LENGTH: 29,477 words
RELEASE DATE: January 2016
Their love was no secret, but did he dare tell her the rest of the truth?
Aurora Snow has a secret—one she inherited from her dying mother. Now she has to decide what to do about it, which is especially hard when she doesn’t believe it can be true. For over forty years, she’s never cared about what her mother was hiding about the past. Why should learning about her father change anything now? She’s happy with herself, her art, and the new man in her life. Jeremiah is everything she ever dreamed of finding in a man. Isn’t the perfect lover really all a woman needs to be happy?
Jeremiah Cranston has secrets. The biggest is that he’s fallen crazily in love with the target of his investigation. His boss is already upset that he’s sleeping with her. Jeremiah’s more upset that he’s having to lie to Aurora about his purpose in her life. Finding out she’s a Dare would be the worst thing possible for both of them, even if it is his job to do just that. When all his secrets are revealed to Aurora, it’s going to be hard as hell for him to protect a woman who hates him.
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“Nigel—darling—I can’t promise glamorous. I can only promise to be nude. Well, mostly nude. I’ll be painting my body for this one. At one point of the performance, I even pour it over my shoulder and down my back. What you’re asking for is not practical. I’ll be covered in blue paint when I’m done.”
“Aurora—sweetheart—no, no, no. Everyone, absolutely everyone, will want to chat with the brave soul who would dare reveal her still hot, over forty body for the sake of her art. It would be preferable for you to not do your chatting in a shabby robe which will only make us both self-conscious. That would be pushing the starving artist thing a bit too far. No one is going to pay thousands for a painting by a woman in a bathrobe, no matter how well-preserved the package hiding under it is.”
Aurora laughed as she pushed one earbud into place and then plugged the headphone’s jack into the end of her phone. When Nigel’s cajoling voice was clear again, she put the other earbud in and dropped the phone into an empty pocket of her painting smock. She hated carrying technology around with her. It gave off such terrible energy.
“I will try to keep the paint off my face and out of my hair, Nigel. That’s really the best I can do unless there’s a shower in the gallery you booked.”
“No dear. There’s a farm sink in the restoration room. It’s nearly the size of a bathtub, but definitely not suitable for bathing. The best I can do is provide everything you need for a sink bath cleanup. If you want, I can even assist to make sure you get paint off all the important and visible parts. Then we can saunter back into the showing together, pretending to be unaffected by it all. Wear something black and sassy. Put on gobs of makeup to get that mysterious woman thing going with those luscious chocolate eyes of yours. You’ll look as stunning as always.”
Wincing internally at the idea of Nigel—a man she’d known for over a decade—watching her wash performance paint out of her crevices, Aurora lectured herself for hesitating. He had been her agent for years and the man was gay for pity’s sake. As far as she knew, Nigel wasn’t even bi in the least. What in the world was wrong with her lately?
She rolled her eyes as she listened to Nigel’s lectures about the delicate balance to be maintained between eccentric artist and successful marketer. Silently sighing over a lecture he’d given her many times, Aurora started gathering up her supplies.
Her mood had shifted and now painting would be a waste of both her energy and time. She placed each sealed tube of acrylic in the carrier. Stripping a sheet of plastic wrap from a nearby roll, she clear wrapped the paint pallet she’d been using. She’d mixed the perfect cyan blend and hoped it stayed liquid enough overnight to use it as a guide tomorrow.
“Aurora Snow? Are you still listening to me? Focus, darling. We only have a few days left to get all the details ironed out.”
“Yes. I’m still here, Nigel. I was just thinking about how best to get the paint off as quickly as possible. How about I wear a bright blue dress instead of black? The paint would blend in if I happen to miss removing some.”
“Blue dress? Don’t be gauche. Black, sweetheart. Nothing but black. Blue screams tomboy next door, which is definitely not you. Mystery, Aurora. Your art is all about mystery.”
Aurora chuckled. “Sorry. I was being practical for once. Whatever was I thinking?”
“You used to not think about such things at all. That’s what people liked about you—especially the rich men who bought your work.”
Nigel’s comment was only half-teasing. Her dating life was disappearing as she aged. She was over forty now and getting picky about who she spent time with. There was so much drama going on in her life that she was lucky her artist’s mojo was functional these days.
