A Spice in the Blood

misty-mountain-silhouettes“He says he won’t come to the house,” Randall Pennymaker fumed. “He says if we want the portrait, Celeste will have to go to him, alone. He won’t even estimate how long she’d have to stay.”

He stalked up and down the length of the Persian rug, and waved the notecard at his wife. It was stiff, expensive stationery, grey-flecked cream with a deckled edge kissed by gold leaf. The elegant heft of it infuriated Pennymaker, and he flung it down on the tea table.

“And just look at this fee! The man’s an arrogant lunatic, but he’s got balls, I’ll give him that. You’d think for that kind of swag he could come down off his mountain.” He dragged a hand through his hair and fixed a cold gaze on his wife, who had remained immersed in her novel throughout his tirade. “Will you put down that damn book?”

Irene Pennymaker looked up at her husband over the rims of her reading glasses. She studied the red face, not yet shading toward purple, and the salt and pepper hair that stood in spikes where he’d tugged at it. His tie was askew, and he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves so that the old tattoos were visible on his muscular forearms. He was working up to a good, old-fashioned ruckus, probably complete with smashed collectibles and blue language. She sighed and put aside her book, and took up the offending notecard.

She admired the penmanship. The firm handwriting was beautiful, if antiquated. The words, chosen for economy and clarity rather than civility, were curt to the point of disdain. The fee that appalled her husband caused no tremor of horror in Irene. She believed you got what you paid for in this world, and for her only child’s entrée into fashionable society, she was willing to pay quite a lot. Celeste was a beauty without pedigree, and never mind her daddy’s first-generation millions. A portrait by Louvell Dussault could provide the lustre of fine breeding where none existed.

“Take it easy, Randy,” she said. “He’s eccentric, but he’s the best. We’re lucky he accepted our commission. He’s getting old, you know.” She took a cigarette from a silver box on the table and lit it, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs and letting it curl from her nostrils. “Think of the parties Celeste will get into with a story of sitting for the master in his private studio. Christ, nobody gets invited there. The man’s a hermit.”

Pennymaker straightened his tie, unrolled his sleeves and fixed the gold links in his cuffs, and swung into his jacket.

“Well, I don’t have to like it. Greedy bastard. He’d better paint us a bloody Mona Lisa.” He strode toward the door, his final words flung over his shoulder. “Tell him Celeste will be there on Saturday.”

***

Luna Falls stood, quaint and melancholy, behind its picket fences and flame-colored maples under a grey press of clouds. The smoldering of autumn bonfires gave the town an aroma of quiet, pagan ferocity. Celeste Pennymaker sniffed the rough perfume through the slightly open window of her mother’s car and thought she detected in its smoky cloak a thread of something wilder. An amalgam of leaf and earth, October chill and stone, that wafted from the misty forest clamped about the town like a fist around a jewel. The smell stirred her in a way she couldn’t articulate. It thrummed a chord within her, and the wordless note shivered through her in a scary delicious cramp that felt like longing. Celeste put her forehead to the cold glass and looked up through the narrow opening into the ashen bales of cloud, and from there to the tops of the wild trees that lay smudged against them, a kingdom rolling black and powerful to the horizon. Somewhere in that wilderness was the man who would paint her. She shivered again, and her breath fogged the window.

On the corner of Main and Second, the Buttertree Inn squatted like an obese monarch, its petticoat of gingerbread-laden porches frothing out nearly to the roadway. The car slowed and turned beneath the inn’s wide trellised arch of spent roses, crunching gravel. The orange rose hips flared against the grey air.

“Isn’t this lovely,” exclaimed Irene Pennymaker. She parked and twisted around to look at her daughter in the back seat. Celeste’s perfect, placid face looked back with dreamy acquiescence, and Irene felt a twitch of annoyance at the girl’s lack of animation. “You don’t know how lucky you are, baby. Aren’t you excited?”

“Sure, Mother,” Celeste said, and, when Irene heaved a long-suffering sigh, “I am. Really.” She looked up at the inn where she would stay while she sat for the portrait. “It’s really nice.”

“Well, let’s get you checked in. We have to meet with Mr. Dussault in less than an hour.”

to be continued…

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