UNLOVED, page 1
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Amber Quill Press, LLC
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An Amber Quill Press Book
This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or have been used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.
Amber Quill Press, LLC
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.
Copyright © 2006 by Nina Merrill
Cover Art © 2006 Trace Edward Zaber
Layout and Formatting
Provided by: ElementalAlchemy.com
Published in the United States of America
For my husband, who makes sure I never feel unloved.
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Hot. So hot. And humid. Oppressively still air foretold an afternoon thunderstorm. Nona didn't bother turning on the air conditioner as she drove the pickup home from a long day at the citrus grove. It was more effective to roll down both the windows and drive fast on the short stretch of country road leading to Brookton and home. She wanted nothing more than a shower and a glass of lemonade, not necessarily in that order. The heat of June always came as a surprise after the mild winter and spring of Florida.
She had spent the morning on the mower cutting the weeds, and the early afternoon walking the grapefruit plantings with the grove man, checking the health and branch strength of the two-year-old trees. The grove man, Rogers, still seemed surprised when Nona climbed out of the truck without her father, but he had learned in the past two years that she meant business. Her father backed her, and she knew nearly as much about citrus as Rogers--and was rapidly learning more.
In some ways, she surprised herself with her determination and knowledge. But in other ways, she knew very well where the motivation had come from--her last semester at college in Miami. There was nothing like a disastrous love affair to make a woman want to reinvent herself. Grapefruit might be a poor substitute for romance, but it was a fine source of independence.
She turned on to her long street and saw the For Sale sign at the Brinkley place several blocks from home had already been uprooted and lay tidily on the lawn. Nona was aggravated the sale had gone through without anyone in town being aware the old house and groves were on the market. The sign seemed to have been a courtesy at best.
Nona parked the pickup in the garage next to her father's empty space and entered the kitchen through the back door. There was pink lemonade already in the refrigerator. She poured one glass and drank it down before pouring a second. Then she went straight upstairs to shower, letting the tepid water stream over her and rinse away dust, sweat and the itchy juice of cut weeds and grass. She washed her long brown hair in her favorite jasmine shampoo and then simply stood in the stream of water until her toes wrinkled.
Dry once more, she dressed in an old, yellow cotton dress whose emerald green collar brought out the flecks in her hazel eyes.
The ominous rumble of thunder drew her out her bedroom's French doors onto the second-floor veranda. She loved watching thunderstorms boil up on summer afternoons. They did little to cool the air, but they were good for the grove. She stood near the sturdy trellis supporting the night-blooming jasmine, the same trellis she had climbed in her youth to sneak away at night. The dark green leaves sheltered a multitude of creamy buds, furled like umbrellas, just waiting for night to lure the pale moths to pollinate them.
Deep gray clouds swelled behind the jasmine vines. The contrast caught her eye, so she turned back to her room for her easel and the tin of watercolors she kept for quick sketches. After returning to the veranda, she quickly captured the ominous bulging outlines of the clouds before becoming distracted by a dark-haired man far down the street. He stood for a while in front of the Brinkley place, hands on his hips in a way that plucked a strand of memory in Nona. She frowned and set down the brush, gripping the railing and leaning out to look at the man in his blue shirt. He began to walk down the street, and only two houses away he crossed at the corner and turned toward the Hartley house, set back from the street among its trees.
A few fat drops of rain struck her. She listened to the thunder, wondering what sensible man would be out with such a storm coming, then he was close enough for her to see his face.
That face--the same one she still found herself sketching from memory.
Nona flinched back behind the thick screen of the jasmine and closed her eyes against a storm of memories. Touches. Kisses. Rooms with tall open windows and blowing green sheers. A bed with crisp brown sheets. Dark eyes above her, dark hair across a damp brow. A mouth taut with passion. Long-fingered hands.
Here, in Brookton. On her very street.
Nona gave a convulsive shiver and felt all the downy hairs on her body rise. She told herself it had been an experiment, nothing more. She had decided at twenty-three it was past time to get rid of her troublesome virginity, to discover for herself whether what she'd heard about men and sex was true.
It hadn't been a lie. Jude's passion was like the storm surge accompanying a hurricane, a tide that made her frighteningly aware of the hugeness of the ocean behind it, and Nona found herself unable to fight it. The affair lasted fourteen weeks, while she flunked three tests in succession at college and fell asleep during lectures for the first time in her life. She had never thought to ask Jude how he had managed to steal time away from his import business to be with her.
It had been like a sickness, she thought. A raging disease, with her need for Jude and his body like an unquenchable thirst. She'd sought his heart as well, but the more she wanted him--the more they made love--the less connected she felt to him. It was as if Jude backed away, though physically he appeared to desire her more and more. The sex--after a while she couldn't call it "making love," if it had ever been that at all--satisfied only a physical need. When Nona found herself verging on obsession, she ended the affair with a craven telephone call. "You're running away, Nona," Jude had whispered to her. "Running away like a coward."
