Mina giggled. "You’re our new hero. We’re putting you on the passionless stamp."
Joey grinned. "I was gonna buy one of your pictures, but sheesh, my tips aren’t that good. I think I’ll have you sign a napkin instead."
Then everyone began talking at once.
"Your work is incredible!"
"Amazing! When did you start painting?"
"So cool! Where did you learn to do this?"
Elizabeth couldn’t answer any single question, but it didn’t matter. Their enthusiasm was exactly the balm she needed to calm her ragged nerves. For the first time in hours, she relaxed enough to be hopeful.
She even allowed herself to dream of success: A wonderful review in the Echo Location . . . a sellout of her work . . . a call from a bigger gallery in Portland or San Francisco . . .
"Elizabeth," Marge said impatiently, as if she’d said it more than once.
Marge came forward, holding a bouquet of roses. "These are for you."
"Oh, you didn’t have to do that."
Marge gave her a crooked grin. "I didn’t." She handed her the flowers.
The card read: We’re mad, but we still love you. Good luck. Jamie and Stephanie. P.S. We’re proud of you.
Proud of you. The words blurred before her eyes.
Anita moved closer. "I told them. I hope you don’t mind."
Elizabeth wanted to pull Anita into her arms, but she couldn’t seem to move. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to cry. "I don’t mind," she whispered harshly. "Thank you, Anita."
Her stepmother touched her arm, squeezed gently. "Everything is going to be fine."
Amazingly, with the flowers in her arms and her stepmother beside her, Elizabeth could almost believe it.
Marge began setting out the hors d’oeuvres. Tiny hot dogs wrapped in Kraft cheese strips. Then she plugged in the Crock-Pot. Within minutes, the small gallery smelled like teriyaki.
By ten o’clock, the streets were packed with tourists and locals. A band played oldies in the parking lot of the Windermere Realty office, and every store was crowded with shoppers. A barely-there rain had started to fall.
Out-of-towners bought ice cream cones and kites, sweatshirts and place mats and Christmas ornaments made of driftwood and dried seaweed. They bought wind chimes made of old spoons and photographs of Haystack Rock, and watercolor paintings of the shore.
What they didn’t buy was Elizabeth’s work.
It became more and more obvious as the day dragged on, as painful as a toothache. Marge stood at the cash register, kachinging up sales. The walls around Elizabeth’s work cleared out.
Joey was the first to leave. She said she needed to get to work–a big night at the Pig-in-a-Blanket–but Elizabeth had seen the pity in her new friend’s eyes. Joey couldn’t stand to watch the slow bloodletting.
Around two o’clock, Fran mentioned something about picking up her kids, and then she was gone. An hour later, Mina went to the market in search of more baby hot dogs, although there were plenty left. The only one who made no excuses was Anita; she sat on a stool in the corner, ostensibly knitting, but Elizabeth knew that her stepmother was really watching her, waiting for signs of meltdown.
Elizabeth stood against the wall, hugging herself so tightly she could barely breathe, standing so stiffly her joints ached. But her smile never faltered.
She’d been stupid to expect anything different. She admitted that tiny disappointment, then tucked it away. This wasn’t a mistake she’d make again, and there was no point gnawing over it. What was done was done.
And if she felt as fragile as a damp tissue, that too would pass. As long as she didn’t make any sudden moves, she’d get through the rest of this day. Then she’d make it through the night, and the next day, and so on. That was the way of things. Tonight she’d go home, box up her paintings, and try to forget she’d ever bothered.
The bell above the door tinkled. That had been a constant noise all day. She steeled herself to smile at someone else who wouldn’t want her work.
Daniel stood there, filling the doorway. Sunlight gilded his blond hair.
"How’s it going?" he asked, coming toward her.
"Not good. Actually, that’s an overstatement."
He walked past her, stood in front of her work. It was difficult to miss; every other wall was bare. Finally, he turned to look at her. "These are beautiful. You really have a remarkable talent."
"Oh, yeah. I know." She was an eyelash away from losing it. Before he could see how weakened she was, she rushed out of the store.
Outside, she could breathe.
He followed her out. "How about a latte?"
They strolled down the busy street together. At the ice cream shop, he bought two cones and two lattes. Then they went onto the Promenade and sat down on a cement bench. Out on the beach, a man was teaching a little boy to fly a kite.
Elizabeth stared at her cone as if the answer to world peace could be found in a scoop of chocolate chip mint.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," he said finally.
"I know." Her agreement sounded hollow, even to her own ears. She couldn’t help it. All her energies were bound up in maintaining. There was nothing left over for pretense. "It’s more of a free-form depression."
"Did you think it would be easy?"
"I thought something would sell."
He touched her cheek, gently forced her to look at him. "Does that matter so much?"
"No, but, aw, shit." The tears she’d been swallowing all day burst out.
