The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True (80 page)

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
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“How’s your mom?” He asked as she drove toward town.

“She’s fine, but she insists on staying in bed. She’s worried she’ll have another attack.”

“Is she taking anything?”

“Coumadin. And something to help her sleep at night.”

He nodded as if concurring, and she remembered when they’d played house as little kids, how he’d strut about holding his father’s pipe while she traipsed after him, trying not to trip on her mother’s skirt. Even then he’d worn this faintly professional air.

After a quick stop at Starbuck’s—it was the one thing their mothers had in common: they both made lousy coffee—they headed out to the Dunes, steaming cups in hand. It was where they’d hung out as teenagers, and she still preferred it to the more sheltered beaches, which were usually awash in sunbathers. Here the wind blew brisk and cold year-round, bringing the sting of spray from the waves churning into the shore.

They strolled along the beach, deserted this time of day, where they’d once made love amid the dunes. The fog had burned off and the sky was a brilliant, scoured blue. Down by the tidemark, a flock of sandpipers mined for insects amid the kelp. When Byron took her hand, she scarcely noticed—as if they’d been old marrieds. There’d been a few other guys in college, sure—like the one she’d slept with after a drunken fraternity bash, whose smelly socks by the side of the bed she remembered more vividly than what he’d been like
bed—but no one who’d been a threat to Byron. She’d always known she would come back to him, and in the end she had.

They found a small cove that provided at least some shelter from the wind, and sank down, huddled together under the blanket she’d wisely thought to bring. For a long while they didn’t speak, just sat sipping their coffees and watching the waves pound into the shore.

Byron was the first to break the companionable silence. “I’ve thought a lot about what you said. I mean, I knew you hated your job, but I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all. I’m sorry if I overreacted.”

“I’m sorry, too,” she said, lacing her fingers through his. She was glad he’d brought it up; how much better than these past few weeks of brief, stilted conversations over the phone. “I did sort of drop it on you like a ton of bricks.”

His green eyes seemed brighter than usual, and she realized it was because he was so pale from all his long hours indoors. She felt selfish. Here she was making far-reaching decisions about her future—
future—while he’d been nearly killing himself just to keep up.

“If this is really what you want, I’m all for it,” he said with more conviction than she sensed he felt.

She looked out at the waves racing into the shore, silvery at the crest with smooth green underbellies. She missed the ocean, its rhythms and moods, but she’d missed Byron most of all.

“This could be the worst idea ever,” she told him. “I could fall flat on my face.” She paused to take in a breath of salty air laced with the scent of smoke from a driftwood fire. “All I know is that for the first time in my life I wake up every morning looking forward to the day.” She turned to him, beseeching him with her eyes. It wouldn’t work if he was only going along to please her.

“I’ll admit, I never pictured you as the proprietress of a tearoom,” he said, smiling faintly. “It seems so old-fashioned.”

“Maybe I

“One way or another, I guess I’m not exactly in a position to throw my weight around.” He glanced wryly at the braided thong on his wrist that seemed a relic of a more carefree past. “It’s not like I can support you in fine style on what I’ll be making.”

“Poor Byron.” She leaned over and kissed the reddened tip of his nose. “Should we take up a collection?”

He laughed. “I’m not that desperate. Not yet at least.”

“Only two more years to go.” The new medical center would be up and running by then. She hadn’t said anything about it to Byron; she’d been waiting for the right moment.

“It seems more like a lifetime,” he said, injecting the right note of mournfulness into his voice.

She poked him with her elbow. “Stop it. I feel guilty enough as it is.”

“Okay. How’s it going with Gerry?”

She thought about what Gerry had done, flying up with her to see her mother. “She’s been great. They all have—Justin and Mavis too. I don’t know what I’d do without them.” She was careful to make no mention of Matt.

“It sounds as if it all worked out.” He sounded genuinely happy for her.

“Everyone’s looking forward to meeting you.”

“Same here.”

you coming?”

He shrugged. “Who knows? I had to promise my firstborn child just to get away for one day. It might be a while before I can get a whole weekend off, but I’ll try.”

