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By DEANNA LEE
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Deanna Lee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLauren Evans was so very, very late. The rush across Boston had left her flustered, and her once perfectly contained hair now flew all over her head. The job at Holman Academy was the chance she needed to change her life—to make the move to Boston permanent. The last thing she wanted to do was stay in San Diego.
She had one successful show under her belt, and she hoped that after years of work, it was enough to give her a change of scenery. Her stomach tightened as she shoved more money than was necessary at the cabdriver and hopped out of the car, putting on the shoes she'd pulled off as she'd gratefully hauled herself into it fifteen minutes before.
Lauren pulled out the hairpins that had managed to stay in and shook out the too-long mess as she pulled open one of the double glass doors that led into the Holman Gallery. As soon as Lauren entered, a slim, dark-haired woman stepped forward with a wide, friendly grin.
"Your pictures don't do you justice," she stated, and held out a hand. "I'm Jane Tilwell. Welcome to Holman Gallery. Mercy sends her apologies for not being available today, but we've set up a lunch for you two tomorrow. You'll have to pardon the noise today—we have fifty fifth graders on the first floor breaking plates for an abstract mural we're going to put on the east wall of the building."
"That sounds great." Lauren allowed herself to be pulled through the gallery and up a set of stairs. "I've heard some great things about the student program the gallery runs with the city schools."
"It's my baby, so I'm proud of how well it's done. This session was supposed to be led by Lisa Brooks, but she's so very pregnant and her doctor put her on bed rest. So Shamus Montgomery is here today, and his idea of entertaining children involves safety goggles and throwing things." Jane cupped Lauren's elbow to guide her into a large office area. "Mr. Brooks, however, is on-site today, and we've set up a small conference room for a meeting. He's pretty excited to have you here, Ms. Evans. Your exhibit in LA was the talk of the art world for months, so, of course, we'd like to discuss a show at a later date."
Lauren managed to keep her mouth from dropping open. "I have fifteen paintings of a series I'm working on, but when my agent set up this appointment, I assumed it was an interview."
Jane paused and turned to her with a frown. "No, not an interview." She huffed out a breath. "I'm going to kill her."
"My ex-new assistant and probably Mr. Brooks, too. I had a great assistant—a fantastic assistant—but James Brooks kept bogarting her until finally he just kept her, and now I'm stuck with a series of twits from the university because it was my ultrabright idea to mentor."
Lauren bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. "So, I'm not here for an interview."
"No, we"—she blushed—"we offered you a job, Ms. Evans. A two-year contract for the Holman Academy as the artist in residence and an opportunity to show once a year in the gallery."
The relief of that moment was so overwhelming that Lauren felt a little dizzy. "I ... wow ... really?"
Jane laughed. "Okay, let's go talk to Mr. Brooks, and we'll discuss the deal we thought we'd already made with you."
So, meeting James Brooks was sort of like what she thought meeting Thomas Crown would be like if he were real. All dark, hot, mean-looking, and loaded. What she knew about him made him even more attractive than his altogether too-pretty face. His dedication to charity work and his well-known love for his wife made James Brooks the kind of man she would love to work for.
"Twit the Fourth didn't send the job offer."
James Brooks raised an eyebrow. "It was your idea to mentor students, Ms. Tilwell."
"Obviously I can't be trusted to make such decisions in the future," Jane muttered as she flipped through several folders in front of her. "Okay, Lauren, as I said, we meant to send you a contract memo through your agent. Again, I apologize for the confusion."
"It's fine," Lauren murmured. "I think my interest must be clear, since I traveled across the country for what I thought was an interview." She blushed and took a deep breath. "I could use a change of scenery, to be honest."
Brooks offered an utterly charming smile, and Lauren couldn't help but smile, in return. "I think we can certainly arrange that. My wife finds your work inspiring, and what inspires her interests me greatly."
She really didn't know how his wife could even think when he was around, especially if he smiled at her like that. "I had the privilege of seeing part of the Shattered collection several years ago on display in San Diego. I'm honored that someone so talented as your wife would find inspiration in my work."
"Lisa is a student of the arts in all forms, but her sculpture is what draws the crowds these days. I think she'd eventually like to return to canvas work. One reason why we are so interested in having you at Holman is for your use of oils and water colors. She finds your mixture of mediums stunning and complex. Our last long-term artist in residence was a sculptor. We believe you will offer the academy something new and exciting."
"And I would have show space in the gallery once a year?"
"Yes, we'll open a show for you once a year and house the collection for six months. We have a standard contract on the proceeds of such showings that would be separate from your employment at the academy. We would also arrange, through your agent, for the show to travel anywhere you'd like."
