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Jacinda Barrett dropped into the chair behind her desk with an uncharacteristic plop. "Wasn't I just here?"
Her assistant, Andrew, handed her a cup of coffee. "We all were, honey. The auction has everybody hopping." He leaned over her desk and whispered conspiratorially, "I think even the boss man stayed after five last night."
Jacinda sipped coffee to hide her smile. If Sherman Pascowitz, chairman of Callibro's Auction House since before Moses parted the seas, worked late, then the auction that was due to take place in less than a week must truly be extraordinary. And that fact added to her anxiety. She was only an assistant curator. This was the first time she'd been given the opportunity to take charge of an auction and that was no doubt because her boss was currently on maternity leave. Still, Mr. Pascowitz could have chosen any one of the three other assistants.
"How many more items do we have to inventory?" she asked Andrew.
"About a hundred."
"Then let's hope this caffeine kicks in soon. Let me answer my e-mail, then we'll get to it."
Andrew spun and headed toward the door. "I'm there for you as always."
Jacinda didn't hide her smile this time. She faced her computer and began the process of sorting through her mail.
Andrew was an amazing asset to her officeand no doubt one of the main reasons she'd risen to the attention of the chairman after only working at the auction house for two years. Andrew was an NYU grad with an amazing eye for antiques. He was also a future fashion icon, at least as he told it.
Frankly, she thought his chartreuse suits and purple striped pants paired with sober dove-gray shirts were a bit over-the-top. Butnobodyeven the wildly conservative Mr. Pascowitzseemed to care, since Andrew was completely brilliant.
Though she'd graduated at the top of her class, double majoring in history and business, she'd done so at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which wasn't exactly Harvard. And her family's history involved lots of cocktail waitresses. Andrew came from big money, so he grew up with class, plus he was one of those IQ-off-the-scale people. She'd lucked out in a big way by having him assigned to her.
She was nearly through her inbox when the intercom beeped.
"Ms. Barrett, do you have a moment to meet with a potential client?" Andrew asked.
Andrew only addressed her formally when he had aVIP in the office, so Jacinda had to fight back a groan. She barely had half a cup of coffee in her. "Of course. Send him in."
Seconds later, the door to her office opened and Andrew strode in, followed by another man. A gorgeous man wearing faded jeans and a white T-shirt. A man who had shoulder-brushing, black wavy hair, green eyes and a sculpted jaw.
A man she recognized.
Damn, damn, damn.
Half out of her chair, Jacinda swallowed her fears and held out her hand, praying she'd changed enough, hoping like crazy that enough time had passed and that a certain weekend in Vegas had been easily forgotten.
No such luck.
Their hands connected along with their gazes. Recognition sprang into his, followed by sexual awareness and amusement. "Ms. Barrett," he said smoothly.
"Ms. Barrett, this is Gid"
"Oh, she knows who I am," Gideon Nash said, still staring into her eyes, still holding her hand.
Resisting the instinct to melt into a puddle as she desperately shoved aside memories of hot skin, heavy breathing and intense satisfaction, Jacinda pulled her hand back. She glanced at Andrew long enough to see his eyebrows lift, then he winked and left the room.
Jacinda, who'd run from a fight exactly once in her life, nearly ran after her assistant.
"Does he always dress like that?" Gideon asked, glancing back as the door clicked shut.
"Is he color-blind?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Okay. Takes all kinds, I guess." He faced her again. His gaze slid from her face down her body, leaving burn marks in its wake.
She fought against his allure, against memories she had no business recalling. It was as if the past six years faded away in a single moment. But, beneath the desire that somehow, inexplicably, hadn't diminished, was an odd combination of fear and anger.
Hadn't she fought, clawed and finessed her way out of her old life? Hadn't she convinced herself wild, impulsive decisions led nowhere productive? Didn't she now have the respectability she'd always longed for? Weren't all the sacrifices worth her own office, an assistant and her first auction?
He settled into the chair in front of her desk. "I always thought that 'it's a small world' expression was a bit trite, but here we are living it."
