The sun hit Nicole's canvas through her studio window, brushing golden fingers across careful strokes of color. It took her over two months of stolen time to finish Far Sky for the Art Show that weekend but while the painting was beautiful, her best work yet, it still wasn't quite right. There was no movement or transition, just pretty paint combined on a white canvas in the shape of a nice picture. It didn't come to life. Nicole sighed.
Her work lacked something crucial, and she knew it, she just couldn't figure out what was missing. More than once Nicole was tempted to scrap all of her work and never paint again. But whenever the thought crossed her mind she would remember the painting that started it all.
The first real memory she had as a child was wandering the halls of her grandfather's home and ending up in the living room. The sun was high and the golden light filtered through the curtains to land on the large painting that hung over the mantel. In regular light, it was just an old family portrait, painted in England in 1909 before her great-great grandfather immigrated to America. But in the sunlight, it was a masterpiece.
Everyone in the portrait seemed to come to life in those few moments Nicole saw it caught by the noon sun and suddenly they weren't just color on canvas, they were people. The mother's hand tightened on her daughter's shoulder and the little girl almost grimaced, clearly not wanting to sit still for so long. Her brother was older and liked to pretend he was a man so he stood ramrod straight with only the slight fidgeting of his fingers to give away his anxiety. The father stood tall and proud, overseeing his family with a slight smile of amusement that seemed on the verge of a laugh.
And then the light shifted and it was back to being just a normal painting. But in those few, timeless moments, Nicole was inspired. She wanted to be able to paint something like that. Unfortunately, she didn't know what technique the artist had used and with the falling out her father had with his parents, Nicole never saw it again. Soon after that first, and last, visit her parents divorced and her father left. She never saw him again either.
The phone rang, breaking through her reverie, and Nicole sighed as she placed a sheet over the finished canvas. She left the small bedroom turned studio, shutting off the lights as she went. Nicole snagged the ancient phone from its cradle on the wall just as the answering machine kicked in.
"Hey, you've reached Nicole—" The machine began but she shut it off as she brought the phone to her ear.
"Nicole Parson, who's calling please?" She said but the heavy breathing on the other end gave the caller away.
"It's Tate," her landlord said sharply.
Nicole rolled her eyes but was determined to be civil. "What can I do for you Mr. Tate?"
"Your rent is late. Again."
"I'm aware of that, but I talked to your wife and—"
"My wife don't own your place, Parson, I do," he said so loudly that Nicole jerked the phone away. "I want my money by this evening. Got it?"
"But I don't get paid until—" She jerked the phone away a second time as it broke off with a loud crack. She let out a stiff, controlled sigh as she slowly replaced the phone on its cradle. She counted backwards from five and watched the cord curl and bounce against the wall.
Nicole really hated Randy Tate. When she had first moved in four months ago, the man had been extremely kind and attentive to all her needs but she soon realized that he had alternative motives. Motives that became shockingly apparent when he knocked on her door one night with an offer to lower her rent if she let him stay over once a week.
Needless to say, she was not at all interested in contributing her half of the 'arrangement' and told him so quite forcefully. In response her rent had 'strangely' climbed from $650.00 (extremely reasonable for Chicago) a month to $950.00 over night. After looking over her contract more than a dozen times Nicole realized he had made it so the price change was completely legal. Probably so he could adjust it for the girls that were willing to give him what he wanted. Unfortunately, Nicole couldn't find any loopholes. And if she didn't have the money for rent, she definitely didn't have the money to pay a lawyer to find loopholes for her.
Someday though, when her lease was up and she had a new place, she would show Randy Tate just how highly she thought of him with a well-placed punch in the nose. For now though, she just had to suck it up and muddle through. But oh for the day—
A sharp alarm sounded from her studio and Nicole spun around to look at the stove clock in horror. How could it be two already? She sprinted from the kitchen and tripped over the coffee table in the living room with a sharp yelp. Hitting the wood floor with a groan, Nicole quickly shook it off as she stood and limped into her studio.
Nicole grabbed her work clothes from the closet and shut off the alarm. Not for the first time she wished there was another closet besides the one in the studio. Since it was supposed to be the apartment's bedroom, it only made sense that the closet would be there, but that didn't make it any less inconvenient.
