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The woman came to him from the shadows and he knew her by the red of her hair. She moved slowly, deliberately, toward him and he released his breath with satisfaction. He wanted to ask her where she’d been because he’d missed her.
But the closer she got the less he felt like talking.
As she stopped in front of him, he reached out and ran a finger down her cheek. She was achingly beautiful, especially her eyes. They were spectacular blue, a shade that perfectly complemented the auburn waves that fell past her shoulders. He wanted her. No, he needed her.
Her smile deepened, as if she knew what he was thinking, and she tilted her head back. Staring at her upturned mouth, at her parted lips, a wave of urgency shot through his body. Giving in to the hunger, he put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her close, wanting to take what she was offering quickly before she disappeared again.
Bending down, he felt anticipation and something else, something that made his heart pound with more than lust.
Jack Walker’s eyes flipped open. Caught up in the raging hunger in his body, he wasn’t sure whether he was truly awake. Or where the hell he was. He knew the bed wasn’t his own, but not much else.
He looked around at the dark shapes in the room. After a few deep breaths, the patterns made sense to him. He was at the Plaza Hotel in New York, in the suite he always used when he was in town.
And the woman he still wanted so badly it hurt had disappeared into thin air. Again.
He stared up at the ornate ceiling in frustration. He hadn’t slept well the last two nights and he needed some sustained shut-eye soon. He didn’t have much patience to begin with and lack of sleep wasn’t getting him any closer to Mother Teresa territory.
The dream was driving him crazy.
Every time it was the same. Just as he was about to kiss her, right before he knew what she would taste like, he’d wake up slick with sweat and in a hella- cious mood.
Jack pushed a hand through his hair. Without a suitable target for his frustration, he seethed in the darkness.
He’d only met the woman once and he hadn’t thought she’d made that big an impression on him.
Restless, he had to fight his way out of the sheets that had gotten tangled around his naked body. When he was finally free, he walked over to a bank of windows and looked outside. The view was characteristically New York. Skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, taillights flashing in a maze of asphalt down below. It was late at night, but the city was still hopping.
A couple of days before, he’d come down from Boston expecting to meet with his college roommate, who was now a top-notch political consultant, and to buy back a family painting. Picking up a subconscious sexual obsession had sure as hell not been on his itinerary.
But at least the meeting had gone well. And he’d gotten the portrait.
Last night he’d been the successful bidder at the Hall Foundation’s lavish gala. The painting was John Singleton Copley’s masterful rendering of Nathaniel Walker, a Revolutionary War hero and one of Jack’s most prominent ancestors. He’d paid almost five million dollars for it, but he’d have gone higher. The painting should never have left the family and he was the only one who could afford to get it back.
Which would have been a surprise to anyone other than his immediate relatives.
Since the day his father had gone discreetly bankrupt, Jack had been shelling out his hard-earned money to protect and fortify his family’s legacy. To be properly sustained, the proud heritage and luxurious lifestyle of the Walkers required a tremendous, unceasing river of cash. Among the gene pool, however, there was a dearth of earners and a plethora of spenders. Jack was on the short list of the former.
His father’s poor asset management and the financial realities of keeping up the Walker Theme Park had helped to ensure that he didn’t turn into yet another useless blueblood. Instead, he was a hard-hearted, competitive SOB who had a reputation for winning at all costs. It had been an evolution his father, Nathaniel James Walker VI, had never approved of, but then the man’s opinions and choices had usually been poor in Jack’s opinion. Nathaniel Six, as he’d been known, was the epitome of the Old Guard philanthropist. He felt there was only one proper thing to do with money: Give it away. A gentleman simply didn’t tarnish his hands with the ugly business of making the stuff.
It was an entitled way of looking at life, and one that had resulted in his father being much celebrated by the universities, libraries, and museums that were the fortunate recipients of his largesse. Unfortunately, all that philanthropy had also landed him dead broke by the time Jack was twenty-five. The painting had been one of the first things sold to keep up the charade of limitless wealth.
Although Nathaniel Six had been dead for almost five years, Jack could clearly imagine how conflicted his old man would have been at the first Nathaniel’s return. The patriarch’s picture was back in the family, but thanks only to Jack’s dirty hands.
What a catch-22, he thought, thinning his lips.
Shaking himself free of the past, Jack figured he shouldn’t be quite so pleased with himself. He’d got the painting, all right. And the goddamn dream.
He’d gone to preview the piece at the Hall Foundation before the auction, expecting to quickly verify it was in reasonable shape and move along. He’d done the former, but in the process had met the art conservationist who’d been keeping him up nights ever since.
