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"The lighting is all wrong," Avery Roberts commented to a staff member at the Henri Lawrence Gallery in SoHo, New York City. Located on Houston and Broadway, HLG was an eclectic mix of contemporary art.
"How about here?" Ben tried another position on the wall and glanced in Avery's direction. Everyone knew Avery to be demanding, but Ben had never thought so until now. Slender and strikingly beautiful with café-au-lait-colored skin and green eyes, dressed in a fitted gray pantsuit and pink silk blouse with a V neckline that revealed a hint of cleavage, she was every man's wet dream.
So how could a woman that beautiful be such an ice princess?
Avery smoothed her shoulder-length ponytail and prim bangs with one hand and sighed wearily. "No, no, no." She shook her head. "Move it over there," she ordered, indicating a corner spot in her section of the gallery. It had just the right amount of natural light overhead to reflect her new artist's work.
A buyer at the gallery for several years after attending NYU, Avery knew art. She was well versed in contemporary, Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical art. Ever since she'd been a child, she'd had a fascination with the craft. Thanks in part to her mother, an avid art collector.
"How's it look now?" he asked.
Avery nodded her acceptance. "That's perfect," she replied, walking up to the painting and adjusting it slightly. She was admiring the piece when Hunter Garrett, her boss and the director of the gallery, approached.
"I thought it was fine where it was," Hunter commented from her side.
"No," Avery disagreed. "I think the lighting is better here."
"If you say so."
Why did Hunter always have to be so critical? Healways had something negative to say about whatever she did because he thought his skills superior to hers. That was why she didn't care an ounce for Hunter Garrett. Sure, he was tallhe was several inches over her five foot eightmildly attractive, reasonably intelligent and well dressed. Avery just didn't care for his smug attitude or air of bravado.
Because her father, Clayton Roberts, was vice president of Manhattan Federal Savings Bank and her mother, Veronica Roberts, was queen bee of the socialite arena, Avery had dated plenty of men in her social circle just like Hunter. Arrogant and conceited, men like him thought the sun rose and set on themselves.
"Perhaps you should take a break and join me for lunch," Hunter suggested.
"No, thanks," Avery politely refused. Why would he ask her to lunch when he knew she had tons of work to do before the showing tonight?
"That's too bad," Hunter replied. "I know a great little Japanese place that makes the best sushi."
"I don't eat raw fish," Avery lied, walking away from Hunter and heading toward the stairs that led to their small suite of offices. She loved sushi, but she would never admit it to Hunter. "I like mine cooked, thank you very much."
"Have it your way," Hunter said, from the bottom of the stairs.
"I will, thank you." Avery feigned a polite smile and rushed up to her windowless ten-by-ten office. Once she was safely ensconced within its confines, she fell against the door and breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow she had to get the monkey that was her boss off her back, but how?
"I'm excited to have you back on this side of the Atlantic," talent agent Jason Morgan told his most prized client, photographer Quentin Davis, later that morning at his office on Madison Avenue. "Your work has been on point. And if I do say so myself, it's been some of the best of your career."
"Thank you." Quentin appreciated the compliment, but he was dead tired. He had just flown in on the red-eye from London and had barely had time to drop off his bags and shower at his loft in SoHo before coming to Jason's office. He'd changed out of his favorite pair of Sean John jeans, Skechers and a fitted T-shirt into a more appropriate cashmere cable-knit pullover sweater and trousers for his business meeting.
The problem was he'd stayed a day too long in London for a farewell party thrown by some of his fellow freelancing buddies, and now he was jetlagged with no one to blame but himself.
"The pictures you took over in Iraq are commanding a high price. Your stay abroad has been very lucrative," Jason commented on Quentin's recent projects.
Quentin smiled. He couldn't complain. He now had a loft in New York and flats in London, Paris and Rome. Gone were the days of trying to rub two nickels together. His freelancing photography had turned him into a wealthy man and made him one of the most sought after photographers in the business.
The drawback was that as his success as a photo-journalist had grown, so had the expectations of the women he'd dated. After several months, many of them wanted a ring on their finger and the security a life as his wife would provide. But he wasn't falling for it. He would not be duped by the gold diggers of the world. His success was his own and one that had been hard to come by after growing up in an orphanage with his best friends Malik Williams, Dante Moore and Sage Anderson.
"That's why we have to stay on top of it," Jason continued. "We have to strike while the iron's hot. Samson Books has approached me about publishing some of your work and Capitalist Magazine would like you to do a photo spread on one of the most powerful men in New York. This could be very lucrative for you."
"Sounds great, Jason." Quentin plopped down in the ergonomic leather chair and ran his hands over his bald head. "But I'm exhausted. Five years overseas working nonstop has taken its toll on me. I need a vacation."
