3

ALEX CRANED HIS NECK, K, looking around at the well-dressed shoppers strolling the hushed hall. Most were women. He didn’t see the one he was looking for.

How could she have vanished so quickly?

He trotted to the archway, looking back toward the massive Regent Jewelry, but he didn’t see her there, either. It was not simply startling that she had left so quickly, it was maddening. He had wanted to get her name, at least.

He hadn’t expected that he would so abruptly run out of time. He had missed his chance.

But maybe not. She had said that she had to go “for now.”

He wondered what she’d meant by that.

He let out a long sigh. Probably nothing. She was probably only being polite. She’d probably wanted to be rid of him the same way he’d wanted to be rid of Bethany.

Somehow, though, it didn’t seem like that was it. Something else was going on, he just didn’t know what.

In the hallway filled with the whisper of footsteps and soft conversation sprinkled with light laughter it began to feel like he had just imagined the whole thing.

That was a thought he truly didn’t want to have, especially not on this day of all days.

The Regent Center suddenly felt very empty and very lonely. His mood, which had only started to lift, sank back down.

He pressed his lips tightly together in agitation at Bethany and her mindless text messages and phone calls. They were never important, but they had just interrupted something that was.

Letting out another sigh of disappointment, he finally made his way back through the clusters of women out for a bit of shopping. He scanned the faces, absently looking for the one who had vanished. He eventually ended up back at the gallery without seeing her, somehow having known that he wouldn’t find her.

Seized by a sudden idea, he peered in the window, wondering if maybe the woman had actually gone inside to look at his painting while he was answering the phone. Maybe he simply hadn’t noticed. Maybe she’d just wanted to see it up close. After all, she had seemed to be taken by the painting.

Peering in the gallery window, he didn’t see the woman, but Mr. Martin saw him and flashed a polite smile.

Hand-wrought Tibetan bells hung by a knotted prayer cord on the door into the small shop rang their simple, familiar chime as Alex closed the door on his way in. He only glanced at the featured pieces on his way past. He had trouble calling them “works.”

The slender Mr. Martin, dressed in a dark double-breasted suit, had a habit of nesting his hands one atop the other. He usually reversed the order several times before their arrangement suited him. A bright pink tie flared from his collar just below his prominent Adam’s apple.

“Mr. Martin, how are things today? I just stopped by to see if—”

“Sorry, Alex. None of your pieces have sold since the one last month.”

Alex drew his lower lip through his teeth. “I see.”

He guessed he would have to walk whenever possible until he could get his truck fixed. Fortunately the places he needed to get to were close enough, now that shops and stores had opened in the last year. His grandfather’s house had always been within walking distance. Ben, in fact, was probably waiting for Alex to stop by.

Mr. Martin drew on his thin smile again as he leaned in patiently. “If you would let me guide you, Alex, I know that I could make a name for you — along with a lot of money.” He lifted a hand, waggling his lithesome fingers toward the painting displayed in the center view of the window. “R. C. Dillion is making himself a fortune with his striking works. His all too obvious anguish and distress over the ruination of the planet is not just heartbreaking, but sought after. Collectors want an artist who can bring such meaningful emotion to the canvas. It gives them a certain sense of pride to let others see the important concerns they so obviously share with the artist.”

Alex glanced at the angry slashes of red paint. It certainly did represent ruin. “I hadn’t been aware that that was what R. C. Dillion was trying to portray.”

“Of course not, Alex, because you won’t take my valuable advice and open your mind to the essence of other realities, as important artists do.”

“I like painting the essence of our own reality,” Alex said as civilly as he could. “If you think that the buyers are so interested in the planet, why don’t you show them my paintings of it?”

Mr. Martin smiled in that tolerant way he had. “I do, Alex, I do, but they’re more interested in true artistic vision than. . than what you do. You show nothing of the rapacious nature of mankind. Your work is charming, but not important. It’s hardly groundbreaking.”

“I see.”

Had he not been so dejected, Alex likely would have gotten angry. Through his gloom, though, the slight didn’t lift his hackles. Instead it only served to weigh him down further.

“But I assure you, Alex, I do display your work as favorably as possible, and we have had some minor success with it.” The smile became fawning as Mr. Martin remembered that occasionally one of Alex’s paintings did sell, and that his gallery took a forty percent commission. “I’m hoping for better sales of your work when the holidays come around.”

Alex nodded. He knew that arguing his beliefs about art was pointless. It only mattered if he could sell his work. He had success with a few people who appreciated his landscapes. There were still people who wanted to see works like his, paintings that crystallized the beauty of a scene. There were people who appreciated a vision that uplifted them.

The woman, after all, had liked it, and she easily appeared more intelligent than any of Mr. Martin’s collectors. She knew what she liked and wasn’t afraid to say so. Most of Mr. Martin’s clients depended on him to tell them what they should like. They were willing to pay handsomely for such erudite guidance.

Still, Alex needed to eat.

“Thanks, Mr. Martin. I’ll check back—”

“Don’t worry, Alex, I’ll call you right away if one of your pieces sells, but please think about what I said.”

Alex nodded politely before he headed for the door. He knew that no matter how hungry he got he would never throw paint at a canvas and pretend it was art.

It was turning out to be an even more depressing birthday than he had expected. His grandfather might cheer him up, though.

He paused, then turned back. “Mr. Martin, I need to take this one with me.”

A frown creased Mr. Martin’s brow as he watched Alex lift the small painting from the easel. “Take it? But why?”

Taking one painting left the gallery with six of his pieces to sell. It wasn’t like there was a run on his work.

“It’s for a gift — for someone who values it.”

A cunning grin overcame Mr. Martin. “Clever, Alex. Sometimes a small gift can be the seed that starts an expensive collection.”

Alex forced a brief smile and nodded as he tucked the painting under his arm.

He didn’t know if he would ever see the woman again. He realized that it was rather silly to think that he would.

But if he did, he wanted to give her the little painting. He wanted to see her smile again, and if it took only a painting then it would be more than worth it.

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