Each year Marilyn’s father commissioned a portrait of her to be painted for his office – a large room full of walnut paneling and mahogany furniture. She figured the dark wood setting made him feel important and classic, just like the green leather couches and tiny desk lamps her father insisted adorn his workspace. Her yearly portrait always hung above the mantle in that room, crowning the marble fireplace like they were old English royalty. And though she thought it excessive, she usually went along with whatever strange request her aging father made of her. Pop was an exceptional lawyer, honored by the state for his service, and a well-known figure in their small community. But for the most part, Marilyn wasn’t sure how long he’d be around for, so she tried to do whatever made him happy, even if it meant holding still for hours at a time.
William, her father, worked six days a week, toiling over the endless cases that he cared so much about, so the time they spent together was precious. It had been just the two of them in her father’s big old house for many years, and both had relied on each other for nearly everything. She helped her father lose the weight he gained when her mother passed, and she drove him to his haircuts, took care of all the household staff, tended to the garden, and acted as presiding mistress at Oak Hall. And in return, he loved her unconditionally – one of the few things she truly needed to not feel alone.
The portraits were a family tradition for as long as Marilyn could remember. Every year was a different artist in a different medium. The previous year it was a spring watercolor of her picnicking near a favorite fishing spot. Slashed with bold greens and deep blues, the painting was dreamy, ethereal, and quite striking. Her favorite portrait, made when she was just 12, was a lifelike pastel set in their backyard. Her mother had still been alive then, and it was the last sitting they had done together. The soft colors, the casual laughter on their faces, and their yellow, matching tennis outfits gave her fond memories of their last days with each other. So while the other yearly portraits were scattered around the sprawling house in corners she often didn’t visit, that one she kept in her room above her dresser.
And that’s why Marilyn, the apple of her father’s eye, found herself waking up at dawn to meet a local portrait artist across town. That morning was unlike most in Colorado. It was hot in the early hours, the sky was clear but hazy from recent fires that had plagued the region, and she wasn’t all that keen to sit for a portrait. Feeling rather restless, she thought. Perhaps next year she’d tell her father it was time to move on, ditch the portrait idea, and stick to the digital pictures everyone else had as the home screen for their computers. That would suffice. Besides, she was nearly 30, and preferred to age in private, rather than in textured oils.
Marilyn got out of her vintage car and sighed as the heat began to prickle her neck. No sign of the guy she was supposed to meet. Great, late as usual. It was her experience that artists were temperamental, and having worked with one each year for as long as she could remember, there was usually one every once in a while that she did not get along with. Creative differences and all. Braced for this to be the case, Marilyn glanced at her phone to dial the number her father had given her. Of course, like all the others, she had never met this painter. Her father insisted that the artist always be a surprise to Marilyn and this time made a point to assure her he was an excellent professional, and a rising star. Pop doesn’t know anything about art, mused Marilyn, but she’d let him call the shots on this.
Suddenly, a low whistle sounded through the dry grasses, and Marilyn saw in the distance a man with his hand up, sitting near an easel. She grabbed her hat from the back seat and hiked up the path slowly so as not to sweat off her makeup.
When she approached, she saw the painter was well prepared and sitting on a low stool with his back to her. His long tawny hair was tied in a low knot and Marilyn smirked when she thought about how artists always had to have long hair. They think it makes them edgy, or French, she thought to herself. As she looked around his set up, she could tell his oil paints were well used, and a selection of brushes were set out. She looked at the scene he had framed. It was a beautiful spot with a worn fence overlooking the three rock faces that were unique to her hometown. He had already begun sketching, and as she approached she could see his hands were deft with a pencil. He wore jeans and a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Something about the rolled up sleeves had her palms feel damp.
“You’re late.” He muttered, without turning to face her. He was penciling in the shape of the first peak in the scene.
She glanced at her phone. “By mere minutes,” she scoffed. Uh oh, she thought, we got a bossy one. Marilyn approached the painter on his right, careful to not knock over his scattered collection of paints, brushes, and water cups, and put her hand out. “I’m Marilyn,” she said.
“I know who you are,” he said softly without turning, continuing to move his pencil around the canvas. “Sit on the fence, just there,” the painter gestured over his easel to a dip in the middle of the wooden planks. Marilyn rolled her eyes at the cool dismissal, let out a huff of air, lifted the hem of her dress so as not to trip, and climbed onto the fence where he pointed.
After making sure she was correctly balanced, she finally looked up to see the painter glancing from behind his easel. His eyes were blue as sapphires and as intense as any she’d ever seen on a man. He was serious. Probably could use a drink, thought Marilyn. Or a chill pill.
“More to your right,” he said. She did as she was told, smiling to herself while making jokes in her head about his serious “aahhh-rt.” Yep, she’d seen it all, and he was by far the rudest artist she’d ever worked with. Even the crazy, experimental ones had shaken her hand and said hello.
“Stop there,” he chided. “Now relax your body a little.” She sighed and kept her shoulders from creeping up. Marilyn tried for a relaxed pose, something she knew she could hold for more than a few seconds. When he didn’t say anything else, she figured she had done well.
