Wineseller Christina Alvarez Mancini told one little lie—to reassure wealthy clients, she invented a suave British boss. With her ultimate dream, a winery of her own, close to becoming reality, she can't allow irregularities at a high-end wine auction to jeopardize her reputation.
A conman in love with a good plan.
Stig needs money, fast. An immortal Viking thief who discovered the perfect role as a fictional wine merchant, he's days away from the big payoff. Even if the California woman who created his character realizes a real person is conducting business in London, he'll disappear. That's what he does best.
Secrets that turn deadly.
Stig has success in his sights when Christina walks into his auction preview, ready to ruin his plan. Experience tells Stig to cut and run; a thousand years of boredom compel him to flirt. And when deadly Vikings from Stig's past crash the party, Christina and Stig are forced to cooperate in order to escape. Yet everywhere they flee, it's these two rivals' own lies that set the greatest traps…
Book two of The Immortal Vikings
About the Author
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Christina's little black dress itched. When she'd folded it in her carry-on next to her better black heels and a pair of stockings, she'd forgotten how the unlined side-zipper irritated the skin immediately below her armpit, but the threshold of Bodeby's London auction house was eight time zones too late to change her armor. The Bodeby's foyer wasn't half as large as the entrance hall at Uncle Robert's California estate, but what the townhouse lacked in square footage, it compensated for with elegance her uncle would never understand how to mimic.
"Madam?" The doorman glanced at her black rollie-suitcase, completely lacking in the designer touches that auction preview guests would have on anything they carried. She'd forgotten to remove the airline tag attached to the suitcase handle, and he probably suspected she'd changed clothes in a Heathrow Airport bathroom. From his completely blank expression, she could tell he didn't think she belonged with the one percent upstairs. "May I be of assistance?"
"Christina Mancini." She offered a smile and one of the cream linen-paper stock business cards she reserved for first impressions. "I emailed Monday that I planned to attend tonight's preview tasting. Several lots sourced by my firm Morrison and Mancini for Lord Seymour are in the catalog."
All true. Unsaid was that Bodeby's catalog listed two times more wine brokered by her company than her private records corroborated. Until she met whoever represented the estate of her deceased client and examined the actual bottles, she wasn't prepared to discuss her suspicions with the world's dominant auctioneer of fine and rare wines.
The indication to proceed to the coat check was a discreet backward step and abbreviated open-palm sweep low near the man's leg. After six years sourcing thousand-dollar vintages for the rich, she knew his informality signaled equality among working peers. He would have offered a slight bow and a second extended greeting to a client.
"Thank you." She was inside, her suitcase whisked to a discreet closet by uniformed staff who ranked below the doorman. People in her position offering expert personal services to the wealthy fell into the same zone as old-fashioned companions or tutors in books. Not on an equal social level, at least not in most of her clients' minds, but still experts who were respected. Establishing a connection with the staff manager of a client's household was the best way to create a long relationship with the person who paid the bills, especially since the staff manager usually signed the checks. Bodeby's was undoubtedly run much like a wealthy house, and the man who'd admitted her could be a future ally.
She might need one.
If the fluttering in her stomach as she ascended the stairs to the reception was any indication, the frowning old men in the gilt-framed portraits lining the stairwell already judged her guilty, perhaps of merely being a woman in the wine world. They wouldn't be the first, so she focused on the careful placement of each foot to avoid snagging her heels on the patterned stair runner and modulated her breathing in preparation for entering the tasting. A pastry at the airport would have absorbed the acid in her stomach, but she'd hoped to arrive before the preview opened. Evening rush hour traffic, combined with March rain, had ruined that plan.
"Miss Mancini." With impeccable timing, the auction house employee reached past her for a doorknob, his words straightening her spine and pulling back her shoulders.
Her entrance to the burgundy-and-gold decorated room passed unnoticed by the wine collectors mingling underneath the frescoed ceiling. The faded elegance of the overhead hunting scene also compared favorably to the Sistine Chapel reproduction crowning Uncle Robert's powder room, but she wasn't there to gawk at the trappings of good taste.
