Blank Canvas: Artist Duet #1
★★★★★ “Every painful moment, every sliver of hope, every longing look and the moment they start to fall in love. It's all so raw and real.”Romance Author, Michelle Heron
★★★★★ “I loved how raw and organic the story has been. Couple after couple have been showcased in this series, but there is just something special about this one. Nothing is rushed and both hide their emotions well, but also wear them on their sleeves in a sense.”My Bookish Rendezvous
★★★★★ “This story is rich with description. Feelings and art and the bleeding of souls are written in such a beautiful and vivid way.”Bibliophile Chloe
★★★★★ “A flawless slow-burn romance that pairs two souls struggling to overcome their hurts, real and imagined.”Romance Author, Mel Walker
I want her more than my next breath, but she can never be mine.
A year ago, I met her the first time. The fair-haired beauty at the flower shop. The mysterious woman that watched me from the window and sparked my artistic muse. I didn’t learn her name then, but she was always there. In the periphery. Until I had to say goodbye.
Out with a friend a year later, I spot her in the crowd and can’t take my eyes off her. Though I should stay away from her, I find every possible way to see her. To spend time with her.
I shouldn’t want Shelly Reed. Shouldn’t lead her to believe we will ever be more than friends. The more I push her away, the more she lures me in. With her radiant smile and affectionate heart, Shelly gives me new life, purpose, and captures my soul.
I should let her go, but am too selfish to do so. I need her. More than my next breath.
Release date: September 20, 2022
Publisher: Between Words Publishing LLC
Print pages: 318
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Blank Canvas: Artist Duet #1
Four Years Ago
“We should break up.”
I rear my head back as if Kelsey slapped me. Did I hear her correctly?
The crowd continues to cheer and dance as high-volume music plays around us. A tassel smacks my cheek as another graduate from our senior class squeezes through the throng of bodies.
Leaning in, I speak next to Kelsey’s ear. “Sorry, didn’t hear you over the noise.” At least I don’t think I heard her. “What’d you say?”
Kelsey takes my hand and guides us through hundreds of our classmates and their families. Her hand in mine feels different, colder, less comforting. Nothing like the girl I’ve known the past three years. The abrupt change has me queasy and unsettled.
Once we reach the outskirts, she stops and spins to face me. The downturn of her lips is an instant red flag. A warning sign telling me I didn’t mishear what she said a moment ago. But I refuse to believe it. Not until I hear the words clearly from her lips and the reason why.
“Devlyn, I’m sorry.” Her bottom lip juts out as her eyes droop at the corners.
She’s sorry? You have got to be kidding me. Her sorry appears a little too forced, a little too practiced.
Kelsey and I have been practically inseparable since Andrew Bishop’s “We survived freshman year” party three years ago. It wasn’t an instant love connection, but she carried herself unlike other high school girls. More mature and less catty. She had this air about her; a strength I gravitated toward. Plus, she made me laugh. A lot.
We had hung out all summer. By the time sophomore year started, Kelsey Martin was officially my girlfriend. Not a single day passed where I doubted our relationship or its backbone. We were solid. Practically attached at the hip. In love.
Or so I thought.
“You’re sorry?” The words leave my lips harsher than intended, but I don’t regret the severity of my tone. Not when the girl who has owned my heart for three years says she wants to break up. I glance off to the side, too stunned to see anything. When I return my gaze, every soft line of her face—the ones I drew from memory with pencil and charcoal—blur into a blob of unpleasant colors. “Doesn’t seem like you’re sorry,” I choke out.
A hand grazes my forearm and I yank it from her grip. Her head falls forward as she sniffles. “Please don’t hate me.” Sadness laces her voice and makes me question reality. Makes me question the reason behind this sudden change.
“How did you expect me to feel?” I shiver, cross my arms over my chest and hug myself. “Did you expect me to be okay with this?” I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open them on the exhale. “You gave no indications. We see each other every day and you’ve never said or shown you’re unhappy.”
