Aunt Maggie’s Wedding
Despite the boning that dug into the tender flesh of her abdomen–puppy fat, her father called it– and constricted her lungs, Samantha segued easily from the Electric Slide into some retro-Eighties footwork. She might not be a stick insect, like all the other bridesmaids, but she could dance circles around them.
“I love this song!” Aunt Maggie cried, grabbing Sam’s hands and swinging her around, bridal veil and bustle sailing out behind like a frosted sail.
Her aunt, her cousins, and all the older girls at the wedding loved retro music. Sam didn’t fully get it, but she knew how to dance to it. She’d watched enough of Aunt Maggie’s John Hughes movies to know the moves. As the crowded dance floor blurred and spun, Sam sucked in a deep breath, wincing inwardly, but keeping a smile plastered to her face. Her bridesmaid dress, carnation pink silk with a chocolate brown sash, made her feel so grown up and pretty that she hadn’t dared tell Maggie that she was so horribly uncomfortable wearing it.
Aunt Maggie and her fiancé, Erik, were the only adults in her life who didn’t treat her like a kid, even though she’d started high school the previous fall. And she’d overheard Erik–Uncle Erik now, she supposed–saying that he sometimes forgot that his younger half-brother, Will, was only three years older, but that tonight she looked old enough to be a sophomore or even a junior!
Will. She’d been watching him all night, in between dancing with her Dad, doing the Chicken dance with her cousins, and fending off creepy uncle Billy’s comments about her “bosoms.” Will Dryer was seventeen, a hockey player with a bump in his nose from hitting the boards last season. He was tall, broad shouldered, and had the kind of smile Sam had only read about in the paperback novels her mother didn’t let her check out of the library.
And as Aunt Maggie released her, catching Erik–Uncle Erik– around the waist to start a conga line, Sam saw that rakish grin directed right at her.
They went to the same high school, and when occasionally Will had acknowledged her in the hallways, her friends always embarrassed her by tittering and fawning over him like a demi-god. Sam knew her friends thought she stayed quiet in an effort to seem sophisticated, but the truth was that her soon-to-be-uncle’s half-brother stole her breath right out of her lungs.
She tried to smile back at him, but her face would only grimace as she inhaled against the hard lines of the bodice of her dress. She closed her eyes briefly, as the music turned slow. When she opened it, Will was no where to be seen.
“Last dance, all you lovers out there. I’m dedicating this one to the happy couple. Congratulations, Maggie and Erik,” the DJ crooned over the opening bars of U2′s cover of Unchained Melody.
Sam picked her way through the minefield of swaying couples. With the dance music gone, she felt conspicuous, a chubby girl in a sea of slender, elegant women. She found her table, and gulped down half a glass of water. She saw that her parents things were gone. Assuming they’d gone up to their hotel room, she looked around for her cousin Katy, with whom she was sharing a room.
Katy, nineteen and a sloe eyed beauty–another term from the forbidden paperbacks, was chatting with Will, who was doing his best to look unimpressed. Sam knew that look. She’d felt it on her own face more times than she cared to admit. Katy’s laugh sparkled across the ballroom as the last strains of the song faded, and the couples began to wander off the dance floor.
Everyone applauded as Erik swept Maggie up in his arms and carried her out of the ballroom.
When Sam looked back toward her cousin, Katy had Will by the hand and was leading him out of the room. She ran after Katy, her breathing heavy and labored against the silk dress.
“Katy?” she called. Katy and Will stopped, both watching her approach, huffing and lumbering towards them.
“Oh, hey Sam,” Katy replied warmly.
“You have my room key in your bag,” Sam stammered.
Will flashed his smile, sweat was beading on her upper lip. Katy rummaged in her evening bag, producing the key card.
“Wanna come with us, Sam?” Will asked. “We’re going over to Katy’s friend’s house. There’s a party. All the parents are in bed. No one will know we’re gone.”
He smiled again, and Sam’s heart flopped over in her still heaving chest. A party. Katy’s college friends. Will. Oh, Will.
“Will,” admonished Katy, “she’s just a kid.”
The floor came rushing up, or her heart went rushing down.
“Here’s your key, Sammy. Don’t wait up for me,” teased Katy, handing Sam the key card, and leading Will out of the ballroom.
Sam silently took the card. If she had had breath for words, they would have been words she’d never said before. Slut. Whore. Bitch.
“See ya, Sam,” Will called over his shoulder. “Hey, nice dancing, by the way. You looked great out there.”
Sam squeezed her eyes closed, forcing back the tears, holding her breath so hard she forgot to feel the boning digging into her belly. She stood there, Katy’s words rolling over one another in her head like a snowball, gathering in speed and volume:
She’s just a kid.
The Black Shoes
Sam knelt to fasten the slim black ankle straps of her new sandals into their tiny, sparkling buckles. She caught her reflection in the mirror. Her unruly curls and waves were elegantly chignoned. The steel-gray dress fit like a second skin.
“Let me do that,” Craig said from the doorway, his voice low and intimate.
Desire fluttered in time with nerves as she rose, turned to greet him. His eyes roamed the lean line of her leg, from the stiletto heel of her shoes to the swish of bias-cut silk just above her knee. Every doubt about the need for extra sessions with Lilith’s yoga instructor fled when she saw the raw hunger there.
He crossed to her, put his hands on her shoulders. He smoothed his palms over her breasts.
“Are you wearing it?” he whispered.
She nodded. His hands traveled to her hips. His fingers dug into silk and flesh.
She nodded. He’d left the black lace La Perla lingerie on her bed earlier that day. The off-white bag set conspicuously next to the new dress and heels.
He nudged her, lowered her so she was sitting on the edge of he bed. Briefly, she worried about wrinkling the dress.
He dropped to one knee, picked her foot up and balanced it on his leg. The delicate satin strap looked even finer in his long, masculine fingers. He threaded it through the buckle slowly before running his hand up her calf, under her knee.
Sam shivered as his fingers cruised up the inside of her thigh. She fought the impulse to fall back on the bed and open herself to him. His parents were waiting downstairs.
He squeezed her thigh. Hard.
“You’ll want to watch what you have for dessert tonight, babe,” he said casually, “Don’t want people telling me my fiancée’s let herself go.”
She blinked back tears. As his hand slipped away, she focused on the slim bones of her ankles, the way the black satin straps shimmered against the glowing tan she’d worked so hard for.
Craig stood, straightening his tie. He took her hand and tugged her up, not noticing when she wobbled on the remaining unfastened shoe.
He checked his hair in the mirror and patted her ass as he walked away.
“The car’s coming in ten, Samantha. You need to be ready,” he reminded her before closing the door. “I’ll be downstairs.”
She stood there for a moment, only breathing, trying desperately not to cry. There was no time to fix her tastefully smokey eyes if the make-up ran, and she couldn’t bear to see disappointment in their expressions.
A light tap at the door forced her to control herself.
Lilith glided into the room. She pulled at Sam’s bodice, smoothed a flyaway hair. She assessed, her shrewd gaze falling on the unfastened strap.
“Very nice, Samantha, but you’ll want to put a compact in your bag. Your nose is looking a little pink,” the older woman said. “Fix your shoe, and we’ll join the men in the living room.”
“Will?” Erik knocked on the door jamb. His younger brother stood at his desk; he could just make out the cream linen envelope in his hands.
“Will?” he repeated. Will turned to him, holding the thick invitation as if the contents were poison.
Carefully, Will opened the flap, gingerly pulling the folio out.
“She’s marrying that guy,” he said, scanning the words.
“So it would seem,” Erik replied, coming into the room. He took the invitation from his brother.
“You haven’t seen her since high school. Honestly? What do you care?” Erik asked.
“I don’t,” Will said, tossing the sheets of card stock on Erik’s desk. “I don’t care.”
“Maggie and I are taking the kids to the farm later. There are new lambs,” Erik offered, shuffling the everything back into the envelope and tucking it under his laptop. “You want to come?”
“Did you know I kissed her once?”
Erik stopped. Turned.
“Couple months after your wedding. She came to a hockey game with Marnie and some other girls.”
He sat against the desk. Erik perched on the arm of his chair.
“I showed off for her. She wouldn’t talk to me after that whole thing with the party at her cousin’s friend’s house, so when I saw her there with Marnie—“
“You acted like a jackass?”
“Yeah. I played like a gladiator, nearly got my head knocked in. After the game, Marnie dragged her down to the ice, and I invited them to come out with us. We were going back to one of the guys’ parents’ house.”
“This is my wife’s niece we’re talking about, you know?” Erik reminded him with a wince.
“She never knew how pretty she was,” Will mused. “Anyway, we piled into Jay Briggs’—remember Jay?—his big old Suburban.”
“You partied with Jay Briggs?” Erik asked, incredulous.
“I partied with a lot of guys, Erik.”
“Jay Briggs who plays for the ‘Leafs?”
“Yeah,” Will chuckled. “He can’t hold his cheap beer.”
Erik held up a hand.
“Don’t ruin him for me. He can fucking skate.”
“Anyway, Marnie hooked up with some guy, and I found Sam alone in the kitchen. She seemed a little lost; I went over. We ended up talking out on the deck. I kinda forgot she was only a freshman, totally out of her element.”
He reached out to trace the envelope corner peeking out from under Erik’s computer.
“I offered to walk her home. Jayne and Mike lived about a mile away from the Briggses if you cut over Stanwell’s Orchard. She let me, but she was so quiet. It made me crazy. We got all the way through the orchard. It was freezing and there were about a million stars and I just kind of kissed her.”
Erik looked at him, eyes a little wide.
“She pulled away, we walked another few steps. Then she turned and threw up all over the side of the road.”
Erik laughed. A smile tugged at Will’s mouth.
“She was all woozy after that,” he went on. “I carried her the rest of the way home. I left her on the sofa. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Will pulled his hand away from the invitation.
“Marnie told me the next day that Sam was quietly wasted that night. I felt like an asshole. I kissed a drunk fifteen year old.”
“You were what? Seventeen?”
“Newly eighteen. Still. You know Marnie says she didn’t remember me walking her home?”
“So she doesn’t know?”
Will pushed away from the desk.
“Now she never will.”
Coffee and Chicory
“Sam?” he said, that unforgettable, rakish smile dawning across his face, crinkling the corners of his eyes. A sunrise of recognition.
“It’s Samantha these days, but I suppose you’re grandfathered in,” she replied, setting the coffee pot back into the machine.
