Beneath These Lies (Beneath #5)(7)


by Meghan March

“My name isn’t relevant,” I said. It was time to retreat to the safety of my car, get home, and leave Trinity another voice mail to call me with a sternly worded reprimand.

“It’s relevant as hell to me.”

The deep timbre of his voice sent shivers up the arm he held, but these strangely weren’t shivers of fear. My reaction surprised me, so I ignored it.

I tugged at my arm, but I couldn’t free myself. “Let go. You wanted me out of your neighborhood, and I’m leaving.”

“Give me your name, and you can walk right out that gate.”

My tugging was getting me nowhere, and I wanted to be gone. In my head I labeled it a form of self-defense when I snapped out, “Valentina. Now let me go.”

His touch was gone immediately, and the absence of the heat of his hand hit me.

“Valentina,” he repeated. “Last name?”

“No way,” I said.

“Don’t need it anyway.”

I said nothing, and I didn’t look at him. I wouldn’t look at him. And I absolutely wouldn’t think about the change in his tone when he’d said my name. Nope. I wouldn’t.

Keeping my gaze firmly glued to the cracked sidewalk as I walked, I reached for the latch. My fingers froze when he said, “This is my neighborhood. My world. You don’t belong here. Don’t come here again. You do, and you won’t like the consequences. You get that, Valentina?”

I straightened my spine, and despite my vow, I turned to face him. “I don’t plan on coming back. And as long as Trinity shows up at work tomorrow, I won’t have to.”

I stepped outside the gate and was pulling it closed when he dropped both palms on top of the chain link. “You’re either fearless or stupid.”

“Neither,” I shot back, hackles rising. “I’m just worried about her.”

I turned my back on him and walked to my car. Once I had my door open, I swung my head around toward him. I had no earthly idea what possessed me to ask the question, but I couldn’t help it.

“All this hassle about my name, and you never even introduced yourself.”

His lips quirked, but he didn’t smile. Still, I thought it was humor I saw on his face. He was laughing at me. Jerk.

“Rix.”

One syllable. That’s all it took. Recognition slammed into me and I dove into my car, shut the door, and locked it.

Holy. Shit. That was Rix?

Pulling out of my parking spot, I couldn’t help but stare out the window as I drove away.

He’s the head of one of the biggest gangs in New Orleans?

I’d put him in the category of unapologetically bad, and I’d been right on the mark. It’s okay, I told myself. You’ll never see him again.

I DROVE DIRECTLY HOME AND left another voice mail for Trinity telling her to call me, goddamn it. After I’d stripped off the skirt and blouse I’d worn to the gallery today, I pulled my dark hair back into a messy bun and threw on a pair of leggings and a tank before covering it with an old dress shirt of my father’s that was so worn from washing, his monogram was barely visible on the cuff any longer.

I had to paint.

I had no idea what, if any social commitments I might have tonight, but I didn’t care. Everything could go to hell when the need to paint struck. It had been weeks since I’d picked up a brush, and even longer since I’d completed a single piece.

No one knew about my closely guarded hobby. Because if they knew, they’d ask me why I didn’t show my own work at Noble Art. I was the owner, therefore I could do whatever I pleased.

The reason? While I had confidence in my ability to choose great artists and pieces to sell, I had no confidence in my own work. Instead, I held a piercing, blinding certainty that it was beyond terrible and not fit to be seen by human eyes other than my own. I had no classical training, and those flaws I was so critical of in others’ work while assessing its ability to sell were more than present in my own. But I didn’t care because painting wasn’t something I did for money or for show—it was all about the escape for me.

The night I was raped over ten years ago, my entire life had changed. One moment of bad judgment contaminated every day since like black paint tainted every color it touched.

I’d been torn apart on the stand by the defense attorneys, my reputation put on trial. Rape charges were ugly, and they were even uglier when your rapist was the son of a politician who had plenty to lose. I’d been barely twenty-two when it had happened, and I hadn’t exactly been a choirgirl in college. At least the proceedings had been kept closed—again the benefit of the plaintiff and defendant being well-connected—and the general public never knew my humiliation.

I’d given up so many things after that. I was careful to keep any of the limited number of sexual partners I had completely off the radar, because of my hyperawareness of my reputation for the last decade. Instead of going out with friends and having fun, I’d locked myself away with my canvases. Painting had become my own personal salvation.

For years, I’d told myself I’d moved on, but I hadn’t. I would have been living a normal life all these years if I’d really moved on rather than burying myself in work and paint.

I paused to take in the man I’d painted while the events of the day replayed in my head. Tall, broad-shouldered. His skin color strikingly similar to the man I’d met today. I dropped my brush and stepped back.

What the hell?

Painting him hadn’t been a deliberate act, but it wasn’t something I could deny had just happened. There he was. All rippling muscle and striking silver eyes.

The only things that were missing were the tattoos I didn’t get a close enough look at to replicate.

But it was him. Rix.

His name didn’t seem to fit him.

Stop, Valentina. Just stop. He’s not important, he’s not relevant, he shouldn’t even exist to you.

I was just starting to believe the things I was telling myself when my phone vibrated from the side table where I’d left it. After quickly cleaning my hands and wiping them dry on a rag, I reached for it.

Two things struck me at the same time: I’d been painting for hours. It was after midnight. And the second was: Trinity.

I answered immediately. “Are you okay?”

Her voice, which I expected to be filled with excitement over what Rix had told me, was shaking when she spoke. “Can you come get me? I’m scared, V. Something’s wrong here and I’m freaking out.”