Disclaimers: I started this in homage to the great characters in a certain TV show, but its grown beyond that, and taken on a life of its own. Its heavy Alt hey I write the way I live so if you are underage, residing somewhere where its illegal or are simply offended, read elsewhere.
Thanks to the Tribe, the greatest fans a bard could have, to Barb and Barbara Davies, for editing, to MaryD, to Beth and most of all to the Graces of this world.
Send me a line, if you like it:Tragedy88@goplay.com
Twice I saw her in the park. She's beautiful. At first glance she was exceptional. I was almost overpowered by her beauty, but it's really the little things. Her ears, high cheekbones, dark coloring and those powerful eyes.
I had my sketchpad with me this afternoon, had brought it on impulse. Now I found myself penciling in the straight angles of her face and long lines of her body. She looked up once or twice and I ducked my eyes away, to the trees on the side, as if I wasn't at all interested.
What a lie. I'd thought of nothing else since the first time I'd seen her. And what would I do about it? Nothing. I could envision the conversation, or the lack thereof. Her voice would be as smooth and beautiful as the rest of her. I would stutter hi back, shuffling my feet, looking at the ground like I always do.
I was so intent on avoiding her and not making my intentions obvious that when I looked back up she was gone. I blinked a few times expecting her to...
Oh my god... I looked up into blinding blue eyes. Her voice was deeper then I thought. "Hi." Somehow I managed not to stutter.
"You sketch?" She asked with a wave of her hand towards my drooping notebook and falling pencil.
I grabbed hold tighter, instinctively clutching the thin sketchbook to my chest so she couldn't see herself looking back. "Yes." I fumbled with my pencil. "I sketch occasionally."
"You're an artist?"
The woman sat beside me with casual grace. Everything about her was refined and glamorous. "No," I admitted the truth. I was nothing. I was no one but a waitress.
"May I see?"
Her hand was long, slim, and her fingers were tapered. Piano player fingers, my grandmother would have said. What was I doing? My hands were flipping the sketchbook away from my body without my permission. They were tilting it sideways so she could see it in the proper light.
I barely registered her slow intake of breath or the way her hand stopped an inch away from the pencil lines as if she wanted to touch it but was afraid.
"Do you have more?" she asked.
I looked into her face, to see if she was kidding. She wasn't. There was nothing but sincerity and awe behind her eyes. Awe? For what?
"Yes," I answered slowly. "I have more." I flipped to the beginning of the small sketch pad. If I'd been a writer the pictures would have been equivalent to ramblings- hands and faces, trees and animals.
She smiled as she took the sketchbook and flipped carefully through the pages. A study of hands, a page of eyes and noses and mouths. A page of trees in a field, with the city far behind it. And more...
"Do you paint?" she asked softly.
I had to strain to hear her. "Yes." What was she asking? Did she want to see them? I watched as she flipped the sketch-pad closed and handed it back. She stood and straightened her blouse, reaching into her coat pocket.
I was more disappointed then I cared to admit. I looked back down at the book thinking that I shouldn't have shown her. That I wasn't nearly as good as I hoped.
"Here." The woman was holding out a small business card. "This has my number on it. I've got to get back to work, but I'd like to see more of your work."
I could only blink in surprise. To hide my astonishment I glanced at the card held tightly in my shaking hand. Allison Parker. 555-2934. Parker and Wahbash Studios. "Okay," I said lamely.
I looked up into her face, blinded by the full teeth smile she gave me.
"Call me and we'll set up a time to meet. Have a good day-" Allison stopped, mid sentence.
"Grace." I stood suddenly, extending my hand. She shook it and turned to leave. I watched her go, long legs eating up the pebbled ground. Holy shit...what do I do now? Paintings. Paintings. I need paintings to show this woman. But what did she want to see?
I turned hastily to the voice calling me and realized it was Donovan across the street and I needed to get back to work. My sigh was overly dramatic as I gathered up my belongings and crossed the street, to return to a job I hated.
My apartment was a large studio and I never could have afforded it if it wasn't being rented by five other college students. Since I'd found the place first I'd wrangled the studio loft. It had the best light and I did most of my paintings from here. There were curtains around the bed for privacy, but how much privacy could you really get with five other people coming and going with friends and girlfriends or boyfriends?
I climbed the spiral stairs to my room and threw the sketch-pad onto the drawing table, sending papers skittering to the floor. So, I was a slob. I could admit that. I tore off my waitress uniform and climbed into a pair of comfortable sweats and an old NYPD T-shirt.
Padding barefoot back down the stairs to the kitchenette, I fixed some coffee and listened to see if anyone else was home. Doug's soft snores came from the room he shared with Michael and a low throbbing beat came from Angela's room. So the two party animals had either made it to class or were still out partying somewhere.
I took my coffee back up to the loft and booted up my laptop, my one and only extravagance besides my paints and canvases. I shoved some more papers off the surrounding work area and made room to hook up the external mouse. The little red dot was annoying at best.
After half an hour of answering e-mail and surfing the web I pinched the bridge of my nose tiredly and shut the computer down. I rooted through the mess on the floor and found my work skirt and the business card in the pocket.
I looked at it a long time before I went back downstairs to use the communal phone. I had the receiver in my hand and the dial tone still buzzing in my ear while I read her name and number enough times to memorize it. I couldn't do it, I couldn't call.
It wasn't right. Something about this was scary. Was is because I had a crush on the woman, she was probably straight, and I'd be picking up the pieces of my broken heart for years to come?
Ashamed, I hit the receiver against my forehead and fumbled my fingers across the keypad. My heart rose into my throat as the phone rang, once, twice, and was cut off on the third ring.
A male voice answered. "Ms. Parker's office, may I help you?"
"Um, this is Grace. I um... talked to Ms. Parker earlier?" I waited for something more intelligent to come to mind. I could almost hear him laughing at me.
"Ms. Parker is in a meeting, ma'am. If you would please leave your name and number I'll leave a message for her to call you back as soon as she can."
"Ok." It sounded like a brush off. Oh well. "Grace Jordan. She can reach me at 555-4568."
I quickly hung up the phone and it took several more minutes before my heart stopped thumping against my ribcage like a wild animal.
Hours passed and I resigned myself to the fact that she wasn't going to call anytime soon. Maybe ever. I engulfed myself in an oil painting I'd started two days before, not even noticing Doug wake up and stumble around the first floor to fix Frosted Flakes and search for the remote.
Angela's stereo hit near deafening levels and Julie and Torch came home. The studio was alive with people and noise and more people arrived as time passed. I whiled myself away in the loft, painting and not caring that I wasn't a part of the fun. I never had been and I never would be. None of them liked me anyway.
The phone downstairs rang six times before Doug finally answered it.
"Yo?" Doug's deep voice carried surprisingly well over the throbbing music and shouting people. "Yeah, hang on a sec." He yelled without bothering to cover the mouthpiece, "Grace! Phone!"
"Yeah?" I asked, irritated by Doug's shouting when all he had to do was walk up the damn stairs and tell me I had a phone call. I scowled at him and grabbed the phone. "Hello?"
The low timbre was just as I remembered it. I could feel myself blushing. "Speaking."
"My assistant told me you called earlier, but I didn't get the message until a few minutes ago."
"You told me to call." I pushed a finger into my other ear so that I could hear her better.
"Yes, I did ask you to call, and I'm sorry I wasn't there to answer the phone personally. A meeting was called rather unexpectedly."
I could feel the curious eyes on me and I hated talking with them all watching me. "Where are you?" I asked suddenly.
"At the office. I was just about to head home. Why?"
Why indeed. Just hang up. "How about we get some coffee and talk? I can't hear a damn thing."
"Me either. Sounds like you're having a party."
"No," I answered abruptly. "Do you know where the Starbucks is on Park?"
"Of course. I can be there in forty-five minutes."
"See you there." I hung up before she could change her mind and back out, then I raced up the stairs and rummaged through my crates for a clean pair of jeans and a bra. Ten minutes later I rushed out of the studio with a large black portfolio captured under my arm.
I hit the nearest subway and transferred two stations down. I had another half hour jaunt to Park St. I clutched my portfolio nervously in my arms wondering why I was bringing it with me. We were meeting for coffee, nothing else. But Allison had admitted a desire to see more of my work. With that in mind I closed my eyes against the harsh, flashing lights and clacking wheels.
Starbucks was impossibly busy for a Saturday night, nothing but standing room left. Would I even be able to find her in this mess? What time was it? Was she even here yet?
The rich aroma of coffee tingled in my mouth. If I had two nickels to rub together I'd be tempted. If they had plain coffee that is...
Out of the crowd a dark head appeared.
Someone pinched my ass and I turned to find a pimple faced boy leering at me. My lip curled up in a snarl and I pushed past him, seeking out the dark head I had seen only moments earlier.
The boy followed me. I tried to suppress an angry growl but couldn't help it. Forget Starbucks, I cursed as the boy caught up and tried to harass me again. As I shoved through the entrance door I bumped into someone coming inside. "Excuse me," I hissed, and looked up into icy blue eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry." I took a hasty step back, right into the goosing fingers of Pimple Boy.
He chuckled and pinched harder.
I whirled on him, momentarily forgetting Allison was there. "You little chraa, don't touch me."
"Who you talking to, bitch?"
I ground my teeth together. "Bitch?" I hissed, "You touch me again and I'll drag your face across the pavement, then throw you on the streets for the garbage trucks, and even they won't want to touch you when I'm done."
He sniffed and spit on the ground at my feet. "Big words for a-"
It was all I could take. I dropped the portfolio and slapped him across the face. Ok, so it wasn't the smartest thing to do, especially in a Starbucks but I'd had enough of this city, enough of these little chraa's.
His hand was pulled back and he was going to hit me, but before he could a long, tanned arm broke my vision and caught his wrist securely. I could feel her strength behind me, the warmth of her body and I didn't hear what she said but she obviously shook the boy enough to make him leave.
