There wasn’t much in the world Duncan McQueen cared about more than a good bourbon. In his forty-five years, not one single beautiful woman had managed to persuade him to set down his drink and keep it down for good. But when the woman in the red dress walked into his bar—a gift from the gods tied in a tight red bow—McQueen decided he might have seen the one woman on earth who could turn even him into a teetotaler. Her dress was tight as old Scrooge’s fist, red as Rudolph’s nose and, looking at her, McQueen had only one thought—Christmas had come awfully early this year.
Miss Christmas in July glanced his way, smiled like she knew what he was thinking and was thinking along the same lines herself, and McQueen figured he’d be leaving the bar early tonight and nobody better try to talk him out of it.
Not wanting to appear too eager, he continued to sip his bourbon—neat—as he kept her in his peripheral vision. Christmas in July walked over to the bar and took a seat. He watched her study the menu and he smiled behind his glass. In one minute he’d go over to her, buy her a drink, let it slip he owned the bar, dangle out the bait, see if she was in the mood to nibble. He’d seen his fair share of beautiful women in his bar, usually too young—he was a man of principle after all, just the one—but Miss Christmas looked a respectable thirty-five. A real woman. A grown woman. The sort he could sleep without apology. She had dark skin and black hair that lay in heavy coils down her back and tied at her nape of her neck with a red ribbon he fully intended to untie with his teeth given the opportunity.
One minute up, he went to claim the opportunity.
It didn’t break McQueen’s heart to excuse himself from his current conversation with someone who was either an investment banker or a venture capitalist. He had stopped listening the moment Miss Christmas walked in. He went over to her and sat in the empty barstool to her left without waiting for an invitation. He owned the place. No reason not to act like it.
He didn’t say anything at first. He let the silence linger and grow as heady as the muddy Ohio River on a hot night, the kind that made even the sidewalks sweat. Maybe he could talk the lady into a stroll over to the river while the night was still warm. Maybe he could talk her into something more.
“What can I get you?” Maddie, the pretty blond bartender asked the woman.
“How about a shot of Red Thread?” the woman asked. “I like to match my drinks to my hair ribbon.”
“Red Thread?” Maddie glanced at McQueen, a silent plea for help. “I don’t think…”
“Red Thread’s been out of business for thirty-five years,” McQueen said to Maddie.
“Oh, good. Thought I was going crazy. Could I have sworn I knew every bourbon there was,” Maddie said. “Any bottles left?”
“Not a one,” McQueen said, not a white lie, not a black lie. Just a little red lie.
“What a shame,” Miss Christmas said although she sounded neither surprised nor disappointed. Christmas was right. Her voice had a frosty tone to it. She was cool. He liked cool.
“A damn shame. They say it was the best bourbon ever bottled.” McQueen waited for the lady in the red dress to speak again, but she stayed silent, listening, alert, eyes only for Maddie at the moment.
“What happened to it?” Maddie asked him.
“Warehouse fire,” McQueen said shrugging. “It happens. You distill alcohol and store it in wooden barrels? Fire’s your worst nightmare. Red burned to the ground in 1980 and never reopened. No one knows who owns it anymore..” McQueen had tried to buy the old Red Thread property himself but had no luck. He’d gotten as far as finding the shell company—Moonshine Ltd—that owned the acreage and the trademark, but it didn’t seem to have a human being behind its name. “I would know, because I’ve looked.”
“Isn’t that interesting…” Miss Christmas said with the hint of a smile on her red lips and he couldn’t tell if she meant it or if she was being sarcastic. She spoke with a Kentucky accent, faint but recognizable to someone who spent half his time in New York and half his time in Louisville. Kentucky accents sounded like home to him and his ears always perked up when he heard one.
“Can I get you something else?” Maddie asked the woman.
“Four Roses, neat. Double pour.”
“A lady who knows her bourbon and isn’t afraid to drink it straight.” McQueen turned ten degrees on his barstool toward her. “A woman after my own heart.”
“I’m a Kentucky girl,” she said with a graceful shrug. “And bourbon’s like the truth, you know.”
“The first taste burns, but once you get used to it, it’s the only thing you want in your mouth.”
Paris brought the shot glass to her lips, took a sip and didn’t flinch as she drank it. The bourbon didn’t burn her.
