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“This is my studio.” He pauses and points to a painting. “That’s the art.” He points to a counter on the other side of the room. “That’s where you’ll be most of the time. I’ll work the room and you ring up the purchases. That’s pretty much it.” He explains it all so casually, as if anyone is perfectly capable of creating something of this magnitude. He rests his hands on his hips and waits for me to absorb it all.

“How old are you?” I ask him.

His eyes narrow and he dips his head slightly before looking away. “Twenty-one.” He says it like his age embarrasses him. It’s almost as if he doesn’t like that he’s so young and already has what appears to be a successful career.

I would have guessed much older. His eyes don’t seem like the eyes of a twenty-one-year-old. They’re dark and deep, and I have the sudden urge to plunge into their depths so I can see everything he’s seen.

I glance away and place my attention on the art. I walk toward the painting closest to me, growing more and more aware of the talent behind the brush with each step. When I reach it, I suck in a breath.

It’s somehow sad and breathtaking and beautiful all at once. The painting is of a woman who seems to encompass both love and shame and every single emotion in between.

“What do you use besides acrylics?” I ask, taking a step closer. I run my finger across the canvas and hear his footsteps close in on me. He pauses next to me, but I can’t take my eyes off the painting long enough to look at him.

“I use a lot of different mediums, from acrylic to spray paint. It just depends on the piece.”

My eyes are drawn to a slip of paper next to the painting, adhered to the wall. I read the words sprawled across it.

Sometimes I wonder if being dead would be easier than being his mother.

I touch the paper and then look back at the painting. “A confession?” When I turn and face him, his playful smile is gone. His arms are folded tightly across his chest and his chin is tucked in. He looks at me as if he’s nervous about my reaction.

“Yep,” he says simply.

I glance toward the window—at all the pieces of paper lining the glass. My eyes move around the room to all the paintings and I notice strips of paper adhered to the walls next to every one.

“They’re all confessions,” I say in awe. “Are these from actual people? People you know?”

He shakes his head and motions toward the front door. “They’re all anonymous. People leave their confessions in the slot over there, and I use some of them as inspiration for my art.”

I walk to the next painting and look at the confession before I even look at the interpreted piece.

I’ve never let anyone see me without makeup. My greatest fear is what I’ll look like at my funeral. I’m almost certain I’ll be cremated, because my insecurities run so deep, they’ll follow me into the afterlife. Thank you for that, Mother.

I immediately move my attention to the painting.

“It’s incredible,” I whisper, spinning around to take in more of what he’s created. I walk to the window of confessions and find one written in red ink and highlighted.

I’m scared I’ll never stop comparing my life without him to how my life was when I was with him.

I’m not sure if I’m more fascinated by the confessions, the art, or the fact that I feel like I can relate to everything in here. I’m a very closed-off person. I rarely share my true thoughts with anyone, regardless of how helpful it might be for me. Seeing all of these secrets and knowing that these people have more than likely never shared these with anyone, and never will, makes me feel a sense of connection to them. A sense of belonging.

In a way, the studio and the confessions remind me of Adam.

“Tell me something about yourself that no one else knows. Something I can keep for myself.”

I hate how I always tie Adam in to everything I see and do, and I wonder if and when that will ever go away. It’s been five years since I last saw him. Five years since he passed away. Five years, and I’m wondering if, like the confession in front of me, I’ll forever be comparing my life with him to my life without him.

And I wonder if I’ll ever not be disappointed.

CHAPTER TWO

Owen

She’s here. Right here, standing in my studio, staring at my art. I never thought I’d see her again. I was so convinced that the likelihood of our paths ever crossing was minimal, I can’t even remember the last time I thought about her.

But here she is, standing right in front of me. I want to ask her if she remembers me, but I know she doesn’t. How could she when we never even exchanged words?

I remember her, though. I remember the sound of her laughter, her voice, her hair, even though her hair used to be a lot shorter. And even though I felt like I knew her back then, I never really got a good look at her face. Now that I’m seeing her up close, I have to force myself not to stare too hard. Not because of her unassuming beauty, but because it’s exactly how I imagined she would look up close. I tried to paint her once, but I couldn’t remember enough about her to finish it. I have a feeling I may attempt it again after tonight. And I already know I’ll call the painting More Than One.

She moves her attention to another painting and I look away before she catches me staring at her. I don’t want it to appear too obvious that I’m trying to figure out which colors to blend together to create her unique shade of skin tone, or whether I would paint her with her hair up or down.

There are so many things I should be doing right now other than staring at her. What should I be doing? Showering. Changing. Preparing for all the people who are about to show up for the next two hours.

“I need to take a quick shower,” I say.

She turns around, fast, as if I startled her.

“Feel free to look around. I’ll go over everything else when I’m finished. I won’t take long.”

She nods and smiles and for the first time I think, Hannah who?

Hannah, the last girl I hired to help me. Hannah, the girl who couldn’t handle being second in my life. Hannah, the girl who broke up with me last week.

I hope Auburn isn’t like Hannah.

There were so many things I didn’t like about her, and that isn’t how it should be. Hannah disappointed me when she spoke, which is why we spent a lot of our time together not speaking. And she always, always made it a point to tell me that her name, when spelled backward, was still Hannah.

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