Stefan Talbot likes order and control. He approaches his life with the same meticulous precision that he uses to put paint on his canvas. Nothing good comes from chaos, and that is why he has refused to allow himself to get close to Jennifer Waters. They are like fire and ice. Though she is younger, her talent as an artist is unquestionable. But she lives her life like she paints—with wild, passionate abandon. It is intoxicating and terrifying, and he can’t get her out of his head.
Jennifer ran from Bliss to put Stef behind her. She had come to the mountain town seeking a mentor but found much more than she bargained for. Cool and distant, Stef was like a marble statue and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t break through his shell. She moved to Dallas to start over, but nothing is going as planned. When the art gallery where she works is robbed and a precious painting is stolen, Jen is accused of the theft. Jen is thrilled when her bail is met, until she realizes her savior is Stef and he has a few conditions. First and foremost, she has to return to Bliss.
Against the backdrop of the Winter Festival, Stef and Jen’s attraction catches fire. But the dark forces behind the robbery in Dallas have followed Jen home. A criminal syndicate believes she still has the stolen painting and they’ll kill to get their hands on it.
Release date: August 7, 2018
Publisher: DLZ Entertainment, LLC
Print pages: 283
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One to Keep
“Let’s go, Waters.” A surprisingly deep voice made Jennifer Waters start. “You have a visitor.”
She brought her head up, her heart pounding, and looked at the guard. She’d kept her head down because it seemed the safest way to survive the whole jailhouse experience. It had been all right when her cellmates had been a couple of prostitutes. Annie and Roxie had been sweet, if totally underdressed for the February weather. Unfortunately, Annie had turned out to be Andy and Roxie really had a set tucked away in his miniskirt. They’d been taken to the men’s holding cell, and now Jen was left with two drunks and a woman who had already threatened to kill her because she didn’t like brunettes.
All in all, a visitor seemed like a good thing.
She rose from her seat in the corner and followed the bulky guard. It was quiet this early in the morning, but the hum of paranoia seemed loud in her ears. That was what happened when one minute you were an up-and-coming artist and the next the police were hauling you away.
It had been a rough twenty-four hours.
“In there.” The guard opened the door to one of the interview rooms, and Jen walked in.
It was a small, dank room. The fluorescent lights gave everything a slightly green cast. There was a metal table bolted to the floor and two chairs. Whoever designed the sets for those procedural TV shows had obviously spent some time in lockup.
An expensive-looking briefcase sat on the table, and a man paced by the barred window. He turned immediately when the door opened.
“Thank god. I thought they were never going to bring you out. I’ve been here for three hours.” The man looked to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. He was strikingly handsome, with dark hair and green eyes. He wore a dark suit and a snowy white shirt. An emerald silk tie matched his eyes.
“Are you the public defender?” She’d been waiting for way more than a few hours. It was reassuring to see someone who didn’t have a gun strapped to his waist.
The door closed behind her. It locked with a telling thud. Everywhere she’d been for the last twenty-four hours had a locked door. She sat down, her legs shaking.
“Not exactly, but I am your lawyer,” he said, sinking into the seat across from her. “My name is Finn Taylor. Do you know why you were arrested?”
She knew why. The police had been over it about a thousand times. She knew the whole story, but it didn’t make any sense to her. “I’ve been accused of theft. They think I stole a painting.”
A painting worth roughly a half a million dollars, to be exact. She didn’t think she would ever forget that moment when her boss, Jean Claude Renard, led the police back to the office of the prestigious art gallery where she’d been working for the last five months. Boss? Jean Claude had been much more than her boss. He’d been an experiment to see if she could ever get over…
She took a deep breath. She wasn’t going to think about him. She was going to do what she’d been doing her whole life, focus on the here and now. Thinking about Stefan Talbot and everything she’d left behind in Bliss would only make the situation worse.
“Yes.” Finn Taylor’s voice brought her back to reality. “You’ve been accused of grand larceny. Renard is accusing you of stealing a painting from the gallery. It was a painting by Picasso.”
“Yes, I know it well. It was one of his smaller canvases. It was brought in for repair. The owner had a fire in his home, and there was some smoke damage. Jean Claude is a renowned restorer.” It was one of the reasons she’d been excited to work for him. She’d been in the same room with several masterpieces, so close she could see the brushstrokes. The first few months with him had been a series of wonders. The last had been a complete nightmare.
