by Cade Haddock Strong
After a Mercedes rear-ends Wallace Mahar, her annoyance evaporates the moment the offending driver steps out of the car. Much to her dismay, the stunning woman hands her $10,000. Then disappears.
Ellen Church hoped throwing money at the woman she rear-ended would make her go away, but when she sees her at a bar, she realizes Wallace may be a bigger complication than she first thought. Ellen doesn’t have time for relationships, even if she is attracted to the cute swim coach. She has her eyes on a bigger prize—a Warhol painting with something very special hidden in the frame.
Reformed art thief Mattie Pearson is trying to live on the straight and narrow. After their failed heist at the Schuyler House, she married Alex Holland and the two women couldn’t be happier. But when Mattie’s old friend Ellen shows up with a big-payday proposal, the lure of her old life proves too strong to resist.
The Warhol job draws Wallace deep into the world of female art thieves, and even deeper into the dangers of romance with a woman who steals art—and hearts—for a living.
|Publication Date||October 14, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Heather Honeywell|
Wallace Mahar eyed the big, black Mercedes sedan in her rearview mirror. It was right on her tail. “It’s not like I can go any faster.” Traffic on the George Washington Parkway inched along. When the rusted-out minivan in front of her slammed on its brakes, she did the same. Her tires screeched on the pavement as she skidded to a stop, narrowly avoiding a collision.
Unfortunately, the driver behind her wasn’t as quick. The sleek Mercedes careened into her rear bumper. On impact, Wallace’s head lurched forward before slamming back against the headrest. “Darn it!” She rolled her shoulders and slowly twisted her head back and forth. Her neck cracked but it didn’t appear she was hurt. Still, what a freakin’ hassle. She ran a hand through her long blond hair and huffed out a sigh.
The Parkway had no shoulder whatsoever and the sedan eased off the road and onto the grassy embankment. Wallace followed suit and pulled up in front of it. She rummaged through the glove box for her insurance card and climbed out of the car to assess the damage.
One red-soled high heel emerged from the sedan and then another. A brunette with olive skin stepped out from behind the driver’s side door. The red dress hugging her curves screamed couture, and although a large pair of sunglasses covered her eyes, Wallace could tell she was beautiful. Her features were strong but not jarring and if her long, lean legs were any indication, she spent more time in running shoes than in four-inch Louboutins.
The woman smoothed down her dress and closed the short distance between them. It hadn’t rained in a while and the ground was hard enough to keep her heels from sinking into the grass. She waved toward Wallace’s Subaru and said, “I’m so sorry. That was totally my fault.”
Wallace didn’t argue with her. The woman had been tailgating, leaving no room for error. And who in their right mind drove in heels that high? She eyed the Subaru and ran her hand over a miniscule crack in the bumper. “Luckily, the damage doesn’t look too bad,” Wallace commented. “Why don’t we exchange insurance—”
The woman held up her hand. “If you don’t mind…” She pushed her sunglasses onto her head and squinted at Wallace. “I’d rather not get the insurance companies involved.” She backed up toward her car, leaned inside and pulled out a large, leather Goyard shoulder bag. A manicured hand dipped inside and resurfaced with a stack of bills tethered by a white and mustard-colored paper band. “Please, just take this.” She thrust the bundle into Wallace’s hand.
Wallace glanced down at the denomination printed on the band and shook her head. “This is way too much. I can’t accept this.” When she looked up to hand the money back, the woman was already climbing into her car. How the hell did she move so fast in those shoes?
Wallace strode toward the Mercedes. “Please, wait. I’m sure we can…”
The woman pulled her car door shut and put the sedan in gear. As she maneuvered the sleek vehicle back into the steady stream of traffic, she gave Wallace a wave through the driver’s side window.
It didn’t occur to Wallace to make note of the car’s license plate until it was out of sight. She stared down at the stack of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills in her hand and tried to register what had just transpired. She couldn’t make sense of it. A minor fender bender had netted her ten thousand freaking dollars. No one would believe her when she told them the story, especially when she added the bit about the mysterious woman being drop-dead gorgeous.
