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Piece of work, p.1
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       Piece of Work, p.1

           Staci Hart
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Piece of Work


  Piece of Work

  Staci Hart

  Copyright © 2018 Staci Hart

  All rights reserved.

  stacihartnovels.com

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Cover by Quirky Bird

  Photography by Perrywinkle Photography

  Editor: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing

  Proofreading: Love N Books

  Playlist: http://spoti.fi/2EZNZU4

  To those who have wished for more

  but have been afraid to reach for it.

  It’s right there.

  Just grab it.

  Contents

  1. King of the Jungle

  2. Probably, Sorta, Maybe

  3. Square Peg

  4. Cherry on the Cupcake

  5. Nice Try

  6. The Conqueror

  7. Pick One

  8. Bang, Bang

  9. Never Will I Ever

  10. Thirsty

  11. Same Old

  12. Sinners and Saints

  13. A Little Dirty

  14. No, Sir.

  15. The Cost of Doing Business

  16. Dragon Fodder

  17. Stone Cold

  18. Brick Wall

  19. Just a Taste

  20. Truth Is

  21. Parallel

  22. Promises, Promises

  23. Can't Have It All

  24. Shut Up And Kiss Me

  25. In the Shadows

  26. Sideways

  27. Beyond the Pale

  28. Fool's Paradise

  29. Empty Handed

  30. Brute Strength

  31. Call Me Crazy

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  Also by Staci Hart

  About the Author

  1

  King of the Jungle

  Rin

  The stairs of The Met looked taller than they ever had before.

  My gaze climbed the span of low stone steps, dotted with people sitting, talking, watching the traffic on Fifth Avenue. A chill still clung to the air in a final echo of spring, one of those crisp, clear mornings that would soon give way to the sweltering heat that accompanied summer in New York.

  I breathed in that sense of possibility as I took my first step, the sharpness in the air filling me with hope and promise that the next twelve weeks of my internship would change my life.

  Which was my last thought before my toe caught the edge of the step, and I pitched forward, throwing out my hands to stop me from breaking my nose. My palms hit the stone with a slap so loud, everyone in a twenty-foot radius turned to gawk.

  A laugh shot out of me in a surprised snort, but my cheeks were so hot, I knew they were as red as a stoplight. I ducked my head, hiding behind my dark hair as I picked myself up and carried myself up those damnable stairs, wishing I could pull an Amelia Earhart and disappear.

  But as I took another breath, this one to calm me, I reminded myself that I was walking—tripping?—into a dream. And I found a smile. It was small, but I found it all the same.

  Once inside the doors of the museum, I spotted the information desk in the entry, a grand, seven-sided marble countertop, the dais in the center boasting a magnificent flower arrangement that looked to be seven or eight feet tall. One of the attendants brightened when I approached.

  “Good morning. What can I do for you?” he asked, smiling.

  “I’m here for the first day of my internship—”

  “I’m sorry, could you speak up?”

  I glanced down at my sneakers, swallowing before meeting his eyes again. “I’m here for my internship, but I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go.”

  “Oh, of course. What department?” he said, reaching for the mouse to his computer.

  “European Paintings.”

  “Perfect.” The keyboard clicked. “I’ll let Dr. Nixon know you’re coming,” he said as he gathered up a pass and a map of the museum. “The offices for the European Paintings department are on the second floor in gallery six twenty-eight.”

  I smiled. Van Dyck. One of my favorite galleries. Fitting that the offices would be there.

  “Let me show you where it is.” He laid open the map, directing me through the museum, and I let him explain in detail even though I knew exactly how to get there. “Dr. Nixon will be there waiting for you. Show this pass at the ticket check-in, and they’ll wave you through.”

  “Thank you,” I said, taking the map and pass from him before slipping away.

  To the guard I went, my heart thumping and chin high as I tipped my pass, brushing away the unfounded anxiety that he’d turn me away, tell me I didn’t belong, which was extra ridiculous, given that the museum was technically free to visit. But he waved me on, just like the attendant had said he would, and I sighed my relief, finding hope again as I climbed the grand staircase, heading for the Van Dyck gallery.

  The doors to the offices were nestled discreetly between two full-length paintings of English aristocrats, and standing in front of them was, presumably, Dr. Nixon. She was younger than I’d anticipated, smaller than I’d imagined, though her size didn’t detract from her power. The air about her was sharp, accentuated by her packaging—a high-waisted pencil skirt, tailored shirt, and heels that made my ankles ache just looking at them.

  When her eyes met mine, my hopes sank.

  It was a look I’d seen a thousand times, one as cold as it was scathing, one that told me she was not only unimpressed, but disappointed.

  She glanced down at the paper in her hand. “Hyo-rin Van de Meer?”

  I nodded, my tongue fat and useless in my mouth.

  “This way,” she said without introducing herself and turned, swiping her key card on the panel on the door to unlock it.