I couldn't move as she turned and her chest brushed against my back. I blinked blindly up at her when she took my shoulders and twisted me so I was facing her.
"Are you all right?" Allison asked, studying my face.
"Fine. Sorry." I picked up my portfolio with shaking hands.
"How about we go down the block to Salisbury?"
I shrugged out from under her hands. "Sure." I turned and went out the door, brushing past her and mumbling, "I didn't realize Starbucks would be so crowded. I'm sorry." We left, the smell of fresh coffee beans lingering in the air for an entire block.
"Don't be sorry. It's this way."
I felt her hand touch my elbow as she guided us down the sidewalk.
The streets and the sidewalks were filled with the late afternoon crowd, people shopping or trying to find cabs to go home. I let her hand rest on my arm, her warmth something I hadn't felt in a long time.
Salisbury was crowded too, but they seemed to know Allison there and after a short wait we had a small booth by a window.
"Come here often?" I asked, trying to fight off my remaining anger and nervousness.
"Once in a while." Allison smiled.
I smiled back, slowly relaxing and enjoying myself. That is until I took a look at the menu. My eyes widened at the prices. A starving artist, even with a waitressing job couldn't afford a glass of water here. I gulped down the knot in my stomach and folded the menu back up.
"Ready, ladies?" the waiter asked. He had a deep accent and dark skin. Young and ambitious. Another artist? Not starving? Should I ask if they had any job openings here?
"Why don't you give us another minute." Allison smiled one of her dazzling smiles at the waiter.
I watched as he blushed slightly, nodded and walked off to another table.
"Are you hungry?" Allison asked. "They have a great sampler platter-" she broke off abruptly. "What is it?"
"Allison, I can't even afford to get water here." God, I had just admitted the truth to this dazzling, beautiful woman. Oddly enough my usual blush when mentioning my money status didn't surface.
"Well, how about my treat? Anything you want... " Allison paused. "Uh, you know, for letting me see your portfolio?"
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. What would she want for buying dinner? What would I owe her?
"Please?" Allison asked softly. "It's the least I can do for dragging you to Salisbury without even thinking."
"How about a Pepsi then?" I called a truce to my anger and suspicion, it was just too tiring.
"Pepsi it is then." Allison motioned the waiter over and I ordered a Pepsi while Allison ordered the House Sampler Platter.
"Will that be all, ladies?" He smiled at the both of us, lingering just a little longer then necessary on Allison.
"That's all for now, thank you." Allison chuckled as the young man left the table. "If he manages to bring the correct order I'll be rather surprised."
"He wasn't all that bad." I grinned. "Besides how hard can it be to remember two Pepsis and a sampler?" I asked reasonably. I'd never had any trouble. But then I'd never waited on anyone like Allison Parker before either.
"You never know when a boy starts thinking with southern extremities. Notice he didn't write anything down?"
I'd noticed. Now I just smiled. "He was enamored by your beauty." I nearly choked on the words and a blush crept hotly up my neck.
Allison gave another low chuckle and just smiled. "So, what have you got in that portfolio for me?"
Ok, on to business. "They're reproductions," I admitted. "I don't carry the actual paintings on the subway. I've had things stolen before."
"Oh, that must have been terrible."
"Yeah, three years of work down the drain and the little chraa probably trashed them when he found out they weren't worth anything." I shrugged away the feeling of hate I still carried after that incident.
"I was wondering what chraa means."
"Huh?" I looked up from fiddling with the white linen napkin.
"Chraa. You've said it twice now. I've never heard it before." Allison's eyebrow arched in an expression of curiosity.
I found it oddly familiar. "It's Arabic."
"You speak Arabic? Damn, I barely comprehend English." Allison's voice held a touch of awe.
I laughed at the absurd image of me speaking a foreign language. "Not a chance, but I do know about 50 or so curses in varying languages."
The waiter came over with the two Pepsi's and I waited till he left before I spoke again in Arabic. "Boos teezee." I watched for the confusion to enter her eyes and smiled mischievously, knowing she didn't understand a word of what I'd say next. "Nek ni. Yel-la, anasi!" I purposely softened the harshness of the syllables.
"Wow, that sounds... beautiful," Allison murmured.
I couldn't help it, I laughed so hard I had to clutch my sides.
"What?" Allison's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What did you say to me?"
"N-nothing," I stammered around the laughter. "I just told you to kiss my ass."
"Nek ni?" she asked.
Laughter threatened again. "No, no... boos teezee is kiss my ass."
"What is nek ni then?"
"Um, I think that's best left for some other time." I sobered instantly as the waiter set the sampler down in front of Allison.
"Come on," she insisted. "What does it mean?"
Damn, I was so comfortable with this woman that I'd gotten carried away and backed myself into a corner. My smile slipped.
"Well, it doesn't matter. Here." Allison passed a chicken wing over. "Try one of these, they're great."
I took the chicken, hiding my relief behind a large bite. Mmm, it was good. There was a small time of silence while we ate. I was glad Allison was sharing. Without saying a word she had moved the candle and flowers aside and set the platter in the middle of the table.
Dinner was finished and I still hadn't shown my portfolio. I should just go home. I couldn't make small talk, I couldn't do anything right.
"What do you say we get out of here?"
"Sounds good, thanks for dinner." I picked up my portfolio. We walked to the exit together and I waited to say my good-byes.
Allison picked at the wood on the door frame, then dropped her hands to her sides. "I'd still like to see your paintings, Grace. Would you like to join me for a taxi ride?"
"Where to?" I asked wearily.
"My home? I've got some drinks and we could get away from this noise." Allison waved at the noisy people and honking cars.
Oh what the hell. I ignored the tightening in my chest. Ignored the flaming lust coursing through my body. Just a drink, I reminded myself, just to see my paintings. I shrugged. "Sure."
Allison hailed a taxi with a sharp whistle. We were on our way. I watched the city fade away to the lush and expensive 'burbs. My eyes widened as we curved up a long drive and stopped under a portico.
I exited the taxi in awe, waiting for Allison to pay the cabby. "It's beautiful," I said, looking up at the large bay windows, the turrets and marble. Marble columns, marble staircase...
"I inherited it from my parents," Allison said evenly, not even glancing at the impressive architecture as she climbed the marble stairs to the large double doors.
I followed at a more sedate pace, clutching my portfolio like a security blanket.
The door opened, revealing a maid and a wide expanse of staircase and a crystal chandelier. I stopped in the open door, mouth wide open.
Allison turned, an unreadable expression on her face. "Come on in. Vella won't bite."
Vella didn't smile.
There were no laugh lines around her eyes, even though she was maybe only a few years older then me, and I wondered if the dark haired Mexican woman ever laughed.
As I stepped further in Vella made a move as if to take my portfolio. I shook my head and clutched it to my chest. Vella backed off and shut the doors. She stood as if waiting for something, then left when Allison gave her a curt nod.
Allison headed to the back and I padded silently after her. We went down the large hallway and through a door to what appeared to be a den or library. It was richly furnished in mahogany and deep red-brown hardwood. The shelves were full of classic novels, medical books, lawyer's books and I found myself wondering if they were real or props.
I went to the closest bookshelf while Allison made her way to the large desk and the high wet bar off to the left of it.
"What would you like to drink?" she asked.
"Mmmm, whatever you are having is fine." My fingertips traced the spiral bound spines and I tugged one out. It was real. I was beginning to think they were all real and that the paintings in the hall had been real and not reproductions.
Allison came up behind me, handing me a whiskey on the rocks. "They're all real."
I turned wide eyes on her, a blush creeping up my neck. "I know."
"So, why don't you bring that portfolio on over to the desk and let me have a look?"
I laid the portfolio down, unzipping it nervously, then I sat back in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. I didn't touch the whiskey, just swirled it around with my fingertip, waiting anxiously as Allison flipped the plastic covered pages.
After a short time Allison looked up and I met her deep gaze. "You have all the originals?"
"Yes." I couldn't tear my eyes away until she broke contact with a small nod and flipped through the rest of the pages.
Carefully Allison shut the portfolio and leaned back in her chair. She took a long pull of the whiskey. "It's a tradition in my family to have a portrait done on our twenty-fifth birthday."
It certainly wasn't what I'd expected. Surely she'd pay well, even if that didn't seem to matter at the moment. What surprised me was that such a wealthy woman was only twenty-five. I remained silent, waiting for her to finish.
"I'd like to commission a portrait." Allison leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk and steepled her fingers on top of the portfolio.
"All right," I managed to say in a steady voice. "When do you want me to start?"
"My week is way too busy right now, but I should have time available this coming Saturday." She paused. "How much time will you need?"
"How good do you want it to be?" I felt a smile edging my lips and tried to stay calm and professional as I set the whiskey glass on the edge of the desk.
Allison flipped the portfolio back open. "As good as this one." She found the one she wanted and tapped the plastic cover.
I leaned forward, wondering which one it was. Damn, how did that one get in there? I thought I took it out. "That one took me three weeks," I said smoothly, not even blinking, but feeling panicked just the same.
Allison nodded, shut the portfolio once again and leaned back in the chair. She swallowed the last of her whiskey. "How much?"
How much what? I shot her a blank, startled look.
"How much to do the portrait and how much for the one already done?"
Damn. "That one's not for sale." I shifted nervously in the thick cushioned seat. My feet barely touched the floor and it made me extremely uncomfortable.
"5,000," Allison said, as if she hadn't heard me.
"I said it's not for sale." I tried not to grit my teeth. I would never sell that painting. It's all I had left of him.
"Very well." Allison stood. "If you won't sell the painting then I won't need your services."
I stood abruptly, my lower lip shaking. I squared my shoulders and grabbed my portfolio. "I will not be bought, Ms. Parker. Good night." I stormed to the door.
