About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Liam fingered the single button on his jacket as he approached the well-lit entrance of Hartman's Art Gallery. A woman in her thirties waited in the foyer, tall and elegant. Her platinum-blond bob swung around her jaw as she turned to face him, a welcoming smile on her face.
"Liam. You came," Jacinta Hartman said.
Her smile faded as she registered his clothes.
"You're not wearing the tie I bought you."
He held out his arms to draw attention to the well-cut wool trousers, jacket and crisply tailored shirt he was wearing.
"Come on, cut me some slack here. Not an inch of denim or leather in sight," he said.
"And you're not wearing your beautiful new shoes, either," she said, eyeing his favorite boots unhappily.
He slid an arm around her slim waist and pulled her close.
"I said you could try to civilize me. I didn't say it would work," he reminded her. He kissed her and she pulled back before he could smear her lipstick.
"Liam, people can see us," she said.
Which made him laugh. Jacinta always made him laugh with all her prim little rules and guidelines. In public, that was. In private she was as dirty as the next womanif the next woman had a penchant for hard, sweaty sex. They'd been friends for years now, lovers when the mood took them. When he'd built his new house near the St. Kilda shore six months ago, she'd volunteered to help him decorate it. The catch had been that she wanted to redecorate him"civilize him," as she put itat the same time.
"I don't know why you're so resistant to the idea of stepping it up a notch," Jacinta said. "If you had any idea how good you look in a suit, you wouldn't think twice."
"I'm a bike builder. I spend my days covered in grease," he said.
"You're a millionaire. You never have to get your hands dirty again if you don't want to."
"Babe, you have your world, I have mine. I'm not going to ask you to bend metal for me. And you're not going to get me in a tie."
She looked as though she was going to argue some more, then she shrugged. "Stubborn bastard. Come on, I'll show you the pieces I've picked out for you," she said, taking his hand and guiding him into the gallery itself.
A few heads turned as they walked the length of the space past asymmetrical sculptures and brightly hued canvases and jagged twists of metal. Five years ago Liam would have figured people were looking at him because he so clearly didn't belong. His hair was too long, his walk had too much swagger to it, his hands were too rough and ready. Back then, he'd have stared every person down, maybe taken his attitude right up to a few of them to show them how much he didn't care for their opinion of him. Now he ignored them because he knew he didn't have to prove anything to anyone, ever. He had the big house, the big car and the big bank account to prove it.
Jacinta stopped in front of a smooth obelisk of shiny white stone.
"I thought this would be nice on the balcony in the west corner," she said.
He eyed it for a long beat, not saying a word. Jacinta slanted a look at him.
"You don't like it, do you?"
"No," he said. "It looks like a big stone dildo. Call me crazy, but no man wants something that big casting a shadow over his life."
She sighed. "For a man who doesn't know much about art, you certainly have strong opinions."
"I want to see some craftsmanship, that's all. Any of the fabricators at my workshop could make this before lunch," he said.
"Lovely. Maybe we should ask them to whip up a few for us, then," Jacinta said dryly.
He shrugged, unapologetic. She narrowed her eyes in thought for a moment then nodded decisively.
"Follow me. We've got a smaller collection in one of the side spaces. I have a feeling Paulo Gregorio's work might be more up your alley," she said.
Liam followed her across the polished concrete floor, admiring the sway of her hips. He wondered if she was wearing garters and stockings like she had been the last time she stayed the night. He loved a woman in red laceit was one weakness he was more than happy to admit to.
"Okay, this artist is definitely more traditional. I think you'll find all the craftsmanship you could possibly want in his work," Jacinta said as they stepped into a smaller room.
Eight large canvases hung on the four walls. They were all portraits, all women in various stages of undress. Jacinta pointed to the first painting, a six-foot-by-six-foot canvas of a woman lying on a chaise lounge, a filmy negligee falling off her shoulders and tangling in her legs.
"Lots of color. Strong technique. And a subject that I know is very close to your heart," Jacinta said.
