I spent much of today contemplating ways to kill my husband.
“Whoa! Way to kick off a new year!” Carly Summit’s eyebrows rose as she read the entry dated 1 January, 1905, in the journal she’d received in the mail that afternoon.
If James continues to deny me my artistic pursuits — as he so arrogantly professes he will do — I shall be forced to do something...well, something dire. While he voiced no such misgivings before we were married, suddenly he fears that the reputation of an up and coming banker (such as himself) would be tainted should his wife accept money for her work. Have I not promised to never use my married name on my work, that the RYDER name would remain pure and unsullied by my craft? Is the man really so simple-minded that he believes an ultimatum such as the one he issued at dinner would have me put down my brushes and destroy my canvases? Is his ego truly so fragile that he fears societal censure should I accept payment for my paintings? Can he really expect me to choose him over my work?
Had I suspected his narrow-mindedness before the wedding, I swear this marriage would never have happened. As it is, I shall simply ignore him.
Hmmm. My work...his life.
Sometimes I think the choice is simple enough.
Carly sighed heavily and jotted the date and the sentiment in the notebook she kept by her side. As an art dealer and owner of upscale galleries in New York, Boston and Chicago, and managing partner of several abroad, Carly was well familiar with stories of women who had been discouraged or forbidden from pursuing their art. But Carolina Ellis’s story was more immediate and more intimate, partly because Carly was reading the story in its entirety in the artist’s own words, partly because the artist was the great-great grandmother of Carly’s best friend, Ellie Ryder, and partly because Carly had recently discovered a cache of previously unknown works by this remarkable early 20th century artist.
Carly had spent days examining each individual painting, but it had been through studying the collection as a whole that she was able to follow the artist’s journey. Carolina’s own words had opened a window into her very soul, a window through which Carly had been able to observe the artist’s growth as she experimented with different mediums while seeking her creative footings. Starting with pastels, Carolina then moved on to charcoal (which she’d pronounced “too moody”), then to watercolor, to oils, then back to watercolor again, where, her journal proclaimed, she’d found her best, most expressive self. Using the journals and the paintings that were available to her, Carly created an artistic timeline that permitted her to trace the progression and development of Carolina’s talent and ambitions. By putting the works in order — only some of the paintings had been dated — it was as if Carly had been able to look over the artist’s shoulder to watch as different methods, mediums and techniques were tried and discarded, until Carolina’s craft had been perfected.
Had there ever been such a find?
And the coolest part, as far as Carly was concerned, was that no one else knew the paintings — or the journals - existed.
Well, no one other than she and Ellie. Okay, add Ellie’s fiancé, Cameron O’Connor, but he wouldn’t tell anyone. And Carly’s parents — there was no way she’d be able to keep such momentous news from them but she’d sworn them to secrecy. But no one else knew about the extraordinary find Carly had made while visiting the house Ellie inherited from her mother in St. Dennis, Maryland. There, Carolina had met and married James Ryder, raised their two children, John and Lilly, and scandalously defied her husband’s wishes by setting up an artist’s studio on the third floor of their home on the Chesapeake Bay where she spent part of every day working at her easel.
Carly rested her elbows on the desk and continued reading.
“Amazing,” she muttered as she read on. “That this woman was able to produce such works while under this sort of domestic strain...”
She reached for the phone somewhat absently when it rang.
“Yes?” she said
“That’s how you answer your phone now?” a familiar voice teased. “‘Yes?’”
“Oh, Mom. Hi. Sorry. I was deep into one of Carolina’s journals that just arrived this afternoon. Ellie found a box in the attic that held a few more and she sent them to me. My head is absolutely spinning.”
“Lots of fodder for your book, I imagine.” Roberta Summit was almost as fascinated by the Carolina Ellis story as her daughter. “I can’t wait for you to finish Carolina’s biography. Remember, you did promise that I could be your beta-reader.”
“Yes, but I need you to be brutally honest.”
“Not to worry. What kind of an editor would I be if I only told you what I thought you wanted to hear?”
Carly paused momentarily. Should she tell her mother that she’d hired a professional editor for her book, one who was already hard at work on the first half of the book? Perhaps not. Roberta was so pleased at the opportunity to be helpful, to contribute to her daughter’s work. Carly decided to keep that fact to herself.
