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"Miss Cullen is not taking visitors!"
Avery started at the outraged voice of her housekeeperthe action making her blotch a daub of the yew-green paint at the end of her brush. The sound of footsteps came swiftly on the ancient paved path behind her. She sighed and put the paintbrush down. On this overcast and suddenly autumnal London day she was already losing the light and, interruptions aside, the painting wasn't going well anyway. If only passion for a subject made up for a lack of everything else, she thought as she reached for the linseed-oil-scented rag on the shelf of her easel and wiped her hands before turning to see what the fuss was about.
Her housekeeper usually had no trouble heading off visitors at the front door. The woman was fiercely protective of Avery and fully respected the younger woman's wish for privacy. But it seemed someone had managed to cut past Mrs. Jackson's normally effective defense. The man walking a clear yard ahead of the stout housekeeper had his eyes on only one thing. Avery.
Tall, with dark blond hair that, while short, managed to look like he'd just rolled out of bed, and a light beard that suggested he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, there was no doubt he was disreputably good-looking. There was also something vaguely familiar about him. No, surely not. She would have remembered meeting him before. She didn't know him at all. Sure you do, a tiny voice whispered from deep inside. Wasn't he that guy Macy had pointed out when they were in New York for the Tarlington auction? Avery shoved the voice back down where it belonged as a shiver of something undefined shimmered up her neck. Not fear. Not even apprehension over the stranger striding so determinedly toward her, strangely enough.
No, this was something else. Something she had about as much trouble putting a name to as she'd had capturing the beauty of her father's favorite garden in oils on canvas. Whatever it was, it made a bloom of heat kiss her cheeks and she felt her pulse rate lift a notch. Irritation at being disturbed, she told herself, but she knew it was anything but.
"I'm sorry, Miss Cullen, I informed Mr. Price you aren't taking visitors but he just wouldn't listen." Disapproval was clear in every vowel of the housekeeper's London East End origins. She gave an indignant sniff. "He says he has an appointment."
Mrs. Jackson's rosy cheeks glowed even brighter than usual at this clear invasion of her mistress's privacy.
"It's all right, Mrs. Jackson. He's here now," Avery answered as soothingly as she could and, summoning the hospitality that had been drummed into her from an early age, she offered, "perhaps our guest might like some tea on the terrace before he leaves?"
"Coffee, please, if you have it," the man said, his voice pure Boston Brahmin all the way, but it was his name that finally filtered through her memory and caught her attention.
As Mrs. Jackson bustled off to prepare the coffee, still bristling with outrage and muttering under her breath, Avery gave him her full consideration.
"Price? So you'd be Marcus Price, of Waverly's in New York?" she asked.
Waverly's was the auction house that had handled her friend Macy's mother's estate sale. Seeing what Macy had gone through over the sale had made Avery all the more determined to hold on to the treasures that made up her pastwhether she liked them or not. At least she had the luxury, literally, of not having to sell those memories as poor Macy had.
"I'm flattered you remember my name," he said with an easy smile that made her stomach do an uncomfortable flip in response.
"Don't be," she answered in as quelling a tone as she could muster, given the unbidden buzz of heat that unfurled through her body at his nearness. "I made my position on the sale of my father's Impressionist collection quite clear when you first contacted me. You've come a long way for a wasted journey."
He smiled in response and a flutter of unadulterated feminine interest flickered through her veins. A flutter she attempted to suppress as rapidly as it arose. As handsome as he was, and he certainly was that, she knew his type all too well. Bold, brash, confident. He was everything she wasn't and he was in for a disappointment if he thought she would be talked into selling her late father's much-coveted collection.
"Now I've finally had the chance to meet you, I know my time wasn't entirely wasted."
His voice was laden with innuendo and the surety he would get what he came for.
"You can stop trying to flatter me, Mr. Price. Better men than you have tried and failed."
