Authors: Diana Hamilton
She continued. “My professional services weren't needed in the first place, as far as I can see.”
“You're right. But I have other needs, Caro, and you are going to satisfy every last one of them.” Ben gave her a slow, thoughtful look. “I suggest we stop pussyfooting around and start right now.”
“Now why would I agree to that?” Caroline queried, her heart thumping wildly.
“Because you owe me for twelve wasted years.”
“Judging by your impressive achievements, the last twelve years can hardly be called a waste.”
“That's not what I'm talking about and you know it,” Ben said. “I've had twelve years of wanting what most men wantâa wife, a family. Of wanting a good long-term relationship and not being able to commit to any other woman because no one came close to what I remembered of you.”
She's his in the bedroom,
but he can't buy her loveâ¦
The ultimate fantasy becomes a reality
Live the dream with more
Mistress to a Millionaire
by your favorite authors
The Unexpected Mistress
Harlequin Presents (#2263)
resemblance is quite remarkable, Caroline. You could have been the sitterâcome here, take a look.' Edward Weinberg's slender, long-boned hands beckoned her and she put the guest list for the up-and-coming private viewing down on the beautiful, fastidiously uncluttered expanse of his desk and went to join him in front of the painting a uniformed porter had just brought up from the strongroom and placed on an easel.
Her employer's remark regarding the likeness was irrelevant, but she was consumed with curiosity to at last see the masterpiece that Michael, Edward's son, had acquired at a small, country-town auction a few months ago.
Carefully cleaned, painstakingly authenticated, the lost work by the pre-Raphaelite painter J. J. Lassoon had caused deep ripples of acquisitive excitement amongst the select band of collectors who could afford to pay serious money for the pleasure of owning a thing of covetable beauty.
Caroline had been in the north of England advising the new heir to one of the great houses on what he could dispose of, with the most profit and the least pain, to pay death duties, and had missed out on all the excitement.
âWhich will be the more important, the prestige or the profit?' She glanced at Edward from black-fringed, deep violet eyes but his expression gave nothing away. He had the face of a mournful aesthete, his tall, elegant figure looked fragile enough to be bowled away by a puff of wind. But he was as tough as old boots. If she had been asked to put money on his true feelings she would have put prestige as his prime concern.
The London-based Weinberg Galleries had a fiercely guarded reputation for offering art and artifacts of the finest quality. The acquisition of the Lassoon painting could only add to his reputation.
âI'll leave you to ponder on that.' Edward smiled as he turned away and Caroline gave her attention to the newly discovered masterpiece only to have her breath freeze in her lungs because he was right. The resemblance was remarkable. More than remarkable. It was uncanny.
Set against a riot of lush greenery, the artist's model cupped a white lily in her curving hands and it was the very image of her, exactly as she had looked twelve years ago at the age of seventeen. The cloud of glossy black hair reaching almost to her waist, the youthful translucence of the milky skin, the thin patrician nose, the over-full rosy lips parted in a secret smile, the dreaming, drowning deep violet eyes. Dreaming of love, drowning in love.
Even the title was apt.
A shudder of bitter anger rippled down her spine. That was exactly how she had looked all those years
ago when she had loved Ben Dexter with all her passionate being. So much love, she had thought she might die of it.
Yes, that was how she had looked before she had learned the truth, before he had turned his back on her and had walked away from their turbulent love affair, her father's money in his pocket, more money than the boy from the wrong side of the tracks had ever seen in his life, his gypsy-black eyes glinting with the satisfaction of a bargain well struck, his whip-thin, virile body swaggering with heartless triumph.
She swung abruptly from the painting. She felt sick. She wished she had never set eyes on the wretched thing. It had brought back memories she'd buried deep in her psyche, memories she would have to struggle to inter again with even greater determination before the internal, unvented anger could do more real and lasting damage.
Edward's immaculately barbered silver head was bent confidingly over the phone as she walked past him, avoiding her office, going to Michael's to discuss the final gallery arrangements for the imminent private viewing, only breaking off when her secretary, Lynne, located her on the internal line just before lunch-time.
âThe letters are ready for your signature and the balance sheets from the accountants have just come through. Mr Edward will want to see them. Oh, and he wants you to stay on this evening. He left a mes
sage. He's got a client for
. The usual drill.'
