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Jayne Ann Krentz

Corporate Affair

1

It was the sound of his voice that first caught at her attention, tugged at her awareness. A deep, darkly timbered voice that elicited a curious desire to follow it and discover the man to whom it belonged Kalinda Brady walked hesitantly through the small, empty shop, her gray-eyed glance roving absently over the eclectic collection of watercolors of local scenes from the Colorado Rockies, wood carvings, and some woven wall hangings. The name of the little store was The Mountain Gallery and Kalinda had made three trips to it this morning before finding it open.

It was almost noon now and, not having much else to do in the tiny, Colorado mountain resort town, Kalinda had made one last trip down the short street of rustic boutiques and crafts stores. Sure enough, this time the owner had seen fit to finally open his doors to potential customers.

But while the door stood invitingly open, there was no one inside. A voice called to her, though, as Kalinda tripped the shop bell.

„I’m out in the back! Yell if there’s anything you want!“

The masculine voice came through the door on the far side of the small room and Kalinda walked toward it, her curiosity getting the better of her.

She moved across the sunlit floor with an easy, confident stride that said a great deal about her personality. At twenty-nine and with the recent success she’d had at taking over the reins of her father’s firm in Denver, Kalinda didn’t normally lack confidence. One couldn’t and still retain leadership of a major business. Still, her natural self-honesty forced her to admit that thoughts of what she was going to do this weekend here in the picturesque, lakeside village sapped even her healthy store of assurance.

But her outward demeanor remained unruffled and coolly controlled. The chic, casual cotton tuxedo shirt she wore was open at the neck to reveal a thin strand of gold around her throat The shirt was paired with khaki trousers done with a designer’s touch. The sophisticated tailoring revealed a slender, supple body. The high breasts were small but firm and gently rounded. The feminine hips flared with a fullness Kalinda had always wished was a little less so but which fairly screamed her femininity from within the confines of the narrow-legged trousers. The short, wooden-heeled sandals which arched her well-shaped feet came from Italy.

As she walked the sunlight filtering through the trees and into the window danced briefly on the wealth of brown-blond hair which had been neatly twisted into a knot behind one ear. The strict style revealed a strong, composed face, the features of which were less than beautiful. Instead of flagrant beauty, the intelligent gray eyes, straight, proud nose and readily curving mouth combined into a subtly attractive countenance which drew the attention of the more perceptive.

Kalinda wore both the expensive clothes and the inner assurance with a naturalness that spelled success. She had worked hard for that success and it annoyed her for some reason when others didn’t work hard as well. Others such as the owner of The Mountain Gallery who didn’t bother to keep regular hours. There was a look of mild disapproval in her eyes as she came to a halt on the threshold of the back door and took in the sight before her.

„I’ll be with you in a minute. See anything you like?“

The owner of the heavily shaded voice glanced up from the body of a rainbow trout lying on a wooden bench. There was a stack of such unfortunate fish at the far end of the bench. A hose trickled water over the silvery scales as each awaited its turn under the knife. Kalinda unconsciously curled her lip in disgust.

„You’re supposed to compliment me on the nice catch,“ the shop’s owner informed her politely, hazel eyes laughing at her expression. „Not look at me as if I were an ax murderer!“

In spite of herself, Kalinda grinned in response. „Those poor fish Eire, I presume, the reason you’re three hours late opening the shop?“

„If I'd known I had such an eager customer waiting I would have hurried,“ he drawled, the knife in his hand going to work efficiently on the fish in front of him. Kalinda looked away.

Her curious gaze rested on the bent head of the man in front of her, noting the dark fire in the thick, chestnut hair which was carelessly combed and a little long for her taste. The man stood naked from the waist up in the bright sunlight, his lean, smoothly muscled body well-bronzed. When she found her glance lingering on the curling red-brown hair which covered his chest and tapered down to disappear beneath the waistband of a faded pair of snug-fitting jeans, she looked away from that sight, also.

Which brought her gaze back to his profile. She found herself studying it with the same curiosity that had made her want to follow the sound of his voice.

It was an angular face, sharply etched and tanned like the rest of him. The hazel eyes were deep-set and flickered with intelligence when he glanced up and caught her watching him. Tiny lines crinkled the comers beneath heavy brows. An arrogant nose paired well with high cheekbones and a mouth which seemed hard in repose.

But the mouth smiled easily, she saw, and the deep lines at the edges bespoke a wealth of experience. She found herself wondering just what sort of experience, however. There was nothing polished or sophisticated about this man. And he definitely wasn’t the sort she had expected to encounter running an art gallery, even if that gallery was in an isolated mountain town which catered to tourists. Her curiosity grew.

He must have been around thirty-seven or thirty-eight, she reflected absently. She sensed a latent male power in him and wondered how he could have been content to waste his life running a part-time gallery and fishing when the urge took him. In her world, given a little business experience, such a man could have built an empire. She knew it instinctively.

Well, hers was not to judge, Kalinda told herself firmly, knowing she was doing it anyway. He was probably a leftover from the antimaterialistic, anti-establishment era of a few years back. A man who lacked the basic drive and competitive inclination it took to make it to the top.

„I wanted to ask about that watercolor of the lake hanging in the window,“ she told him politely.

„You like it?“ he inquired interestedly, pausing in his work to eye her.

„I know someone who will,“ she temporized.

„You don’t like it,“ he stated, nodding. He went back to cleaning the trout.

„I’m not buying it for myself.“

„What’s this friend like? The one you’re buying it for?“

„Does it matter?“ she asked dryly. „Are you worried the painting won’t be going to a good home?“

„I’m not worried about it, but Mary Beth will be,“ he explained with seeming patience.

„Mary Beth being the artist, I presume?“ Kalinda hazarded.

„Umm. She’s very particular about who gets her paintings.“

„I see. I didn’t think artists could afford that sort of luxury. Tell Mary Beth that I’m buying it to give to a kindly, distinguished, older couple who grew up in Colorado and treasure scenes such as that one.“

„I guess that sounds safe enough. Okay, you can have it“

„I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you’re willing to part with it,“ she muttered, thinking if she hadn’t been stuck in town anyway, she would never have made three trips to the gallery in order to buy the painting.

He laughed, a rich, full-bodied laughter that filled the yard in which he was standing. „Give me a chance to wash the evidence off my hands and I’ll come inside and take your money. My name’s Rand Alastair, by the way. What’s yours?“

Kalinda blinked, surprised at the straightforward question from a stranger she never intended to see again. „Kalinda. Kalinda Brady.“

He nodded. „On vacation?“ He turned away to wash his hands under the hose, his body moving with a litheness Kalinda found unexpectedly pleasing.

„Not exactly,“ she replied unthinkingly and then wished she’d held her tongue. The last thing she wanted

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