Noelle frowned. “That’s not necessary. Grace and I will walk from the men’s shop to the gallery.”
“Absolutely not. The agreement was for my driver to take you and your maid wherever it is you wish to go. There was no limit set as to how many stops you might make.”
“But it’s only a block away. …”
“No buts. Besides, as I told you, I’m visiting the gallery myself. So it’s hardly out of my way. I’ll escort you there. Once you’ve completed your business, my driver will take you and your maid back to Waterloo Station.”
Noelle’s eyes widened. “Where will that leave you?”
“Precisely where I need to be. I have several meetings to attend in the immediate vicinity of the Franco Gallery. My driver will have returned to collect me long before I need him. And
will be back in Poole before you’re missed.”
With a start, Noelle asked, “How did you know I was hoping not to be missed?”
“Simple. You’re searching for a gift for your father. Clearly, you want this trip to be a surprise. Why else would you choose to rush to and from London all in one day, if not to avoid being missed and thus having to provide explanations?”
A fine tension permeated Noelle’s body, although she hadn’t a clue why. Or perhaps she did. She was accustomed to having the upper hand when it came to matching wits with people, to seeing through them. Yet, with Ashford Thornton, she had the distinct and uneasy impression that it was very much the other way around. What prompted her suspicion, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that the Earl of Tremlett’s uncanny insight was both unexpected and unwelcome.
“You’re very astute, my lord,” she said carefully.
“Astute enough to know I’ve upset you,” he replied, propping his elbow on the armrest and watching her face, missing not an iota of her reaction. “You needn’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. As are your destinations—both of them.”
“Do you frequent the Franco Gallery often?” Noelle blurted, as much to relieve her own tension as to amass information on Baricci’s establishment,
A shrug. “On occasion. I enjoy seeing the work of relatively unknown artists. Many of them are very talented. They’re just undiscovered. Hopefully they won’t remain that way for long; not after being displayed at the Franco.”
Noelle’s jaw nearly dropped in surprise. Talented but undiscovered? Now that was a shock. A snake like Baricci aiding struggling artists by exhibiting their works? That was hardly what she’d expected.
“Are you telling me that that’s what I’ll find at the Franco Art Gallery?” she inquired, seeking confirmation. “Paintings by unknown artists?”
“Um-hum.” Tremlett arched a quizzical brow, calmly chewing and swallowing his food before he spoke. “I take it this is your first trip there?”
“Any special reason you’ve chosen now to go?”
His direct, uncannily perceptive question brought Noelle up short. “What do you mean?”
“Only that, as I said, you’re dashing from Poole to London and back in one day. I understand why: you’re hoping to find your father’s gift and present it to him as a surprise. That necessitates keeping secret this entire excursion. But, given you’re in such a hurry, I’m curious as to why you would take the time to stop at the gallery before rushing home. Your reasons for visiting there must be very important.”
“They are. I must see—” Noelle broke off, moistening her lips with the tip of her tongue. “That is, there’s someone at the gallery I have to locate … meet. …” This was ridiculous, she berated herself. Why was she tripping over her own words? And why was she so unnerved anyway? What was the big mystery about her desire to catch a glimpse of Baricci? She’d told the earl this much; she might as well tell him the rest. Besides, given that Lord Tremlett frequented Baricci’s gallery, perhaps he could point out the scoundrel to her.
She sucked in her breath and prepared to explain. “The situation, my lord, is a bit complicated. …”
Grace’s exclamation and awkward struggles to an upright position not only interrupted Noelle’s explanation, they nearly knocked her to the floor.
With a fierce glare at the stranger sitting across from her charge, Grace scowled, addressing Noelle even as she kept her frosty gaze fixed on the. earl. “Who is this gentleman you’re conversing with?” she demanded, her tone rife with censure.
Noelle didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Good morning, Grace,” she greeted her maid in a tight voice. “Good of you to join us. This gentleman I’m conversing with is the Earl of Tremlett. Lord Tremlett, my vigilant lady’s maid, Grace.”
The earl, for his part, looked more amused than distressed. “Good morning, madam,” he echoed, half bowing in his seat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. As for who I am, I’m a passenger like yourselves, on my way to London. Lady Noelle has just been kind enough to share your meal with me. I hope our chatting didn’t awaken you.”
