His voice is overtly friendly. I’m not used to overt friendliness, and I don’t know what to do with it.
“I have a few questions before I agree to help you,” I say, proud of myself for not being so willingly killable.
He grabs the HELP WANTED sign and pulls it away from the window. He tosses it inside the building and presses his back against the door, pushing it open as far as it will reach, motioning for me to come inside. “We don’t really have time for questions, but I promise I won’t torture, rape, or kill you if that helps.”
His voice is still pleasant, despite his phrase of choice. So is that smile that shows off two rows of almost perfect teeth and a slightly crooked front left incisor. But that little flaw in his smile is actually my favorite part of him. That and his complete disregard for my questions. I hate questions. This might not be such a bad gig.
I sigh and slip past him, making my way inside the building. “What am I getting myself into?” I mutter.
“Something you won’t want to get out of,” he says. The door closes behind us, blocking off all the natural lighting in the room. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if there were interior lights on, but there aren’t. Only a faint glow coming from what looks like a hallway on the other side of the room.
As soon as the beat of my heart begins to inform me of how stupid I am for walking into a building with a complete stranger, the lights begin to buzz and flicker to life.
“Sorry.” His voice is close, so I spin around just as the first of the fluorescent lights reach their full power. “I don’t usually work in this part of the studio, so I keep the lights off to save energy.”
Now that the entire area is illuminated, I slowly scan the room. The walls are a stark white, adorned with various paintings. I can’t get a good look at them, because they’re all spread out, several feet away from me. “Is this an art gallery?”
He laughs, which I find unusual, so I spin around to face him.
He’s watching me with narrowed, curious eyes. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an art gallery.” He turns and locks the front door and then walks past me. “What size are you?”
He makes his way across the expansive room, toward the hallway. I still don’t know why I’m here, but the fact that he’s asking me what size I am has me a little more concerned than I was just two minutes ago. Is he wondering what size coffin I’ll fit in? How to size the handcuffs?
Okay, I’m a lot concerned.
“What do you mean? Like as in my clothing size?”
He faces me and walks backward, still heading in the direction of the hallway. “Yes, your clothing size. You can’t wear that tonight,” he says, pointing at my jeans and T-shirt. He motions for me to follow him as he turns to ascend a flight of stairs leading to a room above the one we’re in. I may be a sucker for a cute, crooked incisor, but following strangers into unknown territory is where I should probably draw the line.
“Wait,” I say, stopping at the foot of the stairs. He pauses and turns around. “Can you at least give me a rundown of what’s happening right now? Because I’m starting to second-guess my idiotic decision to place my trust in a complete stranger.”
He glances over his shoulder toward wherever the stairs lead and then back at me. He lets out an exasperated sigh before descending several steps. He takes a seat, coming eye to eye with me. His elbows meet his knees and he leans forward, smiling calmly. “My name is Owen Gentry. I’m an artist and this is my studio. I have a showing in less than an hour, I need someone to handle all the transactions, and my girlfriend broke up with me last week.”
Less than an hour?
And girlfriend? Not touching that one.
I shift on my feet, glance behind me at the studio once more and then back to him. “Do I get any kind of training?”
“Do you know how to use a basic calculator?”
I roll my eyes. “Yes.”
“Consider yourself trained. I only need you for two hours tops and then I’ll give you your two hundred bucks and you can be on your way.”
Two hundred bucks.
Something isn’t adding up.
“What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch.”
“Why would you need help if you pay a hundred dollars an hour? There has to be a catch. You should be swarmed with potential applicants.”
Owen runs a palm across the scruff on his jaw, moving it back and forth like he’s attempting to squeeze out the tension. “My girlfriend failed to mention she was also quitting her job the day she broke up with me. I called her when she didn’t show to help me set up two hours ago. It’s kind of a last-minute employment opportunity. Maybe you were just in the right place at the right time.” He stands and turns around. I remain in my spot at the bottom of the stairs.
“You made your girlfriend an employee? That’s never a good idea.”
“I made my employee a girlfriend. An even worse idea.” He pauses at the top of the stairs and turns around, looking down at me. “What’s your name?”
His gaze falls to my hair, which is understandable. Everyone assumes I was named Auburn due to my hair color, but it’s strawberry blond at best. Calling it red is a stretch.
“What’s the rest of your name, Auburn?”
Owen slowly tilts his head in the direction of the ceiling as he blows out a breath of air. I follow his gaze and look at the ceiling with him, but nothing is up there other than white ceiling tiles. He takes his right hand and touches his forehead, then his chest, and then continues the movements from shoulder to shoulder, until he’s just made the sign of the cross over himself.
What the hell is he doing? Praying?
He looks back down at me, smiling now. “Is Mason really your middle name?”
I nod. As far as I know, Mason isn’t a strange middle name so I have no idea why he’s performing religious rituals.
“We have the same middle name,” he says.
I regard him silently, allowing myself to take in the probability of his response. “Are you serious?”
He nods casually and reaches into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet. He descends the stairs once more and hands me his license. I look it over, and sure enough, his middle name is Mason.