Georgia nimbly leaned over to tie first her left, then her right running shoe before standing and stretching from side to side to limber up. Though in top athletic form after nine years of dancing professionally, she still performed an exacting ritual before setting out on her daily run. Side-to-side stretches forward lunges, jumping jacks, leg lifts. Twenty of each. Her warm-up completed, she left her sixth-floor condo, locked the door securely behind her, tucked the key into the pocket of her dark green hooded sweatshirt, and set off for the ground floor. On foot.
Taking the stairs only prolonged her prerun warmup, she rationalized. It was good exercise, good for her heart, good for her lungs. Why ride when you can walk? And besides, elevators made her claustrophobic.
Georgia skipped through the lobby, but once outside the imposing front door of the building she had called home for the past five years, she broke into a measured trot and took to the pavement. At the corner, she turned onto Pratt Street and set a pace that would carry her to her destination within her allotted twenty minutes. Despite the day's valiant attempt to cultivate a sunny disposition, a late winter chill hung about Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Filling her lungs with air heavy with the faint, tangy scent of the sea, Georgia jogged briskly past lingering piles of dirty snow that huddled in the shaded areas around the Convention Center. Off to her far right beckoned Harborplace -- two glass-enclosed shopping malls that provided tourists and residents alike a shopping fix on a grand scale -- and the first of the piers that jutted smartly into the harbor. A little farther ahead would be the World Trade Center, and beyond, on Pier Three, the National Aquarium, field-trip mecca for elementary schools up and down the East Coast.
At the corner of Gay and Pratt, Georgia stopped for traffic, then crossed the street and proceeded straight up Gay as she began her cool-down pace, slowing slightly until she reached the small restaurant with the faded red-and-green awning. Several small, round tables for two had been set up out front with plaid tablecloths and some healthy optimism that the day would, in fact, warm up.
It was still early enough that the last of the breakfast crowd remained inside. Georgia pushed open the curtained door and stepped inside to the warmth of clean brick walls and the smell of fresh bread. She winked at the young man who stood chatting with a customer at the cash register as she strolled to the back of the restaurant.
"Ah, there she is," a male voice called out from behind immaculate stainless-steel counters. "Maria, didn't I tell you that Georgia would be here before nine this morning?"
"Why, yes, you did," the young waitress nodded. "Maybe you really are psychic, Lee."
"Well, there have been times we've suspected he might be, but not this time," Georgia laughed, "since I called him at eight to let him know I'd be stopping by -- "
"Fake." Maria flashed dark eyes good-naturedly at the tall man with the clipped, graying beard and the mildly amused expression.
"Spoilsport," he stage-whispered to Georgia, who laughed again. "So, what can I get you?"
"Water is fine," Georgia told him, "and I can get it."
"Help yourself." Lee Banyon gestured toward the refrigerator. "I have one last omelet to fix, then we can sit down and chat. Can I make something for you? I have some lovely ham," he added, a tease in his voice, knowing full well that Georgia was what she termed, semivegetarian -- eggs, dairy, on rare occasions perhaps fish, but never meat.
"I'll think about an omelet." She lifted a glass from the counter and filled it with chilled spring water. "And you know what you can do with your ham."
Lee laughed and juggled three dark green peppers before lining them up along the counter.
Leaning back against the cool steel, Georgia watched as Lee effortlessly chopped one of the peppers and several mushrooms and slid them into a pan, all the while moving with the grace of a dancer, which he had been until his self-imposed retirement eighteen months earlier. The death of Lee's longtimecompanion, David, had brought home the fragility of life, and Lee had quit his position as the principal male with the Inner Harbor Dance Troupe and had taken over running the restaurant David had opened six years earlier.
Tall, lanky, dark-haired, and handsome, Lee Banyon had been Georgia's best and closest friend from her earliest days with the troupe. Georgia's support and compassion during David's illness had won her a place in Lee's heart for all time. There was no question that Lee would walk through fire for her, would slay her dragons, if need be. Right now, Lee judged from the look in her eyes, a dragon lurked somewhere nearby, and as soon as he finished this last order, he would make it his business to find out where.
"Ready for a nibble, Georgey-girl?" he called to her. "You can't jog and dance and who knows what else without the proper fuel."
"Actually, I've been dreaming about one of your veggie concoctions for days. You know," she grinned, "the one with the broccoli, zucchini, onions, roasted red peppers..."
