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"Desi, Carl Hampton is here to see you. He said he wanted to check on the progress of your paintings for the exhibit. I told him you were busy."
Desiree Armstrong sighed loudly and mumbled a curse under her breath. With great reluctance she put her paintbrush down and turned to her assistant.
"Thanks, Cynthia." She wiped her hands on her once-upon-a-time white smock that was now mottled in an array of rainbow colors. "One of these days I'm going to make enough money to host my own exhibition. Sponsors seem to have this crazy notion that the artist has nothing better to do than be at their beck and call." She stood and rolled her stiff shoulders. "How does he ever expect me to finish my work for the show if he 'drops by to see my progress' every fifteen minutes?"
They both laughed.
"Tell him I'll be right down. Let me get cleaned up and make myself semi-presentable."
"Hey, take your time. If he really wants to see you, he'll just have to wait, now, won't he?"
"You got that right."
Cynthia turned to leave the studio, her waist-length, honey-blond hair swinging behind her.
Desiree smiled as she headed toward the industrial sink set off to the right side of the studio loft. She and Cynthia had hooked up and become fast friends when Desiree was teaching an art course at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Cynthia had a keen eye for what was good and what wasn't, but her artistic talents stopped cold right there. But rather than leave a profession she loved, she signed on as Desiree's assistant and they'd been together ever since. That was five years ago, a time when Desiree desperately needed a friend. A time when she was struggling with the reality that Lincoln Davenport, the man she'd given her heart to, would never be hers. With her best friend and soror Rachel Givens heavily involved in her own life and love, Cynthia proved that she could be the ear and the shoulder Desiree needed.
Lincoln. Funny, she hadn't thought of him in at least a week, in some form or the other. She turned on the water full blast and grabbed a bar of brown soap. That was a good sign, she thought as she briskly washed her hands with the precision of a surgeon. Maybe soon she could say two weeks, then three, and finally never.
She dried her hands on the towel hanging from a nail by the sink, pulled the smock over her head and smoothed out her badly wrinkled denim shirt. "Too bad." She tsked and marched downstairs into the intimate gallery that bore her name. She put on her best smile when Carl turned to greet her.
"Desiree, so sorry to tear you away from your work."
"Hmm. How are you, Carl?"
"Anxious." He grinned. "The show is only a couple of months away. I simply wanted to check on my investment."
Desiree placed a hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side. "Carl, you know I really appreciate your support. There is no way that I would be able to host a show myself. But.."
"But what?" He stepped closer and the scent of his cologne wafted around her like a morning mistclinging.
Briefly she lowered her head, then looked him straight in the eye. "The thing is, Carl, the more you stop by, the longer it takes me to get finished. I have seven more paintings to complete. I need the time to concentrate. I can't do that if I am interrupted."
He reached out and stroked her chin with the tip of his index finger. Desiree struggled not to recoil.
"I would think that a few moments of your time with me would be worth it. After all, we are partners, Desiree."
The last thing she wanted to hear today was that, without him, the exhibit wouldn't be possible. Something nasty was right on the tip of her tongue when the bell over the door rang. "Excuse me, Carl, I have a customer."
Carl clasped her arm, halting her departure. "Why don't you let Cynthia get it? That's what she's paid for, isn't it?"
"So am I," she said and walked away.
His eyes narrowed as he watched her charm the woman who'd come in, talking and laughing as if they were old friends. Carl slid his hands into the pants pockets of his imported Italian suit, then leaned against a counter and monitored the exchange. Everything about Desiree Armstrong was a work of art, from the soft spirals of her hair to the slender figure that even a model would envy, the eyes that danced with images that only she could see and skin reminiscent of the finest brandy and just as tempting to look at. There was no need for him to "check on" her progress. If he knew nothing else about Desiree it was that she was the consummate professional, dedicated to her craft with a single-mindedness that was almost frightening to watch. Yet, it was the only excuse he could fathom to bring him to her door and into her presence. He was certain that with time and money, she would be his. He was a patient and very wealthy man.
* * *
While Desiree talked to her client as they walked around the shop, she silently prayed that Carl would get tired of waiting and leave. Every day she regretted having signed the agreement allowing him to sponsor her exhibit. She'd always prided herself on being her own woman, not beholden to anyone or anything but her craft. But the sagging economy had made it extremely difficult for anyone trying to survive in the arts. If it had not been for Carl she would have lost her studio, her gallery such as it was and any chance of having her own show. Now she was stuck and it was growing more apparent by the day that Carl wanted much more from her than a few of her etchings.
"Thank you for your business, Ms. McKay. I can have the piece sent to your home if you wish."
"No, that won't be necessary."
"Cash or charge?"
"Cash," said Ms. McKay. She pulled out her wallet. "But I'd really appreciate it if you could wrap it really pretty. It's a gift for my daughter. She's moving into her first apartment."
Desiree reached beneath the counter and pulled out a roll of gold foil wrapping paper. "That must be exciting," she said.
"Exciting for her, but sad for me. I have a bad case of empty-nest syndrome already." She laughed lightly.
"You'll be fine. Living in New York, you'll find plenty to keep you busy. Before you know it, you'll be redecorating her room!"
"I'll keep that in mind," she said, taking the wrapped parcel and another look around. "Thanks so much. Maybe I'll stop in again."
"Please do. And feel free to bring friends."
She smiled. "I certainly will." She glanced at the countertop and noticed the oversized postcard. "Oh, a gallery exhibit."
"Yes. Mine," Desiree said. "Late September."
Ms. McKay picked up the card and tucked it in her purse. "I'll put it on my calendar."
"Bring friends," Desiree called out as the woman left. She took a breath and silently prayed that Carl would be preparing to leave. But upon looking in his direction she realized her prayer had gone unanswered. She put her smile in place and walked over to where he stood.
"I really need to get back in the studio and try to finish up, Carl."
"Wouldn't you like some company?"
"That wouldn't be a good idea."
He cleared his throat. "Well, you have to eat sometime. Why don't I come by about eight and we can"
"Carl." She held her palms up. "Look, I really appreciate everything that you're doing for me with this exhibit. I really do. But all we have is a business arrangement. Nothing more. And when these paintings sell, I'll pay you back every dime that you invested."
"I don't want your money, Desiree. I thought I made that clear."
She raised her chin. "Unfortunately, Carl, that's all I can offer you."
"Desi! Telephone," Cynthia called out from the front desk.
"Thanks. I'll be right there." She turned back to Carl. "I really have to go."
"Fine. But this isn't finished, Desiree. As you may have gathered by now, I'm a very determined man." With that he turned and walked out.
Desiree let out a sigh and headed toward the front desk. "Who's on the phone?"
"No one. You looked like you needed rescuing. I dialed the front desk from my cell phone."
Desiree shook her head and laughed. "Thanks. Look, I'm going back up to see if I can get my head back into what I was doing. Close up when you're done."
"Sure. I'll see you tomorrow. Need anything before I go? Want me to order some food?"
"Hmm, no, thanks. Maybe I'll order something later. See ya."