Nine days later
TWENTY BUCKS says the guy in the Armani suit is hired muscle."
Hired muscle? Katya Dekker looked up from her auction catalogue.
"Where?" She glanced around the outdoor amphitheater, her brow furrowing. She knew what her secretary, Alex Zheng, meant. She knew exactly what he meant, and she could only think of one reason for there to be any "hired muscle" at an art auction: her.
The thought only deepened her scowl.
She followed Alex's gaze across the delicately lit nighttime grounds of the Denver Botanic Gardens, searching through the crowd and the two dozen canopied tropical huts that had been erected for the dining comfort of the evening's guests. She found the "hired muscle" on the edge of a group of people next to the caterer's tent.
He was good, discreet, but she could spot a security detail at a hundred yards--and he had "high-priced bodyguard" written all over him, very high priced.
"What do you think of the suit?" Alex said. "I almost bought that one myself."
"No way, babe. Too structured. Too conservative," she told him, her gaze going over the man in the distance. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, other than his choirboy looks, his shock of silky brown hair, and the alertness of his every move--the dead giveaway. He was quartering the gardens with his gaze, looking for God only knew what. Fund-raising art auctions hosted by the Denver Botanic Gardens were not hotbeds of intrigue.
"Not with my blue silk shirt," Alex countered. "So you don't know him?"
"No," she said, trying to keep her jaw from clenching, trying to hold back the first, faint teasing of the headache she felt coming on. Even for August, the day had been unconscionably hot, and for Denver unbelievably humid, and the night wasn't setting up to be much better--especially now.
A bodyguard. Dammit. She knew who was behind this, just like she knew this wasn't the sort of event that required a bodyguard. Bottles of French wine and magnums of French champagne were being opened by bartenders in tuxedos. White-boxed dinners tied with forest green bows were being delivered to the tables by waiters in tails. Every female patron at the art auction had been given an orchid wrist corsage upon arrival, and each man sported a boutonniere of exotic rain forest leaves and a bit of liana--even the choirboy. Tonight's auction was for the Amazon River Basin Coalition and in honor of the Botanic Gardens' new orchid pavilion. Alex had designed the boutonnieres, his contribution, and they were nothing short of fabulous, very masculine, very primal. They would speak to the Rain Forest God in every man, and to his wallet, according to Alex, who had impeccable taste and instincts--two of the many reasons he was Katya's right-hand man.
His six years with the Los Angeles Police Department were another.
"What about the other man?" he asked. "Next to the Jaguar Gate."
"My mother wouldn't dare," she muttered, biting back a curse and turning toward the Jaguar Gate, a multicolumned, elaborately constructed plywood and papier-mache portico serving as a grand entryway into the party.
There was only one man standing beneath the fierce black cat bridging the last pair of palm tree posts, and he turned away just as she looked at him. All she saw was his back and the champagne flute in his hand as he disappeared into the trees, but that was enough to make the hair on her nape rise in sudden, unexpected awareness.
She hadn't known the first guy, but this one . . .
After a couple of seconds, she let out her breath in a soft rush and told herself to get a grip. Of course she didn't know him. Maybe it was the cut of the stranger's dark hair, longer than most of the men's at the exclusive and rather elegantly conservative soiree, that had sparked her fleeting instant of recognition. Maybe it was his height, or the way he carried himself, or maybe it had been nothing at all.
She'd been wrong before in her life, an inordinate number of times actually, especially about men.
"Your mother would dare anything she thought she could get away with." Alex belied her statement with a short laugh. "As a matter of fact, her latest pork-barreling in Congress was a consummate dare to every budget-watcher in Washington."
Katya cast her secretary an annoyed glance. He did not look like someone who read the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal every single morning of his life--but he did, religiously, usually while drinking a double espresso and wearing his autographed Lakers jersey, which he'd had his tailor integrate into a cinnabar-colored silk robe. His hair was short, jet black, expertly cut, bleached gold on the tips, and moussed to artistic perfection. He had beautiful Asian/American features, a black belt in tae kwon do, and a boyfriend he'd left in L.A. His suit was Armani, his shoes Chinese red, his shirt snowy white and worn open at the throat with a loosely knotted Prada tie.
