Welcome to the beginning of my End of Summer Beginnings Posts! As everyone is frantically trying to fit in one last dose of the summer sun and a smidge more holiday before autumn is upon us, I thought it was time for a bit of temptation. One of the best parts of summer holidays is a good read to match the summer sizzle, so with that in mind, for the next two weeks, I’m sharing First Chapters of all my novels. Today I’m sharing more hot romance, Grace Marshall, style and chapter 1 from The Exhibition, book three of the Executive Decisions Trilogy. Enjoy! (Follow hyper-links to learn more and to find buy-links)
The Exhibition Blurb:
Book Three of the Executive Decision Trilogy (Click Here for Book One | Book Two)
Successful NYC gallery owner, Stacie Emerson, is ex-fiancée to one Thorne brother and ex-wife to the other. Though the three have made peace, Ellison Thorne’s friend, wildlife photographer, Harris Walker, still doesn’t like her. When Stacie convinces Harris to exhibit his work for the opening of her new gallery she never intended to include him in her other more hazardous plans. But when those plans draw the attention of dangerous business tycoon, Terrance Jamison, Harris comes to her aid. In the shadow of a threat only Stacie understands, can she dare let Harris into her life and make room for love?
Chapter 1 The Exhibition
What she was about to ask was a terrible thing to ask of a friend. Stacie Emerson had ridden MAX in from Gresham, which had taken forever, but the long ride on public transport gave her time to think about it, to back out and turn the whole event into just two friends meeting for coffee. And then what? Where else could she turn? The two met in Pioneer Square just before the deluge began.
Kendra Davis gave her a fierce hug, and they hurried the few blocks to the coffee shop that looked up onto Raymond Kaskey’s colossal sculpture, Portlandia, which graced the
third story of the Portland Building. Just as the downpour got serious, they shoved their way into the cafe and settled into a table near the window with a good view of the sculpture. It had always been one of Stacie’s favourite things about Portland. She never got tired of it, no matter how many times she looked up at Portlandia with her hair caught up in the artist’s imagined breeze, with her strong Amazon body leaning down from on high, trident in one hand while the other arm reached out to the world below. Stacie never got over the urge to lift her arms up to the sculpture in hopes of being drawn into her magnanimous, muscular embrace.
When both women had given Portlandia the homage she so richly deserved, they turned their attention to each other. ‘How’s Garrett?’ Stacie asked.
‘He’s recovering nicely, thanks. He’s a horrible patient though. I practically have to tie him to the bed to get him to rest.’
Stacie offered her a wicked smile. ‘Somehow I can’t picture him really minding that too much, you tying him to the bed, I mean.’ Was she mistaken, or did Kendra actually blush? ‘And what about you? How are you doing? I mean recovering from what you’ve been through can’t be an easy task.’ Stacie shivered at the thought of the stalker and what might have happened if Kendra hadn’t been made of sterner stuff than just about anyone she’d ever met.
Kendra looked down at her hands folded around her cup and the smile she offered, though genuine, clearly took some effort. ‘I’m alright. The dreams are coming less and less often, and I’m seeing a psychologist. We both are. I won’t lie; sometimes it’s rough, but we have each other and…’ This time her face broke into a broad, easy smile. ‘God, I can’t get used to saying that … we have each other. It sounds do presumptuous, and yet I love it.’
‘It sounds just perfect,’ Stacie said, giving her arm a squeeze. ‘And you two deserve to be very, very happy together.’
Kendra reached up and patted her hand. ‘You should stop by for dinner some night. I don’t cook, but I’ve discovered Garrett makes a mean bolognaise.’
Stacie offered her a knowing smile. ‘He certainly does. Who do you think taught him how to make it?’ She waved a dismissive hand. ‘But honestly, to see the two of you so happy, I’d come for peanut butter sandwiches.’
‘That I think I could almost manage,’ Kendra said. Then the smile slipped from her face, and she held Stacie in a gaze that was all business. ‘Now that you know how Garrett and I are, I imagine it’s K. Ryde you really need to talk to, or you would have met me at Garrett’s or invited me for a look-see at the progress you’re making at the gallery.’
