Allow me to present the first 5 (yes, five) chapters of DESCENDED. Enjoy!
He has no wings or halo, but he’s an honest-to-goodness hero... And his lineage is quite impressive.
When a reclusive businessman takes an interest in Haven’s artwork, she knows it’s an answer to prayer. But Jett Cestone is an enigma with a disconcerting connection to the young women in his employ. He’s by far the most unusual man she’s ever met.
Haven is the most interesting woman to ever cross Jett’s path. But she’s too naïve and pure to learn what goes on in his home. Too bad he wants her more than he’s wanted anyone or anything in his life.
The light was no match for him. He could become one with any shadow or light, keeping his presence secret for as long as he wished, causing a man to believe his mind was playing tricks. Or he could be the last thing that man saw before he met his Maker. There were prices to be paid for his rare gifts—consequences—but none dissuaded him from his mission.
Three armed men guarded the corridor, yet he passed room after room unrestrained. The sounds of animal lust pierced his eardrums, the stench of sex invaded his nostrils and his stomach turned in revulsion.
He stopped in front of his target, listened. Beyond the door, a girl reluctantly offered her body to a stranger. Had she sounded the least bit enthusiastic he would have continued on. Her life was her business. But her voice was cold, her tone flat. She didn’t want to be here. And that made it his business.
Getting to her was easy. Getting her out, another matter. They were on the third floor, and he couldn’t fly. He wasn’t some kind of super hero. But he had to act now, before what was going to happen happened.
A door opened behind him and he glanced over his shoulder. A man came out, walked down the hall and disappeared down the stairs. One of the guards followed.
That left two to deal with. His odds might not get better than they were right now.
With a thought, he was inside the room.
Yesterday he’d seen this girl wrangled into the back of a car with several others. The evening’s entertainment for a celebration of debauchery at another exclusive downtown club. Now she sat naked on the edge of the bed as her customer shed his twelve hundred dollar jacket, reached for his belt buckle. She made no sound, no move to escape, but her eyes pled for mercy.
Rage, pure and deliberate, guided him as he stepped behind the man, gripped his head in both hands and snapped his neck with a violent twist. The man fell like a marionette with strings abruptly snipped.
The girl scrambled to the top of the rumpled bed, gripped the headboard with white fingers and drew her legs in tight, shaking from head to toe.
“D-Don’t hurt me.” Her voice was no more than a strangled whisper.
He raised a finger to his lips, remembering too late she couldn’t see it. “I won’t hurt you.”
Her eyes darted around the room. She tucked her head into her arm and cried, no doubt awaiting her next form of abuse. Apparently she’d heard such promises before.
“I swear I won’t hurt you. I’ve come to take you out of here.”
She dared a peek but saw nothing.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Diamond, you must trust me.”
“Why can’t I see you?”
Her voice told him she wanted to trust him, but at present he could not earn that trust by showing himself. “You will see me later. Right now, do as I say.”
Short of killing everyone, he would have to create a diversion. He had just the thing. Simple. Then the girl lifted fear-filled blue eyes.
“You have to get my sister, too!”
Sister? Was she kidding?
Diamond moved to the center of the bed. “I won’t leave without her.”
Unreal. How was he to get two girls out unnoticed?
“Where is she?”
“First room at the top of the stairs, on the left,” she said. “Her name is Goldie.”
He heard relief in her voice. It was too soon for that. “I’ll be right back.”
She glanced at the body on the floor. She was on the verge of hysteria, but would probably hold it together. She’d better.
In an instant he was back in the hall. A guard stood by Goldie’s door, checking his watch, unaware that an intruder had passed mere inches away. Inside the room, a man sprawled naked across the bed, hands folded beneath his head. A naked girl came out of the bathroom and approached.
Both parties looked around to see where the voice had come from. Before the man could get off the bed, his neck twisted and cracked in the same manner as Diamond’s customer. But unlike Diamond, this girl opened her mouth to scream.
“Shut up!” He covered her mouth with his hand. “We’re leaving here. Your sister is waiting for you.”
It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see him. Goldie swung toward his voice, wrapped her arms around his invisible form and cried into his chest.
He gave that about three seconds, then took her by the shoulders. “Put something on. Quick.” She did, grabbing a white satin robe. “When I tell you, run to your sister’s room and stay there.”
With that, he was back in the hall. Diversion...diversion... He grabbed the guard in front of the door, shoved him to the end of the hallway and through the window. Crude, but it would draw everyone’s attention.
When the other men ran to the window, he went back for Goldie. “Now!”
She tore off to Diamond’s room and slammed the door behind her.
Inside, the girls clung desperately to one another.
“What’s going on?” Goldie stared at the body.
“We’re being rescued.” Diamond answered. “Don’t ask a lot of questions!”
“Good advice,” their rescuer said. “We’re going to walk right out the front door. Understood?”
“What?” both girls asked in unison.
“We can’t!” Goldie took a step closer to where the voice seemed to come from.
“The back exit is no longer an option,” he replied. By now everyone in the building would be staring at a blot in the rear alley. “I’ll be right there with you.”
He went into the hall to clear the way. It would only be a matter of moments before someone came to gather the girls. Couldn’t very well have a bunch of captives around while the building swarmed with police investigating a murder-suicide.
No one in sight, here or on the staircase leading to the main lobby. None of the other occupants seemed to know or care what was going on. He opened the door and two seconds later the girls were running, the hems of their matching robes flying in the breeze.
He remedied the one locked door at the bottom of the stairs in short order, but the larger door leading to the main lobby would be more difficult to breach. Two armed thugs stood guard, and from their casual stances, they had no idea what happened upstairs. They came to attention when they spotted the girls.
The girls stopped, but invisible hands and a whispered command nudged them on. “No matter what they say or do, keep walking.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” one goon demanded.
The girls looked at each other but went forward.
“Get back upstairs!” the other guard ordered.
He took a menacing step, only to crumple when his leg snapped under him at a distorted angle. Screaming and clutching his knee with both hands, he was relieved of his gun.
Before his partner could reach for his own weapon, it was removed for him. The butt of the gun swung across his face and he hit the wall amidst a spray of blood and teeth.
Lips trembling, eyes huge and round, the girls watched the guns float toward them.
“Hold these on them.”
They obeyed, with shaking hands.
“Keep your fingers off the trigger unless they try to get up.”
He riffled through the men’s pockets and recovered a key. In a matter of moments he dashed the girls across the bustling Seattle street to the safety of a waiting car.
But not before turning back to see a man at the top of the stairs. He recognized him instantly.
His next target.
One Year Later
Haven plunked her brush in a jar of cleaning solution and took a clean brush from a hanging tray beside the easel. Humming to Luther Vandross, she dipped the tip in Thalo blue and initialed the painting discreetly in the bottom right corner, then stepped back to examine the results.
In the foreground, a little blonde girl in a pale green dress sat on an embroidered parlor chair. The far left of the painting offered a peek into a ballroom where a wedding reception was in full swing, with grownups looking on as the bride and groom danced beneath twinkling lights. But the girl was more interested in practicing the newly acquired skill of tying her shoes.
Sometimes Haven had an idea that needed to be set on canvas and the name simply made sense. Often, the lines or movements gave her the title as she worked. At other times she would take one look at a finished piece and know beyond doubt it couldn't be named anything else. Such was the case here.
She smiled, satisfied that Innocence was going to look perfect in her new niece’s bedroom. The fact that her niece had yet to be born, or that her sister-in-law Caroline hadn’t announced her pregnancy, didn’t matter. From the minute Caroline confided her suspicion that she was pregnant, Haven was definite it would be another girl, a sister for four-year-old Mari.
Finished now, and able to view the scene more objectively, it was uncanny how much the child resembled Mari. Haven was musing over how often her life bled into her art, when the phone rang.
“Haven Silano, please.”
“This is she.” Haven didn’t recognize the female voice on the other end.
“Good morning. I have a call from Jett Cestone. Please hold.”
Haven stared at the phone in her hand. Anyone with access to the outside world knew the name. Jett Cestone was a financial and technological wizard, perhaps better known than the President and certainly more respected. Global News estimated his worth at almost a hundred billion dollars, and it was bandied about as absolute truth that he was deeply involved in the development of government spyware. She didn’t have an interest in shoe phones or pen guns, but some said Jett-Way Corporation would one day conquer the world.
Business dealings aside, because he guarded his privacy viciously, most regarded him as man and myth. Gossip mills ran day and night grinding out news of the enigmatic magnate. She had only to look down, to the newspaper covering the floor beneath her easel to find an item speculating whether the elusive billionaire had mob ties, or controlled an underground cult. Right beside it, another article claimed recent advances in fuel alternatives and genetic research, due in part to enormous donations from a single source, believed to be Jett Cestone. Popular opinion painted the tycoon as exceptionally generous. Some said he wasn’t human.
Haven nibbled her bottom lip. Why would he be calling her? It had to be one of those recordings, like a political candidate “calling” voters with last minute-promises. Maybe he was running for public office or having a fundraiser of some kind.
That made sense. Except the woman had asked for her by name. And he was coming on the line.
She fought the urge to clear her throat. She barely had time to worry over what to say before a deep male voice flowed into her ear.
“Hello, Miss Silano. I hope I’m not disturbing you this early.”
There was an accent but she couldn’t place it. She’d never heard mention of his heritage. Come to think of it, she’d seen only a few pictures of him, from a distance and a little grainy. For such a well-known figure, that was peculiar.
“No—no, you’re not disturbing me. Can I help you?”
“I hope you’ll consider it. I have a proposition.”
Her hands fumbled the phone as she brushed hair from her face and tried to rub any residual mascara from under her eyes. Not that he could see her. “A proposition?”
“I realize this comes out of the blue, but my grandmother is an admirer of yours.”
Haven wasn’t certain she heard right for the whooshing of blood in her ears. “Your grandmother?” Her voice cracked. “Are you sure you have the right—”
“Yes. She found one of your paintings in a consignment shop. I don’t know how it, or she, ended up there.”
“It’s my aunt’s shop.” Haven was too astounded to take offense at the way he’d enunciated the word consignment. “It’s Victorious. In oil.” It was one of her favorites, portraying the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by disciples Peter and John.
“Exactly. She was quite taken with the piece. I can see why.” He paused as if waiting for her to speak. When she didn’t, he continued. “It’s stunning.”
She needed air. “Thank you.” The sound of her voice made her aware of how long it had been since she’d last spoken. The man must think her an empty-headed twit. “You’re very kind.”
“Kind has nothing to do with it,” he said. “If you make use of a particular talent, you’ve earned the credit.”
The imperious undertone, even in the form of a compliment, told Haven he was a man accustomed to being agreed with. She went to the window and threw it open, welcoming in the thirty-degree air.
“Well, thank you anyway.” She lowered herself onto the homemade window seat.
“My grandmother’s seventieth birthday is approaching and she’s requested something special. I would like to meet with you to discuss it.”
“You want to meet? With me?” Haven’s head reeled, trying to process this information. Jett Cestone’s grandmother was an admirer of hers. Of hers! And Jett wanted to meet with her.
“It’s obvious you don’t have someone guiding your career, so yes, with you,” he replied with a hint of impatience. “Are you free for lunch today?”
Fueled by a mixture of excitement and apprehension, blood surged through her veins like a tidal wave. “Um, sure.” She swallowed, forcing words through her lips. “Yes, I’m free.”
“Excellent. I’ll send a car for you around one. We’ll dine at my home.”
He lived around here? In driving distance? “You don’t have to send a car. We can meet somewhere.”
“That won’t do.”
“Okay, give me the address.”
There was a pause, signaling to her his displeasure.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to insist on sending a car,” Jett said.
It was her turn to pause. This situation was bizarre to begin with and now she was expected to go to his house—a man who seemed to make it his business to remain a mystery—with no means of escape should she need one.
“Excuse me if I’m being rude, Mr. Cestone, but that arrangement makes me uncomfortable.”
“I expected as much, but it’s the way I do things. My wishes, my rules, your benefit.”
She was glad he couldn’t see her mouth fall open or the way it closed and opened again like a guppy’s. She didn’t care how powerful he was, she should hang up on him. But she couldn’t bring herself to push the button, not on this kind of opportunity. Then again…
“I don’t even know if you are who you say you are.”
Even if he was, he could be a serial killer for all anyone knew of him.
“I’ll have to ask you to trust me.”
Trust him? “Can I bring a friend?”
He groaned, agitated. “Miss Silano, I don’t have time for childish fears or—”
“Childish?” she interrupted. “I don’t think uneasiness about being taken to a strange man’s home—”
“If you’d rather not come, fine. I can’t say I agree with your willingness to live in obscurity for the rest of your life, but the decision is yours.”
She didn’t reply simply because she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“But if you shore up your courage, and get into the back of my car at one o’clock, it will have to be with the understanding that this is to be kept between us for the time being. I promise no harm will befall you, and I’ll not keep you any longer than you wish to stay.”
Hearing him speak her thoughts made her wonder if she was being childish. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but she would be insane not to at least meet and hear him out.
“Okay. No problem.” Breathing presented a problem at this point, but she would just have to walk it off.
“Very good.” He sounded like a satisfied father reading a passing report card. “If it isn’t an imposition, I’ll ask you to bring a few more samples of your work. Just to be sure the first wasn’t a fluke. I look forward to meeting you.” With that he hung up.
Haven was thankful to be denied the chance to sputter like a fool. A fluke? She could draw before she could read, paint before she could write and while she by no means considered herself a master, she was aware of her talent.
Trying to be indignant, Haven folded her arms against the icy morning air and tapped her foot, but she couldn’t build a good mad through the excitement. More than anything she wanted her work to be seen and appreciated, but so far only Victorious had been traded for cash. The others either hung or leaned on a wall somewhere in this house, or had been gifted to friends.
This could be the break she’d always believed was right around the corner. If she blew it, it could be the last.
A cold gust of wind sent a chill up her spine. She closed the window and flipped through the paintings that rested along two walls, looking for the best cross section of her recent work. She couldn’t take Innocence since it wasn’t dry, so she would take Verge, a colorful landscape, and Showoffs, portraying an elderly couple on roller skates. Perhaps Mr. Cestone had a sense of humor.
The phone rang again, sending her heart scurrying as she snatched it up.
Her father’s voice boomed in her ear. “Where are you?”
Haven sighed and tucked the phone under her chin while she pulled her hair up into an elastic band. “I’m home, dad, you just called me here.”
“You’re supposed to be here.”
She double-checked the time. “I’m supposed to be there by nine. It’s eight ten.”
“Did you forget it’s Tuesday?”
Haven thumped her head with her fist. It was her day to bring breakfast. “Yes.”
“Well your brother and I didn’t, we’re starving. Get your tail in gear.”
Mr. Cestone’s call had already unsettled her, but the race from home to the diner and then to the job two towns away, left Haven anxious and out of breath. How could she tell her father she wouldn't be working a full day…without mentioning Jett Cestone? Her father was ill tempered at best when he hadn’t eaten. She hoped the food would appease him enough to better receive the news.
It was already bound to be a sticky matter once she told him it had to do with her art. The subject always fueled the same argument, initially ignited when she was nine and begged him to enroll her in art classes at the local museum. Art, in Frank Silano’s school of thought, was a hobby, not something to be taken seriously, and not something to squander money on. Definitely not a career.
Her father’s words echoed in her mind. “Frittering your time painting bowls of fruit will get you nowhere. If you’re going to swing a brush you might as well get a day’s wage for it.”
Haven bit her bottom lip. She could tell him she had a dentist appointment. She hit the gas hard, and by the time she parked behind his red van in front of the client’s Tudor style house, she needed to sit a moment and take several calming breaths.
Her brother, Marcus, was already on a ladder cutting in the dining room ceiling with white paint. He descended when she set the bags and cup holder on a tarp-draped table and removed Styrofoam-encased orders.
“Sorry I’m late.” She offered him a cardboard cup and a shamefaced grin. “Where’s dad?”
“‘Bout damn time.”
She whirled at the sound of the gruff voice. Her father glared at her as he wiped his hands on a clean yellow rag hanging from his belt loop.
“Let’s not make a habit of this.”
Haven held her tongue and handed him his coffee.
“I hope my eggs aren’t sweaty. I hate when the inside of the box gets all steamed up,” he said.
