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Macy Tarlington never knew whether her attempt at disguise would work or not. Today, the beige scarf covering her ink-black curls and dark sunglasses hiding her violet-blue eyes seemed to do the trick. She hadn't been followed. Thank goodness. She looked a little too much like her mother, which wasn't overall a bad thing. Her mother had been known for her beauty, but resembling Hollywood's beloved Queen of Cinema had drawn paparazzi to Macy like bees to honey. They believed her DNA alone gave them the right to trample on her privacy, especially during her time of mourning.
Tina Tarlington might have been world famous and her fans might have believed they knew everything about her, from her award-winning movie roles and her three doomed marriages to her celebrity status, but they hadn't really known her. Not the way Macy had.
Walking into New York's opulent Madison Avenue auction house made her twitch with anxiety. She bumped shoulders with her good friend, Avery Cullen, as they approached the Waverly salesroom. Avery was the least likely sort of American heiress, very unassuming and certainly not a spoiled cliche. "Sorry if I'm crowding you," she whispered. "I can't seem to help it."
Avery's warm smile reassured her as she took Macy's arm. Her friend's steady touch soothed her jumpy nerves. "I don't mind, Macy. That's why I'm here, for support."
With eyes well hidden beneath sunglasses, Macy was free to dart glances all around, scoping out the large, elegantly appointed room where Tina Tarlington's prized possessions would be auctioned off. Beautifully tufted, rounded high-back chairs were lined up in a dozen rows, split in the center by an aisle. The surrounding walls were easy-on-the-eye tones of beiges and light peach. Wide white wainscoting centered the walls and wrapped around the perimeter of the room. Multifaceted crystal chandeliers twinkled and provided abundant light overhead.
"I can't thank you enough for enduring this with me." Avery had made a quick trip from her home in London to be with her today.
"I know how hard this is for you."
"Hard and necessary, unfortunately. Having my mother's things on display like this gives me a stomachache. Oh, I am so not looking forward to this."
Avery gave Macy's hand a squeeze as they pressed farther into the room. "Those two seats on the aisle in the back are ours," Macy whispered. "I made arrangements beforehand for us."
And as they headed to those seats, Macy noticed that every other chair in the room was taken. Even in death, Tina Tarling-ton drew large crowds.
An attendant came by immediately to hand them a catalogue listing the items being auctioned off, and after a brief conversation Macy nodded her thanks to the woman standing at the head of the room. Ann Richardson, the CEO of Waverly's, who had secured the estate sale from Macy, gave her a silent greeting in return before turning to shake hands with the patrons in the front row. It was important to Ms. Richardson that the Tarlington auction go off without a hitch. Waverly's stood to make a hefty commission.
Macy opened the catalogue and flipped through the pages, noting item after item from her mother's estate. The descriptions were listed as lot numbers along with an estimate as to their value. The first item stopped her cold as memories flooded in and tears formed in her eyes.
On Macy's tenth birthday, just as the celebration was about to begin, Tina had rushed into the Magic Castle Mansion, an exclusive club showcasing musicians from around the world, dressed as Eleanor Neal, the role which had garnered her an Academy Award nomination. She'd come straight from the set, the shoot going longer than anticipated. Macy hadn't cared that her mother was late for her party or that she'd come in her professional makeup and wardrobe. She'd flown into her mother's arms and hugged her so tight that Tina laughed until her mascara had run down her face. It was magic and one of the best birthdays of Macy's life.
Now, the pink silk and sequin dress her mother had worn that day was described as "Worn by Tina Tarlington in the acclaimed film Quest for Vengeance, 1996."
Her mother's entire life seemed to have been whittled down to one-sentence blurbs and numbers. The ache in Macy's stomach intensified.
Discreetly, she closed the catalogue booklet and took a deep breath. She couldn't fall apart. Not now. She had to go through with this auction. She gave herself a little pep talk, reciting in her head all the practical reasons why selling her mother's treasures and jewels were necessary.