Allison's soft voice stopped me in mid-stride. "Yes?" I didn't turn around, couldn't let her see the anger flashing in my eyes.
"Wait." Allison paused. "Please?"
"I have nothing left to say Ms. Parker, except that the painting is not for sale." My voice quavered.
"Allison," she murmured.
I turned to look at her then. Nothing on her face had changed. It was impassive and unreadable. That should have annoyed me, but somehow it didn't.
"I'd still like you to paint for me, Grace, even if you won't sell me the painting."
I blinked. This woman was so confusing. I felt like I'd run a 500 mile marathon just by having drinks with her. "What if I don't want to paint?"
"Then I'll take you home," Allison replied instantly.
Was that sadness? "I didn't say I wouldn't paint," I admitted.
"Then you will?"
"This Saturday, after work. If you still want me to."
"I do." Allison smiled. "What time?"
I had the morning shift. "After five."
"I'll send someone to pick you up." Allison returned to the desk, flipped through a desktop calendar and grabbed a pen. "Where do you live?"
"I'll be here at six," I returned coolly. This was going to be on my time. Not the whims of a rich and spoiled woman.
Allison returned the pen to the pen holder. "Fine." She nodded, a small frown furrowing between her eyebrows. "I'll walk you out."
We walked down the hallway in silence, till we reached the door.
"I'm sorry about how I acted before," Allison murmured.
I looked at the double doors then up to her face. "Don't worry about it."
"Why won't you sell the painting?" Allison asked.
I sighed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Vella silhouetted in the doorway. "It's the only one I have."
"Surely you can paint another?" the wealthy woman asked.
"No two paintings are ever the same. As a dealer you should know that." Or I would at least hope so. The money proved she had an eye for art anyway.
"Yes, I do know that."
"Besides, it's special," I said quietly.
Allison nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer. "I can have Ed drive you home?"
It was a question this time. "Thank you. It's a long walk to the nearest subway." I smiled weakly.
"I'll see you on Saturday then. If my schedule gets rearranged, as it frequently does, I'll call you and schedule another time."
"All right, see you then." The limo was waiting when I stepped out the door. The limo? Geez, if anyone was watching for my return they'd get an eyeful and I wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks.
Of course no one was waiting or watching. No one had even realized I'd left.
People had crashed on the sofa, chairs and floor. Doors were open and more people were strewn there like rag dolls, one even reclining at an awkward angle inside the doorway.
I waded through the sea of bodies and trash up the spiral stairs to my messy loft.
So, she wanted a portrait done. We hadn't settled on a price, but that wasn't what was bothering me. What was?
I made a halfhearted attempt to settle my mess as I mulled that question over in my mind.
Giving up on the impossible I got on my hands and knees and reached under the bed. I pulled out the original that Allison had wanted to buy.
Light from the street lamps and businesses shone in the large windows, landing harshly on his face. They gave the painting an almost eerie quality. As if he'd loom out of the picture and touch me.
Where are you when I need you, Adam? I asked the tow headed little boy. He'd had a smile on his face the day I'd painted him. He'd been six, barely old enough to sit still, but I'd coerced him with promises of chocolate ice cream and he'd sat still long enough for me to capture his innocence.
Three weeks later he would be gone. There would never be anymore smiles, no more laughter. No more little brother.
I couldn't sell him, sell my past to a stranger who had no idea the true worth of the picture in my hands. So I would have sold my first painting... so what? Adam deserved better then to be hung on a wall and forgotten as new paintings came along.
For a long time I silently regarded the picture. But, for some reason the only face I saw now was that of the enigmatic art dealer, Allison Parker.
I put the painting away and slipped down to my underwear and T-shirt on the bed. The woman was impossible, confusing, beautiful. That was it, wasn't it? I was blindsided by her beauty every time she looked at me. I couldn't form complete sentences or think for myself.
I still had a crush on her even though I thought I knew what she was all about. A lonely, spoiled rich girl, who flaunted her wealth over others. No, there was more to her then that. I'd seen it myself in the depths of her incredibly blue eyes.
If I didn't know better I would have guessed that what she really wanted was a friend.
Allison Parker, only child of the rich and famous Doyle Parker, had never felt more alone in her life the second Grace stepped into the limo and vanished down the curving drive.
With a sigh she walked back down the hallway, ignoring the portraits of her family and ancestors scattered artistically along the walls. She poured another whiskey on the rocks and turned the luxurious leather chair to the window and gazed out over the manicured gardens.
Asking for the other painting had been stupid, but in a way it had been a test. To bait Grace? What for? Allison had seen the girl's limits, had seen her... beautiful eyes...
She only knew she was sorry she'd hurt the young woman.
It was a beautiful painting, a light background of trees, flowers and sky, with contrasting shadows and the little boy had been painted with a loving hand in vibrant colors.
It was special, Grace had said. How special? Allison wondered. So special that the artist would turn down the opportunity for a large paycheck? One she obviously needed? Apparently so.
And strangely Allison respected Grace. She'd broken people for far less then a painting. Why had she stopped, even apologized?
She shrugged. Doesn't matter. Shouldn't matter. She turned cold eyes out over the gardens and stayed that way till well past midnight before she roused herself to go upstairs and sleep.
The next day for Allison was a continuous day of meeting clients, purchasing agreements, and the acquisition of a new painting. It bored her to near tears. Surely there was something more to this life?
For one quiet half hour during lunch Allison wandered through the gallery, her father's gallery, and his father before that. Doyle Parker was a proud man, a man who doted on his only daughter, but still prayed for a son to take over the family business.
It had only been on his death bed in the hospital that he'd called in his lawyers and willed everything to Allison. She'd been bitter and at first refused it, but as her father pleaded and died she made it a promise.
She'd also made a promise to marry and let her husband take care of the business. It was one promise she wasn't willing to keep. But she would run the gallery, and make it more successful then it had ever been.
Taking on Christopher Wahbash as her partner had been part brilliance and part luck. The luck had been in finding him in her gallery, studying the layout.
She'd watched him pacing, not even looking at the paintings at first, mumbling something silently, then she'd approached him and asked if he worked there.
"No," he'd admitted. "But it is a lovely place, isn't it?"
Allison had smiled. "Lovely indeed. That painting over there in particular." She pointed to the newest work in the gallery, a beautiful piece from a relatively new and upcoming artist.
"It's all right." He glanced at it offhandedly.
She hid a scowl behind a full teeth smile. "Really? I like it."
"Composition is good, strokes are bold and sure, but the lighting is wrong," he replied truthfully.
Allison tilted her head to the side, considering the wisdom of his words. She wasn't much into decorating and had hung the thing in the first blank spot on the wall. "And what would you do with it?"
Thus had begun a conversation on where he thought the painting would look best. Undaunted Allison had gone over to the painting and deftly took it off the wall, moving it to where he'd suggested.
When she turned back his mouth was slightly open and his eyes were wide.
"Don't worry," she assured him. "I work here." Allison studied the work, and how the light hit it just right now and the canvases on either side accented it instead of detracted from it.
"Y-you work here?" he stammered.
"Actually I own the place," Allison chuckled.
A man of few words, she liked that. She'd asked him if he wanted to work with her to set up the rooms and display the paintings. Mutely he'd nodded and now, more then five years later, he was an equal partner and they had three full time employees and various janitorial staff.
That painting had long since sold, the artist though had disappeared in the ever changing fads of the art world.
Now Allison wandered into a new room that had quickly become her favorite. In a time where families were few and far between, the emergence of family portraits and homelife had resurfaced with a vengeance. They sold faster then Allison could keep them on the walls.
There. Between the little boy on the horse and the little girl in the rose garden. Chris' decorating skills had rubbed off on her during the years and she knew Grace's painting would have been right at home there. It would have sold quickly. Too bad she wasn't willing to part with it.
Let it go, part of her whispered. You don't need it or the money it will generate for the gallery. But I wonder if that other-
"Hey Alli, there you are." Chris interrupted her musings as he sauntered into the room with a sheaf of papers under his arm.
"What's up Chris? He still won't sign?" She turned away from the bare spot on the wall and faced her business partner, and friend.
"Nope, the tight wad is hanging on for everything he can." Chris grimaced.
Allison sighed. She'd have to take care of this one herself. "All right, stick the folder on my desk and I'll give the old fart a call after lunch."
How Allison managed to hold onto her clients never ceased to amaze him. Of course all she had to do was bat her pretty little eyelashes and she got whatever she wanted.
"Will do." He headed to her office, but stopped at the doorway to the hall. "Have you had lunch? We could pop over to Salisbury?"
"No thanks, Chris. I've got stuff to do."
"Ok," he said, as he turned slowly and left. She'd been so distant, more so then usual, and Chris worried about her health. She was at the gallery till all hours of the night and never seemed to stop for anything more then a coffee. Chris had found her, more then once lately, roaming through the rooms with far away looks.
He pushed his dark haired business partner out of his mind, laid the old farts folder on Allison's desk and headed out to the Italian restaurant across the street.
I woke late. Someone had unplugged my alarm. I rushed around, grabbing my uniform and a shower before I hopped on the subway to work. I was starving but I didn't have money for breakfast, so I worked through the first two hours of my shift with a grumbling stomach. Twice I snatched a roll from the bin and placed it in my pocket before I filled the tray and went out to serve them.
On my first break I fixed coffee, the only beverage available in the staff lounge, and scarfed down the rolls. I was still hungry.
Through the last hours of my shift my ankles began to swell and my lower back knotted. Why the hell did I work here if I hated it so much? The tips were good? Cha'right. I just hadn't won the lotto... hadn't made the big time....
I sighed and got back to work as one of the patrons titled their empty glass in my direction.
Finally my shift was over and I could go to the loft and do what I did best. Painting. Nothing else relaxed me, comforted me the way solid brush strokes did. My father use to tease me that one day I would marry one of my canvases.
Well, they were certainly more dependable then people.