He smiled at her dry humor as he studied the painting, noting the warm look in the woman's eyes, the delicate way the artist had captured the texture of her clothing and the blush on her skin.
"Nice work," he said.
"Nice work? It's not one of your motorbikes, Liam."
He checked the price list in her hand.
"You're right. A custom Masters Mechanics bike is worth three times as much."
She rolled her eyes. "What about this next one? I was thinking it would look great in your bathroom, above that huge Roman tub."
Liam dutifully shifted his attention from the lounging woman to the next painting. This canvas was bigger, eight-by-ten, he estimated, and the subject was completely naked, lying sprawled on her back on a forest-green quilt. Her arms were spread wide and one knee was bent, the leg dropping out to the side. He followed the line of her calves to her thighs and the mysterious shadows between them. The artist had only hinted at what a man would be able to see in real life, but it was enough. More than enough.
If he had this painting in his bathroom, he'd be taking a cold shower every freaking day.
"I don't suppose the artist hands out phone numbers with each painting?" he asked, only half joking.
Jacinta made an impatient noise. "Does that mean you like it?"
He dragged his gaze from the plump tips of the woman's breasts and shifted his attention to her face.
Then he forgot to breathe.
Took a step backward.
Made a noise in the back of his throat that may or may not have been a four-letter word.
Green eyes. A dimpled chin. Long dark hair.
A face he remembered in his dreams. The most bittersweet memory of his life.
Jacinta touched his arm. "Liam. What's wrong?"
His gaze swept the painting again, looking for proof that he was wrong. Again he saw those open thighs, her hips, her breasts. And Zoe's face. Indisputably Zoe's face.
He stepped forward.
Why would she do this? Put herself on display like this? Little Zoe, spread across the wall for any man to stare at.
"Liam! What are you doing?" Jacinta demanded as he gripped the sides of the painting.
"Who else has seen this? How long has it been on display?" he asked.
"Liam, put that back. My God, what is wrong with you?"
He lifted the painting off its hook and turned it around. Only when it was leaning against the wall, face in, did he relax.
"Wrap it up. I don't want anyone else looking at it."
Jacinta planted both hands on her hips and glared at him.
"Would you mind putting the painting back, please?"
He pulled his checkbook out. "How much is it? I'm taking it with me."
Jacinta stared at him for a long moment.
"You're serious, aren't you?"
He waited for her to name the price.
"It's fifteen thousand," she finally said.
He wrote the check and tore it off. "I want to speak to this Paulo guy. Tonight."
"Look, I don't know what's going on, but"
"I know her," he said bluntly. "Or at least I used to know her. I don't know what this guy offered her to sit for this painting, but she doesn't belong up here."
"For God's sake, Liam, you sound like an outraged parent. This is art, not pornography."
"Can you get me this guy's number or not?"
Jacinta studied him, frowning.
"I don't want you calling one of my artists and harassing him. What do you want to know? Her contact details, I suppose?"
"Give me five minutes."
Jacinta disappeared toward the rear of the gallery where he knew she had her office. Once he was alone he ran a hand through his hair and closed his eyes. He felt sick. Like someone had punched him in the guts.
This Paulo shithead must have offered her big money to pose for him. She must have been so desperate it seemed like a good deal. Damn, what the hell was Tom doing, letting his little sister get into this kind of trouble?
The tap of heels heralded Jacinta's return. She handed over a scrap of paper.
"No home number, just her workplace. She's very private, according to Paulo."
He studied the address and phone number. The Blue Rose, on the western side of the city in Footscray. Not exactly the most up-and-coming area. He wondered what kind of business it was.
"Can you get someone to wrap the painting?" he asked.
"I don't suppose there's any point in asking if you would mind leaving it until the show is finished so I don't have a dirty great gap in my display?" Jacinta countered.
She sighed. "I didn't think so."
She headed off again, but stopped in the doorway.
"By the way, I asked what he paid her to sit for him."
"It was a freebie. No fee."
