MARKED BY PASSION

 

markedbypassion“Gabrielle Sansouci Chin?”

I froze. In the twelve years I’d been bartending at The Pour House, no one had ever called me anything but Gabe, much less pronounced Sansouci correctly—sahn-soo-si—with a French accent to boot. But what startled me most was the use of Chin, the last name I’d dropped fifteen years ago.

Eyes narrowed, I stopped stocking the refrigerator behind the bar and turned around. A tall hulk of a man stood on the other side of the counter with a package in his hand.

It had to be the contract—I wasn’t expecting any other deliveries. My stomach lurched as I stared at the thin box. Probably nerves.

I looked at the guy again. He was more well-groomed than your typical deliveryman. Custom suit and manicured nails. More like Lloyd’s of London than FedEx. Weird for a courier. Gallery 415 must employ a higher quality service than most.

His brow furrowed. “Are you Gabrielle Sansouci Chin?”

“Yeah, I’m Gabrielle.” How did the gallery know my real last name? I only went by Sansouci, my mother’s maiden name. Whatever. As long as they sold my paintings, they could call me whatever they liked—even Chin.  { scroll down for sneak peek! }

 

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SNEAK PEEK
MARKED BY PASSION • CHAPTER ONE

“Gabrielle Sansouci Chin?”

I froze. In the twelve years I’d been bartending at The Pour House, no one had ever called me anything but Gabe, much less pronounced Sansouci correctly—sahn-soo-si—with a French accent to boot. But what startled me most was the use of Chin, the last name I’d dropped fifteen years ago.

Eyes narrowed, I stopped stocking the refrigerator behind the bar and turned around. A tall hulk of a man stood on the other side of the counter with a package in his hand.

It had to be the contract—I wasn’t expecting any other deliveries. My stomach lurched as I stared at the thin box. Probably nerves.

I looked at the guy again. He was more well-groomed than your typical deliveryman. Custom suit and manicured nails. More like Lloyd’s of London than FedEx. Weird for a courier. Gallery 415 must employ a higher quality service than most.

His brow furrowed. “Are you Gabrielle Sansouci Chin?”

“Yeah, I’m Gabrielle.” How did the gallery know my real last name? I only went by Sansouci, my mother’s maiden name. Whatever. As long as they sold my paintings, they could call me whatever they liked—even Chin.

He nodded. “Sign here please.”

“No ‘I’ve got a big package for you’ or anything?” He gazed at me flatly. I couldn’t resist a glance at his crotch. “You don’t think your package is that big?”

His eyebrows arched but he remained impressively silent.

Some people just didn’t appreciate humor. I waved my hand. “Give it to me.”

He held out his clipboard and I scrawled my name on the line he indicated. As I reached for the slim box, he pulled it back. “Sign here too.”

I shrugged and did as he commanded. The gallery really took pains with security. Nice—it made me feel like I was in good hands.

“And initial here. And here.”

“A little overkill for just a contract, don’t you think?” I glanced up at him as I scribbled GS but he just stared back implacably. He waited until the last flourish of the pen before handing over the box.

A shiver ran up my spine the moment I touched the box—so strong I almost dropped it.

He chuckled mockingly. “Good luck,” he said, then he strode out the front door.

Weird. I hadn’t been so nervous about this showing before. Not that I didn’t have cause for the nerves—it wasn’t often the premier art gallery on the West Coast offered a one-woman show to a virtually unknown artist. Only the artist that had been booked fell through and Chloe Evans, the gallery’s director, had been desperate to fill the empty spot on her calendar. She’d seen some of my older work, but it was the first two paintings in my Enter the Light series that convinced her to take the risk.

Now I just had to produce the last three paintings in the series, and I had seven weeks to do it. I suppose there was a possibility of failing, like if the paintings sucked or I choked.

A very distant possibility. No way was I going to fuck this up. This is what I’d been working toward for the past fifteen years. This was how I was going to make my mark on the world.

Yeah, confidence wasn’t an issue for me—not once I set my mind to something. Which made the sudden flare-up of nerves all the more strange. I frowned at the box.

The broadsword-shaped mark on the inside of my right hipbone prickled.

“Hey Gabe,” Jerry called from the end of the bar. “Who was the stiff?”

I held up the box. “Courier.”

“Is that what I think it is?” Milo, who sat a couple seats away from Jerry, asked.

My grin was wide and triumphant. “Hell yeah, it’s my contract.”

They cheered, clapping and whistling shrilly. My heart warmed. I’d known them from the beginning of my stint here. They’d seen me struggle to make it as an artist—they knew what this show meant to me.

I didn’t want to think what it said about me that the closest I came to family were two construction workers who frequented the bar I worked in. Or that my biological family wouldn’t have been half as proud of me. Except for Mom, but she was dead.

I blinked away the uncharacteristic moisture that gathered in my eyes as I thought of her. Fifteen years didn’t make me miss her any less. It didn’t erase any of the guilt over her death either.

The front door swung open, and a shaft of light broke the bar’s afternoon dimness and my dark thoughts. Clearing the emotion from my throat, I turned to greet the newcomer. But then I saw him, and the casual hello I’d been about to say stalled on my tongue.

