She's the daughter and granddaughter of former US Presidents--a true American princess who grew up in the White House. Anxious to escape the climate of American politics, she's gone to Europe in an attempt to have a life of her own. But when her brother wins his party's nomination, a target has been put on her back and she's once again trapped in a bubble of security, conspiracy, and isolation. Someone wants her dead. All she wants is her freedom. What lengths will someone go to control the office of President of the United States? Is there anywhere on earth where she can truly be safe from those who hunt her? Power...it's a heady drug.
Enjoy the first two chapters of One True Thing...-->
The tabloids had it all wrong—Eric hadn't fallen overboard, she'd pushed the jerk and had enjoyed watching his arrogance transform to terror as he'd fallen head over heels into the Mediterranean Sea.
"For someone who wants to be taken seriously, this kind of drama undermines you every step of the way." Cleo stormed around the room waving her arms above her gray head while her long red skirt flowed around her legs.
Vanessa leaned against the wall and tried hard to give a damn what the papparazzi said. She'd fled to Europe for some semblance of a life of her own and, for the most part, had succeeded. She'd attended art school in Paris before building a home in a small bungalow in the French countryside to work on her sculptures. She'd distanced herself from her famous American family as much as she could, but as the daughter and granddaughter of American presidents, anonymity eluded her.
Politics bored her to tears, but now that her oldest brother had chosen to run for president himself, the press wanted to know more about his mysterious sister who had once blatantly given the public the finger from the front steps of the White House.
"Aren't you a little too old to be acting like the spoiled heiress?" Cleo faced her, hands on her hips and a frown on her narrow lips. "You're thirty years-old—"
"I know exactly how old I am, I'm not stupid." She pushed away from the wall and stared out the windows that looked out onto the streets of Barcelona, Spain. "I'm not going to let anyone ruin this moment for me. What don't you understand about that?" She looked over her shoulder at the one woman who had become closer to her than her own mother over the years. "This show could be my ticket into the art world—it's more important to me than some actor taking a plunge off the side of a yacht. It's not like he died. The last I heard, he recouperating with a few models back in New York."
"Is also doing fine without me around to embarrass them." She rolled her shoulders back and sighed. "Can we drop this?"
"You know we can't. There's more security now because of the threats against you." Cleo softened her approach and stepped toward her. "Vanessa—"
"More security." She bit her lower lip and pushed her hands through her hair.
She'd hoped that some of the attention would fall away when her father had finished his second term as president, but she couldn't travel far enough to escape the bratty image she'd created when she was too young to know better. Wild parties with even wilder men, most of whom were actors on the A-list that drew the very crowd she'd claimed to despise. Friends had called her out on her boldness, accused her of wanting the notoriety more than she'd admit. So she'd run from them, too, only to find herself in Europe on the arm of prince or two who invariably broke her unbreakable heart. As a result, she'd become an American Princess that people adored for her irreverent spirit and wandering ways.
Somehow she'd fallen into the trap of her own creation.
But living in France had mellowed her and she'd hoped that the public would allow her a fresh start as an artist whose success or failure depended solely on merit.
No such luck.
Kidnapping chatter...that's what they called it. With both her father and grandfather heavily into global humanitarian rights and her brother now on a quest for the Oval Office, terrorist activity had zeroed in on her as the weak link. Last week she'd been summoned home to spend the summer on Martha's Vineyard with the family, safely tucked away where the Secret Service could protect her. No one had cared that she'd had the chance of her lifetime within her grasp.
Her sculptures were on display in Barcelona and she'd signed a contract to work as a restorer at the museum for six months. If it worked out, maybe they would extend her stay. Her fingers would touch the creation of geniuses, an opportunity no artist could resist.
"No one is going to hurt me, Cleo. I'm not a part of that world of theirs anymore. What leverage could I possibly be to anyone? I'm an artist." She looked at her scarred hands that had been sliced by the tools of her trade, not exactly a pampered socialite.
"You don't mind the perks of your notoriety when it suits you, do you? Yachts, famous actors in your bed, trust fund money supporting your studio in France...don't be a hypocrite, Vanessa."
With a laugh, she nodded. "You got me there. Nailed it. I'm not denying anything you've said, not one word of it. I'm letting them follow me around, aren't I? Hell, I even agreed to them remodeling my home for their security, am staying in this hotel of your choosing...what more do you want?"
Sick of being schooled like a girl, she turned her back on Cleo and walked past the two Secret Service agents who stood at the door. She slammed the door and stormed down the hallway, conscious of the men in black following her.
Stress ran high between all of them, a tangible force that pulsated like a living thing.
She needed out.
Growing up under constant scrutiny had instilled a few skills in her that most young women never learned. One of her greatest accomplishments was the ability to slip a tail, especially when she'd purposely hired a few shady people to stash things like motorcycles in obscure alleys around the city.
