One to Keep

 Nights in Bliss, Colorado - 3

Sophie Oak

For Rich – I wouldn’t know anything about love and romance without you. It might not be like a romance novel, but every day with you ends in a happy ever after as long as we’re together.

Chapter One

“Let’s go, Waters,” a surprisingly deep voice said. “You have a visitor.”

Jennifer Waters brought her head up quickly and looked at the guard. She’d kept her head down because it seemed the safest way to survive the experience. It had been all right when her cell mates 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 got up from her place in the corner and followed the bulky guard. It was quiet this early in the morning, but Jen still felt paranoid. 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. 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?” Jen asked. It was so 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. It just 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 Jen had been working for the last five months. Boss, she thought ruefully. Jean Claude had been much more than her boss.

He’d been an experiment to see if she could ever get over…

Jen 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 small 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 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. “No. I walked in yesterday morning, and it was gone. It 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. Jean Claude lets me work in there. It’s a large studio. There’s more than enough room for two easels. I work in there every day. The light is just 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. It was good, but it wasn’t perfect, she’d decided. She hadn’t gotten the colors just 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 would be perfect, she’d known. It was similar to the first, but this one would be better. This would be the one that broke her out. She’d been thinking of how her last three

works had sold very 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 one and 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 for the show. He wouldn’t leave it lying around. 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 all right, 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, so 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 all business. “You didn’t see the painting after the show?”

“No, I didn’t. And I had no idea it was missing. I came in late. I had worked until really 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 open. 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.”

“By whom?”

“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 very touchy when we have a show going. It’s best to just 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. Jen’s 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 very 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. Let’s just say that my partner is very 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 very 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 just 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 he tracked you to Dallas, he contacted my partner, and Julian kept track of you. Julian has some very interesting contacts.

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 a private firm researching Renard. If he’s behind this, we’ll string his ass up. I promise, it’s going to be okay.”