The landscapes had taken her all of Saturday and into the night, but in all, the job had been surp risingly easy. A bit of melted beeswax took care of a small area of flaking along the edge of one of the paintings, and she was able to bypass solvent completely when cleaning the other. Walter had been right: the pieces had been in almost- mint condition already. Somebody had restored them not too long ago, and done a decent job besides. The only flaw she found was some repair putty, visible only under the UV light.
Some brushes and her wonderfully unorthodox bread took care of the light cosmetic cleaning. Wadded-up bits of dough pressed methodically along the surface pulled the soil right off. It was her favorite trick, and she'd learned it not in graduate school, but from the Deacon family housekeeper. Followed with a dusting from a clean, soft paintbrush, the paintings were exhibit -ready.
She'd thought to spend Sunday catching up on rest and errands, but dreams of the mysterious man in the portrait had haunted her sleep. That roguish face, captured frozen on canvas, came alive in a dream to break into a mischievous smile. In another, the silk of his shining brown hair was wavy and soft under her fingertips. And what had startled her awake over and over through the night: witnessing the flint in his eyes dampen to a flat black stare, as he stood to face his fate on the gallows.
She'd woken that morning compelled to return to the museum. She needed just one more look at that curious portrait before Walter took it and stowed it away. And so she was off to her basement workroom, by way of the library for a book on Scottish history, to pay a visit to the brown-haired Mister Universe.
She flipped through the pages as she walked and was surprised to find that James Graham was actually a famous figure. He had been a man of wealth and status when he sacrificed everything to fight for Scotland. He'd fancied himself a poet, and Magda pored over lines he'd written that now felt tragically prescient.
But how to conquer an eternal name:
So, great attempts, heroic ventures shall Advance my fortune or renown my fall.
She whipped her head up at the careening trombone blare of the car horn, just as she felt the collar of her sundress tug tight against her throat.
"What the hell, lady?" The man took his hand off the back of her dress and stepped back as if Magda were infectious . He had pulled her back from stepping blindly into the crosswalk, right in front of a speeding cab.
"Yeah, well, I'd come back to earth if I was you. This is New York, not some walk in the country, so watch it."
"Yes, I…" Magda's heart was poundin g from the near miss. Cheeks flushing red, she mumbled a quick thanks and darted across the street as the light turned green.
The unnerving intimacy tightened her chest, constricting her breath. Magda had brought the portrait into the windowless workroom where she examined everything under ultraviolet light. She didn't know why a painting of a man long dead would be different from any other work of art, but her hand trembled over the remaining light switch.
She felt vulnerable, like some preyed-upon animal, sharing such a small, dark space with his unblinking gaze.
Magda shook her head, flicking the light off and the UV wand on. The painting buzzed to life in an eerie, Technicolor glow. Immediately engrossed, Magda slipped off her sandals and, squinting her eyes, leaned in to study the bright hum of light wavering across the painting's surface. She scanned for signs of tears, punctures, or even old repairs, but remarkably, there were no telltale dark purple blotches under the ultraviolet light. What she did see were centuries of grime and soot that had discolored the varnish and now glowed in a pale greenish yellow UV haze. Dust, visible as small bullets of electric blue, jangled across the surface.
"Where have you been? All these years"—switching the UV wand off and the lights back on, her eyes roved the surface of the portrait—"and not a single bit of harm done to you." Magda studied his face, and her cheeks flushed at the strange feeling that those black, almond -shaped eyes stared back. Though his brown hair waved to his shoulders, it wasn't styled in a way she imagined court fashions required, falling loosely around his face and tousled over his brow. Magda studied his mouth intently and fought the sensation that, if she stared hard enough, his lips would curve into a slow smile.
Without thinking, she broke a cardinal rule of museum work and extended her ungloved hand, touching the utter blackness of the portrait's background. Gasping, Magda pulled back as if stung.
The painting was cold.
Maybe she was just chilled, she thought, as she chafed her hands together. Although cool to the touch, paintings definitely did not generate their own temperature.
Magda slowly lowered her palms to the portrait, one on either side of the man's face, and she drew in a breath with the shock of it.
The portrait's black background wasn't just chilled, —it was a raw, dead sort of cold. An ache crept up Magda's forearms as she tried to puzzle out the growing impression of damp paint under her fingertips. She eased her hands along the surface. The typical hard peaks and valleys of any oil painting were absent. Instead, Magda had the sensation that her hands would sink into the paint if she let them, like penetrating the surface of an inky black pool. The fluorescent tube overhe ad began to flicker, echoing the dull hum that had begun in the back of her head.
