Perfect Touch – Chapter Four
Hoo doggies, that is one hot man, she thought. Bet there isn’t a Big Mac’s worth of fat on him.
Below is the fourth chapter from my brand-new book, Perfect Touch.
Did you miss the first three chapters? Catch up here!
Over the next few days, we’re going to release the fifth and sixth chapters.
Hope you enjoy!
Perfect Touch – Chapter Four
The rest of the courtroom emptied more slowly. Most of the people who had been waiting in the hall rushed off after Liza Neumann. The rest converged around two men dressed like lawyers.
Questions fell in a hard, cold rain.
When another man came out of the courtroom, everything female in Sara came to attention. It wasn’t just the man’s height that made him stand out. It was the way he carried himself, a man completely at ease in his own body. He had a face that was too strong, too masculine to be called beautiful and too unusual to be handsome. Striking. His skin had the kind of weathering that came from working outdoors. His soft leather jacket couldn’t conceal the male power beneath. Dark, western-cut pants outlined long, powerful legs. A black Stetson and polished black western boots were perfectly at home in the Wyoming setting.
Hoo doggies, that is one hot man, she thought. Bet there isn’t a Big Mac’s worth of fat on him.
Sara knew she was staring and didn’t care. On-or offscreen, that kind of sheer maleness was rare.
Maybe I should get out of the city more.
Yeah, yeah, go to the country where men are men and smell like sweat and cow flops and have more children than they can take care of. No thanks. I had a whole childhood of that.
But she still could enjoy the one hundred percent male standing only twenty feet away.
Wonder if he’s smart enough to add three and two and get five, or if he just coasts along on his sheer presence.
Then she saw Guy Beck closing in on the man.
That can’t be Jay Vermilion, she thought. It wouldn’t be fair if the rest of the package lived up to that deep voice.
Flashing a big smile and an embossed business card, Beck slid like grease through the people who had gathered around the man.
But then, whoever said life was fair?
Sara eased through people, careful to stay behind Beck, where he couldn’t see her. She wanted to learn more about what Jay was like when he wasn’t a voice on the phone, telling her about Skunk the Wonder Dog and his buddy Lightfoot, or King Kobe, the Terror of the Pasture.
As she closed in, she saw that Jay had navy blue eyes that were as clear as gems. There were small lines on his cheeks and the corners of his eyes that didn’t look like age. They looked like experience. The hard kind.
Jay’s dark, arched eyebrows rose as he considered the city man waving a business card at him.
“Guy Beck, Mr. Vermilion. Masterworks Auction Agency.”
Jay took the card and considered the fancy letters stamped into the heavy stock. “Mr. Beck. And it’s Captain Vermilion.”
“Forgive me, Captain,” Beck said. “Since it’s obvious you’re a very busy man, I’ll be brief. It’s my understanding that you have a consider-able body of paintings that will be up for sale.”
As he spoke, his eyebrows and face made exaggerated gestures of both sympathy and avarice, as if he was sorry for the burden of selling someone else’s belongings and taking a generous cut of the value on the way by.
Jay waited for the rest of the spiel like what he had once been, a sol-dier ready for the newest round of political wish-think masquerading as orders.
Opportunity knocking for so many folks on my behalf, he thought drily. No wonder Henry took a side exit. He’ll be back at the ranch long before I will.
“Mr. Guy Beck,” Jay said as he tipped up the brim of his hat slightly, revealing a band of hair as black as the Stetson. “Heard of you. Hollywood, right?”
“You flatter me. I had no idea my reputation had preceded me all the way out here to Jackson Hole.”
“It’s just Jackson,” Jay said gently. “Jackson Hole is the entirety of the valley made up by the Tetons, all the way to the plains. Doubt if the elk and pronghorn out there have heard of you.”
“Makes no difference to me,” Jay continued, his voice as easy as his eyes were hard. “Just trying to save you looking ignorant if you plan to work with folks around here.”
Beck took a quick breath. “Ah, thank you. About the Custers . . .”
Jay looked puzzled. “The what?”
Sara stifled a snort. If Jay poured it on much thicker, she’d need barn boots to wade through the stuff. Beck, however, didn’t seem to notice the aroma.
