Copyright © 2009 Geonn Cannon
Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at email@example.com
Note: Thanks to Stephanie Solomon-Lopez for giving me another opportunity to play in this invitational. Happy Valentine's Day! I hope you enjoy my story even if it's not quite a "happily-ever-after" romance. And my apologies to a certain English author. <g>
Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.
Or, Marin Ross amended, if not dead, then he was certainly out of touch with his muse. Marin twisted her lips in a moue of distaste and twisted her head in the hopes that the painting was better from that angle. Maybe it had been packed incorrectly, or... nope. No such luck. She sighed and stepped away from the painting. Stephen Marley had, inexplicably, lost his touch. His most current offering, a man walking down a windy street, had nothing to distinguish it. It was nice, but it looked like it would be more at home in a "Starving Artists" auction, for sale to housewives for fifty bucks.
"Roberta, come in here, please," she said. She stepped back, hands on her hips as she tried to think of a way to make the best of this new piece. Marin was tall and thin but, while no one would ever consider her voluptuous, she was certainly not severe. Her black hair was gathered in a loose ponytail that left strands hanging down over the open collar of her white blouse. White blouse, black slacks, the barest hint of make-up... everything about her was designed to force patrons to focus on the paintings rather than her.
Roberta Crane, Marin's assistant for the past three years, arrived heralded by the clicking of her high heels on the hardwood of Marin's office floor. Marin stepped to one side and gestured at the new painting. Roberta stopped at Marin's side and waited.
"This is by Stephen Marley," Marin said. "What do you think?"
She watched Roberta examine the painting. Roberta was young, just this side of twenty-four, but she had a great eye. Marin knew it was simply a matter of time before Roberta started rising the ranks and ran her own gallery. She selfishly hoped it was a long time; the girl was an irreplaceable right hand. Roberta squinted at the painting for a moment before she said, "Stephen Marley. The same one displayed out there?" She gestured over her shoulder at the gallery.
"The very same," Marin confirmed.
"He's really lost his touch."
Marin smiled. "I'll have to call and tell him there's no room at the gallery." She sighed and shook her head. "This is really disappointing. Hopefully it's just a slump."
"Hopefully," Roberta agreed.
She shook her head and moved toward her desk. "Thank you, Roberta." It was a dismissal, but the girl didn't move toward the door. Marin glanced up. "Was there something you needed?"
"Yeah, um... I know you have the Jana Drake showing tomorrow night. And I know I said I would be here for you, if you needed a hand. But, see, I didn't realize what the date would be. And I didn't think I would have a date. See, this guy asked me out a couple of weeks ago, and we're still together. So I think he's kind of hoping, I mean, I'm kind of hoping--"
"Is tomorrow your birthday?" Marin interrupted. She checked her calendar and said, "I could have sworn that was in September. I wrote it down last year."
"Oh! No. I mean, yes, my birthday is in September. But tomorrow is Valentine's Day."
Marin stopped flipping through the calendar pages. "Oh." She scratched her eyebrow and said, "Sure. Yeah, I guess I can handle things without you for one show." She closed her calendar and smiled. "So. New guy? How long has this been going on?"
Roberta shrugged, suddenly shy. "It's actually been a couple of months now. It started right after Thanksgiving."
"Wow. Been keeping secrets from me?"
"No, not like that. It's just, well... Nora had just... um..."
Marin forced a smile at the mention of her ex-girlfriend. "Ah. Protecting the boss. Good business sense. But unnecessary. I'm fine with Nora. We both decided it wasn't going anywhere, and breaking up was a mutual decision. You shouldn't have been walking on eggshells. Go, take all of tomorrow off. Enjoy Valentine's Day."
Roberta's smile widened. "Thank you, Miss Ross. Is there anything I can do before I leave today to make tomorrow easier?"
"Yes. Call up the caterers and make sure everything is set. Also, if you could call the airport tomorrow to make sure Jana Drake's plane is on time, that would be great. If it doesn't cut into your date."
Roberta was marking it down on the little PDA she always carried, shaking her head. "Not at all. Her plane is due in at seven; I'll call the airport and let you know."
