Vanessa smoothed her cocktail dress, the one her roommates had badgered her into:
Hot pink, with a knee-length bell skirt poofed out with too many crinolines. The bodice squished her boobs and the halter tied behind her neck. Of course, many people would see her naked backside tonight, so she wasn’t sure where this attack of modesty had come from.
Not only that, but the man who would be escorting her tonight had seen her naked from every conceivable angle.
There was a sharp rap at the door of her apartment and her similarly clad roommates buzzed with excitement. “He’s here! He’s here! Vanessa!”
Yes, yes, King Midas was here to escort her—all four of them—to the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight. No, not Ford, not her lover. King Midas.
She didn’t know King Midas, so she was nervous on many fronts.
The door swung open and there he was, looking dour—Vanessa had never seen him without a smile or an expression filled with passion—his hands stuck in the pockets of his tuxedo, his back hunched a bit.
Was it possible he was as nervous as she?
“Ready?” he grumbled.
Her roommates squealed behind her, and someone shoved her wrap and clutch in her hands. They surged around her, surrounded Sebastian and peppered him with questions. His smile came out, albeit reluctantly, and Vanessa watched him attempt to interact with the roommates who didn’t know she had spent one glorious summer in this man’s arms.
She knew what was under all those fine clothes and his naked self was far more delicious than his clothed self.
He looked at Vanessa over the top of her roommates heads and her nostrils flared at the intense look on his face that she knew so well. He’d asked her to accompany him tonight, to get her used to the fame and the attention, to teach her what to do as a semi-celebrity and how to cope.
He knew the owner of Chez Fricassee, where she wanted to cook, and had invited the man to the opening tonight to introduce her and suggest that Vanessa had extraordinary culinary talents and a work ethic to go along with her beauty.
But then Sebastian had asked her for a week alone, in his suite at the Waldorf. Breathless, she’d said yes and now she’d rather just ditch the grand unveiling of her painting and get straight to bed. She hadn’t had sex since she left him. Not because she hadn’t wanted to, but because she didn’t find anyone as fascinating as he.
Sixteen years her senior, wealthy, powerful, a celebrity in his own right, and he wanted her.
After that, who could compete?
All five of them sat in the limo on the way to the Met. Her three roommates vied for Sebastian’s attention, which he granted as graciously as he could, considering he had declared them all a bunch of rowdy kittens. He’d slid a glance at Vanessa, who kept herself apart from him, and said low, “And one very sleek cat.”
They didn’t get it.
Two of her roommates flanked Sebastian and the third sat on the other side of the second. Vanessa sat across from them, watching, secure and increasingly arrogant about her place in his life.
And his bed.
“Ladies,” Sebastian finally said, exasperated with, Vanessa supposed, their chattering. “Please. When we get there, mingle. Don’t hang all over us. This is supposed to be Vanessa’s night, not mine, not yours. Okay?”
They were happy to comply, just to make him happy, but Vanessa knew: Once they arrived, they’d act appropriately and go hunting amongst the other wealthy men who would be there. She could bet that at least two of them wouldn’t come home that night.
Vanessa would be the third.
With any luck, their apartment would be empty all weekend.
The limo came to a stop in front of the Met. A red carpet was rolled out like it was the Oscars and Vanessa’s heart thudded in her chest. She couldn’t hide the panic in the look she cast Sebastian, and his mouth twitched. “You’ll be fine.”
Her roommates piled out enthusiastically, Sebastian apparently having been forgotten.
“I want to rip that pretty little dress off of you right now,” Sebastian growled low across the expanse. That made Vanessa smile, and some of her jitters disappeared. “Let’s go.”
Sebastian alit from the limousine, then held his hand out to Vanessa. His rock-hard forearm under her hand strengthened her when he pulled her close. “Steady,” he murmured. They stood for a moment for the two or three photographers who meant to capture the unveiling of another Ford painting.
The fact that King Midas had attended—art hound that he was—had not gone unnoticed. He very rarely attended art gallery functions (preferring instead to purchase his art at auction, through an agent), and he had never, to anyone’s knowledge, attended a Ford unveiling.
I need to keep my lives separate. A corporate raider who’s an artist wouldn’t be seen as credible. An artist who’s a corporate raider would be seen as a hack.
But you’re well established in both.
That’s true, but I’m used to the anonymity and I like it. I don’t like celebrity, Vanessa. I’m eccentric, a hermit.
King Midas is as famous as Ford.
Infamous. There’s a difference. I can keep people away from me with infamy. I can’t with fame.
Why don’t you like people, then?
They get in the way of my creativity and problem solving. I live in my head, Vanessa. And in bed with beautiful women. I don’t live in the real world and most days I don’t want to.
But you’re escorting me to this opening.
