Sullivan took a sip of his champagne. “I’ll buy that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Can’t help noticing that she and your grandson, Nick, are having themselves a mighty serious conversation over there.”
Sullivan followed his gaze, searching for the pair over the heads of the crowd. He spotted Nick, dressed in formal black and white, standing with Octavia on the far side of the gallery.
The conversation looked more than serious, he thought. It had a close, intimate quality. Nick had one hand casually flattened on the wall behind Octavia’s head. He leaned slightly in toward her, his broad shoulders angled in a way that subtly but effectively cut her off from the crowd around them. Sullivan recognized the body language and knew that every other man in the room understood it too, if only on a subconscious level. It was a clear statement of possession, a this-woman-is-mine-tonight message.
“Oh, brother,” he said softly. “Here we go again.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you,” Mitchell said cheerfully. “Like I said, Octavia’s a nice young woman.”
“So what? You got a problem with red hair?”
“There’s something familiar about her, Mitch.”
“You’ve seen her before. She attended Hannah and Rafe’s wedding. And you met her at the Portland reception last week.”
“No, I mean something really familiar.”
“The red hair, the profile. The way she holds herself. Take a good look, man. She remind you of anyone?”
Mitchell studied Octavia for a long time.
“Well, shoot and damn,” he said at last. “She’s a dead ringer, isn’t she? Funny, I never noticed before.”
“Might explain why you took to her right off, though.”
“Well, shoot and damn,” Mitchell said again, this time sounding dazed. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Beats me,” Sullivan said. “But I figure this isn’t a coincidence.”
“Nope.” An expression of bemused wonder gleamed in Mitchell’s eyes. “No coincidence. Tell you one thing, Nick better behave himself with her.”
“What business is it of yours, how he behaves?”
“Octavia’s alone in the world. No family to protect her.”
“So you’re going to take on the job, is that it?” Sullivan asked.
“Someone’s gotta do it. That grandson of yours has a reputation for playing it fast and loose with the ladies.”
“He just hasn’t found the right woman to take Amelia’s place.”
“Way I hear it, he’s not lookin’ real hard for a wife,” Mitchell observed. “Seems like he prefers a more casual arrangement with his lady friends, one that doesn’t involve rings and a ceremony and a commitment. I hear tell they call him Hardhearted Harte in some circles.”
“Damn it, my grandson’s love life isn’t any of your business.”
“I won’t let him take advantage of Octavia, got that?” Mitchell set his jaw. “She’s not gonna be just another one of his short-term flings. You better set him real straight on that score or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Glumly, Sullivan studied the pair on the other side of the room.
“This could get complicated,” he said.
Sullivan didn’t know precisely what Mitchell was thinking, but he was willing to bet his companion was recalling the same scene he himself remembered so well. It was a scene out of their shared past: an eerie, unsettling memory of the day a flame-haired woman in a short skirt and high heels opened the door of their little office on Bay Street and told them she would make them both very rich.
They both stared, fascinated at Octavia. No doubt about it, Sullivan thought, she bore an uncanny resemblance to Claudia Banner, the mysterious creature who had blazed through their lives all those years ago, singed them both badly and turned their world upside down before she disappeared with the assets of Harte-Madison.
“Who the hell is Octavia Brightwell and what is she up to here in Eclipse Bay?” he asked very quietly.
She listened to him climb the stairs and walk down the hall toward her studio. She continued to clean her brushes. His strides were easy, smooth, full of purpose and determination. A lot of the essence of Gabe Madison was distilled in the way he moved.
She put down the brushes and went to open the door. He came to a halt in front of her. He had left his jacket in the car and removed his cuff links. The collar of his charcoal-gray shirt was open, the silver-and-black striped tie loose around his neck. He was not smiling.
“You’re late.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
“Ummm.” He wrapped an arm around her when she made to pull back, holding her close for a long, slow, blood-warming kiss.
When he finally released her she was flushed and breathless. She saw the lazy, sexy gleam in his eyes and knew that she wasn’t the only one who had been affected by the embrace.
“Thanks, I needed that,” he said. “I had a hell of an afternoon.”
“Mitchell, Sullivan, and your father all arrived unannounced in my office two hours ago, just as I was thinking of leaving early for the day. It was nothing short of an ambush.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Now what?”
He did not answer immediately. Instead he went to stand in front of her newest creation, an unfinished portrait of her mother and her grandmother and herself. The three figures were arranged around Eclipse Arch. They looked out at the viewer with steady gazes, each woman bringing the perspective of her particular phase of life to the scene, each silently acknowledging her links to the other two.
Gabe studied the picture.
“Damn, you’re good,” he said at last. “You really are good.”
“Thanks, but you’re avoiding the subject.”
“I’m a CEO. I’ve got a natural aptitude for avoiding unpleasant subjects.”
She did not like the sound of this. “What did they want, Gabe?”
“They presented a new business proposition.”
“Yeah, that was sort of my response, too.”
“They want to do a merger.”
She stared at him. It took her a few seconds to get her tongue untied. “A merger? You mean of Madison Commercial and Harte Investments?”