” Noelle asked, rubbing her palms together before the sitting-room fire.
Ashford leaned back against the closed door, watching her. “Oh, I think it was an excellent idea. It will convey a message. And we’ll be rid of Sardo. I only wish I could say the same for Baricci.”
He began pacing about the room, his brow furrowed in concentration as he pondered all Noelle had told him in the past ten minutes, since he’d
convinced Grace to leave them alone. “You’re saying Sardo crafted nearly every painting in the Franco?” he reiterated.
“All but two or three—and yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” Noelle paused, abandoning the fireplace to walk over to Ashford. “Whatever other artists’ works might once have been displayed at Baricci’s gallery are essentially gone. The Franco is now, in effect, a one-man exhibition of André’s paintings. And that includes one of the unsigned works. The new one, that striking abstract hidden away on the far wall.”
Ashford halted. “What abstract? There’s nothing on that wall but landscapes. I know every painting in that gallery.”
“André only recently completed it. Maybe he hadn’t delivered it yet the last time you were there. Or maybe it was still being framed.”
A pensive frown knitted Ashford’s brows. “I thought you said Sardo framed all his own paintings.”
“He does. At least all those paintings that brandish his special frame. The others …” Noelle shook her head. “No. I distinctly recall that when I asked why the abstract wasn’t framed like the others, he said it couldn’t be helped, but that it disturbed him to watch such a bulky frame being placed on his work. He spoke as an observer, not as a participant.”
“Then someone else framed it. Williams, would be my guess.”
“Is that meaningful?”
Ashford raked a hand through his hair. “I’m not sure what’s meaningful. I know Baricci’s a thief. I always assumed his gallery was a front; that behind its legitimate facade, he was conducting his seedy business: finding out which valuable paintings were ripe for stealing. But now it occurs to me that the gallery itself is part of the whole process. And if that’s so, then Sardo is up to his debonair neck in all this.”
“When you questioned him about the unusual frame on his abstract, how did he react?”
Noelle pursed her lips. “Like an annoyed artist.”
“Or a man with something to hide.” Ashford caught Noelle’s shoulders. “Describe the abstract to me—not the picture, but the shape, the dimensions.”
“Rectangular. Very long, over four feet perhaps, and nearly that wide—three feet, I should say.”
Ashford’s eyes glittered with the triumph of discovery. “The Rembrandt stolen from Lord Mannering was three by four.”
Realization jolted through Noelle. “You think André’s painting is covering the Rembrandt?”
“It certainly makes sense. And it would explain quite a few things: why Sardo is the prime if not sole artist featured at the Franco Gallery; why he evades questions about his competitors
about specific valuable paintings that might have crossed his path; why Baricci is so cooperative with the police—right down to his magnanimity with regard to their searching his gallery. They can’t find what they can’t see. The paintings are concealed, framed, and hung where everyone—yet no one—can see them. Baricci doesn’t have to worry about surprise visits from either the police or from me, nor does he have to hurry the process of finding the highest bidder for his stolen merchandise. It’s a foolproof plan.”
Noelle was nodding more rapidly with each of Ashford’s words. “It also follows suit, then, that the other three paintings I saw with thicker frames are being used in the same vein: to hide stolen paintings. I’d bet a lifetime of piquet winnings that André painted every one of those veneers, despite their thicker frames.”
“I’m sure you’d win that bet.” Abruptly, Ashford scowled. “Something doesn’t fit though. If Sardo is supplying Baricci with his entire gallery of paintings—many of which are fashioned specifically to conceal valuable, stolen masterpieces—what is he getting out of it?”
“Money, I suppose.”
“No.” Ashford shook his head. “Sardo is dirt poor. When I first investigated him, that’s one of the things that made me discount him as a suspect. He might not be a brilliant businessman, but he isn’t a total fool. If he were as heavily entrenched in Baricci’s scheme as we’re surmising, he’d be demanding a king’s ransom. Well, where is it?”
Noelle waved an impatient hand. “Perhaps he’s one of those people who stores his life savings beneath his mattress.”
Ashford’s scowl deepened. “No. Something doesn’t feel right here. I don’t know what it is, but we’re missing at least one piece of the puzzle.”
