The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True (3 page)

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
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“Congratulations, Sam. You know the saying, you’re not losing a daughter…”

“I’m gaining a son-in-law.” She winced inwardly at the triteness of it. But Tom meant well, she knew. “I’m glad you could make it,” she said with sincerity. “It wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

“I just wish it could’ve been Martin walking her down that aisle.” Ray had filled in, but it hadn’t been the same.

“So do I.”

As if sensing her discomfort, he was quick to add, “You look lovely, Sam.” He reddened slightly, as if unused to giving such compliments. “I like your dress. It suits you.”

“Thanks, I’m glad you think so.”

Secretly, she didn’t care for it. She’d been thinking mainly of Alice when she’d picked it out, wanting the spotlight to be on her. Now she wished she’d chosen something a little less…well, matronly.

Tom looked as if he wanted to linger, but feared he was holding up the line. He touched her elbow, his tall frame curved like a question mark. “Catch up with you later, okay?”

She felt a tiny stab of guilt. What would she have done without Tom these past few years? Holding her hand through the worst of Martin’s illness. Guiding her through the blizzard of paperwork after his death. If she’d been avoiding him recently it was only because she was afraid of hurting him. He’d made it clear he wanted more than friendship. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel the same way.

Sam turned to find the newlyweds dashing down the steps amid a hail of birdseed—rice, Laura had pointed out, was harmful to birds—Alice with her hem hitched daintily to her ankles to avoid tripping on it and her white veil trailing like vapor in the breeze. A black limousine waited at the curb.

Guests began drifting off to the parking lot. If she didn’t leave soon, Sam thought, they would arrive at the house ahead of her. She began to fret. Had Guillermo hung the wedding piñatas? Had Lupe remembered to put lemon slices in the punch?

Relax,
a voice soothed. Her live-in housekeeper and gardener had been at Isla Verde almost as long as Saint Peter had been at heaven’s gates. They would look after everything. And if a few details got overlooked what difference would it make? Nothing short of an earthquake could spoil this day.

“See you at the house!” Laura called to Sam.

She was helping her elderly housemate down the steps. Maude wore a snugly fitting satin gown nearly the same vintage as she that had left her somewhat hobbled. She paused to lift her hem, revealing matching blue pumps. “Wore my dancing shoes,” she said with an impish wink, poking at her nest of ivory hair, in imminent danger of slipping from its pins.

Before Sam could make her own exit, several more people stopped to congratulate her, Father Reardon among them. He clasped her hand warmly. “Will we be seeing you on Sunday?”

Until last night’s rehearsal she hadn’t set foot in St. Xavier’s since her husband’s death. Too busy, she told herself. But wasn’t there more to it than that? Maybe, she thought uneasily, she was afraid of what too much soul-searching might bring.

“If I’m not too worn out,” she hedged with a laugh.

“I promise not to put you to sleep with my sermon.” His gray-blue eyes sparkled, but she caught the glint of gentle reproach.

“You never do.” Who could fall asleep looking at Father Reardon? “It’s just not the same somehow.”

His fingers tightened about hers. “All the more reason to come. To quote Robert Browning, ‘Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure.’s? He let go of her hand, smiling the crooked little smile of a man well versed in matters other than religion. She could see why Gerry and he were such great friends. “End of sermon. Now off with you.”

Sam made her way around the back of the church, where her little red Honda was one of the few cars remaining in the lot. She climbed in and turned the key in the ignition, but the engine gave only a brief groan. She waited a minute, then tried again. Nothing.

With a cry of frustration she clambered out, bumping her head on the door frame. A flash of pain, followed by a dull throbbing. Wincing, she reached up to massage her scalp.

“You okay?”

Sam wheeled about to find Ian Carpenter loping toward her. She cast him the somewhat abashed smile of a woman who hadn’t been as scrupulous as she ought to in getting her car serviced.

“I’ve heard of brides being left high and dry,” she said with a laugh, feeling more than a little foolish as she stood there rubbing her head, “but never the
mother
of the bride.”

“Why don’t I have a look?”

“Oh, I couldn’t—”

But he was already peeling off his jacket. He lifted the hood, and after several minutes of poking about, straightened to announce, “Looks like you’re going to need a new fuel pump.”

