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THE AFRICAN MASK GLOWED with the mysteries of its ancient past. As Sydney Mitchell tilted it back and forth, its smooth planes and carved surfaces alternately caught and reflected the glaring fluorescent lights. "Legend has it," she whispered, "this mask has the power to summon a god more adept at the art of lovemaking than any woman can imagine."
"Really?" Evelyn Dahl leaned farther over the table, appearing to salivate at the thought.
"It was made for a fierce warrior princess who, by law, was not allowed to lie with any mortal man while her tribe was at war." Though they were alone in the stark workroom of her Seattle art gallery, Sydney let her voice take on the animated inflections of a storyteller. "Now, I don't want you to think the warrior princess wasn't a passionate woman. She was. But she also realized the need to stay focused for battle." "She obviously needed her priorities adjusted," Evelyn added dryly.
"Her priorities were fine." Sydney scowled at her best friend. "The edict grew difficult to bear only after fighting with a neighboring tribe waged on for years."
"Years?" Evelyn muttered. "I should say so."
"Do you want to hear this story, or not?" Evelyn motioned zipping her lips.
"Where was I?" Sydney paused. "Oh, yeah. The tribe's medicine man, understanding the princess's predicament, took pity upon her and made her this mask. He told her if she wore it at night in the privacy of her hut, a god of love would come to pleasure her."
"Sounds pretty kinky to me." Evelyn pointed to the covered eye sockets on the mask. "She couldn't even see this love god."
"The medicine man said it was for herprotection. If she took off the mask and looked upon the face of the god, her eyes would explode, and she would die."
"Been there, done that."
"All right. I'll shut up."
"At first," Sydney went on, "it wasn't difEvelyn shook her head. "How do you make this stuff up?"
The answer to that question threw Sydney, threatening to ruin the pacing of her story. She didn't want to think about him, the man who'd changed her love of art history into a passion for antiquities. Or the way he'd whispered his own stories, some real, some fabricated, in the deepest, quietest part of night, his arms wrapped around her, his soft lips against her ear.
All at once, the ending to the story came to her, a weight in her mind as real as the mask lying heavy in her hand. "One night, after they'd made love with the greatest passion, the warrior princess simply had to gaze upon the face of her lover or die from despair. Die from looking, die from not looking." Sydney held out her hands as if weighing a matter of great importance. "The decision made, the warrior princess tore the mask from her face." She paused for effect.
"It was the medicine man," Evelyn said quickly.
"That old wrinkly thing?" Sydney chuckled.
"Who was it?"
Sydney grinned. "The ruling prince of the enemy tribe. he'd seen her in battle and yearned to possess her. So he struck a bargain with the medicine man in return for the promise of power if the enemy tribe eventually triumphed."
"What happened after she took off the mask?"
"The sight of the enemy prince filled her with rage. She took up her knife…and stabbed him through the heart."
Sydney nodded, satisfied. "Instantly."
"No happily ever after?" Evelyn huffed.
"No the warrior princess immediately regretted her angry outburst and in her despair thrust the knife into her own heart?"
"Nope." Sydney smiled. "In fact, with the prince gone, the warrior princess conquered the other tribe in no time. She went on to live a full and rich life without the love god."
Evelyn's mouth gaped open. "That's pathetic."
Sydney shrugged. "Don't like my stories, make up your own."
"You keep spinning bummer fairy tales like that and your sales are going to tank." Evelyn threw her arms wide. "And this business…crumbles at your feet."
From the glass–enclosed workroom they could see the entire front gallery filled with artifacts and antique furniture, as well as selections of contemporary art. Many of the pieces displayed some form of ancient symbol carvings, a testament to Sydney's expertise in glyphs.
"My clients love my stories. I have more sales than I can manage and antiquities are hot." Sydney set the African mask back into its protective mailing material. "Besides, everyone's definition of happily ever after is different."
"Well, yours is as traditional as it gets." Sydney grunted.
