At the auction of her deceased mother’s items, Kitrina Allen meets Jared Thompson, who promptly takes her bed and steals the key to understanding who her father is and why her parents abandoned her. Jared didn’t plan on sweeping Kitrina off her feet; he just needed to keep her occupied while he retrieved something for his billionaire boss. However, once his boss learns Kitrina is his long-lost daughter, Jared is dispatched to retrieve the reticent, suspicious woman and keep her safe. Will he be able to keep her alive and deny the attraction between them?
Jared Thompson walked out of the November chill and into the main auction room of the esteemed New York auction house at precisely 2:15 in the afternoon, just as he had been instructed to do. The room was as crowded as he had expected it to be. The massive swarm of onlookers, here to see the fine baubles of a temperamental diva, brushed shoulders and purses with the collectors here to buy the treasure the woman had hoarded for years. He had never ventured into auction houses before— he could hire other people to find him any old thing he wanted—but this time was special. The environment whispered class, elegance, and legacy.
The scent of the room—eau de old money, expensive French perfumes, tourist sweat, and dust—clogged his nostrils. He needed fresh air and space, but his job demanded he run interference on the well-oiled machinery of this auction.
There was one lot he wanted. One lot that would cement the last piece of the puzzle he needed to secure his lifelong dream.
He had the looks of a man who easily blended into places such as this. He wore a sharp Prada suit, polished shoes, crisp tie, and a French-cuffed white shirt pressed with medium starch. His bronze-colored hair was shorn close, barely leaving any fuzz on his golden scalp. His haircut cost more than some people made in a month. If anyone stepped close enough, they would see the sprinkle of nutmeg freckles across his nose and cheeks, but he wasn’t a man to be approached easily.
He exuded an energy that made most people shrink away from him, until he wanted or needed them close by. His cool, sea-green eyes covered by aviator shades constantly absorbed information about his surroundings.
The men and women milling around the auction house were there for a reason. Some were there for the baubles and trophies of a dead woman’s conquests, ready to pick up jewels to wear and paintings to hang. Others were there just to claim that they had been. No one was interested in the package of letters and diaries of a now-dead woman. He would bet on it.
He always bet correctly.
He looked the part of a man of leisure and wealth, but underneath all the polish and esteem Jared was still the hungry kid who had once stolen Twinkies and cars to survive. He had a rarified air of old money, good liquor, and fancy homes that surrounded and coated him.
His boss had discovered the information about the auction in the New York Times and ordered him to attend. Jared had arranged to fly before his boss had even called.
He made it a point to know his client. He knew his client’s needs sometimes before the client knew them. The mafia had a word for men like him: consigliore. Salim Hayek, his boss for more than a decade, preferred to call him his “fixer,” because Jared could prevent situations from turning into their worst outcomes. Jared did what he did so things would run smoothly for his boss, and what would eventually become his company.
This auction was one more situation that could become a quagmire and ruin everything Jared had worked for. Salim’s sickness, his impending divorce, and not knowing which would come first had all stood in his way. Jared’s ascension to the top of Salim’s gaming empire would have been guaranteed if it hadn’t been for the messy divorce, nasty allegation, and legal troubles that could land the casino empire in trouble. Jared would let nothing block his progress, especially not a dead woman and the flurry of mad men who loved her.
He scanned the room and found his contact sitting in the corner, idly observing the swarm of people. The woman knew the best place to be seen by the auctioneer as well as the best place to make a statement about her position, money, and power. Her hair was cut short to frame her doll-like face and her makeup was perfect. She had toffee-colored skin and her clothes were tailored to her body type. Today she wore a wrap dress in mint green with a dangerously cut neckline and shoes with a heel so high when she stood, she was eye to eye with him. Soraya always presented a gorgeous picture of someone born into wealth and prestige. Looks were deceiving, and he knew the truth. Like attracted like. She was as hungry as he was, and that was why he kept her around. That, and the way her legs looked in a dress. Jared bit his knuckle when he saw her pull down the edge of her skirt, drawing attention to her stockings. She knew his preferences well. Only Soraya could look pulled together during a heat wave to rival hell’s climate.
“You’re tardy, Jared.” Soraya barely acknowledged him, keeping her eyes focused on the catalogue in her lap. He thought he could have had her if he wanted, but she knew the score: Once he bedded you, you didn’t exist. She had stayed in her right mind, kept her distance, and remained on the payroll.
“I’m on time.”
She tapped the seat next to her. “Sit. Take a load off.”
Jared shook his head. “I prefer to stand.”
