Blog Tour & Giveaway: The Forger by Michele Hauf

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THE FORGER
Elite Crimes Unit #2
by Michele Hauf
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Pub Date: 8/8/2017
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Olivia Lawson’s bosses at Scotland Yard don’t take her work very
seriously. Art and antiquities? Bor-ing! But her latest
investigation, at London’s world-renowned Tate, is turning out to
be far more explosive than anyone expected. In fact, the vandalized,
booby-trapped painting hanging on the gallery wall would have blown
her off her feet if it wasn’t for the tall, dark-haired stranger
who tackled her at the last second—a stranger as finely sculpted as
any masterpiece in the museum.
 
Ethan Maxwell is working this case for the Elite Crimes Unit because it was
a choice between that and lockup. A (barely) reformed art forger,
he’s got the expertise to lead Olivia through a dangerous manhunt.
But the crime may have a more personal connection to him—and the
all-too-real feelings he’s developing toward Olivia could pull her
into the line of fire too . . .
 
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Chapter 1

London

 Olivia Lawson stood before the most hideous painting she had seen hung on the esteemed walls of the Tate Britain museum. Around her the forensics team and various police constables had begun to trickle in. Olivia had arrived twenty minutes ago, as soon as dispatch had forwarded her the call from Camila Wright, the museum’s director. The director had been frantic, and had suspected a vandalism.

Olivia had called in backup officers from Scotland Yard to search the outer perimeter of the museum. As she’d headed out, she’d stopped into her boss’s office. Superintendent Wellbrute had just been informed a gallery in SoHo, not far from where she lived, had been hit last week with methods similar to this morning’s incident at the Tate Britain. He didn’t understand why she hadn’t been on top of the SoHo incident. It was her job with the Arts and Antiquities Unit to investigate art crimes.

How could she be on top of what she hadn’t been aware of? Apparently the SoHo gallery owner had gone directly to Interpol instead of Scotland Yard. Which had miffed her boss. And baffled Olivia only so much. Private galleries had a lot at stake in keeping thefts quiet. They couldn’t have their reputations tarnished should Scotland Yard release information to the press. But it did stab at Olivia’s pride to have her boss angry with her. She should have heard about that one or picked up information from the art- world grapevine. Her lacking knowledge wasn’t going to help her status at Scotland Yard.

She needed to solve this case to show her boss she had what it took, and that she was not expendable. A promotion from constable to detective constable was her goal.

Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities Unit had been reduced to two police officers, her and Nigel Bellows, who was out with shingles. Not a day passed that Superintendent Wellbrute didn’t grumble about lacking funding, and who cared about art crimes, anyway? Wasn’t as if the perpetrator caused physical damage or violence to people such as with robbery or murder. Wouldn’t she be happier in dispatch or even—and this was always delivered with a wink—bringing him coffee and answering phones?

The cuts and insults never ceased, but Olivia would not break under such demeaning treatment. She was proud to be a woman working in the field of law enforcement and she would show the men exactly how valuable she was to Arts and Antiquities.

But before she tied herself up with worry knots over not learning about the SoHo incident, she had to decide if this call to the Tate was related to last week’s gallery vandalism, or was something else entirely.

Approaching the painting on the wall, Olivia took careful note of all surroundings, moving her gaze from the periphery and inward. As she reached the painting, she scanned the pale gray wall for fingerprints, smudges, disturbed dust. No dust. The museum’s housekeeping was meticulous.

Standing akimbo three feet away from the piece, Olivia scanned the ornate gold frame, which the director had insisted was the original that had framed the John Listen Byam Shaw masterpiece, Now Is Pilgrim Fair Autumn’s Charge, which had been the painting displayed on the wall. Or maybe it still was that painting. It was difficult to determine such.

Because pinned over the original—or whatever was beneath—was a stretched canvas, on which had been painted a copy of the Byam Shaw. An awful copy. Even the worst forger in the world would never take credit for such an aberration.

Trying not to stare too long at the horrible piece, Olivia took in everything else. No dirt in the curves and arabesques carved into the frame. Forensics would dust for prints and do a thorough run-through of the crime scene, but she always asked for a few minutes alone to take everything in. To make notes, both physical and mental. The painting hung about a foot above the green marble base that bordered the walls. Numerous other paintings from the Pre-Raphaelite period hung on the wall, close together but seemingly untouched.

