Derek felt tonight's apprehension squeeze itself under his shirt and crawl across his skin. It was prickly and hot and he didn't want to think about it anymore.
Derek had had more gallery openings than he could count, but it never seemed to get any easier. He couldn't relax enough to mingle and network, which was what these things were all about. Maybe that's why he was 45 and still drove a cab around.
He'd picked up an extra shift with the taxi cab company. He found that driving was almost as therapeutic as taking pictured -- something about the simplicity of driving from point A to point B, complicated only by the relentless Baltimore traffic. Unfortunately, the beautiful day outside meant that fares were scarce.
Pushing rush hour, Derek decided to call it quits and start seriously considering tonight when he saw a woman with her hand up on the corner, a block down. "Last fare of the day," he said to himself as he pulled to a stop. And not a bad one to end on, he added, taking in her pretty face and athletic build as he drew up next to her.
Armed with a worn leather satchel, a haphazardly folded map, and a confused expression, the woman slid into the back seat with a grateful sigh. Not from around here, he sized up, although traveling alone and in her mid-30s meant business more likely than pleasure. Their eyes met in the rear view mirror -- her sharp hazel ones against his dark browns -- and for a moment, neither of them spoke.
All at once, the apprehension he wore like a cloak was replaced by something lighter ... giddier. "Um ... where to, miss?"
"Here," she said, holding the map out to him, her finger pointing to a cross street only a few minutes away. She smelled fresh and feminine, and her tanned wrist looked soft; Derek had to fight the sudden impulse to run his thumb along the back of her hand.
"I know it's not far, but I just can't figure it out." She rolled her eyes. "You're probably thinking typical woman, huh?"
She ran her fingers through her short, wind-whipped hair and disarmed Derek with her laugh. "Actually, I'm glad you got in," he said, meeting her smile in the mirror. "My lucky day."
Inwardly, he winced at the line, but the woman didn't seem to mind. "You're from out of town?"
"Well, the map is kind of a give away," he winked. "Convention?"
"Kind of. Meeting with some clients."
"Let me guess: beautician?" This time, Derek did wince. When the woman laughed, he wasn't sure it was at the line, or at his reaction to it, but it was a nice sound. "OK, that was lame."
"Points for trying, though." Her hotel was only a few more blocks away, but Derek silently thanked his fortune as he turned onto her street and discovered a parking lot of disgruntled, post-work drivers clogging it up. "You're actually closer than you thought, though. I'm a fitness trainer."
"Oh? Like a personal trainer? I could use some tips." He rolled his broad shoulders back and puffed out his chest.
"You look like you're doing pretty well on your own." The compliment sent a wave of warmth through his body, right up into his head. "I do a few personal consults, but mostly I look at the bigger picture, I guess. I help companies set up their facilities, that sort of stuff."
Feeling a little brazen and more than a little reckless, he said, "Well, you certainly look the part." He'd probably never see her again -- a sad but true prospect -- and that gave him bravery.
This time, it was the woman's turn to blush. What he said was true, though. He'd noticed it in the slim jeans she wore and the tailored, silk blouse.
"You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" she said at last.
Derek shrugged. "It's easy to play the part when I don't know your name."
"Christina," she offered quickly -- blushing once again.
"Well now, that changes everything," Derek laughed. "Now I'm going to have to start acting like a gentleman."
"Hope you'll be able to manage a little while longer." The sly smile on her pretty face made Derek feel like they were sharing a secret. He liked that feeling. He didn't want it to end when he reached the end of the block.
"This is going to sound weird, but are you doing anything tonight?" The rush was one he hadn't felt in years. It transported him back to a more awkward time in his life, when he'd asked his high school crush out to the prom. He felt his hands grow clammy on the steering wheel and his heart rattle rapidly in his chest.
"Meeting's done. Strange city. I was going to spend some time channel surfing. Why?"
Derek let go of a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Do you like photography?"
"Well, I have a ... a friend who's has a show opening at a gallery tonight, down in Fells Point. I was going to go alone, but..."
"Are you asking me on a date?"
Derek heard the playfulness in her coy response. "Sure, why not?" he asked as he pulled up in front of the hotel.
She put a finger on her chin and rolled her hazel eyes up and away in faux thought. "Well, let's start with the fact that I don't even know your name."
"Derek," he interjected.
"And how do I know I can trust you?" she went on without hearing him. "I mean, for all I know, this could be a ploy to lure me into a car with you, alone, and..." She looked around the cab and shot him a devilish smile. "Oh wait..."