“You don’t need an advantage in this room. No one in here can harm you.”
“You can never be sure, Soraya.”
Soraya swiveled in her seat to assess the man standing next to her.
“Are you certain you want to bid on this? Everything else here and you want a trunk full of letters.”
Jared tapped the brochure on his thigh. “No one knows what is in that trunk,” he said, scanning the crowd again. He hated surprises, and he was constantly on guard for anything that could threaten him or his interests.
Soraya touched his hand, her nails lightly raking over his skin to get his attention. “You’re safe here.”
“Old habits die hard,” he replied, lifting her hand off his and back into her lap. The last thing he wanted or needed was crossed signals. Soraya was good for business, and valuable to the smooth running of his organization. He didn’t sleep with people who made his business work, no matter how pretty, glamorous, or sensual they were. “But I have friends here. I know what’s in there.”
Soraya huffed. She was either displeased with his comment or his block of her skilled attempt to seduce him.
“You know everyone. Do you know what the letters say?”
“No.” Jared set his jaw and stared at the stage, watching the auction house employees move into position. Soraya was not privy to the insight he had. No one was, except Jared and his boss. Salim was one of Anna St. James’ earliest admirers and lovers, and had been vividly mentioned in her letters and diaries. Salim couldn’t risk prying eyes and salacious gossip. It was Jared’s task to obtain those letters at any price, through all means possible. “But that’s all I want and need.”
“Pity. There are beautiful baubles here for your wife.” Soraya pointed to the cluster of items displayed in the center. “I’m sure emeralds owned by the Duchess of Windsor would make her happy.”
Jared’s jaw tightened. “My imaginary wife.”
“Your future wife,” she replied. “You’re rich. Splurge a little.”
“All I want are those letters.”
She sighed and got down to business. “Three entities have been sniffing around those things. The Duke University archives and The Boston Conservatory would love to get their pretty little fingers on those.”
Jared narrowed his eyes, assessing the options. Private universities had deep reservoirs, but not as deep as his. They could be outbid with the promise of a censored collection of the letters in the next year. “And the third?”
She thumped him in the side and discreetly pointed to the other side of the room. “Do you know her?”
Jared barely turned his head, catching the blur of people walking to their seats. “No, not at all.”
“Look again. She seems out of place.”
Jared tilted his head and saw her, standing at the edge of the room, mere feet away from the darkened back corner of the auction house.
“She’s not from here.” He could tell within fifteen seconds of observation. She could have blended in with the hipsters in Brooklyn with her look: jeans, slouchy flannel top, and a gray wool cap that rested on her head. The brim was pulled low, but when she rubbed her forehead, her hand pushed it up a bit, enough for him to see her face.
All the breath left his body. On a normal day she would still be cute, not by Los Angeles’ standards, but like the around-the-way honeys he had grown up with in Chicago, the bombastic fashion chicks he knew in D.C., and the gracious beauty queens he loved in Atlanta. His eyes were playing tricks on him. “I don’t know her.”
Soraya paused, crossing her legs and fanning herself with the auction paddle. “That’s Kitrina Allen. She’s going after our lot.” At his stunned look, she patted his leg with the book. “She put in a private bid for—” Soraya scribbled a number across the top page of her catalogue and tapped her pen on the last zero. “That’s a lot of money for some letters.”
Jared scanned the number and glanced at the woman again. If she actually had a third of that amount, he would be shocked, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. Not today.
He named a price that would have boggled most. “That’s my ceiling bid to win,” he said, knowing Soraya was cool with handling such a high-priced deal. She handled that amount in one transaction most days of the week. He would send a nice bouquet of flowers to her for her discreet dealings with him.
Soraya drew curlicues over the numbers she had scratched into the book before raising her eyes to meet his. “That’s more than ten times what their worth.”
“They’re of great personal value to me.”
“And by ‘me,’ you mean Salim.”
He turned his head, looking for Kitrina Allen and evidence to disprove what he had seen. Her spot was empty. The mystery woman was gone, evaporated into the ether. “Where did she—”
“Outside. I don’t think she knows how close we are to bidding on the lot. God help us if we take the theater out of auction.”
“No theater, no drama,” he said, rolling up the auction magazine and tapping the tight cylinder against his leg. “Just get it done. Don’t get too excited. I want this. No mistakes. No hiccups.”
“You’re opening up Pandora’s box. Are you sure you want to do that?” Soraya hissed after him, but Jared ignored her. The beauty had disappeared and he had an obligation to find her.
For what was at stake, he had to open the box.