Disclaimers: This would be considered uber fiction. The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Ren pics. No copyright infringement is intended and this site is not for profit. Hurt/comfort warning.
Twice I saw her in the park. She's beautiful. At first glance she was exceptional. I was almost overpowered by her beauty, but it's really the little things. Her ears, high cheekbones, dark coloring and those powerful eyes.
I had my sketchpad with me this afternoon, had brought it on impulse. Now I found myself penciling in the straight angles of her face and long lines of her body. She looked up once or twice and I ducked my eyes away, to the trees on the side, as if I wasn't at all interested.
What a lie. I'd thought of nothing else since the first time I'd seen her. And what would I do about it? Nothing. I could envision the conversation, or the lack thereof. Her voice would be as smooth and beautiful as the rest of her. I would stutter hi back, shuffling my feet, looking at the ground like I always do.
I was so intent on avoiding her and not making my intentions obvious that when I looked back up she was gone. I blinked a few times expecting her to...
Oh my god... I looked up into blinding blue eyes. Her voice was deeper then I thought. "Hi." Somehow I managed not to stutter.
"You sketch?" She asked with a wave of her hand towards my drooping notebook and falling pencil.
I grabbed hold tighter, instinctively clutching the thin sketchbook to my chest so she couldn't see herself looking back. "Yes." I fumbled with my pencil. "I sketch occasionally."
"You're an artist?"
The woman sat beside me with casual grace. Everything about her was refined and glamorous. "No," I admitted the truth. I was nothing. I was no one but a waitress.
"May I see?"
Her hand was long, slim, and her fingers were tapered. Piano player fingers, my grandmother would have said. What was I doing? My hands were flipping the sketchbook away from my body without my permission. They were tilting it sideways so she could see it in the proper light.
I barely registered her slow intake of breath or the way her hand stopped an inch away from the pencil lines as if she wanted to touch it but was afraid.
"Do you have more?" she asked.
I looked into her face, to see if she was kidding. She wasn't. There was nothing but sincerity and awe behind her eyes. Awe? For what?
"Yes," I answered slowly. "I have more." I flipped to the beginning of the small sketch pad. If I'd been a writer the pictures would have been equivalent to ramblings- hands and faces, trees and animals.
She smiled as she took the sketchbook and flipped carefully through the pages. A study of hands, a page of eyes and noses and mouths. A page of trees in a field, with the city far behind it. And more...
"Do you paint?" she asked softly.
I had to strain to hear her. "Yes." What was she asking? Did she want to see them? I watched as she flipped the sketch-pad closed and handed it back. She stood and straightened her blouse, reaching into her coat pocket.
I was more disappointed then I cared to admit. I looked back down at the book thinking that I shouldn't have shown her. That I wasn't nearly as good as I hoped.
"Here." The woman was holding out a small business card. "This has my number on it. I've got to get back to work, but I'd like to see more of your work."
I could only blink in surprise. To hide my astonishment I glanced at the card held tightly in my shaking hand. Allison Parker. 555-2934. Parker and Wahbash Studios. "Okay," I said lamely.
I looked up into her face, blinded by the full teeth smile she gave me.
"Call me and we'll set up a time to meet. Have a good day-" Allison stopped, mid sentence.
"Grace." I stood suddenly, extending my hand. She shook it and turned to leave. I watched her go, long legs eating up the pebbled ground. Holy shit...what do I do now? Paintings. Paintings. I need paintings to show this woman. But what did she want to see?
I turned hastily to the voice calling me and realized it was Donovan across the street and I needed to get back to work. My sigh was overly dramatic as I gathered up my belongings and crossed the street, to return to a job I hated.
My apartment was a large studio and I never could have afforded it if it wasn't being rented by five other college students. Since I'd found the place first I'd wrangled the studio loft. It had the best light and I did most of my paintings from here. There were curtains around the bed for privacy, but how much privacy could you really get with five other people coming and going with friends and girlfriends or boyfriends?
I climbed the spiral stairs to my room and threw the sketch-pad onto the drawing table, sending papers skittering to the floor. So, I was a slob. I could admit that. I tore off my waitress uniform and climbed into a pair of comfortable sweats and an old NYPD T-shirt.
Padding barefoot back down the stairs to the kitchenette, I fixed some coffee and listened to see if anyone else was home. Doug's soft snores came from the room he shared with Michael and a low throbbing beat came from Angela's room. So the two party animals had either made it to class or were still out partying somewhere.
I took my coffee back up to the loft and booted up my laptop, my one and only extravagance besides my paints and canvases. I shoved some more papers off the surrounding work area and made room to hook up the external mouse. The little red dot was annoying at best.
After half an hour of answering e-mail and surfing the web I pinched the bridge of my nose tiredly and shut the computer down. I rooted through the mess on the floor and found my work skirt and the business card in the pocket.
I looked at it a long time before I went back downstairs to use the communal phone. I had the receiver in my hand and the dial tone still buzzing in my ear while I read her name and number enough times to memorize it. I couldn't do it, I couldn't call.
It wasn't right. Something about this was scary. Was is because I had a crush on the woman, she was probably straight, and I'd be picking up the pieces of my broken heart for years to come?
Ashamed, I hit the receiver against my forehead and fumbled my fingers across the keypad. My heart rose into my throat as the phone rang, once, twice, and was cut off on the third ring.
A male voice answered. "Ms. Parker's office, may I help you?"
"Um, this is Grace. I um... talked to Ms. Parker earlier?" I waited for something more intelligent to come to mind. I could almost hear him laughing at me.
"Ms. Parker is in a meeting, ma'am. If you would please leave your name and number I'll leave a message for her to call you back as soon as she can."
"Ok." It sounded like a brush off. Oh well. "Grace Jordan. She can reach me at 555-4568."
I quickly hung up the phone and it took several more minutes before my heart stopped thumping against my ribcage like a wild animal.
Hours passed and I resigned myself to the fact that she wasn't going to call anytime soon. Maybe ever. I engulfed myself in an oil painting I'd started two days before, not even noticing Doug wake up and stumble around the first floor to fix Frosted Flakes and search for the remote.
Angela's stereo hit near deafening levels and Julie and Torch came home. The studio was alive with people and noise and more people arrived as time passed. I whiled myself away in the loft, painting and not caring that I wasn't a part of the fun. I never had been and I never would be. None of them liked me anyway.
The phone downstairs rang six times before Doug finally answered it.
"Yo?" Doug's deep voice carried surprisingly well over the throbbing music and shouting people. "Yeah, hang on a sec." He yelled without bothering to cover the mouthpiece, "Grace! Phone!"
"Yeah?" I asked, irritated by Doug's shouting when all he had to do was walk up the damn stairs and tell me I had a phone call. I scowled at him and grabbed the phone. "Hello?"
The low timbre was just as I remembered it. I could feel myself blushing. "Speaking."
"My assistant told me you called earlier, but I didn't get the message until a few minutes ago."
"You told me to call." I pushed a finger into my other ear so that I could hear her better.
"Yes, I did ask you to call, and I'm sorry I wasn't there to answer the phone personally. A meeting was called rather unexpectedly."
I could feel the curious eyes on me and I hated talking with them all watching me. "Where are you?" I asked suddenly.
"At the office. I was just about to head home. Why?"
Why indeed. Just hang up. "How about we get some coffee and talk? I can't hear a damn thing."
"Me either. Sounds like you're having a party."
"No," I answered abruptly. "Do you know where the Starbucks is on Park?"
"Of course. I can be there in forty-five minutes."
"See you there." I hung up before she could change her mind and back out, then I raced up the stairs and rummaged through my crates for a clean pair of jeans and a bra. Ten minutes later I rushed out of the studio with a large black portfolio captured under my arm.
I hit the nearest subway and transferred two stations down. I had another half hour jaunt to Park St. I clutched my portfolio nervously in my arms wondering why I was bringing it with me. We were meeting for coffee, nothing else. But Allison had admitted a desire to see more of my work. With that in mind I closed my eyes against the harsh, flashing lights and clacking wheels.
Starbucks was impossibly busy for a Saturday night, nothing but standing room left. Would I even be able to find her in this mess? What time was it? Was she even here yet?
The rich aroma of coffee tingled in my mouth. If I had two nickels to rub together I'd be tempted. If they had plain coffee that is...
Out of the crowd a dark head appeared.
Someone pinched my ass and I turned to find a pimple faced boy leering at me. My lip curled up in a snarl and I pushed past him, seeking out the dark head I had seen only moments earlier.
The boy followed me. I tried to suppress an angry growl but couldn't help it. Forget Starbucks, I cursed as the boy caught up and tried to harass me again. As I shoved through the entrance door I bumped into someone coming inside. "Excuse me," I hissed, and looked up into icy blue eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry." I took a hasty step back, right into the goosing fingers of Pimple Boy.
He chuckled and pinched harder.
I whirled on him, momentarily forgetting Allison was there. "You little chraa, don't touch me."
"Who you talking to, bitch?"
I ground my teeth together. "Bitch?" I hissed, "You touch me again and I'll drag your face across the pavement, then throw you on the streets for the garbage trucks, and even they won't want to touch you when I'm done."
He sniffed and spit on the ground at my feet. "Big words for a-"
It was all I could take. I dropped the portfolio and slapped him across the face. Ok, so it wasn't the smartest thing to do, especially in a Starbucks but I'd had enough of this city, enough of these little chraa's.
His hand was pulled back and he was going to hit me, but before he could a long, tanned arm broke my vision and caught his wrist securely. I could feel her strength behind me, the warmth of her body and I didn't hear what she said but she obviously shook the boy enough to make him leave.
I couldn't move as she turned and her chest brushed against my back. I blinked blindly up at her when she took my shoulders and twisted me so I was facing her.
"Are you all right?" Allison asked, studying my face.
"Fine. Sorry." I picked up my portfolio with shaking hands.
"How about we go down the block to Salisbury?"
I shrugged out from under her hands. "Sure." I turned and went out the door, brushing past her and mumbling, "I didn't realize Starbucks would be so crowded. I'm sorry." We left, the smell of fresh coffee beans lingering in the air for an entire block.
"Don't be sorry. It's this way."
I felt her hand touch my elbow as she guided us down the sidewalk.
The streets and the sidewalks were filled with the late afternoon crowd, people shopping or trying to find cabs to go home. I let her hand rest on my arm, her warmth something I hadn't felt in a long time.
Salisbury was crowded too, but they seemed to know Allison there and after a short wait we had a small booth by a window.
"Come here often?" I asked, trying to fight off my remaining anger and nervousness.
"Once in a while." Allison smiled.
I smiled back, slowly relaxing and enjoying myself. That is until I took a look at the menu. My eyes widened at the prices. A starving artist, even with a waitressing job couldn't afford a glass of water here. I gulped down the knot in my stomach and folded the menu back up.
"Ready, ladies?" the waiter asked. He had a deep accent and dark skin. Young and ambitious. Another artist? Not starving? Should I ask if they had any job openings here?
"Why don't you give us another minute." Allison smiled one of her dazzling smiles at the waiter.
I watched as he blushed slightly, nodded and walked off to another table.
"Are you hungry?" Allison asked. "They have a great sampler platter-" she broke off abruptly. "What is it?"
"Allison, I can't even afford to get water here." God, I had just admitted the truth to this dazzling, beautiful woman. Oddly enough my usual blush when mentioning my money status didn't surface.
"Well, how about my treat? Anything you want... " Allison paused. "Uh, you know, for letting me see your portfolio?"
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. What would she want for buying dinner? What would I owe her?
"Please?" Allison asked softly. "It's the least I can do for dragging you to Salisbury without even thinking."
"How about a Pepsi then?" I called a truce to my anger and suspicion, it was just too tiring.
"Pepsi it is then." Allison motioned the waiter over and I ordered a Pepsi while Allison ordered the House Sampler Platter.
"Will that be all, ladies?" He smiled at the both of us, lingering just a little longer then necessary on Allison.
"That's all for now, thank you." Allison chuckled as the young man left the table. "If he manages to bring the correct order I'll be rather surprised."
"He wasn't all that bad." I grinned. "Besides how hard can it be to remember two Pepsis and a sampler?" I asked reasonably. I'd never had any trouble. But then I'd never waited on anyone like Allison Parker before either.
"You never know when a boy starts thinking with southern extremities. Notice he didn't write anything down?"
I'd noticed. Now I just smiled. "He was enamored by your beauty." I nearly choked on the words and a blush crept hotly up my neck.
Allison gave another low chuckle and just smiled. "So, what have you got in that portfolio for me?"
Okay, on to business. "They're reproductions," I admitted. "I don't carry the actual paintings on the subway. I've had things stolen before."
"Oh, that must have been terrible."
"Yeah, three years of work down the drain and the little chraa probably trashed them when he found out they weren't worth anything." I shrugged away the feeling of hate I still carried after that incident.
"I was wondering what chraa means."
"Huh?" I looked up from fiddling with the white linen napkin.
"Chraa. You've said it twice now. I've never heard it before." Allison's eyebrow arched in an expression of curiosity.
I found it oddly familiar. "It's Arabic."
"You speak Arabic? Damn, I barely comprehend English." Allison's voice held a touch of awe.
I laughed at the absurd image of me speaking a foreign language. "Not a chance, but I do know about 50 or so curses in varying languages."
The waiter came over with the two Pepsi's and I waited till he left before I spoke again in Arabic. "Boos teezee." I watched for the confusion to enter her eyes and smiled mischievously, knowing she didn't understand a word of what I'd say next. "Nek ni. Yel-la, anasi!" I purposely softened the harshness of the syllables.
"Wow, that sounds...beautiful," Allison murmured.
I couldn't help it, I laughed so hard I had to clutch my sides.
"What?" Allison's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What did you say to me?"
"N-nothing," I stammered around the laughter. "I just told you to kiss my ass."
"Nek ni?" she asked.
Laughter threatened again. "No, no... boos teezee is kiss my ass."
"What is nek ni then?"
"Um, I think that's best left for some other time." I sobered instantly as the waiter set the sampler down in front of Allison.
"Come on," she insisted. "What does it mean?"
Damn, I was so comfortable with this woman that I'd gotten carried away and backed myself into a corner. My smile slipped.
"Well, it doesn't matter. Here." Allison passed a chicken wing over. "Try one of these, they're great."
I took the chicken, hiding my relief behind a large bite. Mmm, it was good. There was a small time of silence while we ate. I was glad Allison was sharing. Without saying a word she had moved the candle and flowers aside and set the platter in the middle of the table.
Dinner was finished and I still hadn't shown my portfolio. I should just go home. I couldn't make small talk, I couldn't do anything right.
"What do you say we get out of here?"
"Sounds good, thanks for dinner." I picked up my portfolio. We walked to the exit together and I waited to say my good-byes.
Allison picked at the wood on the door frame, then dropped her hands to her sides. "I'd still like to see your paintings, Grace. Would you like to join me for a taxi ride?"
"Where to?" I asked wearily.
"My home? I've got some drinks and we could get away from this noise." Allison waved at the noisy people and honking cars.
Oh what the hell. I ignored the tightening in my chest. Ignored the flaming lust coursing through my body. Just a drink, I reminded myself, just to see my paintings. I shrugged. "Sure."
Allison hailed a taxi with a sharp whistle. We were on our way. I watched the city fade away to the lush and expensive 'burbs. My eyes widened as we curved up a long drive and stopped under a portico.
I exited the taxi in awe, waiting for Allison to pay the cabby. "It's beautiful," I said, looking up at the large bay windows, the turrets and marble. Marble columns, marble staircase...
"I inherited it from my parents," Allison said evenly, not even glancing at the impressive architecture as she climbed the marble stairs to the large double doors.
I followed at a more sedate pace, clutching my portfolio like a security blanket.
The door opened, revealing a maid and a wide expanse of staircase and a crystal chandelier. I stopped in the open door, mouth wide open.
Allison turned, an unreadable expression on her face. "Come on in. Vella won't bite."
Vella didn't smile.
There were no laugh lines around her eyes, even though she was maybe only a few years older then me, and I wondered if the dark haired Mexican woman ever laughed.
As I stepped further in Vella made a move as if to take my portfolio. I shook my head and clutched it to my chest. Vella backed off and shut the doors. She stood as if waiting for something, then left when Allison gave her a curt nod.
Allison headed to the back and I padded silently after her. We went down the large hallway and through a door to what appeared to be a den or library. It was richly furnished in mahogany and deep red-brown hardwood. The shelves were full of classic novels, medical books, lawyer's books and I found myself wondering if they were real or props.
I went to the closest bookshelf while Allison made her way to the large desk and the high wet bar off to the left of it.
"What would you like to drink?" she asked.
"Mmmm, whatever you are having is fine." My fingertips traced the spiral bound spines and I tugged one out. It was real. I was beginning to think they were all real and that the paintings in the hall had been real and not reproductions.
Allison came up behind me, handing me a whiskey on the rocks. "They're all real."
I turned wide eyes on her, a blush creeping up my neck. "I know."
"So, why don't you bring that portfolio on over to the desk and let me have a look?"
I laid the portfolio down, unzipping it nervously, then I sat back in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. I didn't touch the whiskey, just swirled it around with my fingertip, waiting anxiously as Allison flipped the plastic covered pages.
After a short time Allison looked up and I met her deep gaze. "You have all the originals?"
"Yes." I couldn't tear my eyes away until she broke contact with a small nod and flipped through the rest of the pages.
Carefully Allison shut the portfolio and leaned back in her chair. She took a long pull of the whiskey. "It's a tradition in my family to have a portrait done on our twenty-fifth birthday."
It certainly wasn't what I'd expected. Surely she'd pay well, even if that didn't seem to matter at the moment. What surprised me was that such a wealthy woman was only twenty-five. I remained silent, waiting for her to finish.
"I'd like to commission a portrait." Allison leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk and steepled her fingers on top of the portfolio.
"All right," I managed to say in a steady voice. "When do you want me to start?"
"My week is way too busy right now, but I should have time available this coming Saturday." She paused. "How much time will you need?"
"How good do you want it to be?" I felt a smile edging my lips and tried to stay calm and professional as I set the whiskey glass on the edge of the desk.
Allison flipped the portfolio back open. "As good as this one." She found the one she wanted and tapped the plastic cover.
I leaned forward, wondering which one it was. Damn, how did that one get in there? I thought I took it out. "That one took me three weeks," I said smoothly, not even blinking, but feeling panicked just the same.
Allison nodded, shut the portfolio once again and leaned back in the chair. She swallowed the last of her whiskey. "How much?"
How much what? I shot her a blank, startled look.
"How much to do the portrait and how much for the one already done?"
Damn. "That one's not for sale." I shifted nervously in the thick cushioned seat. My feet barely touched the floor and it made me extremely uncomfortable.
"5,000," Allison said, as if she hadn't heard me.
"I said it's not for sale." I tried not to grit my teeth. I would never sell that painting. It's all I had left of him.
"Very well." Allison stood. "If you won't sell the painting then I won't need your services."
I stood abruptly, my lower lip shaking. I squared my shoulders and grabbed my portfolio. "I will not be bought, Ms. Parker. Good night." I stormed to the door.
Allison's soft voice stopped me in mid-stride. "Yes?" I didn't turn around, couldn't let her see the anger flashing in my eyes.
"Wait." Allison paused. "Please?"
"I have nothing left to say Ms. Parker, except that the painting is not for sale." My voice quavered.
"Allison," she murmured.
I turned to look at her then. Nothing on her face had changed. It was impassive and unreadable. That should have annoyed me, but somehow it didn't.
"I'd still like you to paint for me, Grace, even if you won't sell me the painting."
