Authors: Jude Deveraux
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
“You just said—You really are in a bad mood, aren’t you? Maybe we won’t ask you out with Reede and Jecca and me, after all.” She waited for him to reply, but when he said nothing, she sighed. “How about if I come over this afternoon and tell you all about my latest jewelry designs?”
I’d rather hear about Jecca, he thought, but didn’t say. He’d get her to tell him everything when she got there. “Sure, I’d love to have the company.”
“Go tend your orchids,” Kim said as she said good-bye, then hung up.
Tristan stood by the phone for quite some time, just staring at it. He was elated that Jecca was going to spend the summer in Edilean, but what was this about her and Reede? Kim had never mentioned a word about it.
He went into his bedroom, flipped on the light switch, and went to the mirror. Reaching behind it, he took out a photo. It was old and a bit faded and there was an extra hand in the picture from the blonde who was lounging on top of the big rock. But the age and condition of the photo reminded him of how long he had been intrigued by Miss Jecca Layton.
Tristan unfolded the photo and looked at the two young women. The blonde was certainly pretty, and she was built like a 1950s pinup, large on top and bottom, with a tiny waist in the middle. Her face was pink-and-white pretty, with china blue eyes and full lips. But Tris had never been attracted to that girl and he folded the picture back.
He stretched out on his bed, held the photo aloft, and looked at Jecca. Kim had sent him the photo, along with lots of others, not long after he’d met Jecca. He’d kept this one to remind himself of his brief moments with her. Yeah, sure, she looked great in a bikini, long and sleek, but it was more than that. She had a body that looked like she could do sporty things, like ride a bike along the trails of the preserve. Or drive a four-wheeler up to the cabin of his cousin Roan, and go fishing.
For all that he liked her body, he was fascinated by her face. She had a look of humor in her eyes that he’d always liked. She looked like someone who could laugh even when the going got rough.
And if Tris needed anything in his life it was laughter!
He loved being a doctor and helping people and he knew that he’d saved some lives. But when tests came back and showed that a person he cared about had Stage IV cancer, he didn’t like his job so much.
In the last years he’d wanted to go home, not to an empty house, but to someone he could
to. Someone who would understand and listen.
But for all the women he’d dated, he hadn’t found a woman like that. There were a lot of them who made it crystal clear that they’d like to marry him, but he’d always felt that they wanted who he was rather than him. They seemed to think more about being a doctor’s wife than they did about Tristan himself.
A few years ago he’d almost believed one of them. They’d dated for a year and the sex had been good. He’d met her at a party, she was from Virginia Beach and had a degree in business and sold pharmaceuticals. She was smart and interesting. After they’d spent several months together he’d thought that he might ask her to marry him. But then he’d accidentally heard her on the phone talking to her girlfriend about the size of the ring Tris was probably going to give her. “I’m sure he can afford at least three carats,” she’d said. “Let me tell you, I can’t wait to get my hands on this ratty old house of his. Even if we just use it for vacation, I still can’t stand the place.”
Tris had stepped forward and let her see him. He’d listened to her excuses and apologies, but she’d seen that it was no use. She left that night, and he hadn’t seen her since.
There’d been no one serious since then. In fact, in the last two years he’d been dating less and less.
He was well aware that the town was now saying that he’d
marry, that he was a confirmed bachelor. And part of him had begun to believe that.
But in tho hm">But e last few years, one by one, his cousins who were near his age had married, and they already had children. There was no one left to go out to have a beer with. All the men were so newly married that they still wanted to be home with their wives and babies. Or at least that was the excuse Tris made for them. That they’d chosen well in their mates was something he didn’t want to think about.
Tris would make jokes about how peaceful his own house was, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
He looked at the picture of Jecca again. A few years ago, his sister Addy got angry when he told her he’d broken up with a young woman she’d liked.
“You know what your problem is, Tristan?” she’d said, her hands on her hips. He was having breakfast at her house and his niece Nell was beside him.
“I take it you’re going to tell me.” He didn’t look up from his newspaper.
