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By Vanessa Fewings
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Vanessa Fewings
All rights reserved.
One Week Earlier
She'll be safe here.
Since I'd first made the decision to leave her at The Otillie, I'd been reciting this mantra to reassure myself. I can even remember what I was wearing that early winter morning when I'd first set eyes on my beloved Madame Rose.
To me, my Madame Rose was so much more than a painting. She represented my childhood, my innocence, my strongest connection to my father. Rose had been a woman of her day, my father had told me this as he'd raised his bidding paddle and with one sweep of his wrist he'd secured Madame Rose Recamier as ours, outbidding every other art collector at Sotheby's. Adding another masterpiece to his already vast personal gallery back when I'd called Kensington home.
Zara, within the texture lies the truth, he'd told me as he nudged me closer to the canvas. Can you see?
As I'd taken in — or at least tried with the perception of a ten-year-old — the brilliance of that French artist on that century-aged painting, I'd sensed life would never be the same. I'd known in the depths of my soul art would always be my one true love.
Tonight, I'd been so fazed about coming here that I'd forgotten to wear a coat that would have offset the chill of a London autumn and the cold temperature the gallery was kept at to preserve its treasures within.
Art galleries were quiet places with hushed whispers as respectful visitors paid homage to the genius of artists who'd left their indelible mark. Many of these painters had languished in poverty even after giving so much. As a child I'd always wanted to travel back in time to watch them work and tell them their talent had been worth all they'd sacrificed.
My stilettos clicked along the marble uncomfortably loudly as I neared Madame Rose Recamier. She'd hung in my bedroom and watched over me for years.
Stepping closer, my gaze roamed over her, marveling at those pristine strokes giving Rose a stunning realism.
I gave the softest sigh.
The year was 1803 when Jacques Momar had captured a moment in time with this Parisian socialite and, as I trailed my fingers through my auburn locks, I recalled how I'd wanted to be her. Chestnut irises, we had that in common, but her fiery gaze reflected a life of daring — one she'd chosen to live on her terms. Madame Rose Recamier had been known for her love of neoclassical fashion and her controversial interest in politics. She'd stunned Paris with her tenacity. Her reputation to enamor with her smart wit and intelligence had been expressed so beautifully as she reclined on that satin chaise lounge, her head thrown back and her gaze held firmly on the artist Monsieur Momar. In her expression there was love. As time went on I'd realized that look proved an affair had transpired between them. The kind of passion I'd only ever read about.
I saw something I'd never noticed before — uncertainty — the emotion starkly vivid and painfully real.
In his will my father had left Madame Recamier to me. And now I was leaving her here.
"She's haunting," Clara whispered, shaking me from my daydream. It was just like her to know I needed a few moments alone with Rose to say goodbye.
It felt comforting having my best friend here.
No matter how many months went by without seeing Clara, it felt like mere minutes had passed between us. She'd always come through for me, and I for her.
Her diamante-crystal, halter-neck dress made her look gorgeous, as always. She had a couple of inches on me and her thick blond curls were a contrast to my long auburn hair. Her high cheekbones were a reflection of the confidence that had helped her succeed as an advertising photographer. Her voluptuousness was a contrast to my smaller curvy figure. "Rubinesque," she'd called herself, which matched her vibrant personality, and her bright eyes and warm smile were always welcome in my world that always seemed more complicated than hers.
As if sensing I needed it, she came over now to give me a hug. "She's beautiful." Clara squeezed me into her side.
"First time I saw her I was wearing my favorite floral dress." I rested my head on Clara's shoulder for a moment. "Red shoes. I loved those shoes."
"Oh, Zara, this was a good decision."
"Yes. She's meant to be here."
She paused for a moment and studied me as though careful with her words. "What about the others?" The three other paintings we'd saved that night ...
Flames rising from our house and licking the air with those monstrous oranges and reds; a hellish glow.
The stench of toxic smoke in my clothes. My hair. My skin. My doll lost to the flames.
Stubbornly, I shook my head not wanting to remember anything more about that night. "There was always this sense we were protecting Madame Rose by hiding her away."
Now it was time to step away.
Let it all go. And move on.
"You okay?" came Clara's reassurance.
I nodded to let her know I was.
It was behind me now, all that grief of dealing with the complex issues of my father's estate and those endless meetings with softly spoken solicitors where coffee was my only friend. And those journalists who'd begged for a scoop on what plans I had to take the Leighton family legacy into the twenty-first century.
I had no real plans for anything, not really.
Other than settling into my new career. Moving on felt cathartic.
Clara tutted. "Dreadful thing."
Shaken back into the room, I asked, "What is?" "No one's reckless enough to steal from a gallery. Not with all this." She peered up at one of the discreet cameras.