“Grandfathered? Come on, Sam,” he teased, yawning and stretching. Sam indulged in the view of his flat, muscled stomach.
“It might have seemed like a million years back then, but I’m only a couple years older than you.”
She only smiled to herself as she added hot milk to the thick, black coffee. She could remember the difference in their ages down to the day.
“That coffee smells amazing,” Will remarked, crossing the kitchen. “Is there enough to share?”
“I made a full pot,” Sam said.
“Maggie said her sister was coming up to watch the kids for a few days. I was expecting to see your Mom,” he commented, grabbing a mug from a hook under the cabinet. It was impossible, but he even smelled good first thing in the morning.
“Yeah, Mom was going to do it, but she’s got classes to teach, and I was around, so…” she trailed off, wondering if he actually cared.
He looked so magnificently rumpled in the plaid flannel pajama pants and holey tee shirt, rubbing his long ago broken nose, wiping sleep from his eyes. She fought the urge to touch the tips of his hair as he reached past her for the sugar bowl.
“What brought you all the way back to Vermont?” he asked.
He started to pour the coffee, and she stopped him halfway up the mug.
“Wait!” she said, putting a hand on his arm to stop him.
He stopped mid-pour, looking at her in alarm.
“No,” she laughed, “it just… the coffee’s better au lait.”
“Here,” she offered, picking up a Pyrex measuring cup of milk, “I have enough hot milk here for you, too.”
She poured the rest of his mug full of milk.
“Thanks, Sam,” he said, meeting her eyes over the nearly empty Pyrex.
He lifted the mug, took a sip. His whole face lit up with pleasure while he held the warm coffee in his mouth and swallowed.
“That’s wonderful, Sam,” he said “What is it?”
“Coffee and chicory,” she said. “I’ve been-”
“Living in New Orleans since Tulane,” he finished for her. “Erik told me.”
Did you ask? she wondered. She settled for small talk, even though she knew the answers.
“So, what have you been doing since law school? Maggie told me you graduated from Columbia a few years ago.”
“I’ve been living on a ranch in Montana,” he said, eyes sparkling. “Jack of all trades for a wealthy man, who also happens to like horses. I do a little lawyering a lot of ranch handing, and I coach youth hockey in the winters.”
“That sounds amazing,” she said, turning and leaning back against the counter, cradling the coffee cup in her hands. Watching the easy joy on his face when he spoke of his life in Montana, she wondered what he would think of her, home in Vermont, licking her wounds, suddenly tossed together with a man who was once a boy she loved. Desperately. Unrequitedly.
He sipped again.
“The coffee’s not this good on the ranch.”
“How’d you end up there?” she asked.
“Dumb luck and charm, really,” he replied.
“I seriously doubt that,” she answered tartly.
“It’s a boring story. I want to hear more about you,” he countered, setting the mug down and hopping up to sit on the counter.
An Ostentation of Peahens
Sam’s phone sang out during the sun salutation.
Ignoring the nasty looks from her fellow students, she snatched the phone from her open gym bag and ran across the studio floor. Outside, she tapped the screen.
“Hi, Will,” she said. “What’s up?”
She checked the time on the phone’s screen. She wasn’t due to pick Noah and Ava up for another hour.
“I have a little extra time today, want me to swing by the school?”
“I’m at the yoga studio now,” she said. “I have to walk by there anyway. I’ll meet you.”
“You don’t trust me to pick up the kids?” There was laughter in his voice.
“I’ll see you in an hour,” she replied, disconnecting the phone.
Forty minutes later, she slipped her yoga bag across her body and walked towards the elementary school. She could see the Mom Cluster from across the parking lot and her stomach sank. They gathered, casually gorgeous and smugly settled, coffee mugs and leashed dogs in hand, discussing homes, work, husbands, hair stylists.
She felt unripened in their presence. Two days of drop-offs and pick-ups under her belt, and they still slowed their conversation, making a false-sounding effort to include her when she arrived outside the school. They spoke to her like a pretty child, whether she was in her pajamas or her designer jeans.
They were particularly animated today. Laughter sparkled across the grassy front yard of the school. An ostentation of peahens, preening, she thought, a random bit of vocabulary surfacing.
And then she saw why.
Will in their midst. She hadn’t seen him, a head taller than most of them, because of a conveniently placed Japanese maple. The September sun sparkled in his hair and kissed his cheekbones as he smiled at them. They fluttered around him, subtly jostling one another to get close to him. He was that beautiful.
He was telling a story, hands flying. She could make out the words Erik and swim trunks. She giggled in spite of herself. He was telling them about the time Erik had lost his bathing suit jumping off the Twin Falls up in Westminster.
She’d heard the tale from Erik’s point of view, but never Will’s. She ached to join them, but she stayed where she was, unnoticed.
He finished the story with a flourish; Sam half expected them to applaud.
The front doors of the school opened just then, and the attention of the flock turned to their offspring. She saw him notice her, felt his attention on her like a tow-cable, drawing her forward.
“Sam!” he called, waving and walking towards her, even as every other adult gravitated towards the children pouring from the building.
“Hi,” she said, smoothing and twisting her ponytail as she joined him.
“Uncle Will! Sam!” Noah and Ava crowded them, school-day chatter already underway.
Sam dropped to a crouch to greet her cousins, grateful for the distraction. She was too inclined to stare at Will.
“Hi Samantha,” a warm female voice interrupted. Sam looked up to see one of the Peahens standing over her, holding the hand of a pigtailed friend of Ava’s.
“Hi,” Sam replied.
“Will didn’t mention you were meeting him,” she said with a playful gaze turned to Will, “Would you all like to join us at The Scoop? It’s still warm enough for an ice cream cone, I think.”
“Can we?” Ava chirped.
“Can we?” Will echoed, offering her a hand up. He gave her a frank, appreciative look. “You’ve had a workout, you deserve a treat.”
She put her hand in Will’s.
“Now I know why my Mom developed such a close relationship with Cabernet,” Sam said, as she twisted the corkscrew into the neck of the wine bottle.
Will chuckled, a low rumbling sound in his chest. Sam’s fingers slipped a little on the plastic handle.
“Those two will wear you out, that’s for sure,” he replied easily, opening the fridge and eyeing the contents.
“I don’t see them enough,” Sam said, sighing. “Do you want some?”
“Nah. Thanks, though. That’ll change, now that you’re home.”
He stood in the silhouette of the refrigerator light. Sam tugged the cork out, poured the wine into a jelly jar.
“It’s been a long week.”
“That it has,” he answered, opening a beer, and closing the fridge. He swallowed, closed his eyes briefly.
“A good one, too,” he continued, looking at her in the dim light.
She toasted the air between them with her jelly jar.
“Did you get what you came out here for?” she asked.
He held her eyes for a beat, sipped his beer.
“I got what I was sent here for,” he replied, his measured tone not quite matching the mischief glittering in his eyes.
“I don’t know if I could have handled Noah and Ava on my own. I’m so glad you were here,” she said, dropping her gaze, and shifting her weight.
“You’d have done fine. I was gone most days sweet talking that old man out of his Joseph Cornell.”
He leaned back on the counter, but the air around him crackled.
“The wrestle-Uncle-Will-until-everyone-is-ready-to-drop hour was essential, you know. I’m not the wrestle on the floor type.”
He arched a brow. Her wine-warm skin tingled.
“You’d have thought of something,” he said. “You could have danced them to exhaustion. I remember watching you dance the night of wedding. You had moves, even as a kid.”
Kid. The word made her wince.
“I loved it. Dancing.”
“You don’t anymore?”
“Dance? Not so much.”
“You want to?” Will asked, setting the bottle down and pushing away from the counter.
“Here?” she stammered.
“It’s too cold outside,” he said.
She looked at him, still in the khakis and pale green button down he’d worn earlier to go pick up the beautiful little wooden box. The beautiful little wooden box he’d be taking back to Montana on Sunday.
Will. Oh, Will.
“Samantha. I’m asking you to dance.”
“I know. I just…”
As she stood there, unable to coherently form thoughts, he walked past her, into the living room.
There was a plastic snap and clack, a beat of silence, and Solomon Burke begged her to Cry to Me from the living room speakers, just loud enough not to wake the sleeping children upstairs.
The Emails, I
From: Samantha Ellis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: September 14, 2010 11:02:23 AM EDT
To: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Fwd: Thanks
Will we see you for the holidays?
From: William E. Dryer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: September 14, 2010 6:43:45 AM MDT
Subject: Fwd: Thanks
hey Sam, thought you might appreciate this. -Will
Begin Forwarded Message
From: Erik Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: September 12, 2010 10:16:22 PM EDT
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sorry we missed you while you were back East.Sounds like the kids had fun with you and Samantha. Noah says to tell you, “Uncle Will and Sam are way funner than Mrs. Crockett.”
I don’t think I’ll share that with Evangeline Crockett. I’m still a little afraid of her.
Are we going to see you for the holidays?
The Emails, II
From: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: September 14, 2010 2:11:47 PM MDT
To: Samantha Ellis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: New Subject Line?
I’d been thinking about coming east for Thanksgiving. My parents are coming up from South Carolina and staying with Erik and Maggie.
Would you save me a dance if I did?
From: Samantha Ellis <email@example.com>
Date: September 14, 2010 12:34:17 PM EDT
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: New Subject Line?
If you ask me very nicely.
From: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: September 14, 2010 2:36:29 PM MDT
To: Sam <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: re: Re: New Subject Line?
Please, Sam? Will you save me a dance at Christmas?
From: Samantha Ellis <email@example.com>
Date: September 14, 2010 12:40:38 PM EDT
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: re: Re: New Subject Line?
I will. How could I resist?
I have to get going. I’m covering one of my Mom’s classes tonight, so she and Dad can go see some concert down in Northhampton.
From: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: November 16, 2010 9:44:21 PM MST
To: Sam <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I just talked to Erik, but I wanted to let you know that the holidays aren’t going to happen. We’re short handed at the ranch this winter and Ron’s had some health problems. I’ve been handling a lot of his business as well as working the ranch.
I hate that I won’t get that dance.
Maybe you could come out for New Year’s? I’d love to show you the ranch.
From: Samantha Ellis <email@example.com>
Date: November 19, 2010 6:15:41 AM EST
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Christmas
Sucks you won’t be home. Noah and Ava were looking forward to seeing you.
