Perfect Touch – Chapter Six
When he steadied her, heat sizzled through her blood at the casual strength in his arms.
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Perfect Touch – Chapter Six
Vermilion Ranch’s main house was sheltered among huge old trees whose leaves were just past budding. They surrounded the second story of the house in a shimmer of faint green. Fenced pastures bigger than Sara’s family farm spread lushly in every direction. Outbuildings were scattered at the back of the house. Pickup trucks of varying ages and upkeep were tucked close to a bunkhouse.
Though the exterior of the living quarters could have used some paint, the pasture fences were straight and tightly wired. Like the barns and outbuildings, sections of fence had been recently repaired.
Jay drove straight up to the big house and parked next to a red Mercedes that looked like a beauty queen in a construction yard.
“This could be ugly,” he said.
“At least your family has stuff worth fighting over,” Sara said, releasing her seat belt. “We always fought hard because we had close to nothing.”
“Some folks never get enough.”
“Then it’s not money they’re after.”
“Liza doesn’t understand that,” Jay said, opening his door. “Too damn bad the ranch doesn’t have enough money to fill the hole inside her. Never has. Never will.”
The door shut hard behind him.
Two black-and-white dogs raced out from behind the house, barking as fast as they were running.
Jay gave a shrill whistle. “Skunk, Lightfoot, go back to the barn.” The dogs looked disappointed, but trotted off toward the barn. Sara slid down out of the truck and nearly landed on Jay’s big boots.
She remembered his jeans stretching tight across his lap when he reached for his phone.
Think of something else.
Like having to live in the country again.
Her blood cooled immediately.
“I’ve had clients like Liza,” Sara said. “Well off and able to do nearly all of what they want, but all they think about is what they don’t have. It gnaws at them. They love buying things, because until the sale is closed they’re in the spotlight. I think it’s really the attention they crave.”
“Once a showgirl, always a showgirl.” Jay shut the passenger door and took Sara’s arm.
“Was she really? Liza?”
“When JD met her, she was slinging drinks and dancing. Mom had just died, and Custer talked JD into a wild drunk weekend. JD and Liza were married about four months later.”
“He must have been very lonely.” And vulnerable, Sara thought.
“That’s one explanation,” Jay said neutrally.
The front door of the ranch house opened, revealing Liza.
“I’ve been waiting an hour,” she said. “If you want to fuck your little friend, do it on your own time.” Sara felt the tension sweep through Jay’s body. She remembered the arguments that her mother and father had had, fights both savage and bloodless, words and acid emotions from either side of the chipped paint on the kitchen table.
“Would it be better for you if I waited in the truck?” Sara asked in a voice too low for Liza to overhear.
“It would be better if Liza learned to keep a civil tongue in her head,” he said, voice equally soft. “But if you want to lie low, I won’t force you.”
The sheer neutrality of his voice told her just how angry he was. And beneath that, she wondered if she was being tested somehow.
I wouldn’t blame him. If I owned something like the Custers, I’d want to take the measure of anyone I was going to trust them with.
“Will this be about the Custers?” she asked.
“Can’t think of any other reason she’d be here.”
“Then I’ll just pull on my big girl pants and come along.”
He gave her a sideways glance and a smile. “If those aren’t your big girl pants, my heart stops to think of what they would look like.”
“Ah, the sweet smell of cowsh.”
He laughed and gave her a one-armed hug.
Liza stood on the porch, fists on her hips.
Jay took Sara by the arm and walked slowly toward the ranch house. She noticed that despite Liza’s obvious impatience to talk to Jay, she had taken the time to change from her courtroom clothes. Her oversized fur-collared jacket came up around her head, and her needle-heeled boots belonged in the city. So did the black leather pants. The fury etch-ing her face made her features sharper and deeper, aging her fiercely.
She’s afraid, Sara realized. But why? Obviously she’s not worried about her next meal or even her next pair of couture boots.
Barton slouched in the doorway behind his mother, hands in the pockets of his loose slacks. He had changed, too. His slacks were brown, worn with a pale silk shirt and an equally pale, silky jacket thrown over his shoulders. His shoes were casually expensive brown leather. The expression on his face was amused.
