“I’m so excited about the lecture tonight. I can’t wait to meet Sheva. Her work is surreal,” Carlyle said.
“Come on, Kadence. Her bronze abstracts are amazing. I can’t even imagine how she comes up with her ideas. Just imagine how strong she must be. They say she designed her forge to allow her to work without help. It took three of us in my sculpture class to get one medium sized aluminum sand sculpture done, and her stuff is way bigger than what we created.”
“Carlyle, you know you didn’t take that class seriously. Tara and I did ours without help. If you weren’t so stuck on fashion design, you’d be more connected to the other disciplines.”
“You’re probably right. I like making wearable art, nothing wrong with that. Sculpting intimidates me, but I still find it amazing. You’ll come with me tonight, right?”
“I don’t know. I have to finish my piece for the spring exhibition.”
“Cop out. You can finish that painting tomorrow. Please? Come with me.”
“Okay, on one condition.”
“You come back to my dorm after. We haven’t had a night together in weeks, and Tara went home for the weekend.”
Carlyle sighed. “Okay, I guess.”
Kadence’s heart dropped when she heard the resignation in Carlyle’s voice. They’d been seeing each other since March of their second year, but after the summer break, Carlyle hadn’t had much time for her. She’d been fearing that a breakup was looming, and now she was almost certain.
She didn’t understand why. She still felt as excited and emotionally charged when she thought about Carlyle as she had when they’d met, but she knew Carlyle didn’t feel the same. It was an open circuit. The energy wasn’t coming full circle. What was it about her that Carlyle found lacking? She’d have to be the one to broach the subject and it killed her. Maybe she’d ask her tonight.
Nahl Hall was jam-packed, not an open seat to be found, but Carlyle stayed positive and worked them around the room to the right. They found some leaning space against the wall just in time. The hall erupted in applause as the year’s official visiting artist took the stage.
Sheva was dynamic, even from this distance. Her long, flowing black hair hung halfway down her back. She wore a black leather vest and cuffs, worn, baggy jeans rolled above her ankles, and leather slides with turquoise adornments. Her skin was alabaster, much like freshly carved marble, and her smile was a beacon in the crowded space.
She lifted both hands in a humble wave at her audience and waited as everyone settled back into their seats. She walked to the lectern and Kadence realized how tall she was. At probably five nine or ten, her height added to her over-the-top persona. The podium only went up to her waist, allowing the crowd a full view of her muscled upper body. She’s hot. Damn, she’s hot.
Kadence slid a sideways glance at Carlyle and noticed the flush of heat on her neck and cheeks. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.
The lecture was interesting, all about lost wax casting and why the ancient style of sculpting was what drew Sheva to her craft. It was inspiring. Clearly, Sheva was devoted to the medium, archaic as it was.
The whole process was exhaustive. The sculptor started with an idea that they then built in clay on a small scale, called a maquette, then they created the same piece on the scale they wanted for the final sculpture using a wire frame. After making a rubber mold from the frame, using alginate, they poured in hot wax and rotated it to get an even shell, usually a quarter of an inch thick. Then the wax model had to be unmolded and wax sprues added so the melted wax had a place to go during firing.
The next step involved covering the wax model in a ceramic slurry and fine silica. Once completely dry, it was fired in the kiln to melt the wax and harden the ceramic. Finally, the molten bronze was poured into the negative molds and allowed to cool. When the ceramic was chipped away, the bronze piece was revealed and was ready for chasing—grinding off the sprues and rough spots.
It was way too complicated for Kadence, but it was a process that had endured since the Bronze Age, making it specialized and highly durable. And the more Sheva talked of her passion for sculpting, the more Kadence could see her words affecting Carlyle. She was charged with emotion. This could be a good thing for their plans later on, or it could be disaster. It all depended on how Carlyle felt about her. She hoped it would lead to a renewal of their own private desires, but she had to prepare for the opposite outcome. She didn’t want to lose Carlyle. It would hurt. She’d had enough losses in her life to know that. But maybe it would make her work deeper. A brooding artist is an expressive artist. Great.
Suddenly, the hall erupted a second time and everyone flew to their feet. Carlyle was cheering along with the crowd.
“What did I miss?” Kadence clapped and whistled.
“Why are we screaming?”
“You’re kidding, right? Did you not listen? She’s starting a whole new period with her work, right here at CAA. She’s going to start sculpting figures. I can’t wait to see them. And she’s asking for models. I’m totally going to volunteer.”
“What? But her abstracts are so amazing, why go to figures at this stage?”
“Who cares? She’s ready for a change and she’s making it happen while she’s with us. That means we get to benefit from the experience. I’m so flipping jazzed by this.”
The crowd noise slowly died down, and Sheva went on to talk in depth about her goals for her new pieces. It certainly sounded exciting. The thought of watching her work evolve was a charge. If sculpting were Kadence’s thing she’d be beyond happy, but as it was, it would make for an interesting last year.
She’d graduate in June and step out into the art world to make her own name. That was daunting to think about, but it was happening. Carlyle would graduate, too, but she already had an apprenticeship in New York at a big design house. Kadence had secretly hoped they’d go together and share a place. Now, who knew? Whatever. It is what it is. She’d deal.
When they got back to Kadence’s room, it was clear the night was going to be a good one. The energy from the lecture had Carlyle all wound up, and she threw herself into Kadence’s arms as soon as the door closed.
The kiss was deep and full of promise. Kadence considered halting the moment, but it felt too good. She went with her feelings and gave herself fully to it. Maybe she’d been wrong, maybe they were still okay. She devoted the night to pleasing Carlyle in every way she could, to impress upon her, through her lovemaking, how much this relationship meant to her. How much she needed her.
When the sun rose, she felt satisfied and loved. She was where she was supposed to be and with the person she belonged with. This was right and good. Nothing could change that. She wouldn’t let it. She slipped out of bed and pulled on some sweats and a hoodie to run down to the coffee shop and grab some bagels and coffee. She passed a flower stall on the way and picked up a single red rose.
She booted the door open and flicked it shut behind her, arms full of breakfast and the rose between her teeth. When she turned to the bed, it was empty. She deposited her goods on the table and went to tap on the bathroom door.
Silence answered her, too deep to be good. “Carlyle?”
She turned the knob and eased the door open. Empty. She was gone. Kadence felt the absence like a blow to her gut. She dropped onto her bed. It was still warm from Carlyle’s body. No note, no nothing. Where had she gone?
Her phone buzzed on the table, where the bagels had covered it. She slipped it out and saw the text.
“Thanks for the night. Got a full day today, so I’ll catch you later. Want to be first on Sheva’s volunteer list!”
She tossed the phone away, not wanting to think about how quickly the day turned sour. She needed to finish her painting. Suck it up, Buttercup. Let Carlyle fawn over Sheva and she’d plod along, channeling her disappointment into her art. Ever since the new term started, things between them had been different. When they parted for the summer, Carlyle had been sweet and kind to a fault. Everything had been easy and they’d been inseparable, but now, there was always some tension. Kadence had put it down to this being their final year. She’d been busy with her portfolio, and Carlyle had been resentful of the time apart. She’d become snappish and irritable. It’s not like it used to be.
She threw the bagels out, appetite gone, but she drank the coffee, needing its caffeine embrace. She’d think about what to say to Carlyle later. Right now she needed to move on, to produce something uniquely hers. That was something she’d always been able to do.
When her father left them when she was six, her grandma had given her a box of watercolors and a sketch pad. “Paint yourself happy,” she’d said. Kadence had done just that. She’d spent hours painting that book. Color filled the empty spaces in her heart. She could ignore her mom’s crying while she painted. Later, she could ignore the drinking, the yelling. She started using brown grocery bags as canvases as she ignored the men who filtered in and out of their lives. She painted. When her grandma died and things got really tight, she ignored her hunger by painting. When the bullying started at school, she painted. She could always paint.
Today’s twelve-by-six canvas had a blue-toned field. She’d used gesso and watercolors to achieve a balance of tone and texture that sung to her. She slipped her earbuds in and hit play. The hard edge of the music meshed perfectly with the sharp planes of her heart. She let the music guide her strokes as she described her pain to the canvas and plied it with her disappointment.
Soon her fear of losing Carlyle washed into the canvas and out of her head. She was one with the work and it flowed effortlessly. She worked until her shoulders ached and her stomach demanded attention. She fought through it, feeling the burning sensation slip to the back of her mind. When she finally stopped, it was finished. Complete. She named it Moonlight, and walked away wiping the paint from her hands. As was her custom, she didn’t look back at the canvas until she was as far from it as the room allowed. She turned and slid down the wall to take it in.
Washed in shades of cerulean and cobalt, the hint of blue white peeked out in an off-balanced circle in the upper right quadrant. The cobalt fell into phthalo blue in increasingly large wheels of color, highlighting the starkness of the center. It was powerful. She could feel the emotions she’d imbued the painting with wash over her. Yes. This one was good.
