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New York City
Pale sunlight streamed through the huge windows of the gallery. Chastain Thibodaux looked at the winter sky and frowned. "I don't know why the sun bothers to shine when it's this cold," she said grumpily. Her assistant, Mona Morgan, was checking the order of the paintings that were waiting to be hung. She looked up from her clipboard and laughed.
"You act like it's never cold in France. We had lots of cold weather there as you well know. Snow and all."
Chastain sat down on a stool that was near the entrance. "Yes, but it was French snow. Very chic, chérie. Lulu looked fabulous in her little red coat, didn't you?" she said, directing her remark to her West Highland white terrier that was busily sniffing every corner of the gallery.
"And she'll look just as cute right here in Harlem," Mona replied. "You're not sorry that you left Paris, are you?"
Chastain looked away pensively before she answered. "No. Three years was enough. I loved living in Europe, but I was ready to come home. I missed my family and I missed the States. I had an absentee ballot. But imagine what it would have been like being here for the presidential election," she said. "We missed so much being in Europe while the election was taking place. Seeing it on TV wasn't the same. I must admit that President Obama's election is one of the reasons I was so glad to come back. And I loved living in New York when I was here before. It's one of my favorite places in the world besides N'awlins." She looked out the window at the pale sun again. "I just wish it was spring already."
"Are you crazy? Christmas in New York is like a fantasy! This is the best time of year to be here," Mona protested.
"If you say so. Just wait until you're trying to get home during rush hour and your feet are soaking wet and freezing and you can't get a cab to save your life. Then see how swell it is." Chastain stood up and stretched her body like a cat. "But I'm not going to lie. I do love this city."
"Then I'll have to make you want to stay forever."
David Llewellyn's voice interrupted their conversation from the back of the gallery. The owner of the art gallery, he was tall, dark and very handsome. He had been one of Chastain's professors in graduate school and they'd been close friends ever since. When her three-year fellowship ended, he'd urged her to come to New York and have her first big showing at Studio L, his highly regarded gallery in Harlem.
Chastain gave him a sweet smile. "Make me want to stay forever? How do you plan to do that?"
He was standing in front of her and returned her smile with one of his own that made him even more handsome. With his dimples showing, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. "I can't tell you. But I can show you if you give me a chance."
Whatever flirtatious answer she was about to give vanished as Lulu lunged at David. She stood up and barked to get his attention, which made him laugh. "First thing on my list is to make friends with your dog. Isn't that the way to get to your mistress, little girl?"
Chastain and Mona rolled their eyes. "You don't have to charm her, David. Lulu's a sucker for men, all men. She's been following your manager around all morning. Just a regular little trollop, if you ask me," Mona said. "Get your leash and I'll take you for a walk, Lulu."
Lulu dashed off and brought back the leash, but she dropped it on David's feet and looked up at him with love in her eyes.
"See? A total trollop," Mona said fondly.
"Well, how can I resist such a delightful invitation? I'll take her for a stroll and then I'll take you to lunch. How does that sound?"
"Perfect," Chastain answered. "As long as we can go to that chicken and waffles place."
Mona watched David and Lulu leave, and then she turned to Chastain. "You've been holding out on me," she said in a low voice. Veronica, the gallery's receptionist, was within earshot and Mona was trying to be discreet.
Chastain looked at her with amusement. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Come on upstairs with me."
Once they were safely out of earshot of Veronica, the sales staff and the manager of the gallery, James Steffney, Mona chided her boss.
"You've been holding out on me. I just got a really good look at Mr. David Llewellyn and he's much better looking than any professor I ever met, so drop the act. He's your new man, isn't he?"
Chastain had to laugh. She almost hated to disappoint Mona, but the truth was just not that interesting.
"Girl, you are obsessed! You're worse than my BFF Paris Deveraux who's the biggest matchmaker I know. I told you, he was my professor and mentor when I was working on my master's. We became good friends, nothing else. When he came to France last year he invited me to have a showing here in New York when I finished my project. So don't go reading more into the situation than there is," Chastain said pointedly.
Mona pushed her long, curly hair behind one ear. "I hear what you're saying, but I also see how he looks at you. I also hear how he talks to you. And trust me, none of my friends react to me like that. He gave us this upstairs apartment to live in while we're here, and as far as I know that's very unusual. That place could rent for a few thou a month, easy. Doesn't that seem a little more than friendly to you?"
"I'm going to ignore you," Chastain replied. "Give your overactive imagination a rest," she added as she headed toward the bedroom.
"You can run, but you can't hide," Mona shouted after her. "I won't be denied vital information. Inquiring minds have to know."
Chastain shook her head. She would admit that lending her the apartment was extra nice of David. It was a beautiful space that was furnished like a design show house. The furniture was mid-century modern and the colors were soft neutrals with pops of bright color. It was extremely generous of David to suggest that she and Mona stay there while her work was being shown, especially since it would go from December 1 through the end of February.
