Four cappuccinos in, probably about three more to go.
I sigh, pushing my reading glasses higher on my nose with my index finger as I study the spreadsheet which lays out the gallery’s finances. It’s not as though we’re not doing well, but we could do with a few more clients. Especially now that Mrs. Harrington is set to retire. I’ll need to prove that I am capable of running the gallery as impeccably as she did while also showing that I have the ability to bring in new business.
This is my dream job and I’m lucky that I’ve been given the opportunity to be here so early in my career. I don’t intend to waste it.
I startle slightly at the sound of Mrs. Harrington’s, and now my, I suppose, assistant calling my name. Amused at the fact that he’s stuck just his head through the door and it currently looks as though he’s floating, I smile softly and say, “Clay, how many times have I told you to call me Raina? There’s no need to be so formal.”
“Right,” he nods, his floppy blonde hair falling into his eyes. “Raina. There’s a Larissa Collins calling for you.”
I lift an eyebrow in surprise because I don’t recognize the name. “Who?”
Mrs. Harrington left me a comprehensive list of all of her contacts within the art community, in case I ever wanted to reach out to someone I hadn’t already met, and I don’t recall seeing a Larissa Collins on that list. But if she’s asking for me specifically, that must mean it’s important.
“I’m not sure,” Clay replies, and if I could see his shoulders, I imagine he would be shrugging. “I put her through on line one.”
“Thanks,” I flash him a smile and watching his head disappear. Picking up the receiver and inhaling deeply because for some reason, my heart is racing, I press the button to switch to line one, putting on my most pleasant voice as I speak. “This is Raina Fenwick, The Harrington Gallery.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Fenwick,” a warm voice on the other end responds, “My name is Larissa Collins. I’m the head curator at the CMMA.”
My eyebrows shoot upwards. “The Cartwright Museum of Modern Art?”
The Cartwright has the most extensive collection of modern art in the city. I buy a membership every year and I visit about twice a month because no matter how many times I see some of those paintings and sculptures, it always takes my breath away. Needless to say, the somewhat pricey membership pays for itself.
“That’s right,” she says.
“It’s an honor to speak to you,” I gush, feeling as though I’m talking to a celebrity. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”
She pauses to collect her thoughts before she continues. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’ve recently started a new art expansion program.”
“I hadn’t heard.” I don’t know how I’m managing to speak and hold my breath at the same time, but I am. Surely she wouldn’t call me just to tell me about such a program if she had no intention of asking the Harrington Gallery to participate.
“Well, the gist is that we don’t want the cultural experience of modern art to be restricted to just the museum,” she explains. “We want it be infused throughout the entire city. So, in an effort to help his expansion, we’ve decided to reach out to local art galleries to see if they would be interested in partnering with us.”
“Partnering how?” I ask, doing my best to hide my absolute delight.
The gallery doesn’t usually work with art museums directly. Either we peruse local art shows and ask artists whose works we admire if they would be interested in showcasing their work at our gallery, or we have artists who contact us directly, asking if they can put on exhibitions. Partnering with a major museum would most definitely put us on the map and make us more desirable to artists hoping to sell and display their work.
“We’d like to showcase an exhibit of up and coming talent at your gallery.”
“Wow,” I breathe out, unable to believe this is actually happening. “That would be amazing.”
She chuckles, clearly hearing the awe in my voice. “So you’re interested?”
“I would have to confirm with Mrs. Harrington, but I’m sure she’ll be as excited about this opportunity as I am,” I say quickly, not wanting her to change her mind. Mrs. Harrington will undoubtedly be thrilled.
“Glad to hear it,” she replies. “I’ll have my assistant call to set up an appointment for me to come check out the space.”
I’m grinning from ear to ear. “Sounds good.”
“It was a pleasure speaking with you, Miss Fenwick.”
“Please, call me Raina,” I respond. “And the pleasure was all mine. Speak to you soon.”
“Have a good day.”
I let out a squeal of delight as I hang up the phone, celebrating loud enough that Clay sticks his head back through the open doorway of my office and asks, “How’d it go?”
