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The woman in the painting whispered to Mariabella. Her deep green eyes, slightly hooded by heavy lashes, seemed to hold a quiet secret. One she kept close to her heart, one perhaps she hadn't even shared with the man who'd held the paintbrush.
Mariabella reached out, traced the air around the painted woman's eyes. Secrets. This woman had one.
And so, too, did Mariabella Romano.
"You like that painting, huh?"
Mariabella started, jerked out of her reverie. She turned at the sound of Carmen's voice. More friend than employee, Carmen Edelman had worked for Mariabella ever since she'd opened the Harborside Art Gallery in the little coastal Massachusetts town almost a year ago. The quirky college graduate had walked in one day, her arms loaded with paintings, each one a gem. Ever since, Carmen had been unearthing wonderful finds, including the artist who'd painted the portrait of the mysterious woman, titled simply, She Who Knows.
Mariabella's twenty-five-year-old assistant had an uncanny eye for quality work, and had been instrumental in helping Mariabella choose the paintings for the gallery's upcoming Christmas show. Carmen's bohemian personality gave the gallery—and Mariabella—a little something unexpected every day.
"I do love this piece," Mariabella said, pointing toward the portrait of the brunette. "It has a certain depth and mystery to it. It is my favorite piece in the collection."
"It does seem to have good karma, doesn't it?" Carmen took a step back, propped a fist beneath her chin, sending dozens of silver and gold bracelets on a jingling race down her arm. "Such deep thoughts in each brush stroke. What do you think it's saying?"
"Probably what she knows… and no one else does."
Carmen turned and caught Mariabella's eye. Her black pageboy haircut swung forward with the movement, and her red-rimmed cat's-eye glasses slipped a little on her nose. "Oh, so perceptive! I can see that now. The way the woman has her chin tilted down just a bit, the way her hair is brushed across her eyes, like she wants to hide behind the bangs but can't because they're not quite long enough. Hmm… though that could just be a bad haircut. And then there's the way her hand is coming up to cover her mouth. It's like she has…"
"Secrets," Mariabella finished, then wanted to catch the word and bring it back. But really, Carmen—like everyone else in town—didn't know anything about the true identity of Mariabella "Romano."
Who wasn't a Romano at all.
Money and privilege provided the opportunity to buy anything—including a new identity and a temporary escape from a life that had chafed at Mariabella like a too-tight yoke.
Carmen's scarlet lips spread in a wide smile. "This is why I love working for you. You're, like, totally psychic about art. You have such a gift."
The genuine compliment washed over Mariabella. She'd lived her life surrounded by people who had dropped compliments on her like confetti at a parade—with the words having about as much depth and meaning. She'd found herself feeling as vacant as those words, and needing something… more.
So a little more than a year ago, she'd left that insular, empty world behind, shedding her true name and her heritage to come here, searching for—
Reality. Peace. Independence.
Here, in Carmen's words, her gaze, and also in the friends who filled the shops lining Harborside's boardwalk, Mariabella had exactly that. People who saw her, not for her lineage, but for herself.
"Speaking of gifts, when are you going to share your gifts with the world?" Carmen drifted over to the store's Christmas tree and hoisted one of the faux presents that sat below the tabletop display. "And I'm not talking about these empty boxes."
Sometimes—like when they were dealing with a difficult artist—Mariabella considered her employee's persistence a blessing. And other times when she called it more of a curse.
"A gallery is not meant to be used as the owner's ego trip."
"Mar, you're not even on the baggage carousel."
Carmen waved a hand. "American translation, you're not taking any risks. At all. And for your information, it's not a big deal to hang a few of your pieces here. People want to get a peek into who you are, and what's going on in your noggin." Carmen tapped her head.
"Carmen, we go through this argument every week—"
"For good reason—"
"And the answer is always the same."
"Doesn't make it the right answer." Carmen arched a thinly penciled brow.
"My paintings are hardly ready." The lie slipped easily from Mariabella's tongue. She'd been to art school, received her master's degree. She knew when a painting had fulfilled its potential on the canvas. Even though she wouldn't call her art ready for the Louvre, by any stretch, the pieces she'd created could hang proudly on these walls.
If she dared to put her soul on display.