Taking one of the fastest showers of her life, Nicole jumped back out and dried off; forcing herself to slow down as she dressed so she wouldn't fall again and break her neck. Her long blonde hair was still wet as she pulled it into a high ponytail. She knew she would regret that later when it dried and gave her a headache, but she didn't have time to care.
Heading back into the living room Nicole grabbed her shoes, purse, and phone before hurrying out the door. She barely remembered to grab her keys from their hook, grateful she had avoided locking herself out again. Taking one last look around her small apartment, Nicole flipped off the lights and stepped outside, locking the door behind her.
"Cutting it close again Nikki," Brody said as Nicole stepped into the factory, her breathing sharp from her sprint from the parking lot. Her ID badge swung wildly on the lanyard around her neck as she grinned at the old security guard.
"True, but I haven't been late yet."
"Yet." Brody echoed and Nicole stuck out her tongue as she straitened her hair and brushed out her tacky green polo. It was baggy on her slim frame and hung over the sides of her khaki pants, which were equally large. She hated how the clothes completely swallowed her but she didn't have much of a choice. They were the smallest size the company made. They didn't get many 'little girls' working there, even if she was just a floor manager.
Waving goodbye to Brody, Nicole swiped her orange badge against the black eye next to the door and it clicked open. The noise hit her all at once but Nicole resisted the urge to back out of the room as she snagged a pair of orange sound mufflers from the crate by the door. Once they were on, Nicole grabbed her pink hardhat—a friendly joke from her shift crew—from its wall peg and slipped it on as well.
"Cutting it close again, Nicole," Joy, the only other woman in the factory, said as she walked by carrying three crates.
"I know." Nicole clocked in as she watched the burly woman in amusement. "Only three?"
Joy shrugged. "The men get annoyed if I start showing off."
Nicole snickered. "I'm sure. Did Jonny leave yet?"
"He's in the back office looking over this afternoon's inventory. He'll probably have to fill you in 'cause he said something about new regulations and what-not."
"Thanks Joy," Nicole said, not at all put out by the lack of real information. It wasn't unusual from any of the workers at this factory. Not because they weren't smart, Nicole was often amazed at how untrue that was, but because they didn't care. Like Joy, they were content to do the job they were assigned and leave the rest alone.
Nicole dodged around the maze of crates, shelves, machines, and people before reaching the back office where she gave two quick knocks, swiped her badge, and pushed the door open to step inside. Jonny, a small mousy man, was bent over a stack of papers. His thick glasses kept sliding down his nose and he scowled in annoyance as he pushed them back up again and again. The noise was a lot less in here so Nicole removed her hat and mufflers before she cleared her throat. Jonny looked up in surprise.
"Oh, I didn't notice you come in." He glanced at the clock. "Aren't you late?"
"Nope, I clocked in right on time." She pulled out a chair opposite him and sat down, curious about what he was working on. "Joy said we've heard from the higher-ups?" Jonny nodded as he flipped through the stack.
"We have a new work plan." He said, pulling a single sheet loose and passing it over. Nicole took it without question and glanced over the letterhead before turning to the body of the letter to read it through.
"So what changed?" Nicole said sarcastically concerning the two adjustments. Jonny laughed stiffly.
"Not a thing." He said. "The boss just likes to make himself seem important." He passed her a manila folder. Nicole took it and flipped it open. "It's the inventory list for this month. Have one or two of the boys check the crates to make sure everything made it. Also, the new work plan starts in two weeks; until then things stay the same. I'm clocking out."
Without another word, Jonny grabbed his wallet and keys from their usual place on the desk and stuffed them in his pockets. She watched him leave with concern. He had been acting really strange in the last few months and she'd heard a few of the workers comment on his 'bad home life'. Maybe he was just stressed?
Not wanting to think about it, and most likely invent diabolical reasons for his recent oddities, Nicole just tossed her purse onto the back table and slipped around the desk to look over the inventory list. Everything seemed normal enough. She did spot one or two new items, but that wasn't extremely unusual.
