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Third Place “Change” Competition.
Black and White
By
browncoffee

Black and White

It was a late night and Raine was tired. She looked down at the expensive flower arrangement in her hand and pressed the apartment's doorbell for the fifth time. No answer. Only when she turned to walk away did the door finally open.

“Hey,” The man was tall, wearing a t-shirt over boxers. His dark hair looked damp. “Sorry for the wait.”

He smelled like soap. Raine didn’t quite look at him, distracted by the brightly-lit apartment behind him. There was art everywhere. Paintings, sculptures and even a Damien Hirst-esque shark tank installation.

“How did that get in here?” Raine asked wide-eyed.

He followed her gaze.

“The tank? Oh, we took the window out,” He pointed at the far wall of glass. “Nightmare.”

“Are all these originals?” Raine asked. The place was so full of art she didn’t know where to look. “You own all this?”

He seemed surprised by her interest but he shrugged.

“Well, mostly. Some I’m just looking at.” He stepped back as if to let her into the apartment and Raine moved blankly past him, the flowers forgotten in her hand.

“But that’s a Picasso,” she said.

“Yeah,” He followed her towards the painting. “D’you like it?”

“No, but it’s still a Picasso,”

“I should hope so,” His voice was lazy with amusement. “I paid enough for it. Anyway, did you just happen to come by for an unscheduled tour or is there a reason you showed up here unannounced?”

Raine flushed.

“God, I’m sorry.” She shook her head and looked at him properly. He was tanned, with dark eyes softened by the light. Almost textbook handsome. A smile lurked behind his frown. She held out the flowers belatedly. “For you.”

He didn’t take them. He folded his arms across his chest, his t-shirt stretching across his broad shoulders.

“For me?” he asked.

Raine glanced at the envelope.

“Uh – yes, if you’re Carlos.”

She expectantly held out the flowers again.

He didn’t take them. His eyes flicked briefly to her mouth.

“So you like art?” he asked.

“Yes, but,” Raine sighed. “This is my last delivery. It’s the right address, isn’t it? What’s your last name?”

“Costa.”

“Exactly!” Raine flipped the envelope around to show him his name. “See? Carlos Costa. Please take the flowers. I just want to go home.”

He eyed her deliberatively.

“Really? What’s so good about home?”

“I- ” Her mind flicked to the inevitable scene that’d greet her. Video games, beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. She closed her eyes for a second trying to wipe the image.

“Stay,” Carlos said. He said it very gently and kindly like he knew what she’d been thinking. “I’ll show you more art. Are you an artist?”

“Well, not really,” She felt simultaneously flattered and flustered by his interest. “I mean, I did a college course but I only paint for myself. My boyfriend Trent has pieces in a gallery. He’s an artist.”

“You paint for yourself?” Carlos asked. “What do you paint?”

Raine laughed nervously.

“Nothing, really.”

“Well, it must be something,” Carlos said. “You’ll have to show me sometime.”

“Yeah, sure,” Raine set the flowers down on the glass coffee table. “I should get going.”

Carlos didn’t speak. He watched her head to the door, his attention making her feel both beautiful and insecure.

“Have a nice evening,” she said, too late and too awkward.

“Thanks. You too.”

She shut the door behind herself and leaned against it for a second, her heart racing. Then she walked down the stairs and went home.

*

Trent had gone out. His half-finished paintings were propped up in the living space, the kitchen and even the bathroom. The entire apartment reeked of acrylic paint and cigarettes. Raine opened the windows and cold January air cut through the stale oppression.

If she called Trent, he’d claim to be out with friends. But she knew. She wasn’t blind. The assistant curator at the gallery where his work was displayed was named Susan. She had short blonde hair and manicured fingernails. Raine had met her once but once had been enough to remember the precise colour of her lipstick and to recognise the same colour smudged onto Trent’s collar.

Things had to change. She went into the bedroom. The suitcase she’d packed months before waited patiently in the closet. Trent hadn’t even noticed it. Raine sighed. It felt like all she did anymore was wait for the inevitable end. She knew she should take control, make it happen but change wasn’t easy. Living alone would be expensive and all her money seemed to disappear into a black hole of expenses. Besides, she’d been with Trent since high school. Could she really walk away with nothing to show for so many years?

