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It didn't exist in every person who graced the earth, Diego suspected. Only a handful truly knew what it meant to live their lives with such intensity. In the five hundred years since a vampire's kiss had turned him into an immortal, Diego had surrounded himself with artists and others who lived life to the fullest. Who lived life with passion.
Ramona Escobar was such a person, Diego decided as he looked over the latest work she had done.
As he strolled back and forth in front of the six paintings, the vibrant colors called to him, as did the amazing movement and life splashed across the canvases. Beneath it all shimmered the sensuality of the scenes Ramona had depicted in her worksa study of men and women in various stages of making love.
He considered how to best display these paintings in his gallery. He had no doubt he would do so, since they were as wonderful as the others Ramona had done over the years, except
A yearning existed in these works he hadn't seen before. A need that connected to something deep within him. He had to take a shaky breath to quell the desire that rose in him as he perused one piece. He was sure other people would feel the same and that the paintings would fetch a good price. Possibly an immense price. Thanks to the many centuries he had mingled with the artsy set, he knew how to recognize talent.
"These are wonderful," he said.
Petite and slender, Ramona stood beside him, wiping paint off her hands with a rag.
"Do you think so?" she asked, clearly uncertain. He wondered, as he had more than once during the half-dozen years he'd known her, about the kind of woman she was. One with passion mixed withequal parts humility and doubt. She had matured since the day he had met her, during her final year of art school. He had been intrigued back then by the young, tough ragamuffin with so much talent, but little ego.
But then again, had she been a braggadocio like some other artists he had encountered, he doubted their professional relationship would have lasted this long. Diego did not suffer fools or braggarts. They reminded him too much of how he had been before beginning his eternal life.
Driving that thought from his mind, he said, "Truly unique. They will sell well."
"Que bueno. When do you think you can show them?" She continued wiping her hands with the cloth, the gesture telling.
Diego laid his hand over hers. Her fingers were cold, which worried him. "Is something wrong, amiga? If it's money"
"I know you would give it to me. It's nothing, really," Ramona said, and looked up at Diego's remarkable face.
He was so handsome and so honorable. When she had first met him, she had been struck by his elegance and beauty. In the many years they had known each another, he had always done right by her, showing her that his beauty went far beyond his physical attributes. He would do right by her this time, as well.
"I'm fine. Let me know when you want to do the show." She hoped to finish raising the money she needed to care for her mother.
He stroked her hand once again in a gentle gesture, and, unnerved by his touch, because it made her think of things that weren't possible, she walked away from him. At the table holding her paints and brushes, she set down the cloth.
Diego glanced at the paintings once more before striding toward her. As always, he was impeccably dressed, in a suit that emphasized his broad shoulders and narrow waist. The blue silk brought out the color of his intense ice-blue eyes.
When he stood before her, he tossed his head, sending the longish strands of his artfully highlighted, nutmeg-brown hair back, which emphasized the strong lines of his pale face.
Ramona had always been intrigued by his looks, a product of the Celtic roots in his part of Spain. A Gallego to the core, he would often tease her when she mentioned her own mixed heritagepart cubana, part Newyorican and part Irish. The only thing they had in common was a bit of the Celt.
Not to mention that no one had to tell her Diego had known wealth all his life. He had the easy confidence of a man who had never experienced true want.
She on the other hand had known nothing but want since the death of her father, and her mother's illness. And of course, her own illness now.
Ramona was a hard-luck gal, with the hardest luck of all to facethe possibility that she might soon die.
She hadn't said anything to anyone. Not that she had anyone to say it to, she thought sadly as Diego bent and hugged her. Returning the embrace, she imagined it being more than friendly.
She was shocked when he turned, brushed a kiss across her cheek and whispered, "I'm here if you need me."
At first it had been just business between them, which slowly developed into friendship over the last six or so years. But beneath it all, even from the first, there had been awareness of him as a mana very attractive man. She had kept her distance, however, knowing of his involvement with Esperanza. But Esperanza had been dead for over a year now.
Ramona reached up and cradled his cheek, brushed her thumb across his lips. Those fine, full lips she had captured forever on the canvas. Had he seen that in the paintings? she wondered. Had he seen that it was him being loved by the stroke of her brush?
"I know, Diego. I'm fine. Really," she replied, but eased out of his embrace. It would be unfair to both of them to head down a road that could bring nothing but pain.
His mouth tightened at her withdrawal, but then he promised to call her later that afternoon about the dates for her show.
"The sooner the better, so I can see Mami," she reminded him.
Her mami was too ill to go out alone anymore, which was why Ramona was in a rush to hold the show. Together with the money she had made from creating some copies for millionaire recluse Frederick van Winter, a good exhibit would help her earn enough to hire care for her mother well after Ramona was gone.
She just had to hold on a little longer, she told herself as she walked Diego to the door and let him out of her loft.
