Raze Constantine was not a man in the habit of waiting. Looking down at his watch, he sighed with annoyance. 6:20. Twenty minutes late, though it felt like an hour. He sat at an empty table and contemplated the glass of wine perched between his fingertips. He supposed he shouldn’t be so irritated. He’d waited this long to meet her, what was a few more minutes, but Raze waited for no one. In both of his lives he was used to making things happen. He wasn’t above forcing his will upon others, but Scarlett was a different story. His weakness for her is what got him into this mess in the first place.
“Mr. Constantine has been waiting.” His ears perked up as he heard the maître ‘d say his name. He straightened his tie and stood as the man led a small girl toward the table. She walked purposefully, if not somewhat unsure on high heels. Her hair fell in an unkempt dark tangle around her face, which was beautiful but tired. Her sunken eyes revealed that she had gotten very little sleep in the past few days. Or weeks. Though she was a bit of a mess, she offered a wide smile when she approached.
“Mr. Constantine, I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said, offering her hand. “I’m Scarlett Munro.”
“Yes,” he replied with a terse grin. “I recognize you from your picture.” The maître ‘d pulled out her chair and she sat down with practiced grace. “I was beginning to fear that you’d become lost.”
“I admit that I was a little jet-lagged. The time must have slipped up on me.” She smiled sheepishly, pulling up to the table, obviously afraid to stare him in the face.
The waiter approached. “A drink for Mademoiselle?” he asked with an exaggerated French accent.
“Please,” she sighed. “Jack and…”
“A glass of Riesling for Miss Munro, please,” Raze answered, cutting her off. The waiter nodded and walked off to get it. Turning his gaze back to her, she looked a little stunned by his impudence. “You look far too elegant to imbibe such a crude drink.”
“Thank you… I think,” she stammered. A blush rose to her cheeks and she chewed on her lower lip nervously.
“It was indeed a compliment,” he said. His jaw was tense and all of his muscles were tight. She looked exactly the same as she had all those years ago, though some of her innocence had been lost over the difficult years of her borrowed life. She stared at him as if there were a spark of recognition, but he hoped she would ignore it. He wasn’t ready for her to know his true purpose just yet. “And don’t worry about being late. I’m just glad you’re here.”
Scarlett laughed. “So am I. Thank you for sending Geoffrey over. I’d never have made it through the airport without his help.” She sat back, allowing the waiter to pour the glass of wine in front of her. “He was very patient.” She stared from the golden liquid to Raze and back to the glass. “It’s white.”
“Yes. Riesling is white. But very light. You’ll like it.”
“I only drink red,” she chuckled.
“You should broaden your horizons,” he replied, giving a nod that implied she should drink the wine. He watched as she brought the glass to her lips and took a cautious sip. The bittersweet flavor made her wrinkle her nose but she smiled in spite of herself. “So why don’t we begin with you telling me about yourself, Miss Munro.”
“There isn’t much to tell, really. I grew up North Carolina. I started painting when I was a teenager. My agent told me this morning I was coming to London to meet with Raze Constantine. End of story.” She shrugged, “What else do you want to know?”
“Oh I’m fairly certain that there’s more to you than just that, Miss Munro.” Raze smiled and leaned forward, staring at her face intently. He could tell that she was intimidated.
“You see, I never do business with someone I don’t know very well.”
“As I said, there isn’t much to know.”
“I beg to differ. The truth is, you’re little more than a street urchin. Or were.”
“Are you always this abrasive?” She sat back in her chair, looking down at the table with interest. Again she was nibbling at her lower lip and Raze caught a glimpse of the scared little girl he’d met so long ago. His heart sank as he realized that he had spared her only to completely ruin her innocence for good.
“Most of the time. I’ve been told it’s a flaw of my ethnicity. We English are apparently very blunt and to the point. Please forgive me if I have offended.”
“Not at all. You seem to be very perceptive. Do go on telling me more about me.”