She shoved her long, auburn hair under a helmet before glancing over her shoulder to make sure her shadows hadn't found her. Satisfied, but knowing they'd find her in time, she gunned the motorcycle and cruised down the alley. With Barcelona traffic working to her advantage, she darted into the fray and headed out of the city as fast as she could.
Dust tossed behind the wheel of the motorcycle as it sped along the hills along the outskirts of the city. Vanessa focused her eyes on the narrow road ahead and concentrated on only one thing: escape.
Floral scents floated through the air, ripe and sweet. Alone on the country road, freedom pumped through her heart and soul. No one knew where she was and that’s how she liked it.
Nerves jumped beneath her skin despite the rush of the motorcycle beneath her and the serenity of the surroundings. She knew this moment was as fleeting as a snowflake in spring.
A yellow Fiat angled hood first from the ditch in the distance. Its driver kicked the tire and smacked the door with his fist.
She stopped the motorcycle with a roar of the engine and a cloud of dust. Her grin transformed into a full-fledged smile when the man coughed and waved his hand in front of his face as if warding off a horde of stinging bees.
“Damn it. What the hell?” he cursed in English.
American, she surmised by the accent. A really sexy, dirty, and angry American. Her gaze travelled over the ripped jeans and tattered T-shirt covering a hard body that made her squirm on the motorcycle seat.
“Car trouble?” She removed the sunglasses and tucked them into the collar of her T-shirt.
“Observant, aren’t you?” He rubbed dust from his face before turning to meet her gaze.
Her grip tightened on the handlebars at the intensity burning in his chocolate-colored eyes. Ebony hair fell in waves across his forehead and over his ears. A blotch of grease smeared across his left cheekbone and a drop of blood dotted the corner of his mouth. Various layers of dirt and other substances she didn't care to analyze stained the front of his T-shirt. Bronzed arms folded across his chest when she continued staring.
She smiled wider, gaze moving down the length of his long, jean-encased legs. He crossed his booted feet, leaned back against the side of the tiny car and returned the scrutiny.
“Need a ride?” All the warnings she had ever heard about strange men came shouting from the recesses of her mind along with echoes of her conversation with Cleo about kidnappers and terrorists. She ignored them. “Looks like you’ve had a bad morning, or is it the ending to a good night?”
“Both.” He smiled then, erasing the brooding expression from his face.
“Your lip is bleeding.”
“Must have bit it.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his lips and shook his head. Looking over his shoulder at the bent-up frame of the car, he grimaced. “Piece of junk.”
"No cell phone?"
His frown deepened when he met her gaze. "I didn't think I'd need it so left it at home. I mistakenly assumed this would be quick."
Home? Not a hotel? She chewed the inside of her lip while she contemplated his dirty appearance and weighed her options. Her conversation with Cleo fresh in her mind, she looked around at the desolate countryside for kidnappers waiting to toss her into a van. Not seeing anything more threatening than a cloud, she returned her attention to the handsome man covered in dirt.
"You don't need to bother with me. I can walk. It's only a few miles and the time alone might do me good." He flashed her a smile that felt friendlier than any she'd seen in a long time. "I can burn off my aggravation."
“I can give you a ride if you need one. I don't mind.”
He shoved both hands into the back pockets of his jeans and glanced between her, the empty road and the car. Muttering beneath his breath, he leaned through the open door of the car, retrieved a leather bag that he slung diagonally across shoulder and chest before slamming the door closed with a crooked grin.
“I need to go about five more miles up the road. Sure you’ve got the time? Won’t your husband be wondering where you’ve gotten off to this early in the morning?” He walked to her, gaze drifting over her face and down the length of her.
“Oh, I’ve got people wondering where I’ve gotten off to, but none of them are a husband. I’m Vanessa.” She extended her hand to him and laughed at his raised eyebrows.
“Dominic, but my friends call me Nic.”
Hands connected, smiles froze. Heat. Sizzle. Zap.
"Nice to meet you, Nic." Fantasies of what he'd look like naked sprang to mind, much to her surprise. She'd met more than her fair share of good looking men, but rarely had a simple handshake stirred a wild-mad-dance of desire in her gut.
“What are you doing out this way so early in the morning?” he asked.
“Riding my bike.” She yanked free from his touch and slipped the sunglasses back in place.
By the way his eyes devoured her face—rather than the motorcycle—she assumed the compliment and flashed him her widest smile. “It gets me where I need to go.”
“I bet it does.”
“I don’t have much time before I need to be back in Barcelona. Get on, Nic.” She patted the seat behind her. Inexplicable sensations of expectation crackled through her nervous system like a million fireworks exploding at once.
“How do you know I’m not some bandit who’s been waiting to waylay an innocent citizen on this lonely stretch of road?” He narrowed his dark eyes at her. A trace of a smile curved his lips.
“Innocent citizen? What gave you the impression of innocence?”
“I’m going to get you dirty.”
“I like getting dirty every now and then.”
“I guess today’s my lucky day.” In one move he was behind her, hands moving from back of the bike to her hips then off again. “Keep going up the road until you get to a sign saying Villa Piazza. It’ll be on the left.”
