André stepped into the hall, frowning when Bladewell made no attempt to take his hat or move aside and invite him in.
“I have some sketches I’d like you to see,” he informed Noelle coolly. “That is, if I’m welcome.”
Noelle studied his face, tried to ascertain his state of mind. But his expression revealed nothing more than his determination to see her. She gestured for him to enter, deciding that the more graciously she behaved, the less likely this conversation had of becoming ugly.
“I’m sorry for the commotion at the gallery yesterday,” she said, walking towards him. “Truthfully, I’m not quite sure what happened. I realize Mr. Baricci needed to see you. Even so, I would have waited for you to finish your business and see me home. But Lord Tremlett was right. My father is very protective of me and would have been sick with worry if I’d been gone much longer. So forgive me for leaving so abruptly. I had no choice.”
The artist’s eyes warmed to that velvet brown Noelle was accustomed to seeing, and he sidestepped Bladewell, joining her in the hallway. “I suspected that was the case. Think nothing of it,
Incidents happen. That was yesterday. This is today. And I’m eager to show you these sketches.”
A frown knit Noelle’s brows. “I was under the impression Mr. Baricci no longer wanted my portrait painted.”
“Who told you that—Tremlett?” André asked, a faint note of bitterness underlying his words. Before Noelle could respond, he shrugged. “No matter. It’s true. Baricci has decided against commissioning your portrait—for reasons of his own. The loss, I’m sad to say, is his.” André’s expression grew tender. “Don’t let him upset you. He’s a strong-willed man. Much like his—” He broke off, glaring at Bladewell again, wordlessly telling him this was a private conversation and he was not welcome.
Unmoved, Bladewell stood his ground.
“In any case,” André continued, pointedly turning his back to the butler and fixing his gaze on Noelle. “Mr. Baricci’s decision does nothing to alter the feelings that have blossomed between you and me these past weeks. I needed to see you. And I want you to have these sketches.”
Noelle’s gut tightened at the intimacy of his tone. Still, there was no way to refuse the sketches without provoking him. “That was very thoughtful of you.” Noelle glanced beyond him, her gaze finding Bladewell. “Monsieur Sardo and I will visit right here, and only for a minute. I know Mama is expecting me upstairs. I won’t keep her or Madame Rousseau waiting.”
“Very well, my lady,” Bladewell concurred, taking his cue. “But one minute only. The countess gave me explicit instructions about your afternoon fittings.”
Noelle sighed, turning her attention back to André. “As you can see, today is hectic. I’m sorry our visit must be so short, but I do appreciate the sketches.” She reached out her hand to take them—realizing an instant too late that she was still clutching her wedding announcement.
The words were printed clearly, staring André in the face. Automatically, his eyes skimmed the page as he handed Noelle his sketches.
Sardo fancies himself in love with you.
Ashford’s claim resounded in Noelle’s mind, and her insides clenched as she watched André’s expression as he read. She gauged his reaction: first puzzlement, then disbelief, then shock.
She steeled herself for his response.
It took a long minute for him to raise his head, and when he did, his eyes were veiled, his lids hooded. “It would seem congratulations are in order.” His tone was smooth, controlled, his arm steady as he withdrew it.
If he was heartsick, he was doing a damned good job of masking it. However, he was angry. Noelle could sense the ire simmering beneath his flawless composure, his charming facade. And she had to admit, he was entitled to it. After all, she had flirted with him, led him to believe something was happening between them. Considering the basis for her charade, she felt no guilt. But that did nothing to alter the fact that André’s anger was justified. The question was, should she ignore it or try to appease it?
Appease it, her instincts advised. By tomorrow, he’d be sharing a prison cell with Baricci, gone from her life forever. So the best thing she could do right now was to soothe his ruffled feathers and convince him to leave.
That in mind, she lowered her lashes, feigned embarrassment. “Thank you, André. That’s very generous of you.” Self-consciously, she tucked her announcement beneath the sketches, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue. “I was going to tell you myself. I just wasn’t certain how to do it. The earl’s proposal came as a total surprise. As you’re aware, he and I hardly know each other. But he is from a respected family, and my parents feel it’s the right choice for me to make. I hope you understand.”
