Can she outwit the ultimate master in a timeless game of seduction? Chasing Icon, the world's slickest art thief, was the most seductive thrill of London art investigator Zara Leighton's career until the clues led her to the man who holds command of her body and heart, Tobias Wilder, an American billionaire with charisma to spare. Her duty to capture him is complicated by the intensity of their passion. Her will to end their connection is tinted with red-hot need to never let him go. Tobias's heists are about more than money and ego. His plot to orchestrate the perfect deception in Los Angeles is destiny. No onenot even Zaraknows the depths of his motivation. And no one suspects the truth behind a single artifact that holds the secrets to an entire civilization. Forced to deny one calling to satisfy another, he knows something must be sacrificed: his code of honor or his loyalty to Zara.
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About the Author
Prior to publishing, Vanessa worked as a registered nurse and midwife. She holds a Masters Degree in Psychology. She has traveled extensively throughout the world and has lived in Great Britain, Germany, Hong Kong, Cyprus and the USA.
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This way Through The Wilder Museum promised to lead to one of the most significant paintings of French Impressionism, a masterpiece renowned for igniting a sensation in the late nineteenth century for its stunning realism. A work also famed for altering your experience of art irrevocably.
My stilettos carried me across the white marble floor of one of Los Angeles's most distinguished museums, and my heart beat faster as I made my way toward the room showcasing Jean-Jacques Henner's 1879 Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet.
More than this, these sprawling hallways would lead me back to him.
Tobias William Wilder, the owner of this grand palace of art, and the reason I'd traveled all the way from London.
I'd flown in to LAX just this morning, arriving on this balmy Monday with my heart heavy with what lay ahead. By the time I'd checked into my hotel in Beverly Hills, I'd rallied my courage to see him again.
Amongst Wilder's many talents, which included running a billion-dollar tech empire and taking the world by storm with his inventions, he was also Icon — history's most notorious art thief. It was this secret that was destroying me.
All I believed about us is a lie.
I hurried onward refocusing on the reason I was here.
I'd worn a deep blue laced dress, the color calming, and the detail of the scalloped lace hemline pretty and nonthreatening. The style made me feel feminine but strong; with the strappy high heels, my height would at least be closer to his. Tucking my Dooney and Bourke pouchette purse behind me, I took a moment to center myself, prepare for what lay ahead.
Taking in a deep, steadying breath, I raised my gaze skyward to the architectural wonder of the multicolored glass ceiling showering shards of radiant light upon me. A vivid display bridging the old world with the new, the complex prisms were quite simply beautiful and provided a rare glimpse into Tobias's nature.
The first curator to greet me had advised that the route I was now taking was the best way to approach the gallery's most treasured piece, generously on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The one portrait everyone came to pay homage to.
Along with the imminent visceral experience from viewing such a masterpiece, this moment was filled with a ribbon of emotions unfolding with the complexity they deserved, from seeing the man who I'd thought of as my one true love to the strain of having to persuade Tobias to surrender to Interpol. Or, if it was easier, he could come with me to the police. I'd do everything in my power to make his arrest a little kinder on him.
Tobias had single-handedly shaken the art community to its core by stealing some of its most precious portraits, and all this without leaving a trace.
Right up until that raven had dive-bombed his heist back in France, leaving a few feathers to mark its uninvited descent into a priceless rotunda in Amboise. Such a chaotic misadventure proved nothing fazed him. Tobias had gotten away with a self-portrait by Titian, no less.
In his own indomitable style he had also incapacitated my world when he'd swept me up into a rapturous love affair that had left me questioning my integrity. I had to know if I'd been merely a means to an end because as a forensic art investigator, I'd seemingly been a pawn to move and manipulate and provide him with insider glimpses into his case. If it were not for me, our private investigation would have otherwise remained secured away on Huntly Pierre's database — the company I worked for and the firm that had tasked me with tracking him down.
I wallowed in guilt that so far I'd done nothing.
I'd needed time to analyze the evidence to prove Wilder was our man. Such an accusation could devastate a reputation. There was no room for error or even doubt. It was impossible to deny the raw truth I'd personally witnessed at his home in Oxfordshire, having stood right there in that cold vault and viewed those stolen paintings. My uncanny ability to spot a fake had proven a curse as I'd known I was viewing an authentic Rembrandt, and a Monet. Along with the others I'd viewed, it had added up to irrefutable evidence.
I'd left his home with nothing to corroborate my story. Accusing one of Huntly Pierre's most exclusive clients would see my thin thread of credibility gone, along with my dream job. My future hinged on doing the right thing.
And doing it well.
Yes, Tobias had stolen those paintings to return them to their rightful owners. Having tracked their provenance, I knew these privately owned collections had been robbed before by some faceless thieves for personal profit.
Still, sooner than later Tobias was going to get caught. This beautiful, brilliant man who had shown me how to love deserved so much more than the consequences of his heroic misadventures.