Raze smiled again, pleased that he could hear a twinge of anger at the edges of her voice. Perhaps there was some of that fiery spirit left after all. “All right. You lived with a neglecting mother and an abusive stepfather. To pass the time you engaged in a variety of recreational drugs until you had a brush with death at the ripe old age of eighteen. Am I doing well so far?” He cocked his eyebrow and looked at her, expecting her to get up and leave. He was challenging her. Testing her. And when she didn’t move, he knew that she was up to it.
She nodded but did not speak. Her mouth was set in a hard line and her jaw was tense. She was wondering just how much he knew about her. Were all of her dark secrets laid bare for him now?
“You finally ran away to live in a parking garage in Savannah, Georgia. That lasted until a forty-five year old banker named Sheehan took you in. In exchange for discreet sexual liaisons, he kept you clothed and fed. He even paid for you to take some art classes at the local university.”
“Well being a pretty face tends to have its advantages.”
“Indeed, but it didn’t work for long. After two years he tired of your mood swings and drug abuse and you found yourself on the street once again. But that’s when your art career really began. You made a bit of a name for yourself as a graffiti and tattoo artist. And that’s when David Bradford found you.” Raze sat back and crossed his arms, signaling that his well of information had run dry.
“And knowing all of this you wanted to work with me anyway? You must be very brave, Mr. Constantine.”
“Oh I’m not brave. I fully intend to protect my investment.”
Before Scarlett had the opportunity to reply, the waiter came back, their food balanced on his fingertips. He set a small plate down in front of her with vegetables artfully arranged in splatters of colorful condiment. “I didn’t order this,” she murmured to the waiter.
“I took the liberty of ordering for us both just before you arrived. You’ll like it.” Taking a bite, Raze gave a secret grin. He knew that she was thinking how she wasn’t sure she liked all of his assumptions—about food or her life. “Trust me,” he said.
She stabbed at the leafy vegetable with her fork and brought it to her mouth as delicately as possible. She chewed carefully, the uncertainty evident on her face as she tasted the earthy flavor of the salad. He expected that she had never eaten in a place like this before and from the looks of her, she hadn’t eaten real food in a very long time. Clearly someone needed to take care of Scarlett before she spiraled downward into another abysmal half-life. “It’s different,” she replied, swallowing visibly, then taking a generous sip of her wine. “Well now that you’ve told me all about myself, what about you?”
“Don’t care to make any observations about me? I know David sent you a small dossier.”
“It didn’t say much,” she replied. “I mean, nothing that hasn’t been in the papers a thousand times. Though I am wondering why the billionaire hermit philanthropist is insisting on having dinner with an artist that might be crazy and/ or using drugs?”
Raze chuckled. “Clever evasion.”
“I’m not crazy. Despite what David and the rest of the world think.” She toyed with her salad, pushing it around on her plate. “As for being on drugs, I’ve found more socially acceptable ways of dealing with my issues.”
“Are you on anything right now?” He caught her gaze and held it with his own, staring into the bottomless blue pools of her eyes. It was evident that something other than blood and alcohol raced through her veins. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes danced all over.
“I may have had a Xanex before I came down. Just to take the edge off.”
“The edge?” he asked, as if he didn’t understand what the phrase meant.
“In case you haven’t noticed, you’re a little intimidating, Mr. Constantine.” She blushed again, but this time there was no chemical enhancement. This type of blush was the sort that gave a glow of embarrassment—even arousal.
“Then allow me to put your mind at rest, Miss Munro.” He leaned forward, taking her free hand in his and bringing it to his lips gently. “Do call me, Raze. I’d like our relationship to be less formal.”
Less formal. She repeated the words over in her head and wondered for a moment what “less formal” might mean. From the way he brushed his generous mouth over the gentle curve of her knuckle, she hoped that less formal was synonymous with less clothing. As he rose to his full height again she was struck by his eyes. They weren’t quite blue, more of a steel gray color like a stormy sea. They seemed to glow against the pale tone of his skin. Something about his face was so familiar, yet she could not place him just yet. How she wished she could because it was there, niggling in the corners of her mind, like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She should know this man, yet she did not. “Alright then, Raze,” she replied, her voice even with the force of her breath. “Of course you can call me Scarlett.”
