UNTRUE COLORS, by Veronica Forand
Published by Entangled Select Suspense
She’s on the run…
Brilliant art appraiser Alex Northrop’s ex used stolen art to fund his nefarious activities. Now he wants her dead. But it isn’t just herself she’s worried about – if he discovers who she really is, he’ll kill her family.Professor Henry Chilton is shocked to find a beautiful stranger passed out in his bed, and even more so when the she reveals a priceless painting is a forgery – the painting he’d planned to use to fund a woman’s shelter. She’s mysterious and frightened, and he is determined to discover why.Alex’s knowledge of art is undeniable–just as Henry’s attraction to her is irresistible. But in order to help him recover the real painting, Alex isn’t just risking exposure…she’s risking her life.
by Veronica Forand
Copyright © 2015 by Veronica Forand.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Alex grieved as she looked toward the Louvre for possibly the last time. She wrapped her arms across her chest and tried to steady her breath. Overhearing Luc’s plan to celebrate their four-month anniversary by murdering her had set off her own plan of running as far away from him as possible—not an effective plan, considering the monster sat within six inches of her in a car on the way to her death.
What began as a fairy-tale romance had morphed into a traumatic descent into hell. A glamorous job, a handsome client, a little romance, a perfect life, until she uncovered his deception. Luc was a crook.
And I was the gullible appraiser used to dupe art collectors and even small countries out of their valuable assets. What an idiot I was to believe his lies.
While his main henchman, Pascal, drove them through Paris, Luc held her hand in the back of the Mercedes like they were still lovers. They appeared perfect for each other, a rich art collector and the young art appraiser who had fallen head over heels for him. Rugged good looks combined with an enormous amount of wealth made him an ideal catch for a woman who didn’t mind being beaten into submission.
Not me. I objected to every broken bone and every bruise on my body.
Luc, dressed in a thousand-dollar suit and wearing a sophisticated five-o’clock shadow across his chiseled features, seemed headed out for a night at the theater, not on the way to eliminate his girlfriend. Alex leaned away from him. She needed to get away. His free hand caressed her arm, rubbed her shoulder, and pulled her back toward him. Moving slowly, seductively, he wrapped his fingers around her neck and started to squeeze. He stared at her, observing her reaction.
“I promise I won’t tell anyone. I swear it.” She pleaded for her life, speaking French, the only language they’d ever used with each other. As his hand tightened, she gasped and struggled for breath.
Luc drew her face closer to his. His lips pinched together, causing the muscles in his neck to tense. “Liar.”
She struggled to pull away; his grip tightened. No longer able to inhale, her eyes watered and her vision faded. With nothing left to lose, she struck out at his face. He released her, but slapped her ear so hard, her head flew into the door. The pain ricocheted through her skull, leaving her numb for a moment.
She glanced out the window and saw salvation. As Pascal slowed for a turn, she opened the door and jumped. Her Chanel suit acted as her only protection when she hit the ground and bounced onto the road. Asphalt scraped her skin with each rotation until she slammed into the curb. Pain rebelled in ribs not yet healed from her fall down Luc’s marble stairway. Car brakes screeched nearby. In seconds, they would be on her. She hobbled to her feet, sucking in huge breaths. Bystanders pressed around her, trying to assist, but she twisted away, her hands poised to fight anything that touched her.
She merged into the manic crowd entering the Gare du Nord at rush hour. Men and women in suits, groups of schoolchildren, and what felt like hundreds of tourists slowed her escape. With her passports tucked in a travel belt under her skirt and several hundred euros in her possession, she boarded the high-speed train for London and prayed he wouldn’t follow her.
TWO MONTHS LATER
Alex sat in her favorite booth in the back corner of the Yellow Dog Pub with a Coke and a cup of pumpkin-and-Gruyère soup and pulled out the book Matisse, Father & Son from her backpack. One of the students she’d met offered to check out books for her from the library, and she devoured every one she could lay her hands on. She’d created a comfortable yet temporary life in Oxford. She dressed as one of the students at the university, lived at a youth hostel, and earned money by helping a pub owner clean up after closing. Still, she felt far from safe.
“Gabe, how’s the soup?” Matt, the owner, asked.
She’d become used to being called Gabe West. Gabrielle, her mother’s name, had been the only name she could think of when she’d arrived in Oxford. West reminded her that her family was across the ocean in Boston. Since moving to Europe eight years ago, Alex had kept in sporadic contact with her family. Since meeting Luc, she’d had zero. They didn’t need to become mixed up in her problems. Luc was too dangerous.