I blinked. This woman was so confusing. I felt like I'd run a 500 mile marathon just by having drinks with her. "What if I don't want to paint?"
"Then I'll take you home," Allison replied instantly.
Was that sadness? "I didn't say I wouldn't paint," I admitted.
"Then you will?"
"This Saturday, after work. If you still want me to."
"I do." Allison smiled. "What time?"
I had the morning shift. "After five."
"I'll send someone to pick you up." Allison returned to the desk, flipped through a desktop calendar and grabbed a pen. "Where do you live?"
"I'll be here at six," I returned coolly. This was going to be on my time. Not the whims of a rich and spoiled woman.
Allison returned the pen to the pen holder. "Fine." She nodded, a small frown furrowing between her eyebrows. "I'll walk you out."
We walked down the hallway in silence, till we reached the door.
"I'm sorry about how I acted before," Allison murmured.
I looked at the double doors then up to her face. "Don't worry about it."
"Why won't you sell the painting?" Allison asked.
I sighed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Vella silhouetted in the doorway. "It's the only one I have."
"Surely you can paint another?" the wealthy woman asked.
"No two paintings are ever the same. As a dealer you should know that." Or I would at least hope so. The money proved she had an eye for art anyway.
"Yes, I do know that."
"Besides, it's special," I said quietly.
Allison nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer. "I can have Ed drive you home?"
It was a question this time. "Thank you. It's a long walk to the nearest subway." I smiled weakly.
"I'll see you on Saturday then. If my schedule gets rearranged, as it frequently does, I'll call you and schedule another time."
"All right, see you then." The limo was waiting when I stepped out the door. The limo? Geez, if anyone was watching for my return they'd get an eyeful and I wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks.
Of course no one was waiting or watching. No one had even realized I'd left.
People had crashed on the sofa, chairs and floor. Doors were open and more people were strewn there like rag dolls, one even reclining at an awkward angle inside the doorway.
I waded through the sea of bodies and trash up the spiral stairs to my messy loft.
So, she wanted a portrait done. We hadn't settled on a price, but that wasn't what was bothering me. What was?
I made a halfhearted attempt to settle my mess as I mulled that question over in my mind.
Giving up on the impossible I got on my hands and knees and reached under the bed. I pulled out the original that Allison had wanted to buy.
Light from the street lamps and businesses shone in the large windows, landing harshly on his face. They gave the painting an almost eerie quality. As if he'd loom out of the picture and touch me.
Where are you when I need you, Adam? I asked the tow headed little boy. He'd had a smile on his face the day I'd painted him. He'd been six, barely old enough to sit still, but I'd coerced him with promises of chocolate ice cream and he'd sat still long enough for me to capture his innocence.
Three weeks later he would be gone. There would never be anymore smiles, no more laughter. No more little brother.
I couldn't sell him, sell my past to a stranger who had no idea the true worth of the picture in my hands. So I would have sold my first painting... so what? Adam deserved better then to be hung on a wall and forgotten as new paintings came along.
For a long time I silently regarded the picture. But, for some reason the only face I saw now was that of the enigmatic art dealer, Allison Parker.
I put the painting away and slipped down to my underwear and T-shirt on the bed. The woman was impossible, confusing, beautiful. That was it, wasn't it? I was blindsided by her beauty every time she looked at me. I couldn't form complete sentences or think for myself.
I still had a crush on her even though I thought I knew what she was all about. A lonely, spoiled rich girl, who flaunted her wealth over others. No, there was more to her then that. I'd seen it myself in the depths of her incredibly blue eyes.
If I didn't know better I would have guessed that what she really wanted was a friend.
Allison Parker, only child of the rich and famous Doyle Parker, had never felt more alone in her life the second Grace stepped into the limo and vanished down the curving drive.
With a sigh she walked back down the hallway, ignoring the portraits of her family and ancestors scattered artistically along the walls. She poured another whiskey on the rocks and turned the luxurious leather chair to the window and gazed out over the manicured gardens.
Asking for the other painting had been stupid, but in a way it had been a test. To bait Grace? What for? Allison had seen the girl's limits, had seen her...beautiful eyes....
She only knew she was sorry she'd hurt the young woman.
It was a beautiful painting, a light background of trees, flowers and sky, with contrasting shadows and the little boy had been painted with a loving hand in vibrant colors.
It was special, Grace had said. How special? Allison wondered. So special that the artist would turn down the opportunity for a large paycheck? One she obviously needed? Apparently so.
And strangely Allison respected Grace. She'd broken people for far less then a painting. Why had she stopped, even apologized?
She shrugged. Doesn't matter. Shouldn't matter. She turned cold eyes out over the gardens and stayed that way till well past midnight before she roused herself to go upstairs and sleep.
The next day for Allison was a continuous day of meeting clients, purchasing agreements, and the acquisition of a new painting. It bored her to near tears. Surely there was something more to this life?
For one quiet half hour during lunch Allison wandered through the gallery, her father's gallery, and his father before that. Doyle Parker was a proud man, a man who doted on his only daughter, but still prayed for a son to take over the family business.
It had only been on his death bed in the hospital that he'd called in his lawyers and willed everything to Allison. She'd been bitter and at first refused it, but as her father pleaded and died she made it a promise.
She'd also made a promise to marry and let her husband take care of the business. It was one promise she wasn't willing to keep. But she would run the gallery, and make it more successful then it had ever been.
Taking on Christopher Wahbash as her partner had been part brilliance and part luck. The luck had been in finding him in her gallery, studying the layout.
She'd watched him pacing, not even looking at the paintings at first, mumbling something silently, then she'd approached him and asked if he worked there.
"No," he'd admitted. "But it is a lovely place, isn't it?"
Allison had smiled. "Lovely indeed. That painting over there in particular." She pointed to the newest work in the gallery, a beautiful piece from a relatively new and upcoming artist.
"It's all right." He glanced at it offhandedly.
She hid a scowl behind a full teeth smile. "Really? I like it."
"Composition is good, strokes are bold and sure, but the lighting is wrong," he replied truthfully.
Allison tilted her head to the side, considering the wisdom of his words. She wasn't much into decorating and had hung the thing in the first blank spot on the wall. "And what would you do with it?"
Thus had begun a conversation on where he thought the painting would look best. Undaunted Allison had gone over to the painting and deftly took it off the wall, moving it to where he'd suggested.
When she turned back his mouth was slightly open and his eyes were wide.
"Don't worry," she assured him. "I work here." Allison studied the work, and how the light hit it just right now and the canvases on either side accented it instead of detracted from it.
"Y-you work here?" he stammered.
"Actually I own the place," Allison chuckled.
A man of few words, she liked that. She'd asked him if he wanted to work with her to set up the rooms and display the paintings. Mutely he'd nodded and now, more then five years later, he was an equal partner and they had three full time employees and various janitorial staff.
That painting had long since sold, the artist though had disappeared in the ever changing fads of the art world.
Now Allison wandered into a new room that had quickly become her favorite. In a time where families were few and far between, the emergence of family portraits and homelife had resurfaced with a vengeance. They sold faster then Allison could keep them on the walls.
There. Between the little boy on the horse and the little girl in the rose garden. Chris' decorating skills had rubbed off on her during the years and she knew Grace's painting would have been right at home there. It would have sold quickly. Too bad she wasn't willing to part with it.
Let it go, part of her whispered. You don't need it or the money it will generate for the gallery. But I wonder if that other-
"Hey Alli, there you are." Chris interrupted her musings as he sauntered into the room with a sheaf of papers under his arm.
"What's up Chris? He still won't sign?" She turned away from the bare spot on the wall and faced her business partner, and friend.
"Nope, the tight wad is hanging on for everything he can." Chris grimaced.
Allison sighed. She'd have to take care of this one herself. "All right, stick the folder on my desk and I'll give the old fart a call after lunch."
How Allison managed to hold onto her clients never ceased to amaze him. Of course all she had to do was bat her pretty little eyelashes and she got whatever she wanted.
"Will do." He headed to her office, but stopped at the doorway to the hall. "Have you had lunch? We could pop over to Salisbury?"
"No thanks, Chris. I've got stuff to do."
"Okay," he said, as he turned slowly and left. She'd been so distant, more so then usual, and Chris worried about her health. She was at the gallery till all hours of the night and never seemed to stop for anything more then a coffee. Chris had found her, more then once lately, roaming through the rooms with far away looks.
He pushed his dark haired business partner out of his mind, laid the old farts folder on Allison's desk and headed out to the Italian restaurant across the street.
I woke late. Someone had unplugged my alarm. I rushed around, grabbing my uniform and a shower before I hopped on the subway to work. I was starving but I didn't have money for breakfast, so I worked through the first two hours of my shift with a grumbling stomach. Twice I snatched a roll from the bin and placed it in my pocket before I filled the tray and went out to serve them.
On my first break I fixed coffee, the only beverage available in the staff lounge, and scarfed down the rolls. I was still hungry.
Through the last hours of my shift my ankles began to swell and my lower back knotted. Why the hell did I work here if I hated it so much? The tips were good? Cha'right. I just hadn't won the lotto... hadn't made the big time....
I sighed and got back to work as one of the patrons titled their empty glass in my direction.
Finally my shift was over and I could go to the loft and do what I did best. Painting. Nothing else relaxed me, comforted me the way solid brush strokes did. My father use to tease me that one day I would marry one of my canvases.
Well, they were certainly more dependable then people.
The apartment was still littered with trash and a few people. Doug was out and about with his ever present bowl of Frosted Flakes. I mumbled a 'hello' before I escaped to the loft.
He didn't hear me, or didn't respond.
I changed into sweats and a T-shirt and sat at my drawing table, but after a moment of just shuffling the paints around and trying to stretch out the pain in my back and ignore my throbbing feet, I gave up. I shrugged out of my sweats and laid on the bed, propped up with the pillows.
With a weary groan I pulled the laptop over on top of my bare thighs and booted it up. I dialed up on the internet and downloaded my e-mail. I discarded all but two. One was my younger sister's e-mail address. The other I didn't recognize.
After reading my sister's tales of woe regarding her boyfriend I shot off a big sister reply that not so subtly said to dump the little chraa. Then I stared for a second at the unrecognized e-mail from PWG@aol.com.
I clicked on 'read' and was startled to find my name and a short note from Allison Parker. Of course, Parker Wahbash Galleries, PWG.
The phone has been busy all day at your apartment so I've sent you an e-mail to let you know that we won't be able to start the portrait on Saturday.
A client has invited me to a party and since I want his collection in my gallery for next month's show I will need to attend.
I'm sorry if this is an inconvenience for you, I'll try to clear part of my schedule on Sunday.
Damn, how in hell had she gotten my e-mail address? I'd only given it to my sister, but then how did I get all that cyber junkmail?
As for the phone being busy, one of the party animals downstairs had probably left it, or knocked it, off the hook last night. I hit the 'reply' button.
Sorry, phone was off the hook, didn't realize it. Sunday will be fine.
Actually all day Sunday will be fine since for a change I have time off from work.
Sounds like you'd rather not go to the party. What is it for?
I hit 'send' without reading it over again, hoping it didn't sound too stupid. My belly was rumbling but I was too sore to get up just yet. I opened my web browser and went to a well used search engine, Yahoo, and typed in Parker and Wahbash Galleries. I wasn't really expecting anything, but it turned up a main site.
Wondering why it mattered I hit the link and waited for the page to load. Wow, nice graphics and a nice easy to follow setup. Ms. Parker's design or her partner's? Or even a professional design, she certainly had the money.
I scrolled to the very bottom and read the disclaimers. C. Wahbash had made the graphics and designed the page. Interesting. I clicked around a bit more, learning the nature of the upcoming show, the scheduled one after that, a brief bio. on Chris and nothing on Allison.
Thomas Thurbs' personal collection of oils and watercolors will be on display in the Wahbash Gallery. Among the works are paintings by artists such as Rembrandt...
Yadda yadda.... Where's the good stuff?
Thomas Thurbs is the top lawyer at Thurbs, Thurbs and Romaine. He has generously offered to show these works to the public for the very first time.
Generously offered? Uh huh, how much was it costing Allison?
"You've got mail."
The gender neutral computer voice scared the shit out of me. I wasn't expecting anything.
The party is my chance to sway Mister Thurbs into not backing out of our agreement. He's demanding a small fortune for us to show the paintings. It's formal and hosh posh. I do hate these things. Getting all dressed up and having to stick my nose in the air.
Would you like Ed to pick you up Sunday? What's a good time for you? I've cleared my schedule. After the party I'm sure to need it.
Oh, and if you were wondering I got your e-mail address from the little card in your portfolio.
Well, that explained that.
I smiled as I read, not at all expecting Allison's sarcasm to show through in an e-mail, nor did I expect her to be so honest.
Please tell Ed I'd be honored if he'd escort me to your house. Is 10am good? I'd like to see the house and find a good spot to paint, unless you have a spot picked out already?
I'm sure Mr. Thurbs will find, out of the goodness of his heart, the will to show his collection. Just give him one of those intimidating stares of yours. :)
I've never been to a formal party, but I'm sure there must be something to do there besides hob knob. Lots of interesting people and exciting stories.
Good luck on Saturday,
I hit 'send' then shut down the web browser. Just as I was going to sign off and go get some dinner the computer told me I had more mail. Damn, that was fast.
It was from my sister. Oh, okay. I didn't bother to read her depressing e-mail. Instead I signed off, shut down the computer and laid it back on the table.
I pulled my sweats back on and limped painfully downstairs to the kitchen. There was nothing left to eat. All my labeled and carefully marked food had been eaten last night.
Dammit it all to hell! I never ate their food... why couldn't they respect that? I was too tired, too sore to go down to the corner to get anything else, and I wouldn't be paid until the end of the week anyway.
I refused to stoop to their level and eat their stuff.
So, with a grumbling stomach I went upstairs. For awhile I sat, staring out the window. I wanted out of here. More then anything. More than my beloved brother and father. More than food.
I checked my e-mail, one last time before I went to sleep. There was nothing from Allison. More disappointed than I cared to admit I turned the computer off and curled up under the sheet after I'd pulled the curtain around the bed.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday....
Work day after work day, my ankles swelled more and more after each shift. I couldn't pull doubles anymore, no matter how much I needed the money.
No e-mail all week from the lovely art dealer either.
Friday night I dragged my sorry ass up to the loft, tears of pain in my eyes. Uniform and all I crumpled onto my bed. Three hours later I lifted my groggy head and moaned pitifully. The phone was ringing. Couldn't someone get up and answer the damn thing?
Finally there was blessed silence and I closed my eyes once again. The shrill blasting of the phone ten minutes later stopped my heart in my chest.
Fuck, what a way to wake up. They were going to keep calling unless I either took the receiver off the hook or actually answered. I opted for the first choice and slid down to the end of the bed. I took off my work shoes and leaned over the rail.
The first one missed. Damn.
The second one landed with a solid BRINNGGGG as the shoe and the phone went flying off the table.
I sighed and flopped back onto the pillow.
Dammit, what now? I sat up on the bed, rubbing sleep from my eyes. There it was again. Thump, thump. Someone was knocking on the door.
I stumbled down the stairs in the dark and cracked the door open. Concerned blue eyes peeked inside.
"Allison?" I squawked. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I- um, can I come inside?"
I threw a hasty glance around the apartment, but it was too dark to see much of the mess. I opened the door and invited Allison in with a wave of my hand. I only stepped back far enough for her to shut the door behind her.
"What are you doing here?" I asked again, shifting from foot to foot, trying to ease the pain.
"I tried to call earlier," Allison admitted.
"Oh," was all I could think of to say. Come on, get a grip. "But that still doesn't explain what you're doing here."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come." Allison turned to grasp the doorknob.
"What?" She turned.
With a glance I fell into the depth of her icy eyes. I would have stayed there, drowned there if she hadn't looked away.
"I just came to see if you were all right. When I tried to call there was this strange noise. Then I called again and the line was busy," Allison finally said.
"Ohmigod, I forgot about that." I could feel a furious blush fanning up my face. "I was trying to sleep and no one would answer the phone. I threw my, um, my shoe at it and knocked it off the hook," I finished sheepishly.
Allison actually chuckled. "Since you're all right and it was just a shoe-"
"Yes?" I asked uncertainly. Should I clear a spot on the sofa? My feet were killing me. When she didn't answer I limped my way over to the couch and threw some stuff aside.
Allison silently followed, and sat in the cleared off spot.
"Sorry 'bout the mess," I said shyly. "My roomies are party animals and pigs. I gave up trying to clean up after them a long time ago."
"Don't worry about it," Allison said dismissively. "I went to college and had a slob for a roommate too."
Better not let her know that I'm as much of a slob as they are. "So, you were going to say something before?"
"Well, I just thought that since I'm here... well I thought-"
"Spit it out woman." I smiled at her unusual embarrassment. What was all the fuss?
"I told you about the party tomorrow?" She twisted her hands together.
"Mmmhmm." I nodded with no sense of where this conversation was going.
"I'd like it if you accompanied me." Allison spat it out quickly.
"A-accompany you?" I stuttered.
"Only if you want to," she replied quietly. "At least I'd have someone to talk to."
"It can't be all that bad, can it?" I asked, shocked and happily surprised at the sudden invitation.
"Much worse. She smiled. "Will you come?"
"I don't have anything to wear." That was my immediate response, and my eyes widened in horror.
"Then that's a yes? I know it's really short notice, but I could go with you tomorrow after work and I could help you pick out something."
"It's not that," I heard myself say. "After bills and rent...."
Allison nodded, bright blue eyes widening slowly. "Make a deal with you?"
"An advance on your paycheck for the portrait, if," she stressed the if as if the following was all that mattered, "IF you save me from some of the old farts and their long winded 'I-had-to-walk-uphill-both-ways-to-school' speeches.'"
"I'm hardly the one to save you." But, I smiled. That silly kind of smile where I wish I had the nerve to flirt.
"Well, Chris is otherwise detained, so you'll have to do," Allison winked.
The wink was startling. She's playing games with me? "What time is the party?"
"Eight, but I like to...make an appearance. So, say nine."
Nine, nine...nine. Not nearly enough time to pick out a formal dress. I could call in sick. Yeah, one day won't make much difference where FICA was concerned. "I'll take the morning off and we can shop. If you're up to it."
"Sounds good to me." She smiled and stood.
I suddenly wished she wasn't leaving. I wanted to soak up her beauty all night long. Knock it off, stupid, she's not interested. I stuck out my hand. "Pick me up in the morning?"
Allison clasped my hand within her long, tapered fingers. Her palm was warm or it was the sudden jolt that rushed through my body, I couldn't tell.
"Ten too early?"
"Ten it is." I walked her to the door, my feet suddenly far less painful. "Good night, Allison."
"G'night, Grace. Sorry about waking you up."
"Nah, it's all right." The smile stayed on my face long after I'd gone back up to the loft and fallen asleep.
I was up and ready when Allison knocked on the door at precisely ten o'clock. I'd succumbed to my near starvation and wolfed down a bowl of Doug's Frosted Flakes before he'd stumbled out of bed.
I'd almost laughed when he'd reached into the cupboard, pulled out the big blue box and tipped it over a cereal bowl. The look on his face was priceless. "Who ate all my goddamned cereal?" he'd screamed.
The knock on the door had saved me from the evil chuckle bubbling up in my throat.
Wow. "Morning." I smiled at the vision in front of me. I could get use to facing that every morning. Stop that....
"Ready?" Allison asked, casting a furtive glance around the apartment in the full light of day.
"Yep." I shut the door and followed her down the stairs to the sidewalk and the limo where Ed was waiting, a smile on his face. I tried to ignore the ache in my right foot, that hadn't gone away during the night, and smiled back.
