This started out as original fiction, but I couldn't get a good grasp on the characters, so I borrowed them. Totally AU and something a bit different from me.

Also, I know absolutely fuck-all about the art world, how it works, the terminology used, etc., so I had to look everything up, so if something's "off", please let me know. I wiki'd everything, and should stick to what I know, but it was essential to the plot. I also wrote a story about poker, and I know nothing about poker, other than I'm terrible and lose money.

Please review or send C&C to .

Thanks and enjoy.

If it hadn't been the second of the month, she would have refused.

She had called it an early night after half a bottle of pinot noir and a full hour of yoga had failed to produce anything more than dusty black scribbling, and once the accidental thumbprint appeared on the eye, smudging it enough to eradicate a full afternoon's worth of holding a hand mirror two inches away from her face and trying to copy the moist tissues and curves of the organ, Mina chucked everything to the floor and headed for the shower.

One week before this commission was due, and she was still farting around on the eye. The EYE. Victory still hung in its same spot at the gallery, earning exactly zero dollars for all the accolades that it had garnered, and she was trying to scrape together enough money to keep her landlord and roommate happy by commissioning a charcoal portrait of some guy's ugly pug dog with human eyes. Those had been his exact specifications. Human eyes. Ordinarily she would have shoveled together something barely passing, because who, really, could be an impartial art critic for a piece as crazy as this one? But this client, weirdness aside, had a new house, big plans, and terrible taste, and lived alone with his beloved bug-faced dog whose image was about to be enhanced with non-canine eyes. All those empty rooms could always use more ugly pieces. He could keep her crumbly roof over her head and food and cheap liquor in her stomach for another few months if she kept him happy with freaky six-foot Dr. Moreau sketches.

Rent was due tomorrow. The same sentence had been beating in her head all day, and she knew exactly how much money she didn't have, and asking Jason or Raye was out of the question, since they had covered her last month, well, Raye had covered her for the last month. Jason had been covering her for her entire life, dutifully forking his baseball card money over because she had spilled her kindergartener sized milk at recess and was crying under the monkey bars like a little wiener. It was nice to have a brother that cared more about your five year old well-being than the chance of scoring a Manny Ramirez rookie card.

Until, of course, he grew up, started playing the guitar, lifting weights, and began sleeping with your friends.

However, she knew exactly how much Jason didn't have, after the incident a few months back involving public intoxication, nudity, and a hefty amount of borrowed bail money; something Raye was still furious over. She didn't dare mention money to either of them for a while.

Asking her parents was out, also, since it was her financial straits that caused her to boomerang out of their house for the second time, move in with her brother and his girlfriend, and crashing in the spare bedroom, which was actually quite spacious and grand except for that gaping hole in the corner of the ceiling that birds would occasionally fly into. She had solved that problem by adopting a shelter cat, a white critter with black eyes that would tear apart any stray pigeon before it had a chance to wreck its way through her work space. Of course, a few times she had come home to a pile of feathers and various…parts, but once, she had made lemonade out of those particular lemons, and sold the pigeon-blood spattered canvas to a pretentious couple whose theme for their home recording studio was "war".

Her phone beeped just as she was drying off her hair, and she answered it while toweling off. Her answer to the proposition was instant.

"No. And how do you know I need it?"

"Because it's the second of the month, Raye won't lend you money, and I was the only buyer at your last showing. By the way, that thing still gives me nightmares. I stuck it in the guest bathroom so that I can unnerve my in-laws with it while they sit on the toilet."

Mina rolled her eyes. "I was going through a surrealist period. That piece is refreshingly shocking."

"It's refreshingly shitty. The only thing that beats it is that disgusting pigeon-blood thing you sold to those delusional yuppie hipsters. But it was a choice between that and the two hundred pound sculpture of…an airplane, I think, and I just didn't feel like making my poor driver load that thing in the trunk."

"I'm still not doing it. And Airship in Flight is a sculpture of a bathtub."

"Whatever. It didn't make it less heavy. Two grand. It's his birthday."

Two grand. "Can't you just buy a bottle of scotch like normal people?"

"I did that last year. It's been done. It's done. I have to go big, Mina, he just moved into town, and I got him the suite at the Helix and promised to make up for the shitty birthday he had last year."

"What happened last year?"

"I threw up in his new car. And his kitchen floor. And the crisper drawer of the refrigerator."