“I can email you the first half and you can let me know what you think of it so far, if you like.”
“Yes. Please. I can’t wait to start it.”
Carly opened her computer and attached the file to an email which she addressed to her mother.
“It’s on its way, Mom. I want this book to be fabulous and to generate a ton of interest in Carolina so that when I open my exhibit, people will stand in line for the opportunity to see her work.” Carly straightened her spine to get the kinks out, then walked to the window. Outside all was dark. When, she wondered, had day turned to evening?
“The art world will be turned on its head when you announce what you’ve found. These paintings will create an absolutely deafening roar,” Roberta assured her. “After all, no one has any idea that these works even exist.”
“Every time I think about that, my brain threatens to explode. I can barely sit still long enough to write sometimes.”
“I can only imagine what it’s like to have a find like this, and to have it all to yourself. Bless Ellie for trusting you enough to turn the entire project over to you, no strings. Of course, you were a good friend to her throughout all her troubles.”
“We’ve been best friends since sixth grade,” Carly reminded her mother. “The fact that her father was a crook is no reflection on her.”
“I absolutely agree, and you know we love Ellie. But the fact of the matter is that you stood by her when everyone else she knew walked away.”
“That’s what best friends do for each other. Ellie’s at a very happy place in her life right now. Engaged to Cameron, living in that wonderful old house in St. Dennis - and she’s learned a whole new skill set from Cameron. She can strip wallpaper and sling a hammer with the best of them now.”
“Whoever would have thought that the daughter of a Wall Street giant and one of the world’s first super models would end up working as a carpenter in some little bay-side town on the Chesapeake?” Roberta mused.
“I know, right? But she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. If you could see how happy she is, you’d understand.”
“I’d love to see her and meet this wonderful man of hers.”
“Cam’s the best. Maybe you can visit some time when I go to St. Dennis. And not to worry about that little bay-side town. It’s quite the place. You should look it up on the Web,” Carly suggested.
“I think I’ll do exactly that. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself.”
“So when will you be home?” Carly asked.
“Your father still has some business here in Portland,” Roberta told her. “He’s personally been supervising the design of the new plant Summit Industries is building. You know how he is about the safety of his employees.”
“I do know. Everyone should be held to his standards.” Patrick Summit was well known for his progressive efforts in plant safety and employee welfare.
“How’s everything back in Connecticut?”
“Everything’s good. I appreciate you letting me move all those paintings into your house.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s your family home. You — and your paintings — are welcome any time. Stay as long as you like.”
“Normally I would stay at my own place, but your security here is so superior to what I have at the townhouse. I think the paintings are safer here.”
“No need to explain. Though it does have me wondering just how good the security at your townhouse really is...”
They chatted for a few more minutes before Roberta said, “I should let you get back to your work. I know you’re eager to finish your book and start putting your exhibit together.”
“I know exactly where every painting will go. Well, at least until I change my mind again.”
“You’re still planning on debuting the collection in your New York gallery?”
“Absolutely. New York is the hub of the art world. I can’t imagine doing this anywhere else.”
“What about the other galleries? Who’s minding the store while you’re so focused on this one artist?”
“You know I have great people working for me. Enrico is running New York, Helena is running Boston, and Calvin has Chicago under control. London is still closed temporarily while they’re making the repairs from that storm last month, but I’m seriously considering selling my interests in London and Istanbul. I’ve had long-standing offers on both, and I think it’s time to divest.”
“Are you sure that you want to close yourself off from the European market?” Ellie could hear the frown in her mother’s voice.
“I won’t be. Isabella is capable of handling London on her own. Though she’s made me an offer for my half, and I’m strongly considering it.”
“Do you need the money?”
“I need the time more than the money. As much as it pains me to admit it, I’ve realized that I’ve spread myself too thin. I’m finding that my focus is beginning to narrow — I’m more interested in providing a showcase for women artists. Besides, I don’t feel that I need to prove myself anymore, not the way I did when I purchased those venues. I’ve made my name.”
“That you have. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision. Well, good luck with it all. I see your email is here. I’m hanging up so I can start reading immediately.”
“Let me know what you think as soon as you’ve finished it. Love you. Love to Dad.”