She nodded, a bare ascension of her head. "Marcus, then. It doesn't change anything. I'm not selling and I really don't understand why you're here."
"Your assistant, David Hurley, arranged our meeting two weeks ago. I had assumed he'd told you but" his green eyes narrowed as he obviously noted the flash of anger that she knew must show across her expressive features "I can see from your expression that he neglected to do so. I'm sorry, Miss Cullen. I believed you were open to discussions."
Oh, he was good. Charming, sincereshe could almost believe him if she didn't wonder just how much he'd bribed David to set this up. She would have hoped her late father's assistant was above such a thing but apparently not. And, to be honest, she couldn't imagine any other way Marcus would have succeeded in getting the appointment he'd been hounding her for in the past month. She made a mental note to follow up with David as soon as possible. He was still based in her hometown of Los Angeles and despite the years of service he'd given her dad, if he didn't have a valid explanation, she was prepared to lose him over this. Trust was something earned and, when breached, easily broken.
"Your coffee should be ready," Avery answered, refusing to confirm or deny David's part in this. "Shall we go up to the terrace?"
"Thank you." Marcus held out one hand, gesturing for her to precede him.
She couldn't help but feel the assessment of his eyes on her back as she followed the path that led to the terrace at the side of the house. Every feminine cell in her body wished she was wearing something more . Well, anything other than the old jeans and T-shirt she'd chosen to wear for painting today. In the instant she thought it, she dashed the vanity from her mind. She wasn't out to impress Marcus Price or anyone like him. She'd learned the hard way how to read people who wanted to use her for their own advancement and she had no doubt that securing the Cullen Collection, the Impressionist paintings her father had acquired over the past two and a half decades, would be a golden feather in this hotshot's career-advancement cap.
They arrived on the terrace just as Mrs. Jackson wheeled out a cart laden with afternoon teaor coffee as the case wasand transferred the cups and saucers to a small wrought-iron table set with two matching chairs. Avery invited Marcus to sit down.
"Cream or milk?" Avery asked as she finished pouring the aromatic dark brew from the silver coffeepot embossed with the crest of her English mother's family.
"Just black, thanks."
"Sugar?" she continued, striving to follow the social graces her parents would have expected of her had they both still been alive.
She arched a brow. "Two? Ah, yes, I can see why."
"You think I need sweetening?" There was a hint of laughter in his voice.
"You said it, not me."
Using silver tongs, she dropped two cubes of sugar in his coffee and handed the cup and saucer across to him.
"Thank you," he said, holding it in one hand while with the other he picked up the silver teaspoon resting on the saucer, to stir his coffee.
Avery found herself mesmerized. Long fingered, yet broad and capable, his hands were both those of an artist and a man more accustomed to physically working hard for a living. That traitorous curl of warmth licked through her body again. She really needed to get out more, she thought as she tried to quash the attraction she felt toward him. She'd been sequestered in her London home since her father's death and, aside from a brief trip to New York to support her best friend during the auction of Macy's famous mother's possessions, she'd kept social contact to an absolute minimum. Maybe it was time for that to change. In fact, hadn't Macy told her she should at least meet Marcus, if only for the eye-candy quotient?
Change or not, Marcus Price was too slick for someone like her.
"About the Cullen Collection" he began after taking a sip of his coffee.
"I'm not interested in selling. I don't know how I can be any clearer on the subject," Avery interrupted.
She really was losing patience over this. She couldn't expect anyone to fully understand just why she was so determined to hold on to the paintings. They were collecting dust in her family's Los Angeles mansion. Deep down she knew she needed to do somethingloan them to a museum or a gallery, anyone who'd appreciate them more than she did. But she couldn't bring herself to let them go just yet. Her father had amassed the Impressionist works over her lifetime and even as a child she'd understood his satisfaction in acquiring another piece for the collection.
