The rest of the night was agony. I was torn between needing to know who the girl was and what she wrote on the paper and keeping myself confined to the shadows as I always had. I paced the balcony, oblivious to the numerous compliments that drifted up to me from the people below. At one point, I was so desperate to know what she wrote that I waited by the stairs until the oils section was empty and then made my way down to the black curtain separating me from the room. I was just about to slip out and take her note when I heard voices on the other side, and I quickly and silently made my way back to the balcony.
The voices belonged to two men who were quietly discussing the paintings. They had thick accents which I could not place.
“What do you think?”
“Well, they are definitely disturbing; they were right about that, but I…”
“I don’t want to say that I like them, because I don’t. But they call to me somehow. Go find Mr. Holdaway and ask him how much.”
“For which one?”
“For all of them, of course. I wouldn’t dream of breaking up a series like this.”
The first man left, and I studied the one who stayed. He was obviously wealthy, as the cut of his tuxedo and the silk of his scarf declared, and he stared intently at the paintings one by one until he came to the last one. I held my breath as he saw the paper the girl left there, and he carefully pulled it free. He studied it for a moment and then Sebastian appeared with the first man.
“Sir, your man here says you are interested in these oils.”
“I am,” the man said. “Very interested indeed. How much is Mr. Desmond asking for them?”
“I’m not sure,” Sebastian said slowly. “He hasn’t set a price for them yet. Why don’t you give me a starting price you are willing to pay, and I’ll present it to him immediately.”
The man turned back to the paintings, his hands idly turning the small paper over and over. “I am willing to pay two hundred thousand dollars for them all.”
Sebastian’s eyes went wide, but he quickly schooled his features and his voice and replied, “Very good, sir, I’ll tell him right away.”
The man simply nodded, and Sebastian made his way around the curtain and up the stairs. I met him by the wall where we were both invisible to those below, and before he could speak, I held up one hand.
“I heard,” I said softly, “and you are to tell him they are not for sale.”
“What?” Sebastian whispered harshly. “Are you crazy?”
My eyes narrowed, and I hissed, “They are not for sale, Sebastian.”
“Fine, I’ll let him know,” he said, throwing up his hands in frustration. “Are you going to tell me why?”
“All right,” he said with a sigh. “You’re the boss.”
“Yes, I am,” I responded tightly. As he started toward the stairs, I put my hand on his shoulder. “There is one thing I need from him before he leaves.”
“What is that?”
“That paper in his hands. He took it from the frame of the last painting. It does not belong to him.”
“Really? Who put it there?”
My jaw muscle twitched, and he held up his hands in surrender. “Never mind,” he said quickly. “I’ll get it from him.”
He headed back down the stairs, and I moved back to the railing. Sebastian approached the man and told him what I said.
“Three hundred thousand, then. I must have these paintings!”
I scowled at the audacity of the man, but Sebastian stayed calm. “I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Desmond is not selling these paintings. Everything else in the gallery is for sale, but not these. He was very adamant about it.”
“Let me talk to him, then,” the man continued irately. “Everything and everyone has a price, and I will find his!”
Sebastian frowned at this. “Once Mr. Desmond makes a decision about his art, nothing ever changes his mind. It would be pointless for you to talk to him. Besides, he wouldn’t see you even if I asked him.”
The man’s snarl very nearly matched mine. “Let’s go, Benjamin,” he said to the other man, but Sebastian grabbed his arm as he tried to move toward the curtain.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you leave with that,” and he gestured toward the paper in the man’s hand.
“How dare you touch me!” the man growled. “I am a prince of the Netherlands! No one touches me without permission!”
“Well, you’re in America now, and I still can’t let you leave with that paper.” Sebastian’s composure was amazing, and I made a mental note to reward him for it. If I were down there, I wouldn’t have just touched the Dutch prince, I would have laid him out flat on the floor. Which, I supposed, was another good reason for Sebastian to be my representative.
With another snarl, the prince threw the small paper to the floor and wrenched his arm from Sebastian’s grip.
“You will regret this, Mr. Holdaway!”
“That may be,” Sebastian stated as he stooped to pick up the paper, “but I suggest you leave now, sir, before I have to touch you again.”
The Dutchman whirled on his heel and stormed out of the gallery, his man close behind him.
His head snapped up to me, and he grinned. “That was fun,” he declared. “Not every day I get to bully a prince.”