“Tell me something true then,” McQueen said. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Mr. McQueen.”
“You know who I am?”
“Everybody knows who you are. You own this bar,” she said, nodding at the words THE RICKHOUSE, Louisville, Kentucky, engraved on the mirror behind the bar, the image of a turn-of-the-century wood warehouse also etched in the glass. “I hear you’re opening another bourbon bar in Brooklyn.”
“You don’t approve?”
“Leave it to white people to turn a beautiful drink like bourbon into a fetish. Find a way to make pumpkin spice bourbon, and you’ll be a billionaire.” She took another sip of her Four Roses, all the while looking at him out of the side of her eyes. He spied a smile at the corner of her mouth.
“That’s not a bad idea actually.”
“No, it’s not bad. It’s terrible. You know you can’t call it bourbon if you put any flavoring in it.”
Paris knew her stuff.
“All right, we’ll make it whisky then. I’m always looking for a new way to waste my money. Why not?”
“You need another business? You tired of your basketball team already? Or is owning grown men not as much fun as you thought it’d be?”
“I only own part of the team.”
“Which part?” she asked. “I know which part I’d like to own.”
McQueen laughed. “Tell me something, Miss Paris—what do you own?”
Now it was her turn to spin on her barstool, ninety degrees and she met him face on with full eye contact, fearless and shameless.
“I could own you by morning.”
Her words rendered Duncan McQueen momentarily speechless. He couldn’t remember the last time any woman had so thoroughly stupefied him. Bourbon on her lips and curves on her hips. He was halfway in love with her already.
“I would like to see you try,” McQueen said. “And that’s not a challenge. I really would like to see that with my own eyes.”
“Shall we?” she asked, raising her eyebrow a fraction of an inch. He had to know her.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, we shall.”
They left the bar together but drove separately to his house. As he weaved his way through downtown traffic, he saw that somehow he’d lost her behind him. He’d given her his address and surely didn’t need to follow him to find it. An irrational fear took hold of him between the red light and the green, a fear she’d changed her mind, driven off, considered a better offer somewhere else with someone else. No, surely not. She’d wanted him, he knew it. He’d seen avarice in her eyes at the bar and whether it was for his face, his money, or his reputation as the richest man in Kentucky he didn’t care. They were all true, all parts of him anyway. Whatever part of him she wanted, he didn’t care as long as she wanted him. She did want him, didn’t she? Irrational thoughts. Irrational fears.
Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he must see her tonight, be with her. Anything less would be calamitous. A man needed wanting. What was the point of having wealth, power, and the body of a man half his age if no one bothered to use him for it all?
McQueen pulled into his driveway and saw a black Lexus already there and waiting. He didn’t sigh with relief but he wanted to. She’d simply taken a different route. No big surprise. If she lived anywhere around here, she’d know about his house. Everybody in town knew about Lockwood—named not for the forest that surrounded the property he kept locked behind stone walls, but for the man who built it in 1821. Old by American standards, but McQueen’s family was Irish. A two-hundred-year old house was just getting comfortable by his father’s standards. And McQueen tended to judge everything by his father’s standards.
Lockwood was a redbrick three story Georgian masterpiece with double-height white porticos protected by a twelve-foot high wrought-iron gate. He and Paris parked in the circular cobblestone driveway in front of the temple-style porch. She emerged from her car all long legs and slim ankles and red shoes, and she didn’t blink at the house. It seemed to make no impression on her whatsoever. Miss Paris must have her own money. The shoes, the dress, the Birkin bag that was nearly identical to the one his ex-wife carried? All that screamed money to him. Maybe Paris had even more money than he did. No one was that unimpressed by money except people who have it.
Before entering the house she paused on the front porch and glanced back at the gate.
“What?” he asked.
“Pretty fence,” she said. “Traditional Kentucky rock fence.”
“Glad you like it,” he said, admiring the view from the porch. The perimeter of the Lockwood property was a rock fence built in the nineteenth century. I had it built just for you.”
“To keep me in or to keep me out?”
“To keep you surrounded by beautiful things. As you should be.”
She raised her eyebrow just slightly and without another word turned and walked into the house. If she hadn’t been looking, McQueen might have patted himself on the back. Good line.
