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Her heart was beating so loudly in her chest that Cally Greenway was convinced the whole auction room could hear it. Drawing in a deep breath, she uncrossed then re-crossed her legs for the umpteenth time and tried to dismiss it as a flurry of anticipation.
After all, tonight was the night she had been waiting for. She looked at her watch. In less than ten minutes, the dream she'd worked so hard for would finally be a reality.
So why did it feel like her whole body was going into meltdown?
Cally closed her eyes and trawled her mind for a legitimate explanation as the penultimate lot, a heavily sought-after Monet, reached astronomical heights. Yes, that was it. She might be a restorer of art, but the art world— epitomised by nights like this, where beauty and expression became about money and possession—left her feeling out of her depth. She didn't belong at Crawford's auction house at the most prestigious art auction in their calendar, she belonged in overalls in her studio.
That was why she couldn't concentrate, she argued inwardly as she tried to encourage the hem of the silky black dress she'd borrowed from her sister back towards her knee. It absolutely, categorically, had nothing to do with the fact that he was here.
Cally castigated herself for even having noticed him arrive, let alone entertaining the idea that he had anything to do with the physical symptoms that were assailing her. There was no way any man could have that kind of effect on her, least of all one she'd never met before.
Well, technically. She had seen him once before, when she'd attended the sale preview two days ago, but she hadn't actually met him. 'Met' implied that there had been some interaction between them, which of course there hadn't been. He was classically handsome, and the expensive cut of his clothes—along with his very presence at an event like this—suggested he was filthy rich. He probably had some meaningless title like 'duke', or 'count', which altogether added up to him being the kind of man who wouldn't give a woman like her a second glance. Which was absolutely fine, because she had no desire to meet someone that arrogant and conceited anyway. One man like that had been enough to last her a lifetime; she had no desire to meet another.
So why was it she hadn't been able to drive the intensity of his deep blue eyes from her thoughts, ever since she'd walked into that sale room and had seen him standing there like Michelangelo's famous statue come to life? And why was it taking all her willpower not to steal another glance over her shoulder to the second row in the back right-hand corner of the room? Not that she had plotted the layout on an imaginary piece of graph paper and knew his exact co-ordinates, or anything. Why would she? Because every time you look round he slants you an irresistible, onesided smile which sends the most extraordinary shiver down your spine? an unfamiliar and thoroughly unwelcome voice inside her replied, but immediately she silenced it.
'And finally we come to lot fifty. A pair of paintings by the nineteenth-century master Jacques Rénard, entitled Mon Amour par la Mer from the estate of the late Hector Wolsey. Whilst the paintings are in need of some specialist restoration in order to return them to their original glory, they are undoubtedly the two most iconic pieces Rénard ever painted.'
Cally drew in a deep breath as the auctioneer's words confirmed that the moment she had been waiting for was finally here. She closed her eyes again, trying to visualise the air travelling up her nostrils and blowing her errant thoughts aside. When she opened them, the wall panel to the right of the bespectacled auctioneer was rotating in a spectacular one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn to reveal the stunning paintings, and the breath caught in her throat in awe.
She remembered the first time she'd ever seen them, or rather a print of them. Not long after she'd started secondary school, her art teacher, Mrs McLellan, had held them up as an example of how Rénard dared to push the boundaries set by his contemporaries by having a real woman as his subject rather than a goddess. The rest of the class had been lost in a fit of giggles; between the two paintings, Rénard's Love by the Sea went from fully clothed to completely naked. But for Cally it had been a defining moment in her life. To her the pictures spoke of beauty and truth, of the two sides of every story—of herself. From that moment on, she had known unequivocally that her future lay in art. A certainty matched only by her horror when she had discovered that the original paintings were shut away on the country estate of a pompous aristocrat getting damp and gathering cigar smoke, rather than being on public display for everyone to enjoy.
