"The Nude" - Margaret Sisu Fiction

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"The Nude"


Kirkus Reviews (starred review) BEST OF 2012 (click for full review)
"When the secrets behind an intriguing nude portrait trickle out into the open, a photographer and her artist lover must grapple with the fallout in Sisu’s masterful debut....Sisu nicely ramps up the suspense with her excellent pacing while her vibrant depiction of the art world breathes energy and authenticity into the narrative... An enthralling first novel."


* Ann Howard Creel, author of The Magic of Ordinary Days

"In The Nude, Margaret Sisu takes readers into the international art world and into the hearts and minds of compelling, complex characters. Swiftly paced and full of twists, the story follows the trail of a lost masterpiece as it reveals a family secret, decades-old deceit, and ultimately a timeless love."

Verdict: ...Sisu has a unique sense of pacing and creates dialogue that is compelling and rhythmic. She keeps her readers guessing until the very end.

*Writer's Digest: What did you like best about this book?
"This book was extremely well-written. The plot was fantastic, the details believable, and the characters extremely sympathetic. I couldn’t put it down and read it all in one sitting.
Great dialogue, great character development, great pacing! Well done!
A few details that stood out: Gwen’s sneakiness and following tendencies could be read as slightly stalkerish, but instead, they come off appropriately endearing; a flaw that has the reader at times thinking, “No, don’t do that!” but still dying to find out what happens next.
The ending was also satisfying, giving a complete ending yet showing the toll this painting has taken from all of the characters."

-Judge’s commentary for 20th Annual Writer’s Digest Annual Self-Published Book Awards

*Blog Critics

“The Nude is a perfect combination of romance and intrigue. The characters are multi-dimensional and very realistic. The attraction between Adam and Gwen is complex and exciting. As the story builds up to a huge climax, readers are sure to be surprised by what follows. ... I enjoyed having the opportunity to be surprised by the truth...”


Copyright © by Margaret Sisu 2011. Author reserves all rights.

Chapter 6

      Adam wasn’t the one manning Gaya when Gwen dropped by the shop next morning; it was Raymond Franco standing behind the cash register. A buff locksmith in green work overalls and a loaded tool belt was at work on the front door.
     “Welcome to Gaya,” Franco announced as if Gwen were an entire tour group, and she reasoned that there was no reason why he should remember her from the fair. “Sorry about the obstacle course,” he nodded toward the door. “We had some trouble yesterday and had to call in a locksmith.”
     The locksmith in question sent Ray a warm look. “Always glad to help you out, Ray. Anytime.”
     Franco ignored him.
     “I know about the door trouble,” Gwen said. “I was part of it.”
     Franco’s eyes widened and swept over her. “Ah, Ms. Mason, I presume. No worse for wearing your coffee, I see.”
     He was extroverted, witty, and, today, in a skull-and-cross bones t-shirt and over-washed jeans, still the most stunning man she’d ever seen. Yet she found herself yearning for another glimpse of his partner’s smile.
    Gwen extended the grocery bag. “I came to return your partner’s shirt.” She had gone the extra mile and ironed it. Overkill.
    “Adam’s away from the front lines today but I’ll let him know.”
    “I also wanted to thank him.”
    “For pouring hot coffee all over you?”
    Gwen chuckled. “No, afterward. He helped me out of another jam.”
    “That’s our Adam. A true knightly gentleman.”
    “And I wanted to talk to him about buying another of his paintings.”
    Raymond Franco’s brows rose. “He does you grievous bodily harm and you want to pay him money for it? Say, wanna wrestle?”
    “I’ll wrestle you, Ray,” the locksmith offered. “Whenever you like.”
    “Hey, buddy,” Ray snapped. “Door. Lock. Thanks.”
    Gwen swallowed a giggle. “There was no permanent damage to me or to my shirt. Maybe I can come back tomorrow. Will Adam be in then?”
     Franco pondered her for a moment then smiled crookedly. “Hold on.” He reached for the phone and dialed. “It’s Ray. Ms. Mason is here and sincerely disappointed that you aren’t.” Franco sent her a wink and Gwen felt her face grow warm. “She wants to talk about buying a painting, and I get the feeling she’d rather do it face-to-face.”
    “Psst. There’re things I’d like to do with him face-to-face, if you know what I mean,” the locksmith stage whispered and Gwen developed a sudden need to cough.
    Franco spoke a few seconds longer then rang off. “Adam says anything you see that you like, I’m to let you have at a significant 30 percent discount.”
    It was a good offer, just not the one she had been hoping for. “Thanks.”
     She turned away just as Franco added, almost as an afterthought, “He also said that if you don’t see anything here that you like, you’re to go by his place and take a look around there.”
    Yess! “Oh, I don’t want to impose. I should be heading to work soon, anyway.”
     Franco shrugged. “He wouldn’t have invited you if it was an imposition and there’s work there worth looking at. His place is close by, you can walk. Tell you what, even if you do see something here that you like, I’ll hold it for you so you can still check out his studio.” He winked meaningfully again and Gwen gave pretending it wasn’t what she’d wanted all along.
     “Hey, Ray, I got something you can check out, anytime you want,” the locksmith offered again and Ray finally threatened not to pay him if he kept it up. Naturally the “keeping it up” reference was too good to pass up. Gwen left the two men to argue while she looked around in earnest.
     There were more of Franco’s abstracts, as mystifying as the ones she’d seen at the fair, and sculptures and canvasses by other artists trying so hard to be sophisticated that their work clattered, was too noisy. But it was Adam’s work that stood out, disciplined and classic, like opera at a heavy metal concert. There was a breezy everglades study, Wind Rush, that made Gwen practically feel the wet breeze glance off the air boat and whip against her face. Free Again seemed at first to be an abstract until she stepped back for a better look and gasped at the image that lifted away from the deceptively random color—a woman stealing a bath in a river—a risqué act, even forbidden, yet infinitely liberating.
     It wasn’t just his talent that impressed Gwen, but his choice of common moments most wouldn’t think of as beautiful, not until his brush and canvas rendered them so. His insight humbled what she’d always considered her own above average powers of observation. She wanted—no, needed—to meet him.
     She had Franco place a ‘Hold’ tag on Wind Rush and headed to Adam’s address a block away. His apartment was a stark, compact 1970’s block that would have had no style at all if not for the peach, brown, and mauve exterior paintwork, as if it had stolen a little of South Beach’s Art Deco chic. There was even a curb-side strip of dirt where someone was flirting with the idea of a garden.
     Gwen buzzed the door then climbed the stairs to the first floor and headed to the last door at the end of the hall. Adam was already standing in the open doorway.
    “Hi.” Her heart fluttered.
     He hesitated before saying, “Come on in,” as if he’d only decided in that very second that he would, in fact, let her in. She wondered if he was still embarrassed about gawking at her breasts the last time they’d met.


