Home > Panther's Promise(6)

Panther's Promise(6)
Author: Zoe Chant

It was the same here. Nothing was wrong, nothing bad was happening—but Irina’s body wasn’t convinced.

What the hell? It’s one thing to be nervous, but this is just… what’s wrong with you? Even her tongue was frozen stiff. She felt… well, terrified, but wasn’t that a bit over-the-top?

Finally, Francine broke her gaze, and said:

“Self-taught?”

Irina sagged with short-lived relief. Her palms were sweating from the intensity of—of whatever had just happened.

Oh, well. Here it goes, thought Irina miserably. The tragic tales of the art-school dropout.

She squared her shoulders. “Actually, I—”

She stopped as Francine held up one hand. “Wait.”

Irina stared at the other woman’s hand, mouth still open. She shut it with a clack. Francine Delacourt’s hand was perfectly manicured, a sliver-thin gold ring her only jewelry. And she had stuck it palm-out in Irina’s face to shut her up.

Worst of all, it had worked. Francine turned away, scanning the room, and Irina was left hanging.

Irina was already on edge from their strange, constantly shifting conversation, and now she felt her nerves flare into anger. How dare she? What, is she just looking around for someone more interesting—but keeping me on hold just in case?

She glanced behind Francine. If she can check out of the conversation to look for something better, so can I. Where are Tay and Clare?

The gallery was small enough that it only took her a moment to scan through the crowd. Tay was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Clare. And she didn’t know anyone else in the room.

Not even when she was wandering around the Adirondacks taking photos and doing sketches for her paintings had Irina felt so completely alone. She bit her lip. No one was even looking in her direction, or if anyone was, it was only with short, furtive glances, as though afraid of attracting Francine’s attention.

The only person who was facing Francine and Irina head-on was a man who must have just arrived. Irina didn’t recognize him from her earlier scans of the room. And she knew she would have remembered him. He ticked all the boxes: tall, handsome, and obviously well-built under his expensive-looking suit.

Francine was still directing her laser-glare elsewhere, so Irina let her own eyes linger longer on this newcomer than she usually would have. Or maybe it was just that she couldn’t tear her eyes away from him.

Anyway, she reasoned with herself, I must be practically invisible here, stuck behind Francine—so it’s not like anyone’s going to notice me staring, right?

And, wow, was there a lot to stare at. The man had amazing cheekbones, and a sensuous jawline that looked all the better for a dark dusting of five-o’clock shadow. His curly black hair was just long enough to touch his collar, and swung flirtily over his eyes. And his eyes—his eyes were such an intense, vivid green that every other color in the room looked dull by comparison.

Irina closed her eyes and allowed herself one millisecond of a daydream in which this attractive stranger swept her off her feet and carted her off somewhere far, far away from Francine Delacourt.

She opened her eyes—and froze.

The handsome stranger was staring straight at her. For one moment, his eyes widened, as though he recognized her. But that wasn’t possible. Irina knew she would remember if she had ever met him before.

And then he smiled, a slow, joyful smile that was like the sun rising.

Irina’s own lips began to curve in automatic response.

“Excuse me.” Francine’s voice hit Irina like a bucket of ice. In response, Irina snapped her eyes away from the handsome stranger. Francine was staring at her again, but somehow, her gaze didn’t seem so terrifying this time.

“Yes?” Irina asked, and then gaped as Francine thrust her own wineglass into Irina’s free hand, turned on her heel and stalked off.

Irina looked down at her full hands and gulped. Did I miss something? What the hell just happened?

She watched Francine’s retreating back, as much to convince herself that the woman was actually leaving as anything else, and saw that the other woman was striding directly towards the green-eyed man who had smiled at her.

Oh.

It wasn’t me he was smiling at, at all, Irina thought, her heart sinking. He must have been smiling at Francine. That made a lot more sense.

She took a deep breath to calm herself down before looking down at her two wine glasses. The deep breath turned into an even deeper sigh.

So much for leaving waitressing behind.

And so much for being an artist.

Tears pricked at her eyes, and she blinked furiously. It wasn’t just that Francine Delacourt had been so strangely terrifying—it was the fact that everyone in the room must have just seen her blow off Irina’s work, pretty much guaranteeing that no one would bother to give her paintings so much as a second look. If the culture vultures at tonight’s event were only here because they were following Francine’s footsteps, they were hardly going to buy something she obviously found no value in.

So where did that leave Irina? Standing by herself in the corner, holding two half-drunk glasses of wine.

She could drink the wine, she supposed. It couldn’t possibly make her look more pathetic.

Goodbye, artist. Hello, waitress.

Irina clenched her jaw, willing herself not to cry. It wasn’t like she should even really be upset. Her art had always been just something she did for fun. A hobby. Silly and pointless. Maybe she could have had a chance to make more of it years ago, but she lost that chance when she dropped out of art school. And, sure, it had been nice of Clare to think of Irina when she had a panic with a spare spot in the exhibition, but that was all her paintings were. A placeholder.

Irina squeezed her eyes shut. If you’re upset, it’s your own fault for imagining this evening could lead to anything more.

She had to get out of here. She had to get rid of these stupid glasses of stupid expensive wine, get her coat from out of the back, and—just flee.

Irina turned on her heel and almost walked straight into someone. Her eyes were swimming, and it took a moment for the dark splodge in front of her to resolve into a man wearing a charcoal-colored suit and silk shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, right in line with Irina’s eyes, revealing a triangle of bare, tanned skin.

“Hello,” said a low voice, and Irina tore her eyes away from his neck. She looked up, and her world flipped upside down for the second time in as many minutes.

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