Derek laughed. He really liked Christina. She had spirit. "Looks like it's working already! In all seriousness, I'd love for you to at least meet me there. I don't really run with many in that crowd, and..."
"And it would be great to have someone more out-of-touch than you?"
"Christina, you'll probably be more at home than a B-more cabbie, trust me," he laughed. He scribbled the address on the back of a blank receipt and passed it back to her. She took it thoughtfully.
"No pressure. But, if you're bored, the address is on there. And any cab'll know where it is," he winked.
"Do they all come with such interesting drivers?"
"They don't call it Charm City for nothing!"
"You clean up well, Derek, although you should look into a comb next time."
Derek ran his fingers through his dark, shaggy hair, feeling it tickle the tops of his ears and brush down the back of his neck. "It's my relaxed look. Chicks dig it."
Sean's deep baritone of a laugh matched his stature: large and portly. "You been getting a lot of digging then, lately? Because that's not what I heard."
"You hear too much."
Derek's agent and friend, Sean Pressley, was the kind of person who made sure he heard everything. It's what made him so good at his job and allowed him to take Derek's random collection of landscapes and fill yet another Fells Point gallery.
"You know what else I heard?" He jabbed his forefinger into Derek's chest. "That someone's a pretty damn good photographer."
Only two hours into the opening and three things were had "sold" signs hanging off of them -- not bad for just a guy who took photos. He should have been elated. There were so many people here he could barely move, all talking about the hidden meanings behind his compositions. Some even picked up on what he'd intended, although most were just waxing.
He barely paid any of it attention. He kept looking toward the entrance. Looking for her.
It was a silly thought, anyway. A flight of fancy he hadn't let himself indulge in since he was a boy. He was 45 now and his days of puppy-love were long gone. The thing is he actually felt a connection with Christina in a way that he hadn't with anyone in years. And all after just a ten minute ride. How silly was that?
Tearing his eyes away from the door, he shrugged. Oh well... "Excuse me, the mens' room is calling."
It was also the only place he could breath anymore. Inside the quiet of the bathroom, he caught his reflection in the mirror and decided that Sean was right. He did clean up well, although his idea of cleaning up was a black blazer over a red graphic tee and a pair of jeans.
"You should have shaved, bud," he said to himself, rubbing the stubble on his chin. "She would have come if you'd shaved."
Sighing, he slipped out of the bathroom, deciding to call it quits for the night and head home.
And then, across the room, the vision of her changed everything. For a moment, that's what he thought she was: a vision. A figment of his imagination. But when their eyes met and everything else receded like someone experimenting with the manual focus dial, he knew she was very real.
Christina's face lit up when she recognized him and she gave a shy wave that didn't seem to fit the woman he'd given a ride to earlier that afternoon. Before, he'd only caught a glimpse of her getting in and out of the cab. Now, as she navigated through the tight throng of art buyers, he let his eyes sweep across her body and confirmed his first impression.
"I was wondering if you'd show up or not," Derek said after they'd exchanged European-style kisses (seemed appropriate in this setting).
"Yeah, well, House was a re-run and nothing else seemed appealing. I figured I had nothing to lose."
They shared a smile, like sunshine on their faces. "Well, I'm glad you're here." For a few seconds, neither said a word. They just stared.
Finally, it was Christina that turned away. "So, photography! That's why I'm here, right?"
Derek chuckled, glancing once again at her athletic stature. She had a trendy outfit on -- a long, slinky top that skimmed over her narrow hips, acting almost like a minidress were it not for the skinny jeans she wore beneath. Her heeled boots gave her a few more inches of height, but she still fell way below his 6'2" stature.
"This is pretty good," she commented, stopping before a photograph of the New Mexico desert, hung strategically next to the sailboat-choked harbor in Newport, Rhode Island. He watched the muscles of her back and shoulders shift and move beneath the tight top. "Beautiful composition. The photographer must be well-traveled."
"He is," Derek replied smugly. "Born in Baltimore City, he decided that wasn't going to stop him from seeing the 'endless waves of grain' this country has to offer."
She'd moved on, analyzing those very waves of grain he was talking about -- this from a trip he'd taken to Oklahoma five years back. "They're all landscapes," she said, more to herself than to Derek.
"People are tough subjects."
"Maybe he's just not up to the challenge." Derek didn't let himself be too sensitive. How could he, with this woman? "Maybe he hasn't found the right subject." She flashed him a glance over her shoulder, a lock of her short brown hair catching in her lipstick. "Why don't you introduce me to him. I've always wanted some professional photographs of myself."
