When Sara McMillan finds a stack of journals in a storage unit, she’s shocked and enthralled by the erotic life the writer led. Unable to stop reading, she vicariously lives out dark fantasies through Rebecca, the writer—until the terrifying final entry.
Now, I am working at a prestigious gallery she’d worked at, where I have always dreamed of being, and I’ve been delivered to the doorstep of…him. He is rich and famous, and dark in ways I shouldn’t find intriguing, but I do. I don’t understand why his dark side appeals to me, but the attraction between us is rich with velvety promises of satisfaction. He is damaged beneath his confident good looks and need for control, and in some way, I feel he needs me. I need him.
All I know for certain is that he knows me like I don’t even know me, and he says I know him. Still, I keep asking myself — do I know him? Did he know her, the journal writer, and where is she? And why doesn’t it seem to matter anymore? There is just him and me, and the burn for more.
When the gallery comes into view, I pause to watch a group of elegantly dressed visitors pour through its double glass doors, which are lined in shiny silver for the black-tie affair. Artsy swirls of red letters, displayed above the entry, spell allure.
Nerves flutter in my stomach, though I can’t say why. I love the contemporary art Allure specializes in, love their mix of local new artists who I can discover, as well as the established names whose work I already appreciate. My nerves are ridiculous. I’m uncomfortable in this world, but then, this isn’t my world. It’s Rebecca’s, and Rebecca is the real reason I’m here.
A glance at my dainty, handmade, gold wristwatch, also bought at the pier, confirms I have plenty of time to spare. It is seven forty-five, fifteen minutes until Alvarez will be unveiling a new painting that will be displayed in the gallery and up for silent auction through the end of the week. Oh, how I’d love to have an Alvarez original, but they don’t come cheap. Still, a girl can dream.
Excitement filters in with nerves as I rush toward the door. A young brunette woman in a simple black dress holds it open for me and offers me a smile.“Welcome.”
I return the smile and enter the gallery, noting the nervous energy bouncing off the twentysomething girl as I pass, an energy that seems to what I am doing.” This isn’t Rebecca, who I know will be daringly bold and confident. In fact, the hostess brings out the schoolteacher in me, and I fight the urge to give her a hug and tell her she’s doing fine. I’m a hugger. I got it from my mother, just like I did my love of art, only I wasn’t talented with a brush as she had been.
The girl is saved from my mothering when the sound of a piano playing from a distant corner filters through the air and draws my attention to the main showroom. I am in awe. This isn’t my first time visiting the four-thousand-square-foot wonder that is the Allure gallery, but it doesn’t diminish my excitement at seeing it again.
The entryway opens to the main showroom of glistening white wonder. The walls are snow-white; the floor glistens like white diamonds. The shiny divider walls curve like abstract waves, and each of them is adorned with contrasting, eye- popping, colorful artwork.
I turn away from the showroom, attending to business before pleasure, and present my ticket to a hostess behind a podium. She is tall and elegant with long raven hair.“Rebecca?” I ask hopefully.
“No, sorry,” she says. “I’m Tesse.” She holds up a finger as she glances through the glass doors at an approaching customer she needs to attend. I wait patiently, hoping this young woman can connect me with Rebecca. I listen attentively while she directs the new guest to a short stairway that leads toward the music and, apparently, the location where Ricco Alvarez will be unveiling his masterpiece.
“Sorry for the interruption,”Tesse finally says, giving me her full attention. “You were looking for Rebecca. Unfortunately, she isn’t attending tonight’s event. Is
there something I can help you with?”
Disappointment fills me. To miss an Alvarez event is not something someone in Rebecca’s role is likely to do. I just want to know, for certain, that Rebecca is safe. Painting myself as a stranger doesn’t seem the way to do that. “My sister’s an old friend of Rebecca’s. She told me to be sure and say hello to her and pass along her new phone number. She seemed to think Rebecca worked big events like this one. She’ll be disappointed I missed her.”
