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Other Colors - Ch. 4-5

A D/s romance set in Montreal.
Part 1—Red (continued)

Chapter 4

Two times when I first got there. Five when I pricked my finger. Once at Marie. Silently, I summed my curses from the previous evening. Is that all?

It was difficult to remember. Like a lucid dream, the odor of incense from the censer always dropped me into a kind of drowsy trance. Well, for those, at least, I’m sorry. As penance I chose nine Hail Marys, and vowed to give Marie’s bathroom a long overdue scrubbing. The shower and sink were on the verge of becoming public health concerns. Dirty job for a dirty mouth, I smirked, recalling my Mother’s homegrown Catholic justice.

I was not a good Catholic girl. I’d only gone to confession twice; once before my first communion, and again when I was thirteen. I didn’t care for it—though confessing itself didn’t bother me, the expiations seemed too generic, too poorly measured to the crime. You lied about eating the last cookie? Two Hail Marys and an Our Father. You committed fornication? Two Our Fathers, ten Hail Marys. Had the priest’s punishments for me been more like a contrapasso out of Dante, I might have felt a bit differently—at least then I’d have known he was listening; that somehow the rules really mattered. Instead, for the past ten years I’d taken to enumerating my sins silently during the duller stretches of mass, which I suppose in itself was probably some sort of blasphemy.

Back home I hardly ever went to church. I liked the icons, and the stained glass, but all the rest I felt was best left to the overzealous, the guilt-ridden, and the desperate. It wasn’t until I moved north—when I became a stranger in a cold country, where I didn’t speak the language—that I found some comfort in the familiarity of the sacraments. Everything else in my life could be set adrift—and it usually was—but at mass, at least, I knew exactly what to do: when to stand, when to kneel; when to open my mouth and receive the Host.

I still only made it on Sunday about once a month, and today I’d slept in and missed the English service, so I was only catching about every other phrase. Normally, I just rolled out of bed and stumbled sleepily to the parish down the street from Marie’s place. But this morning I was all the way down at the edge of the St. Lawrence River, sitting tremulously in the infamous chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. I was by a wide margin the most under-dressed congregant—I tried to hunch low in the pew, and go unnoticed. The lector began an Epistle reading from Hebrews, and I listened, puzzling out the gist of it.

Do not take lightly your Lord’s discipline, nor (despair?) when you are punished by Him; for He disciplines the one He loves, and when He (whips you?), you prove that you belong to Him—

I lost track, wrinkling my brow. I never much cared for Saint Paul, and for the first Sunday of Advent, they certainly didn’t seem to be slathering on the Christmas cheer. Sighing, I picked her words up again near the end.

Discipline is painful. But later (it yields?) grace to those who are trained by Him. If they serve Him obediently, they’ll end their days in (prosperity? Good health, maybe?), and all their years in bliss.

God bless us, everyone, I smirked. But the Gospel reading had more of the spirit of the season about it—all stars and angels; immaculate conceptions and virgin births. The lector finished up, and slammed shut her enormous bible.

“Le Seigneur soit avec vous,” canted the priest, reclaiming the pulpit.

The congregation answered obediently, “Et avec votre esprit.”

He launched into his homily, and I let myself zone out for a while, gazing absently around the chapel.

Though I’d painted it a full seven times, I’d never actually been inside before. They charged an admission fee if you weren’t staying for the service. The vault was all trompe-l’œil, colored pink, turquoise, gray and gold; and interspersed with scenes from the life of the Virgin in a coppertone grisaille. From the ceiling hung a dozen or so votive boats, given—as the old woman who handed me my program told me—by sailors seeking Mary’s help for an ocean crossing. Near the altar stood what was undoubtedly the oldest artwork in the room—a wooden Pietà, carved in the medieval style of continental Europe. No telling how it wound up here, I thought. Just like me

The entire apse was painted with a deft replica of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception of Soult, and suddenly I was very glad that Mr. Caine hadn’t tasked me with capturing the chapel’s interior. The outside, thankfully, was a lot less ornate. But both inside and out, symbols of la Vierge Marie were everywhere. Straining my neck to better see the ceiling, where the Annunciation was underway, I thought about my own Marie, still asleep back at the apartment.

She never made it to the gallery. After Peter walked me to the station, I rode the Metro back alone; just me and my watercolors. I stuffed them away at the back of the coat closet as soon as I got in, and waited for her at the kitchen counter so I could start snarling the moment she walked through the door. As usual though, her absence outlasted the real brunt of my ire. By the time she arrived, my indignation at getting stood up again, and my fury with her for taking my paintings without telling me had all but subsided, and once again I was just glad to see her back safe.

And her apologies were honest and effusive—evidently, some of her theatre friends had swept her off to the closing night of Anouilh’s Becket somewhere not too far away on St. Catherine Street. The director was going to need a dancer in his next production. It sounded like they hit it off.

She told me what un homme extraordinaire “Renault” was; what an auteur, and a visionary. I listened patiently—she really was a splendid creature to behold, especially just after she fell in love. No doubt Renault was already among the poor wretches that would lay down his life and honor for another night with her. Marie’s romances were like a chivalric epic. I couldn’t help but feel happy for her.

She didn’t ask about Claude the Curator—who, apparently, was now a relic to her—but when she at last talked herself out, she did ask with a sly smile how I’d liked my surprise.

Her face sank when I stumbled on my answer. Over a shared carton of vanilla yogurt, I explained, in part, what had transpired—that I wasn’t ready, that I didn’t think the watercolors were good enough for exhibition; that I’d decided to take them home with me. I left out the part about the miserably gorgeous man who actually bought them, and the bizarre arrangement we had made. She would have had a field day with that.

