Between the Covers

Hope you enjoy this excerpt from Chapter One of

Outbid by the Boss

 

She stood with her back to him, wallet open, tapping the wooden floor with the toe of her high-heeled boot until the auctioneer’s assistant set her prize on the battered oak table.

The candlestick was in superb condition.

Just under nine inches in height with a circular base, swirling shell motifs rising up its stem and a petal-shaped lip surrounding the socket.  In a Outbid by the BossLondon sale, he would expect it to sell for another five hundred pounds.  At least.  A pair wouldn’t just double the price, it would triple it.

His gaze slid back to Sam.

He should be pleased that he’d hired one of the best eyes in the business, but knowing she wasn’t there on behalf of the firm any more than he was, rather tarnished his high opinion.  But why would she risk her position with Burton-Porter on this particular candlestick?

Chas felt a slow smile tug at the corners of his mouth.  This scene unfolding in front of him was about to get interesting.

Not knowing the sale’s payment policy, Samantha Redfern was waving a credit card about.  The equivalent of a red flag as far as country auctioneers were concerned.

The auctioneer’s wife took one look at Sam’s credit card and said, “Cash or cheque.”

“I’m sorry?” said Sam.

The woman jabbed her pen backwards to where a dog-eared sign hung limply on the back wall.  “Cash or cheque,” she repeated.

“Debit,” countered Sam.  She selected a bank card from her wallet and held it up for inspection.  “As good as cash…”

The pen pumped the air one more time.  “Read the sign.”

“But this is an auction,” Sam stammered.  “I go to them all the time…”

“Look,” the woman said quietly, “there are half-a-dozen people behind you waiting to pay.  Either you come up with the cash or the item will be offered to the next bidder.”  Her grey eyes slid over Sam’s shoulder and landed on Chas, flickered in recognition and then moved on when Chas shook his head.

He could almost hear Sam’s heart beat faster.  In the salerooms, her only giveaway when she was tense or dealing with him, was a gentle pulse near the soft skin of her left temple.

Maybe it was time to tap her on the shoulder and identify himself as the other bidder.  The candlestick would be his.  As it should have been in the first place.  Although she was pushing her luck on the New York trip, she was one of the best silver appraisers he’d ever hired.  Maybe he’d overlook this one.

At least, he might have, had Samantha Redfern not pulled a white envelope embossed with the Burton-Porter logo from the depths of her shoulder bag.

“Do you take American?” Sam asked.

“Nope.”

It was all Chas could do not to reach out and grab his errant employee by the scruff of her slender neck.  Instead he found himself sidetracked by the silky curls that had escaped her hair clip.

“Please…I have more than enough cash and…”  Sam rifled through her wallet.  “…I can do at least a third of it in pounds.”  She had dumped her entire bag onto the table and was pawing through its contents as if her life depended on it.  “I’ll pay the bank premium.”

Dark brows furrowed, Chas watched her toss aside a pair of designer sunglasses, her mobile, a half-eaten chocolate bar, a neon-pink cosmetic bag and what looked to be a balled up pair of black tights.  He saw no sign of a cheque book, but he did see a set of car keys with a familiar tag.

When Sam finally found what she’d been hunting for, a small change purse with an even smaller cache of banknotes, everything else went back in her bag.  Everything except the envelope with the American cash.

“All right then…” the auctioneer’s wife was muttering as she made her calculations.  Sam glanced at the total, removed a wad of hundred-dollar bills, and handed it over.

The deal was done.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Chas heard Sam say as she lovingly scooped up the candlestick.  “You have no idea how much this means to me.”

“It’s not me you should be thanking,” drawled the woman.  Her eyes slid past Sam’s.

But Chas Porter was already beating a retreat through the crowded hall – this was not the place to confront Miss Redfern no matter how much she deserved it.

Clutching the candlestick to her chest, Sam hurried for the exit.  She had a plane to catch.  And now, she realized with a frisson of panic, she not only had to nip back to her flat, she also had to stop at the bank.  It would take all her savings and half her rent money to replace the firm’s cash, but her purchase was worth every penny.

As she dashed through the open doorway, Sam remembered thinking how nice it was that the morning rain had given way to a sun-filled afternoon and then…

Woof!

She ran smack into a wall of solid masculinity, gasping as the base of the candlestick dug into her ribcage.

She staggered backwards.  A pair of strong hands grabbed her upper arms to steady her, holding her fast as she regained her balance.

