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Sophia Rivers sipped champagne and gazed beyond the circle of friends surrounding her. Her small Houston gallery was filled with guests viewing her art and helping her celebrate the second anniversary of her gallery's opening. The crowd was the perfect size, and she was completely satisfied with the turnout.
"Sophia, I have a question."
She turned to see Edgar Hollingworth, a father to her and a mentor, as well as a man whom she and her mother had been friends with before she ever moved into the art world. "Excuse me," she said to the group around her, and stepped away.
"Edgar, what can I do for you?" she said to the tall, thin man.
"You looked as if you needed rescuing," he said quietly. "You also look ravishing. The black and white is striking on you, Sophia."
"Thank you," she replied, shaking her long black hair away from her face.
"Shall we at least act as if I've asked you about a painting?" Edgar motioned toward the opposite side of the room and she smiled as she strolled with him. "You have a sizable crowd tonight. I'm glad you were able to make it. I haven't seen you in a long time."
"I hadn't planned to come until about three hours ago. I've been in New Mexico, painting. Who's the couple ahead to our right?" she asked.
"The Winstons. They're probably on your guest list because they bought a painting recently."
"Now how do you know that?"
"I sold it to them," he said, smiling at her, causing creases to fan from the corners of his blue eyes. "I still think you should move your gallery nearer mine. Our galleries would complement each other."
Sophia smiled at the familiar conversation that always ended with her saying no. "I do appreciate your gallery carrying my art. You were the first and I'll always be indebted to you for that."
"You would have been in a gallery anyway whether it was my place or another's. You have a fine talent."
"Thank you, Edgar," she said.
Sophia glanced around the room again and was slightly surprised when she saw another unfamiliar face. Except this one took her breath away.
Perhaps the tallest man in the room, he stood in profile. His brown hair had an unruly wave to it and his hawk nose and rugged looks made her think instantly that he would be an interesting subject to paint. He held a champagne flute in his hand as he looked at a painting.
"There's someone else I don't know," she said.
"His name is Garrett Cantrell. We talked awhile. He has a property management business here and he's a financial adviser. He, too, bought one of your paintings last week. Another satisfied customer."
A woman approached Edgar, who excused himself, leaving Sophia to contemplate the tall, brown-haired stranger, strolling slowly around the gallery. She suddenly found herself crossing the room to stand near him.
"I hope you like it," she said.
"I do," he replied, turning to look at her with thickly lashed eyes the color of smoke. Her breath caught. Up close he was even more fascinatinghandsome in a craggy wayand his gray eyes were unforgettable.
"That's good," she replied, smiling and extending her hand while still held in his compelling gaze. "Because I'm the artist. I'm Sophia Rivers."
"Garrett Cantrell," he said, shaking her hand. His warm fingers wrapped around hers and an uncustomary tingle ran to her toes. She gazed into his smoke-colored eyes and couldn't get her breath. Her gaze slipped lower to his mouth. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him. The temperature in the room rose. She knew she should look away, yet she didn't want to stop studying him.
"The artist herself. And even more beautiful than your paintings," he said as he released her hand. "You've caught the atmosphere of the West."
"It's New Mexico, around Taos. And thank you," she added. Her pulse jumped at his compliment and she was keenly aware of him as they moved to view another painting.
"You're very good at what you do. I look at these and feel as if I'm there instead of standing in a steamy metropolitan city."
"That's what I hope to achieve. So this is the first time you've been to my gallery."
"Yes, but I own one of your pictures," he said, moving to the next painting. "You must spend a lot of time in New Mexico. I assume you have a gallery there?"
"Actually, I don't. I intend to open one early next year, but I haven't launched into that yet. It will take time away from painting."
"I understand." He sipped champagne and moved to another painting. "Ah, I really like this one," he said and she looked at a familiar work. It was an aged cart in front of a brown adobe house with bright hollyhocks growing around it. A small mesquite tree stood at one corner of the house.
He looked at the next series of paintings. "These are my favorites. The Native American ones," he said, indicating a man with a long black braid standing beside a horse in an open stretch of ground dotted with mes-quite. Overhead, white clouds billowed against a blue sky and a large hawk sailed with widespread wings.
"That's a great painting," he said. "The light and shadows are an interesting contrast." Happy with his compliment, she smiled. "I'll take this one. Any chance the artist will help me decide where to hang it? A dinner is in the offering."
Again, she had a flutter in her heartbeat. "We're strangers, Mr. Cantrell."
"It's Garrett. We can fix the 'strangers' part. When you can get away tonight, why don't we go around the corner to the hotel bar and have a drink? Tomorrow evening we'll hang my painting and then I'll take you to dinner."
"You don't waste time. I'd be delighted to have a drink tonight. I should be through here in another hour."
"Excellent," he said, glancing at his watch.
"I'll get one of my staff to wrap your painting and we can deliver it tomorrow if you'd like."
"That will be fine. The delivery person can leave it with my gatekeeper."
She smiled and left to find one of her employees. "Barry, would you help Mr. Cantrell? He wants number 32. Please take care of the sale and get the delivery information."
She had to resist the temptation to glance over her shoulder at Garrett.
