Wednesday, 12 December 2012

08. Season's greetings and short story - A Portrait for Christmas

 Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas or whatever suits you for the festive season. I wish you nothing but happiness and time well spent with your loved ones.

I have a gift for you, dear readers – a Christmas tale that I hope inspires a little romance. ;)

I do recommend a little reader discretion however.

If you’re a ‘50 Shades’ veteran, then the ‘naughty’ dash of spice in this otherwise very ‘nice’ story may be quite tame, otherwise be aware of a little surprise ‘packaging’ toward the end. :)

A Portrait for Christmas

Becca took a step back and stared at the canvas, meticulously scanning for any mistakes to correct or adjustments needed to make her painting complete.
     No, not complete, she wanted it to be perfect. As perfect as the man she had been trying to capture with her numerous tubes of paint, countless carefully drawn and then re-drawn lines, and painstaking yet lovingly made brush strokes from brushes of the finest wood and bristles money could buy was.
     If someone had told her months ago that he would be the subject of her finest work, she would have shot at him or her and not given it a second thought. That trigger-happy tendency was why advising her to take art classes occurred in the first place.
     Her personal shrink (appointed psychiatrist) had suggested resuming the painting she had loved as a child as a way of expressing her emotions in the aftermath of an undercover mission that had gone so horribly wrong, yet still managed to bring one of the most notorious gang leaders in Australia to justice. The shrink also suggested it would help cope with the guilt Becca felt because she had survived when others hadn’t. As she stared at her painting, Becca recalled the first night of class.
     It had been a long, hard day at work and she’d spent most of it in tears. Not that anyone had upset her; she didn’t even know what she was crying about a great deal of the time. It was then that she had decided that the shrink did indeed have a point. She had promptly sent word of her ability to attend the class and collected her art supplies from her parents’ home in preparation. Deep down she knew she wasn’t the sad, pathetic creature she’d become. She wanted to find that woman again - the one who was damn good at her job and respected for her ability to cope in the direst of situations. She needed an outlet for all her pent up frustrations and painting would be a more suitable target than her fellow officers.
     There were a dozen or so artists in a haphazard semi-circle in the brightly lit room. She picked out an easel, put on a smock to protect her clothes and set up her pencils, paints and brushes. A piece of tinsel caught her eye and she grimaced at the thought of being at the scene of some latent Christmas party. Despite numerous invitations to stay with friends and family, the sense of loneliness hadn’t abated during the festive season and she doubted the following Christmas would be any different.
     She was aware that someone else walked in the door behind her and assumed it was the teacher for no one else looked remotely as though they were preparing to instruct the class. She didn’t bother to look up as she busied herself getting ready, all the while chanting to herself that this was the key to newfound happiness. Becca all but dropped her palette as the deep rich tones of his voice invaded her self-induced mantra.
     No! It couldn’t be. Not Declan Muldoon? Of all the officers that she didn’t want knowing she was attending a rehabilitation class, HE was at the top of the list.
     She looked behind her. There was no way she could pack her things and sneak out without him noticing. From where he was standing, he had a clear view of the door, not to mention most of his students too.
     For Christ’s sake, she didn’t even know he could paint, let alone be qualified to teach a class.
     Now she felt trapped. It was a feeling she knew all too well, and she liked it even less. The gun she kept with her at all times, yet had placed so casually by her bag, found a new home on the easel, well within reach.
     She scrutinised the officers on either side and was pleased but certainly not eased by the fact that while she knew most of them by sight, there were those who’d been involved in the undercover mission too. Tears welled in her eyes and her breath quickened as the beginnings of a panic attack took hold. She fought to calm herself knowing her shrink would never have recommended this class if she thought it would do more harm than good. The mission was over, she had to remember that, and the other officers here were seeking the same goals she was. God only knew why Muldoon was here or what he had in store for her once he realised she was there, if he wasn’t aware of her presence already.
     With all the poise of a stumbling drunk, she let one cinnamon-coloured eye slip past the protective barrier of the canvas and stared at the Senior Sergeant as he sashayed back and forth, obviously as much in love with himself now as when they’d first met. It was bad enough that as her recruiting officer he had made her life hell during training, let alone endure more of his criticism when they worked together on the mission.