She apologized again, though I could tell she didn’t quite understand. I asked about the titles she’d given my paintings—she shrugged,

“C'était une église rouge,” she said. “And besides, people go wild for the angsty fille catholique thing, no? Look at Lady Gaga. Et Madonna.”

I had to laugh.

It was impossible for me to hold a grudge against her—there wasn’t a malicious bone in her body. In fact, having seen her perform, I wasn’t sure she had any bones at all; more likely she was supported by a system of pneumatic hoses, all filled up with breezy flights of fancy. Another reason men can’t get enough of her, I smirked. She was just trying to do something for me I couldn’t have done for myself. I thanked her for the gesture, just as Peter had instructed.

And of course she asked about Peter. When I said that I was tired, and that we’d talk about it in the morning, she got out her phone and started dialing his number. Marie didn’t make a lot of compromises. Under duress, I told her the harrowing and humiliating story of him rescuing me from the spiky obelisk—at which she giggled shamelessly—and that he’d been dear, and fun, and had shown me a really nice time. And that he’d invited me to his studio.

She smiled, and eyed me skeptically. I think she knew I wasn’t telling her everything. But it was very late, and so we finished up our after-midnight meal, and went to bed.

The priest was wrapping up his homily. I squirmed stiffly in the pew. Sleeping on a sofa for two months was beginning to take its toll on my shoulders and my backside; especially when I had to sit still for any length of time. Much as I loved Marie and all her nuttiness, I really couldn’t stay with her much longer—and definitely not after the New Year. It was time for me to move on.

I knelt for the Eucharistic prayer.

2,500 dollars. Well, that would certainly help get me started. There were so many details to figure out, but just the vague idea of being on my own—of a new beginning—was exhilarating. I got a little dizzy just thinking about it. Or maybe that’s the incense again. Either way, not being completely broke, if only for a couple weeks, promised to finally give me a chance to get my shit together. The marble eyes of St. Anne reproached me from the southern nave. I dropped my eyes back to the floor. Two more Hail Marys.

I stood with the rest of pew and started shuffling toward the altar.

At least for the time being, what I really needed to concentrate on was the painting. I had no clue how I’d manage to finish it in a single week—two by three and half meters, as it turned out, was a full six and a half by eleven feet.

So big, I thought. Where would he even put it?

Where I would put it was the real question. There was absolutely no way that I could paint such a monstrous canvas in Marie’s tiny living room, let alone get it out the door. The more I considered it, the more impossible the project seemed.

I was shaking a little as we passed the front pew. What if he doesn’t like it? I stumbled slightly on the crimson runner. What if he never wanted it in the first place? Maybe this whole thing’s just his cruel and elaborate joke… I knitted my brow. It really didn’t make much sense. Why would Mr. Caine want me—a nobody—to paint him a huge, red picture of this chapel? Especially, I frowned, when he has friends like Emily Brennan. I recalled uncomfortably the sight of them walking away together, arm-in-arm. I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to meet her. I was so envious; I didn’t think I could look her in the eyes.

The whole situation was perplexing, but no part more so than Mr. Caine himself. He’d been so peremptory with me; I’m not sure I had a legitimate choice during our entire conversation. Standing beneath him, I felt like I was about as tall as thimble—even after he plucked me off the floor.

We reached the base of the altar, and I knelt down, just as I’d been kneeling when we met. I laced my fingers, and on the tip of the middle one I spied the small, pink dot where the wire pierced my skin. He did help me, I thought. No one else tried. No one else even seemed to notice.

I parted my lips, and the priest placed a pale wafer on my tongue. Next came the wine, trickling warmly down the back of my throat. I tried to be sacred; to focus on the blood, and the body, and the mystery of transubstantiation. But as I swallowed, all I could think of was Dmitri Caine—of his lips on my hand, his hand on my scarred, bare shoulder. His voice. His eyes. Like frost...

I left the chapel as soon as the final blessing was finished. The elements of the Eucharist had awakened my stomach, and I spent the last ten minutes of the service fantasizing about a gargantuan Lowcountry breakfast. Tossing a scarf around my neck, I darted up the street to the corner café, ravenous and shivering.

Inside I stomped the snow from my boots, and took a seat beside a window with a clear view of the steeple, and the chapel’s west door. I’d lucked out—it was a glorious day for sketching; with clear sunlight bouncing off the fresh snow, plastering all kinds of crisp, dramatic shadows across the building’s nooks and crannies.

With a twinge of longing for the less pretentious chocolate chip pancakes of my hometown diner, I ordered the pâte à crêpes au chocolat with hot cocoa, and fresh fruit. You know, to be healthy, I chided myself sarcastically. Whatever—all I ate last night was yogurt. The waitress, frowning first at my sketchbook, then at the way I said ‘krapes’ instead of ‘crêpes’, scribbled down the order without a word. I recognized her from my previous visits—she was a svelte, haunting girl with sexy ringlet tresses, and the narrowest wrists I’d ever seen. Judging by the way she rolled her eyes, I think she recognized me too. I sighed.

I hated bothering people. To avoid annoying her, I think I would have tried my sketches en plein air if I wasn’t certain my fingers would freeze and snap off within the first ten minutes. This was really my only option. You need to leave a good a tip, I thought, mentally tallying my meager assets.

I arranged my charcoal beside the silverware. No watercolors today—I needed to nail down the bare lines of the building; the sweep of the steeple and windows, the slant of its Norman roof. In a lot of ways it was an odd little structure—there was a lot more to it than there first appeared.