“I’m not,” she says quickly.
Our eyes meet and I shake my head. “Then why?” I want to touch her. Want to reach out, wrap my arms around her, and mold her to my frame.
But I won’t. Never again. Doing so only muddles the water more.
She stares off toward the crowd, laughs without humor then meets my doubtful eyes. “Graduation day,” she murmurs. “Today should be one of the happiest days of our non-adult lives.” I nod but keep my lips sealed. Right now, I don’t trust my voice or the words I might spew. “Last night, as I got everything ready for today, it blindsided me.”
My brows pinch at the middle. “What did?”
Kelsey waves a hand toward the massive gathering, as if I should automatically know the storm of thoughts brewing in her head. “This!” She points to random people, then waves a hand at the room. “Graduation. The end. And not just the end of high school, but the start of what follows.”
This isn’t hot off the press news. Most of our senior year was spent in assemblies discussing what would happen this year and what it all meant. Most of junior and senior year was packed with college discussions and plans for after high school. Kelsey and I had discussed all this at length with each other. Us taking different paths after high school wasn’t anything new. And we talked, on more than one occasion, about our relationship post high school.
Our conversations never revolved around breaking up. Of course our relationship would be different, but we planned to stick it out.
Yes, hundreds of miles would separate us—Kelsey starts Florida State in the fall while I start at Ringling. Less than a day’s drive away, our plan was to spend as many weekends and breaks together as possible. We had it all mapped out.
Or so I thought. Obviously, unbeknownst to me, those plans flew out the window.
“And?” I drag out the single-word question. “We talked about this.”
She shakes her head, not wanting to hear what I have to say. “No, Dev. We talked about our fantasy life, post high school.” Her eyes close a beat, then meet mine. Another shiver racks my body at the coldness in her eyes, the stiffness in her posture. “Reality check, we aren’t kids anymore. Even if we met in the middle, seeing each other on off days would be exhausting. Both of us will get behind in our studies. It’s just too hard.”
She averts her eyes to the senior class twenty feet from us. Her spine straightens as she wipes all emotion from her face. Bile rises in my throat as I take in this new side of her. A side I have never seen. A side that makes me sick to my stomach.
How long has this part of her existed? How long has splitting up been on her mind? I refuse to ask because I fear learning the truth. That she has considered the idea of breaking up for much longer than a day or two.
“Breaking up is for the best,” she says without looking my way. “We should get to experience college and this new phase of our lives. Make new friends. See the world… without fear of hurting each other.”
All I hear is… I want to have fun and be open to new experiences without being tied down. Better to break up now than cheat on my boyfriend and feel guilty.
I won’t throw the words in her face, but I am no fool. Well, maybe I am a fool. A heartbroken idiot who believed the girl he loved would want to be with him for years to come. A naive guy who thought his girl cared for him as much as he did her.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
What boy believes he found his soul mate at fifteen? Trusting boys with moldable hearts, that is who.
Kelsey continues on her tirade of why our breakup is for the best, but I don’t hear a word she says. Her voice is white noise in my ears. The words scrambled and vacant and pointless. When I don’t respond to something she said, she pats my shoulder, mouths something else, then walks off.
Week-long seconds pass as I stand in the same place and stare at the fuzzy basketball championship banners over the collapsed bleachers. A warm hand settles on my shoulder, a perfume I have known since childhood fills my nose. My mom says something beside me, her voice saccharine and insincere yet firm. A woman not to be crossed. I have no clue what she said, but I nod.
I exit the gymnasium with my parents, thankful when Dad’s arm hooks around my shoulders, and walk to the car. Our drive to the restaurant is a blur. Graduation dinner goes by in a haze of disbelief. With each passing minute, a black vignette clouds my periphery. Blankets my vision. The thumping organ in my rib cage beats with less enthusiasm. And it doesn’t take long before the pericardium around my heart shrinks. Withers. Splinters into thousands of jagged pieces and stabs the vital organ it holds.
