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NATALIE BRIGHTON hadn't planned on darkness arriving
so soon. One minute the sun was a burning spotlight over the tops of the mountains, the next the world was all shadowed cliffs and the dark smudges of trees against the rock.
She hunched over the steering wheel, guiding the car up the twisting mountain road, the engine whining as it strained up the steep grade. If John Sartain was as rich and successful as everyone said, why had he built a house way up here on the back side of nowhere?
Not house, she corrected herself. Castle.
Artist John Sartain, apparently determined to add to his already eccentric reputation, had built a replica of a Scottish castle in the mountains of Colorado. In one article Natalie had read about her new boss, Sartain had explained he needed isolation to paint. But a gossip rag she'd also read had speculated the remote location allowed him to pursue his more scandalous activities away from the eyes of nosy reporters.
As to the nature of those activities... Natalie shifted in her seat and reminded herself that the conjectures of rumormongers were not to be believed. Just because some reporter had dubbed John Sartain "The Satyr" didn't mean he attended orgies or had his own dungeon or engaged in S & M.
She shivered as she remembered the pictures she'd seen in his newest calendar of just such scenes. The evocative, erotic paintings had aroused her, even as she'd told herself she should be shocked.
Apparently no one was shocked by how much money Sartain's art was making. His work appeared on everything from calendars and T-shirts to playing cards and rock CDs. He was a one-man money machine.
And she'd been hiredto make sure the machine kept running smoothly. Not exactly something for which her previous work with the Cirque du Paris and six months of vocational school had prepared her, but Sartain's agent, Douglas Tanner, had thought her capable of the job. And she'd been eager for this chance to succeed at something outside the claustrophobic world of traveling performers. In the Cirque du Paris, Natalie's life had been directed by others, her worth measured by their opinion of her.
Here in the mountains of Colorado, her future was in her own hands--a frightening and thrilling thought.
She steered the car around yet another S-curve and the castle loomed into sight. Floodlights shone on the red granite facade and half a dozen diamond-paned windows glittered with the golden glow of electric light.
Natalie stopped the car under the portico and waited for her heart rate to return to normal after that harrowing drive up the mountain. If she'd made it this far, meeting the Satyr would be a piece of cake.
The front door opened, but rather than some liveried butler or servant, a short man in a gray business suit emerged. "Hello, Doug." Natalie climbed out of the car and greeted the agent. "I didn't know you'd be here."
"I wanted to wait and introduce you to Sartain." He followed her around to the trunk of the car and hefted out two suitcases. "How was your drive?"
"A little hairy after it got dark." She lifted out a third suitcase. "I didn't see a lot of other traffic."
"No, there's not much up here." He led the way into the castle. "You see now why the job comes with an apartment. Making the commute every day would be impossible. Especially after winter sets in."
He left the luggage in the large front hallway. "I'll show you to your apartment later, but first I'd like you to meet Sartain."
"He's been your client for years and you don't call him by his first name?" she asked.
"He prefers Sartain." Doug shrugged. "It's how he signs his paintings, how everyone always addresses him."
"Maybe he thinks John is too plain for a celebrated artist." After all, didn't her own mother insist on being addressed as Madame Gigi wherever she went? As if plain old Ms. Brighton was too mundane for an artiste.
"What does Sartain think of this idea of having a business manager?" Natalie asked as she followed Doug past a wide, sweeping staircase and into a large, high-ceilinged room.
"Oh, he agrees it's necessary. Trying to oversee the business side of things himself has seriously cut into his productivity." He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Frankly, he needs someone to instill a little discipline in his life."
She pinched her lips together. She knew plenty about discipline. At Cirque du Paris, the performers were reminded over and over again that the show, and in many cases, their very lives, depended on strict mental and physical discipline and self-control. A dictate Natalie had rebelled against once too often, and her mistake had cost her her career.
"This is the main salon," Doug said, with a sweeping gesture that took in the room.
Natalie looked around at the heavy carved mahogany armchairs and settee, all covered in red-and-gold brocade. Red velvet drapes trimmed in gold fringe covered the windows, and a crimson-and-gold Turkish carpet cushioned the floor. A pair of stone gargoyles leered from the massive mahogany mantle over the fireplace, and the walls were crowded with framed artwork. Clam-shell-shaped sconces cast eerie shadows over the scene. "Not exactly homey, is it?" she said.
Doug laughed. "This is mainly for show. There are more informal rooms upstairs. In addition to Sartain's living quarters and your apartment, there are apartments for a cook and the housekeeping staff. Try to make yourself comfortable and I'll see if I can convince Sartain to tear himself away from his work and meet his new business manager."
