Other Colors -- Ch. 1-3



Part 1 – Red

1

Yes. A sunny balcony would be nice, I thought, circling another listing in crimson ink. Or maybe a roof garden. I could plant rosemary, and violets. I could paint. I bit the top of my pen and skimmed down the column to a number that didn’t threaten to ruin me.

‘Sur la rue Villeray. 3 1/2 chauffé. 1 chambre, style ouvert. Plancher bois franc. Entrées laveuse/sécheuse. Disponible immédiatement. 500 $’

It was more than a little humiliating that, after two years in a francophone province, my ability to decipher written French remained about as pitiful as it had been in junior high. Luckily, those apartments I could almost afford seemed to have much less to say for themselves than did the posh downtown condominiums, and modern pieds-à-terre.

A little longer, I breathed, and maybe I can spoil myself with some sunlight. I shut my eyes and dreamed of the August sun, lashing my skin with hot, muggy rays of golden goodness until I glowed all over, warm and red.

“Hm-hm-hm,” a pale man cleared his throat, and slid a small box of metal doodads across the counter for my inspection, “Pardon, Mademoiselle. How much do these cost?”

Shattering my daydream, his Canadiens jacket and fleece trapper cruelly confirmed that I was not back home in North Carolina; that I was in Montreal, that it was November, and that it was a blasphemous seven degrees below zero outside. Centigrade, that is—I never quite grasped the conversion to what I still considered the real temperature. I studied his little box of gismos.

“Um…a loonie each?” I offered.

In fact it really didn’t much matter. As best I could tell, Madame d’Aulnoir, proprietrix of Auntie Deluvian’s Bric-à-Brac, was left quite comfortable in the will of her latest late husband. As she told me two weeks earlier during my job interview with a grin that was at once nostalgic and pathologically kooky, she’d outlived five of them and counting. And now she ran the shop as though it was her own perpetual rummage sale; a chance to redistribute all the clutter, clothes, and curios she’d spent five lifetimes amassing.

“I’d like two,” said the man, plunging a plump hand into his back pocket.

I rang it up on the ancient, brass cash register. The knell of its little bell summoned Madame from beyond a tasseled curtain, and she floated to my side like a silken jellyfish.

“Oh, you found the kakehari!” she sang, plucking up one of the mysterious items. “Do you know what these were for, Penny?”

I stole a glance at the Mora clock along the far wall—still twenty minutes to closing time. Madame d’Aulnoir was sweet and profoundly generous, but there was a part of me that suspected she’d managed to murder her five unfortunate husbands by literally talking them to death.

But just before expounding upon this particular bit of obsolete objet d’art, she paused—catching my clock-ward gaze—and in an uncommon act of oratorical mercy, said, “We’ll save that one for some other time. Let me get a bag for you, Monsieur.”

He shuffled out, and Madame followed him to the door, flipping the sign from ‘ouvert’ to ‘fermé’ once he was gone.

“Somewhere to be tonight, chéri?” she turned, smiling pertly.

“My friend Marie—the one I’m living with,” I closed up the cash register, “She got us into this ritzy gallery opening in Mile End. She knows the curator, I think.”

I tried hard not to overemphasize the word ‘knows’. I roomed with Marie during our final year of undergrad at McGill, and since dropping out of my Master’s program just six weeks in, I’d been sleeping on her sofa. In the past two months, I think she spent perhaps twelve nights alone. Marie was a free spirit—the sort that owned ponchos; believed in palm readings, and horoscopes; the sort that didn’t mind someone crashing in her living room for weeks on end.

“Ooh, très chic,” Madame pursed her lips and began gliding back my direction, her chin raised to scrutinize me through her bifocals. “But what will you wear?”

I shifted uncomfortably. Though we were closing early, I knew there wouldn’t be much time to go back to Marie’s and clean up beforehand. Even if there was, I really didn’t have anything more lavish than what I’d worn to work that morning. My available wardrobe consisted mostly of old jeans, plaid shirts, collegiate hoodies, and enough fuzzy, flannel pajamas to provision a militia. All the little sundresses and sleeveless blouses I’d left hanging in a closet at my parents’ cottage back in Nags Head.

“This, I guess,” I shrugged.

Still squinting at me, Madame shook her head in disapproval.

“Wait, ma chéri,” she said, and without another word, vanished again behind the curtain.

I could hear her heels tip-tapping up the old, walnut staircase to her chambers as I went about the labyrinthine aisles, gingerly placing displays of bone china back into their respective cupboards. I knew she was fetching me an outfit. I wrinkled my brow, imagining myself as Mathilde from de Maupassant’s The Necklace—doomed to slave away here for ten years after spilling red wine on some vintage haute couture of preposterous expense.

Catching sight of my reflection in a silver tea tray, I tried half-heartedly to tame my flyaways. Though I wasn’t exactly anxious to show up to a swank gallery soiree looking like—in my Mother’s words—a ragamuffin, it would finally force me to check out what art was really like in Montreal. My autumn, up to then, was rife with setbacks, failures, and procrastinations.

Following that fateful night at Marie’s, when her relentless goading and too much merlot emboldened me, at last, to renounce my academic enterprises and strike out on my own, I’d not stopped to entertain the possibility that eight weeks later I might be just another salesgirl; up to my eyeballs in college debt, essentially homeless, a soon-to-be illegal foreign national, and no closer to making my way as a painter than I was in lecture hall, scribbling down the lines of succession for Picasso’s orgy of mistresses.

Truth be told, I never quite fell into step with all the savants at the University, and I was afraid another two years surrounded by them might be enough to exterminate everything I adored about art. I just wasn’t cut out for it. When I walked through a museum and saw a lovely Manet or a Cassatt, not once did I feel the urge to vivisect it. What I did feel was wonder, admiration, and—more than anything else—desire to make my own little magnificent something; to craft my own kind of beauty.

But artiste, as an identity, was never an option for me either. Much as I admired the daring of the hippest of the hipsters, and of the bohemian avant-garde, I had never—not once in my life—been mistaken for subversive. The dernier cri of fleeting countercultures passed me like car horns on a wet street below my window—I could hear them, and sometimes I poked my head out to take a look, but I was never, ever on board. If I was going to be remembered as a painter, it would be as an Emily Dickinson of painters; living like a shadow, laboring quietly in some lonely garden.

Marie Godeaux meanwhile, my only real confidante, was a dancer, and that meant several things: one, that she was never home—with her it was either rehearsal, the studio, or the gym; and all remaining hours were to be divided evenly among a bustling queue of impressive men, all anxious for their chance at her gorgeous, leggy frame—and two, that there was no solid food to be found in the apartment. Anywhere.

So after two months of trying the ‘starving artist’ gig, I’d pretty much mastered the starving, and all that the artist had amounted to was a half dozen or so sloppy red watercolors of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel stacked up on the kitchen counter. I did them because across from the chapel in Old Montreal sat my favorite café for hot cocoa. I did them in red because it was the only watercolor I had.

