This wasn’t his scene. It was nothing more than a dog and pony show, an irony that was not lost to Callahan Forester as he munched on an hor d'oeuvres topped with carrot jam. He only took one to be polite (a rarity) and he was only here because he loved his sister (a fact) and she had been nagging him for weeks about coming to this goddamn art exhibit. Granted, it was her very first art exhibit as the owner of Holloway Gallery, an impressive feat he knew required on-site brotherly support as cited in some unspoken familial love rulebook, but that didn’t stop Ashleigh from badgering him endlessly about this exhibit and the up-and-coming artist that created it.
The art exhibit titled “First-World Problems” was a collection of thirteen paintings depicting issues America suffered from such as veteran homelessness and social media addiction. The artist was without a doubt talented and passionate about whatever statement he was trying to make but mulling over art wasn’t Callahan’s ideal way of spending his evening.
There was plenty of others willing to do that around him as they lingered in front of art pieces like flocks of birds, sipping bubbly champagne and sharing their thoughts and feelings like some group therapy session. He wandered around the crisp white gallery filled with vivid pops of color on canvas and many bodies, slipping his tattooed idle hands into his pockets. He surveyed his surroundings for any unsavory characters—the cop within itching for something do—but his search turned up little unless elderly men black velvet turtlenecks who liked to talk with their hands could be classified as a threat.
As a crowd dispersed away from one of the art pieces, he decided it was his turn to step in front of it to pretend he was interested after making eye contact with a smiling Ashleigh from across the room as she participated in a conversation with patrons, but actively and optically sought him out.
He arched a dark eyebrow as his blue eyes took in the sight of a young white police officer armed a stoic expression as he posed for a standard professional photo. Aside from the black-and-white American flag behind him to the left being stained with blood, there was a crude hole in the officer’s chest where his heart should be, but instead one could see straight through the hole and to the gradient blue background he sat in front of. He never thought that an art piece would anger him, but it did so brilliantly. He narrowed his eyes at the disrespectful art, clenching his jaw.
It was then someone paused at the painting directly to the right of him. He cut his eyes away long enough to regard the new witness. Beside him stood a drop-dead gorgeous woman with warm-hued brown skin with green-and-black tresses spilling about her shoulders in lush loose curls, and an intense royal blue bandage dress with a glinting gold zipper accent running from the necklace down to where the dress stopped mid-thigh. Her perfect pouty lips were adorned in royal blue lipstick. She was more of a thought-provoking masterpiece than the painting on the wall and the thoughts she conjured up in his head were quite filthy. She looked at him momentarily, revealing to him breathtaking doe-shaped amber eyes behind her black-framed hipster glasses. In that moment, she sized him up with a single sweep of her brief gaze from head to toe before she returned her attention back to the painting.
“What do you think of the painting,” she asked before taking a ginger sip of her champagne.
“I think it’s nothing more than a forced narrative.”
Her eyebrows shot upward at his answer and snapped her attention back to him for a second time, her expressive eyes matching the emotional outfit she wore on her face: shock. However, the emotion fled from her just as quickly as it had arrived.
Callahan was impressed by such a recovery.
“I didn’t know the truth was a forced narrative,” she returned.
He cocked his head slightly. “And what exactly is the truth?”
“I think the artist is trying to convey that when people choose law enforcement, they are at risk to lose the most important part of themselves: their heart,” she mused, tapping a manicure nail thoughtfully against the glass flute in her possession, “therefore, making them heartless when they choose to take the innocent lives in the name of their country hence the blood-stained American flag.”
He shook his head, eying the painting once more. “That’s far from the truth. Just because there a few bad apples in the bunch doesn’t mean you discount the whole orchard. The only thing good cops are at risk to lose are their lives as they serve and protect the city.”
She scoffed. “I had no idea that police brutality and racial profiling were ideal methods in serving and protecting the city. Shame on me.”
“No, what’s a real shame is how folks regard this disrespectful crap as art.”
“Tell that to the people here who are affected by the innocent lives taken by corrupt law enforcement,” she tossed back.
He looked around the art gallery mockingly, a smirk fixed on his lips. “These folks seem so affected that they’re choking back their sobs with the cream cheese and carrot jam on melba toast hor d’ oeuvres and washing away their sorrows with champagne while comparing their diamond rings’ carats and catching up on country club gossip.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“I’m starting to think you don’t like the real truth.”
