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Authors: Anisa Claire West

Champagne Deception

BOOK: Champagne Deception
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Champagne Deception

 

 

 

 

 

Anisa Claire West

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction.  The names, characters, places, and events depicted in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any similarity to actual people, either living or deceased, is purely coincidental.

Prologue

Milan, Italy

A Black, Moonless Night in May

 

Inside
the art gallery, Coretta put the finishing touches on a tray of Italian hors d’oeuvres set on a table lined with bottles of the finest champagne.  It was eight o’clock precisely, and the gallery was about to open its doors to introduce her paintings to the world.  Swallowing a breath of nervousness, Coretta smoothed the fabric of her scarlet cocktail dress while listlessly twirling her shoulder length mahogany hair.  It was time to open the doors to the public; she couldn’t wait another minute longer.

With trembling fingers, she unlocked the doors and opened them wide for the
avid art lovers who stood queued up in the balmy spring air.  Immediately, they pushed through the doors, clamoring to reach the walls and place early bids on her best paintings.  Coretta smiled in stark disbelief; this kind of fame and popularity were completely new to her.  A few months ago, she couldn’t even get an art dealer to look at one of her paintings and now here she was with a gallery opening devoted to her work.  Discreetly, she pinched her forearm, giggling silently as she observed the customers fight over her paintings.

From the darkest corner of the gallery, Coretta
continued to watch in awe as the elegant art lovers fussed over her labors of love.  Emerging from the shadows and strolling over to the buffet table for a glass of champagne, Coretta scanned the room for her lover.  They had quarreled earlier when he misplaced three paintings that she had planned to feature in the display, and now she wanted to make amends.

Coretta selected a flute of champagne and lifted the delicate glass to her lips, indulging in a sip.  The icy bubbles rolled smoothly across her tongue, and she closed her eyes, savoring the moment.  She pressed the rim to her lips for a second sip when
a strident beeping assaulted the hushed atmosphere of the gallery and the lights simultaneously dimmed to black.  The recently opened gallery contained no back-up generator, and the entire space was immediately as dark as the moonless spring sky.  The glass of champagne slipped out of Coretta’s fingers and crashed onto the floor as she jumped in fright.

Groping in the
blackness, Coretta bumped her knee against a metal table and squealed with pain as the group on the other side of the room became agitated.  The sounds of bodies bumping into each other and glasses crashing to the ground elicited a scream from one woman and grumblings in Italian from several of the other guests.

Coretta spoke up and addressed the crowd
in her most authoritative voice: “I apologize for this inconvenience.  Apparently, there has been some sort of electrical failure that has caused a blackout.  I would advise you to take out your cell phones and use the lights from those devices until I can find some candles.  A candlelit art reception, not bad, right?” She spoke lightheartedly, trying to allay the concerns of her guests.

As a handful of people dug into
their pockets for their cell phones, Coretta felt a body press against her backside.  “Excuse me,” she murmured to whomever had collided with her.  The moment she spoke, a gloved hand smacked against her face and covered her mouth while a menacing arm pressed into her belly and knocked the wind out of her.  Gasping for air, she wriggled in the death-grip of the gloved man, frantically biting on his covered hand to get him to release her.  As her teeth sank into the thick fabric, his grasp tightened even more around her waist until she thought her ribs would shatter.

Roughly, the man dragged her backwards towards the darker recesses of the gallery.  Lighting the way with a tiny flashlight clenched between his teeth, he pushed Coretta down the stairs into the cellar.

 

*****

Chapter One

 

New York City

One Month
Earlier on April Fool’s Day

 

Dashing down the steps of her tenth floor walk-up apartment, Coretta Nicholas clutched the precious portfolio to her chest.  Outside in Greenwich Village, it was a cool, crisp day that whispered of spring romance and leisurely strolls through Central Park.  Maneuvering through the chaotic sea of people, Coretta screamed as her portfolio fell into a muddy puddle formed by last night’s thunderstorm.  Scrambling to salvage her treasured book filled with photographs of her paintings, the young woman desperately wiped the mud on her black jacket.

“Watch what you’re doing!” A bearded man dressed in bohemian garb shouted at her as specks of mud splashed onto his
ripped jeans.

“I’m sorry!”
She cried, speeding past the offended pedestrian and waiting impatiently with a hundred other harried people at a red light.

As the signal turned green, she raced across the street, accidentally smacking an old woman on the shoulder with her sullied portfolio.  The purple-haired lady shot her a curmudgeonly glare as
Coretta silently mouthed “I’m sorry” before clamoring to the other side of the street.

Five more blocks of huffing and puffing
took Coretta to her destination: a hole-in-the-wall gallery owned by a retired art history professor who was searching for new talent.  Coretta had waited more than two months to get an appointment with Dr. Stella Bishop.  As she sweat inside her stuffy jacket, she struggled to compose herself and at least catch her breath before entering the gallery.

Still mildly
wheezing, she squeezed through the narrow doorway and glanced around at the paintings that adorned the walls.  Most of the paintings were shaded in bold colors with streaks of black and sharp geometric shapes interspersed.  Approaching the reception desk, Coretta tried to ignore the fact that these rigid modern paintings were the exact opposite of her flowing pastel creations.

“Good morning.
I’m Coretta Nicholas.  I’m here to meet with Dr. Stella Bishop,” she introduced herself to the girl at the desk, who looked no more than 18 years old and was probably an intern studying at one of the city’s many renowned art schools.

