Last semester, Romy escaped from an abusive relationship with the guy she’d thought was the man of her dreams. This semester she’s putting herself back together, determined to reclaim her passion for art and for life. When she signs up for a painting class at the local art co-op, the possibility of passion becomes very real — in the form of her teacher, Caleb. Both mysterious and seriously hot, Caleb bares his soul on his canvases, and Romy’s fascinated by what she sees.
Caleb is just trying to keep his head above water. Caring for his traumatized, unstable sister is getting harder every day, and his paintings are so dark and bleak that no one is buying. Teaching classes at the co-op is no longer enough, and now he’s going to have to sell more than just his art to the wealthy, sex-starved women in his classes. But when Romy comes along, she makes everything more complicated. She sees the truth in his paintings — a truth no one else has realized, until now.
Romy and Caleb might have a real shot together — one that could heal them both. But when ghosts from their pasts re-emerge, determined to keep them apart, will they be strong enough to hold on to each other?
ONLY BETWEEN US
A Starving Artists Novel
© 2013 Sarah Fine
Last year, I was broken. Dismantled bit by bit, day by day, until all that was left was a brittle shell. I wasn’t even aware it was happening until it was almost too late. I thought I was in love. I thought I could change—be prettier, more attentive—and that would make it better. It took a black eye and a fat lip to wake me up.
This semester, I’m reclaiming myself piece by piece.
Jude slips his arm through mine. The early fall breeze ruffles his wavy black hair, and the corners of his eyes crinkle as he smiles. He’s wearing a worn flannel over a ratty t-shirt, so different from his usual impeccable style. I link my fingers with his and squeeze. “You’re the best friend ever,” I whisper as we head up the sidewalk toward our destination. My toolbox feels unwieldy and foreign in my grasp, and my palm is sweaty around the handle.
“I know,” he says with gentle humor. “I’m glad you decided to do this. I think it’s exactly what you need.”
I might have stayed home if it wasn’t for him. When I got back into town a few days ago after two months spent rattling around my parents’ huge summer “cottage,” I called Jude to give him the address to my new apartment. He and Eric were at my place within an hour, helping me get settled. Like two mother hens, they clucked about how I’ve lost weight and squawked about my drastically short haircut (then told me I looked fabulous). But their cheery enthusiasm couldn’t fool me—they kept exchanging worried glances as they unpacked my water glasses and plates, more like parents than my actual parents, who had simply hired me a moving service, put a few thousand dollars into my bank account, and told me they’d see me at Christmas. Jude was the one who noticed my laptop screen, where I’d been researching painting classes at the local artists’ co-op. I’d done it on a whim, not sure if I would follow through, but as soon as Jude saw it, he made up my mind for me—by signing both of us up for a class that fit with the course schedule for our graduate program.
As we approach the entrance to the co-op, this multi-story old building three blocks off quaint Main Street with its heated sidewalks and funky boutiques, I push away Alex’s mocking voice as it whispers You’re wasting your time … that looks like something a five-year-old would draw …
I escaped from him at the end of January, but he’s still in my head sometimes.
Jude holds the door and leads me into the building, taking in the cracked linoleum flooring and the line of coat hooks and cubbies along the wall. On either side of this hallway are numbered classrooms, and ahead of us is a staircase. A sign tells us the artists’ studios are upstairs. The smell of mineral spirits is in the air, and I inhale it greedily while Jude wrinkles his nose. “I can feel my brain cells dying,” he mutters, then glances nervously into the classroom, where several people have already claimed easels and are waiting for the teacher to arrive. “I haven’t painted since my art class in middle school.”
I smile at his sudden uncertainty. “This is a beginner’s class, so I think you’ll be in good company.”
The stairs creak and we look up to see a guy coming down the steps. He looks to be in his mid-twenties, maybe a few years older than I am, and he moves with the careless grace of an athlete.
“Holy hotness,” breathes Jude, mimicking my thoughts perfectly. It’s not that I’m on the prowl, but in this life, there are a few objective truths, and this guy’s attractiveness is one of them. His jeans hang from his lean hips and are stained with paint. A similarly decorated t-shirt clings to his frame, and there’s a smear of blue on his tanned, muscular forearm. He has chin-length, chocolate brown hair, but he’s pulled some of it away from his face in a partial ponytail high on the back of his head. And that gives us a perfect view of his wolf-gray eyes, which skate over us with mild interest as he descends the stairs and walks toward us.