“Oh, dear.” She tried not to think of how much it would cost. “I’d better phone the garage.”

“You can do it from the house.” He slammed the hood down, fishing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the grease from his hands. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift.” He gestured toward a white Chevy van at the other end of the lot.

“I don’t suppose it would do to be late to my own party,” she said, falling in step beside him.

Ian laughed. “No offense, but I don’t think anyone will notice.” With his blond hair tucked behind one ear, in which the tiniest crescent of a stud glittered, he reminded her of the boys who used to hang about when Laura and Alice were teenagers.

As she climbed into the van a wave of deja vu swept over her. Wasn’t it only yesterday she’d been a teenager herself, piling with her friends into similar vans on her way to black-light dances and protest rallies? Back then life had seemed an open door just waiting for her to step through it. And though the path she’d chosen suited her in most ways, it wasn’t without a small measure of regret that she looked back now, slightly chagrined to realize that to this young lion of a man with eyes the color of a summer twilight and a smile that ought to be outlawed—the kind who once would have inspired sleepless nights and dreamy doodling in margins—she was nothing other than a nice older woman in need of a ride.

“Thanks,” she said, as Ian slid in behind the wheel. “I don’t know what I would have done. Can you see me hitchhiking in this dress?”

He flashed her a grin.
Son of the father,
she thought. That same smile, which seemed to promise the moon and then some, must have been what captivated Alice in Wes. “You’d be the only one in a pink dress and corsage.”

“Actually, it’s peach.”

“What?”

“My dress. It’s mother-of-the-bride peach. Did you know they have special racks in bridal shops? Everything strictly below the knee in shades that won’t clash with the floral arrangements.” She indulged in a rueful little smile at her own expense.

He cast her a coolly appraising glance as he turned out of the lot. “If I were doing your portrait I’d put you in something with a little more life to it. Venetian red.”

She remembered that he was an artist. “That’s all I’d need, to be hanging in some museum.” She felt herself grow warm, and was more than a little aghast to realize she was flirting with this man young enough to be her son. “Turn left at the intersection.” She pointed toward the post. Its quaint bell tower bordered in decorative tiles, featured regularly in travel pieces, cast a shadow over the old Park Rio opposite it.

“I know the way.” Ian braked to let a group of giggling teenagers in shorts and T-shirts cross. “I was at the engagement party, remember?”

“Were you? I’m sorry. There were so many people…”

A lame excuse, she knew. The truth was she hadn’t bothered to get to know Wes’s son. She told herself it was because she’d been too caught up in the wedding plans. But wasn’t there more to it than that? Wasn’t Ian just one more reminder of how much older Wes was?

“I didn’t stay long,” he said. “I’m not much of a party animal.”

“Me neither. Most of the time, I’d rather be curled up with a good book.”

Sam smiled at the irony. As the daughter of Jack and Cora Delarosa, she’d been dealing with people since she was old enough to see above the counter. They liked that she knew their children’s names and remembered their various aches and pains. In turn, they often confided in her. Like head librarian Vivienne Hicks letting it drop just yesterday that she was thinking of seeing a therapist. And Edie Grigsby, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, who feared her son might be on drugs. How many of those to whom she’d lent an ear or a shoulder would have guessed what a solitary creature she was at heart?

She gazed out at the tree-lined sidewalks bustling with shoppers. A chalkboard sign in front of the Wicker Basket listed today’s specials. A table of marked-down books stood outside Between the Covers, where its owner, Peter McBride, was attacking the front window with a roll of paper towels and bottle of Windex. Across the street, at the rival bookshop owned by Peter’s ex-wife, appropriately named The Last Word, Miranda McBride could be seen watering her potted kumquats.

Ian slipped a CD into the player—Charlie Parker—and tossed the case onto a floor littered with coins, crumpled straw wrappers, a paint-smeared rag. “You like jazz?”

“I love every kind of music,” she said. “Especially classical.”

He nodded. “You mentioned something last night about a music festival.”