With each new wave of darkness, I make a new vow.
I will never let anyone in again. Never let someone close enough to ruin me with such severity. And never will I give another my heart. The agony in the fallout isn’t worth the risk. No one is worth this endless heartache.
Then, I give in. Let pain and darkness swallow me into the abyss. Let my world go numb.
I love pink. Much of my wardrobe consists of various shades of the hue. But seeing this much—balloons, streamers, cake, clothes, drinks—has me nauseous.
Another round of oohs and awes fills the room as Cora opens another gift and holds up an infant-sized black dress with tiny pink hearts. Then she pulls out a pair of black Mary Jane’s, small enough to fit in her palm, and her eyes glaze over.
The smile on my face is genuine. The joy in my heart is real.
I am happy for my best friend and her husband, Gavin. They deserve nothing but happiness and love after the journey their relationship has endured. I never pictured them as parents, but since finding out Cora was pregnant, they smile more than ever before.
Truly, I am happy for them.
The last two and a half years have been a whirlwind. For everyone in our circle. Everyone except me.
My best friend since forever—the woman we are here to celebrate joining motherhood soon—reunited with the love of her life. Gavin. Their reunion tipped the first domino.
Watching Cora and Gavin come back together and fall in love all over again, was magical. Like something from one of the romance novels on my bookshelf. I sat front and center with popcorn in hand. Consoled my friend when she needed someone to listen and give advice. Offered my shoulder when she needed to cry. But deep down, anyone who knew them before knew their relationship would stand the test of time. After more than a decade apart, their love was timeless. Genuine. The real deal.
“Oomph.” Cora sets down the gift bag, shifts on the couch, and rubs her growing belly.
Elizabeth, more affectionately called Mom by more than just Cora, rises from her seat in the living room and wanders down the hall. Not a minute later, she strolls back in with an office chair lumbar pillow and offers it to Cora.
“Might make you more comfortable.”
“Thanks, Mom.” She tucks the cushion behind her, leans back, and sighs. “She has been so active the last week. I swear she’s rearranging my organs in there.” Cora laughs and we all join in.
My eyes drift around the room. Take in the small group of women gathered to celebrate the impending arrival of Cora and Gavin’s bundle of joy. So much love resides in our close-knit circle, and I am blessed to have these women in my life. Women who will drop whatever they are doing to help one another. Friendship and family like ours cannot be bought. It brews over time and strengthens with each passing day.
Cora continues to rub her belly, then sucks in a breath. “She kicked.” A pained smile lights up her face as her gaze shifts from one person to the next, until she reaches me, her best friend. Cora is the one person I know better than anyone else walking the earth, and vice versa. “Come here, Auntie Shell. Check out Miss Clara’s latest dance moves. Something tells me she’ll be our karaoke choreographer one day.”
I laugh and shake my head as I cross the room and plop down beside Cora. “I have a feeling this little girl will change us all.” Looking over at Autumn, whose belly has just started to round as well, I smile. “Just as Clementine did.”
I lay my hand on Cora’s belly and she guides me to where baby Clara kicks. The second her little foot punts my hand, tears pool in my eyes. Feeling this sweet girl stretch her limbs warms my heart. She will be loved and spoiled, not by just her parents, but by us all. Especially me.
Cora sucks in a breath and looks to me for confirmation. “Did you feel that?” I nod but don’t answer, too scared my voice will be sandpaper. “Girl is one tough cookie. She’ll exit the womb kicking her legs.”
Elizabeth and Autumn laugh. Of the small group of women in attendance, only two have experienced pregnancy and childbirth. Elizabeth, of course, and Autumn. Gavin’s mom didn’t fly out for the shower but will be in town a while once Clara joins the world. Erin, Penny, Peyton, and I sit in silent awe. Motherhood has never been big on my radar, but I don’t discount the idea. If the right person came into my life and our relationship became serious enough to travel down that path, the possibility of motherhood would be given merit.
