Authors: Kennedy Ryan
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Adult
New York Boston
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I dedicate this book to all the boys and girls for whom the imagined horrors in this book are real.
I suck at thank-yous a little bit. I will start with my family because to leave them off—not even conceivable. Especially my boys—my husband and son, who make up the center of my life. You are both so patient with me when I get in the tunnel where I write and lose myself in this whole process. Sam, you have modeled for me unconditional love and partnership. I am so glad our dreams are inextricably woven together for the rest of our lives. It is dangerous for me to name names of bloggers who have helped me because there are SO many of you and I’d hate to forget anyone, but you know who you are. Those of you who are ALWAYS ready to step up and help me get the word out. YOU are one of my favorite parts of this journey!
And I want to especially thank the strong women in my life who taught me so many things I poured into this heroine Jo Walsh and her aunt Kris. My mother, Aunt Evelyn, Aunt Joyce, my grandmother, Banny, Julie Arnold. Your wisdom, grace, and unwavering strength influence every step I take. You are the deep well I draw from. Thank you!
ameron Mitchell had never been fond of bright lights. He squinted against the glare of the lighting kit poised above his head. The dark hid all his demons, and the brightness left him feeling like a cockroach when the lights come on without warning. So did the probing stare of the woman seated across from him.
“Cam, so glad to have you on the show today.” The interviewer, Shelby Jennings, offered him a grin she probably practiced in the mirror every morning.
“Glad to be here.” Cam waxed a smile onto his face, relaxing the muscles in his shoulders and shifting on the overstuffed couch of the studio set.
“You’re the first artist ever to make our Thirty Under Thirty List.”
She raised her ice-thin brows and smiled like she was waiting for a response. What did she expect him to do? Curtsy? Shit sunshine?
Cam saw her disappointment at his barely there response for only a moment before she slid her reporter’s face back into place. Just the right amount of curiosity and concern.
“Your street art in Paris made you a YouTube sensation. Tell us a little about that.”
“I was studying at the Sorbonne, which was amazing, and I met some graffiti artists. Paris has a rich street scene, and I was immediately drawn to it.”
“Did it take you back to your roots?”
Cam raised his own brows and cocked his head, determined to make her voice the condescension smeared all over her face.
“I mean…you know…in the…in the…”
With much effort, Cam pulled the smile fighting its way to the surface back under.
“I believe the word you’re searching for is ‘hood.’ I grew up in the hood.”
“No, I mean. I know, but I wasn’t—”
“It’s okay. That’s where I’m from. I’m not ashamed of it.” Cam shrugged, slouching another inch deeper into the cushions. “I discovered my talent for art in those streets. I grew up in Barfield projects, not too far from Durham, North Carolina. Bridges and the sides of buildings were the only canvases I knew back then. And a can of spray paint had to do.”
“So that’s why you were so drawn to the street scene?”
She said the word “street” so quickly, like it tasted rank in her mouth and she couldn’t wait to spit it out. She glanced at him with her Upper East Side suspicion. Like any moment he’d grab his crotch and start singing Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.”
“More or less. By then, of course, I’d studied art in college. Studied at the Sorbonne. I understood and could execute several art forms. I didn’t default to graffiti. I
back to it. It’s the rawest, most organic art form I’ve ever experienced. Kind of my first love.”
“And the viral YouTube? How’d that happen?”
“I was painting in the streets of Paris one night, and some kid walked up behind me with a camera. Said he was making a documentary. Asked if he could follow me around while I painted.”
Cam paused a moment, still absorbing the incredible turn of events that had thrust him into a narrow, niched fame he hadn’t seen coming and that had landed him on this very list.
“That night turned into a few weeks. He uploaded the videos, and they went viral. He won at Sundance. The rest is history.”
“Now your art has been featured in several hip-hop videos and in two blockbuster movies. You’re a darling of the art world and on the cusp of your first exhibit. That’s some journey.”
Started from the bottom…
He could feel her eyes doing what everyone’s did. Assessing. Weighing. He was an ethnic enigma. Folks speculated—was he was Italian, Puerto Rican, Cuban? His olive skin and dark hair made some sense, and then they’d come to his eyes, which were like a flash of blue-gray lightning in his face. Scratching their heads. And when they gave up on staring and asked, well, how the hell was he supposed to know? His father was some john his mother probably fucked for twenty bucks. And when people got past his face and dug a little deeper, they were even less sure how to peg him.
