"Kristen, sorry to keep you waiting."
Kristen Wakefield turned from studying the oil-on-canvas painting in the antebellum home of Claudette Laurent to see Claudette's husband, Maurice, striding confidently across the drawing room toward her. Gossip had flowed like a river when he had married the wealthy and middle-aged socialite four months ago. Not only was he a junior salesman with the insurance brokerage firm she'd inherited from her father, he was ten years younger. Many thought Maurice had used his charm and good looks to take unfair advantage of Claudette's grief over her father's death several months ago. Kristen hadn't been one of the gossipers.
When her widowed mother had unexpectedly fallen in love with Kristen's godfather, Jonathan Delacroix, Kristen had almost ruined their relationship because of her own recent disaster with love. If Claudette had found happiness, Kristen wished her all the best.
"Hello, Maurice, I was just enjoying looking at the paintings." Kristen extended her hand. "I think Claudette has the finest collection of nineteenth-century art by people of color in the country."
Fit and trim in a tailored, gray pinstriped suit, Maurice smiled graciously as he took her hand into his. She was amazed to find his hand surprisingly soft. "Thank you. Claudette will be happy to hear that. She respects you and your opinion highly."
"I feel the same way about her." Kristen caught a whiff of expensive cologne as she glanced around the spacious room with its high ceilings, meticulously restored eighteenth-century furnishings, and gleaming Waterford chandeliers. "You have a magnificent home. I wish it was daylight so I could see the grounds."
"Thank you," he said, obviously delighted. "You'll have to come back and we can give you a tour. We love it here. It's close enough to New Orleans for business, but far enough away for us to have our privacy."
"You certainly have the best of two worlds." Kristen gently tugged her hand free when he gave no indication of releasing it. "Will Claudett be joining us soon?"
Maurice shook his head of neatly trimmed black hair, the expression on his amber-hued face saddened. "I'm afraid not."
Dismay surged within Kristen, who was acting on behalf of the Haywood Museum in New Orleans. It had taken months to coordinate their schedules.
"Claudette's plane has been delayed in Baton Rouge. She won't be back until much later tonight," Maurice told her.
Kristen groaned silently in disappointment. But this wouldn't be the first time a potential donor to the museum had cancelled on her. The very fact that they could donate money or loan valuable pieces for exhibition meant they were wealthy and the demands on them usually high. Claudette wasn't a figurehead; she worked in the firm, just as he father had done before his death.
The important thing Kristen had to remember was that Claudette was interested in helping the museum increase its collection of nineteenth-century African-American art by placing her extensive collection or permanent loan and influencing her friends in the art circle of New Orleans to do the same.
"I understand. Please let Claudette know that I'll call in a couple of days and make another appointment." Kristen extended her hand again "If you'll call your driver to take me back to the city, I'll say good night."
"Nonsense." Maurice caught her hand, then deftly stepped beside her, his other hand going around her slim waist. Kristen couldn't help her start of surprise. He didn't appear to notice. "I just got off the phone with Claudette. She feels terrible that she couldn't meet with you. She made me promise to go on with dinner as planned."
"That's really not necessary," Kristen told him, trying to move away.
"Claudette and I disagree," he said, steering her smoothly out of the drawing room and into a garden room down the wide hallway. A cozy table for three waited. A bottle of vintage wine peeked from a silver ice bucket. Flickering white candles surrounded by creamy orchids provided the centerpiece. The heavy scent of flowers hung in the air. Through the curved, multipaned windows behind them, light reflected off the Mediterranean-blue water in the rectangular-shaped swimming pool.
Releasing her arm, Maurice stepped behind a chair and pulled it out. "While we eat, you and I can become better acquainted and you can tell me about how you want Claudette's help. I'd like to offer my assistance as well."
Kristen stared at the gracious smile on her host's face and sank into the cream-and-blue silk
fs20padded armchair. Perhaps the evening wouldn't be a waste after all. "Thank you."
"The pleasure is mine." His fingertips grazed her bare shoulders as he removed his right hand from her chair.