A well-built man of fifty-one, Frank Silano, managed to keep trim and youthful despite his dietary habits, due in part to hard work, but mostly to simple genetics. He weighed the same as he had at twenty-five.
With a grumble, he unwrapped a plastic knife/fork combo and dug in. Haven tossed her coat aside and sipped her scalding coffee. Gauging his mood was tricky. He seemed to be in better spirits than expected, but all the same, she would be careful how she handled the subject of taking the afternoon off.
The homeowner, a woman in her forties with a Cleopatra hairstyle and a heavy hand with the perfume bottle, waved goodbye and left through the kitchen door, trusting her room would be moss green and eggshell white by the time she came home from work. Without waiting for the men to finish eating, Haven climbed the ladder and started in where Marcus left off. If she was only putting in half a day she was going to do her share.
“Missed a spot,” Marcus said.
Haven followed his direction and dabbed her brush at a shadow.
“Eggs were sweaty, but the sausage was better than usual. Thanks.” Her father patted her calf and moved off to start rolling paint on the wall.
Now that he was more agreeable, Haven thought it best to get it over with. “Dad, I have an appointment this afternoon so I’m going to have to leave here around noon, okay?”
He loaded the roller with paint and rolled it back and forth across the shallow end of the pan. “Doctor appointment? What’s wrong?”
“No, it’s nothing.” It would be so much easier if she could lie, but she wasn’t skilled at it and could never outlast the guilt, so always ended up confessing. “It’s personal.” Both men turned. “Someone wants to talk to me about my painting.”
“Why would they call you? I’ll give them a price,” her father said.
“No, dad, it’s a personal project. It’s about my work. My art.”
He cocked his head and set the roller in the pan. “A personal project.” Haven came down off the ladder. “And who’s the someone? A boyfriend?”
“No. Just…I don’t know him really. I know of him.”
Haven was nervous, her father tense.
Marcus stepped up, acting as buffer, and gave her a lead. “So, he wants you to paint a portrait or something?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered. This was bad. “I’m going to meet with him to find out.”
“Where?” her father asked.
And getting worse. “At his home.”
“Are you nuts? You can’t go to a strange man’s house!”
“I am.” Haven set her hands on her hips, preparing to square off. This was important to her and with her brother on her side she felt more confident.
“I hate to take Dad’s side.” Marcus winced a little when she aimed betrayed eyes on him. “But he has a point.”
Haven flung her arms up then slapped them to her sides. “You two treat me like I’m eleven!” She scolded her brother then turned on her father. “But I’ve been an adult for some time. So I’ll do my share of the work, but I’m leaving at noon.”
“Then we’re going with you,” her father said.
“No, you’re not.”
Her gaze clashed with his in a battle of wills. She was grown and he didn’t have to like it, but he’d have to accept it. And if she wanted to fritter her time away dabbing pictures on a square of canvas he would deal with that, too.
“How do you know he isn’t some kind of a nut?” her father demanded.
“Where does he live?” Marcus asked.
Because she didn’t have answers, she huffed and stomped across the room. “I can take care of myself.”
“You didn’t answer the question.” Marcus’ blue eyes narrowed.
“Look, he called me and said his grandmother bought one of my paintings—”
“His grandmother. And you buy that?”
“And,” she stressed, plodding through her brother’s interruption, “he wants to discuss having me do a piece for her seventieth birthday.” She hoped she hadn’t told them too much already.
“And because it’s your art work you’re all gung ho,” her father said.
Haven’s ears burned with rage and humiliation. “There you go….”
Her father raised a staying hand before she could walk away. “If this was about painting a kitchen or putting up dry wall would you be going to a stranger’s house, alone?”
“I’ve gone to clients’ homes alone.”
“But it’s never sneaky. We always know where and when.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that.” Fury sparked when she saw the triumphant gleam in her father’s eyes, but she wouldn’t let anger break her when she was doing her best to prove she was responsible. Lifting her head she met his gaze, unwavering. “But I’m going because it’s important to me.”
She threw her shoulders back and got to work.
“Don’t expect a full day’s pay,” he grumbled, picking up the roller stick.
Her father’s readiness to let the subject drop so easily made Haven leery, especially since it was one of his favorites to squabble over. She would never understand why he couldn’t support his children in their dreams. Okay, Marcus’ dream to trek off to Oregon and become a lumberjack had been less than brilliant, but he’d been eighteen, and weren’t those teen years made for making stupid, senseless mistakes? It would have been a better experience without his father’s constant assurance of failure, and coming home to face the I-told-you-so’s hadn’t been easy for Marcus either.
But this wasn’t the same thing. Her art was her passion, the one thing she’d wanted to do her whole life, and if it came to it, she believed it was her calling. Why couldn’t her father be pleased that she had found a direction for her life that would make her happy, even if it wasn’t his idea of a suitable occupation?
Then again, why should she be surprised? He hadn’t supported his wife in her artistic aspirations either.
Since that thought always stirred old resentments, Haven tried to think of other things as she moved around the room, loading her brush and drawing green over dusty rose. Her stomach unclenched one notch at a time, knowing the heated situation could flare again any moment.
Her father muttered on and off for the better part of an hour while she and Marcus ignored him, determined not to provide an excuse for him to vent his frustration. But when Marcus toppled a paint can and sent Frank into a tirade, Haven could do nothing more than give her brother an apologetic look. Even though he would have to go to the store to replace the paint, and rent a carpet cleaner to scrub out the paint that had seeped through the tarp to the oatmeal carpet beneath, they both knew it wasn’t the real reason for their father’s anger.
It was, however, the reason for her growing edginess. The delay would keep her here longer than planned, which meant she would have no time to shower and change before meeting with Jett Cestone.
Jett’s car was waiting for her when she pulled up to her house. She wondered fleetingly how he had gotten her address, and her unlisted phone number. With a quick acknowledgement to the driver, she sprinted upstairs to get the paintings she was bringing, and hurried back to find him holding the car door open.
The driver was a wiry man with rough skin, clad entirely in black. He nodded indifferently as she moved past him, but she didn’t miss the quick flick of his black eyes taking in her appearance, or the snide quirk of his lips. She was glad to be separated from him by the smoky glass partition.
With the exception of her mother’s funeral, Haven had never been in the back of a limo. She felt more uncomfortable now than she had then. In spite of the cold punch of wind, she lowered the limousine window halfway in hopes of airing some of the paint fumes from her clothes.
She took a small compact mirror from her purse, and with its limited view, searched for any paint that may have found its way into her hair. She’d kept it pulled back in a ponytail and tucked under a baseball cap most of the day. Satisfied it was paint free, she left the cap on the seat.
In contrast to the brown, withered ground, the sky looked as though it belonged above a tropical island. Billowing white clouds sailed by in a sea of impossible blue, like grand vessels on their way to far-away lands. Birds chirped and soared without regard for the looming winter.
Once the car turned off route 287, she could only guess where they were going. Her father’s painting business often took her up this way, so she was familiar with the general area, but not well enough to recognize the towns by sight. She remembered painting a guesthouse around here some time ago. It was larger than the house she was renting.
Almost every home she passed was enclosed by a fence or wall. Those with an unobstructed view were framed by extensive lawns that would boast plush green grass and brilliant flora in the warmer months. More than a few of them had animal enclosures housing horses or goats. As the miles rolled by, the homes and professionally groomed property began to ebb as thick woods of pine, maple and birch reestablished themselves as the primary inhabitants of rural New Jersey.
When she hadn’t seen a driveway or intersection in five minutes, Haven considered tapping on the partition and asking the driver if he was lost, but found the idea of speaking to him more troubling than traveling in circles.
Nerves impelled her to the verge of biting her nails when the driver entered a stretch of rough, stony road that took them up, and up. The road looped around a mountain of endless browns, unalleviated but for the blue of the sky and patches of white from last night’s dusting of snow. Even with no leaves, the thick growth of trees afforded few glimpses of what lay beyond—more brown.
She scarcely noted the stone pillar marking the beginning of the paved drive, or the gnarled elms lining it. Her gaze was fixed on the structure that came into view. Its size and color, and the fact that the entire first floor was constructed of stone, brought the word castle instantly to mind. Rather than the moat one might expect, the drive gave way to a semicircle courtyard wide enough to fit five cars abreast, reminding her of the walls of Jericho.
In the distance to the right stood a number of outbuildings, each painted in the same muted gray as the upper levels of the main house. A greenhouse the size of a small supermarket was bordered by uniformly spaced boxwoods. Behind it were stables that Haven estimated could house twenty or thirty horses. A man came out of a third building she presumed was the groundskeeper’s shed, tossed a large white sack and a shovel into the back of a white pick-up and drove off.
Two narrow tracks branched off the arch of the semicircle and around to the sides of the house but the limo pulled up to the front. Seconds later the driver opened her door and held out his hand, helping her to the base of three broad, squat steps.
Haven moved to retrieve the paintings from the back seat but was prevented by a touch at her elbow.
“Please, allow me,” the driver said, with what Haven recognized as an Italian accent.
“Thank you,” she said when he emerged with the paintings and stood at her side.
He was waiting for her, but she was awestruck by the sheer enormity of the house. At the top of the steps, four soaring pillars stood sentinel. Haven tipped her head back to see to the tops, where each was adorned with ornate carvings depicting knights with swords and damsels with scarves flowing from cone shaped headdresses.
She looked down at herself in contrast; the pauper arriving at the palace gate. Her old work clothes were speckled with, and smelling of Spackle dust and latex paint. Her coat was in worse shape. The left pocket hung from two sides and the right sleeve cuff was ripped open where she’d snagged it on a nail. She shrugged off the coat, tossing it in the back seat before shuffling forward. Freezing was better than being embarrassed.
Worse than being embarrassed, was being nervous. Her body was rigid, her hands trembling. She was a foot from the massive door when it opened, revealing a tall, sharp featured woman.
“Welcome, Haven, I’m Mrs. Burke.” A hint of a Scottish burr colored her voice. She was thin, sixty-ish with unnatural black hair in a side part and pulled back into an obedient ponytail. Her blue eyes were sharp like a bird’s, and though the greeting was cordial, it rang of the dutiful efficiency Mr. Cestone no doubt required of all his employees.
Haven didn’t know whether to offer her hand or curtsy. She did neither and walked through the high, carved archway. If she’d had time to change into suitable clothes, her heels would have announced her arrival with smart clicks on the stone tile floor. Instead, the soundlessness of her splattered work shoes made her feel like an intruder, skulking around a home where she had no business.
Mrs. Burke swept her eyes over Haven. “Come from work, I see.”
Though Haven detected none of the disdain she had from the driver, she nonetheless smoothed the front of her shirt.
“Busy, busy, I know how it is.” Mrs. Burke’s wink and a smile went a long way toward putting Haven at ease. “Matter of fact, I’m in the middle of something myself. Come this way.”
The driver came in, but instead of following the women, he carried Haven’s paintings up the broad staircase without a word.
“Esposito is a good man,” Mrs. Burke said when Haven turned to look at him. “But a bit lacking in social skills.”
Haven tried not to worry over the destination of her work as she followed Mrs. Burke down the lengthy corridor. Finished in dark wood wainscoting and ivory silk wallpaper, the passage contained two rooms on either side. She peeked into each one they passed, doing her best not to look like a countrified bumpkin who’d never seen the marriage of wealth and exquisite taste. But then she hadn’t, on this scale.
In what Haven thought must be a ballroom, a chandelier the size of a Volkswagen dangled above a floor of red wood inlaid with spectacular patterns. Two smaller chandeliers hung on each side of it. Across the hall she saw rich Mediterranean blue drapes pulled shut, thick faded rugs and a grand piano with sheet music at the ready. Of course a house this size would have a music room.
Her mouth fell open when she caught sight of a sculpture she had recently seen on the History channel. The bronze horse had once belonged to George Washington and was worth more than two million dollars, yet there it sat on a side table, like any other knick-knack.
In the dining room, a table that could easily accommodate fifty people had Haven pulling up short before she could gasp.
Mrs. Burke stopped in front of the last room on the right, the only unopened door in the passageway. “This is the library. You may wait in here. Master will be right with you.” She opened the double doors and stood back.
Haven raised her eyebrows. Master? “Thank you.” The corridor’s stone floor yielded to gleaming wood and Haven’s sneakers gave an abrupt squeak as she entered. Self-conscious, she wished she could leave, or hide herself, but the doors were already closed leaving her no alternative but to step further into the room. She sighed in pure appreciation.
The vast space was more museum than library. Apart from the floor-to-ceiling wall of books, furnishings of rich leather and luxurious fabrics, the walls also held artwork she had seen on television. On tables and display shelves stood more sculptures and carvings. Her pulse sped with every work she identified. Since she was alone, she took time to inspect them more closely, keeping her hands at her sides, though they itched to touch.
Eventually Haven’s eyes traveled to the books, many of which were leather-bound, most of them classics. She was pleasantly surprised to find Jett Cestone’s taste eclectic, including Stephen King and John Grisham among Keats, Shakespeare and CS Lewis.
Without warning, a tingle zipped along her spine and she whirled to find…
No one. She gave herself a mental shake and returned her attention to the books.
She spun again, slapping a hand to her thundering heart. Her eyes darted around the empty room. She had heard a voice, she wasn’t crazy.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the voice.
“Who are you?” Haven demanded. No answer. The voice did sound familiar. “Mr. Cestone?” she asked tentatively.
Oh, this was weird. The man was spying on her…might have been since she’d arrived.
“You needn’t be afraid.”
She wasn’t so sure. Maybe coming here wasn’t such a sensible decision. She wasn’t looking forward to telling her father he was right.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Jett said.
“No problem.” Though she had to work to level her breathing. Many a rumor had its base in truth and if he was as peculiar and unpredictable as people said, it was best to maintain her composure so as not to set him off. “I, um, was admiring your books.”
“Thank you. I enjoy them when I have the time.”
Haven managed a polite smile, feeling once more the pauper, and wondered if that was his intention. “I brought the paintings, but I should be getting back. I didn’t realize how long the trip out here—”
“Have a seat, Miss Silano.”
She stood where she was, debating whether to make a break for the door.
Finally she perched on the edge of a blue wingback chair—one of two on an area rug in front of a white marble fireplace. With winter at the door, logs were stacked and ready beside it.
“Thank you,” he said.
Haven crossed her ankles and tucked her feet under the chair, her hands tightening in her lap. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly where his voice came from, so didn’t know where to look as she spoke. She also noted that his accent wasn’t really an accent at all, but more a distinctive manner of speech.
“Mr. Cestone, what is this?”
“The start of negotiations, I hope. And you may call me Jett.”
“I mean this…” She gestured helplessly. “Do you use cameras, speakers?”
“Two-way glass and hidden doors?”
“Does it matter?”
Haven straightened. “Yes. I’m not used to being spied on. I thought we were meeting to discuss a project. I don’t appreciate being brought here under false pretenses.” She rose.
“And I don’t appreciate being accused of lying in my own home.”
Haven heard the insult in his voice and was instantly ashamed.
“I brought you here to discuss my grandmother’s birthday gift. Perhaps I was wrong to contact you. I’ll have Esposito bring your paintings and drive you home.”
He was silent as she stood in the middle of the room, feeling like an idiot. She worried her bottom lip, then squared her shoulders.
“I apologize, Mr. Cestone,” she said, unsure if he was still there. “It’s just…this isn’t what I expected when I agreed to meet you.” She licked her lips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She counted four seconds before he spoke. “Apology accepted. Now, I’d like to get to the matter at hand.”
There was a knock at the door and Haven’s eyes widened. Had he decided to meet with her personally after all? The door opened and Mrs. Burke pushed in a serving cart loaded with food and drink.
“Lunch is served. I’ll set you up right here.” She wheeled the cart to a table under the window.
“That will do,” Jett said. “Leave us.”
She nodded and hurried from the room, closing the door.
“Thank you for the thought,” Haven said. “But I’m not very hungry.”
“Feel free to help yourself if you change your mind. I assure you it isn’t poisoned.”
He made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “Now it is I who must apologize. That was uncalled for.”
Haven lowered her head, looked around sheepishly. “It’s not fun, is it?”
“Apologizing.” She thought she heard a chuckle.