She wanted to cry in frustration that she couldn’t wait forever, that there were times, more and more lately, when she felt him slipping away. But she said nothing. What would have been the point? It wasn’t as if he could help it.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” she said.

“Before I forget, thanks for the pictures.”

She’d e-mailed him photos of the house. “I always imagined us picking out a house together, but I hope it meets with your approval.”

“All I saw was a lot of Sheetrock and lumber,” he kidded.

The thought of Matt once more tiptoed across her mind. “In that case, you have a surprise in store.”

“More than one, I’m sure.” He drew her against him so that she was tucked under his arm, her head nestled on his shoulder. “That reminds me, I have something for you.” He pulled something clumsily wrapped in tissue paper from his pocket. It was so light that, as she took it from him, the wind nearly snatched it from her hand.

It was a silver heart on a gossamer chain. Claire held it up, the sunlight winking off its filigreed surface in brilliant Morse-like flashes. “It’s beautiful. You shouldn’t have.”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t break the bank.”

That wasn’t what she’d meant; she’d been thinking of the trouble he’d gone to. “Still, you shouldn’t have.” She held it up to her neck, her chilled ringers fumbling with the clasp.

“Here, let me help.”

Byron’s fingers were cool against the back of her neck. By contrast, the warmth of his lips, when it came, caused her to jump a little as if goosed. Smiling, she dropped back into his arms, offering herself up to be kissed.
Yes. This is what I need.
Just lately she’d had enough of his telling her how much he missed her, and of their long talks over the phone about a future that had begun to feel like a savings account accruing interest. Life, her recent experiences had taught her, was meant to be
not hoarded.

She reveled in the familiar pressure of his lips against hers, the darting tip of his tongue. He knew her so well. Hadn’t they made love in the shelter of these dunes as teenagers? In daylight and by the light of driftwood fires—shivering partly with cold and partly with delight, her terror of Millie and Lou’s finding out making it all the more thrilling.

But now, as they kissed, she had the oddest sense of simultaneously being an onlooker, as if a part of her were in a dark theater watching this take place on screen. Scenes from movies flashed through her mind: Deborah Kerr on the beach with Burt Lancaster in
From Here to Eternity,
Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue in
A Summer Place.
That same part of her, the part watching, was feeling a bit smug as well, as if to say,
See? No problems here, folks.

Byron pushed a hand under her jacket. “You’re shivering.”

“Warm me up.” She burrowed into his embrace. Her fingers had thawed and she had no trouble unbuttoning his shirt. Lowering her head, she pressed her cheek against his bare rib cage. It was lean and smooth, almost hairless. An image of Matt’s thickly muscled chest matted with hair rose unbidden, bringing a rush of guilt.

She abruptly pulled away and wriggled out of her jeans. “Come on. Let’s.” She laughed, feeling the old thrill from long ago. “We won’t get caught. There’s no one for miles.”

Byron looked less than convinced, and she felt a moment of impatience—in the old days he wouldn’t have needed to be talked into it—then with a wicked laugh he was pushing her back onto the sand. When he shucked off his jeans she saw that
at least needed no encouraging.

Now he was in her, the heat from his body warming her inside the cocoon of the blanket. Oh God, yes …
It had been too long. This past week alone had seemed an ice age. In a burst of abandon, she rolled over so that she was on top. She caught a flicker of surprise in his eyes; she’d never been the aggressor (not that Byron expected her to be submissive). But now, as she sat astride him, the wind catching her hair and blowing it out around her face, she might have been a Siren luring some poor sailor to his death. She laughed out loud at the image, while beneath her Byron begged for mercy, saying breathlessly that if she kept it up he wouldn’t be able to hold out.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Are you—?”

“Not yet.”

He groaned. “Oh God … I’m coming.”

She felt him pulsing inside her. Curiously she didn’t mind that she hadn’t come. In some ways it was better this way. She felt wilder. Freer somehow. She rolled off him onto the sand, the cold, wind-whipped air against her flushed skin intoxicating.

