Authors: Elizabeth Lowell
To Emily Krump,
who makes all things editorial run so smoothly for me.
HE MOTEL ROOM
door was ajar.
I locked it,
Sara Anne Medina thought.
She pushed the door open with her big purse and froze. The room had been tossed ruthlessly. Her suitcase was upended and off the stand. Her clothes were strewn across the worn carpet, her toiletries scattered, her underwear and workout gear tumbled together. The lavender scent of her favorite shampoo filled the air.
I was only gone for five minutes.
The take-out coffee she had bought was hot against her suddenly chilled hands.
Some stranger went through my things. Did the tweaker get off on my underwear?
Is he still here?
The thought had her jerking back so quickly the coffee sloshed over
her cold-numbed fingers. She looked around the hallway. No one in sight.
I don't have time for this drama
I have to be at the courthouse. I have to finally meet my mystery man, so I'll stop dreaming and get back to reality, where I belong.
Where I want to be, even with the damn tweakers.
Using her foot, she kicked the door all the way open until it slammed against the stop. No one was behind it. No one was in the room itself. The closet was open, no place inside to hide. The bathroom door showed a view of the toilet, shower, and sink. The mirror was smudged where she'd cleared the shower's steam with her hand just minutes ago.
Whoever had been here was gone.
The mess wasn't.
It will have to wait.
They took my computer. It's all backed up on the cloud, but damn it!
The cord dangled from the wall, over the chair that had held her overcoat. The coat, like the computer, had vanished.
Wonder how many pawnshops there are in Jackson, Wyoming? And why would they take a woman's coat? There aren't too many women my height who are a size six.
With a hand that trembled slightly, Sara set down her coffee, took a pen out of the bottomless bag that passed for her purse, and poked through the mess of clothes on the floor to the suitcase half hidden beneath. The inside pockets were still zipped closed.
They missed my little jewelry case. I'd rather they take the jewelry and leave the computer, but they didn't ask me, did they?
A glance at her watch told her she was out of time. Soon, a different stranger would be deciding the fate of her career in a Jackson courthouse. With a silent curse, she hurried to the front desk.
“I'm in room 101,” Sara told the woman there. “My room has been robbed. Computer and coat missing. Tell the sheriff or whoever cares that I'll be at the courthouse.”
Leaving the woman stuttering questions behind her, Sara strode out the front entrance into the chill streets of Jackson in the spring. Within ten steps she was regretting the loss of her coat.
And she had forgotten her coffee.
Quickly she walked down what had to be the coldest sidewalk in town. The wind rolled straight off the snow of the Tetons through the streets. The chill was made worse by the fact that the sun was shining bright and hard enough to look like summer.
An archway leading into a small park caught her eye. At first she thought the arch was made of the bones of cattle that she'd seen as a child. But these were different. They were more elegant and pointed, tapering out. They didn't feel like the finality of death, but more a symbol of life cycling through change.
Grown and shed each year in a cycle that isn't birth or death, but simply another way to be. Like Custer's paintings, a beautiful and eerie reminder that wildernessâ
âisn't all that far away.
Shivering, she hurried on.
I should be back in San Francisco, holding hot coffee from Murray's Cafe as I head up to the offices of Perfect Touch.
But then all I'd know about my mystery man is his voice.
the practical part of her mind pointed out.
The last thing I need is a man.
Sara liked living her life on her own terms, doing what she wanted whenever she wanted. As the only girl out of seven children, she'd had more than enough diapers, housework, and babysitting to last her a lifetime.
Wind with icy teeth bit at her black slacks and tugged at her red pullover sweater. The only thing that kept the wind from billowing up her sweater was the sleek black leather belt snugged at her waist. But it wasn't enough to keep her warm.
Damn that thief.
Then she reminded herself that it could be worse in so many ways. She could be back home on the dairy farmâa plain, rebellious teen hauling a feed cart through damp, drafty barns, then making the return trip leading a stubborn Holstein.
At least there aren't any holes in my boots forcing me to get up close and personal with fresh cow flops.
The phone in her pants pocket rang.
If it's the sheriff, he can wait.
Even as that irritated thought crossed her mind, she hesitated. The call could be from Jay Vermilion, the man who had dozens of fine art paintings that could kick her career up to the next level, paintings with the potential to be so valuable that they'd been the part of an ongoing hotly contested divorce settlement.
Maybe, just maybe,
one of those paintings is the fabled
the only portrait painted by Custer
That would explain why the legal battle had outlived the original owner of the paintings, JD Vermilion. His much-younger ex-wife, Lizaâwho had begun suing JD's estate six years ago to gain access to the art her former husband had begun collecting before she'd even been a teenager in bracesâhad, with his passing, simply turned her lawyers loose on the primary heir to JD Vermilion's estate, his son, Jay.
Sara's mouth curved slightly as she continued walking.
