Authors: Elizabeth Sinclair
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal Romance
Clara had been right. Life had not been kind to this man, and his slumped, wide shoulders and shuffling step testified to the fact that the burden he carried was a heavy one that pressed unrelentingly on his soul. That realization, rather than easing Alvin's mind, caused him to straighten his spine and close down that portion of his memory that always brought a stinging pain to his heart. How could he help this poor soul find peace and self-forgiveness, when he could find none for himself?
He was afraid Emanuel had made a horrendous mistake in assigning Frank to him. When placing an Assignment before, Emanuel had never been wrong, but there was always a first time for everything, even for the village Elder. Alvin had nothing to offer Frank Donovan. Nothing except empathy and the hopelessness that reflected his own misery.
"Alvin," Emanuel said, coming to a halt before him, "this is Dr. Frank Donovan. You'll be his mentor for the duration of his stay with us." Emanuel's easy smile took none of the tension in Alvin's body.
"Hi." Frank extended his hand.
Alvin nodded stiffly, but didn't offer to shake Frank's hand. Getting too familiar with this man spelled nothing but trouble for both of them.
Frank frowned and dropped his hand back to his side. He sent Emanuel a questioning glance, but the Elder was looking directly at Alvin.
"Are you sure about this?" Alvin asked.
Emanuel nodded almost imperceptibly. "Faith and trust, Alvin, faith and trust." He turned to Frank. "Alvin will show you where you'll be living while you're here."
For a long time, Alvin stared coldly at Frank and said nothing, then he merely inclined his head the slightest degree and turned to lead the way toward the most diminutive cottage set on the edge of the small, verdant town square. Without a word, Frank followed.
While they walked, Frank assessed the man who trudged on ahead of him. Upon his first glimpse of Alvin, Frank had thought about an old TV show he'd loved as a kid called
. It had been about a mountain man who lived alone, dressed in buckskins, and sported a bush of facial hair. But that's where the similarities ended.
The TV actor had been private, but friendly, and had not used his facial hair as something to hide behind. Frank believed in his gut that this was not the case with this stoic man. Adams had interacted with people and the wild creatures of the mountains. Frank could see Alvin relating to the wild animals, but keeping any human at an emotional arm's length. Adams's eyes had sparkled with humor and life. Alvin's eyes were as dead as Frank's. This mentor of his was certainly an enigma.
Giving up on any attempt at understanding Alvin Tripp, Frank looked around him for the old man who had brought him here. Emanuel seemed to have totally dismissed them and was making his way to a little thatched cottage surrounded by a myriad of colorful flowers on the far side of the square. His long robe stirred up dust devils as he walked. Just as he stepped onto the threshold of the cottage, he turned toward them and caught Frank's gaze. The Elder studied them for a moment, and then he disappeared from sight inside the cottage.
Left to follow the retreating figure ahead of him, Frank hurried to catch up. He fell into step beside Alvin, and was struck immediately by how large the man was. Coming in at three inches over six feet, Frank was not a small man, but Alvin dwarfed him.
"So, how long have you been here?" Frank asked, trying to engage Tripp in conversation.
When Tripp continued to remain silent, Frank shrugged and took in the place that would be his home for an indeterminate length of time.
The mist that had surrounded the village on his arrival had dissipated. Streaks of sunlight lay like narrow golden paths across the row of thatched cottages. The dirt path that had brought him and Emanuel over the footbridge meandered between two rows of cottages that looked as though they had been snatched from a history book on Colonial America and plopped down here in the Hudson Highlands.
Vibrant blooms of a variety of flowers surrounded each cottage on all sides. The gardens reminded him of those that Sandy, his deceased wife, had labored over around their house. She'd taken such care with them, nursing seedlings into mature plants until they burst forth with color, seemingly at her command. Sandy hadn't had just a green thumb. She'd had a green hand. She could have stuck a dead twig into the ground, and the next day, it would have been a flourishing plant.
Pain sliced through his heart so strong his footsteps faltered. Angrily, he pushed the cloying memories away. Like persistent cobwebs, they clung, vying for his attention.