New Year’s on the ranch sounds great, but I’m going down to New Orleans right after Christmas.
Craig wants to patch things up, and I feel like I should give him the chance to explain himself.
From: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: January 27, 2011 11:52:44 PM MST
To: Sam <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I tried to call you. You’re not picking up.
I’m not letting it go. I heard from Erik what happened in Louisiana, and I’m sick to death worrying about you.
I booked flights for you from Albany out to Bozeman for three weeks from now. You can be pissed off at me later, but you’re getting on that plane.
From: Samantha Ellis <email@example.com>
Date: January 28, 2010 3:24:59 AM EST
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
jesus, shitty news travels fast in this family. i barely made it home from new orleans in one piece and you want me to fly across the country for what? really, will? why? we talk all the time, you want me to come out there, when it suits you, you flirt with me, but you’re in goddamn montana with your horses and your rich boss. i’m the one sitting on my ass in vermont waiting for you to tell me what the hell you want. what the fuck gives you the right to book me on a flight?
you want to make sure i’m okay? come the fuck out here and see for yourself. take your tickets and go to hell.
From: Samantha Ellis <email@example.com>
Date: January 28, 2010 2:41:12 PM EST
To: Will <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I think I owe you an apology. Technology and a mean drunk aren’t my best combination.
To say that I’m embarrassed would be putting it mildly.
If you haven’t canceled that itinerary, I think I’d like to come out. We have some things to talk about.
ps, you still owe me a Christmas dance
From: William E. Dryer <email@example.com>
Date: January 28, 2011 3:03:09 PM MST
To: Sam <firstname.lastname@example.org>
No apologies, Sam.
I can’t stand the thought of what that bastard did. I need to see you, make sure you’re okay.
And the coffee still sucks here. We need you, Sam. I need you.
“I could never have imagined,” Sam whispered, “so much space, so much sky.”
As they bumped along in Will’s pickup, Sam delighted in the fir trees dividing the mud-tracked pastures from the indigo and white mountains, marveled at the peaks painted against the endless, cloudless pale blue of the Montana sky.
“Hits me every time I see it,” Will replied.
He was watching her profile in the early afternoon sunlight pouring in through the window of his truck.
The ends of her chestnut hair, pulled back in a low tail, twirled in the hot air from the dashboard vents. He reached out, caught a curl in his fingers. She was too riveted by the view to notice.
“Is that a hawk?” she asked, craning her neck to look out the window.
“It’s probably a kestrel, a fal-” he said, stopping short as he looked over at her.
She had lifted her chin, revealing the graying, faded bruise under her jaw, a thick oval marked on her skin. Rage bubbled up, threatened to spill over. The bastard had put his hands on her.
Sam pointed out the window. In the distance, three figures on horseback rode a fence line in the foothills.
Will tamped down the blaze of violence that burned in his chest.
“It’s like another time,” she wondered aloud. “When do we get to Left of Paradise?”
“We’re here,” he replied, deftly negotiating the truck around a puddle the size of her Honda, “we’ve been on Ron’s land for about five minutes now. Everything you see is the LP.”
“Oh, my god,” she breathed, baffled by the vastness of the ranch.
They drove for a few more minutes in relative silence, the distinctive sound of vintage Peter Buck guitar licks filling the air below the rush of hot air from the ancient heaters.
They pulled up in front of a cluster of smallish log cabins.
Will killed the ignition and reached across Sam’s lap to pull the door handle. He got a haircut, she thought, seeing the fresh, blunt line at the nape of his neck where the sun hadn’t deepened his tan.
The urge to touch his face was nearly irresistible. Nearly.
“It sticks from the outside,” he said by way of explanation, straightening up in his seat.
“Oh,” she said, feeling a flush rise on her face.
Neither spoke. Without the rumble of the truck, the motion of travel, the unspoken loomed between them.
“I’ll get the door,” Will said, before dropping down out of the cab of the truck and jogging around to the passenger side.
He opened her door, she swung her legs out. He reached for her hand when she stepped onto the running board.
She took his hand, breathed in the crisp mountain air, and everything fell away. As easy as dancing, her feet touched the packed dirt driveway, Will closed the door of the truck, she shifted her weight, and he was holding her.
The time, the longing, the distance, the horrible scene with her erstwhile fiancé, all of it blew away on a snow and cattle scented breeze.
He cradled her cheek in his palm, searched her eyes.
Whisper light, he touched his lips to hers, and the whole world shifted.
The Dust Settles
Will pulled away first, leaning his brow to hers.
“Half a year you’ve made me wait for that,” he said with a smile.
Sam took his hands and searched his face. Satisfied with what she found there, she replied carefully.
“Half my life you’ve made me wait for that.”
Silence settled between them, along with the dust from the truck, as she waited for Will’s response.
Laughing, he gathered her up and swung her around in his arms.
“I was an idiot kid. You know that, right?”
He set her down and picked up her duffel, shouldering it.
“Come on, Sam. We’ll put your bag in the cabin, and I’ll take you up to the big house to meet Ed.”
Her quads were on fire.
They’d been snowshoeing at a jog for an hour, leaving Will’s cabin at first light. The only upshot so far to a dawn trek through the timberline forest was watching Will’s easy stride over the ice-crusted snow.
“Are we still on the ranch?” she called out to him, regretting the idle question as she drew more icy air deeper into her lungs.
Yoga and thrice weekly gym sessions had only given her the illusion of being in shape.
“Yeah,” came his answering cloud of breath.
As they made their way through the woods, the shush and scrape of their steps on the pine needle covered snow and the steady brushing melody of the wind lulled Sam, despite the soreness in her legs.
Will turned, pushed through the trees into open air.
“Hey,” he said, wrapping an arm around her as she stepped beside him.
“Hey,” she said, but the casual greeting fell off the rock ledge and tumbled into the ravine along with all of her other thoughts.
What she’s assumed was the wind was in fact a waterfall, pouring easily two hundred feet down into the stream bed below.
“Oh,” Sam said, resting her cheek against Will’s down-covered shoulder.
After a moment, he touched his cheek to her forehead. It was damp, and Sam looked up and saw a stray tear at the corner of his lip. She reached up with her mittened hand, dried his face, and kissed the teardrop away.
“What is it?”
Will was quiet a moment.
“We lost a guy out here last spring, a friend.”
Sam leaned back from the edge. The stream below looked charming, half frozen and rambling along the ravine.
“When the snow melts, the water comes through here pretty hard. We were tracking a big cat that was harassing the herd. The trail brought us in along the ravine near the bottom of the falls.”
Will spoke easily enough, but his hand, clenched at her waist, betrayed tension.
“Brady was my age. He was born around here, worked these forests with his Dad since he was a kid. He knew how dangerous the water is when it’s running hard.”
Sam edged a little closer to him.
“He thought he saw something across a narrow bend in the stream, and he hopped the rocks to go check it out. Nat was out with us. He and I hiked downstream a little farther, and Brady was going to come back across and meet us. He was fast on his feet, shouldn’t have taken him ten minutes to find us.”
Sam heard the thump and whoosh of her own pulse in her ears.
“Fifteen minutes later, Brady hadn’t caught up, so we doubled back to find him. He was face down in a pool, twenty feet from where he’d crossed. Nat and I carried him out.”
Sam watched the clouds of shattering water, the whorls of ice that gated the rocky edge where the stream spilled over and down. She looked back up at Will, whose eyes were fixed on the near-distant crest of the Rockies.
When he spoke again, his voice was ragged.
“The thing is, Sam, losing Brady changed this place for me, took away its beauty, made it about loss, death… endings.”
He turned on his snowshoes to face her, drew her in close.
“I thought, maybe if I brought you here, showed you how beautiful it was, told you how much you mean to me, it could be about beginnings, too.”
“I can’t believe you let me cook that whole week in Vermont.”
“How could I resist you in an apron?” Will teased, dodging the wet towel Sam snapped at him. “Do you want another glass?”
Sam set the plate she’d been drying on the rack.
Through the window behind him, the black shadow of the mountains sprawled against the ink-stain sky. Will poured as she crossed to him.
He handed her the glass. A brush of fingertips. Heat and promise ghosted between them.
Will reached up to trace her jaw with his fingers. Just there. She flinched, no more than a tremor, when his fingertips grazed the fading bruise. He dropped his hand.
The Cabernet trembled in her glass and tears threatened behind her closed eyelids.
He reached for her again, cradling her against his chest. She buried her face in the warm curve of his shoulder.
“Tell me, Sam,” he pleaded. “What happened?”
She straightened, stepped back and set her wine glass down.
“Yeah,” she sighed, running her hand through her hair. “Okay.”
She curled into the corner of his couch, pulling a pillow across her body like armor.
“He’s beautiful,” she blurted. She almost missed the shadow that passed over his face.
“He is. It’s important,” she went on.
“He’s so beautiful. Thick, dark hair, emerald eyes. Everything about him is out of a paperback novel.”
She took her glass from Will and took a healthy swallow.
“We met after the hurricane, when everything was crazy and Tulane was closed. I was trying to help, volunteering. One day he drove up in his SUV, shiny and unscathed. He gave Marc, my director, a check–must have been a big one–and the next thing I know I’m giving him the nickel tour of the clean up efforts.”
She hugged the pillow closer.
“He called me to invite me to dinner the next night, and within the month he was buying me a new outfit, something ladylike, to wear to meet his parents. They live in a beautiful home in the Garden District, and inside the gates, it was like Katrina never happened.
“When he saw the crappy apartment I was sharing while we were waiting to start school again, he offered his parents’ guest suite.”
She looked at Will’s furrowed brow.
“I was nineteen and dazzled. Of course I moved in.
“When I wondered about transferring out of Louisiana, they encouraged me to finish at Tulane. They took me under their wing. Lilith, his mother, bought me clothes and took me to lunches. Craig was always a perfect gentleman.
“I got my degree, I got a job in a new charter school. Craig told me he loved me, gave me his grandmother’s ring. His mother started planning a fall wedding.”
“I saw the invitation at Erik’s,” Will remarked quietly.
“Things got ugly last summer. There was talk about a girl ending up in the hospital. Craig’s name kept coming up. I ignored it. I loved him.
“And then my best friend, Marnie, wanted to come visit. Lilith and Russell said she couldn’t stay, that I shouldn’t see her.
“In the same week, Craig made a comment about turning in my resignation, how I wouldn’t need to work, to teach, especially in a public school, once we were married.”