But motherhood, let alone love, is such a distant reality in my life. Not intentionally. I love the idea of finding the one and falling in love. I love knowing, one day, I will have someone special at my side.
If anyone listens to my inner ramblings, go ahead and send him my way. Please.
“Can’t wait to meet her,” I say, then look to Autumn. “And your new addition too.”
Little Clara settles and Cora resumes opening gifts. We play strange baby shower games for hours. Tasting jars of baby food while blindfolded and trying to guess the flavor—which is disgusting, in case you were unaware. Guessing the number of candies in a baby bottle. Speed changing diapers on dolls while someone covers our eyes. Each game is equally fun and weird, and the laughter never lets up.
Once the games are done, we scope out the massive buffet of food.
Peyton—my soon-to-be sister-in-law—told her mom about the baby shower and Tracy insisted on catering the day. No complaints here. I file into line near the end, pick up a pink paper plate with “It’s a girl!” swirled in the center, and pile food onto my plate.
Being that it is Cora’s day, Tracy got a list of her favorite foods and things she steered away from while pregnant. Needless to say, much of the buffet has Asian flavors. A variety of vegetable sushi, rice noodle dishes, and spring rolls. But there are also macaroni and cheese balls, lettuce wraps, muffin-sized fruit tarts, and large trays with fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese, crackers, and dips.
Tracy is awesome in the kitchen and made enough to feed three times the people present. She also made two dozen chocolate cupcakes with white-and-pink frosting. No doubt we will all leave with tons of leftovers. Again, no complaints.
With Micah and Peyton’s wedding only three weeks away, I am eager to see what Tracy makes for her only daughter’s reception.
Another nail in my love life coffin… my brother is getting married. To the woman who crushed on him in high school. Who also happens to be the woman he bullied in high school. The entirety of their relationship leaves me baffled.
When Micah and Peyton started hanging out as acquaintances-slash-friends, I never expected it to go anywhere. Their history was a hot mess. Not only had my big brother been her high school bully, Micah had been burned by his one and only serious relationship. And Peyton was far from interested in finding love after past losses. As a romantic couple, they were wobbly and jagged. Destined to fall apart.
But they found a way to grow beyond the horrible parts of their past. Developed an irrefutable friendship. Then slowly, they fell in love. Their love story was rocky, but neither of them gave up. What they felt for each other superseded every obstacle thrown their way.
Is there anyone in my life I don’t envy? Someone send help. Please.
All I want is to find the one. Have a boundless love that captivates me from the start. A love that makes you forget anything and anyone else exists. A love that consumes every molecule of air you breathe. That owns every beat of your heart. A love you would crumble without.
That’s not asking for too much, right? Wanting someone to look at me like I am the reason they breathe isn’t asking too much. Wanting someone to take hold of my hand and never let go isn’t asking too much. Not from where I stand. My friends have that type of love. It’s only fair I have it too.
Sure, my notion of love and romance and happily ever afters are skewed by the countless romance novels I read. So what? There is nothing wrong with a woman knowing what she wants. There is nothing wrong with setting emotional expectations. There is nothing wrong with wanting immeasurable love.
Could I have dated half the county by now? Sure. Plenty of men have flirted and let me know they were interested. And who knows, maybe I would have found the one had I put myself out there more. Of the men I flirted with and casually dated, my the-one alarm never rang. Not once was there a whirl in my belly. No instinctual voice to tell me give this one a chance.
Does this make me pathetic? Not in my eyes. Does this make me a sad excuse? Depends who you ask. But I would rather be single than exist in an unhappy relationship. I’d rather be single and sad than tied to a person and dismal. Period.
