Iris Johansen – Eight Days to Live

By SMW Staff

“You cut it very close,” Celine called after her. “Where did you go?”

“Just for a walk, then to the café to have a glass of wine. I thought I’d relax before the hullabaloo tonight.”

“It will be a very elegant hullabaloo. Did it work? Did it relax you?”

“Yes.” She had a sudden memory of that moment just before she had entered the gallery and that feeling of malevolence so in­tense that it had shaken her. Imagination. It had to be imagination. “For the most part.” She got into the elevator and firmly dismissed that chilling moment from her mind. “Yes, I guess it worked.”

10:45 P.M.

“A WONDERFUL SHOW.” Celine Denarve locked the door of the gallery after her assistant, Marie, had left. “A magnificent exhibit. We’ve sold everything but the three paintings you’ve put a hold on.” She smiled over her shoulder at Jane. “How can I convince you to let me sell those, too? How am I to become a rich woman if you persist in being selfish with the best of the lot?”

“They’re not the best of the lot. I just have a personal attachment to them,” Jane said. “The technique is much cleaner in some of the others.” Lord, she was tired. She hated these art shows. The e critics who dissected her work, the reporters probing how she felt when she was painting a certain canvas, the people who bought art because it went with their furniture. But she supposed she should be grateful that she’d met with such success so early in her career.

She was grateful. And she couldn’t have asked for a gallery owner more enthusiastic and devoted than Celine. This was her second show at Celine’s gallery and their warm relationship made all the bullshit bearable.

“You look exhausted. You need a glass of champagne.” Celine moved toward the small bar against the wall. “Though you shouldn’t need any stimulation at all. You should be walking on air. Like I am.”

“And so you should. Tonight is as much your triumph as it is mine.”

“That is true. I did well.” She turned and smiled at Jane. “And you did well, too. You did not look bored. You were actually charm­ing to that art critic from the London Times. I think I’m getting through to you.”

“Don’t count on it. I’m glad it’s over. You’re right, I am tired.” It’s only that it has been a very exhausting month, Jane thought. She was ready to go home and close herself away and just paint.

“This will wake you up.” Celine poured them both a glass of champagne, and her gaze went back to the three paintings about which she had been previously talking. “You may not see it, but those paintings are very special.” Celine crossed the room and handed the glass to her. “Technique is important, but when there’s so much passion, one can overlook a few mistakes.”

She frowned. “What mistakes?”

Celine chuckled. “See, you may criticize yourself, but I may not. You have an ego like all artists.”

“I never said I didn’t.” Jane grinned. “I’m no Rembrandt, but I’m pretty good. In spite of what your French critics say. They don’t agree that passion is more important. But I do get better all the time.”

“The proof is in the pocketbook,” Celine said. “And name me a great artist who didn’t suffer for their art.” She strolled up to the two paintings at the end of the row. “Me, I prefer to sell your

paintings and not suffer at all. My commission will buy me a fi ne house on the Riviera.” She tapped the frame of the painting of the castle that towered on a steep cliff that overlooked the sea. “Not like this one. It’s much too forbidding. I don’t like Scotland. Not enough sun.” She tilted her head. “But you must like it. That castle has substance and power. It’s very . . .  strong.”

“I don’t know much about Scotland. I’ve only visited MacDuff’s Run a few times.”

“But it had great impact on you.”

“Yes.” She took a sip of her champagne. “You could call it im­pact.”

“I’ve met John MacDuff. He was  here for a charity ball several years ago. I was dazzled. Earl of Cranought, Lord of MacDuff’s Run . . . It’s hard to ignore all that intensity and Rob Roy mystique.”

“I assure you that he’s no Rob Roy.” Though the people on his property looked upon him as something of a folk hero and kow­towed to the Laird. MacDuff had won a gold medal for archery several years ago at the Olympics, then joined the 45th Commando Unit of the Royal Marines and earned a chestful of medals for brav­ery. “And he’s arrogant as hell.”

“But he’s sexy enough to get away with it,” Celine said. “I tried to throw myself into his bed, but he would have none of me.”

“Then he was a fool.”

Celine nodded. “I think so, too. He doesn’t know what he missed.” She glanced slyly at Jane. “Tell me, did you make it into his bed? I’ll forgive you if you let me sell this painting.”

Jane shook her head. “Our relationship was a little more com­plicated.”

“Nothing is more complicated than sex,” Celine said. “Nor anything so beautifully simple.”

Jane chuckled. “You’re just trying to live up to your image as a Parisienne.”

“I don’t need to live up to it. I live and breathe it.” She added teasingly, “Come now, tell me the truth. If you visited that cold castle more than once, he must have offered you a warm bed to lure you. Why  else would you go there?”

Celine clearly  wasn’t going to give up. Just give her the bare bones and make her happy. “Actually, it had to do with a chest of gold coins, a lost ancient family treasure belonging to one of MacDuff’s ancestors. I’d become involved with tracing that chest from its origin in Herculaneum.”

“Ah, a lost treasure.” Celine’s eyes were wide and shining. “Tell me more.”

“There’s not much more to tell. You wouldn’t be interested.”

“Which means you’re closing up and don’t want to share.” She was obviously disappointed. “I would be interested, you know. I’m not just being inquisitive. I consider you my friend as well as my cli­ent. It’s natural to want to know about people you care about.” She shrugged, but her expression was wistful. “But I will try to under­stand.”

Jane stared helplessly at her. Celine was an irresistible force who was all the more appealing because she was sincere. “It’s no big deal.” Though those weeks at MacDuff’s Run had shaken her entire life at the time. “It was years ago, when I was a student in college. I was an art major with a minor in archaeology. I became interested in stories of a young actress, Cira, who was the toast of ancient Her­culaneum. She fascinated me. It was rumored that she had escaped the eruption of Vesuvius and fled to Scotland, carrying with her a chest of gold coins that would be worth a fortune today.”

“But you said it was a long-lost MacDuff treasure.”

“Cira changed her name and identity and she and her hus­band, Anthony, founded the MacDuff family in the highlands.”

“And you went to Scotland to find the chest and found MacDuff . Now that’s a treasure I can appreciate. How romantic.”

“Not at all romantic. I  wasn’t the only one trying to trace that chest. Thomas Reilly, a criminal who would take first place on any scumbag chart, was after it, too. He was interested in some specific coins that were supposed to be included with the others. Before it was over it got very ugly. Good people  were hurt.”

“But you and MacDuff found the chest and lived happily ever after . . .  in bed?”

“No, in the end finding the treasure wasn’t worth it to me.”

Celine shook her head reprovingly. “Treasure of any kind is always worthwhile. This story is very disappointing to me.”

Jane smiled. “Sorry, I’ll try to concoct a more interesting tale for you next time.”

“Please do that. I’m losing faith in you.” She glanced at the por­trait next to the one of MacDuff’s Run. “You said this was one of the young men who grew up on MacDuff’s estate? Jock . . . ?

“Jock Gavin. Yes, his mother was  housekeeper at the estate, and he grew up running in and out of the castle. He was like a younger brother to MacDuff ”

“He’s quite beautiful, almost an Adonis with that fair hair and those silver- gray eyes. But he’s too young for you.”

“There wasn’t anything like that between us. I painted that portrait years ago. He was nineteen when I did that first sketch. I was only a couple years older and we . . . bonded. Jock was going through a rough time, and I was able to help him through it.”