"I told him I don't do shots of Patron well. And I'm pretty sure that some stripper stole his wallet. And I'm pretty sure that the stripper was of the female gender, but I can't guarantee anything of the sort. So anyway, will you do it tonight?"

Two grand. "What time?"

"An hour."

She stopped drying her hair and let the towel slip to the ground. "Five."

"Three if you can be ready in an hour. You don't even have to stay all night."

"Or I could just ask you for a loan."

The caller laughed softly. "Except that you would never take it. You didn't take your ex-fiancée's money, either, and now you're a starving artist that lives with her brother and does expensive favors for old friends."

"You make me feel really good, Darien. I'm glad you call just to cheer me up."

Another laugh. "A car will be downstairs in an hour. Tell him I said happy birthday."

She tossed the phone onto her bed and pulled open a drawer on her battered dresser. When her art didn't pay the bills…

Three. Grand.


He didn't know what Darien was thinking, but after a five-day trip to four different countries, some with questionable plumbing, Kevin didn't care where he slept minus a jail cell or bus stop, as long as he had the chance to be horizontal for awhile and not care how close his shave was. His contacts were pretty much welded to his eyeballs at this point, and every blink felt like a belt sander to the corneas.

The suite at the Helix would be home, temporarily, until he found somewhere suitable. Darien wrongly presumed that he needed the same comforts that he did, like marble fountains and sixty-four inch plasmas above the bathtub and self-heating toilet seats and such. This suite was ridiculous, from the leather barstools and circular king bed and chrome and glass shelving and fantastically ugly artwork, but the worst part was the pole. A brass pole, affixed square in the middle of a round table and bolted in the ceiling and floor. The table was high, chest-height, and the tabletop was mirrored. There was no mistaking what this was for.

Jesus, Darien. Guy just couldn't send a card.

He barely had time to squirt a few drops of Visine into his aching eyes when there was a knock at the door.

"Yes?" His voice came out filled with rasp and phlegm; he hadn't needed to use it in hours. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Who is it?"

"Darien sent me."

Her voice was light, sexy. However, he had been fooled before when his friends had thought it hilarious to send him a transvestite stripper last year, a very convincing transvestite when enough liquor had been consumed…

But holy chicken tits was he tired. Screw this, I'm going to bed. Happy birthday, me.

He yanked the door open while digging for some cash in his pocket, intending to politely send the lady on her way with a little something for the inconvenience of having come all this way, but the first thing he saw when he opened the door were her eyes: big, blue, wide eyes framed by dark lashes, and he forgot all about sleeping, and scraping the soft contacts out of his eyes with his toothbrush handle, and the past crappy birthday with the scorned stripper screaming and hitting him with his/her faux designer handbag while Darien vomited fois gras and tequila on the passenger side of his new Boxster, and all his mind went back to the brass pole.

Happy birthday, me.

She was only a few inches shorter then him in her stiletto heels, which, thankfully, were not the standard clear platforms of the more economical type of working women that would visit at this hour. Her hair hung loose in soft waves around her face, a very light yellow blonde that reached all the way to the root, with bangs that were cropped in an asymmetrical line across her high forehead. The bone structure of her face highlighted her lips, brightened with gloss and screaming of sex so loudly it drowned out almost everything else, including something she said that he totally missed.

"What?" Brilliant, you dumb shit.

She adorably cocked her head. "I said, 'Are you going to let me in'?"

Kevin gathered his bearings and stepped aside. "Yeah." Again, with the one word…

The blonde gave the room an once-over, and he wasn't entirely sure if she was impressed or disgusted. Naturally, someone in her profession must have seen hundreds of suites, paid for by men even wealthier than he or Darien; this place must look like a Motel 6 with cigarette burns in the rug by comparison.

She pulled a small white envelope out of the pocket of her short trench. "From Darien."

"Thank you. Would you like a drink?"

"Sure. Vodka tonic, please."

He busied himself behind the bar while the girl, this breathtaking girl, toyed with the belt on her trench coat and inspected the suite, stopping to examine one of the hideous art deco paintings of something that looked like black squiggly lines in a mirrored frame. Kevin felt like he was supposed to say something impressively clever that would show him in a favorable light and therefore become more attractive in the woman's eyes.

"Like the painting?" was what he came up with.

She didn't look away as she responded. "A Feinholtz. I had class with her."

"Really? What, uh, school was that?"

