Carly spent the next six days reading, making notes, sketching out the last half of Carolina’s biography, and making changes to the order of the paintings as they’d appear in her exhibit. To show them in chronological order, arranged by subject, or by medium? She still couldn’t decide. Any way they were shown would be fabulous, she knew that. Chronological order might best show off the woman’s incredible talent as she sampled the different mediums searching for the best fit. Then again, the thought of hanging those dramatic land and sea scapes along the same wall made Carly’s heart beat just a little faster. On the other hand, the oils would make such a statement, all those dark brooding colors lined up side by side along a stark white wall.
She made a note to have the gallery walls repainted a whiter white before she announced her exhibit.
Then again, it was difficult to completely plan the lay-out of the paintings when she wasn’t sure what else was out there to be bought, or borrowed. More oils? Landscapes? Who knew what masterpieces Carolina had seen fit to give away to her friends and neighbors over the course of her lifetime? Had the list she’d left in her journal reflected the entirety of her gifts, or were there others that Carolina had forgotten to include?
Carly shot off an email to Ellie inquiring on the status of her efforts to pin down Grace Sinclair to see if she knew any of the recipients of Carolina’s largess as noted on the list, then waited expectantly for a response. When a full half hour had passed and no reply had been forthcoming, she dialed Ellie’s number. Disappointed when the call went directly to voice mail, she left a brief message (“Call me.”) and disconnected the call. She tried to get back into the rhythm of reading, but was so distracted watching for an email or anticipating a call that she finally gave up. She’d no sooner closed her notebook and turned off the desk light when the phone rang.
“So what’s going on?” she asked. “Please tell me you spoke with Grace.”
“Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I was with her when your call came through but we were at a meeting and we’re supposed to have our phones turned off. I left mine on vibrate because my sister was at her friend’s house and was going to call me when it was time for me to pick her up. I’ll be happy when that kid is old enough to drive.” Ellie had been granted custody of Gabi, her fourteen year old half-sister following the death of the girl’s mother and the incarceration of their father.
“So what happened? Tell me already. I’ve been going crazy trying to put this exhibit together. I will need to integrate the new paintings — assuming we find them - into the collection of the ones I already have. And you know, I need to decide how they’re going to show...”
“I’m going to have the walls in the gallery painted stark white. You know, so there’s no color to compete with, but any way I show them, it’s going to be absolutely glorious. I can’t wait to see...”
“Carly.” Ellie interrupted Carly. “There’s something you need to know.”
Carly fell silent. Something about the tone of Ellie’s voice made her stomach churn.
“I told you that Curtis Enright had given his home and property to the town, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. Why?”
“Did you get the part where I told you that he was hoping that an arts center would be part of the plan?”
“Yes, I said I thought every town should have an art center. So what?” Carly fought an urge to bite a fingernail, a habit she’d ditched in seventh grade but one that always threatened to sneak back when she was under stress.
“I’m on the committee that was putting together some suggestions for the town council to review. The art center was voted on, as were several other uses that we don’t need to talk about right now.”
“I’m not sure where this is going, but I have the feeling I’m not going to like it.”
“Yes and no. Here’s the deal: there will be an arts center in the mansion. But the council wants a grand opening that would include an exhibit of works by St. Dennis artists.”
Carly’s mouth went dry.
“Car? You there?”
“Shit, yes, I’m here.” Carly sunk into the nearest chair. “They want your paintings.”
“Yes. They want my paintings.”
“Wait. How did they even know about your paintings?”
“My great-aunt Lilly knew everyone in town, and at one time or another, practically everyone she knew had paid her a visit. A lot of people saw the paintings hanging throughout the house, but they don’t know about the ones from the attic. Then someone did a Google search for Carolina, and found out that two of her paintings have sold for big bucks over the past few years, and that two or three are hanging in big-time museums. Grace had written an article about the auction in New York where two of her paintings together fetched over two hundred thousand dollars. Grace said she even had several in the inn and that the town was welcome to borrow them as long as they could guarantee their security.”
“So why can’t they just show those paintings? The ones from the inn and the ones that everyone knows about?”
“For one thing, they’re trying to make this as big as possible.”
“So when they asked me if I had any other paintings, or if I knew of any others...”
“You couldn’t lie, could you.”
“No. It just came out.”
“Aren’t there any other artists in St. Dennis?”
