2

I’ D LOVE TO PAINT YOU SOMETIME — if you’d be interested, I mean,” Alex said as they made their way across the broad boulevard. “Paint me?” she asked, her brow twitching just a little. It was an achingly feminine look that invited an explanation.

“I’m an artist.”

He glanced at the traffic stopped across the intersection to his left, making sure that no rogue construction trucks were about to make another run at them. With the lights flashing on the police car sitting at the curb, everyone was driving cautiously.

He was glad to at last be away from the pirate plumbers. They looked to have developed a grudge. Alex felt a flash of anger at the injustice of their belligerent attitude toward him.

“So you paint portraits?” she asked.

Alex shrugged. “Sometimes.”

Portraits weren’t his specialty, although they did occasionally bring him some income. He would work for free, though, just for a chance to paint this woman. In his mind he was already analyzing the curves and planes of her features, trying to imagine whether he could ever get such an enchanting face right. He would never start such a work unless he was confident that he could get it perfect. This was not a woman he would want to render in anything less than perfection. Changing her in any way would be unthinkable.

He gestured to the low, elegant structure peeking through the shimmering leaves. “I have a few pieces at the gallery.”

She glanced to where he had indicated, almost as if she expected to see the gallery itself standing there.

“I’m headed there now, as a matter of fact. If you’d like to see some of my work, the gallery is down a little ways from Regent Jewelry. .”

His voice trailed off. He suddenly felt a little foolish at his presumption. He imagined that a woman like her would be interested only in the exclusive jewelry store or the boutiques. Since she wasn’t wearing any jewelry he wasn’t sure why he assumed such a thing, but he guessed he feared that she probably wasn’t interested in art — or his art, anyway.

“I’d like to see your work.”

He looked over at her. “Really?”

She nodded as she pulled a wavy lock of blond hair back off her face.

Alex felt his cell phone vibrate silently in his pocket, letting him know that another text message was being delivered. He sighed inwardly as he cut a straight line across the nearly empty parking lot. It was only midmorning; most people didn’t arrive until closer to lunchtime. A few dozen expensive cars, glittering in subdued shades of silvers, reds, and ambers, were parked in a cluster around the main entrance.

Message delivered, his phone finally stopped vibrating. Bethany, he was sure, was responsible. He hadn’t even known that his phone was capable of receiving text messages until after he’d met her several weeks back. After he’d gone out with her a second time she had started sending him text messages. They were painfully petty. He rarely read them anymore. She usually asked things like if he was thinking of her. He hardly even knew her. What was he supposed to say? That she hadn’t entered his mind?

He ignored the phone as he opened the center-pivot glass door for the woman. It wasn’t the kind of shopping area that lent itself to the financially timid. She glided through the doorway with the kind of grace and confidence born of being used to such places.

Before the door closed Alex glanced back across the lot, between the linden trees lining the edge of the street, to the white truck still sitting at the curb in front of the police car. He couldn’t make out the men inside.

As they passed into the hushed, grand seclusion inside, he was a little surprised to see the woman only glance at the alluring glimmer of Regent Jewelry. As they strolled through the halls, her cool gaze took in each exclusive shop in equal measure. The dress shop, Alex knew, didn’t sell anything, except maybe a scarf, for less than four figures. The woman scanned the outfits in the window with no more interest than she took in the shoes in the next store window, or the purses in the next.

Alex saw other women cast appraising glances her way. She looked at the other women, but in an altogether different manner. They were evaluating her socially. She was assessing them. . spatially, checking their distance before briefly taking in their faces as if to see whether she recognized them.

“Down here, around the corner,” Alex said, drawing her attention.

When he spoke to her she met his gaze with a focused involvement that was respectful and interested. He couldn’t imagine this woman ever sending him a text message.

She allowed him to direct her around the curve of the corridor decorated with sweeping inlaid metal lines in the speckled pink granite floor. Cast-stone arches stood at a branch of halls. The one Alex took led into a sunlit corridor. Skylights overhead let streamers of light play across the planters overflowing with philodendron and an assortment of salmon-colored hibiscus.

Alex drew them to a halt before the gallery window surrounded with ornate gold molding. The molding, meant to resemble a picture frame, showcased some of the more expensive and sought-after works just inside.

Alex gestured through the window. “This is the place.”

A twitch of disapproval ghosted across her features. “Do you mean to say that you. . painted this?”