She went into the large bathroom and surveyed herself in the mirror on the wall behind the counter. Turning on the faucet above the clear glass bowl pedestal sink, she quickly brushed her teeth and washed her hands, then patted her face with a damp washcloth. After working all morning, she should have been at least slightly disheveled, but she was immaculate, as always. She was wearing black wool Capri pants, black ballet slippers and a bronze cashmere cardigan trimmed with little copper beads. She had the sweater on backward so the V-neck showed off an enticing but modest glimpse of her back. She changed into long pants and ankle boots because of the cold weather. Growing up in New Orleans, she enjoyed the chilly temperatures but she never quite adjusted to them.
She heard the sound of the elevator descending to the first floor. David was coming upstairs to deliver Lulu and collect Chastain.
Mona waved at her and said, "Bring me a doggie bag, please."
"Don't be ridiculous. You're coming, too."
"Chastain, here's your baby safe and sound," David said. "She was a perfect lady on our walk."
"Were you a good girl? Then you get a treat." Lulu ran to her crate and was waiting for her when she came in with Pup-peronis in hand.
"I'll be back soon," Chastain promised. She got her coat and joined David and Mona in the living room. "Okay, David, I think we're ready to go. I'm famished."
In a short while they were seated in Sylvia's Restaurant, one of New York's soul food landmarks. Chastain knew she wouldn't have any complaints about the food at Sylvia's. She had eaten there many times in the past. Mona was sipping sweet tea and looking around appreciatively. Chastain was sticking to hot coffee, insisting that she needed the warmth.
David looked at Mona appraisingly. "So are you related to Chastain?" he asked.
Both women shook their heads. "I have about nine thousand cousins, but Monie isn't one of them. And I'm an only child, remember?"
"Of course I do. Believe it or not, I remember everything you've ever shared with me," he said smoothly. "But I don't think you told me how you two met."
Chastain winced as she felt a little kick from Mona under the table. She ignored it and began speaking. "We met at a Biedermeier exhibit at the Louvre. Then we kept bumping into each other at different galleries and she took a class that I was teaching and that's how we became friends. So when you made the generous offer to show my paintings, I needed an assistant and she volunteered to help," Chastain added.
"Volunteered? Stalked is more like it. I followed her around, brought her coffee and croissants, and made a pest of myself until she said she would hire me. I had just finished my studies at Sorbonne and I needed a break. So I'm working for a while until I decide whether to get a doctorate or a job," Mona said cheerfully. "And the only other alternative was to go back to D.C. and be my father's hostess until I could prove I could support myself, so I am totally happy. I love my dad, but a woman's got to be on her own sometime," she added.
The subject changed when the food arrived. "Are you ready for your interview tomorrow?" David asked.
Chastain made a little face. "Yes, I am. I'm still not sure why anybody wants to interview me, but I'm game."
David had contacts everywhere and Chastain was booked for radio, newspaper and magazine interviews. She'd been interviewed before, when she won the fellowship that sent her to Paris, and in fact had very favorable press coverage while she was there. It was David's opinion that she was a natural in front of the camera and the microphone, and he told her so.
"You're beautiful, brilliant, elegant and thoroughly charming, and anyone who meets you is enriched by the experience. Besides, you're about to blow up in a major way. It's called taking the art world by storm. Just relax and get used to it, Chastain."
When she was younger, Chastain would have turned purple with embarrassment and used her self-deprecating humor to deflect his words. Now she just thanked him in a low, sultry voice that brought another kick from Mona.
They finished their meals with pleasant chitchat and Mona and David watched in amazement while Chastain consumed a large serving of peach cobbler. "Where do you put all that food?" Mona said in consternation. "I'm about a dumpling away from Lane Bryant and you pack it in like a sumo wrestler but you weigh less than a runway model. I could hate you, really I could."
Chastain gave her spoon a sexy little lick. "Genes, honey. All the Thibodauxes are on the skinny side. We have the metabolisms of a hummingbird. Wait until you meet my family, then you'll see what I mean. They're coming up here in a couple of weeks. I hope New York is ready for them because they bring the party with them wherever they go," she said with a wicked grin.
"Laissez les bon temps rouler, huh?" David said, chuckling.
"Oh, we let the good times roll like you've never seen in this life," she assured him.
She regaled the table with some of the exploits of her uncles and cousins in the French Quarter where she'd grown up and they were all laughing uproariously when the check came for their meal. "I had an unorthodox childhood, but I wouldn't have traded it for anything," she said.
As she and Mona put their coats on while David took care of the check, she realized that she meant every word. There was a time when she wasn't comfortable with certain aspects of her upbringing, but those days were long past. There was nothing in the world she couldn't handle now. She could hold her head high and meet anyone in the world on an equal footing. Somewhere along the line, she had grown into her own skin and she liked it. No, she deserved it and she was loving every minute of it.
Chastain stood in the middle of the gallery and looked around in amazement. It was humbling and exhilarating at the same time. All of her works were hung and lit to show every detail of her talent. Everything was ready for the opening and so was she. She was feeling more serene than nervous. She had worked hard for this and she was ready for the next level. David had pulled out all the stops for her showing and she was grateful for his efforts.
Studio L was huge. The walls were covered in oyster-white wool flannel and the floors were covered in taupe Berber carpet.