I carefully leaned my paintings against the closest wall and went to inspect the easels. I found five that if propped just right—one against the desk, two against each other, two against the wall—would hold my paintings. Then I rushed out and retrieved the others.

Sweat beaded along my lip as I finished placing them each on an easel. The tree on its large canvas was the centerpiece. I stepped back to analyze. My heart pounded hard in my chest. For a moment I allowed myself to look at them objectively, not as their creator. And in that moment I thought they were good. Really good.

I wiped at my upper lip with the back of my hand, steeled myself, then went to find Mr. Wallace. He was talking to a woman in a pantsuit. They stood in front of an impressionist painting. Maybe now wasn’t a good time. It would never be a good time. It had to be now. Now or never. He turned toward me.

I gave him a slight wave. The woman moved on to another painting and Mr. Wallace didn’t follow her. He waited. So I took the thirty steps between us.

“Are you busy?” I asked.

He glanced at the woman. “No. I didn’t think you worked today.”

“I don’t.”

“I need you starting Wednesday to help with prep work for the show. It’s coming fast.”

“I know. I’ll be here Wednesday.”

“Okay, good.” He started to walk away, like that was what I’d come to say.

“Wait,” I called a little too loudly. “Wait,” I said again, quieter. “I need to show you something.”

“What is it?”

“Follow me.” I led him toward his office.

“Did a mouse get into the storage room again?” he asked.

“No, no mouse.”

The doorknob was slippery. I wiped my palms on my jeans and took hold of it again. Then I opened the door and stepped aside, gesturing for him to go first. He did. I stood there for two beats with my eyes closed, then followed after him.

He saw them right away. They were impossible to miss. He walked to each one, analyzing them, not saying a word. I had taken up post by the door, like a guard. Maybe it was so I could run at the first sign of rejection. Maybe it was to give him a moment to process alone.

I swallowed hard, then stepped forward.

“These are yours?” Mr. Wallace asked.

“Yes.”

“They’re interesting.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. “Yes, I’ve been working on emotion.”

“I can see that.”

“I want to be in the show. I want these pieces to be in the show.”

“I already informed the winning applicants. We’re full.”

My heart dropped to my feet, and I was so tempted to flee like I had last time. I didn’t. I stood my ground. “What? You said you weren’t doing that for a couple more days.”

“I did it early.” He looked at my tree painting again. “But . . .”

“But?”

“Maybe,” he continued, “we can analyze the layout and see if we can squeeze an extra artist onto the sales floor.”

“Yes? Is that a yes?”

“What happens if you get no offers?”

“I’ll be fine with that. I just want the opportunity.”

“You have a lot of drive, Abby.”

“Sometimes.”

“Okay, I want you to draw up a chart of a new layout that can include everyone and bring it in for me to approve.”

I clapped my hands together once. “So that’s a real yes.”

He smiled. “Yes.”

I let out a short scream and threw my arms around him. “Thank you so much!”

“This is not professional, Abby.” There was a smile in his voice.

I dropped my arms. “You’re right.” I gave him a handshake instead, pumping his hand way too enthusiastically. I couldn’t control the adrenaline coursing through me. “Thank you.” I started to rush the door before he changed his mind, but then I whirled back around, remembering my paintings.

“Just leave them here,” he said. “So you don’t have to haul them back in. Stack them against the wall. Did you bring some cloths?”

“I did.”

I made quick work of the paintings, then left in a blur of happy emotions.

TWENTY-FIVE

I made it to the car without falling all over myself and climbed inside. I immediately texted Cooper: He said yes! He said yesssssss!!!

His response came seconds later: You asked someone to marry you?

I couldn’t even conjure up a sarcastic response, I was so excited: My paintings are in the show. He said yes. All five! I guess my heart has grown to epic proportions.

It’s about time he recognized your genius. I’m taking you out to celebrate. Your house in ten minutes?

Give me thirty. I need to pretend like I didn’t share this with you first and tell my family.

“Mom! Grandpa!” I burst into the house.

My mom jumped to her feet, her book clattering to the floor. She stepped over it and rushed to me. “What is it? Did something happen? A car accident? An earthquake? Did you get fired?” She’d grabbed me by the shoulders and was examining me from head to toe.

My mouth opened, then shut. “Really? Those were your first guesses?”

“You’ve never come in the house like that before. It worried me.”

“I’m fine. Better than fine. Where is Grandpa?”

“Outside.”

I went to the kitchen and opened the back door. Mom followed. “Come inside, Gramps! I have an announcement that supersedes the health of your vegetables!”

Grandpa went straight to the kitchen sink when he walked in the door and began scrubbing his hands with soap and water. “Is everything all right?”

Okay, maybe I needed to work on my tone when making announcements. “Well, there wasn’t an earthquake,” I said.

“Am I supposed to get that reference? Is that a young-person phrase for something earthmoving? Has your earth moved, Abby?” He turned off the water and dried his hands on the towel hanging on the oven.

I laughed. “Yes. Actually, it kind of has. I got into the art show!”

“What? You did?” Mom clapped her hands and gave me a hug. “I knew you would!”

I hugged her back, then turned to my grandpa.

Pride shone in his eyes. “Well, of course you did,” he said. “Am I supposed to be surprised?”

“You don’t have to be surprised, but you do have to be happy for me.”

“Done.” He gave me a bear hug.

“I need to go email Dad,” I said, rushing to my room.

I had just hit Send on my email when the doorbell rang. “Cooper is going to take me out to celebrate!” I yelled as I ran to answer the door. Cooper was there, fresh out of the shower. His hair was wet, his eyes bright with a smile. I threw my arms around his neck in a hug. He lifted me off my feet.

“Congrats!”

“Thanks. And thank you for doing the list with me.” It had given me insight into myself that I hadn’t expected.

He set me down and I started to go inside when he grabbed me by the wrist. I whirled back around to face him.

“I’m sorry for our stupid fight the other day.”

“Me too.”

“Can we both agree not to analyze each other’s brains again?”

I nodded resolutely. “I’m fine with that arrangement.” I pointed over my shoulder. “Let me grab my shoes and we can go.”

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