The blonde stopped staring and the painting and joined him at the bar. "The Academy. I graduated last year; got my degree in fine arts."

"You're an artist."

"You're surprised." She was smiling at him, her heavily-lined eyes shining through the layers of kohl. "You're probably wondering what an Academy alumni is doing here in the middle of the night doing…this."

"Uh," he stammered, all of his normally second-nature charm gone out the window with the hint of what was underneath her coat.

"It's Victory," she said, taking a long swallow. "My piece de resistance. Won a ton of awards, got me noticed in very well-connected circles, made my friends happy and my parents proud, and it's still sitting in a gallery waiting for a buyer. A rich buyer, actually, since I had to raise its value for all the acclaim it won. And you know why?"


She grinned again, this time so broadly that it reached all the way up to her eyes. "Because it's too big to fit in a standard door. You can't take it home if you can't get it in there. My fault, completely. I created it in a warehouse studio."

He laughed. "I would like to see this, uh, art."

"You can. Dreyfuss and Drake Gallery, on 8th. You can't miss it, they replaced the windows with mirrors that face the street. It's hideous and caused a couple of car accidents already."

Kevin looked at her closely. "What's your name?"

Her smile hardened a little underneath the perfect makeup. "Mi-Mina."


"No!" She smiled again, recovering. "I stuttered. I was going to give you a fake name, but I couldn't think of one fast enough."

"You don't do this very often."

"Um, no, actually." She tossed back the rest of her drink. "Only when I don't sell anything that month, and Darien helps me out."

"How do you know Darien?"

"Really old friend." Mina opened her purse and pulled an iPod out, and started setting it up in the audio system. "I used to be in this dance troupe, in college, and we would do a burlesque show. Yes, I know how that sounds, but we had a lot of fun and even got noticed for a short time. Darien was a, uh, enthusiastic repeat customer. At first I thought he was just a pervy creep, and believe me, we got a lot of those, but then he introduced himself as an agent, and this is when he was just starting out, and he really helped the careers of some of the other girls. Now he's super-agent and one of my best clients." She reddened suddenly. "For art, I mean. Not for, you know."

"Of course."

"He knows I don't mind taking out the fishnets once in a while. Although tonight, I'm not wearing any fishnets."

"No," Kevin started to flush with a welcome heat.

"Sorry, now you know my life story. What's yours?" She pressed on the click wheel, and Dusty Springfield started cooing about crazy, spooky love.

Kevin watched her as she delicately stepped onto the mirrored table and gave an experimental swing around the pole, and immediately forgot the question. "It's my birthday."

"Yes, I know." One hand reached up and pulled out the knot of her belt. "That's why I'm here. Why don't you have a seat—"


"Kevin." The first buttons of the coat came undone.


She stayed for less than an hour, was never fully undressed, and spoke less than fifty words after asking his name. Despite those facts, or perhaps because of them, Kevin was now completely, utterly, and fatally consumed with the girl who was an artist first, her body the medium of the piece.

At one point, in a lull in the playlist, she had stretched out a hand to touch his hair, giving him a great view of her breasts stretching against the black lace, almost, almost breaking free, and commented flatly that she would love to sketch his portrait. Most likely he had agreed, which he would have to any request she would have made with him in that state.

He watched her walk down the hallway to the private elevator, her hair swinging against her shoulders in blonde waves, the backs of her thighs practically edible under the hem of her coat, and he had almost, almost called out to her, to ask her if he could see her again, or call her, or anything, really. She had turned when the door opened, and flashed one last smile, tired and genuine, and curled one hand into a farewell wave. The doors closed, and she was gone.

The bar was his first destination; he mildly entertained drinking straight from the bottle until remembering that small breaks in decorum in private would only lead to larger ones in public, so he found her empty glass and poured himself a double. He had resigned to spending the night drinking himself into a birthday coma before inspiration struck with a ball peen hammer.

She was friends with Darien. Darien undoubtedly had some way of contacting her that was quick and convenient. Darien could tell Kevin about her, give him some clue into what would tickle her ivories, what she was like, what made her laugh, where she lived and who her friends were, what she looked for in a man. Darien was the gatekeeper to all carnal wisdom; benevolent and merciful, and willing to share that wisdom to a besotted fool who was practically chugging scotch at this point on an empty stomach and whose contact lenses had established themselves as permanent fixtures of his ocular anatomy. Darien was the key, the crux, the alpha and the omega, the possessor of seven numerals that Kevin coveted more than anything right now.