He’d first seen her as she’d been backing out of an office. She’d turned around, her deep red hair swinging over her shoulders, and their eyes had locked. He’d been intrigued, as any man would have been, but it wasn’t like she’d struck him dumb with her charms.
His old friend, Grace Woodward Hall, president of the Foundation, had introduced them. The woman, Callie Burke, was an art conservationist and on a whim, he’d invited her to come with them to view the painting. Standing over the canvas, he’d been struck by her thorough commentary on the condition of the painting and her assessment of what needed to be done to properly care for it. He’d also liked the way she’d looked at the portrait. Her eyes had clung to his ancestor’s face, as if she were utterly entranced. When he’d asked if she might like to conserve the work, though, she hadn’t seemed interested and they’d gone their separate ways. At least until his head had hit the pillow that night.
He’d laughed off the dream at first, pleased to find that at the age of thirty-eight his sex drive was as high as it had always been. With each passing night, however, he lost more of his sense of humor. He’d decided the one saving grace was that they’d never meet again, so eventually he’d forget about her.
But then last evening, after his successful bid at the auction, his friend Grace had brought up the woman again. Grace had urged him to follow up with this Callie Burke, stopping just short of asking him to do it as a personal favor to her. Evidently, Grace felt confident that Ms. Burke could do the work and pushed him to look into the conservationist’s background so he’d know just how talented she was. By the end of the evening, he’d agreed to play along though he still had no idea why it was so important to his friend.
Looking out over the city, he figured that he’d check into the conservationist’s background tomorrow, and then he’d go find her and ask her again. He wasn’t much for giving people second chances, but maybe now was a good time to give it a try. He had to admit he’d been rather touched by Grace’s ardent support of the woman.
And the dreams? He wasn’t going to worry about them. Hell, he didn’t even like redheads.
He turned to the bed and looked at the dark shape of Blair Stanford. His fiancée.
“Sorry I woke you,” he said as she sat up on her elbows.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m all right.”
She reached a hand out to him. “Come back to bed.”
Jack slid between the sheets and felt Blair put her arms around him.
“You’re tense,” she said softly, stroking his chest.
He wove his fingers through hers. “Go back to sleep.”
“Is there something wrong?” she murmured. “You’ve been tossing and turning every night for the past few days.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
He stroked her forearm, trying to get her to relax, but she propped her head up on her hand.
“Jack, we know each other too well for secrets.”
“True. But who says I’m hiding anything?” He smiled at how her short, blond hair was sticking out at right angles. He reached up and smoothed the sides down, thinking she wouldn’t have stood for that kind of disorder if she’d known about it. Even in the middle of the night.
Blair stared down into his face for a long time. “Are you rethinking our engagement?”
“What makes you say that?”
She hesitated. “I was very surprised when you asked me to marry you and we haven’t really talked about it since.”
“We’ve both been busy. That doesn’t mean I’m having second thoughts.”
What he really wanted to say was that she should know by now that he didn’t do “second thoughts.” Having made the decision that it was time to get married, and having found a woman he wanted to be his wife, he had everything arranged.
“It’s just that . . .” Blair shrugged. “I didn’t think we’d ever take this step. I keep wondering when I’m going to wake up from the dream.”
He touched her shoulder, feeling the tension in her. “Where’s all this anxiety coming from?”
“I never thought you were the kind of man who’d settle down. There were a lot of women before me.”
“Come on, you know the stories of my love life are vastly overblown.”
“Maybe so, but there was plenty to go on. And it’s not just the women. You’re a traveler.”
Jack laughed and thought of his twin brother. “That’s Nate. He’s been around the world how many times? Four, now?”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. You’ve always been restless.”
He thought about the odd mix of blood in his veins, the DNA of WASP aristocracy and Portuguese fishermen combined. She was probably right, though he’d never thought about it before. He did have a seaman’s need for freedom, just like his brother, but he’d tempered the drive with his strong will and a healthy dose of avarice.
“Well, restless or not, I’m staying with you,” he told her.
He heard her sigh in the dark. “I just want you to be sure.”
“You know how I feel about you.”
“You don’t love me, Jack.”
The quiet words hit him hard. He opened his mouth, not sure what he was going to say, but she put a slender fingertip on his lips.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “I’ve always known.”
He grabbed her hand and kissed it, wishing he could tell her otherwise. There were so many things about her that he liked and respected. She was a business success in her own right, running a thriving interior decorating company. She had fantastic style and grace. And she was both caring and understanding, two things he was going to have to rely on in the upcoming twelve months. In all likelihood, he was going to run for governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts and he knew she would handle the stress of his candidacy with the same calm confidence with which she managed everything.
He valued her. He enjoyed having her in his life. The fact that he didn’t love her was the only thing missing, but he didn’t consider it a problem. That particular kind of passion just wasn’t something he had in him. For any woman.
