All fun. Zero bloodshed.
Early morning in the gallery is my favorite time of day. The sunlight breaks through the large windows in the front, casting rays and warming the white walls as I sip my latte in solitude, the only sound the echo of my heels on the shiny, hardwood floor as I walk amongst the art that hangs on those white walls. I move around the mobile partitions and columns that are interchangeable depending on what the current exhibition calls for, admiring the colors and lines while enjoying the quiet, which will soon be interrupted by Riley.
As if on cue, the sound of the bell rings out from the front entrance. Walking to the door, I see Riley waiting outside, about to push the bell again. "Morning, boss!" he says enthusiastically, sliding past me and striding towards the employee area to put away his things.
"Say it isn't so! You're on time!" I call after him as I flip on the overhead lighting, signaling that my alone time is over and the gallery is officially open for the day.
"I'm offended," his protest echoes across the room as he feigns hurt. "When have I ever been late?"
I grin. "Let's see, last week, the week before that..." Rose and I don't really begrudge any of the staff fifteen minutes here or there, so he just shakes his head, not taking me seriously and uses his key card to enter the offices.
As the gallery owner, Rose runs a tight ship and can be very demanding when it's called for, but she also prefers to evade the air of stuffiness many other galleries in the River North area of Chicago have, keeping it friendly and casual for visitors and employees alike. The goal is to make sure everyone feels that the art can be accessible, while having fun and promoting a creative atmosphere at the same time.
I circle the two airy rooms for a quick, last minute inspection and head back to the front. Riley walks towards me a few moments later, buttoning the cuffs of his crisp, white shirt. "You know, you really should come out one Thursday or Friday. I promise to show you a good time."
"Grinding with you and your boyfriend in a sweatbox full of men that don't have any interest in my girl parts?" I laugh and shake my head, putting my cup down on the small desk that serves as the reception area and information center to boot up the computer "Pass."
The screen comes to life just as Sam, our security guard, says hello and settles in across from us at his post closer to the door. Riley sighs dramatically behind me. "You know, if you don't get laid soon you'll start turning into, oh I don't know… a crazy cat lady."
"She doesn't wear glasses or ugly, baggy sweaters with tissues sticking out," Sam volunteers, countering Riley's evaluation of me.
"Point well made, my good man. I suppose she'd be considered hot, dresses sexy most of the time… tight skirts, high heels…" I turn to face him, striking my best pin-up pose, as Riley looks me up and down and applauds.
"I'm so glad you approve." I roll my eyes at him.
He adjusts the thick black frames of his hipster glasses and clears his throat. "If it wasn't for the fact that I like dick I'd…"
Sam groans just as I cut Riley off from furthering that thought. "Thank you both for the compliments, but let's start our day, shall we?"
Sam agrees emphatically, thankful I stopped Riley from continuing his statement, and starts to fill out his morning log sheet, while Riley moves off to gather the measuring tape and notepad we'll need for finalizing the next exhibit's floor plan.
He returns with his tools in hand just as Jessica, one of the summer interns from the Weinberg Arts program at Northwestern appears. I leave her to the meet and greet and follow Riley as he measures and I jot down notes, making final preparations for Rose's latest acquisition. We'll be working all weekend to have the gallery ready for ten pieces on loan from Berlin, a collection from the reclusive art lover, the late Roland Vogt. I'm practically vibrating with excitement; it's been four long months since Rose reached an agreement with his estate to host the collection for a month. The shipment arrived three weeks ago for inspection and inventory and is being held in the climate-controlled storeroom. But now, now it's almost time to get them on the walls.
Obtaining exhibits such as these provide a few benefits for the gallery. Even though the pieces are not 'sellable' art, the donation we ask visitors to give or the fundraisers we host when these exhibits come through go to the Chicago Park District Culture and Arts programs, while the publicity the gallery gets attracts high end buyers for the art we do sell. Most of the rare art we host is on loan from other museums, but sometimes, like this next exhibit, estates or self-contained collectors generously donate a select number from their private assemblies.
It also provides students from the nearby universities the chance to view and sketch artists they may have studied, while offering people of all ages and financial backgrounds that may be unable to travel the chance to say they've seen a magnificent painting with their own eyes. I still get a thrill from it; there's nothing quite like being in the presence of a priceless work of art.
I'm absentmindedly thinking about the large load of paperwork currently sitting on my desk that I need to finalize for Rose, and what we have lined up for the next few months, when I hear Riley bark my name. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
I refocus and find him staring at me, tape measure pulled and charting the length of a partition. He's obviously waiting on me to write down the numbers he just called out. "Please tell me your mind just went to some hot guy you fucked last night?"