Kendra was dressed in a white t-shirt, faded jeans and a pair of black ankle boots. Her hair, once again golden-blond, was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore no make-up. No one would have ever imagined her to be the best in her field. In fact only a small handful of people knew anything about the mysterious P.R. guru, K. Ryde, and if they did, they’d certainly never met the legend in person. K. Ryde had worked for Stacie all this time, and it had only been during the horrible incident with the stalker, when K. Ryde was working for Garrett, that she’d actually discovered Ryde’s true identity.
‘When I hired the Ryde Agency,’ Stacie began, ‘it was a long term project, and then, well, then it was all so nebulous. I mean I had no idea who K. Ryde really was, and it didn’t matter. But now,’ she scooted closer to the table and leaned over it. ‘Now it does.’
Kendra laid down the spoon that she’d just used to scoop a mound of cinnamon-dusted foam from her cappuccino into her mouth. ‘Then you’re ready for the next phase.’
Stacie nodded, feeling the tremor of nerves in her belly as she thought about what the next phase would mean. To both of them. ‘And I need to know if I’ve been handed over to the agency or if you’re still in charge. I assume you were in charge.’
Kendra offered her a half-smile. ‘I was always in charge, and your … request intrigued me a lot so I took a personal interest. You’re one of the few clients I kept after I sold the agency, one of the few that I could continue working for on my own without anyone being the wiser for it. And I only did that because it interested me so much.’
‘Even after everything with Dee and Ellis?’ Stacie said. ‘I mean I know you blamed me, and rightfully so.’
Kendra studied her for a moment then nodded slowly. ‘K. Ryde’s business is business, Stacie. My personal feelings didn’t figure into it. K. Ryde never got involved personally … not until Garrett came into the picture, and that was … well that was something I could have never foreseen.’
Love was like that, Stacie thought. She released a shaky breath and wiped sweaty palms on her trousers. ‘I guess I need to know if I’ll be continuing to work with you, now that I’m ready to move forward with … my project, or if I’ll be working with someone I don’t know.’
Again Kendra studied her. ‘Do you want someone to take over?’
Stacie shook her head and stared down into her cup, trying to gather her thoughts. ‘It’s just that, well what happens next … what happens next you probably won’t like, and now that our situation has changed, I’m not sure I like having my friend involved. In fact, what I’m about to ask is a pretty terrible thing to do to a friend, if you want the truth.’
‘Stacie if you want me to hand you over to the agency, all you have to do is ask. But …’
‘But no one else could handle it like you could, if they could handle it at all, right?’
Kendra didn’t answer. She only held Stacie’s gaze.
‘I know that, and yet I also know what it’ll mean.’ Stacie looked out at the sculpture with its outstretched hand as though somehow it would offer her an easy answer for what she knew was ahead of her. But there were no easy answers. There could be none. She knew that. ‘It’s just that I … Well it’s complicated.’
‘Most of what K. Ryde deals with is complicated, Stacie. That’s why K. Ryde deals with it.’
There was a sudden flash of sunshine through the rainclouds bathing the sculpture in bright light and Stacie blinked back the after image, then turned her gaze back to Kendra, who sat for a second with Portlandia’s features super-imposed onto her own. Then Stacie blinked again and it was Kendra who sat across from her offering a sympathetic smile.
She knew how tough Kendra was, how much fire there was in that slender frame. But she also knew what the woman had already been through, and what she was about to ask her seemed cruel. ‘After everything that’s happened … to you, to Garrett, I don’t know …’
‘Stacie, Garrett and I are both struggling to put what happened with Edge behind us and move on. For me, that means finally being able to have my life back. Oh, I’m not moving back to California.’ She nodded up at the sculpture. ‘Portland is my home and I want to stay here – especially the way things are with Garrett and me now. But I have no intention of not working, and frankly, you know me well enough to know how bored I’d be with anything that wasn’t up to K. Ryde’s usual clientele.’
‘What about Garrett?’
Kendra raised a golden eyebrow. ‘What about Garrett? My love life most definitely doesn’t involve breaking client confidentiality. If you want me to finish what we started, Stacie, I will. In fact, I’ve always had every intention to.’
Stacie gripped her hands in her lap to keep them from shaking. ‘You won’t like it.’
‘Tell me, and let me decide,’ Kendra said.
Forty-five minutes and two more lattes and a Diet Pepsi later, Kendra blew out a sharp breath and scrubbed a hand over her face. ‘You’re right. I don’t like it.’
