Today's Reading

Ella closed her car door and let her head rest back on the seat. "Yes," she replied. "I'm here, Claire. And I've taken care of everything. All seven of your paintings that we were showing were packed—meticulously, I might add—and put onto the truck for delivery first thing Monday morning. You have to sign for the delivery, so make sure you're up and have had your requisite three cups of coffee. The delivery will go a lot smoother if you're at least polite to the drivers."

Claire Castille was an amazing artist whose use of bold and vibrant colors conveyed strength, courage, and resilience. She was also an impatient woman who'd been one of Ella's top sellers in the last few years.

"But this still feels so surreal. We've been doing so well—things have been running so smoothly. And then, out of nowhere, we get hit with... this!"

"I know, Claire." Ella sighed and eased her key into the ignition.

"And after today I'll have to find someone else to work with. Someone new who won't understand me like you do. Who won't know the things you know."

"I know," Ella continued and nodded to herself. "This is our last day. I've really enjoyed working with you and getting your paintings in front of as many people as possible. I'm sure your agent will book you in other galleries. Thanks to your last two shows, your name is on everyone's radar."

Claire's paintings paid homage to her Afro-Caribbean roots and were nothing short of brilliant. Ella had purchased one for her dining room last year. They'd been planning a new exhibit to launch in the spring. Unfortunately, that was now canceled.

A heavy sigh filtered through the phone and Ella had to resist the urge to follow it up with one of her own. She couldn't blame Claire for being a bit wound up this morning—today was the start of a big change for a lot of people. Ella included.

"I'm going to miss you," Claire said in a rare whisper.

"I'm going to miss you too." Ella cleared her throat as the lump of despair and sadness formed once more.

She'd known this day was coming. Everyone at the Liberty Art Gallery in Philadelphia had known. There were just too many richer galleries in the area taking their business for the small boutique space she'd come to know and love to remain open. In the past few weeks there'd been many calls and meetings as she worked to return paintings and sculptures to their creators or transfer them to other galleries. She'd spent days packing up shipments and talking to agents. Trying to smooth the waters for everyone she'd ever worked with, to keep them calm and encouraged, all while she slowly fell apart.

"Can I call you when everything arrives? You know, so you'll know that they're safe and sound?" Claire asked.

Ella nodded and clasped her seat belt. "Absolutely. And hey, listen, we'll keep in touch, and wherever I land I'll be sure to let you and your agent know."

"Thanks, Ella," Claire said. "I mean, really, thank you for everything. Even all the things that really didn't pertain to work—like having my favorite coffee delivered from the café down the street whenever I was working on a new project. I've never worked with anyone like you and I want you to know that I really appreciate you. Oh, and have a merry Christmas!"

Claire's voice had lifted slightly with those final words as if no matter what was happening around them, she wasn't going to forget that cheerful proclamation.

Ella started the car and waited while it warmed up. "Thanks so much," she replied. "That's very nice of you to say. You've been one of my very favorites to work with too, Claire. And merry Christmas to you too."

Claire couldn't see Ella rolling her eyes as she disconnected the call and tossed her phone onto the passenger seat with her purse. There was absolutely nothing merry about being unemployed, regardless of what time of year it was.

* * *

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. 'Tis the season to be jolly..."

No, it wasn't.

At five forty-five, Ella closed the top drawer of her desk with a resounding click before sitting back heavily in her chair. The cream-colored ergonomic chair had taken her a year and a half to get used to, and now she had to accept that she wouldn't be sitting in it tomorrow, or any other day for that matter. She rubbed her hands along its arms and closed her eyes. And then she sent a silent wish to the heavens that the loud singing coming from outside her office would stop.

It wouldn't. She'd been chanting that same wish all afternoon, since the very early holiday party began at noon. Normally the annual gallery party would be held a few days before Christmas, but this year—since they would be closed by then—it was taking place on December 8. Today.

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