He stood out in the chattering crush of art fanciers like a redwood in a stand of scrub pines.
The comparisons struck Karla the instant she saw him. His solid-looking height was not the only feature of his appearance to strike her stunned senses.
Carefully setting her wineglass aside, Karla murmured a distracted word of apology and moved away from the middle-aged couple with whom she had been discussing the vitality and appeal of modern American western art.
Although the redwood posing as a man appeared to be the embodiment of every concept she harbored about western art, it was more than his tall, rugged-looking strength that commanded Karla's undivided attention.
He stood aloof and alone in the midst of the crowded gallery. The slanting rays from the westering Arizona sun streamed through the plate-glass window, bathing his deeply tanned skin in a shower of bronze. His gaze was riveted on the large, unframed, attention-grabbing canvas that hung alone in the center of one wall in the main exhibition room.
The oversized portrait was done in oil, in bold colors applied in even bolder strokes. It depicted an Apache Indian, attired in the garb of the working cowboy and mounted bareback on a powerful horse.
Except for his contemporary sartorial trappings--and his lack of a horse--the man staring so intently at the portrait might well have been staring into a mirror.
Recognition caused a shiver to dance along Karla's spine. Without a speck of doubt, she knew the man's identity. Oblivious of the excited hum of conversation around her, Karla wended a path through the throng to the man's side.
"Mr. Cradowg?" Karla's coolly professional tone revealed nothing of the thrilling sense of anticipation and near awe she was feeling.
"Where did you get it?"
Though she flinched inwardly at the cold harshness of his tone, Karla refused to acknowledge or even admit to feeling intimidated by his abrupt question. Reflexively curling her slim fingers into her soft palms, she set her chin at a determined angle and curved her lips into a small smile.
"I didn't realize it was a self-portrait." Her gaze shifted from his hatchet-hewn features to the similar features captured in oil on the canvas.
"It isn't a self-portrait." His expression didn't alter by a flicker. His voice remained detached, his tone implacable. "Where did you get it?" he repeated.
Annoyance flared inside Karla at the imperious sound of his voice, and a shiver of a different emotion coursed through her. She didn't think to ask him how he knew she was the owner of the new art gallery; she merely accepted as fact that he did know. "I found that painting under a stack of reproductions at a church bazaar. Obviously, the previous owner had no idea of its value. I got it for a pittance." Karla also didn't question the tiny thrill of satisfaction she derived from telling him the truth.
Her satisfaction proved unequal to the fiery gaze he turned on her. An untamed and savage light lurked within the depths of his glittering black eyes. Suppressing an unreasonable urge to raise her hand to protect her exposed throat, she gouged tiny crescents into the skin of her palms with her nails. Enduring that chilling black stare was one of the most difficult tasks Karla had ever set for herself.
"I want it." His black stare pierced her composure.
Fury rushed to her rescue, allowing Karla the strength to repair the breach in her armor. "It's not for sale." She moved her head a fraction with rigidly controlled impatience to indicate the discreet Not for Sale tag taped to the wall directly below the canvas.
Except for a tightening along the line of his jaw, his expression remained closed, unrevealing, and more than a little frightening. Beginning to quail, Karla might have agreed to give him anything he wanted if he hadn't, at that moment, muttered something indiscernible, inspiring a shot of steely resolve into her weakening spine.
"It's not for sale," she repeated in a tone of angry constraint.
The smile that curled his lips was insulting; the six-figure purchase offer that hissed through those curling lips was mind-blowing.
Karla couldn't afford to reject his offer, regardless of how offensively it was presented. She had plunged deep into debt to obtain, stock, and open the small gallery in Sedona. She was painfully cognizant of the fact that she could free herself from indebtedness by accepting his offer. She was even more acutely aware of his smug smile as she shifted her glance between him and the portrait. Nevertheless, quivering with satisfaction, she turned him down, enunciating each word succinctly.
"I'm sorry. It is not for sale."
