Remi eyed the innocent-looking hole in the canvas over the rim of her glass.
Miles Davis played from hidden speakers above, bathing the austere gallery space in soft yellows and oranges.
There was a time when looking at this very painting had caused her an almost physical pain. Now, as bubbles of a very nice champagne tap-danced on her tongue, the hole was just a hole. A void that had become a beginning.
The painting, the bullet hole, Alessandra, Remington all had melded together, becoming something else. A piece of art, of history, of the future.
Remi heard a silvery laugh, light and bright. She spied her best friend, Camille, dressed in sleek dark plum. Her blonde head was tilted toward the snooty gallery owner, most likely charming the man into a substantial donation.
Remi’s lips quirked.
So many beautiful changes since one mad man had shot a hole through a painting.
A hand closed possessively around the base of her neck. The loosening of muscle, the submission to that familiar touch, delighted her. Even after all these years, Brick Callan’s claim on her still felt thrilling.
Forever was a beautiful thing.
“I don’t like watching you remember.” Her husband’s voice was low and gravelly, the way she liked it best. Dirty whispers in her ear over pancakes with the kids.
Remi leaned into him as if he were gravity to her world.
“It’s not really remembering,” she told him. “It’s become something else. It belongs to someone else.”
“But the memories are yours. Ours,” Brick said.
She tilted her head back and watched him stare pensively at the painting. Her protector. To him, the painting still meant danger and terror. A reminder of what-ifs.
She turned in his arms and slid a hand down his tie. “You look devastatingly handsome,” she said.
He was nearly a head taller than anyone else in the room, his shoulders by far the broadest. His hair was going gray, his eyes crinkling more when he smiled. And not even a gala fundraiser could make him shave. Brick Callan only got more attractive the older he got.
“You’re the only woman in this world who could make me put on a fucking suit and make small talk with strangers for ten hours,” he grumbled.
“Two hours,” she corrected with a laugh.
“Feels like ten.”
She adopted a pout and fluttered her eyelashes. “Poor Brick. Does your mean little wife force you into social interactions?”
Miles Davis gave way to a brighter jazz number that splattered rich reds and blues throughout the space beyond her husband’s head.
“She forces me into a lot of things I never thought I’d do,” he teased.
“She’ll make it up to you,” Remi predicted loftily.
“She already has.”
Remi fixed him with a glare. “You’re not being sweet to me right now, are you? You know I hate doing events with my eye makeup smeared all over my face.”
“Remington, look what you’ve done.” He stretched a muscled arm out to encompass the gallery. Currently, it only held a handful of nervous-looking amateur artists and determined gallery staff. But in moments, it would be full of fancy people with fat wallets who would be making not just the night, but possibly the career, of some of the artists present.
“Alessandra, buddy! Bro!” Her agent, Rajesh Thakur, appeared in a blue crushed velvet jacket and bowtie. He wore thick-rimmed glasses with the sole objective of taking them off and chewing on the earpiece pensively while he negotiated higher sales for his clients’ paintings.
She hadn’t used the name Alessandra professionally in years—she was Remi Callan now—but Raj still liked to make sure everyone in the room knew who she was.
“I see you surfaced from the appetizers,” Remi observed.
He tossed the shrimp tail in his hand over his shoulder. “What? Appetizers? No. I was just going over the timeline,” he lied.
“Pick up the shrimp or I’ll throw you in the nearest trash can,” Brick said blandly.
Raj laughed like it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard but backed up until he was within shrimp-grabbing distance.
“This guy’s hilarious,” he said, tossing the shrimp tail into the nearest garbage can then nudging it out of Brick’s line of sight. “When are we doing brunch, man?”
“Maybe after a head injury,” Brick suggested.
“Yours or mine? I kid. I kid,” Raj said, raising his palms in surrender. “Anyway, the wallets just arrived, so I’m going to go schmooze. See if I can’t get you seven figures for this year’s donation.”
He gagged on the word donation. Raj wasn’t a fan of her giving away an entire painting every year, no matter how good the cause. In fact, he downright hated it.
“Are you referring to Emily and Derek Price as ‘the wallets’?” Remi asked.
