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Winter MacKeage lost the thread of the conversation the moment the large male figure stepped into view. Rose continued talking, however, oblivious to the fact that the most gorgeous man ever to set foot in Pine Creek had just stopped to look at the painting hanging in the front window of Winter's art gallery.
"Tell her I'm right," Rose demanded, nudging Winter's arm. "Tell Megan that no one is whispering behind her back. Hey," Rose said more loudly, grabbing Winter's sleeve to draw her back into the conversation. "Your sister thinks everyone in town pities her."
Winter looked away from the divine apparition in the window and blinked at Rose and her sister, Megan, trying to remember what they had been talking about.
Rose sighed. "Darn it, Winter, help me out here. Tell Megan she's not the center of town gossip."
Winter finally looked into her sister's tear-washed eyes. "Oh, but everyone is talking about you, Meg," she said, nodding. "But only because you walk down the street looking like a rag doll that's been left out in the rain all summer."
"That's not helping," Rose snapped, using her grip on Winter's sleeve to nudge her.
Winter stepped away, crossed her arms under her breasts, and ignored Rose in favor of glaring at Megan. "You always have such a long face, it's a wonder you don't trip on your own chin. You scuffle along like a beaten puppy." Winter reached out and touched her sister's hunched shoulder. "Pregnancy is not a disease, Meg," she continued more gently. "Nor is it the end of the world. The only one pitying you around here is you. And if you don't soon quit, your bairn will be born with a permanent pout."
Megan MacKeage swiped at her flushed face and met Winter's tender smile with a fierce glare. "You can say that when your heart gets broken," Megan hissed, "and you come running home because the love of your life walked out when you told him you're having his baby."
Winter took hold of Megan's shoulders and leaned close. "I love you, Meg. Mama and Papa love you. Rose loves you. Everyone here in Pine Creek loves you. That one stupid jerk in a thousand loving people doesn't is not worth what you're putting yourself through. Wayne Ferris is a conniving weasel who's too stupid to appreciate what a wonderful woman you are. You have to let him go, Meg, and focus on your child. Being depressed and crying all the time will make your unborn bairn think you don't want it."
Megan moved her gaze past Winter's shoulder, looking at nothing, her lower lip quivering and her eyes misting again. "I thought he loved me," she whispered, looking back at Winter through eyes filled with despair. "He said he loved me."
"He loved what you could do for his career," Winter told her just as softly, gently squeezing her shoulders. "But camping out on the tundra for months at a time does not mix well with babies. That Wayne chose "
The tiny bell on the gallery door tinkled, drawing everyone's attention. Just as Winter began to turn, she noticed that Rose was staring at the door in utter disbelief. Megan's eyes had gone equally as wide, her jaw slack. Winter spun fully around and actually took a step back. Who wouldn't feel a punch in the gut when finding herself in the presence of such incredibly virile... maleness? The man was just too stunning for words.
Which seemed to be an immediate problem for Winter, as she couldn't even respond when the tall, handsome stranger nodded at her though she did hear Rose sigh, and she did feel Megan poke her in the back.
"Ah, may I help you?" Winter finally said.
Enigmatic, tiger gold eyes met hers, and it took all of Winter's willpower not to take another step back. The man was standing just inside her spacious gallery, yet he seemed to fill up the entire space.
"Is the painting in the window by a local artist?" he asked.
The deep, rich timbre of his voice sent a shudder coursing through Winter, and another sharp poke in her back started her breathing again. "Ah, yes," she said. "She lives right here in Pine Creek." Winter waved a hand at the east wall of her gallery. "Most of the paintings are hers. Everything we sell is by local artists," she finished in a near whisper, unable to stop staring at his beautifully rugged, tanned face.
He simply stared back, his eyes crinkled in amusement.
"Feel free to look around," she added with another halfhearted wave, thankful that her voice sounded normal this time. "I can answer any questions you have."
"Thank you," he said with a slight nod, before turning to the wall of paintings.
