The Artist's Granddaughter
When Megan bids on her grandfather's painting, the last thing she expects is to be outbid by Michael Kirk, her first love. He left town years ago leaving her reputation--and her heart--in tatters. She must keep her grandfather's final legacy in her family, but Michael claims to need it for his career. He also claims to want Megan back in his life, and her betraying heart doesn't mind the idea...but does Michael want her or the painting?
Awards and Kudos
2002 Carroll Award winner (formerly the ACFW's Book of the Year)
Bolts of dislike struck the back of her head, but Megan faced forward, sat straight, felt the collar of her dress scratching the back of her neck. She studied the works of art at the front of the room, ignoring Debbie’s gaze boring into her as if today was just another day here at Carrolton High. Debbie had stopped speaking to her in the tenth grade, and now, thirteen years later, the first time Megan had been back in her old school, the woman was shadowing Megan’s every move.
From the front row of folding chairs, Megan could see every item being auctioned to benefit the school. Most of the framed works were serigraphs and lithographs, but a few were original oil paintings. Granddad’s last oil was framed in painted gold wood, museum-style, and the next to be put on the auction easel. She twisted the sapphire ring on her right hand without looking down.
After an elderly gentleman bought a Civil War sketch, two young boys lifted Granddad’s picture onto the tripod, and the auctioneer gave a brief description of the oils used to paint the rustic cottage on the canvas. The gardens of muted pastel flowers sparkled as if made from crushed opals and emeralds. Of course, the auctioneer didn’t know how warm the man had been who’d so lovingly crafted the piece and carefully signed Delano Roberts in the lower right corner. This was business tonight.
He opened the bidding at eight hundred dollars, which Megan had expected. Her checkbook sat securely in her purse, plumped with the funds she’d been saving for this event. Even though her parents hadn’t left her much in the way of money, she’d done all right for herself, preparing for the day, this day, when she could dramatically reclaim her heritage. Megan’s excitement dimmed a bit when she thought of Granddad, and how much she missed him.
“One thousand,” Megan said, after someone’s bid of nine hundred, and she emphasized the thousand. Her pulse quickened. This piece would be going home with her tonight, no matter how high the bidding went.
“One thousand from the pretty lady with the gold hair.” He paused and listened. “Eleven hundred, do I have twelve? Twelve? Twelve hundred?”
Megan nodded. The auctioneer had pointed to someone behind her again, and Megan turned to look, searching for another elderly person who liked the painting. She wanted to stare him down.
Instead, she gasped. The woman now bidding thirteen hundred dollars was none other than Debbie Grimes, who stood tottering on narrow heels, swinging long dark hair as she tried to outbid Megan.
“Fifteen hundred,” Megan said, loud and clear. Her blood pumped faster and her face warmed. People were whispering behind her back, probably wondering if she’d lost her mind. Debbie had some nerve! Had she somehow figured out why Megan wanted the piece so badly? Could she have that much spite left after all these years?
The portly, bearded auctioneer sweated profusely while he looked back and forth between his competing bidders, clearly unexpected in this small town charity benefit. Megan figured he would rub his greedy little hands together with glee if he didn’t have that wood gavel to play with.
Megan raised her program, showing her bidder number on the back cover, indicating she’d go the two thousand now needed to top Debbie’s last bid. The smell of gym socks pervaded her senses when she tried to take a calming breath, and she could taste the rusty water from the hall fountain as if she’d drank from it yesterday. Sitting even straighter, she glanced Debbie’s way again, and bit her lip when she saw the ice in her old friend’s eyes. Granddad always nagged at her to stop biting that lower lip, but he wasn’t around to do that anymore. So what if no boys—make that men—would notice her if she bit her lip? There were none to notice, anyhow. She could have a good old chomping session if she really got nervous!
Words echoed around the makeshift auditorium and before Megan knew what had hit her, Debbie had bid over four thousand dollars for the painting.
Megan had only five thousand dollars to her name.
She blinked, considering her checking account and the tiny savings account she held at the local bank. Swaying slightly, she wished she’d sat in the second row so she’d have a chair back to clutch for balance. Yes, she could go a little higher, but at serious risk to her security blanket. It didn’t matter. She had to have Granddad’s last piece—and she’d promised her father she’d find it and keep it in the family.
“Four thousand five hundred,” the auctioneer chanted, waving his gavel and pointing at Debbie, questioning the bidder who had fallen silent.
Megan smiled, her shoulders losing some of their tension. She clutched her program, ready to show her number to the auction recorder as the highest bidder, when another voice rang out. A male voice.
“Six thousand,” came the confident bid from the back of the room.
Megan froze again. She knew that voice. Hadn’t heard it in years, but knew it as though it had whispered in her ear every night. With moist palms, she turned and leaned to look over the crowd. A man stood just inside the bright blue doors, arms crossed in front of his wide, well-suited chest.
Her teeth sank into the softness of her lip.
Michael Kirk was back.
Megan swung to face the stage again, her heart thundering in her ears.
