Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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A Bid for Love

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©1998 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Laranda was excited. Jared could tell from the way her eyes fixed on him as he walked into the back room of her New York art gallery. Though she always looked at him with a pointed glint in those green eyes, as if daring or taunting him, today her gaze was more intense. Jared shrugged, trying to ignore her. For six years he had put up with her overt stares and innuendos because she was not only his boss and sole owner of the gallery but also his friend. Besides, he loved his work as the gallery's head art buyer and didn't want to endanger his position.

She paced from one end of the packaging table to the other, her strides taut and jerky, movements foreign to her usual sultry grace. Jared watched her warily as he set the box on the table and began removing the small statues for her approval. Her gaze flicked over them admiringly, yet she didn't pick them up and study them as she normally did. From her peculiar behavior, Jared realized that Laranda's agitation wasn't directed toward him or the new art objects he had purchased at auction. His curiosity was piqued, but he remained silent. It was best to let Laranda tell him of her own accord.

"I need you to go to L.A.," she said finally, when he had finished unpacking the five new statues.

"Today?" Jared didn't bother to keep the surprise from his voice. He often went to Los Angeles on buying trips for the gallery but rarely on such short notice.

She stared at him, her delicate eyebrows drawing together. Her hands nervously smoothed the tight-fitting green silk dress that was cut short to show off her stunning legs. "You will go, won't you? There's an auction at the Hilton starting on Monday. Today's only Friday, so if you get there tonight you'll have the weekend to check out the items I want."

"I seem to remember you saying you didn't want anything there."

"I do now." Laranda picked up an oversized flyer on the table and shoved it under Jared's nose. A Buddha figure filled the page. "A man in India decided to sell this. And I want it."

Jared examined the figure. Contrary to the contemporary image of a fat, jovial Buddha, this eight-inch-tall statue was lean and stern. It sat on a large, six-inch-square pedestal, hands resting one atop the other, palms upward, with legs tucked and back held stiff in the classic meditation pose. Large-petal flowers and elaborate swirls decorated this throne where the Buddha had sat with unsmiling lips for sixteen centuries, peering out on the world from heavy-lidded eyes. It was hard, ugly, and expensive—just the sort of thing Laranda adored.

"You've got a buyer?" he asked, scratching his shoulder under the thin, short-sleeved button-down dress shirt he wore. Last weekend he had gone water skiing with friends, and his peeling sunburn itched terribly.

She nodded. "Sure do. And she wants it—badly."

"How much do I have?"

"Four hundred thousand. I doubt you'll need more. A few years ago it sold for two, and the market is weak."

Jared whistled. "This buyer does want it bad. Who is it?"

Laranda's eyes narrowed. "That's confidential, but I'll tell you after we complete the sale. If you need more money, call me."

He studied Laranda's perfect features—the porcelain skin, the blond hair artfully arranged, the cold green eyes. At forty, seven years older than Jared, she was certainly the most beautiful woman he knew. But while he was attracted to her, he wasn't in love with her, and to her exasperation he had never let their relationship develop beyond friendship. At times he almost wished he could, but inside his heart Jared knew their differences were too great, and he wouldn't let go of the values he cherished. Values were something Laranda had done away with years ago.

Loneliness filled much of Jared's life. He didn't know exactly when it had happened. Once he had been the most eligible bachelor in his group of friends, admired by all the single women because of his glamorous job and good looks. He had let them chase him, and had even liked a few, but he had never seriously considered marriage. He felt too young to settle down—had enjoyed himself too much. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, he found himself alone at thirty-three. All the women he had dated had disappeared, becoming the wives of his friends and the mothers of cherub-faced babies.

There was only Laranda, and women like her, who were attracted to him—but only for a time, until something better or more interesting came along. Jared didn't want to settle for such a relationship. He wanted a future that included someone to love and cherish forever.

 "Well? You will go, Jared, won't you? I've already made reservations." Laranda's sharp voice penetrated his thoughts. He refocused to find her waving a hand with long, red-painted nails in front of his face. "It's not like you have a wife to consult," she added. Her words made his deficiency stand out in his mind like a neon sign.

He shoved the hurt away and smiled at her. "Of course I'll go. I'd enjoy looking up old friends, and June is a great time to visit the beaches."

She eyed him with an amused smile on her glossy lips. "That's right. You used to live in L.A. See? I'm really doing you a favor." She trailed her manicured nails over the light brown hair on his bare forearm.