“Big things are coming, Clay,” I say, beaming at him. “Big things.”
He lets out a quiet chuckle. “Well, it certainly seems as though your day is going well, because there’s a man here to see you.”
He wiggles his eyebrows up and down when he speaks, which would have made me laugh on its own, but coupled with the fact that I could still only see his head, the entire gesture was hilarious. I burst out laughing as I take off my reading glasses and push myself to my feet. He shoots me a confused glance as I near the doorway and I pat him on the shoulder gratefully as I make my way out into the main foyer of the gallery.
I stop short in the main room, my breath catching in my throat and my entire body feeling as though its being pumped with warm bubbles as my eyes settle the most beautiful piece of art I’ve seen yet. He’s a masterpiece, walking slowly around a wire sculpture of a tree in the center of the room. His piercing sapphire eyes are wide with curiosity, the corners of his lips turned upwards into the smile. His hands are shoved into the pockets of black jeans and this time he’s wearing a pale blue t-shirt which both accentuates his eyes as well as reveals that the sleeves of black ink tattoos on his arms travel all the way up to his shoulders.
Inhaling through my nose to calm my nerves, I manage to breathe out, “Bodhi? What are you doing here?”
He seems a bit startled, but smiles slowly when his eyes land on me. “Nice to see you too.”
“I’m sorry,” I laugh, but repeat my question. “What are you doing here?”
“Wow, that was almost polite,” he comments, though he doesn’t look offended in the slightest; instead looking as though I’d told him the world’s greatest joke, his eyes twinkling adorably. “I don’t start work on the inn until tomorrow, so in the meantime, Brenton said I should check out your place.”
That made sense. If Bodhi was going to be around for the foreseeable future, it makes sense that Brenton would like us to bond. The trouble is that I’m pretty sure I’m just going to like him more the more time we spend together and I don’t see my growing feelings ending well for anyone involved.
“And what do you think?” I ask, glancing around to divert my gaze.
“Amazing,” he smiles widely, not bothering to look, but instead staring directly at me. “You have great taste.”
His directness unnerves me but I know better than to let him see me sweat, so I smile sweetly and shrug and say, “I know.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he laughs. “You are marrying Brenton.”
The mention of Brenton causes a strange knot to form in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know why thinking about him while I’m with Bodhi makes me anxious. We’re just talking, which is a completely innocent act. Plus, even if we were flirting, Brenton and I have no actual romantic relationship, so it’s not like I’d be doing anything wrong. As always, I decide to ponder the source of my guilt at a later time and say, “I think that’s more a testament to his good taste than mine.”
“I’ll let him know you think so,” Bodhi replies.
I shrug indifferently. “Please do.”
He laughs again and I decide that I like the sound; deep and booming and without inhibition. He’s completely free when he laughs and it’s pretty beautiful.
“I gotta admit,” he says, the way he pauses indicating he’s a little bit nervous. “I have an ulterior motive for being here.”
“Oh yeah?” I lift an eyebrow, intrigued.
Despite the tone of his voice softening, he keeps his gaze direct. “I wanted to see if I could convince you to skip out on work.”
I’ve never had such a big conflict of head and heart. My mind knows this is a bad idea. I’m already more than halfway to having a full-blown crush on Bodhi, the last thing I need is to spend a day bonding with him and have it turn into complete infatuation. The fact that I’m supposed to be engaged to Brenton doesn’t even come into question, mostly because the news of our engagement has not yet been released to the press, so no one would find me hanging out with Bodhi to be the least bit suspicious.
No, it’s the idea that getting to know him better wouldn’t be good for me emotionally that has my mind screaming this is a bad idea. But in the end, it’s my heart that wins. Because no matter how much I know just being around him will deepen my feelings, I also know that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt anything at all, and that has to mean something.
So, I say, “I’ll say yes, but you have to tell what am I getting out of this.”
“The chance to spend time with me, of course,” he shrugs, as though that’s completely obvious.