Satisfied, Kadence washed her brushes and cleaned her station. She felt the comfortable numbness that was as much a part of her as her painting, surround her. It didn’t matter. Whatever happened, she’d be okay.
As the weeks went by, things became more unstable. Carlyle was selected as a model for Sheva and scheduled to begin sitting in mid-November. Kadence was busy with her senior exhibition work, creating more pieces than she had in the past three years.
The night of Carlyle’s first sitting Kadence was working on her final piece for the show. It was a four-by-four canvas coated in layers of the palest magenta, fading to a cool white in the center. The upper left quadrant held a cross-hatching of black and cobalt lines set in angles. She called this one Confusion. It was how she felt about the whole situation with Carlyle. Confused.
Her heart ached with the weight of turmoil. She couldn’t help the anger that flared inside. Carlyle had to know how this was affecting her. If she wasn’t such a wimp she’d break things off herself, but the rejected child that lived in her heart couldn’t do it. Damn. She grabbed the tub of gel medium and threw it against the wall. The plastic cracked and a splotch of gel splattered the wall. She watched as it slowly dripped toward the floor.
She spun on her stool and stood, heaviness falling around her like a dark wash of paint. Tremors started in her legs and worked their way through her body as flashes of her childhood came back. Things battering the walls, thrown near or at her…the yelling, rushing to her paint box to avoid an angry hand. She had to get a grip. Her mother had always resorted to violence, and she wasn’t going to let that happen to her. Her phone buzzed on the table. She bent to wipe her hands on her cloth and picked it up. Carlyle.
Meet me at Sprout now. We need to talk.
Sprout? Kadence liked the juice bar, but they’d made plans to have dinner at Armstrong’s Pub with some friends. Why did Carlyle want to meet at Sprout?
She texted back that she’d need a shower first, but could be there in forty.
Not okay. I’ll come to your studio.
What was this about? Not okay that she needed half an hour to clean up? Really? Kadence pushed away the thoughts of her mother and made herself go on with cleaning her brushes and ordering the place. At least she’d be ready to leave when Carlyle got there.
She’d just finished when Carlyle pushed through the door.
“Hey, sorry I couldn’t head straight over. I’m kind of a mess.”
“I see. No problem. I wanted to do this in a public place, but this will have to do.”
Kadence watched Carlyle’s body for clues. She was tense, her posture defensive. “Do what in a public place?”
“I don’t know how else to say it, but this…thing between us? It’s done.”
Kadence reacted as if she’d been struck. She wrapped her arms around her middle, and tried to keep the fragments of their eighteen-month relationship from exploding outward. “What? Carlyle, what are you talking about?”
“You, Kadence. You and me. We’re quits, get it? I thought you were going to be some big artist, you know? Someone who could balance my love of design with their flare of creativity. But you’re not. These”—she gestured to the paintings lining the studio—“aren’t special. They don’t live. They’re pictures of nothing. You know what I mean? You can’t really expect to make it big with this kind of empty work. I’m going to be big. Mark my words, my name is going to be in the closets of the most fashionable people around the world, and I can’t be tied to a might-have-been painter of rectangles. I’m sorry. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true.”
Kadence rocked back onto her stool. She felt like she’d been hit by a truck. What was Carlyle saying? Her work wasn’t good enough for her to love Kadence back? The dig at her work hurt more than anything. Every emotion Kadence felt went directly into her paintings. Carlyle calling them pictures of nothing was a knife to her soul. Her paintings were full of her. Carlyle dismissing them like this cut deep. When they’d gotten together, she’d been so supportive, so complimentary. Her legs turned to jelly and her stomach threatened to bail on her.
“I don’t understand. Where is this coming from?”
“I’m through. Sheva’s work is alive. It breathes energy into the room. When I was with her I felt my whole world roll into place. She’s who I’m meant to be with. She’s my future. What we had, well…I enjoyed it, but it was dying. It’s dead. Let’s just bury it and move on, okay? I know you have to have felt it too. Right?”
Kadence forced herself to deny what she’d felt, not wanting to give an inch of ground in what she knew was a hopeless fight. “No. Not really. I’ve felt distance and I’ve been confused, but no. I didn’t see this coming.”
Carlyle’s whole body straightened and then relaxed into what Kadence called her “brattitude,” all elbows and hips, and to hell with the rest. She’d seen it a million times, but had never been on the receiving end before.
“I’m sorry then, but it is what it is. I’ve got to go. I’m meeting Sheva for dinner. Good-bye, Kadence.”
“No, it’s easier this way. Process and move on, Kadence.”
Carlyle shook her head and pushed back out through the swinging door.
Kadence sat in stunned silence. It was for the best, really. They’d been drifting apart all semester, but it still hurt. It wasn’t fair for her to dump this on Kadence and leave without giving her a chance to speak.
Carlyle’s words echoed in her head. Pictures of nothing, painter of rectangles. The words were like a searing hot knife through her soul. Empty work. She had to get out before she took her pain out on her canvases. She shot out the door and ran back to her room.
She felt her anger rise like a flame on dry tinder, flaring through her. How could Carlyle say those things? And what did that say about their history? Had she been the only one emotionally invested? That stung, too, knowing Carlyle only considered her for the possibility of notoriety, and had never seen her as a person. But she hadn’t seemed that way when they’d gotten together. Was it really all just a farce? Just a way to use her? Just like Mom.
She wasn’t going to cry. She’d wasted enough tears in her life on heartless people. She stripped out of her paint covered clothes and flung them at the hamper. Damn you, Carlyle. She went into the bathroom and turned the water to its hottest setting. The water nearly scalded her back as she slipped into its flow, but it felt good. It made her body feel, washed the numbness away, and finally, allowed her tears to breach her heart.
Kadence wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans as she walked into the ARA NYC Gallery, and tried to appear at ease and where she belonged. What a joke. I’m in way over my head. She ignored the butterflies battering her stomach and swallowed against the dryness in her throat. The galleries she’d been in before had been small storefronts. The place was massive. The scope of the place was daunting. The walls were as white as blank canvas. Big, bold paintings arched across the expanse, reinforcing her intimidation. Why did I agree to this? My paintings will look like orphans in a place like this.
When the call came that they wanted to produce her show, she’d been completely floored. She’d hoped to get some exposure, and the move to New York had been a step in the right direction. Her abstract paintings were her life, but she had yet to develop a following. She’d piggybacked on a couple of smaller shows, warehouse artists mostly, but this was going to be her first solo showing. She had no idea what to expect.
She walked around the first wall and into a larger, open area of the gallery. The space contained six full-sized bronze figures. One was a torso and the bottom half of a face, its features lost in folds of bronze, one slender arm upraised. Stunned by the impact of the piece, Kadence walked closer. Everything was in perfect proportion, absolutely beautiful. It’s almost like she’s alive, like if I held out a hand to her, she’d take it. How did they do that? The others were of the same quality, but different in what they depicted. One form was captured as it burst from water, the face missing above the chin. One was a faceless head resting on delicate arms, the lines of the body so lifelike that Kadence was enraptured.
The one that most captivated her was a hollow form, the front of a woman’s torso, her chin and lips showing her pleasure as other female-looking hands cupped her breasts. It was so real that Kadence found her heart pounding, and without thought, she ran her hands down the smooth surface of the figure’s hips. The bronze was cool, but warmed quickly under her hand. So real.
She snatched her hand back and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. You don’t lay hands on art unless you’re invited to. She knew that. She looked around, hoping no one had noticed her faux pas. There were only one or two people in the space, and they were engrossed in the paintings. Thank goodness. Keep it together, Munroe. You may be a novice, but you don’t have to act like one.
Natural light filtered onto the seductive bronzes, and she glanced up at the large skylight. Two of the walls behind the sculptures were a bold turquoise, perfectly highlighting the bronzes. Whoever set this place up knew what they were doing. The color and lighting of a space could totally change the way a work was perceived. The color gave the statues a quality of movement that was understated. I feel like they’ll get up and move any minute. These are amazing. Whoever did these pieces is gifted.
Kadence found a placard with the artist’s information and her blood ran cold. Sheva. This was Sheva’s work. Kadence drew a breath as the hair on the back of her neck stiffened. She was transported back to art school and the first time she heard of the sculptress as bile flooded her mouth. She’d tried to forget the pain and bitter feelings about what had happened. Her confidence in her work had been shaken after Carlyle’s vitriolic breakup speech, and it was still a struggle to believe her work held meaning for others. Seeing Sheva’s work again brought all of those insecurities to the forefront.
Why does she have to be showing in this gallery? It wasn’t fair that Sheva would cast a shadow on her first big show.
Kadence turned and saw a woman in a tailored business suit, her blond hair streaked with waves of sunlight, her smile wide and welcoming. Her brown eyes were bright behind her thick black-framed glasses, and Kadence felt the warmth of her smile go right through her.
“Yes, that’s me.”
