"Happy Birthday, Audrey dear!"
Audrey West stared down at the brochure clenched between her white-knuckled fingers. Erestella was still chattering away, her clipped accent echoing through the cheap cordless phone that Audrey had tucked between her shoulder and ear.
"Don't you love it? The color scheme may be a leetle off, but that can be changed. I've got an interested buyer -"
"No." She stared at the scattered pieces of the large envelope spread over the laminate countertop without seeing them.
"I don't mean to be a bitch about this, but I know you need the money. I don't understand why you won't sell this series. Nicolae can't be the sole provider of a fledgling relationship -"
"And I don't understand why you keep showing them when you know I won't sell." Audrey dropped the brochure to join its traitorous envelope and tracked it as it slipped to the floor.
"I own a gallery, sweetie, showing and selling art is what I do. And if you don't want to sell them, then why paint them in the first place?" Erestella huffed. "You don't keep them for your own enjoyment. You obsess over each one and then get them out of your sight as soon as they're finished."
"I don't obsess -"
"Bullshit. You barely ate or slept while you painted those. You lost weight and got dark circles under your eyes. By the time each of those paintings were finished you looked like hell, kid." Erestella's voice softened. "They're your best work, Audrey, brilliant even. But what's the point if you won't share?"
"I'm not selling," Audrey hissed.
"There's a lot of interest in them. They're paintings. For you, that makes this series a rarity. Rarities sell."
"No." Audrey rolled her eyes.
"You've never used a model on anything else. And you won't even tell me who he is."
"Because it doesn't matter. I haven't seen him in years," Audrey hesitated, "and I won't ever see him again."
"Oh, hon, was it a love affair gone bad?"
"It's not important."
"Why else would you keep painting the same man over and over again?"
"Drop it, Erestella."
Her mentor finally fell ceased chattering and Audrey listened to the silence on the other end of the phone. The paintings were just gathering dust anyway. If someone really thought they were that good, then why not? "…You said you have a buyer?"
Erestella's enthusiasm rang through. "Yes. A young man from North Dakota. He said his fiancée found them online and loved them. He thinks they'll make a good wedding present."
Audrey felt her throat go dry. "North Dakota?"
"Mmm-hmm. Hey…isn't that your home state? What a coincidence! The familiar landscapes must have been influential. Small world, huh, kid?"
"Very small." Without another word, Audrey hung up the phone. Erestella Banks had always come across as a nosy woman who loved to hear herself talk, and more often than not her ramblings touched a nerve.
It wasn't an obsession. But how else could she explain the compulsion she'd had to paint those portraits? She would go for months and everything would be fine. Then suddenly she'd be driven from her bed in the middle of the night with an image that she had to get down on paper. She could sleep a bit after the initial sketch was done. But the next night would find her finishing the sketch and priming the canvas, and in the following weeks and months, the portrait would take shape.
To her chagrin, she found that watercolors or acrylics wouldn't do. The initial sketches in pencil were fine. But the portrait had to be done in oils. They were so hard to work with, but oil paints had a depth of color and a richness that the other mediums couldn't touch.
"Stelle giving you a hard time again?" Noah's words shook Audrey out of her reverie.
Audrey glared at her intimidating friend and went back to rubbing the turpentine-soaked rag over her fingers. "Doesn't she always? Why does she always sound like she's speaking to us in italics?"
Noah snorted at Audrey's failed imitation of their mutual friend. "You'd better not let her know that you've finished another one." He leaned back in and gestured toward the wet painting across the room. "The guy's gorgeous, I'll give you that. Not my type, of course, I prefer them dark. But all in all, he's got potential."
Audrey smiled faintly. "You think all men have potential."
"Of course. I'm an artist, too."
Audrey scoffed and threw the rag at the blonde-haired blue-eyed monster draped over her couch and turned back to the painting. "No, you're a connoisseur."
She looked up, surprised to see Noah's perfect face almost a foot-and-a-half above her own.
"C'mon, Audrey. What's wrong?"
She frowned. "You make me feel awfully small." She pushed on his chest. "Step back."
"You are small." Noah chuckled, but obliged. "But I make everyone feel small."
That brought her smile back. "I don't even know why I told you about it."
"You told me because I'm your best friend, your trusted confidante," Noah laughed, "and because you were totally shit-faced and you spilled your guts. I know all your dirty little secrets."
"It was the first time I'd ever been drunk," Audrey smiled, abashed. "And the last time."
"Coward," Noah grinned.
Audrey laughed. "No, I just learned my lesson."
"So, what's the real reason you won't sell them?" Noah steered the conversation back to the paintings.
"I can't," Audrey said, turning to look at the painting.
"Audrey, you've finally gotten yourself affianced to a nice guy who'll whisk you away to the 'burbs and give you the obligatory two-point-five children and one annoying, large, slobbery dog. Your old high school flame should've burned out."
"Yes, I've found my nice guy," Audrey agreed, "but I don't have a crush on him." She gestured back to the painting. "I never did."
"Keep telling yourself that and maybe someday you'll believe it. Nicolae's got some competition."
"No he doesn't. I don't meet many people and I don't see you introducing me to any other nice guys."
"I don't know any straight guys," Noah narrowed his eyes. "And I don't know any nice guys at all."
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