“But what? André certainly isn’t going to confide in me, not after you blatantly staked your claim in the gallery.”
Ashford clutched Noelle’s shoulders more securely, unwilling to frighten her, but less willing to keep her ignorant of the potential dangers involved—especially since those dangers were directed at her. “I did that for a reason, Noelle. Baricci made some rather pointed remarks about your well-being, and how I’d best ensure it by backing off.”
Rather than frightened, Noelle looked angry. “Did he now? Well, I’m not afraid of Mr. Baricci, or his insipid threats.”
If he weren’t so uneasy about Baricci’s intentions, Ashford would have smiled. That was his Noelle: bold, reckless, ready to take on the world and damn the risk.
Only this time the risk was far too high.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his threats,
” Ashford advised, tilting up her chin so their gazes locked. “As for being afraid, rest assured that I’d kill him if he laid a hand on you. Still, there’s reason for caution. Remember, Baricci is a fraud and a thief—probably worse. And Sardo is his envoy. I don’t want either of them near you. Sardo’s little cat-and-mouse game was getting out of hand, anyway. He long since crossed the line from trying to sway you to Baricci’s cause to trying to entice you into bed. Well, the game is over. I told Baricci as much. I want the two of them to keep their distance.”
Noelle sighed. “It doesn’t much matter. We’ve learned all we’re going to from André, anyway.”
“That’s right. So your job is finished. The rest is up to me. And I planted seeds today that I intend to bring to fruition.”
Her eyes widened with interest. “What kind of seeds?”
“Seeds of doubt. The interrogation unnerved Baricci.
unnerved Baricci. First, he was confronted with Mary’s claim that her mistress was afraid of her lover on the night she died; then, I brandished those earrings before his wary eyes. Between what he saw and what he heard, Baricci’s feeling the pressure. He’s cornered. And armed with what we’ve just deduced about Sardo, I have a fairly good idea how to shove Baricci so deep into that corner that, like all true predators, he’ll make a frenzied lunge in order to escape—a lunge in the wrong direction. When he does, I’ll be there to grab him.”
Noelle drew a slow breath. “The way you’re talking … this is going to happen soon, isn’t it?”
“Very soon.” Ashford’s palms slid up to cup her face. “In fact, if I do my job right, this is all going to end in an ugly culmination tomorrow night. After which, Baricci will either be hanged or imprisoned, and this whole operation of his will be over.” A reflective pause. “Ironic, isn’t it? That fate should have chosen this particular time to provide me with a reason to retire the Tin Cup Bandit—now, when the risk of discovery would become that much more imminent?”
Seeing Noelle’s questioning look, he explained. “You and I both know that when the police search Baricci’s gallery, they’re going to discover the Goya isn’t in his possession. And since it was stolen just a few days ago, it’s doubtful he could have unloaded it so quickly—especially with the added pressure of a murder investigation tied to the previous robbery.”
“Which might lead the police to suspect there’s another art thief out there somewhere,” Noelle finished, paling a bit. “A thief who stole the Goya—plus whatever other paintings Baricci didn’t take.”
Ashford’s thumbs stroked her cheeks in tender reassurance. “Let them think what they will. The bandit no longer exists. They won’t find any trace of him.”
“Thank God for that,” Noelle conceded softly.
“Back to the subject of Sardo,” Ashford continued, plagued by a nagging sense of unease with regard to the artist’s fascination with Noelle. “I want you to promise me something.”
Slowly, she nodded.
“Promise me you won’t go anywhere near him.”
“I doubt that promise will be necessary. Between Baricci’s orders that André discontinue the portrait sittings, and André’s own indignation when I walked out of that gallery with you, I don’t think I’ll be seeing André Sardo again.”
“I wish I agreed with that. Unfortunately, I don’t. I do think Baricci will command him to stay away, especially when he realizes that not only did Sardo learn nothing from you, he divulged incriminating information to you. But Sardo has a mind of his own. And I fear Baricci’s right—Sardo fancies himself in love with you.” A fierce sense of protectiveness knotted Ashford’s gut. “If he calls on you, feign illness, do whatever you have to. Just send him away as quickly as possible. No heroics, Noelle. Please.”
“All right,” she promised, understanding his fear and deferring to it.