Daniel took her in his arms. He stroked her hair and let her cry. Finally, she drew back, hiccuping, feeling like a fool. "I’m sorry. It’s just been an awful day."
"Don’t give up, Birdie. You have talent. I knew that the first time I saw you paint. I think maybe you’ve given up too easily before."
She realized suddenly that she was in his arms, that he was holding her tightly. She felt his breathing against her forehead. Slowly, she looked up.
He took her face in his hands, wiped the tears with his thumbs. "It took guts to show your work today. I know. There’s nothing worse than standing nak*d in public and saying, Here I am."
She stared at his mouth. All she heard was, "Naked?"
"You should be proud of yourself, Elizabeth. Anything else would be a crime." He leaned toward her.
She saw the kiss coming and braced for it. Her heart raced. Oh, God . . .
His lips pressed against hers, his tongue pushed gently inside her mouth. He tasted of coffee and mint. She slid her arms up around his neck and pulled him closer.
And . . . nothing. No Fourth of July, no fireworks.
When the kiss was over and he drew back, he was frowning. "No good, huh?" He tried to smile.
Elizabeth was surprised. "I guess I’m more married than I thought."
"Too bad." He stood up and pulled her to her feet beside him. Then he held on to her hand and led her across the street.
They cut through the crowd, threaded their way toward the shop.
Elizabeth realized a second too late where he was taking her. She gripped his hand tightly and tried to stop.
He pulled her forward, not stopping until they reached the open door.
"Come on, Daniel. It’s a death-by-hanging in there."
"Then put your neck in the noose; it’s what artists do." He smiled down at her. "I expect big things of you, Elizabeth Shore. Now, get in there where you belong."
She squared her shoulders and went back inside.
Marge smiled at her entrance, obviously relieved to see her. "I’m glad you came back."
"I didn’t want to." She forced the admission out. When she glanced at the door, she saw that Daniel was gone. "Chicken," she muttered.
"It’s always difficult on the artist. I should have warned you."
"Difficult?" Elizabeth said. "Difficult is making hollandaise sauce. This is a near-death experience."
Marge laughed, then immediately sobered. "I’m sorry. I know it’s not funny."
Elizabeth actually smiled. "I’m glad my humiliation is amusing. Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus later and you can really crack up."
"You’ll be okay, Elizabeth. Don’t you worry."
The bell above the door jangled.
"Oh, good," Elizabeth muttered. She forced a fake smile.
Kim walked into the gallery. She looked pale and skittery; her gaze darted nervously from side to side. She was dressed in black lambskin pants and a black cashmere turtleneck sweater. Surprisingly, a scarlet pashmina shawl hung draped over one shoulder.
"Welcome to Eclectica," Marge said.
Kim waved a hand dismissively and headed for the back wall. In front of Elizabeth’s work, she stopped.
"The artist is right there," Marge said loudly.
Elizabeth came out from the corner. "Hello, Kim. You missed the group."
Kim snapped open her purse, digging through it. "And I so wanted to spend more time with them." She cocked her head toward the wall. "Are these your paintings?"
Kim looked at them. For a split second, her gaze softened, and Elizabeth saw the longing in her eyes.
She knew how it felt, that longing. For years, she’d been locked inside herself, unable to imagine a way out. That was where Kim stood right now.
"I’ll take that one," Kim said, pointing to the seascape.
"Sorry, the store has a policy against mercy purchases."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as you and I knew would happen, I bombed today. The only thing less in demand than my paintings was the tofu-flavored ice cream. And Marge’s hors d’oeuvres."
"But what’s a mercy purchase?"
"That’s when a friend feels sorry for the artist and buys a piece. No thanks. But I really appreciate the gesture."
Kim looked at her. "You think we’re friends?"
"Of course we are," Elizabeth said quietly.
Kim smiled suddenly, and the change in her demeanor was remarkable. "Take that painting down and wrap it up. And don’t you dare call it a mercy purchase. I want to hang it in my living room. Every time I look at it, I’ll remember that it’s possible to start over. You’d sell that hope to a friend, wouldn’t you?"
It was a lovely gesture; there was no way for Kim to know that it only made her feel worse.
Elizabeth took the painting down from the wall and carried it to the register.
To Marge, she said, "The price on this was wrong. It’s–"
"No way," Kim said, barreling up beside her. "Shitheel left me loaded. Let me do this my way."
Elizabeth longed to feel good about this sale, but she couldn’t quite make it over the hump. The painting hadn’t sold because of its beauty. "Okay."
When Kim was finished paying for the piece, she turned to Elizabeth. "Will you be at the meeting this week?"
"Maybe we could meet for dinner afterward? If you have plans, I completely understand. I know it’s short notice."
"I’d love to."
Kim actually smiled again. "Great. I’ll see you there."
Elizabeth hung around for a while longer, watching tourists mill through the store. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore.
The last thing she saw as she left the gallery was the wall filled with her work.
Jack stood at his office window, staring out at the beautiful spring day.