Morgan Grayson was in serious trouble.
Long, elegant fingers tapped out a synchronized beat on the steering wheel of his two-seater sports car as Aretha Franklin's unmistakable voice demanded respect. Morgan knew just how the lady felt.
Easing around the slow-moving Suburban, Morgan resisted the urge to press his foot down on the accelerator and take some of his growing frustrations out with a fast drive. The twisting roads beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Santa Fe were unforgiving when it came to fools and speeding vehicles. Morgan wasn't a fool, so he contented himself by increasing the volume of the CD and returned to pondering his problem.
His loving, stubborn, matchmaking mother.
Ruth Grayson had singled him out as the next one of her children to marry off. After she'd thrown Shelby in his path two weeks ago at Luke's wedding, Morgan had erroneously thought she'd need a little more time to regroup. After all, she had enlisted the help of her friends and associates from around the country in looking for a wife for Luke. Knowing she was too sensitive to thrust the same women at him anytime soon, Morgan thought he was safe. But she had outwitted him.
For him, she was staying local.
Last week, when he'd picked up his dry cleaning, he'd even heard there was a jackpota little something so the lucky winner could have a blowout bachelorette party. This morning he had stopped by his mother's house for breakfast and three of her single female colleagues from St. John's College, where she taught music in the graduate program, were there. You'd think she would be subtler or the women would have more pride. But no! They all acted as if this were some type of game. Unfortunately, he was the prize.
His mother had married off Luke, just as she predicted. As the second born, Morgan was next. In the past he had always been pleased that he was next in line. No longer. Brandon, Pierce, and Sierra were constantly urging him to hold out. Demanding might be a more apt word. His younger brothers and sister didn't have to worry. He had no intention of getting married.
He was happy for Luke, and Catherine was a fantastic woman, but marriage wasn't in his plans. His law practice was his mistress and he liked it that way. The woman hadn't been born who would make him even think about getting serious. But his mother wasn't listening to him.
His fingers flexed on the steering wheel as he wondered how Luke had coped, but since he and Catherine had been holed up in his mountain cabin since they returned a few days ago from their honeymoon in Bali, Morgan couldn't ask him. Probably just as well, Morgan thought as he came over a rise and saw the black iron gate of the Hendersons' ranch that signaled he was almost at his destination. Luke was an unwanted reminder that their mother had been right in her choice for her firstborn.
Slowing down, Morgan turned into the paved driveway and saw the white stucco ranch house at the end of the winding mile-long road. The red tiled roof gleamed in the bright morning sunlight. The aspen leaves were thick and shimmering with life, the air scented with the last, lingering scents of wildflowers. It was a beautiful fall day. Too bad he couldn't enjoy it.
Stopping in the circular driveway in front of the heavily carved red double doors, he cut the motor. The BMW roadster purred to a polite silence. He smiled. He'd always been a sucker for cars. He enjoyed the finer things in life and worked long, demanding hours in a job he loved to afford them. With his thriving law practice, his life was perfect in every way but one. His mother.
Thrusting his mother's matchmaking schemes from his mind, Morgan picked up the hand-stitched leather attaché case from the seat beside him and got out. He had business to take care of. Besides, he could handle any woman she pushed in his path.
Closing the door, he started up the walkway lined with purple sage. The neigh of a horse followed by the throaty laughter of a woman caused him to pause and turn toward the sound. He was just in time to see an elegantly shaped woman take a huge roan stallion smoothly over one six-foot rail, then another. Since Morgan had a fondness for women and horses, he watched the riveting combination of grace and beauty.
The woman's long legs were encased in tan jodhpurs pressed tightly against the animal's gleaming flanks as she guided him over another obstacle. It took strength, skill, and control to handle such a big, powerful animal and make it appear effortless. Morgan idly wondered if the woman was that controlled in bed or was as wild and as tantalizing as her laughter had been.
"Excuse me, sir. May I help you?"
The heavily accented voice effectively ended Morgan's speculations and his idle thought of finding out. Pleasure never outweighed business. Pushing the woman from his mind, he turned.
"Yes. I'm Morgan Grayson. I'm here to see Mr. Duval. He's expecting me."
The dark, austere face of the elderly servant dressed in unrelieved black became no less stern at Morgan's announcement. His closely cropped head of gray hair inclined slightly. "Yes, Mr. Grayson. Mr. Duval is expecting you. This way, please."
Morgan followed the man, his gait slow and deliberate, inside the rambling one-story ranch house. The interior was cool, the furniture sleek and ultramodern. Morgan knew the couple who owned the house but seldom lived there. They preferred the Mediterranean this time of year and saw the house as a tax write-off. Thanks to the investment advice of Morgan's brother Pierce, they were able to enjoy their retirement in style.
