FREE SHORT STORY to introduce you to the world of A Kiss for Luck- From Love to Hatred Turn'd
And another free short in our series is From Love to Hatred Turn'd by Isa McLaren. This introduces us to her Art of Lying series that starts with A Kiss for Luck available at
Learn about the world of Jules Brand in this short (link for ebook at the end).
OCTOBER 17, 2015
Jules Brand watched the woman move across the room the way a cat watches a mouse, heedless to all but the prey. She was dressed to match the season in rich chestnut silk, her wrap in golds and reds playing against her auburn hair. Other than a gaudy diamond on her left hand, she wore only simple gold jewelry. Curious, but more interesting, was the way she flinched whenever the man next to her moved.
Brand smelled the expensive perfume before the familiar voice spoke over his shoulder. "She is beautiful, is she not?"
"She is but a candle next to your starlight, mi Tesora."
The woman laughed, a deep, rich sound that brought to mind images of fine wine and late nights by the fire. "I did not bring you here for your flattery, Jules." Nevertheless, her mouth curled up when Brand turned his attention to her.
"You have but to crook your smallest finger and I am here." Brand lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles three times. "I need no more reason than to see you."
"You are incorrigible." Contessa Mirella di Fiori was used to such treatment. It took more than simple hand-kissing and flattery to sway her. Artfully applied cosmetics and judicious plastic surgery only enhanced the woman's already considerable beauty. She aged with grace and charm and a very large bank account.
Brand offered his arm to escort her around the penthouse high above Park Avenue. A waiter offered a tray of champagne flutes, and Brand gave one to Mirella before taking another for himself. He knew his role at these functions. He was an exotic pet, brought out only for special occasions like these, meant to show off young lovers and recent conquests. In exchange, Mirella introduced him to potential clients.
"There. You see?" Mirella gestured with her glass at a man frowning into his canape. "William Wendon." Her voice lowered to a purr. She loved gossip as much as Brand, although for different reasons. "He has a pair of Cezannes he needs to sell. His mistress found out he was cheating on her and told his wife."
Brand guided them to the patio where electric heaters warmed the cool night air. It wasn't enough for one young woman, and she pouted. Her escort removed his dinner jacket, wrapping it around her shoulders. Brand wondered if her fingers twitched at the weight of the wallet now laying against her breast.
Probably not, as Mirella explained, "She collects Baccarat crystal." And men, obviously.
Brand gave a small shake of his head. He wanted no introduction. That wasn't his area of expertise.
Mirella's face widened into a grimacing smile as she returned a wave from a shriveled man tottering toward them. She spoke through her teeth quietly. "Attento."
Every nerve tingled with that warning. The tiny man didn't appear dangerous, but Brand knew just how deceiving looks could be. He shifted to offer the contessa a discreet distance, only to find her fingers clamping around his arm like a vise.
The man bowed his head in greeting. "Your Grace, how lovely to see you again." Suddenly Brand understood. The stench of raisins and fish spilled forth with the man’s breath, lingering on the palate, underscored by the disconcerting way his teeth shifted back into position with a click of his tongue.
"And you, Professore." Mirella kept her face tilted upwards where the air was fresher. "May I present my guest, Mr. Jules Brand. He is a dealer in fine art. Jules, this is Xavier Powell. He is a professor of theology." She paused, turning to Brand, the smile revealing something he wasn't sure he liked. "He is looking for ... Come dite? Pictures of God."
Brand may be a pet, but the leash was diamond-studded and his owner very benevolent. He perked up instantly, moving his glass to the other hand so he could reach into his pocket. "Religious icons?" He offered his card. "I deal in quite a few of those, Professor. My specialty, as a matter of fact."
"My collection is rather modest, I'm afraid." People were always saying that. Brand knew when not to take the sentiment at face value.
"If ever you wish to share those glories with a fellow admirer, I would be honored." Brand fingered the pendant at his throat. Even faded and worn, it was clearly a saint's medallion. "My mother instilled me with a great love for the beauty of such images."
Powell registered the significance of the gesture, and he beamed magnanimously. "Of course! Iconography should not be hidden away, but offered in communion."