“I’ll page her for you,” t
he girl replied, motioning for Coretta to have a seat on a bench facing a grotesque painting that depicted a grisly murder scene.

“That’s an interesting piece of work,”
Coretta remarked lightly while inwardly shuddering at the goriness of the canvas.

“It is really awesome,” the girl agreed fervently.  “It’s by our featured artist, Toy.”

“Toy?” Coretta repeated blankly.

“Yes, he’s going to be very famous someday.  He only needs one name!” The girl sniffled with laughter as
Coretta smiled politely, clutching her mud-stained portfolio protectively to her bosom.

Fifteen minutes later
, Dr. Stella Bishop finally appeared.  She had hip-length snowy hair and wore a plaid dress that resembled a Scottish tartan.  Wordlessly, she sat down next to Coretta on the bench and smiled wanly.  Coretta extended her hand for a shake, which the eccentric woman refused.  Audaciously, she pointed to the portfolio and instructed with bluntness, “Open it up.”

Coretta
was taken aback.  In the ten years since she had been trying to get her paintings displayed, she had met with hundreds of gallery owners.  There had always been some sort of small talk, some chance to pitch her work and summarize her artistic style.  But this rude woman was cutting right to the chase.  Coretta flipped open the binder and stifled a gasp as Dr. Bishop narrowed her eyes and grabbed it out of her hands.

The
former professor put on a pair of red-rimmed glasses and stared expressionlessly at Coretta’s most treasured painting: a watercolor scene of rural upstate New York featuring a silhouette of a beautiful woman gathering tulips.  Hastily, she flipped through the pages of delicate landscapes and romantic images.  Without warning, she snapped the book shut and regarded the young artist with pity.

“Your work is trite,” she said simply, removing her glasses.

This time, Coretta could not stifle her gasp.  “Trite?  How could you say that?” She fought back the urge to cry, as her paintings were her babies, and she felt as though someone had just pierced her in the heart.

“Let me rephrase.  Y
ou’re two centuries too late.  Monet and Renoir already did what you’re trying to do, and they did it better.  Impressionism is over.  The New York art world wants edgy, fresh concepts…like the horror painting by Toy over there.” Dr. Bishop pointed admiringly to the disgusting picture that stared back tauntingly from the wall.

“I
mpressionism is not over at all!  And I’ve revamped it.  Don’t you see?” Coretta reopened the portfolio and gestured to the figures dressed in contemporary fashion.  “These are modern men and women at a crossroads between the past and present.  The scenery is dreamy and reminiscent of nineteenth century art, but the people are contemporary.  It’s like a journey between two different eras,” she passionately interpreted her own work, already knowing the gallery owner would not be persuaded.

“Not for this gallery
.  Not for New York.” Dr. Bishop shrugged, rising to her feet to indicate that the meeting was over.

“Not for New York?!”
Coretta exclaimed incredulously.  “Not for a city of eight million inhabitants?  How ridiculous!  Who are you to decide what type of art the most diverse city on earth will purchase?  I guess this meeting was my April Fool’s joke for the day!  But I’m not the fool!” She bolted to her feet with a face flushed from indignation.

Without looking behind her at the smug face of Dr. Bishop and her teeny bopper assistant,
Coretta fled the gallery, noting on her way out that the stuffy space smelled of moth balls.  The uncouth woman had just done her a tremendous favor, Coretta decided.  But at the age of 32 and with hundreds of paintings under her belt, she was tired of always being told “no.”

When she had moved
after college from suburban Connecticut to trendy Greenwich Village, Coretta thought that she was placing herself in the ideal location for an artist.  But she hadn’t realized how cut-throat the competition was in the city.  It seemed that half her neighbors were either artists, performers, or designers of some sort.  She and her art were anonymous in New York.

For more years than she cared to count, Coretta had been supervising a craft supply store two blocks from her apartment.  She only stayed there for the 30% discount employees received on art supplies.  But what about the other 70% of her life?  She hadn’t been brave enough to delve into that question---until now.  W
orking as a low paid retail supervisor just wasn’t good enough for her anymore.  Tripping over an orange cone in the middle of a construction site, Coretta gritted her teeth and vowed to work harder than ever to gain acclaim for her beloved paintings.

 

*****

“Sushi again?” Coretta sighed, looking down distastefully at the rolls of eel and blobs of wasabi
on her plate.

“You’re so boring.  If you had your way, we’d be eating pasta every night,” Jonathan, her boyfriend of a decade, complained.

“What’s wrong with pasta?  At least it’s cooked.  And it reminds me of my semester abroad in Milan,” she replied sullenly, taking a sip of Japanese tea and unenthusiastically tearing the chopsticks open.

“Oh, here we go again.  How many times have I heard this story?  Italy is
paradise.  New York is nothing compared to Milan.  If it’s so damn great in Italy, why don’t you just move there already?” He asked in exasperation, stuffing a sticky ball of white rice into his mouth.

“I’d love to, believe me,” Coretta groaned, looking away from her boyfriend.

She had met Jonathan Trake in her last semester of college.  At 22, neither she nor Jonathan had ever been in love before.  When they met at an intramural game, she had fallen for his golden boy looks with curly blond hair, baby blue eyes, and stocky football player’s physique. Coretta had never expected that all these years later they would still be dating, while he earned a six figure salary as an investment banker and she scraped by supervising a craft store.  It wouldn’t be presumptuous to expect an engagement ring after a decade of commitment, but every time she dared mention the idea of getting married, Jonathan clammed up.

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