“You’ve never had to make an effort to get a girl. Do you even know the meaning of the word
He thought her statement was absurd. He looked over the paper at her. “Are you referring to the woman I took on a hot-air balloon ride? Or the one I flew to New York for a three-day weekend? Or—”
Addy waved her head. “Yes, I know. You’re Mr. Charm personified. Women take one look at that overly pretty face of yours and you delight in driving them crazy by reinforcing their dreams about you.”
Tristan put down the newspaper and looked at Nell. “Do you have any idea what your mother is talking about?”
At the time, Nell was only six, but she’d always been a little adult. Solemnly, she nodded. “My teacher says you’re the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, and she asked me to give her your cell phone number.”
“See!” Addy said. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Tris was still looking at his niece. “Do you mean the teacher with the red hair or the one with the long dark hair?”
“Dark,” Nell said, biting into her toast.
“Oh,” Tris said and picked up the newspaper again. “Smile at her but don’t give her my number. If the redhead asks, give it to her.”
“Nellonia!” Addy said. “Don’t you dare give your uncle’s number to anyone. And you, Tristan, if you don’t stop playing around, you’re going to end up as some fifty-year-old bachelor living with a bunch of cats. Don’t you
a family of your own?”
He put the paper down again, but this time he was serious. “I’m open to suggestions, so please tell me how I find a woman who can see past her own dreams of marrying a doctor. That woman you liked so much? She didn’t want to live in Edilean. She strongly suggested that I move to New York City and take up plastic surgery so I could make some
“Oh,” Addy said as she sat down at the end of the table. “She didn’t tell me that part.”
Tristan drank his orange juice and told Neland toll to do the same. “Addy,” he said, “I’m more than willing to solve this problem. But I can’t seem to change
Contrary to what people seem to believe about me, I like smart women, ones I can actually carry on a conversation with. But every woman like that I’ve dated tells me to leave this one-horse town and start making a lot of money.”
“I didn’t know any of this,” Addy said. Her head came up. “All of which makes what I said more true. You need to find a woman who doesn’t think that you are the answer to all her problems. Find a woman who doesn’t want you, then go after her.”
“But if she doesn’t want me, why would I pursue her?” he asked in bewilderment.
“Look at me,” Addy said. “When I met Jake, he was the last person I wanted. A car mechanic who wanted to be a soldier? Never! But now look at us.”
Tristan looked at his beautiful niece and thought how much he envied his sister. She and her husband were as happy a couple as he’d ever seen. “I’m willing,” he said, “but how do I find her?”
“Wear a mask,” Nell said, and when the two adults looked at her, she said, “Wear a very ugly mask, Uncle Tris.”
Addy and Tris laughed so hard at what she’d said that the tension broke.
A few weeks later Tris met another woman he liked. He thought he’d made an effort with her, but maybe his sister was right because he’d never felt he was struggling to win her. The breakup came when he found out that she wasn’t taking her birth control pills.
Tris looked back at the photo. Through everything, Jecca had stayed in the back of his mind. Maybe their few moments together on Kim’s parents’ patio had meant nothing to Jecca, but it had meant a great deal to Tris. She hadn’t been impressed by his occupation, hadn’t been swept away by his looks. She had seen through him, into him, had asked about him as a man. It occurred to Tristan that it wouldn’t have made any difference to Jecca if he’d been disfigured.
Addy said that Tris never made an effort to win a woman, and that’s all he’d done with Jecca. But he’d failed. Every attempt to meet her again had fallen through.
So what the hell was this about Reede Aldredge? What did
have to do with Jecca? And why had Kim kept whatever had happened—the “thing”—a secret all these years?
With disgust, Tris looked at his arm in the cast. How was he to win a woman’s affections with this albatross around him? Reede went around the world saving people in spectacular ways. How could Tris compete with that? He knew from experience that incapacitated men tended to bring out the nurse in women. But Tris didn’t want a nurse, he wanted—
He wanted to meet Jecca as a man, with all his faculties in good working order.
