An alarm jolted Rohan Blackwell awake. Reaching for his phone on the bedside table, he blinked moisture back into his dry eyes before squinting at the notification on his screen.
ATTEMPTED SECURITY BREACH DETECTED
He jumped out of bed, shoved his feet into tennis shoes, grabbed his keys and Maglite, and, wearing nothing but his boxer briefs, wrenched open the French doors that opened onto the ground floor patio. Taking the outside route allowed him to move faster, and he didn’t have to worry about waking up the household.
Clicking on the flashlight, he hotfooted it around the enormous Friary, a large stone building that had originally housed Franciscan monks but was now home to the Blackwell clan, until he reached the flagstone path that led to the family’s on-site office building.
Early morning emergencies like this made him appreciate living in Western North Carolina, where overnight temperatures in early October were still relatively mild. The sprint to the Annex took less than a minute, but it felt like a full revolution of the earth.
Fight, Lucy. Fight.
Disengaging the alarm, he rushed into his office and woke up his computer. Four large, wall-mounted monitors flickered to life. The company’s silver logo—BARS—appeared above the login dialogue box and he typed in his ten-digit code.
He grabbed his glasses off the desk, crammed them on his nose, and set to work. His fingers flew across the keyboard, every passing second thundering through his veins.
He pulled up his multilayered cyber defense system, aka Lucy, and waited for the status reports. Each layer blinked, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK in bold red letters.
“Come on, sweetheart. You can do this.”
Rohan fought to keep his thoughts positive. He’d prepared for this moment, built Lucy to guard their network against viruses, malware, worms, denial of service, and all other manner of digital terrorism. But he, more than anyone else, knew there was no perfect defense, no absolute security.
The first level changed from a blinking bright red ATTACK to a steady green PROTECTED, and the knot sitting between his shoulders loosened a little.
One by one, the status of the levels updated.
He drew out his next exhale, slow and long, and rotated his head, left and right. Splayed his fingers wide on top of his desk. Squeezed his eyes shut.
Three hours later and fully clothed, Rohan stood sipping his coffee while monitoring the activity on his screens, scanning them for additional malicious attempts at finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in Lucy’s defenses.
Blackwell Asset Recovery Services—BARS—had grown with lightning speed over the past few years, and it was Rohan’s responsibility to ensure that his family’s intellectual property and financial assets remained safe from people like him.
From firsthand experience, he understood the type of destruction cybercriminals could bring down on businesses and individual users who became too complacent about cybersecurity. Something as simple as a missed patch—or software update—could be enough for a patient and persistent hacker to wreak havoc.
Many in the industry separate hackers into three broad categories—white hats, or ethical hackers, operate under a code of ethics and only search for system vulnerabilities with the organization’s permission. Then there are gray hats, who uncover security weaknesses and report them to the company. Often, gray hats request payment before fully disclosing what they have uncovered. The third category includes black hats or cybercriminals. Without consent, black hats find security vulnerabilities and exploit them.
How they exploit them depends on the hacker’s motivation. Some seek proprietary or protected information and they’ll implant a virus to get it. Those who like money will employ ransomware to tie up a company’s data until they pay a specified amount, generally through Bitcoin.
However, payment doesn’t guarantee they’ll unlock the encrypted files. Some cybercriminals might disappear once they get the ransom and others might demand more money. Since there is no way of knowing how the hacker will respond, the FBI recommends not paying the ransom.
Which is doable for businesses who have good data backups. For those who don’t, paying the ransom is far less painful than losing their files.
The overhead light flashed on, blinding Rohan for a split second.
“At it early again, I see,” Zeke Blackwell said in a morning-roughened voice.
Rohan checked the small digital clock on his far left monitor.
Unable to turn his back on the data flashing across his screens, he half-turned toward his brother. “You’re not exactly rolling in at a normal start time.”
Zeke shrugged, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe. “Mom wanted to meet with me before the team check-in to discuss hiring a fine arts copyist she found.”
“Is this follow-up on Cruz’s idea?”
The hint of an admiring grin formed at the corner of Zeke’s mouth. “Leave it to the hard-ass to come up with such a diabolical plan.”
