Seth stopped dead in his tracks. Standing with one foot still on the sidewalk and the other on the wooden floors of Dreams on Canvas, he stood for a full thirty seconds not being able to remember why he was entering the ultra-chic art gallery. The unexpected sight of a set of incredible legs disappearing into a pair of cut-off jeans left him stunned and with his mouth gaping open. He had no idea shabby shorts could look so good on anyone.
A silent war between common sense and admiration kept Seth lodged in place. Half of his brain was shouting for him to stand there staring for as long as he could get away with it, and the other half was telling him that he should go over and let Suzette Warren know he was there for their meeting before she caught him standing in the doorway drooling. Finally deciding that ogling the art gallery owner was probably a bad way to begin a new business relationship, Seth stepped inside and tried to remember all of the good manners his mother had taught him over the years.
He had only driven to the tiny town of Murfreesboro because his manager had raved on and on about what a talented artist Suzette Warren was. What a shame that whilst Beverly had been naming all of the woman’s wonderful attributes she had failed to mention just how gorgeous she looked.
At that very moment, while he was busy staring, the raven-haired beauty was slowly backing across the art gallery and making a cute little clicking noise with her tongue. She appeared to be contemplating whether a painting was in the right position, or if her lanky, blonde helper needed to move it somewhere else.
Seth loved the gallery owner’s gorgeous hair, and was thoroughly fascinated to watch her long ponytail swish lazily from side to side with each turn of her head. Even with the thick mane pulled up, it was still long enough to reach her waist. Suzette’s hair was a fantastic shade of black that glimmered with each turn of her head beneath the gallery’s bright overhead lights.
The man holding the enormous canvas finally lost all patience and groaned, “Oh come on! Make up your mind already. This thing isn’t getting any lighter.”
Instead of replying, Suzette continued making the clicking sounds. It took her a few more seconds before she finally smiled her approval.
Her voice had a wonderful, raspy quality, “Bill, you’ve been helping all of thirty minutes.” She made a point of putting a drawn-out emphasis on, “The painting surely can’t be that heavy.” She softened that with a quick grin, as if used to Bill’s whining.
She motioned for him to put the painting on the floor, and then held both arms out wide. “It will be perfect here. Its blue tones are a wonderful contrast with the orange sunset on one side and the yellow daffodils on the other.”
Bill was making certain the painting wasn’t going to slide on the wooden floor and fall, when Suzette finally noticed Seth standing by the front door. When she did turn her full attention on him, Seth was shocked to the very core by her unusual, light blue eyes. They had such intense intelligence they clearly said she didn’t suffer fools gladly, but they also made him think of long walks along the beach and kissing in the moonlight. With a little trouble he remembered that long walks and kissing weren’t on the agenda. He needed an artist. The last thing he needed was to make a complete ass out of himself over a beautiful woman.
When Seth didn’t say anything, she cleared her throat. Feeling like a twelve year old school boy caught misbehaving in class, he hurriedly apologized, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s not a problem. I didn’t know you were standing over there and waiting for me. I had no idea I left the door unlocked.” She gestured toward the artwork stacked along the walls of the long room. “The gallery’s closed today. We’re setting up a new exhibit for tomorrow night’s show.”
Seth moved into the room a few steps more but he wasn’t certain if she was going to have time to talk to him, since Suzette didn’t look as if she liked being interrupted. “I didn’t mean to interfere with your work schedule, but my manager told me you would be expecting me this morning. I’m Seth Black.”
Suzette raised her eyebrows and glanced at her watch. “I had no idea it was so late.” She made a motion for him to come over. “I was so caught up in what I was doing I forgot you were coming today.”
She turned toward Bill. “You can take a break for a little bit if you want to.” But before he could wander off she touched his arm and turned back toward Seth. “This is my office manager and best friend, Bill Fields. When he’s not helping me hang paintings and answering the phone he paints the most outstanding abstracts in the world. Remember his name because he will be famous one day.”