He laughed and shook off her hand. "Right. But don't think that gets you out of paying me a bonus when I bring back your precious Buddha. I'm still doing double duty as buyer and guard." He patted the Glock in his shoulder holster.

"I never forget that." Laranda pursed her shapely lips into a pout and sidled up to him so close that he could smell her breath. It was sweet like her perfume. "I never forget you at all." She stretched up and kissed him on the cheek, coming too close for comfort.

Jared stepped back, rubbing his cheek. Red lipstick stained his fingers. "Since I'm going, is there anything else you want me to bid for?"

Laranda laughed, but her eyes hardened. "You don't have enough fun, Jared."

"Some things are just too important to play with."

Laranda laughed again, though she was not amused. "I live only to play."

"I know," Jared said sorrowfully. He thought of how he, too, had once toyed with relationships and had ended up alone. "But sometimes the price of play is too high."

Laranda didn't hear him. She had moved to the table and was rifling through papers that would list the other items she wanted him to buy for her, the incident between them already forgotten.

* * * * *

The bright lights in the hotel room hurt Jared's tired eyes. After meeting Laranda at the gallery, he had hurried home to pack. He had also asked his next-door neighbor to pick up his newspaper and handle the arrival of his new sofa. Afterward, he'd barely made his plane to Los Angeles. Once in his room, exhaustion overwhelmed him. He threw his suitcase to the floor, shed his jacket, and sank onto the double bed. With one hand, he loosened the tie at his throat.

Sleep did not take him.

He thought about Laranda, contrasting her to the nice women he had dated. Why hadn't he married one of them? Some stood out clearly in his mind: Cindy with the innocent blue eyes, Wendy with her beautiful curly hair teased to perfection, and Julie with her lithe runner's body. Each had been interested in Jared—for a time. Now they were all happily married, busy with their lives and growing children.

"I need to go down and get a complete list of the auction times," he said aloud to distract himself. Still he didn't move. He knew there would be plenty of time the next morning to get the list before the hotel opened the items for inspection prior to the bidding on Monday. Besides, there could be some last-minute additions or changes that wouldn't be reflected on the flyers tonight.

I'll go tomorrow morning, he decided. He would spend all of Saturday talking with other buyers or studying the merchandise. That was why he was so good at what he did.

"I didn't know what was important," he said, returning inevitably to the reason he was alone. "I wanted to work, earn money, have fun." All that didn't mean anything now.

Fighting his loneliness, Jared pulled the covers over his head and slept.

 

Chapter Two

The dark brown curls were everywhere. They were a curse, and had been for twenty-eight of Cassi's twenty-nine years. They puffed out from her scalp and plunged halfway down her back as if they had lives of their own, helplessly tangled and twisted together. The bathroom lights above the double sink reflected from the brown tresses, bringing out subtle gold highlights.

Cassi stared at herself in the large, well-lit mirror and sighed. It would take her at least half an hour to tame those unruly locks. Thirty precious minutes. Even then they wouldn't look much better than they did now. "I just want a peek at the auction schedule," she murmured to the olive-skinned girl in the mirror, her frustration evident in the flushed face. "Oh, Mom, why did you have to give me your hair?"

But her mother was far away in Utah with her father, where they lived close to Cassi's only sibling, her brother Robert. Her mother couldn't hear her complaints or say, as she usually did, "You're so lucky to have curly hair, Cassi. Your friends spend hundreds of dollars to look like you do." Cassi sighed and lifted the brush.

A banging on the door drew her attention from the imposing task before her.

"I gotta go!" her best friend, Renae, shouted through the closed door. "Aren't you done yet?"

"Yes, come in." Cassi threw down the brush and hurried to the door. Renae wasn't joking when she said she had to go. She was more than eight months pregnant and had a baby sitting on her bladder.

Renae burst through the door before Cassi reached it, dancing slightly. "I seem to spend all my time in the bathroom these days." Cassi shut the door behind her as Renae sighed with exaggerated relief. She shook her head in mock disgust; but in reality, she envied Renae her situation, despite the obvious discomfort.

"I need to get the auction schedule," Cassi called through the door. "I want to know what items will be auctioned at what time, and when they're letting us in to see them today."

"Don't you know those things already?"

Cassi shook her head, though Renae couldn't see her. "Things are never completely finalized until the morning of the display. Before that, the times and items can change from day to day."

"Why do you have to see them today?" Renae asked, her voice muffled by the bathroom door. "Does it make any difference? You're not going to bid on them until Monday."

