Man of the mountain, p.17

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, page 17

 

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
 


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  Heather laughed. "Well, good. Want coffee?"

  "How about iced tea?"

  "You got it." Heather bounced cheerily over to the beverage station and poured the iced tea, pausing to call out Sheriff Pangborn's order through the cook's window on the way. Heather returned with the tea. "There you go."

  "Thanks."

  "You want a few minutes?"

  "No, I'm ready." Eden ordered a sandwich and coleslaw.

  Heather wrote down the order and then stuck her pencil behind her ear. "Say, Eden…" She leaned in closer.

  "Hmm?"

  "You know, I've been thinking…"

  Eden smiled at Jared's daughter. "What?"

  "Maybe you and Dad could come over for dinner. Maybe this Monday night, on your day off?"

  Eden felt the tears come again. She held them back by smiling wider. She was touched. She knew exactly what this invitation meant. It was Heather's way of telling Eden that she approved of the idea of her father and Eden together. It also meant that people in town were starting to see the two of them as a couple. And that was good, as far as Eden was concerned. That was just wonderful.

  Eden drew in a breath. "That would be great. As long as Jared says yes, too. But it would have to be the Monday after this one. We're staying open for the holiday."

  "Okay, then, Monday after the one coming up. Say, six o'clock?"

  "Sound's fine. As long as Jared—"

  "Eden. Do me a favor."

  "Anything."

  "Don't ask my dad. Tell him. You'll save yourself a lot of grief."

  Eden laughed at that. "Okay, okay. We'll be there."

  "Great. I'll put in your order."

  Eden, her sagging spirits lifted a little by Heather's invitation, ate a leisurely lunch and returned to The Hole in the Wall much refreshed.

  * * *

  She didn't get a chance to tell Jared about the invitation until three the next morning, after he'd appeared at her doorstep as he always did, materializing out of the trees once he'd left his pickup at Oggie's place.

  She opened the door to him and he came into her waiting arms. For a time, as always when he touched her, she forgot the rest of the world in the beauty of his kiss. At last, he pulled back enough to look at her. "What a night, huh?" It had been just as busy as they'd anticipated. From seven o'clock on, Eden had felt like she'd never stopped moving.

  "Yes. I'm beat." She sighed. "I want a bath and then I want to fall into bed. With you."

  "Well, let's get to it." He took her hand and started to tug her toward the bedroom.

  She hung back. "Wait. I have to tell you before I forget."

  "Yeah?"

  "Monday, the fourteenth. We're going to dinner at Heather's house."

  "We're what?" His voice was perfectly level. Yet for some reason, the sound of it had her wanting to cry again.

  She pasted on a cheerful smile. "Your daughter invited us to dinner, Monday the fourteenth. It's okay, isn't it?" She loathed the slightly pleading note she could hear in her voice.

  He rubbed the back of his neck. "Eden…"

  "What?"

  He looked so sad and strained. She hated to see him looking like that. He seemed to choose his next words with great care. "That's more than a week away."

  "So?"

  "Who knows what could be happening in a week."

  "What are you getting at, Jared?"

  He looked at her. His whole lean body seemed full of tension. And weariness, too. If she could have read minds, she would have cried in earnest at his thoughts right then. Right then, the longing in Jared was very bad.

  He wanted what he'd wanted since the night he first made love with her. He wanted to make her his true wife before the world.

  But Jared knew he must not forget all the things that would forever stand between them. He was forty years old. Eden was only five years older than his own daughter. He was virtually unemployed. He'd been divorced and he had a rotten disposition.

  Hell, he could hardly imagine a worse prospect for a husband than himself. Even if Eden said yes, he would never let her marry someone like him.

  That was why he had to set her free of him. And the only way he was going to be able to do that was to get away from her, to go somewhere where he wouldn't have to see her anymore.

  The morning just past, when they lay in bed together and he found himself longing to hear her tell him she loved him, he had finally realized that he had to put a stop to this. He had to end this sweet torture and get out of her life, once and for all.