She hadn’t felt right since her mother’s death from cancer. Nor had she dealt with the bomb her dying parent had dropped on her before departing. Her mother’s dying wish had stunned her into an emotional numbness that even after many months still hadn’t gone away.
“I’ll work something out and ask if I need help. Thank you, Nigel. I hope we make a lot of money.”
“Doll, you always make money. We have more RSVPs than the fire code allows. You pull in a crowd every time you come here, Aurora. I’ll call you back in a couple days and you can tell me your plan to pull it off then. Ciao, Bella.”
“Ciao, Nigel. Talk to you soon.” Aurora ended the phone call before letting herself sigh loudly and long. She hated being in a bad mood.
It was the secrets. Damn, frustrating secrets. Her mother had been a master at keeping them. And now she had inherited the burden. What she had learned was severely disrupting her creativity.
For most of her forty-three years on this earth, she’d shoved her mother’s love of secrecy aside and told herself what the woman kept hidden didn’t matter. So what if she never confirmed the identity of the man who provided the other half of her genetic material?
It wasn’t like her mother had told her a story about unrequited love. No. The woman who’d judged her as sinful had confessed on her deathbed to infidelity with a highly public and very married man. Such an unwanted child would be better off to just ignore the information. It was bad enough her father had rejected her. Why would her mother want her to let her father’s family reject her too?
As an older woman herself, she had felt sorry for Eliza Snow, the woman. There hadn’t been many options back when her mother had conceived her. Saddled with an illegitimate child by a married man, it was no wonder her mother had never married. But what a terrible, self-esteem destroying situation to have been paid by someone you loved to hide his child. The woman who bore her had martyred her life. And for what? To atone her one and only moment of female weakness, and in the process protect the reputation of the worthless male who had seduced her?
God—no one would ever catch her doing such a thing. No way. No how. She lived above board. Let people judge her for sleeping around and ruthlessly cutting the men loose afterward. In forty years she’d never let anyone, especially her mother, stop her from living life as she saw fit. She was doubly grateful now to have rebelled. Though in the grand scheme of things, remaining single had not exactly been a deliberate decision on her part.
The hard truth was that she’d never come across a man capable of tolerating her getting naked in front of strangers for the sake of making a social point. Nor had she met anyone who sincerely believed in her capacity to make a living from her art, even the more benign part of it, like her selling her paintings. Oh, there’d been a couple who showed promise here and there over the years, but in the end, she’d proved too radical.
In her life, men had mostly served the single purpose of providing orgasms when she felt the need for them. That justification for inviting someone into her bed had never caused her a moment’s loss of sleep. At least it hadn’t until she’d had to emotionally deal with hearing how her father had treated her mother just as casually. The last time she’d questioned her ethics had been in her late twenties. Should she now regret her many relationships after finding out information which she had no evidence at this point was even true?
Aurora looked in the hallway mirror and snorted at the guilty woman staring back at her.
“You know why you suddenly care?” she questioned her reflection. “It’s because you finally realized you’re truly alone in this cold, uncaring world, Aurora Jean Snow. No mother. No father. No siblings or family. And certainly, no caring lover warming your bed every night. Getting old is definitely going to suck for you, lady.”
Shaking her head to dispel her depressive funk, she sent her long natural curls falling down her back swinging in time with her denial.
Even if one day she discovered the information her mother has shared was all true, parentage wasn’t everything. There were hundreds of documented studies that proved that.
She had painstakingly made herself into someone she liked and respected. She had honored her creativity and the heart that made it possible.
So her mother would just have to keep wringing her hands and shaking her head from the afterlife. She was not contacting her sperm donor’s family. Finding out was not going to change anything important. She would never let it.
“Tyler, man—are you sure this is the right address? It looks like someone’s house, not an art gallery. I thought you said the woman I was looking for was an affluent artist. The front yard hasn’t been mowed in several weeks. The place isn’t quite a dump, but it’s close. There’s for damn sure no Dare money magic happening here, compadre. Your gut just might be wrong for once.”
