Nova glanced around the space they were turning into a gallery, and she couldn't help but grin. There was a lot of preparation still to be done before their guests started arriving, but things were shaping up, and she was so excited and nervous to hold what would be considered one of the biggest scams ever seen.
She whirled her head around at the tinkle of the bell that sounded every time anyone came into the gallery. Screw walked through the door, ignoring Vicious' people buzzing about everywhere and came straight for her. Nova whistled, roaming her eyes over his form that was dressed in a well-tailored suit. His hair was combed, and he was wearing a black tie with polished shoes.
"What do you think?" He spun around for her to admire, adding a few dance moves that made her erupt with laughter.
"On your way to steal my heart," she answered with a slow whistle, looking him up and down.
Screw gasped and placed his palm over his heart. "Oh, please, ma, don't put that flame on me." She laughed while he grinned. "So, do you think I nailed the rich guy look? If I'm gonna pose as a rich man, I gotta do it right."
"Yeah, you look like your pockets are heavy."
He tipped his head. "Good. How long do you think before you finish setting up everything?"
Nova glanced around the large white space. Vicious' men were still in the process of setting up, and two paintings still rested against the wall, and four others were still in the back room. She grabbed Screw’s arm and walked him over to the arts on the wall.
"Tell me if you think they look real."
"They look like ordinary paintings to me, but then again, I don't know much about art. You gotta stop worrying, ma. Everything is gonna go according to plan, and we're gonna milk some motherfuckers. After that, it's me and some good expensive bottle." He winked at her.
She chuckled, and a layer of stress lifted from her body. He was right. There was no need to start panicking. Their paintings would get sold out, and they would wipe every traces of them ever being here and then plan their next auction in a completely different place and with a completely different set of people. She trusted Vicious guts. She trusted her guts too. Well, sometimes.
An hour later, Riley knocked on the door to her temporary office. "You look great," he said as he stared at her. "Are you ready?"
She was as ready as she ever would be. Her red dress fitted like a glove, and her five-inch heels felt like a power source—like she was wearing weapons on her feet, and the confidence she felt hadn't been there ten minutes ago. Yes, she was ready.
Nova checked the time on her phone. Just a few more minutes before the auction opened. "Yeah, I'm ready. Is everyone in place already?"
It was her idea to bring in a few of Vicious' men to pose as wealthy men and pretend to be interested in a few paintings so that they could make the paintings seem important enough for their real guests to want to spend a lot of money for.
She and Riley strode back into the gallery space. There was a bar set up and a tray of champagne glasses that had already been poured. Two other women were brought in too, but they weren't part of Vicious' gang. Their job was to stand around their station, where their artwork was hung on the walls, smiling, and helping, and pretending to know a thing about art.
For the next ten minutes, the place was crowded with at least seven people, but only four were the target tonight. Nova walked over to her first target in a well-tailored suit—a fifty-something-year-old man with grey hair and brown eyes.
"Mr. Shaw, I'm so glad you could come," she said as she beamed at him. They had already been introduced at the party, where Nova learned that he owned an oil refinery and had gone through multiple wives.
"Of course, I wouldn't miss it for the world, Ms. Bailey.” He glanced around. "This is a great place you have here. Do you mind showing me around?"
She nodded and took him to the painting she knew he would love, or at least hoped that he would like it enough to buy it. He glanced at her and then turned his attention back to the work as Nova followed his gaze. "What do you think about this?"
"It's a beautiful work.”
"It's Rembrandt," she answered, looking at the artwork. "A Dutch artist—one of the greatest artists, and you can tell by it. You must be familiar with his works?"
"Tell me about him." Mr. Shaw watched her for a second, and Nova could feel herself start to fidget under his stare, but refused to break their eye contact or let the smile slip out of her face.
"Well, he was really good at studying and observing people, objects and the surroundings, and most of his artwork are self-portraits," she conveyed as if she was back at Vicious' office, reading the flashcards he made for her about the artists whose paintings they were auctioning tonight. She felt happy that she didn't stutter or forgot every word she had memorized.
Silence pulsed between them. Did he like what he saw? Did he saw right through her?
"What do you think then? Should I buy a hundred thousand dollars painting?"