  The hiring of Nick Santino was a step toward that aim. Nick was smart and quick. Jared's plan was to have the young man trained and ready to fill his own shoes within a week, two at the most. And then he would leave town, not to return for a long, long time. He would get away and he would get over her.

  Eventually, when she found a more suitable man, she would remember him with fondness. Hell, she'd probably even be grateful to him for keeping her from wasting her life.

  "Jared, I asked you a question. Are you going to answer me or not?"

  "What question?" His grim thoughts had made him lose completely the thread of their conversation.

  "What are you getting at when you say 'Who knows what could be happening in a week'?"

  He knew he should probably tell her now. But that would only make the remaining days they had together all the sadder. No, the best way was to keep quiet until the end, and then cut it clean.

  "Forget that," he said.

  "But, Jared—"

  "We'll go to dinner at Heather's, okay?"

  "But Jared, I think—"

  "Stop thinking." He pulled her against him. "Kiss me."

  "But—"

  He covered her sweet lips with his own and there was no more discussion that night, or the rest of the weekend for that matter. By the time they got home Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, they had little energy for anything but a quick bath and bed.

  * * *

  Nick Santino began work, as agreed, on the day after Labor Day.

  From the first, he proved to be everything Jared and Eden had hoped he might be. When it came to any task, he only had to have it explained to him once and he was ready to perform it on a regular basis. And there was no job too menial for him. He bused tables and scrubbed floors with the same meticulous care he brought to mixing a fancy drink. He did what he was told to do, and he never sat around on the job.

  By his third day of work, the Thursday after Labor Day, Eden decided Nick was ready to open up the bar on his own. She told him that tomorrow, Friday, she wouldn't be coming in until two or three in the afternoon.

  Nick gave her a proud smile and an enthusiastic "Yes, ma'am" in response.

  So the next morning, Eden and Jared slept late. They shared a leisurely brunch at around eleven and then found their way back to the bedroom to make use of the bed one more time. At a little after one Eden decided she probably ought to get ready to put in her appearance at work.

  Jared had a different idea. "Let me go in early, why don't you? You can take the whole day off."

  Eden tried to protest. "It's Friday, and it'll probably be busy. I can't—"

  "Yes, you can. I have a hunch things won't be too heavy tonight, anyway. The summer's over. It's been quieter all week, you've said so yourself."

  "But I—"

  "Come on. Nick and I will do fine. Give yourself a break." He reached for his pants, which were on the floor by his side of the bed and pulled some money from a pocket. He rolled back to face her and held out the bills. "Go down to Grass Valley and buy yourself a new dress or something."

  "Jared, I don't think—"

  "Right." He wrapped her hands around the money. "Don't think. Just have a good day. And be waiting in this bed for me tonight."

  Eden considered. The idea was tempting. She hadn't had a break from work in ten days, after all. She might as well enjoy the benefits of having a dependable employee. And Jared could take some time off, too. This Sunday,
if all went as expected, she'd insist that he skip a whole day's work as well.

  "All right. I'll do it." She waved his money under his nose and grinned at him.

  "Good."

  An hour later, he left her to enjoy her day off.

  * * *

  Eden took Jared's suggestion and drove to Grass Valley. After a trip to the bank, she stopped at Brunswick Plaza, where there just happened to be a bridal shop. She only went in the bridal shop to look around. But once she was there, she found she wanted to try on some of the gowns. The saleslady was very helpful.

  Before she knew what was happening, Eden did the craziest thing. She took the money Jared had given her, plus quite a bit of money of her own, and she bought a floor-length ivory wedding dress.

  It was just nuts of her to do such a thing, she knew, but she couldn't resist that dress. She loved the old-fashioned basque waistline, which dipped to a point in front. The portrait collar framed her smooth shoulders and long neck and the skirt was a filmy wonder, chiffon over satin. Venise lace and tiny seed pearls decorated the fitted point sleeves and adorned the hem.

