Jule Casale is the perfect daughter. Obedient. Trustworthy. Loyal. With her high profile Italian family, her public image must be impeccable. And now to gain the respect and position she’s desired in the academic world, she hopes to discover the unknown artist behind a masterpiece of Renaissance art.
Rom Montgomery seeks the unobtainable: forgiveness. Those who could grant him relief are dead. Instead, he wanders across continents and through time searching for salvation and the means to right an ancient wrong. But when Jule comes knocking on his door, it’s the closest he’s ever come to finally finding redemption.
The closer Rom draws to correcting his past mistakes, the more his secrets threaten to destroy the woman who might hold the key to his future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Want to get to know me? Get to know a few of my favorite things:
I love Frito pie. And cowboy boots. Pickup trucks and summer nights. Willie Nelson and Shiner Bock. Essentially, all things Texas.
Ask me about BBQ or dance halls and we’ll be best friends.
Want to really get to know me?
Take me to Vegas and sit me down in front of a Blackjack table and I’ll marry you.
On a serious note:
I have a Masters degree in Information Science
Am certified to sell real estate in Texas
Have been a reporter and freelance writer for 12 years
And I love Hello Kitty.
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by Shannon Leigh
Copyright © 2014 by Shannon Leigh. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Jule Casale stomped her Kelly-green rainboots on the top step of the converted warehouse. Fat droplets of water flew to the concrete, adding to the existing puddles forming in the hollows of the aging stoop.
Typical Chicago. The promise of spring, so fresh and bright this morning, turned to torrential rain by late afternoon, soaking everything, including moods. But nothing would sour her outlook. Nope. Not with the tiny victory she’d achieved at finding one Rom Montgomery, the difficult SOB.
So it was with the memory of that success in her mind that she rang the bell for the third time before the lock sounded and the door opened.
And there he was. The reclusive and enigmatic Rom Montgomery, the bad boy collector of the fine antiquities world who defied the press and guarded his privacy with fists and curses. So private, he almost didn’t exist according to her research. At least not before ten years ago.
He’d appeared on the antiquities scene like a bear in winter, unpredictable and unexpected. Aggressive and hostile. A predator who knew his quarry. He’d quickly established a reputation as a collector of ancient swords, and today occupied the top position as global expert on metallurgy and ancient weapons.
Except right now in the waning light of late afternoon, on the wet back alley entrance to a hidden gallery, he wasn’t reclusive at all—he was close. Looming. Intimidating. Practically in her face. She couldn’t make him out other than as generally large and muscular, and her impatience regarding his aggression after her long investigation to find him flared to life.
Jule refused to take a step back into the rain to accommodate such a display, but she did lean back to take him in. All—what appeared to be—six feet and more of him. If she didn’t have five older brothers cut from the same broad shouldered, towering cloth, she might have the good sense to be cowed. Instead, she became prickly as she did when backed into a corner—physically speaking.
“Rom Montgomery?” she demanded.
His whiskey colored eyes glowed in the shadows of the stoop, almost backlit by an internal fiery light.
“A question? Really? Seems unnecessary since you made it to my unmarked door off an inconvenient side street.”
So it was going to be like that?
“I’m Jule Casale,” she forced her hand into the space between them. “I spoke to you earlier this afternoon about the painting I’m trying to identify.”
He didn’t acknowledge the earlier conversation. He simply looked down at her outstretched hand like she’d offered him a stack of forms for an IRS filing.
“No thank you.” And he proceeded to shut the door in her face.
“Hang on. It’s important!” Jule reacted quickly, wedging her booted foot between the closing door and the jam. The door stopped short of crushing her foot, and reopened, an indifferent expression greeting her once again.
“I need to talk to you,” she said, her hand holding the door open.
“You need to talk to someone who cares. Or make it worth my while. I don’t consult for free.”
Jule had prepared for this. She’d looked long and hard for something to sway him to her cause.
Here goes nothing. “For your cooperation, I’m willing to get you an introduction to the Great Dane Rescue Society. I know you’ve been trying to hook up with them, but have been rebuffed by the founder.”
Jule counted the founder of the rescue group as a personal friend, and the woman had relayed Mr. Montgomery’s attempts at a women ‘n wine party, to not only donate money to the cause of caring for terminal dogs, but to host injured and special needs Danes in his home.
Rejection met his request. The determination: an unsuitable environment for animals with specific needs.
Jule wondered why the dogs were so important to him . Or why a guy with as much money as he had, cared about fostering terminal dogs. Had to be a story there, somewhere.
Whatever his interest, his current body language relaxed and Jule considered that yet another victory. A smile teased the corners of his full mouth. And the door opened wide.
“Come in.” He stepped back and admitted her.
Jule crossed the threshold into the proverbial bear’s lair and shivered involuntarily. She’d bought her way in, now to get him to help her identify the painting she’d been working on these last few months.
She followed him into a concrete and glass vestibule, noting how his dark T-shirt stretched tight across his shoulders and strained at the arms, revealing large, muscular biceps. Holy crap! This guy is ripped. The small number of pictures she’d seen of him didn’t do his body justice.
A tapered waist drew her eye to well-fitted jeans that encased strong thighs, and he had a nice ass. Really nice.
“Jule Casale. Related to Edmondo Casale?”
The nature of the question didn’t catch her off guard, just the fact he’d gotten to it before she even had her raincoat off. Seemed a bit rude, but then again, she was talking to a man who’d earned a name for himself with his sharp intellect and even sharper attitude.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. He’s my father.”