He gave her the double finger guns. “You know it. Let’s see how wide that money clip opens.”
She rolled her eyes. Emily Price was a billionaire scientist and entrepreneur. Her advances in skin care had revolutionized scar treatments. The foundation she and her sexy, suited, fixer husband ran worked almost exclusively with victims of violence to find and help the person beneath the scars.
They also happened to appreciate her work. A lot.
“I still can’t decide if I love him or hate him,” Brick said as Raj strolled away, pausing to shadow box at a green-around-the-gills watercolor artist.
She sighed. “Same here. I think it’s part of his charm.”
“Oh, good. You two are fully clothed and present.” Camille grinned as she joined them in front of the painting that had started it all.
“When have we been naked and missing?” Remi scoffed.
“Thanksgiving two years ago. Every happy hour from 2022 until present. And brunch last week.” Camille ticked the occasions off on her slim fingers.
“We weren’t naked and missing for brunch,” Remi argued. “Brick still had his pants on one leg and both shoes on. I’m pretty proud of that maneuvering.”
Her husband closed a hand over her mouth. “What my wife means to say is ‘What can we do to help make this the most successful auction yet?’”
Camille beamed at them, and for just a second, Remi was transported back to a time when her friend didn’t beam. Didn’t glow. A moment frozen in time when she wasn’t sure if Camille’s eyes would ever open again. She blew out a slow breath. Brick’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
“Just be your beautiful selves and be as open as you can be with everyone. The artists appreciate it, and the donors love it.”
“You’re glowing,” Remi said, eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Her friend’s fair cheeks flushed, and a coy smile played on her lips.
“No!” Remi said.
“Yes!” Eyes damp, Camille waved her husband over.
“What’s happening?” Brick asked, frowning at the conversation that was taking place without enough words or context for his liking.
Carlos Turk was at Camille’s side in a heartbeat, looking dapper in a three-piece suit. When Brick made chief of police after Remi’s mother’s retirement, Carlos had been promoted to lieutenant. Together their husbands worked to keep the residents and tourists of Mackinac Island safe year-round.
“What do you need? Water? A chair? Are you cold?” He was halfway out of his jacket before Camille stopped him.
“Our shrewd friends guessed,” she told him.
“Guessed what?” Brick demanded.
“You’re having a baby,” Remi squealed, doing her best to wrap both Camille and Carlos into a fierce hug. It was yet another happily ever after for the woman who had walked through flames and come out the other side. With the amount of damage one man had inflicted on her body, pregnancy hadn’t sounded like it would ever be an option.
“What about the adoption?” Remi asked.
Brick gave her neck a warning squeeze. Even after all these years together, he still—wrongly—believed that people they loved deserved their privacy.
“We’re still adopting our little girl,” Carlos promised, grinning down at his pretty wife.
“The social worker says this actually happens a lot,” Camille explained. “Couples get so far into the adoption process and suddenly nature decides they’re ready to be parents the old-fashioned way, too.”
“I am going to throw you the biggest, best adoption slash baby shower Mackinac has ever seen,” Remi promised fervently.
“I have no doubt,” Camille said, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief her husband produced. “Please excuse the parental hormones. I’ve been doing this since we got our court date to finalize Vida’s adoption.”
“I know how you feel,” Remi commiserated.
Camille reached for her and gave her another hug. “I know you do.”
Remi and Brick’s first foray into parenting had begun with a child endangerment call. Five minutes after Brick and his officers arrived on-scene, Remi had shown up and announced that the little boy with the blond hair and sad blue eyes was coming home with them.
Legally it had been a tangle. But in every other tangible way, that was the moment the little boy became theirs.
Three years after William Callan III joined their family, their twin daughters had entered the world demanding every ounce of love their quiet, soft-hearted big brother had to offer.
“How far along are you?” Remi demanded.
“Far enough to know that it’s a girl,” Camille said. “And her daddy is going to make sure that she knows just how strong and special she is.”
“She might pick up a few things from her mom, too,” Remi predicted. A tear spilled over and tracked down her cheek.
“Now they’re both crying, asshole,” Brick complained to Carlos.
“Happy tears don’t count as crying,” Carlos insisted, looking just a little misty-eyed himself.