Kristen flinched in surprise, but Maurice was already taking his seat. Her frown disappeared as quickly as it had come. It had been an accident. She'd dressed for dinner and worn an off-the-shoulder black dress. If her hair had been down as usual, it wouldn't have happened.
Taking his seat across from her, Maurice pulled the bottle of Dom Perignon from the antique ice bucket and filled her glass. "This is one of my favorites. I visited their vineyards when I was in France last year. You've been to Paris, of course."
"Several times," Kristen replied, trying to get over the inexplicable need to rub the spot where he'd touched. "The last time was three years ago. Dr. Robertson was kind enough to give me an extended leave from the museum to obtain my master's. I traveled extensively for a year, doing a work-study program with the top museums in the world before returning here two years ago."
He replaced the bottle, his gaze holding hers. "The Parisians have a unique way of looking at love and sex. If it feels good, do it. They aren't bothered by inhibitions."
"I suppose," Kristen replied, a bit surprised by the shift in topics. "But as I said, I went there to study and learn about art."
"But making love is an art." He picked up his glass. "To art and nineteenth-century paintings by people of color."
Kristen reached for her glass. After living in New Orleans off and on for seven years, she'd discovered many people here were more casual in their conversations about sex. While she had yet to get used to such frankness, she realized dealing with Orleans required an open mind. "To nineteenth-century paintings by people of color."
Over the rim of his glass, Maurice watched her as he drank. Moistening her lips, she twisted uneasily in her seat, set the wine down, then reached for her water goblet.
His dark eyes narrowed. "The wine isn't to your liking?"
"It's fine." She set the crystal glass on the linen tablecloth with a hand that wasn't quite steady. "What time is Claudette's flight getting in?"
He smiled, showing perfect teeth, and rang a small, silver bell on the table. "Hours yet."
The words were barely out of his mouth before a young woman in a black uniform with a white organza apron pushed in a serving cart. Lifting the silver domes, she placed a bowl of lobster bisque in front of each of them, removed the third place setting, then discreetly withdrew.
Maurice picked up his soup spoon. "Now, tell me how Claudette and I can help your project."
Relaxing, Kristen placed her damask napkin in her lap, picked up her spoon, and tried to comply. "In the 1850s people of color helped shape New Orleans into the city it is today. They dominated the craft-related trades. Perhaps in no other city in America did they express themselves in the arts so eloquently."
"There is no other city like Orleans," Maurice said, sipping his wine.
"I agree," Kristen said. "The French Quarter lures millions each year but how many are aware that the black iron grillwork surrounding the courtyards and on the many balconies was designed and made by people of color?"
"I certainly wasn't."
Kristen couldn't hide her astonishment. "One of Claudette's ancestors was an ironsmith. Didn't she tell you?"
He smiled charmingly. "She might have mentioned it, but we're still newlyweds."
"Of course," Kristen said, but she remained puzzled. Her mother and Jonathan shared everything. So did her brother, Adam, and his wife, Lilly.
"Please continue," Maurice said as the maid removed their soup bowls and placed artichoke salads in front of them.
"I want to make sure the contributions of the painters of that era are not forgotten. Artists such as Johnson and Tanner. Tanner, like many of his white contemporaries, had to go to Paris to study, to fulfill his dream of becoming an artist. He and other artists like him painted what was in vogue at that time-portraits, landscapes, and religious pieces. Although many artists of color were successful, a large number of their works was lost as time and neglect took its toll."
Maurice's fork poised over his salad. "And you want to change that? How commendable."
Kristen smiled, pleased that he understood. "I admire the courage and grit of Tanner and artists of color who pursued their dreams regardless of the fact that in 1891 people of color were thought of as inferior in America. However, too little of their work is on permanent exhibition in major museums where they can be seen and appreciated on a daily basis. Even n0 less is noted in art textbooks."
"How many are there on permanent exhibition in the Haywood Museum?" he asked.
Kristen sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Three. Two from Claudette and one from a friend of my stepfather's."
Disbelief crossed Maurice's face. "That's disgraceful! Something has to be done."
"I'm so glad you understand," she told him, her meal forgotten. "It's important to bridge the gap between modern African-American artists and the forerunners of centuries ago, men and women who by their dedication and hard work paved the way for today's artists to be able to express themselves any way they choose.
