Layers of paint cover my hands, and I fist my fingers, understanding that my face might be caked in color, as well. Great. I literally have an audience.
When Hunter reaches me, I ask my own question instead of answering his. “Who…” And I motion to…everyone else. Flustered as I am, “who” will work fine as a question.
“Echo…” A grin spreads across Hunter’s face. Dang. He’s definitely handsome. That is if I were into guys ten years older than me. “…this is everyone. Everyone, this is Echo.”
The greetings blow in like a storm gale. Most are hi’s and hellos along with a few what’s ups. All of them from friendly faces.
“Hi,” I shyly say back then whisper to Hunter, “Not what I meant.”
“I know. Some of them work for me, some study under me full-time and some are taking classes at various universities around the world and are spending the summer with me for credit hours. Summers can mean a full house.”
“And winters,” adds someone from the back.
“I was trying not to scare her,” Hunter responds. “Everyone go find something to do and stop staring at the new girl.”
Why couldn’t Noah see any of this? I pick up the paint brush and begin to clean it. “So I’m not the only person you chase after to paint?”
He laughs. “Actually, you are. Everyone else had to go through a rigorous application process. Paperwork, essays, major portfolio critiques. There are a limited number of spots in my program.”
I angle my back to him as I set the brush down. “Is there an open spot?”
“Not until next year.”
Dang it. Long internal sigh. Because I’m in theory a big girl, I confront him again. “So why allow me to do this?”
“Trial by fire,” he answers. “I wanted to see what you would create if I pushed you, and if you could handle the stress of doing it under pressure.”
His eyes turn deadly serious. “Because I expect a lot from my artists. My program is in top demand, and I want to see if you have talent I can work with. With that said, consider yourself special.”
Hunter inclines his head to my canvas and even I suck in a breath when I notice the horizon before me. I’ve returned to my Impressionist roots. Peace drifts into my soul. When I began painting again after the incident with my mother, I developed an abstract style, and I thought I lost my original love.
It’s nowhere near done. There are so many colors and shadows and problems to be fixed, but a part of me warms at the sight. It’s the sunset and field that belonged to me and Noah. It’s the eve of the night that we made love.
“You’ve got talent,” Hunter says.
A smile bursts onto my face. He said it. Hunter Gray said that I have talent. Wow. Just wow.
“But there’s a problem. A big one I’m not sure I can forgive.”
My entire being plummets to the point that I’m convinced I’ve been incinerated, and my ashes have been thrown to the ground. “I just started. I know it needs work.”
He owns the same hard expression my dad wears when he’s disappointed in me. I shrink from Hunter, reminding me of how I always shrank from my father.
“I asked for the Aires constellation. Not a sunset. Are you capable of doing what you’re told or are you only capable of painting one picture? Lots of artists can do that—paint or draw one solid image over and over again. I want more.”
“I have tons of paintings and drawings I can show you.”
He silences me with his hand, and I consider ripping it off. “I want the Aires constellation. That was our agreement. Are you doing it or not?”
My foot taps the floor. This summer I’ve craved to hear that I possess talent, to know that I have a shot at a career with my art and I’ve reached the goal. Hunter said that I have talent. While part of me considers telling him where to shove his silencing hand gestures, another part of me desires his approval. What forces my foot to move faster is that I don’t understand why.
“What do I get out of it?” I ask. It’s a bold question for me, and my palms grow cold and clammy.
Hunter snorts, but when I say nothing, he actually smirks. “You’re serious.”
Nervous adrenaline courses through me, and I have to swallow to keep air flowing through my windpipe. Noah has told me how Isaiah hustles people for favors or car parts and that the most important rule in making any deal is to have expectations on the table up front.
I’ve never hustled before, but I never thought I’d be the girl who made love to Noah Hutchins. There’s a first time for everything. “If I showed here with my paintings and drawings, I would have hoped that you’d offer to show something of mine in your gallery.”
A pause for his reaction. “Why can’t that be the same agreement here? You paint me Aires and if I like it, I’ll hang it in my gallery.”
“I’ll paint you Aires, but it won’t be finished before I go home. I’ll have to finish it in Kentucky then send it to you. Look at my paintings now, and if you like what you see, hang one of them in the meantime.”
“When do you leave?”
“In a few days.”
Hunter assesses the canvas before him. “If you paint this fast, you’ll be close enough to done before you go.”
I’m shaking my head before he finishes. “I can’t paint Aires that fast.”
“But I won’t.”
He doesn’t blink and neither do I.
“I’ve got plenty of people hoping for a shot and none of them are demanding a thing from me. Why should I do this for you?”
This will either work or I’m nailing my coffin shut. “You’re the one that said I was special, not me.”
Hunter laughs so loudly that people look up from their canvases. “Bring in your five best paintings and drawings tomorrow, but I want the Aires constellation on the next canvas. Got it?”
I clap like a small child at the circus. “Yes. You won’t regret it. I’ll get as much done as I can before I leave.”
Someone calls Hunter’s name, and he walks away, ending our conversation. My phone vibrates in my back pocket and the cup of joy inside me overflows with Noah’s text: On my way.
Me: I’ll be waiting.
Echo keeps the canvas angled toward her, and she swivels it from side to side as I fish the key card out of my wallet. She’s had a silly smile on her face the entire ride back from the gallery and while I’m not fond of Hunter, I miss seeing that type of light in her eyes.