During our last agonizing phone call, a few weeks ago while I was still in London, I'd begged him to give up this life and in typical Tobias fashion he'd teased me with how to find him, giving a clue that only an art lover like me could decipher.
He'd described how alike I was to Madame Duchesne-Fournet, though he'd not spoken her name then. He'd merely mentioned that upon unveiling the painting in the late eighteenth century, she'd brought Paris to a standstill. He'd compared what Madame Duchesne-Fournet had done to France to what I'd done to him.
Brought Tobias to his knees.
How much I wanted to believe he loved me. I needed to know what we'd had was real.
There was no place for weakness.
No time for delusion.
In any other circumstance I would have refused to rush along, simply couldn't imagine not paying any attention to the other paintings like the last frame, La Promenade, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Glimpsing back at the painting, I felt a wave of melancholy at that 1870 oil on canvas conveying a dashing gentleman with his hand held out to assist his lover up the grassy bank, the flirtatious turn of her head hinting this was a new and thrilling love.
I wanted to go back in time and warn her away from him.
Hurrying onward, I flew around the corner and arrived in the vast showroom displaying a series of masterpieces.
My heels echoed on white marble as they carried me to the center of the large space where I would find her, realizing that part of her allure was Tobias's teasing description of her influence.
Turning, I faced the long stretch of opulent tile stretching beyond and raised my gaze to look at her — the acclaimed Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet.
Gasping in awe when I saw her ...
Madame Duchesne-Fournet was more wondrous than I'd ever imagined, her extraordinary presence emanating out of the frame and leaving me spellbound.
The way her long golden frame hung low on the wall made her appear to be standing right at the end of the gallery.
Waiting for me.
Taking in her natural beauty, those elegant angles of her face, a striking porcelain complexion and pronounced jawline, her refined nose. Most stunning of all was her chestnut gaze that revealed a sharp intelligence and sparked a sense of consciousness. The grandness of her full black gown and plush jacket reflected her status as the wife of a prominent French politician.
As I closed the gap between us, it took all my will not to trace my fingertips along the exquisite canvas — the austere background enhancing her outline and creating realism, her appearance accentuated by the remark- able contrast expertly melding her profile. This was the unmistakable technique of "sfumato," one of the four canonical painting modes often used in Renaissance art. Painting in this mode was a rare skill mastered by Henner and proved his talent at layering colors and tones and shading them into one another to provide boldness and, when needed, a subtlety of form.
A sigh of respect left my lips.
What message had Tobias been trying to tell me by inviting me here to see her? Perhaps he'd wanted me to know he truly understood me and that this painting would somehow endear me to him more because of our mutual admiration for art. Perhaps he wanted me to know our connection was as deep as I believed it to be.
A living, breathing masterpiece.
Reluctantly, I drew my gaze away and glanced at my watch.
I was right on time for my appointment with Mr. Wilder. Three days ago I'd reached out to Maria Perez, his senior curator, and informed her I'd be paying their gallery a visit.
I'd texted Tobias and warned him he better meet me here or there would be consequences. As expected, he'd ghosted me, refusing to reply. Considering this was the phone he'd gifted me and it now served as a tracking device to my whereabouts, I was sure he'd gotten the message.
He was wise enough to turn up.
Back in the lobby, I made polite conversation with the receptionist to prove my credentials and confirm my meeting.
The tall, young steward left her station behind the round desk and guided me briskly along, escorting me back through the foyer and a long hallway to the sprawling office space of the gallery.
We continued all the way down until we paused before a door with his name and title carved into the opaque glass.
She gestured for me to go ahead and with a nod of gratitude I turned the handle and stepped inside —
He wasn't here yet.
Shame swept over me that I'd allowed my life to come to this, become so enamored that merely standing here I questioned my moral code. This office, this gallery, represented Tobias, and I hated him because I loved everything about it.
How elegant and modern with that expensive central desk upon which sat the thin computer screen and a sleek keyboard beside it. The shelving behind was stacked neatly with books on art and others on travel; the one on American history had tipped on its side.
His presence lingered like a dark dream that had once owned my soul.
A rush of panic —
There, adorning the far left wall was a familiar painting; a ghost from my past.
All air was gone from the room until nothing remained as I struggled to draw back on my dread, wrapping my arms around myself to hold off this stark chill soaking into my bones.
Lips trembling, I neared the portrait of St. Joan of Arc.
I reached up, grasping either side of her wooden frame and lifted her off the wire.
I'd grown up with Walter William Ouless's St. Joan and couldn't remember a time when her portrait hadn't been part of my father's collection. It broke my heart when I remembered his devastation when he thought she'd been destroyed in that house fire, along with most of the others.
This very portrait had turned up at Christie's auction house weeks ago in London, alighting a family scandal because she wasn't meant to exist anymore.
More recently, St. Joan's disappearance from Chris- tie's had seen her included in the list of art crimes tracked by the police across Europe. And yet here she was placed to taunt me.