“I wasn’t asleep. I never sleep on trains. I was merely dozing.” Peering suspiciously from the half-empty basket to her charge to Lord Tremlett, Grace’s eyes narrowed, as if she sensed something inappropriate had taken place right beneath her nose. “You were assigned to this compartment?” she asked, still scrutinizing the earl as if he were a disreputable intruder.
“I was.” His tone was matter-of-fact yet uncompromising, leaving no room for argument. Clearly, Grace—even in her terrifying lioness role—didn’t intimidate him. Well, in this case, good for him. Noelle might enjoy having the upper hand, but she also enjoyed seeing someone other than herself acquire it—and use it—when it came to Grace.
“Where did you board?” Grace was continuing to interrogate Lord Tremlett. “I must have been looking the other way at the time.”
“I boarded at Southampton Station,” he supplied, graciously refraining from contradicting her bald-faced lie. Looking the other way? In truth, Grace had been snoring loud enough to awaken the dead when the train had arrived and departed from Southampton. “Your coach was the last remaining first-class compartment with available seats,” he concluded. Keeping his expression nondescript, he watched Grace contemplate his words.
“And are all the other first-class coaches filled with male passengers?” she persisted. “Because, if not, perhaps you can switch places with a group of ladies. We have four available seats here, counting yours. And given that Lady Noelle and I are both female …”
“Every seat is filled—either with men or with families. I checked.”
“I’d like to see that for myself.”
“Grace.” Noelle wanted to sink through the floor and die.
“That’s all right, my lady.” Tremlett flashed her one of his heart-stopping smiles before turning back to the maid. “I assure you, madam, I’m telling the truth. Further, nothing improper took place here while you dozed. Lady Noelle and I merely ate and conversed. As to the matter of my continuing to share your coach, even if some of the passengers have left the train since I boarded, I can’t very well change compartments while we’re moving. And, as we’ll be in London in …”—a quick glance at his timepiece—“… twenty minutes or so, the whole discussion is a moot one.” He scooped up his newspaper and casually unfolded it, preparing to read. “Until that time, I promise not to bother you. In fact, you’re welcome to pretend I’m not even here.”
Grace hesitated, torn between propriety and logic.
Noelle shot her maid a chilling look.
“By the way,” Tremlett continued, skimming the headlines. “As a thank-you for the delicious and unexpected meal, I’ll be arranging for my driver to take you and Lady Noelle into Town, to deliver you to your destinations, then to return you to the station. Well-bred women such as yourselves should not be relegated to a hansom.”
That, combined with Noelle’s obvious disapproval, definitely had an impact.
Ever so slightly, Grace thawed.
“That’s very kind of you, my lord,” she managed grudgingly, her stiff posture easing a bit. “And I agree. Lady Noelle does not belong in a hansom.”
“Neither of you does,” was his gallant response.
The implication that she was being regarded as a lady rather than a servant made Grace’s ample bosom inflate and brought a rush of color to her cheeks. “We appreciate your chivalrous offer, sir,” she declared. “After careful consideration, Lady Noelle and I accept.” With that, she folded her hands primly in her lap, adding, “I’m glad you enjoyed the bread and cheese.”
“Oh, I did,” Tremlett assured her. “I enjoyed them thoroughly. In fact …”—a fleeting, bone-melting glance at Noelle—“I can’t remember ever savoring my moments on the railroad as I did today.”
A frisson of excitement tingled through Noelle, and she lowered her lashes, deliberately severing eye contact with the earl. She felt singed, her heart pounding disturbingly fast, her pulse beating erratically. With staunch resolve, she battled her reaction, determined to bring herself under control.
Aware of the sudden tension permeating the coach—if not its cause—Grace shot Noelle a sideways glance, displeased by whatever it was she saw. “Read your novel, my lady,” she instructed, not so overcome by flattery that she’d abandon her job as Noelle’s protector. “As the earl just pointed out, we’ll be in Town shortly.”
Noelle nodded, opening her book and forcing herself to stare at the pages.