He’d lied to Kim when he said he didn’t remember about the cruise his parents were planning. His father had bellyached about it enough. Tris had loved the idea. If his father left, that meant Tris could return to his own practice, even if his arm was still in a cast. But Tris hadn’t heard that his mother—he was sure she’d done it—had contacen 2;had cted Reede and got him to agree to return.
Tris picked up his cell phone and touched the calendar to check the dates. He had little time between when his father left and Reede arrived. But cast or no, he was going to meet Jecca on the day she arrived.
And this time he’d make sure she remembered him!
As Jecca drove down the winding road that led into Edilean, the overhanging trees made it seem that she was going through a dark, secret tunnel. It was as though she was about to enter an enchanted place, somewhere not quite of the real world.
She told herself to quit being so fanciful. No matter how many times she visited the little town it never seemed to change. It still felt as though she was entering a place as remote and hidden as Brigadoon. If it weren’t for her constant contact with Kim and her many visits, Jecca would have said it was possible that Edilean didn’t really exist. Maybe it was a place she’d made up in that long-ago summer when she’d escaped the hardware store for two glorious weeks of painting.
The memory of those weeks came back to her. How she threw herself at Kim’s older brother! Even now, she was embarrassed just thinking about it. Thank heaven he’d not taken her up on her blatant offers. At the time, his pain had seemed romantic, but since then she’d been through the breakup of a serious relationship and she knew there was nothing in the least romantic about what had happened to him.
In all her other visits, she’d flown into Richmond and someone had picked her up. This was the first time that she had driven here, and this visit was to be all summer. But no matter how she arrived in Edilean, it still always amazed and fascinated her.
As the forest of trees parted, she saw the beginning of the town. There were pretty little houses lining the road, nearly all of them with deep front porches. Rather than being a depository for whatever didn’t fit inside, the porches had chairs on them, and some of them held people who were watching the passing cars. As she slowed down to twenty-five miles per hour, she lifted her hand to an old man and he waved back. Jecca had an idea that if she stopped he would ask her to “sit a spell” and have a glass of homemade lemonade.
She kept driving and came to the “downtown” area. Since she’d spent the last few years in New York City, the idea that this was the central business district was almost laughable. There was a square with adorably cute little shops around it, and another one with an ancient oak tree in the center.
When she stopped at the only traffic light in town, Jecca watched people strolling about the very clean streets. No one seemed to be in a hurry. She saw them smile and wave, and greet each other by name. There seemed to be an abundance of baby strollers, and women paused to look at one another’s chubby healthy infants.
Heaven deliver me, Jecca thought as the light changed. She knew that Kim loved the town with a passion that bordered on an obsession, but Jecca wanted a city.
But right now, she looked forward to being in little Edilean. She had three whole months to dofasX nothing but paint. Working in an art gallery in a big city paid the bills, but it didn’t feed her deep desire to create. There was nothing like taking a piece of paper and filling it with form and color—or with words, for that matter. Or taking a bit of wax and melting it into something beautiful, then casting it into jewelry, as Kim did. Or a lump of clay to shape into a creature or a person, as their friend Sophie did.
For Jecca, to make beauty from nothing was her ultimate goal in life, what she always strove to achieve. What she wanted most in the world was to be like Kim and figure out a way to make a living from her creations. Maybe in these three months she could make some paintings that would actually
She was thinking so hard about what was ahead for her, meaning the time to do nothing but create, that she drove past the little street sign. She made a U-turn and went back to Aldredge Road. She couldn’t help smiling every time she saw the name. A couple hundred years ago the pathway had been named for one of Kim’s ancestors.
“Our branch of the family doesn’t own Aldredge House and we don’t live on that road,” she’d told Jecca long ago.
Maybe not, Jecca thought, but her family was still in the same town.
