Chapter 1

 

     Gemma rubbed her temples, mumbling to herself about Mr. Graves’ request. “Buy her a piece of art that captures a place I can take her. And make sure it’s family friendly.”

     Austin liked—no—Austin loved giving his wife gifts. Lavishing would be a better word. Finding just the right surprise was sometimes a challenge.

     Austin and Zoe were, hands down, Gemma’s favorite clients, and shopping for them was usually the best part of the job. But this request had Gemma stumped. Zoe wouldn’t want to travel somewhere far away, at least not for a while, so a local gallery was the best bet.

     On the square in Johnson City, Gemma continued her hunt. She made it two steps inside the next gallery and spotted the perfect image, a cabin nestled in a field full of blue and yellow wildflowers. The photograph captured the last colorful rays of light near the end of the day. Gemma read the information card, hoping and praying the location was not someone’s private property. All it gave was a cabin name. She needed it to be a place Austin and Zoe could stay for a night or two.

     Googling like a mad woman, Gemma found a link to the rental, a quaint getaway in Hye, Texas.

     Zoe would love it. Austin would feel like he was roughing it.

     Gemma purchased the piece and arranged to pick it up on her way out of town. With her main task completed, she strolled through galleries and other shops, resisting the urge to buy all the things.

     She walked into a near-silent gallery, and a waiter offered her a cup of red wine. Gemma liked this gallery.

     Sipping red wine and listening to a cellist play as art lovers contemplated massive canvases, Gemma nearly giggled. The room was like a scene from a movie, serious and contemplative. She’d managed to be in the upscale gallery ten minutes and hadn’t yet embarrassed herself. Did that win her a medal?

     When her phone rang out a pop song, whispered grumbles preceded sideways glances. Gemma couldn’t get out of the gallery fast enough. She pushed open the door, and red wine sloshed in her face as she ran into someone.

     Letting the door close so the art lovers could have their quiet, Gemma wiped the wine from her eyes and blinked. “I’m so sorry.” When the man came into focus, she wanted to cry.

     The man’s crisp, well-fitted, white shirt had a large red spot on the front, a spot the exact color of her wine.

     “Pardon.” Brown eyes, exuding warmth and concern, focused on her. Brow knitted, he touched her arm.

     She reached for his buttons, her minding racing. Her heartbeat banging on her eardrums made it hard to think. “Maybe if we get this off and get some club soda—” Her brain kicked into gear, and she realized she was trying to strip a stranger of his clothing. “I’m so sorry. I won’t take your shirt off.” She stared at the stain on his shirt. “Oh my. I’ve ruined it.”

     How could she make it right?

     “Are you okay?” His words were bathed in the most delicious French-sounding accent.

     She couldn’t let herself be distracted. Changing plans, she dug through her purse. “My wallet is in here somewhere. I’d like to pay for the cleaning . . . or the shirt.” She ended her rambling and looked up.

     “The shirt is no matter. Are you okay?” He flashed a crooked smile.

     He reached for her. Again. And Gemma stepped back, colliding with the stone wall behind her.

     A look of alarm registered on his face, and he retracted his hand. “Very sorry. On your face, you have a bit of wine.”

     “Oh.” She leaned forward, letting him brush droplets off her face.

     Between his accent and the feel on his fingers on her skin, it amazed her she wasn’t face-first on the sidewalk. Her knees did feel a tad wobbly, a sign they were threatening to give out at any moment. She couldn’t blame them. The rest of her was slowly melting under the handsome stranger’s gaze.

     She remembered her hunt for cash. “I have eighteen dollars. The cleaning may cost more than that. And it’s not nearly enough to replace the shirt.” After grabbing the first piece of paper she found in her purse, she scribbled down her number and handed it to him. “I’d like to cover any costs.”

     “It is an old shirt.” He held out his hand. “I am Antoine.”

     Before Gemma could shake hands, a woman, who looked like she’d just stepped off a catwalk, called to him from down the sidewalk. “Antoine, I found what I want. Come see.”

     He turned and rattled off something in French, not that Gemma understood what he said. It sounded like French, at least.

     She chose that moment to slip away. After a quick glance at his still-outstretched hand, she ran to the corner and cut around the building, continuing until she ran into the coffee shop. Once in the door, she headed to the ladies’ room. She’d acted like it was cloak and dagger, but he likely hadn’t even noticed she’d left. That was stupid. Of course he’d notice that she disappeared like a crazy person.

     If she didn’t want to be found, giving him her number was the wrong thing to do.

