Chapter One: Lucky at Ravens Roost
It surprised me later that I'd seen the white Bentley convertible with the tan leather top before I focused on him. When I did see him standing there, smiling at me, trying to get a good look at the canvas on my easel, all I could think was "Nice coat." I don't know when I'd last seen a man wearing a full-length mink coat --or even a woman--but he wore it well--naturally, as if by right, which I guess it was, since he was probably one of the richest men in Virginia.
I'd come up to Ravens Roost to be alone. The Sunday Washington Post's Travel Section had said that the leaves on the Skyline Drive would be starting their peak period on Wednesday, so I knew if I was going to get any painting done without tourists at my elbows I needed to get up here by today, Tuesday. Thankfully, the weather had cooperated. The sun was shining and the temperature wasn't too cold or humid to mess with my paints.
I figured if I drove up to the top of the Blue Ridge at Afton, from Waynesboro, and headed south on the Blue Ridge Parkway rather than north on the Skyline Drive, I'd avoid nearly all of the early leaf spotters coming down from Washington on the drive. And until the man in the mink coat rolled up in his Bentley at the Ravens Roost overlook, looking west through the Torrey Ridge and down into the Shenandoah Valley, I'd been right.
It was one of my favorite spots, especially because it presented me with a conundrum. I could get the landscape, which changed dramatically by season, just right whenever I came up here. But I couldn't capture the birds. They were ever in motion, and that's the way I liked them--the ravens and hawks soaring on the updrafts and nesting in the nooks and crannies of the sheer, lichen-covered gray cliff faces under the overlook and and across the asphalt of the parkway beyond it. It was the soaring motion of the birds that I wanted to capture. But thus far it had eluded me. And I still found myself telling anyone at the art fairs asking me about the canvases painted up here that I appreciated their kind comments about capturing the Blue Ridge mountain scapes just right, but that I still hadn't managed to capture the soaring birds here at Ravens Roost.
"Yes," I heard him speak softly from behind me in a well-modulated, educated voice--something foreign in Virginia anywhere but here at the western edge of the Piedmont, where the old families of Central Virginia still did the European tour and brought home British spouses.
I turned and raised my eyebrow. My paint brush, loaded with just the right mix of red and orange and yellow, hovered over the canvas.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. But I stopped at the overlook because the way the sun hit the trees on the slope over there made them shimmer with fiery earth tones. And I see here that you have captured them perfectly on canvas."
"Thank you," I said and turned back to the canvas, trying to remember just where I had wanted to apply the paint. I wanted to be irritated by his snapping of my concentration, but I found that my mind was torn between capturing the perfect play of the light before it flitted away and wanting to concentrate on him. I would have thought that a man in a fur coat and a Bentley would be entirely out of his element up here at the top of the Blue Ridge, but he seemed in complete comfort and control, as if he was the proprietor and perhaps it was I who was the interloper. This despite the outlook having been a special spot for me for the two years since I had descended from New York, where the business of surviving had been stifling and sucking the very life out of my creativity. I had thought I was a cityscape artist. But I had been wrong. I found myself entirely at home in the quiet elegance of the Shenandoah Valley.
With a sigh, as a cloud floated across the sun, changing the light on the slope of the Torrey Ridge to something as interesting as what I was painting--but something far different from what I was painting--I lowered the paintbrush and covered the paint-loaded tip with an oil rag.
"I am mortified," he said in a voice that sounded genuinely contrite. "I have ruined your painting. I see that the light has changed."
"No matter," I answered. "It's in my memory. Some artists work from photographs. I find I need the dimensions of working from real life--and that I can retain that in my mind."
I surprised myself. I normally would, in fact, have been quite angry with the interruption. I had purposely chosen my day for optimum landscape color and minimum interference. But he intrigued me. I liked men. And he was quite an engaging specimen. He was tall and thin and what anyone would call distinguished looking, patrician even. I may have been swayed toward that from the Bentley and the fur coat anyway, but I imagine he'd convey the same impression in a business suit--although even there I couldn't think of anything less than Armani--or even jeans and a wool shirt. Ageless in appearance, he could be anything from his mid-to-late fifties, but would be described as very well preserved anywhere in this age range. If I had to peg a career, I'd guess men's high-fashion clothes designer. It was possible he was from inherited wealth and hadn't worked a day in his life, but there was something more substantial about his look that belied that assessment.
Then he was moving toward me, to position himself for a closer look at the painting, and the realization hit me by the way that he moved that he liked men. I don't know why, but that sent a chill of interest up my spine.
"Are you sure you can capture the light still?" he asked. I was touched that he seemed to be worried about that.
"Yes, I'm sure," I answered.
"Either way, please give me the privilege of first refusal on the painting when it's done. Are you from Charlottesville?"
