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"I feel like a voyeur."
The woman's hushed confession drew a chuckle from her companion, a silver-haired gentleman clad in a black tuxedo. The handsome couple stood before a canvas oil painting mounted on a wall. The portrait captured a nude man and woman locked in a torrid embrace, their sensuously entwined bodies framed against a scorching sunset.
"Perhaps that was her intention," the tuxedoed man postulated. "To make us feel like voyeurs, as though we were intruding upon an intimate encounter between two lovers."
"Perhaps," the woman agreed. "At any rate, it's absolutely mesmerizing. Such passion, such raw sensuality conveyed in each brushstroke. It's definitely her most risque work to date."
Neveah Symon hid a private smile as she stood beside the two art collectors appraising her latest work.
"I wonder what inspired this particular piece," the woman mused.
Lifting her champagne flute to her lips, Neveah offered, "Maybe she was thinking about how long it had been since she'd gotten laid."
With a scandalized gasp, the woman turned to gape at her. "I beg your par"
"There you are! I've been looking all over for you."
The newcomer's voice belonged to a tall, beautiful woman with a butterscotch complexion and a sylphlike figure. Neveah had only a glimpse of Jordan Harper's tight-lipped smile before she grabbed Neveah's arm and hastily ushered her away from the frowning couple.
"I can't let you out of my sight for one damn minute," Jordan muttered, shaking her head in exasperation as she led Neveah through a crowd of people eating canapes, sipping champagne and socializing. "You just don't know how to behave yourself."
Neveah laughed. "I was mingling with our guests. What's wrong with that?"
Jordan snorted. "We both know you weren't mingling. You were making mischief."
"Mischief? What are you talking about?"
Jordan shot her a knowing look. "I overheard what you told that couple."
"So what?" Neveah grinned unabashedly. "Maybe I was horny when I painted Golden Ecstasy. Contrary to popular belief, not everything I create is inspired by angst or tragedy. Sometimes all it takes is good old-fashioned lust to get my juices flowing. Pun definitely intended," she added with a wicked chuckle.
Jordan shook her head, lips quirking as she fought back a smile. "Be that as it may," she said, steering Neveah into an empty corner, "I'd appreciate it if you kept that, ah, revelation to yourself. There's nothing deep or philosophical about being creatively inspired by lust"
Neveah laughed. "I beg to differ."
Jordan was not only Neveah's best friend of sixteen years, she was also her business partner. The art gallery owned by the two women was situated in a converted warehouse that featured high ceilings, pristine white walls, gleaming hardwood floors and recessed lighting. It was located in Houston's theater district, which was home to an eclectic community of thespians, artists and musicians. Although the gallery had showcased the works of several world-renowned painters and sculptors over the years, it wasfirst and foremosta venue for local and emerging artists to gain exposure. For that reason, Neveah had insisted on limiting the number of her pieces to be sold tonight.
"Do you have any idea who that couple was?" Jordan demanded.
Neveah sipped her champagne, idly surveying the crowd of elegantly dressed strangers milling around. "What couple?"
"The couple you were scandalizing before I intervened. Do you know who they were? None other than Eugene and Margot Rosenblum."
Neveah looked blank. "Who?"
Jordan eyed her incredulously. "Don't tell me you've never heard of them before! They only happen to be two of the most prominent art critics in the country. They've reviewed your work in The New York Times and The New Yorker"
Neveah grinned. "Favorably, I hope?"
"Of course. They love your work. And since they're both native Texans, they're especially partial to anything you do. They're going to enjoy meeting you at the charity auction. Which brings me to my next point. No one's supposed to know that you're back in the States, remember? You're supposed to make your grand appearance in two weeks. If Seth knew that you were here tonight, he'd kill both of us."
Neveah chuckled at the mention of her longtime manager, who scheduled all her publicity appearances and handled her business affairs so she could immerse herself in her art. A consummate professional, Seth Daniels had been a godsend to her, even if he was high-strung.
"That's why I didn't want you to attend tonight's showing," Jordan fussed. "I knew you wouldn't be able to keep a low profile. What if the Rosenblums had recognized you?"
Neveah chuckled. "Relax. No one's going to recognize me."
"How do you know?"
