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Unlawfully Yours by Ellie Danes, Tristan Vaughan (1)

Chapter 1

Veronica

“Did you get a good look at his face, ma’am?” the officer asked, pen hovering above his notepad, brow wrinkled.

I sighed. “No. I saw him get into his car. Look, I know who did this. There’s no doubt in my damn mind.” Jackson was the only person who knew how much the art supplies had meant to me. He was the only one who’d had a spare key to my apartment until a week ago, when he’d dumped my ass and told me that I wasn’t creative enough. That I wasn’t in keeping with the artist’s aesthetic he strove to perfect.

Asshole.

“Who?” Officer Brady asked.

“My ex-boyfriend.”

Officer Brady didn’t write it down. He twiddled the pen back and forth and studied me. “You’re sure about that, ma’am. Did you get a good look at the plates on that car?”

“No, but I know it was his Kia,” I replied, and tamped down my frustration. If I snapped at the police officer, he wouldn’t take me seriously on this. And I needed to report Jackson because I needed him out of my hair.

There were too many things on my plate – late rent, back rent, in fact, the cursed life of an artist in New York, and my absentee sister, Jayne – for me to deal with a thieving scumbag on top of it all.

“He’s threatened me before,” I said. Absolutely true. “And he’s also an artist.”

“Really?” Brady’s eyebrows jumped upward. What was this, rookie hour?

“Yes,” I said. “It’s not that uncommon.”

“Yeah, sure, sure. It’s just the apartment,” he replied, and gestured with his ballpoint.

I looked around the studio. The high ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that looked out on SoHo. An art easel lay on its side next to the weathered, rosewood desk in the corner. “What about it?”

“Nothin’, nothin’.”

“No, tell me,” I said, hackles rising already. I’d gotten this kind of attitude a lot from the people who visited. My mom and dad, the cousins, shoot, even my friend, Georgia, had been a little dubious at first.

“It’s just an expensive area. You know?”

“Meaning I can’t afford the loft?” I asked.

Officer Brady’s neck colored bright red.

“No,” I said. “It’s okay. I can’t afford the loft on my own. I can barely afford the toilet paper in the bathroom. My boyfriend was staying with me and helping out with the rent up until last week. And my sister stayed with me before that.” except my sister was AWOL now, and I had no means of making her half of the rent. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t make my half of the rent. And I already owed the month’s prior, since Jackson hadn’t given me the money for that yet.

Jackson, cheater that he was, had connections. He came from a family of artists and he’d hooked both of us up with showings at local galleries. I’d sold loads of pieces. Jackson, not so much. But with him gone, I didn’t have many prospects.

That was fine. I’d figure it out. I wasn’t afraid to do what it took to make it. And if I lost the apartment, I’d move back with my parents. That wasn’t too sad at twenty-three years old, right? Oh, gosh, my insides curled up into a ball at that thought.

Back home with Momma and Pops breathing down my neck and telling me to get a real job. Perhaps, they had a point.

Office Brady scribbled things down on his notepad, clearly avoiding all the information I’d just thrown at him.

“It was Jackson DuPont,” I said.

“Frenchman?”

“He wishes,” I said. “No, he’s just got a lucky last name.” I swiped my palm across my forehead and it came away wet with sweat.

So much to do, so little time. I squirmed my cell phone out of my pocket and checked the lock screen. Two missed calls from Georgia, nothing from Jayne. Of course, I’d given up hoping on that one.

My sister had been practically invisible for a year and a half. She’d eloped with her current husband and billionaire, Carter Jones, on one of our arty trips to Italy. Jayne had loved the arts but lacked the talent – not that I was Da Vinci. She’d moved in with me after her last breakup, only to leave me hanging yet again.

Jayne. Mom’s favorite and Daddy’s little girl. Gosh, I sounded bitter.

My cell phone buzzed, and I jumped. Georgia’s name flashed on the screen. “Do you mind?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” Brady said. “I need to write this up.”

I swiped my thumb across the screen and pressed the phone to my ear. “Hey.”

“Are you ready for tonight? You’d better wear that cocktail dress I got for you.”

“Georg –”

My bestie didn’t hold back. “I don’t want to hear it. I get it that you’re the artsy type but there’s a limit to how many pairs of black tailored pants one woman should have. Scratch that, one human being should have. I mean, seriously. Get a fashion sense.”

“I –”

“And that cocktail dress cost a lot of dough. It’s black. Consider it my gift to you for all future events. You’ve got to wear it.”

“It’s not –”

“Don’t tell me it’s not long enough, woman. I swear, you’re channeling Mother Theresa these days or something. This breakup thing has hit you in your squishy fashion bits and I’ll be damned if I let you –”

“Georgia!” I yelled.

“What?!”

“Jackson broke into my apartment and stole just about everything. I’m with a police officer right now.”

Georgia shuddered a gasp in true theatrical style. All that time auditioning for Broadway plays had paid off. “No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Do I need to give you evidence, too?”

Georgia swallowed. “What a loser. I can’t believe he’d do this to you. He seemed so normal, I mean as far as artists go.”

“Ah, veiled insults. The cornerstone of every good friendship,” I said and chewed my lip. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”

“Okay, but do me one favor?”

“I’m kind of maxed out right now, G.”

“Just check whether he took the dress or not. If he didn’t, you have to wear it tonight, ‘kay?”

“Yeah, yeah. See you later.”

“Kiss, kiss, daaaaarling.” She hung up and saved me the opportunity to rib her for that ridiculous sign off.

I sighed and locked my smartphone’s screen. “I guess this kind of thing happens all the time,” I said to Brady, more to distract myself with chatter than anything else. “Ex’s breaking into each other’s houses.”

