Powdery, golden dust from the nearby parched fields mixed with sweat and streaked her face with muddy rivulets. Finley Blake knew she was making the matter worse by running the back of her hand over her face, but it kept the sweat beads out of her eyes so she could get a clear shot. She imagined what her mother would say if she saw her. Something about ladies never sweating, only glistening. Bull hockey. This was sweat, plain and simple.
“Can you catch them in this light? I fear the subtle color might wash out.” Dr. Sanat Rao pointed to the dark-gray patches of paint that animated the white stucco face of the house with stylized beasts amid intricate swirls and patterns. He was a slight, Indian man in his early thirties with delicate features and a balding pate.
“I think we have just enough sun to catch the contrast.” Finley adjusted the aperture on her camera just in case the light faded in the last few minutes.
She had been working with Dr. Rao for the past three months, trying to understand and record the historical and artistic significance of the wall paintings of the Adivasi tribe. What had started as a short spread for a travel magazine had grown into a multiregional series as Finley started to understand the artistic ties that linked India together, especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha.
The paintings she was focusing on for this segment of the series were mud art forms that were most prevalent in Jharkhand, especially around Hazaribagh and Jamshedpur. Uncovered for modern audiences in the early 1990s by cultural activist, Bulu Imam, they had been part of the decorative arts in India for centuries. With tribal populations dispersing and their art forms practiced less, there was concern that the Khovar designs, which were related to weddings, and Sohrai art forms, more associated with the harvest, would be lost.
“That should do it for today.” Finley removed the filters and placed them in her case as she spoke. “We can get the other Sohrai paintings tomorrow. They favor brighter light.”
“I cannot begin to thank you for your interest in preserving these tribal mural styles. They are becoming a dying art.”
Finley pulled a handkerchief out of her bag and wiped her face, applying considerable pressure to roll off the layers of dirt that had become encrusted on her skin.
“As long as daughters get married, I suspect mothers will be painting on the walls. The tradition has survived this many millennia.” She closed up her camera bag and rose from her crouched position. “It will take a while for it to die out completely.”
“I hope,” Dr. Rao said softly.
Despite his youth, he was a leading scholar in the field and had been studying tribal murals for several years. Part of his willingness to be Finley’s advisor and guide for this effort was his desire to raise to the Indian and global community the need for structured preservation programs across the country as tribal populations decreased.
“When must you return to Delhi?” Dr. Rao looked up from packing away the rest of the equipment.
He realized he enjoyed having a companion in the field with him. Someone who understood the esoteric intricacies of his area of study. Someone who didn’t laugh at him when his voice grew treble and his face reddened as he talked with great stridency about the loss to humanity if tribal women stopped painting and their men stopped drumming.
“Not for another week or so. We have to finish here and then head to Jamshedpur to see the murals.” Finley smiled. “I’m looking forward to those.”
The Khovar and Sohrai murals in Jamshedpur were an attempt by industry and government to ensure the next generation both understood and engaged in keeping tribal traditions safe. The project involved panels on the railway station and along the highway leading into the industrial city that had been painted in traditional Sohrai images. Finley had seen photos of mothers and daughters painting, side by side, to preserve their culture. It was indeed that article, and her subsequent research, that had convinced her, and her editor, that there was more than just a short story here.
The support of Traveler’s Tales had allowed her to focus exclusively on tribal arts while she was in India, rather than dividing her time between this story and shorter, more sellable subjects. She and Max had initially planned that she would research and write this project independently and then shop it around. She was freelancing so she could take her time and pursue the angles that mattered to her. This arrangement also allowed her to spend more time with Max. When Dan heard of it, however, those plans changed, and Traveler’s Tales stepped in with money, but followed her timeline nonetheless.
To appease the publishing gods at the magazine, she had sent in a couple of 48 hours in… pieces on Goa and Pondicherry, places she and Max had visited when they needed to get away from the noise of Delhi. Dan Burton, her editor and law school friend, was more than appreciative.
“Finley, you just saved me two hours of fast-talking and backpedaling with the editorial board,” Dan had said jokingly. “But you know how it is, always ‘what have you done for me lately’—meaning in the last ten minutes.”
He had again found her budget and consultant dollars that allowed her to pay Dr. Rao a small stipend in addition to covering his expenses. Dr. Rao was over the moon when she told him the amount of his stipend. In most cases, he agreed to act as a consultant without compensation because of his passion around the issue.
“Once we get the culture preservation story, we can wrap up this section and start weaving the individual artistic styles together into a larger cultural map of India.” Finley handed the equipment bags to the driver, who in turn passed her another bottle of water.
Finley always felt like an Amazon next to Rao and Dev, their driver. She was almost a head taller and at least a stone heavier than the two of them. The sun had baked her a rich, nut brown, which provided a complementary canvas for her swamp-green eyes. She was not classically pretty like her mama and sister. She was what the British called “handsome,” in their “always say something nice” kind of way.