I narrow my eyes. "Classy, Riley… but no. Hate to bore you, but it was on work."
"It's always about 'work' with you. You know, I have a few straight friends you might like," he offers for the hundredth time, and I shoot the idea of a fix-up down for the hundredth time. He sighs, and shakes his faux-mohawk head at me. "Why don't you at least just pick up a dude sometime, have a one-night stand with some stranger. You know, get the juices flowing." His eyes waggle behind his glasses while I contain a laugh.
"Because I'm not desperate." I make a new column on the paper, getting ready for the info I missed. "Besides, how do you know I'm not sleeping with someone?"
I look up to see Riley staring at me, a doubtful expression on his face. I don't feel the need to share with Riley that I have picked up my fair share of men when necessary, and currently have 'a someone' I see when the need arrives, so I just shrug. "Okay, the next guy that walks in, I'll take into the back office and have my way with." I point my notepad towards the measuring tape in his hand to get him back on the task at hand. "Now, repeat, please."
Riley complies, and tells me the numbers I missed before moving on to the next wall. The small talk ceases, and we get down to business, double and triple checking our numbers.
"Welcome." We hear Jess say a while later, causing Riley and I to glance at each other quickly, eyes wide, before we both turn to look at the gallery entrance.
"Fuck," I laugh quietly, as I see an old man with a cane, blowing his nose in a hanky before stuffing it back in his pocket and taking the pamphlet Jessica hands him.
"Um, yes, that is what you agreed to." My hand flies out and snaps the notepad against his arm. "But he seems like maybe more of a 'relationship' kind of fellow. Not sure he's got any working parts."
"I'm not interested in that either," I look at him pointedly before ordering him to get the ladder and start measuring the lighting.
It's not that I wouldn't be able to find someone to have a relationship with if I wanted one. There's been a few men I've dated lately that have expressed their desire for 'more'. I just don't feel the oppressive need to be part of a couple. I have enough responsibility and things to worry about in my life without having to work a romance into the mix.
A man would just get in my way.
The month for the Vogt collection is quickly drawing to a close, and I'm both sad and anxious for it to leave. Rose has successfully finalized the next arrival, but that collection isn't scheduled to come for another two months, so in the meantime we'll be highlighting a series of local artists along with a few student shows from the nearby colleges. It's always nice to have the money coming in, and I'm happy to support current artists as well as students, but it's not as exciting as our exotic exhibits. So tomorrow, Riley and I will begin the process of removing these pieces and getting them in their crates, ready to transport to the next location or return to the Vogt estate until they are scheduled elsewhere.
Around four o'clock, we all decide we need a Starbucks boost. I jot down the orders at the reception desk for Jess to retrieve and hear the glass doors open behind me. On instinct, Jess and I glance up to greet whoever has entered, and see a large man in sunglasses with dark hair and a black suit standing in the doorway, looking around before turning to speak to Sam. Sam points towards me, and the man strides across the floor and takes off his shades as he approaches.
"Ma'am," he says and nods his head. "I understand you are in charge here?" he asks brusquely and I tense a bit, unsure what his business might be.
"I'm the gallery manager, Isabella Swan. Rosalie Hale is the owner and director, but she's not here at the moment. What can I do for you?" I extend my hand, but the large man in front of me doesn't even look down, much less return my greeting.
"My employer would very much like to visit the gallery this evening, but he is unable to arrive until after hours. Would you be kind enough to keep your establishment open until nine o'clock? He would be arriving at approximately eight thirty."
"Who is your employer?" I ask, taking back my ignored hand and folding my arms in front of me.
"He's someone that prefers to view his art alone," he says, a small hint of amusement in his blue eyes. Before I can give an answer, he continues. "I can assure you that if he appreciates your gallery here," he nods towards the space, "and the hospitality, he'll be most generous to your business in the future for accommodating him. I would strongly advise you to do so."
The gallery has been kept open after hours for benefactors and customers before, those on tight schedules or requesting privacy. We've even opened it on a Monday once for a man that met his girlfriend here so he could propose. But something about the way this guy is asking rubs me wrong, almost like I'm not being asked at all.
"Can I at least get his name?" I ask, somewhat sharply.
"Edward Cullen," the man replies after a slight hesitation and I search my memory for anyone in the art world that I might've heard of or met that matches the name. Nothing comes to mind, but I'm not stupid, everything about this request screams money, and a new, wealthy customer is never something to turn down.
