“Are you all right?” was the first thing Brayden said in lieu of hello when I answered my cell phone.
Brayden was tall, dark and incredibly handsome, but most important, he was also the safe man in my life. He was champion, cheerleader, family, and I’d been inside his art gallery—and away from him—for all of fifteen minutes.
“You worry too much about me,” I informed him as I paced the main space that was currently a mess from all my paintings dragged in from the back room.
“When was the last time you ate?”
I paused. “The last time you fed me. So I’m kind of starving.”
“What else is new, Ryn?” I heard the grin in his voice. “I’ll head over to the gallery with food.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
I sighed. “I haven’t read the article yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Good. Wait, and we’ll read it together over greasy food and beers.”
My stomach rumbled in appreciative agreement. “Love you, Bray.”
“When you get here, you can help me pick the order for the showing.”
“No way—that’s all you, so get to work. Time’s running out,” Brayden told me cheerfully and I mentally flipped him off.
The magazine article in question taunted me from the main countertop. I ignored it in favor of concentrating on the space, visualizing how I wanted my paintings to hang. I was very familiar with the gallery set-up, but having the luxury of planning my first solo show was amazing.
I’d seen this space over the years through pictures and on Skype, and once, in person, two years ago on Christmas. Brayden had bought the Lower East Side gallery years earlier and now, with other galleries escaping to the area like refugees from the expensive Chelsea zip code, it was the perfect spot. The gallery was on the street level, neatly tucked between the numerous Manhattan apartment buildings and other storefronts. There were a couple of cute cafés and restaurants clustered along the block, some with outside tables. Lots of art, lots of action.
I’d been in New York City for a grand total of three weeks, all of which I found completely overwhelming, with a tiny bit of exhilaration thrown in.
Outside, the city moved at a breakneck pace. I tried to capture the frantic combination of the cacophony mixed with calm confidence in my art. The frenzy combined with mine, and in the weeks leading up to the show, Brayden told me I’d done some of my best work. He’d also insisted on bringing some of those brand-new pieces into the show. The retrospective was called Shouldering the Past and it was so very appropriate. Sitting here, surrounded by my work, I felt ragged but happy.
He’d never pushed me to have a showing, but he’d told me that I needed to have one whether I was there or not. He left me a full year to plan for it. And although I was still unsure, my new place was a six-month rental that was two blocks away from the gallery. My apartment was one floor below Brayden’s, and paid for with some of the money he’d earned for me by selling my work over the years. I’d quickly gotten pretty well immersed in all of this city life. It had taken some getting used to—the noise, the general bustle of things—but my place was quiet. Surround sound and low, white noise music to block everything out was one of Brayden’s first installations for me. At night, I locked myself away and painted until dawn, all while staring at a far different skyline than I was used to. But the moon was still there—I told myself that was all that mattered. It was, to me, a time of renewal. A fresh start. I painted more in September, but I also slept less, eager not to miss anything.
In the past four years, Brayden had become my best friend as well as my benefactor. He knew most of my secrets and I knew most of his. He’d brought me further in my career than I’d ever thought possible. I’d gone from a second-floor apartment in the Catskills and a job in a coffeehouse to an in-demand, up-and-coming artist. He’d used my sketchy past to create a mystique, used my nemesis—my panic attacks—to make my reputation as an artist crazier, and thereby stronger.
It amazed me how the world worked: because people thought I was unbalanced, they looked more closely at my art and I got noticed in a big way.
I wasn’t unbalanced. Not in the way the articles I’d seen up until this point had made it seem, but since Brayden was the one giving the interviews for me, I could understand how it must come across. I’d done some phone ones, but I’d refused to meet for any of them in person before this last week. I’d talk about the café, because I’d say it was the beginning of my story, but in truth, I’d never let anyone visit there or my old apartment. I didn’t want anyone invading the space with my art. I was private and superstitious, possibly the worst combination ever. Add to that my panic attacks and—on paper—I was a straight-up mental case.
Which was somehow acceptable because I was an artist. It was even expected.
But the magazine that currently taunted me from the countertop contained the first interview I’d given face-to-face. First and last, if I had my way, which was why Brayden had done all the other press for the show and was currently firming up last-minute details for tomorrow night.
My job was the grunt work, which I much preferred. Surrounded by the pieces that’d been my heart and soul over the past six months, I looked for the pattern. Over the past six years, I always looked for it, because I knew that in some way, every painting I’d completed contained a piece of my past in it, a past I had no memory of at all.
