Dance Upon the Air, page 16part #1 of Three Sisters Island Series
Evan Remington wandered the palatial rooms of his Monterey home. Bored, restless, he studied his possessions. Each one had been selected with care, either by him personally or by a decorator following explicit instructions.
He had always known precisely what he preferred, and precisely what he wanted. He'd always made certain to obtain it. Whatever the cost, whatever the effort.
Everything that surrounded him reflected his taste, a taste admired by associates, peers, and those whose goal it was to fall into either category.
And everything dissatisfied him.
He considered an auction. He could find some currently trendy charity and generate some nice press while he disposed of items he no longer wanted. He could let it leak that he was disposing of those items because they held too many painful memories of his dead wife.
The lovely, lost Helen.
He even considered selling the house. The fact was, it did remind him of her. It wasn't a problem in Los Angeles. She hadn't died in Los Angeles.
Since her accident, he had seldom come to Monterey. It was rare for him to stay more than a few days, and he always came alone. He didn't consider the servants. They fell along the same lines as the furnishings to him. Necessary and efficient.
The first time he'd come back, he'd been raw with grief. He'd wept like a madman while lying across the bed he'd last shared with her, clinging to the nightgown she'd worn. Breathing in the scent of her.
His love was consuming, and his pain threatened to eat him alive.
She had belonged to him.
When the torrent had passed, he'd wandered the house like a ghost, touching what she had touched, hearing her voice echo in his ears, catching a whiff of her scent everywhere. As if it was inside him.
He'd spent an hour in her closet, caressing her clothes. And forgetting the night he had locked her in there when she'd been late coming home.
He wallowed in her, and when he could stand the confinement of the house no longer, he'd driven to the site of her death. And had stood, a solitary figure, weeping on the cliffs.
His doctor prescribed medication and rest. His friends encircled him with sympathy.
He began to enjoy it.
Within a month, he'd forgotten he had insisted that Helen make the trip to Big Sur that day. In his mind, in the cradle of his memory, he saw himself entreating her not to attend, to stay home and rest until she was well again.
Of course, she hadn't listened. She had never listened.
Grief turned to fury, a raging flood of anger that he drowned with liquor and solitude. She'd betrayed him, going out against his wishes, insisting on attending some frivolous party rather than respecting her husband's request.
She had left him unforgivably alone.
But even rage passes. The hole it left in him he filled with a fantasy of her, of their marriage, even of himself. He heard people speak of them as a perfect couple, cruelly parted by tragedy.
He read it, thought it. Believed it.
He wore one of her earrings on a chain next to his heart and let the affectation leak to a suitable media source. It was said Gable did the same when he'd lost Lombard.
He kept her clothes in her closets, her books on the shelves, her perfumes in their bottles. He had an angel of white marble erected for her in the cemetery where no body lay. Every week, a dozen red roses were placed at its feet.
To keep himself sane, he threw himself into his work. He began to sleep again, without so many dreams in which Helen came to him. Gradually, at the urging of friends, he began to go out again socially.
But the women eager to comfort the widower didn't interest him. He dated only because it kept him in the press. He bedded a few of the women only because there would be talk otherwise, of an unflattering sort.
Sex had never driven him. Control had.
He had no wish ever to marry again. There would never be another Helen. They had been destined for each other. She'd been meant for him, meant to be molded and formed by him. If he'd had to punish her occasionally-well, discipline was part of the formation. He'd had to teach her.
Finally, in their last few weeks together, he had believed she had learned. It had been a rare thing for her to make a mistake, in public or private. She'd deferred to him as a wife was meant to defer to a husband, and had made certain that he was pleased with her.
He remembered, or convinced himself that he remembered, that he'd been about to reward her with a trip to Antigua. She had been fascinated by the ocean, his Helen. And had told him, during those first heady weeks of love and discovery, how she sometimes dreamed of living on an island.
In the end, the sea had taken her.
Because he could feel the depression rolling into him like a fog, he poured a glass of mineral water and took one of his pills.
No, he wouldn't sell the house, he decided in one of his lightning mood changes. He would open it. He would give one of the lavish, A-list parties, the kind he and Helen had hosted so often and so successfully.
It would feel as if she were there beside him, as she was meant to be.
When the phone rang, he ignored it and continued to stand, gently rubbing an etched gold hoop earring through the fine linen of his shirt.