She smiled awkwardly. Nova had not been expecting that question or prepared for it. "I'm not sure I have a say in it. People usually buy what they like." And it was her job to convince him to buy it, which she wasn't sure was going the right way. She thought she would just flash a smile, show him the artwork, and he would be happy to buy it.
"Would you buy this?" he asked, and for the second time in a few minutes, she struggled to keep herself composed.
"When I can afford it, why not? But it makes me feel better knowing that someone out there can appreciate it just as much as I would have." Her lips stretched into a grin, turning his attention back to the painting. "There's just something peaceful about gazing at a canvas, wouldn't you think so?"
He rocked his head back and forth. "Hmm."
Nova trailed her eyes around the tall man in a dark coat. She couldn’t remember his name, but she remembered how calm and quiet he was the night she met him. “Anything interest you, yet?" she asked, as they both stared at the art.
His eyes trailed away from the wall and found her. "I think so." The rasp in his voice was calm, cool, and captivating all in one.
She tilted her head and stared at him. “Yeah?" Humor coursed through her voice. His flirting was loud and clear, and it was something she could handle. “Do you normally like something at first glance?"
He grinned before letting out a chuckle. "Enough to make several more glances."
Nova processed his words in her head before her lips parted to paint into a smile. "Well, you're one lucky man," she retorted. "The painting suits you." She nodded her head towards the art they were looking at, a painting of a harbor.
"I wasn't talking about the painting."
She transferred her weight onto one leg, pushing her hip out and emphasizing the curves of her body, and crossed her arms, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “If you buy the art, we will see where this will lead to, won't we?"
"You draw a hard bargain, but I'm no one to back down from a challenge."
"Nova," a voice boomed out behind her and the second Nova turned around, arms were thrown around her neck. "What are you doing here?"
She pushed against her chest softly, breaking free from the hug as she tried not to let the uncomfortableness that she felt show. Jess beamed at her, and Nova tried to grasp onto the little sanity she had left upon seeing her best friend in a place she never thought in a million years she would find her in. Why? Because Nova didn't remember inviting her.
She excused herself from her customer and dragged Jess away from him to a more secluded place.
"Are you working?" Jess looked confused for a second. "What happened to your old job?"
"I—uh..." Nova felt damp of sweat on her neck, overwhelmed with anxiety. "I was stepping in for a friend. She woke up sick today and asked me to help her with the auction."
"With paintings worth half a million?"
Her heart picked up. Right. She thought she could just utter an explanation and expect Jess to take it, but she had no idea her best friend knew what these paintings were worth.
"She..uh...her grandfather died, and seeing as she is the last living relative of his, he gave everything he owned to her, and these paintings have been in the family for generations. She wanted to auction them off because she's not into art, and she thought it would be a waste to stuff them in the basement," Nova managed to explain without breaking into more sweat.
The good thing about this was Jess didn't know all her friends, so there was no reason to think her story a lie.
An arm went around Jess' waist before he appeared behind in a tailored suit, and Nova stared at him with a stunned expression on her face. The two of them facing each other, it would be hard to tell what was going on in their heads, but determination gleamed from his eyes and more. A darker intent was in there, one that made her heartbeat fast.
She carried through with a smile. "Hi, Eric." With a dash of 'what the fuck' look when Jess took her gaze off her. Either he wanted Vicious to beat him to a pulp, or Mario wanted her to do it himself.
"Eric invited me, and I had no idea my night would get more amazing with my best friend here," she replied with too much enthusiasm to bode anything good for Nova.
She clenched her jaw, a sarcastic response on the tip of her tongue, “Thanks for bringing her here." She had raised her voice with a deadly look, but he still didn't pay attention to it. Nova looked toward her friend with a calm smile. "Jess, I need to get back to work, but I will talk to you when I'm done. It's nice seeing you again, Eric."
“Okay, you better find me.”
She found Screw lingering around Riley and snatched him by the arm to get his attention. When he turned his head towards her, his mouth curved up. “What's up? We doing good?"
"Go and talk to Mario. He just came in with my best friend, and I had to lie to her about what I'm doing here," she reproachfully addressed Screw in a low voice, her eyes wildly looking into his. "I don't care if you pull a gun on him, get him to leave with Jess right now."