I’d just started drawing when the waitress brought out my cocoa, mounded high with fresh whipped cream. I scooted the porcelain mug to the edge of the table, closed my eyes, and took a long, decadent slurp, letting the cream tickle my upper lip, and the tip of my nose.

Heaven.

I swallowed. And when I opened my eyes, and turned back toward to the chapel in the window, I felt, for a moment, completely certain that either the incense, the sacramental wine, the cocoa, or some combination of the three had intoxicated me to point of hallucination—because pacing steadily up Rue Saint-Paul, right across from the café, was a man who looked very much like Mr. Caine.

I blinked in disbelief.

The dark, disheveled hair; the sharp stature and brusque gait—there was no mistaking. It was definitely him. He turned abruptly and crossed the street, striding steadily toward the café. I watched him silently, almost dreamily, through the window, as one does a shark behind the shatter-proof glass of an aquarium. He was still unshaven, and he carried several crisp newspapers under one arm. Even beneath his topcoat I could see the broad contours of his shoulders, shifting tensely as he came closer, and closer.

Mon kriss… I blinked, and shook my head. He’s coming in here!

Panicking for reasons I didn’t fully comprehend, I flipped my spoon nearly halfway across the table, and slouched down low in my chair, endeavoring to obscure my face between my hair and sketchpad. Maybe he won’t notice me, I prayed foolishly. My heart was racing. The bell on the door jingled, and a cold gust of air followed him into the café. I waited, cringing.

Nothing happened. But I could hear his voice; low, but still somehow usurping the upper register chatter of the café's patrons. Cautiously, I peeked over the pad’s spiral binding. He stood at the counter with his back to me, speaking idly with my waitress. She was leaning forward on her elbows, grinning, laughing, and twirling her lovely, chestnut hair between her fingers. Jesus, could she be any more obvious?

But really, I couldn’t blame her. I’m sure I looked at least as foolish last night when he was looming over top of me. Men like that, who have that kind of effect on women—reducing them to puddles with little more than a side-glance and half-smile—they must go through life thinking every female in the world is shy as a schoolgirl, giggling compulsively at their lame and half-hearted jokes. They don’t realize the power they have over us. Or maybe they do… Either way, gazing over at him from behind my absurd disguise of sketch paper and bangs, I was pretty sure I’d never met a man who affected me nearly so severely as Dmitri Caine.

The waitress caught me staring at the two of them, and her smitten expression evaporated. He pivoted in my direction. I cursed myself for having looked, and shrank lower in my chair.

“Miss Foster…”

His voice was breathy, and a just little off-balance—not like the night before. I think I’d actually startled him slightly. I lowered the sketchpad.

“Mr. Caine?” I widened my eyes in counterfeit surprise, “I um—I didn’t see you come in.”

I was miserably unconvincing, but he let it pass, stepping toward my table and recovering the coolness of his composure.

“I—trust you made it home last night,” he laid his hand on the chair across from me, “without another incident.”

I dropped my gaze. He’d barely said ‘hello’ and I could already feel myself slipping back under his spell.

“Yes sir,” I nodded.

Sir? Come on, Penny.

He stepped across the table from me, and touched the top leaf of my sketchpad. A smudge of gray charcoal was smeared across its crisp, white surface, demarcating the steeple.

“Already slaving away, I see,” he said softly. “Very good.”

I shook my head, “I was um, just getting started.”

Gazing up at him from the chair, he still looked as though he hadn’t quite settled into the idea of my being there; of my having got the drop on him. His brow was knitted slightly. I could sympathize—I felt like I was shrinking again; like I’d chased the white rabbit through a small, snowy door into Wonderland. I was meeting the Mad Hatter for tea.

I squinted up at him. There was a dark bruise on his left cheek, and a freshly scabbed cut on his temple. That wasn't there last night, was it? I tilted my head upward. Definitely not. Jesus—and he’s telling me to be careful. Wonder what the hell happened... And why’s he staring at me like that?

“You have cream on your nose, Miss Foster.”

Mon ‘stie de kriss. My cheeks flushed, and I buried my nose and mouth in the napkin. When I looked up, he was smirking—he had me over a barrel again. And not without a hint of vindictive irony, the waitress chose that moment to come over and deliver my obscenely un-dainty breakfast, plopping the plate down right on top of my hardly-started sketch. His face twitched, suppressing a grin. Having already blushed myself to maximum redness, I merely sustained the hue, staring wordlessly at the sweet, gooey mess before me.

“You know, if you’re taking a break,” he dragged out the chair opposite mine, “…I think I might join you.”

“Please—” I murmured, glancing up at him.

I wasn’t sure whether I was offering him the seat, or begging him to leave and spare me any further humiliations. But he wasn’t waiting for me to finish the thought. He’d already sat down, and was busy unfolding the other napkin, and fastidiously straightening the flatware.

“Un café, Monsieur Caine?” the waitress was still standing abreast of the table.

Her voice startled me. I actually managed to forget she was there. It was uncanny how completely his presence he consumed my focus—gravity, or maybe magnetism. I suppose she probably felt the same way. We orbited him like a pair of moons, tidally locked by the force of his attentions.

“Oui. Merci, Françoise.”

She trotted off, and disappeared into the kitchen. I raised my brow quizzically. Having finished his realignment of the fork and knife, he locked his eyes on me.

“I live nearby,” he disclosed. “I come on Sundays to read the papers.”

I glanced out the window to the chapel. He must’ve recognized the view, I thought. I wondered briefly if we’d ever been here at the same time before—perhaps sitting back-to-back; me sketching, him perusing his Sunday news. I felt a chill at the thought of it, and stole another look at him.

He was looking right back at me, folding his papers over next to the window.

