Chapter 1

ARIK SAT at his easel, canvas in place, staring at the blank whiteness. He hated that color, the one that mocked him with nothingness. He blinked a few times but couldn’t stop the tears that spilled from his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. It was time to say good-bye to his dreams and to move on with another chapter of his life. His head knew that, but his heart ached as though he’d lost the love of his life. And maybe he had. Lord knew he’d never met anyone he wanted to spend the next fifty years with, but the canvas and his paints? He’d thought that would be a lifelong love affair. He’d learned differently, watching, looking at the whiteness waiting to be brought to life, but nothing came. Not that he could do a fucking thing about it.

He turned away, lashing out, the easel and its contents falling to the floor with a crash. The canvas went sailing and landed facedown near the wall. At least it was no longer mocking him. Arik wanted his anger to build, more and more, and maybe then, in a fit of rage, he could end it all. But once the sound settled and things became quiet, his anger went as well, replaced by despair and self-loathing. There was fuck all he could do, and making a mess wasn’t going to help.

He gathered everything up, put it all away, and then left the tiny second room of his apartment. It had been meant to serve as the bedroom, but that was where the light was, so he slept in the main room so he could take advantage of the light—the place’s one true amenity. Now it was just a room the sun hit during the day. Nothing more. It would never be the room where his mind and body became one and he made art, where he could let his soul shine through.

As soon as the door clicked closed, Arik deflated like a balloon. What little energy he’d seemed to have the past few months was spent and gone, long gone. Curling up under a blanket on the sofa, Arik closed his eyes to try to sleep. That was the one escape from this whole mess. He could dream about spectacular landscapes and capturing the essence of the little girl, Cassie, who lived next door, the way he had in the painting that hung in their living room, the one he’d done for Cassie for her seventh birthday. Feel that rush, the energy of creation coursing through him, knowing he was seeing something others didn’t and needing to get that on canvas the way the rest of the human race needed to breathe. It was part of his soul… at least it had been. Now that was gone. Arik only felt that way in his dreams now, so he slept as much of his life away as he could.

 

 

ARIK STARTED awake, blinking, to find the apartment bathed in morning reds and oranges. He heard the vibration of his phone somewhere. He wanted to let it be, but it vibrated insistently, and Arik almost fell to the floor before getting his legs underneath him. He found the ridiculous piece of technology and answered it, surprised it hadn’t gone to voice mail.

“Hello,” he said quietly, trying to think who could be calling.

“Is this Arik Bosler?” an assertive, confident voice said.

Arik wondered if this was one of those sales calls. “Yeah…,” he said half questioningly.

“Good. I’m Ken Brighton. You entered the Great Lakes Regional Arts contest last year.”

Arik’s heart sped up, and he sat straighter on the sofa. Ken Brighton was calling him. Arik had studied his work in school, and here he was talking to him on the phone. “What can I do for you, sir? I wasn’t the winner of that contest.”

Arik remembered working for weeks on his entry. The first prize had been a chance to spend two weeks working directly with the man he was talking to now. Arik had wanted to win that prize so badly he’d been able to taste it.

“I’m aware of that. The thing is, I was very impressed by your contest entry. There was a panel of judges, and we didn’t always agree on the definition of art, or much else, for that matter.” Ken cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, as I said, I was impressed with your entry, so I decided to call you and see if you’d be interested in coming up here to work with me for two weeks. I know the contest prize included board, and we have an extra room here that you’re welcome to use during your stay.”

Arik’s mouth went completely dry and his hand shook as he held the phone to his ear. “That would be so awesome!” he exclaimed before he remembered, and the momentary burst of energy drained away.

“Excellent. Do you still have the same e-mail address?”

“Yeah, but….”

“Very good. I’ll send you the address. Do you have transportation? If I remember from your entry, you live in Pontiac—that’s a good drive to Pleasanton.”

“I have a car,” Arik said automatically.

“Great. Does a week from now work for you? I have a project that will be finished by then, so I thought we could start something together and take it through our artistic processes, so we can learn from each other.”

Ken Brighton wanted to learn something from him? Arik’s breath escaped, and he nodded before remembering that he had to speak. “I can be there.” He had nothing else going on.

“That’s wonderful. Like I said, I’ll e-mail you all the information, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I’m really looking forward to working with you.”

“Thanks,” Arik said without thinking. The line went silent. He pulled the phone from his ear and stared at it for a few seconds, wondering what he’d just done. He had agreed to spend two weeks with Ken Brighton, his hero. He was going to get to meet him. It was like a dream come true.

