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Think about the worst moment in your life. A moment that changed irrevocably everything you’ve ever known. Would you take that moment back?

 
What if that moment offers you a different life, allows you to do things you would never do otherwise? Meet people you would never know?
 
Think again.
 
That one moment transforms the lives of a dozen people, each keeping a secret they can never expose. A single thread ties them together. Inextricably and forever. Cut it, and someone dies.
 
Now, would you take that moment back?

 

Read the first chapter below

 

 

Chapter One

The Tall Dark Stranger

“Abstract Expressionism.” Miranda wrinkled her nose. Monet, Degas, Renoir―they were artists she appreciated. Nothing abstract about them. So why was she going to the gallery opening of some no-name Canadian abstract expressionist? Simple. Because accepting Alan’s last-minute invitation seemed like a better idea than what she had planned for a Friday night. Absolutely nothing.

After rummaging through her wardrobe, she plucked a hanger from the closet. “You again. A girl can never go wrong with the little black dress.” She paused. “And you,” she said to the beaded jacket, a sale purchase from a shop on Newbury Street, “will add some pizzazz.”

Ten minutes later, the buzzer rang, and she scooted out the door. Alan leaned against the iron railing, looking, as always, like something off a Paris fashion runway.

“Breathtaking.” He latched on to her arm. “Love the jacket.”

“Do you? First time I’ve had a place to wear it.”

“I don’t understand why men aren’t flocking to you like groupies to rock stars. What’s wrong with these straight guys anyway?” He tapped his finger on what he always called her goyishe nose. “Men are afraid to ask beautiful women out because they think you’ll shoo them away like nasty flies.”

Miranda snorted. “Right. Poor guys. I’m so beautiful they’re afraid of me. That’s bullshit, Alan, and you know it.”

“Stop your damn swearing. Mr. Stanford is one of those holier-than-thou types. He might be a friend of your father’s, but one F-bomb and you’ll be out on your ass without a job.”

“Gee, and that’s my favorite swearword.” She flashed a teasing smile, and he punched her arm.

“You’re too much. Come on. There should be champagne at the gallery. After this week, we both could use a glass.”

“What would I do without you, BFF? You’re my ticket to all the trendy events in town.”

“And what would I do without you? You’re my cover. Selma would jump off the frigging Tobin Bridge if she found out I was gay. That’d be more Jewish guilt than I could handle.”

Miranda broke up with laughter. Poor Alan. He had the mother from hell, always prodding him to find a nice Jewish girl and give her grandchildren. That was never going to happen.

They walked the few blocks to Newbury Street, bracing against the late March wind, typical of Boston. She shivered. “Maybe I should have worn my winter coat. We might have passed into spring on the calendar, but spring didn’t get the memo.”

“Come here, girlfriend.” Alan wrapped his arm around her, smothering her shivers. “Would you look at this? Not a parking space in sight. I’d have torn out my hair if we’d driven.”

The artsy crowd packed the gallery’s opening night. Once inside, Alan grabbed two champagne flutes off the tray of a roaming waiter, giving him the eye and getting one back.

“Half the city’s here. Hey, check out that couple," he whispered in Miranda’s ear. "I’ll tell you all about those two tomorrow. Scandalous. Clue―that’s not his wife. In fact,” Alan cupped his hand around her ear, “she’s not a she.”

“Huh? You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Oh, there’s Jeffrey. Mind if I go over and thank him for cluing us in on this?”

Miranda waved him on. “I’m a big girl, Alan. I can take care of myself.”

“Be right back.”

She stole another peek at the object of Alan’s gossip―sheesh, who’d’ve thought? After stopping to chat with a few acquaintances, she continued her stroll around the gallery, listening to varying reviews of the art.

The paintings, displayed on white walls with halogen spots, hung in three different abstract groups―figuratives, landscapes, and paintings the art world might describe as “what the fuck.” The artist had wielded his brush with thick, vibrant color, creating an impression of movement and energy. Miranda stood back, sipped her champagne, and squinted at each one. The portraits were easy to distinguish as were the landscapes, but she couldn’t for the life of her define the subject matter of the third category, and their titles didn’t help. Dream #1 was anything but dreamy. More like a nightmare.