Perhaps a hundred guests circulated between tables where wine stewards provided micro-sized tasting pours, one vintage per station. Elsewhere, people chatted while servers offered small bites and removed empty stemware. Patrons ebbed and flowed at the tasting stations, but they pooled deepest around a man stationed in front of a faux wine cellar installed in the middle of the room. That was a nice touch, filling a space that usually felt empty away from the pouring tables. It could have been tacky, but the warm-colored stone looked real and gave the man at the group's center a superb backdrop. He appeared to be in his early forties, dark blond, with a black tuxedo to equal anyone's in the room. She couldn't place him, but the body language of the others indicated he was the person they jostled to meet.
To her right, Bodeby's head of wine sales huddled with a columnist for Wine Flight magazine and a third man. All three had forgotten to put on their party faces after their ties. She'd waffled for the plane ride from San Francisco over whether to approach the auction director. Her explanation would be concise. Two years ago she'd acquired six bottles of the 1991 Kingbird Estate Cabernet Sauvignon for Lord Seymour, who'd sent a fond note about how much he'd enjoyed two of them on the occasion of his eighty-first birthday. That wiggly script was framed over her desk, and simple subtraction yielded four remaining bottles. However, the Bodeby's sale catalog listed a full case of 1991 Kingbird Cabernet, twelve bottles estimated at nine hundred euro each, for a lot price of 10,800 euro. The international nature of fine wine meant the estimate was also listed in pounds and dollars. Fourteen thousand dollars for the case, and she couldn't verify more than four of the twelve bottles.
She twisted her mother's pearl ring until her thumb could press the little ball into her palm. Seventeen other auction lots had wines she had sourced, and each one had an inflated quantity. Copies of her sales receipts were in a folder in the coat check at this moment. Ethically, she had a duty to the wine community to report fraud, but any hint of irregularity, even a buzz as slight as a single fly at the next table, would kill her business.
Pushing the pearl harder into her hand, she kept her fist low at her side and glided clockwise around the room's perimeter, adding distance between herself and the wine director. Her height-challenged familiarity with heels enabled her to navigate without tottering like an intruder while her mind cataloged the faces she knew well, the ones she recognized and the ones that, in friendlier circumstances, she'd work to cultivate.
Near the corner of the room, Elaine Johnson nibbled on a cracker.
She could chat with the auburn-haired woman while looking engaged, rather than lurking. Bonus, she genuinely liked Elaine, one of the few first-wives in the room and a lady who'd introduced her to three valuable clients over the years.
"Christina!" Elaine's face lit up. "I had no idea you were coming over, or I would have told Jack to give you a ride." She smushed Christina into her chest but stopped short of a kiss that would leave lipstick on Christina's cheek.
In the instant Elaine squished her, Christina let her gaze return to the center of the room. A couple, money oozing from every perfect highlight of the too-young woman's tawny hair, approached the group in front of the mock cellar. The woman changed posture in a way that added a cup size she didn't need, and the older man used one of those power handshakes, left hand grabbing the younger man's arm with his right hand extended for the killer squeeze.
"I didn't know I was coming until two days ago myself." She stuck close to the truth while she watched the interplay in front of the cave. The shake recipient was lean, either from good genes or a good trainer, but he didn't crumple under the Masters of the Universe grip. Instead he grinned with the right amount of welcome and tilted his head to make a low comment. "Mr. Morrison broke his foot on the squash court"
"Oh hush. He did not!" Twenty years in San Diego hadn't pruned the older woman's Texas roots. "He's teasing you."
The gripper and the grippee shared a chuckle at the same time as Elaine. He was good.
She appreciated a good handler.
"That's why he sent me instead." As Elaine rolled her eyes, Christina shifted to improve her view of the knot of people in the center of the room, which included her friend's husband. "I've shown him how to use his digital assistant at least six times, but you know older men."
"He doesn't tell you everything, honey." Elaine's gaze swiveled to the same group at the moment Lord Seymour's daughter glided through the guests. "Haven't you noticed who's with Jack?"
The man with Jack was exactly who Christina was studying. He pressed Lord Seymour's daughter's hands and they kissed each other's cheeks, their body language signaling they knew each other well.
A low anger filled her empty stomach as she realized he must be the man representing the Seymour estate. With a smile that offered just enough sin for a middle-aged heiress and shoulders that didn't look too artificial, he'd easily convince a charity socialite that selling her father's wine collection was better than insuring it.
The Seymour cellar was Morrison and Mancini's to consign, by all that was fair in business. She'd been instrumental in building it. Every Western Hemisphere wine in it, from Argentinian malbec to Canadian ice wines, had been procured by her. It would have been courteous to ask her to be the go-between with the sale, but so much for women helping other women in business.