Stacie felt her stomach drop and the fear that all of her efforts, everything she had done so far had been for nothing threatened to overwhelm her. ‘Then I need to find someone else?’
Kendra shook her head slowly. ‘I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t like it. Besides, you wouldn’t find anyone else who’d do this for you, even if they could.’
‘I don’t want to … I never wanted to put you at risk.’
Kendra reached across the table and took Stacie’s hand in a strong grip. ‘Some things are worth the risk, Sweetie. But this is the last time we meet like this. From now on you only see Kendra Davis in person. K. Ryde will be in touch and inform you of what comes next.’ She squeezed her hand hard. ‘I mean it, Stacie. From this moment on, you’ve never met K. Ryde, and you won’t ever meet him again. Are we clear?’
Stacie squared her shoulders and nodded, unable to speak around the claw of nerves in her chest.
Kendra’s face softened to a warm smile and she released Stacie’s hand with a soft pat. ‘Good. Now the sun’s out and I’m dying for a walk along the river so that I can bore you beyond words with the latest about Garrett and me.’
And really, there was nothing in the whole world Stacie needed more at that moment.
Stacie nearly fell off the chair behind her desk as she jerked to wakefulness. It took her a second to realize she was in her office at the gallery. A quick glance at her watch told her she had maybe a half hour before the workmen arrived. She yawned and stretched then shoved to her feet to open the utilitarian mini blinds. They would soon be replaced with lush spring green drapes at windows that would be flanked by plants from the same nursery that had furnished the greenery for Ellis when he’d opened the Pneuma Building.
Even unfinished as it was, she loved the feel of the place and what she was building it into. Stacie already owned a thriving gallery, and she had every intention of making the new West Coast gallery as successful as the one in New York. Two trips to Japan in as many months and the constant yo-yoing back and forth to New York until she could get her manager there trained and up to speed had pretty much guaranteed that she wasn’t getting enough rest. She was jetlagged as hell, so she tried to make the best of it and get some work done when she couldn’t sleep. That was all to be expected. It was a challenging time. It wouldn’t last forever. But the stress of opening the new gallery meant that the nightmare she had lived through in the early days of the New York gallery was bound to bubble up and kick her unconscious in the butt. It had been a bad dream that had woke her in the wee hours this morning. Even the pep talk she had given herself — that this time was different, that this time she was going in with her eyes open, that this time she knew what she was doing — didn’t lull her back to sleep, so here she was.
She glanced around her make-shift office with its folding chair and battered pine desk buried beneath shipping documents for the Japanese part of the exhibition and plans for the completion of the interior of the gallery. In her office, the walls were already painted, the floor was laid. The furniture would be delivered next week, and that included a comfy chair and a sofa for her to doze on when she was jetlagged. It was coming together, she thought. It was coming together.
Just then her BlackBerry buzzed, and she scrabbled to find it beneath the stack of papers, nearly dropping it in the trash can when she finally unburied it and read the reminder to call Harris Walker. Again. She’d already rescheduled the call three times in the past twenty-four hours because she knew the drill. Either she’d get his voice mail and he wouldn’t return her call or he’d tell her he couldn’t talk right now, but he’d get back to her, and then he wouldn’t. But Harris Walker had no idea just how tenacious she was and how badly she wanted his work for the gallery’s opening exhibition. He’d have to personally tell her to fuck of and die before she would even begin to take the hint. And though Harris Walker didn’t much like her, she knew he was way too nice to tell her to fuck off and die.
The sunshine was just beginning to make a golden path onto the newly laid wood floor, and she had it on good authority that Harris would be up. In fact she had it on good authority that he had spent the past night in a hide photographing great horned owls. Owls slept in the daytime so she figured he’d just be finishing up, but not yet have had time to tuck up in his jammies for a nap. She’d invite him to breakfast. Surely he must be starving after spending the night in the woods. Of course, even if he were, he’d still tell her no. Then she’d invite him for coffee and work her way down from there. Maybe they could compromise on a glass of tepid water in her disaster of an office.