And then he spoke.

The “thank-you” Sam was about to utter caught in her throat.

 

“In a hurry, are we?”  The voice was well-bred, well-schooled and awfully familiar.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

And began to mentally chant.

Please, please, please…anybody but Chas bloody Porter.  Please, please, please…

“Anytime…” the voice said, rudely interrupting her pleas to the goddess of single women caught in compromising positions.

Stupid woman must be on a lunch break, thought Sam.

Her lids fluttered open and she followed the buttons of the beautifully-stitched, pale-blue oxford-cloth shirt he wore beneath his soft leather jacket to the button at the base of his neck.  It was open.  Revealing enough of the man to make one feel that every inch of him would be just as enticing as the dark stubble on his chin, the slightly battered but still patrician nose and…the steel-blue eyes washing over her like an icy Arctic wind.

“Miss Redfern, isn’t it?” Chas Porter said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I could have sworn you were representing us in New York this week.  You do remember the two-day sale at Sotheby’s?  Previews in….what?”  He removed his left hand and checked his watch.  “Twenty-four hours?”

“Which, allowing for the time change,” replied Sam choking back an urge to flee “gives me twenty-nine hours…

Candle Light 20140107 010

The candlestick was hers. Or was it?

“Now, if you don’t mind…”  She pointedly eyed the hand grasping her left bicep, an amazing feat given the fact that her knees had turned to water and her brain was sending high-pitched alarm signals to every nerve in her body.

Chas dropped his hand and stepped back, his eyes resting on the candlestick nestled protectively between her breasts.  “Very nice workmanship.  Get it for a good price, did you?”

Sam flushed and like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar, whipped the candlestick behind her back.  Which of course thrust her chest forward.

She raised her chin defiantly.

Chas Porter gazed down at her, his eyes slightly hooded, impossible to read.

She stared back at him.  The candlestick was hers.  Or was it?

 

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And from Chapter One of Stephanie Browning’s latest book

Undone by the Star

 

After the gentle buzz of the hotel lobby, the intimate interior of the elevator was making Alexis Kirkwood much too aware of the man beside her.  She could see their reflection in the lift’s highly-polished brass walls.  Alex was proud of her height, but she liked the fact that he towered above her.  And he smelled unexpectedly good, like freshly-laundered cotton.

Her eyes slid to his mouth to find him grinning at her reflection.  “Shouldn’t we push the button?” he asked.

Mortified, Alex reached out and jammed the button for the fourth floor.  Four times.!cid_9427EDA3-0D7A-420E-B066-A575F1E21D27@gateway_2wire 1st draft

“That should do it.”

Her eyes shot to his and stayed.

It wasn’t too late to check his hands for callouses.  Even a little dirt under the fingernails would be reassuring at this point. “I do hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Me, too.”

The elevator pinged.

They had arrived…..

If Marc Daniels had had any doubts about returning to England, the last fifteen minutes had proved otherwise.  This could be the best gig he’d ever had.  Especially watching Miss Kirkwood in action.

Marc grinned; he’d had no idea being a plumber had so many perks… like having The Sadler’s head concierge walk ahead of you in a well-tailored skirt and jacket which flattered her shape in all the right places.  Colour was good, too.  Reminded him of burnished steel. He liked the contrast of that strong metallic hue against the soft white skin of Miss Kirkwood’s slim wrists and elegant hands.  It suited what he’d seen of her personality as well, rapier sharp with him, but courteous and kind with her elderly charges.  He’d watched her shepherd them through the lobby, and the care she took matching her gait to theirs.

Now it was his turn.  She led him down a silent corridor to a short hallway with a single door.  The lock clicked when she swiped her card.  All efficiency, she pushed open the heavy door and walked into one of the most elegant suites Marc had ever seen.  And he’d been in quite a few.

“Here we are,” she said.  “I trust you’re up for this?”

He certainly was.  Whether or not he’d be able to fix the toilet was another matter.

She pointed toward a door to the right.  “Over there,” she said.  “I’ll be back to check on the repair as soon as possible.”

Marc’s gaze returned to the young woman.  Not yet thirty, he guessed, and all done up for business.  If he wasn’t on the job, he thought with deep amusement, he might be tempted to trail his fingers over that lovely skin and muss her hair until she…

“You may have all the time in the world,” Miss Kirkwood snapped, “but a rather important guest will be checking into this suite in less than…” She checked her watch.  “…an hour.”

