KaveMan is a London graffiti artist–world famous, wealthy, brilliantly creative. And Laurel Xavier hates him.
Laurel, a laid-off city planner, is bitter from compromising her dreams and still losing her sensible job. So when she gets a glimpse of the mysterious KaveMan, whose dream is apparently painting others’ property in her hometown of New Haven, she’s determined to find him, unmask him, and ruin his so-called career–even if it means losing some shoes and self-respect in the process.
But why does chasing KaveMan make her feel more alive than she’s felt in years?
KaveMan isn’t used to sharing his real self, let alone his real name. But when he’s caught by Laurel Xavier, he starts to realize the one woman he yearns to whisper his secrets to is someone who would scream his identity from the highest rooftop. That would mean the end of his work, his passion. It can’t ever happen.
Unfortunately, he bloody well can’t seem to stay away from her.
The two most beautiful things in the world are street art and a gorgeous woman.
He’d seen both in the past five minutes. The first he’d done—a stencil of a big black rat reading a book on the side of the university building, the paint seared like a shadow into the gray cement.
The second was about to undo him.
He’d popped into the building to hide before darting off, but on his way to an exit, he’d seen her standing at the bottom of a lecture hall.
Behind her was a projected image of a downtown in Connecticut: a shot of a city green, big oaks stretching their limbs over the grass, a church spire and a dignified tower of Yale University poking up in the background. The city of New Haven, his haunt for the month.
But it was the woman in front who’d really caught his eye. At the sight of her his lips parted, and he wiped his hands nervously against his dark jeans, wondering why he’d stopped in his tracks.
She wore a bright red dress and had dark hair—black like the paint he’d used, but shiny and flowing over her shoulders. She was like a work of graffiti herself, all sharp curves and violent color. His heart strummed at the sight of her.
She was bold and vital, passionate and alive.
But then she opened her mouth.
“If you invest in the right education, knowledge, and skills, you might one day be able to contribute to the planning of urban areas. Cities are growing across America, just like ours, and these cities need sharp minds to plan commercial centers, housing developments, and recreational areas.”
She swiped to the next picture in the slide. It was a different view of New Haven’s downtown on a sunny day—not like the rainy, dreary November day she’d woken up to today, where the world smelled like ozone and disappointment.
“Cities are always in need of planners who use their advanced education and skills—not to mention hard work—to help create beautiful downtowns like the one we have here.”
Laurel paused. A girl with squeaky red boots shifted in the back row, but otherwise the group of students in the room in front of her sat completely silent, listening or possibly comatose. Their rain slickers and bags were damp and shiny from the weather, but their faces looked blank, almost slack-jawed.
Exploring the Field of City Planning was the name of the guest lecture she was giving for a group of interested students there at Yale. One of the professors she knew had asked her, and it was supposed to be a welcome break from her current stint at unemployment, a chance to prove that she could still be professional, not just a laid-off loser. But, judging from the faces of the students in front of her, Boring the Field of City Planning might’ve been a more appropriate title for what she was doing.
The girl with the boots shifted again, and Laurel looked over at the noise. That’s when she saw him. Behind the girl, in the rear of the auditorium, a person stood, face hidden in the dark shadow of the doorway. A latecomer, maybe, but the person wasn’t attempting to slink into the back row unnoticed.
Maybe he was trying to decide whether her talk was worth attending. Part of her wanted to stage-whisper, Don’t bother.
She remembered the students. She looked back at their faces, but they didn’t seem to notice the overlong pause she’d taken.
She was really screwing this up.
She straightened her posture. “So, if you invest in your—”
“Excuse me, Ms. Xavier?”
A pale hand raised in the dim room. She followed the arm down to the face of a young man with longish blond hair, eager to discover there was actually someone alive in the room.
“This picture must’ve been taken before this week, right?”
“Because it can’t have been this week, because that’s the post office down the street, and that’s where KaveMan did his latest piece.” The student turned around to his classmates, many of whom were now shaking off their boredom like a light sleep, straightening and stretching in their chairs.