"I suppose that would be all right. Ms. Hale will gladly welcome him at eight thirty." I answer for her, as she always makes time for lucrative possibilities. This time, the man extends his hand with a smile on his face that shows two dimples, making him appear a bit friendlier but not making him any less intimidating.
"Mr. Cullen will be delighted. Thank you." He releases my hand and turns on his heel, and as I watch him go, I notice a secret service type wire behind his right ear. Turning back to Jess, I open my mouth, but she beats me to the punch.
"Just checked. Not many hits when you google Edward Cullen. His name pops up on a foundation, but there's little else, unless he's an acne prone Halo champion from Ohio." She scrunches her eyes and stares at the computer screen for a few moments, while I wait. I have to smile at her curiosity. She's doing exactly what I was about to ask her to do when I turned. "He's probably an old guy, if he's like, on a foundation and stuff," Jess volunteers with a shrug, and I nod, agreeing.
"Hmm. Well, I suppose you'll meet the gentleman when he arrives." I tap on the desk and tell Jess I'll go for the coffee, wanting to get outside for a bit. Reaching the outdoors, I feel the warmth of the day hit me and sigh deeply, the heat of the sun tickling my skin and reminding me it's summer. I inhale slowly, and dream about getting away for an actual vacation sometime. I can't remember the last time I had one.
The glare of a mirror catches me in the eye and I watch as a shiny, black Mercedes pulls away from the curb in front of me, the man with the curly black hair occupying the driver's seat. I think nothing else of it as I walk across the plaza to get to the coffee shop, my mind on what the rest of my day contains.
When I tell Rosalie about our strange visitor, she asks me if I can stay because she has her bi-monthly dinner with her father, whom she lovingly refers to as 'the sperm donor'. I agree readily, as I have no other plans for the evening. I peruse the brochure of the exhibit again even though I have it practically memorized, so I'm able to answer any questions our esteemed visitor may have.
Once the gallery is closed for the evening to the general public, I'm taking one last look at my favorite piece of the exhibit, The Embrace, and contemplating toeing a stiletto off when I hear Jess greet someone. I don't worry about rushing to say hello, figuring I'd give him a moment to enjoy the art in solitude. Slow footsteps circle the way the layout forces you to move, viewing each piece in the order we've designed, leading to the conclusion. The footsteps pause for a moment, signaling that Mr. Cullen is taking in whichever painting lays before him.
I look at my watch, a simple silver cheap thing with a blue face, a gift from my working class parents upon my high school graduation eight years earlier. I wear it faithfully every day, in memory of the last occasion we were together. The time reads 8:45, and I roll my eyes at the late arrival of the inconsiderate Mr. Cullen, which will surely cause me to be here later than the proposed nine o'clock.
Footsteps sound again but this time, they're the quick scurry of Jess's ballet flats, hurrying across the floor to ask me if she can go because she has a date.
"Yes, of course, I'll close up. Go have fun." I smile as I watch her ponytail bounce behind her in her haste to get out; her job probably already out of her mind and on whomever the guy is that's making her so excited.
I fleetingly think about calling the guy I'm sleeping with once I'm done here, to have him satiate my need to get violated properly. It's been a while, but I quickly decide against it. He's begun to get a little clingy the last few times I've spent time with him. Sweet lovemaking and requests to stay the night have become more frequent, and that is one complication in my already hectic lifestyle that I do not need. It was the perfect arrangement, no expectations, no having to explain my whereabouts when on short business trips for Rose, but now he's hinting at more. I sigh, knowing he'll have to be let down not so gently, and soon. Despite knowing I have to end this latest arrangement, I begin to feel slightly aroused thinking of our last encounter. I find myself lost in thought, my hand lightly stroking down my throat to the V in my wrap dress. Well maybe I'll call him one last time… .
In my periphery, I see the visitor turning the corner about twenty feet away. I shake off my thoughts, trying to refocus. When my eyes register what I'm looking at, the sight before me catches me off guard, and bears no resemblance to the idea I had conjured of who our elderly patron would be.
This Mr. Cullen is no old man.
I chew my lip a bit, watching him as he views a painting. He's tall, slim, but not scrawny, and holy hell, the man can wear a suit. Navy and perfectly tailored. His hair is shiny and reddish brown, but somewhat chaotic, a sharp contrast to the neatness of his clothing. I'm still dangerously close to massaging my cleavage, as I look him up and down, letting my fingers play over my skin. With the white wall to his right framing him, he could be a piece of art himself.
"Excuse me," his deep voice startles me, as I hadn't realized he'd turned my way. He walks towards me slowly, almost lazily, and I can't help but skim his appearance as he approaches, taking in the burgundy-striped tie that matches the silk square in his breast pocket perfectly. My eyes finally lift to his face, and I inhale silently.