Sam stopped for a breath, tears glittering in her eyes.
“I’d only been there a year.
“I snuck out,” she said, “A twenty four year old woman, and I snuck out of my future in-laws house for drinks with my best friend.
“Marnie went crazy when I told her what was going on, but I defended them.”
Sam drained the class. Will took it from her with shaking hands.
“Then there was a huge blow-up when Lilith found out I’d gone off with Marnie. Later, when we were alone, Craig yelled at me for upsetting his mother.
“He slapped me. I left. That night. I called my parents, told them I was coming home. Daddy bought the ticket on the spot. I mailed the ring in a padded mailer from the airport.
“Three weeks later, we were house sitting together at Erik and Maggie’s.”
“Sam,” he asked gently,”what possessed you to go back down there?”
“Craig called, begged, told me how sorry he was, told me his mother was wrong. I should come home, he said, move in with him.”
“I thought I loved him, Will.”
“I went back, I was staying with him, and we started talking about the wedding again. I can’t even defend myself. He was still so beautiful to look at, and he seemed so sorry, so haunted.
“The night before I was supposed to fly back to Boston, he was drunk, raving about how I wouldn’t come back like we’d decided. He tore up my ticket, shoved me up against a wall.”
Sam stopped. Breathed. Will leaned in, his hands just touching her knees.
“He had a hand around my throat, squeezing, screaming at me. He’d given me everything, his parents had sacrificed their time, their money, their connections. I was ungrateful. I was nothing.
“It was Lilith who pulled him off me. She’d come by, unannounced, to drop something off. I slid down the wall, huddled there whimpering. She sat her son down, glanced at me, and said: if you kill her, not even your father will be able to clean up after you.”
As she finished, Will inhaled slowly and leaned back. He wrapped an arm around her and drew her in close.
“Hey,” Sam said softly. “Are you worried about Ed?”
Will stood at the kitchen sink, out towards the Big House, the second story windows illuminated against the dark.
He didn’t turn around.
“I thought you’d gone to bed.”
“I was on my way,” she said, going to him, “I’m taking a detour.”
She rested her cheek on his back and circled her arms around his waist, feeling his skin warm against her palm through one of the many holes in his shirt.
“You were wearing this that morning at Maggie and Erik’s.”
Will inhaled slowly, shivering at her touch.
His voice was tight.
“It’s late. If you want to ride out with Nat and I tomorrow, you’re going to need your sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep.”
Will whirled in her arms, catching her face between his hands. Behind desire, he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes.
He dropped his hands.
“I didn’t fly you out here to sleep with you.”
She recoiled, temper igniting.
“No? Then why the hell did you fly me out here?”
“You were worried about me? You were pissed because my ex-boyfriend roughed me up? But you don’t want to handle the damaged goods?”
She turned away, bracing her arms on the counter, and sucked in a breath to hold back the tears.
“I’m sorry,” Will said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I don’t need a big brother, Will. And the way you kissed me this morning, by the truck–”
“I don’t want to be your big brother,” he sighed. “I just don’t want to screw this up.”
Sam turned back to him, let his words fill her up before she answered.
“You’re not Craig.”
The name crackled between them.
“You’re not Craig,” she repeated, “and I know that.”
Her words burned the oxygen in the room, and they came together greedily, drawing air from one another.
Hands roamed eagerly, exploring planes and curves. Traveling the length of their reach, reveling in the journey. Sam trailed her fingers over his stomach, flat and smooth from countless hours riding and working the ranch. She gathered up the ratty shirt and tugged it over his head.
Will pulled the band from her ponytail, letting her hair fall around her face. He slid the straps of her camisole off her shoulders, kissed the slope of her shoulder, skimmed her bare arms.
He held her hands still, let his pulse slow.
“You said you were taking a detour,” he said, touching his lips to hers. “You’re sure this is where you want to go?”
“Detours only take you where you were going all along,” she reminded him, “the long, slow way.”
Things Begin to Go Wrong
“Hey,” Will said. “Morning.”
He was splitting an English muffin in the pre-dawn light.
Sam pulled her hair back in one hand, tugged at the hem of her tank top.
“I’m not even going to attempt to get the coffee right,” he continued, “even with your beans and instructions.”
She sat, one bare foot on the floor, the other under her leg.
He set the fork and the muffin down on the cutting board.
“Nothing. Have you seen my hair tie?”
He came around the end of the counter, slipped his arms around her and pulled her back against his chest.
She tugged herself free and stood.
“I have to get something to pull my hair back. It’s driving me crazy.”
She started to leave the room.
“Sam, talk to me.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Hey, don’t walk out on me!”
“I’m not walking out. I’m getting a hair tie. Is that okay?”
“Not right now it’s not,” he countered.
“So, I wake up in your bed, and now you get to tell me what to do?” she fired back at him.
His cheeks flushed. He ran his hands through his hair.
“Can I go now?”
He reached for her arm.
“Did I do something?“
She snatched her arm away.
“Nope. Everything’s fine.”
She vanished into the bathroom.
She found her hair tie on the shelf over the sink. When she looked into the mirror, Will was there, leaning on the door jamb.
“Are you regretting what happened?” he asked quietly.
“Why? Are you?”
“Don’t turn this on me, Sam.”
“Pretty sure you were the only other one there,” she snapped, meeting his eyes in the mirror.
She took a deep breath.
“I’m just tired.”
“Like hell. You’re pissed off,” Will said.
She turned, brushed past him, and walked into his bedroom.
“Can we talk about it?” he called after her.
“What’s to talk about? We had sex,” she shouted back.
Will followed her into the bedroom. She sat on his bed, arms around her drawn-up knees.
“It was more than just sex, Sam. Don’t you think?”
She met his eyes.
“Then why do I feel like this?” she said.
“I don’t know how you feel. Maybe if you’d tell me…”
She twisted the edge of the blankets. The quiet stretched.
He sat facing her, careful not to touch her.
“What can I do?” he asked.
“Why do you do that?” she asked. “Why do you want to fix me, Will?”
“That’s not what I mean,” he said.
“Sounds like that’s exactly what you mean: Sam’s weird and broken. How can I fix her?”
She scrubbed at her eyes. When she looked up, she looked at a point out the window.
“What are we doing, Will? What is this?”
“We can figure it out,” he said.
“I don’t want to figure it out. I want to know it. It shouldn’t be this complicated.”
“I didn’t know it was this complicated.”
“So now I’m over-complicating?” she said.
“No,” he said. “No… I just… knew things would be different, but you said you were ready.”
“And you’re saying I wasn’t?”
“No! Christ, Sam.”
He got up and paced to the window.
“I thought that’s what you were trying to say.”
“It’s not,” she said.
“Please, Sam. Tell me, then.”
“I don’t know if I can right now.”
He watched through the open window as the sun rose. She picked at the pills on her yoga pants, trailing him with her eyes while he paced back and sat.
He took her hand, ran his thumb across her knuckles.
“It won’t be easy, keeping my hands off you.”
A flicker of a smile lit her eyes.
“But maybe we should keep it simple for now.”
He never saw the flame extinguished when he moved off the bed.
“We’re going to be late to meet Nat,” he said, changing tack. “Can we talk more later?”
“Let’s get dressed. We can grab some coffee at the stables.”
He was already up and collecting his clothes.
“Okay,” she said.
It was a long moment before she got up.
The Prodigal and the Calf
“Are you sure I won’t be under-dressed?” Sam called out from Will’s bedroom.
“It’s dinner on a ranch, not black-tie,” Will responded, exasperation softened by a hint of laughter.
She came out into the living room in a dark-cherry red cashmere turtleneck and wide legged black trousers that sat low on her hips.
“I figure I can wear snow boots under these and no one will notice.”
Will wanted to say that no one would be looking at her feet. The soft wool skimmed her curves like a lover, and the low waist invited wandering hands. He bit his tongue. Nothing he’d said in the last two days had been the right thing.
Mrs. Quinn answered the door at the big house and took their coats before directing them to Ed’s study. While Sam was unwinding her scarf and pocketing her gloves, the housekeeper pulled Will aside.
“Will, honey,” she said, glancing at Sam, “the prodigal’s returned, so take care of your calf.”
Will raised an eyebrow and drew in a fortifying breath.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Mrs. Q.,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“What was that about?” Sam asked.
“Just letting me know Ed’s daughter is here,” he said, resting his hand at the small of her back and ushering her into the study.
“William. Samantha,” Ed Atkinson said, raising his glass. The light caught the whiskey and cast an amber bar of light across Sam’s cheek. Will struggled not to touch it.
Sam started towards Ed; a cool voice from the other side of the room brought her up short.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” said a tanned and toned blond. Her gray sheath caressed endless legs as she walked.
“Lucy Atkinson. You must be Will’s friend from back east,” she continued dismissively.
Lucy bypassed Sam; she pressed herself to Will, stretching up to kiss him full on the mouth. She stepped back, assessed him.
“You are mouth-watering as usual,” she purred, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. She ran a possessive finger under his collar.
“Did Daddy tell you I’d be here? You know I love you in that shirt.”
She turned to Sam with a satisfied narrowing of her eyes, a smirk curving her drawn-bow mouth.
Will slipped away from Lucy and joined Sam by Ed’s chair. He shook his employer’s hand.
“Have a drink, son,” Ed said, gesturing to the bar. “Mrs. Quinn, some champagne for the lovely Miss Ellis, please.”
The housekeeper materialized by her side with a flute. Sam took it with trembling fingers. Her eyes never left Will as he poured a finger of bourbon for himself.
“Quinny?” Lucy trilled, “Can you put Will next to me for dinner? We have so much to catch up on.”
Mrs. Quinn glanced at Ed, who nodded slightly, before she left the room.
“So, Will,” Lucy continued, “have you done anything about the awful wallpaper in your bedroom?”
The wine sloshed and fizzed in Sam’s glass.
Will flushed scarlet.
“No, Lucy,” he replied, a warning glittering in his eyes, “I haven’t.”
Sam’s knuckles were white around the stem of her glass. Will sought out Ed’s gaze, pleading for the older man to intervene.
Mrs. Quinn returned to call everyone in to dinner.
“Samantha?” Ed said gently, “Would you help me in to the dining room?”
He reached up for her drink. She handed the flute over to him, and took the handles of his chair.
Will followed Sam as she wheeled Ed into the foyer. As she passed Lucy, she flashed the other woman a honeyed smile.