Carly stood and stretched after disconnecting the call. An unexpected yawn brought on an inner debate over whether or not to make a cup of coffee. Caffeine at this hour could keep her awake till dawn. On the other hand, she reasoned, she’ll probably be reading till the wee hours anyway. She made the coffee and carried the mug back to her desk, then settled in and resumed reading.
She was half-way through one of Carolina’s journals when she came across a folded piece of paper. Curious, she unfolded it, read it, then re-read it again, then read it over one more time.
“Holy shit. Could this even be possible?”
Her heart beating faster, her hands shaking, she reached for the phone and speed-dialed Ellie’s number.
“Ellie, there are more,” she said breathlessly when her friend answered. “She says there are more.”
Ellie laughed. “Who said there’s more of what?”
“Carolina. She made a list...”
“Whoa. Slow down. Take a deep breath and start over.”
Carly inhaled sharply, exhaled, then repeated the process.
“I’m reading one of the journals you just sent. She — Carolina — is talking about how her husband will not let her sell any of her paintings. At one point she was thinking maybe she should do away with him, but I digress. Anyway, she kept on painting and years later found herself with all of these canvases, so guess what she did?”
“She put them in the attic, where we found them.”
“Wrong. Those were apparently the ones she kept for herself.” Carly forced another breath. “When she found herself with stacks of paintings, she began giving them away.”
“She gave her paintings away?”
“I thought that would get your attention.”
“Seriously? She gave them away? Who’d she give them to?”
“I guess her family, her friends. She made a list. It fell out of the journal I was reading.” Carly unfolded the paper.
“Stop me if you recognize any of these names...”
She started reading the list aloud. Ellie stopped her only once.
“That last name was Sinclair? I know Grace Sinclair. You’ve met her, I think,” Ellie said. “Actually, I’ve seen that painting — well, a painting — in the lobby at the Inn at Sinclair’s Point.”
“Carolina gave several paintings to someone with that last name. I can’t read the first name, though.”
“Could be someone related to Grace’s husband. His family has been in St. Dennis for a really long time. I can ask her.”
“Could you maybe ask her if she knows any of the other names? I can scan the list and email it to you.”
“Great. I’d love to track down these paintings.”
“And then what?”.
“What if you’re able to track some of them down? What then?”
“Well, first I’ll see if I can buy them. If not, I’ll see if we can borrow them for the exhibit in my gallery. I think once people see how much Carolina’s work can fetch, they might give serious consideration to selling.”
“Maybe.” Ellie sounded thoughtful. “But don’t be surprised if some might want to hold onto them if the paintings have been in their family for a long time. Then again, don’t be surprised if some of them have disappeared over the years. You know, if they were thought to be of no real value back then, some of those paintings might not still be around.”
“I guess we’ll just have to let that play out. First, we have to figure out who these people are and then determine if they still have the paintings.”
“I’ll do my best. I’ll be seeing Grace soon. We’re both on a committee together to decide what to do about the Enright property.”
“What’s the Enright property?”
“Curtis Enright recently signed over the title of his home to the town, and everyone in St. Dennis is all abuzz about it. He set up a trust for maintenance and taxes, so it isn’t going to cost the town anything. He wants it used as an arts center.”
“Great idea. Every town should have one.”
“It would be awesome,” Ellie agreed. “I’ll show Grace your list when I see her next Tuesday, see if she knows anyone on it or has any thoughts on where some of the paintings might be.”
Carly felt a nip of disappointment. “Not till next week? I was hoping for something a little sooner.”
“Can’t do it. Grace’s son is coming back from Africa tomorrow. Or maybe it was today.” Ellie paused. “Anyway, he’s been away for a couple of years and has quit the...I forget whether he was in the Peace Corps or something else. U.N. Peacekeeper maybe? Whatever. Grace has been over the moon that he’s coming home, so this week’s meeting has been moved to next week. Besides, don’t you have something else to do? A book to write? A gallery or three or four to run?”
“All of that, yes. Fortunately, I have very competent staffs in the galleries, and the exhibits that are currently running were set up before I got distracted by your great-great-grandmother and her glorious hidden stash of art. So I’m really concentrating on the book mostly. I’m almost finished, but I don’t want to rush it. I want it to be good and I want it to be accurate. I want Carolina’s spirit to show through.”