Screw wrung his hand through his hair. It stuck up in the air. "What the fuck is he thinking?" A fierce scowl was on his face, and his eyes glittered under the lights.
"To duck things up for me," she hissed as she backed away from him. "Please, hurry now before Jess realizes something is up.”
A thrill of excitement coursed through her veins as Nova tossed the whiskey back and gulped it down, then slapped the glass on the bar. She swiveled her stool when Screw dragged his stool and stepped upon it.
"Yo, listen up! Free drinks for everyone!" he yelled out to the crowd in the bar, who whistled and cheered for the free drinks. Screw stepped down from the stool and dragged it back next to her. "We did it." He pressed his hands into her shoulders, laughing. "This shit works, ma. We made seven hundred thousand dollars in one night. That's what I'm talking about!" he shouted and took another shot.
"Slow down," Nova said, and her grin hadn't faltered. She couldn't help the way her smile kept growing each time she remembered they made that ton of money. Something that could take years before she could get even close to that kind of money. It was so easy, and now she understood why people felt the need to turn to crime to earn a large amount of money in one day.
Even though Vicious had not doubted that it could work, Nova had thought something or the other could end up ruining it—maybe they would get busted in the middle of bidding, but nothing happened. She had smiled through all the meetings, through all the conversations and with a bit of harmless flirting, she had ended up selling all the artworks.
Nova, Screw, and Riley were the only ones sitting in the bar. The rest of the guys had taken up space in the booths, leaving the three of them to have their little celebration.
"A toast," Riley said, raising his glass to them. "To a job well done, and many more to come." He shifted his glass to her. "Nova, you were outstanding tonight and a great addition to the fam."
"Here's to many more to come, and to Vicious, for being a confident and smart asshole that without him, shit wouldn't happen," Screw yelled, as he and Nova raised their glasses to him. "And to Nova, mama, I'm glad your brother fucked up."
She laughed and took a drink.
Here's to scamming people. Another record to add to her rap sheet.
The bell chimed, and her attention went to the door. He was dressed all in black, black pants and a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head. It shadowed his eyes. It made him look even more dangerous. When he saw her looking at him, he turned back and exited out of the bar.
"I will be right back," she told Screw before she slid out of the bar and raced after him. Nova found him outside, walking towards the parking lot, but he was already hopping onto his bike when she stopped in front of him, panting a little.
Her throat went dry, but she met his eyes. "Mario."
He sighed with irritation and put his hands on his helmet.
“That was a shitty thing you did tonight. You can't try to fuck with me when you know it would blow up on everyone else!” she snapped, then realized yelling or screaming wasn’t going to help her. If she wanted him to stop trying to ruin things, she needed to give him something to take him off her back. At least, for now.
Sighing, she looked at him and chewed on the bottom of her lip, nervously. “I'm going to tell you something that I have not even told Vicious, and you can run and tell him afterward—your choice, but I need you to know that Vicious can trust me. I'm not like my brother. I don't betray people." She took a deep breath, and he caught every little movement that made. "I have an FBI friend who has been looking into Vicious."
Mario’s cold eyes glittered in the dark as he tensed up. "What?"
Panic stirred inside her. Should she have been honest with him? Could it have been her worst mistake?
Her voice was hoarse when she went on, "His name is Ben, and we went to school together. He pulled up a picture of me and Vicious outside a grocery store, but I lied and told him that was the first time we saw each other and the last." She drew in her breath. Mario's face transformed, darkening as she finished.
“He believed you?"
"I think so, yes. The point is, if I have something up my sleeve, I wouldn't have told you this. So, you can stop trying to paint me as this villain in your lives. I'm not the villain. I'm still here because of Vicious, and I—"
"Do you like him?"
His voice grew quiet. "Do you like Vic?" he repeated.
Licking her lips, she shifted on her foot. “I don't know," she confessed.
Mario tilted his head, studying her. "You don't know."
She shrugged her shoulders. "We're still trying to figure things out."
His first response was to quirk up a single eyebrow, then dragged his helmet closer to his chest. "You could come to love him? Despite knowing he won't give up all of this for you?"
The question surprised her, almost knocking her back. "I don't—"
"Could you come to love him despite knowing that someday, he might not come home to you? He could either get shot and die, or he could go to prison. That is what you're signing up for, Nova."
