“Perfection is essential.” My mother’s mantra always popped into my head at the worst moments, like when I was just about to put the finishing touches on the painting I’d been working on all morning. I blamed the fact she’d gone on a bit of a tirade at breakfast that ended with, “If you’re not perfect, Lanna, you’re coming up short.” That sentence alone had convinced me to get out of the house and blast some music through my headphones to drown her words out.
Most of the time I ignored her little comments, since I had very little chance of ever coming close to her idea of perfection, but this time I was finding it difficult to get her out of my head, as if she were looking over my shoulder at the easel in front of me. Usually the music worked and distracted me well enough, but I’d given up on that hours ago so I could just focus on what I was doing.
I’d been painting for years, and most days I could accept when something was finished and move on. This particular canvas, however, kept giving me trouble, and I was running out of patience trying to fix something that didn’t look broken. The mountainscape was beautiful, really, probably one of the best scenes I’d painted yet, though nothing close to what real artists could produce. But there was something missing. Maybe another tree?
I leaned back a little to get a more distant look, noticing for the first time that rain pounded on the roof of the stables where I’d hidden myself to avoid my mother’s constant criticisms of how I was “coming up short.” She’d been especially bad today and seemed convinced I would either end up alone or a lesbian if I didn’t snag myself a husband soon. I suspected that was because Chandler Wixcomb was back in town, and he was one of the few eligible bachelors I hadn’t blown my chances with yet. Honestly, I couldn’t see why he would still be interested, especially because we didn’t even use our stables for horses, which were Chandler’s passion. If he knew the only things in this massive building were a bunch of dusty saddles and for some reason a broken down motorcycle, Chandler would probably write me off like the rest of the rich folk and go fall in love with a horse instead of a human, since I was pretty sure the animals were the only thing that came up to snuff for the guy.
I certainly didn’t meet his expectations, though that hadn’t stopped him from texting me a couple hours ago to tell me about his new thoroughbred. Apparently she was magnificent, but I hadn’t bothered sending a response. Chandler Wixcomb didn’t want me, anyway, and he would figure that out soon enough.
As Mother often said, though I was passable, I wasn’t the prettiest or the smartest, and what little I had to offer probably came from the fortune I would inherit from my parents when they kicked the bucket. At twenty-five, apparently I’d wasted my best years and the only thing I had left of value wasn’t even mine yet, which was why she worked so hard to make me presentable to the men in our social circle.
Dear mother was convinced a woman had no chance in life without a man to take care of her. I was pretty sure she was meant to have been born in the nineteenth century instead of the twenty-first.
I squinted at my painting in the low light as the rain thundered a little harder overhead. Maybe if I added a few more clouds…
“This is really good.”
I shrieked at the sound of a strange voice above me, leaping sideways and slipping on a stray piece of hay. I went flying backward into my easel and crashing on the floor in a painful heap, and I had to untangle my legs from my stool before I managed to get my hands underneath me and sit up, ready to try to defend myself.
A young man stood in the stall next to mine, his arms resting on the wall between us as he belted out laughter that filled the whole stables. I’d never seen him before in my life, and my already racing heart skipped into overtime. I was under attack!
“Who are you?” I tried to ask, but it came out as a gasp.
“Sorry,” he replied, still laughing. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I couldn’t breathe. My paint pallet stuck to my shoulder, and my ankle throbbed from twisting when I fell, and I could feel a good many bruises popping up. But I ignored all of that because I couldn’t get enough air to focus on anything, especially not on the stranger who stepped around the stall and crouched next to me.
“You okay there?” I thought he asked and reached out his hand to peel the pallet from my sleeve. At least he looked concerned now instead of amused.
I swallowed, and with immense effort I took a deep breath. Suddenly I was less dizzy and more aware, and my eyes locked on his. And then I froze, staring at him like my body no longer knew how to function, all motor skills gone. Maybe he wasn’t there to attack me, or he would have done so already, but that didn’t make him any less anxiety-inducing when he watched me so intently.
His smile returned, which didn’t help the pounding in my chest. Goodness, that was quite the smile. “There you go,” he said gently. “Generally, breathing is a good thing.”
“Who are you?” I said again, this time able to actually say real words now that I had some air in my lungs. “Why are you…”
“Sneaking around empty stables?” he finished for me. Holding out his hand, he helped me to my feet and took a step back, which made me feel at least a little more comfortable, though I wasn’t much enjoying how he stood in my only path of escape. “I was told I could find the lawn mower in here.”
