“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Startled by the masculine voice so close to her ear, Annie let out a startled shriek and jumped back, colliding with the hard body just behind her. Her voice echoed around the hallowed space of London’s National Gallery, shattering the peace. Embarrassment heated her skin to the boiling point.
She and the man behind her tumbled into a heap of flailing humanity. From tranquility to chaos in the space of a few seconds.
Just like her life.
She pushed her hair back from her face and looked up. A curator sitting next to the entrance to the next gallery watched her warily but didn’t get up from his seat. People stared, some smirked, and Annie bit her lip, feeling every inch the clumsy idiot.
The curator glared at her, exasperation hooding his pale blue, rheumy gaze. Annie attempted a conciliatory smile, trying to share the joke of her clumsiness. The man remained unimpressed, and his mouth didn’t move at all. People walked on, murmuring to one other, reminding her forcibly of a T.S. Eliot poem.
But she hadn’t tripped over J. Alfred Prufrock, she realized when she turned her attention to the big body that had cushioned her fall.
Heat and masculine warmth surrounded her when he steadied her, both arms around her as he helped her to sit up. Horror struck her first and then confusion.
She stared into the blank lenses of the darkest sunglasses she’d ever seen. “I -- Oh I’m so sorry!” She had never wished so fervently for the world to swallow her up.
“Think nothing of it.” His voice slipped over her senses like hot syrup, a rich American accent adding to the unexpectedly visceral response that mingled with her embarrassment. When she shivered, his arms tightened a fraction before she shifted to get to her feet.
Could it get any worse? She’d just tripped over a visually impaired hottie, one of the most gorgeous men she’d ever seen in her life. His sharply defined cheekbones and strong jaw added structure to the full lips, currently quirked in a smile of amusement. Definitely something she didn’t feel at the moment. Well, at least she hadn’t sworn as she went down. She couldn’t have; the fall had knocked the breath out of her.
What the fuck was a blind man doing in an art gallery?
When she tried to scramble to her feet, her heels slipped on the polished wooden floor, and she fell on him. Again.
He crowed with laughter, but she just wanted to cry. If falling on a blind man weren’t bad enough, having the hots for him made her feel worse. Much, much worse. He shifted his body under hers. It was beautifully toned, if the way his muscles flexed against her offered any indication. For a bare instant, his crotch came into contact with her hip as he sat up again, and she froze. That hard ridge was unmistakable. He got turned on by having women fall over him? She didn’t want to know that.
No longer caring how she looked, Annie scrambled to her feet, hoping to get out of this place before she could do anything else. She didn’t know if she could ever come here again. But as she stared at him, sitting with his hands on the floor, ready to push to his feet, she knew she couldn’t just walk off and leave this blind man to find his own way. This sexy, gorgeous blind man.
This time she made sure she planted her feet well apart before she held out both hands for him to take. He took one, but he put no pressure on it, getting to his feet in one smooth motion.
People started to walk around again and stare at the art, the low conversations punctuated by the occasion chuckle. The small drama was over for them.
But not for her. Annie found herself close to the stranger, close enough to feel his warm breath on her cheek and smell his sharp aftershave. He had short dark hair, nearly but not quite black, which topped a frame that must have been over six feet. That smile still quirked his mouth. Blind, gorgeous, and probably bruised as well.
“I’m so sorry!” Her voice sounded girlish and flirty instead of the sensible adult tones she’d aimed for.
To think she’d come here for an hour or two to try to regain some serenity. Well, that hadn’t worked. Take me please, God. One little heart attack. It doesn’t have to be much.
That smile should be banned. It didn’t seem decent in a respectable place like this. “It doesn’t matter. I took you by surprise; that’s all. It’s as much my fault as it is yours.” The smooth Southern accent melted what was left of her composure. Dark and sinful, it invited her to sink into the honeyed tones and let him do whatever he wanted to her.
“Hey.” He lifted his hand to her cheek and pushed a lock of hair off her face, tracing a tingling path to her ear with one finger. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”
“No, I mean, yes. I mean --” She swallowed, realizing one thing at least. “So you’re not --”
He grinned. “Blind? No.” He glanced at the painting that had so absorbed them both before she’d knocked him over. “I can still see that Bacchus is about to sweep Ariadne off her feet and carry her off to a happy ever after. I always wanted to see what happened next, but from the look on his face, I can take a pretty good guess.” His deepened voice told her he knew only too well, and brought heated visions to her mind, ones she could do without right now.