The apartment was still littered with trash and a few people. Doug was out and about with his ever present bowl of Frosted Flakes. I mumbled a 'hello' before I escaped to the loft.
He didn't hear me, or didn't respond.
I changed into sweats and a T-shirt and sat at my drawing table, but after a moment of just shuffling the paints around and trying to stretch out the pain in my back and ignore my throbbing feet, I gave up. I shrugged out of my sweats and laid on the bed, propped up with the pillows.
With a weary groan I pulled the laptop over on top of my bare thighs and booted it up. I dialed up on the internet and downloaded my e-mail. I discarded all but two. One was my younger sister's e-mail address. The other I didn't recognize.
After reading my sister's tales of woe regarding her boyfriend I shot off a big sister reply that not so subtly said to dump the little chraa. Then I stared for a second at the unrecognized e-mail from PWG@aol.com.
I clicked on 'read' and was startled to find my name and a short note from Allison Parker. Of course, Parker Wahbash Galleries, PWG.Grace,
The phone has been busy all day at your apartment so I've sent you an e-mail to let you know that we won't be able to start the portrait on Saturday.
A client has invited me to a party and since I want his collection in my gallery for next month's show I will need to attend.
I'm sorry if this is an inconvenience for you, I'll try to clear part of my schedule on Sunday.
Damn, how in hell had she gotten my e-mail address? I'd only given it to my sister, but then how did I get all that cyber junkmail?
As for the phone being busy, one of the party animals downstairs had probably left it, or knocked it, off the hook last night. I hit the 'reply' button.
Sorry, phone was off the hook, didn't realize it. Sunday will be fine.
Actually all day Sunday will be fine since for a change I have time off from work.
Sounds like you'd rather not go to the party. What is it for?
I hit 'send' without reading it over again, hoping it didn't sound too stupid. My belly was rumbling but I was too sore to get up just yet. I opened my web browser and went to a well used search engine, Yahoo, and typed in Parker and Wahbash Galleries. I wasn't really expecting anything, but it turned up a main site.
Wondering why it mattered I hit the link and waited for the page to load. Wow, nice graphics and a nice easy to follow setup. Ms. Parker's design or her partner's? Or even a professional design, she certainly had the money.
I scrolled to the very bottom and read the disclaimers. C. Wahbash had made the graphics and designed the page. Interesting. I clicked around a bit more, learning the nature of the upcoming show, the scheduled one after that, a brief bio. on Chris and nothing on Allison.
Thomas Thurbs' personal collection of oils and watercolors will be on display in the Wahbash Gallery. Among the works are paintings by artists such as Rembrandt...
Yadda yadda.... Where's the good stuff?
Thomas Thurbs is the top lawyer at Thurbs, Thurbs and Romaine. He has generously offered to show these works to the public for the very first time.
Generously offered? Uh huh, how much was it costing Allison?
"You've got mail."
The gender neutral computer voice scared the shit out of me. I wasn't expecting anything.
The party is my chance to sway Mister Thurbs into not backing out of our agreement. He's demanding a small fortune for us to show the paintings. It's formal and hosh posh. I do hate these things. Getting all dressed up and having to stick my nose in the air.
Would you like Ed to pick you up Sunday? What's a good time for you? I've cleared my schedule. After the party I'm sure to need it.
Oh, and if you were wondering I got your e-mail address from the little card in your portfolio.
Well, that explained that.
I smiled as I read, not at all expecting Allison's sarcasm to show through in an e-mail, nor did I expect her to be so honest.Allison,
Please tell Ed I'd be honored if he'd escort me to your house. Is 10am good? I'd like to see the house and find a good spot to paint, unless you have a spot picked out already?
I'm sure Mr. Thurbs will find, out of the goodness of his heart, the will to show his collection. Just give him one of those intimidating stares of yours. :)
I've never been to a formal party, but I'm sure there must be something to do there besides hob knob. Lots of interesting people and exciting stories.
Good luck on Saturday,
I hit 'send' then shut down the web browser. Just as I was going to sign off and go get some dinner the computer told me I had more mail. Damn, that was fast.
It was from my sister. Oh, okay. I didn't bother to read her depressing e-mail. Instead I signed off, shut down the computer and laid it back on the table.
I pulled my sweats back on and limped painfully downstairs to the kitchen. There was nothing left to eat. All my labeled and carefully marked food had been eaten last night.
Dammit it all to hell! I never ate their food... why couldn't they respect that? I was too tired, too sore to go down to the corner to get anything else, and I wouldn't be paid until the end of the week anyway.
I refused to stoop to their level and eat their stuff.
So, with a grumbling stomach I went upstairs. For awhile I sat, staring out the window. I wanted out of here. More then anything. More than my beloved brother and father. More than food.
I checked my e-mail, one last time before I went to sleep. There was nothing from Allison. More disappointed than I cared to admit I turned the computer off and curled up under the sheet after I'd pulled the curtain around the bed.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday....
Work day after work day, my ankles swelled more and more after each shift. I couldn't pull doubles anymore, no matter how much I needed the money.
No e-mail all week from the lovely art dealer either.
Friday night I dragged my sorry ass up to the loft, tears of pain in my eyes. Uniform and all I crumpled onto my bed. Three hours later I lifted my groggy head and moaned pitifully. The phone was ringing. Couldn't someone get up and answer the damn thing?
Finally there was blessed silence and I closed my eyes once again. The shrill blasting of the phone ten minutes later stopped my heart in my chest.
Fuck, what a way to wake up. They were going to keep calling unless I either took the receiver off the hook or actually answered. I opted for the first choice and slid down to the end of the bed. I took off my work shoes and leaned over the rail.
The first one missed. Damn.
The second one landed with a solid BRINNGGGG as the shoe and the phone went flying off the table.
I sighed and flopped back onto the pillow.
Dammit, what now? I sat up on the bed, rubbing sleep from my eyes. There it was again. Thump, thump. Someone was knocking on the door.
I stumbled down the stairs in the dark and cracked the door open. Concerned blue eyes peeked inside.
"Allison?" I squawked. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I- um, can I come inside?"
I threw a hasty glance around the apartment, but it was too dark to see much of the mess. I opened the door and invited Allison in with a wave of my hand. I only stepped back far enough for her to shut the door behind her.
"What are you doing here?" I asked again, shifting from foot to foot, trying to ease the pain.
"I tried to call earlier," Allison admitted.
"Oh," was all I could think of to say. Come on, get a grip. "But that still doesn't explain what you're doing here."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come." Allison turned to grasp the doorknob.
"What?" She turned.
With a glance I fell into the depth of her icy eyes. I would have stayed there, drowned there if she hadn't looked away.
"I just came to see if you were all right. When I tried to call there was this strange noise. Then I called again and the line was busy," Allison finally said.
"Ohmigod, I forgot about that." I could feel a furious blush fanning up my face. "I was trying to sleep and no one would answer the phone. I threw my, um, my shoe at it and knocked it off the hook," I finished sheepishly.
Allison actually chuckled. "Since you're all right and it was just a shoe-"
"Yes?" I asked uncertainly. Should I clear a spot on the sofa? My feet were killing me. When she didn't answer I limped my way over to the couch and threw some stuff aside.
Allison silently followed, and sat in the cleared off spot.
"Sorry 'bout the mess," I said shyly. "My roomies are party animals and pigs. I gave up trying to clean up after them a long time ago."
"Don't worry about it," Allison said dismissively. "I went to college and had a slob for a roommate too."
Better not let her know that I'm as much of a slob as they are. "So, you were going to say something before?"
"Well, I just thought that since I'm here... well I thought-"
"Spit it out woman." I smiled at her unusual embarrassment. What was all the fuss?
"I told you about the party tomorrow?" She twisted her hands together.
"Mmmhmm." I nodded with no sense of where this conversation was going.
"I'd like it if you accompanied me." Allison spat it out quickly.
"A-accompany you?" I stuttered.
"Only if you want to," she replied quietly. "At least I'd have someone to talk to."
"It can't be all that bad, can it?" I asked, shocked and happily surprised at the sudden invitation.
"Much worse." She smiled. "Will you come?"
"I don't have anything to wear." That was my immediate response, and my eyes widened in horror.
"Then that's a yes? I know it's really short notice, but I could go with you tomorrow after work and I could help you pick out something."
"It's not that," I heard myself say. "After bills and rent...."
Allison nodded, bright blue eyes widening slowly. "Make a deal with you?"
"An advance on your paycheck for the portrait, if," she stressed the if as if the following was all that mattered, "IF you save me from some of the old farts and their long winded 'I-had-to-walk-uphill-both-ways-to-school' speeches.'"
"I'm hardly the one to save you." But, I smiled. That silly kind of smile where I wish I had the nerve to flirt.
"Well, Chris is otherwise detained, so you'll have to do," Allison winked.
The wink was startling. She's playing games with me? "What time is the party?"
"Eight, but I like to...make an appearance. So, say nine."
Nine, nine...nine. Not nearly enough time to pick out a formal dress. I could call in sick. Yeah, one day won't make much difference where FICA was concerned. "I'll take the morning off and we can shop. If you're up to it."
"Sounds good to me." She smiled and stood.
I suddenly wished she wasn't leaving. I wanted to soak up her beauty all night long. Knock it off, stupid, she's not interested. I stuck out my hand. "Pick me up in the morning?"
Allison clasped my hand within her long, tapered fingers. Her palm was warm or it was the sudden jolt that rushed through my body, I couldn't tell.
"Ten too early?"
"Ten it is." I walked her to the door, my feet suddenly far less painful. "Good night, Allison."
"G'night, Grace. Sorry about waking you up."
"Nah, it's all right." The smile stayed on my face long after I'd gone back up to the loft and fallen asleep.
I was up and ready when Allison knocked on the door at precisely ten o'clock. I'd succumbed to my near starvation and wolfed down a bowl of Doug's Frosted Flakes before he'd stumbled out of bed.
