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"Azure, I'm serious. I don't know how you do it, but I can't function properly if I'm not getting some on the regular. It's like food, drugs or something,"Yante testified emphatically.
"It is not that serious, Yante." Azure laughed.
"Humph, maybe to somebody like you who's not getting any. But the rest of the free world would agree with me."
Azure shook her head, knowing that it was pointless to argue with Yante, who was now snapping her fingers to the new Anita Baker tune, which issued softly from the speakers mounted on the gallery's walls.
"Whatever. Hand me that white spray bottle over there," Azure said, pointing toward the floor next to the stool where Yante was perched. "You could make yourself useful and help me with these."
Azure was standing on a step stool in front of a thirty-eight-by-thirty hand-embellished painting titled Among Friends, by Essud Fungcap. She had been in the middle of her daily ritual of dusting the three dozen paintings on display in the gallery and polishing their frames when Yante had dropped by and begun talking like a cat in heat.
Monroe Galleries was not simply a business for Azure -- it was a dream come true. The small sole proprietorship located in the heart of Dupont Circle in the nation's capital city was her slice of heaven. Dupont Circle was home to ahost of fine museums, ethnic restaurants -- where one could find as many types of food as there are cultures represented in the country -- and bookstores offering something for every reading palate. The largest concentration of private art galleries was located in the circle, and in that number was Monroe Galleries, Inc. They each showcased a different style of art and artist, with some specializing in the early Renaissance period and others featuring a more modern selection. Azure preferred to offer a wide range of art by Africans of the diaspora, all from various periods in history. Within its compact nine hundred and fifty square feet, surrounded by works of sublime grace, she was able to be just herself -- Azure Monroe, lover and worshipper of the arts. Being an entrepreneur meant that she set her own hours and answered only to herself. Selling art was the piece that made the puzzle of her life fit together. The periods of the day, especially early in the morning before the door chimes rang out to signal the arrival of her first customer, when she reviewed inventory, organized new arrivals and placed orders, were the most peaceful times for her, her mind occupied by the business of running her gallery. Equally as enjoyable were the afternoons, when customers trickled in to shop or just to look around and admire the paintings on display. She loved every opportunity to discuss artists, varieties of styles and motifs. For Azure, this gallery was far from work. It was home.
"If I had wanted to work, I would have stayed at the hotel," Yante said, picking a piece of lint from the lapel of the peach Barami suit that hugged her voluptuous size-eight frame sinfully. She smoothed her toned, stockinged thighs, sighing lazily when she realized that Azure was staring at her, one hand on her hip and the other extended as she waited for the bottle.
"Here," Yante said, pouting as she thrust the solution into Azure's outstretched hand.
"Thank you." Azure smirked.
"Really, Ashes, you need to get out of this gallery sometime. Maybe meet yourself a nice guy...someone who could put some loving on you that would make you see there is more to life than selling paintings all day."
Yante Lourde was beautiful; there was no denying that. Growing up, Azure had always been slightly envious of her. She had smooth, blemish-free skin and thick, natural hair which had never been chemically treated. By the time she entered her teens, she was curvaceous and graceful, which Azure was not. Yante had been ladylike before she'd even become a woman. She was always at ease around boys and later men, self-assured and confident. Azure had learned much of what she knew about the opposite sex from Yante. She watched her, emulated her and sometimes wanted to be her.
The most attractive thing about Yante, however, was her sincerity. One could never be confused about where one stood with her because she was never fake or ambivalent about her likes or dislikes. If someone did something to her that she didn't like, she made it known. She was never cruel or malicious, but she did not take stuff off anyone. The one thing which Azure found most irritating about Yante, however, was her annoying habit of trying to run her cousin's life.
"Why are you always trying to get me hooked up? I would think you'd want to keep all of D.C.'s available men for yourself," Azure teased.
"Oh, honey, please. You couldn't handle the tigers I snag. No, you need something more along the PG line."
"What I need is for you to go back to work and leave me alone," Azure replied.
She climbed off the ladder and stepped back to admire the canvas. No matter how many times a day she looked at that painting, it always brought a smile to her face. The soothing colors and its casualness made her feel warm and cozy. It reminded her of the home of her aunts Jeannie and Janet, her father's older sisters. They were twins who had lived together all of their lives, finishing one another's sentences, one an extension of the other. Those women doted on Azure, making her feel more loved and nurtured than her own mother had ever managed to do. When Aunt Jeannie had been diagnosed with cancer, it was almost as if it didn't faze either of them because they had each other. The disease progressed rapidly and within six months she'd lost the fight. Ironically, exactly six months later, Aunt Janet had passed away in her sleep. After a brief separation in which Aunt Janet seemed to age faster than she had in her whole life, the twins were together once more.