     Becca frowned and ducked behind the easel again just as Declan’s eyes swept past. She was being unfair and she knew it. If it hadn’t been for his heroic actions, many of the officers in this room would not be alive today. Some days, she could hardly believe she’d played a major role in it too, but then she’d remember the funerals she’d attended, reality would come crashing down around her and the tears would follow.
     Again she took a peek and forced herself to remain calm when silvery blue eyes met hers and she wondered whether she imagined a certain flash of something sparkle between them. For a moment she waited, wondering when cruel words would spill from his lips as easily as the tears threatened to fall from her eyes. To her surprise, he continued speaking as if nothing had happened and he seemed no more shocked to see her as he had anyone else in the room. Inwardly she cringed. That meant that he was also aware of why she was here.
     Becca Jeffries, top of her recruiting class and one of the most highly decorated officers in her brief career, couldn’t cope with the aftermath of a bloody, violent gunfight nor deal with the guilt that dogged her waking hours and all but obliterated the ones meant for sleeping. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what he must be thinking. Was it really too late to leave the class?
     ‘If you’re ready to join us, Jeffries.’
     What the hell?
     Dear Lord, had she said that aloud?
     ‘Class has started. That means you take some paint from those little tubes, put it on your palette and pick up your paintbrush. Are you following me so far? That’s a good girl. Then take that paintbrush, pick a colour and paint.’
     Why that patronising son of a bitch.
     ‘Now really, Jeffries, you know full well my mother, while hardly a saint, certainly does not deserve such a wicked name?’
     ‘But how?’
     ‘How? Surely, Jeffries, if you signed on for an advanced painting class, you already know how.’
     ‘You know damn well that’s not what I meant’, she started to say but Declan was already walking away, his smirk adorning his pale face like a glorious banner.
     ‘Now that Jeffries is ready to start, perhaps we can continue with the lesson? As I was saying, tutored by some of the finest painters both here in Australia and in Europe, I am fully qualified to pass on my expertise. You all have your reasons for being here, which will not be discussed in this classroom. I trust you are all capable of respecting each other’s privacy?’
     Everyone else in the class nodded their heads like rookies. Only Becca continue to glower at the man before her as he gestured at the huge bowl of fruit he’d placed on his desk.
     ‘For the first lesson I want you to dazzle me with your creativity. You are free to paint abstractly if you so desire or produce a lifelike replica of what you see. Your painting must come from the heart.’ He glanced at Becca. ‘Well, at least those of you who have a heart.’
     He laughed at her indignant splutter, and she silently fumed as more laughter echoed throughout the room.
     Swearing fluently to herself, she squirted some paint onto her palette, looked up at the bowl and tried to quell the urge to shove a rather large and prickly fruit exactly where Muldoon so obviously thought the sun shined. Her vision shifted and brought him reluctantly into view. He was smirking at her as if he knew exactly what she’d been thinking moments before and it had amused him.
     She glanced down, scowling as she picked out a sketching pencil. When she looked up, instead of finding the fruit, her gaze found Declan. Her traitorous eyes drank in the lean male body like a half-demented creature dying of thirst. He was leaning against the desk, his feet neatly crossed at the ankles in his ridiculously expensive, far too tight pants.
     Clearly, Declan wasn’t planning to pass on the Muldoon genes anytime soon.
     Her vision travelled upwards, her eyes widening as his ebony, button down silk shirt came into view, opened partway to show off tantalising glimpses of his chest but still managing to stretch tight across the breadth of his shoulders.
     Surely, a man with the money his family had would be able to afford a tailor who could make clothes that fit?’
     A quiet chuckle that seemed to roar in her ears alone had her quickly looking away again, but not before the image of him standing there, his arms folded across his chest in a relaxed manner, ingrained itself in her head. Even his silvery blond hair curling atop his shoulders,(well past regulation length) instilled itself on her seemingly inept brain. The only thing that hadn’t registered was the way he had smiled, the corners of his mouth lifting as if a pleasant thought had traversed his mind and left him wanting more.