"Good morning, Miss Jordan." Ed gallantly opened the door.
I stuck my tongue out at him. We'd hit it off instantly that night he'd driven me home from Allison's. Was it the fact that as soon as we were out of sight I'd insisted he stop the limo and let me sit up front like a normal person and not some rich snob?
Allison watched the exchange with an arched eyebrow.
I sat in the back with Allison this time. "Where are we going?" I asked after she had shut the door and settled on the rich leather seat.
She rambled off a list of stores that were well out of my budget, my eyes widening the whole time.
"Well, did you really expect us to find you a dress at Wal-Mart?" Allison grinned.
Something like that. "Of course not," I said defensively.
"Ed, let's try Giovani's first."
"Yes, ma'am." There was nothing playful in his response to Allison, I noted.
Giovani's turned out to be a two story affair, with bright lights, cheery sales people on high commissions and price tags that made me gag. Trundle's was next. More high prices, overbearing sales people, and harsh florescent lights. I was having a difficult time with Allison's statement; 'Find a dress you like and don't even glance at the price. Your advance will cover it.'
By the fourth store Allison seemed vaguely angry at my ineptitude to find a dress and I was more then pissed at the fact that it hurt so much to stand. I was ready to throw in the towel and say 'fuck this, I'm going home' when a pale creamy color caught my eye. It was on the rack. Mother would be so ashamed.
Carefully I pulled it out of the jumble. It was a straight shift, traveling well down to my ankles, but with a slit on the side. Spaghetti straps finished off the top with a fairly conservative neck line.
However, it was two sizes too big.
"If that's the dress you want, Grace, you can ask them to resize it."
Allison's low voice sent a shiver up my spine as she whispered close to my ear. I turned and looked up. "Let me try it on first."
She showed me to the dressing room and left me to it. I risked a glance at the price tag anyway as I slipped it off the hanger. Damn, only 500 dollars. Only...could be worse. How about that one that was the price of a used car? Or the one that was equal to a down payment on a nice house?
Shoving my uneasiness aside I slipped into the dress, then turned to the mirror.
Hmmm...take it in here, and here.... It could work. "Alli?" I called through to the chairs area at the front. I heard footsteps across the carpeted floor then a hesitant knock on the door.
"Come on in." I flipped the lock off and stood back. Allison's eyes widened and I felt a surge of disappointment. "That bad?" I asked.
"N-no. No, not bad at all," Allison stammered. She reached out a hand and plucked absently at the waist line. "Take it in a bit...." She pulled back.
"Will they do that here?" I asked, uncertainty clouding my words.
"Yes. I'll get someone to come back.... You really do look nice, Grace." Allison walked out.
I was left with my mouth hanging slightly ajar.
The lady gushed and fussed, trying hard to re-earn the commission she'd nearly lost earlier when she'd ignored me in my ratty jeans, and targeted straight on Allison in her tailored slacks and silk blouse.
I endured it all, feeling Allison's eyes darting back and forth over the whole situation. When the hemming was finished and my back and legs ached once again I was in a foul mood. I suddenly balked at the idea of paying 500 dollars for a dress I would wear only once.
"This is a bad idea," I said again as we followed the woman up to the cash register. Bad, bad, bad, stupid idea.
"Relax, Grace." Allison smiled kindly and touched my shoulder. "Why don't you go out to the limo and see how Ed is doing? I'll take care of this."
"Yeah, sure, Ed's probably bored out of his mind, wondering if aliens have landed and flown off with us." I sighed with relief.
"Don't worry, he's been shopping with me before." Allison chuckled.
I smiled and kept my head up as I exited the store, knowing Allison was watching me. Once outside I nearly collapsed on the pavement in pain. Suddenly there was a hand around my waist, pulling me up.
"You all right, Miss Jordan?" Ed's deep voice was filled with concern.
Tears of pain threatened to overflow and I gulped them back down. "Can you help me into the limo, Ed?" I asked, full of shame.
It was a relief to sit down, but that biting pain was in my lower back again and I felt nauseous. Ed fixed a glass of water from the small refrigerator then hurried back up to the front as Allison exited from the store, a garment bag slung over her shoulder.
"Everything all right in here?" Allison asked, her gaze shifting from Ed back to me.
"Yup, " I answered lamely.
"Why don't we have lunch at my house? I'll show you around and you can figure out where you want to paint the portrait tomorrow." Allison draped the garment bag over the seat in front of us and settled back into the seat.
Ahh, lunch. At least a half hours worth of sitting time. "Sounds good," I stifled a yawn.
"Tired?" Allison asked.
"A little bit," I admitted.
Ed pulled slowly out into traffic and we headed back to Allison's home in silence.
Vella's dark head peered around the door as we entered. I gave her a smile but she simply looked me up and down and turned her attention to Allison.
"Mr. Wahbash called an hour ago, ma'am."
"Thank you Vella. Grace and I will be having lunch on the back patio." Allison casually touched my elbow and led us down the hall.
"Yes, ma'am." Vella returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch.
We walked past the staircase, past the pictures, past the den through a richly furnished living room and through wide, glass paned double doors to the back patio. It was filled with flowers that gave off the fragrant scent of lilacs, roses and many others I couldn't name.
In the middle of the patio, white wicker chairs sat around a glass topped table. On top of the table was a frosty crystal vase with a bouquet of flowers.
"Why don't you have a seat, Grace? I've got a phone call to make and I'll be right back." Allison waited for me to nod and take a seat.
I gazed out over the manicured gardens in the back, my eyes wide. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't put that cold look on my face that Allison seemed to have perfected.
It all simply amazed me.
"What's up, Chris?" Allison asked. She was in the den, calling on the second line, hoping Grace wasn't bored out of her mind.
"Mr. Thurbs called. He wants you to confirm you'll be there."
"Yeah, fine," Allison sighed. "I'll call him and let him know I'll be there."
"Did you pick up a date, Alli?" Chris asked.
Allison chuckled and a little smile curled her mouth up as she thought of the young woman waiting on her patio. "Something like that," she replied cryptically.
"Ohhhh, tell me about her."
She could almost hear his mind clicking and see his wide, mischievous smile. "She's absolutely beautiful, and she's got this...I don't know what it is-" She stopped abruptly and continued in a more subdued voice, "You'll get to meet her soon enough, Chris. But we're friends, nothing more."
"Uh huh." Chris chuckled.
"Don't even go there. We're friends," Allison stated with maybe a little too much vehemence.
"Relax, Alli, I was just teasing you." Chris backed down, puzzled by Allison's behavior.
"Sorry, didn't mean to snap at you." Allison twisted the phone cord around her finger, biting her tongue. "Lunch is ready. I'll give Mr. Thurbs a call after."
"Okay, take care of yourself."
"Bye." Allison hung up the phone with a sigh. She straightened her blouse and her expression, keeping both smooth and even.
There's even a fountain, I marveled, craning my neck to get a better view through the tinted windows.
"Would you like the tour now or after lunch?"
Allison's deep voice startled me once again. "Geez, you shouldn't sneak up on people like that, Alli," I chastised.
"Sorry." Allison grinned.
My stomach rumbled loudly. "Uh, guess it's lunch first."
Vella chose that precise moment to walk in with a tray laden down with food. I automatically got up to grab one of the edges and help her.
"I've got it," Vella said softly. "Please sit down, miss."
I gave Vella an uncertain glance. "I don't mind." I suddenly received a grateful smile that completely changed the young Mexican woman's face, and I returned the smile as I helped her set up the small table.
Allison remained silent.
After Vella left we sat at the table and I followed suit as Allison unfolded her linen napkin and draped it over her lap.
"It's her job you know."
"Huh?" I looked up from my study of the numerous forks.
"It's Vella's job to set the table and bring the food." Allison picked up a four pronged, large silver fork.
I looked for the same one. "Just because it's her job doesn't mean I can't help out," I replied absently, trying to decide what to eat first- the little white things I thought might be mussels, the herb pasta or the array of peas and pearl onions.
"You are my guest, Grace. You shouldn't interfere with Vella's job."
I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth, the mussel dangling precariously off the end. "Excuse me?" I asked incredulously. "Have you forgotten already that I'm just like Vella? Except I don't work in a mansion, I work down on 8th Street?" I carefully set the fork back on the plate, before I did a Julia Roberts.
"Where you work or how much money you have does not define who you are, Grace," Allison responded.
"Tell that to society," I mumbled and picked up my fork again.
Allison seemed about to argue the point.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you like that," I said and resumed eating. I'd never had mussels before. Not bad. "Haven't you ever helped the people that work for you?"
Allison's jaw clenched and unclenched. "No, I do my job and they do theirs."
This was going to be a long day. I needed the money the portrait would bring, and being a smart ass was a sure way to lose it. So, I ignored Allison's last comment. "Great food," I mumbled around a forkful of peas.
"Mmmm," Allison murmured.
"So, this is a good place?" Allison asked.
I nodded and looked back and forth from the bench to the flowers. The roses were on a trellis behind the bench, and the lighting was good, but only for a short while each day. It would be perfect for the portrait.
Okay, nothing was ever perfect, but this place was as close to heaven as I was gonna get.
"Yup," I stated. "We'll start here tomorrow." I glanced up at Allison's expressionless face, and wondered briefly what emotion I saw flashing in those gorgeous blue eyes. It didn't matter. I was here to do a painting and nothing else.
Allison knew she looked good. I could see it in the tiny smile that edged her lips. She didn't flaunt it though. She walked to the limo with her usual casual grace and waited till the door was opened, then ushered me in first.
I, on the other hand, felt extremely self-concious. The dress had been altered to fit perfectly, and clung in all the right spots, but, well, I didn't like those spots to begin with.
Okay, years of walking everywhere and waitressing or bartending had given me toned legs and arms...but, I don't know. Ever since...let's just say I have little to no self-esteem.
But, if Allison's sparkling eyes were any indication, I looked all right. Enough to pass at this dinner party thing anyway.
After a drive to The Hills I was tempted not to get out of the limo. If I'd thought Allison's mansion was impressive and intimidating it was a cottage compared to this one. No wonder the guy had his own private art collection.
"Come on," Allison urged. She gently took my elbow and pulled me out of the limo.
I nodded mutely, my eyes fixed on the ornate gold moldings, white pillars and marble walks. "Allison," I whispered, as we stood just outside of the limo. "Tell me again why I'm doing this?"
"You promised to fend the old men off for me, remember?" She grinned.
My God, that smile totally transformed her. One minute she's a sleek, rich snob, and the next, well the next she's human. Very human, and very beautiful. My heart stuck in my throat as she started up the steps slightly ahead of me. When she realized I wasn't following she glanced back and stopped.
There was a curious expression on her face as she retreated back to my side and laid her long, tapered fingers on my arm.
"N-nothing," I stammered.
"It's just like any other party. And we won't stay for long. I just need to convince Mr. Tightwad to show his collection."
Allison's hand was still on my arm. It sent tingles running up and down my spine.
Just like any other party...she'd said.
"Grace Elizabeth Jordan!" My mother yelled. "Don't you dare run around outside before your father's friends get here.'"
I was five. What did I know? I liked to run, and play. Especially in the dirt with my little brother. We were playing hide and seek because we'd gotten bored waiting in the house. "Mummy," I said. "We aren't running."
I remember seeing her, hands on hips at the back door. She was wearing a dark blue, shimmering dress. She'd looked so beautiful. It would be the last time I saw her there....
Allison looked down to Grace. She seemed so lost. Was she afraid? Her heart sped up and jumped into her throat, where it decided to come to a screeching halt. She is scared.
We could go.... But the thought didn't last long. This showing was too important to back out on now, just because Grace was afraid of something.
Get a grip. She wanted to shake the young woman. What good would it do? Come on, Grace, I don't want to be here either. No helpful words or cliches found their way to her lips. There was nothing to say.
"Buck up, girl. Life is hard." That was her father's favorite saying. Allison sighed and refused to say anything even remotely similar to it.
I heard Allison sigh and knew I was being a big baby. With a deep breath I squared my shoulders and brushed past a startled Allison on my way to the front, double doors.
Just another party....
As I stepped inside the parlor my heart almost stopped. The place was gorgeous. It was also teeming with people in tuxes and shimmering gowns. Briefly I glanced down at my plain dress, feeling a blush beginning to travel up my cheeks.
"Don't worry," Allison said, startling the shit out of me, once again. "You look fine."
"Evening ladies," a deep, rumbling voice said before I could argue.
I looked over to the owner of the voice and saw a man that was almost the same height as I was, perhaps a few inches taller. A short, but grizzly beard, and white hair gave him the appearance of a wizened old grandfather. Maybe his eyes use to sparkle when he looked at his grandchildren, but as he looked at me now I got the distinct impression that he didn't even see me.
"Evening, Mr. Thurbs. It looks like the party is going well." Allison smiled and shook the old man's hand.
Ah, so this was the host. I smiled hesitantly as Allison introduced us.
"Mr. Thurbs, this is my friend Grace. Grace, this is the man I was telling you about, who offered to show his art collection at my gallery." She smiled and winked at me and I wondered if I'd missed some kind of inside joke.
"Call me Thom. He smiled; a smile that touched his lips, and nothing more.
I just smiled back the same way. A bell jingled somewhere in the distance and Thom held out his arms to us.
"That would be dinner. May I escort you lovely ladies to the table?"
"Thank you," I said politely and tucked my arm through his. He walked us to the large table and I worked hard to keep my gaze cool as I looked sideways at the chandeliers, large floor to ceiling windows and marble tiles.
We sat down and the help began to serve us. I felt remarkably uncomfortable as I realized that any one of them could be me. The food settled like a rock in my stomach. The pheasant, baby potatoes, and green salad tasted like cardboard. Conversations rattled all around me and I studiously watched my fork moving around the plate.
A thin, reedy voice garnered my attention as it rose in both pitch and volume. I turned to an elderly woman who was adamantly defending the virtues of welfare for unwed mothers. As the conversation's volume rose the guests stilled and listened. It appeared our host thought welfare was a sham, that homelessness was because people were lazy...etc.
"Welfare isn't a sham, just the people who use it. They're typically uneducated, unmarried young women who got pregnant at too young an age."
My fork stilled completely as I listened to Allison's casual, cutting words. Someone else agreed and piped up that food stamps were simply a waste of time.
Shit, I'd used food stamps. Would probably have to use them again. I looked around the table, and would have bet my next paycheck that none of them had ever gone a day, let alone a week, with nothing substantial to eat. And, as my mouth and brain werent always connected I found words tumbling out of my mouth.
"Most women, or men, that are now on welfare worked minimum wage jobs. One month they made ends meet, the next...they struggled...the next...they found circumstances beyond their control." I got it all out in a rush, but felt I hadn't said enough. "And, before they knew it they were seeking government aid because when their children said, 'mommy I'm hungry', they couldn't bear to look in their innocent eyes and say, 'I'm sorry, baby, there isn't anything to eat.'"
I suddenly found all eyes on me, as if I were from another planet, with antennae and purple spots.
"Nonsense," Thom snorted. "They should have gotten another job. Hell, they should have gone to college in the first place."
"Well then, sir," I said, surprised my voice was calm, since I was on display, and since this was not my favorite topic. "They tried. Now, with two minimum wage jobs, night school, daycare, it all crashes down around them. Their child becomes sick, or they're injured on the job.... What then? Suddenly they find themselves further in the hole than ever. Now they're paying hospital bills. Suddenly the car is taken away, the other job goes, or they're fired because of lost work days. Then the house-"
"They never should have gotten into a situation like that in the first place. If it were me-"
Much to my horror I interrupted our host. Something I knew was taboo, even without being told. "If you, sir, were there you wouldn't know what the hell to do. No servants to cook, clean, or care for the kids. No chauffeur, and no caviar." Several people gasped as my passionate speech dwindled to nothing and I was left staring at the gray haired man that could have been my grandfather. I suddenly remembered he was Allison's wealthy client. Oh god, I'd just messed everything up.
Silence reigned in the room as he stared. "What's your name, young lady?"
"Grace," I gulped. I could feel Allison staring daggers into her shrimp cocktail. Suddenly I wondered if I was going to be painting tomorrow after all.
"You've got passion, Grace, I like that. Who do you feel about...."
And slowly, somehow, it all went back to normal. I was part of the conversations, I was asked questions, as if I was the rich man's contact with the little people. And, deep down, for some reason, it all made me feel...dirty.
But, for one night, for Allison, I could pretend.
After dinner I escaped outside as the party went on inside. It felt good to shed my strange second skin and be myself again. For a moment I contemplated roaming through the vast garden but the chill of the night air and the moonless night kept me seated on the bench a stone's throw from the light trailing out the tall windows.
I heard the scuff of feet on marble and sighed inwardly
"Mind if I have a sit down?"
It was Thom. I smiled politely and waved my hand at the bench. "It's your house."
"That it is. With that thought in mind, young lady, I'm going to light up my cigar, but I hope it doesn't send you scurrying away."
I shrugged. He sat beside me on the bench and removed a cigar clip, took off a bit of the end, and lit up his stogie. Actually the smell of the cigar was sweet. It reminded me of something.
He puffed a moment then said, "Interesting dinner, huh?"
I grunted non-committally.
"You're a friend of Miss Parker's?"
I grinned wearily. "Probably not after my little speech at the dinner table." He chuckled lightly and I turned to get a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye.
"I certainly hope that's not the case, my dear. She'd be far too stupid, and might I add, not worthy of my art collection, if she slighted you after speaking your mind."
"Then you're going to let her gallery show it?"
"Straight to the point, I like that." He took a moment to puff some more and stared out over the darkened gardens. "Honestly?" Thom looked at me carefully. I nodded and he continued. "Honestly, I don't know."
"Don't know? Why?" I asked curiously. As he looked away from me I turned to see what was so interesting.
"What do you see out there, Grace?"
He motioned towards the yard and for a moment I'd thought he'd lost his mind.
"What do you see?" he asked again quietly.
"Money," I said instantly, but decided not to look in his direction.
He hmmed, puffed some more and the silence stretched so long that the crickets sounded like a miniature rock concert. "Why is it the more money you have, the more you want?" he asked.
"Why is it when you have no money it's all you want?" I countered.
"Money is the root of all evil," he quoted. "All my life I've had money. All my life I worked for more. But still, there's something missing. I don't need it anymore, collecting it has simply become a hobby for me. Do you know just how much money I have, Grace?"
"No," I said.
"Aren't you going to ask just how much I have?"
"No." I shivered briefly as a chill wind wrapped around my shoulders and slithered through my thin dress.
"Why what, sir?"
"Don't call me sir. And why aren't you going to ask?"
"Cause I don't really care."
For a long time he was quiet and I wondered if I'd offended him, or done something else taboo.
"Fair enough," he finally said. He reached into his coat pocket and dug out a cigar. "Want one?" It was waggled in my direction. I took the cigar and the clipper. Not sure how to go about it I took off a small bit of the end, like he had, then lit it from the proffered gold plated zippo. I puffed on it, but wondered if I'd cut off too much as little bits of the cigar stuck to my lips and tongue.
"They aren't as sweet as they smell. It's kind of disappointing," I said absently.
He let out a soft chuckle that turned to a belly laugh. I looked at him with wide eyes, waggled my eyebrows and made him laugh harder.
"Am I interrupting something?" Allison's smooth voice floated from the doors to our bench.
"Oops, I do believe we've been caught taking candy from the cookie jar." I grinned. Thom grinned back.
"Not at all, Allison. Grace and I were simply out enjoying the night air, waxing philosophical and smoking fine cigars." Slowly he stood and offered one to Allison. "Care to join us?"