Anger was too insipid a word to describe his reaction; even fury was too mild a term. Sheer unadulterated rage blazed from his obsidian eyes. Expecting a searing blast when his lips moved, Karla prudently stepped back. In truth, she should have run, for he lashed her with a tongue that dripped frozen acid.
"Somewhat stubborn, aren't you?" His sneer revealed hard teeth that flashed frost white in contrast to his teak-brown tan. "All right." His eyes narrowed. "You want to haggle over price, we'll haggle," he said, returning his drilling stare to her eyes. "But not now." His gaze released her momentarily to sweep the gathering in the small gallery. "I'll be back when we can haggle in private." Refusing her the opportunity to accept, reject, or respond in any way, he whirled around and strode from the gallery.
In a state of shock and apprehension, Karla barely recognized her young assistant's voice, or even her own name until it was anxiously repeated.
Shuddering into awareness, Karla blinked and focused on the young woman's perplexed expression. "Yes, what is it?" she asked distractedly.
"Are you all right?" An odd frown creased her assistant's smooth brow.
Karla forced her stiff tips into a reasonable facsimile of a smile. 'Yes, of course, Anne," she said with an assurance she was light-years away from feeling. "Is there a problem?"
The diminutive woman shook her head vigorously. "No, no problem. There are ..." She broke off to stare at the doorway. "That was Jared Cradowg, wasn't it?" she asked in a tone every bit as oddly strained as her frown.
"Yes," Karla replied tightly.
"I don't believe it! The Jared Cradowg!" Anne's eyes grew round as quarters as she swung her gaze to the large canvas. "The very same Jared Cradowg who painted the portrait practically every person here has offered to buy?"
"Yes, the very same." Karla was forced to push the reply through her gritted teeth.
"Holy sh--" Anne caught back the crude word just in time, glancing around frantically to see if she'd been overheard by the patrons standing nearby.
Rattled by the artist under discussion more than she cared to admit, even to herself, Karla held on to her patience and her even tone of voice. "You were about to tell me something," she prodded.
Anne moved her head in a vague little nod. "Yes, but, my God, Jared Cradowg!"
Interpreting the younger woman's reaction as near adulation for the artist, Karla felt her patience shatter, and her voice carried the jagged edges. "Anne, really! Jared Cradowg may be a famous painter, but he's just a man all the same." And a thoroughly unpleasant man at that, she added to herself. "Now, if you could possibly bring your attention to the business at hand, will you get on with whatever it was you wanted to tell me?" Karla's uncharacteristic display of exasperation finally penetrated the younger woman's bemusement.
"Oh!" Anne blurted out, flushing under the fierce frown on her employer's face. "I'm sorry. There are some people who'd like a word with you." She flicked her hand absently toward the far corner of the room.
Karla's gaze followed the indicated direction, and her eyes widened with surprise and delight. Two women and one man stood in the distant corner, and as Karla's wide-eyed gaze settled on them, they raised their glasses in unison in a silent salute to her.
"I don't believe it!" Karla said in a whisper, unconsciously echoing Anne's exclamation of moments before. Her expression bemused, she began walking quickly toward the grinning trio. "I simply don't believe it!"
Amazement and laughter banished the unsettling image of the rough-hewn and even rougher-voiced painter from her mind. Delighted, she strode into the trio and was immediately caught up in a four-way hugging party. The instant they drew apart, four voices began speaking and blending.
"When I sent out the invitations for the opening, I didn't dream, or dare to hope, any one of you would come, let alone all of you!"
"Miss your opening?"
"Are you kidding?"
"We wouldn't have missed this for anything!"
Karla blinked against the hot sting of tears, and managed a shaky laugh as her gaze devoured the three smiling faces, in which two pairs of eyes were suspiciously bright. The two women were closer to Karla than her own sister, who had sent her good wishes for the opening, but also her regrets. Karla had shared an apartment with these women during the four years of her delayed college sojourn.
"When did you arrive in Sedona?" Karla glanced from one to the other.