In front of me now were the landscapes I’d been focused on, fraught with big, bold color slashed through like a bolt of lightning, ruining the perfection, marring it to the point where it made it beautiful. It was strangely hypnotic. It shouldn’t work, but it did—at least according to some critics.
Simplicity meets sophistication.
A fresh new talent on the rise.
I tried not to read the bad reviews but I failed, despite the fact that they were cutting.
The kind of untalented artist who’s making a name for herself based on her breakdowns.
I hadn’t had a breakdown, but I’d be damned if I’d answer any of them. Instead, their comments made me paint harder. They made me angry. But in reality, they were what forced me here, in person, to deal with the crap being said about me. Not that parts of it weren’t true—I owned up to my panic attacks.
The ones I could remember, at least.
Shaking that off, I got back to work, which consisted of kneeling on the ground, the paintings spread in front of me, glancing between them and the empty white walls where they’d soon hang, unable to make a decision.
I felt the cold of the tiled floor through the fashionably frayed knees of the Rag & Bone jeans Brayden had given me. He’d started muttering to himself earlier when he’d seen the paint splatters and other abuses heaped on them—”I’ve been trying some sculpture” apparently wasn’t the right explanation, but the jeans looked destroyed out of the bag anyway. I’d thrown on a tank top with skinny straps that kept falling off my shoulders, had already stripped off the denim shirt that matched my eyes and flung it into the corner and I was at least certain that there was no paint in my hair. I’d showered, let it air dry in a straight, buttery blonde sheet down my back, something apparently envied in Manhattan.
I absently tucked it into a loose braid over one shoulder while I studied the painting in front of me. I’d wanted to let Brayden pick the order, but he’d refused earlier that morning, and told me I was running out of time. At that memory, I murmured “Bastard” in his absence.
That’s when a low, rough voice said, “People usually know me at least five minutes before calling me that.”
Still on the floor, I whipped around to see the tall, brutally handsome man standing maybe ten feet away. How long had he been there? I hadn’t heard him come in, but now that he was coming closer, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
The fight or flight response had remained intact when my memory hadn’t. Everyone, every stranger wasn’t necessarily a stranger. They could know me. They could be a part of my past.
Whether this man was or not, my base response to him was a purely physical one.
“The door was open,” the man explained.
And it might’ve been. Brayden told me to lock myself in but I often forgot. Panic must have flashed across my face because he stopped advancing and held up his hands like a show of surrender. But he didn’t try to tell me he was harmless, because he wasn’t. Never could be. And the man who waited for him had moved too, turned his back in an effort to appear less threatening.
“My name’s Lucas. I buy a lot of art from Brayden.”
“Mine?” I asked.
“I guess you’ll have to try harder.”
A smile ghosted across his chiseled face and I liked that. Wanted to see it more, wanted to be the one who could always bring a smile to his face.
These men could be here to harm me and I was too busy with my tongue hanging out to threaten them with the police.
Because you rely on your gut, Ryn, my therapist, foster mom and Brayden always told me. That will get you through just about any situation.
My gut said this man knew I was Ryn Taylor, artist, but didn’t know anything beyond that about me except what he’d read in interviews. Maybe he was here for my art, or maybe it was for me. But how could I feel so connected to someone I’d just met?
I rolled the name around in my mind as my eyes took in the black leather motorcycle jacket and the tighter black T-shirt underneath…the worn-in jeans and the heavy black motorcycle boots. I saw the hint of an expensive watch peek out on his wrist as he came closer.
I knew too, if I pushed up those sleeves, I’d find some ink. Incongruous, and ultimately intriguing.
The angles of his face begged to be drawn, to be touched, and I held my hands down rigidly at my sides so I wouldn’t do just that. “My show’s not until tomorrow night,” I managed.
“Are you here to…” I looked around for Brayden, like he would magically appear and caught another glance of the other man by the door. “Are you here for Brayden?”
“For Brayden? No.” His mouth quirked up to the side a little and he ran a hand through his dark blond hair. It was long enough to curl a bit at the nape of his neck, and it was rumpled, like maybe he’d just rolled out of bed…and maybe he hadn’t been alone.
“You’re not his type.”
His blue eyes pierced me. They were a dark blue and they missed nothing. “Whose type am I?”
Mine, I nearly blurted out. I was nervous, my stomach fluttering but not in that panicked way I recognized. Just the opposite, actually. Heat flooded me as he stared at me in my tank top and jeans with utmost appreciation, the frank gaze of someone who understood beauty and acted on it.