The lawyer’s eyebrows quirked up as he flicked open his pen. A perfect white notepad lay in front of him. “Any chance that you know where it is or who might have taken it?”
Tears filled her eyes. His words reminded her how utterly helpless she was. “No. I walked in yesterday morning, and it was gone. I know that painting was in the restoration room the night before. Jean Claude had been working on it. It was almost done.”
“And you have access to that room.”
She forced herself to nod. She’d been over this with the police. “Yes, I know the code to the room. Jean Claude lets me work in there. It’s a large studio. There’s more than enough space for two easels. I work in there almost every day. The light is perfect.”
She’d been planning to work yesterday when all hell had broken loose. She’d gotten off the train at her stop in Deep Ellum and made her way to the gallery, feeling light for the first time in a long while. She’d known how to fix her painting. Renard had told her he might be able to find a buyer for her newest work. That was exciting news. Still, she had some work to do on it. It was good, but it wasn’t perfect. She hadn’t gotten the colors right. She’d stared at that painting for days while the oils dried. Even after they had dried, she’d stared at the painting. After the gallery show the night before, she’d known what it needed. Despite the late hour, she’d stayed and worked. This painting, unlike the first, would be perfect. It was similar to the one Jean Claude had liked, but this one would be better. This would be the piece that broke her out as an artist. She’d been thinking of how her last three works had sold quickly. She’d been smiling when she entered the gallery because she’d felt like an up-and-coming artist.
She’d never felt quite as alone as she had when they put her in the back of that police car. Her only thought had been to call the one man she’d promised she would never call again. Even now she longed for his authoritative presence.
“When was the last time you saw the Picasso?”
She sniffled and straightened her back. She was alone in this, and she needed to be strong. “It was there the morning of the gallery show. I assumed he put it in the safe. He wouldn’t leave it lying around with all those guests in the building. After the gallery show, I stayed late to supervise the cleanup. I went into the restoration room because I wanted to work for a while. Jean Claude said he might be able to sell another painting for me, and I needed the money. I wanted to work fast, though. He said he had someone coming in this morning to look at the work. I thought if I could get it right, maybe the buyer would be impressed. I didn’t want him to see the first one. It’s fine, but the colors weren’t right, you see. There was too much red. I needed something soothing. Green. I mixed a lovely green. It had some blue tones. Emotional but muted.”
“Okay, the day before the Picasso was still there. It went into the safe, and you didn’t see it again.” Finn ignored her arty comments, but she was used to that. He was a lawyer, after all. He probably didn’t care much about the feelings colors invoked. He was all business. “You didn’t see the painting after the show?”
“No, I didn’t. And I had no idea it was missing. I didn’t get to the gallery until after ten in the morning. I worked late the night before, and then I had to take the first canvas home because Jean Claude hates it when I have two canvases in the restoration room. I wanted the new painting to be waiting for the buyer right there in the middle of the room, as though it had a bow on it. The trains had stopped running. I had to walk home lugging that canvas. I can be forgiven for sleeping in a bit, right? When I walked in yesterday morning the whole gallery was chaotic. Jean Claude was screaming. The receptionist was crying. He immediately started yelling at me. He says I was the last one to use the code.”
Finn’s lips turned down, and he made a few notes as he spoke. “Yes, that’s what the security company is saying. They claim they can produce records that show when you entered and when you left. We can’t tell when the safe was last opened. It’s manual. Is it true that the code you used on the door was unique to you?”
There was the rub, and Jen knew it. “Yes. When I was hired I was interviewed by the security company, and I selected a password. All employees select a code.”
“And no one else knows this code?”
“No. Well, I suppose the security company knows it. And Jean Claude gave me the combo to the safe. He didn’t like hauling stuff around himself.”
Finn’s pen flew across the paper.
“Is that important? I mean, do you think someone from the security firm stole the painting? Or another employee?”
A light shrug. “Well, it gives us a place to start. The problem is the security camera in that room was out. The last footage the company has is of you handling the camera.”
She felt her whole body flush. “I was told to turn it off.”
“Jean Claude. He didn’t want the thing beeping while the gallery show was going on. I told him no one could hear it, but he gets touchy when we have a show going. It’s best to placate him. I forgot to turn it back on.”
