Charlie O’Connor was an amalgamation of her parents and she was okay with that. Tall and slender like her father with his vibrant red hair and green eyes along with her mother’s elegant style; she automatically drew attention wherever she went.
Her friends chided her constantly about her Polly-Anna outlook. She didn’t mind that because she always looked for the good the positive the best in others. As a result, she’d surrounded herself with the best possible staff in her gallery. Franny was short, blond, bubbly and cute with an honesty next to none. Mark was tall, angular, determined. They made a great team and were close friends as well.
Franny could size a client up in seconds and direct them to the art she knew they’d love. Nine times out of ten she was right. So it surprised Charlie when she came scurrying into her studio slightly flustered and somewhat annoyed. “This one is on you. I can’t get a read on him for anything. Can you come to have a word, see if you can figure him out?” This immediately intrigued Charlie and after standing and pouring Franny a cup of coffee, then adding milk, gently pushed her toward a chair and said, “Sit, relax. It’s ok.” Franny smiled and dropped her eyes to her coffee.
Charlie straightened, patted her hair and walked out front. He had his back to her and her first impression was of a tall muscular man. He was considering her “Moonlight Escape” painting, one she particularly loved that spoke on a variety of levels.
Although she hadn’t made a sound, he turned and watched her approach, his rich golden eyes trained on her and she was instantly drawn to the fascinating expression in his eyes and found herself wishing for a paintbrush and easel in order to capture him in paint. His face was a mixture of devil-may-care and passion in equal parts. As she got closer, she noticed thick dark lashes and slight crinkles at the corners of his eyes. Dark stubble covered his chin as though he’d forgotten to shave. But it was the confident relaxed stance that caught her attention. He was comfortable in his own skin. Despite herself, she was attracted.
In order to give herself breathing space, since she’d stopped and stared, she quickly introduced herself, “Sorry my mind was elsewhere. Anything in particular your looking for?”
“I think I’ve found it.” Startled at the look in his eyes realizing he hadn’t meant the picture since he was looking directly into her eyes, she understood it wasn’t the picture he was referring to. Approaching the painting she said, “It’s one of my all-time favourites. and parting with this one is difficult. Wasn’t sure I could even let it go.” Her smile glowed with introspection as she stood beside him studying the painting she loved so much.
Reluctantly turning his gaze back to the painting, he remarked, “I doubt words could do it justice. It’s one of those paintings you could look at for hours and find something new and interesting to enjoy. It speaks on so many levels.”
“That’s how it strikes me too,” she admitted candidly., secretly delighted he saw what she had seen when she’d painted it.
Turning back to the beautiful woman standing in front of him, he was tempted to reach out and wipe the smear of paint off her cheek but refrained. “All,” he glanced around the gallery, “yours?” he asked.
“Your talent is amazing.”
“Thanks,” she smiled her pleasure at his remark. “I can’t honestly remember a time when I didn’t have a pencil or paintbrush in hand. It’s a standing joke with the family.”
“It’s reflected in your gift and what could be more enduring and enjoyable than doing what you love most in life as a job and pass-time!” He paused before walking around the gallery taking in some of her other work. “Your landscapes are incredible.”
“Most are areas around Jermaine County, but there are a few from other areas as well.”
“I’m afraid I can’t make my mind up. I love Moonlight Escape, but I’m finding a couple of others that are calling to me as well. Birds in Paradise is incredible…was that a personal experience?”
“Yes, it was. I have a hummingbird feeder, well two at home and one morning when I walked outside, coffee in hand, there it was…feeding. I was sure it would fly away the minute it saw me, but luckily, it landed on the tree limb by the porch and I was able to capture a picture on my cell phone. I painted from that.”
“The colours are remarkable. You captured a look in her eye that draws you in.”
“Thanks, again. I try.”
“I have an appointment in a few but I’ll try to get back later today or possibly tomorrow. I’m caught in a delightful dilemma. I’m sincerely not sure which I’m drawn to more.”
“I’ll set them aside for you. I can only hold them for a couple of days without a deposit I’m afraid.”
“Certainly, wouldn’t expect otherwise.”
Steve Haynes introduced himself then reiterating he would return and nodded and left. She watched him saunter down the street and groaned. “What a hunk of man…how I’d love to paint him.”
Franny joined her in time to hear her remark unabashedly smirking, “Yes indeedy. I thought he might capture your interest.”
“Wait, you mean you set this up on purpose?”
“Sure did, how else are you going to meet a man? You corral yourself in the back and you’re clearly not interested in any of the arty types we meet at events, and the second I saw him, I thought, well now! He’s seriously worth a second look.”
Steve Haynes walked two blocks to his car without a backward glance. Damn, but she was a looker and he was excited at the prospect of seeing her again. Inside his vehicle, he opened his cell and pulled up the data he had on her. Twenty-five attended university and received a degree in psychology. Interesting that she hadn’t chosen art as her major. Now, having seen her work and how clearly gifted and talented she was, he understood she hadn’t needed to.
He hadn’t found a connection between Harold’s and her but it was a loose end he had to follow up on. It annoyed him because for once because he was intrigued and interested in her as a woman and that put him at odds with his job.
He returned to his hotel room and opened his lap top to scan information he’d collected. Perplexed he worried about the connection. If it wasn’t Charlie O’Connor, then could it be one of her employees? Time to start digging deeper he decided, ordering coffee from room service.
Ammond Insurance had hired him to uncover who was responsible for the thefts of some pretty expensive tapestry and paintings. Working backward from the time the thefts were noticed, he’d managed to narrow down the time frames involved. Each theft had occurred during a major event held at each location and he’d systematically gone through the list of artists and attendees eliminating or diminishing possibilities as he went. There were two other possibilities he hadn’t ruled out but Charlie O’Connor had been present at three of the four gallery events and two of her staff had attended the last one.
Having delved into her background, her finances and her spending habits, he hadn’t found anything that raised red flags but ‘due diligence’ he reminded himself, was its own reward. Although, in this case, perhaps even more so. Time was running out because another major event was scheduled in two weeks and Ammonds hoped to have the issue resolved by then. He certainly hoped so since otherwise, he’d have to work undercover and he knew from experience that wouldn’t go over well when the time came to divulge his true identity.