There was something inherently intimate about hanging art on a gallery wall, something that allowed, as Carmen had said, the world a peek inside the artist's true self. And Mariabella knew that as long as she was living a lie, she couldn't permit even a single glimpse.
"In addition," Mariabella went on, when she saw Carmen readying another objection, "we have a number of artists scheduled to exhibit, enough to carry us through next year. Our walls are full, Carmen." Mariabella returned to the front desk of the gallery, and started reviewing the proofs of the catalog for next Tuesday's show. The holiday tourist season was in full swing, and as the calendar flipped closer to Christmas, more and more people flocked to the seaside community looking for unique, locally made gifts. Harborside decorated its boardwalk, revved up its restaurants, brewed up special seasonal lattes, and after a post-summer slumber, came back to life in a new and festive way.
It hadn't been that way in years' past. Before Mariabella came to town, Harborside used to lock its shutters and close its doors for the winter, all the residents and business owners hibernating like bears. Mariabella had joined the Community Development Committee, seeing a potential for more in the little town. That enthusiasm had gotten her elected to committee chair, and also spurred the town into action. This year would be the second that Harborside used the holiday season to bring in much-needed winter revenue through a series of events. The boost in tourism dollars—albeit not a large amount yet, but one that was growing—seemed to have everyone humming Christmas carols.
Carmen's hand blocked Mariabella's view. The bangle bracelets reprised their jingle song. "An excuse is still an excuse, even if you wrap it up with a pretty bow. Or in your case, a European accent."
Mariabella laughed. "Are you ever going to give up?"
"Not until I see a Mariabella masterpiece—" Carmen framed her fingers together and squinted through the square at the wall"—right there. That space would be perfectamundo."
"Uh-huh. And getting this catalog to the printer's before the end of the day would also be…" Mariabella paused. "How do you say?"
"Perfectamundo." Carmen grinned.
"Close enough. Eventually I'll have you talking all slang, all the time."
Mariabella shook her head and got back to work. Slang— coming from her cultured tongue. She could just imagine her father's reaction to that. His stony face, rigid posture. But worst of all, the silence. She'd hated the judgment in that quiet.
She'd never measured up, not to his standards, voiced or not. She'd never sat still enough, smiled at enough people, acted as he'd expected.
Acted as a princess should.
If he could see her now, her hair loose and flowing, dressed in jeans and spiky heels, paint beneath her fingernails from a frenzied creative streak this morning—
Well, he couldn't see her, and that was the best part about Harborside being located on the other side of the world. That freedom, to be herself, was a large part of what Mariabella loved about being here. And even talking slang. She smiled to herself.
"Hey." Carmen nudged Mariabella. "Did you see that?"
"Eye candy, two o'clock."
"Cute guy, walking past the gallery." She nudged Mariabella's shoulder a second time.
"Mmm… okay." Mariabella kept working on the catalog's corrections.
Carmen let out a frustrated gust. "You should go talk to him."
That got Mariabella's attention. "Go talk to him? Why?"
"Because he's alone, and you're alone, and it's about time you took number one, a few hours for yourself, and number two, a step out of that comfort zone you're so determined to stay glued to."
Mariabella wanted to tell Carmen she had already taken a giant step out of her comfort zone, something beyond opening the gallery. A step that had brought her all the way across the world, from a tiny little country outside of Italy to here, an even tinier town in Massachusetts.
To a new life. A life without kings and queens.
Carmen did have a point about the dating, though. In all the time Mariabella had been in Harborside, she hadn't dated anyone, hadn't gotten close to a man. She'd made friends, yes, but not true relationships, nothing deep. Part of that was because she'd had no time, as Carmen mentioned, but a bigger part was self-preservation.
She thought again of the woman in the painting. Had that woman dared to open her heart?
If so, was the price she'd had to pay as high as Mariabella's?
"Let's focus on catalogs and canap s, instead of my love life," Mariabella said to her assistant. "I think the artist will be upset if I tell him I spent my time pursuing a hot date instead of concentrating on his show."
Carmen turned to Mariabella and opened her mouth, as if she wanted to argue the point, then shut it again. "Okay. I can see when the stars are out of alignment for this topic. I'll zip down to Make it Memorable and check on the appetizers for Tuesday's opening."