Bill blushed and tucked a strand of long, blonde hair behind one ear. He studied his feet as if he wished he wasn’t the center of attention.
Seth liked the tall, lanky man right away. Feeling like a fool, because he was still standing clear on the other side of the room, he strolled over and offered his hand to Bill first. “It’s nice meeting you.”
Bill returned the handshake like a man relieved to have his workday interrupted. “I’m happy to see you. Suzette has been trying to kill me. If you will excuse me, I’ll leave you two to chat.”
Seth nodded. “Certainly.”
After the introductions were over, Bill sauntered over to a nearby bench and there curled into a tight ball. He placed his head on one hand and threw his other arm over his eyes, as if preparing for a long nap.
Seth turned to Suzette and offered his hand. When she held hers out, he engulfed it into both of his own. She gave him a head to toe scan, and instead of being intimidated by his large, muscled frame, she returned his handshake with a firm and sure grip of her own. When he seemed to hang on to her hand a little too long, she smartly withdrew it. “Beverly said you’re interested in having your portrait painted for your next album cover.”
He flashed his famous lopsided grin before saying, “I’m sorry if I keep staring. I swear this isn’t the first time I have been allowed out in public by myself, but for some reason I was expecting a little, old, gray-haired lady. Beverly said you had years and years of experience painting portraits. Normally when someone has years and years of experience they have some gray hair to show for it.”
Suzette headed toward the other side of the room and motioned for him to follow. “I hope you don’t think I’m being rude, but I’m really busy today. Could we talk as I work?” Suzette stopped at a stack of paintings.
Seth followed her. “I don’t mind. I can help if you need an extra pair of hands.”
“It seems I could use them since my help appears to be taking a nap.” Together they glanced over at Bill. He didn’t budge an inch, but could be heard snoring from clear across the room. She shook her head and turned back to the paintings as if unconcerned.
As she sorted, she divided her attention between the paintings and Seth. “My parents gave me my first art set when I was four. I think I may have painted the walls as much as I did the canvases, but I was only four, after all.” She met his eyes and smiled.
It was clearly infectious for he immediately returned it. She was very charismatic.
“I didn’t begin painting professionally until I was twelve.”
Seth loved her hands. They were so delicate without appearing too fragile. “You waited that long, huh?”
She looked up from her sorting and when she saw he was just joking, she chuckled. “I would have started sooner but my parents were very protective. To be quite honest I threw a temper tantrum until they agreed.” She rolled her beautiful sky-blue eyes. “I was such a brat. Four years ago I purchased this gallery, so I now prefer representing other artists. When I paint now it’s mostly for my own pleasure, but every once in a while I will take on a project, if it interests me. I told Beverly I wasn’t sure if I would do your portrait or not, but, after talking with her, I got the feeling she’s a very determined, head-strong lady.”
Seth laughed as if that was an understatement. “She has been called that among other things.”
Suzette stopped what she was doing long enough to turn and face him. “Beverly doesn’t have the market on headstrong. In the end, it will be my decision if I take the commission on your portrait or not.”
Seth admired Suzette’s confidence. “I would never dream of pressuring you. I only ask for an opportunity to tell you about my plans for the new album cover, and then you can decide whether to do it or not. Beverly says that you’re the best, and I value her knowledge on such matters.”
While Suzette had been surprised to find a stranger in her gallery so early in the morning, she was even more astonished by her immediate attraction to the ruggedly, handsome man. He had a humble demeanor with a huge dash of sexiness thrown in for good measure. She couldn’t remember the last time she had found another man so attractive. She usually liked looking people in the eye when she was talking with them, but he had such beautiful hazel eyes that they made her lose track of what he was saying. Instead of looking at him, she had to find something else to do, so it wasn’t obvious how flustered she had become. But even though she had already flipped through the stack of paintings at least three times, she couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. To give the appearance Seth Black hadn’t scrambled every one of her brain cells, she began placing the paintings along each wall, at the places she would have Bill hang them at later.
