Ashley woke up gasping for breath, acrid air clogging her lungs. She jerked up as her eyes darted around the room. There was no smoke and no fire, just the familiar high ceiling of her loft. The light streaming from the downstairs windows reflected on the full-length mirror of her dresser, causing her to squint. She flopped back on the bed and took deep, calming breaths.
The nightmares were becoming more and more vivid. She was safe, not trapped in a burning house with her parents. And the shrill sound was the telephone, not a fire truck. She leaned sideways and picked up the phone from the cherrywood nightstand.
“Yes.” Her voice came out muzzy and faint.
“Ashley Fitzgerald?” an unfamiliar, deep male voice said.
“This is she.”
“Ronald Douglass. I left a message in your voicemail last night.”
Ashley frowned at the slight censure in his tone. “I haven’t gotten around to checking my messages yet. What can I do for you, Mr. Douglass?”
“May I stop by your studio for a brief talk?”
The grandfather clock downstairs chimed. It was seven-thirty—too early for someone who’d gone to bed at two in the morning. Worse, the male model for her next erotic series was due in less than an hour. Ashley groaned. She’d need a pot of coffee to function.
“I’m sorry, that’s not possible,” she said. “I’m busy this morning.”
“I have a slight problem, Ms. Fitzgerald. I want to surprise my grandmother with a portrait on her birthday and I’m told you’re the person to go to if I want a first-rate work. I promise you, I won’t take much of your time. In fact, I’m only a few blocks away from your studio.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Douglass. I’m not accepting any more commissioned works, not for a while. But I can recommend a very good friend and colleague.”
“I don’t want anyone else, Ms. Fitzgerald.”
His words were very flattering, but his timing sucked. With the grand opening of the new children’s museum next month, the wall murals must be completed before then. Then there was her erotic series show. She didn’t have time to take extra work.
“I’m sorry I can’t be of any help to you, Mr. Douglass. I’m really swamped.”
“Listen, I know I’m being particular about this,” he said after a brief pause. “You see, my grandmother doesn’t have long to live, but she loves your work and owns several of your original pieces. Having you do her portrait would mean so much to her.”
A lump formed in her throat and her insides softened. She’d lost her grandmother when she was in her teens, just before her parents died. Like the caller, she’d adored her grandmother.
Ashley sighed. “Okay, Mr. Douglass. But we can’t meet now.”
“Later today perhaps?”
If she photographed the model in the morning, her afternoon would be spent sketching.
Her evening was taken, too. It was the girls’ night-out with her cousins. She dared not cancel or they’d have her hide. Besides, she preferred to meet potential clients in their homes.
“I’m completely booked today. Monday evening would be much better.”
“I’ll be out of town the whole of next week.” He sounded frustrated. “What about tomorrow?”
No way. Sunday was her day off. “I’m sorry I can’t. Listen, why don’t you call me when you get back from your trip and we can pick a more suitable time?”
This time the silence on the line was longer, uncomfortable.
“Fine. Have a nice day, Ms. Fitzgerald.” The line went dead.
Not a happy camper, was he? Ashley shrugged, scooted to the edge of the four poster king size bed and stepped down. Her feet sunk in the egg shell shaggy rug covering the wooden floor. Without bothering with slippers, she hustled down the winding metal staircase to the kitchen and started the coffeemaker, then headed straight back upstairs to shower.
The hot water didn’t ease the tension coursing through her, the effect of the nightmare.
Would they ever stop? At this rate, she’d go crazy. She pulled on a floral working kimono, slipped on loafers and hurried down the stairs. After pouring herself a cup of coffee and added hazelnut creamer, she scribbled a few notes on a Post-it and pressed it on the fridge door.
Sipping the coffee, she walked to the H-shaped, floor easel and smiled at the piece she’d finished the night before. What a beautiful kid. So unfair he had died so young, like her parents.
Here I go again, thinking about Mom and Dad. At this rate, she wouldn’t accomplish much today. The problem was, the nightmares tended to remind her of her loss. She frowned at the door as though she could make the model appear through sheer will. Where was he? Dee’s models were usually very professional and rarely tardy. Maybe she should have asked to see the portfolio of this new guy, talked to him first. No, that would have been pointless. Dee had never failed her in the four years they’d worked together.
A sigh escaped her. She needed to relax before the man arrived or their session would be a waste of time. There was only one way to deal with the angry energy twirling inside her.
Ashley drained her coffee and placed the cup on top of the chest of drawers that held her paints. Then she propped the finished oil painting on a shelf to dry, replaced it with a blank canvas and put a bucket of water on a stool by the easel. She squirted dime-size globs of paint on a palette, picked up a brush and started working. No pencil sketches to begin with, just bold sweeps across the canvas.
Her hand trembled, but she didn’t stop working. Couldn’t stop was more like it. Time stood still as her past and present collided, as the demons threatening her very sanity coalesced on the painting before her. She dropped the brush and the palette in the bucket of water and shuddered. How many times had she painted this house? The exercise didn’t stop the nightmares.
She dragged her gaze away from the painting to the myriad of cloth-covered canvases on wooden shelves around along the walls. People commissioned and paid thousands of dollars for her one-of-a-kind paintings, yet she was locked in a loop—fifteen years old at night and twenty-five during the day, all because she couldn’t let go of the past.
There was only one solution. She wanted the house razed to the ground. Ripped through to its foundation until not a single block, beam or panel was left standing. Call her childish or vengeful, but completely obliterating that place from the surface of the earth would fill her with a great deal of satisfaction, and give her the closure she sought.
Ashley turned and snatched up the telephone from the kitchen counter. Her glance touched the surface of the clock. It was nine o’clock and Toni should be in her office. She speed-dialed the realtor’s number.
“Morning, Toni. Did you meet with Nina Noble’s agent yet?”
“Ah, yes. He walked me through the house and the compound. It’s in great condition and has lots of old trees, but I think you could do better.”
“No, I want this one.” She leaned against the counter and glowered at the painting on the easel. “Accept whatever they’re asking for it and bring me the papers to sign.”
“Are you kidding? That’s not the way to get the best deal, Ash. I intend to check the market value first, then offer them ten percent less than—”
“Don’t.” She reached forward, flipped the painting so it faced the easel. “I’ll pay whatever they want.”
“O-okay. But her agent hinted that it’s important to Nina who the new owner is and what he or she plans to do with the house.”
Ashley grimaced. Only Nina, the grandstanding diva, would add such a stipulation to something she was selling. But there was no telling how the actress would react if she knew Ashley wanted to buy her house.
“I don’t think giving them my name is a good idea. But if her people want to know what I intend to do with it, tell them I mean to turn it into a commune for artists, a place where in-house artists can offer dance, voice and art lessons to kids.” It was the dream her parents had wanted before they died, and Carlyle House had been their chosen building. Now the dream was hers to fulfill except hell would freeze over before she used that house. “Call me when you have everything set, okay? I’ve got to run. Bye.”
Ashley pressed the off button and placed the phone back on its cradle. For a beat, she stared at her shaking hand, her breathing shallow. She fisted her hand and took a deep breath.
She was weary of being haunted by her past, longed to be free. No, she deserved to be free, to live a life without doubts and phobias, some of which neither she nor her therapist could explain.
With the house destroyed, she’d begin her healing process.
Now that’s settled, I need to focus on something else. Her glance went to the door, again.
Where was her model? Dee had some explaining to do.
Ashley rinsed her brushes and palette, took one look at her kimono and groaned. In her haste to exorcise her demons, she’d forgotten to put on a smock to protect it. She hurried upstairs to change.