With renewed determination, he cleared his mind and concentrated on the village, which seemed to exist in a state of perpetual spring.
Spaced periodically between the cottages were light poles holding lanterns. Since he saw no sign of electricity, he assumed, when lit, they must be illuminated by candles. Aside from him and Alvin, not another human being was in evidence. Other than the cottages, there was no sign that anyone lived there.
A chill shivered over him. What a strange little place this was. What had Steve and Meghan gotten him into? As quickly as the doubt arose, it disappeared. Steve was his friend. He had never steered him wrong on anything before. Why would he start now? Still…
Emanuel sipped at the steaming coffee and looked intently at the flickering white candle in front of him. Clara watched him from across the trestle table, impatiently waiting for him to speak. She glanced out the window to where Carrie sat beside the stream in the waning sunlight.
Her impatience won out. "Are you going to tell me what happened, or are you going to study that candle for the rest of the day?"
As if rousing from a deep sleep, Emanuel blinked, and then raised his gaze to Clara and stared at her as if he'd just noticed her.
"I'm sorry, my dear. I was thinking about Alvin and wondering if I've made a mistake in assigning Frank to him." He sighed and set the cup down. "Perhaps I should have listened to you when you cautioned me against it."
Clara chuckled softly. "You forget that I deferred to your wisdom."
He glanced at her. "I know. But perhaps you should have stated your case more strongly and made me see the error of my judgment."
Clara touched his weathered hand. "Although I often foolishly question you, in all the years I've known you, you have never been wrong in your judgment."
Emanuel chuckled. "But without your questions I would have no reason to delve deeper for my answers, to weigh my own wisdom. You, my dear, are one of my greatest assets."
Clara waved off his compliment with her hand. "You have always found the answers to any problem within your heart. What does it tell you this time?"
For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the crackle of the fire burning brightly in the hearth.
"It's telling me that… " He thought for a time, seeming to choose his words carefully. "It's telling me that sometimes it takes another with the same wound to heal an afflicted soul."
She patted his hand and rose to refresh his cup. "Then perhaps you should listen to it." She replaced the coffeepot and resumed her seat. "Alvin has lived with his pain for far too long. You said so yourself. It's time he found peace."
Frank stepped over the threshold of the tiny cottage. The odor of disuse assailed him. The plain wood floor held no rug. A crudely made table flanked by four nondescript chairs resided somewhat sadly in the center of the room. A simple, pine cupboard stood against one wall. The fireplace held no fire, but lay as cold and unwelcoming as the cottage itself. Other than the rifle leaning against the wall near the fireplace, there were no signs that anyone inhabited the cottage.
Oddly, it reminded Frank of the apartment he'd moved into after Sandy's death. He couldn't bear staying in the house they'd built and furnished together, the house with the nursery upstairs that would never hold their child. It had been a constant reminder of all he'd lost through his own foolish stupidity and carelessness. He'd sold it, complete with all its contents.
"Your room is over there," Alvin said, bringing Frank abruptly out of his memories. "We're about the same size, so the clothes in the dresser should fit you. The pants might be a bit long."
"Won't you need your clothes?"
Alvin shook his head. "I've got enough." His assessing gaze slid over Frank's rumpled sports jacket and slacks. "Looks as if you'll be needing a change."
"Thanks." Silence stretched out between them. "So… you live here?"
"Most days, when I'm not traveling for Emanuel."
"Nice place," Frank lied.
"It's somewhere to eat and lay my head," Alvin replied, noncommittally.
Frank almost laughed out loud. How many times, when someone asked him about his apartment, had he spoken those exact words? A place to eat, sleep, and do battle with the nightmares that visited him nightly.
"It seems like we have a lot in common," Frank said in an effort to still the voices of his memory and make conversation with his… landlord?
Alvin's head snapped up. He glared at Frank and then walked to the door. "I have things to do," he finally said. "If you get hungry, there's some food in the cupboard. Help yourself." Turning on his heel, he left the cottage.