Another wave of rotted fruit clenched Mirella's hand on Brand’s arm, and she lifted her glass in defense. "Scusi, Professore, but I must introduce Jules to someone."
They both took deep breaths once they were safely out of range. Mirella giggled, putting her head close to Brand's. "May you grow fat with his purse."
"It better be worth it. I'll use a fortune in cologne when I see the collection." Brand procured fresh glasses of champagne and scanned the room. He saw the woman in the chestnut dress again. Her eyes were rimmed with red, her mascara smudged. There was no sign of her hulking escort. "Who is she?"
"These others," Mirella flicked her fingers dismissively. "They are not why you are here, bambino cattivo."
Brand tensed at the nickname: bad boy. Mirella was one of the few people who knew about his sideline. She tolerated his indiscretions as long as he didn't target one of her friends again. "Who is she, Mirella?"
Mirella frowned, a far more effective expression than a socialite's pout. Brand would do almost anything to avoid seeing it. "Katarina Shelton." She kept her voice pitched low. "Her husband is Rutherford Shelton. He is a brute." She didn't have to go into detail. Her tone spoke volumes, as did the heavy makeup on Katarina's cheek. "I want you to do something about him."
Brand chuckled stiffly. "I doubt he's in the market for icons." He deserved the dark look she shot at him. "Mi scusi, Tesora." Brand shrugged. "But what do you want me to do?"
"You know people. I want him—" Mirella drew a manicured finger across her throat in a gesture that was at once clear and menacing.
Brand's eyes widened, and he grasped her hand, looking around furtively. "My God, Mirella. You can't be serious."
She shrugged and frowned again. "He is horrible. And she is a friend."
"It's not really my area." Brand felt sweat beading on his lower back, and his pulse raced. Refusing to help wasn't in his best interest. But neither was wet work. He looked around the party and found the walking corpse in question. "Tell me about him." That was a bespoke suit, accented by a watch worth more than most cars.
"Oh, horrible." Mirella shuddered. "Jealous. Rude." Her nose wrinkled. "He is in investments."
That put him just one rung above lawyers on the slime ladder. Or lower, depending on the state of one's own accounts. "What else?"
"I do not know." Mirella shrugged, this time in apology. "I only know what she says."
Brand sighed. "Fine. I'll help. But not like that," he added quickly. "There are far better ways to hurt a man." He gave her a mischievous grin. "As you well know."
Mirella favored him with a kiss on his cheek, a genuine kiss that left behind lipstick. She wiped it with her thumb, her eyes hooded.
If she was willing to tempt him like that, this must be very important to her. "I'll need information. Obviously, we can't talk here. Set something up, something private." Brand took her hand once more and kissed it. "And you still haven't told me who she is."
Mirella's face closed off. "I am tired. Take me home."
"Of course, mi Tesora. But first, I should set things in motion." Mirella must not have been that tired, since she looked at him with open curiosity. Brand grinned. "I need to ask you to ring for the car yourself, and when it gets here, give me a wave."
"Where will you be?" She didn't look terribly happy with that demand, but Brand needed only her cooperation.
"Next to my new best friend, of course."
Brand found Shelton talking to one of the party girls always adorning these events. He picked up a pair of champagne flutes and made his approach. "Say, I know you. You're that model." As the pair turned attention to him, he held out a glass to the woman. "I saw you at the car show, right?"
The woman giggled and blushed. It hadn't been difficult to guess; he knew the life all too well. She took the glass, posture shifting with pride. "I was on the Lamborghini."
"I knew it. I'd be amazed if anyone even saw the car." He took her hand and kissed it.
"The lady and I were having a private conversation." Shelton’s voice was a low growl, full of menace.
Brand could feel the irritation coming off Shelton in waves. He kept hold of the woman's hand and turned his head, looking Shelton up and down. He met the hard stare with a blank look before turning back to the blonde. "Jules Brand. You, my darling, are the finest beauty in the room. I should know; I'm an art dealer."
"I said, it's a private conversation." Shelton reached out and yanked Brand's hand away from her.