It was silent, and the only movement was an occasional blue eye that would reveal itself from the right side of the easel. Occasionally she could hear the subtle sound of the pencil against the canvas. The wind blew through the grass, gently ruffling the bottom of her dress.
The minutes rolled by.
Distracted and bored, Marilyn poked her foot at a nearby tall grass, disturbing a few bees that were resting along the ground.
“Hold still,” he said from behind the canvas.
“It’d be easier to sit here for this long if you’d talk to me,” she sulked. Marilyn was a patient soul, but she delighted in being difficult when snubbed. “After all, we are paying you.”
“I don’t like to talk when I work.”
“Yes, but you could make an exception for me. After all, it’s very hot, and I feel like going back to bed, rather than sitting here and holding a pose. Besides, this painting was my father’s idea. I’m just the innocent party who was coerced into this purgatory.” She smiled at him.
Silence in return.
“Could you at least tell me your name,” she demanded, her voice dripping with annoyance. A pause. “That way I know never to recommend you to anyone.”
She heard a chuckle from behind the canvas, then after a moment, he said, “Ian. My name is Ian.”
“Thank you, Ian. I can tell we’ll get along swimmingly.” Marilyn rolled her eyes again and sighed, lifting her chin in a subtle gesture she’d done since she was a kid. It meant she was done talking. Well, it would be over soon, she hoped. The first sketches were often the longest, then everything else went faster. She rolled her head along her neck, which was beginning to stiffen from holding for so long.
An hour passed, and as the sun continued to rise, the heat increased. Marilyn began to feel the condensation of sweat begin to bead on her chest. She wasn’t sure she could stay on this fence for much longer.
After a few more minutes, Ian stood up, holding what looked like a film camera. “I’m just going to take a few pictures while the light is good. We’re nearly done here.” Marilyn held her pose, and then sighed with relief when she heard the last click of the old Leica.
“Finished?” She asked Ian from her fence position. Her butt was starting to hurt terribly from the uneven, hard surface.
“Yes, done.” He said.
She slinked down from the fence, realizing one of her feet had gone to sleep, and nearly fell into the ditch that lined the path. When she caught herself, she blurted out, “don’t worry about me!”
Ian was nonplussed and had begun to gather and clean his brushes, though they were only lightly used. The bulk of the work was still ahead of him.
“How far did you get?” Marilyn asked as she approached the back of the easel, eager to see his icy blue eyes and the painting’s progress up close.
Ian stood abruptly, blocking her view of the canvas. “Don’t look, it’s a surprise,” he chided.
Marilyn rolled her eyes again at the curtness, but for the first time, she saw his face unconcealed by the easel.
Had she imagined an oil painter from 18th century Montmartre, Ian would be it. His jawline was sharp, with cheekbones that jutted from his face in an exotic, poetic manner. He was taller than she’d realized, and stronger too, with wiry muscles bulging under a lean frame. His arms revealed a spattering of tattoos, and he wore a deep blue bandana around his neck, making him look like an artistic pirate. Marilyn was surprised by his overwhelming handsomeness, but she was already determined not to like him. At least, she was going to try, anyway.
“It’s rude to roll your eyes,” he said, his eyes skimming her face and landing on her pouting lips.
“It’s rude to not say hello,” she returned, captured by the intensity of his stare. Alarm bells started going off in her head as the flutterings of butterflies began to rise in her stomach. The chemistry between them came on suddenly, and Marilyn was surprised by it. She wanted to hate him, but the cocky grin on his face could melt even the most hardened soul.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I take my work a little too seriously.” Marilyn shuffled her feet and looked down. His gaze was too much for her heart.
“Well thanks for doing this for my father, I know he appreciates it.”
“Your father saved my neck a few years back, so it was the least I could do.” He stepped closer, wiping his paint-covered hands on a damp towel.
“Do you need anything else from me?” she stuttered, glancing at one of the tattoos on his left forearm, noting that it looked like the Mona Lisa. She started to have trouble breathing – his proximity was too close, and her lungs couldn’t seem to find the air in the heat.
“I think I might, actually.” His voice was low and intimate. He stepped closer, then shoved his hands into his jean pockets. They were itching to touch her face. “You’ll need to come by my studio, so I can finish this. The pictures I took should be enough to get it most of the way there, but I’ll need you to sit for me so I can get the details of your face right.” He paused. “Next week, perhaps?” Ian realized he would need a few days to cool off. Something about that proper look on Marilyn’s face made him want to muss her up a little too much.
She nodded, unsure of her voice. The electricity between them buzzed loudly in her ear, and she could feel her heartbeat pulse at the narrow part of her wrists. “Well, let me know.” She looked at him a moment. When he didn’t answer, she said, “You have my number,” and turned on her heel to walk down the hill towards her car.
She walked quicker than expected and didn’t once look back at him. As her flashy car disappeared down the road, Ian let out the breath he was holding.
Damn, he was half in love with her already.
Thanks so much for reading my latest short romance story! I hope you enjoyed it. These self-portraits were taken at sunrise in Boulder’s famous Chautauqua Park, with a little shutter help from my husband. To read other short stories of mine, including the last one from Colorado, click here!