Authors: Nikki Sloane
Text copyright ©2016 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Flip City Media Inc.. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original The Drazen World remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Flip City Media Inc., or their affiliates or licensors.
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-A Drazen World Novella-
and her amazing words
I hardly ever swore, but it seemed appropriate in this moment. Anger swirled hot through my body, tensing my muscles into thick cords, and movement became impossible. All I could do was stand beside my artwork and stare at the shipping manifest, letting the recipient’s name sear into my brain.
This was the first real work I’d done since the darkest point in my life, and it was stunning. A masterpiece that had taken years to conceive and months to create. Yes, it had been bought and paid for, and I was desperate for the money, but I would not let Rafferty bastardize my sculpture.
No one had accused him outright in the industry, but we all knew what he was doing. Like a cuckoo bird who lays its eggs in another bird’s nest—brood parasitism, it’s called. My sculpture would not be his nest. Alec Rafferty stood on the shoulders of others, pushing them into the ground so no one could see who was really buried at the base. He stole everything from other artists. Concept. Materials. And worst of all, credit.
I uncurled my balled fists, barely noticing the sting that lingered from how hard I’d driven my nails into my palms. I’d had everything taken from me as I fought against it, clutching fiercely until my hands were bloody, and I’d lost.
It wasn’t going to happen again.
“Is there a problem?” Maritza asked when she noticed my rigid state, or perhaps that I was awash in fury.
“There’s a very big problem. You’ll need to cancel this sale immediately.”
Maritza’s expression turned sour like she was going to be ill. “This is about the buyer?”
The gallery owner shook her head, sending shimmering waves down through her dark hair. “It’s too late. Mr. Rafferty requires third-party sales, probably to avoid the purchase from being stopped. I didn’t know it was him until this morning, and the truck is on its way.”
Panic fluttered in my veins, bubbling in my system. I’d already packaged it and closed the crate. Did I have enough time to pry the nails out of the wood? And if so, could I really destroy the most beautiful work I’d ever created . . . just to save it?
“I need a crowbar.” My voice was ice, even though I was sweating. It was hot inside the back room of the gallery, like most of the air conditioner was saved for the customers up front.
“A crowbar? For what?” Maritza’s expression filled with horror when she realized what I intended. “No, Jessica. You can’t.”
My hands were clammy, so when I seized the hammer I nearly dropped it. My grip tightened on the handle while I evaluated the best point of attack. The top left corner wasn’t perfectly flush, so I’d start there. I sank the claw into the seam and jerked. The wood groaned under the force.
“Stop it!” Maritza clasped my arm and tugged me back. The hammer clattered to the ground as she threw her body between me and the crate, her arms flung out to the sides. Five and a half feet of Latina would not stop me from what I had to do. I’d be the mother who ate her baby to save it from a worse fate. No other thought was in my mind.
I ducked under her arm and barreled forward. My shoulder slammed into the wall of wood, but I kept going, ignoring the pain radiating through my body. I forced my feet to move, hardly getting any traction on the bare floor and my flats, but the initial impact was enough to pitch the crate backward. One final shove would send it toppling.
The wood creaked as it tipped, and then the six-foot box landed on its side with a thunderous crash, breaking my heart and hopefully my sculpture inside.
For a moment, reality slowed. Dust motes ceased moving, and Maritza Torres, owner of the only gallery in LA who was willing to showcase my work, stopped breathing. I stared at the pine-colored wood decorated with darken knots and feed marks from the wood planer.
“What have you done?” Her voice snapped us back to real time. Her arms hung at her sides, her shoulders sagging under the enormity of the situation.
I took a cleansing breath. “Items get damaged during shipping all the time.”
“No.” Her dark eyes burned like lava. “Not from my gallery, they don’t. You’ve got some fucking nerve.” She straightened her posture, abruptly looking much taller than she had a moment ago, meeting my gaze. “I’m the only one who took a chance on you, and you’re going to burn me like this?”