Will brought Sam’s suitcase out to his truck in darkness before sitting down to watch the sunrise from his front steps. He stretched, working the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. He missed his bed.
More than that he would miss the woman who’d been sleeping there.
He’d been up since dawn. For all his protests to the contrary, the couch wasn’t very comfortable and the lack of proper curtains meant that the first creeping hint of light chased night away too quickly.
His bare feet were chilled through by the time he came inside.
Sam was in the kitchen, tucking a damp tendril of hair behind her ear as she filled the coffee maker with water.
“Do you want breakfast?” he asked.
“I could eat.”
He got out his one frying pan, opened a carton of eggs and grabbed bread from the cabinet.
She measured coffee grounds and poured milk into a pan to heat while he cracked and whisked eggs and put toast in the toaster.
She busied herself with making two cups of coffee. Will realized that with her gone, the precious bag of chicory coffee would wait in the freezer for her return.
“Take what you want,” he said, offering her the pan of scrambled eggs and the spatula. He buttered the toast and slipped a slice on to her plate.
She scooped almost exactly half the eggs on to her plate.
“Thanks,” she said, taking her plate to the bar-height counter. The scrape of her stool was loud on the tile floor.
Four words so far this morning, he thought. There needed to be more, they had so much to say to each other, but the words were bottled up.
In trying to keep them both busy and distracted from the things that had happened between them, the silence had become sound, and he didn’t know how to bring back the easy peace that had been there before. Too much had gone unsaid.
So he studied her profile and said nothing.
Sam took out her phone, checked the time, and stood to take her empty plate to the sink.
“I’ll be ready in ten minutes,” she said.
And she was, with her bag over her shoulder and her jacket over her arm.
In the truck, he ran through her itinerary.
“You’re confirmed from Bozeman to Minneapolis and Minneapolis to Albany. Have you talked to Maggie? I can call Erik to make sure that they’re coming to pick you up if you want.”
“I talked to Maggie. It’s all set.”
When he made the turn into short-term parking at Gallatin Field, Sam looked over.
“You can just drop me at the terminal.”
“I’ll walk you in,” he said.
“You don’t have to.”
He laid his hand over hers on the faded vinyl of the truck seat.
“I want to.”
She was quiet, looking at his weathered hand over her long fingers.
When he reached across her lap to flip the sticky lock, regret lurched in his chest.
He carried her bag inside, waited while she checked it, walked her silently to the security line.
“I’d better go,” she said.
“Fly safe,” he replied.
He reached for her, pulling her close. She wrapped her arms around his chest and hid her face in his shirt. She pushed away, looking into his eyes for a moment, and then she was stepping back, adjusting her bag, fading away into the security line.
“Bye, Sam,” he whispered, digging his keys from his pocket and turning for the parking garage.
Bet You the French Cruller
“Why exactly do we drive forty-five minutes down to Northhampton for Bikram yoga every Saturday, and then get these?” Sam asked, opening the Dunkies half dozen.
“Because, like the studio, the instructor is wicked hot,” Marnie answered, sinking her teeth into the glossy pink frosting on her donut, and sighing. “Christ on toast, I love these things.”
Sam plucked a Boston creme from the box, grabbed her coffee and curled up in Marnie’s favorite chair.
“Donuts are my reward for sweating like that in public. Plus? When Micah gets home, I can bribe him to leave us alone,” Marnie said, chewing.
She was opening the fridge when Sam’s phone trilled. She reached into Sam’s yoga bag.
“Montana calling,” she sang, reaching over to dangle the phone in front of Sam.
“Let it go. I’ll call him back,” Sam replied without meeting her eyes.
Marnie broke off her taunting and set the phone down on the arm of the chair.
She sat on the coffee table, tucking her feet under her knees and balancing the remains of the strawberry frosted on her thigh.
“What happened out there, Sam?”
Sam scooped the filling from her donut with her finger.
“You’ve been home three days.”
Sam blew into the opening of her lid. The phone’s voicemail alert pinged.
“Fine,” Marnie snapped, grabbing Sam’s phone from the chair. “I’ll fucking call him myself and find out what the shit’s going on.”
Sam snatched her phone back, dropping her coffee.
Marnie leaned over to catch the cup.
Their heads collided over the second-hand rug. Both girls rocked back, rubbing their heads and watching the coffee soak into the shag.
“We slept together,” Sam blurted.
“And?” Marnie’s tone was bland. She got up for paper towels.
“Did it suck?”
Sam arched a brow, but her chin quivered.
Marnie wadded paper towels over the spill.
“Micah hates this rug anyway,” she said with a shrug, grabbing the other pink donut from the box.
Sam gestured to Marnie’s uneaten bite of donut, where it lay on the floor, soaked with coffee. The pink frosting oozed into the shag where it peeked out from under the paper towel.
“You’re not going to eat that?” she asked, voice wobbly.
Marnie giggled. Sam tried, but the tears spilled over and words poured out.
“We kissed, and we had this.. moment out showshoeing.. and I told him about Craig and Lilith.
“I made him think I was ready because I wanted to be, but I felt really weird and awful the next day, and he thought maybe it was a mistake.
“I got all defensive, you know? Sex with me a mistake? He started treating me like I was fragile, making all these plans to keep us busy. Every time I tried to explain, he cut me off. He wouldn’t really listen because he’d made up his mind that the timing was wrong. It went on like that for days. We were barely looking at each other by the end of the week.
“Maybe the timing was off, Marn, but it wasn’t a mistake.”
Marnie scooped up the maple glazed and squatted in front of Sam, offering it up.
“He’s in love with you,” she said with a wide grin.
Sam sniffed, blinking tears away and pressing her palms to her hot cheeks.
“Men do stupid things when they’re in love. Even the magnificent Will Dryer,” Marnie said tenderly, brushing Sam’s hair from her damp face.
“I’ll bet you the French cruller that voicemail says he’s on his way East.”
“Hey, it’s Will. I didn’t want to leave this on your voice mail, but you either aren’t taking my calls or you’ve changed your number. I don’t get it, Sam. I was just trying to do the right thing… Anyway, listen. Ed’s taken a turn for the worse, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to come east for a while. I know we talked about me coming out this summer, but I’m needed here. Call me, Sam. I miss your voice. I… miss you.”
I’m needed here.
“You’re needed here, too,” Sam whispered before deleting the voice mail.
The Green Dress
“Give me the laptop!” Marnie laughed, snatching Sam’s computer.
“Hey,” Sam giggled, reaching for it, teetering giddily on the edge of the couch, before tipping over and hitting the floor.
“Ow,” she moaned, still giggling and rubbing her shoulder as Marnie dissolved into a fit of belly laughs.
Marnie grabbed the bottle of El Toro, brandishing the sombrero-shaped cap. She lined up their two glasses, heavy, etched ones Sam’s parents had had forever. She poured two sloppy, generous shots, leaving a puddle of tequila on the coffee table.
She tossed a lime wedge at Sam, laughing harder when the lime bounced off Sam’s unsuspecting chin.
“Drink up,” she demanded, “I am nowhere near drunk enough to handle your near-miss of a mother-in-law!”
She clicked to open the email from Craig’s mother. She licked her salty hand, sucked her lime, slugged the tequila and began to read in a snotty, exaggerated drawl.
“Samantha, it has come to my attention that the gown my husband and I purchased for you to wear to the engagement party is not in Craig’s condo, nor was it left in the guest suite when you moved out.”
Sam tossed back her shot neat, dropping the bounced lime wedge into the bowl. Marnie read on.
“Of course, we expect it to be returned, as it is unaltered, unworn, and, as a gesture of appreciation for my fifteen years of patronage, the atelier has agreed to take it back. I will not tolerate having my reputation tarnished by your behavior. I assume, once that transaction is complete, we need never hear from you again. Lilith Laurent-Honoré.”
“Christ. What a bitch. I need another,” Marnie commented dryly, lining up the shot glasses again.
“Nothing compared to the son,” Sam quipped. Both girls succumbed to snorting, weepy laughter.
“Yes, he is a little bitch,” Marnie agreed, downing another shot. “Do you have the dress?”
“Hang on,” Sam said, hauling herself up off the floor and weaving drunkenly down the hall in the direction of her room.
“Sammy?” Marnie called a few minutes later, “this tequila’s not drinking itself!”
“No, honey, you’re drinking it,” Sam replied, twirling unevenly into the room. Emerald satin wrapped on the bias from one shoulder, clinging down to the floor, where the fabric puddled around Sam’s bare feet.
“Hot shit, girl, look at you!” Marnie exclaimed, wolf-whistling and pouring another for herself. She pulled out her phone and snapped a photo of Sam.
She opened a window in Sam’s internet browser.
“Fuck the old lady and her patronage, we’re selling it on Craigslist!” she crowed, toasting with the shot glass.
“Watch the laptop, Marn,” Sam warned, watching Marnie slug back tequila while navigating the For Sales.
Marnie began to type, reading the copy aloud as she worked.
“For sale: one drop dead gorgeous green designer dress,” she looked up at Sam, “what’s the price tag on that rag?”
Sam fiddled with the tag, squinting to focus, going cross-eyed when she saw the numbers. She looked back at Marnie, biting her lip.
“Oooh!” chortled Marnie, waggling her eyebrows, “That much?”
She continued to type and read.
“$50 or best offer. Looking to lose your virginity on prom night? This is your chance to do it in style. Get this dress for a tenth it’s resale value and help us say a rollicking EFF YOU to the stuck up bitch who hurt this pretty lady’s feelings… I can post the photo, right?”
“Put the laptop down, Marnie. Now,” Sam said, trying to sound stern and failing when she hiccuped.
Lilith was careful not to reach for her water until her hands stopped shaking. Revealing even a fraction of her rage would be a fatal mistake. Any reaction to losing her table to a newlywed climber like Blythe Bergeron would be tantamount to social suicide.
Pascal breezed over.
“Will Madame be having her usual luncheon?” he asked with his customary unflappable cheer.
“Yes, Pascal. Thank you,” she replied with a careful nod of dismissal.
She ate her lunch with brutal discipline.
Her posture, her tidy movements, her icy demeanor betrayed nothing of the festering anger Lilith feared might split her skin like a spoiled fruit.
She had gone into Patrice’s for a fitting. Her husband’s law firm was hosting a charity gala, and her gown was divine, but the hemline still wasn’t right. Patrice never let one of his designs out in public unless it was perfect.