     Once again, Becca looked longingly at the door then squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and brought the pencil up to the canvas. The first feather light strokes of graphite barely kissed its ivory surface but the more she sketched, the easier it became. Soon her pencil was dancing across the smooth exterior like Fred and Ginger, her favourite dancing couple from the movies of times gone by. The implement skipped and weaved, twirled, pranced and leapt about the canvas and indeed between her fingers in wild abandon. Without realising it, she was humming a little tune and tapping her feet in time with the music in her head.
     ‘I see some things haven’t changed since you were a recruit, Jeffries. You’re still the last one to leave class. Are you afraid you’ll miss something important? Or are you thinking up long winded answers to questions I may never ask?’
     Just like that, the spell of inspiration she had created for herself vanished and she dragged her eyes from her sketch to the man beside her with a barely concealed sneer.
     ‘I’ve forgotten more answers than you’ll ever have the questions for, Muldoon?’
     ‘Now, now, Jeffries, you can’t speak that way to a superior officer, well in this case, teacher. I know how much you adore the prospect of learning something new. I’m here to guide you, to instruct you, meld that tiny brain into something that you used to own and seemed to have lost along the way.’
     Someone knocking on the now opened door drowned out her venomous reply. It was only then that Becca realised that two whole hours had gone by. The class was over and she had been so lost in her creative flow that she hadn’t realised that everyone else had gone. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been that engrossed in anything and she stared at the canvas before her in amazement.
     Had she really done all that?
     A simpering giggle had her turning back toward the door to see a statuesque model giggling at Declan, her arms wrapped possessively around his middle and his arm, (oh yes, that’s right, with the sleeve rolled up just enough to reveal the nicely muscled forearm) laying claim to her impossibly tiny waist. Her eyes flickered over Becca for a brief moment and then she turned back to Declan, making it clear that she was dismissing the woman who obviously wasn’t anywhere near possible competition. Becca supposed she might be right, she was hardly dressed to stun now, not that she wanted to attract Declan’s attention.
     Hell no, she’d rather face a dozen knife-wielding drug addicts than entertain the idea of seducing Muldoon.
     Still, the way the other woman had looked down at her hurt Becca and inexplicably the tears welled in her eyes and she hastily turned away.
     ‘You’re right, Muldoon, some things haven’t changed since my recruiting days. Why don’t you and your friend run along and I’ll finish up?’
     It was his turn to protest but Declan never got the chance to speak for the woman squealed delightedly and all but dragged him out the door. It seemed, from that first night on, a precedent had been set.
     As the weeks turned in to months, things took on a regular pattern. Becca would greet her classmates. Sometimes she would chat to them but mostly she kept to herself, especially if anyone mentioned the mission or wanted to know what it was like to work in one of the city’s biggest undercover operations in a decade. It didn’t happen often and Declan, having walked in on one particularly intense interrogation, immediately put a stop to them claiming such discussions were for sessions with their psychiatrists and had no place in his classroom.
     She had been very grateful but there was no way she was going to tell HIM that. It was bad enough knowing that he knew why she was here, not that he ever used it against her. At first she’d expected it at every lesson and when nothing was forthcoming she’d slowly let down her guard. Not totally, because it was Muldoon, after all, but the tension definitely started to ease.
     She would busy herself setting up for the lesson, her brushes in pristine condition, her palette meticulously cleaned and her eyes travelling no further than the object they were to be painting and back to her canvas. Somehow it was just easier if she didn’t look at him because then she wouldn’t notice what he wore, the way the clothes caressed and emphasized his masculinity, how he smelled, and how good his arse looked when he was leaning over the desk to check his notes.
     Afterwards, when she came out of her impassioned trance, her canvases full of glorious colour or rough sketches; she’d find herself the only student remaining. She would clean up, lock up and make her way home feeling a little more relaxed and a lot less teary as the weeks went by. The shrink, (oh all right, the psychiatrist), had been right. This was just what she needed. She was starting to feel like the old Becca again. It would take time, but she was on the path now and while she still had the occasional stumble, at last she was beginning to see her way forward.