Most of the men I dated were nice. Gentleman. Never pushy or angry I didn’t give it up—which shocked me more than expected. The men in my everyday life—family and friends—are mixed bags in this department. That is, until they got hit by Cupid’s arrow and settled down. My brother was the worst of them all, but only because of how things went down with his ex. Can’t say I blame him.
Out of the inner circle, the original group—Cora, Micah, Jonas, Erin, and me—I never expected to be one of the last standing solo. The woman who preaches love and fate is one of the last to find it herself.
Erin has been dating on and off, but stays too focused on work for a relationship to stick. Leading a solo life doesn’t bother her. At least she gets out there and makes an effort, which is more than I can say for myself.
“You okay?” Cora parks in the chair next to me and wraps an arm around my shoulders. “You’re quiet all of a sudden. Which is not you.”
I twist in my seat and smile at my best friend. Neither of our lives has been perfect. The years she and Gavin were apart were harsh and painful—for her and those of us who cared for either or both of them. All the nights I spent hugging my best friend and shushing her cries were tough. At the time, I didn’t understand her heartache. How losing Gavin caused her to cry for days and weeks and months. Couldn’t comprehend how her soul ripped in two at the loss of him.
And I still can’t.
Not because I have a cold heart or am numb to emotion. Simply put, I have yet to experience an all-encompassing love. A love that owns every piece of you. I also don’t know what it feels like to lose something so profound. To have your heart torn in two.
Instead of moping at her baby shower—one of the most joyous moments in her life—I should be giddy. The excited aunt showering my most loyal and lovable friend with pink frilly outfits and pacifiers and boxes of diapers. I should be hyping the party, not bringing it down.
Unfortunately, the small cynical part of me refuses to relinquish my selfishness. Refuses to spread false joy.
I take her hand in mine and meet her sincere, bright gaze. “I’ll be okay. Just in a funk.”
“Say no more.” A very pregnant Cora hobbles out of her chair and tugs me upright. Before I admonish her, she hugs me tight to her body—a challenge in and of itself. My arms wind around her frame as I bite the inside of my cheek to halt the threatening tears. “I love you, Shell,” she whispers in my ear. “No matter what, you can always come to me with whatever. You know that, right?”
Biting my cheek harder, I nod. “Yeah,” I choke out. “I know.”
She leans back enough to look me in the eye. Swipes my hair from my cheek. Studies my glassy irises. Tips up the corners of her lips slightly. “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here. Always. Doesn’t matter what time or what it’s about, I’m here.”
I nod again. “Okay.” I swipe beneath my eyes and sniffle. “But not today. Today is about you and”—I rub her belly—“Miss Clara.”
Cora narrows her eyes for a split second, then drops her gaze to her swollen belly and rubs large circles. “Can’t wait for us all to meet her, Shell. Pregnancy has been the most astonishing and uncomfortable experience.” We laugh. “But I wouldn’t trade a second of it.” Cora lifts her gaze and locks me in place. “One day, you’ll know too.”
“Yeah, okay,” I scoff. “Procreation requires a deposit, if you catch my drift. And no one’s stopped by the bank.”
Cora snort-laughs and braces herself on my shoulder as a hand holds her belly. “Oh my god, Shell. Finances have never sounded so dirty.” She laughs harder, then stops abruptly. “Shit. I gotta pee.”
I giggle to myself as my best friend waddles down the hallway as fast as her feet and belly will allow. What an interesting sight.
The rest of the shower goes by with more food, baby talk, and laughter. I smile and laugh at all the right times. I am happy for my friend. Happy that the stars in her life have finally aligned. Happy she and Gavin reconnected and rediscovered their love.
In many ways, their love story gives me hope. Tells me all things are possible.
Now, I need to believe it.
If romance novels have taught me anything, it is that love happens when you least expect it. Not all love is explosive. Not all love hits hard and fast. But… love happens for us all. In one way or another. I just need to practice patience while I wait for mine to show.
No matter how long it takes.
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