by AC Arthur
Book 1 in the Donovan Dynasty
Dane Donovan is in Paris, but he is not starting over. Neither is he looking back. He’s picking up where he left off and now, more than ever, is determined to get it right. Four years ago she was a mistake, so running into Zera at the place where they first met now, cannot be good. Unfortunately for Dane, walking away may not be an option this time around.
To bring her cousin home, Zera Kennedy would give up everything she worked for…including the first man to capture her heart. But now that the kidnapper’s trail has gone cold, Zera is not sure she’ll be able to achieve her goal, and until she does, returning to her home in Kenya is not an option. Neither is staying away from Dane Donovan once he walks back into her life.
But the moment they both let down their guard and believe in the love that gives them a new look on life, fear invades their tender reunion and threatens every kiss, every moan, every…breath they take.
Book 1 in the Donovan Dynasty
“He’s dead,” she said, her tone void of any emotion, eyes focused intently on him.
“Just in case you’re wondering what I’m doing at the museum alone on a balmy
summer evening. There’s your answer. Emmet is dead.”
Dane did not respond. He could only stand frozen to that spot, staring.
He hadn’t anticipated seeing her. In fact, he’d tried desperately to keep any thought of her out of his mind as he’d instructed his assistant to make arrangements for this trip. If he had assumed he would see her, surely he would have thought of something casual to say to her. Or perhaps it would not have been casual at all, considering the events that had taken place the last time he’d seen her. At this moment, he was caught off guard. And he didn’t like it.
Zera Kennedy stood just a few feet from him and Dane could not speak. It had been four years since he’d last seen her. Four years since she’d looked him in the eye and confirmed with her silence that the passionate nights they’d shared for two months had meant nothing, and that her heart was promised to another. To Dane’s college friend, Emmet Parks.
Dane wouldn’t pronounce that she’d broken his heart. He never gave his heart to be broken. Shock and disappointment more appropriately described his feelings when he’d seen Zera standing beside Emmet. He wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing her now.
She looked amazing. Just as she had the first day he’d met her, ironically, right here where they presently stood just inside the pyramid entrance to The Louvre. Her hair hung long and straight past her shoulders, her almond-colored eyes assessing him. Dane hadn’t forgotten the soft touch of her lips, the smoothness of her skin or its deep sepia, reddish-brown tone. And while he used every bit of restraint he possessed to keep his gaze above the shoulders, he recalled with great clarity every enticing inch of her svelte body.
“Are we going to stand here and stare at each other as if we have no words?” she asked.
Dane smoothed a hand over his low-trimmed beard and replied, “No.”
He breathed in easily, releasing the breath slowly and resigned himself to the unexpected reunion.
“It’s good seeing you again, Zera.”
It was, he thought, even though his body hadn’t quite caught up to the practiced calm of his brain. He was reacting to her in the same way he had four years ago. His fingers tingled with the urge to touch her and his blood pulsated hot and quick through his veins at the possibility of her naked body against his. He swallowed hard and continued to stare into her eyes. Zera was tall, six feet exactly, he recalled. So they were just about eye level with his six foot four-inch stature.
She nodded and her hair fell like ebony sheets around her face. Dane wanted to reach out and touch the silken strands or to tuck them behind her ear the way he used to. He refrained.
“Are you here to see a particular exhibit?” he asked.
“I’m here to see everything,” she replied.
She’d said that the day they’d met. It had been raining. The sky and the landscape surrounding it a dusky gray tone with the cool drizzle of rain falling just like an old film still of Paris. Dane had run into the building, shaking water from his jacket as he’d waited to purchase his ticket. He’d only walked a few feet past the ticket booth before seeing her at the information desk where maps of the museum in different languages could be obtained. He’d tried not to stare that day and attempted to not appear as awestruck by her presence as he’d felt. He had selected the English map and noticed that she’d picked up the one in French. At the time, his French speaking skills had been rusty at best, but he’d managed to say something. And she’d smiled before chuckling. I’m here to see everything, she’d said to him in perfect English. You should see everything as well.