“No, but it is sometimes unavoidable.”
She returned to her chair. The silence stretched until she once again wondered if she had imagined the voice.
“I don’t see many people,” Jett said at last.
Haven twisted the braided vine ring on her finger. “It’s impersonal.”
“Why would I want to personalize business?” he asked.
She had caught him off guard and was intrigued to hear that he sounded bewildered. “People prefer it.”
“Maybe everything isn’t about you.”
She covered her mouth with her hand. To be this bold with a complete stranger was reprehensible. But then the circumstances were beyond the norm, weren’t they?
“May I suggest your opinion of yourself is overblown?” he asked.
“What right have you to demand my attention?”
Shocked, she rose again. “I didn’t demand anything.”
“But you would prefer I sit across from you to say the same words I can say from here.”
He was annoyed, but meeting temper with temper, she fisted her hands on her hips. “Yes, I would. I’m a people person and I don’t like talking to walls or ceilings or whatever piece of architecture you’re hiding behind. It freaks me out. And I’ll remind you, Mr. Cestone, I didn’t come knocking on your door, you called me. So if this is such an inconvenience for you, let’s just forget the whole thing.”
She strode to the door and had her hand on the knob before she turned back. “The nerve of you to say my opinion of myself is overblown. This from a man who has people calling him Master!”
“Are you finished?”
Haven froze, suddenly on the verge of tears. She was overreacting. There was no reason for her behavior other than she’d felt overwhelmed in a peculiar situation and wasn’t prepared to handle it. The man was giving her a fantastic, possibly life altering opportunity, and she was throwing it back in his face simply because she couldn’t see him.
Slowly, she turned. “Yes.”
“Perhaps you should go home and we’ll reschedule.”
She took a breath. It was useless to issue another apology. “You aren’t going to call me, are you?”
“Would you?” There was the faintest hint of mockery in his voice.
Haven shook her head. She wouldn’t grovel if that was what he was after, but she would endure his rebuke.
“Well, you’re not me. You have something I want and I’m willing to go to a certain point to get it.”
She lifted her lids, looking around.
“But mark me, there is a point. This offer will not be made again, Haven, so I suggest you mull it over in that pretty head of yours and if you’re willing to do things my way we can have a satisfactory working relationship.” He paused and she swallowed. “If, however, you find you can’t acquiesce, then I’m afraid this is goodbye.”
So, an ultimatum. “I don’t know the particulars, what’s expected of me….”
“Of course, you don’t. That’s what we were going to discuss today, but since my time and patience both have their limits—”
“Mr. Cestone, I…can we try this…? Let’s start over.”
It wasn’t an apology, she told herself. That would give him too much leverage. It was a suggestion that he could accept or refuse. He took his time answering.
“Very well. Friday. I trust I’ll find you in a better temper, as you may find me. Good day.”
Haven felt like Dorothy being dismissed by the Wizard. She’d blown it. On the off chance he was still watching, she kept the disappointment from her face, straightened her spine and opened the door to an empty hall.
She needed to find that Esposito guy. Unsure whether to call out or walk around until she saw someone, she chose the latter. Instead of leaving the way she’d come, she headed toward what must be the kitchen. Mrs. Burke seemed nice, and she would rather run into her.
The pungent fragrance of roses assailed Haven’s senses the moment she pushed through the swinging door at the end of the hall. Hundreds of flowers were grouped by color on a stainless steel utility counter. Tulips, lilies of the valley, roses, pansies, all in varying shades of white and pink, spread out awaiting exhibit in no less than fifty vases and bowls.
“Fetch me that vase,” Mrs. Burke instructed, as though strangers routinely wandered into the kitchen while she worked.
Haven set the blue glass container on the counter as Mrs. Burke picked up a pair of pruning shears and snipped tulip stems mercilessly before thrusting the whole cluster of flowers into it at once.
“Yes, very much.” Haven was shocked they looked so beautiful despite their abuse. She watched Mrs. Burke choose randomly from the piles, bunch the blooms together, hack off the stems and almost accidentally arrange them into enchanting displays.
“Will you have tea?” asked Mrs. Burke.
“You’ve missed your lunch, haven’t you?”
“I’m not very hungry.”
Mrs. Burke moved around the room setting the kettle on, taking out cups. She glanced at Haven more than once, before putting her hands on the back of a chair and addressing her.
“You don’t have to tell me, it’s none of my business…but Master is always a gracious host. What could have happened to make him so cross in so short a time?”
Haven couldn’t take offense. He was arrogant and strange, but the argument was her fault and she knew it. “Just a little misinterpretation of what our meeting would entail.”
Mrs. Burke pursed her lips, nodded. “Ah. You expected to see him in the flesh.”
Pleased that someone understood, Haven lifted a hand, palm up. “Exactly. It was very awkward.”
“And you’re anxious,” Mrs. Burke added, then lifted a brow. “He is a bit of an ogre.”
“No—no, he’s…he’s fine. It’s me,” Haven rushed on. She hadn’t meant to pass the blame onto Jett. “It was bad timing, or nerves like you said, and expectations. It really wasn’t his fault. How did you know he’s cross?”
Mrs. Burke chuckled. “It’s not hard to figure out.”
A few minutes later, Haven was sitting at a long counter drinking tea and nibbling on the best ham sandwich she’d ever tasted.
A fireplace, large enough to be considered a room by some, was filled to overflowing with flowering plants and herbs and would, Haven assumed, soon be filled with firewood like the one in the library. She noted the light came from three separate chandeliers. Although it was a bright, sunny day and windows lined an entire wall, the curtains framing them remained closed.
“This room is amazing. The whole house,” Haven said.
“You’re right about that.” Mrs. Burke studied Haven. “Your name is Silano, is that right?”
“Would your father be Francis Michael?”
“You know him?”
Mrs. Burke let out a hoot that reverberated around the room. “I knew him years ago! Not well, mind you, though not for lack of trying. He was a handsome devil!”
Haven laughed. “Wow, it’s a small world.” She’d always hated that phrase but it fit.
“Yes, my family settled in Nutley when we came to America. Olivia—Master’s grandmother—hired me straightaway.” After a moment Mrs. Burke set down her tea cup with a snap. “Your mother is Sara Norris then?”
“Could have been no other.” Mrs. Burke sat back with a pleased smile. “She was a looker. Francis had eyes for no one else once he cast them on her. You look very much like I remember her. How are they?”
Haven’s heart gave a tug and the corners of her mouth tipped downward with bittersweet memories. “My mother passed away five years ago.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Can I ask what happened?” Haven paused and Mrs. Burke waved the question away. “Too painful, I understand.”
“No, it’s okay.” She cleared her throat. “She was on Madison Avenue in New York City when she was hit by falling debris from a building. Freak accident.”
“Dear, that’s terrible.” Mrs. Burke patted Haven’s hand. “I didn’t have the opportunity to know her well, either. No sooner did she come to town than your father snapped her up and kept her all to himself. They were inseparable and moved away soon after.”
To Virginia, Haven knew. They’d started a family and the painting business before coming back and settling in Glen Ridge. Still, he’d kept her all to himself. A surge of resentment caught Haven by surprise, but she swallowed it along with her tea as she listened to Mrs. Burke—Hannah, she’d insisted, since they were practically family—describe for her the dashing “catch” as she’d known Frank at twenty.
To keep her mind off having left her paintings at the Cestone estate, Haven spent the trip home in the back of the limousine trying to imagine her father a young romantic. In love no less. She had no luck envisioning him sweeping Sara Norris off her feet, and even less envisioning him being swept off his own. The couple that had raised her had rarely demonstrated their mutual affection, at least in front of their children.
Had they really been in love? Even if she had ever thought of her parents as real people growing up, she hadn’t seen them together often enough to accurately gauge their relationship as “a couple.” Her father had been gone so much, working to put food on the table, to buy a new furnace, a new roof, to pave the driveway, etc.
“It’s life,” he was fond of saying. “You get a real job to pay for real troubles. When those are paid off you have new ones.”
That was how he lived. It was sad.
Haven swore she wouldn’t let work distract her from life. Nor would she let a man control her and keep her from being an individual, even if that meant chasing elusive, impractical dreams. It would be better never to marry than be held under the thumb of a pragmatic tyrant.
When she felt the tension in her jaw, she realized she was gritting her teeth.
The first thing Haven saw when she let herself into her house was the glaring light of the answering machine flashing, accusing, demanding. She knew only one person who could make an inanimate object act this way.
Eight messages. She pushed the play button and went into the kitchen for a drink of water.
Beeeeep. “You’re not back?” Click.
Haven sat at the small square table. Her father’s voice boomed through the house two more times with the same question.
Beeeeep. “Hey, it’s Rae. I ran into your father and he told me you met up with some strange guy. What gives? Call me.” Click.
“Great,” Haven muttered. Rachel would be relentless.
Beeeeep. “Haven, where the hell are you? Dad’s driving me nuts. He says if you’re dead he’s blaming me. Call him when you get in.” Click.
“I will,” she answered her brother’s voice, only to be interrupted yet again by her father demanding to know where she was.
“What’s the matter with you? You crazy, running off with some stranger? And for what? Some nonsense. Doodles on canvas. You could be dead for all I know. Next time tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting. And call your brother, he’s worried sick.”
Haven reached for the phone on the wall. The next message was a subscription offer from the local paper, but the last had her leaving the phone and heading back into the living room.
“Haven, this is Jett. Cestone.” Like she knew another. “As it happens, Friday is no good for me.”
And here’s where he pulls the rug out from under me, she thought.
“I’d like you to come back tomorrow for dinner. After work, so it won’t conflict with your schedule.”
Haven hit rewind and skipped through the messages to replay Jett’s message three more times. Dinner?
The phone rang, leaving her no time to read anything into the invitation.
“So, you’re home?” Frank barked.
“Hi, Daddy. Yes, I’m home.”
“It’s about damn time.”
“I’m sorry you worried. There was no need.”
That seemed to steal some of the wind from his sails. “Well…it’s idiotic for a young girl to go to a man’s home without telling anyone where she’s going to be. I thought I raised you smarter than that.”
“You did—I mean I wasn’t in any danger. I’m home, safe and whole.”
“At least now I can tell your brother to call off the search party.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When he didn’t reply, she realized he must have expected her to come in for the last hour of the work day. She was in no mood for a face-to-face inquisition.
“You better be on time,” he said finally, and hung up.
She replaced the receiver as Rae came through the door without knocking.
“How did you know I was home?” Haven asked.
“I didn’t, just took a shot.” Rae jumped onto the nearest chair and curled her feet under her. “So…?”
“So…what?” Haven asked, walking past her and up the stairs to her bedroom. She was desperate for a shower.
Rae bounced after her like a puppy and flopped onto Haven’s bed stomach first. “So, what’s he like?” She reached over and plucked a red bead necklace from the bedside table.
“Your mystery man. Is he gorgeous? And why do I have to hear things through your father?”
“It wasn’t a date.” Haven wondered how she would hedge. If there was one thing Rachel Van was good at it was ferreting information from people who didn’t want to give it.
Rae rolled her eyes. “Right.”
“Whatever. Your father had me worried. He said you ran off to some weirdo’s house. Fill me in.”
Haven snatched the necklace back before Rae borrowed it indefinitely. “There’s nothing much to tell. I have to take a shower.” She put it back on the nightstand and escaped to the bathroom.
“What do you mean nothing to tell?” Rae called through the door. “Who is this guy? What did you do?”
Haven leaned back against the door and closed her eyes. She would tell Rachel what she’d told her father and brother. “A guy called about my paintings.”
“Really?” Rae asked, thrilled. “Great! What did he say?”
“His grandmother bought the one I had at my aunt’s shop. Now he wants me to do something special for her birthday.” She undressed and stepped into the shower.
Haven sighed. “Let me shower and change.” And come up with some answers for the questions you’re going to ask. “There are Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge.”
Rae was easily distracted by food. At five foot and one hundred pounds, she seemed to need food almost continually to fuel her boundless energy.
Rather than thinking up answers, Haven stood under the hot spray, letting the water work on her muscles. Only when they began to loosen did she realize just how tight they had been. Understandable. In fact, if she thought of today’s events, she could feel them tensing once more, so she hummed the theme from Star Wars until her fingers were pruny and the bathroom looked like a scene from The Fog.
Changed and refreshed, she found Rae in the kitchen drying dishes. The smells of stuffing and brewing coffee hung in the air.
“I was beginning to think you rinsed yourself down the drain,” Rae told her.
Haven poured coffee and doctored it with the milk and sugar Rae set out. “Feels like the temperature dropped ten degrees.” She went into the narrow hall to turn up the thermostat.
“What’s up?” Rae asked when Haven returned to the table. “You always want to talk about your art and today you’re silent as a tomb. What gives?”
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, that’s all. There isn’t much to say at this point.”
She felt the weight of Rae’s suspicious stare. How could Haven expect her to believe such a lame answer? Nothing opened the floodgates of speech quicker than the subject of her life’s passion and Rae knew it.
“You’re seriously not going to tell me?” Rae asked.
Haven put her cup on the table. Rae could be trusted with a secret. So could she. “I’m sorry.”
Disappointed, Rae pouted. “A hint?” Haven shook her head. “Okay, tell me this. Would you tell me if you could?”
“Yes,” Haven answered without hesitation.
Thoughtful, Rae sipped her coffee. “So it’s a secret then, not just something you don’t want to share.”
“Rae, stop it.” Haven laughed.
Rae threw one arm over the back of the chair. “I’m just glad you aren’t willingly withholding information.”
Haven smiled back, awkwardly. Friends since the fifth grade, she and Rae told each other everything, no matter how shallow or deep, and shared everything from cars to shoes. No one could be more fiercely loyal than Rachel, or more trustworthy.
Yet to be honest, there was a part of Haven that wanted to keep this secret to herself as long as possible. She couldn’t explain why. Maybe because the short time at Jett Cestone’s had been strange and disturbing, and the most excitement she’d had in a long time. Also, while so many thoughts and questions tumbled around in her mind, she didn’t want anyone else’s input to confuse them further.
When Rae left an hour later, red bead necklace in hand, Haven hurried to the answering machine to replay Jett’s message. She wished she knew what to make of it. The more she heard it, the more it sounded like a summons than an invitation, and she didn’t like that he’d left her no contact number, obviously taking for granted she would accept and be ready promptly at…. When? He hadn’t given her a time. Was he sending a car? Rather presumptuous.
Frustrated, she went upstairs and donned a smock. Splashing some paint across a canvas would relieve this emotional overflow.
At work the next day, both her father and Marcus were strangely quiet. Aside from a “How’d it go?” from Marcus, and a grumbled “Men can’t be trusted” from her father, it seemed they had agreed to let the previous days argument slide under the rug. She wasn’t buying it.
They were trying psychology on her, believing if they didn’t make an issue of it, she wouldn’t feel she had to hide anything and would spill all the details. It was exactly the kind of thing Marcus would dream up. She was closer to him than to any other human being. Did he really believe she couldn’t see through him?
And her father…. Though he refrained from grilling her, throughout the day she could see his lips moving, talking to himself, as he habitually did when troubled or annoyed. What Haven couldn’t figure out was how Marcus had gotten their father to agree to the charade. Confrontation and demands were his style, not games.
She was dwelling on this very question when she arrived home to be greeted by the red light on her machine. Blink, blink, pause. Blink, blink, pause. Two messages.
Haven pushed the button and Jett Cestone’s voice filled the room.
“Haven, Jett Cestone. I’m assuming you received my message concerning dinner this evening. I’ll have my car there at seven. If for any reason you didn’t receive the message or you’ve decided not to come, my driver is instructed to wait for notice from you or until eight-thirty. Take this number in case you need to reach me.”
As she jotted the number, another message played. Rae, asking if she wanted to watch a movie and gorge on ice cream and popcorn. Haven called her back, thankfully got the machine, and left a message saying that tomorrow night would be better.
She dialed the number Jett left.
“It’s you.” She was surprised, to say the least.
“You expected someone else?”
“A secretary I suppose.”
“This is my private number.”
His private number? “Oh. I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
She felt foolish. “Well, good. Okay then. Goodbye.”
“You haven’t told me why you’re calling.”
