Under Ten Thousand Stars, a novel by Samantha Wood

Chapter One

THERE WAS SOMETHING CLANDESTINE about the whole thing. It started in the laneway with a trail of footprints stencilled onto the cobblestones. The big white feet led from the corner of Flinders Lane down to where a young woman dressed in a black cocktail dress stood by a door. The gallery wasn’t signposted – it looked like just another doorway among the industrial buildings which lined either side of the street. The only indication of the woman’s role was a small clipboard she held in one hand.

Julia stood further down the laneway and watched people arriving, enjoying their delight as they saw the footprints leading the way like a trail of breadcrumbs. Some of them she recognised – art collectors, some overseas dealers – but most were unfamiliar faces. New buyers, she hoped. She was eager to get back inside to greet her guests, but was still trying to get hold of Michael.

Liliana caught her gaze, and Julia signalled she wouldn’t be much longer. She tried Michael again. Why wasn’t he answering? Why wasn’t he already here?

She hung up and walked to the door.

“No luck?” Liliana said.

Julia shook her head. “Still no answer.”

“Never mind. Tonight’s all about you.”

Julia gave her a tight smile. It was true, which was why he should have been here by now. She felt a sudden well of tears and pushed them down. Not tonight. Not now.

She went down the handful of stairs into the basement space. It was a former factory with blank walls and painted concrete floors, tracks of recessed lighting in the ceiling, and strings of fairy lights wound around the rustic wooden rafters; a perfect space for a showing. The exhibition had been sudden, after another artist cancelled two weeks earlier and a spot had opened up. Her original show wasn’t scheduled for another three months so it had been a mad scramble to dry a handful of paintings, but she’d managed it. She’d even bought herself a new dress, a dusty pink floor-length gown with a fitted bodice and a flowing skirt. It had seemed too much when she’d tried it on in the shop – pure silk, and with a $1000 price tag – but here in this room, with the soft lighting bouncing off the walls and the clinking of champagne glasses, it felt perfect. She smoothed it down and made her way to the bar.

“There you are.” A man’s voice. “I wondered where you’d gone.”

Julia turned to see her art dealer, Anthony, grinning at her. He was wearing a blazing neon green T-shirt with the words BACON LOVE written in large black letters, khaki shorts and red sneakers. Despite being in his mid-forties, the look suited him. His curly red hair was frazzled, cheeks flushed by the wine.

 “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” he said. “Looks like we might have our first sale for the evening.”

“Already? I just walked in the door.”

“When you’re hot, you’re hot.”

Julia reached for a flute of champagne and followed him across the room. She’d only taken half a dozen steps when her passage was blocked by a woman coming towards her. It was Adriana, her sister, smiling, slightly breathless and holding a flute of her own.

“I won’t keep you,” she said, clinking her glass against Julia’s. “I just wanted to say well done. All your hard work is finally paying off.”

Julia wrapped her arms around her sister’s neck, smelt the musk of her perfume. “Thanks for being here,” she murmured. “I love you.”

Adriana smiled again, one hand holding onto Julia’s bare arm. “Me too. Now get out there and be fabulous.”

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. There were people to meet, and discussions about commissions, including one with an influential Japanese art dealer who bought four of her paintings and commissioned two more. A Sydney collector with a waterfront mansion in Point Piper commissioned a large-format work. Don’t care what, just make it big. Her glass was constantly refilled, and while she felt a flush creeping up the back of her neck, she didn’t feel drunk. She didn’t want to admit how relieved she was to be out of the house, how she revelled in this atmosphere, cushioned by the reception to her work. It was a wonderful feeling, after all her efforts, to be rewarded in this way. Her shoulders loosened as the hours passed, and her limbs felt fluid, as though they were floating through water.

When the last guest had left, Ant came over from where he was leaning against the bar, an aquamarine-coloured drink in his hand. “Four sales and two new commissions – congratulations are in order.”

“Don’t get me wrong, but thank goodness that’s over,” Julia said.

“I know, right. Who would’ve thought that the painting is the easy bit.”

She yawned. “I don’t think I can drive home.”

“You should stay. There’s a nice guest bedroom at my place, fancy sheets … Come on, let’s get out of here.”

It was a crisp evening. The air was chilled but still, and traffic sounds wafted from the bottom of the laneway. They walked around the corner to Ant’s apartment.

Inside, Julia unzipped the dress, allowed it to fall to the floor. She thought she should hang it up but was too tired – too drunk – to bother. Instead, she sat heavily on the bed. Her head pounded. She reached for her bag on the bedside table and fished out her phone. She hadn’t checked it all evening. There was a message alert. It was from Michael: Sorry, something came up at work.

Julia felt the lump rise in her throat, swallowed it down. Why hadn’t he tried harder to come? He knew it was an important night for her. The winery had been getting in the way of their personal life more and more these last few months.

She looked at the screen, trying to think of a reply. She knew she couldn’t call, knew how her voice would sound, and that she would say something she’d regret. Instead she texted: Staying at Ant’s. See you tomorrow.

She threw the phone aside, and got into bed, shuddering at the cool, crisp sheets on her skin, dropping her head onto the pillow with a long sigh.

He should have been here.

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