Excerpt From The Longhorn Affair

Emma Langston stepped out of the DFW airport, setting foot on Texas soil for the first time in six years. She walked into a wall of summer heat. She hadn’t forgotten how to dress for June in Texas, but her beige linen pants and sleeveless white shirt were already damp, and sweat trickled down her chest between her breasts. Her long dark hair was hot on her neck, and she wished she had clipped it up. Her shoulder ached from the weight of pulling her carry-on bag, stacked with her very full purse, which contained a large sketchpad along with a collection of artist’s pencils. 

She followed the signs to the rental car shuttle, her head throbbing with every step she took. She felt oddly fragile, as if the slightest bump would cause her to shatter. Six years ago, she had returned for her mother’s funeral. Now her father was dead, and she had another funeral to plan.

Once on the shuttle, she leaned back, closed her eyes, and let the air-conditioning wash over her. 

 The day had started so well. Promptly at 8:30 a.m., she had opened the doors to Les Scenes De La Vie, the Manhattan art gallery she managed. Emma smiled as she remembered fighting her way through the front door, balancing her purse, four paintings, and a steaming cup of coffee. 

Her painting over the weekend had gone well. She knew her work had new dimensions, new layers, and the brisk sales over the past few months proved there was a market for it. Her career was on the verge of taking off except for one small problem; she had been painting under a pseudonym. That would not have been an issue—lots of artists used pseudonyms—but she had invented an entire persona, Robert Erling, a reclusive neighbor, to convince Hubert, the gallery owner, to sell her paintings.

 She had stayed up most of the night thinking and rethinking how she would slip out of Robert Erling’s shoes and into her own. She had come up with an explanation, and her life was about to get less complicated. 

She went straight back to the storeroom with her coffee and load of paintings. Miranda, her assistant, was restacking paintings, her long red ponytail flowing over her shoulder. Miranda was wearing skintight black leather pants, a short black suit jacket with no blouse underneath, and three-inch platform heels. Emma thought she was the perfect face of the gallery.

Miranda lined the new paintings up along the wall as Emma took a cautious sip from the paper cup.

 “Oh lovely, Robert Erlings!” 

Emma stroked her silver heart locket, the one her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday, as Miranda examined the paintings. She studied each one intently for several minutes, in the zone. Finally, she announced, “Definitely some of his best work. These will go fast.” 

Emma let out the breath she had been holding. “You know customers buy whatever you recommend.” 

Go for it now, Emma told herself. Time to come out of the closet

But Miranda said, “Gee, were you nervous about my opinion? You must really be into Robert. Jeremy will be crushed. I think he has a ‘thing’ for you.”

Emma felt a little guilty over her relief at being able to put off her declaration. “Jeremy does not have a ‘thing’ for me. For him, I’m a challenge—a woman who hasn’t said yes yet. What Jeremy has is a bunch of blank walls in his Hot Java coffee shops, which will provide us a great deal of exhibit space and provide him with a certain cachet among the artsy crowd.” 

Miranda rolled her eyes. “Well, he might have a ‘thing’ for you if you stop hiding behind those conservative little black dresses!”

Emma said nothing, and Miranda changed tack. “I think we should keep these paintings back. These, plus the five others hanging in the gallery, plus the ones I hope are in process, should be enough for a show next month. Do you think he would do a publicity interview and photos?”

The air rushed out of Emma’s lungs. This was what she had hoped for! A show would be the perfect opportunity to take back her career, but before she could start to explain, Hubert rushed in carrying several canvases. He leaned them against the wall obscuring the watercolors. “These are Staci’s latest paintings,” he said. Emma glanced down. Dull, she thought, just like the other art produced by Hubert’s previous girlfriends

Miranda said, “Hubert, Emma brought in some paintings by Robert Erling. By next month, he’ll have enough for a show. Maybe an auction as well.”

Hubert shook his head. “No, no. Go ahead and put the Robert Erlings out in the gallery. They are selling well. We’ll do a show for Staci next month.”

Emma took a deep breath. She couldn’t see how a show for Staci would benefit anything except Hubert’s bottom line in his bedroom. Staci had certainly done enough paintings—they had fifteen, all unsold. Miranda wasn’t giving up, though. She said, “The point is, when we promote Robert’s paintings with a show, we can double the prices. Robert wins, and the gallery wins.” 

Emma knew she should have been the one making this argument, but she couldn’t seem to find her voice. 

Hubert frowned. “We can jack up the prices on the Erling paintings without a show. Staci needs a little exposure to jump-start her career. You know how important it is to me to promote unknowns.” Having said that, Hubert hurried off to the front of the store. Miranda  mouthed, “Oh, brother.”

Suddenly Emma’s cell phone buzzed. She transferred her coffee, which, thankfully, Hubert hadn’t noticed, to her left hand while she dug in her purse for her phone. She answered, and a male voice said, “May I speak to Emma Langston? This is Malcolm Whitecliff, her father’s lawyer.”

Emma couldn’t have been more surprised. “Uncle Malcolm! Why on earth are you being so formal?”

“Yes, well, I haven’t seen you since your mother’s funeral. I didn’t want to presume a familiarity. But I stray from the point. As I said, I was your father’s lawyer. Sheriff Bell, here in Saloma, asked me to call. I am sorry to tell you your father passed away Friday night.”

Emma’s breath lodged in her throat. She watched the coffee cup slide from her fingers and fall to the storeroom floor. At the last second, the lid came off, and steaming hot coffee flowed over her instep. “Oh shit!” Emma exclaimed as she jumped back.

Miranda ran to fetch paper towels. She yelled, “It’s okay. It didn’t touch the paintings!” 

A buzzing coming from her phone reminded Emma her caller was still talking. She stepped out of her black heel, now filled with steaming coffee, and put the phone back to her ear. “What was that, Uncle Malcolm?”

The voice repeated its previous message, and Emma felt her knees go weak. Holding one of the large shelf uprights, she let herself sink to the concrete floor. Her fingers went to her neck and sought out her locket. How could she not have known her father was sick? She tried to recall the last time she’d talked to him, but her mind was blank. 

In spite of Malcolm’s assurance that she didn’t need to come to Texas, she had made plane reservations on the first available flight to Dallas. She’d rushed back to her apartment, thrown some clothes into her carry-on, and somehow gotten herself on a plane headed to Texas, leaving Robert Erling, his paintings, and the possibility of a show up in the air.