The woman held out her hand and walked toward her. “I’m Mallory Tucker. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Ms. Tucker, the pleasure is all mine,” Kadence said.
“Let’s go back to my office and talk about your show.”
Kadence followed her to the back of the gallery where stairs led up to the office suite. The place had such clean bare lines that the stairs appeared to float unsupported. The suite contained a small reception area and two tall mahogany doors on either side of it. When Mallory opened the door, Kadence sucked in a breath. The office reflected the clean lines of the outer space, but its walls were alive with color.
Two long, narrow watercolors hung stair-stepped behind a glass and steel desk. Kadence knew those pieces. Those were Sanford Tucker’s, the most renowned watercolorist alive today. Tucker? Could Mallory be a relative? Or did she just like the work?
“You like the paintings? Yes, they’re the real thing. My mother, you know.”
“I didn’t, but WOW! They’re amazing. Do you mind if I take a closer look?”
“Not a bit. Help yourself.”
Kadence walked to the paintings. The long panel on the right was alive with orange and red mesas, a lone, white-clad figure in the foreground. The left panel was a perfect complement, where similar reds and oranges described coastal cliffs and deep turquoise and white were the crashing waves at their feet. Absolutely powerful. Kadence let herself be immersed in the feelings the pieces drew out of her. She must have been quite engrossed, as Mallory finally called her back to their task.
“Ms. Munroe? Come, sit down. Let’s chat.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Amazing work, truly,” she said.
She returned to the chair she’d been shown. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach making her queasy and uncomfortable.
“I can’t tell you how lucky we feel at ARA to be hosting your first showing. You have some amazing pieces yourself.”
“Thank you.” Kadence was humbled by the praise. She wasn’t used to people actually getting her work.
“I’m sure it’s a bit overwhelming, but I want to go over our contract before we talk details.” She pushed the form across the desk.
“This is a standard contract. We split sales fifty/fifty. There’s a ninety-day cancelation clause, meaning you can’t withdraw from the show, nor can we cancel during that time period. If the show goes well, we have the option to extend the contract, though the percentage will be up for negotiation at that point. How does that sound?”
Kadence thought it was more than fair, but she needed to know what costs she might have.
“That sounds good, but I have a few questions.”
“Who pays for advertisement, and what will that entail? What about notices and such? Can I invite people?”
“We’ll handle the commercial advertising, papers, and websites. As far as notices and invitations, we’ll send out a certain number to collectors we know might be interested. I can spare…say, twelve of the opening night invitations? Does that seem fair?”
“More than fair. I only need five.”
“Great, then let’s make it six and I’ll reserve six additional in case you need them.”
“And about opening night?”
“Um…will there be alcohol and appetizers?”
“Of course. Nothing too messy, but mini quiche, wrapped figs and such. Red and white, flat and sparkling.”
Kadence felt her gut cramp. She didn’t have much in the way of disposable income. If she had to pay half of the cost of opening night, she didn’t think there’d be one.
“How much do you think that will run?”
“Oh, heavens, you don’t have to worry about those sorts of incidentals. ARA has contracts with local caterers. Cost of doing business. Relax, Kadence. May I call you Kadence?”
“The ARA is excited to give you a proper introduction. This is a business arrangement. I feel strongly that your work has a voice that’s missing in today’s art scene. I’ve confidence in my ability to pick winners. No worries, okay?”
The relief that washed over her nearly made her dizzy. She’d dreaded finding out how much the show would cost. She’d been prepared to walk out tonight a starving artist, but Mallory believed in her work. She thinks I’m a winner. Kadence signed the contract and slid it back across the desk. A grateful smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. She couldn’t help it. This was more than she could’ve imagined.
“That smile looks good on you.” Mallory gave her a wink. “Nice to see it there. Let’s be sure you keep it until after opening night. Now, come with me and we’ll talk about where your show will be.”
She led the way out into the gallery space. Kadence looked down at the sculptures. They were captivating, even from above. So perfectly symmetrical. She turned to walk down the stairs when Mallory gently touched her forearm.
“Not there, you’re going to be in the loft room. Come on.” She walked in the opposite direction and rounded the office suite. A floating staircase ascended four steps and opened to an airy open space. The walls were a mid-dark gray. This would be perfect for her work. I really hope I don’t wake up.
“Now I’ll want two of your best pieces to photograph for advertising and then to place in the front foyer. Make people bite as they walk past. Great way to bring in new patrons.”
“Okay, when do you need them? I can get a cab and bring—”
“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary. I need them by next Friday. If you give me a time, I’ll send the gallery van and our movers. They’re fully bonded and insured.”
“Even better. How about next Wednesday between nine and eleven?”
“Perfect. I’ll set it up.”
“Great.” It can’t be this easy. She needed to keep herself from believing this was real. She was waiting for the catch, for Mallory to tell her it was all a mistake, and it was some other artist she meant to contract. Her stomach was a ball of tension.
“Thank you. If you don’t have any more questions, I think we’re done here.”
Relief like a strong wind rushed through her. It was real; this was happening. Now she was disappointed the meeting was over. She liked Mallory Tucker. “Oh, okay. Thanks for your time.”
“Kadence, wait. Would you like to grab a bite to eat? It’s on the gallery. I’d like to get to know you a bit on personal terms. I think it really makes those occasional bumps during a show easier to smooth out if we both have a sense of who we are.”
Personal terms? All Kadence’s defenses went up. This was a professional engagement, and she didn’t do personal. Her mouth tasted sour. No way was she going to open herself up for this gallery director. “Uh, sure. As long as it’s a place suited to my outfit, not yours.”
Mallory laughed. It was a lilting, musical laugh that warmed Kadence and made her more at ease than she’d felt since walking in the door.
“Tiger Cry? That work for you?”
Tiger Cry was an eastside legend, the place all hopeful artists and musicians went for food and companionship. The owner happily accepted artwork or labor as forms of payment when you were really on the downs. Tiger Cry had opened at the peak of the Pop art movement, and the owner had wisely managed her early success to allow for her generous giving back to the community who built her business.
“That would be awesome. I love that place.”
“Yeah, I figured. I love it, too. Come on.”
They walked over, and Mallory talked about how she came to be where she was. Kadence was fascinated by the fact that Mallory had grown up in an artist’s colony. She had a million questions about her experiences. The sheer number of artists who influenced Mallory’s early life and her breaking into the gallery scene was astounding. She was blown away. When their food was served, she couldn’t wait to ask questions.
“So, you lived with Frances Kornbluth? That’s unreal! What was that like? I mean, living so close to so many amazing artists, and with your mother? I can’t imagine what life was like.”
“It was pretty isolating. I mean, there weren’t a lot of other children around. My mom and her friends took my education in hand, but they couldn’t give me friends, you know? I spent much of my childhood as my mom’s accessory.” Mallory’s smile was slightly melancholy and she picked at her food.
“Oh, that’s sad. I’m sorry. What about your father?” Kadence caught the subtle tightening in Mallory’s face and wished she’d not asked.
“He was busy most of the time. His office was in Boston, so I only saw him on weekends. He died the week I graduated from high school. Don’t get me wrong, there were good times. Mom’s friend Jamie taught me to sail, and his wife, Phyllis, taught me patience. I loved living on Monhegan, but I was glad to go away to school in my teens. I needed to be with people my own age.”
“That must have been culture shock.”
“You think? That’s an understatement. I spent the first year keeping my head down and learning the rules. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, really. I learned who I was, what I wanted, and how to stand up for myself. What about you, Kadence? What was your childhood like?”
Kadence sucked in a breath. Her childhood. It wasn’t pretty, but it was hers. Would Mallory understand how her painting had rescued her from the nightmare of her reality? It felt too personal, too raw to reveal that part of her to someone she’d just met.
“Um, it was pretty uneventful. You know, public school, no famous people, just plain and ordinary.”
“Where did you grow up? Do you have any siblings? What did your parents do?”
There it was. The question she dreaded above all others. There was no easy way to say your dad had left you and your mom was basically a call girl. What impression would that give? Stick to the safe story.
“I grew up in Houston, and no, no siblings. My grandma was the biggest influence on my life. She helped raise me, until I was thirteen. She gave me my first set of paints.”
“I’m so glad she did. Your paintings are fantastic.”
“Yes. The show is going to be a hit. I bet you sell out.”
Kadence felt a wash of warmth at the encouraging words. It’d been hard to recover her confidence after Carlyle’s words. She hadn’t quite trusted that she was as good as her heart told her she was. With her words and her faith in Kadence’s talent, Mallory had done more to help her confidence than anyone else in the past two years.
“So, tell me your feelings about the gallery and your show.”
What were her feelings? Did fear count? “I love that gallery space. It’s so expansive. I think the loft is the perfect place for my work. The gray walls will make the subtle play in light and color pop.”
“I agree. I knew it would be the right place for you.”
“Will the other artists showing be at my opening? I mean, is that the procedure?”
