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'Opening nights are always nerve-racking, Ms Tyler,' the red-haired young woman with the clipboard told Grace reassuringly, pinning a microphone to the pearl-grey lapel of her designer jacket. 'But this gallery's going to do well. I just know it is!' Her raised eyes skimmed a wall of contemporary paintings, signed prints and ceramics in the tall, glass case immediately behind Grace. 'We're doing the exterior shots first, so you won't be on for a while yet.' She tugged gently at the lapel, running deft fingers over the smooth sheen of the expensive fabric, brushing off a pale strand from Grace's softly swept-up hair. 'There! The camera's going to love you!' the woman enthused.
Which was more than the press did! Grace thought, remembering the hard time they had given her after her split with her fiance, wealthy banker's son Paul Harringdale, four months ago. Then the tabloid's comments about her had ranged from "butterfly-minded" and "fickle" to "the tall, slinky blonde who wasn't capable of making the right decision if her life depended upon it". It had all been cheap reportingand the fact that that last remark had come from a journalist who had pursued her romantically without success wasn't worth losing sleep overbut it had hurt nevertheless.
'Good luck,' someone said in passing as the doors opened and invited guests, critics and members of the art world started pouring in.
'Thanks. I'll need it,' Grace laughed over her shoulder, realising it was her friend, Beth Wilson, a curvaceous and vertically challenged brunette, as she liked to call herself; at four-feet-eleven, she assured everyone that life for her was always looking up. Also loyal and efficient, she was the woman Grace had appointed to run her small London gallery while she carried on with her main objective in life, which was to try to keep afloat the nationally renowned textile company that her grandfather had founded and which had run into serious problems since his death just over a year ago. And with no moral support from Corinne.
Since inheriting her husband's share of the company, Corinne Culverwell had made it clear that she wasn't interested in being actively involved in the business. Now, with showers of congratulations and good wishes seeming to come at her from every angle, Grace darted a glance around her as the launch party got under way, wondering why her step-grandmothera name that always seemed inappropriate for a woman who was barely three years older than herselfhad claimed that a prior engagement at the last minute prevented her from coming tonight.
Directing two well-wishers to the table where the champagne was being served, Grace noticed the camera crew packing up outside. She had to stay focused, she told herself firmly, steeling herself for the interview that was now imminent. Stay calm. Relaxed.
A prickling tension stiffened her spine as those two softly spoken words dragged her round to face the man who had uttered them.
Seth Mason! She couldn't speakcouldn't even breathe for a moment.
She would have recognised him from his voice alone, a deep, rich baritone voice with no trace of any accent. Yet those masculine featuresstrongly etched and yet tougher-edged in their maturitywere unforgettable too. How often had her dreams been plagued by the stirring images of that hard-boned face, those steel-grey eyes above that rather proud nose? The slightly wavy, thick black hair still curling well over his collar, with those few stray strands that still fell idly across his forehead.
'Seth ' Her voice tailed away in shock. Over the years she had both longed and dreaded to see him again, yet she had never expected that she would. Especially not here. Tonight. When she needed everything to go right for her!
From his superior height, his penetrating gaze locked onto hers and his firm, well-defined mouththe mouth that had driven her mindless for him as it had covered herstwisted almost mockingly at her discomfiture.
'How long has it been, Grace? Eight nine years?'
'II don't remember,' she faltered, but she did. Those few fateful meetings with him were engraved on her memory like her five-times table. It had been eight years ago, just after her nineteenth birthday, when she had thought that everything in life was either black or white. That life was mapped out for her in just the way she wanted it to go and that anything she wanted was hers for the taking. But she had learned some hard lessons since then and none more painful than the ones she had suffered from her brief liaison with this manwhen she had discovered that nothing could be taken without there being a price, and a very high price, to pay.
'Don't remember, or don't want to?' he challenged softly.