With her cell phone, Olivia snapped a few pictures of the entire frame and pinned canvas. Some were close-ups of the frame; the texture of the paint on the new canvas; brushstrokes. It was a slapdash job, but she sensed whoever had painted this copy had sincerely attempted to imitate the master. The colors in the original were bold oranges, reds, and browns. The copy had matched them perfectly. And the wispy ghost-like creature crawling out of the water in the foreground was also executed with a careful hand.

Olivia stepped back and bumped into a man wearing white scrubs over his jeans and T-shirt. “Sorry, Howard.”

Howard Leeds smiled and nodded at the painting. He was deaf, but he didn’t need to hear to become one of the most honored technicians in London forensics over the past two years. Having learned sign language as a project in the fifth grade, and using it on many occasions over the years, Olivia signed that she needed a few more minutes, then he could do his job. Howard flashed another beaming white grin, punctuated by some killer dimples, then walked over to a wooden viewing bench and sat out his equipment.

Camila Wright clicked in on high heels and stopped beside Olivia. Sheathed in drab gray, she looked like a stick in the shapeless dress. After noting her badge, the woman had introduced herself to Olivia upon arrival but hadn’t taken the time to ask who Olivia was. Tension shimmered off her thin frame. She clenched her fists so tightly, her knuckles looked ready to burst from the skin. “I just said goodbye to the Byam Shaw last night as I was leaving the building.”

“Said goodbye to it?” Olivia asked.

“It’s one of my favorites. I talk to the ones I love.”

Oddly enough, Olivia could relate to that. Sometimes the characters depicted in oils and watercolors took on lives of their own.

She offered her hand. “We didn’t have a chance for proper introductions earlier. I’m Constable Olivia Lawson. I’ll be heading the investigation.”

“Yes, Lawson.” Camila looked thoughtful, then her demeanor changed. Olivia recognized the expression on her face as one she’d thought she was long past receiving: derision. “The Olivia Lawson who once worked at the now-defunct Hawhouse Gallery? And now you’re actually investigating art crimes? Interesting.”

The unspoken condemnation crept down Olivia’s spine, but she wasn’t going to allow it to affect her work. She was over that horrible incident. Mostly. Her best defense was to ignore the attitude, which she got more often than expected.

“It appears to be the original frame,” Olivia said, more from a hunch than actual evidence. Upon arrival, she’d asked Miss Wright to pull the details and catalog for the Byam Shaw, but hadn’t received that information yet. She glanced upward. The roof was two stories high and featured four curved skylights. They were the only windows in the well-lit gallery. “Before I begin to consider possible entrances for theft,” she said, “I want to spend more time studying it on the wall. If you don’t mind?”

“Of course not. I’ve blocked off the entire hall so when we open in a half hour, no patrons will be aware of what is going on in this area. I’ve instructed the police to enter from the employees’ entrance. Our media team is keeping this hush-hush until we know what’s up.”

“Thank you. Do you believe the original lies beneath?” Olivia tapped her lower lip, eyes on the painting.

“I certainly hope so. But if so, the pins will have damaged  the original artwork.” Camila shivered. “This is awful. Will you be working with a partner?”

“I usually don’t. Why do you ask?” Olivia would not allow the woman to condemn her for no reason.

“Uh, no reason.” Yet her flittering gaze revealed her worry. “Just asking. I’ll leave you to go check on the files you requested.”

Olivia nodded and approached the painting. She stopped eight inches away and bent forward to view it from the side. The intense chemical smell of cheap oil paints burnt her nostrils. Had the thief replaced a valuable work of art with a hurried forgery? What was the meaning behind such an obvious and blatant forgery?

It must have some meaning. Thieves were crafty. Art forgers, especially, were pompous egomaniacs who liked their work to be known. Had the thief—or perhaps she should think of the person as a vandal until she could confirm theft had occurred—merely been after a grab-and-run, he would have left the wall bare.

A glance to the upper corner by the ceiling confirmed a small white security camera. She’d look at security footage as soon as possible.

Leaning in, Olivia noted the stick pins holding the new canvas over what she suspected was the original canvas beneath. The pins stretched the forgery taut. Each pin had a bit of wet paint smeared on it; the forgery hadn’t had time to completely dry.

Olivia leaned in so closely that her shoulder-length red hair brushed the wall beside the frame. Clicking on the light at the end of her pen, she flashed it behind the painting. There was about a quarter inch where it did not meet the wall, from top to about a third of the way down. It allowed her to see the hook that held the painting and the wire secured to its back. It was standard museum-hanging procedure. Everything was attached to the frame, not the canvas.

