Ignited Page 7

I glanced at Cole and saw that his eyes were narrowed just slightly. But whether he was impressed with my efforts or concerned that I was about to screw up a sale, I didn’t know.

Tiki was easier to read. His wide grin suggested that he knew exactly where I was heading.

I pushed them both out of my mind. Right then, I didn’t need performance anxiety adding to my already existing soup of emotional turmoil.

“How would you choose?” Amelia asked.

“Honestly?” I leaned toward her conspiratorially. “I’d cheat.”

Her eyes widened, as if I’d just said the most scandalous thing imaginable.

“If I had an empty room to fill, I wouldn’t leave with just one. I’d insist on acquiring both.”

She turned her attention from me back to the paintings. I could see the spark of interest, and then I saw the way her brow furrowed to form a deep V above her nose. “But all this is hypothetical. I don’t have carte blanche.”

“Actually,” I said, grinning broadly, “you do. What’s the color scheme of your room?”

“Earth tones highlighted with peach.”

“These colors,” I said, indicating a portion of the canvas on the left. I looked to Tiki for confirmation and help. He gave the confirmation, but he didn’t jump in as I’d hoped.

Cole, however, picked up the thread. “She’s right, you know,” he said to Amelia. “Alone, the other painting might not work with that scheme. But see here?” He gestured between the two paintings, his movements highlighting the colors and patterns. “These browns and greens are a perfect complement to the peach and pinks over here.”

“Yeah, man, they’re right,” Tiki said. “These canvases, they’re like a team. Like bread and butter, you know what I’m sayin’?”

I watched Amelia, and saw the slow spread of a smile. It was a smile I recognized from my days and nights in Florida, pushing paintings with my dad. It was a smile that said a woman with too much money had just figured out a way to justify her spending.

In other words, my work there was done.

I pressed my palm gently against her arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to run on like that. At any rate, I’ll let you and Tiki talk. I really should go mingle.”

“Well, I don’t think we need any further debate,” I heard her say as I melted into the crowd. “We just need that nice young girl with the credit card machine.”

“That was quite the performance,” Cole said a few moments later. He took my arm and steered me to one side. I went willingly, my entire body tingling simply from the firm grip of his fingers against my bare elbow.

He walked slightly behind me, so I couldn’t see his face. “Good performance?” I asked. “Or bad performance?”

“As far as I’m concerned, you get a standing ovation.”

“Really?” I asked, ridiculously pleased that I’d impressed him.

He let go, then moved to face me. I missed his touch, but the trade-off was worth it. I’m not the kind of girl who swoons over hunky firemen calendars and I’ve only seen Magic Mike once. But as far as eye candy went, Cole was a walking, talking Milky Way bar, and at least as tempting.

“Really,” he confirmed. An easy smile bloomed on his face, and he shook his head slowly, with obvious pleasure. “I didn’t realize that working as a barista required such honed salesmanship.”

“I’m a woman of many talents,” I said, then fluttered my lashes.

“Damn right you are.” He drew in a breath as he looked at me, and try as I might, I had no clue what he was thinking.

“That was quite the commission you just brought in,” he finally said. “I have a feeling you’ll be getting Christmas cards from Tiki for the rest of your life.”

“I look forward to it. What about you?” I asked boldly, and blamed it on the wine. I met his eyes, and fervently hoped that mine really were a window to the soul, because right then I wanted him to see straight inside me. “What will I get from you?”

“That depends on what you want.”

“Want,” I repeated. Where Cole was concerned, what didn’t I want?

“I told you earlier that you owed me,” he said. “Do you want to call us even?”

“Do you?”

He was silent for a moment, and then one moment longer. “No,” he finally said.

I lifted my chin. “Good.”

His expression remained perfectly stoic, but he lifted his hand toward my face, then dropped it, as if he were a child who’d caught himself about to do something naughty.

“It’s okay,” I said, my voice almost a whisper. “I won’t break.”

“Don’t be so sure, blondie. I’ve been known to destroy even the most resilient things.”

“I’m not a thing. And you won’t destroy me.” I hesitated only a second, then took one step closer. The difference was only inches, but the air seemed suddenly thicker, as if my lungs had to work harder to draw in oxygen. “It’s okay,” I said again.

All around us, the party continued, but I’m not sure either one of us was aware. Instead, it felt as if we’d stepped into a vortex, and at least in our little corner of space and time nothing else mattered or even existed.

I held my breath, wanting his touch so badly I could taste it. And when he finally brushed the side of his thumb over my cheekbone, it was all I could do not to moan aloud.

All too quickly he took his hand away, leaving me bereft.

All too quickly he stepped back, forcing the world around us to come back to life.

“I just had to see if I was right,” he said.

“About?”

“Your skin. It’s like touching a promise.”

“Is it?” I murmured.

“Tender,” he said. “And a bit mysterious. With layer upon layer just waiting to be discovered.”

My breath stuttered in my chest. “I didn’t know you thought that,” I said. “I didn’t know you thought about me at all.”

He was silent for so long I began to fear he wasn’t going to answer. When he spoke, his words cut through me, sharp and sweet. “I think about you more than I should.”

It was suddenly very warm in the gallery. Little beads of sweat gathered at the hairline on the back of my neck. I needed air, because it seemed as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.

Somehow, miraculously, I formed words. “What are you thinking now?”

I saw the answer I craved in the lines of his face and the stiff control of his body. I felt it in the way the air between us crackled and sparked. I even smelled it, that warm and musky scent of desire.

The reality of his answer surrounded and enticed me, and yet when he spoke, his words denied me. Denied us both.

“I’m thinking no,” he said, destroying me with nothing more than those three simple words. “And I’m thinking that I need to get back to my guests.”

four

I watched him go, numb from the knowledge that despite being so close I had failed so spectacularly.

I couldn’t even take any solace from the fact that when he denied me, he was denying himself, too. I wanted his touch, not just the knowledge that he wanted me.

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