Until now. Because now they were owned by Hector Wolsey junior, whose horse-racing habit had caused him to demand that Crawford's auction house sell his late father's paintings immediately, before they'd even had the chance to say 'in-house restoration team'. Which meant the London City Gallery had been frantically trying to raise enough money to buy them, and had been lining up a specialist conservator to undo the years of damage. To Cally's delight, her enthusiasm, impressive CV and her expert knowledge on Rénard had eventually convinced the gallery team that she was the right person for the job. The job she had wanted for as long as she could remember, and the break in her career she desperately needed.
Cally glanced around the room as the bids took off, starting reassuringly with Gina, the gallery's agent, who was seated just along from her. There was a low hubbub of hushed, excited voices in every row of seats. Telephonists packed around the edges of the room were shaking their heads and relaying bids to eager collectors the world over. Within seconds, the bids exceeded the estimate in the sale catalogue, so much so that Cally was tempted to use her own catalogue as a makeshift fan to combat her soaring temperature—but she refrained, partly because she was rooted to her seat in anticipation, and partly in fear that it might inadvertently be taken for a bid. The moment was tense enough.
Unless you were Mr Drop-dead Gorgeous, Cally observed, her pulse reaching an unprecedented pace as she stole another look in his direction and caught him leaning back with a casual expression, his body utterly at ease beneath the blue-grey suit. She could do with a bit of that— composure, that was. Because, whilst she saw Gina raise her hand in between every figure the auctioneer repeated at speed, it did little to ease her nerves. Even if the gallery had promised her it was a dead cert.
But no doubt that was what Wolsley's son said about the races, she thought, caught between recalling the dangers of trusting anything too blindly and willing herself to relax. No, however convinced the gallery team had been that they had secured enough funds, the only time you could truly relax in a situation like this was if you had nothing riding on it—as he clearly didn't, she justified to herself. So what was he doing here when he hadn't bid on any of the previous eleven paintings since he'd entered the room at lot thirty-eight? Just as Cally was about to make a list of possibilities in her mind, something happened.
'That's an increase of—wait—ten million on the phones,' the auctioneer said uncharacteristically slowly, taking off his glasses in astonishment as he looked from the gallery of telephonists back to the floor. 'That's seventy million against you, madam. Do I have seventy-one?'
The rest of the auction room went ominously still. Cally felt her heart thump madly in her chest and her stomach begin to churn. Who the hell were they bidding against? According to the gallery team every serious collector with their eye on the Rénards should have been sitting in this room. Gina's horrified expression said it all. Cally watched on tenterhooks as she looked discomposedly at the paperwork in her lap. Eventually, Gina inclined her head.
'Seventy-one million,' the auctioneer acknowledged, replacing his spectacles and looking back to the phones.
'Do I have seventy-two? Yes.' He moved his head back and forth like a tennis umpire. 'There, do I have seventy-three?'
Gina gave a single, reluctant nod.
'Any advance on seventy-three?' He looked up to the gallery.
'We have eighty on the phones.'
'Any takers at eighty-one?'
Nothing. Cally squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
'Last chance at eighty-one—no?'
Cally stared helplessly at Gina, who shook her head apologetically.
'Closing then, at eighty million pounds.'
The sound of the hammer, and the auctioneer's cry of 'Sold,' echoed through her body like a seismic tremor.
The London City Gallery had lost the Rénards.
Horror ripped through her gut. The paintings she loved were to be shipped off to God knew where. Her hopes of restoring them were dead, and the door to the career she'd been on the cusp of walking through slammed in her face. The wall panel revolved another one hundred and eighty degrees and the paintings disappeared.
There was no such thing as a dead cert. It was over.
As the people began to gather their things and make their way out into the anonymity of the London streets, Cally remained in her chair, staring blindly at the empty wall. She didn't see the way that Mr Drop-dead Gorgeous lingered behind, and barely even noticed Gina's whispered apology as she crept away. She understood; the gallery's funds were not limitless. Even if they could have raised enough retrospectively, they had to weigh up their expenditure against the draw of the public. At a few million over the estimate, the paintings were such a prolific attraction they'd considered them still worthwhile. But almost double? She knew Gina had been taking a risk to go as high as she'd gone.