“Understand.” André repeated the word woodenly. “So you’re saying you’re marrying Lord Tremlett out of respect for your parents? That your decision was based on a sense of duty?”
Noelle was grateful her gaze was lowered. There was no way she could have successfully executed this lie if she and André made eye contact. “In effect, yes. Not that he isn’t dashing or kind. He is. And I’m sure that, in time, I’ll come to care for him. I can’t explain my decision any better than that. In my world, André, one marries for different reasons than …”
“Passion?” he supplied. “Desire? Love?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Another pause, and she could feel André scrutinizing the crown of her head. “I’m sorry for you,
” he murmured at last. “I’m sorry for us both.” He turned away, walked to the door, and seized its handle. “
It was a half hour later when Ashford arrived at the Farrington Town house. Bladewell showed him to the sitting room, announcing that Lady Noelle was ensconced in her mother’s chambers with their modiste and would be down shortly.
Too restless to sit, Ashford paced about the room, reviewing what had proven to be a most successful baiting session with Williams. By now, Baricci would be assessing his options, inevitably choosing the only one left to him—the one that would prove to be his undoing.
Ashford could hardly wait to apprehend him.
Passing by the settee, Ashford paused, seized by the sudden, peculiar sensation that he was being watched. His head came up, and he surveyed the room. But no one had entered and he was still entirely alone.
He veered, walking over to the window, peering intently into the street. The area was quiet, other than a few carriages and some casual passersby. Certainly no one near enough to be accused of scrutinizing him.
Frowning, Ashford turned away, rubbed the back of his neck. Perhaps he was more on edge than he realized, he mused. Perhaps that was what happened when one’s long-term nemesis was on the verge of being undone.
His misgivings vanished the instant Noelle burst into the room. Without preamble, she flung herself into his arms, as much to ensure he was all right as to share the details of her own day. “I was so worried. Did everything go as planned?”
Ashford caught her to him, fitting her body against his and taking her mouth in a deep, fervent kiss. “Yes,” he replied a few heated moments later. “Precisely as planned. The trap has been set, the police advised. By tomorrow it will all be over.” His gaze darkened, his fingers threading through her hair. “Now where were we?”
Noelle smiled, twining her arms about Ashford’s neck and losing herself for another long, exquisite minute. Then reluctantly, she drew away. “Ashford, there’s something you should know. André was here.”
His jaw clenched. “And? Did your father throw him out?”
“Papa is visiting his solicitor.” An attempted smile. “He says he’s making financial arrangements for the wedding, but truthfully I think he wanted to escape our session with Madame Rousseau. She does tend to get overbearing.”
“Noelle.” Ashford wasn’t going to be sidetracked.
She sighed, met his probing stare. “André never got farther than the entranceway. Bladewell saw to that.” Noelle hesitated, then blurted out the rest of the story, right down to André spying the wedding announcement.
“So he knows we’re betrothed.” Ashford mulled over that fact. “I’m not sure whether to be relieved or worried. You say his reaction was civil?”
“Very, under the circumstances. Then again, I told him I was marrying you out of a sense of duty.”
“Duty.” Ashford’s lips twitched. “Somehow that image doesn’t coincide with the woman I just held in my arms.” His smile faded. “However, it was a good way of mollifying Sardo. And it sounds as if he left with an air of finality, which eases my mind a bit.” A scowl. “I just wish I knew how deeply involved with Baricci he really is. Is he just providing the paintings, or is there more? And where the hell is the money he’s receiving in payment?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Ashford nodded, tilting back Noelle’s head, framing her face between his palms. “Just the same, humor me. It’s only for another day. Stay inside—far away from the entrance-way door. Let Bladewell attend to whatever visitors arrive.” Tenderness softened his features. “In the meantime, you help Grace pack one of her huge lunches for tomorrow.”
“Um-hum. We’re traveling to Markham. I can’t wait to see my parents’ faces when we tell them our news.”