Flinching from the reminder of things she didn't want to think about, she took some consolation from realising that they were concealed from most of the party by the tall case of ceramics. She ignored his velvet-sheathed barb and said with a nervous little laugh, 'Well.fancy seeing you here.'
'Quite a surprise.'
He was smiling down at her but there was no warmth in those slate-grey eyes. Eyes that were keener, more discerning, if that were possible, than when he'd been what? twenty-three? Twenty-four? A quick calculation told her that he would be in his early thirties now.
The tension between them stretched as tight as gut, and in an effort to try and slacken it she tilted her small pointed chin towards a display of watercolours by an up and coming artist and asked, 'Are you interested in modern art?'
'Among other things.'
She didn't rise to his bait. He had an agenda, she was sure, and she wasn't even going to question what it might be.
'Did you just walk in off the street?' His name certainly hadn't been on the guest list. It would have leaped out at her instantly if it had been. Nor was he dressed to kill like a lot of the other guests. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt beneath a leather jacket that did nothing to conceal the breadth of his powerful shoulders, and his long legs were encased in black jeans that showed off a lean waist and narrow hips, a testament to the fact that he exercised regularly and hard.
'Now, that would be rather too much of a coincidence, don't you think?' he supplied silkily, although he didn't enlarge upon how he had managed to cross the threshold of her little gallery, and right at that moment Grace was far too strung up to care.
Making a more obvious point of looking around her this time, she asked, 'Is there anything you fancy?' And could have kicked herself for not choosing her words more carefully when she saw a rather feral smile touch his lips.
'That's a rather leading question, isn't it?' Rose colour deepened along her cheekbones as images, scents and sensations invaded every screaming corner of her mind. 'But I think the answer to that has to be along the lines of once-bitten, twice shy.'
So he was still bearing a grudge for the way she had treated him! It didn't help, telling herself that she probably would be too, had she been in his shoes.
'Have you come here to look around?' Angry sparks deepened her cornflower-blue eyes. 'Or did you come here tonight simply to take pot shots at me?'
He laughed, an action that for a moment, as he lifted his head, showed off the corded strength of his tanned throat and made his features look altogether younger, less harshly etched. 'You make me sound like a sniper.'
'Do I?' I wonder why? Grace thought ironically, sensing a lethal energy of purpose behind his composed fagade, yet unable to determine exactly what that purpose was.
The dark strands of hair moved against his forehead as he viewed her obliquely. In spite of everything, Grace's fingers burned with an absurd desire to brush them back. 'Still answering every question with a question?'
'It would seem so.' She was amazed that he remembered saying that, even though she hadn't forgotten one moment of those torridhours she had spent with him. She met his gaze directly now. 'And you?' He'd been a boatyard hand from a poor background, manually skilled, hardworkingand far, far more exciting than any of the young men she'd known in her own social sphere. 'Are you still living in the West Country?' His nod was so slight as to be indiscernible. 'Still messing about with boats?' It was only her nervousness that made it sound so detrimental, but by the way those steely eyes narrowed he'd obviously taken it exactly the wrong way.
'It would seem so,' he drawled, lobbing her words back at her. 'But then, what did you expect from a young man with too many ideas above his station? Wasn't that what you as good as said before you went on to make me look an utter fool?'
She flinched from the reminder of things she had done when she had been too young and wrapped up in herself to know any better.
Defensively she said, 'That was a long time ago.'
'And that excuses your behaviour?'
No, because nothing could, she thought, ashamed, and it was that that made her snap back, 'I wasn't offering excuses.'
'So what are you offering, Grace?'
'You think I owe you something?'
'It was eight years ago, for heaven's sake!'
'And you're still the same person. Rich. Spoilt. And totally self-indulgent.' This last remark accompanied a swift, assessing glance around the newly refurbished gallery with its pricey artwork, fine porcelain and tasteful furnishingswhich owed more to her own flair for design than to cost. 'And I'm still the poor boy from the wrong side of town.'