“I’m not certain that I’m such a good choice to paint your portrait. Before I do one I like to have a good understanding about the person I’m working with. Beverley said yesterday that you’re a country music singer. Even though I was born and raised in Tennessee, I’ve never listened to that genre of music before.”
He held up one of the paintings and waited for her approval. “Country music focuses more on life and relationships than any of the other genres. We’re not afraid of putting our hearts into every song we write and sing.”
Absentmindedly, Suzette began making the cute little clicking noises again. She also had a funny way of bobbing her head back and forth when she was deep in thought. After a moment of clicking and bobbing she stood completely still and silent. She then smiled, its brilliance almost making Seth drop the painting. He silently had to remind himself he was there on business and had no intention of getting entangled with anyone at this time in his life. He had been a victim of his own father’s messy life, and the trouble it had caused everyone who loved him. Over the years, Seth’s mother had tried to escape the pain by drinking herself into a stupor. It had been sad watching a woman squander her love on a man who could only love himself. Seth had always thought he would stay free of love’s trap. As far as he could tell, it only led to heartbreak in the end.
Growing up under the cloud of his father’s womanizing ways and drug addictions, it hadn’t been hard to see that the life his father had lived was wrong. After his dad’s death, Seth had decided he would never live his life in a way that would ever hurt another person. Even when he decided to go into the music business, like his father, he made a conscious decision to stay away from all of the temptations fame brought with it. Women were on the very top of his list of things to stay away from. One look at Suzette and there was little doubt she would be able to sidetrack him, if he let her. He couldn’t afford to let that happen.
The moment Seth’s mind drifted away was obvious, and it intrigued her. His pensive look made him even more appealing, if that were possible. Thoughtful men were one of her Achilles’ heels. She loved men who were multi-layered. Nothing made a man sexier than having many facets that needed to be unraveled.
Suzette cleared her throat, “I have to confess I might be a snob when it comes to music. I’ve always leaned more towards the classics. I do listen to jazz every now and then. When I have a chance, I will listen to some country on the radio later this afternoon. It wouldn’t be fair to turn your offer down just because I’ve never listen to your type of music before.”
Seth refocused on Suzette, and his intense stare filled her with excitement, all the way down to her toes.
His lazy, country twang was more pronounced the next time he spoke, “I tell you what. My guitar is out in the truck. Why don’t I play you some of my songs? You can make your mind up about country music after listening to a couple of them. I write all of my own lyrics and the music that goes with it. If I can’t make a fan out of you, then I am doomed to be a failure.”
Deciding she could use a quick break and a cup of coffee, Suzette nodded. “Okay. You go get your guitar, and come upstairs. I have my apartment above the gallery. I haven’t had any breakfast yet. Why don’t I make some coffee, and scramble us some eggs? I can spare you some time to listen.”
Suzette pointed over to a flight of steps that were off to the back wall of the gallery. “Just go on up, after you’ve got your guitar, and we will see if you can convert me into being a fan.”
Seth gave a lopsided grin and quickly agreed. “Breakfast sounds good. I don’t mean to sound conceited, but if I can’t convert you then no one can.”
Suzette laughed. He was a charming man. She turned to leave the room, but quickly called back over her shoulder, “I’m not sure anyone has that much talent.”
Seth watched her head up the stairway. He watched until she disappeared before turning to leave the room. He left the gallery through its front entrance, and walked out into bright summer sunshine. His old red Chevy truck was parked in a metered parking space on the other side of the street. He had to wait for the next walk sign before he could cross. When he did, and perfectly legally, a woman driver honked at him as if it was his fault she almost hit him.