"Thank you. Have a happy Valentine's, Roberta. What's your boyfriend's name?"
Marin's eyes widened. "Not Luke the delivery guy from down the street."
Roberta laughed and shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for hot guys who bring me food."
Marin shook her head. "No accounting for taste. Would it help if I let you leave early tonight?"
"Actually yes. But I don't want to leave you in the lurch."
Marin waved her off. "I'm going to be spending the rest of the afternoon coddling an artist whose work has been steadily going downhill for the past year. I'll be fine. You can go at three."
Roberta grinned and said, "Thank you, Miss Ross."
"I just want you out of here so your cheery, Valentine's Day attitude doesn't spread. Get out before you start infecting others."
"Right. Yes, ma'am." Roberta offered a mock salute, turned on her heel, and left the office, shutting the door behind her.
Marin chuckled and shook her head. Scheduling a gallery opening on Valentine's Day; she should have known better. But the truth was, since Nora, holidays had kind of taken a backseat in her mind. New Years, Christmas... they were just regular old days. She missed Nora, missed having someone to go home to, but she was fine with being alone for a little while.
She pushed her dark hair out of her eyes, dropped into her chair and reached for her phone book just as her intercom buzzed. "Miss Ross, I have Stephen Marley on Line One."
Marin smiled and made a note on her blotter to give Roberta a raise. She picked up the phone, leaned back and said, "Marley. Yeah, I got the new painting. In fact, that's why I'm calling..."
Marin locked the gallery when she left at seven, taking a moment to admire the paintings through the glass. Each had a small, dim spotlight aimed at the wall underneath it. She turned away from the warm, inviting gallery and faced the dark, gloomy street. It was drizzling, the icy drops pecking at her like tiny needles. She pushed her hood up over her dark hair, pressed her chin into the warmth of her scarf, and headed down the street.
She only lived a few blocks away from the gallery, but she was seriously considering a cab by the time she reached the first corner. She paused, arms wrapped around herself, and searched up and down the street. She saw a handful of cars, but none of them the beautiful yellow and black checkerboard of a cab. Resigned to walking, she quickened her pace. Every store she passed was decked out in papier-mâché hearts and pink-and-white bunting. Signs advertised flowers, single or bouquet, and boxes of chocolate.
"Bah, humbug," she grunted as she swept past without a second look.
She stopped at a Chinese restaurant down the street from her apartment as an excuse to briefly get out of the cold. By the time the waiter returned with the small to-go bag, Marin was thawed enough to brave the rest of her walk. The lobby of her building was freezing cold, her breath pluming out in front of her as she climbed the stairs. As she unlocked her apartment, she heard the door in the lobby slam open. The door hit the wall, and she jumped, turning to peer down the stairs to see who the inconsiderate jerk was. The wind howled through the open door and, after a moment, she started back down the stairs. "Hello?"
The lobby was empty. Marin sighed, resigned to the fact she must not have latched the door, and started to push the door shut. As she did, she glanced at the large baroque knocker in the middle of the frame. The knocker had been added to make the building look rustic, but the truth was it always creeped her out. It was supposed to be abstract but, in the dim light, it looked kind of like a face. Nora's face.
Marin shook her head and pushed the door shut. She twisted the knob to make sure it latched and headed back upstairs. If she turned on the news, she was sure the anchor would look like Nora's long-lost sister. Roberta put Valentine's Day in her mind, so it was trying to convince her to do something very, very ill-advised. She was determined to ignore it.
She finished unlocking her door, slipped into the apartment, and turned on the lights. Everything was exactly as she'd left it when she left in the morning. She dropped her keys on the table by the door, shrugged out of her coat, and went into the kitchen to prepare her dinner.
Marin hummed as she transferred the rice and chicken onto a plate. Her friends sometimes gave her the pity look when they asked if she had found someone new (the answer always, "Nope, not yet"), and they liked to force her along with them to movies, dinner parties, whatever, so she wouldn't have to show up alone. It was as if being single was some kind of disease. Her apartment was how she liked it, she picked up Chinese for dinner because she wanted Chinese for dinner, and she was going to eat in front of the TV because she didn't give a damn about proper etiquette.
