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Levi (Heartbreakers & Troublemakers Book 4) by Hope Hitchens (1)

1

Audra

The minute hand on the clock ticked past the six. Brandon was officially late. I had places to be; work, for one. Not a concept he was familiar with, I thought bitterly. Hecate, my cat, was watching me pace in the living room. She knew I was leaving and tended to have a little separation anxiety. That was the reason I had gotten the second cat, Hephaestus.

Brandon, my ex, had Hephaestus with him. He was supposed to be here at exactly eight-thirty to drop him off. He had been using the cat as a reason to see me for days now. We had gotten him together, so he liked to claim that it was his cat too. When we broke up the last time, he demanded he get to keep him. I said okay, knowing he wouldn’t last a week with him. Hairless cats are extremely high maintenance, and his lazy ass had cracked after just four days.

I was so scared he would try to surrender him at a shelter. Maybe he was using Hephaestus as an excuse to come to my house again but fuck it. The only way I would allow him back into the house was if he was bringing the cat with him.

We had been through this whole sad song and dance before. This last breakup would be at least the fourth or fifth time that we had split since we had started dating around the time I got to California.

Whatever you do Audra, don’t let him trick you into giving him another chance. He’s a bum and a liar, Audra. If you’re going to make bad decisions at least make them with better men.

The doorbell finally rang. I lunged for the door, flinging it open. It was him. Brandon. I wanted to smack the smarm off his face.

“Hey, Audra,” he said. He kissed my temple as he walked in. I rolled my eyes. He always looked around my apartment like it was the first time he had ever been in it, every time he came in. Maybe he was looking for signs that a man was living with me or something. There wasn’t another man, but that wasn’t any of his business, and I wasn’t going to bring it up. He was wearing what a lot of people might mistake for the casual dress of people who work in tech; jeans and a t-shirt—neither ironed.

Brandon was not employed. He used to be but was laid off. At least that was the story he gave. I was willing to bet he had just angered the wrong people and been fired. Being unemployed wasn’t a bad thing in itself. Brandon however, was willfully unemployed. There was a difference between being between jobs and being jobless. Brandon was jobless. When we were together, I made enough to help him out a little. He also had parents who were nice enough to pay his rent when he couldn’t, but at some point; enough was enough.

“You’re late. I have places to go,” I said impatiently. Hecate had spotted the cat carrier and was sniffing around it; she could smell the other cat.

“Still working for those slave drivers at the antique place?”

Auction house. I worked at an auction house.

“Just give me the cat and go,” I said, reaching for the carrier. I put it on the floor and opened the top seeing Hephaestus’s bright blue eyes looking up at me. I reached into it and lifted him out. I hugged him to my chest, scratching him under the chin. I’d definitely have to give him a bath once I got back home; there was no way Brandon had been keeping up with that.

“He didn’t like the food I gave him. It made him sick.”

“Were you feeding him the canned stuff? He can’t eat that. Both of them have to eat raw food,” I said crossly. I examined my cat. It hadn’t been long enough for him to lose a considerable amount of weight, but it made me mad that Brandon, for all the time we’d been together, didn’t know what to feed him. The breeder had warned me that sometimes the cats wouldn’t take to canned food well. I had been feeding them both raw food diets, and they’d been great. I had been feeding them. Even though Brandon harped on about Hephaestus being our cat, I always fed them.

I put him down and went to the kitchen to prepare a bowl for him. I was going to be late. Brandon followed me.

“Audra, can we talk?”

You can talk if you want to, but I have to leave right now,” I said, distracted. I thawed out the cat’s food in portions. That meant I always had thawing raw meat on my counter or fridge at any given time of the day. I scooped the red, bloody meat into his food bowl and put it on the ground, filling up Hecate’s too because she’d try to eat his.

“I think we should try again, Audra.”

I didn’t. I started for my room, and he followed, uninvited.

“Uh-huh,” I said. I opened the drawer I kept my cats’ clothes in. No, I wasn’t that girl who dressed her cats up because they were the babies she would never give birth to. Sphinxes were hairless. They got cold. They also got dirty really fast. The sweaters made life a little easier and stretched the amount of time they and my white linen could survive between baths.

“Audra,” I had to pause because he had taken one of my hands. I looked at him. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. His beard was the same strawberry blonde his head hair was. Red, basically. He was the west coast brand of the abominable losers I thought I had left behind in Brooklyn. He was unemployed but somehow had enough money to live in San Francisco and drink five-dollar coffees every day.

“I know I fucked up. You’re perfect. You deserve better. Give me another chance.”

Another chance? This fool was on his umpteenth chance already. More lives than my cats. I tried to pull my hand back, but he didn’t let me.

“I don’t want to be with you, Brandon. We’re done.”

Please, Audra,” he said. I looked at him. Unshaven and making me late for work. How had I wasted the two years I’d lived in California being lied to by this asshole? I sighed. He was cute, though. He was tall and lanky, oversexed and underfed. “I want to take you out. Tonight.” His other hand touched my face. He had hands like mine, smooth because he hadn’t done an honest day’s work in months.

“This last time was the last time, Brandon.” The real last time. I said I wouldn’t do it again several times. I tried to take my hand back again, but he pulled me into him and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away.

“I’m going to be late for work; stop it.” I grabbed a blue and white sweater to put on my cat and left the room. I gently interrupted Hephaestus’s meal to pull his sweater over him. He had white skin; another case for the sweater when he went in the sun. He didn’t tan like a person; he burned. I headed for the door and grabbed my purse. Was it worth it to try and get the bus or was I better off trying to drive to work that day?