Once again she pulled her hands back, but slowly this time, and her eyes met those of the man in the portrait. The urge to touch him overwhelmed her; she had to feel the smoothness of his cheek, trace the light arc of his eyebrow beneath the muss of hair that rested on his brow. Magda flexed her hands and. mesmerized, reached out, hovering just over the painting's surface.
The drone in her head became a loud buzzing as she stretched a single fingertip out to brush his face. A breathy sigh escaped her. Magda had known, somehow, that it would be warm. That he would be warm.
Dizziness nagged the edges of her consciousness. Magda fought to focus on the painting, her compulsion driving her. She gently cupped the side of his face with her palm, and again, it wasn't like touching dried paint on canvas. Unlike the cold black of the background, his face felt as if it had been heated by that candle's glow, warm and soft like velvet under her palm.
The dizziness burst through her, consuming her, and Magda flung both hands out to steady herself on the painting.
Vertigo whirred in her skull like a fan's blade as she fell through the cold blackness.
"Oh!" A man's voice rasped b eneath her.
The hard thud of her landing jarred Magda's senses back to her. She was kneeling astride a man in bed. His chest was warm beneath her flattened palms, his breathing deep and even, in the languorous rhythm of sleep. A light dusting of hair bristled softly through the thin flannel of his nightshirt.
"A good evening to you…" His voice was a slow, rolling Scots burr. Shadows flickered in the dim candlelight, exaggerating the intensity of his black- eyed gaze. She felt the heat of his hands through her thin dress, as they came to rest lightly on her thighs. "You wee jade."
It was the man from the painting. She was dreaming of James Graham.
"You?" Shock choked her voice into a squeak. Jerking her hands to her chest, Magda stilled, even as her heart exploded into high gear. A nightmare.
"Aye." His voice was groggy with sleep, but the rest of his body seemed to be rousing to wakefulness beneath the covers. "Me indeed."
She tried to master the pounding at her sternum, assuring her body it was just a dream and dreams always pass. She forced air in, driving the reluctant rise and fall of her rib cage. She'd had nightmares before. Had them often, in fact, since her brother's death. Her conscious mind knew the drill: convince the body to get a hold of itself while she watched and weathered the nightmare through, riding it like rapids that would sweep her along till its course had run.
Her eyes darted around the large square bedroom. It was unnervingly realistic for a dream. The furnishings were simple but lush. A maroon and gold duvet was draped over the mattress. A gold -tasseled tablecloth and ceramic pitcher topped a wooden nightstand. A desk and darkly upholstered chair sat in the corner. Heavy draperies embroidered with a fleur- de-lis pattern hung on the far
wall, and by the sound of distant waves, Magda imagined that, if her dreaming mind could will them open, they'd reveal a generous view of the sea.
She didn't remember going to sleep. Where was I? The museum. At work. What happened?
James shook the bed-mussed hair out of his face and broke into a devilish smile as his eyes devoured the length of her. "But do tell, love, who are you?" His hands glided up Magda's legs, disappearing easily under the folds of her dress, thumbs roving out to stroke the insides of her thighs.
Her muscles tightened. His thick duvet gave with the pressure, and Magda could feel the solid warmth of his torso gripped between her legs. An erotic dream? Could she relax into it, let it pass… maybe even enjoy it? She tried to give her conscious mind sway, let it take over, steer the dream either to action or to an ending.
She studied his face. That same loosely tousled hair. Black eyes that caught and held hers. The mouth, slightly full, fighting not to curve into a smile. Just like the portrait. It had obsessed her, hadn't it? No wonder her unconscious mind would summon a vision of this very man.
She'd been dizzy, violently so, like there was a chainsaw buzzing through her brain. Some people had bad visual side effects from working with ultraviolet light. Photic seizures were not unheard of. A seizure then. From the UV light.
"Still here, love?" James prompted, giving her thighs a quick squeeze. He studied her, his eyes bright in the darkness. The slight tremble of his lips betrayed his puzzled amusement. The look in those eyes alone identified him, unmistakably, as the man from the portrait. Magda fought the urge to smooth the rest of his hair from his face. Though it made sense that she'd dream of this man, Magda couldn't recall ever having had such a vivid one. Post convulsive hallucination. She felt herself relax a little. Wake up now.
He cocked his brow as if to ask a question then appeared to think better of it. Despite continuing to stroke her legs with his thumbs, he seemed to be waiting for Magda to make the next move.