Now she felt stupid. “Uh, right.” Why was she calling? “Um….”
“You’re coming to dinner?” he prompted.
“Yes.” Relieved, she smiled. “Are you?”
When he paused she knew they must be thinking the same thing. More or less.
Disappointed, she flopped into a chair. It was old and raggedy, but so comfortable she could be happy in it for the rest of the night. “You won’t be there in person. Should have known.”
“You don’t say.”
She could tell his lips were curved and it made him seem affable. Hers curved in response. “You said ‘we’ll have dinner.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean together. I’m learning you use words very precisely.”
He sounded miffed and for some reason she found it appealing. “Don’t get me wrong, I like the way you speak. It’s unusual.”
Yes, definitely miffed. “I thought at first you had an accent of some kind, but you don’t really. It’s the way you speak, not in everyday English. Sometimes it seems out of form for today.”
He paused. “It’s everyday to me.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Never mind. I wanted to ask you…do you want me to send your paintings back with Esposito or would you prefer to leave them here while we negotiate terms of sale?”
“Terms of sale?”
“Of course. I’d like to buy the work you left.”
What did she say to that? She hadn’t considered selling the pieces. Yet that was why she’d painted right?
“We can discuss it this evening,” Jett said.
“Was there something else?”
“No.” Was there? “Yes.” Impatient with herself, she shook her head and remembered what she wanted to ask him. “What should I wear?”
“That’s up to you, Haven. I don’t have a dress code.”
“I feel silly.”
The word, said simply, made her relax. “So you don’t care if I come in paint clothes?” she teased.
“Not if you don’t. But you do, or you wouldn’t have looked so out of place yesterday.”
“A beautiful woman doesn’t look lost unless she has no confidence. Seeing your work, it can’t be lack of confidence in your ability.”
Beautiful? Her mind went blank as a new canvass. She should respond….
Jett filled in the blank for her. “I look forward to seeing you. However you present yourself.”
From the look of her room one might think a small bomb had detonated. Bras, panties and camisoles hung from dresser drawers. Skirts, shoes, blouses and belts were jettisoned across the bed and floor as Haven tore through the closet looking for…well, she would know when she saw it.
She didn’t know why she was going through all this trouble to choose an outfit when she wasn’t even going to see her host. Because he’ll be seeing me. And that was okay. This time she was going with a new attitude. It wasn’t personal, it was a job and she would tackle it as such. She didn’t have to see the man’s face to enjoy a good meal and talk business. She had eaten many a meal curled up on her couch alone except for the images flickering on the TV, images no more tangible than Jett Cestone.
At seven on the dot, Haven climbed into the back of the limo. Satisfied she looked better than the last time she’d been to the Cestone residence, she could at least put away that worry. She smoothed the front of the cream silk blouse and picked at the crease of black wool slacks. She’d left her hair loose, lightly curled at the ends, thinking it made her appear confident and sophisticated, even if her stomach was aflutter over meeting with Jett again.
She looked up when Esposito got behind the wheel. He didn’t bother to return her smile when their eyes met in the rearview mirror and she wished she had the nerve to press the button and raise the partition between them. It would be a small, spiteful satisfaction, for which she would immediately feel guilty. He saved her the discomfort by doing it himself.
After several minutes of watching lights from passing traffic, she nestled back into the butter soft leather and closed her eyes. This trip seemed to be shorter than yesterday’s and Haven mentioned this to Esposito when he opened the door at their destination.
“Si, signorina,” he agreed, his face as inexpressive as his voice.
Once inside the house, Esposito led her to the dining room. Like the library, the room was embellished with mahogany wainscoting, accent moldings and intricately carved woodwork. From an ornate cornice in the middle of the ceiling, hung a chandelier that virtually dripped crystal tears. It would surely destroy the lustrous Spanish dining table should it ever fall. She’d hate to be sitting here at the time.
Esposito gestured to the end of the table, waited until she sat, and left. Crystal, porcelain and silver sparkled in front of her. A setting for one. Before she had time to feel completely alone, two girls dressed in dove gray and white uniforms came out of an adjoining room bearing covered silver trays. The kitchen, Haven knew, recalling the layout of the house. Now that she thought of it, she hadn’t seen any servants yesterday, save Hannah and Esposito. A place this size must require a large staff to keep it going.
The girls, clearly sisters, possibly twins, were in their late teens and very pretty with pink bow shaped mouths, blue eyes and long, auburn hair clipped back on either side of their faces. They set the trays on the table in front of Haven and removed the covers. She hadn’t expected such formality and it made her a little edgy.
“Good evening, Miss,” one girl said. “I’m Paris.”
“Hi, I’m Haven.” She held her hand out but the girl backed away, looking at the other girl who frankly gaped at the breach in protocol. Haven lowered her hand to her lap. Regaining some nerve, the second girl moved nearer, reminding Haven of a mouse approaching a mousetrap.
“Good evening, Miss. I’m Penny.” The girl set down a bottle of wine.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Haven said.
Penny risked eye contact only once more as she opened and poured the wine, then disappeared back into the kitchen, leaving Paris to pour the water and see that Haven had all she needed. She took her leave with an abbreviated curtsy.
The food smelled incredible. Stuffed shrimp, creamed asparagus, and wild rice were arranged so artistically, she would almost regret sticking a fork in it. Though her mouth watered, she continued to sit with her hands folded in her lap.
Would it be possible to chat over dinner as though she and Jett Cestone were two normal people, the fact that she couldn’t see him unimportant? Time to end the suspense.
“It’s rude not to wait for the host,” she said into the empty room.
“And I’m being a rude host.”
A chill shot up her back. She hadn’t known for certain he was here. “How long have you been there?”
“I just arrived.”
“Hmm,” she replied with a casual shrug. She told herself she was ready for this and she was. She wouldn’t freak like she had yesterday. “Can you see me?”
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” she mumbled.
Putting all trepidation on hold, she teased a portion of stuffing onto her fork and slid it between her teeth. The first bite simply could not be eaten without an appreciative moan and closed eyes. Her pallet exulted.
She swallowed. “Amazing.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
Haven sampled the wine. She didn’t usually drink, but her mind was already so staggered, what could a sip hurt at this point?
“Are you eating where you are?” she asked.
She would have been more comfortable knowing they shared a meal, however unconventional the means. “So, you’re just going to sit there or whatever until I finish?”
“Actually, I’m working. Don’t feel you have to hurry, I have all night.”
Listening closely, she could hear keyboard keys clacking and what sounded like water trickling. “Are you near a fountain?” she asked, spearing a piece of shrimp.
“You have a good ear.”
“It was a guess. I thought it might be a fish tank. I ruled out leaky plumbing.” When he didn’t answer she ate another shrimp, then sat back. “Do you always work when you have company?”
“Not if I’m there. I’m currently in Madrid.”
Wow, he wasn’t even on the same continent. It was somehow less insulting than thinking he was in the house and refused to meet with her, as he may have been on her first visit.
“I’m being rude,” he said by way of apology. “Okay.”
“You have my undivided attention.”
Silence hung heavy and Haven fidgeted in her chair. “Now what?”
“You tell me. You’ve made it clear it’s impolite to mix business with pleasure, so we’ll hold off on that.”
“That isn’t exactly what I said.”
“It’s okay to handle business if it’s with the person you’re dining with.” Again no answer. “Or we could go with small talk.”
“Small talk.” He said the words slowly, trying them out.
Haven touched a fingertip to her water glass. “You know, I begin by asking something I’m not really interested in and you give me a generic answer, then you start. Or I comment on the weather or—”
“How was the ride here?”
“Very nice, thank you. Now my turn. You have a lovely home.”
“You shouldn’t let Esposito intimidate you.”
She didn’t like that he knew that. “It’s my turn.”
“I don’t like small talk. I prefer discussing matters of importance.”
Haven poked around her plate. “And whether your driver intimidates me is important?”
“It disturbs you, so yes, it’s important.”
She blinked, surprised that a man in his position would say such a thing to her. “I don’t think he likes me, but it’s fine. He doesn’t have to.”
“I’ll tell him to be more sociable.”
“You can’t make people be nice.”
“Yes, I can.”
She thought there should be amusement in his tone. There wasn’t. “It isn’t real if you force someone. There’s no point to anything if it isn’t real.”
“Like your art.”
It was an observation she hadn’t expected. “Yes.” She looked at her plate, this time trying the creamed asparagus.
“How long have you been an artist?” Jett asked. She pursed her lips. “I hope that isn’t an obtuse question. Almost as much as I hope you’re not going to tell me you were born an artist.”
“I think I was born to be an artist. But it took a long time to become one.”
“So you believe in fate?”
Haven took her time answering. She didn’t usually have conversations about fate and the meaning of her art with people she barely knew, and she didn’t know how she felt about it.
“It depends on your definition of the word, I suppose,” Haven said. “I don’t believe we have no choice in who we are or what we do, but I do believe we have a purpose and are meant to fulfill it. It’s our choice whether we do or not.”
“So what is your purpose?”
She wondered whether he was toying with her but decided to answer him in the simplest manner she could. “I think when you have a God-given talent you’re meant to put it to good use. I’m handy with a paint brush.”
“Ah, yet there are more ways than one to use some talents. Who’s to say it isn’t God’s will for you to make a career of painting baseboards and banisters?”
His voice had cooled and she picked up a faint note of disdain. For a second she worried he’d spoken to her father. She smiled anyway. “Call it a hunch.”
“Well, whether God or fate brought you here, I’m thankful.”
Haven was stumped by this strange man. He had more mood swings than Rae, and that was hard to beat.
Quiet surrounded her for several minutes as she ate, before finally asking, “Is something wrong?”
“Not a thing. Why do you ask?”
“You’re not talking.”
“Are you ready for dessert?”
Haven rolled her eyes and pushed her plate away. “I’m afraid I’ll have to skip dessert.”
She rubbed a hand across her flat belly. “I don’t think I can eat anymore.” Her decision was dictated more by nerves than a full stomach.
“Then shall we get to business? One reason I wanted you to come here instead of talking on the phone, was to approve the spot my grandmother picked for your painting. If you’ll go into the hall and toward the stairs….”
She pushed her chair in and walked through the corridor, satisfied when her heels clicked as she’d wished they had yesterday. She stopped at the base of the sweeping red staircase.
“Up?” she asked, trusting he would hear.
His voice surrounded her here, too, though she still saw no evidence of speakers or cameras. She started up, the banister like satin under her hand. She knew intuitively how to translate this feeling to canvas, and wondered what form it would take.
The answer came instantly: A bride. The fingers of her right hand gripping, easing, pausing. Her left hand holding up yards of white skirt as she descends to meet her love.
Haven glanced over her shoulder. She could almost see his face, framed in black, his light eyes burning for his bride. He would be waiting at the bottom of the stairs because to wait for her entrance, to wait just one more minute for her to come to him at the altar, would be excruciating.
Haven blinked and the scene faded. Her heart pounded with anticipation, her palms damp. “Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking this would make a nice rendering.” She indicated the staircase and foyer. “It’s lovely.”
“Perhaps we can work something out.”
Haven continued on, chalking the experience up to the strangeness of the circumstances. “I would like that, but I warn you I can be pretty intrusive when I work. I leave stuff everywhere.”
“It’s a big house. I’m sure I’d be able to avoid you.”
Yes, she was sure he would.
The top of the stairs presented three directions. He steered her right, along a corridor of powder gray carpeting, and creamy white walls sprayed with tiny pink roses. Distinct from the eclectic mix downstairs, the few furnishings along the corridor remained true to wealth and taste. An antique iron bulldog stood dutifully under a drop leaf table that held only a simple blue glass vase brimming with pink, dewy roses. Hannah’s touch.
“Here,” Jett said when she’d reached the door at the end of the short hall.
Haven entered a nearly empty room, as large as the entire first floor of her house. The gray carpet continued here but was littered with rolled up Persian rugs and crates of varying sizes. A fifteen-foot ceiling vaulted overhead, sloping to a mere ten feet in each of the connecting rooms on either end. She didn’t gasp, fearing it would echo back in the cavernous space.
A few large pieces of furniture occupied the area, and pictures and mirrors stood facing the wall, but most of the contents huddled at the back of the room.
“My grandmother will be coming back in March. She’s getting older and doesn’t travel like she used to so when she gets somewhere she settles for longer periods. That’s where you come in.”
“Tuscany is my grandmother’s favorite place on earth. She wants to have some of it with her when she’s here.”
Haven looked around the room. “I don’t understand.”
“My proposition is this, and don’t be afraid to tell me if you’re insulted.”
“Artistic temperament,” Jett replied, as if that explained it all. “Some artists would throw an easel at me if I made a special request. It might feel contrived.” He paused. “My grandmother would like a fresco of the Tuscan countryside. Right there across the entire west wall. Name your price.”
She didn’t know what to say, and if she did, the words probably wouldn’t come.
“You’ll want to think it over. Go ahead, I won’t pressure you.”
Haven couldn’t believe her ears. What was he saying? Name her price?
“In the meantime, what I wanted to show you….” Jett began.
Name her price?
Haven blinked. “Yes?”
“The painting leaning on the wall there to the left.” She found the four-foot wood frame. “Would you turn it around?”
She moved as gracefully as she could manage with her body and brain more or less numb. The frame was dark wood—teak, she realized. She turned it away from the wall, then let out an unsteady rush of air as she beheld Victorious.
“You reframed it."
His snort was quick and unexpected. “I framed it,” he corrected. “That little stick border was hardly suitable.”
Haven was too excited to dispute him. With an awed sigh, she ran her thumb over the rich wood. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes. My grandmother plans to hang it facing the foot of her bed.”
She took a few seconds to clear her head. Breathe in, breathe out. At least that was how she thought it went. When she found concentrating on breathing only made it more difficult, she tried to think of something else.
Tuscany. How was she going to paint someplace she’d never seen, and for Jett Cestone, no less? Forget sending her career into orbit, this could bury it before it left the ground.
“Are you alright?” Jett asked.
“Honestly? I’m feeling a little lightheaded.”
“You should sit.” Concern made his voice deeper, more intimate. “You do look pale. I’ll have someone bring you a glass of water.”
She raised a hand to stop him and tried a smile. “No, I’m fine. I’m—it’s….” What was she supposed to say? That she was gripped with paralyzing fear when confronted with the opportunity of a lifetime?
“I’ve never been to Tuscany,” she blurted. “Or anywhere, really.”
“Not a problem.”
“The farthest I’ve—”
“I’m not asking you to recreate a specific place. You have complete artistic freedom. With the windows here you’ll want to incorporate the gardens into the scene. It’s too bad you can’t see them in bloom.”
“Yes,” she agreed, absently.
She wished it was that easy. He wasn’t listening to her. It wasn’t like making up a scene in her mind, one that couldn’t be compared to the real thing. It was his grandmother’s favorite place. Even a fabricated Tuscany had to resemble Tuscany!
“I’ll pay you whether it’s good or not,” he said lightly. “But if it’s good, I’d be interested in seeing what ideas you have for the lobby of the Brilliance. The remodel is underway and I’d like something special for the unveiling in June.”
Her world tipped sideways. She knew of The Brilliance—the best five-star hotel in the northeast, according to…everyone. The establishment catered to the tastes and whims of the rich and famous. She opened her mouth, closed it.
Any minute. Any minute, she assured herself, the trembling would subside. Since his call, a combination of excitement and trepidation had coursed steadily through her, until it seemed every cell in her body, each nerve ending was suffused with tiny lightning bolts. If she was going to explode, she wished he wasn’t around to see it. But he was. Sort of. She should have been glad she couldn’t see his eyes, but that somehow made it worse.
“Say something,” he said.
“My grandmother requested you. She knows art, and is responsible for most of the acquisitions in this house.”
Haven was certain she’d pass out if she didn’t get this breathing thing down.
“As for the Brilliance, if you don’t do a good job here, you won’t have to worry about that. I have several other artists I want to look at,” he said, offhandedly. “Though I am curious why you doubt your ability. I didn’t think that was the case.”
Haven tilted the painting back on the wall. The whole matter might be of little consequence to him, but this was her life they were talking about.
“I don’t doubt my ability.” She had known from a young age that God had given her a talent most others didn’t have. So why did the denial sound lame? She pushed a hand into her hair and lifted it off her neck.