“I’m chairing this year’s committee.” She was surprised that he’d remembered. At the rehearsal dinner they’d been seated at opposite ends of the table. “If you’re going to be around then, you should come. We have a terrific lineup.”

“When is it?”

“Third week in October.”

“I may be in London.”

“I’ll save you a ticket just in case.”

“Thanks, I’d like that.”

“Are you on the road much?” she asked after a moment.

“More than I’d like. If I could get away with it, I’d spend all my time in the studio.”

“Why can’t you?”

He shrugged. “Murals pay the rent. Luckily, most of it’s done on canvas. I only travel for installations.”

“I envy you.”

“How so?”

“I always wanted to travel.”

“What stopped you?”

They passed the town hall and courthouse, a pair of Victorians that stood out like lacy pink valentines in a sea of stolid, whitewashed adobe. He turned onto Grove Avenue, where the road began to climb.

“Too busy raising a family and running a business, I guess,” she said.

“It’s not too late.” He flicked her a glance that seemed to challenge her in some way.

“You make it sound as if I could pick up and go any time I felt like it.”

“Can’t you?”

“It’s not as easy as you think.”

“You have help, don’t you?”

“My daughter Laura. But she has enough to handle as it is.”

He shrugged. “It was just a thought.”

“When you get to be my age, you’ll see. Nothing’s easy.”

“You talk as if you’re an old lady.”

“I’m forty-eight.”

“That’s hardly old. Besides, you look at least ten years younger.” Ian shot her another grin, sending an electrical surge through her that definitely wasn’t a hot flash. “If I didn’t know better I’d have guessed you were Alice’s sister.” His mouth hooked down in a wry grimace. “Oldest line in the world, I know, but I swear it’s true.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the compliment.” She spoke lightly even as the heat rushed up into her cheeks.

He’s flirting with me.
She stared at the layers of peach chiffon draped decorously over her knees. Yes, she could still fit comfortably into a size eight, and except for a few silver strands her hair was the same deep auburn it had always been. But these days, when she looked in the mirror, it was at a woman with fine lines about eyes that had seen as much tribulation as triumph. A woman who had come to depend on reading glasses, and whose medicine chest was stocked with several types of moisturizing cream. What could he possibly see in her?

Ian, for his part, wished there was a way to put her fears to rest without scaring her off. He’d had his eye on her for some time now—at the engagement party and at last night’s rehearsal dinner. What had struck him even more than her long-necked beauty was how gracefully she moved, like a dancer: tall, forthright, ageless, her skirt barely rippling at her knees. Her clear gaze was equally direct, that of a woman with no games to play. If she wanted something, she would ask for it. If she wanted a man, he would know it.

Girls? He was tired of their endless attempts to mold him, of their patently obvious ploys garnered from books and magazine articles. When his last girlfriend, Emily, had started cutting phone calls short, he hadn’t caught on at first…until he happened to see a female author on TV stressing the importance of ending a phone conversation after fifteen minutes. The idea being to leave the man wanting more, he supposed. After that, he’d begun timing Emily, clocking her in each call at just over fourteen and a half minutes. When he confronted her, she hadn’t even had the decency to be embarrassed.

“Why should you be the one calling all the shots?” she’d huffed. “Maybe I have better things to do than always being at your beck and call.”

He’d broken off with her then and there. What he wanted was a woman who’d laugh at the idea of timing a conversation as if it were an egg, a woman more interested in art and music and books than in finding some man to marry her. A woman very much like the one sitting beside him now…

“My studio’s just up the coast.” He spoke casually knowing this, too, must sound like the oldest line in the book. “If you’re interested in seeing some of my work.”

Sam was flooded with shame. Did he see her as some pathetic older woman who’d fall into bed with the first man who showed the slightest interest? No, she told herself, he wasn’t like that.
He’s just being nice.
“Sure,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even. “I’d like that.”

They fell into an uneasy silence. The neatly trimmed oleander hedges that lined the roads near town had given way to live oaks and pepper trees. Wildflowers spilled from ditches and poked between fence slats: snowberry and jimson weed, daisylike coreopsis, and her favorite, the white Matilija poppy. Road signs bearing the universal symbol of horse and rider marked trails that wandered off into the woods.

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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