And he had, with her by his side. Tonight, that first meeting didn’t seem like too long ago. Especially now that she was once again staring back at him, waiting for his response.
“I’m here to see that too,” Dane said after the pause. “We can see everything together.”
It was an invitation. One he wasn’t totally sure why he’d extended.
She pushed her hair back from her face and squared her shoulders. “Yes. We can.”
Now, it was too late to take it back.
Dane walked toward the information desk with her beside him. He didn’t think about their past. This time he thought about the last nine months of his life. About finalizing the last details of his mother and sister’s estates. He thought about having to bury the only two people in this world that he’d ever loved unconditionally. And then he thought about what those two people had done to so many others. That’s why he was here in Paris now. Because those thoughts had weighed him down for far too long and he’d needed to find some peace and some calm in order to continue. When Zera touched him, snapping him out of the dark memories, he wondered if peace and calm would ever be possible.
It was a gentle hand to his arm, casual and light. Nothing for him to read into. Still, every part of him halted as he looked over to her.
“We do not need a map,” she said. “I have been here so much I know my way around pretty well.”
Had she come here after he’d gone? Of course she had, why wouldn’t she? Besides, the answer to that was obvious since she was here now and had no idea that he would be too.
“Then I’ll follow your lead,” Dane told her.
He wasn’t used to following anyone, in any respect. He’d made his fortune through a strategic investment which gave him the capital to buy a fledgling energy company. And in the last ten years he’d worked hard to grow that small company into Imagine Energy Corporation, a global conglomerate with ventures including oil and gas exploration and production, petroleum refining and chemical production, and the marketing of petroleum and chemical products. Through Imagine’s core, wholly owned subsidiaries, joint ventures and its global affiliates, Dane employed 400,000 people. He was a self-made success, without the prestige of the family name he carried, and a forty-one year-old man who had taken care of himself since he was seventeen years’ old. But he would happily follow Zera Kennedy, again.
“We will head toward the Pavilion des Sessions,” she said and walked them through the riverside Grande Galerie.
Dane remembered this impressive palace and art museum, outside of it being the place where he’d met Zera. Intricately detailed murals lined the ceilings while heavy gold molding supported the structure. Along both sides, the walls held massive portraits depicting the French history.
“Toward the Arts of Africa,” he said recalling her favorite location in this museum.
The look she gave him said she was shocked that he remembered. The warmth that spread through him when she smiled, said there was nothing about her he was likely to ever forget.
Zera was from Nairobi, Kenya. Her mother was a nurse in Nairobi. She was an only child and had attended college in the States before moving to Paris. That, to Dane’s chagrin, was all he actually knew about her. Other than the physical knowledge that he’d accumulated during the sixty days and fifty-nine nights in her arms.
“We are going to see all of the non-European art. Then, if there is time, we will see more,” she told him.
They would have time, he thought as they continued to walk. He could make the time. True, he had come to Paris with the hope of finding some balance in his life. But surely he could make a detour. Wasn’t that what Zera was? Then and now? A detour from Dane’s real life. Or was he getting too old for detours?
“Come on,” she said and reached out to take his hand. “You are walking too slow. The museum will close in two hours.”
Before Dane could respond she’d laced her fingers through his and was heading down the stairs in a quick trot. He easily kept up with her while marveling at how warm her hand felt in his. How her fingers clasped easily with his own and how much he’d missed such a simple, yet enticing contact with a woman.
Not just any woman, Dane realized when they’d cleared the steps and she released his hand. This woman—Zera. Not only had he never forgotten her, but he apparently hadn’t gotten over her either. He wondered what that meant and if perhaps coming to Paris had been a colossal mistake.
Zera was messing this up.
Being too friendly, acting too much like nothing had happened.
When so much had.
Emmet was dead.
And Hiari was still missing.