Azure ran her hand through her medium-length cherry-tinted hair, noting that she was close to being due for a touch-up. She'd call her stylist, Michelle, later on and make an appointment. Secretly, Azure had been toying with the idea of shaving her head completely bald, tired of the processing with chemicals that burned, the coloring which stained her scalp and the weekly wash and sets. She'd been wearing a bob for the past few months, which also meant a bimonthly trim to keep the style. Hair maintenance had become a hassle she could definitely live without. It all seemed so unnatural, and she felt as though it wasn't the person she truly was inside -- although she couldn't quite put her finger on who that person actually was. She'd come close to taking that leap to shaving her head, but realized that her mother would probably drop dead on sighting her, certain that Azure had done it just to torture her further. Furthermore, Yante would take the act as proof of her simmering suspicion that Azure was a card-carrying, bra-burning lesbian feminist. For the life of her, Azure never could understand why black women placed so much value on something as insignificant as hair.
Lost in her own thoughts, Azure tuned out Yante"s current lecture on life, love and lust. Just as she turned to ask her what she had been saying, the chimes over the gallery's door signaled the arrival of a customer. The tail end of Yante"s latest admonishment was carried off into the stratosphere as both women turned toward the door and laid eyes on an apparition from heaven.
At just under six feet tall, Amir Swift was breathtaking. Azure regarded him with uncharacteristic interest, his smooth skin bringing to mind a mug of warm buttermilk. Thick, sun-kissed lips wore a half smile as he introduced himself; he was an African Adonis. Azure found his bold features, his powerful nose and high, defined cheekbones positioned ever so perfectly on a slender face all incredibly sexy. His light dusty-brown hair was laid in long dread-locks that hung down to the center of his back and were tied back away from his face with a black band. Unable to find a physical comparison between him and any man either Azure or Yante had ever seen, they stood frozen, summarily blown away.
Yante recovered quickly, sashaying her way to the front of the gallery. Despite the fact that she neither worked there nor knew anything of value about art, she was quick to offer to assist this finely chiseled patron of the arts. Amir informed Yante that he was looking for a painting for his sister, a housewarming present of sorts, and Yante proceeded to show him around the gallery.
Azure almost burst out laughing as she listened to Yante"s ridiculous interpretation of an Annie Lee print. Her answers to Amir's questions were limited to the brief descriptions typed on the placards beneath each painting. Within minutes Yante"s ineptness became evident, and Amir turned to Azure with an imploring look. She wanted to respond, even imagined herself responding, but unfortunately, her feet had grown roots and she couldn't figure out how to move from the spot she seemed to be glued to. She became a mess of jumbled nerves; her stomach felt like a train wreck about to happen. Never in all of her twenty-four years, eleven months and thirteen days had she had feelings as overwhelming and all-encompassing as these, and she was at once astonished and embarrassed.
Finally, Azure forced herself into motion. She approached Amir, stopping within two feet of him, and was immediately lost in the pools of his gray eyes, speckled with brown, as they smiled openly into her own. Breathlessness took over, the spacious gallery suddenly as restrictive as a closet as his eyes held her captive like a fly caught in a spider's web. Unwillingly, and at great length, Azure broke the spell and with tremendous effort assumed a more professional stance. She wasted no time helping Amir to select a painting, giving him detailed descriptions based on the type of work he thought he wanted to purchase. She was unnerved by him and extremely eager to send him on his way.
It seemed his sister was a connoisseur of African-American history and was deeply interested in art which was reflective of that. He told them that she had done her college thesis on the black experience in America. The painting he eventually purchased, at Azure's suggestion, was Daybreak -- A Time to Rest, the first part in a pricey series by Jacob Lawrence telling the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Azure was taken by surprise when Amir paid for the painting in cash, with large bills.
Azure admired the smoothness of his penmanship as he filled out the sales register and mailing list which she asked all customers to complete. Even his name, Amir Swift, was as strong and commanding as the man who carried it.
While Azure clumsily wrapped the painting, still too much on edge to control her shaking, sweating hands, Yante launched into flirtation overdrive. Amir's polite, engaging manner served to spur her on, inviting compliments on everything from his hair to his shoes to roll off her tongue. Azure listened intently as Amir remained as cool as a cup of flavored shaved ice in the summertime, taking it all in stride as if he experienced this type of adoration every day of his life. Before leaving, he extended a hand to Azure, wrapping strong, smooth fingers around hers and thanking her again for her assistance. From his jacket pocket he retrieved two passes for a club opening that night, insisting that both ladies come as his guests. Amir Swift's scent and aura lingered around the gallery for a long time after the door chimes rang out behind him.
Excerpted from Love's Portrait by Kim Shaw Copyright © 2006 by Kim Shaw. Excerpted by permission.
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