"Sir? Ms. Reece is on the phone. She'd like to speak with you if you're available. "
Saying nothing, Evan held out a hand for the portable phone. He never glanced at the uniformed maid who gave it to him, but slid open the terrace door and stepped outside in the balm of breeze to speak to his sister.
"Evan, I'm glad you were in. Deke and I were hoping you'd join us at the club this afternoon. We can have a set of tennis, lunch by the pool. I hardly see my baby brother these days. "
He started to refuse. His sister's country club circle held little interest for him. But he reconsidered quickly, knowing how well Barbara planned entertainment. And how much of the annoyance of the details she would willingly take from his hands.
"I'd like that. I want to speak to you anyway. " He glanced at his Rolex. "Why don't I meet you there. Eleven-thirty?"
"Absolutely perfect. Prepare yourself. I've been working on my backhand. "
His tennis game was off. Barbara had broken his serve yet again and was prancing around like a fool in her designer tennis skirt. Of course, she had time to fritter around any fucking day of the week, making time with some slick-fingered tennis pro while her asshole husband practiced his putting.
He, on the other hand, was a busy man, with a demanding business and high-powered clients who whined like babies if he didn't give them his full attention.
He didn't have time for goddamn games.
He bulleted one over the net, gritted his teeth audibly when Barbara hustled and returned it. Sweat dampened his face, ran down his back. And his mouth peeled back in a snarl as he raced over the court.
It was a look Nell would have recognized. One she would have feared.
Barbara recognized it as well and instinctively bungled a return. "You're killing me," she called out, and shook her head as she took her time going back to position.
Evan had always been temperamental, she thought. It was hard for him not to win, not to get his way. It always had been. As a child his retribution had come in one of two forms. Icy silence that could bore holes in steel. Or quick, hot violence.
You're older, her mother had said, always. Be a good girl, be a good sister. Let the baby win.
It was such an old and ingrained habit, she barely registered her decision to blow the next return as well. And after all, the afternoon would be so much more pleasant if he won the match. Why cause contention over a tennis game?
So, burying her own competitive spirit, she took a dive, surrendering the game.
His expression changed almost instantly.
"Good game, Evan. I never could keep up with you. "
And what were men but big boys?
By the time it was over and he'd won the match, he was in a fine mood. He felt loose and limber and affectionate. He swung an arm over Barbara's shoulders, bussed her cheek. "Your backhand still needs some work. "
There was a little bubble of annoyance in her throat, automatically swallowed. "Yours is lethal. " She picked up her bag. "And since you humiliated me, you get to buy lunch. I'll meet you on the lounge terrace. Thirty minutes. "
She kept him waiting, always a minor irritation. But it pleased him to see how attractive she was, how well presented. He detested sloppy attire or unkempt hair on a woman, and Barbara never disappointed him.
She was four years his senior, but could have passed for thirty-five. Her skin was pampered and taut, her hair sleek and glossy, and her figure trim.
She joined him under the shade of the umbrella, smelling subtly of her favored White Diamonds.
"I'm going to console myself with a champagne cocktail. " She crossed legs garbed in thin raw silk. "Between that and sitting with the most handsome man in the club, my mood should immediately improve. "
"And I was just thinking what a beautiful woman I have for a sister. "
Her face lit up. "You always say the sweetest things. "
It was true, she thought. He did. When he won. It made her all the more pleased that she'd tanked the match.
"Let's not wait for Deke," she said, still beaming at him. "Lord knows when he'll finish his game. "
She ordered her cocktail and a Cobb salad, moaning dramatically when Evan selected shrimp scampi. "Oh, I hate you for your metabolism. You never gain an ounce. I'm going to have a bite of yours, then curse you when I'm tortured tomorrow by my personal trainer. "
"A little more discipline, Barbara, and you'd keep your figure without paying someone to make you sweat. "
"Believe me, she's worth every penny. The sadist. " With a contented sigh, she sat back, careful to keep her face out of the sun. "Tell me, darling, what did you want to talk to me about?"
"I'm going to give a party, at the Monterey house. It's time to. . . "
"Yes. " She leaned forward again to cover his hand with hers, squeezed. "Yes, it is time. I'm so glad to see you looking well again, Evan, to hear you making plans. You went through such a horrible time. "
Tears welled, and her affection for him was such that she blinked them back thinking not of her mascara but of his sensibilities.
He detested public scenes.