“I will be so happy for a bath and a glass of wine tonight,” Finley said. “Hope you don’t mind if I beg off on dinner out. I think I’ll have room service on the terrace tonight.”
Dr. Rao hid his disappointment. “Certainly. It was exceedingly hot today. You must be very tired.”
When the equipment was unloaded and secured in the hotel security office, Finley headed up to her room and Rao to his. The suites they occupied were more like corporate apartments than hotel rooms, with a bedroom and bath, small office space, living and dining area, and kitchenette. The hotel had a complete meal service and decent late-night dining options that ran until 11:00 p.m., for those days when traffic, either cars or cattle, stretched the trip back from the field well into the night.
She pulled out her computer and moved to the terrace to catch the setting sun. Without thinking about her movements, she pushed the speed dial button and settled in for her call.
“Hi. I was just thinking about you.” Max’s voice was low and husky when he answered the call. “I miss you. When are you coming home? Or should I come there?”
“I should be back in Delhi soon,” Finley replied. “We have a couple more days of shooting, and then I think I can do the rest from there.”
“Turn on your camera.” Max had switched on his video so she could see his face. His beautiful face with the sleepy, teal blue eyes and the laugh lines that she ached to touch. His hair, dark curls that frequently flopped over one eye, had been tamed today, so his eyes were more prominent, more mesmerizing, more inviting.
“You don’t want to see me just yet. I’m so dirty you should be able to smell me from there,” Finley laughed. “Let me at least wash my face. I don’t know what I was thinking, calling you before I cleaned up.”
“I don’t care. I just want to see you. Messy and all. Please,” Max pleaded. “You know I love you, however you look. Just let me see your face.”
Finley wavered a moment, then she clicked on the camera. He had seen her this sweaty before, but probably not this filthy. “Don’t laugh!”
“You look gorgeous!” Max smiled his knowing smile that always gave her butterflies as his gaze traveled the full length of her face. She felt vulnerable and yet protected as he observed her. “You tired?”
“Exhausted. We’ve been working in over ninety-five-degree heat since six thirty this morning, but we got some good material. Both pictures and interviews. So, it was a good day. What about you?”
“Not bad. The data is slowly coming back in, and it’s consistent with the other regions.”
Max was running a large-scale effort for the Indian government, looking at health coverage and services for underserved communities in rural areas. He had been working on the project for almost a year and was hoping to conclude his findings in another couple of months.
“That’s good news, right? It means you’re on schedule to wrap up soon.”
Finley’s eyes traced the shape of his perfectly bowed lips and then proceeded to follow the tiny lines that were etched around his eyes. She wanted so badly to reach through the screen and feel the warmth of him. Instead, she brought herself back to the conversation.
“What’re you doing for dinner?” Max asked, his eyes fixed on hers.
“Staying in, once I get a bath and a glass of wine,” Finley said. “What about you?”
“Same. Rashmi fixed a large pot of curry last night, and I’m slowly working my way through it. It’s your kind of spicy.”
“Are you talking about my love of hot food or my personality?” Finley joked.
Max took his time answering. He gave a half laugh. “Both!”
“I’d better go get cleaned up before they have to fumigate this room,” Finley sighed. “I just wanted to say hi.”
“Hi to you, too. I miss you. See you in a few days.” Max kissed his finger and placed it on the screen. “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” Finley whispered to a soon black screen.
Finley took her time in the bath. She wished her hair were shorter. The pixie cut she wore when she left Max in Morocco the first time would have been a lot cooler in this weather, but she knew Max loved her hair long, for whatever reason. She also liked her long, loppy curls—when they were clean and not heavy with sweat and dust.
Scrubbed and dried, she wrapped her still wet hair in a towel and padded into the kitchen to find wine. She poured herself a large glass of a dry white she had picked up in the liquor store. She hadn’t expected the selection to be so extensive, but she found several European and Australian wines, and a few local ones, that her colleagues said were drinkable.
She grabbed a banana, the ripe sweetness catching in her nostrils, and sat at her desk, looking through her email backlog. Three quarters of the messages were deletable, but they were mixed in with the ones that would require careful reading and thought, so the weeding process was tedious. When her sister’s face, with those piercingly clear green eyes, showed up on her phone, she had just finished sorting the last of the messages into the two categories. She switched off her computer and gave the phone her full attention.
“Okay, so how’s it going? What are they like?” Finley asked, even before her sister said hello.
Her baby sister, S. Whittaker Blake, generally known as Whitt, had her future in-laws there in Tbilisi visiting. Whitt and David, her disarmingly handsome boyfriend, had recently come to an understanding on marriage. He had asked, and she had said yes—with a few caveats.