  I followed her through the hallway, the office space quiet and still, deserted but for the occasional museum employee. We wound through a spur and into her office, a neat, tidy space with a beautiful desk and shelves of books lining two of the walls. Everything about it was professional and classic, touched with the elite air of intellect and academics, and she fit perfectly in the space, as if it had been made for her, built to showcase her beauty and strengths just as an exhibit in the museum would a priceless work of art.

  And there I stood, a gangly Korean-Dutch leviathan in baggy jeans, a lumpy, old sweater, and sneakers that had seen their prime at least two years ago. The sense that I didn’t belong twisted around my heart and squeezed.

  Dr. Nixon hadn’t said anything, giving me her back to sort through the papers on her desk, her neatly coiffed blonde hair shining under the glow of the overhead lights. I wondered if she was collecting herself, and I put in a solid effort to do the same.

  When she finally turned, her face was schooled, her blue eyes icy and her smile forced. “Congratulations on being awarded the internship here at The Met. I’m Dr. Bianca Nixon, assistant curator to Dr. Lyons and your supervisor. For the next three months, you’ll learn the ins and outs of our department and what it takes to work in curation and conservation of art.” She reached behind her, retrieving a packet, which she handed over. “Our biggest focus this summer is preparation for our exhibition in the fall, which is being led by our department. It centers on Italian Renaissance, and t
he bulk of your role will be to assist in the continued research of the pieces we’ve acquired.”

  The speech was rehearsed and clinical, as if she’d read it from a brochure.

  “Any questions?” she asked.

  I shook my head.

  Her gaze tightened. “Your desk is over here. Put your things down and come with me.”

  I kept my eyes down, properly intimidated and completely unsure of myself as I moved to the desk, deposited my bag, and followed her out of the office. I lamented my choice of apparel, not that I had much else to wear. I’d been in college for the better part of a decade—which meant my wardrobe consisted mostly of pajamas—on top of the fact that dressing all six feet of me was next to impossible. So, I wore a lot of men’s sweaters, my jeans always shrank, and I generally did my best to be invisible everywhere I went.

  Which was also impossible. Ever seen a six-foot-tall Korean girl? Because trust me when I say it’s not something you see every day. And to answer your questions—the one time I ever played basketball, I broke two bones and bloodied my nose, I could get a sunburn in the subway, and yes, I will get that off the top shelf for you.

  But stupid me hadn’t even considered dressing up. I’d worn what I wore to lectures and to the library. It quite honestly hadn’t even crossed my mind, which I berated myself for with all my mental strength, wondering if Bianca would have treated me differently had I been…well, not me. Or at least, not packaged as me.

  We left the department and wound our way through the museum to a more administrative part of the museum’s hidden circuit of hallways. Bianca never said a word. I mean it, not a single word, and I spent that five minutes trying to think of something to say, anything at all.

  How about the Michelangelo they found in that guy’s basement in Buffalo? Or, Who knew Renaissance women covered their ears because the Virgin Mary supposedly got knocked up through her ear when God spoke to her? Or, There are dozens of paintings of Mary shooting people with her breastmilk, what’s up with that?

  I wisely opted for silence instead.

  Once inside another administrative office, she approached a desk where an older woman sat typing with her reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

  “Hi, Phyllis,” Bianca said. “Just need to get our new intern a badge.”

  “Yes, of course.” Phyllis smiled eagerly as she stood and moved around her desk. “Come with me.”

  Bianca fell in step behind her, and I followed.

  “So,” Phyllis started, “where do you go to—” She glanced over her shoulder, and on finding Bianca behind her, she slowed to take my side.

  Bianca’s eyes could have bored through the outer layer of the planet.

  “Where do you go to school, dear?” Phyllis asked.

  “NYU,” I answered, my voice too small. I swallowed and tried to draw myself up. “I’m working on my PhD in art history.”

  “What’s your specialization?”

  “Renaissance art.” I realized absently that I’d smiled.

  “Well, you’ve managed an internship in the right department.”

  A warm flush brushed my cheeks. “My professors were too generous in my letters of recommendation.”

  Phyllis gave me a wink. “Must have been some letters.”

  I’d been fortunate, and I knew it. But I’d also worked hard, which was honestly the easy part. If I was known for one thing—besides being too tall or too quiet—it was for my devotion to academia. It was the peopling that eluded me.

  We stepped into a small room set up with a camera, and my heartbeat ticked up a step.

  “If you could just stand against the wall right there,” Phyllis said while Bianca oversaw, arms folded across her chest.

  I stepped in front of the camera, instantly and thoroughly aware of every single muscle in my face. I locked each of them in place in the hopes that I’d look normal in the photo, all the while knowing how futile that wish was. Of the hundreds of photos I’d been in over the course of my life, not a single one looked like me. Sometimes, it was my eyes, either frozen in terror or half-shut. Sometimes, it was my smile, either stretched too wide so that my teeth looked huge, or my lips were together, which only served to bring attention to their shape—too full, too narrow. And every single time, without fail, I looked like a Botox experiment gone wrong.