Jecca made a left turn and immediately felt as though she’d entered a wilderness—which she had. Kim had told her that sometime in the 1950s the U.S. government decided to make the whole area a nature preserve. They nonchalantly—as though it wouldn’t really bother anyone—told the people of Edilean that they had to leave the area. All their houses, some of them built in the 1600s, were to be demolished. The government officials were surprised when the residents loudly, vehemently, and very publicly refused to leave—and certainly not tear down any buildings.
Jecca had heard the story of how one of the older residents, a Miss Edi, had spent years fighting and had finally won the battle to allow the town to stay intact. However, the catch was that the wilderness had been allowed to surround the town, cutting it off from the rest of the world until it was, in Jecca’s opinion, much too isolated.
Because of that battle, which had been hard-won in the courts, families that had lived in Edilean for centuries still owned land that was in the midst of what was, in essence, national forest.
As Jecca drove down Aldredge Road, she felt as though there couldn’t possibly be a house at the end of it. At least not one with plumbing. But Kim had told her there were two of them. First was Aldredge House, where the local doctor lived. He was, of course, Kim’s cousin and she swore that Jecca had met him on her first visit, but she didn’t remember. In Jecca’s mind, that summer was a blur of Reede and painting. After the doctor’s house was Mrs. Wingate’s place.
“It’s new,” Kim had said on the phone when Jecca called her before she left. “The house was built in 1926 by Olivia Wingate’s late father-in-law. He came here from Chicago.”
“New people, huh?”
“Of course,” Kim said, her tongue firmly in her cheek. “If they didn’t settle in Edilean before the American Revolutionary War, they’re . . .” She paused and waited.
“Newcomers!” they said in un"0ey said ison, and laughed together.
“I don’t know how you stand it,” Jecca said. “My dad likes to brag that his grandfather opened the hardware store in 1918. He thinks that’s really old, but you guys . . .”
“Yeah, I know,” Kim said. “We’re a little backward here, but last week we did get our first fax machine.”
“You’re kidding,” Jecca said.
“Yes, I’m kidding. So when do you get here?”
“Day after tomorrow. I should be there about one.”
“Great. We’ll have lunch together.”
“Cracker Barrel will miss me.”
They hung up, laughing.
When Jecca had been told she was to have the summer off, she’d been shocked. Her boss had decided to close the gallery for three months while she and her new husband wandered around Europe. Jecca still got her base salary, no sales commissions, no bonuses for a job well done, but it was enough to live on—if she was very frugal, that is. Plus, she’d been able to sublet her Gramercy Park apartment to her sister-in-law’s cousin, so that helped.
As soon as she’d been told the news, Jecca called Kim to say she was going to be off for three whole months, and it started in just two weeks.
“What are you going to do?” Kim asked.
“I don’t know. I dread telling Dad because he’ll want me to go home and work in the hardware store.”
“And introduce you to eligible young men in tool belts?” Kim asked.
“I hadn’t thought about that. Hey! I gotta call Dad. Remember that guy I lost my virginity to? He used to run around shirtless with jeans and heavy boots. Maybe I could—”
“Come here,” Kim said.
“You mean to Edilean?”
“Yes! Come here and paint. Or draw. Or weld steel pieces together. Whatever. Just come to Edilean and do it for the whole summer.”
Jecca knew she should think about such a big change, should consider it carefully, but she’d never been one to dawdle over decisions. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I’d like to do.”
Kim gave a yelp of happiness and said, “I’ll take care of everything. Oh. Mrs. Wingate.”
“What about her, whoever she is?”
“She has great apartments and somebody told me one of them is available. I have to go to her store and talk to her. Now. I’ll call you back.” Kim hung up.
Jecca had clicked off her phone, smiling. Kim liked to make things happen, and Jecca knew her friend would make all the arrangements.
At nine that night Kim called back and said it was a done deal. “Mrs. Wingate only has three apartments . . . Actually, technically, they’re not really apa220t reallrtments because they have no kitchen, but anyway, I got one of them for you.”
Her triumphant tone sounded as though she’d had to do battle with a few dragons. “Was it difficult?” Jecca asked, knowing that Kim was dying to tell the story.
“Awful, but my cousin Tris talked her into it.”