Darien wasn't answering his fucking phone.

The first part of his voicemail picked up Kevin's inarticulate swearing before he hung up in frustration. He dialed his sister next as he paced the room, and swore again when her chirpy voice instructed him to leave a message. This time, he bitched out the automated female voice that told him, in a very condescending manner, to press one now, or just wait for the tone, or to leave a call back number by pressing five, insulting her and her parents and whatever shithead had hired her and wrote her script thought it a great idea to include her at the end of every message.

So, without any other avenues, it was just he and the alcohol. And Ms. Right Palm and her five friends, most likely, followed by passing out with his contacts still in his eyes and perhaps puking up scotch stew early tomorrow morning, and finally chugging a twenty-ounce Gatorade and swallowing a handful of ibuprofen before sleeping the rest of the day away.

The ball peen hammer of inspiration whammed him over the head again. An idea formed into a plan, maybe ridiculous, but the best plans always were, anyway.


Raye loved Sunday.

Sunday morning was her time; Jason was still asleep, smelling of last night's cigarette smoke and sometimes with last night's clothes on. Mina would be dicking around in her room for the good part of the day, emerging only at choice periods between bouts of inspiration in her underwear and paint smudges up her arms to retrieve some coffee and whatever leftovers that were hanging around uneaten. Sunday morning was just her, her Brown Alumni mug full of coffee, the Times, and uninterrupted hours before Sunday night. Sunday nights found her sitting on the couch, watching Dateline or some other crap news show and doing paperwork on her laptop.

Ah. Front page.

There was a lump under her spread newspaper; reaching under, she fished out Mina's cell phone. The display on the front read "Four missed calls."

Heaving a sigh, she pulled herself up and knocked on the bedroom door. Mina was still asleep, that slug; she must have gone out and stayed out late.

"Wha?" the sleeping girl muttered. Raye opened the door a crack and tossed the phone in.

"Someone wants to get in touch with you, really badly."

Mina fumbled around the bedcovers to find the phone. Four missed calls? She opened the flip top and saw a familiar number on the display.

Jesse had called four times. Good lord, Sunday was a slow-ish day at the gallery, what could he want that couldn't wait until Tuesday?

"Dreyfuss and Drake."

"Hey, it's me." She let out an enormous yawn.

"Mina!" Jesse practically screamed her name into the phone. "OK, first of all, I've been calling you all morning, so I presumed that since you're not awake and working on your next fabulous masterpiece, that you've had a little too much last night and spent it with your head in the toilet, because there is no way you would purposely ignore my calls like that."

"Jesse, point. Please. It's early."

"Um, YEAH, I know it's early!" He was so indignant that he was acting even more queeny than usual. "I know this because I've been here since we opened this morning for the special exhibit! I was up for work probably at the same time that your pretty little head hit the pillow! And I wasn't even the first person here!"

"What? Who was there?" Sundays didn't pick up until the afternoon, when the tourists and browsers started drifting in.

"Tell me first, and don't lie to me, girl. I haven't had enough coffee to deal with bullshit right now.

Is he straight?"

Mina was slightly more awake now. "Is who straight?"

"Oh, damn, that means he is straight. I had a teeny-tiny little piece of hope that with style like that, that he was playing for my team. I mean, that suit was custom, no doubt, and he was wearing Lobbs! I almost proposed federally-illegal marriage right there on the spot."

"Jesse, who are we talking about, please? It's early."

"You said that already, grumpy-pants! And don't be salty with me, I want to know all about this unfortunately straight man with gay style and a body I would punch my own mother in face for. He came in this morning and bought Victory!"

Mina bolted upright, tossing the white cat off her stomach where it had been resting. "You're shitting me."

"Would I do that to you this early? I'm telling you, this gorgeous, fucking fabulously dressed, undoubtedly filthy rich guy came in this morning practically right as I was opening the doors and asked to see Victory. So I showed it to him, checked out his ass, and five seconds later he said he would take it. I nearly fucking passed right. The. Fuck. Out!"

Mina slid out of her bed onto the floor, taking her comforter and a mess of sheets with her to join the rubble of art supplies and old clothing that surrounded her bed. The car meowed indignantly and leapt onto the windowsill, knocking over a glass full of drying brushes and a half-drank bottle of stale Perrier. "Oh my God. You're kidding. Oh my God." Victory was listed as "price on request".