As soon as he looked away, Winter spun around to face Megan and Rose. Neither woman noticed her warning glare, however, as they were too busy gawking at the man. Worried that he'd turn around and catch them, Winter grabbed them both by an arm and hustled them ahead of her into the back room.
"Cut it out," she quietly hissed. "You're being rude."
"Did you see how broad his shoulders are?" Rose whispered, craning around to look back at the gallery.
Winter moved the three of them farther away from the door. "Rose Dolan Brewer, you're a happily married woman with two kids. You shouldn't be noticing other men's shoulders."
Rose smiled. "I can still look, as long as I don't touch."
"Did you see his hair?" Megan whispered, her eyes still wide, not a trace of a tear anywhere in sight. "He's wearing a suit that probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, but he's got a ponytail. What sort of businessman has long hair?"
"And those eyes," Rose interjected before Winter could respond. "They're as rich as gold bullion. My knees went weak when he looked at you, Winter."
"That does it. Out," Winter said, crowding them toward the door that connected the back office of her gallery with Dolan's Outfitter Store. "You're going to scare off my most promising customer today."
Rose snorted and stepped into her store, combing her fingers through her short brown hair. "I doubt anything could scare that man," she muttered, smoothing down her blouse as she turned to Winter. "Send him over to my store after," she said with a cheeky grin. "I'll, ah... fit him into more suitable clothes for around here."
"Do you suppose he came in on that plane that flew over?" Megan asked. "We saw it bank for a landing at the airport. It looked like a private jet." Megan sighed. "My God, he's handsome. Maybe I should stay and help you set out the figures Talking Tom brought in this afternoon."
Winter didn't have the heart to remind Megan that she had sworn off men handsome or otherwise when she'd come home from her fieldwork in Canada last month, abandoned and two months pregnant. It was rather nice to see her sister's face flushed from something other than tears.
"Thanks," Winter said with a tender smile, "but I think I'll wait and put out Tom's carvings tomorrow."
Megan took one last look toward the gallery door, sighed, then followed Rose down the aisle of camping equipment. Winter softly closed the connecting door, ran her fingers through her own mass of long red curls, straightened to her full five-foot-six height with a calming breath, and headed back into the gallery.
Mr. Tiger Eyes was still facing the wall. He had worked his way down the wall to a painting hanging toward the front of the store, his arms folded over his broad chest and his chin resting on one of his large, tanned fists. The pose pulled the material of his expensive suit tightly across a set of impressively wide shoulders. He glanced only casually at Winter when she stepped up to the counter, then went back to studying the painting.
He was looking at a large watercolor she had painted last spring, which she had titled Moon Watchers. It was a nighttime scene set deep in a mountain forest awash with moonlight. Three young bear cubs were gathered around a thick old tree stump, their harried mother catching a quick nap as they played in the shadows. One of the cubs was perched precariously on top of the stump, its tiny snout raised skyward as it brayed at the large silver disk in the star-studded sky, its siblings watching with enchanted expressions on their moon-bathed faces. And if one studied the painting long enough, he or she would eventually notice all of the other nocturnal creatures hidden in the shadows, curiously watching the young bears in the moonlight.
It was a painting that usually drew the attention of women more than men, with its endearingly familial subject and somewhat playful and mystical mood.
Winter slid her gaze to the man standing in front of it.
He was at least as tall as her cousin Robbie MacBain, and Robbie was six-foot-seven in his stocking feet. This man's shoulders were equally as broad, his legs as long and muscled beneath that perfectly tailored suit, his hands just as large and blunt and powerful looking. He had the body of an athlete, which said that whoever he was, he didn't spend all of his time sitting in boardrooms or shuffling papers.
Like Megan, Winter found herself questioning his choice of hairstyle if he truly was the successful businessman he appeared to be. His soft brown hair was thick and smooth, neatly brushed off his face and tied at the nape of his neck with a thin piece of leather. It wasn't overlong; Winter guessed that when loose, it would just brush his shoulders.