Strange. If the thief had removed the Byam Shaw from the frame, he would have had to carefully slip in a replacement. Something to pin the forgery to. The original must still be intact.

Olivia moved in front of the piece again and studied the inner edges of the frame. In a few spots, fresh paint smeared the gold wood frame. She took a few photos of the spatters. Noticing that Howard was waiting patiently, she signaled him over and pointed out what she’d seen.

He gave her a thumbs-up, then pointed to the top of the picture and gestured that he might take it down for her inspection.

“We should take more photos before removing it from the wall.” She signed to him to bring in the photographer from the Evidence Recovery Unit.

Ten minutes later, the ERU photographer had clicked through hundreds of shots of the entire room and the painting.

“I think we can take it down now,” Olivia announced to the few officers in the room. “Howard, if you’ll assist me.” She signed to him that she would help him remove it from the wall. He approached the painting.

Olivia snapped on latex gloves and slid her right hand to the top of the frame. With her left, she gripped the bottom.

“Stop!”

Olivia turned around. A tall, handsome man raced toward her. She smelled sulfur. Something flashed in the corner of her eye as the man’s body collided with hers. Together, they tumbled to the hardwood floor.

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THE THIEF
Elite Crimes Unit #1
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The Elite Crimes Unit works behind the scenes of Interpol—and employs
some of the world’s most talented criminal minds. Because as
everyone knows, it takes a thief to catch a thief—or to seduce one
. . .
The old farmhouse in the French countryside is a refuge for former jewel
thief Josephine Deveraux. Admittedly, there aren’t many men in the
vicinity, but she has her cat to cuddle up with. It’s a far cry
from her former life, constantly running from the law, and she’s
enjoying her peace . . . until the intruder in the three-piece suit
tackles her. He wants her back in the game, helping with a heist—and
he’s not above making threats to get his way.
 
Little does Josephine know that notorious—and notoriously charming—thief,
Xavier Lambert, is after the very same 180-carat prize she’s being
blackmailed to steal. To his chagrin, he’s doing it not as a free
agent, but as a member of the Elite Crimes Unit—the team he was
forced to join when his brilliant career came to a sudden end. And
little does Xavier know that his comeback is about to include a
stranger’s kiss, a stinging slap, and a hunt for missing
treasure—along with the infuriatingly sexy woman who’s outfoxing
him . . .
 
 
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Chapter 1

Josephine Devereaux strode through the open front screen door into the kitchen. Creamy golden evening light spread quiet warmth across the aged hardwood floors. The old farmhouse had stood on this plot in the southern French countryside for centuries. She’d had the pleasure of owning it for two years.

Setting a clutch of fresh carrots pulled from the rain-damp garden into the sink, she spun at a tiny meow. Behind her, the two-and-a-half-year-old Devon Rex cat with soft, downy fur the color of faded charcoal batted at the hem of her long pink skirt.

“Do you want fish or chicken tonight, Chloe?”

She opened the refrigerator to find the only option was diced chicken, left over from last night’s supper. Her neighbor, Jean-Hugues, had butchered a rooster yesterday morning and brought her half.

The cat went at the feast she’d placed on a saucer with big elf ears wiggling appreciatively. Chloe had come with the farmhouse. The couple moving out hadn’t wanted to bring along a kitten on their overseas move to the United States. It had been love at first purr for Josephine.

She smiled at the quiet patter of rain. And then she frowned. “Mud,” she muttered. And she hated housecleaning. She had never developed a domestic bone in her body and didn’t expect to grow one.

She’d spend the evening inside, maybe finish up the thriller she’d found on Jean-Hugues’s bookshelf. He always encouraged her to take what she wanted—she was a voracious reader of all topics—and she gave him vegetables from her garden in return.

Not that she was a master gardener. Jean-Hugues tended the garden, along with the few rows of vines that produced enough grapes for one big barrel of wine. Jean-Hughes was sixty, but he flirted with her in a non- confrontational, just-for-fun manner, which she appreciated probably more than a twenty-six-year-old woman should.

Living so far from Paris made it difficult to find dateable men, let alone a hook-up for a night of just-give-it-to-me-now-and-leave-before-the-sun- rises sex. But that’s what grocery trips to the nearest village were for. If the mood struck, she’d leave in the evening for eggs, bread, and a booty call, and find her way out of bed and back home by morning.