"You've begun to move on in the past few months. That's healthy. Helen would have wanted that. "
"You're right, of course. " He eased his hand away as their drinks were served.
He didn't like being touched. Casually, of course, was one thing. In the business world, hugs and kisses were just another tool. But he detested being touched with intensity.
"I haven't entertained, not really, since it happened. Business affairs, of course, but. . . Helen and I planned every detail of our parties together. She handled so much of it-the invitations, the menu-all subject to my approval, of course. I was hoping I could impose on you to help me. "
"Of course I will. You just tell me what you have in mind, and when. I went to a party just last week, very lavish and fun. I'll steal some ideas. It was Pamela and Donald. Pamela's often a pain in the neck, but she does know how to throw a party. Speaking of her, I feel I should tell you-and I hope it doesn't upset you. I'm afraid you'll hear it from someone else. "
"What is it?"
"Pamela's been nattering, you know how she is. "
Evan could barely picture the woman. "About what?"
"She and Donald took a holiday out east a couple of weeks ago. Cape Cod, primarily, though she talked him into driving about and staying at a few bed-and-breakfasts like nomads. She claims while they were out there, sightseeing in some little village or other, she saw a woman who looked just like Helen. "
Evan's hand vised on his glass. "What do you mean?"
"She cornered me at her party, went on and on about it. Claimed that at first glance she thought she'd seen a ghost. In fact, she was so insistent about how this. . . apparition might have been poor Helen's double, she asked me if Helen had a sister. I told her no, of course. I imagine she caught a glimpse of some fine-boned blonde about Helen's age and enhanced the whole thing in her mind. The way she's going on about it, I didn't want you to hear some rumor that would cause you any pain. "
"The woman's an idiot. "
"Well, she's certainly imaginative," Barbara said. "Now that we've gotten that out of the way, tell me how many people you're planning to invite. "
"Two hundred, two-fifty," he said absently. "Just where did Pamela claim to see this ghost of hers?"
"Oh, some island off the East Coast. I'm not even sure of the name, as I was busy trying to change the subject. Something about sisters. Formal or casual?"
"The party, honey. Formal or casual?"
"Formal," he murmured, and let his sister's voice buzz in his head like bees.
Lulu lived in a saltbox two blocks back from High Street. It stood out from its more conservative neighbors with its lipstick-red shutters and porch. On that red porch was a glider splattered and streaked with a rainbow of paint in a mad pattern that rivaled a Jackson Pollock canvas.
A purple gazing ball stood on the thin swath of lawn and shaded a gargoyle who squatted, permanently sticking out his tongue at passersby.
A winged dragon of iridescent green flew on the roof as a weather vane, along with a wildly striped wind sock. In the short driveway sat a dignified late-model sedan in practical black, and Lulu's Day-Glo orange VW, circa 1971.
Love beads, from the same era, dangled from the rearview mirror.
Following instructions, Nell parked on the street one house down, then hauled her delivery to the back door. Lulu swung it open before Nell could knock.
"I'll give you prompt. " And with this, Lulu grabbed Nell's arm just above the elbow and yanked her inside. "I sent the lot of them out for a walk and don't figure they'll be back for twenty minutes. More, if I'm lucky. Syl's been a pain in my butt since she was born. "
"Your sister. "
"My parents insist she is, but I have my doubts. " Lulu poked her head in the box the minute Nell set it down on the center island. "The idea that I share blood with that pompous, narrow-minded, pissy little twerp gives me the willies. I'm eighteen months older, so we went through the sixties at close to the same pace. Difference is, she remembers them, which says it all. "
"Ah. " Nell tried to imagine Lulu as a freewheeling, free-loving hippie, and found it wasn't that much of a stretch. For the family dinner, she'd donned a sweatshirt that announced she was all out of estrogen and had a gun.
Fair warning, Nell decided.
"Urn. Still, it's nice that you sometimes get together like this. "
"She just comes out here, once every damn year, to lord it over me. According to the Gospel of Sylvia, a woman isn't a woman unless she has a husband and children, chairs some crappy committee, and knows how to make an emergency centerpiece out of twine, spit, and an empty tuna can. "
"We're going to do a hell of a lot better than that. " Nell busied herself by putting the roast in the oven, turning it to warm. "I made it au jus, so you just spoon that over, and serve it with the side dishes. The autumn salad goes first. Tell them to leave room for the pumpkin cheesecake. "
"That'll totally amaze her. " Lulu poured another glass of the wine she was tippling to get through the event. "I had a husband. "
She said it so fiercely, so viciously that Nell turned to stare. "Oh?"