She didn’t absorb a word. In fact, she was conscious of nothing save the commanding presence of Ashford Thornton. His magnetism permeated the compartment—and Noelle—despite the fact that he’d dutifully turned his attention to the pages of his newspaper, concentrating fully on whatever article he was reading for the duration of the trip.
It was only as the railroad clanged and lurched its way into Waterloo Station that he raised his head, meeting Noelle’s gaze for one imperceptible moment.
A hard, speculative gleam lit his eyes—a gleam that seared Noelle with its intensity.
And then vanished in the space of a heartbeat.
THE FRANCO ART GALLERY
was tucked away on a quiet side street, a block away from the hustle and bustle of Regent Street. Its high ceilings and wide, circular interior made it appear far more spacious than it actually was. Clean and well lit, the gallery smelled of wood and canvas, and boasted two dozen paintings—displayed at generous intervals about the periphery of the room—varying in size and design from detailed portraits to scenic views created by inventive mixtures of color and light. All in all, the gallery had an inviting, unhurried air about it—one that encouraged visitors to browse and, hopefully, to buy.
Four steps ahead of Grace and Lord Tremlett, Noelle paused where the narrow vestibule widened into the main room, noting the handful of potential customers frequenting the gallery. Some strolled from painting to painting, studying each one in turn; others planted themselves firmly before one creation as they tried to decide whether or not to purchase it.
Which of these people worked here? Noelle wondered. Who would be able to give her information about Baricci?
A more distressing thought struck—one that should have occurred to her earlier, but thanks to her customary lack of forethought, it hadn’t. What if Baricci wasn’t here? What if he’d left the gallery—or, worse, London—since Christmas Day? What if she’d devised this entire scheme for nothing?
“Lord Tremlett.” A solemn man with a thin nose and spectacles appeared out of nowhere, greeting the earl with a formal bow. “Good afternoon. We weren’t expecting you today.”
“Really?” Tremlett removed his hat and surveyed the room with the same authoritative insolence with which he’d appraised the railroad. “I didn’t realize an appointment was necessary.”
The other man stiffened a bit. “It isn’t. Won’t you come in?” His cool gaze, behind the spectacles, swept curiously over Noelle and Grace.
“Ah.” Tremlett provided the introductions at once. “My lady, this is Williams, the curator of this gallery. Williams, may I present Lady Noelle Bromleigh and her lady’s maid.”
Noelle was surprised to see Williams start. “Lady Noelle Bromleigh,” he repeated, recovering himself as he said the words. Bowing deeply, he added, “Welcome to the Franco Gallery. Is this your first visit? I don’t recall having had the pleasure of seeing you here before.”
“It is.” Noelle was hardly listening to him. She was half-contemplating his odd reaction to her appearance at the gallery and half-planning how in the name of heaven she was going to subtly inquire about Baricci.
“Are you an admirer of works depicting figure subjects or of those with less concise expressions of color? We have both.”
For the first time, Noelle wished she had sat still long enough to learn painting, drawing, sketching—anything to do with creating visual images. As it was, the only experience she had with paints was the time when she’d been just shy of five years old. Bored by the governess who was teaching her while Brigitte recovered from Chloe’s birth, she’d slipped out of the schoolroom, taken the oil paints, and proceeded to decorate the sitting-room walls with bright streaks of blues, reds, and yellows.
Biting back laughter, she wondered if Williams would consider that to be an expression of color.
“I’m impressed by anyone who can create something beautiful on what was once a blank canvas,” she answered honestly. “I can’t really say what my favorite style is.”
“Why don’t you have a look around?” Williams suggested, a fine sheen of perspiration dotting his brow. “I need to step into the back room for a moment. One of our paintings is in the process of being framed for a customer. I’ll just ensure it’s been completed and then return to show you some of our exceptional works.” A quick glance at Tremlett. “At which time I’ll answer any questions you have as well, sir.”
“Good. Because I have many,” the earl confirmed.
“Of course.” Another half-bow. “I’ll be back momentarily.”
“Fine.” Noelle was eager for him to go. She needed time to browse, time to assess the people around her, time to appear … casual. Then, when Williams returned—assuming no one else had pointed out Baricci to her—she’d make some inquiries. Perhaps at that time she could also figure out why he seemed so unsettled around her.