Her message clear —
My future in the art world was in his hands.
I hugged St. Joan, clutching her tight to my chest, sucking in deep breaths of despair that she was no longer mine.
To think of rescuing her and walking right through that foyer and out the front door was ridiculous. I'd never get away with it.
My life was carved into two parts, before Wilder and after him, with each careful step leading me toward this complex, enigmatic man with the lines of right and wrong blurring. If I truly wanted to succeed, truly wanted to save him after risking so much, I'd have no choice but to push myself beyond anything I'd done before.
Ironically, it was Tobias who'd shown me how to challenge myself and learn how to resist fear.
He's shown me the way.
Rising up and dispelling this temporary moment of stupidity, I saw a stocky security guard standing just inside the door and staring me down.
"Miss," he said, louder than needed. "Place the painting on the desk, please."
My breath stuttered. "I was just taking a closer look."
"Desk, please." His fingers clenched around his handgun.
With trembling hands I stepped forward and laid St. Joan faceup on the desk. Stepping back, I raised my hands in the air a little. "It's not what it looks like."
Yet it is.
Had there not been cameras, or guards, or any other state-of-the-art security, I'd have taken her away with me without looking back. From that guard's expression he knew it too. With a wave of his hand he warned me to move farther away.
My back met the wall and I froze.
An ice-cold slither of fear spiraling down my spine.
The door opened farther and in stepped a delicate-framed Latino woman, forty or so, those laughter lines now taut with worry. "Ms. Leighton?" Her tone was infused with tension. "I'm Maria Perez."
"We spoke on the phone?" I said.
The awkwardness forced a shameful silence.
She saw the painting and looked horrified.
"I'm so happy to meet you." It sounded silly now, my politeness negated by my suspicious behavior.
"Take a seat," said the guard. "LAPD are on their way."
My feet refused to move. "Who?"
"We've called the police." Maria's gaze rose to the small camera set in the upper right-hand corner.
Its lens trained on me.
Panic-stricken, I stared down at St. Joan wondering if Tobias had set a trap. He'd known how beaten up I was about finding her again. He'd witnessed firsthand how incapacitated I'd been when she'd turned up at Christie's. He'd been the one who had embraced me when my knees had buckled with the strain of realizing she'd not been destroyed.
Vulnerable, ice sliding down my spine.
Then he appeared like a suave apparition —
Tobias Wilder entered briskly and paused just inside the door, his expression unreadable. A flash of power in his dark green gaze as he glanced at his desk.
His glare rising to find me.
Igniting a tremble within as I exhaled a slow, nervous breath. God, I'd almost forgotten how gorgeous he was, how regal and breathtakingly dashing, the way his dark blond hair framed that handsome face, high cheekbones and that strong jawline. The way he moved demurely and yet with a masculine edge that emanated power. I'd swooned too many times at the way he liked to casually tuck his hands into his trouser pockets like he was doing now in that expensive bespoke suit, no tie, and his collar open to add an arrogant flair.
Few people would know that beneath all that formality his left upper arm was inked seductively with an Aborigine symbol and lower on his well-toned body, along the curve of his groin, were inscribed words in Latin. Both in a suit and out of one he'd once rocked my world. An annoying inconvenience remedied by remembering who I was dealing with — Icon.
And that curve of his lips proved he was garnering pleasure from my reaction to seeing him again.
I've fallen into his trap.
Of course, I'd underestimated his brilliance, his foresight, his boldness to break all the rules and let the dust fall where it may.
My stare swept from him to Maria, and then sharply to the guard's hand twitching on the gun.
"It's all a big misunderstanding," I pleaded with Tobias. "Can you tell them ... she's mine?"
"Mr. Byron," Tobias said darkly. "What do we have here?"
The guard pointed to St. Joan. "Sir, she tried to steal that one."
Tobias's frown deepened. "I see."
Drowning in the consequences of my actions, my mind swirling — that gun freaking me out.
Tobias stood there quietly, merely emanating his usual charisma.
I stepped forward. "Mr. Wilder, it's wonderful to see you again."
"Likewise, Ms. Leighton," he said with a twinkle of mischief.
My tone turned serious. "Your security is top-notch. After a brief sweep of your gallery I've confirmed your cameras are well positioned —" I pointed to the guard "— your staff are alert and responsive, and your mechanisms are well concealed."
Tobias looked amused.
My heart pounded against my rib cage as I steadied my nerves. "Mr. Wilder?" I arched a persuasive brow. He walked toward the desk and reached for St. Joan and lifted her with ease. He carried the painting across the room and returned her to the wall.
Scraping my teeth across my bottom lip, I willed him to be fair at least, to see reason, to remember we'd shared a passionate love affair. We'd been a couple; once.
Seeing him again was destroying me.
Excerpted from "The Game"
Copyright © 2017 Vanessa Fewings.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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