He walked in tall and broad, his medium-length brown hair fluttering from the wind outside. He moved like a warrior bent on conquering—I half expected to see him clutching a sword. His focused stare made my breath catch in my chest. His vivid eyes were the same blue as my favorite glass sculpture at the DeYoung Museum—bright and clear but with amazing depth.

The first thing that struck me was this feeling of connection—like I knew him. Absolutely ridiculous—I’d never seen him before in my life. Trust me, I would have remembered.

My second realization: he wasn’t what he appeared to be. He wore a fabulous suit. A businessman? No way. Businessmen didn’t ooze danger, and he wore power as casually as the custom-made clothes.

And all that power was headed straight for me.

For some reason, the damned birthmark on my hip tingled again. Rubbing it absently, I met him down the bar, away from Jerry and Milo. For privacy.

Being private with him would be fun. A lot of fun. I would have liked to indulge, but with all the work I had to do it’d be foolish to get distracted by a man.

Too bad, though.

“Get you something to drink?” I asked.

He studied me for a long, silent moment before he said, “A finger of Scotch, please.”

Oh God—he had a British accent too. Like James Bond, the ultimate bad boy, come to life.

Did I mention my weakness for bad boys? The flutter of interest I had before flared into all out lust. I tried not to imagine him rolling around in silky sheets, whispering naughty words to me in that delicious voice of his. Unfortunately, being an artist my imagination is pretty active.

Focus, Gabe. I resisted the urge to ask him if he had any impressive toys he’d like to share with me and got out a bottle of fifteen year Laphroaig—the best Scotch we stocked.

I poured some into a crystal tumbler Johnny, my boss, kept for himself, covertly studying him under my lashes. He had a scar I hadn’t noticed on first inspection—a thin, raised line that bisected the left corner of his mouth. How did a businessman get a scar like that? Trip and fall against his desk?

Intriguing.

As I handed him the drink, our fingers brushed and a wave of heat rolled through me, languid and steamy and seductive. Like it was feeling me out. Or feeling me up. I gasped and jerked my hand away.

His gaze sharpened, its intensity searing. I expected him to say something, some comment about the weirdness that just occurred. He just dropped a bill on the counter and walked away to a table in a dark corner.

I watched him settle in the shadows. I couldn’t see more than his outline, but I knew without a doubt he still watched me.

Bizarre. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I was subconsciously stressed because of the gallery show and was looking for an outlet. Had to be it.

“Hey Gabe.” Jerry held out his pint glass. “Before you go all hoity-toity on us, can you get me a refill?”

“Sure thing.” I nodded at Milo’s glass. “Another pale ale? On the house. We’re celebrating.” Milo knocked back what was left of his beer and pushed his glass toward me. I drew their beers and poured a Coke for myself. “For the record, I’m not going hoity-toity. I still plan on working here.” It wasn’t like this one show was going to make me set for life. But it was the solid start I needed.

“So what does this contract entail? And have you had a lawyer look at it?” Milo’s face took on an angelically calculated look. “Because my nephew Murphy is a lawyer.”

Jerry whacked his arm. “She knows that, moron.”

“I’m just saying I could get Murphy to look at it. We don’t want Gabe to get cheated.” He shrugged a little too nonchalantly. “And if when they meet and they like each other…”

Smiling, I shook my head. He’d been trying to set me up with Murphy for years. I might have been tempted if he weren’t a lawyer. I wrinkled my nose. Stuffy guys weren’t my thing.

I grooved on guys like Jesse. Everything about Jesse screamed naughty, from his Colin Farrell looks to his job as a mechanic. Not that being a mechanic made you a bad boy, but I’d stopped by his shop once and accidentally overheard enough to know some of the cars they were “fixing” were “relieved” from their original owners.

Of course, Jesse and I didn’t date anymore. We used to get together for no-strings sex, but then things changed. He’d started to hint that he wanted more. I hadn’t been sure I had more to give him, so I broke up with him.

I glanced at the table by the door. In appearance, the British guy was the complete opposite of Jesse. Why did I feel like he’d be so much more exciting?

“You know—” Jerry leaned across the counter “—there’s a new guy at work who I think you’d like.”

Returning my attention to the conversation at hand, I tipped my head and asked, “What’s he look like?”

Frowning, he scratched his head. “He’s tall. I think.”

“Are you talking about the Meyer kid? Hampton?” Milo snorted. “He’s no taller than me.”

“That’s what I meant. He’s tall.”

“I’m only tall compared to you. He’s not tall enough for Gabe. What if she wants to wear high heels?” Milo shook his head. “She’d tower over him.”

I thought of pointing out that five nine was hardly Amazonian proportions, but I decided to stay out of this one. They’d get distracted soon enough.

“That’s why Murphy is perfect for her. He’s six feet. Almost.”

Height didn’t matter as much as, um, size, but I didn’t tell the guys this. I didn’t put it past Milo to make Murphy whip it out for a quick measurement—he was that intent on hooking me up with his nephew.

