Authors: Nora Roberts
Adam Haines was an artist visiting the Fairchild mansion to do some undercover digging, and that was a problem for a man who preferred to be straightforward. An even bigger problem was Kirby Fairchild, daughter of the world-famous painter he'd been sent to investigate. She was part child, part elf, and the most fascinating woman he'd ever encountered.
However, Kirby had a disconcertingly fluid sense of right and wrongâone completely at odds with Adam's own code of ethics. Adam wished he wasn't wrapped quite so tightly around her little fingerâ¦.
For the Romance Writers of America,
in gratitude for the friends I've made
and the friends still to come.
t was more like a castle than a house. The stone was gray, but beveled at the edges, Herodian-style, so that it shimmered with underlying colors. Towers and turrets jutted toward the sky, joined together by a crenellated roof. Windows were mullioned, long and narrow with diamond-shaped panes.
The structureâAdam would never think of it as anything so ordinary as a houseâloomed over the Hudson, audacious and eccentric and, if such things were possible, pleased with itself. If the stories were true, it suited its owner perfectly.
All it required, Adam decided as he crossed the flagstone courtyard, was a dragon and a moat.
Two grinning gargoyles sat on either side of the wide stone steps. He passed by them with a reservation natural to a practical man. Gargoyles and turrets could be
accepted in their proper placeâbut not in rural New York, a few hours' drive out of Manhattan.
Deciding to reserve judgment, he lifted the heavy brass knocker and let it fall against a door of thick Honduras mahogany. After a third pounding, the door creaked open. With strained patience, Adam looked down at a small woman with huge gray eyes, black braids and a soot-streaked face. She wore a rumpled sweatshirt and jeans that had seen better days. Lazily, she rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and stared back.
He bit back a sigh, thinking that if the staff ran to half-witted maids, the next few weeks were going to be very tedious. “I'm Adam Haines. Mr. Fairchild is expecting me,” he enunciated.
Her eyes narrowed with curiosity or suspicion, he couldn't be sure. “Expecting you?” Her accent was broad New England. After another moment of staring, she frowned, shrugged, then moved aside to let him in.
The hall was wide and seemingly endless. The paneling gleamed a dull deep brown in the diffused light. Streaks of sun poured out of a high angled window and fell over the small woman, but he barely noticed. Paintings. For the moment, Adam forgot the fatigue of the journey and his annoyance. He forgot everything else but the paintings.
Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet. A museum could claim no finer exhibition. The power pulled at him. The hues, the tints, the brush strokes, and the overall magnificence they combined to create, tugged at his senses. Perhaps, in some strange way, Fairchild had been right to house them in something like a fortress. Turning, Adam saw the maid with her hands loosely folded, her huge gray eyes on his face. Impatience sprang back.
“Run along, will you? Tell Mr. Fairchild I'm here.”
“And who might you be?” Obviously impatience didn't affect her.
“Adam Haines,” he repeated. He was a man accustomed to servantsâand one who expected efficiency.
“Ayah, so you said.”
How could her eyes be smoky and clear at the same time? he wondered fleetingly. He gave a moment's thought to the fact that they reflected a maturity and intelligence at odds with her braids and smeared face. “Young ladyâ¦” He paced the words, slowly and distinctly. “Mr. Fairchild is expecting me. Just tell him I'm here. Can you handle that?”
A sudden dazzling smile lit her face. “Ayah.”
The smile threw him off. He noticed for the first time that she had an exquisite mouth, full and sculpted. And there was somethingâ¦something under the soot. Without thinking, he lifted a hand, intending to brush some off. The tempest hit.
“I can't do it! I tell you it's impossible. A travesty!” A man barreled down the long, curved stairs at an alarming rate. His face was shrouded in tragedy, his voice croaked with doom. “This is all your fault.” Coming to a breathless stop, he pointed a long, thin finger at the little maid. “It's on your head, make no mistake.”
Robin Goodfellow, Adam thought instantly. The man was the picture of Puck, short with a spritely build, a face molded on cherubic lines. The spare thatch of light hair nearly stood on end. He seemed to dance. His thin legs lifted and fell on the landing as he waved the long finger at the dark-haired woman. She remained serenely undisturbed.
“Your blood pressure's rising every second, Mr. Fair
child. You'd better take a deep breath or two before you have a spell.”
