A Spice in the Blood: Conclusion

three wolvesIt was night on the path. The ground was cold, unrelenting as iron. I’ll walk with you, he had said, but she had said no, she liked the deep twilight and Jamie would be waiting at the gate. The smell of October, massive and untamed, had acted on her like a drug. She had wanted a little quiet time to think about what had happened in the studio, and to wrap the wildness of the night around her.

There was a stone in the small of her back. The air in her lungs hung above her, forced out in her fall, and she watched it melt away, wondering where all the sound had gone. She couldn’t hear Jamie’s whimpers, or the harsh panting of the monster, or her own heart. She was aware only of the cold stone pressing against her skin because her blouse, fastened playfully with an assortment of safety pins where its pearl buttons had been, was torn and rucked up over her ribs. Above her, the night was blotted out as the monster fell to its knees astride her and thrust its hateful face toward hers.

“Pretty, pretty,” it growled, running its tongue along the line of her jaw. From the crushed ferns at the side of the path, Jamie voiced a low, mournful howl. The monster’s head swiveled toward where the boy lay. “Quiet, pup, or I’ll twist your head off. There will be a new master here before the moon goes down.” It looked back at Celeste. “And a master needs an obedient mate. You know all about pleasing others, don’t you, pretty?”

“Let me go,” she whispered.

“Never,” it said.

“Lou will come. He’ll kill you.”

Dex Ridgeley threw back his head in laughter that turned to a full-throated bay of triumph. “Let him come. That’s why I have you, pretty, to bait the trap.” He slid his hand beneath her blouse, shearing through the fabric with the claw on his thumb. “Don’t expect the old murderer to save you, though. His days of blood are long over.”

Ridgeley, sighed the forest. Dex scrambled to his feet, dragging her up with him. “Show yourself, old loup,” he shouted. He squeezed the bones in Celeste’s hand until they creaked, and she wailed in pain. Jamie wailed with her, struggling against the silver bonds that held him. Dex shuffled near enough to kick the boy into silence, his eyes on the shadows.

“You dare to pluck a rose from my garden?” Dussault stepped from the trees. He was naked, heat steaming from him. His eyes blazed like firelight.

“Give me the pack. It’s time. I’m stronger than you, and I’ve had a bellyful of being alone.” Dex buried his nose in Celeste’s hair, his eyes never leaving Dussault’s. “She smells good enough to eat. Good enough to mate. Maybe I’ll try a bit of both, eh?”

Dussault growled and circled toward where Jamie lay. “Leave him,” Dex snapped, and the older man froze. “Give me the pack, and you can go. See how you like living alone. Deny me, and I’ll kill her.” The sharp thumbnail nicked the skin beneath her jaw, and Celeste felt a hot trickle slide down her throat to nestle along her collarbone.

“Are you a coward, to hide behind a woman?” Dussault’s voice was a sneer. “If you are the stronger of us, come and take what you beg for like a dog.”

The insult found its mark. With a roar, Dex flung Celeste aside. He tore his clothes from him as though they were made of paper, and sprang toward Dussault. To Celeste, it seemed he leapt from his own body into that of the wolf that suddenly shivered on the air, but the Dex she knew was gone and she was forced to accept his transformation. Dussault seemed to crouch into the great beast that met its opponent with flashing fangs. It snatched the Dex-wolf from the air by its throat and slammed it to the ground. Celeste hid her face until the snarls turned to the crunch of bone. She looked then, fearing the worst, but the enormous wolf-like beast still stood, its muzzle scarlet and dripping.

“Lou!” she cried. The beast glanced at her, then nosed its fallen foe. It placed one paw on the dead wolf, pointed its nose to the moon, and howled. More wild voices answered it, distant but growing nearer. The beast shook its fur, and Dussault knelt in the fallen leaves in its place.

“So, you’ve seen it all, my star,” he said. “The beauty and the brutality. Blood and bliss. I wonder what you will decide.” He rose and went to Jamie. The boy lay caught between forms, held by the icy bite of the silver cuffs. Dussault swatted them aside like cobwebs and held Jamie as he returned, trembling, to his man shape. “It burns, I know. It will pass. Go and drink.”

Jamie rose on shaky legs and staggered to the dead wolf. Kneeling, he dipped his hand in the cooling blood and drank it from his cupped palm. Dussault stood before Celeste, his head bowed. “The blood will heal him. Is there disgust in your eyes?”

