Color of Deception
The Sullyard Series
When artist Kitty Sullyard draws a strange symbol in her toy panorama, she doesn’t expect it to be life threatening. Tossed into a situation she never asked for, she learns the hard way who not to trust.
After Kitty mysteriously disappears, Nathaniel Bexley has only a single clue with which to find her. It’s something only he would know. Will he be able to decipher the secret message she’s hidden in a drawing, or will Kitty be doomed to the hands of her kidnappers?
HOW COULD HE have done this?
Kitty Sullyard gritted her teeth around the filthy cloth in her mouth. The taste was rancid and sour at the same time. The possibilities of what it was so dirty with nearly caused her stomach to heave. Panic set in — again. Her heart crashed against her ribs, thumping faster than she’d ever known it to, as if it longed to escape the confines of her chest like a frightened pigeon. It was so hard to breathe. What if the cloth got wedged in too far and she couldn’t get any air? She tried to gulp some in but coughed against the mouth gag instead.
No, you must stay calm. You must! Otherwise, she might have no chance at all of escaping. Though how she would overpower two burly men was beyond her. There must be some way. If she gave up now, she might as well close her eyes and let fear and despair take her, because those were her only companions at present.
She tugged against the ropes tied around her wrists for the hundredth time. Heat licked at her skin like hot coals whenever she repositioned her hands. Something sticky was between her palms. Was it perspiration? Or blood? She hadn’t much feeling left in her hands, and it seemed to be getting worse.
Kitty feared the longer they remained in that state, permanent damage would be done. Would she lose the ability to grasp a pencil or paintbrush to create beautiful toy panoramas?
If she ever got free.
Willing herself not to dwell on frightening possibilities, Kitty kicked the hard ground in frustration, hoping that as she freed her thoughts, she’d at the same time loosen the rope those men had bound her ankles with.
No such luck.
Her toes tingled, so she kept moving her feet, but the squeak of her boots rubbing together made her cringe. What if the men who had absconded with her came back? Heard her moving around and attempted to question her, hit her again? She’d listened to them talking outside the shed before they left. They’d assumed she had been knocked out cold. So they must have believed her playacting as she’d lain as still as death on the ground. It wasn’t hard to do. With the exception of her racing heart, she’d been too frightened to move.
A flash of pain across her cheek brought back a memory of being struck on the side of her face. The man’s hand had been so hard and unyielding it might as well have been a brick. Though the old shed they’d thrust her into was mostly dark except for a tiny sliver of moon shining through a crack in the ceiling, Kitty could see well enough to know that one of her eyes now had blurry vision.
The pent up energy she’d had since being taken rushed from her like a giant flood. All that remained was a useless body in a torn dress lying on the cold ground.
What would she do if her family never found her? If no one could figure out the clue she’d drawn? They might not even notice it, since she’d had to leave it so far down on the wall.
Please let someone find it. Let them figure out the message I’ve left.
On top of her fear, anger, and panic was disbelief. Why had he done it? Deceived Kitty and her sisters? It made no sense. What possible reason could he have had?
If Kitty died in this dark, cold shed, would he even care?
Lambeth, England — three weeks earlier
THE FROG-LIKE man staring at her acted like he’d delight in inviting her as his special guest for dinner. Thank goodness Kitty wasn’t a fly.
“How may I be of assistance today, Miss Sullyard?” Worsley Butler grinned, his mouth stretching wide across his ghastly face. Uneven teeth poked out from between his lips, resembling fallen logs in a felled forest. His skin, pock-marked from some childhood illness, bunched at the corners of his mouth in unattractive pouches.
“I require some sky blue and butter yellow today, please.” Lately her visits to the colorman’s shop had become frequent since her cousin insisted she and her sisters sell more paintings.
Worsley watched her intently. Even with a deep work counter between them, he was entirely too close for Kitty’s liking. “Certainly, my dear.” His eyelids closed and then opened over bulging dark eyes, but he neither turned away nor made any kind of movement to indicate he would execute the task.
Kitty drummed her fingers on the counter, the sound like the pelting of rain against a window.
She tapped her boot on the wooden floor loud enough for her great-aunt, who had fallen asleep on a bench near the front window, to hear.
Still, he didn’t budge.
Dreadful man. Why did he always do that?
Clearing her throat, she lowered her eyebrows at Worsley, glaring at him even though she was loath to maintain eye contact, as if she might catch some terrible disease simply by sight.
He snapped out of a sort of trance and, with a dreamy expression followed by a sigh and finally turned away, waddling to the small room where he mixed the colors for her paints.