Jane Tilwell slid a contract across the table. "This is the contract that should have been sent to you through your agent. After this meeting, I'll send one her way for review and we can refine it any way she deems necessary. In the meantime, you can look it over and let us know if there are changes to be made."
It was a dream come true. A new city. A place where she wouldn't have to continue to look over her shoulder. Lauren pushed all thoughts of that situation aside and managed a smile for the other two people in the room.
Twenty minutes later, she found herself on a guided tour of the gallery with Jane Tilwell. The contract, clutched tight in her hand, was the most surreal lifeline ever. Her fingers compulsively curled around the rolled-up envelope as she viewed some of the most beautiful art in the country—including a few private collections that she knew hadn't been shown in public in over fifty years.
"It's amazing," Lauren confided. "It must be very rewarding to work in a place like this every day."
"The work we do here is beautiful both in reality and intent," Jane admitted. "I never thought I'd have a position so fulfilling." She led Lauren into a small room. "This is the special collections exhibit—it's where we'll house your show for half the year. It's probably the most coveted show space in the city, and you'll make yourself and the Foundation a great deal of money."
That idea appealed on several levels, but mostly it was appealing because it was one more step in separating herself from San Diego completely. A chill ran down her spine, and she pushed down a swarm of emotions that she could barely contain.
"There's my favorite lady."
They both turned at those words, and Lauren's eyes widened a little as an extremely good-looking black man strolled toward Jane with a predatory look.
Jane offered him a hand as soon as he got close. "Lauren Evans, this is my fiancé, Mathias Montgomery. He's the head of security for the Holman Foundation."
Lauren immediately offered her hand. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Montgomery."
His hand was warm, his grip firm without being unpleasant. "Ms. Evans, welcome to Boston. Mercy and Jane have been looking forward to your arrival for weeks."
Jane sighed. "You won't believe what Beverly did."
"Beverly?" Mathias frowned. "Was that the redhead who hung up on Lisa Brooks or the blonde who made a pass at Shamus?"
"Neither—Beverly will be known as the blonde who sent Lauren Evans an invitation to be interviewed instead of the job offer."
Mathias laughed softly. "Wow, well, we are definitely pleased to see you in Boston, Ms. Evans."
"Lauren is fine." She glanced around the room and took in a few of the sculptures. "You're related to the artist?"
"Yes." Mathias nodded, and his gaze drifted to a sculpture of a couple carved in rosewood and ash. "I'm his older brother."
Lauren's gaze moved to the sculpture that Mathias still looked at. "He's lucky to have such beautiful and inspiring people in his life. I've noticed in the last few years that his work has taken a passionate and loving turn. The sexuality still punches you in the gut, but it's more settled now, beautiful and engaging all at the same time."
"I agree." Jane blushed. "But he'll never get me naked in his studio again."
They all laughed softly, and after a few minutes Mathias wandered away to take a phone call. Jane invited her to lunch, and Lauren found herself neatly maneuvered down the street to a small café.
"Since you didn't come prepared for a move as we expected ..." Jane hesitated. "I can't believe I didn't call your agent to confirm the contract details before you arrived. It was a foolish mistake."
"No harm done," Lauren assured her. "I'm here and I'm very interested in the position. I'm sure that Rachel will find the contract in order, and we'll get everything settled quickly enough."
"Holman will take care of your moving expenses," Jane said. "We'll set up a company with your agent and get everything squared away. Do you own or were you renting?"
"I was subletting from a friend. All I'll need packed are my clothes. I'll be starting basically from scratch in Boston, but that's okay. I'm really ready for a change."
Jane set aside her water glass and frowned a little. "Just clothes? You were living in Los Angeles before the move to San Diego—were you subletting there as well?"
Lauren bit her bottom lip. "I was living with someone, but it didn't work out. I let him keep everything and just got the hell out of there. I've never been one to keep much of anything. My parents were both in the military, and we moved around a lot when I was younger. I don't get attached to things or places if I can help it."
"And the ex-boyfriend? Is he a problem?"
"Beyond putting a few dents in my credit, no. Scott is a user, and he found someone else to use not long after I hit the road. The last I heard, he'd married her. I almost sent her a condolence card but figured that might just be too cruel."
Jane laughed and shook her head. "Remind me sometime and I'll tell you about the last man I dated before Mathias."
"He's beautiful," Lauren said, and then her eyes widened. "I didn't mean to say that out loud."
