Gage decided to stay until morning. It was the least he could do. Nalea lay half-naked curled up beneath his jacket when he awoke around seven-forty-five. Smiling, he patted her blonde hair and gently slid from the couch. It hadn’t been the most comfortable sleeping arrangement. Slipping downstairs to the supermarket, he headed first for the coffee stand, ordering a latte for himself, and a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. Then he wandered to the bakery and plucked some fresh chocolate croissants from the shelf with the tongs. He stopped in the produce department and picked out some sweet-smelling apples, followed by a bunch of bananas to keep his options open. Finally, he stopped in the florist, and hummed and hawed over the type of flowers to buy.
He turned, noticing Constance browsing through the flower department.
“Uh hi…” he said, tightening his grip on his hand-held basket.
“You’re here early,” she remarked, lifting a bouquet of white roses to her nose.
“Yeah, just gathering items for breakfast,” Gage replied, stretching his arm awkwardly as he dropped a package of candy into his basket.
“You eat chocolate-covered pineapple bites for breakfast?” she quirked a brow, leaning forward to inspect the package. “I should come over for breakfast some time. Must be gourmet at your house… candies from the floral department.”
“I’d like that,” he squeaked, a little too eagerly. “Uh… I’m not getting flowers…no flowers here… no sirree…” he quickly changed the subject. “What are you doing here?”
“Flowers…” she smirked. “… for Senior’s Day… at the library,” she casually knocking a package of the chocolate-covered pineapple bites into her own basket. “…since you suggested it…” she smiled coyly, turning away as she placed a few bouquets of purple delphiniums on her arm. “And,” she turned around. “…I never said anything about you buying flowers, but since you’re acting like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar…” she leaned in and straightened his collar. “…I’d recommend the white roses.”
Gage was too stunned to reply as she sauntered off into the store with a slight wave of her hand. His face relaxed into a smile. Constance Shelley was a constant surprise to him.
“I’ll take these,” he motioned to the florist.
Sauntering back upstairs, he found Nalea had already stirred from her sleep and was frantically trying to replace the buttons on her blouse.
“I have a client coming in a half hour,” she said, evidently freaked out when she saw his face. “I can’t believe we did that… I did that last night.”
He frowned, feeling defeated before he even began. “I brought breakfast.”
“And roses. How sweet!” Nalea remarked hopping across the floor with one shoe on as she looked for her other shoe. “You didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to,” he said.
“But um… Gage… uh…” she wasn’t even looking at his face, and she had hardly glanced at the breakfast spread he had brought as she searched the couch for her missing shoe.
“It’s under the table,” he directed. “Look… if you have a client… I’ll get out of the way.”
“Yes…” she exclaimed, pulling her pump from its hiding spot. “I mean… no!” she looked up at him, flushed. “I mean… uh… yes… you should go… but no… I mean… I want to…”
“It’s okay. You can save the speech,” Gage waved his hands. “I already know.”
“What? I mean… you do?” Nalea said, bewildered.
“Yes, we had a fun date and all, but I can’t be your client anymore after last night. It wouldn’t be professional,” he offered. “And it was fun, but you only wanted fun, and nothing more. You’re not looking for a relationship,” he began to back away. “I get it. It’s cool.”
“Thanks,” she tilted her head. “You took the words right out of my mouth. I mean it wouldn’t be very professional of me to keep seeing you as a paying client. And um… well…” she turned to fix her stray hairs in the mirror hanging on the wall. “And I don’t know what got into me last night.”
“Say no more,” he said, opening his arms. “I was expecting this. And a relationship with strings isn’t what I’m looking for right now.”
“Really?” she puzzled over a rogue hair. “I mean, you wished for a family and a home of your own and to please a woman and…”
“I know what I wished for,” Gage laughed unnaturally. “Seriously, Nalea, I wasn’t expecting to have it overnight or with you.”
“Oh!” she said, sounding almost disappointed, as she stopped preening. Turning about, she looked him in the eyes, “Well, if you want to have more fun sometime, call me, okay?”
“Sure thing,” he said, heading for the door.
“Oh and an apple!” she snagged one from his bag, and planted a light kiss on his cheek. “Thank you. I’m starved.”
