Authors: A.B. Michaels
Dear Miss Starling,
Unfortunately business is taking me out of town for several days, but I want you to get started on the projects we talked about. Please contact my housekeeper, Mrs. Coats, about taking a look around my home to see what walls could use some artwork. (I’ll mark the wall I’d like you to put the mural on.) Then you can start looking for some pieces for me to buy. If you need help, feel free to hire your friend Mr. de Kalb; I understand he’s a good artist too.
I know we haven’t talked money, but here’s an advance to get you started.
ia read the letter that had just been hand delivered by Mr. Hansen and sighed. No more “Amelia Ruth” or “August Wilkerson.” Apparently they were back to “Miss Starling” and “August Wolff.” Perhaps that was for the best. She opened the envelope that came with the letter and found a bank draft in her name in the amount of one thousand dollars. She would be able to pay her rent for nearly a year for that amount. Unexpectedly her eyes began to well with tears. Forget six months or even three months—he’d lost interest after only a day!
She took a deep breath. It was time to focus on what was truly important: her commission. She called the number he’d put on the bottom of the letter and made an appointment to see Mrs. Coats that afternoon. Then she dialed Sandy to see if he would like to go with her. He didn’t need the money, of course, but his taste was impeccable and he could help her determine what was needed for the project. He readily agreed and picked her up at one-thirty for their trip to Nob Hill.
“Are you sure I can’t interest you and Mr. de Kalb in something to drink? Some lemonade with fresh-baked cookies, perhaps?” Mrs. Coats was a matronly woman with graying brown hair softly piled on top of her head and a pleasant face that revealed two large dimples when she smiled.
“Oh you are more than kind, Mrs. Coats, but we don’t want to trouble you. We’ll be out of your hair in just a few more minutes,” Lia assured her.
“Speak for yourself, Lia, darling,” Sandy said, treating the housekeeper to one of his most charming grins. “Mrs. Coats, I would be delighted with whatever you’d care to serve, I’m sure.”
Mrs. Coats smiled broadly in return and bustled off to get the refreshments.
Lia pursed her lips. “Really, Sandy, was that necessary?” Even though Gus had invited her to tour his home, she still felt like a bit of an intruder.
“Of course it was. Now we can snoop to our heart’s content. You know, check to see where the bodies are buried, try to locate the secret drawer full of incriminating evidence…that sort of thing.”
“You’ve been reading too much Sherlock Holmes,” Lia scolded him.
Sandy was right about one thing: the house was so imposing it looked like it could harbor any number of secrets. The Victorian-style mansion had more than its share of parlors, sun rooms, and offices, and who knew how many bedrooms and bathrooms. Much of the downstairs looked to have been remodeled; the smell of new paint was everywhere. It was a grand home, but somehow out of proportion, as if it were a fancy suit of clothes several sizes too large for the person wearing it.
Lia and Sandy had just finished measuring the imposing dining room, where Gus had scrawled “THIS IS THE WALL” on a ten-foot by fifteen-foot section flanked by doorways. The wall could easily be seen from all parts of the room, including both sides of the enormous banquet table, which happened to be covered with a painting cloth and several rolls of architectural plans. Lia immediately saw the potential for a mural that would inspire the kinds of feelings Gus had expressed at the site of his future home. That would be her goal, at any rate.
They were currently in the library, or what would
the library once the walls, which had apparently been stripped of wallpaper, were repainted. Whoever was remodeling the house had splashed two wide swaths of paint on one wall, a dark gold and a forest green, as if testing to see which one they liked. Lia looked closely and saw a leftover strip of the same cabbage rose wallpaper she had gotten rid of at her bungalow. It made her smile. She impetuously wrote, “This one” on the gold sample, then jotted more numbers in the sketchbook she’d been filling with room schematics and wall dimensions. “I think Mr. Wolff could use at least two three-by-twos on this wall and—”
“Look at this,” Sandy said. He pointed to a small side table upon which was stacked a set of carved wooden blocks painted with crudely rendered letters, numbers, and shapes. Next to the blocks was a small tintype; a beautiful young woman with blonde hair stared out from the photograph.
“I’m not sure, but I think that was the Missus,” Mrs. Coats said as she re-entered the room carrying a tray with the drinks and cookies. “He never talks about her, or his little girl, but I’m sure he misses them fiercely.”
Lia was staring at the photograph. She dimly heard Sandy ask the housekeeper, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, I’m pretty certain those blocks belonged to the little one, and every year he does a right nice thing for one of the children’s homes in town. Like this past Christmas he bought beautiful dolls and other presents for the third grade girls at Saint Michael’s. Tugs at your heart, it does.”
Lia looked at Sandy and felt herself starting to lose her composure. Sandy saw her plight and turned to the housekeeper. “Oh my goodness, Mrs. Coats. I’ve just realized we have to be at an exhibition downtown in less than twenty minutes. We’ll have to take our leave after all.”
“But don’t you want to see the upstairs?”
“Oh, I think we’ve seen enough today, but I’m sure we’ll be back. Thank you kindly, ma’am.” He grabbed two cookies and winked at her on their way out.
