Olivia Lawson’s bosses at Scotland Yard don’t take her work very seriously. Art and antiquities? Bor-ing! But her latest investigation, at London’s world-renowned Tate, is turning out to be far more explosive than anyone expected. In fact, the vandalized, booby-trapped painting hanging on the gallery wall would have blown her off her feet if it wasn’t for the tall, dark-haired stranger who tackled her at the last second—a stranger as finely sculpted as any masterpiece in the museum.
Ethan Maxwell is working this case for the Elite Crimes Unit because it was a choice between that and lockup. A (barely) reformed art forger, he’s got the expertise to lead Olivia through a dangerous manhunt. But the crime may have a more personal connection to him—and the all-too-real feelings he’s developing toward Olivia could pull her into the line of fire too . . .
“Hauf delivers excitement, danger, and romance in a way only she can!” —#1 New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon
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Olivia Lawson stood before the most hideous painting she had seen hung on the esteemed walls of the Tate Britain museum. Around her the forensics team and various police constables had begun to trickle in. Olivia had arrived twenty minutes ago, as soon as dispatch had forwarded her the call from Camila Wright, the museum's director. The director had been frantic, and had suspected a vandalism.
Olivia had called in backup officers from Scotland Yard to search the outer perimeter of the museum. As she'd headed out, she'd stopped into her boss's office. Superintendent Wellbrute had just been informed a gallery in SoHo, not far from where she lived, had been hit last week with methods similar to this morning's incident at the Tate Britain. He didn't understand why she hadn't been on top of the SoHo incident. It was her job with the Arts and Antiquities Unit to investigate art crimes.
How could she be on top of what she hadn't been aware of? Apparently the SoHo gallery owner had gone directly to Interpol instead of Scotland Yard. Which had miffed her boss. And baffled Olivia only so much. Private galleries had a lot at stake in keeping thefts quiet. They couldn't have their reputations tarnished should Scotland Yard release information to the press.
But it did stab at Olivia's pride to have her boss angry with her. She should have heard about that one or picked up information from the art- world grapevine. Her lacking knowledge wasn't going to help her status at Scotland Yard.
She needed to solve this case to show her boss she had what it took, and that she was not expendable. A promotion from constable to detective constable was her goal.
Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiquities Unit had been reduced to two police officers, her and Nigel Bellows, who was out with shingles. Not a day passed that Superintendent Wellbrute didn't grumble about lacking funding, and who cared about art crimes, anyway? Wasn't as if the perpetrator caused physical damage or violence to people such as with robbery or murder. Wouldn't she be happier in dispatch or even — and this was always delivered with a wink — bringing him coffee and answering phones?
The cuts and insults never ceased, but Olivia would not break under such demeaning treatment. She was proud to be a woman working in the field of law enforcement and she would show the men exactly how valuable she was to Arts and Antiquities.
But before she tied herself up with worry knots over not learning about the SoHo incident, she had to decide if this call to the Tate was related to last week's gallery vandalism, or was something else entirely.
Approaching the painting on the wall, Olivia took careful note of all surroundings, moving her gaze from the periphery and inward. As she reached the painting, she scanned the pale gray wall for fingerprints, smudges, disturbed dust. No dust. The museum's housekeeping was meticulous.
Standing akimbo three feet away from the piece, Olivia scanned the ornate gold frame, which the director had insisted was the original that had framed the John Listen Byam Shaw masterpiece, Now Is Pilgrim Fair Autumn's Charge, which had been the painting displayed on the wall. Or maybe it still was that painting. It was difficult to determine such.
Because pinned over the original — or whatever was beneath — was a stretched canvas, on which had been painted a copy of the Byam Shaw. An awful copy. Even the worst forger in the world would never take credit for such an aberration.
Trying not to stare too long at the horrible piece, Olivia took in everything else. No dirt in the curves and arabesques carved into the frame. Forensics would dust for prints and do a thorough run-through of the crime scene, but she always asked for a few minutes alone to take everything in. To make notes, both physical and mental. The painting hung about a foot above the green marble base that bordered the walls. Numerous other paintings from the Pre-Raphaelite period hung on the wall, close together but seemingly untouched.
With her cell phone, Olivia snapped a few pictures of the entire frame and pinned canvas. Some were close-ups of the frame; the texture of the paint on the new canvas; brushstrokes. It was a slapdash job, but she sensed whoever had painted this copy had sincerely attempted to imitate the master. The colors in the original were bold oranges, reds, and browns. The copy had matched them perfectly. And the wispy ghost-like creature crawling out of the water in the foreground was also executed with a careful hand.
Olivia stepped back and bumped into a man wearing white scrubs over his jeans and T-shirt. "Sorry, Howard."
Howard Leeds smiled and nodded at the painting. He was deaf, but he didn't need to hear to become one of the most honored technicians in London forensics over the past two years. Having learned sign language as a project in the fifth grade, and using it on many occasions over the years, Olivia signed that she needed a few more minutes, then he could do his job.
Howard flashed another beaming white grin, punctuated by some killer dimples, then walked over to a wooden viewing bench and sat out his equipment.