Even after almost getting run over, it wasn’t enough to wipe away the smile on his face. He smiled and waved, running the rest of the way. As soon as he unlocked the truck door he grabbed the battered old guitar off of the truck’s seat. Dodging cars again, he headed back to the gallery, this time making it without any mishap. Bill was still fast asleep on the bench as Seth entered and headed for the stairway, guitar in hand. He could already smell the coffee brewing and bacon cooking.
Suzette was a woman of her word. He had no idea he was hungry, not until the wonderful smells hit him full force, about half way up the staircase. Her apartment’s layout almost mirrored the gallery. Both the first and second floors were about fifty feet in length and some twenty five in width. The second floor was one long room with a door on the back wall. The larger room only had a limited amount of furniture. It looked as if Suzette was a woman of few needs. Seth didn’t know a lot of women like her. His own mother had wall to wall furniture crammed into her small two bedroom house.
The room had a small kitchen area at the end facing the back of the apartment, with a small sink and a couple of light stained oak cabinets over it. The only furniture in that area was a tiny glass table with two chairs. In the middle of the room there was a large, unmade, four-poster bed covered in a bright teal bedspread. Next to it was a huge antique oak dresser. Every single one of its drawers was wide open. Clothes spilled out of them as if Suzette had been in a hurry to dress that morning. There was an enormous antique mirror hanging on the wall over the dresser, pictures of friends and loved ones taped all around its edges.
Seth tried not to notice the discarded clothes on the floor by the bed, but he wouldn’t have been a man if he hadn’t noticed the red silky panties lying there. Set up at the far end of the long room was a well-equipped art studio. This area was a stark contrast to her living quarters. It was as neat as a pin. All of the canvases and art supplies were arranged and stored in tidy containers.
Suzette was so busy cooking she didn’t turn around when he came in. At that moment she was pulling several food items out of a compact refrigerator. She only turned when he set his guitar on her tiny kitchen table.
“I hope you don’t mind, but after I started cooking I realized that I was hungry. I think I’m going to fry some home style potatoes to go with the bacon and scrambled eggs. I hope you’re hungry.”
She turned with a can of biscuits in one hand. “What do you think? How about some biscuits too? We will have to settle for the store bought kind, though. I’m not the kind of cook who can whip up a pan of biscuits from scratch.”
Seth nodded. “I didn’t know I was hungry until I smelled the bacon cooking. I’m willing to eat whatever you set in front of me. I was raised on canned biscuits. My mom had no idea biscuits could be made from scratch. Do you need any help with anything?”
Suzette began pulling her baking dishes out of the cabinet, and just motioned for him to sit. “No. Our agreement was for you to play while I cooked, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do. I can’t promise this will be the best breakfast you ever had, but at least there will be plenty of it.”
Seth pulled a chair out and sat before picking up his guitar to tune.
Suzette was putting the baking pan of biscuits in the oven when Seth began singing. His voice had been one of the first things she had noticed when he had introduced himself earlier, but the moment he began singing she found it to be even more fascinating. It had an interesting husky quality to it that sent chills up her spine.
She didn’t turn, but continued with the food preparations. The words to his song were just as magnetic as his voice. It was a soft sung song of lost love. Not the expected lyrics of a man losing the love of a woman but of a son losing the love of his father. Suzette flipped the bacon slices over in the cast iron skillet, and then began peeling potatoes and slicing them. There she was doing the most mundane things and she wanted to cry. She couldn’t help but think about the young boy Seth was singing about.
It sounded too real not to be about him and his life. Who else but the person singing this song could sing it with such genuine emotion? His next song was just as heartbreaking. How had she not taken the time to listen to such heartfelt music before? The joke had always been, what do you get if you play a country music record backward? You got back your lost love, your truck and your dog. Suzette had been guilty of letting old jokes stop her from listening to country music stations. After all, she lived just twenty miles from its world capital; Nashville, Tennessee. You couldn’t live in Tennessee and not know about country music, but Suzette had always considered herself too cultured ever to take it seriously.