A genius plan. If they could find the right artist.
In his role as the FBI’s new Art Crime Team leader for the region, their eldest brother Ash Blackwell had hired BARS to recover one of the Agency’s Top Ten stolen art pieces, Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, from an estate in North Asheville. An estate owned by Holster Energy president Ezra Payne.
The Nativity’s storied past was both tragic and legendary. In 1969, two thieves, believed to have been associated with the Sicilian Mafia, broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy, and cut the Nativity from its frame.
What happened to it from there has remained a mystery that neither the Italian police, Interpol, nor the FBI have been able to crack. Over the years, several informants have offered unique and colorful stories about the stolen painting.
The most notable one came from a Mafia informant who said the thieves had damaged the seventeenth-century masterpiece so badly during the robbery that mob boss Salvatore Riina couldn’t sell it. Deeming the canvas worthless, Riina used the painting as a floor mat.
Two weeks ago, Ash had learned from a new confidential informant that Ezra Payne kept an “old painting” locked up in his ten-by-ten steel-reinforced safe. When the CI described it, Ash suspected it was the Nativity.
But did Payne harbor the original 1609 Caravaggio or a knockoff?
When Ash discussed getting a search warrant with his SSA, his supervisor denied his request, believing no local judge would authorize a search of Payne’s property on the word of an untried CI.
Ezra Payne was a big deal in the Southeast.
The energy mogul contributed to dozens of political campaigns on both sides of the spectrum. His company poured millions of dollars into community projects like boat launches, solar fields, and pollinator gardens, while supporting the construction of fossil fuel power plants and installation of pipeline projects through Black and Brown neighborhoods and Indigenous lands, and tapping into his legislative buddies to ensure they voted to approve astronomical utility rate hikes.
Rather than let an international treasure languish on the wall of a corrupt mogul’s safe, Ash had hired BARS.
While driving together to attend one of Zeke’s soon-to-be-stepson’s baseball tournaments, Cruz had come up with the idea that they swap Payne’s copy with a reproduction. One good enough to fool Sotheby’s specialists, researchers, and scientists. No sense in poking the bear by leaving a blank space on his wall.
If they were lucky, Payne would never discover the ruse. Or, if he did, it would be years from now and he wouldn’t be able to link the heist to BARS.
Or Ash and his CI.
This recovery carried a significant risk, but everyone had agreed it would be worth it if they could successfully return the remarkable piece of art to its rightful owner in Italy.
“Who made it to the top of Mom’s list?” Rohan asked.
“A local artist named Angelena Kamber. Heard of her?”
“No, have you?”
Zeke shook his head.
“Does she have a gallery in town?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“You sure commissioning a local is the right call? There’s a lot at stake with this one. We can’t afford to hire an amateur.”
“I’m aware of the stakes.” Zeke rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “So is Mom. She won’t recommend someone who looks like they paint by numbers.”
An inexplicable unease stirred in Rohan’s chest. Maybe he was still on edge after his early wake-up call or maybe his compulsive need to vet everyone they did business with was kicking in. Either way, he’d learned a long time ago to trust his instincts. Right now, they were screaming extreme caution. “What time is your meeting?”
Zeke checked the clock on his phone. “Twenty minutes.”
Rohan set his coffee cup down on a warming plate, a ridiculous but effective gift from Zeke’s significant other and BARS’s new provenance expert, Liv Westcott. She’d noticed how many trips he made to the microwave to reheat his coffee because he’d gotten too wrapped up in his work to drink it.
Grabbing an arm of his chair, he rolled it closer to his electronic cockpit and sat down. “Let me see what I can find out about this artist before you make any decisions.”
“Why are you getting involved in this? She either paints well or she doesn’t. Mom’s got a better eye than either of us for that sort of thing.”
Rohan understood his brother’s reluctance to interfere with their mom’s part of the recovery. Last summer, Zeke had surprised them all by vowing to do less hovering and more delegating. So far, he’d kept his promise and was a great deal happier for it.
They all were.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Rohan admitted. “But my gut is telling me to check out this artist. Whoever we work with is going to be curious about why a business like ours is commissioning a replica of a missing masterpiece. It’s best to know who we’re dealing with.” He caught his brother’s eye. “Intimately.”