As a rule, architecture usually didn’t much interest me—as a subject it seemed austere, and impersonal—but between its timidity of size in a city bestrewn with huge basilicas, and its lonely Virgin gazing out across the snowy harbor, I sort of sympathized with the sailor’s chapel; and I doodled its portrait each time I went. I was still waiting for deeper inspirations to strike me.

And besides, riding down to Old Montreal on the weekends, just to wander around the stone streets and gratify my Latin Quarter fantasies, remained one of few activities I loved enough to suffer the awful cold of another Quebec winter. They say it’s a dry cold. I think it’s just a cold cold.

Making my way to the end of the aisle, I replaced the box of metal thing-a-ma-jigs with the rest of the sewing implements, and started dusting down Madame’s little corner of antique horse tack. She had hobbles, and saddles, and bits, and bridles, and an entire umbrella stand full of dressage whips and riding crops. I always saved this corner for last. I relished the smell of the soft, worn leather. But how she accumulated all this junk, I wiped down the long, smooth shaft of a crop with my rag, bending the tongue across the flat of my palm, I will never understand.

Finishing up, I wandered back toward the counter where Madame awaited me, cradling a blue garment bag like Michelangelo’s Pietà.

 I should go to mass this week, I scolded myself.

“This,” she grinned, “is just the thing,” and, whipping away the bag with a magician’s finesse, she revealed a 60’s-style sack dress, patterned like a painting of Piet Mondrian’s.

“Far out,” I breathed, genuinely awed.

“It’s a real Saint Laurent,” she cooed, smoothing an imaginary crease. “Don’t ask me how much it’s worth—just know that in London I wore this number to Ab Lib when Jackie O was still Jackie K.”

The way she said ‘Jacque-ee’ made me smile. I loved accents, and there were so many weird and wonderful ones in Montreal.

I whistled as she handed me the hanger. I knew better than to ask about the details of Madame’s past. She would probably still be jabbering on long after I was dead. But from time to time, I couldn’t help but wonder about the sort of fiery femme fatale she must’ve been. I held the dress up against me. Wow. It’s short.

She clapped her hands together, “Oh, the men will be throwing themselves at your feet, chéri!”

I blushed.

She leaned forward onto her elbows, speaking in confidence, “Have I told you how I met my second husband, Penny? I was in Nice, at the Hotel Negresco—I could not afford it, of course, but I had romantic ideas, cheri. I was a young widow. I was going to lose my dead husband’s money, and throw myself into the sea.”

Uh-oh. Here we go. I shifted my weight.

“Well, the airline lost my baggage in Madrid, so all I could wear for two days was the little Givenchy robe de soirée I had with me. Can you imagine?” she smiled wistfully. “There I was, Penny, drinking coffee at sunrise on the Baie des Anges, dolled up like Audrey Hepburn at one of her premieres.”

She struck a pose straight out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I smiled.

“Even for the Riviera, it was outrageous, no? He spotted me from halfway across the Promenade, and he marched right over, sat himself down, poured a cup of coffee, and offered me ten thousand francs for two hours in his room…he thought I was un femme de mauvaise vie! Do you know what I said to him, Penny?”

I shook my head.

“I put out my cigarette, I looked him in the eye, cheri, and I said—what did I say?” she squinted at me. “Oh, who remembers? Something scathing, and quite clever, no? And four weeks later we were married. We had our honeymoon on Santorini. Have you ever seen the Greek Isles, Penny?”

Again, I shook my head. I breathed steadily, maintaining my patience.

“Only in photos.”

“Oh you must go someday, chéri. Every young lady must make love in Greece—I remember we went sailing, and I said to him, ‘why don’t we sail forever, mon ange? We could see Ithaca, and Elba, Gibraltar, and the Azores—we could sail right back to Boston…but it was with my third husband we lived in Boston, no? ”

Her voice trailed off, and I seized the opening.

“You really don’t mind me borrowing it?” I held the dress up, my continent tone betrayed by my pleading eyes.

“Penny, j'insiste,” she smiled, placing her hand on mine; then, her voice sobering, “but stain or rip it and I’ll have you flogged in the streets.”

I paused a moment, feeling her out. I’m definitely Mathilde, I thought grimly. She matched my stare, spluttered, and doubled over cackling.

“Oh, the look on your face, chéri. Go. Go put it on,” she shooed me away. “At least one of us filles may envoyer en l’air tonight, no?”

I flushed scarlet, holding the dress up to shield my face as I made for the changing room; embarrassed, but grateful. I had a gown for the ball.

The truth was I hadn’t been with anyone since before transferring up here in the middle of my junior year. Not that I’d been looking to—at that point the men in whose company I was most interested were either made of metal or stone. And I was a lot less grasping than Pygmalion. I liked them as statues, and I was just fine with them staying that way. Besides, I’m not sure many guys could measure up to the likes of Danti’s Honor, or the Perseus of Cellini. My degree did, if nothing else, qualify me to assess the failures of a human form.

Now, slipping out my work attire, I studied the trembling girl in the mirror. I remembered reading somewhere that “nude” was forced into our vocabulary by a bunch of artists in the 1700’s. They wanted a word for the body that would imply balance, poise, and beauty—whereas “naked” just meant being vulnerable; all huddled, helpless torso, and entangled limbs. In depictions of the Last Judgment, the nudes ascend to heaven, and the naked go to hell. I thought of the poor girl in the corner of van der Weyden’s polyptych; crawling on all fours, a bodiless arm dragging her by the hair into the darkness.

My teeth chattered as a draft passed through the tiny stall. Personally, with my clothes off I’d never felt anything but naked. The mirror was old. It had the smoky complexion of a cataract, making my reflection ghostly, and a little out of focus. It didn’t matter. I knew my faults like the words of the Hail Mary.

The naked girl’s green eyes gazed back at me—not the dazzling green of jade, or emeralds, but pale and glossy, like the inside of an avocado. She worried that her mouth wasn’t wide enough, and that her elbows were too pointy. She blushed easily, and all over; a blue comment could transform her, almost instantly, from milk white to bell pepper red. And you could tell by the way she walked on her toes that she was accustomed to being the smallest person in the room. With the tip of my ring finger, I traced the narrow surgical scar that stretched from her left shoulder all the way down to just above the forearm. I sighed.

It’s going to show.

2

Stepping off the Metro at Laurier, I felt for the first time since I’d left the University—as Mme. d’Aulnoir declared—très chic. The patent leather go-go boots she tried to convince me to wear having proved too comical, I still stood five inches higher than usual in a pair of strappy, black stilettos. Which is what, some dozen centimeters? I smiled nervously. The dress looked übersexy, and I’d been the subject of several forbidding stares on the short ride down from Saint-Michel.

On the platform I about-faced to give my hair and makeup a last inspection in the train window. Part of me believed it was shallow, but ever since I was little, pilfering my Mother’s eye shadow and mascara from her purse, I’d adored doing my makeup. I think I discovered lipstick before crayons. Tonight I wore a dramatic violet eye, like something I’d seen once in a Fellini movie, and I watched my reflection mimic a celluloid film reel, jumping from window to window as the train sped away.

My clutch buzzed. Inside I found the pale glow of a text message.