"You're on." He poked in the refrigerator for the last of the zucchini he had shredded earlier that morning and set about making breakfast for his friend.
"So, Miss Georgia," he said as he garnished the plate with thin slices of orange and wedges of cantaloupe, "what's on your mind this morning?"
"What makes you think that anything -- "
He held up one hand to stop her.
"Please, we've known each other far too well for much too long to start playing games now. I can see it in your face, cara." He guided her through the kitchen door into the now-emptied dining room and to a table near the window, pulled a chair out for her with one hand, and placed her plate before her with the other.
"Ummm." She bit into a piece of broccoli and sighed. "Heaven. No one makes a veggie omelet like you do, Lee."
"Right. It's my secret combination of herbs and spices," Lee said dryly as he sniffed at a pot of coffee. Convinced of its freshness, he poured two cups and brought them to the table. "Don't try to change the subject. Tell Uncle Lee what's bothering you."
"Did you know that Mallory Edwards is in the hospital?" she asked.
"Yes, I had heard."
"I went to visit her a few days ago." She was avoiding eye contact and he knew it.
"I don't recall that you and Mallory were friends." A frown creased his brow. "Now that I think about it, I don't recall that Mallory had any friends at all within the troupe."
"We're really not, and I don't think she does."
"Then why the act of mercy?"
"I felt sorry for her, Lee. I was there when she collapsed. It was a terrible thing to see. One minute she was dancing, the next minute she sank to the floor like a marionette whose strings had all been cut at exactly the same time." Georgia shivered at the memory of it.
"Surely you've seen people faint before."
"I have, but this was different. This was..." -- she struggled for a word, then shook her head and repeated -- "different. Everyone saw her fall, and no one helped her. Ivan stood over her yelling at her to get up...."
"Ah, yes, Ivan would be the very soul of compassion," Lee, who had known the temperamental artistic director for years, murmured sarcastically.
"Finally one of the girls checked her pulse, and had a real hard time finding one. At first Ivan didn't want to call an ambulance, he kept insisting that she just wanted attention, that she would get up on her own. Of course, she did not, so we called nine-one-one."
"Over Ivan's objections, I would suspect."
Georgia scowled. "He didn't want paramedics coming into the studio, can you believe that? He actually wanted us to carry her into the lobby."
"I've always said that Ivan was a prince among men."
"Here's the scary part." Georgia sighed and put her fork down quietly. "Everyone knows that Mallory collapsed from malnutrition. We all know that she suffers from eating disorders. I'm not certain which one, but we all know there's something seriously wrong. She is a very ill young woman. In the hospital, she was hooked up to skatey-illion tubes and IVs, and yet she was talking about coming back in six weeks and taking over her old spot."
"And she probably will." Lee shrugged. "Surely you know that she's not the only member of your troupe who thinks she's found an easy means of weight control?"
"Easy?" Georgia's eyes widened, recalling Mallory's hollow cheekbones, pencil-thin fingers, large eyes set in a gaunt face. "If that's the easy way, I'd sure as hell hate to see the hard way."
"Well, I do not have to tell you, of all people, how unreasonable Ivan can be where his dancers' weights are concerned."
Georgia met his eyes across the table, but did not answer. She herself had been the victim of Ivan's tyrannical rages when she had weighed in a pound or two above the director's limits. For each of his dancers, Ivan kept a notebook in which he recorded their weights on a daily basis. Those whose weight fluctuated by a pound or two might be ridiculed in front of the other dancers, but those whose weight gain might exceed that would be subjected to humiliation of the cruelest form. Ivan could indeed be terrible.
"No," she told him. "I know that a lot of the dancers do dreadful things to themselves to keep their weight down. Not just in our company, but in just about every one that I know of."
"Eating disorders are as old as the dance, Georgia. Consider yourself fortunate that you never were afflicted."
"I do. But Lee, there's more." She averted her eyes again.
"Isn't there always?" Lee sighed and gestured for her to continue.
"Yesterday Ivan announced his choice to fill Mallory's spot. He made a big deal out of it in front of everyone."
"Let me guess." Lee narrowed his eyes and pretended to think. "His choice was...Georgia Enright."
"How did you know that?"
"Ivan is a petty, wicked little man and is as transparent as a beam of light. Somehow he must have found out that you had visited Mallory in the hospital. Ivan being Ivan, he will want to punish Mallory for disrupting his routine. How best to punish her? By replacing her with the only person who has shown her any kindness."