“Typically, we invite all artists in house to openings, in case someone attending wants to speak to them. We do a lot of cross sales at new shows.”
Kadence’s heart sank. She would be fine if she never had to see Sheva again.
“Why so glum? You should be excited.”
“It’s nothing. I’m just nervous.” She wasn’t about to let on she had personal issues with another artist. It could wreck her chances, and she wouldn’t let Sheva do that to her again.
“No need to be. This is going to be good for you. I promise. Listen, I have to run back to the gallery. You stay as long as you like. Here’s my business card, call me if you have any questions. I’ll grab the bill on my way out.”
“Okay, thanks for lunch.”
“My pleasure. Let’s do this again, okay?”
Mallory rose and held her hand out. For some god-awful reason, instead of shaking it, Kadence pulled it to her mouth and kissed it. She wanted to kick herself. Why did I do that? She looked up at Mallory as she let her hand go. The look on her face was hard to interpret. She didn’t look disgusted, just puzzled, surprised, maybe.
“Okay, then. I’ll have the drivers call when they arrive next week. Take care.” Mallory turned and moved through the restaurant with an easy pace.
Damn, I hope I haven’t screwed this up. Artists are supposed to be unconventional, right? The fast beat of her heart and the sweat that popped out all over didn’t comfort her. Why did I do that? I’ve never done something like that in my life.
She finished her meal and walked back to the train, which she rode back to her place in Brooklyn. She’d managed to sublet a room from a fellow CAA grad who was spending a year in Vancouver. The fourplex had been created from a single-family residence in a choppy, haphazard fashion. The other tenants were nice enough, but they had very little in common beyond the shared bathroom and kitchen. The room itself was exactly what she needed right now. It was big, with a picture window and plenty of room to store her canvases. It had a mini fridge and a small counter with a microwave, which was just about all she needed. Best she could figure, it had been the living room of the home at some point, though no one had to walk through her room to get to their own now, thankfully. She’d made it her own and she liked the energy of the place. She was usually the only one home on weekends, and she could kick on her music and paint.
She unlocked her door and dropped onto her small bed. Why had she kissed Mallory’s hand? She hadn’t picked up on any attraction from her, she was just nice. Really nice. And she cared about me. She wanted to know more than how many pieces I had for the show. Maybe the kiss could be forgotten. She could just ignore that she’d done it and go on like they had been. Why not? Mallory wouldn’t know how out of character that had been for her. She might just think she was a harmless weirdo. Maybe she’d kiss everyone’s hand she met, then it would just seem part of who she was. No, that wouldn’t work. Kissing hands wasn’t natural. She’d just have to forget it happened.
Easier said than done. She kicked open the trunk that held her paints and pulled out her mixing board. She was in the mood to paint reds. Fiery reds and yellows, maybe orange. Deep, passionate colors that would hold her angst over her stupid kiss and her hope that the show would be as big a success as Mallory forecast. She chose a four-by-four canvas she had previously layered with subtly tinted gesso. She’d built the layers to give real depth and texture to the blank canvas. It was ready to receive color, to be transformed into the place that was burning inside her right now. In moving from her internal place to the canvas, her emotions would be likewise transformed. She could let go of her dread about her next interaction with Mallory and get back to herself. Kadence had used her art as a therapeutic tool her entire life.
The center of the canvas became her open heart, red and burning with embarrassment, shaken with insecurity. It was engulfed in yellow and orange flames of purifying fire, burning with release instead of shame. The outer edges of the piece held the promise of renewal and she reached out for them with her brush. Before she knew it, she felt herself righted. The discomfort with what had happened was gone, and it had only taken three hours of painting.
She cleaned her brushes and walked to the far end of the room. She slid down the wall and gave her full attention to the painting. Her shoulders loosened as she saw what she had created. She leaned back against the wall and clasped her hands behind her head. It was perfect, capturing all she had felt in the hour before she lost herself in its creation. This was what made her work real. Carlyle had never seen it. She’d never tried to see it. Kadence let the hot tears come. She needed to find a way to release that disappointment. The hurt she’d experienced when Carlyle dismissed her love and her work had been the hardest thing she’d ever had to get over. It didn’t make sense that she could transfer so many painful emotions to canvas, but hadn’t succeeded in losing that particular pain. Seeing Sheva’s figures had brought it right back to the surface. I wish I’d had the chance to truly have closure with Carlyle. If she’d only come back to school. Maybe I could find her. Talk to her now. It’s been two years; maybe she’ll talk to me.
Kadence pushed up off the floor and went to her worn leather messenger bag. She’d carried that thing all over for years, rarely going through it to take things out. She dumped the contents out on her bed, searching through the debris of her school years for the small notebook she’d used for the important stuff. It was tattered and stained, but she leafed through it and found Carlyle’s old home address and her parents’ phone number. Her calls to Carlyle’s number in the months after their breakup had led to Carlyle changing the number. She’d never gotten the new one, so her parents were the only connection she had. Should I do this? Her folks probably won’t even remember me. It was worth it, if she could talk to her again. Just to have a chance to say the things she should have said back then, so she could get the closure she needed. In part, she wanted to stand up for herself and take back some of the power Carlyle had taken from her that day. Kadence slid her phone out of her pocket and thumbed it open. It was after ten, too late to be calling anyone’s parents. I’ll call in the morning.
She showered and dropped into bed, relieved to have made the decision to reach out. It wouldn’t matter what Carlyle’s reaction was. She was at a good place in her life, more mature. Carlyle was probably in a similar place. They should be able to talk about what happened. Kadence would be able to say the things she hadn’t been able to before. She’d get some closure and maybe she could start trusting her heart again. She slipped into sleep without difficulty and slept dreamlessly.
Mallory walked out of the restaurant smiling. She liked Kadence Munroe. She was so different from what she’d expected. She knew Kadence was a fresh voice in the somewhat stale local art scene. She’d caught a warehouse showing with a few of her pieces and had been struck by the emotion in her work. It was usually challenging to connect with the message of abstract art, but not with these pieces. Each of the three she’d seen called to different places in her. Sorrow, ecstasy, pain, all loud and clear in the play of color. She knew from the minute she saw them that the artist would have a deep emotional life. When she’d seen her in the gallery, snatching her hand back from the bronze figures, she’d felt a connection. She’d been unable to keep from caressing the beautiful sculptures herself.
She’d called her name and Kadence had turned, and she’d been surprised at how young she was. Her work spoke of so much life experience, it had been a shock. She’d expected someone in their mid to late forties, and here was this twenty-something. She was tall and slim, to the point of being too thin. Dark curly hair, worn long, highlighted sharp cheekbones. To hide her features? Maybe. She was somewhat shy, but Mallory liked that, too. So many of the artists she’d contracted were positive they were God’s gift to the world, it was refreshing to meet one so unsullied.
Then there’s the kiss. She chuckled, remembering the look of surprise on Kadence’s face afterward. She hadn’t planned that, I’m sure. It had been sweet and honest, the best kind of surprise. We’re going to be good friends. She checked the time. Damn. She had to get back and finish her report for the board then contact the movers for Kadence’s pieces. She was going to be cutting it close, but she had to get that done before she met Sheva for dinner.
Sheva was the opposite of Kadence. She was full of confidence and had a generous helping of self-appreciation. That had been a bit of a turnoff for Mallory when they’d met, but Sheva was nothing if not persistent. She’d made sure Mallory knew she was interested and pursued her doggedly. Mallory had finally said yes to a date, only to make certain Sheva understood they were incompatible, but she’d been wrong. Sheva was sure of herself, but she was also interesting and caring, an attentive date, and unbelievably generous in bed. They’d been seeing each other since the second week of Sheva’s three-month contract, and two months later, things were still good.
She felt the heat speed through her at the thought of Sheva’s touches, her passionate lovemaking. That was definitely on the agenda for later tonight. Mallory let herself drift in the dream of the life she wanted. Definitely kids. She’d be a great parent, not like her own. She’d make sure her kids knew they were always her priority. She’d support their dreams, believe in them. They’d never wonder if they mattered. Nothing was going to stop her. She just had to find the right person to build the dream with her. She doubted Sheva was that person, but for now, she was fun and exciting. She made Mallory feel sexy and desirable, and she liked that.
Mallory left her third lunch meeting with Kadence, laughing. They always seemed to have such a good time together. She’d been going over little details about advertising the show when she looked up and saw chopsticks hanging out of Kadence’s mouth. She looked like a cartoon vampire. Mallory knew it was a delaying tactic, trying to break her focus on the tedious paperwork, so she just looked down as if nothing was amiss. Kadence opened her mouth so wide the chopsticks fell onto her plate with a god-awful clatter.
“How can that not make you laugh?” she said.
Mallory finished reading the passage, pushed her glasses up, and looked at Kadence like a mother at her errant two-year-old. “This is a business meeting, Ms. Munroe.”