Awareness pricked her skin like thorns beneath the thin T-shirt that separated his body from hers. She straightened her spine and maneuvered the motorcycle back onto the road. It had been awhile since a stranger had had this kind of effect on her. At thirty-one, she knew she was too young to be jaded, but that’s how she felt more often than not. Most of the men she met wanted the status of being seen with the Vanessa Warren, but this man had no idea who she was or the wealth and power her name carried.
His hands moved to her hips when she increased the speed. Squeezed.
What the hell? Why not push it a little faster? She smiled against the wind slapping her face and bent forward. She heard him laugh against her back, hands linking in front of her waist.
The outlook for the day had definitely improved. Nic smiled and held onto the woman situated between his thighs. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the moment. Hands around her waist, her body snug against his, he fought the urge to tighten his hold. He reminded himself that she was simply a good samaritan who'd helped him out of a jam. No more. No less. But for the next ten minutes or so, who could blame him for enjoying the ride?
He opened his eyes and stared at the toned arms steering the bike. When she hunched forward, he could see the shape of her back molding into a thin waist encased in faded jeans. He wondered what color hair went with the emerald eyes he had seen before the sunglasses had been put back in place. Her emerald eyes, dimples and a smile that could melt the Arctic Circle—and the fact that she drove a motorcycle as fast as he had back in his teenage days—intrigued him.
He hadn't been intrigued by a woman—by any other human being actually—in a very long time.
Trees heavy with summer foliage arched over the entrance to the Villa Piazza. The sign was new, but the villa was not. He had bought the property to restore it into an exclusive resort. Dilapidated stone walls crumbled onto the gravel drive and framed fields that stretched for miles. Vanessa maneuvered the motorcycle over ruts and skirted a few stones without mishap, slowing the bike only as much as needed to prevent catastrophe.
“You live here?” she asked, stopping in front of the windowless building with chipped shudders and rusted railings protruding around the terrace.
“I stay in a room in the back that’s not so…airy.” He stayed put, hands around her waist and looked at the scaffolding partially covering the walls. In his mind, he saw what it would become, not what it was.
Rose bushes overgrown from lack of care lined the walkway leading to the entrance. A truck piled with ladders and forms blocked the view of the greenhouse. Voices and the sound of hammers echoed to them from the hollows of the building.
“You’re working here then?”
“It’s going to be a resort one day. Use your imagination.”
“I can see it.” She unwound her long limbs from the bike, stretched her arms behind her back and then pulled off the helmet. Hair the color of autumn leaves cascaded down her shoulders. Sunlight shimmered in the highlights, turning them gold when she moved toward the entrance, helmet dangling from her fingertips.
When he didn’t follow, she turned, a grin twisting her lips. “Show me around for a minute? Or will you get into trouble?"
“I think I can manage it.” Ah, so she thinks I’m an employee rather than the boss, this could be fun. “We’ll take a quick look inside, but we’re in the process of tearing down a few walls so it’s not too safe. Then I’ll show you around back.”
“So it’s going to be a resort? Piazza… I’ve heard the name before. Yes, they own the hotel where I'm staying in the city.” She flung the helmet back to the motorcycle without taking her eyes from the structure towering above her. “Good taste. The developer must be artistic to visualize what this place could be with a little work.”
“He’s got great vision.” Nic watched her take the steps two at a time and grinned at the view. “So you think you see the potential of this place, do you?”
“I’ve been known to be creative.” She winked.
Temptation ripped at his gut. Fascination sparked his mind. Not trusting himself to respond like a gentleman, he led her to the main corridor.
Tarps lined the marble floor. A stained glass dome of roses allowed colored sunlight to illuminate the dust of the foyer.
“Nic! Where the hell have you been?” A man the size of a linebacker with shaggy blond hair covered with gray dust appeared to his side.
“One minute, Vanessa. I need to talk to Mike.” By the sympathetic expression in her eyes, he knew she thought he was in trouble. Grinning at the idea, he pulled Mike a fair distance from her. “I couldn't get Pam's car to budge. We'll need to tow it later. I must have left my cell phone around here somewhere. I’m going to show Vanessa around and then I’ll meet you in the greenhouse.”
“The architect arrived early. Pam’s having a nervous breakdown that you’re not here, despite the fact that she’s the one who managed to crash her car in the—"
“Tell her I’m here and to start the meeting without me, that's why I sent her back here with my car. Remind her of that. You and she can handle things for a few minutes, I’m sure.” He watched Vanessa peek beneath a tarp along one of the walls and smile at the mural that he’d covered last week.
“Who’s that? She looks familiar.” Mike squinted in her direction and rubbed his chin. “I know I’ve seen her before…She's an actress or something.”
“She saved my ass from having to walk back here. I’m giving her a look around then she needs to get back to Barcelona, people are expecting her. An actress, huh?” He squinted at her profile and frowned.