No. I could never have been in the same room with him before last night—he had hair and bone structure that could cause traffic accidents. There was no way I’d seen him before, and forgotten.

Lowering his eyes to my heaping plate, he grinned.

“If you have a sweet tooth, Miss Foster, you’ll have to try their hvorost.”

Their what?

“Um—thanks,” I breathed, noisily plucking my pad from beneath the plate. “I think this’ll be more than enough…”

He leaned toward me.

“It wasn’t a suggestion.”

He signaled the nearest waiter and put in a double order. My stomach turned over. I was so hungry—the smell of food was making me doubly anxious in front of him. But under those eyes, I didn’t even think I could touch my crepes, let alone his hvorost —whatever that was. Françoise returned with coffee, looking dismayed at having missed a chance to do his bidding.

Is she actually pouting? I squinted. Christ. She might have it worse than I do... She set the mug down, and waited to leave until he waved her off. But then, she’s had more exposure, I smirked nervously. Maybe he’s a chronic toxin. Like mercury. Or sugar.

“You know,” he took a long, silent sip, “I’m actually glad I ran into you, Miss Foster.”

All this eye contact was getting tricky for me. He didn’t ever seem to need to look at what he was doing—if I tried to follow suit, I would wind up spilling hot cocoa all over myself.

He tilted his head, “Because there are some items from last night I’d like to get cleared up.”

Oh, thank God, I thought. I had so many questions for him. By no means the least of which was 'why me?'  I felt if I had even the slightest clue as to why he’d picked me for the job, I could move forward, and quit worrying so much about it. I just wish I knew what he wanted. I’d do it. Whatever it is...

“Why the Bon-Secours,” he set his mug down softly, “when there are so many more impressive buildings in the city? Even on this block.”

My heart sank. Crap. He’s asking the questions?

I stared at the table, “Well, I um—”

“Stop that.”

I started, “Stop what?”

“Saying um ,” he leaned forward, narrowing his eyes, “You’re a smart girl, Miss Foster. I can see your wheels turning. Like a Swiss watch. I want to hear you speak your mind, and I don’t want to hear you say um every time I ask a question. Understood?”

What the hell? I knew I had a few tics when I got nervous—it was all part of the blushing, shuddering, stuttering Penelope Foster train wreck—but I was pretty sure it wasn’t anything I could control. He’s being rude again. But…I think he might've just complimented me. He folded his hands on the table.

“Now, why the chapel?”

“I—” carefully, I paused, and excised the um, “I just like it—It reminds me of a church where I grew up.”

I don’t think I realized until I heard myself say it aloud, but apart from the color, and the French Gothic embellishments, the chapel was a near duplicate of the seaside chapel where my oldest brother got married. I was thirteen. It was my first time as a bridesmaid instead of the flower girl.

“The States?” he asked.

“In Nags Head.”

“Is your family still there?”

“More or less,” I shrugged uncomfortably, “The east coast, anyways. Most of them.”

“What brought you to Montreal?”

“School,” I answered maybe a bit too quickly. “Just school. I was studying art history at McGill.”

“Was?”

“Was,” geez, he asks a lot of questions. “I left my grad program.”

“Why?”

“So I could sit in cafes, and draw pictures of chapels.”

His mouth split into a grin, and he chuckled, flashing his devilish, white teeth. He relaxed in his chair. I was still on pins and needles.

“I see. And did you have a favorite Master?” he rubbed his jaw slowly, concealing a smile. “From your studies, I mean. Rembrandt? Or Vermeer? You’re watercolors reminded me a little of les Fauves.”

I thought for moment.

“No,” I answered cagily. “I don’t think so. I…can’t idolize an artist.” I bit my lip, “I love the paintings. I pity the painters.”

His eyes widened.

“Fascinating,” he growled. “…Explain.”

“I don’t know,” I breathed. “The better they were, I think, the more they suffered. Like van Gogh.”

His face was stern, and solemn.

“And yet you want to paint.”

I laughed nervously.

“Yeah, well—I’m not that good. So I shouldn’t have to worry.”

“But you could be,” he cocked his head. “You could be great. If you're not afraid to suffer a little for it. Are you afraid to suffer, Penny?”

Across from me, he looked vaguely pensive, and stormy. For once, his eyes were like cold, blue water; instead of solid ice.

“No,” I breathed quietly, staring into my lap. “No. I think… I’m afraid not to.”

I listened as he breathed a long, mysterious sigh. There was a pause. He rustled around with his newspapers. I kept my eyes down. I shouldn’t have said that, I thought. The pause was pregnant, though just what it was carrying I couldn't quite say.

“So you’re staying, then,” he said at last. “How? You’re study permit will expire.”

I wrinkled my nose.

“They gave me a TRV. I’ve got a couple years to renew.”

I’m not sure why I lied to him—probably because the technique I’d used to prepare for my impending expulsion from Canada had, up to then, been to just not think about it. And talking about it was definitely worse than thinking about it. The exile itself wouldn’t last too terribly long—a month to get my new permit, two at the most. But still, it scared me. I didn’t know what I would do, or where I would go.

“That’s good,” he nodded. “That’s excellent. It must feel nice having one less thing to worry about.”

I forced a smile, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Perhaps there’s still too much on your plate, Miss Foster.”

He pointed to my mushy crepes, and I smirked in amusement. He reached over to snatch a raspberry from my plate, and popped it in his mouth, wiggling his eyebrows at me like Groucho Marx. I covered my mouth and laughed. Cool and cunning Monsieur Caine can play the clown as well? I liked it. I could almost let myself relax.

“You have a very pretty laugh, Miss Foster,” he swallowed. “Like a bell.”

I blushed.