“Oh, I hate that you missed her,” Tesse says, looking genuinely concerned. “I’m not only new, but I also only work part-time, on an as-needed basis, so I don’t hear much of what’s going on internally, but I think Rebecca took some personal time off. Mr. Compton would know for certain.”
“The manager here,” she says. “He’ll be tied up with the presentation soon, but I can introduce you to him afterward if you like?”
I nod.“Yes. Please.That would be perfect.”
The piano stops abruptly. “They’re about to start,” Tesse informs me. “You should grab a seat while you still can. I’ll be sure to help you connect with Mark after the presentation.”
A thrill shoots through me. “Thank you so much,” I say, before I head toward the seating area. I can’t believe that I am about to see an Alvarez original presented by Alvarez himself.
A tuxedo-clad usher greets me at the bottom of the stairs and offers me some help finding a seat.And boy did I need help. There were at least two hundred chairs lined up in front of a ministage, set in front of a bay window that was essentially the entire wall, and almost every single chair was taken.
I squeeze into a center row, between a man that has artsy rebel written all over him from longish light blond hair to his jeans and a blazer, and a fifty-something woman who is more than a little irritated to have to let me pass. I can’t help but notice the man is incredibly good-looking, and I’ve never been one to be easily impressed. I know too well that beauty is often only skin deep.
“You’re late,” the man says as if he knows me, a friendly smile touching his lips, his green eyes crinkling at the edges, mischief in their depths.
I figure him to be about thirty-five. No. Thirty-three. I am good with ages and good at reading people. My kids at school often found that out when they were up to mischief. I smile back at the man, feeling instantly comfortable with him when, aside from my students, I’m normally quite reserved with strangers. “And you forgot to pick up your tux, I see,” I tease. In fact, I wonder how he pulled off getting in here dressed as he is.
He runs his hand over his sandy blond, one-day stubble that borders on two days.“At least I shaved.”
My smile widens, and I intend to reply but a screech from a microphone fills the air. A man I recognize from photos as Ricco Alvarez claims the stage and stands next to the sheet covering a display, no doubt his newest masterpiece. Suave and James Bond–esque in his tuxedo, he is the polar opposite of the man next to me.
“Welcome one and all,” he says in a voice richly accented with Hispanic heritage, as is his work. “I am Ricco Alvarez, and I thank you for sharing my love of art and children, on this grand evening. And so I give you what I call Chiquitos, or in English, Little Ones.”
He tears away the sheet, and everyone gasps at the unexpected piece of art that is nothing like anything he’s done before. Rather than a landscape, it is a portrait of three children, all of different nationalities, holding hands. It is a well-executed work appropriate for the occasion, though secretly, I had wished for a landscape where his brilliance shone.
The man next to me leans an elbow on his knee and lowers his voice.“What do you think?”
“It’s perfect for the evening,” I say cautiously.
“Oh, so diplomatic,” he says with a low chuckle. “You wanted a landscape.”
“He does beautiful landscapes,” I say defensively.
He grins.“He should have done a landscape.”
“And now,” Ricco announces, “while the bidding begins, I’ll be circulating the room, answering questions about my many works displayed tonight and hoping to have the pleasure of meeting as many of you as possible. Please feel free to walk to the stage for a closer look at Chiquitos.”
Almost instantly, the crowd is standing.
“Are you going for a close-up?” I ask the man next to me.
“Not much on crowds,” he said. “Nor Ricco’s attempt at portraiture.” He winks at me. “Don’t stroke his ego when you meet him. It’s big enough as it is.” He starts moving down the row toward the exit. I stare after him, feeling this odd flutter in my stomach at his departure, curious about who he is.
I frown as I repeat part of our conversation in my mind. Ricco. He’d called Ricco Alvarez Ricco and spoken of his ego as if he knew him. It’s too late now to find out how he knows Ricco, and portrait or not, I am eager for an up-close look at the featured painting. I have not met Ricco yet and it is disappointing, but I am still thrilled at the opportunity to see his work.