"About an hour ago." The response came from Andrea Trask, the woman Karla had dubbed "the innocent one" early on in their acquaintance. "We checked into the motel, then came directly here."
"We?" Karta glanced at the other woman and the man at her side. "But I thought you two were living in Philadelphia." She swung her gaze back to Andrea. "And the last I heard, you were in California."
"Yes," Alycia Halloran--nee Matlock--replied, slanting a smile at her husband of six months. "This wonderful man made the flight arrangements, and we landed in Phoenix thirteen minutes before Andrea arrived. We had to run to her gate to be there when she deplaned."
The wonderful man was the renowned historian and author, Sean Halloran, whom Alycia had met when he'd been invited to do a series of lectures at the small eastern Pennsylvania college the women attended.
"My organizational abilities never fail to impress my adorably unorganized wife," Sean observed dryly. He draped an arm casually around Alycia's shoulders and grunted when she poked her elbow into his rib cage.
All the angry tension the irascible painter had generated drained from Karla and she smiled like a complacent idiot, slipping easily into the camaraderie the four of them had enjoyed during the weeks preceding graduation and Alycia's and Sean's wedding the previous spring.
"You really have an excellent turnout, Karla," Andrea observed, glancing around. "This is some crush."
Karla's smile softened as she gazed at the dreamy-eyed young women she had watched over like a mother hen throughout their four years of college. "Yes," she agreed. "I'm more than gratified by the response, especially considering the number of art galleries there are in this town."
"Only you, Karla," Alycia inserted on a soft chuckle.
Her smile giving way to a frown, Karla shifted her attention to Alycia. "Only me--what?"
Alycia's lips curved into a teasing grin. "Only you would launch a career in a city already bursting with the same kind of business." Understanding and affection glowed from her soft brown eyes. "You always need to test yourself by doing something the hard way."
Karla shrugged and joined in with her friend's compassionate laughter. But Alycia's remark reminded her of what she was supposed to be doing. "And at this moment, I should be testing myself by mingling with my guests." She skimmed her glance over the crowd, and grinned when her eyes returned to her dearest friends. "So, if you three yoyos will excuse me, I'll mingle, and try to charm a healthy number of my guests into purchasing the merchandise on offer."
"We can help," Andrea said eagerly, turning to her companions. "Can't we?"
"Of course we can, and will." Alycia gave a determined nod of her head. "Is there anything in particular you'd like us to do, Karla?"
Karla had to swallow to clear the emotion from her throat before she could answer. She also turned to glance around the room--and blink the mist from her eyes. When she turned back to them, her smile only wobbled a teeny bit. "The place is littered with empty wineglasses and half-eaten canapes. If you wouldn't mind, you could collect the debris. It would save cleaning-up time when this is over and allow us to get out of here that much sooner." Karla paused, then glanced anxiously from one to the other. "You all were planning to have a late dinner with me--weren't you?"
"Oh, Karla, really!" Andrea exclaimed.
"Which means... will you get real?" Alycia laughingly interpreted. "Of course we were planning on taking you to dinner. We have six months to catch up on " She waved her hand to shoo Karla away. "You go to work. Andrea and I will make short shrift of the trash, and"--Alycia smiled sweetly at her husband--"Sean will also mingle ... and very casually mention exactly who he is and how very impressed he is with the excellence of the work displayed and with the charm of his hostess." She fluttered her eyelashes to the accompaniment of her friends' muffled laughter. "Won't you, darling?"
"Naturally." Sean drew himself up to his commanding height of six feet four inches. His composed features visibly fought the grin that twitched the corners of his lips. "I are famous, you know?" He arched one rust-shaded eyebrow imperiously.
"What you are is crazy," Karla said, choking back laughter.
"That, too," Sean said agreeably, shrugging his wide shoulders.
"Shall we get on with it?" Andrea inserted. "If you two get into one of your comedy routines, you'll never make a sale, Karla." She pulled her expression into stern lines, which was one mean feat for her gentle-looking features. "Get busy, Karla, and make damn sure you pass your test."
