Soft, jazzy Christmas music flowing from the gallery’s sound system provided companion noise for Mariabella as she got back to work. She settled onto a chair behind the counter, content to be alone, surrounded by the art she loved. All her life, she’d craved this kind of shop, this exact kind of cozy gallery. There were many days when she couldn’t believe she actually owned this place, and had seen this dream come true. It made up for all those arguments with her father, all the tears she’d shed.
She paused a moment and cast a glance out the bay window behind her, drawing in the view of the ocean that lay down the dock from the gallery. Through the window, the sun-drenched day could have passed for summer, if the calendar didn’t read a few days before Christmas. No snow lay on the ground yet, though the temperature outside was all winter. The ocean curled gently in and out, while seagulls dipped down to the beach for a late morning meal. Bright sunshine cast sparkles of light over the water. How different Harborside was from where Mariabella had grown up, yet how similar, too. She’d lived on the coast then too, but that coast had been full of rocky cliffs, houses nestled among the stone paths and lush landscape. Here, the land was less hilly, more populated, and didn’t have hundreds of years of history carved into the side of every building. But Harborside offered something else Mariabella couldn’t have in her old home. Something precious.
A sense of peace draped over Mariabella like a cozy blanket. She loved this town, loved the haven she had found here. She thought of the letter in her purse, and wondered what answer she could possibly give. How she could ever explain she had found something in Harborside that she could never imagine leaving.
But soon, duty demanded her return. As always.
The bell over the door jingled and Mariabella jerked to attention. The man she and Carmen had seen earlier stood in the doorway, his tall figure cutting an imposing stance.
“May I help you?” Mariabella said, moving away from the front desk.
“Just looking, thank you.” He stepped inside, giving Mariabella a better view of him.
Dark hair, dark eyes. What appeared to be an athletic build beneath the navy pinstriped suit, clearly tailored to fit his frame. She recognized his shoes as Ferragamo, his briefcase as fine leather. No ordinary tourist, that was clear. Most people who came to Harborside wore jeans in winter or shorts in the summer—dressed to relax and make the most of the boating, swimming and fishing the coastal town had to offer.
This man looked ready to steer a corporation, not a catamaran.
He stood about six feet tall, maybe six-two, and when he moved about the open space of the gallery, he had the stride of a man who knew his place in the world.
A zing of attraction ran through Mariabella. No wonder Carmen had called him eye candy. He had more to offer than a ten-pound chocolate bar.
“Our main gallery houses the artist in residence,” she said, falling into step a few feet away from him, “who has some mixed media pieces in his collection as well as a number of portraits. In the west room, you will find our sculptures and art deco pieces, and the east room, which overlooks the ocean, features our landscapes, if you’re looking for a picture of Harborside to take home or back to your office.”
“I’m not looking for something for my home. Or office.”
He barely glanced at her as he said the words, but more, he hadn’t looked at a single painting. His gaze went, not to the landscapes, portraits and fresco panels, but to the—
Walls. The ceiling. The floors.
Then to her.
A chill chased up her spine.
Had they found her? Was her time here over? No, no, it couldn’t be. She had two more months. That was the agreement.
It was too soon, she wasn’t ready to leave. She loved her home, loved her gallery, and she didn’t want to go back. Not yet.
Mariabella hung back, watching the stranger. He paused to look out the window, the one that provided a view of the entire boardwalk. He took a few steps, as if assessing all of Harborside, then returned to his perusal of the main room of Harborside Art Gallery.
Perhaps he hadn’t come here after her. Perhaps he was only sizing up the gallery. Maybe he owned a place in a nearby town and he’d come here to check out the competition.
Doubt nagged at Mariabella. A whisper of more here, a hidden agenda. But what?
He entered the east room of the gallery, Mariabella’s favorite space because of its location facing the harbor. Most of her sales, at least to outsiders, happened in that room. Tourists often selected a painting that captured a moment from their vacation, an image of a sunset, a burst of a sunrise over the ocean. Mariabella often commissioned works based solely on tourists’ comments, filling the walls with works that held their visions and happy memories of Harborside.
But this man didn’t stop to notice the view of the ocean outside the window facing the Atlantic. He didn’t glance at a single oil or watercolor. He merely strode the perimeter of the room, then exited, and headed into the third room. Again, not a flicker of his gaze toward the exquisite sculptures created by Henry Wills, nor a blink of the eye when he passed the multi-colored art deco pieces created by Angie Farmer.
His silence frayed at the edges of Mariabella’s nerves. She paced the small area behind the front desk in the main gallery, unable to concentrate on the catalog. On anything but why he was here.
She needed to find a way to ask his intentions, without seeming to be asking. When he re-entered the main room, she crossed to him. “May I offer you a cup of coffee? Tea?”
Again, barely a flicker of attention toward her. His mind seemed on something else. She let out a breath of relief as she crossed to the small table holding a carafe of fresh coffee, filled a cup, then loaded a small plate with raspberry thumbprint cookies. She turned—
And found him right behind her.
“Here is…here is your coffee. And these cookies,” Mariabella forced herself to breathe, not to betray the nervousness churning in her gut, “were baked by a local chef.”
His attention perked at that. “Chef? Does he have a restaurant?”
“She, and no, Savannah Dawson is the owner of Make it Memorable, the catering company in town.”
He nodded, taking that in, but otherwise not responding to the information. Damn, he made her nervous. Nor did he accept a cookie. Instead, he merely sipped at the coffee, watching her. “And who are you?”
He didn’t know her name. That meant he wasn’t here for her.
Unless the question had been a ruse. No, she doubted that. He didn’t look like a reporter, and didn’t have the accent that said he’d been sent by her parents.
She’d worried for nothing. He was simply another tourist, albeit, not the most friendly one.
“Mariabella Romano,” she said, putting out her hand, and with it, a smile, “gallery—”
“Thank you. That’s all I needed.” Then he turned and began to walk toward the door. That was it? No return of his name? No explanation why he had come here?
On any other day, she would have let this go. Not everyone who walked through the doors of Harborside Art Gallery walked back out with a piece of art. But this man—
This man had an agenda; she could feel it in her bones. And somewhere on his list, was her gallery.
A surge of fierce protectiveness rose in Mariabella’s chest, overriding decorum and tact. “Who are you?”
He paused at the door, his hand on the brass handle, and turned back to face her. A shadow had dropped over his face, from the awning outside, but more, it seemed, from something inside him that he didn’t want to tell her. “I’m…an investor.”
“Well, sir, if you are thinking you are going to buy this shop, think again.” She took a step closer to him, emphasizing her point. Like a terrier guarding her territory. “The owner loves this place. She will never sell.”
A smile took over his face, but it held no trace of friendliness, not a hint of niceness. “Oh, I don’t want this shop.”
Relief flooded Mariabella. She’d read him wrong, he wanted nothing to do with her precious Harborside Art Gallery. Or her. Thank God. “Good.”
That smile widened, and dread sunk in Mariabella’s gut. And then she knew—she’d gotten it all wrong. She hadn’t read him right at all.
“I want the entire block,” he said. “By the end of the week would be convenient.”