Read His Masterpiece Online

Authors: Ava Lore

Tags: #alpha male, #analingus, #submission, #the billionaire's muse, #domination, #strong heroine bdsm, #rimming, #body painting

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BOOK: His Masterpiece
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Malcolm was a serious weirdo. I wished I didn't like him so much. Opening the door as wide as I could, I took stock.

A shower stall. A toilet closet. A bathtub and a linen closet. Nothing to do but start checking behind all the closed doors. I crossed the white tile and opened the linen closet.

And there, sitting on the shelf, was the vase.

That's the thing. It was actually there. At least, I was pretty sure it was the vase, even though there were several key differences in the vase I found and the vase I had expected to find. For one thing, it wasn't broken. For another, it was so dark in the bathroom that I could barely make it out and it didn't quite
look
like the vase that I had broken—a weird, random pattern seemed to be painted onto it—but when I reached into the closet, my heart hammering a mile a minute, cool porcelain met my fingers. Then I lifted it, tipping it toward me, and something inside it made a
clunk
sound.

Swallowing around my suddenly dry tongue, I turned it over. A small dark object slid out and fell to my feet, hitting the tiled floor with the flat slap of plastic.

He
had
left something for me. Somehow. It was like a plot twist out of a movie, which, now that I knew Malcolm, was completely predictable. Replacing the vase on the shelf, I knelt down and retrieved the object that had been hidden in it.

It was a thumb drive.

My heart started to beat faster.

Calm down,
I told myself.
Don't freak out yet.
Anything could be on this drive. Anything at all. It could be the photos of me, it could be old love letters,
anything.
Getting my hopes up would be stupid.

Clutching the drive so tightly in my hand that the sharp plastic edges bit into the bones of my fingers, I sprinted out of the bathroom, wove my way through the maze of the third floor, and pounded up the stairs, hoping Malcolm had left his bedroom intact.

He had. The computer still sat at the far wall, the screen dark but the lights still on. I prayed he hadn't left it password protected as I hurried over to it, uncapping the drive before I reached out and wiggled the mouse. To my immense relief the monitor flared to life, showing his desktop. The picture on it was one of the pictures of me that he had managed to capture—a beautiful still image of my mouth and chin, the curve of my throat, the swell of my shoulder—but I forced myself to ignore it. My fingers shook as I found a USB slot on the tower and shoved the drive in.

I waited, hopping from foot to foot until the computer
dinged,
recognizing the drive, and I clicked on it, opening up the directory.

A password dialog popped up.

I nearly shrieked with frustration, but I took a deep breath and tried to think like a dumb motherfucker.

If I were a dumb motherfucker,
I postulated,
who thought life should be like a movie and this was a great romantic plot twist, what password would I put on the critical information that would keep me out of prison?

I leaned forward and typed in “Sadie.”

The dialog box disappeared and the directory filled out.

Of course.

I began to click around.

With each file opened, I felt my mouth drop wider and wider. It was all here: offshore bank accounts, spreadsheets with discrepancies highlighted, huge documents detailing the history of this or that chunk of money and Don's exact role in making it disappear... Malcolm hadn't been kidding when he'd said he had proof. He not only had proof, but he had built a whole case, as though he were an expert in corporate law. Actually, he probably thought he was, given his self-assessment of all his other talents. But mostly I was just shocked that Felicia's farfetched theory had been right. He'd left the evidence of his innocence for me in the vase, and now I held his future in my hands.

Huh,
I thought. Somehow, I
wasn't
shocked that her thoughts and Malcolm's had lined up so neatly. They both liked life to be like a movie, chasing that Oscar-winning scene. They both had artistic souls.

...Still, the question remained: how had he done it? I'd broken the vase on a Friday night, and we had left on a Monday. There was no way the vase could have been repaired before we departed New York...

Then I remembered. Malcolm on the phone in the cafe in Dubrovnik, speaking in Japanese. The note left in French for the man whose life he had changed, along with a wad of bills as thick as my wrist.

