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Authors: Autumn Markus

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

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BOOK: The Art of Appreciation
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Plans skittered through her head as she considered whether it might be just barely possible to arrange her work so the interns could handle upcoming shows without her, yet still not have a chance to steal away her contacts. She scratched Dali’s ears and smiled at her vague daydreams about sunny beaches and tanned, young skin.

Which reminded her of the lonely wrinkles that lay ahead of her.

“Forget California,” she sighed, fingers tightening in Dali’s fur. “How long do you think it will be before Clint manufactures some crisis that requires me to miss my first day off in a month, Sal?”

As if on cue, the phone rang.

“I hate you, Sarah,” Abby said for the hundredth time in four days.

It had taken her a week to convince Gretchen that she was serious about the sabbatical she’d been putting off for at least five years. To show that it would work, she had to delegate responsibilities to her interns and other curators of the museum, firm up dates for upcoming shows, and reassure regular contributors that their treasures would be properly cared for in her absence. All had to be done by her personally to keep Clint’s mitts off her contact list.

Despite all of her preparations, she still tried to back out a day before she and Sarah were scheduled to leave. The calculation in Clint’s eyes when he considered their boss, Gretchen, and the gleeful way he took over as many of Abby’s responsibilities as he was allowed made her nervous. It had taken Sarah’s appearance at the museum with a car full of luggage and eyes snapping with irritation to get Abby to slam her desk drawers shut, lock them against Clint’s prying fingers, and walk out the door. To ease Abby’s mind about leaving, Sarah had taken them out for a drink or eight.

Abby had been amazed to wake in the car the next morning, her head pounding. She couldn’t remember the exact point at which they’d stopped at her house to gather clothes into the two suitcases that were jammed haphazardly in the back of the car, but there they rested. The tiny Hyundai buzzed down the freeway, Boston having been left in their rearview mirror long before she’d awakened. Apart from a quick call to ask “Grandma” and “Grandpa” to pick up Salvador Dali, she’d spent most of the last four days in quiet recovery.

“No you don’t. You love me,” Sarah replied, unruffled. She checked the mirror and sped up to just under light speed. “Let me know if you see a cop.”

Abby squeezed her eyes closed. “Like I’ll be looking out the window any time soon.”

Sarah had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah. Sorry about that.” She pushed her sunglasses up on her head to hold her dark hair back. “I could have sworn I read that ginger pills help nausea. The shoes weren’t expensive, right?”

Abby raised her own sunglasses to glare at her friend.

“Anyway,” Sarah continued, “you’ll be thanking me by this time next week, when you’re lying back in the arms of some twentysomething hottie, watching the sun set over the water…” She sighed, as if lost in her fantasy. Her own escape from the office had been blessedly smooth, the way eased by her considerate boss. Abby wondered how long David could take it before he called her for reassurance that Sarah was okay.

“Riiight. Keep dreaming. I have no desire to make a fool of myself as a public cougar. Bicoastal humiliation is too much even for me.” Abby’s phone beeped in Gretchen’s tone for the third time that day, and she flashed a look at Sarah. With a grim expression, her friend mimed tossing the phone out the window, so Abby hit “ignore.”

“Impossible. We can’t be public cougars, because we’re not cougars at all. You have to be over forty to be a cougar. We’re more like…pumas. We’re older and more experienced, but still hawt, baby.”

“Oh God,” Abby moaned, covering her head with her arms.

“Anyway, we’re here.”

The car rolled to a stop in the driveway of a weather-beaten cottage. Gathering their bags, Abby and Sarah walked up two steps, and Sarah opened the door to the screened, wraparound porch. The door promptly ripped free of its top hinge and dangled like a loose tooth.

“Maybe we should be paying your aunt for this summer,” Abby said doubtfully, already dreading what might await them inside.

