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Karen O'Neill stared at the pottery shards clustered at the base of the open door, a twinge of fear tightening her chest. Her sudden words, although barely more than a whisper, startled the cat in her arms. The gray velvet half-Persian leaped free in a graceful arc over the threshold and disappeared into the hedges bordering the backyard.
"Lacey!" Karen stepped over the remains of the ceramic vase, her sense of fear escalating. "Wait!"
No good. The cat, cooped up all morning as Karen worked in her pottery studio, wasn't listening. "As if you ever do," Karen muttered. She quickly scanned her sloping, tree-covered backyard, searching for any signs of danger, any other human presence any indication of who could have smashed a vase against her back door.
Karen's own vase, in fact. One of her own unique "face vases," a design she had first created a few years ago. Slender and marked by a distinctive white face on one side, the vibrantly colored vases had become her artistic trademark. Recently, they had become increasingly popular among galleries and collectors in the Northeast, a trend predicted by art historian Mason DuBroc, who had published an article on them. Mason, intrigued by the vases, had warned Karen that she needed to increase her output, to prepare for growing popularity. "Everyone will love them," he'd insisted.
Someone, however, had taken a distinct dislike to the vases. A violent dislike.
Around her, the yard remained silent, revealing no clues. The only motion was from the prowling cat and a squirrel annoyed by the Persian's presence. Even the pink and gold flowers near the door, their heady scent lured out by the warm Maysun, showed no indication of a breeze or a passing human. No lurking villains, no suspicious shadows. Peaceful.
Except for the shattered vase. The third vase this month. Karen hadn't ever heard a crash, making her think the attacker knew when she was in the house and when she was not. As a result, Karen fought a feeling of being stalked. Watched.
She shivered despite the warmth of the spring sun, then scolded herself. You're just being paranoid. She pushed the thought away and turned back to the door, bending to look closer at the remains of the vase, careful not to touch any of the pieces. Yep, there it was, as with the other twothe scrap of paper, weighted down by one of the larger shards, that read simply, Stop!
"Stop what?" She straightened and stepped over the vase into her basement studio, still talking to herself. "Stop making vases? Stop these vases? Stop pottery altogether?"
Karen froze at the idea, looking around, her gaze moving from her shelves of pottery supplies, to the worktables, to the wheel. She could no more give up pottery than walk on the moon. Pottery wasn't just something she did. It was her life. It had saved her life.
She took a deep breath. "Lord, give me strength," she whispered, then headed up the narrow, wrought-iron spiral steps that led from her studio to her living room. Time to call the police. Again.
"Vandalism? That's it? After three vases!" The barely restrained anger in the dark male voice on the other end of the phone gave Karen an odd sense of comfort. She had been tense when she'd called the police, but now she relaxed as she leaned back against her couch cushions and stretched her legs. Lacey, who'd scratched at the front door to get in almost as soon as Karen had come upstairs, sensed the change in mood. She leaped into Karen's lap and started kneading one thigh, sharp claws pricking through Karen's jeans.
Karen stroked Lacey idly, focusing on the voice in the phone. Mason DuBroc had become a good friend over the past few months, since his arrival in town. Well-known in the art community as half art professor and half adventurer, Mason had been the last person she'd expected to find on her doorstep one dreary January morning. Karen had read his articles and books, had followed stories about him in the press. Mason was art world A-list, and she'd reacted as if a Hollywood star had been standing there. She had stared, openmouthed, at the disheveled man, snow clinging to his floppy hat and weathered hiking boots, his questions flying at her faster than she could answer them. Now Karen found herself wondering if his deep brown eyes flashed as much in anger as they did in excitement.
"There's not much else the local police can do, Mason. The Stop! isn't really a threat, and they couldn't find any fingerprints. They consider it in the same way they would if someone had spray-painted the house."
A low growl echoed through the phone, and with each word, Mason's Cajun accent thickened. "But this isn't a prank. They didn't spray-paint the house. They destroyed art! Your art! Don't they think someone's watching you?"