"Don't know what made me do it legal. I wasn't knocked up or anything. Stupid. I guess I did it to prove I could still rebel
"I'm sorry. "
"No need to be sorry. Live and learn. I kicked his ass out in nineteen-eighty-five. The only time it bothers me is when Syl comes around gloating about her husband, who's no more than a paper pusher, and has a spare tire you could ride on to Cleveland, her kids, who are a couple of snotty teenagers in two-hundred dollar track shoes, and the joys of her life in the suburbs. I'd rather be shot dead than live in some cookie-cutter house in the 'burbs. "
Since either the wine or the situation with Syl was making Lulu loquacious, Nell took advantage. "So, you didn't grow up here together?"
"Hell, no. We grew up in Baltimore. I took off when I was seventeen, went straight to Haight-Ashbury. I lived in a commune in Colorado for a while, traveled, experienced. When I came here, I wasn't yet twenty. I've been here over thirty-two years now. God. "
The idea of that had her knocking back the wine and pouring more.
"Mia's grandmother gave me a job doing this and that for her, then when Mia came along, her mother hired me to mind her when she needed minding. Carly Devlin's a nice enough person, but the fact was she didn't have much interest in raising a child. "
"So you did. I didn't realize. " No wonder, Nell thought, she was so protective of Mia. "Whatever your sister thinks, you've got a daughter at the heart of it. "
"Damn right. " She gave a little nod, then set down her glass. "Do whatever you need to do here. I'll be right back. " She started out, turned back. "If Syl the Pill comes back before I do, just tell her how you work at the bookstore and stopped in to ask me something about work. "
"No problem. " Keeping tabs on the time, Nell organized the meal, slipping the salad and the dressing in the refrigerator, sliding the scalloped potatoes and the herbed green beans in with the roast.
She peeked into the dining room, saw the table had yet to be set, and hunted out dishes and linens.
"First half of your payment," Lulu announced as she came back in with a wrinkled shopping bag.
"Thanks. Listen, I didn't know what dishes you wanted, but I think these'll work well. It's family, and they're casual and cheerful. "
"Good thing, as that's all I've got. "
Lulu waited while Nell dipped into the shopping bag, then smiled smugly at the gasp of pleasure. "Oh, oh, Lulu!"
It was a simple design, a mock turtleneck that could and would be worn with everything. But the color was a deep, rich blue and the material was as soft as a cloud.
"I never expected anything like this. " Already, Nell was holding it up, rubbing her cheek against the shoulder. "It's absolutely wonderful. "
"You wear too many neutrals. " Pleasing herself, Lulu tugged and fussed, then stood back to admire the result. "They wash the color out of your face. This brings it in, goes with your coloring. I started on the second one, nice tunic length in a good strong red. "
"I don't know how to thank you. I can't wait to try it on and-"
"They're back," Lulu hissed, and immediately began shoving Nell toward the door. "Go! Get. "
"You need to toss the salad just before-"
"Yes, yes. Go!"
Nell clutched her new sweater as Lulu slammed the door in her face.
"Serving," she finished and chuckled all the way to the car.
The minute she got home she stripped off her sweatshirt and slid into the magnificent sweater. Unable to get a satisfactory view from top to bottom, she dragged a chair in front of the mirror and stood on it.
There'd been a time when she'd had dozens of sweaters-cashmere, silk, the softest cottons, the thinnest wools. None of them brought her the sheer joy of this one, handmade by a friend.
Or close enough to a friend, she thought. And payment for a job well done.
She took it off again, folded it lovingly in a drawer.
She would wear it to work on Monday. For now the sweatshirt was a better choice. She had messy work to do.
Her trio of pumpkins waited on a bed of newspapers on her kitchen table. She'd already used a portion of the largest for Lulu's dessert. It only waited to be carved into the appropriate design.
She would make pumpkin bread, she thought, as she began on the second. And pie, cookies. The hulls would serve as decorations on her front porch. Big, fat, scary pumpkins to entertain the neighbors and children.
She was up to her elbows in pumpkin meat and seeds when Zack strolled in the door. "I get to do the third one. " He came up behind her, wrapping his arms tight, nuzzling her neck. "I'm a jack-o'-lantern master. "
"The things you learn about people. "
"Want me to dump the guts for you?"
