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A grating roar cut through the quiet, startling the silver-haired woman in a peach suit and pillbox hat who'd stopped to peer in the gallery window. With an aghast look at the black-leather-clad man pulling up on a large motorcycle behind her, she hurried off under the graceful arches of the palmettos lining the narrow street.
Althea sighed for the lost opportunity. Not that she could make people open their tight pocketbooks and invest in artespecially with the economic downturnbut it felt as though few customers even walked into the gallery these days. More often than not, she sat alone with the lovely watercolors hanging in silent elegance, quietly nursing the desperation to somehow keep this dream from shattering too.
Motorcycle guy cut the engine, pulled off his helmet, shook out tousled dark hair and extracted a telltale portfolio from saddlebags on the back of the bike.
Just what she needed todayanother wannabe artist thinking that getting to show in a gallery in Charleston's historic district was the ticket to success. Numbers didn't lie. Certainly her accounts told a different tale.
Failure, the totals whispered. Fail fail fail.
Closing her laptop with a snap, she slid it into the drawer of the fragile antique desk and smoothed her chignon. She timed it well. Just as motorcycle guy strode in the door, opening it forcefully enough that the little bell clanged instead of tinkling, Althea was self-possessed and calm, ready to send the aspiring artist on his way. She would make it quick and painless as possible. Like ripping off a Band-Aid.
After all, she knew how that kind of rejection felt.
"Althea Grant. Welcome to Chalkstone Gallery."
He shook her hand with calloused fingers, sizing her up with a flick of his brown eyes. He wore a motorcycle jacket, faded jeans and black leather over them, like a cowboy wouldand they framed his crotch in a most disconcerting way. Althea averted her eyes, feeling the embarrassed flush stain her cheeks.
"I'm Steel. Your girl, Cheri, told me to come by, show you my stuff."
A giddy giggle rose up in her throat at that and she tamped it down, determinedly meeting the man's eyes. His rough-stubbled chin implied he might be as hungover as her assistant had claimed to be when she called in sick. Or maybe he always looked like that. Cheri might have mentioned that she'd sent a wannabe over. Likely she'd been hitting on the guy and had forgotten all about it in her morning-after misery.
"Well, Mr. Steel. I'm afraid that Cheri"
She paused, resisting the urge to wipe her damp palms on her silk skirt. "Excuse me?"
"Not Mr. Steel. Just plain Steel."
A smile stretched at her lips, not a polite one. This guy was a piece of work. "Just Steel? Like Sting or Madonna?"
His brows lowered and he narrowed his eyes at her, rocking back on his boot heels. "Or Elvis."
"Even Elvis had a last name."
A brief, uncomfortable moment strained between them. Althea clasped her hands together. "Regardless, I'm sorry to have wasted your time. The gallery isn't taking on new artists at this time." She plucked a card from the scrolled holder on her desk. "However, if you'd like to take my card..."
He took it but studied her. "Your hair is the most remarkable color."
Self-consciously, she put a hand to it. Dropped it.
"It's nearly a pure white. Almost colorless," he continued. His rough fingers twitched on the binder he carried. An artist's reflex she'd seen hundreds of times.