When Andy got back to Gunilla’s basement it was late. If asked, she wouldn’t have been able to say what she did for over eight hours from the moment she got a glimpse of Priestly to the moment she laid her head down on the pillow. Inhaling lavender and vanilla, she felt untethered and dazed. Thank goodness it was her night off at the pub, or she would’ve missed her shift.
Was it possible she was hit over the head and didn't remember it? It felt like her whole life narrowed down and focused on this one single event. If seeing Priestly’s art made an impact on her, then seeing Priestly herself took her breath away and hours later she still felt lightheaded.
She laid in her comfortable bed and watched the expanse of the spotless ceiling above her, illuminated by the street light that poured gently through the small windows and felt like something just as gentle as that light was slowly seeping into her life. She felt foolish and fanciful and could not for the life of her explain how a single sighting of a woman affected her in this way.
The pictures Andy had seen, blurry and small as they were, not to mention decades old, had nothing on the real thing. The high cheekbones, the expressive mouth, and the defined jawline that surely could cut glass. Andy remembered her earlier thoughts, at seeing a picture of Princhek for the very first time at the Rose Room at the New York Library: the woman should not be beautiful. Yet just like then and certainly more so now, Andy thought that she had never seen anyone who was more captivating than Priestly. Was it the allure of the mystery? Of the success of finally finding her quarry? Of knowing that Andy was the only person in the world who successfully cracked the fifteen-year-old riddle? Or was it the sensuous mouth, the haughty brow, and the brilliant eyes that made Andy feel like she had some kind of head trauma and perhaps a visit to the emergency room wasn’t out of the question? What was happening to her?
As she turned on her stomach, street light be damned, Andy punched the pillow and closed her eyes. Enough foolishness. She had given herself eight hours of wandering around Manhattan doing god knows what, probably daydreaming and other such nonsense. She had work to do and she needed all the sleep she could get. She needed a plan and she needed one soon. Nigel would not wait forever and his earlier email about lunch sometime this week pretty much told her so. So Andy resolutely buried her face in the lavender and vanilla and fell asleep.
The morning brought clarity. Since the game Priestly and her management played for years was simple - find me and I will confirm my identity, all that was left for Andy to do was march herself to the townhouse on the Upper Eastside and knock on the door. She assumed that simply stating that she followed the redhead from Sotheby’s to the door of 137 East 73rd Street would not suffice, and rightfully so. Plenty of people could’ve done that, or hired a private investigator to suss out exactly the same thing, simply follow someone from the auction house.
But Andy had the M. Princhek as her ace up her sleeve. She was absolutely certain that nobody had made that connection yet. Certainly it wasn’t in any of the handful of books or hundreds of articles or even the Ph.D. and masters thesis on Priestly that Andy had consumed in the past month.
No, M. Princhek, her connection to Gunilla and her work that even in blurry light of faded newspaper print sill held resemblance of the early Priestly pieces - these were all Andy’s discoveries that she hoped would be enough to sway the reclusive artist to not only confirm her identity but also to agree to an interview. Or to at least work with Andy on the feature that she had already sketched out. Well, work on was too grandiose of expression anyway. Maybe at least peek at it and corroborate?
With her thoughts spinning wildly out of control and her expectations diminishing with every minute, Andy took her courage in her hands, put on her best finery after wringing her hands for an hour in front of her wardrobe, and walked the short distance to 73rd street. It had not actually occurred to her that Gunilla’s mansion was only 4 streets away from Priestly’s and if that wasn’t another brick in the wall Andy was building, she would eat her beanie. Except it was warm out and Andy was not wearing said beanie. So she relaxed her shoulders and unclenched her jaw feeling the spring breeze ruffle her hair once more and decided that it was another good omen. After all, the same wind brought her this assignment all that time ago.
She walked briskly towards her quandary and as she made the corner between Lexington and 73rd, the redhead from the auction was stepping out of the townhouse Andy was walking towards. On pure instinct, and if years later she was asked why she did this, Andy would’ve never been able to answer with any degree of certainty, but swiftly, as not be noticed, Andy stopped in her tracks, backtracked and peered around the corner. Her heart skipped a beat when the redhead was followed out of the townhouse by a huge St. Bernard, its leash held by a long-fingered slim and graceful hand, unadorned by rings or bracelets. As Andy lived and breathed, the woman from the pictures transcended 17 years and slowly climbed down the stairs followed by the well behaved dog, who trotted placidly by her side.