He had
arranged
it. I wasn't quite sure how he'd arranged it, or what the exact arrangements had been, but he'd planned it all out. Before he even knew if he was going to die or not. He'd decided to put the pieces in place
just in case.
Just in case he decided to live and needed to something dramatic as hell to keep my life interesting.

It was such a
Malcolm
thing to do that I had to laugh. He was such a dumb motherfucker, and I loved it.

The realization brought me up short, but then I nodded.

Yeah,
I thought to myself
. That's right. I love it.

Suddenly able to breathe easily, I popped the thumb drive out of the computer and capped it, shut down all the programs, then unceremoniously pulled the plug. I hadn't brought my purse with me, the pockets of my jeans had holes in them, and the pouch of my hoodie was far too unsecured. I wavered with indecision, then with a huff of exasperation I stuffed the drive down my underwear, where it nestled in Malcolm's favorite place. Fitting, in more ways than one, though admittedly not the most sanitary spot. But when you are as flat-chested as I am, hiding things in your cleavage is not an option.

I had to get this to his lawyers.

Head whirling with thoughts of the future, of the possibility that there
might
be a future, one in which he was alive and free, I jogged back to the stairs and took them two at a time down to the third floor. I paused on the landing, then decided that if Malcolm wanted me to have the vase, then I should probably take the vase, too. I slipped into the hallway and started for the master bedroom.

I was so preoccupied that I almost didn't hear the front door opening, but my lizard brain heard it. The part of me that always listened for the bedroom door opening heard it. The part of me that slept with one eye open heard it.

I froze in my tracks.

“Hullo?”

A man's voice with a British accent floated up from the lower floors.

Someone else was in the house.

Old impulses rose up, telling me to run, to flee, but even as my legs twitched with the flight response, my civilized brain was trying to override it, telling me that not everything was dangerous.

Yeah, right.

Swallowing hard, I inched my way across the floor, praying it wouldn't creak under my weight, and leaned over the bannister, trying to hear where the intruder was in the house.

“Hulloo?” the voice called again. “Sadie MacElroy?”

Whoever it was knew my name, knew I was here. They had to have been watching the house. The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. Very cultured, a bit nasally, and definitely at the front of the house, between me and the front door. Was there a back door? Not that I could get to it without being seen, and if there was it probably led into a closed garden...

I took a deep breath and tried to think.

There wasn't any reason I
couldn't
be here. I had a key. I had permission from Malcolm—albeit through his lawyers—to be here. So really, it was the other person who shouldn't be here. Paparazzo? Reporter? They must have been waiting for someone to show their face. Though usually they stayed within the bounds of the law and remained
outside.
So probably not paparazzo. Who, then?

I looked around, but I had no idea where the fire escape was, and even as I frantically tried to remember where it had been situated on the outside of the house the sound of heavy footsteps started up the stairs.

“I only want to talk! Miss MacElroy? Please, it's important. My name is Morris Denton, I work for Mr. Ward...”

I bit my lip and backed up from the stairway. He was going to be here any second now. Why, oh
why
wasn't there a second stairwell? What kind of rich person's house was this? I didn't want to talk to him, but I was stuck.

He came up the stairs.

My first impression was of a man Malcolm's age, but far more staid and conservative. Malcolm dressed beautifully, but there was that irrepressible
something
about him, a humming energy beneath his skin that I now recognized as the creative force. This man looked far more like a successful businessman than Malcolm did. His dark hair was cut in a sober style instead of Malcolm's wild locks, his skin was pale and his eyes were dark and serious behind gold-rimmed glasses. His coat hung well on his lean body, and he seemed surprised to actually find me when his line of sight crested the stairs.

“Oh! Miss MacElroy. There you are...”

I took a step back, even though I knew it was futile. It showed I was weak, too. But instead of pressing his advantage, Mr. Denton suddenly looked contrite.