     After washing off the wine, Gemma tried to tame her wild curls. At the worst of times, they reflected her mood. Her current mood was scattered and stupid.

     Shake it off. The man clearly wasn’t from around here. She’d likely never see him again. Unless he calls. That thought both rattled and excited her. Would he call? Why was she even thinking about that? The man was likely married to that woman—that stunningly beautiful woman.

     Gemma walked out of the bathroom, contemplating what she’d say if Antoine called. She’d probably mumble nonsense before getting so nervous she had to hang up.

     After getting a cup of coffee, she trudged to her car, reliving the awful moments over and over.

     Fifteen minutes down the highway, she remembered the photograph for Zoe. A quick U-turn had Gemma headed back to Johnson City, back to the possibility of bumping into Antoine. Not only was his accent amazing, his name was amazing. Repeating it over and over, she enjoyed the way the word curled her tongue.

     Then she remembered that woman and felt like a horrible person.

     A parking place right in front of the gallery welcomed Gemma, and it took less than two minutes to run in and pick up the gift. But when she made it back to the car, her heart pounded like she’d sprinted across the town square. Twice.

     Disappointment mixed with relief. She’d escaped without any more embarrassment, but she hadn’t gotten another glimpse. And oh, she’d wanted just one more look at that man.

     Thanks to an hour of solitude and a loud radio, Gemma had put the episode behind her by the time she reached her apartment.

     Mostly.

     She trudged the stairs up to the apartment, carrying the framed photograph. Unlocking the door, she turned when footsteps sounded on the stairs.

     “Hey. What did ya get?” The neighbor jingled her keys.

     “A photograph for a customer. Want to come over? I’ve got quite a story to tell.”

     Paige patted her tummy. “We should grab dinner.”

     “We can order something. Pizza rolls okay?”

     “Always.” She pushed open her door. “Be over in a few.”

     Gemma dropped her purse near the door and put the photograph where the cat couldn’t knock it over.

     She changed clothes before calling in the order. She’d just collapsed on the couch when Paige walked in.

     “I’m in the mood for a good story.” She dropped into the armchair and crossed her legs.

     Gemma laughed. “I didn’t say it was a good story.”

     The cat wandered in from the bedroom, never giving Paige a glance. He jumped onto the sofa and curled next to Gemma.

     “That cat doesn’t like me.” Paige scowled, pretending to be angry.

     “Don’t feel bad. He doesn’t really like anyone.”

     “Except you.”

     “We all need someone.” Gemma often wished for her someone to be taller and less furry.

     “I shopped in the Hill Country today, and I was in a gallery.”

     Paige put up her hand. “Is this one of those places that looks like a shop but they call it a gallery or a real-life, art-on-the-walls place?”

     “Picture this. Huge floor-to-ceiling canvases painted with modern art. Benches in the middle of the room where people are sitting and contemplating the art. A cellist playing in the corner. A waiter serving cups of red wine.”

     “Sounds swanky.”

     “It was. So, I’m standing in that gallery sipping my red wine when you called.”

     “Uh-oh.” Guilt etched on Paige’s face. “The art lovers didn’t like my ringtone?”

     “I didn’t stay to find out. I ran out the door . . . smack dab into someone.”

     “Yikes!” Paige leaned forward. “And? That’s not the end, right?”

     “He was gorgeous, and his shirt had a big, red stain on it.”

     “Forget the stain. I want to hear more about the gorgeous.”

     “Tall, a bit older . . . maybe thirty-five. He had these penetrating brown eyes, soft but deep. And his accent—so dreamy.”

     “You’re welcome.” Paige grinned. “So when are you going to see him again?”

     “Why would I thank you for causing me a huge embarrassment? Then I doubled that embarrassment.”

     “What could possibly make that worse?”

     “I have a list. First, I started to take his shirt off before I really thought about it. Then, when he introduced himself, I ran away and hid.”

     “But he found you?”

     Gemma shook her head. “No. I doubt I’ll ever see him again.”

     “You’re crazy. Why would you run away?”

     “Like you wouldn’t do the same.”

     “Point taken, but you aren’t me. I can’t talk to strangers. You work with all kinds of people. And why were you trying to take his shirt off? I mean, he might look good without it, but that’s not typical for you.”

     “I’m not sure what I was thinking. I couldn’t think. Besides, he was with someone. Someone in a completely different league.” Gemma jumped up when someone knocked. “Dinner. Oh, but I did give him my number, so I could pay for the shirt.”

     Paige clapped. “He’ll call you, I bet.”