As if in a trance, Andy followed the two women as they walked down the block, the dog stopping occasionally to sniff at trees or the cars parked along the road. From her position almost a hundred feet away from them, Andy could not hear their conversation, but the redhead was animated and gesticulated wildly to make some sort of point while Priestly watched the wild antics impassively and gracefully inclined her head every once in a while, keeping a sharp eye on the dog and occasionally petting the big head that would immediately abandon the sniffing and look up at its mistress adoringly, with a goofy-looking doggy grin on its big brown snout.
The women entered a hip-looking coffee shop on the corner of 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue and Andy had to think carefully about her next step. She honestly did not intend to follow or stalk Priestly, and she couldn’t very well approach her on the street. For some reason she also felt decidedly uncomfortable approaching her while she was in the company of the redhead. Come to think of it, Andy for some reason wanted to approach her alone. She snorted at her own audacity and at outright lying to herself. For some reason? Pfft, Andy wanted to approach Priestly alone because the pull she felt towards the young, fresh-faced haughty beauty in decade-old pictures was nothing compared to what Andy had felt in the past ten minutes as she followed the woman down 73rd Street. She was a writer and yet words failed her. Magnetic was totally insufficient and gobsmacked was close but such an unappealing word to describe how this utterly appealing woman made Andy feel.
Andy had only ever dated a woman once and the experience changed her outlook on intimacy forever. Her professor’s TA was new at Northwestern and closeted so their trysts were clandestine, yet it felt at the time so much sweeter for the secrecy of the encounters. Andy and Nate were on a break due to some drama or other they liked to create for each other and the 30-year-old suave and seductive Emma ensured that for the summer before her senior year, Andy did not think of Nate at all. The sex was off the chart, both of them falling on each other like mad the moment the doors of Emma’s small off-campus apartment would close. It didn’t last, because while Andy had no issues with secrecy per se, lying wasn’t in her nature and when she asked if she was allowed to tell people about their relationship because her friends were starting to notice her absence and frequent flights off-campus followed by a heavy afterglow, Emma ended their relationship, stating that she wasn’t ready to come out. Andy and Nate reconciled when he came crawling back to her around Christmas of their senior year and then six months later they moved to New York together, leaving Emma behind once and for all. Last Andy heard, she was still teaching in an adjunct position at Northwestern and she was still in the closet.
As much as Emma’s rejection hurt Andy, she did not regret the three months they spent making love and opening their souls to each other, among braiding flowers in each other’s hair during impromptu picnics and playing hoops with the neighborhood kids on the weekends. Emma’s steadfast pursuit of her and subsequent seduction had opened Andy’s eyes on her own bisexuality and on the sexual appeal of women.
With everything that had happened to her in New York, she rarely got to indulge in her attraction to women, other than smile at them across the bar as she served them their drinks. She was popular with the clientele at the pub, but her state of a hamster on a spinning wheel, always on the run from one place of employment to another, left her feeling that if she stopped to indulge in a fun and easy one night stand with one of the patrons who regularly left her a hefty tip, she’d fall off the wheel and her already difficult life would unravel even farther. And so she did not indulge, despite both men and women writing down their numbers on napkins as they passed her their cash.
But ever since she saw that faded photo in the Rose Room of the New York Public Library, it was as if her mind and body were bewitched, for she had no other explanation for the way she was feeling and acting when it came to Priestly. She fully intended to march straight to 137 East 73rd Street, and introduce herself, instead, she followed the woman like some creep and was now ordering coffee at the exorbitantly expensive coffee shop while taking furtive glances at the two women chatting in the corner and the dog napping under their table.
The coffee shop was somewhat busy and so it took her a good ten minutes to get her coffee and she basked in the opportunity to take a slower look at the woman who had occupied her days for a month now and who unquestionably captivated her more and more with every moment.