“The paintings by Mr. Harris. Armstrong ‘Custer’ Harris,” Beck said with a grim kind of patience.
“Oh, right, those. Sorry,” Jay said with a smile. “I only ever called him Armstrong. It was the folks who hated him that called him Mr. Harris.”
“Fascinating, I’m sure. Now that custody of the paintings is in your hands, I wondered if they might be for sale.”
“The custody of the Vermilion estate, you mean.”
“Well, of course.” Beck’s fingers folded themselves into uneasy origami.
Jay paused and held a finger up. “Just realized who you were.”
“The owner of Masterworks Auction Agency, yes, I know,” Beck said.
“You’re the dealer who’s working for Liza Neumann. Better hurry along, son. She’s got anger and a good lead on you.”
Sara bit back a cheer when Beck realized that he wasn’t the smartest man in the conversation.
“There was no formal arrangement,” Beck said finally. “Nothing signed and notarized, you understand.”
“I understand that she lost and you dropped her like a dead skunk.”
“I’m a businessman. There was no business to be done with Ms. Neumann. The decision was mutual.”
Jay nodded. “Gotcha.” He tucked the business card into Beck’s breast pocket, right next to the polka-dot handkerchief. “You’re a mercenary. Nothing wrong with that, man’s got to make a living, but I don’t do business with someone who only cares about getting paid. Good-bye, Mr. Guy Beck. Please don’t call me. You’ve used up more than your share of my time and patience.”
Beck hesitated, then turned and left so quickly he nearly ran over someone. Jay hadn’t looked past the agent’s loud clothing and attitude to see the slender woman who had been waiting patiently behind him.
As Jay watched she moved nimbly aside to avoid being run over by Beck. She was taller than most women, tall enough to dance with him and not have anyone strain anything bending over or standing on tiptoe. Her pale skin was a stark contrast to her mink-brown hair, which was worn loose and free, looking soft enough to make his fingers tingle. Her deep brown eyes were large, richly framed by long, dark lashes. Her sweater and slacks showed a body that was female without fuss or apology. Unlike Liza, there was no severity about this woman, no sense of hostile walls standing between her and the rest of the world.
That intrigued him.
Too bad I don’t have time for the male-female dance, he thought. But I don’t.
Before he could move to leave, the woman stepper closer and held out a hand out to him. Thin silver and crystal bracelets on her wrist made a sound like distant birdsong.
“Captain Vermilion, I’m Sara Medina from Perfect Touch,” she said.
Jay took her hand and was surprised by the quiet strength of her. “Sara. Good to have a face to put with the voice. Or are we Ms. Medina and Mr. Vermilion during business hours?”
“Sara works for me.”
“And I go by Jay,” he said, smiling. “I only use captain when some-one rubs me the wrong way.”
She smiled wide enough to show a dimple on the right side of her mouth. “I’d apologize for Guy Beck, but I had nothing to do with how he turned out.”
“Glad to hear it.” As Jay spoke, he stepped aside, gently pulling her with him.
“Thank you, Mr. Vermilion,” the bailiff said behind Jay, closing the hearing room door and locking it. “I’ll clear the rest of the people out of here, but you take your time.”
“Do you have eyes in the back of your head?” Sara asked too softly for the retreating bailiff to overhear. “I didn’t even see him behind you.”
“I don’t have anything as useful as another set of eyes. Just real good hearing.”
“Like a-pin-dropping-on-Mars good hearing.” She realized that her hand was still wrapped in Jay’s and reluctantly pulled free. “And congratulations on retaining custody of the Custers—sorry, the Harris paintings.”
“You know I call them Custers. Something about that seersucker slicker just made me want to yank his chain. Small of me, but I’ve learned to take comfort where I find it.”
This time Sara didn’t bother to muffle her laugh. “Sign me up in the small column. Beck is . . . quite a performer. I’m impressed that you outslicked him. Relieved, too. He’s a pump-and-dump sort of dealer.”
Jay’s intent navy eyes urged her to continue.
“Beck will pump what buzz he can from the paintings and the trial,” she said, “then dump the paintings on the market without regard for the worth they could have had with careful handling.”