“Your father belittles your skill and you question whether he’s right.”
She let her hair drop and settle over her shoulders. Outraged, her eyes darted around the room. “Who are you to say that? You don’t know my father and you don’t know me.”
“You aren’t sure you can do this job. Why?”
“It’s not because I don’t think I’m good. If you must know, I’m scared. If you don’t like it, my career will be ditched.”
“You mean lower than it is already, selling genius at thrift store prices?”
She wanted to come back with a droll retort but try as she might, she couldn't get past the word genius.
“Ah, vanity and insecurity,” Jett said when she didn’t speak. “One of which I can tolerate. Can you guess which?”
His mocking tone was getting annoying. “I don’t want to play games with you.” Haven strode to the door.
“Are you going to run away?”
She stopped before crossing the threshold. She didn’t run from anything, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Cestone, I’m not running. I’m going to pray, and if God gives me the go ahead I’m going to do this for your grandmother, and when I’m done you’ll beg me to do the Brilliance.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Yes,” she answered defiantly. “If, I feel it’s what God wants me to do.”
“Then it’s settled.”
She heard that amusement again and had the sinking feeling she’d been wrangled, that he’d prodded her, knowing she would respond to the challenge. She sent a derisive smile to nowhere in particular and folded her arms.
“Just out of curiosity, do you get everything you want by bullying?”
She could call it off. It was a promise made in anger because she’d let her temper get the better of her. They hadn’t signed a contract, after all, and even though it looked perfect on the surface, it might not be God’s will.
“Rethinking your decision?”
“No.” Haven resisted the urge to stomp her foot. How did he read her thoughts so plainly?
“At twenty-four you should—”
“—be ready to begin your life.”
“How do you know how old I am?” He just spiked on the creepy scale. Goose bumps erupted on her arms.
“Don’t tell me you’re sensitive about your age.”
“If I were, I would consider you rude for bringing it up.”
“We’ve already decided I’m rude.”
“Yes.” She cringed. She’d always been a little too hasty with her words, but to insult her host in his own home—again—was inexcusable. His ready shot of laughter threw her.
“Your tongue is as sharp as your wit,” he said.
She kicked at the carpet. “I think I should go.”
“So soon? You haven’t had dessert and if I know women, you won’t want to pass up Dante’s chocolate truffle mousse.”
“Dante?” She knew the name and the reputation. She couldn’t afford to eat in one of his restaurants.
“I had him send one over.”
Chocolate truffle mousse. “I’m trying to cut back on desserts.” It wasn’t a lie.
“Minding your weight?”
There was no way to win with this guy. “Okay, I’ll have dessert.” Without waiting for him to tell her, she walked into the hall and started toward the staircase. “Mind if I ask how old you are?”
“I don’t mind at all. But I won’t answer.”
She quirked a brow. “Don’t tell me you’re sensitive about your age?”
“Dreadfully. And I don’t want to get sidelined sulking when there are a number of other subjects I’d like to discuss with you.”
She paused at the top of the stairs. “Such as?”
“Politics, religion, family…the safe topics.”
Jett shoved aside the folder on his desk. It would receive his attention, but first he needed a few minutes to regroup his scattered thoughts. That disturbed him. Business was business and personal matters didn’t interfere. Not that Haven was personal. She was business of another sort. The trouble was he couldn’t assign her a corner of his brain and expect her to stay there. She had a way of popping up whenever she wanted.
How could a woman weave herself this indelibly into his mind in so short a time? Impossible. Should the same fate befall his heart, it could be devastating. Unthinkable.
She was a shock to his system, Jett reasoned. That was the only explanation for why he couldn’t stop thinking of her. He didn’t know what he’d expected his grandmother’s artist to look like, but he hadn’t expected the petite brunette perusing the titles of his library. Haven’s small, compact body, looked even smaller under a large t-shirt and baggy pants, and with her hair pulled back in a ponytail she’d looked to be around seventeen. When she’d spun around, trying to fix him with large, dark eyes, there had been no time to brace against the inappropriate slap of desire.
He rolled the silver pen between his hands and stared at the opposite wall, remembering his relief when he’d realized she was older than he’d thought. And the irritation at himself for not having already known. His habit was to check people thoroughly before dealing with them. Always. Yet, troubled as he was with other things, Haven had slipped under the radar.
Over all she was quite appealing, even dressed as a rag picker. When she showed up last night dressed like a woman, he’d been taken aback. That didn’t happen to him often, and it was unacceptable now.
She was a spirited dinner companion. He found in her a quick wit and a ready tongue and learned she was open with things she cared to share—which was practically everything—and tight-lipped with what she didn’t. Her parents. The fact that he wanted to know those things bothered him because they had nothing to do with business. The private lives of his associates never mattered to him before. Why now?
Once she relaxed a little through dessert, they’d brushed over a number of topical subjects, dipping more deeply into a few that stirred Haven’s passions. She knew no limit of disgust when it came to people who abused the environment, nor a limit of compassion when talking about the homeless. She wouldn’t be put off by pat answers from politicians on either side of the fence, and was especially irked by those who sat on it. He feared, for one terrifying moment, that she would burst into tears when talking about children’s rights, and when it came to abortion…. Well, they’d have to agree to disagree.
By the time her place was cleared away, Jett had been utterly fascinated by the young painter who used her hands as an extension of her words—in some cases in place of them. This vocal, demonstrative female who was as smart as she was sensitive, who nibbled her bottom lip when considering the best way to explain why she wasn’t already famous, was one of the most interesting people he’d ever met.
She hadn’t come up with an answer. More of a diversion when she’d lifted a shoulder and licked a smudge of chocolate from her thumb. An innocent action in itself, it succeeded in making him forget the question long enough for her to ask him one about his taste in music.
He’d said the first thing that came to mind, folk music. Good God! Folk music? Next time he would focus on the conversation instead of her mouth.
He spun his chair to the shelf of books behind him and took down a large, blue hardcover. When he opened it, glorious explosions of color and light shot back at him. He had contemplated every artist in this book—the living ones—for what he wanted to convey in the lobby of the Brilliance. None had been so exciting, so perfect, as Haven Silano.
Like the artist herself, Haven’s work stirred something inside him, made him feel. He’d used the word genius and he’d meant it. It was difficult to understand why she marveled at the thought of her art being desired by someone willing to pay more than ten dollars. How was it possible in this society, with support groups, medications and therapists, there were people lacking self-assurance? Perhaps not in her skill to create, but to see the outcome as a laudable contribution, that someone else might not just appreciate, but covet.
He knew where that outrageous notion had come from. Her father. After accessing Haven’s call-in code to listen to the messages on her answering machine, he had physically recoiled when he’d heard Frank Silano call her work ‘doodles on canvas.’ The man was a fool.
Jett blew out a breath, glad he didn’t have to deal with the man. It no longer mattered to him if Haven painted a masterpiece in his grandmother’s room or if her interpretation of an Italian paradise leaned toward finger-painting. He wanted Haven—her work—and he had every intention of paying handsomely for those doodles.
His one hindrance lay in how to get her to consent to do the job on his terms. If need be, he would pacify her and stroke her ego until it was done. She might be hesitant, but everyone had some button that could be pushed. He would find hers.
Her words came back to him: “…if God gives me the go ahead.” God, indeed. He could use that to his advantage. Although, tampering with her faith might be stepping over the line, and it wasn’t his intention to insult her core beliefs. Exploiting weakness served him well in business, but this was different.
His eyes returned to the file and his stomach clenched tight. Others were more than willing to exploit weakness at any cost, even if it meant selling the flesh of children for profit.
He opened the folder on Mario Greggo. The face Jett had seen at the top of the stairs when he’d rescued two sisters from torment, now had a name. And an address.
He’d better have some answers.
Haven yawned and reached for her second cup of coffee. The night had passed slowly, with thoughts of Jett and his offer, pressing on her mind. How was she supposed to sleep after having been presented with such an astonishing opportunity? She had always believed one chance was all she needed to make her way in this world, and here it was.
Jett had asked her not to mention his name unless she was accepting the job, and then only to people she could trust to keep it quiet. She decided to accept, but there was still much to think about. She’d spent most of the wakeful night praying and listening for God’s direction. Just because she had peace didn’t make it any easier to tell her father she was taking a leave from the family business. It was only a three-man team to begin with, and her absence would make things more difficult for him and Marcus.
She had already noticed his production time slowing in the last year. Men past a certain age experienced a certain winding down, and much as she wanted to believe otherwise, her father wasn’t immune.
Pulling a strip of blue painter’s tape off a window, she glanced at him. He hadn’t spoken to her except to snap at her for being late, which she hadn’t been. In fact, in order to avoid an argument she’d purposely been ten minutes early. It was a matter of time before the questions would fly, questions to which she had no reasonable answers.
Marcus gave her a nudge, bringing Haven’s attention to a missed piece of tape clinging to the window. He’d done his best to keep father and daughter separated throughout the day and after announcing it was time for lunch, made sure she accompanied him to the deli.
Marcus glanced at her when they stopped for a red light. “Dad’s pretty mad.”
Haven sighed. She was trying to see her father’s side of things, but he was getting to her. “When will I be a grown-up in his eyes?”
“Never.” Marcus chuckled. “Look at me. I’m married and he treats me like an infant.”
“That’s because you’re so immature.” Haven screwed her face up at him when he poked her in the side. “I know he cares, but he needs to back off.”
“He’s not the only one who’s concerned.”
“You, too?” She groaned. Did she really have to convince her greatest ally she was doing the right thing?
“Yeah, sorry. This whole thing is a little weird. You’re being secretive and that isn’t like you.”
Had she thought he was being nosy or dictatorial, she would have squabbled. “It’s nothing stupid or dangerous. Trust me.”
When they pulled into the small deli lot, he switched off the engine and looked at her. “You know you can trust me too, right?” Marcus waited for her nod. “If you need to tell me anything….”
The strategy for convincing them of her decision wasn’t fully formed yet, but she had to give him something. She turned in the seat to face him. “You have to promise not to say anything to Dad, even if you disagree with me.”
“Okay. What’s up?”
“The guy I met the other day?” She watched her brother’s face, anticipating his reaction to her next words. “I went back there last night for dinner.”
“So, it was a date.”
“No. It was a business meeting and he made me an incredible offer.”
Dark brows slashed over suspicious blue eyes. “Really.”
“Yes.” She reached across the seat for his hand. “He does have a grandmother. He showed me her room, her things. She’s moving in with him and he wants me to paint a fresco of Tuscany in her suite.”
She was more excited saying it aloud. “It’s a big job and it could take a long time.” She gripped his hand like a lifeline. “I can’t work with you and Dad while I’m doing this.”
Marcus rolled his eyes. “He’s going to freak.”
“I mean the top’s really gonna blow.”
She pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. “I know. I’m trying to find a way to tell him.”
He wagged his head. “Good luck with that.”
She knew Marcus didn’t mean to sound discouraging, but she felt her stomach constrict into a hundred small knots. “I can’t pass this up. I prayed about it and I think it’s the right thing. It’s not every day Jett Cestone calls and wants me to paint for him. It has to be God’s doing.”
Marcus stared at her for five full seconds. “Jett Cestone? That’s who you met?” When she nodded, Marcus dragged out his own one word response.
“He asked me to keep it quiet unless I was going to take the job. And I am.” There. She’d said it.
Wide-eyed, Marcus nodded. “Well, yeah. You’d be an idiot not to.”
It wasn’t hard to read his face. “Dad’s going to freak,” she reiterated.
“Don’t think I’m not being supportive, Haven, I’m just not looking forward to hearing him.”
She didn’t want to hear her father rant either, but he wouldn’t take the news any better if she waited a day or a week, so why wait? She would tell him when they got back.
When they pulled up, Frank was sitting on the front steps taking a pull from a bottle of water. He stood, grinning when they got out of the car.
“We have another job lined up,” he said.
His cheerful demeanor caused Haven and Marcus to stare at each other, mystified.
“And you’ll never guess where.” Frank looked from one to the other, waiting. “Come on, guess.”
“Livingston?” Haven asked.
“Nah, you won’t get it,” Frank waved her off. “We’re doing the Aurora Complex in Madison.”
Marcus handed the bag of sandwiches to Haven and hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. “What? How?”
“That’s a big job,” Haven said. The Aurora Complex was like a city within a city, with exclusive housing atop high-end shops. It was far too big a job for three, much less two.
“You bet it’s a big job,” Frank said. “We’ll have to take on extra help.”
“How did you get the gig?” Marcus asked again.
“They called me.” Frank sounded, as stunned as them. “The minute you two left, my cell rang. It was the general manager of the complex. Asked for me by name.” He shook his head, laughed. “We’re meeting with them Monday morning.”
Haven was troubled. This could change everything. “What exactly do they need done?”
“The whole place, at least the common areas. Hallways, lobby, gym, the works.”
“That’ll take months,” Haven said.
“Then it’ll take months!” Frank’s face flushed with annoyance, but his excitement soon extinguished it. “It’s like any other job, but bigger. We’ll handle it the same way we do anything else.”
Feeling suddenly unwell, Haven sat on the steps, dropping the bag beside her. Marcus stuck his hand in and removed her sandwich. She shook her head.
“What’s the matter with you?” Frank asked her.
She felt like crying. Or screaming. Neither of which would help. “I feel a little queasy.”
“Probably blood sugar. You need to eat.”
Haven moped the rest of the day. Her father was in too good a mood to notice. When he went to begin loading the van, Marcus slung an arm across her shoulders.
“There’s no way to postpone your thing with Cestone? Or schedule it after work?”
A lone tear escaped before Haven ruthlessly cut off the flow. “No. It’ll be a full day every day. He wants it finished by March.”
Marcus wiped the tear away and gave her a quick squeeze. “Then you need to tell Dad today.”
“He’s so happy.”
“So you’d rather wait until he’s himself?”
“You’re going to need help at the complex.” Haven moved away from him to pick up a pile of drop cloths.
Marcus blocked her path. “Come on, Haven, you don’t pass on something like this.”
“I know, I know, but the timing is—”
Her brother’s opinion was brief and coarse. “Dad’s going to be pissed, and he’ll get over it. He’s going to hire extra guys anyway, so he’ll hire one more.” He took the drop cloths from her, dipping his head low so that she would have to meet his eyes. “You know it’s okay to admit you’re afraid.”
Haven sniffed, denial on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it. No one understood her better than Marcus. She was afraid, and not only of her father’s reaction.
“You said yourself this is God’s doing,” Marcus reminded her. “He wouldn’t set you up to have you fall on your face.”
His simple words filled her with peace. She walked with him to the front door where the rest of their equipment was packed up and waiting. “I’ll stop by his house later and talk to him.”
Marcus nodded, satisfied.
“Just don’t yell at me if he takes it out on you.”
Marcus grunted. “Do I ever?”
By the time Haven got home she was dead on her feet. Fretting was exhausting. A quick glance at the answering machine showed several messages waiting. She was in no mood to hear any of them. Locking the door, she headed directly for her room and fell across the bed, stirring only to take the phone off the hook before falling asleep.
Somewhere a woodpecker tapped relentlessly. Haven rolled over and stared into the black. Woodpeckers didn’t work at night did they? As her brain woke up she identified the sound. Someone was knocking on her front door. The red glow of the clock read nine fifteen. It was probably Rae.
When she opened the door, her jaw dropped. Esposito stood on the porch. He flicked his eyes once down then up.
Haven stood in the entryway with her hand on the jam. Had she made an appointment with Jett and forgotten? “Hello. What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Cestone would like to speak with you.”
She backed up when he reached into his pocket, then looked quizzically at the cell phone he held out to her. “What’s this?”
“It’s a phone.”
Taking it from him she raised it to her ear. “Hello?”
“What the hell is the matter with you? Your phone has been off the hook for hours.”
A sleep fog still clouded her mind, and Jett Cestone was yelling at her over a hand-delivered phone. She wanted to take a moment to process it all, but Esposito scowling at her made it difficult.
“How do you know I wasn’t on it?”
She started to answer him but thought better of it. “What’s your problem?” she asked.
“My problem is getting in touch with you. It’s irresponsible to take your phone off the hook without leaving an alternate way to make contact with you. Where is your cell phone?”
