Chapter One

 

JEFF LET himself into the Sussex Gallery Tuesday morning, rolling his eyes as his cell phone went off. He was going to have to change the ringtone—he hated the new one already, and he’d only downloaded it on Monday.

Of course, if Jenni didn’t call every two minutes, the ringtones might have longer lifespans.

He pocketed the keys and flipped open his phone. “Yes, Lord and Master?”

“How did you know it was me? Never mind. Where’s my art? Have you got all the pieces yet? I’ve only met one of the artists. That quilter lady with the big hair. Is she for real? The gum chewing alone would make me crazy. The show’s on in less than a week, babe.”

He waited for her to run down as he sorted through the mail. “It’s always you. Your art is either here or en route. No, we don’t have all the pieces yet, but you don’t have to panic until Thursday. I don’t know if she’s for real, but maybe the gum chewing is because she quit smoking? And I’m well aware of my deadline—have I ever let you down?”

“No. But there’s always a first time.”

“And you’ll fire my ass and I like my job, so it’s not going to happen.” He chuckled. “Jenni, go back to schmoozing your guest list and let me do my job, okay?”

“Hey, it’s my job to tell you what to do, not vice versa.”

“All right, then, what do you want me to do?”

“Do your job so I can go back to schmoozing my guest list.”

Laughing, shaking his head, he hung up the phone and made sure the coffee was on.

In short order he had the gallery swept out, the inventory list in front of him, and a cup of coffee in one hand. Despite Jenni’s worries, they were actually pretty much on target. Only three artists’ pieces were still missing, and he had shipping numbers for two of them and assurances from FedEx that they’d be arriving first thing tomorrow.

He spent a couple of hours on the phone: making sure the artists knew how to get to the gallery, confirming they’d be at the opening, and reassuring several that of course they could come in on Friday morning and make sure they were happy with the placement of their art. Jeff shook his head—there were always one or two who changed things just for the sake of changing them, often to the detriment of the pieces. Jeff was good at his job. He might not be an artist himself, but he had an eye for display, and it was very rare that a change in placement by the artist improved the presentation.

Then he settled into the day’s work: filing paperwork and checking over the invite list to make sure everyone who was supposed to be invited to the opening had been. There were a million little details to be taken care of in the last week before a showing, and he enjoyed the pickiness of it—he liked knowing that things were running as they should be. Jenni would reap the praise on opening night, but Jeff knew those compliments would be offered thanks to his own hard work.

By the time the late afternoon sun was shining in on his desk in the little reception area, he’d crossed nearly everything off his to-do list for the day, and a few items for tomorrow were done as well.

He was congratulating himself on a day well spent when the door opened behind him, a soft clearing of throat calling his attention. “Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for a Mr. Tamrin?”

He turned, coming face-to-face with someone who looked (and sounded) like he was out of an Old West novel.

He smiled, delighted by this anomaly. “You’ve found him.” He held out his hand. “Jeff Tamrin.”

“Pleased.” The shake was firm and sure. Eyes so blue they had to be contacts smiled at him from a leathered face. “I’m Dakin McBride. I do the leather stuff? I have a truck full of stuff coming, so I reckoned I ought to introduce myself.”

“My missing art! Wonderful. It’s very nice to meet you.” And if he held on to Mr. McBride’s hand just a little too long, maybe the man would get the idea that it was very nice to meet him.

“Not missing at all. Waiting for a place to land.” Those blue eyes looked around the gallery, taking in the chaos, the lights. “Nice place.”

“Don’t judge her yet; she cleans up really well. Would you like the tour?” Or a drink? Lord, he needed to get out more.

The cell went off again and he sighed, flipping it open. “Not now, Jenni, I’m busy.” Then he closed it and gave Dakin McBride his best smile.

Dakin chuckled, took off the cowboy hat, and nodded. His dark hair was caught back in a tie, a mass of curls spreading over the back of his black shirt. “I’d love a look-see, if you have time. My boxes should be in town first thing in the morning.”

“Excellent. I’m looking forward to seeing your stuff. Jenni’s putting together an exciting exhibition.” He took Dakin’s arm to lead him into the main show area. “Oh! Do you want some coffee, Dakin? May I call you Dakin?”

“I’d love some, thanks, and Dakin’s fine.” He gave Jeff a warm, slow smile. “I’m around for a couple weeks, sight-seeing, so you might see a little of me.”