“I’m glad you’re amused, but I’m not. Now, clear out the gallery. The show is over.”
“You sure, Erik? You could sell a lot more, you know.”
“I can sell them tomorrow or next month or next year, too. It’s done.”
“All right,” he said with an exaggerated huff. Holding up the paper, he asked, “What do you want me to do with this?”
“Keep it for a bit. I’ll be down when everyone leaves.”
“Gotcha. Won’t be but a moment.”
He put the paper carefully into the inner pocket of his jacket and moved through the curtains to the main section. I followed along, keeping a close eye on the rest of the patrons.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?” He waited until the people gathered around him, and then he continued, “Mr. Desmond’s show is now finished for the night. Please make your final selections if you are purchasing something and make your way outside.” When a few people protested, he said, “Please remember that this is only the first day of this exhibit. These items will be here for the rest of the month. You can always come back later.”
It only took about ten minutes for the last person to leave, and, as soon as Sebastian locked the door behind him and turned out the lights in every section but the oils, I walked down the stairs and stood among the paintings that had caused the problem. Sebastian threw the red curtains aside and strode to stand in front of me.
“Three hundred thousand dollars, Erik! You passed up three hundred thousand dollars!”
“I don’t care. I don’t need the money, and…”
Concern instantly replaced the indignation on his face, and his brows furrowed. “What is it, Erik? What’s wrong?”
I shook my head. “I just couldn’t sell them. Not after…”
“Damn it, Erik! What’s going on? Not after what?” He pulled the paper from his jacket. “Does it have anything to do with this?”
I snatched it out of his hand. “Yes, it does.” I sat down on the bench where the girl—Sarah, her father called her—had sat earlier, and I slowly unfolded the paper. There were only two words on the page, and I frowned when I read them: I understand.
She understands? Understands what? My paintings? No one had ever understood my oils but me. Not even Sebastian. Not really.
“What does it say?”
I ignored Sebastian and stood slowly. My gaze moved to the first painting in the series. The backgrounds of the first four were the same: a collage of black and red with no apparent rhyme or reason to them. In the first one, superimposed over the angry strokes, was a white figure of a boy sitting cross-legged, reading a book. The second had the boy, but there was a dark gray, hideous monster looming over him, and the terror on the boy’s face was obvious. The third had the monster grabbing the terrified boy by the leg, and the fourth had it ripping him in two, blood and gore spilling from his severed torso. The fifth had the same violent strokes as the first four, but the entire canvas was covered in black except for one red streak dripping from the top of the canvas to pool at the bottom. It was the fourth one that the girl had studied so intently.
She understands? No one could possibly understand. Unless...
I whipped around to face Sebastian, and he took one wary step backward as his eyes went wide in alarm.
“Who was she?” I demanded, taking a step toward him.
“Who was who?” he stammered, retreating from me as I advanced on him.
“The girl! The one who left this!” I shook the paper at him.
“What girl? Erik, stop it! You’re scaring me!” He stopped abruptly as he made contact with the wall, but I continued until I was inches away from him.
“The girl in the red dress! Her father talked to you! You talked to her in here! Who was she?”
“I…” Sebastian held up his hands in front of him as a shield, but he didn’t touch me. “Erik, I don’t know who you’re talking about. Please, I don’t know!”
My next words came out as a growl. “Her father called her Sarah. She has long black hair and brown eyes. She cried when she looked at my paintings, and she said she understands! Who was she, Sebastian! Think!”
“Sarah?” I could practically see the wheels turning as he frantically thought. “God, Erik, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember! I talked to a lot of people tonight, and there were a lot of women in red gowns.”
He flinched as my fist flew into the wall next to his head, leaving a large hole. “Find her, Sebastian,” I said softly, leaning close to his ear. “I don’t care what you have to do or who you have to pay. Find her.” I spun around and moved back to the bench. I didn’t sit but only stood and stared at the paintings. I only vaguely noticed when Sebastian cautiously moved past me to extinguish all the lights but one before making his way to the curtain.
“I’ll find her, Erik, I promise,” he said softly before letting himself out of the gallery, locking it behind him.As soon as I knew he was gone, I sank down on the bench and began to breathe heavily, clutching the paper to my chest. One thought kept repeating itself in my brain: did she really, truly understand?