Ellie and Steve Quinn, David’s parents, were in Georgia, seeing relatives on Ellie’s side of the family, who were longstanding wine merchants in the region. It was that connection to wine through family that had drawn David into importing wines from this region into the US and Europe. He was now expanding to capture the rest of the ancient wine region and share their wines with the world. Having family in Georgia made it convenient for his parents to spend a week with their son and his soon-to-be bride.
“They’re delightful. Mama and Daddy will like them a lot,” Whitt said, referring to their own parents. “A little more laid back than Mama might be used to, but she’ll adjust.”
“They’re from California, so what do you expect?”
“When they got into Tbilisi last week, they stayed with us for a few days, and then we all headed out to Kakheti, where they have the vineyards. Spectacular countryside.”
“So, you got to meet the rest of the family, too?”
“Some of them I had met before. I mean, David has been here over two years, and we have been together for most of that time. I think that made being with his parents easier. I had more recent news than his mom did.”
“She okay with that?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty easygoing. They both are.”
“So, this is going to work? I was waiting for a call from you saying you were running for the hills.”
“It’s all okay. Admittedly, I was nervous. I guess they were, too, but David put us right at ease. How did I get so lucky?”
“Well, baby sis, I’m glad you found him. In reality, he’s the lucky one!”
“I think we both are.” She continued, “How’s it going with you? When do you head to Delhi? Is Max there or with you?”
“He’s in Delhi, but he was here last week. Came to check in on the data gathering at a site not far from here and used Hazaribagh as his base.”
Her phone vibrated, and Finley looked to see Mooney’s blonde curls on her screen.
“It’s Mooney. I’ll just call her back after I am finished here.”
“No, why don’t you patch her in?” Whitt said. “I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
Whitt had met Mona Allen, otherwise known as Mooney, a few times over the years. She was Finley’s best friend and had been a godsend when Finley needed a soft landing the first time she returned from Morocco. She and Max had had a profound misunderstanding that kept them apart for over three years and left both of them broken. It was a chance meeting during Finley’s most recent trip to Morocco over a year ago that had repaired the rift and brought them together again.
“Moonster, what are you up to?” Whitt called into the phone before Finley had a chance to explain the three-way call.
“Whitt?” Mooney was confused. “Did I accidentally dial you instead of Finley?”
“Nope, we’re all here.” Finley flicked on her video again.
“What a great surprise!” Mooney’s face lit up when Whitt appeared online.
“Whitt and I were talking and saw your call, so we decided to three-way it.”
“Where are you guys?” Mooney asked. “I get whiplash trying to keep up with you.”
“Finley is in Hazaribagh, in Jharkhand, and I’m still in Georgia.”
When Whitt paused, Finley slyly dropped in the vital information. “With her future in-laws!”
Whitt quickly filled Mooney in on the parent meetings and family gatherings before getting the latest New York gossip. Mooney was the perfect channel for learning who of their friends was getting married, having a baby, in a relationship that was on the rocks, or seeing someone new.
“How’s Max doing?” Mooney asked after she had finished filling the sisters in.
“He’s fine. He’s in Delhi. I just spoke to him. I’ll head home in a few days.”
Mooney smiled to hear Finley talk about wherever Max was as being home. For the longest time, she had feared that whatever had torn them apart would never be surfaced or resolved. It had pained her to see her friend suffer, but she learned in time that Finley wasn’t the only one suffering. Max, too, had had to wrestle with demons when Finley left.
“So, you won’t mind talking to me then, your dear old friend.” Logan Reynolds popped his head into view. “Hello, Finley’s sister. I’m Logan. I tried to make your sister love me, but she repeatedly rejected me for this fellow called Max. Lucky man.”
Whitt had heard of Logan before. Very rich, very “sweet” according to Finley. And very FOF—“fond of Finley”—according to Mooney. Whitt now added a visual element—very handsome—to that description. Mooney had been trying, since Finley returned from Morocco the first time, to get the two of them together. Logan had seemed willing, but Finley always held back. The rediscovery of Max this last trip had thrown water on whatever might have sparked between the two of them.
“Logan, what are you doing bombing our video call?” Finley was laughing at the attractive, fawn-eyed visage sticking out the side of the camera view to block Mooney’s face. Leave it to Logan to have us laughing. He’s indeed a good friend.
“Thinking of coming to India. I have Challenger miles that I will lose on my jet package if I don’t use them. India is within range,” Logan said. “Would you and Max show me around if I came for a visit?”
Finley’s eyes grew wide. This man is serious. He is flying to India like other people might drive to the beach. Wealth does, indeed, have its privileges.
“You know you’re going to come whatever I say, so I might as well just concede defeat.” Finley sighed. “I’ll tell Max something.”
“Does he know about us, darling?” Logan teased suggestively.
Finley raised an eyebrow and slowed her speech. “He’s never even heard your name, you ninny.”
“That will make it all the more interesting.” Logan grinned cheekily. “Ciao, bella. See you in a couple of weeks.”