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Authors: Antoinette Stockenberg

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BOOK: Beloved
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The thought that there would be no more smuggling hit Jane hard; she poured another ounce, this time for her aunt, and sipped it as she wandered around the room, pausing to stroke a worn chair cover, taking a moment to scan the titles of the books on their shelves. How sad, she thought, that there were no framed photographs of loved ones anywhere in the room, not even of Sylvia's cats. All Jane saw was a charcoal sketch of a young woman in a plain gown, with a coal-skuttle bonnet lying on the floor beside her. A nineteenth-century Quaker, Jane decided, and an unhappy one at that.

She walked up to the framed sketch, which was hanging in a quiet corner of the room. All in all, it wasn't badly done. Perhaps it was her aunt's work. Sylvia Merchant had enjoyed dabbling with charcoal and pastels, although her subjects had generally come from the garden. Jane looked more closely and saw that she was right: In the corner of the drawing were the initials
SM

Jane took the frame from the wall and walked over to a window with it. There was evidence of erasure, as if her aunt had struggled to capture an exact degree of unhappiness in the young woman's face. And what unhappiness! Her brows were tilted upward and toward one another; tears rolled down her face. Her full mouth was partly opened, as if she were imploring someone, while her hands were curled tightly around one another in obvious distress. As for her long dark gown, it hung a little too closely to her body to be historically correct. Like the curls that ringed her brow, the clinging garment gave the woman a voluptuous air that was at odds with the modest intents of Quaker fashion.

Jane shivered, deeply moved by the subject's distress. The drawing had the immediacy and power of a photograph.
Well done, Aunt Sylvia,
she thought, hanging the sketch back up on its hook.
You should have done figures more often.
She wondered who'd posed for her aunt. An island girl? Or had Sylvia merely copied someone else's work? But no; the sketch had too much emotion in it. Jane looked around the room, half expecting to find a companion sketch, this one of the brute who was causing the Quaker woman such pain. But there was nothing else.

She finished her rum and put the bottle away. There was work to be done — and in the next several hours she found out just how much, when the contractors dropped by one by one with their estimates.

The roofer looked things over, frowned, and said, "Five thousand dollars."

The electrician looked things over, laughed, and said, "Five thousand dollars."

The plumber shook his head and said, "Torch it."

By the end of the day Jane was bloodied but unbowed.
Okay, so the house isn't perfect,
she admitted as she boiled some tea water in a pot that looked as if it had a questionable past. But at least now she had heat — in most of the rooms, anyway; and water — even though it was flowing through lead pipes; and as for the roof, well, it wasn't supposed to rain for a day or two.

But now it was one in the morning; it was time to drag herself back to the Jared Coffin House. She sipped her Earl Grey tea tiredly, eyeing the Empire sofa in the room. Tomorrow she would definitely sleep here. She simply couldn't afford not to. She went around turning off the lights, aware that she hadn't even allowed herself the diversion of going through the boxes and closets. Today it was all Lysol and Tilex; maybe tomorrow she could relax and poke around a bit.

And tomorrow she would pick up a book on interpreting tarot cards before she packed away the deliberate arrangement that had been left sitting on the game table.
That,
she was determined to do.

She was just switching off the red ginger-jar lamp in the fireplace room when she heard the unmuffied roar of the dark green pickup turn in from the road again and race past her house. Buster, next door, heard it too and began woofing maniacally. The pickup had passed in and out at least half a dozen times in the course of the day, setting off the beast each time, and now it was one in the morning and they were both still hard at it.

What's going on?
she wondered, disturbed by the implications.
Short hops, in and out
....
The only other time she'd noticed a travel pattern like that was when she was in college: the guy in the house across the street used to zip in and out all day and night, and eventually he was arrested for dealing drugs.

Terrific.
She was beginning to think just like her mother. Surely there must be some everyday explanation. The man was probably ... probably ....

But she couldn't come up with an everyday explanation.

Chapter
3

 

S
aturday morning dawned sunny and dry. After checking out of the Jared Coffin House, Jane bought the cheapest sheets she could find, a book on the tarot, and half a dozen gallons of white paint. Her plan was to paint the interior entirely white, which would end up looking clean and offending no one.

She bought coffee and a sticky bun and headed for Lilac Cottage, mentally revising her calendar as she drove. One week for the cleanup would not be enough, but two might do it if she worked like a fiend. After all, she did have the time. If only she had the money. At the moment it was a toss-up between trying

ha!

to get an equity loan or spending the last of her rainy-day fund.

She shook off the sobering thought. The morning was too wonderful, all bright and mild and unlike March. Even Lilac Cottage seemed to have thrown off its winter chill. With all the shades pulled up and the drapes pulled back, the tattered house looked as relaxed as an old, sun-warmed cat.