      His apartment was the sort of single-bed unit real estate agents would have labeled ‘cozy’ when it was just small, but it was uncluttered and comfortably masculine. Only two of his paintings and a large black and white photo of Paris hung on the walls—nothing pretentious. A very faint odor tinged the air, one that reminded Gwen of a tobacco shop where she once worked for a few weeks, and she realized that he likely smoked. Not excessively since his fingers and teeth weren’t stained and the odor didn’t cling to the leather sofa or the short pile rugs. Likely the smell wasn’t detectable at all sometimes. She didn’t see where he could store all the artwork Franco had mentioned, then she noticed the tight spiral stairs off his kitchenette, leading up through the ceiling.
    She turned to Adam. “I wanted to say thanks for getting me to work in such a timely manner yesterday.” That was one way of putting it. He drove like a seasoned pro.
    “It was the least I could do. I take it things turned out well.”
    She nodded. “It was touch and go for a while but Sherrie is fantastic with clients, and once I got there, I managed to convince this one to try a few preliminary shots with my ideas. Luckily, she loved the result.”
    “I doubt it was luck on your side. More like talent.”
    He seemed more remote today and Gwen’s hum of anticipation at seeing him again began to cool.
    “I can come back at another time, if you refer,” she offered, taking a couple backward steps towards the door.
    That seemed to snap him out of the silent, cryptic look he was giving her. “No. Stay. I said you could take a look at the work I have here, so come on. My studio is upstairs.”
    At the top of the stairs his workspace had the same layout as below—clearly once a separate apartment—but here instead held easels, tables, and only one armchair.     And chaos. Canvasses—new and used—lay everywhere, work surfaces were littered with paraphernalia, and the open kitchen’s cupboards were stuffed with tools, paints and bottles. The air was thick with oil and turpentine.
    Gwen didn’t expect the sudden assault of memory, so strong she almost stumbled backward. Suddenly she was a little girl back in Long Beach, prowling around her father’s studio while he told her to be quiet so he could paint. Then he was shooing her out as students filed in and sat down at a row of easels to paint whatever or whomever Beau posed in front of them. Then it was that last day, two days after her eighth birthday, and she was getting off the school bus in time to see him tossing not just his things, but paintings that had hung inside the house into the back of his truck. He was telling her that he had to leave, that his leaving was for the best, but that she would always be his little muse. Then he was climbing into his truck and driving off. She had stood on the curb waiting for him to realize he had made a mistake and turn around and come back, but he turned at the end of the block, out of sight. She’d run around to the back of the house and found his studio stripped all but bare. All that remained were the day bed, tables, and collapsed easels and chairs against the walls. The familiar smell of oil and turpentine had been especially overpowering with everything else gone. It was odd how it was the smell now that had brought the memories back so vividly.
Shaking herself back to the present, Gwen turned to Adam. “Wow. Your creative process kind of goes through a nuclear destruction phase, huh?”
     He laughed and she could have stood there looking at his smile instead of at his work.
     “I’m working on a little project and all my stuff happens to be laid out at the moment. But that just means it’s all here for you to see.”
     Gwen moved through the chaos. “What are you working on?”
     “It’s too early to tell if it will pan out. What are you looking for?”
     She could tell herself not to be so curious about everything about him, but it would have been a waste of time. She could also admit to him that she’d already found the painting she wanted, but that would mean confessing that art wasn’t her main reason for being here. “Something not too personal that will blend in with my photos without overwhelming them.”
     He began shifting canvasses upright and she lent a hand.
    “I’m surprised I haven’t heard of you before,” she said. “Have you always lived in Miami?”
    “No, only about a year and a half.”
    “And before that, if you don’t mind me asking?” She was prying but she couldn’t help herself.
    “I came back here from Chile. Before that I was in France, Spain, South Africa. Before that, I lived a while in New Mexico and New York.”
    She’d never even been out of the country but somewhere in her future was a sabbatical spent shooting curved horizons from high in the mountains of New Zealand and capturing animals coming awake at dawn on the Serengeti plains. She was more faithful to her National Geographic subscription than to her photography journals.      “And your wife or girlfriend doesn’t mind moving around so much with you?”
     He sent her a half-amused look. “I supposed she would, if I had one. Nosey little thing, aren’t you?”
     Gwen blushed and turned back to his work, browsing as she straightened up. “Tell me to mind my own business or I’ll just keep going. What made you come back to the States?”
     “It’s home. And I like good weather and speaking English all year round. Naturally I discount Miami hurricanes and Little Havana. Let me know if you see a painting that interests you.”
      She saw several, in fact, but none as much as Wind Rush but she kept looking around. On the far side of the room she found a pile of what turned out to be spoiled and discarded canvasses. Tucked in the far corner shadows she noticed something half-draped with a cloth. Idly, Gwen bent and flicked the cloth away and realized that it was a completed work, a portrait of a woman but a completely different vein from Free Again. Curious to see a more representational portrait, and because she couldn’t see it properly in the shadows, Gwen lifted the canvas out entirely and set it on a nearby table. She stepped back to take a better look but in the cramped quarters, her heel struck something and she turned just in time to see the pile of frames topple to the ground.