“Well, what do you think?” a deep, slightly accented voice from behind her asked. “Do you like them?”

She turned to the tall, exotically handsome man who asked her opinion. He wore his dark brown hair long enough to partially cover a small diamond stud, and his smile revealed unnaturally white teeth. But his most riveting feature was his eyes―black and piercing and intensely focused on her. Heat rose on her face as those same eyes flashed with amusement at the obvious impact he had on her. She couldn’t help herself. The man could have been a movie-star idol.

“I haven’t had a chance to study them all,” she said, “but I like a few.”

“And the others?”

She stood back, deliberating, then faced him square on. “Suck.”

Gorgeous burst out laughing. People turned to see what happened. “I love it. A breath of fresh air.”

“Well, I mean, take that one.” She pointed to a large canvas with a black figure embracing a red figure. “Who are they supposed to be? Fred and Ginger?”

“The black figure is Medea.”

“What’s she doing? Is she―” Miranda stopped when she figured out the action in the painting. She shuddered. “Now I know I don’t like it. The artist―what’s his name, I forgot―must be a whackjob.”

“Hmm, could be.”

“Where is he anyway? Point him out.”

A subtle bow accompanied his offered hand. “Stephen Baltraine, at your service,” he said with a playful smile. His gaze remained on her face, exactly where it had been throughout their conversation.

Miranda’s cheeks flamed. “My father always said anyone asking my opinion better be ready for it.” She forced a smile. “I should learn to keep my mouth shut until I know who I’m talking to.”

“I’m just glad you spoke softly.”

“I don’t suppose I could start over and say it’s fabulously frenetic and original, could I?”

He leaned into her. “Not a chance. Anyway, I appreciate honesty. I’m not insulted. My work is an acquired taste.”

His total concentration and the scent of his spicy cologne as he neared caused Miranda to lose her train of thought. She secretly blessed the few admirers who stopped to shake his hand and praise his work, forcing him to release his visual hold, but not her arm. He charmed the patrons with smooth repartee, switching from slick to slicker. Was he phony or real? Miranda couldn’t decide.

When his fans departed, Stephen picked up where he left off. “Now to serious business. You haven’t told me your name.”

The respite from his intensity gave her time to collect herself. “Miranda Seaton.”

“Mir-an-da,” he repeated, extending the syllables as if he were contemplating them. “Pretty name for a pretty lady. Let me get you another glass of champagne.” He didn’t wait for her answer, snatching the half-empty glass from her hand and exchanging it for a fresh one.

“Since you insist.”

If Stephen noticed the sarcasm, he didn’t let on. Instead, he hooked her arm through his and proceeded to walk her around the gallery.

“Come on. I’ll give you a play-by-play of my work to help you understand it better.” He winked. “Maybe I can change your mind.”

Miranda caught the envious glares of the young women waiting their turn to approach him. He ignored them, focused entirely on her and his paintings. She listened, stretching her imagination to match his commentary. Some had pleasing compositions that teemed with energy, but she’d be lying if she said she liked them. She let him rattle on and kept her mouth shut.

In the middle of his explanation, Alan popped up in front of them, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Miranda, I do believe you’ve captured Best in Show.” He thrust out his hand. “I’m Alan Gold, Mr. Baltraine. I think your work is fantastic.”

Stephen took Alan’s outstretched hand and mumbled his thanks, obviously confused by the interruption.

“Alan is my escort for the evening, Stephen,” she said, explaining her friend’s abrupt presence. “It was his idea to come tonight.”

“I’m sorry, Alan.” Stephen backed up a step. “I didn’t know Miranda was with a date. Please forgive me.” Another bow to Miranda. “It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we can continue this another time, Miranda Seaton.” He turned, and within seconds a bevy of young female art groupies descended upon him as if he were the reincarnation of Rembrandt.

Alan turned toward the retreating figure. “Wow, I'm sorry, honey. If I thought my appearance would turn him into a disappearing act, I wouldn’t have butted in.”