She was referring to that theft in Chelsea, a portrait by Henry Raeburn had been stolen from a private estate.
"You're right," I agreed.
She patted my arm. "You'll sleep better knowing she's here."
"You don't think it's connected to what happened in France, do you?"
Rumors had reached the community that some of the wealthiest families in Paris had suffered at the hands of an art thief and that news had set the city's private dealers and their customers on edge.
"Let's get some bubbly." Clara led me back down the hallway. "You have some hobnobbing to do with these art-loving crazies."
"Thank you for being here."
"Wouldn't miss it."
I forced myself not to look back.
Making our way down the hallway we continued to admire the collection, pausing here and there until I sensed Clara's restlessness.
"That's a nice blouse," she said. "Gold brings out your eyes." I tugged on my pencil skirt. "Marks and Spencer."
"I thought you were going to say some posh designer. You're getting close to that birthday."
Which was Clara's tactful way of saying my inheritance would kick in on the eve of my twenty-third birthday. Pride had turned my thoughts away from it but these rising costs of living in London had me rethinking that. The idea of having to decide what to do with fifteen million pounds made me nervous. That decision wouldn't come until next year and I still had time to nudge that thought far away.
A wave of guilt settled in my gut that my inheritance came from my father's will. I spun round to face Clara. "I got the"
"What? Why didn't you call me?"
"I wanted to tell you in person."
"Oh, darling, that's wonderful!"
"I'm officially a forensic art specialist at Huntly Pierre."
I'd landed my dream job at a high-end firm in the middle of The Strand, and I couldn't wait to start.
"Zara, that's wonderful." She leaped forward and hugged me. "I'm so excited."
Years of studying art and I was finally being let loose.
"They know about your dad's penchant for collecting priceless art, then?"
"No, I got this on my own merit." I lowered my brow, hoping my family name of Leighton wouldn't follow me around forever. "Have a knack for detecting forgeries apparently."
Within the texture lies the truth.
Everything Dad knew he'd taught me; an education like no other. It wasn't only studying at the Courtauld that had given me the talent for knowing the difference between an Uccello and a Masaccio, but my education had begun when my father had instilled in me his rare insight into art before I could even walk, hoping I'd follow in his footsteps.
"It's in my blood."
She winked. "The commission you'll make when you confirm a piece is real should be quite something. These things are worth a fortune."
"You can't place a value on pieces like this," I said wistfully, admiring Constant Troyon's oil on canvas A Clump of Trees, with its soothing layers of greens and yellows. "For the first time I feel like I'm putting my knowledge to good use."
"You know what else needs to be in your blood? Booze. More specifically, champagne." We laughed too loudly as we neared the lift.
Standing back a little, I watched Clara hit the down button and the silver doors slid open. Peering inside that gaping chasm of metal, I felt my haunting phobia of lifts returning, the light inside flickered to taunt me, and my feet refused to move forward as that familiar fear swept over me.
Terror spiked my veins. "Let's take the stairs."
She raised her left foot to show off her heels. "I'll break my neck."
"Zara." She sounded baffled.
"Meet you down there."
"This is why you have great legs," her voice echoed after me. "You're always taking the stairs."
Her laughter followed me down the stairwell.
I peeled off each shoe and in stockinged feet burst through the fire escape door. I descended fast, round and round, counting the floors as I went.
Breathing in the chilled air, I rekindled the feeling that what I'd done tonight was one of my better decisions. Clara was right. The security was great and the responsibility of protecting all of Dad's other pieces would soon be lifted as they made their way here.
It made me happy to think of other people getting to enjoy them too, and my feet flew down with a bounce in my step.
With a shove on the security rail I pushed open the heavy fire door and went on through into the dimly lit hallway.
Realizing I'd gone too far I turned to go back. The door was locked from this side.
As if right on cue my garter belt snapped off my thigh-high stocking and I hurried onward to find somewhere private to fix it.
My feet carried me away from the lift and along the hallway. At the end was a door stamped with a sign: Staff Only.
I went on in and saw the long mirror right in front of me.
I neared it and gave myself a reassuring smile. I looked pretty tonight and was actually a little less geeky than usual, having switched out my cardigan and flat heels for my favorite gold silk blouse and black skirt and even my hair was miraculously behaving. After putting my shoes down, I eased up my hem and attempted to reattach my stocking top.
My fingers slipped so I hiked my skirt higher to better work the intricate reclipping. With that accomplished, I straightened my eggshell-blue high rise panties.
And then I spotted a movement across the room —
I yanked my skirt down, my mouth forming words of apology but failing to say them. I bent over to scoop up my shoes and rushed toward the door, my hand reaching round to neaten my skirt.
Oh no, my hem still exposed my bum.