'And whose fault's that?' His whole hostile attitude was causing little coils of fear to spiral through her. 'It's hardly mine! And if you persist in thisthis'
'Dissecting of your character?' He smiled, clearly savouring her lack of composure.
'I'll have you thrown off the premises,' she ground out in a low voice, hoping that no one else could hear.
The lifting of a thick eyebrow reminded her of how ridiculous her threat was. His commanding height and solid frame gave him strength and fitness that put him light years ahead of anyone else milling around her little gallery. That oddly feral smile pulled at the corners of his devastating mouth again. 'Going to do it yourself?'
Unwelcome sensations ripped through her as she thought about physically handling him, about the way his hard, warm body had felt beneath her hands: the strength of contoured muscle, the sinewy velvet of his wet skin.
'I didn't think so,' he breathed.
He seemed so confident, so sure of himself, Grace marvelled, wondering what made him think he could just march in here and start flinging insults at her; wondering in turn why he hadn't moved on. He had seemed so ambitiousfull of high expectations, determined. And it was that determination to have what he wanted that had made him so exciting to her.
'Why the Mona Lisa smile?' he asked. 'Does it give you some sort of warped satisfaction to know that life didn't turn out the way we thought it wouldfor either of us?'
Grace lowered her gaze so as not to see the smugness in his eyes. If he thoughtquite wronglythat she'd been mocking him for not amounting to much then he was clearly enjoying reminding her of a future she had taken so much for granted when she had been young and so stupidly naive.
Trying not to let him get to her, and still wearing a wistful little smile, she uttered, 'Not as much satisfaction as it's clearly given you.'
He dipped his head in an almost gallant gesture. 'Then that makes us even.'
'Really?' She grasped a flute of champagne from the tray of drinks being offered to them, even though she had decided earlier to keep a clear head tonight. She noticed Seth shake his head quickly in silent refusal. 'I hadn't realised we were clocking up a score.'
'Neither did I.' His sensuous mouth curved from some inward amusement. 'Are we?'
The pointed question caught her off-guard and before she could think of a suitable response to fling back he went on. 'I stopped envying you, Grace. And people like you. I never did manage to master the art of using others in my bid to get the things I wanted, but I'm learning,' he told her with scathing assurance. 'Nor did I ever find it necessary to do what was expected of me just to impress my own elite little circle of friends.'
Her interviewer had finished his piece outside with the film crew and was talking to the producer on the pavement. Any minute now he would be in to talk to her.
How must she look? she thought, panicking, feeling totally harrowed after coming face to face with Seth Mason.
'If all you want to do is take out your frustrations and your disappointments on me just because things didn't turn out for you the way you thought they would ' Flushed, uncomfortably sticky, she inhaled deeply, trying to stay calm, stay in control. 'Then you could have chosen a more convenient time to do it! Or was your intention behind coming here tonight simply to unsettle me?'
He smiled, and his face was suddenly a picture of mock innocence. 'Now, why would I want to do that?'
He knew why; they both knew why. She wanted to forget it, but it was obvious that he never had. Nor was he going to, she realised despairingly.
'I was merely interested to see the newsworthy Grace Tyler's new venture for myself, although I understand that it isn't entirely new. I know that you inherited this shop some years ago and only recently had it transformed from a rundown, barely viable concern to this temple of fine art I see before me today.'
It was information he could have got from any sensation-seeking tabloid, Grace realised, but still she didn't enjoy the feeling that he, or anyone, for that matter, knew so much about her.
'Quite a diversion for you from the world of textiles,' he commented. 'But then you showed promise in an artistic sense ' His marked hesitation told her exactly what he thought about the other traits of her character. 'Eight years ago. Let's hope you have more success with this' his chin jerked upwards 'than you've had managing Culverwells or any of your relationships, for that matter.'
Stung by his obvious reference to her recent broken engagement as well as the company's problems, Grace looked up into that hard, cold but oh, so indecently handsome face with her mouth tightening.
Had he come to gloat?