“You mean the truth that you’re an asshole? Quite the contrary. I find it very satisfying when I prove myself right.”
He then returned, “I’m glad I could be of assistance.”
Their gazes latched onto to each other as they participated in an intense staring contest, unmoved and unflinching.
“You’ve both beat me to the punch,” Ashleigh said as she sauntered up to them. “I wanted to introduce the two of you, but I got held up with a potential buyer.”
Their attention both jerked to the blonde-haired woman at the words ‘introduce the two of you’, a surprise written well on their faces, which Ashleigh instinctively caught on.
“Or,” she stretched out playfully, “I came in the nick of time?”
“Perfect timing,” Callahan spoke coolly, his eyes never faltering from the woman’s face.
“Impeccable,” the woman agreed shortly after.
Ashleigh slipped her arm around Callahan’s. “Callahan, meet Des Campbell, our bright star of the evening and Des meet Callahan Forester, my little brother.”
The proverbial bombshell dropped at such a reveal.
This was the artist his sister had been ranting and raving about. And it was obvious all of it had fallen on deaf ears because for weeks now he had visualized Des Campbell as a twenty-something hipster dude with impressive dreads always worn in a manbun who was most likely the second-coming of Jesus due to Ashleigh’s obsessive praise. Nowhere in those one-sided conversations did he remember being told that Des was a woman that appealed to his cock’s appetite.
“It’s a pleasure,” he greeted, extending his spare hand. Now that the circumstances had changed, it was best to initiate the ancient ritual of burying the hatchet. This woman was just as much his sister’s client as she was a meal ticket. After witnessing Ashleigh work her ass off in college, survive under the thumb of a temperamental and demanding art director at a glitzy gallery in the Big Apple for years, and having finally achieve her dream of opening an art gallery, he didn’t want to fuck with his sister’s livelihood.
He was willing to put his differences aside for his family’s sake…even if he was right.
Des glanced at his offered hand before she cut her eyes to Ashleigh.
“Your brother thinks ‘Heartless’ is and I quote, ‘disrespectful crap’,” she reported with a stunning smile that made his heart skip a beat before she indulged in her champagne, a giddy glimmer in her amber eyes as she awaited Ashleigh’s reaction.
‘You goddamn snitch’ was the first thought that freight-trained through his mind in that moment.
She fucking tattletaled on him.
Ashleigh’s blue eyes widened at the news and gasped softly, “What?”
Deciding the best approach to quelling the flames before it spiraled into a raging inferno, Callahan admitted calmly, “We were merely having a healthy disagreement about—”
“The unhealthy injustices of police brutality,” Des deserved to cut in.
“I can speak for myself, sweetheart,” he said bitingly, which he immediately regretted as the moment the words left his lips, Ashleigh gazed up at him as if he had lost his mind.
Ashleigh smiled kindly. “Could you excuse us for just one moment?”
Then he was gently led as if he was a blind man without a cane and Ashleigh was a citizen with a heart of gold. Taking an annoyed glance over his shoulder, he witnessed the woman of the hour blowing him a farewell kiss before a smug smile eased across her lips.
With a clenched jaw, he allowed himself to be guided to a bronze statue of nude lovers in a seemingly passionate embrace, if not for the fact that they were both secretly on their cellphones behind each other’s back.
“What the hell is going on, Cal,” Ashleigh hissed in a hushed tone before smiling at an approaching waiter with a tray of champagne. She accepted a flute and drowned half of it, letting him know off the bat that she was a nervous wreck.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he assured.
“Nothing to worry about,” she repeated through gritted teeth, her voice weaved with controlled hysteria that one tends to perfect in public events such as this. “My police officer brother arguing with my first client about police brutality at her art exhibit in my gallery is definitely something to worry about, Cal. What the everliving hell? I need you to go apologize to her right now. Not just for my sake, but yours as well.”
He scoffed. “Why for my sake?”
“Because she’s your boss’s daughter,” Ashleigh said.
“Captain Rodriguez has four sons unless one of them had a sex change, I highly doubt that is his daughter.”
“No, Cal, not Captain Rodriguez. When I say ‘boss’, I mean your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.”
