Love is blind, but fate sees everything
The Girl in the Painting, an all-new standalone romance from New York Times bestselling author Max Monroe, is available now!
Ansel Bray, an artist known around the world for his tragic hiatus from the canvas.
Ansel Bray, a broody, handsome man not known by me, at all.
Long dark hair, blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks. I’ve never met her, but her image is imprinted in my mind. An angel muse who inspires me to paint again.
There is something about him. Something that spurs a need to be as close to him as possible. A need to find out why.
There is something about her. Something that draws me in. Something that urges me to find out what her presence means.
Why does the girl in his painting look so much like me?
Who is this girl, and why can I see her so vividly?
I shouldn’t fall in love with him.
I shouldn’t fall in love at all.
But fate plays her hand.
But fate has other plans.
The lines of my life will blur.
The needs of my heart will change.
What a beautiful mess we’ve made.
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Three knocks rap against the closed door of my studio, and I sigh.
Apparently, my assistant doesn’t understand what no distractions means. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Lucy’s priorities have nothing to do with her role as my assistant. Half the time, people who come to my studio don’t even realize she works here. They probably just assume she’s some sort of social media influencer wasting time in my lobby by taking cleavage shots.
Another two knocks ring out, and I ignore whoever is on the other side and focus my gaze back on the half-painted canvas in front of me.
As if my hand is on autopilot, I watch as it gently creates the soft lines of her hair. Stroke after stroke, dark brown and honey-beige and gold combine to make the flowing locks that cascade down her back.
Eventually, though, the knocks grow so persistent that I can hardly follow the rhythm of the soft background music serving as a medium for my artistic exploration.
“Go away!” I call over my shoulder, but the answering chuckle is not an annoyed feminine laugh. No. It’s husky and deep and rough around the edges.
“Ans, it’s Nigel,” the disturbance answers back.
Nigel Marx. We grew up together on the outskirts of the Bronx and found our way into the art world during our college years. Where I’ve always had an innate ability to create, Nigel has a natural talent for seeking out beauty.
If anyone can find art worth seeing, it’s Nigel. Or Nye, as I’ve grown to call him over the years.
Even though he’s one of my oldest friends, I groan and contemplate at least ten different ways to tell him to fuck off. I may not be as grumpy as I was before the surgery, but being interrupted during the creative process brings me as close to that level of aggravation as I come these days.
But even the bad-tempered side of my personality knows a verbal middle finger is unwarranted.
Technically speaking, it’s probably not even his fault. My assistant is undoubtedly too busy posting pictures of her new nose job on Instagram to follow my instructions and man the reception desk in the front.
So, eventually, I set my brush down beside my paints, move the canvas into the small, hidden nook near the windows, and tell him to come inside.
Dressed in a sharp black suit and tie, Nigel strides in as I head over to the sink to wash the dried paint off my hands.
“Did I interrupt?” he asks, and I glance at him over my shoulder.
A big, hearty laugh escapes his throat. “You don’t even want to pretend I’m not being a huge inconvenience to you right now?”
“Pretty sure you know me better than that,” I say with a grin and swipe the extra moisture off my hands onto my jeans. “I’m not a beat-around-the-bush kind of guy, Nigel.”
He grins at that.
“What brought about this gloriously annoying visit of yours today?”
“Just want to make sure you’re ready for the big opening,” he says and slides his hands into the pockets of his dress pants. I don’t miss the way he takes it upon himself to peruse my studio, his eyes taking in all of the empty canvases stacked in the corner and the finished works scattered along the floor and the walls.
“By all means, please feel free to browse. You know how much I love that.”
He ignores my jab completely. “So, can I count on you to be there?”
“You know where, you bastard.” He glares. “Does January 31st ring a bell? The big exhibition some of us have been working so hard on.”
“If I weren’t such a big person, I wouldn’t be able to ignore the fact that you’re insinuating I, the artist, haven’t done any work for the show.”
He rolls his eyes. “You know that’s not what I meant. Stop trying to distract me.”
Now it’s my turn to make a show of my new eyes’ ability to move. “We’ve already been through this, man. There’s no reason for me to be there.”
Unconvinced, Nye presses on. “It’s your opening, Ans. You need to be there.”
“I don’t need to be anywhere.”
“Tell me this…why wouldn’t you want to be there? This is your first exhibition in five years. Since before the accident. This is huge. If anything, you should be there to celebrate that you’re painting again. That you’re alive.”
And just like that, he’s answered his own question. He just doesn’t know it.
Circuslike fanfare and a giant spotlight on my tragic past are the last things I want. I just want to paint without all of the fucking hoopla.
“How about this? I’ll drink a glass of whiskey tonight to celebrate. I’ll even give myself a special toast.”
“If you drink that glass of whiskey inside my gallery, on the night of your opening, then we have a deal.”
It’s my turn to laugh. “Not happening.”
