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October—Lakefield Galleries, New York City
"Stolen? That's impossible!" Karena slammed her palms flat on her desk then stood.
Dropping down into the paisley-patterned guest chair across from her was her oldest sister and biggest critic, Monica Lakefield. Monica was the manager of Lakefield Galleries, their family-owned and for the most part family-run art gallery in Manhattan.
In addition to being extremely intelligent Monica was as ambitious, cutthroat and relentless as any Brooks Brothers suit-wearing man in corporate America—a fact she relished.
Karena was two years younger than Monica, having celebrated her thirtieth birthday six months ago. She considered herself ambitious as well, a trait clearly inherited from their domineering father, Paul. But she wasn't as hard as Monica, not as rigid and stern when it came to business—or everything else for that matter.
"It's right there in black and white," Monica was saying as she tossed a manila folder onto Karena's desk. Sighing heavily, Karena moved to pick up the folder. No way this was happening to her. She'd had a rough enough time trying to sleep last night due to dreams that she definitely should not be having. And now this. It was barely ten in the morning and Monica was delivering this disastrous news.
"Jacques did the appraisal, just like he always does. He checked with the ASA and the ADAA. It's either a fake or it's stolen. He has a few more tests to run, but odds are it's stolen."
Karena's fingers shook slightly as she leafed through the pages. Sure enough, there were three reports: one from Jacques, one from the Appraisers Association of America and the final one from the Art Dealers Association of America. Hearing Monica sum up the reports in front of her in such cold and succinct language had her heart pounding, the sound throbbing in her ears.
"I met with him personally. We had breakfast on the terrace in Pirata. He even showed me the cliffs where he liked to paint at dawn."
"Oh, please. Karena, he played you like a prized violin. He didn't paint that picture. He's not Leandro."
"There's a mistake. There's got to be some mistake," she insisted. Because if there wasn't, then her sister was right. She'd been played by the quietly handsome man who stood six feet tall with somber brown eyes and nut-brown skin.
His heavily accented voice had been a little hard for her to understand, but it didn't matter once he showed her the first painting. Immediately she'd fallen in love with the colors, the tone, the simplicity of the piece. She'd had to have it. Lakefield Galleries had to have it.
And now they did. A stolen portrait that could totally destroy the reputation they'd spent years building.
"Did you get any form of identification? I mean, damn, what made you believe it was even him? For more than a year he's been unreachable, his paintings appearing only in small galleries spread out over the world. Not even his agent has ever met him in person." Monica waved a hand as she spoke, her signature long painted nails catching bits of the fluorescent lighting.
"I didn't card him, Monica. That's not normally how I do business. And remember, he called me." The call had come just as Karena had returned from Maryland, where she'd been attending the grand opening of the Gramercy II, the casino her best friend, Noelle Vincent, and her boyfriend, Brock Remington, had built.
The resort was the East Coast version of one of Las Vegas's hottest casinos owned by Lincoln Donovan, of the illustrious Donovan clan. It was through Linc that Karena had met Noelle and forged one of the closest friendships she'd ever had.
The moment she'd stepped off the plane from Maryland and turned on her cell phone, it rang. On the other end, calling all the way from Pirata, a medium-size town in Brazil, was Leandro, the reclusive oil-painting artist now blowing up in the art world. The minute he'd said his name, she'd been ready to board another plane to visit him.
In less than a week she'd been in Brazil, soaking up the gorgeous scenery and sitting across from the man who was about to give her the biggest sale of her art-buying career.
Had he lied to her?
"Maybe you need a lesson in how to do business?"
Both Monica and Karena stilled at the sound of his voice. He'd opened the door and walked right into her office, no announcement from her secretary needed. After all, he owned Lakefield Galleries and the Lakefield Foundation.
"If it's truly stolen, where did it come from? Because right now there's no proof that the man I met with wasn't Leandro," Karena said, trying like hell to hide the nervousness being in the same room as her father inevitably brought.