I wonder if he knows that’s exactly why I said yes in the first place. Sending him a mock glare, I reply, “Is it too late for me to back out?”
“You’re so mean,” he laughs, taking my sarcasm as an agreement.
And that’s exactly what it is. Because the truth is that I’d probably say yes to anything he wanted me to do.
“We don’t have any clients scheduled to come in today,” I say, so very grateful for that fact, “so I’m sure Clay can handle things for the rest of the day.”
He grins. “Awesome.”
Nodding, I turn to head back towards my office. “Let me go tell him and I’ll grab my stuff.” After informing Clay that I’d be out for the rest of the afternoon and to call me if there were any emergencies, I collect my purse from inside my desk drawer and lock my office door when I leave, speaking to Bodhi as we exit through the front door. “Do you mind if we stop by my place? I wanna change.”
One of the many reasons I’d signed a lease on my apartment is because it’s just around the corner from the gallery and I can walk to work every day. Which is a huge blessing today in particular, because I doubt that a pencil skirt and stilettos would be the most practical outfit for whatever adventure I’m about to embark on with Bodhi.
“Sure,” he nods, following me out the door and down the block.
“I like your place,” he says once I’ve let both of us into my apartment. He walks up to the set of shelves against the wall of the living room and begins peering curiously at the various trinkets I have laid out. “It’s very different from Brenton’s.”
“In that you can’t actually see the floor?” I call out from inside my bedroom, where I’m digging through my messy dresser drawers to find an acceptable top to wear with my jeans. I’ve never been a particularly organized person and my apartment is a testament to that fact. Due to my impulsive nature and my general inability to say no, I end up buying a lot of items I like, but don’t necessarily need. Which means pretty much every available flat surface in my apartment is littered with some sort of trinket, whether it be interesting shaped paper weights or candles or beads.
“Yeah, that too,” he laughs, picking up one of the hand bells I have on the shelf and ringing it lightly. “Brenton has a lot less…stuff.”
Brenton’s always been a bit of a stickler for everything being in its proper place, so I could see how my living situation could come as kind of a shock for someone who had been living with the King of Clean for the past few days.
“Are you saying I own a lot of junk?” I ask, mock offended as I step into the bathroom to change, leaving the door slightly ajar so that I could still hear him speak.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” he assures me, raising the volume of his voice so that I can hear him as I wriggle into my jeans and button up a purple flannel. “It’s very vibrant and welcome and you.”
“Thanks,” I say once I’m fully clothed, grabbing a pair of flat boots from my closet and perching myself on the edge of my couch to slip my feet into them and zip them up. “I’ve always loved art with vivid colors. It’s so lively and inviting and it just fills you with joy. You know how they say that art is supposed to make you feel something? Well, I figure if I’m going to bring art into my home, then I want it to make me feel happy.”
Everything in my apartment is bright. From the curtains to the couch cushions to the dinner plates in my kitchen cabinets. Bright colors in any combination have always made me happy and when I’m at home is when I want to feel the happiest.
“Good thinking.” Bodhi flashes me a smile, tilting his head towards the door. “Ready to go?”
Nodding, I move my wallet and keys and phone into a purse which I can sling across my torso and follow him towards the door. It isn’t until we’re back out on the street again that I realize I have no idea what it is that we’re doing. “So where exactly are we going?”
He grins wickedly, reaching down to open the messenger bag he’s wearing slung across his chest and pulling out a professional looking camera. “Sightseeing.”
“Seriously?” I lift an eyebrow in surprise. I grew up in the suburbs of the city, so although I didn’t spend years wandering the streets enough to know every nook and cranny, I do know my fair share of cool spots. That being said, I’ve done everything touristy there is to do, and once you’ve done it once, that’s really all you need.
“I’ve never been here before,” he shrugs. “Plus, this is how I get ideas for my projects. I take pictures.”
I suppose that makes sense, so I decide that if he wants to do a photo scavenger hunt of the city’s most memorable tourist traps, I’m not going to stop him. “Of what?”
“Anything I find beautiful,” he explains. “Anything I find inspiring.”
