The landscape artist had returned. He stood in the doorway, holding a cup carrier tray full of Moondollar coffee.
Beck smiled and turned off the projector. "We're wrapping up a meeting."
"About?" he asked.
Sung-ji stood up to bring the lighting back to normal. Clark remained sitting.
"Exhibits," Beck answered as he unplugged his laptop from the projector. "Our little intern had a fundamental misunderstanding about them, so we set her straight."
"Don't worry about it too much, sweetie," Sung-ji said to the intern. "It doesn't affect your internship. Though if you do choose to see things differently," her voice lowered, "a gentle let-down is best. Some galleries don't take rejection too well."
Clark turned to the intern, impatience tinting his words. "Do you get it now?"
The intern nodded, cheeks stained pink. Clark uncrossed his arms and stood. The three partners took their respective coffees from the landscape artist while he gave them assignments. The intern moved to leave with them, but her mentor took one fluid step towards her, blocking her path. He handed her the remaining coffee.
His voice permeated right through her. "Miss Blum? How is your work in progress coming along?"
She caught Beck winking at her as he closed the door behind him. She had worked alone with her mentor many times, but Beck's presentation made this feel different. But she couldn't just confront the man about his supposed feelings now. She needed to process it all first. And get critique!
"I'm struggling with the bounce light."
She didn't bring in the painting that day, since she didn't finish it. She took her tablet out of her bag and showed him a picture of it.
He peered at her work, his fingers brushing against hers as he took the tablet away from her. He never seemed to intentionally touch her hands whenever they exchanged items. It was a natural consequence of his height; his fingers, limbs, torso, and probably even his toes were long. When they first met and he stood to shake her hand, she felt like she was staring up at the human equivalent of a bamboo tree, as if he would grow another two inches the moment she looked away.
He sat down at the table and pulled a chair close to him. "Have a seat."
She did. His body heat radiated against her and the smell of something clean and faint, maybe his hand soap, reached her nose. He was only this close to her so they could both see the tablet. It was a small tablet, after all.
He asked her questions, having her draw on the photo to show him her thinking process. He then erased her markings and explained what was really happening with the light. He marked the areas she should look out for and asked her how she would fix them. Satisfied with her answers, he handed her the tablet. Their fingers didn't brush this time, but his elbow did bump into her arm. An accident. Right?
"Please bring the corrected painting next time. I want to see it in person."
"Of course, Mr. Van der Ryn."
He nodded, stood, and opened the door for her. His expression was impassive, as usual, no flicker of affection that the others insisted existed.
She stood, bringing a stray hair behind her ear, her finger touching the cherry blossom pin that may have started this mess. She saw his eyes follow the movement, lingering on the pin.
"I enjoyed taking reference photos with you last weekend," she said, as a test.
A small smile graced his face. "I did as well. It was different from my normal scouting excursions."
She hesitated and stepped closer. "How so?"
"I usually go alone."
"Why go with me, then?"
"You would know, Miss Blum."
Her heart did a funny, panicking thing, and her face heated up as if hot steam was blasted on it. All she could do in her state was shrug.
"When in doubt, consult the expert."
For one strange moment, the look in his eyes softened, but turned back into aloofness so quickly she would have missed it if she blinked. As he turned away and told her what task she would help Sung-ji with today, a shy smile formed on her face.
Maybe the others were right.
About two weeks later, Clark was tying on his apron when he spotted Miss Blum slinking into her mentor's studio with a canvas under her arm. She placed the painting on an easel, but instead of waiting for critique, she left.
Clark didn't think anything of it and got to work, chipping away at the details of the marble bust with the concentration of a surgeon. After the brows were perfected, he took a break and sauntered over to the painting.
Clark always checked the intern's work for bankable quality. Her first exhibit was an acceptable debut, but nothing he'd bet money on yet.
Before he could see the painting's worth, he saw her intent. A grin carved its way into his face.
Clark's betting window still had three days left. All he had to do now was confirm.
To his right, the landscape artist was busy spreading clouds of pink over hedges of green on a canvas.
"Hey," Clark called. "You saw the Blum's work already?"
The man nodded, putting down his brush and palette. "She tried incorporating a figure into her environment for the first time. Promising attempt. If Beck improved at the rate she does, he'd outsell us by winter."
"Are you gonna ask her out the next time she comes in?"
The man raised an eyebrow in disdain. "What for?"
"Huh," was Clark's reply. "I want to hold a meeting at the end of the day. You in?"
The landscape artist picked up his brush and palette and resumed painting. "What's the meeting?"