“Of course, and they’re going to be invited to show their work as well. But once they latched on to the idea of showing Carolina’s stuff, the idea exploded.” Ellie sighed. “It was like, ‘Yes! An art center! Yes! An art center with a gallery! We’ll have a grand opening! We’ll do exhibits! We’ll showcase St. Dennis artists.’ Then Grace brought up Carolina’s name and turned to me right there in the meeting room and asked if I’d be willing to let the town borrow whatever paintings I had for the grand ribbon-cutting-dedication.” Ellie’s voice was glum.
“So now everyone in the world will know about the paintings before I even have a chance to show them. Swell.” Carly blinked back tears. “So what did you tell them?”
“I said I’d have to think about it and that I’d get back to them.”
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you say no?”
“If I say no, they will work on me. They’ll all work me over until I cave.”
“Grace didn’t strike me as the brass knuckles type,” Carly muttered.
“You know what I mean. Everyone will be asking if I’ve changed my mind. Everyone I run into will want to talk about it. You know how small towns are. The next thing you know, people will be talking about how I have paintings by the only really famous artist to come out of St. Dennis and how I won’t let the community see them.”
Ellie’s frustration was clear.
“You have to let them have the paintings,” Carly said reluctantly.
“I feel so horrible even having this conversation with you. I know how happy you were — how excited you were the day we found them and how much you were looking forward to rocking the art world when you announced your find and your exhibit. I hate to take that from you. But you’ll still be able to exhibit them after the showing here, you’ll still be the exclusive broker when I’m ready to sell them,” Ellie promised.
“I just won’t be the one to spring it on the rest of the world.”
“I’m really, really, sorry, sweetie.”
“I know you are, and I appreciate that, El.” Carly took a deep breath to push back against the huge lump that was forming in the middle of her throat. Ellie obviously felt terrible and the last thing Carly wanted was to make her friend feel even worse. But she had to be honest. “I’m not going to lie, El. I had that exhibit space planned out and have lived and breathed those paintings. I’ve studied them and I know every inch of Carolina’s work by heart. I’ve imagined the articles in the Times and the New Yorker and the Washington Post and every influential art magazine that exists. But I understand the position you’re in. I’m really disappointed, but I’ll get over it.”
“Not for a while, you won’t. I know you.”
“Yeah, it’ll take a while,” Carly admitted. “When do I have to have them back to St. Dennis?”
“I’m not sure. I’m hoping you’ll continue to work on the biography.”
“Of course. That will still be the prelude to the exhibit I’ll have.”
“I can’t thank you enough for understanding. You don’t know how much I hated making this phone call, but they want to include the gallery opening in the holiday tour this year.”
“Wait, Ellie - they can’t just slap these things up on a wall.” Carly was appalled at the thought. “The temperature has to be regulated, the lighting has to be just right so that the works are shown to their best advantage, but also so that the paint isn’t damaged. And they should be grouped a certain way. I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the past week.” All of Carly’s plans came out in a rush of concern. “I’m still trying to decide how best to display them, though I’m leaning toward grouping them chronologically, so that when you look at her entire body of work, you can see how she evolved and grew as an artist. And there should be a catalog — I was working on that. Title of the work, year she painted it, any comments she may have made in her journals about it. Like in her journals she talked about the process of specific paintings, what inspired her, what she was thinking...”
“There’s been no consideration given to any of that,” Ellie said, “but you’re right. If they’re going to do this, it’s going to have to be done in a professional manner.” She paused as if thinking. “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m going to tell the council that the exhibit is a go but only if they agree to let you take over and that what you say is the way it’s going to be.”
“You were already planning the perfect exhibit of these works. Why can’t you do it here?”
“Because my gallery is in New York?”
“Carly, this way, you can still be the one to introduce Carolina’s works. When the exhibit here is over, you can move them to New York, but you’ll still have been the one to present them first. Everyone will be happy.” When Carly didn’t respond, Ellie asked, “What are you thinking?”
“What if they say no, that they don’t want an outsider involved?”
“Then they don’t get the paintings. Carolina’s work stays with you. They’re too important.”
“You could make some enemies there in town, you know.”
“Blood is thicker than water.”
“We’re not related,” Carly reminded her. “There is no ‘blood.’ It’s all water.”
