Ryan Kilmer nails the tall, dark, and good-looking playboy persona to perfection clear down to his expensive light brown suit, which matches the image and his eye color almost exactly. “So you’re Rebecca’s replacement,” he says in greeting, holding on to my hand a bit too long.
“I wasn’t aware I was being billed as her replacement,” I say when he releases me. “More as a fill-in.”
“Ah yes,” he replies, and there is a slight edge to his tone that has me wondering what it means. “Fill-in. Well, I’m hoping you will stay around long enough to fill my needs.”
I refuse to read an undertone to the comment, but he’s Mark’s friend, and I wonder if he’s also the other man in the journal. I choose my words carefully. “You have a project requiring artwork?”
“I’m a real estate investor and I’m involved in a high-rise going up a few blocks away. We’re ready to put together the lobby and a few show units for viewing. We need them to impress a wealthy audience. Rebecca basically took control of another property for me a few months back.” He holds up a folder. “I brought you pictures of her work and the floor plans and pictures of what you have to work with now. I’d like you to come over and see the property as soon as possible.”
“Of course. I’d love to see what you’ve brought. Why don’t we head to my office?”
I spend the next hour reviewing the work Rebecca has done in the past for Ryan, and find out what he is looking for in the future. I am not beyond seeing this man as attractive, but unlike Mark, his lighthearted nature and easy humor are infectious and he sets me at ease. It’s hard to see him as a close friend to Mark, but then, maybe it’s his differences that make that possible. Maybe Mark and Chris are too alike, too in competition for control.
I close the folder. “I’m excited to see the property.” And about the extravagant budget that allows me to place some amazing pieces in the property, but suddenly I’m thinking about Mark and Chris and I wonder what caused the bad turn in their relationship.
“. . . and we should have the furnishings staged next week.”
I blink; it seems I have missed part of what Ryan is saying. “Ah yes. Staging is helpful. I’ll know what I have to work around.”
“I’m sure the decorator is going to want to have a say in things,” he adds. “But she worked with Rebecca and understands the idea is to impress the visitors with the artist as much as the design work.”
I’ve never worked with a designer and it’s a bit intimidating. I wonder if Rebecca had done so before she worked at the gallery. It hits me that I know nothing of her before her time here. How have I missed such an important clue that might help me find her?
“For now,” Ryan continues, “you can be thinking through options. The volume of pieces I need may require some outside purchases and I thought you’d need time to coordinate.” He rises and I follow, walking with him toward the lobby, but he smiles at Amanda and stops behind her desk.
The two begin making small talk, and I feel my schoolteacher motherly side kick in when I realize he is flirting with Amanda. This man is close to Mark and most likely a member of his club, and Amanda is a young college girl ten years his junior. I hover, unable to stop myself. When he’s done with his flirtation, I walk him to the door.
When I return to the office area, I stop at the front desk to chat with Amanda. “He’s very sexy,” she says, glowing from the attention. “And he’s never stopped and talked to me like that.”
“He’s too old for you,” I point out.
“No, he’s not,” she argues. “An older man is sexy.”
There is that word again. “And bossy,” I assure her.
She grins. “He can boss me around any day.” She lowers her voice. “Unlike Bossman, who makes me hot and bothered, like he does the entire female population, Ryan doesn’t scare me at the same time. No wonder Rebecca liked him so much.”
“He’s likable,” I agree, but I also think of how Rebecca saw the other man in the journal as an intrusion into her and Mark’s relationship and I cannot help but think it had been Ryan. I can see how Ryan would be Mark’s choice in a ménage. A man who didn’t threaten his role as King.
“But?” Amanda prods when I say nothing else.
“But remember that sometimes the likable ones have the darkest secrets.” And on that note, I’m headed to dangerous territory I decide to avoid. “Is Mary in?”
“She’s still sick,” Amanda declares. “You’re on your own today.”
Mary doesn’t seem to like me much so my heart isn’t broken. I enjoy working the floor anyway. “Not a problem. I’ll be on standby in my office.”
A few seconds later, I settle behind my desk, and my drawer vibrates as my phone buzzes with a text message. Retrieving my phone, I realize the message was sent some time back and I find myself looking at a picture of Chris with a teenage boy I know is the leukemia patient. The kid looks happy but thin, and pale. And while Chris is smiling, I don’t miss the sadness lurking in the depth of his eyes. Being with the boy and knowing he can’t be saved is eating him up. Layers, I think. Chris has so many layers.
I text him: You are amazing.
He replies. You can prove you mean that when I see you again.
I smile and type. How?