“That would be all right. I like the little I see so far.” Jeff detoured back to the counter with the pot and poured out a mug. “How do you take it?”

“Black, thanks.” There was a little hemp necklace resting around Dakin’s throat, a single hematite bead in the middle. Yum.

“Where are you staying?” he asked casually, handing the cup over and nodding back toward the main room.

“The… uh….” Dakin fumbled in his shirt pocket, squinting a little at a business card. “Capital Hill Suites? Seems nice enough, but not too harsh on the pocketbook.”

“They’re over on Albert, aren’t they? Being downtown is good—you can walk pretty much everywhere.” He strode into the middle of the large room. “This is the biggest room we have. It takes up most of the main floor, bar the reception area, a small office, and storage in the back. Upstairs are six smaller areas. You can see the large windows and skylights offer a lot of natural lighting. And we supplement with spots.”

“Yeah? I have a few entire hides—y’all realize they take up a lot of room, right?”

He doubted very much that Jenni realized it, but he’d done his homework before the invitations had been sent out. “Indeed. We’re planning on putting a few pieces from everyone down here on the main floor, and then a room for each artist upstairs. Did you want to see the room I’ve assigned you?”

He tried not to think how much that sounded like “come see my etchings.” Did people even say that, or was it apocryphal?

Dakin nodded, still looking, taking everything in. “Yeah. Yeah, after you.”

“Okay.” Jeff sauntered up the stairs, aware of the man following him.

Maybe it was the drawl, or the bluer-than-blue eyes, or maybe even the knowledge the man worked with leather, but Dakin exuded masculinity in a way that put Jeff into overdrive. Jeff swore he could smell leather on him too, rich and strong and pure, unadulterated sex.

He licked his lips as he got to the top of the stairs and turned right. “This way,” he told Dakin, smiling back at him.

Those eyes were most definitely studying his ass. He was going to have to make sure that Mr. Dakin McBride very much enjoyed his stay in Ottawa.

“This will be your space.” It was the room farthest from the stairs, but it was also the largest of the six areas upstairs, light and airy.

“Damn. This is fine….” Dakin wandered, fingers trailing along the wall, eyes shining. “I have three saddle stands coming—they can go in here just fine.”

“Excellent. I’ve got a few freestanding display cases that we can bring in as well if you need them. I didn’t know if you did boots or not. I’m afraid I never got a full inventory of what to expect from you.” Or from half the others, though he’d done his research and knew what types of pieces he could expect, and had assigned rooms accordingly. But he hated looking ignorant in front of the artists. He was the one they dealt with, and while Dakin didn’t seem in the least hoity-toity like a lot of them could be, nobody liked to think their work wasn’t important.

“No? I got some hides, some saddles. I brought a collection of Navajo tobacco bags and a beaded leather jacket.” Dakin shrugged, grinning. “I didn’t know what y’all’d want.”

He could shoot Jenni. “I can’t wait to see.” He made a gesture toward the room. “You’re happy with the space, then?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s not my barn and workshop, but it’ll make my babies look right pretty.”

“We’ll certainly do our best. I’m going to want to go over the inventory with you when it arrives and arrange for pricing. The pieces that are sold won’t be released from the gallery until the exhibition is over, but we’ll arrange for shipping and take care of payment and all that.”

“I told the owner—Jenni, yeah?—everything’s for sale but the white tobacco bag. That’s just for display.”

“I’ll go through the inventory with you, and we’ll assign the prices together. That way I’ll be confident we’re selling only what you want sold, and at a price you can live with after our commission.” And he wasn’t going to turn down an hour or two of being forced to work with this man. “We can go over that tomorrow afternoon, if you like. Let the stuff get here and give you time to settle in a little. Recover from your flight.”

“Sure. Tell me when, and I’ll be here.” Dakin nodded, looked around one more time. “I guess I should get out of your hair, huh? You got any suggestions for a decent place to get a bite to eat?”

“Depends on what you want—you can find just about anything in Ottawa. Especially downtown.” He glanced at his watch, going for casual. It was almost six already. “I could use some nibbling myself, if you’d rather not eat alone….”

“Yeah? You wouldn’t mind?” Jeff got another slow, warm smile that almost stopped his heart. That was beautiful.

He shook his head slowly. “No, Dakin, I don’t think I’d mind at all.”

He held a hand out, indicating Dakin should precede him down the stairs. He wanted a chance to check out the other man’s ass this time around. The hat went back on, and Jeff got a view of a tight, tiny little butt, broad shoulders. Definitely yum.