She took a spoonful and savored the first taste of her main meal for the day. “You outdid yourself.”
“Glad to hear it.” He sat across from her, his wise blue eyes framed by laugh lines. “Listen, love, some bloke has been poking around the local pubs asking about an undocumented French art lover with a pert little nose and an air of desperation. Never did hear you speak anything but English, but thought I’d give you a heads-up.”
Her spoon dropped into the bowl, splashing some soup on the table. She clasped it again as though it was an accident and raised her eyebrows to appear interested in Matthew’s statement, but not too interested. Her body tensed, ready to run away from this sanctuary. Had they found her? She scanned the room. The crowd contained familiar faces, students and locals. Most of them had welcomed her without any questions.
“French?” She laughed. “I can barely understand your brand of English, never mind an entirely different language.”
Matt’s expression relaxed. “American English is just a weaker version of the real thing.” His smile faltered, though, and he clasped her hand. “I enjoy your company and your work ethic, Gabe, but I prefer you safe. If you need to leave, I’ve got your back.”
She nodded. Tired of living in constant fear, she craved a hug from anyone who would call her by her real name.
Instead, she had to run. “Can you return this book to Fred? I don’t want him to get a late charge.”
They stood at the same time. She took two steps and froze.
Dressed in black with arm muscles the size of telephone poles, Pascal pushed through the entrance and glanced around the room. He hadn’t noticed her yet, so she ducked behind the bar, grabbed her pack, and crawled into the bathroom.
Please, God, just let him leave.
She climbed on top of the toilet and waited.
Glass shattered, as did her nerves. Angry words between Matt and Pascal escalated into a full-blown argument.
Several other patrons joined in, and then a gunshot.
Horror clawed through her composure, and her legs nearly gave out. She couldn’t go back out there. He’d kill her for sure. After a quick prayer for Matt, she smashed the bathroom window with her boot to make her escape. The backpack fit out the window with room to spare. It wasn’t large, but big enough to shimmy through. She pulled herself up with relative ease, but her left hand slipped and rammed into the ragged edges of the glass sticking up from the frame. The glass sliced into her palm and her thumb and made several gashes in her wrist. She bit through the pain, climbed out to the alleyway and ran. Again.
Keeping an eye out to see if she’d been followed, Alex walked for an hour until she had no choice but to stop and tend to the blood dripping from her hand. A white sock from her bag soaked up most of the mess, but the blood continued to flow. Her vision clouded for a second, and she shook her head to stay alert.
A few blocks later and she was in one of the outer neighborhoods surrounding Oxford University. Professors’ houses lined the streets. Dressed in a faded black leather jacket with long pink hair, she blended into a group of students moving toward an elegant brick house.
She had to get off the street.
She climbed the front steps to an open red door. The two female students entering in front of her were dressed in
cute dresses and high-heeled shoes. She hadn’t worn heels since leaving Luc. Combat boots and sneakers were more practical, and she could run fast in them.
Smirking faces and rolled eyes greeted her as she maneuvered through the crowd toward the main salon. The boys, sporting silk ties and arrogant grins, stood around pontificating on the plight of the less fortunate of the world as they drank Chianti from lead crystal glasses. The girls, no older than twenty-two, nodded with feigned interest at their dates while trying to keep an eye on their competition. A few artistic types, dressed like Alex, stayed together and mocked their better-dressed counterparts for mocking them. She could pass for one of them as long as she stayed in the periphery of the conversations. All she needed was five or ten minutes to find a bathroom to rinse off her wounds, and then she could figure out how to move on to a new location.
A quick stop in a small bathroom provided her with a few moments of privacy. Cleaning the bloody hand with soap, she dried it off with a very nice towel she hid in the back of the cabinet so no one would notice the bloodstains on it until after she’d departed. Hiding the towel was preferable to stealing it. She pulled out another somewhat clean sock to wrap her hand. Perhaps no one would notice if she kept the hand in her pocket as she walked around. After she finished, she tried to wash off the heavy black eyeliner and black lipstick she’d used to hide her features. The makeup smeared, but didn’t disappear. She almost took the safety pin out of her ear, but it wouldn’t draw any more attention than cotton-candy hair, so she left it.
