“Up next, we have a wonderful Thomas Eakins painting,” the auctioneer boomed. “Eakins paintings rarely come on the market, and his portraitures are even rarer. This particular piece depicting a Philadelphia family was painted during the fall of 1893.” The bearded man made a sweeping gesture toward the painting, hidden from the audience with a velvet cloth, on an easel at his left.
Mary stood alone against the back wall of the gallery as her painting was unveiled to oohs and aahhs from the packed house. She had slipped in just before the Eakins went onstage, preferring the outer lobby rather than sit among the bidders on the crowded floor. From her vantage point, she could only see the top of the gilt frame.
The auctioneer continued. “Accompanying the work of art are some notes recorded by the matriarch in the picture. The following is an excerpt from Mary Abbott’s diary from September 1893.”
The auctioneer cleared his throat, then read from a document he held in his white-gloved hands. “Thomas Eakins came today to sketch Joseph, Jane, Alfred, and myself for a portrait commissioned by Joseph. The artist had been putting the finishing touches on a painting of a sculler when Alfred fell into the Schuylkill River last month and Eakins rescued him.”
Mary straightened against the wall. Being a direct descendant of the Abbotts made the portrait more real to her. But she focused instead on how its sale would help her build her own family with David.
“So you’re really going through with it. Selling your family history.” A male voice to her left said just above a whisper.
Mary turned to see Jared standing next to her. She hadn’t heard him approach above the auctioneer’s spiel. “It’s none of your business what I do,” she hissed.
“We’ll start the bidding at fifty thousand. Do I have fifty?” The auctioneer smoothly opened the bidding.
She put her hand to her throat as placards flipped into the air around the floor. The auctioneer’s voice rose as the price climbed higher with a flurry of bids. “Who’ll make it three hundred and twenty-five?”
“Six hundred thousand dollars,” said a man in a firm voice.
Mary craned her neck to see the bidder who called out that sum, but the press of people blocked her view. Jared shifted positions as he scanned the crowd.
“Number seventy-six has bid six hundred thousand dollars.”
Mary tensed as the bidding escalated past seven, eight and up to nine hundred thousand dollars. As suggested by her appraiser, she set the reserve at a million dollars. With the exponential rise in bids, it looked promising that the reserve would be not only reached, but possibly exceeded.
“I have number forty-two with the high bid of nine-hundred-thousand dollars. Anyone else? Going once…” The auctioneer raised his gavel.
“One-point-two million dollars,” a woman from the back called out.
Mary swiveled her head to the rear of the room. A slender woman with a Bluetooth clipped to her ear smiled proudly. She must be bidding for someone else. Mary’s stomach clenched. Maybe she was buying for a museum. If so, perhaps there would be an opportunity to visit the painting. She would love to show her children one day the picture that played such an important role in bringing their parents together.
The auctioneer jumped on the bid. “Number thirteen bids one-million, two-hundred-thousand dollars.”
Cresting the million-dollar mark triggered a bidding war between the woman and a middle-aged man with horn-rimmed glasses and a mobile phone glued to his ear seated on the opposite side of the room. Mary’s head began to ache as the tension in the room increased with each new bid.
“Number forty-two bids one-point-three million dollars.” The auctioneer’s already frenzied voice rose even higher. He pointed to the back as number thirteen raised her paddle. “Number thirteen bids one-point-four million dollars.”
Jared leaned over and whispered, “I wonder who they’re buying for.”
“As long as their money’s good, I don’t care.” Mary regretted snapping at him as soon as the words left her mouth. The pounding in her head began a stampede, and she tried to suck in a breath as the crowded room seemed to press against her from every side. “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb,” she muttered under her breath, trying to hold off the panic that was swelling up inside her.
# # #
Jared barely heard the nursery rhyme, but he didn’t need its recitation to know the room was closing in on Mary. He inched a fraction closer, wishing he had the right to put his arm around her shoulders. If she needed help, he would be ready, which was more than David could say.
“One-point-four-five million dollars,” Number forty-two called out.
Jared eyed Mary, whose attention had returned to the bidding. Thankfully, the nursery rhyme had worked and she no longer appeared overly tense. For a split second, he had feared she would pass out.
Immediately, the woman’s paddle went into the air, her voice carrying over the murmuring crowd, “One million, five hundred thousand dollars.”
The auctioneer nodded toward number forty-two, who was talking furiously into his phone. Number forty-two held up a finger before shaking his head. The crowd seemed to deflate as the bidding wound down.
“One-point-five million dollars, going once, going twice…fair warning…sold to number thirteen.” The auctioneer banged down his gavel. “Congratulations. This concludes the first part of our auction for today. We’ll take a short recess and the auction will resume at four o’clock. The winning bidders should see the cashier to my left to register your payment and arrange for delivery. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.”
Mary bolted for the exit, Jared at her heels. Once on the sidewalk outside the auction house, she sucked in the muggy August air.
“Are you okay?” Jared squinted into the early afternoon sun as he stood on the sidewalk beside her. With the sun on his face, he couldn’t read her expression.
“I’m fine.” She turned her face away and stared at the cars traveling along the street. “Frankly, I’m shocked the painting fetched so much money. It will really help start our new life in Peru.”
“How long before you get the money?”
“In a day or two at the most, since it will be a wire transfer.” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “I specifically stipulated quick payment, since I’ll be leaving the country in a few days.”
“That will certainly buy a lot of Peruvian souls.” The words left Jared’s mouth before he had time to consider the wisdom of voicing that particular thought. He could have kicked himself as Mary stiffened. That wasn’t the way to convince her that David wasn’t the man for her.
Mary opened her eyes. For a moment, she only stared at him before fire sparked in her eyes. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her hand move. She slapped his left cheek hard.
“How dare you say such a thing?”
His hand rested on his stinging cheek. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her this angry, not even when he had stolen her diary in the fourth grade and threatened to read it. It would take a lot more than words to fix the mess he’d just made.
“I’m sorry. That was unkind and a terrible thing to say. It’s just that, well, I—”
“I think you’ve said all I want to hear. David’s plane arrives at Dulles Airport in two days. I’d like you to steer clear of me, David, and the house.”
“Please, Mary.” He had to find a way to get her to listen to him. How could he protect her if she shut him out?
Her eyes were sadder than he had ever seen them. “I’m starting a new life, and—”
“And I’m not a part of it. I know I haven’t been fully supportive of your engagement or plans, but I can’t let you make the biggest mistake of your life. David’s not who he says he is.”
Mary pressed her hand to her throat. “Why do you keep doing this? You have no proof, no firm evidence, just your gut telling you that David is what? Someone who has possibly fudged a little about his life? Nobody’s perfect. You of all people should know that.” She shook her head. “No more, Jared. I can’t take any more of this.” Mary turned and walked down the sidewalk to the parking lot.
Jared watched her go, wishing he had the courage to tell her the real reason why she couldn’t marry David—and that reason had nothing to do with the FBI investigation and everything to do with what was in his heart.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.