“So is it strange,” he stole another berry, “living in Milton-Parc when you’re no longer a student?”

“I moved out,” I said, taking a strawberry for myself. “I’m staying with a friend ‘til I get some things figured out.”

His eyes flashed, “A man?”

Geez, whiplash. All at once his playfulness vanished. And does he really not know what boundaries are? Apprehensively, I recalled his kiss, and his blunt inquiry about my scar, and Peter’s vague and unsettling warning. Should I be telling him all this? I wondered. Should I be talking to him at all? He was waiting, his breath measured.

“No,” I murmured, “my friend Marie. She’s the one who submitted my paintings last night. She knows Claude,” I added, trying to shift his focus away from my personal life, and back to… anything, really.

My paintings, you mean,” he reminded. “And I’m grateful to her. I might not have come across you otherwise.”

He didn’t look so ominous anymore, but his gaze was still intense, and fixed on me.

He cocked his head, “Do you have anyone who looks after you, Miss Foster?”

So much for subtle—apparently, he was determined to keep me under the spotlight. I tapped my toe nervously under the table. I wanted to be courteous—and I wanted to keep talking to him, if only to listen to his voice a little longer—but this was getting awfully intimate.

“I… don’t see how it’s any of your business,” I breathed, and met his eyes dead on, “but I do pretty well looking after myself, Mr. Caine. I have five older brothers. Not one of them thinks I need any help up here.”

I winced, anticipating a rebuke. But his lips split back into a grin. Whiplash.

“You’re the youngest, then?”

I nodded cautiously.

“Only daughter?”

“Yes.”

He smiled.

“I suppose they were quite protective of you when you were growing up... Would you say they sheltered you?”

I snorted, remembering all the bruises and grass stains I’d acquired on my palms and butt from being shoved to the ground; all the earthworms that were dropped into my hair while I was reading—and the time they tied me to a tree with my jump rope during a game of cops and robbers. They left me there until dinnertime. I think I was supposed to be a ransomed spy or something, but in my head I was always a captive princess. I struggled and cried. They just laughed, and gagged me with a tube sock. None of them wanted to play the part of my Prince Philip.

Still, we were pretty little then, I thought. And—I kind of liked it. I liked the attention. I don’t know whether my Father or my Mother talked to them, or if they just had some biological switch that flipped when I started developing—which, in my case, was awfully early—but as soon as my breasts showed up, they stopped barging into the bathroom to brush their teeth while I was bathing, they stopped roughhousing with me in the yard, and they started taking an annoyingly presumptuous interest in who my friends were. No one was ever good enough. Should’ve kept a better eye on who they were friends with. I bit my lip.

I hadn’t really thought about all that for a long while. At the time, I’d felt confused, and sort of abandoned. I didn’t understand why my brothers wouldn’t play with me like they used t—I thought they didn’t like me anymore. It was as though overnight I’d gone from having all of their attention, to none of it. And back then, I craved attention.

"I guess,” I answered wistfully, bending in to take another sip of cocoa. “At least... they tried.”

He studied me slowly up and down, making me turn pink.

“Your shoulder’s torn open, Miss Foster.”

My breath froze, and I almost choked on my cocoa. Can he read minds? Then I remembered—my pea coat.

“Um, yeah,” I sighed; reaching around awkwardly with my left hand, I pinched the hole closed. “Meant to sew that up.”

“See that you do,” he drummed his fingers on the table. “It’s too cold to go about unprotected…”

Ah, my cheeks warmed, there’s the scolding.

“Do you work? Apart from your artwork, I mean.”

My God—should I ask if wants an autobiography instead of a painting?

“Part-time. At Auntie Deluvian’s. It’s just a little junk and curio shop.”

“In Saint-Michel,” he said dryly.

Wow, I thought. Wouldn’t have taken him for the 'mantiquing' type. But then a lot of odd and unexpected people passed through Madame’s shop. I couldn’t quite say why—punks with nose rings and torn fishnets, uncomfortable businessmen in camelhair topcoats, sometimes glamorous middle-aged ladies in heavy eyeliner and lavish furs. And Madame seemed to know most all of them by name.

He was gazing at me with a renewed intensity. I shrank back in my chair.

“Do you feel safe up there? It can be a rough neighborhood.”

I shrugged, “Safe enough. Marie’s from the area, and she’s never had any problems.”

He frowned, “How long have you been there?”

My cheeks were prickling pink again—not with embarrassment, but anxiety. Didn’t we start out talking about paintings? Why are we discussing my housing crisis? I was starting to feel like I was under interrogation for a crime I couldn’t remember committing. I had no idea what he wanted from me.

“About eight weeks,” I answered shortly.

“Eight weeks,” he repeated contemplatively, like he was performing some kind of calculation. “And how long do you plan to stay?”

My frustration with his inquisition might have boiled over right then, had Francoise not nimbly returned with two little trays of horvorost, or hovrost, or whatever. They looked a like a cross between a beignet and a mandrake root. He smiled broadly and thanked her, his dimples cutting dark crevices below his stubbly cheekbones. She trotted off again, her giddiness replenished.

“You’re going to love this,” he said, placing several of the crisps in front of me. “It’s sweet, but not too sweet—with just a touch of bitterness..." 

He took a huge, crackling bite and, closing his eyes, hummed his approval. My exasperation receded. Maybe he’s not being too pushy. Maybe he just asks a lot of questions. And maybe I just don’t like answering questions about myself especially the ones I don’t have answers to. I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I conceded. “Til after Christmas, maybe.”