"For starters, I've been living overseas for the past thirteen years and I rarely do interviews, which means I haven't been photographed very often. Besides, someone would have to be looking real hard to recognize me under this thing" she touched the edge of the wide-brimmed black hat that slanted over her eyes "you forced me to wear."
"That thing," Jordan said archly, "is a Kokin original. And what are you complaining about? You look fabulous. Like a bona fide fashionista."
"That's me, all right," Neveah quipped sardonically. "Fashionista extraordinaire."
Jordan laughed, acknowledging the absurdity of the remark. Neveah was the furthest thing from a "fashionista" you could ever find. With her trademark peasant blouses, colorful dashikis and gypsy skirts, she was the epitome of the free-spirited bohemian who was unconcerned with the latest fashion trends. So it was no wonder that she felt out of sorts in the slinky black dress and strappy high heels she'd reluctantly agreed to wear for that evening's reception.
"Seriously though, Neveah." Jordan's tone had gentled. "You do look wonderful, and not just because you're wearing an outfit I handpicked for you. You're a sight for sore eyes. I've missed you, and I'm really glad you're home."
"Oh, Jordy." Neveah smiled softly, touched by her best friend's heartfelt words. "I've missed you, too. And I can't tell you enough how grateful I am for everything you've done with the gallery. None of this" she gestured to encompass the large, buzzing crowd "would have been possible without your dedication and hard work."
"Oh, hush." Jordan waved off Neveah's gratitude, her cheeks pinkening with embarrassment. "I haven't done anything you wouldn't have done if you'd been living here. And let's not forget that without your vision and financial backing, there'd be no gallery."
Neveah grinned. "You just can't do it, can you?"
"You just can't accept a simple thank-you."
Jordan chuckled, draping an arm around Neveah's shoulders. "Don't worry. Now that you're back home, I'll be putting you to work. And trust me, by the end of the week, thanking me will be the last thing you want to do."
Both women laughed.
"Oh, look, there's Nicolas Garcia." Jordan smiled and waved at someone across the room.
"Another art critic?" Neveah asked.
"No, he's a board member of the Houston Arts Alliance. I'd love to introduce you to him, but I'd better not. If he goes back and tells anyone that he met you tonight, word will get around, and Seth will kick my ass. introduce you to Nicolas at the charity auction in two weeks."
"Okay," Neveah agreed, "but he's making his way over here to greet you, so you'd better head him off."
"Good idea." Jordan leveled one last warning glance at Neveah. "Behave."
Neveah grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
After Jordan departed, Neveah's gaze was drawn to an abstract painting displayed on a nearby wall. The piece had been done by a local artist named Topaz. Jordan had been raving about his work for months, and Neveah could understand why. His impressive staining technique and use of unusual color combinations demonstrated an aptitude rarely possessed by beginning artists. Neveah looked forward to meeting him. That is, once her manager allowed her to officially emerge from hiding. "Neveah."
She turned at the sound of her name. And nearly dropped her empty champagne glass.
The man who'd addressed her was so handsome he took her breath away. His skin was the richly decadent color of caramel. His face was a mesmerizing study in contraststhe masculinity of heavy eyebrows, granite cheekbones and a square jaw juxtaposed by thick, curly eyelashes and a lush, sensual mouth framed by a trim goatee. His eyes were heavy lidded, and as dark and sinful as melted chocolate. He was tall, with broad shoulders, long legs and a powerful frame that was wonderfully accentuated by the cut of his expensive black suit.
As Neveah stared at him, the room began to spin. She swallowed hard and fought to keep her balance, which was a feat considering that she'd just received the biggest shock of her life, coming face to face with the man who'd broken her heart and shattered her dreams thirteen years ago.
Xavier Mayne gazed down at her with deep-set eyes that traced her features beneath the low brim of her hat. She wanted to duck her head, turn away from him. But she couldn't. As her heart drummed wildly, she could only stare at him and wonder what he was doing there. Surely he knew that he was the absolute last person on earth she wanted to see.
"I can't believe you're here." His voice was deep, dark and dangerously intoxicating. "It's been a long time."
