Bile rose in Noelle’s throat. “Your arrogance defies words, Mr. Baricci. Do you truly believe I’d consider, much less strive, to go anywhere with you? Not only are you a total stranger, but I despise everything you stand for. You’re self-centered, unfeeling, and unprincipled. So, no, I don’t want anything from you. Not money, not excitement—not anything.” Abruptly, she turned on her heel. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe we’ve said all there is to say. I’ll be on my way.”
“Wait.” Swiftly, Baricci walked around his desk, capturing Noelle’s arm and staying her departure.
Whirling about, Noelle gazed up at him, anger and antipathy flashing in her eyes. “What is it?”
“No one has ever dared speak to me in such a manner.”
“Then perhaps it’s time someone did,” Noelle retorted, undeterred by his claim. “Maybe my insolence will cause you to reconsider your unscrupulous behavior. I certainly hope so—not for my sake, but for the sake of all the unsuspecting, wealthy young women you have yet to seduce.”
To Noelle’s surprise, a smile curved Baricci’s chiseled lips. “You are a fiery little thing,”—he acknowledged, something akin to pride gleaming in his dark eyes—“appallingly brazen though you may be. I never considered the notion of fatherhood, but, being that it’s found me, I must say I’m rather pleased with the results.”
“You’re not my father, Mr. Baricci,” Noelle returned, yanking her arm free. “Don’t ever forget that.”
“Fair enough.” He shrugged. “But I am your sire. Maybe we should use this opportunity we’ve been given to get to know each other.”
“I know all I need to know about you.”
only what was specified in an investigator’s report. I assure you, there’s a great deal more to me than can be summed up on paper.”
“I doubt it.”
“Don’t. Further, even if you have exhausted your curiosity with regard to me—which I doubt, given your obviously inquisitive nature—perhaps you’ll return the favor. Allow me to get to know you.”
Baricci paused, clearing his throat and rubbing his palms together. “Let’s begin again. I apologize for interrogating you about your motives for being here. I’m not accustomed to dealing with people who don’t want something of me. As for the past—my renouncing you, taking no part in your life—I’d apologize for that as well, were the whole idea of doing so not totally ludicrous at this late date. What’s done is done. We can’t change the past. We can, however, reshape the future. Today could be the first step toward that—if we want it to be.”
Noelle took an inadvertent step backward, assessing Baricci’s striking, composed veneer. Did he actually expect her to believe and accept his sudden change of heart?
“Why?” she demanded. “Why now and not eighteen years ago? Why suddenly today, when I’m standing before you, and of my initiative—might I remind you—not yours?”
“An excellent question; one I’m not sure how to answer. Perhaps it’s because now that I’ve met you, you intrigue me. Perhaps it’s because I see my own quick mind and clever tongue reflected in you. Or perhaps it’s because now that you’re real, now that you’re no longer just an intangible entity, I find I do have feelings after all.”
Silently, Noelle considered his words, tried to determine if there could possibly be a shred of sincerity in them.
A clock in the gallery chimed three.
“I must get back to Farrington Manor,” Noelle announced, apprehension gripping her as she realized the time.
Baricci’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated her unsettled reaction. “Farrington doesn’t know you’re here, does he?” he guessed shrewdly. Seeing the flash of guilt dart across Noelle’s face, he chuckled. “He doesn’t. You got here on your own—
without your parents’ knowledge. Very resourceful.” He patted her shoulder, as if she’d done a wonderful, commendable deed rather than a deceitful one. “I’m impressed. I also understand your need to hurry home. If Farrington were to discover your absence, much less where you’d gone …”
“I plan to tell him.”
“Yes. Unlike you, Mr. Baricci, I’m not a liar. Nor am I a fraud.”
“Good. Then, since the earl will soon know of your visit, there’s no reason why I can’t communicate with you directly at Farrington Manor.”
Noelle went rigid. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not? Because your parents wouldn’t approve?”
wouldn’t approve.” Noelle shook her head. “I came here only to see you, Mr. Baricci—not to forge some nonexistent ties. Now, I’ve got to get back. …”
“To which earl—Farrington or Tremlett?”
She blinked. “What?”
“Where does Tremlett fit into all this? Did he accompany you here to meet me?”