Crossing the slate gray carpeted floor, the servant knocked briefly on the heavily carved mahogany door. "Mr. Duval. Mr. Grayson is here."
"Send him in," commanded a curt male voice.
"Yes, sir." Standing to the side of the door he opened, the servant closed it as soon as Morgan walked through. Morgan saw Andre Duval turn from looking out the window, then take a seat behind his desk. Not by word or look did he acknowledge Morgan. Thankful that his business with Duval would be brief, Morgan crossed the polished oak floor and extended his hand.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Duval. It's a pleasure to meet you." He didn't even wince at the lie.
Duval ignored the hand and stared unflinchingly back at Morgan. "You're late."
Morgan's own eyes narrowed. He'd heard that Duval, a renowned sculptor, was temperamental. Apparently he was also rude. Slowly Morgan twisted the hand he had extended and glanced at the face of the eighteen-karat Rolex on his wrist. "I'm seven and a half minutes early."
"Where are the papers I'm to sign?"
Not even by a flicker of his thick lashes did Morgan show his irritation. If Duval were his client, he'd walk. He wasn't. He was the client of the Lawson & Lawson law firm in Boston. Kenneth Lawson, the senior partner, had been Morgan's mentor as well as his professor when he attended Harvard. He was now a good friend. Morgan respected and liked the crafty Lawson too much to disappoint him. His firm would get a sizable commission once Duval signed the contract to have Courage, the best of his earlier works, reproduced for limited editions. Besides, a lawyer learned early to deal with unpleasant people and unavoidable situations.
"May I?" Morgan asked, lifting the briefcase over the highly polished surface of the immaculate desk.
The affirmative nod from Duval was also curt.
Placing the case on the desk, Morgan opened it and handed copies of the two contracts to Duval. A black-gloved right hand emerged from beneath the desk, took the papers, and laid them carelessly aside. Cold brown eyes never left Morgan.
"You can leave now."
Morgan snapped his briefcase shut with a distinctive click. "If you have any questions I'd be happy to answer them. I understand you were expected to sign today and I could overnight them to Mr. Lawson."
"You understood wrong." Duval stood. His left hand was already in the coat pocket of his loosely constructed black jacket. He slipped his right into the other pocket. "Good-bye."
Morgan knew when he had been dismissed. He pulled a card from inside the jacket of his wheat-colored suit and placed it in the middle of the desk. "In case you need to reach me. Good-bye." Lifting the briefcase off the desk, he turned to leave.
A brief knock sounded on the door before it swung open. Bubbling laughter preceded the striking young woman into the study. "Andre" She stopped her headlong dash, her smoky gray eyes widening on seeing Morgan. For a long moment she simply stared.
Morgan was doing the same. She was even more exquisite up close. "Hello."
"Hello," she murmured a bit breathlessly, then turned to Andre. "I'm sorry. I came in the back from the stable. I didn't know you had a guest."
"No matter, my dear. Mr. Grayson was just leaving."
Morgan noted Duval's voice had lost its sharpness and now almost crooned. Morgan could well understand why. If the woman's whiskey voice didn't get you, the smoky gray eyes and pouting lips would. She had the kind of face that a man would go to his grave remembering and a lush, curvaceous body created to satisfy any fantasy.
She flushed beneath her golden skin at Morgan's open appraisal. All that sex appeal and she could still blush. Innocence and carnality, an alluring and dangerous combination. Was she La Flame, the mysterious woman reported to be the inspiration and reason for Duval's sculptured pieces to have regained their fire and vitality after a seven-year absence from the art world? It would certainly explain his rush to get rid of Morgan.
Duval had an unimpeded view of the front of the house and the stable from the window in his study. It was safe to assume he had seen Morgan watching the vibrant young woman and hadn't approved.
Morgan smiled. Living on the edge kept a man sharp. "Mr. Duval, I didn't know you had a daughter."
"She's not," Andre snapped.
A smile tugging the corners of her enticing mouth, the woman came farther into the room. "I think Mr. Grayson is teasing, Andre."
"Phoenix, Morgan Grayson," Andre introduced them, obviously annoyed at having to do so.
"Hello, Mr. Grayson."
Morgan's large hand closed over the small, delicate one she extended and he noted the slight roughness of her palms. The unexpected contrast pleased him almost as much as the slight leap in her pulse at the base of her throat, the widening of her beautiful eyes. "Hello, Phoenix."
Moistening her lips, she withdrew her hand. He'd bet the farm that she wasn't the nervous type. Interesting. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked, her voice a fraction huskier than it had been.
Very interesting. "No"
"Thank you, dear, but Mr. Grayson was just leaving," Andre interrupted. "Besides, you need to change after riding."