With that, she whirled and walked toward the small bathroom of the establishment. Gage trudged down the back stairs, and felt the ache in his heart as he realized every word he had said was a lie. He swallowed hard, realizing Nalea wasn’t the one for him, and had gotten caught up in the irresistible charm last night. When he reached the street, the Simvember morning air hit his face like a cold slap. He debated tossing the entire bag, but then realized he spent good money on his items. Perhaps he could make someone else’s day. He pulled out his phone and dialed.
“Anita? Hey it’s Gage.”
One week later, Gage wandered into the live art room at the Octagon House. He smiled at each artist as he passed by, taking a moment to stop and ponder at each easel. Jon Lessen, the Monday afternoon figures instructor, acknowledged him with a nod as he continued to make the rounds and give pointers to each of the painters. Today the subject of their paintings was two female models in swimsuits. One was Hannah Jones, a journalist for the Riverview Register, dressed in a high cut pink floral one-piece, and the other, to his pleasant surprise was Anita Errare. It was hard not to notice the woman dressed in a hot pink string bikini.
“Ain’t she smokin’?” Buzz Rhodes, an attendee whispered.
“Which one?” Gage whispered back with a smile.
“We were short a model today,” Jon informed him. “So Anita filled in. Hannah helped her get settled.”
“Thank you, Hannah Jones,” slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it.
The woman glanced over at him and grinned. Hannah had apparently modeled in college in several athletic magazines, and now did a gig or two for fun. This week, according to Buzz, she was writing an article on the Octagon House’ newest patron… Anita Errare.
Of course she is. Gage sighed. Modeling for the community art class together was the perfect opportunity to pump the heiress for information. It was hard not to make the golden-skinned Anita the center of attention. He just hoped the article would be flattering. Several tabloids from Simcago and magazines had been hounding Ms. Errare, including Simcago Sensations, the same magazine Lakshmi worked for, and Gage had hoped his former one-night-stand wouldn’t be doing the article. He knew because he had been keeping the young widow company for the past week.
Last Monday, he had called Anita and shared breakfast with her after Nalea blew him off for a client. Anita had found the breakfast picnic in the park to be “a thoughtful idea.” Perhaps his night with Nalea hadn’t been a complete waste. He seemed to have picked up some pointers. Before meeting Anita at the Lost Willow, more secluded than the other town parks, he had stopped by the library and asked Lilith to pass along the roses to Constance… anonymously, of course. The sixteen-year-old volunteer at circulation practically swooned, but she promised to keep his secret. Gage felt better about giving flowers to Constance since she had been admiring them after all, and had suggested the flowers to him.
His breakfast date with Anita turned into several hours of pleasant conversation and getting to know one another. They stopped into Divisadero Budget Books to warm up, and Anita popped back to the powder room, which was when he received a text from Constance.
C: Thanks. Is this to pay me back for the socks? Because I think that’s overkill.
G: What are you talking about?
C: The roses… they’re lovely. You shouldn’t have bought me flowers.
G: Lovely flowers for a lovely librarian. How did you know they were from me?
C: I was with you when you picked them out.
She signed her text message with a wide-mouthed smile. He was too predictable, he assumed. That’s when Anita resurfaced from the bathroom, and they began browsing through books together as she attempted to locate a text on Libra era Simtalian artists. Tuesday, Anita had surfaced at his workplace and asked if she could help with a project. Any project, she said, as long as she was out of her house. He plugged her in with the evening pottery class, and popped by a few times in the hour to poke his head in the door and see how she was doing when she wasn’t looking.
Thursday, Anita announced she wanted to financially support the Octagon House, specifically by adding a new wing, dedicated to some pieces of her late husband’s artwork.
Friday, they talked with the lawyers over lunch. Gage felt like Billy really should be present for the discussion, but his boss said he completely trusted his judgment and approved what he needed to from a distance.
This morning, Gage and Anita went over the official paperwork in his office, and after an hour of trying to… and failing to decipher the legal jargon… and laughing a little in the process… he sent out for lunch from Little Coriscan Bistro, gourmet applewood smoked bacon and avocado hamburgers with a special pineapple barbecue sauce. He had discovered Anita liked pineapple on the morning of their first breakfast together… chocolate covered pineapple bites had been a good choice after all. He had been glad someone enjoyed them, still feeling the slight sting from Nalea’s casual reaction to their night together.