She didn't know how she was going to keep him with her in Denver, Colorado, or what she was going to do without him when he'd had enough of the former cow town and hightailed it back to Los Angeles.
"That's going to cost you a mocha latte," she said. Growing up in Denver as Senator Marilyn Dekker's daughter, Katya had lived, breathed, and eaten politics every day of her life. As an adult, she didn't touch the stuff. She voted. End of story. That, however, did not dissuade Alex from keeping her informed of every maternal political detail he gleaned out of the newspapers or saw on CNN--and every bit of unwanted news cost him a latte.
"And I'm still up on you by seven for winning the point spread on the Lakers game. The last time you got a mocha latte out of me was before the last Ice Age."
True, but he didn't have to rub it in.
"Mr. Armani Suit and his friend probably don't have anything to do with me. Let's just ignore them, and maybe they'll go away," she suggested, glancing back at her catalogue. She did not want to deal with unwanted bodyguards. Not tonight or any other night. "Our painting is up first. Maybe we should go check and make sure it's still in one piece."
Katya's newest addition to her art dealership business, the Toussi Gallery of Denver, had donated a large, beautiful floral painting by Oleg Henri to the auction. The staff at the Botanic Gardens had picked it up two days ago. It only made sense to go check on the painting before it went up for bid.
But Alex was like a dog with a bone.
"Sorry, luv. You're the only one here worthy of high-caliber security. My guess is your mother sicced the two freelancers on you. Though God knows why, unless she knows something we don't," he said, his tone of voice suggesting she give him her undivided attention until they figured this out. "I guess we could ask her Sunday morning."
"No, we couldn't," Kat was quick to say. Her mother was kicking off her campaign with a brief stop in Denver on Sunday, but there had been no plans for them to get together. Marilyn was too busy--thank God. Stifling a sigh, Katya looked up at him again. "My mother is paranoid."
"About everything," he agreed, tracking the choirboy bodyguard with his gaze. "But this . . . I think this is about your youthful transgressions."
He would bring that up, she thought, feeling the headache start to win.
"Who was it you said you ran into tonight?"
"Ted Garraty," she said flatly, hating the turn of the conversation. "But I didn't exactly run into him. As a matter of fact, I made a point of not running into him."
She'd gone to school with Ted at Wellon Academy in Denver. They hadn't been friends, but Wellon was small, very exclusive, and she and her date had ended up in the same crowd with Ted and his friends on prom night thirteen years ago--a night that had changed her life forever.
"Well, your mother obviously got ahold of the guest list and didn't like it."
Katya rolled her eyes in his direction. "I don't need a bodyguard to protect me from Ted Garraty, let alone two bodyguards."
But on that long-ago prom night, she had needed someone to protect her from Ted and his group of drunken friends.
Her gaze slid to the Jaguar Gate, but just for an instant before she forced her attention back to the catalogue. Just about every gallery in Denver had donated something to the auction, but the Oleg Henri was a true signature piece, and she expected its sale to help launch her into the Denver art world--not that her name wasn't already about as high profile as it got in the Mile High City.
And with that unpleasant thought, she finally did give in to another sigh. God, what an odd night. Seeing Ted had been nothing short of a ten on her weird-o-meter, and the visceral reaction she'd had to the second bodyguard had red-lined the weird-o-meter and hit an easy number one on her Don't Go There, Girlfriend list.
She'd known that returning to her hometown, the location of her "youthful transgressions," had held the inherent risk of zealous parental meddling, but she truly hadn't expected her mother to jump in with both feet at her first event. Marilyn had left her well enough alone in Los Angeles, barring a couple of embarrassing intrusions into her personal life over the last several years. Professionally, though, her mother had been strictly hands off.
But then it was here in Denver, not Los Angeles, that she had been associated with a high-profile, high-society, front-page, scandal-ridden murder of another senator's son. That sort of thing was bound to stir up even the most latent parental instincts, and Marilyn's had been pretty darn ...