Quentin rubbed the sleep from his dark brown eyes. It was way too early for him to be up. He'd forgotten what it was like to be up before noon. He hated the lack of spontaneity of a nine-to-five job. He liked his carefree lifestyle where work was work, but you took time to enjoy life. Americans were too caught up in the rat race. Europeans were much more laid back.
"How long are we talking about?"
Quentin shrugged. "A couple of weeks should do."
Jason sighed. "Oh, thank God. I thought you were about to take a leave of absence, which I would have advised against. You're a hot commodity right now and one of my best clients."
"I'm sure." Quentin smiled. Jason had made a fortune off Quentin's hard work. "All I want to do for the next few weeks is relax."
"All right then. Take a few weeks and call me when you're ready to get back to work."
"Sure thing," Quentin said, rising from his seat.
"I'll call you soon." Once he was outside, he took a deep breath and inhaled the spring air. He was on his way to run some errands when his cell phone vibrated in his trouser pocket.
Flipping open the phone, Quentin answered. "Hello?"
"Welcome home, Q!" his friend Sage Anderson shouted from the other end.
Quentin grinned from ear to ear. Sage was his only female friend and he loved her to pieces. She was like his little sister. Perhaps being back in New York wouldn't be so bad after all. "Sage, it's so good to hear your voice, baby girl."
"You, too," she replied. "How long has it been?"
"Well, I'm dying to see you," she said excitedly, closing the file on the labor case she was reviewing. She was having a devil of a time finding a way out of this mess for her client. "When can we meet?"
"I'm a free agent for a few weeks, so what time would be good for you?"
"How about after work?" Sage suggested. "You know Dante has opened up a tapas bar. We can all meet there."
Quentin rubbed his goatee. "Yes, I had heard, and that sounds fantastic!" And it was about time, Quentin thought. Dante had been a sous-chef for years. He'd cooked for all of them since they'd left the group home at eighteen and Sage at seventeen to live on their own. Tired of the system, they'd been eager to live life on their own terms.
"Say, six o'clock?"
"See you there." Quentin closed the flip phone.
Avery was so busy checking every last-minute detail, from the lighting to music to the caterers, that she didn't notice her best friend, Jenna Chambers, was one of the first guests to arrive.
Jenna was a real stunner with long brown hair cascading down her shoulders, big brown eyes and a curvy figure. Avery was a tad envious at how Jenna always sparkled.
"Avery." Jenna came toward her and gave her a quick hug. "Thanks for the invite."
"No need to thank me. You're doing me a favor. I need all the support I can get," Avery said. She was extremely nervous about Gabriel's first showing. Although Hunter had given her free rein because she'd handpicked their new artist, Gabriel Thomas, she was sure he was hoping tonight would be a bust, which would prove to him that she still had a long way to go when it came to picking new talent.
"And you have it," Jenna said. "Don't sweat. Tonight is going to be just fine. You've been to a million of these things before. And look at you." Jenna grabbed Avery by the hand and twirled her around. "You look classy as always."
Avery was wearing a tapered black Chanel pantsuit and peep-toe Jimmy Choo pumps. "Though I would prefer you to look hot, but that's okay. One of these days, I'm going to get my hands on you and take you down to the Dominic Sabatini Salon for a complete makeover from head to toe." She disliked Avery's bangs and long hair, which was in a perfectly coiffed bun.
Unlike Jenna, who was a talent scout for the Tate Agency where appearance was crucial, Avery didn't need to look sexy. "I need to look competent and knowledgeable so that patrons will come to me for advice, not snag a man."
"That may be true, but you could stand to loosen up a bit, Avery. Sometimes you're too uptight."
"I am not," Avery retorted, folding her arms across her chest. "I just need the show to be a success."
"Is the gallery not doing well?" Jenna inquired, grabbing a crab wonton off the platter the waiter was serving and adding it to the two she was already holding in her napkin. "Hmmm, these hors d'oeuvres are to die for."
"What was that?" Avery hadn't been paying attention. She was watching several buyers peruse Gabriel's oil paintings.
"I asked if the gallery was in trouble."
"Oh no." Avery turned her head and focus back to the conversation at hand. "We're doing fine. There are enough wealthy people in New York to keep us afloat, but you can never be too careful."
"Your mother being one of them," Jenna chuckled.
Avery agreed. "Yes, only the very best for my mother." Veronica Roberts was the crème de la crème of the New York elite and prided herself on supporting the local arts. Her contemporary art collection was one of the finest.
Avery supposed that was why she'd chosen art history as a major at NYU. At a young age she'd been exposed to the finer things in life, from their Park Avenue apartment to the best schools, ballet and piano lessons. Avery was never in doubt that she must excel and be the best at everything she did.
She'd incurred her mother's wrath when she'd adamantly refused her help in obtaining a position at an art gallery. With her mother's connections, Avery could easily have procured a job at a well-known gallery instead of a smaller one like HLG, but Avery was determined to stand on her own two feet without any help from mama bear. And tonight, she would show her mother and Hunter what she was capable of.