He grunted dismissively. “So you’ve come to discuss a painting?” He left her standing in the vestibule as he moved through an arched brick opening and into the gallery proper. She joined him, shrugging. If he didn’t care about rainwater dripping everywhere, neither did she.
Swords, knives, daggers, and blades of every length and design served as art. They hung on the walls, lit from above, and were ensconced in cases, resting on rich velvet. There were even some lying freely on the desk and scattered on the few tables visible in the room.
It gave Jule the willies all the way down to her cotton candy pink toenail polish. For the first time, she questioned her decision to force her way into the man’s domain.
Too late now.
Shaking off good common sense (a Casale trait), she stiffened her spine and planted herself directly in the middle of the room.
“I told you on the phone, Ms. Casale,” he made her name sound like a weapon, sharp and hard like the swords hanging on the walls. “I don’t have any expertise in Renaissance art. Did you need to hear it in person?”
He had indeed told her the very thing and then promptly hung up.
“Look, I’m sorry if my father has done something to upset you. We’re not in the same business at all.” How many times did she have to apologize for her father’s mistakes? “But I’m here because the art world needs your help.” She reached in her pocket to retrieve the envelope of color images.
As the world’s foremost collector and dealer of swords, both ancient and medieval, Montgomery could be her best and perhaps only hope to unlocking the identity of the painting in her possession.
“This is what I wanted you to see,” she said, moving close enough to show him the glossy photos.
The barest flicker of recognition flared to life in his eyes. It was a tiny spark, but it grew brighter the longer he looked.
Jule’s heart beat faster beneath her woolen sweater. He knew! And he would tell her. And then she could identify the painting and present her findings to the museum. The open slot for curator of early Italian Renaissance art had her name all over it.
With an audible exhale, Montgomery slipped the photo from her hand, brushing Jule with his fingers as he did so. The calluses on his fingers rasped against her softer skin, sending a trickle of warmth from her heart to her abdomen.
One of Mama Casale’s infinitely silly, but astonishingly profound refrains boomed inside her head. “When you finally meet him, the one, you’ll know it because your insides will feel topsy-turvey,” she’d said.
Jule’s insides felt neither topsy nor turvy, but intact, if not somewhat awakened, as if she’d been slumbering for too long.
Montgomery walked into a shaft of overhead lighting. The light draped his head and shoulders, creating a play of shadow and illumination on his face. She noticed the five o’clock shadow for the first time, framing his strong, square chin and lips.
While he examined the photos, she examined him and found herself falling into a memory, caught in a replay.
He stood across the hall, an unrecognizable figure among a sea of family. A hooded cloak shadowed his face until he leaned on a column near the servants’ entrance. Overhead torchlight revealed the man, barely out of boyhood. Soft light bronzed the planes of his face, easing the pain and sorrow he so obviously carried. Why someone so young amidst a joyous masquerade ball should be so sad, she knew well.
Because her heart bled, too. She was to be engaged to one she did not love.
Tonight, they celebrated.
Jule’s head snapped up. She glanced around the room, looking for the torchlight and the young man who looked impossibly like Rom Montgomery.
What had she been doing? Dreaming? And why did she have this overriding feeling of crossing a forbidden line? Like being with Montgomery was going to get her into trouble.
Because he was trouble.
“Yes?” She responded, feigning attention.
Montgomery had crossed to her side, the photos forgotten for the moment. Concern furrowed his brows. Warm. He was so damn warm. It would feel right falling into his arms.
What the hell is wrong with me?
“Sure. Just chilled from the rain.” What else could she say? Yeah, I just had this weird flashback to a memory I don’t own, but no worries, I’m not crazy.
Except, maybe she was crazy.
Refusing to lose her momentum in pursuit of answers, she said, “I take it you have seen the sword in the painting before?”
He studied her silently for several seconds and Jule prayed he wouldn’t escort her out. The moment was awkward and she resisted the urge to squirm and shuffle her feet. The intensity of his perusal made her nervous—and dammit, kind of excited?
She stared back at him, noticing his impossibly long lashes. Her gaze drifted down to his soft lips. She imagined they would be supple against hers, but his fierce attitude would create an urgency and dominance that could overwhelm her.
Feeling like a teenager about to be rejected when emotionally overextended, Jule jerked her eyes back up to his. His steady gaze didn’t waver, but it seemed softer than it had been previously—almost caring.
Her heart thudded in her chest as he spoke.
“I know of the sword, yes. But it’s not a very exciting history.” He strode to an ebony cabinet and pulled two highballs from an interior shelf. “Can I get you a drink Ms. Casale?” He said it in an offhanded manner, as if he were only being polite. But nothing about the man was truly polite—in fact, he was all fierce authority.
She didn’t want to come off as submissive, so she said, “Absolutely. How about I make it?”
Jule joined Montgomery at the liquor cabinet and sorted through the bottles inside. That’s when she saw it. The dagger. Not just any dagger like those decorating the walls, but the one.
Blood rushed from her head in a startling whoosh and Jule almost fainted. She definitely staggered as if she’d already consumed the alcohol. She knew that knife. Intimately. Knew the feel of it in her hand, its cold metal against her skin. She knew without looking the fineness of the polished mahogany hilt and the evenness of the grain.
She knew the weight of it.
And how it felt cutting into her flesh.