“A lot of information for someone you just met. Take your time. I’ll tell Pam I haven’t seen you yet and let her take the lead with the architect.” Mike winked and disappeared behind more tarps draped over an arching doorway.
“How many bedrooms?” she asked, looking up the curving staircase.
“Bedrooms?” He rubbed sweaty palms against his hips to stop himself from touching her—and, damn it, he ached to touch her. Maybe he just wanted to see if she was real, he didn't know, but the compulsion grew stronger by the second.
“If this is going to be a resort, there must be a lot of rooms. How many?”
Innocent question. Damn, he'd hoped it was an invitation for a quickie with a stranger. He shook his head at his thoughts and followed her gaze to the staircase. “Fourteen, more of a boutique experience. Personal attention for every guest. Seclusion for those who don’t want to be bothered by the masses.”
“Isn’t it tragic that people require seclusion and protection from the masses?” Head bent, she traced her fingers along the mahogany rail of the staircase and walked through the tarp Mike had disappeared through moments ago. "Price of fame, they say. What they don't realize is that sometimes people are famous for reasons out of their control."
He wondered at the sadness that had crept into her voice and the wistful expression on her face. “Where are you from, Vanessa?”
“Originally?” She bit her lip, the wild confidence of earlier transitioning into modesty when she met his gaze.
“Yeah, originally.” He leaned against a dusty wall and crossed his ankles, not anxious to hurry the tour.
"Most recently? Spain." She looked away from his gaze and lifted another tarp. "I'm renovating a place in town...while staying at the hotel...so I guess that makes me a local for at least a little while. I'm going to be working at the museum doing art restoration."
"You're a painter?"
“A sculptress. I have an exhibit later today actually, which is one reason people are probably having fits right now wondering where the hell I am.” She shook her hands at her sides as if ridding her body of excess energy. "It's probably going to be a spectacle, nothing like I envisioned at all." She grimaced and looked him in the eye. "Sorry. That sounds negative. It's an honor. I'm grateful to be here."
"No, you don't sound negative or ungrateful. If you were, you'd be back in the city soaking up all the attention instead of running away to the countryside for some peace." He frowned at the way she'd automatically covered her authentic feeling with a canned response. Squinting, he remembered Mike's assumption and examined her face more closely. For someone whose resorts catered to the rich and famous, he should really make it a point to know who's-who, but the truth was he didn't really give a damn. He relied on other people to do the schmoozing.
"These murals are spectacular," she whispered, holding the tarp over her head and twisting to the side to allow the natural light from behind them to filter over the wall. "Please tell me that you're going to restore rather than destroy them. Do you know who the artist might be? How old are they?"
"I don't know yet." He gripped the edge of the tarp and stepped beneath it with her. "Maybe you can help restore them? You said you were working at the museum. If not you, then perhaps you will meet someone who could help us out."
"Maybe, wouldn't that be amazing? I'd love to work on something this magnificent." She caught her lower lip between her teeth without taking her gaze from the faded painting of what appeared to be a horse. "I'm better with sculptures, but I could at least do some research on the property for you, if you'd like. Or for Mr. Piazza if he's into this sort of thing."
He couldn't stop staring at her profile. "Yeah, he's into this sort of thing."
She met his gaze and smiled. "How many more are there?"
"Quite a few, not all will be saved, but we'll do our best." He ached to drop the tarp, press her against the wall, and kiss her breathless.
I need to get out more. I'm losing my common sense.
He cleared his throat and stepped away from her.
“Have you been showing your work throughout Europe? You look familiar. Mike thought he recognized you earlier.”
She stopped snooping, shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, and looked him in the eye. "I should go, let you get back to work."
"I'm not done with the tour." His heart did a backflip at the intensity burning in her eyes. "Should I know you?"
"I don't know, should you?" She tilted her head to the side and looked him square in the eye.
He folded his arms across his chest and struggled to think straight. He couldn't explain why she rattled his nerves, but she'd definitely rocked him off center. He'd met famous women before, had created an empire from catering to the elite, and, technically, he probably qualified for that title himself if he cared to admit it, but he felt more comfortable with a tool belt strapped to his waist rather than having his arm draped around some socialite.
Yet, right now in this moment, he wished like hell he wished he'd paid more attention to the world at large. Who are you? he thought, proud of himself for not blurting out the question.
“How long have you been working here? You’re obviously an American, so why work in Spain? Running from the law or something?”
“It's a complicated answer and not one I'm willing to give right now."
"My, aren't you mysterious?" She raised an eyebrow, her gaze raking over him with a renewed curiousity that made his skin shiver.
He watched her tongue lick her lip and cleared his throat. “Thirsty?”
“Follow me.” He didn’t know why he chose to reach for her hand, but damn if her skin didn’t feel good against his palm. “I think we’ve got something here, juice or water…” He opened the mini-fridge that had been plugged into a generator. Beer. Nothing but beer. “Um…”
“Beer sounds good,” she said, peering over his shoulder and grinning.
“It’s nine in the morning.”