“It’s my favorite painting here.” She gave him a wry glance. “Or rather, it was.”
“Great, isn’t it?” He still held her hand and showed no sign of wanting to return it. Instead, he turned it over and smoothed his thumb over the back, along her third finger, sending chills right to the heart of her sexuality. “No wedding ring. It could be my lucky day.”
She couldn’t believe what he was saying. “After what I just did to you?”
He drew her aside as a couple walked past them. “Definitely. Calm down. I’m fine, and so are you. We just gave a few people some entertainment they weren’t expecting; that’s all.” She couldn’t see anything behind his sunglasses, but she felt his gaze on her, and her body tingled under his regard. A frown creased the space between his brows. “You’re shaken up. Would you like a coffee? This place has a good cafeteria, I’m told.”
What harm could there be in having a coffee with a stranger in a place as busy as the National Gallery Espresso Bar? And she didn’t want to lose contact with him. Not just yet. “Thank you. Yes, I’d like that.” She shot him a sly glance. “Though I don’t usually come here to pick up men.”
His chuckle rumbled low in his chest, and he tugged her hand, urging her toward the stairs.
Somehow they moved toward the exit without her falling over her feet again. She shook back her hair as they reached the door. It had started the day in a tight, businesslike style, but with a headache burgeoning, she’d visited the ladies’ room and taken all the pins out as soon as she’d arrived here. Not that it had helped much. Under her confusion and her arousal, the headache remained, a heavy weight behind her forehead.
Annie hated business travel because she was always “on.” The only way she could get away from it was to go out. So when negotiations on the deal she was in London for stalled, she’d escaped here.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The man’s touch on her elbow made her glance up into his face. “You’re trembling.”
“Yes, honestly. I’m just tired, I suppose.”
He firmed his mouth into a grim line. “I can understand that. I’ve been rather tired myself lately.”
He led her downstairs to the imaginatively named Espresso Bar, under the main hall, and made her sit on one of the comfortable chairs, but she insisted he should sit. “I can handle the coffees. What would you like? They do the fancy stuff here, if you like that.”
She smiled. Real men had espresso, or so her ex kept telling her.
She wondered how he saw anything through such dark lenses. The lighting down here was “atmospheric,” dim enough to make even a fully sighted person think twice before reaching for the sugar, in case it turned out to be salt. She managed well enough and carried the tray over to their table.
He lifted the cups off the tray, not spilling a drop.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Oh!” She looked at him, startled. “You didn’t spill anything. I would have done, and I’m --”
“Not blind?” he finished for her.
She hoped the lighting hid her blush. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“That’s okay. I could see you wondering when I first met you, ‘What’s a blind man doing in an art gallery?’ That’s right, isn’t it?” He quirked a dark brow.
“That kind of thing, yes. I’m sorr --”
He cut off her apology. “I’m not blind yet.”
She tightened her hold on the handle of her cup. “Not yet
?” She didn’t want to hear this.
“The price of vanity. Or something.” His brief laugh held no humor. He waved a hand toward the dark glasses. “This is the result of surgery gone wrong. I had laser surgery to correct my nearsightedness. Usually it’s perfectly safe, but in my case, infection set in.”
Horror rocketed through her. “Oh no!”
“It happens. They warned me about it, and I accepted the risk.” His shrug was jerky. “I fly small aircraft and I wanted to do it bareback, so to speak, so I had the procedure.” He gave a charming, one-sided smile. “It might not be as bad as it looks. On the other hand, I could go blind.” He sipped his coffee, avoiding her sympathetic gaze.
Annie instinctively knew he wouldn’t welcome anything but straightforward sympathy. This man wouldn’t appreciate a gushing response, and she’d bet he’d minimized the situation, for her sake. “I’m so sorry. Was it neglect or a mistake in the operation?”
“Maybe one, maybe the other, or maybe it’s neither of those things.” He flashed that bleak grin again. If he did that any more, he’d break her heart. “I have lawyers looking into it. But there is a one-in-ten-thousand chance this can happen to anyone, so it could be blameless. I don’t care, because blind is blind. Nothing will bring my sight back once it’s gone. I’m taking powerful antibiotics, and either they’ll take care of the problem...or they won’t. I have a scan in a couple of days, and I’ll find out then if I’m going to be lucky and get my sight back.” He paused. “It doesn’t look good.”