She left school and Miami on a plea of homesickness for her father and the tall white house under the water oaks and magnolias. In the years since, she'd thought she had succeeded in righting her perspective and regaining her emotional balance. She'd finished her degree at an extension college and gone on to manage the citrus grove for her father, who was happy to golf and fish, like any other retiree.
Jude walked to the foot of the narrow brick path stretching from the front door to the sidewalk, and stood staring up at her house. She remained hidden behind the jasmine as the storm released the rain. He was soaked in moments, but he merely turned his face up into the downpour. The blue button-down shirt clung to all the angles and slopes of his torso, and Nona could not push away her memories of Jude swimming, Jude in the shower, Jude, Jude...She fled inside and closed her balcony door, leaning against it with her heart pounding. When she could breathe again, she moved shakily to her bed and lay down.
For an hour she stared at the ceiling through the shirred lace canopy of her bed and tried to convince herself she was mistaken. It couldn't be Jude; Jude could have no possible reason for leaving his Miami business to come to Brookton. And if it really was Jude, what did that mean? A
Her door opened after a soft tapping. Her father leaned into the room. "Are you awake, honeygirl?"
"Hi, Daddy." She sat up, smiling and rubbing her eyes as if she'd just woken, and not spent the time wallowing in self-pity and dread. "I didn't hear you come home."
"It's catching up with you, you know," Rex Hartley said, crossing to sit on the side of her bed. "Delayed reaction. All those nights you don't sleep well."
"It's nothing," Nona knew she couldn't tell him the real reason for her insomnia.
"You were pacing last night at two."
"What were you doing up? I thought you had to be at the tee early."
"I did, but I was looking over the grove paperwork."
"Oh, Daddy, you don't have to keep doing that. Enjoy retirement."
"I want to help, and sometimes a second pair of eyes..." Rex ran his hand over her brown hair, pulling her toward him to kiss her forehead. "I remember all that miserable paperwork, you know."
Nona smiled. "I think it was just the night. The magnolias are blooming, and the jasmine. The scent woke me like orange blossoms do in February. I was restless." But truthfully, the source of her wakefulness was the same as it had been for the past two years--a shatteringly vivid and explicit dream of herself and Jude together in his brown plaid bed. It always ended the same, with his arching climax and her blurted, gasping confession--"I love you"--and Jude's sudden dark and furious look, and rough rejection: "There's no need to lie. I'll fuck you all the same."
Those words had been a knife to her gut the day before she ended their affair.
"Come down to dinner." Rex ruffled his daughter's hair as he slid off the bed. "I've put a chicken in the oven, but you have to cook the broccoli. Lani's coming at six." Nona smiled up at her tall father's tanned, lined face. It was good to see him so pleased about Lani's visit.
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They finished the dinner preparations together in the kitchen. Shortly before six, Lani Jorgensen knocked at the back door and let herself in. Nona had to turn away to hide her smile when her father kissed Lani chastely, with a sidelong glance Nona's way. She shooed them into the dining room to set the table and open the wine Lani had brought, while she transferred the meal to serving dishes.
Nona was only half-listening to the dinner conversation, her attention turned inward to replay those moments when she'd watched Jude Danzig walk down the street of her town. When she heard, through her fog, the words "The old Brinkley place sold last week," she dropped her fork on the floor with a clatter and retrieved it with a breathless laugh at her own clumsiness.
"Whoops! It was hardly for sale before the sign was down again this afternoon."
"The old man died two years ago. You were at school." Rex shook his head. "The estate finally settled and the heirs didn't want the groves or the house."
"Are they crazy? Brinkley grove land is some of the best around. It never freezes." She frowned. "I wonder why no one mentioned the land was for sale? We should've looked into it."
"I heard it was an inside deal. The purchaser knew the son, and it all happened privately."
"Oh, really?" Lani dug into the chicken breast Rex had put on her plate. "Who bought that white elephant?"
"Man's named Danzig. Up from Miami. Said he was in imports."
"You've spoken to him?" Nona casually lifted a forkful of broccoli to her mouth. She wondered if either of them could see the pulse leaping in her throat.
"A few times. Tall man; well spoken. I've given him a standing invitation for dinner after he's settled."
Nona swallowed the broccoli and drank down the remaining wine in her glass with a single tilt of her head. Rex looked at her curiously, then reached for the bottle and refilled her glass. Nona rubbed her arms, where gooseflesh rose at the thought of Jude in this house, at this table, likely seated across from her.
"What kind of imports?" asked Lani.