Cheeks reddening further as I grappled with the unreasonable material and sucked up my embarrassment so I could throw a wave of apology to the stranger.
My gaze fixed on the living, breathing sculpture.
Making it to the door, I tried to force my stare away from the strikingly beautiful specimen of a man who was looking at me with a mixture of surprise and delight.
Finally exhaling, I was riveted by his sun-kissed torso with its finely chiseled abs, his black trousers low and revealing a hint of a V. An intricate tattoo on his left upper arm that vaguely reminded me of a Polynesian design, with its swirls in black ink and an image in the center.
My heartbeat quickened as I searched my memory for where I knew him from. I was awestruck by this breathtaking Adonis, who was reaching for a white shirt hanging on the back of a chair. He was tall and devastatingly handsome in a rugged kind of way. Thirty, maybe? Those short, dark golden locks framing a gorgeous face, his three-day stubble marking him with a tenacious edge and that thin wry smile exuding a fierce confidence. His green irises were a startling contrast to his lightly tanned complexion; his intense, steady glare stayed on mine as he calmly pulled his arm through a sleeve and covered that tattoo before I could make out more.
A gasp caught in my throat as it came to me that we'd never actually met, probably because this was Tobias William Wilder, a billionaire. He moved in the kind of refined circles one would expect from a business magnate and inventor who owned TechRule, one of the largest software companies in the world.
And I'd given this playboy mogul his very own peep show.
He'd popped up on my radar a year ago when I'd read an article on him in Cosmo, featuring his Los Angeles-based art gallery, The Wilder. It was an acclaimed museum that was one of the most prestigious in the world and it was also right up there on my wish list to visit.
Wilder was even more dazzling in person.
I'd imagined one day I might bump into him with the art world being relatively small, but never had I imagined a scenario as racy as this.
Why the hell hadn't I worn my sexy panties?
"I'm looking for the stairs," I managed.
"That way." His refined American accent felt like another blow to my reason.
That alpha-maleness made him look like he'd just returned from a dangerous adventure in the Himalayas or even the jungles of Peru —
Where he'd spent his days hunting in the wilderness, or naked while fishing in a fast-running stream, and then making a campfire at night with those elegant hands, and then saving his friends from beasties that attacked our campsite.
His smile reached his eyes. A blush burned my cheeks.
He arched an eyebrow, amused.
Was he mocking me?
"I was looking for a signal." I broke my gaze to hide my lie. "For my phone. You know, WiFi."
"Try the foyer. It's a security issue."
"I know that." Which made no damn sense.
It was impossible to think straight because someone had made the executive decision to suck out all the oxygen from the room, or so it felt.
With a tug of his shirt he hid that other tattoo to the right of his lower abdomen, a Latin inscription leading to his groin immortalized in italic black ink.
"Excuse the —" he gestured to his state of undress "— I'm running late."
This kind of manly perfection obviously knew just how beautiful he was, the way he blinked at me casually, the way he firmly weaved that bow tie around his collar without using a mirror and making quick work of forming that silk into a neat knot, and all the while his eyes not leaving mine.
Until I dragged my gaze from his to look around the room. On a table close by to him rested a black motorcycle helmet with its tinted visor down. Leather gloves beside it.
He moved with a sophisticated elegance that had me doubting I'd caught his body inked so seductively. A waft of expensive musky cologne reached me with its sensuous allure and did something crazy to my body. Trembling slightly, I shifted my gait and leaned further back against the door, spellbound.
Nature might have bestowed this man with the ability to leave a trail of heartbreak in his sexy-arse wake but it had also provided me with the ability to detect danger.
"You might want to put some clothes on," I said firmly.
"Well, now I'm dressed."
Yes, he was, and this was a changing room, apparently, and I'd not exactly represented a pillar of virtue.
"Well that's good." I swallowed my pride. "Please keep it that way."
His gaze lowered to my feet.
And I remembered my strappy stilettos were flirtatiously dangling from my left hand, those spiked heels hinting at a sexy side I wished I had.
Intrigue marred his face, and then his expression softened again as his jade gaze returned to hold mine and he broke into a heart-stopping smile.
The seductive dazzling kind that threatened to melt my panties. I left in a rush —
Shaken with just how this man had affected me merely with a smile, my heart racing, I reconsidered risking the lift to take me as far away from him as possible. Embarrassment scorched my cheeks and made me glad I'd not worn a coat.
Taking a second, I leaned against the wall and stared back.
That alluring inked-up vision had taken my mind off the reason I was here. I felt an inexplicable need to run back in and continue to bathe in the aura of the most enigmatic man I'd ever met.
Excerpted from The Chase by Vanessa Fewings. Copyright © 2017 Vanessa Fewings. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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