He had the surreal impression that someone was playing a practical joke on him, though to what end, he had no idea. It was crazy. All of this was crazy...
Their group turned the corner and headed through a door leading to the staircase. When Luke turned to peek over his shoulder, he realized that only two of the guards remained with them; the other stayed behind to guard the door.
On the second floor, he and Sophia were led to a set of wood-paneled doors, which Gabrielle opened for them.
"Please," she said, ushering them into a spacious suite of rooms, "make yourselves comfortable. We have refreshments and food inside, along with the catalog. I'm sure you have a thousand questions and I can assure you that they will all be answered."
"What's going on?" Luke asked.
She raised an eyebrow. "I think you already know," she said, without directly answering the question. She turned toward Sophia and offered her hand. "I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."
"Sophia," she said. "Sophia Danko."
Gabrielle tilted her head. "Slovakian, yes? A beautiful country. It's a pleasure to meet you." Then, turning to Luke again: "The guards will be posted outside the room, so you don't have to worry about anyone disturbing you. For now, I'm sure you have a lot to think about and discuss. We'll leave you alone for a few minutes to review your collection. Would that be all right?"
"I guess," Luke said, his mind still spinning. "But --"
"Mr. Lehman and Mr. Sanders will be in shortly."
Luke lifted an eyebrow at Sophia before surveying the well-appointed room. Couches and chairs surrounded a low, round table. On the table stood an assortment of drinks, including a bucket of champagne on ice, a platter of sandwiches, and a sliced fruit and cheese selection on a crystal dish.
Next to the table lay the catalog, opened to a particular page.
Behind them, the door closed and Luke found himself alone with Sophia. She glanced at him, then cautiously approached the table and studied the open catalog page.
"It's Ruth," she said, touching the page. He watched as she ran her finger lightly over the photograph.
"This can't really be happening, can it?"
She continued to stare at the photograph before turning toward him with a dazed and beatific smile. "Yes," she said, "I think it's really happening."
Gabrielle returned with Mr. Sanders and Mr. Lehman, whom Luke recognized as the silver-haired gentleman who'd presided over the auction.
After Sanders introduced himself, he took a seat in the chair and blew his nose in a linen handkerchief. Up close, Luke noticed the wrinkles and bushy white eyebrows; he suspected the man was somewhere in his mid-seventies. Yet a hint of mischief underlay his expression, making him seem younger.
"Before we begin, let me address the first and most obvious question that I'm sure you've been pondering," Sanders began, resting his hands on his knees. "You're probably wondering, Is there a catch? Did you, by purchasing the Portrait of Ruth, indeed inherit the entire collection? Am I correct?"
"That's pretty much it," Luke admitted. Ever since the commotion in the auditorium, he'd felt utterly at sea. This setting... these people... nothing could have felt more foreign to him.
"The answer to your question is yes," Sanders said in a kindly voice. "According to the terms of Ira Levinson's will, the purchaser of that particular piece, Portrait of Ruth, was to receive the entire collection. That is why it was offered for sale first. In other words, there is no catch. There are no strings attached. The collection is now yours to do with as you wish."
"So I could ask you to just load it up in the back of my truck and I could bring it all back to my house? Right now?"
"Yes," Sanders answered. "Though considering the size of the collection, it would likely take a number of trips. And given the value of some of the artwork, I would recommend a safer mode of transportation."
Luke stared at him, dumbfounded.
"There is, however, an issue which you will have to consider."
Here it comes, Luke thought.
"It concerns estate taxes," Sanders said. "As you may or may not be aware, any bequest in excess of a certain amount is subject to taxation by the United States government, or the IRS. The value of the collection is far in excess of that amount, which means that you now have substantial tax obligations that you will have to meet. Unless you're worth a fortune - and a large fortune at that - with substantial liquid assets to cover these taxes, you will most likely have to sell a portion of the collection to meet them. Perhaps even half of the collection. It depends, of course, on which pieces you choose to sell. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I think so. I inherited a lot and I've got to pay taxes on it."
"Exactly. So, before we go any further, I'd like to ask whether you have an estate attorney with whom you prefer to deal. If not, I am happy to make recommendations."
"I don't have anyone."
Sanders nodded. "I suspected you didn't - you're rather young. That's fine, of course." He dug in his pocket for a business card. "If you call my office on Monday morning, I will provide a list. You are not required, of course, to use any of the names I suggest."
Luke inspected the card. "It says here that you're an estate attorney."
"I am. In the past, I served in other areas, but estate work suits me these days."
"Then could I hire you?"