The sweet potato fries in a honey Parmesan glaze, arugula salad with toasted walnuts, and chocolate fudge cake with a raspberry cream-cheese frosting had been enough to put the proverbial icing on the cake of a long fruitful partnership for the Octagon House. He was taking his boss’s advice quite literally with the wining and dining, even if it was just at the office.
“Hey! You! Boss man?”
Gage returned planet-side as the day-time security guard, Joab Lankste, attempted to gain his attention. The man had already changed out of his uniform into a comfortable pullover, white pinstripe button-down, and jeans.
“I was going to take this class but looks like I’m too late,” Joab remarked. “And the little old lady will have my head if I’m not home for dinner so take my spot.”
“Trust me, buddy. I’m doing you a favor,” Joab grinned as he walked from the room. “Rashid is already in punching numbers in the clock. You’ll do great, boss man.”
“Tell Rebecca I said hi,” was all Gage could think to say in response.
Jon walked over and set up a canvas on his easel, claiming Joab already paid for the session so Gage could hop right in and paint since he qualified for the employee discount. Gage tried to protest, but Jon insisted saying there were to be no wasted canvases. He rolled up his sleeves, deciding he might as well try.
Fifty-five minutes later, the other classmates packed in their supplies for the night and filed out one by one for the night. Hannah helped Anita to the ladies locker room to shower and change while Gage stayed and chatted with Jon for a few minutes. After everyone was gone, Gage returned to the canvas, adding color with precision brushstrokes. He hadn’t wanted to show off while the other classmates were there.
“Wow, I’m flattered,” a voice came from behind him.
Gage jumped, turning to see Anita wrapped in nothing but a white towel. She must have just emerged from the showers.
“Uh hi…” he said.
Anita leaned toward the canvas, the finished portrait of herself, with a discerning eye. “I like how you captured the still portrait of me, but there’s movement and life behind me with the yellow taxi cab and the fall trees. It’s a neat approach.”
“Thanks,” he started putting away his art supplies. “It was the best I could come up with in the short amount of time.”
“Gage,” she breathed his name. “Your work is brilliant. Joab showed me a few of your paintings in the back. You’ve been working in a storage closet?”
He blushed. “I… well… I don’t typically join classes like these… and it’s actually got decent lighting in there.”
“No, no,” she shook her head. “That simply won’t do. We’ll have to make sure that the new wing has a space for employee artists.”
“That really isn’t necessary,” he replied.
“But I want to… I want to invest in the arts here. I want to invest in you… Gage… you are… look at what you did in under two hours. It is simply stunning. I love how you captured me,” she praised. “You are bold in your brushstrokes and your technique.”
“Thank you,” he managed, his voice croaking as he moved to adjust the canvas.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about her praise. He hadn’t thought of himself as a brilliant artist, especially in the eyes of the widow of the late and great Philippe Errare.
Anita tapped her foot impatiently. “What I cannot fathom is why you are not bold with me.”
Anita cut off his response by pressing her lips deeply into his own, and for a moment, he forgot everything else in the world. This wealthy, accomplished, well-traveled, engaging, and beautiful young woman showed interest in him – a lowly struggling artist and assistant manager of a gallery and museum in a po-dunk country town.
Gage threw his hands up as she wrapped her arms tightly around him in embrace, almost uncertain as to why he did so, but then his fingers found her face, and caressed her cheeks. Anita sighed happily into his mouth, continuing to massage his lips with her own. He was in heaven, and he had no idea how he got there.
He was almost disappointed when she removed her lips.
“Gage Briody,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “I have decided we should date.”
“Okay,” he said, grinning lazily.
“That’s all you have to say?” she seemed almost surprised.
“Well, I’m not one to turn down the bold propositions of a beautiful accomplished woman,” he replied, a teasing edge to his voice.
“I am serious, Gage,” she narrowed her eyes. “You and I will date. I have wondered why you have not kissed me before now.”
“I was trying to… uh… respect you… I mean… I didn’t…” he stammered. “…want to presume things….and all… you know… and I wanted to… um… be… your… friend. I didn’t think…”
“No you didn’t. And I have to decide if I’ll forgive you for that,” she said seriously.
“Well, I think you did…” he let out a weak chuckle. “…with that kiss.” he leaned in and nuzzled her cheek. “I would be happy to date you, Anita Errare, if it is what you want. Now why don’t you go change so I can take you to a proper dinner.”
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