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LOVE'S RENEWAL

 

Sara Francis

 

Dani Robertson's marriage had not been happy. She and Keith had been too young; now they were divorced, Keith had married again, and Dani had found a kind of contentment as a schoolteacher in the little Suffolk village she loved. There was no reason for her to risk loving anyone or anything except her pupils — and except the old Manor. When she learned that Prentice McCulloch who so obviously despised her, meant to turn the place into a country club — no doubt for his smart-set friends - Dani was aghast.

 

For Stephen

and for

Christopher and Susannah

with love

 

CHAPTER ONE

'Dani
, will you please keep your head still?'

Dani Robertson sighed and wished that she dared to raise her right hand and ease the ache in her neck. This was the third time she had been rebuked and Brian's voice was now betraying his irritation.

'I can't stay much longer.' She mumbled the words as she tried to keep her lips still. 'I'm going to Marina's for dinner.' Marina was her sister.

'You've only been here for an hour. If I'd known you were such a fidget, I'd never have asked you to sit for me.'

Dani considered an answer to this blunt statement but decided not to annoy the man any more. The pose that she had been told to adopt when she had started sitting for this portrait had seemed quite comfortable at first, but now she was acutely aware of every muscle and nerve in the top half of her body. She had explored with her eyes the part of the studio within her limited vision over and over again, and now she was becoming restless.

She could just see Brian out of the corner of her eye. Tall, broad, with very white teeth emphasised by his thick black beard, he was the epitome of an artist; untidy, both in himself and his home, given to fits of moodiness that he airily put down to temperament, forgetful and casual. His eccentricity, Dani was sure, was deliberately fostered, but his painting was good.

'Why did you ask me to sit for you?' It was an idle question and she expected him to retort that she should not fish for compliments.

'You've got an interesting face.'

'Who, me?' She was unable to resist the surprised comment.

'Mmm.' Brian looked from the portrait to her and then back-again. 'Good bone structure, beautiful eyes and a kind of fey look about you. Sometimes you look like a child and sometimes like a woman. I'm trying to capture something, and I'm not even sure what it is. Sometimes I see the exact expression I want, but it's gone before I can get it down on canvas.'

'Oh.' Dani could think of no appropriate comment and she felt colour steal into her face as she realised he must have studied her closely before asking her to sit for him, even to the extent of telling her to wear a certain dress. It was a simple blue one, high-necked with a neat collar, and a long-time favourite of hers.

'I don't know why you stay here,' Brian said suddenly, and Dani blinked as she tried to assimilate the change of subject.

'The way you bully me, neither do I.'

'I don't mean in this room, I mean in the village.'

Dani considered the statement for a moment. 'Why shouldn't I? Marina's here. It's a nice school and I like my infants. I like my flat, too ... even if my landlord is a bad tempered old bear.' Brian was her landlord.

'You're too young to look on what drives as your main source of entertainment.'

What Brian had said was essentially true, but Dani resented his somewhat acerbic tone. He was reminding, her, not very subtly, that she was twenty-six years old without any particular ambitions.

'Are you saying that I'm boring?' she asked lightly.

'Boring? No, dear, just a little too old for your age, sometimes.'

'Thanks very much.'

Brian could be exasperating and Dani knew that nothing would please him more than a discussion about her life-style. She said nothing, deciding silently that she was not in the mood for home truths, and once again let her eyes wander over that part of the studio within her limited vision.

A big deal table held an array of brushes and palettes and paints. Despite the image of absent-minded untidiness that Brian liked to foster, there was nothing casual about his approach to his work. The palettes were clean and neatly stacked, the brushes arranged in order of size and the tubes of paint that he was not using all together in a box. The canvasses, Dani decided, were a little more untidy, but even here there was some semblance of logic. Larger, hardboard pictures supported smaller ones as they lay propped against the wall and a smaller pile of canvasses were a little apart from the others. In yet a third section, a few framed pictures lay awaiting their creator's attention.

Dani liked Brian's pictures, but she had watched the progress of her own portrait with mixed feelings. The steady grey eyes that stared back at her from the canvas, the neat, straight nose and the slightly curved mouth were all her features, unmistakably so, and yet she still felt that something was not quite right. Her own face seemed -familiar yet alien. Something, some vital spark, was missing and she did not know whether the fault was hers or Brian's. Perhaps, she reflected, she should not judge it until it was finished.

Brian gave a grunt of annoyance. 'This isn't going too well,' he told her. 'But I just want to get the line of your hair exactly right. Five minutes?'

'Five minutes.'

It was not long to wait, but Dani smelt the linseed oil and turpentine that lingered in the small, light room and sighed inwardly. She would be late for Marina's dinner party if she didn't hurry. It had been a last minute invitation to make up the numbers, and
:
Dani did not know who the other guests were, but from the tone of Marina's voice—flustered and excited—at least one of them was important.

The loud rap on the side door of the studio startled them both. Dani swivelled her eyes towards Brian expectantly, caught a mixture of exasperation and resignation on his face and guessed that he was torn between curiosity and yelling to whoever was outside to go away. All the village people knew better than to knock at that door while the big white notice, 'Danger: Artist at Work', was pinned to it. Brian had a loud voice and a quick temper, and if the notice was a little extravagant, at least, as he said, he gave people fair warning. Whoever was outside could not know him. The knocking came again, somehow peremptory, and Brian flung down his paintbrush with a muttered expletive.

'Someone's in a hurry,' Dani commented artlessly.