That brought him up short.  This wasn’t a game for her, amusing though it was for him.  He really ought to come clean, and tell her who he was.  But damn it all, he’d enjoyed being in the company of a woman who didn’t know what he did for a living, who treated him like a regular guy with a regular job.  Well, not exactly, he smiled, remembering their exchange in the elevator.  She’d obviously picked up on the same vibes he had.  Unfortunately, once he revealed his true identity, those feelings would likely evaporate as quickly as they’d come, and if they didn’t, it would play out in the usual fashion.  They all wanted him to be the perfect, heroic guy he portrayed on the big screen, not the rather introspective, history buff he was in real life.

Although, Marc had to admit, as he eyed the delectable Miss Kirkwood, there was something different about this woman that suggested she might be more interested in who he was, not what he did.  The thought sent a shot of warmth through his veins.

At least it did until she raised her left arm and imperiously pointed her forefinger in the direction of the bathroom.  “Anytime.”

Fine, thought Marc, if that’s the way she wanted to play it, then so be it.  He’d jerry-rigged enough toilets in his day; why not this one?  Raising his own hand in mock salute, he was searching for an appropriately sarcastic response when the toilet suddenly flushed.  They stared at each other in mutual horror as the door to the bathroom swung open, and out walked what could only have been the real plumber, tools and all.

He took one look at the two of them and his jaw dropped.

“Miss Kirkwood!” he blurted, hoisting the back of his work pants up a notch with his free hand.  “I didn’t know you were…toilet’s fixed.  Needed a new flapper is all.”  He lumbered to a stop, took in Marc’s presence and frowned.  “Who would you be, then?”

Before Marc could answer, Alex had stepped forward, effectively shielding him from the other man’s view.  “Bert!” she addressed the plumber.  “We didn’t think you were available today.  You know what it’s like when we’ve got a full house.  All bust and no flush.  I’m afraid, I had to call for a…last-minute replacement.”

“That so,” said Bert craning his neck for a closer look at Marc.  “Well, he certainly don’t look the part.”

“He doesn’t, does he…”

She’s in full damage control, thought Marc in admiration.  She knows something’s amiss, and she’s already moving to correct it.

“Do me a favour, Bert…,” she was saying as she eased the plumber towards the door of the suite, “we’re obviously short-staffed…why don’t you sign on for the rest of the day and I’ll okay your per diem.”

“Right you are, Miss Kirkwood,” said Bert.  “Bound to be something needs doing around here.”  And off he went with Miss Kirkwood’s blessing.

Marc was not so lucky.

The woman who rounded on him was a blaze of fury.  The golden flecks in her brown eyes flashed like molten lava as she advanced towards him.  “Tell me you’re a con man,” she demanded.  “Or even better, tell me you’re a jewel thief masquerading as an incompetent plumber.  Or even a freelance journalist, I could forgive that, we get them all the time.  Just as long as you do not tell me,” she exclaimed, underscoring every word with a punch of her forefinger, “that you’re one of the very important guests we’ve been expecting.  Because then, I will have to regret this day for the rest of my life!”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why will you regret this day for the rest of your life?” he asked.

She went very still.  Her chest rose and fell as a myriad of emotions washed across her face.  Their brief encounter had to have meant something to her, because Marc realized with a slight shock of surprise, it had definitely meant something to him.  And for her to not know who he was had made it even sweeter.  He was right to come to England, to restart his career here.  Funny how this situation, this Miss Kirkwood, made it all seem possible.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last.  “I put you in an awkward position.”

She nodded.  “So, then,” she demanded, “who are you?”

Marc casually set his hold-all on the floor.  Who are you? was not a question he normally had to answer.  But then, he’d put himself in this situation, not her.  She’d made an honest mistake under what he now realized were trying circumstances.  While he…he’d indulged himself at her expense.  He moved towards her, his hand outstretched.  “Marc Daniels,” he said somewhat sheepishly.

She didn’t bat an eyelash, and the intriguing interplay of emotion had disappeared from her face.  She held his eyes as she slid her hand in his and gave it a firm shake.  “Welcome to The Sadler, Mr. Daniels,” she said.  “If there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant, please let us know.”  Not even a tremor in her voice.  The hot-blooded woman had been replaced by the ever-so-cool professional.

And he’d thought he was the actor.

 

 To purchase “Undone by the Star”, please click on Home.