“Yes. No.” Baricci’s questions, and his preoccupation, with Ashford Thornton were becoming increasingly more evident. And for some reason—one Noelle couldn’t quite fathom—she didn’t want any part in fostering that preoccupation.
“As I told you, I met Lord Tremlett on the railroad,” she reiterated. “He was assigned to my compartment. That, as well as his accompanying me to your gallery, were strictly chance occurrences.” Groping behind her, she found the door handle and twisted it open. “That’s all there is to it. As for Lord Tremlett’s purpose in coming here, you’re in a far better position to know the nature of his business with your gallery than I. Now I really must be going. Good day, Mr. Baricci. It’s been … interesting.” She turned and bolted.
Baricci watched her go, stroking his jaw thoughtfully. She hadn’t agreed to see him again. Then again, her refusal to do so had been far from adamant. Which, given his gift of verbal charm and Noelle’s obvious allegiance to family, left him more than sufficient latitude to change her mind.
Having reached that conclusion, Baricci retreated into his office, sinking into his chair and making a steeple with his fingers, calmly awaiting Williams’s imminent arrival.
He could hardly wait to hear the tenor of Tremlett’s interrogation this time.
“So you haven’t a clue who took the painting? Who
have taken it?” Ashford probed, lounging against the far wall of the gallery and regarding Williams with deceptive calm.
“Of course not. Why would I?” Williams stood in his habitual stance: back straight and sure, hands clasped tightly behind him, answering Ashford’s questions with his customary show of haughtiness.
Beneath which lay a core of fear, one that was barely discernible to the average person.
Fortunately, Ashford was far from average.
“But you were aware the painting was stolen?” he pressed, jotting down some fictitious notes on his pad.
“Of course I was aware of it.” Williams’s gaze flickered—ever so briefly—over Ashford’s moving quill. “The entire art community knew within hours of the theft. We always do—even before the newspapers.”
“Really? And why is that?”
“We’re a small, insular group, my lord. Word travels quickly among us—far more quickly than the written word. And in this case,
Moonlight in Florence
is a renowned work of art. It’s only natural that word of its disappearance would be on everyone’s tongue. Why, it’s worth a small fortune.”
“Indeed,” Ashford concurred, idly scanning the random phrases he’d penned. “And a small fortune is what Viscount Norwood paid for it three months ago. In an auction. Right here at the Franco Gallery.” Ashford’s penetrating stare lifted, impaling Williams with its intensity. “You do recall that, don’t you, Williams?”
An unsettled blink. “Of course.”
“Good. Do you also recall how many others bid on that particular painting?”
Williams frowned. “Not offhand, no. But it was an open auction, so that information isn’t confidential. If you’d like, I could check our records and provide you with those names.”
“Do that. And while you’re checking, try to recall if any of those other bidders reacted badly when the auction didn’t go their way.”
“Yes, Williams—badly. Angry. Bitter. Spiteful. Any reaction that might suggest they’d consider doing something extreme—something like steal back what they felt was rightfully theirs.”
“I see.” Williams nodded sagely. “I’ll do my best to remember.”
“Maybe I should talk to Baricci.” Ashford’s gaze strayed—for the tenth time in as many minutes—toward the corner of the gallery through which Noelle Bromleigh had disappeared. What the hell was going on in that office?
“No, my lord.” Williams’s refusal was instantaneous and absolute. “Mr. Baricci is in a meeting right now. He’s authorized me to answer your questions, provide you with whatever information we have that might help in your investigation.”
“In a meeting … with Lady Noelle?”
“Why would Baricci be interested in meeting with a young woman who couldn’t differentiate a novice’s canvas from a Rembrandt?”
“I don’t discuss Mr. Baricci’s alliances,” Williams replied curtly. “Not with him, and certainly not with strangers.”
“Alliances.” A muscle flexed in Ashford’s jaw. “Very well, Williams. If I need to speak with Baricci, I’ll return another time. For now, let’s see if your assistance is sufficient. Fetch your records. I’ll wait here.”
“Yes, you will, my lord,” Williams concurred, the look he shot Ashford as knowing as it was explicit. “I wouldn’t suggest surprising Mr. Baricci or even venturing toward his office. You’d be discovered and removed.”