Jeremiah Cranston leaned against his almost classic Beamer and fought not to sigh. He reminded himself not to complain even if this one assignment sucked ass. Working with his Army buddies at Double Down was still a much better gig than the fake security position his father had offered him guarding his family’s oil wells. His father’s business had used the same security firm since he’d been a kid. The job wouldn’t require any of his real skills. It would only require falling in with family plans he wanted no part of.
While investigating a house that looked like it belonged in a horror novel wasn’t his idea of a dream job, he’d hang in there with Double Down a bit longer. His military career hadn’t programmed him for quitting anyway.
“Yeah, dude. I’m still here. But I’m not going in until you tell me this is the right place. Who knows what might be lurking in there?”
He heard Tyler’s fingers clicking on a computer keyboard and two interruptions happening in the background. Both made the clicking stop. In his family, you left organization up to people you hired and paid them gobs of money not to bother you with the details. They didn’t knock on your door to ask a bunch of questions while you were on the phone.
Despite being Robert Dare’s son, Tyler certainly wasn’t cut from the same cloth. He talked to people. Hell, he talked to both sides of his family. The man had dealt with his father’s secrets a hell of a lot better than he would have in his shoes.
It did make him wonder though. How much was he like his father? Arlo Cranston was a third generation oilman in the lone star state. He was used to people doing what he wanted and that included his carefully conceived children. His father had that in common with Robert Dare.
Jeremiah knew father still hadn’t forgiven him for going into the army. His mother hadn’t forgiven him either, but mostly for not running home the moment he got out. She was not so very subtly trying to finagle him into marrying one of the Dallas bred and cultured debutantes. His mother had been secretly grooming all of those she sponsored as candidates for her third and final daughter-in-law position.
If he went back to Texas before he was old enough to inherit his grandfather’s trust fund in four more years, he’d be swept into a boring relationship with a boring woman who’d never been outside Dallas, much less Texas. Hell no, he wasn’t going home. That shit was never happening to him.
He focused on his phone call with renewed interest. He listened intently to Tyler still tapping rapidly on a keyboard as he searched for all the notes he’d compiled on the horror house’s alleged artist-in-residence.
“What’s her name again?” Jeremiah demanded. He remembered. He was just getting bored waiting so long. His grin widened when Tyler swore in his ear.
“Aurora something. Look it up. I sent you that already. Now shut up and let me read. I have the report from the background check. You’d think her address would be up front, but it’s not. She works out of New York. That’s all over the place. Scott was the one who found it last time, but he’s not in the office today.”
“Okay. I sure hope there aren’t too many big words in that report. I may have to break for dinner and come back if you start looking up definitions for things in the dictionary. I wouldn’t want to abuse your expense account by wasting time.”
The clicking in his ear told him Tyler was now officially ignoring him again. Since his teasing wasn’t getting him any stimulating conversation, his busy brain went back to thinking about what it had before.
In his opinion, there was no good reason for his family to want him to marry so badly. His older brothers had provided plenty of Cranston grandchildren. Why did he need to produce more? Babies and family weren’t in his plans, at least not in the foreseeable future. Hell, maybe not forever, because he just couldn’t bring such a life to mind at all. He saw himself traveling… and doing something purposeful. Was it wrong of him to want to leave the oil well business to his brothers? His nature had always been better suited to being a black sheep than a white one.
Jeremiah knew he was lucky Double Down could financially support his avoidance of going home. In fact, he was exceedingly grateful, which is how Tyler Dare had sweet-talked him into discreetly chasing down another potential family blunder. The current Dare generation was still learning to live with their father’s revelation of his secret. It made no sense to him why Tyler would be so hell-bent eager to dig up the bones of yet another one.
He suddenly had an epiphany that made him grin. Holding the phone between his ear and his shoulder, he hurriedly searched all his pockets for the paper with his target’s address. He pulled it out just in time to hear Tyler confirm it. He decided to save himself a cussing out session by saying nothing about the paper in his hand.
“Yeah… okay. That’s exactly where I am. Yeah, I’m sure. It’s printed on the old mailbox at the curb. If she’s in there, I’ll find her for you. Let me get off here and go check things out.”
Ending the call, Jeremiah slid his phone into his leather jacket pocket. He left his car parked curbside and headed up the sidewalk, ignoring the weeds even though they bothered him greatly. It would take about ten damn minutes to mow the postage stamp sized yard. How lazy could the owner be not to be bothered with making the effort? Hell, you could pay some kid ten bucks to do it.