She kicked off her shoes as she dropped onto the couch. She put her feet up on the coffee table and put it on a TV show she enjoyed. No debate about what was on other channels, no griping about feet on the table. Just because it was February fourteenth, why did that mean she had to feel bad about enjoying her privacy? She liked herself. She had good inner thoughts (sometimes). If she did run out and find someone, she would only regret it on Sunday morning.
Marin popped a piece of chicken into her mouth and chewed slowly. She wasn't going to give this up just because some arbitrary Hallmark holiday said it was wrong to be alone. Let everyone else waste their time and money forcing relationships that didn't work. She was perfectly happy with the way things were. She wiggled her socks as if to prove her point. She turned the TV to The Rachel Maddow Show and, after a few minutes, decided the anchor looked absolutely nothing like Nora.
She was kind of cute, though.
Marin rolled onto her back, pushed her hair out of her face, and waited. Her bedroom was dark, although dyed pale blue by the moon. The apartment was freezing. She gathered the blankets around herself and blinked at the ceiling as she tried to determine what had woken her up. She was about to chide herself for being a fearful, single woman living in a large city when she heard the sound again. Something clanked. She frowned, pushed the blankets aside, and eased her feet onto the hardwood floor.
What would make a sound like that? She pushed open the closet door and picked up her hockey stick. A clank, a clatter. She was wearing only her Oxford blue nightshirt, buttoned twice at mid-chest. The shirt gaped to reveal her tank top, the tail hanging down just low enough to reveal the legs of her boxer shorts. I'll distract the robber with my half-naked body, and then brain the asshole with my hockey stick. She smiled as she stealthily moved into the hallway. The sound came again, another clank-click, and there was a sudden connection in her mind.
Marley visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, to teach him the true meaning of the holiday. What if it wasn't just the Christmas spirit that ghosts protected? What if there were ghosts for every holiday? Even the inane, ridiculous ones? I am the Ghost of Arbor Day Past. Do you remember this tree...?
That thought made her wonder if she was just suffering from being woken so suddenly and her dream brain was still in charge. She shook off the little kid fears and stepped into the dining room. The fridge door was open and someone was bent down peering into the yellow glow that, in the dark apartment, seemed as bright as the sun. Marin felt her heart skip, stutter and then start back up in double-time. She raised the hockey stick over her head and tried to sound a few feet taller and a few hundred pounds heavier. "Hold it right there!"
The clinking clatter came again, but this time something crashed to the floor. The silhouette spun around to face her, hands up in surrender. "Whoa! Don't swing, Marin!"
Marin froze, lowered the stick, and her shoulders sagged. She reached out and switched on the light, rolling her eyes when her suspicions were confirmed. "Nora? What the hell are you doing here in the middle of the night?"
"Spilling beer all over your floor, apparently," Nora said. Her curly brown hair was cut short again, and her eyes were the same melted chocolate they had always been. Marin tossed the stick against the kitchen island and planted both hands on her hips. She was determined not to be drawn in by happy memories of staring into those eyes.
Nora was still worried about the beer on the floor and started searching the counter. "Where are the paper towels? Did you rearrange things in here again?"
"Yes. It's my apartment," Marin said. She walked into the kitchen and took the paper towels off the stove. She thrust them out to Nora and then retrieved the broom and dustpan for the broken glass. "Speaking of which... what are you doing in my apartment in the middle of the night?" She couldn't help but notice Nora was wearing a pair of tight jeans and a loose black shirt with a collar wide enough to reveal her bra straps. She looked good. Really good.
"I was thinking about tomorrow. You know. Valentine's Day. And how much it really sucks to be alone."
"Oh, for God's sake..."
"It doesn't have to be a, you know, full-fledged thing. We could just go out, see a movie or have some dinner. Just enjoy being with another person for a day. No strings attached."
Marin looked at the microwave clock. "And since you're here at three in the morning, I assume you wanted to get things underway with a little sex?"
Nora leaned against the counter and raised her eyebrows. "Well, we were always pretty good at it."