Was Seth’s music a good example of what the rest of it was like? She was finding herself pulled to the man sitting at her kitchen table. His songs were of a wounded soul. Someone had stolen his innocence and his youth.
Suzette finished cooking, and divided all the food onto her best china. She wasn’t trying to impress him, but she seldom cooked so it was all she owned. She set two plates on the table but found she was no longer hungry. She propped her elbows on the table and gave Seth all of her attention. She knew without a doubt she was going to paint this man’s portrait.
He had a story, and she now knew she had to find out what it was, but she didn’t think he was the type to tell anyone about himself. It was going to take some time to find out what made him tick, and that meant spending time together. Painting a portrait took time. Seth didn’t know it, but Suzette had made her decision. She had decided that Seth had depth and a wounded soul. She wanted to know why he sung of such pain and sorrow.
Seth played and sung three more songs before finally setting down the guitar off to the side.
Just as Seth was pulling his plate of food closer, Bill called up the stairwell. “I’m starving to death!” A few seconds later he entered the room.
Suzette shook her head but grinned. “Sure. There’s plenty.” She handed him her plate of food.
Bill took it and sat on the kitchen counter top as if it was a lounge chair.
Seth slid his plate across the table toward Suzette. “There’s more than enough on my plate to share.”
Suzette just shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m no longer hungry.”
Seth looked concerned. “I hope that it wasn’t my music that made you lose your appetite.”
Suzette surprised herself by reaching across the table to touch his hand. “No! I didn’t mean that at all. Your music was great! I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I have to find out now whether the rest of country music is like your songs. Your lyrics were sad and haunting. I’m intrigued by what I heard today. You’ve just made a new fan.”
When Suzette realized she had left her hand on top of his, she quickly pulled it back. She wrapped it around her coffee cup so Seth couldn’t see it was trembling.
His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “I never know how my music will be received. I was pretty cocky earlier when I said that I could change your mind about country, but deep down I’m still not certain about how people are going to accept my music. I’ve been playing in small clubs for the past six years, and the upcoming tour will be my first opportunity to play to larger audiences. I’m really excited about it, but it is a bit daunting.”
Seth leaned back in the kitchen chair and gave Suzette a charming smile. “Fan, huh? So does that mean you have decided to do the album cover?”
Bill asked with a mouthful. “What album cover? What did I miss?”
Suzette glared at him. “If you didn’t doze off at every opportunity, you would know what was going on.”
Bill just popped some more food into his mouth and smiled, like he knew she wasn’t really mad.
Suzette stood and walked over to the coffee pot, to top off her half-filled cup. It wasn’t easy resisting Seth’s personality, to stop it influencing her decision. She suspected he had more than his fair share of women hanging around, idolizing him. She had no intention of falling into that category.
When she realized she had let his music affect her so much, she tried pulling back a bit, emotionally. She needed to keep everything in perspective. After pouring the coffee, she returned to the table with the intention of keeping the rest of their meeting more business-like.
Her tone reflected the change. “Yes. The project suddenly interests me. Why don’t you call me next week, and we will set up a time that is convenient for the both of us?”
“Now that you’ve seen my work, why don’t you show me some of yours?” He gestured towards the studio area.
Suzette liked her privacy, but it only seemed fair. She jammed her hands into her short’s pockets. “Okay. There’s really not much to see. Most of my work is downstairs in storage.”
She took him across to the studio area, and to an easel on which rested a breathtaking landscape. It wasn’t any normal landscape but a mystical land of exotic flowers and peaceful meadows full of tall flowing grasses. Seth studied it for several minutes before finally breaking away and going over to the stack Suzette had under a window at the far end of the room.
As he sorted through, his face lit up at the beauty each canvas held. “These are truly amazing! I know you said you did landscapes, but I wasn’t expecting anything like this. These are truly stunning.”