She let out a breath and slumped against the counter. How she hated going there. There were other colormen in Lambeth, but blast it all, he was the best. She wasn’t quite sure how he achieved it, but his colors were truer to nature’s hues than anyone else’s. Perhaps he was blessed with that gift because he himself was so hideous to behold. Why couldn’t his work be as unappealing as his appearance? Then she wouldn’t have any qualms about going elsewhere.
Business being what it was, however, she needed the very best colors to paint her toy panoramas. If her cousin Robert’s foul mood that morning was any indication, their family’s finances were stretched very thin. And getting worse by the moment.
She peeked over her shoulder at the window. Tiny beams of sunlight streamed through the shop glass, glinting off the metal hinges of a large wooden chest that sat just to the right of the front door. The rain had stopped, at least for a while. Perhaps she’d be able to sell some of her panoramas at the Pantheon Bazaar later that day.
If she had her way, she’d sell more than she currently was. All it would take was for her to stand in the main aisle of the bazaar with her work. As it was now, she stood off to the side out of the way. If someone happened to glance over and see her tiny paintings, all to the good. Everything in her longed to stand closer to the entrance and entreat people to see what she had for sale.
Alas, Robert forbade it. She knew he wouldn’t mind her doing it in theory, but had no wish for one of his cousins to be made a spectacle.
Kitty found his rules confusing. If their finances were so dire, wasn’t earning money more important than what others might think of them? With nothing but a slightly raised voice and a pleasant countenance, Kitty was convinced she could catch people’s attention. Surely that couldn’t hurt in attracting more buyers. Especially men, who made no qualms about regaling her with compliments of her beauty. She wasn’t above adding a wiggle to her step, either, in those cases.
Anything to help put food on her family’s table.
Well… maybe not anything.
Rules and propriety demanded that she act like a respectable woman, not speaking unless spoken to, not finding enjoyment in attracting the attentions of men. Something in her, though, something deep down lured her into behavior that would be deemed by most as unseemly. Kitty found it all a game, of sorts. Flirt with men and then back away. She’d certainly earned the term of tease. But that had never bothered her.
The door squeaked open, startling Kitty from her musings. A cool breeze preceded someone who entered the shop. The sound of footsteps approached from behind. Clothing rustled as whoever it was now stood to her left. Kitty glanced down at the large, gloved hands that settled on the counter close to hers. Not old cracked gloves like Robert wore. These were expensive, dark, and unblemished. Curious about who wore them, Kitty looked at the man’s face. Her heart lurched. She took a quick peek at her great-aunt who was sitting on a bench in the corner, but the old woman was still dozing.
That wasn’t uncommon. Kitty was convinced her great-aunt had been a feline in a former life, always napping wherever she happened to sit. Especially if she found a spot in the sun.
From the corner of her eye, Kitty took in the man again. He was tall, with broad shoulders beneath a black coat, light hair with a slight curl at the ends, and piercing blue eyes that were at the moment fixed directly on her.
“Good day.” His voice was the verbal equivalent of warm honey on a scone.
Heavens above. He’d actually spoken to her. They’d not been introduced. She had no problem with that, but most men followed the rules better than she.
Except rakes. She’d always had a special fondness for those. To a point. As long as they flirted but didn’t push her too far. She knew she played a dangerous game with men, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. They were there. She was there. Why not have a little innocent fun before she settled down to marry someone who wasn’t a rake.
She had a plan. When the right man came along, someone who was respectable, decent, and caring, she’d know it. Rakes were only for now. While she was young and could have some enjoyment.
Kitty compared his mode of dress to hers. From that standpoint, they were worlds apart in status. She wasn’t used to interacting much with men of the gentry, except when she was trying to sell her panoramas. What should she do? Her normal bravado was easy to assume with men of her own station. But this gentleman?
Kitty’s knees quivered. Suddenly, whatever greeting she would normally give someone flew out the door and was taken away by the strong current of the wind. Where was her boldness? Her throw-caution-to-the-wind mentality? “I, um… mmm…” She shook her head back and forth like a window shudder flapping in a strong breeze, trying to hopefully loosen some coherent thoughts into her mind. Why couldn’t she say something intelligent? When had she ever been at a loss for words?
“You… don’t think it’s a good day? Perhaps all the people I met on the street who wished me thus were mistaken.” A dimple appeared in one cheek as he gave her a one-sided grin.
Kitty blinked. “It’s… well…” What’s wrong with me? I’m unable to utter anything that isn’t nonsensical.
He angled his chin slightly to the side. Just enough that his eyes reflected a gleam of light from the window. The man’s eyes actually sparkled like he was a genie who could grant her deepest wish.