She remained standing. Every advantage seemed vital at the moment. "I guess we are."
His gaze flicked over her again. "You're different."
She remembered the same half smile on his face as he'd gazed up at her on the Vegas club stage where she'd danced for college tuition money, where she'd been anonymous and bold. Exotic and sensual. Half-dressed. Cheap. Hiding her ambition behind a stage name and thick layer of hair spray and lip gloss.
"What happened to Jacy Powers?" he asked, his voice deep and husky, just as she remembered it.
"Gone. She's not coming back."
"What a shame. I liked her."
She closed her eyes briefly. Dear heaven. "I didn't." Opening her eyes, she forced herself to glare at him.
"What do you want?"
"Is that any way to talk to a potential benefactor?" Digging deep for the elegance she'd fought so hard to cultivate, she eased herself into her chair. "No, but since you're not one, I feel perfectly comfortable being direct."
"Oh, right. I forgot." He smiled. "I'm just an adventurer chasing a pipe dream."
Yet she'd still been tempted to follow him. She'd actually considered trading her future and her dreams for this man. "Aren't you?"
"Most of the time. Aren't you going to ask if I ever found the Diamond of Sierra?"
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Talk about a pipe dream. "Did you?"
Despite herself, she was impressed. During the brief time they'd spent together, he'd assured her he was well on his way to finding great treasure and achieving fame. Though their chemistry was fantastic, and he was charming and fun, she hadn't believed a word he said. He'd shared too many characteristics with the endless parade of guys through Vegas's casinos with dollar signs in their eyes and surefire plans to beat the house.
Now, however, she recognized how different he'd been from those dreamers. His plans had relied not on the luck of the draw but on solid research. She also recognized that a gem of the size and fame of the Sierra could bring a great deal of publicity to her auction. "Do you still have it?"
"You'd probably like to have it in your upcoming auction."
She leaned back in her chair. This was why he'd come. He wasn't trying to dig up the past and jeopardize her reputation. He was looking to make money. She'd be glad to accommodate him. "Naturally."
"Sorry. I sold it soon after I acquired it." He angled his head. "I'm surprised you didn't take notice."
After their wild weekend together, she'd thought about double-checking his claims. She'd nearly approached the friend who'd introduced them about a hundred times to ask her the whole story about the sexy, mysterious Gideon Nash.
But Jacinda had only been into that weekend for fun. She wasn't like her mother, who actually believed the stories and promises men told her. Plus, Jacinda hadn't wanted it getting around the club that she'd become sexually intimate with a customer. She'd needed that job, and Gideon was way too big a risk. Years later her discretion had paid off, since her boss agreed to tell people she'd been a waitress when potential employersespecially high-dollar ones like the auction housecalled her references.
"I thought it was best to make a clean break," she said.
"I expected you at the airport."
Jacinda shook her head. "No, you didn't." Laying her hands on her desk, she forced herself to calmly link her fingers. "Why don't you tell me why you're here?"
"I want to see the emerald."
"What em" She clenched her hands as she realized the auction piece he had to be referring to. "The Veros family emerald?"
He smiled, but the expression didn't reach his eyes. "Yes, that one."
Though curious about his interest in the stone, she knew there was no way he had the kind of money necessary to actually buy the emerald. Who turned treasure hunter/aimless adventurer into a profitable profession?
She managed a polite smile. "The auction is next week. If you'd like a catalog"
He stood. "I want to see the emerald now."
"We don't do previews. The auction"
"Yes, you do. For VIP clients." He paused, his gaze hitting hers like a laser. "I'd think you'd be glad to do a favor for an old friend."
"You're not a friend."
"No, I was much more." He angled his head. "Or was I?"
Visions of slick skin, rippling muscles and blazing green eyes raced through her mind. Over the years there were moments she was sure she could smell him, moments she just knew he'd been in her car, or her apartment. He never was, of course. But the memories of them together were so strong, so vivid, she couldn't completely set them aside. No matter how hard she fought.
"We weren't anything," she said.
