Read an Excerpt
Skylar Pope opened her aunt's art gallery as she had for most of the past six weeks by unlocking the black wrought-iron gate on the alley-side door and cinching it against the wall. The glass door came next and then the alarm system until at last she was able to enter. The heels of her boots clicked against the polished wood f loors as she moved through the workroom into the gallery itself, switching on lights as she strode toward the front of the store.
Once there, she unlocked and opened that door, as well, and stepped out onto the sidewalk of Traterg, carrying with her a sandwich board that advertised the gallery was open for business. She set it up on the sidewalk as usual, shivering as a cold winter wind blew around her legs and teased up the hem of her dress.
Back inside, she returned to the workroom where she took off her coat and deposited that and her shoulder bag in her locker. She took a second to smooth her hair and the dress she'd finished making just the night before, a swirl of lavender and purple with vibrant shots of yellow. The garment was of her own design, one of her better efforts. The fact was she made almost everything she wore with the exception of socks, shoes and underwear. That she hadn't been told to modify her appearance when asked to help out was just another indication of how ill Aunt Eleanor was.
Skylar opened the vault next and took out a tray of jeweled shells that she tucked into a window display along with several glass sculptures. There were a few other pricey items that she retrieved and set in place, delighting in the sparkle and quality of each.
A pot of coffee, very strong, the way most of the citizens of the small Balkan country of Kanistan preferred it, came next. While it brewed, Skylar opened the square pink box she'd brought along from the bakery down the street and arranged jam-filled cookies on a handblown glass platter infused with replications of the small gold-and-red blossoms that were Kanistan's national wild-flower. Her aunt had made this piece as she had many of the others in the gallery. A flip of a switch filled the air with Verdi.
The store looked and sounded elegant. It was not exactly to Skylar's taste, which tended to be a little livelier, but it suited her aunt and the mostly kind of stuffy people who came here to purchase art pieces. Skylar thought briefly of getting out her iPod and listening to her own playlist but dismissed the idea. Her job was to greet customers and sell art, not cocoon away behind a sketch pad thinking of new ideas for what she grandly termed her spring collection.
But, hey, she couldn't wait to get going on it. There was lots of downtime after the gallery closed, time when Uncle Luca worked late and her aunt, exhausted from illness and stress, went to bed early. The grays and blacks of the winter city, so different than all the light she was used to in Southern California, continually stirred creative juices that were finding their way into her designs.
For now, she settled down behind the desk to work on the flyer for the Valentine's Day open house. She was busily moving templates around, wishing Aunt Eleanor was well enough to consult, when the bell over the door alerted her that the first customer of the day had arrived.
She looked up to find two middle-aged women bundled up against the chill. Their coats, hats and gloves looked well-made if dated. By their accents, Skylar judged them to be from closer to the Ukrainian border. Maybe they were on holiday, and maybe they were looking for gifts to take back home.
Skylar had never been a hasty judge of other people, not until she'd taken this job. But in the few short weeks she'd been here, she'd learned to tell a serious collector from a tourist looking for a keepsake, and these two had the look of the latter. Sure enough, they moved quickly past the pricey sculptures and paintings to gather around a central case.
"May I help you?" Skylar asked.
They raised their eyebrows, probably at the accent they could detect in her speech. The taller one asked to see the tray within the case that held an assortment of handblown glass wine stoppers Skylar's aunt had created when she discovered the need for something inexpensive for the casual shopper. Skylar fished the tray out of the case and backed off as the women set about the task of weeding out their favorites.
Skylar glanced at her watch. Aneta was late again, had been all week. She was the local girl Aunt Eleanor employed to help out, but Skylar hadn't found her all that helpful, especially for the past couple of weeks when she'd been distracted and nervous. Aneta had finally confessed she had become involved in a new romance and hinted at trouble. Skylar would have been happy to help if she could, but Aneta's prickly disposition made it tough.
Another jangle of the bell set Skylar's head turning. This time, it was a lone man who entered, pausing inside the door as though scouting out the gallery. As his gaze connected with Skylar's, she felt a small jolt of something akin to recognition although she knew she'd never seen him before.