"Hey, now." Brand backed up a step. "I don't want any trouble." He had to work quickly before private security intervened. He offered the blonde a business card. "Call me when Pops here gets old." He shot a glance at Shelton, adding pointedly. "Well, older." And there was Mirella's wave, just in time.
Brand stood in front of his mirror, making minute adjustments to his attire. Whoever this woman was to Mirella, she mattered greatly. Helping her would help himself. More to the point, failing to help would be ruinous. Too many of his contacts were tied to the contessa. Rule 2: Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
He fingered his pale jade cufflinks, the ones that matched his eyes. Would she be dressed in rich tones again? He added a pocket square of brilliant scarlet, pulling the corners into points. How had he never met her before? Why had Mirella never even mentioned Katarina? He gave his reflection a sly grin, certain they would have hit it off. Then again, perhaps that was why Mirella had kept him away from the woman.
The high-rise apartment building didn't have a doorman to avoid, and the pretense of studying a newspaper kept Brand's face turned away from surveillance cameras. He checked his reflection again in the elevator. Confident that he looked his best, he raised his hand to knock on the apartment door. She must have been watching for him, since it opened immediately.
"How lovely to see you again, Mrs. Shelton."
A scowl darkened her lovely features. "Please, just Katarina." She stepped back and gestured him inside. The bruise on her cheek was yellowing, and she hadn't bothered with cosmetics.
The apartment was meant to impress. A narrow Turkish rug led into the living room, where leather furniture dominated. Another hand-knotted rug covered the floor. The dark red walls were the perfect backdrop for the gilded frames of Rutherford Shelton's art collection. Centered over the fireplace, a large abstract of a car race demanded attention. He did a swift appraisal. All this and Katarina, too. Brand's fingers twitched.
"May I offer you some coffee, Mr. Brand?" Katarina headed to the kitchen, and he followed, trying not to grin like an eager puppy.
"Call me Brand. And don't go to any trouble." The kitchen had granite counters and stainless steel appliances. There were a few homier touches. A colorful dishtowel hung from the oven. A vase of daisies brightened the small table, laid with a vintage tablecloth, the kind picked up as a souvenir, depicting a travel destination. Brand didn't wait for further invitation and seated himself. Ah. France. This fanciful map was far better than the real country.
"I thought Mirella would be with you." Katarina glanced in his direction.
Brand brushed some dust from his trousers and folded his hands on his knee. "Did she tell you why I'm here?"
The pretty brow furrowed as she assembled mugs for coffee. "She says you can help me with—" She closed the cabinet door firmly and looked him in the eye, a defiant tilt to her chin. "Marital problems."
She was beautiful. And not just in that superficial salon-tended, well-dressed way. Her skin, where it wasn't bruised, was rich cream. Her eyes, as Brand had suspected, were brilliant green, flecked with gold in the diffused natural light. The curve of her breasts shaped the simple blouse, and fitted jeans accentuated long legs. Bare feet were rebellious and vulnerable at the same time.
Brand held her gaze, gauging her resolve. He'd never get anywhere if she was skittish. He broke the standoff with a rakish smile. "I'm neither a marriage counselor nor a lawyer, darling. And just so we're clear, I'm not a hitman, either."
Those broad shoulders slumped for a moment. She put the coffee and accoutrement on the table silently. An unsteady sigh slipped out as she sat, and she used her hands to push back her hair. "I don't know what to do."
"And that's where I come in." He waited for her to look up at him, and this time, the smile was gentle. He investigated the pitcher and found the white liquid too thin to bother with. Not cream. And with no saucer to hold a spoon, no sugar, either. He stifled his irritation and picked up the artfully glazed mug. "Tell me everything about him."
"What do you want to know?" She cradled her mug in both hands, a classic defensive posture.
Brand hooked one arm over the back of the chair, the other hand on the table, his legs uncrossed. Open and vulnerable. He studied the ceiling as if gathering his thoughts. "Let's start with something simple. How did you meet?"
"At one of Mirella's parties." She let go of the mug with one hand and tucked hair behind her ear. "He came up to me and said he thought he'd died and gone to heaven." She snorted softly. "He used to be so charming. I was young. I was in love."