     The only real tragedy was the fact that at the end of every lesson, some scantily clad woman was dragging Declan out of the class barely noticing that Becca was still in the room. A few times there she wondered how they even made it out the door but Declan always seemed to disentangle himself and wish her a good night before he left.
     What was his compulsion to make sure she knew when he was leaving? More so, the fact that he never left alone. As if she cared whom he shagged!
     She wasn’t sure when things changed between them. One week he was making jokes at her expense, bringing forth barely disguised laughter and sly grins from her fellow painters and the next week, not a discouraging word. Once where he would have criticised her work or pointed out a mistake in the way she applied a brush stroke or that her use of colour wasn’t subjective, now he lingered beside her easel, complimenting her on the way her painting was developing. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It unnerved her to have him stand so close.
     At first, when he was being the jerk she knew and loathed, she thought it was the intense dislike making her tremble whenever he came near. Exactly when that changed to this yearning to have him like her work, to hear his words of praise, she didn’t know. She was missing something, she was sure of that, but what? She couldn’t ask her partner or the handful of officers she was somewhat close to, they were busy being wrapped up in their own lives and finding their own ways to cope with the aftermath of the mission. Besides, they were friendly with Muldoon and as much as she respected them, she knew she couldn’t trust them not to open their big, stupid mouths and tell Muldoon everything she’d said over a few, (make that several) beers.
     While she knew she could trust her girlfriends, she could not bring herself to speak of it to them either. They knew she was in the class. She had a strong suspicion that Linda had been to the one to suggest it to her psychiatrist in the first place. Becca’s mother had brought out some family albums one night after dinner and showed her friend photos of a younger Becca covered in paint with a grin from ear to ear, proudly showing off her creations.
     Even when she met the girls for coffee and the conversation began to flow between them the way it once had, still she couldn’t think of a way to ask their advice. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t realise Jenny was talking about the man in question until Linda mentioned something about how proud his father was of the way Declan was working out his problems.
     Declan had problems? Like what? Keeping his supermodel girlfriends’ names straight? Remembering who was going to meet him at the door and ensuring that only one woman ever picked him up?
     That had happened once. Two women had turned up to claim him and it had not been pretty. The class had witnessed the fiery little scene with much amusement and Declan had looked livid as the two towering beauties progressed to scratching, clawing and hissing at each other. Becca remembered the evil look he had given her as their eyes met amidst the brief but intense catfight. At the time, she couldn’t help but smirk back at him and delight in his embarrassment.
     She had noticed something else over the past few months. Since the melee, Declan had taken to lingering in the classroom and helping her clean up. They never spoke a word to each other, just worked in an almost companionable silence and then he’d walk her to the door, nod politely and walk off one way (alone) while she went in the opposite direction.
     Back in the coffee shop and out of her current daydream, Becca had looked at Jenny who was staring back at her with a strange expression.
     ‘We were talking about how proud Muldoon Senior is of his son,’ she said.
     ‘You didn’t know that teaching the art class was part of Declan’s rehabilitation? I thought you did. His psychiatrist thought it would help him deal with his insecurities,’ Linda added, her voice almost a whisper as if she parting with a secret that beheld the fate of the universe.
     The great, all-knowing Declan Muldoon had insecurities? Well chalk that up to another ceaseless wonder.
     Jenny took up the conversation then as if they were the same person and only Becca’s thoughts had interrupted the singularly made speech.
     ‘Apparently Declan’s father visited Dad in his office the other day and said how much happier Declan was. He said it wasn’t right that his son should suffer for the decisions he’d made and the actions he’d taken though no one really blames Declan for what happened that day but Declan himself. Have you noticed anything in art class, Becca?’
     The first week of October arrived and with it came the final project for the class. Becca stood with her classmates and joined in on the quiet musings as they discussed what the task might be. Becca was smiling as she addressed the officers who had slowly become her friends. Along with her regular jaunts with Jenny, Linda and her old crowd, now she went for coffee with her art friends, took in museums, and carried a sketchbook and pencils with her wherever she went, just in case something caught her eye and she felt compelled to draw and subsequently paint it.