"I didn't realize that you knew him that well," she said softly.
"I have known Ivan for more years than I like to recall. We were in the same company in Boston, and then again in Houston. It was only coincidence that we both ended up in Baltimore together. Oh, yes, we go back a very long way. But that's old news." He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "Did he give the other dancers the opportunity to challenge you for the role?"
"You do know him well, don't you?" She nodded glumly.
"He's done this before -- set several dancers against each other. Offer one a part, then ask if any of the others would like a chance to win the role away. Divide and conquer, so to speak. It's a means of maintaining control, you know. And it never fails to create a little drama, a little tension. Ivan, as we know, thrives on both."
"Well, so far, only one dancer has asked to audition. Sharyn Heffern. She was new last year. She's a wonderful dancer, Lee. She deserves the role much more than I do."
"What is the role, by the way?" he asked.
Lee rolled his eyes to the heavens. "A very important ballet. A challenging one. And definitely not a role for novices. What in glory's name could the man be thinking? Giselle is demanding, it's difficult. It's dramatic ballet at its best, and it's -- " He paused. "Did you accept Ivan's offer?"
"I didn't accept or not accept. I was stunned. I couldn't respond. And he did his usual, you know, drop the bombshell, then turn heel and leave the room."
"Well, how do you feel about it?"
"I feel like...like I'm being used. It's just like you said. Like he's trying to hurt Mallory. And at the same time, he's humiliating me. He knows I don't deserve the position, he knows I'm not good enough. Sharyn can dance circles around me."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he had suggested to Sharyn that she audition -- it would be just his style. So, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know." Her voice dropped to a whisper and she looked into her friend's eyes, hoping for guidance. Georgia knew no one who could better understand her predicament. "On the one hand, it's the chance I always dreamed of. On the other, I know I will make a complete fool out of myself because I know that I don't deserve the role."
"And of course, to decline, you would have to publicly admit that you don't feel you're good enough, which will give Ivan sufficient cause never to offer you another shot at moving out of the corps."
"Which I probably would not ever get anyway." Georgia's shoulders sank a little farther. "If I accept, my limitations will be glaringly evident. It's a loselose situation for me. He's set me up, Lee. He knows that there's no way I could ever best Sharyn. She's young -- eighteen -- but she is exceptional. She's the one who deserves the big break."
She frowned, then added, "And there's one other thing that's bothering me on a somewhat different level."
He gestured for her to go on.
"If I accept this offer, I will knowingly be assisting him in hurting Mallory."
"Of course. That would be Ivan's intent." Lee rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Quite a dilemma for you, Georgey-girl."
"What would you do if you were in this situation, Lee?"
"Me?" He nodded thoughtfully, tapping his fingers lightly on the polished wood tabletop. "Well, actually, I was in a similar situation once."
"And?" She waited for him to continue.
"And I think that whatever I say will influence your choice, and I do not want that responsibility, Georgia. Whatever you decide to do, this is your call, cara." He paused and watched her face, suspecting that, for Georgia, this was both a moral as well as a career decision. "Maybe it would help if you took a look at your goals at this stage of your career."
With a slightly rounded fingernail, she traced the delicate embossed motif on the white paper napkin that lay on the table. "You know that all I ever wanted to do was to dance. From the time I was a little girl, I never dreamed of doing anything else."
Her eyes drifted toward the front window and the clouds that were gathering in a lazy gray sky.
"It never mattered to me that I had to work hard at it. I even loved that part. Working toward the goal was very important to me. I was very proud of myself when I met that goal, Lee. But I always knew that I would have to work harder than some of the other girls, and my dream of becoming a prima ballerina died when I was twenty-three. It took me a long time to accept that some dancers are just gifted -- that if you don't have that gift, you will be limited in how far you can rise as a dancer." She smiled a lopsided smile. "I have known for several years that I did not have the gift, Lee."
"You are a lovely dancer, Georgia," he told her honestly, wishing that he could, in all good conscience, assure her that she could one day be a star. But caring much too much for her to lie about something so important, he simply took her hands between his and gave them a squeeze.
"But I will never rise to that next level, and we both know it."
"So, then. This is leading somewhere...."
"I think I need to decide where I want to go from here. If I want to stay in dance, or move on."
"That's pretty drastic, Georgia."