“I'm so sorry,” he said, and he spread his hands, showing me his palms. A clear, universal gesture that told me he meant no harm, and I forced myself to relax a tiny bit, but the thumb drive in my underwear was a harsh reminder that I had a job to do. An important job. I didn't have time to talk to whoever this man was.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was just leaving.”

“Please!” The word erupted from him and he took a step forward, startling me. The edge in my blood came back. Who was this guy, and why was he here?

I narrowed my eyes. “Yes?”

He subsided a bit. “I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. You are Sadie MacElroy, yes?”

I lifted a brow. “Who wants to know?” Not the most original of lines, but I felt that, given the circumstances, it was a legitimate one.

He seemed to relax. “My apologies. My name is Morris Denton. I'm the Chief Technical Officer of Warden Industries. I've worked with Mr. Ward for a number of years and it's my belief that he is innocent of the fraud and embezzlement charges that have been leveled against him.” His British accent was pleasant and lilting, and I had to fight my natural impulse to agree with him on the assumption that someone with a British accent would naturally know what they were talking about.

“How do you know who I am?” I asked him instead.”

He colored. “Everyone knows who you are. As Mr. Ward's current paramour and alleged kidnapping victim—” He held up a hand as I opened my mouth to protest. “—which it is obvious you were not, you are in a very privileged position and I have been frantic to reach you. You are well protected by your employer at the moment, but I have to admit I asked someone to watch the house and let me know if you showed up... I thought if you did, I might be able to enlist your help.”

Oh, really?
I wasn't quite buying it. This guy had to be an undercover reporter or something. “Help with what?”

“With finding evidence of Mr. Ward's innocence, of course.”

“Why would you think I would know anything about that?”

His brow furrowed. “I've watched Mr. Ward grow increasingly erratic over the past half year. It was clear something was bothering him. Fleeing the country with a young woman is only the culmination of his behavior, and it is not entirely unlikely that he may have taken you into his confidence.”

“I wasn't,” I lied.

His face fell. “But... perhaps, as someone who knew his personal habits, you might have a guess?” I stared at him and he held his hands out, a gesture of vulnerability. “I admire Mr. Ward very much. He has been like a mentor to me. Please, help me?”

My eyes narrowed, but his face remained placid, pleading.

“You say your name is Morris Denton?” I said at last. “And you're the CTO of Malcolm's company?”

He nodded.

“Then I'm going to have to see some photo ID,” I told him, and crossed my arms.

I mean, come on. I'm not fucking
stupid.

A flash of something crossed his face, but almost immediately it was eclipsed by a relieved smile. “Of course,” he said. He opened his fine coat and dug into the inside pocket, taking out his wallet. Opening it, he selected a card and handed it to me. I plucked it from his fingers and studied it.

That was a mistake. The first thing people do when they look at a license is study the face. It's right there.
Is that the right face?
we ask ourselves.

Yes, it was the right face. Dark hair, dark eyes, nondescript, thick brows, glasses. A nice face. The face in front of me. The right face.

My eyes drifted over to the information, and that was when my blood suddenly slowed to a sluggish crawl in my veins.

Right face. But not the right name.

I stared at the license. The name
Donald Cardall
stared back up at me.

I went numb. My instincts that this man was not who he said he was had been right, but in the wrong direction. But of course it was Don. Of course it was. It wouldn't be just like a movie if it weren't.

A click brought me back to reality and I looked up.

Might have to reevaluate the 'not stupid' part,
I thought, staring at the gun Don Cardall now held casually aimed at my heart.

Chapter Sixteen

So there I was on the third floor of Malcolm Ward's house, totally defenseless with a gun trained on me by Malcolm's once bosom brother turned mortal enemy, Don Cardall, which, now that I thought about it, was totally a Mafia name.