No doubt about it—he’d like to get up close and personal with this artist. Yes, indeed.

He waited until they were at the door before catching up to Dakin, and then he had to clear his throat. “What kind of food do you like?”

“Oh, nothing fancy. Steak works. Chicken. Italian. Whatever’s good.”

“Al’s Steakhouse is about a fifteen-minute walk, and we can cut through Confederation Park and the Ottawa City Hall grounds. Let you start getting your sight-seeing in.” Something about this cowboy said steak was the way to go.

“Yeah? Sounds good. I got to tell you, sir, this is a damn pretty city.” Jeff got a wink, a grin. “Colder than a witch’s tit in a brass brassiere, but pretty.”

He laughed. “You think this is cold, you should be here in January!” He turned off the lights and locked the door, pocketing the keys. “And please, call me Jeff.”

“I read about the weather here in the winter—I’d freeze. Of course, it’s damn near in the nineties back home.”

Jeff did a quick calculation back to Celsius and his jaw dropped. “That’s middle-of-summer weather!”

Dakin’s laugh was sex. Pure sex. “Oh, man. Summer? Is one ten, one fifteen.”

“No wonder you look so nicely baked.” He let his gaze take in Dakin’s entire body, even though most of it was covered up by clothes. He could imagine the skin, though, all tanned like that face and those hands.

“Doesn’t hurt that I’m outside curing leather all summer.”

“I guess that’s what keeps you in such great shape too, eh?” He took another look.

Dakin blushed dark, grinned. “That and chasing dogs and heifers and horses, yeah.”

“You live on a farm? Wow, what’s that like?”

“Well, a ranch, yeah? I don’t grow anything to eat, ’sides bulls.” Dakin grinned. “It’s busy, and no one in their right mind does it, and I love it.”

“You’ve got a great smile. Besides most artists aren’t completely in their right minds, are they? I mean, you’re all a little eccentric.”

“Eccentric? Me? No….” Dakin tipped his hat a little, eyes dancing.

Jeff laughed and gave in to the urge to let their hips knock briefly. “This is Confederation Park. We’ll go through it, and Al’s is just up the street.”

“Why’s it Confederation Park?”

Jeff tilted his head. “You know, I don’t know why. Ottawa is the capital of Canada. I’m sure it’s got something to do with that.” He grinned wryly. “You’re going to fire me as your tour guide now.”

Dakin chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Lord, Lord. You know, I’m a redneck foreigner—you could’ve lied.”

“I’ve already filled up my lying quota for the day telling the boss everything was under control.”

The warm laugh rang out, drawing smiles from the people on the street. “Shame on you, lyin’ to that nice lady.”

Jeff was pretty sure he’d never heard anyone call Jenni a nice lady before. “I have to have some faults. Otherwise I’d be perfect.”

“Then you’d be unbearable. Good thing you’re good-looking and friendly.” He got another grin, another wink. It was nice to know Dakin was looking back.

He nodded at the door to Al’s Steakhouse. “Here we are.”

“Smells good. I might have to eat a horse.”

“I’m pretty sure they don’t sell that here,” Jeff deadpanned.

“No? Shame. Horse meat’s good eating.”

He stopped with the door half-open, staring at Dakin. Surely the man was just teasing back. One eyebrow went up, black as pitch, and Dakin’s eyes twinkled.

“Oh, man, you got me.” Jeff shook his head, and he was still chuckling as he went in. “Just for that, I’m making you share the snails with me.”

“Not a chance in hell.” Dakin followed him closely. “I’m not eating bait.”

“You mean I’m fishing for nothing?” He gave Dakin a smile and then nodded to the hostess. “Two, please.”

Al’s was a nice place, quiet and dark, with real cloth tablecloths, lots of plants, and a little pond full of koi. It was early enough yet, and they were seated at a table for two right next to the water.

“Ah, now, that’s cool. This is where you need your bait.”

“They claim some of these fish have been here as long as the restaurant’s been open.” Jeff leaned in to whisper, “Of course, they say the same of most of the waitresses.”

Dakin laughed again. “Older waitresses know how to do their jobs. That’s a good thing.”

Jeff nodded. “You’ll not complain about the food or the service, I can promise you that.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not a picky person, and it smells like heaven in here.”

“Is it a requirement to like meat if you’re a cowboy?” Jeff looked over his own menu quickly, already knowing what he wanted.