She really didn’t need to refresh her memory on Harris Walker’s work. She had studied his photographs in detail long before she knew him in person, back when she had no reason to believe that when they actually met he wouldn’t like her. But as she pulled up the Wilderness Vanguard Website, she told herself it was to give him time to get back to civilization before she became the unpleasant point in his morning. He was the editor of Wilderness Vanguard, and some of his work was in almost every issue. After she’d looked through the latest edition, she pulled up his own website and flipped through the photo galleries. She flipped past the photos of pristine Cascade scenery, past the photos of birds preening and elk rutting, past the photos of sunsets over the Pacific Ocean and sea lions lolling in the sand near Lincoln City. She even flipped past the gripping photo-diary he had done of his trip to the forests of Valderia with Ellis a few months ago. She flipped instead to the images of mining run-off and erosion-ravaged landscapes, to the photos of landfills, oil-slickened waterways and clear-cuts, to the photos of small dying communities that had lost their livelihood when the lumber industry went belly-up. As she studied them for the hundredth time, she wondered how he did it, how he could revel in such beauty as the Northwest was famous for, then immerse himself in landscapes from hell without somehow damaging his soul. She’d like to ask him if he’d ever consent to at least meet her for coffee.
She really thought that of Dee Henning’s two best friends, Harris would be the easiest to win over. Stacie knew what men saw when they looked at her, and she seldom had to do much more than smile at a man to get his attention. Socially, she wasn’t even close to desperate. She was used to being able to date anyone she wanted whenever she wanted.
And though Harris Walker was definitely the stuff of sex dreams with his broad shoulders and outdoorsy good looks, all she wanted was the man’s photos. It was business, strictly business. At first she thought he simply couldn’t forgive her for her inadvertent role in her and Garrett’s bumbling attempt to get Dee and Ellis together, the attempt that had nearly had the opposite result. But Garrett, he seemed to have forgiven, so she suspected his less than warm feelings toward her had as much to do with her past relationship with Garrett and Ellis as anything. Ex fiancée to one, ex wife to the other. Okay, it wasn’t a shining resume, but she had only been eighteen, for fuck sake, and that horrible mistake had cost her way more than she could have ever imagined.
Anyway, it wasn’t like she was asking Harris to marry her or even to like her. What, could he possibly think she’d try to seduce him? There were at least five other wildlife photographers who were practically begging to be a part of her opening exhibition, but it was Harris she wanted. She flipped back through the pictures of devastation one last time, then grabbed the BlackBerry and pulled up his number.
It rang until it went to voice mail. She rolled her eyes, then put on her sweetest voice and asked him, for the hundredth time, if they could get together to talk about the exhibition. When she hung up, she left a text as well, all the while having visions of the man slapping a restraining order on her. Well, that’s what he’d have to do if he wanted her to give up. She’d beg, bargain and grovel if she had to. She’d try again a little later.
While she made herself coffee in the small kitchenette next to her office, she went down the mental list of questions she’d ask him, just in case today was the day when he actually gave in and returned her call.
Still thinking about the uncooperative Harris Walker, she started a second pot of coffee. The workmen would be here soon and the bakery around the corner would be delivering shortly. She had made special arrangements for a delivery daily as long as the workers were finishing up the gallery. She needed them happy and pleased to do things exactly the way she wanted, and nothing said do it my way quite as nicely as fresh pastries and quality French roast coffee.
That done, she took her own coffee and went back to her desk. She glanced through Harris’s photo galleries again, studying the horrendous detail of some of the scenes of destruction and environmental damage. She took a pen and a small pad of paper and scribbled notes about the ones she hoped to include in her exhibition. While she was at it, she made a note to call the young reporter, Carla Flannery, for more details about the illegal landfill she had uncovered in the John Day area. There was a whole series of photos on Harris’s site from that unfortunate incident.
While jotting down notes, she pulled up Harris’ number and tried again. Still no answer. She left another message and decided to let it go for the day. She could only do so much harassing before she had to give the poor guy a break. She had dinner plans with Dee and Ellis this evening before she took the red-eye to New York, and if he hadn’t gotten back to her by then, she would exercise her option to manipulate and get the two of them to talk to him. He’d probably like her less for it, but since she didn’t know him well enough to know how much less he was still capable of liking her, she supposed she could live with that. The man was just being stubborn. He’d exhibited his work all over the Northwest and beyond. She’d made it clear the proceeds from the exhibition would go to funding the Vigilant Trust, which Wilderness Vanguard and Ellis and his company had been instrumental in starting. The Vigilant Trust was money for reclaiming land that had been damaged and for helping communities that had suffered from job losses. Stacie was proud that her gallery would begin its life supporting such a good cause.