Yet, here she was standing next to Dane Donovan wishing like hell for him to touch her. Take her hand. Put his arm around her. Kiss her temple the way he’d done before. She’d wanted him fiercely four years ago. She’d allowed herself to believe in the possibility of a future with this man. A future with someone who made her laugh and aroused her in a way she’d never experienced before, or since.
But she’d given it up. She’d let that dream, the possibilities and the hope slip through her fingers.
Now, Zera clenched her fingers together, hating that she’d lost so much more than Dane in the years since he’d left Paris. She’d lost so much that in the six months since Emmet’s death, she’d begun to feel desolate and displaced. Tonight, however, she’d felt inspired and so she’d left her apartment after she wasn’t sure how long and came here. It was as if some part of her had known he would be here. Of course that was foolish. But Zera could not deny the spike of happy that had soared through her the moment she’d seen him. That feeling had been so foreign to her lately, she’d almost forgotten how it felt.
“You favor the terracotta sculptures,” she said when it felt as if they’d been silent for too long.
That was a contradiction to the fact that she was certain she was talking too much, but she couldn’t help it. She hadn’t talked to anyone about art or food or the time of day to be exact, in far too long.
“That one is from Nigeria,” she continued. “Conical heads, short tubular bodies and simplified faces are prevalent in the Nok sculpture. Traditional or tribal African sculptures often deal primarily with the human form. Animals and mythical creatures are also favored forms of art expression.”
He did not look at her but he did nod as she spoke. His attention stayed focused on the sculpture. Zera tried to keep further comments to herself as she realized he was really studying the art work. But there was so much more she wanted to say.
She wanted to ask Dane how he’d been. How was work? Zera knew that Dane ran his own company and several subsidiaries of such. She’d also read somewhere that he’d bought shares into Donovan Oilwell, a U.S. based company with a London office. There’d also been some talk about the Donovan family and a couple of murders in the past year. But that was none of her business. Dane was no longer her business. That’s what she’d said as she ordered herself not to keep tabs on him any longer. Her resolve had been working, until now.
“I have a home in New York. I’ve been looking for others.”
Realizing quickly that he was speaking to her, Zera readily replied, “These are not for sale. In fact, I believe this part of the exhibit is on loan from another museum. But I know of a few galleries in the U.S. that specifically carry African art.”
With his hands clasped behind his back, Dane turned slowly until he was now facing her. He was still one hell of a man. Tall—which was actually a relief to Zera considering her own height—broad shoulders, slightly bowed legs, tree bark brown skin and smoldering dark brown eyes. The lightly-trimmed beard was new, but the thick brows and close-cut black hair was the same. The scent of his cologne was different, but still mesmerizing. And his stance was still powerful and domineering. If she were another type of woman, she might be inclined to sigh at the sight of him. Considering she’d never been the type to want and not make every effort to get, she openly admired him without pretense.
He knew she liked what she saw. She could tell by the slight lifting at the corner of his mouth and the way his eyes darkened. Dane appreciated honesty and having a woman ride him until he came. Zera warmed at the memory.
“You would share your connections with me?” he asked, his voice suddenly deeper.
I would have shared my whole world with you.
Those words thankfully remained in her mind.
“Of course,” she said. “I actually know a very talented sculptor from Nairobi. He has not been featured at a museum yet. But his work is phenomenal. I will get you his contact information and his website.”
“Thanks,” Dane replied. “I would appreciate that.”
The next moments passed with them staring at each other, wondering which one would act first. This was different, she thought. When they’d met before there was no such contest. Dane acted and she reacted. She acted and he returned in kind. They were combustible from the first moment they met. This time, there’d been a low simmer the moment she’d seen him step away from the ticket booth. Her heart rate had quickened as the decision to stay or leave warred in her mind. Of course she’d stayed.
“We will have to leave,” he said. “The museum is closing in fifteen minutes.”