He didn't look like any other customer she'd ever encountered in this establishment. He was young, not much over thirty, but there was the look of experience in his clear blue eyes that held a challenge, an aura of appraisal, like he was checking out the room in a calculating way and that included her. As though he'd made a decision, he moved toward her with a purpose of step that galvanized her to the spot, his shoulders broad beneath a well-cut dark brown leather jacket that shone with the same richness as his equally dark hair.
The almost imperceptible limp that revealed itself as he walked aroused curiosity and speculation and somehow added to his inherent swagger. She wasn't sure why this guy was here, but she'd wager it had nothing to do with art.
At five foot two, Skylar was already a little on the diminutive side, and when he stopped a few feet away and stared down, his presence was imposing, muscles impressive, expression impossible to read.
"Do you speak English?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, smiling.
"You're American," he said, eyes sparkling as though he'd longed to hear his own language.
"Same as you," she said. She'd known before he opened his mouth that he was a fellow Yank. There was something very U.S. of A. about him, something quietly strong, infinitely self-assured. And maybe something slightly dangerous.
"My name is Cole Bennett. I'm looking for Eleanor Ables," he said, using her aunt's maiden name, the one she'd kept when she'd married three decades before. His voice was deep and sexy and sent a little flutter down her spine. "I'm betting you're not her."
"What gave it away?" Skylar asked with a smile. "The pink stripe in my hair?"
He narrowed his eyes, but there was a glint of humor evident in the slight curve of his lips as his gaze darted up to peruse the stripe. His appraisal traveled down her body to her feet, and he smiled. "I think it might actually be the yellow cowboy boots."
"Maybe I'm an avant-garde kind of artist," she flirted. It was obvious to her that he knew she was playing with him and didn't mind it one bit.
"Maybe you are, but you're also a few decades too young. Are you even out of high school?"
"I beg your pardon," she said. "I'm twenty-five. And a half."
"You look like you're sixteen. And a half."
"I think I'm offended," she said.
His smile ratcheted up a notch. "Didn't mean it that way. Most women are happy to be told they look younger than their years."
"Not when it plunges them into jailbait territory," she said. "Anyway, as you so astutely discerned, I am not Eleanor Ables. I'm filling in for her. May I help you?"
"How about a name?"
"Skylar Pope." Skylar suddenly became aware that the other customers had moved to the counter with their choices and had discreetly approached the cookie plate. "Excuse me a minute," she said and hurried over to help them, aware that Cole Bennett's gaze tracked every move she made.
Skylar chatted warmly with the customers as she wrapped each modest purchase as though it was a Picasso, per her aunt's long-standing tradition. After the women left, she looked around to see where Cole had wandered off to and found him studying a shelf of glass displayed against a roughly hewn wooden wall. She decided to give him space. It took him a few minutes, but eventually he sought her out again. She offered him coffee and a cookie.
"Thanks," he said, accepting the coffee, watching her as she dropped a single sugar cube in it as requested. "You speak the language very well."
"Years of practice," she said. "Unless I get careless, most people can't tell I'm from somewhere else."
"And where is that somewhere else?"
"California, but I spent a week or two here each summer when I was growing up." She tilted her head and added, "Do you know my aunt, Mr. Bennett?"
"Eleanor Ables is your aunt?"
"Yes, my father's sister."
He took a sip, and she struggled to ignore the way his muscles moved under the soft leather of his jacket, the snug fit of the soft black shirt against his trim torso. Hopeless not to notice those things, however. She'd never designed men's clothes, but she bet he'd look fabulous in anything he wore.
"Call me Cole," he said. "And, no, I've never had the pleasure. A friend of mine visited Traterg last year and brought home the most unique glass figurine. He raved about the woman who had created and sold it to him. When I found myself in Kanistan, I decided to come meet the artist and see if I could find something equally tempting for myself."
She looked up into his eyes. Everything he'd just said sounded as though he'd rehearsed it. She almost called him on it but stopped herself short. He was a customer, and he'd been looking at very expensive pieces. What did she care if he made up a story about why he wanted one?
"Has anything in particular caught your eye?" she asked and felt warmth in her face as his gaze lingered on her mouth. Now who was flirting?
"Tell me about this display," he said, setting the cup aside and leading the way back to the wooden wall.