Embarrassment replaced the warmth in her face. Her hand fluttered across the front of her wrinkled white blouse, then down the side of her dusty jodhpurs. "Please excuse my appearance. I was so excited about Crimson settling in so well, I didn't think."
Morgan's own smile increased to put her at ease. Twin dimples he had always detested winked. "No apology needed. It was a pleasure watching you ride."
The corners of her very tempting mouth curved upward again. "Crimson did all the work."
"Since I ride, I know better."
"Phoenix," Andre called, his voice tight. "You really need to change out of those clothes, and don't forget to remind Cleo that we won't be dining in tonight."
Her eyes flashed; her body tensed. Morgan had seen the same thing happen when his sister, Sierra, became angry. The quiet before the storm. Morgan waited for Phoenix to tell the bossy Duval to take a flying leap.
Instead, in the next breath, she seemed to retreat before Morgan's eyes, leaving only the facade and none of the brilliance of the vivacious woman who had entered the room. It was as if a shade had been placed over a bright flame. Again Morgan wondered what the relationship between the two was.
"Of course, Andre. Good-bye, Mr. Grayson."
"Good-bye, Phoenix," he said, unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice that she was leaving and that she hadn't stood up to Duval. The door closed softly behind her.
"I'll show you out." Coming from around the desk, Andre led the way out of his study. As soon as they emerged, the same servant Morgan had seen earlier appeared. The elderly man reached the front door seconds before Duval stepped onto the terrazzo entryway. Despite the man's stiff left leg, Andre had not slowed in his haste to rid himself of Morgan.
Hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket, Andre stood to the side as Morgan passed. "I'll mail the contracts directly back to Kenneth. There is no need to trouble you driving all the way back out here."
Morgan stopped in the middle of the stone walkway and turned. Duval wouldn't care if Morgan slow-roasted on a spit. They both knew it. He wondered why Duval even bothered to lie and then caught a movement . . . a flash of white behind him. Phoenix.
Inclining his head in acknowledgment, Morgan opened the car door, tossed his briefcase onto the passenger seat, then got in. Driving away, he again wondered exactly what the relationship was between Duval and Phoenix. Neither gave out signals of their being lovers, but that didn't mean they hadn't been intimate.
Morgan might not like the snobbish man, but he was well respected and wielded a great deal of influence in the art world. Certain women were attracted to that type of man. But for some odd reason Morgan didn't think Phoenix was that kind of woman. In his profession he had learned to read people quickly and accurately. Users weren't guileless and they certainly didn't blush.
Flipping on the signal, Morgan pulled onto the highway and headed back toward Santa Fe. He didn't like puzzles. He liked even less the pompous way Duval had treated Phoenix. Before the roadster had gone another mile Morgan knew he was going to find out exactly what was going on between the two.
"I thought I'd find you in here."
Phoenix turned from slipping on her smock to see Andre enter the studio. Bright sunlight streamed through the three floor-to-ceiling windows behind her. The rays weren't kind to Andre. They sought out every line in his sixty-five-year-old face and delineated his thin frame. Unbidden came the contrasting and very vivid image of Morgan Grayson's muscular body.
The moment she'd seen Andre's visitor, she had been captivated by the intensity of his gaze, the raw masculinity his expensive suit couldn't hide. There had been something untamed and noble about him. Instinctively she'd known he'd make a good friend or a dangerous enemy.
"You aren't annoyed with me, are you?" Andre persisted.
She took her time buttoning the faded smock. They both knew it wouldn't matter if she were, just as they both knew he wasn't going to change. He was an artistic genius with the temperament to match. He could be rude, harsh, insensitive, but she never forgot he had saved her when no one else had cared.
She took a seat at the stool in front of the workbench. "Why were you so abrupt with him?"
"He was sizing you up."
Phoenix blinked, then laughed despite the sudden pounding of her heart. "He was doing no such thing."
"You always think the best of people," Andre sneered down his nose. "You believed the same of Paul Jovan."
Phoenix's entire body stiffened.
"I'm sorry you made it necessary to remind you of the incident," Andre said, his black-gloved hand sweeping over her hair. "Your naïveté and beauty attract the wrong type of men. I'm the only man you can trust. Remember that." Without another word Andre left the studio. There was no need for him to remain. He had accomplished what he intended.
Phoenix removed the cloth from the bust, lifted a pick, and began to delicately remove the excess clay. She couldn't argue even if she wanted to. Andre was right. He was the only man . . . including her father . . . who had ever wanted her for herself. It would be foolish, not to mention dangerous, for her to forget again.
Copyright © 2005 by Francis Ray. All rights reserved.