"No thank you, Mr. Thurbs. Actually I came to find Grace, and bid you goodnight." She glanced at me. "If you're ready to go, of course."
I blushed and stood. "I'm ready. Nice meeting you, Thom." I held out my hand and he shook it gravely.
"I'll walk you ladies to the door."
We walked around the side of the mansion, because Thom didn't want to put out his cigar and apparently his wife hadn't allowed him to smoke in the house. And he said, even though she was gone, she'd still know, and come back to haunt him. The limo was pulling up in front as we arrived. Our door was opened for us.
"Mr. Thurbs, before we go, I'd like to enquire about your collection. Your set price is acceptable-"
"Grace?" Thom turned to me.
I felt my eyes widen for about the hundredth time that evening. "Yes?"
"Do you think I should?"
"Yes," I didn't hesitate.
"And how much would you charge Miss Parker to let the world see an art collection that's never been seen before and is considered priceless?" His cigar was set aside and he watched me carefully, as he had before.
Was this some kind of test? "If it's priceless, how can you put a price tag on it?" I asked.
Something sparkled in the deep recesses of his brown eyes. "Indeed." He scratched his chin while Allison and I waited with bated breath. "Very well then. Miss Parker, you may show my collection without charge, on one condition."
"That would be?" she asked.
"That you bring Miss Grace Jordan back here tomorrow."
Instantly my mouth opened and out tumbled words I had no time to recall. "I'm painting tomorrow, I can't."
"Of course you can," Allison argued. "You can do the painting another time."
My mouth opened, but Thom spoke first. "Painting?" He looked at me.
"Um, I'm doing a portrait for Allison. I'm starting it tomorrow." I could feel my nervousness bounding back like a herd of playful puppies.
He nodded to himself. "Then, if I may I'd like to come and observe tomorrow. Then you may have your precious art collection, Ms. Parker."
"Certainly. It would be my pleasure to have you as a guest," she said, humbly.
Well, that seemed to be that. Tomorrow I'd paint, Mr. Thurbs would watch, and Allison would get her collection. All in all it had been a hell of an interesting evening. We got into the limo, and, as I'd expected, it wasn't long before Allison asked the inevitable.
"How did you get him to do that?"
"Do what?" I played dumb.
"Mr. Tightwad gave it up for nothing, because you said so." Allison stretched back into the rich leather of the limo and propped her feet up next to me. "What the hell did you talk about earlier?"
I shrugged. "Nothing really. Must be my perfume."
Allison arched an eyebrow, then grinned. "Well, remember to put more on tomorrow."
I wrinkled my nose, but said nothing as she smiled and closed her eyes. It wasn't long before I asked the inevitable as well. "The evening went okay, then?" I asked softly.
Allison nodded without opening her eyes. "Not one speech on walking to school, uphill both ways."
"That's good." I paused and struggled with words that were suddenly very difficult. "I'm sorry...about dinner."
Slowly Allison's eyes opened and she regarded me for a moment in silence. Then she shrugged. "We have different views on the world. I don't hold that against you, Grace. I...I hope you don't hold it against me as well?"
Allison watched the young woman struggling for words, and realized her comments at the dinner table had bit far deeper then she'd intended. They were a world apart on many things, the topics of conversation being just one of them.
"I don't think you realize what you say sometimes," Grace replied.
Allison's thoughts drifted from dinner topics to the woman sitting across from her, in her limo, in a dress that accented her hair and eyes, and suddenly wondered what the artist was really thinking. "I don't?" she asked.
"Uh no," Grace said, as she turned to look out the tinted windows. "If I told you I'd been on welfare, or had used food stamps, what would you say?"
"Nothing?" Grace rose a delicate eyebrow. "I find that hard to believe. You said enough at dinner."
She watched Grace's jaw clamp firmly shut after that. Just what did I say at dinner? she wondered.
"Welfare isn't a sham, just the people who use it. They're typically uneducated, unmarried young women who got pregnant at too young an age."
Ahh, I get it, Allison thought. I've offended her. What do I say now? "I believe what I said, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Like you."
"So, I'm not a sham? Just everyone else is?" Grace asked, carefully.
Allison's eyebrows rose as she considered that statement. "No," she said finally, but the young artist was still staring at her, in a very disconcerting way. "Not everyone...I mean, I'm sure there are more exceptions.... I've just never seen them."
"And when have you ever seen-" Grace stopped abruptly and shifted her eyes away, to look back out the window. "Nevermind," she mumbled.
"When have I seen what?" The gallery owner prompted.
"Nevermind," Grace repeated. But after a moment she turned back to Allison and her eyes were darker, angrier then ever before. "You live in your rich little mansion, run your own business and have tons of money. You don't associate with 'the little people' or know anything about us. How dare you call our way of life a sham?"
My God, she's got a fire in her. It's practically radiating off her. Allison debated for a long, silent moment what to say. Then simply said, "You're right."
"Dammit-" Grace stopped abruptly. "What?"
"I said; you're right." Allison paused, and looked at her hands twisting the fabric of her dress. "I don't know anything about you, or how you live. So...tell me?"
Grace folded her arms across her chest, then slowly nodded. "Tomorrow, before we paint...I'll show you."
Morning came, gray and cold. It suited me well. I'd slept little. Allison came by early in the morning, just like she'd said, but had protested about sending Ed and the limo away.
I simply responded to that, saying, "You can't get a good view of my world behind tinted windows." She'd dismissed Ed, and now we walked down Laurel St. to the Mission Kitchen. I'd promised myself I'd start her out lightly. This was the best way to do it.
We stood in the long line, saying nothing. I watched Allison watching the people who came and went out the door. Her face was expressionless, but I could see her nervousness in the way she shifted from foot to foot, rubbed her hands together and settled her dark hair behind her ears.
The line moved again, and again, and finally we were at the door. A young man barred the way, indicating if there was enough food left, to let people by. We were let through and I ushered Allison across the stained floor to the long serving table. I picked up a plate and handed her one, and we received our portion of food.
Deliberately I led her to one of the fullest tables and sat between a large, muscular man, and a thin, strung out junkie.
I ate silently, noticing Allison just moved her fork, and food, around the plate. "Something wrong?" I asked.
She shrugged. "What is this stuff suppose to be?" Allison glanced briefly to her right, where the junkie sat, scarfing down her food, then back to her plate.
"That," I pointed to a pile of yellow stuff, "is scrambled eggs. And that's hash browns."
"This?" Allison asked, stabbing her fork into a rock hard, cylindrical object.
"Sausage, I think." I grinned as she flinched. "Hey, you agreed to come with me. Are you backing out now?"
"No, no," she said quickly. She pushed the food around some more, then said, "Do you come here a lot?"
I shook my head. "Not enough time when I work. I come here on the weekends though." I noticed the junkie greedily eyeing Allison's plate. "You going to eat that?" I asked softly.
She pushed the plate away and shook her head.
"Up for grabs," I slid the plate down the table. The junkie grabbed at it and readily at it all. I finished my food, and stood.
"Ready to go?" I asked. Allison nodded, so we made our way to the plate bin, where I dropped off my plate, then we headed out the doors.
Next stop, 'indigent row.' I led the way down a side alley, headed two blocks west, and we ended up under the York bridge. As we walked I glanced at Allison's profile, wondering why in hell she'd agreed to come with me. Was this her way of telling me that even if I was a poor, starving artist I still wasn't like the rest of the 'bums'?
Only time would tell.
York bridge is one of the oldest in the city, and probably the most congested. Underneath it, anyway. The cops made a customary stop here, once a month, to chase off indigents, but otherwise left them alone. They had to go someplace.
There were many spoken and unspoken rules here. For instance, everyone was welcome, but if you caused trouble, you were kicked out, and not allowed to return. This was a safe haven for many homeless people. Mostly families. There was no stealing, and no violence towards others. Respect, here, was a very honored and treasured thing, as was your word. And, considering the circumstances, they were very generous people.
Allison walked through the litter strewn darkness of the bridge. Scattered here and there barrels blazed with fire, and children ran and played. It could have been a park, if it weren't for the boxes, barrels, and the people warming their hands and faces by them.
She couldn't begin to imagine Grace in a place like this. Didn't want to think of her here, cold, starving, possibly dying.
"Here," Grace said.
The gallery owner glanced up, then looked where Grace was pointing.
"See that burnt crate over there?"
Along the wall ran a number of cardboard boxes and broken crates. Many had newspapers sealing cracks, and blankets as doorways. The burnt crate was on the end.
"I stayed there for two months, before the cops picked me up," Grace admitted.
Allison's eyebrows rose clear up under her bangs and she was shocked into silence. She had stayed here.
Grace chuckled nervously. "I know what you're thinking. What's a girl like me doing in a place like this." She shrugged. "It happens. I ran into trouble. The Mission and the Center were full, so this was the only place to go."
Allison turned to Grace after studying the small box. "You left here, got a job and an apartment. They can do the same."
The artist stared incredulously into pale blue eyes. "It's not that easy. After I got out of- after I left where I was I got lucky. Believe it or not I found twenty bucks in a pair of pants someone threw out, bought one of those dollar scratch off games and won. I only won a hundred bucks, but it was enough to go into an apartment with a couple other people. So, I did."
I lied. I'd been desperate. So, when I'd found a wallet- no, I didn't steal it- I took out the cash and literally ran with it. The one good thing that ever happened to me. I knew Allison wouldn't approve, and I couldn't force myself to admit it. It would just be one more thing to prove her theory.
She didn't say anything. I followed where she was looking.
If there was one thing I knew would get to her it would be them. I settled down onto the cold, broken concrete and after a minute she sat beside me. Gently I touched her arm.
"People fall through the cracks, Alli. Some come here on purpose, I'll admit that. But do you think she would?" I pointed to a young mother with a screaming child on her hip and one running around, sword fighting, with a stick.
She shook her head.
"When you fall through the cracks, there's little to no way to climb back up." I paused. What would she understand? Then it came to me. She understood business. "Think of it as acquiring a new painting."
Allison glanced at me, but still said nothing. There was a strange look in her eyes.
I continued softly. "It's a beautiful piece of art, being shipped all the way from Paris. All the proper documents have been attained, it's packaged and shipped, but it never arrives." I paused, and thought hard for a moment. "So, what do you do?"
"Trace it," Allison immediately replied.
I smiled. "You bet your ass you trace it. You look for it, even go out to the dock or the postmaster. But, still, something happened. Some little thing. Maybe an incorrect postage. Who knows? How will you find it if it's been labeled, or stored incorrectly?"
"You can't," she said.
"Exactly. People aren't rare paintings though. When they fall through the cracks they just aren't valuable enough to society to track down and help out."
Allison studied the screaming child, and slowly nodded. "Guess I never looked at it like that before." She paused. "Actually I've never really taken the time before at all."
My hand was still on her arm, so I reached it around her shoulders and gave her an impulsive hug. "So, now ya know where I come from. Ready to get the hell outta here?"
She stood and pulled me to my feet. A small smile quirked her lips and lit up the pale depths of her eyes. "Yeah, someone has a painting to do."
"Just put that over there." I pointed to the area in front of the trellis, instructing the young man where to put the canvas and paints. Upon arriving at Allison's she had insisted on getting the supplies, said it was tradition, then left to check the office, and said she'd be back in about an hour.
"Miss Grace?" I turned to find Vella standing in the doorway.
"Just call me Grace," I said automatically.
"Mr. Thurbs is here."
"Already?" I asked.
"Show him in then."
"Yes, ma'- Grace." She grinned slightly and hurried back into the cavernous house.
I was already exhausted so I let Mark set up the easel where I asked for it and brought a stool. I was just sitting down when a gruff voice said, "Grace, my dear, how are you? No, no, don't get up. Boy-"
"His name is Mark," I said.
"Mark," he drawled. "Get me a chair."
"Yes sir." The boy scurried away. A moment later he returned and put the chair where Mr. Thurbs gestured.
"Anything else, Grace?" the boy asked.
"No, Mark. Thanks, you did a great job." His smile took up the entire lower half of his face, and I forced myself not to chuckle.
"You let him call you Grace?" Thom asked.
I turned to face him, the pain in my back already making me grouchy. "Let him?" I rose one eyebrow, in a pale imitation of Allison's signature gesture. "I asked him to call me Grace."
Thom humphed. "He's hired help. He should have more respect-"
"He may be the help, but he's still a human being." I turned my back on Thom and furiously studied the trellis that I'd be painting in less then an hour.
"Do you dislike all rich people or is it just me?"
My shoulders slumped. Today was not a good day for a battle of wills, witty repartee or much else for that matter. "Yes."
He chuckled. "Fine by me. I don't much like myself, or rich people either."
"Oh really?" I turned to him curiously, and found that same sparkle in his brown eyes. "Do you dislike all poor people or just me?" I threw back.
We both chuckled for a minute, then I got down to fine tuning my work space and answering a few standard questions from Thom, like, 'what are you doing?', 'why are you doing that?', 'what's that for'...etc. Before I knew it Allison was back.
"Shall we get started?" she asked.
"Are you going to wear that?" I asked offhand. She was wearing the casual, charcoal gray business suit that she'd changed into after we'd arrived here. It looked great, but certainly wasn't what I'd had in mind.
"Sure, why not?" She glanced down the length of her body then back at me. "Something wrong with the way I look?"
"No, no, not at all," I sputtered. "I just thought something more.... I don't know?" I shrugged helplessly.
"Perhaps Grace is trying to say that you should wear something that's more in keeping with your personality and the traits you wish to portray in a painting."
"Uh, yeah, that's what I meant."
"I'm a business woman. This will be fine. Now, where do you want me to sit?" Allison asked briskly.
I glanced at Thom, who shrugged and finally I told her to sit on the wicker bench. I began with a light outline. The placement of the trellis, the chair, her body.... I became lost in what I was doing, letting my fingers convey what my mind's eye saw. It was coming together well, but it just didn't feel right. Today was not a day to paint. I sighed and looked up to find Allison intently watching me.
She blinked and we both looked away.
"Is there a problem?" Thom asked.
"I...I don't know. It just doesn't feel right." I tapped the pencil absently against the sketchpad, looking at the drawing from all angles.
"Feel right?" he asked.
I turned to look at him. "It has to feel right, look right before I can put the paint down. If it doesn't, it'll never flow together. It'll just be paint on canvas," I replied, trying unsuccessfully to work out the numerous kinks and knots forming along my back.
"Break time then," Vella said.
I was startled to find a number of people were standing behind me, studying the outline. Vella had milk and cookies.
"Break time!" I grinned. "Thanks Vella." Hastily I looked at Allison. "Is that all right?"
"A break sounds good to me. I need to call the office anyway."
I watched her slip away, 'stay' on the tip of my tongue. But she was gone. When the cookies and milk were finished Allison returned to her seat. I picked up the sketch pad I'd brought with me. "I'm going to try something else." For another hour I worked on a pencil drawing of the trellis, the chair and her body. Something still wasn't right, but the light was nearly gone.
"Bout time to call it a day?" Allison asked softly.
I looked up, startled to find her standing in front of me, peering over the edge of the notebook. Her hair cascaded over her shoulder and whispered across the paper. Her face cast in half shadows I found what I needed. Eagerly I turned to a clean sheet of paper as I urged her 'not to move a muscle.'
I worked till my hand cramped.
"Can I move now?" Allison groaned.
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry." I started to close the notebook, but she touched the edge of it, halting me in my tracks.
"May I?" she asked quietly.
No, was my first thought, but instead I silently handed over the paper and watched her face as she studied it.
"Not what I really had in mind...." Her voice trailed off for a moment. "What do you think?" She held the paper up to Thom, then showed it to her staff. They were either too dumbfounded that she'd asked their opinion or were too polite to say it sucked.
Finally Vella said, "I like. Very mysterious. Good shadows and light."
Relieved, I grinned at Vella, then turned anxiously back to Allison. "It's okay?"
Thom nodded his head in agreement. "I just might have to commission a portrait myself."
He's joking. No way.
"Seriously," he added, as an afterthought, almost as if he'd read my mind.
"Uh sure," I found myself saying.
"You paint uh landscape. Trees and things, Grace?" Vella asked.
"Sometimes." I nodded, and thus began numerous small conversations on great painters, spectacular landscapes and everything under the sun. Through it all I wondered where Allison had slipped off to now.
My back was so knotted that it was making me nauseous, and after a short while I excused myself from the conversations to go throw up in the bathroom. There were Tylenol in the medicine cabinet and I popped four of them with some faucet water.
When I returned, the garden was dark and Vella informed me that Mr. Thurbs had wished us all a good evening, before he'd left. He hadn't wanted to disturb me from 'powdering my nose.'
It turned out Allison was in her study. It also turned out that's where my sketchbook had ended up. It was laying across her desk and she was staring out the window. Quietly I cleared my throat, but when it didn't appear she'd heard me I gave a slight cough. Her chair turned with barely a squeak.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey yourself." I smiled nervously. "What's up?"
"Are you ready to go? I can get the chauffeur."
I shrugged. "Whenever." Apparently she didn't desire any more of my company. "I'll see myself out." I was halfway to the door when she called out my name. The way my name rolled off her tongue sent a shiver down my spine. I turned back around. "Hmmm? What?"
"Can I ask you something?" She was fiddling with the glass in her hands, not looking at me.
"Sure," I drawled. "Doesn't mean I'll answer."
She looked up with a slight smile. After a moment she seemed to remember she'd wanted to say something and tapped the sketchbook.
"What about it?" I asked defensively. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"No, no," she hastened to assure me. "I just wondered.... I mean.... Is this what you see when you look at me?"
My eyes widened and my mouth went useless for a moment. It was not at all what I'd expected to hear. "Um...what do you mean?"
"I mean, is this sketch what you see when you look at me?" She held it up and I took a moment to study it.
"Yes," I answered. "Why?"
She frowned. "Here I'm wearing a dress, when I wasn't. I'm not in front of the trellis or in the chair as we agreed upon earlier." She raised an eyebrow and I wondered briefly if when it fell it would be like the judges hammer and all verdicts final.
"It wasn't working," I said honestly. "Something about the light, or perhaps the way you were sitting...."
Allison nodded slowly and put the sketchbook back down on top of the desk. "Okay, that's all. I was just wondering."
That was the end of our conversation. As I walked to the front and the waiting limo I wondered if I'd pushed her too far this morning. I shrugged to myself. Whether she saw things from my point of view or not, it didn't really matter. Did it?
I'd had an itch to bring the sketchbook home with me, so when I'd left I'd tucked it under my arm. For several hours I worked on the drawing before I fell into an exhausted sleep.
I wanted to capture her soul in the painting. Its what sets apart the good from the great.
She was insistent upon simple, and in front of that damn trellis. So . I went with the stupid trellis, and it still didnt feel right. I didnt want to lose the 5,000 dollars. It was becoming more and more important as my work hours were cut because of the painful, wrenching spasms my back constantly went into.
Something was seriously wrong, but I hid it like I always did.
With shorter work hours I was able to get in more painting time, as well as sketching time, in the evening. Ive got to say that I liked the sketch a whole hell of a lot better then the painting. But what did I know?
That first week Thom would occasionally come and visit. He'd sit in a chair behind me, and we'd chat about things from animals to war. Though Allison barely participated in the conversations, I was well aware she was listening and absorbing everything I said.
It was Friday, and tomorrow the gallery would open with Thoms collection.
I was in Allisons library, working on basic layering for the trellis' shadows and highlights now that the sun had set. She had left, again, to do last minute things for the show.
How long had I been painting? A twinge in my back warned me that it had been far too long since Id gotten up to stretch or be sick in the bathroom. It was like that now, almost as if nothing was wrong, or at least until I got up. Then the pain would come without warning, and I would collapse on the floor or hurry to the bathroom. I never knew when or how hard the pain would come.