They barely made it out of the house before tears starting falling down Lia’s cheeks. “He knows what it’s all about, Sandy. Just like me. He
“Yes he does, darling.” Sandy put his arm around her. “He knows.”
They walked in silence back to Sandy’s touring car and remained quiet while he drove back down to the heart of the city. “Would you like me to take you home?” he asked.
Lia shook her head. “No. I want to help Mr. Wolff make his sad, empty house more of a home.”
“It’s back to ‘Mr. Wolff’ now?”
Lia nodded. “I think it’s better that way. Let’s go find him some beauty.”
“Oh. Oh. You’re here. I was expecting Mrs. Coats.” Lia stood awkwardly at the ornate front entrance of Gus’s mansion holding two large paper-wrapped pieces of art. Gus had answered the door dressed in a paint-splattered shirt and jeans. He was holding a paintbrush. She could see small bits of gold paint in his thick, dark hair, and a memory floated by of him not wearing a hat on that very cold morning weeks ago. She hadn’t seen her employer since then, and during that time she’d nearly convinced herself that what she felt for August Wolff was fleeting and even trivial, the product of a lonely heart. Yet the sight of him sent a rush of longing surging through her, almost taking her breath away. She pushed the sensation deep inside.
“You’ve been busy,” he said.
She had been. She and Sandy had scoured several of the major galleries in San Francisco and even a few in nearby towns to find art they felt would work for Gus.
“I know you said price wasn’t an issue, so Sandy and I considered a great many pieces in all ranges before narrowing it down somewhat. The ones we brought today will move quickly, so we thought you ought to see them first. We have them for three or four days on approval, depending on the gallery. I was going to leave you a note.” She turned to watch Sandy walking up from his car and one of her paintings began to slip.
“Here, let me take those.” Gus reached for one of the packages and their hands touched, causing a shock wave to course throughout Lia’s body. She raised her eyes to his in surprise and saw that he had felt the same thing.
Sandy, carrying several more paintings, reached the steps. “Lia, where would you like these?”
Lia stared at Gus a moment longer, then shook her head briskly and glanced at Sandy. “How about over there by the far wall?” Gus took the paintings from her and the moment was lost.
“Mr. Wolff, it looks like we caught you in the middle of something.” Sandy pointed to Gus’s paintbrush.
Gus looked at the brush as if he’d just remembered holding it. “Yep. I’m just finishing up in the library. Come tell me what you think.”
Gus had painted the walls above the wainscoting the deep gold that Lia had recommended. He’d done an excellent job and she could picture the beauty of the room once it had books and paintings and a big comfortable reading chair by the fireplace.
“I think I would have preferred the color green,” she said in a serious tone. Both Sandy and Gus looked at her in horror; she waited as long as she could before bursting out in laughter. Unthinking, she laid her hand on Gus’s forearm to reassure him. “It looks absolutely lovely, really.”
Gus looked at her hand and then into her eyes. “I’d agree with lovely,” he said. When she dropped her hand he walked back to the hallway. “Let’s see what you’ve found for me,” he called over his shoulder.
A half hour later he’d selected four of the six paintings they’d brought; the other two he’d deemed “too girly.” The price of the four hadn’t caused him to so much as blink; he merely wrote out a bank draft and gave it to Sandy, who was handling each transaction with the gallery owners.
They ended up back in the dining room. “And how is the mural project coming along?” he asked, gesturing to the large blank wall. “I’ve been told you gave Hansen quite a lot of exercise the other day. His wife reported he came home absolutely dog-tired.”
Lia and Sandy grinned at each other. A week before, she’d sent Gus a note asking for permission to go back to his property on the Marin coast. Secretly, Lia had hoped Gus would take them himself. Instead, pleading an overly tight meetings schedule, he’d appointed his assistant, Thaddeus Hansen, as their personal guide for the day. Mr. Hansen had handled all the travel arrangements, provided a lavish picnic, and waited patiently all afternoon as Sandy and Lia traipsed all over the property, sketching to their hearts’ content. From that day in the field she had worked up a series of drawings for Gus to choose from. She felt confident the images she had in mind would please him.
“I brought some sketches for you to look at,” she said, reaching into the canvas bag she had slung over her shoulder.
Gus stopped her by placing his bigger hand over hers. “I’d prefer it if you painted what spoke to you,” he said softly. “I think you have a good idea of what I’m after.”
Lia looked up at him in surprise. To be paid to paint precisely what inspired you was the ultimate goal of every artist. “Are…are you sure?”
Gus continued to look at her, saying nothing, simply raising his eyebrows and nodding.
Sandy cleared his throat. “Mr. Wolff, I wonder if you are headed back to town in the next little while. I know Lia would like to…discuss matters with you, and I really must be going.”
Lia frowned at Sandy. He hadn’t mentioned anything about having to leave.
“Of course,” Gus said, smiling. “In fact, I wanted to show Miss Starling the plans I’d mentioned to her a few weeks ago.”
Sandy looked at the two of them. “Right. Well, I’ll be off, then.” He picked up the two remaining paintings. “I’ll take care of these and the other paperwork. Lia, talk to you tomorrow?”