*There yet??? I have a surprise for you!*

Marie’s libidinous alto read aloud in my head. A surprise. I wondered sullenly if she had designs to set me up with one of her peripheral admirers again. It was inconceivable to her that I actually enjoyed my solitude—that it calmed me. Rooting deeper in the purse, I pulled out the slip of paper on which she’d scribbled the address, and started walking—well, tiptoeing really—gladdened that the gallery was only a couple short blocks away.

A miasma of snowflakes escaping from the streets above scattered itself across the escalators as I approached. My nose felt runny. From October through the Ides of March, I could never, ever get warm enough, and always contracted what seemed like an overlapping parade of colds. I pulled my pea coat close against my bare shoulders. It was only three winters old, but already threadbare from overuse. Ascending to the snowy streets, I sort of wished that rather than the designer pillowcase I had on, I might have borrowed from Madame’s collections an ice fisherman’s jacket, or maybe a rubberized wet suit instead.

In spite of being half-frozen, I passed the entrance twice before going inside. The gallery was more intimidating than I’d expected. Inside I could hear women laughing, and the muffled oomp of remixed jazz music. This is going to be painful, I realized. I wondered how long my outfit would disguise that fact that I was both broke, and congenitally uncool. I took a deep breath and pulled open the door.

“Je peux vous aider, Mademoiselle?” a severe looking woman in a black, vaguely Japanese cocktail dress appeared in front of me as I stepped across the threshold.

Her eyes were fastened to a list in her palm.

“Umm…Penny Foster?” I murmured apologetically.

She scanned up and down the paper until her long, lacquered thumbnail selected a line.

Penelope Foster, no?” she contemned, still not deigning to look at me.

I nodded, “oui, Madame.”

I hated the sound of my given name. But having procured the proverbial ‘open sesame’, she stepped aside and let me through. I lowered my eyes and crept past her, reluctantly trading my coat for a red ticket at the counter.

Inside it was a typical upscale gallery: historic building, exposed rafters and HVAC, white walls, dark floors. The paintings hung from the ceiling, suspended by thin wires of braided steel. Marie was nowhere in sight. I took a few steps back into the corner, where I was protected on one side by a tall, spiky obelisk of rusted iron, and texted her.

*i’m here*

My phone buzzed a moment later.

*running late*

*how late?* I typed back.

*late late…sorry pens. look around. i’ll find you*

I snapped my phone shut, frowning. I really didn’t feel up to any solo exploring. This wasn’t the first time Marie had left me in a lurch—when it came to keeping engagements she was eminently unreliable. I sighed. At least it’s warm.

All around me, conjoined units of graying men in well-tailored blazers, and statuesque women in dark, silk dresses stood together in clusters, chatting and sipping champagne. To no discernible end, a few younger, wealthy-looking hipsters crisscrossed the room, all wearing expression of private annoyance. Several newcomers brushed brusquely past me to the coat check, one patting the snow from her jacket right across my toes. I shivered. My teeth started chattering. And now it’s not even warm…

Whatever confidence I’d mustered up for this ordeal during my journey over was swiftly dissipating. And I didn’t want to wait around all night for Marie—who after all might never even show up. Back at the apartment, I had a sofa, a thick afghan blanket, a little stack of Paul Newman movies, and—the pièce de résistance—my flannel pajamas.

Or I could stand around here all night in Madame’s Mondrian dress, and pretend to be one of the paintings. I forced a cheerless half-grin. Resolving to salvage my Saturday and just head home, I returned the ticket for my coat, and was considering where to pick up some cheap Indian takeout when I turned and walked smack dab into the iron sculpture, almost impaling myself on one of its protrusions.

“Oh, for the love of­­­­—” my jacket was snagged.

I tugged hard. A few stitches ripped, but it wouldn’t give.

“Mon kalise de tabarnak,” I swore, appropriating the rude sacrer of the Québécois.

Overhearing my obscenity, a stout, russet-haired man nearby turned his head to investigate.

Oh God, I realized, my eyes widening. It’s Peter.

“Penny?” he squinted.

I nodded unwillingly.

I’d met Peter several weeks ago when Marie brought the muddled remnants of a wrap party back to her place for a few final rounds. Peter had built the set. About twenty minutes into the festivities, Marie Godeaux vanished into her bedroom with a cinematographer whose name escaped me. The party fizzled out, but Peter stayed; and we talked, and drank up the cinematographer’s rum, and snickered at the racket they were making into the wee hours of the morning. By the time the sun came up we were friends; and I was both relieved and embarrassed to see him now. He grinned and stepped nearer, gently releasing my coat from its skewer.

“Thanks, Peter,” I mumbled, “I’m glad you’re here—I think Marie might’ve bailed on me.”

Privately, I wondered if his being at the gallery had anything to do with her cryptic ‘surprise’. She loved playing matchmaker; particularly for people with—as she said—crazy compatible zodiacs. And ever since emerging with her paramour that morning to find Peter and me still up, sipping coffee on the sofa, she’d been pestering me with all kinds of obscure and intimate questions about him.

“Well I had to be here,” he shrugged, “to make sure no one hari-karies themself on my work.”

He nodded to my barbed assailant.

“You did this?” I asked, my eyes widening.

As I’d explained to Marie following several tortuous inquiries, Peter Mulgrave was an authentic artist. At fourteen he’d started welding metal sculptures at his Father’s salvage yard in Halifax. But this was the first I’d seen in person. It was impressive. And imposing.

“So…what’s it supposed to be?” I baited shyly, asking the question said to plague postmodern sculptors.

“Can’t you tell?” he grinned. “It’s a coatrack.”

I examined the thumb-sized hole in the shoulder of my jacket.

“Pretty lousy coatrack.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” he glanced me over for latent injuries. “But holy hell, Pens—look at you.”

He stepped back to better appraise me, and I felt my cheeks and chest begin to flush.

“A De Stijl masterpiece,” he teased, “escaped from the museum to hobnob with some art that isn’t dead?”

“More or less," I shrugged self-consciously.

It was nice not having to pretend around Peter—he knew I wasn’t wealthy, or fashionable, or even all that fluent in Quebec French—and in spite of our voguish surroundings, I started to relax. Discreetly, I appraised him back. He wore a charcoal vest and browline glasses; his curly, cinnamon hair was cropped meticulously just above the jaw. He looked dashing, and urbane—like he’d just walked out of a Fitzgerald novel. Peter was obviously in his element.

“Well, let me show you around,” he directed me with a jerk of his chin.

I smiled sheepishly, and followed him. We made our way along the edge of a dense throng of people, most of them swilling cocktails or champagne flutes. Peter nodded toward the center.

“That’s Claude, the curator.”

Marie’s friend, I thought. He didn’t seem to be missing her too much. He was flanked on both sides by dazzling sandy-haired girls with large, pouting lips. They looked like they might be sisters—maybe twins.

“And the little guy he’s talking to,” Peter whispered, “is Benoit Boucher. The art columnist for Le Devoir. Kind of a big deal around here.”

I actually recognized Boucher from his headshot. Back at the shop, his was the only article I’d stumbled through before flipping to the classifieds.

Peter grinned, “Don’t let him catch you staring, Pens—your career will be over before it’s started.”