“Shit.” Zeke tapped his thumb against his thigh. “I hope for both our sakes you don’t find anything. Mom seemed excited about her top pick.”
“All you need to do is stall her for an hour. Give me time to look into Kamber’s creds.”
“Thirty minutes. You take any more than that, and I’ll send Mom down to chew on your ass.”
Twenty-three minutes later, Rohan had all the information he needed. He marched down to Zeke’s office, where he found his brother pointing at a colorful spreadsheet on his computer screen.
“Explain to me again your logic behind this formula,” Zeke said.
Lynette Blackwell glared at her son as if he were a fresh-off-the-bus private who’d upended her tray of chow. “Did Liv keep you up late again last night? Is that why your brain hasn’t engaged?”
“Jeezus, Mama,” Zeke growled. “I just—”
“Do y’all have a moment?” Rohan asked before his blunt-speaking mom gave Zeke a heart attack.
They said in unison.
Lynette raised a brow at Zeke. “What about our meeting?” The twenty years their mom had spent in the military ensured she was never late and never unprepared. She demanded the same of her sons.
Rohan interjected. “What I have to discuss concerns your meeting.”
“Does it.” Lynette stood straighter and her blue eyes slid from Rohan to Zeke, then back to Rohan in a careful-as-you-go warning both men knew too well.
Even at twenty-nine years old, Rohan wasn’t immune to his mother’s authoritarian presence. She could make perspiration break out on the back of his neck with nothing more than a look.
Zeke must have felt the pressure too, because he lifted a black coffee mug, displaying BARS’s silver logo, to his lips while he surreptitiously swiped a hand over his jean-clad thigh. Then he indicated the two guest chairs in his office. “Make yourselves comfortable.” When they did as instructed, he turned to Rohan. “What’d you got?”
Rohan looked at Lynette. “Zeke mentioned who you were considering for the Caravaggio commission.”
“Angelena Kamber.” She studied him a moment. “What’s your concern?”
Lifting his hand, he listed them off, one finger at a time. “She’s an unknown local artist. Her website is nothing more than a contact page. She doesn’t have a gallery, nor does she appear to be selling anything on consignment at Triskelion.” Many artisans in the region vied for an opportunity to showcase their wares at the gallery on Main Street. Not having a single piece there said a lot about the quality of her work.
“Miss Kamber has a studio in her loft apartment and most of her commissions are via word of mouth,” Lynette said.
“How did you hear about her?” Rohan asked.
“During a chance meeting with Carlie Beth Steele. I mentioned that I was looking for a copyist, and she recommended Miss Kamber. Carlie Beth had an opportunity to view Miss Kamber’s collection and confirmed the young artist has an extraordinary natural talent. Evidently, her reproductions are quite stunning.”
Uncertainty picked at the edge of Rohan’s mind. Married to their cousin, Grif Steele, Carlie Beth was an accomplished blacksmith and artist. She wouldn’t have recommended someone she didn’t trust or respect. Especially not to family. No matter the strained relations between the two clans.
“Have you met Miss Kamber?” Rohan asked.
“Briefly. We bumped into each other at Triple B.”
“Bumped into you, how? Literally or figuratively?”
A muscle in Lynette’s jaw flickered before she answered. “We were both waiting for our orders at the bar. She complimented me on my bracelet, and I told her I’d purchased it at Triskelion, then she asked me if I knew Carlie Beth. We continued to chat until my order arrived, at which time, she handed me a business card.” Lynette cocked her head to the side. “Clear enough?”
Rohan worked to keep his features impassive, but his heart was clattering inside his chest like a five-alarm fire bell. Hackers used social engineering to get to know their targets, earn their trust until they could manipulate the person into giving them confidential information that would help them access their network.
Besides sending phishing emails to their target, hackers might also impersonate someone from the target’s contacts, pull passwords and logins out of a target’s curbside trash, or harvest information from “fun” polls conducted on social media. Bolder hackers, those who liked to observe their manipulation tactics in action, might make direct contact.