"Dump them? How would I make a pie?"
"With a can. " His brow furrowed as he watched her slide chunks of pumpkin into a large bowl. "You mean you actually use that stuff?"
"Of course. Where do you think they get the stuff in the cans?"
"I never thought about it. Pumpkin factory. " He picked up the knife to start on the third while Nell washed her hands.
"You've obviously led a very sheltered life, Sheriff Todd. "
"If that's so, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have corrupt me. How about when we finish this, we take a drive to the windward side, sit in my cruiser and break a few laws. "
"Love to. " She came back with a Magic Marker and began to draw a hideous face on the first pumpkin. "Everything quiet in the village?"
"It tends to be on Sundays this time of year. Did you get Lulu all set?"
"I did. I didn't realize she'd been married once. "
"Long time ago. Some drifter who worked on the docks for a bit, I'm told. Seems to me I heard it didn't last six months. I guess it soured her on men, because I've never known her to take up with one since. "
"She worked for Mia's grandmother, then her mother. "
"That's right. Lu's kept the reins on Mia as long as I can remember. In fact, thinking about it, Lu's the only one Mia's let hold the reins for very long. Mia had a thing going with Sam Logan-his family owns the hotel. It didn't work out, and he left the island, Jesus, it's been ten years, maybe more. "
"Oh, I see. " Sam Logan, Nell thought. The man Mia had loved once.
"Sam and I hung out together some, back when we were younger," Zack went on as he hollowed out the pumpkin. "We've lost touch. But I remember that when Sam and Mia were seeing each other, Lulu watched him like a hawk. "
He grinned, remembering it, then pulled the knife out of the heart of the pumpkin.
Nell saw it gleam in the overhead light, she saw it drip. She saw, as a rushing wind filled her head, the blood that stained his shirt, his hands, and pooled like a red river on the floor at his feet.
She made no sound at all as she slid bonelessly from the chair.
"Hey, hey, hey. Come on, Nell, come on back now. "
His voice was dim, as if they were both underwater. Something cool slid over her face. She seemed to rise from fathoms deep, slowly toward the surface. As her eyes opened, she saw a white mist that rolled away, layer by gauzy layer, until she saw his face.
"Zack!" In terror, she grabbed at him, yanking his shirt to check for wounds. Her fingers felt fat and fumbling.
"Hold on. " He might have laughed at the way she pulled at his buttons if her face hadn't been deathly white. "Lie back down, get your breath. "
"Blood. So much blood. "
"Ssh. " His first reaction when she'd fainted had been panic, and he'd dealt with it as he always did. By doing what came next. He'd picked her up, carried her to the couch, and revived her. Now the penetrating fear she exuded tied knots in his belly.
"I bet you haven't eaten enough to keep a bird alive today, have you? Somebody who cooks as much as you do should learn how to eat regular meals. I'm going to
"I'm not sick. I'm not hurt. You were bleeding. " Her hands shook as they ran over him. "There was blood all over your shirt, your hands, the floor. The knife. I saw. . . "
"I'm not bleeding, honey. Not so much as a nick. "
He lifted his hands, turning them to prove it. "Just a trick of the light, that's all. "
"It wasn't. " She locked her arms around him, held on ferociously. "I saw it. Don't touch the knife anymore. Don't touch it. "
"Okay. " He kissed the top of her head, stroked her hair. "I won't. Everything's all right, Nell. "
She closed her hand around her locket, ran a charm for protection through her head. "I want you to wear this. " Steadier now, she eased back and slipped the chain over her head. "All the time. Don't take it off. "
He looked at the carved heart at the end of the chain and had a normal man's reaction. "I appreciate that, Nell. Really I do. But that's a girl thing. "
"Wear it under your shirt," she said impatiently. "No one has to see it. I want you to wear it night and day. " She looped it over his head even as he grimaced. "I want you to promise me you will. "
Anticipating his next protest, Nell framed his face with her hands. "It belonged to my mother. It's the only thing of hers I still have. The only thing I brought away with me. Please do this for me, Zack. Promise me you won't take it off, not for any reason. "
"All right. I'll promise that if you promise me you'll eat something. "
"We'll have pumpkin soup. You'll like it. "
That night, while she slept, she ran wildly through the woods, unable to find her way in the dark of the moon.
The scent of blood and death chased her.