Champagne and canapÃ©s, followedâif the client showed serious interest and was willing to pay top dollarâby an elegant dinner at one of London's more select eating houses. As Edward's executive assistant it was her job to ensure that the evening went smoothly, his to extol the virtues and provenance of the piece the client was interested in.
âSo he's not putting it in the private viewing,' Caroline mused as she came off the phone. âSomeone must be keen.' She leant back in her chair and raised one finely drawn brow at Michael.
The private viewings were as near the vulgarity of a public auction as Edward Weinberg would allow. None of the items were ever priced but amounts were discreetly mentioned, offers just as discreetly made and just as quietly topped until, at the end of the day, the original sum mentioned would have rocketed sky high.
Though occasionally, a particular client would make it known that he was prepared to go to the limit, and above, to acquire a particular piece and a private evening meeting, as the one scheduled for tonight, would take place.
âThe old man plays his cards close to his chest,' Michael pointed out. âHe must have put feelers outâor waited to see what came up after the heavier broadsheets published that photograph of the painting. Who knows?'
He lounged back in his chair, his warm hazel eyes
approving her elegant, softly styled suit, the gleam of her upswept black hair. Caroline Harvey was quite something. Beautiful, intelligent, articulate. And a challenge. Her beauty was cloaked in inviolability. He wondered if she had ever allowed any man past a chaste kiss at the end of a date. He doubted it. He picked up a pencil, rolling it between his fingers, and wondered what it would take.
She returned his warm approval, hers overlaid with affectionate amusement. Edward's son was stockily built, almost good-looking. He affected a casual style of dressâbordering on the sloppy. Mainly because, she guessed, he knew he could never compete with his father in the sartorial stakes so went the other way.
She gathered together the papers she needed and Michael said, âLunch? There's a new place opened round the corner, just off Berkeley Square. I thought we might suss it out.'
He was already on his feet but Caroline shook her head. Since his divorce, over twelve months ago now, they often lunched together when they were both back at base. To begin with they'd talked shop, but recently their conversation had reached a more personal level. Without actually saying as much, he had hinted that he would like their friendship to deepen into something far more intimate.
She sighed slightly. Approaching thirty, she had choices to make: whether to remain single, a career woman with no family, just a small circle of friends;
or whether to become part of a couple, have children, trust a man againâ¦
âSorry,' she declined softly. âI'll have to work through. I'm going to have to squeeze in the arrangements for this evening and I'm already pushed for time.'
She worked quickly and efficiently, gaining enough time to leave an hour early. She needed to go home to her small apartment near Green Park, change and be back at the Weinberg Galleries in Mayfair by six-thirty at the very latest.
She would have rather spent the mild April evening at home with a good book, and that wasn't like her. She lived and breathed her work. But she wasn't looking forward to this evening and wasn't stupid enough to pretend she didn't know why. The sooner
was off their hands the better. The memories it had forced into the front of her mind tormented her. She had believed she had forgotten the pain of heartbreak and betrayal. But she hadn't.
She dressed carefully because it was part of her job to look as good as she could: claret-coloured silk trousers topped by a matching tuxedo-style top, a slightly lighter toned camisole underneath, garnet eardrops her only decoration, high heels to add to her five-ten height. And she was back at the gallery to approve the caterer's efforts before Edward and his client arrived.
âElegant, as usual, Ivan.' Her heavily lidded eyes swept the small but exquisite buffet, concentrating
on that because she couldn't bear to look at the painting on its display easel, cunningly lit by discreetly placed spotlights. Just thinking about it, the shattering resemblance that reminded her of the passionate but clueless young thing she'd been, made her feel ill with anger.
âThere's no need for you to stay on.' She made herself smile at him. âAs soon as you've opened the champagne you can fade away. One of the security guards will let you out.'
She squared her shoulders, forcing painful memories to the back of her mind. It was only a painting, for pity's sake! Ben Dexter had meant nothing to her for twelve long years and the residue of anger she hadn't realised she still felt had to be nothing more than a self-indulgent fancy.
It had to stop!
âEverything's in hand for the private viewing later this week, I take it?'
âSaturday. Yes, of course.' Ivan gave the bottle of champagne a final twist in its bucket of ice and stepped back, his hands on his slim hips. He had a dancer's body and soulful brown eyes. Caroline wondered wryly how many hearts he'd broken in his young lifetime as the brown eyes flirted with her. âEverything will be perfect, especially for youâfor you, anything else would be unthinkable.'