“Spell!” Insulted, he danced faster. His face glowed pink with the effort. “I don't have spells, girl. I've never had a spell in my life.”
“There's always a first time.” She nodded, keeping her fingers lightly linked. “Mr. Adam Haines is here to see you.”
“Haines? What the devil does Haines have to do with it? It's the end, I tell you. The climax.” He placed a hand dramatically over his heart. The pale blue eyes watered so that for one awful moment, Adam thought he'd weep. “Haines?” he repeated. Abruptly he focused on Adam with a brilliant smile. “I'm expecting you, aren't I?”
Cautiously Adam offered his hand. “Yes.”
“Glad you could come, I've been looking forward to it.” Still showing his teeth, he pumped Adam's hand. “Into the parlor,” he said, moving his grip from Adam's hand to his arm. “We'll have a drink.” He walked with the quick bouncing stride of a man who hadn't a worry in the world.
In the parlor Adam had a quick impression of antiques and old magazines. At a wave of Fairchild's hand he sat on a horsehair sofa that was remarkably uncomfortable. The maid went to an enormous stone fireplace and began to scrub out the hearth with quick, tuneful little whistles.
“I'm having Scotch,” Fairchild decided, and reached for a decanter of Chivas Regal.
“That'll be fine.”
“I admire your work, Adam Haines.” Fairchild offered the Scotch with a steady hand. His face was calm, his voice moderate. Adam wondered if he'd imagined the scene on the stairs.
“Thank you.” Sipping Scotch, Adam studied the little genius across from him.
Small networks of lines crept out from Fairchild's eyes and mouth. Without them and the thinning hair, he might have been taken for a very young man. His aura of youth seemed to spring from an inner vitality, a feverish energy. The eyes were pure, unfaded blue. Adam knew they could see beyond what others saw.
Philip Fairchild was, indisputably, one of the greatest living artists of the twentieth century. His style ranged from the flamboyant to the elegant, with a touch of everything in between. For more than thirty years, he'd enjoyed a position of fame, wealth and respect in artistic and popular circles, something very few people in his profession achieved during their lifetime.
Enjoy it he did, with a temperament that ranged from pompous to irascible to generous. From time to time he invited other artists to his house on the Hudson, to spend weeks or months working, absorbing or simply relaxing. At other times, he barred everyone from the door and went into total seclusion.
“I appreciate the opportunity to work here for a few weeks, Mr. Fairchild.”
“My pleasure.” The artist sipped Scotch and sat, gesturing with a regal wave of his handâthe king granting benediction.
Adam successfully hid a smirk. “I'm looking forward to studying some of your paintings up close. There's such incredible variety in your work.”
“I live for variety,” Fairchild said with a giggle. From the hearth came a distinct snort. “Disrespectful brat,” Fairchild muttered into his drink. When he scowled at her, the maid tossed a braid over her shoulder and
plopped her rag noisily into the bucket. “Cards!” Fairchild bellowed, so suddenly Adam nearly dumped the Scotch in his lap.
“I beg your pardon?”
“No need for that,” Fairchild said graciously and shouted again. At the second bellow the epitome of butlers walked into the parlor.
“Yes, Mr. Fairchild.” His voice was grave, lightly British. The dark suit he wore was a discreet contrast to the white hair and pale skin. He held himself like a soldier.
“See to Mr. Haines's car, Cards, and his luggage. The Wedgwood guest room.”
“Very good, sir,” the butler agreed after a slight nod from the woman at the hearth.
“And put his equipment in Kirby's studio,” Fairchild added, grinning as the hearth scrubber choked. “Plenty of room for both of you,” he told Adam before he scowled. “My daughter, you know. She's doing sculpture, up to her elbows in clay or chipping at wood and marble. I can't cope with it.” Gripping his glass in both hands, Fairchild bowed his head. “God knows I try. I've put my soul into it. And for what?” he demanded, jerking his head up again. “For what?”
“I'm afraid Iâ”
“Failure!” Fairchild moaned, interrupting him. “To have to deal with failure at my age. It's on your head,” he told the little brunette again. “You have to live with itâif you can.”
Turning, she sat on the hearth, folded her legs under her and rubbed more soot on her nose. “You can hardly blame me if you have four thumbs and your soul's lost.” The accent was gone. Her voice was low and smooth,
hinting of European finishing schools. Adam's eyes narrowed. “You're determined to be better than I,” she went on. “Therefore, you were doomed to fail before you began.”