In art school, he’d taken a class in currently working artists and art trends. They’d studied Ken Brighton’s work in class, not because what he was doing had been particularly groundbreaking—Ken’s work was actually quite traditional—but because his technique and talent were outstanding. Arik had taken notice, and he’d even adjusted his own personal style to move closer to Ken’s. But how could he do this? Working with him would be a waste of Mr. Brighton’s valuable time. Arik knew he should simply call him back and explain that he wasn’t able to come after all.

Instead, he was so excited about meeting him that he got off the sofa and rummaged in the coat closet for his suitcase. Then he began packing his things to get ready for the trip. He hadn’t been excited about anything in so long.

 

 

THE DRIVE through Michigan a week later was beautiful. Late June, summer was in full swing, and as Arik went farther north, the heat of the Lower Peninsula dissipated, the air freshened, and he turned off the struggling air-conditioning in his car and rolled down the windows to let in the clean air.

Arik knew he should have simply called Mr. Brighton and told him that he couldn’t come. But he figured since he didn’t have anything better to do, he’d make the drive, meet Mr. Brighton, maybe be able to see his work and talk to him. Then, once he’d explained that while he would have been thrilled to work with him, it just wasn’t possible, he’d leave. Maybe he’d spend a few days in town before driving home to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. For now and the next few hours, he was thrilled that he was going to meet one of his heroes.

He crossed the Mackinac Bridge, watching the water, calculating how he could recreate that exact color of blue. Not that it mattered, but by the time he reached the Upper Peninsula side, Arik was fairly sure he could get the color right if he tried. Not that he ever would again. He paid the toll at the far side and continued on, passing Castle Rock as he headed north toward Lake Superior.

As he drove, Arik enjoyed the scenery, but as he got closer to Marquette and then Pleasanton, he began to regret not calling Mr. Brighton and calling off the visit. But it was too late now. He was already there.

At the edge of Pleasanton, his nerves began to get the better of him. He pulled into a gas station and up to the pumps, then turned off the engine. He needed gas and a chance to think. He should have stayed home and not put himself through all this.

A tap on the doorframe pulled him out of his thoughts. Arik turned and squeaked at the huge man half leaning into his window. “You want some gas or what?” the man asked gruffly. Arik was belted in or he’d have scooted into the passenger seat to get away.

“Yeah,” he answered shakily. Arik watched as the huge, bald-headed man, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with a leather jacket hanging open over the top, stared back at him with eyes that said he wanted to tear Arik apart. At least that was what Arik saw in them. He shivered and tried not to look scared. “Th… thank you?” God, he hoped this guy worked at the station.

The guy didn’t move—he just watched Arik for a few seconds as Arik chilled and willed his legs not to shake while hoping the guy wasn’t about to reach in and grab him.

The huge man pulled back, and Arik breathed a sigh of relief.

“You need to open your gas cover,” the man said, and Arik pulled the gas-cap lever, fingers shaking. He reached over and raised the passenger window. He also raised his partway and felt a little safer. Arik adjusted his rearview mirror, watching the man and wishing like hell he could get out of here. He reminded himself that the two of them had never met before, and the guy pumping his gas had no reason to hate him. That still didn’t stop Arik’s insides from churning. When he heard the sound of the gas nozzle being removed, he pulled out his wallet, checked the pump for the amount, and got out some bills.

“That will be $27.53,” the man said gruffly.

Arik handed him thirty dollars. “Thank you,” he said hastily, and then he raised the window and started the engine. The man might have said something, but Arik pulled away and turned back onto the main road, following the directions his GPS system gave him.

It took a good ten minutes for his breathing to return to normal. He hated that the gas station guy had intimidated him, but he hadn’t been able to help his reaction. He pulled his mind away from his fear and concentrated on his driving, making the turns indicated until he pulled up in front of a well-kept home on a tree-lined street—the kind of place anyone would want to live.

A riot of color lined the walk and the front of the house, flowers in every hue. All Arik wanted to do was get to work… but that wasn’t part of his life any longer. He had to realize that and move past it. Still, he could enjoy something as beautiful as the rainbow of color that went perfectly with the Craftsman-style home. After taking a steadying breath, Arik opened the car door and stepped out. He closed the door and walked across the street, down the beautifully lined walk and up the steps, where he rang the bell and waited.

It opened, and a stunning man with eyes the color of heaven stared back at him.

“I’m Arik Bosler. Mr. Brighton is expecting me.”