“Thank you,” he said, dropping her hand and taking up his fork again. For several moments they ate in silence. Scarlett stared down at her plate with interest, not wanting to meet his gaze again. There was something about him. For the first time in her life, she didn’t feel this sinking feeling of emptiness and fear. Utter safety emanated from his every breath. The way he had grasped her hand sent shivers of lust up and down her arms, but there was something else. She wasn’t sure, but it was a sort of comfortable submission that she’d been missing her whole life.
“Scarlett?” he asked. She jumped, not realizing that she’d been staring at him the entire time, her fork poised over her plate. “Are you alright?”
“Me? Oh… yes,” she stammered, bringing the fork to her mouth and only when she bit down on the bare metal did she realize that she hadn’t stabbed any food. She made a small noise and glanced up to find that he was chuckling behind his hand. “Well… maybe not.” In another second both were laughing heartily and Scarlett could feel the weight of the tension between them melting away. “I’m sorry… I’m just so tired. The plane got delayed and the airport was a nightmare. I’m not usually like this.”
Raze snorted. “Oh I have a feeling you’re usually much worse, Scarlett. Women like you are so irresistible to me, you know.”
“Like me? What do you mean?”
“So very intelligent. So very creative and in their own heads that they can’t find their shoes in the morning. You might say I have a penchant for being a caretaker.”
Scarlett smirked, a trace of displeasure darkening her eyes. “You think I need taking care of?”
He took a sip of wine, his eyes never leaving hers. “Oh most definitely. I think it’s been a very long time since you’ve been taken care of, if ever.”
Her breath caught with the pounding of her heart against her sternum. He was so arrogant and sure. “What makes you say that?”
“You have a sadness about you. Even though you’re successful and seem to have the sort of life that others would wish for, you carry this heavy weight with you. Like a person who’s been abandoned over and over. You stink of obsession and despair. And though it is part of the fuel that makes your art so striking, it kills you inside a little more each and every day. Searching, always searching for something or someone that can take your pain away, but it’s a hopeless endeavor because only you can really know where your pain lies. But you’ve hidden it for so long that maybe you don’t even know where it is anymore. So you just bury it under layer upon layer of alcohol, drugs and sadness. You’ve driven everyone in your life away, leaving them before they can leave you. You say that you survived your little overdose, but I think not. I think you’ve been dead all this time, you just go through the motions of breathing.”
Scarlett wasn’t aware that she’d begun to cry until she saw the dark splotches on the tablecloth where her mascara tears had stained the linen. His words sliced into her soul with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel and for a moment she hated him. Hated him for being right, for knowing her so well. “You seem to have me all figured out,” she choked. “Am I so simplistic and transparent?”
“Not at all. As I told you before, I always do my homework.” He winked as the waiter approached with plates and set them down before them. “I hope you like chateaubriand,” Raze said, looking across the table. “I thought for our first dinner together you’d enjoy something a bit substantial, especially considering your travels.” He nodded at the waiter, indicating that the man should leave. Scarlett almost giggled as the tiny waiter scampered off. Clearly Raze was used to people doing exactly as he said with no argument.
“It looks delicious,” she replied, trying to casually wipe the stray tear that had fallen from the corner of her eye.
“A bit heavy, but you’ve never been afraid of being full.” With a cocked eyebrow, he gave a wolfish grin that let her know that the double entendre was completely intentional.
Again she blushed, her already rose-colored cheeks seeming to glow in the dim candlelight. “So what exactly is it that you want with me, Raze?” she asked, cutting into the bloody meat with her fork. “We’ve been sitting here nearly an hour and you’ve yet to tell me why you’ve gone to so much trouble bringing me here.”
“I’d like you to do some paintings for me,” he answered.
“Paintings? You mean, more than one?”