       Immediately Adam came over and she dropped to her haunches to help correct the mess she’d made. He must think her a walking catastrophe by now.
       “I was just trying to get a better look at the nude.”
       He glanced up at the table and his smile was slight and almost pained. “Ah. That one is not for sale.”
       There was something about the way he spoke, too, that made Gwen look from him back to the painting. She was still too close and crouched at a bad angle, plus the lighting on this side of the room was truly lousy. But she liked the woman’s unusual seated pose—facing forward on a day bed, one leg bent beneath her, her upper leg outstretched to a side as she read the book on her lap. The brush work was blotchy and crude, rough, but the way the woman was illuminated was interesting, something Gwen noticed even in the poor lighting. In fact, Gwen had the feeling that, with a little effort, she could pinpoint exactly what angle the light came from, how far away the source was from the woman, and even the precise shape of that source.
      “Someone special?” she asked Adam, looking back at him, and he huffed softly and shook his head in a way that meant neither ‘no’ nor ‘yes’.
      “Just someone I knew a long time ago, before I even left California.”
      Gwen’s eyes widened with delight. “California? Is that where you’re originally from?”
      “You could say so. Just north of Redding. You?”
      “Further south, Modesto. And you didn’t head back west when you came back to the States?” Maybe, like her, he had wanted a fresh start.
      “I met Ray when I was in New York and we kept in touch over the years. When I was headed back, he was moving here and convinced me Miami was a good place to break back into the U.S. modern art scene. South Beach has a good vibe, and there’s the Starving Artist Exhibit up in Fort Lauderdale and Art Basel Miami Beach. I figured, why not? And you? Is it your work that brought you here?” It was getting away from her mother that had brought her here. Ironic, how that had worked out.
     “Partly. I moved to Florida four years ago. After I graduated from Stanislaus, I travelled around a bit too but I could only afford domestic. I considered New York for a while, too, but the winter was brutal. And people always seemed to be dashing off somewhere or other even when they were sitting perfectly still.”
     Adam nodded. “It’s a cultural thing. It took me years to learn to just be in one moment without thinking of the next. Western Europe is a good place to learn that. There even everyday life is an art.”
      Another curiosity explained; Gwen had already noted that she also liked the way he moved, purposeful but easy, as if he was exactly where he was supposed to be at each successive instant.
      “I would’ve thought a young woman like you would have preferred the Big Apple,” he went on and Gwen noted the emphasis he’d put on that word “young”, as if he were trying to tell her something. Or tell himself something.
      “I’m old enough to know what I like and what’s good for me,” she said pointedly and their gazes met and held and she didn’t try to hide the nature of her interest.
Adam studied her features and lingered longest, it seemed to Gwen, on her lips. Then his expression closed and he looked away. Frames restacked, he straightened up.
     “So, does anything you see here interest you?” he asked, briskly businesslike, and that struck Gwen as so funny that she burst out laughing, wondering what he would do if she came right out and said, “You.” Probably hustle her down the stairs and out the door.
     As it was, color rose up his neck and he scratched his head. “Are you going to be trouble for me, Gwenyth Mason?” he asked drily.
     She planned on trying her best to be, but outwardly she pressed a hand to her chest. “Do I look like I could be trouble for anyone?”
    He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

Copyright ©by Margaret Sisu 2011. Author reserves all rights.

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