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Vance Waverly stood outside the auction house that bore his name and stared up at the impressive facade. The old building had had a face-lift or two over the past 150 years, but the heart of it remained. A structure dedicated to showcasing the beautiful, the historical, the unique.
He smiled to himself, letting his gaze slide across the "lucky" seven stories. At street level, twin cypress trees, trained into spirals, stood silent sentinel at the doorway. Win-dowpanes glittered in the early-summer light. Black, wrought-iron railings framed a second-story balcony. Gray stone gave the building its aura of dignity and the wide, arched window above the double front doors was etched with a single wordWaverly.
A glimmer of pride rose up inside Vance as he stared at the world his great-great uncle, Windham Waverly, had created. The long-dead man had ensured his own version of immortality by leaving behind the auction house that carried an illustrious reputation around the world.
And Vance was one of the last remaining Waverlys. So he had a proprietary interest in seeing that the auction house remained at the top of its game. As a senior board member, he made certain that he was involved in everything from the layout of the catalog to hunting down pieces worthy of being auctioned at Waverly's. This place was more his home than his luxury condo overlooking the Hudson River. The condo was where he slept.
Waverly's was where he lived.
"Yo, buddy!" a voice shouted from behind him. "You gonna be there all day or what?"
Vance turned to see a FedEx driver, packages stacked on the dolly he was balancing, waiting impatiently behind him. Vance stepped out of the way and let the man pass.
Before slipping into Waverly's, the driver muttered, "People think they own the damn sidewalks."
"Gotta love New York," Vance muttered.
Vance glanced to his right and watched as his half brother walked up to meet him. Rarely in New York, Roark had flown in for a meeting with some of his contacts. He was as tall as Vance, over six feet, with brown hair and green eyes. Not much of a family resemblance, but then, the brothers only shared a father. And until five years ago, when their father, Edward Waverly, died, Vance hadn't even known Roark existed.
In those five years, they had built up a solid friendship, and Vance was gratefuleven though Roark insisted on keeping their family ties a secret. Roark still wasn't convinced that Edward Waverly had actually been his father. But the connection was enough to keep him at Waverly's. There was no proof beyond the letter Edward had left with his will. It was enough for Vance, but he could respect his brother's wishes.
"Thanks for meeting me," Vance said with a nod.
"Better be important," Roark said, falling into step beside Vance as they walked past Waverly's toward a small cafe on the corner. "Late night and I'm not officially awake yet."
He was wearing dark glasses against the sunlight, a worn brown leather jacket, T-shirt, jeans and boots. For a second, Vance envied his brother. He'd rather be in jeans himself, but his suit and tie were what was expected at Waverly's. And Vance always did the right thing.
"Yeah," he said as they claimed an outside table beneath a cheerfully striped umbrella. "It's important. Or it could be."
"Intriguing." Roark turned his coffee cup over at the same time Vance did and they both waited for the waitress to fill the cups and take their orders before speaking again. "So tell me."
Vance cupped the heavy porcelain mug between his palms and studied the black surface of his coffee for a long minute while he gathered his thoughts. He wasn't a man who usually paid attention to gossip or rumor. He had no patience for those who did, either. But when it concerned Waverly's, he couldn't take a chance.
"Have you heard any talk about Ann?"
"Ann Richardson?" Roark asked. "Our CEO?"
"Yes, that Ann," Vance muttered. Seriously, how many Anns did they know?
Roark pulled his sunglasses off and set them onto the table. He took a quick look around, at the people passing on the tree-lined sidewalk, at the other customers sitting at tables.
"What kind of talk?"
"Specifically? About her and Dalton Rothschild. You know, the head of Rothschild auction house? Our main competitor?"
Roark just stared at him for a beat or two, then shook his head. "No way."
"I don't want to believe it, either," Vance admitted.
The CEO of Waverly's, Ann Richardson was brilliant at her job. Smart, capable, she had worked her way up to the top position in the firm, becoming the youngest person evermale or femaleto head an auction house of its size and scope.
Roark sat back in his chair and shook his head firmly. "What have you heard?"
"Tracy called me last night to give me a heads-up about a column that's appearing in today's Post.''
"Tracy." Roark frowned, then nodded. "Tracy Bennett. The reporter you dated last year."
"Yeah. She says the 'story' breaks today."
"That Ann had an affair with Dalton."
"Ann's too smart to fall for Dalton's line of BS." Roark dismissed the idea out of hand.
Vance would like to. But in his experience, people made stupid decisions all the time. They usually blamed "love" for those bad choices, but the truth was, love was just the excuse to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. Love was a fable sold by greeting card companies and bridal fairs.
"I agree," he said. "But if there is something between them"
Roark whistled. "What can we do about any of it?"
"Not much. I'll talk to Ann to let her know about this article that's coming out."
"And," Vance said, gaze fixed on his brother, "I want you to keep your eyes and ears open. I trust Ann, but I damn sure don't trust Dalton. Dalton's always wanted Waverly's out of the way. If he can't buy us out, he'll try a takeoveror try to bury us." Vance took a sip of his coffee and narrowed his gaze on Roark. "We're not going to let that happen."
"Good morning, Mr. Waverly. I've got your coffee and the week's agenda ready for you. Oh! And the invitation to Senator Crane's garden party arrived by messenger late yesterday after you'd left."