“Tris?” Jecca asked, trying to remember who that was. Everyone in Edilean seemed to be related to Kim.
“He’s our local doctor and he lives next door to Mrs. Wingate. I’ve told you lots about him, and you met him.”
“I’ll have to meet him again before I’ll be able to remember,” Jecca said. “What did he say to persuade her?”
“Mrs. Wingate is a second mother to Tris, so he has a lot of influence over her. Besides, she was going to rent the apartment to a man who is eighty-two. Tris said she’d be delivering breakfast in bed to him.”
“You mean I don’t get that? No trays with brioche and homemade jam?”
“Nope. But you do get to share kitchen privileges.”
“That’s good, as you know what a great cook I am.”
“Do you still put potato chips on top of everything?” Kim asked.
“I live in New York. I now crumble bagels on everything.”
As she drove, Jecca smiled in memory of the conversation. To her left, through the trees, she could see a house. It was quite far off the road and there was a pond, or maybe a lake, in front of it. At the head of the drive was a sign DR. TRISTAN ALDREDGE.
Jecca stopped and checked the directions Kim had sent her. “Go past Tris’s place to the end of the road and you’ll see Mrs. Wingate’s house. Park in front and I’ll be there to meet you.”
Jecca started driving again but couldn’t help wondering if Kim could have been wrong, as the trees seemed to be getting closer together. She could believe that the world ended at Aldredge Road. But then there was a sharp left turn and the space opened up in a striking way. Before her was a big white house, two stories, with dark brown shutters at the windows, and a green roof with dormer windows. Surrounding the house was a perfectly mown lawn with enormous shade trees that looked like they should be in a botanical garden.
She slowly drove over the gravel to the front and stopped her car. “Hello?” she called as she got out, but there was no answer. She looked around for a moment and had that age-old feeling that someone was watching her, but she saw no one. Probably her imagination. Stretching, she breathed deeply of the fresh air. It certainly wasn’t New York!
She tried the front door of the big house, and it was unlocked. Tentatively, she stepped inside and found herself in an enormous living area with a fireplace to the left. There was a beautiful arrangement of furniture. The mixture of styles, ranging from wood frame to Edwardian plush, with some art deco thrown in, looked as though all of it had been put together over several generations. The fabrics were in good shape, not really new, but worn enough that they looked lived-in. The big, round-arm sofa lookd orm sofaed inviting.
As an artist, Jecca admired the room. It looked as though everything had been gathered over eighty or so years—or one truly brilliant decorator had created it.
There was a doorway beside the fireplace and she went through it to enter a dining room that had to be thirty feet long. There was a long table at one end, but the room could have held something befitting a banquet hall. “Arthur and all his knights could fit in here,” she said aloud.
To her left she heard a door open and close. She went through the double doorway toward the sound and entered a long, narrow conservatory, with three walls and a ceiling of glass. Shades with thin bamboo sticks sheltered the room from too much sun.
At one end was a cozy circle of chairs, again of different styles and fabrics that had been skillfully chosen to seem mismatched but that were perfectly attuned to one another.
Around the furniture were plants. There was a variety of them, but for the most part, there were hundreds of orchids. They hung from the ceiling in square wooden pots, their white and green roots peeping out, their long, graceful leaves arching, the stalks of exotic, colorful orchids floating above. A bench went around the perimeter of the room, and it was covered with a mixture of potted plants. There were feathery ferns nestled among the exotic flowers.
She’d never seen such a variety of orchids. There were big, wide ones that looked like giant butterflies and ranged in color from brilliant fuchsia to dazzling white. Tiny flowers, some of them speckled, clustered on other stems. She saw big gaudy flowers, the kind matronly women wore on their shoulders in the time of President Eisenhower.
On the floor were huge pots, some of the containers so big they’d need a crane to move them. Spilling out from them, cascading down, were thousands of the beautiful flowers. Under the shelf, in complete shade, were strange-looking blooms that had a sac at the bottom, with petals of deep purple and green.