"Nora, go home. And leave your key on the table by the door."
"But... Valentine's Day."
Marin sighed. "It's just a day, Nora. It's not an excuse to go insane about relationships. If you want to freak about where your life is going, save it for New Year's Eve. At least that date stands for something."
"Come on, Marin. Ignore me coming here in the middle of the night, because, yeah, I wanted to be with you. If you don't want that, fine. We can have lunch tomorrow. Or something. I mean, maybe you're okay with being alone, but I'm... I'm really not."
Marin finished sweeping up the broken bottle and dumped the glass shards into the trash. She leaned the broom next to the hockey stick and rubbed her forehead. Nora wasn't a bad person, and they parted on amicable terms. And the truth was that Nora really wasn't good at being alone. She never had been. If they were going to stay friends, as they both promised when they ended things, spending time with her was the least Marin could do. "All right. I'm basically awake for a little while anyway. Why don't we see if there's something on TV."
Nora's smile returned. "Great. Um... did any of those beers survive?"
"I've got some cold ones in the fridge. I'll bring them in."
"Okay." Nora went past Marin to the living room. Once she was out of earshot, Marin shook her head and muttered, "Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits. The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." She kicked the refrigerator door shut and prayed that Dana Lee Lyons from Ohio wasn't going to drop in anytime soon. That bitch was crazy.
Marin buttoned her shirt all the way, but decided that boxer shorts were enough cover. It was either far too late or far too early to put on a pair of pants. Besides, she lacked the energy to go all the way back to her bedroom for jeans. She dropped into the corner of the couch, put her feet up on the coffee table, and handed Nora a bottle. Nora thanked her as she scanned the channels. "There's a lot of infomercials. And a whole hell of a lot of entertainment news shows. Access Edition Tonight."
"How else will night owls find out what Brangelina are up to?"
They finally settled on an old movie showing on PBS, and Nora dropped the remote onto the couch between them. She glanced around the dark living room. "So you changed a lot of things around, huh?"
"Not really. Just a few things here and there." She took a drink and said, "So I guess you're not seeing anyone."
Nora shook her head. "There was someone in January, but I think we were both a little underwhelmed with each other when all was said and done. I think she just wanted someone to kiss on New Years."
"You can be alone in September, and no one bats an eye. You can be single on Halloween, no big deal. But damn, once Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years start rolling around, you better start pairing up."
"Damned Hallmark holidays. Trying to make single people feel less important than couples. We need a Not Dating and Fucking Happy About It Day."
"Hear, hear," Nora said. She lifted her beer bottle and tapped the neck against Marin's. "Or an official Dump Day. 'Sorry, honey, it's not going anywhere. Have a happy Dump Day.'"
Marin laughed. "There's something I could get behind decorating for."
"Same here," Nora said. She took a swig of her drink, swished it around in her mouth for a moment, and said, "Do you want to go fuck?"
"No," Marin said.
Nora grinned. "Sorry. Had to ask."
Nora watched the 1970s actors move across a blatantly wooden set shouting lines at each other for a long moment before she turned to look at Marin in the TV's glow. "You and I were really bad together, weren't we?"
"We argued constantly. You don't give a shit about art, and I don't know the first thing about cellos."
"Well. You knew the first thing about cellos."
Marin had to laugh. The first time they met, a friend had introduced Nora as a cellist. Marin, without missing a beat, raised an eyebrow and said, "So you make a living by wrapping your legs around something and making beautiful music?"
They exchanged numbers and Marin called two days later. They went out, spent the night together at Nora's apartment, and the rest was history. Literally, in the past. Marin refused to think to the great nights spend in Nora's huge feather bed, the eiderdown comforter wrapping around her like a cloud. And the sex? Every extreme imaginable, from wild, wanton fucking against the wall to slow, gentle lovemaking in bed.
Marin pushed her hair out of her face and focused on the television. She wouldn't let herself get hypnotized by the good memories. There were also the fights, the petty arguments that Nora would start just to get the thrill of beating someone. There were chilly silences where Marin had to walk on eggshells, rewinding back hours or days trying to remember what she had done to cause Nora's ire.