Patrice had only nodded coolly in her direction and waved along one of his seamstresses to adjust her hem.
After the fitting, Lilith had gone to see Patrice. She had standards, she expected loyalty–after all, who had introduced his designs to New Orleans all those years ago, when she was the Blythe Bergeron of the moment?
She’d tapped on his door while pushing it open, but the fashionable little gnome wasn’t in his office.
She might have left, but for the waterfall of stained emerald silk spilling off Patrice’s giant work table and the low voices coming from an adjacent fitting room.
“… her son’s fiancée… returned the dress… reeking of tequila… somewhere up North…”
Pascal approached with some trepidation–uncertainty clouded his expression.
He didn’t quite meet her eyes as he handed her a slim leather folio.
The music of the dining room, clinking and glass, the fountain in the center of the room, all faded; everything swam out of focus. Lilith pulled the necessary oxygen in slowly through flared nostrils, drawing the room back into place.
She opened her handbag, pulled out her wallet, and placed a credit card in the folio without looking.
Pascal took it silently. His departure left her with an unguarded flank. For a moment she cast her eyes around the room. Scenting her dismay, Blythe Bergeron looked up, tucked a stray platinum strand behind her one-carat earlobe. Meeting Lilith’s gaze, the corner of the young woman’s mouth strayed upwards.
The waiter returned, obviously dismayed. Lilith took her card. She very carefully folded a twenty into the folio.
Pascal pulled out her chair and offered her his hand. She stood, smoothed her skirt, and sailed across the restaurant and out the door into the late afternoon haze.
Several hours later, Lilith poured her husband a Scotch, neat, in the Waterford glass he preferred.
“Is the firm representing Elmore Bergeron?” she said.
“Not that I’m aware, Lilith,” Russell Honoré said wearily.
She poured herself a finger of his Scotch.
“Have you spoken with Craig? Does he understand what’s at stake?” She sipped. “There was an incident today at lunch.”
She forced back a tremor of fury, slipped her hand into her pocket, touched the ill-wish with mingled embarrassment and pleasure, remembering the scene earlier that afternoon in her mother’s cottage.
“Maman,” she’ said, slipping into the Cajun of her earliest years.
The shriveled but straight-spined old woman regarded her evenly.
“Already done,” she said casually, “You been thinking the curse so loud I had time to make it up ‘fore you arrived.”
She handed a bundle, tied with twine and reeking of something unwholesome and singed, into her daughter’s hands.
“Samantha,” they hissed.
Ladies Who Lunch
This was absolutely the last time she’d tolerate it, Lilith thought, watching Pascal slink away towards the kitchen.
She’d ordered champagne vinaigrette.
And they’d sent her some creamy dressing on her salad.
She contemplated simply getting up and leaving, but the satisfaction of walking in five minutes before Blythe Bergeron, of getting her table, was too good to pass up.
Although there would be some poetic justice in walking out, leaving the coveted restaurant real estate open to a walk-in or a tourist while Blythe and her friends had to take a table in the center of the room.
She reached into her handbag for her sunglasses. Her fingers brushed the ill-wish; pleasure and revulsion shivered down her back.
The voice was smooth, confident, relaxed.
The woman was impeccable in cream linen, tanned and blond with long muscles, the kind you got from skiing and swimming and yoga.
Aspen, Lilith thought, or Jackson Hole. Western money.
“Mrs. Laurent-Honoré?” the woman continued.
“Yes,” Lilith replied coolly.
“Lucy Atkinson,” the blonde said, offering a French-manicured hand. “May I join you?”
“Do we have something to discuss?” Lilith asked, gesturing to the empty seat across from her.
“Not something,” she said. “Someone.”
Fear tingled in Lilith’s lungs for a moment.
“I know about her connection to your son,” Lucy said, eyes flicking towards Blythe Bergeron, “and I’ve heard all the gossip.”
“Don’t put too much faith in gossip,” Lilith warned.
“I’ve got a fairly clear picture,” Lucy continued.
“And what exactly is your connection to Samantha?” Lilith countered.
“She’s at my father’s ranch right now, attempting to steal my inheritance.”
A rancher’s daughter, Lilith mused. It fit. She quashed the impulse to let this woman into her confidence.
“I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with me,” Lilith commented.
“I want her gone. I want her shamed. I want her forgotten. ”
Lilith looked up sharply. The naked malice in the younger woman’s face was startling and familiar.
Lucy took a breath, smoothed her hair.
“Who is he?” Lilith asked, suppressing a trace of mirth.
Lucy narrowed her eyes. Lilith was accustomed to being assessed. She sat, watching Lucy take her measure.
“My father’s steward,” Lucy said.
Pascal chose that moment to creep back to the table with Lilith’s new salad.
“Madame has a guest,” he said to Lilith. When she nodded, he turned to Lucy, “would you care for a drink?”
“Hendrick’s and tonic with a cucumber slice,” Lucy said dismissively.
Pascal whisked himself away.
“So, Samantha is making a play for your father’s steward, and you came all the way to New Orleans to find someone who could discredit her?” she asked, curiosity piqued.
“Will—his name is Will—thinks he’s in love with her, says he wants to marry her, and if my sentimental fool of a father has his way, Will and that girl will end up with the ranch.”
A hint of desperation in Lucy’s voice turned the tide. I can use this, Lilith thought.
“Why am I going to help you in… discrediting Samantha?” Lilith asked, spearing a leaf of lettuce.
“Because I know who you are,” Lucy said, the desperation in her voice replaced with something ice cold.
“Because I know who your Maman is.”
The champagne vinaigrette stung the back of her throat as Lilith choked the lettuce down.
She’d thought she could use the woman. She was wrong.
Pascal sat outside with a café au lait and a Gauloise. The French cigarettes were an indulgence, but one his tips from Le Jardin were able to finance. Dreams of a seaside cottage wound in bougainvillea would have to wait. He drew in the rich, dark smoke and imagined his weary feet in the Caribbean sand, the heavy scent of the flowers in his nostrils instead of tobacco.
“It’s Pascal, isn’t it?”
He looked up. The blonde. Madame Laurent-Honoré’s guest several days ago. Madame Bergeron’s the afternoon before. And thanks to Google, somewhat of an acquaintance of his as well.
He tapped his cigarette against the ash tray.
“Lucy Atkinson,” he said, all trace of subservience gone now. “Heiress to the Atkinson, Inc. fortune, not to mention one hell of a spread outside of Bozeman.”
She sat down, smoothing a dove-gray pencil skirt.
“You obviously have the advantage,” she said, picking up his pack and extracting a cigarette, “I don’t even know your full name.”
“LeBlanc. Pascal Remy LeBlanc,” he said with a touch of pride.
Lucy put the pilfered cigarette to her lips expectantly. Pascal reluctantly offered her a light.
He watched, impressed with the way she smiled coyly around the cigarette, like a fifties housewife, a smirk playing on his lips. She was seducing up the wrong tree.
Their eyes met. She saw the truth there, and her smile froze.
“I’m not going to fuck around, Mr. LeBlanc,” she said.
“I wouldn’t imagine.”
“There’s no one in this city who knows more about Lilith Laurent-Honoré.”
Pascal exhaled lazily.
“Monsieur Honoré might beg to disagree.”
“Russell Honoré is a smart lawyer and a phenomenally stupid man,” Lucy said easily.
A bark of surprised laughter rose up from his chest.
“We both know I’m right,” Lucy continued smoothly. “You’ve been doting and fawning over her salads and vodka gimlets at Le Jardin for twenty-five years.”
“So I have,” he sighed.
The café waiter appeared by the table.
“Something for the lady?”
“Espresso,” Lucy replied, shooing him away with her eyes.
Pascal watched the young man weave his way around the tables and return inside.
“Miss Atkinson,” he said wearily, “what can I do for you?”
“Tell me everything you know about her. Her family, her son, her social circles. Everything.”
The gleam in Lucy’s eyes was beginning to make him uncomfortable.
“Oh?” he said sarcastically, snapping his fingers, “Just like that, I give up the most valuable currency someone like me has?”
He finished the cigarette and crushed the remains in the ash tray.
The waiter came back with a white china demitasse. He placed it in front of Lucy, but his gaze lingered on Pascal.
“Anything more for you, Remy?” the young man asked.
“No, Joshua,” Pascal replied. Joshua wove away.
It was a moment before he looked back at Lucy. As he feared, she had filed the whole exchange away behind her eyes.
“Remy?” she said with a nasty smile. “What other half-truths does the charming young waiter believe about you?”
Pascal contemplated another cigarette, but he had no intention of staying at the table with Lucy any longer than necessary.
She reached into her handbag and drew out a checkbook.
“I’m not asking you to give up your currency.”
She opened the checkbook and wrote his name. She began to fill out the other lines.
“I’m asking you to sell it.”
She turned the checkbook around. His heart skipped a beat.
“Would you like another cigarette, Miss Atkinson?” he offered, opening the pack.
“Call me Lucy,” she said, “And I think that would only be appropriate.”
She signed the check, tore it out, and exchanged it for the Gauloise.
Four days later, Lilith returned to Le Jardin for lunch. The maitre d’ inquired about her trip as he led her to her table.
“Madame enjoyed Washington?”
“Very much,” she replied.
“His trial went as he hoped.”
He seated her and returned to his post. Lilith reached into her lap to straighten her napkin.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am. Something to drink?”
Lilith looked up in surprise at a young man offering her a drinks menu.
“Where’s Pascal?” Lilith asked, before regaining her composure.
“He quit three days ago, Ma’am.”
He leaned over to pour sparkling water into her glass and whispered, “I heard from one of the busboys that he took off for the Islands.”
“Four shots of Wild Turkey and a couple’a High Life’s,” Nat said, plunking down two twenties.
“You expect me to drink that, Nat?” Will sighed as the bartender lined up the shots.
“Son, I outrank you on the ranch. So yes. I do,” the older man replied. “As I can also outdrink you, you’d best get a head start.”
Will picked up the first of his shot glasses, grimacing as the liquor stung his raw throat. He was grateful for the cold, easy beer chaser.
“What’s eating you, Will?” Nat asked. Will was grateful for Nat’s lack of preamble.
Will knocked back the second shot, using the burn to buy him a moment.
“Things didn’t go well with Sam,” he said.
“No shit, boy. I may be an old bachelor ranch hand, but I know women,” Nat chuckled. “Screwed enough of ‘em.”