So, someone else had wanted the Rénards more. Who? The thought snapped her out of her paralysis. Surely whichever gallery it was planned to get someone to restore them? She knew it broke every unwritten rule of auction-room decorum there was, but suddenly finding out was her only hope. Launching herself from her seat, she rushed over to the back of the room where the row of telephonists was filing away.
'Please,' she cried out to the man who had taken the call. 'Tell me who bought the Rénards.'
He stopped and turned to look at her along with several of his colleagues, their faces a mixture of curiosity and censure.
'I do not know, madam. It is strictly confidential between the buyer and the cashier.'
Cally stared at him in desperation.
The telephonist shook his head. 'He said only that he was bidding on behalf of a private collector.'
Cally stumbled backwards and sat down in one of the empty chairs, resting her head in her hands and fighting back her tears. A private collector. The thought made her blood boil. The chances were they would never be seen by anyone again until he died of over-excess.
She shook her head. For the first time since David she'd actually dared to believe her life was going somewhere. But her only ticket out had just been torn into a million pieces. Which left her with what? A night in the cheapest London hotel she'd been able to find, and then back to the cramped town house-cum-studio in Cambridge. Another year of sporadic restorations which would barely cover her mortgage, because on the rare occasions a career-altering piece like this came up it only ever seemed to matter who you knew and never what you knew.
'You look like you could use a drink.'
The accented voice was French, and to her surprise it sent an even more disturbing tremor through her body than the sound of the auctioneer's hammer. Perhaps because she knew immediately who the voice belonged to. Though she had told herself that if he came near the alarming effect he had on her would inevitably diminish, the reality was that it seemed to double in strength. She ran her hands through her hair as if she'd really just been fixing it all along and turned around to face him.
'I'm fine, thank you.'
Fine? Cally laughed inwardly at her own words. Even if she'd been asked to restore every painting in the auction she doubted it would have been possible to describe her mental state as 'fine', with all six-foot-two-inches of him stood before her, filling her body with sensations she barely even recognised and which she certainly had no desire to confront.
'I'm not convinced,' he said, looking at her altogether too closely.
'And who are you, Crawford's post-auction psychologist?' Cally replied, unnerved by his scrutiny. 'Brought in during the final ten lots ready to mop up the disappointed punters after the show?'
A wry and thoroughly disarming smile crossed his lips. 'So you did notice me as soon as I walked in.'
'You didn't answer my question,' Cally retorted, colouring.
'So I didn't.'
Cally scowled. There was only one thing she hated more than people who oozed wealth, and that was people who were selective with the truth. She picked up her handbag and zipped it shut.
'Thank you for your concern, but I have to get back to my hotel.' She turned to walk towards the open doors at the back of the room.
'I'm not,' he countered. 'A psychologist, that is.'
She turned, no doubt just as he'd known she would. It was arrogant, but at least it was honest. 'Then who are you?'
'I'm Leon,' he replied, stepping forward and extending his hand.
'I'm here in connection with my university.'
So, he was a uni lecturer? Her first and utterly shameful thought was that she should have done her degree in France. The art professors she'd known had all been pushing sixty, and had looked like they hadn't seen a razor, and smelled like they hadn't used a can of deodorant, for just as long. Her second was pure astonishment; he seemed to exude too much wealth and sophistication. But then all Frenchmen were known for being stylish, weren't they? And it did explain why he'd simply been observing, not buying. She castigated herself for being too quick to judge.
'Cally,' she said, extending her hand in return, then wondered what the hell she'd been thinking when the touch of his fingers made her inhale so sharply that speech deserted her.
And are you a disappointed punter?' He raised one eyebrow doubtfully.
'You think I'm not the type?' she rebounded defensively, finding her voice again, though she didn't know why she was arguing with him when as a lecturer he was no more likely to have the spare cash to buy a priceless painting than she was.
'I think you didn't make a single bid.'