Kadence fell off her chair and Mallory couldn’t hold it together any longer. She tried, but her efforts ended in a bark of laughter. Kadence jumped up and pointed at her.
“You are human! I was worried.”
Mallory laughed until her sides ached, then gave Kadence a long look. “Have you always been so silly?” She knew she was asking Kadence to open up a bit, but something made her want to know.
Kadence’s smile faded and her shoulders drew in. “No, not always. Sometimes being a clown helps me forget things, you know?”
“Okay, what kind of things do you want to forget? I mean, I spend a lot of time trying to forget my dad. I was never good enough for him. Every time I achieved something, no matter what it was, it was always the wrong thing.” She sat back, curling her arms around her middle. I shouldn’t have said that. It was too personal.
Kadence surprised her, sitting forward and moving her arms away from her sides. She wasn’t shutting down, she was opening up.
“That’s a shame. No kid should have a parent shut them down like that.”
Right? “The worst part was that I never had the chance to talk to him about it. He died too soon.”
Kadence stiffened, letting Mallory know she was back to uncomfortable.
“Sometimes it’s better that way. My mom is still alive, but so wasted all the time, she probably doesn’t remember she has a kid.”
Mallory hurt for her, she could hear the bitterness in Kadence’s voice.
“I’m sorry, Kadence.”
Her whole body slumped, and when she spoke, her voice was full of resignation. “That’s okay. At least she’s not beating me and trying to pimp me out anymore, right?”
The image of a young Kadence, beaten and abused, filled her mind and she flinched. Kadence saw the reaction and lowered her gaze.
“I’m okay now. That’s all in the past,” Kadence said. She didn’t look up.
Idiot, you’re making it worse. She grabbed her chopsticks and slid them under her lips, crossed her eyes, and said Kadence’s name. Like a balloon pricked with a pin, the tension and discomfort burst, allowing them both to laugh. Sometimes, less is more. Laughter is underrated.
They finished their work and shared a Vietnamese coffee before going their separate ways.
She walked into the gallery, expecting to find it quiet, but her assistant, Tarin, met her at the door with a frantic look on his face.
“It’s your mother. She’s upstairs.”
“My mother? What’s she doing here?”
“I’ve no idea, but she’s waiting in your office.”
“How does she seem?”
“Damn. Okay, I’ll deal with her. Call me in ten minutes, okay? I might need an out.”
“Okay. She scares me.”
Mallory climbed the stairs with dread growing like a poison mushroom in her gut. If her mother was serene, she had an agenda. What would it be this time?
She pushed open her door and saw Sanford lounging in her desk chair, arms draped casually over the sides.
“Darling. Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for hours.”
“Hello, Mother. It hasn’t been hours. I’ve only been at lunch up the street.”
“Well, it feels like hours. You should pack a lunch, you know. Or call out for food. Send that what’s his name for something. The gallery requires your full attention.”
“Believe me, the gallery is in good hands with Tarin when I’m indisposed. I was lunching with a new client. It was work.”
“Really? Lunch with a starving artist is work now? I wish someone would have told me.”
“Is there something I can help you with, Mother?”
“Why, yes, dear, of course there is. I want you to come home for the long weekend and have brunch with me on Sunday. I won’t take no for an answer, Mallory. I simply won’t.”
“So, I can’t leave for lunch, but you expect me to leave for days? You know how busy the gallery is this time of year, Mother. I don’t see how I can do that.”
“Sunday brunch is only an early lunch, after all. You can do it with clients, you can do it with your mother.”
As usual, her mother’s logic was both flawed and working only toward her own goals. “But it’s not that simple. Going to Monhegan takes more than an hour. We’ve talked about this before.”
“This time, I want you to make time. I want you to be home with me. Please, Mallory?”
Mallory thought about the last time she’d gone home for a holiday. It’d been several years. She probably should plan a trip. Her mother meant well, she knew that. Her life was so completely different from Mallory’s. She wasn’t getting any younger, and Mallory might not have many more chances to spend time with her. She’d regret it if she didn’t make time for her, exasperating as she could be.
“Okay, Mother. I’ll come to the island on Saturday and stay through Monday. That’s really as long as I can be away.”
“Thank you, darling. You don’t know how happy this makes me.”
“I know, Mother.”
“Good. I’ll be on my way, then.”
She rose and headed to the door, pausing before leaving. “By the way, who is the sculptor of the exquisite figures? They’re remarkable.”
“That’s Sheva’s work.”
“The Goth hippie woman from California?”
Mallory choked down a laugh at her mother’s accurate but somewhat unkind description. “Yes, Mother, that’s her.”
“Ah. Well, then, good-bye.”
And without another glance back, her mother was gone. She takes all the air in the room. Why can’t she see how she affects me? Mallory shook out her hair and breathed. A month until the long weekend, not nearly long enough to build up her reserves. She wondered if any of the others would be there. It would be great to see Jamie and Phyllis again.
She looked up as Tarin entered the room.
“You okay, boss?”
“I survived. Would you get me the sales figures for last week? I need to get this report done.”
“I’m on it.”
She relaxed into her routine, letting the feelings that seeing her mother brought up flow away. It wasn’t her mother’s fault. I know she loves me, but she doesn’t see me. She doesn’t get that my goals are valid and real. Maybe one day she’ll understand that my love of art is genuine, that I don’t have to produce art to appreciate and understand it.
She finished her report for the board and sent it off. Thank God for Tarin and his help holding things together. The whole day could have ended differently if not for him. She made arrangements for Kadence’s paintings to be moved the following week and left her a voice mail with the details. This was going to be a good show. She could feel it in her bones.
Finally free, she grabbed her bag and met Tarin on the landing.
“Let’s lock things up and get out of here. I need a drink after that visit. Care to join me?”
“I’d love to, but I have dinner plans tonight. Some other time?” She was glad he didn’t look too disappointed. She depended on him and wanted to make sure he felt appreciated, but tonight wasn’t the night.
As she set the alarm and waved good-bye, Mallory felt her body warm to the thought of this evening and Sheva. She was such a dynamic person. When she was with her, she felt alive in a way she hadn’t before. It’s like her body is charged with electricity that pulses out and engulfs me. I can’t get enough of being with her. But sometimes in that moment of pure electricity, it’s like I vanish as a person and I’m only an extension of her power. She wondered, not for the first time, if Sheva saw her as a person or as a conquest of some sort. Does she see us as a couple or am I an accessory? Am I re-creating the relationship with my mother? The little hard knots of anxiety pressed against her stomach and brought that uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty.
Not finding an answer, she headed home.
She was just putting the finishing touches on her makeup when Sheva’s distinctive knock sounded. She was glad she’d had time for a shower, and the only thing she had yet to do was to pull on her shoes. When she opened the door, she was surprised to see Sheva’s choice in outfits. She was wearing ripped jeans and her engineer boots with an oversized white button-down shirt.
“I thought we were going to Annisa.” Mallory knew they had a strict dress code and Sheva must have changed their plans without letting her know, something she did occasionally.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
“Why? I was looking forward to dinner.”
“That place is so pretentious. I don’t want to get that vibe all over me, so I figured we could eat in.”
“And you decided to wait until now to tell me because…”
Mallory could see Sheva stiffen. She didn’t like being called on things.
“Jesus. If you insist, we can go out, just not there. I don’t even know why I’m bothering with this.”
“With this. You and me. Why should I try when all you do is question me?”
“Oh, come on. We made plans for dinner a week ago. I had to call in some big favors to get us a table on such short notice, and suddenly the restaurant is too pretentious? Seriously, Sheva.”
“Nag, nag, nag. If I wanted a wife, I’d marry one. Look, I’ve been in the studio all day and I’m tired. I want to be relaxed and comfortable. Is that too much to ask?”
“Of course it isn’t, if you’d bother to ask. That’s not what happened. You decided we were going to stay in, then announced it to me when I thought you were here to pick me up. Don’t I deserve a little respect? Couldn’t you have called to let me know how you were feeling?”
“You know, you’re right. You deserve better than me. I’ll let myself out. Good luck with finding someone better.”
And without another word, Sheva walked out. Mallory was shocked, not just by her sudden departure, but by the whole encounter. What the hell? It made no sense. They’d planned the evening out, Sheva choosing one of the most difficult places to get a table, and Mallory had made it happen. Then she just flipped the tables and walked out? There had to be more to it than appeared.
Mallory crossed to the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Macallan. Wine wouldn’t do tonight. She needed the smooth smoky taste of scotch to calm her nerves. She didn’t like arguing, and hated the fact that Sheva thought it was okay to blow up their plans. She poured herself a drink and took it to her couch.
Sheva had always been a little unpredictable, but this was new. This had been hostile. What happened between last night and today that could have brought this on? She scrolled through her text messages, reviewing their communication from the day. Sheva seemed to be fine all day. Why had she gone off the rails? I don’t know her that well. Maybe there’s something she hasn’t shared with me.
