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Fallon Gilchrist reread the hastily scrawled note that had been delivered that morning, smiling at her best friend's childishly rounded handwriting.
Darling, Anna wrote, you've been cooped up alone in the middle of nowhere for far too long. I'm arriving to relieve your tedium. And bringing along a very big surprise. Love and kisses.
Fallon felt her smile fade to pensiveness as she refolded the note. Anna's sense of excitement and daring seemed to leap right off the page and into her lonely drawing room. Perhaps her best friend was right. Perhaps she had been sequestered in the country for too long.
After leaving orders with her housekeeper that Anna's favorite room be made ready, Fallon headed outside to her studio. Perhaps, while the light was good, she'd find the inspiration she sought. The inspiration that had so eluded her of late.
She paused halfway between manor house and studio and studied the converted gatehouse, her favorite haven on the estate. It had been her late husband's surprise to her, fashioning the estate's gatehouse into a place where she might give free rein to her artistic passions.
Powell had never guessed at the sexual passions Fallon took pains to keep hidden. Surely it wasn't normal to have one's thoughts consumed by the sex act between man and woman. She'd married Powell convinced that his maturing years would afford her a lifetime partner who knew how to satisfy her womanly needs. Instead, he had seemed quite taken aback by her initial enthusiasm, so she had learned to please him, to act demure. In need of coaxing. Apparently, proper ladies did not crave their husband's touch, but suffered through it. At any rate, her disappointment when his efforts failed to inflame her or provide release only mounted, and she'd taken up painting, a poor but acceptable outlet for some of her pent-up sexual frustration.
Except, lately, her work felt flat. She no longer derived satisfaction from her painting. The play of light and shadow on canvas no longer stirred her senses. How well she recalled the time when the scent of turpentine and linseed oil, the array of half-squeezed paint tubes, the texture of the paints themselves left her positively light-headed. In those days she fairly chafed to get to her work. To feel that heightened sensation stream through her veins in a rush like no other, until the climax was achieved, as all those feelings churning inside her spilled forth onto the canvas.
Nowadays she ventured to her studio more from habit than from desire. She spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning and organizing her sable-hair paintbrushes, lining up her tubes of color perfectly, trying to decide if they should be grouped into color families or be alphabetized. On days when she felt energetic, she would even stretch and prime a new canvas in preparation.
She unlocked the door and let out a sigh as she stepped inside. The canvas might be ready, but was she? The vase of fresh peonies she had arranged yesterday was even more perfect today. Heavy heads nodded and drooped as if half asleep. She leaned close and inhaled their delicate yet distinctive fragrance. June in Boston. More than a dozen shades of pink all vied for attention, yet ultimately failed to inspire her. How sad that she couldn't muster the energy even to open her paints, let alone create the perfect shades.
Had she always been this melancholy? Powell used to remark how she could bring a smile to his face, no matter what. Surely she hadn't always felt so weighted down, so heavy in her heart.
Powell and his architect had removed the entire south-facing wall of the former gatehouse and replaced it with panes of glass. Fallon watched the leaden-gray sky darken, then turned and made her way to an elaborate wrought-iron candelabra. Powell had been astute enough to understand the importance of light to an artist, thus the studio had been fitted with an excess of sconces, gaslights, lanterns, and candles. Even now, a year after his death, she missed her husband's thoughtful kindness.
She'd always felt faintly guilty that she didn't love him as deeply as he loved her. Oh, she'd cared for him. He'd been a kind and thoughtful husband, aware that she'd married him for the security he could provide her in her orphaned state. And she'd refrained from taking a lover the way so many of her Boston friends had. Even when Powell was away at sea for months on end, and numbing sleep eluded her. How many nights had she lain awake, restless, unfulfilled longings burning deep inside her? Longings that she suspected a lover, the right lover, would be able to satisfy.
She struck a match and lit a candle. It sputtered and caught the wick. Fallon stared, mesmerized. She reached out and felt its faint heat, both feeble and hot enough to burn, then snatched back her hand. What on earth was coming over her? Thank goodness for Anna's note, giving her something to look forward to.
She heard a faint commotion outside. Could her friend have arrived already?