Interesting woman. Dangerous, I think. He handed her a Heineken. When she opened it with the hem of the wrinkled black T-shirt, he laughed.
“Who are you?” he asked, fascination amplifying by the second.
“Forgot my name already? How insulting.” Lifting the bottle to her lips, she winked.
“No, I mean…nothing.” What? Am I going to tell her that she intrigues me? That I want to take her to dinner sometime? Get to know her better? I don't date random women who pick me up on motorcycles. Or any other woman for that matter.
“Working for the Piazzas, you must travel a lot. Where in the States are you from?” She propped her hip against the granite counter top covered in layers of dust and plaster chips. She didn’t seem to care when she looked at him, beer bottle dangling from fingertips, eyes half-closed and assessing.
“Chicago, originally. Haven’t been back there in a long time, though.”
"An ex-pat? Me, too, or at least that's the idea. I'll probably be back sooner or later. It's inevitable, no matter how much I fight it."
"Why fight it?"
Something unidentifiable flickered in the depths of her eyes. She tilted her head to the side as if captivated by him—as if he were an exhibit in a museum that she thought out of place.
They stared at one another. Attraction pulled at him with sharp claws. Outside of building the next world-renowned resort, nothing and no one had interested him in years. Business had blotted out all other passions. Nothing else gave him that rush, that surge of adrenaline that watching a piece of overgrown land grow into a luxurious resort gave him. Nothing. He wondered—only from time to time—why. A gypsy, his mother called him. Restless soul, said his father.
But Vanessa distracted him from the business around him and the meeting going on in his absence. He didn't want to be anywhere else but here.
“Do you ever get into Barcelona or do you spend all of your time working?” The question was barely above a whisper and snapped him out of his reverie.
“I’m going to be in town tonight. There's a party I’m being forced to attend.” Don’t ask her to go. She probably has a party of her own following her exhibit. Think, man.
He tossed the now empty bottle into a nearby trashcan.
“Forced by whom?” She finished her beer and mirrored his action.
“Family. My uncle lives in Italy, but everyone has chosen to meet in Barcelona as a way of forcing me to attend, I hear. The party is being thrown in his honor. ” He shrugged and folded his arms across his chest. Why he'd given her all that information, he had no idea. A woman like this obviously had plans. What had she said about people waiting for her back in town?
“Ah, well…” She shrugged and turned away. “I know all about family obligations. I should probably be going. Sorry about your car.”
“Not mine. I was trying to fix it for a friend.” He followed her outside and once again marveled at the light playing in the length of her dark auburn hair shaded with hints of caramel from where the sun had worked its magic.
He wanted—well, he wasn’t sure what he wanted—but he knew that he didn’t want her to leave yet. They walked along an empty swimming pool dusted with fallen leaves and debris at its bottom.
“You should get back to work before your boss fires you. Thanks for the tour.” She hesitated at the edge of the empty pool and chewed her lower lip. “I like it here. It's peaceful. Mind if I come back? See how much progress you’ve made? I'll see what I can find out about the murals.”
“I’d like that. Just ask for Nic. Someone will find me.” His heart soared with the possibility that she'd return.
“Thanks, Nic.” Head bent, she walked around the edge of the villa through thigh-high grass covering a broken stone path.
“How long are you going to be staying at the Casa Magnifico?” He caught up to her, his stride matching her own.
“How did you know I was staying at the Casa Magnifico?” She stopped, entire body stiffening as if jolted by electricity.
“You said you were staying at the hotel the Piazzas renovated in Barcelona so—"
“Yes, yes, that's right. I'd forgotten I'd mentioned that. Just until the end of the week. I’m doing some renovations of my own on a small house near the museum.” She slipped sunglasses over her eyes. “Nothing as grand as this, though.”
“Thanks for the ride.” God, I want to kiss her like I've never wanted to kiss anyone. Grab her, kiss her, fall into the grass and touch her. He swallowed hard and questioned his need to know her. “Good luck with your art show today.”
“Exhibit.” She closed the distance between them in two strides. “I know I shouldn’t do this, but there are so many things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have. What’s one more?”
She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, stood on tiptoes until they were eye-to-eye and kissed him. Just like that. Sweet. Hot. Fast. Before he could react, she released him and stepped away. Without looking back, she strode to the motorcycle and swung her leg over the seat.
He could no longer breathe. He watched her stuff her hair beneath the helmet and drive away without saying good-bye.
Vanessa. His tongue licked his lips still sweet with the taste of her. He had a sudden interest in art that had eluded him until this very moment.
Perhaps she hadn't been so clever after all. The same black sedan had been following her once she'd reached the city limits despite her abrupt twists and turns. Heart thudding in her ears, she steered the motorcycle down an alley.
Being a Warren came with a downside...and an upside. She parked the bike on the sidewalk in front of the narrow house she'd bought for her stay in Spain. She loved it exactly the way it was and had had the means to buy it—that was the upside. The renovations needed to accomodate the added security—that was the downside. Keeping her helmet on and straddling the seat, she looked over her shoulder in time to see the same sedan turning the corner onto her street.