I've never met the infamous Liza Neumann, once Vermilion. But with possession
being nine-tenths of the law, I'd put money on Captain Jay Vermilion keeping his ex-stepmother's hands off the undiscovered Armstrong “Custer” Harris paintings in the future.
The retired army veteran who had recently inherited the family ranchâthe fruit of generations of his Vermilion ancestorsâhad a grit and determination to him that came right through the phone line.
You haven't even met the man,
Sara reminded herself. She fished the cellular out of her tight front pocket at last, glanced at it, and saw the call had gone to voice mail. She palmed the phone and gave a mental shrug. It wasn't a Wyoming number calling, which meant it wasn't the sheriff.
Or Jay, damn it.
Think of the good captain like any other potential client who calls you during business hours to get advice on western art,
she told herself firmly.
Jay Vermilion might be a potential client, but he was also the man she had been talking to half the nights for the past few months. At first it had been all business, but somehow the conversations had quickly evolved into . . . more.
I don't know how I could talk about myself and my work and my dreams like that with someone I've never met. And he talked to me, too, about the ranch and weather and the western woman he hoped to find and marry, the woman who would bear the seventh generation of Vermilions.
We have such different lives and goals, it's surprising we had so much to talk about in the first place.
Sara's phone chimed and vibrated in her hand. She looked down, saw her partner's phone number, and connected. For a few minutes Piper Embry would take Sara's mind off the cold and the man whose deep voice wove through her dreams.
“Bought any great rugs lately?” Sara asked.
“I've got my eye on some that have me checking Perfect Touch's bank balance.”
“What happened to consignment?”
“I'm working on it,” Piper said. “What's this message you left about Wyoming?”
“I wrapped up the Chens early and came to Jackson.”
“I thought you were getting tired of flying all over the place.”
“But you're still lusting after those Custers? Or is it Jay Vermilion of the incredible voice?”
“Wait untilâifâI get my hands on those paintings,” Sara said, ignoring Piper's teasing. “They will wring the hearts and pocketbooks of at least five of my clients, and go a long way toward reducing my world travel.” Chilly air swirled hard against her, blowing her hair into a nearly black cloud around her face.
“What's that sound?” Piper asked.
“Wind. Spring here is long on bluster and short on cherry petals.”
Sara glanced around quickly, looking for shelter. All she saw was another odd arch leading into another part of the park. Or maybe out of it. Whichever, she opted to stay in the sun.
“You okay?” Piper asked. “Your voice is different. Kind of strained.”
“You know me too well. My room was robbed. Computer and coat are gone. But I'm fine. Don't have time right now for some junkie's drama. In five minutes the judge is supposed to finally deliver the verdict on the Vermilion case.”
There were a few moments of silence, then Piper asked softly, “Want me to come out?”
Sara hurried in the direction of the courthouse. “No need. I can handle the Vermilion paintings alone.”
“Ah, yes, Jay Vermilion. He of the deep and delicious voice. Does he look half as good as he sounds?”
“Haven't seen him.” Sara glanced both ways and trotted across the street against the light.
“Maybe he can warm up your . . . spring,” Piper said.
“If I get to handle the sale of the Custer paintings, my spring will be just toasty. Yours, too. The Newcastle twins are dancing in place at the thought of owning paintings seen in
The Edge of Never
“Weepy contemporary movie about a young couple who doesn't know how to love and doesn't have the sense to separate.”
“Ugh. If you have to be taught those things, you've got more problems than a movie can solve.”
Sara laughed. “I hear you, but it rocked Sundance. That's where the Newcastle twins saw it and immediately huddled with the director, very hush-hush. The movie is probably going to rock Cannes just as hard.”
“And Custer, the moderately well-known western artist, ties in how?”
“There's a painting of his,
that's featured prominently throughout the movie, including the heartrending scene whereâ”
“Spare me the details,” Piper said quickly. “Merchant-Ivory movies make my butt numb.”
“Because of itâthe movie, not your buttâthe market for Custer's works will heat up like Vegas in July.”
“What about the big auction houses?”
“The Vermilion estate has probably half the Custers that were ever painted and nearly all of them that aren't yet in circulation,” Sara said. “We may not need to go through a big public auction if we can act as the agents. No percentage sharing.”
“Go for it. I'll get Lou to cover anything on this end for Perfect Touch. She's got some downtime.”
“What happened? Couldn't Lou seal the deal with Najafi?”
“Lou's good, but Najafi would try God's patience,” Piper said. “How long will you be gone?”
“If Jay Vermilion loses the paintings, I'll be home tomorrow.”
“In that case, girlfriend, have a long stay in Wyoming.”
“You'll nag me to come back after two weeks.”
“Not if there's money involved. Bye. Go get those bucks!”
“Go get some yourself.”
Smiling, Sara pocketed the phone, flipped her hair out of her face, and hurried along the sidewalk to meet her future.
With her fingers crossed in her pockets.