Where the Fire Falls
July 2, 1929. Sacramento, California
Olivia Rutherford applied lip rouge the same way she painted—with bold, broad strokes. Anything to distract from the truth. She leaned toward the mirror in the gallery’s tiny powder room, admiring the cosmetic’s resemblance to the cadmium red she’d chosen for her latest painting. Girl with Scarlet Poppies was sure to be a success at tonight’s showing. She, on the other hand? Olivia placed a hand against her chest, her heartbeat obvious to the touch. The shingled bob, the expensive beaded dress, the black hair dye—she’d become her own canvas, and it demanded every penny she had. If tonight’s shindig flopped, she’d be hoofing it home on an empty stomach. Again.
Her art dealer, Frank Robinson, always insisted she attend. “Buyers like to meet the talent behind the artwork. Just act the part. We want them to think you’re modern and sophisticated, not some starving bohemian.”
She adjusted the feathered headband, the final piece of her carefree charade—such a contrast from her backwoods roots. When she’d changed her name, she’d left everything behind. Olivia Rudd died the moment she signed the paperwork at the county courthouse. If she played her cards right, Olivia Rutherford would provide her sisters with the life she’d missed out on. It would also ensure she never needed to step outside a city again.
Frank knocked and ducked his head inside, a grin lighting his lined face. “You ready, Liv? I’ve got a line of hot prospects for you tonight.” He brushed a lock of gray hair from his forehead.
Liv. Only Frank called her that anymore. Olivia glanced in the mirror to check the finished product. From behind those kohl-lined eyes, the truth peered back. “Ready as ever.”
“You look like a million bucks. They’re going to fall all over you, as always.” Frank squeezed her shoulder. “If I were thirty years younger, I’d marry you.”
“I need this to go well.”
“You’ve mastered the routine, sweetheart. Keep it up and these nouveau riches will be tripping over themselves to acquire your work. Everyone in this room is as fake as a schoolchild’s clay creation masquerading as a Rodin sculpture.”
Olivia tugged at the fringed hem of the short dress. If only the facade could soak in, permanently blending with her own colors like paint on a page. Her popularity might be growing, but the paybacks remained meager. Hardly enough to mail one check a month to her aunt. She needed to find a way to scrape up more because Aunt Phyllis had already given more than her fair share to her twin sisters. She’d agreed to take them in for a year, and how many had it been now? Six.
Olivia was no closer to being able to care for Frances and Louise than she’d ever been. The thought tightened around her throat like her imitation pearl choker. She ran a quick finger between the necklace and her skin. To make matters worse, her aunt had sent several complaint-filled letters in recent months. But really, how much trouble could two fourteen-year-old girls be?
Well, tonight she would pretend to be bold and affluent, if only for their sake.
Following Frank into the gallery, she glanced around at her paintings—as though her heart was on display for everyone to see. No matter how she dressed or acted, at the end of the day, only her talent mattered. For years, watercolor artistry had been ruled by masters whose highly detailed pieces mimicked reality. She painted what was in her mind’s eye, her emotions leading the brush. The results had surprised the local art community, and her reputation was spreading. Or Olivia Rutherford’s was, at least.
The idea of an exclusive showing this early in her career sent a giddy thrill through her. At one time Frank had a wide array of clients, and he’d served as a distinguished matchmaker between artists and collectors. But in recent years, he’d grown far more demanding and melancholy—an exacting taskmaster for those artists who remained in his circle. Many had drifted away.
The changes only made Olivia more determined to please him. Art lovers were often known for being moody and unpredictable. Why should dealers be any different? He paid her well—in compliments and promises. The lure of wealth still dangled just out of reach, but that would come in time.
She made the rounds, offering practiced smiles and sparkling conversation. A portly older woman sporting an exquisite diamond necklace waved Olivia over. “Miss Rutherford, join us, please.”
“Mrs. Dixon. You look divine.” Olivia dropped an air kiss just short of the lady’s powdered cheek.