To give you an extra boost. Think about it. King Midas, speculator of art who snubs Ford, who never laughs in public—if he’s seen at all—and terrifies half of New York society, has deigned to attend a Ford opening with Ford’s model. That boosts the value of the painting, too. It’ll be a nice nest egg for you if you need it.
What do you mean, nest egg?
I’m giving you the painting, Vanessa. I don’t care to profit from the time I spent with you. I don’t know if you know this, but that’s the longest I’ve ever been with a woman and you were as novel for me as I was for you.
Teaching you, watching you learn and unfold, knowing that your only sexual experience was with me and that everything you gave me was what I taught you … Incredible. And I haven’t been with anyone since you left. Three years ago.
Vanessa had never been so shocked in her life.
A great many people looked askance at her once they had entered the gallery, and she hesitated, wanting to flee from away from this man she didn’t know, to take shelter in Ford’s arms and bed.
“If I go out, I never have a woman on my arm,” he murmured to her in between introductions he made somewhat awkwardly. She had never seen this side of him, and it shocked her, how insecure he was, camouflaged as an aloof contempt for the whole affair.
“Women are scared of me. I don’t know why.”
Vanessa would be afraid of him, too, if she hadn’t spent so much time with him alone. Naked. Making love.
He didn’t relax as the evening wore on, though she did, emboldened by the alcohol though wise enough to stop when she had lost just enough of her inhibitions to allow her to be comfortably chatty and gracious.
She met the owner of Chez Fricassee, and though it bothered her a little that she had this step up on her classmates because of her sexual relationship with a powerful man, she and Sebastian both knew it was more than that.
Sebastian took her back to his suite and undressed her slowly, did what he had done so many times with the same magic. She knew it would take an extraordinary man to take his place in her bed, much less her heart.
He surprised her the next morning over breakfast in the sitting room. “Knox tells me you’ve got some pretty grand plans once you get some time in a New York kitchen.”
His casual tone didn’t fool her. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to presume,” she murmured, looking down at her plate, thinking about all the arguments she’d had with herself about approaching him as a venture capitalist supplicant like so many others. “Did he show you?”
“Yes,” he said shortly. He was not happy. “What you don’t realize is that if you’d come to me as an unknown, I’d have offered to invest. It’s good. I like it. I’m not certain about the location, but with the right ad campaign, it’ll work.”
She shrugged defensively, conditioned by the fact that she’d been forced to take a full grade lower on her senior presentation because she wouldn’t budge on that point. “That’s nonnegotiable,” she muttered.
He grunted. “You’ll have to make it part of your marketing.”
“I know that,” she replied testily. She’d pointed that out to her advisers to no avail, and Knox wasn’t any more impressed than they had been.
“Vanessa.” She lifted her head to look at him, his expression soft and calm. “I’d like to help you. If you’ll let me. I know—” He waved a hand and looked out the window. “I know this bugs you, but . . . I don’t know how else to express how much you mean to me.”
“Oh,” she breathed.
“The building— What you want. It can be done, but it won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy. Knox took the liberty of talking to our cousin, Étienne. He’s an engineer, an inventor. He says he can do most of what you’ll need, but it’ll take an architect who can work with him. Problem is, Étienne’s impossible to work with.”
“So … ”
“I have someone in mind. She’s young, like you. Just starting out. She’s talented, but more importantly, she’s got the balls to take Étienne’s bullshit and hit him over the head with it. But,” he said brusquely, wiping his mouth as if he were troubled. “I need to know that you aren’t going to have issues with me being your lover and your financier.”
Vanessa took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about it,” she murmured. “That’s not it. I can separate the money and the sex. It’s just that … ”
“You’re not obliged to sleep with me to get this done. I hope you know that. So if that’s your problem—”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t sleep with you if I didn’t want to. I— It’s—”
“What other people think.”
“Vanessa, what you want to do— Building it is the easy part. After the money’s spent and the building’s up, it’ll be up to you to keep it and grow it, because I won’t throw good money after bad. Not even for you.”
She gulped. It wasn’t as if that reality hadn’t run that through her head a million times already. Failure was not an option once that building got built.
“So what I would suggest you do,” he continued, “is flaunt our affair. You’re a beautiful woman. Use it. Turn it to your advantage. Do some photo shoots. Nobody who matters will think it’s about our affair once they see you work. What you do is exploit people’s fascination with you, with our relationship, the ones who have the money to indulge their curiosity.”
He waited silently for her to think, but she’d already calculated the costs and the risks and though she had dithered about asking Sebastian to finance her, she wasn’t stupid enough to refuse when he offered out of the blue.
She nodded. “All right.”
“Good,” he said briskly, throwing down his napkin. “Knox can draft the contracts, since he has an interest in protecting both of us.”
“He said he wanted to invest. It’s just the location’s a problem for him.”
“He’ll get over it. Let’s go back to bed.”