     She was almost back to the girl she remembered and yet, was somehow better than before. She was calmer, more confident and the tears that had flown all too easily were now reserved for occasions that are far more appropriate. Occasions such as Jenny asking her to be her bridesmaid, and the much-coveted promotion she earned at work (although those tears fell in private). She was even looking forward to Christmas and that was saying something. Life was almost perfect. Then Declan Muldoon strutted into the class and announced what the final project would be.
     Becca blinked her eyes and shook her head. She can’t have heard right. He didn’t really want them to paint a nude model. Sure, it was art for art’s sake and there was nothing wrong with the beauty of the human body but, (she held her breath and refused to release it) surely he hadn’t just announced that he was the model they were to paint?
     Suddenly there was a chair behind her. Strong yet incredibly gentle hands helped her into it and she refocused as the instinct to breathe took over her panicked thoughts. Concern-filled eyes stared into hers and the normally pale face was gently flushed with colour as Declan looked back at her.
     ‘Are you alright?’
     ‘Huh? What? Oh, yes, I’m fine. Busy day, didn’t have time for lunch’.
     Just like that, the worry disappeared from his face and it split into a mischievous grin.
     ‘Really, Jeffries, and here I was thinking you were overcome by the thought of seeing me in all my glory.’
     Laughter filled the room and Becca felt her face burst into a crimson blush of embarrassment and indignation.
     She glared at him and coolly replied that she was an artist and she wasn’t about to be affected by his glory or anyone else’s and if he was in that much of a hurry to get his gear off to go ahead so she could start painting already. She turned away, missing the nervous look in Declan’s eyes, and expectantly picked up her pencil, hoping like mad that it didn’t snap in her trembling fingers.
     When Becca had observed that a hay covered throne had replaced the desk, like most of the class, she’d imagined they were to paint some kind of nativity scene. It was coming up to Christmas after all. Amongst themselves, in previous classes, they had discussed the possibility of a nude model ever since Declan had made them paint fully clothed models (neither of which he had dated). Those paintings however, were headshots or sometimes part of an arm or the long line of a well turned leg, definitely not a full frontal pose. She didn’t want to entertain the thought that it was because Declan was the model that her pulse was so erratic and her pencil practically shook itself out of her none too steady hand.
     The sounds of the door opening and closing caught her attention. She looked up and immediately wished she hadn’t. She hadn’t heard Declan leave so he could change into a ornately monogrammed bathrobe and the echoing gasps around her confirmed that not only was he most definitely the model, but he’d invited one of his former tutors to help with the pose and oversee the class for the next few weeks until the project was complete. Lisetta de Giovanni nodded to the stunned artists and greeted them with the same enigmatic smile made famous by an Italian beauty some five hundred years before. The woman standing before them could have been her twin, at the very least, a sister, the resemblance was almost uncanny.
     She stared at Becca, casting a critical yet well practiced eye over the younger woman. Becca was quick to note that the possessed a timeless beauty and sophistication that the models Declan had paraded for them, (not to mention dated) would never obtain. The older woman whispered something to Declan and he turned and smiled in Becca’s direction, nodding at the wide-eyed woman before whispering something back to his former tutor in Italian, his words almost as fluent as hers.
     Clapping her hands together, she ordered the class to prepare while she settled Declan into his pose. Becca glanced up once and felt a strange flare of anger seep through her as she observed the way the woman placed her hands so familiarly on Declan’s body. She wondered then if there was more between them than just a professional relationship and just as quickly wondered why she even cared.
     Some fifteen minutes later, Declan was finally ready and Lisetta moved so the class could see their model.
     At first Becca couldn’t look. As she stole glimpses at her fellow painters, she was pleased to note that everyone was treating it as a professional sitting. She knew most of the females and at least one male in the class would have been more than happy if Declan had spared them a second glance and whilst they maintained a detached look on their faces, Becca knew they were feasting their eyes on the man displayed before them. With the final thought in mind that she was a professional too, she took her first look.
     Sweet Mother of God and a completely new creation of swear words swarmed Becca’s mind and then completely bypassed all her thought processes for those of a purely physical instinct instead. As much as she hated to admit it, Declan was a handsome looking man clothed, but now, stretched out on the hay-covered throne with just the strategic tuft of dried grass to cover his glory she finally let herself go to truly appreciated his male beauty. Although pale against the faded greenery, his well-defined body stood out for its chiselled form rather than just his colouring.