Deciding she was just over thinking things, Nicole set the papers aside and reached for her mufflers. Somehow, she just knew this was going to be a long night.
Tyler passed his hand beneath his glasses and over his eyes in an attempt to ward off the headache he knew was coming on. The computer screen glared at him in the dimness of his office. He vaguely realized he needed to turn on a few lights before his vision was ruined for good. Sparing a quick glance at the clock on the wall, Tyler absently wondering why everyone seemed to prefer digital ones these days. Didn't the neon red bother anyone but him?
It was eight thirty-nine. Tyler sighed. He had worked past office hours again. Hopefully Ryan had gotten Ethan his dinner. Tyler really needed to find a good nanny so he could stop passing his son off on his step-brother, but all of the girls that applied were either airheads or gold diggers and Tyler had no intention of trusting his son to either type.
There was a telltale scrape against the door lock and Tyler glanced back at the clock in surprise. Julie usually waited until at least nine before asking Ryan to break in. Oh well, he would squeeze in what work he could manage before his younger brother made his usual rambunctious entrance.
Twelve minutes ticked by and he couldn't help but glance at the door every few moments. The scraping was still there, if somewhat irregular, and Tyler was confused as to what was taking so long. Ryan hadn't had this much trouble with a lock since he first started learning how to pick them.
A sudden thought struck and Tyler's eyes narrowed as he stood. He slapped his glasses firmly on the desk before crossing the room in four quick steps. He unlocked the door and pulled it open with a sharp jerk to glare down at Ethan and Ryan. Both looked up in surprise and Ethan quickly hid the lock picks behind his back as he smiled innocently.
"Hi daddy," he said but Tyler was unaffected. Ryan tried to copy Ethan's innocent look but if it wasn't working for his nephew it definitely wouldn't work for him.
"Hey Ty," Ryan said only to sigh when Tyler held out his hand. Almost pouting, Ryan carefully took the picks from Ethan's small hands before passing them to his brother.
"If you want to carry on with your illegal hobbies then be my guest," Tyler said, slipping the picks into his suit coat's inner pocket. "But don't corrupt my son along the way."
"But when Uncle Ryan's in-inter—" Ethan's face scrunched up as he tried to say 'internship'. He gave up with an annoyed grunt. "When his work is over who's gonna save you from your hole?"
"Going to," Tyler corrected, mildly annoyed at Ryan's pet name for his office, as he scooped his son into his arms and wandered back towards his desk. "And I'm sure Julie will keep him on staff if only to break in to my office on random occasions."
"True enough," Ryan said as he leaned against the doorway. "But you've gotta admit that watching your kid try and pick a lock was pretty adorable."
"Have to." He corrected again. "And no. I don't."
Ethan pouted. "You don't think I'm a-do-able?" He said, obviously not knowing what it meant.
Ryan laughed, but stifled it under Tyler's glare.
"Of course I do." Tyler said. "But lock picking is a crime and crime is wrong and, therefore, not adorable."
"Thank you Descartes," Ryan muttered but Tyler ignored him.
"But . . . Uncle Ryan does it. . ." Ethan said his voice heavy with sleep.
"That's because your Uncle wants to be a bad guy when he grows up."
"Hey, don't tell him that." Ryan's voice dropped into a dramatic whisper. "It's supposed to be a secret."
Tyler rolled his eyes, refusing to humor his brother. Instead, he shifted through his files and put the most important ones in a single folder.
"Was Mom able to get a hold of you?" Ryan said, suddenly in business mode as he picked up the remaining files to sort them into the cabinet against the wall.
"About what?" Tyler looked up from the computer, making sure he wasn't leaning too far as Ethan drifted to sleep against his shoulder. "She calls me at least five times a day."
"Then you haven't heard," Ryan said without looking back.
Tyler was expecting Ryan to continue so when he didn't Tyler looked up, his eyebrow quirked from curiosity. "About what?" He repeated and Ryan sighed.
"I really didn't want to be the messenger on this one. . ." Ryan said reluctantly, dragging his fingers through his tawny-orange hair. Tyler stiffened from a familiar terror. Had something happened to his father? To his stepmother? The terror grew from the thought. Molly was the only mother he had ever known. If he lost her too...