“So maybe the question is more, why are you marrying me?” he asked.
“Because I love you and I think we make a good team.”
“We are a great team.”
“So talk to me. What’s wrong?”
He shook his head resolutely, not about to tell her he was dreaming of some other woman. “Blair, trust me. There’s nothing going on that you need to be worried about.”
“Okay, okay.” She ran a soothing hand over his shoulder; it was something she did a lot. She had a way of handling him that he liked. Calming, but not patronizing. “But I hope you’ll tell me at some point. I prefer to know bad news sooner rather than later.”
She lay down and gradually relaxed against him, her breaths becoming deep and even.
Jack stared at the ceiling as she slept in his arms. When he finally closed his eyes, visions of the redhead drifted into his mind.
It was just a dream, he told himself. The images, the sensations, had more to do with his libido than some woman he’d met for how long? Ten minutes?
Besides, he’d always preferred blonds and he had a loving, wonderful one right here in his arms. He was a man with a plan and nothing was going to change the course of his life.
2 Callie Burke stepped out into the brisk October wind and pulled up her collar, feeling the rough scratch of it on her neck. The old wool coat had been her protection against cold, windy New York winters for years, just one more thing in her life that she needed to replace and couldn’t afford to.
She glanced back at the art gallery she’d worked in for the past eighteen months and put her hands into her pockets, feeling her last paycheck through her mittens. Stanley, her boss, her former boss, hadn’t wanted to let her go. Business, however, was slow because of the bad economy and he hadn’t had much choice. People just weren’t buying like they had during the dot-com years and financial reality had to prevail over all the interpersonal stuff.
She sure could have used more notice, though. Just this morning, she’d gone in assuming her job was secure.
Stepping forward, she joined the grim rush of pedestrians.
The gallery had been a good place to work. It put a roof, however modest, over her head and kept her in the art racket, even if she wasn’t doing conservation projects. The place was also located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, only blocks away from her apartment.
And she’d liked Stanley in spite of his theatrics and his codependent relationship with Ralph, his teacup poodle. She hadn’t been all that fond of Ralphie. Four pounds of bad attitude backed up with a bark that could shatter glass just wasn’t endearing—no matter what Stanley said.
Callie grimaced, thinking she would miss the place, and then pushed the temptation to sink into self-pity aside. She had real financial problems. Even with the check, she only had about seven hundred dollars to her name and rent was due in a week.
She thought about what she had to sell. There wasn’t much back at her apartment. Her mother’s jewelry had been used long ago to pay off medical bills. Callie’s furniture, which had come from thrift stores and flea markets, wasn’t going to bring more than two cents. And her old TV had been stolen months ago when her apartment was broken into.
The fact that the thieves hadn’t taken anything else showed how little the rest of her stuff was worth.
She tried to think about her options. The thing she knew for sure was that she didn’t want to go back to that depressing little hole in the wall she lived in just yet. There was no way to find strength or courage there. What she needed to do was walk around for a while and hope her head cleared.
As she marched through the chilly air and thought about employment opportunities, she wondered why she couldn’t have gone to school for something a little more lucrative. Art conservation, however passionate she was about it, however good she was at it, was hardly a run-of-the-mill career to support yourself with. Accounting, law, medicine. At least in those fields, you could get work almost anywhere and be pretty well paid.
Landing a conservation job, however, was like getting struck by lightning and this was why she’d ended up at Stanley’s gallery. While going through NYU’s conservation program, she’d interned at MoMA and received some great experience working under experts in the field, but with her mother so sick, she hadn’t wanted to move out of the city when she got her degree. The field was competitive enough to begin with, but because she needed to stay where she was, her prospects were even more limited.
Callie stopped in front of one of the more prominent galleries, thinking they might need help. Maybe a receptionist. Or someone to empty the trash. She didn’t care. Aside from her very real financial imperative, she just wanted to be around the art. She went inside, but was told that they had laid off their receptionist two weeks before. When she asked, halfheartedly, if they knew anyone who was hiring, the shake of the head and lowered eyes told her that many of the galleries were in the same shape as Stanley’s.
Just keep going, she thought as she reemerged into the cold. At least if she wore herself out, she’d sleep tonight.
She was strolling past a newspaper stand when she saw a picture that stopped her. Picking up the paper, she looked at the face of Grace Woodward Hall.
Her half sister.
The stunning blond was in a gown at a podium, addressing a crowd of the city’s most influential people. According to the caption, the picture had been taken at the Hall Foundation’s annual gala and Callie was shocked when she read the article. A killer had tried to attack Grace in her office and she’d been saved when her bodyguard had taken him down. Also, it appeared that her marriage to the Count von Sharone was over and her soon-to-be ex-husband was shopping around a tell-all book about her.