“No. I’m glad Jamie will be all right. I’m glad you came for us.” She crossed her arms over her bare breasts. “I’m so cold.”

Dussault looked at her and smiled. “You may have a warm fur if you wish it.”

Celeste shuddered, and tears started to her eyes. “Oh, I do. I wish it more than anything.”

***

Three wolves ran through the forest, long legs eating the ground, leaving the lodge far behind, running to meet friends and family. Running freely under the moon. Smelling the wild world. Hearing the life rushing through their veins.

On an easel, beside a cold hearth, leaned a painting. A beautiful she wolf, luminescent in her white fur, reclined at her ease on the crumpled blue silk of a ball gown. Her eyes said that she belonged only to herself.

 

THE END

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A Spice in the Blood: Part VI

electric wolf“You’re late.” Dussault’s deep voice rapped out at them from the shadowed doorway of the lodge. In the interior dimness, his golden eyes floated and burned like candles. Celeste clutched Jamie’s arm, unwilling to climb the steps to the porch and face the artist.

“We ran into Ridgeley on the way up, Lou. I ran him off.” Jamie studied the tops of his sneakers as though finding the meaning of life there, and Celeste felt the tension in him, his muscles readying themselves for flight. What kind of man was Dussault, to inspire such devotion and such fear? Her heart skipped and fluttered at the thought of sitting in the studio, alone with him.

Dussault was silent for a long moment, and then he stepped out into the light, coming to the edge of the porch to look down at them. “Did you? And did he go limping, Jamie? I think not.” Jamie made a tiny, moaning sound of grief and hunched smaller in his denim jacket. Dussault stared at him, and the harsh planes of his face softened from disapproval to affection. “No matter. I will have to have a discussion with Mr. Ridgeley, and soon. It is not a job for such youth. Celeste, my dear, the light flees. Come in. We begin painting today.”

Jamie looked up, smiling, his whole body thrumming with happiness, and thrust her forward. Dussault held out his hand, and she took it numbly, allowing him to pull her up the steps and draw her into the dusk behind the door.

***

“You fear me,” Dussault said. “It is written in every line of your body. You are coiled like a spring.” He flung down his brush and glared at Celeste from under knotted brows. She shuddered against the curved back of the chaise, her pulse leaping when he stood and approached her.

“Come, come, child. I won’t bite you. Stand here, just so, raise your chin.” He lifted her from her huddle and moved her about like a mannequin. She felt the light fall on her face from the skylight above and closed her eyes, listening to the leaves slide across the glass on the broom of the wind. “Ah, you begin to relax,” he breathed, his lips near her ear. “You are charmed by the music of the forest, yes?”

It was true. Safe behind her closed eyes, she was a different creature from the pitiful teenage girl who shrank from life. She expanded, she flowed, her senses awakened. Dussault stood close enough for her to feel the heat of him, but here, in her personal darkness, she did not fear his nearness. She was blindly aware of his strength, of the savage life that moved through him. He circled her, and her new awareness followed the light scuff of his feet, the smell of him that was tobacco, and wood smoke, and earth.

“We have begun all wrong,” he whispered. “I have been too distant, too severe. It is not merely your beauty I seek to capture, Celeste. It is your light. It must be free to blaze.”

“My light?” Celeste opened her eyes. Dussault stood before her, tall and lean, the picture of intense concentration. No one had ever looked at her with such attention. She felt disassembled, opened, her secrets scoured from her. She looked up at the greying skylight. The day was bleeding away.

“Do you understand how light is spirit? It is more important than facial expression, more honest.” Dussault smiled, a sharp and raffish gleam of teeth. Celeste felt the charisma of that smile as a physical touch, as though the white points of it had stroked possessively along her throat. “The quality of the light upon your hair, your … flesh, it tells me who you are. It is so much more than a play of shadows. It rises from you like a fragrance, like a spice in the blood.”

Celeste did not understand how light could be a fragrance. She only knew that Dussault was about to ask something of her, and she would either consent or flee. Whatever her decision, it would define her. She looked away from him at the fire making balletic leaps up the chimney. The studio was very warm, alive with darting gleams of firelight, and Dussault’s regard made her lightheaded. Something feverish and new lay coiled in her belly. It felt like fear and mad craving together.

“I had the sense of it immediately,” he said, and his fingers floated forward and brushed the pearl buttons of her blouse. Where they passed, the demure cotton parted. The buttons dropped to the floor and rolled lazily about the room. “Like calls to like, my dear.”

