Chapter Fifteen

Brianne

The invitation arrives two days before Christmas, when I’ve decided I hate the world and I’m this close to quitting my second job in less than four months because fuck-it-all, I just want to crawl back to Astrid and tell her I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I definitely want to do her.

You are cordially invited to the opening night reception for

Climb The Mountain

a photographic exploration by Astrid Dane

It’s not until the end of January, but it’s in New York City, just a few hours from me. I’m booking the weekend off work immediately.

But seriously, how the hell am I going to last that long?

I call her, making an exception to my rule of leaving her alone. She picks up on the third ring, breathless. “Brianne,” she says. “Hi.”

I grin. “Hey. I got the invitation.”

“Oh. Good. Great.”

My cheeks hurt, that’s how big I’m smiling. “I didn’t realize it would happen this quickly. It’s exciting.”

“It usually wouldn’t, but I decided to do the exhibit a little differently.”

“Oh?”

“Easier to explain in person. So you can come?”

“I’ll book the entire weekend off.”

“It’ll be formal, but you can wear whatever you want.”

“I can find a pretty dress to wear.”

“I’d like that.”

Oh, my heart is going to explode. “Okay. Good. Thank you, for thinking of me.”

There’s a long pause. “I think of you every day.”

I close my eyes and nod. “Same here.”

“Do you have holiday plans?”

“No. I’m working. Busy season.”

“Right. Are you having fun?”

I laugh. “No. I’m working hard, and that’s it.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” But she says it like she’s smiling.

“I miss you, Astrid. Can I say that?”

“Yes, I think you can. I miss you too. And I can’t wait to see you next month. I’ll have a suite,” She says more softly. “You can stay with me.”

I stretch out on my small bed in my staff quarters and imagine twisting naked together on a big hotel bed. “I was counting on it.”

***

I take the Greyhound into the city. When I arrive at the hotel, there’s a note waiting for me. Astrid’s at the gallery overseeing the final touches, but she’s left me a hotel room key and the address of where to meet her in two hours.

I head up to her suite, which is outrageous and amazing. I have a long, hot shower, then I blow-dry my hair into a funky, feathered fringe and get dressed.

It’s cold out, but I still want to look hot. I splurged on a special outfit for tonight. Black, thigh-high boots and a soft, floaty grey dress that ends high on my thighs. Under it I’m wearing tiny black shorts, because it’s cold out and I don’t to flash anyone other than Astrid.

A bit of mascara and lip gloss finishes the look, and I’m check myself out in the mirror. I look okay. No, I look super hot, I can admit that.

The boots were worth every penny.

My hands shake as I tuck the invitation and my room key into a small cross-body bag, then I wrap an over-sized wool scarf around my body and head for the gallery.

It’s a tall, skinny building sandwiched in the middle of a block. This is the real deal, big-time kind of exhibit, because there’s a fancy metal sign announcing Climb The Mountain mounted above the wide glass doors.

It’s already busy. There’s a bouncer taking invitations, so I hand mine over, then hold my purse for a quick security check before I’m allowed inside.

There’s a wall ten feet inside the doors with the title of the exhibit scrawled across it again, in the same typography as the sign outside. Below that is a plaque, and I move closer to read it.

This permanent installation is an endowment of the 

Dane Environmental Education Project

“DEEP,” a man says out loud beside me, and I spin around. Marcus grins at me. His girlfriend Poppy is on his arm. “A new project Astrid and I have started.”

I blink at him. “One that can afford a permanent endowment in the middle of New York City?”

Poppy laughs. “We’ve missed you and your blunt outspokenness, Brianne.”

“She’s missed you. I’ve been grateful for how quiet it’s been back home,” Marcus says. “Have you seen Astrid yet?”

I shake my head, my mouth suddenly dry.

If he knows why my cheeks are turning pink, he doesn’t let on.

“I’ll let her explain the endowment more, but she might be up at the top. Want to climb with us?” He points around the wall, and we move past a throng of people.

In the middle of the room, there’s a big, black, spiral staircase that disappears into the ceiling.

My heart skips. “Yes, I’d love to climb up with you.”

At the base of the stairs there’s a video display that tells us that we’re at the trail head, halfway up a mountain. And as we take the first few steps, the photographs mounted around the main floor suddenly look like they’re the forest below us, and we really are about to climb a trail.

The staircase acts as a natural choke point, which means when we get to the second floor there aren’t many people ahead of us. The photographs are printed at full-size scale, some covering an entire wall. Others, like close-up shots, pop out from the dark background as something we should pay attention to.

By the third floor, I see a pattern. There are no explanations posted with the images. It’s an immersive look at as much of a single mountain as she can give us.

And all of the focal points show the amazing life on a mountain. A startled marmot, a blooming alpine wildflower, a rushing creek. 