Instead, she strolled around, speaking to customers and friends, meeting Edgar again.
"I see Cantrell bought a painting."
"Yes. I'm having a drink with him after this."
"That was quick," he said, glancing across the room. "Seemed nice enough. Wealthy enough, too. Last week he bought your painting from me without hesitation. Now, a week later, he's buying another one. The man knows what he likes."
"I see the Santerros. I have to speak to them."
"Have fun this evening," Edgar said as she left him.
"I intend to," she stated softly. "Garrett Cantrell," she repeated, glancing back to see him at the desk, handing a business card to Barry. Her gaze drifted over his long legs while her heartbeat quickened. Dressed in a navy suit with a snowy dress shirt and gold cuff links, the handsome man was a standout even in the well-dressed crowd.
She spent the next hour all too aware of where Gar-rett stood.
When she saw him talking to a couple she recognized, she waited until he moved away, then worked her way around to them.
"How are the Trents tonight?" she asked.
"Fine," Jason Trent answered.
"We love your new paintings," Meg Trent said. "Thanks for the invitation."
"Thank you for attending. I saw you talking to Garrett Cantrell. I just met him, but it looked as if you two already know him."
"We do," Jason replied. "I lease a building from his company. He keeps up with whether everything is going smoothly, which it is. Good bunch to work with."
"We're getting one of your watercolors for the family room," Meg said. "It's the one with the little boy and the burro."
"I'm glad you like that one. I hope you enjoy having it in your home."
"You're a prolific painter," Jason remarked.
"I enjoy it."
"More than the financial world," he said, smiling.
"I have no regrets about changing careers."
"That's what I keep trying to talk Meg into doing She'd love to have a dress shop."
"Accounting seems to hold fewer risks. You're established now, but weren't you nervous when you started?" Meg asked.
"I suppose, but it was absolutely worth it," Sophia said. "It was nice to see you both," she added, moving on, aware of Garrett across the gallery talking to two people. She wondered whether he knew them, too.
She stopped at the desk to look at his card. "Cantrell Properties Inc." It was a plain card with a downtown address, logo and phone number, but little else. She returned it to the drawer.
Garrett appeared at her side. "Can you leave? You still have quite a few people here."
"I can leave. My staff can manage quite well. They weren't expecting me to be here tonight anyway."
"I'm glad you are," he said.
"We can go out the back way and it'll be less noticeable." She led him through a door, down a hallway that opened onto offices, a mailroom and a studio and out the back into a parking lot where five cars were parked. Four tall lampposts illuminated the area as brightly as if it were day. A security guard sat in a cubicle watching a small television. He stepped to the door.
"Good night, Miss Rivers."
"I'll be back after a while to get my car, Teddy."
"Sure thing. Evening, sir," he said, nodding at Gar-rett who greeted him in return.
"My car is in front," Garrett said, taking her arm.
"It's a nice night. We can walk if you want," she said, pleasantly aware of his height because she was taller than some men she knew and as tall as many.
"I saw you talking to Meg and Jason Trent. Jason said he leased property from you."
"Yes, he's a good tenant," he said. "They like your art."
"I've had a gratifying response from people," she said.
They entered the bright hotel lobby, then the darkened bar where a pianist played a ballad for couples who were dancing.
Garrett got a booth with a small lamp at the end of the table. It spilled a golden glow over his fascinating features, highlighting his prominent cheekbones and leaving the planes of his cheeks in dark shadows. She felt breathless again, a steady hum of excitement that she couldn't explain.
They ordered drinksa cold beer for him and an iced soda for her. When they came, he raised his glass in a toast. "Here's to a new friendship. May it grow."
"A toast to friendship," she repeated, touching his cold bottle lightly. She sipped her soda and set the glass down.
He reached across the table to take her hand, his warm fingers enveloping hers. Again, a current streaked through her like lightning. "Shall we dance?"
As she stood, he shed his coat and tie, folding them once on the seat of the booth.
Sophia followed him to the small dance floor and stepped into his embrace. Her hand was in his, her other hand on his shoulder, feeling the warmth of him through the fine cotton shirt. She enjoyed dancing around the floor, aware of how well they moved together. He was agile, light on his feet.
"I've been waiting all evening for this moment," he said, setting her heart fluttering again. She had never had such an instant and intense reaction to a man. "I'm glad I decided to come tonight. I didn't expect to see the artist, but I knew I would enjoy looking at your art. Now, the whole world has changed."
She smiled. "I don't think it's been a world-changing night," she said, though she actually agreed with him. She wasn't sure things would ever be the same after having met Garrett Cantrell.
"The night isn't over yet," he reminded her, obviously flirting.
She slanted him a look. "Perhaps you'll change my mind."
"That's a challenge I'll gladly take."
The ballad ended and a faster number began. Garrett released her and she put a little distance between them. The man had sexy moves that set her pulse at a faster pace. She was unable to tear her gaze from his until she forced herself to turn and the spell was broken.
By the time the music finished, she needed to catch her breath.
Garrett took her hand. "Shall we go back to our drinks?"
They returned to the booth. He loosened the top buttons of his shirt. The temperature climbed a notch and her desire revved with it.