His stare holds a hint of impatience as he concentrates on me, waiting for me to answer, but I can't help but hesitate when I take in the striking, unusual nature of his eyes. The art lover in me quickly equates the color in the left with the blue of the sky in Monet's Garden at Sainte-Adresse, while the right is the exact shade of green in Monet's Water Lilies.
"I'm sorry, I was…" Ogling. I realize I'm still moving my fingers up and down my throat, so I just trail off and quickly clasp my hands together in front of me, his eyes following the path they make. "Welcome to the Hale Gallery. What can I help you with, sir?"
His gaze moves back to my own, and he narrows his eyes minutely. "I'm in town for just a short amount of time, and a colleague mentioned you had The Embrace on loan to show. I was hoping to get a look at it." My blood betrays me, heating under my skin as his voice melts into my ears, his speech containing a slight lilt of an accent I can't quite make out. I seem unable to resist the appeal of this stranger standing in front of me; I've never seen anyone so… striking in person. My eyes travel across his face, his features captivating me until they land on his mouth, where one side is turning up at the corner. I stare at it as his lips part, his voice deepening. "I do realize you stayed open for me and I'm tardy. I apologize," he says smoothly, and I find myself enjoying the movement of Edward Cullen's slightly scruffy, chiseled to perfection, sinfully lick-able jaw.
When I glance at his face again after he's finished speaking, there's a hint of conceit in his eyes, his smirk firmly back in place, and I realize he's watching me explore him. The smug look I'm seeing tells me he's entirely too familiar with this reaction from women.
Busted and slightly annoyed that he seems to be amused by me, I meet his gaze and regain my lack of composure once I comprehend what he's asked to see. "We do, right this way. It's a beautiful piece, one of my favorites, actually, of this entire collection."
My whole body is aware of his presence behind me so I walk confidently across the gallery floor to where the painting in question is displayed, moving to the left of the canvas so I don't obscure his view. I see he hasn't followed me; he's still standing where we were as he observes the painting, his eyes intent on the piece twenty feet away from him. I try to guess how old he is, he's older than my twenty-six years most definitely, but I can't pinpoint it exactly. Slowly, and without looking my way, he begins to walk until he's standing directly in front of Egon Schiele's expressionist painting of romantic love.
"Amazing," he says, his dissimilar eyes probing as they dart from corner to corner, and hit on various points of the piece. I watch as he skims the soulful definition in the woman's naked body, wrapped around her lover.
"Yes, it really is. Are you familiar with Schiele's work?"
"I am," he answers shortly, preoccupied and focused on the art in front of him. "Beautiful. Just beautiful." I nod in agreement, appreciating the piece even more. I let the silence swallow us as he continues looking. The subject matter of the painting combined with the presence of this man does nothing to curb my aroused state.
"The brushstrokes are flawlessly defined. It's so vivid, but aged perfectly. The colors are extraordinary." He walks even closer to it, seemingly enraptured.
"I agree. The owners have kept it preserved wonderfully. We have The Scornful Woman here as well, if you'd like to see it?" I try to encourage him towards the other paintings.
"In a minute," his curt tone makes me pause. "Tell me," he stands back a step and places one hand in his pants pocket, fiddling idly with something within. "When did you acquire this piece?"
I turn back to look at the medium sized canvas. "We've had it on exhibit for a month, three weeks prior, the shipment arrived for inventory. But Ms. Hale has been working on brokering this donation for over four months before that," I say, pride evident in my voice.
"I see. So you are not Ms. Hale?"
"No, sir." I look back at the painting; slightly miffed that he may be disappointed he's not meeting the owner. I look up and find him staring at me.
"Did you play a hand in getting it to the states from Berlin? It's quite the accomplishment." My skin starts to burn as his eyes rake over my blue dress, all the way to my heels and back to my face. It's not a lecherous look, like a creep gives a woman while he's envisioning her naked, but more of a keen interest, or study. Like he's trying to assess me. It makes me slightly uncomfortable but blisters me all at the same time.
I swallow under his scrutiny. "I played a small part. The less exciting paperwork part." I smile. "You're right about it being quite the coup. I assume since you know where it came from, you are familiar with the estate of who owned it?" He nods, looking back at the painting. "You must know how particular they are about who they lend to then. Ms. Hale is very proud of this acquisition."
"Yes, I'm sure she is," he hums, his interest in me waning as he returns to the painting.
