Several flights of stairs later, I’m standing at the top of the porch, relieved to find two entries, one of which is marked STUDIO. This setup is comforting and feels safer and more professional. I lift my hand to knock on the studio entry and the door flies open to reveal Ricco Alvarez. He is striking, not handsome by any means, but there is this arrogant confidence about him that comes across as more suave than belligerent. His skin is a rich brown, his features sharp and defined, like the touch of his brush, and from what I’ve heard, his personality.

“Welcome, Ms. McMillan.”


“Sara,” I say. His teal business shirt, which he’s paired with his black slacks, accents eyes the same bright color. “And thank you.”

“Sara,” he replies with a gracious nod of his head, and the tension in my spine eases just a bit with the use of my name.

He backs up to allow me to pass and my gaze lifts to the massive all-glass ceilings. “Spectacular, isn’t it?” Ricco asks.

“It is,” I agree, letting him take my briefcase and jacket. “And so is the floor.” The pale, shiny wood is almost too brilliant to walk on. “You artists have a way of delivering drama.”

He hangs my things on a fancy steel rack mounted on the wall. “Some would say me more so than others.”

Considering all the talk about him, I’m surprised at his smile and I like that he can joke about himself. “I’ve heard that,” I dare to reply, my lips curving.

“At least I have people talking.” He motions me forward. “Welcome to my studio, Bella.”

Bella. Beautiful in Spanish. An endearment should make my unease more powerful. Instead, I instantly believe he tries to romanticize everything from his dramatic home to his conversation.

We walk side by side through an archway at least seven feet high, and he dominates the space, being well over six feet himself. The space comes into view and it’s like I’m back at Allure. The narrow, rectangular room has several elegant display walls, and at least six paintings on every wall.

Alvarez steps to my side and motions to the room. “These are the pieces that I have at present and will allow for private sales.”

I glance up at him and state what I guess to be the truth. “The ones you’re willing to show me at this point in time, you mean.”

“You are direct, aren’t you?”

“Just eager to see every amazing piece of your work you will let me see.” I wave my hand toward the art. “Can I?”

“Of course.”

My path forward is instant and it’s a beeline for a painting on the far right of the room. I stop in front of the Picasso-like Mediterranean landscape, with sharp lines and dynamic colors, and I’m in sensory overload.

“You like the Meredith?” he asks.

“I love it,” I say and cut him a sideways look. “Why do you call it Meredith?

“A woman I once knew, of course.”

“I’m sure she’s honored.”

“She hates me, but alas, there is a fine line between love and hate.”

“Then you and Mark must be darn near in love,” I comment, baiting him to tell me about his reasons for pulling his work from the gallery.

His eyes light with amusement. “You are quite the character, Bella. I like you. I see why Mark likes you.”

“How do you know he does?”

“Because he trusted you enough to send you here and he wants my business back.”

“Why’d he lose it?”

“Why did he tell you he lost it?”

“He said that you wanted Rebecca’s contact information and he couldn’t give it to you.”

Disdain fills his eyes. “There is much more to it than that, and Mark knows it.”

“I’d like to hear.”

“I’m sure you would,” he says, and for the first time I catch a sharpness to his voice that makes me believe he’s capable of cutting flesh and blood with words. “But out of respect for Rebecca, I won’t be sharing more.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be inappropriate.”

I watch the tension slide away from his features, and the steel of seconds before is gone. “Forgive me, Bella. Rebecca is a touchy subject for me. Now, why don’t we walk through the paintings and let me tell you about each?”

My moment for digging for information is lost, but I hope to find another one. We begin moving around the room, and I ask questions and gush over his work. In between my questions, I answer questions from him as well. “Who’s your favorite Renaissance artist?” “How do you ensure you aren’t buying a fake?” “What have been the top five bestselling paintings in the last five years?” After a bit, he looks pleased at my answers and our talk turns more casual.

After I have seen that three of his paintings are named after women, I cannot help but comment on the trend. “You must be quite the lady’s man.”

“I’ve been called worse,” he assures me, “and perhaps I am guilty as charged. I guess it depends on who is defining what constitutes a lady’s man.”

The statement strikes me as true beyond its intention. How many of us allow others to define us and thus we become what they want us to be, not what we should be or could be?

We continue to chat about the art and I’ve lost track of time when finally we have finished our tour of his work. “You’re impressively knowledgeable, Bella.”

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