Ashford traced the bridge of her nose, his eyes darkening with emotion. “Besides, you have work to do. Now that we know our time frame, you’d best finish writing our wedding announcement, complete with the date. Make it the last week of March. A month—that’s all the preparation time you’re getting before we start our life together as husband and wife. Baricci’s arrest is the last remaining obstacle between our past and our future. I want that announcement delivered to the newspapers the minute the police take him away.”
Noelle smiled, pressing her palms to Ashford’s shirtfront. “I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll finish writing our announcement, with the greatest of pleasure. However, I want to modify that date to the first week in April and delay sending the announcement to the newspapers for a few days.”
That wasn’t what Ashford wanted to hear. “Why?” he demanded, frowning.
“Because I want us to be the ones to tell your family—firsthand and in private—about our plans, our feelings for each other.
the rest of the world reads about it, not at the same instant. After all, the entire Thornton clan was instrumental in getting us together. And I’d like to have their blessing—from your parents right down to little Cara.” Noelle’s voice quavered a bit. “I want a daughter of our own just like her, you know.”
Profound emotion slashed Ashford’s features. “Not just one, darling.” He bent his head, took Noelle’s mouth in a deep, possessive kiss. “A dozen. Daughters
sons. We’ll start working on it the minute I put my ring on your finger.”
“We might already have started,” she reminded him in a breathless whisper.
Ashford sucked in his breath, the possibility—and the memories it evoked—nearly bringing him to his knees. “God, Noelle, I love you.” He gathered her against him, buried his lips in her hair. “You can’t know how much.”
“Yes I can.” She pressed closer, rubbed her cheek against his coat. “Because I feel the same way. I love you so much I ache with it.”
“I’ll take care of that ache.” Ashford drew back, threaded his fingers through her sable tresses. “I promise you that,
Beginning on our wedding night and continuing every day thereafter. Trust me, you’ll never ache again.”
An impish spark lit Noelle’s eyes. “I’m going to hold you to that promise, my lord. What’s more, I’m going to respond in kind. Consider it my way of ensuring you receive the necessary dose of excitement—enough even to satisfy this Tin Cup Bandit.”
Ashford’s grin was slow, tantalizing. “What Tin Cup Bandit?”
THE BELL JINGLED IN
THE GALLERY DOOR, ANNOUNCING
He stepped inside, unbuttoning his overcoat and glancing around, unsurprised to see Williams hurrying purposefully towards him.
“How can I assist you, Lord Tremlett?”
Ashford quirked a brow. “I don’t suppose you’d believe I’m here to browse.” Without awaiting a reply, he strolled inside, making his way slowly towards the far wall, glancing at each of the paintings as he did. He counted two, no three, frames that were bulkier than Sardo’s customary one—and there was the fourth, the abstract Noelle had spoken of, tucked away in the corner, just as she’d said.
Well aware that Williams was right on his heels, Ashford slowed, tossing the curator a polite smile. “No, of course you wouldn’t. Not after our interrogation yesterday.” He halted, purposely choosing an innocuous still life alongside which to stop, swerving about to study its design. “Actually, I do have a specific reason for my visit.”
Williams emitted an audible sniff. “I’ll summon Mr. Baricci.”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ve come today to purchase a painting.”
“What?” Williams blinked. “Is this your attempt to be amusing, my lord?”
“Not at all.” Ashford stood back, studying the fine detail of the flower arrangement. “Despite my distrust for Baricci, I can’t deny he has an eye for talent. And as it happens, I’m not the only one who thinks so. A particular lady I’m eager to impress is very taken with André Sardo’s paintings.”
“Would that lady be Noelle Bromleigh?”
“And if it is?” Ashford shot Williams a challenging look. “Is Baricci going to refuse my patronage because I’m gifting his daughter with a work painted by the artist he intended to be her lover? Funny, I always thought your employer was shrewder than that, readily able to separate business matters from personal ones.”
“He is.” Williams shifted uncertainly, trying to assess the plausibility of Ashford’s explanation.
“Good.” Ashford pressed his advantage another notch. “Because I’ve come prepared to buy.” A contemplative pause. “Unless, of course, you’re refusing to do business with me. In which case, I’d be forced to ask you why—and who knows what issues might arise from that question.”