I bit off my own crispy, crumbly hunk. He was right—it was delicious. Though I suppose any food probably would’ve tasted magnificent to me at that point. The surface was hard and ridiculously crunchy—between the two of us, it sounded like we were chewing mouthfuls of marbles—but the inside was silky, creamy, and yes, a little bitter. Beats the hell out of that communion wafer. I swallowed.

“What did you call this?” I asked, gulping down my second bite.

“Hvorost,” he said, still crunching. “It means ‘firewood’.”

He swallowed, and swilled his coffee.

“Hvorost,” I repeated.

“The bitterness—they use real kefir here. Only place in the city that does.”

His warmness had made a sudden and highly welcome return, and I felt myself relaxing again. Somehow with food in front of him, he seemed a little less predatory, and even cheery. Gnawing on the hvorost, he was like a huge, dark dog savoring a fresh bone. I took a deep breath. Now or never, I thought.

“Why do you want me to paint the chapel for you, Mr. Caine?”

He stopped chewing, and swallowed slowly.

Why has nothing to do with it, Miss Foster,” he rubbed the cloth napkin on the corners of his mouth. “I’ve given you a task. You’ll either complete it to my satisfaction, or you won’t. It’s that simple.”

His stare could have given me frostbite. I shuddered, but pressed again. I might not get another chance.

“It’s just—you being here, and asking me all these things,” I stammered. “I guess, I just—”

He cut me off, raising his palm, “I hope my questions haven’t upset you.” His words were clipped, “I like to know the people with whom I intend to conduct my business. It matters to me that I learn everything I can about you.”

I stared blankly, “Business?”

“Do you think that you’re a bad investment, Penelope?” he wiped his mouth. “I’m not in the habit of making bad investments.”

My ears pricked at the sound of my given name. Ooh, how I hate being called Penelope.

“Penny,” I corrected him.

“Penny,” he agreed, drawing his mouth into a wry smile. “I think you have a precious, natural talent, Penny. I’m very interested in your potential.”

I shook my head, flushing; though I knew it was only flattery.

“Um, thanks,” I mumbled.

His eyes flashed.

“I mean, thank you—Mr. Caine.”

He reached across the table again to steal another raspberry.

“I once knew a girl who was allergic to raw fruit,” he mused, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Curious. And such a terrible shame,” he popped the berry in his mouth, “to be denied something so elemental…So sensual. Do you have any allergies, Penny.”

I sighed. Sure. Why not?

“Penicillin. And nickel, sort of. I just get hives. ”

He nodded, “Ever been hospitalized?”

“Once,” I answered quietly. “Not for allergies.”

He glanced to my shoulder, and frowned again at the tear in my pea coat. I squirmed self-consciously, praying that we were almost finished. How can any of this possibly interest him? I wondered. Why does he care? My anxiety was on the verge of boiling over again—my toe was tapping rapidly, and my eyes danced around looking anywhere but into his. By chance, they landed on his newspapers near the window.

I squinted. Le Devoir...arts and lifestyle. The article on top was about the gallery opening. In the byline I read the infamous name, Benoit Boucher. And just above the fold, I discerned a photograph of three faces, posed together in an ominous line—Claude the curator, Emily the artist…and Dmitri Caine, the obscure and inscrutable.

He started a little when he caught sight of where I was staring, and silently flipped the page over.

“That’s you,” I nodded.

He made no answer, but crunched down heavily on the last hvorost.

“Can I see it?”

He took his time, and when he finally swallowed said coolly, "Don't believe everything you read, Miss Foster… you should take it with a grain of salt. And I told you last night, Boucher’s a fool.”

“Still,” I murmured. “I’d… like to see the classifieds. Since I might move out of St. Michel…”

He smirked, but his gaze was still pretty icy.

“You’re clever, Penny. Probably too clever.”

He didn’t hand over the article. My cheeks reddened in frustration.

“How do you know her?” I asked softly. “How do you know Miss Brennan?”

He sipped his coffee, and set the mug down beside my crepes, untouched and now stone-cold at the edge of the table. I grimaced at them—he’d filled me right up with his hvorost.

“I think your eyes are larger than your stomach, Penny,” he spoke dryly. “Shall we have Francoise bring you a box?”

Is he really not going to answer? I frowned. So, what? Every infinitesimal detail of my life is fair game—but I can’t even read a freaking news article about him?

I watched in quiet disbelief as he actually snapped his fingers, and Francoise appeared at the side of our table like a spaniel begging for scraps. He definitely knows what he does to women, I thought nervously.

“Box this up for Miss Foster s’il vous plait,” he laid an excessive sum of money on the table.

I started to argue, but he ignored me. His eyes were on his wristwatch. Swiss, I noticed idly.

“And see that she’s not disturbed. I have her working on something important for me.”

Her face flashed green with envy, and mine blushed red. He stood up, and Francoise melted in his shadow.

“You’ll excuse me, Penny. I have an appointment,” he stared down at me, and at my sketchpad. “Six days. Do you have everything you need here?”

I nodded again, wondering if he really had an appointment, or if he was just that determined to dodge my questions.

“Good girl. Now get to work,” again, he touched my shoulder. “I look forward to seeing what you’re made of…”

Together, Francoise and I watched him swing his heavy coat around his broad shoulders, turn, and stride toward the door. There was a creak of hinges, the jingle of a little bell, a gust of cold wind, and he was gone. The spell was lifted. I exhaled slowly.

“Enjoy it,” Françoise —suddenly returned to her earlier, surly self—grabbed the plates gruffly, “ça ne dure pas longtemps.”

She slinked away, leaving his coffee mug sitting across from me. The hell does that mean? My mind was racing, trying to fit together all the strange, disparate pieces of the past twenty-four hours. Like the shard of a glass mirror, my hope that talking to him again might bring into focus some of my confusion had shattered, splintering into a thousand new, still-more vexing questions.