I'd almost laughed when he'd reached into the cupboard, pulled out the big blue box and tipped it over a cereal bowl. The look on his face was priceless. "Who ate all my goddamned cereal?" he'd screamed.
The knock on the door had saved me from the evil chuckle bubbling up in my throat.
Wow. "Morning." I smiled at the vision in front of me. I could get use to facing that every morning. Stop that....
"Ready?" Allison asked, casting a furtive glance around the apartment in the full light of day.
"Yep." I shut the door and followed her down the stairs to the sidewalk and the limo where Ed was waiting, a smile on his face. I tried to ignore the ache in my right foot, that hadn't gone away during the night, and smiled back.
"Good morning, Miss Jordan." Ed gallantly opened the door.
I stuck my tongue out at him. We'd hit it off instantly that night he'd driven me home from Allison's. Was it the fact that as soon as we were out of sight I'd insisted he stop the limo and let me sit up front like a normal person and not some rich snob?
Allison watched the exchange with an arched eyebrow.
I sat in the back with Allison this time. "Where are we going?" I asked after she had shut the door and settled on the rich leather seat.
She rambled off a list of stores that were well out of my budget, my eyes widening the whole time.
"Well, did you really expect us to find you a dress at Wal-Mart?" Allison grinned.
Something like that. "Of course not," I said defensively.
"Ed, let's try Giovani's first."
"Yes, ma'am." There was nothing playful in his response to Allison, I noted.
Giovani's turned out to be a two story affair, with bright lights, cheery sales people on high commissions and price tags that made me gag. Trundle's was next. More high prices, overbearing sales people, and harsh florescent lights. I was having a difficult time with Allison's statement; 'Find a dress you like and don't even glance at the price. Your advance will cover it.'
By the fourth store Allison seemed vaguely angry at my ineptitude to find a dress and I was more then pissed at the fact that it hurt so much to stand. I was ready to throw in the towel and say 'fuck this, I'm going home' when a pale creamy color caught my eye. It was on the rack. Mother would be so ashamed.
Carefully I pulled it out of the jumble. It was a straight shift, traveling well down to my ankles, but with a slit on the side. Spaghetti straps finished off the top with a fairly conservative neck line.
However, it was two sizes too big.
"If that's the dress you want, Grace, you can ask them to resize it."
Allison's low voice sent a shiver up my spine as she whispered close to my ear. I turned and looked up. "Let me try it on first."
She showed me to the dressing room and left me to it. I risked a glance at the price tag anyway as I slipped it off the hanger. Damn, only 500 dollars. Only...could be worse. How about that one that was the price of a used car? Or the one that was equal to a down payment on a nice house?
Shoving my uneasiness aside I slipped into the dress, then turned to the mirror.
Hmmm...take it in here, and here.... It could work. "Alli?" I called through to the chairs area at the front. I heard footsteps across the carpeted floor then a hesitant knock on the door.
"Come on in." I flipped the lock off and stood back. Allison's eyes widened and I felt a surge of disappointment. "That bad?" I asked.
"N-no. No, not bad at all," Allison stammered. She reached out a hand and plucked absently at the waist line. "Take it in a bit...." She pulled back.
"Will they do that here?" I asked, uncertainty clouding my words.
"Yes. I'll get someone to come back.... You really do look nice, Grace." Allison walked out.
I was left with my mouth hanging slightly ajar.
The lady gushed and fussed, trying hard to re-earn the commission she'd nearly lost earlier when she'd ignored me in my ratty jeans, and targeted straight on Allison in her tailored slacks and silk blouse.
I endured it all, feeling Allison's eyes darting back and forth over the whole situation. When the hemming was finished and my back and legs ached once again I was in a foul mood. I suddenly balked at the idea of paying 500 dollars for a dress I would wear only once.
"This is a bad idea," I said again as we followed the woman up to the cash register. Bad, bad, bad, stupid idea.
"Relax, Grace." Allison smiled kindly and touched my shoulder. "Why don't you go out to the limo and see how Ed is doing? I'll take care of this."
"Yeah, sure, Ed's probably bored out of his mind, wondering if aliens have landed and flown off with us." I sighed with relief.
"Don't worry, he's been shopping with me before." Allison chuckled.
I smiled and kept my head up as I exited the store, knowing Allison was watching me. Once outside I nearly collapsed on the pavement in pain. Suddenly there was a hand around my waist, pulling me up.
"You all right, Miss Jordan?" Ed's deep voice was filled with concern.
Tears of pain threatened to overflow and I gulped them back down. "Can you help me into the limo, Ed?" I asked, full of shame.
It was a relief to sit down, but that biting pain was in my lower back again and I felt nauseous. Ed fixed a glass of water from the small refrigerator then hurried back up to the front as Allison exited from the store, a garment bag slung over her shoulder.
"Everything all right in here?" Allison asked, her gaze shifting from Ed back to me.
"Yup, " I answered lamely.
"Why don't we have lunch at my house? I'll show you around and you can figure out where you want to paint the portrait tomorrow." Allison draped the garment bag over the seat in front of us and settled back into the seat.
Ahh, lunch. At least a half hours worth of sitting time. "Sounds good," I stifled a yawn.
"Tired?" Allison asked.
"A little bit," I admitted.
Ed pulled slowly out into traffic and we headed back to Allison's home in silence.
Vella's dark head peered around the door as we entered. I gave her a smile but she simply looked me up and down and turned her attention to Allison.
"Mr. Wahbash called an hour ago, ma'am."
"Thank you Vella. Grace and I will be having lunch on the back patio." Allison casually touched my elbow and led us down the hall.
"Yes, ma'am." Vella returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch.
We walked past the staircase, past the pictures, past the den through a richly furnished living room and through wide, glass paned double doors to the back patio. It was filled with flowers that gave off the fragrant scent of lilacs, roses and many others I couldn't name.
In the middle of the patio, white wicker chairs sat around a glass topped table. On top of the table was a frosty crystal vase with a bouquet of flowers.
"Why don't you have a seat, Grace? I've got a phone call to make and I'll be right back." Allison waited for me to nod and take a seat.
I gazed out over the manicured gardens in the back, my eyes wide. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't put that cold look on my face that Allison seemed to have perfected.
It all simply amazed me.
"What's up, Chris?" Allison asked. She was in the den, calling on the second line, hoping Grace wasn't bored out of her mind.
"Mr. Thurbs called. He wants you to confirm you'll be there."
"Yeah, fine," Allison sighed. "I'll call him and let him know I'll be there."
"Did you pick up a date, Alli?" Chris asked.
Allison chuckled and a little smile curled her mouth up as she thought of the young woman waiting on her patio. "Something like that," she replied cryptically.
"Ohhhh, tell me about her."
She could almost hear his mind clicking and see his wide, mischievous smile. "She's absolutely beautiful, and she's got this...I don't know what it is-" She stopped abruptly and continued in a more subdued voice, "You'll get to meet her soon enough, Chris. But we're friends, nothing more."
"Uh huh." Chris chuckled.
"Don't even go there. We're friends," Allison stated with maybe a little too much vehemence.
"Relax, Alli, I was just teasing you," Chris backed down, puzzled by Allison's behavior.
"Sorry, didn't mean to snap at you." Allison twisted the phone cord around her finger, biting her tongue. "Lunch is ready. I'll give Mr. Thurbs a call after."
"Ok, take care of yourself."
"Bye." Allison hung up the phone with a sigh. She straightened her blouse and her expression, keeping both smooth and even.
There's even a fountain, I marveled, craning my neck to get a better view through the tinted windows.
"Would you like the tour now or after lunch?"
Allison's deep voice startled me once again. "Geez, you shouldn't sneak up on people like that, Alli," I chastised.
"Sorry." Allison grinned.
My stomach rumbled loudly. "Uh, guess it's lunch first."
Vella chose that precise moment to walk in with a tray laden down with food. I automatically got up to grab one of the edges and help her.
"I've got it," Vella said softly. "Please sit down, miss."
I gave Vella an uncertain glance. "I don't mind." I suddenly received a grateful smile that completely changed the young Mexican woman's face, and I returned the smile as I helped her set up the small table.
Allison remained silent.
After Vella left we sat at the table and I followed suit as Allison unfolded her linen napkin and draped it over her lap.
"It's her job you know."
"Huh?" I looked up from my study of the numerous forks.
"It's Vella's job to set the table and bring the food." Allison picked up a four pronged, large silver fork.
I looked for the same one. "Just because it's her job doesn't mean I can't help out," I replied absently, trying to decide what to eat first- the little white things I thought might be mussels, the herb pasta or the array of peas and pearl onions.
"You are my guest, Grace. You shouldn't interfere with Vella's job."
I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth, the mussel dangling precariously off the end. "Excuse me?" I asked incredulously. "Have you forgotten already that I'm just like Vella? Except I don't work in a mansion, I work down on 8th Street?" I carefully set the fork back on the plate, before I did a Julia Roberts.
"Where you work or how much money you have does not define who you are, Grace," Allison responded.
"Tell that to society," I mumbled and picked up my fork again.
Allison seemed about to argue the point.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you like that," I said and resumed eating. I'd never had mussels before. Not bad. "Haven't you ever helped the people that work for you?"
Allison's jaw clenched and unclenched. "No, I do my job and they do theirs."
This was going to be a long day. I needed the money the portrait would bring, and being a smart ass was a sure way to lose it. So, I ignored Allison's last comment. "Great food," I mumbled around a forkful of peas.
"Mmmm," Allison murmured.
"So, this is a good place?" Allison asked.
I nodded and looked back and forth from the bench to the flowers. The roses were on a trellis behind the bench, and the lighting was good, but only for a short while each day. It would be perfect for the portrait.
Ok, nothing was ever perfect, but this place was as close to heaven as I was gonna get.