Karen closed her eyes and curled her fingers in Lacey's fur. She didn't really want to face that possibility. "They are going to patrol the neighborhood more often, but with the woods that start at the edge of the yard and go for miles, there's not much they can do. They only have five patrol officers."
"Almost wish I wasn't in New York. Maybe you should stay"
"I'm not going back to Aunt Evie's, Mason." A touch of Karen's tension returned. "We talked about this the first time."
Karen held her breath. Mason knew all too well how tense her relationship was with the aunt who had raised her. They had battled since Karen's teen years, and now her choice of career made her aunt annoyed and critical.
"What about Jane? She's your best friend."
"I'm allergic to her dog."
"Mason, I don't want to be forced out of my home. I worked too hard to make it my own."
Mason broke the thick silence that followed by clearing his throat. "Chère, the auction starts this afternoon at three. If it goes as I hope, your profile will be even higher in the art world. Are you ready for that? More orders? More attention?" He paused. "Maybe more broken vases?"
Karen looked down as Lacey settled in for a nap, her purr a soft vibration under Karen's fingers. Karen, too, felt calmer. Chère. He'd started calling her that a few weeks ago, pronouncing it "Sha," and using it mostly when they were alone. She wasn't sure what it meant, but every time he said it, she felt herself relax. "Yes," she softly. "More orders, yes."
"And the attention?"
Lacey's breaths became light and even, her back barely rising and falling under Karen's hands. The young potter looked around at her cozy living room. Her adored hillside house, with its narrow three stories, barely contained a thousand square feet. Yet it was something she'd craved as long as she could remember: her own home. Her studio took up the entire basement, and a living room and galley kitchen filled the main floor. Upstairs, her office, bedroom and bathroom made up the rest of the space. She loved it here. She'd renovated the small house, made it her own her first real private space in the twenty-eight years of her life. Built into the side of a New Hampshire hillside, the back walls were all glass, looking out over a backyard that was more vale than lawn. Here in Mercer she had her home, her art, her friends. This, she thought, is happiness.
"Mason, I live in a tiny house in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. How much attention could actually find its way all the way to Mercer?"
"Karen," he said softly, "you have no idea."
* * *
Karen hung up the phone after promising to say a prayer for him about the auction, once again wondering what it was about her "face vases" that had such an impact on him.
"Why me, Lacey?" she wondered aloud, thinking back to her first meeting with Mason. The sleeping cat ignored her. "It was like I opened the door and found Indiana Jones standing there."
The comparison with the fictional movie hero wasn't quite accurate, but it wasn't all that far off, either. Mason DuBroc, flamboyant and half-Cajun, with an accent that made folks around Mercer pay attention to every word, definitely took the award for oddest character to ever enter Karen's world. A dubious claim, since a potter's life, by nature of her chosen career, overflowed with artists, collectors and students, most of whom had the usual quirks that went along with a creative spirit. The author of a bestselling book on art crime, Mason had come to Mercer to take up residence at Jackson's Retreat, a writers'colony on the other side of the expansive woods that began almost at Karen's back door.
He'd discovered Karen's vases in the window of a local art gallery, and had immediately sought her out. Mason's fascination with her art intrigued her, but she'd hesitated to ask the larger-than-life character about it, almost as if the interest would evaporate with the inquisition. He thought the vases museum-worthy, and for the past few weeks Mason had been on a mission to raise Karen's profile as an artist. He'd helped her put up a Web site, and he'd sold an article about her to a pottery magazine, which had been reprinted in other publications. The article had led to the New York Times publishing two inches of coverage on her last gallery showing in SoHo. Then last week Mason had heard about this auction, and it had quickly become his latest effort.
"I just don't understand, Lord," she whispered. "Why me?"
The front door shot open with a bang, and Karen leaped off the couch with a screech, sending Lacey flying. The cat hit the ground, claws out, and flashed under a chair on the other side of the room as an alto voice rang out over all three floors. "Laurie's daily special was lasagna with peach pie. Hope you're hungry! Are you ever going to start locking that door?"