I stood up slowly, but it didnt help. A searing pain raced up my right side, numbing my arm and sending little black and white stars twirling around my head.
So far Id been lucky to avoid the staff, and especially Allison when this happened, but not this time.
Miss Grace?! Vella cried.
A part of me heard her, the other part just gasped and continued falling.
Grace? Are you all right? Vellas hurried steps carried her to a table where she set down her basket of laundry and knelt by my side.
Her hand touched my back. Miss Grace? Please. Are you okay?
Fine, Vella. Just got dizzy. Got up too fast. I was breathing too hard, trying to focus around the pain. Oh God, it hurt so bad.
Maybe you lay down? Yes?
Fine . I gasped as a fresh jolt of pain surged up my back and raced through my right arm, making it totally useless. Vella caught my shoulder and pulled me up and to the couch. Who knew such a small woman was so strong?
Get Miss Allison? Or should I call doctor?
I saw her wide brown eyes staring down at me. Shit, she was terrified. So was I. No, Vella. Im ok. Really. Just got dizzy. I smiled at her even as I clutched my arm to make sure it was still there. Ill just sit and rest for a minute, okay?
She studied me for a long moment, then nodded. Ill make tea.
No, thank you. But I nodded yes and smiled sweetly. As soon as she left I let my breath hiss through my teeth. Fuckfuckfuckfuck The couch cushion felt like a rock behind my head, my back was spasming, and I still couldnt feel anything but a dull tingling in my right arm.
Go to a doctor, stupid, my mind screamed.
With what? Medical insurance? I didnt have any, never did, never would. The pain would go away. It always did. I was just working too hard. Pushing myself more then usual. While Allison does her show tomorrow Ill sleep all day. Thats all I need. A little sleep. I closed my eyes and let my body relax.
Vella had said Grace was sick. Allison kept her pace as casual as possible as her heart raced her down the hall. There she was, lying on the couch. Her face was pale, and seemed thinner somehow since theyd met.
Allison stopped abruptly a few feet from the couch.
There was a cup of tea on the end table, cold now, and untouched. She moved a little closer and knelt beside the couch. Grace was asleep, her left hand cradling her right elbow and her knees drawn up close to her chest.
She sensed someone behind her and turned to find Vella at the door.
Shes asleep, maam, Vella whispered.
Get me a blanket. Allison turned back to Grace. She seems so young, but I know shes not. I know more about you, Grace. I did some checking after the York bridge. Seems youve been an orphan for a long time now. Your sister is God knows where, and both your brothers are dead. Youve led a sad life.
Her hand stretched forward and gently brushed Graces hair behind her ear.
Vella came back with a blanket and Allison took it, gently laying it over the young woman. She stood back and watched her a moment longer. Grace turned, mumbled something and settled back down.
No one bothers her, Allison commanded. She left and Vella turned off the lights and shut the door behind them.
Jo, he called to me. Jo, you need to come here and participate.
I dont think so.
I stayed on the windowsill in my small room. I liked it here, even if there was no door on the room and I could hear and see them all.
The sun was on my face and I could pretend I was outside, even though I was trapped in here.
Here . You still cant admit it, can you? You dont even want to .
Jo! he yelled.
Damn. I felt two rough hands grab my arms and pull me out of the room. My anger was slow to come and by the time theyd thrown me into a chair in the circle, in the main meeting room, my fists were just beginning to clench.
When I tell you to come here, Jo, I mean it.
I looked at him with rage flowing through my veins. Fuck you. Then I smiled sweetly, which really pissed him off.
Dont swear, he said between clenched teeth.
I stood up and began to walk away.
Jo, come back here. Now!
When I didnt come back they grabbed my arms and hauled me to Isolation. Fine by me. He couldnt yell at me there, or try to make me do things.
Some time later they came by with meds. There were no windows to tell if it was light or dark, so I sat on the floor with my knees pulled up to my chest.
Someone called 'lights out', but still I sat on the floor. Next bedcheck I knew theyd write it down. They wrote it all down. At least Id been smart enough not to give them my real name. How could they check? After all Id just been one of hundreds of indigents. One of the crazies that had been caught that day.
Never again, I promised myself. Things would be different when they let me out.
Thomas had insisted I go to his show. He also insisted I still just call him Thom though everyone around him called him Mr. Thurbs. He said he hated it, that it made him feel like his father.
I figured that meant it just made him feel like an old man.
I wore the dress Id worn to his party while Allison wore a conservative knee length dress, with thin shoulder straps that crossed in the front and ended at her waist in a thin silver chain. She looked good. Okay, not just good, sexy. It was all I could do to keep my eyes from straying to where it hugged all her curves.
As we reviewed the collection before the public and the reporters were allowed inside, Thom walked beside me with a raucous grin.
Shes looks good, huh? he asked.
I blushed furiously but nodded. She looks good in anything. Allison could wear a burlap bag and still be drop dead gorgeous.
Thomas chuckled. Damn straight. If only I was a few years younger. He paused. But then these days with queers and stuff-
Thomas! I chastised.
What? He turned to me. Oh, not politically correct, huh?
I stuck out my tongue at him. Gay, not queer and stuff. Theres no telling who youll offend.
Well, I didnt offend you, did I? He glanced at me with a wink.
Oh great, does everybody know? I raised an eyebrow. I didnt know I had it stamped on my forehead. Who else knows?
Only those who take the time to watch you around her. He inclined his head towards Allison, where she stood with one hand on her hip, contemplating the lighting and placement of one of the pieces.
After a second I looked away. You dont have a problem with it? I asked quietly. Allison was turning and walking our way.
Not at all, he answered just as softly. Well, my girl. His voice rose as he spoke to Allison. It looks good. Opens at nine, right?
Yup. Allison paused and glanced around. What do you think, Grace? She turned back to me as a young man stepped up to her side. He had a disheveled surfer look, that worked oddly well with his dark suit and pinstriped tie.
It does look good. Chris did a great job, I answered.
Thank you, and you might be? the young man asked.
Oh, Im sorry, Allison said. Chris this is Grace. Grace, this is my assistant, Chris.
I held out my hand. Nice to meet you.
And nice to finally meet you, Grace. After a second he let go of my hand and turned to Allison. Five minutes, you ready?
Ready as Ill ever be. Mr. Thurbs? Allison inclined her head towards him.
He held out his arm to her and they made their way to the front doors and the official opening of his priceless collection to the public for the very first time.
After he was sure the show was running smoothly Chris approached Allison, and asked if he could speak to her a moment.
"Sure, anything wrong?" she asked.
"No, no. Nothing wrong," he assured her. Chris glanced across the room to the young woman by Mr. Thurbs side. "So, that's her, huh?"
Allison followed his gaze, then nodded. "Grace Jordan," she said softly.
Chris caught the smile on his boss' face. Well, I'll be, he thought. "She's a hottie," he grinned.
She turned to him with an arched eyebrow. "And what do you know about women, Chris?" she asked smugly.
He chuckled. "I know she looks good in that dress." He paused. "And I know you haven't been able to keep your eyes off her."
Allison shrugged. "What can I say? I know how to pick 'em." There was a twinkle in her eyes. Chris is right, she thought. I haven't been able to keep my eyes off her. There's...something about her. I know she's lived on the streets, been on welfare, ate at the Kitchen.... But, there's more to her then how much money she has or doesn't have. And I plan to find out what that is.
"Uh huh, just friends," Chris mumbled, with a grin.
"Oh you be quiet, you little chraa," Allison replied. She left him with raised eyebrows, as she made her way back into the crowd to play hostess.
The show had gone over better then anyone expected. It had been in the papers, and termed one of the best and well executed showings in the history of the gallery.
Now the first snow had fallen; white, wispy flakes covering the city in a blanket of beauty. But the filth was still beneath it.
The holidays brought more work, and by that time I was stretching myself pretty thin. I slept and ate little, traveling between Allisons, work, and the apartment. No place for any length of time. It reminded me too much of when Id first come here. Street to street. Doorway to doorway. Minute by minute.
Allison asked a number of times if I was all right. Id shrug, say sure, fine and be on with painting. The pain increased and my trips to the bathroom lasted longer. Finally I dropped into the walk-in clinic. And all they could tell me was to take a vacation. I was stressing too much and working too hard.
One step at a time, I told myself. Only another hour on shift. Okay, so youve gotten clumsy these last weeks. Broken two plates and the wine glass cant forget that.
Its so hard .
A hand tapped my shoulder and tiredly I turned to face my boss. I knew this was coming.
May I talk to you, Grace?
I nodded and followed him to the little alcove just before the kitchen doors, near the bathrooms. Whats up?
Thereve been some complaints-
About me, I interrupted. I held up my hand before he could continue. Save your breath. I quit. With shaking fingers I tugged at the knot on my apron till it finally gave way. I tossed it at Donovan on my way out the door. My whole body seemed to sag in a combination of relief and disappointment as I hobbled down the sidewalk to the subway.
I didnt go back to the apartment. I ended up on Allisons doorstep a day or two later.
Hi, Vella. I smiled weakly at the woman holding the door. Am I early or late?
She raised her eyebrows. Late.
I looked at my watch. I didnt think it was off by that much. Five minutes, Vel, that aint bad.
Try five minutes and a day.
Vella placed her hand on her hip and stared me down. Ms. Allison expect you yesterday and clear her schedule so you paint. You never show up, Grace. Her voice lowered and she leaned around the doorframe. You all right, Grace? No drinking?
No, I hastened to assure her. No drinking. May I speak to Allison? I should apologize.
Not wise. The maid leaned further forward and dropped her voice again. Ms. Allison very upset when you not show up yesterday.
I sighed. I know. I lost track of the days. Please, Vella, let me in? Ill explain to her-
Allisons deep voice came from behind Vella. I looked up and away, ashamed that I still felt that uncontrollable lust roiling through my veins whenever I looked at her.
Ah, I see. Grace finally showed up, she murmured.
My scruffy, torn sneakers were suddenly very interesting. I mixed up the days, Allison. Im sorry. I can make up the time today.
No. I have appointments. Allison paused. Saturday?
Okay. I looked up slowly and found those gorgeous blue eyes watching me carefully. Ill see you Saturday.
Saturday was a long time away.
Doug! I yelled. Doug!
What? He bounded around the corner, that stupid grin on his face, and halted in his tracks when he saw me. What is it, Gracie?
How many times have I asked you and the others not to eat my food? I asked angrily.
He shrugged and mumbled dunno.
My hands were clenched around the container and the bowl I was going to put it in. All day long and no food. I come home and its gone. My breath came hard between my clenched teeth. What am I suppose to do now?
Go to the grocery store? he replied sarcastically.
With what money, you fucking moron? I buy my own food and you eat it. I cant afford any more. Anger swelled, red and hot through my veins and I was close to shattering.
Get an advance on your paycheck, stupid. He walked away with a shrug.
I dont have a job anymore! I screamed and threw the ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered against the doorframe, sending fragments into the hall and down Dougs back. He whirled on me.
What the hell are you doing?
"Nek ni, you little chraa. All of you!" Startled by the power of my anger I ran from the room, down the hall and out the door, forgetting my coat along the way.
My teeth were chattering as I sat on the cold, hard ground under the York bridge. I thought about going somewhere else, but where?
Her name flashed briefly through my mind and I saw her tall, trim body and her pale blue eyes.
I swore to myself, then and there, to never go to her in desperation.
I walked from barrel to barrel, recognizing old faces, and learning names to go with the new ones. My old, burned out crate was taken and all I could really think about was my soft bed at the apartment.
So I went back home.
As I started up the stairs to the loft, I heard something in the kitchen.
"Hey, Gracie," Doug called.
I hated being called Gracie. "What's up?" I paused on the fourth step and looked over into the dining area. I suddenly realized everyone was home and gathered in either the dining area or the living room. Reluctantly I went back down the stairs and stood awkwardly at the edge of the living room.
"What's up?" I asked again.
"We need to talk," Angela said.
"Okay," I said as I flopped down in the dark blue recliner.
"Well, um...." Angela looked at the others for support. "We've been talking and we think...um...we think that it...." her voice trailed off.
Torch piped up immediately. "We think you should leave."
My eyebrows inched up a notch. "Leave?"
"Yeah, it's not working out," Doug said.
I noticed the others shuffling from foot to foot.
"You threw a bowl at my head, ate all our food and you dont have a job anymore," Doug said.
A deep, humiliating ache started in my chest. "I found this place first," I replied defensively.
"There are more of us. We voted and decided we want you out."
"Out?" I repeated. "Just like that."
There were some mutterings and some embarrassed looks. No one would meet my gaze.
"We'll give you two days to figure something out, then we change the locks," Doug said.
I have no where to go. "Fine," I said angrily, that ache in my chest making it hard to breathe. No one moved as I stood up, then everyone made a mass exodus to their rooms as I turned and limped up the stairs. There wasn't much to pack except my laptop, portfolio, art stuff, and a backpack of threadbare clothes. Cases tucked under my arms, I left that night.
As I walked down the stairs and out onto the street my chest tightened and I collapsed on the bus stop bench half a block down. Two buses came and went, both drivers giving me dirty looks before I stood up and made my way to the pawn shop on 83rd.
There I sold my laptop and unused paints. From experience I knew it wouldn't be enough.
I got back on the subway and took the train to the Center.
I'd been at the Center for three months when I first got to the city. I'd been there two times since. It would figure, now that I needed it again, the doors were closed and all the beds taken. I limped down the dirty, dimly lit streets till I made it to the park. All the benches were taken.
So, I sat under a tree, my portfolio clutched tightly against my chest, and cursing myself for not slapping them all silly.
I watched the sun rise on the next dreary day in my life.
It took forever to find a payphone without gum in the ear piece or severed from the base. When I finally reached Allison it took everything I had to lie and ask her to send Ed to Shoni's on 13th street, my 'new place of employment.' But there was still the question of my bags and what to do with them.
Eventually I stowed them at the train station and pinned the key to the inside of my shirt. Then I made my way over to Shonis and waited for the limo.
Saturday was finally here. And it had only taken a few days before that to tear my world apart.
The good thing about painting was that I could watch Allison, but not for the reasons she thought. She looked good this morning. Very good. A few more lines, a couple more shadows and the painting would be finished. So would Allison and I. My throat tightened and I swallowed against it. Don't be foolish. I was little more then a client to her.
My hand shook over the canvas.
Allison watched Grace carefully. She was shaking. Everytime shed said something before Grace had just brushed her off. Was she sick? Should she even bother to ask?
Want to take a small break? Allison asked gently.
Grace looked up and their eyes met. She hesitated. Sure, I guess. But she didnt get up from the stool. Her lower lip twitched and it looked like she was about to say something.
Care to join me in the library for a drink? Allison asked.
Ill be right behind you.
But when Allison paused and glanced back around the corner Grace was only starting to get off the stool. She watched with wide eyes as Grace collapsed and brought the stool crashing to the brick patio. Without hesitation she rushed to Graces side.
Im fine, I said as soon as I felt a hand on my arm tugging me to my feet. Just tripped.
Dont lie to me anymore, Grace.
Startled, I looked up into Allisons brilliant eyes. This was not something I could hide, and certainly not from someone as intelligent as Alli. I should have realized that.
Back strain, I finally said, after Alli had righted the stool and I stood, painfully gripping the edges. Her hand rested on my back.
Here? she asked, and gently rubbed her palm in a circle.
I grimaced and nodded.
I nodded again.
Why dont you come sit down and relax? Ill see if I can find some pain relievers-
No, Alli, itll be ok. I looked at her in time to see her doubtful look. Okay, relaxing would be good.
For such a stiff looking lounge it was really comfortable. I sank down into it and waited till Allison brought a glass of water and some Motrin.
Anytime you want to take a break just say so, Grace. She sat down beside me. Her hand stretched out then dropped to her side. Id understand.
I shrugged. Sok. Sometimes its better just sitting still.
Its hurt for awhile now?
What would it hurt to tell her the truth? There was nothing she could do. It started about a year ago. I was looking at my hands and nearly missed her startled expression. Itll go away.
A year, Grace? You should really see a doctor. She took the glass from my hand and set it on a coaster on the coffee table.
I went to the walk in clinic. They said it was stress and that I should take a vacation.
She made a 'phffhting' sound and I looked at her curiously.
You should go to a real doctor.
Immediately my hackles went up. I saw a real doctor.
I didnt mean-
I know what you meant. My lips trembled and my hands shook again as I looked back down. Her warm, gentle fingers touched my chin and turned my face to look at her. A whole new kind of tingle chased through my body as her eyes captured mine.
If its a question of mon-
Dont even go there, I whispered, anger gone and fear suddenly replacing it.
Her eyes drew away from mine and her hand dropped away. I only meant I could advance your pay-
Youve already advanced it. Theres nothing left. This time I looked her square in the eye. All the stuff youve gotten for me, and done for me theres nothing left.
No. That was my money. We agreed on the dress, and thats it, remember?
I shook my head.
God, how her voice still sent a chill through me.
Are you cold?
Theres something else, isnt there? Her hand rested on my shoulder.
No more lies. No more secrets, I told myself. IWill you go with me? I asked uncertainly instead.
Quietly she turned and picked up a portable phone off the end table. She punched in a number and handed me the phone. It rang a couple times before a pleasant voice said, Hello, Doctor James' office. May I help you?
After a deep breath and a reassuring pat from Allison I set up an appointment for Monday morning. Now there would be nothing left from my paycheck. Id probably end up owing the hospital a few thousand dollars.
Here? Ed turned briefly to glance at me as I slumped in the passenger seat. Not your apartment? Its awfully dangerous-
Here, I said firmly. The limo pulled to a stop under the lip of the bridge and I got out. Can you pick me up here Monday?
Eds mouth opened and closed before he nodded silently. And if Ms. Parker should ask?"
Tell her . No secrets, no lies. Tell her I moved out of the apartment.
As the limo pulled away I stood watching the tail lights disappear, before I looked for the Professor. He was in the same place he always was and looked up as I approached.
"Hey," he mumbled.
"Hey, Professor," I said, then sat as he gestured to his little fire and the spot next to him. I crossed my legs and silently regarded him. He'd been a professor at one time, years of college, and more years of teaching. I once asked what had happened to him and he'd explained that all the little chraa's in the world had fucked him over. I'd thought him completely crazy then, till I found out what the word meant. And, found out that he knew hundreds of other curses. My favorites had been the Arabic ones, since the syllables crashed together and the words sounded ten times tougher then what they actually meant.
"So, how's life?" I asked.
"Same old. You?" He turned dull eyes on me. The years had taken their toll on him.
I shrugged. "Same old." My arm twitched as a knot of pain traveled to my shoulder.
"You should have that looked at," he commented.
"Yeah," was all I said. It had always been like that between us. He'd grown into the father figure I'd lost, and I loved him. I'd even gone so far as to go back for him, and offer him a place in my new home. He'd refused, no matter how much I pleaded with him. I hadn't understood till now.
He'd given up.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure." He pushed another stick into the fire, watching as it shot up momentarily, then died back down.
"If someone gave you everything you needed- money, clothes, uh food and stuff.... What would you do?" I watched him intently.
"Question the motive, my girl."
"Motive," I said, but it wasn't a question, as I rolled the word around my mind.
"What do they get from giving you everything?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied. "I don't think I have anything to give them."
"Then there is your answer."
"I don't understand." I wrapped my arms around my body, beginning to tremble as the brisk air picked up, and screamed beneath the bridge. He retrieved a blanket from somewhere behind him and handed it to me. Gratefully I wrapped it around my shoulders, thanking him.