There was Nora's dismissive attitude toward the art world - "This finger-painting costs two thousand bucks? How do you sleep at night, Mare?" - and her generally inconsiderate behavior when it came to practicing. A countless number of Marin's business calls had been forced into the hallway because Nora decided she needed to practice right then and there.
And her neatnik attitude toward the apartment. Coasters were a must, shoes belonged in the closet, and if the laundry wasn't ironed and hung immediately, they might as well just start the load over again.
Marin felt the old anger returning and, as a tiny rebellion, planting her bare feet on the coffee table. She crossed them at the ankles and rested her fist against her forehead. She dared Nora to say anything. Just try it. Nora looked at Marin's feet and then looked at the TV, obviously biting back her criticism.
"Have you ever been alone on Valentine's Day before?"
"Yeah, of course," Marin said. "Everyone has. I didn't start dating until I was seventeen, so there were the sixteen years before that..."
Nora scoffed. "I mean since you started dating."
"Of course. It's a fact of dating."
Nora nodded and looked down at her beer. "Who was your first girlfriend?"
Marin chuckled. "Mary Jo Mahoney."
"God," Nora laughed. "Where did you grow up, Hooterville?"
"Shut up," Marin said. She took a sip from her beer and said, "She was a friend in high school. Around prom, she started freaking out and acting nervous around me. Finally, I asked her what was up, and she said she was trying to work up the courage to ask me to the dance. I told her I liked her, too, and we went. We nearly got kicked out of school for it, of course, but it was worth it." She smiled and looked at the ceiling. "Wow. Mary Jo. I haven't thought of her in years."
"Why did you two break up?"
"College. She went to someplace in the southwest, I went to New York. Long distance relationships really suck, and we both knew it. Plus, it was college. Neither of us wanted to be tied down to a permanent someone."
Nora shifted on the couch and stretched. Marin looked at the clock and said, "You know, if you want to find someone to wake up with on Valentine's Day, you should probably get going soon."
"Nah," Nora said. "I didn't want to wake up with just anyone. I wanted to wake up with you."
Marin smiled sadly. "I'm sorry, Nora. It's probably not the worst idea in the world, but it's not one of the best, either."
"Yeah. I guess I'm just having a hard time letting go."
"You'll get there," Marin promised. "You're a good person, Nora. You deserve happiness."
Nora slid to the edge of the couch and said, "And you deserve sleep. I'm going to get out of your hair."
Marin looked pointedly at the beer. "You're not driving, are you?"
"I'll catch a cab. If you change your mind, I'm just a cell phone call away."
Nora leaned in and kissed Marin's cheek, then moved to kiss her lips. Marin allowed the kiss for a moment, then pulled back. "Nora..."
"Sorry. I thought maybe if you got swept up in..." She sighed and shook her head. "Sorry." She looked down and said, "It's your own damn fault for teasing me with those legs of yours. Temptress."
Marin pulled a pillow off the couch and carried it in front of her as she walked Nora to the door. "Look at the bright side," Marin said. "I'm not kicking you out. I'm saving us both the drama of realizing a horrible mistake in the morning, and the mental stress of having to break up again on Monday."
"You're a saint, Marin."
"I try. Be safe out there."
Nora waved over her shoulder and started down the stairs. "Make sure you latch the front door securely," Marin said. "The wind tends to catch it." She waited until Nora was out of sight before she closed her apartment door and muttered, "Wouldn't want any other ghosts getting in." She looked around the dark apartment, shook the nightmares out of her head, and went back into the living room. She turned off the TV, took the beers into the kitchen and left them in the sink, then returned to bed.
She unbuttoned her night shirt and dropped onto the blankets, exhausted either by her busy day, or her schoolgirl ghost stories, or her conversation with Nora, and pulled one of her pillows over her face. She rolled onto her side and fell asleep thinking of Christmas carols, ghosts of girlfriends past, and humbugs.
Marin woke the next morning to the sound of bells. She had spent the night twisting and turning in her bedclothes, dreaming of women she had dated and dumped, or been dumped by. For a moment, her mind went back to A Christmas Carol, the coincidental connections she was feeling between herself and a certain miser, and she thought maybe the bells were church bells, signaling Christmas.