"Yup," I stated. "We'll start here tomorrow." I glanced up at Allison's expressionless face, and wondered briefly what emotion I saw flashing in those gorgeous blue eyes. It didn't matter. I was here to do a painting and nothing else.
Allison knew she looked good. I could see it in the tiny smile that edged her lips. She didn't flaunt it though. She walked to the limo with her usual casual grace and waited till the door was opened, then ushered me in first.
I, on the other hand, felt extremely self-concious. The dress had been altered to fit perfectly, and clung in all the right spots, but, well, I didn't like those spots to begin with.
Ok, years of walking everywhere and waitressing or bartending had given me toned legs and arms...but, I don't know. Ever since...let's just say I have little to no self-esteem.
But, if Allison's sparkling eyes were any indication, I looked all right. Enough to pass at this dinner party thing anyway.
After a drive to The Hills I was tempted not to get out of the limo. If I'd thought Allison's mansion was impressive and intimidating it was a cottage compared to this one. No wonder the guy had his own private art collection.
"Come on," Allison urged. She gently took my elbow and pulled me out of the limo.
I nodded mutely, my eyes fixed on the ornate gold moldings, white pillars and marble walks. "Allison," I whispered, as we stood just outside of the limo. "Tell me again why I'm doing this?"
"You promised to fend the old men off for me, remember?" She grinned.
My god, that smile totally transformed her. One minute she's a sleek, rich snob, and the next, well the next she's human. Very human, and very beautiful. My heart stuck in my throat as she started up the steps slightly ahead of me. When she realized I wasn't following she glanced back and stopped.
There was a curious expression on her face as she retreated back to my side and laid her long, tapered fingers on my arm.
"N-nothing," I stammered.
"It's just like any other party. And we won't stay for long. I just need to convince Mr. Tightwad to show his collection."
Allison's hand was still on my arm. It sent tingles running up and down my spine.
Just like any other party...she'd said.
"Grace Elizabeth Jordan!" My mother yelled. "Don't you dare run around outside before your father's friends get here.'"
I was five. What did I know? I liked to run, and play. Especially in the dirt with my little brother. We were playing hide and seek because we'd gotten bored waiting in the house. "Mummy," I said. "We aren't running."
I remember seeing her, hands on hips at the back door. She was wearing a dark blue, shimmering dress. She'd looked so beautiful. It would be the last time I saw her there....
Allison looked down to Grace. She seemed so lost. Was she afraid? Her heart sped up and jumped into her throat, where it decided to come to a screeching halt. She is scared.
We could go.... But the thought didn't last long. This showing was too important to back out on now, just because Grace was afraid of something.
Get a grip. She wanted to shake the young woman. What good would it do? Come on, Grace, I don't want to be here either. No helpful words or cliches found their way to her lips. There was nothing to say.
"Buck up, girl. Life is hard." That was her father's favorite saying. Allison sighed and refused to say anything even remotely similar to it.
I heard Allison sigh and knew I was being a big baby. With a deep breath I squared my shoulders and brushed past a startled Allison on my way to the front, double doors.
Just another party....
As I stepped inside the parlor my heart almost stopped. The place was gorgeous. It was also teeming with people in tuxes and shimmering gowns. Briefly I glanced down at my plain dress, feeling a blush beginning to travel up my cheeks.
"Don't worry," Allison said, startling the shit out of me, once again. "You look fine."
"Evening ladies," a deep, rumbling voice said before I could argue.
I looked over to the owner of the voice and saw a man that was almost the same height as I was, perhaps a few inches taller. A short, but grizzly beard, and white hair gave him the appearance of a wizened old grandfather. Maybe his eyes use to sparkle when he looked at his grandchildren, but as he looked at me now I got the distinct impression that he didn't even see me.
"Evening, Mr. Thurbs. It looks like the party is going well." Allison smiled and shook the old man's hand.
Ah, so this was the host. I smiled hesitantly as Allison introduced us.
"Mr. Thurbs, this is my friend Grace. Grace, this is the man I was telling you about, who offered to show his art collection at my gallery." She smiled and winked at me and I wondered if I'd missed some kind of inside joke.
"Call me Thom." He smiled; a smile that touched his lips, and nothing more.
I just smiled back the same way. A bell jingled somewhere in the distance and Thom held out his arms to us.
"That would be dinner. May I escort you lovely ladies to the table?"
"Thank you," I said politely and tucked my arm through his. He walked us to the large table and I worked hard to keep my gaze cool as I looked sideways at the chandeliers, large floor to ceiling windows and marble tiles.
We sat down and the help began to serve us. I felt remarkably uncomfortable as I realized that any one of them could be me. The food settled like a rock in my stomach. The pheasant, baby potatoes, and green salad tasted like cardboard. Conversations rattled all around me and I studiously watched my fork moving around the plate.
A thin, reedy voice garnered my attention as it rose in both pitch and volume. I turned to an elderly woman who was adamantly defending the virtues of welfare for unwed mothers. As the conversation's volume rose the guests stilled and listened. It appeared our host thought welfare was a sham, that homelessness was because people were lazy...etc.
"Welfare isn't a sham, just the people who use it. They're typically uneducated, unmarried young women who got pregnant at too young an age."
My fork stilled completely as I listened to Allison's casual, cutting words. Someone else agreed and piped up that food stamps were simply a waste of time.
Shit, I'd used food stamps. Would probably have to use them again. I looked around the table, and would have bet my next paycheck that none of them had ever gone a day, let alone a week, with nothing substantial to eat. And, as my mouth and brain werent always connected I found words tumbling out of my mouth.
"Most women, or men, that are now on welfare worked minimum wage jobs. One month they made ends meet, the next...they struggled...the next...they found circumstances beyond their control." I got it all out in a rush, but felt I hadn't said enough. "And, before they knew it they were seeking government aid because when their children said, 'mommy I'm hungry', they couldn't bear to look in their innocent eyes and say, 'I'm sorry, baby, there isn't anything to eat.'"
I suddenly found all eyes on me, as if I were from another planet, with antennae and purple spots.
"Nonsense," Thom snorted. "They should have gotten another job. Hell, they should have gone to college in the first place."
"Well then, sir," I said, surprised my voice was calm, since I was on display, and since this was not my favorite topic. "They tried. Now, with two minimum wage jobs, night school, daycare, it all crashes down around them. Their child becomes sick, or they're injured on the job.... What then? Suddenly they find themselves further in the hole than ever. Now they're paying hospital bills. Suddenly the car is taken away, the other job goes, or they're fired because of lost work days. Then the house-"
"They never should have gotten into a situation like that in the first place. If it were me-"
Much to my horror I interrupted our host. Something I knew was taboo, even without being told. "If you, sir, were there you wouldn't know what the hell to do. No servants to cook, clean, or care for the kids. No chauffeur, and no caviar." Several people gasped as my passionate speech dwindled to nothing and I was left staring at the gray haired man that could have been my grandfather. I suddenly remembered he was Allison's wealthy client. Oh god, I'd just messed everything up.
Silence reigned in the room as he stared. "What's your name, young lady?"
"Grace," I gulped. I could feel Allison staring daggers into her shrimp cocktail. Suddenly I wondered if I was going to be painting tomorrow after all.
"You've got passion, Grace, I like that. Who do you feel about...."
And slowly, somehow, it all went back to normal. I was part of the conversations, I was asked questions, as if I was the rich man's contact with the little people. And, deep down, for some reason, it all made me feel...dirty.
But, for one night, for Allison, I could pretend.
After dinner I escaped outside as the party went on inside. It felt good to shed my strange second skin and be myself again. For a moment I contemplated roaming through the vast garden but the chill of the night air and the moonless night kept me seated on the bench a stone's throw from the light trailing out the tall windows.
I heard the scuff of feet on marble and sighed inwardly. "Mind if I have a sit down?"
It was Thom. I smiled politely and waved my hand at the bench. "It's your house."
"That it is. With that thought in mind, young lady, I'm going to light up my cigar, but I hope it doesn't send you scurrying away."
I shrugged. He sat beside me on the bench and removed a cigar clip, took off a bit of the end, and lit up his stogie. Actually the smell of the cigar was sweet. It reminded me of something.
He puffed a moment then said, "Interesting dinner, huh?"
I grunted non-committally.
"You're a friend of Miss Parker's?"
I grinned wearily. "Probably not after my little speech at the dinner table." He chuckled lightly and I turned to get a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye.
"I certainly hope that's not the case, my dear. She'd be far too stupid, and might I add, not worthy of my art collection, if she slighted you after speaking your mind."
"Then you're going to let her gallery show it?"
"Straight to the point, I like that." He took a moment to puff some more and stared out over the darkened gardens. "Honestly?" Thom looked at me carefully. I nodded and he continued. "Honestly, I don't know."
"Don't know? Why?" I asked curiously. As he looked away from me I turned to see what was so interesting.
"What do you see out there, Grace?"
He motioned towards the yard and for a moment I'd thought he'd lost his mind.
"What do you see?" he asked again quietly.
"Money," I said instantly, but decided not to look in his direction.
He hmmed, puffed some more and the silence stretched so long that the crickets sounded like a miniature rock concert. "Why is it the more money you have, the more you want?" he asked.
"Why is it when you have no money it's all you want?" I countered.
"Money is the root of all evil," he quoted. "All my life I've had money. All my life I worked for more. But still, there's something missing. I don't need it anymore, collecting it has simply become a hobby for me. Do you know just how much money I have, Grace?"
"No," I said.
"Aren't you going to ask just how much I have?"
"No." I shivered briefly as a chill wind wrapped around my shoulders and slithered through my thin dress.
"Why what, sir?"
"Don't call me sir. And why aren't you going to ask?"
"Cause I don't really care."
For a long time he was quiet and I wondered if I'd offended him, or done something else taboo.