“The lawn…” He was a new gardener? Oh. But we had plenty of those. I tried to stay focused. “No,” I said. “No, I think they keep those in the shed.” I was staring at him and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. Being paraded around the rich and elite by my mother, I had seen my fair share of handsome men, but this guy had a different appeal to him. Tanned and muscular, he obviously spent a lot of time outside—of course he did, if he was a gardener—and he was probably stronger than anyone I knew, even if he wasn’t very tall. Based on those shoulders alone… His dark hair fell onto his forehead, and I could only imagine the life it had when it wasn’t stuck to his skin with rain. But his eyes. Good glory, his eyes. I’d never seen eyes so dark, but they were the warmest things I’d ever seen. I knew if I wasn’t careful I could get lost in those eyes.
“The shed,” he repeated, and his half grin made me slightly dizzy again. “That would make more sense. I’m starting to think Javier is just messing with me now, because it’s not like I can mow the lawn today anyway.” He gestured toward the ceiling, where the rain still pattered, but then his eyes slid to my overturned canvas.
“Sorry,” he said again. “I really didn’t mean to laugh, but I have never seen anyone jump as high as you just did. If I had known you would react like that, I would have coughed or something before I spoke. Did you really paint that?”
Folding my arms, I tried not to take that as an insult. Luckily, I had had a lot of practice learning how to let criticism bounce off me. Thanks, Mother. “Are you really surprised?” I asked, trying—and probably failing—to sound as haughty as my mother. Who was this guy who thought he could just waltz into my haven and tell me there was no way I could have done something at least moderately skilled?
He fought back a grin and rolled his eyes at me. Apparently he had failed to learn that rolling your eyes was unacceptable, something my mother told me often. “That’s not what I meant,” he said then picked up my canvas, examining it as he brushed off a couple pieces of straw. Like he would have any idea what good art looked like. “I just never knew the Davenport Princess had a talent like this.”
My eyes went wide. “What did you just call me?”
His gaze strayed from the painting and swept over me, but only for a moment. “You heard me,” he said as he cocked his head. “Where is this, anyway?”
Davenport Princess? Did people really call me that, or was he just trying to get under my skin? I didn’t like either option, and neither did I like the fact that he kept frowning as his eyes followed the lines of my brush. “It’s nowhere,” I said, the words coming out stilted. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” As much as I had to admit I liked looking at him, his unwavering examination was making me uncomfortable. I would almost rather face my mother’s all-seeing eye than have my art under scrutiny like this. My paintings were the only form of expression I had, and there was a reason I kept them to myself.
Throwing me another glance, he bent down and picked up the easel so he could return the canvas to where it belonged. Luckily, the painting had been mostly dry when I collided with it and looked pretty undamaged. Without answering my question, the guy looked at me and asked, “Have you ever tried painting somewhere real?”
I thought his eyes on my painting were bad. It was even worse when he was looking right at me, as if those dark eyes were looking right into my soul. I took it back. I would rather he looked at my painting instead of making me feel exposed like this. Besides, his question was so far from what I expected that I wasn’t sure how to answer it. “Why would I do that?” I asked. “That’s no fun.”
His half grin was back, making my face burn because he refused to even blink as he watched me. “You haven’t been anywhere, have you?”
“Of course I…” But I couldn’t finish. Despite my family’s money, I’d never even left the city, and I had no plans to anytime soon. I was perfectly content to keep my feet on the ground where they belonged. “What does it matter?” I amended. “I like using my imagination.”
“And your imagination is great,” he assured me. “But it lacks heart. It just has no…” He waved a hand around the painting. “Soul.”
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m not saying it’s bad. You still have some awesome talent.”
I’d had enough. “I’m pretty sure Javi will be wondering where you are,” I said sharply as I began gathering up my supplies from where they’d been scattered. “And you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He simply laughed and backed out of the stable, his eyes still on me. “Don’t I?” he said just before reaching the doors. And then he was gone, disappearing into the heavy rain.
What was that all about? I realized too late that he’d never told me his name, and though he mentioned Javier, I wasn’t completely convinced he worked for our head gardener at all. And who did he think he was, going around scaring people and telling them they didn’t know how to paint with their heart? As if he had any idea what--
“Ah crap,” I said out loud as my eyes again landed on the painting I’d spent hours on. I didn’t know how I hadn’t picked up on that as the problem, but he was completely right. It was just a couple of pointy purple mountains. Some lifeless trees. Even the sky looked dull and empty, though I’d spent a good half hour on the clouds alone. How did I not realize how juvenile the whole thing looked? I wasn’t even sure if I could do anything to fix it because it was so bad.