“We wanted to wish you ladies luck.” The voice with an accent that hinted at upper-crust London was designed to make ladies swoon. So was the man it came out of.
Derek Price looked dapper and delectable in a tailored suit. He was in his fifties with silver threading through his thick, dark hair. The Miami tan was undeniable on his skin.
He and Remi had become fast friends over a decade ago when he snatched up one of her paintings under the nose of a douchebag she wasn’t interested in selling to.
Brick and Derek shared a manly handshake and backslap greeting.
“You two look stunning,” Derek’s wife, Emily, said as she held out her hands to Remi and Camille.
“You should talk,” Remi teased, eyeing Emily’s ivory pantsuit that managed to look both sexy and powerful.
“Speaking of stunning,” Derek said with a wolfish grin.
Emily rolled her eyes and laid a hand over his lapel. “My husband is once again enamored with this year’s painting.”
“He’s got good taste,” Remi said.
Derek had been her first commission. And her third. And sixth. His enthusiasm for her work had attracted the attention of other obscenely wealthy clients. Many of whom were in attendance tonight, hoping to snap up the newest piece.
All proceeds would go straight to Camille’s foundation, A New Beginning. It would be put to good use funding housing, education, and therapeutic and work programs for the survivors of domestic abuse.
They’d taken something dark and ugly and turned it into hope. And no matter how many commas were in Remi’s bank account, she’d always be prouder of that hope.
“Camille.” Derek greeted her warmly. “I’ve got a few crusty donors out there who might need an extra dose of your charm before they pry open their wallets.”
“Carlos and I will be happy to work our magic,” Camille said, tucking her arm through her husband’s.
“Who can say no to this face?” Carlos asked, pointing to himself and grinning.
Brick casually scratched his nose with his middle finger.
“We may need to unleash all of our men on the Bartolome sisters,” Camille warned. “They tend to be more generous when devastatingly handsome men are fetching them drinks.”
“Consider it done,” Derek promised, pressing a kiss to Emily’s cheek.
“Happy to flirt for a good cause,” Carlos agreed.
Brick grunted his assent, and Remi laughed.
“Good, Brick,” Camille said. “They’re particularly fond of the strong, silent type.”
He grunted again.
A party planner with a headset arrived in front of their happy little group at the same time as Camille’s assistant.
“You first,” Camille said, pointing to her assistant.
“The AV system just started smoking.”
She pointed at the party planner.
“Gloria Moretta and her husband just arrived.”
“I’ll take the Morettas if you take the technical difficulties,” Remi volunteered.
Gloria and Aldo Moretta were the kind of couple that glowed. And they glowed brighter when they looked at each other. She was a petite woman dressed in a magenta cocktail dress with flowers tucked into her short, dark hair. Her beauty radiated from the inside out.
Where Gloria was tiny, Aldo was a burly bear of a man who, despite his charming grin, was obviously hovering as his wife paced in the small lounge off the main gallery space. The nerves were palpable.
Remi, with Brick on her heels, rapped lightly on the door frame. “Hello, Morettas. Are you two ready for your big night?” she asked brightly.
“We will be,” Aldo said, without taking his eyes off his wife.
“Of course,” Gloria agreed with a brisk nod. “We’re honored to be here. Who wouldn’t be? I mean, I’m not really sure why I’m here.” She raised worried brown eyes to Remi’s face.
“You’re here to accept the New Beginning Community Award for your work in your hometown,” Remi reminded
“I feel like a fraud,” Gloria whispered.
“Gloria,” her husband said her name with an adorable combination of love and frustration.
She shook her head. “There are people out there who’ve donated millions of dollars. You paint a freaking masterpiece and put it up for auction, for God’s sake. You’re the ones making a real difference.”
“Sweetheart.” This time Aldo stopped her in her tracks and firmly but gently pulled her back to his front. “You’re spouting bullshit,” he said gruffly in her ear.
Gloria blew out a breath. “Sometimes—like right now—I feel like I just got lucky.”
Remi approached her slowly, keeping her smile fixed in place. “Gloria. I’m going to tell you something that I’m sure your husband has already told you. Luck can only present you with opportunity. You have to be smart enough, strong enough, to act on that opportunity.”