Jane just grinned. "He is beautiful. He's gotten sexually propositioned by most of the artists who've shown at Holman, but so far he's only done that one project with his brother and only because it was for us both. The sculpture is actually an engagement present and isn't for sale. Though the gallery has been offered an obscene amount of money for it."
"I can imagine. It's easily the most intimate piece in the entire collection, and you both have great bodies." Lauren flushed. "Not that I was looking in some kind of perverted way."
Jane laughed again. "Oh, we know we're pretty."
The food came, giving Lauren a few minutes to censor her tongue before she suffocated herself with her own foot. Jane Tilwell was nothing like what she'd imagined. Friendly, out going, and snarky just didn't mesh with the image she'd put together in her head for the assistant director of the Holman Gallery.
"Tell me about Mercy Montgomery."
"She's tall, redheaded, and built like a brick shit house. Honestly, I hated her on pure principle for the first three months I knew her. No woman should look like that and be smart and successful. It's just obscene." Jane grinned. "But she's also generous, funny, dedicated, and probably one of the best human beings I've ever met in my life. She loves life and sees beauty in the strangest things and people. You don't meet a lot of people like that in your life. I know I haven't. I count myself a very lucky person to work with her and be her friend. Really."
"Does she walk on water?"
"No, it might ruin her shoes." Jane wiggled an eyebrow as Lauren laughed. "Honestly, she's a great person. You're really going to like her a lot. Everyone does."
"Okay, I'll keep my automatic resentful period down to about a week," Lauren promised.
"You might need two weeks, considering she has a beautiful baby and a husband who thinks she's the reason the Earth continues to spin."
Lauren thought the relationships at the Holman Gallery seemed a little incestuous, but it wasn't uncommon in small working environments to see people come together and pair off. "Have you considered stealing your assistant back and letting Mr. Brooks do the mentoring for a while?"
"I don't hate those college kids that much," Jane confided. "I mean ... don't get me wrong, I could cheerfully strangle all of the ones who made it into the internship program, but Lisa would leave those poor kids in shreds. She's furious to be on mandatory bed rest, and even I hesitate to pick up the phone when I see her on the caller ID. She was kind of mean before she got pregnant, but now it's like an extreme sport to take a phone call from her."
Lauren laughed. She'd heard enough about Lisa Brooks to believe that was true. Three years ago, she'd even found herself viewed a clip or two on the Internet of Lisa shooting trespassers with a paintball gun.
"Have you checked the town house personally?"
Connor Grant looked up from his laptop and raised one eyebrow at his boss. "No, I sent Mitchell and Bennett to take care of it. Has the new little diva had a problem?"
Mathias leaned against the door. "Ms. Evans hasn't moved into it, actually. She's staying at a hotel, but Jane will probably move her within the next few days. I just want to make sure everything is set with the security system."
"We had the entire place remodeled after Stein left two months ago. Jane handled the decorator, and Mitchell rekeyed all of the doors. The new security system was put in, complete with exterior cameras as planned." Connor closed his computer and sat forward a little. "Something wrong?"
"Just an itch I can't find to scratch," Mathias murmured. "I met her before Jane took her to lunch, and she looks skittish and on edge. Her background check didn't reveal anything shady—at least nothing that hit a law enforcement agency. She has a few credit issues, but they coincided with a loser exboyfriend. With the money she'll be hauling in here, it's not really an issue anymore."
"You think something is off about her?"
"She looks haunted," Mathias finally said. "And I've seen women look like that before and I don't like it. I just want her to feel safe in the home that the Holman Foundation is providing."
Connor frowned and after a few seconds turned to his computer. He opened it and quickly found the security footage that showed Lauren Evans hopping barefooted out of a cab in front of the gallery. He smirked a little as she put on her shoes and shook out her hair in a way that instantly reminded him of sex.
Her ebony hair was falling down around her shoulders in a hopeless fall of curls as she entered the gallery. He switched to an interior view and watched as she met with Jane—confident but clearly a little rattled. Her face was beautiful, expressive. Her complexion honey brown, and her skin looked like silk even on the security footage. "Peaches and cream."
"What?" Mathias asked.
"My mum would say that about her," Connor murmured. "She looks like dessert."
"Hmm." Mathias leaned in and took a look. "Interested in taking a bite?"
Connor grimaced. "I don't mix with the artists. They're all insufferable."
"I'll be sure to tell Shame you said that." Mathias flicked a paperclip at him. "And Lisa Brooks."
"Lisa Brooks prides herself on being insufferable, and your brother is the biggest straight male diva I know. I like them both despite their faults, but I don't make exceptions for others."
Excerpted from Sweet Surrender by DEANNA LEE Copyright © 2011 by Deanna Lee . Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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