Hearing her name jerked her attention back to Elaine, who was watching her with penciled eyebrows higher than the Botox-loving crowd around Christina's target could hope to stretch. Her eyes and mouth somehow combined to look both amused and sympathetic.
"I don't know why you always describe him as older, honey."
"Geoffrey." Elaine purred the name of the senior partner of Morrison and Mancini as they both resumed staring at the cluster of people that included Elaine's husband, one of Christina's first customers. Then she leaned closer to snicker, "Jack is older. Geoffrey certainly isn't. He's a man in his prime."
Her client's familiarity with a man she couldn't possibly have met set off a low alarm. As soon as Christina figured out who the man at the center of this show was, she'd try to figure out what Elaine meant.
"Have you eaten? You look thinner than last time I saw you." Hand on Christina's elbow, Elaine steered her toward a waiter with a tray of white cheese spread on toasted bread. "You must come to shindigs like this with Geoffrey all the time. Is the food always this sparse?"
"Always." She gave her practiced laugh, the small and happy version, while she kept most of her attention on those gathered in front of the fake wine cave.
"I couldn't keep my mind on work without more food." Elaine sighed. "And when your boss looks so dee-lish in a tuxedo, I surely don't know how you work together without your eyes crossing. If I was twenty years younger and didn't love my Jack so much Tell me the truth, honey." She scanned Christina down to her polished black heels and then whispered close to her ear. "Aren't you a little itty-bitty bit tempted?"
"By what?" One ten-dollar coffee at Heathrow Airport hadn't been enough to clear her travel fog, because the direction of Elaine's question confused her. "By the appetizers?"
Geoffrey Morrison, owner and founder of Morrison and Mancini, wine merchants and custom collection finishers, contributor to numerous California charities, sponsor of an annual children's race held the day before the Silverado Trail Triathlon and author of several articles in Wine Aficionado and Wine Flight Magazine, did not exist. He was a complete fiction, created because no one, not one single person in possession of a credit card, hired a woman in her twenties to complete their wine collections, not even if that woman had an honors degree in viticulture and enology and five generations of California wine-making in her background. She'd juggled Geoffrey Morrison's busy schedule of non-appearances for six years. And never lusted after the invisible man once. Her pillow had more substance. So what the heck was Elaine talking.
She followed the woman's fatuous gaze straight to the center of the crowd, to the blond man who'd been her target since she'd noted his buzz.
No. The world could not be that batshit crazy.
"Now that I've met him, I think Geoffrey's even more yummy than the pinot noir he sent last month." Elaine giggled.
She had sent Elaine that varietal. She'd sensed how perfectly it would match her client's recipe for baked ziti with ancho chiles. Thinking about wine was usually an automatic comfort, but with the cacophony of accents and the feeling that one more part of her life was spiraling out of her control, the fact that Elaine liked her choice didn't calm her.
"Silly me. I forgot to thank him when we talked earlier. I'll have to go back." Elaine waved her lipstick-smudged cocktail napkin in front of her face as if heated. "Close your mouth, honey. I've decided to make sure your boss notices more than your brains."
The other woman assessed Christina from her hair to her shoes and back, the second person tonight to make Christina aware of her plain black dress and average heels. Elaine was her biggest fan, introducing her to new clients and sending customers from all over the country to her. Without Elaine, her business might not have survived, let alone grown to the point where she was halfway to the down payment on a small vineyard of her own, so she endured the scrutiny.
"My fairy godmother job would be easier if you wore a lower cut dress. Men are just like calves, always looking for"
"No, really, Elaine, please." She did not want to hear Elaine describe cow anatomy, not while they stood under Bodeby's antique chandeliers, because her concentration level didn't leave room in her brain to add inappropriate humor to the mix. She tried delicately to pull her arm out of the other woman's grip but didn't struggle enough to actually escape. To find out who the man in the center of the group was, because he couldn't be the nonexistent Geoffrey Morrison, she needed Elaine to drag her over and make conversation. That meant appearing reluctant, but not so reluctant that Elaine abandoned her apparent matchmaking. "It's fine. I don't"
"Oh hush. This will be like a romantic comedy. I guarantee by the time I'm finished, your boss will think the stars shine in your eyes."