“He claims he never told you to do that.”
Yep, that was what the police had said. Her stomach turned. Why was he lying? The implications scared the crap out of her. Was she being set up? If she was then she had no idea how she would fight it. She had a little money saved up from the sale of her work, but it wouldn’t pay a lawyer for long. Who were they going to believe? A respected businessman or an artist who came from the wrong side of the tracks?
“I didn’t do it,” she whispered.
His hand came out and covered hers. “I know you didn’t.”
That was not the answer she’d been expecting. It made her wary. She pulled her hands back. Too many people lately had seemed nice and turned out to be so very cruel. It was a lesson she should have learned early in life. Hell, she had learned it and learned it well. Her time in Bliss had made her forget how fucked up the real world could be.
“And how do you know that?” She sounded rude even to her own ears.
The handsome lawyer didn’t seem to take offense. He smiled, a boyish look on his face. “I have it on the best authority I know. My partner is good friends with someone who firmly believes in your innocence. As my partner also happens to be my Dom, I never argue with him. It tends to get me spanked.”
He said it with the glow of a man who was well loved, but the word Dom made her heart plunge. It reminded her of everything she’d lost and everything she’d walked away from.
“Who do you work for?”
“My partner is named Julian Lodge. He’s good friends with—”
“Stefan Talbot.” The name came out of her mouth with a thud. Of all the people in the world she didn’t want to know about her current situation, he was number one. Her shame washed over her like a scalding bath. She’d always meant to go back to Bliss someday. She’d dreamed of confronting the man she’d loved, but in her dreams she always returned as a successful, wealthy artist. In her fantasies, she had a man on her arm so Stef wouldn’t think she’d spent years pining over him. Never once did she think he’d have to bail her out of jail.
“How did he know?” She hadn’t called or talked to anyone in Bliss since the morning she left. It had been hard, but it was the only way to go. She’d cut her ties and moved on like her mother had taught her. Keep moving. It was the only way to live. Staying too long in Bliss had tripped her up. It had caused her to do the stupidest thing of all—fall in love.
For the first time, Finn looked slightly uncomfortable. “I think it’s best that you take that up with Mr. Talbot.”
“Just tell me. I can handle it.” It was a lie, but one that came easily to her. She’d spent a good portion of her life handling things she shouldn’t have.
“Uhm, I believe Mr. Talbot hired a private investigator to find you. Once Mr. Taggart tracked you to Dallas, the firm he owns kept tabs on you. Julian has been getting regular reports from McKay-Taggart. When he was told you had been arrested, he immediately called Mr. Talbot and got in contact with the district attorney. Your arraignment has been scheduled. Mr. Lodge will pay your bail, and you’ll be released to his custody.”
“Doesn’t a judge have to decide that?”
A smirk crossed the lawyer’s face. “Mr. Lodge can be persuasive when he wants to be. Trust me, I’ll have you out of here in a few hours. I’ll take the lead on your case, but I’ll consult with the best criminal defense attorneys. I already have McKay-Taggart researching Renard. If he’s behind this, we’ll string his ass up. I promise, it’s going to be okay.”
“Why would he lie? Jean Claude is lying.”
“My guess? He knows more than he’s telling us. That painting is incredibly expensive. Maybe he’s selling it on the black market.”
Jen shook her head. “Why that one? We had a Dutch master in the studio last month. It was worth millions. Before that he worked on restoring a Renaissance painting that’s considered priceless. It doesn’t make any sense. He can’t get more than a half a million for that one on the black market, if he can sell it at all.”
“A half a million is more than enough to tempt a lot of people. It’s a lot of motive.”
“He’s independently wealthy.” At least, as far as Jen knew he was. His house was in the best part of Dallas. He drove a Jag.
“I’ll have someone look into his finances.” He glanced down at his watch. “It shouldn’t be long now. When we get the judge to release you, I’ll personally take you to your place so you can pick up some things.”
“Why do I need to pick up my things?”
The door to the office opened, and Jen looked up in shock.
“Don’t worry about your things. You won’t be going back to your apartment, Jennifer.” Stefan Talbot stood in the doorway. He was lean and tall. His suit was immaculate, but his black hair fell over his eyes. The slight messiness did nothing to distract from his overwhelming presence.