"If you wish," he said. He motioned toward the others in the room. "You've already met Gabrielle. She's a vice president of client relationships at the auction house. I also wanted you to meet David Lehman. He's the president of the auction house."
Luke shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries before Sanders went on.
"As you can probably imagine, arranging the auction in this manner was... challenging in many respects, including a financial one. Mr. Lehman's auction house is the one that Ira Levinson preferred. While you are not obligated to use them in the future, as Ira and I were working out the details, he asked me to request that the purchaser strongly consider his preexisting relationship with them. They are considered one of the top auction houses in the world, which I think your own research will bear out."
Luke searched the faces surrounding them, reality slowly sinking in. "Okay," he said. "But I couldn't make that kind of decision without talking to my attorney."
"I think that's a wise decision," Sanders said. "Though we're here to answer any questions, I would recommend you retain an attorney sooner rather than later. You will benefit from a professional to guide you through what will likely be a rather complicated process, not just concerning the estate, but other areas of your life as well. After all, you are now, even after you pay the taxes, an incredibly wealthy man. So please, ask any questions you wish."
Luke met Sophia's eyes, then turned back to Sanders.
"How long were you Ira's attorney?"
"Over forty years," he answered with a trace of wistfulness.
"And if I hire an attorney, that attorney would represent me to the best of his or her ability?"
"Since you are their client, they would be obligated to."
"So maybe," Luke said, "we should just get that out of the way right now. How do I hire you? In case I want to talk to Mr. Lehman here?"
"You'd need to provide me with a retainer."
"How much would that be?" Luke wrinkled his brow in concern.
"For now," Sanders said, "I think a single dollar would be sufficient."
Luke drew a long breath, finally coming to terms with the enormity of it all. The wealth. The ranch. The life he could create with Sophia.
With that, Luke pulled out his wallet and inspected its contents. There wasn't much left after purchasing the portrait, just enough to buy a couple of gallons of gasoline.
Or maybe less, since he used part of it to retain Howie Sanders.
n the months that followed the auction, Luke sometimes felt himself to be acting out a part in a fantasy that someone el
se had scripted for him. On David Lehman's recommendation, another auction had been scheduled for mid-June, this time in New York. Yet another had been scheduled for mid-July, and another in September. The sales would include the majority of the collection, more than enough to cover any taxes that were due.
On that first day, with Gabrielle and David Lehman in the room, Luke also explained the situation with the ranch, watching as Sanders took notes. When Luke asked if there was any way he could access the money he needed to pay off the mortgage, Sanders excused himself from the room, only to return fifteen minutes later, where he calmly explained to Luke that the senior vice president of the bank with whom he had spoken was open to extending the lower payments for another year and perhaps even deferring the interest payments entirely for the time being, if that was Luke's preference. And in light of Luke's newly affluent circumstances, the bank would consider extending a line of credit for any improvements he wanted to make as well.
All Luke could do was choke out a couple of words. "But... how?"
Sanders smiled, that glint of mischief surfacing again in his eyes. "Let's just say that they would like to strengthen their relationship with a loyal customer who has suddenly come into means."
Sanders also introduced him to a number of money managers and other advisers, sitting next to him during the interviews, asking questions that Luke barely understood, much less thought to ask. He helped Luke begin to grasp the complexities that went along with wealth, reassuring him that he would be there to assist him in all that he would need to learn.
Despite how overwhelmed he sometimes felt, Luke was the first to admit there were far worse problems to have.
Initially, his mom didn't believe him, nor would she believe Sophia. First she scoffed, then after he reiterated what had happened, she grew angry. It wasn't until he called their local bank and asked for the senior vice president that she began to accept that he might not be kidding.
He put her on the phone with the bank officer, who reassured her that she needn't worry about the loan for the time being. While she showed little emotion during the call, answering in monosyllables, after she hung up she drew Luke into her arms and wept a little.
When she pulled back, however, the stoic mother he knew was once again in place.
"They're being generous now, but where were they when I really needed them?"
Luke shrugged. "Good question."
"I'm going to take them up on their offer," she announced, wheeling around. "But once that loan is paid back in full? I want you to find another bank."
Sanders helped him with that, too.
Sophia's family came down from New Jersey for her graduation, and Luke sat with them on that warm spring day, cheering as she crossed the stage. Afterward, they went out to dinner, and to his surprise, they asked if they could visit the ranch the following day.
Luke's mom put him to work all morning, both inside and outside the house, tidying up while she made lunch. They ate at the picnic table in the backyard, Sophia's sisters alternately gaping at their surroundings and staring at Sophia, no doubt still trying to figure out how Luke and Sophia had ended up together.
