Authors: Jeffe Kennedy
help him move in.
Besides, it was hardly necessary. He arrived around six-thirty with a parade of redneck trucks and a group of boisterous friends who unloaded a cooler of beer first. Althea met them out back, dressed for her dinner date. She might not have normally chosen the little cocktail dress just to meet with Abby, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind Steel of the contrast between them.
“Going out, I see,” he said when she handed him the cellar door keys.
“Yes. I have plans.”
He jerked his head toward the gallery. “I’m surprised you trust me.”
Althea gave him her best cool appraisal, tilted her head as if she were considering. “I don’t. The gallery is locked and armed separately. You won’t be able to access anything above…”
, she’d almost said, “…above that.”
His eyes narrowed and he jerked a nod at her. “Have a nice date.”
“Thank you.” She turned and strolled down the street in the warm and lazy evening. That was better.
* * *
is renting space from you?” Abby literally choked on her martini. Althea sat back while her friend dramatically pounded her own breast. “
“Since there can’t be many guys wandering around Charleston with a noun for a name, I imagine he must be the same person you are referring to.”
“Oh, don’t give me your Junior League attitude, Thea. He’s all the buzz. Word is he got a 100K commission from a European collector. The guy is on his way.”
“Good—because I need his money. And dinner tonight is on me.”
“You don’t have to do that. Use it to pay some bills.”
“I will. But you’ve treated me so many times over the past year…” Althea had even gone to her father once, for a loan, suffering his lectures on proper business management and targeted demographics. That Steel’s advent saved her from another such episode filled her with a sense of reluctant reprieve. “I want to. Let’s celebrate things looking up for me and the gallery.”
“Oh!” Abby gasped and seized Althea’s wrist across the table. “Are you changing Chalkstone? You’re going to show him? Althea Grant, that is the savviest decision you have—”
“No.” Althea cut her off, laughing. “Are you insane? Chalkstone is not the gallery for an artist like Steel. I don’t know one that would be. A brothel, maybe.”
Which wasn’t fair. His work was legitimately brilliant—she hadn’t exaggerated. But she could just imagine the shock and horror of her neighbors, like Saints Alive, the St. Michael’s bookstore just down the way, if she exhibited art like that.
Abby eyed her, dark eyes speculative. “His work is really that hot?”
“Almost pornographic.” Althea leaned over the table dropping her voice, so the other diners in the lovely courtyard of 82 Queen wouldn’t hear. “It has this raw, masculine energy to it. He combines metals that shouldn’t go together and melds them in a way that feels almost…”
“Damn, girl.” Abby looked her up and down. “You’re hot in your silk panties for him.”
“Oh, I am not.” Althea waved it off, looking up to the leaves of the enormous old magnolia tree gracefully arching above. “He is so far from my type it’s not even funny.”
“Speaking of which, how’s Brandon?” Abby gave her a Cheshire smile, cheerfully needling her over the golden boy banker.
Althea groaned softly and dropped her forehead into her hand. “Excruciatingly boring. If I have to listen to one more dissertation on lending rates I might have to kill myself.”
“Ditch the motherfucker already—DTMFA,” Abby chanted out the acronym, clearing a space for the waiter to set down her she-crab soup and ignoring his surprised look. “Get you some hottie artist while the getting is good.”
“I’m not doing that. Thank you,” Althea nodded to the waiter, who quickly fled back into the interior of the clapboard house.
“Why do you keep going out with Bore-andon anyway?”
“He keeps asking me.” Althea shrugged and speared a barbequed shrimp, scooping up some grits with it.
“Aaaand—” Abby waved her martini glass, “—you could say no.”
“I don’t like to disappoint him.”
“You’d rather stab your eyes out with a fork?”
Althea laughed. “Yes! Apparently.”
“Maybe hot-ass artist boy will hit on you and you won’t be able to say no, either,” Abby speculated, with a wicked gleam in her eye.
“Oh, he already did. He used the old ‘will you model for me’ line.”
“He did not!”