“You guys here for my class?” he asks, nodding toward the classroom. Oh my God. He’s the teacher.
“Absolutely,” Jude says quickly, newly enthusiastic, and I can’t hold in my laugh.
“Head on in and grab an easel. We’ll start in a few minutes. I’m Caleb,” he says, holding his hand out to Jude, who shakes it and introduces himself.
Caleb turns his gaze to me and offers his hand. “Romy,” I say as I take it, my heart beating a little faster as my skin touches his.
He lets go first. “Have you painted before?” he asks softly, giving my toolbox a questioning glance.
“A little.” That’s a lie. I minored in art in college, and painting was my passion. Until last year. I was passionate about a lot of things until last year, actually.
He smiles, and it’s as warm as his skin and steals my breath. “You look nervous, Romy. You don’t have to be. This is supposed to be fun.”
Jude throws his arm over my shoulder. “Come on, girl. Let’s go have fun.” He pulls me toward the classroom, and I am acutely aware of Caleb behind me as I walk in. Jude drags me over to two easels in the corner of the back row; every easel in the front two rows is taken. I set my box down and look around, realizing for the first time that we’re the youngest students in the room—and that Jude is the only guy. Most of the rest of the spots are occupied by middle-aged women, rings glittering on their fingers, hair sprayed into place, wearing spotless aprons over their tailored slacks and blouses. They look like women my mom would be friends with.
Jude leans over and whispers, “What do you bet these cougars are hot for teacher? I know I am.”
“Shut up.” I bow my head as Caleb reaches the front of the room, knowing Jude is right but refusing to acknowledge that I’m feeling the same way. This was the last thing I expected or wanted out of this evening. I came here to reclaim myself, not to focus on someone else … but I’m having trouble keeping my eyes off Caleb.
“Hey, everyone, welcome,” he says. “This is the first meeting of our twelve-class session, and I’m glad to see you guys.” He nods at a few of the women, and I wonder if they’ve taken the class before. “We’ll be focusing on basic technique with acrylics, including color-blending, basic washes and watercolor effects, layering, and texturing. We’re going to start with paper for the next several weeks, and then we’ll do some work on canvas. For those of you who have your own supplies—” His eyes rest on me for a moment, and his eyebrow arches. “—you might want to pick up some glazing medium and flow improver, or feel free to use what we have here. And for those of you who don’t have supplies, you can find brushes and sample paints over there, along with paper. My only request is that you wash the brushes thoroughly at the end of class so that I don’t get in trouble.” His grin is easy and mischievous, and I find myself smiling with him even though I’m not sure why.
After Caleb tells us that we’ll spend today discussing and experimenting with composition, the other students get supplies out of their art boxes while a few, including Jude, head over to grab brushes and paints from the shelves. I sit on the cold cement floor and skim my fingers over my dented toolbox. I’ve had it since high school. My dad let me have his old one to put all my supplies in … and I haven’t opened it in what feels like a lifetime. It used to hold my entire imagination. It used to be the way I could free whatever was inside me. But all of that got twisted up somehow, and it became another symbol of how trapped I was. With a deep breath, I flick the latch and open the lid. My eyes sting as I look down at my brushes and half-used tubes of paint, acrylics and oils, gesso, pencils, varnish, frozen and waiting for me to return.
A hand closes over my shoulder and my head jerks up. “You okay?” Jude asks, and in his worried expression I see his memories, of me showing up at his door that horrible night, of all the months after when I was too miserable to get up off the couch.
“Yeah, sure,” I say with a rasp in my voice. To my horror, I notice Caleb watching me. But as soon as our eyes meet, he looks away and starts to address the class, drawing attention to the front of the room. I slowly climb onto my stool as he instructs everyone how much paint to put on the palette and talks about the qualities of acrylic paints. I’d rather be using my oils, but I’m just getting back into this, so I sit and listen and drift a little, enjoying the sound of Caleb’s deep voice.