I wanted to shrink inside myself, but didn’t regret what I’d done. I was full of so much regret already, there wasn’t room for more.
She blinked and thoughts churned in her eyes. “You’ll go with the freight company and make sure the piece is still intact when it’s unpackaged. If not, you’ll fix it.”
I despised how small my voice sounded. “He’s going to destroy it.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe he will.” She spat the words out like bullets. “But if you don’t do this,
will destroy you. Understood?”
I rode in the back of the truck with two men who didn’t speak English or didn’t care to. I clutched the side of the box, and my stomach twisted with each bump we took. Every soft thump from inside the crate was the sound of a wounded animal desperate for release.
It was stifling in the truck interior. When we finally stopped and the door rolled open, cool, salty ocean air poured in. The relief died as soon as it begun. We faced a garage, its mouth wide open to swallow me and my creation. The men in the back of the truck moved around like I was in their way, unhooking straps and retrieving the dolly.
A man stood on the driveway, his back to the open two-car garage, and was mid-sentence with the driver when he noticed me. His parted lips froze, and the expression told me in an instant who he was.
I’d assumed Alec Rafferty would be a short stump of a man with back problems, like his enormous ego was crushing and crippling him. He’d have fat fingers, small eyes, and perhaps a nose that was too big and beak-like. I painted him as the Hollywood villain, and expected him to embody that role.
The man playing Alec Rafferty was horribly miscast. This one was tall and lean. His muscle-clad form, wavy, dark hair, and sculpted cheekbones said he should be the hero. A faint, curious smile twisted on his lips.
“Ms. Carnes?” His deep voice masked most of his disbelief.
I stepped to the ledge of the truck and out of the shadows. “Yes, Mr. Rafferty.”
He extended his hand up, offering to help me down. “The artist herself delivers the piece? That’s a pleasant surprise.”
His hand was large with long, artistic fingers. I couldn’t stop my gaze from following the line of his arm, or noticing the way his muscle curved on his bicep and disappeared beneath his t-shirt. My reaction to him was a zap of ten thousand volts. It had been a long time since I’d looked at a man in that way.
I ignored his offered hand, not caring if I was rude, and climbed out of the truck, being careful not to get anything on my clothes. I’d worn a skirt and gauzy top that were comfortable, but still elegant enough in case I met clients while I was at Maritza’s gallery.
Alec’s eyes were blue azure and framed with thick, black lashes. I felt his gaze on me as I planted my feet on his driveway and righted myself. I tried to move as gracefully as possible, like it took no effort. I would be unflappable in the face of this attractive man who might want to destroy the only thing I had left.
Although, he appeared relaxed and peaceful. His eyes were warm and seemed friendly. Was it possible he simply wanted to own my artwork? Was it mutual artistic respect?
“M Gallery has concerns the piece was damaged in shipping,” I said, keeping my tone flat and even. “I’ve come to make sure my sculpture is as I intend it.”
A muscle along his jawline twitched, indicating he’d understood my subtext. “My sculpture,” he corrected. “Please.” He motioned to the open door at the back of the garage. “They’re setting it up in my studio.”
The weight to his words made my knees threaten to buckle. I hoped now the sculpture was fractured into a million pieces. My breath halted painfully in my chest. “You’re going to display my piece in your studio?”
In the scariest movies, the villain doesn’t usually look like a villain. When the plot twists and you discover the seemingly benign character you trusted is the one actually pulling the strings, the floor drops out beneath you.
As an evil smile quirked on Alec Rafferty’s lips, I went weightless, hitting the drop. There was the villain I anticipated. Somehow I forced my feet to move, although it was chaos in my mind. What was my next course of action? If the sculpture was broken and I refused to fix it, I’d drive the final nail into my career’s coffin. Yet, if my piece had survived the fall, what then? How could I leave it in this parasite’s hands?
His studio was breathtaking, and made my dislike for him intensify. My feet moved silently on the floor, where different types of hardwood were laid, although the warm tones matched. The floor was a work of art. How fitting. Rafferty literally stood on someone else’s beautiful creation as he built his own “art.”