“Paintings meaning several. I’ve just acquired a new building here in London and I’d like very much to have some of your work displayed. You see, I’m a collector with very specific tastes. I saw some of your work in a gallery in New York last summer and I was intrigued, but alas, all of the paintings were spoken for. And you know how New York art collectors can be. They’re like children with new Christmas toys. Completely unwilling to let go. Though I must say, I was a bit surprised that they turned down my more than generous offers.”
“So find some different ones. I have several works available online…”
“I looked. Though they were beautiful, none of them had what I was looking for. They didn’t speak to me.” Scarlett nodded, taking another sip of wine. “And I have an affinity for things that are… one of a kind. You’d, of course, have complete control. You can paint what you’d like.”
“Perhaps I could see the spaces to get an idea of the scale. Then when I get home I’ll know where to start…”
Raze snickered and took another bite. “You must complete the paintings here in London.”
Scarlett stared at him with wide eyes and mouth agape. “Here? But several paintings… that will take months! I can’t stay in London for months.” How could he expect that she stay in Europe for months at a time? The lodging bill alone would be more than her budget could stand. Not to mention the unfinished projects she had at home. She thought of the enormous portrait of her angel that she’d been working on when David found her.
“I have… other commitments.”
“Yes, I am well aware of your obsessions and addictions, Miss Munro.” His voice was terse, teetering on stern. “But these are my terms. I will pay you quite handsomely for your work and of course all of your expenses during your stay. I told you before, I insist on protecting my investments. Keeping you close will ensure that you are focused completely on my commission.”
“Are you implying that I am incapable of keeping focused? Or do you think I’d just take the money and run?”
His expression softened. “Of course not, Scarlett. I’d never offer such a proposition to someone I didn’t feel I could trust. But you and I both know that you have a tendency to become bogged down in your own self-pity. Which brings me to our contract.”
“Contract? Shouldn’t David be here for this?” she asked.
“I can assure you that Mr. Bradford and I have discussed the contract.” He reached down beside his chair and brought out a stack of papers out of his briefcase. He pushed it across the table toward her. “Feel free to look it over at your leisure.”
Scarlett kept her eyes locked on his as she picked up the contract. She tried reading it, but after the first sentence it may as well have been Sanskrit. Evidently Constantine had a very slick lawyer working for him to craft such an airtight document. Of course one thing was perfectly clear: $250,000.00. “This number can’t be right. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a couple of lousy paintings?”
Raze laughed. “Six. I want to commission you to do six paintings for me. Five for my office and one for my home.”
“Six? Do you have any idea how long that will take?”
“You seem to be very concerned with time, Scarlett. You can stay as long as it takes. And of course you’d be free to come and go as you please, should you need to return home for a while.”
Scarlett let her gaze fall from his to the six figures stamped in the middle of the contract. How could she pass this up? She’d be a fool not to accept his offer. That amount of money was unheard of for an artist at her level. But how could he expect her to walk away from her whole life for what could turn into several months, even a year or more? “I… I just don’t know what to say.”
“I would, of course, advise you to say yes. But keep reading. I have a few conditions to my offer.”
“Such as there will be no drug use of any kind while you are in my employ.”
“What qualifies as drug use?” Scarlett asked, making a show of balancing the glass of wine between her fingertips and bringing it to her lips. “I mean are we talking soda? Coffee and cigarettes?”
“Xanex,” he replied simply. “Hydrocodone. All of those little pills that you use to make yourself feel better.”
Scarlett narrowed her eyes. “I can assure you that any of those so-called ‘little pills,’ have valid prescriptions.” He met her gaze, staring into her eyes with a smug grin. She looked away. Something about his stare made her uncomfortable. As if he were looking straight into her soul.
“That would be another part of the contract,” he sighed, sipping his own glass of wine, seemingly unshaken by Scarlett’s cold shoulder. “I detest liars, Scarlett. And I won’t tolerate being lied to. You and I both know that though you may have prescriptions, you have little need for them.” She did not look up or try to deny, only turned the pages of the contract.
“It says here that I am to reside at 42 Whitby Avenue. Is that a hotel or something?”