     “Don’t hold your breath.” Gemma didn’t even dare to hope. “And didn’t you hear me say there was a woman with him?”

***

     Two days later, she dumped the contents of her purse onto the table. “Where is that list? I know it was in my purse.” Talking to herself was a daily occurrence, and her cat no longer looked at her funny when she did.

     Wroughton flicked his tail. He was named after her favorite Bond because he was a bit rogue and tough and had dazzling blue eyes.

     “Did you take my list?”

     Wroughton only gave another swish of the tail, not inclined to even bother with an answer.

     Gemma ran back through when she last had the list. She’d looked at it when she got to Johnson City. Then marked off the big gift and tucked it in her purse before shopping for the small stuff.

     She’d purchased everything Austin wanted but needed the list to be sure. “I had it in my hand before walking into the gallery. I’d checked off the little things. Austin’s number was written at the bottom. Maybe it’s tucked in a pocket.” She left the mess on the table and searched the hamper for what she’d worn that day.

     The spots of red wine on the front of her shirt flashed a heart-sickening thought. The scrap of paper. She’d written her number on the back of the list and given it to a stranger.

     Besides being unprofessional, it was horrifyingly embarrassing. She needed to apologize to Austin.

     Phone in hand, she dialed. Counting as she breathed in and out, she waited while the phone rang once, twice . . .

     “Gemma. Hi. Did you get everything?”

     “Yes. I also—”

     “Can you bring them to the office today?”

     “I can come now if that’s convenient. But, I—”

     “Thanks, Gemma! See you in a bit.”

     The call ended before she could confess what she’d done.

     She gathered the small packages into a canvas bag and set the larger piece beside it. Hurriedly, she shoved everything back into her purse.

     While she drove toward downtown, her thoughts returned to the handsome stranger, who now had Austin’s personal cell phone number. By the time she found a place to park, she’d convinced herself worrying about it was silly.

     Why would a stranger call Austin? The phone number would simply be ignored. The man hadn’t even called her.

     It was only a short walk to the building, and once inside, Gemma stopped in the lobby. Two of the three chairs in the barbershop were occupied, men getting haircuts to look nice for their dates, probably. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. She passed the wall of bookshelves and waited until one of the elevators opened.

     She loved the refurbished building. Charming, it was now a hub for tech companies.

     As the elevator carried her to the top floor, she smoothed her crazy hair. A few deep breaths helped to calm her. As the doors opened, she adjusted the bag on her shoulder and picked up the frame.

     Austin’s assistant grinned as Gemma approached the desk. “He said to go on in. He’s a wee bit excited about Valentine’s Day.”

     “You should have seen all the packages at Christmas.”

     “We should all be so lucky.” Daphne waved and turned to answer the phone.

     Balancing the frame on a hip and holding the bag, Gemma pushed open the office door and froze. She wouldn’t have to tell Austin what she’d done. “Antoine.”

     Antoine sprang out of his chair. “Gemma.” His dark eyes twinkled. “Let me help you.”

     “Thank you.” She let him take the bag and frame then steadied herself by grabbing the doorknob. “This is a . . . nice surprise.” She decided nice sounded more polite than horrifying.

     “The pleasure is all mine.” He sounded almost believable.

     “Gemma, this is my friend, Antoine, but I see you’ve already met.” Austin stood and pointed at a chair. “Have a seat.”

     “I don’t want to interrupt. Everything’s wrapped. Did you get the photo I sent? I mean the picture of the photo. Of the place.” Why did she ramble when nervous?

     “Yes. It was perfect. Zoe will love that. You sent the information for how to book the cabin?”

     “I did. No, wait. I haven’t, but I will.”

     “You managed to find everything?”

     “Yes. I think so.” This was when she needed to admit her mistake. “I, uh . . .”

     “Perhaps your list will help?” Antoine held out the piece of paper.

     Glancing from Antoine to Austin, Gemma found her nerve. “I made a huge mistake and gave him your list, thinking it was a scrap of paper. I’m not usually so disorganized. I hope you can forgive me.”

     Austin grinned. “Antoine and I are old friends. Met him when I was in college. We laughed at the coincidence . . . or the serendipity of you giving him my number.” When had Austin started using words like serendipity?

     That was the wrong time to glance at Antoine, but she did anyway.

     He smiled in that heart-melting way. “I am treating my friends to dinner this evening. Will you join us?”

     The word yes bounced around on Gemma’s tongue, begging to be released from her mouth. How long a pause was needed in order to not look desperate or hopelessly infatuated?