“The press will be there. Your fans will be there. People want to see you. They want to talk to you. Interview you. Why don’t you want to be there?”
“For those exact fucking reasons, Nye,” I answer honestly. “While I’m thankful people still want to see my art, I don’t need the ego trip that comes with gallery openings and interviews. I don’t need fans kissing my ass, and I sure as fuck don’t need rich investors schmoozing me up because it makes them think they’ll have a better shot at getting their greedy hands on one of my paintings.”
Silence stretches between us, and I hope that means Nigel has finally come to terms with the reality of my absence at the opening.
Before the accident, I would’ve been there in a heartbeat. I would’ve been the guy with the big fucking ego and some random, superficially beautiful model attached to my arm. The douchebag looking at everyone inside that gallery and mentally giving myself a pat on the back.
But I’m not that guy anymore. I haven’t been that guy since the day I went blind.
Do I claim to be the world’s happiest, most-together guy? Fuck no. Like I said, on my best day, I’m still an asshole. But after living in the dark for what felt like an eternity, I’ve at least realized a few things.
For one, money, success—material shit—doesn’t mean a fucking thing.
You can’t buy happiness.
And, two? Friends are better to have than fans. Friends stick with you no matter what.
“Okay.” Nigel’s voice breaks our silence. “Fine. I won’t ask you again.”
I grin. “That sounds like a truly brilliant idea.”
“Why haven’t I seen this one?”
I follow his gaze to the far corner of my studio, and instantly, I know which painting he’s talking about. My chest tightens with unease. I can’t believe I left that one out in the open like this…
I run a hand through my hair and try to make myself sound at least somewhat disinterested. “Because it wasn’t a painting I wanted to put in the exhibition.”
My voice sounds slightly higher pitched, even to my own ears. Dammit.
About a year after my transplant, Dr. Smith cleared me to go back to my normal life—back to painting. I found myself inside this studio with a brush in my hand and a beautiful girl in my mind.
Crystal-blue eyes, dark, dimensional hair, and dimpled cheeks, every detail of her face and features vivid to the point of precision.
I couldn’t stop picturing her. The way her full lips appear when they’re curled into a smile. The way she looks mid-laugh. The way her eyes light up beneath the sun.
She was all I could see, this girl I’ve never met before, this girl I’ve never actually seen.
She was the first thing I painted after the transplant, and she’s been locked inside my mind ever since—for nearly three years, to be exact.
But who’s counting, right?
I nearly snort out loud. The truth is, my obsession is nearly pathetic and almost certainly unhealthy. But I can’t seem to stop myself.
“This is…stunning,” he says quietly as his eyes rake over the canvas. “She’s stunning.”
His words, while holding no harm or ill will, make me feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Like I need to shield her from his eyes. I feel too vulnerable. Too raw.
Nigel turns to meet my eyes. “Why didn’t you want to put this one in the exhibition?”
“I don’t know.” Because it’s too special to me.
He looks at the painting for a long moment before moving his eyes back to mine. “Should I know who she is?”
A figment of my imagination?
Some kind of angel muse?
I don’t know, but I can’t stop painting her.
“Is this the only one of her?”
“Yes,” I flat out lie. Besides the one he’s looking at, there are another four finished canvases hidden away and at least seven in progress. But I’m already pissed enough at myself for leaving this one out for him to see.
Strange and most likely fucking insane, I know, but it’s the reality.
“You need to add this one to the exhibition.”
I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Your other works are amazing, but this,it’s something else, Ans,” he says and glances back at the painting. “It belongs in the exhibition.”
Silence stretches between us, and I’m torn about what to say.
Fuck no seems inappropriately callous, but I’m having a hell of a time coming up with any other words.
The artist inside of me agrees with his assessment. That painting—and the other paintings of her—is special.
She draws the viewer in just as she’s done with me, like a mermaid luring sailors to their deaths.
But everything else inside me wants to keep her to myself.
“Ans, people need to see this painting,” Nye urges.
I let out a deep exhale. “I don’t know…”
“Ans, this one has to be in the show.” His gaze is steady, unwavering. “You and I both know it would be a fucking travesty if it weren’t in there.”
My back tenses, but for some reason, the word “Okay” slips from my lips.
My stomach churns and my mind races and I don’t know why I’m agreeing, but I am. I don’t know why I feel sick over the prospect of other people seeing this painting, but I do.
The way I’m feeling, the way my emotions intertwine with her paintings is a complete mystery to me.
Just like her.
About Max Monroe:
A secret duo of romance authors team up under the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling pseudonym Max Monroe to bring you sexy, laugh-out-loud reads.
Max Monroe is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of more than ten contemporary romance titles. Favorite writing partners and long time friends, Max and Monroe strive to live and write all the fun, sexy swoon so often missing from their Facebook newsfeed. Sarcastic by nature, their two writing souls feel like they’ve found their other half. This is their most favorite adventure thus far.
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