Like bumping into a target’s mom at a local restaurant and chatting her up.
The attack on their network and this forger’s sudden appearance when BARS needed a lookalike painting for an important recovery was beyond coincidental.
Rohan gritted his teeth. Was the Collective behind this morning’s attempted breach? Had they already found him?
What the hell did they want? Make him pay for leaving? Force him back?
“What’s bothering you, Rohan?” Zeke asked.
He couldn’t tell his family his fears. It would require him admitting to a series of bad decisions that he had no interest in sharing. Best to keep things simple. Focus on what he’d found. Not what he suspected. “I did a background check.”
“You did what?” Lynette snapped, turning her ire on Zeke. “Did you authorize this?”
Zeke set his jaw. “I did.”
“This isn’t on Zeke,” Rohan said. “I bullied him into letting me dig deeper.”
“No one bullies your brother into doing what he doesn’t want to do.” Her voice lowered, and she pinned Rohan with a hard look. “What makes you think I haven’t dug deep enough?”
“You don’t have the same capability to burrow beneath a person’s veneer as I do.”
When an ugly red splotch appeared on her neck, he clarified, “Mama, searching for vulnerabilities is my specialty. I use state-of-the-art technology to keep us safe, to protect everything that you, Dad, Ash, and Zeke have built. It’s my purpose, and I’m damn good at it.”
The tension in her shoulders and around her eyes loosened and the steel in her spine melted enough for her to ease back in her chair. Her chest lifted on a deep inhalation. “I take it you uncovered something disturbing in Miss Kamber’s past?”
The giant hand squeezing Rohan’s chest let go. He shook his head. “That’s just it. I didn’t find anything.”
Zeke closed his eyes, and Lynette raised WTF eyebrows.
“I mean, nothing prior to ten years ago,” Rohan elaborated. “No social media, no family, no school records, no birth certificate. It’s as if she didn’t exist before the age of fifteen.”
Lynette’s nails tapped against the metal arm of her chair. “WITSEC?”
Witness Security Program, also known as the witness protection program, a collaborative effort by the Department of Justice and Marshals Service, protected federal witnesses before, during, and after a high-profile trial. If eligible and they agreed to the program’s rules, witnesses, and their immediate family, were given new identities and relocated, with the condition that they must break off contact with their old life. Completely.
“WITSEC participants are given all new identities, complete with documentation. I would have found something on Angelena Kamber.”
Lynette said, “I scheduled an interview with her this morning at Blues, Brews, and Books.”
“What time?” Rohan asked.
Rohan looked at Zeke, who nodded. “I’ll go in your place and probe deeper.”
Lynette rose. “I’ll call Miss Kamber and update her on the change.” She eyed both of them before her gaze settled on Rohan. “For the record, I had intended to have you or Cruz do a background check on her if I liked what she had to say today.”
Guilt lashed through Rohan. The last thing he wanted was for Lynette to think he didn’t trust her judgment. Sometimes his need for information caused unintended collateral damage. “Sorry, Mama. I acted on instinct—”
She bent to kiss Rohan’s forehead. “Never apologize for protecting our family.” She straightened and turned to Zeke. The two stared at each other for a long moment. Out of her five sons, Zeke was most like Lynette, with his brute force determination. Sometimes, like this morning, that wasn’t a good thing.
Lynette pressed a hand against Zeke’s cheek, and he smiled in return.
Harsh words forgiven.
She left without another comment.
“What was all of that about?” Rohan asked in a low voice.
“I don’t know.” Zeke stared after her for a moment before shaking himself and turning to Rohan. “You okay with this recon? If not, I can call in Phin.”
Rohan shook his head. “Phin’s down in Charlotte, terrorizing some politician for Kayla Krowne.”
This summer, Phin had accepted a part-time position in Kayla’s highly successful lobbying firm. Why his little brother wanted to navigate the cutthroat world of politics was beyond Rohan, but someone had to make sure politicians made decisions that served the people of North Carolina and not themselves.
Rohan removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with the tail of his T-shirt. “I got it.”
“Let me know if you change your mind. I can put Cruz’s smoldering eyes to work.”