"I don't kid on Sundays; it's against the Bible or something. I don't know, I've never read it. His name is—" There was a rustling sound as Jesse rummaged through papers. "Kevin Chaston? I have his information here, you have to contact him to negotiate a price. And perhaps you can negotiate him to play for the other team while you're at it so I'd actually have a shot."

"OK." She was flushing alternately hot and cold; on one hand, she had drifted off to sleep last night with the memory of his dark gray eyes watching her, his stare so intense under his pale eyebrows that she nearly felt a hole burn through her. How badly she had wanted to run a finger down his face, his chiseled cheek, the open collar of his shirt, and plant a kiss on the smooth, tanned skin of his collar bone. On the other hand, he had seen her partially nude. And dancing on a pole for money.

She knew before she retired last night, when she was removing her makeup and lingerie, that she needed to see him again, even if she was unsure how, and even if it was possible. Maybe he would always be her daydream, that person that her mind would drift to when she picked up a brush or pencil, and the emotion would pour from her onto the blank canvas. She hadn't planned on him existing on any plane of actual reality.

"When should I do this?"

"I don't know! I've never sold anything of actual value before! Should I call the owner?"

"No! I mean," she was getting up now, reaching for clothing. "We have to talk about this; I'll coming over."

"Do you know how exciting this is?" Jesse crowed. "I finally get to stick a 'SOLD' sticker to something!"


Mina arrived thirty minutes later, after a short celebration dance in the kitchen with Raye, applying lip gloss and speed-walking in ankle boots. She couldn't believe how long it had taken her to find something to wear, even though there was practically no reason, for Zod's sake, since technically he wasn't even at the gallery anymore, but what if he was, she had to look impossibly cute so that he would think her witty and fabulous and…well, she hadn't daydreamed past that point yet, exactly.

Jesse was waiting for her. "I had an idea! Oh, and fabulous shoes, by the way. Suede?"

"Raye's. I can't afford Choos yet. What's the idea?"

He swept a piece of yellow, lined paper with some scribblings on it at her. "While you were making yourself all pretty, I called Sexy McArtlover and told him you'd like to meet with him to negotiate the sale."

"WHAT?" A tourist couple examining a painting on the wall turned and stared at her squawking.

"Today, at eleven. Which is, oh, look, exactly thirty minutes from now. At the Grinder."

She was totally unprepared for this; in her carefully planned mental orchestration, there were days in between Kevin mentions, thus giving her ample time to talk things over with Raye and mentally prepare. GOD, Jesse! She ripped off her crocheted hat and ran her fingers through her hair. "I can't do this? What do I do? What do I say? Do I look OK? What am I supposed to talk about?"

Jesse shot her a look that clearly indicated that he thought her an imbecile. "OK, first, say hi, introduce yourself as the creator of the piece, and then ask him questions to see what kind of artistic tastes he has, negotiate the price of Victory, bat your eyes, start dropping sexual innuendo, and then try and sleep with him. You're beautiful, he'd be crazy not to.

Then, continue to have hot, nasty sex with him, and have him buy you lots of things. Easy peasy. Hell, if I could, I'd do it for you!"

Her blonde head dropped to the counter. "This is crazy. I can't do this." Not to mention, she thought, he's already seen me half naked.

Twenty minutes later, Jesse had kicked her to the sidewalk and she slowly trudged towards the coffee shop, her chest aching with anxiety. She had combed her hair and reapplied lip gloss, and cursed her choice of clothing. Last night, she had been a temptress in her armor of lace and silk and mascara; today, in the daylight, she was Mina Aino, broke-assed artist wearing borrowed shoes and her Andy Warhol t-shirt, black tights and cutoffs, and a freaking beret, ready to negotiate her livelihood looking like an Urban Outfitters catalog cross-bred with a community theater. Why couldn't she have spent the extra thirty seconds to change purses, preferably one not bright orange and fringy?

She took a deep breath before she opened the door. You can do this. You've gotten on stage and performed wearing platforms. You've gotten free drinks and cab fare by winking and smiling. You can make outrageous starting bids to a buyer who saw you in garters last night on his birthday. Maybe he won't even remember.

Kevin was already there, sitting with his back to the door, a half-drank cup of black coffee in front of him. He was preoccupied with tapping away on a PDA. Mina slunk down a little and hurried to the counter, taking care to remain unseen.