He was angry. No, not quite so, more like annoyed. His broad body wore a designer suit as if Ralph Lauren himself had come to the mansion and cut the material around him. His thick wavy hair hadn't started to fall out, which was more and more common for men over fifty-five these days. Instead, Paul Lakefield's hair had turned a sparkling gray, taking him from handsome to distinguished in the past five years. His dark eyes were what threw off the otherwise handsome package. Those eyes always seemed to pin Karena with accusation.
Her birth wasn't a mistake, not entirely, just her sex. Her entire life her father had made no secret of the fact that he'd wanted a son. Proving that there were some things Paul Lakefield could not control, the good Lord blessed him with three daughters instead.
"How did you ship the painting?" her father asked, slipping his hands into his pant pockets.
"Like I always do, Federal Express International, with insurance. I packaged it myself before it left the estate where we stayed. I labeled the box and spoke to the carrier. From that point on anything could have happened."
Monica was already shaking her head. "Jacques thinks it's one of the paintings stolen from members of the royal family."
Karena's head ached. She wanted to rub her temples but refrained from showing any sign of weakness in front of her father. And her sister, for that matter. Neither of them would understand what she was going through. Hell, she doubted she understood it herself.
"There's a royal family in Brazil?" Paul asked.
"A prince, I think," Monica said and reached for the folder, which Karena quickly closed and gripped tightly.
"Great," Paul huffed. "Now they'll think the Lakefields are thieves."
"I doubt they know who the Lakefields are all the way in Brazil," Monica stated quietly, her eyes sweeping to Karena.
"Exactly my point. Now their first impression of us will be that we stole from them."
Karena felt sick. Her stomach quivered and her head throbbed so hard she could feel the vibration throughout her entire body. This room was too small for all three of them. In fact, sometimes she thought the whole world was too small for her and her family.
"I'll take care of it," she snapped and was already moving toward the door.
"Let me help, Karena. This is our name on the line," Monica stated coolly.
"No, it's my buy, I'll handle it."
"Yes. You handle it, and do it fast before word gets out," Paul said solemnly.
Karena opened her mouth to speak then clapped her lips shut.
Three things were drilled into her and her sisters as they grew up in the Lakefield household: Loyalty. Honesty. Respect.
Only her upbringing held the words she'd longed to say to her father at bay, while the terrible fear that she'd truly messed up guided her quick steps.
Samuel Desdune fell back on the ground laughing as his two-year-old blue Great Dane tackled him to the ground, red ball hanging from his mouth.
Fall was just creeping up on the quiet Greenwich, Connecticut, neighborhood he lived in, delivering a crisp morning breeze in its wake. The trees and shrubs surrounding Sam's waterfront home were just beginning to show signs of color change, and Romeo was enjoying his morning exercise.
It had been a year since Sam had adopted Romeo from National Great Dane Rescue after Romeo's battle with kidney failure. Initially Romeo had a fear of all men except Sam, which made it quite difficult when Sam's older brother, Cole, or his father, Lucien, came for a visit. But then his sister Lynn had brought her four-year-old son, Jeremy, over and Romeo's attitude toward the male gender had changed.
Rolling Romeo off him, Sam retrieved the ball from the dog's mouth, got to his feet and tossed it the length of the yard once more. Romeo, with his shiny blue-gray coat and long legs, practically leaped across the grass to retrieve it.
Oh, the joys of being his own boss. D&D Investigations was in its sixth month of business. For two years prior Sam hadn't had a partner, but after the biggest case of his new career so far—tracking and capturing the man who stalked and terrorized the Bennett family—he'd decided a partner would be nice. For that he'd called on his old friend, Trent Donovan, an ex-Navy SEAL with instincts Sam trusted and a kick-ass attitude he admired even though it still scared him a bit.
Trent ran the West Coast location while Sam concentrated on the East Coast cases. Right now they were handling the surveillance of a cheating husband and the disappearance of a four-year-old girl. For both cases, his twin sister, Sabrina, and Trent's cousin Bailey could hold down the fort. Bree, the nickname he would always use for his twin, no matter who she married or how many kids she had, was a former Marine. She could hold her own, as she'd shown without a doubt when she'd chased and injured the stalker who was about to shoot her husband, Lorenzo Bennett.