No wonder Mirella was so insistent. She felt guilty over introducing them. "But that changed. Mirella says he's in investments?"
She nodded, both hands back on her cup. "He's very secretive about it. Says I wouldn't understand. I suspect some of his dealings are illegal but I don't have proof. He's just so ... smug sometimes."
Brand had heard of brokers who were entirely honest, but believed them to be as mythical as unicorns. "What does he do for fun?"
"Other than hit me, you mean?"
Brand's stomach clenched. Not all wife-beaters were sadists, and he'd been hoping this one was the garden-variety barbarian. His thumb scratched at a small stain on the tablecloth. It kept the worry from creasing his forehead. "Why haven't you left him?"
There was a long pause. Brand looked up from his musings to see her hunched in the chair. Heels on the seat, hugging her knees, every muscle tense. He knew he was going to regret this and his hand went to his pendant to rub. "Katarina, I am going to help you. Mirella trusts me, and I need you to as well."
She sniffed, and Brand offered over a paper napkin. She blew her nose and dabbed carefully at her eyes. Her voice was shaky when she found it. "My mother. He threatened to hurt her." The defiant set to her jaw returned. "She died last month. Not at his hands," she clarified, and Brand let go of the breath he was holding. "Now I'm making arrangements, with Mirella's help."
"How do you know Mirella?" Brand added several spoons of sugar to his coffee. The tablecloth could survive another small coffee stain, and he needed the fortification.
Katarina let out a small laugh, and the tension went out of her feet. "When I was little, I called her Auntie Rella. She and my mother were close. Neither one would talk about it, but I've known her practically my whole life. She used to let me try on her jewelry."
Images of a cozy domestic scene were at odds with Brand's perceptions of the statuesque, formidable doyenne.
He checked his watch. Katarina must have felt the pull of time as well. "What else do you need to know?"
"I can probably answer my own questions if you don't mind me looking around." Brand stood and extracted a pair of grey silk gloves from his pocket.
"I ... suppose."
Brand looked up and smiled at the concern on her face. "Just a precaution, darling. I'm not a common thief."
An embarrassed laugh colored her cheeks prettily. "Yes, of course. Whatever you need."
He stepped closer and took her hand in both of his. He could feel the chill of her skin through the gloves. "Why don't you clean up in here? No need to advertise you had a visitor."
Her eyes went to the pair of coffee cups. "Right."
“Good girl. I won't be long." Brand gave her hand a pat and left the cozy kitchen. He started in the bedroom. Other than a decorative box of tissues and a romance novel on one nightstand, there was no evidence that a woman shared the room. Brand worked quickly. He found nothing helpful in any of the suit pockets, although one had a blonde hair on the shoulder and smelled of perfume that wasn't Katarina's. Nothing in his nightstand, dresser, or watch case, other than confirmation the man spent money to impress others.
He found Katarina's jewelry case tucked into a corner of the closet. Much like the simple pieces she'd worn to the party, the jewelry was practically worthless. Her clothing was equally plain. Quality pieces meant to last, but lacking the infinite variety and trendiness of most vain women. Her clothes took up less than a quarter of the shared closet space.
A thorough search of the office would take more time than he had, so other than a glance at the art work, and a quick check of unlocked desk drawers, he left it alone.
He headed back to the kitchen to find Katarina straightening the hang of the dishtowel. He cleared his throat, offering an apologetic smile when she jumped. "I just have one question." He nodded at the small painting hung over the breakfast table. A recent addition, based on its placement, not quite centered between the decorative plates on the wall. It was a tasteful nude, the model's hair a golden bronze. Visible in the background were the brightly-colored trees of a fall landscape. The piece wasn't bad, but clearly an amateur's work. Far different from the rest of Rutherford's collection. "Was that your mother's?"
She nodded and smiled, tucking hair behind her ear. "Yes." There was that pretty blush again. "It's not worth anything, just sentimental value. My grandfather painted it. That's my grandmother."
Brand took her hand again, his thumb stroking the skin on her wrist. "I can see where you get your beauty."
"Thank you." She raised her eyes to his. "How are you going to help me?"