Laurel suppressed a groan and gave a tight smile. “It wasn’t this week. Though I don’t keep up with KaveMan’s activity.” She added in her head, Or, you know, the activity of other people who go around breaking the law for fun and profit.
“Did anybody else see it?” the boy continued, looking around. “Right across the street, he put up this sign that said Happiness with an arrow pointing to the bar. It’s still there. It’s awesome.”
Laurel’s smile fell. Last week, after leaving New York, KaveMan had to decide to grace her city with a month-long “art tour.” The media may not put that in quotes, but she always would.
A British graffiti artist with a hidden identity, KaveMan traveled the world doing these tours, drawing his signature rodents and slogans and generally junking up buildings. Usually it was major cities like New York or Paris, but he’d somehow designated smaller New Haven as his latest urban victim, devoting all of November to doing a piece there each day. The city was home to Yale University, a place where smart, hardworking people thrived—that must’ve really gotten under his skin.
No longer silent, the room filled with the sound of whispers as the students turned to each other. She raised her voice. “I didn’t see it, but I’m sure he did. I’m sure the city is going through a lot of trouble—and maybe taxpayer dollars—to remove it from the sidewalk.”
The student faced her, flipping his hair out of his eyes. “But it was awesome! And you know he once went into a war zone—”
“His work is amazing,” a girl with mouse-brown hair and a green bandana said.
“I know, right?” The boy nodded.
Laurel closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. Maybe she could make this a teachable moment. At the very least, a ventable one.
“I understand there’s a lot of excitement because of KaveMan’s so-called art tour in our city this month, but this kind of behavior is extremely problematic,” she said. “You should be aware of that, as students interested in the impact of changes to an urban environment.”
Ignoring her again, the blond boy rotated in his seat toward the green bandana girl. “Word is that he’s supposed to do another piece around here sometime today. I’m going to look for it after this talk thing or whatever.”
Laurel narrowed her eyes, and when her voice came, she was surprised at how sharp she sounded. “KaveMan may be making some sort of artistic statement, but there’s a place for art and then there’s not—and we’re talking about place here, actual places. Places sometimes owned by businesses, people—who may not want a Happiness sign by their building or near it. Places that are trying to provide goods or services without a hundred people taking selfies and getting in the way.”
She tucked her hair behind both ears and looked around the room, trying to bring the students back, if she ever had them to begin with. She caught sight of that person in the doorway again. He—it was definitely a he, based on the size and shape—was still standing there and she somehow felt spurred on by his presence.
“Let’s pretend you’ve opened a business,” she said, raising her voice. “Let’s say it’s a vegan bakery you worked and sacrificed for years to afford. And then one day KaveMan—or maybe one of his Neanderthal graffiti brothers!—is in town and boom! There on the side of your precious vegan bakery he’s drawn a giant picture of something like a rat next to a witty slogan.” She threw up her hands. “And everybody thinks it’s amazing, and what a wonderful surprise, and what a ballsy statement, and art will change the world, and blah, blah, blah.
“At first you think it’s wonderful because everyone’s out there taking photos, and maybe even your shop makes the news. And who doesn’t love publicity?”
The students stared at her. She might’ve been talking too loudly and at some point, she’d begun pacing side to side like a lion stalking a gazelle. To say she felt off-kilter would be an understatement, but at least the students were paying attention.
“But then the people go away, the cameras,” she said. “And what have you got—I mean, besides your graveyard of compromised dreams?” She stopped pacing. “A vegan bakery with a picture of a rat on it. You’ve been branded. Like a cow. For slaughter.”
For some reason, she looked over at the mystery man in the entrance, wondering how her gifts of persuasion were affecting him. But he’d disappeared. She frowned and faced the class.
“Anyway, your business struggles because vegans don’t feel like eating your pastries after they’ve seen a picture of a rodent, and that fucking graffiti artist sells prints of that piece retailing for two hundred dollars each.” She emphasized those last few words with her hand straight as a blade, chopping through the air at each word.
She stopped and pressed her lips together. Had she just cursed in front of a group of college students? What was happening to her? She was thirty-one, a third-generation Yale grad, and the daughter of two prestigious lawyers. You didn’t use the f-word at Yale unless you were doing a modern poetry reading or were very, very political.