âSuch flattery,' she mocked. Everything would be perfect because he and his small, hard-working team were the best money could hire, and inside that handsome Slavic head lurked an astute business brain.
The small moment broke the unease of not wanting to be here at all, and she was grateful for that until, from the open doorway, Edward said, âCaroline, my dear, let me introduce Ben Dexter. Ben, meet my invaluable right hand, Caroline Harvey.'
She closed her eyes. She couldn't help it. The panelled walls were closing in on her, the luxurious Aubusson tilting beneath her feet, the tumultuous beats of her heart suffocating her.
Ben Dexter. The man who had taken all she had had to giveâher body, heart and soulâthen, Judas-like, had sneaked away with her father's pay-off. She should, she thought savagely, be thankful that, unlike Maggie Pope from the village, he hadn't left her, literally, holding the baby.
She forced her eyes open, scrabbling for the slim hope that two men could bear that name, made herself look at him and met the bitterness in his darkly eloquent eyes, saw the slight, contemptuous curl of his handsome mouth, the proud lift of his dark head, and wanted to hit him for what he had been, for what he had done.
He'd been a thorn in the sides of the parents of daughters, the bad boy of the village, disappearing for months on end to goodness only knew where, reappearing with his wild, gypsy looks, his whippy grace, his devil's eyes, to quite literally charm the pants off the local girls!
Only she hadn't known that then, all those years ago. He'd said he loved her, wanted her for always,
until the stars turned to ashes. And she'd believed him. Then.
She felt herself sway with the force of her anger, scathing words of condemnation bubbling in her throat, choking her. But Ivan's steadying hand on the small of her back brought her back to her senses, and she smiled for Edward, met Ben's cynical eyes as Ivan moved discreetly away, and extended a hand towards the man she despised, dreading the touch, the clasp of those slim, strong fingers on hers, the warmth of his skin.
âMr Dexter.' The almost painful clasp of his hand pushed whatever inanity she might have followed up with right back in her throat. His skin was cool, yet it burned her. She couldn't pull her hand away quickly enough.
âMiss Harvey.' Formal. Yet beneath the veneer something about his voice, something sensuous, like dark chocolate covered in rough velvet, sent her nerve endings skittering to life. How well she remembered that voice, the things he had saidâ¦the wickedly seductive thingsâ¦the lies, all liesâ¦
He turned away, his mouth indented, as if he were mocking her, saying something to Edward now, casually accepting the flute of champagne Ivan handed him and strolling towards the painting on display. So he wasn't about to acknowledge the fact that they knew each other, that they'd made wild, tempestuous love during that long-ago summer when the world, for her, had been touched by magic.
Well, why would he? She hadn't explained that
they knew each other when Edward had introduced them because, heaven knew, she was deeply, abidingly ashamed of her younger, stupidly gullible self. And he'd probably forgotten her entirely. Just one in a long line of silly, disposable females who'd been only too eager to lie on their backs for him!
The deal had been done over the canapÃ©s and champagne. Caroline didn't know how the boy who'd been brought up by his widowed mother in a near-derelict cottage could have come by that amount of spare cash. Well, however he'd come by it, she figured the means would have been unsavoury. But she wasn't going to waste mental energy trying to work it out.
Edward was giving them supper in the exclusive restaurant currently in favour. Caroline faced Ben over the elegantly appointed table, watching him covertly beneath the dark sweep of her lashes.
Twelve years had changed him; his shoulders were broader beneath the expensive tailoring, his honed body more powerful, his ruggedly handsome face less expressive than it had been at nineteen years of age, his tough jaw darkly shadowed and his sensual mouth touched with a recognisable line of determination.
She shivered slightly and forced her attention to the sole in white-wine sauce she'd ordered. She hadn't wanted to come, had even, for a moment, thought of crying off, pleading the onset of a migraine as an excuse to cut and run.
But the moment had passed. She wouldn't let Dexter turn her into a coward.
Edward had ordered champagne. He never drank anything else. Hers, untouched, had gone flat. The relaxed conversation between the two men ranged over subjects as diverse as politics and the theatre. She was barely listening, just wishing the evening would end.