He kissed her hand three times instead of answering. "I'll be in touch."
Brand leaned against the door and flashed a grin at the woman sorting papers. "I see your organizational skills haven't improved."
"Brand!" Delight lit up her face before she arranged her features into a disapproving frown. "What are you doing here? Come to rub my nose in your latest acquisition?" She patted her hair as she spoke, reassuring herself the severe bun was still in place.
He moved forward and offered his hand. "Chéri, Isobel. You wound me. Can't I visit an old friend just because I want to?"
Isobel Guittard let him kiss her hand, making a point to count her rings afterward. "That's twice you've insulted me. You must want something."
Brand gave his head a cheeky toss. "You know me too well, chéri. But I think you'll like this favor."
Isobel watched Brand work the party. The man was smooth, she'd give him that. If she fawned over clients the way he did, she'd be thought of as an air-headed bimbo. She had to maintain a strict level of professionalism. People thought her cold and calculating. She didn't mind; she had little time for socializing. But his cavalier attitude was aggravating to someone who had to study and work and fight for every business opportunity. It all came so easily to him.
This gallery showing wasn't her purview. The large pieces on display appealed to egotistical buyers with little regard for the aesthetics or history of the work. No wonder Brand was right at home.
Her eyes narrowed as he strutted towards her. Not many men could get away with looking like a peacock. She took a sip of her champagne and licked her lips. "Having fun?"
Brand gave her one of his infuriating grins. "Of course, chéri. Aren't you?"
Isobel snorted. "If you count getting felt up by handsy old men." She brushed her loose hair over her shoulder. "Oh, wait. You do."
His grin just broadened. "Now, now, chéri. No need to pout just because I see more action than you do."
"Some of us have standards." Isobel gestured to the artwork, so different from her usual offerings. "Why did you ask me here, anyway?"
Brand abandoned his half-empty glass on a passing tray, scanning the room, looking for his next victim to prey upon. He shrugged, almost turning his attention back to her. "After the Ysillis incident, I figured you could use a change of clients."
Isobel threw her drink in his face. "Bastard! How dare you—" She punctuated that by slapping his face, the sound echoing loudly in the suddenly quiet gallery.
Brand fished out his pocket square and wiped the drips from his face. "I think it best if I leave." He nodded at the man hurrying over to usher him out and left without further scene.
Isobel sat at the bar across the street from the gallery, toying with her empty glass. It had been a busy evening. She huffed a sigh and raised her head to signal the bartender.
"May I buy you a drink?" Rutherford Shelton didn't wait for a response before he took the next barstool. "Ketel martini, three olives." He looked at Isobel expectantly.
"The same." Isobel smoothed her hair and made an effort to sit up straight.
"Rutherford Shelton. And you are Isobel Guittard." He offered his hand.
Isobel shook it, trying not to wince at his grip. "You were looking at the Neiman. Did you buy it?"
He gave her a toothy smile. "I'm considering it."
She knew that type and almost felt sorry for the dealer. "Do you have others?"
"The Grand Prix." Shelton lifted his drink. "To getting what you want."
Isobel raised her own glass. "I'll drink to that." She took a large gulp; she'd need it to tolerate his brand of bullshit.
"And what is it you want?" Shelton set his glass down on the other side of hers, moving into her space.
Isobel laughed nervously and leaned away. "Well, that's quite a question, Mr. Shelton." Unlike Brand, her version of personal service didn't extend to the bedroom.
"My friends call me Ford. And that isn't an answer."
She took a drink and weighed her options. Pleased with the response she came up with, she looked him in the eye. "Well, Ford, I want to surround myself with beauty."
His smile widened, revealing a dimple in one cheek. He smoothed his tie. "Then we want the same thing." He tipped back the rest of his drink and ordered another. "I couldn't help but notice your run-in earlier. What did that man do to make you so angry?"
Irritation rose once again. "Brand? Clearly you don't know him or it would be obvious. The man's a complete prat."
"Who is he?"
"Jules Brand is a constant obstacle to my goals. He's an art dealer." She shook her head. "But let's talk about something more pleasant. What do you do besides collecting art?"