I nodded, and we moved on. As we rounded a corner, I realized that the gallery was two, perhaps three times larger than I originally thought. By Mile End standards, it was enormous.

“Pretty wild, eh?” Peter nudged my arm. “Claude really went all out. He’s got some serious work here.” He turned to look at me, “I was sort of surprised he wanted one of mine.”

I wasn’t. Like Peter’s sculpture, a lot of the pieces were stark, edgy, and intense. I thought about my little stack of watercolors sitting back in Marie’s apartment. By comparison, mine were little more than finger paints. I followed Peter clockwise around the gallery’s perimeter, as he pointed out his favorites, and filled me in on the artists—many of whom he seemed to know personally. And I was enjoying myself, but at the same time it was difficult not to think about how lost I felt. Each series we passed seemed so sure of itself; so comfortable in its own skin.

“So’ve you started that masterpiece yet?” Peter stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I remember you said you wanted to do something big.”

I frowned. I’d confided in Peter under the twin influences of sleep deprivation and alcohol that I wanted my first serious piece to be large-scale—a big, beautiful, blank canvas; something with enough room for me to explore.

“No,” I confessed. “Still waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” he squinted.

“You know—” I dropped my eyes shyly, “the right moment. The idea, or inspiration, or muse. Or whatever. Lightning. Something that’ll hit me, and tell me exactly what to do.”

“Aha,” he nodded sardonically. “Got news for you, Foster—there’s no such thing. All you can do is work. The details fill themselves in along the way. Art’s like any other job, Pens.”

I frowned again. I knew I was naïve and inexperienced, but I didn’t much care for Peter extracting all the magic from the process. I wanted my first work to be strange, and special. Like losing your virginity, I wanted it to shift, however slightly, something inside me, and the way I saw the world. Alright. So maybe I’m really naïve.

“Hey, I didn’t make the rules,” he shrugged. “I just follow them.”

I was silent.

Peter looked up at the rafters, “You know, I actually just started something pretty huge of my own—biggest piece I’ve ever attempted.” He shifted his weight, “You should come by the studio sometime. I’d really like to get some input from someone like you.”

“Someone like who?” I asked, still a little miffed by his scolding.

“You know, an…art nerd.”

I snorted, “Didn’t realize I came off that way.”

“No, no. I just mean like—someone who knows the classics. I’ve never tried anything like this before,” there was a nervous excitement in his voice; he was almost stammering, “Its—intimidating.”

I cocked my head. He’s out on a limb, I thought. But—why me? I wondered what kind of undertaking could possibly make him think that I could help.

“Yeah,” I nodded cautiously. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

Peter smiled, and put his number into my phone as we continued our circuit. It was a little strange for me to be in a building full of paintings about which I knew absolutely nothing; and moreover to be lectured on them by someone my own age. Around the works of the Renaissance, the Impressionists, the Neo-Classicists, Academicists, Naturalists, Expressionists, Realists, Surrealists and the Romanticists, I often reverted to my preteen self—a precocious and insufferable know-it-all. Had we been across the Parc du Mont-Royal at the fine arts museum, I might have rendered Peter whole, annotated volumes of commentary before we passed the ticket counter.

But he was a great tour guide—kind, and funny. And it actually felt nice to take the passenger seat for a while, and just let him lead me. He handed back my phone just as it buzzed.

*seen anything you like, babe?*

It was Marie.

She must’ve spotted me with Peter, I thought, spinning to surveill the room again. Even in my heels I couldn’t see much. Evidently, Amazonian supermodels were a key demographic in Montreal’s contemporary art scene.

*where r u?* I typed.

Several seconds passed, and her reply popped up.

*on my way. swear!*

I stared at the message, rereading it.

Weird. Guess she’s not here. I knitted my brow. Marie could be such a space cadet. Peter was waiting patiently nearby, examining the rafters again, his hands stuffed back in his pockets.

“Something up?” he asked.

I shrugged, “Guess not.”

I knew it was obsessive, and square, but whenever this happened I couldn’t help dreading for Marie. For the next several minutes, my mind wasn’t really with me at the gallery—it was busy imagining her getting kidnapped and stuffed into the trunk of some deranged ballet fan’s car. I shook my head, trying to clear it.

And when I looked up, I saw something so bizarre and so beautiful that I forgot all about Marie, about Peter, and about myself. Above a cluster of murmuring people hung a huge, dark, almost tenebrist oil painting a female nude. And it was definitely a nude. Though her only coverings consisted of a crystal choker and some crimson drapery over the thigh, there was nothing ‘naked’ about her. She was prostrate. And proud. Her hair had the glittering red color of hot coals. In the background, I could make out the shadowy figures of people passing by behind her; either disregarding her—inconceivable—or, more likely, utterly unaware of her. But the thing that really caught me up was her face.

If the Mona Lisa’s smile was a subtle, sphinxian riddle, then this woman’s expression was the Gordian knot—an impossible tangle of temptress and ingénue, passion and passivity; desire and fear. Like an O-face, I thought blasphemously, for the immaculate conception. I stepped closer, and, my eyes widening, noticed that her wrists were bound with strips of brown cording.

Is she Andromeda? I inched my way into the crowd, standing up on my tiptoes, and read the card beside the canvas—‘The Old Master / Emily Brennan.’ I bit my lip. Not Andromeda?

With a little gasp, I realized that the man over whose tweedy shoulder I was peering was none other than the eminent art critic, Benoit Boucher. He was speaking to a lithe, lovely woman with dark eyes and an adorable black pixie-cut. I lowered myself off my toes and listened.

“Magnifique, Miss Brennan. C'est différance incarnée. But by your title, I am stumped—you must tell me which of the Old Masters inspired this—Titian? Correggio? Rubens, peut-être?”

“Alle und keinen,” she smirked, pushing a sable thread of hair from her eye. “I was thinking of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts.”

“Ah, je vois, je vois.” Boucher nodded wisely.

Oh wow—it’s her. I stared at the girl, swelling with equal parts envy and admiration. Her voice had a tragically pretty lilt. Is she Irish? She must be. No one else sounds so poetic and so plain at the same time. And her painting—it was graceful, and terrible, and shocking—and as I had with only a handful of other artworks in my life, I could feel myself falling in love with it.

Emily Brennan. I watched her for as long as I could, only half-aware of how awkward my staring would seem if she noticed me. She was so lovely—so demure and pretty and poised. And so talented. I turned back to her painting, and then back to her.

Oh... My lips parted a little as I realized that, apart from the color and length of the hair—and, of course, the nudity—the girl in the painting was the spitting image of Miss Brennan herself. Christ. I knew artists had a long tradition of using their own forms as subjects. But to do a nude; to have that kind of audacity and confidence and exhibitionism—I couldn’t even imagine it.

I blushed on her behalf, and lowering my eyes, backed away quickly. Quick enough, in fact, that I backed right into a man’s chest, and caused a little splash of his champagne to spatter across the floor.

“Careful, li’l lamb,” he grumbled.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I stammered.