Art had been his solace in Barfield projects from the shit storm at home. Running the streets at night, too young to be hanging with the older guys teaching him about graffiti. Dodging cops at nine years old. Darting through dangerous streets, spraying buildings and bridges. Coaxing beauty out of grime. Even when he’d learned about the use of light, used fine paints and expensive canvases, perfected a gift he wouldn’t have even known to ask for, there was nothing like those early days, when he’d stumbled onto his talent like a gold coin in a pile of shit.
He’d lived in the projects until he was twelve years old but just years later found himself vacationing in Vail with the Bennetts and Walshes, two of the country’s most prominent families. He was a little bit of everything people assumed he was, and everything they would never suspect.
Cam could practically hear Shelby’s lips smacking she was kissing his ass so hard. Blowing all kinds of smoke about him being the second coming for the art world. He nodded, keeping his mouth straight while he waited for the real questions to start. He knew she had them, and even though his agent had assured him she wouldn’t ask him about—
“About Walsh Bennett.” Her smile was a bear trap, spread open and waiting for him to stumble in. “This is truly one of the most fascinating aspects of your story. Walsh made our list two years ago. You and he were close at one time, correct?”
Cam stared back at her, his silence daring her to continue. To violate his express wishes not to discuss this topic.
“But he’s married now to your ex-wife, Kerris. How does that work?”
Cam leaned forward, using the breadth of his shoulders and the warning of his eyes to eat up a few inches of her personal space. Not enough to frighten her, but just enough for her to wonder if it was her imagination or if he might actually be dangerous.
“I don’t talk about that.”
“Well, who can blame you? I mean, your best friend and wife cheated—”
“They didn’t actually cheat, and I don’t talk about that.”
“Well, of course our viewers want to know, to understand how you get past something like that.”
“Your viewers can go fuck themselves.”
* * *
“Let me get this straight,” Walsh said from the other end of the line, sounding remarkably close for someone in Hong Kong. “You told the viewers to—”
“Fuck themselves, yeah.” Cam glanced around the clean, cold lines of the SoHo gallery his agent, Sebastian, had asked him to check out. “I guess that was bad, huh?”
“Well, not sure that’s the mileage Bash was hoping you’d get out of this list.”
“How’d you sit across from that woman without vomiting? She’s a Venus flytrap.”
Walsh’s chuckle rumbled across the time zones.
“Shelby’s not that bad.”
“Maybe not to you, but your ex-wife isn’t married to your best friend.”
The words plopped into the silence now pooling over the phone.
Even with them both trying to get past all the drama of the last few years, some awkwardness—a lot of awkwardness—was impossible to avoid.
“Yeah, well”—Walsh drew and expelled a heavy breath—“I’m sorry you had to deal with that. That you
to deal with it. I know people are curious.”
“People are curious about zoo animals.” Cam leaned against the wall, pressing his shoulder blades back and crossing one booted ankle over the other. “They’re fascinated by freak shows, and apparently that’s what we are.”
“I know it’s tough.”
been tough. It had driven Cam to Paris, but the Sorbonne wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Not when everyone he cared about was in the States. And he
care about Walsh. About Kerris. About…
“How’s Jo?” Cam kept the phone between his ear and shoulder, sliding his hands into the front pockets of his battered jeans. Even with Walsh on another continent, Cam wanted to look casual when he asked this question.
“She’s fine.” Walsh paused before continuing. “You guys haven’t talked?”
“Not much. Not since Christmas.”
“Yeah, Christmas. Was it me or was there something…I don’t know…going on between you two when you were at our house for the holidays?”
Dangerous territory, this. Part of being street smart was knowing when to play dumb.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Cam added just a dash of what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about for good measure. “Something going on?”
“Well, I guess…You kept looking at Jo’s ass.”
Cam didn’t catch the dark laugh before it crawled up his throat and spilled into the gallery, echoing off the nearly barren walls. The gallery owner emerged from his office, crossing the bland space to hover, impatience settling onto the man’s narrow face the longer Cam remained on the phone.
“Walsh, hold that thought.” Cam pressed the phone to his chest so he could get this good and settled. This gallery felt like the graveyard where good paintings went to die. Eh, no.
“No,” Cam said to the gallery owner, adding a quick shake of his head to underscore.
“No? But…but…” the little man with the sad comb-over stuttered, his words tripping and falling over his lips. “This is one of the most prestigious galleries in New York City. In the world! Surely—”
“It feels like a mausoleum. I’m sure that’s perfect for somebody’s art, but not mine.”