"Fair enough," he finally said. He reached into his coat pocket and dug out a cigar. "Want one?"
It was waggled in my direction. I took the cigar and the clipper. Not sure how to go about it I took off a small bit of the end, like he had, then lit it from the proffered gold plated zippo. I puffed on it, but wondered if I'd cut off too much as little bits of the cigar stuck to my lips and tongue. "They aren't as sweet as they smell. It's kind of disappointing," I said absently.
He let out a soft chuckle that turned to a belly laugh. I looked at him with wide eyes, waggled my eyebrows and made him laugh harder.
"Am I interrupting something?" Allison's smooth voice floated from the doors to our bench.
"Oops, I do believe we've been caught taking candy from the cookie jar." I grinned. Thom grinned back.
"Not at all, Allison. Grace and I were simply out enjoying the night air, waxing philosophical and smoking fine cigars." Slowly he stood and offered one to Allison. "Care to join us?"
"No thank you, Mr. Thurbs. Actually I came to find Grace, and bid you goodnight." She glanced at me. "If you're ready to go, of course."
I blushed and stood. "I'm ready. Nice meeting you, Thom." I held out my hand and he shook it gravely.
"I'll walk you ladies to the door."
We walked around the side of the mansion, because Thom didn't want to put out his cigar and apparently his wife hadn't allowed him to smoke in the house. And he said, even though she was gone, she'd still know, and come back to haunt him. The limo was pulling up in front as we arrived. Our door was opened for us.
"Mr. Thurbs, before we go, I'd like to enquire about your collection. Your set price is acceptable-"
"Grace?" Thom turned to me.
I felt my eyes widen for about the hundredth time that evening. "Yes?"
"Do you think I should?"
"Yes," I didn't hesitate.
"And how much would you charge Miss Parker to let the world see an art collection that's never been seen before and is considered priceless?" His cigar was set aside and he watched me carefully, as he had before.
Was this some kind of test? "If it's priceless, how can you put a price tag on it?" I asked.
Something sparkled in the deep recesses of his brown eyes. "Indeed." He scratched his chin while Allison and I waited with bated breath. "Very well then. Miss Parker, you may show my collection without charge, on one condition."
"That would be?" she asked.
"That you bring Miss Grace Jordan back here tomorrow."
Instantly my mouth opened and out tumbled words I had no time to recall. "I'm painting tomorrow, I can't."
"Of course you can," Allison argued. "You can do the painting another time."
My mouth opened, but Thom spoke first. "Painting?" He looked at me.
"Um, I'm doing a portrait for Allison. I'm starting it tomorrow." I could feel my nervousness bounding back like a herd of playful puppies.
He nodded to himself. "Then, if I may I'd like to come and observe tomorrow. Then you may have your precious art collection, Ms. Parker."
"Certainly. It would be my pleasure to have you as a guest," she said, humbly.
Well, that seemed to be that. Tomorrow I'd paint, Mr. Thurbs would watch, and Allison would get her collection. All in all it had been a hell of an interesting evening. We got into the limo, and, as I'd expected, it wasn't long before Allison asked the inevitable.
"How did you get him to do that?"
"Do what?" I played dumb.
"Mr. Tightwad gave it up for nothing, because you said so." Allison stretched back into the rich leather of the limo and propped her feet up next to me. "What the hell did you talk about earlier?"
I shrugged. "Nothing really. Must be my perfume."
Allison arched an eyebrow, then grinned. "Well, remember to put more on tomorrow."
I wrinkled my nose, but said nothing as she smiled and closed her eyes. It wasn't long before I asked the inevitable as well. "The evening went okay, then?" I asked softly.
Allison nodded without opening her eyes. "Not one speech on walking to school, uphill both ways."
"That's good." I paused and struggled with words that were suddenly very difficult. "I'm sorry...about dinner."
Slowly Allison's eyes opened and she regarded me for a moment in silence. Then she shrugged. "We have different views on the world. I don't hold that against you, Grace. I...I hope you don't hold it against me as well?"
Allison watched the young woman struggling for words, and realized her comments at the dinner table had bit far deeper then she'd intended. They were a world apart on many things, the topics of conversation being just one of them.
"I don't think you realize what you say sometimes," Grace replied.
Allison's thoughts drifted from dinner topics to the woman sitting across from her, in her limo, in a dress that accented her hair and eyes, and suddenly wondered what the artist was really thinking. "I don't?" she asked.
"Uh no," Grace said, as she turned to look out the tinted windows. "If I told you I'd been on welfare, or had used food stamps, what would you say?"
"Nothing?" Grace rose a delicate eyebrow. "I find that hard to believe. You said enough at dinner."
She watched Grace's jaw clamp firmly shut after that. Just what did I say at dinner? she wondered.
"Welfare isn't a sham, just the people who use it. They're typically uneducated, unmarried young women who got pregnant at too young an age."
Ahh, I get it, Allison thought. I've offended her. What do I say now? "I believe what I said, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Like you."
"So, I'm not a sham? Just everyone else is?" Grace asked, carefully.
Allison's eyebrows rose as she considered that statement. "No," she said finally, but the young artist was still staring at her, in a very disconcerting way. "Not everyone...I mean, I'm sure there are more exceptions.... I've just never seen them."
"And when have you ever seen-" Grace stopped abruptly and shifted her eyes away, to look back out the window. "Nevermind," she mumbled.
"When have I seen what?" The gallery owner prompted.
"Nevermind," Grace repeated. But after a moment she turned back to Allison and her eyes were darker, angrier then ever before. "You live in your rich little mansion, run your own business and have tons of money. You don't associate with 'the little people' or know anything about us. How dare you call our way of life a sham?"
My God, she's got a fire in her. It's practically radiating off her. Allison debated for a long, silent moment what to say. Then simply said, "You're right."
"Dammit-" Grace stopped abruptly. "What?"
"I said; you're right." Allison paused, and looked at her hands twisting the fabric of her dress. "I don't know anything about you, or how you live. So...tell me?"
Grace folded her arms across her chest, then slowly nodded. "Tomorrow, before we paint...I'll show you."
Morning came, gray and cold. It suited me well. I'd slept little. Allison came by early in the morning, just like she'd said, but had protested about sending Ed and the limo away.
I simply responded to that, saying, "You can't get a good view of my world behind tinted windows." She'd dismissed Ed, and now we walked down Laurel St. to the Mission Kitchen. I'd promised myself I'd start her out lightly. This was the best way to do it.
We stood in the long line, saying nothing. I watched Allison watching the people who came and went out the door. Her face was expressionless, but I could see her nervousness in the way she shifted from foot to foot, rubbed her hands together and settled her dark hair behind her ears.
The line moved again, and again, and finally we were at the door. A young man barred the way, indicating if there was enough food left, to let people by. We were let through and I ushered Allison across the stained floor to the long serving table. I picked up a plate and handed her one, and we received our portion of food.
Deliberately I led her to one of the fullest tables and sat between a large, muscular man, and a thin, strung out junkie.
I ate silently, noticing Allison just moved her fork, and food, around the plate. "Something wrong?" I asked.
She shrugged. "What is this stuff suppose to be?" Allison glanced briefly to her right, where the junkie sat, scarfing down her food, then back to her plate.
"That," I pointed to a pile of yellow stuff, "is scrambled eggs. And that's hash browns."
"This?" Allison asked, stabbing her fork into a rock hard, cylindrical object.
"Sausage, I think." I grinned as she flinched. "Hey, you agreed to come with me. Are you backing out now?"
"No, no," she said quickly. She pushed the food around some more, then said, "Do you come here a lot?"
I shook my head. "Not enough time when I work. I come here on the weekends though." I noticed the junkie greedily eyeing Allison's plate. "You going to eat that?" I asked softly.
She pushed the plate away and shook her head.
"Up for grabs," I slid the plate down the table. The junkie grabbed at it and readily at it all. I finished my food, and stood. "Ready to go?" I asked. Allison nodded, so we made our way to the plate bin, where I dropped off my plate, then we headed out the doors.
Next stop, 'indigent row.' I led the way down a side alley, headed two blocks west, and we ended up under the York bridge. As we walked I glanced at Allison's profile, wondering why in hell she'd agreed to come with me. Was this her way of telling me that even if I was a poor, starving artist I still wasn't like the rest of the 'bums'?
Only time would tell.
York bridge is one of the oldest in the city, and probably the most congested. Underneath it, anyway. The cops made a customary stop here, once a month, to chase off indigents, but otherwise left them alone. They had to go someplace.
There were many spoken and unspoken rules here. For instance, everyone was welcome, but if you caused trouble, you were kicked out, and not allowed to return. This was a safe haven for many homeless people. Mostly families. There was no stealing, and no violence towards others. Respect, here, was a very honored and treasured thing, as was your word. And, considering the circumstances, they were very generous people.
Allison walked through the litter strewn darkness of the bridge. Scattered here and there barrels blazed with fire, and children ran and played. It could have been a park, if it weren't for the boxes, barrels, and the people warming their hands and faces by them.
She couldn't begin to imagine Grace in a place like this. Didn't want to think of her here, cold, starving, possibly dying.
"Here," Grace said.
The gallery owner glanced up, then looked where Grace was pointing.
"See that burnt crate over there?"
Along the wall ran a number of cardboard boxes and broken crates. Many had newspapers sealing cracks, and blankets as doorways. The burnt crate was on the end.
"I stayed there for two months, before the cops picked me up," Grace admitted.
Allison's eyebrows rose clear up under her bangs and she was shocked into silence. She had stayed here.
Grace chuckled nervously. "I know what you're thinking. What's a girl like me doing in a place like this." She shrugged. "It happens. I ran into trouble. The Mission and the Center were full, so this was the only place to go."
Allison turned to Grace after studying the small box. "You left here, got a job and an apartment. They can do the same."