He gazed down at the effervescing puddle by his shoes; then looked up. I stifled a gasp—he was blind his right eye. The iris was pale as an eggshell, and a little scar bisected the brow above. From experience, I knew how rude it was to stare. But if I couldn’t look him in the face, I wasn’t sure where to turn my eyes. He grinned at me unevenly.

“A bloke could get the wrong idea,” he set his glass down, “you throwing yourself at ‘em like that.”

“I really am sorry,” I repeated quietly. “I was just—caught up,” I gestured over my shoulder to the nude.

He nodded, “Pretty l’il thing, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I agreed, “She’s incredible.”

It,” he retorted coolly.

“Pardon?”

It is incredible.”

“Oh, um,” I stuttered, thinking he’d misheard me. “I mean the girl. Emily Brennan.”

“An’ I don’t?” he answered wryly.

I squinted. Now I thought I must have misheard him.

“She’s just a painting,” again he grinned. “An’ most things of beauty are just that, aren’t they?”

“Um—just what?”

I glanced around nervously for Peter. Both this man’s words and the way he looked at me were making me very uneasy.

Things,” he plucked a new glass of champagne from a tray as it passed. “That’s why we’re here tonight, ‘innit? To find pretty things—buy them, take ‘em home with us. Keep them locked away where no one else can enjoy them?”

I hated the way he stared at me. It was like I was the butt of some mean-spirited joke that I didn’t understand.

“I should find my friend,” I tried to excuse myself.

“Tell me, li’l lamb,” he ignored me. “How does it make you feel?”

Again, he nodded to the nude, and once more I looked upon it.

“Uncomfortable,” I answered softly, but then confessed, “but also—I don’t know—curious, I guess?”

“Are you asking me how it makes you feel?” he half-sneered, half-simpered. “Would you like me to tell you?”

I blushed, shaking my head; completely flustered, and a little annoyed.

“It was nice meeting you, Mr.—” I paused, momentarily horrified by my social faux pas. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t get your name.”

“I didn’t give one, li’l lamb,” he sipped his champagne. “Watch your step tonight. There are wolves about.”

I turned away quickly, hiding my shudder, and wove my way out of the crowd as fast as I could. I wanted to find Peter—but even more so I wanted to get away from him. Fast. Whoever he was, he creeped me right the fuck out. Peter stood at the crowd’s periphery. He frowned when he saw me.

“You alright, Pens? You’re looking a little pale.”

“Yeah,” I shook my head. “Yeah, let’s just move on.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“As you wish, m’lady,” he bowed theatrically.

I put on a smile, and he offered me his arm. We resumed the tour, wandering slowly toward the far wall. I was gladder than ever he was there with me, and before long he had me laughing again. He could be irresistibly charming when he wanted to be. But I still kept one eye over my shoulder.

“Brace yourself. We’re coming up on the back end. They always stick the weirdos near the washroom.”

I nodded, gazing up at him.

“Now, this guy says he’s deconstructing the New England lighthouse portrait. I think he’s just got some big, Freudian hang-ups.”

I giggled nervously. They were awfully phallic.

“You’re one to talk, Mr. Mulgrave,” I ribbed quietly, recalling Peter’s iron obelisk—the one that tried to impale me.

“Funny, Foster,” he rolled his eyes. “Oh, this is special,” he pointed, “This lady from New Zealand—she does tā moko tattoos on flash dehydrated pig skin.”

I wrinkled my nose. They were really intricate, but still pretty gross.

“Most expensive pork rinds on the market,” Peter adjusted his glasses in mock scrutiny.

I snickered, covering my mouth with my hand. I felt a little guilty laughing at the expense of these artists—they were real people after all; people probably really struggling to express themselves. But at the same time, Peter’s knew exactly how to make me laugh. I laughed in spite of myself.

We neared the far corner of the gallery, where seven small pieces were strung up right beside the washroom door.

“And these—” he pointed toward them, paused, and cocked his head. “These I don’t recognize.”

I smirked at him. Bewilderment suited him. He’d been so cocky all night; it was nice to see that he didn’t really know every artist in the city. He took a few steps closer toward the wall, and adjusted his glasses. My eyes trailed him listlessly to the paintings.

I froze. I froze with my mouth open, and my eyes wide. To me, at least, these ones were familiar. Too familiar. There—dangling like hanged men on their cords—were the clumsy red watercolors I’d painted of the chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. The card mounted beside them displayed the text: Penelope Foster / Cardinal Sin #1; Cardinal Sin #2—all the way up, inexorably, to seven.

Chapter 3

“Huh,” Peter turned back to me, his eyebrows raised.

I remained planted in place, unable to separate my eyes from the wall.

“Huh,” he repeated, “—why uh, why didn’t you say you had some stuff in the show?”

His tone was embarrassed and penitent. I knew he’d very narrowly missed making some caustic remark about them before reading the card.

“I, um—I didn’t know…” I murmured, taking a step back.

Gradually, I put together the pieces. Marie.

So this was her surprise. My face, chest, and arms all flushed. When I see her, I thought acidly, I am going to choke her.

Peter scratched his head.

“You know, they’re actually not half bad, Penny.”

It was hardly a glowing compliment, but at least he was trying.

“The color’s kind of—unique.”

I shook my head, hoping to wake myself up. How? How on earth did she manage this? And why? God knows I didn’t ask her to…

“They were just supposed to be studies,” I stammered. “Doodles, really. Marie must’ve found them, and—” my voice trailed off in a fluster.

“Yeah,” he took off his glasses and wiped them at the base of his vest. “Studies. That makes sense.”

Replacing them, he squinted again at the paintings. Every inch of my skin felt molten hot. What the hell did she do? What was she thinking? I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. Could she really have not known how terrible these are?

“Damn her,” I snarled quietly. “She wouldn’t know art if she sat on the David’s face.”

“Hey,” Peter put his hand on my left shoulder, and I jerked away reflexively. “Jesus, chill out, Penny.”

I felt a cold, sinking sensation in my stomach. I needed to calm down. But it was shocking how violated I felt: to find something of mine—something personal—exposed suddenly and without my permission, for anyone’s eyes to see and judge. I don’t think I could have been more mortified if they were photos of me in the bathtub at age fourteen; braces, acne, and all.

“Listen,” Peter pushed his hands into his pockets, “maybe this isn’t your best work. But do you realize how many people would literally kill to have their stuff in this gallery?” He looked up at me earnestly, “If you’re really serious about your work, then you need to thank Marie. I don’t think I want to know how she got Claude to throw these in tonight, but this could be huge for you. I mean—” he shifted his weight nervously, “stranger shit has happened. It’s a strange business, Pens. Sometimes you just go with the flow.”

I curled my toes. I didn’t like being scolded by Peter, but I knew he was right. I felt helpless, and a little cheated. I wanted to prove to him I could do better; that I wasn’t a total hack or a fuckup.

I’d been staring at the floor, and when I looked up at him, he was smiling.

“In fact,” he soothed, “We should be celebrating. I mean, it’s basically your big debut.”

I dug hard and deep to muster a smirk. It still came out pretty wry.

“Wait here,” he reached over to squeeze my palm.

I let him, though not without a shudder.

“I’ll grab us some champagne.”