But what was left? Trent didn’t care. He only cared about his artwork. Raine frowned at his abstract paintings, trying to figure out what they could possibly mean. But what did she know? She hadn’t studied art history and graduated cum laude. Trent made more money with one painting than she did in a month of working two jobs.

But then again, Raine never had the time or desire to commercialise her own art. She was a perfectionist; constantly wanting to improve; to accelerate into creating something incredible and majestic. She’d set upon every new canvas, gripped by the need to surpass herself. Lately, she’d been painting in monochrome, only because black and white were the only colours Trent didn’t use up. What began as a necessity had become an addiction.

There was a beauty in grey; in finding ways to make colour where there was none; using textures and layers to create depth and illusion. It made her work harder but it felt like an education and though she was rarely satisfied with the results, it felt cathartic to take the brightest scenes and recreate them in the simplest colours. Rollercoasters, car crashes and burning buildings.

She thought of Carlos. Dark eyes and broad shoulders. Did he really want to see her paintings? She looked him up online and was promptly rewarded by a treasure trove of 6,101,487 results. She scanned the scratched screen, her heart racing at the thrill of discovery. Carlos Miguel Costa. American businessman, born in Cuba, 1969. Art dealer. Philanthropist. Net worth $100,000,000. Raine swallowed hard. The idea that someone so rich and successful could be so human stunned her.

She picked up her phone, considering calling Trent. But what was there to talk about? She wondered how they’d reached the point of having nothing to say to each other. Their initial relationship had become a distant memory; the kindness, passion and inquisitiveness had faded like an old t-shirt. Everything had changed.

She could make an effort to revive the weak, dying flame. She could tell him about Carlos the art dealer and he’d be excited and interested in her for the first time in forever and maybe things would change.

But she didn’t want to tell him. She didn’t want to share any part of Carlos with him. And maybe it was selfish but she didn’t care. She didn’t think she could ever explain how five minutes in a stranger’s apartment had lit up her life like a fairground and besides, she didn’t want to explain. Those few moments were all hers. And she probably wouldn’t ever see Carlos Costa again but the memory could stay and she could keep it inside to glow warm on one of the many cold lonely nights when Trent didn’t come home.

She went to the bathroom, stripped out of her clothes and stood under the steaming shower. The water was too hot but the heat seeped into her, caressing every aching muscle. She turned her back on Trent’s shower gel and thought of Carlos. The smell of soap. It seemed so clean, so fresh and simple on his tanned skin. His arms. His eyes on hers and the smile that made her insides spin.

Raine’s hand slipped over her firm breast and tugged at the hardening nipple. She could only imagine how different his hand would feel; how masculine it would be against her smooth skin. She found herself wishing she’d stayed when he’d asked. Because maybe then she’d be feeling him for real and it’d be his hand dragging down the flat of her stomach and between her legs. She leaned against the cool tile wall of the shower and let out a long breath, eyes closing in the steam as her fingers moved urgently against her snatch.

“Fuck,”

The water was coming down hard, almost unbearably hot against her sensitive skin but she didn’t turn it down. Her thoughts became reckless; a reel of desperate fantasies starring a man she didn’t know the first thing about. She imagined him naked, his body against hers, his fingers and his tongue and the hard beauty of his cock. It was too much. Her hand slicked back and forth, bringing herself ever closer to the edge until eventually she gripped hard on her breast as she fell apart in the most beautifully draining way possible.

*

She saw him again. The elevator was occupied so Raine took the stairs with the crystal vase of roses and was out of breath upon reaching his apartment. She pressed the bell.

“Hi,” Carlos said ten seconds later. He was wearing a t-shirt and dark jeans. “More flowers, huh?”

“Uh-huh.” He looked even better than she remembered and she could hardly look at him.

He took the card and read it, frowning. Then he looked at the flowers.

“Do I have to take them?” he asked.

Raine blinked.

“Well, they’re yours. Someone’s sent them especially to you. Isn’t that nice?”

Carlos looked at her.

