JUST FRIENDS PREVIEW: Chapter 3

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Coming September 23rd!


Chapter 3



Crash!
The top half of Zack’s latest piece – tentatively titled The Siren That Stole My Soul –cracked into two on the floor of his art studio. He likewise tossed his supplies, because they weren’t going to do him any good now.
“This is what happens when we get started on a Sunday.” Every artist, like every sportsman or fisherman, had his superstitions. Those tried and true “dos and don’ts” that would either make or break his day. One of Zack’s was Never start a new project on a Sunday. Continuing a project was fine. Finishing one up was considered fortuitous for the project’s success. Starting one, however, was like cursing himself. Every time he made the attempt, it blew up in his face.
Or broke in half and smashed onto his floor. That worked, too.


At least he hadn’t lost a ton of work. Last night, he was stricken with inspiration. The kind that forced him out of bed and to one of five lightboxes he owned, the one in the corner of his bedroom. The others were here in his studio, on his yacht, in his living room overlooking the river, and in the otherwise untouched room of his adolescence on his family’s estate. That one was my first. A gift from his father, back when his family found it charming that their youngest son was interested in the arts.
The drawing had manifested into an image of a young woman upon the rocks, the water crashing against her mermaid’s tale. The tail is an illusion, though. The water transforms it into a trident, meant to spear a sailor’s heart and force him to plummet to his death. Growing up around the water gave Zack a unique perspective when it came to the wonders – and horrors – of the open sea.
He loved the harrowing tales sailors and pirates told over the centuries. Zack had a humble collection of diaries, biographies, and other non-fiction books that told of life on the seas way back when it was the only way to get from one landmass to another.
So his siren wasn’t the most conventional image men had when they thought of a beautiful young woman wishing to end their lives. Zack’s siren was humbler. An everyday woman of size and beauty. Her hair was ratted by the sea water. Her eyes gleamed green. Her skin was tanned from the sunlight, and her fish tail slimy and powerful. He had been excited to get to work. He knew there was a reason he had that slab of marble ready to go in his studio. It had been destined for The Siren That Stole My Soul.
Until he knocked it into two, anyway.
Zack sat on his paint-covered stool and surveyed his mess. The siren’s shoulder had barely been formed when she decided to fuck with him. It’s fine. From this, I can create two smaller pieces. He’d find a way to rework that shoulder into a fish tail to account for the new proportions. Perhaps he would do two acts. The first would be the traditional feminine beauty. The second would be the monster the sailor saw when it was too late.
“Could I get any more literal?” Zack buried his face in his hand. “What a waste of perfectly good marble.”
The price didn’t concern him. The logistics, however, would be something else. His supplier would chastise him for wanting more without a show to account for. But the reason Zack put up with the supplier’s artistic outrage was because they went to art school together.
Zack didn’t like his works to be literal. He wanted them to make people look twice. To see the hidden meaning on the second pass. To understand his view of the world. To see…
“Fuck it.” He hopped off the stool and checked his phone for messages. That early on a Sunday morning? Nothing. “Fuuuuck itttt.”
He knew what was wrong.
That woman he had seen twenty-four hours before.
For some reason, Zack hadn’t been able to shake her image from his head. Whoever she was, she had been the inspirational ticket he had been searching for. He understood that more with every hour that passed. And he had no idea how to find her, unless he camped out at that café every day, hoping to see her again.
Nah. That was ridiculous. There were millions of beautiful women out there, eager to be his models and muses. I should know. I’ve slept with enough of them. Zack had done entire collections on his love life and the many kinds of women he had enjoyed in bed.
The woman he saw the day before wasn’t the most striking. Not the most well-dressed. Certainly not the most expensive. She was refreshingly normal, and sometimes that triggered Zack’s creativity better than some of the Nordic and Brazilian supermodels he had dated.
“I’m thinking… a collection of average women.” Yes, that would go over super well with his agent. Average women. Art critics flocked to see average women.
Zack needed to get some air. Maybe some food. Was his kitchen back home stocked? Time to find out.
Zachary Feldman had thought himself an utter genius when he bought two side-by-side apartments and renovated them together. No, not into one smooth space, although that’s what every interior designer and contractor he brought on assumed. One was his personal apartment. The other was converted into a large studio because he fell in love with the lighting and the view of the river (and marina) before he fell in love with the neighborhood. The only rooms he kept in the other apartment was the master bath and bedroom. The kitchen was reduced to a mini-fridge and industrial sink, the cabinets and counters transformed for art supplies, some of them needing special temperature controlled environments. When an artist worked with several mediums at once, he was wont to create his own work space the exact way it needed to be. For both practicality and professionalism.
He put away his apron and washed his hands in the industrial sink before grabbing his keys and locking up. The hallway was quiet, a welcomed contrast to the sounds of the city he sometimes heard when he threw open his studio windows to air it out and to bring in inspiration.
His lovely neighbor was in the midst of locking up her apartment as well.
“Good morning!” Zack called, jerking the uptight blond out of her Chanel heels. Her matching navy blue purse also slipped down her arm. “Helluva Sunday, ain’t it, Kat?”
Kathryn Alison had one of the fakest smiles in the city. As one of the richest, she had tons of practice flashing fake smiles at obnoxious men like Zack. “Absolutely beautiful. See you had a bit of inspiration.” Her smile crashed off a face only Swedish genes could sculpt. “Heard it, too. What? Did your ego smash through the floor and kill Mrs. Gupta downstairs?”