"Welcome." He paused, and I could see some flash of life in his eyes. But then maybe it was just a reflection from the fire. "A gift given freely- whether it's money or food- is the greatest gift of all. If it's given with no strings attached and nothing required in return then it's from the heart."
"But, how will I know?" I asked.
He smiled. "When you have something to give in return."
We returned to silence, as I thought long and hard about what he'd said. I knew I had nothing to give to Allison. So, what could she possibly want from me?
The McDonalds on 3rd street had a clean bathroom, so I washed up there, avoiding the curious or disgusted stares. Then I changed into a clean shirt, returned my bag to the station and waited for Ed.
Smells of food wafted all around me. From experience I knew how fast money could be spent, just on food. So I was eating a muffin and my 69 cent large coffee from Gate gasoline this morning.
It had been a long, long Sunday.
Finally Ed pulled up and with butterflies in my stomach we rode to the mansion where we picked up Allison then made our way silently to Doctor James private practice.
The place was decedent, rich, but cozy. Id seen a few hospitals and this didnt look anything like them, except for the doctors in their white lab coats. We sat in the waiting room and the butterflies turned into ferocious, fire breathing dragons. I was about to be sick when the receptionist called my name.
I glanced at Allison and her bright smile chased the dragons away.
Want me to come in with you?
Nah, Im fine. Ha! Whatever. But I smiled anyway then turned to follow the receptionist into a small office.
Doctor James will be in shortly, the nurse informed me.
I just nodded as I looked around the room. There were a few potted plants in the corners, a long couch covered in deep rich colors, and pastel paintings on the walls . It was all meant to be comforting. In a way it was. As I sat on the couch my head snapped up at the sound of the clicking door.
A man in his mid thirties stepped through with a kind smile on his face. Hi, Im Doctor James. You must be Grace. He held out his hand.
Hastily I shook it.
So, what are we here for today? He had a clipboard in hand and settled it on his lap as he sat in the chair across from the couch. Go ahead and sit down, Grace. Tell me whats wrong.
I stared at him a moment. Arent you going to take my temp, vitals, all that crap first?
I like to get to know my patients before I get to all that crap. He smiled.
I shrugged and sat down. Ive had a pain in my back for the past year. Its gotten worse recently.
A year? He looked at me the same way Allison had. How worse?
Um. I studied the Berber carpet. It makes me sick.
What kind of work do you do?
Anything I can find. I paused. Mostly waitressing or dishwashing. Some cleaning and bartending.
So, a lot of jobs where youre on your feet. He made a few notes. Have you ever had an accident on the job?
Surprised, I looked up. Yeah. I was cleaning up in a bar, and I someone had spilled something on the stairs. I slipped and fell.
How many stairs?
How many stairs? I asked.
He looked up from his notes and nodded. Did you trip down a few? Or all the way?
After a moments thought I looked back up. I tripped forward the first two and tried to grab the railing, but I slipped anyway. I twisted and fell backwards down to the landing. Um, twenty, twenty-five steps?
He whistled softly. That must have hurt.
A little bit.
Id say. All right, that leads me to believe that old injury never healed properly and youve had pain since then. What prescriptions were you on then, and what kind of treatment did you receive?
I never saw a doctor. He said nothing but I felt the need to continue. They fired me because I couldnt work, so I had no insurance. I couldnt afford it, I said quietly.
Well then, he said after a moment. Lets get some x-rays and see what we can do. He folded up his clipboard then said, And a nurse will be in in a minute for all that crap.
Hey, Dan, Allison called out as he passed through the hallway that connected the offices, labs, and treatment rooms to the reception area.
Allison. What are you doing here? He smiled as he came towards her.
I came with Grace Jordan. Have you seen her yet?
Just saw her.
She all right?
She looked at him with such a strange expression he was tempted to tell her that everything was just fine, even if it wasn't. Not sure yet. Im going to run some tests and well know whats going on in a few hours.
Tests that cant be a good sign, Allison thought. Where is she now?
Room two. Go on back, the nurse is just taking her vitals right now. Ill be back to kick you out in a few minutes.
Hey. Allison popped her head around the door.
I looked up from the nurse wrapping the pressure cuff around my arm. Hey. What are you doing in here?
Just came back to see how it was going. Allison glanced at the nurse. Dont worry, Dan said it was fine.
Dan? I asked.
Doctor Daniel James. Two first names. God, he got so much teasing for that growing up.
I watched her lazy smile and the way she glided across the room and sat on the chair the doctor had just been in. You grew up with him?
Yup, same charming charm school. Her smile faded. So, hes gonna run some tests?
The nurse snapped off the pressure cuff and silently left the room.
X-rays. He thinks its pain from an old injury.
What kind of injury? Allison crossed her legs and I leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes.
I fell down a flight of steps awhile back.
Doc said the same thing. I smiled slightly and opened my eyes. She looked pale. Worried? Not as worried as me. Hes nice, but this is all kinda weird.
Allison's stomach rumbled. I raised an eyebrow as she grinned and said, How about going out to eat after all this, my treat?
Ah, sure. Ive got a craving for a chili cheese. She raised an eyebrow back at me.
Chili Cheese? she asked.
Yup. Yo quiero Taco Bell. Briefly I closed my eyes as a slice of pain traveled up my back and left my heart racing. Suddenly the couch shifted and she pushed me gently forward. Her warm hands touched my back, fingers beginning to knead in circles.
Right side. No, lower. Yeah, right there. I was putty in her hands and couldnt help but let out a contented sigh.
I nodded mutely and slowly sat back up. There was nothing left now but a dull ache and a slight chill where her hands had been.
Am I interrupting anything? Daniel asked lightly.
A faint heat crawled up my cheeks as Allison laid her arm along the couch behind me. She chuckled. You wish.
Daniel laughed and tapped his clipboard. Ready for those x-rays Grace?
Not really. I sighed and stood up slowly, relieved when Allison lent me a hand.
It wont hurt.
Id changed into a thin hospital shift and it was cold in here. Finally the x-rays were done and I was allowed to get up and get my clothes. As I stepped off the chair, pain exploded across my back and shoulders, sending me briefly into darkness and to my knees on the floor. Immediately several nurses and Daniel were all around me asking me if I was all right.
I shook my head furiously. Bathroom. I just need a bathroom.
Are you nauseous, Grace?
Daniels kind gray eyes looked down into mine and I nodded painfully. I was given a bin just in time to hurl up the contents of my stomach.
Its okay, Daniels gentle voice consoled me as I leaned over the bin and continued with dry heaves. Pam, lets get her something for the pain.
Soon I was recovering in a hospital bed. An iv stuck in my arm giving me morphine for the pain. But I lay curled up in a ball before it started to have any effect. Wheres Alli? I asked the nurse who was monitoring the meds.
Ms. Parker? I believe shes out in the hall. Do you want me to get her?
No. Just wanted to know where she was. I didnt want her to see me like this, again.
Im right here, Allison said from the doorway. But I can leave, if you want?
You can stay. My eyes stayed riveted on the iv tube as she walked to the side of my bed.
I heard you had some trouble. Im sorry I wasnt there. She pulled the beige chair from the corner over to the bed.
Nothing you could have done. I shrugged my shoulder and stared past her.
Still I wish well, nevermind. Its over. Is there anything I can do for you now?
Can you find out how long theyre going to keep me here? I asked.
I stopped Daniel in the hall on his way to the lab. He said he was going to talk to you as soon as he got the results. But I dont think youll have to stay here overnight.
I didnt know if I should be upset or relieved. On the one hand it was a bed and probably a meal or two. On the other hand it was a bed and a meal or two that would cost a few thousand. Just gimme some good drugs and Im outta here.
Allison smiled crookedly. Nothing but the best.
For awhile neither of us said anything.
Pam, Daniel called his head nurse over to the counter where he was checking out Graces vitals. Is this right? He looked up as Pam approached.
She nodded, light brown curls cascading over her shoulders. Impatiently she brushed the strands back behind her ears and took a corner of the clipboard and turned it in her direction. Fraid so, Dan. She's dehydrated, malnourished and her electrolytes are way off the scale.
Dan was silent for a moment. That would indicate more then back pain.
Pam nodded silently and placed her hands in her coat pockets. Kelsey took her vitals. She paused and looked intently at her colleague. He was still her boss. Want to know what I think?
He just 'hmmed' and nodded.
Anorexia or possibly bulimia, but Id lean more towards Anorexia.
For a moment Daniel studied the chart, her vitals, and the little information he had on his new patient. I dont think its as simple as that.
What then? Pam pushed back another strand of unruly hair. Something more serious?
Hopefully not, he thought. For a moment he saw the slight woman on the couch, seemingly a small child lost in her clothes. Threadbare jeans, and those tattered shoes shed stared at. A jacket that was far too thin for winter .
Well? Should I take another blood sample? Run-
No, he said. I need to talk to Allison first, but I dont think theres anything well be able to do. He paused. On second thought see what kind of food you can come up with.
Pam looked at him for a moment. Thats it?
'Fraid so. He smiled sadly. Alli, are you bringing me a stray? I thought you were tougher then that. An art dealer hanging out with a possible indigent. Who would have ever guessed theyd run in the same circles?
Daniel met Allison in the hallway in her pursuit of coffee.
"Can I talk to you a minute?" he asked.
"Sure. Is there a problem?"
"I don't know." He glanced around the hallway. It was relatively quiet, but he didn't want to risk anyone eavesdropping. "Why don't we go to my office for a moment?"
Allison nodded and followed him down the hall. He shut the door and indicated she should have a seat.
"I think we need to talk...about Grace."
She studied his face a moment. "If it's the insurance-"
"No, it's about Grace herself." He paused. "I don't know how to say this, so I'm going to come right out and say it." He paused, cleared his throat then asked, "Does she have any eating disorders that you know of?"
Allison's eyebrows rose. "No. Not that I've noticed, anyway."
"It's not always an easy thing to spot," he said gently. "Where is she working now?"
"Don't you think you should be asking Grace these questions, Dan?" Allison crossed her arms, and gave him a sour look.
"I will. But, I wanted to approach you first." Daniel looked her straight in the eye. "Where did you meet her?"
'What does that have to do with anything?" she returned defensivley.
"Patient doctor confidentialty doesn't allow me to discuss the specifics of this with you, unless the patient gives me permission, but I can tell you that some of these test results give me worry and a great concern for Grace's current condition." He tapped the folder on his knee as he spoke.
"I met her in the park. She was sketching," Allison admitted. "And...as far as I know she's working at Shoni's and lives in an apartment with a bunch of college kids."
Daniel's brow furrowed. Well, it doesn't match up, but I can't ignore these results. "All right. I need to return to the lab and pick up Grace's x-rays." He stood.
Allison stood as well, shoving her hands into her pockets, and clenched her fists. "I know Grace would kill me if she found out I said anything...."
"What is it, Allison?"
"I know she's lived on the streets, and has been homeless a number of times. And on weekends she goes to the Mission Kitchen.... " She paused, looking steadily at the doctor. "Will any of this help you? Help Grace?"
He nodded. "More then you know."
"Good. Because I promised her the best care possible. And I know you'll give it to her, no matter her background," Allison said.
Daniel smiled and resisted the urge to put a reassuring arm around her shoulders as they walked out of his office. "Darn right. I'm good at my job. No, make that great."
Allison grinned, relieved beyond belief, and slugged him on the shoulder. "Arrogant SOB."
Allison returned to my room, and with that dark look on her face I decided not to say anything. So we waited for the doctor in silence.
Daniel finally came back with x-rays and a grim look on his face. We have good news, and we have bad news. What do you want to hear first?
Straight to the point, I like that. I glanced at Allison then back to Daniel. Bad news first.
Allisons soft hand captured mine and I held it tightly.
I so hate the bad news. He walked over to the light board and hooked the x-rays up. After flicking the switch he ran a finger along the white lines and began to explain.
A slipped disk, pinched nerves, something, something, something... Too much information. All the technical terms fell away as I realized Allisons hand was still in mine. I studied her profile as she followed Daniels every word.
And that brings us to the good news. There are medicines for the pain, and after surgery youll be almost as good as new.
Surgery? I looked away from Allison and abruptly fastened my stunned gaze on Daniel. Almost good as new?
Okay, not good news but not the worst news youve heard all day. The surgery is a relatively simple procedure, but with certain risks. Well be able to repair all the damage except for the deadened nerves.
And the risks? I asked hoarsely.
As with any surgery there are risks. But were working with the spine here and any misstep could lead to more damage or paralysis. My team is the best team youll find anywhere on the East Coast. So theres no need to worry.
Ill decide when to worry. I pulled away from Allison and lurched painfully up out of the bed. As I ripped the iv from my wrist they tried to stop me. I dont need this. Ill be fine. I pushed them away and staggered down the hall.
Allison caught up to me and grabbed my shoulder. Grace, you cant leave. Havent you heard anything Daniel said in there?
I heard him.
Its routine surgery, darlin, youre momma will be out and awake in no time.
I felt the tears threatening as I stood face to face with Allison in that quiet hallway. We seemed to stand that way for an eternity before either of us moved. Suddenly she was opening her arms and I was leaning forward and holding on for dear life.
Its gonna be okay.
I didnt say anything as I stood in the warmth of her arms and felt her heart beating against my ear.
Its gonna be okay.
She seems so small. So fragile. What the hell do I do now? Allison didnt have to wait long to find out when Grace suddenly pulled away.
Sorry, Grace murmured.
Whats there to be sorry about? Allison asked. Come back here. Let me hold you and take away that pain I see in your eyes.
Just didnt mean to fall apart on you like that, Grace said.
You can fall apart on me anytime. Its ok. Want to talk about it?
Nah- Grace paused and met Allisons eyes. Imy mom . She went into surgery and never came out. Guess I just sorta panicked.
Im sorry, Grace. Allison watched her shrug it away. I bet shes done that all her life. Shrug everyone and everything away. Daniels not just my friend you know, hes the best damn doctor in the US. Hes egotistical as hell about it, but he is. And he knows Id kill him if anything ever happened to you.
Grace blinked. You would?
Allison nodded, slightly embarrassed that shed rambled. She realized it was probably the most shed ever said to Grace in one sitting. Absolutely. What are friends for? Right?
Right. Grace smiled shyly.
Come on, I think Daniels waiting for us.
We discussed the pros and cons, the ups and downs and lefts and rights till my head was spinning and it was all I could do not to scream at them all to just go away. Finally they did and Allison and I were the only ones left in the room. A nurse had brought a platter of food and I ate it selfconciously.
Guess Im staying the night, I said between mouthfuls of green beans and something I supposed was meatloaf.
Yeah. Is there anything you want me to pick up from your apartment? Allison asked.
I gave her a blank, startled look.
Clothes? Books? Stuff like that? she prompted.
N-nothing, thanks. I shoveled in more potatoes so I wouldnt have to look at her.
The fork froze over my green beans at the tone of her voice. Slowly I turned to look at her. What?
You know you can tell me anything, right? Allison asked softly.
I nodded silently.
Then why didnt you tell me Ed's dropped you off at York the past few days? Or that youd lost your job. I checked-
You checked up on me? I asked incredulously.
You left me no choice, Grace. I knew something was wrong so I called-
What the hell, Alli? What do you care? Silence descended so heavily that I could feel it, and feel the hurt my words had caused. I pushed my food away and turned to stare out the window.
Allison sighed. Everyone says I'm a cold hearted bitch. She was quiet a moment. You think so too, don't you? Nevermind, don't answer that. I care, Grace. I really do. So I cant show it like other people do, like you do .
When her voice trailed off I turned to her quizzically. Like I do?
The picture, she said simply.
My eyebrows bunched together and I just stared at her.
From the inside pocket of her blazer she pulled out a folded piece of paper. Slowly she unfolded it and turned it so I could see it. A copy of my sketch stared back at me. The one Id done on impulse, with Allison leaning over, hair cascading down and tangling with the rose she held in her hand.
Of course there hadnt been a rose, nor had there been a wild landscape of mountains and trees anywhere nearby. When I didnt say anything she folded it back up and put it away.
No one sees me like that, she whispered. Just you. I thought . Well, I dont know what I thought. Her hands where clenched tight in her lap. But, then you are an artist and maybe thats just how you see a lot of things, she finished resignedly.
No, I said quietly. From the first time I saw you its how Ive always thought of you as someone different. She didnt say anything and didnt look at me. Why do you have a copy of it? Its not even finished.
I like it. Now she looked up. Will you finish it for me?
I blinked several times before I nodded. Its in my port- Oh God, wheres my portfolio? I asked, suddenly panicked.
A slight smile touched her face. Its in the car, dont worry. So, will you finish the sketch?
I already did.
You did? Allison asked, with raised eyebrows.
I just nodded and smiled slightly. I was going to paint it.
I havent had the time. No, thats not true. I just cant, I admitted.
Why not? Allison reached over and took my hand.
I could feel it shaking and held it tightly with mine. I had to throw my paints away because there was no room for them in the station locker. With my other hand I took out the key. I didnt want you to know- God, this was harder then Id thought. I didnt want . Im not staying in the apartment anymore.
Are you in a shelter? Allison asked softly.
I shook my head. I was sleeping under the bridge.
Its winter, Grace. You must have been freezing.
It wasnt so bad, I admitted. Ive been through worse.
Tell me about it? Allison asked. Her hand tightened around mine. It was warm and reassuring and I felt my eyes beginning to water. I sniffled lightly and clutched the key tightly in my other hand.
Not right now, I whispered.
Allison nodded and we were both silent for a moment. Then she said, You could have come to me.
I didnt know that. Now I wasnt so sure Id be able to stop the tears and I continued on before she could say anything else. And I didnt want to. I work for you. It wouldnt be right.
Grace, I want to be your friend. You can count on friends, right?
I nodded wordlessy as tears began to roll down my cheeks.
Ill be the best friend youve ever had, Grace, Allison whispered. Ill take care of you.
I cant ask you to do that.
You didnt ask. I want to. Allison rose from the chair, her hand never leaving mine, and sat on the edge of the bed.
My tears came hard and fast as she laid her other hand on my cheek and wiped away my tears with her thumb. My heart skipped a beat and I think I stopped breathing.
Come here, she whispered. That was all I needed and I found myself once again in her arms. Friends? she asked.
Friends, I said quietly. Allison smelled faintly of lilac perfume and soap.
We stayed that way, in each other's arms, for a long time. Probably a lot longer then necessary because Id already stopped crying and was just selfishly enjoying her warmth.
Itd been so long since someone touched me. I dont mean sex, though its been a long time for that too. My father never hugged us, mother was too busy and I never developed the kind of relationships that warranted this this silent reassurance that I was human and deserved to be loved.
I wondered if Allison felt the same way.
When I started to pull away, embarrassed and self-concious, Allisons arms tightened around me.
I slept well that night. I had a warm bed, my belly was full and Allison had promised to be back early in the morning.
No dreams either.
In the morning I ate all the breakfast I was given. Daniel came by to say that his team of doctors would be by later and I could meet them and ask them any questions I might have.
All questions I might have had flew out of my brain the second Allison stepped through the doorway. Oh yeah, I could definitely get used to seeing that every morning.
Looks like youre in a good mood this morning, she said with a grin of her own.
Not bad, I admitted. So, whats on your schedule for today?
Nada. She smiled. Youve got me all day.
Oh dont go there. When I didnt say anything I watched her grin turn lopsided. I chuckled softly. Well, if Ive got you all day Id better think of something for you to do.
She raised a brash eyebrow. How about some coffee then?
Sure. Not quite what I had in mind, but it would do. For now.