And she wasn’t. Political, that is. Unless you were talking about KaveMan. That subject made her body seem like she’d been struck on the spine with a lightning bolt—too much electricity in her nerves and much too hot. That explained her wild gesticulating at least.
He was the ultimate rule-breaker, painting what he felt like where he felt like it, laws and boundaries be damned. He still got everything without paying the consequences. That didn’t happen—it shouldn’t. Breaking the rules only led to heartache, legal fees, and awkward family dinners. She should know.
A brown-haired kid suddenly darted into the auditorium, face flushed and out of breath. “Dude!”
The blond student who’d started her on her rant turned around.
“Dude, he just did another one. Right here.”
The kid jumped up, and without looking at Laurel, ran to the exit.
No use running, she wanted to shout after them. Graffiti’s a pain in the ass to clean up. It’s going to be there for a while.
But no. She was a Yale grad. She cleared her throat. “Well, then, let’s get back to—”
Three more students stood and ran quickly to the exit.
“It’ll still be there in half an hour, guys.”
The remaining dozen students looked around, chewing on their lips. Before she had time to start a new sentence, they were all packing up their things, avoiding her gaze, and rushing to the exit too.
Then the classroom was empty.
It was really a fitting end to her whole talk, her whole life at present: her sensible, helpful advice rejected in favor of the doodling of a damn criminal.
“Sure, go ahead,” she told the empty room. “Go check out the picture of a rat some douchebag’s drawn. That’s a great use of your time.”
Then she noticed the doorway on the left. The mystery man was back.
She was looking right at him. And he couldn’t move.
“Can I help you?” The city planner’s voice echoed in the empty auditorium. Her tone was hollow, but it shivered with something. Irritation maybe, and—sadness?
He suddenly felt guilty about what he’d done. Not the rat, but the other piece he’d left while she was talking.
The title of her talk, Exploring the Field of City Planning, had grabbed his eye, being as he was a bit of an urban unplanner. He pretended the topic was why he continued to stand at the entrance in the back, close enough to hear but far enough away to remain in shadow—and, most crucially, be able to make a quick getaway.
Only he wasn’t getting away.
She’d wittered on about investing in education, her dark hair swinging and catching the light, and he’d been somehow too mesmerized by her to run off, even when what she said annoyed him. He’d simply sniffed at her words and detected the acrid smell of spray paint in his nostrils. Occupational hazard.
Formal education and skills—since when had these ever been essential to the creation of beauty?
Little did she know that on the other side of the building, his rat patiently waited, holding his book in mockery under the cloudy autumn sky. It was likely she was posh and had gone to university here, and maybe her mum and her mum’s mum, too.
Then that bloke had mentioned him and she’d started slagging him off, because of course she would. Even from the back of the room, he could see her eyes sparking.
She wasn’t keen on KaveMan.
He should’ve left right then. From his vantage point, he’d heard the muffled shouts from outside, had looked over his shoulder through the clear front doors of the building to see students moving toward the wall where he’d done the piece like flecks of metal to a magnet.
Still he kept listening and watching. He didn’t usually give a toss about someone criticizing him like that, but something about her really got under his skin. Maybe because it was usually pudgy old men saying those things, not beautiful women with raven hair and nice breasts.
Irritated, he’d looked over at the sign advertising her talk.
Right, then. He’d leave a little present for Ms. Xavier before he left.
He took two steps backward as she finished her speech. On the white board showing her name and talk title, he drew a quick design and a single word, his pen scratching the surface of the sign.
He was finishing when the other bloke rushed to the other rear entrance of the auditorium. He’d just enough time to put his pen in his back pocket next to the receipt for the paint he’d used earlier—tax purposes, yeah?—and slip down a dark hallway as the students began bleeding out of the room in a gush of boots and rucksacks.
Ms. Laurel Xavier and her responsible, boring talk could not compete with true art—spontaneous, surprising, unauthorized. Bold as the red she wore.
But he was stupid. Before he fled, he wanted one last look at her.
Now she was walking towards him.
“Can I help you with something?” she repeated.