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Flawed ~ Kim Karr by Karr, Kim (1)

Chapter 1

Art School Girl

Gemma Hart

MY BLOOD SUGAR starts to spike as I take another sip from my second can of soda and anxiously await the unloading of a very famous art collection.

The minutes are ticking by so slowly I can barely stand it.

I’ve drained the can, and I’m about to reach for a third when at long last my phone finally beeps. I have so much nervous energy, I almost jump out of my seat.

Reading the message, I breathe a sigh of relief. The text confirms it. “Everything is back on schedule.”

Thank God.

After a day of maddening, inexcusable delays, the driver must have received the same alert because without delay, the armed truck’s locked door finally rolls up.

Restricted to the confines of my car, I open my window and watch as the brown paper wrapped paintings are carefully handed one-by-one to the six-man team standing on the ground.

One.

Two.

Three.

With white knuckles, I clench the steering wheel and practically hold my breath until the very last painting is removed from the dark confines of the truck.

Twelve.

Phew.

They are all there.

When the heavy metal door slams closed, I start to feel a little giddy—like I actually accomplished something that for quite a while seemed impossible.

I lurch forward in my seat as the last works of art are carried into the makeshift, secure holding area.

When the final painting is no longer in my sight, I’m a bit crazed.

All I can say is what happens next is one-hundred percent out of my control. I arranged and organized the transportation of the works. Now, he’ll either allow the event or he won’t. I can’t do anything more than I have.

I put my palms together and pray.

It’s not that I’m religious, but who knows, maybe it will help.

Okay, so sometimes I can be a bit dramatic. I can’t help it. It’s in my blood. After all, it’s that very quality that drew me to art to begin with. The intrigue. The chase. The wait. The discovery. I love it all.

However, tonight isn’t about drama. It’s real. I’m not exaggerating the chaos that has ensued up to this point.

Not one bit.

The status of this event has been back and forth more times than a Ping-Pong ball in a professional tournament.

The event is on.

The event is off.

The event is absolutely on.

The event is positively off.

The event is back on—maybe.

Maybe.

I have to take it.

It’s not like I have a choice.

As long as there is a sliver of hope, I’m not giving up. Successfully displaying these works of art has the potential to catapult my career. At the same time, defeat could very well result in total professional failure.

As the Assistant Director for Exhibition and Program Funding at the San Diego Museum of Art, I am responsible for planning and coordinating all the museum’s fundraisers.

Yes, it’s true—my art history degree earned me a glorified party planner position. And yes, tonight my job includes babysitting the safe passage of the Andrés Baisden collection of 20th-century Mexican art while it makes its trek from the museum to this exact location and then back.

Not that I mind. When it comes to art, no job is too small or menial. Besides, putting this prized collection on display for the richest of the rich to admire is going to help raise an obscene amount of money.

It’s kind of a big deal.

The portfolio normally resides at its permanent home in the Centro Universitario in Mexico. However, this evening the handsome exhibition is not only on loan to the museum but at Mr. Enrique Cruz’s request, has been relocated from the museum to his estate in La Jolla, more specifically right here on the private grounds of his beach compound.

Mr. Enrique Cruz is a man you never say no to. So, when asked to change the venue, the answer was, of course, yes.

A member of The Powers of the Higher Mind, he is a man of wealth and influence and prestige. Many of the businesses catering to the mega-rich in this city are here solely because of the approval of this one man.

His power is boundless.

He can also be ruthless, so you never want to misstep anywhere near him.

The best way to put it—San Diego looks like San Diego and San Diego is San Diego—because of him.

He decides what businesses stay open and which close. His influence is widespread. To say everything of importance in this city bears Cruz’s imprint would be an understatement. He’s the wealthiest man in California—worth an estimated ten billion dollars, and he rules his empire with an iron fist.

Much to my chagrin, he has a soft spot for art, which is why I’m here, hoping beyond hope for success.

Attracting his attention is my goal.

I glance around. It’s quiet. The truck has gone dark. The security team is nowhere to be seen. At least I know the collection is safe behind locked gates. Now, I can breathe a sigh of relief and wait—some more.

Getting out of my car, I try not to pace. I’m not allowed up near the tent or inside the secured area until Mr. Cruz has given the green light for the event to go on as scheduled.

As I already said, it’s not on, but it’s not off. I’m not really quite sure what the status is, and it’s not like I can call him and ask him or even send him a quick text.

Typically, he’s elusive and unreachable, publicity-shy and enigmatic, maybe even paranoid. Mr. Cruz never invites anyone outside his small circle into his house, never gives out his phone number, and rarely allows people on his grounds.

However, tonight is one of those rare exceptions to the golden rule and he still might cancel everything at the last minute due to some kind of security breach.

Perhaps it was just a false alarm since he allowed the art to be unloaded? I hope so. I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed.

I breathe in the salty air and exhale, feeling thankful my one shot at making an impression hasn’t been shattered.

I have yet to meet the big boss man, and I feel slightly nervous about it. One person with so much power is a little intimidating. But I am more than qualified for the career path I hope to pursue and am sure he’ll be able to see that.

Having received my degree in History and Art at the University College London, I spent over a year unsuccessfully trying to secure a job at Christie’s Auction House. Penniless, I came back home to San Diego to work at the museum I grew up visiting, and they were more than happy to have me.

It wasn’t my first choice.

Or my second.

Or my third, for that matter.

Still, this is where I ended up, and I’m going to make the best of it. I aspire to become managing director. Once armed with experience under my belt, I plan to move back to London and broker fine art, either at Christie’s or any other prestigious firm.

As luck has it, Cruz is just the man I need to back me. He’s chairman of the museum’s board, and he has the influence to make things happen. So, when Isaac, my boss, dropped this new project in my lap—I jumped on it.