“Usually,” Brady said, scribbling away, “they trash the place. But this is downright theft. You said that your brushes are missing?”

“Yes,” I replied.

His eyebrows did a little dance. “Were these, uh, brushes worth much?”

“Yes. About eight dollars per brush.”

“Eighty dollars,” Brady exclaimed, and wrote at the same time. “Hot damn, that’s a lot for bristles on the end of a stick.”

I nodded. I’d been able to afford it at the time. “Officer, what are my options here? Jackson has issues, clearly, with the fact that we broke up. Is there anything I can do to keep him away?”

“Restraining order,” the officer replied. “But you’ll have to present proof that he’s harassed you. That it’s warranted, y’know?”

“Right,” I said and folded my arms. “That shouldn’t be a problem. He’s sent me some weird, vaguely threatening messages over the past week. Here, take a look.” I unlocked the screen of my phone again, then handed him the device.

Brady frowned. “Ma’am, this is a picture of a kitten.”

“What? Oh,” I said and flushed. “No, here. Let me just –” I tapped through to my text history with the ex-of-my-nightmares. “There.”

Officer Brady scanned through them and I spent the time taking mental stock of things that’d gone missing. Georgia had a point about that dress. I had to check he hadn’t taken it or I’d end up attending the art showing in jeans and a SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirt. Not a good look for an aspiring artist.

I hurried into my open plan bedroom and gasped.

“Everything okay in there?” the officer called.

“No. He took my underwear.”

Footsteps thundered across the boards. Officer Brady entered and grimaced at the open and empty dresser beside my queen-sized bed.

Jackson had taken everything. Thongs, lacy and cotton, bikini bottoms, everything. Even my old pair of grandma panties. What a creep. He’d always been somewhat of a question mark but I’d never imagined he was capable of something like this. It made my skin crawl.

A knock rattled my front door on the other side of the apartment.

“I’ll have to add this to the list,” Officer Brady muttered.

“Excuse me a sec.” I headed for the front, grinding my teeth every step of the way. What kind of sicko stole someone’s underwear? Just who had I been dating? I halted at the door and gathered myself, brushing off my blouse.

“Who’s there?” I called out.

“It’s Carter Jones.” His deep voice had a kind of chocolatey richness that brought on a serious case of the goosebumps.

“What?” I’d heard him, I just couldn’t believe it.

“Is this Miss Heath’s residence?”

“Yeah, just a sec.” I barely remembered what Carter looked like. I’d caught a glimpse of him on the night Jayne had met him at Bobino Club in Milano but I couldn’t remember the details. I’d already decided he had to be balding and middle-aged in a suit – the epitome of a billionaire.

I drew back the chain and opened the door. I promptly lost my breath. Carter Jones certainly wasn’t middle-aged. No, he was a little older than me, maybe twenty-eight years old? And he had a full head of chestnut brown hair. His bright green eyes crinkled at the corners, a forced smile on his lips. No suit in evidence either – white cotton t-shirt and faded jeans. Tall, much taller than me, but that was no mean feat, given I was only 5’4”.

“You’re Miss Heath?”

“Call me Veronica,” I said and licked my lips. I’d never been the man-crazy one in the family – Jayne had claimed that title as her own – but good God, this guy was gorgeous.

“Veronica.”

I shivered and rubbed my arms to pass it off as a reaction to the spring breeze. “That’s right. You’re Carter? My sister’s husband?”

“That’s correct. Sorry it’s taken so long to introduce myself properly,” he said and shifted the box in his arms, extending one hand around it.

I took the proffered shake and inhaled. Prickles danced across the back of my hand from that gentle touch.

Ridiculous. This was my sister’s husband. This man. My sister’s husband.

“That’s all right,” I said. “It’s kind of a bad time, right now, though.” I couldn’t exactly offer him coffee. Jackson had lifted the cups. A vision of my ex carting off pantie-filled mugs drifted up from my subconscious.

“I know,” Carter said.

“Wait, what? You know?’

“Yeah. I –”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Officer Brady said, behind us. “Just how many thongs are missing, here? I need some kind of real indication so I can tally the total for your insurance company.”

“My underwear wasn’t insured,” I replied, and gave Carter my back just so he wouldn’t see how red I’d gone. As red as that lacy thong Jackson had stolen. “You don’t need to write that in your report.”

“Right,” Brady said and clicked his ballpoint. “And the bras?”

Hell, swallow me now, please. “No. Just the art supplies. That’s all, okay? The art supplies. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Brady wandered off again, scratching his temple with the ink-end of his pen and drawing himself a makeshift tattoo.

“I’m interrupting something,” Carter said.

I faced him again. “It’s all right. I’ve just had a break-in. Nothing serious.” I checked my watch. “But I do have a showing this evening.”

“You’re an artist,” Carter said and smiled.

“Yeah, didn’t Jayne tell you?” Of course, she hadn’t. I probably didn’t rank high on her desired list of topics, which probably included how good she looked and what to wear that evening.

“No. She didn’t,” Carter said.

“Yeah, it’s at the Clic Gallery. Gosh, it’s getting late.”

“I won’t take much more of your time,” Carter said. “It sounds like you’ve got a lot to deal with right now.” His lips twitched at the corners and another wave of humiliation rose, threatened to crash over me.

“What can I help you with, Carter?” I asked, craning my neck to get a good look at that strong jawline.

“I’ve come to drop off some of your sister’s stuff,” he replied.

“Oh. What? Why?” I asked.

“You don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“Jayne and I haven’t spoken in six months,” he said and handed me the box.