“Yeah, well, I screwed this one.. and it went to hell,” Will said. He blushed. “Shit.”
“You fly a woman three thousand miles after she’s had her heart and her face bruised and you don’t screw her, I’m going to think you’ve gone all Brokeback Mountain on me.”
A hint of a grin played at the corner of Will’s mouth. “You tired of sleeping alone, old man?”
Nat guffawed. “You may be as pretty as half the girls in this place, but no thanks.”
Will chafed his hands against the thighs of his jeans. The bourbon kindled a fire in his belly, but the chill of a long day in the saddle stayed in his hands.
“I love her, Nat.”
“I know that,” Nat said, signaling two fingers to the barman, who brought out the bottle.
“And between the fight we never had after we had sex, and Lucy’s arrival like a fucking monkey wrench in my spokes, she left here barely speaking to me.”
“You’re a jackass, is why,” Nat laughed and gestured to the full shot glasses.
Will swallowed the whiskey.
“Fuck that,” Will said, reaching for and pulling on the High Life. “I bent over backwards to smooth everything out.”
“Which is why you’re a jackass,” Nat confirmed. “Son, a woman who’s avoiding a fight needs a fight.”
Will gave him a baleful look. “Care to elaborate?”
Nat finished his beer and waved for another round.
“You slept with her, she woke up on the wrong side of the bed, all messed up from that other asshole who knocked her around, ‘course she needs a fight. It’s got nothing to do with you, except that you matter. She’s got to be in control of something.”
“She came on to me.” Will hated the petulant sound of his voice.
“You two were barreling at each other like runaway trains. So she made the first move. She was spoiling for a fight and you gave her Cool Hand Luke.”
“A failure to communicate?” Will offered wryly.
Nat picked up his bottle. “Finish that beer, son. You’re behind.”
“Thing is, Will, does she know you love her?”
“She has to.”
The older man cuffed Will on the shoulder.
“You’re an idiot. Where women are concerned, you mean something, you say it. You let a woman stew in her own head, you’re asking for a world of hurt.”
Will set down the empty bottle and picked up the fresh one.
“I want to marry her.”
“Who wouldn’t? She’s something else. All that hair, that body. Like Ava Gardner,” Nat mused. “The things I’d do with a girl like that.”
“Watch it,” Will warned.
“Right, future Mrs. Dryer.”
“I’m going to marry her, Nat.”
“Then get your ass in gear and put a ring on her finger.”
The small padded envelope sat on the credenza, mustard-colored and demanding.
She picked it up, belly tightening at the block printing. She tore the envelope open slowly.
A slim, plastic CD sleeve slid out onto the table top. Again the bold, printed letters.
She took it into the kitchen and rummaged through the refrigerator for a snack. She carried the disc and her some yogurt upstairs to her room and flipped open her laptop. Other than a link from Marnie, her email yielded nothing new.
The plastic sleeve glinted dully in the sunlight–it simply wouldn’t be ignored. She slipped the disc into her computer and clicked “import.” The drive whirred a moment before the three-note tone announced it was finished.
She synced her iPod while she ate. She stalled, carrying the dishes downstairs before returning to her room.
Ear buds in, she finally gave in and let the music wash over her.
“When your baby… leaves you all alone…” Solomon Burke crooned.
His hands cruising her back in her Aunt’s living room. Everything she’d ached for as a girl realized in the man he’d grown to be, in the way they’d moved together.
Soul turned to introspection. David Gray sang, “Even if I told it true, how could they believe? … Even as I lie with you, listen to you breathe, comin’ through my head, … this tidal wave.”
And then Unchained Melody–all the naked longing she’d felt for him all those years ago came rushing in on Bono’s tortured voice. Was it possible he remembered the way she’d looked at him at fourteen?
The next track took her by surprise. She had to look at the display. She’d never heard of the artist. Her heart swelled against her chest when he sang “Me and my lover, we told each other, ‘Where ever you are, that’s where I’ll be.’” .
Out in Montana, she’d discovered the depths of Will’s love for REM. The song he’d chosen took her breath away, “I’ll strip the world that you must live in of all it’s godforsaken greed. I’ll ply the tar out of your feathers. I’ll pluck the thorns out of your feet. You and me.”
James Blunt was a favorite of hers; Fall at Your Feet brought tears to her eyes.“The finger of blame has turned up on itself, and I’m more than willing to offer myself. Do you want my presence or need my help? Who knows where that might lead?”
Smiling though her tears, she sang along softly with the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.
Grant Lee Philips. Of course. Another favorite of Will’s she’d heard in his cabin on the ranch. He’d found a live version of the song she’d loved best. “Warm baby, don’t you know we’ve all got sunken treasure down at the bottom of the blue. But old Poseidon, he can’t keep it there forever, ‘cause I can see the gold in you.”
Tom Waits. “Ain’t no good thing ever dies. I’m gonna take it with me when I go. … Always for you and forever yours… And in that woman there’s a heart I love.”
As the final notes on the piano died, Sam sighed. And then Ben Gibbard, “If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied, illuminate the ‘no’s’ on their vacancy signs; if there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, I’ll follow you into the dark.”
In the silence Sam reached for her phone.
::New Txt Msg from Will Dryer::
Are you home? Can we talk? Miss you.
::Reply Msg from Samantha Ellis::
On my way to meet Marnie + Micah at Townshend Dam. Picnic + swimming.
::New Txt Msg from Will Dryer::
Think they’d wait for you?
::Reply Msg from Samantha Ellis::
::New Txt Msg from Will Dryer::
The doorbell rang, and Sam dropped her phone.
“Shit!” she swore as the plastic shell snapped off and skittered under the bed.
She grabbed the phone from the floor and bolted down the stairs in her cargo shorts and tankini top.
Will stood on the doorstep with his hands in his pockets and a hopeful grin on his face. She was in his arms before she stopped to think about it.
“Surprise,” he said, the words muffled by her hair.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. She felt tears prickle in the bridge of her nose. Her heart was pounding.
“Ed wanted me to handle something for him. I was in New York for two days.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to tell you I was coming and then find out I couldn’t make the swing up here, but I wrangled a few days for myself.”
Will touched a finger to her cheek, traced the smatter of freckles there.
“We have more to say than this, but I figure it’s a good start: I missed you, Sam.”
“I missed you, too.”
His fingers curved around the back of her neck. He touched his lips to hers.
Sam understood the tentative touch was a test, to see how he would be received. She threw her arms around him and pressed herself into the kiss. His shirt was warm from the June sun, and she felt the flex of his shoulder as his other hand wrapped around her waist, his fingers teasing the small of her back where her swim suit top rose above her shorts.
She rocked back down onto her heels, laying her head on his shoulder. He took her sunglasses off the top of her head and breathed in. She smiled to herself, burrowing against his chest.
Her phone buzzed in her hand and she pushed away from him just a little to read the incoming message.
“Marnie and Micah are heading out, she says,” Sam reported. She peered around Will, noting the overnight bag on the steps behind him. “Tell me there’s a bathing suit in there.”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “Am I invited to the Dam?”
“Marnie is going to freak out.”
“Am I going to get in trouble?” he said, a slight frown furrowing his brow.
“Not today. It’s too beautiful for trouble,” Sam smiled. “Go get changed. We’ll take my car,” she stopped short. “How did you get here?”
“I walked from the train station.”
Sam hugged him, taking her sunglasses from his hand.
“Go,” she said, pointing to the nearby powder room, “get changed. I’ll grab some more stuff for lunch.”
She was humming as she headed for the fridge.
“Take your sandals off, silly,” Sam teased. “Stay awhile.”
She sat down next to him on a plaid wool blanket.
Will looked at the hiking sandals on his feet. Sam, already barefoot, was pulling her hair back and calling to Marnie and the shaggy haired guy chasing her out of the reservoir.
“William Evan Dryer!” Marnie yelled, squeezing the water from her hair as she jogged towards the blanket.
Shaggy crept up behind and scooped her up at the knees, growling dramatically as he flipped and fireman-carried her up the sandy shore of the lake.
He set a breathless, giggling Marnie down at the edge of the blanket.
Marnie grabbed him in a bear hug.
“I have missed you!” she laughed.
“It’s been too long. Way too long,” he replied.
Marnie turned to her companion.
“This caveman is my roommate and mostly-companion, Micah Reynolds. Micah, this is Will Dryer. I used to run around his backyard naked when we were kids.”
“Where didn’t you run around naked?” Micah quipped.
As they shook hands, Micah’s eyes went wide.
“Will Dryer. You played hockey for Dartmouth,” he said.
“Guilty,” Will answered. “How did you know that?”
“I wrote for the Middlebury Campus. Covered four hockey seasons. I saw you play.”
“You remember the name of college hockey player you’ve never met?” Marnie asked. “You can’t remember where you left your glasses half the time.”
Sam snickered, and reached into her beach bag. She held a black leather case up to Micah.
“Actually, you left them in my living room last night,”
Micah took the case. Marnie looked pleased with herself.
“See?” she said, giving Will the side-eye. “So, to what do we owe the honor? I heard we might not see you back East this summer.”
Will looked nervously between Sam and Marnie.
“Don’t be scared, tough guy,” Marnie giggled. “I’m too glad to see you to be mad at you.”
She dropped down next to Sam on the blanket. “For now.”
Micah sat in the sand.
“You still play?” he asked Will.
“I coach a youth team back in Montana,” Will replied.
“I never did get to see them play,” Sam said quietly.
“Next time,” Will answered, threading his fingers through hers where her hand lay on the blanket.
She look across their hands at him, a question and its answer in her eyes.
Sam dropped her beach bag just inside the front door. She carried her parents’ mail into the kitchen, and turned on the tap to wash the sand out from under her fingernails. The sound of the front hall closet opening and clacking of wooden coat hangers put a smile on her face. Even in his cabin at Left of Paradise, Will always hung things up.
“What time are your Mom and Dad coming home?” he asked, coming into the kitchen.
“They’re not,” Sam answered without turning, hiding the red stain rising on her cheeks. “Dad’s speaking at a conference in Orlando. Mom always travels with him in the summers.”
“And here I was hoping for some of my sister-in-law’s fabulous cooking,” he teased, joining her at the sink, leaning casually against the counter. She turned to him, considering her mother’s gallery of framed photographs hung over the breakfast table, including one from Maggie and Erik’s long ago wedding. Maggie and Erik in a dramatic dip, her Mom and Dad to one side, holding her soft teenaged self between them, Will, lanky and seventeen, with an arm slung over his older brother’s shoulders.