The girl behind the counter wasn't even bothering to hide her smile: it reached all the way up to her brilliant green eyes so that they shone like bottle glass. "Jesse just called and told me what happened."

"Double shot, please," Mina begged, her voice low. "I'm running on no fuel and I'm ready to puke with nerves. What do you think?"

Makoto didn't stop grinning as she reached behind her for a cup. "I think that he's very polite, very generous, since he threw me some script in the tip jar, and it looks like he has a lot of money. He drinks plain black, so that means he's uncomplicated and honest." She was quiet for a moment as the espresso machine hissed and steamed. "Also, just between you and me," she said, leaning in. "If I wasn't happily married and sleeping with the hottest, sexiest guy with the tightest ass in the world, I might think that your new 'friend' is the second hottest, sexiest guy with the potentially second tightest ass in the world."

Mina stared at her. "Oh God. Have you been drinking already?"

The brunette pushed a steaming cup towards her. "Not counting your brother, of course. But I've seen his ass. Well, not just me, the whole city block, most of our friends, and the cops, of course."

"I'm going to vomit. Stop, please."

"Alcohol is one hell of a drug."

She groaned. "How much should I ask for? Has he noticed me yet?"

Makoto craned her neck over the shorter girl, wiping her hands on her apron. "A million bucks. And he noticed you just now. He's coming this way!"

Mina squeaked and swiveled, splashing her coffee. Kevin hadn't moved from the table, and his eyes were still locked on the PDA. Makoto started laughing.

"Not funny, jerk!" She threw down a few dollar bills, and before she could lose her nerve, approached the table.

Kevin looked up and smiled, his eyes bloodshot behind rimless glasses. "Mina," he greeted her, standing. She noticed that he smelled damp and freshly showered, and when he stood, he was much, much taller than her. He was wearing black trousers and a button-down shirt, freshly pressed, and Mina had another instance of regretting wearing a white t-shirt with soup cans on it. With a black bra underneath, of course, because that was just the way her day was going.

"Hi!" she said, too high, too excited. "I hope I um, didn't keep you waiting long."

"Of course not." He reached over and pulled the chair out. She couldn't remember anyone doing that for her in recent memory, and she could practically feel Makoto's eyes on them from across the room. "Thank you for meeting with me today."

"Eff that, thanks for buying my painting!" Her eyes widened. "Sorry, I didn't mean for it to come out that way. I just—" she lifted the cup. "I haven't had any coffee yet! And I had a long night. Well, you know that already, because, um.

You were there."

She watched as his eyes, steel gray and penetrating, went slight hazy. "Yes." He said, his voice low. "I was."

Mina returned his gaze for a few seconds, wanting to stare at every part of his face at once. If she was looking into his eyes, she couldn't stare at his lips, or his killer bone structure, or the curve of his jaw. Why should she have to pick just one? "You wear glasses!"

"Oh, yes. I'm actually very nearsighted."

She reached over and slowly plucked them from the bridge of his nose, hoping that she looked cute enough to pull this off. If he shoes cost as much as Jesse said they did, the price of his glasses must cover a month of her rent. Grinning, she slid them onto her own face. "How do I look?"

Kevin smiled, at least she thought he did; his glasses were distorting her vision. "I don't really know. I can't see without my glasses."

"Would it help if I got closer?" She leaned in, balancing her upper body over the table.

"Still blurry."

"How about now?" She pushed in closer, stopping a half of a foot away from his face.

Her blue eyes and dark lashes were adorable behind the oversize specs. "Still can't see."

"Brownies!" Makoto interrupted them, dropping two plates on the table. She grinned like a jackal, looking from one face to another.

Mina hastily pulled the eyeglasses from her face and thrust them back at Kevin. "Why thank you, friend. Kevin, this is my friend, Makoto. Makoto, this is Kevin Chaston, my newest buyer."

"Friends give friends brownies!" Makoto laughed, ignoring the daggers that Mina was shooting at her. She shook hands. "Nice to meet you. Hope you like the brownies; they're a test batch."

"Makoto's the owner here," Mina explained. "She makes all the pastries and stuff and lets us eat the experiments. Oh, and she lets me hang my art up and sometimes someone buys something."

"Or steals it!" Makoto said happily. "We had a problem of some of Mina's still life miniatures getting up and walking out."