Zack pretended her words struck him right in the heart. The dramatic flail against his studio door made her roll her eyes. “Such scathing words!” He popped right back up with a renewed countenance. “As a matter of fact, one of my most recent pieces had a bit of an accident. But that’s all right. You’re here now, Kat. My inspiration and desire to get back to work is restored.”
“Don’t call me Kat.” She jiggled her door handle, making sure it was locked before dropping her keys into her purse. She looked like she was either dressed for a business meeting or a day out with the girls. On a Sunday? It could go either way for the city’s biggest charity machine. “Feldman.”
“I love it when you talk dirty.” Zack leaned against the wall, hand crawling toward the sconce hanging above them. His other hand drummed against the crown molding, feet digging into the plush carpet beneath them. These luxury apartment buildings pulled out all the stops when it came to impressing residents in the hallways. “Especially when you talk dirty to your boyfriend.” He winked at her.
“Feldman!”
“When are you going to dump that loser and finally go out with me?” Zack clasped his hand over his heart, his T-shirt sweaty from artistic exertion. “Every night I hear you two going at it is another night of my soul being tortured.”
Kathryn regathered her bearings, the embarrassed flush leaving her cheeks. After a hearty sigh, she said with confidence, “We do not go at it every night.” Her purse strap snapped against her shoulder. “Not in my place, anyway.”
“It’s only fair that if you complain about my work that I complain about your sex life.”
“I hardly see how those things are comparable.”
Zack laughed. This ribbing he and Kathryn Alison engaged in every time their paths crossed was a product of two things:  the nuisances they caused one another, and the fact that Kathryn was hot and deserved way better than her loser boyfriend Ian Mathers. Okay, so he has more money than me. Was crowned King Playboy before he gave it up for monogamy and let me have that title. Still a loser.
Women weren’t the only ones who carried chips on their shoulders from college. Zack and Ian went back. Way, way back.
Wouldn’t it be perky sweet if he managed to seduce Ian Mathers’s girlfriend he never shut up about?
Of course, that’s how it started when Zack first moved in and found out that Kathryn Alison was his new neighbor. Then he discovered how witty she was. At first, that only made him more attracted to her, even with the rumors that she was a hardcore Domme. (Okay, so that sounded hot too.) But then he also discovered how much of a spoiled princess she was, and Zack was subsequently reminded that he vastly preferred dating women who were not heiresses. Too high maintenance. Too up their own asses.
So now they only ribbed each other for the sport of it.
“Tell you what.” Zack smacked his hand against the wall. “I’ll stop doing loud art when you stop having loud sex at four in the morning. Deal?”
Kathryn spared him one last fake smile before sauntering down the hallway. “You first, Feldman!” she said over her shoulder. Zack did not mind checking out her ass in her blue skirt as she headed toward the elevator.
“You’re lucky I don’t entertain ladies in my studio!” he called after her. Kathryn smashed the elevator’s down button. “Could be as loud as you! Wait until you’re home! Scare your cat! Scare your boyfriend with my manly, manly prowess!”
That wave turned into a middle finger the moment the elevator doors closed.
“Ooh, baby.” Zack continued to his personal apartment one door down. “Let me sit on it while you spin it around.” He’d pay to hear her offer it, honestly.
Zack barely had the chance to change out of his work clothes and start making a sandwich when his phone rang. It was Terry, his agent.
“Hey, my man!” Terry was the perfect clash of southern Californian bullshit and New England, well, bullshit. “How’s those new projects coming? The Hotel Galleria and Prague Efforts are already blowing me up asking about you. That last tour we did made people cry!”
Zack slathered mayo on his sourdough bread. “First of all, you’re full of shit. Second of all, I’m right where I was three days ago when you asked me this same question. Was working on something, but it ended up in, uh, pieces.”
“I don’t want to hear that, Zachary. I want to hear that we’re going to deflower virgins and reawaken the libidos of old grandmothers when we unveil your next piece.”
“Thanks, Terry, for your inspiring words.”
Zack hung up on him. If that’s all Terry had to say, then he had no need to say it. Rather eat my sandwich in silence. He better turn off his phone to make sure.
The day was nice enough to sit in his nook and take in the sights of the city. Zack had perfected the best places to draw inspiration. Out on the water. Down on the marina. On his bike going down the rural highways while taking in the fresh mountain air. Here in his nook where he could soak up the vibe of a city on a Sunday.
Why in the world wasn’t it helping him come up with more ideas? He had already thrown aside the idea about the siren. Without a full piece of marble, it was worthless. He needed to figure something else to do with two pieces, one of them probably smaller than the other after he was done getting rid of the chipped edges.
If there was one thing Zachary did best, it was picking subjects. A good subject spoke both on behalf of his artistic soul and to the masses that bought his pieces and drooled over them in galleries around the world. Zach was one of the privileged few who made enough money to fund his passion while also having the talent to back it up. His family name and money got him into art school and a trust fund the size of all nine muses put together, but it was his God-given artistic abilities that kept him in galleries and receiving rave reviews in the media.
So what was his next target? What did his soul call to next? Who was going to change his life and his career?
Damnit. His mind kept going back to her. The woman in the café. The woman with the ponytail. The woman in flannel and denim shorts. The woman flipping through a Japanese dictionary like she knew how to use it.
She was enough beauty, enough enigmas to make him more curious about her. But not enough to inspire a whole new collection from that one meeting.
It wasn’t even a meeting. Hell, she still might not know he ever existed, assuming the barista never followed through with his sketch. I should have kept it. Ugh. Dumbass over here. Dumbass with his turkey and mayo sandwich on sourdough bread.
Zack had two options going forward. He could make her his new muse. Or he could date her. There was no in between when it came to women.
First, he had to find out who she was. 

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