Charlie Ballard had one hell of an imagination.
Sebastian Montgomery marveled at the garden of creatures fashioned from junkyard scrap glowing beneath the hot California sun. A magnificent lion roared, its flowing mane a fabrication of railroad spikes. An elephant trumpeted—literally, its trunk shaped from two trumpets fitted together, its body and legs forged from various old musical instruments. Two rams, their ginormous antlers constructed of rolled corrugated-tin roofing, were pitted against each other in a battle to the death. There were smaller works as well—lizards cut from what appeared to be rusted car doors, and some strange, scorpion-like insects built with nuts, bolts, screws, and claws formed from the blades of old pruning shears.
Ms. Ballard’s artwork spoke to something deep in Sebastian’s core that was as primal as the beasts she’d welded with the blaze of her torch. Her vision was so clear, so pure, that a sense of awe radiated through his chest. Awe at the way she put it all out there—her energy, her whole soul, and every ounce of passion, for everyone to see—and how in her brilliant hands, metal came to life. Inanimate objects became real. Became magical.
Her metal menagerie touched his soul, if for no other reason than the fact that she’d constructed something so momentous from everyday junk.
To most people, this acre lot in the Los Altos Hills area of the San Francisco Peninsula would look like a junkyard filled with car parts; tractor seats; saw blades; pitchforks; barrels of nuts, bolts, nails, and rivets; and metal scrap of everything from ancient barbecue grills to sewer grates. But Sebastian understood that they were her art supplies—and were far more important than a green lawn or fancy landscaping. The fact that her house and detached garage had seen better days in no way detracted from the genius of the artistry strewn across the property.
Sebastian removed his suit jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt as he headed toward the ramshackle single garage, through which he could hear the screech of welding equipment. His heartbeat was already well into overdrive from the incredibly beautiful sculptures—and his fingers were itching to sketch everything around him. He got his first sight of Charlie standing in beams of sunlight streaming down through two Plexiglas-covered holes in the roof, her protective face shield up now and her welding torch off. Sebastian’s heart stilled in his chest with renewed wonder.
Because he finally knew what true beauty was.
Charlie’s temples and forehead were dented from the welding mask while her glossy hair shone with hues of red and gold in the sunbeams cascading from above. She snapped a restraining hairband loose and ran her fingers through lusciously messy curls, letting them spill over her shoulders. Sebastian was instantly caught up in a vision of burying his hands, his face, his mouth in all that incredible red hair.
Removing a heavy smock that safeguarded her arms and body, she revealed a pair of stained and faded farmer-style overalls, beneath which she wore a tank top. Her arms flexed with a fine ripple of muscle, a gorgeous creation of bone, sinew, muscle, and smooth skin.
Of all the works of art on Charlie Ballard’s land, the woman herself was by far the most stunning, more radiant and fierce than any sculpture could ever be. So stunning that only one thought remained.
He had to have her.
At last, she turned sparkling green eyes in his direction. “You’re here,” she said as if she’d been waiting for him all her life.
And when he answered, “Yes, I’m here,” for a moment he actually felt as if he’d discovered his destiny.
That thought was pure whimsy; he’d found his destiny the first time he stood on a stage and encouraged people to change their lives. But everything about Charlie Ballard and her creations made him feel as though he’d walked into a fantasy. One where the normal rules didn’t apply, and the only thing that mattered was passion—passion for both the art that surrounded him and the woman who’d created it.
Which was why he didn’t hold back, didn’t bother to act nonchalant. “You’re a genius.”
Her eyes went wide with surprise at his compliment for a split second, before she smiled at him. One perfect smile that rocked his world yet again. “Thank you.”
She didn’t ask him to tell her which was his favorite piece, didn’t press for more compliments, and he was struck by her quiet confidence. It was something he’d found to be extremely rare when most people were desperate for as many ego strokes as they could get.
“Let me introduce myself.” He held out his hand, dying to feel her skin against his. “Sebastian Montgomery.”
An electrical charge ran through him as she slid her hand into his. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so deeply affected. Her grip was firm, with a ridge of calluses along her palm. She wore no flowery scent, just the heady aroma of woman and the metals she worked with. His world was filled with women who glittered with jewels and smelled like designer perfume. But Charlie Ballard sparkled with life, and all her contrasts intrigued him. The gorgeous red hair and steel-toed work boots. The sexy tank top and old overalls. The slightly upturned nose and kiss-me lips that she’d hidden beneath a welding mask. Lips that were now curving into a ghost of a smile, as if she’d felt that same zap of electricity when they came skin to skin.
He nearly asked if he could kiss her. Instead, he forced himself to keep that question under wraps for the time being. “Is Charlie short for something?”
“My parents named me Charlotte. But as we all soon discovered—” She held the baggy overalls out to each side with a grin. “—I was more of a Charlie.”
No, even at first glance he could see she was both—the beauty and the tomboy. Beneath the drab fabric, he could easily guess at her curves, the indentation of her waist, the taut length of leg. Again, the urge to sketch her—and all her magnificent creations—was stronger than it had ever been for him before.
Sebastian’s art broker, Xander Smith, had set up the appointment for three o’clock. Xander would have attended, but a last-minute crisis demanded his attention. Now Sebastian was glad he’d had the chance to see the elephant and the fighting rams for the first time with no one else around. And he definitely didn’t want to share his time with Charlie.
He’d already told her she was a genius. Reminding himself that going on about her beauty at this stage in the game would definitely be pushing things too far, he said, “I’m a bit early, but I’m glad that gave me time to tour your garden.”