“Not at all. It is my home here in London,” he replied, cutting his meat. “A penthouse on the top floor of RazCon Towers. I’m afraid it’s a bit more cosmopolitan that I’d like, but I don’t have any stately manors lying around.”
Scarlett stared at him, her jaw hanging agape as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Mr. Constantine,” she began. “I’m sure that you can get a date easily without having to coerce young women into your house.”
“Very funny,” he replied, his face alight with amusement. “You’re very clever. But as I told you, I intend to protect my investment. And that means keeping you close at hand. You shouldn’t fear for your virtue, as I’m not often there. You’ll have your own room and Geoffrey will be there to attend to your every need. I’ve also taken the liberty of clearing some studio space for you. I ordered a few things for you, but in the morning I’ll give you a tour and you can make a list of anything else you’d like.”
Scarlett closed the contract and looked up. She was silent, but she could feel a knot of anger down in the pit of her stomach. It was the same anger she’d felt since she was a child. That anger that only went away when she was high. Or when she saw him. Her angel. He always made her guilt and shame dissipate like a morning mist frying in the sun. “Who do you think you are, Mr. Constantine?” she asked with an ice cold edge to her voice.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you find this amusing? Thinking you can order me around with your money? People have been trying to boss me around all my life. Dragging me from one stupid situation to another. As if I need you to tell me what to do and watch over me like some nursemaid! Either you want me to do your paintings or not. I shouldn’t have to sign some contract that says you get to control my life until they’re finished! I don’t need your patronage that bad.”
“Are you done?” he asked, adding a chill of his own.
“Good. You mentioned that you didn’t need a nursemaid. Well I think you do. I think you do very much. Let’s be honest, Miss Munro. The truth is that you need my patronage quite a bit. No gallery will touch you these days with your erratic behavior. Your paintings have gone from dark to deranged. Your little obsessions have gotten harder to hide and Mr. Bradford is about to drop you. Feel free to deny my contract and get on the next plane back to the US. Hell, I’ll even pay for it, but I can assure you that I never extend an offer twice. Should you decide to turn me down and walk out of here, I will not ask again. Nor will I accept that you’ve changed your mind.”
The waiter approached and took their plates away without a word. Constantine’s words, though stern and unyielding, were not angry. He pulled out a slim cigarette case and opened it. He pulled one out and toyed with it. “At any rate, the contract stands ‘as is’ and is non-negotiable.” He rose to his feet and tossed his napkin carelessly on the table. “I’m going to the bar for a cigarette. Perhaps you could use this time to think over my offer.” Before she could respond, he had turned away and was heading for the bar on the other side of the restaurant.
Scarlett watched him walk away. He was probably the most graceful creature she’d ever encountered. It was as if every movement of his hands and wrists, every turn of his head, was carefully calculated. One might think that this would make him seem effeminate, but quite the contrary. Raze’s masculinity emanated from him like the rays of the sun. She looked down at the contract in front of her and then back at Raze. He stood at the bar, a cigarette poised between his long fingers. Every fiber of her being, at least all the ones attached to her sexual organs, wanted to stay with him. But couldn’t he understand? She couldn’t uproot her life and take on such a commitment. She was afraid to. Couldn’t he see that she was afraid? Once he could see her for what and how she really was, his interest in her would dissipate. She didn’t think she could take the rejection.
And all these rules? She’d never been good with rules. She’d sworn to herself on the day she walked out of her mother’s house that she would never again be subject to someone else’s rules. She flipped through the pages of the contract, toying with the paper that had begun to curl at the corners. When she looked up again, Raze was staring at her from across the room. Their eyes met and for a moment time stopped. She could scarcely breathe and her blood pounded in her ears. She felt lightheaded and her mouth became a desert. Was he doing this to her? He raised his glass and gave a mischievous wink.
“Fuck this,” she murmured. The waiter approached the table, but Scarlett stood up and pushed past him before he could speak.