Sometime later, I am enjoying a lingering walk through the gallery, exploring the full Alvarez collection on display, when I spot a display for Chris Merit, whose work I studied in college. He, too, had once been a local, but I seem to remember his moving to Paris. Excitedly, I head toward his work. His specialties are urban landscapes—mostly of San Francisco, both past and present—and portraits of real subjects with such depth and soul they steal my breath away.
I join an elderly couple inside the small room, where they debate over which of several landscapes to purchase. Unable to stop myself, I join in.“I think you should take them all.”
The man scoffs.“Don’t go giving her ideas or you’ll both put me in the poorhouse. She gets one for above the fireplace.” “Stingy man,” the gray-haired woman says, shoving his arm playfully and then eying me. “So tell me, honey.” She motions between two pictures.“Which do you think is a better conversation piece, of these two?”
I study the two choices, both black-and-white, though Merit often uses color. One is a downtown shot of San Francisco in the midst of hurricane-like weather.The other is of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in clouds, the skyline of the city peeking out from behind it. “A tough choice,” I say thoughtfully. “Both have a bit of a dark edgy feel to them, and both have the ‘wow’ factor.” I indicate the stormy downtown scene.“I happen to know that one depicts the impact Hurricane Nora had on the city back in 1997.To me, that makes for a conversation piece, and a little bit of history to boot, right there in your living room.”
“You are so right, dear,” the woman says, her eyes lighting up. “This is the one.” She casts her husband an expectant look. “It’s perfect. I have to have it.”
“Then have it you shall,” her husband declares.
I smile at the woman’s joy, but not without a bit of art envy. I would love to be going home with the piece, as she will be, tonight.
“I understand you had a question for me,” a male voice says, pulling my attention toward the display entryway where a man with neatly trimmed blond hair stands. He is tall and confident, an air of ownership about him.And his eyes—they are the most unique silvery gray I’ve ever seen.
“I’m Mark Compton,” he says, “the gallery manager. And it looks like I owe you more than an answer to whatever your question is. It appears I need to thank you for assisting my customers.” He glances at the couple. “I take it you’ve made a selection?”
“Indeed we have,” the husband says, clearly pleased to have his wife make a decision. “We’d like to take it home with us tonight if possible.”
“Excellent,”he says.“If you’ll give me a moment,I’ll have it packaged for you.” He motions for me to walk with him, and I shake my head.
“I’m in no rush. Help them with their purchase, and you can find me later.”
He studies me a bit too intently, those silvery eyes of his rich with interest, and I am suddenly self-conscious. He is, without a doubt, classically handsome by anyone’s standards, but there is also something raw and sexual about this man, something almost predatory about him.
“All right then,” he says softly, “I’ll find you soon.” It isn’t a statement that alludes to a double meaning, but yet, I feel one there. His gaze shifts to the couple.“Let’s go ring you up.”
The couple thanks me for my help and hurry after Mark. The minute they are gone, the minute Mark Compton is out of sight, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding and shake myself inwardly. And not just because of the way his eyes had assessed me so . . . so what? Intimately? Surely not. I still have this overactive-imagination thing going on from reading the journals. I do wonder if he is the he from the journals. He certainly has the animal magnetism Rebecca’s words painted him with. But then, so does Ricco Alvarez. Good grief, I’m making myself crazy.
A staff member interrupts me before I can go on another “crazy” thinking spree, and removes the couple’s purchase from the display. I force myself to stop overanalyzing and relax, basking in the solitude as I discover Chris Merit’s newest work.
“You like Merit?” comes another male voice, this one familiar.
I turn to find the man who’d sat next to me during the presentation standing in the doorway. I give a quick, eager nod. “Very much. I wish they had some of his portraits, but his urban landscapes are magnificent.You?”