His response is vague, yet oddly satisfying, and I smile widely as we walk towards the town square. Every once in a while, he stops to take a picture of a lamp post or something he likes in a store window or a pigeon sitting on a bench, but for the most the part, we just wander and we talk.
“How come you and Brenton don’t live together?” he asks.
The question confuses me until I remember that he thinks we’re engaged, which logically means that we probably dated for a little while before that.
“I don’t know,” I shrug, not entirely sure how to respond. “We’re both pretty independent people. I think we’re not ready to let that go just yet.”
I hope that’ll be a good enough explanation, especially since it’s true for me. I think that no matter who I end up marrying, if I end up marrying at all, I’ll be saddened at the idea of no longer living alone. There’s something so freeing about being completely on your own.
And I think he understands that, because he nods as though he does, but I’m still surprised by his answer.
“I don’t know that marriage means giving up your independence,” he says, “I mean, it’s not really a sign of a healthy relationship if you’re going into it thinking that the other person is weighing you down.”
I guess that’s true too. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. But perhaps that’s because I had very little knowledge of romantic relationships. So how was I supposed to know what a healthy one looked like?
“Quite the romantic, huh?” I tease him, nudging him lightly with my elbow.
“I don’t know,” he laughs softly. “I guess I’m just not cynical about love.”
That’s a refreshing perspective. Not that I think that I’m cynical about love. But it is nice to know that there are people in the world who see the rosy side of things. “Does that mean you’ve been in love before?”
I didn’t ask to pry, it just seemed like a logical next question, but the way his expression darkened and a hint of sadness tinged his eyes made me instantly regret that decision.
“I thought so,” he whispers, avoiding making eye contact with him.
Now I’m just curious, but I’m not sure if he trusts me enough to tell me the truth, so I ask, “Care to elaborate?”
“Not right this second, no,” he shakes his head.
“Okay,” I say quickly, not wanting to push the matter and make the conversation awkward. “That’s good, though. That you’ve been in love already. Maybe it means that if your heart gets broken again, it won’t hurt as bad the second time.”
He mulls that over for a moment, but ends up shaking his head in disagreement. “I don’t think love works that way. It all hurts. Just in different ways.”
I wonder who it is that shattered his heart and I wonder what it means that I want to be the one who helps him put it back together. The thought terrifies me to my core and I know that now is not the time or place to flesh out my feelings for Bodhi, so I do what I do best: I use teasing sarcasm. “That’s very deep.”
He rolls his eyes and lets out a breathy laugh, but his posture also relaxes a bit, so I can tell he’s glad that we’re no longer on that subject.
“What about you?” he asks. “Is Brenton your first?”
“First?” I reply, my eyebrows lifted in surprise at the implication.
His eyes twinkle in amusement as he clarifies, “First love.”
“Oh,” I clear my throat, a bit uncomfortable. Brenton and I haven’t really discussed our backstory. We’ve been friends for so long that no one will be surprised that we’re getting married; most likely thinking we just finally realized we were meant to be together all along. And that’s a great story, but it lacks any sort of detail, and eventually we’re going to have to figure that out. But I suppose that for now, I can tell Bodhi the truth. “It’s hard to say, to be honest.”
He adjusts the strap of his camera on his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“It should be easy to recognize the process of falling in love,” I say slowly, formulating my thoughts in my mind, “but we’ve known each other our entire lives, so I can’t just pinpoint the moment and say ‘that’s when I realized I loved him’, you know?”
It’s an extremely vague answer, but he nods in understanding nonetheless. “That makes sense.”
I let out a small sigh of relief at knowing I’m in the clear and change the subject. “How did you get into all this, anyway?”
“My dad,” he says automatically, assuming I’m talking about the contracting company. I don’t correct him, because honestly, I just enjoy hearing him talk. Or maybe the more accurate description is that enjoy watching him talk. The way his eyes fill with light and he’s perpetually smiling is enough to make me feel as though I’m floating. “He worked in construction. He graduated high school, but he couldn’t afford to pay for college, so he went to work on a construction site right away. He took night classes to get his degree. It took him a little longer than normal, but he got it, and then he worked his way up until he was running the entire site.”