Callahan snapped his eyes over to the green-haired woman speaking with an older black couple in front of a painting of teenaged girls slurping on iced coffee and taking a selfie in front of a homeless shelter with a long line of downtrodden homeless folks waiting for entry.
“That’s Police Commissioner Campbell’s daughter?”
She sighed heavily and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I told you that weeks ago.”
Yet another fact that drifted into one ear and out the other, but that was besides the point. A curiosity sparked inside of him and alongside his apology, he would pose a question that needed answering.
“Alright, I’ll apologize,” he said.
Ashleigh sighed in relief. “Thank you.”
Parting ways, he got some champagne from a floating tray as he made his way over to Des Campbell now alone in front of that painting. He eased to a stop directly behind her, leaving her a few inches of personal space, but remained close enough for her to sense his presence. He wanted her to know he was there, which she did.
She peered over her shoulder, those beautiful amber eyes locking with his. “You survived, I see.”
“No thanks to you,” he replied.
She smiled proudly, returning her attention to the painting. “No thanks required.”
He leaned in, speaking in a low tone. “Do you snitch on others often?”
“Only when necessary,” she said, “but I thought cops liked snitches.”
He arched an eyebrow. “So, you know I’m a cop.”
“She speaks very fondly of her boy-in-blue little brother. She gushes praises of you any spare moment she can get,” Des admitted, giving him an appraising look from over her shoulder. “She might have embellished some details.”
“A charming personality.”
He smirked at her cockiness. “You definitely know how to cut a man down. Is that a hereditary trait in the Campbell family tree or it is something you had to learn from your father?”
She turned on her heels, tilting her head. “Maybe, a little bit of both, but since we’re on the topic of family trees, Ashleigh seems to be the only one between the two of you with tact. Nature or nurture?”
“Self-taught,” he answered instead. “She tried to teach me, but could never get the hang of it.”
She pouted mockingly. “Poor thing. Much be hard being an ass.”
“It’s a disability I’ve learned to embrace over the years,” he said.
Her genuine laugh washed over him. The sound of it gave him goosebumps. God, he wanted to hear it again and again and again.
“So, why did you come back, officer?”
“I’ve been told to apologize to the Police Commissioner’s daughter to save my own skin,” he replied.
Des seemed rather amused by that answer. “I hate to break it to you, but you’ve endeavored in a futile venture.”
He partook in his champagne, wishing it something stronger to wash away the fantasies of all the things he wanted to do to Des Campbell. He wanted to peel down the gold zipper adoring her form-fitting dress to unveil whatever paradise was in hiding. He wanted to kiss the tops of her breasts, nuzzle his face in between the mounds, and trail wet circles around her hard nipples to start. “You’ve already made up your mind about me then? Should I not even bother to come into work on Monday?”
“If I went to Police Commissioner Jerome Campbell with a recommendation to fire you, he most likely promote you to spite me,” she made known before taking a nice gulp of her bubbly beverage, glancing around the gallery to avoid his eyes. The words summarized all that he needed to know about the climate of that familial relationship.
Callahan decided to say, “He’d be a smart man. I think I’m worthy of a promotion. I’m long overdue one, in fact.”
“Then I’ll give you a little tip about my father. If you kiss his ass enough, he’ll give you exactly what you want,” she assured. “He loves ass-kissers.”
He wanted to ask if that, too, was a hereditary trait and if she’d be willing to be his test subject to sharpen his ass-kissing skills, but he held his tongue.
“So, will you accept my apology?”
“You never apologized,” she countered.
“I apologize that you’re wrong and I’m right.”
Des gasped and placed a spare hand on her heart, her face melting into a touched heart-warming expression was a purposefully loud sham. “That was such a heartfelt and thoughtful apology. Your way of words is awe-inspiring.”
Now, he just wanted to goddamn kiss her—relish in the taste of her and toy with her tongue like it was his plaything. The ache itched and clawed at him as if he had acquired a need for a drug he had never even tasted.
“Is that your way of accepting my apology?”
“That’s my way of telling you to go fuck yourself.”
Then and there, Callahan Forester decided he would do everything in his power to convince her to take him home as if he were a lost puppy and the moment he’d get her behind closed doors, he’d unzip that sinful dress and show her exactly who she was fucking with. They both resumed gazing at the artwork before them, refusing to move as if walking away from this would declare the other as winner.