He’d mowed enough yards as a teenager to know what it took because his father had been a big believer in teaching his sons the vagaries of manual labor. Probably thought it would make the light work of oil rig watching highly appealing. He’d be outraged to know those yard mowing jobs had been the very thing that had whetted his youngest child’s appetite to experience the physical.
Tyler hadn’t had to work hard to recruit him into Double Dare because he was all about entrepreneurship. The sheer joy of making money for himself still ruled his life decisions. Four years of yard mowing summers during high school had provided enough money for a nice down payment on his BMW before he left for college. Too bad he hadn’t taken to college life. To this day, he still had no idea what he’d do if he went back. It was why he hadn’t.
But the Army had been great. There hadn’t been a single boring minute from his perspective. Eight years of Army pay had been good enough to finish paying off his car. He’d also managed to put enough away for an independent start to his civilian life. His life choices would expand when he turned thirty-five and received his trust fund. But until then, he’d fill the hours with solid work while thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Jeremiah rang the nearly flattened doorbell but heard no sound echoing inside. Given the state of the yard, the doorbell not working didn’t surprise him in the least. He knocked loudly—more than once—but still got no response. He couldn’t really tell if anyone was home because the front windows were shaded and the garage had no windows to see a car. There was only a tiny peephole in the door, but the silence made him start doubting.
At least her absence would explain the damn unmowed yard.
Deciding to investigate a little more of the property, he walked off the porch and then followed a tiny sidewalk to the back. There was a tall privacy fence around the backyard, taller than the usual six foot. In fact, this one towered over him at more like eight or ten feet. Even at six foot two he didn’t come near to seeing over the enormous gate.
However… on the other side of the tall wooden barrier, he heard music and a woman’s voice speaking dramatically. Someone was obviously home, so his trip hadn’t been for nothing. He listened through tiny cracks in the fence, but couldn’t make out what she was saying. There wasn’t enough space between the slats to see in, which made him wonder what the hell the woman was hiding back there.
Finally, he knocked on the gate—figured it was the polite thing to do—but all he heard afterward was her as she continued speaking steadily along with some sort of background music.
Now what? He couldn’t see through the wooden slats, but on closer inspection, he saw the gate didn’t seem to be locked. Tyler didn’t comment on how pushy—or not—he was supposed to be. He waited a minute or two more before deciding he’d risk being rude and offending her. He wanted to at least make some sort of contact.
Jeremiah drew in a breath and put on his best smile as he swung open the gate. The smile fell away at the sight of two naked breasts gleaming boldly in the afternoon sunlight. They were so beautiful his gaze barely found his way up from them. Her eyes were covered with dark glasses. Chocolate brown hair with streaks of red fell nearly to her waist.
For a moment, he was struck by how surreal she was. Then reality returned swiftly. What the hell kind of woman stood half naked in her backyard in the middle of the damn afternoon? Anyone could have walked in on her. She was lucky it had been just him.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Jeremiah said, nodding briefly. If he’d had a hat on, he’d have tipped the brim in apology. His gaze struggled not to drop to her breasts and stay there. He could tell she was very aware of the fact. Even behind the glasses, he could feel her boring holes through him with her gaze. “I sincerely apologize for intruding, but no one answered my knock out front. I heard you back here and… sorry. I’ll get to the point. I’m looking for Aurora Borealis—the artist.”
He heard her swear as she walked to the wireless speaker and switched it off. He saw her fumbling with her phone and swiping madly—probably the source of the music. He wanted to grin at the sight of her looking down over her own breasts, but didn’t dare. The woman seemed to be as tech-savvy as she was beautiful, which was another point he gave her.
“Let me put a shirt on Tex, and we’ll talk.”
“Don’t bother for my benefit,” Jeremiah blurted out. At her exasperated snort, he backpedaled fast. “Sorry. That comment was pure reflex. I wasn’t expecting to find… well, you naked in your backyard, I guess. I haven’t seen such a beautiful set of breasts in a long time—no offense, ma’am. I’m just trying to explain my bad manners.”