“A technicality.” Ellie laughed, as Carly had intended. “We might as well be blood. Look, they’re my paintings and I can do whatever I want with them. I have to admit, I do love the idea of having them introduced to the world right here in St. Dennis. It’s where Carolina lived and worked and raised her family. A lot of her subject matter was right here in town. Some things are gone — like the lighthouse — but other landmarks are still here. The town square, that tiny church on Old St. Mary’s Church Road, some of the homes that she painted.”
“Look, maybe you could approach them this way. Say that you aren’t sure that the conditions in the mansion are suitable for a display of this size and importance so you need to determine exactly what the conditions are. If there’s too much moisture in the air, the paintings could be damaged. Too hot, too dry, too cold...”
“I get it,” Ellie told her. “If I can get them to agree to hire you...”
“They can’t afford me. Which is okay, I’ll donate my time as long as the exhibit has my name on it.” Thoughts buzzed around inside her head and she began to think out loud. “Maybe it could work. Maybe. Understand that the way the art world perceives the exhibit will have a direct effect on the value of the paintings when you are ready to sell them.”
“Okay, I’m hanging up now and I’m going to call the mayor and the president of the town council...”
“And security. There’s going to have to be real security...”
“Really, I’m hanging up...”
“Ellie, wait. If I could make a suggestion.”
“If I were you,” she began cautiously, “I’d ask them to call special meeting to discuss this. Tell them you’ve thought it over and that you consulted with a pro. You know the paintings are very valuable and you are concerned about the security and the integrity of these works. If they are at all interested, tell them I’d like to make a trip down there to assess the conditions.”
“They’ll be interested when I tell them they don’t get the paintings until you’re on board.”
“And tell them up front that if the conditions aren’t right and the works can’t be shown properly...”
“Then the paintings stay in New York. The more we’ve talked, the less comfortable I am with the thought of handing over a fortune in artwork to people who have no idea what they’re doing.”
“Probably not the best way to present your case to them.”
Ellie laughed. “I’m hanging up now. I have calls to make. Thank you for your input. I knew you’d know what to do.”
The call disconnected and Carly placed the phone on her desk. It made her crazy to think that Carolina’s paintings would be shown anywhere other than Summit Galleries. This exhibit was all she’d thought about for weeks. Still...if she had control, if she were still calling the shots and debuting the works, did it matter where they were shown as long as her name was connected with the exhibit?
She grabbed her phone and sent Ellie a quick email:
Ellie, tell these people that you want to keep the existence of Carolina’s paintings hush-hush until a big splashy announcement can be made. It’s too much to hope that it could be kept a secret, but try to make them understand and appreciate the value of silence. Tell them that the greater the surprise, the bigger the news will be — that you want to bring as much positive attention to St. Dennis as possible. Then call me the minute you have something to tell!
She hit send and then sat back and prayed that the powers that be in St. Dennis had enough sense to know that what Ellie was proposing was the best way — the only way — to introduce the world to Carolina Ellis.
Over the next thirty-six hours, Carly jumped every time the phone rang or pinged with an incoming email. When Ellie finally called, she was bubbling over with news.
“You would have been so proud of me,” Ellie told Carly. “I was so cool. So collected. So professional. So...”
“Right. I’m sure you were. Now what happened?”
“Well, first I went over the things we discussed. You know, temperature, moisture in the air, security, that stuff. No one knew anything about any of that. So I said that I’d already discussed the situation with the owner of a very prestigious New York gallery and that I couldn’t possibly let my family’s legacy be put in jeopardy unless the conditions in the mansion were right.”
“Ah, that might have been piling it a little high.”
“Who cares? They bought it. Long story short, they agreed that you should come to St. Dennis ASAP and go through the mansion and see if it would — or could — work for an exhibit such as this one. I pointed out that if we could get this exhibit off the ground, we could make it a huge event with tons of publicity, and it would bring in a lot of revenue for the merchants and the restaurants and the B & Bs.”
“I thought so.” Ellie sounded smug.
“So when should I come?”
“Oh, that’s the other thing. I hope you don’t have anything planned for the weekend, because I told them you’d be here on Saturday.” Ellie paused. “I hope that works for you.”
“It works. I’ll be at your place on Friday, so make something really good for dinner.”
“Will reservations do?”
“Of course. Oh, and Ellie? Tell Grace to keep it all out of the paper...”
Excerpted from On Sunset Beach by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2014 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.