Across the room, the studio door burst open. "Darling!" Anna never simply entered a room, she took over the room, and this visit proved no exception. Fallon found herself enveloped in her friend's embrace and soundly hugged before Anna pulled back and eyed her critically. "You're too thin," she announced. "Hasn't Mrs. Buttle been feeding you?"
Fallon shrugged and shifted the attention from herself. "Now that you're here, cook will prepare anything you fancy. I've had your room made ready."
"Sweetheart." Anna made a moue of regret. "Sorry, but I'm unable to stay. I'm only here to deliver your surprise."
"What have you been up to now?" Fallon asked fondly.
"Wait till you see." Anna giggled girlishly, her excitement contagious. She clapped her hands loudly and her manservant appeared in the doorway with a second young man in tow.
Fallon's breath caught in her throat. Despite the silk scarf secured blindfold-style across the stranger's eyes, she could tell he was a creature of inordinate beauty. At a gesture from Anna, the manservant withdrew. Anna winked at the speechless Fallon and unwound the scarf.
"Montague Bridgeman, meet your new mistress, Fallon Gilchrist."
"Anna." Fallon frowned, conveying her dismay and disapproval.
"It's all right, darling. He's bought and paid for. Yours for half a fortnight. Isn't that so, Montague?"
The young man stepped forward and bowed. A thick lock of dark hair fell rakishly across his forehead with the movement. "Your servant, madam. As your friend rightly proclaimed, I am yours to command as you wish for seven days and seven nights."
The man before Fallon was truly a most exquisite creature. Beneath his finely cut jacket, she could discern the way his broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and hips. His strong legs were encased in well-cut fitted trousers. But as Fallon gazed up at him, his eyes were her undoing. Brooding. Haunted. Jaded. Worldly-wise and tired. The wrong eyes for so young a face, yet perfect nonetheless. Those eyes held volumes. Sound and silence. Life and death. And Fallon knew she had to paint them, to capture their story. To reveal their owner's soul. Her fingers fairly itched to pick up a brush and begin.
It felt as if a lifetime sped past while their gazes locked, yet she knew it could have been no longer than seconds.
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"It's simple, my dear. The Boston Women's Auxiliary is raising funds to buy more books for the library. One of our members decided we should have an auction. One with a truly exceptional prize."
"Madam, you flatter me overmuch."
"The second I laid eyes on Montague, I knew I must secure him for you. All the ladies wanted him, of course, but I knew I had to get him for you no matter what the price. Happy birthday!"
"Anna," Fallon said, "you should know me well enough to know I shan't be party to this."
Anna pulled Fallon aside. Very gently she laid one gloved hand against Fallon's cheek. "I miss the old Fallon. My friend. I want her back."
Fallon was humbled by the sincerity in her friend's gaze, her touch. "I miss her, too."
"I know you do. Which is why I've gone to such extreme lengths to awaken you from this stupor you seem to have fallen victim to. Montague has no clue who you are or where he is. I shall return in seven days' time to take him back to the city."
Anna's gaze left Fallon to fasten upon her young companion. "Tell me you don't long to paint him. That face. Those eyes. That hair."
"Of course I long to paint him...."
"Then do it," Anna said briskly. "Wake up and rejoin the world." She turned abruptly. "One week. I expect you to get my money's worth for me."
Anna's departure left Fallon alone in the studio with her "surprise."
"So that's it, then? It's down to you and me?" He didn't sound overly pleased by the prospect. For that matter, neither was she.
"So it would seem." Fallon circled him slowly, assessingly, as one might a prize stallion offered for sale. Yet in this case the sale had been completed. He stood before her, primed to do her bidding. Or was he?
"How well do you take orders?"
"As well as any former soldier."
Fallon was unsure if his words meant he was adept at following orders or if he had long ago had his fill of it.
"You look too young to have been to war."
"Every man, no matter his age, is too young to go to war."
That one terse comment helped explain those fascinating eyes. And made her long all the more to paint him.
His very stance indicated excellent lineage, hands clasped loosely behind his back, his pose straight yet seeming coiled with energy. How could he appear to lounge, yet stand ready to spring at the same time? She sensed a slight indolence, as if he were bored already, despite the obvious habit of good posture, squared shoulders, and a cocky tilt to his splendidly shaped head.