“Why would I take offense at a compliment however poorly it was presented?”
Aurora pulled the shirt she’d recently discarded back over her head. Between Nigel’s worries and the constant interruptions, she was never going to get through her practice.
“Come see my show in New York. You’ll get to see a lot more than my breasts if that’s what you’re into. I was practicing my performance just now.”
“For what? An artistic strip show?” Jeremiah asked, instantly wishing he could control his tongue when she sighed in exasperation and shook her head over his comments.
“No. It’s a feminist monologue called Being Blue. It’s about a women’s inner struggle with depression about her body image. My entire body—including my breasts—is part of my art, Tex. I’m not asking you to be down-home comfortable with it. In fact, most people will cringe at my message. You have a right to think whatever you like, just like I have a right to do what the hell I want in my own damn yard. Let’s not forget the fact that you’re the intruder here.”
“Sorry. You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” Jeremiah conceded, truly regretful he’d offended her so soon. It wasn’t going to help his case. “Are you Aurora Borealis? That’s who I’m looking for.”
Aurora laughed softly. She always did when someone asked for her by the moniker she’d given herself. To be fair to the younger guy, it did sound a bit like a stripper’s name. But no one forgot it—which was the point. Nigel had worked a month on how best to spin it.
She forced a polite smile to her face and kept her glasses on so the insensitive guy wouldn’t see her glaring at him. “Yes. I am Aurora—the daughter of the northern lights. I share my feminine power with those who can bear witness to a brilliance which redeems the darkness of their ignorant winters.”
“Yes, ma’am. I won’t deny your breasts looked powerfully capable of lighting up nearly anything or anyone within visual range,” Jeremiah agreed with a laugh. When she was silent over his continued teasing, he hung his head. “Shit. I don’t know what happened to my manners. I must have left them in my car—which is parked by your curb, by the way. I hope that’s okay.”
Aurora folded her arms over her breasts to hide what she could of her physical reaction to him. They now tingled with reluctant awareness of his masculinity. His cockiness matched the width of his shoulders and went well with the way his jeans emphasized his other assets. Normally she was immune to young men like him. She was definitely not being herself lately.
“Why are you here, Tex? Don’t bother trying to bullshit me with that drawl. I want a real answer.”
Jeremiah glanced heavenward. If he told her now, he’d get nowhere. Plus Tyler would be pissed he’d screwed up too royally for anyone else to come in after him and finish the job. So he gave the only reason he could think of that he figured she’d believe.
“I came to buy a painting… for my mother. She’s a huge fan of yours.”
Snorting, Aurora shook her head. “Definitely not buying that lie, Tex. Your haircut says military, but your fingernails are practically manicured. That tells me you lived a soft life until Uncle Sam got hold of you. So my guess is you’ve recently exited and reverted back to your wealthy grooming habits. Since you talk like you own the world, you’re probably the son of some Texas debutante who nailed a rich oilman.”
Jeremiah winced at her accuracy. “Damn—that’s very close. My mother wasn’t a debutante but wanted to be. She resolved that by making my brothers marry two of them. My father actually is an oilman. That was spot on. I wasn’t aware that I was making such a poor impression on you with my speech.”
“I didn’t say your southern charm was totally lost on me. Artists are just keen observers… and listeners,” Aurora added dryly. “Now tell me the truth. Did your father send you to buy one of my paintings? Men his age never want their wives to know they like my art. It always surprises me that so few long-term relationships have any real honesty about happenings in the bedroom.”
Jeremiah rubbed his head and sighed. “No. My father doesn’t know I’m here. I promise you. He’d not be pleased if he knew what I was doing.”
“Okay. I guess I’m still intrigued about your purpose then. Tell me a story I will believe,” Aurora demanded. “Did you lose a bet with friends?”
Because plausible lying was not one of his talents, Jeremiah nodded with relief at her suggestion. It was close enough to the truth to use as an alibi. Tyler had hand-picked him for this job. Now he could see why. He was something Aurora wouldn’t expect… and he could easily have been one of her wealthy patrons… or apparently the son of one.
“All right. Here’s my story. I am fresh out of the military and putting together my first real apartment. One of my smartass friends told me about you. He dared me to come here and get one of your paintings.”