"Breathe Tyler," Ryan said, his voice cutting through the haze of fear. "It's fine. Mom's fine. Everything is alright."
Tyler closed his eyes and slowed his breathing as he had been taught, relaxing each of his muscles individually. After several seconds, the fear passed and he was able to look at his brother again. Ryan looked pale and guilty so Tyler offered him a comforting smile.
"It's not your fault," Tyler said. "I never know what will trigger it." Ryan nodded slowly but didn't look convinced. "You were saying?" Tyler prompted.
Ryan hedged for a minute before finally giving in. "Mom was just thinking that it might be nice if we took a vacation this summer. As a family and all that. She says you've been working too hard."
"That's it?" Tyler said in annoyance. "You had me worried."
"So . . . you're okay with it?"
"Now isn't a good time Ryan. The IPO is posted September 1st. You know that."
"That's still over three months away."
"This is a delicate time. Anything could go wrong—"
"Nothing's going to go wrong Tyler," Ryan said crossly. "You've been working on this for three years. Everything is exactly the way it should be and it's running like clockwork. When the bidding starts you won't have time to breathe and then there's the international arrangement to work on. Now's the only time you have for a vacation."
"I don't think—"
"Tyler," Ryan said, more serious than Tyler had ever seen him. "You're working yourself to death and Ethan barely sees you anymore. You need a vacation. Take one while you have the chance."
Tapping his finger against the desk, Tyler weighed his options. Ryan was right about the timing, with everything railroading towards their September announcement, now really was the best time to go. His attorneys had everything well in hand and his accountants were ready for what was planned. And he really was tired.
"Alright." Tyler said. "It has been a while since I've relaxed. I suppose a vacation won't be too bad."
"We're not talking a trip to the Zoo, Tyler." Ryan warned. "Mom's planning a full-fledged travel experience. We'll be back in time for the announcement, but it will still be several weeks."
Tyler hesitated, doubts beginning to nudge at the back of his mind. He shoved them away and forced a casual shrug. "We went to Hawaii last year."
"Which was a huge step, Ty. You have no idea how proud—"
Tyler scowled. "Don't patronize me Ryan." He said and Ryan cleared his throat.
"Anyway," Ryan continued turning back to the cabinets to continue sorting the almost forgotten files. "This year's trip is a bit further outside your comfort zone."
"Further how?" Tyler said carefully, the doubts coming back stronger. He forced them back again as he balanced Ethan carefully with one hand so he could reach under his desk and pull out his briefcase.
Ryan's shoulders stiffened just a fraction before he spoke. "Lord Huntington invited us to his manor—"
"Oh come on Tyler." Ryan turned. His face was a mixture of exasperation, annoyance, and resignation. "He's your grandfather. At least think about it before saying no."
Tyler was silent for a moment as he pretended to mull it over. "No." He said, picking up the file on the desk and placing it into his briefcase. He snapped the latches closed.
"I agreed to a vacation Ryan, but I refuse to take it in England. After the things he's said about you and Mom, I don't know why you're even considering it."
"That was a long time ago, Lord Huntington's come a long way since then. I think he may even like me now."
"Then why do you call him 'Lord Huntington' instead of Grandfather?" Tyler said and Ryan faltered.
"Uh . . . force of habit?"
"Nice try, but no. Besides, Hawaii is one thing, but England? At least Hawaii is a part of the US. England is a completely different country." Ryan opened his mouth but Tyler cut him off. "Don't say it."
"Say what?" Ryan said innocently and Tyler scowled.
"I'm aware I was stating the obvious without you using that derogatory . . . whatever it is."
"So you'll go?"
"Where—? No," Tyler said, only confused for a moment.
"Oh come on, it'll be fun."
"I said no, Ryan. I'm not going so just drop it, okay?"
As ordered, Ryan stayed silent, but as Tyler picked up his briefcase and shifted Ethan to a more comfortable position, he saw the calculated look on his brother's face. Tyler resolutely ignored him. No matter what argument Ryan might come up with, Tyler had no intention of changing his mind.