I stop my pacing and sag, feeling like the weight of a thousand pounds is on my shoulders.

My fugue state must be receding, or maybe the soda-high is wearing off, and I begin to feel a little sleepy.

A noise has me jerking my head up and what I see in the distance makes my heart swell with pride. The site for Cruz’s wife’s benefit to raise money for the construction of the county’s Art and Humanities Center is a bustle of brimming activity.

Finally.

Strings of twinkling lights have been turned on, one of the biggest up-and-coming bands is setting up on stage, and the best gourmet food in the city has just arrived.

I clap my hands together—this is so on.

As soon as the art pieces are moved to the easels awaiting them, everything will be in place and ready for the gala to begin. Albeit under a large, peaked tent surrounded by guards and not in the museum as initially intended, but still, I can’t complain.

To be honest, even with all the work it took to pull this off, this new venue couldn’t be more perfect. With its sprawling lawns and crisp ocean air, Enrique Cruz’s La Jolla estate is an idyllic setting.

Romantic.

Quiet.

Private.

The secluded grounds afford the security needed to raise money by allowing these most-prized, rarely seen pieces of art to be securely showcased all in one place for the wealthiest of the wealthy to view.

Members of The Powers of the Higher Mind are very private and despise the press. In fact, they dislike scrutiny of any kind.

I can barely contain my excitement for the night to begin. Unable to stand still, I start to pace around the grounds.

Anytime now, I should be allowed in.

Somehow, I end up a reasonable distance away from where the fundraiser will take place and even further away from where the estate sits.

In my silver strapless gown and heels, I try to avoid any missteps. I’d hate to land on my ass and get grass stained before I even say a single hello.

I look down.

The dress I’m wearing belongs to my mother, along with her one-of-a-kind necklace. I loved the uniqueness of the piece so much, I had a small pink heart inked on my shoulder.

It always reminds me of her.

My mother is half Latino and grew up in Columbia among the privileged few. This dress was one she wore to social obligations where she mingled among aristocrats and government officials. Haute couture. That was the kind of life she lived before she moved to the States. In fact, before she met my father, high society was her life, but then she gave it all up and chose love over money.

She’s such a romantic.

I stare at the dress and smile, remembering how happy I made her just because I wore it.

Crazy, right? How a dress and necklace could have that effect on anyone, yet it did.

 

With a burst of energy I hadn’t seen in a very long time, she carefully pulled a gray plastic bag out of the back of the closet. Unzipping it, she presented to me a beautiful gown fit for a queen. A queen, yes. Me, no. I rolled my eyes at how over the top it was.

“Mama, it’s going to be too small,” I’d told her.

“I can fix that. Besides, blessings come in small packages,” she’d said.

“Or curses,” I muttered. I was never one for girly, girly things. I’d have been fine wearing my jeans and Converse to the event. Okay, maybe it wouldn’t have been appropriate, but still, I hated dressing up.

Ignoring me, my mother laid the dress on the bed and then she reached inside the bag to the bottom. Taking out the black velvet box which held her very special necklace, she handed it to me. She refused to put it in the safe downstairs. Thought it was a beacon for someone to rob them. Silly, silly woman.

“It’s too much,” I tried to rationalize.

“Never.” That’s when she took me by the hand and said, “Gemma, a Latino woman should always walk into a party feeling like a million dollars. You’re sexy, and you’re not doing anything wrong by wearing this. Just try them both on.”

At the time, I tried not to laugh because of all the things I think I am—Latino isn’t one of them. But I slipped into the dress for her and put the necklace on, and as soon as I did, I felt like Cinderella on her way to the ball. “They’re beautiful,” I exclaimed.

Her smile was warm. “Who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone that you belong with and live happily ever after.”

I shook my head. “Mama, I have a career to build. Love is the last thing on my mind.”

She made a face. “Someday you’ll find it, my darling,” she’d said. “And like me, you’ll embrace it. I’m certain of it.”

“I hate the very idea of belonging to anyone,” I told her.

“Belonging has many meanings. If you find the right person, you won’t feel the way you do now. Trust me.”

That I don’t believe.

However, she was right about the dress and necklace.

I giggle a little just thinking about it, and the look of pride on my gorgeous mother’s face when I twirled around.

My hands glide down the smooth fabric as I walk.

Soft and luxurious.

I touch the necklace. No matter how much it’s worth, it’s priceless to my mother. She’d never give it up. And because of that, I never would either.

 

Beaming with pride, I keep walking.

When I get a little too close to the cliff for my liking, I stop. With at least a three-hundred-foot drop below me, I enjoy the moonlit ocean view from a safe distance.

I can hear the waves crashing against the rocks and the tide going in and out. The mesmerizing sound draws me closer, closer than I should dare step, but I’m not afraid.

Staring down below, I can’t help but think about how this night is going to change my life—just like the night of the masked ball changed Cinderella’s.

I’m standing not too far from the edge of the cliff when I hear the quiet thunder of someone running in my direction. The pace slows as the sound nears the drop-off, nears me.

Annoyed at the lack of congeniality Mr. Cruz’s staff seems to be showing me, I whirl around on my heels to address them face-to-face but lose my footing in the process.

My heart leaps in my throat at the danger I’m in, and at the same time, hot lava melts in my lower belly when I take in the shape of my hero.

Strong muscular arms are grasping me tight, saving me from what very well could have been a fatal fall.

A fall this stranger nearly caused, I remind myself.

He’s no hero, I tell myself.

Look away, I warn myself.

I open my mouth to lash out . . . but the words fall to the ground when I meet his strong, bottomless emerald gaze, and I’m stunned into silence.

Is this my Prince Charming?

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