“Mathers,” Irina replied. “Irina Mathers.” She reached across to shake his hand with mock formality.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Grant drawled. “So, what brings you to the city? I can tell by your accent that you’re not from around here.”
“You got me.” Irina took another sip of wine. “I grew up in—well, pretty much the opposite of New York. This tiny town out in the middle of nowhere, where the tallest building was the water tower. The sort of town that has a water tower.”
The waiters swept discreetly in again, replacing the empty plates with delicately arranged cuts of steak. Irina waited until they had gone, suddenly tongue-tied.
“I guess…” She stopped, not sure how to go on, and found herself staring intently at the triangular patch of skin under Grant’s open collar.
He picked up on her stare and stretched luxuriously so that the fabric of his shirt stretched against his chest. Irina groaned, which only made him look more smug.
“Next time we dine out I’ll wear a mask, so you can enjoy the meal properly,” Grant announced with an air of benevolent self-sacrifice. “And a burlap sack. No, a canvas one. Burlap is so chafing.”
“And canvas isn’t?”
“Canvas is tolerable.”
Irina laughed. Grant wasn’t the first man she’d met who was well aware of how attractive he was, but somehow his method of constantly drawing attention to his good looks was more charming than off-putting. It didn’t hurt that he actually was far better-looking than any of the meatheads whose idea of flirting was to flex their own muscles in front of a mirror.
“All right. Let me try again.” Irina took a deep breath. Try again… and try not to sound like a complete drop-kick loser. In other words, not like yourself. “Like I said, grew up in the middle of nowhere.”
Irina toyed with a morsel of steak, then speared it and popped it into her mouth. Mmm. This is amazing. I so wish I hadn’t missed the first courses! She kept talking, only slightly distracted by the food.
“Where was I? Only child, born in—sorry, fast-forward—I was always interested in painting and art of all sorts, really, and I actually got this scholarship after high school.” Keep it cool. “For a school here, actually. But my Gran got sick during freshman year, so I was back home again before I could blink. Then just…”
She stopped. Then I just yo-yoed back and forth for the next four years. A few months back in the mountains over the tourist season, saving money to come back to the city and—what? Realize, time and time again, that I didn’t fit here, either?
What am I doing with my life?
“I don’t know if you, uh, noticed my paintings…”
She glanced up in time to catch Grant’s shamefaced wince. “Ah. Would it help if I said I was very distracted?”
Irina snorted. “Too busy stealing strange women’s drinks? Anyway, my friend Clare—”
“—She of the texts I wasn’t allowed to see—”
“—Yes, Clare of the terrible text messages. She got me the exhibition. Which was so kind of her, really, especially since…”
She paused and bit her lip. The words, It’s not like I’m a real artist or anything were waiting on her tongue, ready to be said, but she couldn’t make herself spit them out.
All those months of work. All those months away from work: hiking and climbing in the mountains around her grandmother’s cottage. Hunting down the perfect scene, the perfect angle and light, and painting for so long every evening that the fumes made her dizzy. And all for—what? A dream she wasn’t even brave enough to chase?
Everyone knew that no one made a living as an artist these days. Especially not girls from the middle of nowhere who’d dropped out of art school.
Especially not girls who didn’t want to be artists, anyway. Irina had a job, and it was a pretty good one. Better than a lot of people had. Her waitressing paid the bills—well, most of them—and if it all fell through, she always had the cottage to go back to. How many other twenty-somethings could say the same?
Let Francine Delacourt sneer at her work. Irina didn’t need any of it.
“Are you all right?”
Irina realized the smile had slid off her face while she was wrapped in her own thoughts. She pulled herself back together and flashed a grin at Grant. “Sorry. I was a million miles away.”
“Back at your Gran’s house in the mountains?”
Irina’s smile wavered, but she pulled it up again. “My Gran passed away a few years ago, but, yes—back at her old cottage in the mountains. I worked on the paintings there over last summer.”
“Well, here’s to summer in the mountains.” Grant raised his glass, but he was still watching Irina carefully. “Whether that’s Bolivia, Irina’s Gran’s mountains, or wherever it is Mathis ended up.”
Irina raised her glass as well. “To the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. And wherever your friend is.”
“Probably punching a tree somewhere, if I know him.” Grant laughed.
Irina relaxed, feeling safely back on solid ground.
“Well, that doesn’t rule out the Adirondacks. Plenty of trees around there. I might have even seen him.”
Her Gran’s cottage was a few miles from the small town of Silverstream, tucked into a remote valley that nevertheless saw lots of visitors over the summer months. Irina racked her brains, trying to recall if she’d seen any tourists who might have harbored tree-assaulting plans.
“Does he look much like his sister? Same amazing hair?”
“He’s tall and blond like her, but that’s it.” Grant shifted in his chair, as if he’d got pins and needles suddenly.
“What about the laser-beam eyes? I would remember seeing anyone with eyes like hers, I think.” She bent her head to her plate and glanced up through her eyelashes at Grant. Yes, he was definitely looking uncomfortable.
He couldn’t be jealous, could he? Of the remote possibility that she had gotten a glimpse of his friend, probably fried red by the sun and grimy with hiking?
The thought sent a thrill prickling down Irina’s spine. She sat up a little straighter. Before she could stop herself, she felt herself lick her lips. Damn her subconscious, giving away what he made her feel.
“Is he into the outdoors? Well, I suppose he must be, if he likes punching trees.” Irina raised one eyebrow at Grant. “And what about you? Did you punch many trees in—Bolivia, did you say?”