He seemed to warm to the topic. "I make a great deal of money. Investments."
They chatted, mostly about Rutherford. Deep sea fishing, grand prix racing, golf. His houses in the Hamptons and Bel Air, his apartment in London, his cars.
Isobel was still sipping her second drink, now warm and sour from the olives, while he was on his fourth. He reached over and moved her necklace, straightening it. "Tell me, Isobel. Do you know a woman named Mirella di Fiori?"
Isabel frowned and readjusted the necklace. "She's a serious collector." She gave him a thin smile. "Mostly of husbands, but other things, too. Art, jewelry, music boxes. Why?"
"Because I think she and that Brand fellow are plotting something." His eyes were dark and had taken on a dangerous edge.
"Oh?" Isobel pushed away her drink as if that could help her regain her senses.
Shelton nodded. "I saw them together a couple weeks ago."
The thought of Brand brought a sneer to her face and irritation to her voice. "I knew he couldn't finance that on his own."
"Cesare Varano produced a series of paintings, each featuring a different season. One of my clients has Winter and Spring. Mirella owns Summer." Her eyes narrowed as her anger built up. "I told you Brand likes to get the best of me. He must have found Fall."
"How much is something like that worth?"
Isobel raised her glass and gave him a delicious smile. "He's a relative unknown, but my sources say he's about to explode. Let's just say my finder's fee will keep me surrounded by beauty for a long time."
The phone rattled on the nightstand. Brand pulled the covers over his head and hunkered down. It stopped. A moment later it started again, this time clattering against a water glass. Brand groped for the offending device and pulled it into his cocoon, answering with a non-committal grunt.
"He's getting worse. You said you were doing something."
Brand could barely understand the woman through the sobs. "Calm down, darling." The voice finally registered through the fog of sleep. He sat up and rubbed his hair and sniffed deeply. "Kat." He cleared his throat with a drink of water. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm .... He was here! He barged his way in."
Brand started leafing through his closet. "Is he there now?"
"No. He's gone."
"Lock the door. I'll be there as soon as I can." Brand blew out his cheeks as he tried to decide what the hero of this piece would wear.
Brand knocked on the door to Katarina's new apartment less than an hour later, in a tomato-red silk shirt under a dark brown suit. If Rutherford was going to show up and punch him in the face, he didn't want bloodstains to ruin his outfit. "It's Brand. I'm alone."
The door opened enough for Katrina to confirm his statement before she released the chain.
"Are you all right, darling?" Brand checked the locks himself before gently steering Katarina toward the threadbare sofa. Her hand was delicate in his, the fingers long and elegant. His other arm wrapped around her back.
She leaned into him and took a shaky breath. "I'm fine. I shouldn't let him rattle me like that."
"Why did you let him in?"
"Thought it was you. I just opened the door, and he barged in." A shiver ran down her back, and she squeezed Brand's hand.
"Shh. It's over now. He's gone." Brand pulled back and gave her reassuring look. "Take a deep breath and tell me exactly what happened." He let go of her hands so she could talk.
She also seemed to need to move. Katarina stood and took a few steps to the door. "He came in, and I was telling him to leave. He said he just wanted to check on me, make sure I was okay. I mean, as if he ever cared when he was knocking me around—"
"Kat. He looked around?" There wasn't much to see in the small apartment. The seating area opened into a small kitchenette. Brand recognized the plates hanging on the wall. The bedroom was neat, the bed made.
"Yes. He told me to make coffee." Katarina pulled on her fingers, moving toward the kitchen.
Brand looked at the empty pot, the lid open. "But you didn't."
"No, he didn't want it." Her face made an O as she remembered. "He used the bathroom and left."
"What terrible manners." Brand gave her his charming smile. "You make wonderful coffee. Would you mind?" He gestured to the device.
Katarina shot him a strange look, but returned to making coffee. "What do you think he wanted?"
Brand shot his cuffs and gave his head a toss. "Just to bully you, darling. Don't worry. We're right on schedule and he'll be out of your life soon enough."
She nodded and filled the carafe. While she was busy, Brand slipped into the bedroom. And there next to the open bathroom door was the painting, the initials CV in the corner.