Holy shit,
I thought.
Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.
I have to admit, I was really surprised. This guy was going to kill me. You don't just pull a gun on someone and expect them to stay quiet about it. And Jesus. I hadn't expected a fucking
gun
. I hadn't expected to get fucking
murdered.

I mean, now that I was face to face with him and saw the tiny flame of desperation in his eyes, it made total sense to me. This was a guy who had everything to lose if I somehow managed to spill the beans. I suppose I should have been thankful that he came along to do the job himself—whack me good, just to make sure I didn't talk, see?—but it was kind of hard to feel anything positive when you're about to die.

I had to distract him somehow. Keep him from killing me long enough to formulate a plan. I'd taken self defense classes. They were all useless in this situation, of course, but I knew how to kick at least.

Reaching out he plucked his license from my hand and put it back in his pocket, all the while watching me with a wary air, clearly waiting for me to react. I was still stuck in my deer-in-the-headlights mode.
Distract,
I told myself.
Distract!

So I did what I do best. I told him he was an idiot.

I mean, say what you like about me, but I'm really good at that.

“Why didn't you just send goons to kill me?” I snapped at him, proud that my voice didn't shake. “What kind of shrewd business dude are you if you don't know how to delegate?”

Right away I knew that was a mistake. His lips tightened and his eyes narrowed. “Who would I trust?” he demanded, and now his voice was completely familiar to me, the voice I'd heard over the phone, without any accent at all. “There is no one to trust. This is something I have to do myself, to be absolutely sure it's handled. Now, tell me where Malcolm has hidden the files.”

I struggled to maintain nonchalance. “Beats me.” I shrugged. “They could be anywhere.”

His eyes gleamed. “So there
are
files.”

Shit.
All right. I had a problem with keeping my mouth shut. Maybe I
was
fucking stupid.

“Where are all of Malcolm's things? What has he done to this house? Why is it empty?” The barrel of the gun wavered slightly as he peered around, clearly unhappy with the stripped interior.

I needed to get him out of the house. Somewhere in public. “He had it all moved to a warehouse,” I said. “He told me he was giving it all away.”

Don looked surprised at that. “Give it away? Why?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Beats me,” I said.

“Rest assured, I will if you do not cooperate.”

Threats. This fucking guy was a real shithead. First he called me a gold digger and yelled at me on an international phone call, and now he was threatening to beat me, in addition to probably killing me.

Maybe I could use the fact that he was a shithead against him, though. He was smart, shrewd, ruthless—I knew all that from Malcolm's descriptions and my own interactions with him, but contrary to what most people think, being a shithead is a pretty big weakness, and it's the best weakness to exploit because shitheads never think of it as a weakness.

I fought to keep my chin from lifting defiantly and instead tried to look scared. It wasn't hard. I
was
scared. But I wasn't going to go down without a fight. Malcolm said he admired that in me. I wouldn't let him down.

Don looked mollified. “Very well. Do you know where the warehouse is?”

Sullenly I shook my head and he sighed, as though he dealt with idiots like me every day and it was beginning to wear on his great soul. Reaching into his pants pocket he pulled out a phone and turned it on. He must have dialed this number frequently because he only had to hit a single spot on the screen before bringing it to his ear and listening for the voice at the other end.

“Rick?” he said after a moment. “Yes. I need to know where all of Malcolm's personal effects are located. Yes, he moved them. Find out.”

We stared at each other for a long moment while the man at the other end of the line did whatever it was he needed to do to find Malcolm's secret stash of worthless shit. I tried not to think about the fact that one of Malcolm's lawyers was named Rick. The implications were dreadful.

On the other end of the line Rick came back and Don nodded. “Yes, thank you.” He hit the end button, stuffed the phone back in his pocket, then tilted his head and regarded me. “Let's go,” he said.

I balked. “What?” I said. “Why do I have to go? I don't know anything!” Feigning ignorance of course. I knew lots, but I hoped that if I acted like he might let me go his opinion of my intelligence would sink even lower, if that were possible.