The class time flies by, and an hour later, we’re packing up, washing our brushes and tossing our papers in the recycling bins. There’s a cluster of women around Caleb, touching his arm and laughing with trilling voices at almost everything he says. He doesn’t look like he minds the attention. I take Jude’s hand and tug him into the hallway, toward the staircase. “I want to take a peek at the studios,” I tell him.
“Are we allowed to go up there?”
I shrug. “Why wouldn’t we be? It’s not private space, and art is meant to be looked at.” When I first moved here last year to start a graduate program in counseling, I fantasized about renting one of the spaces here, and came to look at it a time or two, but then I got wrapped up in my relationship with Alex and the plan went by the wayside along with everything else.
The space at the top of the stairs is cavernous, and I shiver at the cool air—all the windows are open to let out the fumes. I have to wonder how they handle it when the wind turns frigid and the snow falls. We’re in Michigan, after all, right by the lake. Winter is no joke here. It’s the beginning of September, and the evenings are already cool enough to call for long sleeves.
The center of the huge room is cluttered with tables of supplies, half-stretched canvases and tools, broken palette knives and palettes, wire and glue and canvas stretchers. There’s a kiln near the back windows. Large stalls line the edges of the room, each one about ten by ten feet, each one a different world. One contains a potter’s wheel and boxes of clay and half-finished pots and sculptures. Another is plastered with still lifes and nude figures, charcoal and pastel and pencil drawings. Jude and I walk around slowly. Some of the stalls are occupied, and a few of the artists look up when we go by and say hi. None of them look surprised to see us, which tells me they’re used to spectators. Some of them ignore us completely.
Jude squeezes my arm. “Why didn’t you tell me this place was full of hotties?” he hisses in my ear.
I look up and see that he’s talking about a guy in one of the stalls across the room, who’s stretching a canvas over a huge frame. The muscles of his arms stand out as he uses pliers to pull the canvas tight, and his blond hair falls over his forehead as he staples the fabric into place. A tribal tattoo winds up his neck from beneath his shirt. Jude stares at him with rapt interest, and I roll my eyes. “How would Eric feel if he saw you now?”
Jude gives me this are-you-kidding look. “He’d be appreciating the view right along with me, darling. We don’t do jealous.”
“Whatever,” I mutter right as the blond guy raises his head and realizes he has an audience. He looks me up and down, and then a seductive smile brightens his face.
As the blond sets his stuff down and brushes his palms on his cargo pants, Jude lets out this little giggle. “He’s coming over here! Shall I leave you two alone?”
My eyes go wide. “No!” I say, laughing. “If you leave my side, you can forget me helping you study.”
He holds up his hands. “It was only a suggestion!”
“You moving in?” the blond guy asks as he walks toward us, his focus on me.
“What?” I ask.
He nods toward the empty stall next to his and then down at my toolbox. “Are you taking the space?”
“Oh. No. We were taking a class downstairs and came up here to take a look.”
His blue eyes flash playfully. “See anything you like?”
“Maybe,” Jude says, and his tone is so heated that the blond guy’s smile falters. But then he offers his hand.
“Daniel. I teach classes here, too. Lots of us do. A good way to help pay for the space we use.”
We introduce ourselves, and Jude and Daniel get to talking about the cost of renting the space. Jude is obviously attracted to this guy, but Daniel’s gaze keeps sliding over to me. He’s cute, but again, I’m not really … available. I wander over to one of the studios in the back of the room. There’s a spotted drop cloth on the floor and a table cluttered with oils, brushes, and jars of all sorts of oil mediums. There’s a metal canister of turpentine on the floor, along with an open toolbox containing scissors, a staple gun, a t-square, and a measuring tape. A roll of canvas and several narrow pieces of lumber are leaning against the flimsy metal wall. This particular artist is a do-it-yourself type and stretches his own canvas. Builds his own frames, too, by the look of it. There’s a stack of completed paintings against the wall, and I slip over and take a peek.
