CODE NAME: MICHELANGELO
I raised my head. Even if I hadn’t recognized the man who walked into my gallery, or his voice, I would’ve known who he was. Only Brando Ripa had ever called me by the nickname. I blinked more than once, stood, and walked toward him. “Brand? Is it really you?”
“It hasn’t been that long,” he said, winking.
My eyes scrunched as we embraced and cheek-kissed. “I thought you were in prison.”
He stepped back but still held both my hands in his. “Out on good behavior.”
I raised a brow, retreating far enough so we no longer touched. “Somehow, I doubt that was the reason.” While I winked and smiled, I wasn’t being facetious. The man hadn’t behaved a day in his life, as far as I remembered.
His eyes softened. “How are you, Butterfly?”
“Penelope—or Pen. And fine.”
“Are you? Truly?”
I retreated to the desk where I’d been sitting when he walked in. I leaned against it and looked everywhere but at him. His physical beauty had always been my undoing. Spending time in prison hadn’t diminished it in the slightest. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“May I?” he asked, pointing to a chair.
“Of course.” As I looked into his gray-green eyes, he reached up, unintentionally flexing the powerful muscles in his upper arm. He ran his hand through his sandy-brown hair that was longer than I’d ever seen it, which likely meant he’d been out of prison for some time. I wondered how long.
When his leg brushed mine as he took his seat, I straightened and walked around the desk but remained standing.
He cleared his throat. “One of the conditions of my release was agreeing to work for Doc Butler.”
I recognized the name. Doc—or Kade, as I knew him—was Quinn’s father. Quinn, along with three of our other friends, referred to ourselves as the “Tribe of Five.” We’d been best buddies since we were seven years old, and were also business partners.
Kade was a former Marine Raider who had worked for the CIA after he left active duty and now owned a private intelligence firm called K19 Security Solutions.
“What an interesting turn of events,” I commented.
He raised a brow and smirked. “As you know, my expertise lies in art forgery.”
I gripped the back of my chair and plopped down as much as sat, realizing Tara—another member of the tribe and Brand’s sister—must’ve contacted Kade about the meeting we had last week with detectives from the New York City Police Department.
She’d been here, painting in her studio on the second floor of the building, when the call asking if I could come over to the 13th Precinct came in. The man I spoke with said it was regarding a matter concerning the gallery.
Since it was only a seven-minute walk, we didn’t bother with a cab.
“Thank you for coming down to the precinct,” the detective had said when he greeted us in the lobby, then led us to an interrogation room.
“Are we in some kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Please, have a seat.” The man motioned to a chair when a second detective entered the room and closed the door behind him.
I shook my head. “Not until you tell us why we’re here.”
“We’d like to talk to you about the alleged sale of forged artwork,” said the first one, who’d introduced himself as Detective McWhinn.
Thirty minutes later, Tara and I left, equally stunned by what we had been told. The idea that I’d unwittingly sold anything not of impeccable provenance was unfathomable to me, let alone the number of pieces in question.
“I’m here to help, Butterfly.” Brand smirked a second time when I glared at him. “Sorry—Penelope.”
I didn’t necessarily hate the nickname he’d bestowed on me; it was more the memory of the last time I heard him speak it, which was also the last time I’d seen him before today, that unsettled me.
He’d put his hand on the back of my neck that afternoon, whispering, “Butterfly,” before we’d shared our first and only kiss.
It was nothing like the ones on the cheek we’d exchanged earlier. No, it was a lover’s kiss, hotter than any I’d had before or since.
It started off tentatively, a quick brush of his mouth on mine before Brand coaxed my lips apart. His tongue sought mine with an urgency—a possession—I’d spent many hours dreaming about.
I’d gone limp that day, wishing we were alone somewhere where we could strip each other from our clothing and I could feel his naked body against mine. Instead, we were standing near a busy Midtown Manhattan intersection while hundreds of cars, and more people, passed us by.
All too soon, he’d ended the kiss, dropped his hand, turned, and walked away without uttering another word. At the time, I told myself it was ridiculous to think I was in love with him. It was nothing more than lust. However, no one else had made my heart pound the way Brand did back then. Or now, if I was being honest.
I’d looked away, but met his gaze when he sighed. “I think about it all the time too, Butterfly.”
