A life she never imagined...and a love she can’t deny
Zara Leighton has risked everything to track down the elusive art thief known as Icon, only to discover him already in her arms: the billionaire tech genius—and her lover—Tobias Wilder. Zara wants to resist Tobias, to deny his fiercely sexy smile and their sizzling chemistry. But instead, she agrees to help him one more time.
Tobias will do anything to protect Zara, but he needs her for one last ultimate job: a job that will clear both their names and grant them a future together...if they can pull it off.
The danger is real. The stakes are unbelievably high. But when it comes to love, there’s only one prize that matters…
About the Author
Vanessa Fewings is the USA Today bestselling author of the ENTHRALL SESSIONS. THE CHASE is the first in her sizzling new romantic trilogy from HQN Books and will be released in June 2017, followed by THE GAME & THE PRIZE.
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.
Read an Excerpt
I shouldn't be here.
My life felt unrecognizable. I was standing in a New York drawing room, and all its decadence seemed a mere extension of the grand wealth and endless secrets I'd been exposed to ever since meeting him.
Tobias William Wilder, the man who I'd unwittingly fallen for and the reason I was here. A man seemingly wiser than his thirty years, dangerously charismatic and a captivating inventor and CEO of the leading software company TechRule. He also owned the renowned Wilder Museum in Los Angeles. It felt as though fate itself had shot an arrow into my heart to strike my greatest weakness — my devotion to art.
Above me swept a dramatic ornate plaster ceiling and below my strappy Louboutin heels lay a brightly patterned Persian rug encompassing the entire room. The surrounding paintings from centuries past completed this grandeur within this Upper East Side mansion. The heat from the pine logs in the hearth spat orange sparks and brought a warmth that still couldn't lift the chill from my bones.
No, I wasn't meant to be here at all.
Nor should I have been draped in a shimmering Dior gown to attend a prestigious social event.
I'd left behind my dream job at Britain's distinguished art investigation firm Huntly Pierre, as a forensic art specialist, and now my world swirled in turmoil. A disarray I couldn't see how to pull back from.
Yesterday, we'd both fled LA on Wilder's private jet and evaded the FBI. Just over a week ago, I'd made the journey stateside to persuade Tobias to give up his secretive pursuit of stealing artwork and then apparently returning it to its rightful owners.
His obsession for justice touched me personally when he'd dared a heist at Christie's London auction house to steal back my own masterpiece, St. Joan of Arc by Walter William Ouless, a painting my father once owned and the same one that was meant to have been destroyed in our house fire. Right up until my gaze had swept over the canvas during a visit to the famous auction house. In those few seconds it took me to authenticate it my life changed irrevocably and it had been a prelude to my unraveling.
Even if his intensions were heroic, they were daringly illegal. His misadventures had earned him the title of Icon and the reputation for impressively evading the authorities. That was until he'd met me, because I was the one who'd caught him.
And he is the one who caught me.
Never had a love affair been so forbidden.
Just the thought of him sent a quake through me as evocative as I imagined opium would feel surging through my veins. Though Wilder was a deadlier addiction ...
I could leave.
This was the lie I'd told myself so I wouldn't fall apart, but in reality I was a wanted woman. Exhaling an uncertain breath, the same one I'd held since leaving the West Coast, or so it felt, I steadied myself for another wave of panic and concentrated on the self-portrait by Peter Paul Rubens hanging dead ahead. Though now the artist's rendition mocked me with his hawkish brown eyes — even though I'd done nothing wrong, not really.
Wilder's deep, even tone rose from beyond the door in his usual masterful cadence as he carried on a conversation in French, and it made me wonder if he was on the phone with his uncle. Maybe he was telling him all that had happened to us. Maybe he was asking for help. Either way, Tobias sounded just as collected as that first evening I'd met him in The Otillie gallery in London.
The day everything changed.
My body tightened as I watched the door open and him enter. My feelings were as complex as the man who strolled toward me with that long, elegant stride exuding confidence, and his stark beauty left me breathless; his three-day stubble highlighted his dangerous edge that was perilously beguiling. He was dressed in a black tuxedo, and he always stunned with his short, ruffled dark blond hair and sharp chiseled features that were ridiculously gorgeous. A timeless masculine beauty inspiring the same wonder of a Greek sculpture by Praxiteles himself, a living, breathing Hermes. Wilder had the greenest eyes that sparkled with intelligence and kindness too, a mischievousness that was the catalyst for my falling for him.
His scrutiny fixed on me and sent shivers into my core. It hurt too deeply that I could never let him touch me again the way he once had. Our lovemaking threatened to woo me into compliance and addle my thoughts and right now I needed to remain razor sharp. The tension between us was ever more palpable.
He came closer. "Let me go alone."
I had to fight back. Rage against this loss of control. Yet who was I fighting with? The man who'd led me here after seducing me with his dangerous persuasion or with the Burells, one of America's most influential and menacing families. Perhaps I'd stumbled too far into the dark murky world of revenge. Every decision I made, every action taken decided my future.