Sara felt like she was walking in on the third act of a play.
“What happened today isn’t any kind of justice and you know it,” Liza said.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, too,” Jay drawled. “Good to know that you still remember how to get to the ranch. Barton, you’re blocking the doorway.”
Jay led Sara past his glaring stepmother and her amused child.
“Aren’t you going to answer my question?” Liza started to point at him but stopped herself.
The harsh light on her skin made every worry line stand out.
“I will when you ask one,” Jay said.
Sara felt both Liza and Barton staring at her like she was up for sale. Or rent. Red flared across her cheekbones. It wasn’t shame. She had gotten over that useless emotion in high school. The burn on her cheeks was all anger. She wanted to get in Liza’s face and tell her that unlike others, Sara wasn’t the type to flat-back her way to success.
“I’m Sara Medina, art historian and design consultant,” Sara said pleasantly. “So pleased to meet you.” Not.
Liza flicked her eyes up and down in disapproval and then frowned at Jay. “So Beck is right. You’re going to sell them all off instead of keeping this a private matter.”
Without a word, Jay kept walking with Sara on his arm. Liza and Barton gave way. In that moment Sara understood that Jay’s command presence hadn’t come from a uniform and insignia. He had been born with it. “Well? Are you?” Liza demanded as she followed them inside. Sara felt the tension in Jay’s body, but his pace, like his expression,
“If you wanted it private,” he said, “you shouldn’t have been giving interviews to local news outlets and talking all about how you were finally going to get justice today. Which, according to the judge, you did. Sorry you don’t care for the taste of it.”
As Sara sat down on the leather couch, she watched Liza change tactics. A gleam of water softened the older woman’s eyes, if not her mouth.
“JD wouldn’t want family matters discussed in front of strangers,” Liza said. “Send your little friend out and we can get down to family business.”
“If you want to pretend to be family again,” Jay said, settling next to Sara on the old leather couch, “sit down and be civil. I’m not JD. I don’t argue for the sheer ornery hell of it.”
“That woman isn’t family,” Liza said through her teeth, glaring at Sara.
“Legally, neither are you,” Jay said, his voice calm and his eyes hard. “Sara is here to lend her expertise on the subject of Custer’s paintings.”
“Sure she is,” Barton said with a wink and a pumping gesture of his hand.
“Do you need a time-out, Barty?” Jay asked.
If Sara had ever wondered if the two men were really brothers, she knew now. Only siblings could know all the hot buttons to push.
“Don’t fight with your brother,” Liza said to Jay.
“Half brother,” Barton corrected, his voice tight.
“If he acts like a kid, he’ll get treated like one,” Jay said, letting his impatience show. “Sara is a guest of Vermilion Ranch. If you’re rude to her, you’re rude to me.”
Barton grimaced. “Fine. Whatever.”
He flopped into a Stickley chair so old that the original fabric had been replaced by cowhide, which in turn had been worn down to bare leather at the arms and seat.
Liza took a matching chair and sat like a queen giving audience to peasants.
Sara wished that she was free to roam and admire her surroundings. The main room of the ranch house was framed in timbers that looked strong enough to hold up the sky. There was safety and comfort in the wood-paneled walls, traceries and patterns in the grain that made the place feel warm. Nothing had been cut with machine precision, but instead was shaped by human hands. Any irregularities in the grain were clear in the light reflecting on the varnish. The house was real rather than architecturally perfect.
There is history here. So far from the glass and steel of my office, newly built on the rubble of old houses. And yet, both wood and steel architecture have their beauty—each in its own place, appropriate for the environment it was in.
Her eyes moved from the walls to what was on them. Her heart stuttered for a second when she realized what she was looking at.
Those are Custers on the walls! she thought.
The impulse to go to them, to study them, was so great that she had to fight to stay seated.
Henry stepped out of a darkened doorway that led to the back of the house. He nodded to Liza, ignored Barton, and focused on Jay.
“I sent Billy out to see to the stock in the northeast pasture,” he said. “We’re gonna have to move them up to summer pasture or start feeding hay.”
“I’ll move them tomorrow. How are the two new hands doing?”