A corner of Ashford’s mouth lifted. “You know me better than that, Williams. I don’t prowl; I stride. If I wanted to see Baricci, I’d demand to do so. I wouldn’t slink about his office like a common thief. So save your threats. I’ll be in this very spot when you return.”
He watched Williams walk off toward the rear, not quickly enough to look intimidated, not slowly enough to look reluctant. Just steadily, calmly, as if he had nothing to hide.
Ashford knew better. But he also knew that it was too early in his own investigation to push, too soon to reveal his hand. All that would come later. Later—after he had all the evidence he needed to lock Baricci up for good.
The gallery was quiet, only Lady Noelle’s overbearing maid and a few stray patrons strolling about. Once again Ashford’s attention shifted toward Baricci’s office. Damn. What words were being exchanged behind that closed door? What was Noelle Bromleigh’s involvement in all this? How much did she know about Baricci’s activities? Given her relationship to the scoundrel, anything was possible.
One thing was for certain—that private little meeting taking place was anything but a coincidence.
It was up to him to find out what had prompted it. But how? What was the best way to gain the details he sought?
The answer was glaringly obvious. Weighing Baricci’s practiced facade against Noelle’s youthful candor was like comparing an expert marksman to a first-time shooter. There was no doubt as to who would be more likely to miss his target.
On that insight, Ashford made a decision. Interrogating Baricci would have to wait until later. For now, his tactics would have to diverge a bit. He’d finish his conversation with Williams, use whatever information he derived from the gallery records, and wait for Lady Noelle to emerge from her meeting.
Then he’d insist on escorting her back to the railroad station.
It was ten minutes later, and Williams had just provided the names of the three men who had bid against the viscount for
Moonlight in Florence,
when Ashford spied Lady Noelle hastening back into the gallery. Her cheeks were flushed, her mouth was set in a tight, worried line, and her expression was anxious as she scanned the room, ostensibly searching for her lady’s maid.
For the second time that day, Ashford was startled by the impact her appearance had on him.
Lady Noelle Bromleigh was a natural beauty, yes, but he’d seen many beautiful women in his life. This one, however, was different—more than just beautiful. She was a profusion of color and fervor, an exhilarating contrast of boldness and delicacy.
Her cloud of raven-black hair was nearly as vivid as the brilliant blue of her eyes—eyes that glittered with the jewel-like intensity of sapphires. Her features were fine, exquisitely fragile, yet behind those fine features and diminutive height burned a fiery spirit, a quick tongue, and a keen mind destined to challenge all those she met. And beneath her charming honesty and innocence hovered an exciting, as yet untapped passion Ashford could actually feel—the combination of which he found uniquely and overwhelmingly arousing.
As he watched, she spied her maid, and relief flooded her expressive face.
“Grace.” She gathered up her skirts and hurried over. “My business here is finished. Let’s start back to the station.”
The maid scowled. “You were in that office, alone with that man, for twenty minutes. What on earth … ?”
“Grace, please.” Clearly, Lady Noelle was at her wit’s end. “Let’s just say I made the inquiries I needed to. There’s nothing here for me. Let’s go home.”
Ashford slipped his pad and quill into his pocket and strode over, catching Lady Noelle’s arm. “Are you all right?”
She started, her head whipping about. On the verge of yanking herself free, she saw who addressed her and visibly relaxed. “Oh. Lord Tremlett. Forgive me. I didn’t realize it was you. I …” Her voice quavered as she battled against whatever emotion was claiming her.
Her small jaw set. “I must go home.”
“I’ll take you to the station,” Ashford said swiftly.
He didn’t wait for a reply. He simply tossed Williams a blunt nod, calling out, “I’ve got what I need for now. I’ll be in touch.” Then, still gripping Lady Noelle’s arm, he gestured for Grace to follow them and headed toward the door.
His carriage was poised outside, and he ushered both women inside. Instructing his driver to return to Waterloo Station, he climbed in to sit across from Lady Noelle.
“Lord Tremlett—” she began.
“Don’t bother refusing the ride,” Ashford interrupted, averting whatever protest she’d been about to make. “I’m putting you on that train.” His mind was racing as he contemplated his options. He would have preferred talking to Lady Noelle alone—and with a sufficient amount of time in which to gently ease the information from her that he needed—but that wasn’t meant to be. Getting rid of Grace would be akin to upending a limestone cliff.