Priestly’s long slim fingers, unadorned by rings, held the surprisingly large mug firmly as she gracefully took sip after sip of clearly scorching liquid. Andy suddenly wanted to know her coffee order. Priestly fascinated her so, Andy wanted to know everything about her. She could lie to herself and say that was for the article, for her assignment, but all Andy really wanted was to trade places with the redhead and sit in the corner of the coffee shop and bask in the attention of this enigmatic woman and listen to her talk quietly in a soft, deep and low voice with just a hint of gravel, a surprising contralto. She was occasionally tracing the edge of the mug with her fingertips, focusing Andy’s already hungry gaze even more on those elegant hands, with porcelain skin interspersed with blue veins.
Andy wanted to trace those veins with her fingers, with her lips. The barista calling out her caramel macchiato startled her out of her reverie of mouthing along Priestly’s hands up to her forearm and shoulder to that long, graceful neck and gently biting down on the place where the shoulder and neck came together. She would gasp, perhaps throw her head back, allowing Andy better access and she’d nose under her small ear, before taking the lobe into her mouth and sucking on it. Andy imagined that those slim hands would come up to clutch at her shoulders and that mouth would open slightly allowing Andy all the access she needed to claim it, to taste those unsmiling lips and to slowly and gently lick in and taste coffee and heat and something uniquely this woman.
For a moment Andy forgot where she was and only the barista's second call for Andy and a caramel macchiato finally managed to shake her out of her daydreaming of ravishing Priestly in a very public place. She took a quick sip of her drink, scalded her mouth, cursed under her breath, and left the coffee shop without a backward glance at the woman who just featured in her sex fantasy.
Her underwear was ruined, her mouth was burning and she had no earthly idea what to do about the conundrum she found herself in. She needed to get a resolution to her assignment one way or another, but she also wanted, for the first time in what felt like forever, to bury her face between the undoubtedly smooth thighs of this enigmatic woman and make her scream.
Andy stepped into the street and shook her head ruefully, with thoughts like that she would get fired and blackballed from the whole of New York and Priestly would most likely take a restraining order against her.
So when her phone vibrated in her pocket a second later, Andy welcomed the distraction of Nigel inviting her to a late lunch. It also served a purpose to remind her that she had to put her crazy notions of sex with Priestly in check, because her boss was calling and he would definitely like an update on all things Priestly during said lunch. Well, maybe not all things, since Nigel definitely did not know or need to know how much Andy wanted to taste the woman.
As it turned out Nigel did have questions, but also some small assignments for Andy. He was gracious enough to order a ton of appetizers and a big entre for her voracious appetite that seemed to still be catching up to the plenitude of food that she was indulging in at Gunilla’s.
The assignments were book reviews and small articles on some art-related things that would go into a couple of summer Runway issues since some things fell through for him and he needed last-minute replacements. This development made Andy very happy, probably just as happy as the halibut and the crab cakes did. She was back on the horse again with her name about to appear in a major magazine.
When Nigel finally broached the subject of her focus assignment he was just a bit cagey about it, probing and asking strange questions that made Andy uneasy.
“It’s going well, Nigel, I have a ton of information accumulated and as you know with the latest Priestly dropping yesterday…” She started just as cagey, as something in his tone, and the questioning line did not sit well with her.
Nigel just waved at her impatiently, a huge sapphire sparkling on his pinky as he moved his hands. “Yes, the piece that dropped yesterday. Let me tell you, my emaciated friend, that yellow put a lot of people’s noses out of joint. Irv is beside himself. Elias-Clark was bidding big on the crimson and so were some of the houses. He’s about to leave for Europe and the Middle East now, to try and smooth ruffled feathers of the investors, but this was a big blow to the industry, Andy.”
The reaction to a simple color seemed a tad excessive for Andy, so she made a mental note to look into the Elias-Clark and their investors and interests. Something was off about this whole saffron deal, Nigel’s comment about Irv dropping everything and leaving to handhold investors was giving Andy some weird vibes. She’d need to look into it, as her gut was seldom wrong. And even if it was, it paid to know things about the industry one worked in anyway. She’d just pay a visit to some of the people at Elias-Clark and invite them out for coffee and gossip. After all the running around for Nigel for years on small potato assignments, she had impressive contacts in the building.