  After choosing an ivory-colored fingertip-length veil, Eden walked out of the bridal shop with the dream of a dress laid carefully across her outstretched arms. She wondered how she would explain to Jared what she'd done.

  She decided she wouldn't tell him, at least not right away. She'd give him back the amount of money he'd given her and say she hadn't found a dress she liked after all.

  Fantasizing shamelessly about the day she would wear the beautiful dress, Eden shopped for groceries. She stocked up on the brand of cola that Jared liked, and she stacked the cart high with steaks, pot roasts, and racks of country-style ribs. Jared, after all, was a meat-and-potatoes kind of man. Last, she stopped at a bar and restaurant supply house to order some new beer mugs and a case of champagne flutes.

  She returned to North Magdalene and drove straight to the cabin to put all her purchases away. She was already feeling a little foolish about the wedding dress, so she stuck it in the back of her closet, thinking she'd surprise Jared when he asked her to become his wife by telling him how she'd found it in Grass Valley that day he'd told her to buy herself a dress.

  Eden fixed herself a light dinner, and then she went to see Oggie at Delilah's house. She found the old man alone. He was sitting in the living room watching a game show on TV.

  "Come in, come in, gal. I been wantin' a word with you anyway." He pointed the remote at the television, and the big box went silent. "What the hell are you doing out and about at this time of the evening? Shouldn't you be over at The Hole in the Wall makin' us rich?"

  "Well, Oggie, I—"

  "Say no more. I know the answer already. It's that Santino kid you hired, am I right?"

  "Yes, he's turned out to be quite a find."

  "All the Santinos are a find. Those kids were well brought up. Julio and Maria had 'em all workin' from the time they were knee-high to a gnat's behind." He felt in his shirt pocket, and didn't find what he was looking for. "Damn. I could use me a good cigar. But Delilah's after me night and day not to smoke in the house."

  "Well, I suppose it won't be long until you're back at your own house again, anyway."

  Oggie shrugged. "Who knows? Even if I'm dyin' half the time for a smoke, it ain't so bad to have my breakfast and dinner cooked up for me, not to mention my clothes kept clean. And Sam and Delilah swear I can stay as long as I want to. So we'll see, we'll just see…" He shot her an oblique glance, and Eden realized he was working up to saying what was really on his mind.

  She prompted, "Oggie, is something wrong?"

  "Well, I gotta tell you, I been wonderin'…"

  "What? Say it."

  "Hell. The truth is, I been wonderin' how come you went and hired you a helper without consultin' your partner?"

  Eden felt instantly contrite. The hiring of Nick Santino had come about so swiftly, she'd hardly had a moment to stop and think. And she should have consulted Oggie, she knew, though she was also sure he would have told her to go ahead and do what needed to be done.

  "I'm sorry," Eden said. "I really am. It all happened kind of quickly. Jared felt we had to get right on it, or we'd miss out on the chance to hire him. I hope it's all right with you. But if for some reason, it's not—"

  "So it was Jared's idea, eh?"

  "Well, yes. He said that we really needed a relief person. And it's true, we do."

  Oggie looked at her sideways. "Now really ain't the time of year to be hiring someone new."

  "Business has just been great, Oggie. You know that. There's plenty of work for another pair of hands."

  "Yeah." Oggie grunted. "I guess so. Especially if one pair of hands is walkin' out the door."

  Eden frowned. "What does that mean?"

  "Nothin' much. Just that it looks like Jared's gone and hired his replacement."

  Eden, who'd perched on the end of the couch, found she was too anxious, suddenly, to sit still. She stood up. "No, that can't be."

  "Why not?"

  "Well, he promised you he'd stay until you could work again, didn't he?"

  "He's stayed to find someone to do the work. He knows damn well no one would fault him for that."

  "But … but you would, wouldn't you?"

  Oggie's beady brown eyes were infinitely patient. "Eden, honey. If he wants to be a damn fool, who am I to roll my wheelchair in his path?"

  Behind the couch, a big window looked out on a group of white-barked birch trees. Eden stared at those trees, thinking that their leaves were noticeably turning to gold.