“Well it looks like you’re doing a bang up job, Azrael.” Gabriel’s voice was dripping with a sarcasm that made him want to punch her in her turned- up, angelic nose. She sat on the stool beside where he stood, sipping her vodka martini with a smug expression. The angel watched with amusement as Scarlett grabbed her purse and nearly ran over the waiter in her haste to get out of the restaurant. It was obvious that she wanted to be away from Azrael and his scrutinizing gaze.
“Shouldn’t you still be wearing your old man suit?” he grumbled, taking a long draw on his cigarette.
“Oh yes, I so enjoy pretending to be your valet.” Gabriel rolled her eyes and plucked the cigarette from between Raze’s lips. “Geoffrey, the ever faithful servant. The Alfred to your Bruce Wayne.” She finished his cigarette, smashing it out in the ashtray. “So what are you going to do now?”
“I didn’t expect her to accept my offer on the first try. She’s willful and angry. If it was going to be easy, I’d have asked… well… you… to do the dirty work.”
“So witty. But let’s not forget that this is all your doing in the first place. If you had just done what you were supposed to, it wouldn’t be an issue, now would it?” Raze glared at his androgynous friend, knowing she was right. Perhaps that was what was so annoying about the entire situation. From the moment he’d laid eyes on the girl, something in her soul spoke to him. That sadness that glimmered in her eyes, even now. It had made his heart go out to her and though her soul had been his to take, he couldn’t stand to extinguish a light such as hers so soon. And there was a light, glimmering deep down within her. “But it’s plain to see that love has clouded your judgment.”
His head snapped up, surprised at her words. “Is it not our place to love them as God loves them?”
Gabriel smiled. “I’m not talking about divine love, Azrael. I’m talking about a worldly love. A dangerous and selfish love. Have you spent so much time with these humans that you’ve begun to possess their flaws?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he grumbled, motioning for the bartender to refill his glass of bourbon.
“Why did you spare her life before?”
“Because she was a child that hadn’t had a chance to live,” Raze replied, staring down into the amber liquid. “And I thought this time would be different.”
Gabriel scoffed, taking another long sip of her drink but never taking her eyes off of him. “What about the countless other children whose souls you gathered? Should they not be subject to your mercy?”
“So what if I did have some sort of love for her? Is that so bad?”
“No. Not bad, but you and I both know that balance must be restored. Don’t pretend you don’t know that the girl is somewhat… talented.”
“Of course she’s talented. Look at her artwork…”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it! She has a very old soul and you’ve been protecting her for ages. But you must let her go and move on. Her time here is done! Her chances have been spent.”
Azrael whipped around, staring icily at Gabriel. His fist was clutched tightly around the glass so he wouldn’t punch the arrogant archangel. “Do not dare to tell me what my job is, Gabriel!” he snarled. “Her soul is mine to take and I won’t give up on her just yet!”
“There’s nothing to give up! She’s had lifetime after lifetime and she hasn’t learned yet. You were supposed to let her go and have her soul fall where it may!”
Raze sighed and stood up. The worst part about Gabriel’s words was that she was right. “Look, I said I’d fix this and I will.”
“I hope so, Raze,” she said with a disdainful snort. “Patience is fleeting. But don’t worry I’ll help you.”
“Doubtful. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t know what you’re doing. I know you’ve been sent here to spy!”
Gabriel threw her head back, laughing heartily at him. “Don’t be so dramatic. If I were going to spy I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of taking a human form.” She peered down at her hands as if examining the skin. “I do so hate being so… fragile.” She laid her hand over his, stroking at the small bones just under the skin. “But I do still care for you, Azrael. I’d hate to see you fall over something so… trivial.” His eyes met hers and for a moment, he could almost remember loving her. The mask of aloofness she usually wore began to fall away and the corners of her eyes sparkled with tears. “Was it so very long ago, Azrael?” she whispered.
Raze took her hand gently at first and then pushed it away with a violence that toppled his glass. “Keep your serpent’s tongue,” he spat, throwing bills on the bar and leaving the angel alone.