     Heaven help her, she hadn’t realised his legs were so long and so damn toned. She struggled with the concept that she wanted to move from behind her easel, run her hand along his carefully posed thigh, and let it disappear under that patch of scratchy bracken. She was sure she could relieve him of any possible discomfort. It was also possible that her mind told her to ‘stop it’ but Becca’s eyes and her body just weren’t responding to the command.
     Reluctantly her eyes left the deep band of muscle that nestled between his slim hips and stomach and drew her gaze upward to take in the contours of his chest.
     Was it possible that Declan still played footy? If the sight before her was anything to go by, clearly he did.
     Suddenly she had a newfound respect for the sport and wondered why she’d wasted all those years at school burying her nose in a book when she could have been looking at something as delectable as this. The bulge of his bicep as he bent his arm and rested his hand on the back of his head as he leaned into the hay had her salivating until she remembered the way his arm had encircled that model’s waist all those months ago.
     For a moment, she shut down, but then her eyes drew to him again of their own violation. She shivered as her lust-filled orbs followed the sharp line of his jaw and then across to the full pout of his lips that were trying not to twitch, although whether in nervousness, laughter or something else, she wasn’t sure. Finally, she looked into the mischievous eyes that peeked out from underneath the Santa hat, which was his only article of clothing, (if that could be considered clothing). That’s when the bastard winked at her.
     ‘Told you, you just wanted to see me in all my glory, Jeffries,’ he said, giving her his trademark smirk. ‘As much as I understand how you’d want to keep staring at me, de Giovanni is a very busy woman and she wants to see your finished portrait as much as I do.’
     ‘Do be quiet, Declan’, Lisetta interrupted, her accent as rich and beautiful as she was. ‘You’re ruining the pose. There is a big honour for the one I believe is the best portrait. Their painting will be the main showpiece in my art gallery along with a collection of their works from this class. Quite the Christmas present, I would think. I imagine that is reward enough for all your hard work this year, yes?’
     Becca’s embarrassment moved to the wayside as she digested this information. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as trying to push those other more lascivious thoughts out of her mind. She was here to paint and even though the model was far more distracting than he had any right to be, painting was exactly what she was going to do.
     Two weeks went by and suddenly there she was again; trying not to make it obvious that she was staring at him as he carefully disrobed, grinned at her as he concealed his glory with both hands and resumed his pose. There were no interruptions now because they understood just how hard it was for Declan. Indeed how hard it was for any model to remain in any one pose for long. The only sounds in the room were those of graphite scratching on paper, paint squeezing out with a gentle gloop or the softer sweep of a brush as it moved against a slightly quivering easel.
     It was easier to look at him now though he had lost none of his allure for her. She wanted nothing more than to run her fingers along every contour and crevice of his body and become lost in the pose he so flauntingly owned. Since she could hardly touch him in class and the chances of that happening after hours were twice as unlikely, she poured everything into her work. The portrait appearing before her was her very own Adonis. His legs were open just for her, enticing her to sit on his lap and run her hand over his smooth, hard chest. The arms were so lifelike that they appeared to beckon her as if longing to encircle her waist the way Declan had done to that damn model.
     Exactly when had she decided she bloody well cared whether he wanted to touch her or not anyway, she’d admonished herself? She’d seen naked men before, but not one of them, not that there’d been many, had made her feel the way she did when she looked at Declan. Her Declan was much more receptive.
     His jaw tilted so that he faced her and her alone. The hint of a smile that screamed seduction glinted at her. His eyes, just visible under the stupid hat that hid most of his beautiful hair were just how she imagined them to be – silently begging her to fuck him right there on that stupid hay throne, scratches, prickles and all. Even then, she knew something was missing. She was pleased with the way she’d captured his body, it’s creamy perfection practically begging her to cover each exposed limb with a myriad of kisses.
     And his torso, God, was there a straight woman alive who could gaze at that portrait without wanting to lick the canvas as if trying to get a taste of the delectable man smirking back at them?
     She highly doubted it.