Jane opened her car door and had one foot on the ground when she heard the by now familiar
woofwoofwoof
of Big Buster, hell-bent for her car. She yanked her leg back and slammed the door just in time: Buster
'
s muddy paws landed on the car
'
s window, not on the front of her jacket. She cracked the window open and was trying unsuccessfully to shoo him away when a shrill whistle pierced the air. It came from a man walking in the road. Buster took off for him like a bat out of hell and Jane thought,
Does the dog have any speed besides
full
speed?

The man, tall and blond and about her age, and with a good-natured smile very much like Cissy
'
s, threw a stick the size of a railroad tie in the opposite direction from Jane. Buster bounded after the stick, scooped it up in his massive jaws, and kept right on going. Jane got out of the car. The man walked up to her, smiling ruefully and shaking his head.

"
He doesn
'
t have the concept of
'
fetch
'
down yet
— praise the lord. He
'
ll turn around eventually. By then you should be safely inside.
"

Feeling cowardly, Jane felt forced to explain.
"
As it happens, this is my last clean jacket.
"

He nodded.
"
Say no more. My cleaning bill
'
s quadrupled since my sister adopted that mutt. I
'
m Bing Andrews, by the way. Cissy told me about you. Jane Drew, isn
'
t it?
"

They shook hands and Bing said,
"
I was sorry to hear about Sylvia Merchant. I didn
'
t know her personally

I bought my place just after she left the island

but I
'
ve heard that she
was
a very
...
interesting woman.
"

"
You mean you heard she was a witch.
"
The words blurted out before Jane could think to stop them.

There was the smallest of pauses. Then Bing burst into a laugh and said,
"
That
'
s exactly what I heard!
"

By rights Jane should have been offended. But Bing
'
s laugh was so infectious, so good-humored, that she found herself laughing with him. Maybe it was the warm sun, bouncing off his blond hair; or maybe it was the way he cringed and crossed his forearms when he saw Buster loping back toward them

whatever it was, she liked his style. And besides,
she
was the one who
'
d brought up the subject of witches.

"
My aunt told me the kids around here really believed it,
"
Jane explained.
"
When you
'
re an old woman without children or friends

and you refuse, for example, to give back a baseball that
'
s gone whizzing through your living room window

the witch thing becomes inevitable.
"

Bing was watching her with a lively, appreciative look on his face.
"
Ah, but
I
heard

this talk doesn
'
t bother you?
"

"
Not at all. What did you hear?
" Jane asked, curious.

"
I heard that she used to walk around talking to someone

"

"
To herself. Old people do that. Heck,
I
do that.
"

"

who talked bac
k"
he said, finishing his thought.
"
In another voice. A man
'
s voice.
"

There was an openness in his look that kept the chill out of what he was saying. He spoke completely without malice, and that made it impossible to get angry with him.
"
Who told you this?
"
she asked, wondering.

"
The people who sold me my house. Actually, it came from the wife, who was a bit of a crone herself.
"

"
Well there you
are!
"
Jane said, relieved.
"
It
'
s one old woman
'
s word against another
'
s.
"

Bing grinned, and she caught her breath. He was almost
too
handsome, in a
young
Robert Redford, boyish kind of way.

"
She seemed sharp as a tack to me,
"
he was saying.
"
But then, so
did
your Aunt Sylvia. Since they
'
ve both passed on, I guess we
'
ll never know.
"
He loomed over her, tall and friendly and completely at ease.

Jane was remembering that he was a bachelor. She folded her arms across her chest.
Oh
yes. Definitely a heartbreaker,
she decided. She found herself nodding with herself in agreement.

"
Will we?
"
he asked
, misinterpreting her response.

"Uhh-h ... well ...
who knows?
"
she said vacantly. She had dropped the thread of their conversation, and now she cast her eyes downward, looking for it. Instead she found Buster, sniffing
interestedly at her ankles. She jumped away.

Bing grabbed Buster
'
s collar and said,
"
Don
'
t even think about it, pal.
"

Jane was deciding whether or not to run for it when a dark burgundy Mercedes slowed to a halt in front of Bing and her. The driver was Phillip Harrow, casually but still beautifully dressed, in turtleneck and designer jacket.

"
Hey, you two,
"
he said, rolling down his window.
"
How about dinner at my place next Saturday? It
'
ll be a chance for you to meet your neighbors, Jane.
"

Bing waited for Jane to answer. Caught off guard, she stammered an affirmative. Bing said to Phillip Harrow,
"
What time?
"

"
Say seven thirty. Strictly casual.
"
Harrow
put the Mercedes in gear and drove off.

Bing began hauling the dog toward his house.
"
Let me give you a tip,
"
he said to Jane.
"
Phillip
'
s idea of casual is a doublet and waistcoat.
"

BOOK: Beloved
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ads

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