No coincidence in that.
"Fuck it." She gripped the handlebars and gritted her teeth. Common sense warred with innate rebellion.
Deciding to play it safe, she shut off the motorcycle, gave the car a lingering glare, and walked inside her soon-to-be home where she knew Special Agent Clarence of the Secret Service oversaw the security enhancements.
Standing in the entrance of the old house, she couldn't help but think of Nic and the beautiful murals he'd uncovered. She yanked off the helmet and grinned at one of the construction workers before walking into the room housing the agents sent to keep her safe.
"Ms. Warren? We've been tearing apart the city looking for you. How did you lose Edmond and Blake?" Clarence asked, obviously taken aback by her sudden appearance.
If she confessed to thinking she'd been followed, all sorts of hell would be unleashed. If she kept quiet, then potential kidnappers might be parked outside.
"I hate this," she muttered more to herself than him. "I went for a ride and—"
"Someone followed me here, I think. There's a black sedan—"
"Get away from the door." He shoved her behind him and looked out the window. "I don't see anyone."
"They were there." She shoved a restless hand through her hair. "Or maybe it was nothing. You all have me so jumpy I freak out at my own shadow these days."
"So jumpy that you ditch your protection detail to go for a ride?" He turned his sharp blue eyes on her and shook his head. "Ms. Warren—"
"I know. I hear you. I wanted some air, that's all."
Clarence sighed and glanced down the street again before closing the door. "You need to see something."
He led her down the hallway past layers of dust into a room that had originally been a small bedroom but now served as a security mecca. Computer screens showed the various security cameras placed throughout the house and the dual terraces. Two other men nodded at her but remained silent while Clarence sorted through emails.
"Here. Look at this. You're more of a visual person, aren't you?" He stepped aside and gave her access to the computer in front of him.
At least a dozen emails—all threats against her—greeted her eyes. Gruesome death threats accompanied with photos taken as recently as last night.
A pit grew in her stomach at the realization that these people were out there ready to kill her to prove a point.
But what point?
"Can't you trace the emails?" she asked, voice weaker than she would have liked.
"We have several agencies trying to do that, ma'am, but these people are pros. They don't want to be found." He stared at her until she squirmed in her seat. "You'll be able to move in here the day after tomorrow. It will be more secure than the hotel."
At least he hadn't tried to convince her to return to the States. With a sigh, she nodded, her thoughts wistfully returning to the dilapidated resort where Nico worked. She'd had no business going there and possibly leading murderers in his direction.
"Let's see what we can do to speed that time frame up." She cleared her throat and pushed away from the desk. "I start my job next Monday. It's important to me, even if none of you understand that. I'll leave the bike out front. Can one of you give me a ride back to the hotel, please?"
"I'll take you," Clarence said before glancing at the other agents in the room. "Let everyone know that Cardinal is in our possession."
Vanessa paused again to look at the construction underway and sighed. It would be beautiful, of that she had no doubt, but she also hoped it would be serene. Perhaps she played the part of reckless socialite, but her heart yearned for a more predictable and cozy life devoid of Special Agents and papparazzi.
She remained silent on the drive to the hotel despite the wild fluttering of her heartbeat. In only a few hours, her sculptures would be revealed to the art world she so desperately wanted to join. Already critics speculated that she'd bought her way in, but she hadn't. She'd earned the right to this showing and it terrified her that her dreams may be ripped to shreds by people with ulterior motives.
What if the critics hate everything I've done? What if I suck? She dropped the back of her head against the car seat and moaned.
"Did you get a good look at the sedan following you?" Clarence asked.
"Just a black car with tinted windows, large, matched me turn for turn once I returned to the city limits," she muttered, mind distracted with thoughts of sculptures.
"Returned? Where did you go?"
"I just went for a ride, no particular destination."
"I've known you since you were a teenager, Vanessa...you're hiding something." Clarence smiled without looking at her.
She grinned, appreciating the fact that he had kept many of her secrets when he could have ratted her out to his bosses or her father back in the day. "I needed some wide open spaces and ended up at this place called Villa Piazza. I may try my hand at restoring some murals there."
"Villa Piazza? Owned by the same family that owns the Michaelangelo?" He shot her a sunglass concealed glance and his grin faded. "That doesn't seem like much of a coincidence. Were you followed from there?"
"No." She turned her head to look out the window just as the front of a black sedan crashed into the side of the car.
Metal screeched. Airbag launched. Glass shattered. Her body snapped to and fro while they rolled and rolled and rolled.
Blinking, she wished the person screaming would shut up.
Then she realized it was the sound of her own voice.
Hands reached in from her shattered window and pawed at her shoulder.
Hanging upside down, she fought against them and spit glass out of her mouth. "Get the fuck away from me!"
Clarence struggled with his seatbelt with one hand, gun raised in the other. "Sit still, Vanessa!"