Brand groped for the phone. This was getting to be a bad habit. "Time's it?"
There was a pause before Katarina answered. "It's two in the afternoon! Were you sleeping?"
"Late night." Brand pushed his shoulders up against the headboard and squinted at the day.
"I can't believe what he did! He tried to take my painting!"
"Darling, you know I don't like discussing your ex while I'm naked and thinking of you." He grinned at the strangled noise of frustration. "How about I pick up some dinner later, and you can tell me all about it." He thumbed the connection closed and turned off his phone. Everything else could wait until later and he flopped back down to sleep.
It was nearly nine that night by the time Brand knocked on Katarina's door. A jaunty knock, carefree and playful. He was in far too good of a mood to take Katarina's scowl personally when she yanked the door open. "Wine?"
"Where have you been? I've left a dozen messages!" Katarina was wrapped in a thick wool sweater and tight jeans.
He breezed past her and started rummaging the kitchen for a bottle opener. "Sorry, darling. Some of my stops took a bit more time than I'd anticipated. Glasses?"
Katarina produced a pair of thick goblets and set them in front of Brand. She closed the drawers he had left open and handed him a corkscrew. "What stops? Brand, I've been so—"
"Here, try this." Brand poured as he spoke. It was a good bottle, one that deserved more attention than the previous owner would have bestowed upon it. He poured a smaller glassful for himself. "Good, hmm?"
Open delivery containers littered the counter. Brand touched his pendant as he noted how well the wine would complement the food he hadn't bought. He walked to the sofa, moving a decorative pillow as he sat. "Now, tell me what had you so upset earlier." He looked her over. "You look no worse for wear."
Katarina stared at him, but followed. She took a gulp of wine then set it aside. She rubbed her palms on her thighs and took a deep breath. When she looked at Brand, her eyes were full of fire, the gold sparking like embers. "That son of a bitch tried to take my mother's painting in the settlement."
Brand put his wineglass safely out of range on the low table. "Is that all? After a dozen messages, I expected something dire."
A manicured hand lashed out, and Brand gripped her wrist, moving his head back. "Now, now, darling." He grinned as she growled at him. He loosened his grip and brought her hand to his mouth to kiss as he stared in her eyes. "You'll have to learn how to control your emotions if we're going to succeed."
She yanked her hand away and rubbed it, but not before Brand had seen her eyes darken in response. "You're a bastard."
"Yes, but I'm told my father had his reasons." Brand refilled their glasses and handed over Katarina's. "Close your mouth before you catch flies."
Katarina dropped her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Mirella used to tell me that when I was a girl."
Brand reached over to touch her chin, coaxing her to look up as he smiled. "And me, when I was a boy." The roller-coaster of emotions was taking a toll, and her eyes were glistening.
Her face crinkled, and she stuck out her tongue playfully at him, a far more attractive look than the previous one. Katarina gave herself a shake and grew serious. "I think you'd better tell me what's going on."
Brand smoothed his shirt and gave his head a toss. He looked across to the window and debated moving to the more dramatic location. The view was horrendous from this shabby apartment, however, so he stayed put. "I've spent the last month dropping hooks for our Rutherford. I've had a few nibbles, but nothing solid until today."
He glanced over to see if she was following. "Now we know what he wants and," he paused to grin. "We can let him have it."
"Oh, no. He's not getting—"
Brand stilled her agitated hand. "There you go again, letting your emotions get in the way." The fire was back in her eyes as she glared at him. "We still have a lot of work to do, darling. And I need you to be clear-headed." He stroked the skin at her wrist as he explained what would happen in the next few days.
Understanding finally dawned, and Katarina took a drink of wine to let it all sink in. Brand waited, his pulse racing, fingers twitching with the urge to touch his pendant.
"Are you sure this will work?" Her teeth worried at her lower lip.
Brand leaned forward, cupping her face with his hand, and nibbled at that lip himself. "Oh, yes," he whispered. "I know exactly what I'm doing."
The two couples faced off across the conference table: Rutherford Shelton with his lawyer on one side, Katarina Shelton (soon to be Parras once more) and her lawyer on the other.