  My parents had tried to turn my propensity for taking horrible pictures into a well-meaning joke, designed to make me feel less self-conscious about it. And bless them for trying.

  “Okay, ready? One, two—”

  The flash shot right as I blinked in an effort to get it out of the way before—

  “Three!” she chimed.

  “I…um, I think I was blinking.” I hated the idea of taking another photo only slightly less than the idea of looking like I was drunk.

  “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said. “See?”

  She turned the monitor so I could see the picture; my eyes were a quarter-closed, and my smile was just shy of reaching a tight, unnatural stretch. It looked a little like I was trying to read a sign that said someone had discovered my secret porn stash from twenty feet.

  “Maybe I should take another one…” I halfheartedly started.

  “Don’t be silly,” Phyllis said. “You’re beautiful.”

  That elicited a rare laugh from my lips, and I instantly decided I didn’t care enough that I had yet another awkward photo to add to the pile to fight the inevitable. Even though I would have to wear this one around my neck all day for the next three months.

  I held in a sigh with tight lungs, sipping air until the urge subsided, not wanting either woman to know how uncomfortable I was. Especially Bianca. At least Phyllis had been kind enough to lie to me about being pretty. Bianca looked like she could write a dissertation on all the ways I annoyed her. The fact that she’d only known me for fifteen minutes seemed moot—she’d already judged, labeled, and shelved me.

  The card printed, and Phyllis hooked it on a lanyard before passing it over. And once in hand, Bianca led me across the museum again.

  On the way, my discomfort faded as I took in my surroundings, replaced by the awe I always felt when I walked the galleries of The Met. My eyes drank in the priceless art on every wall, the feeling spectacular—not only in the truth of the existence of so much beauty, but at the realization that these rooms would be my home for a while, that I would enjoy them every day. And that knowledge was enough fuel to give me the bit of confidence I needed to shake off my fears and embrace my internship, Bianca-shaped warts and all.

  Until we walked into Bianca’s office.

  He was sitting on the edge of her desk, paper in hand, eyes trained on the words, the picture of grace and casual beauty. The vision was sharpened by the power and authority possessed in every line and angle of his long body, even down to his hand in his pocket, as if it had been placed there solely for the purpose of softening something so grand.

  He was art, from the line of his elegant nose to the set of his lips, from the squared angles of his long face to the glint in his eyes, which were a shade of blue so colorless, they appeared gray as a storm cloud.

  Eyes that I realized were now fixed on me.

  And I found, as my breath turned to hot smoke in my lungs, that I couldn’t look away.

  Court

  The tallest Asian girl I’d ever seen stood behind Bianca, staring at me with wide, angled eyes locked open in alarm.

  She was beautiful in a quiet way, the kind of beauty that went unnoticed—it was hidden under shapeless clothes was a long, lean body that seemed to want to fold in on itself, and behind her ebony hair was a small, delicate face. Rembrandt would have painted her with openness and sincerity, her face as honest as it was timid.

  None of those traits would help her here. And within the span of that brief moment, I knew with authoritative certainty that she would never make it in curation.

  Fear wafted off her in jagged waves, and everything in me responded, bre
athing in the power I held over her. She watched me like a giraffe watches a lion—she was every bit as lanky and knobby as one, and I was every bit the predator she suspected me to be.

  I smiled, though I knew the gesture was neither inviting nor kind. “Is this the new intern?”

  “Yes,” Bianca answered, the perfunctory syllable telling me everything I needed to know.

  Bianca was not impressed.

  I stood, drawing myself up to tower over both of them. “You landed this internship with some of the most impressive letters of recommendation I’ve come across, and your GPA is outstanding.” Her cheeks flushed a dusty shade of pink, and the vision spurred me to strike. “But grades don’t matter here. There’s no syllabus, no extra credit to ensure your success. You’re going to have to forge that on your own, or you’ll fail. Are you sure you’re up to the task?”

  Her face said no, her eyes still sparking with uncertainty. The dissent was echoed in her bowed shoulders and spine, slouched in defeat. But to my surprise, her lips parted, and she whispered, “Yes, sir.”

  I stiffened at the honorific. “Call my father, the president of the museum, sir. I’m Dr. Lyons, the curator of this department.” I started for the door. “Good luck,” I said, pinning her with a look I knew to be as intense as it was unforgiving. “You’re going to need it.”

  The research and reason for my visit to Bianca’s office was still in my hand, my purpose abandoned in order to make an exit the meek, mute intern would remember. In this profession, in this museum, several things were key to survival: passion, knowledge, and the ability to communicate effectively, efficiently, and convincingly. She might have had the former in spades, but the latter was lacking so desperately, there was no way she’d succeed in this environment. She’d be better off preparing herself for the life of a professor instead, although the thought of her in front of a room of students was comical in itself. I wondered if her voice would even carry to the back row.

 
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