“Mr. and Mrs. Peterson,” Richard said, reaching his hand out for handshakes. “I’m so happy you could make it.”

“Please, don’t be so formal, Richard. Just call us Warren and Catherine,” the gentleman said as they both greeted us with warm smiles.

“Right, of course. Again, I’m so happy you’re here.”

Catherine wore a fur shawl around her shoulders, and her body was decked out in expensive jewelry, making her smile shine even more. Her lips were painted fuchsia, and she carried herself as if she were royalty.

“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Richard. And you must be Lucy.” She grinned and took my hand in hers. “I’ve been asking a lot about the lady in this talented man’s life.”

“That’s me.” I laughed unenthusiastically, tugging on the bottom of my dress with my free hand, hoping Richard wouldn’t comment on it. “I’m sorry, how do you both know—”

“Mr. Pet—Warren is one of the greatest artists in the world, and he’s from Milwaukee, Lucy,” Richard explained. “I’ve told you about him many times.”

“No,” I said softly. “I’m not sure you have.”

“Yes, I have. I’m sure you’ve just forgotten.”

Warren chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, Lucy. My own wife forgets me about fifty times a day—isn’t that right, Catherine?”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Catherine joked, winking at her husband. While they were nothing but pleasant, I could tell Richard was somewhat annoyed with me, though I was certain I’d never heard of them.

“So, Richard, what’s the next step in your career?” Warren asked.

“Well, I was invited to a showcase in New York City by a friend of mine,” he stated.

“Oh?” I asked, surprised to just be hearing about it right then. “I had no clue.”

“It just happened this afternoon actually,” he said, leaning in and giving me a kiss. “Remember Tyler? He’s going to this big art gala in the city and said I could crash at his apartment.”

“Oh, the Rosa Art Gala?” Warren asked, nodding. “I spent many years at the Rosa. It’s a week of magic. I swear every artist must partake in it at least once. I’ve found some of my strongest artistic influences during those times.”

“And lost plenty of brain cells, too,” Catherine joked. “From paint fumes, alcohol, and marijuana.”

“It’s going to be amazing, that’s for sure,” Richard agreed.

“Are you going too, Lucy?” Warren asked.

“Oh, no. She’s actually running a floral shop,” Richard cut in, not even giving me a chance to answer. I hadn’t even been invited in the first place. “But I wish she could make it.”

“You’re a florist?” Warren asked eagerly. “You should consider pairing with an artist for the floral show that the museum hosts here. You make a floral arrangement, and then the artist paints a piece based on your creation. It’s quite fun.”

“That sounds amazing,” I agreed.

“If you need an artist, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure I can get your name on the program, too.” Warren grinned.

“Now’s the time for the most important question of the night: what are you drinking, Lucy?” Catherine asked.

“Oh, just water.”

She looped her arm with mine and started to walk off with me. “Well, that won’t do. Are you a gin lady?” she asked.

Before I could reply, Richard spoke. “Oh, she loves gin. She’ll have whatever you’re having, I’m sure.”

As the four of us started walking to the bar, Catherine paused. “Oh my God, Warren! Warren, look!” She nodded in the direction of Graham, who was putting a sleeping Talon back into her car seat. “Is that G.M. Russell?”

Warren reached into his pocket and pulled out his glasses. “I think it is.”

“You know his work?” Richard asked, unamused.

“Know it? We’re in love with it. He’s one of the best authors out there—besides his father, of course. May he rest in peace,” Warren said.

“Oh, no. He’s much better than Kent was. He writes with so much pain, it’s hauntingly beautiful.”

“Yes.” Warren nodded. “I completely agree. In fact, my Shadows series was inspired by his novel Bitter.”

“That’s one of my favorites,” I glowed, remembering the novel that had a permanent spot on my bookcase. “And that twist!”

“Oh my gosh, honey, that twist!” Catherine agreed, her cheeks turning red. “Oh, I’d just love to meet him.”

I wasn’t certain if it was possible for my boyfriend to be full of any more crap in one night, but he for sure continued to amaze me with his out-of-this-world lies. “He’s actually a good friend of Lucy’s,” he said effortlessly. Graham was far from my friend, even though he was the only thing that felt right in the room that evening. “Lucy, do you think you can introduce him?”

“Um, sure, of course.” I smiled at the excited couple and led them over to speak with Graham. “Hey, Graham.”

He stood up and smoothed out his suit then placed his hands in front of him, fingers knotted. “Lucille.”

“Are you having a good time?” I asked.

He remained silent, awkwardly so. After a moment, I cleared my throat and gestured toward the couple. “This is Warren and Catherine. They are—”

“Two of your biggest fans,” Catherine exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing Graham’s hand, shaking it rapidly. Graham gave her a big smile, which was fake and forced, also known as his ‘author brand’ smile, I assumed.

“Thank you, Catherine. It’s always a pleasure to meet readers. I’ve been informed tonight that some have not heard of my work, but the fact that you both have is refreshing,” Graham replied.

“Haven’t heard of your work? Blasphemy! I can’t think of a soul who wouldn’t know of you,” Warren said. “You’re a living legend in a sense.”

“Sadly, good ol’ Richard seems to disagree,” Graham mocked.

“Really, Richard? You don’t know Graham’s work?” Catherine said, a tinge of disappointment in her voice.

Richard laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. “Oh no, of course I know his work. I was just teasing.”

“Your definition of teasing is a bit inaccurate,” Graham replied dryly.

Talon started to fuss a bit, and I bent down to pick her up, grinning at her sweet face as Graham and Richard waged their own odd war against one another.

The group could feel the tension building, and Warren broke out a large smile before glancing around the room. “So, Richard, your work is quite unique.”

Richard stood up, proud. “Yes. I like to think of it as an awakening to all of my deepest and darkest shadows. It’s been a process for me to dig so deep, and for a long time, I had a lot of emotional breakdowns about being so vulnerable and open with myself, let alone the idea of allowing others into my soul. It was a very hard time for me, that’s for sure, a lot of tears, but I made it.”

Graham huffed, and Richard shot him a stern look.

“I’m sorry, did I say something funny?”