“No, because they’re from a journalist. Wanting an interview. So it’s cheap. A crass attempt to obligate me and I don’t find that particularly nice.”

“I’m sorry,” Raine said.

He looked faintly guilty. He smiled at her.

“Don’t be. If it wasn’t for her, you and I wouldn’t have met.”

And it was that look again. That look that made her wish she was wearing nicer clothes and yet maybe he wouldn’t have looked at her that way if she had been. Maybe he liked looking at her just the way she was. It seemed implausible and yet his smile didn’t wane. Everything about him seemed achingly warm and patient. His voice. His mouth. His eyes. She wanted nothing more than to touch him.

“D’you wanna come in?” he asked. His voice was like stepping inside out of the snow. “You can see some more art if you’d like.”

Raine looked past him to the inside of his apartment. An Aladdin’s cave of creativity.

“I wish I could,” she said, truthfully. “But I have like, twenty more deliveries.”

“Okay,” Carlos said. He took the flowers and smiled. “Maybe next time.”

“Maybe,” Raine turned and headed for the elevator, feeling his eyes on her ass the whole way.

*

Maybe.

A week later, his address was on her schedule of Saturday night deliveries and she consciously headed there last, despite driving through his neighbourhood twice. She took the elevator up to his apartment and pressed the bell.

“Hi,” he said.

Raine held out the pristine white calla lilies but he didn’t take them.

“Just put them on the table,” he said and he pulled the door open wider and stepped aside so she could pass. “Busy night?”

“Uh,” Raine set the flowers down and swallowed hard. There was an enormous canvas leaning against the shark tank and she couldn’t help eyeing the abstract swirl of colours. “Actually, this is my last delivery.”

They looked at each other. He pushed the door closed a little but hesitated.

“You sure, Raine?”

She blinked and frowned.

“How’d you know my name?”

“I called the florist,” he said, like it was a reasonable confession.

“Why?” Raine asked and the word was so small from her mouth, so quiet and weak and yet it seemed to echo in the apartment.

“Why?” Carlos swallowed. “Well, mostly because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you and it’s nice to have a name to go with a fantasy.”

The room was very quiet. There was a clock on the wall and if Raine could have cleared her mind, maybe she’d have heard it tick. But the whirling hurricane of thoughts in her head was uprooting every dream and insecurity she’d ever had.

“A fantasy?” she asked. Half hope, half fear.

“Yeah,” Carlos’s mouth curled into a smile. “What, you don’t see how I look at you?”

Raine blinked. She looked at his mouth, the strong angle of his jaw, the way his hand rested on the door handle. She desperately wanted him to touch her.

“What do you think?” she asked. “When you think of me?”

His smile didn’t move but his eyes darkened.

“Do you love him? Your boyfriend?”

Raine considered telling him about Trent and the assistant curator but decided she couldn’t bear Carlos pitying her.

“I don’t know,” she said and her voice wavered even though she chose the words carefully. “Sometimes it feels like we’re strangers who just happen to live together.”

Her eyes flickered to his and she looked away fast, unable to hold his gaze. He shut the door and closed the distance between them. His hand came out and his strong fingers curled around hers. He pulled her toward him.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he said and he kissed her very gently with his mouth closed like he didn’t want to scare her away. His hand went into her hair and she kissed him back until his tongue finally pushed into her mouth. He tasted like mint. His hand slipped over her shoulder, and down her back to fit perfectly against the curve of her ass. Raine didn’t stop him. She kissed him harder, her body curling up against his. He felt warm. Safe. His tongue explored her mouth like he wanted to know every millimetre of it and she pushed at it with her own, loving how invasive he felt against her.

“You don’t know how bad I want you,” he said and she didn’t, but in the same way, he didn’t know the way she felt. He didn’t know how many times she’d thought of him late into the night, her mind alive with the sound and sight and smell of him. It would have been embarrassing if it wasn’t so painfully intense. His hands were digging hard into her ass, pulling her against him and she felt his erection against her stomach. A tiny sigh escaped the corner of her mouth and he pulled back and looked at her. His eyes were so very beautiful. Deep and dark and flecked with gold.