Art, treasures, European furniture. Nona remembered the late-night interior of Jude's exclusive, handsome showroom and the soft, thick rug of Persian lamb. Jude had stood her in its center before closing every window blind, and turning on a single spotlight above her. In complete silence he'd removed every stitch of her clothing, slowly and with such skimming lightness of touch that, by the time she was naked, she was shivering with both cold and desire. Jude circled her, posing her like a statue, touching every inch of her skin. He had never even undressed that night in the empty, echoing showroom. Everything he had done was for her alone, though he had controlled her pleasure utterly, pushing her to climax after climax with almost clinical precision.
She had seen a strange triumph flaring in his dark eyes as she'd writhed over the geometric beauty of the rug and he slithered after her in his suit pants and starched green shirt, never ceasing in his attentions to the throbbing flesh between her thighs. Each time she clutched at him in her passion, he forced her hands away from his body, denying himself.
"What?" Flustered, she almost dropped her fork again.
"The salt, please, honeygirl."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"I don't think you feel one hundred percent yet, do you? Perhaps an early night?"
"I think you're right, Daddy."
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Despite the wine at dinner, Nona lay sleepless in her bed, the sheet pushed aside, windows open to the sultry fragrance and humidity of the night. But unlike the sheet, there was no pushing aside her memories now that she had seen Jude again.
College. A time of intense personal growth for Nona--new input, new ideas, new ways of thinking, and an immersion in her art she had never reached before or since. Along with the business courses, she'd indulged her love for color and line, taking every painting, sketching and design course she could fit into her schedule. Her talent bloomed under such nurture, and she had been asked to demonstrate at the college's weekend art show.
It was the first time she ever glimpsed Jude, who had been stalking through the campus art exhibition with a spun-silver blonde on his arm. Nona had been on the demonstration dais, painting an abstract in her favorite shades of green, when Jude and his companion paused to observe her. She noted them out of the corner of her eye. He hardly looked the part of an artist, dressed in his business suit. She smirked to herself, wondering if they were shopping for art to hang in a guest room. The blonde murmured, "I think I could do that much."
The man said nothing.
Nona, her pride pricked by the blonde's tactless comment, flicked her sable brush and placed a subtle caricature of the blonde in the center of the painting. He laughed outright and said, "No, Alix, I don't believe you could."
The blonde was peeved by his amusement. "Anyone can paint blobs like she's doing."
Nona realized Alix hadn't seen the cartoon in the painting. She dipped her brush in blue and turned the profile into a sailfish arching out of green waters.
"Now that looks more like something real. I think paintings ought to look like the things they're about."
"If I wanted copies, I'd buy photographs," said the man.
"Pooh. You're always so smug, Jude. Take me to lunch. I'm starving."
Nona watched them leave, thinking, Jude. What an unusual name. When he had gone, she started another painting, this time finding his face in the wash of grays and browns like a ghost. A memorable face. An interesting face.
A week after the show Jude entered the studio where she was working with two other students. The sane, simple music of Bach's two-part inventions drifted from a player in the corner. Nona was deep in a woodland scene, brushing tender touches of autumn color over the paper when she heard his voice behind her and knew without turning who he was and why he had come.
"Nona Hartley, if I remember your nametag correctly?"
"Yes." She went on painting, not turning to look at him, conscious of a shivering sensation in her stomach. "What can I do for you?"
"The...sailfish painting. Do you still have it?"
"It was just a sketch. I threw it away." She dipped her brush in clear water and blurred the brightness of a leaf reflected in the rain pool.
"A pity. Are you hungry? It's almost lunchtime."
"Actually, yes." She turned at last.
He was just as she remembered him, just as he had emerged from her painting that afternoon. His eyes were night-dark, rimmed by a smudge of lashes too thick to be masculine, and separated by a nose like a blade, with fine, arched nostrils. His hair was dark, too, a deep brown with burnished accents gilding it where the light from the windows touched. His brows winged away in straight slants from his eyes. She especially liked the calmness of his hands, the way they rested naturally on his crossed arms without having to leap in mad gestures for expression. A very self-possessed man.
She reached behind her neck to unfasten her spattered smock, but he moved to her side and attended to the small task while she held her long hair out of the way. His fingers lingered on her shoulder, and it was at that moment her wild plan formed, fully fledged.
This was the man.
She looked pointedly at his bare left hand. "You aren't married, are you?"
He shook his head. "No. You?" His brow rose mockingly, and the left corner of his mouth curled.
Nona smiled back. "No. Let me put away my equipment."
Over coffee and shrimp cocktails at a small café across the street from the campus, he introduced himself. "My name is Jude Danzig."
"You already know who I am."
"So I do. Tell me about yourself."
An urge to parry rose. "What would you like to know?"
"How do you spend your free time? What kind of flowers do you like? And are you fonder of red or white wine?"