The Couple Behind the Headlines
It-girl Imogen Christie has been getting up-close-and-personal with financial hotshot Jack Taylor. Think that’s wise, Miss Christie? We all know what happened to your last hook-up…he’s now engaged to your best friend!
Considering Jack’s history, it would be shocking if they lasted more than one night! But with the paparazzi spotting them all over London, the night before and the morning after, maybe Jack will have to add a new word to his vocabulary—‘relationship’. Unless Imogen’s heart is in much more danger than she thinks...?
Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds?
Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds?
Imogen gaped at the catalogue, her jaw practically hitting the floor. It had to be a mistake. A typo or something. Because surely no one could be expected to fork out a quarter of a million pounds for that... that thing.
Bracing herself, she turned back, stared at the canvas hanging on the wall, and winced. The Sting in Society was so eye-poppingly ugly it made every cell in her body shrivel in protest. So primitive it looked as if it had been executed by her five-year-old nephew in one of his tantrums. So absolutely hideous that not even the copious amounts of vintage champagne on offer could dent its impact.
And it was enormous. The artist, who’d splashed a blaze of clashing colours onto the canvas in a seemingly random fashion, clearly felt his creativity was too great to contain. Which while undoubtedly satisfying some sort of artistic bent was excruciating for everyone else.
It would be one thing if The Sting in Society was a one-off. That she could just about deal with while fulfilling her aim to take every advantage of the free-flowing champagne. But it wasn’t. The plain white walls of the gallery were littered with the things. Beneath unforgivably bright lights hung two dozen canvases, all splattered with the same great swathes of colours, all equally dreadful, and all going for the same mind-blowing sums of money.
Imogen grimaced. She was the first to admit that she was no expert on modern art, but in her opinion, whatever its worth, the whole lot should be consigned to the Thames.
Not that anyone else appeared to think so, she thought, glancing around at the trendily-dressed throng. Everywhere she looked, people milled about, tilting their heads and tapping index fingers against their mouths while spouting esoteric nonsense about allegory and metaphysics.
Swinging her gaze back to the piece she was standing in front of Imogen stifled a shudder. It was madness, she mused, narrowing her eyes as she tried to work out its appeal and failed. Complete insanity.
Who in their right mind would pay that amount of money for such a horrendous thing anyway?
She mentally ran through a list of all the things a quarter of a million pounds could achieve. Only yesterday her department had had to allocate exactly that sum to one of the projects run by the Christie Trust, and the options were still fresh in her memory. Spending it on an eye-watering splatter of colours had not, strangely enough, been one of them.
But then what did she know about anything?
Imogen took a step back, bit her lip and frowned. Recent events had proved that her judgement sucked. Big time. So who was she to decide whether or not this stuff was any good? As bizarre as she might think it, little red dots were popping up next to the paintings like chicken pox, so the evidence appeared to be speaking for itself.
Which only hammered home the painful realisation that her judgement was indeed still in bits.
Not that that was any surprise.
Only two months had passed since Connie, her once-upon-a-time partner-in-crime and best-friend-since-school, had run off with Max, Imogen’s then boyfriend, and although the pain had ebbed to a dull ache instead of the agony it had once been, it still hurt.
More so this evening, thought Imogen morosely, her already battered spirits taking a nosedive. The last time she’d been to a private view Connie had been with her. They’d laughed and talked loudly and pompously about light and depth and perspective, ransacked the canapés and then hit the latest club.
Tonight however, she was alone, and Connie, the sneaky snake-in-the-grass, was in all likelihood at home, snuggling up to Max on the sofa and hatching wedding plans.
Imogen’s heart twanged. She’d told herself to get over it a million times and she reckoned she was making good progress, but from time to time - usually when she was least expecting it - the whole sorry affair swooped down and smacked her around the head.
Like this afternoon.
The backs of her eyes prickled but she blinked the sting away and yanked her shoulders back. What did she care what Max and Connie were up to? So what if the friendship they’d had, the one that had started at kindergarten and had continued for the past twenty-five years, had disintegrated in the ten seconds it had taken to read Max’s note? And so what if her ex-boyfriend and her ex-best friend were getting married?
She didn’t give a toss, did she?
No. She’d had plenty of time to reflect on the betrayal, and with hindsight she’d come to realise that actually they’d done her a favour. Because who needed friends who could do something like that to you?
And as for Max, well, yes, he was undeniably gorgeous - all dark floppy hair, twinkling eyes and oodles of charm - but he was a complete waste of space and she was well shot of him.
If the press had levelled the same waste-of-space accusation at her - which they had, frequently and not entirely unfairly - that was fine because she had plans to reverse that and to prove to herself and her critics that she did have something to offer the world.
Max, on the other hand, seemed happy to spend the rest of his life perfecting his air of insouciant ennui. So if Connie wanted to spend the rest of her life massaging that ego, she was welcome to it.
Imogen shook her head at her own naïve foolishness. Far from being the perfect couple she’d always assumed she and Max had been, they were, she now knew, chalk and cheese. The really astounding thing about their relationship was not how it had ended but how it had limped along for so long in the first place.
Truly, the mind boggled, she thought, casting another glance at the monstrosity calling itself The Sting in Society. And she was through with it all. Bored rich playboys, fickle best friends and staggeringly pretentious so-called art.
She’d got what she’d come for. Two glasses of ice cold bone dry champagne had done an excellent job of obliterating the shock and torment of learning of the engagement. Her body was buzzing and her mind was numb, and she had better things to do than waste any more time in front of this kind of rubbish.