  Autumn. Autumn was in the air. Everything was changing. And Jared was setting things up so that he could leave her.

  "Eden, you okay?" Oggie's voice came through to her as if from a long way away.

  "Yes, fine. Just fine."

  "You don't sound so fine. Matter of fact, you look kind of green around the gills."

  He was right, of course. She was not fine. It took her a moment before she realized exactly what she felt right then. Anger.

  It was moving through her in a slow, expanding, engulfing wave.

  Her six half sisters and four half brothers and myriad stepsiblings had known the truth about Eden. They all said, "It's almost impossible to make Edie mad. But when it happens, watch out!"

  It was happening now.

  She was simmering now, and in a few minutes, her rage would reach a roiling boil.

  She seethed.

  How could she have been so blind? Jared had not only coaxed her into hiring his own replacement, he hadn't even had the consideration to tell her honestly what he was doing.

  Nick was already good enough at his new job that he and Eden could manage alone if they had to. If Nick worked this whole weekend, he would no doubt be capable of either opening the place or closing it up come the slower midweek days. Jared could head out of town Monday and know that The Hole in the Wall would get along just fine without him.

  How Eden was going to get along without him clearly didn't concern him.

  Oh, she knew what he had told himself. That he was doing the right thing. So what if he was breaking her heart? After all, he was leaving her for her own good.

  She'd given him everything, all that was in her. Her love. Her body. And every ounce of patience she possessed. She'd agreed to keep their passion a secret and to take things one day at a time. Though their deceit had chafed her sorely, she had kept their love a shadowed thing. For him.

  And he was leaving anyway, without warning, as soon as Nick was ready to take his place at The Hole in the Wall.

  Well, he had another think coming if he thought he was going to get away so easily. She was going to have a word with him on the subject.

  And she was going to do it now, at The Hole in the Wall. She was through sneaking around. She was going to tell him what she thought of him, and she didn't care who heard what she said.

  Eden turned from the view of the changing birch trees and pointed hersel
f at the front door.

  She was stopped halfway there by Oggie, who had moved with surprising swiftness, spinning his wheelchair right into her path.

  She looked down at him. "Get out of my way."

  "Er, Eden? Eden, maybe you oughtta sit down."

  "No, Oggie. I ought not. I have to go now."

  "Eden, I gotta tell you. You got that look. That rageful woman look. It's a dangerous look to be wearin' on the street. Stay here for a bit."

  "No."

  "Eden—"

  She darted around him and flew out the door.

  * * *

  Chapter 16

  « ^ »

  Eden descended on The Hole in the Wall about five minutes later. She found a free space on the street, so she entered from the front.

  She shoved back the double doors and stepped inside.

  That small hush happened, as it always does whenever someone new arrives at a bar. Everyone turned to look at her, and then turned back to what they'd been doing before.

  Rocky waved. "Hey, there, Eden. We been askin' where you were."

  Eden nodded at Rocky and spared a moment to look around the room. There was a game of pool in progress, and several of the tables were full. There was only one free stool at the bar itself.

  Nick was behind the bar, in Jared's place.

  If Eden had cherished the slightest doubt that Jared planned to leave her within days, it vanished the moment she saw Nick standing at the little rubber mat where Jared always stood. Tonight, since it was Nick's first night, he should have been doing the footwork while Jared took the money and mixed the drinks. But Jared had put the younger man right into the main job. He was training him as fast as he could.

  Eden perceived one of the finer points of Jared's deceit. He'd pushed her to take the day off so that he could speed up Nick's training without her witnessing what he did. And she, fool that she was, had gone out and bought a wedding dress. It was hanging in her closet even now, proof positive that she was a blind, hopeless idiot who refused to see the truth until Oggie laid it out for her in so many words.

  Eden clenched her hands at her sides. If she didn't watch herself, she was going to grab the one free bar stool in the place and send it hurtling into the big mirror above the bar. She didn't want to destroy the mirror. She'd paid for it herself, after all. The one before it had been shattered in a brawl.

 
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