Camila Wright clicked in on high heels and stopped beside Olivia. Sheathed in drab gray, she looked like a stick in the shapeless dress. After noting her badge, the woman had introduced herself to Olivia upon arrival but hadn't taken the time to ask who Olivia was. Tension shimmered off her thin frame. She clenched her fists so tightly, her knuckles looked ready to burst from the skin. "I just said goodbye to the Byam Shaw last night as I was leaving the building."
"Said goodbye to it?" Olivia asked.
"It's one of my favorites. I talk to the ones I love."
Oddly enough, Olivia could relate to that. Sometimes the characters depicted in oils and watercolors took on lives of their own.
She offered her hand. "We didn't have a chance for proper introductions earlier. I'm Constable Olivia Lawson. I'll be heading the investigation."
"Yes, Lawson." Camila looked thoughtful, then her demeanor changed. Olivia recognized the expression on her face as one she'd thought she was long past receiving: derision. "The Olivia Lawson who once worked at the now-defunct Hawhouse Gallery? And now you're actually investigating art crimes? Interesting."
The unspoken condemnation crept down Olivia's spine, but she wasn't going to allow it to affect her work. She was over that horrible incident. Mostly. Her best defense was to ignore the attitude, which she got more often than expected.
"It appears to be the original frame," Olivia said, more from a hunch than actual evidence. Upon arrival, she'd asked Miss Wright to pull the details and catalog for the Byam Shaw, but hadn't received that information yet. She glanced upward. The roof was two stories high and featured four curved skylights. They were the only windows in the well-lit gallery. "Before I begin to consider possible entrances for theft," she said, "I want to spend more time studying it on the wall. If you don't mind?"
"Of course not. I've blocked off the entire hall so when we open in a half hour, no patrons will be aware of what is going on in this area. I've instructed the police to enter from the employees' entrance. Our media team is keeping this hush-hush until we know what's up."
"Thank you. Do you believe the original lies beneath?" Olivia tapped her lower lip, eyes on the painting.
"I certainly hope so. But if so, the pins will have damaged the original artwork." Camila shivered. "This is awful. Will you be working with a partner?"
"I usually don't. Why do you ask?" Olivia would not allow the woman to condemn her for no reason.
"Uh, no reason." Yet her flittering gaze revealed her worry. "Just asking. I'll leave you to go check on the files you requested."
Olivia nodded and approached the painting. She stopped eight inches away and bent forward to view it from the side. The intense chemical smell of cheap oil paints burnt her nostrils. Had the thief replaced a valuable work of art with a hurried forgery? What was the meaning behind such an obvious and blatant forgery?
It must have some meaning. Thieves were crafty. Art forgers, especially, were pompous egomaniacs who liked their work to be known. Had the thief — or perhaps she should think of the person as a vandal until she could confirm theft had occurred — merely been after a grab-and-run, he would have left the wall bare.
A glance to the upper corner by the ceiling confirmed a small white security camera. She'd look at security footage as soon as possible.
Leaning in, Olivia noted the stick pins holding the new canvas over what she suspected was the original canvas beneath. The pins stretched the forgery taut. Each pin had a bit of wet paint smeared on it; the forgery hadn't had time to completely dry.
Olivia leaned in so closely that her shoulder-length red hair brushed the wall beside the frame. Clicking on the light at the end of her pen, she flashed it behind the painting. There was about a quarter inch where it did not meet the wall, from top to about a third of the way down. It allowed her to see the hook that held the painting and the wire secured to its back. It was standard museum-hanging procedure. Everything was attached to the frame, not the canvas.
Strange. If the thief had removed the Byam Shaw from the frame, he would have had to carefully slip in a replacement. Something to pin the forgery to. The original must still be intact.
Olivia moved in front of the piece again and studied the inner edges of the frame. In a few spots, fresh paint smeared the gold wood frame. She took a few photos of the spatters. Noticing that Howard was waiting patiently, she signaled him over and pointed out what she'd seen.
He gave her a thumbs-up, then pointed to the top of the picture and gestured that he might take it down for her inspection.
"We should take more photos before removing it from the wall." She signed to him to bring in the photographer from the Evidence Recovery Unit.
Ten minutes later, the ERU photographer had clicked through hundreds of shots of the entire room and the painting.
"I think we can take it down now," Olivia announced to the few officers in the room. "Howard, if you'll assist me." She signed to him that she would help him remove it from the wall. He approached the painting.
Olivia snapped on latex gloves and slid her right hand to the top of the frame. With her left, she gripped the bottom.
Olivia turned around. A tall, handsome man raced toward her. She smelled sulfur. Something flashed in the corner of her eye as the man's body collided with hers. Together, they tumbled to the hardwood floor.
Ethan Maxwell slowly rolled off the woman he'd tackled to the floor. He felt awful for shoving her onto the hardwood floor, but if she'd been standing upright, the charge that had been hidden behind the painting would have blown up in her face. The explosion had sounded like a gunshot. And the room smelled of smoke and some chemical he couldn't name. His expertise was not munitions.