When she returned to the crowded foyer, Alex noted the beautiful oak paneling in the hallway, carved by a master almost one hundred and fifty years ago. The three oil portraits by George Frederic Watts, two of distinguished men and one of a lady, also caught her attention. Art soothed her mind, but now wasn’t the time to appreciate Watts’s brilliance using color to capture detail.
“Professor Chilton, I’d like to introduce my flatmate Jenny.” The formal introduction pulled her from her thoughts.
A boy, no older than nineteen, was introducing his date.
The professor, a faint smile on his face, shook the girl’s hand and welcomed her to his home. He didn’t look like any professors she’d ever met. He seemed too young and handsome, and his expression carried more confidence than anyone she’d met since Luc, but in a different way. The man wore a brown tweed jacket and beige pants as the idealized English professor should, but his coloring indicated he spent a lot of time outside. Rugged, yet preppy and safe.
She remained standing in the hall staring at him, mesmerized by green eyes, framed by dark-rimmed glasses, and his brown and gold hair that had enough length to curve, but not curl. In the past, she would have fantasized about a man like that. Now she preferred to be left alone.
The girl, wearing a short red dress and high heels, gazed up at the professor, leaving her hand lingering in his a moment longer than necessary with her boyfriend standing at her side. Alex watched as the girl shifted her hips, plumped her lips, and batted her eyelashes. The professor didn’t seem to notice, he turned his attention to the boy, and Alex turned her attention to finding food. She wasn’t sure when she might get to eat again.
She roamed toward the study, admiring the exquisite art and furniture around her.
When she turned the corner into the room, her breath hitched at the reader’s paradise. Huge windows overlooked the lawn, two leather recliners faced a large fireplace, and on the wall between two oak bookcases full of novels, journals, and knowledge hung a seascape by Gustave Courbet from the 1860s.
“Are you lost?” The voice spoke with a condescending British accent.
Alex turned toward one of the junior aristocrats, wearing a striped bow tie in the blue and white colors of Harrow.
She slipped her bandaged hand behind her. “Looking for the bar.”
Her heart raced, but she wore her most confident grin as she steered herself toward the bar. She ordered a Coke and picked up a few nuts from a cream-colored Wedgwood bowl. When she turned to leave the room, the boy followed.
“Why don’t you join us?” He and three other guys in suits surrounded her before she could leave.
They all glanced at one another with big smirks.
“American? I don’t recall seeing you in our class. I’d have remembered you.” He brushed his hand through her pink hair, resting it against the bare skin of her neck.
The caress reminded her of the last man who thought touching her was his right. The memory sent chills through her veins.
“Who did you come here with?” another asked.
By the look on their faces, they knew she was an outsider, a party crasher.
They were blocking the exit, so she backed up toward the bookcases. Her legs barely held her up, and her heart raced into her throat, preventing her from speaking.
A trespassing charge against her would be disastrous. She’d end up in Luc’s custody before being processed.
“I bet you’re quite nice-looking under that makeup,” someone to the side of her said.
“Gentlemen.” The professor’s voice boomed across the room, genteel, yet firm. “I think the lady prefers to dine with people closer to her own class and caliber, so I must request that you boys head to dinner without her. We will discuss your behavior after the recess.”
Her tormentors’ faces fell from smirk to grimace, and they backed away. The easygoing manner she’d seen on him earlier had faded a bit, revealing a side of him intent on lifting each of the boys up by his neck and throwing him out the door.
“Sorry, Professor, we thought your guest would want to meet everybody,” one of the instigators called out.
“I’m sure the lady appreciates your hospitality. Now if you’ll excuse us.” The professor stood a few inches taller than them, and his solid physique made it clear that he could best each and every one of the little snots in a fight. Not that he would, especially over a trespasser.
Her mouth dropped open to say something as her body began to sink to the ground. The professor stepped forward and clasped her elbow. The knot that had twisted her insides all afternoon subsided a bit, and she was tempted to lean into his arms and absorb some of his strength. He never spoke, but his possession of her caused the boys to back away.
Without a word or apology to Alex, the boys strolled out of the room, leaving her standing in the corner with her empty glass, her heart pounding, and a champion.
The professor released her. His eyes softened. “Care to join me for dinner?”
How could she find trouble so quickly after leaving the pub? He’d throw her out when he realized she didn’t have an invite.
“In a minute.” Holding back tears of frustration and hiding her injury, she plastered on her brave face and smiled.
“Take your time.” He gave her a slight bow before he departed, like an actual English lord and not a schoolboy who
pretends to be a gentleman and then harasses women when he thinks he can get away with it.