"They didn't paint about the 'black experience' but from the heart. Their struggles and triumphs are not in the art textbooks, but they deserve to be told," Kristen said with absolute conviction as the maid removed her untouched salad and placed grilled swordfish with lemon and herbs in its place. "The ability to create and appreciate art comes from within and not from the pigment of one's skin."
Ignoring his food also, Maurice propped his elbows on the table and linked his fingers. "This is very important to you, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's something I've wanted to do since I read Dr. Driskell's book, Two Centuries of Black Art, when I was in grade school," she told him. "My mother paints as a hobby and I grew up surrounded by art. I was fortunate to learn early about their contributions."
"Is your mother as beautiful as you, chérie?" he asked, his gaze steady, his voice husky.
Kristen blinked. "What?"
He laughed playfully and picked up his wineglass. "Forgive me. My Creole ancestry is showing. Claudette is forever after me. Please continue."
Kristen felt gauche. She'd never been able to accept a compliment with aplomb. "Too much of their contribution has been lost or ignored. If Claudette were to make an indefinite loan of perhaps four more of her paintings, I feel sure, because of her reputation in the art community, others would follow. Gradually I could build a permanent collection at the museum and do a definitive background search on the artist and the work itself. Perhaps publish a paper."
"Then there might be a way for me to help you." His intense gaze locked on her, he drained his glass for the second time. "I have a great deal of influence on my wife. I might be persuaded to use it on your behalf."
Kristen simply stared. The uneasiness that had been circling her crouched down in front of her like a waiting tiger with teeth bared. "What are you talking about?"
Calmly, Maurice refilled his glass. "I can be very discreet."
Stunned with disbelief, Kristen continued to stare across the table at Maurice. He sipped his wine and acted as if he'd asked her to pass the salt.
But what burned her was that he had the colossal audacity to think she'd accept his crude offer. Just like Eric, a man she'd foolishly thought she loved. He'd loved only himself.
She shot to her feet. She wasn't twenty and starry-eyed with love as she had been seven years ago. "Please tell your driver I'm ready to leave."
Maurice leaned back casually in his chair. "Oh, I don't think so."
Her anger almost choked her. "You can't possibly think I'll agree to anything so coarse and demeaning."
"I have a lot of influence on Claudette. Her love and devotion to me is unquestionable. I can use my influence to help you or crush you. You have something you want, and I can help you get it." His eyes roamed over her, lingering hungrily at her breasts. "But in exchange you have something I want."
"I'm going home if I have to walk." She tossed her napkin down and started for the door.
"If you leave, you can kiss your job at the museum good-bye," he threatened as he came to his feet.
She whirled back. "Just try it!"
"I'll do more than try," he warned, then rounded the table, blocking her path to the door. "I've done some checking on you since Claudette introduced us at the opera several weeks ago. Dr. Robertson might think highly of you, but Smithe, the chief curator, isn't so keen on having an assistant who wants to have her own program instead of helping him with his. He personally told me he'd like to get rid of you at the first opportunity."
She wanted to deny Maurice's words, but couldn't. Dr. Smithe had been hired six months ago and Kristen could do nothing to please him. He was a petty art snob who thought she had acquired her job because of her family connections, not because she'd rightly earned it.
"Smithe needn't distress you, Kristen," Maurice placated as he watched her closely. "With my help you can have his job in a couple of years. You and I will make your vision a reality, then your name will be in textbooks." His voice filled with seductive charm, he moved closer. "If you're worried about the servants there is no need. I instructed them to leave after the entree was served. Claudette will never know." He took another step. "Tin an excellent lover. Let's go upstairs where I can show you."
All too clearly, Kristen remembered Eric in his hotel room in New York taunting and jeering, baiting her with his depravity the same way. Her stomach churned just as it had done then. "I'm going to be sick."
Maurice jumped back in distaste, all lazy seduction gone. "The powder room is down the hall. Second door on the left."
She took off running, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor, then muted on priceless Persian rugs. Her heart beating wildly, she burst into the half-bath, locking the door behind her.
Copyright © 2003 by Francis Ray