Rohan grinned and shoved his glasses back on his nose. “We need the copyist to answer our questions, not spend the hour trying to entice our brother into her bed.”
“Since you’ve evidently sworn off women forever, I guess you’re the best man to send.”
“Got that right. The last thing I need is a woman distracting me right now.”
A horn blasted, and Angelena Kamber’s eyes scraped open to discover the sun piercing the panes of the floor-to-ceiling windows. She blinked several times and tried to sit up. Cramped muscles screamed and her neck felt like she’d slept on a log.
Groaning, she pushed herself upright. She loved her studio chair, but it was a bitch to sleep in.
Lena stretched her arms above her head and twisted her torso left, then right, prompting a satisfying crackle to rip down her spine. Her gaze fell on her latest obsession—a painting titled Woman Walking by Cherokee artist Na-lih Catawnee—then her attention shifted to the copy in-progress propped against an easel next to it.
Or more specifically, on the blank space where the eyes should have been.
Why couldn’t she get them right?
Three times she’d attempted to get the piercing quality of the woman’s brown eyes correct and three times she’d failed.
Eyes could make or break a painting. Get them right and the artist is lauded as an exceptional talent. Get them wrong and the artist is labeled a hack.
The eyes connected one soul to another. It didn’t matter if the souls were real or imaginary. Would the Mona Lisa, Girl with the Pearl Earring, or Lady Agnew of Lochnaw have captured the hearts of millions of admirers if their masters had painted them with downcast eyes or looking off into the distance?
The subject’s eyes drew the viewer’s attention, held them in thrall, and triggered their imagination. She couldn’t screw up the eyes.
Lena felt the pressure of her looming deadline all the way to her toes. She glanced down at the sketches in her lap.
You got this. Knock it off.
The fear receded before it could take root. With each commission, the dark shadow of doubt always crept in. It might appear before she even put paint to canvas or show up toward the end, like it was attempting to do with Woman Walking.
Over the years, she had learned to expect the doubts—and how to fight them off. Lena had yet to miss a client’s deadline and she wasn’t about to start with a commission that had the potential of taking her career to the coveted next level.
Lena would breathe a sigh of relief when she delivered both the copy and original back to the owner at the end of the week. Although her apartment building was secure, she still felt uneasy about having a piece of art worth a million dollars sitting in her studio.
So, rather than find her bed in the wee hours of the morning, she’d exchanged her paintbrush for pencil and drawing paper and curled up in her favorite red velvet chair to sketch and stare and grumble to herself. Sometimes, when she got stuck like this, going back to the basics tapped into a part of her creativity that no amount of brush strokes could awaken.
Turning her thoughts toward the day ahead, she recalled her meeting with Lynette Blackwell.
Crap, what time was it?
Unable to find her phone, she spun around to check the giant clock on the living room wall.
She blew out a relieved breath. The meeting wasn’t until nine, which gave her plenty of time to wash her hair and shower. Her hair wouldn’t be completely dry, but she could fix that with a hair band.
Her building’s proximity to downtown Steele Ridge was one of the many things she loved about it. She could walk pretty much anywhere in ten minutes, yet the location still offered her the privacy she craved. Especially since her loft apartment stretched across the entire second floor of the former manufacturing building.
Pushing out of her chair, she dropped her sketch pad and pencil in the seat. The loft’s open concept allowed her to move effortlessly from one area to the next. She strode from studio to living room to bathroom, stripping off her clothes as she went and not caring about the disarray she left behind.
One of the many perks of living alone.
“Hey, Alexa.” She stepped out of her panties and tossed her bra. “Play The Very Best of Pat Benatar.” Lena had a thing for classic eighties tunes.
The first strains of “Love Is a Battlefield” sifted through her smart speaker. “Alexa, increase the volume thirty percent.” As the uptempo beat filled the loft, Lena’s body responded, and she danced her way into the shower.
Hot water cascaded over her body, taking with it her aches and pains and the last dregs of her artistic fears. She envisioned herself finishing the painting, feeling the joy and excitement of the moment.
She held that image in her mind as she sang along with Pat and finished showering.