Mindful that someone could come along at any moment, they were quick to throw on their clothes. All the while she could see the question in Byron’s eyes: Where had
come from? Not that they hadn’t made love in some strange places. And not that she wasn’t capable of initiating it. But something had been different this time, something a less-trusting soul might have imagined to mean she’d learned a few tricks in his absence.

Her thoughts turned once more to Matt. Why did she feel unfaithful when they’d done no more than shake hands?

She scrambled to her feet. “I’m starving. Have you eaten?”

“Does half a bagel count?”

She grabbed his hand. “Come on, if we hurry we can snag a table at Manny’s. I have a sudden hankering for
huevos rancheros.

Then they were racing down the beach, the wind blowing her jacket out like a sail. Byron pulled ahead, knees pumping, sand spurting from his heels, grinning like a madman. Her heart swelled with love. She didn’t want him to be any different, just for him to see
differently. Was that too much to ask?

The following day Byron headed back and Kitty drove Claire to the airport. On the way they talked about Tea & Sympathy South, as they’d dubbed it. Kitty was planning to fly down the week of the opening. Until then they’d rely on phone, fax, and e-mail. Already Kitty had made arrangements with her tea distributor in Oregon.

“It’s all going to work out just fine, don’t worry.” She pulled into the terminal, skirting double-parked cars with the ease of someone who scarcely noticed they were there. She was dressed in her usual crazy-quilt assortment of layers, as if a wind had blown through her closet and she just happened to be standing nearby: a beltless red kimono over a tunic and drawstring trousers, a bright green scarf tied about her head.

“What could I possibly have to worry about?” Claire answered dryly. “Only six weeks to go, and we’re nowhere near finished. Not to mention I’m a nervous wreck.”

Kitty smiled reassuringly. “Par for the course. My first year everything that could go wrong did—the dishwasher died, I kept running out of things, and the girl I’d hired quit. Oh yes, and the chickens stopped laying eggs.”

“Chickens?” This was one story she hadn’t heard.

“I had the bright idea that with my own coop I’d save money on eggs. It didn’t occur to me that playing chicken farmer and running a tearoom were two very different things.”

“I feel like a fake,” Claire confessed. “As if any minute someone’s going to call my bluff.”

“Go on thinking that way. It’ll keep you on your toes.” Kitty pulled to a stop and leaned over to give Claire a quick hug smelling of spices. With her kimono sleeves fluttering, she looked like an exotic bird. “Bye, kiddo. And remember, it’s the chicken that comes first, not the egg.” Whatever

An hour later Claire was touching down at LAX. Earlier in the week, she’d phoned, and Matt had assured her that everything was under control. No surprises there, at least. What she was unprepared for when she stepped off the plane was the big, shaggy-haired man in jeans and a worn denim jacket who greeted her at the gate.

Matt strode over to her, a toothpick angling out from under his mustache. “I figured you’d need a lift.” As if he’d come from around the block, not two hours away.

Claire, too flustered to think straight, said the first thing that came to mind. “You didn’t have to. I’d have taken the bus.” He reached for her bag, and they wrestled with it a moment before she released her grip with a smile. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It was nice of you to come.”

“Don’t mention it.” He tossed the toothpick aside, flashing her an easy grin. In clean clothes, with his hair neatly combed, hair that usually made her think of an unmade bed, she was suddenly seeing him in a different light—not so much Paul Bunyan as Sundance Kid. And from the looks he was getting from other women, she wasn’t alone in her opinion.

It wasn’t until they were in his pickup, barreling along the interstate, that she got up the nerve to ask, “Is it the house? Did something happen that you didn’t want to tell me about over the phone?” She imagined the roof caved in from a fallen tree, an exploded furnace, a flooded basement—maybe all three.

Matt shot her an amused look. “Do you always think in terms of worst-case scenario?”

She noticed he’d taken the time to shave, and for some reason it touched her. In the bright light bouncing off the hood she could see the little webs of lines around his eyes. He wasn’t as handsome or as well educated as Byron, but there was something so … well,
about him.

“Force of habit,” she said, smiling a little. “When I’m not around, things have a way of falling apart.” She was thinking of her parents.

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
4.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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