“We’ll have to walk from here.” The boy from the inn, Jamie, cut the ignition on the wood-paneled station wagon and stared at Irene with faint hostility. They had driven into the fog and chill of the forest, up and up the old logging road, bouncing through the ruts and potholes as though riding a buckboard. The trees shouldered up to the road, shaggy conifers and oaks with mighty flexing boughs, old gods sniffing the possibility of sacrifice and leaning out to stroke the roof of the car.
“Walk? How far?” Irene stared into the shadows. Ferns as high as her waist waved their damp arms at her.
Jamie rolled from the car. “Not far. There’s a path. Lou … Mr. Dussault … he don’t like visitors. Says if they’re determined to see him, they can work for it.”
Irene and Celeste stepped out into the dripping cold, and Jamie dragged the garment bag with Celeste’s gown inside from the back seat. He slung it over his shoulder and set off into the woods. Celeste touched her mother’s arm and smiled.
“It’s okay, Mother.” She breathed in the fragrance of dying leaves and felt that little kick in her pulse. They followed Jamie to a gate of peeled logs, silver with age and weather, and on into a realm of bird rustlings and water patter. The path was not long, but it was long enough to allow the insular spell of the forest to reassert itself. When the lodge appeared, rising from an airy nest of fern and Solomon’s seal, it was easy to believe they had hiked to the undisturbed heart of creation.
The door of the low, rustic structure opened, and Louvell Dussault stood framed there. “Jamie,” he said, and his voice was deep and smooth. He stopped the boy in the doorway with a hand on his shoulder, the long fingers squeezing, swallowing the joint in an affectionate hug. Jamie hung his head and grinned.
“I brought them, Lou.” He turned his head and indicated Irene with a nod. “That’s Mrs. Pennymaker. She made me bring her.” The shy blue eyes slid to Celeste. “And that’s Miss Celeste, that you’re to paint. This here’s her gown.” He shook the garment bag.
“I’ll take that,” Dussault said. With the gown draped over his arm, he turned his attention to the women. “Mrs. Pennymaker, it was good of you to see your daughter to my door. She will be an honored guest. I’ll have to ask you to return to town with Jamie now. Celeste and I have a great deal of work ahead of us.”
Irene, who had put her foot on the first stone step to Dussault’s porch, took it off again. “I, well, I thought we would discuss the portrait, Mr. Dussault. And I could help Celeste with her poses. She’s never sat for an artist before, you know, and she might be nervous.”
Dussault’s gaze had found Celeste and fixed upon her. It never wavered as he dismissed her mother. “No. She won’t be nervous.” He held out a hand, and Celeste floated up the steps to accept it. “You may go home, Mrs. Pennymaker. I will send for you when the work is done. Jamie, please escort the lady back to the inn.”
He drew Celeste across the threshold, and the door closed. Irene stood as though spellbound, and then a tremor passed over her. She felt as though she might weep with grief, but she hadn’t the courage to open that door, to insist he give her daughter back. She didn’t understand what had happened, or what was still happening to her, and she looked up at Jamie in mute shock. The blue of his eyes was ringed with gold, she noticed. It was a feral combination, touched now with a hint of impersonal compassion.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. P.,” he said. “We’ll take good care of Celeste, and you’ll get a real beautiful portrait.” He came down off the porch and took her arm, gently, and led her back to the car.
Celeste drifted across the worn wool rugs scattered on the slate floor, her fingers caught firmly in Dussault’s. A fire arched its back and rubbed against the stones of the hearth, and the warmth of it fluttered over her skin. It smelled like untamed night. A drum beat inside her, speaking a dual language of danger and pleasure. She looked around the room, masculine and comfortable, and then up at Dussault. His eyes, in the trembling light, gleamed golden. He couldn’t be as old as her mother had said he was. He didn’t look any older than her father, a man still in his early forties.
“Are you really seventy years old?” she blurted.
Dussault laughed. “That and more, my dear. I am blessed with a strong constitution, a family trait. Welcome to my home.” He bowed over her hand, brushing a kiss across the knuckles before releasing her. “Would you like to see the studio? Or shall we have tea?”
“Oh, the studio, please. I’ve never known an artist before.” She blushed. “I’m glad Mother’s not here. It’s nice to have an adventure all to myself.”
“Do you like adventure?”
Perhaps it was Dussault’s strange accent that gave the words their sinister piquancy. Celeste felt an abyss of frightening possibility open around her, and she grew still. “I don’t know, Mr. Dussault. I mean, I haven’t really had one before.”
“No, of course you haven’t, child,” he said. “Who has, at seventeen? You must call me Lou. Come, I’ll show you where you’ll be sitting, frozen and grumpy, for long hours.” He smiled, and waved her before him into a lofty room where exposed beams formed a starburst interspersed with skylights. “Northern light, very good for my work. We will have a fire to take away the chill, I will sit here behind my easel, and you will sit here on this old thing.” He indicated a plump chaise in champagne velvet, the size of a Volkswagen. “Or recline, perhaps. We shall see.”
Celeste turned and found him very close. Her praise of the studio died in her throat. Dussault reached out and lifted a tress of her hair to his nose, sniffing delicately. His gaze mesmerized her, bold and wary at the same time.
“Orange blossom,” he purred. “Lovely. Shall we try a pose or two before Jamie comes to take you back to the inn?”
to be continued…