His hands waved aside the gauzy straps of her bra. She clutched her blouse against her thudding heart, and the silken sweep of her hair on her bared shoulders made her feel as naked as if she were entirely unclothed.

“I can’t,” she whispered, horrified to hear a strangled plea in her denial.

“You can’t – what?” he asked. His voice was soft, but there was laughter in it. Blood rushed to her cheeks, and she closed her eyes in shame. He opened the trunk that sat beside the chaise, and the old book of French poetry slid from it to thump on the floor. “Open your eyes, Celeste. I want to show you something.”

She peeked at him from under her lashes. He sat and smoothed something that looked like a fluffy rug over the back of the chaise. He pulled her down beside him and put her hand against the rug. Her eyes sprang open as her breath rushed out. It was a pelt of the thickest, softest fur she had ever touched, and it spoke to her in a language of primal sensuality. The joy of long limbs stretching over the moss and root tangle in headlong flight; an intoxicating perfume of earth, stone, and blood fizzing along nerves and arteries; a symphony of bird and insect song, grounded by the bass drum of a strong heart; passion, fierce and constant, given and returned. Her fingers flexed in the deep silver fur, and where she pressed it, a shimmering light arose. Her palm burrowed, greedy for more. She looked into Dussault’s tawny eyes.

“Is this a wolf’s fur?”

“Yes. Would you like to wear it while you pose today?”

She nodded. Dussault slipped to his knees in front of her and undressed her with grave care. Her skin glowed bare and ivory in the firelight, and then he drew the glorious pelt around her. As she fell under the spell of the wolf’s spirit, Dussault returned to his easel. She saw him there, painting, and she saw him running beside her through the ferns. She saw the light that told her who he was, and breathed its rare spice.

 

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part V

autumn woodsIn the small dark hours, Celeste lay awake, listening. Something ranged up and down the hallway outside her door. She could hear its careful tread on the narrow carpet runner, a whisper of sound so subtle she would have dismissed it if it hadn’t been accompanied by a panting breath at the keyhole. She waited for the doorknob to turn, unsure if she had locked it, but the creature only lingered a moment. There was a soft bump against the door panel and a strange, deep sigh of satisfaction: mmmmaah.

She lay frozen beneath the comforter and thought wildly of wolves that prowled through sleeping households, smelling out those who were wakeful. Outside her window, the fog had thickened and crept against the glass with a kind of weightiness. It forced wisps of itself through the old casements where they dropped to the rug and stretched out in sinuous swathes. The tall posts of her bed rose from them like black trees, and she could almost believe the forest had grown up around her in the night like something from a fairy tale. The thing in the hall drifted away. She heard its claws clicking over the bare floorboards as it brushed close to the doors of the other suites, snuffling at each. She closed her eyes for just a moment, and it knit itself to her dreams, hunting her through the night forest until the sun rose.

***

Celeste slept the morning away in a fog of dissipating nightmare. The sun staggered higher, lancing in the window and painting hard, thick shadows on the rug. She crawled from beneath the comforter and tumbled herself into a hot bath, groggily aware of the clock’s disapproving face. She could not be late for her sitting with Mr. Dussault. At the thought of the artist, her mood deflated further, and she dragged herself from the bath to look at the time. Nearly one o’clock. She’d have to hurry.

The inn was silent when she descended the stairs, and the dining room was empty. A sudden clatter of cookware drew her to the kitchen.

“Oh, there you are, Miss Pennymaker. Did you sleep well?” Mrs. Corning, in the midst of setting out her saucepans and stockpots for the day’s dinner, flapped a flustered hand at the girl. “There are muffins in the bread box, and the kettle’s hot if you want to brew up a cup of tea. I’m afraid you missed Mr. Ridgeley. He was off early this morning with his cameras.”

Celeste smiled. “I’m surprised my mother didn’t grill him about them yesterday. She’s a serious amateur photographer and likes to think she knows everything about cameras.”

“Oh, no, dear, she couldn’t have, could she? Mr. Ridgeley arrived just after you and your mother went up the mountain, and he strapped on all his gizmos and went tramping off before she came back.”

“But, I thought -”

Mrs. Corning twitched aside a curtain and glared out the kitchen window. “There’s Jamie, finally. I swear, I don’t know where that boy gets to. He’s harder to find than hens’ teeth.” She glanced at Celeste. “I’ll put that tea in a thermos for you, and you can finish your muffin on the way. You don’t want to be late. That old painter is a devil about tardiness.”