I stared at the empty mug; a single dark stripe of coffee staining its porcelain exterior. It was like at any moment he might return to reclaim it; to check up on my progress, and impugn me if I wasn’t doing as he'd instructed. It was like he was still there with me; watching me. Controlling me. Shivering, I reopened the sketchpad, and started drawing.

But in the corner of my eye, I noticed something near the window. The article… He’d left it for me; all the other papers he’d snatched up and taken with him. Dropping my charcoal, I lifted the page. There he was in the photo, looking stern, and austere, and dashing; the ethereal Emily Brennan on his arm. I scowled at her. It was my turn to be envious.

In the caption beneath the picture, I stumbled through the French—Auspicious evening… Dmitri Caine (center), patron of the arts, philanthropist, elusive Montreal magnate… seen with curator Claude Louis (right)… featured painter, Emily Brennan (left)… First public appearance of Caine and Brennan together… I paused, my lips parting slightly… since their divorce.

I dropped the paper. What the...? They were married? Scribbled neatly and minutely beneath the caption in red ink, I read the cryptic phrase he’d left for me: ‘avec un grain de sel, Penny…

Chapter 5

My thighs were on fire. Perspiration glistened on my brow and neck. I breathed heavily, almost panting. Just five more. You can take it, Penny.

It was pretty seldom that I accompanied Marie during her workout routine. Compared to my usual light cardio and crunches, the pace she kept was downright manic. Alongside me I could see her long, taut muscles extending gracefully in a leg press that would have snapped my flyweight frame in two. I bit my lip as my knees began to quiver, counting down silently the last three reps.

I came with her mostly because I wanted to be wiped out. I’d gotten pretty good recently at living in a constant state of uncertainty, but this past weekend had me so flustered and so anxious that all I wanted was to run my body ragged, until it collapsed into deep and dreamless exhaustion. I’d also come along because a Sunday ration of chocolate crepes, hvorost, and hot cocoa was enough to guilt anyone into hitting the gym.

With a whimper I reached my breaking point, and slid myself limply off the Draconian steel contraption. Marie was still going strong—her body was like a machine. I pushed a little stool against the wall of mirrors, and climbed up to flip the television to an American news channel.

The anchor was wrapping up a puff piece, recapping the commercial carnage of the Black Friday sales. Thursday was Thanksgiving in the States, I recalled absently. Mom will want another call. I mounted a treadmill and started walking.

My Mother and I spoke over the phone about twice a month. She still asked hopefully if I was coming home each time a big holiday rolled around—which, in her desperation, had come to include things like the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Columbus Day. Normally I parried with some excuse about needing to buckle down and study for a midterm. If she ever began to get wise about the calendrical anomalies in my semesters, I figured I could probably blame the metric system. It would work on me. Well, I thought, I guess that won’t be a problem much longer.

I think it broke her heart a little when I didn’t come back last Christmas. About a week beforehand she orchestrated a sort of telethon to bring me home for the holidays. In a forty-eight hour span I got calls from all five of my brothers, dutifully passing along her grief. It wasn’t difficult to thwart them—after all this time, they were still pretty well disposed to let their stubborn little sister get her way. When we were kids, my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘the immovable object.’

Least convincing of all was my Father. His appeal for my return lacked heart, I think, not because he was indifferent to me being away, but because he understood better than anyone that I wasn’t ready to come back. Even before I left, Doctor Foster was best at loving from a distance. And whenever he called now, it was under the pretext of telling me about some new women’s health study, or to ask how my arm was doing.

As far as I could tell, he was the only one back home who knew that I’d dropped out. Apparently, McGill forwarded a letter to Nags Head right after I notified my advisor, asking me to reconsider. He didn’t ask for details—only if I needed some money. I told him no, and begged him not to tell Mom. Most of the family already thought it was crazy of me to come up here in the first place. To them it must’ve looked like I was chasing some childish dream, or that I was too immature to stand by my commitments. No one knew why I was running away.

No. I thought, biting deeply into my lip. One person knows... A cold shadow invaded my thoughts. Distantly, as if echoing through a cement tunnel, I could hear a man snarling and shouting, and a shattering of glass. I saw blood, and bone, and blackness. The hairs on my shoulder stood on end. I pushed a green button on the treadmill, and the speed increased. I ran.

I ran, counting out my steps to settle myself. Math’s never been my forte, but in a weird way I sometimes find it comforting. There’s no ambiguity in numbers. One and half strides per second. Ninety-two beats and twenty-five breaths per minute. Say, six hundred sixty-six point six seven steps and eleven minutes per kilometer. Two hundred seventy-five breaths…How many heartbeats? I took my pulse. It was racing much faster than I expected. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5-6-7-8-9… I could hardly keep track. My body’s internal clock was spinning out of control; hurling me forward through time.

One week—its not nearly long enough… If he’d just give me two, or maybe three. Four to really do right. But in four weeks...

And with an entirely different chill of fear, I was suddenly counting down what few days—the steps, and breaths, and heartbeats—I had left before I’d have to leave Canada. My permit was set to expire on January 1st, and I couldn’t return until my new one was processed. Apart from knowing that I wouldn’t go home to Nags Head, and I that I couldn’t stay in Montreal, I understood very little of what would become of me during that time. It loomed before me like a thing unreal—a story I’d once heard; some unfortunate thing that had happened to someone else.