"I'm twenty-six years old, Lee. I have no education to speak of. I started dancing professionally when I was sixteen. I had a tutor for my junior and senior years in high school and have a GED. I never gave a second's thought to college. I have never known anything but dancing. I never wanted to."
"Now I'm wondering if there isn't something more for me somewhere."
"All this because of Ivan?"
"Yes. And no." She shook her head. "Let's just say he's given me cause to evaluate my situation."
"And what have you found?"
"That I am a good dancer in a world of very good dancers. That I am as good as anyone else in the corps. But I will never be great and I will never go beyond where I am. And I will never be Giselle, Lee. As much as I wish I could be, I can't lie to myself." Her green eyes began to glisten with tears. "At best, I have maybe five or six more years when I can realistically expect to make my living as a dancer. And the question I have to ask myself is, What then? Where do I go from there? And will it be easier to get there if I start now, instead of when I'm in my thirties?"
"I don't know what to say to you, cara." Lee reached across the table and wiped her tears away with his thumb. "Did you ever see one of those movies where the earnest young understudy finally gets her chance to prove her stuff when the star breaks a leg or gets pneumonia or something equally dramatic?"
"Yes, but in the movies the understudy always knocks 'em. dead. I'm afraid that won't happen in my case, Lee, but it will for Sharyn." Georgia sniffed and forced a smile. "Ironic, isn't it? Giselle is my favorite ballet -- the role I waited a lifetime to perform."
"Perhaps if I worked with you at night..."
"You are a sweetheart and my best friend, Lee, but no amount of rehearsal will give me what I don't have."
"Another dance troupe, then," he suggested. "I know several directors who would surely be pleased to give you an audition."
"I don't know that things would be different anywhere else."
"You wouldn't have Ivan to contend with."
"True, but Ivan isn't really the issue. I'll never be better than I am -- regardless of where I go -- and I'll always have the same questions in my mind." She spun her spoon around on the table in slow circles. "Maybe it's just time for me to move on, Lee."
"Move on to what, cara?"
"I have no idea. Do you realize that, outside of my family, I hardly even know anyone that I haven't met through dance? I exercise. I cook. I read. I dance. I lead a mostly solitary life, Lee." She shook her head. "Scary, isn't it? That I've lived for twenty-six years and I've never seen much of anything beyond the edge of the stage. Even my first love was a dancer."
"Mine, too," he deadpanned, and she laughed in spite of herself.
"I think you should perhaps discuss this with your family. Your mother. Your sister," Lee said. "This is a very big decision, Georgia, one you should not make in haste."
"Actually, I've been thinking about it for a long time now."
"What's a long time?"
"Since last summer."
Lee took one of her hands in his and rubbed the top of her wrist thoughtfully. He had suspected that something had been bothering her for the past few months, but hadn't realized it had been anything this serious. "Tell me."
"I feel restless. Besides the fact that I feel more and more that it's time to move on, I also know I'm missing so much in life. It didn't used to bother me Now it does." She swallowed hard. "My brother Nicky got married last summer."
"I remember. He got married at a lighthouse."
"Yes. Devlin's Light. His wife's family owns it. After the wedding, I walked up to the top of the lighthouse. You can see all the way across the bay from New Jersey to Delaware from the top of Devlin's Light, and way out toward the ocean. It made me realize just how narrow my own boundaries are -- how limited my own little world is. It's bothered me ever since, Lee. That's when I began thinking that maybe it's time to push the boundaries back a bit."
"And how might you go about doing that?"
"I'm not sure, but I'm thinking a good place to start might be to take some time off to think things over."
"An excellent idea. When was the last time you had a vacation?"
"I haven't had one since I started dancing professionally. Not a real one, anyway."
"Then I would say you're long overdue." He clapped his palms together. "Didn't you tell me that your 'new' sister owns an inn near the beach somewhere?"
Georgia smiled at his use of the word "new" to differentiate between Laura Bishop, the half sister whom Georgia had met for the first time only the previous year -- the child Georgia's mother had been forced to give up for adoption many years before -- and Zoey Enright, the sister with whom Georgia had grown up.
"Yes. Laura owns the Bishop's Inn."
"This might be the perfect time to pay her a visit. Take a few weeks off. Talk to her. See what she thinks. Walk on the beach -- it's wonderful this time of year. It'll help clear your head. Things always look so much clearer when you take a step back."
"Ivan isn't likely to give me any time off." She frowned.
"Just how unhappy are you, cara?"