“Oh, yes, he did.” Althea wiped her fingers and took a sip of her chardonnay. “Can you believe it? The thought!”
Abby wasn’t laughing anymore. “He meant it, I bet. You lit him up like Christmas at Graceland, I’m thinking. A guy with an eye for the female form like he’s supposed to have—oh yeah.”
“What does that mean?”
“Tell me, Thea. Did you agree to model?”
“Of course not. I told him no.”
Abby looked pleased and raised her glass in a little toast. “Well, isn’t that interesting.”
* * *
Althea didn’t see Steel that night when she got back to her loft above the gallery. Not that she expected to. It might take him and his rag-tag band of buddies several evenings to move in everything a metal sculptor might need. Artemisia and Tassi, her cats, met her at the door, circling suggestively toward the French doors to the rooftop garden. A cooler breeze was blowing in off the ocean, so she turned off the AC and opened the doors and the windows on the other side, letting the air flow through. The cats trotted out, sniffing the air with the appreciation of connoisseurs. The lace curtains fluttered, reminding her of Steel’s observation that they were the same as in the gallery below.
Brandon had left her a voice mail while she was at dinner and she dutifully listened to it. Sunday brunch at his mother’s on Sullivan’s Island, which meant twenty people, at least, and enough courses to beach a whale. Though it was only nine o’clock, she decided it was too late to call him back.
Instead, she poured a glass of wine and went out to sit in the little garden amidst the potted hydrangeas luminescing a perfect twilight blue. From a few blocks away, the nightclubs on King Street throbbed a dark beat, fast and hard. It took her a moment to realize it came, not from the clubs, but from the basement.
So he was there.
With Abby’s playful suggestions running through her head, Althea entertained a little fantasy of going down there. He’d be welding, perhaps. Wearing a white wife-beater, sweat running down his strong neck, his muscled arms flexing as he worked the metal. She’d come up behind him, maybe run her palms up under the shirt, his chest hot and slick and…
Oh boy, did she need to get a grip.
“No fantasizing about the bad boy in the basement,” she told herself firmly. Still, it felt good to think about something she’d never do. Didn’t harm anyone to think about it. She went inside. Surely she had a Hugh Jackman movie on DVD.
* * *
In the morning, Althea opened the gallery with a feeling of optimism, despite the rain. The breeze last night had heralded a little storm that would likely linger for the rest of the day. Light rain like this could be good for business, since it kept the beach and bubblegum crowd inside, looking for entertainment. She’d put on a silk dress in watery pale blues to match the day and, instead of winding her hair into her usual chignon, she’d clipped it with a matching barrette into a sleek ponytail.
Fridays were Cheri’s actual day off, so Althea settled into pruning the fresh flower bouquets, setting out some cookies and touching up on the dusting.
. She practiced the affirmation, trying to keep it free of that creeping sense of desperation. A movement out front caught her eye and she turned with a cheery welcome that she pressed into silence when Steel walked in the door.
He gave her a wry nod. “And here I thought that smile was for me.”
“I thought you might be a customer. What can I do for you?”
“Good morning to you too. How was your date?”
“Lovely. Thank you for asking.”
“Can’t have been that good. You came home early—and alone.”
“Are you spying on me then?”
He grinned easily. Today he wore gray sweatpants, a T-shirt with a faded Gold’s Gym logo and ripped sleeves that showed off his muscled arms. Metalwork took a lot of strength and he clearly didn’t lack in that department. Her imagination had it pretty much spot-on.
“I heard your heels on the fire-escape stairs.”
“I’m surprised you could hear anything through that heavy metal you were blasting.”
He winced. “Too loud? When you cut the AC, I had to open some windows. Thought I turned it down enough.”
Ah, her turn to be chagrined. “Sorry—I didn’t think. I’m not used to having anyone else here.”
“No big deal. Just didn’t want to piss off your neighbors on my first night.”
“As for that,” she relented, “I could barely hear it.”
He nodded. Tucked his hands in his jeans pockets.
“Was there something you needed?”