There wouldn’t be much money. I’d saved a little, but I wasn’t about to put off getting my own place any longer by blowing everything on a compulsory vacation. Sometimes I had nightmarish visions of myself squatting in an old walk-up motel outside Niagra Falls, surviving on stale peanut butter crackers from a vending machine—like Julia Livilla, whittling away the hours of my exile in solitude and hunger.

Marie moved to an elliptical machine nearby, and began bounding in place like a whitetail deer. Several men eyed her conspicuously. I recalled Mr. Caine’s dark concern about Saint-Michel. The facilities here weren’t especially dangerous for women, but at times they could definitely be a little rough around the edges. Marie liked it because they stayed open past midnight. I liked it because it was dirt cheap.

True to her flighty and carefree form, when I told her about my permit predicament, she’d offered me a little collapsible dome tent she had stashed away, and a two-person sleeping bag. To her mind, the idea of banishment seemed little more than an opportunity for some alfresco friskiness. I was not keen on the idea of camping. Apart from it being the middle of winter, just a year earlier two girls from McGill went missing during a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I shuddered at the memory.

Gradually, I lowered my speed to a steady jog. For the next six days at least, my only plan was to ignore everything, and paint. Stay focused on the task at hand. Mr. Caine. Just give him what he wants. Who cares why? Who cares what he’s thinking?

I did. I couldn’t not care. I thought somewhat covetously of his ex, Emily Brennan, and her expansive, intoxicating canvas. He’s accustomed to talent… I wondered. I wondered what would happen if I failed him; if I just wasn’t good enough… First things first, Penny. You need to find a place to paint.

I was panting at the end of my cool down. Marie was still at it. A man with a crew cut and biceps the size of Virginia hams was standing next to her machine, flirting artlessly. Rather than wait for the two of them to finish up their inevitable exchange of numbers, and perhaps saliva, I sauntered sorely into the ladies’ locker room alone, and, peeling off my sports bra and shorts, stepped into the white-tiled shower.

Hot steam filled the stall, clogging up my chest and nose—I gagged at first, but slowly acclimated, letting the rhythm of my breath adapt to that of thick, swelling vapor in my throat. Lathering up and rinsing down, I felt purified—even my perpetually stuffy sinuses seemed to clear for a while. I turned slowly, letting the hot water dribble down all the dark tangles of my hair. I felt a rosy tingle as beads gathered at my nipples and between my legs. The steam was getting denser; I could barely see my feet. If the warmth hadn’t already turned me seashell pink, I might have blushed a little, thinking of Correggio’s Jupiter and Io.

I turned off the faucet and stood still, dripping wet as the fog cleared. The water had warmed me to the core; I wasn’t even shivering. My feet slapped on the wet ceramic floor as I found my towel, and buffed myself dry. Grabbing my bag from the locker, I slipped on my skinny jeans and a long sleeve, white lace top. I wrung out my hair again, wiggled into my sneakers, and left the locker room feeling refreshed and renewed.

I emerged, and near the free weights, a young, muscular man with a melee of tattoos whistled. I turned around, figuring Marie had just stepped out of the locker room behind me; dripping wet, like Venus Anadyomene.

I blushed. There was no one there. He was whistling at me.

Locking my eyes on the floor, I walked briskly by him, the damp soles of my shoes snapping loudly against the floor, and waited for Marie near the front entrance. Still glowing a little, I opened my bag and found my phone, scrolling down through the contacts until I came to ‘Peter Mulgrave’. I dialed.

It rang four, then five times. I tapped my foot, nervously.

“Hullo, Penny Foster,” he answered brightly.

“Hey, Peter,” I smiled inwardly—he was so easy to talk to. “I um, wanted to thank you again for showing me around last night. I didn’t really expect to… but I had a really nice time.”

“Hey, no problem. I had fun too. So’d you kill Marie when you got home? You were pretty steamed there for a while.”

“No,” I flushed again. “I took your advice. I thanked her.”

"Well, glad you two didn’t wind up in fisticuffs. I wouldn’t like your chances there.”

I smirked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just saying—you’re pocket-sized, Pens. And she’s got those crazy dancer legs. She’d probably kick your head off.”

I giggled, “Alright. Fair enough.”

There was a pause. I bit my lip.

“So—here’s the thing, Peter. Remember you said I should come see your studio?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I um. I need to start that piece—the one for Mr. Caine—and I’ve got like no room to do it.”

“Mmm… go on.”

I frowned. He didn’t sound enthused. I didn’t blame him.

“And, I was—I was wondering if maybe you’d let me work on it there? After I take a look at your piece, of course… And I could pay you for the space I use,” I winced, “—a little.”

More silence.

“Please?”

“I’m screwing with you, Foster,” he said finally. “Of course you can paint here. And you can take a look at my piece anytime you like.”

I blushed crimson.

“And for crissake don’t worry about money—I’ve got more room than I know what to do with. When did you have in mind?”

I breathed deep, and winced again.

“Um, tomorrow maybe?”

“Oh,” he sounded surprised, but not distressed, “Yeah, sure. No problem. You don’t mess around, eh? Come by after you finish work, and I’ll give you le grand tour. Say six-ish?”

“Six o’clock. Yes, sir,” I agreed.

“Yeah, whatever. Alright Pens. See you then.”

“Bye, Peter,” I hung up.

My heart was racing. It was hard to believe I was going to start my first real painting tomorrow. I’d been putting it off for so long. The sketches at the café had come out perfectly, and my head was spinning with compositions and colors—all in variegated grades of red. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was also wondering about Peter’s project. What could he possibly want my advice on?

Marie was headed my direction, the man with hams-for-arms tagging along behind, carrying her gym bag.

“Been waiting long?” she asked.

I smirked, “Long enough.”

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © © M. Thomas Ashe, 2015. All rights reserved.



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