I wanted him to act, but at the same time, I needed him to stay away. I was too drawn to him, an electromagnetic pull that spun the earth on its axis differently. Something told me that I’d never get this man out of my life. I’d never be done with him, or him of me, and holy hell, that was a heady enough thought to make me dizzy.
I remained on my knees, stock still, looking up at him. I had the odd feeling that if I moved, even a little, I’d fall, trip, completely ruin the moment.
He gave me a heated look, and dammit, he knew what I was thinking.
Every woman who came into contact with him probably had that reaction. And that made me unnaturally, irrationally jealous because, in my mind, I’d already claimed him.
Finally, his gaze shifted to the paintings I’d been appraising. He focused on one that was part of a series that’d already sold well, thanks to Brayden. I’d wanted to call the series Man in Trees (and still did so) but Brayden told me it was creepy and insisted on simply, Catskills as the official series title. And while I could see what he meant, the person these were based on had never, ever scared me. But I couldn’t tell Brayden these were based on someone real, because he’d freak out.
Even though I was building an entire series around him, I’d never seen the man’s face. Still, I’d always sworn I’d be able to sense him the way I’d sensed him out there before I’d caught sight of the shadowed figure, and even though I hadn’t been able to see his face clearly, I knew he was big, broad and utterly male. I’d wanted to walk across the lawn, strip him and paint him…and then climb him after I stripped myself.
When I’d shown Brayden the first picture, he’d insisted on bringing it to the gallery. I hadn’t wanted that, but I’d felt foolish telling Brayden about why the painting was so special to me, why I wanted to keep it. He told me that if I was sentimental about my work, I’d never get anywhere. In the end, after a terrible fight, I agreed to let him show it in his gallery, but I’d have final say if it was to be sold.
It was stolen a week later.
I stared up at Lucas as he stared at my painting—the fourth in a collection of nine, not counting the missing first one, all attempts to recreate those initial feelings that had propelled me to paint the first one. His expression unshuttered for a brief moment, like he was letting me in, drawing me closer to the fire.
I couldn’t afford to play with fire, but he was like the ghost of the man I thought I’d conjured up on that warm summer’s night in the Catskills. I was seventeen, dizzy and half high from creating. I’d glanced over and watched him. He was half hidden among the trees and if I hadn’t been coming off a painting, I would’ve been terrified. Instead, I noticed how handsome he was, chiseled and mysterious.
I dreamed about him that whole week, less as the years went by, but always when I needed comfort, or when I was coming out of the burn of my art.
He’d been there. He was now here. Could I have wanted him so badly that my dream turned into reality? A ridiculous thought and one I chided myself for.
Creation didn’t work that way.
I tried to draw in a shaky breath when this ridiculously beautiful, rough man moved a few steps in my direction, even though he was still focused on the painting.
The walls were closing in on me until he said, “Your work is beautiful,” and turned from me to the paintings.
What little space he’d given me let me breathe. Even though I swore his gaze heated me, the fact that he was pointing to various paintings soothed me.
“My first show is tomorrow,” was all I could think of to say, even though it was probably obvious.
“Your work is ready.”
Your work. Like he knew I wasn’t. “I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
He turned back to me then. “That’s not a bad thing. Protect whatever the hell makes these.”
What made those was a part of the nightmare of my blacked-out past. What if discovering what was behind it stole the art from me, left me limp, with nothing? What if I had to trade nightmares and the thing I loved for peace? That haunted me, so I’d chosen not to have peace.
I remained on the ground, drawn to him, wanting to rise but refusing to do so. Sheer stubbornness and self-preservation mixed together.
He reached a hand down to help me up but I couldn’t touch him. Not yet.
I pushed myself up. He was at least six foot four to my five feet four inches. The difference was dramatic.
He was so still, a predator, watching me with keen interest. I’d never been as intensely aware of a man in my life. I could smell his skin, wanted to taste it, put my mouth on his and forget everything else, including basic human decency.
I blamed the art. The heat. My lack of proper nutrition.
I stuck out my hand without saying anything, almost a dare. He took it in his and my pulse beat a tattoo. I felt the slow burn and then the aftershock quake through my whole body.
There was a definite sense of street in him, a primal, easily willing and able to fight for his life street sense.
His eyes were haunted, like maybe he already had.
There was no doubt he’d won.