Vance stopped in the doorway to his office and stared at his new assistant. Charlotte Potter was petite and curvy, with long, wavy blond hair restrained by a ponytail at the base of her neck. She had vivid blue eyes, full lips on a mouth that was rarely quiet and she seemed to be in constant motion.
He'd hired her as a favor to a retiring board member who had developed a fondness for her when she'd been his assistant. But Charlotte had only been with Vance a week now and he knew it wasn't going to work out.
She was too young, too pretty and too She turned away to bend down and open the bottom drawer of the wood-grain file cabinet and he shook his head. Vance's gaze locked on the curve of her behind in the sleek black slacks she wore. Charlotte was too everything.
When she stood up, producing a thick, linen envelope for him, he told himself that he should simply pawn her services off on someone else in the company. He couldn't exactly fire her for being a distraction, but he sure as hell resented it.
Politically incorrect or not, Vance preferred his assistants to be either matronly or male.
His former assistant, Claire, had retired at sixty-five. She was cool, unflappable and notoriously anal about her workspace. There had never been so much as a pen out of place on her desk. Vance had felt confident that Claire was on top of everything.
Charlotte, on the other hand He scowled at the ficus tree in the corner, the ferns on the shelf closest to the window and the deep-purple African violets on the corner of her desk. There were framed photos taking up space on her desk as well, though he hadn't looked at them too closely; he hadn't taken the time to do much more than notice the clutter.
Her pens were kept in a mug shaped like a New York Jets football helmet and there was a dish of M&M's beside her phone. Clearly, he never should have done that favor. No good deed goes unpunished, his father had often said. Turned out, the old man was right.
Vance didn't want distractions in the office under the best of circumstances. And now, with possible trouble looming with Rothschild, he wanted it even lessand if that made him a damn chauvinist, so be it.
As one of the last Waverlys associated with the auction house, Vance liked keeping his business hours devoted to business. And a pretty woman was not conducive to concentration.
"Thanks, Charlotte," he said, heading for his office. "Hold my calls until after the board meeting."
"I will. Oh, and call me Charlie," she said brightly.
Vance stopped, looked back over his shoulder at her and was nearly blinded by her brilliant smile. She went back to her desk and began flipping through the stack of mail. The long sweep of her hair fell over one shoulder and lay across her breast. Something inside him fisted uncomfortably. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but the woman was impossible to ignore.
Scowling to himself, he leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb and sipped at the coffee she'd given him. Watching her, he realized she was humming again as she had all last week. Off-key humming. Tone-deaf off-key.
He shook his head wearily. He had calls to make to Wa-verly's London office, to check on upcoming auctions there. A corner of his mind was still working over the rumors about Ann and what that could mean to the auction house. And he was in no mood for the board meeting scheduled for that afternoon.
Charlotte straightened up, turned around and gasped, slapping one hand to her chest as if to hold her heart in place. Then she laughed shortly and shook her head. "You scared me for a second. I thought you had gone to your office."
He should have. Instead, he'd been "distracted." Not good. Frowning at his own wayward thoughts, he asked, "Did you have a chance to type up the agenda for today's meeting? I want to make some new notes before I meet with the board."
"Of course." She walked to her desk and plucked a file folder from a stack of similar ones. She handed it to him. "Along with the meeting agenda, I printed out the list you made of the private collections coming up for bid in the next few weeks."
He opened the folder, noting the neatly presented agenda with his handwritten notes now added in bold typeface. There were a few pages behind the first and he idly flipped through them, stopping at the last one. "What's this?"
"Oh." She smiled. "The next catalog layout looked a little crowded, so I adjusted a couple of the pictures and "
He glanced at the work she'd done and had to admit it looked much better than it had before. The Ming Dynasty vases were each spotlighted now against a softly lit background, rather than lumped into a section that buried their distinctive beauty.
"I know I shouldn't have, but"
"You did a good job," he said, closing the folder and looking up into her soft blue eyes.
"Really?" She gave him a bright smile. "Thank you. That's great. I was a little nervous about taking that on myself, I can tell you. It's just that this job is very important to me and I want to do it well."
An unfamiliar twinge of guilt poked at Vance as he read the eagerness in her gaze. She fairly vibrated with the thrill of her new job. Which only made him feel worse for regretting taking her on in the first place.
So maybe he'd give this a shot. All he had to do was stop noticing Charlotte as a woman.
But one quick look up and down her petite, curvy figure shut down that idea.
The phone rang and she reached for it. "Vance Waverly's office."
Her voice was low, seductive. Or maybe that was just his impression, he chided himself.
"Please hold," she said and hit the button on her phone. When she turned to him, Charlotte said, "It's Derek Stone, calling from the London office."
"Oh, good." Grateful for the excuse to leave Charlotte and get back to work, Vance took the folder and stepped into his office. "Put him through, please, Charlotte. And after this call, hold all the others."
"Absolutely, Mr. Waverly," she said.
Vance closed the door then strode across the room to his desk, barely noticing the thud of his footsteps against the gleaming wooden floor. Paintings by undiscovered artists hung alongside a couple of old masters on the ivory walls. A long couch hugged one wall, with a low-slung table and two chairs opposite it. A wall of windows stood behind his desk, offering a view of Madison Avenue and the always-busy city of Manhattan.
Reaching for his phone, he turned his back on the view, dropped into his chair and said, "Derek. Good to talk to you."