Sarah snickered and walked onto the tidy porch after propping the screen door closed. Faded wicker rockers flanked the front door and hanging plants abounded. “Not freaking likely. My aunt’s loaded. It takes a lot of money to live this crappily.” She shoved the key in the lock and wiggled it. “Buying here, one of these houses just off the beach? It’s like buying on Martha’s Vineyard, but it might even be more expensive, foot for foot.” She struggled for another minute, cursing, and shouted in victory when the key finally turned.

Abby breathed a sigh of relief when she could get around her tall friend to see the room. This was more like it. Sarah was right—the room was the model of beach luxury and comfort. The stress of her job and the long road trip fell away as she sank into an overstuffed chair. “Mine.”

Sarah laughed, tossing her stuff to the floor and flopping into the mate of Abby’s chair. “All Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley, of course. Aunt Filiz only takes her Bohemian lifestyle so far.” She propped her lean legs on a cushy ottoman that contrasted with her chair. “Bedrooms are upstairs; a full bath with clawfoot tub, I might add, is up there, too.”

She checked her watch and jumped up. “I almost forgot the best part. C’mon.” She dragged Abby from her tiny slice of heaven and led her toward the back door, stopping only to grab the last two beers from the lightly stocked fridge. “Have to remedy that,” Sarah muttered before shoving Abby out the door and handing her a bottle.

Just a few hundred yards from the back stoop, the wide expanse of the Pacific rolled gently up and down the sand. Gulls cried overhead, and Abby could hear children’s laughter in the distance. “Wow.” She sat on the top step and took a long pull on her beer.

“No kidding.” Sarah flopped down beside her and shaded her eyes. “And here comes the best part.”

Abby shaded her own eyes, searching for whatever held Sarah’s interest. A tiny blob in the water grew larger, coming toward the beach at an alarming rate; it gradually became a figure of a man on a surfboard. Another board appeared behind him. The surfers rode the wave as far as it would take them before they waded onto the shore, laughing and talking. The shorter of the two, a burly blond, glanced up the beach at the women and smiled, exposing a deep dimple in his right cheek. Sarah leaned back on her hands with a happy sigh. “They always come in somewhere along this piece of beach. Something to do with the currents. Swells. Waves. Whatever. This time of day is great for voyeurism.”

The blond looked up the beach, laughing. Sarah’s voice had obviously carried.

The buddy finished peeling his wetsuit down to his waist before turning. Abby froze in the motion of raising her bottle again, slowly lowering it to her side as she took in the view of neoprene clinging to tightly muscled legs and slim hips. The dangling top half of the wetsuit emphasized the tight V of the surfer’s abdomen. Her eyes traveled upward to his tanned chest and broad shoulders, one of which shifted and bulged as he raked a hand through wet hair.

It was hard to tell from a distance what color his eyes were, but she clearly saw them crinkle at the edges when he smiled. With his board under one arm, he swept his other out in front of him in a “ta-da” gesture.

“Shit,” Abby groaned, forgetting that her voice would carry until both guys laughed. Sarah joined in.

Dropping her bottle to the sand, Abby stumbled up the stairs and through the door. Re-entering the living room, she flopped into the chair she’d claimed.

Sarah careened into her own chair, still laughing. “I think you just made a friend, Abby. You should have seen your face when he caught you perving. Not like it was difficult, because your tongue was practically hanging out.”

“Shut up. I hate you, Sarah. What if I see him again?”

“Say, ‘Nice abs?’”

“I take back my ‘I hate you’ and raise it to a ‘fuck you.’”

Sarah came over to sit on the arm of Abby’s chair and punched her on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s California during tourist season, baby. Santa Cruz is packed with newbies like us. You’ll probably never see him again.”

“And if I do?”

“Fake a seizure?”

“I hate you, Sarah.”

Sarah kissed Abby on the head and tugged her hair. “Ooh. Twice in less than an hour. I might start to believe you if you say it again.” She stood up and pushed Abby toward the stairs. “Go take a nap, and I’ll call you when dinner’s ready. You need to recover after all that hotness. Or something.” Sarah wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and then screeched as she dashed for the kitchen.