She suddenly realized she was staring just as rudely as Megan and Rose had been. With a silent sigh, Winter dropped her gaze to the small piece of paper that Tom had tossed down on the counter when he'd brought in his latest batch of wooden figures. It was a short list, Winter realized as she tried to focus on something other than her customer. Only five carvings this time, written in very neat, tiny black letters.
The first figure on the list was a chipmunk, and Tom had written one hundred and fifty dollars beside it. Next was a fox that he'd priced at two hundred. Then a swimming trout at four hundred dollars, and a snowy owl at two hundred.
Winter smiled at the last figure listed crow tending young in nest priced at twelve hundred dollars.
Tom, or Talking Tom as he was affectionately known to the locals, carved a lot of crows. And he always demanded a higher if not sometimes ridiculous price for them. The amazing thing was, Winter had sold quite a few of Tom's crows in her gallery over the last year and a half. It seemed the more expensive something was, the more desperately the tourists wanted it.
Talking Tom. He was at least seventy years old, had simply appeared in Pine Creek one bright April morning two and a half years ago, and kept mostly to himself. Not much was known about him, other than the fact that he could be heard talking to himself when he walked the woods thus the nickname Talking Tom. He was also quite good at tending sick animals, and the townsfolk had gotten in the habit of bringing Tom their ailing pets rather than traveling the forty miles to the nearest veterinarian.
As far as Winter knew, Tom had never mentioned his last name to anyone. He had appeared seemingly from nowhere and taken up residence in an old abandoned cabin just east of town, on Bear Mountain, which rose above the eastern shore of Pine Lake.
Winter had immediately taken to Tom, having recognized a kindred spirit. Like her, when creating his artwork Tom endowed the forest and its creatures with a sense of magic and mystery. His carefully carved wooden figures like her paintings were often more mystical than realistic.
It had taken Winter nearly a year to persuade Tom to let her sell his delicate figures in her gallery. His wants and needs seemed to be minimal, and a good deal of the money he earned from his carvings was often spent on others. When he was in town, Tom could usually be found in Dolan's Outfitter Store, and every female from birth to ninety-nine years old, married or single would leave the store with a box of chocolates. Rose had started ordering chocolate by the caseload, once she realized Tom's penchant for spoiling the ladies always kept her in short supply.
"Does she do commissions?"
Winter looked up on an indrawn breath. How could she have forgotten she had a customer in the store? Especially this customer. "Excuse me?" she asked.
"The artist," he said, nodding toward the wall of paintings, "does she take commissions?"
"Ah, yes. Yes, I'll take commissions."
One of his dark, masculine brows arched. "These are your paintings," he clarified softly, more to himself than her as he looked back at the wall. He studied the large watercolor for another moment in silence, then turned fully to face her, his deep golden gaze locking on hers. "I'll take Moon Watchers," he said. "But I would like to leave it here until I have a wall to hang it on."
Winter drew her own brows together in confusion. "A wall to hang it on?" she repeated.
He took several steps toward her, then stopped, his mouth lifting in a crooked smile that slammed into Winter like another punch in the gut. It was the smile of a cajoling little boy, and it didn't belong on a face that... that... masculine.
"I'm building here in Pine Creek," he explained, "and I would like to leave the painting with you until my home is finished." He nodded toward the wall while keeping his gaze on her. "You can leave it on display if you wish. That way I can come in and look at it whenever I want. Just put a sold sign in place of the price. Would that be okay?"
She had to stop staring into his eyes! She couldn't think, much less keep up with the conversation. Well, curses. She was acting sillier than Megan and Rose. Winter tore her gaze from his and searched the counter until she found her sales book under Tom's list. Then she found a pen.
Next she found her wits, and then her voice again. "I don't have a problem with you leaving it here. Tell me, what is it that drew ye to Moon Watchers, Mr.... Mr...." She trailed off, her pen poised to write his name at the top of the slip.