"No, I live in the valley. There, just down there in Waynesboro. I like it. It's less like New York than Charlottesville."
"That's a surprise," he answered. "I don't find Charlottesville anything like New York."
"Not much," I admitted, and laughed. "But people, you know. Charlottesville is too popular. I can go over there for showings, but there already are too many people."
He had turned from me and was looking over the low stone wall, down into the fold of the mountains running between this range and the lower Torrey Ridge, northwest toward Lake Sherando.
"Not that Charlottesville is bad, of course," I said. "Is that where you live?"
"No, I live in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge. Near Crozet. Actually, nearer to the smaller Whitehall, if you know where that is."
"I do," I answered. Plantation area. Horse country. The center of the hunt country that was almost pure English, except that they didn't kill the fox. "What are you staring at so intently down in the valley?" I asked, more interested in this man now that I knew that he might be of interest. I had a younger, rougher lover now, but I had always been attracted to older men. Refined men. Men of excellent taste. My eyes flickered over to the Bentley. An auto for a man who knew what he wanted and had the means to get it--and good taste to complement that.
"There's a vineyard down there on the slope below us," he murmured in a low voice. "The vine leaves have turned a golden yellow. I think that's what I came up here to see. The yellow of the regimented rows of vine leaves against the rampant reds and oranges and greens of the fall colors on the surrounding trees. Tell me, Mr. . . ."
"Lucio Conte," I answered, filling in for his pause. "They call me Lucky." I looked intently at him to see if that rang any sort of bell. I wasn't unknown in the region. My art sold well. But the blue-gray eyes he turned on me showed no sign of recognition. Although I felt a tingling at the center of me to discern that his eyes showed interest--and the same interest that was dancing in my mind about him.
"Tell me, Mr. Conte . . ."
"Lucky," I interjected.
He smiled. "Lucky, then. Tell me, do you paint vineyards too--and large scenes on walls?"
"Yes, I can do that," I answered.
"Perhaps you can visit me someday, then," he said. He reached into the pocket of his fur coat and extracted a wallet. "I've put in a vineyard and am having a tasting room and event complex built. If you can capture the colors of that vineyard down there against the autumn trees on a large wall mural, I think I know just where that might fit. I'm sure we'd be able to come to an agreement."
At the moment he said that, our finger met as he gave me a business card, and I knew that he was talking about far more than painting when he said we could come to an agreement.
But in that touch alone, it hit me--and somehow I think it dawned on him too--that we wanted the same thing in an arrangement. There was no rational way to explain it; it's just something I knew from long practice, and I was willing to bet that he had even more experience and instincts than I had in these matters.
We were not a match.
For the first time since he'd arrived, I got the sensation that he was a bit flustered. He dropped his hand and his eyes, and drew away from me. I knew he was withdrawing into his own world, a world represented by the Bentley.
To cover his embarrassment, though, he spoke again. "I don't suppose your art goes to the more mundane painting of interior walls too? I need some of that done too, but I need a more deft hand and clever eye for color and shadow than I've been able to find on the other side of the mountain."
My thought went directly to Hank, and I then made what was the most serious mistake of my life at that time.
"Yes, I do have a friend who does walls. Special treatments, though. Marbling and the like. Perhaps . . ."
"That would be lovely," he said. He had backed almost to the door of the Bentley. "Please, I'm serious. I would like to see your work on my walls. Call me and come by with your friend at your earliest convenience."
Then he was gone, and I sensed he was as disappointed as I was at the lost possibility.
I turned and closed my eyes, summoning up the view of the perfect light on the side of the Torrey Ridge. Then I opened my eyes and uncovered my paint brush and dipped the tip into the red, orange, and yellow of the palette and lost myself in capturing the remembered moment on canvas.
It was only when I had finished that I took the man's business card out of my pocket and looked at it. I had been talking to the legendary Dabney Belcastle, a man of considerable wealth and power. A son of the Virginia Piedmont who had been an ambassador in his early thirties and had retired to the family plantation, Castleton, before he was fifty. Since then he had dabbled in all sorts of boutique ventures, including, I laughed, men's high fashion. And now it seemed that Castleton was becoming the site of a show winery. Quite a catch for a commercial artist--if not quite the type of catch I had been developing a hankering for.
It was Hank, Henry Hemings, the rough, beefy house painter octoroon who scratched that itch for me when I came down off the mountain.
I beat him back to the cottage we shared on the grounds of Worthington, an antebellum plantation that had been subdivided several times. The manor house itself had only escaped the wrecking ball by becoming the refurbished social center of a high-end retirement community. The cottage I rented and Hank also occupied at my sufferance had been the estate's gatehouse. It was a quirky two bedroom on several different levels, built in stone, which had the redeeming feature of being attached to what had been a three-car garage that now made a quite suitable art studio for both Hank and me.