“Do you want to get out of here after all this is over?” There, he said it.
She turned halfway to look at him, confusion etched across her beautiful face. “And do what exactly?”
“Go someplace and talk over something a lot stronger than these foo-foo drinks,” he stated.
She cocked a delicate eyebrow. “Are you asking me out for drinks? As if alcohol will soften my growing dislike of you? Because it won’t.”
“A man can’t help but try.” He grinned slightly, enjoying this verbal tug-o-war with her. She had a sharp tongue she wasn’t afraid to use as a weapon, but he desperately wanted to suckle on that same soft pink tongue that occasionally swept across her perfect teeth out of habit.
“Here’s a C-minus for effort,” she returned.
“What exactly have you got to lose?”
Callahan replied, “Never heard of it, but it sounds highly overrated.”
She fucked up and let out a fleeting but adorable chuckle before she could stop herself. To restore her act of indifference towards him, she rolled her eyes sharply to bounce back and turned her back on him. “It seems Ashleigh didn’t embellish on some things.”
“Your humor. She said you had a wicked one,” Des admitted.
His grin widened considerably so at his sister’s verbal high regards of him. “My humor is premium quality when I go to a bar about four blocks from here.”
“You’re very persistent,” she decided.
“Only when I’m very motivated.”
She then asked a very loaded question. “And what exactly is your motivation behind all this, Officer Callahan Forester? What is the external reward at the end of this?”
Once again with her timing, Ashleigh came up to them with an impeccably dressed white man and an Asian one both in their late-fifties. “Odessa, I would like to introduce you to Edward Gayle and his husband, Kaito. They are very much interested in the ‘Trans-Gressions’ piece, but they wanted to know your inspiration.”
“I have never seen such a thought-provoking statement on condemning transphobia,” Kaito said. “Where did you get the idea?”
Odessa took one final glance at Callahan before she brought on a full-on smile, addressing the question. Ashleigh looped her arm around his for the second time that night and politely led him away to give her client and her potential patrons’ privacy.
“What were you two talking about,” she said, smiling sweetly to passersby who crossed their path.
“We were having a friendly discussion about ways to work through our differences.”
“Just like the two of you were having a healthy disagreement,” Ashleigh scoffed. “So, during this friendly discussion, what ways did you two come up with?”
He finished off his champagne. “Well, I proposed getting a drink at a bar few blocks west.”
Ashleigh screeched to a halt, which forced him to stop as well.
She gawked at him. “Callahan.”
“It would be an innocent nightcap.”
She narrowed her eyes at him as she sniffed out his lie like a bloodhound. “I refuse to let your dick fuck around with my business.”
He smirked. “I assure you it won’t. As a matter of fact, it might even increase your profits.”
Ashleigh gagged, twisting her face in disgust. She un-looped her arm from his and stalked away, grabbing her tenth flute of champagne of the night.
Every art piece in the exhibit except ‘Heartless’ was sold. After the event was over, everyone made a slow trickle out into the downtown sidewalks and streets, slipping into their cars and melting into the steady stream of traffic. Callahan was one of the last ones to exit the art gallery. He slid his hands into his pockets, taking a quick scan of the immediate perimeter before his eyes settled on the familiar green-haired woman partaking in a cigarette while focusing on her cell’s lit screen. He strolled over to her.
Once again sensing his presence, she locked eyes with him.
“Did you only decide to grace me with your presence to rub in the fact that. the one painting that wasn’t sold was the one you were so butthurt over,” she asked, cocking her head.
“No, this is merely a follow-up appointment to address the last question you asked me earlier before we were interrupted, but before I do, I need to know. Do you prefer the gentleman’s answer or the unapologetically raw answer?”
She took a draw, turning her head to blow out a flutter of wispy smoke. “The latter.”
“I know you’re testing me, trying to see if I’m worthy enough for your attention. Worthy enough for you to invite me into your home—into your bed. You’ve been actively weighing out the pros and cons in your head, but you know I won’t disappoint. I’ll take good care of you tonight and tomorrow morning ‘cause I’m overachiever and enjoy overtime.”
She bit her bottom lip hard, struggling to deny the truth of his words.
The one truth she couldn’t fight him on.
She flicked the cigarette onto the sidewalk and stepped on it to snuff it out, running her fingers through her hair. “So, where’s this bar?”