She was feeling the weakness that came when she overextended herself. It was time to rest. Soon she would be even too frail to paint, and when that happened
Without her beloved art, maybe she would be better off dead.
Diego flipped the pages of his calendar, trying to find a slot where he could have a showing of Ramona's paintings.
Fortunately for him, business had been good lately and he had few days available. Unfortunate for Ramona, however. He had gotten the sense that she desperately needed the showing. Maybe money was tight again, he thought, remembering that Ramona's mother had been ill and her care might be a financial drain on the struggling artist.
Although she'd taken advances from him in the past, she had always repaid them from her sales, not that he had asked for repayment.
Centuries of life had made it possible for him to amass quite a fortune. He really had no need of this gallery, but art had always fascinated him. Bored with an eternal existence of doing nothing, he had opened this shop nearly ten years ago after the suicide of a promising young artist he had known. The artist's death had awakened the art world, making him famous posthumously and convincing Diego that he wanted to become a patron of the arts and prevent similar fates for others. He loved the passion and life of the artists. Loved discovering someone who might be the next VelÃ¡zquez, Goya, Manet or Picasso, all gentlemen he had been lucky enough to meet thanks to his vampire existence.
Then there were the many parties he was able to host when he did a showing. They reminded him of the days before his wife's betrayal, when he'd held such fetes at his estate, many times for an artist whom he had commissioned to do a work for him.
Not to mention that gathering with so many mortals let him make believe for a moment that he was like them. That he was still human.
Human like Ramona, he thought, recalling their embrace earlier that day and the sense of rightness he had felt. The desire that had arisen as he smelled her skin and felt her hair against his face.
All wrong sensations, Diego reminded himself. After his wife's betrayal he had vowed never to let another beautiful face fool him.
Not to mention that Ramona was mortal, and developing any feelings for her would only lead to pain. He couldn't deal with that right now. He had barely recovered from the grief of Esperanza's passing, the woman to whom he had been faithful for five hundred years.
Searching through the schedule once more, he realized there were no openings for at least another two months.
Recalling Ramona's face that morning, he knew she couldn't wait.
He picked up the phone and dialed. As the man answered, he said, "Julio, I've got a favor to ask "
Ramona couldn't believe her luck. A last-minute problem with another painter had allowed Diego to schedule her showing in a little over a week.
She slept well that night for the first time in months, which left her feeling so refreshed, she decided to give herself a treat. She would go to the auction house for a final viewing of the masterpieces Mr. van Winter was selling off.
She applauded his generosity in donating the funds raised from the sale to the charitable organization his family had founded so many centuries earlier. The van Winter Foundation aided many different causes. In fact, part of her college scholarship had come from a small donation the foundation had made to her art school.
It must have been a difficult decision to donate such amazing works of art. Despite that, Ramona had been slightly troubled by the reclusive millionaire's desire to have copies of the famous works.
She didn't know how he had gotten her name. She only knew that she had been recommended to him as someone with the skills to create worthy imitations of the masterpieces. Despite her misgivings, the money he had offered was more than she could turn down, given her current situation.
She had accepted the job and spent nearly six months painfully and painstakingly recreating the works of the masters.
It had been inspiring to be in the company of such genius. Maybe that was why her latest paintings were so amazing. So filled with passion and yearning.
Or maybe it was something inside of her, calling her to lay her heart on the canvas so that when she passed, someone might know that she had existed. That she had been filled with love, but hadn't found anyone to share it with.
Before she let that thought go where it shouldn't, she showered, dressed and headed to the auction house for a last glimpse of the paintings. She didn't regret paying the money to enter the exhibit and see them, only
Dios mio, this couldn't be right, she thought as she stared at the works on display for the world to see. Three supposed masterpieces, but the longer she stared at them, the more it became obvious that it was her brushstrokes on the canvases. As careful as she had been to recreate those of the masters, an artist always recognized her own work.
Maybe it was a mistake, she thought as she went from painting to painting and carefully examined them for any trace that would tell her they hadn't been done by Ramona Escobar, a mutt of dubious origins with no claim to fame in the art world.
But as she lingered before each painting, scrutinizing every line, loitering over each shadow and color, she realized this was her work being shown. These were her copies and not the originals. And each had been signed with the name of the original artistsomething she had not done because of her niggling doubt. In her mind, and possibly that of others, signing them might seem as if she intended to pass them off as the originals.
She hadn't realized how long she had stood there until one of the guards from the auction house came up to her.
"Miss, are you okay? You look a little pale." Ramona's stomach roiled with anxiety. She placed a hand there to quell its nervous motion.
"Thank you. I'm fine. Just a little overwhelmed by their beauty," she said, and glanced at her watch, finally realizing that she had been there for several hours.
The old man smiled at her and nodded. "They are amazing, aren't they? Mr. van Winter was so kind to donate them to his foundation."
"Yes, very kind," she said, although in her heart she was beginning to question his generosity and intent.