He covered her hand with his, warming her shocked soul. “It’s no good worrying. I just take the pills and pray it turns out fine.”
He shouldn’t be comforting her; it should be the other way around. “So you’re allowed to go out?”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t stay home any longer. I was going mad. So I thought I’d take a personal tour and see all the things I love.” Again, the shrug. “One more time. Experience them, as it turns out. I can’t make out most of the details.”
She heard the tremor in his voice before he abruptly stopped speaking, and hastily covered it with chatter to give him time to recover. “So you came here to the National Gallery? It’s one of the places I’d visit in your situation. I’ve wanted to come ever since I first arrived in London. I’m here on business, and until today, I’ve been busy. Busy or sleeping.”
“Business?” He sounded steadier now.
She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I can’t say too much. Confidential and all that.”
“I know. I’m in business myself. It’s not something I can talk about too much either.”
That suited her. All she had on her side was confidentiality. The opposition had a team of experts. “We’ve taken a break.” She forced a smile. “That means I have a few days to spare.” Why had she said that? It made her seem needy. “But I have plans.”
He quirked a brow. “You can spare me a few hours, though, can’t you? I’d love to see the rest of the gallery with you.”
“I came to see the Titian.”
“If we go back, I don’t think they’ll throw us out. Unless you fall over again.”
“The floor is very slippery in the galleries, and I have new shoes on. I should have changed them.”
He laughed. “So we’ll lean on each other. You can stop me from bumping into the walls, and I’ll hold you up.” From what she’d seen, he didn’t need any help. On the other hand, she did.
Her mood lightened. Perhaps it hadn’t been a mistake coming here after all. “I’d like that.” She sipped her coffee. It cost what she’d normally pay for a meal, but it tasted great. “How much can you see of the paintings?”
He put his nearly empty cup down. Froth stained the inside of the wide white cup. “If they’re brightly colored, I can see quite a lot. But I know them anyway. I always come here when I’m unhappy or I need to think. I want to stand in their presence for a while, if you can understand that.”
Oh yes, she could. “I know. They have souls, don’t they?” She usually felt stupid expressing the way she felt about the art she loved, but he seemed to understand.
“They sure do.”
“You don’t sound like a Londoner.”
He chuckled. “No, I don’t. I’m from Texas.”
Before she could stop herself, she blurted, “You’re a cowboy? For real?”
That made him laugh outright, a glorious, full-throated laugh that coaxed a smile out of her. “No, ma’am. My father owns a ranch, and I enjoy spending time there, but that’s a long way from being a cowboy. I’ve never ridden in a rodeo, never herded steers, but I can shoot and I can ride. Not particularly useful in London, though.”
She thought of sun-drenched plains and low-built ranch houses. “It sounds so exotic.”
“Really? I used to think it exotic to visit London and go to the Houses of Parliament. I went to an Ivy League school and visited New York. That’s where I learned to love art galleries.”
“They were a place to keep warm when I couldn’t afford to pay for heating at my bedsit.” She grinned. “I bet you never had that to worry about. If your family could afford a ranch for recreation, they could afford heating.”
“Yeah.” He flexed his long fingers and at last removed his hand from hers. Immediately she missed its warmth. He lifted his chin as if looking at her, but she couldn’t see past the dark lenses. “A bedsit’s a cheap rental room, yes?”
She nodded, then added a hasty verbal affirmative. “I guess I had the opposite to you. I went to a good school, and I didn’t have to work, although I worked for the family business during vacations. I went to galleries to be alone, not to keep warm. But it wasn’t always like that for me. I know what it’s like to be poor.”
He didn’t look poor now. He wore a blue shirt and black wool trousers, all beautifully made, and when she’d tumbled over him, she’d been in the perfect position to notice his Italian loafers were polished to a high shine. He wore the clothes with an unselfconscious confidence, and she’d bet they either came from a high-end shop or were tailor-made. He carried a butter-soft black leather jacket. That would have cost him a pretty penny too. It all added up to an easy, assured manner and an air of control that made her sure he was used to command and used to comfortable living.
Abruptly he held out his hand. “I’m Vin.”
She took his hand and shook it, and all over again she got the odd notion that she didn’t want to let it go. “Annie.”