“Do you – want a drink, or something?” he asked. One of his hands was still gripping her ass and the other had gone under her shirt to fit neatly into the dip of her narrow waist. His hands were warm enough to stop her squirming.

“No,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Okay,” he said and he looked at her mouth and kissed it again. His hand pushed higher, finding the firm weight of her breast. He groaned and pushed her against the wall, his fingers groping desperately. His other hand went between her legs and pressed hard to the apex of her jeans. Raine gasped. She pushed back at him desperately. The hard pressure felt sublime and they went like that to his bedroom, stumbling blindly through the apartment. He let go of her to drag his t-shirt off and his thumbs caught the waistband of his boxers before he hesitated.

“You sure about this?” he asked.

“Uh-huh.”

She couldn’t remember ever being so sure about anything. She unbuttoned her shirt and Carlos pushed her down onto the bed to kiss her, his body hard and warm against hers. He found the zip on her jeans and pulled it down, straightening up to tug the denim off her legs. Her underwear went with it and he pushed her legs apart, his hand curling against the smooth warmth of her snatch. She could feel her pulse everywhere. He leaned over her, his fingers pushing inside her wet entrance and curling until she moaned. He read her reaction, figuring her out.

“You’re just – just perfection,” he whispered, his thumb finding her clit. Her hips lifted in a desperate attempt to increase the pressure and he obliged, his eyes darker than ever as she moaned.

“Please, please,”

She caught his wrist, feeling the strength of it under her fingers. She didn’t want him to stop and yet she didn’t want it to be over so soon. He didn’t stop watching her, his free hand tangled in her dark hair so he could kiss her.

“Don’t hide from me,” he whispered. “What are you so scared of, Raine?”

His words unwound her. She came so hard she thought it’d never stop and when it was over he made her come again. Only then did he move on top of her. She could hear her heartbeat throbbing in her ears and hadn’t even caught her breath when he kissed her again. It didn’t matter. His hand went down, pushing her legs apart so he could fit between them. His cock pressed against her snatch and he let out a groan, grinding against her for a moment.

“You’re so wet,” he whispered and of course she was. She’d just come twice and feeling him move against her made her flush even wetter. He pushed against her, finding her entrance. The head of his cock pressed bluntly before he shifted and urged himself inside. Her body pushed against his, desperate for more contact, for everything he could give and he pushed hard, burying his cock deep inside her. The moment hung for a moment, the feel of wet, warm, human connection. Their eyes met and he pulled back, drawing free of her grasp.

“Please,” Raine whispered. She wanted him back. She wanted to feel him inside her forever. He pushed back and ground against her. Raine’s fingers dug into his broad shoulders. He felt like everything a man could ever be. And the way he fucked. The way he moved. The way every body part moved and worked in perfect sync made her want to hold onto him and never let go.

Their bodies moved in concert, like they’d known each other for years. He made her come again, his body coaxing hers to release and eventually he came too, his cock jerking deep inside her.

Afterwards they lay awake, too high on each other to sleep. He made coffee and they talked and played Monopoly with real money and when she won he insisted that she should keep the money even though it amounted to $3,165. She left it under the box when he wasn’t looking and distracted him by deliberating over a minimalistic canvas on the wall.

“It’s called Life,” Carlos said.

It was the kind of art that would anger people for its furious simplicity but something about the straight black and white lines made Raine feel comfortable. So straight. So orderly. Life. It made sense.

“D’you like it?” Carlos was watching her. “I don’t think I do anymore.”

“So why don’t you sell it?”

“I might just do that,” he said and he looked at her and smiled.

But he didn’t. The next day, a courier delivered a neatly packaged parcel to Raine’s apartment. She opened it to find the painting and an envelope containing $3,165. For a long while, she just sat there looking at the money. The world seemed to shift, to change, to become different to anything she’d ever known. Then it came back. Trent’s cigarette smoke in the kitchen. His voice hushed as he talked to Susan, using words, endearments, he hadn’t given Raine in months.

She wondered why Carlos had sent the picture. She should have been happy. She loved the painting but the money made her feel so cheap that but her eyes filled with tears and the black and white lines blurred into a chaotic mess.

