Heading to the hallway, I pause by Amanda’s desk. “I’m meeting a client next door. Is Mark in the gallery?”
“No. He won’t be in until after lunch but he told me to tell you he canceled your meeting with Ryan for tonight. He thought you might want to choose the date to reschedule.”
I hate how appreciative I am of this news. I have dreamed of this job, this life that has now become a little piece of hell.
Mary appears at the opposite side of Amanda’s desk. My cheeks heat with the certainty she is somehow involved in Rebecca’s disappearance. “Call me if Mark gets in before I get back, please,” I say to Amanda, and rush to the door, eager to talk to Ricco.
Entering Ava’s shop, I inhale the scent of coffee and sweets and manage an awkward wave in her direction. Ricco is already here, and I settle at the table across from him, trying not to look at the table Chris always sits at. But I do. I look as if he will magically appear, and I swallow the emotions his absence stirs.
“Did you locate a number for Rebecca?” Ricco inquires urgently.
“No. Sorry. But I am following up on something she was working on. Did she ask you about a couple of counterfeit paintings?” I pull out my folder and show them to Ricco. “Did you look at these for her?”
“Oh yes. I remember Rebecca mentioning her concern but nothing beyond a verbal inquiry. She never got me what I needed to evaluate the work.”
“What exactly would you need?”
“I can begin with digital photos but ideally I’ll want to examine the actual work.”
“How much per item?”
“I don’t charge. I feel it decreases my credibility.”
I slide the folder over to him. “I have details for each work and digital photos. Two of the four pieces are in the Allure Gallery. Two are not. Please. Will you look into them for me?”
“This is related to Rebecca’s worries?”
“Do you think it has something to do with why she disappeared?”
Disappeared. The word hangs in the air and I remind myself to be cautious. Have I just made a mistake? Could he be involved with Mary? “Doubtful,” I reply. “I don’t think she went very far with this.”
His eyes narrow and his answer comes slowly. “Very well, Bella. I’ll look into it.” He scoops up the folder. “Shall I walk you to the gallery?”
“No. Thank you. I’ll stay a bit.”
I watch him leave and consider calling Mark, but hesitate. Not for the first time, I wonder if Mark could be involved. The first two pieces Rebecca questioned sold for large sums of money. I dial Blake instead.
I tell him what I have discovered and hear only silence on the other end before he says, “You do know I am a former ATF, and art theft and counterfeiting operations is one of our specialties, correct?”
“I didn’t really put that together in a two-and-two kind of way.”
“Well, now I’ve done it for you and yes, I believe there is something going on and I am dealing with it. You, however, are not supposed to be asking questions. I repeat, we are aware of the situation and PS: I’m handling Ricco Alvarez.”
“Is Mark involved?”
“Mark Compton is a lot of things, but as far as I can tell a thief isn’t one of them. I’m not prepared to rule out all possibilities quite yet, though.”
“Do you . . . do you think Rebecca got close to this and someone . . .”
“I have nothing to connect her disappearance to the art scam but it’s a logical link. In other words, stay out of this. If I had my way I’d put you on a plane to L.A. to be with Chris.”
If I had my way, I’d be on a plane to be with Chris, too. I end the call and dial Chris again. He doesn’t answer. I clutch my phone and wonder what kind of clubs they have in Los Angeles. I wonder what he will do to hide from his pain and I wonder who he will do it with. I dial Brandy and get her husband, only to learn that she’s highly sedated and a mess. I hang up and certainty fills me. Unless Chris invites me he will be upset that I show up and Brandy will be upset because he’s upset. It’s clear that the life I’d convinced myself was mine never was. I can’t even properly grieve a brave young boy without feeling like an intruder.
Defeated, I gather my things and start for the door but draw up short when Ryan and Mark walk in. The two of them together are pure testosterone in their perfectly fitted suits, and complete contrasts with their dark and light hair. The masculine beauty they ooze is almost a crime, and downright blinding to us normal humans.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Ryan says to me, and gives me a once-over that is thorough and somehow manages not to be obnoxious. “You look gorgeous.”
His natural charm pulls a small smile from me. I think it’s the warmth in his brown eyes, so unlike the hard glint permanently etched in Mark’s. “Thanks, Ryan, but I know I’m far from it today.”
“Is the black dress an indicator you are flying out to L.A.?” Mark inquires.
“No. As of now, I’m not going.” It hits me that Ava will tell Mark I was with Ricco. “I came over here to meet with Ricco again, but it’s still a no-go for his business. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.”
“Yes,” Mark agrees wryly. “I do believe you are.”
Inwardly, I bristle at his reference to Chris, and I’m fighting a snippy “he’s my kind of punishment” when the door chimes behind us. Avoiding incoming bodies, Ryan steps closer to me at the same time Mark does. I end up smashed against Mark, staring up into his piercing gray eyes. My pulse skyrockets and I step backward. “I should get back to the gallery.”