Each one feels like a punch in the chest. Many of them are dark, but not all of them. One is a close-up of a girl in profile, what someone would see if he were standing behind her shoulder, looking down. She looks so vulnerable, staring at the ground. But the way the artist has rendered her is harsh, using reds and greens to contour her face in bold smears and strokes. Somehow, it all comes together, but the impression is brutal, dangerous. I flip to the next painting, and it’s in a similar unforgiving style. Another close-up, this one a profile of a boy standing before a closed door. That’s it, a very simple composition, but it’s like the artist has peeled away the bland outer layer and exposed the raw, pulsing mess underneath. The colors are all off, sick, like there’s a wash of dread over the whole thing, making the boy’s skin pale green and sallow yellow, his eyes solid black with faint red streaks through them. I shuffle my feet. My heart thumps unsteadily. These paintings are one part accusation, one part caress. I don’t know how to understand them, but I can’t stop staring.
At the back of the studio is a huge primed canvas, five by five at least, with a thin layer of gray wash on it. The artist has begun to paint over it, thick smears of paint applied with a palette knife instead of a brush. It’s so intense that I’m drawn forward, needing to see it beneath the light. I flip on the overhead lamp and lean in, admiring the thin threads of yellow and red and purple in the blackish-blue squares of paint. And right through all that inky midnight is a deep red gash, a harsh V carved into the overwhelming darkness, revealing how artist has taken the time to build the layers, each one with a different dominant color. It’s both inviting and repellant, despair trying to devour a hope that won’t die. It looks edible and painful and I want to touch it but am afraid I’d sink in and get lost.
“You shouldn’t really be in there.”
I gasp at the sound of Caleb’s voice and spin around. He’s leaning against the steel wall of the studio, his wolf-gray eyes on mine. “Some of these guys are really possessive about their space, but they’re okay unless you actually invade it.” He looks pointedly at the painting and then at my fingers, which are hovering only a foot from the canvas.
I yank my hand back and jam it in the pocket of my pants, then skip over a few discarded brushes and tubes of paint, joining him outside the stall. “Sorry. I was fascinated by those paintings. That one in particular.”
He grimaces as he looks at it. “Why? It’s ugly.”
I shrug. “I know, but it’s also kind of hypnotic. I love that style, the way the artist used the palette knife instead of a brush. It’s so sculptural.”
His eyes narrow as he looks me over. “Yeah, but there’s no subtlety to it.”
“Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the artist wants to push this in the viewer’s face. Maybe he wants to share that pain.”
“How do you know the artist is a guy?”
I swallow and look back at the painting. There’s a barely restrained violence to those paintings that feels very masculine to me. “I guess I don’t. That was only my first impression.”
Caleb crosses his arms over his chest. “The guy’s a hack.”
My mouth drops open. “I think he’s really talented. How can you talk about one of your colleagues like that?”
“Well, we’re pretty close,” he says, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “I know him well.”
“What, is he your boyfriend or something?” I hope he’s not. Because if Caleb’s talking like this about someone he’s supposed to love … that’s how Alex used to talk to me. The last thing I want to do is be around a guy who thinks like that.
I’m mentally quitting Caleb’s class when he puts his hands up and laughs. “No, definitely not my boyfriend. First, I’m straight, and second, I’m single.” He’s looking at me in this funny way. “Seriously, you don’t have to defend this guy.” He waves his hand at the painting. “He’s going to chuck this and start over anyway.”
“Why?” I ask, forgetting to be mad for a moment as I look with longing at the painting.
Daniel walks up and slaps Caleb on the back. He gestures toward the canvas. “It’s lookin’ good, bro. You’re onto something.”
Caleb gives me a sidelong glance and grins, showing off his white teeth as realization strikes me between the eyes. “Nah. I think I can do better.”
To celebrate the blog tour for ONLY BETWEEN US and the upcoming release of ANYTHING BETWEEN US, we’re giving away four paperback sets of the Starving Artists series!
She is also the co-author (with Walter Jury) of two YA sci-fi thrillers published by Putnam/Penguin: Scan and its sequel Burn. Her bestselling adult urban fantasy romance series, Servants of Fate, includes Marked, Claimed, and Fated, and was published by 47North in 2015, and her second adult UF series —Reliquary (and its sequels Splinter and Mosaic) was published 2016. When she’s not writing, she’s psychologizing. Sometimes she does both at the same time. The results are unpredictable.