Ethan knelt and looked around, gathering his equilibrium and taking stock of the room. He noticed a man to his right wearing white forensics scrubs and holding out his hands as if in shock.
"Yes, that was a bomb," he said sarcastically. Sometimes cutting remarks escaped Ethan's mouth before his brain caught up with him.
"He's deaf," the woman said as she rolled over. She caught the man in white's attention and signed something to him.
The man nodded and stepped back.
Ethan stood up, tugged down the sleeves of his navy wool blazer, and offered his hand to the woman. She slapped her hand into his and he helped her up. Upright, she smoothed the skirt of her dress and fluffed her red hair. Ethan noticed that her black dress, patterned with wide, bright red roses, clung to ample curves.
The redhead signed to the forensics man, and he stepped back over to the bench, where Ethan noted a camera, dusting brushes, and plastic evidence bags — standard tools of the forensic trade.
"A bomb?" she said wonderingly as she studied the destroyed painting. "I don't understand."
The frame was still intact. The charge had only been strong enough to blow away the center of the canvas — both canvases, Ethan presumed — leaving about eight inches of the outer edges frayed and hanging.
"Yes, a bomb," Ethan reiterated. "So sorry to have mussed your pretty dress, ma'am. It's a lovely bit of flowers on you, though." He winked as he unbuttoned his coat and pointed to the gallery entrance. "Could you please direct me to the investigating officer? I'd like to clear the room of all unnecessary personnel. And a call must be put in to the bomb squad, Miss, uh ..."
She offered her hand. "I'm Constable Olivia Lawson, with Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiquities Unit. And you are?"
"Oh!" Quite taken aback by her introduction, Ethan slid his hand from her grip. His eyes fell to her cleavage, which wasn't blatant, but there was so much bosom pushed up amidst the red roses, it proved impossible not to notice. Over and over. Then he realized he was staring and blurted out, "You don't look very much like a constable."
"And exactly what do you expect a constable to look like?" She sounded annoyed, sliding a hand to her hip.
Ethan had never been a man to bite his tongue. "Perhaps a bit less... lush."
He ignored her raised eyebrows, stepping forward to inspect the ruined painting. "I saw the overpainting as I was rushing in. Absolutely ghastly." He turned to see her mouth drop open. "Constable Lawson?"
"It is ghastly. Or rather, was. And who are you, again? I'm the lead investigation officer here, and I don't appreciate anyone rushing in and shoving me to the floor —"
"You mustn't get yourself worked up. It seems I've arrived just in time. This painting was rigged to blow. When you lifted the corner of the frame, you tripped the detonation wire."
He leaned forward and inspected the edge of the frame. It was blackened and burned, smelling of chemicals, but the gild was still evident. The scent of solvents in the oil paint rose above the burn. He'd seen this same catastrophe before. Not a week ago.
Scenting a gorgeous spill of candy sweetness that dallied with the turpentine, oils, and lingering smoke that coiled in wisps within the gallery, he turned abruptly and offered his hand to her once again. "Right then. Ethan Maxwell. Interpol. I came as soon as I got the call."
"Interpol?" she asked sharply.
"A special agent to them, actually. I am an expert on art crimes and forgeries and consult frequently in the London area. At your service."
This time her handshake was weaker as she seemed more intent on trying to figure him out. Could a woman be more stunning? And...those eyes. Blue. No. Tints of gold within the blue irises fashioned them two stars bursting in the center of a deep blue sky.
"A special Interpol agent?" She pulled her hand from his as if he'd shocked her.
"Special ops, yes. The Elite Crimes Unit. We work with all local and international police agencies." Ethan wasn't willing to detail his exact title and position in the hierarchy of criminal investigations. And it was completely unnecessary, according to the ECU's rules. "I'm situated in London at the moment, so it was fortuitous for Scotland Yard that I could get here so quickly."
"Fortuitous? I don't believe Scotland Yard called you. And I had things under control, Mr. Maxwell. I'm not sure what assistance you can offer —"
"Under control? The fact that I was unable to stop you from destroying a valuable work of art should be considered extremely lacking on your part."
"I had no idea the thing was booby-trapped."
"Exactly. You should have been more careful with the investigation. Did you at least take some photographs of the painting before it blew?"
He waited for her to work through a moment of anger that tightened her jaw, then she conceded with a nod. "I did." She tugged her cellphone from her skirt pocket, scrolled to an image, and turned it toward him.
Ethan leaned in, taking in her sweet scent. "As I suspected. Another hasty pudding."
"Hasty pudding? Another?"
"I'll get to that soon enough." He pointed at her phone. "Appears it's been hastily done with an ugly mashup of pudding-like paint. All a bit of a muck, as is the food stuff." He looked at her, their faces inches apart. She didn't meet his gaze. "It's a hideous thing, isn't it?"
"Yes." She moved away from him, taking her gorgeous atmosphere along with her. "It appeared to have been placed over —"
"Pinned?" Ethan noted the painting's frayed canvas edges. But there were no pins that he could see.
Excerpted from "The Forger"
Copyright © 2017 Michele Hauf.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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