"And bitterness does not suit you at all."
"Sure it does. Ask my last date." "That was a year ago, and you know darned well he didn't mean it as a compliment." Evelyn drummed nails polished pink to match the exact shade of her lipstick. "You should get out more."
"What's the point?" Sydney closed the box on the African mask and readied the label for shipment. "You fall in love. You come to know that there's no one else on this earth for you but that one man. Then everything falls apart. You turn around one day, and he's gone."
"You can't blame every man for one man's mistakes."
"Oh, yeah?" Sydney pulled a strip of tape across the package and sealed it. "Watch me."
"Some men are solid as rocks," Evelyn said. "I met this really nice accountant. He's not my type, but for you—"
Sydney groaned. "Not another blind date castoff." She slapped the shipping labels onto the package and set it on a nearby counter. Fatigue settled on her shoulders, now tight from a full day of selecting vases, sculptures, furniture and other odds and ends for Evelyn's newest interior design client. "Let's get back to the O'Neill house. I thought of a series of paintings that might work for the dining room." She crossed to the far wall and flipped through her inventory.
The room grew quiet. Too quiet. Sydney glanced up. "What?"
Evelyn's normally carefree gaze had grown thoughtful, serious even. "He's never coming back, you know."
It was a good thing she owed Evelyn the world. Otherwise, Sydney might have ushered her best friend out the back door. As it was, Evelyn had been the first person Sydney had met stepping off that plane from Minnesota all those years ago. Sydney hadn't even known she was pregnant at the time. And when she did find out, Evelyn had been the only person to lend Sydney an attentive ear, a shoulder to blubber on, and a couch. Friends like that were hard to come by. Men like that, impossible.
"I never said I wanted him back," Sydney whispered.
"Look at your life. Don't you think it's time to move on?"
"If you mean forget, no way." Sydney may have been divorced for years, but not a day went by without her thinking of her exhusband. Most days were okay. Most days she only thought of him once, or twice. Other days were bad. Sometimes they were so bad that she'd go to bed thinking about him, wake up dreaming of him, and spend the day plagued with memories. Sometimes she thought her heart was healed, and other times she could feel it tightening in her chest, breaking into a million tiny pieces all over again.
Why? That was always the question. Maybe knowing why he'd left her would give her some measure of peace.
"I will never forget him, but I have moved on."
"I'm not talking about this gallery." Evelyn shook her head. "Sydney, you're throwing your prime years away. You deserve a companion. Someone special."
"I have someone special."
"A little boy isn't what I had in mind."
"We've been through this a hundred times." Sydney flipped through the artwork at breakneck speed. The sooner she found what she was looking for, the sooner she could get Evelyn out of the way. "You're not a mother, so I don't expect you to understand. But take this as a given. Trevor is my priority. Spending time with him is my life."
"I understand more than you think. What you don't see is that Trevor's getting older. He doesn't need you like he used to. Every time I come over with a date, he's all over the guy like jelly on peanut butter. He could use a little manly influence, if you ask me."
There was no doubt Trevor attached easily. He was such a trusting, giving child. All the more reason to shelter him. "The last thing he needs is a parade of men traipsing in and out of our lives." Sydney went back to the inventory of paintings. "Here it is." She pulled out the folder and gently laid the first painting on the table. "What do you think?"
"I think the real question is are you protecting Trevor—or yourself?" Evelyn paused.
"Don't you want to know his name—"
"Blind date discussion's over." Sydney cut her off. "This is your newest, biggest client. Everything needs to be perfect. So what do you think of this painting?" She did her best to appear bright and cheerful. Resolved.
"All right. I give up." Evelyn released a long sigh. "The painting is marvelous. Let me see the rest in the series."
"I think I have three others." Sydney went back to flipping through her inventory.
The echo of their argument had barely settled when a soft chime announced the front door opening. Sydney looked up to see a man, one–hundred–plus feet away, stepping into her warehouse–styled gallery.