Frank stared at the closed door, trying to recall what he'd said that could have elicited Alvin's reaction. Nothing rang a bell. He shrugged and went to explore the room that had been delegated to him.
Like the outer room, this one was barren, except for a single bed with a plain, brown quilt covering it and a dresser positioned against the wall with the only window the room boasted. Deep down, the plainness pleased Frank. No frills, no reason to become attached to it. A place to lay his head at the end of a long day.
Satisfied with the simplicity, Frank left the room and the cottage to explore the village. As he stepped from the cottage, deep shadows fell over him, and he realized that the sun had set behind the distant mountains while he'd been inside.
With a leisurely pace, he strolled past Alvin's cottage to the end of the village he had not yet seen. As he walked, he became aware of the sound of running water. A stream? Perhaps the stream that flowed beneath the footbridge leading into Renaissance. Quickening his pace, he headed in the direction of the sound that he now believed to be water cascading over rocks.
He rounded a large blooming lilac bush to find himself in someone's garden. Beyond the rows and rows of blooms was another cottage. Bigger than Alvin's and quite unlike it, it gave him a feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of welcome.
Looking up toward the curling smoke rising from the chimney, his gaze fastened on an image in one of the upper windows. A woman. Lit from behind, her hair seemed to glow like an iridescent, fiery veil surrounding her head and slim shoulders. She remained at the window for a long time. Frank felt her gaze on him, but he was unable to either move or divert his eyes. Instead, he drank in the sight of her. What he could see of her stole his breath. She was beautiful.
Something stirred inside him. Something that he hadn't felt in a very long time. Something painful that left him reluctant to acknowledge it. Life.
But this foreign feeling knew a very short existence. How could he stand here looking at this woman? How could he betray Sandy's memory like that? Swamped by guilt, Frank tore his gaze away.
What had he been thinking? He was not here to get involved with any woman in any way, no matter how slight. He was here to come to terms with the monster eating away at his insides.
He started back to Alvin's and found he could not resist one more glance over his shoulder. But she was gone. Though her absence gave birth to intense relief, the feelings the sight of her had evoked remained, warming cold places inside him that had known nothing except cold regret, icy guilt, and dark loss for far too long. The stinging pain of their rebirth was almost more than Frank could stand.
Frozen in place and shielded by the window frame, Carrie stared into the night, unable to look away from the retreating man who had lingered beneath her window. Without being able to see his features in the waning light, she had nevertheless felt a sadness emanating from him, a sadness that seemed to connect her to him in some obscure way. That anyone could feel such overwhelming sadness wrenched at her heart, and she had to physically control the urge to dash downstairs and go after him to help him, to offer some kind of comfort.
"That's just crazy," she told herself, when he'd finally disappeared from sight and she was able to leave the window. "You have no idea who he is, what his problem is, or what you could possibly do for him. Besides, you have your own problems to sort through."
But even her self-reprimand wasn't enough to move her thoughts away from the man. She dropped onto the edge of the bed and cast another glance toward the window. Why did she feel as if an invisible thread had spun out across the distance separating them and bound them together?
"Go to bed, Carrie," she told herself. "This whole day has obviously been a mental strain, and it's thrown your imagination into high gear."
Carrie stood and began to remove her clothes. By the time she had put on the soft cotton nightgown that Clara had given her and was snuggled beneath the heavenly down comforter, she had convinced herself she'd just experienced a surge of overactive imagination. Nothing a good night's sleep couldn't bring a little logic and clarity to in the morning.
With that, she closed her eyes, and feeling the world around her blur and darken, she gave herself up to the oblivion of slumber.
The distinct feeling of being watched awoke Carrie. Fighting off the dregs of sleep, she slowly opened her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat. Instantly, she was fully awake.
The room was dark, lit only by the moonlight spilling through the window, but standing beside her bed, hovering over her, was the distinct silhouette of a man. Though his face was a blur, like the kind of thing they do on TV when a person wishes to conceal their identity, she had no trouble making out the fists doubled up at his sides and his stiff stance. Anger emanated from him as thick as the fog she'd seen on the footbridge.