She looked up at him and allowed her normally cheery facade to fall away. Lee saw a beautiful young woman with hollow cheeks and circles under her eyes.
"Then take an indefinite leave," he said softly. "No one, especially Ivan, is worth your health or your happiness." Lee watched her face as his words sank in, and waited for her reaction.
"These other directors that you talked about..."
She drew the words out slowly, as if weighing each one of them. "Where might their dance companies be?"
"I have friends in Boston, Princeton, Savannah, and New Haven."
"Supposing I asked for time off and Ivan refused and I left the company...Supposing that after some time off -- a few weeks or months or whatever -- I decided that what I really wanted was to stay in dance for however many more years. Is there any reason to think that any of these other directors might be willing to give me an audition after -- "
"After having walked out on Ivan?" He dismissed her fears with a wave of his hand. "I am certain that I can arrange that for you. Ivan is brilliant, but he is known to be difficult. He has the well-earned reputation of being a son of a bitch. You would not be the only dancer to have left a troupe because of him." Then he winked, adding, "And besides, the director of the Princeton company is an old and dear friend of mine. No, cara, you need not fear that leaving Ivan the Terrible behind will close the door on your career -- should you decide you still want one. If you need the security of knowing that you can go back, I give my word that a door will be open for you."
Georgia played with her flatware, stacking spoon onto fork onto knife, contemplating Lee's words. It had not occurred to her that there might be other real choices, not just abstract possibilities. The thought that there might be many other options both warmed and confused her.
"You know, I'll think about it. I will." She leaned across the table and kissed Lee on the cheek. "Maybe I'll give Laura a call later and see if she has time for me to visit."
"It may turn out to be the best thing you've ever done for yourself." Lee's chair scraped against the wooden floor as he pushed it back from the table and stood up. "Give me a hug, Georgey-girl."
Georgia hugged Lee and thanked him for breakfast, then zipped up the front of her sweatshirt, promising to let him know what she decided to do as she left the friendly warmth of Tuscany for the crisp cold streets of Baltimore.
She walked, rather than ran, back toward her condo, hesitating as she passed the walkway leading to the aquarium. On an impulse, she took the path to her left and made her way down to the harbor. Maybe Lee was right. Maybe a leave of absence was just what she needed. Time to think and time to search her heart. Time to step back and take a good look at the big picture -- something she had never done -- and put things into perspective.
Georgia stood at the far end of the pier, huddled inside her sweatshirt, and watched a yacht as it began to make its way through the passage that led to the Patapsco River and the wide Chesapeake beyond. The blue-gray water was dense and choppy, and swirled with small glossy rainbows left behind by drops of fuel from the last boat to cruise across the harbor. A stern wind snapped at the small yellow flags atop the mast of the yacht, sending them flapping like the busy mouths of gossiping crones.
Even from this distance she could see the colors moving about in a rapid, erratic motion. Fat drops of water began to fall from a gunmetal sky, and soon cold, sharp spears of freezing rain began to strike her cheeks. A little colder and there might be snow. Georgia pulled her hood up and turned her back on the harbor and the great bay beyond. She picked her way around a small gathering of hardy tourists who had ventured out of the aquarium, and headed back toward Pratt Street.
She tried to imagine what it would be like to go a whole week without dancing. Two weeks -- three. Unprecedented. What on earth would she do with her time?
Georgia passed through the lobby of her building mechanically, her mind clearly someplace else. She twirled her door key around on its chain in a wide arc somewhat absently as she climbed the six flights to her floor, then unlocked the door and entered into her own white world.
The carpets, the furniture, the walls of Georgia's apartment -- all were white and cool and soothing. She sat on a large square ottoman in the living room and took off her running shoes, then her socks, still replaying her conversation with Lee. She tried to envision herself going through a day that did not find her at the barre with the other dancers. Oh, she had had a few of those -- holidays and such -- but not so very many since she had committed herself to dance. Even summer vacations were spent attending special workshops. The hours at the studio not spent in rehearsal were spent in class. Her whole life had revolved around dance for so long that she wasn't sure she could fill even a week's worth of time if she was not dancing.