As she surveyed the room, people-watching, waiting for the auction to begin, she found the distraction she needed in a Stetson-wearing hunk of a man sitting across the aisle from her and one row up. His head was down, concentrating on the catalogue. The cowboy wore a crisp white shirt underneath a stylish Western suit coat that accentuated the solid breadth of his shoulders. The glint of silver from his bolo tie twinkled under the chandeliers. His profile was strong, grooved with a razor-sharp cheekbone and an angular jaw. He swung his head around and glanced at her for a split second, as if he suspected her of watching him. She panicked for an instant and held her breath. Luckily, he hadn't lingered but went on to scan the rest of the room.
But oh my! When he'd turned, she'd gotten the full impact of his gaze and found him even more appealing than she'd originally thought. A crazy jolt of warmth surged through her body. The powerful sensation was new to Macy.
Butterflies replaced the turmoil in her stomach.
She continued to grab eyefuls, shifting her gaze away occasionally to avoid being caught. She was grateful for her little disguise. It provided her freedom to peruse something more exciting than the auction.
The cowboy glanced over the seated bidders and up toward the podium time and again. He appeared anxious and impatient for the auction to begin.
A minute later, Ann Richardson took the podium with a welcome to everyone at the auction. After a cordial greeting, the CEO turned the microphone over to the auctioneer and he stepped up to the podium. The auction began and Macy watched as, one by one, bidders raised their paddles when the first gown was offered up.
Dear, sweet Avery sat vigilantly beside her, a pillar of quiet strength. When the auctioneer's hammer fell, finalizing the winning bid, Avery squeezed her hand and whispered into her ear. "Just remember, your mother would want you to do this."
Macy nodded and slid her eyes closed briefly. It was true. Her mother had loved her possessions, and heaven knew, she had not been good with money. But her mother had made a point of always making sure Macy had known that she, not her profession or her jewels, was the most important, most beloved thing in her life. Misguided as her mother's life might have been, Macy knew she'd been loved. When her father, Clyde Tarlington, had died ten years ago, Tina might have given up, but she'd shown Macy what it was to be a survivor. To press on, even under adversity.
Once again, Macy glanced at her handsome cowboy, sitting patiently across the aisle. He'd taken off his hat, out of consideration to the people seated behind him, she presumed, as soon as the bidding had begun. His dark blond hair was well-groomed, thick and curling at the edge of his collar. The Stetson rested on his outstretched leg and Macy reeled in her wayward thoughts, thinking if she could only trade places with that hat.
The corners of her lips lifted at the idea. And Macy's foolish heart skipped a beat.
His face was becoming familiar to her. He was a good diversion, a distraction that she couldn't seem to shake. She was drawn to him, and she couldn't figure out why. She lived in Hollywood, where gorgeous men were a dime a dozen. She'd acted in small movie roles opposite men more beautiful than any female starlet.
No, it wasn't his looks that drew her to him. It was something else. He held himself with an air of confidence that belied his obvious discomfort seated in a venerable New York auction house.
She liked that about him.
For all she knew, he'd be more comfortable bidding on long-horn steers.
She liked that about him, too.
Another mental chuckle emerged. She had to stop fantasizing about him. Macy returned her attention to the auction, grateful to the cowboy for giving her something thrilling to admire while her mother's life was being bartered away.
Soon the diamond rings would be up for sale.
Macy cringed and slithered down in her seat. She actually felt sorry for the people who wound up with them.
Three diamond rings. Three doomed marriages.
"The rings are cursed," she whispered to Avery.
Her friend nodded ever so slightly. "Then you should be glad to get rid of them."
Oh, she was. She was extremely glad. Those rings represented pain and heartache to anyone in their possession. The love surrounding those rings would never survive. Her mother's three failed marriages were testimony enough. Each one of her marriages had been horrific in their own way, and Macy had begun thinking of the diamond rings as the Love Curse Diamonds. Of course, it wasn't a good idea to tell that to the press. She needed the money too badly to risk lowering their value. But there were stories behind those diamonds and, unfortunately, Macy knew them all too well.