Mariabella sent up a wave, while she kept on checking the page proofs. "Thank you. I'll hold down the tent."
Carmen laughed. "Fort, Mariabella. Fort."
Heat filled Mariabella's cheeks. Her accented English was flawless, but she'd yet to master all those odd little idioms. "I meant fort."
"Hey, a horse is still a horse, even if you call it a pony." Carmen toodled a wave, then left the gallery, with the hurried step that marked her every movement.
Soft, jazzy Christmas music flowing from the gallery's sound system provided companion noise for Mariabella as she got back to work. She settled onto a chair behind the counter, content to be alone, surrounded by the art she loved. All her life, she'd craved this kind of shop, this exact kind of cozy gallery. There were many days when she couldn't believe she actually owned this place, and had seen this dream come true. It made up for all those arguments with her father, all the tears she'd shed.
She paused a moment and cast a glance out the bay window behind her, drawing in the view of the ocean that lay down the dock from the gallery. Through the window, the sun-drenched day could have passed for summer, if the calendar didn't read a few days before Christmas. No snow lay on the ground yet, though the temperature outside was all winter. The ocean curled gently in and out, while seagulls dipped down to the beach for a late morning meal. Bright sunshine cast sparkles of light over the water. How different Harborside was from where Mariabella had grown up, yet how similar, too. She'd lived on the coast then, too, but that coast had been full of rocky cliffs, houses nestled among the stone paths and lush landscape. Here, the land was less hilly, more populated and didn't have hundreds of years of history carved into the side of every building. But Harborside offered something else Mariabella couldn't have in her old home. Something precious.
A sense of peace draped over Mariabella like a cozy blanket. She loved this town, loved the haven she had found here. She thought of the letter in her purse, and wondered what answer she could possibly give. How she could ever explain she had found something in Harborside that she could never imagine leaving.
But soon, duty demanded her return. As always.
The bell over the door jingled and Mariabella jerked to attention. The man she and Carmen had seen earlier stood in the doorway, his tall figure cutting an imposing stance.
"May I help you?" Mariabella said, moving away from the front desk.
"Just looking, thank you." He stepped inside, giving Mariabella a better view of him.
Dark hair, dark eyes. What appeared to be an athletic build beneath the navy pinstriped suit, clearly tailored to fit his frame. She recognized his shoes as designer, his briefcase as fine leather. No ordinary tourist, that was clear. Most people who came to Harborside wore jeans in winter or shorts in the summer—dressed to relax and make the most of the boating, swimming and fishing the coastal town had to offer.
This man looked ready to steer a corporation, not a catamaran.
He stood about six feet tall, maybe six-two, and when he moved about the open space of the gallery, he had the stride of a man who knew his place in the world.
A zing of attraction ran through Mariabella. No wonder Carmen had called him eye candy. He had more to offer than a ten-pound chocolate bar.
"Our main gallery houses the artist in residence," she said, falling into step a few feet away from him, "who has some mixed media pieces in his collection as well as a number of portraits. In the west room, you will find our sculptures and art deco pieces, and the east room, which overlooks the ocean, features our landscapes, if you're looking for a picture of Harborside to take home or back to your office."
"I'm not looking for something for my home. Or office."
He barely glanced at her as he said the words, but more, he hadn't looked at a single painting. His gaze went, not to the landscapes, portraits and fresco panels, but to the—
Walls. The ceiling. The floors.
Then to her.
A chill chased up her spine.
Had they found her? Was her time here over? No, no, it couldn't be. She had two more months. That was the agreement.
It was too soon, she wasn't ready to leave. She loved her home, loved her gallery, and she didn't want to go back. Not yet.
Mariabella hung back, watching the stranger. He paused to look out the window, the one that provided a view of the entire boardwalk. He took a few steps, as if assessing all of Harborside, then returned to his perusal of the main room of Harborside Art Gallery.
Perhaps he hadn't come here after her. Perhaps he was only sizing up the gallery. Maybe he owned a place in a nearby town and he'd come here to check out the competition.
Doubt nagged at Mariabella. A whisper of more here, a hidden agenda. But what?