And yet, the last time she had visited Laura, there had been a pull toward the beach, where she had sat in the sun and just watched the rhythmic roll of ocean onto sand. Later there had been pleasant hours spent curled up in one of the little sitting rooms, where she had read a book, cover to cover. It had been a delightful day. Laura, an avid reader, always had lots of books available for her guests. Georgia pictured herself lounging in one of those oversized chairs pulled up close to the fireplace...or maybe snuggled amid the plump cushions on the window seat that overlooked Laura's gardens. Not that she would expect there to be anything in bloom this time of year, but it would still be a pretty view. Laura had bird feeders outside just about every window of the inn, and there would be nuthatches and titmice at the feeders, cardinals and blue jays on the ground below, pecking at the spillage.
Georgia glanced at her watch. Her mother would be working in her spacious office on the first floor of the carriage house on her "gentleman's farm" tucked amidst the hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. A mystery writer, Delia Enright kept a meticulous schedule, particularly when she was just starting a new book. Georgia recalled that her mother's latest project was now a healthy three weeks old, and she would be allowing herself a leisurely lunch hour around one, the best time of day to reach Delia by phone. Georgia knew that Delia would support all her children in absolutely any endeavor that made them happy. If Georgia felt she needed a break from dance, Delia would encourage her to take one. If dance was no longer fulfilling, Delia would be the first to urge her to move her life along. Georgia needed to hear her mother tell her exactly that before she spoke with Ivan.
Georgia knew, of course, exactly how Ivan would react. He would get that malicious little gleam in his eye, and it would all go downhill from there. Very publicly -- and very loudly.
First he would compliment her on her public acknowledgment that Sharyn was, of course, the better dancer, and one so much more deserving of the coveted role. How mature of you, Madame Enright, he would coo as he walked around her slowly. How very gracious.
Then he would begin to belittle her for running from the challenge, then segue into all the reasons why she would not have been selected for the role. Before long he would have dredged up every error -- every misstep, every wrong turn -- she had made the past six years, all of which would be discussed and demonstrated for the rest of dancers.
Her face burned at the thought of the ordeal, of the humiliation Ivan would heap upon her right before dismissing her. There was, however, no way around it, other than to just never show up again. As much as she dreaded the very thought of the certain confrontation she could never be that much of a coward. She would tell Ivan face-to-face of her plans to take a leave of absence from the troupe. And she would take the consequences -- however harsh they might prove to be, she vowed as she dialed her mother's number -- praying that it would, in the end, prove to be worth it.
Disappointed when the answering machine picked up instead of Delia, Georgia left a brief message, then gathered up her discarded shoes and socks, depositing them on the bedroom floor before heading into the shower, where she would rehearse her lines before taking on Ivan the Terrible.
Matthew Bishop stood at the passenger side of his battered black pickup truck and waited until Artie, his dog, had climbed in before slamming the door with a vengeance. His sister, Laura, was making him crazy with worry. Ever since she had found her birth mother, she'd become more and more involved with her newly discovered family. He just couldn't understand it, why Laura would feel this need to immediately open her heart to this stranger, who had, after all, given her away as a newborn and hadn't bothered to look for her until thirty-five years had passed.
"Take it easy," he'd tried to tell her. "Go one step at a time with these people. You don't know them, you don't know what their motives are -- "
"What motive could there be, Matt?" Laura had snapped. "Delia just wants to get to know me. I have two half sisters and a half brother, I've gone a lifetime without even knowing of their existence -- they want to know me, too. And I want to know them. What is it that you're afraid of, Matt?"
"The truth?" He'd asked, not wanting to have to say it.
"Of course, the truth." Laura had insisted.
"I'm afraid that she'll abandon you again." It had hurt him just to utter the words, but she had asked for the truth and he would give it to her. "That one day the novelty will wear off for her, and that she'll just slip back into the life she had before she found you."
"That will never, ever happen, Matt." A shadow had passed over Laura's beautiful face, in spite of her words. Perhaps she had secretly feared the same thing?
"You don't know that, Laur."
"Well, I guess only time will prove that I am right, and you are wrong," Laura had said. "Delia gave me life, Matt. I need to know her. I know that you don't understand, but you have to trust me."
No, Matt didn't understand. He had memories enough of his birth mother -- hazy though they might be -- to know that he never wanted to so much as hear her name spoken aloud. In his mind and in his heart, Charity Evans Bishop, who had taken him in as a terrible-tempered toddler and had loved him fiercely, was his real mother. It had been Charity who had loved him before he had been lovable, had rocked him when he screamed with rage and frustration, and had held him while he sobbed out his fears.
