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Panther's Promise(5)
Author: Zoe Chant

 

 

3

IRINA

 

The evening had gone to complete crap.

Oh, to start with, everything had been going fine—Tay had found her a glass of wine that probably cost more than her grocery budget for the week, they’d oohed and aahed together over some of the more incredible outfits on display throughout the room, shared gripes about work and art, and then…

And then Francine Delacourt had turned up.

Sleek, gorgeous, and dripping with self-confidence, Francine Delacourt was a permanent fixture of the sort of Top Thirty Under Thirty listicles that seemed specifically designed to make everyone else feel like a pathetic under-achiever. Not only was she immensely wealthy, she was thickly built but had the confidence to wear her curves like a queen.

Irina wasn’t sure which she envied more: Francine’s money or her confidence.

Except the confidence probably comes at least a bit from the money, she reasoned. If I could afford a dress like THAT, I would never have to worry about unsexy mono-boob ever again.

She had the perfect opportunity to examine Francine’s dress because the first thing the woman had done when she arrived was to stalk across to stand in front of Irina’s paintings. Which would have been great, except…

Everyone knew about Francine Delacourt. Even Irina did. She’d never met her, but she’d heard all the gossip about the ice queen of the art scene. With a single word, Francine Delacourt could make an artist—or destroy their career forever.

Tonight, for God knows what reason, she had decided to terrorize the few people who had gathered to look at Irina’s work.

Tay, bless him, had slunk away the moment the blonde woman had showed up. Irina didn’t blame him. The last thing any artist wanted was to be next in Francine Delacourt’s line of fire.

It was certainly the last thing she wanted.

You promised Clare you wouldn’t run away, she told herself. You promised.

On the other hand… you made that promise based on the assumption that Francine Delacourt wasn’t going to turn up and rip you to shreds.

And the door is only a few yards away...

The door might as well have been ten miles away. Irina couldn’t have reached it if she tried. Francine was standing so close to her that Irina could count the diamond chips in her earrings, and Irina’s feet were glued to the floor.

First, Francine stared at the paintings, her pale blue eyes expressionless. Then she swung her head around and stared directly at Irina.

It was like being caught in a spotlight. Irina felt like an ant trying to scurry away from a magnifying glass.

“Disappointing, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t actually a question. It might have been worded like one, but Francine’s tone left no room for alternative views.

“Er,” Irina said helplessly. “Yes?”

Francine waved one arm lazily, encompassing the entire room. “Look at them all. Two days ago, no one had even heard of this place. My idiot assistant sends one tweet about the exhibition, and suddenly… lemmings. Desperate, squeaking lemmings.”

Her mouth twisted, and Irina couldn’t tell if it was in frustration or disgust. She still felt pinned in place, and took a swig of wine to cover her nerves.

“Why are you here, then?” she blurted as soon as she finished swallowing, and immediately wished she’d just chugged the whole glass. And lost the ability to talk. And passed out. And been taken away by an ambulance, never to be seen again.

Francine’s gaze grew even sharper, something Irina wouldn’t have thought was possible.

“Certainly not for the artwork,” she replied with a sniff. Her eyes slid sideways, and Irina sagged with relief that she was no longer under the spotlight.

Until she realized the other woman was now looking at the paintings. Her paintings.

“Are these yours?” Francine said, her voice expressionless.

“Yes,” mumbled Irina, wishing a hole would appear in the floor under her feet. Across the room, Clare was staring at her wide-eyed, waving her hands in the universal gesture for “Talk!”

But not, Irina noted, actually coming over herself to join the conversation.

“I, er,” Irina stammered, glaring at Clare. Come on. You can do this. Just… try to sound like you’re meant to be here. Like you’re not massively intimidated by everyone here, not just Francine.

She cleared her throat. “Yes, I—er—I summered in the Adirondacks, and had a bit of free time to work on these. Clare—that is, the gallery manager—insisted I bring them with me back here, and…” Irina trailed off.

Summered? Is that something people still say? Or ever said?

Irina bit her lip and gave a shrug that she hoped looked casual and sophisticated, and not like she was a turtle trying to hide in its shell. Inside, she was groaning. Can we rewind that and try again?

Francine was still staring at the paintings with her ice-blue eyes. “The Adirondacks? I wonder…” She paused briefly, her perfect eyebrows drawing together. “Did you happen to meet…?”

Irina waited on tenterhooks for Francine to finish the sentence. She had the horrible feeling that she had fallen into some sort of art-world pop quiz. Any minute now, she would get something wrong, and Francine Delacourt and everyone else would know what a fake she was.

The pause lengthened into an even more uncomfortable silence. Francine was still staring at the painting, her eyes glassy.

“Did I meet…?” Irina repeated. “I mean, I met a lot of people, of course, it’s very popular. Lots of outdoor activities. Lots of mountains.” Her words echoed in her mind. Lots of mountains? Are you serious right now? “People also like the rivers.” Oh God. Stop. STOP.

Thankfully, Francine was too distracted to notice Irina’s babbling. She shook herself, as though she was waking up from a daydream and fixed her eyes on Irina again.

Irina promptly shut up.

Francine stared at her with the same intensity as she had just been inspecting the paintings. And Irina felt—awful.

Her heart was thudding in her ears, and her whole body was jittery with nervous energy. The last time she’d felt like this, she’d been clinging to a rope handrail ten feet above a stream, after a bridge she was crossing started to collapse. Irina had inched her way safely back to solid ground, but her body hadn’t decided it was safe until she was back at the cottage that evening.

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