“Is it weird? You and I? When we’re practically family?” Sam asked.
Will reached out to tuck a still-damp strand of her hair behind her ear.
“Does it bother you?”
Sam leaned her cheek into his palm and closed her eyes.
Will closed the distance and brought his lips down over hers. She leaned into him as his hands smoothed over her hair, resting at her hips. She could just taste on his lips the clove and vanilla of the soda they’d shared on the drive back from Townshend. She drew her teeth over the softness of his lower lip. His fingers clenched in the fabric of her shorts.
“Sam—“ he whispered against her mouth. “I want you.”
Sam leaned away a little.
“Come upstairs,” she said.
He looked at her then, and she met his gaze, clarity and want and love rushing up from the depths of her.
She felt it in her fingertips when he finally saw the healing in her eyes, understood it for what it was.
“Come upstairs,” she repeated with a coy laugh.
His answering smile was brilliant. Quick as the center-ice player he’d once been, he scooped her up and fireman-carried her up the stairs.
“Will!” she squealed.
“Which door?” he asked, breath coming hard.
“The open one,” she giggled, as he staggered into her bedroom and set her down.
She took his hand and sank down on her bed, tugging him down along with her. He braced himself over her on his elbows, and Sam stretched up to kiss him.
The planes and angles of his body were familiar under his Big Sky Youth Hockey tee-shirt, but long months of separation and over-thinking lent a fresh thrill of discovery to her hands’ wandering. She wondered, as his mouth drifted from her lips to her shoulder to her breasts, if the feeling of his warm skin on hers would ever get old.
And then his thumb grazed her nipple and her thoughts burned away in a flashover of desire. The air grew thick and her heart raced as they peeled clothes away.
He touched her and her body sang, her response instant and devastating. She reached for him, dusted gold in the fading summer light, biting her lip when he paused, suddenly unsure.
“In the nightstand,” she said.
And then he was with her again, moving, rising, falling with the August sun.
“I love you, Samantha.”
Sam snuggled against Will when the evening breeze raised goosebumps on her arms.
The Woolrich plaid under them was damp from the dewfall, but the bandstand was strung through with fairy lights and the common was full of blankets and lawn chairs. A clammy blanket couldn’t dim the magic of a small town concert on a summer night.
“I don’t want you to go,” she whispered against his arm. The thrumming bass and wailing vocals of Marnie and Micah’s band drowned out her wistful words.
“What’s that?” he asked. Just his voice made her pulse jump; Sam pressed her fingers into the lawn. She wondered if Marnie’s contralto and the green smell of broken grass would forever conjure Will’s breath in her hair.
He was leaving in the morning. No mournful talk just now.
She tipped her head back and smiled at him. “Marnie’s just amazing.”
“She always has been,” he chuckled, kissing her cheek. His mouth lingered on her skin.
“I feel like I missed out, only meeting her in high school. I envy the two of you. You know each other so well.”
“You and I know each other pretty well, I’d say,” his voice rumbled in his chest as he took her hand. He teased lazy circles on her palm with his thumb. Onstage, Marnie traded guitars with Micah in an intimate rock-and-roll pas de deux, and Marnie was crooning a love song into her mic before they were fully disentangled.
Longing tightened Sam’s chest.
“I know when you laugh, it twists me up, makes me want to kiss you.”
She couldn’t help the smile, the little giggle. She couldn’t help her heart racing.
“I know how your mouth feels on mine.”
Sam closed her eyes, but the night sky stayed behind her eyes. Will circled her wrists with his hands. His lips moved against the skin just behind her ear. A light nip of teeth lit her nerve-endings like neon.
“I know how you taste.”
She hummed with pleasure.
“I know what that ‘mmm’ of yours does to me.”
He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest, close enough that she could feel his reaction.
“I know how your eyes half-close when I touch you,” and his hands drifted over her, brushing the tops of her thighs, fingertips just under the frayed hem of her cut-offs.
Her skin went hot, shimmering like a mirage on asphalt.
He tipped her chin up, catching her mouth in a long, wanting kiss. When he released her, his hand stayed on her cheek. He kept her eyes on his.
“I know that the way your hair fans out on your pillow will stay with me when I’m missing you this fall.”
She blinked back sudden tears.
“I know I don’t want to leave you tomorrow, Sam.”
He kissed her again as the band shifted back into an edgy anthem.
“And I know Marnie well enough to know she won’t care that I’m taking you home.”
He pulled them up to standing, hastily tossing the blanket over his shoulder.
The Event, I & II
Sam watched Will finish tying the black bow at his collar as she slipped a hammered gold cuff around her wrist.
The doorman had buzzed them only a moment ago. Mr. Dryer? The car is here.
Ed’s New York apartment perched over Fifth Avenue. When they’d arrived, the blush-tipped leaves and fading green were spread out beneath it like a quilt. Now, with night fallen, the Park was a glowing trail map, the city reflected in the reservoir. Will moved through the rooms as easily as he did his cabin on Left of Paradise. Sam resisted the urge to tuck a stray curl behind her ear and beg out of the party.
“Ready?” Will asked. Sam nodded.
The car sped them downtown; Sam watched the lights fly by with her cheek pressed to the cool window like a child.
“Explain this event to me again?” she asked.
“Ed is permanently loaning part of his collection of Joseph Cornell boxes to the New York Academy of Art,” Will began.
“You came to Vermont to buy one,” she said.
“Very nearly a year ago,” he answered, taking her free hand on the seat between them. “The one I bought that week is going to be on display tonight.”
“I loved that,” she said, shifting to face him.
“So, I’m representing his estate, since he’s too ill to travel,” Will finished. “I’m the face of E. Atkinson, Inc.”
He shot her a toothy smile. She couldn’t help laughing.
“I have no idea why I’m here,” she said as the giggles subsided.
“I want you here,” he said. “I asked. You said yes.”
He squeezed her hand.
“It’s very simple, really.”
The car stopped outside the NYAA building. The driver opened her door and helped her out of the car. She tried to be subtle about shimmying her cocoa shantung shift into place. Marnie had dressed her, and she still felt a little like an impostor in the dress and Marnie’s gold gladiator sandals. Taking in the clusters of beautiful people loitering outside, Sam silently thanked her best friend. At least her clothes would fit in.
“You’re beautiful,” Will whispered in her ear, dropping a pink and gold chinoiserie wrap over her shoulders.
She shot him a grateful glance and took his hand.
“You know, I never could do the whole bed-head, up-do thing very well.” The voice was smoothly venomous behind them. Will’s grip on her hand tightened; he turned first.
“Will,” she said. “What a pleasure.”
Sam turned to face Lucy. Ed’s daughter was all bronze skin and golden hair and scarlet satin in the street lamp’s pool.
“You look surprised,” Lucy said to them. “I’m his daughter. I have every right to be here.”
“That you do, Lucy,” Will nodded.
A man crossed came around the corner, whistling O Susanna and tossing a set of car keys with one hand. Sam dropped Will’s hand. The air around her seemed to thicken and pulse in time with her heart.
Lucy reached for the man’s arm as he joined them in the light. Dark hair and emerald eyes.
“Where are my manners? Samantha, I believe you two are fairly well acquainted.” Lucy asked, lips curving into a vicious smile. “Will, this is my date, Craig Honoré.”
Sam felt Will’s arm around her waist. Sam couldn’t take her eyes off of Craig. She’d thought his power over her was gone, but her clammy hands and pounding heart spoke otherwise. He paid no attention to Lucy, but let his eyes roam over Sam. She fought the urge to gag as a hint of a smirk played around his perfect mouth.
“Jesus Christ, Lucy,” Will growled.
Craig chuckled. Lucy stayed silent.
“I’m guessing from the cool welcome, Samantha hasn’t spoken very well of me,” Craig said easily, offering Will his hand. “You know how women get after a breakup.”
Will let go of Sam so suddenly she stumbled. She caught her balance in time to see Will grab Craig by his lapels and shove him back against the street lamp. Craig’s head clanged on the steel.
“If you so much as look at her again, I’ll—“
“WILL!” Lucy and Sam screamed together.
A crowd was gathering around the them. Will pushed back from Craig, leaving the taller man leaning against the post. Sam put a tentative hand on his shoulder. She could feel his anger beneath her fingers. He blew out a breath.
“Lucy, I suggest you find another date. This one’s not welcome,” he said quietly. “Come on, Sam.”
She followed him inside, turning back once to see Lucy watching her, looking quietly triumphant.
The crowd around the bar was oblivious to the scene out front. Will ordered a Makers Mark for each of them. He downed his in two quick swallows; Sam sipped, letting it burn away the taste of bile rising in her throat.
Will set his glass down on a passing waiter’s tray and scanned the room. Sam watched him, afraid to look, to see Lucy or Craig amongst the blur of faces.
He was about to speak when they were approached by a slim young man in a gray suit jacket and tailored, snug jeans. He carried a business card, which he flicked out from between his first two fingers.
“Freddie Bluth,” he said. “Who’s your agency?”
Will took the card, his brow creasing.
“Your agency,” Bluth repeated.
“William Dryer,” Will said, offering a hand. “And this is Samantha Ellis. We represent the Atkinson family.”
“Shit,” Bluth moaned. “My boyfriend told me the new model was going to be here; that he was bringing a dark-haired date. Forgive me, but I saw your ass and assumed you were going to be the new face of my denim line.”
The younger man blushed furiously.
“What?” Will asked. The look on his face made Sam giggle. The release of tension raced through her veins and the giggle burst into full-throated laughter. Helpless tears rolled down her face while Will and Freddie Bluth stared.
“This is why I don’t do meet-and-greets, I always fuck it up,” Freddie said, looking between Will and Sam as she tried in vain to regain her composure.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to excuse us,” Will said, taking Sam by the arm and guiding her towards the entrance, leaving Freddie Bluth standing by the bar alone.
Focusing on Will as he dialed his phone gave Sam the chance to recover. She sucked in the crisp air as they left the building.
“We’re finished here. Can you bring the car back around?” he asked. He disconnected the call, dialed again. “Iris? Yeah, it’s Will. Something’s come up. Call Miss Atkinson, she can stand in for me at the dedication.”
“We’re going?” Sam asked.
“I’m not waiting for a third thing to happen tonight.”