Over his wife’s shoulder, Aldo’s lips quirked.
Gloria managed a small smile. “Thank you for that.”
Before she could respond, Brick surprised the hell out of her and willingly joined the conversation.
“You gave a roof and security to twelve women and their children last year alone,” he said. “You could have used those rental properties to make money, but you didn’t. You used them to make a difference to a dozen families.”
Remi blinked. It was the most words Brick had ever uttered to one person at an event like this. She was simultaneously proud and turned on and telegraphed both by taking his hand and squeezing it.
“But there’s more to be done,” Gloria said softly.
“Your story gives them something more important than decimal points,” Remi argued. “You give them hope. You fought. You survived. You earned your happily ever after. That hope is what everyone needs. Because once you see the possibility, you start believing it’s possible for you.”
Once again, Brick’s hand settled at the base of her neck, warm and solid.
Gloria blew out a shaky breath. “You sound like my husband.”
“I’m very wise,” Aldo insisted.
“Thank you, both,” Gloria said.
Aldo cleared his throat.
“And you, too,” she said, laughter in her tone now.
Remi watched the woman find her center and close the door on the doubt. “You’re the hero of your story, Gloria. Not the victim,” she said.
“You’re a reminder that good things can come from the dark,” Brick said.
When Gloria’s eyes got bright with tears, Remi felt the prickle in her own.
“Stop,” Brick commanded.
“He’s right,” Aldo agreed. “You two are about ten seconds away from mascara streaks.”
Remi reached out and clasped Gloria’s hands. “Good?”
Gloria squeezed her back. “Great.”
“What do you say we take a lap?” Aldo suggested. “Get a glass of champagne? Make out in a dark corner?”
“I say you’re on.”
“We’ll see you out there,” Remi said.
She watched them leave, arms anchoring them to each other, before turning to her own anchor. “That was the nicest thing I’ve ever heard Forced Socialization Brick say,” she said, looping her arms around his neck.
“I live to serve,” he said, nibbling gently along her jawline.
She let out a groan. “Don’t start anything we can’t finish.”
“You already painted the painting,” he said, nipping her neck. “We could just go back to the hotel.”
“Our hotel room is full of children,” she reminded him.
“We’ll get another room.”
“Speaking of the kids,” Remi said, pulling back, “we have just enough time to check in before we go back out there and raise a kajillion dollars.”
He delighted her with a grumpy growl.
“And then we’ll go back to the hotel and have a whole bunch of sex,” she promised.
“Deal,” he said gruffly.
She popped the clasp on her clutch and started digging for her phone. A Band-Aid, her lip gloss, and a paintbrush fell to the floor.
On a sigh, Brick sank down and picked them up. “Why are you carrying a paintbrush?”
“Seriously?” she asked.
“You really think you’re going to have to create an emergency tiny painting?”
“I’m surprised you have to ask. Doesn’t it look familiar?” Remi asked smugly.
“You’re the one who got it for me.”
He studied the brush. “When?”
“My high school graduation.”
She saw the understanding dawn on his handsome face.
“The art kit I got you in St. Ignace.”
“The day you refused to let me jump your bones in the alley,” she teased.
But he was still staring at the brush. “You kept this? All this time?” he asked, his voice thick and gruff.
“We artists are a superstitious bunch. Every single one of my paintings starts with this brush. One you gave me. Because you always believed in me even when you didn’t believe in us.”
Brick shook his head slowly before raising his gaze to hers. “After all this time, I’m still finding new things to love about you. How did I get so fucking lucky?”
“A wise, beautiful woman once said, ‘Luck can only present you with opportunity. You have to be smart enough, strong enough, to act on that opportunity.’ And you, my handsome husband, are more than smart enough, strong enough.”
“I love you, Remington.” His voice was rough with emotion. “It doesn’t mean enough, prove enough. It doesn’t explain how essential you are to me. How you’ve made my entire life.”
Her heart did the familiar pitter-pat in her chest.
“I’m pretty fond of you too, big guy. But I’m seriously going to murder your face if you make me cry.”
“Holy Janice Joplin,” Remi whispered.