The artist stared incredulously into pale blue eyes. "It's not that easy. After I got out of- after I left where I was I got lucky. Believe it or not I found twenty bucks in a pair of pants someone threw out, bought one of those dollar scratch off games and won. I only won a hundred bucks, but it was enough to go into an apartment with a couple other people. So, I did."
I lied. I'd been desperate. So, when I'd found a wallet- no, I didn't steal it- I took out the cash and literally ran with it. The one good thing that ever happened to me. I knew Allison wouldn't approve, and I couldn't force myself to admit it. It would just be one more thing to prove her theory.
She didn't say anything. I followed where she was looking. The children.
If there was one thing I knew would get to her it would be them. I settled down onto the cold, broken concrete and after a minute she sat beside me. Gently I touched her arm.
"People fall through the cracks, Alli. Some come here on purpose, I'll admit that. But do you think she would?" I pointed to a young mother with a screaming child on her hip and one running around, sword fighting, with a stick.
She shook her head.
"When you fall through the cracks, there's little to no way to climb back up." I paused. What would she understand? Then it came to me. She understood business. "Think of it as acquiring a new painting."
Allison glanced at me, but still said nothing. There was a strange look in her eyes.
I continued softly. "It's a beautiful piece of art, being shipped all the way from Paris. All the proper documents have been attained, it's packaged and shipped, but it never arrives." I paused, and thought hard for a moment. "So, what do you do?"
"Trace it," Allison immediately replied.
I smiled. "You bet your ass you trace it. You look for it, even go out to the dock or the postmaster. But, still, something happened. Some little thing. Maybe an incorrect postage. Who knows? How will you find it if it's been labeled, or stored incorrectly?"
"You can't," she said.
"Exactly. People aren't rare paintings though. When they fall through the cracks they just aren't valuable enough to society to track down and help out."
Allison studied the screaming child, and slowly nodded. "Guess I never looked at it like that before." She paused. "Actually I've never really taken the time before at all."
My hand was still on her arm, so I reached it around her shoulders and gave her an impulsive hug. "So, now ya know where I come from. Ready to get the hell outta here?"
She stood and pulled me to my feet. A small smile quirked her lips and lit up the pale depths of her eyes. "Yeah, someone has a painting to do."
"Just put that over there." I pointed to the area in front of the trellis, instructing the young man where to put the canvas and paints. Upon arriving at Allison's she had insisted on getting the supplies, said it was tradition, then left to check the office, and said she'd be back in about an hour.
"Miss Grace?" I turned to find Vella standing in the doorway.
"Just call me Grace," I said automatically.
"Mr. Thurbs is here."
"Already?" I asked.
"Show him in then."
"Yes, ma'- Grace." She grinned slightly and hurried back into the cavernous house.
I was already exhausted so I let Mark set up the easel where I asked for it and brought a stool. I was just sitting down when a gruff voice said, "Grace, my dear, how are you? No, no, don't get up. Boy-"
"His name is Mark," I said.
"Mark," he drawled. "Get me a chair."
"Yes sir." The boy scurried away. A moment later he returned and put the chair where Mr. Thurbs gestured.
"Anything else, Grace?" the boy asked.
"No, Mark. Thanks, you did a great job." His smile took up the entire lower half of his face, and I forced myself not to chuckle.
"You let him call you Grace?" Thom asked.
I turned to face him, the pain in my back already making me grouchy. "Let him?" I rose one eyebrow, in a pale imitation of Allison's signature gesture. "I asked him to call me Grace."
Thom humphed. "He's hired help. He should have more respect-"
"He may be the help, but he's still a human being." I turned my back on Thom and furiously studied the trellis that I'd be painting in less then an hour.
"Do you dislike all rich people or is it just me?"
My shoulders slumped. Today was not a good day for a battle of wills, witty repartee or much else for that matter. "Yes."
He chuckled. "Fine by me. I don't much like myself, or rich people either."
"Oh really?" I turned to him curiously, and found that same sparkle in his brown eyes. "Do you dislike all poor people or just me?" I threw back.
We both chuckled for a minute, then I got down to fine tuning my work space and answering a few standard questions from Thom, like, 'what are you doing?', 'why are you doing that?', 'what's that for'...etc. Before I knew it Allison was back.
"Shall we get started?" she asked.
"Are you going to wear that?" I asked offhand. She was wearing the casual, charcoal gray business suit that she'd changed into after we'd arrived here. It looked great, but certainly wasn't what I'd had in mind.
"Sure, why not?" She glanced down the length of her body then back at me. "Something wrong with the way I look?"
"No, no, not at all," I sputtered. "I just thought something more.... I don't know?" I shrugged helplessly.
"Perhaps Grace is trying to say that you should wear something that's more in keeping with your personality and the traits you wish to portray in a painting."
"Uh, yeah, that's what I meant."
"I'm a business woman. This will be fine. Now, where do you want me to sit?" Allison asked briskly.
I glanced at Thom, who shrugged and finally I told her to sit on the wicker bench. I began with a light outline. The placement of the trellis, the chair, her body.... I became lost in what I was doing, letting my fingers convey what my mind's eye saw. It was coming together well, but it just didn't feel right. Today was not a day to paint. I sighed and looked up to find Allison intently watching me.
She blinked and we both looked away.
"Is there a problem?" Thom asked.
"I...I don't know. It just doesn't feel right." I tapped the pencil absently against the sketchpad, looking at the drawing from all angles.
"Feel right?" he asked.
I turned to look at him. "It has to feel right, look right before I can put the paint down. If it doesn't, it'll never flow together. It'll just be paint on canvas," I replied, trying unsuccessfully to work out the numerous kinks and knots forming along my back.
"Break time then," Vella said.
I was startled to find a number of people were standing behind me, studying the outline. Vella had milk and cookies.
"Break time!" I grinned. "Thanks Vella." Hastily I looked at Allison. "Is that all right?"
"A break sounds good to me. I need to call the office anyway."
I watched her slip away, 'stay' on the tip of my tongue. But she was gone. When the cookies and milk were finished Allison returned to her seat. I picked up the sketch pad I'd brought with me. "I'm going to try something else." For another hour I worked on a pencil drawing of the trellis, the chair and her body. Something still wasn't right, but the light was nearly gone.
"Bout time to call it a day?" Allison asked softly.
I looked up, startled to find her standing in front of me, peering over the edge of the notebook. Her hair cascaded over her shoulder and whispered across the paper. Her face cast in half shadows I found what I needed. Eagerly I turned to a clean sheet of paper as I urged her 'not to move a muscle.'
I worked till my hand cramped.
"Can I move now?" Allison groaned.
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry." I started to close the notebook, but she touched the edge of it, halting me in my tracks.
"May I?" she asked quietly.
No, was my first thought, but instead I silently handed over the paper and watched her face as she studied it.
"Not what I really had in mind...." Her voice trailed off for a moment. "What do you think?" She held the paper up to Thom, then showed it to her staff. They were either too dumbfounded that she'd asked their opinion or were too polite to say it sucked.
Finally Vella said, "I like. Very mysterious. Good shadows and light."
Relieved, I grinned at Vella, then turned anxiously back to Allison. "It's okay?"
Thom nodded his head in agreement. "I just might have to commission a portrait myself."
He's joking. No way.
"Seriously," he added, as an afterthought, almost as if he'd read my mind.
"Uh sure," I found myself saying.
"You paint uh landscape. Trees and things, Grace?" Vella asked.
"Sometimes." I nodded, and thus began numerous small conversations on great painters, spectacular landscapes and everything under the sun. Through it all I wondered where Allison had slipped off to now.
My back was so knotted that it was making me nauseous, and after a short while I excused myself from the conversations to go throw up in the bathroom. There were Tylenol in the medicine cabinet and I popped four of them with some faucet water.
When I returned, the garden was dark and Vella informed me that Mr. Thurbs had wished us all a good evening, before he'd left. He hadn't wanted to disturb me from 'powdering my nose.'
It turned out Allison was in her study. It also turned out that's where my sketchbook had ended up. It was laying across her desk and she was staring out the window. Quietly I cleared my throat, but when it didn't appear she'd heard me I gave a slight cough. Her chair turned with barely a squeak.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey yourself." I smiled nervously. "What's up?"
"Are you ready to go? I can get the chauffeur."
I shrugged. "Whenever." Apparently she didn't desire any more of my company. "I'll see myself out." I was halfway to the door when she called out my name. The way my name rolled off her tongue sent a shiver down my spine. I turned back around. "Hmmm? What?"
"Can I ask you something?" She was fiddling with the glass in her hands, not looking at me.
"Sure," I drawled. "Doesn't mean I'll answer."
She looked up with a slight smile. After a moment she seemed to remember she'd wanted to say something and tapped the sketchbook.
"What about it?" I asked defensively. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"No, no," she hastened to assure me. "I just wondered.... I mean.... Is this what you see when you look at me?"
My eyes widened and my mouth went useless for a moment. It was not at all what I'd expected to hear. "Um...what do you mean?"
"I mean, is this sketch what you see when you look at me?" She held it up and I took a moment to study it.
"Yes," I answered. "Why?"
She frowned. "Here I'm wearing a dress, when I wasn't. I'm not in front of the trellis or in the chair as we agreed upon earlier." She raised an eyebrow and I wondered briefly if when it fell it would be like the judges hammer and all verdicts final.
"It wasn't working," I said honestly. "Something about the light, or perhaps the way you were sitting...."
Allison nodded slowly and put the sketchbook back down on top of the desk. "Okay, that's all. I was just wondering."
That was the end of our conversation. As I walked to the front and the waiting limo I wondered if I'd pushed her too far this morning. I shrugged to myself. Whether she saw things from my point of view or not, it didn't really matter. Did it?
I'd had an itch to bring the sketchbook home with me, so when I'd left I'd tucked it under my arm. For several hours I worked on the drawing before I fell into an exhausted sleep.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER TEN
Return to The Bard's Corner