A half instant after waking, however, when her brain began to work again, she realized the sound was her cell phone. She freed her legs from the blankets, tugged her shirt closed around her chest, and snatched the phone off the night stand. She didn't check the Caller ID and breathlessly said, "Marin Ross."
"Ms. Ross." It was Roberta Crane. "I wanted to let you know Jana Drake's plane arrived on time - a little early, in fact - and she took a cab to the airport. She asked me to let you know she's looking forward to the showing tonight."
"The show. Right." She scratched between her eyebrows and closed her eyes. "Uh. Thank you. Thanks, Roberta. You're calling the..." She shook her head. "No, I'll call the caterers. You enjoy your day."
"It's no trouble. It'll only take--"
"No, it's Valentine's Day. You've already done enough. Take the rest of the day for yourself. Treat yourself."
"Thanks, Ms. Ross. We may drop by the gallery during the show just to fill up the room."
"And to taste some of that pâté I made you order." She smiled. "I would love to see you there. Say hello to Jake for me."
"Whatever. I'll see you tonight or Monday."
Roberta gave her the number of Jana Drake's hotel room, and they said good-bye. Marin closed her phone, dropped it on the bed, and walked to the window. She clutched the two halves of her nightshirt in front of her as she pushed the curtains aside and looked down into the street. A kid wearing a Chicago Bulls windbreaker was hurrying down the street, knit cap pulled low over his brow.
For a moment, she thought of throwing open the window and shouting down, "Hallo! What is today, my fine fellow?" And the kid would look up in confusion and, in a cockney accent, would reply, "Today? Why it's Valentine's Day, o' course!"
Or, more likely, he would tell her to fuck off without breaking stride. She wasn't even sure the window could open. She examined the frame to see if it had been painted shut, but decided she didn't want to know. She let the curtains fall back into place, shed her night shirt, and headed for the bathroom to take a shower.
Marin took a glass from a passing waiter and took a moment to examine her gallery. A host of well-dressed, well-off patrons wandered from one wall to the next, heads tilted slightly to examine the nuances of the work. She saw, to her delight, that quite a few paintings had red "sold" stickers on the wall next to them. So far, so good, and the party was still not quite half over. She was going to make a killing.
She became aware of someone standing behind her just as the woman said, "Looks like it will be another Valentine's Day massacre."
Marin smirked and looked over her shoulder. Jana Drake, the star of the show, was standing with a half-empty glass of champagne in her hand. She wore her blonde hair extremely short, lacquered like a helmet this evening. Her dark velvet dress hung from slender, pale shoulders and hugged her willowy frame like a curtain. Her lips curled up with an insouciant smile. "All these red dots," she said, gesturing at the paintings.
"Ah, yes," Marin said. "You read my mind. I just hope you don't mind being away from home on Valentine's Day."
"Mm, of course not," Jana said. "I have a whole new town to explore. The possibilities are endless." Her blue eyes, wide and pinched at the edges like an Egyptian princess, widened slightly as she backed away. "Enjoy the rest of the show, Ms. Ross."
"And you, Ms. Drake."
Alone again, Marin weaved through the crowd and listened to their responses. They seemed to adore Jana's seascapes, while several people seemed partial to the rain pictures. Rain on streets, rain through the windshield of a car, and rain on the ocean. Marin stopped in front of this last one, scanning the various shades of blue that made up the image. It wasn't so much a depiction of a storm as it was a series of colors and shapes that brought to mind a sea storm. The clouds seemed to have real weight, while the water seemed to threaten to spill from the confines of the canvas.
"I keep coming back to this one."
Marin turned and saw a redheaded woman in a bright blue dress standing a few feet behind her. The woman nodded shyly at the sea storm. "I'm not quite sure what it is. The power, maybe. Or the sense of being completely lost. No land in sight, no boat, nothing. Just nature and its fury between you and oblivion. But... regardless of all that, I think it's peaceful." She smiled and ducked her chin. She held up her empty wine glass. "Or maybe I've just had too much to drink."