Asking how he even knew she owned a cell phone was pointless. “It’s dead and I lost the charger. And you found an alternate way.” She looked at the chauffeur. “Would you like to come in?”
Esposito took a single step over the threshold and to the side, closed the door behind him and stood, arms folded, eyes front.
It was too preposterous not to smile. She couldn’t help it. “So, what do you want?” she asked Jett.
“I’m hoping you have an answer for me. I don’t mean to pressure you.”
Haven laughed. “Yes, you do.” She sat in the small, cushioned chair, gesturing to the other in case Esposito should wish to bend. He didn’t.
“I want to say yes,” she told Jett.
Challenge rang in his voice. “Are you going to?”
She closed her eyes and pushed away the last little bit of apprehension. “Yes, I’m accepting your offer.”
“There’s a complication, though.” She waited for him to answer but heard nothing. “My father accepted a job. A big job. He’s going to need a lot of help.”
“How does that complicate things?”
“I feel like I’m abandoning him.”
“Are you going to give me less than a full commitment, Haven? Because that is unacceptable.”
“No.” She spoke with conviction, as much for her benefit as his. “But I have a commitment to my family, too.”
“You don’t have to worry that you’re leaving him short-handed. He’s making enough on this job to hire a crew of men to replace you.”
She paused. “I have to find a way to break the news. My father can be very excitable.”
“Would you like me to speak with him?”
“No!” The idea terrified her. “I’ll tell him, in my own way.” She glanced at Esposito who concentrated intently at a point on the opposite wall. His presence made the conversation more difficult. “It’s not easy. He’s….” She stalled as her mind caught up with what Jett had said. “How do you know how much he’s making?” She sat up straight. “You hired him.”
“You make it sound like an accusation.”
“It is. You hired him to keep him busy so I could slip out.”
“That’s…. There must be a word for it.”
“Profitable,” Jett supplied. “For everyone.”
She should be outraged, but wasn’t quite sure why.
“Your father gets a chance to expand his business, you get to do what you were born to do, and I get you. Everyone is happy.”
It sounded too neat and tidy. “What if it had backfired and I’d said no?”
“Which reminds me…” he said, apparently dismissing the idea, “we have yet to determine your payment.”
“I haven’t given it any thought. Can I get back to you?”
“Why don’t we start with a base price and work from there?”
He then named a price that made her jaw drop.
She blinked and brought her hand to her throat. The only way to wrap her mind around the figure was to put it in terms of what her father earned in a year. Okay, what he earned in two years.
“I think you’re worth considerably more.” Jett’s voice pulled her whirling mind back to the conversation. “However, since you’re new to this and I’m a businessman, that’s what I’ll pay you until you realize your worth and ask for more, then I’ll try to talk you down. Deal?”
Stammering wasn’t an option, especially in front of his dour driver, so she sucked in a breath and found her voice. “Deal.” Another promise. “We need to discuss scheduling.”
“I need it finished by the beginning of March. Beyond that you have no schedule.”
“Exactly my point, I don’t. I generally work whenever the mood hits. That could be three a.m.”
“Not a problem. Once you move in here you can work whenever you like. Your time is your own. I already told you avoiding you won’t be difficult.”
Jett’s words resounded in her head. Something wasn’t right. Did he say…? “Move in?” She noticed the slightest twitch of Esposito’s right eye.
“Of course.” Jett told her. “It’s the logical approach. You can’t drive up and ring the bell at three a.m.”
“I can’t move in with you. My father would flip!”
Jett’s sigh made her feel awkward even across the distance.
“You’re going to have to grow up and be a big girl.”
The words cut to the bone. To allow herself time to think of a reply, Haven switched the phone to her other ear. “Excuse me?”
“It’s time to focus on your career.”
“I’m not talking about my career, I’m talking about family obligation.”
“Don’t confuse obligation with fear, Haven. It’s not your duty to stay bound to your father. You’re old enough to choose for yourself.”
“I didn’t choose to live at your place,” she pointed out. “You’re trying to force me.”
“Asking you to step out of your comfort zone,” Jett corrected. “I also ask you to bear in mind I’ll be doing the same thing, opening my home to you, an outsider, which I rarely do.”
She hated that he dared say these thing to her. Was she so transparent? When people looked at her did they see a scared, dependent child more willing to be smothered beneath her father’s wing than risk his wrath or bad opinion?
“I’ll tell him.” She hung up and handed the phone back to Esposito. “Your boss is a pain.”
Without answering, Esposito opened the door and withdrew into the darkness.
A few minutes later Haven was on her way to her father’s house.
“That went better than I expected,” Haven said aloud when she was alone in her car an hour later. Her hands shook, her stomach contracted painfully and a tension headache thrummed at the base of her skull but, yeah, better than expected.
She’d choked back the dread and faced her father head on. When he sat across from her at the kitchen table, there had been one endless moment when she’d nearly lost her resolve, but she’d met his gaze steadily and told him.
He’d been angry, not to mention baffled, especially when she told him for whom she would be working. Far from being reassured, he’d thrown his hands up and asked if she was off her rocker.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into!” he’d shouted. “Alone with a man like that in his house. He could do anything to you and who would know? He’s weird!”
He called her rash and irresponsible, but she’d held her ground and withstood the firestorm. Then she kissed him on the cheek and left.
Even now, the bitter hot ball in her stomach was nothing compared to the feeling of accomplishment. Mr. Cestone would have been impressed. Not that she cared.
The one thing she regretted, was mentioning that Marcus thought it could be good for her career. She should have left him out of it instead of making their father feel conspired against. He was probably already calling Marcus.
Rather than go straight home, Haven turned left at her father’s corner and accelerated onto the 280-west onramp with no particular destination. She was only mildly surprised to find her car bumping over the rutted dirt road leading to the Cestone estate.
Twenty viewing monitors lent the room sufficient light and cast an unnatural glow over Jett’s face, shifting shadows, altering shades each time a screen changed to reveal a new camera’s viewpoint. He didn’t have to be watching tonight, or any night for that matter. Machines had everything under control from the first observation of an object or person, to defending against them if need be.
He should be working on his plan to catch a predator, putting to use the information extracted from Mario Greggo, but the gods seemed set on refusing him even that small favor. He couldn’t obsess or he would be of no use to anyone. Needing to divert his concentration from horror and retaliation, he’d come here to nose around a bit.
The system in his suite of rooms was adequate, but geared toward the inside of the house and the immediate grounds. He needed to see beyond the walls, if just for a few minutes.
Jett hated feeling trapped. He wanted to feel free, unencumbered, to go anywhere and be anyone else. It would be nice to have people shake his hand without his having to question not if they wanted something from him, but what.
He indulged in a wry smile. Making believe there could be such a life was pleasant, though unprofitable. He was still him. Still here. Still alone.
Jett saw the car before it turned toward the house a mile away. It was dented on the right front fender, scraped along the left side. The windshield had a hairline crack just above the hood. Rotating the tires would be a good idea, and a thorough washing wouldn’t hurt. A cross and three strands of beads hung from the rearview.
The equipment in this sealed and secret room wasn’t necessary to tell him who was driving. He hoped Haven hadn’t come to renege on their deal.
She stopped at the front gate, but instead of reaching out the car window to punch the call button on the wall, crossed her hands at the top of the steering wheel and let her head fall back on the headrest.
Jett felt an instantaneous pull of longing at the sight of her slender, creamy neck. She was a striking creature. He’d seen more beautiful women, touched them, tasted them, but none had stayed in his thoughts beyond “goodbye.” None of them engaged his imaginings as Haven did.
Her chocolate-brown hair fell over her shoulders in a loose tumble of waves. Her eyes were closed as though she rested, but the tiny crease between her brows told him she was anything but relaxed. What was she thinking? He had only to push a button to ask her, but resisted, letting his fingers traverse the control board, pinpointing her slightest movement.
The meeting of even, white teeth on soft skin as she nipped her bottom lip. The flex of slender, capable fingers on the steering wheel. The telltale beat of her heart at the base of her throat. All told him she was anxious. Possibly doubting herself and their arrangement.
He couldn’t hear her, but knew that she sighed. Then she turned, opened her eyes and looked into his soul.
His heart skipped a beat before he remembered she was actually looking into one of the few visible camera lenses, this one positioned above the call box. As he watched, she transferred her weight and threw her arm over the back of the seat preparing to back out.
If he didn’t make a move now, she would leave, taking her substantial doubts with her. Possibly never to return. He thought about stopping her. By then she was already gone.
More on edge than before, Jett left the monitor room and headed for his gym. If thirty minutes at the heavy bag didn’t do the trick he would take a swim or read a few books. He’d rest if it killed him.
An hour later, with his body worn out from pounding leather and swimming laps, Jett’s mind raced. He showered, dried and dressed, but nothing helped, so he gave in and decided to work with his mind rather than in opposition to it. Opening his laptop, he did what came naturally to him. He studied.
Before he’d called Haven with his initial proposal, he’d known only her address and phone numbers. Details such as her age had been overlooked, a mistake he wouldn’t repeat. Since that meeting, he’d learned a great deal, including the fact that she had maintained high grades and won every art contest she’d ever entered. Expected.
He looked at a black and white newspaper photo of Haven holding up a small trophy. How was it she’d made the local papers, yet no one had taken notice and sponsored her career?
He’d also discovered a suspension in eighth grade for bloodying the nose of a male classmate. No further details. In high school she’d been bested for class president by Debbie Holmes. Down but not conquered, Haven went on to organize a student protest, declaring Wednesday’s hot dog lunch unfit for human consumption. A month later hot dogs were out, fish fillets in. She was a bit of a maverick, though in all probability she didn’t view herself that way.
There was more, much more to be learned with a few taps of the keys, for example, how many times it took her to pass her driver’s test. Two. The name of her first serious boyfriend. James Corbett.
But the inner workings of Haven Silano had to be gleaned from the woman herself. Jett wanted to believe that his interest was professional, that it was his responsibility to uncover the backgrounds of his employees, but there was no point to the lie.
And so what if his interest in her was personal? He was a young, healthy man and Haven was a beautiful woman with a nervous smile and a killer body that stirred his blood every time he thought of her. He hadn’t been this wound up since he’d slammed head-on into adolescence.
Nothing could come of it anyway. It was a game, a distraction of sorts. Reckless? Maybe. But only fantasy. Surely he could allow himself that much.
It wasn’t until the sky started to lighten that Jett realized he’d bypassed tired altogether. Exhaustion settled around him like a thick blanket. He closed the notebook and pushed away from the desk.
Haven set her painting stool on the porch as Esposito made his sixth trip to the car, a suitcase in each hand and a canvas under his left arm. That must be everything.
So why was it so hard to leave the porch? Marcus would look after the house and her father had already taken on extra help—making clear the inconvenience it caused him. Nothing remained to be done. Physically, she was ready to go. Emotionally….
What was she doing? This move into unfamiliar surroundings, further strained her already bruised relationship with her father, and for what? A job? A chance to make bundles of money and have people laud her contribution to the art world over spiced cigarettes and high-priced wine?
Esposito closed the trunk and walked back toward her, No, not just a job. A passion. She wasn’t doing it for the prestige or the money. In fact, when she stopped to ponder the compensation she would receive for doing what she ordinarily did for free, it boggled the senses.
On top of that, Jett had sent her an envelope full of cash. Starting expenses he’d called it. What did he think she needed it for? She’d never held so much money at the same time in her life.
“Is this all?” Esposito took the stool from the porch.
“Yes, thank you,” Haven answered his already retreating back.
He was civil when they had to speak, ignored her when they didn’t. She might be crazy, but it seemed Esposito’s abhorrence had increased since Jett said he would speak with him. Oh well. She wouldn’t be having much contact with him at any rate.
One more trip inside confirmed she had everything she needed. She’d packed only necessities, including her Bible and favorite music, yet the house seemed different—empty, like she had somehow packed its essence in one of her bags.
Settled in the back of the car, Haven gave the house a last somber look as Esposito pulled away. She tried to lay aside her reservations, focusing instead on the mask of slate gray clouds overhead. If she was in the mood to contemplate it, she could find beauty in them. Ordinarily, she loved the rain, was eased by the steady whisper of showers or exhilarated by the beat of fat drops against the widows, but as the car merged with highway traffic, and a thin drizzle started to fall, she felt melancholy.
Silly. She wasn’t leaving permanently—two and a half months at most and in all likelihood she would be back long before. Surprisingly, Rae hadn’t fussed about her temporary relocation. She’d taken the news with a whoop and a holler and once the notion of visiting sprang to mind, Rae even forgave Haven’s duplicity at having kept Jett a secret.
When they entered the foyer, Esposito left her in Hannah’s care and marched the bags upstairs. Haven wasn’t as nervous as her first visit, but almost.
“Would you like a cup of tea or would you prefer to settle yourself in your room?” Hannah asked, then answered for her. “You’ll want to see your room.”
Haven could do no more than follow while Hannah chatted in warm, upbeat tones, promising her this would to be a marvelous experience to look back on someday. If her bedroom was any indication, she could believe it.
The space was enormous, triple the size of her bedroom at home. For a second she thought there might be a mistake, until she saw her mismatched luggage standing in a neat row at the foot of the bed. And what a bed, queen size with a headboard of polished cherry and a mattress that looked like it came directly out of The Princess and the Pea. Unable to resist the temptation to have a bounce, she had to stand on tiptoe in order to get her bottom even with the top of the mattress.
“Cassidy will be along to unpack for you.” Hannah glided through the room, checking to see that things were in order to. She plumped an already plump chair pillow and checked the water level in a vase of fresh daisies.
“I can do it,” Haven answered.
“Nonsense.” Hannah moved to a wall of sumptuous drapes in celery and lavender and drew them open to reveal another view of the grounds. “It’s a dank day, but I thought you might like natural light as well as lamps.”
“That’s fine, thank you.”
Hannah opened a door to reveal a bathroom practically the same size as the bedroom, with pale yellow walls, leafy plants and a tub large enough for three. Haven’s body gave an inward moan of anticipation.
“You’ll want time to gather your thoughts and rest before lunch.” Hannah crossed to the door and cast a disapproving glance at the unopened suitcases. “Where is that girl?”
“It’s okay, really.”
“No, it isn’t.” Hannah’s reply carried enough weight to make Haven see her in a new light. She was genial and warm, but not one to cross.
Just then a girl came in, face lowered, eyes glued to the floor. Her hair, a dreary, lifeless brown, hung behind her in a limp ponytail.
Hannah wasted no time confronting the issue. “Where were you, Cassidy?”
“I’m sorry,” the girl returned in a small voice. “There was a problem with the washing machine.”
Hannah’s eyes softened though her tone remained frosty. “You’ll not be getting me into trouble, young lady.”
“No, ma’am.” Cassidy picked up the first case and set it on the bed.
“This is Miss Silano.” Hannah gestured in Haven’s direction.
“Please, call me Haven.” She looked to Hannah, who nodded her consent before leaving.
Cassidy performed her task with quiet efficiency, carefully releasing the suitcase clasps, removing clothes and putting them in their proper places. Haven felt foolish watching the girl do something she could easily do herself, and went to give the bathroom a better look with the hope that Cassidy would be finished by the time she came out.
But when she moved toward the door, so did Cassidy. “That’s okay,” Haven reassured the girl. “I’m just looking.”
Cassidy paused, dared a peek from beneath straight lashes and darted from the room. What an odd collection of girls Jett Cestone had here. The sisters she’d met at dinner had behaved in much the same way.
Haven wondered if she and Cassidy would become friendly at some point since they were probably the same age. But the similarity ended there. Where she was relatively short with an athletic build, Cassidy was tall and lanky, and where Cassidy looked as though she would shatter at the first cross word, Haven considered herself confident, able to hold her own in most situations.
Confident or not, when Jett unexpectedly spoke her name, a short scream burst out of her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Yeah. Right.” With her hand on her throat, Haven backed up to the bed and sat. A sudden thought made her wary. She narrowed her eyes. “Where are you? Do you have a camera in here?”
“Of course not.” A touch of asperity colored his voice. “And before you ask, there’s no camera in the bathroom either. These are your private quarters.”
Haven didn’t know him well enough to discern if he was lying, but she believed him. “Are you going to be sneaking up on me regularly?”