“So with Irv away for the next month or so, you have the time to dig deeper into this, Andy, but mark my words, “a ton of information accumulated” will not go down well with him once he’s back. He’s made a considerable investment in you and your work by signing you on, so you have to deliver. Capisci, darling?”
Andy did indeed understand. But Nigel inadvertently ended up giving away more than he perhaps intended. Andy heard a “month” and instantly calculated that she had at least that to figure out how to approach Priestly, instead of rushing headlong into clumsy introductions and even clumsier requests for confirmation of the identity Andy had discovered. So she had time. Time to think and time to indulge in more x-rated fantasies about the woman. Because she had no doubt, when Priestly found out the real purpose behind Andy’s appearance at her porch, she’d not want anything to do with the journalist.
As it turned out, Andy did not have to knock on Priestly’s door. She felt like she was not prepared yet, like all her ducks weren’t in a row to approach the fascinating artist and so she installed herself in the coffee shop on the corner of the 73rd and Maddison and contented with doing her small assignments in the geographical proximity of the woman who occupied her days and sometimes nights.
Andy did not even get too far into the first gallery opening review, which she attended with Lily the night before, when the door opened and a somewhat agitated St. Bernard busted into the place and headed straight for her corner booth. In a matter of seconds Andy found her lap full of dog snout and her notes scattered all over the floor. As she desperately tried to pry the heavy head away from her crotch, keeping her voice stern, yet trying not to laugh at the obviously guilty doggy grin that looked up at her, a smooth deep contralto sounded right in front of her.
“Patricia, down!” The tone wasn’t raised, nor was it mean or demeaning, however it transmitted authority and held an undertone of steel. As much as the voice and the tone did things to Andy’s insides, it only worked partially in the pup who did move her muzzle from Andy’s now slobbered on crotch but refused to budge from Andy herself, acquiescing enough to just slump the big head on the journalist’s shoes.
“Patricia…” The woman finally looked up from the misbehaving dog and for a moment Andy was struck mute by the brilliant blue of the serious, albeit impatient, eyes. Had she ever seen blue of that hue or that vividness? Was it even possible? The eyes, startling and haunting, pierced right through her, and Andy wanted to look into them forever.
“I apologize, this is so out of the ordinary for her.” Andy finally managed to shake her musings off and took in the vision that was the woman standing in front of her.
In a black peacoat and gray leather gloves, four-inch heeled boots that were surely Jimmy Choos or Louboutins, or whatever high fashion brands made boots like that, Priestly looked exquisite. Her clothing seemed simple, with no effusiveness in lines, material, or accessories, which were only the hoop earrings as far as Andy could see, yet it all screamed high class.
The long blonde hair from 17 years ago was gone, taking its place was a short bob of a mixture of silver and a little gold, with a lock curling in the front and falling gracefully over the face that held the same high cheekbones and razor-sharp jaw.
The silence between them stretched for far too long and Andy realized that her appraisal was perhaps a touch too obvious, as one elegant eyebrow was raised questioningly at her.
“Oh… She’s fine!” Andy hurried to try and rectify the situation. “Aren’t you, girl? You’re just adorable!” Andy leaned down and scratched under the dog’s massive muzzle and she dissolved into doggy grins and whines while her tail told a story of complete and utter bliss at being petted in a way she obviously adored.
“Still”, Priestly said and damn if that voice didn’t do ridiculously pleasant things to Andy, “This is highly unusual for her and she’s already ruined your trousers and is now attempting to slobber all over your shoes. Here, Patricia!” The dog finally heeded the command in the voice of her mistress and stood up, trotting obediently to her side.
Andy smiled at the obvious unrepentant woof Patricia sent her way and extended her hand to give the giant teddy bear an ear scratch.
“Don’t encourage her, or I will not keep her from farther ruining those two seasons old Ferragamos.” Priestly’s voice was gravelly, a touch rusty, her lips slightly pursed, as if speaking to Andy, speaking at all, was something she did not do much or often.