Chapter Two

“A
ND
L
EAN
F
ORWARD
…forward…let your body hang. Relax every muscle. Pretend you have no bones from the waist up…now swing from side to side…you’re an anemone in the crystal clear azure sea, waaaaving your fronds…”

Abby stifled a giggle. A week of idleness followed by a depressingly tight pair of shorts had led to the realization that all of the walking she did to, from, and at her job was more than nice—it was necessary to offset her love of good food. Yoga class twice a week and daily walks on the beach for the last two weeks had been the trick to getting back to her normal size. She appreciated the relaxed and stretched feeling she got from the yoga workout, but the hippy-dippy drone of the instructor, Tiffany, often made her grimace.

“Don’t be afraid to laugh, my friends,” Tiffany advised, as if she’d read Abby’s mind. “Laughter helps our minds and souls rise. It forms us into clouds of happiness, waiting to rain down showers of joy…”

The woman to Abby’s left snorted. “Make up your damn mind. Am I an anemone or a cloud?” the ash blonde murmured as she stood and smiled down at Abby. “Either way, I’m tired of standing with my ass in the air.” She smoothed loose hairs back into her sleek ponytail and straightened the hem of her shirt.

Other members of the class followed suit, smiling. Tiffany turned her waving anemone dance into a slow roll upright. “Thank you, Claire, for the reminder. No one should feel obligated to remain in poses that make them uncomfortable. Do what you can comfortably do. Age or physical limitations should not hamper your yoga experience.” She looked at her phone as it rested on the beach towel next to her. “That’s enough for today class. See you two days from now, bright and early.”

Abby was shaking the sand out of her mat when Tiffany approached the woman beside her.

“That wasn’t very nice, Tiff.” The woman pouted.

“Neither was distracting my class, Mrs. Eastman.” Tiffany draped her towel over her shoulder and laughed. “I was just about to finish up anyway. You have to be patient; you know that. I’ll see you in a couple of days.” She waved and headed down the beach, ponytail swaying against her tanned back.

“I don’t have time to be patient.” Claire shoved her mat into a bag while Abby’s gaze drifted toward the sea. “Waiting for the surfers to come in?”

“Wrong time of day,” Abby answered absently, and then colored. She’d outed herself as a voyeur.

Claire laughed. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I’m still looking. Just for information, of course, but this is the best time to catch the morning crew.”

Abby smiled, shoving her own mat into its bag. “Good to know. No, I was just…looking.” Her eyes traveled back to the surf as she considered and rejected paint colors. “It’s like something out of a painting.”

“Ah. Yes. Maybe a Monet?” Claire’s indulgent smile turned curious when Abby rejected her suggestion.

“No, not really. Too fussy. I was thinking Diebenkorn. He was an American painter—”

“Bay Area Figuratives. Yes, I know. I was lucky enough to have taken a class from him at UCLA.” Claire stuck out her hand. “I’m curious now. Are you an art scholar? I’m Claire Eastman, by the way.”

Abby shook her hand. “Abby Reynolds. Yes, of a sort. I curate for a museum in Boston.”

Claire’s smile widened. “I own a gallery in town, Abby-from-Boston. Small world, isn’t it?” She pulled a pair of sunglasses from her bag and slipped them over her eyes. “If you’re interested in local art, I have some marvelous pieces.” Her voice lowered conspiratorially, “Some absolute garbage, too, to be honest. My husband means well when he brings these things home to me, but…such is life. If you do come by when Charles is around, be a dear and humor him. He does try so hard.” She laughed and then waved as she headed for the car park.

Abby trudged up the beach. She’d barely taken a dozen steps before her cell phone intoned the doleful song that indicated a call from the museum. She stopped to dig it out of her mat bag, glancing around as she did so. A week of Sarah’s nagging and threats to smash the phone every time Abby took a call from Clint or Gretchen had her behaving like a teenager with a secret boyfriend, and it had to stop. Besides, Sarah wasn’t anywhere near.