     ‘Not bad at all, Jeffries. Really, love, you flatter me with the size of that hay thatch. Trying to protect my modesty, were you? Were you imagining just how much I’m hiding? We’re alone now, I could always show you, for artistic measure, of course.’
     ‘Oh, of course, for artistic measure’, she replied, amazed that she hadn’t jumped a foot in the air at the sound of his voice.
     Perhaps that was because she was so aware of him now, so attuned to his smell, the heat that seemed to leap from his body to hers whenever he was near.
     Was that what was missing from her portrait? That undeniable heat?
     She’d long given up trying to tell herself it was merely a faulty air conditioner in the art room. Three times now she had run into him, outside a coffee shop, then in the doorway of the corner bookstore – her leaving and he arriving, and once at a footy match, and never had there been an explanation for the burning she felt inside whenever he was near. Although what good that knowledge did for her, she couldn’t say.
     He’d been so nice to her too, and it had nothing to do with the fact that Harry, her partner, or even Jenny had been around at the time, she was sure of that. So sure, that she’d taken to teasing him back in class and everyone, Becca and Declan included, had immensely enjoyed that. However, it did not make her confusion any less.
     ‘Come on,’ he began, disrupting her thoughts, the flirtatious tone of before now replaced by a far serious one. ‘I’ll help you get cleaned up and we’ll lock up. B-Becca, would you, I mean, if you don’t have any other plans, of course you probably do, what I mean to say is. Doyouwanttohavecoffeewithme?’
     ‘What the hell did you just say?’
     Did he just ask her to...?
     ‘I said ‘do you want to have coffee with me’? We can talk about the portraits if you like’.
     Jeez, why was it so hard to ask her out? No other woman made him this nervous but then, there was only one Becca Jeffries even if she did think him nothing but the bastard she knew from recruits.
     Much to their mutual surprise, there was no hesitation when she told him ‘yes’.
     That coffee invitation had led to dinner. Dinner had given way to double dates with a grinning Harry and a joyous Jenny. Finally, just a few nights ago, they had slept together for the first time and Becca knew that the real Declan had so much more to offer than the man she had so engagingly captured on the canvas.
     As he’d done so many times before, Declan stepped up behind her and smirked as he looked over her shoulder at the man looking back at them. He chuckled as she moved her paintbrush, highlighted the cheeks of his likeness, and laughed outright when she added a sparkle to his cleverly painted eyes.
     ‘Leave it alone already. Its fine just the way it is. You know, if I had any say in the matter, you’d have won. Either way, it’s a guaranteed sale.’
     ‘I would never sell this painting.’
     ‘You definitely captured the real me. I love it!’
     ‘Pity you won’t get to look at it here for much longer. It’s going to have pride of place in a certain room of mine.’
     ‘I’m not sure I want to look at myself like that when I’m trying to shag the woman who painted it. Are you sure you won’t part with it? I was thinking of buying it and giving it to Mum and Dad for Christmas’.
     ‘You wouldn’t’.
     ‘Of course I would. Mum would love it. Her only son as nature intended, wearing nothing more than a smile. She’d put it in the parlour and invite all her friends over for high tea so they could look at it and choke on their bloody cake and fancy biscuits. She’d think that was hilarious. Perhaps she’d even commission you to paint my father. The randy buggars would just about cream their knickers if they saw a portrait of my father hanging ‘au natural’ on the wall.’
     ‘She wouldn’t?’
     ‘Oh, I can assure you, she would. Although perhaps Dad would prefer to look at the perfection of a certain young woman I know.’
     ‘In the first place, hell no, he’s your father and my commanding officer. In the second, who would want to paint a portrait of me? I’m hardly what you call perfection, and third’.
     ‘But of course there’s a third’.
     ‘Thirdly, your parents and I are only just starting to get along and I would hate to do anything to make them dislike me again. You know what it was like after the mission...’
     He put his arms around her and let his chin rest upon her head, staring at his portrait without really seeing it.