Are you sure you dont have any questions? Daniel asked again. He and the team of doctors were gathered around the bed. Theyd explained everything till my head was spinning with technical terms.
Nope, no questions, I replied.
Well, if its all right with Grace, I have a few. Allison turned to me with a quizzical look.
Go right ahead, I said.
Since Peter pretty much covered the aspects of the surgery and how long it will take, Im concerned about the recovery time afterwards. She addressed Peter Barker, the youngest doctor on Daniels team. He seemed sure of himself, though grounded in the work he did.
He nodded. A good question. Usual recovery time is two weeks, but that depends on how strong Grace is and her determination to get on her feet again.
You mean Ill be bedridden for two weeks? I asked incredulously.
Yes. Maybe more or a little less, depending on your body. Itll take a few months for you to completely recover and be able to go back to work and do many of the normal things youre used to.
Hot damn, I swore silently. Two weeks months, I murmured.
Can you give us a few minutes? Allison asked as she glanced around the room. Daniel nodded and they all shuffled out. Grace?
When I didnt look at her she touched my chin and turned my face up towards her.
You all right? she asked.
I shook my head. I cant do this.
Sure you can.
No. I cant.
Yes you can, cause Im going to be with you every step of the way.
What the hell do I say to that?
Its okay, Allison said. You dont have to say anything, I know this is hard for you.
Why not let Allison help me? Snippets of my conversation with the Professor floated back to me. Ill find some way to make it up to you, I swear it Alli. I'll find something to give you in return.... Thank you, I whispered.
Morning good. I grinned widely.
Id say so. You ready? Allison gently took my hand.
Drugs...good. I couldnt stop smiling. I blinked several times and tried to focus on the gorgeous woman sitting on the bed next to me. Wow.
What? She asked with raised eyebrows.
Wow. I propped myself up higher on the pillows, dragging Allisons hand and Allison closer. You are beautiful.
Uh huh, very good drugs.
We were close enough that I could smell the shampoo shed used that morning, see the glint of gold in her eyes and I reached out to touch her shining hair. It was soft and thick. She froze and I suddenly realized that I was tangling my hand around the back of her head and pulling her even closer. Sorry. I began to pull away.
She reached out and took my hand as it brushed by her cheek. Allison held it there, against her cheek, smiling gently. If I didnt know you better Id say its just the drugs talking. She hesitated. But maybe it is the drugs.
I shook my head. Theyre just giving me courage to say the truth. Alli?
Youll be here when I wake up? I asked.
Definitely. She paused. Did you think that after all this Id go away?
No. Its just I fink- think um think that . Bad drugs. Tell you later, k?
Youre letting me go? I asked increduously.
Yup, youve made good progress. The doctor shuffled through some papers as if checking the notes that had been written about me.
He didnt see a thing.
So, the rumors were true. They were out of beds and kicking me out. I stood. Nice seein ya, Doc.
They made me sign a dozen more papers, informed me about the meds I needed to take and where to go for counseling, then called a taxi for me. And that was the end of it.
I was back on the streets, no better then when Id entered the clinic. But, for two months Id had a bed, dry clothes and food in my belly.
Oh shit, oh shit . Thats how I fell asleep, knowing I might never wake up. The surgery, they told me later, lasted two hours longer then scheduled, due to the unexpected amount of nerve damage I had suffered.
But I was going to be all right.
When I woke up the room was dark and the morphine was still kickin'. I tried to look for Allison but I was face down on a special bed, and too weak to call out for anyone.
I fell asleep again within seconds.
Morning came and with it the first tinglings of pain. Nothing to worry about, right? Except I now felt trapped, and within minutes I was stabbing at the call button.
Morning, Grace. Time for meds already? the nurse asked.
Her shoes, and the bottom of her white skirt were the only things I could see. It was really disconcerting. Is Allison here?
Yup, she was just down getting some coffee. We didnt expect you to wake up so soon. She fixed the sheet, and checked the drip on the meds, explaining as she did each thing. All right, hon, were all set here. My names Tilly and Ill be your nurse this morning. Youve got the call button if you need anything.
Hey, youre awake.
Alli! Mmm, maybe this wasnt such a bad position after all. Nice legs.
Told ya Id be here, didnt I? And wipe that grin off your face.
Oops, thats when I noticed the mirror. What grin?
I lay staring at the floor, bored out of my mind. After exhausting all the magazines the nurses could find, angling the TV so I could see it in the mirror and endlessly flipping channels there was nothing left to do.
The only thing that would make life better would be if Allison could get off work early.
A glance in the mirror told me it was Pam, the second shift nurse. Whats up? I asked.
Youve got a phone call.
Yup. Hang on a second and well get you set up. A black box slid into view below me. It was a speaker phone. Hello?
Hey, Grace. How are you?
Alli! Great, now that you called anyway. I heard her chuckle on the other end. There were voices in the background and it sounded like the new shipment had arrived at the gallery.
Ah, theyre making a mess of things as usual, but Chris is straightening it out so I can talk to you.
Good. I was just thinking about you.
Really? She paused. Your voice sounds strange. Do we have a bad connection?
No, I answered. Pam put me on speaker phone.
Oh. Okay. There was another pause, and I could hear shouting in the background. Youre still set for discharge tomorrow morning. I wont be able to make it back before visiting hours are over. Things are always chaotic after a new shipment.
Ill see you in the morning though, right?
You betcha. Vella already has a room set up for you. The sound of something crashing in the background brought the conversation to a sudden halt. Damn, Ive gotta go. Sorry, Grace.
No problem, I said. Go take care of business.
See you in the morning.
Yup, morning. I was just about to punch the disconnect button.
Oh, and Grace?
Yeah? My finger hesitated above the disconnect button.
I miss you too.
The dial tone sounded and my finger was still frozen, as a wide grin split my face.
Allison carefully wheeled me through the front double doors of her home.
Vellas set up a guest room for you. Its on the ground floor and has its' own bathroom. Also easy access to the kitchen when you start walking around more. She paused. But you wont have to, Vella will be available for everything you need.
Ah, sure. We made our way down the hall to the bedroom Id be in for the next few months. Velvet drapes covered the windows, white marble lined the fireplace, and silk sheets adorned the canopy bed. To say I was impressed is an understatement. Vella was pulling down the huge down comforter as we entered.
Thanks, Vella, that will be all, Allison said briskly.
Yes Miss Grace? Is there something else you need? Vella asked as Allison helped me onto the bed.
Ah, no. Alli, can you hand me that plastic bag? I pointed to the bundle left in the side of the wheelchair. Thanks. I reached inside and pulled out an item covered in tissue paper. Here Vel, this is a kind of thank you for letting me stay here.
Oh no, Miss, I cant take this. She glanced at Allison briefly before trying to hand it back.
Call me Grace, and I made it for you. I-I know its kinda stupid, but Id like you to have it. Please?
Vella was blushing but she began to unwrap the gift. Her smile widened as she pulled out a cottonball Santa and his popsicle stick reindeer. Its lovely. Thank you. She knelt down and gave me a quick hug before hastily retreating from the room.
That was nice, Allison said.
I grinned and rifled through the bag again. I made one for you too. As I handed it over a lazy smile graced Allisons face and I could feel a blush traveling up my neck.
Thank you. She seemed to hesitate, unsure of herself, until I told her to have a seat. She sat precariously on the edge of the bed, delicately holding the silly Santa and reindeer.
Pam found an extra craft kit from the childrens ward. I grinned sheepishly. Um, Alli, thanks again for letting me stay here. You know you didnt have to do this, right?
I know. Allison paused. Well consider it temporary and discuss other arrangements later if you still want to.
Works for me. Suddenly I yawned, widely. Guess Im more tired than I thought.
Allison rose from the bed. Get some rest and Vella will bring you lunch later, okay?
I nodded and closed my eyes.
Allison and I 'tiptoed' around each other the first week, but we finally set up a routine of sorts. Since I slept little and Allison woke up naturally early wed share coffee before she left for work.
This morning she wheeled me out to the dining room and up to the table. Vella was busy in the kitchen, making omelets. Allison was reading the paper and sucking down a cup of black coffee. I was nursing my heavily creamed and sugared one.
Vella came out of the kitchen balancing two plates.
Mmm, smells good, I said with a smile.
None for me thanks, Allison said as she flipped another page. She looked up when I cleared my throat irritably. What?
Vella went to all the trouble of making it, you can at least make a token effort to eat it.
Is all right, Grace. Ill take back. Heres yours. She laid the plate in front of me. There was sausage, toast and a cheese omelet.
I glanced back at Allison. I wont eat if you dont.
Excuse me? She looked up with one raised eyebrow.
You heard me. Eat, woman.
Im not hungry, she said.
Grace, is all right, Vella said. Please dont make fuss.
Fine. I wont make a fuss. Vella will you please take me back to my room? I asked. Many times Id gone without food and had been so weak from hunger that I could never understand how anyone could turn a meal down.
Grace? Allison reached across the table and took my hand.
Sorry, I mumbled, still looking down. Im acting like a child.
Vella? She held out her hand and accepted the plate. Better? She asked quietly after Vella had left.
I smiled weakly and picked up my fork. I felt the need to explain and after pushing my food around for a moment I looked over at my benefactor. When my mother died my father lost everything to gambling. Itd been a big secret, even though everyone knew, and we fell on hard times. I took a sip of coffee and cleared my throat. Allison was listening intently and it was making me self-conscious. Anyway we lost the house, we lost my brother to cancer, and I lost my father to alcohol. I bounced around from relative to relative for awhile before I ran away. When I came here I had no money, no place to live, and no food to eat.
Im sorry. Allison smiled sadly. Youve got someplace now.
I blinked rapidly. I didnt say any of that to make you feel- I mean I was just trying to explain my...uh...tantrum-
Relax, Grace. I know what you were saying. I know youve had a rough life and I just want to make things easier for you.
My hands clenched under the table. I didnt want her pity. Thank you, I said. The question of what she wanted returned again to haunt me.
Allison cleared her throat. Well, I need to get to the gallery. If you need anything just call for Vella.
Allison sat at her desk in the office, elbows on the table and head in her palms. Had she made a mistake taking Grace into her life like that?
No. If she had to do things over again, she wouldn't change it. Except maybe have gotten help sooner for her friend.
Where did she draw the line between friendship and more? Every bone in her body called out to protect Grace, to save her.... Save her from what? Allison wasn't sure.
And there was the undeniable physical attraction she felt every time she was near the young artist. Yes, she felt it, would never act on it, but it was there, begging for attention.
Suspicion ruled Grace's life, but there was one thing that let down Grace's walls, her defenses, and left her open. The one thing that Allison had truly seen her enjoy. Well, she thought, I'll just have make sure she enjoys it again, and soon. She grabbed a piece of stationary and made a list of supplies to get.
Things had settled down and there were no more emotional breakfasts. Allison read the paper and had coffee, sometimes a bagel, while I ate silently.
The question of why she was doing all this still nagged at me. Why else would she allow me in her home, if she didnt want something from me in return? Why else would she come home after work and sit down to dinner with me? Why would she spend money on a whole new set of art supplies? Why would she sit up for hours watching TV, working on papers, or listening to music in the library while I sketched her?
I just couldnt figure out what it was she wanted, what she thought she would get from me. I had no money. After this it would take me a long time to get back on my feet.
Soon I was able to wheel myself to the workroom Allison had set up for me, and it wasnt long before Id finished both the portrait and the rose painting and was moving on to other things.
Vella and I would chat while Allison was at work. I learned a lot about the wars in her country, and how she crossed the Mexican border in the dead of night, nine months pregnant, so her little girl could be free from war and bloodshed.
It was good to have a friend who understood the loss of family and loved ones. She'd lost her mother and father in a gruesome battle with Guerillas. Beneath that stern exterior was a woman of integrity and honesty.
I also learned that I had far more things to be thankful for than I thought.
A month came and went before I knew it. I was out walking in the gardens in the morning and painting all day long. The paints, brushes and canvases Allison had bought me were the finest quality Id ever seen. At first I hadnt wanted to mar the white perfection, but I got over it.
I painted like Id never painted before.
Of course I had regular check ups with Doc James, and I was healing well. The change was amazing. The walks through the garden and the exploration of the mansion helped me build up strength. A weekend came, Allison was home from work and Thom dropped by to see how I was doing.
Thom! What are you doing here? I turned slowly. I was doing better, just not that much better.
Miss Parker said itd be fine to visit. Have I come at a bad time? He gestured to the paints and the fresh canvas with the beginnings of a snowy mountainside.
Nah, come on in and have a seat. I was just about to take a break. We sat on the couch under the bay window. So, how have you been?
Same old. He paused and laid a hand on my knee. You should have told me about the surgery, Grace. I talked to Vella and she said you were fine, but-
Sorry. It all happened so fast.
But youre all right now? Allisons taking good care of you? He looked intently at me as I blushed furiously.
Im taking care of myself just fine. Allis just letting me stay here.
Thom nodded. You know if theres anything you need just call me.
Thanks. Hey, while youre here how bout I start on that portrait you were talking about? I deftly changed the subject.
Where do you want me to sit? He smiled.
I worked on his portrait while we chatted.
"Can you imagine?" I shook my head, after retelling a tale Vella had told me just the other day.
"It's terrible. How she survived all that intact I'll never know." Thom shifted in the leather chair I'd chosen, and made a grimace.
"She survived for her daughter," I replied, as I mixed more paint, for a lighter flesh tone.
"These old bones need a break, my girl. How about we get something to eat?"
"I'll have to clean up here first. Why don't I meet you in the kitchen?"
He nodded and stood. "I can make a mean ham sandwich."
I smiled. "Sounds good." After I cleaned up I met Thom in the kitchen. He did make a mean ham sandwich. Our conversation resumed where it had left off.
"I wouldn't have had her courage," I admitted.
He looked at me curiously. "Of course you would. I, on the other hand, would not."
I tilted my head and gave him a 'look.' "Why?"
"Because you have strength of character." He paused, and I would have protested, but he got a far away look in his eyes and continued in a gentle voice. "There are all kinds of strengths and powers in this world. A long time ago I would have said money was the highest power of all. I grew up surrounded by money, so it was all I knew." He paused again, his sandwich forgotten.
"Then one day I met a young woman. I had just graduated from college and was in business with my father. I had all kinds of ideas about wealth, and how romance should be. But, she turned my world upside down. I courted her for two months before I realized I was hopelessly, madly in love with her."
He glanced across the table at me. "I know," he said. "Me, falling in love. I couldn't imagine it either. My father told me she was just after our money. Mother said the same thing. But in my heart I knew she didn't want anything from me but love."
By then my ham sandwich was finished and I was listening intently.
"Well, I asked her to marry me. My family protested, and my father eventually disowned me, but we married anyway. It was the happiest year of my life, even as we struggled without my father's money. I learned that simple things made her happy. Walks in the park, reading.... She loved everything about life.
"And then she was gone. Or so it seemed. The cancer took months, and I had to watch her slip away from me, day by day."
I laid a sympathetic hand on his trembling one. He patted it absently.
"Don't fret, my girl. I learned a powerful lesson then. Money is not the most powerful force in the world, even if it is a driving one."
"Love is," I said, softly. He nodded and smiled sadly.
"You learned that a long time ago, Grace. That's why you're stronger then I am."
I opened my mouth to protest but instead I said, "Everything I've ever loved has been taken from me. In one form or another. As my mother lay dying, she told me one thing that I'll never forget. I didn't understand it until recently, either."
I closed my eyes and saw my mother's face, younger, but pale and thin.
Allison shifted from foot to foot as she leaned against the outside wall of the kitchen, listening intently.
"She said; 'The road you travel will be long and winding. But love will be binding, and you will find your way.' I thought she meant to love life. And I tried. I really did," Grace said. She rested her head in the palm of her free hand and looked at the ceiling.
"What do you think she meant then?" Thom asked.
"I think she meant that I had to freely give love, no matter what or where. It's not a tool to get something in return. Once I figured that out, I'd be able to love life, and those around me."
"And now you do?" he asked.
Allison couldn't see Grace nod her head, or the small smile that edged her lips. But she heard her say softly, "Someone gave me a gift, with no strings attached, and I think I finally figured out why, and what I can give in return."
Allison had the day off from work when I approached her on the back patio. She was wearing a pair of beige slacks and a white blouse, covered mostly by a navy, v-neck sweater. Her casual beauty left me at a loss for words after my initial 'hey'.
She smiled and said 'hey' back. "What's up?" she asked, a breath of white air escaping her full, red lips.
"Not much. Just came to see what you were doing," I said as I sat in the lawn chair next to her. I was working up my courage to say what needed to be said.
Allison turned to me, her eyes shining bright and blue, matching the cloudless winter sky.
Arent you cold? She gestured to my thin gray T-shirt.
I shrugged, and crossed my arms as I kicked my feet up on the long chair. We sat in silence for a while. It was nice not to feel like we needed conversation. Her mere presence was enough to settle my nerves and I let a small, lazy smile cross my lips.
Daniel said everything was fine?
Id gone to see him yesterday. He said everythings healing nicely. In fact, better then hed hoped. Ill be able to return to a light work schedule in a matter of days. My tone turned wistful, but thats as far as I went. These last few days had been good, and while I didnt ever want to leave here, I couldnt fool myself either.
Allison nodded without turning my way and crossed her legs. She closed her eyes and settled deeper into her chair. Thats good. She paused. Will you go back to being a waitress?
Dunno. Dont really want to, I said honestly. Maybe Ill do bartending again. Tough, but fun. And you always meet the most interesting people. I grinned crookedly, remembering one time in particular.
What? Allison asked, with a raised eyebrow. Find yeself a nice strong lad, did ye? she asked in a thick Irish brogue.
Chuckling I said, A bar, my dear, not a pub. Her smile was so bright that it nearly took my breath away, again. I worked at this one bar, called the Salty Sea. It was the epitome of a seedy, back alley bar, but I loved it.
This and that. Mostly the accident.
Where you fell down the stars? Allison twisted on the lounge chair and looked at me intently.
I nodded. It wasnt their fault. Things happen. I shrugged.
So, Allison drawled. Tell me about these fascinating people you met. Either her eyes or the cold made me shiver. I watched as she grinned slightly and pulled off her sweater. Here.
Youll get cold, I protested.
Allison watched Graces blond head disappear beneath navy blue folds. In truth she wasnt cold. Grace had set a warmth burning in her belly that didnt diminish even as she chuckled at the sight of the young woman in a sweater that was much too big for her.
What are you laughing at? the artist asked indignantly, but with a wide grin. Do you want me to tell this story or not? She raised a jaunty brow.
Go right ahead. By all means, dont let me stop you.
Grace tilted her head slightly to the side, and her bangs fell gently into her eyes. Impatiently she brushed them aside. Well, there was this one woman I remember the most. She was a regular customer. Her hair was this fiery red, and her eyes the most intense green-
The words faded away from Allisons ears as she watched the waning sun kiss the blond head with golden highlights. Her lips were small, pink, and definitely kissable. Her cheeks were the same pink, warmed by the sun and the passion with which she told her tale. Her hands- small, slim and artistically tapered- accentuated her tale with little up and down movements.
But what fascinated Allison the most were Graces verdant eyes. They blazed with a joy that the gallery owner had only seen when painting. Something had changed in the young woman.
And, if Allison had had any talent for painting, this is what she would have painted. A vibrant young woman, with a love for life.
As my tale wound down and finished I realized Id purposely steered clear of the real reason why Id come outside. But as I looked at Allisons smiling face, felt the crisp, winter wind swirling around us and caught the smell of snow I couldnt help but feel a certain sense of peace.
You must be cold by now, I said softly.