One unruly lock of hair insisted on falling across his forehead and into his eyes, and Fallon resisted the urge to smooth it aside. She suspected it was as much a part of him as the square jaw, chiseled cheekbones, and magnificent, nearly black, storm-filled eyes.
"Does the lady find me to her liking?" His voice seemed to resonate from someplace deep inside, rich and provocatively masculine. Fallon felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle in awareness.
"Too soon to know," she said crisply as she continued her perusal. She would start by sketching him. Broad charcoal strokes to capture his bold stance and stare. She moved closer. Excellent. He had a faint cleft in his chin. Full, sensual lips that on a less masculine man would be in danger of appearing effeminate, yet on him, saved him from appearing too predatory.
Fallon paused directly in front of him. "May I please see your hands?"
"My hands, my lady?" Faint amusement at her request was indicated by the slight lifting of one brow. "Surely there are other parts of my anatomy you'd find of infinitely more interest than my hands?"
"You heard my request." She returned his gaze squarely. Watched him shift his weight.
"The left or the right?"
"Either," Fallon said pleasantly.
"You choose." There was a challenge, both in the way he said it and in the accompanying movement as he flexed first his left shoulder her way, then his right.
With a start, Fallon realized that she was enjoying meeting his challenge. A kind of nonverbal sparring. "I say..." She paused, ran a hand flat-palmed up his left upper arm, then his right. She could feel his body heat through the fine worsted of his jacket. "I say the right. Are you right-handed, Montague?"
"Bridge." As he spoke he extended his right hand and arm, allowing the tips of his fingers to brush, ever so lightly, the fine bones of her wrist.
"Bridge?" She was confused, both by his words and his touch. Was he offering to build a bridge between them?
"I prefer being addressed as Bridge," he said. "I find it more distinctive. And since we shall be together night and day for an entire half a fortnight..."
She shivered at his words, at the intent she saw in his eyes. "Night and day?"
"That was the agreed-upon arrangement."
She tore her gaze from his to focus on his hand. Long, strong fingers, large knuckles, a broad, capable palm. Definitely a man's hand. Square-cut nails, clean but not buffed. Faint calluses, from riding, no doubt. Or perhaps fencing. She nodded in approval.
"My turn." He captured her hand in his and turned it over in thoughtful contemplation. She endeavored to see herself through his eyes. How pale and white her skin looked next to his. How small and delicate her fingers. And the way he stroked her palm, eliciting a faint frisson of awareness that seemed to snake up her arm, tingle her breasts, and flutter down low in her feminine recesses.
Fallon attempted to pull free. His grip tightened. Slowly, inexorably, he drew her hand up near his lips. She felt the warmth of his breath, captured his intent seconds before his lips and tongue made contact with her palm.
"Oh, my." Did she say the words aloud or simply think them? It was a snakebite with none of the venom, yet it carried a jolt of shock. Warm and questing, just like her captor, who clearly knew exactly what he was doing. Was he equally aware of her reaction?
How could he not be? How could he fail to recognize the catch in her breath? The increase in her heartbeat? The faint flush marring her skin? She felt her nipples tighten against the front of her gown and prayed that he couldn't see what she felt. Prickles of moisture beaded up and down the length of her legs. The banks of her womanhood softened, damp with anticipation. The feelings, infinitely familiar, were heightened tenfold in her companion's presence.
With a sense of relief, she realized he had ceased tracing circles on her palm with the tip of his tongue. It was a double relief to be able to speak in normal tones as she rescued her hand from his warm, intimate embrace.
"Tell me. What manner of man allows his services to be auctioned to the highest bidder?"
He shrugged. "I had no other pressing commitments for the week. Besides, it struck me as being a worthy cause."
"Why not just make a donation to that worthy cause?"
He smiled, the first genuine smile she'd seen from him. It deepened the cleft in his chin and lightened the weight in those eyes. "I like not knowing what shall happen next."
Ah, a thrill seeker. A man who thrives on risk. "In that case, I fear you're due to be disappointed. I live very simply and quietly."
His widening grin served only to discomfit her further. "I'm always open to new experiences. Which is precisely why I'm here."
Copyright © 2003 by Kathleen Shandley