The bidding was to begin on the three-carat diamond that Clyde Tarlington had given to her mother. The setting was unique, a one of a kind. The nearly perfect gem had been placed in such a way that it formed a T with surrounding smaller diamonds nestled beside it to finish forming the letter. It was by far the most exquisite ring of the trio.
Avery nudged her shoulder and Macy, deep in thought, slid her friend a sideways glance. "Take a look." She gestured across the aisle. "That gorgeous cowboy you've been eyeing all afternoon is getting ready. I bet he bids on the Tarlington diamond."
Carter wanted that Tarlington diamond so bad he could taste it. He'd spend a small fortune on it, if it boiled down to that. He groaned with impatience.
The stately woman sitting next to him, her nose in the air, reacted to the sound he made with a high and mighty puff. Then her gaze shifted to the felt hat sitting on his lap. She gave him another sniff of disapproval.
Well, hell. He'd offended her.
Because he was in a good mood, being nearly engaged and all, he sent her a smile of apology.
The woman gripped her purse with thin wiry fingers and inched away from him without returning his smile. She didn't bother to disguise her feelings. He didn't fit in. She didn't approve of him being here.
He couldn't fault her for that thinking. He didn't fit in here. He didn't like crowds, tight spaces or the irritating roar of New York traffic. But he had two darn good reasons for attending the auction.
The engagement ring he was determined to buy and the friend he was determined to help.
Both were important and could be life altering.
An article he'd read in the New York Times this morning about possible collusion between Waverly's and their rival auction house, Rothchild's, flashed into his mind. The piece had put the Waverly establishment in a bad light.
Doubt as to whether he should sink any money into the auction at all had crossed his mind and old survival instincts had clicked in. Carter was known for making sound financial decisions, and if it were anyone else, he would've walked away from the auction. But his friend Roark was a straight shooter. If Roark trusted Ann Richardson and Waverly's, that was good enough for Carter. It was as simple as that.
The CEO sat up front but off to the side, overseeing the auction. He'd kept a keen eye on her since the auction began and wouldn't let her out of his sight. He couldn't get near her before, but he wasn't leaving until he'd delivered the message from Roark.
Before the auction began, Ann Richardson had given a tidy welcome speech to the patrons, reminding them about Waverly's honest and reputable dealings for over one hundred and fifty years. Her way of dispelling the rumors tarnishing today's auction. Anticipation stirred in his gut, and the reality of what he was about to do struck him. After thirty-one years of bachelorhood, he was ready to propose marriage and settle down with a woman.
Finally, the auctioneer announced the famous gem. "The Tarlington emerald-cut diamond ring is three carats in weight, with VS1 clarity and D color with six surrounding baquette diamonds weighing a total of one point four carats. We'll start the bidding at fifty thousand dollars."
Carter raised his paddle and made the first bid.
Three other paddles went up after his.
And by the time he lifted his paddle again, the bid had increased to seventy thousand dollars. The room got extremely quiet. Only the slight rustle of clothes and an intermittent cough echoed in the large room. As far as he could tell, there were four bidders, and all of them were actively bidding as the price of the Tarlington diamond doubled.
He lifted his paddle again.
Two of the other bidders dropped off and Carter found himself in a one-on-one duel.
It was between him and someone he couldn't quite make out from a row closer to the front of the room. The mysterious bidder wasn't giving up.
When the bid doubled again, Carter retired his paddle. It was clear that his opponent had unlimited means and wanted that diamond ring no matter the cost. Carter had too much business sense to pay more than twice what the darn thing was actually worth. He'd already overbid. When the hammer fell and the bid was won, he lifted up a fraction from his chair and craned his neck to find out who had outbid him. A young woman wearing an austere business suit and a satisfied smile had nodded to the auctioneer.
Carter frowned. He hated losing.