A few blocks over a siren wailed, then stopped almost immediately. Sara frowned. “Everything has a price in the art market. I’m pragmatic enough to understand that.”
“I’m hearing a ‘but’ . . .”
“The Custers are worth more than simply money. They represent some of the last great artistic interpretations of a western landscape that was vanishing even as he painted it. The past can’t be recovered, but we can sense it in those paintings.”
“It’s probably easier to see greatness if you didn’t know Custer personally,” Jay said. “I was just a kid, but I thought he was a petty, vain son of a bitch. That’s why he got the nickname Custer, after the general who didn’t know better than to lead his soldiers into a death trap in the name of spit and pride.”
Inwardly Sara winced. “I gathered from some of our conversations that Custer wasn’t Mr. Personality. The painter, that is.”
“People had a hard time understanding why JD carried him so long.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Room, board, art supplies, and pocket money.”
“That’s not well known,” she said, feeling excitement tickle through her. “Maybe your father believed in Custer’s talent.”
“Maybe. And maybe he just liked having someone to wipe his boots on.”
“Ouch.” Jay smiled slightly, softening the hard lines of his face. “Guess I didn’t tell you that JD was as ornery and hardheaded as they come.”
“Er, no. Sounds like your father and Custer were well matched.”
“More like my mother had a soft spot for Custer,” Jay said, taking Sara’s arm and heading for the doorway to the street. “She loved his paintings. JD loved her.”
And I like the feeling of his son’s big hand on my arm, Sara thought. He’s one interesting man in person as well as over the phone.
Good thing I’m immune.
“You’re cold,” he said, opening the door to the street, then closing it behind them. “Did you leave your coat in your car?”
“No. It was stolen from my—”
Just then Barton Vermilion rushed up, drowning her words. He looked tired and drained and tight as a new-strung wire. The black coat was no longer slung over his shoulder, but wrapped around him.
“Jay, I need to talk to you. Now.”
Sara felt the instinctive tightening of Jay’s hand on her arm before his grip loosened with a reluctance that made her want to ooze closer.
Of course I want to be closer, she told herself briskly. He’s warm and the wind isn’t.
“Ms. Medina,” Jay said, “have you met my brother, Barton?”
“A pleasure, Mr. Vermilion,” she said. Barton gave her a dismissive nod and turned back to Jay. “We have to talk.” Then his head snapped back toward Sara. “You testified against us. The judge quoted your opinion as a deciding factor in her decision.”
“I gave a deposition, which included the authenticity of the receipts for Custers sold to JD Vermilion,” Sara said. “As your last name is Vermilion, you’re a beneficiary of my opinion.”
Jay bit back a smile at Sara’s cool reply. “Point to the lady.”
Barton swept his eyes up and down her like it was just before the bar closed on a Saturday night. “If you’re so smart, why don’t you have the sense to wear a coat?”
The reply she wanted to make was straight out of the barnyards of her childhood. Before she could frame it in polite words, Jay had shrugged out of his jacket and put it around her shoulders.
She almost groaned at the heat of it.
“Thank you,” she said.
“My pleasure.” He turned to Barton. “Don’t blame Sara for Liza’s unhappiness. Or me.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m stuck between mother and you.” Barton scowled. “Ask me how much fun that is.”
“No need. I was there.” Jay’s expression softened as he thought of his half brother as a redheaded tyrant clutching for the world with both chubby hands. “Remember when I carried you on my shoulders and you yelled ‘Giddyup’ all through the house?”
“So you were older than I was. So what? I’ve grown up since then,” Barton said impatiently.
The pouting line of his mouth contradicted him, but Barton couldn’t help it if he had inherited his mother’s lips.
But he sure could help himself by acting his age, Jay thought. The older he gets, the less adult he seems.
Being Liza’s son didn’t do him any favors.
Irritation snaked through Jay. At some point, Barton had to become responsible for his own life, his own choices. As far as Jay was concerned, that point was overdue. And yet, every time he argued with Barton, Jay felt like he was kicking a puppy.
“Since you’re all grown up, you know Liza doesn’t have anyone to blame for her life but herself,” Jay said evenly.