Determinedly banishing the blues and reminding herself that she was far luckier than most, that she had no business wallowing in misery and that she ought to focus on what she did have rather than what she didn’t, Imogen gritted her teeth and spun on her heel.
And crashed into something hard and unyielding.
Something that let out a soft ‘oof’ and flung its arms around her for balance.
For a second it felt as if the world had stopped. She stood there, stunned, crushed up against whoever it was she’d cannoned into, the breath whooshing from her lungs and her head spinning with shock.
Then the shock receded and her surroundings settled and other things filtered into her brain. Like the fact that he was male. Tall. Broad. Solid. Warm. And strong. His arms were like bands of steel around her back and she could feel the restrained power in the hardness that was wrapped around her. Plus he smelled amazing.
Imogen couldn’t remember the last time she’d found herself in such close proximity to a man like that - if ever - and to her horror her body automatically began to respond. Her stomach quivered. Her heart lurched and her temperature rocketed. For one crazy split second she wanted to press herself closer. Wanted to snuggle up to him and feel those arms wrap themselves tighter around her. Enveloping her. Protecting her.
Which was nuts. Completely nuts.
Imogen blinked as sanity put in an appearance and nudged aside the fancifulness. She could stop that right now. She’d been through the emotional wringer recently and the last thing she needed was to fall head first into the arms of another man. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
And what on earth made her think she needed protecting anyway? She was perfectly capable of doing that herself. Heaven knew she’d had enough practice.
Summoning up every ounce of self-control she possessed, Imogen gulped in a breath and forced herself not to react to the intoxicating waft of soap and sandalwood that shot up her nose.
‘God. Sorry,’ she muttered, jerking back and looking up to see who it was that was having such an odd effect on her.
And nearly swooned all over again.
All thoughts of Connie and Max and self-protection vanished as she found herself staring up into the most gorgeous eyes she’d ever seen.
To begin with he had the kind of thick, dark eyelashes she’d give her designer wardrobe for. Then there were the fine lines that fanned out from their corners and suggested he laughed a lot.
Swallowing back the lump in her throat at the reminder of how little she laughed at the moment, Imogen focussed on the colour of his irises instead. That kind of blue was unusual. It made her think of the sky in summer and the shallows of the Mediterranean Sea. Which would have had her envisaging long languid summer afternoons and the long languid ways in which one might spend them with a man like this had she not ruthlessly shut down that strand of her imagination for ever.
And as if all that wasn’t potentially sense-scrambling enough, there was the glint. The glint lurked in the depths of his eyes and suggested danger and excitement and naughtiness. The glint promised fun. A lot of fun. For a woman who was into that sort of thing, which, being too emotionally scarred, she wasn’t. But if she had been, the heat sweeping through her would have been down to instant chemistry, and not what must surely be a fault with the air-conditioning.
Whatever it was that was causing her to overheat, Imogen hauled herself back under control as she dragged her gaze over the rest of his face, which would have more than lived up to her expectations if she’d had any. His dark hair looked as if it were made for rumpling and his mouth looked as if it would deliver the most devastating of kisses.
All in all, the combination of that face and that body was lethal, she thought, suppressing a shiver. If you were interested in that sort of thing. Which, dammit, she wasn’t. She really wasn’t.
‘My fault,’ he said with a smile that had her stomach somersaulting before she could stop it.
He unwound his arms from around her and she took a hasty backwards.
‘And not a dropped spilt,’ she said, glancing at the glasses of champagne that had only moments ago been flung around her and deciding to attribute the breathiness of her voice to the shock of their collision. ‘Impressive.’
‘I’ve had plenty of practice.’
Of having random women barrel into him? She could just imagine. ‘How fortunate.’
The smile deepened and Imogen felt something inside her melt. Her pathetically weak resistance probably. ‘For you it is.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘For me?’
He held out a glass to her. ‘One of these. You looked like you could do with it.’
Had he been watching her? Checking her out?
At the thought of those eyes roaming over her, Imogen’s heart began to race and she swallowed hard to combat the sudden dryness of her mouth. ‘I was just leaving,’ she said a lot more breathily than she’d have liked.
His mesmerising gaze slid to the painting behind her and then back to hers. The glint twinkled. ‘Not because of the scorpion, I hope?’ he said.
‘Is that what it is?’
He nodded. ‘It is.’
‘I’d never have guessed.’
‘It represents man’s fight against the injustice of capitalism.’
Imogen tilted her head and frowned as she finally managed to locate her brain. ‘It seems a bit hypocritical to charge a quarter of a million pounds for a piece of canvas and a few brush strokes that apparently represent the injustice of capitalism, don’t you think?’
‘To be honest I hadn’t given it much thought,’ he said dryly.
Vaguely wondering what was happening to her intention to leave, Imogen took the glass he was holding out and lifted it to her lips.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured and took a sip.
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, watching her as she parted her lips and let a mouthful of champagne slide down her throat. ‘So what do you think of it?’
She thought she heard a trace of hoarseness in his voice and it sent a shiver down her spine. ‘The painting?’
He nodded. Then cleared his throat a little.
‘Oh, I’m all for honesty,’ he said.
Hmm. If he was, and frankly she doubted it because he was after all, a man, then it was more than Max had been, the lying, cheating bastard. ‘Then honestly,’ she said a touch more tartly than she’d intended, ‘it makes my eyes bleed.’