“Told them not to drink Penny’s homebrew,” Henry said. “They’re both puking their guts out in the bunkhouse. Can’t pull wire for fences, much less ride herd on King Kobe all the way to Fish Camp. Oh, and the Stinson kids can’t meet you partway to take the herd to summer pasture, either.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Jay said. “Beats pulling wire.”
“The summer pasture will be easy, but you can’t wrangle those Angus up to the lake alone. Soon as you get to cougar country, they’ll spook.”
“Sara will help. She’s eager to look at all the Custer stuff stored at Fish Camp.” He looked at her with a challenge in his eyes. “Right?”
“As long as I’m on four feet rather than two for the trip,” she said, rising to the bait. “This looks like great country for riding.”
“The best,” Jay said. “I’ll provide the horse. Staying on it is your problem.”
“You don’t raise rodeo stock, do you?”
“Then I’ll look forward to it.” He smiled and said too softly for the others to hear, “So will I.” Suddenly she felt light-headed. Too much happening too soon. The robbery, the judge, Jay smiling at me like he wants to lick me from toes to forehead.
And me really wanting to return the favor.
Deliberately she called up memories of cow shit and isolation. The memories were so clear and deep, she could almost smell the dairy barn—which cooled her off immediately. Country was fine for a week or two. Any more and she would go crazy.
“I didn’t come here to talk about cows, drunken cowhands, and the state of whichever pasture it is,” Liza said stiffly.
Jay nodded. “You never did care about the business that kept you in diamonds and couture.”
Henry faded back into the darkness, a man who knew what was coming and wanted no part of it.
The sound of his retreating footsteps faded into silence.
“It was JD’s money,” Liza said. “He spent it the way he wanted to.” Her voice, like her spine, was rigid.
“Yeah, family business,” Barton added quickly.
“You both might have forgotten,” Jay said, “but cows are the family business.”
“Just a part of it, and an outsized one at that.” Barton leaned for-ward. “If you’d just look at the plans I—”
“We had this discussion already,” Jay cut in. “The answer hasn’t changed. It’s time to put money back into the ranch rather than pumping it into blue-sky get-rich plans and couture clothing. Any other ‘family’ business you want to discuss?”
“The Custers are mine,” Liza said. “JD gave them to me.”
“The judge didn’t agree. Neither do I,” Jay said. “The jewelry, furs, clothes, cars, condo, and stipulated generous allowance were all in your name. The paintings weren’t.”
Deliberately Sara concentrated on a large canvas over the cold fire-place. The painting depicted the ranch as seen from a place high on the less-famous back side of the Teton range. The painting was unmistakably Custer’s work, bold strokes of color and energy visible from across the room. The art was calling to her, a siren song of discovery, but she didn’t get up.
Beside her, Jay waited for Liza to get to the point. And he wondered why Barton was still in the fight. It was unlike his half brother, who had always taken the easy path paved by the Vermilion name and wealth.
Something lit a fire under his tail, but I’m damned if I know what it is, Jay thought. Probably another get-rich-now scheme that he can’t wait to dump money into. Ranch money.
Jay watched Liza squeeze Barton’s hand.
Here it comes, Jay thought. Finally.
“I looked you up,” Barton said, indicating Sara with a careless flick of his finger. “You sell junk. Hell, you don’t even sell real paintings, but you’re solid on wallpaper and kitsch.”
Jay started to defend Sara but subsided after a slight shake of her head. He settled back on the couch and wished he had known her long enough to pull her onto his lap. She was intelligent, vibrant, and ready for round two.
As Henry said, she’s a pistol. She won’t be like a lot of people who Barton overwhelms with his rude mouth and air of entitlement. Or even his charm, when he bothers to use it.
“Kitsch. Really?” Sara’s right eyebrow shot up. “Did Google or one of my competitors state that?”
“I’ve got connections that you don’t even know about,” Barton said, “in places you can’t imagine.”
Barty is bucking for a session in JD’s punishment chair, Jay thought.
“Connections?” Sara asked. “I suppose you mean the big auction houses.”
“You don’t know,” Barton said.
She shrugged. “If you want to jump in and let Christie’s take twenty percent of the pie before you start paying out your agent—and remember, that’s all installment payments to you, not lump sum—you’re welcome to try to convince Jay. If he agrees, it will be the slowest fast money you’ll ever make.”