And suddenly I was afraid to go back and look at my other works. Either I was having an off day, or I didn’t know as much about art as I’d thought.
Neither option gave me much comfort.
“Oh Lanna,” my mother sighed as soon as I stepped inside the house.
In my defense, I’d done everything in my power to avoid tracking mud across the floor, since I knew our maid worked hard to keep things spotless enough for my mother. I’d tried to avoid the gravel path that led from the house to the stables, keeping mainly to the grass, and I even left my shoes outside and squeezed rain from my hair before coming in. But I couldn’t do anything about the state of my clothes.
“Did you roll around in the dirt?” Mother asked in exasperation. “And how on earth did you manage to get so much paint on yourself?”
I glanced at my shoulder, where my sleeve was smeared with blue, red, and yellow paint. I’d done worse, I decided, and it only added a little more personality to my paint shirt.
But then my mother shrieked, making me jump, and I quickly looked down at my feet to make sure her pristine tile wasn’t muddied. She, however, grabbed a handful of hair and held it out as if I’d done something horrendous.
“It’s just a little paint,” I mumbled, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. She treasured my hair, since I was the only one of her three children to have inherited her blonde. Both my brothers had ended up brunette.
“Can’t you switch to watercolors?” she moaned, and I almost thought she was on the verge of tears.
What would she do, I wondered, if I showed up one day with a black pixie cut? I didn’t know if I would have the courage to do something like that, but I did enjoy imagining her minor stroke. “Watercolors have no room for error,” I replied, using the same argument I used every time she tried to convince me to go with a medium slightly less damaging than acrylic or oil. “I just need to wash it out, so stop freaking out.”
Pouting—grown women really shouldn’t pout—she put her fingers to her temples and shut her eyes. “We barely have time for that.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “Uh, why?”
She looked at me as if I should already know, which I didn’t. “Your father has a new client,” she said simply.
My father was a highly skilled and sought-after corporate lawyer. He had new clients all the time. If she was telling me about it, it had to mean the news had something to do with me. “So?” I asked, wishing I hadn’t.
Sighing, she put her hand on my arm and gave me a look that clearly said she had very little faith in me anymore. “This client is Gilroy Munroe.”
“Isn’t there some sort of client confidentiality agreement you’re breaking?” I replied, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Gilroy Munroe was the largest art dealer on the West Coast, and he was known for acquiring incredibly rare works. I’d been dying to see his latest gallery collection before it went to auction, but it was clear on the other side of the city. Getting there had been a problem.
Brushing off my question, my mother put on a fake smile and continued, “Your father is meeting with Munroe this evening, and he has invited us along.”
Either my father suddenly possessed uncharacteristic sympathy toward my hobbies, or my mother had weaseled her way into the invitation, which filled me with dread. The only reason she would bring me along and risk me embarrassing her would be because there was someone else who would be at this meeting.
“Who is he?” I grumbled. “The man you want me to meet. Not Gilroy Munroe?”
Her laugh was sharp and cold. “Don’t be ridiculous. You could never be on the same level as someone like Gilroy. He’s in a league of his own.”
“Then who?” I pressed.
“Obviously his son,” she replied. “Aaron, I think it was. I hear he’s very handsome.”
“And probably as pigheaded as the rest,” I mumbled under my breath. Most likely worse. Gilroy Munroe was the king of high-end art, a well-known millionaire who probably sat in his vault every night counting his gold. Any child that came from that could only be just as vain and greedy. A prince in every sense of the word.
“Oh don’t make that face,” my mother scoffed and shoved me toward the stairs so I could start getting the paint out of my hair. “One of these days, Lanna, you’ll eventually figure out that your choices are dwindling. This could be your last hope, and I’m not about to give up on you.”
After reaching my room, I paused in front of my most favorite painting I’d ever done. It was nothing special, just a single sunflower, but it was the first thing I ever did that made me feel like I was actually good at something. It was the only reason Mother even allowed me to paint as often as I did, since it had won me a couple awards in high school.
Looking at it now, I felt a coldness settle inside me that had nothing to do with the rain soaked into my clothes. The new gardener was right. Though I’d captured the essence of a sunflower and gotten every detail just right from my imagination, it had no life to it. It was lacking the simplicity of mimicking something real, and that bothered me more than it should. Sure, I was young when I painted it, but, looking around, I was pretty sure I hadn’t improved much in the ten years since.
I had to make myself somewhat presentable for my meeting with the ‘Prince of Art,’ and yet all I wanted to do was paint something to prove that gardener wrong, to show him that I could put heart into a painting, that I wasn’t just a princess doomed to live out my perfect, soulless life in luxury.