The wind was in the forest, shaking the leaves from the trees in mad, parti-colored gusts. They skittered over the windshield, clawing to get in, and were caught up again and whirled away like flocks of dizzy birds. Celeste shrank against the tartan upholstery, cowed by the rowdiness of the wind and by Jamie’s air of barely suppressed fury. The boy gripped and twisted the steering wheel in his big angular hands until she thought she could hear it groaning.

“He actually ate dinner with you? Just sat right down at the same table and … and … talked to you?” He was incredulous. “I should have stayed until you went to your room.”

“It really wasn’t his fault, Jamie. Mrs. Corning arranged it, and Dex was a perfect gentleman. I don’t understand why you’re so upset. We talked a little about his photography,” she paused, thinking of the senseless lie Dex had told her about meeting her mother, “and he said that Mr. Dussault is anti-social and has antiquated views of art.” She shared the last bit with waspish pleasure, and regretted the words as soon as she uttered them. The look of outrage on Jamie’s face struck at her heart.

“The lying dog! Look, Celeste, you got to be careful around Ridgeley. He’s trouble.” He guided the station wagon around a curve in the logging road and stepped on the brake, fishtailing a bit in the loose shale. “Well, well, speak of the devil,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.

Dex crouched in the ferns by the roadside, and Celeste would never have seen him. Jamie got out of the car, and Dex hesitated and stood. He was dressed for hiking with a light pack on his back, and perhaps his cameras were in it, for Celeste saw none hanging about him anywhere. He glanced at her, giving her a little wave of his fingers. She rolled down her window, and the wind rushed into the car, lifting her hair as though she were falling.

“You’re on Mr. Dussault’s property, Ridgeley. Again.” Jamie walked stiff-legged around the front of the car, his shoulders up and his head forward. Dex put out a hand, laughing.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy, James, I’m leaving.” He tipped a wink at Celeste.

“Yeah, you’re leaving, all right. Lou told me if I caught you again to give you something to help you remember your manners.”

The affability vanished from Dex’s face. “I don’t think you want to cause a disagreeable scene in front of Dussault’s … guest. I said I would leave. Run along like a good pup, and give the old man my best.”

Dex strolled past Jamie, his face tight, his lips drawn away from his teeth in a fierce smile that was more like a snarl. He bent at Celeste’s open window and inhaled deeply. She drew back, reminded of the way Dussault had raised the lock of her hair to his nose. “I apologize for any unpleasantness,” Dex said. “I look forward to seeing you tonight.”

“Get away from her,” Jamie shouted, starting forward. His rough voice rode over the wind, and an answer climbed out of the forest. Pure and quavering, a howl rose into the low clouds, and another joined it, and another. Dex jerked upright with a growl and turned to jog away down the logging road.

Celeste sat stiffly by the open window, her hair tangled with curled dogwood leaves, her breath caught and held. She had been alarmed, and then frightened, by the confrontation, but now that it was over, she felt something else. Excitement. Yes, that’s what it was. It had been exciting, the conflict and threat of violence, the inciting wind laden with the smells of the woods, the voices of the wolves that had made the hair rise on her arms and brought tears to her eyes. She had never heard such a sound before, a sound so freighted with time and meaning. She was a little ashamed of the feeling, the excitement, but it was seductive, too.

Jamie threw himself behind the wheel, grinning. His blood was up, too, she saw. He leaned across her to roll up her window, and she caught a scent from the back of his neck, sweet pine and the slightly smoky perfume of moss. She laughed, and he sat back and looked at her.

“Pretty good, huh?” he said, seeming to understand what she felt. “I could have thrashed him, no matter what he thinks. Geez, is that the time? Lou’s gonna be pissed.” He started the car, and they drove deeper into the tossing woods, to the hidden gate.

 

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part IV

candlelight-dinner“Oh, Miss Pennymaker,” Mrs. Corning trilled from the dining room as Celeste passed by on her way to the stairs. “I hope you’ll take your meal in here tonight. I have another guest after all, and it would be so homey for the two of you to each have a dinner companion, don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Celeste said, pinning on a smile. She would have preferred a sandwich in her room, but Mrs. Corning was already bustling over the second place setting, and the guest to whom she had referred was rising from his seat to greet her. “My mother has gone, then?”