My ruse worked. Contempt passed over his face and I saw that he had to fight rolling his eyes.

What a shithead.

“You are coming with me because I don't believe you. You must have come here looking for the evidence.” His eyes narrowed. “Turn out your pockets.”

I glared at him as I did so, my heart in my mouth. If he strip-searched me it was all over...

He watched, eyes bright, as I turned the pockets of my jeans out, showing him the holes in them. Then he walked toward me, his fine shoes loud on the wooden floor, and stuck his free hand into the pouch of my sweatshirt. His fingers were large, ungentle, and my stomach turned at the feel of them groping me through the thick fabric. He found my phone, took it and then, without warning, he lifted the hem of my sweatshirt and slipped his hand underneath.

I couldn't help myself. I squeaked and tried to squirm away. “What the
fuck,
man?” I demanded. No one touches me without my consent. No one. “Hands off, pervert!”

He seemed startled by my outburst. His gun hand was so close to me I thought I might be able to knock it out of his grip, but if I missed...

He took a step back, and the moment was lost.
Fuck.

“Show me your chest,” he said, cool and collected again.

“No,”
I told him.

He lifted the gun.

Panic rose. “You shoot me and you'll never find the evidence,” I blurted, then cursed myself.

“Oh?” he said. “I thought you didn't know where it was?”

I ground my teeth. “I might have an inkling.”

“Here?” he said.

I shook my head.

“The warehouse, then.”

I didn't respond at all.

He gave another exasperated sigh, then shoved his gun into his coat pocket, keeping it trained on me, and grabbed my arm.

Old feelings rose up inside me. Fear. Despair. Desperation.
The sting of the blade...

“Don't be too afraid,” he said to me, patronizingly. “If you lead me to the evidence, I will pay you handsomely.”

He really did think I was an idiot. Fine. I could play that role. “How... how much?”

He smiled. “A million dollars?” he said. He pulled me roughly toward the stairs and pushed me down the first riser. I felt the presence of the gun trained on my back. “Let's go,” he snapped when I didn't move.

I licked my lips. There was no way I could run fast enough to outrace a bullet. I clomped down the stairs, stomping on the steps as if the existence of trees personally offended me and I wanted to dance on their graves. “Twenty million dollars,” I said when I reached the bottom.

“You think you can bargain?” Don asked me as we turned on the second floor and started down to the first. “You think you are in a position to bargain?”

“I think you won't miss twenty million dollars,” I said.

“Perhaps not. But you would miss your head. Think of it that way. A million dollars... or your head.”

We reached the bottom of the stairs and I gave him my best glower. He just laughed at me, then took a step forward. He was tall, like Malcolm, and his presence far more oppressive. Dark eyes glared down at me from behind the lenses of his fine glasses. He could have been a college professor, or someone's father if it weren't for the air of menace he carried.

Well, maybe he could have been
someone's
father...

I shoved the thought away, but it was already there, worming into my subconscious. He was going to hurt me, just like my father used to do, and it made me afraid. He saw it in me, too, and a humorless smile grazed over his lips.

“Perhaps,” he mused, “if you show me what Malcolm thought was so wonderful about you, I'll double that sum.” And he reached out and ran a finger over my cheek.

Everything in me rebelled. He repulsed me. But I couldn't let him see that. Instead I let my mouth drop open, shocked. “Are you... are you saying you'd pay me a million dollars to wrap you up in a tarp and beat you with a rubber chicken?” I asked.

The finger on my cheek paused. “What?” he said, then he realized I was making fun of him, and his dark brows drew down. “Don't mock me,” he told me, his voice low and dangerous. He stepped back again and opened the front door. “Let's go.”

The lump in his coat pocket was still aimed at me. I had no choice.

I went.

––––––––

The warehouse where Malcolm had hidden all his things was north, in the Bronx.