Having been mostly neglected and ignored since birth, Matt had come to the Bishops' home as a four-year-old who, having rarely been spoken to, could not speak beyond a very limited vocabulary. The social workers who had found him living in squalor when his drug-addicted mother had overdosed that last time had immediately declared the boy to be retarded, but the police officer who had been called to the scene had sensed something else -- something fierce and alive. The officer had called his cousin from the hospital to ask if Tom Bishop and his wife still wanted that son they had talked about adopting. From the minute she had laid eyes on Matthew, Charity had declared that there was nothing wrong with the boy that a loving family could not cure.
For the most part, she had been right.
And so Matt had gone from the hell of abandoned houses to the luxury of a historic inn; from near-complete solitude to a loving family that had included the daughter the Bishops had adopted twelve years earlier. Laura had adored Matt from the day he had been brought home. She had played with him and read to him, taught him the things that a child living with the bay on one side and the ocean on the other needed to know. She had become his big sister in every true way, and together they had been the children that Tom and Charity had prayed for.
And hadn't Tom Bishop been the sort of dad that every boy deserved? One who taught him to fish and played ball with him; went to all of his ball games and cheered him on, from Little League through high school? It had been Matt's darkest day when they lost Tom, who, with his last breath, had reminded his son that he was the man of the family, now.
"Take care of your mother and your sister, Matt..." Tom had whispered.
"I will, Dad. I promise," a teary Matt had vowed.
Oh, and just look at how well you kept that promise, Matt's conscience poked at him. You couldn't protect your mother from getting sick, but you could have done a better job watching out for Laura. If you had been on the ball, maybe she'd never have married...
Exasperated with himself, Matt marched to his truck, haunted by promises not kept.
Well, this time he wouldn't let his father down.
Tom and Charity had given Matt a home and a family, a name and a sense of self-worth, and most important -- they had given him unconditional love. He owed it to them -- and to Laura -- to make sure that she wasn't hurt.
He wished that Laura had just told that Enright woman to take a hike when she first showed up. But she hadn't, and she had opened her heart immediately and welcomed all the Enright clan like -- well, like long-lost family. Laura had always been one to lay all her cards on the table. Her open, loving nature had caused her to be badly burned once before.
If she wasn't wise enough to be a little more cautious, a little less trusting on her own account, then Matt would have to be vigilant for her.
"Damn stubborn woman," Matt mumbled as he shot into the driver's side of the cab and caught a glimpse of his sister in his side-view mirror as she approached the truck.
"Matt, I just wish you would be a little more rational about this. I can't understand why you are so closed-minded..."
"Closed-minded?" He rolled the window down and stared into Laura's face. "Because I'm trying to protect you, that makes me closed-minded?"
"Matt, I don't need anyone to protect me. Delia is my mother."
"Laura, your mother is wasting away over in Riverview."
"Matt, that was unkind. Are you implying that because I'm establishing a relationship with Delia, I'm somehow neglecting Mom?"
"Does the shoe fit?"
"No, it doesn't fit. I still drive out to see Mom three times a week, just as I have since the day we took her there, Matt, and for two cents right now, I'd drag you out of that truck and drop-kick your ass from here to the Atlantic. I really resent -- "
"Yeah, well, I really resent, too..." he muttered as he shifted the truck into gear and prepared to pull out of the driveway.
"Matt," she called after him. "If you would only spend just a little time with Delia -- talk to her, get to know her -- you'd see that she doesn't have any ulterior motives, that she's -- "
"I don't have the time or the inclination to get to know Delia, or anyone else named Enright." He hung one arm out the window and waved. "You do what you want, Laura. You will anyway. Just remember that you have a family that loves you, one that has always loved you. We were here before she came back into the picture, and we'll be here for you after she leaves."
"Matt, she isn't leaving!" he heard her insist as he pulled away.
In his rearview mirror, Matt could see Laura standing where he'd left her, her hands folded across her chest. That one foot tapping on the asphalt surface of the parking area behind the inn left no doubt in his mind that his sister was really angry. Well, he was none too happy with her at that moment, either.
Laura turned heel and stomped up the back steps leading to the inn.
Forced by oncoming vehicles to stop abruptly about ten feet from the exit of the narrow lot, Matt backed up, then waited as both a light blue Jeep and an oil delivery truck prepared to pull in. The Jeep drove past him briskly and swept into a spot to his left, but the driver of the oil truck had cut too wide an arc, and Matt had to back up yet again to permit the truck to enter the parking lot. Mumbling oaths under his breath, he sat and watched the truck slowly maneuver through the entry.