“Audra, please,” I heard Brandon say behind me. His voice was strained, and I knew what was coming next. I hated it when guys cried. It was my fucking kryptonite, and Brandon’s sneaky ass knew that. I turned and looked at him. His eyes were glassy and wet. I didn’t want to set him off.

“You can come here at seven,” I said grudgingly.

“You won’t regret it, Audra,” he said. He caught my body in a very tight hug and kissed my cheek. I shooed him out and grabbed my purse and keys before leaving myself.

* * *

The Strickland auction house was a huge, austere structure in South of Market. Strickland’s, we called it, like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. It was far more recent however and as far as I knew, only had the one San Francisco franchise. I lived about five or so minutes away by train, and less than ten by car. It felt like an entire hour when I was running late. I spent almost as much time trying to find a space in the parking garage as I had getting from the house to the building in the first place.

I tried not to run; that would only make it worse. I was trotting, trying to act like I wasn’t by the time I made it into the building and up the elevator to my level. I saw Scarlett by my desk. Leggy and blonde. She was an intern. She was carrying several coffees—none of them for me. I’d been there before as an intern myself, so I never asked her to get one for me.

“You’re late,” she said as I came up to my desk.

“Who else noticed?” I asked. I dropped my purse on the desk and sat, trying to look like nearly twenty minutes hadn’t passed since I was meant to be at work.

“No one yet. I was stalling till you got here. Clapsaddle wants to see you.”

Timothy Clapsaddle—not a made-up name—was the manager of the auction house.

“What’s going on?” I asked, breathless.

“Didn’t you hear? Strickland died,” she said.

Jackson Strickland? When?”

“Can’t be sure. I just heard. His family released the official statement just today apparently, but I heard he’s been out for a while.”

Jackson Strickland was the owner—former owner now—of the auction house. The Strickland after whom the establishment was named. Old and rich. Obscenely rich. This place was just one on the long list of businesses that he owned or ran in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. He’d apparently been suffering kidney trouble. The stories never alluded to them being this severe, however.

“That’s awful. What now? Are we getting sold?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s most likely staying in his family. I think that’s why Clapsaddle wants to see you.”

I frowned. I just had more questions. I thanked her and got up, smoothing my skirt down on my way to Timothy’s office. I passed Gordon’s empty office. Gordon was a cataloguer too, but he was managing a guest exhibition at the SFMOMA. He was head cataloguer, but because he was absent, I was getting a lot more work.

We weren’t the only cataloguers in the place, but there was a bit of a hierarchy with the junior cataloguers. Some of us were more junior than others. The art history masters were at the top of the pecking order, along with the people who had second languages. The bachelors were below that, and the fine art crossovers below them.

I knocked before entering Timothy’s office though he could see me through the glass door. He motioned for me to come in and sit. He paused dramatically before he said anything. Timothy, if the office rumor mill was to be believed, had lived quite the life. He was allegedly an artist before he started working in auction houses. He also allegedly favored the use of psychedelic drugs while doing his paintings.

Meeting him, it wasn’t that hard to believe. He was a little zany. There was almost no contemporary art trivia he didn’t know. He had a head of hair which I had watched turn from brown to white in the couple years I had worked here. He was any age between forty and sixty-five; it was a little hard to tell. He always called me ‘Audrey,’ which was wrong, but I never bothered to correct him because he never listened.

“Audrey. Scarlett told me you had an emergency this morning,” he said. I smiled. Brandon was in no way an emergency, but I was happy Scarlett had told him it was.

“All taken care of. She said you wanted to see me?”

“I suppose you’ve heard by now; Jackson Strickland lost his battle with kidney disease,” he said sadly. He paused, moment of silence style. I gave it a couple of beats before saying anything.

“Is the auction house going to change ownership?” I asked.

“One of his sons is going to take over as owner, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. In Strickland’s will, he wanted his entire art and antique collection sold at auction through this house.”

“Who will act as consignor in his place?”

“One of his sons. He got the whole house and everything in it. That is where he has his collection. We have to start appraising and shipping it over immediately. The sooner we can have the exhibitions, the sooner we can hold the auctions.”

“So are we scrapping the exhibitions and auctions we have lined up to accommodate the Strickland lot?”

“It is a very big lot, Audrey. And it’s Jackson Strickland. We need to make his lot a priority. That is why I need you to begin appraisals as soon as possible.”

I knew what he was asking me, but I was swamped. We were currently showing an Asian art exhibition, and the auction was going to be the next week. Pieces kept coming in, and the lot was unfinished. I couldn’t just drop everything to do the Strickland lot’s appraisals.

“What happens to everything we have scheduled for the next few weeks?”

“Someone else takes care of it. You are the only in-house appraiser we have since George isn’t here.”

What he was saying was; I was the only person for the job. What he meant was; they didn’t want to get an independent contractor. Usually, we only needed one. I had gotten certified by the American Society of Appraisers, but they liked George—probably because he was older. My fresh certification was trumped by his years of practical application. Appraising was a little more work than cataloging was.

What I was hearing was, drop the assignment you have been slaving over for four days and pick this up. What I should have been hearing was, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, once George is back, we’re never asking you to appraise again.

He wasn’t necessarily asking me to do it. He was telling me. I shrugged.

“When do I start?”

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