Authors: Staci Hart
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Romantic Erotica, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
I slammed the warehouse door with a bang, and the faces of my roommates turned to me with eyebrows up.
“Bad day?” Jade called from the couch, saccharine, and Jace laughed.
I didn’t answer, just pulled off my pack. Erin looked up at me from the kitchen table, and the girls and Jace in the living room went back to talking.
“Want to talk about it?” Erin asked and pushed her bowl of lo mein at me.
I took her chopsticks and shoveled a bite into my mouth.
“Is that a no?”
I swallowed and let out a sigh. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“We were busy today,” she prompted. “I had runs all day, and Sam was snapping at everyone over the radio.”
“It wasn’t Sam.” I pushed the bowl away and looked over at Jade. She was in the middle of a conversation with Jace, but I dropped my voice anyway. “I had an interesting drop today.”
Erin took the noodles back and eyed me.
“Erin, it was
Her eyes went wide, her hand frozen with a bite of noodles hanging from her chopsticks. “
“Yeah. He set up a drop, sent
a package and requested me for the delivery.”
“What the fuck, dude. That is creepy as shit.”
“Right?” I rubbed my forehead. “He thought he was being romantic.”
“That’s scary. Did he have a shrine? Make you a coat out of human hair?”
I laughed. “It was definitely less creepy than that. I got the feeling that he wasn’t psychotic. Maybe just misguided. Either way, it was weird. And? He’s rich. Like, super rich. I’m pretty sure he has a Rothko hanging in his living room.”
Erin gaped, her blue eyes full of disbelief. “How did he find you?”
“One of those guys from the other night, Chase, said he knew Morgan.”
Morgan perked up from the living room. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, I had a delivery today for the runner who was chasing me after the job the other night. You know some guy named Chase?”
Her eyes bugged. “How did he know it was me?”
“Probably because you’re, like, nine feet tall,” Jade snapped. “Who the fuck is this guy that hunted you down, Cory?”
“Sullivan Collins,” I answered dramatically, as if he were someone important.
Erin dropped her chopsticks. “Van Collins? Are you fucking kidding me?”
A tingle ran up my back, to my neck. “No, I’m definitely not kidding.”
Everyone stared at me, slack-jawed.
“Is someone going to tell me what the fuck is going on?”
Erin shook her head. “The photographer? He parkours all over New York taking photos from crazy heights and angles. He did one series where he took all the shots as he jumped between buildings. Another was all of runners.” She took in my blank face. “How have you not heard of him?” she asked as she reached across the table for her laptop and opened it. Her fingers flew when she typed in a search, then turned the laptop to face me.
The image results were displayed, a mosaic of black and white photos of the city and runners. One caught my eye of Van hanging off a ledge, smiling. The shadows and light were dramatic, shading the muscles of his arms and chest, the cut of him visible even under his shirt. Something in his smile hit me, and I took a breath as Erin kept talking.
“He shoots for skate and surf magazines, parkour features. He has a huge gallery on 44
. You’ve seriously never heard of him?”
“No.” I closed the laptop to banish him.
“Well, that explains why he’s rich enough to have a Rothko?”
I glared at her. Everyone in the room was listening.
“Like, a Mark Rothko? Those are worth a fuckton of money.” Jade turned to Jace like no one else was in the room. “Can you sell a painting worth that much?”
“Wait a fucking second,” I spat at her.
They ignored me. Jace bobbed his head. “I might be able to. I need to ask Blake, but I think we have a contact that deals in fencing high ticket art items. They’re harder to come by since there’s always a shitload of security, but this guy’s place can’t be that well-guarded.”
Jade turned to me, smiling like a piranha. “You’re going to con him.”
The temperature in the room went up by at least ten degrees. “The fuck I am.”
“What’s the matter, Cor?” she asked, mocking. “You like him?”
“Fuck you, Jade.”
She unfolded herself from the couch and walked to the table, her long legs like scissors. “If he doesn’t matter, then let’s steal it. He’s rich. He doesn’t need it. Insurance will reimburse him. What’s the harm?”
“We’ve never done a job this big.” I shook my head, not even believing what I was hearing. “This is stupid to even consider. Why should we risk it? Because you know whose ass will get hung out?
She shrugged. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to get out of it.”
My eyes narrowed. “You sound so sure of yourself. I’m not doing it.”
Jade’s lips twisted into a smile. “I don’t think you want me to have a little heart-to-heart with Jill, do you?”
“Doesn’t she ever ask you where you get all this money?”
Anger did more than flare. It was a cyclone in my chest. “Jade—”
Her voice slipped into ice, and her body hardened to match. “You’ll do it or you’ll pay. Do not fuck with me, Cor. You’re lucky you get away with the shit you do. If I didn’t need you, you would have been gone a long time ago.”
My teeth ground together so hard that my jaw hurt. I didn’t have a choice. She could bring everything down, pull everything apart with a word. It wasn’t worth fighting, not with the stakes being what they were. But she wouldn’t push me without paying for it. “You know what? What the fuck ever.” I played it off. “I’ll do it, but I get fifty percent.”
Jade laughed. “Right. Sure.”
“My risk, my rules.” I stood and leaned on the table, inches from her face. “You’ll give me fifty, or the deal is off. You scam me, I end you. Take it or fuck off.”
It was a long moment before she gave a single nod. “Fine. You’ll find him and figure out how we get that painting without getting caught. And find out which one it is so we can look up how much it’s worth.”
“Yes, sir.” I gave her a salute, and she narrowed her eyes before turning to walk back into the living room. She dropped back onto the couch to glare at me from across the room.