She used all of her strength to press up against the back of her seat and stared at the gun aimed in her direction while the strangers outside pulled at the crunched door to get her out.
Clarence fired his gun through the airbag and into one of the men who had been struggling to capture her. Sirens blared from outside. The sound of feet running away followed.
She squeezed her eyes closed and bit back a sob. Her ears throbbed with the echo of a gun going off so close to her face. Every inch of her quaked with the effort to remain in control.
"It's okay, Vanessa," Clarence said. "They're gone. Are you hurt? Can you get free from the seatbelt?"
She refused to let anyone see her cry. Already chaos erupted outside and she knew people would be taking videos with their phones even if they didn't know who she was. It was the culture where nothing was off-limits, not even an accident where people could be dead.
"Vanessa." He shook her until she opened her eyes. "Can you get free? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine." She met his gaze before reaching with shaking hands to undo the seatbelt that had most likely saved her life. A policeman knelt outside the shattered window, asking them in Spainish what had happened. She ignored him and allowed Clarence to answer for them both.
Once outside, she stared at the abandoned sedan and wondered where the assailants had run off to—were they still watching? She turned in a slow circle and hugged herself. She wanted them to see that she remained unharmed, only a few scratches.
Look at me, she shouted in her mind. I'm still standing.
Other Secret Service agents had descended upon the scene to whisk her away to her hotel. She ignored their suggestions of canceling the exhibit. Fail or succeed, this afternoon's showing was about one thing and one thing only—the only real thing, the only true thing that mattered—her sculptures. She remained silent all the way to her room.
“You look like hell, you even have glass in your hair. Godddamnit, Vanessa, you’ve got to start taking these threats seriously.” Cleo slammed a fist against the rolling arm of a white sofa.
“I need a shower.” She walked past Cleo into the bedroom of the suite.
“Are you trying to make this easy on them? My God, I called your mother and she—"
“She’s not coming here, is she?”
“No, she’s waiting—"
“Of course she isn’t. It's only a few months before the big election, wouldn't want to ruin David's momentum, would we? Listen, Cleo, I’m sorry for the unnecessary drama. I need a shower, some breakfast and then we can get to the gallery.” Stay calm and in control. Do not falter.
"You can't possibly be thinking of going to the gallery after—"
"That's exactly what I am going to do. It is why I am here." She met Cleo's gaze and frowned. "Not everything in my goddamn life is about my family."
"Isn't it?" Cleo arched an eyebrow over knowing eyes. She followed Vanessa into the bathroom, all swirling skirts and broad gestures. “How did you slip your bodyguards this time? I’m dying to know how you do your Houdini act.”
“You work for me, Cleo, not the other way around.”
“What’s gotten into you? I think that is the first time you have ever used the employer-employee power play on me.” Cleo stopped at the door, hands on hips and glared.
“I’ll be ready to go to the gallery in an hour. Feel free to notify the guard dogs.” She closed the door, locked it and sank to the floor.
Imprisoned in the room, she sank her forehead against her knees and fought the surge of panic that rose up in her chest. Hard to breathe. Tremors shook her body. Heartbeat raced.
“Butterflies dance in the sunlight. Butterflies dance in the sunlight.” Closing her eyes, she whispered the mantra that would restore her calm. Shaking hands covered her eyes while she whispered the words in the solitude of the bathroom. She'd muttered the same mantra since childhood when she'd suffered night terrors. They used to help chase away the unseen monsters of the night.
“Vanessa,” Cleo called to her from the other side of the door. “I know you hate how restricted your life has become, but we need to take these kidnapping threats seriously. This is a temporary situation, sweetheart.”
She leaned the back of her head against the wall and blew out a long breath. I’m fine. I need to get in the shower, go to the gallery, and celebrate my art. That’s what I need to do.
“Vanessa, I know you’re listening. I don’t hear the shower yet.”
Listening at the bathroom door for running water. Pitiful.
She stood on trembling legs and looked at the layers of dust turning the black of the T-shirt gray. Minor scratches marred the flesh of her forearms and her chest ached from the impact of the airbag.
"Vanessa...it will be a feeding frenzy at the gallery after the accident...think about cancelling. No one will blame you."
“Don’t you have something to do, Cleo?” She smacked the door with an open palm before yanking the shirt over her head.
“You’re acting like a spoiled brat and I don’t mind telling you that. It's time to grow up, Vanessa, and realize that you have a duty for the greater good."
Greater good? She blew out a shaky breath and shook her head. She was so sick of the greater fucking good being thrust down her throat whenever she tried to simply live her own damn life.
“Can’t I even take a shower in peace?” She grabbed the edge of the sink with both hands, hung her head and concentrated on breathing. In. Out. Slow. Heart rate returned to normal. Steady.
The opulence of the room was something she would have taken for granted yesterday, but now she wondered if Nic had helped build it, if he had stood here covered in dust and sweat.
“So what if he had? He's better off not knowing me.” She peeled off the remaining clothes and turned on the water in the shower. “Too dark and…real. A guy like that would hate this life.”
