Chapter One

I stared at the painting hanging from steel chords, suspended in the center of a red, red room. Ceiling, walls, and hardwood floor were all a glaring, slightly vulgar shade of red.

The socialites standing in homogenous clusters around me were impeccably groomed, their voices cultured and pitched low. There were equally frequent snippets of admiration and distaste. Presently, the murmurs nearest me agreed that the artist was an idiot savant. A misfit and a tramp of the social world, without respectable education or appeal.

With great zeal and premature relief, one patron proclaimed and his fellows agreed that this showing signified only an unfortunate but momentary glitch in the generally unflawed complexion of the popular art scene. It was known to happen from time to time: a well-meaning benefactor of the arts came across a young, struggling artist, and provided all funds and publicity for their first major showing. If the event was declared a success, that lucky and arguably damned artist became famous overnight.

I felt a pang of pity for this particular artist, as the dreams he or she had staked on this hot night in the city, this brightly lit red room, and these people, were going to remain elusive; perhaps for quite a long while, as the poison of negative publicity was never quick to withdraw.

A singularly derisive snort of laughter from a fellow bystander drew my attention back to the center of the room, where the grotesque, triumphant piece of art was showcased. Another peculiarity of this exhibition: one, and only one, piece of art. Not that it didn't possess the force of presence to command a room, for it did. Not that the combination of supine female shape, dazzling color, bold graffiti-like accents, and suggestion of motion didn't ache to be remembered, for it did. I, for one, knew that the image would remain indelible in my mind.

I winced and drained the last of my champagne. A disreputable looking young man appeared at my side, chunks of his brown hair dyed black and others white.

Like a game-board, I thought. Aloud, I said, smirking, "Do you play chess?"

He scowled at me, but the resulting comical angles of his two lip rings ruined the effect. "Well?" he snapped. "Do you want another, or what?"

For the first time, I noticed the tray he was proffering along with his surliness. I smiled my most charming smile. "Since you're offering…" I trailed off, snatching a glass and depositing my empty one.

The unlikely waiter snorted and turned away, his passing bringing me the mouth-watering fragrance of stale cigarette smoke. I allowed myself a moment to wallow in disgust for my habit before lunging forward to grab the man's arm.

"Hey!" he yelled, struggling to maintain balance of the tray.

"Oops, sorry," I said, stumbling a little as I righted myself. "Is there a smoking patio?"

His scowl was firmly in place. "Jesus, you need to lighten up on the champagne."

I blinked. "Gee, dad, it looks like you've lost weight."

He rolled his eyes and tossed his head toward the only door in the room. "Through the door at the end of the hallway."

"Thanks, kid," I said, patting him on the shoulder.

"Drunk bitch," he muttered as he stalked away.

I wanted to yell something wholly inappropriate at the back of his head, but remembered my surroundings just in time. I didn't want to alienate myself any further than was natural. As it was, when I'd arrived an hour before, for a short time it had seemed that the clientele thought there were two pieces of art on display. One inanimate and mounted. One walking and breathing.

As I made my way through the door and into the narrow, dimly lit hallway, I wondered why no one had been staring at the waiter. Then, with a burst of insight and an audible, "Ah, ha!" I deduced that the patrons at this lovely show saw the waiter as a part of the act. The way I looked—to these folks in the same vein of scary as the waiter—was an act of free-will and choice. Hence, I was the true freak.

"Losers," I snarled, shoving open the heavy door with my shoulder, all the while fishing through my purse for my pack of smokes.

The door slammed open against an opposing brick wall, startling a couple who were standing close together at the small patio's railing. As the woman and man turned, I saw on their faces telltale signs of a serious altercation. The tears on her face didn't detract from her classic blond beauty; the rage on his face only enhanced his alternative good looks.

Barbie and Punk Rock, I thought bitterly. For good measure, I instantly shot a vehement, though silent condemnation of Traitor toward the black-haired, dark-eyed, tattooed Adonis.

"Sorry for the interruption," I mumbled, leaning against the open door to light my cigarette.

"I was just leaving," Barbie said mistily, turning back to Punk Rock.

I tried not to eavesdrop—really, I did—but what's a girl to do on a ten by ten patio when she's holding a lit smoke in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other? Plug her ears with her toes?

"I'm sorry," Barbie continued. Personally, I thought the remorse in her voice was a little forced.

"When are you leaving?" Punk Rock asked, his deep tenor in perfect concord with his godliness. There was no trace of anger, only resignation and a little impatience. It made me wonder if the anger I'd seen had been, in fact, directed at the rude interloper. Me.

"Eight a.m. tomorrow," Barbie intoned, sniffing.

His reply was voiced low, and had a hint of a foreign accent, "I'm only going to ask one more time, are you certain about this? Once you leave, Julia…" he trailed off meaningfully.

I thought her name was Barbie? Damn, maybe the four glasses of quality champagne were fogging my brain.

The woman shook her head, perky bosom heaving in a sigh. She was a stellar actress, for Punk Rock couldn't see what I could: her fake fingernails twitching irritably at her side.