     ‘My sweet Becca,’ (how good those words tasted in his mouth) ‘in the first place, I have no desire to share you with my father or anyone else. In the second, de Giovanni begged me to let her paint you from the moment she laid eyes on you. She said you reminded her of herself in her first flush of youth - the same enigmatic smile, the touch of innocence before you realised your true power over us mere mortals. She said your beauty must be preserved for all time. So you see; you are perfection in more than just my eyes.’
     ‘She didn’t’.
     ‘She did. Honestly, where is my normally articulate Becca? These two word answers are so unlike you. Of course, I told her that you would only pose for me but she was free to ask your opinion if she so desired. Thirdly, my parents don’t hate you. I think they knew how I felt about you long before I began teaching this class. Hell, I think it began when you started your training.’ He tightened his hold on her. ‘They could see how much better I had become. I was in a dark place, Becca and because of you; I found my way out again. We’ve been through too much to let something so wrong spoil something that could be so right.’
     Becca turned in his arms and thrilled at the way he held her tighter still, the knot of his bathrobe pressing into her stomach as he drew her closer. The Italian tutor and her classmates had long gone. They were out celebrating Terry Barton’s much deserved win with the empty promise of Becca and Declan joining them nothing more than a distant memory.
     In the confines of the classroom, Becca slid her hand down, undid the knot and helped Declan’s robe slide from his shoulders. It fell to the floor with a silken hiss as she picked up her paintbrush and grinned. Wordlessly she pushed him back toward his scratchy throne and gestured for him to resume his pose, sans his grassy covering and let her paintbrush trail up his knee and tickle a path up his inner thigh, his erection already rising to greet her.
     ‘Do you know how many times that bloody hay scratched my cock when I got a hard on watching you paint?’ He whispered, his voice oozing with seductive promise. ‘Do you have any idea how I longed to drag you over here and slide you on to my lap and give the class something worth painting? How many times when we were alone that I wanted to tell you that all those other women were some stupid ruse to make you jealous and admit that you wanted me. You have no idea how much I needed you to want me’.
     ‘Shut up, Muldoon.’
     A hand replaced the paintbrush and she wrapped her fingers around his cock, almost unable to believe she was truly touching him the way she had envisioned it so many times in her dreams not to mention her fantasies during class. With a teasing stroke, she let the paintbrush circle his erect nipples and heard him groan in delighted agony under the sensation before she bent and enclosed the taut flesh with the warmth of her tongue.
     ‘Come here’, he said roughly and pulled her close.
     ‘Oh, I intend to cum all over the place’, she replied cheekily and her smile widened when he laughed.
     ‘No need to ask where you want to start.’
     He didn’t speak while he worked at the buttons of her blouse as she wriggled out of her jeans. He pulled her down onto his lap and both of them groaned when her bare thigh met his saluting cock.
     ‘Want you’, he whispered.
     ‘Need you’, she moaned in return, the moan becoming louder as he slipped his hand between her thighs and slid his fingers along the edge of her soaked knickers.
     For a few minutes, she bucked against his fingers but it was not enough so she stood, let her smalls drop to the floor and straddled him, sliding down onto his glory and thinking hallelujah as he stretched her slickened walls. She did not notice the bracken that scratched her bare knees, nor did she care that it was only minutes later when Declan moaned her name and began pistoning beneath her. She was more than ready for the ride.
     They stayed there together, still joined, trying to regain their breath and ignore the sharp prickling of the hay. A thought formed in her mind and Becca straightened from where she was leaning into the crook of his neck. She admired the love bite that now adorned his pale skin and then looked into his smiling face and saw the happiness shining brightly in his eyes, far more obvious than she had any right to expect it to be.
     ‘You should paint me,’ she said at last and then laughed at his obvious confusion as her fingers trailed a path along his flushed cheek.
     ‘I want you to paint me the way you see me. I want to know what I look like through your eyes. When the time comes, we could hang both of the portraits up together.’
     She looked behind her at the easel and then back at Declan who was slowly beginning to smile in understanding.
     ‘I should get busy painting then,’ he said, drawing her mouth to his and claiming it with a kiss.
     ‘Right after I get a little more inspiration.’
     Again, they kissed.
     ‘After all,’ he said, and his grin widened at her reaction to his words. ‘I certainly can’t deny my love a portrait for Christmas.’ 

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