“Don’t you dare take that tone with my son,” Liza said. “Those paintings are much more valuable than someone like you can imagine.”
Sara’s expression showed just how impressed she wasn’t.
“You don’t know anything,” Liza said, her voice rising. “I knew Armstrong personally and those paintings are priceless!”
“What else did Beck tell you?” Sara asked calmly. “Did he mention that half the money trading hands in art today is modern art?”
“He knows his business,” Barton said quickly.
“Then he knows that everything painted after World War One isn’t modern art.” She leaned closer, her body crackling with restrained energy. “Contemporary modern art is making the big money. Custer isn’t a modernist. If you can’t understand that simple truth, Beck will smile all the way to the bank. Custer was a brilliant artist, but east of the Rockies, he’s not an easy sell.”
Beautiful, beautiful woman, Jay thought. I’d love to have that fire warming my life. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t been warm since Afghanistan.
And that is an outstandingly stupid thought.
I’m not a San Francisco kind of man. She’s not a ranch woman. But it would be good while it lasted. Really good.
“That’s not what Beck says, and he’s the expert,” Barton said. “You’re just a pretty wannabe who doesn’t mind putting out to—”
“Beck knows the difference between genre and modern and con-temporary,” Sara said, cutting off the standard insult every successful woman heard. “Contemporary is what’s selling now. Industrial buyers are driving up the prices on commercial fine art. But Custer won’t raise an eyebrow in those big-money circles. They want Lucy Giallo and Damien Hirst.”
“Who?” Jay asked before Barton could say anything.
Sara turned to him. “They’re consortium artists. They get a ‘vision’ and then dictate it to a workshop. Highly conceptual and cold. Their work sells to emirs and corporations. Installations, not traditional paintings or even sculptures.”
Barton spoke up. “I’ve heard of Hirst. I saw Beyond Belief when I was in London a couple years ago. Fifteen million pounds sterling worth of diamonds stuck to a human skull. Takes balls to do that.”
“That piece sold for a hundred million pounds,” Sara said without looking away from Jay. “The buyer was a consortium of which Hirst himself was part. That should tell you something about art business and artistic scruples in some circles. The man doesn’t even execute his own designs. It’s not traditional art, but it’s being eaten up as fast as he dishes it out.”
“So he just collects the money after putting his name on something someone else did,” Barton said. “Sweet. That’s my kind of business. Smart, really smart.”
“That isn’t art. It’s manufacturing,” she said flatly. “But people pay through the ass for it,” Barton said.
And there it is, Jay thought. The meat of the matter. Money.
Sara leaned back. The leather couch sighed for her.
“To me,” she said, “that kind of art is too often intellectual masturbation. No sense of wonder or transcendence or even simple humanity. The results are meant to strike, not to engage. And yes, they are worth a lot of money in today’s market.”
“That’s what Beck said. About the money, anyway,” Barton said. “You get a classy art handler and you get classy prices.”
“Unfortunately, the Custers aren’t even Edward Hopper,” Sara said. “Anyone telling you different is just hoping to dazzle you into giving them a plump percentage.”
“Those paintings aren’t yours to sell,” Liza said.
“And they’re not yours, either,” Jay said to Liza. “That’s what the six years of legal drama we went through decided.”
“It’s not right,” Liza insisted.
“I disagree,” Jay said, “and isn’t this where the conversation started?”
“Look,” Sara said quickly. “I’m not interested in taking the Custers from anyone. The paintings are Jay’s to sell or keep.”
“You can’t understand what they mean to me,” Liza said through tight lips.
Jay saw the tears begin and wished he was out in a pasture pulling wire. If Liza can’t steamroller it, she floods it.
“At the end of six years of paying everyone’s legal bills,” he said, “I’m flat out of sympathy and damn tired of arguments.”
“All right,” Liza said huskily. “All right. Just give me one of them to remember my younger years by. You have so many paintings. Surely you can spare one for the woman who was once your mother.”
My God, Sara thought, biting her tongue. The woman is relentless.
“Peace for one painting, is that it?” Jay asked.
“Yes. I choose the painting.”