Muttering, "Yes, Mother," Karla moved away to be swallowed within the ranks of the chattering crowd.
Her friends knew her well, Karla mused, while managing to converse intelligently with several of her guests. Alycia and Andrea even better than Sean. When space was mutually shared, no matter how spacious, it was practically impossible not to know one another. But, Karla reflected, if they knew her, she knew them as well.
Strangely, it had not been their mutual study interests that had drawn the three women together early on in their freshman year of college over four years before. In fact, their interests were very diverse.
Alycia was a history major, and admittedly steeped in the past.
Andrea had taken courses in space and nature sciences, and dreamed of playing a role in manned and unmanned space probes in the future.
Of the three, Karla had her feet planted most firmly in the present. She was definitely a woman of her time, a complex combination of soft femininity and self-willed aggression, vulnerable in her confidence, her strength tempered with flexibility. She had passionately wanted to be an artist, but had come to the realization that passion did not necessarily translate into natural talent and that her work would never be more than adequate. Her flexibility and confidence had allowed her to switch gears in midterm of her junior year and set her sights on a different goal-- that of displaying and selling the works of gifted contemporary artists and artisans from the region whose art she admired most, the American West.
There were times, many in number, when Karla had yearned to pick up a brush and give painting one more shot. On several of those occasions she had actually gone as far as to drag her art supplies from where she had buried them at the back of a closet, only to shove them away again moments later without even unpacking them.
Unlike many men and women, Karla knew herself quite well. She recognized her limitations and knew her strengths. She faced the world without flinching, very simply because she faced the world, and every soul in it, without pretense or affectation.
Since graduating from college the previous spring, Karla had literally lived her life on the run, first scouting out the perfect location in which to open her gallery, then coaxing, cajoling, and even begging artists and craftsmen to allow her to display their work in the small but elegant building she'd acquired in Sedona, Arizona. She had driven herself a hundred times harder than any legendary taskmaster, and she had driven herself deeply into debt. And all her work, all the haggling, and all the indebtedness had been in preparation for this night, this long yearned for, long feared opening night of her very own gallery, which she had appropriately christened Today's West.
Still ruminating, Karla excused herself from one small but enthusiastic cluster of people to drift away and mingle with others. While she was meandering, her glance repeatedly returned to the riveting, imposing, and brilliantly executed portrait in the center of the wall.
The likeness between the artist and his subject was so incredible that Karla questioned the veracity of Jared Cradowg's claim that the work was not a self-portrait.
The features were the same: broad forehead; long, blade-thin nose; high, jutting cheekbones; squared, thrusting jaw. The hair was black-black, with the sheen of moonlight gliding over rippling, inky waters. The eyes were dark and glittering with unrelenting male defiance The lips were perfectly shaped, but thin and unforgiving.
Staring at the canvas, Karla had a memory flashback of the day she had discovered it.
She hadn't looked forward to going to the bazaar the month before; she had felt tired and had longed to sleep in that Saturday morning. But she had promised Anne, who was a member of the church that was holding the fund-raising sale. And so Karla had forced an interested expression onto her face and duly trailed her new assistant around the church basement, perusing the handmade crafts and homemade baked goods on sale. Her interest had perked somewhat when they stopped to glance over a small table with a display of miniatures, but immediately noting the lack of quality in the tiny paintings, Karla had transferred her attention to the stack of reproductions propped against one table leg. She was merely biding her time, waiting for Anne, as she negligently flipped through the paintings. An uncanny sensation, not unlike an electric shock, charged through her arm the instant her fingers touched the oversize canvas. The minute she moved the stack forward for a better look, Karla knew exactly what she had found.
Gazing at the portrait, Karla again experienced the thrill and excitement of discovery she had felt that morning, and again shivered from the same joy of ownership she'd felt after purchasing the canvas. She, Karla Janowitz, possessed an original Jared Cradowg painting. What a pity the man appeared unworthy of the enormous talent he possessed.