Yet they all seemed remarkably comfortable together, especially Sophia's mom and Linda. They talked and laughed as they toured the ranch, and when Luke turned toward the garden, it warmed his heart to see the straight, neat rows of vegetables that his mom had just planted.
"You could live anywhere, Mom," Luke said to her later that night. "You don't have to stay on the ranch. I'll buy you a penthouse in Manhattan if you want one."
"Why would I want to live in Manhattan?" she asked, making a face.
"It doesn't have to be Manhattan. It could be anywhere."
She stared out the window, at the ranch where she'd been raised.
"There's no place I'd rather live," she said.
"Then how about you let me get things fixed up around here. Not piecemeal, but all at once."
She smiled. "Now that," she said, "sounds like a first-rate idea."
"So, are you ready?" Sophia asked him.
After graduation, Sophia had gone back home to stay with her parents for a week before returning to North Carolina.
"To tell me what happened in South Carolina," she said, fixing him with a determined expression as they walked into the pasture in search of Mudbath. "Did you ride Big Ugly Critter? Or walk away?"
At her words, Luke felt himself flashing back to that wintry day, one of the bleakest points in his life. He remembered walking toward the chute and staring at the bull through the slats; he recalled the current of fear surging through him and the taut bowstrings of his nerves. And yet, somehow, he forced himself to do what he'd come to do. He mounted Big Ugly Critter and adjusted his wrap, trying to ignore the pounding in his chest. It's just a bull, he told himself, a bull like any other. It wasn't and he knew it, but when the chute gate swung open and the bull exploded out of the gate, Luke stayed centered.
The bull was as violent as ever, bucking and twisting like something possessed, yet Luke felt strangely in control, as if he were observing himself from some distant remove. The world seemed to move in slow motion, making it feel like the longest ride of his life, but he stayed low and balanced, his free arm moving across his body to maintain control. When the horn finally sounded, the crowd surged to its feet, roaring its approval.
He quickly undid the wrap and jumped off, landing on his feet. In a replay of their prior encounter, the bull stopped and turned, nostrils flaring, his chest heaving. Luke knew that Big Ugly Critter was about to charge.
And yet, he didn't. Instead, they simply stared at each other until, incredibly, the bull turned away.
"You're smiling," Sophia said, interrupting his thoughts.
"I guess I am."
"Which means... what?"
"I rode him," Luke said. "And after that, I knew I was ready to walk away."
Sophia nudged his shoulder. "That was dumb."
"Probably," Luke said. "But I won myself a new truck."
"I never saw a new truck," she said, frowning.
"I didn't take it. I took the cash instead."
"For the ranch?"
"No," he said. "For this."
From his pocket he removed a small box, and dropping to one knee, he presented it to Sophia.
He heard her sharp intake of breath. "Is this what I think it is?"
"Open it," he said.
She did, slowly opening the lid and focusing on the ring.
"I'd like to marry you, if you think that would be okay."
She looked down at him, eyes shining. "Yeah," she said, "I think that would be okay."
"Where do you want to live?" she asked him later, after they'd told his mom. "Here on the ranch?"
"In the long run? I don't know. But for now, I like it here. The question is, do you?"
"Do you mean, do I want to live here forever?"
"Not necessarily," Luke said. "I was just thinking we might stay until things get settled. But after that? The way I figure it, we could live just about anywhere we want. And I'm thinking now - with a major bequest or gift, let's say - you could probably get a job in the museum of your choice."
"Like in Denver?"
"I've heard there's a lot of ranch land out that way. There's even ranching in New Jersey. I checked."
She cast her gaze upward before coming back to him. "How about we just see where life takes us for a while?"
That night, as Sophia lay sleeping, Luke left the bedroom and wandered out to the porch, relishing the lingering warmth from the day. Above him, half the moon was visible, the stars spreading across the sky. A light wind was blowing, carrying with it the sound of crickets calling from the pastures.
He looked upward, staring into the dark reaches of the heavens, thinking about his mom and the ranch. He still had trouble fathoming the path his life had suddenly taken, nor could he reconcile it with the life he once had lived. Everything was differen
t, and he wondered whether he would change. He found himself being drawn frequently to memories of Ira, the man who changed his life, the man he never really knew. To Ira, Ruth meant everything, and in the quiet darkness, Luke pictured Sophia asleep in his bed, her golden hair spread over the pillow.
Sophia, after all, was the real treasure he'd found this year, worth more to him than all the art in the world. With a smile, Luke whispered into the dark, "I understand, Ira." And when a shooting star passed overhead, he had the strange sense that Ira had not only heard him, but was smiling down on him in approval.
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