The journal Mark left for me is sitting in my lap as I drive to Alvarez’s Victorian mansion in San Francisco’s ritzy Nob Hill area, sometimes referred to as Snob Hill. Just ten minutes from the Allure Gallery, it’s here that the rich and famous are plentiful, and aside from mansions galore, the nearby shopping and theater districts cater to the elite. I’ve gone from avoiding the things that remind me of the money I left behind to drowning in it.
I maneuver into the driveway, which is remarkably unremarkable, but with a city less than forty-seven square miles, even here it’s expected. What space doesn’t allow on the outside is made up for with glamour on the inside. Since my Google search for directions brought up references to a renowned architect, I’m quite certain this one is not the exception.
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Once I kill the engine of the , I stare at the red door of the house, my teeth worrying my bottom lip. I am not drowning, I remind myself. I’m taking control of my life. I’m no longer hiding. I’m no longer in denial. I have a meeting with the famous, talented Ricco Alvarez. So why the heck am I not hopping out of the car, when it’s five minutes until my meeting and being early makes a good impression?
My fingers wrap around the journal I’ve found to be both a treasure and a disappointment. It is far from the dark and revealing view into Rebecca’s soul that are the other journals. It’s a detailed accounting of every piece of work she ever sold or evaluated for Riptide. The most revealing things are her short insights into the staff, buyers, sellers, and artists that she has encountered and their personality quirks, interests, and history.
Her notes about Chris are scribbled out and no matter how I try, I cannot make them out, though I’m not surprised about the various art he’s sold through Riptide to benefit the children’s hospital. I can’t think about that now, though. I have to conquer this meeting with success, despite the unease inside me I have no real reason to feel. Rebecca’s notes were positive on Alvarez.
Generally misunderstood, and while motivated by money and success, he has proven generous in tremendous ways.
I’m close to the gallery. I’m supposed to call Mark after my meeting. People know where I am. But … I don’t want to be stupid. What if Mark and Alvarez are the two men in the journal?
I grab my phone out of my purse and hit the auto-dial I’ve programmed for Jacob. He answers on the first ring. “Everything okay, Ms. McMillan?”
“Yes. Completely fine. I just … want to make sure it stays that way. I’m probably being paranoid, but …”
“Paranoid is better than careless.”
I have no idea how much he knows about Rebecca or what I have going on, but I don’t think it matters anyway. “I’m headed into a business meeting and my boss knows where I am, but in light of recent incidents, I’d like someone else to know as well.”
“What’s the address?”
“It’s the private gallery for the artist Ricco Alvarez,” I explain after reciting the address. “I’m not sure how long the meeting will be. It could be fifteen minutes or two hours. If it’s short I’ll head back to an event going on at the gallery.”
“Can you check in in an hour to let me know you’re okay?”
“I’ll try, but I don’t want to be rude in the meeting.”
“Just text me if you can. That’s discreet.”
“Right. Okay. Thanks, Jacob.” I hesitate and cringe, imagining the moment Jacob tells Chris where I’m at. “Jacob. Don’t tell Chris where I’m at while he’s traveling. He’ll worry. He’s had a horrible trip and I don’t want him to stress out any more than he already has.”
“If he asks, I have to tell him, but … I won’t go out of my way to announce it.”
“Thank you very much, Jacob.”
“My pleasure, Ms. McMillan, and I mean that. Chris seems different with you around.”
It is the same thing his godmother had said to me when we’d visited her winery. “Is that good?”
“It is. Be safe.”
“I will.” I hope. I say good-bye and hang up. Not giving myself time to fret, I grab my briefcase, get out of the car, and head for the door. My phone goes in my jacket pocket, where I keep it out of habit.
Several flights of stairs later, I’m standing at the top of the porch, relieved to find two entries, one of which is marked studio. This setup is comforting and feels safer and more professional. I lift my hand to knock on the studio entry and the door flies open to reveal Ricco Alvarez. He is striking, not handsome by any means, but there is this arrogant confidence about him that comes across as more suave than belligerent. His skin is a rich brown, his features sharp and defined, like the touch of his brush, and from what I’ve heard, his personality.
“Welcome, Ms. McMillan.”
“Sara,” I say. His teal business shirt, which he’s paired with his black slacks, accents eyes the same bright color. “And thank you.”
“Sara,” he replies with a gracious nod of his head, and the tension in my spine eases just a bit with the use of my name.
He backs up to allow me to pass and my gaze lifts to the massive all-glass ceilings. “Spectacular, isn’t it?” Ricco asks.
“It is,” I agree, letting him take my briefcase and jacket. “And so is the floor.” The pale, shiny wood is almost too brilliant to walk on. “You artists have a way of delivering drama.”
He hangs my things on a fancy steel rack mounted on the wall. “Some would say me more so than others.”
Considering all the talk about him, I’m surprised at his smile and I like that he can joke about himself. “I’ve heard that,” I dare to reply, my lips curving.
“At least I have people talking.” He motions me forward.
“Welcome to my studio, Bella.”
Bella. Beautiful in Spanish. An endearment should make my unease more powerful. Instead, I instantly believe he tries to romanticize everything from his dramatic home to his conversation.
We walk side by side through an archway at least seven feet high, and he dominates the space, being well over six feet himself. The space comes into view and it’s like I’m back at Allure.
The narrow, rectangular room has several elegant display walls, and at least six paintings on every wall.
Alvarez steps to my side and motions to the room. “These are the pieces that I have at present and will allow for private sales.”