Turning off the water, she opened the glass door to pull a thick towel from the rack and patted the water from her body. The blood-thrumming bass of “Heartbreaker” penetrated the bathroom door.
Lena considered her upcoming meeting. The interruption to her routine chafed, and her fingers itched to reach for a paintbrush. But she had a business to run, and the business fed off getting new commissions.
Although Fine Art Fakes by Lena was a successful enterprise by anyone’s standards, Lena knew how quickly it could all go up in smoke. She’d suck it up and continue doing one of her least favorite things—meeting with potential clients.
Having moved to Steele Ridge only six months ago, she didn’t know many of the locals. But she’d heard one name whispered around her more than once.
People spoke of the family in fearful, yet reverent, tones. Though no one seemed to know much about the family tucked away in a place called the Friary. Sounded like a location right out of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Despite all the whispers and secrecy, Carlie Beth Steele, with whom she’d developed a friendly acquaintance, had encouraged her to accept Lynette Blackwell’s invitation to breakfast.
Intrigued by the older woman’s request, the blacksmith-turned-artist had had no qualms about throwing Lena into the lioness’s den to satisfy her own curiosity. Lena might have to rethink the “friendly” part of their acquaintance.
Lena couldn’t help but be curious about the elusive Blackwells. Why did the townsfolk know so little about a family that had such deep roots here? What did Lynette want her to copy?
Wrapping the towel around her body, she stepped out of the shower and opened the bathroom door to clear the steam just as “Heartbreaker” ended.
In the brief silence, she heard what sounded like chair legs scraping across the floor.
Heart roaring in her chest, she inched the door open wider and searched for the intruder. When no one came barreling at her with a knife, she slipped out just as “You Better Run” kicked off.
Someone above had an inappropriate sense of humor.
Thankful for her penchant for blasting her music, Lena tiptoed to an old fisherman’s basket standing in a nook near the entryway. Several walking sticks of various shapes, sizes, and mediums stood haphazardly in the basket. She lifted a sturdy one from its depths.
A quick glance at the alarm panel confirmed it was still armed, yet no alarm had sounded.
Some of the tension eased from her shoulders. The only way in and out of her apartment was through the door. The noise must have been walls settling or air running through the pipes or some equally creepy thing old buildings did.
Then she recalled that the café next door had an outdoor seating area. The noise had probably come from one of their customers pulling a metal chair across the concrete patio.
Lena took her first full breath since opening the bathroom door, but she kept a grip on her makeshift weapon. Even though her mind told her there was no need to skulk about, her instincts hadn’t quite bought into the notion.
She would just take a quick look around to set her mind at ease before getting ready for her meeting. Water dripped from her wet hair onto her bare shoulders and down her back. She tried not to think about her vulnerable state as she drifted through her loft.
A furtive movement to her right caught her eye. There, in her studio, she spotted a hooded figure. He’d already removed the original Woman Walking from its wooden easel and was now draping a black cloth over the painting.
All the air whooshed from her lungs, and she experienced a sudden lightheadedness.
He wasn’t there to kill her, but to steal the painting. Lena couldn’t let that happen. The loss would ruin her, professionally and financially. No way would she allow everything she’d built in the past ten years to be sucked away in ten minutes.
Raising the walking stick, she charged the intruder. Prepared to clobber him unconscious.
He must have heard her pounding feet above the music because he whirled away at the last moment, but not fast enough to avoid the totality of her downward strike. Her weapon connected with the right side of his head, raking down his ear.
He let out a grunt-scream and pressed a hand against the side of his head, as he stumbled away. A black mask covered everything but his eyes.
“Who are you? How did you get in here?” she demanded, advancing on him.
Taking in her cavewoman appearance, he stared at her wide-eyed for several heartbeats until his self-preservation chip fired up.
He kicked out, slamming his foot into her solar plexus and sending her sprawling across her wooden floor. The thick towel wrapped around her body flipped open, revealing an embarrassing view of her lady parts.
The burglar lifted the gilt frame from where he’d propped it against her red chair and bolted out of her loft.
She rolled to her hands and knees and fought to catch her breath. Grabbing her stick, she pushed to her feet and took off after him.