For the next forty-five minutes, Skylar showed Cole just about everything in the gallery, starting with her aunt's tree of life theme, the pieces of which ran the gamut from an intricate vase to a huge handblown tree with a thousand individual leaves to a dozen other more modest pieces. As they moved from that to artwork to jewelry, she answered a dozen questions about the artists, their procedures and about herself. His curiosity in everything seemed genuine and as sincere as the unacknowledged dance going on between them as they spoke. They were in the middle of considering colorful three-dimensional glass elliptical shapes that were reminiscent of the famous Faberge eggs when the bell at the door announced a new customer.
This time, Skylar recognized the man as an elderly collector who had come in ten days before to choose a different frame for his miniature painting. They'd spent a satisfying couple of hours judging the merits of this one over that. Skylar wasn't an artist per se, but she did understand color and proportions.
"Mr. Machnik, how nice to see you," she said in English as she knew he appreciated practicing his when he could. "I bet you're here to pick up your Bartow."
"Yes, yes, I've missed it hanging in my parlor," he said, his speech heavily accented. Bushy white eyebrows lifted over light gray eyes as he added, "It is back yet?"
"Yes, it came back yesterday, and I have to admit I took a peek. You were right to insist on the gilt. The gold in the frame perfectly reflects the light in the sky. It's waiting for you in the vault. I'll be right back." She excused herself to go get it, anxious to conclude this transaction before Cole Bennett got bored and left without buying something.
The painting was where she'd left it, wrapped in brown paper, about twelve square inches including the frame. She took it from the shelf and returned to the showroom, meeting Mr. Machnik at the counter where she carefully peeled away the invoice and the brown paper surrounding his treasure.
Machnik and she both gasped in the same instant. "Is this a joke?" he choked out.
Skylar looked at the ornate gilt frame she'd rewrapped when it returned from the workshop the afternoon before and felt her pulse quicken. The beautiful rendition of a bucolic hilltop was gone, replaced with a blank rectangle of cardboard.
"I don't understand," she said.
"Where is my painting?" he demanded as the kindly veneer flaked away from his voice.
"I don't know," she said, looking around the gallery as though it might have walked out of the vault on its own and hidden behind a sculpture. "It was in this frame yesterday." She met Cole's gaze and flinched at the intensity of his stare as he obviously eavesdropped.
"I demand to know what's going on," Machnik said. "I paid fifty thousand euros for that painting, and as you know, it is worth double that now, maybe triple."
Her attention flicked back to Machnik. "I know, sir. All I can think is that Aneta may have mistakenly rotated it back into the gallery." It was possible although Aneta was seldom alone here for long. Still, there was no doubting Aneta was acting flaky as of late. "I assure you, I'll look into this right away. Let me get you a cup of coffee."
"No, thank you," he said, checking his pocket watch. "I'm going to be late for an appointment. I will be back at four o'clock, and I expect to find my painting waiting for me."
"Yes, I understand," Skylar said, her voice shaking. She was already punching Aneta's number into her phone.
Aneta answered on the first ring as though she'd been waiting for a call. "Thank goodness you're there," Skylar said as the bell jangled, signaling Machnik exiting the shop. She was vaguely aware of Cole following the older man to the door and cursed the events of the past few minutes.
"I cannot speak," Aneta said.
"You have to," Skylar insisted. "What do you know about Oleskii Machnik's painting, the one in the vault?"
"What! I know nothing," Aneta insisted. "I'm hanging up."
"No, wait. It's missing, Aneta. The Bartow miniature was in the safe when I left yesterday, and now it's gone. Just the frame remains. Did you move it?"
"I cannot speak," Aneta repeated, her voice dropping.
"What do you mean? Why aren't you here at the gallery? What's going on?" Skylar stopped asking questions as she realized Aneta had disconnected.
Skylar hit Redial, but there was no answer this time. She wanted to throw the phone in frustration. If she didn't find a rational reason for this situation, her aunt would have to be told and that would bring in the police.
She raced back to the vault, shoving things aside, opening other packages. Had she made a mistake? Had she inadvertently misplaced it herself?
"Can I help?" Cole Bennett asked from the doorway.
She looked up at him, shock robbing her of her voice. She'd forgotten about him. She wasn't sure what to do now, who to contact.
"I couldn't help overhearing just about everything," Cole continued as though recognizing her inability to form a coherent sentence.
She stared at him, still speechless.