“Right. No in between. I have to go.”

“You’re going to be glad you did this. Call me after.”


“I will.”

Ten minutes later, I am no longer employed by the school. But Ella is still scheduled for teaching and I’m not sure what to think. If she’d resigned, I’d feel hurt she’d cut me out of her life, but I’d know she’d gone silent by choice. I text Chris to tell him and he congratulates me and promises to check more into Ella’s location.

I have just put my phone back in my purse when a knock sounds on my door and it opens. Ricco appears, looking oh so Antonio Banderas–esque, with his dark good looks, dressed in black slacks and a black button-down shirt with several of those buttons loose at his neck. “Let’s go next door for coffee, Bella.”

An order. “Of course.” I stand and slip on my jacket. “I hope your visit means you’ve reconsidered working with us?”

“We’ll talk next door,” he replies, his expression impassive.

Inwardly, I sigh and grab my purse. Every man who walks into this place seems to get injected with an intense need for control and doing things on their terms.

When we get to the coffee shop, Ricco opens the door for me and I step inside. I feel Chris’s presence immediately, as if another part of me is coming to life. Oh, no—knowing how he feels about Ricco, this is an explosion waiting to happen. Ricco offers to take my jacket and I decline. I’ll hang on to my armor, real or imagined.

I take a few steps into the shop and catch a glimpse of Chris at the back table. Ava calls my name and smiles brightly, announcing my presence to Chris if he hasn’t already seen me. I manage a smile at her. I think.

“You sit with your things,” Ricco commands. “I’ll order. What would you like?”

“White mocha, please.”

As Ricco turns to the counter, I walk toward the tables and right into the beam of Chris’s sharp gaze. I quickly lower my lashes, unable to look at him. Not and still manage this meeting.

Still, I scoot into a wooden booth that puts me facing Chris, because even though I’m afraid of what I might find in his face, I can’t stand not being able to see him, either. Oh, yes. I am one big mess.

Setting my purse beside me, I slip out of my jacket just to have something to do. The intense pull willing me to look at him overwhelms me, and before I can stop myself my lashes lift and our eyes lock. The familiar jolt of awareness he creates in me spreads through my body and becomes the crackle of our mutual bad moods.

Ricco sits down across from me and slides my coffee in my direction. He then glances over his shoulder at Chris before turning back to me. His lips quirk and it’s clear he is aware Chris was at his house. He opens his mouth to speak and I hold my breath, preparing for a confrontation.

“Have you reconsidered my offer?”

Relieved to be on the hot seat with a topic I have a clear answer for, I say, “I’m committed to the gallery.”

“Honorable,” he comments dryly. “I told Mark he doesn’t deserve you, any more than he did Rebecca.”

My eyes go wide. “Oh. I . . . Ricco, I—”

A low rumble of laughter escapes his lips. “Don’t worry, Bella. It’s no reflection on you. Besides, I plan to give you job security today. I have an auction piece I have given to Crystal, which I’m sure you know is Riptide’s biggest competing auction house. I’m considering pulling it and giving it to Riptide”—he pauses for obvious effect—“in your care, of course.”

My scalp prickles with warning. “Why, and on what condition?”

“I want you to find a way for me to reach Rebecca.”

I blanch, shocked at this turn of events. “But I don’t know her. I have no idea how to reach her, Ricco.”

“I’m aware of that, but you can tell me if she has contact with the gallery. You might even be able to access Mark’s personal files.”

Is Ricco the other man in the journal? Is he the man Rebecca used to make Mark jealous? “No.” My voice is firm, certain. “I won’t touch Mark’s personal files.”

He scrubs his jaw and casts a glare at the ceiling I suspect is meant for me. “Acceptable,” he states tightly, returning his now unreadable gaze to mine. “All I ask is you do what you can within your comfort zone.”

His insistence is both compelling and frightening. If he loved Rebecca, I cannot imagine the pain he must feel at her absence, but there is another, more insidious possibility. He hurt her and he’s trying to stay in tune with what is being discovered about her absence.

“I want your business, Ricco. I’d hoped you’d give it to me because you have confidence in my skill.”

He leans in closer, his hand sliding over mine on the table, his torment over Rebecca clear. “Just tell me you will try, Bella,” he presses. “That is all I ask.”

Imagining Chris seeking me out if I suddenly disappeared drives me to promise, “I’ll try.”

The tension in his body eases considerably. “Excellent. We have a deal, then.” He pushes to his feet and I follow him. He takes my hand and kisses it and I feel the weight of Chris’s crushing stare. “I have fifteen days to pull my painting from Crystal before I’m contractually incapable of doing so. I expect I’ll hear from you by then.” He turns away, sauntering toward the door.

I gape after him. Have I just been blackmailed?

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