She looked up when he didn't immediately answer and found him standing just two feet away, his golden eyes once again locking on hers. "It's Gregor," he said softly, his deep voice sending another shiver down her spine. "Matt Gregor. And I've always had a fondness for bears."
Okay, this was bordering on the ridiculous. He was only a guy. Granted, he was a stunningly gorgeous guy, but she was acting like she'd never even spoken with a man, much less been attracted to one. Winter again forced her gaze from his and wrote his name on the slip. She wrote the title of the painting, and then started to write the price beside it.
A large, unbelievably warm hand covered hers, and Winter stopped breathing. She looked up to find Matt Gregor smiling that little boy smile again, and she could only helplessly smile back.
"Twenty percent discount if I take a second painting," he said, his beautiful eyes sparkling with challenge. "I also want to buy that small watercolor of the panther."
Winter slowly trying very hard not to let him see how disconcerted his touch made her slipped her hand from under his. "I'm sorry, but the panther's not for sale," she told him. "It's part of my personal collection. It's only on display because I had an empty space on the wall I wanted to fill."
Matt Gregor's expression instantly turned from that of a little boy to a fully engaged hunter. His eyes stopped smiling, their penetrating stare sending Winter's heart racing in alarm. "I'll pay as much for the panther as for Moon Watchers," he said with quiet force. "No discount on either."
Double curses! When he looked at her like that, she wanted to give him every painting in the gallery especially the panther. Winter just barely caught herself from snorting out loud. It was obvious Matt Gregor was used to getting what he wanted.
But then, so was she. "Gesader is not for sale," she told him, shaking her head to strengthen her words. "Choose something else that you like, and I'll give you a discount on it."
He crossed his arms over his chest and studied her much the same way he had studied her paintings. Winter felt a warmth creep into her cheeks, but she stubbornly held his stare, determined not to let him see her discomfort. She decided then that this would be a lesson to her: stunningly gorgeous didn't automatically mean nice. In fact, it could sometimes be downright rude.
Then again, it could also be exhilarating. Winter couldn't remember the last time she had felt this provoked by a man. Or felt this warm and fuzzy inside. Or this challenged.
She set down the pen and stepped from behind the counter, walking past Matt Gregor to the east wall of her gallery. She stopped in front of a tiny pastel drawing and crossed her arms under her breasts. "If you like cats, I have this drawing of a Maine lynx."
She sensed him moving to stand beside her, but she continued to look at the drawing of a confounded lynx that was searching for the hare it had been chasing. In the background, its head just slightly showing above a snowdrift, was a perfectly camouflaged snowshoe hare watching the lynx. "If you're building a house here, Mr. Gregor, you might consider works depicting local wildlife. We don't have panthers in Maine, but we do have lynx and bobcat and bear."
"Where did you come up with the name Gesader?" he asked, not addressing her suggestion.
Looking down the wall until her gaze fell on the small watercolor of the black leopard napping on a large tree limb, she smiled affectionately. "It's Gaelic for 'Enchanter.'"
"Gaelic," Matt Gregor repeated, stepping around to face her. "I thought I detected a slight accent. Are you Irish?"
"Nay, Scots," she said in an exaggerated brogue. She nodded toward the information card pinned next to the drawing and held out her hand. "Winter MacKeage."
His own hand swallowed hers up, his grip warm and firm but not overpowering. "My pleasure, Miss MacKeage." He lifted one brow again. "Or is it Mrs.?"
"Miss. But it's Winter to my patrons."
His grip tightened. "I'm not a patron yet, Miss MacKeage. We haven't concluded our negotiations."
Winter forced herself to leave her hand in his. "Full price for Moon Watchers, and you can have By a Hare's Breadth for half price," she offered, nodding toward the lynx drawing.
Matt Gregor, still holding her hand, let out a soft sigh. "Nothing I offer you will get me that panther, will it?"
Winter finally slipped her hand free, tucked it behind her back, and rubbed her fingers together as she slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry, but he's not for sale. Do we have a deal?"