She straightened up and put the phone to her ear. “Abby, I am just in a pickle.” Clint’s apparent concern was belied by his cat-that-ate-the-canary tone. “Silly me, I’ve completely misplaced the Baxter file, and Gretch is determined that we need to call them to firm things up for the fall display of their terra-cottas. Be a love and tell me where the extra key to your desk is. Or should I have janitorial force it?”

Abby paled. It had taken years of work to amass the goodwill of the donors on her list of potentials and “call-me’s.” Her ability to bring loans into the museum had been a part of her getting a job in a very competitive field, and she be damned if she’d let someone else trade on that. “That won’t be necessary, Clint. I have the Baxters’ number right here, and I’d be glad to give them a call.” She stopped and dug around in the bag for pencil and paper and made a note to contact them. She’d also contact the office secretary, Sylvia, to be sure that Clint wasn’t calling to cover for a dirty deed he’d already done.

“Oh, then I guess you’ve got it in hand.” Clint sounded discouraged. “Are you sure you want to work on your vacay, Abby? Because I’ve so got this.”

I’ll bet you do, you little bastard.
“Nope, it’s fine, Clint. I’ll call Gretchen and tell her she may contact me herself if she has any other concerns.” She smiled at his indrawn breath.
Gretchen wanted you to call, my ass.

She returned to the house and made her phone calls. Just as she was finishing up with Sylvia, the screen door slapped into place. Not up for another lecture about the meaning of vacation, Abby rushed out a response to the secretary and hung up.

Sarah stopped in the doorway to slip off her bike shoes. Their hard soles clonked together as she dropped them in the basket beside the mat. “Nice save. It’s sort of cute how you think you can fool me.” She nodded toward the phone. “How’s Sylvia?”

Abby’s shoulders dropped. “Fine. This time—”

“Nope.” Sarah held up a hand, palm out. “No excuses, Ab. I’ve tried to get through to you, and I’m done. Maybe change isn’t in your vocab.” She yanked open the refrigerator door and reviewed the scanty contents.

Abby’s temper rose. “Or maybe I can’t afford to risk my job. There aren’t a lot out there for curators, and especially not a lot that will let me eat regularly and live indoors. I don’t have an excellent boss like yours, Sarah. Just yesterday he said that—” She stopped, cursing herself for mentioning David’s call.

Sarah’s head jerked up. “David called
you?
I mean,
yesterday?
What did he want?”

“To see how we’re doing, I suppose.” Abby rose and drew a glass of water, debating what else to say. David had sounded worried and tired and lonely…none of which Sarah would admit to caring about. “He’s stressed over some big hubbub going on in editorials—I know, when isn’t there—and he watched something on TV about jellyfish pods. Wanted to make sure we knew they were dangerous and how to spot them.”

“David.” Sarah shook her head and resumed her search of the fridge. “I was wondering if he—they—needed me back at work.” Her tone was wistful. “Good thing that wasn’t it, because I intend to enjoy every minute of this vacation.” She tore into her apple, swallowed hard, and then wiped juice off of her chin. “Let’s go out tonight, Ab. We’ve been here two weeks and haven’t spent a single night on the town.”

Grateful that Sarah’s usual “work vs. life” lecture had been diverted, Abby agreed. Maybe it would be fun to discover the wonders of the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk.

That optimism was difficult to remember a few hours later when she was nursing her fourth drink and nodding along with the music of an enthusiastic, if barely talented, local band. Somehow, she and Sarah had ended up at an after-hours party on the patio of a small beachside hotel. She had just located Sarah on the impromptu dance floor and was wondering which of the three men dancing nearby was her partner when she felt a tap on her hand. It was with effort that she returned her attention to the man in the chair next to hers. She vaguely remembered that he was a sales rep for some drug firm, but couldn’t have recalled his name even if she’d been facing a firing squad.

“This band is great, isn’t it?” he shouted, tapping his toes opposite the beat.