“Welcome to Lockwood,” McQueen said, glad it was late enough all the staff but his security guard were gone. “Hope you like it.”
“Very nice,” she said, barely giving the opulent interior a glance. McQueen didn’t mind that much. He’d rather she look at him than his foyer, and she was definitely looking at him. Women considered him handsome and even if they didn’t, they considered him rich, which was usually enough to close the deal.
“I’m the fourth generation of McQueens to live her. My great-grandfather bought this house when he came over from Ireland,” McQueen said. It was summer, warm, and she wasn’t wearing a coat for him to offer to take. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. At forty-five years old he should have his seduction skills down by now but Paris made him nervous for a reason he couldn’t name. “He’d planned to settle his family further north but the hills reminded him of home. So he stayed.”
“And here we are. What would your grandfather have said about you bringing me to his home?”
“I’d like to think he’d have taken one look at you and said, ‘Good job, lad.’”
“I’ll be the judge of how good the job is done.”
“Maybe we should get to work then.” He reached for her and kissed her under the crystal chandelier, which before today had looked elegant to him but tonight seemed ostentatious compared to the elegance of this woman in her red dress. She tasted of apples and bourbon when he kissed her and she was right—it did burn but once he had his first taste, she was all he wanted in his mouth.
McQueen pressed her back against the bannister of the spiral staircase that led upstairs. He hooked her leg around his hip, slid his hand up her long bare thigh. She had panties on but they weren’t enough to keep his fingers out of her. He pulled them down her thighs and left them on the floor where he hoped they would stay until morning.
“Did you plan to seduce me when you came to the bar?” he asked against her lips.
“Are you after my money?” He sensed such a woman wouldn’t be insulted by such a question.
“Only your bourbon, Mr. McQueen.”
“You want to see my collection?” he asked. “I promise it’s just the booze. I don’t own a single etching.”
McQueen and his world-class bourbon and whiskey collection had recently been profiled in Cigar Aficionado magazine, inspiring a few phone calls from collectors trying to buy some of his rarer vintages, but she was his first official bourbon groupie.
“Eventually,” she said, spreading her legs a little wider for him, inviting his fingers a little deeper. “Once you’re done showing me everything else you’ve got.”
McQueen showed her. First he showed her right there against the wall. Then he took her up to the master bedroom, a room baroque with ornamentation and ostentation. Even the bed was gilt. He never actually slept in the room if he could help it. He found other uses for it, however. And that red dress of Paris’s looked just about as perfect as on his floor as the priceless gold and green Persian rug it lay upon.
When it was all over, Paris reached for her red dress and it occurred to him that if he let her leave now he wouldn’t be likely to ever see her again. Something told him he shouldn’t let her go. Something told him if all he did was sleep with her, he would forfeit something, a victory or a prize.
“Don’t leave,” he said as he obliged her by zipping the dress up for her. She had such a lovely back and the light of the bedside Tiffany lamp danced over her dark skin like a tongue of fire. “I haven’t shown you my collection yet.”
“Oh yes, I’d almost forgotten,” she said, cool as could be. He wasn’t used to women this quiet and nonplussed by being in the bedroom of a billionaire.
“I don’t know what to make of you,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her as she wrapped the red ribbon around her hair and pulled the long locks over her shoulder, Venus at her toilette.
“Make of me? Are you putting me in a pie?”
McQueen laughed. “I’d rather keep you in the bedroom than the kitchen. Come on, tell me about yourself.”
“My name is Paris. I lived in Kentucky for years. I moved to South Carolina for school. I got married a couple years ago, inherited a bit of money when my husband died, and now I’m back. I have no children. I am no one special. You only think I’m interesting because you’ve noticed I’m not terribly interested in spending the rest of my life with you.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
McQueen raised his eyebrow. “A rich widow. That explains a lot.”
“What does it explain?”
“Why I don’t impress you. You have your own money.”
“You tell yourself that’s the reason,” she said with a smile sweet as the pie he should put her in, and God dammit, McQueen wanted her again already. She made him forget he was forty-five. “I won’t contradict you.”
“I’m going to impress you before you leave,” he said. “I’m determined.”
“Impress me then.”