Tilting her head up, she pretended to study another picture, willing the tears to stay in her eyes and not add to her humiliation. She’d lost Granddad’s painting.
At the very least, she hadn’t lost it to Debbie Grimes. But Michael? He hadn’t shown his face in Carroll County in a dozen years—and back then, he’d been a long-haired kid in jeans and leather. Just like she had been.
Sighing, Megan turned slightly and looked to where he had stood, but he wasn’t in sight. It had to have been him. Her nervous system confirmed it, even though the well-groomed man who outbid her wore a dark grey suit and tie and didn’t resemble the scruffy teenager she remembered. So why did the grown up Michael want the oil?
Around her, the auction went on. Men and women dressed in their finest moved around the warm gym fanning their faces with the auction programs. Auction staff lifted art onto the display easel. The auctioneer started another bid.
As a huge Tarkay print of sophisticated ladies went up for sale Megan thought she should leave. There was nothing else here for her to bid on. The one thing she’d come for, the only thing that had any meaning, had gone to the highest bidder and it hadn’t been her.
Megan’s heart pounded to match the falling gavel. She could talk to Michael and maybe convince him to sell the painting to her. Approaching him would be uncomfortable, but they were both adults now, and she could perhaps explain the situation. Surely, he would remember how close she was to her grandfather, and if he only knew why she needed to own the painting, surely he’d sell it. Of course, he’d want six thousand for it. He couldn’t be expected to take a loss. Somehow, she’d come up with the extra grand.
Slowly she made her way to the back of the gym, nodding to acquaintances as she went. Would any of them recall the gossip about her and Michael? Had any of them believed it then? An elderly lady in a wool coat and purple Fedora smiled at Megan as she grabbed her own coat from a metal rack. Would Mrs. Pemberton still be smiling if she knew Megan was about to try and charm Michael Kirk?
The restroom door opened and Debbie appeared, which placed both women at the outer doors simultaneously. Megan hung back a pace and let Debbie go through first. Debbie wouldn’t meet Megan’s steady gaze, but pushed forward, then stopped suddenly, and Megan nearly collided into her.
“Michael!” Debbie had stopped to gawk.
Michael leaned against one brick wall, a leg propped up like a cowboy lazing around the ranch, his arms again crossed in front of him. He smiled, but regarded Debbie with little apparent recognition, instead turning toward Megan as she pushed past the brunette.
“Megan,” he said, gaze intent as he dropped his foot and straightened. “You look great.” He sounded surprised, whether at seeing her, or at the chance to talk to her, she couldn’t tell.
The words were so soft she had to move closer to hear him, and she noticed from the corner of her eye that Debbie was stalking off.
“Hello Michael. You’re looking well yourself.” Inwardly she winced at her choice of words. After everything they’d shared, “looking well” sounded lame. But her stomach was not cooperating, it was alive, fluttering; words were trying to change font or something on the way from her brain to her mouth.
“I didn’t expect to see you tonight. You don’t still live here?” Hands shoved deep into his trouser pockets now, Michael looked every inch the rugged guy she’d known so well, just in smoother wrapping.
“I’m afraid so. Never left.” Not that you’d know that, she thought, not wanting to speak the words and sound bitter.
He shook his head but the soft brown hair, cut shorter than his high-school shagginess, scarcely moved. She remembered it longer, tickling her cheek when he’d bent his head close to hers.
Megan realized he was staring, probably waiting for her to speak. What had he said? The October night air became a cold cloak around them and she swallowed hard.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
He grinned then, tilting his head in that way she remembered. “Just wondering what you’ve been up to job-wise. Do you work here in Carrolton?”
“I have a little shop in town,” she said, “but most of my business comes from Baltimore.” Would he remember her interests or just assume she sold flowers or dry goods? “How about you?” The wind picked up, pushing strands of hair into her face and tickling her neck.
“I’m in a small legal practice in Roanoke.” He looked her up and down, shoved a hand through his hair. “It’s getting cold out here, you should get going.” The grin returned. “You’re going to freeze to death in that little dress.”
Setting her purse on a low brick wall, she wiggled into the coat she’d forgotten to put on. Cheers rose from inside the gym, and Megan remembered why she’d approached Michael.
“Would you like to get a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk to you about something.” She shivered, a bone-chilling spine shiver, and wondered if coffee with the man who’d broken her heart was such a good idea. But this was far too important.
“Megan,” he said as the doors swooshed open. He yanked her from the path of a large frame being carried to the parking lot. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He stepped back from her, but held her with his gaze.
She’d always loved the blue-green-gray of his eyes. Mood eyes.
“What would your friends in town say? Look, there goes Megan Roberts with that boy who ruined her reputation in high school?” He leaned close, letting her smell his woodsy pine scent mixed with the peppermint of his breath. He held her arm firm. “What would your parents say, Megan? Would they get a restraining order?”
She wrenched her arm free. “My parents have been dead for seven years, Michael.” Her pulse raced with apprehension now instead of excitement. She had to speak with him about Granddad’s painting. “And no one here even knows about what happened thirteen years ago.” Forcing her voice to a steady, calm pace, she kept eye contact with him.