*

She went by his place after work and thrust the envelope at him. He took it before realising what it was.

“You can’t expect me to accept this,” she said, resolutely. “And the painting. You have to take it back. I looked online. It’s worth $20,000!”

“Well, so what?” he frowned. “You like it, I don’t. Just have it.”

“But it’s yours. And the money – we were just playing a game.” She shook her head. “I’m not some kind of – some kind of -”

Carlos’s eyes narrowed.

“Some kind of what, exactly?” he asked. “Why the hell would you think that?”

“When you give me $3,000 after we fuck it’s kind of hard not to think it.” Raine said.

Carlos looked at her.

“I just want to help you,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything. We like each other, don’t we? Money doesn’t change that. It’s fake. It only changes weak people. And you’re not weak. If you don’t have to work so hard, then we can spend more time together. Isn’t that a good thing? I mean, I like being around you.”

“But why?” Raine asked.

He looked at her and shook his head.

“That’s a lot of explaining,” he said and he pulled her close and kissed her.

*

She couldn’t get enough of him. They’d spend long evenings playing board games and he told her about going to art shows a day before they opened and the thrill of buying a piece or even a collection and having it taken home so he could look at it all night.

“I’m usually sick of them by the morning,” he said and they laughed.

His apartment was like a cave, beautifully isolated and nobody knew about them. Maybe the secrecy made it so addictive. It was like escaping to another universe for a while, locking the doors and losing herself in him and everything he was. And it was simple things. Sex, board games and long conversations. It amazed her how they could just talk; words rambling on, laughter and winding roads of conversation with endless detours and no real destination.

He was furiously averse to publicity, not even attending his own parties, and being on the inside of someone so enigmatic felt like a privilege. It was addictive, so much so that she gave up her weekend shifts at the florist, even though she could hardly afford to. Carlos tried to give her money.

“I’m stealing all your time,” he coaxed. “You have to let me make it up to you. It means more to me than it does to you. It’s not even about you, angel. It’s about me.”

Eventually, she caved. They played games because moving money through a medium seemed more acceptable. Monopoly, poker, blackjack. He played well and yet she always seemed to win. But to accuse him of letting her win would be absurd because the win was always marginally tight and he’d smile and act disappointed though they both knew he was the real winner.

Raine never knew what to do with the money. For a while she kept it at home in the one place Trent never went (the cleaning cupboard) but then Carlos simplified things by putting it innocuously into her bank account. She never paid attention to the sums. All she knew was that they helped cover the rent Trent never contributed to.

It was only one late night when she went online to pay a forgotten utility bill that she saw her obscene bank balance. It was more money than she’d ever known. It was enough to buy a house.

“Fuck.”

She could hear the rapidly accelerating beat of her heart. She felt enormously guilty as though she’d stolen the money somehow. She didn’t know what to think. The need to get rid of it consumed her and she found herself recklessly donating tens of thousands to charities. Save the Children. Water Aid. Human Relief. Only when the balance was comfortably low did she stop. She shut the laptop. She thought of all the things she should say to Carlos. She looked at his number in her phone, her thumb hovering over the call button. She wanted to tell him what an arrogant, out of touch, presumptuous bastard he was but she didn’t even believe the words herself. She hit the call button. It rang three times before he answered.

“Hey,” His voice spilled into her like cool water in the desert of emotion. “What’s up, angel?”

She opened her mouth and nothing came out. She ended the call in panic and wanted to cry. Instead, she began painting a picture of confetti, trying to create make black and white glitter. It was two in the morning when the buzzer sounded. She left her painting in the kitchen and went to open the door, expecting Trent.

It was Carlos.

“Hi,” he said. He’d never been to her apartment before and half of her didn’t want to let him in. “Why’d you call?”

Raine stepped aside and he walked in. She put the chain on the door.

“Because – well, because you’re unbelievable.”

He looked at her perplexedly.

“The money,” she clarified. “The money, Carlos. You can’t just give me thousands of dollars. It’s disgusting.”

“Is it?” he asked.

“Yes! There are so many millions of people you could help so why me?” She looked at him hard. “Is it because we fuck?”