Focusing on the picture, Callie was glad she’d finally introduced herself to Grace and sorry that the woman’s life was in such turmoil. After years of reading about her half sister in the society pages, Callie had never expected to meet her, but things changed when their father died. She’d become determined to see her next of kin up close. Just once.
Grace was Cornelius Woodward Hall’s daughter. Callie was his dirty little secret. At birth, she’d been given Burke, her mother’s name, and the lies that began with her first breath had followed her into adulthood, creating a wild disparity between the kind of life her half sister lived and the kind Callie struggled through. Despite the fact that Cornelius was worth close to a billion dollars, lavish financial support for his illegitimate daughter was out of the question. When he was alive, he could barely stand to be in the same room with her, as if she were too obvious a reminder of the double life he was leading. Anything that would have increased her profile was to be strictly avoided.
Although, even if he had wanted to be generous, such gestures probably wouldn’t have been accepted. Her mother’s pride had cut off much of what Cornelius had tried to give his lover over the years. Extravagant gifts to her went unopened. A fancy apartment was left uninhabited. The only thing she’d accepted was the payment for Callie’s college and graduate school tuition.
And some jewelry that had ultimately helped to ease her death.
Callie read on. The article mentioned that at the gala’s auction, Jackson Walker had purchased a portrait of his ancestor, Nathaniel Walker, the Revolutionary War hero.
At the sight of the name, she felt like a blast of hot air had hit the back of her neck.
“Hey! Are you gonna buy that or do you want me to get you a chair?” the stand’s owner barked at her.
Callie put the newspaper down and kept going.
She’d first learned about Jack Walker through the gossip columns years ago. He came from one of America’s most famous families and had more money than most small countries. He was also too damn handsome for anyone’s good. For years, he’d been a notorious bad boy and the tabloids had carried endless stories about his women. He’d tended to date models, actresses, and debutantes; usually more than one at a time. The ensuing catfights and his casual dismissal of jealous rages had probably moved more newspapers than the exploits of Bill Clinton and Jennifer Lopez put together.
Needless to say, it had been a surprise to meet him in person.
Evidently, he and Grace were friends and he looked like the kind of man Grace would know; everything about him was expensive. From his fine, tailored suit to his polished shoes to the leather briefcase he carried, he was from the world of privilege.
And in all his finery, he was precisely the kind of man she avoided.
Okay, maybe avoided was the wrong word, because billionaires didn’t cross her path very often. But all that money, all that smooth confidence was a red flag. Her father had taught her everything she needed to know about rich men and little of it had been good.
But she had to admit Walker was attractive. Aside from his physical attributes, he spoke with the authority of someone used to being followed, in a voice that was seductive even when he was talking about nothing sexual. She could have listened to him speak for hours, his words enunciated with that aristocratic drawl, a signet ring flashing gold on his hand as he gestured.
And then there was the way he’d looked at her. He’d met her eyes directly and it was as if he’d really seen her. As someone who was used to being sidelined, it was nice to be noticed. Especially while standing next to a woman like Grace.
It had been another surprise when he’d offered her the job of conserving the portrait of his famous forebearer. He made the proposal even though he didn’t yet own the painting, taking for granted he’d prevail in the auction. Considering the kind of money he had, she supposed no price would be too high for him.
But she’d walked away from the proposition, in spite of the fact that it was a plum job. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the project. She’d worked under some renowned conservationists during school and had tackled some very difficult restorations. The Copley, though dirty and in need of a cleaning, wasn’t a big deal in terms of technical difficulty.
Callie just wasn’t in a big hurry to work for the man. She knew how the Jack Walkers of the world operated, having had to deal with them on occasion in Stanley’s gallery. Having had one for a father. They thought of themselves first and that meant there was always an angle and always a demand. He probably treated his employees as if they were disposable and found fault with even the most successful of efforts.
Maybe she was wrong. Maybe Walker was a perfectly nice man who just happened to have built a business empire. Maybe he was honest and forthright, a beacon of human virtue laced up in a Saville Row suit. Maybe he was closer to Nelson Mandela than Donald Trump.
But more likely, he was a tough guy in gentleman’s clothes and not someone she should work for. Getting mixed up with Walker had Bad Idea written all over it, even if she could have used the money.
Abruptly, Callie turned around and started for home. She reminded herself that walking alone through the city on a cold night could only get her two more things she wasn’t interested in: a case of pneumonia and mugged.
Besides, she had more important things to worry about than the real or imagined character defects of some man she was never going to see again. She had to think about shelter. Food.
She shoved her hand into her pocket and felt the lining give way.