She’s set it up so that the staircases are staggered, front and back and middle, so you aren’t quite sure which way to turn as the trees thin and the landscape gets scrubbier, rockier.

There’s a palpable energy, knowing you must nearly be at the top.

This exhibit will make people think about going to find a mountain to climb. It will make people think about meadows and water and forests and, as they reach the sixth floor, it’ll make them think about glaciers in the distance.

The view here is almost as incredible as it is in real life, and my chest aches.

Marcus and Poppy are talking about the exhibit, but I drift away from them, wanting to be alone with the pictures.

They’re perfect. I don’t know how she does it, but you can see the grass blowing in the wind, the rocks tumbling. At the second to last picture, I realize I’m looking at my own footprint in the dirt, because she must have taken it from right behind me, after I crested the peak.

A little part of me in her masterpiece.

“Do you like it?”

“I love it,” I whisper as Astrid steps right beside me. “How did you do all of this so quickly?”

“Worked round the clock. Drank a lot of coffee. Paid top dollar for the best trades people. And I called in a lot of favors.”

“I never imagined it would be this amazing.” I turn and give her a big smile. “Of course I should have known.”

“It’s all you, actually. My agent tried to talk me out of this because it was too risky. Too expensive. And I thought…what is life without risk? You taught me that.”

I’m not sure I did, but I like the sound of it. “I’ve been thinking along the same lines lately myself,” I murmur. “But that’s a conversation for later.”

She steps back and I move out of the exhibit, away from the peak of the mountain around the corner of a dividing wall.

On the other side is an elevator, and another staircase, this one spiralling all the way back to the first floor in one single, quick descent. Around the base of it I can see people chatting animatedly.

“How do you want to go down?” I ask as I look up at her face. Damn it, I didn’t mean it like that, but…

Her laugh starts in her eyes, and she tugs me into an alcove behind the elevator. “In private,” she says, still giggling. Her laugh turns me on just as much as the promise of her mouth between my legs. “And for a very long time. I’ve missed the taste of you.”

I gasp as she presses me back against the wall and kisses me senseless. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve missed her too. Her taste, her laugh, the ways her eyes crinkle at the corner. Her camera and her amazing vision, too.

I slide my arms around her waist, over the black silk blouse she’s wearing, then I drop my hands to her hips. Tight pants, firm ass. Yanking her toward me, I press our hips together and push up on my toes.

Not nearly enough contact. I want to crawl inside her, but there are like five hundred people out there in the gallery who want a piece of her tonight. 

With a sweet, reluctant groan, she presses her forehead against mine. “Later, yes?”

“Yes.” I savor the last taste of her lips before she eases back and gives me an uncharacteristically dorky grin. 

“I’m so happy to see you.”

I catch her hand and lift her fingers up so I can kiss them. “Go and see your adoring public. I’ll be the girl crushing on you from the back of the room. And when you finish up, we’ll have all night together.”

“There’s a lot more for you to see downstairs. We’ve got a whole wall about the business model behind this gallery. Museum. Gallery museum? We’re still working out the language.” She steps back and fixes her blouse. “How do I look?”

“Perfect. Do I look like I just scored with the artist of the night?”

She laughs and tangles her fingers in mine as we step back into the hallway. From the other end of the top floor, Marcus waves.

Astrid squeezes my hand. I return the warm grip.

“So is this a Dane cousin initiative?” I’m still a little confused on how they can afford it.

Astrid nods. “Entirely self-funded by revenue generated by private-public partnerships that use venture capital funds, with a small percentage earmarked for DEEP projects.”

And my confusion isn’t helped at all by that answer. “Tell me later.”

“It’s really—”

I stop at the top of the stairs and lean in, brushing my lips against her ear. “What I mean by that is, tell me when we’re naked.”

Her cheeks turn pink. “Deal.”

“Now go. Be amazing.”

I watch her descend the stairs, and when the crowd below realizes she’s coming down, they applaud like crazy.

Marcus stops beside me.

I look at him. He looks at me. We both smile. 

I am a risk-taking, mountain-climbing, entirely-unreliable ex-employee. “I’m really happy,” I finally say.

“I can tell.”

“I’m going back to Vancouver soon.”

“Excellent.”

“And I’m falling in love with your cousin.”

He nods, his eyes warm. “Amazing.”

“Do you have a secret venture capital firm?”

He just laughs and gestures at the stairs. “You’re missing a great party down there.”

Fine. I’ll leave Poppy to figure out the rest of the mystery that is Marcus. I have my own Dane cousin to investigate in great detail.

Great, naked, personal detail.

I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But I’m pretty sure if I spend the rest of it chasing Astrid up and down mountains, I’ll be blissfully happy.

And maybe it’s time for me to resurrect my Twitter account, too.


 

The End

 

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