“You okay?” he asked.
Flustered more by his unexpected arrival than by her argument with Gloria, Talia shrugged and tried to look okay. “Of course.”
They stared at each other for a lengthy beat, during which all of Talia’s nerve endings sparked to attention and her lungs emptied of air. She waited, reminding herself that this unholy reaction to Tony’s presence was the number one reason why she needed to stay the hell away from him. Despite what Gloria had said, this wasn’t a man with whom one had fun. This was a man a woman could fall for and love until her dying day.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Unsmiling, he came inside the studio, bringing all of his laser-sharp intensity with him. “But I need to talk to you for a minute, Talia.”
“Talk?” Talia echoed stupidly.
“It’s important,” Tony added.
Talia stared at him, all her mental wheels spinning at top speed. Any more talking was out of the question, clearly. What good could possibly come of it? They’d talked already, and her heart was still achy from the experience. Plus, every time she saw him, it got that much harder to focus on why starting a relationship with him would inevitably lead to disaster. So the answer was clear: no more talking. Talking was bad.
She opened her mouth to tell him he needed to leave.
“Talk? Sure,” she said.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Gloria stifle a triumphant grin behind a tiny cough, which only added to Talia’s discomfort. She so did not need comments from the peanut gallery right now. Trying to be subtle about it, Talia shot Gloria a sidelong glare. Gloria, thankfully, took the hint and bustled around with a couple of boxes, trying to look busy.
Talia noticed she kept her ear cocked, though.
Filled with grim dread and making a mental note to clean Gloria’s clock at the first opportunity, Talia faced Tony again and discovered him studying the top of her head.
“What’re you looking at?”
Caught, he didn’t deny staring. “Your hair’s, ah, purple.”
His unabashed interest made Talia feel self-conscious, and that, in turn, made her defiant. Glowering, she smoothed the nape of her pageboy bob, which had flat bangs and sharp angles that framed her cheeks.
“You don’t like purple?”
His mouth eased into a smile that was both crooked and appreciative, and his teasing murmur was for her alone. “I love purple, but the blue worked for me, too. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.”
Yeah, okay, she thought, flushing until she felt her skin sizzle.
That was not the kind of thing she needed to hear if she wanted to keep her wits about her and her feet on the ground. That was the kind of dizzying compliment guaranteed to make her foolish heart flutter, and her willpower was at an ebb so low she couldn’t do much to protect herself.
Still, she tried.
“Thanks.” Squaring her shoulders, she strove for a tone that was crisp and direct. This was her territory, right? Which meant that she was in control here, even though her innards had turned to lukewarm Jell-O. “What brings you back so soon?”
He wasn’t listening.
With growing dismay, she watched as he turned back to the door and waved two men into the studio from the hallway. Being in the army had given him a decisive air she couldn’t hope to match, or maybe he’d been born that way. Whatever the reason, none of them seemed to have any doubt about who was in charge.
So much for her being in control of this little visit, she thought sourly.
“Talia Adams,” Tony said, “I’d like you to meet my cousins, Marcus Davies and his brother, Cooper. They’re my partners in the auction house.”
Two of the biggest names in the New York art world? Here? In her unworthy little studio? No. Freaking. Way. This could not be happening.
Scraping her jaw up off the floor, she arranged her lips into what she hoped was a casual smile, as if this sort of thing happened to her so often it was yawn worthy.
She knew who they were, of course, although they’d never met. As a working artist, it was her business to study the local players, and she’d seen countless photos of them in local magazines over the years. They wined, dined and traded in the art world the way Martha Stewart made her way around a kitchen, and here Talia was, trying to cobble together a cupcake or two. She was up and coming, yeah, but she’d figured she had to work, at the very least, several more years before these two would know she existed.