“Uh, yeah. I wondered if you could stop downstairs after you close up tonight. Show me stuff like the fuse box. I don’t want to draw too hard on the circuits you use for the alarm system. That kind of thing. Give me the official tour.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of that. Not very considerate. “Sure. I’ll do that.”
“Cool.” He paused. Scratched his chin. “Well, I’m headed to the gym. Then I’ll catch some shut-eye. See you later then.”
He turned back, hand on the door knob. “Do you always wear pastels?”
Soon she would become accustomed to his spontaneous questions about her appearance and they wouldn’t take her by surprise. “Yes. Anything too strong washes me out.”
“Huh.” He looked her up and down. “I wonder.”
* * *
The comment annoyed her all day. She’d lived with her face all her life and, even though her own art didn’t measure up, she had a well-developed eye for color and form. Early on, her mother had taken her for style, color and makeup consults. She wasn’t a seventh grader experimenting with drugstore eye shadow and Mary Kay samples.
As she’d hoped, the rain drove the weekend tourists indoors and many browsers wandered through. None turned out to be buyers, but you never knew who’d come back. Or call from home weeks later, unable to get a certain seascape out of their minds. She didn’t have the client base for a very good internet business, but she was working on it.
So she was busy enough, chatting with people about their home states and various stories, but not so much that Steel didn’t continue to lurk in her mind, with his sexy grin and off-color innuendos.
At the end of the day, she locked the door and set the alarm. Taking her time, she wandered through the gallery, turning off the spot and track lights. Finally, she couldn’t procrastinate any longer. She should just get the tour over with and then make herself a nice dinner. No more Hugh Jackman DVDs though. Those just gave her bad ideas.
Making her way through the back kitchen, she coded a pass into the alarm and unbolted the door leading below. She started down the rickety wooden steps and, conscious that she was invading what was now his space, she leaned over, calling out “Knock-knock!”
Steel popped into sight so fast that she gasped, startled.
“Sorry,” he grinned at her.
“Not at all.” She recovered her aplomb and descended with more grace. He’d clearly cleaned up after working out, back in his faded jeans and wearing a crisp white T-shirt. His dark hair curled against his clean-shaven neck and he smelled of bay rum. Althea put her hands on her hips and surveyed the low-ceilinged space to avoid looking at him anymore.
He’d created several work areas, defined by a couple of workbenches showing carefully, even obsessively, organized sets of tools. A surprising amount of equipment had already been set up.
“Well, you accomplished more than I expected.”
“Yeah—I get the feeling you don’t have high expectations of me.”
She ignored that remark. “Okay. Fuse box.” She wound through the cardboard boxes to the panel under the stairs. The circuits were pretty well-labeled, but she walked him through them and explained how the alarm system cut-out worked, with the various entrances that could be activated or bypassed individually. The sump-pump was humming along as it should with the day’s rain and she showed him how to check it. “I’ll give you a code for the cellar entrance, since I presume you’ll have valuable tools, supplies, etcetera, down here?”
She showed him the water shut-off, just in case, and the various track lights and how they could be adjusted. He’d brought portable light racks, too, and they were currently ringed around a metal object in the center of the room. It twisted with sinuous, sensual lines. Though curiosity grabbed her, she politely averted her eyes from the work in progress. “I’m afraid there’s not a separate thermostat for this space—as you discovered—we’ll just have to adjust as necessary. I imagine it gets quite warm, welding.”
He’d been an attentive audience, quietly listening while she explained. Now he just watched her with that intent gaze that made her belly heat.
“Well, if that’s everything then—”
“I want you to reconsider modeling for me.”
As if she hadn’t been reconsidering it all day. And rejecting it as an even worse idea than watching Hugh Jackman movies and fantasizing about the man in her basement. She gave him a regretful, polite smile. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have the time.”
“You have plans again tonight?”
She opened her mouth to lie but couldn’t. “It’s been a long day. I’d like to eat and relax.”
“Just an hour. I need to get this shape, the measurements right.”
“Don’t you have models who you use? I’d think the girls would be clamoring,” she added, thinking of Abby’s remarks about both the man and the art.