A month later Ashley moved out of her dorm, into Julian’s apartment. The Gotham U campus became just a place where she took classes, inhabited by people who were increasingly strangers to her. Meanwhile Julian taught her how to dress, how to carry herself, how to carry on a conversation like someone who belonged in the places they now went—the symphony, the opera—without ever appearing to try to do so.
Ashley had never been out of the country before, but with Julian travel became a regular feature of life, for business, for pleasure: Paris and Vienna during December, the Bahamas in February. She came to know that world of concierges and chauffeurs, of bellhops and customs officials, that she’d previously experienced only through movies and television.
He taught her about art, too, about the subject generally, but especially the kind of art in which he specialized as a dealer, early twentieth century to the present—stuff that to her eyes didn’t look like anything, and often wasn’t even pretty. And all at once these things seemed worth knowing about. The initially opaque, meaningless terminology of the field (“Gouache,” “Pointilist,” “stippling,” “underpainting”) became a recognizable, meaningful, usefully descriptive second language. As she came to know something of the history of painting and sculpture she started to recognize in the imagery to which they referred a tradition, a visual language, a dialogue; to understand styles as different ways of looking at the world, influenced by previous eras, in conversation with their own times, and influencing the artists who followed afterward. She found an intellectual challenge in the study of all that, one that clicked with her in a way that those economics classes never did. An aesthetic appreciation came more slowly, but it also came in time, while she found herself also learning something of interior decoration, design, antiques, architecture as well.
Soon enough the relationship became professional as well as personal. Ashley quit waitressing to become Julian’s assistant, for which she received a salary rather larger than anything she’d hoped to make before graduating. And now that she wasn’t paying room and board on campus, it was more than enough to make up for the scholarship she’d lost.
Julian offered to pay for her schooling, but she opted to cover the tuition out of her own salary, feeling like that was something she should do for herself. Still, she changed her major to art history, so that at school she studied the textbook stuff, while when she was with Julian she learned how to appraise the sorts of objects in which he dealt, how to get on with collectors and sellers and other experts.
She also became familiar with the pitfalls of the work, and heard its gossip, and learned that there was an underside to Julian’s business. In the way those generous donations to that museum were really about these benefactors’ getting the customs clearance to get their foreign purchases into the country. In the likelihood that that two thousand year old statue was looted from an archaeological dig by murderous bandits, or that painting was used as collateral in a drug deal just before the current owner purchased it, and maybe not even as far back as that . . .
One day Ashley sat to lunch at the Delmontecito with Cicely Van Buskirk, a sculptress of some note, if more for her pedigree and the pharmaceutical fortune to which she was heiress than her accomplishments. A longtime friend of Julian’s, and Ashley had wondered at times, perhaps more than a friend. She was certainly attractive—blond, statuesque—and at times gave the impression that she wouldn’t have been averse to being in Ashley’s position. Still, Ashley got the feeling that the older woman accepted that that was and would remain the road not traveled, and so Ashley wasn’t too guarded around Cicely, while Cicely didn’t appear too guarded around her.
After her third martini Julian’s friend let it slip that Ashley’s lover was valued by his clients for, among other things, his ability to discretely acquire and dispose of certain otherwise unattainable items. That it was where the money really came from.
“You mean he wasn’t born to all this?” Ashley asked in surprise.
“Oh, his parents were bluebloods all right,” Cicely told her. His father’s line had been in the peerage of England since the sixteenth century, Ashley had heard before. Very senior, very old. “But the money was running out a long time, just enough left to keep up appearances, and dad was pretty dissolute, drinking away what was left. Mom got fed up and after an acrimonious divorce went overseas with little Julian in tow. To the south of France, to Italy, Australia, Canada after that. He happened to be in New York when he was all grown up, but by then there was no money for Julian.”
Fortunately he had an eye open for the main chance, and yadda yadda yadda.
First Ashley was stunned hearing that, and then dismissive. She’d been so close to him for so long now, not just personally but on the job, that it didn’t seem possible Cicely would know such a thing while she didn’t. Still, Ashley had to admit that Julian hadn’t been particularly forthcoming about his past. So far she’d heard most of what she knew about it from other people, like Cicely, and when some of it came up in conversation he tacitly acknowledged it, but not much more. He did tell her things about his years here in the city, his years in the business, but not what came before. Not his family, or his childhood, or how he’d started in this line of work. She understood that his mother was dead, his father still alive but not speaking to him. He’d also made it clear that the title was simply not a complication he’d have to deal with, that it would be bypassing him on the way to some other relative. New wife, new kid perhaps.
And even if that wasn’t the case it wasn’t the sort of thing one showed off. “Decorum aside, Brits with titles have a reputation for being free-loaders in certain circles here. Important circles. So one is well-advised not to flaunt such aspects of one’s background.”
It all seemed like a sore subject, so she didn’t press him on it.
Now she wondered about all that. Wondered, too, about his involvement with crime. He hadn’t appeared to be keeping things from her, but then she also didn’t know everything about his business. It even seemed possible he’d trafficked in stolen goods right in front of her, without her noticing it, just because he’d kept the key detail from her.
The thought went on rattling around and around and around in her head.
One day, after a more than usually taxing time at the gallery, they headed back to the apartment without any plans to go out. Julian settled into his favorite armchair and she found herself asking him flat-out, was he ever involved in that kind of trade?
Julian shifted in his chair a bit, and then Julian’s features actually seemed to change, somehow, the effect of which was a bit like seeing some celebrity looking less than their best in some mundane, off-camera context. They were still recognizably the same person, and yet they seemed diminished.
Julian didn’t say anything for a bit, and neither did she. “I wasn’t born to all this,” he said quietly when he finally spoke, looking at the fireplace rather than her.
“I know,” Ashley said. “Your mother—”
“No, none of what you heard is true. Not about my family, not even the name.”
She had to sit down for this.