“I’m not sneaking. I apologize if it distresses you.”
“You just take me by surprise.”
“If you wish, I won’t contact you in your room.”
His sincerity made her feel like an idiot. “I guess it’s all right if you can’t see me. And you tell me the second you…tune in or whatever. You can’t see in here, right?” She posed the question once more, just to be sure.
“From here, no.”
She wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but it made her feel a little better.
“Does the room meet your requirements?”
“Are you kidding?”
“It’s amazing. Huge. Beautiful.” She swung her arms toward the windows, the bathroom. “It’s the loveliest room I’ve ever seen.”
“It pleases me that you think so.”
What was it about his voice that made her want to hear more of it? Half the time he was brusque or downright insulting, yet some quality lured her, made her feel tingly inside. Haven let her gaze wander around the room as she waited for him to speak. When he didn’t, she stood up.
“I think I’m going to organize some things, maybe get set up in your grandmother’s room.”
“You don’t have to start immediately.”
Haven clasped her hands in front of her. “I’m kind of a jump-right-in person.”
“Very well. I hope to speak with you later.”
Relaxing a little before getting started might have been nice, but now that she’d ended the awkward conversation, she had to hold to her word and jump right in. Carrying a small leather case of pencils and a sketch pad, she headed toward Olivia’s room.
From the second she opened her bedroom door, she couldn’t shake the feeling that eyes were on her, as though she had an escort. Knowing it was ridiculous didn’t stop her from glancing back more than once.
Just one more thing to get used to in her new, temporary life.
In Olivia’s suite, Haven walked directly to the windows and opened the drapes. The gardens, gray and soaked with rain, were still captivating. Small pockets of water dotted the stone pathway, which wound through bushes, flowers and sculptures. Haven pictured herself strolling there, without an umbrella. Perhaps she’d have the chance before she left.
The room was even more breathtaking than the first time she’d seen it, with the diffused light from outside adding to its charm. She’d have to take the changing light into account when choosing the colors for her project. A bookcase and a four-foot copper urn had been brought in. She didn’t see Victorious anywhere and assumed it was in safe keeping.
She unzipped her case and chose two pencils, one black, one blue, and opened her sketchpad. Moving quickly, she began the first of what would be thirty or forty sketches, getting a feel for the space and what she hoped to accomplish in it. The wall would have to be prepped first, and the final scene would resemble none of her crude scribbling, but she gained confidence with each stroke and twenty minutes later, stood back to review.
A cluster of trees at the base of a sheep-dotted hill, and vineyards bisected…. Wait. Did sheep inhabit this region of Tuscany? What kind? What varieties of trees for that matter? Every detail had to be accurate, perfect.
This time when reservation struck, she parried. There was no reason to worry. In this technologically dependent world she could find any information she needed. Studying plants and animals in the Italian countryside was a simple matter of opening a book or hitting the keys of a computer.
She replaced the pencils, zipped the case and set it and the pad on the wide windowsill. Fixing her transmission instead of buying a laptop might have been a bad idea. But there must be a library nearby where she could have access to a computer. Voicing the question to the seemingly empty room would likely bring an answer, but if she were going to pretend Jett wasn’t here, she couldn’t get in the habit of talking to him.
The house was quiet when she went downstairs to find Hannah. Every surface gleamed, flowers posed in costly vases, opulent furnishings sat unoccupied. It made her a little sad that the house was so lovely, yet no one was around to enjoy it.
As she neared the kitchen, Haven heard the heartbreaking strains of violins and underneath, someone humming. She pushed open the kitchen door and stopped when she saw Hannah twirling in the middle of the room, swaying to the rise and fall of the composition, with a dancer’s unmistakable grace.
Not wishing to intrude on a private moment, Haven started to back out.
“Don’t leave.” Hannah smoothed her skirt.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“I was finished. I like to get in some exercise now and then.” Hannah took a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator. She lifted it and her eyebrows. At Haven’s nod she took two glasses from the cabinet. “What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to ask if there’s a library in the area. Thanks.” Haven accepted the full glass.
“Across the hall.”
Haven chuckled. “Sorry, I should clarify. I don’t want to read. I meant an actual library. I want to look through some books for research and I may need a computer.”
Hannah took a large swig of juice. “Oh, third floor then.”
“Everything you need,” Hannah said with a positive bob. “Journals, magazines, newspapers, computers…”
Haven set the glass on the counter. “There’s another library here?”
“Master insists our girls keep up.” Hannah gave a wink. “Come, I’ll show you.”
“Our girls” must mean Paris, Penny and Cassidy. Haven wanted to ask, but she was a visitor. She followed in silence as Hannah made her way through the main halls, into a narrower one, and finally into what appeared to be a dead end.
A picture of a rabbit hunt hung in the center of a dark mahogany panel. Hannah waved a hand slowly in front of it and the panel recessed a few inches then slid into the wall to expose a five-by-five foot elevator.
Haven’s expression must have revealed her amazement, for Hannah smiled as they stepped inside. “You haven’t had a tour of the house have you? I’ll show you around later.”
No elegance had been spared even here, with subtle recessed lighting casting an even glow over tawny wood. Haven couldn’t see spending this kind of money on an elevator, but to each his own.
“Library,” Hannah said, and up they went.
The elevator opened directly into the library. It wasn’t a huge room, but included everything: rows and rows of books, movies, music, periodicals, even a file room. Tables and high back cushioned chairs with ottomans waited, ready for long hours of study or reading. Five computers stood dark and silent. The girls would have no trouble keeping up here.
This room faced north with its views of the woods beyond the property framed by beige and white striped drapes. Deep green carpet felt bouncy under Haven’s shoes. Had her school library been this well appointed she might have been inclined to spend more time studying.
“Help yourself to whatever you need.” Hannah moved to the door on the opposite side of the room. “If you need something we don’t have, we’ll get it.”
Alone, Haven wandered the stacks and soon found what she needed; a start anyway. She took a large hardcover book from a shelf and carried it to a reading table situated in an inviting little nook. In less than a minute she was deeply immersed in the wonders of Tuscany.
Pens, pencils, notebooks and a pile of blank white paper stood at the ready by her elbow. She made use of all of it, taking notes and dashing quick sketches, of the subject matter. More than that, she tried to capture the feeling the pictures conjured, the impressions the words created.
She came across one photo of a Tuscan hillside where a red earth path snaked through vineyards interspersed with cereals. The caption read “The Essence of Tuscany.”
Haven sat back and tapped the pencil on her knuckle. Did Olivia hold the same opinion? Research was a starting point, but Haven needed more. What was Tuscany to Olivia? A track of red earth, a stand of Cypress trees, or corn hanging to dry on the side of a green farmhouse? What magic did it hold for Jett’s grandmother?
Haven jotted her thoughts and questions. The project couldn’t get off the ground until she had the answers.
As she flipped the next page, the hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. She turned right, then left, seeing no one. But she was sure….
Inwardly unnerved, she remained outwardly calm, assembling the book, notes and sketches and taking them with her.
She kept her breathing under control until she entered the elevator. Once the door shut she braced a hand on the wall and let out a long breath. It was the same feeling she’d had in the library the first day she’d met Jett, and again in the hall near Olivia’s room, only more intense. She thought she had accepted the fact that reality would be suspended while in Jett Cestone’s employ, but this was too creepy. No one had mentioned his house was haunted!
She would ask Hannah about it later. Right now she’d feel more at ease in her room. Haven reached up to touch the floor button and paused. There wasn’t one.
“Uh. Button, button….” She felt around the smooth interior. No buttons, knobs or levers. Now what? She had no desire to spend the day trapped in a box. “Hey!”
A few seconds later she called out again. Nothing.
“Abracadabra.” Well, why not?
Then, “Please move.”
Panic was a sharp prong in the center of her chest, but she pushed it back.
A deep breath would help, if only she could take one. Surely the air couldn’t be all used up already.
She was tempted to hyperventilate. If she hadn’t been admiring the interior and judging the expense earlier, she would have known what Hannah did to get this thing going.
“Floor, please,” replied a female voice.
“Thank God!” Haven breathed. “I was going to start banging on the walls in a second. I hate—”
“Floor, please,” the voice repeated.
Haven was rooting for the sun. She’d lain awake since dawn on her enormous, fluffy bed watching the pale light struggle to break through the clouds. The light changed and shifted across the coffered ceiling and Haven knew without looking at the clock that it was almost seven.
Tuesday. And someone else’s designated duty to procure breakfast for her father. Guilt plagued her. For walking off the job and, for the time being, away from her family. Her call last night to let her dad know she wasn’t dead had fallen flat when he claimed he was tired and cut the conversation short.
Phoning Marcus had confirmed their father was still upset. However, to balance the scales, there was also confirmation of a positive nature. Caroline was definitely pregnant. Now Frank could direct some of his attention elsewhere and Haven could spend less time worrying about what he thought and more time envisioning Olivia’s fresco.
She rolled onto her stomach. Her work wasn’t supposed to be stressful, yet the more she contemplated this project the higher the tension mounted. She owed it to Olivia to give her exactly what she wanted—Jett was paying her to do just that—but what exactly was it? The only one who could tell her was Olivia. Unfortunately that probably meant speaking with Jett first.
No point staying in bed. A soak in a hot tub might help ease away her disquiet. No sooner had she begun to fill the tub than a light rap sounded on her bedroom door.
“Who is it?”
The reply was more question than answer. “Cassidy.”
At seven a.m.? Haven opened the door to the timid creature. “Yes?”
Cassidy flicked her gaze upward to meet Haven’s eyes, then returned it to the floor. “Do you need anything, Miss Silano?”
Haven’s brows drew together. “Like what?”
“Uh…no. I was going to take a bath.” She noted Cassidy had a slight southern accent.
“Oh, let me do that for you.” Cassidy rushed past her and into the bathroom and turned on the tub faucet.
“You don’t have to.” Haven trailed behind the girl, unsure how to handle the situation.
Cassidy opened a cabinet and pulled out an ivory bottle. Haven had seen the lotions and creams, shampoos and powders, but didn’t know if she should touch them.
“This is vanilla lavender.” Cassidy twisted off the top and poured the creamy liquid under the fall of water, where it began to bubble and expand. “I hope you like it.”
Haven hoped so too. If she didn’t, nothing could be done about it now. “Thank you.”
Awkwardness spread like the frothy soap. Having no experience with servants, Haven didn’t know what to say or do as Cassidy took towels from a glass shelf and hung them on a fancy rack Haven now realized was a warmer.
“Have you been…” A maid? A servant? Would the girl be insulted by either of those titles? “…working here long?”
Cassidy smoothed her pale gray skirt and looked at the floor. “Five months, three days.”
Haven stared, surprised by the precise answer.
Head lowered, Cassidy raised her eyes. “And eleven hours.” Her voice was a fractured whisper.
Tears glistened in Cassidy’s large brown eyes and Haven found herself looking at, not a woman her own age, but a frightened, wounded child. What sort of man must Jett Cestone really be to instill this fear? And not in Cassidy alone, she thought, recalling the way Penny and Paris had behaved.
“Excuse me.” In a sudden rush, Cassidy replaced the lotion in the cabinet, shut off the water and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Haven paused before pulling off her flannel PJs. She cast a quick glance around, looking for…what? Someone she couldn’t see anyway? Satisfied she was indeed alone, she dipped into the vanilla lavender bubble bath, and surrendered to the fragrant fumes.
But even in this mini paradise, her thoughts kept going back to her mysterious host and his harem of fretful women. Why, with the exception of Hannah, were they all so nervous? Moreover, why were they all young and attractive?
She hoped nothing diabolical was happening here. So much mystery and supposition surrounded Jett Cestone, she had actually felt bad for him whenever she saw or heard his name.
Most rumor is based in fact, her father’s words reminded her.
Haven held her breath and sank under the bubbles. She was letting her imagination get the best of her. Jett was definitely strange. Yet, despite being momentarily alarmed when his voice boomed into an empty room, and though she found it unusual that they still hadn’t met face-to-face, she didn’t sense she was in danger.
Surfacing, she put the situation into perspective. Jett’s girls were shy and backward, but she doubted they were in danger either. Hannah was firm, but she was also maternal and would never allow harm to come to them.
Haven gathered an armful of bubbles, a thin shield against the shame of admitting that, trepidation for the girls aside, her foremost concern was that she didn’t want to have to tell her father he was right all along.
When she discovered her enthusiasm for the bath had cooled faster than the water, she climbed out of the tub and turned her mind to plotting her day.
Hannah had sent up a dinner tray last night, as well as a late-night snack, but Haven didn’t expect to be fed in her room all the time. Moving around the room quietly, in case Cassidy was waiting nearby to assist her, she dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt and went down for breakfast.
Thirty minutes later, after gaining Hannah’s approval by devouring two helpings of scrambled eggs, Haven returned to her room to get her coat. Now that she had a better idea what the fresco entailed, she needed to pick up art supplies. She froze half way out the bedroom door, remembering her car was still at her house.
“Great,” she said.
“Is something wrong?”
Haven jumped, pressing her back flat against the wall. “Whoa!”
She took a breath, swallowed. “Can I help you?”
“Perhaps I can help you. You sound upset.”
“I have a few errands to run, but no car.”
“Easily solved. I’ll have Esposito drive you anywhere you want to go.”
That didn’t appeal to her at all, but it was better than his next suggestion.
“Or you can use one of mine.”
“What? No, I couldn’t do that.”
“Because it wouldn’t be right. I don’t even know you.”
“I don’t see an issue. I’m lending you a car, not giving it to you.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“So you feel it’s somehow inappropriate?”
“Not exactly.” Haven tossed her hands up. Being asked to define the problem made it seem silly. “Just weird.”
The sound of footsteps coming up the hall ended the embarrassing exchange and Haven turned.
“I’ll tell Esposito to be waiting when you’re ready,” Jett said.
Putting her disappointment on hold, she smiled when Cassidy appeared in the open doorway.
“Telephone for you, Miss.” Cassidy offered a cordless phone. “She said it was urgent.”
Only one she would dare call her here, at a stranger’s house. Haven nodded a thank you to Cassidy and closed the door. “Hi, Rae, what’s up?”
“I wanted to see if you’re settling in alright.”
Haven could tell Rae was eating, she almost always was. It remained a mystery where she put it all. “I’m doing great, but I can’t believe you called me here. How did you get the number?”
Haven sighed. She really needed to get a new cell phone. She’d located her charger but lost her phone and with the battery dead, couldn’t call it to find it.
“I miss you.” Rae spoke around a mouthful of something.
Haven sat on the edge of the bed. “I haven’t been gone long enough to miss.”
“It just feels strange not to go to your house and just walk in.”
Haven heard her slurping remnants of a drink through a straw. “Get the key from Marcus, you can walk around all you want.”
“It’s not the same.”
Was that ice shaking around in a cup? “Where are you?”
“Big Lulu’s Burgers. So when can I come up? I’m dying to see the house!”
Haven scraped her teeth on her bottom lip. She hadn’t thought to ask Jett if she could have company. “I don’t know, I have to ask.”
“What are you waiting for?”
Good question. “Hold on.” Haven held her palm over the receiver. It worked before, it might work again. “Mr. Cestone?” Nothing. “I’ll have to get back to you,” she told Rae.
“Try to find out today. We’re getting a big shipment in at the store soon and I want to get together before I get bogged down with inventory.”
“Will do,” Haven promised.
She hung up, reasoning that the next best person to ask about the rules of the house would be Hannah. Haven found her right where she expected, in the kitchen. She sat at a small round table in the breakfast nook, glasses perched on her thin nose, earnestly scouring the page of a jumbo crossword. Tapping her pen on her teeth, she didn’t look up when Haven came in.
“Author of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Hannah said, half to herself. “Starts with H.”
“Harper,” Haven answered. She’d just reread it last month.
Hannah set the pen to the blank boxes. “Land sakes! I don’t believe I missed that.”
“I have a question.”
Hannah checked it off the list. “What is it, Dear?”
“What are the rules regarding guests?” She met Hannah’s now-interested gaze. “I mean if a friend wanted to stop by now and then, since I’m living here.”
Hannah put her pen on the table in such a way, slow and precise, that Haven guessed there was some greater depth to this externally innocuous question.