The contemporary room was the back corner of the house. Custom glass double doors let out onto a stone patio, only the center of the doors was positioned at the edge, so they could swing outward and open the space on a ninety-degree angle. The entire corner was open now and the setting sun was visible through the break in the trees of the backyard. Overhead, there were frosted skylights, no doubt to keep direct sunlight from fading artwork or the stunning floor.
Rafferty didn’t have to, but he put a hand on my shoulder to shift me out of the way as the men brought in the crate. I closed my gawking, unbecoming mouth, and pretended his unnecessary touch hadn’t burned across my skin in a pleasurable way.
There didn’t appear to be any works in progress in the studio, and the white walls were bare. There was a table on one side, and beside it a bookshelf loaded with paints and other materials. The other side of the space held his tools of destruction. A workbench with a circular saw, its curved teeth gleaming in a sickening, endless smile. Beside it, an unlit blowtorch. Mallets, hammers, and chisels hung on the wall above.
A clipboard was handed to Rafferty, who signed with a jerky flourish of movement. Had he used his artistic signature on the delivery slip? Pompous. With nothing left to do, the men filed out, shutting the door behind them.
“I should use that freight company more often,” he said, “if they’re going to deliver a beautiful woman with each shipment.” His compliment was jarring, but like all women, it was nice to hear.
“I’m not part of your delivery. I’ll call a cab to take me back to Maritza’s gallery when we’re done here.”
I stared at him as he retrieved a crowbar and gripped it with steady hands.
It was dangerous. The air in the room grew sharp and debilitating.
I flinched when the crate was pried open with a loud groan of protest. I felt the crowbar ripping off my skin and exposing me to Rafferty’s eager gaze. The heavy blanket was peeled back, revealing the next layer of foam wrap. My breath halted as the long strands of white plastic were methodically unwound from the base upward.
Blood roared faster in my veins with each new, undamaged inch that was uncovered. My heart sank to my toes as he made it two-thirds of the way up the stem, and everything seemed intact. He moved faster as he uncoiled the wrap around the slender part, and slowed as he hit the first series of delicate petals.
The plastic shifted, and a faint, but distinct clink made him hesitate.
Sadness and hope mixed together and was a hard taste for me to stomach. There was absolutely damage to my work. I didn’t want to see it, but couldn’t look away, either. I had to know if it was destroyed.
Rafferty let go of the plastic and the end fluttered to the beautiful wood floor. He took a step back, holding the jagged petal pieces in his hands, his stunned gaze locked onto the wounded area of the sculpture.
The base of the piece was littered with what, at first glance, appeared to be garbage. A torn book. Crumpled receipts. A crushed blue box with a white ribbon. A stained legal document. It had taken a long time to select the hundreds of items I’d replicated and painted to seem inconsequential. Objects of everyday life and some more important, all stacked on top of each other, building up in a mound.
I’d covered the top with moss, which had been difficult to recreate. For years I’d mixed media, often using live flora, but this piece I wanted to capture entirely in a lasting, permanent form. I’d opted for metal, wood, and clay. I’d also chosen to paint the moss a sickly yellow-green, like it was a disease feeding from the garbage.
Out of the moss rose up a slender green stem, and vibrant yellow petals branched out and bloomed into an orchid. The flower of new beginnings. Only now my new beginning was fractured in three large pieces.
“Can you repair it?”
Rafferty’s deep voice jolted me, and I swung my gaze from my sculpture to meet him. He was angry, but it appeared to be at the situation and not directed at me. I wouldn’t think about what he was cradling in his hands.
With the right materials, I was certain I could repair the broken petal and attach it where no one would see the cracks.
“Possibly.” I swallowed a breath. “I need to know what you have planned for it first.”
He acted offended. “That’s none of your business.”
“All right.” My voice was steady. “Do you have duct tape?”
“From what I understand, you don’t have a sense of humor.” His expression set. “Or did you develop one in prison?”