Mallory decided she would let it go for now and see what, if anything, Sheva had to say tomorrow. What they’d shared had been hot and intense, but this new tone wasn’t something she would put up with. It was too much like her father. She’d tried so hard to do everything he expected, to be the perfect daughter. Then, when she knew she’d found a way to make him proud, when he’d have to acknowledge her accomplishments, he’d pull the rug out from under her by making her success seem unimportant. You won the Humanities competition? Well, you should focus your attentions on improving your accounting skills. You’re not going to impress potential employers with a piece of shiny plastic on a marble base. Apply yourself, Mallory.
Her impudent rage against him flared brighter than a mushroom cloud, but she couldn’t change the past. She’d never been able to confront him about it. He’d died before she was self-aware enough to stand up to him. Never again. She wouldn’t let Sheva do the same thing to her. She deserved better than that. She tossed back the Macallan, let its smooth rich heat counteract her futile anger, and set the glass carefully on the table.
There was no reason she couldn’t enjoy the evening. She had the reservation at Anissa. She could go solo, or maybe find someone who could join her on short notice. Tarin would probably go, or she could call one of her friends. Kadence’s quick smile and the mass of curls that tumbled down around her heart-shaped face came to mind. Mallory tingled all over at the thought. Maybe she’d like to go to dinner? It was worth asking. They’d had several nice lunches, and the time they’d spent together had been easy and fun. She could even make it a working dinner, since there were more things they could discuss regarding the show. Mallory could deftly turn a spoiled date into a nice evening, provided Kadence was available. All it took was a phone call.
Sheva looked up at Mallory’s window as she walked away from the apartment. That had gone better than she expected. It was almost time. The tension was building nicely. She had her exactly where she’d hoped to. Soon she’d be at the perfect place. Her soul would be in turmoil, her head and heart confused. It would be the right time to move, to capture her in bronze. She would be an exquisite addition to her collection. She had to make sure all her preparations at the foundry were complete before she executed the breakup and created that perfect moment. The timing was crucial. If she missed the moment and Mallory moved past confusion and anger into acceptance and recovery, her soul wouldn’t be ripe for harvest. She had to act while she could.
Half an hour later, Mallory was in a cab, waiting for Kadence to come down from her apartment. When the door opened, she felt a shock of arousal. Kadence was dressed in a charcoal gray suit, a black shirt, and an emerald green tie that matched her eyes. The suit accentuated her tall, slim figure. She either had excellent taste or a friend with a good eye. However it had come about, Kadence rocked the look and Mallory found her damn sexy. She’ll be the eye candy tonight, not me. She tamped out the spark and reminded herself this was business. One irascible artist lover was more than enough.
“Over here, Kadence,” she called.
Kadence turned her way and smiled as she walked to the cab. As she slid into the seat, her shoulder brushed against the exposed skin of Mallory’s upper arm. God, she smells good, too. Business, it’s business.
“I’m so glad you could join me on such short notice.”
“Oh, no problem. I hope this suit is okay. It’s from my graduation, so it’s a couple of years old.”
“It’s stunning. You look great.”
Mallory felt herself heat as Kadence gave her outfit an appraising look.
“You look stunning yourself, Ms. Tucker. So, why did you decide to invite me to dinner tonight? I thought we covered everything at lunch today.”
“Oh, well, yes, but I thought it would be nice to talk about the specifics of your opening. It’s your first show, so I’m sure you have questions that have come up, even though we’ve discussed lots of other things. I’m all about being available to my artists.”
“Okay. So, you do this for all your artists?”
“Um, no. Truthfully? I had reservations and my dining companion had to cancel. I didn’t want to lose the table, and, well, you came to mind.”
“That makes more sense. I was just going to watch a movie and order pizza, so this works out for me, too.”
“Good. So tell me about your process. How do you decide what to create? Your work is so incredibly evocative.”
Mallory watched as Kadence shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She wasn’t used to talking about her motivations, obviously. Mallory needed to help her get past that. She predicted that Kadence Munroe was going to make a splash in the art world. She hadn’t been wrong yet when it came to those kinds of predictions. As such, Kadence was going to be asked questions like these often. She had to be able to open up, or at least have a good story. Her reputation would be built by how she handled these situations, and Mallory really wanted to see her succeed. It was time for some professional advice. “This is good. I can see you’re not comfortable talking about how you create your art. I can help you with that. You need to be able to share yourself with the world.”
“I don’t know about that. I mean, I’ll share my work, isn’t that enough?”
“It can be, but not if you want to have the kind of reception that results in sales. I mean, people are buying your experience as well as the physical art. Trust me. Those who share get a bigger piece of the revenue pie. People buy people, and the stories behind those people, as much as they buy the physical product.”
She could see that concept made Kadence uncomfortable. That wasn’t an uncommon reaction among some of the more humble artists she had signed. It was like they were viscerally connected to their work, like the thought of profiting from it made them somehow guilty of self-betrayal. The exceptions were there, of course. Artists like Sheva, who were already certain that what they created should be given its due. Mallory preferred working with the more grounded, authentic artists like Kadence.
“I know it feels weird, but the point of my bringing you to the gallery is to help you get noticed. To help you build a following we can both profit from. Frankly, you need to make money with your work so you can continue to create it. One goes hand in hand with the other. No sales, no following, and pretty soon no art. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”
Kadence was quiet. Mallory wondered if she’d said the wrong thing. She’d dealt with some fairly sensitive artists, but usually she could bring them around to her point of view.
The cab pulled up in front of the restaurant and they exited, Kadence as quiet as before. Once they were seated Mallory tried to bridge the silence.
“I hope I didn’t upset you. I mean, I think the world of your work. It’s amazing and you should be able to make a living from it. Don’t you want that?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not upset. It’s just that I never let myself believe I’d make it. I never gave in to the daydream of being a full-time artist. It was too scary. When you talk about profit and stuff, it makes it all so real. I’m just a little shocked.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be. You’re going to be a sensation in some circles. You’ll see.”
“What do I need to tell people? I mean, can you help me figure that out?”
“Sure, that’s easy. For now, just tell me about what inspires you. How does it feel when you’re about to start a new canvas? Do you plan and sketch first, or just start painting?”
Their drinks arrived, followed soon by appetizers. She slipped a labne sphere into her mouth and let its sour rich deliciousness explode on her tongue. She sighed and smiled. This was a small sample of the wonderful adventure her palate had ahead.
Mallory loved exotic foods as much as she loved art. The creativity invested in food like this spoke to her soul. It was like the vibrant blending of paint on canvas, the emotions of the chef clear in the bite and tang of the labne. She was moved by the experience and she felt her face flush with pleasure. She watched Kadence take her own first taste. She wasn’t sure how to interpret her reaction. She wanted Kadence to connect with the food as she did. She looked for that spark of understanding, that knowledge that she had just sampled something amazing.
“What do you think?”
Kadence furrowed her brow, and Mallory couldn’t tell if she was happy or not.
“Um, it’s different.”
The shrug wasn’t helpful. Mallory wanted to know if this exquisite little bite impacted Kadence the way it had her. “Different good or bad?”
“Good, I think.”
“Tell me. Give me a taste of your passion, Kadence. Does it begin in subtle smooth flavors, or does it burst out of you like the taste of these little cheese balls, flooding the canvas with you?” Mallory knew she was being provocative, but she couldn’t help herself. She was drawn to Kadence and wanted to ruffle her. The desire to see her react was so strong it shook her.
Kadence froze, her second labne ball halfway to her mouth. She let the hand drop back to her plate and stared at Mallory.
Mallory wanted to take back what she’d said, to undo her rush to connect. This was always her downfall. She felt the passion and emotion of creative energy in every cell of her body. Her nerve endings exploded when she found something that struck her like this. She wanted everyone to feel that power, that flash of energy that wrapped around her and made simple things like paint and canvas, like labne balls, into houses for souls. She’d been sure that Kadence would feel it, and in her hunger for connection, she’d set her off balance by pushing.
“I’ve made you uncomfortable. I’m sorry.”
“What exactly is this all about? I mean, the dinner, the asking about my passions? What’s going on?”
Mallory burned with embarrassment. She wasn’t exactly flirting, but she was pushing. It wasn’t fair or professional and she needed to stop.
“I’m sorry. Your work excites me, Kadence. You excite me, but that’s no excuse. I had a rough afternoon, and I think my confidence is shaken. I really want to know your passion for your work, your process, so I can make that a part of introducing you to my world, but I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“Okay. So, can we set up some boundaries? Can we agree that discussions about my passion are only about my work? I’ll tell you what motivates me, what grabs me by the soul and rips at my insides until I get it out of me and onto canvas, but you have to promise not to exploit that. You have to promise that the difference between sharing my process with you and anything else is clear.”
“You’ve got my promise.”