Sara knew she should fade into the sidewalk and leave them to what was obviously a long-standing family quarrel, but Jay’s coat was draped around her and she had barely stopped shivering.
“You could have just given the damn paintings to her,” Barton said. “I followed JD’s wishes. He was real clear about the paintings.”
“So? He’s dead.”
“I gave my word,” Jay said.
“How the hell would JD know? He’s dead!”
Sara felt the tension in Jay’s hand on her arm and waited for the explosion. But when he spoke, his deep voice was calm.
“It’s done,” he said to Barton. “Get over it and get on with your life.”
“It takes money to live,” Barton said in a rising voice.
“That’s why people work. Any time you want it, you have a job on the ranch.”
Barton looked down, visibly fighting not to lose his redheaded temper. “Look,” he said finally, meeting Jay’s waiting eyes. “I found a guy who could help us sell those paintings.”
“Was he wearing seersucker and a purple tie?” Jay asked.
For a moment Barton visibly wondered if the answer should be yes or no. “Uh, I didn’t notice.”
“Did he give you a card?” Jay asked.
“Uh, yeah.” Barton fished the card out of his suit pocket. “Masterwor—”
“No,” Jay cut in. “He already approached me. I turned him down.”
“But this guy’s the real deal. Knows a lot of Hollywood types, closes big deals.”
“Not with me.”
Tension simmered for a long moment before Barton shrugged. “Okay, you don’t want him. That’s cool. How about I handle the paintings then?”
Jay studied his brother. Barton alternated between careless and relentless, yet Jay felt a stubborn obligation to help out the kid who had once shrieked with laughter while he rode Jay’s shoulders through the rambling ranch house.
“You mean it?” Jay asked.
“Sure. I do big deals all the time.” Jay’s gut told him to refuse. The perennial hope that Barton would turn out to be something more than hot air urged Jay to agree.
“I’ll think about it,” he said finally.
“I could totally handle it.” Barton straightened for the first time.
“You’ll see. I’m good at business.”
“Would you do an auction or a consignment?” Sara asked quietly.
“Sotheby’s or Christie’s? Or would you choose an auction house that specialized in western genre painters?”
Barton blinked. “Huh?”
“I was just wondering what your experience in art sales was,” she said. “If the Custers are going to be sold, they need to be handled properly.”
“And you think I can’t? I’ve got a degree in management, Harvard. I know business.”
“Then you know that the art business is as idiosyncratic as they come. This isn’t the same as finding angel investors for a start-up. Selling art is part show business, part poker game, and part craps.”
“And you’re just the gal to handle it?” Barton asked. “The only guy who knows those paintings better than me is dead now.” He flushed and jabbed a finger at her. “I’ve got a personal connection.”
“That will be very useful in selling the paintings if the time comes,” she agreed, smiling professionally. “Collectors like to have a personal link to the history of a painting. It helps add a glow to the narrative, to the legend of a painter, and, of course, to the artistic taste of the owner.”
“Can’t pay bills with a legend,” Barton said.
“No, but you can make it work to your advantage. That’s a medium-long game if you want to play it right. Sellers like that seersucker guy just pump and dump, but don’t give the audience enough time to really get into the work.”
“Legends aren’t built overnight,” Jay said quietly.
“Overnight sensations brought on by years of work are a lot more common,” she said, nodding.
“Years?” Barton laughed roughly. “Who has the time?”
“A professional willing to invest in the future has the time,” she said. “If you have any interest, we can talk about the process and the kind of work it will take to properly market paintings such as the Custers.”
“And you’re just the professional to show me how, right?” Barton said sarcastically.
“Glad you realize that,” Jay said, glancing at his watch. “When the paintings are sold, I suspect that Ms. Medina will be a big part of it. Assuming, of course, that she wants to be hired for the job.”
Relief snaked through Sara. “Thank you. If you want, I’d be happy to help you sell the Custers. Did you have a time line in mind?”
“No guarantees on handling the sale,” Jay said. “Not yet. I need to know someone—in person—before I trust them.”
Liza’s voice called impatiently, “Barty, come here!”
Barton grimaced. “A minute,” he yelled.