"Somebody needs help on his perspective."
"Ah, Beck. Sure, I'll be there."
"Where's Beck?" the landscape artist asked.
He sat in the meeting room, long fingers threaded together on the table. Clark stood across from him, hands fisted in his pockets.
"Look, Vince," Clark said. "Your critique is blinding you to the purpose of that painting."
"Miss Blum's painting? What other purpose could it have?"
"It's clear she likes you."
Vince's blue eyes glazed over. "You're mistaking my intern's admiration for infatuation, Clark."
"Oh yeah? Let's look at the proof."
"The painting." Clark exited the meeting room and proclaimed into the hallway, "The Blum made a move."
"You mean the painting?" Beck yelled, not moving from his desk. "Yeah, we saw."
Sung-ji shouted from her studio, "It was romantic."
Clark walked down the hallway, leaving Vince to follow him. They entered Vince's workspace and stood in front of the intern's painting.
"I don't see how this is a move," Vince said, hands clasped behind his back as if hand-cuffed.
"It's you," Clark said. "She painted you, painting the mural installation at the hospital up north."
"So she used me as a reference. You're misconstruing this."
"Beck!" Clark barked. "Did we ever publish behind-the-scenes of Vince's ocean mural?"
"No!" Beck yelled back. "Why?"
Clark didn't bother answering and let out a low whistle. "No reference photo. She painted you from memory. Didn't know she had it that bad."
"It's a form study," Vince protested.
"If this really was just a form study, why did she change the color scheme?"
"A color experiment. She wanted to warm up the painting."
Clark pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't tell me you need a refresher on color symbolism, Vinny."
"Must every color choice have an ulterior motive?"
Clark stared at him. "Your denial is amazing. Even worse than the Blum." He pulled out his phone and tapped her name. He pressed the call button. "Let's see what she has to say about it."
She answered his call.
"Hey, kid. The painting you brought in? I want it. Here's a figure." He texted her his offer, waited for her response, and then brought the phone away from his ear with a wince.
Bringing the phone back to his ear, he said, "Don't freak out, kid. You're here to learn to sell your stuff, too." He heard her protest. "It's not for sale? Fine, I'll double the offer."
An adamant reply.
"Come on, everyone has a price."
She repeated her decision.
"You sure? I'm not going to ask you again."
Finality sounded over the phone.
"Too bad. If you're not willing to sell that one, I got an offer for the sculpture the landscaper gave you. Wait for it."
Vince tensed as Clark texted another figure to his intern. The response was immediate.
"Seriously, kid? Do you know what you're saying no to? This offer could help pay for your student loans." Clark waited. "Okay, imagine that thing you've wanted forever, but couldn't afford it. Picture it in your mind, every detail. Got it?"
A terse affirmative.
"Well, with this offer, you can get it. No?" Clark sighed. "How about a trade, then?"
This caught her curiosity.
"I have in my possession a never-before-seen Vincent Van der Ryn painting, pre-debut. I will trade it for that sculpture."
"Miss Blum?" Clark called. "You with me?"
Hesitance, then a decision.
The reluctance in her answer was gone.
"Let me know if you change your mind." He hung up and looked at Vince. "There's your proof. She wouldn't sell."
Vince made a sound of indifference, but his posture relaxed. "Of course she wouldn't. The painting is a second draft, at best."
Clark barked out a laugh. "But the sculpture is from you. She doesn't know who made it, and yet she's not willing to trade it for one of your paintings. What does that say about her?"
"You've said enough."
"Oh, one last thing," Clark continued. "That's your only sculpture in existence. You didn't sell it, either. What does that say about you?"
"Work's over!" Vince's voice rang throughout the entire studio. "Go home, all of you!"
"Twenty more minutes, I'm on a roll!" Sung-ji complained from her studio. "I'll close up!"
"I'll order pizza!" Beck squawked. "I broke the rig again."
"It's a short animation!" Clark scolded. "You have a deadline! Why do you keep breaking the rig?"
"Because I want to get that shot!"
Clark sighed harshly and turned to Vince, who was back to painting.
"Vince, I know you want to be professional, but you're overthinking it," Clark said. "Don't keep her waiting."
Vince's brush hovered over the canvas.
The phone in his pocket vibrated.
The caller's name startled him.
Her soft voice reached his ear. "Sorry to bother you, Mr. Van der Ryn. I have a question."
"It's no problem. What is it?"
"It's about the sculpture you gave me."
He feigned nonchalance. "What of it?"
He heard her take a deep breath before she spoke. "I was wondering, where did you find it?"