His brow furrowed as he tried to read me. "It'll be safer if you stay here."
Safer, yes, but if I risked nothing my future would lay in another's hands. "You need me for this to work." I broke his gaze; it was easier that way. "Besides, this is my life we're talking about." I refused to descend into powerlessness.
He stepped back into my line of sight. "I get that, Zara. This is my fault. All of it —"
"I put the spotlight on you —"
"That was your job. To investigate." He shrugged. "To find me."
"Still, I understand why you did what you believed was right." Even if his deeds had been misguided. Though perhaps his grand ruse continued and my fate was yet to be realized. The thought of this possible betrayal caused ice to slither up my spine.
My legacy was within reach and owning my father's paintings was my birthright. I owed that at least to my father and his beloved memory.
And only Tobias could lead me back to them. Yet, at what cost?
"We'll find them." He'd sensed my thoughts were on them again. "We'll put this right."
Am I naive to believe him?
"Zara, have you thought any more about my suggestion?"
It was out of the question for me to surrender and let the blame fall on him. He'd been willing to throw himself onto his sword; at least he'd stated as much when he'd seen how torn up I was on the plane.
I'd gotten to a place where I could talk with him again. I wrapped my arms around myself. "I wish it was possible to let them go." Yet my agony was real when I thought of allowing my dad's art collection to fade into the past.
"Zara, this is more than us recovering them. This is getting justice for Burell destroying your home and inflicting pain on your father. On you. He believes he's won."
My gaze locked with his as I conveyed the silent message, Revenge for you too, Tobias, for Burell bringing down your plane and murdering your family.
He answered with a nod. "I want my life back too."
My stare caught the portrait of Rubens again and his eerie focus. "Is it even possible?" "We proceed toward the life we want. The future we deserve." His hand rested on the lower arch of my spine. "Do you remember the plan?"
His plan was insanity.
This evening's event had fed his obsession with danger.
"Give me the chance to prove I can solve this." His tone had a husky allure.
Maybe he was right, maybe he could. "More smoke and mirrors?" "If necessary."
I ran my fingers over my short bobbed wig, glad that it hid my long auburn locks making me unrecognizable.
"You make a stunning blonde." He reached up and ran a strand between his fingers. "Very convincing."
I marveled that my life had now been reduced to me wearing a disguise and joining forces with Icon.
I've lost my way.
No, not joining forces, I reassured myself. I'm keeping watch over him and can turn this man in at any time. He knew this, of course, I could see it in his gaze as that familiar veil of his secret life occluded him once more.
"Ready?" He gestured to the door.
We made our way out and into the grand foyer, and Tobias helped me with my long black coat. He grabbed his masquerade mask off the foyer table and we stepped out into the crisp autumn air. The sting of a November night made its way into my lungs. I glanced left and then right down Sixty-Ninth Street, orientating myself to this remarkable city.
We walked toward the blue Aston Martin parked out front and Tobias pressed his thumb to the passenger door to open it for me. I climbed in and sank into the luxury leather seat of his stylish Vanquish S. He rounded the car and got in beside me, starting the engine by using his thumb on the ignition pad. He steered the car away from the curb and into traffic.
"Whose house are we staying in?" I'd already asked him this but Wilder had avoided the question. "Tobias, who are you protecting?"
"It was my grandmother's." He didn't break his stare from the road. "The artwork will make its way to a new gallery I'm opening in the Bronx. Well, it was before all this."
"You didn't tell me you were opening a new gallery."
His shrug revealed he had the same wariness of me that I had of him.
"Your grandmother doesn't mind us staying there?"
"She died a few years ago."
"Me too — she'd have liked you very much." He threw me a smile.
I sensed there might be a chance to enter through that chink in Wilder's armor if I let him open up naturally without me prying. I hoped he'd let me in again.
He parked a little way down from 432 Park Avenue, and the mirrored skyscraper that loomed was impossibly high. Peering up at its sheer height brought a wave of vertigo.
Tobias killed the engine. "It's certainly impressive."
Which was his way of saying we'd be taking the elevator whether I liked it or not.
We watched the decadently dressed guests arriving in their chauffeur-driven cars, then exiting and strolling toward the door. They were already masked and it infused an eeriness into the evening. The concierge greeted guests in the doorway and checked them in before they could proceed any farther.
"I've deactivated your phone's GPS." Tobias unclipped his seat belt. "It will be impossible to track."
I unclipped mine and turned to face him. "So I can't tell anyone I'm here?"
"Not yet. Look, once you're back online the FBI will track every email you send. They'll be aware of every purchase you make and your location if you use any of your credit cards. We only need a week."
What must they think of me back at Huntly Pierre, I thought painfully and caressed my belly to ease the guilt for letting them down. Wilder's techno genius would keep the authorities busy for a while as they continued to hunt us. Our plane had taken off yesterday in LA and landed on a private airstrip off the East Coast with no record of us being on the flight or arriving in New York.