She was looking at the large piece displayed in the center of the crowded floor just inside the window. It had been done by R. C. Dillion, a midwestern artist who was becoming a national figure. It was said of him that R. C. Dillion was at the forefront of a new reality in art.

“No, not that one,” Alex said. He leaned closer as he pointed beyond the nonobjective works crowding the window to a small landscape displayed on an easel near the back. “That’s one of mine back there. The mountain scene with the pines in the foreground to the left.”

Alex was relieved to see that Mr. Martin, the gallery owner, had at least put a small spotlight on the painting rather than setting it on the floor, leaned against a wall, as he sometimes did. The small light made the sunlit clearing, within the hushed cathedral of trees, come to life.

“See the one I mean?” he asked as he glanced over at her.

Her mouth opened a little in surprise. “Alexander, it’s beautiful.”

Alex froze.

He knew that he hadn’t yet mentioned his name. He knew because he had been waiting for the right time to do so without sounding like he was coming on to her.

It finally dawned on him that she’d probably been to Regent Center before and she must have visited the gallery. That only made sense; wealthy women knew the gallery, after all — they just didn’t tend to take note of his work. Alex’s bio, with his photo, was posted beside his paintings. He signed his name in the longer form — Alexander — and that was also the way it was shown on his biography. She must have known his name from that.

She looked up to study his face intently. “Why did you paint that?”

Alex shrugged. “I like the woods.”

Her eyes began to look a little more liquid, as if what she saw in that painting had some hallowed meaning to her. “No, I mean why did you paint that particular place in the woods?”

“I don’t know. I just made it up from my imagination.”

She looked like she wanted to say something, but she instead turned back to stare through the window, looking too taken for words.

Alex was about to ask why that particular scene seemed to matter so much to her when his cell phone rang. He didn’t want to answer it, but the woman was staring through the window, absorbed in gazing at his painting, so he turned aside and opened the phone.

“Hello?”

“Alex, it’s me,” Bethany said.

“Uh, hi,” he said quietly as he hunched over the phone.

“Didn’t you get my text messages?”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t read any of them today. I told you, you should just call if you have something to say.”

“You’re so silly, Alex,” she said in a lilting voice that he found grating. “Who doesn’t use text? Don’t be so ancient. Everyone does it.”

“I don’t. So, what is it?”

“Well, if you would have read the messages that I took the time to send you, you’d know. I made plans to take you out tonight and get you good and drunk for your birthday.”

She sounded miffed. Alex didn’t really care. Nor did he care to get drunk or do anything else to celebrate such a somber day. He was even more annoyed at her presumption.

Bethany was beginning to assume that there was far more between them than was actually there. He’d taken her out a couple of times — enough to find out that they didn’t really have anything in common. The dates had been relatively short and unremarkable. He didn’t know what she saw in him, anyway. They just didn’t click. She liked expensive things and Alex wasn’t wealthy. She liked to party and Alex didn’t.

And, his art bored her.

“I’m sorry, Bethany, but let me read your messages and I’ll get back to you.”

“Well—”

He flipped the cover closed and turned back to the woman. She was watching him again in that way that he couldn’t quite figure out.

“Sorry.” He briefly held up the phone in explanation before stuffing it back into his pocket.

She glanced back over her shoulder to his painting. “Me too. My time is up,” she said as she turned away from the window to face him. “I have to go for now.”

“Really? Well can I at least—”

The phone rang again. He wished he had shut it off.

The woman’s small smile returned, curving her lips in a way that was bewitching. She arched an eyebrow as she gestured to his pocket. “You’d better talk to her or she’ll be even more angry with you.”

“I don’t really care.”

But Alex knew that Bethany wasn’t going to give up, so he finally pulled the ringing phone from his pocket. He held a finger up toward the woman. “Give me just a moment, please?”

The woman took one last look through the window and then turned back to him, considering. The way her expression turned serious made him pause in place.

The phone stopped ringing as it went to message.

“Be careful of mirrors,” she said at last into the quiet. “They can watch you through mirrors.”

Goose bumps tingled up Alex’s arms.

He almost dropped the phone when it rang again.

“What?”

She only stared at him with that bottomless gaze.

“Please,” he said, “hold on for just a second?”

She melted back into the shadows between the shops, as if to give him his privacy on the phone.

He turned away and flipped open the phone. “What?”

“Alex, don’t you ever—”

“Look, I’m right in the middle of something important. I’ll call you back.”

He flipped the phone closed without waiting for Bethany to agree and turned back to where the woman waited in the shadowy nook.

She was gone. Simply. . gone.

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