He turned and weaved his way back toward the bar. Peter’s optimism was comforting. And as the initial shock started to wear off, I found myself seeing the sense in what he said. Who was I, after all, to get all upset about being featured at a chic, Mile End art gallery? And on opening night, I thought. It could have taken me years to get here…And it should have, my conscience scolded me. I suppressed its voice. There’s no use in staying upset, I thought. The paintings are up. There’s nothing you can do about it.

I turned back to look at the series—my series. Each piece was framed and matted tastefully, hanging together in a pair of staggered, vertical lines. The presentation, at least, looked really nice, and even artful. Marie probably worked pretty hard on this, I realized; wondering where on earth she’d found the time. I guess I do owe her a thank you. I bit my lip. And an apology. She was, after all, only trying to do me a favor—albeit in her psychotically impulsive and unpredictable way. I was even about to forgive myself for having the painted the vile things; and maybe, just maybe, imagine seeing in them some deeply hidden redeeming beauty.

But at that moment a small, tweedy figure emerged from the washroom, still shaking water from his hands, and came to stand beside me. I froze. For the third time, it was Benoit Boucher, venerated art critic for Le Devoir. And I stood stone still as he, leaning in to look at my paintings, snorted, swallowed noisily, and intoned a word that withered me.

Quétaine,” he said, and moved away.

I think I would have preferred that he call them garbage. In English, we adopted a lot of our names for unsatisfactory art from their French brethren— banal, prosaïque, cliché—but from Québécois, the most apt and literal translation for quétaine is “cheesy”.

I felt my cheeks ignite, and tears welling in the corners of my eyes. Soon they’d be bloodshot, my mascara would run, and my whole face would resemble that of a swollen, demonic sea-serpent. With avocado-colored irises, it’s impossible to be a pretty crier.

Cheesy. That was the reality, wasn’t it? To convince myself I could actually do this, I’d spun myself a dark little cocoon of self-delusion. That’s why I’d been stalling for two months. That’s why I never shared my work with anyone. I was protecting myself from the truth: that I was an unremarkable and utterly pathetic phony. And here they were; the undeniable proofs of my mediocrity, posted like Luther’s 100 Theses on the wall.

I was angry—really angry—not at Marie, not at Peter, and not at Monsieur Boucher, but entirely and comprehensively at myself. I opened my clutch for a tissue to dab away the water brimming in my eyes—and as I dug around, I found my nail file; its tortoiseshell handle glinting in the bright, halogen light of the gallery.

A ludicrous idea seized me. I gazed up at the long, thin, steel wires that tethered the paintings in place. They bobbed in front of me, mocking me. They were the albatross around my neck; my scarlet A. I looked over my shoulders. Thankfully, no one seemed to have noticed the little girl beside the washroom, confronting her little-girl sized existential meltdown. Or else they were ignoring me.

I needed those watercolors gone. Destroyed. Immolated. I wanted a private bonfire of vanities, to purge myself of the twin sins of vanity and ignorance. I took the nail file in my fist and, standing up on my tiptoes, started sawing.

A full minute went by, and the first wire began to fray. Oh my God, I sniffled. It’s working. Grinning like a madwoman, I quickened the strokes—and almost immediately stabbed one of the stiff, broken steel threads deep into the pad of my middle finger.

“Ah! Damn it!” I gasped.

The file fell to the floor.

I reached down for it, crouching as modestly as I could, but the antique seams of the dress strained against my bony hips.

“Esti de calisse de tabarnak,” I dropped forward onto my knees, whispering obscenities, and snatched it up.

My finger was throbbing. I watched a ruby dot of blood the size of a sequin bloom slowly at its tip, and, placing it instinctively between my lips, I sucked it clean.

“Give me your hand,” a man’s voice growled behind me.

All the blood drained from my face. I twisted at the waist to see the tips of two polished, black, Italian leather boots. He was standing over me, very close. I couldn’t bring myself to look any higher. I was mortified—I hadn’t felt like that since I was twelve years old; when my Father walked in on me in my underwear, learning to French kiss with my Prince Eric pillow.

Whoever he was, he’d caught me at my absolute and literal lowest—I was on my knees, in public, still sucking on my finger. Get up, Penny, I begged myself. Just get up and walk away. You can jump off a bridge or something on the way home. But before I could move, he reached down, and hoisted me to my feet.

Jesus! I teetered perilously on my heels, but he stayed me; and once I was upright and stable, he snatched my wrist, plucking the injured finger from my lips, and held it up firmly for his inspection. My words abandoned me. He frowned at the little ruby as it reappeared, and from an amber-colored cocktail in his other hand, he took an ice cube and a slice of lemon.

“This is going to sting,” he said coolly. “But it’ll stop the bleeding, and clean out the wound.”

A feeble nod and a blink were all I could manage for a response. I was dazed. Without really looking at him, I could tell he was profanely handsome—I could sense it; a force like gravity or magnetism—and he had an accent that I couldn’t place. I watched silently as he pinched two drops of lemon juice onto my fingertip.

I gasped. It did sting, though only for a moment. He placed the ice in my palm, folding my fingers overtop of it.

“For the swelling,” he released me.

The ice sent a cold shiver through my wrist that traveled down the length of my spine. An arch smile flickered across his face, and vanished. He has dimples, I noticed. Like me. Though whereas his sank below his cheekbones like a pair of clefts in solid limestone, I’d always thought mine looked like a couple thumbprints in a clumsily made scone. Slowly, the throbbing in my finger subsided.

“Right—um, thank you,” I murmured, lowering my eyes.

That’s two men swooping in to rescue you tonight. Christ, get your life together, Penny. Though I was staring at our shoes, I could feel his eyes still on me. I watched his flashing black boots, praying they would turn, and just walk away. They pointed menacingly at my painted toes, all curled up beneath their leather straps. His boots weren’t going anywhere. I held my breath.

“Now,” his voice dropped, “why don’t you tell me exactly what you thought you were doing just now.”

Shit. There was no good way to explain myself; no excuse or lie I might design that wouldn’t make me sound completely bat-shit crazy. I was still holding onto the nail file. I watched him shift his weight slowly from one leg to the other. What do I say? That I was stealing my own paintings? That I was on the floor because this dress costs more than I’ll probably make in ten years?

Nope. Won’t do it. Can’t do it. Rather than try to tell the truth, I resolved to obliterate what shreds remained of my social dignity—I would look him straight in the eye, and extricate myself by the only means I could think of.

“If you’ll excuse me, I was um—just on my way into the washroom,” I raised my head, ready to escape through the door behind me, where I could lock myself safely in the quiet isolation of a toilet stall, and cry maybe. And then I saw it.

God.

His eyes were glacial blue, and feathered with the texture of hard rime—the coldest, deepest eyes I’d ever seen. And so intense. He dropped the lemon twist back into his cocktail, and raised it to his lips. Even as he sipped, he watched me.

“I don’t like repeating myself,” he swallowed. “What were you doing?”