He dressed in his suit minus the jacket and tie and led her from the bedroom down the hall and to a bookcase. On the bookcase were unread leather-bound volumes of all the classics.
“Very nice,” Paris said. “Did your decorator provide the books? Or did you order them from the pretty book wholesale warehouse?”
“This isn’t it,” he said. “I’m going to show you my prized possession.” He pulled on the middle shelf of the bookcase revealing that it wasn’t simply a bookcase, but a door. He switched on a floor lamp inside the door and waved Paris inside. As she gazed around the hidden room, he watched her face. She revealed nothing—no shock, no surprise, no disappointment.
“Cozy,” Paris said but from her tone she might have meant “airless.” He watched her take note of the old stone fireplace, the antique sofa with the worn jade fabric and the carved ebony arms. She walked to the wall and pulled back the curtain to reveal…nothing.
“You covered your window with a wooden board?” Paris asked, tapping the board.
“That’s a mirror,” he said. “I don’t want anyone looking in here. And really, what’s more terrifying than peeking in the window of a house and seeing yourself?”
“Nothing,” she said. “There’s nothing more terrifying than seeing yourself.”
McQueen retrieved the key he’d hidden in a small silver vase on the top of the fireplace mantel and opened a satin bronze cabinet with the Twelve Apostles embossed on the side.
“Is that a tabernacle?” Paris asked.
“You store your alcohol in a cabinet designed to hold communion wafers?”
“My grandfather had a dark sense of humor where the Catholic Church was concerned. Offended?”
“Yes,” she said. “But not for the reasons you think I am.”
“I do consider this room my little sanctuary. Every man needs one.” He took a bottle out of the cabinet and handed it to her.
“This is it?” she asked, cradling the bottle carefully in her hands.
“That’s it. You ordered Red Thread at the bar tonight. That, my dear, is the first bottle of Red Thread ever distilled, ever bottled, ever ever.”
“How did you come by this bottle?”
“Private sale. One million dollars. The provenance is perfect. Virginia Maddox herself sold it shortly before she died to pay her medical bills.”
“Would you sell it?” she asked.
“Not for all the money in the world. This is the holy grail of bourbon. You don’t sell the holy grail.”
“Unholy grail,” she said almost under her breath. But McQueen heard her.
Her eyes softened as she touched the red ribbon tied around the bottle’s neck. It was a tattered old thing.
“It’s a miracle that thing has stayed on there,” McQueen said. “Piece of ribbon from 1860?”
“Slave cloth,” Paris said.
“The ribbon was cut from slave cloth. Thick wool. Slave cloth was made to last a long time. Slaves didn’t get new clothes very often. What they had had to last, had to hold up to hard work and many years. The girl who wore this ribbon? This was probably the only nice thing she had, the only thing she thought of as hers.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that ribbon…I didn’t know that part of the story, that the ribbon came from a Maddox slave.”
“Now you know.”
“You ordered Red Thread at The Rickhouse. You know a lot about it?”
“Just trying to get your attention,” she said.
“You would have been a baby when Red Thread burned down. What exactly is your interest in it?”
“It interests me for many reasons. But here, you can’t trust me with that bottle. Lord knows, I might drop it.”
She passed the bottle back to McQueen. He put it carefully back into the cabinet. When he turned around Paris was halfway to the door.
“You aren’t leaving are you?” he asked.
“Leaving for the bedroom,” she said.
“So I did impress you?”
“You have a fine collection,” she said. “I only wish it were mine.”
McQueen followed her to the concealed door and started to open it for her. With his hand on the knob he looked her up and down and into her eyes.
“Who are you really?” he asked. “How do you know so much about the ribbon?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I told you why—the truth is like bourbon—it’ll burn going down.”
“I want to burn.”
She kissed him, hard enough McQueen forgot about finding out anything else about her except how to make her come again. And after he’d solved that mystery he fell fast asleep, one arm over her naked stomach, one leg over her leg, his favorite way to fall asleep.
When McQueen woke up he was alone, and Paris had left nothing behind but the scent of her on his sheets and her red hair ribbon on his pillow.
Hell on earth, he was a first-rate fool.
McQueen pulled on his pants and ran to the room behind the bookcase.
Too late. She was gone.
So was his million-dollar bottle of Red Thread.