Sighing, Josephine forgot about the dirty carrots in the sink and padded barefoot to the lumpy jacquard sofa that stretched before the massive paned window at the front of the cottage. The window overlooked a cobblestone patio, which stretched before the house and also served as a driveway, though no cars used it. She didn’t own a car. And she never had visitors, save Jean-Hugues, and on occasion the neighbors who lived on the other side of him. They were newlyweds, Jean-Louis and Hollie, and they spent most of their time by themselves. And that was exactly how Josephine preferred it.

She picked up the book, and the creased spine flopped open to the last page she’d read.

An hour later, she had to squint to read because the sun had set. Splaying the book across her chest, she closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrance of rain on fieldstones. Chloe nestled near her foot, keeping her ankle warm. The screen door, still open, squeaked lightly with the breeze. Everything was….

Peaceful? Was that a word she was supposed to embrace? To somehow understand?

“I am embracing it. Life is good.”

Or rather, more different than she could have ever imagined it would be. She set the book down, but the sound she heard was not of a paperback book hitting the wood floor. Josephine closed her eyes to listen intently. The floor creaked carefully above her, where the bathroom was located.

It did not indicate the aches and pains of an aging house. This house had settled long ago.

Curling her hand beneath the sofa, she gripped the cool bone handle of the bowie knife she’d tucked up into the torn fabric amongst the springs and pulled it out. Pointing the blade down, she took a deep breath and stood up. Moving sinuously, she crept around the end of the sofa. Her free hand skimmed over Chloe’s body, comforting and promising she’d return. The cat purred but thankfully didn’t follow.

Upstairs, it was silent. Josephine wasn’t easily spooked by natural noises, but that had not been a natural noise. And she wasn’t unnerved now. Just…. annoyed.

This was her sanctuary. No one knew where she had disappeared two years ago. Very few had known her location before that. But since then, she’d completely erased herself from the grid. Therefore, whoever was stupid enough to break in was looking to rob a random person. And they had to know she was home, which meant the intruder did not fear an altercation.

Tough luck for that idiot.

On the other hand, she had only herself to blame for leaving the ladder up against the north wall after knocking down a wasp nest this morning. Approaching the stairway, which was worn in the center of the stone risers from decades of use, Josephine tugged up her maxi skirt and tucked in one side at the waist to keep from tangling her legs in the long, floaty fabric. The stairs were fashioned from limestone; no creaks would give away her position. Barefoot, she padded up six steps to a landing. Ahead, around a sharp right turn, rose another five steps to the second floor.

Hearing the creak of a leather sole, she realized the intruder had stepped onto the stairs. But where was he? Waiting for her to spin around the corner? He probably thought she was still downstairs relaxing on the couch.

Which gave her the advantage.

With her right arm thrust out, knife blade cutting the air, she rushed forward. As she turned the corner on the stairway, the intruder grabbed her wrist, forcing it upward to deflect the blade from stabbing his face.

Josephine yanked her arm back, causing the intruder to lose his balance. His weight crushed her against the plaster wall, and they struggled on the landing. Although it was dark in the stairway, she could see that he wasn’t an average intruder—most tended to not wear three-piece suits. He was about her height and lean. She did not doubt she could take him out.

He managed a weak knee to her gut, but she didn’t even wince. She rammed her head against his shoulder. He twisted his waist, knocking her off-balance. They spilled backward. Her hip landed his thigh as they slid down the stone stairs.

They landed on the kitchen floor, Josephine on her stomach, with the intruder on top of her. The knife flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor, landing before Chloe’s toes. The cat bent to sniff the weapon.

“Chloe, no!” she shouted. The cat scampered under the sofa.

The intruder grabbed Josephine by the hair at her neck and lifted her head. Just when he would have smashed her face against the floor, she kicked him right between the legs. His fingers instantly released the pinching hold on her neck. He swore and dropped beside her.

Scrambling across the floor, she grabbed the knife and stood, flicking on the light switch on the wall, and moving to stand over the attacker.

“What the hell?” she gasped. “You?”

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Michele Hauf has been writing romance, action-adventure and fantasy stories
for over twenty years. Her first published novel was Dark Rapture
(Zebra). France, musketeers, vampires and faeries populate her
stories. And if she followed the adage “write what you know,” all
her stories would have snow in them. Fortunately, she steps beyond
her comfort zone and writes about countries she has never visited and
of creatures she has never seen.
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