She got to her shaky feet and kind of wished she was back in the cell. The bars would stop her from doing something stupid. The need to throw herself in his arms was almost overwhelming. He was solid and seemed like the safest thing she’d seen in forever. It was an illusion. Stef was dangerous. He’d already broken her heart once. Damn if she was going to give him a second shot at it. Before she could manage to speak, he was walking into the room, making a straight line toward her.
“Everything’s been arranged, Finn. The paperwork is done. Julian can work miracles when he wants to. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. We’ll be in close contact as this matter moves forward. I’ve left notes with your secretary on how I want to proceed legally. I assume you’ll work with the investigators on the case. The first thing I want is every bit of information you can dig up on that fucker Renard.”
“Excellent.” Finn Taylor was the only one in the room who looked satisfied. He stood and collected his things. “I already have a team working on Renard. We’ll know something soon, Sir.”
That Sir grated on Jen’s nerves. So did the deferential way Finn Taylor nodded at Stef. It was more than the polite acknowledgement of a lawyer to his client. Finn wasn’t being polite to his client. He was honoring a Dom.
“Your work is impeccable, Finn. You honor your Master. Tell Julian I’ll be in touch with him.” He turned back to Jen. “Let’s move, Jennifer. I have a plane ready. We need to be at Love Field in an hour. I have an officer waiting to process you out.”
Jen’s head whirled. “Plane?”
“Yes, plane. We’re going back to Bliss.”
Cool, gray eyes slitted, and she could practically feel the will rolling off him. Stef was tense, and she knew it was a bad idea to push him, but she couldn’t help it.
“I’m serious, Stef. I’m not going anywhere with you.” She couldn’t go back to Bliss. Panic threatened to swamp her. He was here. He was right here in front of her, and her heart didn’t give a damn that he was a bastard. For the first time in months, she felt desire for something besides her art. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, go down that path again.
He got into her space, a move he’d perfected seemingly long before he met her. She held her ground. Even though he didn’t touch her physically, he seemed to surround her. Suddenly her whole world was Stef, his gray eyes, the heat of his body, his masculine, clean scent. He filled her every sense.
“I’m not going home with you.” She forced herself to say the words.
His lips hitched up. “At least you admit Bliss is your home.”
That wasn’t what she’d meant. Bliss, Colorado, had felt like home when she’d been there, but she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bliss wasn’t big enough for the two of them. “It’s your home. Hell, Stef, it’s your little kingdom, and you like to play the king, don’t you?”
“Yes, because everyone does what I say.” Stef’s low growl made her breath speed up. “Everyone in Bliss bows down to me. Have you been gone for so long that you forget Max regularly kicks my ass? And Nell and Henry are currently protesting my gardening practices.”
He was too close for comfort. She gave in and took a step back. She could see plainly that he was satisfied with her discomfort. “Don’t try to play the poor rich boy with me. You’re a puppet master. You like to pull the strings and see how people dance. Well, I’m not in your kingdom anymore, and there’s no way you can get me there again. So you can take your money and go back to Colorado.”
It was stupid. Even as she said the words, she wanted to take them back. She’d spent the last twenty-four hours terrified in a jail cell. She would have to be the stupidest woman in the world to turn him down, but she’d never thought around Stef. Since the moment she’d met him, she’d been a quivering mass of emotion and desire every time he entered a room.
“Stubborn thing. I’ll make it easy on you.” His hands caught hers, and before she could think she felt cold metal surrounding her wrists. He flicked the cuffs on with the cool precision of a man who often cuffed the women in his life.
“What are you doing?” She stared at her hands. At least this time they were in front of her. She preferred it that way. Damn, her life had taken a wrong turn when she could compare and contrast her experiences with men who handcuffed her.
“Taking you home, Jennifer. Whether you like it or not.”
He leaned down and picked her up. She was in his arms, nestled close to his chest. She looked up at the square, inflexible line of his jaw. His arms tightened around her, and she was caged more closely than she’d been in the holding cell. She had the suspicion that this time Stef would be harder to escape from than before. He kicked open the door and started down the hall.
Yep, like it or not, she was going back to Bliss.
Copyright 2018 DLZ Entertainment, LLC
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