Zera lifted an arm and looked at her watch. He was correct. This was not one of the two late nights the museum offered, so they would have to leave. No matter how much she wanted to stay with him. That lack of control was familiar and irritating.
Her response was to begin walking toward the exit. Dane fell into step beside her.
“How long are you staying in Paris?” she asked because she would kick herself the rest of the night if she did not get at least some answers to the questions gnawing at her.
“I booked the hotel for two weeks,” he said.
“Vacation,” he replied.
She turned to him, unable to mask her surprise. “Dane Donovan is taking a vacation. I do not believe it.”
She chuckled and was rewarded by the appearance of a slow, half smile. They were rare and breath-snatching and Zera was pleased that she’d managed to get one from him before they parted ways.
“It’s been a very busy year for me. I thought a break would be good to prepare for the new work on the horizon.”
“Oh, new work. What business are you planning to buy this time? Or do you already own the world?” she asked with only a slight bit of humor.
Dane was an ambitious man. He worked hard and tirelessly, to the point she’d once thought he was trying to prove himself to someone. Or possibly to himself.
“I will be sitting on the Board of Directors for Donovan Oilwell International,” he said as they passed into the Grande Galerie once more.
“Really?” she asked.
He looked as if he wanted to say something, but a couple brushed past them in their hurry to exit the museum, and he shrugged in response.
“New business ventures are always my goal,” he said.
Zera nodded. “I recall.”
She was startled momentarily by his next move. His fingers snaked around her wrist as he pulled her to the side, turning her so that her back was to the wall. When their gazes met, he immediately released his hold on her, but did not step back. He was in her personal space and she did not mind that at all. In fact, she lifted a hand, flattening her palm on his chest as if she meant to hold him back, but without applying any pressure.
“What else do you recall, Zera?” he asked, lowering his voice until she almost couldn’t hear him.
“Dane,” was all she could manage at the moment.
He was staring at her so intently. There was so much she wanted to say, and more that she knew she could not divulge. She felt trapped. Not by him or his imposing physique. Not by the desire to kiss him, or to wrap her legs around his waist and beg him to take her. But by their world. By everything and everyone around them. By circumstances that she could neither share nor change.
“Do you recall each of those nights we spent together?” His questions continued. “Do you recall how good it felt when we were connected? When I was deep inside you and you were so tight and warm around me?”
Zera licked her lips because that memory had been what got her through on so many of the nights since he’d been gone.
“I remember,” she admitted.
A muscle twitched in his jaw.
“Do you remember telling me that you had never felt that way before? That there had never been another to bring you to climax the way I did?”
Why was he doing this? Why here? Why now?
She nodded, unable and unwilling to lie about such a simple and yet soul-searing truth.
“I remember it all, Dane. Every night. Every dinner. Every breakfast you burned and every bath you drew for me,” she said, her voice a breathless whisper. “I remember your touch. Your kiss. The way you filled me so completely. I remember it all.”
And the memory had nearly killed her.
“Then tell me why,” he said solemnly. “Tell me why you chose him over me.”
The request caught Zera off guard. She’d expected him to say this four years ago. Not now.
A guard cleared his throat loudly and Zera let her hand fall from Dane’s chest.
Dane waited another few seconds before stepping back and away from her. He turned and was walking before she’d completely gathered herself. In moments, she fell into step behind him, not wanting to get closer. Not wanting him to make that request again.
She didn’t have to worry. Dane did not say another word to her while they were in the museum. And when they were outside, he asked curtly, “Do you need a ride?”
“I have my own,” she replied without thinking.
“Then goodnight,” he said before walking away swiftly.
Zera did not curse. She did not cry. And just like four years ago, she did not go after him. Instead, she watched for a few minutes more, until he disappeared in the crowd of people, before turning in the opposite direction and leaving.
Her steps were heavy as she walked, her heart doing a wild dance that crossed between the happiness of seeing him again, the arousal of him being so close and talking about their time together, and the utter disappointment of being unable to stop the inevitable from happening all over again.