Tobias gave a thin smile. "I've got this."
The realization we were about to see Elliot Burell, patriarch of the infamous family and CEO of Burell Industries, sent a wave of terror cycling up my spine.
We had to pull this off. And then get the hell out of there. Alive, preferably.
"One step at a time, Zara." Tobias scrolled across his phone.
A quick glance and I saw he was tracking a blip on his screen. "Is Burell here?" He dipped his head and looked out the window. "He's in the penthouse."
"He's in there too."
We'd both experienced how dangerous Burell's son was when Eli had tried to kill us both in Arizona. As I peered up at that high-rise I questioned my sanity for even considering entering that building.
"Why don't you stay in the car?" he reassured me.
"Say the word and I'll get you out of there." Tobias pried the masquerade mask from out of my hands.
"Let's get this over with."
"Okay, turn around."
He brought the mask to my face and I held it there as he secured the ribbon behind my head and then trailed his fingers down my blond bob to smooth it out. It made my scalp tingle.
I faced him again and reached out to press my hand against his chest, needing his affection. He caught my hand before it reached him and he gave it a comforting squeeze and then nudged it away. That one gesture proved he'd come to terms with us being over. It shouldn't have come as a surprise — I mean, there'd been an underlying tension since I'd boarded his plane.
Wilder provided our fake names to the concierge, who stood beside a tuxedo-wearing security guard with an earpiece. The concierge threw Tobias a big smile when she found our names on her list, though had she known he'd hacked into her system a few hours ago to add them and they weren't even real, she wouldn't be smiling at all.
We were granted access and made a beeline for the elevators at the back.
Once inside the elevator the steel doors slid closed and we ascended fast. I tried to remember how to exhale. I hated small spaces. Lifts, mostly.
"Almost there," Tobias said with an edge that anchored me.
The doors opened to a cacophony of laughter and clinking wineglasses: a sea of beautiful people within a sprawling modern penthouse with pink marble floors and walls that reflected the same gaudy decor we'd seen in the Burells' Arizona estate. The potent presence of heavy gold trimming and the Louis XIV–style ivory couches and chairs and classical ceiling murals were all seemingly designed to suffocate his adversaries with opulence.
Tobias led me into the thrall of beautiful masked men and women who held themselves with the stature of the social elite. Their luxury perfumes and custom-made colognes drenched the air in a plume of extravagance. The ebullient mood was lifted further by the faint hypnotic music of a solo violinist, whose notes threatened to lull the unassuming.
After giving my hand a reassuring squeeze, Tobias gave me a firm glance to let me know he'd just seen Elliot Burell.
He was really here.
Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, my gaze followed Tobias's and fell upon our enemy, sending a jolt of terror into my core. Burell's sharp brown eyes peered through his black mask to survey his guests with a suspicious glare. He was taller than I imagined and even with his face partially covered with his mask I could see the hard lines of a worn and yet handsome face. His black tuxedo fit him flawlessly and I was unnerved to see such an athletic-looking man of seventy.
This masquerade mask may have concealed my expression but my eyes failed to hide my disgust.
A waiter hurried over to Burell carrying a single tumbler on a tray and offered the amber- colored liquor to him. Burell accepted the glass without even acknowledging the man's presence.
"Will you be okay?" asked Tobias. "I'm going to check our exits."
I gave a nod. There was no room for second-guessing.
We were inside the lion's den now.
Staring beyond at the magnificent panoramic view of New York and its striking array of sparkling lights on a backdrop of a black velvet night, I imagined it was beautiful when it snowed. Catching my reflection in the glass I hardly recognized myself. This disguise provided me with the confidence to watch Burell's reflection working the room with the arrogance of a man who had an empire at his feet. As expected he greeted his guests with a deadly precision.
My fingers trailed over the chain of my necklace and the single emerald glinted its reflection in the window before me. That it had once belonged to Tobias's mother brought some comfort and I allowed this moment of sentimentality.
Until a jarring thought swept in, warning this may well be the ultimate trap I'd willingly walked into.
Steadying my nerves, I stared out at the impressive architectural wonder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I hoped I'd get to visit there while I was here. My thoughts drifted to Tobias telling me about his gallery opening in the Bronx. There was so much good we could continue to do. So much at stake. If I left anything behind from the devastation of my life perhaps it would be what we achieved tonight. The kind of access that would bring down an evil empire.
My breath caught in my throat — panic-stricken to see the young man talking with Elliot Burell was his son, Eli. There he was arrogantly ruling the room as he surveyed the guests as harshly as his father with those piercing eyes, his haughty refined nose raised in judgment and that fop of dark hair brushing over his silver mask.
Never had I felt more vulnerable; alone in a room with two monsters.
When Eli's gaze swept my way, I froze and took a sip of wine to further conceal my face, and then breathed out a slow sigh of relief when his glare slid away.
I'd not doubted Tobias, until this moment.
A stark chill caused my forearms to prickle.
Excerpted from "The Prize"
Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Fewings.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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