He ran his hands through his hair and exhaled.

No. For God’s sake, no! It’s because I see you. Because you’re right in front of me and you deserve more. If you see someone fall over on the street, you help them, right? How can you expect me to have so much and not help you?”

“I don’t need your help. It makes me feel like I’m less than you. It makes me feel like everything we talk about, everything we do has a price. It makes me sick!”

She turned away, hating herself more than she could ever hate him.

“I’m sorry,” Carlos acquiesced eventually. “It was selfish of me. It made me feel good about myself. I’ll stop, okay? If that’s what you want, I’ll stop.”

Raine didn’t speak. She breathed in slowly. Carlos cleared his throat.

“Is this yours?” he asked finally.

She turned. He was frowning at a painting next to the sofa.

“No. It’s Trent’s. D’you like it?”

Carlos’s mouth twisted with distaste.

“It’s absolutely foul. Disgusting. Pretentious as fuck. Obscene.”

They looked at each other. She tried not to laugh and he smiled the smile that made her stomach hurt in the best way.

“He has a solo show opening Monday,” she said finally. “At the Sanderson Gallery. I just – I don’t know. It’s better stuff than this. Couldn’t you go?”

“Why?” Carlos frowned. “So you feel less guilty for fucking me?”

“Carlos – look,”

“No, you look. Art is as much about an artist as it is about one piece. And this guy, he can’t even see you,” He walked towards her. “He can’t even see what he has. How can someone so blind create anything worth seeing?”

“But you’ve only heard my side,” Raine looked up at him. “I’m biased of course. He’s - a nice person.”

Nice? So where is he, Raine? It’s fucking three in the morning and he’s not here.”

He caught her chin in frustration and kissed her, his tongue swirling into her mouth. His fingers tangled in her hair. He smelt like clean laundry and his mouth tasted like toothpaste.

Pushing her down onto the sofa, he kissed her harder, his fingers curling into the waistband of her shorts. He pulled back and looked at her for a second and she looked at him and it felt like they were in a tiny private world that nobody else would ever be a part of. It felt so precious she wanted to capture it and hold it in a snow globe, sheltered and beautiful and timeless. She could feel his breath against her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked and it only intensified the hurt because he could sense she was upset like nobody else ever did. Nobody understood her like him. Nobody had ever seen her like he did.

“Just – you’re so nice to me. All the time.”

“So leave him,” His voice dropped into a whisper. “Forget him. You can come live with me. It’d be wonderful.”

She smiled wistfully.

“But then you’d be like my – my-”

“What?” His smile spilled into her. “Your what, angel?”

“Like my – sugar daddy.”

He laughed hard and she laughed too but only because she didn’t want him to stop laughing. She felt him tug down her shorts and then his mouth was on her snatch and all she could do was moan as his tongue found her clit and pressed against it until she was throbbing.

“God, Carlos,” Her hands curled into fists and he pulled her harder against his mouth, his tongue flickering against her until she was gasping. His pushed two fingers deep inside her and stroked her relentlessly. Raine’s hand moved over the flat of her stomach, towards her breast and she sank her fingers into it desperately.

“Harder,” Carlos said. “Do it like I do.”

She obliged and he rewarded her by pushing a third finger inside her entrance. His tongue stroked her clit hard and purposefully, his fingers pumping in and out of her.

“You gonna come for me?” he whispered against her snatch. “You gonna come all over my tongue? Give it to me, angel.”

She gave it to him and he didn’t stop moving his fingers even as she writhed against him. She pulled away desperately and reached for the zip on his jeans, tugging it down with fumbling fingers.

“Raine, wait,”

She couldn’t wait. She wanted him to feel how she felt and she freed his cock, her tongue swirling across the head before she closed her lips around it. She took in more, desperate and reckless, as she sucked him down to the base. Her eyes flicked up to meet his and he groaned, his hand caressing the side of her face. There was a constrained urgency to the way he touched her. His hand wove into her hair, gripping it hard as her eyes watered. She breathed through her nose, her fingers digging into his ass.