He shook his head. He refused to believe it.
Jacinta simply raised her eyebrows before swiveling on her heel and continuing out the door.
Forty minutes later he pulled up in front of the address he'd been given. He leaned forward over the steering wheel to check the number above the shop door was correct.
The Blue Rose was a tattoo parlor.
It was the last thing he'd expected. He stared at the dingy front window for a long time before he threw his black SUV into gear and drove home. All the way, he thought about the Fords, felt again the mix of guilt and regret and gratitude that he always experienced when he remembered their kindness to him. Wondered where he would have wound up if it hadn't been for them taking him in. In a state home, most probably. A problem teen no one wanted to take on.
But the Fords had. They'd supported him through his mom's brief but brutal illness, then they'd asked him to live with them, offering him their backyard studio. They'd even renovated it for himnew paint, new carpet, insulation so he wouldn't stew in his own juices in summer.
He and Tom had been best mates, a friendship that hadn't come easily to Liam. He and his mom had been on the road, moving around for so long that he'd stopped bothering to make friends. He'd seen so much ugliness that it was hard for him to invest in the same things that other kids his age were intomusic, cars, chicks. But Tom had made it easy, as had his family. And Zoe
He could still remember the first time he'd seen her. Tom had brought Liam home after school, and they'd been standing at the open fridge door, drinking soda straight from the bottle when she came into the room. She'd been wearing a pair of cutoff denim shorts and a tank top, her dark, straight hair in a ponytail. Her legs were long and slim, but she seemed uncertain of them, like a baby giraffe trying to walk for the first time. The buds of her breasts pressed against her top, ripe and full of potential. And those eyes those incredible green eyes.
He'd taken one look at her and choked on the mouthful of soda he'd been swallowing.
She was special. He'd known it the moment he saw her. Every second he spent with her afterward only confirmed it. Over the past twelve years, he'd wondered how she was, what she'd become. She'd be twenty-seven now. He'd always assumed she'd be married, maybe with kids of her own.
He dumped the painting in his empty dining room when he got home. He leaned it against the wall and stared at Zoe's exposed body, the image blurred by bubble wrap.
This was not something he'd ever imagined for her.
He turned away. He wanted to look at her again, to tear off the bubble wrap and feast on her. Which was exactly why he wasn't going to. He closed his eyes and forced himself to remember her laugh, the trust in her eyes when she used to look at him, the utter honesty and vulnerability in her face and body when she'd told him she loved him.
Zoe Ford deserved better than this painting and that tattoo shop. First thing tomorrow he was going to seek her out and do whatever it took to put things right in her world.
Hey, howarewe this beautiful morning? Zoe asked as she pushed through the back door into the Blue Rose's workroom.
"Zoe! Man, I was starting to sweat about you," Jake Lewis said, throwing her a frustrated look.
She made a big show of checking her watch.
"I'm right on time for my ten-thirty appointment, Jake," she told her boss.
"Would it kill you to get here twenty minutes earlier?"
"You know I don't need the prep time. It's all up here, baby," she said, tapping a forefinger against her temple.
She shrugged out of her denim jacket and threw it on a chair. Her cowboy boots thumped solidly on the concrete floor as she crossed to her workbench and began setting up for her client.
"Anyone ever told you you're a smart-ass, Ford?"
"Oh, yeah. First time today, though, so you get a prize." She flipped her middle finger at him. As she'd hoped, he laughed.
She smoothed her hands down her lace-up jeans as she considered her workbench. Everything looked gooddisposable ink cups, new needles ready to go.
"You still performing tonight?" Jake asked as she crossed to the autoclave to collect her sterilized gun.
"Nine o'clock. You going to be there? I'll put your name on the door."
"Don't know if my blood pressure can take it."
She rolled her eyes. "Pussy."
Jake moved to the front of the shop and she tugged off the long-sleeved T-shirt she was wearing over a snug black tank. She always got warm when she worked, and she wasn't about to stop in the middle of inking someone's back to shrug off her clothes.