The scene that awaited them in their hotel suite was one of chaos and confusion. Typical, Brick had found, for leaving their three kids with adults other than himself. His plans for sneaking his beautiful wife past their sleeping family so he could show her just how very proud he was of her with his body moved to the back burner.
Every pillow, blanket, towel, and couch cushion in the suite, plus what looked like a few dozen extras, had been used to create a blanket fortress in the living area.
Grandpa William snored loudly from an armchair at the entrance to the fort. Spencer’s feet poked out from a wall made from a sheet. Brick hoped for his brother’s sake that Spencer’s pregnant wife, Aubrey, was asleep in a bed in their hotel room.
“We should have made your parents come along for backup,” Brick said on a sigh.
“They’re watching Kimber’s kids while my sister and her husband are at that adults-only resort.”
“Why didn’t we go with them again?” he teased.
“Because we went last month, smarty pants.”
A memory of Remi in a very small bikini brought a wolfish smile to his face.
“You’re picturing me in that bikini, aren’t you?” she accused.
“Can you blame me?” He glanced back at the tent. “Think they’re all in there?”
“Only one way to find out,” she said with a wink. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled into the entrance.
“Fuck,” he muttered as he followed suit. His almost fifty-year-old knees were not made for this kind of abuse.
He followed his wife’s shapely ass into the belly of the fort.
She stopped short and shot him an amused look over her shoulder.
“Hi, Mommy! Hi, Daddy!” A tiny redhead in mismatched pajamas popped out of a pile of kids and pillows. Lily’s hair was a snarl of tangled curls that she had to keep shoving off her forehead.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Remi whispered.
“What are you still doing up?” Brick asked, pretending to be stern.
But just like their mother, his daughters had never once been intimidated by him. Lily beamed up at him, the new gap in her toothy smile making her look even more mischievous.
“I wanted to show you the fort,” she whispered back. “We reinforced it with couch cushions.”
Lily had been born with the problem-solving mind of an engineer…and the problem-causing nature of her mother. He had no doubt that one day he and Remi would enter a building or cross a bridge their daughter had designed.
“Smart design,” he observed.
“I know,” she said smugly. Then rolled her eyes at her mother’s pointed throat clearing. “I mean thank you.”
On the other side of the pile, another head popped up. This one with a stubborn cowlick. Will rubbed his eyes sleepily.
“Is it morning?” he croaked.
“No, buddy,” Remi whispered, moving in for a cuddle. At eight years old, their little man was getting “too old” for snuggles, at least according to him. Remi had made it her mission to get as many hugs out of him as possible since his announcement.
Will tolerated the hand she stroked through his hair. “Did you raise enough money to help more ladies?” he asked on a yawn.
“We sure did,” she told him.
Brick read the look his wife sent him. Love. Fierce and sure. Remi was happiest when surrounded by her family. He felt the same.
“Good job, Mom,” Will said sleepily.
“Thanks, buddy. Where did all these extra pillows come from?” she asked.
“Penny figured out how to call the front desk. She also ordered hot dogs, chicken fingers, and cake for second supper after Grandpa and Uncle Spence fell asleep.”
Brick made a mental note to disconnect the room phones next time as he eyed their most mischievous child, who was sound asleep on her belly, arms and legs spread like a starfish. Remi liked to joke that Penny slept like the dead because she was so exhausted from hell-raising all day. It was the truth. If there was a loophole to a rule, she was the first to find it, exploit it, and then explain to every authority figure why she was right and they were wrong.
“Technically you said no dessert. But old Halloween candy we found in a drawer isn’t dessert. It’s just candy.”
She had all the makings of a very expensive lawyer.
“Daddy, will you and Mommy sleep in here with us?” Lily asked, pouting prettily.
It took every ounce of his willpower to be firm with his girls when they looked at him like that. Tonight, all he wanted to do was sprawl out on the king-sized bed and worship Remi until they both fell asleep.
Remi grinned at him, most likely reading his thoughts. “I don’t think there’s enough room in here for us,” she pointed out.
Yeah, she was definitely reading his mind, Brick decided.
“But we made a room for you,” Will said, pointing toward what looked like a tiny hallway.