     “I’m sure Zoe would appreciate the company.” Austin leaned back and opened a desk drawer. “Which reminds me, she asked me to give you this the next time I saw you.” He handed Gemma a copy of Zoe’s latest release.

     Gemma hugged the book to her chest. “Thank you. And yes, I’d like that. Where should I meet you? What time?”

     “May I call you a little later, after I have arranged for the evening?” Antoine extended his hand.

     She slipped her fingers into his hand and nodded. This time she wouldn’t run away.

     He kept hold of her hand an extra second. “Any food allergies? I can find a place that is accommodating.”

     “No allergies.” Her phone buzzed. She should have been grateful for the distraction. She’d stared long enough. She tore her eyes from Antoine, glancing at the screen of her phone. “I should take this.” She backed into the door, her gaze locked on Antoine.

     He reached around her and opened the door, so close she reminded herself not to close her eyes and inhale. What made him smell so incredible? For all she knew, it was laundry detergent. The man probably made sweat smell good . . . or maybe not.

     “Thanks.” She hurried out of the office, closing the door behind her. Next to Daphne’s desk, she leaned on the wall, resisting the urge to squeal and trying to remember to breathe.

     “He’s hot, isn’t he?” Daphne giggled. “Not everyone who does business with Austin turns heads, but that one—wow!”

     Gemma fanned herself for the laugh. “Antoine is kind of amazing.”

     “First name basis? Look at you!”

     “I need to run. Full day! Lots of guys need last-minute Valentine gifts purchased.” She darted down the hall, not wanting to answer any questions.

     Once she was in her car, she called Zoe. “Hi. I have the gift you wanted me to get for Austin. Would you like me to bring it over now?” Asking questions about a certain college friend could wait until Gemma got to the house.

     “Did you talk to Antoine?” Zoe’s voice pitched with excitement.

     Gemma wanted to crawl under her floor mat. “Everyone knows?”

     “We’ve been waiting all morning. Verbena is putting the kettle on. Come on over.” Zoe ended the call.

     Twenty-seven minutes later, Gemma dropped into a chair and was handed a cup of tea. “I only have time for one cup. This is one of my busiest days, but I’ve made a complete fool of myself twice now. What can you tell me about the man who brings out that side of me?”

     Verbena clapped. “He sounds delightful. How did you meet? I always love those stories.”

     Zoe refilled her cup. “You go first, and then I’ll tell you what I know.”

     Cradling the mug with both hands, Gemma closed her eyes. “I was in a gallery. A friend called me, and my loud ringtone drew dirty looks, so I hurried out the door carrying my red wine and ran smack dab into Antoine—literally. My wine met his shirt before we were officially introduced.”

     Fueled by the giggles from her audience, she continued. “Actually, he introduced himself, and I bolted, but not before asking him to take off his shirt. Now that I’m telling this story, I’m flabbergasted the man invited me to dinner. I bet you ten dollars he won’t wear a white shirt.” The scene played out in her head, and she remembered the impeccably dressed woman. “He had a woman with him. A beautiful woman.”

     Zoe reached out and caught Gemma’s hand. “His sister. This is what I know.” She popped a saltine cracker in her mouth and extended the wait for information. “Antoine and Austin have worked together some. I think—but I could be wrong—Antoine’s company partially funded Austin’s startup. Anyway, he’s in town looking at another company.”

     Gemma set her cup down and grabbed the table. The blood whooshing against her eardrums made it hard to hear. The word sister had her giddy, but funded? Only one kind of person funded companies—a rich one.

     “Um, he’s . . . uh . . .?”

     Sympathy etched in Zoe’s features. “Yeah, he’s visiting from Canada.”

     “I meant—did you say funded?”

     Verbena bubbled with laughter. “He’s rich, dear.”

     Horror must have oozed from Gemma’s eyes.

     “And it’s too late to change plans for dinner.” Verbena tapped Gemma’s hand. “It’s not his fault he’s handsome and rich. Perhaps it is his fault he’s rich, but you shouldn’t hold it against him.”

     “I offered him eighteen dollars to replace his shirt.” Gemma dropped her head onto the table. “It probably cost ten times that. Or more.”

     Zoe shook her head. “He’s clearly not upset about it.”

     If he was rich, where would they be going to dinner? Gemma didn’t own fancy stuff.

     Thoughts bounced around in her head, pounding against her skull. “What am I going to wear?”

     “I know this great personal shopper.” Zoe chuckled like it was funny.


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