Alex returned to the bar on trembling legs and asked for another soda. She’d make it through the night. She had to.
Henry pushed aside a pile of ungraded exams and three articles to be reviewed for the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford to make room for his glass of scotch. The newest professor in the department, he’d been suckered into three introductory courses and two seminars for the current year. Most of the other professors were nearing retirement age, not thirty years old with a brand-new PhD. They’d earned their lighter workloads. Or so they claimed. Tonight, he didn’t want to think of the work burying him. He wanted a good book and his pillow.
At least the dinner with his students had been a success. Except for the pack of wolves circling the lady in his study. She may have dressed like a troublemaker, but her eyes had told a different story. She’d worn an expression seen in people who had nothing left to lose. A desperation born of hard times and bad choices. A look he’d observed in many of the people he’d helped over the years, yet something about this petite woman with pink hair tugged a bit differently at him. Maybe his thoughts stayed with her because she’d disappeared before dinner. Was she okay? Did she need help and hadn’t been able to ask? He couldn’t save everyone, regrettably. With luck, she’d made it home without any problems.
The clock chimed once, signaling Henry’s bedtime. He finished his drink and rose. Straightening his favorite beige cardigan and securing his glasses on his nose, he ambled down the hallway and paused outside his bedroom. Something wasn’t right. Perhaps it was the light from his bedside lamp, beaming through the open door. He always turned the lights out and preferred his bedroom door closed. More likely, however, it was the human-size lump in his bed.
He eased into the room in silence thanks to his bare feet, until the old wooden floor creaked.
The girl from the party, still sporting a worn leather jacket and black combat boots, jumped up, poised for a fight. Her hands clenched into fists, and she positioned her legs into a martial arts stance, one foot forward, the other slightly back.
She mumbled something in French about bathroom windows and bloody socks. The warrior image faded as her body swayed backward. Her face turned white where it wasn’t painted black, and her eyes opened wide and flashed him a vivid blue-green glare. Scanning the room for another exit, she crossed to the opposite door, but it only opened to his bath.
He needed to settle her down. “Easy does it, Sunshine. You’re liable to break something.”
Ignoring him, she opened a window, but she was too high up for an easy escape. Why was she panicking? He wasn’t going to harm her.
Henry remained in front of the doorway. “You’re safe here. Please calm yourself.”
He leaned against the doorjamb to assure her he meant no harm. Why would this young woman remain in his house after the party? She swayed and then leaned on the wall. Her eyes seemed disoriented. Did she even know where she was?
She’d been unable to stand straight when he’d spoken to her earlier in the evening as well. Perhaps she was drunk.
It happened with free bars.
When he stepped toward her to help, she wobbled to a table containing a seventeenth-century Rouen vase, acquired by his grandfather. She paused, and Henry’s heart paused as well. Her hand reached over it and grabbed a tacky Venetian glass statue his cousin had sent him from Italy. The statue flew through the air toward his head. He ducked, and it smashed on the wall. Pieces scattered across the floor and his oldest Aubusson rug.
This was ridiculous. She’d end up smashing his room to bits.
“Her aim is almost as good as yours.” Simon approached from behind.
“Not quite. I never miss.” Henry kept his focus on the girl in case she decided to break something valuable.
“Your skills are rusty.” His half brother loved to mock Henry’s transition from Royal Navy sniper to boring academic. “Need backup?”
Henry shook his head. “Miss, please stop. You’ve already caused quite enough damage. I’ll have to call the police.”
That would be unpleasant. Young female university student in a professor’s house after hours. He’d be retiring before he had truly begun his new career.
She squeezed her eyes closed for a second and bit her lip. Henry remembered the torment she’d endured from a few of his students in the study. Poor kid. He lifted his hands in a show of forgiveness.
She hesitated, then took a step back and glanced at her hand, wrapped in a bloodstained cloth, before tucking it behind her.
“I’m sorry, please don’t call the police,” she said with a soft American accent.
A grungy brown backpack sat on the bed. The girl picked it up and retreated into a corner. Her eyes darted side to side and landed on Henry and the open door. She staggered into a lamp, but saved it before it fell over.
Henry stepped toward her and onto several jagged pieces of his cousin’s gift. Shards of glass dug into his heel.
“Bugger.” He’d be ripped to shreds by the time he made it to her. “We need to get her out of my bedroom and into a safe location.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Simon stepped through the glass in his shoes and pointed toward the corner.
Their feisty visitor had collapsed.