"No," Marin said. She looked back at the painting and nodded. "There's a peace here. Letting go. Letting life take care of itself for a while. There's nothing you can do, no way to free yourself from the waves, so just sit back and let it work itself out."
"Wow. Yeah. Yes. That's it." She stared at the painting for another moment before she blinked, took a deep breath, and focused on Marin. "I'm sorry. I'm being rude. Lynette Avery. People just call me Avery."
Avery's right eyebrow arched. "Ross. As in...?" She nodded at the front of the gallery.
"Yes, that's right."
"Wow. I never would have offered my half-assed art theory if I had known it was you."
Marin chuckled and shook her head. "No, you were spot-on. Do you have any theories about the other paintings in the collection?"
Avery waved her off. "Oh, God, no. No, I'd be too self-conscious telling you anything."
"You seem to know what you're talking about. Plus it would save me from having to talk to any of these bores if I'm already with you. Come on." She moved to the next painting, forcing a reluctant Avery to come with her. The wide canvas was filled with a field of golden wheat, a heavy royal blue sky of clouds weighing down on it like an anvil. In the center of the field, a tiny red farmhouse stood alone against the weather. "What do you think of this one?"
Avery hesitated, examined the painting for a bit, and then began to speak.
Marin and Avery made the rounds in this way, usually agreeing but sometimes taking a few moments to argue meaning, style and artistic intent. Avery became more and more comfortable airing her thoughts in front of Marin, and Marin took no prisoners in shooting down ideas she found spurious. By the time they reached the final Drake painting, they had gone through three glasses of wine and half the crowd had thinned out.
Marin looked at her watch and said, "I am so sorry. I've taken up your entire evening."
"No," Avery said. "I enjoyed it. Really. I was just kind of wandering from one painting to the next by myself, so I appreciated the company. And the arguments."
"Still, your date must be rather perturbed that you've been MIA."
"Probably, if I'd brought one. I know, how lame can I get, going to a gallery opening on Valentine's Day without a date."
Marin reached out and touched Avery's arm. "It's not lame in the slightest. Not at all. People walk around on this day acting like being single is a disease. My God. I'm relieved to have met at least one sane person today."
"Thank you," Avery said. "I had to tell all my friends that no, it's all right if they go to a romantic restaurant or want to stay in tonight. I don't mind. Enjoy yourselves. Don't worry about me."
"Exactly," Marin said. She looked at the thinning crowd, chewed her lip, and finally decided to break her rule. "Listen, I said I wouldn't pick anyone up or go on a date with someone just because it was Valentine's Day. But I don't think that applies if you meet someone you actually like. I mean, if you miss an opportunity because it's Valentine's Day, well, that's just as bad as if you slept with an ex-girlfriend just so you wouldn't be alone. You know?"
"I suppose. Yeah, that makes sense."
Marin finished her champagne. "Would you like to have dinner with me when this thing wraps up? It'll probably be pretty late, and you probably wouldn't get home until midnight, but--"
"Are you kidding? I'm starving. These little pâté things are hardly filling. Um... no offense, if you're the one who ordered them..."
Marin laughed. "No offense taken. I have to go grease the big spenders for a while, but... will you stick around? I'll come find you when things start winding down, and we can head out for that dinner."
"That would be fantastic. Yeah, I'll stick around."
"Perfect. I'll see you in a few minutes."
Marin turned and walked away, turning to look over her shoulder after a few steps. Avery was watching her and quickly averted her gaze when she was caught staring. Marin's smile widened and she bit her bottom lip. She was reminded of her late night Christmas Carol musings and laughed quietly. She had been visited by Nora, a Ghost of Girlfriend Present, who reminded her of a Ghost of Girlfriend Past. Now, at the gallery, could she have just met the Ghost of Girlfriend Future?
It was a definite possibility. Avery was a smart, like-minded, beautiful woman who had just happened to wander into her gallery on this, the most accursed and romantic days of the year, and they both just happened to be single? Maybe there was such a thing as a Valentine's Day miracle, after all.
Marin shook her head, chuckled, and muttered, "God bless us, every one."
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