“No,” Jay said. “It’s time you learned that I’m not JD. I won’t be wheedled, cajoled, or worn down by words.”
Silence echoed in the room for several long breaths.
“So that’s it?” Liza asked finally in a quavering voice.
Jay could see that she was like the tide going out in advance of a truly monster wave coming back and hammering down on the beach. He really wasn’t in the mood for one of her tantrums.
“You just give a royal no and expect everyone to accept it?” Liza’s voice was as high as her color. “God damn you, Jay Vermilion, just like he saw fit to damn your father to—”
“That’s enough,” Jay cut in. “You’ve had your say, I’ve had mine. The judge had hers. We’re done with the subject.”
“I expected this kind of behavior from JD, but never from you.” Suddenly Liza fell in on herself, shoulders rounded and slumped for-ward. Her words tumbled down to the floor, not to Jay. “I thought you were better than that.”
“It’s over, Liza.” Jay’s voice was flat. “You tried every trick, burned every bridge along the way, and you’re still on the wrong side of the river. Get on with your life and leave me to get on with mine.”
Her head snapped up. “It’s not over. Not until I say it is. You’ll learn, just like JD did. One of those paintings is mine.”
“Good-bye, Liza,” Jay said, and turned to Sara.
Barton stood to the fullest height he could manage. “Some of us like to live in the real world. The one where resources can be developed into something really worthwhile and not ignored just so you can play cowboy with everyone’s money.”
Jay turned to him. “You want reality? What do you think paid for your failed education in acting, your failed restaurant in Miami, your failed gallery in Boston, and your failed delivery service in Baltimore?”
“It’s not my fault the economy tanked,” Barton began.
“Vermilion Ranch money paid for all your bad bookkeeping, failed businesses, and back taxes,” Jay said. “You want more money, earn it the way Vermilions have for six generations. Work on the ranch.”
“Cow shit isn’t my style,” Barton said.
Finally, Sara thought. Something we agree on.
Liza stood. “Come, Barty. We have lawyers to talk to.”
“Beck recommended some Boston attorneys who specialize in just our problem,” Barton said, following her.
“You’ll be paying them, not the ranch,” Jay said. “Judge made that real clear, too.”
“There are other judges,” Liza said. The front door slammed behind her and Barton, a loud period to the argument.
“I apologize for my relatives, ex and otherwise,” Jay said. Sara shrugged. “They’re not the first ill-behaved adults I’ve ever dealt with. Won’t be the last.”
He just shook his head.
Impulsively she touched his shoulder. The heat and power of him through the cotton shirt startled her.
“Don’t let either of them manipulate you with guilt. Families are way too good at that. You’re a good man. Don’t let them drag you down.”
Jay shuddered lightly at the feel of her hand’s warmth sinking into his skin. “If you knew what I was thinking right now, you wouldn’t call me a good man.”
His voice dropped in tone, and the heat in his eyes was unmistakable.
“I didn’t say you were a saint,” she said, slowly lifting her hand away from his shoulder.
For a long moment he watched her watching him.
“They gone yet?” Henry called from the kitchen.
“Yeah,” Jay said without looking away from Sara. “It’s safe for you to slide off to your cabin.”
“You cooking tonight?”
“Did you bring fresh stuff back from town?” Jay asked.
“Then I’m cooking.”
“See you in a few.”
The door shut smartly after the foreman.
Jay stood up, pulling Sara lightly after him. “Let’s get your luggage out of the truck. Do you have something you can wear on a horse? If not, I’ll find something. Mother’s clothes are still packed away. She was about your height and build. I want to leave for Fish Camp around dawn. We’ll overnight there with the caretakers—Ivar and Inge Solvang—then push on to the summer pasture the next morning.”
“I always pack something I can hike or ride or relax in. You said dawn?”
“Crack of. The calves are just old enough to be stubborn. The mamas are better, except when they aren’t. It will take us some time to convince all of them to stay on the trail. It could be a long day. Cows like staying in one place.”
“Stubborn beasts,” she said, remembering. “At least my horse will be doing the work rather than my own feet.”
“You sure you’re used to riding?” he asked. “I’m sure.”
“I didn’t grow up in the East.”
His half smile said they would find out for sure in the morning.
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