He clutched his hands over his heart. "Aw, now my feelings are hurt."
"I don't want to get into a confrontation with you."
"Then don't. Show me the emerald."
She sighed in the face of his determination. Maybe he'd heard the rumors about the gem's beauty, wanted to see it and had hoped to charm the auction director into allowing the viewing. Now he was using their linked past to push his way into the vault. Maybe the stone had been lost once-upon-a-time, and he'd tried to find it. Maybe a competitor had beaten him to its recovery.
Hell, maybe he'd tried to steal, swindle or connive the emerald from somebody and failed.
She should toss him out of her office. She should plant her foot and call security to get him out. In six years, she should have found the strength to say no to him. Instead, she was tempted to grant his request.
For old time's sake? A thanks-for-the-two-hot-nights parting gift?
As much as she'd like to assign a complicated reason or a justification for breaking the rules, she knew the real motivation was much more simple.
He intrigued her.
The way no one else ever had, from the first moment she'd laid eyes on him. He drew her toward him like the proverbial moth to a flame, tempting her toward the heat, even though the danger of burning up loomed if she made the mistake of getting too close.
Why was he herereally? Though he'd seemed surprised to see her, had he expected to find her when he walked into the office? If so, how had he found her? Hell, how did he remember her, a girl who had to have been one in a million?
And what was his connection to the valuable emerald? What did he want it for? Did he have a client on the hook, or did he merely want to gaze upon its magnificence?
She rose, making sure she did so with grace and confidence. He had to notice the differences between Jacinda and Jacy. She hoped he kept the contrast clear in his mind. She'd made a new life, and she wouldn't let him show up and jeopardize a moment of it.
What did it matter if she let him have his way and see the stone? He'd be out the door and out of her life quicker if she gave in to his request.
She rounded the desk, then headed toward the door.
Glancing over her shoulder, she smiled. "You're coming, aren't you?" she asked, since he hadn't moved.
His gaze slid from her face, down her body, then rose slowly, leisurely, again. "You always had a distracting strut."
She bit back a gasp of annoyance. Leave it to Gideon, the wild, live-for-the-moment adventurer, to steal her control and land her smack-dab in the middle of her past so effortlessly. "I don't strut." Not anymore.
He reached around her and opened the door. "You most certainly do."
The enticing scent of him washed over her, and the memories quickly followed, as if six minutes had passed instead of six years. She recalled the heat of his body, the way his lean muscles rippled beneath her touch, the intense pleasure he'd brought herlike none other she'd had before or since. She remembered gawking at the luxury hotel suite, the expensive dinner and champagne. All free, he'd said. A gift from a gambler friend who'd decided to head to Monte Carlo instead of Vegas that weekend.
The charming, exotic mystery of Gideon had seduced her with nothing more than a smile and the promise of a good time.
A risk that had paid off in a big way.
At least for two days.
Beyond that, she knew his offer to come away with him was empty. She danced in skimpy costumes for horny vacationers. She knew her place in the world. No matter what his grand ambitions had been, she'd had ambitions of her own. And they hadn't included skipping around the world on a friend's generosity or chasing after the next treasure.
She didn't even consider the idea that they'd be together for longer than it took boredom to set in.
And, yet, here he was.
His appearance was unexpected and curious. Something she couldn't set aside so easily. Because she'd begun to wonder if ambition really was a lonely and empty path? Because she'd had years to realize how special their brief moments together were? Or because the connection was just that strong?
"I only have a few minutes," she said finally.
"That's what you said when we got in the cab six years ago." He leaned close. "Is tonight going to turn out the same way?"
With an ease she knew she hadn't possessed the last time she'd seen him, she turned away. "Don't hold your breath."
As they walked through the outer office, Andrew was typing on his computer. "I'm going to the warehouse. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Yes, Ms. Barrett."
God bless the man for knowing how to turn on the disinterested professionalism when necessary. More often than not, when something interesting was going on in the office, he plopped his backside on her desk and demanded that she "dish" about the news.
No doubt the dishing would come later.