Allison started, then looked at her arms, as if seeing them for the first time. A little bit, she admitted.
How about we make some hot cocoa? I asked, as I stood and reached out a hand to help her up.
Sounds good. I can get Vell-
I thought we could make it together, then maybe sit by the fireplace. What do you think? I asked quietly and met pale eyes.
Allison nodded and led the way inside to the kitchen. Once we were there I offered to give the sweater back, but Allison shrugged, and said whenever would be fine. I hid a smile behind her back as she rummaged through the cupboard, and snuggled deeper into the warmth and light scent of Allison that surrounded me.
I couldnt remember ever having had a better time. The fire had glowed and crackled- a hazy red that highlighted Allisons hair- as wed sipped our cocoa and lounged on the couch. Eventually wed finished our drinks and Id sprawled out on the carpet in front of the fire.
Allison had tossed some pillows down and joined me. Wed talked about this and that, and nothing in between. She had a new show coming up, I had just finished another painting.
For the first time in my life I fell asleep next to someone, not worrying if theyd steal my shoes or cut my throat during the night.
Id awoken briefly as Allison carried me to my room and deposited me on the bed. Id mumbled something, and shed shhed me and told me to go back to sleep, tucking me in with a gentle kiss on my forehead.
But I had no way of knowing that once Allison left shed gone to her own room and stayed awake for hours.
The next morning I asked Allison if I could borrow the limo. Shed raised an eyebrow, but nodded without question.
I had forty bucks left so I asked Ed to drive me to the grocery store first. I came out with two bags of stuff, handed one to Ed, then asked if hed drop me off a block from my old apartment.
The other bag rested lightly in my arms as I walked around the alley and came up by the fire escape. A wicked smile crossed my lips as I ascended the walk to the loft window. I flipped the broken latch and crawled across the sill, dropping softly onto the bare, hardwood floor.
No one was in the loft, or appeared to be anywhere else in the apartment, as I made my way quietly from room to room.
Dougs was first. Blue dye in his Head and Shoulders, and Frosted Flakes in the bed. Angela and Julies beds both got rice, and so did their toilet and tub. With any luck theyd think it was maggots. Torch, last but not least, got his green hair dye traded with guacamole. I turned his stereo up to the last notch and walked into the kitchen.
I went directly to the circuit breaker behind the door and cut the power. Oh I had such a cruel little bone in my body. My mission complete I returned to the fire escape. I felt a little guilty, but it was all harmless. So theyd have to buy groceries, maybe get a splitting headache from the stereo all in all it was enough revenge for me to forgive and forget.
Ed met me with a wide smile. Mission accomplished, Grace?
Yup, on to step two. Step two was the York bridge. Ed glanced at me curiously. Its all right, I told him as I exited the limousine. Im just going to give this to an old friend.
He looked at the other bag, the one filled with actual food, and nodded. Ill be right here when youre finished. Unless youd like me to go with you?
No thanks, Ed. Ill be fine. Slowly I wandered beneath the bridge, shivering as the wind screamed through the old supports, like Banshees on the moor. The shadows were freezing and almost everyone was converging around blazing barrels. The professor wasnt in his usual spot and I glanced around curiously. It took me a moment to realize all his stuff was gone, and new pieces of board and blankets held up the walls of his dilapitated home.
Any icy shiver seized my body. Professor? I called. A dirty, dishwater colored blond head appeared from the jumble of blankets.
Get out of here, this space is mine!
I just looked at him. Wheres the Professor?
Dead. Now get out of here.
I stumbled backwards, dropping my bag of food. No. Cant be. I saw him just the other day .
Its true, now go away, the man mumbled as he ducked back inside.
In a daze I went from barrel to barrel, but everyone said the same thing. Dead. Frozen solid. Heart attack. There were no usea for platitudes and niceties on the street.
As I stumbled to the limo Ed raced towards me, cursing under his breath that he never should have let me go there. Are you hurt? he asked, and grabbed my shoulders.
No. Im not hurt. I shrugged away from his hands and leaned against the cold, black side of the limo, closing my eyes. A low moan started deep in my throat. Ed gently touched my shoulder.
Are you sure?
Sure. Sure. Just take me ho- back to Allisons, please. He helped me into the limo, where I rested my head against the passenger side window and closed my eyes again.
Shes in her room, Miss, Vella said quietly from the entryway hall, as if afraid that shed wake Grace. Ed bring her to a bridge-
Bridge? Allisons voice rose as she tried to get around the maid.
Wait! Vella grabbed her employers arm, a mistake that could cost her her job, and halted Allison in her tracks. The icy glare that came her way took her voice for a split second before she spoke forcefully. She very upset. You go- go- rushing in there, you scare the girl.
Slowly Allison nodded. What should I do? she asked softly.
Let Grace rest. She cry herself out, be very tired. You wait.
She looked at the maid for a long moment, her heart aching to go to the young woman, find out what happened and make it all better. Ill let her rest, she assured Vella as she handed her coat and suitcase to the young maid and headed to her own room to change.
She showered, dressed in comfortably worn jeans and a dark blue, long sleeved Polo shirt with a little horse embroidered on the breast pocket. That was as long as she could wait before she found herself standing silently in the doorway to Graces room.
The artist was sprawled across the bed, covers just barely over her legs. Her hair was rumpled, her blue sweater- Allisons blue sweater- exposing a pale expanse of stomach. She moved and let out a small groan.
Hey, she said, sleepily.
Hey, Allison replied, crossing the room. Mind if I sit down? Grace moved over slightly and patted a spot on the bed beside her. Are you all right?
Wanna tell me why you were at the bridge? Allison asked as she absently plucked at the comforter.
I looked at Allison in the dim light of the bedroom and felt my heart clenching all over again. The Professors dead, I said bluntly.
She raised a puzzled eyebrow. The Professor and Mary Ann?
Despite the circumstances I felt a small smile tugging at my lips. No, an old friend. He helped me out when I . Well, when I was at one of the lowest points in my life.
The worst thunderstorm of the season seemed to be focused on the city, or more specifically, on the small, dirty alley Id run to for cover. Rain plastered newspapers and litter against the walls, and soaked me to the bone. I was cold, tired, hungry and dirty.
A rat scurried by my feet, making me jump. A sinister shadow loomed by the dumpster. I raced headlong onto the sidewalk, and towards the cover of the York bridge.
People roamed from barrel to barrel, exchanging conversation and warmth. A horde of nameless, faceless people in a world of shadows.
I found a crumbling bridge pillar to shield me against the worst of the storm, and my fears, and sank down to the damp concrete.
A shadow passed by me, stopped and turned. I felt my heart leap into my throat, as a deep, gravely voice asked my name. Hesitantly I looked up into dull gray eyes.
Grace, I whispered.
He knelt down in front of me. I backed up against the pillar. No fear, my girl. He smiled kindly. Youre new to York.
I nodded at his almost question.
Since then Id always had someone to turn to, I whispered shakily and wound my arms around myself in the vain attempt to ward off the chill that had entered my body. Whenever I needed something - just an ear to talk to- he was there. Until today.
Its- I tried to help him. I went back for him, Alli. I looked helplessly at her. Her pale eyes were dark and shimmering. She reached forward and tenderly touched my cheek. He wouldnt go . And now hes dead.
Its not your fault, Allison tried to reassure me.
I-I know that. But it still hurts. Here. Distressed I tapped my chest, just above my heart. Her warm hand suddenly covered mine and pulled it gently to her lips. She kissed my knuckles and laid my palm against her cheek.
I forgot to breath as my heart pounded a staccato rhythm against my ribcage.
Im sorry, she said again, then kissed my palm, and then my wrist. I opened my mouth in silent protest. Allisons free hand touched my lips. Dont say anything. Just close your eyes and rest now.
She kissed my palm again. I felt her warm breath caressing my skin and a tingle travel the length of my arm.
Close your eyes. Good. Now, her voice lowered. Imagine your favorite painting. What does it look like?
The one with the mountain. The snow swirling down like a perfect Christmas, I replied sleepily. Her lips twitched upward into a smile against my hand.
Allison watched Grace slip into sleep with the image of a snowy mountainside, and held onto her hand a lot longer then necessary. Gently she traced her fingers, to the tip and back to the knuckle, then slowly down her arm, eliciting a trail of goosebumps and a soft moan.
She stopped abruptly, laid Graces hand on the bed and slowly backed to the door after pulling the covers up over the sleeping artist.
Quietly she made her way down the long hall to her office and sat behind the desk after pouring herself a shot of whiskey.
Her kisses wouldnt have stopped at Graces wrist if not for the haunted looked on her friends face. Shed wanted to hold Grace, comfort her, love her, and take away the hurt. But Grace had been hurt so many times in her life that Allison refused to do it to her again.
So she sat, for a long time, looking out over the darkened gardens, holding a tiny cottonball Santa in her hand.
Want to go for a drive with me? Allison asked the next morning over coffee and blueberry muffins.
A drive? I wondered why there were no comments about last night, the kisses shed given so tenderly or the reason for my tears.
Yes, theres something Id like to show you. She turned to look at me, and her tentative smile made my heart skip a beat.
Sure, where to? I had the sudden thought that I was wrong. Totally wrong, and everything I'd come to realize wasn't true. My stomach churned as I stood and grabbed the back of the kitchen chair.
Allison reached out her hand and steadied me. You okay?
I just nodded.
Its nothing bad. I'm not kicking you out of the house or anything," she said lightly. "Just wait and see. And- and if you dont like it well well get to that when we come to it.
So we made our way through the house and to the limo, where Ed was waiting. When the limo finally pulled to a stop we were in front of Wahbash Galleries. I looked at Allison. She just smiled.
Come on. She led the way inside to the main room, taking my hand in hers. There were numerous people wandering around, looking at the new paintings.
I stopped dead in my tracks. What is this? All around me were the paintings Id done in the last two months.
Remember I said I had a special show coming up? Allison waved her hand around the room.
This is it, Grace.
My paintings? My jaw hung open. Allison with the rose, by the trellis flowers, children playing, mountains, sunsets, forests . All mine. And the centerpiece. My brother, I whispered.
Its hes not for sale. None of them are if you dont want to, but I already have bids on three of them. For over 50,000.
Each? I croaked, stunned.
Allison nodded with a wide smile.
Ive got to sit down. Shakily I made my way to a bench off to the side. Allison sat beside me.
Im sorry. I thought youd like it.
I looked at her slowly. I- Its just such a shock.
Then its all right?
Its more than all right. Youll never know . Tears began to cloud my eyes and hastily I wiped them away. Youll never know how much this means to me. Why have you done all this for me? I asked abruptly.
What do you mean? Her eyebrows rose. Why did I spend money on you? Why have I given you things?
My eyes narrowed. "Why are my paintings here? I never asked you to do this."
Do you think all I want is a commission?
I'm not sure what you want, I admitted, crossing my arms across my chest and sitting straigther on the cushioned bench.
I did this," she waved her hand around the room, "because you deserve it. She reached out a trembling hand and touched my cheek. What else do you want?
My heart caught in my throat. I don't want anything but you, hovered on the tip of my tongue, but refused to be said aloud. And for all this . I waved my hand impatiently towards the paintings. What do you want from me?
Her eyes widened and her hand dropped to her lap. Nothing, Grace. Havent you learned that by now? Havent you learned anything? As her voice rose numerous people turned our way.
Ive learned a lot of things, I replied defiantly, and more then a little embarrased by the unabashed stars now directed at us.
And whats that? That nothings for free? That no one can care about you or do things for you without some ulterior motive? She paused, standing, and raked a trembling hand through her raven hair. Why wont you let anyone love you? she yelled.
The shattering rage in her blue eyes frightened me. Unconsiously I stood and stepped back a pace.
Goddammit, She cursed and abruptly headed to the front doors of the gallery. I raced after her and just barely caught her arm as she cleared the glass door.
She spun around to face me, ripping my hand off her forearm. Just go away, Grace.
People were bustling past us on the busy sidewalk. Horns were honking, radios blaring and all I could hear were the words, why wont you let anyone love you?
Just forget everything I said. Forget about the show. Forget about the paintings she muttered and turned away. She resumed her course down the busy sidewalk, bypassing the limo and a perplexed Ed.
I watched her go, my heart aching.
Apparently I hadnt learned anything at all.
I wasnt sure if I should return to the mansion, but Ed insisted.
I worried for Allison and her dark frame of mind. She was out on the streets- a place I knew was violent and horrible to someone vulnerable- and my heart rested in my throat the whole drive to her home.
As I wandered around the house- Vella discreetly keeping her distance after talking to Ed- I touched the spines of books, the frames of pictures, countertops all places that Allison had touched.
Not much made sense to me right then, since Id thought Id had it all figured out. Was I a fool? The same stupid idiot that had fallen hard and fast for a beautiful woman while sketching her in the park?
I knew in my heart and to the darkest reaches of my aching soul that there was more to it then that.
Allison had had no destination in mind as shed stalked away from the gallery and Grace.
Shed opened the gallery to Graces paintings, just to show the young artist that she was something, could be something more .
All my life Ive used people. Taken them to my bed, then tossed them back to where they came. She was afraid it was happening all over again.
Allisons path down the sidewalk was unconsciously leading her to the subway. Absently she paid the fifty cents to enter, passed through the turnstile, then found a seat on a crowded bench to wait for the train.
People surged all around her. Big and small, short and tall. Well dressed, or in tattered pants and coats too light for winter.
Grace could be one of these people, she realized. And, before, I never even would have noticed her. How many people have I passed by and not seen? What if it was me?
A slow and steady rumble pulled her from her thoughts as the train came to a clacking halt at the loading platform. She entered with the mass of people and found a seat in the back.
Three stops came and went before she exited the train and took the long, graffiti covered hallway to the surface. On the top of the stairs she stopped and looked up at the dark gray sky. It had started to snow.
Wispy flakes fell, landing on her nose, bangs and lashes. Someone elbowed by her, muttering a curse, before she stepped up to the curb.
She realized she had no idea where she was, till she saw the dull concrete and crumbling walls of the York bridge off in the distance. All around her buildings stood in crumbling testament to one of the poorest sections of town. Children ran past, chasing snowflakes that fell in an ever increasing ferocity. Tired adults slogged past, going to or coming home from work. An electric company van sat on the curb, while a frozen workman adjusted buttons and wires in the control box.
This had been Graces world.
Snow fell faster as she stood there, just watching. She shoved her numb hands into the pockets of her coat as the harsh winter wind barreled down between the buildings. Her dark hair swirled and whipped around her face.
The crowds thinned and disappeared all together as the wind-chill dropped and they sought shelter.
After an indeterminable amount of time Allison slowly resumed her course.
I stood at the window watching the snow storm and all its blinding fury. There was fear in my heart not the fear and terror of hungry days and freezing nights on the street, but fear that I was loosing Allison forever.
Making the mistake of questioning her motives had been idiotic. I knew, KNEW, what my heart was saying, what my soul was craving. But still I voiced my uncertainties.
With a heavy sigh I turned to the bed and packed the small bag that Vella had given me, with the things that Allison had brought from the station locker. I laid my beautiful gown across the bed and smoothed out all the wrinkles.
Youre leaving then? A soft voice asked from the doorway.
I spun around, startled to find Allison, her dark hair a wild frenzy around her face, blown from the harsh wind and still covered in snowflakes that were slowly melting. Her cheeks were brushed with red, and her eyes looked swollen. Shaking hands were quickly thrust in her pockets as I gave her the once over.
Yeah. Im leaving, just like you told me to.
Allison flinched. I never meant to hurt you, Grace.
My temper was beginning to rise, and my sadness from moments before vanished. Well, you did.
As she stepped forward I stepped back and fastened angry eyes on her. Dont say anything, Allison. Cause whatever it is Id rather not hear it. Hastily I picked up the bag and my coat and turned back to the door. She was blocking it completely. Id rather leave remembering the best months of my life-
Id rather you not leave at all, Allison interrupted softly.
What? I sputtered. You said-
I know what I said, she replied, taking a hesitant step into the room. She tipped her head and regarded me silently for a moment. But, if you want to go Id understand.
My mouth opened and closed. My throat tightened and I couldnt talk anymore as my anger drained away, replaced by a weary sadness.
I sagged onto the bed and dropped the bag at my feet. No one spoke, and the only sound was the chiming of the grandfather clock in the hall, and the wind rattling the windows.
Allison crossed the room in two strides, knelt down in front of me, and gently placed her hands on my knees. Have you ever found someone whose smile lights up the darkest recesses of your heart? Someone youd give everything to, to see that smile everyday? Someone you find yourself hoping never leaves even when you make stupid mistakes?
I nodded silently.
You dont owe me anything, Grace. I put the paintings up for you and only you. I realize now I should have asked. She paused, eyes shimmering with regret, before continuing. In answer to your question; the only thing I want is for you to be happy.
I am happy, I whispered. I was close enough to smell the wind and snow in her hair, to see the tiny flecks of gold in her eyes and know that I never wanted to leave her.
I reached out a shaking hand and traced the line of her jaw. We all make mistakes, Alli. My mistake was not trusting in you, and what my heart was saying, I said as I removed my fingertips from soft skin, and dropped them to my lap. I love you, Allison. Never what you could give to me. Not money, clothes or food, but you. You...and only you."
Amazed, I watched her face suddenly break down and a hitching sob come tumbling from her lips. You love me?"
I nodded. I think I always have.
Shhh. I held my finger to her lips. Let me finish? She nodded. I see you in my dreams. I think of you every waking moment. I tremble at your touch and crave more. I want to kiss you, hold you, and touch you.
Allison drew in a deep breath, staring long and hard into the verdant eyes in front of her. They shimmered with tears and with honesty. They spoke more then Graces words alone.
She loves me.
I love you.
Allison moved her trembling hand across Graces cheek, over her lips, along the line of her jaw and slowly to the back of her head. She gently pulled Grace closer, until the heat of their breath mingled together.
Silent tears traveled down Graces cheeks.
Dont cry, Allison whispered and wiped the tears away. I- I love you.
"No ones ever told me that before, she whispered.
Pale, blue eyes widened. Never?
Never. Grace shook her head. Say it again?
I leaned my forehead close and rested it against hers.
I love you, she said again, her voice low and throaty. "Stay with me, Grace. I need you."
My chest tightened painfully at her heartfelt confession. I tilted my head up and brushed the lightest of kisses across her lips. She responded instantly, a light moan escaping from deep in her throat.
I pulled away gently so I could look into her eyes. They were still closed. I smiled as she cracked them open and slowly focused.
She cleared her throat and offered a little, lopsided grin. Sorry if Im kinda rusty .
Could have fooled me, I said as I ran my hands down her arms. She placed a hand on each of my hips and pulled me close. I sank to the floor beside her and nestled against her chest, listening to her heart thundering wildly. Tell me Im not dreaming, I murmured against the soft cotton of her shirt.
Youre not dreaming, she said as she laid her chin on the top of my head.
Tell me . My pulse quickened and I wrapped my arms around her waist.
Tell you what, love?
Tell me this is for a long, long time .
For as long as you can stand me.
I pulled back and looked up. I think I can handle you.
She quirked an eyebrow. Oh really?
Think you can handle this? Allison captured Graces lips with her own and kissed her with rising passion. Warmth flared throughout her body as they melded together, hands exploring and mouths tasting.
Breathlessly they broke apart, starring at each other in wonder.
Remember when we had dinner at the Salisbury? Grace asked suddenly.
Allison nodded and grinned. You mean when you swore at me in Arabic?
The artist lifted a pale brow. I wasnt cursing at you.
Mmmha, Allison mumbled. So, you ever gonna tell me what nek ni means?
Grace shook her head. Nope, but I can show you.
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