Bailey Donovan was, for lack of a better term, a loose cannon. She was antsy and reckless and itching for some action. That's why Trent had sent her to Sam, because he didn't have time to babysit her now that he was married and about to become a father.
For now, however, the missing-child case was making good use of Bailey's excess energy as she followed lead after lead in the hopes of finding the child before Christmas.
Romeo was back, his natural ears flapping against the breeze as he returned the ball once more. "Good boy," Sam was saying as the cell phone at his hip began to ring.
"Desdune," he said answering after the second ring.
"Hi, I hope you remember me. This is Karena Lakefield."
The red ball fell out of Sam's hand as Romeo with his large, sometimes awkward body danced around Sam demanding attention.
Of course he remembered her. The petite, brown-skinned beauty with intriguing eyes and tight body he'd met while in Maryland helping Trent with a family problem. How could he forget her?
"Hi, Karena," he said cheerfully. "It's nice to hear from you."
They'd exchanged phone numbers on the plane ride back from Maryland in August and then saw each other again briefly at the opening of the Gramercy II in early September.
No. Sam hadn't forgotten. She'd felt like sunshine in his arms, then dripped like molten lava when he'd kissed her. He'd wanted to take her up to one of the rooms at the Gramercy II, thought she wanted the same. Then she'd pulled away, left him standing, getting wet in front of the water show, and he hadn't spoken to her again.
"I need your help," she said, her voice sounding less like the sexy timbre he remembered and just on this side of desperate.
"I'm in trouble," she sighed. "Big trouble."
Sam couldn't say he was happy about driving into Manhattan on a day he'd planned to spend rolling around in the yard with Romeo.
And he couldn't say that he liked the tone of Karena's voice as she asked for help.
What he could say was that he was looking forward to seeing her again. As his body heated thinking about her in the tight jeans and even tighter T-shirt she'd worn on the plane ride they'd shared, he admitted he was really looking forward to seeing her.
Talking to her on the two occasions he'd seen her had been like a breath of fresh air. While she tended to talk too much about her job, as if there was nothing more interesting in the world to her, Sam got the impression she was witty and adventurous, even if she didn't know it herself. From Noelle he'd learned that she was the middle child of three daughters, born into a very wealthy family now making their name in the art world. Upon returning from his first trip to Maryland he'd run a check on Karena's father, Paul Lakefield, and came up with a brief family history.
The Lakefields' wealth stemmed all the way back to California's historic Gold Rush in 1848, when a slave named Celia Smith was taken by her master's cousin from Virginia across the country. George Lakefield had instantly fallen for his cousin's housemaid on a visit to Virginia, and before he'd left he'd had Celia in his bed. Upon agreement with his cousin, George took ownership of Celia and headed west to take up with the other panhandlers in search of gold.
That search led to George Lakefield's first taste of fortune. In 1863, when President Lincoln declared the freedom of all slaves, Celia Smith had stayed by George's side, and in the years ahead gave birth to four sons and one daughter. Two of the Lakefield sons moved on to Texas, where they struck oil, while the other two ventured into the steel business. The daughter married and stayed in California, where her descendents now ran the successful Genoa Winery.
It was Paul's great-grandfather, Mathias Lakefield, who took Lakefield Steel to its victorious holdings, leaving a legacy for Paul and his two brothers to follow.
A very impressive history, Sam remembered thinking as he read, leading to more intrigue about Karena. The first time he'd met her, she'd seemed worried about Noelle and the idiotic ex-boyfriend of Noelle's Sam had helped Trent and the other Donovan brothers capture. But once that situation was settled and Sam talked to her on the plane, he'd noticed something else about her: she was totally dedicated to her job and her family.
Did that sound familiar?
Of course it did. There was nothing—and Sam readily emphasized the word nothing—that he wouldn't do for his family.