The thought brought an image of the man and an echo of his promise, or threat, to return to the gallery. Suppressing a shiver, Karla drew her gaze from the portrait and smiled brightly as she turned to yet another group of guests.
What seemed like aeons later, her feet aching in protest against the spike heels on her strappy sandals, Karla stood, ignoring the aches, laughing and conversing with the eager and receptive western art lovers who had so graciously responded to the invitations she had laboriously painted in the glow of a lamp at midnight.
The stated closing hour of nine came and passed, and still the guests lingered, laughing, talking, and buying. Karla was tired to the point of numbness; satisfaction activated the adrenaline that surged through her body, keeping her upright and animated.
As the hour of ten approached, the guests slowly began to decrease in number. Arrangements were made to package and ship, package and deliver, package and hold for pickup. Finally, Karla ushered the last reluctant-to-leave patron from the gallery. After shutting and locking the door, she slumped wearily against it and closed her eyes. Though the room was in hushed silence, she was aware of the eyes of her friends and her young assistant upon her. As she slowly raised her shadowed eyelids, a triumphant smile lit up her face.
"As objective observers," she said, skimming her gaze over the watchful faces, "would you agree that the opening was a resounding success?"
There was an instant of silence; then Karla was pulled away from the door by her laughing friends, to be hugged, kissed, and congratulated.
"It was fantastic, Karla!" Andrea exclaimed.
"You 're fantastic, Karta," Alycia laughingly corrected Andrea.
"I'm profoundly impressed," Sean said sincerely.
"And I feel privileged to be a small pan of it," Anne said softly.
Karla gave her assistant a look of surprise. "A small part?" She shook her head sharply. "Anne! You have worked like a Trojan helping me to get this all together." She hugged the small women without embarrassment. "And now it's time to celebrate," she announced as she stepped back. She quickly made the introductions she had neglected to make earlier. When the flurry of "How do you do" and "Nice to meet you" was over, Karla glanced around the room and made a face. "We can finish whatever needs to be done tomorrow," she told Anne decisively. "Let's go to dinner."
"Dinner?" Anne repeated, gazing at Karla as if she'd just suggested they dance naked in the streets.
"Yes, dinner," Karla said. "You know, food, drink, conversation, relaxation?"
Though she smiled, Anne shook her head vigorously. "Not me. I'm too tired to even think about food... or any of those other things. All I want to do is go home and drop into bed."
Sean heaved an exaggerated sigh. "These young people just can't keep up the pace. What's this world coming to?"
Rolling her eyes, Alycia smiled at Anne. "Don't mind him, he has a flair for the dramatic. Can we drop you somewhere?"
"No, thank you." Anne returned the smile. "I have my own car." She hesitated, then leaned closer to Alycia and spoke in a stage whisper. "Dramatic or not, I think your husband is as handsome and imposing as Jared Cradowg."
"Thank you," Sean's face was a study in amused confusion. "I think. But who is--" That was as far as Karla allowed him to go before interrupting.
"Am I the only who who's starving?" she cried in a voice that sounded slightly strangled. "Anne, good night. We're leaving--if you don't mind locking up?"
Anne gave her employer an odd look, but readily agreed. "Not at all. I'll see you in the morning."
"Right." Making believe she was unaware of the baffled expressions on the faces of her friends, Karla collected her purse and three-quarter-length cape. Heading purposefully for the door, she called, "Let's move out, troops, I'm famished."
"All right, Karla, tell all," Alycia demanded, in the same teasing manner the three women had exacted information from one another while sharing an apartment. "Who, exactly, is Jared Cradowg?"
They were seated at a round table in one of the finest steak house restaurants in Sedona. The decor was underplayed elegance, and the ambiance was relaxing. The conversation from the other late diners in the intimate room was pleasantly muted. Feeling trapped, Karla took a sip of her champagne cocktail and considered how to reply.