She saw the change in his demeanor by the color of his chameleon eyes, the angry green fading to a docile grey.
“I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard about your parents.” He sighed. “I know you loved them very much.”
Too much, she heard him add silently. “Thanks. Granddad just passed away recently, too, and that’s why I need to talk to you.”
Michael closed his eyes briefly, then opened them, nodding his agreement. “OK, just coffee. I certainly don’t want to be the reason you’re mangling this little lip.” He reached out and traced her lips, gently, staring down at her.
Megan licked the lip she routinely used as a tension outlet. Funny he’d mentioned it. He should have seen it thirteen years ago.
Warming in the wood-decor cafe, Megan clutched her ceramic mug like a lifeline. She eyed Michael across the paneled table, taking in how the years had changed him. Matured him. Made him even more handsome than she’d remembered.
What was she doing? The last thing she needed was to be seen in public with him, let alone in the small town’s only coffee shop, drooling over a man like him. With a reputation like his. A man she had a past with, one whom some of the older members of the community would remember with distaste. She could still picture their disapproving faces.
The scent of cinnamon drifted over from the next table as the waitress delivered hot pastry, drawing Megan’s attention from the past.
“Megan Marie Roberts,” Michael began, pushing back in his chair as he set down his mug. “I’d never expected to see you again. Or if I did, I would’ve thought you’d be married with three kids and traveling around in a wood-paneled station wagon. No, this is the twenty-first century. A mini-van.” His grin eased his words.
Megan prickled. “And how do you know I’m not?”
Guilt crossed his face, fleetingly. He shrugged. “Asked around.”
“When I saw the back of your head at the auction, and your undeniably nice backside. Seems all the old faithful residents of Carrolton know you and your marital status.”
Her cup clanked on the table. “You knew you were bidding against me?” She sat straight in the wood chair. Why had he bid on her painting?
“No…yes, I was bidding, but no, once I recognized you, I wanted to see you, but wasn’t planning on competing with you,” he said, shifting in his seat. “That wasn’t my intention.”
Was he uncomfortable?
“Say, did you ever do anything with your talent at putting nice stones together like jewelry?”
Megan smiled, shaking her head at his attempt to change the subject. But she was proud of her work, and eager to tell him about it.
“I’m a gemologist. I buy and sell semi-precious stones, and set them into gold. It is jewelry.”
Lisa, their waitress, approached with a decanter to refill their cups. “And she won an award last year, too!” Beaming, Lisa winked at Michael. “And she’s pretty as a gem herself, too, ain’t she?”
Michael grinned as Megan’s cheeks fired up. Didn’t Lisa know who Michael was? Chattering on, the waitress left for another table, patting her ponytail as she went.
“Why? I’m no lawyer.” Instantly she regretted her tone. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. She’s new—”
“Yes, you did. You meant it, but that’s OK. I resemble that remark.” Michael fished in his pocket and tossed a twenty dollar bill on the table.
Wondering if her face could possibly explode from the blood flood, Megan dabbed at it with her paper napkin.
“Why would it matter if Lisa was new or not?” He stood up, as understanding dawned on his face. “Guess she hasn’t heard about the evil Michael Kirk, huh? I’m outta here. I have to check in with Mrs. McCreary by ten, anyway.”
Megan rose and tried to look friendly. “The old Bed and Breakfast?”
He nodded. “Where can I drop you?”
A sarcastic remark about him dropping her thirteen years ago crossed her snippy little mind. Instead she bit her tongue, and lip. “Not necessary. Can I leave the tip?”
“No, we lawyers make a lot.” The look he gave her said it all. Her derogatory comment had offended him.
She reached for her purse. “Michael, before we go our separate ways,” she said, knowing they must do just that. A twinge of regret surprised her as she pushed in her chair. Going our own ways...like we did all those years ago. “I need to ask you a favor.”
One dark eyebrow lifted.
“My timing’s never been the best,” she went on as Lisa came to collect their cups, grabbing the paper napkins and empty creamer containers.
“But I really need something you have.”
“Sounds interesting.” He tilted his head to indicate she should move toward the door, away from listening ears. Could that eyebrow arch any higher?
“The painting you just bought, the Delano Roberts, was the last one Granddad did before he died.” She took a deep breath, and since he said nothing, rushed on. “We never found the mural paintings, even after Dad died, and I really need to keep that last painting in the family, it’s kind of a grand finale, you know?” She took a breath. “Anyway, I really need to buy that piece from you. I’ll pay you as much as you paid—”
“I’m sorry, Megan.” His voice was soft, gentle.
“You want more? I could probably make payments—”
“I’m very sorry, Megan.”
The coffee taste in her mouth turned acidic, heavy, weighing down her tongue. “Wha—what?”
“I’m sorry you want that painting. I know exactly who the artist is. Was. But it’s not for sale.”
(Saturday, 21 January 2012) Rating: 4 Book Reviewed by Bridget at The Romance Reviewsrn rnrn rnInspirational romance as a genre is quite a departure...
PBG Marketing Dept