When Doug had left her, she focused her attention on the paintings lining the walls of the room. Apparently Sartain was a collector as well as a painter. In her spare time between performances, she had toured art museums all over the world--she recognized a Toulouse Lautrec, a Warhol and a Picasso on the walls around her. She was no expert, but she would wager they were real.
She stopped before a painting in the farthest corner of the room. The eleven-by-seventeen-inch canvas depicted two lovers in a romantic embrace. Romantic, that is, except for the whip the woman held coyly behind her back, and the lash marks across the man's muscled shoulders. The man was naked except for a leather dog collar around his throat. The woman was wrapped in a diaphanous robe that left little to the imagination. Her body was lush in the style of Italian renaissance paintings, and the whole scene was rendered in rich shades of gold, red and pink.
But it was the expression on the lovers' faces that commanded attention--a look of such devotion and longing it made Natalie ache, heat pooling between her legs at the idea that she and a man might look at each other that way.
"Do you like it?"
She started and turned to see a tall man crossing the room toward her. He was dressed all in black--dark jeans and a paint-stained cotton shirt, sleeves rolled to reveal muscular forearms. His thick brown hair was swept back from a high forehead, as if he'd absently run his hands through it. Hardly the picture of the menacing deviant some of the stories she'd read had made him out to be.
However, there was a dark sensuality in the assessing way his gaze swept over her. As if he was looking beyond the surface to what lay deep within. She folded her arms across her chest and suppressed a shiver. "I'm Sartain. You must be Ms. Brighton."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sartain." She extended her hand.
"Just Sartain--Natalie." His velvety voice caressed the syllables of her name. He took her hand and held it, not shaking it, merely holding it, the heat of his skin seeping into her.
Alarmed, she wondered if he was going to kiss it. If he did, she wasn't sure whether she would melt or laugh.
Get a grip, she told herself. You're twenty-six, not some teenage ingenue. And honestly, wasn't the castle and this dark and mysterious lord-of-the-manor routine a little over the top?
The thought helped her relax, and when he finally released her she was able to meet his heated gaze with a cool one of her own.
"You didn't answer my question," he said. "Do you like the painting?"
"Isn't that a dangerous question for an artist to ask? What if you don't like my answer?"
"You're going to be managing my business, which is, essentially, my art. If you don't like my work, I'd just as soon know now."
She turned to the painting once more. "Yes. I like your work. There's something very real and...evocative about your paintings, even if they depict fantasies."
His laughter made her turn to look at him again. She caught her breath. Smiling, his face was transformed, from merely handsome to gorgeous.
"But how do you know they're fantasies?" he asked.
"Perhaps I paint from life."
He looked amused, but the seductive purr of his voice sent heat curling through her once more. Did John Sartain know what it was like to feel the lash of a whip across his naked shoulders? Had he looked at a woman with the kind of longing he'd portrayed in the painting?
What would it be like to be that woman--the one who wielded the whip--and the object of his desire?
She shoved the disturbing thoughts aside. "I don't care where you get your inspiration," she said, walking toward the center of the room. "My job, as I understand it, is to organize the rest of your life so that you have plenty of time to create."
"You're been listening to Douglas, haven't you?"
"Mr. Tanner has been talking to me about the job." She looked back at Sartain. She might as well begin by being honest about her qualifications. "He told you I've never done anything like this before, didn't he?"
"He said you had some training from some secretarial college or something."
"It's a vocational school. I trained in office management." Not the most glamorous career in the world, but then, some people thought show business was glamorous. She knew otherwise.
"He also told me you were an acrobat with the circus." She frowned. "The Cirque du Paris is more than a circus. The members are one of the elite groups of performers in the world, combining dance and acrobatics with drama, music and costume for one-of-a-kind productions."
"If it's so wonderful, then why are you no longer with the group?"
She ignored the edge of sarcasm in his voice and looked down, at her clenched fists. Here was a truth that was harder to face. "There was an accident. I fell." She raised her head. "I wasn't able to perform anymore. So I went to school."
"And lucked into this job."
"Mr. Tanner is a friend of my family. He thought I would do a good job for you."
His eyes met hers, assessing. "Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"
She silently cursed the hot flush that rose to her cheeks, even as she continued to meet his gaze, un-blinking. "I've told you everything you need to know."
He dipped his head in acknowledgment. "You're entitled to your secrets. Just as I'm entitled to mine."
Which immediately made her wonder what secrets he was keeping. As perhaps he'd wanted her to. John Sartain struck her as someone who was well versed in playing psychological games with both friend and foe. The idea was both intimidating and exhilarating. She'd accepted this job, in part, because she needed a new challenge. Sartain was nothing if not challenging.