“Impressive,” I reply honestly. His father’s story is similar to my own father’s path, so I have a great respect for a man who built his career from the ground up. “And the photography was his trick, too?”
“The photography was my mom, actually,” he says, “It was a hobby of hers, so when I got old enough that she trusted me with a camera, she just set me loose and that was the end of it.”
“Do your parents still work?”
He pauses, his lips parting to speak, but he doesn’t do so right away. Something in his expression shifts and his voice is a little softer when he does say something. “No. My dad passed when I was a teenager and my mom last year.”
“I’m so sorry,” I gasp, feeling simultaneously guilty and uncomfortable. I wish knew the perfect words to say to make him feel better, but I’ve never been particularly good at facing tragedy, or any difficult situation for that matter, so I settle for reaching out to gently lay my hand on his bicep and squeezing in what I hope is a comforting manner.
“It’s okay,” he replies, and although there’s sadness in his eyes, it’s not the angry kind, so I know he means it. “I’m moving forward. At least, I’m trying to.”
I still have no clue how to be remotely sensitive to the situation, so what comes out is, “Being an adult is hard.”
Lucky for me, he’s not offended by my complete lack of tact, instead stretching his lips into a slow smile, that beautiful light returning to his eyes. “So I’m learning.”
I feel a sense of relief that previous tension of his revelation has dissipated, but I still feel as though there’s some stress that needs to be alleviated, so I point to a structure behind him. “Look, a fountain!”
It’s one of those fountains that come out of the ground; sprays of water shooting upwards at various timed intervals to create an effect. Reaching down, I grab his hand to pull him towards it, thinking both of are in need of a little fun, but he stops me before we can reach the water, insisting that he can’t go in between the streams with his camera. I understand the dilemma, but I figure I shouldn’t miss out on an opportunity to feel as though I’m dancing in the rain, so I drop his hand and leave him with my purse and laugh as I twirl through the spouts of water, zigzagging to avoid getting soaked, but enjoying the feeling of the mist on my cheeks and the dampening of my hair.
When I return to where Bodhi’s standing, I notice that he’s lowering his camera from his eye and cross my arms over my chest in mock annoyance. “Did you take pictures of me?”
“I couldn’t help myself,” he laughs, swinging the strap of his camera over his chest once more.
I suppose artists rarely can. I’m intrigued, so I glance down at the camera as though it will reveal all its secrets to me. “Did they turn out okay?”
I expect him to show me the pictures he’s taken, but instead he presses his lips together in an amused smile and shakes his head and says, “I guess we’ll see.”
Parting my lips, I mean to insist, but I get distracted when I hear my phone buzzing in my purse. Taking it back from Bodhi, I pull my phone out to see I have a text from Brenton, reminding me that we have a meeting with the wedding planner his mother had set us up with in an hour. We won’t do any actual planning, but we do want to make his mother happy and convince all of our parents that we’re serious about the wedding, so we agreed to at least take a preliminary meeting.
As I check the time and mentally calculate how long it will take me to get back to my apartment and make myself slightly more presentable before Brenton arrives to pick me up, it occurs to me that I’ve been with Bodhi for hours. It’s strange to me, because it honestly felt like just a few minutes ago that I found him in the lobby of my gallery. But here we were, a few hours later, and I already couldn’t wait until we got to do this again.
“Sorry, that’s Brenton, I gotta run,” I wince apologetically, slinging my purse over my shoulder. I don’t want to go, but I know I shouldn’t say that, so I settle for, “Today’s been fun. Thanks.”
Seeming to understand, he lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Anytime.”
There are about a million more things I want to say. Like how this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time or how I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so much like myself or how I hope that he finds that love and happiness he’s looking for, but for some reason I feel as though saying any of those things will only make our relationship more complicated.
So, with one deep breath, I step forward and press a kiss to his cheek. And then I turn and I walk away and it takes all of my willpower not to look back.