I glance up at him and state what I guess to be the truth.
“The ones you’re willing to show me at this point in time, you mean.”
“You are direct, aren’t you?”
“Just eager to see every amazing piece of your work you will let me see.” I wave my hand toward the art. “Can I?”
My path forward is instant and it’s a beeline for a painting on the far right of the room. I stop in front of the Picasso-like Mediterranean landscape, with sharp lines and dynamic colors, and I’m in sensory overload.
“You like the Meredith?” he asks.
“I love it,” I say and cut him a sideways look. “Why do you call it Meredith? “A woman I once knew, of course.”
“I’m sure she’s honored.”
“She hates me, but alas, there is a fine line between love and hate.”
“Then you and Mark must be darn near in love,” I comment, baiting him to tell me about his reasons for pulling his work from the gallery.
His eyes light with amusement. “You are quite the character, Bella. I like you. I see why Mark likes you.”
“How do you know he does?”
“Because he trusted you enough to send you here and he wants my business back.”
“Why’d he lose it?”
“Why did he tell you he lost it?”
“He said that you wanted Rebecca’s contact information and he couldn’t give it to you.”
Disdain fills his eyes. “There is much more to it than that, and Mark knows it.”
“I’d like to hear.”
“I’m sure you would,” he says, and for the first time I catch a sharpness to his voice that makes me believe he’s capable of cutting flesh and blood with words. “But out of respect for Rebecca, I won’t be sharing more.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be inappropriate.”
I watch the tension slide away from his features, and the steel of seconds before is gone. “Forgive me, Bella. Rebecca is a touchy subject for me. Now, why don’t we walk through the paintings and let me tell you about each?”
My moment for digging for information is lost, but I hope to find another one. We begin moving around the room, and I ask questions and gush over his work. In between my questions,
I answer questions from him as well. “Who’s your favorite Renaissance artist?” “How do you ensure you aren’t buying a fake?”
“What have been the top five bestselling paintings in the last five years?” After a bit, he looks pleased at my answers and our talk turns more casual.
After I have seen that three of his paintings are named after women, I cannot help but comment on the trend. “You must be quite the lady’s man.”
“I’ve been called worse,” he assures me, “and perhaps I am guilty as charged. I guess it depends on who is defining what constitutes a lady’s man.”
The statement strikes me as true beyond its intention. How many of us allow others to define us and thus we become what they want us to be, not what we should be or could be?
We continue to chat about the art and I’ve lost track of time when finally we have finished our tour of his work. “You’re impressively knowledgeable, Bella.”
This time I don’t try to control the curve of my lips. “Glad to hear you think so. I don’t know who drilled me harder about my knowledge of art, you or Mark.”
His eyes narrow. “Does he let you call him Mark?”
I cringe inside at my slip. “Ah, no. Mr. Compton.”
“Of course he doesn’t.” The snideness to his tone is hard to miss. “My friends call me Ricco, Sara, and so shall you.”
“Does this mean you will let me show your work to my client?” I ask hopefully.
“You may show my work. Mark may not. I’ll give you a private commission of twenty-five percent. Mark I will give nothing.”
I blanch and every muscle in my body locks up. He’s using me to get back at Mark for some sin he perceives he’s committed against him. “I can’t do that. I work for him. That wouldn’t be right.”
“Mark is out for Mark. You’ll learn that soon enough or you’ll end up crushed like everyone else around him. Don’t let that happen, Bella.”
I’m desperate to get this meeting back under control and reach for a way to mend his and Mark’s relationship. “Didn’t you do a charity event with Mark? That was a good thing you did together. What if we started out with something like that again?”
“Rebecca set that up, and I can donate my work for a good cause through many venues. I chose to do it at Allure because Rebecca asked me to.” He changes the subject back to his offer.
“Let me show you how to scout and sell on your own.”
“I appreciate the offer, but—”
“Don’t let him suck you into his world. It’s dangerous and so is he.”
What is it about artists warning me off Mark? “Unless he brings a machete to work,” I joke weakly, “I can handle him.
“Men like Mark do not need machetes to dice your independence and self-respect. They mind-fuck you.”
No matter how true his claim might ring, I feel it like a slap, and I barely stop myself from taking a step backward. “I should go, but please know that I love your work. I mean that. I’d be honored to represent it.”
“And you can. You and you alone.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
He studies me for several tense seconds and waves me forward. “Very well. I’ll show you to the door and let you go home and think on this.”
We walk side by side again, and when I’m ready to exit the studio, he reaches for my coat and helps me put it on. Immediately I feel my pocket vibrating. Oh crap. How much time has passed? I slide my briefcase onto my shoulder and my hand slips into my pocket. I close my fingers around my cell, cringing because I’ve failed to communicate with Jacob.
Alvarez pauses with his hand on the doorknob. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, even if the outcome wasn’t what either of us had hoped for.”
“I’m going to try to get your business again, you know.”
He opens the door for me and I step outside, and we say a quick good-bye. I’m about to start for the stairs when a question comes to mind that has me hesitating on the porch. The charity event he did at Allure was for the same children’s hospital Chris champions, but since they don’t seem to be friends, I’m curious about how this came about. I turn to the door to knock and my phone buzzes against my palm again.
I pull it from my pocket and see a text alert and six missed calls. I hit the text from Chris.
Don’t go back in that door.
My heart leaps to my throat and I whirl around to scan the driveway. A shadowy movement draws my eyes and I see the Harley parked in the shadows behind the , with Chris leaning against it.