Being the voyeur that I was, I concluded that it was obvious they couldn't stand each other. As such, I felt the whole scene was a bit dramatic. Too bad no one wanted my opinion.

"I know, Mike, but it's for the best."

Mike? I frowned. No, that definitely couldn't be his name. It was so…meh.

Barbie—Julia, whatever—slanted me a morose smile as she walked past, and then I was alone with Punk Rock God. It was unfortunate, really, that I was too drunk to summon grace enough to console him. Instead, I calmly smoked my cigarette, staring at his shapely shoulders as he turned to lean against the railing.

"If you're going to stay out here, would you mind closing the door?"

His voice came soft and low, disembodied from the tension radiating from him.

I coughed. "Um, sure," I said, firing my steel-toed boot from its job as doorstopper.

The door closed with a bang, leaving us in near-darkness. My foot, unaccustomed to unemployment, joined its opposing force in shifting nervously from side to side.

Several prolonged moments later, irritated with my lack of skills in dealing with awkward situations, I turned to stare out over the urban jungle. The heat, even at this time of night, was oppressive.

Say it, I thought, say something clever about the heat.

But no, the combination of alcohol, nicotine, and humidity had apparently revved my brain into the red. Any second steam would come out my ears and I'd hear a computerized voice warning me that all systems were shutting down.

"You don't look like you belong here."

Did I just hear that? Did Punk Rock just speak to me?

I turned to find him facing me, leaning back on his elbows. "Neither do you," I said.

Bravo! Except for the bitter tone of voice, that is.

He laughed. I could hardly believe my luck. Though in truth, it was more of a pained exhalation of air than expression of humor.

"Why are you here?" he asked.

"Job," I said shortly.

His eyebrows rose. "An art critic?"

"Among other things," I said guardedly.

Another hint of laugher, then, "Are you always such a surly cat?"

Before I could reign in bitch-impulse, I retorted, "Are you trying to say I don't look capable of having opposable thumbs?"

Man, I sounded really angry. Then I remembered why I was angry. All the hot boys took girls like me home at night, and took Barbie home to mom and dad. I was a page in their bachelor logs, while she was their future wife and mother of their children.


For some reason, though, the current Bastard in view didn't stalk out the door. Instead, he smiled, and said, "I know the artist. You could ask me some questions."

To which I replied with stunning eloquence by grunting.

He glanced at the glass still in my hand, now empty. "Are you really a critic?"

I looked at my empty glass, then at him. "Oh, so now you think I crashed this happening party to get some free booze!"

He frowned. "Look, I'm just trying to make conversation."

I pointed at the door. "There's a whole room full of competent people."

His gaze slanted away, traveling the streets below. "I don't want to talk to them."

The expression of malcontent and longing on his face did me in. I couldn't help it, I sighed. "I'm sorry," I said softly. "I'm in rare form tonight. And no, I'm not always such a surly cat."

His lovely shoulders moved in a shrug. "I don't blame you. These type of showings, though necessary, are… difficult for people like us. That's why I'm not in there. They tend to think I'm more interesting than the art. Something to be stared at and analyzed."

I felt a pang of camaraderie at his words. He sounded so sincere, and real, that I almost forgot what his girlfriend—ex-girlfriend as of ten minutes ago—had looked like.

I suddenly wanted to be somewhere else. Preferably home, in bed and asleep, only to awaken and find that this bizarre art show experience had been a dream. It would be this morning again, and I'd arrive at work to find Alexis—the usual girl for this type of assignment—smiling and well at her desk, instead of a message telling me she's down with the flu.

As the fantasy came to an end, an enticing male voice asked, "So, do you want to see more of this guy's art?" I stared dumbly at his perfect smile. "It's all upstairs." I said nothing, just blinked and breathed. "In the loft, where I live. No one's home."

I knew before I asked. I knew by the look in his eyes, by years of error, and even more years spent avoiding situations just like this. "Are you propositioning me?" I murmured.

He gave me his best little-boy-caught-with-hand-in-girl's-underpants look. Funny, that it actually seemed genuine. "I don't know… maybe."

I took several deep breaths, and cursed my best friend Jeff for convincing me that such nonsense actually calmed. "I think I've had enough of this party," I said, settling my glass on the wide railing.

I was already mentally checked out from my company as I took personal inventory, smoothing the pleats of my short red skirt. A quick palm-check on my hair to make sure the products I swore by had kept the long, straight black strands from frizzing in the humidity, and I was ready to go.

"See you around," I said, waving casually as I opened the door.


Already in the hallway, just about to let the door close on another godly boy, I seized the excuse, glancing back to get my fill of another something I would never have in the way I truly wanted.

"Yeah?" I asked, fully prepared to slam the door if he invited me upstairs again.

"What's your name?"

"My name?" I repeated blankly.

He smile was crooked. Really, really cute, but not disarmingly so.

"Unavailable," I said, and the door swung closed.