Papers changed hands. Katarina read over the documents and was about to sign when she saw her mother's painting listed among Rutherford's assets. "No, that painting is mine. My mother left it to me, not to you."
"The pre-nup you signed says you get what you came into the marriage with, sweetheart. Nothing more. I'm being generous with the clothing." As he spoke, Rutherford's lawyer tried to stop him.
Katarina was more willing to heed her counsel and listened while the woman whispered in her ear. After a bit of back and forth, her lawyer addressed his. "We can produce documentation that stipulates her ownership of said painting. Further, it was bequeathed after the dissolution of the marriage and is exempt from the pre-nuptial agreement."
A whispered conference led to another proposal. "We're willing to offer fifty-thousand dollars."
"I'm not selling my mother's memory for—”
"A hundred thousand."
"Fuck you!" Katarina glared at Rutherford.
They had another whispered conference. The lawyer didn't look too certain of his client's judgment when he made the next overture. "Five-hundred thousand."
"Let me have a moment with my client please, gentlemen."
When Katarina's attorney joined them in the hall, she told them to have the paperwork on her desk by morning.
Brand opened the champagne and brought the bottle to his nose to inhale the musky fragrance. None of that cork-popping showiness—this wine was worthy of a far more dignified treatment. He poured it into flutes and handed one to Katarina.
"Here's to a job well-done. You were magnificent, darling." Brand lifted his glass and clinked it gently to hers. They were in his hotel room. Bare hangers and full suitcases signaled his imminent departure. He was going to miss this place.
"Thank you. I had a good teacher." Katarina sipped her champagne and made a small noise of enjoyment.
A hurried knock interrupted them. Brand opened the door. "Isobel. You look like you could use a drink. Will champagne do?" He gestured her inside with a broad grin.
"Your celebration is premature, Brand. I told you that idiot was trouble." Isobel nodded greetings to Katarina and tossed her purse on the nearest flat surface.
"Which idiot is that, chéri?" Brand handed her a glass, entirely unperturbed by her distress.
She tipped the glass back and took long swallows then held it out for more. "Rutherford D. Shelton. The D stands for Dick-head."
"Actually, I believe it's Destry." She blinked at his retort, and he grinned. "Go on."
"He won't sell the painting. Not to me, not to you." Isobel sat down on the edge of the bed. "We're both screwed."
Her expression turned petulant, and Brand laughed. Isobel looked from him to Katarina. They were both laughing at her. "What did I miss?"
"He has a fake. I had one knocked up, just in case. Kat still has the original." Brand took a thick envelope from his valise and held it out. "You've been very helpful. For once."
"Wait, what about my buyer?"
"That would be me. My apologies for the ruse. I'm sure this will compensate you for your time."
Isobel snatched the envelope and drained her glass. "If I find out you've sold the original, I'll expect a cut. And you owe me a favor, Brand. Remember that."
He took the empty glass and lifted her hand to his mouth. "Of course, chéri."
Isobel snorted and tossed her head, looking at Katarina. "Be careful of him. That charm hides a multitude of sins."
Katarina offered her hand to shake. "Thank you, Ms. Guittard. I won't forget this."
Isobel shot a look at Brand as she left. "Thanks for the tip about the Baccarat, by the way."
"Any time." He shut the door and reached out to Katarina, closing the distance between them. "What do you want to do now?"
She went to him, backing him up toward the bed. "I want you to tell me how you knew he'd go after my painting and how you knew he'd keep it."
When his legs hit the edge of the bed, he fell backwards, his hand at her waist to bring her along. When she laughed in delight, he kissed her neck, nuzzling against the sweet-smelling skin. "I told you. Men like him are very predictable and easy to manipulate."
Katarina writhed against him. "What about when he finds out there is no series?"
Brand chuckled. "Then he'll also find out who CV really is. Who could he tell without letting on you'd gotten the better of him?" He smiled up at her when she lifted her head.
"You're amazing. We have a half million dollars thanks to you. I'm so happy."
"That's what I'm here for." To prove it, he kissed her, thoroughly and with every attention to her needs. After all, that was his first Rule: Keep the Mark happy.
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