Molly Lane knew exactly what the deep burgundy rope across the carved doorway inside Floors Castle meant.
It meant Restricted Access.
It meant This is Not for You.
It meant Do Not Go Down There if You Know What is Good for You.
But that was an original William McTaggart painting hanging at the end of the hallway. Once she flew back to New York City and started her new job in less than two weeks she’d never have another chance to see the painting again.
She glanced one last time at the group of iPhone-wielding, fanny pack-wearing, selfie stick-armed tourists shuffling around the corner before hopping quickly over the deep burgundy rope.
Her hiking boots, held together with duct tape and random stickers from museums, galleries, and breweries across Europe, smacked down the hallway. Every few steps, she craned her neck around the large hallway to make sure some armed and burly Scottish castle guard wasn’t following her to lug her down to the dungeons.
Thankfully the hallway was quiet, and she finally got to the McTaggart painting, surrounded by a thick gold frame. The vibrant colors on the canvas, depicting a sunset in bold almost surreal hues, took her breath away.
This is what I’m meant to do.
Capture. Create. Inspire.
But continuing with her art, her passion, wasn’t meant to be. She wasn’t William McTaggart. People didn’t spend thousands of dollars on her paintings. If she only had herself to take care of, that would be just fine, but she now needed money to help her father. Which was why, after this whirlwind trip was over, she was giving up her art and setting her mind to practical matters, which included a very practical corporate job. Right now, however…
She fished through her sun-faded, mud-splattered, travel-worn backpack. Sticking a pencil stub between her teeth, she pulled out a bulging notebook stuffed with dried flowers and museum brochures and quick sketches on napkins and coasters. She fumbled for a clean page, passing memory after memory of her extraordinary art adventure through Europe.
Paris, Barcelona, Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin. She’d seen oil and pencil and watercolor and clay and marble. Da Vinci and Brunelleschi, the Louvre and the National Gallery and the Prado. It was all captured in her notebook.
When she returned to New York, she’d have it all with her. She’d keep it in the corner of her cubicle. She’d look through it on her lunch breaks or before she logged on in the mornings or right before she turned off the lights until the next day. Though, maybe she wouldn’t. It would remind her of real art, real passion, real creativity. And she’d just be reminded that she was no longer any of those.
Buried in her notebook, Molly was busy replicating the strokes McTaggart used to convey the setting sun’s brilliance across choppy waters when she first heard the frantic clip-clopping of good shoes on the marble floor. Those steps were approaching – and rapidly. She stuffed her notebook in her bag and, after one last glance at the painting to seal it in her mind, ran back toward the rope barrier.
“There ye are!” a sharp, loud Scottish voice exclaimed.
Just a few feet from the rope, Molly sheepishly turned and smiled at the man wearing a simple black suit and heading right for her.
“I’m sorry,” she started, “I just wanted to—”
“Ye Americans,” he grumbled, grabbing her arm, “always thinkin’ ye own the place.”
In confusion, she looked back at the rope she’d dared to cross. The man was dragging her in the opposite direction of what was open to the public, and she had no choice but to stumble right along. Shit! The dungeons.
“The Duke will not be happy. No, no.” The man shook his head as they rounded a corner and continued further into the castle. “Not happy at all. He’ll hang you up by yer toes, he will.”
“By my toes?” Molly asked, her voice creeping up an octave.
The man nodded grimly. She searched for any hint of sarcasm, dismayed when she couldn’t find any.
“Till death, I’m afraid,” the man added, and she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw a hint of amusement in his expression. Only she wasn’t certain, and it seemed that ascertaining whether the threat of being hung by her toes until she was dead was serious or not required certainty.
“I’m sorry,” she tried. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
The man must’ve been near seventy, judging by the deep wrinkles around his dark blue eyes, though his beard was red and striking. He had the strength of a boa constrictor as he dragged her past a row of stately, frowning portraits in dark and brooding hues. Just before a tall set of double doors, he stopped her.
“Quite a messy little lass, eh?”
He reached over and straightened her jacket, dusting off specks of dirt from the road. Dumbfounded at the mess she found herself in, Molly stared at one of the portraits behind him. It depicted a man, frowning and regal. According to the gilded placard below the carved frame, the Duke of Roxburghe died just a month ago.
“Well, that’s about as presentable as I can make ye, love,” the man said, shaking his head. “Didn’t ye read my email about the expected dress code?”
She stuttered in confusion, but before she could ask what email he was talking about, he opened the double doors, walked into the room with a bow, and announced, “Your Grace, my apologies for the delay. From Boston, Massachusetts, I present to you Miss Priscilla Rose.”
Priscilla who? Molly backpedaled down the hall. But the man, rolling his eyes, chased her down and shoved her through the open double doors and into the room before she could escape, his hand pressed firmly against her back to keep her still.
“Miss Rose, this is the Duke of Roxburghe, His Grace Callum Phillip MacGreggor Harding.”