“She’s just too adorable and I’m a total sucker for a dame!” Andy absolutely did not consider her words before she uttered them, but once it was out there her face changed entirely, and the chagrined expression of “caught in the act” gave her away more than the words. Priestly looked at her speculatively and then seemed to draw into herself as the door to the coffee shop opened to let in a boisterous crowd of teenagers.
Patricia’s demeanor seemed to change just as much as her mistress’ and she slowly positioned herself between the crowd and the woman who still stood ramrod straight and clenched the leash in her white-knuckled grip.
The lightbulb above Andy’s head went off and she slowly and carefully, trying not to make any sudden movements, stood up and gently touched the other woman’s elbow. Priestly flinched, but did not draw away and Andy gently guided her down to the cushioned seat in the booth, sitting in such a way as to block the crowd with her own body. The dog sat close to her mistress and continued to throw adoring glances at Andy and to distract all of them from the obviously uncomfortable situation, Andy stole a piece of her doughnut and gave it to the animal, who caught it neatly in the air and the adoration in her eyes and that goofy grin deepened once the pastry was consumed a second later.
Not satisfied with just a piece, the dog nosed under Priestly’s hand that rested on her thigh as if telling her to raise it and give her the rest of the doughnut that was still on the plate on the table and Andy laughed inadvertently at the pup’s antics.
The laughter seemed to snap Priestly out of her reverie and she gave the dog a small, tight-lipped smile. Just as the gravel in the voice, this strange smile made Andy think of unpracticed grace that was left to languish for too long and that was woefully out of practice. Yet some things were bred in the bone and Priestly seemed to collect herself, raising her chin and steeling her gaze, assuming a position of elegant hauteur with a veil of untouchability. It was fascinating to see, even if all Andy wanted was to wipe the guarded look away from the beautiful face.
The gaggle of teenagers moved out of the coffee shop and the quiet that was left behind clearly soothed her, as Andy could see the slim shoulders relaxing gradually, as Priestly took off the leather gloves and carefully set them on the table.
“You have some sort of gift with dogs…”
“Andy. Andy Sachs, nice to meet you!” Andy put as much charm as she could muster in her mega wattage smile and offered her hand.
Priestly took a long moment looking at the hand in front of her and as she reached for it, her own shook just a bit, but she controlled it and her handshake was cool but firm. Andy was certain that she wasn't the only one who felt electricity sparks as her warm from holding the coffee mug hand met cool smooth skin.
“Miranda.” The voice dropped a bit at the utterance of the name and Andy’s stomach did a somersault. M. Princhek. M. Miranda. Before she could go off in her head with self high-fiving, Miranda’s next question made her grin again.
“What kind of name is Andy? I’m certain that’s not what your parents named you.” The tone turned snooty and oh so obviously arrogant, yet Andy couldn’t get enough of this woman’s presence. Since when did Andy find rudeness so attractive?
“It’s short for Andrea, so yes, my parents named me that, but nobody calls me Andrea, not even my mother when she tries to scold me for misbehaving.”
While not entirely a champion flirt, Andy knew that she left quite a lot of room with her last remark, yet Miranda did not pick up that line of conversation. She looked at her hands and just now seemed to realize that she was clutching pages of Andy’s notes from the gallery opening. As she carefully placed them on the table between them, she winced at the obvious mussed state of them, having first fallen on the floor at Patricia’s sudden exuberance and then at being clutched like a lifeline by Miranda’s long-fingered hand.
“I apologize… Again.” She seemed to be appalled at the transgressions that kept piling up since she entered the coffee shop.
“Listen...” Andy took the notes from Miranda and carelessly put them in her bag. “Don’t feel bad. The pup is adorable and the notes are fine.”
The older woman did not seem mollified by Andy’s easy dismissal.
“If you really want to do something to make it up to me, how about sharing a cup of coffee with me?” Andy played her hand and held her breath. She did not intend to flirt. That was absolutely not the way she wanted her introduction to Priestly to go. She just wanted some time to figure out what to do and instead was openly hitting on the subject of her assignment.
However before she could retract her flirtatious invitation and maybe try and salvage something from this wreck of an encounter, her interlocutor stood up abruptly and with a hurried “That’s all” quickly exited the coffee house.
Yes, Andy thought, looking at the retreating back of her query. That was indeed all.