"Confident with a touch of vanity. I didn't think you had it in you."
Christina blushed a little. "Well, I don't normally. Just when I'm around..."
"Me?" Derek finished. Again, their shared gaze felt like electrical currents.
She rolled her eyes, but before the banter could continue, Sean swooped in. "And who's your lady friend, Derek?"
"Sean, this is Christina. Christina, Sean Pressley."
"I'd say I make Derek look good, but you've already got that covered," the portly agent said inappropriately. Christina gave him a laugh, even though he didn't deserve it.
"Well, I don't know about that..." She looked up at Derek demurely. He liked that. He nodded.
"Of course you do."
"Well, Derek, my boy, I think we just sold another."
"Oh, this is the photographer?" Christina asked Derek. The two men burst out laughing, and for the first time, Christina looked uncomfortable.
"Derek's the photographer," Sean corrected, seeing her glance between the two of them without understanding.
"You mean..." Suddenly, her face went white as she realized she'd possibly been insulting Derek's work! "I didn't know ... I'm sorry!"
Every time she looked up at him with those beautiful, mountain lion eyes of hers, he felt his heart quicken. The more time he spent with her, drinking in her smooth perfume and listening to her musical laughter, the faster it beat.
"Hey, you wanted to meet the photographer," he smiled.
She pushed him gently on the shoulder. "You..."
His trembling heart surged as he realized what he was about to ask. "Listen, my studio is actually just a few blocks from here. Want those professional photos now?"
Christina blushed deep red, glancing at Sean before answering in a whisper. "I was kidding about that."
"You shouldn't have been." Someone shouldered into him on their way to the wine bar. "Come on, I need to get out of here before I start a fight with some potential customers!"
He held his hand out, happy to discover that it wasn't shaking. When she took it, the sparks that had been flying between them were suddenly united. This was the first time they'd really touched, Derek realized, and as his fingers entwined with hers, he realized he didn't want to let her go.
"Come on," he repeated softly. Christina nodded.
Derek lived only a few blocks away, yet like the taxi ride earlier, he wished he could stretch the trip out indefinitely. The pleasant day had turned into an even more pleasant evening -- enhanced by the beautiful woman he was walking hand-in-hand with. How long had it been since he'd shared a moment like this?
"This is cute," she said, glancing along the tree-lined streets. Two blocks off the main drag and they were deep into residential row houses, illuminated by the stars and the yellow, bulb lamps.
"Yeah, I really like this neighborhood."
"Have you always lived here?"
"In Baltimore? Yes. But not in Fells Point. This is the place I'd dreamed of living, one day. It took me over 40 years, but I made it."
They stopped before a beige and blue painted row home. "This the studio?"
Derek hesitated. "Well, I do develop some of my photos there, but it's more like my home."
He felt her squeeze his hand. When he turned to look down at her, she was smiling up at him. Her eyes caught the lamplight suggestively. "I was wondering why a landscape photographer had a studio." At least she didn't look mad. "So this was your plan, all along, huh?"
"No, no! Of course not." Well, maybe a little, he admitted to himself. "I mean, I really did need to get out of there."
She stepped close to him, hands still clasped together at their sides. They were so close they were practically touching, and Christina had to crane her head up to maintain eye contact. For a moment, he envisioned himself leaning down and kissing her, but shook it off. Too soon.
"What?" she asked, seeing his head shake.
"You. You're incredible."
Her smile drew out her cheekbones and brightened her face. He shivered, wanting to possess this creature before him. Again, he resisted. Too soon...
"You're not too shabby, yourself."
"Come on, let's go inside."
Derek watched as Christina fingered the cameras that adorned his work station. She had a light touch, as though in reverence to the beauty the glossy black pieces of equipment could produce. He imagined her that way in bed, too, and for one crystal clear moment, he realized that he'd soon be finding out.
"Ready for your close-up?" he asked. She jumped a little, as though forgetting that he was there.
Christina turned, warmth drawing out her cheekbones once again. "I was only kidding, back there. I don't actually think I'm photo material."
Derek stepped forward. "As long as we're making confessions, I'm not actually a photographer."
He picked up a camera, flipped it on, and started playing with the settings. Low F-stop. Mid-range shutter speed. "Nope. I'm a taxi driver, who happens to take photographs on the side." He raised the camera to his eye, leveling it in Christina's direction.
The shutter clicked, fast and satisfying. He hadn't turned the lights on and Christina's beauty was bathed in shadow. "And this humble taxi driver thinks he's staring at the prettiest subject he's ever had in his 'studio.'"