“Don't worry about it. We'll chalk off his rudeness to artist's temperament. Those women were waiting in line for a crack at him. He won’t be alone for long. Screw him.”

Alan shot her a cautionary look.

“Well, I didn’t say fuck, did I?”

“You’re impossible. Listen, I’ll go tell him we’re just friends and―”

“Don’t you dare.” She flicked her hand in Stephen’s direction. “Forget it. No big deal.”

With a shrug, Alan said, “Well then, Jeffrey and a few others are going to All That Jazz on the Hill. I said we’d meet them.”

“Gee, I don’t think so.” After being brushed off by Stephen, she didn’t feel like being a third wheel. “I’m not in the mood, but you go on. I’ll walk home. I’m only a couple of blocks away.”

“Oh, come on. We’ll have fun.”

“No, really. I’ve had a great time, but I need to get home. It’s been a long week.”

“Then I’ll walk you home and catch up with the others later.”

“Will you go? I’ll be perfectly safe, and the walk over here proved how much I need the exercise.”

Alan dipped his head and gazed up at her with his finely tuned, little-boy expression. “Sure?”

“Promise.”

“Okay. See you Monday. Sweet dreams.” He blew an air kiss, flung his jacket dramatically over his shoulders, and vanished into the crowd.

Miranda smiled. How could anyone doubt Alan’s sexuality? What straight guy would stretch a one-syllable word like sure into a three-second production? He was a dear, though.

She deposited her glass on a tray and headed for the door. Outside, she wrapped her thin jacket around her more tightly. The wind had picked up, cooling the air. She hastened her step.

Halfway down the block, a shape eased up beside her, and she felt a hand around her back. She recoiled until she recognized Stephen Baltraine. She relaxed but, remembering the guy’s sudden cold shoulder only minutes before, kept her guard up.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” he asked, keeping pace. “How could he let you walk the streets alone at night?”

“Alan’s not my boyfriend.”

“Oh?”

“He and some others went to a club. I didn’t want to go.”

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Miranda stopped walking. “Won’t your patrons think you rude, sneaking out on them? After all, they came to meet you and buy your paintings.”

“The people who go to art exhibits are either rich collectors or wannabes who come to hobnob with the artsy-fartsy and drink the free booze. The real sales come either before the opening or after. I’ve already sold a few, and I’m sure I’ll sell a few more later, after everyone clears out and people judge whether I sold enough to make me a good investment.”

“So that’s how it works?”

“Exactly. I’ll tell you a secret. That unconventional artist bit is mostly an act. If I’m my boring self, no one would think I’m worth their money.”

“That sounds like you’re a phony. And the boring bit? I don’t buy it. Humility doesn’t suit you. I see right through you.”

He laughed, caught in his own hype. “Okay, you have me pegged.” He glanced back at the gallery. “The truth is, I really don’t like you walking the streets alone, but that couple coming out of the exhibit bought two of my paintings. Come back with me while I talk to them. Then I’ll walk you home.”

“Thanks, but I need to get going. I live close by. I’ll be perfectly safe. Please, go ahead. Tend to your business.”

“If you’re sure.” A few more people were leaving the gallery, and he took a few steps toward them, then back to Miranda as if he couldn’t make up his mind which way he wanted to go.

“I’d like to see you again. We can tell each other our life stories.” After another quick look back at the gallery, he said, “Really gotta go. I know you don’t know me, but since I saw you talking to David Masterson, you can check me out with him. He’s bought a couple of my pieces.”

“Mr. Masterson is a friend of my father’s.”

“I’ll leave the decision to you so you won’t think I’m too pushy.” He reached inside his breast pocket. “Here’s my card. My number’s on it. Call.” He handed it to her. “Okay?”

She nodded. “Well―”

“Sure you’ll be okay?”

“Positive.”

“Don’t forget. Call.” He waved and hurried back to the gallery, stopping to talk to the people waiting for him.

Miranda watched him for a moment. He turned and smiled at her, offering a shrug that said, Sorry, but business is business. What can I do? She glanced at his card, debating whether or not to toss it in the trash box at the corner. What the hell. She tucked it in her purse to decide later and headed toward her apartment.