“A friend asked me and I didn’t know what to say.”
Leaning against the rods of the Windsor back chair, Hannah watched Haven through befuddled blue eyes. “I don’t know,” she said at last.
It wasn’t the answer Haven was expecting.
“It hasn’t come up.”
Haven’s brows drew together. “Hasn’t come up?”
Hannah moved her head from side to side in long, sweeping motions. “Not in all the time I’ve been here—and that’s a long time.”
“You mean no one who works here has ever brought friends or family…?” Haven dropped off as Hannah continued shaking her head.
“We’re all the friends and family any of us have here,” Hannah told her, spreading her bony fingers on the table. “There’s no one else.”
Haven stared at her. It was hard to believe, more than a little strange. What had she gotten into? Her father’s warning voice was back, but she drowned it out with her own inner voice. As luck would have it, hers was saying the same things. Was the Cestone estate some kind of cult compound, as some believed? How could it be that none of his employees had family, or friends outside of this place?
Fortunately, her brain caught up with her inner voice and made it stop. She could now better understand how some rumors started, but there had to be a logical explanation.
“I don’t get it,” she said aloud.
A gentle smile touched Hannah’s mouth. “I don’t suppose you would. And it isn’t my place to explain.”
Haven twisted the ring on her finger. She wouldn’t push it. She would just see her family and Rae off the grounds. But she had a few other questions for Jett. “Can you get in touch with Mr. Cestone for me, please?”
“Are you sure you want to do that, Dear?” Hannah asked, her tone less than encouraging.
“Yes. I have some questions about the painting.”
“Well then, I’ll tell him you’re asking after him.” Hannah picked up her pen. “But if you’re asking after the goings-on in his house, I’ll have to suggest you hold off.” She paused, met Haven’s troubled gaze with a measuring look. “You’ll not be here long, after all, so he might be less than obliging when it comes to personal details about his life.”
“I’m not going to ask about his life.” Haven hated that she sounded defensive.
Hannah pushed her glasses to the bridge of her nose. “The people here are his life, Haven, and he’s very protective.”
Message received, loud and clear. It looked as if everyone in the house had a knack for reading people. Loyalty was Hannah Burke’s defining characteristic and Haven couldn’t fault her for it. She understood loyalty. She was an outsider and had no business prying into private matters. Hannah had every right to rebuke her, gentle though her censure had been.
But Haven wondered how far the people in this house would go to protect one another, or Jett if it came to it.
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What do a woman of faith and a heathen biker have in common? The devil, of course.
Tessa is moved to intercede for a man she’s never met. When they do meet, she’s stunned. Gunnar is gorgeous, charismatic, and driven. He’s also hostile, self-destructive, and an unbeliever…and she’s drawn to him like no other. The temptation she feels is as dangerous as it is alluring. She wants to stay away, but God has other plans. He reveals the devil’s intent to destroy Gunnar and commissions Tessa to keep him covered in prayer. Can she rely on God to keep her from falling…in love, and into temptation? Or will the devil claim them both?
Tessa kept her eyes closed. Physically, she stood at the bathroom sink, her hands curled around the sides of the basin. In her spirit, she occupied that place
where utterance slipped through the thin veil separating this world from the other. Where speech fell on holy and unholy ears alike. Where words were
transformed into power.
She was in prayer.
Head bowed, Tessa prayed first for her brother, Dominic, then her father and mother. After several minutes she paused, but the urgency intensified. Her skin care routine abandoned, she went into her room and fell on her face at the side of her bed and with great distress, prayed in the spirit as she had nearly every day for the past two months. As though a life depended on it. She didn’t yet know whose, only that it was a man and that whatever his need, time was running short.
When at last she felt the burden easing she took her Bible and notebook and sat cross‐legged on the bed. She perused familiar passages and listed any verses that came to mind. There was nothing mystical in the process itself, but it helped her focus, hopefully revealing what God might want to show her.
“Can’t You tell me who I’m praying for, Lord?” she asked. “Is it someone I know?”
Some moments later Tessa felt directed to turn to a specific though unfamiliar verse in the twenty‐seventh chapter of Job. She ran a finger down the fine paper of the page, stopping at verse nine. “Will God hear his cry when trouble cometh upon him?” she read aloud.
From there she turned to a verse she’d read the day prior in Psalm thirty‐four. “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”
She knew before asking, “He won’t cry out for himself, will he?”
So it fell to her to be his voice. But try as she might, she couldn’t think of what to say.
It didn’t take long to see the problem. She was trying to use her reasoning to grasp the situation and as a result grew more confused. Confusion was not of
God. She commanded the devil to stop messing with her thoughts, then began to pray in earnest for blessings, health, and protection on the man’s behalf.
Strength to withstand.
The words came unexpectedly, an urgent impression on her mind. At last she had a bearing.
An hour later Tessa flipped her chestnut braid over her shoulder and wiped an already spotless countertop. The task was intended less for cleanliness and more to help drive away some of the lingering consternation from her prayers.
Like every other time God led her to pray for this certain individual, she knew the victory attained in the spirit realm was only advancement toward a goal and not the goal itself. More prayer would follow, and more victory.
Meanwhile she would make herself useful to Dominic. He kidded about her neatness, but cleaning was the way she’d relieved stress for most of her twenty five years. Besides, it was sweet of him to let her move back in until she found another apartment, so she would earn her keep with fresh laundry and scrubbed floors.
It also helped fill her time. The routine of practicing law twelve hours a day hadn’t allowed for sudden stops, and relearning the art of relaxation was proving harder than expected. She’d never excelled at it to begin with.
When the wall phone rang she wiped her hands on a dishtowel before answering. “Silano residence.”
“You can just say hello,” Dominic said.
“It’s more formal my way.”
“Just say hello,” he repeated. “Listen, I have a friend coming by. He’ll be staying a few days. That OK with you?”
Tessa switched the phone to the other ear. “It’s your house.”
“It’s yours, too.”
She smiled, knowing he meant it, but wishing he didn’t always sound so apologetic when he spoke of his ownership. Yes, their parents had given it to both of them, but Tessa’s heart wasn’t in the place like Dominic’s, so she’d signed her half over to him, and that was that. It shouldn’t be so hard for him to accept.
“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable,” he finished.
“Why would I be uncomfortable? The more the merrier.”
“You say that now.”
She couldn’t tell if he was joking but giggled anyway. “He isn’t a convict, is he?”
She could hear Dominic tapping something. Probably the end of his pencil on the steering wheel of his police cruiser.
“Gunnar’s not very social,” Dominic said. “Set him up in Mom and Dad’s room and leave him be. I’ll try to get off early.”
Tessa hung up, more baffled than concerned by her brother’s ambiguous description of the houseguest. He had a lot of friends, but she’d never heard mention of Gunnar. Must be a new guy on the force.
She smirked when the phone rang a moment later. It was just like Dominic to see if she would answer her way or his.
“This Dominic’s place?”
The voice was male and impatient, and she deliberated whether to tell him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m—who are you?” she returned.
“What’s the address there?”
“The address, the address. Dom’s expecting me. He forgot to give me the house number, and his cell is off.”
Dismayed that this churlish man was Dominic’s expected friend, Tessa reluctantly gave him the address.
“Great. I’m—what the—”
Tessa’s eyes widened as she listened to the man yelling at someone on his end. Something to do with a bike, breaking body parts, and a hospital. It was a little hard to piece together since his profanity was quite fluent. She’d never considered some words could be used in that particular order.
“Be right there,” he said in a slightly calmer tone.
Only after hearing a click in her ear did Tessa realize those last words were directed to her. Dominic could have expanded about his friend. Not very social? He was positively hostile!
Twenty minutes later the ground began to tremble. It started as a low vibration, building steadily until Dominic’s Sports Legends Bobblehead collection threatened to leap from the shelves of the cherry wood cabinet in the living room.
Tessa ran to the front window. Turning into the drive was the loudest motorcycle she’d ever heard. At least she assumed it was a motorcycle, it looked like none she had seen before. The entire contraption, from the end of the lashing,
curved tail to the tip of the spitting, forked tongue was matte black with barely a hint of green. Beneath legs poised to lunge, the tires appeared to devour the
pavement. It was hideous, and at the same time, mesmerizing.
Stunned, she watched it stop inches from the front steps. The rider, a virtual extension of the machine in matching black, mercifully shut off the motor and let
down the kickstand with a clever movement of his foot. Gunnar, no doubt.
She had been practically immobilized by that dreadful sound, but now she could move again, Tessa didn’t want to. Even as she watched the man dismount, letting the machine crouch onto the metal stand, she knew she should go to the foyer to welcome him properly, but a bewildering rush of panic kept her feet planted.
As he raised his hands to take off the helmet, she closed her eyes and sucked in a deep calming breath. When she opened them, he was gone. Though she didn’t see his face, she had a hunch it wouldn’t be friendly.
She heard the front door swing open, then shut with a bang. Solid boot heels struck the hardwood of the foyer in perfect sync with the thick thudding of her
heart. He was walking in her direction, and if she didn’t move soon, would discover her frozen there like a rabbit in crosshairs.
Finding that idea worse than her fear, Tessa strode toward the foyer. Why should she be afraid of a man just because he’d been a little short with her on the
phone and rode a motorcycle that looked like a demon? Just because he was ill mannered and didn’t knock before entering someone’s house didn’t make him a savage. He was a friend of her brother.
Of course, her mind countered, he hadn’t known the address, so how good a friend could he be?
Tessa pushed away her misgivings and swung around the doorway and into a human wall. She teetered for a second before landing hard on her butt. From her seated position, her gaze moved up from scuffed biker boots and black pants. A matte black helmet dangled in front of her face and drew her gaze up the arm of a scarred leather jacket. She couldn’t help noticing that shoulders filled the doorway.
She guessed right about his face. Definitely unfriendly. Eyes dark as a night sea glared down at her from beneath slashing brows, and an unsmiling mouth
offered neither apology nor ease. What she didn’t expect was his hair. There wasn’t any, only the suggestion of it on a well‐shaped head.
He made no attempt to help her, which surprisingly did more to bolster her courage than undercut it. He was a startling sight, but she would not be unsettled in her own home.
Tessa got to her feet and held out a hand, wishing she’d inherited her mother’s ability to fabricate a smile on cue.
“Hello. I’m Tessa,” she said in a voice belying her nerves.
The man didn’t take her proffered hand, though in an impatient gesture, elevated the helmet a little in minor acknowledgement. She put her hand down and
skirted past him.
“This way,” she said.
He followed her to the front of the house, heels drumming close behind, his eyes hot on her back. She fought an inexplicable urge to run straight out the front door.
“Where do I put my bike?” he asked, when Tessa turned to lead him up the stairs.
His voice, rich and authoritative in person, sent an odd tingle along her spine. Tessa moistened her dry lips before she spoke.
“You can bring it around back,” she said, her gaze alighting on him momentarily before looking away. “On the side of the house by the shrubbery is fine.” She managed to point in the general direction.
He shifted his weight, but didn’t speak, waiting it seemed, for her to look at him. She did. She could all but feel his penetrating eyes and was struck with the foolish notion he could absorb her thoughts. In that case, she needn’t worry since she couldn’t reasonably form any. Had he asked another question? Had she answered the first one?
When he turned from her and walked out, Tessa released the breath she’d been holding. “Stop it,” she chided herself. “He’s only a man.”
It was true, but this time when the horrific noise began, Dominic’s Bobblehead collection wasn’t all that quaked.
As he rode to the side of the house Tessa hurried to the dining room windows. The machine was fascinating, but the man held her eye. As intimidating
and strange as he was, she couldn’t deny she found him unusually attractive.
Gunnar set the bike on the stand then swung his leg over and stood beside it. When he removed his jacket, revealing the form fitting gray shirt beneath, Tessa’s hand automatically went to her throat. Muscles bunched in his back and arms as he unhooked the elastic cords securing a black duffel bag to the seat.
He set the bag on the ground before lifting a flap on a saddlebag, and removing a length of shiny silver material. With a deft motion, he snapped it out into the air and covered the bike before crouching to fasten it near the back tire, then the front.
Tessa ducked away from the window as he made his way to the front of the house, and at the sound of the door opening and closing, she tried to look busy,
making a task of aligning the tablecloth.
“Where’s my room?” he asked from the doorway.
Tessa gave the tablecloth a last tug. “That was quick.”
Gunnar shifted his jacket and duffel bag to the opposite arm.
“That’s some motorcycle,” she said. “It’s…unique.”
He returned an impassive stare.
Tessa considered herself an even‐tempered person, one who went to great lengths to avoid confrontation, but this man was trying her patience. Best to show him his room and be done with him.
“Excuse me,” she said and nudged past him to walk to the stairs. She didn’t hear him behind her and looked back to find him in the same spot. “Are you coming?” she asked, this time without consideration to courtesy.
Her room and Dominic’s were upstairs on the right, and between them the door leading to the attic. Passing it, Tessa wished she could isolate Gunnar up
there, but Dominic said to put him in their parents’ old room at the end of the hall. It made sense, taking into account his size and the fact that the attic held a single
bed. But the thought of him sleeping so close to her brought no solace.
She entered ahead of him, her gaze shooting around the room. Although she hadn’t been in here in years, everything looked pretty much the way she remembered. A solid blue quilt draped the queen size bed, with hand stitched throw pillows marching single file across the top. The lead crystal lamps and silver
alarm clocks stood on their bedside tables, all polished and gleaming. Everything as it should be.
“This room gets great light.” Tessa doubted Gunnar cared, but something needed to be said. “Make yourself at home. There’s a sun porch downstairs and a
library if you want to read,” she continued, as he flung the duffel onto the chair‐and‐a‐half that stood between two east facing windows. “If you need anything—”
“If you need anything,” she began again, “ask Dominic. I’m sure he’d love to help you.” She could almost feel the heat when his gaze whipped to hers.
“I said I won’t need anything.”
Her lips bowed in what hopefully would pass for a smile. “It must be wonderful to be so autonomous.”
She thought the corner of his mouth tugged in response, but those near black eyes narrowed a fraction, long enough to distract her. When she lowered her gaze again his lips were fixed in an unyielding line. She must have imagined it.
“I hope you enjoy your stay,” she said, wiping an undetectable speck of dust from the dresser top. “Dinner is at six. You’re welcome to join us.”
In the hall with the door closed behind her, Tessa clenched her fists. Oooh! How could she let him provoke her? He was obviously in the habit of intimidating people, but she shouldn’t have let her control slip. She’d dealt with worse than him—attorneys no less—and held her own. If he wanted to take her on…
Dominic’s friend, she reminded herself. There was no need to score a point or stand her ground. She would take Dom’s advice and leave Gunnar be until he
left in a few days. She made a conscious effort to relax her hands.
Gunnar retrieved the bottle he kept in his duffel bag and lowered himself to the edge of the bed. How did he end up here? Not just in this room with matching mahogany furniture, plump pillows and frilly wallpaper, but in this frame of mind. He was a fool to believe he had a grip on things, however briefly.
He opened the bottle and drained the amber liquid in two long pulls before tossing the bottle and cap back in the bag. Dragging a pillow into position, he fell back on it. Each corner was adorned with a gold silk tassel. He could appreciate craftsmanship, but everything in this room screamed look‐but‐don’t‐touch.
Dominic didn’t mention his parents were pretentious snobs. He didn’t mention Tessa either. Now that was a look‐but‐don’t‐touch woman if ever
he’d seen one. How could it be possible she and Dominic were related? Maybe he was adopted.
Gunnar gave the tassel a brush with his finger and closed his eyes, hoping to sleep. Better, to never wake up.
Want to read more? Amazon has posted the first 4 chapters in the Look Inside feature for the Kindle version: http://www.amazon.com/The-Covering-ebook/dp/B005G4G7EI/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_ke?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1313370443&sr=1-1
Also available in paperback and for Nook at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-covering-dana-pratola/1104473665?ean=9781611161014&itm=4
Available at: http://www.pelicanbookgroup.com/ec/index.php
I Love this song (Turning Page) from Sleeping At Last. It's from the 4th Twilight movie, but don't hold that against it if you're a hater, LOL. Not everyone likes the vocal, but the words are everything a romantic song should be. Enjoy.