“Mr. Kelvin said—”
“Sebastian is my agent, not my boss. It’s what I say, and I say thanks but no thanks.”
“But, Mr. Mitchell, we were hoping—”
“I’m on the phone here.” He raised his brows and cocked his head for the send-off.
“Uh, well, I would think—”
Cam watched the man’s stick-up-his-ass gait as he headed back to the office, not resuming the conversation until he closed the door.
“Geesh, some people.”
you going to hold your first exhibit?” Walsh asked. “It’s a big deal.”
“Yeah.” Cam glanced around the tasteful starkness of the gallery Bash suggested he consider. “Not here. I want it to have more…I don’t know. More meaning than these art cemeteries Sebastian keeps sending me to.”
“You’ll find the right spot.” Walsh cleared his throat, and it sounded like gears shifting to Cam. “We were talking about Jo’s ass.”
“Yeah, the fact that you couldn’t take your eyes off of it at Christmas.”
Only took Walsh fifteen years to notice. Cam had been looking at Jo’s ass for years. Or maybe he’d just been better at hiding it before. He was slipping.
“I know you’re her cousin and may not see it, but take my word for it. Jo’s got a great ass.”
The quiet between them absorbed the words Cam immediately regretted saying before Walsh spoke again.
“Yeah, but you…Well, I didn’t think you thought of her like that.”
“Dude, so I’m an ass man. Don’t make it a thing.”
“We’ve just both always protected Jo,” Walsh said, pausing before punctuating the thought. “Kept the pervs away.”
Walsh was always the proverbial dog with a bone when something didn’t add up, and whatever he had sensed at Christmas was the bone he wasn’t ready to relinquish.
“Look, I’m not perving on Jo. I’m a red-blooded male. A great ass walks past, I’m gonna look. I don’t care if it’s Mother Teresa. Rest in peace, but if Mother Teresa had a great ass—”
“Dude, ew. Mother Teresa? That’s practically sacrilegious.”
“Never claimed to be religious.”
“Okay, well just checking. On Jo, I mean. Not Mother Teresa.”
“Hey, I’ve always known the deal with Jo. I’m not forgetting now.”
“What do you mean you’ve always known the deal with Jo?”
“Never mind. I gotta go.”
Cam pushed off the wall and started toward the gallery exit, back onto the charming street, bustling with more hipsters than Cam had ever seen in one place. Like a flock of skinny jeans and man scarves had migrated to this one neighborhood.
“Hey! Before you go…” Walsh cleared his throat again, and it seemed even deeper and more shifty this time. “I have a favor to ask.”
“I’m not picking up your dry cleaning, Bennett.”
Cam grinned, enjoying that they could tease each other again. It wasn’t what it used to be, and maybe it never would be again, but it was closer than anything he had with anyone else. Sad when the only guy you’re close to steals your wife.
“Yeah, my assistant Karma can do that, I think.” The hesitation in Walsh’s voice stopped Cam in the street, a quick frown settling onto his face even while the summer day went on without him.
“What is it, Walsh?”
Yeah, he’d had Christmas dinner at Walsh and Kerris’s house. He and Walsh talked a few times a month. They’d even done lunch a time or two when Walsh was in Paris. But they didn’t talk much about Kerris. It just made things easier. For Walsh to bring her up…
“Is she okay? The pregnancy going all right?”
“Things were fine when I left New York two days ago, but now I’m not so sure.”
“I called her and she just didn’t sound right. Something’s
right, but she didn’t want to worry me. I could tell.”
Emotions wrestled in Cam’s chest. Concern for Kerris and the twins she was carrying. But pinned to the mat was lingering resentment and pain that the family of his own he’d been so close to having now belonged to Walsh. Cam never knew from one moment to the next which emotion would come out on top.
“Can’t you have Trisha check on her?” Cam knew Walsh’s former assistant and Kerris were friends.
“Trish is in London. Her new position has her flying high and not home as much.”
“Soooooo…you want me to do what?”
“I know this is awkward, but my dad is still recovering from the heart attack, which is why I’m here in Hong Kong in the first place.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Better.” Walsh blew out a weary breath. “It was touch and go there for a while, but he’s out of the woods. Still, the doctors say it could be months before he’s back full steam.”
“I bet he hates that.” Walsh had inherited his locomotive drive from his father. Mr. Bennett would hate being hamstrung.