Joseph Slade’s singular talent with erotic toys, unique, custom-made designs, and unrivaled craftsmanship had yet to bring success. To take the world by storm, he needed a financial backer. Fast.
He’d had the perfect one, damn it. If Derek Cavanaugh hadn’t died within days of agreeing to invest…
If the lawyer handling Derek’s estate wasn’t such a shifty bastard…
He forced his attention to the latest group of potential investors. Their silence didn’t bode well, but he refused to abandon hope. Motioning for someone to kill the lights, he tapped a few keys on his laptop. A carefully chosen series of photos flashed onto the screen behind him, drawing a low murmur of response from his audience. Approval or disapproval? He couldn’t tell. Breath held, he played a brief video of a beautiful woman dancing alone. She wore nothing but silver hoops through her nipples and fine strands of silver bells around her torso. The bells played a mesmerizing tune as she swayed her hips.
No one stayed to listen.
Fuck, yet again he’d chosen the wrong group of men to lobby.
He returned to his studio, freshly demoralized and running out of options. He worked three, sometimes four jobs just to pay the rent. Construction, bartending, club security, and personal training left little time for anything else. In the wee hours of the morning, alone and bitter, he designed and crafted new pieces. The need to set them aside, unseen and unappreciated, ate at him like a disease. He couldn’t build his brand by selling one item at a time. Word of mouth, his greatest marketing tool, required a steady turnover of stock. He needed money, dammit.
If only he could find Derek’s wife. The elusive Annika Cavanaugh who’d cosigned his contract would honor its terms. A woman of her means could rescue him financially for less than it would cost to throw a lavish party. She’d barely notice the outlay, yet it would change his life. He’d do his damnedest to make sure her investment paid off, but first, he’d have to locate her.
Finding one woman in a city of almost nine million people proved difficult. Annika appeared to be New York City’s only living ghost. Most of Derek’s associates swore he’d never tied the knot. Derek’s lawyer, Simeon Plant, recalled meeting her but didn’t have a forwarding address. Joseph couldn’t find any pictures, any property titles, any bank accounts in her name, or evidence of family or friends. She didn’t even have a credit card.
The crippling effect of her signature on his contract had to be addressed. Although she’d breached the terms of their agreement, he couldn’t afford to mount a legal challenge. He couldn’t move forward until he found her and spoke to her personally. Something about her supposed marriage to Derek felt off. He’d gone to Derek’s funeral, hoping to identify her. She hadn’t shown up. What kind of wife missed her husband’s funeral? Unless something had happened to her too? Joe couldn’t shake his sense of unease. As time passed, it developed into full-blown paranoia. The widow of an obscenely wealthy businessman vanished for several months, and nobody seemed to care. If she’d disappeared, then who had control of Derek’s estate? And why hadn’t they done more to find her?
He requested a week’s absence from all of his jobs. He knew he’d spend it following the trail of Derek’s assets, pinpointing why they hadn’t transferred to Annika. Palming his face, he groaned anew at the question that kept him up nights. He didn’t have time for this detective shit. He couldn’t leave it alone. If sold, real estate and priceless pieces of art would leave paper trails. He had to know where they led.
His search brought him to the Volpinari Gallery, where a multimillion-dollar painting, one of Derek’s final acquisitions, reportedly hung. He shoved his hands against the gallery’s closed doors, annoyed as hell that he hadn’t checked the opening hours before showing up. The delay frustrated him, so he peered through the floor-to-ceiling windows, trying to catch a glimpse of Derek’s masterpiece.
An aging security guard, the word Milo
embroidered on his shirt, glared at him and shuffled closer. Joe scowled. It didn’t make any sense for the painting to be here. Could it be fake? Shit, he’d better get some answers about Annika’s whereabouts and Derek’s estate soon. Kidnapping and art substitution seemed like very real possibilities.
The woman’s cheery greeting snagged Joe’s attention. Nice voice. Whoa, nice…everything. And familiar too. He’d seen her before, months ago, stepping out of an elevator in Derek’s apartment building. He recalled a fleeting view of a woman in jeans and flats, with loose blonde waves. Glasses? No, she hadn’t worn glasses. Same perfect posture, though.