I couldn’t move my feet—I couldn’t even seem to look away. I was a blade of grass, and his eyes were the first frost—he froze me, brittle and a little bent. Until that moment, I don’t think I ever understood what it meant to say someone’s eyes were ‘piercing’. I wanted to melt, or dissolve; to turn translucent so they would bore all the way through me, and into the brick wall at my back. I blinked slowly, trying to break the spell.

He was still waiting. I breathed in. Just tell the stupid truth, Penny. And make it sound as sane as possible.

“I was taking these down,” I pointed shyly over my shoulder. “They’re mine, and I don’t want them here.”

He tilted his head, and with it his whole demeanor shifted. I didn’t like the change. Before he just looked austere and skeptical; but suddenly he was very focused on me—almost predatory. The hair on the back of my neck bristled. Some primordial part of my brain was telling me to run away and hide.

“You’re mistaken,” he said, smirking. “These are mine. And I think they’ll stay where they are for now.”

Wait, what? I wasn’t sure whether he was screwing with me, or if at some point in the evening I had actually lost my mind. Maybe at this very moment I was far away from Mile End, locked up and straitjacketed in a padded cell somewhere. Perhaps he was really my cold and ruthlessly handsome doctor, attempting some new anti-hallucinatory mind-game therapy. My brow furrowed, and my lips parted.

“No,” I said cautiously, testing my faith in reality like the ice at the edge of a lake, “they’re not.”

He was still smirking wryly. Why is he doing this to me? I wondered. It’s really not funny.

“These,” he pointed, using two fingers from the hand that held his glass, “belong to me now.”

He nodded allusively, coaxing me to the conclusion. And with a renewed rush of fear and disbelief, it dawned on me.

“You—you didn’t actually buy them?” I choked.

“Ten minutes ago.”

“A-All of them?” my chest heaved; I was on the verge of hyperventilating.

“All of them,” he took another sip, and stepped closer. “I’ve been looking for something like these for quite a while—I want to mount them in my office.”

Oh God. Oh God, Oh God. He peered down at me, his eyes flashing.

He bought them? The idea was unmanageable to me. No one, nowhere, would ever in his right mind pay for these—not unless he’s in the habit of putting his money through paper shredders. And then dumping the shreds into landfills. And then setting the landfills on fire.

“You’re Penelope Foster” he stated, leveling his gaze—there was no trace of inquiry in his voice. “I’m Dmitri Caine. Your admirer.”

Dmitri. Not that I was a linguistics expert, but he didn’t really sound Russian, or even eastern European—but then he didn’t really sound Canadian, Acadian, French, American, or Irish to me either. His voice was strict, but strangely warm; like the long, low draw of a cello. I felt a sharp pinch in my ears at hearing him say ‘Penelope’, but it passed quickly. It couldn’t contend with the vaster, more vexing torments at hand.

“I’m very glad to meet you, Miss Foster.”

He extended his hand, but he was already standing so close to me that it nearly rested on my waist. Stepping back against the wall, I placed my palm unsteadily in his. His grip was firm and his skin warm. I thought we were going to shake, but instead I watched in silent alarm as he bowed his head and, raising my hand up to lips, softly kissed the place where I had pricked my finger.

Those manners, I thought, blushing, are definitely not local.

“I hope your little injury hasn’t put your brush hand out of commission,” he drew in a long, low breath, and released me.

“N-No,” I stammered, withdrawing my hand and inspecting the puncture. “I’ve had a lot worse, Mr. Caine.”

His eyes widened slightly, and he raised his brow.

“That’s—good to know.”

I cocked my head.

“That it won’t stop you painting, I mean.” One side of his mouth curved into a wry smirk, “I wouldn’t mind adding another Foster to my collection soon.”

Why? Why, why, why, why, why, why? Did he mistake me for some other, some talented and worthwhile Penelope Foster? Perhaps a deceased Penelope Foster; who lived tragically, and painted, and channeled all of her suffering into palpable explosions of passion and loveliness—he must’ve bought these thinking they were the recently discovered scribbles of her adolescence. Honestly, it seemed more likely to me than the alternative. And yet he didn’t seem surprised in the least to meet Penelope Foster alive and well—and only twenty-three years old.

“You um—you know I’m not like, famous or anything, right?”

He chuckled darkly.

“Yes, Miss Foster. I know you’re new,” he tipped forward his head. “And I know that these are rough. That’s alright—I’m accustomed to finding diamonds in the rough.”

Rough. Ha. Understatement of the century. What is his game? I wondered. I studied him anew in equal parts fascination and fear. He really was violently; almost comically good-looking—a walking, talking embarrassment of ideal proportions. Like Bernini’s David come to life. And God, those eyes. Like a pair of polar ponds—the shimmery, lonely ones in the mountains, tinted blue by rock flour. And they looked almost as cold. My teeth chattered a bit just watching him. And my nose started running.

“Mr. Caine,” I sniffled. “I’m really, really sorry, but these—these weren’t supposed to here,” I dropped my eyes again. “They’re just studies. For something larger,” I bit my lip, “Something better.”

Repeating the same half-truth I’d told Peter made me feel even more ridiculous. The ice was melting in my hand, forming a little puddle on the floor between my feet. He handed me his cocktail napkin and I took it hesitantly, blowing my nose and balling up the soiled paper in my fist. He leaned in toward me, even closer. My breath hitched. Christ. No sense of personal space. He’d nearly pinned against the wall.

“But they were here,” he breathed. “And I wanted them, Miss Foster.”

What is his problem? I had no clue why, but I sensed he was deliberately trying to provoke me. Worse yet, it was working.

“But why?” I pleaded.

He smirked, “I like them.”

“You can’t.”

“I do—very much, Miss Foster.”

I couldn’t get a read on him. Why is he being so cruel? Can’t he see how upset I am? Somehow, he seemed to be enjoying my discomfort. I breathed an exasperated sigh, and watched him down the last sip of his cocktail, the muscles moving tightly up and down his throat.

“Mr. Caine, you don’t want these,” I winced, bracing myself for the malediction. “Benoit Boucher says they're quétaine.”

He set his glass aside.

“Boucher is a fool.”

A fool? That shut me up. I knew I didn’t agree; that I respected the critic’s judgment, and desperately wanted his approval—the kind of approval he’d lavished on Emily Brennan. But having just been so flippantly dismissed by him, it was an odd comfort to hear that at least one person around didn’t much care about the venerable opinions of Monsieur Boucher.

“I don’t know a lot about art, Miss Foster. I’m not a critic, and I’m not a painter. I’m only here tonight for an old friend,” for the first time since he started talking, he broke his gaze, letting his eyes dance briefly around the room. They returned to me, settling stonily before he continued, “But don’t mistake me for a man who doesn’t know what he wants.”

I blinked. Awfully full of himself, isn’t he? Still, it wasn’t hard for me to believe him—though he was dressed sharp as knives, there wasn’t a thing about him that let on either wishy-washy or artsy-fartsy. His look was a little unkempt, and vaguely lupine. A dark stubble covered his chin and jaw—a real one, not the meticulously cultivated kind—and his wavy hair was tousled to just this side of civilized. He must be outdoors a lot, I thought absently. After September, a suntan in Montreal was all but unheard of.