“I told Murphy about you.” Milo winked at me. “He thinks you sound beautiful. I told him the real deal was even better.”

“She’s not only beautiful, she’s exotic. Like those Eurasian models on your calendar, only her blue eyes aren’t fake.” Jerry turned to me. “You didn’t tell us the terms of your deal. When’s the show?”

“In a couple months. I still have some canvases to finish for it.”

“We’re so proud of you, honey,” Milo said. “You’re going to knock ’em dead.”

“She’s going to be the next Matisse,” Jerry declared proudly.

Maybe not quite Matisse. But one of the greats of this century—I felt it in my soul.

Wu, my father, once told me I’d never make it as an artist. I smiled in grim satisfaction at the box. I almost wished I were still speaking to him so I could rub this deal in his face. He’d never believed I was good enough at anything. Not a good enough artist. Not a good enough daughter. And certainly not a good enough Guardian.

A lump formed in my throat when I remembered his harsh words the last time I’d seen him, at Mom’s funeral. That even my brother Paul would have made a better Guardian, and maybe he should have been marked instead of me.

Yeah, well, that would have been okay with me. Because maybe then Mom would still be alive. My nose tingled with the onslaught of tears, and I ruthlessly suppressed them. Mom would want me to celebrate my win today. She wanted it for me as much as I did—maybe more. So I raised my glass. “To me. And to the two best guys in the City.”

As we toasted, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned in time to see the mysterious Brit slip out of The Pour House. Disappointment made me frown. Which was silly—what did I have to be disappointed about? That he didn’t ask me out? Like I had time to date with the paintings to finish for the show.

“Hey Gabe.” Milo’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “You know the paintings you gave us a couple years ago?”

“Yeah.” They were bar scenes with dark shadowy figures and red swirly depths. I’d still been struggling to define my style at that time, but they’d been my breakthrough paintings. Only someone who knew them would recognize the two figures at the end of the bar in each painting as Milo and Jerry. It was in the way they slouched over the counter.

“You think it’ll be worth some serious cash in a couple years?” He blushed. “Not that I’d sell it.” I grinned. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Jerry perked up. “You mean like we could auction them off and then buy a Greek island or something? I always wanted a Greek island.”

Milo smacked his arm, but I just laughed. “If the paintings become that valuable, hell, sell them and I’ll paint you new ones. But I get to visit your island.”

“Deal.” He stuck his hand out and we shook. I counted my blessings that he didn’t spit first. My cell phone rang, so I excused myself and answered it. Johnny didn’t care if we took personal calls during non-peak hours. Not that he was around much to care. The past year he’d been traveling more and more with his young stud of a partner, Steve.

I looked at the screen. It was Madame La Rochelle, my surrogate everything. Fate had smiled on me the day I went to the Shakespeare Garden at Golden Gate Park and sat next to her on one of the benches. Aside from offering me friendship and being a replacement for the mother figure I’d lost, she became my mentor.

This one-woman show was all due to her. Well, her and my talent, but my talent wouldn’t have been noticed without her connections. Madame La Rochelle was known as the master maker. She’d brought dozens of great artists into the public’s eye. Including Yves Klein, who was famous for having women roll around in paint and throw themselves at canvases.

I flipped open my phone and said in the French my mom had taught me, “Bonjour Madame.”

Gabrielle, j’ai parlé à la directrice de la galerie,” she said without preamble. She was like that—to the point. She always said that she was too old to tiptoe around things. I wasn’t sure what too old was in actuality, but I figured it had to be close to eighty. “Elle va t’envoyer le contracte.”

“I know. I have the contract here.” Too excited to maintain French, I picked up the box and waved it as if she could see. “I just got it like half an hour ago.”

“What do you mean, you got it this afternoon?” Madame said in her heavily accented English. “La directrice said she was sending it demain.”

Tomorrow? I frowned at the package. “Are you sure?”

Mais oui, Gabrielle. You think I lie?”

“No, Madame, of course not,” I said quickly. To incur her wrath was to take your life into your hands. I’d heard she’d once made Picasso crawl on his hands and knees to apologize for forgetting a rendezvous with her.

Alors, le contracte will arrive tomorrow. Bring it and I will have my lawyer look at it, d’accord?”

Oui, Madame.” I stared at the box on the counter.

Je te verra demain à deux heures. Ne sois pas en retard. A tout à l’heure, mon chou.”

“Tomorrow at two. Got it. A demain, Madame.” I hung up and picked up the package. My stomach roiled with that nervous feeling I’d had earlier. If this wasn’t the contract, what was it?

“One way to find out,” I muttered. I ripped off the easy-open tab and up-ended the package. The contents of the box tumbled out onto the counter as if in slow motion.

A scroll.

My heart stopped, and my breath caught in my chest. It couldn’t be. Forcing myself to breathe, I closed my eyes for a long moment and then reopened them, fully expecting to see something different before me. But it was still there: one tattered, ancient scroll tied with a strap of leather. Wu’s obsession and the bane of my existence. The reason my mom died.

And then it hit me—there was only one reason the scroll would be delivered to me.

It meant my father was dead too.

 

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