She wanted all of him and he gave it, guiding her head back and forth. She could taste the salt on his skin and her tongue traced the underside of his hard cock even as he thrust in and out. He didn’t speak. She couldn’t speak. They watched each other. It felt as though the entire world had gone quiet but for the wet sound of his cock fucking her mouth. All she knew anymore was him and when he finally came, she swallowed every drop.

*

Leave him.

The two words had been playing on loop and when Raine got home on Monday evening, she finally felt ready to act. Trent was playing PlayStation, killing time before his art show opening. The apartment smelled like paint and Susan. Raine thought briefly about her suitcase. And her paintings. She’d left them stacked neatly in the corner of the bedroom but when she went to get them, they’d disappeared. She stared at the space where they’d been and her first bizarre thought was that the apartment had been burgled. But it made no sense. The only other person around was Trent and what would he want with them?

“I took them to the gallery for my show,” he said, like it was no big deal.

Raine stared.

“But they’re mine.”

“Yeah. But I had to make mine stand out,” He looked at her impatiently. “If everyone drives a Ferrari nobody cares. It only gets the status it deserves because it stands out. I can’t put ten masterpieces in one room with nothing for anyone to compare them to. Beautiful people are only beautiful because everybody else is ugly.”

Raine blinked. They were two feet apart but she’d never felt further from him.

“But they’re mine,” she said. “You didn’t even ask me.”

“I’m sorry, baby,” he said insincerely. “Forgive me, huh?”

Baby. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d said the word to her. She wanted to get one of his pots of paint and empty it over his arrogant head.

“I don’t want anyone to see my paintings,” she said and it was true. Everything she’d ever painted was so profoundly personal that the idea of strangers even glancing at it made her nauseous. To be judged or even just surveyed filled her with panic.

“Nobody’s gonna care,” Trent said impatiently. “It’s background, okay? It’s fucking grey.”

Raine wanted to cry. She also wanted to kill him. She did neither.

“I’m done,” she said eventually. She went to the bedroom and retrieved her suitcase. “I’m done, Trent. Find someone else to use.”

He dropped the PlayStation controller in alarm and followed her all the way down to her car.

“Wait,” he pleaded. “Look, I’ll get them back. The show opens in an hour. We’ll go get them now, huh? Nobody will have seen them.”

But when they got to the gallery, the paintings were nowhere to be seen. Trent’s pieces hung on the white walls but Raine couldn’t see any of her own.

“Where are they?” she asked but he’d already been distracted by Susan. Raine scanned every last wall in the gallery and found nothing. Deflated, she sat in her car and watched all the people going into his show. It made her sick. She went to Carlos’s place.

“I’m done with him,” she said, as soon as he opened the door. “He’s unreal. I can’t believe I ever liked him. And I’m so glad you haven’t gone to his stupid show.”

Carlos looked enormously guilty.

“I went.”

“But it’s tonight,” Raine frowned. “I just came from there.”

“I told you,” Carlos said, “I always go a day or two before shows open. D’you think I want to drink champagne with pretentious idiots?”

“Oh,” Raine nodded. “Did you like it?”

“The show? Well, not his. But there was other stuff. They didn’t know the artist. They said they’d get back to me with the price. But whatever it is, it’s worth it. Here, I’ll show you.”

And he took her across the apartment and showed her five of her own paintings.

“Monochrome usually fails but these - they’re sort of profound without being depressing.” He sighed. “They’re – I can’t even explain. They’re just -”

“They’re mine.” Raine said.

Carlos looked at her. He frowned. “Yours? What d’you mean?”

“I mean – Trent took them to the gallery to make his look good. He never even told me. They were meant to be background to his, so people liked his more.”

Carlos let out a long breath. For a long while he looked from her to the paintings as though he didn’t quite understand.

Eventually, he said, “I told you he was fucking blind.”

They stood there looking at the paintings and somehow seeing Carlos appreciate them made Raine feel vaguely proud.

“You really like them?” she asked. “Honestly?”

“I love them. I would have bought them all but there was another guy there who took the others. So what more do you want me to say? It’s your time.” Carlos looked at her and smiled. “Things are gonna change for you, angel.”

And he kissed her so hard she would’ve fallen over if he hadn’t been there to catch her.

 

 

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