“Yes, dear. She left a note for you. I’ll bring it with your salad.” Mrs. Corning turned to the young man standing beside the table. “This is Mr. Ridgeley. He stays with us every year.” The innkeeper sniffed the air. “I think my biscuits are in danger. Please excuse me.”

Celeste watched her flit from the room, and when she turned back, Ridgeley was pulling out a chair for her. She sat with murmured thanks and fixed her eyes on her napkin, folded into a swan that sailed regally on the blue china plate.

“I’m sorry to be forced on you like this,” he said. “You must be tired after a day in Dussault’s studio.”

Celeste stared at him. “How do you know I was there, Mr. Ridgeley?”

He smiled. “Mrs. Corning likes to volunteer information. I didn’t pry, honestly. I arrived as your mother was leaving, and I thought she was a guest and asked if I would meet her at dinner. My name is Dex, by the way. Pleased to meet you, Miss Pennymaker.” He held out a tanned hand over the chrysanthemum centerpiece.

“I’m Celeste,” she said, taking it. His hand was warm and pleasantly hard despite its manicured appearance. Celeste’s father approved of work-toughened hands and healthy color, and she filed for later analysis the sensation of calm capability Dex’s hand expressed. “I guess I am a little tired, but I’m glad to meet you. With mother gone, I was afraid it would be lonely here.”

She found she was, indeed, glad to meet him. Dex proved charming as well as handsome, and kept up a lively conversation over Mrs. Corning’s pot roast and apple tart. Her mother’s note, glanced at and tucked into the back pocket of her jeans, lost a great deal of its sting under the balm of the young man’s attention.

“Do you know Mr. Dussault?” she asked. The room glowed with firelight and candles, more of Mrs. Corning’s sense of hominess, and the dark rubbed its indigo pelt against the windows. Celeste felt safe enough, in this snug atmosphere, to broach the subject of the artist. She needed some reassurance, or she felt she might not be able to return to the studio the next day.

“Not well, but I’ve met him several times.” Dex chewed his apple tart, obviously wrestling with some revelation. “To be honest, I don’t get on with him. The only times we’ve spoken, the exchanges have been … unfriendly. You see, I’m a photographer, and that alone is enough to earn his contempt. He’s very old school in his thoughts on art. I want to photograph the wolves that live around here, but they stick mostly to Dussault’s land. He owns an unbelievable amount of land, and he won’t let me on any of it. I’ve been trying for those photos since I was twenty. A few times, I’ve sneaked onto his property, but it’s almost worth my life if he catches me. I‘ve never known anyone so antisocial.”

“Why do you keep at it? I didn’t know until today that there were wolves in the woods here, but surely there are other places to find them. What’s so special about these?”

Dex’s open expression grew shadowed and secretive. “Oh, there’s nothing special about them, really. I guess I just don’t like to admit defeat.” He poured a little more coffee in their cups from the silver pot in its quilted cozy. “But tell me about sitting for a portrait. It sounds elegantly Bohemian.” His smile was back, warming his dark eyes. Celeste forgot the momentary lapse in his manner in her eagerness to tell someone about her fears.

“It’s not, it’s just boring. And weird, too, to have a strange man study you so closely for hours on end.” She wrung her linen napkin into a damp twist. Her lip trembled, and she looked down, shielding the glitter of tears. “I hate it,” she cried, “and he scares me. He’s like one of those wolves you want to photograph. A hungry one.”

She looked up at Dex, and although his gaze fixed on her with sympathetic attentiveness, she could have sworn he had been glancing at his watch a second before. He opened his eyes wide and gave a low whistle. “That’s an apt comparison, Celeste. That’s just what he’s like. But you don’t have to be afraid. I’ll look out for you.”

It was exactly what Celeste had wanted to hear, and yet she did not feel soothed. Somehow, the magic had gone out of the evening, and all she wanted was to go to bed. Dex’s words, the perfect words, had the tinny sound of cheap comfort, easily given and empty. It was a sound with which she was familiar. It had emanated from the note in her back pocket at the beginning of the meal – I know you won’t be babyish about staying alone … I have an important engagement … be a good girl and do as Mr. Dussault asks – and it seemed only fitting that she should have another serving of it with dessert.

to be continued…

A Spice in the Blood: Part III

wolf-eyes-wallpaperHe sketched her seated, primly upright, in her jeans and sweater. “We won’t need your gown just yet, my dear,” he said. “I want to get a feel for the lines of the portrait first.”

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…

A Spice in the Blood: Part II

chaise in room“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…

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…