by Janet Oppedisano (@JanetOppedisano)

Editor: Miranda Darrow (@Miranda_Darrow)
Adult Romantic Suspense
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Query

Freelance claims adjuster Samantha (Sam) Caine moves from town to town, chasing disasters and ferreting out fraud with the one person she can depend on: herself. Back in her hometown temporarily to help her sick sister, she works a claim for a million-dollar painting destroyed in a house fire. To meet the policy requirements, she hires an art conservator to authenticate its charred remains. He’s gorgeous and flirtatious, but she’s not in the market for another heartbreak.

Dr. Antonio Ferraro uses a three-date test to weed out women only interested in his looks and his family’s fortune. His perfect woman is out there somewhere. He just didn’t expect her to have a sharp tongue, a chip on her shoulder, and plans to leave town the second her sister recovers. When Samantha arrives with the burned painting, he immediately recognizes it as a forgery. The original hangs in his father’s house as the result of a recent private sale. He conceals the truth, fearing it could cast suspicion on his family and their restoration business.

The clock starts ticking when Sam’s manager pressures her to approve the claim before the authenticity is confirmed. She must work closely with Antonio to uncover the evidence of forgery and prevent a million-dollar fraud. Antonio only hopes her investigation doesn’t reveal his cover-up or their chance at romance will go up in smoke.

BURNING CAINE, a romantic suspense complete at 88,000 words, is a standalone novel with series potential. Told in dual POV, it will appeal to fans of the art intrigue of The Thomas Crown Affair and the tone of The Pretender: Games People Play.

I work as a Business Analyst with an insurance software company, which provided the inspiration. I am married to a charming Italian (although he’s not an art conservator), mom to a young hockey goalie, and a member of RWA and its Kiss of Death chapter.

First Five Pages

Chapter One

There were days I thought my job title should be Professional Lie Detector. I crested the top of the ladder and stepped onto the roof. Sure enough, within ten seconds, I knew it was one of those days.

Frowning, I knelt and ran a gloved hand across one of the golf-ball-sized dents in the reinforced metal. One among dozens. There was no way hail had caused this damage. I snapped several pictures with my phone, using a tape measure to document the roof’s condition.

My phone rang before I could finish. My boss. What did he want?

“Samantha Caine speaking.”

“Sam, it’s Cliff. System says you checked in at Clark Orchards for an estimate on the machine shed. That accurate?”

“Yeah.”

“Status?”

“It’s the worst hail damage I’ve ever seen.” I rolled my eyes and walked the length of the thirty-foot shed, mentally cataloging each dent. “Looks like a hundred-year storm opened up right above the building and then vanished into the night.”

“Come again?”

I took off my ball cap to wipe the sweat from my brow while I scanned the orchard. The blossoms on the apple trees had long since faded, and the fruit was just big enough to see. No apples on the ground or signs of damage. I closed my eyes and inhaled the fresh country air deeply, imagining I was back out on the road instead of stuck in small-town Michigan again. Dealing with my fifth fraudulent claim since I’d moved home a month ago didn’t help.

Tucking my long ponytail under the hat when I put it back on, I let go of the sarcasm. “The house roof, gutters, and downspouts are all fine. The machine shed roof, on the other hand, is covered in indentations one inch in diameter. One inch. Cliff, every single dent is exactly the same size.”

“Another fraud?”

“Looks like. Policyholder says he hasn’t gotten up here to look at it—afraid of heights. Contractor came by to tell him he was doing roofs in the area after the hailstorm and that the shed was banged up. I’d bet a month’s pay someone went to town with a ball-peen hammer. So, the insured’s lying, the contractor did it, or both. Either way, I’m sending it to the Special Investigations Unit.”

“Good call. How much longer you need?”

“I have to finish my inspection, talk to the insured, and update the system. Shouldn’t be more than another hour. Maybe hour and a half max.”

“Pretend you’re lazy for a minute,” he said, and I suppressed a laugh. “Do the bare minimum and skip the system till you’re in the office.”

Something was up. Postponing work, especially updates in the claims management software system, wasn’t like Cliff.

“I need you off that claim ASAP. The old man called about a friend of his—had a house fire this morning. Mike already picked up the property portion, but there’s a specialty artwork claim on a high-value painting by someone named Chah-gull.”

Chagall, I mouthed, shaking my head.

“Name of the painting’s not English. I’m not trying it. Sounds like the artwork loss will top the dwelling and contents losses.”

I bit my lip to keep quiet. If Roger Foster, owner of Foster Mutual, was calling me in, it was going to be something interesting. Something I could dig my hungry teeth into. Paintings by Chagall could run from the tens or hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even north of a million dollars. It had been too long since I’d handled something juicy. I made my way to the ladder; I’d completed enough for the referral to SIU.

“You’ve got the expertise, so I want you over there before the fire investigator and medical examiner leave. I’ll send you the details.”

He hung up before I could say anything else, so I pocketed my phone and headed down the ladder. This claim was going to be a big deal. An M.E. meant there’d been a death.

I stored my gear in the truck and grabbed one of my business cards. As I rang the doorbell, my phone buzzed, likely Cliff’s details on the Chagall claim.

The homeowner opened the door. “All done?” He didn’t step into the house to imply I was welcome, and I didn’t try to enter.

“Yes, Mr. Clark, I’m done,” I said. “I’m afraid the damage on the machine shed roof is inconsistent with what I was expecting to see. I’ll have to forward it over to our Special Investigations Unit for some additional attention. You can expect to hear from one of our team within the next two business days.”

His eyebrows knit together as he processed what I’d said. “So, you aren’t going to replace the roof?”

“In the meantime,” I said as I offered my business card, which he didn’t reach for. “My contact information is on my card, so you can call with any questions you may have about my visit. The general claims support line is on the back in case you want to speak with someone about any further steps we’ll be taking.”

“My neighbor had his shed roof replaced after the storm.” He pointed to his right, likely to his neighbor’s house. This response was relatively common under the circumstances, and the suspicious voice in my head always questioned the person’s motives. He was either the guilty party, thought I was accusing him, or disappointed I’d snatched away his windfall. He was confused, not angry, so number three was my guess.

“Mr. Clark, the decision is out of my hands. Our SIU will be in touch with you about the next steps.”

I held out my card again, and he stared at me for another moment, searching for a way around this. Then he slammed the door, almost taking my hand off in the process.

I shrugged it off and stuck the card in the door, then headed back to my truck, my giant F-150 Raptor. I opened the door and climbed up on the running boards before sliding into the driver’s seat. The beautiful behemoth was an effort to get into, but the size was valuable when navigating over debris or washed out roads after a big storm. The engine roared to life as I hit the ignition.

I drove a half-mile down the road, so I wasn’t working in Mr. Clark’s driveway, until my curiosity got the better of me and I pulled over. As I shifted into my backseat mobile office, my laptop sprang to life, and I called up the claim details. Skimming through the policy document until I got to the correct section, my breath caught.

Cliff had assigned me to a claim for Marc Chagall’s Les amoureux dans le ciel. I knew this painting. It had been twenty years since I’d last stood in front of it. Twenty years since it set me on a life path I ended up abandoning.

I ran a shaky hand over my face. This wasn’t the kind of interesting I’d been expecting.

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