Wind gusted, making Sara grab Jay’s coat at the same time he did. Their fingers tangled. She admired the difference in texture and strength and heat between his fingers and hers. He had calluses, but the skin itself wasn’t rough. She couldn’t help wondering how those fingers would feel against her bare skin.
Then she wondered how he could stand around in his shirtsleeves in a cold Wyoming wind and have warmer hands than she did.
“Listen,” Barton said, leaning in to Jay. “Did you look over the new plan I sent you?”
“Ms. Medina is getting cold standing around in the wind,” Jay said. “I’ll call you after—”
“You remember that guy I sent out to my quarter of the ranch last week?” Barton cut in hurriedly.
“The one who was three days late?”
Barton waved that away. “He’s an important man. Got lots of irons in lots of fires. Anyway, the reports came back and it’s looking good. But he wants to dig a few more holes to be sure before he offers a deal.”
Sara felt Jay go absolutely still.
“This is the land along Lash Creek?” Jay asked.
“That creek feeds Crowfoot, which waters most of the ranch. That watershed is too valuable to risk mining activity.”
“Gold is valuable too, bro. Lash Creek is part of my land. I get a say in how it’s used.”
“When you’re thirty-one and meet the stipulations in JD’s will, yes,” Jay said. “I had to do the same.”
“Hey, I’m trying to do this the nice way. I could sue.”
“Barty!” Liza’s voice was more distant. “I’m leaving!”
Both men ignored her.
“You’d lose,” Jay said. “Liza already tried to have the land divided during the divorce. The judge didn’t buy it then and won’t buy it now. JD’s will is clear. You have to be thirty-one to have any say in how the ranch is run.”
“BARTY!” Liza screamed above the wind.
Sara felt like hiding in her borrowed coat. Her family was poor, but they had too much pride to make a public scene.
“Fine,” Barton snarled. “Be like JD. Leave money on the table wherever you play. Millions hanging on the walls, millions in untapped mining rights, and nothing in the bank for the rest of us.”
With that, he stalked off after his mother.
Wind gusted again, making trees whip and groan. The smell of snow was stronger now, but the sky was nearly clear.
“Sorry that you had to witness that,” Jay said, watching Barton’s retreat. “No need to apologize,” Sara said. “Nothing argues like families.”
“The least I can do is take you back to your room. Where are you staying?”
The thought of her room put a hitch in her stride. “I was at the Lariat. I have to find another room.”
“A break-in. My coat and computer were stolen. The sheriff holds out little hope that the thieves will be found.”
Or another room, for that matter.
Jay’s arm came around her shoulders. “You’ve had quite a morning, haven’t you?” He led her toward a big silver pickup truck. “With the Norwegians in town, you won’t find a decent place left to stay.”
“Come to the ranch,” he suggested. “We have five bedrooms and only one of them is being used. Some of the Custers are there, and there are a lot more up at Fish Camp.”
“You’re tempting me.” He gave her a smile that warmed her as much as his coat.
“No temptation, just common sense,” he said, opening the passenger side of the truck. “You need a room and the Custers. I need to know more about you than a sexy voice talking to me while I make dinner and sneak bites.”
She laughed, remembering doing the same thing while listening to him on the phone. “You, too? Eating alone can suck.”
Navy blue eyes met hers. “Henry lives at the ranch, so we’ll have a chaperone, if that concerns you.”
“Good.” She was too attracted to Jay for her own comfort. Having sex with a client was bad business.
“As long as you understand that Beck’s sales pitch about the Custers being worth millions is a great wad of baloney, I’ll come,” she said.
Jay smiled and squeezed her arm. “Never did like baloney, even when I was young enough to eat it.”
“And Sheriff Cooke said for me to say hello to you,” she remembered as she climbed up into the passenger seat before Jay could blink. “So you figure I’m safe,” he said.
Safe wasn’t a word she would have applied to Jay Vermilion, but she nodded. “Besides, I’ve traveled in places where staying with strangers and hitchhiking were the only way to see the country. You learn to trust your instincts.” Plus a few really nasty moves my brothers taught me.
Jay laughed softly. “I thought so.”
“You’re the adventurous sort.” Sara smiled faintly. She was hoping that handling the sale of the Custers would get her out of the adventure travel business.
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