He moved his gaze from hers to the lynx drawing, studying it for several seconds before looking back at her. "Deal," he softly said with a nod. He pulled the tag from the wall, then moved over to Moon Watchers and pulled its tag. He walked back to the counter and set both tags down next to the sales slip she had started to fill out, while Winter walked behind the counter and picked up her pen.
"About that commission," he said as she started to write.
She stopped and looked up. "What is it you want? I must warn you, I don't do paintings of mechanical things."
He folded his arms back over his chest. "It's not a painting I want from you, Winter MacKeage, but your vision."
Winter set down her pen. "Excuse me?"
"Your artist's eye," he said just as cryptically. "I want to commission you to pick the spot where I should build my home."
Winter could only stare at him.
"And then I want you to do a watercolor of what that home should look like," he added.
She was thoroughly confused now. "What it should look like?" she repeated. "You mean, from the architectural plans? But they usually give you a model to look at."
He shook his head. "There are no plans as of yet. I intend to take your watercolor to the architects and have them design the house you envision, sitting on the spot you choose."
More than being confused, Winter was utterly speechless.
Matt Gregor let out another soft sigh, set both hands on the counter, and leaned toward her. "It's a simple request, Winter. I purchased Bear Mountain two years ago, and now I'm ready to build on it... just as soon as you pick the best spot and the best type of home for the land."
"But why me?"
He leaned even closer. "Because I've decided I like what you see and feel for the forest."
"But a home is a very personal thing."
"Yes," he readily agreed, straightening up and crossing his arms again. "But after spending a few days with me hiking my land, you'll get to know me well enough to come up with something I'll like."
Winter was no longer confused, she was back to being alarmed. A sudden thought struck her. "Shouldn't your wife have some say in what you build for a house?"
"I'm not married."
"Oh. Ah... well... I'll have to think about your request. I'm an artist, Mr. Gregor, not an architect."
"It's Matt," he said softly, reaching inside his suit jacket and pulling out a slim, black leather wallet. "And I've explained that I'm not asking you to design my home, but to simply envision it and choose where it should sit." He pulled out a credit card and set it down on the counter next to the still-incomplete sales slip. "I've taken a suite at the TarStone Ski Resort," he continued, pulling out a business card and setting it beside the credit card. "You can call my cell phone tomorrow morning at ten and give me your answer."
He then picked up the pen she'd been using, wrote SOLD in bold black letters on the back of the tag, and walked over and pinned it beside Moon Watchers on the wall. He came back, did the same to By a Hare's Breadth, walking over and pinning it beside the drawing.
Winter finally finished writing out the sales slip, ran his card through her authorization machine, tore off the credit slip printout, and handed it to him to sign.
He scrawled his signature in bold letters, then took the credit card and receipt and slipped them in his wallet. "You have no problem with my leaving my paintings here?" he asked.
"No problem," she agreed. "So you own Bear Mountain? Are ye moving to Pine Creek, or just building a vacation retreat?"
"I'm building a home, but I haven't decided yet when I'll be moving here," he told her, tucking his wallet back inside his suit jacket. "That depends on my brother."
Matt Gregor smiled benignly, nodded, and headed toward the door. He stopped and looked back. "I'll expect you to meet me in the lobby of TarStone at ten in the morning, to tell me you've accepted the commission. Don't disappoint me, Winter. I don't take rejection well." That said, he opened the door, walked out to the tinkle of the overhead bell, and disappeared down the street as quickly and mysteriously as he'd appeared.
Winter picked up the business card he'd set on the counter. Matheson Gregor, it read in solid green letters, with a New York City address but no mention of what type of business he was in. She looked over at Moon Watchers.
He had a fondness for bears, he'd told her.
And he owned Bear Mountain.
Another shiver ran down Winter's spine, but this time there was nothing warm and fuzzy about it. It hadn't been a tiger's eyes that had captured her attention this afternoon, but those of an equally impressive creature.
Matheson was Gaelic for "son of the bear."
Copyright © 2005 by Janet Chapman