Kevin took a sip of his coffee. "She's a very talented artist."

Makoto picked up some stray napkins. "Let me know if you need refills. Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Chaston."

"Kevin, please. Pleasure is all mine, Makoto. Thank you again."

After Makoto left, Mina started giggling nervously. "So, about the painting."

"Of course." His dark gray eyes locked with hers. Mina nearly melted.


"I'm sorry?"

She forced another laugh. "Isn't this the part where you tell me how much you're willing to pay for it?"

"I've already committed to buy it. The ball's in your court."

Nervously, she picked up a lock of her hair and starting winding it tightly around one finger. "OK, then," and blurted out a number.

He didn't even blink. "I'll have my accountant set up the transfer." She was staring at him, her mouth agape. "What?"

Mina's eyes darting back and forth as she began laughing in earnest. "Wait, aren't you supposed to like, under bid or something?"

"I'm supposed to do what now?"

"You know, I name one number, then you say 'No! That's too much!' and then lower the price, and then I lower it a little, and we do that a couple of times until we reach the middle ground."

His expression shifted from confusion to amusement. "Do you want me to pay less?"

"Do you want to?"

Kevin laughter was like his voice, deliberate and low. "Mina, we're not talking about a toaster at a yard sale. This is your magnum opus I'm buying, and whatever you are willing to part for it, I am willing to pay."

She broke into a grin. "Million bucks."

"Ah, now we start negotiating."

The shots of espresso in her bloodstream were starting to kick in. "So, where are you going to put my painting, anyway? Darien mentioned that you just moved into town. Do you even have a place yet?"

"Actually, no. I was going to take care of that tomorrow."

"Well," Mina took a deep breath, unsure of how she was going to phrase her next sentence without seeming too eager. "I can help you look, if you like."

Kevin raised his eyebrows. "I was going to have a realtor pick something out."

"Are you serious? You're going to have a stranger pick out your new home?"

"Is there something wrong with that?"

"Oh my God, yes." Her eyes were wide. "This is going to be your new home! It's going to be your sanctuary, and only you know what makes you completely comfortable. It's like having someone pick out your clothes or something."

"I do have someone pick out my clothes."

She stared. "You're kidding!"

He shrugged. "I don't have the time or inclination to do so. Actually, I haven't even unpacked yet."

Mina's eyes traveled to the ceiling as she let out another squeak of laughter. "I can't imagine anyone picking out my clothes."

"I can't imagine it either." He took another drink, his eyes never leaving her face. "You are truly unique, Mina."


"And then he said, 'You are truly unique, Mina'!" She fell over the arm of the couch, her blond hair spilling over the side. "Was that an 'I want you so bad' compliment, a 'I find you interesting in that weird way' compliment, or the 'I have to say something nice here because you're dressed like a weirdo and I'm super fucking rich and just bought your painting' compliment?"

"What was the first choice again?" Raye asked, tucking her long legs underneath her. She had patiently listened to Mina hammer out the details of her morning coffee date twice already, and each time the blond girl found another phrase or expression that she had to dissect.

"'I want you so bad'."

Raye pursed her lips in thought. "Well, considering he only just met you, I don't think he meant it overtly. Can I go with the third option?"

Mina wailed and buried her face in her arms. "He doesn't find me attractive. I'm hideous."

Raye rolled her eyes so hard they ached. "Mina, he bought your damn painting for probably three times what it is worth. What exactly does he do, again?"

"He's a…international capital investment wealth analyst something something. I wasn't really paying attention when he tried to explain it and it sounded really boring. He moved here to head some new…money bank thing place."

"And this guy likes your art."

"That's the thing!" Mina sat up. "I tried to see how his tastes run and if there was anything that I could commission for him and you know what he said? 'I never really thought about it'! This is the new owner of Victory, which is one of the few pieces I'm really proud of and I don't think this guys knows art, at all."

"And you know nothing about money," Raye countered. "Speaking of, rent's due."

"Yeah, I gave it to Jason this afternoon. But enough about that, do you know how cute his glasses were?"

Raye sighed and leaned back on the couch. "So now what?"

"Now he has to find a place to live, and then he'll contact me to arrange payment and delivery of my blood, sweat, and lots of tears and then either he starts paying me to redecorate his new house or he sends me a Christmas card of my painting hanging in his garage."

Her friend leaned over and mussed Mina's hair as she stood up.