“Probably. I meant that knowing what’s good is your business, isn’t it?”

“I guess I never looked at it that way.”

The waitress came with their bread and glasses of water. “You boys ready to order?”

“I think so. Dakin?”

“I’ll take a T-bone, medium rare, and a glass of tea, please, ma’am.”

“You want a baked potato or rice? And you mean iced tea?”

“Baked potato and yes, please.” Dakin set the cowboy hat carefully on the chair beside him. His dark curls shone in the half-light, looking almost wet.

“Sour cream or butter? And house dressing on your salad okay?”

Jeff enjoyed the view as he waited for his turn to order. Dakin was a very good-looking man, rugged and sexy and a breath of fresh air.

“Both, and if by house you mean ranch dressing? Absolutely.”

“Gotcha. What about you?”

Jeff smiled up at her. “I’ll have the filet mignon, medium, rice, and house dressing on the side, please.” He decided at the last minute not to tease Dakin with an order of snails.

She left, and he smiled over at Dakin, admiring the man.

“Are you an artist too?” Dakin asked. “I mean, is that why you work at the gallery?”

“No, I’m afraid my talents lie more toward organizational skills. I love art, though. It’s one of my passions, and working at the gallery lets me immerse myself in it without worrying about where my next meal is coming from.” He split open a roll and spread some butter on it.

“I hear that. That’s why I started in saddles and tack. There’s steady money there.” The waitress brought their drinks and salads.

“Is there a lot of call for the hides and tobacco bags and stuff? I mean, I bet that kind of thing sells really well in the city. At least it would up here, especially places like Toronto. Faddy, trendy, you know?” He put a tiny bit of dressing on his salad, just enough to have the taste.

Dakin poured the dressing over his lettuce and grabbed the salt and pepper. “I mainly do custom work now. Pieces for big buildings, for hotels, restaurants.”

“You’re doing all right for yourself, then.” Jeff liked hearing that artists were getting their due. It was a damned shame people like van Gogh had burned their own canvases to stay warm, and now that they were dead, the work was worth millions.

“Well, I’m never going to be rich, but I’m happy and eating and paying taxes.” He gave Jeff another wink and grin.

“Rich is a state of mind,” Jeff suggested. “Like happy. Which looks really good on you, by the way.”

“Yeah? Thank you. It ain’t a bad look on you either.” Dakin took a little bite of bread, then nodded and buttered a larger piece. “Have you lived here long?”

Jeff wrinkled his nose. “I started off in Cornwall. Home of milling. It stinks and it’s small and it’s closed-minded, and as soon as I could, I left.”

“Ah. There’s lots of little towns with little minds.”

He nodded. “I imagine you get a lot of that.”

“I can, yeah.” Dakin shrugged. “It happens when you, uh, swing the wrong way.”

He nodded, pleased to have it confirmed that Dakin played for the same team he did. Not that he’d doubted it, really—they were both flirting pretty good. But it was always nice to know for sure.

“You didn’t have anyone special to bring up with you, see the sights with?”

“No. Not for a while now.”

“I’m available for sharing them with….” He touched Dakin’s hand softly with his fingers and then went back to eating his salad.

Dakin pinked, ducked his head, but looked pleased. “I bet there’s… lots of things to see ’round here.”

“There is. Lots to see and do.” Indoors as well as out, but he wasn’t sure if they were still only lightly flirting or moving into something a little stronger, and he didn’t want to blow it.

“What do you do when you’re not romancing artists and avoiding your boss?”

“You mean for kicks? I try to run every day. I cook. I read everything I can get my hands on.” He smiled softly. “Nothing exciting.”

“I like cooking. I’m not much of a reader, really. I do like westerns, though. I got all the Louis L’Amour books.”

“What about movies? Where does your taste run there?” He wondered if Dakin was into dancing at all. He didn’t go often, but every now and then he got the urge.

“Lord. I haven’t been to a movie theater in ten years, easy. There’s not one close to where I am.”

“Wow, sounds isolated.” Jeff leaned back as the waitress brought their main dishes. “That looks awesome.” He hadn’t had a good steak in… longer than since he’d had a good fuck.

“Mmm…. See man. See man eat meat.” Dakin chuckled. “Can I get some Worcestershire, please, ma’am, and a glass of water? This tea’s more like Kool-Aid than tea.”

“Sure thing.” She gave Dakin a warm smile even with the complaint, and Jeff chuckled. “You’ve charmed her.” And she wasn’t the only one.