Theresa hated parties. Oh, who was she kidding? She hated just about every kind of social gathering there was – especially the ones that required schmoozing, platitudes, and smiling until her jaws ached.
"Thanks so much for coming," she said to yet another ageing socialite squeezed into a party dress that would have undoubtedly suited her husband's young mistress very well but herself not at all. Theresa hurried away before the woman could drag her into further conversation.
"I am networking my guts out." A woman in a low-cut, slinky black dress that hugged every curve – and invented a few new ones – appeared by Theresa's side.
"Michelle! Thank God," Theresa said. She gave her friend the first genuine smile she'd worn all night.
"Which circle of Hell is this?" she asked in an undertone as Michelle passed her a flute of champagne.
Michelle laughed. "Well," she said, "That depends on how badly you want to hurt Timothy for making us endure this."
Theresa glanced in the direction of the man who owned the gallery both women worked for. "So, so badly," was her answer.
"Oh, well then," Michelle said, snagging a canape from a passing waiter's tray. "I think violence is the seventh circle."
Theresa groaned. "You mean it can get worse?"
"It's about to." Michelle nudged her friend and nodded in Timothy's direction. He had abandoned the over-tanned, under-dressed woman he'd been flirting with to approach his employees.
"Ladies, ladies," he said in a faux foreign accent that never quite managed to sound convincing. "I am deeply in love with both of you."
They exchanged a look of annoyance. Theresa had to choke down a snort of laughter when Michelle rolled her eyes. Timothy loved every woman he'd ever met exactly the same amount – which was much, much less than he loved himself.
"Which one of you lovely ladies would like to greet your many admirers?"
Michelle smacked Timothy's hand away as it tried to snake around her waist. Your turn, she mouthed to her friend. Theresa's stomach lurched sickeningly. Public speaking was not her forte.
Theresa and Michelle liked to joke that the only reason they kept Timothy around, aside from the whole he-owned-the-gallery-and-could-throw-them-out-on-the-street thing, was that he loved all the public speaking, kissing butt, and smiling for the cameras stuff that they both hated. They also agreed that the only reason he dragged them into the spotlight with him on occasions like this was that he was a closet sadist.
Of course, the "s" word changed from time to time, but the intent was the same.
"Come on," Theresa said, passing her glass to Michelle, "let's get this over with." She let just enough of her annoyance seep into her voice that Timothy – wisely, she thought – didn't attempt to take her arm.
She followed Timothy to a display at the far end of the spacious room. It helped a little if she focused on the click-clack of her heels on the hardwood floor, rather than the interested faces of the snobs and critics around her. A very little.
To his credit, Timothy didn't stop to indulge any of the guests who called out to him as they passed. He led Theresa to stand beside a painting done in shades of red and orange. Somewhere in the oil painting's wild, dancing flames, was the twisted figure of a woman; her face was raised to the heavens, crying out for help to a God that had forsaken her. It was, amongst the dark, eerie paintings that lined the gallery's walls that evening, the one that unsettled people the most.
Hardly surprising, since it was the same image that had haunted Theresa's dreams for as long as she could remember.