Not long enough, Neveah wanted to say, but her vocal chords had apparently gone on strike. She couldn't believe that the gorgeous, Versace-clad stranger who stood before her was the same roughneck who'd stolen her heartalong with her virginitya lifetime ago. His face was leaner, tougher, the angular contours more sharply defined. His silky black hair was cut close to his scalp in lieu of the cornrows he'd once favored. Also gone were the diamond stud earring, the iced-out chain and the platinum three-finger "Rated XXX" ring he'd famously sported. But it wasn't just the absence of bling that intrigued Neveah. The grown-up version of Xavier exuded confidence, finesse and a smoldering masculinity that completely robbed her of speech.
After a prolonged silence, Xavier's expression softened with concern. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Her voice barely rose above a whisper. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
Neveah shivered, her fingers reflexively tightening around the stem of her glass. "How did you know I was back in town?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does to me."
"Why?" He moved closer, close enough to breach her personal space and set her pulse hammering. She dragged in a shaky breath, then wished she hadn't as the subtle, spicy notes of his cologne invaded her senses. Even after all the years she'd spent trying to purge him from her system, his presence still wreaked pure, unadulterated havoc on her body.
Heat gathered beneath her skin as his penetrating gaze roamed the length of her before slowly returning to her face. "You look amazing, Neveah," he said huskily.
She hated the way her heartbeat quickened, hated that she still loved the way her name rolled off his tongue like a lover's caress.
She swallowed with difficulty. "You shouldn't have come here."
"Did you really think I would stay away?"
"I hoped you would."
"I couldn't," he said simply.
They stared at each other.
When Neveah recently made the momentous decision to return home to Houston, she'd known there was a strong chance that she would run into her old flame. But she hadn't expected it to happen this soon. And she certainly hadn't expected him to seek her out after all these years.
"I've missed you, Neveah," he said softly. "I'm glad you came back home. You belong here."
Anger flared inside her chest. "I didn't come back for you. In fact, I don't want"
"More wine, miss?" interrupted a white-gloved waiter carrying a silver tray.
Grateful for the distraction, Neveah blurted, "Yes. Please."
After refilling Neveah's champagne glass, the waiter looked to Xavier, who politely declined.
Once the man had moved off, Neveah took a long sip of her drink, hoping the chilled wine would help calm her frayed nerves.
Dipping his hands into his pants pockets, Xavier watched her with a faintly amused expression. "What?" she snapped.
"There was a time you could barely handle one glass of wine, let alone two. After one drink, it was pretty much lights-out for you."
Neveah smirked. "Yeah, well, I've done a lot of growing up since then. What about you? Still knocking back forties and getting drunk with your friends?"
"Not quite." A small, self-deprecating smile touched his mouth. "I do my drinking alone these days."
Neveah faltered for a moment, disarmed by the trace of sorrow in his voice. She couldn't imagine Xavier Mayne doing anything alone. In all the years she'd known him, he had never lacked for companionshipespecially of the female variety. Which was why their relationship had been doomed from the start.
As the painful memories threatened to surface, Neveah took a step backward, wishing that she and Xavier were once again separated by thousands of miles, although no amount of distance could ever completely cure her of him.
"I have to go," she announced.
"Yes. I wasn't even supposed to be here tonight."
"I'm glad you were," he murmured.
She didn't know how to respond to that. So she didn't. "Well, it was
nice to see you again. Take care."
She should have known it wouldn't be that easy.
As she moved to make her escape, Xavier stopped her cold in her tracks by saying, "I need you, Neveah."
Neveah stared at him, heart knocking against her ribs. "What did you just say?"
Xavier held her stunned gaze. "I have a proposition for you."
Her mouth went dry, even as she instantly rationalized that he couldn't possibly be referring to anything sexual. Striving for composure, she said, "Sorry. I'm not interested."
"Why don't you hear me out before you turn me down?" he drawled, humor threading his deep voice.
Like a lit fuse, her temper flared. "I don't need to hear you out," she snapped. "I have no interest in anything you"
At that moment another couple wandered over to admire Topaz's painting, their presence reminding Neveah that she and Xavier were not alone. The last thing she wanted was to cause a scene at her own art gallery. Jordan would never forgive her, and when word got back to Seth, he would have an apoplectic seizure.