Into her silent reverie, her BlackBerry buzzed the arrival of a text causing her to jump and drop the notepad onto the floor. Maybe this was it then. Maybe Harris Walker was finally getting back to her. Her mind was already racing as she grabbed for it. She had no doubt she could convince him to allow her to exhibit his work if he’d just listen to her. She was sure he’d be intrigued.
She pulled up the text, and all thoughts of the exhibition, all thoughts of Harris Walker, all thoughts of the workmen she could now hear arriving, went out of her head. Her stomach rebelled, and for a second, she thought she would vomit her coffee. But she forced a deep breath, forced herself to calm and focus. After all, this was not unexpected. She had lived in the shadow of this moment for ten years, and she would never be more ready to face it than she was now. She took another deep breath, squared her shoulders and read:
Welcome to the West Coast, Stacie. It’s such a pleasure to have you close once again. Feels like old times. We must meet for drinks and dinner. I’m dying to catch up on all your news. I do hope the gallery renovations are going without a snag. So many unexpected, and expensive, glitches can happen when you’re on a tight deadline.
The BlackBerry slipped from her hands and disappeared in the mound of papers on her desk as she shoved back the chair and ran for the stairs.
‘What the fuck?’ She heard one of the workmen exclaim, and she nearly ran into Ted, the foreman who was racing up the stairs toward her. He caught her before she could lose her balance. His expression was hard; his voice tightly controlled. ‘Ms Emerson, you’d better come look at this.’
He kept a protective hand under her elbow as he led her into the main exhibition hall, and it was probably a good thing he did. The red paint was splashed over the newly laid wood floor and onto the freshly painted wall where it dried in thick spatters. Oxygen rushed from her lungs and everything else disappeared as the past forced its way into the void. ‘Zoe!’ Stacie could never remember if she had actually called out her friend’s name or if it were only in her head. She was no longer in the vandalized gallery. She was transported back to Zoe’s flat, back to the gunshot that shattered her world, back to the blood on the walls.
‘Everything was locked up just like we left it last night just like always,’ Ted was saying, but the rest of his words were drowned out by the ringing in her ears and the present fell further away.
When she allowed herself to think about that horrible time, it was always with thoughts of what might have been if she could have gotten Zoe away from him, if they could have gone somewhere, somewhere that he couldn’t find them. Strangely it was his scent that permeated all of her memories of him. Every time she had ever been with him it had surrounded her, practically drowned her; when he held her, when he stroked her hair, when he caressed her. He always smelled like the desert, with everything that was dangerous about it. Everything that was poisonous or desolate or sharp angled and deadly seemed to seep through his pores in a way that was both dark and compelling. How was it that something as simple as the way someone smelled could illicit such desire, such hope, such terror, such rage? How was it that the scent of the man was the first thing she remembered about him and the last thing that haunted her in her dreams?
When she came back to herself she was seated on a folding chair and Ted was offering her a glass of water. This is how it all begins, she reminded herself. And this was not the time to be squeamish. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t expected to hear from Terrance Jamison. That was inevitable. It was just that she hadn’t expected to hear from him quite so soon, and she had at least expected a little grace period before the harassing began.
‘Shall I call the police?’ Ted was saying.
She shook her head. ‘No.’ There was a shuffling and a mumble of surprise among the workers. She drank the water down and stood. ‘I know what this is all about, and I don’t have time to go through a police investigation, which will turn up nothing, not if this gallery’s going to open on schedule. How soon can you fix it?’ she asked Ted. Before he could respond, she added. ‘I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care what it takes. I need it fixed immediately if not sooner.’
The foreman looked around at his crew. ‘Alright, I can call in some extra workers, we can arrange for an extra shift, work into the night if we have to, but are you sure you don’t want the police to check this out. This is vandalism, ma’am, and no doubt –’
She cut him off. ‘I know what it is, and I’m sure. Just do whatever it takes. I’ll be in my office if you need me.’ She turned on shaky legs and walked carefully back to the stairs. Already Ted was barking orders and the place erupted into action. Back in her office she forced herself to read the text through one more time and then again. She forced herself to remember, to remember all of it, all that she knew and all that she couldn’t prove, but she knew with a certainty that was unshakeable. She forced herself to remember every detail, every nuance, every injury suffered, and when it felt like a cold, hard stone in the pit of her stomach, she closed the text without answering it.