Kitty reached out her hand toward him, then lowered it without ever making contact with his sleeve. “I’d like to… that is… er…” Heat flooded her face. What am I doing? It was as if she’d suddenly forgotten the fine art of flirtation.
He raised one perfectly arched eyebrow before glancing the other direction. Did he think her daft? Mad? Someone he should avoid? She half expected him to step away.
Kitty had never laid eyes on him before, had never seen anyone who was or ever could be as handsome. Would he be a kind gentleman or a rake? “Pardon me, sir.”
“I’m not usually so…” She flipped her hand back and forth like a fish flopping on a dry river bank.
“So…” He watched the motion, unblinking. Was he mesmerized?
She lowered her hand to the counter, nervously tapping her fingers on the hard surface. “That is, on a normal day, I speak much more coherently.”
“I wasn’t aware today was abnormal.” One side of his mouth rose again.
Amused, was he? Well, hadn’t she given him cause? She had sounded imbecilic. If some stranger had acted of unsound mind while speaking to her, she might have tried to run away. Usually she was scolded by her family for being too outspoken. Always speaking her mind. But not this time. Not with him. Her throat felt constricted like a winter scarf had been tied too snugly.
Without doing so consciously, Kitty leaned toward him. A scent of cologne drifted to her. She inhaled and then sighed.
He blinked and tilted his head. “You’re quite lovely, you know.”
“Oh.” She took a step back. “Th-thank you.” What am I doing? Standing too close and sniffing someone of the gentry, acting like a bloodhound. Panic crept up, surrounding her. What if someone saw what I’ve done? Word would get back to Robert and—
“Miss Sullyard?” Worsley now stood on the other side of the counter.
Kitty gasped, heart hammering at being caught, and glanced at him. “Um, yes?”
Worsley was glaring now at the stranger. “Good day, Mr. Bexley.”
Now she at least knew his name.
Mr. Bexley eyed Worsley. “I need to purchase some colors for my mother. The same kind as before.”
“Of course. However, you’ll have to wait, as I am still working on an order for Miss Sullyard.”
“I don’t mind waiting.” His mouth formed a wide grin as he glanced at Kitty, his gaze roving from her face to the neckline of her dress and back. “Not in the least.”
“Humph.” Worsley frowned, pivoted and returned to the other room.
Kitty’s skin was so hot where Mr. Bexley had looked at her, it nearly steamed. Yes, definitely a rake.
The front door opened again, and two women entered. Kitty eyed the small distance between her and Mr. Bexley. With haste, she took a step away. She’d been so enamored and gawking at him that she’d not even noticed they were entirely alone in the room. Except for her slumbering relative. And the interruption by Worsley.
But frogs didn’t count.
Kitty, what are you doing?
Yet there was something about Mr. Bexley that was almost… intoxicating in the same way she’d felt last Christmas when Robert had allowed her a small drink of his port. As if she could only tear her attention away from Mr. Bexley with difficulty. Didn’t want to stand too far away from him in case she’d miss something wonderful he said or did.
It made no sense, but her body nearly ached to be near the man. Something down deep in her belly stirred, an entirely new sensation. What was it? Had she gone mad from working with paint fumes all these years? Was her brain now hopelessly addled? She was an admitted flirt and allowed men kisses and embraces, but Kitty didn’t have experience with men beyond that point. Men only assumed she did. When they got too amorous, she was quick to make herself scarce, lest she get into real trouble.
The two women who had entered, members of the beau monde if the stylish, expensive appearance of clothing was any indication, glared at Kitty. She was used to that. Being a part of the artists’ working class, the upper classes had nothing but disdain for her and her family, but that didn’t stop some of them from purchasing the toy panoramas the Sullyards painted. Thank goodness.
But what about Mr. Bexley? His manner of dress suggested wealth. The way he was eyeing her, however, appeared to be with anything but disdain. Shivers ran through her, ending at her toes. This one would definitely be trouble.
A shuffle and then boot stomps preceded Worsley back to the counter. He held out a package toward her. “Your colors, Miss Sullyard.”
Kitty reached for them and set the usual payment on the counter, barely giving Worsley a glance. “Thank you.” She focused on Mr. Bexley again. Chances were she’d never see him again. And why would she? They were from two different worlds. But the unexpected encounter certainly had made going to Worsley’s shop a more enjoyable diversion.
After giving a nod to Mr. Bexley, Kitty hurried across the shop to wake her great-aunt. As they left the store and stepped onto the street, Kitty glanced back.
Mr. Bexley was watching her through the window.