Cassi sighed. It was hard explaining to someone not in the art business how important the few days before an auction could be. It was a time to size up the competition. It was also a time to make certain deals—I won't bid for that item if you won't bid for this one—and to search for additional pieces that looked good and would be resalable. Many times Cassi's sharp eyes had turned a good profit for her San Diego art gallery. Its owner, Linden Johansen, a calm, elderly man, had just promoted Cassi to head buyer, and she took her job seriously.

She shed her pajamas as these thoughts ran through her head, quickly pulling on the faded jeans and old T-shirt she had worn when she had met Renae at the hotel the night before. She knew that she looked a mess, quite unlike the professional buyer she normally portrayed—and all because she had overslept.

Cassi and Renae had been best friends in high school. Now, eleven years later, they were separated by miles and their vastly different situations. Renae had married young and was expecting her fifth child. Cassi had concentrated on her career.

Not that Cassi hadn't wanted to get married, but the opportunity hadn't yet presented itself. Over the years she'd had many friends who were men, and had often set them up with her girlfriends. Years later, after they were safely married, several of these men had confessed to having liked Cassi. Such confessions always surprised her because she had usually liked the men but had felt they weren't interested in her.

"You seem to have blinders on when it comes to men," Cassi's sister-in-law, Jarelyn, kept telling her. "You can't even see when a man is attracted to you."

Maybe it was true.

So Cassi remained single and slightly aloof, almost afraid to hope or to set herself up for failure.

"I'm so glad you called me," Renae said, emerging from the bathroom. "This was a great idea, us being here together."

Cassi smiled, pushing aside her lonely thoughts. When she had known she was going to be in Los Angeles for the auction, she had called Renae, hoping her old friend would like to get away for a few days. Renae and her husband lived in Covina, just over an hour away.

"I can stay until Monday night," Renae had said. "It'll be my last fling before the baby comes. Trent won't mind staying with the kids for a few days."

Last night they had talked over old times until three in the morning, which was why Cassi was now running late.

"Goodness, it's already nine o'clock," she said, walking to the door. "I'm just going down to get a schedule. I could call and ask them to bring it up, but I don't want to wait. Order some breakfast, would you? I'll be right back to eat and change. Then we'll go down to see the auction items and mingle a bit. Hopefully it won't start until ten. You'll see. It'll be interesting."

Renae picked up a menu from the table. "We're going out this evening, aren't we?"

Cassi nodded. "Yes. They usually close the previewing at four or so. They'll open it again tomorrow, but I won't need to go."

"We can go to church. Do you have any idea where the closest one is?"

"No. We'll just look in the phone book, and in the morning we'll call for the meeting times."

Renae sighed. "Tomorrow's going to be wonderful. You know, I think I'm looking forward to going to church more than out on the town tonight. I'm actually going to hear the whole meeting!" She giggled. "Poor Trent. I think he's going to have his hands full with all the kids."

Cassi smiled. "He'll only appreciate you more."

"That's what I'm hoping."

Cassi slipped out of the door and down the hall, patting her hair. She felt incongruous and hoped that no one from the auction would recognize her. The West Coast art world was fairly limited, and people who had been in the business for any length of time knew most of the prominent buyers—a rank Cassi had earned with her recent promotion. It was one thing to be seen as an appropriately dressed businesswoman, and quite another to be caught garbed like a teenager. "I'll just run down quickly," Cassi reasoned aloud. "I'll be back in my room before anyone notices."

The elevator was occupied, so Cassi used the stairs, where light glinted off the polished floor and affronted her tired eyes. She jogged down the first flight of stairs, slowing to a walk as she heard people approaching. Four flights later she arrived at the main floor and opened the door. There were also people in the main hallway, but no one glanced twice at her. Cassi sighed with relief when she didn't see anyone she recognized. She tried to walk inconspicuously to a corridor near the back of the hotel, where she knew the items for the auction were kept and would be displayed later that morning. Her sandaled feet moved soundlessly over the rich gold carpet. The lights here were also bright, but most of it was sunlight radiating through the glass windows and doors.

At last she arrived near the auction corridor. Down the hall, she could see that the door was closed and well protected by two solemn-faced security guards. Cassi quickly located what she had come for. In front of her, where the main corridor intersected with the auction corridor, was a display of pamphlets detailing the auction offerings. Most of these Cassi had already studied carefully. What she had really come for was the simple white flyer on the side of the display which announced the hours for the previewing and the auction time for each item. Three items had been added to the schedule since she'd last seen it, but only one looked promising. As she had expected, the previewing would begin at ten, leaving her six hours to study the offerings and to converse with her fellow buyers.