Right now, though, she needed to get going. Otherwise, she’d be late meeting her father at the country club for their weekly tennis game. She clutched the bills in her hand and walked back to her car.
Mattie used a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. In her rush to get out of the office for a bite to eat, she hadn’t thought to grab her sunglasses. The clear blue fall day had apparently lured half of Washington, DC outside for their lunch break. The leaves on the trees hadn’t yet begun to change, but summer’s suffocating humidity was finally abating.
Mattie rounded the corner toward her favorite deli and collided with a tall man. She looked up to apologize but jumped back when she found herself looking into familiar green eyes. “What the hell are you doing here, Olivier?”
Olivier bent down and kissed her right cheek and then her left. He smelled of expensive cologne and cigarette smoke. “Nice to see you too, Mattie.” His heavy French accent made him deceptively affable.
“How did you find me?” she asked.
A wicked grin crossed his face. “I’ve just been in New York.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “Ellen? You talked to Ellen?”
He nodded and gave her another sly look. He was such an arrogant bastard. “In fact, she’s here with me now.”
Mattie scanned the crowded sidewalk.
“Not here, here,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Here in DC. She and I drove down from New York together. She’s out running a little errand for me.”
“I don’t believe you.” Mattie stood tall and looked him straight in the eye. “Neither one of us wants anything to do with you, Olivier.” She lowered her voice. “We live on the straight and narrow now.”
He rested his hands on his hips and leaned into her space. “Think about it, Mattie. If not for Ellen, how else would I have tracked you down?”
He had a point. Ellen was one of only two people from Mattie’s past who knew where she’d disappeared to after the fiasco at the Schuyler House. A tidal wave of guilt crashed over her as she thought back to the heist at the old estate. She glared up at him. “Exactly what is it that you want?”
“Can I buy you lunch?”
Her shoulders slumped. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Fine, but it has to be quick. I’ve got to get back to work.”
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket pocket, extracted one and lit it. “Work?”
“Yes, I work. An honest job. I help my wife Alex run her landscaping company.”
“My, my,” he said with a wink. “You have been busy since I last saw you. Went ahead and got yourself a wife, huh?”
She smiled but didn’t respond as she followed him to a nearby café.
“I’ll get right to the point,” he said once they’d placed their order. “I need you and Ellen to do a job.”
Mattie didn’t hesitate. “No fucking way.” She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Wait!” She sprung forward. “Don’t tell me Ellen agreed?”
“She told me to talk to you.”
“Get someone else, Olivier. That part of my life is behind me. End of story.”
“This is a big one, Mattie.” He reached out to touch her hand. “You and Ellen are the only people I trust.”
Mattie swung her head slowly from left to right and back again. “Sorry. Not interested,” she said with more conviction than she felt. In truth, she was intrigued. The urge to get back into the game always bubbled just below the surface, but she couldn’t let him know that.
“Will you at least talk to Ellen?”
“She’d just be wasting her breath. I’m not going to change my mind. I’ve got a wife now and I gave her my word. I promised her I’d never steal another thing in my life.”
After lunch, Olivier disappeared as magically as he’d appeared. Mattie sat on a bench a few blocks from her office. The sun still hung high over the city but to her it was as if a dark cloud had moved over DC. She pulled out her phone and stabbed Ellen’s number.
“I just had a visitor,” she said when Ellen picked up.
“Let me guess. A handsome Frenchman?”
Mattie twirled her long blond ponytail with her fingers and groaned into the phone. “Uh-huh. I can’t believe you’re considering—”
“I didn’t give him an answer one way or another,” Ellen replied.
“But you are considering it, aren’t you? I can tell by your voice. And, why else would you have come down from New York with him?”
“I might be entertaining the idea.”
“How could you, Ellen? After everything…”
“Did he give you the details? The job sounds like a piece of cake.”
Mattie huffed out a laugh. “You said that about the Schuyler House and look how that turned out.”
“Have dinner with me tomorrow,” Ellen said. “We’ll talk it out.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Alex would fucking kill me if she knew I was even having this conversation.”
“How is married life treating you, by the way?”