“Sounds like you’re getting to know the old girl quite well.”
“I really feel as if I am. The more I read, the more I think she was a very modern woman trapped in an archaic world.”
“Hmmm.” Carly wrote down her words in the margin of her notebook before she forgot them. “Maybe. Thanks for the idea.”
“Don’t mention it. Gotta run. Got an early date with the alarm clock. Send me your list whenever, and I’ll see what I can dig up for you.”
The ink on Carolina’s list was faded and hard to read, so Carly photocopied it then scanned it into her computer. She enlarged and darkened the font before sending it to Ellie, who probably hadn’t expected to receive it that quickly. But Carly was compelled to get that phase of the project moving, lest it weigh on her mind until it was in Ellie’s hands. The job done, Carly sat back at her desk and picked up the journal.
“So, let’s see what other surprises you have in store for me, Carolina.” Carly rested her feet on the desk and crossed her ankles. “What other secrets have you been hiding for the past hundred or so years...”
Working on the effects of the caffeine, Carly read for several more hours before falling asleep at the desk. When she finally awoke, every part of her body was cramped. Upon standing, she found her left leg numb from having sat with it under her for all that time. She stretched and flexed until she could walk without stumbling.
Through the French doors of the study, she could see the first pale colors of dawn. She unlocked the doors and stepped out onto the patio. The air was still, heavy with humidity, and saturated with the heady fragrance of honeysuckle mingled with rose. She inhaled deeply, then walked on bare feet to the edge of the stone wall that surrounded the patio. The only sound was the waterfall that overlooked the pool. She lowered herself onto one of the lounge chairs and leaned back to watch the stars as their last light flickered before disappearing with the dawn. Tired but still buzzed, in her mind she arranged, then rearranged Carolina’s paintings on the walls of her Manhattan gallery for what was probably the fiftieth time.
While she’d earlier professed to her mother that she no longer felt a need to prove herself, in her heart, Carly knew that wasn’t quite true. She was well aware that many in the art world considered her a light-weight, a wanna-be player with deep pockets behind her. Armed with her degrees and her parents’ money, she’d boldly opened the gallery in TriBeCa when she was twenty-five years old, but she’d heard the talk then and sometimes, she still heard a whisper here and there. Her petite size and long blond hair had given rise to a host of snarky comments about “Alice in Wonderland using her daddy’s money to take on the big boys.”
It had taken several years before she’d been taken seriously, but these days, there didn’t seem to be as much comment on her appearance as there once had been. She’d worked hard to establish relationships with artists whom she considered up and comers, treating them as important long before they became relevant, and in doing so, had a long list of now-prominent artists who would deal only with her. She had not been unaware of the presence of other gallery owners at the last of her several openings. The word on the street was that Carly Summit had the knack for finding and cultivating the artists who would become the next big thing. Her reputation was flawless, yet she knew that more than one rival turned green with envy every time she announced a new showing for an artist they’d hoped to exhibit.
“Well, tough,” she muttered. She’d earned her good name the hard way. Yes, her parents had fronted the money for her galleries — she’d never tried to deny that - but she’d paid them back in full. She was pretty sure that there were some who still believed that Patrick and Roberta still wrote the checks, but there was nothing Carly could do about that. Still, her success and her reputation aside, she still sometimes felt that she had to work her butt off to prove that she was the real deal.
Which was why, she acknowledged, Carolina Ellis now dominated her days and nights. Once Carly announced her find and her plans to introduce the long-hidden paintings to the public, no one would ever again be able to question her legitimacy.
It had taken her a long time to admit that bankrolling the European galleries had been part of her efforts to be taken seriously — a longer time still to recognize that many in the international art world viewed her actions as those of an amateur, someone with more money than good sense, a desperate attempt to make a big splash in that very big pool. While she’d done well with those investments, it was time to focus on her real passion — American women artists of the past century. Carolina Ellis would be the first of what Carly hoped would be a long line of fine women painters whose works would be displayed and brought to prominence by Summit Galleries.
She yawned, closed her eyes, and with visions of long walls filled with glorious art dancing in her head, slept until mid-morning.
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.