He heard the slam of a car door, and turned his head to the left in time to see a young woman round the back of the Jeep and open the cargo door. She was a tiny thing, and looked as delicate as spun glass.
A trim little bottom wrapped in denim leaned into the back of the Jeep to retrieve several bags and a box from the cargo area. While shifting items from one arm to the other, a canvas bag dropped to her feet. As she bent to retrieve it, unbelievably long hair -- pale as corn silk and reaching near to her waist -- slid over her shoulders in a thick wave. She turned, and in one motion, awkwardly slammed the cargo door with her foot. From ten feet away, Matt could see big, wide-set eyes, a pert little nose, and full lips that bore no trace of lipstick. It was a face a man wasn't likely to forget.
"Nice." He nodded objectively. "Very, very nice."
The blonde hoisted the canvas bags over her shoulder, holding a box upon which balanced another bag, and walked toward the inn.
She moves like music slipped unbidden through his mind, and he wondered where the thought had come from.
"Looks like we left one day too soon, Artie." Matt said aloud.
The dog panted noncommittally.
"Probably a tourist, making her way up the coast. Ummm, maybe Florida to New York, what do you think?" Matt said, playing with his dog the game he had, as a child, played with his sister; trying to guess who the inn's patrons might be, where they were from, and where they might be going.
Artie thumped his tail loudly on the black leather.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too."
The blonde dropped the bag she'd been balancing, and struggled to do a deep knee bend to pick it up.
"Aw, there are some opportunities that a man just can't pass up," Matt said. He opened the cab door and hopped out. "You wait here, Artie. This is strictly a one-man job."
"You look like you could use a little help," Matt called to her.
Matt's long legs had carried him halfway across the parking lot before the blonde was able to grab the errant bag. He picked it up with one hand, and with the other, reached for the box that was wobbling perilously on her knees.
"I'm afraid I'm one hand short," she said, her smile pure sunshine, her voice carrying the traces of an unheard symphony.
She was even prettier up close, he discovered, with eyes a sultry green, skin clear and fresh as a newborn's. She even smelled wonderful.
"You're in luck. I have two to spare." He reached down and offered her one. She held one small hand up to him, and he took it, helping her to pull herself up to a standing position.
She was even smaller than she had looked from across the parking lot -- shorter in height; her bone structure fine and almost fragile.
"Thank you. I'm usually not this clumsy. I should have made two trips and saved myself from this futile balancing act," she said wryly.
"But then I wouldn't have met you, would I?" He grinned.
They reached the back of the inn, and he was just about to add that he hadn't actually met her, since he didn't know her name, when Jody, the inn's young cook, pulled into the parking lot and came to a screeching halt in her vintage Buick.
In customary shorts and T-shirt, Jody always appeared younger than her late twenties. She had a pretty face, a saucy manner, and a one-track mind: the culinary needs of the Bishop's Inn.
"Oh, Matt, I'm glad you're here," she called from the open window even before she turned off the ignition. "I need a hand carrying this meat order into the kitchen. Mr. Haley couldn't make the delivery today because his son broke his foot over the weekend and he's shorthanded..."
Alighting from the car, she glanced over her shoulder to where Matt stood close by the pretty little blond woman.
"If Laura sees you hitting on the guests, she'll have your head," Jody teased. "Now, if you wouldn't mind..."
The little blonde laughed and set her large canvas bags onto the ground, then reached for the belongings that he had carried for her.
"I can manage," she told him. "I'll come back for the bags."
"Oh, but -- " Matt protested.
"I'm fine, really. I think your hands are needed more elsewhere." She looked up into his face, and he thought he'd never seen a sweeter smile in all his life.
If only he'd canceled his office hours for this afternoon, he could stay awhile, and bask in the glow that seemed to surround her. Right at that moment, nothing else seemed nearly as important.
Grumbling, he turned his attention to assisting Jody in removing several heavy boxes from the back of the car. When he turned back around, seeking one last glimpse of long blond hair and faded blue denim, the woman was out of view.
He shrugged reluctantly. Not that it mattered; their paths weren't likely to cross again.
Matt hoisted the box over his shoulder and headed for the back door that led into the kitchen. By the time he came back out, even her canvas bags had disappeared.
Copyright © 1999 by Marti Robb