Forced to sell precious family heirlooms to pay for her mother’s cancer medications, Loral Evans swallows her pride when handsome antique dealer Jake Coburn offers her one thousand dollars for a dragonfly brooch they both know is fake. She simply can’t afford to walk away.
On the brink of bankruptcy, Jake is taking a huge risk on Loral’s costume jewelry. Then again, it’s Christmas, and he hasn’t been able to resist her since the first time she entered his shop. When he discovers new information about the brooch's connection to the ill-fated Titanic, Jake's attempt to do the right thing just might cost him his business and a future with Loral.
Loral hunched her shoulders and jogged toward the bus stop. Despite the December chill biting through her coat, humiliation still burned her cheeks. It was bad enough that she knew he knew she was desperate enough to sell their family heirlooms piece by agonizing piece, but to have him offer her money outright? Mortified didn’t begin to cover it.
The first time she’d met Jake, her heart hadn’t stopped racing until after she’d left the antique shop and driven half-way home. She’d been captivated by his dark good-looks the moment she first walked through the doors, and then he’d smiled that sincere, casual smile that reached all the way to his amber eyes. It was his smile that kept her coming back, even though it became harder and harder to face him with her head held high.
The worst part was she always wondered if he paid more for the items she brought than they were worth. Though he never paid more than the list prices she looked up at the library, it was certainly more than he should in order to make a profit. But, unable to resist the lure of seeing him again and again, of deepening what she hoped was a budding friendship, she’d pushed aside her suspicion instead of finding another dealer.
Now she knew. She didn’t have to touch the sixteen one hundred dollar bills stuffed deep in her jeans pocket to know they were there. One thousand dollars for the dragonfly. She snorted with annoyance.
Sure, it was beautiful, but she’d have seen through that ridiculous offer even if he hadn’t tried to give her a handout moments earlier. Pain had sliced through her, because while she’d melted inside from the heat of his electric touch on her hands, seconds later he’d revealed he only felt sorry for her.
Well, at least it was over. She’d sold him the last of what she and her mother owned that would bring in the amount of cash they needed. She had no clue what they’d do next month, but now she had no reason to see Jake Coburn again.
A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed it down and increased her stride as fat, wet snowflakes began to sink from the city-lit sky above her. Turning the corner, she saw the blue bus at the end of the block, accelerating away from her stop.
She ran faster on the slick sidewalk, but it was no use. The taillights grew smaller and smaller until they became a blur, blending with other vehicles and the Christmas lights twinkling along the street.
Loral came to a defeated halt, lungs burning, her breath pluming out to mingle with the snow as she braced her hands on her knees. Another bus wouldn’t come for forty-five minutes, and given the fact that she needed every damn dollar in her pocket, a cab wasn’t even a consideration; she’d have to wait.
Headlights flashed behind her. After a quick glance over her shoulder at a black sedan driving toward her, she straightened and shoved her hands deep into her pockets.
She’d wait for the next bus, just not out here on the freezing street. In the dark. Alone. Walking briskly down the block, she waited for the car to pass. Anxiety rippled along her spine with the realization that it’d slowed to keep pace with her. Her numb fingers curled around the can of pepper spray at the bottom of her pocket.
“Loral? What are you doing?”
Jake’s disapproving voice jerked her attention to the car. Her heart pounded loud in her ears. Not wanting him to see she was cold, she hugged her arms across her middle to stop her shivering as she peered through his passenger side window. He watched her from his leather seats with the street light above casting light onto his head through the sun roof. Great—nothing like adding insult to injury.
She resumed walking. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
The engine of his car revved as he caught up with her again. “Did your Tahoe break down? Do you need me to call someone for you?”
Okay, just shoot me now. She glanced in the direction the bus had disappeared, and lifted her chin while keeping her voice indifferent. “I sold the Tahoe two months ago.”
“You’re not walking home, are you?” The tone of his voice conveyed his disbelief. “It’s below freezing.”
A snowflake caught on her eyelashes, she blinked it away. “I missed my bus and the next one isn’t until eight. I can hardly just sit here and wait.”
“Can’t you call someone?”
She didn’t answer, unwilling to explain that she not only didn’t have a cell phone, but no one to call for help. Like she needed more of his pity tonight.
“No family?” He paused. “A boyfriend?”
She shook her head sharply, still walking as his car inched alongside at an idle.
“Let me give you a ride, then.”
Two years ago she would’ve gladly accepted, following her desire to spend some time with him. Now she forced a smile to her stiff lips and willed her teeth not to chatter. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll just wait for the next bus. There’s a coffee shop a few blocks from here.”
A horn blasted behind them. Loral flinched, glanced at the irritated driver behind them, and waved Jake onward. “Go. Seriously, I’ll be fine.”
With a rev of the engine, his sleek black car surged forward. She fought disappointment until he swerved sharply into an empty parking spot halfway down the block. Her step slowed as the impatient driver zoomed past. Jake swung from his car and strode toward her with those long legs of his that made him tower over her five feet five inches.
“That coffee shop closes at six,” he told her. “Not enough evening traffic.”
Just her luck. The unfairness in her life threatened to overwhelm her, but she refused to let the useless emotion drown her in the undertow. Things wouldn’t change until her mother was better, and until then, she’d just deal with missed buses and closed coffee shops.
She lifted her head to meet Jake’s gaze, noticing how quickly the snow gathered on his dark hair. Her own hair must be covered. She reached up a hand to brush it off, then wished she hadn’t as the moisture made her fingers even colder and frigid air rushed under the bottom edge of her coat. A shiver shook her shoulders.
Jake muttered under his breath while shrugging out of his black leather jacket. Before she realized his intent, he stepped forward and draped it around her. Immediate warmth permeated her somewhat threadbare coat, lethally combined with the scent of leather and man. Her senses sharpened even as the rest of the world faded away, leaving her unable to do anything more than stare up at him.
He stood close enough to make her knees weak, a hand on either lapel, tugging the jacket tight so she was wrapped in a comforting cocoon of warmth. His eyes reminded her of the melted caramel her grandmother used to drizzle over ice cream.
“Let me take you home, Loral.”
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