She looked up from the paper and scanned the pamphlets again until she found the one she was looking for. It was near the bottom, and she bent to retrieve it.

A hideous-looking Buddha stared out at her from the pamphlet cover. "Boy, are you ugly," Cassi whispered. "Why on earth would anyone want you?" She traced the lines of the Buddha as she remembered her conversation with Linden only the day before.

"I want you to bid for the Buddha," he said. "It's a very interesting piece from the late Kushan period. It is believed to have been made at Mathura, and is a well-preserved piece for the price. If you win the bid, call me and I'll come down with Justin and Gary to transport it." Justin and Gary were the guards who worked for the gallery, and they always picked up the most important items. Other purchases she usually sent through a security company.

"Don't go over three hundred thousand for it, though," Linden had added.

"And if I don't get it for that?" asked Cassi.

Linden frowned and shook his gray head. "Then find out who does get it. This is very important, Cassi. I don't want you to contact the person. Just find out who it is and call me. Okay?"

"Sure." But Cassi was puzzled. Linden had never asked her to find out who scooped an item from them, though Cassi's curiosity usually made her seek the identity of the person and what gallery he represented, if she didn't already recognize him. Besides being a matter of professional pride, it helped her to know who to look out for in the next bidding war.

"Why would someone want you?" Cassi repeated to the silent Buddha. While she recognized that some people were more intent on design than beauty, she still found it hard to overlook the Buddha's sharp, repulsive features. It certainly wasn't something she would display in her own home. She brought the paper closer to study the image, searching for signs of the Kushan period. Could it really have come out of Mathura? Located in central India, a distinct Greco-Buddhist art had evolved in Mathura, so it was very possible. Of course, the poor photograph couldn't reveal much, even to eyes as practiced as Cassi's.

"You like him?" A male voice asked casually from behind her.

Cassi's head jerked around, hoping it wasn't someone she knew. To her relief, she saw a man who didn't seem familiar. He was tall and handsome, with medium blond hair and well-molded facial features. His chin was slightly prominent, giving him an air of confidence. Unlike Cassi, he was dressed for the occasion. He wore an expensive-looking suit, and his short hair was combed meticulously into place. His startling blue eyes stared intently at her.

"Intellectually, yes. Physically, no," she replied hurriedly, feeling horribly self-conscious. This man was obviously a buyer, and Cassi hoped he wouldn't remember her later. "Excuse me." She turned abruptly and retreated down the hall, forcing herself to maintain a sedate walk until she was out of his sight.

"Darn it," she mumbled. "Why did I stay? I almost got away without being noticed by anyone."

She grumbled all the way up the stairs and into the room, where Renae lounged at the table. Breakfast was already waiting, and the aroma of sausages made Cassi's mouth water.

"I should have just sent out for a copy," she said, flinging herself onto one of the chairs.

"What's wrong?"

Cassi told her about the man. "I was so embarrassed. What if he sees me later, and I have to try to deal with him? He'll never think of me professionally after this."

To Cassi's chagrin, Renae started laughing. "Oh, Cassi, when did you get to be such a snob? Who cares what you're wearing? And who cares what that stranger thinks? Is this the same Cassi who went to the Junior Prom dressed as a cave woman? You aren't acting like the girl I used to know."

Cassi scowled, but slowly her face relaxed into a smile. "You dared me to do it." She giggled. "Do you remember poor Tom's face when he saw me?" Tom was the only boy who had ever come out and told Cassi he liked her, which was why she had gone out with him. But, alas, her spontaneity at the prom had been too much for him, and he had turned to less impulsive companionship.

"Oh, you're right. I guess I'm putting too much importance on this." It's just that my work is all I have, she wanted to add, but didn't. Renae, with her adoring husband and nearly five children, could never understand the feeling of not being connected that Cassi endured daily.

Renae laughed. "Sure. He won't even remember you. And if he does, maybe it will be as a woman instead of a buyer." Before Cassi could protest, Renae continued. "Now hadn't you better eat so we can get downstairs? I'll comb through your hair for you." Renae's own dark blond locks were thin and straight, and she had never hidden her envy of Cassi's hair.

Cassi smiled. "I haven't had a better offer in weeks. It's good to be with you, Renae. I'm so glad you came."

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