The gown her mother had agonized over hung in its zippered bag from a hook on the back of the studio door, and Dussault never glanced inside at it. “What do you like to do with your free time, Celeste?” he asked.
“Well … I like to read,” she said, wondering what he had hoped to hear. She didn’t have any hobbies or strong interests of any kind, really. Hers was a world of fulfilling the expectations of others – of her parents, her teachers, and even those of the society mavens to whom her mother introduced her, each one chosen and cultivated for her sphere of influence.
“Admirable,” he murmured, and handed her a book of medieval French poetry. He sketched her curled up against the cushions, pretending to read its yellowed pages. His hands guided her limbs, adjusted the tilt of her head. She felt flustered at his touch, conscious of her vulnerability, and yet, there was a sense of power, too. She knew she was beautiful, a bald fact of physiology that had nothing to do with her. She wasn’t vain, but she had been taught that beauty was a kind of key to an as-yet-undiscovered palace of wonders, and she was aware of his interest.
For the rest of the afternoon, he moved her through poses and caught them in vigorous, sure strokes on a sketchpad he held on his knee. He sketched her lying back, an arm above her head. Sitting forward, her arms resting on her thighs, her gaze directed at him. With her back to him, the profile of her face captured like a tender moon over her shoulder. Silence filled up the studio, disturbed only by the shush of his charcoal on the paper. Celeste thought she could smell the friction of it, a scorched dust phantom that tickled her throat. There was something else, too – a tension that grew in the air around Dussault and stole outward until it had tightened around them both like one skin. This had a scent, as well. It smelled of heat and copper.
Dussault cast aside the sketchpad and stood. “That’s enough for today. It is best that you go. I am hungry.” He stalked from the room. Stunned, Celeste followed.
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked.
“No.” He strode to the door and, opening it wide, filled his lungs with the evening bouquet of the forest. He spoke without looking at her. “Jamie will meet you at the gate. Be prompt tomorrow afternoon.”
Celeste shrugged into her jacket and crept past Dussault in the doorway. His hand shot out and grasped the nape of her neck, and she gave a little cry as he pulled her closer. His long, strong fingers wound through her hair and cradled the base of her skull, forcing her to look up at him. His eyes were hot galaxies of appetite, untroubled by sentiment. “Do not stray from the path, my dear,” he said. “It grows dark, and my woods are no place to become lost at night.” He took her trembling hand, and, as he had earlier that day, lifted it to his lips.
Jamie had lost his sullen air and greeted her at the woodland gate with a grin. He kept up a happy chatter of town gossip as he walked her to the waiting car and drove her back to the inn. Celeste made an effort at polite responses, but her customary tranquility was shattered. She wanted only to lock herself in her bedroom and cry into the rose toile comforter.
“Did you like Lou?” Jamie asked.
She hesitated, unable to speak a simple assent. “He’s scary.”
Jamie chuckled. “I guess he can be. You just have to get to know him better.” They pulled into the Buttertree’s neat lot, their headlights washing over a sleek black coupe parked in the shadows. Jamie’s smile turned to a scowl, and he swung in beside it, kicking up a little gravel that rattled against the coupe’s low-slung body.
“Is there another guest?” Celeste asked. The Buttertree had only four suites, and all had been empty when she and her mother had arrived. Mrs. Corning, the proprietor, had mourned the slow autumn season.
“Yeah. Dex Ridgeley. He shows up every year with his cameras, trying to get shots of the wolves up on the mountain. Been at for three years now, and nothing to show for it. Lou hates him. He’s a trespasser.” Jamie got out and skirted the wagon to open Celeste’s door. “He’s a creep, too. Steer clear of him.”
Celeste barely heard the warning. “Wolves? There are wolves in the woods?”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe on Lou’s land. I’ll see you tomorrow, two o’clock sharp.” Jamie gave her a distracted wave and loped away around the back of the inn. His sudden withdrawal left a chill in the air that had nothing to do with the October evening, and she went in to dinner feeling cold and abandoned.
to be continued…