Kadence stared at her for a moment, as though trying to figure out if she was being genuine. She took a deep breath and started talking. “Okay. When I paint, I don’t plan. I don’t know ahead of time what I’m going to create. That’s one reason I’m an abstractionist. I paint what I feel. Maybe I wake up in the morning and realize I can’t make my rent, so I get swallowed up by fear and anxiety. What I do with that is pull it out and put it on canvas. Maybe I have a wonderful night with a beautiful woman. Maybe I see, in her, a reflection of self I’d forgotten or denied. I pull that out and put it on canvas. When I’m sad, angry, defeated, I make it into art. It’s what I do, and when I do, I heal. I feel better about me, about them, about everything. It’s all I am.”
Mallory felt each word and knew it for truth. This was how Kadence managed to create such moving pieces with such muted edges. She painted her emotions. No wonder Mallory had felt so drawn to her work. She was putting all of herself into it.
“That’s amazing. I feel all of that when I look at your pieces. When your show opens, that story is going to spark your sales. People these days shut themselves off from their emotions too often. Your work makes them feel. It’s cathartic. Trust me, you’re going to do well.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that. It feels really weird to think of my work opening other people’s emotions. I guess I use my work to rip mine out, so I don’t have to feel them anymore.”
“Why don’t you want to feel them?”
Kadence sighed and looked away from her. “They hurt. Not feeling is better than feeling. So, I take them out, put them on canvas, and I don’t have to deal with them anymore.”
Mallory didn’t know how to respond, so she kept quiet. How does that work? Denying your feelings? Soon their entrees arrived, and Kadence asked her about running a gallery. She was glad to move into more comfortable territory, and opened up about her life a little. They chatted about different types of art, different openings, and various people Mallory had met throughout her time in the art world. When Kadence asked whether she was an artist herself, she smiled and shook her head.
“My mother was confounded that I had no talent. She tried everything she could think of to change that, but painting, sculpting, all of it, was beyond me. When I watched my mother paint, I felt connected to her, more than at any other time. The best times growing up were times I sat in her studio, watching her. I wanted that connection, and even though I’m a great disappointment to her, my mother’s work and where it led are the single biggest influences on my life. I love what I do. I love art and the way it makes people see the world.”
“I can see that. I’m lucky you discovered me.”
Mallory lost herself momentarily in the depth of Kadence’s eyes. Like windows into her soul. She felt her breath catch and coughed to hide it.
“Yeah, lucky for both of us. Let me get the bill and we can head out. I’ll drop you back at your place.”
“Thanks for this.”
“Thank you. And thanks for not running for the door when I made you uncomfortable. I think we’ll work really well together.”
Mallory watched Kadence skip up the steps of her building as her cab pulled away. She moves like a cat, sensuous and powerful, graceful. Kadence Munroe was not only an incredible artist, she was sexy. Mallory smiled and hugged herself tight. A sexy goddess who is only going to be your client, maybe your friend, but that’s it. It was a boundary she wouldn’t be crossing again.
Kadence kicked the apartment door closed behind her as she pulled at the knot in her tie. What the fuck was going on? Why had Mallory really invited her to dinner and why did their conversation make her so uncomfortable? Because she was getting too personal with you, and it made you uncomfortable, that’s why. She’d been careful with boundaries since Carlyle, and lately, with Mallory, she felt close to letting her guard down. Christ, she’d already told her about her mother and a little about her childhood. That was more than she told anyone, but she regretted it, and she wouldn’t go there again for several reasons. She counted them off mentally, reminding herself. Number one, Mallory was kind of her boss, and that wouldn’t work for her in any sense. Number two, she didn’t do dating and such. Random encounters were much safer for her heart. Tonight felt way too close to a date. And number three, Mallory said she’d been stood up, so that meant she had someone to stand her up. No can do. It’d taken such a long time to get over Carlyle, and even longer to set aside her criticism of her work. Kadence wasn’t ever going to let someone get close enough to rip her apart again. Her art and an occasional dalliance would be enough. It had to be.
She grabbed a beer off the counter and dropped into her chair. She’d set up her room so she could use most of it for working and storing her paintings, so it didn’t accommodate much in the way of comfort furnishings. But she had her favorite overstuffed chair, crammed in against her bed. She toed off her dress shoes and sipped at the chocolate stout. She needed to figure out what to do with tonight. Should she just forget that it happened? Just erase the night from her memory? That’d be the best solution, probably. She could just go into the gallery on Wednesday and help with the setup of her show as she’d planned. She could force the respectful distance back into place between her and Mallory. But then she’d have to give up any sense of closeness she’d felt before things got uncomfortable Was it that big a deal? Could she just let it go and keep the friendship she’d felt with her? Maybe. Or maybe she was reading too much into it, and she was just out of her depth, as usual. Maybe this was how people in the big art world acted, and she simply needed to get used to it. It probably didn’t mean anything, and she was making something out of nothing.
Her throat tightened and she knew there was no turning back now. She was in for the full emotional ride tonight.
She finished her drink then stripped out of her suit and hung it up. She pulled on her paint-stained jeans and ratty old CAA sweatshirt. She needed to paint, to get out the mix of anxiety and confusion flowing through her.
She chose a five-by-five canvas that had been prepped with a blue tinted gesso. She loaded her palette with the colors of her mood: deep blue, purple, and black, titanium white to mimic the unknown future. Heat rushed through her and she tightened her grip on her palette knife. She layered the paint thick in waves and ridges, sharp edges to match the wash of anxiety she felt. Her stomach churned and she clutched the knife harder as the memory of Carlyle and her words came back. She feathered the paint wildly, letting the pain direct her movements. She felt the sting of her mother’s belt across her shoulders, heard her drunken railing at Kadence for things she didn’t comprehend, much less cause. The deep cold blue of isolation that had saved her, that made it possible to survive those years. The stark white of the unknown when she broke away, when she secretly applied for a scholarship and won it, when she climbed on that bus and left Texas in the dust.
She felt the heat of her tears as they traced the contours of her face. They fell freely as she opened herself to her emotions. She scrubbed at them when they rolled over her chin and sped down her neck. Her throat felt like she’d drunk a cup of glass shards.
Finally, she couldn’t take any more and she threw the knife onto the palette. She thrust her hands into the paint and tried to grab the past to capture it. All she succeeded in doing was covering her hands and arms in paint, but the effect on the canvas felt right. She slumped over the canvas and wept onto its surface until she had no more tears.
When she was able, she gathered the fractured bits and pieces of herself and pulled them together. She looked at the smeared, jagged peaks and waves of her painting and knew this was only the first stage of this piece. When she painted like this, the result was always too much, even for her. Tomorrow she would look at it again, and then she could build something that would last.
Her shoulders ached and her throat was drier than a salt flat, but the tension that gripped her gut was gone. Paint yourself happy, that’s what her grandma had always said. It didn’t make her happy anymore, but it was cathartic. I can’t control what happens. I can only guard my heart and keep living.
She grabbed her paint-stained towel and cleaned her arms as best she could before going to the bathroom. She stripped off her clothes and slid into the shower. She leaned on the wall and let the warm water sluice over her. The blue tinted water swirled down the drain, and she tried to force the lingering web of emotion down with it. Her soul was like an empty husk, a shell, its edges lined in shards of hardened crystal. Allowing herself to feel put that shell at risk, and it was getting harder to tamp those emotions down. If I can smile and function without feeling, I’ll be okay. Just swallow it down and keep it locked in.
Slowly, Kadence felt the emptiness fade and the mask she wore slip back into place over her heart. She wouldn’t let anyone or anything in to hurt her. All she needed was to keep on relying on herself and moving through life. Her art was where she lived. That was where her feelings played and tore at each other. Here, in this empty place, she was free.
Mallory was walking up the landing of her building when she heard Sheva’s whistle. That had been cute, once, that wolf whistle she tossed out, but tonight it wasn’t cute. It wasn’t fun or sexy or any of the things Mallory had once felt when she heard it. She pretended she hadn’t heard and pushed through the entrance without stopping.
“Hey, Mallory, wait up. I’m sorry, okay?”
Mallory kept walking. Sorry wasn’t enough. She was going to have to do better than that. She hit the button for the elevator and hoped the building door would latch before Sheva could get in. No such luck.
“Mal? Are you mad at me?”
Count to ten before you say anything. The anger her dinner with Kadence had erased flared up, hotter than before. How could Sheva not expect her to be angry? Did she not get how rude she’d been?
“Look, I know I was an ass. That’s part of my charm, right? I mean, I’m an artist, I can’t help being a jerk sometimes. I feel like a total douche, if that helps. Can you forgive me?”
Mallory rushed into the elevator as soon as the door opened, Sheva right behind her. Sheva caught her by the arms and dropped to the floor on her knees.
“Please? I beg you, Mal. Forgive me?”
Sheva’s eyes were red and Mallory could see she’d been crying. Maybe she was overreacting, the old tapes about her father making the circumstances bigger than they were, maybe she should cut Sheva some slack. She looked down into those dark pools of midnight, seeing her angry face reflected there. The fire went out of Mallory and her heart softened. Looking at Sheva like this made it hard to stay angry.