Mattie and Alex had eloped three weeks earlier. “Pretty damn well, thank you very much.”
“Great, I look forward to seeing you both soon. See you at The Rail tomorrow at seven.” Ellen hung up before she could protest. Of course, she could stand her up, but Ellen would only show up at the house. And they did need to talk. Mattie had to make it clear: Ellen should go back to New York and forget about whatever scheme Olivier had cooked up.
She shoved her phone in her pocket. “Fucking fantastic,” she grumbled as she walked back to the office. How did going out to grab a sandwich turn into such a shit show? She pushed open the glass door to Hemlock Landscaping and waved hello to Renee, the receptionist. “Is Alex back from her meeting yet?”
“Nope, I haven’t seen her since this morning.”
“When you see her, would you please tell her I’m looking for her?”
“Thanks, Renee. You’re the best.”
While she waited for Alex to return, Mattie tried to focus on the balance sheet staring back at her from the computer screen. It was no use. She couldn’t stop squirming in her chair. The visit from Olivier had completely unnerved her.
“Are the quarterly numbers looking any better?” Alex asked when she swung by an hour later. She gave Mattie a soft smile. Her shoulder-length brown hair was tucked under a Washington Mystics baseball cap and a splotch of mud tarnished the thigh of her otherwise clean Carhartt workpants.
“Hey, baby,” Mattie said. “The numbers could be better…We were supposed to meet at three to talk about them.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Traffic on the Beltway was horrible. Took me almost an hour to get back from Tysons.”
“Did the meeting go well?”
“It was fine. Fingers crossed we get the contract. We really need this one.” Alex placed a hand on Mattie’s shoulder. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Your eyes are so dilated, they look more black than blue.”
She shrugged. “I’ve probably been staring at the computer for too long.”
“Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?”
Mattie spun the shiny new wedding ring on her finger. Alex could always see right through her. “I, uh, had an unexpected lunch date.”
Alex’s brown eyes opened wide. “Oh?”
This was not a discussion Mattie wanted to have in the middle of the office. “Why don’t we take a walk around the block.”
Even though the sun now sat low on the horizon, Mattie slipped on her sunglasses when they stepped outside. How should I break the news? She needed to choose her words very, very carefully. Alex knew all about her lurid past as an art thief and there was no way to tell how she might react when she heard Olivier had resurfaced.
“What’s going on?” Alex asked as they began to walk.
“I stepped out to get a sandwich for lunch and I was just walking down the street, minding my own business, when Olivier appeared out of thin air.”
She lowered her voice. “Yeah, the French guy I told you about.”
Alex stopped walking and grabbed her arm. “You mean the fence?”
“Yes,” Mattie said glumly. Back in the day, Olivier had been their fence. They’d steal the art from some unscrupulous person—they always stole from people who were corrupt or otherwise unethical—and sell it to him. From there, it was his business what he did with it.
Alex jammed her hands into the pockets of her Carhartt’s. Even the sunglasses couldn’t hide her disdain. Her tanned face pinched into a grimace like she’d just been punched in the stomach. “Oh, no. This can’t be good. What made him show up now, after all this time?”
“Supposedly, he’s got a job. Said Ellen and I are the only ones he trusts.”
“You promised me, Mattie,” Alex said through clenched teeth. “No more of that.”
“I am done with that. I made that abundantly clear to him.” She took a few steps forward before adding, “It’s weird, though. Olivier was our fence. That’s it. We always went to him, never the other way around. But now he’s the one reaching out to us about a job. It must be something really big…”
“Mattie! Don’t you even think about it.”
She nibbled her bottom lip. Alex definitely wasn’t going to like her next bit of news. “Ellen’s in town too. She wants to have dinner tomorrow night.”
“You know I think Ellen is great and all, but if she’s here to try and suck you into this, tell her to go to hell.”
“She just wants to talk.”
Mattie and Ellen had always been good friends, but they’d grown even closer since the events at the Schuyler House. They saw each other regularly so her being in town wasn’t that out of the ordinary, although this time around, it was clear Ellen wasn’t here to catch up with old friends.