“You’re not seriously wearing that tonight.”
Irina Mathers stopped in her tracks, her stomach twisting. She hoped that the cold wind that was whistling through the streets outside the art gallery where her friend worked would explain away the stunned expression on her face.
It’s just Clare. You know she doesn’t mean anything by it.
To cover her nerves, Irina rolled her eyes dramatically and pulled her winter coat closer around her plain dress.
“A ‘hello’ would be nice,” she grumbled good-naturedly. “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”
Clare glared at her, sighed, and stepped aside so that Irina could scoot past her. “I was expecting you an hour ago! Where have you been?”
“My shift ran over, and I couldn’t get away until my replacement showed up,” Irina explained. “I promise I came as fast as I could.”
Her heart sank slightly as she took in Clare’s outfit.
How fancy is this thing tonight? she thought, shaking off her coat.
Clare was wearing a slinky little black dress and pearls. Even her flyaway red hair was slicked back into a glossy up-do. Technically, Irina was wearing the same sort of outfit under her heavy winter coat as Clare was, but there was no way anything that fit over Irina’s curves could ever be called a little black dress. And she could almost feel her dark curls escaping their thousand hairpins as she stood there in front of her best friend.
Irina reached behind herself to pull the door firmly shut and winced as another curl sprang free from her work-appropriate bun. She saw the line that formed between Clare’s eyebrows as she looked at her and tried not to wince.
“Come on, Clare, you know I had work today. You’re lucky I’m wearing a dress at all. And not stinking of deep-fried fish.”
“Where were you tonight? Not the fish place?” Clare relaxed, giving Irina a sympathetic look.
Irina smiled back at her, thinking with relief, We’re both just stressed. She’s not going to hate you for not wearing the right thing to this stupid show.
“The raw food place. Just as annoying as artisan fish and chips, but far less smelly.” Irina slung her coat over her arm and followed Clare up a narrow staircase. Her calves complained: a whole afternoon on her feet and, now, stairs?
She distracted herself by telling Clare about her day. “I don’t think they’ll ask me back, though. The manager didn’t seem too happy with how the diners would look at me, and then at their meal, and then back at me…”
She broke off, realizing that her happy-go-lucky tone was beginning to sound a bit brittle.
“How long do I have to get ready for the party?” she added, hoping the pause hadn’t been too obvious.
“Ten minutes.” Clare sounded tense again. She pushed through the fifth-floor door and waved Irina through with her.
“Is there somewhere I can freshen up? Bathroom?”
“Second door to the left.”
Clare was pointing the way when a wail from farther inside the building interrupted her. She clasped her pointing hand to her forehead instead and groaned.
“Oh, hell. That’ll be Tay. I’d better go talk him down from whatever crisis has struck—so, once you get out of the bathroom, the entrance to the main gallery room is the first right, okay? I’ll see you in there.”
Irina took a deep breath. “Okay. Got it.”
Clare had already turned away, but now she spun back around, pinning Irina with a serious look. “Irina… I know I’m acting like a total bitch right now, but I’m really glad you came tonight. This could be your big break, you know. Please take this seriously.” She stopped, thought for a moment, and added: “Please don’t run off.”
“I’m not going to—Clare, I’m not going to run off. Seriously. I know this is a great opportunity for me,” Irina insisted, even though her tongue tripped over the words. “And I really appreciate you going to this much effort for my stupid paintings.”
“They’re not stupid.”
Irina raised her hands in defeat. “Okay, yes, I swear not to say that in front of anyone who might buy them. Promise.”
Irina bit her lip. She wanted to tell herself she was hurt that Clare would accuse her of wanting to run away. After all, wasn’t this what she had always wanted? The opportunity to show her paintings in a real art gallery, as though she was a real artist and not just a college dropout who waited tables and painted a bit on the side?
The problem was it was true. Irina had run away from every big change in her life so far, so why would Clare think she would do any different now? She had dropped out of art school and run away home to the mountains. Then, when her Gran died, she’d run away back to the city. And then she’d spent the next few years yo-yoing back and forth, disappearing the moment things got too difficult.
This time, though, things would be different. Irina was determined. Clare had fought tooth and nail to get her manager to accept a few of Irina’s paintings into this exhibition, and she wasn’t going to let her down.
Even if it had taken every inch of self-control she had to work herself up to actually showing up this evening, and it was only because she’d filled the last two days with back-to-back shifts that she hadn’t had the time to panic and pull out.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen? You spend the evening guzzling free bubbly in the corner, while people who actually know about art look down their noses at your silly landscapes?
Irina sniffed and grimaced at Clare’s concerned look. “Sorry. It’s so cold outside, I—” On an impulse, she swept Clare into a quick hug. “Thanks for this, Clare. You’re an angel. And I promise I’m not going to disappear on you.”
Clare grumbled incoherently into Irina’s collarbone. “Just don’t change your mind when you see who RSVP’d,” she groaned.
Clare peeled herself out of the hug and smoothed her dress, not meeting Irina’s eye as she asked: “Who? Who is it?”
But Clare was already halfway down the corridor and didn’t hear her question—or didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Or scare me off, more likely. Irina swore under her breath.
Clare was obviously massively stressed out, but that would be true whether the mystery guest was the Queen of England or one of their teachers from art school. What the redhead lacked in height, she more than made up for in nervous energy.