“Why did you do that to me?”
“I’m so sorry. I had a bad day in the studio. Nothing was going right. I haven’t had a good casting since last April and I’m getting nervous. I need a new piece for my Geneva show. It was stupid of me to take that out on you. It’s not your fault that I’m stuck. Please forgive me?”
That drained the last of Mallory’s anger away. She knew how important it was for an artist to produce. Her mother had been unbearable when she’d hit lulls in her work. It was a part of the artist psyche.
“Okay, on one condition.”
“That you never do that to me again. I know how hard it is, but you must keep your art and us separate. I can’t let you treat me like that for any reason, okay?”
“Deal. Can I come up with you?”
Mallory thought about it. She should tell her no, for tonight, at least, but the thought of a night with Sheva was too tempting.
“Yeah, I’m good with that. But expect to be making it up to me all night.”
Sheva gave her that rakish smile and she melted. Damn. Those black eyes and full lips could convince her of just about anything.
The trip from the elevator to the bedroom was a blur, so much heat coming off their bodies it mucked up her consciousness. When her back touched the cool sheets of her bed and Sheva slid on top of her, she knew she was home. Sheva’s mouth was everywhere, kissing and sucking, driving Mallory insane with her teasing.
“God, take me!”
And Sheva did. She drove hard into her, fueled by their passion. Mallory cried out at the intensity. Sheva rocked her with deep powerful thrusts coupled with her unceasing kisses, and just when Mallory reached the peak of her climax, Sheva bit down on her nipple. The electric shock of pain rippled through her and entwined with the overwhelming pleasure of her orgasm. She screamed, her body arching off the mattress in response to the pain and pleasure combined. She was coming apart, flying out and away from the two of them, freeing her to feel the depth of the connection they had created.
When she came back to herself she looked at Sheva and really saw her. Her expression was one of power and control. There was no connection to the emotional roller coaster she had put Mallory on. Mallory could have been a slab of clay she was manipulating, a piece of art Sheva had created with her hands and mouth, but not her soul. The disconnect between them made Mallory apprehensive. She wanted to pull away, but Sheva held her fast.
“You’re so perfect, Mallory. God, you’re so perfect.” She kissed her way down Mallory’s body and slipped between her legs. Her mouth stroked the tender places she had so forcefully entered before. Mallory tried to slip back into the moment, but she couldn’t shake her trepidation.
“Why stop?” She worked her tongue back and forth across Mallory’s oversensitive clit.
Sheva sat up, looking puzzled. “What’s wrong? You haven’t had enough already, have you?”
“Yes. I’m done.” Mallory could hear the coldness in her voice. She knew that wouldn’t go over well, but she couldn’t help it. She felt manipulated, used.
“What the fuck? What’s wrong? That was beautiful. Why are you upset?”
“I’m not upset. I’m just tired,” Mallory lied.
“Tired? Yeah, right. Okay.” Sheva stood and started pulling her jeans on.
“Why are you getting dressed? Lie back down with me.”
“Nah, I need to go back to the studio. You’ve inspired me. I need to get the images in my head in clay. I’ll see you at the gallery tomorrow.”
“I have to, baby. I need to create. Look, I’ll see you soon, huh?”
Mallory didn’t want her to go. She wanted to talk about what she’d felt during their lovemaking. Why had Sheva been so disconnected? Why the introduction of pain to their pleasure? If she didn’t get answers, she knew she wouldn’t sleep.
“Sheva, please stay. I need to talk to you.”
“Talk to me in the morning. ’Night.”
And then she was gone, the door closing softly behind her.
Mallory thought about what she’d seen in Sheva’s eyes. She hadn’t been in the moment with her, or at least not in the same way. Had it always been that way? She’d never bitten her before, but she was always intense in her lovemaking. Most of the time she liked to take Mallory forcefully, often instigating a passionate coupling in an unusual place. She liked tables, and counters. They always wound up in bed, so Mallory had written it off as intensity. Now she wasn’t so sure. Did Sheva ever do gentle? Was she always disconnected? She thought about the first time they’d been together. It had been so hot, like something from a movie. Sheva had taken her against the door of her apartment after starting in the elevator. It had been exciting and different for Mallory, but would that ever turn to something more emotional? Was Sheva even interested in her emotionally? And the biting thing, that had hurt. Yes, it had exponentially changed her orgasm, but it wasn’t something she wanted as a part of a loving relationship, or even as a regular part of sex. Pain definitely wasn’t her thing. Do we have a relationship or are we just fucking?
She got up and went to the shower, feeling dirty. She made the water as hot as she could stand before slipping in. She soaped her body thoroughly, being careful of her tender nipple, then rinsed and soaped again. Why was she feeling like this? She hadn’t done anything she didn’t want to do, and Sheva had stopped when she asked her to. It’s because you feel used. She objectified you by staying separate from you emotionally. You were a thing to her, not a person.
She flinched at the thoughts pounding through her head. The truth in them was harsh. That’s exactly how she felt, like something used and tossed aside. Has it always been this way, or is this new? Sheva had really pissed her off about the dinner reservation, but she didn’t think she had held on to that anger when they’d started making up.
She wrapped up in her robe, went to the living room, and poured herself a glass of wine. As she sipped, she went over every time she could remember, every moment she’d spent with Sheva.
She dug her nails into her palms, and her eyes burned as she thought about it. The anger from earlier came back, stronger than before. She finished the wine and poured a second glass as the memories replayed in her mind. Sheva, wild and passionate, kissing her and groping at her breasts in the elevator. Struggling to unlock the door as she felt Sheva’s hands sliding her skirt up above her hips. Finally, in the apartment, closing the door as Sheva flipped her around, face to the wood and took her, with hot hands and whispered words in her ear. She’d come harder than ever before. And when she’d turned to embrace Sheva, seeking the contact of her body against her own, Sheva had dropped down and taken her in her mouth, making her bones turn to liquid as she came again and slid to the floor.
She’d scooped her up in those strong sculptor’s arms and carried her to the bed, but had kissed her good night and left. In fact, Mallory realized now they’d never spent an entire night together. There was always work at the studio calling Sheva away from her bed. And the times they’d lain together after lovemaking had been spent in exhausted sleep. There had been no cuddling. No loving words exchanged over the pillows. It had been carnal and fierce, but not emotional.
I’m such an idiot. Sheva’d been clear about her needs from the beginning. Mallory understood then that she’d set this up herself. She’d put Sheva on that same freaking pedestal she’d put her parents on. No wonder it felt so wrong now. No wonder she felt used. She was trying to work through her daddy issues by letting Sheva walk all over her. Screw that. She might have made it happen, but she wouldn’t let it continue. If there was one thing her mother had taught her, it was to be strong. That, she could do. Eventually, anyway. Right now, she just needed to be honest with herself about what she was feeling. Actions could wait.
The cold hands of shame wrapped around her legs and climbed her body, filling her with feelings of worthlessness. I did that to myself. I gave her that power. Her robe was no match for the chill that enveloped her. She pulled the throw from the back of the couch. I let that happen. She pulled her knees up and curled into a ball, wondering if she’d ever be warm again.
Sheva felt the energy of their coupling rocket through her body. She knew Mallory was upset, knew she wanted her to stay and talk things out, but that was the opposite of what Sheva needed. She had to get to her studio, to the clay, and re-create the image of Mallory arching off the bed. It was the perfect image for her next sculpture. Such a mix of passion and pain that it would blaze through in bronze when she had it finished. You wouldn’t be able to look at the figure without feeling that perfect moment. She knew exactly how to re-create it for the bronze casting later. It was burned into her mind and would stay until she perfected it. The clay model was a necessary stage in casting. She had to have the full visual guide for her final cast.
She unlocked the padlock and slid the door of her studio open. The light flared as she hit the switch, illuminating her perfect world. This was the only place she kept clay maquettes of her sculptures, models that included all their features, on a small scale. When she cast them in bronze, though, they were always anonymous, those specific features captured in the maquettes missing from the final product. There was nothing recognizable beyond the torso and hands.
She ignored the call of the maquettes and went straight to her worktable. She pulled out the wire form she had created in the image of Mallory’s body and manipulated it into the shape still dancing in her vision. She began to apply the clay in small spheres, then smooth them until the body became clear. With slip and time, she re-created the moment Mallory gave in to pleasure, the moment the pain hit her brain, the arch of her body. It was divine. Sheva was a god when she was at her craft. The power to capture these moments didn’t feel like it came from within. It was like her hands were directed by something outside of her. It was ecstasy in its most exquisite form.
As she watched the moment come to life in her hands, she felt her excitement mount, and as she ran the slip up and down the doll-sized model of Mallory, she came, harder and more completely than she ever could when having sex in the flesh. She collapsed over the table, spent and exhausted. This was going to be her best work yet.