“You’re too kind, my dear. I’m anxious to introduce you to some of my friends from the club.” Mrs. Harold Dixon clamped onto Olivia’s arm and addressed the women with her. “Ladies, this is the creator of all these lovely paintings you’ve been admiring—Miss Olivia Rutherford. Isn’t she a rare beauty?” She introduced each woman in turn.
“I’m enchanted to meet you.” Olivia nodded to each, the names slipping through her mind like paint rinsed from a brush. “I hope you’re enjoying the showing.”
The youngest of the group tipped her head, her glistening Marcel waves putting Olivia in mind of Goldilocks from the story of the three bears. “Your artwork is quite avant-garde. Where did you train? Paris?”
A tightness spread through Olivia’s chest. Why must that always be the first question? “Oh, here and there.”
An older woman wrinkled her penciled brows. “No wonder I don’t see the mark of a master on your style. I’m surprised Mr. Robinson didn’t insist on additional schooling, particularly for one of your tender years. How old are you, anyway? Twenty? Twenty-one?”
“I prefer to plow my own path, you could say.” Olivia chose to ignore the question of her age. What did it matter?
“I see.” The socialite tucked a clutch studded with iridescent beads under her elbow. “But raw talent should be guided by a firm hand, don’t you think?”
Guided? More like crushed. Art school had taken the last of her mother’s money, and Olivia hadn’t even lasted a term. The teachers treated her like a lump of clay to be reshaped into the form of artists who had gone before.
The blonde sighed. “Must you always find fault, Gladys? Miss Rutherford’s paintings are the cat’s meow. These are so much better than the stodgy old canvases my husband collects.” She ran a gloved finger along her jawline as she studied Olivia. “Do you do portraits, by chance?”
The idea twisted in Olivia’s gut. The woman possessed nice lines, but creating commissioned pieces was worse than art school. Last time she’d attempted one, she’d invested a fortune in supplies and spent weeks perfecting the final product. In the end, the insipid woman refused to pay. “No. I’m sorry.”
“Of course she doesn’t.” Mrs. Dixon clicked her tongue. “Miss Rutherford is far too successful an artist to lower herself to working commercially. Not like one of those pitiful, starving artists we see on street corners.”
“I wouldn’t have paintings done by such trash in my home.” The other woman sniffed. “Imagine the filth.”
“One can’t be too careful.” Olivia watched the silver tray of delicate appetizers slip by her, balanced on the hand of a passing waiter. Chasing the server down for a morsel of food would probably place her in that dreaded class. Hopefully there would be some tidbits left over when the gallery closed.
A tall gentleman in a pinstriped suit took a canapé from the selection before glancing her way and tipping a fine Panama hat.
Olivia froze. Was that Marcus Vanderbilt? The man had bought more art in the past five years than anyone else in the Bay area and often turned around and donated some of the most valuable pieces to hospitals, libraries, and museums. She forced her hands to her side so as not to flap them like an overexcited child. If her work caught his eye, she’d be on easy street. Maybe she could even afford that ritzy private school the girls wanted to attend.
He started in her direction but walked by without a second glance, stopping only to press a kiss to Goldilocks’s cheek. “Sophie, I was worried you’d be bored, but it looks like you’ve made some friends.”
She turned back to Olivia, her blue eyes shining. “Marcus, for once I met the artist before you. Miss Rutherford, may I present my husband, Mr. Marcus Vanderbilt?”
Olivia’s mouth went dry. Her husband? Had she been introduced as a Vanderbilt? Olivia stuck her hand out like a hayseed salesman. “Pleased—I’m—m-meet…” She slammed her lips shut. Compose yourself. “I’m most honored to make your acquaintance, Mr. Vanderbilt.”
A smile lit his aristocratic features as he took her hand. “Miss Rutherford. I must say, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. You’ve a keen eye and an innovative technique. I especially love your use of the female form.”