Suzette didn’t realize she was holding her breath. She quietly expelled her pent-up breath, and hoped her voice didn’t betray how fast her heart was beating. “I don’t paint as many portraits as I used to. I change my style of painting every couple of years so my perspective stays fresh. I’m glad you liked my landscapes. You’re the first person that I have shown them to.”
He walked over to the painting on the easel again. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything more beautiful in my entire life. I don’t know if they’re for sale, but I would love to buy this one. I think I have been looking my entire life for such a place. The scene is so peaceful I can’t stop looking at it.”
Suzette heard the wistfulness in his voice. It was her favorite painting too. She had painted it the week before, after waking up from a dream that was vaguely familiar and somehow slightly unsettling. She couldn’t go back to sleep for thinking about it stayed long after waking. After tossing and turning for about twenty minutes she had finally got up and painted it. Every day she would look at and question why it was so disturbing. It felt as if she had been there before, and Seth’s expression told her that it somehow affected him in the same way. “I would like to give you this landscape, if you would like to have it.”
He stepped back and alternately looked at the painting and then back at her, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “You don’t have to give it to me. I would love to buy it from you.”
Suzette just shook her head. “Consider it payback for the music you shared with me earlier.”
Seth touched her arm and, as if that wasn’t enough to express his gratitude, kissed her cheek. “I’m truly touched by your generosity.”
Suzette resisted the urge to touch the spot where he had kissed her. It felt like a hot poker had rested there. She shook her head, slowly trying to remove the cobwebs and return some sort of sanity. She smiled as if none of these thoughts had entered her head. “You’re welcome. I love it when my paintings find a good home, with people who really appreciate them.”
Since Suzette still had so much to do to finish setting up the new art exhibit, she changed the subject. “When will it be convenient for you to set up a meeting to discuss the arrangements for me doing your portrait?”
Seth pressed his lips together and tapped his foot while thinking. “I have a lot of details to sort out for my tour, the first of next week. How about next Friday? Say around three p.m.?”
It was strangely disappointing to find out the meeting wasn’t going to be until the end of the week. “Three o’clock on Friday works for me. Do you want to meet at Beverly’s office?”
“That sounds good.”
Suzette nodded toward the painting. “I’ll get it boxed up and I send it to her office.”
Seth gave the painting one long, last look. “I can’t thank you enough for this. I don’t think anyone has ever given me a nicer gift.”
Suzette smiled but looked embarrassed.
Seth gathered up his guitar, and gave Bill a small wave. Bill was still on the kitchen counter finishing off the last of the biscuits. “It was nice meeting you, Bill.”
Bill smiled with the biscuit still in his mouth. “Nice meeting you too.”
Seth left the art gallery and headed across the busy square towards his truck. He couldn’t get the silly grin off of his face. It must have been infectious, though, because several people returned his smile.
When Seth reached his truck he went to put his guitar on the seat, but stopped when he saw a sheet of white paper lying there. He glanced around to see if anyone was standing nearby, but when no one seemed interested in him, he put the guitar in the floorboard and picked up the note. The moment he read it his smile vanished.
We need to talk about our father. I’ll contact you later about how much cash to bring when we meet. If you don’t do exactly as you’re instructed, I will contact the media about how our old man ruined the life of an innocent sixteen year old girl by getting her pregnant and hooked on drugs.
Your long lost brother
Seth wadded the note and tossed into the floorboard of the truck. He rested his forehead on the hot steering wheel and let the heat from the plastic burn into his skin. He had been crazy to think that just because his father was dead he was finished finding ways of messing with his life. From beyond the grave Montgomery Black was still stirring up all the old emotions, and opening up old wounds.
He wasn’t afraid of the humiliation this might cause him, if it became public knowledge, but his mom was just six months into recovering from pain pills and alcohol abuse. Could she handle the rehash of all of the old scandals? It never crossed his mind that the note might be a lie. It only left him curious about a brother he had never met. He looked at the crumpled-up paper and sighed. This just might be the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.