The security guard put his hand to his chest, pretending to be breathless. “Annie, it’s always a pleasure.”
Annie? As in Annika Cavanaugh?
With beaded cat eye glasses and her hair in a neat French twist, she looked more like a librarian than an heiress. On second thought, her clothing must be hand-tailored to drape so elegantly. Her glasses, handbag, and shoes looked expensive too. He stepped toward her.
“I’m afraid I have some unwelcome news,” she told the security guard. “I saw some fresh graffiti on the north corner.” She patted the older man’s arm as he grumbled and shuffled away. Then she turned her attention to Joe, a tentative smile curving her lips. “Are you feeling all right? You’re deathly still, and you’re staring.”
Holy sex on a stick, he had reason to stare. Up close, she stole his breath. She’d teamed a mid-calf-length floral dress with a child-size, red cotton wrap reminiscent of Red Riding Hood’s cape. Her white do-me-now heels called to him, hinting at possibilities he longed to explore.
“Well, okay then.” She slipped off her glasses and tucked them into a side pocket of her handbag. “I guess you’re fine…”
He had a vague notion of her trailing off midsentence. He couldn’t listen properly while he categorized her look. Prim. Proper. Infinitely corruptible. He swallowed as his mind supplied an HD image of her sprawled across his bed, her hair in disarray, clothing hastily shoved aside, slender thighs bracketing his face. He could feel
the softness of her bare stomach beneath his palm as he held her in place, forcing her to come repeatedly against his mouth. Fuck, why had he conjured such a specific fantasy? Why did he ache to drop to his knees and bury his face, his fingers, hell, even his cock inside her?
She’d be appalled if she knew how painfully hard he’d become, let alone his favored solution to that problem. Look at her, buttoned up tight, perfect posture, not a hair out of place.
Even if she wasn’t Derek’s widow, she seemed the kind of woman who’d associate with a select few and treat everyone else as peasants.
With his callused hands, tight T-shirt, and worn jeans, he should be glad she’d deigned to speak to him. He stepped closer, all but growling when she backed away. He had to confirm her name. “Ms. Cavanaugh?”
Eyes the color of warm caramel met his, and then widened. She seemed to do a double take, her gaze dipping to assess his mouth, his shoulders, and his abs. She took her time, drinking in the sight of him as if she’d thirsted for way too long.
Joseph locked his muscles, forcing himself to remain still instead of reaching for her. He knew exactly
how she felt as he watched her pupils dilate and her breathing become erratic. She liked the spark of awareness between them. A lot. He also sensed wariness. He hated that, but watching her flip-flop between extremes, craving and resisting in equal measure, fascinated him. Knowing she wanted him against her will had the effect of a potent aphrodisiac.
He fumbled a business card out of his wallet and pressed it into her hand. “Call me.” He waited a beat, noting the sudden flush of color in her cheeks. “If you don’t, I’ll come back and set up a display table of my best-selling toys in the foyer. If anyone questions me, I’ll tell them my special friend, Annie Cavanaugh, invited me.” He dropped his voice to a husky murmur. “I’m looking forward to redefining your colleagues’ views on sex aids.”
A tiny squeak of distress slipped through her lips. She took a step away, pausing when he curled his hand around her upper arm.
“What’s happening?” She shook her head, looking down at the card in her hand. “Joseph Slade, Erotic Consultant and Artisan.” She groaned. “I’m so sorry. I remember you now. I know Derek promised to finance your business, but I can’t help you. I don’t have any money to invest.”
“Sure you do.”
The proud set of her shoulders drooped. “I really don’t.”
He stroked her arm with his fingertips, aching for so much more than a light, innocent touch. “Let me buy you a coffee.” What the fuck? She can’t accept. She’s on her way into work.
She laughed anxiously. “I can’t leave. I’m covering a colleague’s first tour of the day, and it starts in fifteen minutes. I’m a guide.” She gestured at the gallery and then frowned at the tessellated tiles beneath her feet. “I don’t know what it is about you, but I’m not ready to say good-bye. Would you be willing to join the tour?”
She seemed surprised that he’d agreed so readily. “For real?”
“Yeah. Guide me, Annie.”