To avoid conversation, Abby pointed to her ears, indicating a deafness she feared was coming. Unfortunately, he took that as an invitation to move his chair closer to hers.

“Of course, this isn’t what I usually listen to,” he bellowed. “I used to like ska before it got popular, but now I’m really into jazz. That and Christian pop. Ever since I found Jesus…”

I didn’t know He was lost
. Abby grinned and let the drug rep’s voice flatten to a “wah-wah-wah” in her ears. She caught sight of Sarah again and sent her an eyeball plea for help. Sarah missed it during a dramatic spin between two partners.

In desperation, Abby launched into a joke about an apple, a banana, and a penis—it had brought down the house when she was in junior high. Hipster drug-guy stopped in mid-rhapsody about his mega-church and stared at her like she’d sprouted a third ear in the middle of her forehead.

A splutter of laughter alerted Abby to someone passing behind her chair. She was mortified to recognize the taller surfer from her first day on the beach. He turned to look back at her and gave her a thumbs-up with the hand he wasn’t using to balance a pony keg on his shoulder. She smiled back, wishing that the light from the outdoor fireplace was a little brighter so she could make out whether his eyes were blue or gray, and whether the definition she thought she saw in his forearms was real or a trick of light and shadow. At any rate, he definitely looked enough younger than her that he would fit Sarah’s admonition that she find a “boy toy” for the night.

She turned to apologize to her seat mate and found he’d taken his chance to escape. Too bad Surfer Dude had also disappeared when she looked for him a second later.

“Story of my life,” Abby said. She shouldered her way to the makeshift bar and picked up another beer. Then she settled down to wait for the Sarah-gizer Bunny to run out of energy.

Waking in dim morning light, Abby checked the bedside clock. Despite it being only four hours since she’d dropped into bed, years of early rising had made it impossible for her to sleep late. Rising and stretching, she grabbed a robe and headed for the bathroom. A delicate snore from behind Sarah’s door indicated her friend was alive. After a quick shower, Abby held her wrists under the cool running water and studied her features in the mirror. She focused on the fine lines that were growing more prominent around her eyes, no matter which miracle cream Sarah pushed on her, and thanked God that otherwise her skin was still smooth. Bar interest the night before indicated the yoga and walking she was doing in Santa Cruz were enough to keep her in fighting trim, though many more nights like the previous would require something more drastic, like a gym.

She frowned, idly contemplating whether there was a public gym nearby and wondering what the man on the beach did besides surf to stay in such great shape. Wondering what color his eyes really were. Wondering what those sinewy arms would feel like under her hands…Her stomach rumbled.

Laughing at herself, she crept to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee and scrounge something for breakfast. “We really need to shop,” she said, digging through the cupboard until she found a possibility. As she settled onto the back stoop with her makeshift breakfast and watched the morning gradually brighten, she felt hopeful for the summer for the first time.

“Yello.” Sarah’s voice made Abby jump and spill coffee on her hand. She cursed, and a couple of people running on the beach turned to look. One waved, and Sarah laughed. “I do believe that was your friend, Abby. He’s gonna think you have Tourette’s.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Ooh, did I miss something?” Sarah asked, eyes bright with interest.

“Never mind. I’ll never see him again, huh?”

Sarah shrugged. “I said probably never.
Probably.
Big difference.” She nudged Abby’s shoulder with her knee. “Ready for a day of fun and relaxation?” She sat down and snatched a cracker from Abby’s plate. “Based on what you told me about last night’s penis joke fiasco, we’re clearly not getting maximum fun value this vacation.” Ignoring Abby’s sideways glance, she munched thoughtfully. “Before I came downstairs, I took the liberty of researching what we can do in this burg that might be new and different.”

Abby groaned. “I thought that’s what last night was about. My head can’t take much more of that. I haven’t been a college kid for a long time.”

Sarah blew a raspberry. “What was new about that? Aside from the surfer sandwich with me as the filling, it was a normal Saturday night for me. I’ve decided that we’re going biking today.”

BOOK: The Art of Appreciation
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