I had quietly entered the private car Don had brought with him, but the privacy screen was up between the back seat and the front, so I couldn't even see the driver. So much for silently pleading for his help with my eyes in the rear view mirror. Don sat next to me in the back seat, the gun trained on me, and I tried to plaster myself to the door, keeping as much distance between us as possible.

Now the silence between us was tense as we headed north. I watched the residential streets change and morph from the grand houses of Malcolm's neighborhood into more staid apartments. We crossed the river into the Bronx and I gritted my teeth. The further we drove, the less chance I had to survive. I'd told the driver I'd be back in an hour. I'd burned only thirty minutes of that. By the time he realized something was wrong, I'd be dead.

Industrial buildings began to creep into the landscape. Graffiti and run-down projects became the background floating past the window. My only consolation was that the sleek black car we were in was going to stick out like a sore thumb. Someone would definitely notice it. Not that that was going to do me much good... but maybe it would make Don nervous.

We finally found the warehouse. It was a small, squat building painted yellow and covered in tags. It had its own industrial charm, but I was shocked all of Malcolm's stuff could fit into it. His house was huge. Then again, I wouldn't have put it past Malcolm to pick it precisely because of its certain gritty artistry. Rich people love that shit.

I wondered if I'd have a chance to make a break for it when we got out of the car, but my door was locked from the inside, and I had to slide across the seat after Don to get out. He never let the gun waver from my body, though he kept it concealed in his coat at all times.

“Walk,” he commanded me.

I bit my lip, shoving my hands in my hoodie, and walked. I didn't see very many other people, and they were all minding their own business. If I screamed for help, would he shoot me? It didn't seem likely, but then again he was a rich white man and I was... well, I was me. I was white, but not rich, and I was dressed in my poor clothes. If he shot me, there'd probably be reasonable doubt. Someone would think I looked just suspicious enough, that the light was gray enough, that I'd been just threatening enough to let him off the hook. It dawned on me that if he shot me in the warehouse, he would claim he found me here, stealing Malcolm's shit.

People would believe it, too.

If it had been possible, I would have hated Don Cardall even more with that realization.

He nudged me up to the garage entry. There was a keypad next to it and he gestured toward it.

“You put in the code,” he said.

Getting my fingerprints on it,
I thought. I input the numbers he rattled off, and the deep click of the door unlocking indicated that the combination had been correct.

“Open it,” he commanded me.

I shot him a glare. Just to fuck with him, I pretended to struggle with it.
I'm just a dumb girl,
I thought at him, hoping to beam it psychically into his brain.
I'm so weak. Now hurry up and make a mistake, you ass.
After much theatrical grunting I finally slide the door open and we stepped inside. Don turned on the overhead lights and closed the door after us.

The warehouse spread out in front of me, ugly and stark in the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. All boxed up and arranged by type, Malcolm's amalgam of junk and treasure seemed a lot smaller than it had in his house. Again I was reminded of the things someone leaves behind after they die, and a weird sadness swept through me, cutting into the low-grade hum of adrenaline in my veins.

If I died here, my worldly effects would barely fill a closet. My friends would barely fill three pews. I worked too hard, was too bitter, burned too many bridges. A lump rose in my throat.

Stupid emotions,
I thought to myself.
Don't need you messing things up right now, thanks.

“Where are the files?” Don's voice behind me cut through my self-pitying melancholia. I had to think fast.

“I'm... I'm not sure,” I said. “He didn't actually tell me
where,
exactly...”

“Oh? If you aren't going to be of help to me then I'm afraid you won't be earning that one million dollars.” The rustle of his hand drawing out of his coat, exposing his gun, sent a bolt of fear through me.

“No!” I said. “I
kind of
know where they are.”

He was silent for a moment. “Well?”

I turned around and looked him in the eye. I wanted to make myself as human as possible to him, but the person that peered back at me was cold and hard as a reptile. “It's... I think they're hidden in or on one of his statues.”

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