Recap of Chapter 20: Haze was determined to get to the bottom of Jake’s aversion to marriage. And what better venue than his family’s party, where she could observe the people he grew up with. Maybe the answer was at hand. Instead, she fell in love with them all and by the time the night ended in a perfect moment, she found she no longer cared.

Life quieted down after the family party. Haze refused to let the question about her future with Jake cloud her thoughts for another moment. It was a good relationship—loving and thoughtful. There was no reason to question his motives. Haze lived in the moment in every other area of her life, making only the smallest adjustments for her future. Why not the same on the subject of marriage?

It was a busy time with her art anyway. If she wanted some good pieces for the season, she needed to get busy on a new series. Inspired by the great women she’d met in Evergreen, Haze embarked on painting a series called American Women—portraits of women of all ages, ethnicities and lifestyles. What could be more American? She started with Sydney. Who else? Because creativity can come on a whim or in the middle of the night, Haze relied mostly on photographs. For Sydney, there was no setting better than surrounded by her eclectic décor, so Haze set up her camera in Sydney’s living room one afternoon when the lighting was exactly right.

While Haze adjusted the camera settings, Sydney positioned herself on a chair in the living room where the late afternoon sunshine touched her beautiful face and added warmth to the composition. She required no instruction on what to wear or how to pose. Sydney was Sydney, after all—stylish and colorful from head-to-toe. She was the perfect choice to kick off Haze’s inspiration.

“So, how was the family get-together?” Sydney asked, pulling a pashmina over one shoulder.

“It was great,” Haze replied, adjusting the tripod. “Can you drape the edge across your lap? Yes! Just like that!” She fixed a strand of Sydney’s hair. “The party was wonderful. The house is really beautiful and homey. His family is welcoming and fun. I really connected with Jake’s twin, Jessica. She’s an author—mystery novels set in exotic locales.”

“Really? What’s her name?” Sydney was all ears. Mystery mixed with travel hit all the marks.

“She goes by J.M. Peterson.”

Sydney sat straight up and turned, wrecking the careful pose. “Are you kidding me? J.M. Peterson, the author, is Jake’s twin?” She jumped up, striding across the room. “I have her books.” She rushed to the corner shelf and found them immediately. “I love her work!”

“Well, you just messed up my work!” Haze complained. “You undid the pose.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry. But I couldn’t resist. I love her work! This is so exciting! What’s she like?”

Haze sighed. “If you put the books down and come back to your spot here before we lose the light, I’ll tell you all about her.” Sydney came back wearing a contrite look. She tucked one leg under and turned her body toward Haze to continue the conversation. Looking through the lens, Haze realized this new pose was even better. Sydney had a fresh and eager expression on her face and her body language spoke to her energy and unique personality. Haze shook her head. “Leave it to you to make it even better all on your own.” She snapped photo after photo, all gems.

“Jessica… how to describe her… she’s funny and beautiful—they’re all beautiful in a natural, milk commercial kind of way. She’s independent and smart. I like her. You would too.”

“Which brings me to my next question,” Sydney said, clasping her hands together. Haze snapped away. “Do you think she’d agree to let me host a little local book launch—or reception, or party, or whatever—here?”

Haze shrugged. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t hurt to ask. It might be a while though. She’s taking off for New Zealand next week. I guess that’s a hint as to the setting of her next mystery novel, isn’t it?” She reviewed the photos she’d already taken. “These look great. I think we’re done here.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Sydney proposed, her eyes twinkling. “You pass on my question to J.M. Peterson, and I’ll let my friend from Benin know you’re looking for models.”

Haze gasped. She’d met this friend. Her cheekbones were superb, and her skin tone like the color of rich coffee beans. This was a no-brainer. “Deal!”

The following week not only did Sydney keep her promise to connect Haze to her friend, but she also took it a step further by spreading the word. Haze soon had enough models lined up to complete the series, and then some. Using the shots she took of Sydney, she started painting right away. She chose a 48×60 inch wooden canvas, which would have the structure needed for the intended finished product. Haze envisioned this series as a multi-media project. Something new, partially influenced by her previous work.

A vertical canvas this large sat on the ground as Haze knelt, squatted, sat tailor-style, and stood to sketch and then apply paint. As usual, she ignored her physical comfort while the painting took form and depth. As far as Haze was concerned, whatever it took was worth it as it was coming together beautifully—the colors, the composition—everything. After several hours, she stood up to stretch. She headed to the sink to wash her brushes, taking inventory of all the paint on her skin. She had a habit of holding the end of the small brushes in her teeth, which inevitably made paint smears on her cheek. There was even some paint in her hair that was piled on top of her head with a clip. Suddenly, she realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She scrubbed at her fingernails, while her stomach loudly complained.

Haze was drying her hands when the bell rang. She swung open the door to see Jake, arms full. In one hand, he held a big box of Beau Jo’s pizza, and in the other, a six-pack of Tommy Knocker beer. He wore a snuggly-looking pullover, jeans and socks. His muddy boots were kicked off to the side on the porch.

“Did I time it right?” he said, flashing that irresistible crooked smile of his.

Haze looked up at him, smiled back, then stood on tiptoe to give him a kiss. “You timed it just right,” she said. “You’re my hero.” As she opened the door wide to let him in, her stomach growled audibly.

Jake laughed and then spent several minutes trying to mimic the sound it made. “It’s something between Chewbacca and a harbor seal. Maybe a mix between the Three Billy Goats’ troll under the bridge and a llama stuck in the mud, crying for its mother.” He was having a great time teasing her but got no rise out of Haze. She’d stopped listening entirely. Suddenly ravenous, all her attention was directed to the contents of the pizza box and popping the lid off a bottle of beer.