Carter reached for one of the paint brushes held between his teeth. He dabbed a little burnt umber on the bristles then used the color to add highlights to the hair of the dancer on the canvas. She sat on a wooden floor, one knee up, the other tucked under her. Her head tilted to one side as she untied the ribbon of a battered pointe shoe. Her chestnut hair was pulled into a bun, but wisps had escaped it during her practice time.
He bit the end of the brush again—he had three in his mouth now—and sat back to study the painting. Not bad, but not quite right, either. The lines of the figure were good, and he liked how the play of light and shadow had turned out, but he could never quite get that face to look how he pictured it.
His back had grown stiff from two straight hours of working at the easel. He stretched as he removed the earphones he always wore while working. Sometimes he listened to white noise, but today he’d put on an instrumental playlist. With the headphones off, he heard his phone ringing on his desk on the other side of the room—a clip from “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”
No sooner had he taken two steps toward his desk than the phone went still. Aw, well. She’d probably leave a message. Might as well tidy up and then call her back. He grabbed the brushes and headed over to the paint thinner on the counter. Maybe Toni wanted to hang out tonight. Get a video and eat popcorn. As he cleaned the paint from the tip of a brush, he pictured having Toni in his arms, smelling her faint perfume, resting his head on hers.
Too bad that even if he put his arm around her—as he often did—and even if she snuggled close—which she also often did—it wouldn’t mean anything beyond “friend” to her.
As he scrubbed the paint off the brush, the handle snapped between his fingers. He found his heart speeding up at the thought of her, of how long he’d waited for her to look at him as a man, not a buddy. He’d given up hope more times than he could count since he first noticed her in junior high when her locker was only two away from his. She didn’t remember him at all until their high-school algebra class sophomore year.
He’d always hated math, and that year, algebra almost did him in. “I don’t care what X equals,” he’d said under his breath one day when the marks on the board seemed nothing but a foreign code.
Toni, sitting in front of him, had smiled widely and turned her head just enough to whisper back, “I don’t care about X either. If it’s that important, I’ll have to marry someone who cares.”
Toni’s comment took Carter by surprise; a laugh escaped him before he realized it. Mr. Kerr turned around and peered at the class. Carter gazed studiously at the teacher, but he could feel his face heating up and more laughter building up inside him.
That was the first time she’d ever talked to him. She’d mentioned several times how that was her first memory of him. He still remembered how she’d lowered her chin as her shoulder shook—she was trying to hold back a chuckle.
He’d made her laugh. It was a triumph.
When Mr. Kerr turned back to the board, Carter leaned forward again and whispered, “Don’t you dare. I’d be bored stiff with anyone who actually cared about X.”
From that day, they were friends. Within a few months, Toni Harper called Carter Mackenzie her best friend. Eight years after high-school graduation, they were still at each other’s sides, having weathered the ups and downs of both high school and college. Their friendship remained as strong as ever.
He’d dated other women—had gotten serious several times. But he’d always broken it off. As great as Lauren and Angie and Sarah had all been, they’d never be Toni.
Grunting with frustration, he tossed the pieces of the useless paintbrush into the garbage can under the counter and left the other two by the sink. He grabbed a rag and wiped remaining paint thinner off his hands as he strode over to his phone, where there was indeed a message waiting for him. Then with trepidation, he sat at his desk to listen to the message. He tossed the rag aside and picked up his phone.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m in a bind and hope you can help me out. It’s the dance studio’s annual Valentine’s Day party, and my date bailed on me. Thing is, if I don’t bring a date, Allen will never let me hear the end of it. Party starts at eight thirty. I’d really appreciate it if you’d be my plus one. Call me back as soon as you get this, ’kay? Love ya.” With a click, the message ended.
Love ya. He heard that often. What he wanted to hear was I love you, Carter. I’m in love with you. Or something remotely in the ballpark.
His phone was silent, but he kept it against his ear, eyes closed, as he pressed the fingers of his other hand against his eyes.
He should tell her no, because at this rate, she’d start thinking that he was always the easy fallback. She needed to realize that he had a life outside of her. That…
Who was he kidding? He’d known the second he heard her ring that he’d do whatever she needed. He pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it, willing it to send a text with the right words. Something. Anything.
He’d go tonight. And he’d pretend to enjoy himself, for her sake, and to get Allen, the studio owner, to back off from bugging her about being single.
But first, he’d clean up his pseudo studio—the corner of his office at the high school where he taught art. He spent a lot of evenings and weekends here, when he wasn’t home doing graphic design on the side for money to supplement his pathetic teacher’s salary. First get this place cleaned up and locked, and then he’d return her call after he’d gotten himself to stop thinking about her as the woman he loved. He needed to switch the gears in his brain back to best friend mode.
The clock on the wall read 7:30. He could get out of here, call her, take a quick shower, and pick her up in time to make it to the party—barely.