He leans against the wall. “I hear he doesn’t have an over- inflated ego.That scores points with me.”
I tilt my head and study him, relaxing into the easy conversation.“Why are you here if you don’t like Ricco?”
Mark Compton appears in the doorway. “I see you didn’t venture far,” he says to me and then eyes the other man. “Don’t tell me you’re pimping your own work at Ricco’s event?” He glances at me.“Was he pimping his own work?”
I gape. “Wait. His own work?” I shift my gaze to my nameless new friend, who looks nothing like the Chris Merit I’ve seen photos of.“Who are you exactly?”
His mouth quirks at the edges. “The man with one red shoe.” And with that, he turns and walks away.
I shake my head. “What? What does that mean?” I turn to Mark.“What does that mean?The man with one red shoe?”
“Who knows,” Mark says, his lips thinning in disapproval. “Chris has a twisted sense of humor.Thankfully, it doesn’t show up on the canvas.”
My jaw goes slack.“Wait.Are you telling me that was Chris Merit?” I rack my brain over the pictures of him I’ve seen and I remember him differently. Do I have his image confused with another?
“That’s Chris,” he confirms. “And as you can see, he has an odd way about him. He was standing in his own display room and didn’t even tell you who he was.” His hands settle on his hips. “Listen, Tesse tells me you . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?”
“Sara,” I supply.“Sara McMillan.”
“Sara,” he repeats, his tone low, as if he was trying it out on his tongue, trying me out on his tongue. Seconds pass, and the small display area seems to get smaller before he adds,“Tesse was right. Rebecca is on a leave of absence.”
His tone shifts back to all business now, and I wonder if I imagine the raspier tone. I am, after all, excelling at making myself crazy.“I see,” I say.“Is there a way to reach her?”
“If you figure out a way, let me know,” he says. “She took a two-week cruise with some rich guy she was dating and that turned into the entire summer. I agreed because she’s good at her job and the clients love her. But depending on interns who don’t know what they’re doing is killing me. I’m going to have to get someone in here to cover for her who actually knows what she is doing.”
“The entire summer,” I repeat uncomfortably, focusing on the oddity that
represents. All summer is a long time for a working girl to leave her job behind. And Mark’s comment about the “rich guy” hit me just as wrong for some reason, though it could have been merely his frustration over Rebecca’s extended leave.
Or maybe . . . could he be jealous over this rich man? My brows dip.“Leaving you high and dry like this—that doesn’t sound like the responsible Rebecca my sister described.”
“People aren’t always what they seem,” he says and motions toward Chris Merit’s displayed art. “The art does not always mimic the artist.You never know the real person until you slide beneath their surface.”
Or look in their dresser drawer, I think guiltily. But Rebecca didn’t seem like someone to run out on her job to me. She loved her job. Then again, I might be wrong. As seduced as Rebecca had been by this world she’d created, she’d been scared, too. And I want to know why more than ever. What created such obsession, such fear?
A sudden burn for answers, a need to leave here tonight with something more than I came with overcomes me, and before I can stop myself, I blurt, “I can cover Rebecca for the rest of the summer. I’m a teacher, so I’m on break. I have a masters of arts from the Art Institute and a bachelors in business. I interned for three years at the Museum of Modern Art, and I know art.All art.Test me if you like.”
His eyes narrow a fraction, the silence crackling between us for several long seconds. “You’re hired, Sara McMillan.You can start on Monday. I’ll let you enjoy the rest of your evening.” He lowers his voice. “Then you’ll be all mine.” He turns and walks away.
I blink, stunned. He’d just hired me, but he hadn’t even asked me one single question. I hadn’t asked about hours or pay. I inhale a sharp breath. I’d come here to find Rebecca, to make sure she is alive and well. Instead, I am about to be Rebecca, or rather, be the marketing director for the gallery. So I can find Rebecca, I tell myself. Something has happened to Rebecca, and I have to prove it.That’s why I’m here. No other reason.