“Yeah, and we used all your pillows and blankets for the construction,” Penny announced.
“Daddy’s back won’t like sleeping on the floor,” Remi said, trying again.
Brick admired her dogged optimism that she would always be able to outmaneuver their children. He had long ago accepted the fact that they were outnumbered and outgunned.
“But you’re not sleeping on the floor,” Lily insisted with an eye-roll of the perpetually underestimated. “Come see!”
Remi took the bait and crawled after their daughter.
Brick ran his hand through Will’s tousled hair. “Your sisters get into any trouble while we were gone?”
Will gave him a lopsided grin that had always made his heart feel too big for his chest since the very first time he’d seen it. “Nah. They were pretty okay. They didn’t want Grandpa and Uncle Spence to get in trouble like last time.”
He heard Remi’s laugh, light and bright. “Brick, you’ve got to see this,” she called softly.
He really didn’t want to. Sometimes it was better not to witness the chaos his kids were capable of. Besides, once chaos had been witnessed, the parent doing the witnessing was required to fix it, clean it up, or begin the discipline.
He only deployed the “Pretend I Didn’t See It” evasion tactic in extreme emergencies. Like that one time during the Callan Kid Stomach Bug Week when he’d faked a work emergency just to get an hour away from all the vomit. He’d made up for it, as he should, by returning with chicken soup and Saltines for the kids and a very large bottle of wine for his wife.
With great reluctance, he crawled through the tunnel after his wife.
“Look what they did,” she exclaimed.
This part of the fort had a higher ceiling made possible by a pair of stolen luggage carts.
Between them was the mattress from their bed, piled high with pillows, blankets, and snacks from the minibar.
“How in the hell—”
“It was easy, Daddy! The bellskips who brought us the extra sheets and pillows helped,” Lily said.
“Bellhops,” Will corrected his sister, crawling up next to Brick.
“Guess how many bellhops it takes to move a mattress?” Lily asked at full volume.
“Shh! You’ll wake up Grandpa, and he had a hard night watching us,” Will cautioned.
“Two bellhops?” Remi asked hopefully.
Lily shook her head. “Nope. Five! They were so nice!”
“You’re going to have to sell another painting to cover the tips and the minibar,” Brick told Remi.
She picked up a mini bottle of tequila from the pile of snacks. “Might be worth it.”
He watched his wife climb onto the mattress and pat the space next to her. “I think we’re out of excuses, handsome.”
Brick heaved a weary sigh.
“Do you like it, Daddy? We worked really hard on it,” Lily whispered.
He gave her and Will a long, serious look. And then he grinned. “It’s the greatest pillow fort I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes!” Will and Lily high-fived.
Brick grabbed both kids and tossed them onto the mattress next to their mother. Delighted giggles rang out, and again his chest felt that expansive brightness. He settled in next to them and collapsed against the pillows, letting out a fake snore.
Lily snickered, then pinched his nose shut.
“Hi, Mommy. Hi, Daddy. Can I sleep with you guys?”
Brick opened one eye to spy Penny crawling into their wing of the fort. Her ponytail was lopsided, and she had what he hoped was ketchup smeared all over her pajama top. He’d learned early on in his career as a father to identify the difference between condiments and blood from a distance.
“Join the party, kiddo,” Remi said, throwing back the blanket.
Penny crawled onto the mattress, curled herself into Brick’s side, and did what she’d done since she was an infant—fell asleep in his arms.
“This was like that time we all had the tummy bug and we had a big sleepover in the living room,” Will observed, his hands tucked under his head as he stared up at the sheet overhead.
“Yeah. That was the best.” Lily sighed happily.
Long minutes later, Brick found himself separated from his wife by three sleeping kids. He turned his head to study Remi, who was smiling with her eyes closed.
She must have felt his attention because those long lashes fluttered, and then she was looking at him. Her face was soft with affection.
“I love you, Brick. Forever.”
The words hit him as they always did. Reminding him that he was the luckiest man on earth.
“I love you, Remi. Always. When these monsters go to the kid’s museum tomorrow with the Prices and the Morettas, you’re all mine,” he told her.
Her smile was mischievous. “I always have been.”