Noelle’s entire face lit up. “Nor can I. Ashford, I spoke with my great-grandfather this morning. He’s agreed to marry us. He was thrilled by the news.” She inclined her head. “Before we ride to Markham, I’d love to stop in the village, have you meet him.”
“It would be an honor.” Ashford lowered his head, his lips brushing hers, once, twice. A surge of raw possessiveness, blind protectiveness, shot through him, and he deepened the kiss, wishing the bloody wedding were tomorrow, needing to absorb Noelle into himself, to bind her to him legally, physically, totally.
To take care of her for the rest of her life.
“I love you,
he murmured huskily. “And whoever is important to you is important to me, as well. As for your modiste,” he added, “don’t waste too much of her time. Other than your wedding gown, you’re not going to need much in the way of clothing.” A seductive chuckle. “You’re going to be too busy fulfilling your sense of
Forty feet away, from behind the line of shrubbery surrounding the house, André rose. There was a wild light in his eyes, and his hands were shaking, his entire being focused on the couple clinging together on the opposite side of the sitting-room window.
The earl’s proposal came as a total surprise. … He and I hardly know each other … hardly know each other. … A. sense of duty. Duty … Duty.
He was still sweating when he got home.
He jerked open the door, slamming it shut behind him, and stumbled directly to his easel.
Late afternoon sunshine trickled through the window, illuminated the canvas that was propped there.
Her exquisite features stared back at him, breathtaking in their vivid beauty.
Her portrait was almost complete. All that was left were the earrings. He’d spent every minute since leaving the Franco Gallery yesterday painting, stayed up all last night, frenzied in his haste to bring her to life. Once he did, she would be his. Captured on canvas, she’d be immortalized. After which, no one could take her away. No one.
No, he’d berated himself with each and every stroke. He couldn’t think that way. He already had her. It was just a matter of time before he claimed her. Baricci was wrong. He must be wrong. Noelle was his. She had to be his. She wouldn’t betray him, not like the others. Not Noelle.
But Baricci hadn’t been wrong.
betrayed him—exactly like the others.
With a choked sound, André seized the portrait, stared in glazed disbelief at the beautiful woman with the cloud of sable hair, the flawless skin, and the enticing smile, whose sapphire blue eyes gazed back at him, mocking him in his adoration.
they seemed to brand him.
Witless, romantic fool. A lowly artist, a penniless nobody. Did you really think I’d choose your bed to share, when I can have an earl?
Her scornful laughter emanated from the canvas, permeated the room with its contempt.
“No!” André shouted out a protest, released the canvas as if it burned. But it was no use. He clapped his hands over his ears, shook his head violently to block out the sound, but to no avail. That wrenching laughter continued, echoing through his soul. “No!” he bellowed.
With an animal sound, he seized his palette knife, slashing at the canvas—once, twice, then again and again until the motion of his arm became a blur, lost to the pounding roar in his head.
Sweat was pouring off his body when he stopped, and he dragged air into his lungs, trying to breathe, staring at the tattered canvas to ensure she was gone. But no, he could still see her. Even slashed to ribbons, the portrait was distinctly Noelle.
André squeezed his eyes shut, trying desperately to wipe away her image, to silence her voice. Both proved futile. Churning with emotion, he snatched the mangled canvas, hurled it across the room where it struck the wall and lay still.
He could do no more, not to her portrait.
But the rage persisted, clawing at his gut, and he struggled across the studio, snatching up every sketch of her he’d drawn, ripping them into dozens of tattered fragments, flinging them at his feet only to pick them up and shred them yet again.
The demons refused to be silenced.
He crawled onto his bed, throbbing with his need to have her there beside him, even as he yearned to destroy her memory along with her portrait. He caressed the pillow, wondering how many times he’d envisioned her lying upon it, her eyes burning with a sapphire flame as she reached for him.
With a strangled groan, he reached over to snatch the handkerchief that lay atop the chest. Slowly, he unfolded it, revealing the glistening blue objects nestled within. The earrings. The exquisite sapphire earrings. They matched the color of her eyes so perfectly, hers more so than any of the others. He’d kept these by his bed, saving them, intending to give them to her when he made her his.