She nodded, studying the canvas thoughtfully. “If you keep this up, I think you have quite the career ahead of you.” Winking, she moved away, her bangle bracelets clinking.
I was floating, elated from her praise until I realized she wanted me to produce more work like A Winter’s Morning. Work that ripped me open and came from someplace inside that I really didn’t want to keep visiting. I didn’t know if I could keep this up. If I could do it again. I’d shut myself off from emotions for so long, from anything that felt too raw.
My smile felt pained and brittle after that. I maintained my composure, smiling and talking. I accepted compliments and answered questions.
And then I saw him across the crowded room.
Not twenty yards away. He was leaning against the wall, wearing his leather biker jacket, a thin dusting of snow on his shoulders. He was so much darkness against the white wall. A black T-shirt peeped out from his dark jacket. His dark hair. And those eyes.
He gaze was intent. But not on me. On the painting. The painting of him.
Bile surged in my throat and I felt like I was going to be sick. When his gaze jumped from the painting to me I was positive I was going to be sick. Those eyes blazed right through me.
“E-excuse me,” I mumbled to the people I’d been talking to. Wrenching my gaze off Shaw, I commanded my feet to move. I just couldn’t stand facing him with A Winter’s Morning hovering over us. The idea of making small talk with him as he stared at the shadow of his face on canvas made my stomach turn inside out. I couldn’t do it.
It was too much to bear . . . knowing he saw that painting. I might as well have been standing na**d in front of him with a sign around my neck that said: I LOVE SHAW.
I pushed through the crowd, my heels clacking furiously over the marble floor. I hoped he wouldn’t follow, but somehow knew he would. He didn’t come here to stare at me from afar. And now. Now he had seen the painting.
It was a challenge navigating the room. There were so many people mingling throughout the long gallerylike space. Not to mention waiters walking around with trays.
I probably looked like a madwoman pushing through people as if a guy in a ski mask was after me. I was almost to the front door. From there I could run for my dorm—take the shortcut behind the engineering building. He wasn’t a student here. He wouldn’t know it. As I came up on the coat-check desk, I didn’t even worry about collecting mine. I just kept going.
I was two steps from the double glass doors, ready to push them open, almost free, when a hand clamped down on my wrist.
“Hey, Emerson. I thought that was you. What are you doing here?”
I blinked. It took me a moment to process the barrista from the Java Hut, the very guy who’d texted me the other night.
“H-hello, Jeff. How are you,” I said as he pulled me into a close hug, his hands stroking up and down my back.
“Great. My roommate’s girlfriend has an exhibit here and I told her I’d come. What about you?” Before I could answer, he draped an arm around me and talked close, into my ear. “I texted you the other night. Thought maybe we can get—”
Before he could even finish his suggestion, Shaw was there, eyes still blazing. He trained his gaze on me. It was like Jeff wasn’t even there—or was beneath his notice.
“Emerson,” he said tightly, his hand claiming mine. “Let’s go.”
Jeff’s arms tightened around my shoulders. “Hey, buddy—”
Shaw’s gaze swung to him, finally giving him his attention. “I’m not your f**king buddy. Now get your arm off her.”
Jeff made no move, but I felt his uncertainty in the slight tremble of his body against me.
I opened my mouth to speak but no words arrived.
A muscle ticked in Shaw’s jaw. He inhaled and the motion only drew attention to his broad chest. His eyes were hard and dark as they stared at Jeff. In that moment, maybe more than ever, I saw the Marine in him. “You can take your arm off her or I will.”
The words had their desired effect. Jeff immediately dropped his arm, holding his hands up in front of him. “Jeez, man, okay. I didn’t know she was with you.”
Shaw didn’t respond. He was finished with him. Unfortunately he was just beginning with me though.
I barely managed a squeak before he hauled me past the coat counter, past a wide-eyed coed. His long legs covered the ground quickly, leading us past the bathroom and around the corner. We passed a few numbered doors. Offices, I guessed. I’d never been in this part of the Student Memorial Center before. The voices of the party were faint and faraway. He spun me around and pressed me against the wall, presumably satisfied we were alone.
He stared down at me, fury glittering in his eyes, his chest a rock-solid wall against me. I didn’t know what I expected to see in his face, but it wasn’t anger. What did he have to be angry about? Did I need his permission to paint him? I’m the one who should be angry for him showing up uninvited. I suppose feeling anger was better though than what I had felt moments ago—when I’d seen him standing there, his gaze glued to my painting of him. Fear, I hated. Fear, I couldn’t allow. Anger, I would gladly take.
“That was totally unnecessary,” I hissed. “You embarrassed me.”
“I’m done watching other guys paw you, Emerson.”
I moistened my lips, thinking that I was done with that, too. I had been. Ever since I met him. His were the only hands I wanted on me, but I wasn’t about to admit that. I’d endured enough mortification for one day, thank you very much.
“I almost didn’t come to this tonight, you know. You don’t answer your door or respond to my texts. You made it pretty clear that you don’t want to see me anymore.”
I closed my eyes in a long, pained blink. “Why did you come then?” I whispered. “How did you even know about this?”
“Pepper mentioned it.”
“Of course she did,” I snapped, not having very kind thoughts of my roommate just then. She was supposed to be on my side.
“You almost had me convinced, you know.”
A small shiver ran through me as I searched his face, so unbearably close I could see the tiny flecks of gold in his eyes. Our breaths panted, mingling between us. Even though a whisper inside me warned that I should just let the subject drop, I demanded, “Convinced of what?”