My spine stiffened, and I folded my hands in front of me on the desk, refusing to acknowledge how dead-on he was in reading my thoughts. “You said you’re here to help.”
His hooded eyes opened wider, and he sat up straighter, as if my doing so had jarred him out of the memory. “That’s right. The Catarina Benedetto Gallery wasn’t the only one affected. There are four more in Midtown alone.”
“I see.” I shuffled papers around on my desk. “What is it you need from me?” When his gaze lingered but he didn’t speak, I regretted phrasing my question the way I had. “I’ve given my statement to the detectives and forwarded the documentation they requested. Unfortunately, the pieces in question were secured through various brokers, not just one. Some of the work was purchased through the most reputable auction houses in the world.”
Brand nodded. “You aren’t alone in that. The other galleries I alluded to said much the same thing. However, the number of pieces in question is far greater.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” I muttered under my breath.
“Sorry. I meant your gallery.”
“It isn’t mine alone. I mean, you know that, and it really isn’t relevant.” I was rambling, once again stunned. I took a deep breath. “How many more?”
“Twice as many.” Brand leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Collectively.”
“Collectively?” I was nauseated. Once word got out about this—and it was likely it would soon—we’d be out of business. Even if we weren’t, I had to answer to my four business partners for it. The one thing each of the numerous pieces in question had in common was I had been the one to make their acquisition.
My cell vibrated with a message, and out of habit, I glanced over at it.
“What is it?” Brand asked when my eyes scrunched.
I swiped the screen and read the message from my dad.
“Fuck,” I muttered, again under my breath, rubbing my eyes and rolling my shoulders.
“What was the message?”
Brand raised a brow.
“It’s from my dad. He’s pestering me to meet his latest love interest—which I have zero interest in doing. The last one didn’t last a year once she got him to marry her. Or maybe it was vice versa. Either way, his relationships never last.” Another message popped up. This one said he’d had a change of plans and wanted to talk to me about the property on Fire Island.
“That fucking asshole,” I muttered.
Brand got up, walked around the desk, and stood next to me.
I looked up at him. “What?”
He turned my chair, put a hand on each of the armrests, and bent at the waist. His face was close enough that if I leaned forward, I could kiss him. And right now, I wanted to more than anything. “There’s more to this than you’re saying.”
“It’s just…” I shook my head.
“I’ve known you a long time, and rarely have I heard you curse.”
I tried to turn my chair, but he tightened his grip. “I swear all the time, Brand,” I snapped. “It isn’t like you’ve been around the last four years—longer, really—to know what I do and don’t do.”
“Why is this upsetting you? Were you close to his last wife?”
I laughed out loud. “I don’t even remember her name.”
“I’m not letting you get away with this. I’ll keep you trapped in your chair all night if I have to.”
I sighed and looked into his eyes. He wasn’t bluffing. He was going to keep after me until I told him.
“Meeting his girlfriend isn’t what upset me. It was the second half of the message. He said he also wants to talk to me about the property on Fire Island.”
Brand raised a brow. “What about it?”
It wasn’t him I was mad at; it was my dad, but when I jerked the chair harder, he let go. Maybe he did because he saw my eyes fill with tears, mortifying me. When I stood and looked out the window, he put his hand on my shoulder.
“He’s supposed to be giving it to me. When he told me he was going to sell it, I begged him to let me buy it. Instead, he offered to quitclaim it. Now, he says there’s been a change of plans.” I brushed away my tears and turned around. “It’s just really bad timing. If he wants me to buy it, like I originally offered, I doubt I’ll be able to come up with the money.”
“Because of the forged art? Doesn’t your gallery have insurance that covers that kind of thing?”
“We do, but they don’t hand the money over immediately. They’ll conduct their own investigation. It could be months. Even years. In the meantime, we have to refund our clients right away. I can’t ask my partners to pony up for this. I’m the one who handled the acquisitions. I’m the one who purchased the forgeries. It’s my responsibility.”
I looked up at the ceiling. Why was I telling him this? Brand was no different than a stranger walking in off the street. Except that we’d kissed. Still, I hadn’t seen him in years. I barely knew him.
So why, when he spun me around and pulled me into his arms, did I feel so much better?