Karen glared at her best friend as she sailed into the room. "Jane! Are you determined to scare me half to death? What are you doing here?"
Jane Wilson, owner of the Heart's Art Gallery in downtown Mercer, opened her arms in greeting, to-go bag in hand. "Aha! There you are." She held the bag higher. "Lunch! I heard about the vase. Knew you'd need company. Have you talked to Mason about this afternoon's auction?"
Karen blinked. "What?"
"You think he'll be able to buy the vases? He should. I know just his being there will help, but I mean, if he could buy them, you do think he wants to, right? Why wouldn't he? Come on. Lunch is getting cold." Long dark curls swinging around her shoulders, Jane headed for the kitchen.
Karen relented, brushing cat hair from her lap. Jane's enthusiasm flattered her. Jane's gallery anchored Mercer's arts district, and she'd been one of Karen's staunchest supporters since their teens. When Karen had decided ten years ago that she could, in fact, make a living as a potter, Jane had started putting Karen's unique vases and clay art in the windows of her gallerywhich was where Mason had first spotted them.
"No idea if he'll be able to buy them or not. I'm still not sure what good this will do."
Jane set the bag on the counter, then turned to pull plates from a cabinet. "Karen, darling, I love your naïvetè sometimes. Why don't you make fresh coffee? Your special blend Kona has been on my mind since I left the gallery."
"No, c'mon, Karen, I'm serious. He's Mason DuBroc. Dr. Mason DuBroc. Well-known author of a book on art crime in Middle Eastern war zones so full of adventure that it would make Indiana Jones jealous."
Karen scowled. There was that comparison again. "I know who he is, Jane. I knew that when he first showed up on my doorstep."
"Look, girl, Mason may not brag about it around you or around the retreat, but he knows the worth of his own name right now. For him to even bid for your vases"
"Okay, I get it."
Jane paused in her frenzy of activity. "So what's the problem?"
Karen stood up and walked to the tall windows at the back of the dining area, looking out over the trees that bordered the lawn. Her property sloped down and away from the house, then back up into woods that stretched into the distance.
She loved those woods. There was a path that led through the heart of them, all the way to the writers' colony where Mason lived. But it had not been the path that had brought him to her door, and she still couldn't shake her confusion about what had brought him to her.
Karen cleared her throat. "The problem is that I keep asking, 'Why me?' Why did Mason DuBroc, of all the people on the planet, suddenly focus so much of his interest on my vases and me? What does he want with me?"
"Afraid he'll make you successful?"
Karen turned away from the windows. "Don't try to psychoanalyze me, Janie. You're not good at it and I'm not in the mood."
Jane chuckled, a low, throaty sound. "Okay, so you're a little suspicious. I can't blame you. It did seem a little odd when he showed up in the shop, bouncing around the displays and asking all these questions about your vases, but he's an odd bird." She took a deep breath. "Did I tell you that he tried to lecture two of my customers on the relation of your vases to Southern folk art face jugs?" Jane's words picked up speed as she resumed emptying the lunch bag. "I mean, this couple hadn't been in the shop thirty seconds! They fled before I could get out 'Welcome to Mercer, New Hampshire.'"
Karen bit her lip to keep from laughing. "That sounds like him." Joining Jane in the kitchen again, she pulled a bag of Kona coffee from the freezer and a jug of filtered water from her fridge. The sight Mason had made standing on her porch that first day drifted through her mind as she prepared a fresh pot of coffee.
His notoriety intimidated Karen, but his peppered questioning cut to the heart of her craft, its history and its techniques. The accent certainly caught her off guard, as well. Southern but not twangy, the slow, easy-spoken combination of Alabama flatwoods and Louisiana bayou had a thick Cajun edge to it, and when excited, Mason would occasionally season his sentences with French words or phrases that Karen never understood. At least she thought they were French.