"He's no one, really." Her voice and shrug were casual--too casual; her friends were immediately suspicious.
"A friend?" Andrea said teasingly.
"A male friend?" Alycia inquired hopefully.
"A lover?" Sean asked bluntly.
Karla choked on her drink. "Lover!" She sputtered. "Jared Cradowg?" She shuddered. "The man's a throwback to the Stone Age!"
Karla glared at the three grinning faces. "Yes, really. And, yes, indeed. And, no, not interesting."
Karla eyed her three tormentors balefully and took a cautious sip of her drink. She was well and truly trapped. Without a shred of doubt, she knew they'd tease her unmercifully until she told them who Jared Cradowg was. Karla was mildly surprised that none of the three had recognized his name, especially Sean, who possessed a keen appreciation of western art. As if he'd read Karla's thoughts, Sean suddenly snapped his fingers.
"Cradowg." He repeated the name softly. "Spelled C-r-a-d-o-w-g--but pronounced 'Craddock'... right?"
"Yes," she admitted tightly.
Karla sighed in defeat. "Yes, Jared Cradowg, the painter."
"Is he famous?" Andrea asked.
"Now that you've cleared up the spelling and pronunciation, I do remember the name," Alycia said, turning to her husband.
"Wait a minute." Sean narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "That large painting of the Apache Indian," he said in a musing tone. "It's a Cradowg, isn't it?"
"Yes " Karla admitted.
"And you were talking to a man right before Anne told you we were at the gallery," Sean recalled aloud. "Was that chiseled giant Jared Cradowg?"
"You mean that deeply tanned hunk?" Andrea asked, eyes widening.
"The one whose face appeared to be chipped from the side of a cliff?" Alycia said in a tone of wonder.
"Yes!" Karla clapped her hand over her mouth and glanced around guiltily. "Yes, yes, yes," she chanted softly. "Now, will you please drop it?"
"Drop it?" Andrea frowned.
"Are you kidding?" Alycia arched her dark eyebrows.
"Why are you so uptight?" Sean asked silkily.
"I'm not uptight." Karla lifted her chin.
Karla laughed. She couldn't help herself; it was all so familiar. Even being badgered by them felt good. "I honestly don't know the man." She held up a hand, palm out, to stave off another round of one-word barbs. "Tonight was the first time I ever laid eyes on him," she explained. "And I couldn't have talked to him more than ten minutes."
"I don't think I understand." Andrea frowned again.
"Don't feel like the Lone Ranger," Alycia muttered.
"He must have made some impression," Sean observed shrewdly.
"Yes, he did. He annoyed the hell out of me," Karla confessed. "He was arrogant, rude, and insulting."
Andrea's gentle eyes flashed fire. "What did he say to upset you?"
Alycia's chin angled militantly. "How dare he insult you!"
Sean's back stiffened. "Would you like me to teach him some manners?"
A warm, cared-for feeling spread through Karla, banishing her anger, which had been rekindled by talking about the artist. "No, thank you, Sean, but I appreciate the offer." She smiled wryly. "And 'offer' is the key word" Before she could be bombarded with questions, she quickly explained. "Mr. Cradowg made me an offer for the Apache Indian painting. He became rude and insulting when I refused his offer."
"You own the painting!" Sean was suitably impressed.
Karla laughed. "Yes, I own it. And I have no intentions of giving it up, not even to its illustrious and ill-tempered creator." She sighed with relief when she noticed the waiter approaching their table, balancing a loaded tray on the palm of one hand. "Oh, wonderful!" she exclaimed brightly. "I do believe I'm being rescued by the entree. Do you suppose we could find a topic of conversation during dinner that might be more conducive to digestion?"
The subject of one Jared Cradowg was discreetly dropped. But the man himself was not forgotten, at least not by Karla. Long after she had parted company with her friends, when she was curled into a comfortable position in her bed, the memory of Jared Cradowg's promise to return to the gallery in the morning made her restless with anger... and tingly with anticipation.