With a jolt of inspiration, I realized I could change his mind. He doesn’t really like my watercolors. Look at him—he doesn’t give a crap about art. Why would he? He’s gotta be an investment banker, or a lawyer, or some other more lucrative and less ludicrous thing than a painter. He’s got a bare wall somewhere that just needs covered up. It could be old newspaper clippings for all he cares.

“Look,” I widened my eyes as far as they would open, mustering up all the doey innocence I could manage, “I am really, really flattered. But shouldn’t you pick out something a little more interesting for your office? Something sort of…sexier?”

He raised his brow, and for just a moment I thought I had him.

“Just what,” his voice was low and grave, “did you have in mind, Miss Foster?”

The way he said it—so laden with something subtler, and darker than innuendo—it made me blush. I looked around quickly, trying to summon just one distinct item from my guided tour with Peter.

“Well um—there’re some really nice pig skins over there. And lighthouses. Like phalluses. Lightphalluses.”

What the hell are you doing, Penny? He didn’t need to speak to tell me how ridiculous I sounded. He just lifted the same eyebrow.

I flushed blood red, and tried again, stammering, “Well what about the nude? The one by Emily Brennan. Its…sort of incredible. Its right over—”

“No,” His eyes flashed dangerously. “I’m afraid it won’t do.”

Eek—think I might’ve touched a nerve. He’s not a prude is he? I thought of Daniele da Volterra, painting tiny pants on all the muscle-bound angels in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

“And these will?” I breathed.

“I’ve been told I have peculiar tastes, Miss Foster. Now,” his lips formed a cheerless half-grin, “I’ll have my bond.”

Iago? No…Shylock. Christ, even his teeth are perfect. They looked crisp, and even, and titanium white. My head was swimming. It was impossible to think straight with him standing there, scrutinizing me under his cool and certifiably piercing gaze. He’s stubborn, I thought. And a little rude. And arrogant. And really, really handsome. He was at least a head taller than me; I was actually standing in his shadow.

And there seemed to be no dissuading him—I couldn’t make him budge an inch, or a millimeter, or whatever. When I was a little girl, I would have shrieked and cried and stamped my feet until I got my way. Having run low on ideas, I think I might’ve tried it now, but that I lacked the energy for a full-on tantrum. His whole presence seemed to have a noxious effect on me—like an atmospheric hypothermia.

I felt drained. All I wanted was to give in; to surrender to him. What does it matter, really? He could take them, and hang them in his office, and his clients or associates or whoever would pass through, noticing them now and then, and think maybe he had a twelve-year-old daughter. Though he looks a little young for that, I speculated. Fine. A niece, then. At least my shame would be concealed from the greater public—I’d be out of the stocks, and into the Tower.

But in that moment, I still couldn’t bring myself to suffer the thought of going through life knowing that the point of origin for my artistic trials would sit at the dubious display and sale of these seven crummy paintings. I, too, knew how to be stubborn.

And God knows what weird and unmentionable things Marie did with Claude to get them in here. Of course she wouldn’t think of herself as cheap or slutty for having done them. Marie had the self-esteem of a Grecian Goddess—letting men be with her was like a celestial blessing she bestowed upon them. But I wasn’t so lucky. I knew that I would feel, forever, like a whore by proxy. I breathed deeply and shut my eyes.

“I don’t want to give them to you.”

“To me?” his tone was sharp, and searching.

“To anyone,” I breathed. “It’s hard to explain. It’s—a self-respect thing.”

I opened my eyes. He wasn’t quite looking at me; his gaze was lower. I blushed. For a split second I thought he was checking out my chest.

“That’s quite a scar,” he nodded to my shoulder. “How did it break?”

My breath hitched a little, and by reflex I tried to shield it with my hand, though it was much too long to fully mask beneath my palm. Normally, people had enough tact to just gawk. They almost never asked.

“By accident,” I murmured.

“I should hope so,” his mouth



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A Mother and Her Love of Her Son; Pt 2

Her mind drifted back to the day that changed her life forever. Why had she went to wake Rick instead of sending Kenzie as she always had. She was running from an uncomfortable sexual conversation with her daughter only to become overwhelmed in a sexual act with her son. If only she had sent Kenzie to wake Rick that morning as she always did, would Kenzie be the one laying in her bed craving his cock tonight? Would her daughter have been swept away as easily as she had...

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Brotherly&Sister love

It was 10pm when she got in from her friends and she sighed lookign around when she noticed her brothers shoes. Remus looked up from the couch and grinned hearing his sister walk in and he chuckled ''So i dont even get a massive hug after coming back from University?'' he yelled. As he saw her step through the door his eyes went wide. What had happened to his little sis, she used to be flat chested with no curves and now.. now she had a massive rack on her chest, an hour...

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My Younger Brother's Friend Part 3: Artie

I was texting Phil working on a day that we could meet up. Both my parents had full time jobs in the city, and if my brother was not going to be home I knew he could come over. Luckily, my brother went to work with my father sometimes, and this week he was going. Phil's parents also worked, so I told Phil I would pick him up at his house at 10am since we would have to leave my house by 5. He agreed, then shocked me with some great news. He asked if his friend Artie could...

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Other Colors -- Ch. 12

Part 2 – BlueChapter 12Leda and the Swan. Alpheus and Arethusa. Pretty Psyche, blindfolded in her bridal bed. Poor, cheating Venus, caught naked beneath her husband’s net… Sing, Muse.I dreamt of Grecian deviance—limbs of oil and marble overlapping. I heard Sextus, seducing his rancid Cynthia in song... ‘Why, woman, wear your hair up? And ruin your smooth wrists with gems? Why pollute your skin with scented oils? Why cover your white breast in colored silks? Stay...

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Other Colors -- Ch. 1-3

Part 1 – Red 1 Yes. A sunny balcony would be nice, I thought, circling another listing in crimson ink. Or maybe a roof garden. I could plant rosemary, and violets. I could paint. I bit the top of my pen and skimmed down the column to a number that didn’t threaten to ruin me. ‘Sur la rue Villeray. 3 1/2 chauffé. 1 chambre, style ouvert. Plancher bois franc. Entrées laveuse/sécheuse. Disponible immédiatement. 500 $’ It was more than a little humiliating that, after...

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Other Colors - Ch. 22 (section 1)

Part 2 – Blue (continued) Chapter 22 *Due to length, this chapter has been split into two sections* No. No, no, no. Not here—anywhere else. Not here. I squinted through the windshield, through the furious flurry and amber-blue dark, quaking as he steered us into a too-familiar alleyway, and cut the engine. I wanted to believe I was dreaming; that I’d fallen asleep in the passenger seat, and down the dusky trapdoor of a nightmare. I pinched myself, and winced. I...

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CUM, YE MOTHERFUCKERS, CUM

By Oediplex 8==3~ This Oedipus opus is dedicated to my mother, Dell PREAMBLE Greeting to all Oediplex OediPals, both sons and mothers who ever thought about committing incest with their parent or child, most especially those who did share that intimate act. This piece of writing is produced to make you cum. But it has a second purpose as well. I am working on building a network of all those who are interested in the subject of mother/son sex. In past I have...

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