Yet she wanted to ride the motorcycle back to the Villa Piazza, take Nic for another ride only this time somewhere secluded and make love with a man who desired her for herself and not the money that came with the name. Simply enjoy each other like two people should when given the chance.
She stepped beneath the spray, closed her eyes and remembered how it had felt to have his arms linked around her waist and his laughter against her neck.
Grinning against the water, she wondered how she would ever lose the bodyguards a second time...wondered if she dared.
Nic hit his thumb with a hammer and howled in pain.
"That's the second time today. Maybe you need to stick to supervising." Mike laughed at him from where he stood beneath the ladder. "What are you doing up there, anyway? We have a local crew for a reason, Dominc."
"The crew is moving too slow. I want us all to pick up the pace so I can make the place look more presentable."
"Presentable? It's a construction site."
He examined his thumb before climbing back down from his perch. The truth was he wanted to impress Vanessa if she ever reappeared as promised. The villa currently looked like a bombed out ruin after he'd gutted most of it to suit the vision he held.
"Is this about that redhead on the motorcycle?"
"Dominic!" Pam, his assistant, yelled from the gaping hole in the wall. "Did you know we have one of the Warrens staying at the Michelangelo? Security just called and apparently there was an accident of some kind."
He shook his still throbbing thumb and squinted at her. "As in President Warren?"
"His daughter." She tilted her blonde head to the side. "Or granddaughter. I don't know which one you mean."
"Does it matter?" He smiled at her need for preciseness. "Was the accident in the hotel?"
"No, it was a car accident but—"
"Is she okay? Do we need to send medical help or—"
"The papparazzi are going crazy, sneaking into the hotel disguised as staff and—"
"What am I supposed to do about it?" He shrugged. "Isn't this why we pay a general manager? Money is no object. Hire additional security, if needed, to protect all of the guests. As for the president's daughter, I am assuming she has her own security, right? Work in tangent with them and make sure that all is well."
Pam hesitated, her heart-shaped face twisted with concern and unasked questions while the wind tossed her chin-length blonde hair across her lips.
"Is there something else I should know?" he asked when she simply stood and stared.
"Your mother wants to invite her to the party."
He gaped at Pam for a minute before muttering a few expletives under his breath. "And why does she want to do that? This is supposed to be a small family affair for my uncle...has that changed?"
By the guilty expression on Pam's face, he knew he'd been left out of some of the details. He looked at Mike who had delibrately started pounding on the wall to stay out of the conversation before pushing his way out of the building and into the light.
"Did you smash your finger?" Pam tripped after him as he strode toward the back of the building toward his make-shift office.
"What's the real reason you told me about this Warren's accident? Was it really about security or because of my mother's request?"
"I don't handle the day-to-day operations of the resorts once they are up and running. If it's money for added layers of security, I already said no problem. I also do not handle party invitations, but since you asked, I am saying no way in hell do I want some uptight, entitled socialite at my family's party. She's probably boring as hell."
"Not quite. She's rather notoriously bad," Pam answered with a laugh. "A few weeks ago, she tossed Eric Cantrel off a yacht in—"
"Do I look like someone who wants to entertain a tabloid diva?" He shoved his hand inside the freezer and sighed when the ice soothed the pain.
Pam looked relieved. "No, you don't. I'll take care of the extra security and call your mother back. They also want to know when exactly you'll be taking time off to be with them. They go back to Chicago the day after tomorrow and all you've done is work."
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the side of the refridgerator. Yes, all he'd done is work for the past eleven years. He'd been in perpetual motion since the day he'd walked away from his wife's funeral. The result was an international empire of exquisite resorts, one more beautiful than the next.
But the guilt remained.
"I'll see them at the party tonight," he said.
"Don't you have calls to make?" He looked her in the eye without smiling. She'd put up with him for years, had moved with him wherever he went, and only occasionally wondered if they would eventually have a corporate headquarters that didn't involve tarps and mobile devices.
Without answering, she turned on a proper heel and walked away, the cellphone already pressed against her face.
He sighed and wondered again about Vanessa. She'd come back, he knew it down deep in his heart of hearts. Instinct had never steered him wrong. He glanced around the property and grinned. An artist would understand this place, would be able to see the potential just like he did.
On impulse, he grabbed the walkie-talkie and told Mike to have the crew work late tonight. He wanted that front foyer free of construction as soon as possible so that the mural would be easily accessible for an art restorer.
One True Thing...
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Preorder now and be the first to read it on March 22
In the meantime, check out her other books at http://www.amberleaeaston.com
Amber Lea Easton is a multi-published author of romantic thrillers, contemporary romance, women's fiction, and nonfiction. She also writes five different blogs, volunteers for children's literacy, and advocates for suicide awareness. In addition, she is a professional editor and mother of two extraordinary human beings. She currently lives in a small cabin high in the Rocky Mountains where she is completely aware of how lucky she is. To find out more about her books, please visit http://www.amberleaeaston.com.