Forrest Cullen had loved every canvas with a devotion Avery had often envied for herself. Oh, she knew her father had loved her in his own distant way, but even after her mother's death when she was five he'd continued to remain a disconnected parent. She'd always felt her father had had two great loves in his life. His wife and his collection. She wasn't about to part with the remaining tangible link she had to the man she'd idolized her whole life. It, and the garden here in London that he'd so patiently tended, made her feel closer to himmade his loss less raw.
Marcus interrupted her thoughts, bringing her very firmly into the present.
"I'm sure you're well aware of what the collection could command from the right buyers."
Avery gave him a cynical half smile. "Look around you, Marcus. I'm not exactly short of a dollar or two."
"Then think of it this way. Those paintings deserve to be in the hands and view of people who truly appreciate them."
She stiffened. Had David told him that she actually didn't even like most of the collection? No, surely even he didn't know that much.
"Are you suggesting I don't appreciate my father's collection? That's rather assumptive, wouldn't you say?"
Marcus narrowed his green eyes and gave her an assessing look. She fought the urge to tidy herself under his scrutiny, to smooth the wisps that, in the curse of fine blond hair, had escaped her ponytail and even now tickled against her cheeks in the light afternoon breeze.
"I'm sure you have your reasons, but I believe that anyone can be swayed with the right enticement."
She laughed aloud. The sheer audacity of the man.
"I'm not interested in enticement, Mr. Price," she said, deliberately returning to using the formal version of his name. "Now, if you've finished your coffee, I'll ask Mrs. Jackson to see you out."
"Are you going back to your painting?" he asked, not moving an inch from his seat.
She felt her guard rise even higher. "I believe I asked you to leave, Mr. Price."
"Marcus. And you did. Ever so nicely, but" he leaned forward and traced one finger across a smear of paint on the index finger of her right hand "I find myself wanting to continue to discuss art, and its many forms, with you."
For just a moment she was trapped in the thrall of his touch. So light, and yet pulling from deep within her a reaction so intense it took her breath clean away. If circumstances had been different, she'd lean toward him, too, and see whether he tasted as enticing as his words sounded.
The squawk of a bird settling in a nearby tree broke the spell Marcus had woven. She wasn't into fleeting pleasure and a fling with Marcus Price would be exactly that. A fling. Life was worth so much morecorrection, she was worth so much more than that. Avery pointedly looked at his hand before withdrawing her own from beneath it. "Sadly, I can't say the same."
He quirked his lips in a half smile. "C'mon, I bet you're wondering, even now, what it is that you're doing wrong with your painting, why it's not working."
The challenge hung in the air between them.
"Wrong?" she answered, raising her brows.
"I am recognized as something of an expert in art, you know."
"Selling it, perhaps."
"Identifying what's worth selling," he corrected, his voice still light but carrying an underlying steel that proved she might have dented his pride just a little.
"So, tell me, what is it that I'm doing wrong," she challenged. She didn't for one minute believe he'd be able to direct her any better than she could herself.
"It's in the way you've captured the light."
"The light?" Oh, God, she must sound like an idiot parroting his words.
"C'mon, I'll show you."
Before she could answer he'd risen from his chair and taken her hand in his own. The warmth of his fingers as they curled around hers, holding them lightly but without any hint of letting go anytime soon, felt oddly right. She was helpless to protest as he led her down the shallow terrace steps and back to where her easel stood waiting with its half-finished canvas.
"Actually, it's more in the way you haven't captured the light," Marcus said, pointing to the dappled texture of rich early autumnal tones on the stretched canvas. "See? Here, and here. Where's the light, the sun, the warmth? Where's it coming from? Where's the last caress of summer?"
In an instant she knew exactly what he was talking about and she mixed some paint on her palette and, with a clean brush, swiftly applied her attention to one area of the canvas.
"Like that?" she asked, stepping back.
"Yeah, just like that. You know what you're doing. How did you miss it?"
"I guess the light's been missing from my life for a while now," she said without thinking. "And, I stopped looking for it."