Aurora laughed. “Why? You got five thousand in a bank account you’re willing to spend on your apartment? I’d advise you to buy a bed first. Then maybe a couch and other furniture. Find a starving artist outlet and buy their art. You should probably start small.”
Jeremiah laughed at her advice. Her bluntness showed her age in a way her body didn’t. He had to be as honest as he could be. The woman would not believe just any old bullshit.
“It’s more like I have five million waiting in several accounts, but I’m not going to get that money for a few years yet. Got anything in the two thousand dollars range? Don’t want to hock my BMW just to win a damn bet. It’s more than a rich boy’s toy. I actually need my car to get to work.”
Aurora laughed. “At least that last statement rings true. What do you do for a living, Tex?”
Shit. Now he’d done it. Jeremiah ducked his head as he did some quick thinking. “Besides insult gorgeous performance artists, you mean?”
Jeremiah looked off, more uncomfortable by the second with not being completely truthful. She was beautiful and nice. The fact he was still talking to her without the police present was proof of that. He sighed and turned back to face her. She had yet to remove her sunglasses. He didn’t begrudge her the personal protection they afforded.
“I’m sort of in-between jobs. Mostly I’m hiding out with Army buddies so I don’t have to go home to Texas. Unlike my brothers, I have a healthy fear of marriage-minded debutantes… and my mother’s feminine power.”
Her laughter over his teasing this time surprised him. It also delighted him.
He stuck out his hand. “Can we please start over? I’m Jeremiah Cranston. That really is my name.”
Still laughing, she took his hand in hers and drew off her sunglasses with the other. He found himself staring into eyes the color of the darkest chocolate he’d ever seen. They were so dark they almost looked artificial.
“I’m Aurora Snow. My performance name is Aurora Borealis. If you feel inclined to make another stripper joke, you can climb right back into your car and drive the hell away.”
His hand dropped from hers at the warning. “No, ma’am. No more bad jokes.”
“Alright then. Come on Tex. You got this far with your bet. The least I can do is show you a few of my etchings. Whether you buy anything or not, at least you can say you visited. Close the gate behind you and meet me around front. My art displays are in the front two rooms.”
Jeremiah breathed a sigh of relief over his reprieve as he closed the towering gate behind him. Now he just had to find a way to spend a bit more time with her so he could learn about her past. He pulled his phone out as he stopped at the corner of the house.
He turned on the microphone feature to record and raised it to his mouth. “No violet eyes,” he said quietly, getting the most obvious thing out of the way.
He paused, looked around, and then sent what he imagined Tyler would want to know.
“No signs of obvious wealth in material possessions either. Eccentricities obviously run high in her nature because I found the woman partially naked in her backyard. She explained she was practicing her performance art. Seems to have a strong feminist bent. Age range is right around forty like your research suggests, but she looks much younger. So do her breasts by the way… and no autocorrect did not screw up just now. Will report back again when I get to see the rest of her.”
Ending the recording with a swipe, Jeremiah sent the info to Tyler. He smiled about his notes and at what Tyler was going to say when he heard them. He also smiled as he pondered what it was going to take to talk Aurora into having dinner with him. Buying a painting and taking her to eat would hopefully assuage the worst of his guilt.
The woman was charming—charming enough to sell him her entire stock. He was definitely going to take advantage of the expense account Tyler and Scott had offered. Investigating Aurora might cost both him and Double Down a couple thousand each, but now that he’d gotten this far, he was determined not to fail in finding out what Tyler and Scott wanted to know.
His gut was in denial of it though. He’d met more than a few of the Dares attending their notorious parties as a guest of Tyler’s. None of the Dares were remotely like Aurora Snow. All of them would no doubt be appalled to hear Tyler and Scott suspected the outrageous artist might have Dare blood running through her veins.
But if the sexy woman hadn’t been a task he had to complete? Hell, he might have been tempted to get to know her just for himself. Aurora was charming, sharp-witted… and freaking gorgeous regardless of age. If she was doing well with her art, he could definitely see why. She was charisma personified, even when pissed at you.
He’d never met a woman so unapologetically sure of herself and who she was. Aurora was the most mesmerizing woman he’d ever met.
Too bad she was also a job.