'Stay there for just one more minute.' Brian motioned to her to remain still. With a grunt of annoyance, he wiped his hands on a piece of rag and threw it on to the table. The knocking came yet again. 'Who the devil
is
that?'

From her chair on the low dais, Dani could not see the visitor, but from the tone of Brian's voice as he opened the door, he was not unknown to the artist, even if his
appearance caused some surprise.

'What the hell are you doing here?' Dani heard Brian exclaim.

'Now there's a nice welcome.' Cool, assured, amused, the deep, attractive tone made Dani raise an eyebrow. 'How are you, Brian?'

'Okay.' The earlier surprise seemed to vanish into wary politeness. 'Why didn't you let me know you were coming?'

'And give you an opportunity to be out when I called?' Still that same lazy hint of laughter. The stranger had to be smiling. 'No, thanks.'

'Well . . . you'd better come in.' The invitation was made grudgingly. Dani knew that in the stranger's place she would have declined, chilled by the ungraciousness in Brian's voice. The stranger did not seem at all concerned.

'Thanks.'

Footsteps sounded on the bare wooden floor of the studio and Dani waited with curious interest for them
to
come within her line of vision. She could have turned her heard, of course, it would have been quite natural, but Brian had fussed so much as he set her up in this particular pose that she did not dare to move.

'What are you doing in this part of the world?' Brian was now trying for polite conversation, but the edge in his voice still betrayed some emotion that Dani could not quite identify.

'I've bought a property around here. Thought I'd look you up while I was in the area.'

'Oh yes? What've you bought?'

'The Manor.'

The Manor? Dani abandoned her pose and turned her head sharply. She had heard nothing in the village about the place being sold. Ever since the death of old Mrs Desmond, the local people had been speculating about its fate. Rumours that it had been bought by a pop star had brought the villagers' collective hearts into their mouths, but that had proved to be only unfounded gossip, and the Manor had now been empty for nearly three years.

'What the hell do you want with that place?' Brian asked, and Dani waited with interest for the reply as she stared at the stranger.

He was probably two inches shorter than Brian's six foot three, but the larger man in no way diminished him. He stood slightly apart from the artist, hands relaxed at his sides and an expression of polite interest on his face, yet Dani had an impression of coiled-spring tension in his body. Like a tawny tiger waiting to pounce on his prey. Dani smiled inwardly at her own fancifulness.

'I have plans for it.' The newcomer glanced around him before turning his full attention to the easel in the middle of the room. Then he looked at Dani.

She was immediately aware of sea-green eyes, the colour of the ocean on a stormy day. Eyes that held secrets; eyes that looked at her and asked her who she was and why she wasn't leaving now that Brian had a visitor; eyes that told her to go. One eyebrow lifted a fraction, and the way it curved made Dani think of the devil in a good temper. It also made her jaw set a little more firmly, and when he saw the tiny movement, his wide mobile mouth twitched into a smile.

'Ah . . .' Brian must have seen them staring at one another. ' . . . Dani, I'd like you meet Prentice McCulloch. Prentice, this is Danielle Robertson. Prentice, incidentally . . .' Brian grinned, but the smile did not quite reach his eyes,'. . . is my half-brother.'

'Miss Robertson.' Prentice nodded casually and Dani opened her mouth to correct him and then shut it again. She could be Miss Robertson as far as he was concerned. No need to draw attention to herself by explaining that her correct title should be Mrs Robertson. She contented herself with a tentative smile, but already he was looking away from her, back towards Brian.

'You aren't expecting to stay here, are you?' The thought had obviously only just occurred to the artist, and he blurted out the question impulsively. It was horribly ungracious, even for him, and as Dani watched in fascination, she saw a tinge of red appear in the portion of his cheeks not covered by the beard. So Brian Smith could blush! Dani was amused. The painter obviously realised how inhospitable his question had been and sought to retrieve the situation. 'What I mean is,' he hurried on, 'I only have one bed. If you'd told me you were coming . . .' He stopped and shrugged.

'I'm staying in Ipswich, thanks.'

'Oh. I see. Well, what do you want with the Manor?'

'In its present condition, not much.' Prentice took out a slim, gold cigarette case and offered it to his half-brother, who refused with an impatient shake of his head. 'I have to have it renovated first. It's in one hell of a state.'

The cigarettes had not been offered to Dani. She sensed that she had been mentally pigeonholed in this man's mind as simply the girl who was modelling for Brian, and therefore not worthy of attention. The thought angered her. She would have liked to have shown her displeasure by stalking out and leaving both men in their state of armed wariness, but she was also curious. What would this man do with the Manor? Live in it with his wife and children?

'It'll be an expensive project,' Brian said shrewdly. 'Business must be better than I thought. What on earth do you want with a place like that?' A thought seemed to strike him, 'Are you finally going to take the plunge and get married?'

So he wasn't married.

'No.' Prentice seemed to have abandoned any attempt to be friendly. His voice was curt and cold. 'I am not getting married. I like my life too much the way it is.' Again his eyes flicked to Dani and she guessed he was wondering if she was Brian's girl-friend. Then they slid away from her and looked at a painting leaning against the wall. Dani followed the direction of his gaze and saw that he was looking at the picture of a nude which lay, half finished and temporarily abandoned, facing into the room. His eyes returned to Dani.

The inference was obvious. The face of the nude had only been lightly sketched in with charcoal and it could be anyone. Clearly he believed that it was her and she saw his expression become contemplative, as if he was assessing her. Dani returned the stare impassively, but for a moment she was aware of tension crackling between them.

'Actually,' Prentice said, turning from her, 'I'm just on my way to a dinner party at Alder House. Do you know it?'

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