“Doomed to fail! Doomed to fail, am I?” He was up and dancing again, Scotch sloshing around in his glass. “Philip Fairchild will overcome, you heartless brat. He shall triumph! You'll eat your words.”
“Nonsense.” Deliberately, she yawned. “You have your medium, Papa, and I have mine. Learn to live with it.”
“Never.” He slammed a hand against his heart again. “Defeat is a four-letter word.”
“Six,” she corrected, and, rising, commandeered the rest of his Scotch.
He scowled at her, then at his empty glass. “I was speaking metaphorically.”
“How clever.” She kissed his cheek, transferring soot.
“Your face is filthy,” Fairchild grumbled.
Lifting a brow, she ran a finger down his cheek. “So's yours.”
They grinned at each other. For a flash, the resemblance was so striking, Adam wondered how he'd missed it. Kirby Fairchild, Philip's only child, a well-respected artist and eccentric in her own right. Just what, Adam wondered, was the darling of the jet set doing scrubbing out hearths?
“Come along, Adam.” Kirby turned to him with a casual smile. “I'll show you to your room. You look tired. Oh, Papa,” she added as she moved to the door, “this week's issue of
came. It's on the server. That'll keep him entertained,” she said to Adam as she led him up the stairs.
He followed her slowly, noting that she walked with
the faultless grace of a woman who'd been taught how to move. The pigtails swung at her back. Jeans, worn white at the stress points, had no designer label on the back pocket. Her canvas Nikes had broken shoelaces.
Kirby glided along the second floor, passing half a dozen doors before she stopped. She glanced at her hands, then at Adam. “You'd better open it. I'll get the knob filthy.”
He pushed open the door and felt like he was stepping back in time. Wedgwood blue dominated the color scheme. The furniture was all Middle Georgianâcarved armchairs, ornately worked tables. Again there were paintings, but this time, it was the woman behind him who held his attention.
“Why did you do that?”
“Put on that act at the door.” He walked back to where she stood at the threshold. Looking down, he calculated that she barely topped five feet. For the second time he had the urge to brush the soot from her face to discover what lay beneath.
“You looked so polished, and you positively glowered.” She leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. There was an elegance about him that intrigued her, because his eyes were sharp and arrogant. Though she didn't smile, the amusement in her expression was soft and ripe. “You were expecting a dimwitted parlor maid, so I made it easy for you. Cocktails at seven. Can you find your way back, or shall I come for you?”
He'd make do with that for now. “I'll find it.”
Unwillingly fascinated, he watched her until she'd turned the corner at the end of the hall. Perhaps Kirby
Fairchild would be as interesting a nut to crack as her father. But that was for later.
Adam closed the door and locked it. His bags were already set neatly beside the rosewood wardrobe. Taking the briefcase, Adam spun the combination lock and drew up the lid. He pulled out a small transmitter and flicked a switch.
“Password,” came the reply.
He swore, softly and distinctly. “Seagull. And that is, without a doubt, the most ridiculous password on record.”
“Routine, Adam. We've got to follow routine.”
“Sure.” There'd been nothing routine since he'd stopped his car at the end of the winding uphill drive. “I'm in, McIntyre, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your dumping me in this madhouse.” With a flick of his thumb, he cut McIntyre off.
Without stopping to wash, Kirby jogged up the steps to her father's studio. She opened the door, then slammed it so that jars and tubes of paint shuddered on their shelves.
“What have you done this time?” she demanded.
“I'm starting over.” Wispy brows knit, he huddled over a moist lump of clay. “Fresh start. Rebirth.”
“I'm not talking about your futile attempts with clay. Adam Haines,” she said before he could retort. Like a small tank, she advanced on him. Years before, Kirby had learned size was of no consequence if you had a knack for intimidation. She'd developed it meticulously. Slamming her palms down on his worktable, she stood nose to nose with him. “What the hell do you mean by asking him here and not even telling me?”
“Now, now, Kirby.” Fairchild hadn't lived six decades without knowing when to dodge and weave. “It simply slipped my mind.”
Better than anyone else, Kirby knew nothing slipped his mind. “What're you up to now, Papa?”
“Up to?” He smiled guilelessly.