“Sir, it’s important.” Paul’s voice wedged into my thoughts like an ice pick between eyeball and bone lodging into the brain.
I ran a fingertip over the painting I’d been placing on a wall. It reminded me of her, but not for any reason I could define. I’d painted it soon after she’d left me. The stark white of the painting drew the eye, and it appeared sterile at first until you noticed the faded shadows of aspens with their dotted black and white trunks in the background behind the soft fog. It was serene, the way I’d felt after every encounter with her.
She’d soothed the fire in me. Calmed the beast, as it were.
When she’d left me, I’d turned to my art with a vengeance. And this piece had captured the eye of an agent. Not long after, I’d found myself in a bidding war. Talent agents had been crawling out of the woodwork, desperate to champion me.
So I guessed I should thank her for breaking my heart.
“Sir?” Paul sounded almost timid.
“Does this go here?” I asked, not expecting a good answer and not even bothering to look at him.
He was quiet for a moment. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
A very real buzz of irritation plagued me. “Of course.” The words were clipped and sharp.
“I’d make this the center. The focal point.”
I glanced at him over my shoulder, and he pointed to the center display. Maybe he wasn’t so bad at this after all. “What did you need?” I asked, carefully setting the painting down at the center display before walking up to him.
“I need you to clear curators for interviews.” His Adam’s apple rose like a shrug, then slid back down. He was nervous. Everyone was always nervous of me. Good. Let them worry. Let them think I was cold. Let them think I hated them, when in reality I didn’t give a damn about any of them. It took energy to hate. I wasn’t wasting energy on any of them. Even this line of thoughts was a waste of perfectly good brainpower and time.
“Show me the applications.”
He handed them over, his dark eyes on me like he was trying to read my thoughts.
The first two were well suited to the task. One Carla Donner, one Frank Zappao. Both experienced. Both fine. I thumbed to the next application, and my heart stopped dead. Suddenly, my pulse jumped, sounding more like the wop-wop of a helicopter blade whirling at the speed of sound. It was her.
My brain slammed into rewind, backing up ten years in a sickening whir. Suddenly, I was in my old studio back in art school.
Aurora’s head tilted back, her pretty lips parted slightly in shock. “This is where you’re staying?” she asked almost shyly, her green eyes taking in every detail.
I glanced around the little place. Half the building was like a greenhouse, glass panels broken by wooden framing to hold it all together. Outside, a garden flourished and a little pond filled with colorful koi added to the charm and peace of the space.
What I hadn’t known then was that the storms would shape me as an artist more than the peace ever did.
“Yep, this is my place.” I eyed her long legs right up until they disappeared under her cute skirt. Her hands, clasped before her, held the strap of her leather bag that hid her art supplies and, I’d later learned, an incendiary secret.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, turning in a slow circle to take in the clouds overhead that peppered the brilliant blue skies.
“You’re beautiful,” I told her, stepping in close to press my lips to hers.
She melted when I tangled my fingers in her long blonde hair. The kiss roared through me like fire, lighting every inch of my darkness with the blaze. Her lips parted for my tongue, and she surrendered.
“Sir?” Paul said. The tone of his voice told me it wasn’t the first time he’d said it.
“Her,” I said, my voice rasping from my throat as I pointed to her application. “Schedule her.”
Paul studied me carefully.
I ignored him, focusing on bringing my heart rate back to a normal pace and swallowing as if I could moisten my suddenly dry mouth and throat.
“Just her?” he asked carefully.
I nodded. She was the one I was hiring. Come hell or high water.
Paul was on his way out the door before I called his name. He turned to face me, carefully refusing to meet my stare. “Don’t tell her who I am,” I said, the words tearing up my throat. She wouldn’t come if she knew it was me.
Paul nodded and closed the door behind him.
I walked back over to the painting and picked it up, ready to put it where it belonged in the center of my life. Staring at it once more, she took over my mind.
A soft smile curved the corners of her lips as I kissed her again. The moonlight lit up her hair, and the few candles still flickering clung to life even as the danger of burning out lingered. Her smile filled with pain as my words sank in.
Overhead, the rain drummed softly on the glass roof and streamed down the panes. She loved the sound of the rain and the smell of it, so we’d left the door open.
“Do you want me to quit school for you?” she whispered, her sparkling green eyes darting back and forth between mine.
That’s exactly what I wanted.
“Is that what you’re asking me to do?” Somehow, she was dry eyed, still focused on me like we were the only two people in the world. And for months, we had been.
Was that what I was asking her?
Hanging the painting like a centerpiece, I stepped back and studied it.
Would I have given everything up for her? My art, my sculpting, my school? Hell no.
Was I a selfish bastard that had demanded she give up her art for me?