Everyone watched me scoop up my backpack and storm to my room with my stomach in my throat. I closed the door, and when I sank onto my bed, I dropped my head into my hands, pressing my fingers into my eyes, trying to grasp what the fuck I’d gotten myself into.
That was when I remembered the envelope. My heavy arms reached for my bag, pulled out the envelope, and opened it. When I tipped it over, a square business card tumbled into my palm. It was printed with a photo of Van tricking as he hung off a fire escape. I ran my finger over his name before setting it on the bed, then reached into the envelope again to pull out a stack of eight-by-ten photos. They were gritty and beautiful shots of the city, and when I came to the last one, I set the others down. It was a group jumping across a building gap, hands up and full of joy with the sun flaring behind them.
Then I saw the message he’d written in the corner in black marker, and emotion snaked through me like red-hot metal.
Don’t run from me. Run with me.
IT HAD TAKEN ME almost twenty-four hours to get up the nerve to face Van. I found myself walking the blocks to his gallery the next afternoon, not sure if he’d even be there, still not sure what I’d say. I tucked my emotions away, from my anger at him for crossing the line to the guilt over what I was about to do to him.
Not that it mattered. I reminded myself that I could use him. He certainly wouldn’t be the first. It’s just that something told me it wasn’t going to be easy.
It wasn’t just that it was such a huge job. It wasn’t even the money involved. Jade had crossed the line by threatening me with Jill. Being manipulated, being coerced was enough to push me off balance.
On top of that, I’d been trying to dissect Van. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy or just determined, and the most upsetting thing about the whole ordeal was that I was most definitely attracted to him. This presented a host of issues, though a few opportunities. That attraction would have to be the angle I played, because I had to play him or risk Jill learning the truth. That trumped everything else.
The gallery was on a corner, all windows with Van’s name above the door. I pulled it open and stepped inside, not seeing a soul. Ambient indie rock played softly, and I stood alone in the entry for a moment, not sure what I should do.
I scanned the huge photographs that hung on the walls, and they pulled me closer until I found myself wandering around the room. He had captured the soul of the city from heights only we could reach. The artwork was grouped, from the series Erin had mentioned of shots of Van’s legs as he jumped between buildings to a collection of silhouettes, but the one that held me longest was a series of free runners as they tricked and jumped, hanging off buildings hundreds of feet over the city like it was nothing. Each piece was a manifestation of the freedom I found in running, climbing, making the impossible possible, the forbidden found, embraced. It was breathtaking.
My feet carried me to an installment, and when I stopped inside of it, I was surrounded by hanging photographs, even hanging from the ceiling in tiles. I looked around and found myself standing on top of a building with the city stretched out all around me.
I jumped at the sound of his voice and turned to find him looking down at me. There was no pressure in his words, no expectation, just his gravity.
I looked away, not wanting him to fully see me, worried that if he looked long enough into my eyes that I wouldn’t be able to keep him out of my head. “I opened your envelope. Thank you … I …” My mouth was dry, and I wet my lips. “I owe you an apology for yesterday.”
“No, you don’t. You were right. I had no right to hunt you down when you didn’t want to be found. I should be apologizing to you.”
I glanced back at him and found his eyes on me. “You did that yesterday.”
He paused for a beat. The quiet rolled off of him and washed over me. “You weren’t ready to hear it yesterday.”
“No. I wasn’t.” I turned to the gallery. “This place is amazing.”
“Thanks. I’m a believer in the idea that if you do what you love, it will lead you places you didn’t know you wanted to go.”
I looked down at my boots and nodded, struggling to control myself. How was it that he kept unknowingly sucker-punching me with just a few words? He seemed so …
It was easy to think he was just a meathead or a douche, but with almost every word that passed his lips, I realized he was so much more than I’d anticipated. We were so different, too different. Worlds apart.
What am I doing here?
I fought the urge to bolt with clenched fists in my pockets and my lips pressed tight.
“Are you okay?” There was an undercurrent of worry in his words, and I looked up at him and smiled.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, this is just …”
“Yeah. After … well, after how we met …” He ran a hand through his dark hair. “I’ve never done anything like that before. I mean, I’ve had one night stands, but never …”
I laughed. I had to. “Oh my God, so awkward. Stop.”
Van smiled and changed the subject. “So you’re not in the best spot for this piece. Come here.”
He took my elbow and guided me over to a dot on the floor, lining me up by my shoulders.
“I took these from on top of Logan Tower. I climbed up and stood there, catching my breath, and when I looked out over the city, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it, the sheer magnitude. I was so small, but I didn’t feel insignificant. I felt power in the machine, that my piece was important, relevant. That I was relevant.”
His breath stirred my hair when he spoke, his hands on my arms like a conduit. I’d never experienced anything like it, like our pheromones mixed together were some recipe for disaster. I took a breath.
“It’s incredible. Everything you’ve done here, everything I’ve seen … I don’t know. It means something to me.”
“One of my favorite quotes by Edgar Degas is, ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ By those standards, it sounds like I’ve done my job.”
I realized in that moment that the con was going to be harder than hard. It was going to be near impossible.
“Listen,” I turned to face him again, working to get things on track so I could get out of that room. “I want to take you up on your offer for a proper date, if it still stands.”
His eyes sparked. “First, can I ask you something?”
“What made you change your mind?”
I shrugged to mask the truth. “You were right, in a way. I mean, you were wrong to try to find me like a stalker, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you, either. Having your address was too much to resist. That, and I really did feel bad for flipping out on you yesterday. I knew you weren’t a creep. It just … caught me off guard.”