"Would you like to see the others now?" I start walking again in the direction where The Scornful Woman hangs, leading the way with a wave of my hand.
He pulls his arm up to look at his watch, noticeably more expensive than the one on my wrist. "I have to go. Perhaps I'll catch the rest if they loan them out again." He begins walking quickly towards the doors, and I just stare after him, startled by his abruptness and lack of gratitude for keeping the gallery open for him to look at one piece.
Just as he's reached the doors, I find my voice and call out to him, sickly sweet and slightly sarcastic. "So glad we could accommodate you this evening, sir. Have a nice night."
I swallow when he pauses with one hand on the door and looks back my way. Shit. I'm not usually so unprofessional, but he irked me.
Circling back to me slowly, his distracted demeanor has changed slightly. His head is cocked to the side and those blue and green eyes are firmly fixed on mine, all of his interest zeroed in as he steps within inches of me. My heart rate escalates in my chest from a mixture of fear at the way I just spoke to him and nervous tension at his sudden nearness. He reaches into his suit and pulls a silver card case from the inside breast pocket. "You seem annoyed. I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself. How rude of me." He holds out a card and my eyes widen when I see his hand covered in ink. I stare at the tattoo, not reaching for the card, a little stunned. That is not something I expected to see, and I have to admit I'm instantly attracted. "Edward Cullen," he says, a rough, throaty tinge to his voice. "And you are…?"
I snap to attention. "Isabella Swan, sir." I reach over the desk and grab my own card, which lays in my hand dully as he makes no move to take mine either. We stand there waiting for the other to make a move in a bizarre showdown that makes me slightly unsteady in anticipation, while he smirks, expecting me to fold. His expression begins to make me feel slightly playful, so I cock an eyebrow at him in return, and in a moment of boldness, take my card and place it inside the pocket on his chest, right behind that piece of burgundy silk.
His uncommon eyes are piercing, but somewhat devious, and I watch as this fairly rude man I've known for five minutes takes his card and slowly sticks it in the neckline of my dress, right at the top swell of my breast. I may have been a bit daring with my action, but his is downright arrogant.
I think I like it.
I fight the urge to remove the card and look at it, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he's intimidated me. He breaks our gaze first and looks around the space once more. "Nice place you have here." He nods at the room, and with a brief smile and glance at my figure, Edward Cullen turns and leaves. I stare after him and see the man from earlier that day move stealthily from the shadows outside of the building, quickly stepping in front of Mr. Cullen. The large man opens the door to what looks like a very expensive, black car and waits for Mr. Cullen to enter, but this time instead of driving, he quickly follows behind him to sit in the backseat. There is a blond man behind the wheel, and the car drives off as soon as the door has closed. I find myself watching the now empty space the car just left, in slight disbelief.
I take the card from my dress and finally look at it. There isn't much to it, just the initials 'EC' in raised black lettering on the front of the thick, gray card. I turn it over in my hand, looking at the blank space on the back.
There's no title, no email address, and no phone number.
Raising it to my mouth with a shiver, I tap the card against my lips and smile; titillated by the overconfident Mr. Cullen, regardless of the apprehension creeping up my spine.
Walking to the back office, I pick up my cell to call Rose. She answers on the third ring, the din of the restaurant loud in the background.
"Sorry to bother you, Rose, but we may have a problem."
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From the planetblue Archive of Awesome Fic List:
The Consequence of Miracles by Travis Birkenstock (I have never been so affected by a story in my life. I still can't discuss it. I couldn't write for weeks.)
Sometimes, the miracles we plead for come at a terrible price. AH, dark subject matter.
Thanks to all of you for opening this up and giving it a go. As usual, it's completely written and edited, so posting will be my typical Monday and Thursday. Oh and one extra disclaimer this time: there will be absolutely no mention of birth control or testing. They are clean and protected, so let's just get that out of the way! :p
Big thanks and love go to my awesomely talented beta, Carrie ZM. She's more than a beta; she's the other half of me, and not a day goes by that I don't thank my lucky stars that the universe sent her my way. All mistakes are my fault, because I can never leave anything alone, and she did not beta this a/n either (yikes).
Thanks as well to the lovely LayAtHomeMom for hours of laughs, but also for once again taking on the task of pre-reading this, regardless of the fact she's posting her own story, Girl Code (check it out!).
Thanks to Lolypop82 for the banner - as usual, she understood exactly what I wanted and delivered more than I could've hoped for.
And last but not least, thanks to Nic, Kim, and the lovely ladies at TLS for the Saturday Sneak Peek they included this story in this past week, I'll bet some of you are here because of them, and I'm so very grateful.