Molly was suddenly aware of three things: her shoes were getting mud on a white fur rug, she hadn’t washed her hair in four days, and she should’ve worn a shirt without a hole. Preferably a really nice shirt.
Because she was standing in the most beautiful ballroom she’d ever seen in front of the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
He wore a fine gray suit, perfectly pressed and tailored. A tightly trimmed beard and every strand of his shoulder-length hair was arranged just so. In the afternoon light, his hair looked brown, but Molly was certain if he stood right in the sun she would see the red in it. His expression was stoic, lips drawn into a tight line and jaw held tense.
Until his eyes met hers.
Before that moment, everything around her had screamed for her attention: opulent rugs strewn across the floor, stained glass masterpieces in the tall narrow windows, crystal and gold chandeliers glistening above, fine art and priceless statues arranged beautifully.
It all blurred and disappeared the instant she and the Duke locked eyes.
“Jesus, Miss Rose,” the older man hissed in her ear as she gawked at the Duke. “Bow.”
His rough hand at her back was enough to make her chest tilt downward, but not for a second did she look away from the dark green eyes staring back at her. She saw something in them, something she grasped for and couldn’t quite hold onto, something alluring and rare and—
The trance she was in snapped at the sound of the Duke’s voice. Had she blinked? Because it seemed as if in one sliver of a second, someone had sneaked in and replaced the man in front of her. Without warning, his eyes had changed and the spark that had momentarily mesmerized her had been replaced with something else.
Not something disdainful. Or angry. Or cold.
The man beside her, some type of butler, elbowed Molly in the side when he noticed that she was squinting at the Duke, trying to solve this mystery.
“I expect your utmost punctuality as we move forward with the execution of this portrait, Miss Rose.” With his thick Scottish accent, the Duke’s voice, unlike his expression, was severe and harsh. “Understood?”
Now that his eyes were guarded and the openness and vulnerability and connection she’d shared with him had shattered, Molly was beginning to understand.
They thought she was a painter. Somehow she’d been dragged into some sort of interview for the new Duke’s official portrait. Okay, she thought. I’ll just bullshit my way through this and then hightail it back to town and grab the first bus out of Kelso.
“Miss Rose?” the Duke of Roxburghe repeated, fingers tightening over the chair’s arms.
That was her.
She was supposed to be Miss Rose.
“Yes, yes, of course, my apologies, Mr. Harding,” she muttered.
“You may address me as Your Grace, Miss Rose.”
Molly bit her tongue to stop herself from responding with what she really wanted to call him. On the one hand, she wanted to curse him and walk away. But on the other hand…there was a firmness to his voice, a command to his tone, a threat in his still and calm demeanor that made her want to kneel before him—not because he was a duke, but because he made her feel like a woman anxious to put herself in her lover’s care and dominance. A shiver traveled down her spine as she imagined what he could do with his voice if they weren’t standing in a large, elegant ballroom, but instead in an intimate bedroom, with silk sheets and a blindfold in close proximity.
Rattled, she somehow managed to reply, “Okay, Your Grace.”
He nodded with just the slightest tilt of his chin. “Very well. Mack?”
The butler moved away from her. She turned in horror to see him walking toward an easel she hadn’t seen.
“Umm… we’re starting today?”
The Duke raised an eyebrow. “Do you have somewhere else to be?”
Mack set the easel before her, and she peeked over her shoulder at the closed door. She wondered if it was locked.
If she ran, would the Duke chase after her? Would he throw her over his shoulder? Spank her? Molly had always found the idea of a woman being turned on by spankings quite laughable, but at that moment, she couldn’t help wondering what the Duke’s hand would feel like as it paddled her ass. In that moment, amusement was the last thing she felt.
She looked back at the Duke, and even though nothing about his expression had changed, she swore she felt him grinning at her. Could he see what she was thinking? Was he thinking the same? Molly picked at a speck of mud on her jeans to have a reason, any reason, to look away from him.
In her peripheral vision, she saw Mack fiddling with something; he’d produced a small worktable laden with luxurious paints she’d never even dreamed of painting with. She skimmed her fingers over the multitude of colors and ran her thumb over the fine brushes laid out before her.
“Anything else, Miss Rose?”
She hesitated. She didn’t know the first thing about painting those stuffy, formal, dead-eyed portraits. She painted wildflowers and saxophone players on the subway and light through a broken bottle rolling on the street and people dancing in their kitchens. She didn’t paint things that stayed still. She didn’t paint things that didn’t burst forth with life and love. And she certainly didn’t paint dukes.
But his eyes. She wanted to paint his eyes. Not the ones currently looking at her from across the quiet ballroom. No, she wanted to paint the eyes that had drawn her in.
The eyes that had radiated passion and pain. Longing and regret. Living and dying and loving and lying. And fucking.
They’d definitely vibrated with the energy of a man who knew how to fuck.
Those eyes she could paint.
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