She drew in a shaky breath. "I know that," Nova finished weakly, studying his expression.
"And you're okay with that...?" he questioned, leaning further back into his bike, seeming more amused than annoyed or hateful.
His eyebrows raised high on his forward, he crossed his arms. Every movement he made felt like a challenge towards her. "Okay."
He started to wear his helmet when she stopped him again. "Are we good? You're not going to plot against me anymore, are you?"
"I guess," Mario mused in a tone she had never heard him use before. "It doesn't mean that I trust you. I don't have to like you or trust you, but I can live with you hanging around."
Well, she wasn't extending any hand of friendship to him.
"I'm okay with that, and Jess?" Perhaps that wasn't the ideal moment to discuss two things with him, but Nova needed him to understand the risk of being in a fake relationship with Jess. Besides, if they were cool with each other now, there was no need to keep up with the relationship.
He looked at her intently. "What about her?"
"Are you going to stop seeing her?" she ventured, swallowing thickly. "She doesn't deserve you toying with her. You don't know what she went through before—"
Mario clenched his jaw. "I do."
She was suddenly stunned. "She told you?"
"Yep," he said, giving a sweeping look at her with a low chuckle. "Well, don't act so surprised."
"I'm sorry, I just—never mind. Are you going to break up with her? Do it gently and tell her you're moving away. That way, it would be easier."
She frowned. “No?"
"She's...." he trailed off with a frown, glancing away from Nova as if he was trying to figure out his next words. "She's fun to be around with, and there ain't much of that around here, but Jess...Jess is fun, and she makes everything...." He caught himself in time, ran his hand through his hair and glared darkly at Nova like she was the one who had forced the words out of him.
"Wait," she almost screeched at the realization. "do you like my best friend?" An alarm practically sounded off in her head.
Mario saw the pure panic that suddenly came over her features, and the heated gaze he spared her told her she should have kept her mouth shut. "You're insane."
"You like her."
His nostrils flared, and she knew she was pushing it, but she couldn't seem to stop.
"If you can stand there and question me about whether I like Vicious or not, it's only right that I return the favor," Nova's voice was firmer than she expected.
Mario lifted his helmet and put it on, turning on the engine. Without saying anything, he was speeding out of the parking lot. Nova's eyes trailed after him until she couldn't see him anymore before she turned, gasped, and swatted Screw in the arm.
"You scared the crap out of me!"
"You hang out with gang members and do crazy shits, but me sneaking behind you scares you?" He snorted. "Here's your purse. Riley is staying behind. You and I are going to go meet up with Vicious."
She followed after him. "Did you speak to him?"
"He knows you did good, ma."
Nova slid into the passenger's seat. Once they were in the car, she asked again, "Do you have any idea when the next auction will be?" Her seatbelt clicked.
Screw laughed. "Slow down, Nova." He started the car and drove away.
When they pulled up the car across the warehouse, Nova's legs nearly gave out. The blue and red headlights weren't the only thing flashing in the night. Huge blazes of scorching fire were coming out of the windows and eating at every corner of the warehouse, black smoke twisting into the sky.
A fire truck was coming down the street, and the loud siren blasting in her ears was what got her out of the initial shock of the horrifying sight. People milled about on the street, huddling closer and closer to the yellow police caution tape. They pressed against the harsh words which explicitly stated, “Do Not Cross." Firefighters began to roll out their gigantic hose and attaching it to a nearby fire hydrant.
Nova moved. She started to make her way across the street towards the burning building. Her heart was hammering in her chest, and it felt like something painful was being pulled out of her every time she tried to breathe. Another explosion echoed into the air, and the fire crackled. She jumped back and collided with Screw's chest.
"Come on, we have to go," he said frantically, pulling on her arm.
"Nova!" It was the first time she heard him snap, turning her around to face him. "This place is crawling with cops. We can't be seen here!" He started to drag her down the street towards where their car was parked.
Her eyes trailed over the crowd lingering and accidentally falling on someone that was already looking straight back at her. He was dressed in black pants and a light blue shirt that was tucked in his pants with a badge around his neck.
"Ben," she breathed out.
He took two steps forward, and his eyes never left her, not even when Screw got her inside the car. Nova could still feel his lingering gaze burning her back.